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

The story of The Rake’s Progress, derived from a series of eight early 18th-century engravings by Hogarth, transformed over 200 years later to text by English and American librettists, with music by a Russian composer, has a certain timelessness to it, and despite textual references to London, a certain place-lessness also. One can imagine a great variety of times and places in which a lazy but essentially innocent young country lad, not the brightest penny in the purse, comes into a great deal of money, moves to ‘the big city’, chooses his companions unwisely, becomes thoroughly corrupted and ends up dead in a ditch (or in this case, saved from death’s clutches but mad in an asylum). This revival of 2008’s Robert LePage production sets the opera firmly in mid 20th-century America, in line with the opera’s creation rather than that of the source material, and – the few references about ‘going to London’ or ‘gone to America’ aside – it works very well. Highly stylish without being over-stylised, effective visual features include a cinematic ‘wide-screen’ as backdrop for the Truloves’ estate, all flat horizon and rolling clouds (which darken when Nick Shadow is around); Tom, as he is seduced by Mother Goose, being literally swallowed up by, to put it delicately, the lips of a big hole; a derelict neon-flickering Vegas card hall for the graveyard scene; and a particular favourite, the simple elegance of Anne in her little red car, driving through the night to go and find Tom (accompanied by a minute or so of ravishing trumpet solo).

On the subject of wind solos, unfortunately The Royal Opera simply publishes in the programme a list of all their orchestral employees, rather than of those who are playing in the particular performance one is hearing, so I am unable to name names. However, in an orchestral performance which was strong across the board, the principal trumpet, bassoon and flute stood out as superb in their solo passages. Although Mozartian forms are perhaps the first to spring to mind (particularly when combined with ‘set-piece’ structures and the same orchestral forces as Così fan tutte), the score of Rake draws on a huge variety of musical influences from both previous centuries and Stravinsky’s present day; however, the detailed interlocking rhythms are very much his own, and like a great deal of his music, require energy coupled with absolute precision to pull it off, something which was achieved admirably by Ingo Metzmacher. The strings were crisp, the brass and percussion tight, but to a woodwind-geek such as myself, it is Stravinsky’s genius for blending and highlighting the range of reed and flute timbres, that made some of the sound textures emitted delicious enough sometimes to draw the attention from singers to pit.

That I spent a considerable amount of time focused on instrumental musicians should not be taken as any kind of slight to the singers on stage, who formed a very strong cast. Anne Trulove can sometimes be annoying, the kind of drippy girl you can quite imagine Tom Rakewell deserting, but Rosemary Joshua made her genuinely affecting, having in both her singing and acting an air of purity without insipidity. The vibrancy of her recitative “How strange” and aria “O heart be stronger” was one of the highlights of the performance, and her final lullaby to the delusional Tom (accompanied by the two flute lines, I floating above and II pulsing below) delicate and affecting. The other female character, Baba the Turk, can also be prone to one-dimensionality – an amusing fairground sideshow, in fact – but Patricia Bardon, rich-toned in voice and admirably dignified, made her a real woman who happened to have a hormonal imbalance causing abnormal patterns of hair growth, in a time when the possession of such an unusual physical feature was a short-cut to celebrity status.

The dynamic between the duo of Tom and Nick is of great importance to the success of the opera, more so than between Tom and Anne. I still have imprinted on my memory the 2001 ENO production, which paired tenor Barry Banks with bass-baritone Gidon Saks, which made very effective use of the size disparity between the two men, with Saks looming malevolently behind the (visually) diminutive Banks, giving the clear impression of master and puppet. Here, Toby Spence (Tom) and Kyle Ketelsen (Nick) are of a very similar height, build and age (or at least, it appeared so from the audience), and this by itself created a different, but equally valid kind of relationship – although there was a modernisation of the puppet-master theme, in that during the brothel scene Nick was portrayed as film director, raised above the scene with megaphone to bark orders to Tom and the ‘extras’, and video camera to film the musical and pornographic goings-on. At the start, Nick was dirty, pale and ill-looking (perhaps from living down an oil well, as he appeared to be doing) with Tom bounding around and tanned to an orange tint, but throughout Act 1 Nick became steadily healthier (and smarter-attired) as Tom degenerated to a pathetic (and badly made-up) wreck snorting coke behind his trailer, as if the one were sucking the life from the other. This was very cleverly portrayed by the two men, along with the increasing dependence they each have on the other over the course of their year. Considered individually, I am undecided about Spence’s Tom Rakewell. A fair amount of the time his voice was pleasant to the ear, such as in the touching cavatina “Love, too frequently betrayed”, but at other times it seemed thin and a little colourless, with lack of shape and balance to the longer vocal lines. In the first scene, the hamminess of his acting would have better fitted a West End musical – particularly the throwing around of his hat to express emotion – although, having said that, his constant playing around with said hat did lend a certain poignancy to the moment when he was sucked into Mother Goose’s cavernous ‘bed’, with Hat of Innocence left sadly behind on the floor. However, I expect the over-acting was an intentional artistic choice, and indeed, Spence threw himself into the role with enough conviction to overcome any vocal inconsistencies. Ketelsen was, as ever, a joy to hear from the moment he first opened his mouth, with smooth chocolate tones ringing out effortlessly. His take on the Nick Shadow character was less blatantly sinister than many, elegant in manner and only ramping up the full demonic element at the end, with a huge “I burn, I freeze!” (dramatically somewhat undercut by the rather panto-style descent into hell-fire).

Of the other roles, Jeremy White’s dark bass was a pleasant surprise in his too-brief stint as Anne’s amusingly disapproving father. Graham Clark rather grated on the ears, although his Auctioneer and Frances McCafferty’s Mother Goose were there principally to provide amusing and grotesque characters, which indeed they did. The chorus were at times perhaps a little ragged in their entries, but in fact this was more in keeping with their portrayal of brawling drunks and prostitutes than perfect synchronisation would have been. Their final contribution, as Bedlam inmates in “Mourn for Adonis” was slow, solemn and a peaceful winding-down to the whole unfortunate tale.

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

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Image borrowed from www.musicomh.com

Image borrowed from http://www.musicomh.com

I do believe that this is the first time I’ve seen the same opera production revived over the years with three different casts. The first time I saw this particular Don Giovanni was quite a lot of years ago, and all I can remember was that Gerald Finley was in it in a bad wig. Last year I reviewed it, when it returned with Erwin Schrott as the Don, and now I’ve been back again to see Simon Keenlyside’s take on things. It’s all starting to feel quite pleasantly familiar, like a friend’s home that I visit now and then: here is Donna Anna’s window with the attractive verdigris tiles and handy rungs for baritones to climb up and down; there is the graveyard where they have built Anna’s dead dad a giant wicker man instead of a statue; and here we are at Don G’s house (watch out for the suddenly-contracting walls in the ballroom, people!) with its novel sauna-cum-dining room.

I’ve just read over what I wrote about this production last year, and am a little suprised at how highly I rated it, seeing as overall I liked it even better this time! All the leads, although by no means flawless, were excellent, I thought. Actually, having said that, Ketelsen’s singing was pretty flawless – lovely strong, rich, effortless sound with complete control. I like him. He’s also very funny when doing comedy, including one bit in particular, when Leporello has to impersonate the Don under Elvira’s window; the way he adopted a block-of-wood heroic pose while sticking out one arm then the other was evocative of certain non-acting opera singers I’ve seen in the past. Miah Persson and Robert Gleadow were also excellent as Susanna and Figaro, oops, I mean Zerlina and Masetto – very pleasant voices, the acting skill to make me actually care about these characters, and even attractive to look at! (Not the case with Matthew Rose last year.) Eric Halfvarson was definite luxury casting as the Commendatore.

The main reason I attended this performance was because I wanted to see Keenlyside in the role, and overall I was very impressed indeed. He seemed to have thought a great deal about his interpretation of the character, and how he wanted to portray him. He was convincingly nasty, still seductive when he wanted to be, but ready to progress quickly to violence when the charm failed. However, he was not entirely without softer emotions beneath the hard shell. It intially seemed a rather odd thing to do for the Don to kiss the Commendatore after stabbing him (peck, not snog) and then cuddle up to the corpse for a minute or two until interrupted by Leporello; the interpretation that sprang to my mind was that he had lost his own father when young, or perhaps never knew him, and was significantly affected by never having a father figure while growing up. (This is probably wildly inaccurate from a historical point of view. Neither am I suggesting that children brought up without a father grow up misogynistic and murderous!) Anyway, enough of the thoughtful stuff; if you have one of the fittest baritones on the scene, you might as well make use of him, and this was parkour opera, with plenty of window-jumping, wall-climbing (yes, right to the top, unlike certain other baritones’ attempts), and singing of arias while hanging off the trellis by one arm. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I have heard him sing better on other occasions, although it was still very good. It’s possible this role doesn’t suit him so well vocally, but the overall package was excellent, so it really wasn’t an issue for me.

Marina Poplavskaya (Donna Anna) and Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira) were also very enjoyable overall, They both sang with great power and energy, and I had goosebumps at the appropriate times. Poplavskaya’s control seemed a little unsteady, though, and the dynamics were not always well-balanced. DiDonato chose some odd-sounding (to me) breathing places, and was a little wayward in pitch towards the end, but this really is being picky. Ramon Vargas (Don Ottavio) also made some notes which were slightly off-pitch, but weirdly it worked quite well – I think he might have been singing in just intonation rather than equal temperament! I find the character and his arias dull, but this was not Vargas’s fault.

Like the sets, the costumes were also all familiar. For those that like to read about such things, the women wore a selection of elegantly understated (for opera) dresses in tasteful shades, some of which they looked like they might fall out of (but didn’t), and looked lovely. It still puzzles me why a rich and dashing nobleman like the Don would have his companion dressed like a skanky tramp, rather than in some nice livery (like his house servants). With such a huge ego it seems unlikely that he would be concerned about the competition. Perhaps they do the clothes swap thing fairly often, though, when he needs to escape from somewhere.To complete the look, Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) had some big clumpy boots made him look comically clodhopping and clumsy (which he isn’t) and some awful trousers that made him look like he had a fat arse (which he hasn’t). Keenlyside, of course, is no stranger to fat-arse trousers, having worn a prizewinningly offensive pair in Pelleas last year; however, this time he was sporting tight red satin ones, which did not look as bad as one might expect. The red trousers/ waistcoat/ long coat combination is actually quite a stylish one, and Mr Keenlyside would have looked rather fetching in it, had he not been cursed with what looked from the amphitheatre like a Billy Ray Cyrus-style mullet wig. (And I thought Erwin Schrott’s wig was bad…)

I’m pleased to report that the orchestra played very well under the baton of Mackerras (as one would expect). There were a few chords with dodgy intonation in the overture, but apart from that, the score crackled along throughout with energy and expression. The woodwind cut their vibrato to a minimum without losing tone quality, and on this occasion I was particularly impressed by the cello secion.

To end, the dragging-down-to-hell scene came off very well. It looks like the ROH are not allowed to have all their bunsen burners turned on at once any more, but they did have quite a few going, and managed to make the right ones whoosh up as the Commendatore gestured at them, which was good. The flaming swinging wicker-man lottery-hand at the end was daft, but the pyrophile in me says, the more flames the better. If it was my design, I’d have had them make not just a wicker hand but a whole person, and stuck Don G in the middle of it to burn… although this may have something to do with the fact that I saw the film The Wicker Man the other week (original, not remake). We were somewhat alarmed when a flimsy white curtain descended (for the unnecessary epilogue) and flapped straight into the flames, but a quick-fingered techie cut the flames out immediately, and it was obviously seriously flame-retardant material anyway. Hurrah for the backstage and Health & Safety team!

I’ve been trying to remember the last time I saw Carmen live, but it’s lost in the mists of time. I’m assuming that at some point I must have seen it, as it was the first opera I heard / liked / got to know, and it’s the one I know best (better even than The Ring), but maybe I haven’t. I watched the webcast of last year’s ENO production, which I enjoyed (although many critics didn’t). During my (thankfully) very brief spell teaching music I watched the Migenes/Domingo/Raimondi film version in instalments with my class of pre-teens (yes, they liked it; yes, they were normal kids from a range of backgrounds, not segregated by IQ, wealth or religion). I did once go to see a friend perform in a provincial amdram thing called ‘Carmen – The Musical’, which (barring a couple of notable exceptions) was bloody awful. But the real thing? Can’t remember. Anyway, I decided to go to this particular one because (a) I wanted to see Kyle Ketelsen do Escamillo, and (b) Marcelo Álvarez was doing Don José, and lots of people (whose opinions I trust) rave about how great he is.

From my seat in the Upper Slips I had an excellent view of the conductor, Daniel Oren, whom I watched during the overture, as there wasn’t anything to look at on stage for most of it. It was intriguing, as he threw some shapes I’ve never seen any other conductor do, including some pointing up and down that looked a bit Travolta-esque, and a groovy horizontal wavy movement. It was cool. I know that the Carmen Overture pretty much plays itself, but the orchestra really were completely spot-on, and remained so throughout the whole opera. Oren generally took the tempi on the fast side, which I liked; clearly Nancy Fabiola Herrera didn’t, as when she began singing the Habanera and Seguidilla, it was at a slower pace than the introduction, which caused a minor lurch, but which the musicians handled extremely well. I haven’t heard Herrera before, and was quite surprised at the dark timbre and weight of her voice, which I would have thought would suit heavier, more dramatic roles. I did like it, though, and apart from a few dodgy tuning moments early on, and some even dodgier French pronunciation moments, her performance was excellent, in particular her completely convincing inhabitation of the role.

The set was a traditional one; appropriate and quite attractive, with orange trees, real campfires for the gypsies, and no surprises or alternative ‘interpretations’. At the very end of the Act 1 overture, there was a tableau of José kneeling on the ground with his head down, looking remorseful, which I took to be a flash-forward, but apart from that everything was played completely straight. The chorus and dancers had a certain slightly chaotic quality to them, never all doing quite the same thing at the same time; I assume this was intentional! It was particularly effective in the tavern scene, where they really looked like a bunch of people who just happened to be very good movers, having an impromptu dance and sing-song down the pub one night, rather than a fake-looking choreographed and rehearsed team of professionals.

Musically, Act 1 was the weakest, as it seemed that some of the singers were taking a while to fully warm up. In particular, Susan Gritton’s Micaela didn’t do much for me earlier on, but she got better and better as the performance went on, and was really very moving towards the end. Act 1 also unfortunately contains the extended brats’ chorus, which I would happily cut entirely; do I go to the opera house to hear a bunch of kids with their nasty squeaky little voices and their poor tuning and timing? Still, it was possible to ignore them at least partially by focusing my attention on the flute section (on piccolos at that point), who were excellent. From my seat I couldn’t see the woodwind, so I don’t know which two of the ROH flutes were playing that night, but they were really, really good. Bizet writes so many great flute tunes, and I hope they were enjoying themselves, despite probably having played it a million times before. The principal flute showed off a lovely liquid tone during the Act 3 Entr’acte, and although the phrasing and choice of breathing spaces seemed a little curious at times, floated a particularly delicate pianissimo top Bb.

Sitting in the Upper Slips, one gets possibly the best acoustic in the house (and the lowest price seats), at the expense of having a portion of the stage missing. I consider this an acceptable trade-off, but it does mean sometimes not being able to see the action. It would be nice if all key scenes between, say, the two main characters, were somewhere in the main portion of the stage, but I guess it’s more interesting for directors to stick them right in one of the corners. Unfortunately for me, on this occasion the director chose to set lots of duet and solo bits, especially José’s, in the one bit of the stage I couldn’t see. (Funnily, last time I heard Álvarez (Trovatore, 2007) I was on the opposite side of the amphitheatre, but he was stuck on the other side of the stage, and so I couldn’t see him then either.) Still, he sounded amazing, and that’s the main thing. When he was singing beautifully but completely out of sight, many of the people in my row stood up and craned forward to try and see him. My centre of gravity was above the level of the railing so I was glad I was wearing rubber-soled sneakers for that extra bit of resistance. Given that I am not particularly tall, I was somewhat concerned for the taller people leaning over the railing, but there were no disasters. Perhaps when stage directors submit their plans, they should add to their Health & Safety evaluation ‘danger of people falling off the balcony trying to see invisible star tenor’.

Prize for best entrance of the evening goes to Kyle Ketelsen, who got to ride onto stage on a horse, and then sing the first few minutes on horseback. It was an impressively well-trained horse, but I’m not sure it really added that much. But then, I knew about the horse-riding in advance, and it was probably a good surprise for those who didn’t. After getting off the horse, he spent the rest of the Toreador song strutting around on the table; it occurred to me that they might be doing this to try and make him look taller, but if so, it’s really not necessary. He’s not that short (unlike, say, Barry Banks, where they do have a point), and I would imagine a smallish but athletic frame would be ideal for torero-ing. And it’s not many men who look good in those funny little trousers and bolero jackets. As ever, his voice was of consistently excellent quality, sung with feeling but always perfect control. I also want to describe his portrayal of Escamillo as ‘witty’, although I can’t point to exactly why. Honourable mentions also go to Elena Xanthoudakis (Frasquita) and Alan Ewing (Zuniga), both a pleasure to hear and making the most of their small roles.

Carmen is the sort of piece that attracts audience-members who wouldn’t normally go to the opera. I thought it was very enjoyable and was hoping they did too, so I earwigged a bit on the way out. A selection of overheard comments: “It was hilarious when they finished that big dramatic scene about the soldier’s dying mum, and the toreador was still singing his jolly little song in the background.” (Actually, that contrast is pretty amusing when you think about it.) From a satisfied audience member “Yeah, the singing was cool, but it had a really good backing track too.” (Backing track?! As an orchestral musician I find this mildly insulting.) From a less satisfied audience member “The plot went slow, ’cause they kept stopping what they were doing to sing a song about it.” (Can’t really argue with that, but I’m not sure what she was expecting…)

Image borrowed from www.thisislondon.co.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.thisislondon.co.uk

Don Giovanni is my favourite Mozart opera, and I should start by saying I had an extremely enjoyable night out. Unusually, I came to this performance with expectations. Well, of course there are normally expectations for a performance, but in this case, I have been reading reviews beforehand, which I normally avoid. I also saw this very production a few years ago (with Gerald Finley as Don G), but it was before I became particularly interested in opera, so I don’t remember much. Additionally, being unable to wait until tonight, I went and watched Act 1 on the big screen in the plaza for the broadcast a couple of weeks ago. Why no Act 2? Because it was raining, windy, I didn’t have enough padding for my arse sitting on the cobbled stones, and I had brought a friend with me who had never been to an opera before and hadn’t realised how long they were and was cold and hungry.

So, all the reviews I read went on a LOT about how sexy Erwin Schrott is as the hyper-priapic Don Giovanni (as did certain of my friends), and how much (or little, rather) clothing he has in various scenes. Schrott is, in fact, an excellent Don G; I’d almost say the ideal casting (out of those singers I’ve had the fortune to see/hear so far, of course). He is certainly very convincing as a charmer, and played the character as shallow and amoral rather than downright nasty, as some do. I had no difficulty believing his obsessive woman-chasing, but I did have some difficulty with the idea of him killing an old man in cold blood and then never giving it another thought; still, perhaps it was a case of Scarlett O’Hara “I won’t think about that today”. To aid him, Schrott has both a handsome face, and the body of someone who’s spent a lot of time down the gym. Unfortunately, his look also had several offputting features, for me, at least – tight shiny trousers, long scraggy hair (wig), waistcoat often worn without shirt, and dripping with sweat (baby oil? chip fat?) in the sauna, I mean dinner, scene. Overall, this gave the impression of a singer from a glam rock band, and this is not a good look. As for the musical side of it, he made a very nice noise when singing properly, but I didn’t particularly like his sprechstimme style for the recitatives.

In opera, one gets quite used to accepting that characters can be mistaken for eachother when they look nothing alike whatsoever, so it was quite a treat to be presented with such a plausible Don G – Leporello pairing. Leporello was Kyle Ketelsen, and a pair had a fantastic rapport in their scenes together. Being of a similar age(?), build, and colouring, their impersonations of eachother were highly convincing (at least, from the amphitheatre), and, to put icing on the cake, they even imitated eachother’s vocal style. Those who have read my previous reviews will be aware that I’m a big Ketelsen fan, and he certainly did not disappoint on this occasion. Lovely singing (as always), strong, resonant and carrying right to the bottom of the register; obviously very comfortable in the role, and had clearly given thought to bringing out the different facets of Leporello’s character; plus an excellent sense of (black) comedy.

This being quite a dark opera in terms of subject matter, the comic moments are very important as a counterbalance to the themes of violence, death and revenge. Ana María Martínez’s Donna Elvira was another which was brilliantly acted, and a masterpiece of comic timing from the moment she appeared, wearing a wedding dress with a shotgun slung across her shoulders. It took me a while to get used to her voice, as I found it a little harsh around the edges at first, but by her first aria in Act 2 I was really enjoying it, and very impressed with her technique and control. Anna Netrebko (Donna Anna), on the other hand, is one of those rare sopranos whose voice can give me goosebumps. Being picky, she can sometimes be a little imprecise in terms of intonation and phrasing, but she makes such a beautiful sound that I really don’t care. The two of them were both highly convincing in their roles, and also, as a bonus, happened to be very attractive to look at. Even when wandering around wearing bed sheets.

For the rest of the cast, Matthew Rose was very convincing as sulky slow-witted lump Masetto, and Sarah Fox as a dippy, impressionable Zerlina, and both acquitted themselves decently in their parts. Reinhard Hagen was Commendatore; his final entrance in the dinner scene happens to be one of my favourite operatic moments, and I have to say I like it rather more powerful and scary than he was able to provide. Don Ottavio is a somewhat thankless role, and unfortunately, every time Robert Murray started singing, I just wished he’d stop. Harsh, but true. (And to cap it all, the poor man’s wig was a particularly stupid mullet. At least, I hope it was a wig.)

I’d heard some bad things about the orchestra, or rather, the conducting of the orchestra by Ivor Bolton. For example, “who … should stick to conducting something he can handle. A bus, perhaps.” (SJT, writing on RMO) I didn’t think it was that bad, at least, not the night I went. However, the overture is one of my favourites, and should start dark and brooding, then fizz with energy, but this was distinctly lacking in any power and intensity. I found the rest of it a bit on the wooly side, lacking precision of ensemble, and often giving the impression of dragging. No criticism of any individual instrumentalists, though, and some nice woodwind moments.

Regarding the visual aspect of the production… Costumes were mostly rather fetching, especially Don G’s red outfit (when actually fully dressed), Donna Elvira’s purple velvet drag ensemble, and, well, Netrebko in whatever she wore. Zerlina, less fetchingly, got to wear a white sack, and Leporello was unfortunately dressed like a tramp for a lot of the time, although at least his bad wig wasn’t as bad as the thing he had stuck on his head in Orlando. A fairly minimalist set, but an attractive one which worked well, mostly in shades of verdigris and rust, and a big curving tiled wall (with handy sticking-out bits so Don G and Leporello could climb up and down it when required), doubling as stairs, balcony, etc., with the other side painted as a wonky-perspective ballroom. I have no idea why it started closing in as if it was going to squish the cast at the end of Act 1, but for that matter, I have no idea how, at this point, Don G managed to escape from 5 people waving a variety of guns and sharp things at him. Maybe the two things are related – explanations on a postcard, please? For the graveyard scene, some sinister monks came and stood on the stage for no apparent reason, but the Commendatore statue was nowhere to be seen. The characters peeked through a hole in the wall to talk to it, but I couldn’t see much from where I was, except a glimpse of some bizarre structure that looked more like a bit of a large wicker man. Or wicker basket. I don’t know why dinner was being served in the sauna, but I have no problem with it being so. I might have thought it was a cool effect when the flames of hell rose from the sauna… if I hadn’t seen this production before, and remember from last time half a dozen of the ‘gas rings’ all whoomphing on together, with great big flames, rather than randomly going on one or two at a time, being a bit feeble, and sputtering out after a few seconds. A tightening up of health and safety regulations, I assume.

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.

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

I was very interested to hear this opera, as I have for a long time been a fan of Nielsen’s orchestral music (which includes my all-time favourite flute concerto). I mentioned that I was going to it in an opera discussion forum, to which the two responses from people who had seen it were ” I can promise you that you will enjoy it… lovely dance routines, enjoyable music” and “It’s crap and I hope I never have to suffer through it again”. It also appears to be quite an obscure work (at least, outside of Denmark) – so, deservedly forgotten, or an overlooked gem?

As my recent operatic diet has been predominantly Wagner, with a little Don Carlos and Werther for light relief, it was quite a shock to the system to see something so unashamedly frivolous, upbeat, and generally fluffy. However, that’s not to say that the change wasn’t a good thing, and probably a little overdue. In a very brief summary, the plot revolves around party-loving young Danish chap Leander (Michael Schade), his even more hedonistic manservant Henrik (Kyle Ketelsen), Leander’s strict and dour father Jeronimus (Brindley Sherratt) and miserable and frustrated mother Magdelone (Kari Hamnoy). Jeronimus has set up an arranged marriage for Leander and is distinctly unimpressed by Leander’s professions of love for some trollop he met while out on the lash at some dodgy club – sorry, the Maskarade. Suffice it to say that in the grand comic opera tradition, all the characters end up – in masks, naturally – at the Maskarade, where much drinking, dancing and debauchery ensues. Jeronimus gets pissed and enjoys himself thoroughly, which rather weakens his case when it comes to patriarchal laying-down of the law. The ending is happy, and nobody dies.

I don’t remember coming across any of the singers before, but thought they generally did a good job of it. Brindley Sherratt created an excellent characterisation of Jeronimus, transforming from a stern and no-nonsense pillar of the community to, well, a lecherous drunk twat. I found Michael Schade’s Leander a little stuffy and unconvincing, though, both as party-boy and ardent lover. Not so Kyle Ketelsen, who was clearly enjoying himself immensely in the role of Henrik (a character owing more than a little to Figaro and perhaps Leporello), swaggering around the set and making the most of his many comedy moments. I personally like Ketelsen’s voice very much; a warm, rich bass-baritone with strength in the lower register and clarity of tone in the upper (well, perhaps apart from the soprano-mocking falsetto bit). Both Sherratt, as mentioned before, and Emma Bell (as Leonora, Leander’s beloved) were also in fine voice. On the other hand, I have to say that I found Martin Winkler’s voice (in a variety of small roles) to be really quite unpleasant, but that’s of course my personal taste.

Much of Nielsen’s music manages at once to be highly melodic yet not really have any tunes one leaves the theatre humming, and Maskarade is of this ilk. There was plenty of the slippy-slidy modality between the major and minor that is a trademark of Nielsen’s compositional style, and some delicate woodwind squiggles as decoration. One thing which I like about his writing is the way the harmony tends to veer off into unexpected modulations which tend to be modal rather than chromatic, which can feel quite subversive; however, I am also aware that many listeners find this same tendency actively annoying. Having listed the positive points, in my opinion this was very far from Nielsen at his best. It lacked depth (I suppose understandably, given the subject material) and had little of interest rhythmically. There were a few lovely woodwind moments, including a great flute solo, which were reminiscent of his chamber music and the calmer bits of the concertos, but they were too few and far between. There was a game effort by the company to make the dances of the third act more interesting, but their amusing costumes didn’t quite do the trick, and some trimming wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Overall, I am definitely glad I went to see this performance, but I would be careful who I recommended it to. To a fan of light comic opera, it should be an enjoyable evening, although it’s certainly not Mozart. Those who have a knowledge and admiration for Nielsen’s symphonies will probably be disappointed by the quality of the music. I found the set very visually pleasing and quite witty; the costumes less so.