Category Archives: royal opera house

ROH 2018-19 Winter Season now on general sale

It started yesterday, whilst I was merrily lounging in bed but I still got tickets to the Queen of Spades and Kat’a Kabanova at leisure just now. Kat’a is especially cheap (Queen is not). Here‘s the rest of your options.

So after that somewhat Pelleas at Glyndebourne, Herheim comes to ROH for the Queen of Spades, whilst it’s up to dehggi favourite Richard Jones to tackle Kat’a, which also sees Amanda Majeski’s debut at ROH. Very curious about this.

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Upcoming at ROH and Glyndebourne 2019

What with everything, I missed the Gen Sale for the return to Wagner at ROH (oh, no!). The Ring Cycle is back this Autumn, with Pappano at the helm. I may look up returns for Stemme’s sake (aka, best intentions). Otherwise, we have the following:

Solomon in concert with Zazzo in the title role

Verdi’s Requiem with Jamie Barton and Stoyanova; sold out at this point

Simon Boranegra… for those of strong Verdi constitution (but where there is Wagner, there is also Verdi and there will be another production for the hardcore Verdians soon; an opera we know and I love to make fun of, because a recent new production at ENO clearly was not enough)

Carmen and Hansel and Gretel for the mezzo-deprived; Dudnikova might be an interesting Carmen, I liked her Principessa de Bouillon.

Winter:

The Queen of Spades = must not forget

Traviata for the casual goer – it’s still the much loved production

Katya Kabanova – I’ll probably go

Così returns but don’t count me in

Insights Masterclass with soprano Angel Blue who’s doing a stint of Traviata this season

Spring:

La forza del destino 😉 yep, that one, in Loy’s vision; with Trebs and the Alvaro of our times

Faust – hm, I might go, see how Damrau is holding up, PLUS it’s got Abrahamyan in her ROH debut (!) as Siebel (let’s all lament the fate of very good mezzos). On the downside, Ettinger conducts.

Billy Budd conducted by Ivon Bolton – the all male cast opera, let’s check it out…

Andrea Chenier – NOT with the Alvaro of our times but with Alagna and Radvanovsky! How can we resist that offer?!

Tosca with Opolais/Grigolo/Terfel but the last show brings Draculette back to her rightful territory so yay for those who care.

Summer:

Boris Godunov still with Terfel but without Ain Anger; so soon? Maybe because they were short of money for a new production…

Carmen, because we’d already missed her, this time with Margaine, and Pisaroni as Escamillo, ha!

Figaro after a couple of seasons, because there are only 3 operas and 1/2 by Mozart; this is the season with Kimchilia Bartoli as Cherubino but also unusually with Gerhaher as Figaro plus Keenlyside as the Count. You know it might actually be worth revisiting and weirdly enough, for the men.

La fille du regiment returns once more, now with Devieilhe, and Camarena will show us his 3283576 high C in a row. Then again, Pido conducts.

In conclusion, some interesting turns but generally a rather meh year ahead for yours truly’s taste.

Glyndebourne 2019

La damnation de Faust – a Richard Jones production, so it could be much fun

Rusalka – nah

Il barbiere – see below

Die Zauberflote – I’ll have to see it at some point, don’t know that this is that point; however, Agathe, David Portillo is Tamino 😉

Cendrillon – usually a spectacular mezzo-mezzo borefest, now with DeNiese and the ever trouserable Kate Lindsey; I mean, they had to make up for the music…

Rinaldo with DeShong in the title role. A bit of a strange choice IMO, but to be honest I have not heard her live and in Handel to boot. I was proven wrong before.

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. 

Blasts from the past: Nabucco (ROH, 1 April 2013)

If you ever wondered how things were before this blog started, the answer is I still occasionally jotted down thoughts about shows. I thought I should bring these mini writeups here for the sake of completism. This one marks my very first time at the ROH – the rep may make stray smile 😉

Monday evening I went to see Nabucco here in freezing London (seriously, it’s April! whatever happened to the weather?! – exactly what could be said of 1 April 2018). Now I have mentioned before that I started liking Verdi only about 2 months ago and so far Nabucco is my favourite (unsurprisingly, as one of the most straight-up belcanto operas from the green one). I didn’t want to spoil my fun so I didn’t read anything about the production before going. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but apparently the production has mixed reviews. True enough, it is as static as they come – minimal acting, lots of singing to the public. But gorgeous singing for my balcony seat money! I also enjoyed the Berlin Holocaust Museum/monolith sets – intelligently making the link across time – as well as the wire sculptures of Baal and heads (Nabucco & daughters, as I read them). Add a sand pit and that’s it as far as sets go. Teensy bit more than the Noah’s Ark from Verona.

Singing: I’ve a fondness for badass, tough-as-nails, tough to sing roles and, good lord, how about that Abigaille? Whew! What a range on all levels and how wonderful to witness live when the singer can pull it off. Monastyrska did a hell of a job: yea, she projected, she dominated, in short, she chewed scenery but my favourite part was the way she managed the lyrical bits with that hefty voice (I found her top notes surprisingly pretty). Some control! Nucci also rocked the lyrical side, although I thought he didn’t let loose quite as much. But gorgeous voice acting, brought tears to my eyes. Everybody else (including Pizzolato (Fenena), whom I’ve enjoyed in other belcanto roles) sounded excellent.

Since my babbling was way shorter back then, you can read R. Christiansen’s take on the production (he, of course, saw one of the Domingo performances).

The other greatest opera house in the world (ROH)

In the interest of journalistic balance, how about we tackle the season introduction interview with ROH’s new Head of Opera? (makes me think of gorgons)

‘One day all this will be yours,” I joke to Oliver Mears as we shake hands in the champagne bar at the Royal Opera House. It’s a stupid thing to say and I’m not quite sure what prompts it, except that Mears is so slight and vulnerable looking that you can’t quite believe he is already director of opera at this famous, glitzy, occasionally poisonous place.

British humour – this post will write itself!

His appointment in 2016 was greeted with surprise. He was just 37, the youngest head of opera in Covent Garden’s history, and he was jumping from the relative obscurity of Northern Ireland Opera, with a budget of £1m, to a house with a budget of more than £130m.

One humble pie coming right up!

He was given a warm welcome, he says, with music director Antonio Pappano and head of casting Peter Katona (a fixture at Covent Garden for 35 years)

The man we have to thank that certain names don’t seem to ever make it at ROH (or only rarely).

some of his fingerprints are already visible, in particular a production of Billy Budd directed by Deborah Warner that he has bought in from the Teatro Real in Madrid, and a Hansel and Gretel for Christmas that he hopes will tempt parents to bring their children to Covent Garden. “It’s not going to be set in a gas chamber,” he says when I suggest that some productions of this fairytale can be very dark. “That’s not the kind of show we’re after.”

Actually, being set in a gas chamber would make perfect sense… What kind of shows are you after, though? CT Cherubinos? Wait, that’s Katona’s choice.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera – one of the first of a series of shows conceived for young people and designed to counter “negative preconceptions” – has replaced another Holten production. Mears won’t say which, but it’s a fair bet it was seen as either too expensive or too likely to bomb at the box office.

Konigskinder, then. I mean why do something a bit off the beaten track when you can follow in the steps of Wiener Staatsoper?!

Negative preconceptions? Which operas cause said preconceptions? Will there be a ban on Puccini and Verdi, then? And how about the positive preconceptions? – like opera is lavish, we have a reason to dress up and have a nice meal in town, makes us look sophisticated to ouselves and among our peers etc.

I have to say as far as I’m concerned – even though it’s got a main trouser role – I dislike Hansel and Gretel (the opera; I like the fairytale, especially the part where the Witch is fattening Hansel up). I don’t know I’d’ve liked the music as a child any better. One of my top operatic faves as a kid was the Soldiers Chorus from Faust.

With Arts Council England, aware of accusations of being London-centric, reducing the ROH’s funding (cut by 6% in real terms in last year’s settlement), these are relatively straitened times. Covent Garden needs to be a little more frugal and, in these days of Brexit and Corbynism, a little more of the people.

Long Live Populism! Let’s cut arts’ funds from the other biggest opera house in the world and distribute the crumbs Up North! That’ll change things.

That may be one reason behind Mears’s appointment. He showed both in Northern Ireland and with the opera company he founded in his mid-20s, Second Movement, that he could demystify opera, appeal to all ages and build a community of opera-goers.

Too bad YNS is already busy at the Met, they’d make the perfect team to ensure the future of opera! On the other hand, it may be rather strategic having them both on each edge of the Atlantic at the same time. Securing opera from whales’ attacks?

On the last account, I have it on good authority there has always been a strong community of opera goers. Good luck mixing the different fandoms, though. It’s like asking Star Wars fans to hang out with Twilight enthusiasts.

(That thinking may also underpin the recent announcement that Stuart Murphy, who has spent his career in television, is to be chief executive of English National Opera – a decision that bemused the opera cognoscenti.)

That be the chap who’s an opera basic. Total brov and that. London = we to embrace populism.

Covent Garden will stage only five new productions in 2018-19, and only two of those will be produced in-house: Katya Kabanova directed by ROH stalwart Richard Jones, and Hansel and Gretel.

And that is because – wait for it –

Five new productions seems a bit thin, but Mears says the expense of reviving the Keith Warner production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for its final outing means less money for everything else.

😀 I’m not making this up! The connection across the opera-secured Atlantic is strong. So, more rehearsal time, then? I will be holding them to it.

Full as it is with revivals of tried-and-trusted productions – Tosca, La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, La Fille du Régiment – the 2018-19 season feels a little conservative, with operas that will keep the box office where the opera house management likes it to be, at around 95% capacity.

As they were saying, he will demystify opera, appeal to all ages and build a community of opera-goers. Chop-chop.

Barrie Kosky’s controversial new production of Carmen will return in the new season. “We actually had someone heckle last night,” says Mears. “They stood up and said: ‘This isn’t Carmen; this is a scandal.’ People who haven’t liked it say: ‘You’ve ruined Carmen.’ But what does that mean? We don’t know what Carmen is.

They had one heckler? Shut the production down! But it’s nice that he’s defending core rep, shows he has complete ability in doing his job. Maybe if we all stand up in the middle of something and demand more Baroque he will reply to us in print. I mean how many seasons were “ruined” for us early opera lovers?

And whilst we’re at it, why haven’t we had Tito since 2002? Look at the other bastion of opera defence, the Met, they’re doing it every other year. We have Coote and Connolly as locals and JDD is here all the time, but somehow nobody thought about Tito.

Our job is to do something more than that – to dig deep and come up with work that generates an emotional reaction.”

Heckling is a start, I guess.

What we need to find is the golden area in the middle where we have practitioners who are able to give life to these operas

practitioners…?

practitioner
prakˈtɪʃ(ə)nə/
noun
  1. a person actively engaged in an art, discipline, or profession, especially medicine.
    “patients are treated by skilled practitioners”

Opera Doctor, now turning stuffy libretti into transformative gifts for a diverse community of opera-goers. Welcome back, Dulcamara! Show us the cure.

“commissions are the lifeblood of the art form,” he says – but adds that commissioning new work is also very expensive. “It’s very difficult in the current financial climate to commit to a brand-new commission every single season,” he says. More likely is that there will be a new commission every other year.

Introducing hibernation and/or opera austerity.

In 2013, Holten had announced to great fanfare four new commissions “inspired by the writings of philosopher Slavoj Žižek”.

Oddly, they have never been heard of again, and there is no sign of them being programmed. I ask Mears what happened. “Two have fallen by the wayside for different reasons,” he says. “The other two – by Turnage and Saariaho – are still in our long-term schedules.”

So basically you’re saying the other chap came up with an idea (among many), the idea didn’t materialise but look at us resurrecting it. Which is good, of course. But it was his idea.

He will also address gender diversity. The new season features only one female director, Deborah Warner, and two female conductors, Keri-Lynn Wilson and Julia Jones in Carmen. “It’s a long-term project and it’s going to take time,” he says.

Is it because of the rehearsals for the Ring?

The ROH will not follow the lead of the Proms and set quotas, but insists that the company does have firm targets and that a 50-50 gender split is the long-term aspiration.

How long are we talking? The next anniversary of women’s right to vote in this country?

Gender equality, audience diversity, countering negative preconceptions, putting opera back into the cultural mainstream – what an agenda. It will, as Mears says, all take time. But will he be given that time?

Snark of the day (voice types)

I was looking for something and then got diverted somewhere else, namely:

Good idea, right? People should train their ears. I may well be wrong here, but, to me, they all seemed centred too low.

Also notice the assigned arias for countertenor and mezzo.

ROH rumours up to 2021

Fantastic ROH news:

During this extended period there will be 2 (yes, two) new Handel productions! The very brand new one by Kosky! The other one – new to ROH – you know and love by Loy (not that one, the other one). Scroll down 😉

Tl;dr: this is turning into a really excting period at ROH and not just because of Handel (but especially). I am also expecting Poppea cca Januray 2020, after the first two Monteverdi instalments. Very low on Mozart, though. You know there is more to him than the DaPonte stuff (and Mitridate).

It’s that time of the year people are eager to find out what’s coming up, so here are some updates from the ever reliable source. I put a NEW next to the information that’s transpired since my last post on the subject:

late 2018 – 2019

Katya Kabanova (Janacek)
NEW Fall 2018 | Production: Richard Jones all the Janacek! from Jones!

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera | Production: Stefan Herheim
NEW January 2019 | Polina: Anna Goryachova <- will they keep the trouser role scene?

La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) February 2019 | Conductor: Antonio Pappano
NEW:
Production: Christof Loy <- Leo gets a white shirt?
Don Alvaro: Jonas Kaufmann
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Fra Melitone: Alessandro Corbelli

NEW Das Liebesverbot (Wagner) coproduction with Teatro Real-Madrid
Spring 2019 | Director: Kasper Holten

NEW Billy Budd (Britten)
Conductor: Richard Farnes | Director: David McVicar hm, why not?

NEW Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
2019 La Contessa: Julia Kleiter

Faust (Gounod)
NEW March 2019 | Marguérite: Diana Damrau I might go

NEW Otello (Verdi)
Desdemona: Ermonela Jaho

Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
NEW Spring 2019 (pushed back)

2019 – 2020

NEW Jenufa (Janacek)
Director:  Claus Guth
Kostelnicka: Karita Mattila yes to more Mattila and more Janacek. Hope Guth will be on form.

Death in Venice (Britten)
NEW November
Conductor: Mark Elder | Production: David McVicar

Agrippina (Händel)
Production: Barrie Kosky ❤ you know you want to come to London!

[edit: debuting in Munich this Summer with Coote in the title role and Fagioli and Davies as Nerone and Ottone]

NEW REVIVALS

Elektra (Strauss) 2020
Klytemnestra: Karita Mattila I’ll go see her!

Parsifal (Wagner) 2020
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov

Madama Butterfly (Puccini) Summer 2020
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Goro: Carlo Bosi

NEW 2020 – 2021

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach) Fall 2020
Production: Michieletto
Hoffmann: Juan Diego Florez

So they’re chucking out their ancient Hoffmann? Good riddance! I hope Michieletto does something with this sexist story. On the other hand, there’s a lot of Hoffmann in just a few years, chap wrote other fun stuff (like his take of Orphee).

Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck)   
Production: Antony McDonald I wonder if it’s replacing the cancelled Konigskinder?

4 new works inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s writings (Saariaho, Turnage, Francesconi, Widmann)  heh, interesting idea
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen

Alcina (Händel) ❤ ❤ ❤
Production: Christof Loy (from Zurich)
Bradamante: Varduhi Abrahamyan ❤

I’m expecting everyone to London for an extended Alcina party!

Věc Makropulos (Janacek) Mattila, right? She sang it at Southbank a couple of years back

From the House of the Dead (ROH, 14 March 2018)

From the House of the Dead at ROH (Photo by Clive Barda)

For me, Janáček is singular among composers in that he had the ability, unlike others who tried way too hard, to write some wickedly thoughful libretti on themes other than the same old operatic fodder – and the music isn’t bad either, especially after you get used to Sprechgesang.

I first came across him via Glyndebourne’s production of Cunning Little Vixen and although I found the singing a bit hard going, I genuinely enjoyed the fable-like libretto (I’m also fond of foxes; London is their playground, pretty much every neighbourhood has a den and they even walk along with you on the pavement in daylight). Then I heard The Makropulos Case, easier music to take (or perhaps I was a bit less green), again with a libretto that discusses a subject I find fascinating (immortality) and another very strong female character.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting this production, based on all this, a curiousity about Warlikowski and my longterm interest in psychology.

Alexandr Gorjancikov: Willard W. White
Aljeja: Pascal Charbonneau
Luka Kuzmič: Štefan Margita
Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr
Šiškov/Priest: Johan Reuter
Prison Governor: Alexander Vassiliev
Big Prisoner/Nikita: Nicky Spence
Small Prisoner/Cook: Grant Doyle
Elderly Prisoner: Graham Clark
Voice: Konu Kim
Drunk Prisoner: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin: Peter Hoare
Prisoner/Kedril: John Graham-Hall
Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin: Aleš Jenis
Young Prisoner: Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute: Allison Cook
Čerevin: Alexander Kravets
Guard: Andrew O’Connor
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth | Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Co-production with La Monnaie and Opera de Lyon

Janáček adapted Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel of life in a 19th century Siberian prison into a series of scenes rather than the kind of linear narrative libretto we know and love. Each of the characters has the centre stage for the purpose of sharing the events that lead to his index offence. The wider point of each story is to illustrate that a grain of humanity exists even within the most despicable characters – or, as the Foucault quote during the overture tells us, what society considers despicable.

(Well, it’s admirable (and desirable) to look at every person beyond their worst actions, but with some people it’s really hard to be optimistic. Still, ever since the performance I’ve been thinking from the point of view that justice is a system organised to apportion blame and dish out what is currently deemed as appropriate punishment; it’s far from perfect and it should continuously be bettered but it’s necessary – and it’s not entirely about making ourselves feel better/superior as it’s implied here; but our sentenced (and unsentenced) offenders do tell us a lot about ourselves as society).

The story begins with the arrival of a new prisoner (Alexandr Gorjancikov), who claims he is there for political reasons, thus setting himself apart from the run of the mill prison population. He functions as the narrator and the opera ends once he is, quite unexpectedly, discharged. (This is similar to what actually happened to Dostoevsky, who spent years on death row after which he was suddenly pardoned.)

Interestingly, although he is the narrator (for the sake of a minimal narrative), his role isn’t bigger than the others’ (we also never hear his backstory), which highlights one of the lines in the libretto – “we are all equal in prison”. He befriends a young prisoner (Aljeja, in for something that sounds like common theft) and tries to help him by defending him from vicious inmates and teaching him how to read and write. The other prisoners go about their usual (rather boring) routines and stand out randomly, for instance when they get into scuffles with each other.

A play is put on for the higher ups (all of which are portrayed as cruel, venal and grandiose and get some right on verbal beating from Kuzmič (aka, eternal rebel Filka Morozov, slyly portrayed by Margita), in which the prisoners perform their (very violent) version of pantomine and opera (a crudely funny take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a character which rightly resonates with the inmates; I like how Janáček refrained from pastiche and used only a few short phrases reminding of Mozart). Prisoners’ personal threads are woven into the plot of the play and they are later developed into characters’ testimonies.

As you can imagine, the drama could be rather static. Warlikowski and his team give us a basic set, which looks like a prison gym with plastic chairs to the right and a glass-walled office for the guards to the left of the stage. The office revolves later to accommodate the stage for the play and also for the stories, which are acted out as they are being told. Everyone is always on stage, even when they (apparently) have nothing to contribute to the drama. But that comes in handy when characters are called to sing random lines. Also, their acting out other inmates stories keeps the entire world interconnected. You can imagine the prisoners have heard these stories before and have their own versions of what and how things went down.

This is one of the most (if not the most) Personenregie detailed opera productions I’ve seen so far, to the point where sometimes what was happening on stage made it hard to focus on the music. In a good way, though. I’m normally a fan of very contained dramas and the classic up to 6 characters, but getting a theatre director really enhanced the performance in this case. There were a lot of things going on but it never felt like clutter or unnecessary fussiness. Each character was defined as soon as the curtain went up, by having a personal thread to follow even when “idle”.

As far as performances I can say dramatically the standard was very high. Vocally I was especially impressed by Reuter’s Šiškov, whose story takes up something like 20min of singing in one chunk in act III. This is Sprechgesang, so success comes down to singers’ handling of text. I think the term “gripping” has been overused but that was pretty much how I felt about Reuter’s intervention – clear and solid and emotional (the story moves from cold violence to humbling sentiment and back again, which, according to Mum, is typically Russian). I don’t know this repertoire enough to talk further and, as I was saying ealier, I often felt it difficult to focus on stage action, singing and orchestra at once, but I will tell you there are many unusual objects played aside from usual instruments, my favourite being a real saw and plank of wood. Check out what Tim Ashley has to say, he heard more than I did.

Though quite a bit went over my head I’m really glad I went. Janáček’s voice is unique and interesting and speaks as much to one’s intellect as to their emotions. If you can get to at least like him it’s well worth it. I think I’m starting to feel him a bit of a hero.

Masterclass fans: new ROH Masterclass with JDD

Just to make me happy, it starts off with Parto. I haven’t seen it yet but I hope it’s good (almost 2 new hours). If it’s not good we can laugh about it here 😉

After watching/listening to it:

For those who don’t know and would like to before applying yourselves to an 1hr and 46min, this batch is mezzo only and it containts work on three mezzo staples: Parto, Dido’s lament and Non piu mesta (which I always call Non piu messed up). They are all promising singers but the young woman working on Dido’s lament has a particularly beautiful tone (baby contralto? we should be so lucky 😀 ). She is also very cutely star-struck.

ROH Semiramide Radio 3 broadcast alert (Sat, 6 January 2018)

Thanks to thadieu for signalling this for all interested parties:

Semiramide on Radio 3, Saturday, 6 January 2018, 6pm GMT

If that alone doesn’t fill your JDD fix, 6 January is your day, as BBC 3 is running one of her American Songbook recitals at 1pm GMT.