Category Archives: acting in opera
…if we’re lucky
Small town mentalities, mother-in-law from hell + traditional woman’s role (aka, guilt over even existing) = the river Volga looks mightily inviting.
Katerina (Katya): Amanda Majeski
Boris Grigorjevic (the lover): Pavel Cernoch
Marfa Ignatevna Kabanova (Kabanicha): Susan Bickley
Varvara: Emily Edmonds
Vána Kudrjáš: Andrew Tortise
Tichon Ivanyc Kabanov (the husband): Andrew Staples
Glaša: Sarah Pring
Savël Prokofjevic Dikoj: Clive Bayley
Kuligin: Dominic Sedgwick
Fekluša: Dervla Ramsay
Conductor: Edward Gardner | Chorus and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Richard Jones
Doesn’t sound like the kind of opera I’d rush to see but Janáček’s libretti are always worth your while (it’s 1921, after all, not 1840). The story is repugnant on all levels yet somehow the way it’s told does not insult the contemporary Western intelligence. It also helps that it’s directed by Richard Jones.
As you can imagine with Jones at the helm, whatever humour there is (and, surprisingly, there is) gets a very evident and effective treatment. That’s very welcome (and clever for those who have hired him) because otherwise this opera is as depressing as those facepalm gems Lucia di Lammermoor and Madama Butterfly. (I’m aware both are actually sympathetic to their heroines but it doesn’t make it any better; we still have these self-sacrificial role models perpetuating the mentality that you either conform or die, no matter how much we all think you’re actually a decent person).
Normally I’d roll my eyes at the MIL from hell trope, because it portrays (older) women in that ugly, mysoginistic manner etc. On the other hand, traditionally, Eastern European MILs do tend to be overly protective of their perfect progeny and very distrustful of anyone they ever date, let alone marry, because who could ever be good enough for their genius babies, right? The tendency to insert themselves in the young ones’ marriage is a reality. Another reason I put my eyeroll back on its shelf was because the way the libretto treats this – here overblown – state of affairs is very funny. The MILzilla (Kabanicha) wastes no time before starting with her complaints. To say she’s unrealistic, uncooperative, implacable or childishly jealous of her daughter-in-law doesn’t even start to cover the extent of her tantrum (the role of Kabanicha is an extended tantrum that puts the Queen of the Night to shame).
Some gems from the libretto:
Kabanicha (to her son): you love your wife more than you love me!
Kabanicha: what if she had a lover?
Tichon: but she doesn’t!
Kabanicha: but what is she did?
Tichon: … I’d still love her.
Kabanicha: you’re a moron!
Kat’a: why must you go [to Kazan Market]?
Tichon: because Mum said so. [Kabanicha: if you really loved your Mum, you’d go to Kazan Market.]
Kat’a: must you go? I feel something terrible is going to happen to me if you go.
Tichon: yes, if only to get away from here.
Kat’a: take me with you!!!
On the other hand, the hard done by Kat’a gets a really beautiful aria from which we learn of her lofty imagination and her (sadly very repressed) adventurous spirit. Anyone who’s ever lived in a small town knows that the only place imagination and adventurousness gets you is in trouble. Small towns thrive on conformity and propriety (although we also soon learn that the staunchest uplholders of those qualities are also very hypocritical).
So for having a “fairytale” MIL and a downtrodden daughter-in-law, paired with benevolent but ineffective men (Kat’a’s husband, Tichon, and her lover, Boris), the libretto is unexpectedly balanced by the existence of a second young couple (the sidekicks), Varvara and Vána. Vána is a scientist and Varvara is a right on sister, who willingly assists Kat’a with her issues and tries to cheer her up, offering a lighter, more pragmatic view of the world. This couple is quite clearly pitted against the Behold God’s wrath! old skool mentality, embodied by Dikoj (Boris’ cantakerous uncle) and Kabanicha. This happens during the storm scene, when Vána and Dikoj face off (to humorous effect) over “what is a storm?” So the future is yet bright (Vána and Varvara go together to Moscow, where we all hope their enterprising personalities will help them thrive).
For whatever reason, the couple Kat’a and Boris is much less successful. Probably this has something to do with the dying class – nobility, undone by the limitations propriety and the rest of that stylised form of existence puts on its healthy development.
I’m not familiar with the music enough to make extensive comments, but I will say that the singers were supported with care by Gardner and the interventions by various winds and brass sounded particularly good. In the title role we had Amanda Majeski, who has so far been known to me only as Vitellia to JDD’s Sesto way back in 2014 (Chicago). Live she made a very good impression on me, both vocally and dramatically. I wouldn’t mind hearing her Vitellia again 😉 even though these two roles are as far from each other as it gets. It’s that kind of nicely rounded soprano voice that has various colours to work with and she knows how to handle it.
As far as acting, she was completely immersed in this sad role and shone in the aria I mentioned above, where Kat’a talks about her dreams of soaring above the drab and stifling world1 she lives in. This appears to have been her ROH debut, and I hope to see her again in some interesting roles, mind. Please, ROH, don’t bury her in the same old. And if we can have Tito back at ROH sometime in the next decade, I’m definitely not going to be one to complain 😀 In any case, she got a very warm welcome in the house and the word on the street is equally as positive. Welcome to London 🙂 With Brexit looming, we might end up welcoming a lot more American singers of this calibre… that would be the good side of things.
The others did well, too, of course especially Bickley, who chewed scenery with the best of them as the self-righteous busybody Kabanicha. As unpleasant an cliche as it is, she made the role quite hypnotic in its small-town diabolique manner.
: The last scene was – totally unexpected – the most Russian thing I’ve seen on an English stage (true, I have not seen many Russian things, but I have seen Jones’ decidedly un-Russian 2016 Boris Godunov, one of his less successful productions, as far as I’m concerned). The spirit seemed just right to me (the main trio: Tichon holding the dead Kat’a, with Kabanicha tugging at them).
It was an evening equally as rewarding as it was frustrating, which is a good thing if you’re relaxed enough to put up with 😉 Jones has been on a roll for a few years now, so I would suggest you don’t miss his productions if you’re a fan of good theatre. But dress lightly, especially in the Upper Amphi; the heaters are on full blast.
This was my first return to ROH after it has completed its refurbishment of the Amphitheatre lounge. They have done a very good job integrating it with the rest of the ROH design, congratulations. It’s swanky but not obnoxiously so. After my travels around Europe, I think it’s still got the coolest lounge areas of all the major theatres.
- Two men to my right were discussing – somewhat mockingly – the cheap looking beige panneling that was the constant background to the proceedings. I was a bit surprised that it needed explaining. For my part, Jones’ ideas and Antony McDonald designs were spot on and smoothly clear at every turn: the hippie young couple proclaiming nature was beautiful, the “squares” with their ’50s style clothes and furnighings etc. ↩
Did y’all know Juditha‘s outro is the actual anthem of Venice?! I didn’t, to my shame, but I do now. (There are certain themes running through this blog). Good on them, it’s such a great little choir bit, very typical Baroque loose-end tying but so effective. I simply love Vivaldi’s writing and with good reason – if you listen closely, you will hear how his chord progressions have come down all the way to pop music.
The operatic year 2019 started wonderfully for yours truly with this out of my usual season opera trip to Amsterdam, in the always enthusiastic company of thadieu and Agathe (who organised this one – thank you, thank you!).
After having been tipped off by thadieu a few years ago as to what a gem Vivaldi’s military oratorio, celebrating Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire, was, I have (quickly) grown to love it myself. These days it’s got a well deserved spot among my top 3 favourites, yet it’s not often you get to see it staged.
As you know, the concert performance Marcon toured in 2016/2017 was one of my highlights of that season, so when this was announced – and with Iervolino to boot, to whom I was introduced via Nox obscura, anyway – it was a no brainer.
However, that concert performance, as wonderful as it had been (Galou and Hallenberg, hello! Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra + the all female choir), did not prepare me for several things. For some reason, the difference in feel from concert to staged production was the most radical I have seen yet.
Juditha: Gaëlle Arquez
Holofernes: Teresa Iervolino
Vagaus: Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Abra: Polly Leech
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Conductor: Andrea Marcon | La Cetra Barockorchester Basel, Choir of the DNO
You have probably gleaned from thadieu’s report (and if you have not, you should read it; whilst you’re at it, read Giulia’s account as well) that this staging is not ambiguous at all as to good and bad. Juditha and her people are the good ones, of course, and Holofernes and them are very horrible indeed, more so than a concert can ever convey.
It’s wartime and we are never left to forget just how that brings out the worst in its perpetrators in particular. I say this because war does not spare the oppressed from stretching the limits of what during peacetime we would call morally sound. In the end we are left with a Juditha unsettled by her own actions and resentful of her heroic status.
So not a happy ending; this Juditha is humanised, not merely a symbol of victory for those who write history. Much is made of the famous painting during the opera, most curiously with Holofernes presenting it to Juditha during their “date”, as part of the looted artwork he has decorated his quarters with. A strange element of foreshadowing, perhaps pointing out Holofernes’ and them’s utter arrogance.
Yet Holofernes goes to some lengths to appear magnanimous even from the get go: as soon as he comes on stage, he starts by shooting one of his officers who is in the process of raping a Bethulian woman. He goes on to stage a photo shoot of him giving candy to local children (apparently unaware it can also be read as majority creepy). Of course, the libretto (and his very laid back music) does paint him as willing to compromise to a certain extent with the locals. But there is not compromise for Bethulians, it’s freedom or nothing1.
I can see why it was another production featuring the Nazi as the bad guys, given the story and that this was Amsterdam. I still think there is room for this oratorio to be set even more contemporary, though there is always the trap of falling into sensationalism with that, especially when beheadings are involved. Speaking of which, you’ve probably seen Iervolino’s selfie with Holofernes’ chopped head. Armed with that knowledge ahead of the show, it turned out
all some of us were eagerly awaiting to see how effectively they would stage the beheading. Though the very relaxed Amsterdam audience giggled a little when the chopped head emerged from under the sheets, it was rather effective. Holofernes was passed out drunk, she put a sheet on his head and did the deed.
With a very unpleasant “upstart” Vagaus, this turn of events looked even more his fault than usual. You remember it is him that encourages Holofernes to grant Juditha an audience. Here, Holofernes appeared particularly uninterested at the beginning and Vagaus had to work hard (and bourishly) to convince him. Then he does a piss poor job at keeping vigilant, given that he found both Juditha and Abra armed upon entering his superior’s quarters.
As I mentioned before, none of us were prepared for Gaelle Arquez, whose Amsterdam debut was this very performance. Juditha’s arias are mostly dirges2, because she’s understandably upset with the situation and she’s trying to keep her dignity. It’s a sign of virtuosity to make them stand out and not drag (she somehow even managed to make Transit aetas jaunty). Arquez more than managed that, via deft vocal characterisation and her dense tone that fit Juditha to a t (or a th). Also, her Vivaldi style was impeccable, nothing was overdone or flashy for the sake of it and nothing betrayed how acquainted she is with other repertoire. I really need to hear more from her (more Juditha and more Baroque in general) to talk in further detail, but suffice to say that I like her tone a lot and this first live impression will stay with me for a good while.
I consider myself super lucky to have seen live my two favourite Holoferni. I have said it before, Iervolino is by quite some margin my favourite of the new generation of voices, and in this role in particular. Though more boyish/less sophisticated than Galou’s, her Holofernes does have his own strong hypnotic charm. Her softly resplendent tone lends itself particularly well to the sexy arias sung by the drunken Holofernes during the second part. This Holofernes needed all the help he could get, given the masculine toxicity all around him. But we all know Vivaldi does not portray him in a repulsive manner, so the Juditha/Holofernes scenes are always rather curious. She always seems to have the upper hand, as much as she is literally at his mercy, yet he keeps laying on an irresistible (to us) charm. I don’t know that I can say anything else that I haven’t said before about Iervolino: go see her and you will weep for joy that this wonderful music gets sung by such a voice.
Perhaps to go with the production, Marcon used the “made up” overture this time, which is the first time I’ve seen him do it. You probably know the original overture has been lost – at least partially – so the chorus we are used to is merely the bit that would normally come next. The overture heard here is good enough, in the way Vagaus’ alternative first aria is – but no cigar. Appending it before the chorus feels to me like dampening the powerful effect of the rumbling timpani and piercing (female) chorus.
The good news is Marcon and his orchestra are able to make you feel this is thrilling music. All the soloists were marvelous! They played with virtuosity and feeling. The mixed choir – again, I suppose for the purposes of the production, because usually Marcon uses the female-only choir – worked generally very well, with only some minor dragging. When you have the mixed choir you sacrifice that piercing quality for dialogue, which I like as well (I started by prefering Sardelli’s very martial mixed choir and was only won over by the all female version upon hearing Marcon’s take live).
This was my introduction to De Nationale Opera. I want to congratulate the Amsterdam public for being amazing – supremely relaxed yet engaged and well bahaved (no rustling/phone ringing/phone flashing and minimal coughing in the middle of a miserable season). No fussiness about this being a premiere, yet generous with the applause.
The house looks modern inside, along the lines of Opera Bastille. The hall isn’t that large but the stage is – especially deep. The sightlines are excellent and the acoustic very good. It also houses the local City Hall. As you do! Gotta love Dutch Style. We started imaging what if it wasn’t just operahouse/city hall, but also airport3 😉 that would anger the hotel industry, as people would fly in, watch a show and fly out – but isn’t that the Dutchest thing ever? Haha.
There’s more: the Dutch business sense showed itself at the souvenir counter. Not only did they have Juditha magnets, but also Juditha posters4. Yes, they had opera specific paraphernalia, at decent prices. And a very cute – woman cut option, though no Juditha-option – t-shirt. That’s how it should be done! My only complaint is I didn’t like the poster (ha).
So although I agree with thadieu that Marcon should’ve reined in the orchestra at times (his only fault), and in spite of the minor quibles above, I have gained a very high level of respect for De Nationale Opera. It may not be as famous as others but they do some great stuff here and they are not afraid to feature young talent in top roles – and lesser known operas, for that matter. Lesser known operas that should be MUCH better known. It wasn’t just us, but Agathe’s friends who joined us to the opera also reported liking it a lot.
Even the inclement weather (rain followed by heavier rain) did not dampen the mood. Thadieu saved the day via uber, which showed up in 5min, which meant we didn’t miss the overture (I was particularly worried we would miss the choir, of course).
It’s all Vagaus’ fault
I just realised I said nothing about Vagaus other than he was unpleasant here. Berzhanskaya did a very good job with him. If you remember, he has the flourish arias in this piece – and they are quite a few. You may think he’s merely a sidekick but does he work hard or what?! So there was a bit of disconnect between his general unpleasantness (thanks, direction) and that sweet aria (Umbrae carae – remind yourself how lovely it is) where he puts a blanket over his sleeping buddy Holofernes and cleans up the dinner date leftovers. Just when you thought this one would follow the out of the leftfield evil dudes and rub his hands at the first chance his superior is incapacitated, he gets all soft and lyrical. A bit of bromance there, eh? You know the adage: he may have done evil things, but he was nice to his family.
Anyway, this is a role where coloratura is the first and foremost requirement. If you can get gentle on Umbrae carae = bonus. Berzhanskaya worked as hard as you’d expect in this role and aced her angsty coloratura, though she had to climb over rubble at the same time, occasionally at the expense of projection. I wouldn’t mind hearing her again in other angsty/perky roles of this repertoire that are best served by youthful, slender voices.
… and what with this mesmerising oratorio, I managed to bungle up my local opera going. But I have a feeling in the long run this will be a very small price in comparison to the exceptional memories. Seriously, go if you can. There are still a few performances.
- According to the booklet, the Assyrians had not won the fight yet. It was merely the eve of the battle when Juditha wormed her way into their camp. ↩
- Aside from Transit aetas, where she’s very playfully reminding a very drunk Holofernes about the perishability of beauty. ↩
- Although I have some annoying memories from my second time at Schipol in 2012, I love how easy to navigate it is, considering it’s one of the busiest in the world and it’s set over canals and the motorway. I don’t know how, but it takes you about twice as long to get from the plane to Arrivals at Luton. Only then you take a bus to the train station, whereas here you’re on the train within 5min. And the train is 5.50 euros, tax included. ↩
- Which they wrap for you in their own poster-box. They have thought of everything. ↩
You can’t go to a theatre like La Fenice and not think about its history. Staying true to the name, it resurfaced after three fires (1774, 1836 and 1996). What we see today is the house re-opened in 2004. So it’s both old and new. You may think it’s big because it has that compact design, but although the horseshoe is packed with seats, the stalls don’t go far back. The capacity is a mere 1126, according to Wiki. And yet, some of the operas now played with big orchestras in massive houses have premiered here1. Top belcanto WS favourites were first mounted here: Tancredi, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, as well as Semiramide itself.
Before we arrived for the very late 7pm2 start time, thadieu and I roamed the streets without much planning aside from 1) must have dinner some time before the opera and 2) must have gelato sooner rather than later. That eventually turned into an obsession for yours truly: find the 2 Euro 2 scoop gelato or else! You see, gelato gets more expensive the closer you get to the TripAdvisor sanctioned areas (all of sestiere San Marco, Ponte Rialto etc.). Tip: get your gelato early on (ie, closer to the bus station). I think I drove thadieu a bit mad with my stubbornness but cheap gelato was eventually found, eagerly consumed and then all was serene again 😉
We had a leisurely dinner of seafood at a Mom and Pops restaurant in a very quiet neighbourhood somewhere near the Arsenal. After that we strolled back with enough time to do some touristy shopping at the Fenice shop. It’s rather well stocked! They do La Fenice bags for 12 Euros and La Fenice t-shirts (off white, navy, black and red) for 19.99 Euros or thereabouts. There are magnets, cards, pencils, lots of books and CD/DVDs as well. We got the t-shirt – thadieu in navy and yours truly in red. You know I also got one of the magnets.
After getting our La Fenice fan fill, it was already time for the opera. As we were walking up the very cosy stairs I kept thinking “this is our floor” but thadieu just knew we had a long climb to our loggione seats. As with Teatro Malibran, the trick is to get first row in your area, no matter how high or low you’re sitting. We had seats in the central block of the top loggione and aside from an unfortunate pole (old school design…) – which could, in the end, be negotiated – we had excellent views. Ok, you had to lean forward a bit due to lights and railing, but nobody actually sat behind us3, so we didn’t have to worry about blocking someone’s view and we even stood for the most interesting duets/ensembles. The party in the loggione is very friendly, as is the Upper Amphi at ROH, the very top in Munich or at Theatre des Champs Elysees. It’s also mostly locals (of which there were plenty on the bus back to Mestre as well).
The orchestra were already busy tuning up. We noticed our main timpanist was a lady and she did a very good job during the night.
Semiramide: Jessica Pratt
Arsace: Teresa Iervolino
Assur: Alex Esposito
Idreno: Enea Scala
Oroe: Simon Lim
Azema: Marta Mari
Mitrane: Enrico Iviglia
L’ombra di Nino: Francesco Milanese
Conductor: Ricardo Frizza | Choir and Orchestra of La Fenice
Director: Cecilia Ligorio
The production looked to me “modernised Pizzi”, which turned out to be fine. It’s “generic period opera” costumes, with some black vs white business for the dancers/Semiramide or Assur’s attendants. As the opera progressed, Assur’s outfit morphed into “generic Bond bad guy” (ie, black and pretty tight). Arsace, who has been brought up to believe he’s Scythian, wears “generic BC foreign dude” wear, in other words “stuff put together to confuse sophisticated Babylonians” (a cow patch cape, two-tone wide leg trousers, platform shoes4 and a beret). None of this motley stuff detracts from Iervolino’s cuteness in this role ❤ or from her vocal awesomeness. THIS is Arsace.
Semiramide agrees, because in this production it’s pretty clear that these two are getting it on, though initially cute and disciplined Arsace stops Semiramide’s wandering hand before her touch becomes too distracting.
Arsace: I’d die for you [my Queen]!
Semiramide: oh, no, gorgeous, I’d rather you live for me (winks and lounges seductively). Come closer and tell me what you’d do to… I mean for me.
Arsace: like I was saying, I’d die for you! I’m a warrior…
Semiramide: oh, a warrior is exactly what I – by which I mean this empire – need(s). (strokes his thigh) You’re so strong…
Arsace: err, my Queen, I must tell you something…
Semiramide: I know what you’re going to say and the answer is yes! As long as you’re as faithful to me as you’ve been so far you can ask me anything – and I mean anything.
This goes on for a while, wine5 is involved and, well… what’s a young man to do when a beautiful and powerful woman his mother’s age offers him the world (literally and metaphorically)? Azema would have to hold down the fort against Idreno’s wooing by herself for a while. Though after his Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento? (also known as dude, where’s the cement?!) she too is getting a bit frisky. Lesser known historical titbit: conversations about construction materials were pillow talk back in ye olde Babylonia. I mean did you think the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens built themselves?!
Speaking of which, why is Idreno expecting Semiramide to just give him the keys to the empire? He’s just some dude from India, pretty much on Arsace’s level, except he looks like he’s commanding an army of blingy tailors rather than burly warriors. Semiramide wears her “belcanto diva” dress but we all know belcanto heroines like their men heroic (except for Violetta). I would also say this Arsace is most definitely a man, any ambiguity present is not of the gender kind.
So even though they got pretty well acquainted the day before, Arsace is still stunned when Semiramide makes the big announcement (that she’s passing on the throne to him as well as wants to marry him).
Arsace: shit! How am I going to explain this to Azema?!
Luckily, the spectre of his father gets involved (after all a father should attend his son’s wedding even if he had to bribe Cerberus to get there) and the conversation suddenly turns horror-film style. Trope #1: being mesmerised by weird stuff:
Arsace (to the spectre): I feel compelled to touch you! Can I?
I mean the spectre looks pretty damn well preserved for having been dead for 15 years, except in dire need of a shower – like he’d come down a chimney rather that up a drainage ditch from the world below (come to think of it, this decision is for the best; the production had hinted at it earlier when the sacred fire went out and ashes poured out from the sacred ash plates. Later the temple virgins did a surprisingly poor job at cleaning the floor (what amateurs don’t soak the towels first?!) but let’s not get lost in details like Scala did in his cement).
Oroe is a very congenial high priest but I have a feeling he’s rigged this game from the getgo, namely he made sure the basement’s (is, burial chamber’s) electrical instalation wasn’t working. The last act boasts that famous trio that goes something like this:
Semiramide: it’s very dark in here, I can’t see my hand. I hope I don’t soil my finery before this ordeal is over.
Arsace: wow, it’s so dark in this basement! Even as a fearless warrior I feel my bowels loosen…
Assur: was it always so dark here? With my luck that stupid spectre will come back and scare me shitless.
All: it’s so dark in here, we’re pooping our pants!
thadieu: someone hand them flashlights already!
We’re lucky this is in flowery, 19th century Italian, thank you very much.
But flashlights do eventually appear, because somehow Oroe’s attendants are able to locate Semiramide and realise she’s been stabbed to death.
Oroe: arrest Assur!
Arsace: …OMG! Who did I stab, then?!
Like, dude…! What kind of army commander of the Babylonian Empire are you, stabbing randomly in the dark?! This production does not give Arsace a stuffed unicorn to hold.
So, after much noodling that didn’t even mention the eyeliner wearing male harem that gets Semiramide hot and bothered whilst she’s singing about how happy she is that sexy stud Arsace is back in town, how was the singing, the conducting and the house band?
Let’s start with the conducting: compared with Pappano, Maestro seemed more interested in keeping the forward movement – which he did. Occasionally (the overture, for instance) he turned the corners a bit too abrasively for my taste, where I would’ve preferred more detail/more legato. But 4 hours went fast. The singers were not hampered by the orchestra. The house band sounded good to me, all the solos went without hitch and the instrumental tones were pleasant to the ear.
The singing went like this, from best to not so good: Iervolino, Pratt, Esposito, Lim, with Scala sort of around the corner. Dude started a bit shaky, with some intonation problems and wobble at the very top, which made the cement aria appear unfocused both vocally and dramatically. I loved it when Brownlee sang it but here it seemed to just go on and on. To Scala’s credit, he got it mostly together as the night went on. But he’s not someone I’m in any hurry to hear again. The public loved him.
Both thadieu and I agreed Lim as Oroe has a very warm, secure, rounded bass but he doesn’t have that much to sing. That warmth and rondness made him feel wise and kind dramatically, which fit. Would listen to him again.
Esposito was the night’s revelation to me, as I have been mostly cold toward him until now. This is the smallest house I’ve seen him in, which I’m sure has something to do with it. In this absorbent6 environment and at this size his voice travelled very well and dramatically he was ideal. Maybe I just need to see him in bad dude roles 😉 The only unintentionally amusing moment came when Assur sang about the spectre’s pulling his (Assur’s) hair 😀
Pratt has the belcanto diva down pat, without coming off too cold. I wonder why ROH doesn’t hire her. As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve enjoyed her excellent technique, ease with coloratura, beautiful, completely unforced – “blooming” (as per thadieu) – top and stylish touches of unfussy softer singing. Thadieu thought she applied too many ornaments but I disagreed. This is Rossini, there is no such thing as too many ornaments7; furthermore, even if you – which is me, quite often, lately – think Rossini did write too many notes, I didn’t feel like that in her case.
I guess thadieu liked JDD’s more psychologically exploratory approach – and certainly her lower notes, which, true, Pratt does not have – but this production is different and this Semiramide is a less conflicted heroine (until the end, where her conflict is more of the “omg, this is my child!” kind) and rather someone who is always trying to do what she has to do without overthinking it (that kind of thinking might’ve got her in this mess in the first place, but she’s a woman in charge of an empire, she can’t vacillate too much).
Even thadieu agreed that once she started interacting with Iervolino’s Arsace she “humanised”. Indeed, their interaction was excellent. I also thought her and Esposito’s Assur worked – something akin to a mutually destructive relationship. I mean, she still has the broader gestures of belcanto acting but within that frame she’s very effective.
That leaves us with Iervolino’s Arsace. Right after the entrance aria, thadieu and I were in agreement:
thadieu: I’m in love!
dehggi: this is perfect!
What can I say? She’s got everything: the whole range, the ease with coloratura, the wonderful warm contralto tone, the eveness from top to bottom and she can act. A pleasure to listen to/watch. Do yourself a favour and book a ticket to see her NOW. We’re lucky to have caught the Iervolino train this early 😀
After the opera finished, staff was eager to go home and pretty much rushed us out, hehe, somewhere in a narrow street at the back or side of the house.
thadieu: should we get the phone out?
dehggi: yes, because who the hell can navigate Venezia in the middle of the night?!
In the end we followed the crowd, comprised of orchestra members and audience, which took us back to Piazzale Roma more or less in no time. I have to say that nighttime walks through Venezia are the most romantic thing ever, even when you’re rushing to get the last bus. I was tempted to risk having to walk back to Mestre on the side of the motorway 😉 I mean, secluded little bridges, with not a soul in sight, Canal Grande in the darkness, the temptation to try and steal a gondola and glide into the night – you get the picture. With full moon to boot.
We passed a bunch of young people being loud with pizza (and beer?) in a piazza and that seemed the most incongruous thing ever to do in Venice.
thadieu: they’re missing a really great performance.
Youth is really lost on the young (I wouldn’t have cared about opera or, indeed, Venezia, when I was that age, either). But there’s a time for everything and right now I can’t wait for another reason to return ❤
ps: more pictures later, I wanted to get the post out.
- Ernani, Rigoletto, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra. ↩
- I don’t know what the deal is with the union in Venice, but Italians in general don’t seem to mind a show going well into the night (see Torino and Napoli). Semiramide is a long opera even with cuts, so our performance finished well after 11pm. ↩
- though people did shuffle around to get better views. ↩
- the Disco era alive and kicking up in the Caucasus! ↩
- and perhaps a bit of GHB… ↩
- kinda like in Munich, this is not a dry acoustics house. ↩
- whether you like it or not. ↩
Check it out tomorrow, 30 September, on Wiggy’s livestream. It’s at 3pm London time, so it might be a bit weird, but I believe it will also be rather interesting, especially for mezzo fans 🙂 I’ll be around, from the comfort of my lounge, and will give a bit of a running commentary in this very post, if everything goes the way it should 😉
So, here I am. Janet Baker and Simon Callow talk about her seeing Lotte Lehman at Wiggy in the late ’50s, who came in her hat and gloves, which stopped Baker in her tracks. Apparently Lehman was very intimidating, including to the young Baker, who found her teaching style lacking in spontaneity, having to do everything exactly the same way Lehman wanted. Baker felt greatly inhibited by this. She wondered about the generation gap being similar today.
Callow: who did she admire at that time in her time? Sena Jurinak.
Acting: connecting with the thoughts of the character = both agree. As the narrator in the church nativity play, she felt very serious about it and also “in charge” of the play, and being confident she was “right” in what she was doing, unlike the others in the play 😉
Words and music: as important as each other.
Friends play teddybear picnic on the piano = reprehensible 😉
(Certain) rubbish church songs vs Bach = no contest 😉
G&S = also terrible, haha. Reacted strongly to “quality as she saw it” since a young age. She’s since changed her mind about G&S. All great but she’s never wished to sing it herself 😉
Voice: teachers apparently could tell she had a good voice by age 11, as per a school friend, she’s quite surprised how anyone could tell so early on.
Callow: says she realised early on that she had a responsibility towards her talent (to nurture it); a sense of destiny = she agrees. Baker: surely you felt the same way? Callow: nope. he loved theatre but her no experience with training. Wrote to Laurence Olivier about the wonderful theatre he was running and LO wrote back, inviting him to work at the box office 😉 not too bad! Would this ever happen today? Very unlikely. CV >>> enthusiasm for any medium.
She thinks she was very “gullible” when she was told not to sing for two years. Callow thinks she was way disciplined for a young person. This was when her voice was changing from high soprano to mezzo.
Both acknowledge luck, as they met people without “shopping around” for teachers etc. and the choices one makes (having a children and family etc.).
Talks about her Austrian teacher (see also: the conversation with JDD). She really enjoyed lieder, which was what her teacher specialised it. She says she enjoyed singing in German, German language in general and the love of words developed further. She was also singing in the Glyndebourne Chorus at the same time = she says it was luck that all came at the same time.
Callow: how was she so naturally in character? Baker: mind/heart/body coming together = acting. Callow: not all actors have that either – after 3 years in drama school, he was able to say convincingly “My lord, the carriage awaits!” 😉 Baker: John Copley and Peter Hall taught her to act as far as “the mechanics” go. Callow: says she can transform with a minimal amount of makeup (specifically in Les Troyens). No generalised rush of emotion. Baker: Peter Hall said she was dangerous because she took risks (don’t we love that 😀 ). She says she doesn’t teach beginners because she wants to dig deeper when acting, because at that point you need to expose yourself, which she acknowledges is a lot to ask, but it’s necessary (as a good actor) and it never bothered her. She thinks it’s because of how she cares so much about the power of words so she just goes with whatever is required by said words. Callow: he was surprised how the very big emotions fit the limits of her voice. Baker: trusted her solid technique, practiced every day, before whatever she sang, though it was tiresome, so she didn’t have to worry about it later. Lucky she had teachers who suited her. Because of this she was able to focus on her acting on stage. She worked for 30+ years busy all the time.
On retirement: relief! Not having to wake up and sing. She says younger singers coming up and having their turn = natural. Likens her singing to raising children – at one point you have to let it go.
Baker: as actors, do you learn discipline to see you through? Callow: yes, physical and vocal (dancing, singing = to warm up). The attitude towards voice in theatre changed in recent years. Voice = no longer considered for its expressive qualities. Actors are increasingly wearing microphones. Body becomes slacker and less expressive – physical excitement lessens. Diction, rhythm = not so important today. With actors it’s not just the voice = talent, it’s a bundle of things (personality, physical package). Doing 8 shows a week = needs good character (mental stamina) to do it 8 shows a week for 3, 6, 12 months at a time or 40 takes on a movie set. The challenge = to keep the reality of it. Acting = “images of destiny”. Baker’s Full Circle book = Callow praises it.
Opera productions: respect the composer and libretist. Costumes also important = supports your imagination of who the character is. Critices “busy-ness” on stage (I agree!). Callow: opera is ahead of theatre in experiementalism. Seems ambivalent about many different angles but no Wagner with urinals. Midsummer Night’s Dream in a box = ok, thinks it worked.
Farewell: Orfeo handing the lyre back. Chorus gave it back to her 😉
A certain conversation spurred me to listen to this rooster compilation 😉 Although this post might initially appear overly whimsical, think again. Whoever’s spent some time in a traditional village or small town is well acquainted with the classic sounds and mannerisms of the rooster.
Today I’m reviewing the above 33 roosters on: dramatic skills/entrances, plumage stylishness, beauty of sound, sound projection, cleanliness of tone, trill skills, and, of course, posture. For your express pleasure, I included direct links to my favourites.
1 flaps wings, great posture, clean, classic sound, has all the notes
2 short, unassuming (though nice crest), no-nonsense crowing
3 perched, nice plumage, short on breath (all good until the end)
4 short, hairy legs, Rossini would not be pleased with his slur
5 classic look and sound, loses steam by the end
6 shaggy-stylish diva-dude, goes for the money notes (projection!) but slurs his way there
7 the JK of roosters, impressive plumage, great posture, baritenor sound, a bit gutted by the end
8 short, with ‘tude, great projection, needs to work on clean sound
9 (0:38) super stylish 3colour plumage, perched, checking out his audience, clean, classic tenor
10 funny looking shag, all black, woodsy type, great projection and posture, not the prettiest sound but he doesn’t cheat
11 nice, peppery plumage with nicely contrasting crest, good posture, short and to the point (Baroque-sized crow)
12 (0:52) the red baron of roosters, what perch when you have that bari-tone? absolute classic crow
13 redish coat, no crest to speak of but he can crow no problem, great snag for a second tier
14 someone dropped the pepper all over him, needs a lot of work on his breath
15 peppery with a yellow twist, good posture, short crow, he was perhaps hanging out with the 20th century rooster-crowd (“you want me to do… trills?!”)
16 all the colours in the book, just launches into the sound, he might ruin his voice pushing (against wind and debris) but for now it’s a great crow
17 white with peppery bib, still has the tone but is starting to lose the control
18 all peppery with blue tinge by the tail, legendary posture, passable crow
19 all colours, good posture, honest crow with the trims
20 snowy with black tail and faded crest, checks his audience, “still singing at 70”
21 all colour, perch, classic crow with trims but pushing a bit forward
22 all white, all ‘tude, starts great but loses steam
23 great white colour, very nice crest and no-nonsense baritenor crow
24 white/black, tiny crest, great woodsy perch, cheats
25 squat, whitish, a bit too much grain in the diet, sound drops about halfway through
26 all colour unique plumage, great crest and aerodynamic posture (not so great in the long run but highly photogenic), good crow; the cyclist of roosters
27 red, perched lazily at the coop “door”, “what, you actually want me to sing?!” face, does an approximation of the crow
28 golden, good posture, nice ping but Rossini would shake his head
29 (2:02) the king or roosters, unique marmot-stance, great crow
30 all colour, all crest, the equivalent of a bearded (hipster) rooster, writes his own ornaments
31 (2:10) perched impressively, impressive tail feathers, massive entrance, clean tenor sound with trims – the Pavarotti of roosters
32 short, squat-ish, colours = check, good posture, countertenor sound! honest crow
33 all white, forward crest, posture, great tone but a bit slurred by the end
This is a pretty good account of what went down in Zurich (re: Poppea). (From my seat in my Mum’s kitchen) I’m not very convinced by those projections either but I do like the rounded stage idea, with the displaced balcony box spectators at the back.
Like I said in the Carmen post, I’m not sure I care so much about being physically super immersed in the action as long as the acting is convincing and the production clear and coherent. I can draw my own Poppea/Carmen/Tito etc. parallels, thank you. But I doubt I could’ve forked out the money for those seats, anyway (though maybe you got discounts for having the public watch you as part of the action… but it looks like they’re not always there? whatever it was).
In any case, David Hansen vs. Kate Linsdey ultimately seals it for me.
ps: pregnant Poppea = yes.
I know this is oooold news, but it’s just now that I’ve made time to think about Tcherniakov’s Aix Carmen (2017) and it’s holiday downtime.
Baranello’s (of Likely Impossibities) review is very evocative for those who have not seen this production for themselves. I feel both intrigued and a bit disoriented. It sounds like a cool idea for a production but somehow also rather fanciful. Usually I bitch about productions being underdeveloped but in this case it might be too well thought out, to the point where it leaves opera as musical entertainment in the dust and turns into a film that uses a very popular opera libretto as pop psychology prop (narrowly before MeToo).
It’s an unusual feeling, maybe somewhat similar to the recent Martina Franca extended-play Rinaldo (just found out Armida = Cher1). I want the action on stage to keep my attention focused by being novel and interesting but I also want to retain the feeling that I’m at the opera rather than in a play in play in play.
If it were a film I think I’d really enjoy it2 – I’m already in the frame of mind where the opera is called Don Jose, Incel extraordinaire.
The clinic’s staff is too excited to notice that the treatment didn’t work: The man they think they have cured is still locked in his own head, seemingly unable even to hear their praise, still believing he killed Carmen. (from the above mentioned review)
Don’t directors always like the trope of the self satisfied psychiatric staff? Heh.
1 August was the date Glyndebourne reserved for people under 30 to flock to this production of Pelléas et Mélisande – I’ve never seen so many truly young people at the opera! It was disconcerting until I realised what was going on. My first thought was why does Debussy bring out so many young people as opposed to Handel? 😉 Heh. Once I will make a point to go for the under 30 performance of a Handel opera.
My relationship with Debussy is generally positive, reason for which I attended. It was the same in this case. Musically I find much to appreciate about his anti-opera, though I can’t say I ever get to the point of loving it like I do Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle1. To my ears it’s always very listenable, though a bit too loose structurally to grip me.
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Christina Gansch
Geneviève: Karen Cargill
Arkel: Brindley Sherratt
Pelléas: John Chest
Yniold: Chloé Briot
Doctor: Michael Mofidian
Shepherd: Michael Wallace
Conductor: Robin Ticciati | London Philharmonic Orchestra and The Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Stefan Herheim
The subject is a more complicated matter. Obsessive jealousy isn’t a favourite plot, and the woman character as cipher is tedious as far as I’m concerned. I do understand the validity of presenting characters who never quite get each other’s motives (that’s rather realistic for an opera interested in the elusiveness of emotion) and I think my reaction to the cipher woman comes out of the frustration of having seen so many men insist on writing about women without bothering to communicate with them long enough to start making sense of them. Though making sense is hardly what Debussy had in mind here, so even if it irks me, it’s not fair to bitch too much about it in this case.
The three main characters (Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud) are all presented via their emotions first and foremost. When Golaud and and Mélisande first meet, she’s acting severely traumatised, but we of course never find out why. He’s lost in the woods. Pelléas falls deeply in love with Mélisande as soon as he sees her. Later on, she tells Golaud that she’s unhappy in their relationship (which, duh! he saves her and immediately marries her because what other course of action can there be? Plus his wife has died and his father says in so many words that a wife will distract him from “unsavoury actions”) but puts it in a it’s not you, it’s me way, that rings true to this day – people only say that when they’re afraid of the other one’s reaction to the truth. He, of course, flies off the handle and starts suspecting Pelléas, who, by virtue of being young, is more suited to her.
As the opera goes on we learn that we’re dealing with unreliable witnesses and Golaud’s frustration with pushing for
his the truth culminates with him directly asking Mélisande(‘s ghost?) whether there was anything between her and Pelléas, to which the answer is, of course, inconclusive. This was my favourite scene in the entire opera. We can never know, especially when we push for a certain answer which has more to do with our insecurities than with evidence. But at this point it’s not even clear whether the whole thing plays only in his mind or if it actually happened (Herheim does a good job at keeping it unclear).
If this was the high point of the opera, the lowest – for me – was the romantic scene between Pelléas and Mélisande, where he comes to – so to speak – serenade her below the tower when Golaud has locked her (ie, their bedroom). He asks her to let her hair down so he can touch it and basically make out with it. Ok. This scene goes on for quite some time and I did realise, after a while, that it’s supposed to be really romantic and sexy. Dear reader, I have a romantic deficiency and I actually fell asleep on my feet, to the point I was about to fall down, but luckily was jolted awake midfall. No joke 😉
And, indeed, this is an opera where everything is deadly serious, aside from a rather unintentionally comic moment when Pelléas says that his grandfather, who has been gravely ill, has woken up and upon seeing him commented that he (Pelléas) looks like someone who doesn’t have long to live, so he’d better go travelling.
The production by Herheim seemed fine to me but I have never seen another one for this opera, neither do I know it enough to have thought about it before. I think it covers everything and deals with the issues at the heart of the plot. He says in the Glyndebourne interview printed in the booklet that he has incorporated the organ from the Glyndebourne Organ Room because it looks so ominous, even more so because it is not used at all for its music making in the opera, just as a visual symbol (gothic, oppresive, old school mores etc.). I would argue that making every production Glyndebourne related can turn into a bit of a gimmick but, fair enough, why not use the organ if it makes sense? Whether having Glyndebourne goers show up in the last scene is closer to gimmick or not depends on your feelings.
I wasn’t invested enough to feel one way or another, but that’s more Debussy’s fault than Herheim’s – or my detachment from this particular plot2. I did enjoy how he used the sets (the dining-drawing room of the big, old house) for every scene, with only certain lighting details to signify a dream sequence or walls retracting for literally more space. Also the central pedestal-well-sarcophagus-grotto was another aptly used multifunctional symbol.
Purves as Golaud was great, but I guess to no surprise, as his role in Written on Skin is very similar and it really suits him dramatically. In fact, before the intermission I kept thinking of parallels between the two3. Things do change quite a bit (for the better) in the last two acts. The others were good, too, though in spite of its name, this opera is mostly about Golaud (or like Hippolyte at Aricie, where they main characters just go on and on – she ❤ him, he ❤ her – and other more interesting things happen around them).
Speaking of its long ranging influence on 20th and 21st operas, the beginning of Bluebeard is very similar (for my taste Bartók improved on whatever Debussy tried with Pelléas et Mélisande) and I swear the distinctive flute part in Akhnaten comes right out of here. The libretto must be made up of 80% words of Latin origin, as I could never follow a French text to such a degree before (also thanks to the clear – if not always very French – diction employed by the singers).
A wonderful Summer day wrapped up my 2018 G-season. A welcome surprise this year was the Southernrail trains, who gave me no trouble whatsoever4. Looks like I’ll be less G-busy next year, but you never know…
- But then I really like the plot in that case and the language is a lot more poetic and the music much more structured. ↩
- You may not be surprised to remember that I did like how Guth used the Glyndebourne grounds for Tito. The grass is indeed a very important feature of the local landscape and the pond at the very back of the garden is mysterious enough to fuel the imagination. ↩
- What is considered scary in entertaiment has changed a lot in the past 100 years, interesting since our actual life is a lot more sheltered. ↩
- Unlike bloody Ryanair, who has added really unnecessary stress for the past month and a detour via Munich for my next outing. ↩
Last night thadieu and I decided to revisit this precious moment in Viennese Opera Ball history 😉 and then it occurred to us to compare Gritskova’s moves to previous Opera Ball featured singers. What came out was both amusing and illuminating:
As you can see, the moves appear pre-ordained. Now of course, Netrebko was on the verge of fabulousness (already on top of the world?) at the time and she is a natural mover, as opposed to La Grits, who looks like she’s thinking, I will be fa
mousbulous if it kills me!
You didn’t think you’d escape this “scientific experiement” without an incursion into the steely moves of the Ice Mezzo herself, did you? Here she’s singing Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix (brace yourself for some arctic seduction). But, as you can see, she also has to walk and twirl (I mean wowza at the camera movement! That’s some getting down with the debutants for Vienna!).
As thadieu observed whilst we very carefully surveyed a few of her performances (including La tremenda ultrice spada and Non piu mesta), she seems to be thinking I will sing this intense aria, but I will make 100% sure not to trip on the hem of my gown at any time (actually T was more colourful, saying she was careful to avoid stepping into – vocal – mud).
After some big names, prepare for textbook DIVA action:
Aside from the curiously unflattering musical choices, it’s plain to see that Draculette has drafted into her contract if and when she will be moving! Haha! She’s such a veteran, she knows that she will be asked to cover that huge space and wants it in her own terms.
So there you have it, we can be a little less harsh on Gritsy today. After all, her choice of aria was the most… daring?!
Pictures later… but here are some thoughts:
Early yesterday I joined T in Venice for major contralto action – and gelato and balmy weather (as the heatwave had just hit London the day before, “balmy” might be putting it mildly. My head is still trying to adjust, but I do appreciate the concept of “breeze”, which is not something London does).
Venice… It is a but weird seeing in the flesh something you’ve heard of enough to consider yourself familiar with (heh) for your entire life. Just how many historical sights have they crammed per square mile?! The mind boggles. Every other city I’ve seen so far has a point where it starts to take it easy with history; Venice just keeps on going. It’s somewhat peculiar location probably helps. Canals, canals, canals… though apparently not quite as lengthy as Birmingham’s. The trick is, of course, how crammed it all is.
If you’ve never been, it’s more tightly together than you can imagine. There is no need to fear distances, you will be able to cover them without major effort. You could probably even walk from the Mestre train station to Ponte Rialto and not feel particularly tired – as they actually have pavements on the side of the motorway (which is more like a larger road).
Apparently, the season is not yet in full swing, but the amount of tourists, especially lining up for overpriced meals and endless selfies by the Grand Canal, is exhausting. Luckily they tend to stay within typical areas. Walk a bit off the beaten path – as Teatro Malibran is – and you can have a gorgeously relaxing time by a tiny canal, where gondoliers do a great job and not ramming their boats into each other.
Moving on towards contralto action, I was astounded by the acoustics at Teatro Malibran! If you want to see something there, DO IT! Don’t think twice. It’s crystal clear. We were quite far up and I could understand every word, hear every inflection. Even the countertenors seem loud here 🙂
As soon as the orchestra started I could tell this was going to be a feast for the ears. Fasolis does a great job with the modern orchestra, only on occasion getting a bit too loud. That being said, and considering what I mentioned about the acoustics, this is one of the loudest Baroque performances I’ve heard so far. For better or worse – you lose some warmth but Fasolis uses the volume dynamics to optimal results – especially in Orlando’s hell raising Sorge l’irato nembo, where going from soft to loud gives a wonderful depth.
Now that the live stream happened and will be out for our pleasure on culturebox for a whole year, I’ll focus on things that are different when heard in the house. Cirillo as Alcina was excellent – I liked her a lot more here than in Torino. Plus the role is so much fun in Vivaldi (it’s still awesome in Handel but fun wouldn’t be the right term)! I liked Vistoli’s Ruggiero better in the live stream, interestingly, but, as t mentioned, it could also be from night to night. He is still very secure sounding in the very long lines, and plumbs some tenoral depths – for better or worse, depending on how you feel about these forays. I’m not quite sure.
Prina was wonderful but then this seems like a perfect role for her particular skills and talents. There is a lot of emotional ground to cover – from seasoned warrior to hopelessly in (unreqitted) love. I want to talk more in depth about Vivaldi’s take on Ariosto vs Handel’s, as they are very different, but I’m going to do this in a longer post, likely after the Saturday performance. Suffice it to say that men are by and large taken the piss out of in the original text and this production follows that. Yet Orlando is not entirely unsympathetic, as uncouth as he comes off. He’s madly in love, the poor thing, and he really has no clue how to tackle this issue, though he definitely tries. If you’ve familiar with Prina you can probably tell how much this suits her. She has that kind of physical authority to always anchor one’s attention, regardless on who else is on stage and/or how well armed the other person is. From vicious Polinesso to poor hapless Orlando…
T and I were a bit worried when Prina climbed the moon during Nel profondo cieco mondo, but luckily she did not slip… Also you could tell the sets worked well to project the voice back to the public, especially when she got close to the back of the top curtain and it came off a bit soft.
So that’s it for first impressions, more later about the rest of the impressions 😉
Ps: I really liked Alcina, but her treatment of the cute and soulful hippogriff was not cool at all! I could hardly focus on things after she carved his heart out… I know she was desperate but COME ON!