Category Archives: romantic opera
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…
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.
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.
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
Production: David Alden
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Assur: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Katya Kabanova (Janacek) tempting
Production: Ivo van Hove
Katya: Amanda Majeski
Lessons in Love and Violence (George Benjamin, World Premiere)
Director: Katie Mitchell
Barbara Hannigan ❤ I’ll take the chance with her
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
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 😉
Andrea Chenier: Jonas Kaufmann
Salome (Strauss) Yay! Hope it’s good.
Peter Grimes (Britten)
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Emma Bell
New Productions 2018-19
Königskinder (Humperdinck) 13, 17, 21, 27, December 2018, 1 January 2019
Production: David Bosch
Der Königssohn: Daniel Behle ❤
Fedora: Angela Gheorghiu
From the House of the Dead (Janacek) I’ll go
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
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Death in Venice (Britten) I like the story, I might go
Conductor: Mark Elder
Production: David McVicar
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
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
Das war ich D174a
Das war ich (fragment) D174b
Der Morgenstern (fragment) D172
Die erste Liebe D182
Jägers Abendlied D215
Der Fischer D225
Abends unter der Linde D235
Abends unter der Linde D237
Lob des Tokayers D248
Punschlied: im Norden zu singen D253
Der Vatermörder D10
An Rosa I D315
An Rosa II D316
Die Einsiedelei D393
Ins stille Land D403 x 4
Die Einsiedelei D563
Des Fräuleins Liebeslauschen D698
Doch im Getümmel der Schlacht D732 No. 8
Wenn ich dich, Holde, sehe D732 No. 13
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.
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.
Much like the mysterious knight, I usually try to keep my everyday life a mystery 😉 but Wagner uncharacteristically came to the rescue this time and I can file this moaning session under “musically related” (if tenuously so). If you want to skip it I’ll leave you with the porcelain swan sleigh. Click on it for a version of the Lohengrin act I prelude conducted by a chap whose surname translates to fisherman. turn loose the swans
Last night the Il trovatore saga (with the urge to see it sooner rather than later – the production runs in the Fall Season as well -, the semi-obsession with Haroutounian’s name, the double booking and the subsequent ticket exchange… for the second cast) has come to end. The first good news is that I have finally seen a Verdi opera where the plot isn’t stupid. The second good news is that I liked the production.
Leonora: Anna Pirozzi
Manrico: Gregory Kunde
Count di Luna: Christopher Maltman
Azucena: Marina Prudenskaya
Ferrando: Maurizio Muraro
Ines: Lauren Fagan
Ruiz: David Junghoon Kim
Old Gipsy: Jonathan Fisher
Messenger: Douglas Telfer
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda | Orchestra and Chorus of the ROH
Director: David Bösch | Co-production with Oper Frankfurt
Things started a bit anonymous and I was wondering if going for the second cast wasn’t a bad idea after all. Sometimes I like to shake things up a bit, take a chance when it is offered. Since this opera is strongly anchored in Azucena and Semenchuk has not made a particularly good impression so far, I thought I’d give Prudenskaya a chance. It turned out to be a good call. I’m not familiar with the great Azucenas to call a great one from memory but within this production Prudenskaya made a very strong impression on me.
With her very slight frame and goth makeup/attire, she seemed like a cross between Sally from Nightmare before Christmas, Sue Trinder from the Fingersmith film and Baba Yaga 1 with a bad case of (fake?) PTSD. That is enough to leave a lasting impression. It’s quite impossible to imagine her as Gregory Kunde’s mother which might even be the point.
Vocally she was pitch black in colour and though I like darkness I wish she occasionally brightened it a bit. Her top (this is another role that seems to call for a wide range) appealed to me a great deal, to the point where I started thinking in what other things I could see her where more of that was featured. I’m sure Azucena isn’t supposed to sound pretty (that’s Leonora’s territory) but, like I said, I found myself wishing for some variation in colour if not in mood.
Pirozzi (Leonora) seems to me a classic-type singer. It’s less about (modern) acting with her and more about grand gestures and hitting the money notes. To be fair she hit them and she pierces through the orchestra without issue and has a tool of varied and well employed dynamics. She’s also one of those singers that sounds very good with the orchestra, regardless of what you think about the beauty of her tone or its particular uniqueness or lack thereof. She was disciplined and kept time with them and where she had to match the strings in tone she matched them etc. The recits weren’t so riveting but she wasn’t rubbish either. With regards to the money notes, the biggest fault I can make is that you could tell one was coming as she would get in position well in advance. Then again, her role is written very belcanto-style, so you know 1) there will be money notes, 2) they will come by the end of the scene.
Maltman as the Count di Luna was the most consistent throughout. He pretty much carried the first two acts (after the intermission the others caught up). Having first encountered him as a very unpleasant (dickhead) Count in Le nozze di Figaro I was thoroughly pleased with his dickheadeness in this production 😀 He looked the part (trenchcoat, long, unwashed hair – sign of the evil bastard) and was reliably cold.
Kunde as the suave “gypsy” soldier/troubadour was not quite as far fetched as it may seem. I can see how Meli in the main cast would look the young and forlorn lover. Kunde’s Manrico appeared – or I chose to follow that route and he didn’t insult my intelligence – like the eternal romantic, living on the fringes of society where such things as age might be irrelevant.
There was a funny moment at the beginning, when the Count is in the garden at night, Leonora comes out and is moving towards him then Manrico enters and goes all (foreshadowing!) “You unfaithful woman!” or something along those lines. She answers “Oh, no, no! For a moment I thought he was you [they’re dressed fairly similar] but of course I came here to meet you!”. The audience laughed. They (and I) also laughed when, later on, the Count asks (rhetorically) “Where is that woman who has made me do these horrible things?” and she’s of course just behind him (lax security strikes opera libretto again) and goes “I’m right here!”.
The point I was trying to make with the first funny moment is that Leonora is attracted to Manrico beause of his valour (he won all the jousting events) and his musical skill. The fact that the gypsy camp is designed as a very anything goes type of place (nice nod to queerness, with the gypsy bride being a chap who’s later on picking up a gun to help Manrico out and other such) reinforces the exotic nature of his upbringing/life which would attract a straight-laced court lady.
An unexpected moment of queerness happened at the beginning, when Leonora is skipping merrily and singing about her love for Manrico. This one is a bit more handy with a knife than you’d expect from a lady in waiting to the Princess of Aragon – she has a proper knife with which she carves L + M = ❤ on trees! (much to the audience’s amusement).
Well, her (mezzo) confidante, Ines (it’s always Leonora and Ines in these operas set in Medieval Spain, eh?) takes her knife out of concern for her safety. Wouldn’t you know, Leonora pretty much seduces her in order to get the knife back. I was thinking hello, ladies! Had the opera gone down that road a lot of things would’ve turned out for the better… But I’m 100% Verdi never intended that; I’m still holding a grudge against his legacy for changing Ernani from mezzo to tenor. Anyway, thank you direction for remembering that mezzos aren’t just villains or (chaste) confidantes.
Kunde (last seen by me in that unfinished Tito from Aix) somehow found his stride in the second part of the performance. Di quella pira was his strongst point of the evening – even the chorus showed vigour, something that was lacking in the famous Anvil Chorus. His top notes were quite strangled and covered but he managed it well otherwise and was full of energy. I’d say his singing lacked a certain amount of nuance (was dry) but he sounded Italianate. In conclusion, a bit past his prime but committed and showing his experience.
As far as Maestro, he kept the focus on the singers to the point where the score seemed a bit anonymous. Again, I’m not familair with this repertoire to make a call whether that was good or bad. It suited me, as everyone could be heard at all times. I also think credit could be given to Maestro for showcasing the strengths of his singers over their limitations.
The production was modern and minimalist and worked very well. There were two main tableaux: one was the garden where the lovers meet, the other the gyspsy camp. The garden gradually changes from trees in bloom to the final – very impressive – pyre, seemingly employing all the initial elements. The gypsy camp remains pretty much unchanged. It contains a gypsy wedding vehicle and Azucena’s caravan, both in lively colours.
Some have wondered how come it’s not just two casts but two runs of Il trovatore within the next 8 months. From last night’s attendence I can tell this was a shrewd move. These classic repertoire operas sure fill the house, first cast or second cast. Also they seem to bring a wider variety of people – lots of young people (lots of very well dressed people! Due to hot/stuffy weather (23C, you can laugh but once I almost passed out at ROH in the Summer and I really don’t want to go through that again) I went in what amounts to my work attire (our office is boiling) but I’ve seen some fabulous/theatrical getups along with trainers and t-shirts), gay ladies, gay men, more ethnic variation that usual. Somebody three rows behind me had their very well behaved 10 year old (or thereabouts) looking daughter with them. I don’t think I could’ve made it through 3 hours of Verdi when I was 10, though the Anvil Chorus was something I was very fond of at that age.
I was very lucky that our row had two unaccounted for seats right in the middle and three other very well behaved people who refused to upgrade to them. So after being sandwiched between two other people before intermission I took a seat with nobody on eaither side later on. I also made a great opera-related find this week, when I ran into the cheapest Polos (53p) at the garage near my work! I branched out on the Spearmint variety. I can report they are the best ever budget mints 😀
- Azucena’s lair as Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs sounds like a very good idea to me! ↩
The past week has been spectacular here in London, culminating today (as in 8 May) with a superb Summer day – blue skies, breezy and it apparently reached 27C! The perfect time to spend 4 1/2 hours cooped up indoors with Mr Heinrich Whinge 😉
Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth: Emma Bell
Venus: Sophie Koch
Wolfram von Eschinbach: Christian Gerhaher
Herrmann: Stephen Milling
Biterolf: Michael Kraus
Walther von der Vogelweide: Ed Lyon
Heinrich der Schreiber: Samuel Sakker
Reinmar von Zweter: Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy: Raphael Janssens
Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen | Orchestra and Choir of the Royal Opera House
Director: Tim Albery
I’m going to do something slightly different this time and illustrate the main points of Tannhäuser using pop music song titles. I’ll start with a metal band because Wagner is very popular with metalheads and also the dirgey tempo fits our hero’s general mood:
That would be Venus and the feast is acted out during the overture. Babes in Venusberg lure men and then frantically spin a large dining table, over which everybody leaps. The choreography is not bad at all, in the sense that it made me want to get in shape for those kinds of leaps and smooth falls. Gentle reader, I did have a choice once: when I finished kindergarten recruiters from both the gymnastics squad and from the music school came to test us. You know which choice I made.
Venus and Tannhäuser are having words. Venus initially refuses to see Tannhäuser’s reasons, and so do we. Let’s take a look at his situation:
dude was basically a medieval rockstar who wowed everybody with his out of this world musical talent. Then one day, Venus – who could stand for a record company or for the public or for the hottest babe in the Holy Roman Empire – decides to pluck him from among the mortals – competing musicians – and plant him in her bed for awesome table spinning orgiastic action as pictured in the overture. This is exactly why everyone joins a band in the first place.
It turns out that the kitchen is a bit too hot for our minstrel’s liking so he wants out. Venus insists: why on earth would you want to return to your boring life? Tannhäuser:
Really, that’s what he says! Had we not witnessed what happened to Nirvana in 1994 it would be much harder to believe him. It still feels odd. He insists he loves Venus, that she will always have a place in his heart blah blah blah only he’s restless and he wants freedom. Or:
In so many words he wants her to break up with him because he’s too much of a coward to just leave. Venus – and us – thinks he’s being daft and tells him that once he gets back to his provincial friends they’ll envy the hell out of him and cast him out. He says he’s fine with that and quotes Cobain again.
Venus: ok then but don’t you come crawling back to me because in case you haven’t noticed I’m a goddess and we don’t do losers.
This scene sounds to me like a poor attempt at imagining what would happen in act IV of Alcina. Venus is way cool by me but Tannhäuser might be in the market for a slightly different type of woman. After much pagan talk about the nature of desire, act I ends with him stating that he is looking for the Virgin Mary.
It was good I didn’t know the finer details of the libretto beforehand because that announcement had a devastatingly amusing effect on me. I genuinely didn’t see that one coming. In hindsight I should have, I know, but I’m treasuring the fact that I didn’t. It was all pagan, orgy, desire, senses, fabulous musical talent, gods and goddeses and then bam! the Virgin Mary.
You know how in Siddhartha, the main character first learns about the world theoretically and then goes on to explore physical reality. That’s always struck me as backwards. So does this. Wouldn’t one go for the Virgin Mary type when one’s innocent and just later – perhaps during midlife crisis – indulge in the Whore option? I mean look what happens if you do it this way.
Anyway, Tannhäuser returns home and his old bandmates recognise him. After some cor blimeys they offer him the opportunity of a comeback, which is what most has-beens would want. Tannhauser only agrees when he hears that his biggest fan turned girlfriend has not been attending concerts since he’s left. It sounds a bit like they are blaming him for all around poor record sales. Elisabeth! he says, and it starts to dawn on him that she might be holding the key to his redemption [why do all the hard psychological work when somebody else can act as crutch?].
Finally he meets ex-girlfriend again. She momentarily keeps her cool and asks where he’s been and what he’s been up to.
Tannhäuser: I’ve travelled far…
Elisabeth: whew, good thing you’ve come back! I didn’t know what to do with myself whilst you were away. I don’t really care what you’ve been up to, I love you so much and I’m happy you’re back!
Tannhäuser (trying to be smooth): the god of love himself has inspired your sweet feelings!
Err, god of love, Tanny? Haha. Aren’t you lucky she’s demure and can live without inconvenient details?
After that everybody in town gathers for the battle of the minstrels. Her uncle Herrmann explains the rules and finishes his speech with this priceless gem:
Herrmann: the winner will get his prize from Elisabeth. I will personally make sure she’ll provide whatever it is the winner asks for.
You thinking what I’m thinking, Herrmann? Takes dirty uncle to another level.
Since it’s clear the poetry slam is about Elisabeth, the contestants direct their freestyle minstrelling at her. The other competitors sing about how a woman is like a beautiful flower (ie, decorative) and how love is like a still pond which they (especially the idealistic Wolfram) don’t want to disturb, because disturbing it would ruin its purity. Tannhäuser can’t take it anymore and states that, yes, love is like a perfectly still pond but he wants to drink deep to quench his endless desire:
If you don’t know the Nine Inch Nails song I urge you to listen to the lyrics because that’s exactly what Tannhauser wants to do to/get from pure pond-like Elisabeth.
Everybody: what in the world are you talking about, Tannhäuser? Are you mad? Oh, no, says Tannhäuser, you guys know nothing about love – nothing. I do, because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in
Everybody’s like OMG! God forbid! Cover the womenfolk’s ears! They do and hastily shepherd them out. But not before Elisabeth stands up for her man and says you’re all sanctimonious and bourgeois, you need to let him have his redemption. I volunteer to help him out with that [I’m sure you do, Elisabeth].
Herrmann: Elisabeth, how can you get involved with such filth? [Bud, who was going to make sure Elisabeth provided anything the winner might’ve asked for?]
Elisabeth: my life doesn’t matter!!!!! He needs to be saved!
Don’t mind me, I’m just banging my head on the keyboard. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more ridiculous after Lucia (then again, Rigoletto, anyone?). Lucia: 1840, Tannhäuser: 1845, Rigoletto: 1851. Make sure you avoid that period when the time machine becomes commercially available.
To rid the town of someone who has experienced the filth that is unimaginable pleasure/fabulous success or possibly sexual addiction, Herrmann offers to keep the foaming crowd off his back if Tannhäuser gets his SINFUL hide to Rome for some cleansing in the Trevi fountain. Ok, maybe not in that one. Tannhäuser is now back in the I’m a sinner, must have redemption mode and agrees to do so.
Whilst he’s away virtuous Elisabeth is both pining for him and praying fervently to the Virgin Mary (of course) to take her soul to the heavenly fold because without him she can’t live/she fears for his eternal damnation. Wolfram accompanies her like the equally virtuous and tenderhearted good guy that finishes last. Although he can kinda see where things are heading (unlike me), he has no heart to shake her and tell her he loves her. Maybe he realises that she’s only interested in chaps that need saving.
I’m saying I can’t see where things are heading because I grew up in a completely secular environment and I can’t wrap my mind around the the theological concept of sin. I get refraining from causing pain onto others but sin against the will of god is just bizarre to me. Thus this plot seems to me like an overly melodramatic case of boredom on Tannhäuser’s part. But I was trying very hard to rationalise it through German mores cca 1845.
Winter comes and the absolved pilgrims return from Rome. Elisabeth watches until the last one passes by and realises Tannhäuser is not among them = has not received absolution. She sort of fades away and Wolfram looks alarmed in that sedated way fatalists do. Finally Tannhäuser returns and Wolfram is suddenly angry:
Wolfram: how do you dare return among us without redemption?
Tannhäuser (with a heavy heart): don’t remind me. On second thought, let me tell you what happened. Years ago I landed in Venusberg. Mere mortals can’t imagine the kind of pleasures I experienced there. I…
[Audience: Wagner, stop reiterating the plot!
Wagner: ok, ok, but it’ll still be a 10min solo.]
Tannhäuser: … in order to repress my base desires I self harmed by walking through thorns and I denied myself liquids in 40C weather. I walked through Italy with eyes closed just so I wouldn’t be tempted by its beauty [here’s where Wagner missed including how he ran into walls because he couldn’t see anything and felt good (but not too good) about the extra pain he suffered]. I stood in the queue for the Pope and when my turn finally came I gave him the gory details of my horrible sins. The Pope’s eyes popped out of their socks and he bellowed such sins can NEVER be absolved! You will rot in HELL forever and ever amen!!! Then I passed out [from heat stroke and exhaustion?]. When I came to it was evening and the square was empty [dude, the good people of the Vatican just left him passed out in the street]. I then made my stealthy way back here because…
Wolfram: yes, Tannhäuser, why did you come back?
Tannhäuser: because I need to find my way back to
Wolfram: Shhh, shhh, Tannhäuser, someone might hear you!
Tannhäuser: oh, I don’t care anymore! I’m sick of this stupid existence among mortals! I need to return to the realm of ENDLESS PLEASURE!!!
Dude. Didn’t you puff your chest out at Venus 4 hours ago how you really missed the world, freedom and especially the Virgin Mary? But he starts singing:
And just like that, the gate of Venusberg opens.
Venus: all right, I see you’re back, hot stuff. I’ll forget your slight and take you back ‘cos I’m nice like that.
[Yes, Wagner, that’s exactly what a scorned goddess would do! Haha.]
Wolfram: noooooooooooooooooooo! You can still be saved!
Tannhäuser: I don’t wanna be saved!
Funeral procession: Elisabeth’s soul has gone to heaven. [At which point clueless me thought shit, she done kilt herself! Then I realised it can’t be, she’s really into religion so the only explaination is:] It’s a miracle! Behold, she’s using her influence with the Virgin Mary to
REDEEM TANNHAUSER’S SOUL!
Whew. Anyway 😉 the music. For my money, after the 3 solid hours worth of notes, the best bit is still the shimmery theme in the overture. Wagner agrees, as the bit returns several times, including in the final – or near final – chorus. What surprised me as novice Romantic opera listener was the Verdi-ness of it all, which I suppose comes off clearer in the auditorium rather than at home. Indeed I expected it to be less Italian sounding and louder. The choir and the singing were not Italian but the orchestra could’ve fooled me, especially considering I’m not a Verdi aficionado either. Though the singing felt German (not just the language) I was again surprised how exposed it is. Perhaps coming to Wagner after a Strauss detour can be counterintuitive. I wouldn’t have thought Wagner could be so gentle with the singers but here they rarely needed to battle the orchestra and some of the music was tender in itself. In conclusion, Wagner’s worst musical faults seem to be long-windedness and not the best knack for melody (Rossini was right). There is a place in the fiery pits of hell for him on account of his libretti.
As far as singing my interest was Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram), whom I hadn’t caught before because all his Wigmore Hall recitals sell out in the blink of an eye. In a performance where the main singers all had sharp diction on a very light orchestral background his was razor sharp. Some singers have such a way with language – especially when they’re native speakers – they can make you fall in love with it. My seat was about 1/3 up the Auditorium Slips and I heard every word he said plus all the ppps. I may have heard words I had never noticed before in the German language. Can we sign up for language lessons with him? But it wasn’t just beautifully pronounced German, it was touching voice acting too. Wolfram is a bit of Don Ottavio – perhaps more self aware – but Gerhaher gave him dignity and a lot of gentleness. In his act III interactions with Elisabeth and then Tannhauser Wolfram appeared self-effacing and generous. This role fits him well, it’s like staged lieder.
Seiffert in the title role sure has endurance and stage presence (though his Tannhäuser is a straight forward dude, more about the whore than about the virgin) though I can’t say I particularly care for his solid, piercing Heldentenor voice. In any case, 4 hours later I didn’t want to run yet. He taught me how to pronounce trännen correctly.
I heard Emma Bell got better with each show but I didn’t have anything to compare her performance with, not having encountered her before. I understand Dich, teure Halle is Elisabeth’s main aria and I paid attention. It’s the one moment in the whole opera when she’s happy and feels kinship with the music auditorium, of all things. So she’s also a vessel of music (most certainly she’s not her own person). Well, I can’t say she made much of an impression. She was all right, I think, no glaring moments. I really have a hard time gauging dramatic sopranos, not sure why – other than I don’t hear many often. I’d venture to say that her voice is not particularly big in volume though there is good heft to it as fullness goes.
I thought Sophie Koch as Venus was quite light of voice and not particularly vixenish. Now these seductress roles are funny because there can always be a debate on just how vixenish they need to be. I just felt she should to be super sultry to justify Tannhäuser’s song contest eruption of omg, you guys just don’t know LOVE! Perhaps not Carmen-sultry (though that’s another debate) but goddess-sultry. I guess she was a bit mundane, not regal enough in bearing.
Rather curiously lacking was the chorus, which to me seemed like it was often lagging behind, though it had power (too much sometimes where the sound ended up warped) and Shepherd Boy, plagued by pitch problems. The flutes were off once or twice, too, but shit happens, eh?
I was fine with the staging – the efficient kind ROH gets quite a bit these days. Nothing to rock the boat but nothing twee or annoyingly busy either. Venus had good looking babes, the spinning table, a standard “inviting” bed and Venusberg had a general garish feel though not overly so; teure Halle was filled with a broken picture frame which looked rather good, had something spilling out of it (Elisabeth’s world 😉 ); there was snow on the ground for the last scene and a rustic wooden trough (or perhaps bench). The costumes were rather blah and not about any particular time period.
In conclusion and considering it was my first time with Wagner live, I only dozed off for about 10min at the end of act II. Whether that says something about the music, the singers or the conductor I don’t know. I’m sure it says something about me – which is, this was fine but I’m not in any hurry to see it again. You keep hearing these fantastic things about how you either hate or love Wagner. I seem to have eased off the hate camp yet not quite into the love side. In spite of the 1900 word eyeroll induced synopsis, I don’t regret going but for my money there’s way better opera out there. You also need about 2 sandwiches and 2 bottles of water if you attend on a hot day.
Overheard on the way out: I really liked it but boy was it daft!
In light of a split decision to go see Tannhäuser I thought it would be wise to listen to the opera before I committed to its 3hrs+. Well, wouldn’t you know, it was highly bearable. In fact some parts were very pleasant indeed (often when there was no singing, but that wasn’t unpleasant either; at least most of the time).
On the other hand I can’t say I’ve been turned into a Wagner aficionado. But we’ll talks again after I actually see it.