Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana (Opéra Bastille, 6 December 2016)

After a Mozart night at the compact and bijou Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, thadieu and I relocated to the humongous Opéra Bastille for some verismo and expressionism.

I started with the above picture in hope those who have never been to Opéra Bastille get a feel of how massive it is. Just consider the staircase on the left. Capacity-wise it’s not quite the Met but nowadays it can pack more than Wiener Staatsoper (only because WS has reduced its seating capacity). It beats ENO by some 200 seats and the drops and depth are breathtaking. It feels a bit like the O2 Arena of European opera venues. I know thadieu is going to remind me of the Hollywood Bowl (where Ann Hallenberg sang Pergolesi’s Stabat mater…) but, come on, that’s not a venue designed for opera.

We had tickets on the 2nd balcony, which means at the top. The seats were comfy and, as with modern venues, the views were excellent – except for the distance! I’m blind enough to have had trouble with the surtitles (cosmopolitanly provided both in both French and English), thank goodness for my opera glasses, though by the end I was sick and tired of squinting and straining. What can you do, with a piece such as Sancta Susanna and a performer such as ACA, who you want to see acting as much as hear singing. Especially in such a short piece (~20min), where you blink and miss her. I also wanted to ascertain if Garanča can act or not.

However, for its imposing size and heavy figure cut in Place de la Bastille, I was won over by the indoors design. There are many details that make for an architecture photography fan’s delight.

Now with some distance from the shock produced by the sheer size and boldness of Bastille (on first seeing it in real life I said it looked like a prison, which might have even been the point) and after questioning the idea of having an opera of intimate size performed therein, I think it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

Cavalleria rusticana

Santuzza: Elīna Garanča
Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee
Lucia: Elena Zaremba
Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

Though 40 years and different cultural attitudes separate Cavalleria rusticana and Sancta Susanna, the take on female sexuality (identity?) is very similar = repressive. That’s not surprising, as that view has come down through history and is still prevalent in certain traditional enclaves.

Thadieu expressed puzzlement as to the plot of Cavalleria rusticana, ie why the big drama? Well, desire and revenge are irrational, especially revenge borne by desire. As such, they are almost impossible to control – and certainly not by reason, rather – if at all – by outside contraints (ie, religion, local customs). So the answer to what is verismo is indeed people shouting at each other (because they can’t contain their emotions; or because they’re Southern Europeans😉 ).

You could reduce the whole plot to Turiddu being on the rebound (still not over Lola) and Santuzza feeling horribly shafted, having fallen for him. Now we need to add to this local customs, which in traditional societies are very harsh on “fallen women”. There is a reason Turiddu makes it a point to ask his mother to look after Santuzza if he dies. It’s because he knows that according to custom he is supposed to either marry her or somehow provide for a(n unmarried) woman who “has given herself to him”. So sex isn’t fun and games, it’s bondage on both sides. A man needs to guard his own or risk derision. Alfio is being so serious about revenge because Turiddu has taken something of his.

I don’t know if Santuzza cares about this one way or another, aside from being shuned by the community bit. I think she’d be fine enough if Turiddu loved her. But since she’s lost both her honour and his love she decides to do something about it. In traditional societies women don’t have a lot of avenues for expression beside madness or evil. Santuzza pursues evil by disclosing to Alfio Turiddu’s affair with Alfio’s now wife. She knows just what is going to happen, which this production emphasises by having her walk off with determination after hearing of Turiddu’s demise.

Garanča, who, as thadieu would say, I got to see “accidentally”, having studiously avoided her up to now, managed the walk off very well. I would say that was her strongest acting of the night. My beef with her comes out of spite. The woman is in possession of an excellent intrument which I don’t think she uses interestingly. Earlier this Autumn I ended up watching her Cenerentola from the Met with my Mum, who found her completely boring, both vocally and dramatically. I swear I didn’t “groom” her for that opinion!

I thought her singing absolutely spot on (no note out of place, always making every entrance, flowing coloratura) but lacking in fire. So I didn’t have an easy time imagining her as Santuzza. When we were planning this trip I even asked thadieu if we should show up for “part 1”. Though in the end she suffered a lot more than I did, it was her “might as well” that convinced me I should give Garanča a chance.

Well, the report is similar to that on Cenerentola: the woman can surely sing – and the tone is less metallic in the house – the voice sounds as healthy as ever (she’s only 40 or so) and is loud enough to make herself heard in this repertoire in a big house (though the singing is only seldom accompanied by the entire orchestra). Let me tell you that not only is the house big, but the orchestra makes a proper racket that travels all the way up to the rafters. With my hair on end and my eyes popping out I wondered how loud Wagner must sound in there.

Similar to Cenerentola, I thought the fire was lacking. To be fair, they made use of the entire stage – which is likewise staggerinly big sideways and in depth – and often times you had Santuzza and Turiddu share an “intimate” chat 20m apart. It looks good from the rafters but you do wonder, especially as it’s verismo: do people in real life have a very intense conversation physically that far apart?

The personnenregie felt very much old school, with broad gestures and lots of space between protagonists. Bilyy as Alfio wasn’t so bad but Lee as Turiddu acted right out of the ’50s book of opera acting: feet always planted wide apart, pumped fists, head held high etc. Garanča herself never offended me gesture-wise but there’s this removed, ice-queen feel about her. Nervous energy drips from some singers’ tendons – not so in her case. She’s there, apparently focused within.

Santuzza is very much focused on Turiddu. I did not feel that at any point. I think she was at her most emotional in her interaction with Lucia during Voi lo sapete (well, duh, you will say, it’s her big aria), but still, come on, Santuzza’s mind is supposed to be clouded over with emotion for this chap. When playing a woman who asks a man/lover on her knees to return to her, well, that kind of passion needs you to radiate desire (and quite possibly a bit of self hatred) from all your being. I’d say that’s beyond Garanča’s dramatic capabilities. Yet she’s not completely lacking in charisma; just not Sicilian.

Though not impressed with his acting – or his chemistry (lack thereof?) with Garanča, I thought Lee was vocally a good Turiddu (my experience here is limited). The music asks him to provide loud and solid long held notes and he did that with ease and panache. It’s not an unpleasant tone by any means. However I think he could work on his Italian phrasing.

The (loud) choir wasn’t bad at all and the choral bits in the piece made for good contrast between the apparently peaceful rural environment and the festering desires in private.

Sancta Susanna

Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia: Renée Morloc
Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

This whole trip was concocted for the sole purpose of seeing Antonacci in a rarely performed opera (and what with going off the beaten track, I have yet to see her sing in Italian). Though I don’t, by any means, dislike Cavalleria rusticana, this type of sexual paroxysm is more up my alley. Can’t beat a nun chorus of Satana! Satana! Satana!, can you?😉 There are two things Germans are ace at and those are Romanticism and Expressionism – the hidden depths of the mind.

For those of strong emotional constitution the mind is a fascinating realm. Nobody has quite figured out what the hell (and it is often hell) is going on there. I think this small opera is effective – seeing it in the environment of the huge Opéra Bastille auditorium adds to it – because the mind is an immense, volcanic world enclosed in a tiny place.

There is repression/violence by women on women in Cavalleria rusticana but here it’s a lot more obvious. If the nunnery represents the world of women, then it’s quite clear what nuns walling up one of their own stands for.

In my experience nobody thinks more about evil/the devil than the pious. That’s the kind of mind who has invented/defined it and that is the mind that has to live and fight with it. On the other hand it’s true that, pious or not, every once in a while something from the depths surfaces and rearranges one’s identity in ways hitherto unsuspected.

So what I take from this – on a literal level – is the question are the brides of Christ, if Christ is both of God and human, not supposed to engage with his human side in ways brides would? Of course the orthodox view is hell, no! but what harm is there, if they are utterly faithful to him? Poor nuns😉 To quote thadieu again “why the drama?” Sister Susanna was letting off some steam after hearing her maid go at it with her (the maid’s) lover.

The journey from deep prayer to (literally) pure randiness is scandalous only to hypocrites but otherwise well documented in history. The body/mind seeks balance.

We had Antonacci, one of the singers who best mixes singing and acting into a coherent whole, put the fire of life/lust into our initially catatonic heroine. She doesn’t have much to sing and has to shout a few times (she’s louder than I thought for such a big hall, but she doesn’t have to do it constantly for an hour) so those unfamiliar with her singing might find this outing rather inconclusive.

Dramatically, though, she’s magnificent. She’s in her 50s now but she can act young and elusive and she can also act frantic with desire just by the way or the pace at which she moves. The most interesting part is the development between one state to the other, as well as “the whole being” at the end, when she stands and faces the looming nuns. Thadieu said in the premiere she didn’t leave the crucifix she had climbed onto, but I thought this stand was an excellent idea. She’s neither just angelic nor only frenzied by lust, but a strong presence that likely has integrated both.

There are some really cool things the production does within 20min. If you look closely at the above picture you can see the bottom part of the wall comes off at the crack. When it did, we could see underneath the cell. As lust started to creep into Susanna’s mind/body, a fallen crucifix appeared on our left and a young woman (perhaps the ghost of the previous walled in nun) started embracing it. Later on Susanna descends there, whilst a giant spider that looks like the human centipede crawls on the other side of the stage (remember, it’s vast) and deposits the said young woman on the ground. They wall Susanna in by pushing back the bottom of the wall.

there’ll be a couple more Bastille pictures in the interest of size and just because it’s cool😉 sorry for any typos etc. I wanted to get it out as I’m in danger of developing a backlog.

Not quite modern Don Giovanni (Theatre de Champs Elysees, 5 December 2016)

What better opera to see in Paris on the anniversary of Mozart’s death than Don Giovanni? Last night thadieu and I caught the premiere of the first (I think) revival of the recent TCE production.

Don Giovanni: Jean-Sebastien Bou
Donna Anna: Myrto Papatanasiu
Donna Elvira: Julie Boulianne
Don Ottavio: Julien Behr
Leporello: Robert Gleadow
Zerlina: Anna Grevelius
Masetto: Marc Scoffini
Commendarore: Steven Humes
Conductor: Jeremie Rhorer | Le Circle de l’Harmonie, Choeur de Radio France

My records say I have seen Don Giovanni every year for the past 3. The first was the first😉 , the second because of Roschmann and the third because I was going to be in Paris anyway so why not?

This was my first experience of TCE and wow, what a welcoming venue! It has immediately skyrocketed into my top of opera venues. There will be pictures when I get home because, much to my surprise, they allow proper cameras in! Thadieu and I combined sightseeing with opera going (which, as usual by now, turned into a mad dash up the Champs Elysees Christmas Market when we realised we were running out of time) and so I decided to take the opportunity of shooting night time pictures of Paris and possibly having to put the camera in storage at the venue. But no, the Cerbers waived us in and announcer asked us not to use the flash and that was that. Go TCE!

I really enjoyed the very relaxed atmosphere, although, acoustic-wise I don’t know that we got the best deal, positioned as we were above the orchestra. Now I am aware that one’s first time at a venue includes a period of adjustment. You might want to check thadieu’s account in regards to the orchestral playing in general. We did agree Circle de l’Harmonie (same period ensemble who played for Rhorer’s TCE Tito two years ago) was very good in itself. However, from where we sat Rhorer got a very loud sound out of them (the strings, of course, but t by e flute as well). A period ensemble, loud?! This is why I think it might have been the seats rather than the orchestra per se. The fact that both thadieu and I thought it was too loud (every singer was at times covered) at least vindicates my ears.

Then again, every time I’ve heard Don Giovanni live I thought the conductor was too energetic to begin with. Usually things settle and they did here as well though still, due to our positioning or whatever, occasionally the singers were covered. Another issue I had, confirmed later by thadieu’s friend Albena, was Rhorer’s rather rigid manner. At the beginning a lot of the orchestral detail was lost (= smudged) because he seemed very interested in a martial sound and an overly quick pace. I like a leisurely pace all in all for Mozart. The worst offense last night was Fin ch’han dal vino, which was so fast and choppy that for me it expressed nothing. It wasn’t even ugly, it was just noise.

Which brings us to the comedy in Don Giovanni. There is comedy in this – again, agreeing with Albena – efficient production but it’s not quite at the forefront. Don Giovanni himself is played as a rather sarcastic more than nihilistic dude, very well acted by Bou. He likes his fun and he is unapologetic until the end but he doesn’t overthink it, like his current ROH counterpart. In fact, though the production looks modern, it is very traditional in spirit. The Don is a cad, Donna Anna and hubby are so buttoned up they feel “English”, Donna Elvira genuinely cares for the Don and Zerlina is no innocent lamb.

In this context I felt the fast and ugly Fin ch’han dal vino stuck out like a sore, self hating thumb. Bou went with what the conductor wanted (and vocally didn’t make a strong impression one way or another) but I felt in other instances Rhorer did not help his singers when they perhaps wanted to express things that did not fit the tempo imposed. Either by personality or design, Papatanasiu fared better when it came to this, she being the only one who could or was allowed to do her own thing. Boulianne, by contrast, was thwarted by Rhorer in Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi me dice mai. I could tell she did go for some sensitive phrasing yet the orchestra inexorably marched on. Some mismatch with the orchestra happened in Leporello’s Notte, giorno fatticar, but considering it was at the very beginning it was hard to tell who was at fault.

Then we had Humes’ curious Commendarore. As thadieu said, one expects the floor to rumble when he goes Don GIOVANNI! but he sounded like an electric guitar after the plug was pulled out of the socket. I doubt he’s a bass or even bass baritone.

My favourite of the night was Boulianne as Donna Elvira. Though the production called for a very soft hearted, even kittenish Elvira, she carried the concept very well. How often is Donna Elvira the girlier one these days? Very rarely. This is my first time seeing this take. It worked for me, though I know thadieu said she didn’t get it. She’s quietly strong rather than whip-cracking furious and quite probably – of all of Elviras – the least likely to thrive when she joins the convent at the end (if she actually goes through with it, which I doubt; I think this one will get over the Don, judging by her determination to leave him to his fate after she lasts pleads with him to mend his ways).

Vocally, though already a bigger, rounder voice than usually heard in Mozart, Boulianne has a plump mezzo tone I enjoyed a lot, as I did her forays into detail (when the orchestra dind’t cover or outright veto them). I don’t know what else she is singing these days but I am interested to hear more.

I also don’t know that Donna Anna in this specific production is the best option for hearing Papatanasiu live for the first time. Like I said she was the one who had enough experience and drive to go her own way without buckling to the orchestra in her arias, and that allowed her more expressivity, but her top is an acquired taste. Also I habitually don’t care about Donna Anna. I don’t condone the Don’s actions and I do get (better even: know) that desire is irrational but I simply don’t feel her as a character.

I did think having her and Don Ottavio act so buttoned up (in her case, literally, as she wears a suit for most of the opera which makes her look like a company exec) was astute (also helps that she can carry a suit with the best of them). These two duty bound people are faced with raw lust and they don’t quite know what to do about it. In that sense keeping the moralistic ensemble in the finale fit. For once I felt like they will from now on pretend nothing ever happened and continue their typical upper middle class existence.

Zerlina and Masetto were rather well acted, with a good amount of charisma and comic skills, and likewise sung. Here Masetto is less a country bumpkin and gets just what is happening. In La ci darem la mano Zerlina is not even trying to be coy, rather she wants to find out just how much she can get out of the Don. Later we had a scene with her abusing Leporello that I had not seen before, so I figure it usually gets cut. I didn’t think it added anything to the story, on the contrary, but it allowed Grevelius and Gleadow some more stage time.

Gleadow’s Leporello was more to my liking than Alex Esposito’s. The hard done by thing comes off well and so does the comedy, such as it is. Vocally I expected him to be shouting but he was fine, even put in some soft singing. Now keep in mind I had the opposite problem with singers last night. The Catalog aria was all right (here was, curiously, a moment when Rhorer went for slowness and I like a bit of spritz) but someone decided to loudly boo it/him. Thadieu suggested it could have been the production, which had him undressing a doll and “molesting” it. I didn’t think that was an offence to taste…

All in all a mixed bag but a very enjoyable night due to the added fun of the surroundings (my first time in Paris as an adult), TCE and, last but in no way least, the enthusiastic company of thadieu and Albena. So, yes, I’ll be keeping an eye out for TCE productions.

La Calisto’s fun, games and misty eyes (Wigmore Hall, 28 November 2016)

In the time of ancient gods, warlords and kings… an unstoppable plague spread through the land and crept up Mount Olympus, infecting it for all eternity. Its name was horniness.

Another thing Wigmore Hall has been doing lately is cramming 10 singers or so and a Baroque ensemble on its crescent stage for our enjoyment. I’m all in favour of this arguably cramped arrangement! Of course you are, you might say, it’s not you squeezing between an organ and a double bass with a giant bear mask on your face. Imagine being chased by satyrs and trying not to upset the music stands when making a mad, chastity-preserving dash for the back of the stalls!

Calisto: Lucy Crowe soprano
Giove: George Humphreys bass
Diana: Jurgita Adamonyté mezzo-soprano
Endimione: Tim Mead countertenor
Giunone: Rachel Kelly mezzo-soprano
Mercurio: James Newby baritone 
Pane: Andrew Tortise tenor
Linfea: Sam Furness tenor
Satirino: Jake Arditti countertenor
Silvano: Edward Grint bass-baritone

David Bates director | La Nuova Musica

I always forget to check these things, otherwise I’d have flagged it out for non Radio 3 listeners but this performance was broadcasted live (and you can still listen to it here for the next month). The interesting thing is that it comes exactly 365 years (to the day) after its first performance in Venice. Had you heard the broadcast, you might’ve been perplexed by the laughter and grunts that accompanied the dances. Wigmore Hall gets another cookie from me – I don’t lavish enough praise and cash on it, I know – for its continuous determination to keep Baroque and Baroque opera fun.

As we know by now, 17th century tastes did not ask librettists to choose either tragedy or comedy when writing an opera. As a result we have both, usually with the main, spiritually – if not by birth – “noble” character getting a raw deal but eliciting our sympathy and respect and the lesser ranks having all the fun and making it alive by the end of the opera.

Another thing 17th century librettists are good at is not spoon feeding us morality. You should know which path to follow, with the understanding that cheating and lying will be more amusing… for the public, of course.

Like Semele, Calisto is a babe who catches The Universal Cheater’s eye. Only she’s sworn to Diana, the goddess of hunt1 and chastity (in Ancient Greek parlance, no sex with men). She takes her vows very seriously indeed, because she not only likes Diana but likes her. Yes, she’s – at least initially – one step further up the Kinsey scale than Daphne2.

Who wouldn’t like like Diana, the goddess whose job is to roam the countryside on horseback, keeping the ecosystem healthy and balanced? She has no time for petty intrigue and usually stays out of politics, unlike 95% of that backstabbing Ancient Greek lot of gods. Endimione (a shepherd who constantly misplaces his sheep due to his poetic musings and heaving bosom) and Pane, the goat-god of randiness, both showing better taste than one would give them credit for at first sight, are also in hot pursuit.

Of course Ancient Greeks and 17th century Venetians didn’t see gay desire quite the same way we do today; in the end, this is not the ultimate lesbian story, with Diana and Calisto some sort of Xena and Gabrielle righting wrongs and having fun in hot springs, although there is plenty of passion and danger. Major missed opportunity if ever there was one, but we 21st century folk are made of sturdier stuff and can work with what life gives us (if it’s subtext, imagine fanfic). A couple of tears rolled down my cheeks at the end but you know I’d lie if I said act I wasn’t where it was at for me.

Anyway, there’s singing. The original cast had three replacements due to illness yet the evening was very energetic nonetheless. As I was saying to Leander, the men had an edge over the women but then they had all the fun stuff to sing/do! Endimione was the only man with languidly soppy arias (the best part was when Diana, though in this version she’s really into him, left him prey3 to Pane and Silvano; Mead as Endimione had this great expression on his face omg, Diana! You don’t suppose I should fight these brutes, do you?!). We also commented that perhaps one day we’d see Mead as something else than the soulful lover. Not that he isn’t good at it, which is perhaps why he keeps singing these ancient r’n’b dreamboats. In fact one extended bit he had (about love, of course) made for possibly the best singing of the evening.

A big standout was Arditti as Satirino (accessoried with fake goatee), who did his stellar best to be randy and obnoxious, both dramatically and in the elaborate and cleverly placed trills he employed. He and Furness as the horny Diana-devotee Linfea probably had the most fun, culminating in that mad chase around the auditorium, which ended with Satirino stealing Linfea’s bra (which Linfea snatched back at curtain call). For his part, Furness brought back his considerable cross-gender chops, last noticed by yours truly in last year’s Orontea on the very same stage. He has a very mobile face, ideally suited for this kind of silliness, contrasted by an agile yet manly voice.

Humphreys replaced James Platt as the philandering Giove. He was very good as Giove but hilarious as Fake Diana. He had to ride falsetto for half his performance and did so commendably and with lots of gusto. Then again, with lines like to the kisses! to the kisses! it’s hard to go wrong. Poor Calisto had no chance.

Calisto herself has really serious things to sing because, well, she’s in a very serious situation, with the Big Kahuna of the Ancient World on her tail. Crowe isn’t someone I naturally “get” and here I’d have liked more winky swooniness in her interaction with Diana. That’s the one bit where Calisto is other than confused or hurt or faced with the reality of having one vision of heaven before spending eternity as celestial bear. I’m sure there’s some ancient meaning for the bear thing, though for modern sensibilites (this side of plushies) the simile seems a bit curious.

Adamonyté’s Diana wasn’t bad for a heterosexual reading of the text (though it’s really hard to “think straight” before intermission and generally to imagine Diana in a gown) and showed a very nice tone and good authority as goddess. She was gentle then stern with Calisto, furious with them goats and rather giddy with Endimione.

In act II we have Giunone getting up to speed on Hubby of the Year’s shenanigans. She’s not happy. After Leander told me ETO had Giunone in their production show up in leather, sporting a riding crop, I wasn’t going to hold the image that lived in my mind against Kelly. Her Giunone was upset all right, though perhaps riding crop furious comes with age and a lot of philandering husband experience.

David Bates led la Nuova Musica and his soloists with speedy tempi and enough cuts not to let anyone flag save for the gent in front of me, but that was fortunate😉 I was also placed in the cheery corner, with two ladies next to me laughing like there was no tomorrow. Although when I looked behind me for the chastity preservation dance I saw some perplexed faces. Should we laugh or should we purse our lips and interlace our fingers in our lap? Yes, of course we should laugh, especially with such a good translation and with such a fun crew. May we hear more laughs and silliness at Wigmore Hall!


  1. Hunt and chastity? Hunt? Shouldn’t that be “teasing and chastity” then? 
  2. Who likes trees instead of men. Trees? I know I’m fishing, but that would be a pretty decent metaphor for vibrators. So I’d say Daphne is questioning where Calisto is ardently bicurious
  3. Because she clearly has her own issues -> duty/love. 

Three men and a boatload of Schubert songs (Wigmore Hall, 24 November 2016)

For the past year or so, Wigmore Hall has been running a massive Schubert project, with the goal of having every one of his songs performed. Something for everyone indeed. And in this case, my favourite Schubert lied gets a deluxe treatment.

Stuart Jackson tenor
Marcus Farnsworth baritone
James Baillieu piano

Leichenfantasie D7
Das war ich D174a
Das war ich (fragment) D174b
Der Morgenstern (fragment) D172
Die erste Liebe D182
Jägers Abendlied D215
Grablied D218
Der Fischer D225
Abends unter der Linde D235
Abends unter der Linde D237
Lob des Tokayers D248
Punschlied: im Norden zu singen D253

Interval

Der Vatermörder D10
An Rosa I D315
An Rosa II D316
Fischerlied D351
Die Einsiedelei D393
Ins stille Land D403 x 4
Fischerlied D562
Die Einsiedelei D563
Des Fräuleins Liebeslauschen D698
Doch im Getümmel der Schlacht D732 No. 8
Wenn ich dich, Holde, sehe D732 No. 13
Totengräber-Weise D869
Fischerweise D881😀

I’ll start with the helmsman, Baillieu, because he had some major workouts with the Schubert youthful epics that started the two halves of the evening and of course, the rest of the marathon. He kept the boat afloat and avoided any treacherous rocks😉

I’ve seen Jackson in JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria and Jommelli’s Il Vologeso and was going to see him in recital anyway when spotting Fischerweise doublesealed the deal. I don’t recall encountering Marcus Farnsworth before but I liked his approach a lot. The two of them took the intimate approach to art song, relying on beauty of tone and focusing on words to drive the drama. Jackson got to forte a couple of times but his tenor is of the gentler type so eardrums stayed intact.

When Farnsworth stepped on stage he introduced the programme a bit, setting the mood as that of a workshop with public. I liked that idea. I’m definitely not adverse to singers singing several versions of a song if there is more than one. In fact, I would even enjoy the singer taking different approaches to a song within a recital even when there’s only one official version. If a recital is where we see/hear more of the singer than in a staged opera, why not share with us their different approaches to something?

Suffice to say the 4 different versions in a row – both tenor and baritone – of Ins stille Land were my favourite thing after my favourite thing😉 You really get into the mood after one or two spins of the same thing and start to appreciate details.

There are probably other good reasons for them to share a recital but an important one is surely how well their voices fit together. It was almost like Jackson’s voice was a natural upper extension of Farnsworth’s. In any case, whether in duet of when simply alternating songs, the combo helped the evening flow smoothly for the ear.

Having them duet on Fischerweise was a special treat ending to a song-dense but very relaxed evening. There are quite a few renditions of the jolly fisherman’s story on YT and I can’t say I dislike the slow ones though I usually feel like cheering the singer with hearty come ons! but I tend to return to the ones with a bit of zing. The duet had plenty of zing and wink. Farnsworth’s serious, organised drive and Jackson’s cheerful, easy going persona (also coming through in the ode to Tokay wine) brought out the different aspects of the lied in a way that energised me and put a smile on my face that extended well beyond the time I got home.

Audience-wise, I am amused to report quite a number of couples comprised of very tall men and very short women. Behind me sat the two chattiest men in the world so at “lights down” I shot over 4 rows of seats to a central location I’d been eyeing since I first took my seat. Luckily the man at the end of my row was more than understanding and picked his things up in record time so I could make it out and around without further disturbances.

Though big name lieder nights are very well attended, the young singer ones seem not quite so. It’s too bad, because the very relaxed – occasionally even spontaneous – interactions and general breezy atmosphere is very welcome. After all, art songs were meant for informal evenings.

I don’t know if Wigmore Hall plans to release a boxset of their Schubert exploration but I hope so and I hope some of the songs in this particular recital make it on. In any case, I’d hear these two again.

Luca and Maciej preach to the converted (Wigmore Hall, 20 November 2016)

Our Evangelists leading with the left hand last Sunday were:

Luca Pisaroni bass-baritone
Maciej Pikulski piano

And that was the truth, they were leading with the left hand, each one in his specific way. I don’t think that much about the piano but I can tell when rhythm is being kept with gusto. As for veering down the left hand path, that only occurred on occasion, lucifer skills being part and parcel for baritones and basses. Given that Pisaroni is known for his almost giggly nature, the Doppelgänger came out rather creepy. But he does hold out his left hand in that Homer grabbing Bart by the throat way when things get specifically dramatic.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Der Schiffer D536
Memnon D541
Fahrt zum Hades D526
Auf der Donau D553

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Lied aus der Ferne WoO. 137
Der Kuss Op. 128
Zärtliche Liebe WoO. 123 ‘Ich liebe dich’
Adelaide Op. 46

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Neue Liebe Op. 19a No. 4
Gruss Op. 19a No. 5
Morgengruss Op. 47 No. 2
Allnächtlich im Traume Op. 86 No. 4
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges Op. 34 No. 2
Reiselied Op. 34 No. 6

Interval

Excited Lady: I’ve been listening to Radio 3 for 30 years but I’ve never been to Wigmore Hall before. I didn’t even know where it was.

Well, good pick there, WH newbie! I knew about WH since close to the beginning of my “classical singing journey” but I gave it a wide birth for a while out of a misguided conviction that opera singers should be heard in staged operas only. My loss indeed! Up to now I had not heard Pisaroni sing lieder, thinking he’s Italian. My loss again! But since I like him and I had not heard him live since 20131 I thought he couldn’t possibly ruin Schubert too much, could he now?! Don’t know about Beethoven or Mendelssohn but you’d have to be hopeless to ruin Schubert.

Gentle reader, he didn’t. More than that, I thought his lieder skills were delightful. I could’ve well gone on listening to him for two more hours, especially since next on my schedule came the fourth night shift in a row. I’m pretty sure 99% of opera, innit? readers are well aware of how Pisaroni sounds and at least 80% would agree with me 4 hours wouldn’t be long enough. But even considering all this, I thought he was just wonderful.

As an old boss of mine would say, he kept his indoors voice on and I thought it was just the right size and consistency for lieder at Wigmore Hall. Which is to say, it carried very well but it was always intimate. His diction was great, too, though naturally I can’t comment on his pronunciation.

Franz Schubert
Schwanengesang D9572
Der Atlas
Ihr Bild
Das Fischermädchen
Die Stadt
Am Meer
Der Doppelgänger

Schäfers Klagelied D121
Grenzen der Menschheit D716
Ganymed D544
Erlkönig D328
Willkommen und Abschied D767

Lady with programme: It says here he’s appeared in La clemenza di Tito, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and even in the title role in Le nozze di Figaro… He wasn’t Cherubino, was he?
Mr accompanying Lady with programme: I think he was… Figaro.
Lady with programme: Oh!
Mr accompanying Lady with programme: Or maybe the Count?

There might be room for a conversation regarding the title role in Le nozze di Figaro (I have it on good authority he never appeared as the wedding itself… yet) but he did sound particularly Mozartean in his approach. Definitely a good thing, especially for a non-German, I venture to say. I’ve heard that those of us not Germans don’t quite get lieder, although those among us who are singers will inch a bit closer with time and experience, but it seems like going Mozart is the safe option for most things.

I’ll have to disappoint you, having forgotten what the encores were but I should add that Pikulski was an excellent foil for Pisaroni’s quirkiness. There was this impishness to his playing I quite enjoyed, where he would apparently go all Romantic on a few chords then drop the whole thing with lightness.

Let’s hope we’ll see Pisaroni more often in London (even as Cherubino – I actually could see that and it would be a riot too), especially on a date when I’m more with it.


  1. He was slotted at WH this past January but retreated with a cold. We were lucky this rain soaked November date didn’t gobble him up again. 
  2. In swan news, I got my refund this payday. 

Handel’s Oreste: shellshock and glee (Wilton’s Music Hall, 13 November 2016)

In which Ermione learns it’s wise to meet your lover’s family before sacrificing too much for love

Indeed, this Jette Parker Young Artist showcase is built around Vlada Borovko’s Ermione (Oreste’s Bradamante-like wife). I saw her in the 2016 Summer JPYA performance and in a small role in Boris Godunov earlier this year but neither prepared me for her Baroque chops. Her voice feels very natural in this repertoire and more intimate setting. Should she want to continue down this route, I predict an intense Alcina in her future. The public loved her in any case. There was much to love. The voice filled the venue just right and it felt to me like her understanding of singing Baroque is spot on, coupled with a vocal texture that just works with what the music asks (thus able to express a lot of fine detail). To give you an idea, through the night I was reminded of Piau.

Ermione: Vlada Borovko
Ifigenia: Jennifer Davis
Oreste: Angela Simkin Russell Harcourt
Pilade: Thomas Atkins
Filotete: Gyula Nagy
Toante: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: James Hendry | Southbank Sinfonia | Continuo: Nick Fletcher
Director: Gerard Jones

Davis (also seen in the 2016 Summer JPYA performance) as Ifigenia has a higher placed but more voluminous voice. Now it is true that Wilton’s acoustics are rather on the echoe-y side and that occasionally made it hard to gauge the finer points of what was being presented but I think she’s destined for a different repertoire and much bigger halls (Wilton’s capacity is a mere 300). Nontheless she was very committed. I was also quite on her side dramatically, she blended a few moods and traits in her Ifigenia’s personality that did not feel out of place. She had the most fans in the audience.

The original Oreste, Simkin, had to skip this performance due to illness (to read about her and about the performance on 9 November, check out Leander’s post). Instead we heard her cover, Australian countertenor Russell Harcourt, who had been involved in the JPYA program in 2007/2008. He has a very good grasp on coloratura and, though placed high, a pleasant to the ear voice. He could do with more body in the lower range. Dramatically, fitting the dystopia the production went for, he seemed to me like a deadringer for Unplugged in New York-era Kurt Cobain (+ dreads), complete with beige cardigan and barely held together general appearance. Any time he opened his mouth I thought he was going to break into Come As You Are.

wiltonswhitechap

the area projects a very mixed vibe (click to enlarge)

If you’re wondering Wilton’s Music what? then you should know that London is littered with quaint venues and these venues are usually of such (small) size, simply inviting Baroque performances (which venues warrant a post of their own).

Initially I was whinging a bit about getting to Whitechapel, especially after Saturday, a detestable day of rainy doom. But yesterday (though rather cold) the sun was shining brilliantly so I forgot all about that, even though Whitechapel still throws me with its incomprehensible identity. Wilton’s (The City’s hidden stage) gradually won me over with its Grimebornesque air. There’s something very soothing/comfy about listening to Baroque in nonchalant settings.

As you can see above and below, Wilton’s sports that derelict chic outside and inside (very East London, the new, gentrified one). Likewise, the ceiling ornamentation is restored, although the ceiling per se is left with a just so feel of possibly dropping on your head during the next heavy rain.

orestewiltons16

the feel of the hall (click to enlarge)

I overheard somebody explaining that the production imagined a council estate setting. Perhaps, though that wasn’t my reading. The general idea I picked, of a doomed dictatorial regime on a wretched island, fit the libretto, and perhaps because the plot cuts rather close to contemporary reality (all foreigners shall be put to death), it was left more or less general.

By the end of act III the singers appeared to be adlib-ing (kinda like how they did (?) for the Fledermaus free for all at the JPYA Summer performance back in July). The vaguely ritualistic gestures from the beginning were left behind in favour of updated mannerisms (acting crazy, 21st century style).

Certain characters acted like they had taken the wrong turn on another opera/film set. Nagy’s Filotete seemed to channel an amorous version of Golum (my precious Ifigenia), which I think was the reason for the lack of applause (his singing was generally good, and his baritone very pleasant. My only eyebrow raising moment was him starting Bella sorge la speranza about two levels too forte for everything around him. However, by then – this being the end – everybody was likely tired and I could hardly say the ensemble was the high point of the evening).

Where most looked like they picked their clothes in Tesco’s Sleepwear aisle, Ermione landed on the island as if she’d just decided to step off her cruise boat and mingle with the natives (a sort of Elletra, to keep it in the family). By which I mean she wore a clean coat, tafetta dress, handbag, high heels and a relaxed attitude. Her arc was that much more surprising, I’ll tell you that much.

Speaking of which, between her and Ifigenia this production was driven by the women. I’m all for women not being shy to roll up their sleeves and do the job when needed but in this case I felt that left the men with precious little to do beside driving long lines of coloratura. That they did well.

In fact, at the end, Pilade had a very long aria of much complex coloratura (and little else) which felt like Handel slapping his head and going damn, I forgot to give the tenor (John Beard) much of anything to do. I’ll just have him sing the bravura aria with horns (modern here) at the end so he doesn’t desert me for the rival company. Atkins looked a bit deer in the headlights with concentration but I can’t complain about his delivery. His John Beard-ness (tone) is also of the good kind (Oronte = yes).

The only problem was that during these very long da capos, the others, who were almost constantly all on stage, didn’t have much to do beside occasionally mock the current singer (as per the production, I guess, and also in keeping with Baroque traditions. Another check for postmodernism).

When Ermione and Oreste sang that swoon-inducing duet Ah, mia cara, Toante stood close to them, watching. I felt like he was thinking you better blend well or I’ll cut you. The duet itself was pretty good, though here was the moment where Harcourt’s very light in the lower range voice didn’t provide quite the contrast to Borovko’s already on the smokier side soprano I am used to (you know the one I always pass out over; so good, just thinking about it makes me all verklempt). Perhaps to help him out, Hendry didn’t drive the orchestra particularly hard. So in the end it felt a bit light in heartbreak. The orchestra was just underneath me so I couldn’t see them at all, but I had a direct view of Fletcher, whose continuo playing was very tight throughout.

Aptly, after this came the intermission. But not before some brief instrumental music, the purpose of which eluded me. Shibambu’s Toante behaved like you’d expect a textbook tyrant to, with lots of hand signalling to his henchman (Filotete) and gleeful love for violence. Shibambu’s gorgeous bass tone didn’t have all that much use, as basses were kind of there in Handel’s time.

There was much-ish blood (of the wet kind, you know in some productions a character has just killed somebody and s/he touches a wall but nothing sticks; here it did) but then again, what else can you expect from that fucked up family?

All in all, an interesting afternoon in a cleverly picked location that helped the (mood of the) production at least as much as the musical team did. I like this ROH trend of giving its JPYA students the opportunity of a fully staged production and us an off the beaten track piece to see, may it continue (and may it feature more Baroque).

Opera house priorities (audience surveys)

People like you? (The Paul Hamlyn Hall Bar at the ROH)

As customers, ROH sometimes wants us to fill out surveys about our experience. The latest one started pretty nondescript but ended up grilling us quite rigorously about the bar and restaurant experience. At the end it asked for free comments. I have no idea if anyone reads these but he one thing we can (still) do is hold forth.

After being asked what food or which day of the week would rather bring me to the ROH absent a perfmance I want to see, I said I’m not frequenting ROH for its culinary proclivities. The title of this blog doesn’t recommend me as a paragon of sophistication but surely one goes to the opera to see music/ballet rather than eat?

Yes, it has never occurred to me to go eat at the ROH when I’m not there for a performance. And even then, there’s way too much milling about for the space to be conducive to enjoying a meal or worse, conversation. I’ve often slalomed around diners because it was easier to cut through the Amphitheatre Bar and then the Paul Hamlyn Bar1 than to shuffle down the stairs (I’m really not old enough for the lifts). I’m sure the Amphi Bar diners weren’t very happy and feared their desert might end up floorside but I too found them in my way rather than charming and elegant.

Also, when you have a restaurant right there, the aromas sometimes sneak into the auditorium, as I remember once at La traviata. I’d rather not smell other people’s food if I’m not eating.

though I don’t know that I’d come specifically for it, fach salad could be an interesting idea, if food is such a serious issue for opera houses these days. Here are my picks, concocted during an earlier comment session (+ some additions):

dramatic soprano: juicy pear

high coloratura soprano (Queen of the Night): lemon

tenorino: hot pepper

dramatic tenor (Italian): watermelon

Heldentenor: cheddar

baritone (evil seducer roles): cucumber

bass (buffo): aubergine

bass (Slavic): borscht

high mezzo: fizzy wine

mezzo-mezzo: goat’s cheese

contralto: olive

countertenor: spring onion

Then there was something curiously called “live entertainment”. Dude, we’re at the opera. Do I need further live entertainment during the intermission? And, really, what would be suitable? Young Artists taking requests on the spot? Greatest hits from ROH recordings?2 Repertoire opera muzak? Opera karaoke?

Speaking of live entertainment, how about asking us what we think about the current repertoire, or which singers, conductors or directors we’d like to see? It turns out I visited the ROH 10 times in the past 12 months. I would’ve been game to rate my enjoyment of the performances I had seen and say who I’d like to see return and who I wasn’t so hot about.

Instead I was asked about pie and “people like me”. Seriously, one of the options regarding atmosphere, I guess, was whether seeing “people like me” in the bar would make me more likely to frequent it. Er, what exactly are you trying to say, people like me? And if I said I wanted more people like me then what? Would you ban people who aren’t like me?

I generally like the ROH. As far as staple opera houses go, I think it’s less stuffy than most. It’s grand but not off putting. The atmosphere in the hall is agreeable, with some reciprocal ignoring between the Parterre denizens and the Amphitheatre stalwarts. There’s occasional booing (of productions rather than musical teams) and opinions are varied on productions and repertoire but I haven’t experienced viciousness.

As someone usually found in the Amphitheatre, I’d like more bum and legroom as well as better ventilation in the Upper Slips but I understand that won’t happen absent major refurbishment. Since the last one wasn’t that long ago we probably won’t get one until I retire.

So I think it’s fine. If you’re asking me, what they’d better invest in is their pet Baroque venue (whichever one they decide on) so we can have at least one fully staged Baroque opera every season. So far under Holten it seems like we’re slowly getting there but who knows what’s going to happen after he departs?

With any luck, someone pick up on the fach salad idea.


  1. Which looks cooler from the outside (or in pictures) and is always packed during intermissions so unless you fly there as soon as the lights go up good luck finding a seat. 
  2. Like the hideously commercial Wiener Staatsoper shop does. 

New search items: “donald trump spam”

Sign of the times, eh? Someone landed on opera, innit? using this search term. Most curious, as I am 100% I never used it anywhere in this blog up to now and upon doing a bit or research I didn’t quite get it. But because it’s such a curious thing when it comes to a niche blog, I’ll indulge the world at large.

the one labelled “serious beard” is the spitting image of my cousin!

If you’re now thinking hang on a minute, this has nothing whatsoever to do with trump…!

you’re right😀 fighting absurdity with absurdity is one of my mottos. So I thought I’d share a picture related to contemporary grooming and snacking habits of those now bitterly crying in their cornflakes jam jar cocktails.

We live in a world where both lefties and traditonalists wear Father Xmas beards, where experts (especially foreign) are out and the take back our country/make America great again brigade is in and saving the world from the overly educated (the great plague of 2016). Also, far as I know, sharing pictures of food on blogs is still going strong. So as not to appear too snobbish/sneering (also out of style), I thought I’d use this filler post to toast all the great trends of 2016 (or thereabouts).

(as usual) I’ll leave you with this month’s contralto and a message that expresses my feelings regarding the spectacular mess we in the West currently see ourselves in:

Ferri, ceppi, sangue, morte
non paventa l’alma forte,
che vien meco il mio furor.
So ch’io sono invendicata,
e che fui meno spietata,
è mia pena, e mio dolor

Google translate illuminates us thus:

Irons, shackles, blood, death (irons = swords)
no serious concerns regarding the strong soul (don’t scare a courageous heart)
who cometh with me my fury. (when it’s pissed off)
I know that I am unavenged,
and that I was less ruthless, (I was too soft)
is my pain, and my pain (so that’s my punishment and pain)

The bitter aftertaste of Les contes d’Hoffmann (ROH, 7 November 2016)

It’s back to Traditionalville at ROH with this revival of the busy 1980 production of Les contes d’Hoffmann (or, as the announcer put it, Dhoffmann). It’s nice to look at, it’s got (sparkly) colours and the people on stage could not be confused with the audience. There are gondolas. Well, if we’re to revive a trad production, gondolas or similar aquatic vehicles will make me happy.

Then there are women. And that’s where things stop being funny haha.

Hoffmann: Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains Satan: Thomas Hampson
Olympia: Sofia Fomina
Giulietta: Christine Rice
Antonia: Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse: Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani: Christophe Mortagne
Crespel: Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants: Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother: Catherine Carby
Nathanael: David Junghoon Kim
Hermann: Charles Rice
Schlemil: Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther: Jeremy White
Conductor: Evelino Pidò | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH

Opera fan: Oh, no! I forgot this one had a sad end.

A 19th century opera in which the soprano dies?! What are the odds?

A 19th century opera in which the mezzo gets the drunken broken spiritually elevated tenor? Well, sort of. After she ditches the tophat and breeches. Platonically. Ok, in the spiritual realm. Offenbach was doing his best for 1880, you know. We’re spiritual soulmates if you put a dress on and complete my collection of emotional crutch-babes. Mezzos, aren’t you lucky?

But one takes what one can when it comes to the 1880s or 1980s productions. Two mezzos ain’t bad, especially when they’re neither broken dolls nor dying of self expression.

Is Satan really evil in this opera? Isn’t he kinda helping Hoffmann develop into a real person man/artist by jinxing all his romantic relationships? About half way through I thought to myself, if Satan really wants to get Hoffmann, he should go after Nicklausse; that’ll properly destabilise this Hoff – why isn’t he? Well, perhaps because Nicklausse isn’t an actual person, I hear you say, and Satan/Lindorf can only see the obvious. Though at least one courtesan was definitely trying to cope a feel off Nicklausse at Giulietta’s party (maybe said courtesan was flirting with her spiritual side).

The plot is more than a bit quaint for contemporary sensibilities. Ariadne auf Naxos covers the same territory in a fresher, less sentimental/conventional – and much shorter – way. Plot aside, the team was well chosen and well drilled. The funny stuff was funny, the sad stuff was sad (enough), Christine Rice gave us plump mezzo tone, Kate Linsdey looked reliably dishy in tophat and breeches, Hampson was Satan and Grigòlo Werther again but with even more to emote. In the end, it was a bit of a 2016 who’s who at ROH. You come in, you do your thing with world class professionalism, you move on; another day, another lavish production, Brexit or no Brexit.

Late 19th century opera isn’t quite my thing. But I have to know. It’s not like I disliked it, the music was better than average. I just found the parts disjointed and simplistic (getting to know “woman”, one side of the personality at a time, (ha.ha.) – and the sides are: 1) compliant like a doll, 2) horny like a (materialistic) whore (libretto’s implication, not mine) and 3) with incipient personality, just ready to be crushed). Three conventionally stupid stories. The women exist so that Hoffmann can develop as a human being/artist or so Lindorf has someone to take home at the end of the night.

Antonia is the one with a tiny bit of personality but she – of course – dies before anything can be furthered. And even as this is being discussed, Hoffmann still thinks it’s ok to ask her to give up her dreams if he sings of his love for her with lots of emotion. Remember the poet in L’heure espagnole? He made the grandest, most seductive promises but when it came to getting down and dirty he couldn’t do the job. That’s very similar to how Hoffmann is when Stella (presumably the emobodiment of the three requirements in a woman) appears (ie, too drunk to… well).

Arguably the only decent character here is Nicklausse, so mezzos can be happy. Nicklausse gets to be funny and clever (the voice of reason) in that way only the French can. Coming on the heels of that, the ending is a letdown (why the hell does Muse Nicklausse like this simple minded, sexist moron Hoffmann? You’ve suffered so much, Hoffmann! I’ll take care of you for the rest of time. He suffered? He mostly ran around getting pissed whilst scratching the concept of love at the most superficial level. Well, I suffered too, especially when WP ate my posts; where’s my tophat-sporting mezzo muse?)

Kate Lindsey has sung Nicklausse a lot, you can see her on YT. She was, I guess, as good as she can be at this point in her career. Maybe she’s outgrown the ultra nervous acting I associated with her via Tito and Ariadne, maybe it was just what she was asked in those productions and I thought that was her. Here she can do chill.

Nicklausse is quite the watcher who spends a lot of time waiting for Hoffmann to get dramatically shitfaced whilst he (Nick) sits benignly quiet. When it came time to be funny she was funny, though she perhaps pushed it a bit in the aria where Nicklausse takes the piss out of Olympia’s mechanical singing, in a last ditch effort to extract applause. To be fair, the aria came out very well and she did get her applause. I still think her voice is a bit thin or throaty, but the tone isn’t unpleasant. And, as I always say, she’s very realiable. I’ve seen her 4 times now and she never simply coasted. I still wish there was more to it. She’s covering a repertoire where I’m still waiting for someone to wow me.

Yoncheva sang Antonia – again with a lot of professionalism. She sang it sort of like a cross between Mimi and Violetta – goodnatured but doomed and knowing it. This was my first time hearing Yoncheva live and I have to say I am a bit lost as to what the fuss is about. I heard her in Faust on the radio and my reaction was positive. In the flesh – and in a different (perhaps rather thankless) role – she was good, yes.

The technique, the size and the professionalism for the big stage was there but… there is that Slavic thing in her tone (not the metallic bit, the inflection) which seemed too Slavic for French opera. Then the voice itself didn’t grab me. She reminded me a bit of Gheorghiu but more in intention than in tone. Her interaction with Grigòlo was good, though. It wasn’t quite ravishing but better than average. Sort of like we’re pros, we can act, we know each other, we’ve rehearsed this, we know we’re on the ROH main stage so we’ll look like we mean it.

Christine Rice was Giulietta and finally I had a voice I could relish. Last time I saw her as Jenny (the kind hearted hooker) in The Rise and Fall…, and she was my favourite there as well – just nicely rounded, secure, sonorous mezzo tone. Plotwise it’s a throw away role and the take here doesn’t give her anything to sink her teeth in, so she focused on her singing. Perhaps the drama deepened a bit when, knowing what Satan wants from her, she acted slightly ambivalent with Hoffmann, giving a hint that there could be more than blunt materialism to her. Nicely done.

Young Sofia Fomina sang the mechanical singing doll Olympia to much acclaim. This production loves the Olympia story, where we can see Offenbach’s comic genius. This scene should always be shown in masterclasses – how not to sing (legato, what legato; emotion? for humans). Fomina played Olympia for laughs and she sang the scales with accuracy, though perhaps there was a bit of cloud at the very top of her range. Maybe nerves, maybe youth. Anyway, she’s talented and eager, and having come out of the ROH Young Artist ranks we will see more of her development.

I laughed too, because some things are so bad they’re… well, if not good, at least hilarious. But I couldn’t help thinking about what it all means. Hoffmann adds to the hilarity of the mechanical singing doll by falling in love with her. Yes, it’s funny, he’s so naive and self involved, he takes her pre-programmed “yes, yes” as an admission of requitted feelings.

But it’s cringe-worthy to think that he has such low expectations of women as to think that looking/acting like dolls is all they can offer. Sure, you can say it says more about his lack of imagination (for a poet!), lack of empathy and of naivite in general. But he’s a damn poet, he’s supposed to be more observant than the average bar brawling dude. I viscerally hate equating women with dolls. So it’s funny but with an aftertaste; a really bitter one.

Dramatically, Grigòlo in the title role was, like I said, hot on the heels of his Werther earlier in the year. I’ve a funny “relationship” with him. I first hated him in Rigoletto, then I changed my mind for L’elisir d’amore and so I went to see him in Werther. I still like him though he’s pulled an even bigger diva act here than in Werther. Of course, it’s all about Hoffmann and Hoffmann is – as poets usually are in opera – terribly insufferable. It’s like if they feel SO vividly and immensely the world owes them something. Well, not really. The rest of us also have intense feelings.

Also he is quite a Mary Sue. All the women find him irresistible. The coolest doll in town says “yes” to him; the trendiest courtesan wants him; the biggest opera star of his time, who sings Mozart (I wonder which role?) better than anyone sends him love letters; even the mousy girl with big hopes sighs for him. Right. Best of all, the freakin’ Muse of Poetry has nothing better to do than patiently wait to save his arse from his latest bar brawl. As if.

Grigòlo is a good singer and he has the personality to carry this OTT role with a straight face. He also, of course, has to enthusiastically make out with most of the women, which he does. On the other hand, his relationship with Nicklausse came off so chummy as to feel quite curious when in the end Nicklausse turns in to the Muse and gets all I’ve always loved you, Hoffmann. I mean, fair enough, but you want a hint or two leading up to this sort of feeling.

For all the emotive singing, shouting, crying, throwing himself about, making out, even fencing, Thomas Hampson as Lindorf/Satan still outshone him every time his turn came. He sang well and with clear intention but not amazingly yet that didn’t matter as much as his dramatic turn. That’s a singer who can hold the stage without doing much of anything and indeed it was when he had less to do that he was at his best. The whole business with the eyes (Copelius the optician) was funny odd rather than funny haha but the scene with Antonia was powerful. To a lesser extent so was the one where he tells Giulietta to get Hoffmann’s shadow. Briefly put, he can do menacing just from the way he moves or looks; he can also do funny, yes, but not quite on that level (or at least not here).

To sum it up, I personally felt a lack of drama, for all the pizzazz thrown at us. This lack of drama seems to me both inherent to the opera and to this production. Maybe it’s because so much is made in the libretto about its fantastical nature. I don’t know, I’ve only watched it once before and then I was heavily invested in the music, so dramatically most was new to me. It’s a curious opera and I guess it needs revisiting at some point, in a more conceptual production, where hopefully the whole woman business is… done something with. For now I can’t even tell you what I thought about the conducting, as I was so focused on the plot and the stage business. I normally like Pidò and nothing seemed glaring one way or another.

Overheard during the second intermission:

Opera fan 1: How old is he?
Opera fan 2: Who? Grigòlo? I think he’s in his 40s.
Opera fan 1: Yea?
Opera fan 2: Yea. He’s… he’s 44. He was born in ’77.

The new Dorothea Röschmann (Wigmore Hall, 5 November 2016)

For the past couple of years I’ve been in attendance of Röschmann’s Wigmore Hall shows. If you read back, you will notice that my comments always mention her abandon (generally positive) to the point where I’ve taken to sitting at the back lest my ears be seared.

This year I’ve noticed a change.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877
Heiss mich nicht reden
So lasst mich scheinen
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Kennst du das Land D321

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Rückert Lieder

Interval

Franz Schubert
Der König in Thule D367
Gretchen am Spinnrade D118
Gretchens Bitte D564

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Wesendonck Lieder

Encore:

Es muss ein Wunderbares sein (Liszt)

Piercing heights of release have been reached last night as well, but significantly more judiciously than before. I’m pretty sure it was deliberate. Even her usual storytelling is more reserved and introverted, if still as detailed as ever when it comes to moods. Of course, it might be the material (I’m not particularly familiar with Mahler and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder have put me to sleep before), with a high frequency of very long, sustained lines, which she navigated without issues. But I think it’s also her.

Not only has her delivery changed, but her voice as well. Again, different material, different sounds, I know, but I felt that in Schubert as well. Her voice seems to have lost its warmth, which was more confusing than upsetting. I know singers’ voices change and sometimes that can be very exciting, even as it takes them down unfamiliar (to me) avenues.

She’s at a time in her life and career where a change is likely inevitable. The voice, whilst still full, is not so much bigger as it is harder, more metallic; in a sense, I venture to say, more conventional. The delivery remains on the operatic side, but considerably less flamboyant.

But what with this change, last night was an opportunity for me to focus on her interaction with Martineau a lot more than I have done before. It’s probably the first time I really gave him proper attention. The man has a very light, even playful touch, it seems to me, which contrasts Röschmann’s earnest intensity well. You can tell they’ve been working together long because their interaction was exemplary, particularly where timing was concerned. The echoes of the piano reoccurred in her singing in that way I call “organic” and he gave her space to breathe without being self effacing. The mood through the evening was pensive, with the inner turmoil pushed even further inside, under a settled veneer.

The next time she’s in London it will be for Otello, so due to this change I’m more curious than before how that’s going to work out.