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A Darker Rose

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Royal Opera House, Thursday 22 December 2016)

The Marschallin – Rachel Willis-Sörensön
Octavian – Anna Stéphany
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs auf Lerchanau – Matthew Rose
Herr von Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Marianne Leitmetzerin & Noble Widow – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi –Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke
Annina – Helene Schneiderman
Italian Singer – Giorgio Berrugi
Police Commissioner – Scott Conner
Major Domo – Samuel Sakker
Hairdresser – Robert Curtis
Noble Orphans – Kathy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Andrea Hazell
Milliner – Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller – Luke Price
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designers – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau 

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s often tempting to dismiss Der Rosenkavalier as ‘ein farce’. Shrouded in the Eighteenth Century setting, the opera is as much about change – inevitable both in terms of relationships as well as society – as it is about love. And it takes an exceptional director to bring out its darker side.

Robert Carsen is such a director. I’ve long been a huge admirer of his works – strong on narrative but full of insight and inventiveness. His Iphigénie with Susan Graham, his Frosch in Vienna, his take on Handel’s Rinaldo and the more recent brutal and heartrending Les Carmelites are among those productions that have had the greatest personal impact.

While this Der Rosenkavalier had its lighter moments, it was Carsen’s attention to detail that made it so involving. Combined with an innate understanding of human behaviour and his intellectual capacity to tell a story, this is of the most rewarding productions I have seen.

Visually the staging was stunning. The Marschallin’s own room, with its paintings of Emperor Franz Josef and other Austrian and Habsburg aristocracy, immediately created a world of ivory tower privilege. Faninal’s palace was in rude juxtaposition. The howitzer and other weapons immediately made it clear how he had amassed his new wealth and also underlined the cruellest irony that his daughter’s future husband – at this stage Ochs but ultimately Count Octavian Rofrano – would be victims of his class’s aggrandisement. For the final act a seedy bordello masquerading as an elegant brothel, complete with the cross-dressing maitre-d’ of Alasdair Elliott and the two-way paintings. The detail paid to individuals as well as to creating specific images led an additional depth. For example, the Gigli-like Italian Tenor – beautifully sung by Georgio Berrugi – presenting an autographed record; the forward looking fashion for the Marschallin to peruse but ultimately dismiss; the arrogant militaristic snapshot that closed the second act. All these and many other effortlessly created a sense of time. Most interesting was the Marschallin’s ‘chemistry’ with the Police Commissioner and final departure from the stage with him. Arm in arm, Carsen intentionally or not seemed to hint that the Marschallin had decided to eschew young men for boys. Without a handkerchief to retrieve at the end, Carsen was able to end of the darkest of notes.

On stage, Covent Garden fielded a cast that was strong if yet all wholly establishing themselves in these particular roles. Given time, I’ve no doubt that some of these singers will become closely associated with their specific roles.

Without dispute however, the Octavian of Anna Stéphany dominated the evening. There was a strength – almost a masculinity – to her singing with hardly any hint of strain throughout the evening. If her ‘Viennese’ dialect was not as strong as that of other singers I have heard in this role, her acting definitely convinced. She effortlessly shifted from spoiled boy, to privileged youth to beguiling maid.

Sophie Bevan was a scintillating and experienced namesake – finding the right balance between ingénue and young woman. Vocally the part held no terrors for her. From the stratospheric writing of the presentation scene to the final duet her liquid tone was full of warmth without any hint of strain.

The Ochs of Matthew Rose and the Marschallin of Rachel Willis-Sörensön were both works in progress but show much promise, particularly Willis-Sörensön. She has a warm and resonant soprano and hopefully more experience in the role will deepen her characterisation as well as result in more fluidity and seamless phrasing of the vocal line as well as more colour

The remaining cast, led by Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal and the Valzacchi and Annina of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke and Helene Schneiderman – completed a strong ensemble cast. Special mention must also be made of Miranda Keys’ Marianne Leitmetzerin.

Sadly, the efforts in the pit were not as polished. After a stunning Rosenkavalier in Birmingham, it seemed that Andris Nelsons couldn’t find his mojo for this performance. The playing of the orchestra – usually so burnished and warm – sounded decidedly brittle and rarely matched the magic of Strauss’ score and his direction wasn’t focused enough to pull out the transparency that is much needed in this music.

Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier is a joy to observe and listen to. Rachel Willis-Sörensön is definitely a Marschallin to keep an eye out for and when Covent Garden revives this –soon rather than later – I hope that they will cast her again.

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Deathly Hollow

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on June 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Review – Tristan and Isolde (English National Opera, Thursday 9 June 2016)

Tristan – Stuart Skelton
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Karen Cargill
Kurwenal – Craig Colcough
King Marke – Matthew Rose
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Young Sailor – David Webb
A Shepherd – Peter Van Hulle
A Helmsman – Paul Sheehan

Director – Daniel Kramer
Set Designer – Anish Kapoor
Justin Nardella – Associate Set Designer
Christina Cunningham – Costume Designer
Paul Anderson – Lighting Designer
Freider Weiss – Video Designer

Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s hard not to be incredibly disappointed by ENO’s new production of Tristan und Isolde on every front except one – the magnificent playing of the orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. His tempos weren’t always convincing but the opening prelude – and the singing of David Webb as the Young Sailor from on high – set up a sense of expectation that was dashed like a ship trying to negotiate entry to Kareol.

Everything else – the confused staging, the poor direction and overall, the quality of the singing, just left a great empty hole which even Wagner’s music couldn’t fill.

Arguably, Tristan and Isolde are two of the biggest roles in opera and ultimately the two leads, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton, did not deliver. As Tristan, Skelton sounded mostly vocally under-powered and musically distant in the First Act. While he improved in the Second Act, he was hampered both by lacklustre direction and having to negotiate the set and in the Third Act he sounded vocally strained and at times literally ragged. Ms Melton was sadly wholly unconvincing. Vocally, this was much more than just a stretch and she sounded severely compromised at the higher end of her range. Top notes seemed only to be achieved through sheer physical effort and jarred Wagner’s vocal line. The resultant stress and strain then created a sound that was often harsh and unappealing – the greatest shame being the strangled final notes that sank below the lush, luminous sound of the orchestra’s closing bars. Personally I don’t think that this role is suited to her voice and in the long term could actually do some damage. Her acting was similarly under-developed.

In the supporting roles, Matthew Rose made an uneasy start but steadied quickly. Karen Cargill delivered a rich and mainly nuanced performance although there was at times a worrying amount of vibrato. Colin Colclough’s Kurwenal was also vocally strong but marred but a characterisation that – like the rest of the production – betrayed the opera itself.

And what of the production? Anish Kapoor has clearly researched previous productions of Wagner operas – from Wieland to the present day. Fused with his own previous work it just created a lack of coherence. The set for Act One was visually arresting, smartly creating both the idea of a ship as well as the distance between the two protagonists, but I did wonder about sight lines issues and the clumsy management of the two lovers once the potion had been drunk. The Second Act presented its own problems. Having the singers clamber around destroyed any sense of intimacy or – let’s face it – eroticism, and I would imagine that quite a few in the audience became distracted by the lightshow. And what were they clambering around? The moon? Their imagination? Or did King Marke really have an ugly grotto in his forest? Who knows and by that point did anyone care. The sudden appearance of surgeons and hospital beds upon their discovery by Marke felt contrived – a need to create a sense of sudden and unrelated drama. The final act – again relying on animation as distraction became tiresome and lacked any sense of dramatic impact.

As this production trudged inexorably it wasn’t helped by Kramer’s direction – or general lack of it as evidence by a reliance on stock dramatic gestures. There were some well observed moments in the opening act, but overall Kramer leeched any emotional intensity or electricity from the stage. Isolde’s self-harming was an interesting insight but wasn’t developed except by the two leads smearing themselves in blood and I why Kurwenal’s brutality towards Brangäne? He is a squire if not a knight after all. Neither eroticism nor sensuality stood a chance in the Second Act and the drama of Tristan’s monologue was undermined by Kurwenal’s clowning.

In terms of the costumes the clash of styles was more suggestive of time bandits than timelessness. The Eighteenth Century inspiration for Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal – by way of the blockbuster Mockingjay series it seemed – contrasted with the oriental-inspired costuming for King Marke’s court, except for his doctors. Yet by the Third Act, time seemed to have moved on – the characters had been aged with the resultant loss or growth or grey hair. Tristan had the stamina to survive a mortal wound, and Isolde was rowing herself to his rescue.

Ultimately, this Tristan und Isolde failed to convince, impress or excite on any level but one – the orchestra and Edward Gardner. The singers were disadvantaged; the direction was devoid of dramatic intent and Kramer, unwittingly I hope, bleached this great love story of any emotion.

A tragedy? Yes, but in every wrong way.

 

Vil Bastarda

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on July 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Maria Stuarda (Royal Opera House, Saturday 4 July 2014)

Maria Stuarda – Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta I – Carmen Giannattasio
Giorgio Talbot – Matthew Rose
Guigliemo Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Roberto, Conte di Leicester – Ismael Jordi
Anna Kennedy – Kathleen Wilkinson
Executioner – Peter Dineen

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Directors – Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Set Designs – Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designs – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Design – Christophe Forey

Bertrand de Billy (Conductor)

Hopefully this production will be best remembered for the quality of the singing and the interaction between the main protagonists rather than the – at times questionable – production.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda seems to be growing in popularity. I admit I never saw the Met Production nor that of WNO, but it’s easy to see why. Inspired by the story-that-never-happened, he wrote some incredibly beautiful music for the two key protagonists.

And in those two protagonists – Elisabetta I and Maria Stuarda – Covent Garden had cast two incredible soloists and in spite of some first night nerves, both Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio shone.

For Elisabetta, Donizetti wrote some of his most unforgiving music – not technically but emotionally. There is little warmth in her music, not even when she shrewishly begs for Leicester’s affections. It’s a skillfully penned musical portrait of that most famous Queen.

And Ms Giannattasio’s performance – despite her Blackadder-inspired gown – was equally matched in her performance. Exuding musical authority, there is a keen – almost steely – edge to her voice that is coupled a secure and natural technique. In both Ah! Quando all’ ara scorgemi and through to her exit after a magnificent Ah! dal cielo discenda un raggio, she displayed a notable control of the vocal line. This was finely matched by an equality of tone and balance throughout her range combined with a musically intelligent use of ornamentation. It’s no surprise that the audience was so appreciative as she stormed out. Her return for her confrontation with Leicester and closing duet was equally engaging even if de Billy drove the music slightly too hard for me.

As her nemesis, Joyce DiDonato was the perfect foil. Vocally – and again I put this down to first night nerves – it took a while for Ms DiDonato to settle but as I have said on countless, countless occasions, Joyce DiDonato has incredible natural talent. At her disposal she has a vocal armoury that is securely grounded on formidable technique. And coupled with this is a musical intelligence that enables her to create a character that is fully fleshed out.

And it all came together (almost) perfectly on opening night as she gave her second portrayal of the doomed Queen of Scotland.

From the opening phrase of Oh nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri Ms DiDonato portrayed a Queen conflicted, confident and ultimately resigned to her fate. And if her opening cavatina, gave the audience what they have always expected from her in the past, it was her performance in the ensuing sextet that took Ms DiDonato performance to new heights.

This was the moment audiences have always looked forward to. It might not have happened in history, but Donizetti creates one of the great moments in bel canto opera.

The vocal dignity of Morta al mondo, e morta al trono was genuinely reflected as she implored Elisabetta for mercy. And it made the English queen’s reaction all the more shocking and Giannattasio’s Va, lo chiedi, o sciagurata more thrilling.

From here, the inevitability of Maria Stuarda’s condemnation of Elisabetta – Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! – was inevitable. And de Billy remorselessly drove the music to its conclusion. No wonder the King and censors were perturbed by this opera. It wasn’t only the libretto they had fears of. It was the force of Donizetti’s music at this point.

But if Joyce DiDonato displayed Maria’s mettle in this sextet it was in the final Act that she displayed her humanity.

Again, Donizetti wrote some of his most powerful music for this heroine. Quando di luce rosea was aching in the simplicity with which DiDonato sang it. Again her vocal control and the way she coloured the arching phrases was masterful.

As Donizetti drove us inexorably to the denouement, DiDonato rose to the occasion with – seemingly – no effort. Effortlessly soaring over the chorus in Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono, the nobility of her last message to Elisabetta – D’un cor che muore reca il perdono – was mesmerizing.

But it was humility of Ah! se un giorno da queste ritorte that demonstrated that Joyce DiDonato is one of the great singers of our age.

Sadly Donizetti didn’t lavish such attention on the men in this opera. However they provided more than able support.

Of the three, it was Matthew Rose who proved the strongest man in the cast not only for the quality and assuredness of his singing, but for his ability to portray the conflict within the character itself. Jeremy Carpenter also ably portrayed Cecil although slightly more menace would have made him more three-dimensional.

I am afraid I was not as impressed by the Conte di Leicester of Ismael Jordi. Technically it was all there, indeed unlike some of his bel canto fellows, he can find the necessary dynamic contrasts required. But I found there was a slightly metallic and constantly strained quality to his voice, which didn’t enable any sense of light or dark in his singing.

In the pit – as I have mentioned – de Billy drove the music on occasion too hard for my liking, but there is no denying that he clearly had the entire sweep of the drama in his mind. And the orchestra played with finesse although – and perhaps because of how he drove the music forward – there were times when Donizetti’s scoring was lost.

If there was one thing of dubious parentage then it was the vision and direction of this production.

It certainly drew a response from the audience. There was boo-ing for Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. While this isn’t the place to discuss whether the actual act of booing is acceptable or not, I have to say that I spent most of the opera thinking what exactly had they been thinking.

Quite literally a ‘vil bastarda’.

There is no denying that the singers themselves acted their parts. And brilliantly. But I do have to wonder how much of this was the singers’ own work when the overall direction was so flawed.

I have no problem with modernity of interpretation, I have no problem with mixing old and new. I simply got the impression that Leiser and Caurier might have started with a good idea but promptly left it somewhere.

From the start the signs were not good. Before the opera actually started, they clumsily told the audience the ending. Why didn’t they use the overture to perhaps portray the events that led Maria Stuarda to be imprisoned in Fotheringay?

The opening chorus look deliberately dressed as caricatures of the Queen Mother, Kate Middleton and current sons and grandsons of the Queen. Perhaps Covent Garden had borrowed the outfits from ITV’s ‘drama’ The Palace? If so, it was a cheap shot rather than adding any resonance.

The over-exaggerated costume that they hindered Elisabetta with almost undermined the character herself had it not been for Giannattasio’s acting abilities. With echoes of Blackadder almost, the soprano seemed to spend more than a little time working out how to negotiate the stage. Every time the poor Queen sat down it looked like she was trying to park something not much smaller than a tank on a smaller lawn. And while we all know that Elizabeth was bald (and so too was Mary Stuart for that matter) it seemed like too easy a dramatic coup to make in the opening scene.

The scenes in prison initially seemed more promising. The use of projection was effective but wasn’t carried through and therefore a lack of variety – both in terms of lighting and setting – made for an incredibly lacklustre act with the only dramatic intensity – apart from the music – being Elisabetta throwing food and chair around the set.

The curtain – clearly venetian blinds – hinted at a sense of voyeurism that wasn’t realized until the closing scene and therefore any sense of dramatic impact – hinting that the audience was complicit in Maria Stuarda’s execution – was dulled.

The final scene itself suggested a scenario more usually associated with the execution of criminals in the USA. Visually powerful as it was – and I doubt it was any kind of political statement – it only succeeded in creating a sense of detachment that was out of sorts with the emotional weight of Donizetti’s music.

Maria Stuarda is not a difficult story to tell. It is a story of love, of fear and of power. But it’s also a story of identity.

Donizetti’s music might note have suffered due to the compelling and brilliant performances stage, but Leiser and Caurier simply demonstrated that they couldn’t tell the story.

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