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Posts Tagged ‘Kasper Holten’

Roger’d

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Review – Król Roger (Royal Opera House, Friday 1 May 2015)

Król Roger – Mariusz Kwicień
Roxana – Georgia Jarman
Shepherd – Samir Pirgu
Edrisi – Kim Begley
Archbishop – Alan Ewing
Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko

Director – Kasper Holten
Designs – Steffen Aarfing
Lighting Design – Jon Clark
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Choreography – Cathy Marston
Dramaturg – John Lloyd Davies

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

My first experience of Karol Szymanowski was his Stabat Mater, and ever since I have been smitten. His music, both for orchestra and singers is both beautifully crafted and mesmerising – the sound world he creates is a beautiful fusion – however subjective – of Debussy, Stravinsky by way of Scriabin.

This was Król Roger debut at Covent Garden and it was an impressive and memorable evening.

Mariusz Kwicień has been championing this opera for some time delivered the title role with both vocal and dramatic authority. Indeed had Kasper Holten not referred to his indisposition just before the final act, I wonder if anyone would have truly noticed? Vocally, his was a very nuanced interpretation and supported by strong and committed acting. His journey from confident monarch to, what exactly – enlightened individual? – was completely absorbing. And following his final confrontation – victorious or not – with his inner demons, his final paean to the Sun was hypnotic.

In the role of the Shepherd, Samir Pirgu was as much his very embodiment as Kwicień was of the King. He seemed effortless in managing not only the high tessitura of the role but also the expansive vocal lines that Szymanowski wrote for this character, his bright, clear tenor effectively conveying his almost messianic self-belief.

And Georgia Jarman made an equally impressive debut as Roxana. Vocally assured her rhapsodic ‘aria’ of the Second Act was, quite rightly, one of the highlights of the evening. She soared across the composer’s vocal lines, shaping each phrase beautifully, matching it with a real attention to colour and timbre. I hope that this is the first of many appearances at Covent Garden for this exceptionally talented soprano.

As the Edrisis, Kim Begley tenor was in thoughtful contrast to that of the Shepherd and together with the Archbishop of Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko’s Deaconess, they made up what as an impressive line up of soloists.

The Royal Opera Chorus was in excellent and dramatically compelling form. From their first hushed Hagios, they were a critical element of the evening, underpinning and contributing to the unfolding drama and producing sumptuous sound.

Pappano drew some exquisite and full-blooded playing from the orchestra. He has always been a conductor of the finer details, and he drew each and every from Szymanowski’s score. Perhaps it was first night nerves, but very occasionally the orchestra verged on overwhelming the singers, but there was no doubting that Pappano and his players had the full measure of the score and the riches written into it.

On Twitter after the first night, Kasper Holten commented, “I enjoy doing difficult titles, sometimes they are easier”. He might not have been speaking of Król Roger specifically but it certainly fits. This was a thought-provoking and detailed production. Set it in the 1930s, it invoked not only an overpowering sense of authoritarianism – be it the church or, as embodied by the massive bust that dominated the stage, of Roger himself – but also of mysticism with the seemingly Byzantine-inspired gallery. and effective use of both lighting and video designs further heightened the sense of suffocation. For the Second Act, the bust rotated to reveal Roger’s palace as well as his own mind. Roger’s sense of identity and self-control was clearly identifiable in the books piled on the various levels, but on ground level Holten effectively portrayed his dark side. Sinuous, masked dancers writhed with increasing frenzy and sensuality – but not sexuality – as Roger confronted his own fears and desires that eventually engulfed him as the curtain fell. In the Third Act, the book burning was particularly chilling and, handled so effectively, completely believable, as was the sudden and shocking violence as Roger battled with himself.

And the ending? Personally, I felt that Roger had confronted his demons – not only those kindled by sensual world of the Shepherd, but also the King’s own desire for individuality and control – and had emerged more fully enlightened.

Szymanowski’s Król Roger might only have had its debut at Covent Garden eighty-nine years after its premiere in the Grand Theatre of Warsaw but, judging from the excited buzz as people left after the first night, I am very much hoping it remains in the repertoire of the Royal Opera House for many years to come.

Venetian Soap

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 5, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Review – L’Ormindo (Wanamaker Playhouse, Friday 4 April 2014)

Ormindo – Samuel Boden
Amidas/Wind – Ed Lyon
Nerillus/Love – James Laing
Erisbe/Music – Susanna Hurrell
Mirinda – Rachel Kelly
Sicle/Lady Luck- Joélle Harvey
Eryka/Wind – Harry Nicoll
King Ariadenus – Graeme Broadbent
Osman/Destiny/Wind – Ashley Riches

Orchestra of Early Opera Company

Christian Curnyn (Director)

Director – Kasper Holten
Designs – Anja Vang Kragh
Movement – Signe Fabricius

I have to start by saying that the Wanamaker Playhouse is a beautiful gem of a theatre. Constructed entirely of wood it is a remarkable and notable addition to the London theatre and music scene.

Covent Garden doesn’t have the greatest track record for presenting the earliest operas. Steffani’s Niobe a few years ago might have been a brilliantly performed and directed production but it was all but lost on the main stage and the Linbury isn’t the best space in my opinion. So with this production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo next year at the Roundhouse, I hope that like their compatriots up the road at the Coliseum, The Royal Opera House is embarking on a major new adventure in terms of period performance outside of their usual – and mostly too expensive – haunt.

Cavalli – a proficient prolific composer – was almost a household name in Italy and judging from L’Ormindo (and Giasone) it is easy to see why.

In fact, it was hard not to see L’Ormindo as an early form of soap opera. It had all the ingredients – misplaced love, comedy, tragedy and of course an improbably outcome. The faux death of Erisbe and Ormindo was almost as unbelievable as the infamous Dallas shower scene. But instantly more memorable.

And the reason is simply because there was a fluidity to Cavalli’s musicianship and handling of the unfolding drama as well as some pretty sharp and witty characterisation. It’s not hard to see the direct link from Cavalli to Handel’s early cantatas composed in Rome and his early operas written In Italy.

Of course the main reason for the success of this production was the incredible cast that Holten had assembled.

In the casting of Samuel Boden and Ed Lyon as his two main protagonists – Ormindo and Amidas – Holten succeeded in creating two equally strong but easily delineated characters. Boden’s light and piercing tenor was incredibly fine, but for me Ed Lyon had the slight edge. He not only displayed – as he did as in Castor et Pollux and as Hippolyte at Glyndebourne – an enviable even and rich tone, sensitive to the stylistic demands of Cavalli’s music, and an amazing dynamic range, especially in the cave scene with Sicle but a real sense of comic – and otherwise – timing.

Similarly, the three women – Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly and Joélle Harvey – were well cast and well-matched. MS Harvey’s Sicle confidently negotiated the changes from gypsy to princess to Lady Luck with effortless ease. Her piercing but clean soprano, with just the right amount of vibrato was smartly scaled to the size of the venue as I am sure she would have no trouble filling a larger auditorium and the soubrette-ish nature of her Lady Luck was inspired. Susanna Hurrell – first as Music floating down from the ceiling – and then as the sexually charged Erisbe was similarly equipped with an impressive voice. Her first scene balanced the sense of comic – flaunting her costume with confident ease – with a real sense of loneliness and frustration with her current marital state. But it was her scene with Ormindo, as they believed that they were dying which raised the tragic temperature of the entire opera.

I’ve no doubt that – even for a few moments – there were a few tearful eyes in the audience.

And as the maid, Mirinda, Rachel Kelly possessed a wonderfully rich and resonant mezzo. Her ‘aria’ at the end of Act One and her acting with Nerillus in the second demonstrated both her singing and acting skills. She is definitely a singer to watch.

Of the remaining cast, a special mention must go to James Laing as Nerillus and Love. A smart actor – especially as Nerillus – he possess what I always think of as a particularly ‘English’ countertenor – there is something almost ecclesiastical about it but nonetheless bell-like and flexible. Yet as King Ariadneus, Graeme Broadbent, Harry Nicoll as Eryka and the sadly under-utilised Ashley Riches as Osman all displayed a real sense of musicianship in their smaller roles, contributing to the overall success of this production musically.

From the balcony, Christian Curnyn and his band of seven players from the Orchestra of Early Opera Company produced the crystalline and transparent playing required from this score. Despite the smaller forces, they not only attacked the music with a verve and rhythmic vitality that is often missing from larger ensembles but also found an incredible range of instrumental colours.

Holten clearly recognised that Cavalli’s L’Ormindo required no more than a light touch and was therefore particularly effective in this smaller venue. Instead his direction focused on the already in-built comedy and tragedy of the libretto and did not overuse other parts of the venue. But as in Don Giovanni and his other operas that I have seen, Holten has a sensitive eye for detail. The way the lighting was subdued in the poison scene was simple yet incredible powerful.

A nice touch was the references to the new Playhouse – and music taking its ‘equal place’ alongside Shakespeare in the opening prologue. Not as incidental as some might think as opening prologues for operas of this period often referred to contemporary events.

The costumes clearly harked back to the period of performance and played up the comedic element of the story with not so subtle skill. But it matched the nature of this opera. I have to admit that on a stage as small as this while movement was generally kept to a minimum the ending – with the dancing – suddenly and needlessly distracted.

L’Ormindo at the Wanamaker Playhouse is now sold out. A shame as I would love to have seen it again but I understand that the BBC – despite my earlier doubts – will be broadcasting it on Radio 3 in the next week or so. There are still tickets to both a ‘secret’ Classical concert as well as a Tallis drama featuring The Sixteen that I would heartily recommend.

There is no doubt that the success of this production sets a hopeful precedent for L’Orfeo but more importantly demonstrates that this new venue is perfect for early Baroque music.

Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

Chasing A Marvellous Shadow In Copenhagen

In Classical Music, Opera on May 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen), May 28 2011

The Emperor: Johnny van Hal
The Empress: Sylvie Valayre
Barak: James Johnson
Barak’s Wife: Linda Watson
The Nurse: Ildiko Szönyi

Conductor: Michael Schønwandt
Director: Kasper Holten
Set, Projections & Costume: Steffens Aarfing
Light Designer: Jesper Kongshang
Video Designer: Steffan Aarfing & Signe Krogh

Die Frau ohne Schatten must rank as one of Strauss’ most difficult operas not only for the performers but for the audience as well.

The almost impenetrable libretto crafted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal draws upon a great deal of symbolism and allusion to other works which, while it may have satisfied his intellectual bent, would have been lost on the majority of listeners in 1919 and probably still is today. Fortunately however, the audience can listen to the entire opera guided by the universal themes of true love, forgiveness and the defeat of evil, and just sit back to enjoy the sumptuous music and, in this case, a great production.

Often the music composed by Strauss has been dismissed as being ‘heavy duty’ and I suppose for audiences used to Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier it might seem so. Yet judging from this particular performance, I am beginning to think that this might be an observation made by those who have not listened to the opera in its entirety. I have long loved the beautifully constructed score of Die Frau. Within it, Strauss clearly shows himself to be a master in orchestration, switching from full orchestral might to heavenly chamber-like sequences in a turn, as well as adept at handling of motifs and overall structure.

And a quick word about the Copenhagen opera house – or Operaen as it is known. Designed by Henning Larsen, it is a modern architectural gem. Approached by boat it sits on the island of Holmen opposite Amaliehaven in the centre of town. The lobby areas are open, light and airy, affording great views of the theatre across the water as well as Copenhagen itself, and the interior is beautifully designed, with a rich, warm acoustic and comfortable seats! A visit – especially considering the high performance standards – is a must.

This particular Copenhagen production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was the swansong of Kasper Holten who will soon take up his new post as Director Of Opera at The Royal Opera House following the retirement of Elaine Padmore. And on the strength of this production I, for one, am excited about his intending arrival and the positive impact it will have at Covent Garden.

From beginning to end almost, the production was intelligent, well executed and I think, true to the original conceptions of librettist and composer. Often when animation and video are used in opera productions they tend to interfere with the drama onstage. I think back particularly to the recent Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera with Figgis’ badly judged Fellini-esque short films (which in fact almost took on the guise of badly made home porn) and the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde in Paris. In truth, when I saw the latter production last year in London again as a concert performance the accompanying films worked much better. In Paris they simply distracted from the stage action – which admittedly revolved around the characters sitting, lying or standing on a simple blackened stage with a black box doubling as a boat, bed and final funeral dais.

In this case the staging was well conceived. The manga/noir inspired animation worked well, although even I have to admit I had somewhat tired somewhat of the circling falcon by the end. But the use of imagery, from the gangster-like portrait of Keikobad, the trickling hourglass and, during The Empress’s dream sequence, the petrifying Emperor, all added a clear layer of explanation.

The set very tidily separated out the worlds of gods and humans, and in the final Act Holten rather smartly turned the chambers of the gods from the first two acts into the prison cells for Barak and his wife. Similarly breathtaking was the end of Act One when the Dyer’s wife leaves him to sleep alone as she wearily climbs to the upper level to gaze up at the tall, Gotham-esque buildings above her.

However the final scenes saw the entire set removed which at the start continued the dramatic momentum. This was particularly true of the scene where the Empress confronts her father. The sudden lack of the set created a real sense of a massive throne room, helped by the simple and imposing backdrop of Keikobad himself before which she reasoned. However, trial over and with The Emperor restored, the scene changed to a nineteenth-century landscape painting in the style, to me, of the Danish painter Christian Købke. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture yet personally it seemed like too great a stylistic change and was further exacerbated in the closing scene of five suspended ova onto which Holten projected caricatured images of children’s faces and foetuses. But on the whole, a smart and intelligent staging.

So to the music. As I have mentioned, it is often considered to be a difficult listen, and probably it is if the musicians are not of a high standard and not led by an intuitive and experienced conductor. Michael Schønwandt clearly loves the score and furnished a great attention to the orchestral detail, summoning impressive, secure and eloquent playing from his orchestra throughout, from the opening Keikobad motif to the final shimmering sounds of the closing bars. From the loudest crescendi to the most transparent of chamber-like sequences, the players demonstrated a high standard of playing throughout. But a special mention must go to the the Principal Cellist, Anders Öberg and his section for their beautiful playing at opening of the Second Act. Not only was the playing exquisite but for the first time it made me wonder if, as Strauss composed Metamorphosen at the end of his life, he did not think back – however fleetingly – to this part of the opera?

Of the singers, undoubtedly the night belonged to Linda Watson as Barak’s Wife. How I wish that she would sing in London more often for she has a marvellous voice – a rich, velvety tone which is supple throughout it’s whole range. She is an extremely talented singer, demonstrating an innate ability to colour the diction-pure words of her character throughout. Ms Watson easily negotiated the demands of this most difficult role, not only having the heft to ride above the orchestra when required but also able to float the softest notes even at the top of her register. Combined with a real talent for acting – so rare these days in singers – she made the character credible, from her avaricious and hawkish opening scenes to her final reconciliation with her husband. I will be listening to Thielemann’s Ring now I am back with renewed interest.

Ildiko Szönyi replaced Susanne Resmark on the night in question as The Nurse and did so admirably. Again she combined good acting with eloquent, straightforward singing. While her voice might not be to everyone’s taste, with a slight metallic ring when stretched, she inhabited the character of The Nurse so much so that her demise at the end definitely felt well-deserved.

Barak was played by James Johnson – a difficult role which he carried off with great skill and verve. From his initial cheerful demeanour, through his betrayal ton final act of forgiveness, Johnson performed credibly, although he did visibly tire at the end. Yet his deep, resounding bass – again with good, clear diction – was able to ride above the orchestra for the most part.

Sylvie Valayre’s Empress was – for me I’m afraid – less than passable. Not being acquainted with this soprano, a quick ‘google’ revealed that she is more well-known for her Verdi and Puccini heroines (apparently a notable Lady Macbeth at the Proms in recent years) rather than Strauss. It seems she came to Strauss quite late, starting with Salome before moving to The Empress in Die Frau, in which this was her Copenhagen debut. From her opening scene, with it’s bird-like runs it was clear that this was not going to be a first-class performance. I do not want to be unkind but throughout the performance Valayre sounded both challenged and strained vocally. At one point in the final act, a millisecond hesitation made it seem like she might not hit the note. Fortunately she did, but with neither grace or subtlety. In fact there was neither grace or subtlety in her entire performance, and for the most part a lack of vocal colour undermined further by some weak acting. I wonder if this role – and it does require a soprano with a formidable and secure talent – is now slightly too ambitious for Valayre? However I may be doing a disservice to her as an interpreter of Verdi and Puccini so will check out some of her recordings.

I’m afraid Johnny van Hal was similarly unimpressive, but for different reasons. His is an impressive voice – a beautiful, clear tone – but simply too light-weight for this role. Wonderfully expansive when the orchestra was in ‘chamber’ mode, he could not cut through when he was ranged against the whole cohort.

The three brothers were ably sung and interestingly, Holten had them portrayed almost as children – a nice gesture to the underlying friction in the Dyer’s household.

I did notice that Pappano was in attendance. I wonder if it was to consider Die Frau for a future ROH Season? I certainly hope so and that he won’t be put off worrying that the London audience might not enjoy it. If he was to bring this production to London – hopefully it would fit in the confines of Covent Garden’s stage – and with a strong cast including Ms Watson, it would definitely sell out.

Indeed the evening in Copenhagen belonged to Linda Watson and the production team and I shall be returning to Operaen again.

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