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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.

Mozart. Thwarted.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Review – Idomeneo (Royal Opera House, Monday 3 November 2014)

Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
The Voice – Graeme Broadbent
Cretans – Tamsin Coombs, Louise Armit, Andrew O’Connor & John Bernays

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Designs – Annette Murschetz
Costume Designs – Heide Kastler
Lighting Design – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg – Olaf A Schmitt

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

In a recent interview in The Times, director Martin Kušej – clearly attempting to annoint himself the enfant terrible of opera – commented that “with knowledge, respect — and with some freedom — we could really bring [opera] out of the 19th century”.

But take it where?

Judging from the new production of Idomeneo for Covent Garden, Kušej has dragged the genre kicking and screaming to the director’s equivalent of an abbatoir and taken a huge, bloody knife to its throat.

I have no problems with a modern approach to opera – I didn’t object to Kušej’s Forza in Munich, and other productions have been both challenging and immensely enjoyable. But this production of Idomeneo showed scant appreciation of Mozart’s opera or indeed any understanding of its provenance.

But a production is made more tolerable if the singing and the musicianship is of a high standard. Sadly, and despite the impressive line-up, I didn’t think that overall, it passed muster.

However plaudits must go most certainly to Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani as Ilia and Idomeneo. Having enjoyed her Sophie, as the Trojan Princess, Ms Bevan once again demonstrated that she possesses a beautifully bright, light and flexible soprano that was perfectly suited for this role. And she combined a natural talent for Mozart with a real sense of characterization. Padre, germani, addio! caught the conflict that she felt and while Minkowski to Zeffiretti lusinghieri far too fast – where the zephyrs would have not so much caressed as buffeted any young lover – her technique allowed her to negotiate the rapid passages while conveying her love for Idamante.

As the Cretan King, Polenzani once again demonstrated his agile, richly timbred voice. Fuor del mar was thrilling, especially the da capo, and the cavatina with chorus, Accogli, o re del mar was spun with great delicacy.

Special mention too of the Arbace of Stanislas de Barbeyrac – who rightly received one of the loudest cheers at the end. I won’t even begin to fathom why he was dressed like an accordion-carrying-rambler, but his aria – with gently floated dynamics – made for a promising debut.

I am always in two minds about Franco Fagioli. There is no doubting that he has incredible technique and an impressive range, however, I was not wholly convinced by his Idamante. While he was relatively sweet-toned throughout the evening, here was a distinct lack of diction – as if he was swallowing his words rather than projecting them.

Similarly, I am not sure – after such a strong performance most recently as Donna Anna – if Elettra is a suitable role for Malin Byström. Sure enough – and despite some lack of co-ordination with the pit – Ms Byström could channel the vocal fury of the scorned princess, but she simply sounded vocally stressed in Placido è il mar.

In the pit, apart from a few faster-than-expected tempi, Minkowski brought to life the rhythmic verve and highlighted much of the orchestras detail within the score – especially in the ballet music. And while I was not always convinced by the exuberance of the continuo playing, it wasn’t as distracting as some I have heard.

But ultimately it was the production that dragged down this Idomeneo. This opera was written for a ducal court influenced by Enlightenment principles. The libretto reflected the idea of conflicted yet benign sovereignty and ultimately a burgeoning new balance in the order of things. I don’t dispute that the opera can be read in many different ways – but his vision of unremitting thuggery and violence simply isn’t in either the text or in the music.

What Kušej gave us was, quite literally, like shooting fish in a Personregie-barrel. Men rushing around carrying machine guns. Men in underpants being abused. Men dressed rockers. A pantomime High Priest. Children dressed in what can only be described as gym kit. Children carry guns. Fish. And even a shark. The only alleviation from the inanity of it all was the revolving set and what little characterization played out by the singers seemed to be of their own making – and mostly one dimensional.

I also didn’t buy his line about the ballet music only being “partially interesting”. Because, in reality his series of tableaux spoke more eloquently that the anything that preceded it. The enduring image that the “new order” was tainted, that the new generation would repeat the mistakes of the previous generation struck home was actually quite powerful.

It’s just a shame that his sense of narrative didn’t extend to the opera itself.

Review – What An Ochs

In Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Saturday 24 May, 2014)

Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Octavian – Alice Coote
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Herr Faninal – Mark Stone
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Valzacchi – Bonaventura Bottone
Annina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Major Domo/Landlord – Ted Schmidt
Marchande de Modes/Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Italian Tenor – Ji-Min Park
A Notary/Commissar – Eddie Wade
Vendor of Animals – Paul Curievici
Footmen/Servants – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrison, Joseph Kennedy

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s been a Rosenkavalier-Fest for many reasons recently. First the magnificently refined performances under Sir Mark Elder in London featuring Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe.

Then the opening night review of Glyndebourne’s new production overshadowed by the gratuitously vicious and uncalled for criticism of Tara Erraught.

And last night a complete concert performance at Symphony Hall. If I read the programme correctly, it’s somewhat surprising that this was the first complete performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Birmingham.

Even if it wasn’t, it was a performance of incredible musicianship, virtuosity, passion and sheer verve.

And as in London a few weeks ago, the casting of the three principles – or in this case four – was luxurious.

While it might be normal to start with the three leading ladies – and they were truly magnificent – the night ultimately belonged to Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs von Lerchanau.

His performance was a tour de force both musically and dramatically. Often in concert productions the directing is either intrusive or limp. On the stage of Symphony Hall it was well executed and meaningful. His Ochs was a blend of misinformed droit du seigneur and comedic timing that – for some reason – reminded me of Eric Morecombe. And securely riding above his stage presence was a vocal ability that was second to none. His voice was resonant and beautifully rounded and showed no signs of strain at either end of his range. His raison d’être in the First Act went beyond bluster to a meaningful – if misguided – Credo, and his singing at the close of the Second Act was a lesson in fine singing.

The three women were similarly impressive. Soile Isokoski is a finely nuanced interpreter of Richard Strauss but previously I have felt that her performances have lacked a certain vocal lustre. So I was incredibly pleased that her performance demonstrated that whatever ‘mojo’ she had temporarily misplaced was back. And in full force. From her first entry to her final ‘Ja, Ja’ she was a Marschallin in full control. There was a luminosity – a golden sheen – to her voice that fitted Strauss’ soaring music perfectly. From top to bottom there was a rich lustre to each and every note.

Her performance of Da geht er hin was markedly different to that of Ms Schwanewilms. As opposed to the philosophic, almost intellectual resignation of the latter, Ms Isokoski’s was firmly based in a more emotional spectrum and therefore the impact was incredibly forceful. While maintaining that aristocratic distance you really felt that at the heart if it this was a Marschallin who was very much a woman. And a woman not so much afraid of age, but of being left alone. It left a lump in my throat.

As her Octavian, Alice Coote married a beautifully bronzed and shining tone with incredible acting skill. Her comic turn and sense of timing with Ochs was brilliant and combined with the vocal splendour of her singing. There was a warmth and brilliance to her tone that didn’t bleach in the upper ranges and her technique – demonstrated in her ability to scale down her voice when appropriate – demonstrates what a unique and special talent she has.

And Sophie Bevan provided a steely Sophie. In character that is. Vocally she was equally splendid. Her lower and middle range has a beautiful smokiness to it and when she effortlessly rose to stratospheric heights in the Second Act it was breathtaking.

The remaining cast members all performed their roles with great vocal and acting aplomb. Special mention must go to Ji-Min Park’s Italian Tenor (and for his two handed farewell at the end of the evening); to Pamela Helen Stephen’s Annina and to Elaine McKrill’s Marianne Leitmetzerin. And also to Paul Curivici – his bright tenor promises a bright future.

And the final trio – let’s admit it – is often the ultimate reason for attending Der Rosenkavalier. Not only because it is the emotional pay-off we have known was going to happen from the Marschallin’s monologue in Act One, but also because it is the most sublime piece of music Strauss ever wrote.

And in Symphony Hall it was perfection.

Andris Nelsons daringly took the trio at a slower tempo than I’ve heard in a while. But he never lost control of its various strands, unfolding the glorious music with an authority that demonstrated he clearly knew the overall architecture of this opera. And not once did he allow the singers – as is often the case – to drown one another out. Each of the three vocal lines was clear and distinct as he drew them to that crushing climax at the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen at which point the singers – and the audience – were overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Strauss wanted.

How anything could follow that was impossible to consider but Mesdames Coote and Bevan then performed the most sublime Ist ein Traum, scaling their voices back to the finest pianissimi I’ve ever heard.

Supporting the singers was the CBSO – players and singers adult and junior. The Chorus was suitably full-throated and the Youth Chorus revelled in their role – especially manhandling Hawlata off stage. I hope the girl who fell over in the excited exit was okay.

And the orchestra – after a somewhat hesitant start – demonstrated that they actually have this music music not only in their bones but in their hearts. Under Nelsons’ superlative direction they had that European depth of tone – not only in the strings but also that elusive timbre in the woodwind and brass – that is vital in Strauss. Even more than usual, Nelsons and his players found that often-missed vulgarity in the Second and Third Acts and that necessary lilt in the waltzes that permeate this opera.

As the final notes died away, the audience could barely wait for the final notes to die before showing their appreciation for an incredible evening of music making and drama.

The ovation was a fitting tribute.

In Gottes Namen please record this.

French Opera. English Translation. German Design.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 26, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Review – Castor & Pollux (English National Opera, Monday 24 October 2011)

Telaïre – Sophie Bevan

Phébé – Laura Tatulescu
Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury/Athlete – Ed Lyon

Director – Barrie Kosky

Designer – Katrin Lea Tag

Lighting Designer – Franck Evin

Translator – Amanda Holden
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

Rameau was a renowned innovator and at the opening night of Castor et Pollux, ENO’s first foray into French Baroque opera, the theme of and commitment to innovation continued and produced a wonderful evening.

ENO and Komische Oper Berlin decided to use the second – 1754 – version by Rameau. They argued that dramatically this was the most coherent as it included the death of Castor rather than opening once the deed had been done.

The challenge for any director of Baroque opera is how “true” should they be? Of course there is the ultra traditionalist approach and particularly in the field of French Baroque opera this has yielded incredible performances and spectacles. Think of Lully’s Atys or even more recently Psyché for example.

However, and not only because of the cost inherent in such productions, these are few and far between. While the authentic approach is valuable and fulfilling – Atys is possibly one of the few productions that I will always remember – they do, by their very nature, seclude themselves from the audience in terms of emotional reaction although their musical standard is well-nigh unimpeachable.

The other option is to remove all the self-imposed restrictions of French Baroque opera and go to the other extreme. A complete reinvention of the drama without, of course, undermining the narrative.

This production of Castor et Pollux (pace I have to use the original French henceforward) went to this extreme, and bar a few misguided moments which can be ironed out, it was an extremely strong and intelligent production. Indeed it could become one of ENO’s seminal productions – alongside Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, Christopher Alden’s Makropulos Case and many of the Handel operas in their repertoire.

Over the past few years and led by John Berry (who ever doubted that he was the ideal Artistic Director for ENO?), the Company has embarked on a series of co-productions with other opera houses across Europe, as well as the Met in New York.

This is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and the Northern European influences were clear. Kosky – who makes his debut with ENO with this production – resides in the German capital and is clearly steeped in their modern opera tradition. In 2012 he will take up the post of Intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin.

The standard of the production was not only very high, but from the moment the doors to the auditorium opened, it was clear that this was going to be a very European – in fact – very ‘German’ production. It was almost as if – for one night only – a slice of Berlin had landed in central London.

In the programme, Kosky said that his intention was to strip away anything that might distract from the drama as it unfolded onstage. Therefore Katrin Lea Tag presented us with an empty wooden box. Devoid of any distraction. Literally beyond minimalist. The whole of the drama played out between its four walls and Kosky used a series of screens to vary the depth of the stage and to provide a sense of ‘reveal’ as the action unfolded.

This was an incredibly daring approach. For an audience – I would contend – unaccustomed to French baroque opera let alone Rameau, this meant that all action had to be focused on the protagonists on the stage. There was literally no escape for them. Or for the audience.

The use of a mound of mud after Castor’s death was the only relief from the four stark walls. And it worked emotionally as well as visually. It was incredibly moving to watch Telaïre bury her own lover to the haunting strains of Rameau’s music. And reducing it in the second half while cleverly keeping it as an entry point was a nice touch. Death never seemed far away.

However, empty wooden boxed stage sets are not new in opera productions. And while was the first arresting visual upon entry in to the auditorium, the most notable difference was that Curnyn and Kosky had decided to raise the orchestra in the pit. Again they made their intention clear in the pre-publicity as well as in the programme. Rameau was an incredible orchestrator, and the timbre and orchestration was critical to any performance of his stage works. Raising the players so that they were visible not only created a connection with the singers and chorus on stage but also created the right balance and sound world that Rameau intended.

In terms of the production itself, it was Regietheater at its best. But also its weakest. As I said from the beginning total focus was on the four main characters – the brothers Castor and Pollux and the two sisters Telaïre and Phébé as well as the chorus and dancers.

Kosky’s method is to develop the characters and their interaction during rehearsals and while this might be the case there is clearly – and there has to be – a framework in which the performers operate and which provides boundaries in terms of behaviours to a certain extent.

Kosky also uses some recognizable – and if truth be told almost over-used – modern directorial devices. In this production, some naturally worked better than others.

For example in the opening scene, we had Phébé – and subsequent characters in the opera – face the walls when they were contemplating charged emotion. This was then followed by reckless running from stage left, to stage right, to stage back and then to stage front. Exhausting. And at the end, as Telaïre dashed needlessly around the stage, almost distracted from the emotional impact.

However there is no denying that the physicality of Kosky’s direction did reap dividends on the whole. The sheer raw power of the love between Telaïre and Castor was not the refined love that would have been originally envisaged by Rameau and his Eighteenth Century audience with their scratching at doors and fan-codes. It was a love almost born almost of force. Brute force. In fact there seemed nothing redeeming about their love at all. This contrasted strongly with the emotional reticence of his immortal half brother, Pollux, who only expressed emotion when killing Lynceus, or when facing his father Apollo. There was no love for Telaïre and it wasn’t love for his brother but rather a sense of competition and duty that required him to enter the Underworld

And the brutality of the fight scenes – brilliantly handled I must add – literally resulted in sharp intakes of breath from the audience.

Similarly the use of implicit sexual imagery and a general theme of sexuality abounded. Clearly when the use is intelligent and clearly linked to the narrative then the imagery and effect is powerful. For example, as Apollo called on his brethren to dissuade Pollux from entering Hades, the nymphs that appeared – and in a very nice touch they were Telaïre And Phébé in disguise – were dressed as schoolgirls, or perhaps baby dolls. The imagery was disturbing, all the more so because of the strong acting by both protagonists. Their giggling was effectively uncomfortable. And developing this theme, Kosky then had the duo remove their multiple pairs of underwear while straddling the immortal brother. Again a powerful image due to the inferences but to repeat it later on was a mistake.

As Pollux then attempted to enter Hades, Kosky misguidedly chose to use more flagrant sexual imagery as Phébé called upon demons to stop him. Pinned to the wall of mud a single hand breaks through and proceeds to – and there is no other way of saying this – masturbate the sorceress. It seemed needlessly provocative and didn’t add to the drama.

While simple blocking of the chorus might not have been wholly-appropriate for the ENO chorus, more than once the hurdles that they had to negotiate either detracted from the drama or led to inaccurate singing. But hats off to those members of the chorus who performed in their underwear and were still convincing protagonists. Again perhaps this will be refined in later performances or for Berlin.

Needless to say there were some Regietheater elements that didn’t work. That isn’t to say that these devices don’t work in other productions but here there didn’t seem to be any sense of logic.

For example in the second half there were the requisite ‘clowns’ for no apparent reason and of course, nudity. The nudity was clearly selective – I can imagine the kind of conversation that would have ensued if the chorus had been asked to go beyond underwear – and therefore it didn’t seem clearly thought through. The titters I heard in the audience weren’t from a general sense of discomfort but rather at the absurdity of it all.

Another device that seemed misplaced was to dress Castor as his former prospective bride in the Underworld and before his confrontation with Pollux. A clever inference but Kosky did not develop it and therefore at the close of the first act it was simple Castor-Dressed-As-Telaïre-Kissing-His-Brother-Pollux-But-Why?

It will be interesting to see how Kosky takes the production here in London and tweaks or develops it more fully for the premiere in Berlin next year.

But these were minor distractions in what was a strong production and where the level of music making was incredibly high. Curnyn and the orchestra clearly reveled in Rameau’s music and there were moments of great beauty. When Castor returned to earth the playing from the pit was ravishing. If I have one incredibly small gripe it was that Curnyn didn’t do enough to elicit a broader range of orchestral colour but I think that this has more to do with playing ‘authentically’ on modern instruments.

All this discussion of the production is not to forget or detract from the incredible quality of the singing.

All the soloists were incredibly strong and without exception their diction was excellent. Amanda Holden’s translation was excellent and carefully took into account the vagaries of French Baroque phrasing and cadences.

As I said all the singers were outstanding yet especial praise must go to the leading pair of Castor and Telaïre – Allan Clayton and Sophie Bevan. Clayton’s was an incredibly bright, precise tenor voice and a delight to listen to. He more than met the demands of the role and sang Rameau’s lines with great elegance and fluidity. Similarly, Bevan’s bell like soprano was beautifully nuanced and her ability to mould the vocal line was at times breathtaking. I look forward to her Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.

Roderick Williams’ Pollux and Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé were equally strong and clearly some time had been spent in casting singers whose very individual timbres would meld so beautiful in the rare instances of ensemble singing.

And finally special mention of Ed Lyon’s Mercury. Not only was his acting superb but he sung what was possibly the most demanding aria of the evening with enthusiastic yet precise gusto and with a clarity of voice and tone that was exceptional.

So all in all an incredibly strong production. And who will ever forget the closing scene of Castor and Pollux’s shoes abandoned centre stage and two identical showers of silver representing their ascent into the sky as stars.

Truly memorable and worth seeing. Even if you have seen it already.

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