2014 has been a bit quiet in terms of posts. By which I mean I’ve managed one review. In January. Since then, been to a couple of operas and a handful of Proms, but no time/energy to write about them while still even vaguely fresh in my memory. Also promised two book reviews, which have as yet failed to materialise (although these I can at least reread to refresh). In case one of my very many* readers was concerned, I haven’t been ill (well, no more than usual) or away, just final stages of doctoral thesis taking over my life, followed by job hunting, followed by new job. While playing more operas than I saw, including a Strauss hat trick (go decades having played zero Strauss operas, then three come along in the same year…)

* not very many

Also late posting this term’s concert diary, but hey.

Saffron Opera Group: Meistersinger

Wagner  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (concert performance)

Time  2.00pm Sunday 14 September

Place  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: no longer just Wagnerians…

Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance)

Time  11.00am Sunday 28 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Philharmonia Britannica: Great Film Music

Klaus Badelt  Pirates of the Carribean
AJ Lerner & F Loewe  My Fair Lady
John Williams  Star Wars Suite
John Williams  Harry Potter Suite
John Williams  Schindler’s List
H Arlen & EY Harburg  Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Time  6.00pm Saturday 4 October

Place  St John’s Waterloo, SE1 8UD

Tickets  £5, £1 (U19s)

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Elektra

Two-day orchestral workshop on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, followed by evening play-through. Cast including Zoe South in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

Time  Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15/day (participation) or £10 (audience)

Amici Orchestra

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture
Saint-Saens Symphony No.2
Beethoven Symphony No.4

Time  7.30pm Saturday 1 November

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD

No tickets – retiring collection in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

Fulham Opera: Falstaff

Verdi Falstaff (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7.30pm Friday 7 Nov, 5pm Sunday 9 Nov, 7.30pm Friday 14 Nov, 5pm Sunday 16 November

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra with Idil Biret

Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherezade
Brahms Piano concerto No.1

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 November

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HF

Tickets  £8/£10/£12/£15 – book online

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Siegfried Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Wagner’s Siegfried (Act 3), followed by evening play-through. Cast including Jonathan Finney in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

** PLACES AVAILABLE IN STRINGS AND BRASS (RESERVE LIST FOR WOODWIND) – CONTACT ME IF INTERESTED **

Time  Sunday 7 December

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15 (participation) or £10 (audience)

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Time 7.30pm, Saturday 09-Jul-2011

Place St Johns Smith Square, London, London SW1P 3HA, United Kingdom

Great music from stage and screen, with Nelly Miricioiu (http://bit.ly/NellyM) singing a selection of her favourite opera arias, plus Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet suite, Ravel’s La Valse, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Tchaikovsky Ballet Suite from Swan Lake
Ravel La Valse
Verdi arias from Ernani, Don Carlo, I Due Foscari
Meyerbeer aria from Robert Le Diable
Catalani aria from La Wally
Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Tickets: £15 or £10 (£12 or £8 concessions)

Booking info: http://www.sjss.org.uk/pages/BookingInfo/bookinginfo.htm

Directions: http://www.sjss.org.uk/pages/Directions/directions.htm

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.

Image borrowed from www.thestage.co.uk

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

Trovatore isn’t one of my favourite operas, I’m overworked and skint, but I picked up a cheap Upper Slips ticket for it on the strength of Stephanie Blythe in her (ROH?) debut as Azucena. I thought her turn as Ulrica was the best thing in last year’s Ballo, and she did not disappoint this time, being the best thing in Trovatore. Stunning – probably my favourite female opera singer at the moment. (I did wonder for a second if she was my overall favourite female singer at the moment, but it’s not really possible to make a sensible comparison between Blythe and Bjork). Anyway, huge voice, melted chocolate tone, and total control and accuracy. Love it.

Having said that, Blythe did have some stiff competition from Marcelo Alvarez’s Manrico – yes, a tenor, no less! I have been a little underwhelmed hearing bits of his recordings that people have played me, but hearing him live was another thing altogether; he sounded great, especially in ‘Ah si ben mio’ and ‘Di quella pira’. I cannot comment on how he looked or acted, because he spent almost the entire time in the quarter of the stage I couldn’t see – but perhaps this is not necessarily a bad thing? Anyway, I could see his left arm, which he stuck out quite a lot. Speaking of staging, there didn’t seem to be a great amount of direction to the characters’ movement. Azucena mostly sat still on a chair (although she did stand up occasionally and lie down on the floor next to her chair at one point), and the Count (Anthony Michaels-Moore) stomped around a bit but mostly did stand-and-deliver. I didn’t particularly enjoy his singing; it had some good moments, but his voice sounded a bit muffled and he didn’t seem to have the breath control required for the longer phrases. I also found Catherine Nagelstad (Leonora) a little patchy, generally towards the top, although there were some really lovely sections too.

Having previously seen the DVD of this production (different cast), I was disappointed that they’d cut the bit of lots of soldiers in dodgy black leather gear doing a funny and very camp dance, to replace it with a bit of perfectly adequate (but much less fun) fencing practice. The sets were attractive, particularly the railway station (next door to the nunnery). The cell where they were keeping Manrico was not very convincing, mostly because there was enough space between the bars to drive a truck (was it designed to hold Pavarotti?), but this is a small criticism. I liked the huge glowing kilns in the gypsy camp, too, and the table full of tankards and stuff to be flung to the floor when anyone got pissed off.

The orchestra were sounding very good and very tight under Nicola Luisotti, although I clearly didn’t appreciate them/him as much as one woman I overheard later, near the stage door, telling Luisotti that she “couldn’t take her eyes off him the whole night”. Top marks this time to the percussion section, for such a huge amount of clanging and crashing in the gypsies’ chorus.

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

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

I was just looking back through my diary, and realised this is the first pre- 20th century opera I’ve bought a ticket for in some time, which did in fact make a pleasant change. From what I’ve heard so far I personally find Verdi rather variable in quality; great in some parts (for example, most of Don Carlo) and weak in others (a lot of Macbeth), and this one was on the better side, with some really excellent scenes. Unfortunately it was let down rather by the production, which was for the most part uninspired. The scenes chez Riccardo consisted of a few chairs, maybe a table, and much the same at Renato and Amelia’s place, with the ‘poignant’ addition of a small child’s rocking horse. When the court went to visit the witch Ulrica, she appeared to be sitting on a small raft in the middle of a badly-maintained prison, complete with three levels of prisoners, I mean chorus, peering at her through the wire mesh. The graveyard scene was simply not spooky, despite the large gibbet in the middle of the stage; it looked more like a rubbish dump and was far too bright for midnight. The one setting that really did work very well was the masked ball itself, with a very effective use of large mirrors giving a kind of split-screen effect between the action in the foreground, another ‘offstage’ room, and sometimes reflections of the orchestra and audience. It was a fantastic visual effect and quite disorientating, really adding to the feeling of unease already created by our knowledge of the planned assassination. However, it just wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the production. Costumes were nothing worth mentioning, although I was intrigued by the large number of people at the ball wearing pierrot outfits.

I was keen to hear both Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato), who I had seen on TV but never heard live, and Nina Stemme (Amelia), who I had never heard sing, but who has been much talked about recently. I was not disappointed. Hvorostovsky’s voice was rich, strong and expressive, particularly in his wonderful aria in Act 3. It would have been even better if his acting had had some expression too (unless, of course, it was a conscious interpretative decision to play the character as a robot), but one can’t have everything. In fact, there was quite an odd dissociation between what one heard (great singing, full of passion) and what one saw (stiff reserve, with little in the way of emotional display either when chastising his presumed unfaithful wife or murdering his ex- best friend). But as I said, perhaps that was his interpretation. Nina Stemme was the most convincingly acted of the main characters, and also sang exquisitely. She tempered a strong rich sound (through the whole range of pitch and volume) with delicately expressive phrasing, showing an ability to effortlessly cut across the whole chorus, and in the quieter passages to hold the audience glued to every note. I’ve heard her tipped as the next great Wagnerian soprano, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m looking forward to it.

As for the rest of the cast… I really can’t think of much to say about Giuseppe Gipali as Riccardo. His voice was pleasant enough, but for the first two acts I wished I had a volume knob to turn up. He gave it a little more welly in the third act, but was still outsung by pretty much everyone else on stage. He was also rather of the ‘automaton’ style of acting and completely unconvincing as a lover of Amelia. He clutched his abdomen a bit after being fatally stabbed, but more as if he had a touch of tummy ache, and sat down in his chair to die (presumably in a kind of mirror of the opening scene, where he is slumped asleep in the same chair in the same position). Patrizia Biccire displayed the most energy, making the most she could of page boy Oscar, which she also sang very well. I’ve left the best until last, though. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe absolutely blew me away as Ulrica. Her voice was huge and resonant, with a dark tone more often associated with basses. As a particular fan of deep voices it was the lower-pitched passages that really affected me, but she could also comfortably soar into the upper registers when required. Although (as my companion Faye remarked) she seemed to be dressed as a Norn rather than a gypsy, she had great stage presence; she also sang most of the part while hunched over to one side or bent over, hobbling with her stick, so I can only imagine what she’d sound like standing upright. The only unfortunate thing about her performance was how watery the poor tenor sounded in comparison. Judging by the applause she got when she took her bow after Act 1, I’m guessing most of the audience felt the same way as me. The chorus, like the main characters, seemed to have little idea of what they were supposed to be doing while on stage and shuffled around in a rather am-dram way, but they sounded fine and sung with precision and clarity.

I need to mention the orchestra, who were on excellent form under the authoritative baton and clear conceptual vision of Charles Mackerras. Apart from a moment of very dodgy tuning from the oboe section, everything seemed to be spot on (although as I don’t know the score well someone might correct me on that). Musicians can’t help picking out their own instrument when listening to an orchestra, and so I couldn’t help noticing that there was quite a big piccolo part, with some prominent passages. So I also noticed that it was being played extremely well, with a lovely tone and great care taken over expressive phrasing and balancing of dynamics within the ensemble. I don’t have a programme to check the chap’s name, but if anyone reading this does, could they please let me know, as I think I should drop him an email to say how much I liked it.

Ok, that ‘s the serious review over. So… while musing on how little passion there seemed to be between the ‘lovers’ Riccardo and Amelia, and how ambivalent Renato (husband of Amelia, best mate of Riccardo) seemed to be about it, I hit upon an alternative interpretation of the story, or rather, a homoerotic subtext for the story. See, it’s all about the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ between Riccardo and Renato. Renato doesn’t really love Amelia at all – he only married her because it was society’s expectation, and he needed a receptacle to produce him heirs. It’s really Riccardo, his beloved Count, that he’s in love with, but he has never yet dared to act on his feelings, instead subsuming them in the friendship that he believes is all he can hope for. He’s not particularly bothered about his wife betraying him, although it hurts his manly pride a little; what wounds him is that his beloved Count has (apparently) been having an affair with a member of the disgusting female sex, dashing his own hopes of manly love for good, and the fact that he has shown so little consideration for their friendship as to take Renato’s own wife as lover is the last straw. Meanwhile, Riccardo may be playing suit to Amelia, but it’s plain his heart really isn’t in it. The fact is, he is unaware of his own latent homosexuality, and so has not consciously realised his love for Renato; hence he is attracted to Amelia ‘by proxy’ as the closest he can get to Renato himself. As with many stories of tragic misunderstanding, the awful consequences could have been averted if only they’d been able to say how they really felt…

Perhaps someone’ll do a production of it that way some day. Or have they already?