Image courtesy of the furnitureabuse group

Image courtesy of the furnitureabuse group

Marseille, as you may notice, is not in London. Very exciting for me, not only to have a little holiday abroad (which I don’t get to do very often at the moment) but to see some excellent opera while there. I have been to the opera in France once before, and saw Idomeneo in Paris. I remember my ticket was €5, I’d never even heard of the opera, I could only see half the stage, couldn’t understand a word of the Italian singing, had a somewhat hazy grasp of those French subtitles that I could actually see, and hadn’t a clue what was going on. But enjoyed it very much. This time I was in a somewhat better position, both literally (being in the stalls and able to see the whole stage – woo!) and metaphorically, as I was reasonably familiar with the music, and knew the story well enough not to have to be racking my rusty brain for French vocabulary all the time.

The production had a quite spare, geometrical art deco appearance, generally having just 2 or 3 large items of set for each scene (couple of chairs, table doubling as couch/bed, huge rectilinear lampshade, etc.) arranged in different configurations. There was also much use made of a couple of large white staircases on casters, both literally for entrances and exits, and symbolically to show characters’ relative ‘ascents’ and ‘descents’ of mood, status, etc. The set was attractive, and cast members well-directed to make good use of the space available.

Many of the costumes followed a black-and-white theme, and also looked vaguely 20s-30s period. Cleopatra had the most costumes; a series of different long slinky dresses, including a sequinned one of jazz singer style for V’adoro, pupille – an especially visually effective scene with her slinking down one of the staircases, the main lights dimmed, and some tasteful art deco neon hieroglyphics on the backdrop. I was less convinced by her changing into jodhpurs and red boob tube for the battle, though. Actually, a lot of the cast were in jodhpurs, including Sesto and the Roman chorus (who also got pith helmets). Most of the other costumes were plain but elegant, although Tolomeo, lucky lad, got a leopardskin lycra shirt, lashings of red eyeshadow and a sprayed-solid vertical quiff that would be the envy of Camden Lock. Even so, the Egyptian chorus were probably worst off, as despite starting out well, they later appeared in Y-fronts plus floaty see-through cloak (possibly made of an old net curtain), which looked pretty daft.

Both singing and acting were generally of a very high standard. Beth Clayton made a highly convincing Cesare, somewhat reminiscent of Sarah Connolly’s portrayal. There was an odd bit of staggering around and having to be supported by servants during the aria that comes after the presentation of Pompey’s head. It seems unlikely to me that a battle-hardened soldier would go all fainty at the sight of a severed head, but it did occur to me that it might be an artistic impression of Julius Caesar’s epilepsy. Unfortunately there were several occasions when I couldn’t hear her properly over the orchestra; whether this was due to her being underpowered or the brass just playing too loudly I couldn’t say. I liked the way she occasionally interpolated low tenor-y notes into her arias, which is something I have not heard before. I particularly enjoyed the voices of Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Cornelia) and Stéphanie D’Oustrac (Sesto) and their scenes together. Todorovich has a rich dark sound, while D’Oustrac’s is smooth and clear, but they blended beautifully in Son nata a lagrimar, which almost made me cry along with them. Jane Archibald was also excellent (once one got used to the idea of a blonde Cleopatra), both in hyperactive twiddly coloratura and the slower numbers. The only scene which didn’t work for me was when she first meets Cesare. I was under the impression that Cleopatra was supposed to be a subtle and manipulative seductress, taking her time to set him up then reel him in later. However, what she actually did was fall to her knees and clasp him round the arse, then lie flat on her back and invite him to jump on top of her. Subtlety, no.

Being of a decided low-voice orientation, I was disappointed that Achilla (Marc Olivier Oetterli) had a cold and that they decided to cut all his arias (although he sounded fine for the bits of recitative that he did sing), and that Curio has so little to do. For the same reason, I was not enthralled at there being a countertenor in the cast as Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaux). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find his singing, well, pleasant enough, and his stage presence and charisma made his scenes some of the high points of the performance.

I had a peek into the orchestra pit in the interval, and it was set up in an interesting configuration which I haven’t come across before, with the conductor over to the extreme left, and musicians on various different vertical levels. The playing was of a very high standard, on (mostly?) period instruments. I particularly noticed the accuracy of timing and intonation of the baroque woodwinds and brass, but unfortunately there were some ongoing issues of balance both between the orchestra and singers, and between different orchestral sections – at least, from where I was sitting. Also, there was a loudspeaker (part of the PA system) very near my seat, and at one point in Act 2 there was some musical noise coming out of it which sounded rather odd. At first I thought they were amplifying some of the instruments, as they did have mikes in the pit, but then it occurred to me that perhaps they were recording the performance, and one of the sound techies had leaned on the wrong button on the mixing desk and sent the signal to the speakers. However, my companion didn’t notice this at all, which probably means that either I’m havng auditory hallucinations, or that her entire attention was fixed on the handsome young M. Dumaux.

Altogether, this was a very engaging performance, although I didn’t like the amount of cuts they made (most characters lost an aria, and poor Sesto didn’t get a proper duel with Tolomeo, just a creep up and stab). However, if the thing that annoyed me most was that it wasn’t longer, that can’t be bad!

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Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

I had a very entertaining time at the opera last night. I have to say, my expectations were not the highest, given that (a) they were flogging off 600 unsold (expensive) seats as £10 Student Standbys (standbies?) and (b) a friend who had been the previous week told me that it would cure my insomnia. Fortunately my expectations were proved wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

All musicians involved were of an excellent standard. Although I’m no great lover of period instruments, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were spot on, and directed with almost unbelievable precision and general all-round perfection by Mackerras. Even less than period instruments do I like countertenors, and despite the efforts of acquaintances to convince me of their worth, I find the sound, to be honest, unpleasant. Nevertheless, Bejun Mehta (Orlando) exhibited some cracking coluratura in the fast sections and delicately expressive phrasing in the slow ones, which impressed me even though, when it comes down to it, I dislike the timbre of his voice. Being more a fan of the deeper male voices (as anyone who knows me will be aware), I much preferred listening to Kyle Ketelsen’s Zoroastro, and just wished he had more to sing. Although Ketelsen’s tone is gorgeous and technique impressive, I found him a little quiet for my taste at the start; fortunately ‘Sorge infausta’ was delivered at full belt. (I realised at the end of it that I’d been sitting with an idiot grin on my face for the last 5 mins.) Of the other singers, Camilla Tilling (Dorinda) was a show-stealer, Anna Bonitatibus (Medoro) had a lovely voice, and their trio with Rosemary Joshua (Angelica) blended beautifully. (‘Consolati, o bella’ is the best and most memorable bit of music in the whole opera, IMO. Why on earth didn’t Handel include more bits with more than one person singing at a time?)

The production was not brilliant. Most of the set involved a frequently-rotating big merry-go-round split up into several ‘rooms’ with doors in between, for the characters to slam as they constantly chased each other round in circles. Green room, blue room, mirrored room, greenroomblueroommirroredroom… aarghh, making me dizzy. There were also some big spears. And a stuffed sheep. And a pile of books, which, like a well-meaning adult literacy tutor, or perhaps a publisher of self-help books, Zoroastro kept presenting to the other characters at times of emotional crisis. However, I don’t mind abstract sets, and these ones were reasonably pleasant, when not spinning. Costumes were a bit dodgy. The two female characters got off lightly, but Zoroastro had a particularly stupid wig (think mutant Princess Leia look, in frizzy grey), and Orlando wouldn’t have looked out of place sitting on the pavement with a pint of snakebite & black, outside a scuzzy Camden goth club (think black velvet trousers, long black boots, a Matrix-style leather coat and a stringy ponytail). Medoro actually looked rather nice – if you find curvy, pretty women dressed up as men attractive. I was wondering about that, actually, as the costumiers were definitely not trying to make her actually look like a man; if anything, making her female-ness obvious. Maybe it’s like in Tipping the Velvet, where Nan is getting fitted up for her male impersonator’s suit, and she looks too convincing in it, so they have to make it a bit more girly to provoke the appropriate sexually-ambiguous frisson for the audience?

Anyway, in case anyone was getting bored with the main characters running around in circles, throwing plates and books on the floor, and doing a bit of pantomime-style acting once in a while, we were also provided with 3 non-singing dancers who turned up every now and then to mess around with the main characters while they were singing. One was Venus, who was portrayed as a zombie prostitute, I think – deathly white skin with too much dark eye make-up and lipstick, and her boobs hanging out. Her sidekick Cupid looked even more like the walking undead, also deathly pale and with the remnants of his winding-sheet tied round his groin. He didn’t have a bow for his arrows, so went and stuck them in people by hand, twisting them maliciously. Lastly, Mars was poncing around in half a suit of armour over the top of a long red dress.

Funniest moment: Dorinda grabbing Cupid’s last arrow off him and sticking it in his bollocks, while singing about how rubbish love is.