Category Archives: royal opera house
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).
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
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?
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.
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
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
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)
Conductor: Mark Elder | Production: David McVicar
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]
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
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 ❤
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.
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.
A woosh of dread went through the packed hall when an announcer came out, so strong I thought it would push her back to where she’d come from.
Announcer: No, no, no, everything is fine. All I wanted to say is that JDD had a respiratory infection last week but she is much better tonight. Enjoy the evening!
Frenetic applause and a general sigh of relief. More applause when Pappano came out (there normally are, but these were extra jaunty).
Let’s start with the conclusion: thank you Pappano and all. You convinced me this is truly a great opera and I wish it made its way back into the repertoire so we can hear/see it more often. Rossini outdid himself here. It’s got it all somehow melded into a whole: his playfulness, his expertise with the opera seria formula, lots of innovation and the great tunes never stop.
One of the great things about it is that Rossini knows how to write for the voice and won’t let the orchestra intrude but he has also written excellent instrumental parts. Also peppering the score with ensembles and keeping the choir active really makes a difference in regards to pacing (always fresh).
However, it most likely needs a great team – top singers and a very intelligent conductor. An insightful production doesn’t hurt. It really is shortchanged when the focus is on noodling runs of coloratura or if the conductor thinks the drama needs too much push. Pappano trusts Rossini and focused on bringing out all the inventive details, which are a pleasure to hear. His voice-orchestra balance was optimal.
Compared to the 25th it was like this: Arsace and Semiramide’s act II duet = best moment of the night (and not just in my opinion either. My seatmate dubbed it “fantastic!”, lots of applause and shouts etc. and some teary eyes from me). I just wanted it to go on and on (and luckily Rossini knows a good thing, so, as most duets here, it’s quite long). I still think Ah, come mai quell’anima is the more beautiful duet but this is wonderful, especially with Barcellona and JDD who work together so well. Have a listen to how they sounded in Munich earlier this year (imo, not nearly as good. I actually don’t like that recording and I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before going. I had to agree with the commenter who heard JDD off pitch a lot of the time. Esposito came off majorly bland of tone (to me, who am not his greatest fan to begin with). The duet is beautiful, though).
Brownlee (still no ping, from the lower slips in the auditorium) had some of the most amazing floated notes I’ve ever heard in Ah dov’è il cimento? Seriously, that stuff was staggering, to the point I had to remember where my loyalties lay 😉 cue in severe shaking from Azema1 and that quip about how if she didn’t think Arsace was the biggest hero in the world she’d totally go for Idreno. Don’t listen to his 2013 rendition found on ‘tube as it’s vastly inferior. Sadly it seems to be his only rendition on youtube.
His interaction with JDD in the act I finale, where everybody was trying to come to terms with the appearance of Nino’s ghost was acoustically interesting: his lines were louder than hers but this appeared deliberate, giving a very welcome depth to the sound. However his act II aria saw surprising ups and downs in concentration, which makes this performance one of the most curious I’ve witnessed.
Pertusi’s pre-mad aria recit was again his strongest moment – he’s really good at that kind of thing, vivid and credible. Also he had many very Verdian flashes through the night (and I mean that in a good way. Philip II was calling?). JDD did sound (even) more cautious with the very highs and I think I remember a moment where the sound came out a bit unfocused but other than that she was as strong and committed as usual.
Now that I could focus more on things other than the immediate impact, I thought Arsace spends a lot of time in the lower recesses of the mezzo voice, so perhaps this is a reason VK never sang it (as her voice is darker rather than low, where Barcellona’s is both dark and solidly low). I’m now compelled to hear Hallenberg’s take again. I also had time to realise I’ve been spending so much time listening to Baroque specialists that even a little – understandable – vibrato throws me a bit (Barcellona and Pertusi). I won’t fault them, of course, but it was interesting to see how little JDD uses in comparison. Come to think of it, Brownlee did the same. Unless he has the type I don’t catch. Might be an issue of American vs Italian style?
The choir was (I think) better this time, thought the beginning of the opera still posed challenges.
She may be wicked but she is my mother
Arsace as a character is a bit underdeveloped for contemporary sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, he’s given a pony 😉 I’ve noticed this thing in pre mid-19th century opera (though, come to think of it, heroes continue to be rather intellectually fluffy (see all Wagner)), where we have supposedly accomplished warriors/strategists act very naively in private matters. They are also way too young for those military accolades. Something’s got to give, eh, and that is usually intelligence.
As per libretto Arsace is characterised by being brave (commander of the Babylonian army at the tender age of… about 25, I’d say), dutiful (rushes back to headquarters when Semiramide calls and is unwaveringly on her side even before he learns she’s his mother) and very much in love (his entrance aria reminisces about how he saved Azema from marauders and then their eyes met = opera love).
All of a sudden he’s hit with major existential questions, which he is ill equipped to answer. Then again, who of us would have an easy time with a mother who wants to marry us and who has also, incidentally, offed our father? Plus the realisation that we’re next in line as the country’s top honcho? All of these revelations in one day, the same day we were merely supposed to announce our wedding (to someone else than the mum)! Barcellona is very good at portraying the youthful hero with all his youthful imaturity mixed with the earnest desire to do the right thing by everyone. I have cats to hug when things get weird, why shouldn’t Arsace have a pony? I also see that moment as his return to his childhood room, with the pictures and the toys one’s parents keep in the attic (or spare room).
The ending is rather poignant, with the hacked to death Semiramide reaching wordlessly (a victory for realism! thank you, Rossini) towards her son and Arsace’s duty tragically winning over love in grand opera seria style, as he ascends the stairs to the throne and glory. For his unexpected ascension to top honours he looks shattered so who knows che mai sarà.
Singing-wise, Barcellona was the picture of understated poise, with excellent stamina and that beautiful lyric tone needed for best results in belcanto trouser roles.
So now that this first ever ROH run is over I can’t wait until they revive it 😉 hopefully with a similarly strong cast and Pappano (or someone else who can do Rossini justice on this level).
- Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). ↩
ROH hasn’t seen Semiramide staged in over 100 years but it’s good they did it now, when they have a Rossini-appreciative conductor in the house and such an exceptional team of Rossinians to sing it. It’s the most expensive production of the season but it’s definitely worth it musically. Dramatically I guess I’m not an Alden fan but it’s not a stupid staging either. I just thought more (or prettier) could’ve been done to match the singers’ skills and commitment to the drama.
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Assur: Michele Pertusi
Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee
Oroe: Bálint Szabó
Azema: Jacquelyn Stucker
Mitrane: Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Royal Opera House Choir and Orchestra
co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper
This is “another modern staging” that places the action amidst a moment of acute power vacuum within a dictatorship – with good reason, Babylonia wasn’t a shining example of enlightened democracy (not that we should be talking).
The story is wonky enough: even though Nino, the former North Korean style dictator, here referenced by a giant statue and apparently Trump-like family portraits, has been dead for 15 years, it is only now that a new – read: male – leader is needed. It appears that so far Semiramide (his widow) and Assur’s (descendant of Baal, so Mr Macho) regency has been good enough. Or perhaps this is just heavy foreshadowing/convenient plot device.
Nino and Semiramide’s son Ninia has secretly survived his infancy and has gained a reputation for himself by rising to the position of commander of Semiramide’s army, under the (Scythian) name of Arsace. It seems like Assur has not been careful enough when sweeping his path to power.
It’s the ancient world so rituals and the mysterious (ie: vague, confusing) will of gods are par for the course. Alden indulges adequately. Knee crawling and extensive “praise the gods” genuflecting from the choir pepper the duration of the opera. Agathe observed that it’s even more exaggerated than in Munich, so perhaps it’s intentionally made to appear ridiculous. I for one did not, in any case, get a feeling that Alden has any spare affection for this world.
The best quip is Azema’s completely constricting (albeit technically very accomplished) golden dress. Her constant facial expression of defeat brings out the straitjacket feel induced by the hampering overlong sleeves. Usually carried to and fro (like a sack of potatoes) by a male attendant (she seems to be needed everywhere, although it is never clear why, as she barely has a voice, mostly to express dissatisfaction with her lot1; perhaps to make up the quota of women at the court), she is at some point placed on a cordoned off plinth, with Idreno agitating around like a blood hound. I liked Bachtrack reviewer‘s comment that she looks like an
Grammy Oscar statuette, considering her suitors (Assur, Idreno and “lucky” winner Arsace) engage in what was in 1823 – and possibly still today, in certain circles – a singing contest.
Though, to be fair, the way Rossini is sung here is as far removed from showcasing fireworks as anything I’ve seen. Not that the singers don’t cover all that, because they all do with lots of skill and style, but because the focus is staunchly placed on conveying a believable drama to contemporary audiences. We have come a very long way from the ’80s. This a 3 1/2 hour opera and I didn’t flag once. A great accomplishment by all – less so by the choir, who had some issues keeping up with Pappano and Rossini, something both Agathe and I noticed, so it’s not just me always finding fault with
them something 😉
I really enjoyed Pappano’s supple and lucid conducting and the precision with which the orchestra responded to him. It’s late, more through-composed Rossini, but Pappano didn’t make it unnecessary loud and kept the drama under control. It’s still Rossini and you can still smile at jaunty tunes at dramatic moments. I was also pleased to notice the germs of “angsty soliloquies” later developed by Bellini and mastered by Verdi – at moments when the main characters have scenes which combine tuneful lines with more recit-based passages – ariosos? I’m not sure they were still called that into the 19th century – and even include “distant sounds of the city”.
JDD did a tour de force with Semiramide. He interactions with both Pertusi’s Assur (he’s an old school bad guy but a convincing one) and Barcellona’s youthful, conflicted Arsace brought out a very well rounded, strong woman, who tries and fails to reconcile outward personal ambition with an inward sense of right and wrong and sort out different kinds of love/attraction. A busy day, indeed. Though a subject well explored in the 18th century, it is perhaps no surprise that this heroine found her strongest voice in the 19th century, the one where female leads aren’t supposed to win.
I’m not saying that offing your husband should be given a pass if you beat yourself up for it for 15 years or if you then defend your child with your life but such is the scarcity of women with agency in opera that one finds it hard not to side with her – especially the unsentimental way JDD plays her. I felt from the getgo that Semiramide was ready to meet her fate whatever the costs but she was optimistic that things would turn out right in the end. Regardless of what she did that one time 15 years ago, she seems to want to right things now – get rid of dictator in waiting Assur and secure the throne for upright hero Arsace. Of course her motives are complex but that’s what we like in our fictional heroe(ine)s.
For his part, Arsace appears like a decent sort, law abiding to a fault and the opposite of a politician. He’s also, for someone who presumably grew up in the saddle and has seen a serious amount of combat, eyebrow-raisingly naive. At first Semiramide uses subtlety when pursuing him but he only gets it when she corners him cougar-style in her nightgown. Ok, battle experience does not prepare one for being chased by a woman that someone has a lot of respect for and sees as outranking him. But still, he seems young (Barcellona’s channeling Tancredi); no wonder Alden gives him a stuffed pony to remember his childhood by (he also has some unexplored issues regarding family).
The two most dramatically impressive moments for me were when Semiramide tells Assur that she would gladly renounce the throne for her child, were he to be found alive (after a conversation where Assur implies that she too has been power mad) and her desperate chase for an embarrassed Arsace. JDD portrays a moving mother-Semiramide which only makes the later scene that much more sad and tragic.
JDDs duets with Assur and Arsace were the most moving vocally. I loved the gentle way she delivered her lines in the duet where she and Assur are in bed (and he just provides long sustained vocal backing), and the very fine way she interacted/echoed the orchestra. Her second act duet with Arsace was lovely for the unassuming way JDD and Barcellona meshed their voices (mezzo-mezzo duets = ❤ ) and made the moment of mother and son reconciliation simple and moving. Agathe remarked that so late in the opera there is nothing for the singers to prove; I welcomed it as I enjoyed the consistent commitment to exploring the drama at the expense of needless showing off.
Brownlee’s Idreno and Pertusi’s Assur were less developed – and both were meant to come off as unpleasant but no less vocally accomplished. Brownlee got his shorter aria back (it was axed in Munich) and got deserved applause come curtain time (and before; most arias did). He doesn’t have JDF’s piercing wail at the very top but I don’t know that we’re poorer for that. His tone is very handsome and the voice has just the right flexibility for Rossini, no wonder he’s made his name in this repertoire. He comes off as a nice chap in interviews but here he managed to infuse Idreno with an amount of entitlement disguised as passion for Azema that reminded me of an annoying wasp.
I understand Pertusi was unwell during the premiere but everything was fine on Saturday. I hadn’t heard him before but I enjoyed his tone and elaborate skills, especially in Assur’s act II mini mad scene when Assur is hallucinating about Nino’s return. Agathe mentioned that in Munich, Esposito had acted this mad scene in such a strong manner that she hadn’t even realised just how beautiful the music was. I was quite impressed with the complexity of vocal emotion Pertusi used for this mad scene.
Out of the smaller roles I liked Szabó’s tone a lot – very easy on the ears and nicely solid singing. His dramatic skills were good, too.
There was a feeling of everyone on stage knowing that they are part of something special and behaving accordingly, with congenial help from Pappano and the orchestra. A highly enjoyable performance and a wonderful showcase of Rossini’s complex skills. During the evening I started thinking I’d like to see it again and I’m pleased to report I just managed to secure a reasonably priced second ticket this late in the game 😀 Everyone who likes great singing, try to go. The surprisingly good news is you can luck out on a return at any time (only two days ago the cheap available seat situation looked dire).
Agathe and I got tickets on the Stalls Circle left, because she knew from Munich that was the best position for the “important action” (Arsace and Semiramide singing directly at us; Barcellona’s dark, gently heroic tone caused Agathe to be on the verge of passing out 😉 several times during the evening). We were only a few feet away from the stage also with a good view of the orchestra/Pappano. There was a bit of muffle for the ppps but only in the sense of lack of ping across the board, which we supposed would not be the case from the auditorium (I’ll get back to you on that next week, especially re: Brownlee). Otherwise we heard it all in all its glory (though I had a blocked ear which caused me to strait during act I; it finally popped by the end of act I) and a badass evening it was 😀
We spent the – clear but very cold for London – day walking about central London and catching a truly beautiful sunset from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Out of fangirl anxiety we arrived one hour early at ROH and spent time chatting in the very cosy amphitheatre lobby (ROH is in the midst of major refurbishing). I don’t shower ROH with enough praise but it’s got a lovely lobby area design – grand but not overly so; you’ll soon relax – and the ushers have once again been super accommodating. Agathe commented that the applause wasn’t quite as mad as in Munich but I thought by Stalls Circle standards it was warm indeed. In spite of the cold weather there was minimal coughing, too.
- Or, somewhat confusingly, how much Idreno’s first aria has moved her, and she’d think twice about his (very aggressive) attentions if only Arsace wasn’t the love of her life. This can be a very funny moment, though I’m not sure that’s how it’s played here, in spite of the fact that this is Rossini. By funny I mean if it’s played as a comment on the tenor’s singing skills and the relationship between star singers and their fanbase. But then it’s mixed with what today is glaringly read as a lack of agency (not one aria for her) when she’s at the centre of the entire sublot and things become funny har har. ↩
Now that we’re nearing the end of 2017, 2016 memories have started to take firmer shape.
Three productions had a profound impact on yours truly this year: ENO’s Akhnaten and ROH’s The Nose and Oedipe. Hard to miss that all of them are 20th century operas. Perhaps they just lend themselves a lot better to contemporary takes. Also, to apparently fresh takes, as none is particularly often performed. The thrill of the lesser spotted is its own reward.
Becoming who you are
Akhnaten the opera is, for me, a great example of an intelligent way of dealing with a subject (apparently) alien to our contemporary sensibilities. Our sources of understanding are 2000 years of Christianity, the Curse of the Pyramids, National Geographic aesthetics and Tutankhamen as pop culture symbol. The assertion of the self resonates through centuries.
The Nose is comedy in its purest sense. Laughing – letting go of words – is letting go of rationality (= identity). We laugh at something when it becomes absurd and words to describe what is happening fail us. Laughing is also an act of confidence: identity is revealed as silly self importance.
Identity as burden
Oh, poor Oedipe, he is cursed to be who he is. The terracotta living wall is visceral and primordial, sun-infused and of slithery mud at the same time.