Category Archives: romantic opera

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)

INTERVAL

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 🙂

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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).

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

Oscara in maschera

Nobody1 quite knows why, but for Un ballo in maschera Verdi concocted a trouser role. It’s written for a high soprano (or at least that’s what I always heard it as – always meaning the 2-3 times I listened). Every one of those times I rolled my eyes at the perky soprano prancing around rather like a cheerleader (they were all way girly, too) than what I would normally imagine as the king’s secretary (someone like Annio, I guess?). But here comes Tim Albery with a slammed production for Opera North:

having the king’s secretary, Oscar (Tereza Gevorgyan) change from his suit into an evening dress for the final scene is hard to rationalise and rather undermines Verdi’s idea of making it a trousers role for a coloratura soprano in the first place. – Andrew Clements for The Guardian

That’s kind of interesting for a change. Maybe Albery felt like me. Maybe he just wanted to highlight the ambivalence of trouser roles. If the king’s secretary is going to be a chirping coloratura soprano, what does that mean? To me it means he’s quicksilver gender-wise, so why not go full circle? I mean trouser-role wise I rate Verdi very low (I’m still bitter he changed Ernani the bandit from trouser mezzo to tenor) but he did make an (ill-conceived?) effort here and must’ve wanted something with it.


  1. I learned today Ballo is supposed to be a bit comedic, so maybe that’s one of the reasons. I don’t really get Verdi humour, so it had to be spelled out to me. But it’s progress! 

Verdi feelings

The other day, the contralto mobile passengers were trying to see what the fuss was about the recent (current?) Don Carlos at Opera Bastille. We failed to zero-in on a coherent answer (feelings, eh) but I remembered this amusing sestissimo post. It’s about La forza del destino – my favourite opera to laugh at – but anyone who also has a (low brow) sense of humour will get a big chuckle out of it, because they will recognise the trouble coping with Verdi-ness in general – if you’re coming from the other side of opera fandom.

In case you’re wondering what’s with this randomness, I’ve decided to clean out the vault, so there’ll be all sorts of stuff – short and silly or long and deliberate – coming out of there for the next couple of months. I hope none of them bite…

The Great Book of Big Composer Hair

It all started with hair and it veered into writing opera:

Clearly the red scarf was the essential accessory that season!

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance 2017 (ROH, 16 July 2017)

July is the time when the ROH audience checks on the house’s young artists to see how they’ve grown. I found this year’s programme rather ambitious and the results mixed.

Verdi: I due Foscari, Act II (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Lucrezia Contarini: Vlada Borovko
Jacopo Foscari: David Junghoon Kim

This is the kind of opera that kept yours truly aloof from the art form for so long. I couldn’t wait for the overwrought scene/duet to be over. If you can’t pinpoint it in your mind, imagine the typical belcanto duet between important/main characters who are about to be parted by fate. It’s mainly Italian angst, with moments of gloomy recit, ominous shredding from the string section for the moments when ghosts are mentioned (one of the characters is ever on the brink of a breakdown, the other one tries more or less feebly to be their rock but it’s obvious they are also suffering) then a cheerful tune gets shoehorned in (so that the audience can draw a breath) and is explained in the dialogue by “outdoors sounds” such as the gondolier, good moment for the whinger to draw attention back to their plight, so that the hand wringing can start anew and continue for another 15min. Kim is on the right track for this kind of thing and has a beautiful tone but he’s obviously too young for the finer details this 19th century brand of Italian neuroticism needs.

Nowadays they simply have women either dressed in an updated version of ’80s powersuits or as lalala bohemians. Borovko looked utterly in charge in her suit which I dare say was curious for Amelia Lucrezia. Then again, I despise this opera so much that I might have missed something essential. I doubt it, Romantic opera womenfolk were utterly decorative.

Upon return home I realised this was not Simon Boccanegra.

Massenet: Cendrillon, Act II (duet)
Conductor: Matthew Scott Rogers
Cendrillon: Kate Howden
Prince: Angela Simkin

Massenet, eh? Poor mezzos, he wrote for them but alas, I don’t like his saccharine stuff. For once I would’ve like the mezzo singing the trouser role to wear sensible shoes but it was not to be. Aside from that, Howden and Simkin’s interaction was not bad at all. Sometimes when I see mezzos and sopranos singing to each other of love I feel the interaction is actually helped by them both being (straight) women. It’s almost like they think whew, it’s just her, I won’t get distracted by wayward hormones, I can focus on the notes I’m supposed to sing and when I have some free time I can glance at her in a chummy manner – which masquerades surprisingly well as young love. Howden covered for an indisposed Emily Edmonds and I can’t complain about anything, but then again, Massenet. Simkin had more of a moment here than as Isolier later on, obviously since this is a duet, and though I again have no complaints, I also didn’t feel particularly wowed by her tone.

Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act I (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Suzel: Francesca Chiejina
Fritz: Thomas Atkins

I find it a bit odd that I enjoy Mascagni quite as much as I do (Cavalleria) but there you go, I liked this duet as well. You might ask wait, how is this any less fluff than Massenet above? It’s not but it’s much more enjoyable music to my ears. Atkins and Chiejina had rather nice chemistry going and were well suited vocally. Plus, there was a really big bucket of cherries on stage and a hot summer day outside. Chiejina’s cutely colourful maid outfit exemplified what I said above about the lalala bohemian vs powersuit.

Strauss: Arabella, Act III (final duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Arabella: Jennifer Davis
Mandryka: Gyula Nagy

Jennifer Davis has a surprisingly large voice for her age, definitely able to cope with a Strauss orchestra as conducted by Syrus, and has a rather fearless attitude about attacking the highs and a good technique to back that. I could see from the Don Giovanni bit after the interval that Syrus was unusually careful in helping his singers do their best, so I suppose he was here as well. As far as the finer parts, well I guess that’s where both nature and experience come in. I remember the fairly recent (sometime last year) Bayerische livestream of Arabella with Harteros in the title role, which I loved, so I think that’s a good goal to keep in mind for aspiring Strauss singers.

Nagy sounded a bit stiff to me in what I imagine is a very tricky role. Aside from the livestream, my experience with Arabella is rather limited so I don’t as yet have a good idea about who Mandryka is supposed to be, aside from a vaguely wild force, personification of sexual desire as experienced by virginal women? Anyway, one needs a bit of stage and life experience to make that work.

Rossini: Le Comte Ory, Act II (final scene)
Conductor: James Hendry
Countess Adèle de Formoutiers: Francesca Chiejina
Isolier: Angela Simkin
Count Ory: David Junghoon Kim

This hilarious trio/scene elicited a lot of mirth, as it usually does, even though I dare say none of them are natural Rossinians, and thus the finer details did not shine. Hendry must’ve got a bit too much into it and, perhaps skewed by Strauss volume levels, let the orchestra rip which often covered the singers. But they were mostly funny, especially Kim who got into the nun act. The bed cover looking like something from Pylones added to the silliness.

Interval

Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II (from Zerlina finding Masetto to end)
Conductor: David Syrus
Fortepiano continuo: Nick Fletcher
Donna Anna: Vlada Borovko
Donna Elvira: Jennifer Davis
Zerlina: Haegee Lee
Don Ottavio: Thomas Atkins
Don Giovanni: Gyula Nagy
Leporello: David Shipley
Masetto/Commendatore: Simon Shibambu

As I was saying earlier, Syrus did a really good job with the volume here, definitely one of the better ways to approach DG that I have heard at ROH, where conductors seem to think this is early Verdi. The singers were properly cradled and it showed once again how good Mozart is for young singers regardless of what voice type their future has in store. It was easily the best moment of the evening.

Thomas Atkins as Don Ottavio got the most applause. It’s true he has a very fine tenor that works with many things and he coped pretty well with Il mio tesoro, a bold choice to be sure. Let’s say I’d rank my ROH Don Ottavios like so: Antonio Poli, Atkins, Villazon. Nagy was much more at ease with the Don than with Mandryka and I think he makes quite a dashing figure; I see this role in his future, he has it all going for him. ROH says he is a baritone but I felt he was rather a bass-baritone or he will be one soon.

Generally I was impressed with the density of the basses and the baritone voices on display – proper stuff. To that end, Shibambu divested himself well of the lugubrious DON GIOVANNI! cry one expects from the statue. He needs a bit more projection for the big stage but otherwise smooth sailing. Btw, I noticed he constantly gets to wear a military uniform but then I guess that’s the lot of basses, what with their authority figure repertoire. Shipley as Leporello was pretty good, too, not overly funny but his interaction with Nagy’s Don was on the money.

Borovko returned as Donna Anna. Now that I’ve seen her recently in a big role I can say this: her top is very good and her coloratura ace but the cloudiness from the middle down seems constant. I don’t know what others hear but if this is simply how her voice sounds I can’t see myself getting excited in the future. Or perhaps she needs to find herself very high roles and stick with those? How about contemporary opera, then. Davis as Donna Elvira wasn’t bad at all, coping very dutifully with all required, though I still think Strauss is where she needs to aim. This Donna Elvira was abjectly in love with the Don but I think Davis got her – tricky for the contemporary mind – preoccupation with saving DG’s soul from eternal damnation.

Sopranos: Vlada Borovko, Francesca Chiejina, Jennifer Davis
Mezzo-sopranos: Angela Simkin, Kate Howden
Tenors: Thomas Atkins, David Junghoon Kim
Baritone: Gyula Nagy
Basses: Simon Shibambu, David Shipley

If you think I was a bit hard on the young singers, bear in mind that I somehow managed to get there two hours before the start of the show (I thought it started at 16:30 instead of 6:30. I know, getting old…), after which I decided to wander around and (re)discovered what a consumerist Mecca Covent Garden is. Let’s start with the hapless straw hat “boy with guitar”, whom I was this close to pay a fiver to shut up for a few minutes. Worse even than a Verdi dirge is a wounded bohemian pop tune. You know the kind, something from the late seasons of Dr House. Try stepping into a shop, they all play music – your choice is now bubblegum pop with nondescript teen voices. Then there was the obligatory curly haired musician setting up his amp to blast what sounded very much like gentle Shoreditch downtempo cca 2003. I guess these moves are savvy, it’s touristy as all getout around there and all of the above are now part of the pop psyche.

I couldn’t take it anymore so I scurried into a book shop (where I knew they don’t play any music) to read Andrew Eames’ account of getting morbidly bored on a barge on the lower Danube. What was he thinking, right? Muddy water, catfish, poplars and weeping willows, engine fuel, moody sailors – a proper circuit party.

But the Comte Ory trio got stuck in my head for days, so things righted themselves to an extent.

Let’s look at ROH rumours 2017-2019

tl;dr: barely any Mozart, no Baroque (though some might trickle through nearer to the time) but some tempting things nonetheless. Here‘s your source.

New productions 2017-18

La Vestale (Spontini) La Gheorghiu continues her work to keep the rep traditional
Julia: Angela Gheorghiu

La Boheme (Puccini)
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Production: Richard Jones
Mimi: ? keeping the suspense
Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano
Marcello: Mariusz Kwiecien

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) – Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera   
Production: Stefan Herheim I like it, I’ll go

Der Freischutz (Weber) I don’t quite like it but I might go because how often does it come around?
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Production: Kasper Holten
Max: Jonas Kaufmann / Stuart Skelton

Semiramide (Rossini) bring it on! I might go twice [2018 update: I did go twice!]
Production: David Alden
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Assur: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona

Katya Kabanova (Janacek) tempting
Production: Ivo van Hove
Kabanicha: Rosalind Plowright
Katya: Amanda Majeski

Lessons in Love and Violence (George Benjamin, World Premiere) [2018: will go soon]
Director: Katie Mitchell
Stephane Degout
Barbara Hannigan ❤ I’ll take the chance with her
Peter Hoare

Revivals 2017-18

Les Vepres Siciliennes (Verdi) October – November 2017
Rachele Stanisci (Helene), two performances who’s she? I missed the Vepres the last time around, might go this time

Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) / Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) Dec 2017
Nedda: Carmen Giannattasio
Silvio: Artur Rucinski
Santuzza: Elina Garanca I’d go for comparison purposes but it’s a bit soon

Tosca (Puccini) January 2018
Caravadossi: Vittorio Grigolo yes, but who is Tosca?

Lucia di Lammermor (Donizetti) November 2017? So soon?!
Lucia: Olga Peretyatko
Raimondo: Michele Pertusi
Edgardo: Juan Diego Flórez he doesn’t want to!

Don Giovanni (Mozart) July 2018
Donna Anna: Chen Reiss
Don Ottavio: Pavol Breslik

Andrea Chenier (Giordano) ?2018 never too soon 😉 [2018: it’s 2019 now, so I guess it was too soon…]
Andrea Chenier: Jonas Kaufmann

Salome (Strauss) Yay! Hope it’s good. [2018: it was]

Peter Grimes (Britten)
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Emma Bell

New Productions 2018-19

Königskinder (Humperdinck) 13/17/21/27 Dec 2018, 1 Jan 2019 [2018: apparently cancelled]
Production: David Bosch
Der Königssohn: Daniel Behle ❤

Fedora (Giordano)
Fedora: Angela Gheorghiu

From the House of the Dead (Janacek) I’ll go [2018: very good!]
Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski

Through the Looking Glass (Unsuk Chin) World Premiere (?)

Don Pasquale (Donizetti) I really don’t see the appeal of this one
Production: Damiano Michieletto

La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) – 2019 not unless we get Harteros [2018: we’re not getting her]
Conductor: Antonio Pappano

Death in Venice (Britten) I like the story, I might go
Conductor: Mark Elder
Production: David McVicar

Revivals 2018-19

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)
Brunnhilde: Nina Stemme should yours truly make an effort?
Siegfried: Stefan Vinke
Siegmund: Stuart Skelton

Carmen November- December 2018
Micaela: Eleonora Buratto

Faust (Gounod) should go this time [2018: quite tempting with Damrau]

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

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

Stuart Jackson tenor
Marcus Farnsworth baritone
James Baillieu piano

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

Interval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.