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When the Rose is Faded …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Prom 6, Tuesday 22 July 2014)

Der Marschallin – Kate Royal
Octavian – Tara Erraught
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Sophie – Louise Alder

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

Memory may still dwell on – to quote Walter de la Mer.

Perhaps it was too much to expect three near perfect performances of Der Rosenkavalier in a row. If Germany can score seven goals in a game, why can’t we score a hat-trick with Strauss’ most perfect opera?

But after incredibly memorable performances in London and Birmingham it was seemingly too much to ask for a perfect – or at least passable – Rosenkavalier at the Proms.

Perhaps something got lost in translation on the road from East Sussex, but despite the well-fuelled controversy of the first night reviews, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier is a pale shadow of this opera’s true glory.

I am not sure the semi staging – raised above the orchestra – helped matters but then again Richard Jones over-used vocabulary – fussy and at times crowded and distracting – didn’t either. Staging operas at the Proms – as witnessed last year by Barenboim’s Ring – need not be trial by error as was the case here. Perhaps Glyndeborne should have settled for a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier or perhaps chosen Rinaldo, more suited to the ambition they tried to deliver.

And personally I think that on the whole, this was a miscast Rosenkavalier.

Of the three women – and I am sure no one will agree with me – Kate Royal’s Marschallin was the weakest musically. To debut as the Marschallin is daunting enough but I am not sure that this is a role suited to her voice. That is not to say that Ms Royal is not an accomplished soprano – just not of the temperament and

It requires not only incredible technique but also the ability to find the nuances of light and shade in the music that Strauss wrote for the greatest of his heroines. The Albert Hall might be an unforgiving acoustic but there was – to my ear – a discernable and distracting ‘beat’ in Royal’s voice and a harshness where there should have been warmth and depth of tone. Often as the vocal line soared above the stave, she snatched at the highest notes and she delivered rather than interpreted the words she was singing.

Tara Erraught as Octavian was bright – almost brittle – in her singing. No amount of thigh slapping could hide the fact that again this was more about singing the right notes over interpreting the role. With a tendency to too much vibrato in the higher reaches of her voice, again there as a lack of – dare I say it – meat on her vocal bones.

Both Sophie and Baron Ochs were replaced for this performance. Franz Hawlata – a magnificent Baron in Birmingham – made the greatest impression in the leading roles although he also seemed somewhat lost on the stage and sometimes stuggled to be heard above the orchestra.

Louise Adler replaced Teodora Gheoghiu and clearly has a promising career ahead of her. Seemingly a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School and the inaugural Kir Te Kanawa Scholar, if this was her debut it was a promising one as she demonstrated a natural affinity with the role of Sophie. She capably negotiated the soaring lines – despite a slight hint of strain and steeliness – with confidence. The Presentation Scene was particularly affecting but also threw up in contrast that Erraught’s voice lacked much needed warmth.

The remaining members of the ensemble performed their roles with confidence if not – with the exception of strong performances by Andrej Dunaev as the Italian Singer and the Valzacchi of Christopher Gillett’s – clarity.

Yet if the singing was below par then Robin Ticciati’s direction ‘below stage’ was also disappointing. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced some wonderful but inflexible and colourless playing under his baton. There were no braying horns or transparency in the woodwind and the strings didn’t play with the much needed Straussian sheen. But most noticeably, there was a lack of two things. First, ebb and flow – most noticeably in the Marschallin’s First Act monologue and subsequent closing duet with Octavian as well as in the Presentation Scene. In the latter scene, it’s not enough to rallentando simply into the forte before the Presentation. Indeed, Ticciati’s conducting didn’t allow the conversational nature of Strauss’ music – so critical in this opera – to come through. And the second missing element, just as critical, was swagger. This opera needs swagger. And it was missing.

Again perhaps the transitions to a stage at the Royal Albert Hall had a marked effect on the overall production, but singer-for-singer, this was a pallid Rosenkavalier.

Northern Twilight

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 12 July 2014)

First Norn – Fiona Kimm
Second Norn – Heather Shipp
Third Norn – Lee Bisset
Brünnhilde – Alwyn Mellor
Siegfried – Mati Turi
Hagen – Mats Almgren
Gunter – Eric Greene
Gutrune – Orla Boylan
Waltraute – Susan Bickley
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Woglinde – Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde – Madeline Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Chorus of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

Concert Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford
Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Richard Farnes (Conductor)

The success of Opera North’s Ring cycle cannot be overestimated either in terms of ambition and vision but also – ultimately – artistic standards.

It’s to the Company’s credit and determination that they’ve delivered this cycle despite the initial media and public reservations and in a tough economic climate. And artistically, overall it has been a success.

What Ring cycle doesn’t have its weak links or moments of disappointment?

An incredible Das Rheingold was followed by a more disappointing Die Walküre and Siegfried but the final performance of Götterdämmerung in Leeds dissipated any previous concerns with playing and singing that was in the main superlative.

And superlative is the adjective best applied to the incredible playing of the Orchestra of Opera North.

Richard Farnes inspired some of the most luminous and rich playing I’ve heard in any Ring cycle. Not only was there a depth and volume to the strings but Farnes marshalled them with utter precision, and they responded accordingly to the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music. Wind and brass – from the opening chords – played with complete confidence, balancing the warmth of the strings with a bloom and – as required – piquancy that reverberated around the hall. And the percussion was every bit as committed. Never have the timpani beats, reminding the audience of Fafner and Fasolt, sounded so forbidding.

And as well as providing incredible support to the singers, the orchestra was very much part of the unfolding drama. From Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine to his devastating Funeral March, the orchestra provided an additional narrative of timbres and colours.

And in the podium, Farnes demonstrated a grip of the music and it’s overall architecture as he had in Siegfried. He had the sweep of the music firmly in his hands but didn’t allow it to swamp the finer details of Wagner’s score. While his departure from Opera North might be a loss to the Company itself, I sincerely hope that he will now be seen in other opera houses – and especially in Germany – where I think his talent and musicianship will be most welcome.

Of the singers, Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde was inevitably the focus of everyone’s attention. And rightly so. Following her appearance as Sieglinde in Opera North’s Walküre you have to wonder why Ms Mellor wasn’t cast as Wotan’s daughter for the entire cycle?

It was a very accomplished interpretation and performance. And I separate those two elements deliberately. Technically, apart from the occasional snatched note at the top of her range, Ms Mellor demonstrated that she has the heft and stamina for the role. And by stamina I don’t only mean that she can rise above the orchestra as required, but until the very end she demonstrated the ability to scale her voice right down. I always think it is a test of any Brünnhilde how she sings “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!”. The Immolation scene isn’t only one of volume, and this Brünnhilde showed that as well as providing the sheer volume, in the more reflective moments she could similarly project her vocal authority with eloquence. And in terms of interpretation, Ms Mellor revealed both the daughter of Wotan and betrayed wife of Siegfried. There was a convincing vulnerability to her characterisation, particularly at the beginning of the Second Act. But as a scorned woman she quickly revealed a steely determination before ending the opera once again as the daughter of a God – wise, forgiving and ultimately resolved to her fate.

And while Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde – as with all Brünnhilde’s – will always be an evolving interpretation, her performance in Götterdämmerung suggests that she has it within her grasp to be a leading Brünnhilde.

I shall be looking out for her on stage in the future and I sincerely hope that Opera North have contracted her as all three Brünnhilde’s for their complete cycles in 2016. Indeed I hope one day to hear her as Isolde.

Mati Turi was pronounced slightly indisposed before the performance began. After my concerns about his pacing in Siegfried, clearly a solid technique helped him deliver a convincing performance in this final opera. If his singing felt was slightly ‘covered’ and less than heroic at times, it remained elegantly fluid and his narration in the Third Act was well nuanced and intelligently sung.

As Brünnhilde’s sister, Susan Bickley made for a totally convincing Waltraute. Having seen her most recently as Eduige in Rodelinda and Jocasta in Thebans, she brought her vast experience to bear on this small, yet pivotal, role. For a moment I almost thought she was about to convince Brünnhilde to return to Valhalla and thereby rob us of the rest of the evening. Fortunately they stuck to Wagner’s plan.

The three Rhinemaidens delivered some of the finest ensemble singing in these roles I’ve heard. Their voices remained distinct but melded beautifully, each displaying a keen ear in terms shaping their phrasing. And similarly Lee Bisset – an impressive Freia – returned as a vocally nuanced and confident Third Norn. I do wonder why we don’t hear her more in London?

Of the remaining roles, it was Alberich and his son Hagen who delivered the most convincing performances. In the dream scene, Jo Pohlheim instantly reminded us why he made such an impact in Siegfried. In signature black gloves, his resonant and darkly hued bass was matched by his acting ability. And like father like son in terms of Mats Almgren’s Hagen. The intonation and diction problems that affected his Fafner were nowhere to be seen in his performance as the Gibichung’s half-brother, sung with a malevolent and confident eloquence.

The Chorus of Opera North gave electrifying performances in the Second Act – diction clear, singing forceful yet clean and distinct.

As in her portrayal of Senta for ENO, I found Orla Boylan’s Gutrune rather hard-toned vocally. She has the heft and despite a tendency for her voice to spread at the top of her range, the technique but the edge in her voice diminishes any sense of gleam or warmth. But there was no doubting the passion and musicianship she invested in the role especially after Siegfried’s death. However, as her brother, Eric Greene’s Gunter was disappointing – vocally occluded and at times technically and musically strained.

Yet the sum of this Götterdämmerung’s parts outweighed its small disadvantages, making for a thrilling evening and fitting end to this ambitious project. And it seemed right and proper that Farnes and his incredible players received the loudest cheer and ovation at the end if it all.

Noises Off?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 7, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Opera – good, bad and indifferent – probably solicits the most emotional response from anyone attending a concert. Girls – and probably more than a few boys – may cry and swoon at pop concerts but I think that has more to do with the performer’s six pack than their musical talent.

In the classical world, opera-goers seem more unable than most to restrain their emotions. And that was more than evident at the first night of Maria Stuarda at Covent Garden when there was booing.

A lot of it.

It was squarely aimed at the directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. And while booing has been heard before at Covent Garden, according to some it was ‘louder’ and ‘more prolonged’ than that for Aida in 1984.

And Saturday night’s episode has – since there was no social media in the 80s – set Twitter aflame.

I admit, here and now, I thought the production well and truly ‘sucked’. It undermined the incredible musicianship displayed both on the stage and in the pit. In fact I would go so far as to say that Leiser and Caurier made a blatant mockery of Donizetti’s music and potentially the singers.

But I didn’t boo. I admit, by the end I was sorely (sorely) tempted. I didn’t. But I didn’t clap the production team either – much to the shock of the people to my left and right. It seems you can’t win in some cases as they disdainfully glared at me.

So the debate has raged on about whether booing is right or wrong.

So which is it?

Booing – and I believe hissing and tapping in earlier centuries – has been a part of audience reaction since people first congregated to hear or watch performers. It happens in concert halls, arenas and stadiums.

And yes in the opera house.

In fact in some houses – like La Scala – it had less to do with productions or badly performing singers than with supporters of particular singers undermining a rival performer on stage. And despite the best intentions of La Scala’s new Intendant, it is set to continue.

But booing isn’t the only noise that is emitted by the over-emotional opera-goer. A night at the opera can sometimes be an aural assault course in completely the wrong way.

For me, there is something much more annoying than booing. Indeed so insidious as to ruin a performance. It’s that moment when, even before the last note has died away, someone erupts with shouts of “bravo”, or “brava” or “bravi”.

On Saturday night, one person could barely restrain himself, yelling “brava” at the top of their lungs almost before the singer had closed their mouth.

I don’t want to strangle someone’s ability to express how the music has made them feel but do they really have to so selfishly ruin ‘the moment’? Can’t they wait just that extra millisecond and add their loudly voiced opinion over the applause?

No. Clearly not. It’s not only selfish. It’s rude.

Clearly talking – and is it me or is talking during performances getting more pronounced? – is a no-no. And while you can’t fault someone for turning the pages of a programme, the unwrapping of sweets is another bane of the opera and concert-goer.

One day I fully expect someone to unwrap a Pret-A-Manger sandwich.

So if we are to debate booing then we need to talk about all the noises made by those who go to the opera.

Booing is part of the same audience vocabulary – as much as clapping, stamping their feet, cheering or in fact rising from their seats.

And if I may venture – as valid.

I’ve nothing against booing. As I said, I didn’t do it on Saturday and I doubt I will ever do so. But I don’t shout “bravo” or stamp my feet either.

But I respect that everyone has the right to express an opinion. If you have invested the time and the emotion during an opera and feel at the end as short-changed as others feel elated, then why shouldn’t you express that emotion? It might make those around you uncomfortable or even angry.

But ultimately, hasn’t the performance achieved its aim. It has elicited a response. And by doing so, that response is as valid as clapping or cheering. As crying or laughing.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my position on this and some might say that I’m sitting on the veritable fence.

But I sincerely believe you can’t have one without the others.

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself – did the booing ruin the performance for me?

In my case, not as much as Leiser and Caurier did. Nor as much the man who shouted “brava”. And at least those who booed had the courtesy to wait until the end.

And while we’re at it, I didn’t hear any cheering for Leiser or Caurier either.

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