Tag: Gerald Finley

DON GIOVANNI (ROH, 2012-01-21)

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

First impressions are important. As the first few seconds – or so we are informed – of a job interview are vital, despite the main body of questioning occurring later, vital also are the first few minutes of an opera’s overture in setting the tone for the drama to come. Unfortunately the people sitting behind me considered their conversation more important than Mozart’s quietly brilliant shifting of harmonies and timbres around traditionally melancholic D minor, already prefiguring themes of death and social destabilisation. There being no time to point out what they were missing, a sharp instruction to desist had to suffice. I hope they then turned their attention to the music and were able to gain some enjoyment from the superb and perfectly controlled dynamic contrasts, almost dizzying in the passage of climbing scales, and the machine-level precision of ensemble playing in terms of timing, intonation and balancing of chords. Clarity and precision are an absolute must for Mozart, and throughout the performance the orchestra’s level was consistently very high indeed; however, conductor Constantinos Carydis carried machinelike precision to the extent of being somewhat robotic in his tempi, with little sense of long-line continuity, and unwilling to accommodate rubato from the singers. Still, perhaps this was a first-night effect and subsequent performances will have greater flow and flexibility.

Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production has been wheeled out regularly at Covent Garden over the last 10 years, and is for many now as familiar as a friend’s house: here is Donna Anna’s window with the attractive verdigris tiles and handy rungs for baritones to climb up and down; there is the window to the graveyard where people have constructed for the Commendatore a giant wicker man rather than the more traditional statue; and there is Don Giovanni’s villa, with its novel contracting ballroom and Turkish-bath-cum-dining room. Maria Björnson’s rusting dark green colour scheme is attractive, and the large multi-tasking wall with exposed staircase serves its purpose well in dividing scenes and assisting the simple but effective Personenregie. The first time I saw this production I was amused by the Don having dinner in a steam room, in his underpants, and thought it a gimmick. However, on reflection, I think it a brilliant idea to have the character (almost) naked for his final scene, as all his layers of artifice and subterfuge are finally stripped away and he is left looking death in the face without the protective armour of social class that comes with a nobleman’s dress.

Gerald Finley inhabits the title role with complete ease and confidence, vocally and dramatically. A dab hand at charm and sleaze, his Giovanni is astutely observant of other people’s human weaknesses (and his own), fully enjoying playing them off against one another. This makes an interesting change from the characterisations of the famous sex addict provided by the two previous incumbents – Erwin Schrott’s feral, amoral libido-on-legs, and Simon Keenlyside’s superficially-civilised psychopath bubbling with barely-concealed violence. I have yet to hear a single unpleasant note escape Finley’s mouth, and this performance was no exception, with “Là ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” able to melt the steeliest of chastity belts. As his accomplice Leporello, Lorenzo Regazzo possessed a fine and, may I say, seductive voice of his own, particularly rich in the lower register. The catalogue aria was rather on the ponderous side, but made up for by pleasing tone quality.

On which subject, the Ottavio issue: always an unappealing character, ineffectual and impotent, Matthew Polenzani’s Don Ottavio was as wet and hopeless as any I’ve seen; however, his “Dalla sua pace” was quite beautiful, with richness of tone colouring, delicacy of phrasing, and very impressively projected pianissimi. “Il mio tesoro” is very far from being a favourite aria of mine, but on this occasion I was very glad that it wasn’t cut (as in the Vienna version of the opera). The blend of Polenzani’s voice and Hibla Gerzmava’s (Donna Anna) worked particularly well, and her performance was also a fine one, notable particularly for clarity at the top and emotional shading, turning in the space of a second between tender vulnerability and vengeful anger.

I was intrigued by the unconvincing nature of Zerlina and Masetto’s relationship (Irini Kyriakidou and Adam Plachetka): she with the air of having settled for the best peasant available but very ready to upgrade; he giving the impression of seriously considering whether to take “Batti, batti” literally. With no intention of criticising Kyriakidou’s instrument itself, I found her voice wrong for the role, with the wide vibrato obscuring what should be the clean lines of Zerlina’s simple melodies. Katarina Karnéus, on the other hand, turned out to be a very sympathetic Donna Elvira, strugging against both herself and the societal expectations of women’s behaviour. A little stiff in her opening aria, she warmed up in Act 2 and sang with confidence and feeling. As a generalisation, all of the younger cast members were convincing in their arias, but tended towards a rather mugging style of acting in between them.

As mentioned above, I like the steamy setting of the final scene, and dramatically the Commendatore’s return really did come off very well. It appears that the Royal Opera are not allowed to fling on all their Bunsen burners together any more, having to carefully turn up a couple at a time, but they got some impressive flames going, as the dead Commendatore did his impersonation of the God of Hellfire. Perhaps they might consider giving him a flaming hat too – although that might have diminished the gravitas so ably conveyed by Marco Spotti’s dark and ringing pronouncements. Given that the giant wicker hand was also set alight, I wonder if at any point the production team considered making a whole Wicker Man, and sticking a dummy Don Giovanni in the middle of it to burn? Anyway, if one wants to end an opera in spectacular fashion, make up for any earlier patchiness, and leave the audience with big smiles on their faces, filling the stage with huge flames and smoke is a jolly fine way to do it. Bravi, technical crew.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

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ANNA NICOLE student preview (ROH, 2011-02-12)

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Recently there seems to have been even more discussion than usual in the media about the role of bloggers, journalists, reviews and previews. Thus, as clarification:

  • This was not a performance, but a dress rehearsal to which students were invited. I bought my own ticket for £10.
  • It was a separate occasion to the main dress rehearsal, to which ROH paying members were invited.
  • Judging by the effort the ROH went to in publicising this special student event by email, twitter, facebook, etc. one can only assume they want to create a buzz about the show, i.e. engagement with the performance and subsequent responses to and discussions of it are welcome.
  • This is not a review, it’s a personal aide-memoire which I’m sharing on my blog.

Initial reactions to the announcement of a new ROH-commissioned opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith often seemed to run along the lines of whether it was a fitting subject for opera or not. I found the arguments (for ‘not’) based on the luridness and amorality of her lifestyle and life choices rather odd, from an art form celebrating Carmen, Tosca, Salome, and Lulu. A better argument might come from the fact that many of the characters involved are still alive (although sadly not Anna or her son), and portrayed in a very unappealing light. I say ‘unappealing’ rather than ‘unflattering’ as, not being much of a sleb-watcher, I have no idea how accurately-presented the people and events are – although, for that matter, how much can the public ever know of the inward life and relationships of individuals? I assume, however, that everything’s been checked for sue-ability.

So, being barely aware of the real Anna Nicole’s existence, apart from a dim idea of some tarty blonde who’d married a doddery old rich guy (and even then, getting her confused with Lolo Ferrari), I was impressed by the character created by librettist Richard Thomas, director Richard Jones, and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. While being vain, ignorant, greedy, irresponsible, and half a page full of other dislikeable traits, Westbroek’s Anna was still, somehow, likeable; she brought across both huge self-belief and fragility to create a surprisingly complex and completely believable character – more so, perhaps, than the Duchess from Powder Her Face, with which the work has certain similarities of form. I’ve seen Westbroek twice (I think) before, recently as Elisabeth (Tannhauser) and previously in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and am of the opinion she just gets better and better as a singer, and is also a superb actor – especially given the range required for just the three roles I’ve seen her in. Also somewhat transformed from when I last saw him (as Gandhi in Satyagraha) was an unrecognisably geriatrified Alan Oke as J Howard Marshall II, descending to the stage in his chairlift, and later getting dolled up in gold shellsuit for party time. Being a rehearsal, it’s not appropriate to discuss all the individual voices, but I can’t miss an opportunity to mention Gerald Finley (Stern – Anna’s lawyer/lover and all-round slimy villain of the piece), from whose mouth Never Comes An Unlovely Sound.

It’s not unusual to see an opera production full of contemporary sets and costumes, or hear a libretto full of 20th/21st century cultural references (and Swear Words to snigger at); however, it did strike me that given how common it is to see updated Handel or Mozart characters in jeans, snorting coke and telling eachother to fuck off (extra obscenities interpolated into recapitulation sections), I had to remind myself now and then that this was not a trendy updating of anything, but a tale of people who wore jeans, snorted coke and told eachother to fuck off. When Anna is shown working in a fast food stall near the start, it actually means she fried chickens for a living, rather than, say,  a commentary on social underclasses through the ages; when she is shown going to a strip club, the pole-dancers aren’t jazzed-up Rheinmaidens, they are literally pole-dancers that she met; this literalism took some getting used to. Unfortunately, this also means that a rousing chorus of “boobies, titties, funbags, dingdongs” (or something along those lines) isn’t a bad translation of an old text but actually the words the librettist chose. To be fair, the libretto is witty in parts, appropriately idiomatic, and contains what are some very funny lines, when well-delivered. Those who saw Jerry Springer: The Opera will know the kind of thing to expect.

I don’t actually know any of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music, although the name is familiar enough that I feel I really ought to. I read that he has eclectic musical tastes, including a particular fondness for jazz, and the genre-blending in this work was certainly done more smoothly and skilfully than many composers manage. I got something of a Sondheim vibe from it; although tbh I don’t know much of Sondheim’s oeuvre either, the varying of discordant rhythmic sections with periods of laid-back lyricism reminded me a few times, musically, of Sweeney Todd. The standard orchestra is bumped up with saxes, electrics, kit, and a generous visit to the percussion cupboard; none of these things appear intrusive or unexpected, in context. There are recurrent melodic motifs which add continuity, and even some tunes one might leave humming (not that I particularly require hummable tunes in a piece of music, but there are those who do).

One thing, I felt, was missing. Early info about Anna Nicole implied there would be a ‘blowjob aria’, and I was rather looking forward to doing the first musicological comparison of this particular microgenre (i.e., with the one in Powder Her Face), but it wasn’t what you’d call an aria at all. Marshall just emits a couple of (musical) groans, from where he is hidden behind a crowd of chorus, then Anna wanders out, wiping her mouth. Oh well.

All in all, the story succeeds to some extent in both tragic and comic aspects (and there are death scenes of both kinds), has pleasant and intelligent, if not boundary-pushing, music, delightfully gaudy and tasteless sets, and performers who throw themselves into their roles with gay abandon. It also makes its (one) point as a critique of the shallowness of celebrity culture: when one of the cast members, early on, wandered on in a black bodysuit with a camera on her head, I thought it was silly, but as the story continued, increasing numbers of individuals in the crowd scenes were replaced by anonymous black-camera-people, until at her death, they are all that is left – this proved an arresting and poignant image on which to end.