Category Archives: french opera

Feeling alienated? Stab Carmen.

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. In the end it’s a gimmick, as the chosen pop stars didn’t have relationships that could translate to Rinaldo‘s plot. 
  2. Though Michael Fabiano looks too much like an operatic version of Wayne Rooney for me to get into his acting properly. 

Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida – belated world premiere (ROH, 18 July 2018)

The crucial question here is: does the world need another Donizetti opera?

The very next one: was it fun?

The answer to the first question will vary greatly even within the belcanto community, seeing as how Donizetti was more prolific than his other two best known belcanto brethren and many of his operas are still popular. In a very general way1, I actually like the story of La favorite so I could very well stand this one.

Sylvia: Joyce El-Khoury
Leone de Casaldi: David Junghoon Kim
King Fernand of Naples: Vito Priante
Don Gaspar: Laurent Naouri
THE Monk: Evgeny Stavinsky
Conductor: Mark Elder | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH

Old Mature codger: I can jolly well see why he recycled the music to this one.

Yea, me too – some of it is very entertaining (most of the choir bits, which I remembered from elsewhere and were really catchy in the way act I of Maria Stuarda is2) and the rest is easily listenable – to answer the second question.

I have a feeling its success was one part Donizetti and two parts Mark Elder, who’s long championed lesser known Donizettis, like Dom Sebastian. He obviously likes this kind of stuff and has a lot of fun with it, which in turn rubs off on the audience (or at least people like yours truly). He was great in alternating the melodrama with the funny and his communication with the soloists, orchestra and choir remarkable; aside from some arias in some need of editing (bad Donizetti!), the motion of the the ocean was bouncy and sprightly.

Here I have to stop and commend the choir. I’ve not always been ROH Choir’s biggest fan but they were on fire for this. I don’t remember when was the last time they were so into it, when everything sounded so easy and exciting. Excellent job, everyone.

For those who are more or less familiar with La favorite, this opera is its first – unlucky – incarnation (the sponsor went bankrupt and it was never performed – until yesterday in London). Unlike its later version, L’Ange de Nisida is less serious, in that it has a thoroughly comic character in Don Gaspar, the corrupt official. He starts like he means to go on with a rather complex aria of the same nature like Rossini’s Figaro or his own Dulcamara’s. I’m Don Gaspar and there’s nothing I can’t fix if the price is right. The chorus communicates with him during the aria, as he has brought them along to serenade l’ange of the title but then sends them off when he notices a new fish he could hook (the hapless tenorino, Leone).

Things go downhill from there but he never loses his enterpreneurial spirit, no matter how much those around him moan in belcanto anguish. That is to say, Leone (who loves l’ange aka Sylvia) and l’ange (aka Sylvia, who loves him back but oh, non! it’s not meant to be!) keep it old skool and struggle with love and honour for the majority of the opera’s 3 hours. The king wrestles with love vs authority (dude, like what atuthority? Gaspar and l’ange keep telling him what to do) and THE monk punishes everyone who has a semblence of fun on the island of Nisida (I kinda see where he’s coming from. He’s like a born again who went to Ibiza for a weekend), the choir keeps gossiping and judging the poor star crossed couple, even though we’re told (by them!) from the getgo that Sylvia has helped them out whenever their ships were tossed by the storm and their flocks in mortal danger.

There is a duet between the king and Sylvia, where she tears him a new one because he’s never made her an honest woman though he promised her he would (whatever did they teach young noble women about the ways of the world back then?). It is revealed during the opera that she’s a very honourable and concerned soul who just happens to be the king’s mistress – ye shalt not judge. Also hatas gonna hate. Alas.

Both her and Leonore in La favorite are a bit po-faced; I have to give it to Verdi (or Schiller?) that the coolest character of king’s mistress fame is Eboli. I mean she gets to be witty, seductive, evil and also grow emotionally by the end of the opera. These two are just kind of woe is me, love is not to be – though Oh, mio Fernando is a cool aria (not present here; also alas).

I’m really sad 1839 was so far removed from 1739, because we don’t get a ship tossed by the sea aria for Leone, even though that’s basically his story. It takes him about 3/4 of the opera to understand that he’s being used by all (perhaps not so much by Sylvia, who loves him but gets to despise him when he agrees to marry her in exchange for titles and money – although that’s not why he marries her, but, hey, if someone says do you want to marry the woman you love and get lots of money for the effort, too? – would you say no to that? – that’s just some ersatz melodrama so people end up thoroughly emotionally drained by act IV). It’s belcanto.

Start of Act IV Sylvia: I’m dying of sorrow.
End of Act IV Sylvia: oh, Leone, I love you but we can never be together.
Leone: why not? I love you too, we got each other! and that’s a lot – for love
Sylvia: because I’m dying of happiness. [dies]

Also in act IV: Leone is tired by all that happened that day (in the morning he gets the death penalty for dissing someone or something important, by lunch Gaspar and l’ange intervene for him and the king commutes his sentence (told you, he’s Mr Authority) – to married life 😉 – then Leone meets with l’ange and she tells him she loves him but can’t be with him, in the afternoon the king tells him to marry her and during the ceremony her realises she’s the king’s mistress and everyone shuns him for being dishonourable) and decides enough is enough and joins a monastery – and by the evening he’s ordained priest! I guess because THE monk – who keeps threatening with the Papal Red Bull – knew his father and what’s a bit of nepotism if it’s for a god good cause?

So, yea, that’s the story. They really clean it up for La favorite but on the other hand Don Gaspar! Naouri was so much fun, I kept wanting Don Gaspar to make another scheming and shamelessly self serving appearance. He and Elder (and the choir) had the most fun of the night.

This was the first time I heard El-Khouri (though I had tix to see her and hubby in recital exactly a year ago but couldn’t go due to random illness). It was a curious experience and it took me the entire night to figure out what was going on. I came to the conclusion that she didn’t feel comfortable with the dramatic nature of this role – her voice felt strangled whenever she wasn’t singing coloratura, which was very good (same goes for diminuendo – beautifully executed, with technique and feeling). To me she felt so uncomfortable that it was hard to get much expression beside said ornaments. However, next to Naouri she had the most engaged stage presence, considering this was a concert performance.

Kim as innocent tenorino Leone was also a mixed bag, but rather because he is so young. Last year he was still part of ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artist programme and this was a big role for him. He had some utterly beautiful moments throughout the night, especially when called to sing piano and with feeling and he was wise enough not to push for schmalz. Donizetti and possibly grand opera is a good route for him, his voice is very well suited for Nemorino and that kind of haplessly plaintive stuff. We root for him, especially as he’s cute as a button! (I’m saying that as a good thing – if you got it, go for it, there are many cute and innocent roles for tenors). He’s not the most interactive actor, at least not in a non-scripted environment but he does look like he means what he sings.

Priante as the king seemed to me like his voice was a size too small for the role but otherwise I can’t say I have complaints. He does look like the kind of king this opera calls for and he was engaged, especially as the night progressed. Stavinsky as THE monk of the Bull was pretty menacing, though maybe give him another act and his monk would mellow quite a bit to get jamming with the locals.

It was a very entertaining evening and I’m sure Opera Rara recorded it, because there were plenty of mics on stage, so I think you will be able to listen to it, should you be inclined to indulge in yet another belcanto opera (where all the big moments end exactly the same). There is one more performance on July 21 and still plenty of (rather cheap) tickets, because it’s not Maria Stuarda, after all (or at least not all of it is).

  1. insofar as any story involving the other woman is concerned (though poor ange finds herself in the unusual situation of being the other woman to the ghost of the honest woman). I always enjoy seeing reviled characters/antagonists on stage. And in this case we have a bit of (sentimentalised) exploration of the question: would winning the social lottery make you happy? 
  2. probably because that’s where I heard at least some of them, ha. 

Proms 2018 (slim pickin’s for yours truly)

I parsed the programme and, as far as I’m concerned, there are two Proms I would be interested in:

Prom 71

John Eliot Gardiner conductor | Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
JDD mezzo

Hector Berlioz
Overture ‘Le corsaire’ (8 mins)
La mort de Cléopâtre (21 mins)
The Trojans – Royal Hunt and Storm (10 mins)
The Trojans – Dido’s death scene (7 mins)


Hector Berlioz
Harold in Italy (42 mins)

Prom 74

Handel’s Theodora. I know I said it was boring but Ann Hallenberg is Irene. It will be worth listening to it on the radio 🙂

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 (he has all these different names, but it’s Satan all right, especially the way he’s dressed in this production) 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.

Pappano’s Werther (ROH, 24 June 2016)

When I bought my ticket it was with JDD in mind, as up to that point several efforts to get into Werther had proved completely unsatisfying. That it had Grigòlo in the title role was, I thought, a good thing, since I had come to enjoy his sound and singing manner after a rough start.

I have by now learned to be cautious with singers because liking someone’s voice does not guarantee you will like them in every role and just going for something random can cause one to dimiss a perfectly good singer in a not so matching role. I’m saying this because I quite surprisingly am in agreement with the author or this review, which might be a first, though I read his stuff because he’s knowledgeable. Namely, I felt that neither JDD nor Grigòlo were quite right for their roles.

In the end, though, it wasn’t a bad night, thanks to Pappano and the ROH orchestra who was in excellent form. Even though I did not know before that this is a favourite of Pappano’s, I could tell he was in his element – everything ran smoothly, with details well fleshed out, and he had a very good hold on the whole (the thing felt well balanced across the acts). The orchestra purred; I especially enjoyed the contributions from the winds and brass, but they usually sound sweet. So there you go, saved by the conductor and the orchestra. Even the kids (you know how I feel about children in opera) did a very good job with their annoying carol.

Werther: Vittorio Grigòlo
Charlotte: Joyce DiDonato
Albert: David Bizic
Sophie: Heather Engebretson
The Bailli: Jonathan Summers
Johann: Yuriy Yurchuk
Schmidt: François Piolino
Brühlmann: Rick Zwart
Käthchen: Emily Edmonds
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Orchestra of the ROH

I couldn’t tell you what my issue was with JDD vocally (reason for which I referred you to the above linked review in the first place) but I just felt like her sound wasn’t what was needed. I’ve heard her live twice before and each time she was more than convincing so I have no doubt about her abilities. But Charlotte might just not be her thing. I also didn’t “feel” her dramatically, which rather baffled me, as I consider her a very capable actress. She seemed way too chaste/bourgeois, more like the Charlotte in the book than the very ambivalent one in the opera. Yes, I think Charlotte isn’t a good idea.

Quite possibly the super traditional staging, which in turn gave us a very traditionally-looking Charlotte didn’t help her with carving a more physically tormented character. Sometimes – especially in these OTT Romantic operas – you want the tension and unease to ooze out of the singer and I didn’t get that though I had my one-eyed opera glasses on her at the most important moments. That being said I couldn’t fault her for trying to flesh out the inner conflict during L’air de la lettre and expertly employing some of her trademark diminuendos in act IV. Alas, sometimes trying isn’t enough.

I liked Grigòlo better. To be fair, his part is a lot more interesting musically – also there’s a lot more of it, as it should be. I liked him (his stage presence is very good, dashing but not overly masculine – let’s not forget Werther spends the entire opera whinging about unrequitted love) – I like his voice and I like his natural manner of singing. But I do agree he’s not particularly smooth when transitioning from anguish to gentleness, though he can do both and he sounds good in both. I think he likess fff better than pp and he was lucky Pappano conducted this with lots of vigor.

Dramatically, Werther and Charlotte are very unbalanced in this revival (the production debuted in 2004 but I don’t know how it was then) – he’s mad with love/horniness from the moment they meet and she’s prim and proper until almost the very end. I didn’t feel like he had any reason to be so ga-ga over this frumpy housewife (awful costumes and hair for Charlotte), though you could say he doesn’t need much, he’s unhinged and that’s that. But I don’t know, I think the whole point is a descent into desperation, because when the opera starts he’s all like “weee! I love nature! I love life!”.

The review talks about the production in positive terms but I didn’t get all the subtle stuff. It’s most certainly not ugly, even pleasant in act I, with the oversized, diagonally placed wooden gate and ivy covered wall, complete with occasionally broken plaster (maybe that’s one of the subtle hints?). But it’s what it is, it does the job and that’s that. There is indeed a very technically accomplished timelapse done with lighting during the instrumental bit that illustrates the time when Werther and Charlotte are at the party in act I but to me that felt like big whoop. It does nothing dramatically. Likewise, the “snowflakes” (which look more like fireflies) in act IV are very pretty but still so what.

I think it would be wrong to say there’s no chemistry between Grigòlo and JDD but not on level with, say, VK and Alagna a few years back in Vienna. I liked that production a lot better as it gave them the opportunity to match the OTT-ness of the music with very intense acting (also it gives us more of an idea of who the hell Charlotte might be under the duty! children!1 mother’s deathbed promise! veneer). JDD manages to convey the post-marital depression borne out of trying to repress her attraction to Werther but it comes out as merely catatonic.

There’s one character who comes off very well and that is, oddly, Sophie. Charlotte’s younger sister (dude, the Bailli has 8 children, obviously by two different wives, given the large age difference between the older sisters and the wee ones) usually comes off as annoying but Engebretson manages to be only marginally so; she fits the production very well, you get the feel of the classic younger sister with a crush on the older sister’s boyfriend (or, in this case, would be boyfriend). She’s also a good singer, who doesn’t overdue2 it though she makes the most of her role.

Piolino and Yurchuk were entertainting3 in their secondary roles, as well, though comic relief characters always make me raise a metaphorical eyebrow in proper tragedies like this. Especially as they were hamming it up with lots of gusto, which made it feel like they were rather in the comedy next door. Considering that the mood in the Remain camp was a bit more than sombre yesterday, I was a lot less ready to see the fun in their campiness than I normally would. On the other hand I really empathised with Werther’s brooding and especially with Pappano’s flights of fff brass – so good it bears repeating.

So what do I think about Werther the opera? It’s better than I gave it credit for so far, though I’ll probably stick with live renditions, if possibly in the house or with visuals.

  1. Don’t you just love what a paragon of traditional femininity she is? Not yet married and with 6 (six!) children already! But not her own, of course. She’s chaste, remember? 
  2. I like the slip so I’ll leave it in. 
  3. This one too – entertainting indeed. 

The dark art of seduction

When I first started listening to opera I got a list of all the well known mezzo arias and I dutifully went through all of it, picking an aria I enjoyed most musically and listening to many versions then moving on to the next.

After a while the time came to focus on Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. The main difficulty with interpreting this aria seemed to be the fact that Dalila needs to sound perfectly seductive whilst she’s lying1. So the singer has to both lie and mean it. Then I thought maybe I’m too analytical and this kind of thinking does not work with opera, you can just (just, eh?) be very seductive and leave it at that.

Alas! At long length I found somebody who agrees with me and can explain it. That someone is Thomas Hampson:

It’s worth listening to the whole thing. He makes the great point of what breath is: not yet heard thought. Also the mezzo is very good, neither too lyrical nor too stentorial, just right for this and youthful sounding which might be the hardest thing with this role.

The exercise on this aria also brings up the level of inner exposure a singer is – or isn’t – confident expressing on stage. It’s surely easier to express madness than to express seduction, it’s not anywhere as in your face even when you’re singing a mad scene. I mean we might feel a bit uncomfortable seeing someone lose it on stage but I think we also feel empathy for them for being wronged or for whatever it is that brought them in that state. Seduction is another business altogether, because it’s someone’s deliberate decision.

Depending on how the singer pulls it off you might feel a mix of appreciation and competition (hey, she’s really good at it and on stage too! how did she get so good? what else is she up to?) or you might feel a bit embarrassed if the end result is not quite cutting it (I took time off my day to hear her sizzle and she’s merely warm). Or whatever you feel – but it’s never just oh well, that was quite nice.

It’s harder to separate hotness from the person singing than it is to separate madness. All you need to do to portray madness is get very intense and develop a good stare. The rest is in the music. We know you’re not really mad. Hotness is harder because not only you have to access that which will hypnotise the audience (yet which you are educated not to make use of in polite company) but you also have to be brave enough to deal with the puritanical residue in all of us.

With this aria there’s just no hiding behind singing all the notes in the right order – if you’re not accessing “hot” you’ve failed. If you are, you’re still singing the bad guy. Though, are you? I like Dalila, so I’m on her side. For all I care the opera can end after after she learns his secret. Obviously Hampson agrees:

(By contrast, I think Juditha is way heavy handed with Holofernes2. Ask me again when someone imagines Samson as a contralto.)

But you are singing the bad guy – the perpetrator – who distracts the hero from his heroic deeds, because that is the narrative we’ve all grown up with. So your success is always going to be met with mixed feelings (I like her yet I know I shouldn’t like her quite so much… because… because... = rationalisation time). Yet it’s so easy to like the hero with a clear conscience: behold, he erred but he corrected that error by sacrificing himself to the cause! Hurrah. Well, didn’t Dalila sacrifice herself to her cause? Anyway: it’s not easy feat pulling off a role like this but it’s very exciting when it happens.

  1. I suppose a case could be made that seduction = lying. Rather persuading, I’d say, compelling the other to see/feel from your perspective. But specifically what I mean is that in order to seduce you need to give/show a bit of yourself, you can’t seduce from a distance as is were. You need to be truthful in the same way in which you do offer fish actual food when you bait them. Let’s just not get into the ulterior motive issue for the moment… (who’s ever completely selfless?). 
  2. somebody needs to stage this scene as bondage. You know Holofernes wants Juditha to tie him to the bed 😀 then it’s just a matter of how sharp is the blade. 

L’Etoile or the mezzo gets the soprano (ROH, 20 February 2016)

If your reaction is L’Etoile who? fear not, for nobody1 knows too much about it. To my limited knowledge of French opera this is something very French, with a rather similar ethos to Offenbach. The good news is I enjoy French humour (aka, silly) very much. The other good news is this production does justice to the opera. Right now I couldn’t imagine a better production. On the other hand I could see it sung better.

Ouf’s clever disguise is busted

King Ouf I: Christophe Mortagne
Lazuli: Kate Lindsey
Laoula: Helene Guillmette
Siroco: Simon Bailey
Herisson de Porc-Epic: Francois Piolino
Aloes: Julie Boulianne
Tapioca: Aimery Lefevre
Patacha: Samuel Sakker
Zalzal: Samuel Dale Johnson
…and others
Conductor: Mark Elder | Orchestra and Chorus of the ROH

This is an Arabian Night tale told through a stereotipically French filter: cuckolds, lusty women, cheeky git, “benevolent” ruler + Astrologer (ever notice how much the Astrologer features in French stories?), curious yet cynical crowds, lots of tongue-in-cheek twists and turns until the happy denouement.

King Ouf I wants to execute a dissenter on his birthday, as per custom. Though he weasels his way through the crowds (in very obvious “disguise”), this year nobody has any complaints about the government or the king.

Meanwhile, Herisson de Porc-Epic (an epic name if ever there was one! though he’s the cuckold rather than an Epic Swine) has been entrusted by his lord with the very hush-hush mission of bringing King Ouf his bride. Or he’s making it more secret than it should be. Princess Laoula, himself, his wife (Aloes) and his secretary (his wife’s lover) are traveling disguised as shop assistants. To make matters more French confusing, he’s decided to pose as the Princess’s husband with his secretary (Tapioca) as his wife’s husband (these two are very compliant with his idea).

At the same time (yes, I know, another plot twist?), a cheeky git = door-to-door cosmetics seller (Lazuli) has noticed them and has suddenly fallen in love with Princess Laoula, who, by virtue of being a Princess must be very beautiful. The women have noticed him too and have rather liked what they’ve seen (because cheeky gits in opera = very successful with the ladies. As Susanna so eloquently puts it in Le nozze di Figaro: Che turba giardatura! che mezzo, che figura’: Se l’amano le femmine han certo il lor perche). Che mezzo indeed:

that’s why god invented trouser roles

So you see I had very good reasons not to miss this silly fluff. There was music, too, and though it never got overly interesting or striking, it didn’t fall below my boredom threshhold either. Or is that rise above? Whichever it is, it didn’t 😉 I was most impressed by this fine balance.

But back to the mezzo(s), which is the most important bit. This opera boasts a trouser role which requires quite a bit of range from its mezzo. It’s mostly high but there are a few monents where a solid chest register is badly needed. By now I think it’s common knowledge that Kate Lindsey does not possess that particular quality, or if she does she’s gone to great lengths to hide it from us (which could be a Porc-Epic style trick, come to think of it). We shall never know. But that’s not why we make time in our busy schedule to see Ms Lindsey, innit? We (Royal We) do it for her other skills, such as sporting facial hair:


the woman in chartreuse has it right

… as well as some nice ppps in the upper register. There is no doubt that KL is a disciplined, hard working singer who puts on consistent performances. Certainly easy on the eye, if I still need to mention that. This was another production that suited her nervous personality by being very (very) busy and giving her things to do all the time (crouching and tiptoing, crawling, climbing scenery). In fact it was so suited, her tendency for overdoing it dramatically did not come through.

Singingwise, though, there is plenty of room left to a Lazuli for the ages. Especially considering this opera has two mezzos (the other being Aloes, Herisson de Porc-Epic’s inconstant wife). Once Julie Boulianne opened her mouth it was clear that she put the mezzo in mezzosoprano, whilst KL did the honours to the soprano bit. Out of this bunch, Boulianne’s voice was the most memorable and I’m not just saying that because she’s a mezzo or because she took it very well when I critised her lacklustre Sta nell’ircana on zetube (yes, singers sometimes check these things, so watch how you run your mouth). Anyway, she has a proper mezzo voice, you won’t have to wonder whether she might be a soprano in disguise.

Mezzo-detour out of the way, let’s get back to the plot: Lazuli is sad the woman’s “husband” (Porc-Epic) has taken her away. Ouf happens by and rejoices that he has finally found someone less than cheerful. He annoys Lazuli further, Lazuli slaps him about, Ouf orders his execution. Much is made of the method: impalement! Before Lazuli is offed, the Royal Astrologer harks Ouf with the news that he has completed his horoscope. Apparently Ouf and Lazuli’s stars are linked (same sign, eh?), which means if one dies the other will as well. Ouf halts the execution, promising the crowd two for the following year. Next comes lots of pampering from Ouf and the Astrologer (Ouf’s will says that the Astrologer is to die 15min after him) towards Lazuli, which means a life of leisure = drinking and women.

Finally the incognito four show up and Lazuli sees the woman he loves. Porc-Epic continues his charade about which woman is who’s wife, so Ouf thinks he has to marry Aloes. He tells Lazuli and Laoula to be merry and sail off into the sunset. Eventually the confusion is cleared and Lazuli is shot at. For about 15min everybody thinks he’s dead after which he comes back and at long last the mezzo gets the soprano, but not before we have a quartet in which Lazuli makes out with the both the soprano and the mezzo (and, in grand French tradition, also with Tapioca). What opera needs is more mezzo-mezzo makeout scenes. There is also a trio (Aloes, Laoula and Lazuli) about tickling a sleeping Lazuli where this producution (sadly) skips the actual tickling, though it provides other hilariously ribald antics.

Maestro did a pretty decent job. I say this not having heard recordings, just based on how he managed to keep it very light, which I think was the correct approach (what else can you do with the musical equivalent of a souffle?). Perhaps bringing out certain (any) details would’ve benefitted the performance. The choir was also pretty good, with quite a bit to do (also dramatically), some of which was done with a snappy vivacity that suited the work but mostly I thought they coasted.

Despite all this criticism, visually I enjoyed myself very much (not just when KL was wooing the soprano), to the point where 1) I hope there is a DVD, 2) I’d watch it again in the house (alas, the cheap seats are sold out). Despite the less than stellar reviews the house was full and people laughed a lot. The applause wasn’t quite as frenetic as usual but KL still got the biggest chunk. I had an excellent seat in the Upper Slips (so steep, there is no danger of heads blocking the view) and good seatmates all around (I count the chaps behind me, since it’s tighter than a gnat’s chuff up there), some congenial coughing, no rustling, lots of good humour, though I must’ve upset about 20 old ladies by having them do the Mexican Wave when I came in from the wrong direction. Say what you will about ROH, the Upper Slips is a lovely neighbourhood.

  1. Critics not included. And the answer to who? is Emmanuel Chabrier, civil servant by trade, composer by night (between two shags) and friend of some of the most notable artists of his time. 

The making of ROH’s Orphée

ffwFor those who haven’t run across this, it’s a very interesting (technical but not incomprehensible) diary of the rehearsal process behind ROH’s just finished run of Gluck’s Orphée. From the orchestral point of view and written by a violist, there’s naturally much talk of bowing 😉 with details like the Monteverdi Choir leading the proceedings and the orchestra adjusting to the solos – instrumental as well as vocal.

Orphée et Eurydice (ROH, 28 September 2015)

It was the night JDF didn’t sing, yet the house was full and the applause more than generous. It’s very late to talk about “first impressions” so I’m going to talk about my expectations.

photo from The Independent

Orphée: Michele Angelini
Eurydice: Lucy Crowe
Amour: Amanda Forsythe
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner | English Baroque Soloists | Monteverdi Choir
Director: John Fulljames/Hofesh Shechter

Orphée is a bit of an odd work, seeing as how Gluck deliberately tried to make a musical point with it – and altered his original twice, with all three versions being viable. It starts with an inexplicably chipper overture (rehashed?), then goes into funeral mode but Act I finishes on a high note with Orphée’s hopeful L’espoir renaît dans mon âme which Gluck (randomly? and shamelessly) borrowed from Bertoni’s Tancredi. Then major angst with the descent into hell and plaintive sweetness as Orphee tames the tormented spirits. Act III starts in the modern equivalent of heaven, where all is harp-and-cloud fluffy. Then more angst when the two lovebirds meet again in not-quite-right circumstances. Finally rambling for the ballets followed by major fireworks for the finale.

I was after in this order:

  • hearing this wonderful opera live for the first time
  • the Monteverdi Choir
  • JEG + English Baroque Soloists
  • Amanda Forsythe
  • who’s this Angelini chap?

This Angelini chap is a very good singer indeed, though my fave tenor Orphée remains Richard Croft and his evocative voice. Angelini was soulful and heroic enough, though, and he negotiated L’espoir renaît dans mon âme with aplomb. But this is another opera that requires very complex acting chops (abundant vocal colours) from whoever’s singing its main character and Angelini wasn’t that good in that respect.

Amour isn’t enough of a role to get a proper idea about a singer but I wouldn’t mind hearing more from Forsythe. She garnered much appreciation for her comic skills and generally strong stage presence. Hey, anyone who can rock a gold lamé catsuit is doing something right 😉

I’ve seen Lucy Crowe now a couple of times live and I don’t know that I’ll ever be a fan. It’s nice if Eurydice has a pure voice but it’s not imperative (Delunsch on the Minkowski CD sounds pretty mature). There is, however, something veiled or fluttery about Crowe’s voice that doesn’t work for me in spite of her technical accomplishments and dramatic commitment.

JEG: the mean bounciness he extracted from the orchestra exuded French-ness to my ears, no complaints there; very light and stylish.

Not only hearing one of my favourite operas live but in all appearance UNCUT. The tenor version has L’amour triomphe instead of Le dieu de Paphos et de Gnide. It’s equally as satisfying (although liberté constantly came off as liberty). The choir is pleasantly interwoven with the solo vocals but:

The main dish: hearing the Monteverdi Choir sing the many choral parts of Orphée was one of the best musical experiences of 2015 for me. Beautiful tones, expressively sung, the voices well integrated, spot on in regards to the orchestra and meshing well with it. On the spot I contemplated getting a ticket for the last performance just to hear that again. The main singer is a bargain, but along with Tito and Idomeneo this is one of those late 18th century operas where the choir alone is worth the price of admission. I now have a strong urge to make a “mix tape” featuring the choruses from these three operas but for now let’s listen to L’amour triomphe:

My seatmate half-complained that it wasn’t so much a production as a concert performance. It was spartan, indeed. But the few elements made all the sense in the world. The most obvious: located on stage, now hovering, now sunk, the orchestra was an integral part of the production (it’s an opera about the power of music, innit). I liked this continuous motion and I felt very comfy with the uncomplicated feel of the production. It was related in spirit to the Munich DVD production (the plastic chair was a central element; also the beginning and the direction of the duet was very similar), so I immediately got into it. It might look like not much but it fits Gluck’s intention of simplicity.

It took me a good while to get the choreography. But I generally don’t have an easy time feeling dance. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what all the flailing and hand gestures were supposed to represent. I wasn’t annoyed by it all, rather indifferent. But towards the end (and after a lot of persistence from the dancers, given that there is A LOT of ballet in this opera) I came to the conclusion that it was a contemporary reading of primal movement, nymphs and fawns, things that ain’t quite human, often times quite possibly vegetal. I don’t think it matters if I’m correct or not as long as it finally spoke to me in some way.

Not the best opera night but choral heaven nonetheless and very likeable staging which I hope ROH keeps and revives at some point. It’s an opera I could easily revisit live once a year.

Carmen: too good for that plot/music


click for lego Carmen

Carmen the opera is bloody boring. I love Strauss but I don’t agree with him. The music is just meh with generous helpings of sentimentalism. Maybe you need to be a musician to enjoy it from an intellectual point of view. Feel free to disagree, for me it ain’t happening. Maybe it’s the overexposure.

I’ve always felt that Carmen herself was an interesting character (especially for the 19th century) but Don Jose is the sort of annoying whiny antagonist that makes me bang my head against the keyboard. He probably strums an acoustic guitar in his spare time and writes to agony aunts of his girl troubles.

Chere tante de l’agonie,

I’m stuck here in this appalling mountain shack (no indoors plumbing) with a bunch of odorous, foul mouthed hoodlums and the coppers on my trail. All because I love her. Oh, chere tante de l’agonie, how I love her! I love her more than rain after a drought. My soul cries for her every time she is gone etc. Yet I have a nagging feeling something is terribly amiss. Of late she is grumpy all the time, pushes me away… How can I make her smile again? Help!

Dear Don Jose,

she’s not that into you. Get over it.

PS: catch up with that Michaela girl. She sounds like a good sort for you.

I think a film (along the lines of High Fidelity) would have been better than an opera.