Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…

doncarlos2

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

I went to see the previous run of this production, and failed to review it, thus rendering it pretty much deleted from my memory before too long. This time I am determined to do better.

The visual aspect of the production is very stylised, and colour-themed in mostly black and red (with a bit of white for snow in Act I and gold for church in Act 3). Particularly striking was the repeated visual motif of a huge black wall with a grid of small square holes, suggesting both the actual prison in which Carlos is incarcerated and the imprisonment of the various characters within the strictures of their culture – rigid class structure and social status, bloodthirsty religion and dictatorial law. Less effective was the wall made of giant red lego bricks in the Spanish garden in which the court ladies hang around, whinging about the hot weather (while very sensibly wearing heavy, tightly-fitting black dresses). Most of the rest of the cast were in black too, apart from the king and queen’s white nightwear, and special red (Grand Inquisitor-esque) heretic-burning outfits. At least the red looked a bit more regal than King Philip’s earlier outfit of a black BHS women’s anorak and flower-pot hat (which I have been assured was the fashion of the time, although Philip was the only man wearing one).

Musically I found this a truly superb performance – all the more so as it was not actually a performance. Seymon Bychkov’s tempi were well-judged, and the orchestral playing expressive and textured. This is the first time I have attended a dress rehearsal, and I gather it is inappropriate to comment too much on singers, as they may not be ‘singing out’, to save themselves for first night. If this was the case here, I can only say that the audiences are in for a treat.

I haven’t heard Jonas Kaufman before, but am informed by a fan that he was taking care to ‘save himself’ in a demanding role, and indeed he was somewhat quiet at times. However, his singing was thoughtful and nuanced, ranging through the wide spectrum of Don Carlos’s emotional states throughout the drama. His acting was considerably more restrained than Villazon (whom I previously saw in the role, and whose manic-depressive Carlos appeared constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown), but equally valid.

‘Infante’ is an appropriate title for Carlos, as he is really very childish; he is selfish and egocentric,  given to extreme mood swings, wanting instant gratification and unable to rationally think through the consequences of his actions – even if they might result in the inglorious deaths of those he claims to love. He thinks himself terribly hard done-by not to be allowed to marry Elizabeth (whom he barely knows but has fixated on, and continues to pester despite the fact that suspected infidelity would mean execution for her), with little sympathy for the fact that Elizabeth herself has put her own desires aside and nobly given herself as prisoner and sex-slave to an unpleasnt and elderly tyrant, to bring peace and save the lives of her compatriots. Marina Poplavskaya was an excellent Elizabeth, portraying through voice and acting a strong personality forcing itself into submission, but with outbreaks of fiery defiance (such as when confronted by the king for keeping Carlos’s bus pass in her jewellery box).

If Carlos’s love for Elizabeth is essentially superficial (however obsessive), how much deeper is Posa’s for Carlos; having been friends for many years, he knows him well, including all flaws and weaknesses, yet loves him anyway. An unflinchingly brave human rights activist and challenger of the oppressive regime, he also shows a tender side, begging Carlos to leave his father’s poisonous court and come away with him to Flanders, and murderous rage at Eboli’s threats to his friend. It is unfortunate for Flanders that the end result is their hero’s stupid, tragic execution. Simon Keenlyside’s Posa is truly a thing of beauty. He personified all the facets of the character with complete conviction (including, I am pleased to say, Posa’s love for Carlos, which in some hands can be unconvincing). I blubbed my way through his death scene – and love opera as I do, this is not something that I make a habit of.

Although Posa’s death is the most emotionally affecting scene of the opera, musically my favourite bit is Philip’s ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ monologue at the start of Act IV. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s rendition was magnificent (as, in fact, he was throughout the opera). Simply, a gorgeous dark bass voice coupled with mature and expert musicality. Robert Lloyd also produced a very fine sound in the small role of Carlos V ( in this production seemingly still alive and hiding out in the monastery, rather than a ghost rising from the underworld).

Philip’s late-night monologue, incidentally, got me thinking about the character with a little more understanding. Specifically, he mentions how he is unable to sleep, and probably won’t do so until he is in his grave. Being an insomniac myself, and currently rather sleep-deprived, I understand how it feels, night after night, to be dog-tired but with a brain that just won’t shut down properly, and how miserable one can get, alone in the early hours. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see that the prospect of the sleep of death can have a certain attraction. But what about the other psychological effects of sustained lack of sleep? Impairment of logical reasoning, resulting in poor decision making; inflexibility of thought, resulting in inability to change tactics or viewpoints; depression, leading to emotional numbness and wear and tear on marital and familial relationships… This could actually explain quite a lot about why he acts in the way he does.

The highly dramatic scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor is another highlight of Verdi’s score. Unfortunately the excellent Erik Halfvarson (from the last run of this production) was replaced this time by the seemingly ubiquitous John Tomlinson. Fortunately he managed to keep his woofing and bobbing to a minimum and invest the role of Santa Claus the Inquisitor with a modicum of gravitas. The other weak link in the cast, in my opinion, was Marianne Cornetti’s Eboli, decently portrayed as a petty, jealous bitch, but with some intonation issues, and a wide vibrato which did double-service as semiquavers in the Veil Song. However, these weak links were by no means annoying enough to disturb an overall triumph of a production.

Having checked the ROH website, it looks pretty much sold out. However, if you are at all wavering whether to see it or not, do try! I’m sure you won’t regret it.

I’ve been asked to review some of the Proms for other websites, which is nice, but they don’t allow me to publish the same material anywhere else, including here. So, opening paragraphs and then links to the rest, which I believe is not infringing anything.

PROM 8: Vaughan Williams, Wigglesworth, Stanford, Harvey, Weir, Saint-Saëns

The University of Cambridge turns 800 this year. Believed to have awarded the first Bachelor of Music degree (in 1464), the university is also the connection between all the composers, conductors, soloists and choirs in this concert. The Cambridge connection is stronger in some cases than others: of the composers, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Harvey and Weir are alumni, Wigglesworth is a lecturer, and Saint-Saëns once conducted a concert there (although he was awarded an honorary degree for his efforts). Davis, Keenlyside and Trotter also all studied at Cambridge, and the chorus was conflated from the choirs of various colleges. Some critics have questioned the BBC’s decision to centre a concert around one single university – will all universities in the UK be offered a Prom concert for significant anniversaries? – but in truth, for many of us in the audience, this was irrelevant, and the draw was simply an interesting programme combining the new (Wigglesworth, 2009) with an old favourite (Saint-Saëns).

Vaughan Williams wrote the score to Aristophanes’ The Wasps for a 1909 college production. The overture mixes the modal patterns of English folk music with contemporary French influences, and requires quite a firm hand from the conductor and superb ensemble playing from the orchestra to maintain structure and avoid dissolving into mush. Fortunately, these were both present, Davis conducting with a steady tempo but a light touch, so the piece moved along well; the strings perfectly together during the pizzicato and spiccato passages. The woodwind blended seamlessly, with individual parts unobtrusively emerging for solos, such as Daniel Pailthorpe’s gentle woody-toned flute… [read more here]

PROM 20: Stravinsky, Schumann, Mendelssohn

Pulcinella was the hero of many comic episodes from the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition. The ballet Pulcinella was originally the idea of Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev and his protégé, the dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who became fascinated by the half-comic, half-tragic character after encountering him in Neapolitan puppet theatres. For the music to this ballet, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to arrange and orchestrate a recently-discovered trove of music by 18th century composer Pergolesi (although it later transpired that a substantial proportion of this had been misattributed). Stravinsky read the music and “fell in love” with it, and so his neo-Classical period began. Diaghilev may not have been altogether pleased with Stravinsky’s melding of 18th century melodies with his own subtly distorted harmonies and distinctive irregular rhythmic patterns, but to a contemporary ear it is this blend which is of such interest and appeal – a blend of styles brought out well by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This was the young Nézet-Séguin’s first appearance at the Proms, and in his enthusiasm for the occasion he quite made up for the lack of ballet dancers by positively dancing on the podium, spending much of the time on tip-toes, sometimes crouching almost below his stand or, on expansive sweeping gestures, with his feet leaving the ground entirely. This supremely high level of energy was infectious, judging by the lively and full-bodied playing of the orchestra throughout the performance… [read more here]

PROM 37: Glass (Violin Concerto No.1, Symphony No.7)

There is always a special atmosphere at Late Night Proms. Starting after 10pm, they tend to have a relaxed, laid-back feel, and although generally less well-attended than those occurring at a more conventional hour, attract the devoted fans of the non-mainstream composers featured. Of course, in this case, it would be a stretch to describe Philip Glass as non-mainstream, as, particularly thanks to his film scores, he is probably one of the most famous and instantly identifiable of contemporary composers – a fact reflected in the high turnout to hear this performance. However, minimalism has not been featured heavily at The Proms, and this is the first time they have devoted a concert to Glass’s works. In a special bonus for fans, the 72 year old composer himself attended the concert, and appeared on stage at the start. Welcomed warmly, Glass spoke for a few minutes about the Violin Concerto, historically one of his most popular works (and which should now properly be called the Violin Concerto No. 1, as a second has recently been composed, and will receive its UK premiere next year). Telling of how the piece was dedicated to his deceased father, who had a particular affection for violin concertos, he added “When I was asked to write a violin concerto I decided to do a piece that I thought he would like, and I hope I succeeded; there seem to be a lot of fathers who like it, so..!” [read more here]

PROM 50: Beethoven (Fidelio)

This concert performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer Edward Saïd’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Although Fidelio is generally a well-loved work, its choice for performance by this particular group of musicians has a special resonance and symbolism: not only was it the result of a long and bitter struggle by the composer himself – in his own words, “Of all my children . . . this is the one that causes me the most powerful birth-pangs and the most sorrows” – but the subject matter is the fight against tyranny and political injustice, and the human spirit’s capacity for love and passion for freedom. Ten years ago, at a time when Israel had severed diplomatic links with Syria and Lebanon, and tensions were growing in the Middle East, Barenboim invited music students from these regions to a workshop combining orchestral playing with intercultural exchange, complemented by lectures and discussions. There are currently musicians from Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Spain (the current host nation for the workshops), and where possible, on each desk an Arab player is paired with an Israeli. It cannot be easy for the young players to put aside political and cultural differences, but Barenboim insists that a symphony orchestra is the perfect template for democracy, involving expressing oneself while simultaneously listening intently to the voices of others, adding that he does not see his creation as an “orchestra for peace” but an “orchestra against ignorance”… [read more here]

PROM 65: Ligeti, Mahler, Schoenberg, R Strauss

Although this concert was not billed as a ‘themed’ Prom, it did not go unnoticed that the first and last pieces achieved a great deal of their widespread fame through inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the programme pieces are also linked by Mahler, who supported Schoenberg in his early career (as well as giving this orchestra its name), Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, which influenced Mahler and Strauss, and the compositional emphasis in all these works on timbre and tonal colour. There can be few composers more fascinated with the timbre than Ligeti, and Atmosphères is a showcase for the huge range of timbral combinations possible from a symphony orchestra. Although the piece is nearly fifty years old, and instantly recognisable, the close tone clusters of the opening, and shimmering micropolyphonic textures in the strings still sound truly unearthly. Complete continuity of sound, poise and serene intensity are vital for its successful performance, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were quite capable of providing these. The different instrumental groups shifted in and out of focus seamlessly – including the one singularity in the structure, where a rising piccolo cluster gives the illusion of asymptotically ‘going off the top of the scale’, only to re-emerge as a growl in the double basses – until the last brushed piano-strings whisper… [read more here]

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!

Image borrowed from www.royaloperahouse.org.uk

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

I decided rather late and on impulse to go and see this, having heard a few snippets of the music on the radio once. Not that the snippets made much of an impression on me (as music rarely does make much of an impression on me when presented in the form of ‘bleeding chunks’ taken out of context), but I’ll go and hear Simon Keenlyside singing more or less anything, and an acquaintance of mine is extremely keen on Susan Graham and described her Iphigenie as unmissable.

I’ve said before that I generally like minimalist stage sets in opera. However, there’s minimalist and then there’s seriously minimal. This was the latter. While walking to the tube station afterwards I fell into conversation with some string players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and after complimenting them on their playing, commented that it was the first time I’d been to an opera where the cast were dressed exactly the same as the orchestra. One of them retorted that the orchestra were more glamorous, and she had a point. On stage, all women wore long plain black dresses, long loose hair and bare feet; all men wore plain black shirts, trousers and shoes (although Mr Keenlyside did politely take his shoes and socks off before hopping on the sacrificial altar).

To match the outfits, the stage was bare and matt black, with a little matt black stage for the sacrificial altar, when required. At some points, non-singing cast members graffitied the walls with white chalk, which made it even more reminiscent of the Dublin Castle / Weaver’s Arms / {insert your own grimy London gig pub} than it already was. Then other cast members came and sponged off the graffiti. When they got hold of Oreste and Pylade, they imprisoned them in a hand-drawn chalk square. At the beginning there were various people miming killing eachother, falling over and getting up again, so I was very glad to see that Iphigenie had a proper big shiny sword. This was the main prop, apart from the chalk and sponges.

However, good actors do not need a set or props, and the acting was of a very high standard, and really quite gripping. And the lack of any eye-catching objects and clothes made one focus entirely on the characters, which I presume was the intention. It worked pretty well. Graham was a completely commanding presence as Iphigenie, from the first moment she appeared to the last. She also sounded lovely, showing off a great dynamic and expressive range. I’m a convert. I can imagine that in some casts she might rather dominate the other singers, but fortunately Keenlyside’s Oreste was her match in vocal and dramatic intensity. This I would expect, but what was also nice was that his voice and Pylade’s (Paul Groves) blended particularly well, and their scenes together were very convincing, somewhat ambiguous but not too heavy-handed with the gay overtones to the friendship. Although having said that, the depiction of Oreste being terrorised by the vengeful furies involved him being stroked, pawed, and generally rolled around on by a succession of attractive young women, which does not seem to me a particularly good way to terrorise and torment the majority of (straight) men.

Of the other voices, I wouldn’t say that any particularly leaped out at me as brilliant, but there was no weak link, and most were very pleasant indeed. I don’t know the music well enough to comment on tempi or phrasing, but the orchestra (under Ivor Bolton) sounded pretty good to me, especially the strings. The woodwind sounded a bit weird at certain times, but I’m quite prepared to believe (if someone tells me so) that it only sounded funny to me because I so rarely listen to period reeds and flutes and am not used to the timbres. Having recently been discussing pitch conventions through the ages, I was wondering if the nice warm un-stressed sound was anything to do with playing at a historically-informed pitch, like A=432 or lower. Perhaps if I have any readers with perfect pitch, they could let me know if this was the case, and what it was?

Image borrowed from www.musicomh.com

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

Good news first, or bad? I was in the Upper Slips again for this performance, (excellent sound but a poor view of the stage) and I’m inclined to think that this was a really good choice of seat, under the circumstances.

Good first, then… People have been recommending Pelleas et Melisande to me for some time, but it’s never got anywhere near the top of my listening list. This is because, although Debussy’s flute parts are always very satisfying to play, and I can appreciate that he wrote exceptionally well for woodwind, I just don’t particularly enjoy listening to his music. It’s pleasant enough, but has never really done much for me. However, this proved to be the exception; it was lovely, gripping, truly moving, and totally knocked me for six. I’d been warned that this opera could be ‘difficult’ to get into, and that it would be advisable to do some ‘homework’ on the music and story beforehand: what complete bollocks! There’s nothing like the thrill of hearing something great for the first time, and the fact that I didn’t actually know how it was going to end only added to the dramatic tension. With Simon Rattle waving the stick, the ROH orchestra sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them (which is pretty damn good). I couldn’t pick out a particular section for specific praise, partly because there seemed to be a greater degree of coherence, creating the effect of a single musical organism.

And the bad… In my personal opinion, the staging was rubbish, the lighting harsh and the costumes ridiculous. Quite why on earth one would want to dress all the singers in white rhinestone-studded fat-suits (an unholy mix of Elvis, Pierrot, and the Michelin Man) which made them look like they all had huge arses, I do not know. This stuffing in their clothes also appeared to be constricting their movements, although that may have just been the stage direction. The set consisted of some large boxes which were twizzled round by stage crew between scenes, then opened up to reveal multiple copies of a selection of objects each chosen to point out what the director thought was the main theme, or symbol of each scene. Hence, there’s a scene where people receive letters, so we have a big box full of letters; a bit about Melisande picking flowers, so we have a big box of white flowers; a bit about Golaud being wounded, so we have a big box of pillows with a blob of red on (although this could also have signified Melisande menstruating, for all I know). One scene, for want of ideas, just had the words ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ in lights, repeated many times. I read somewhere on the internet that this was supposed to be Braille, to signify Arkel’s failing sight; however, I don’t think Braille simply consists of making normal letters out of a lot of dots. Later, there were lots of empty clothes; this actually looked quite spooky, but Satyagraha did it better. Not that I particularly wanted realism in terms of forests, water, etc., but the neon-lit shop-window display look just didn’t seem to go with the music or story. IMO.

Dressing Melisande in a slinky red dress was an interesting decision, perhaps signifying less the ethereal innocent and something more like Carmen, first bewitching one man, then tiring of him and swiftly moving on to the next, with bloody consequences. This would seem to fit with Angela Kirchschlager’s interpretation, which I am lead to believe was unusually ‘gutsy’ (although I cannot make comparisons). Of course, one main difference between the characters is that Carmen is bluntly honest, whereas Melisande blithely admits to deceiving and lying to Golaud. I was thinking that she really is a dislikeable character, totally self-centred and amoral – although it did occur to me later that perhaps this was unfair, and that her unreasonable behaviour sprung from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. While not condoning Golaud’s violence, I can quite see why he got so pissed off with her – although that may have had something to do with the wonderfully expressive, agonised portrayal of the role by Gerald Finley. His sadness, when his repeated attempts to understand her behaviour and to make her happy were ignored or thrown back at him, was moving, and his increasing irritation at her uncommunicativeness, entirely believable. I imagine I would be pretty annoyed if my wife dropped her wedding ring down a well (pool, orchestra pit, whatever) and didn’t think it important enought to mention, let alone actually apologise or express regret at the loss.

One scene that did work very well was the one where Golaud forces his small son to spy on his wife and her (suspected) lover. Finley was in full tortured misery mode by this point (again, utterly believable, and still sympathetic to some extent, despite the growing bitterness), and the boy playing the brat Yniold (George Longworth) was probably the least irritating child I’ve seen on the ROH stage (actually quite high praise, from me). P & M were stuck on chairs halfway up one of the aforementioned boxes, staring at eachother. I know I’m not selling it, but this was good.

One scene that did not work well was the bit about Melisande doing the Rapunzel bit, hanging her hair out the window to her handsome non-prince. As she didn’t have any extra hair to hang down, Pelleas (Simon Keenlyside) was left waving his arms around in some imaginary hair in the air (while also, for some reason, doing lunges). To be fair, he is an excellent actor, and gave it his best shot, but it just looked a bit daft. I decided to avert my eyes for a while, and just listen to his lovely singing (and Mr K is one of the last singers one would expect to be saying that of).

All the singers, in fact, were excellent. In addition to those already mentioned, there was Robert Lloyd as a classy Arkel, Catherine Wyn-Rogers (who I had it in my head I didn’t like – can’t remember why not) under-employed as Genevieve, and Robert Gleadow as the shepherd/doctor.

Silliest moment (apart from seeing the stupid costumes for the first time): Golaud commenting that the lovers were “kissing like a brother and sister” (or similar). Well, no, not unless the brother and sister in question were Siegmund and Sieglinde.