Category Archives: operatic damsels in distress
There must be a reason why Statira is wearing a blonde wig whilst Argene has on something very much akin to a cycling helmet (everyone knows cyclists are pests!). Ok, so it’s a ropey turban 😉 she still looks ready to mount a bike (considering all the men are steering clear…).
Similarly, there must be a reason why Dario is wearing the same attire as the shadow of Cyro (Saudi style). The other guys simply can’t compete, whether they have the oil or the weapons.
You would think a smart woman like Argene knows 1) what the oracle says goes (whoever marries Statira will rule the empire) so 2) simply tempting Dario away from the blonde won’t do the trick. But it appears she has fallen for him much in the same way men who should know better (Niceno) have gone gaga over Statira. During part I she languishes in bed, mopey because he won’t notice her. But she springs into action as soon as he wanders into her room (as opera characters seem to; to be fair, she promised him her “help” in getting Statira to love him).
Flora: Mylady, Dario is coming, cover yourself so you can receive him!
Argene: better yet, I shall receive him naked! (she lounges, eyes aflutter, legs and bosom exposed – by her time period’s standards; in this production it means the blanket-robe is off).
Dario: any news about Statira?
Argene: still hates you.
Dario: oh, how cruel my fate etc.
Argene: well, there might be others who like what they see when they look at you (wink-wink, nudge-nudge).
Dario: that’s nice, but could you possibly talk to Statira again?
Argene: sure, I’ll do all I can. But first help me write a letter, all of a sudden – right about the time you stepped into the room – I became so overcome with emotion my hand has started trembling (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)
Dario: ok. Who’s this letter addressed to?
Argene (gets into his personal space): the man who has conquered my dreams. Write! My sun, light of my days (mega bosom nudge, power eyelash flutter) –
Dario (eyes popping, scoots away): My sun, light of my days… ok, next?
Argene: oh, I’m wasting away for your love! (mega nudge)
Dario: the man of your dreams must be very difficult indeed. Light of my days, oh, I’m wasting away for your love…?
Argene: you didn’t understand anything, did you?
Dario: on the contrary, I understood perfectly.
Dario: remember you said you’ll help me with Statira?
Argene (eyeroll): ok, enough writing. Go, go, I’ll write the name later.
In the meanwhile, Statira is worried about suddenly being pushed into the limelight.
Statira: Flora, what is this commotion all about?
Flora: Mylady, you’ll soon be queen!
Statira: hm. What does a queen do?
Flora: she wears a tiara!
Statira: that’s nice. What else?
Flora: she presides over public ceremonies!
Statira: eh, that sounds tedious. Anything else?
Flora (wink-wink): she does her wifely duties to the king.
Statira: but what are those?
Seriously. Was she raised by wolves? Clearly not, otherwise she wouldn’t be so scared when she gets to the woods. But talk about sheltered. And she’s the older daughter. Reminds me of that joke about the two pious virgins who got married and were still childless a year later (not for lack of trying).
Niceno, who’s supposed to be the token Arabian (nights) philosopher (must have a philosopher at the Persian court, right?), has poured all his emotions into a soulful and finely crafted series of letters to the woman who makes him sigh but who, he has a feeling, might not be returning his feelings. He finally plucks the courage to give Statira the letters. She really gets into the amourous atmosphere and reads aloud with pathos to wistful viola da gamba backing (I have a horribly sneaky suspicion this is a joke on emotionally astute but otherwise dim actors) only at the end to prove she has absolutely no clue about what he’s trying to tell her.
Hey, Mr Bookworm, didn’t you notice by now that she’s Miss Literal? So, in his desperation, though he has pined for her for who knows how long, he makes a terrible pact with Argene, who, apparently (it’s still wink-wink territory, blink and you missed it, though with Galou at the helm you most likely won’t) promises him she will sleep with him if he helps her break the not-yet lovebirds apart. If you can’t have one sister… the librettist’s commentary is clearly that no matter how intellectual or practical the man, none of them likes the smart sister (pfui! back to the kitchen) but will “work” with her if she throws something else into the pot. At some point whilst Statira is once again acting “blonde”, both Niceno and Argene turn to the bottle. That’s a bit like 2017.
Statira soon finds out what her future husband wants from her: her eyes, her hands. Very alarming! The man sounds like a right serial killer 😀 She has a stern/earnest sounding aria (quirky Vivaldi) about how she simply won’t allow that malarkey. Which plays right into the hands of the more practical Arpago and Oronte, who each boasts about their military or admin-y (oil pumping? there’s a dirty joke in there) exploits.
If you think the silly comedy can get tired after a while then more credit to Mingardo who remained funny even after we knew exactly what was coming. Also credit to Vivaldi who has a very clever way of putting silly and extremely catchy together with very beautiful.
After trying his luck in vain, Niceno defects to Argene’s side, “guiding” Statira by telling her each of these young men is worthy of her hand. She promptly promises her hand to both (I guess she quickly got over the fear of literally losing her hand to every man in the country 😉 ). This annoys Dario, who thinks she’s playing hard to get. He vows to take his anger out on his rivals. Now we know the cause of so many bloody battles through history.
Next comes Niceno’s badass bass aria with bassoon obligato (bullseye) along the lines of Tardi s’avvede. That is to say a “wise adviser aria”, in which Niceno cautions Dario that getting irate makes him appear less suave. The youthful looking Mr Bassoon did a solid job and I can assure you youtube doesn’t have a better version than Novaro’s, who has a somewhat similar type of voice to Galou (light but of high density).
I guess the Saudi connection is that Persia was the Saudi Arabia of its time. The Oracle is the West, who always somehow supports the winners in the area, though it pretends not to get involved. Astutely, then, neither the ones who have the oil nor the ones with the guns really win and whoever tries to stand up to the Oracle’s dictums will end up in the “harshest chains” (I really like that bit. Are they the kind with spikes on the inside?).
It only took me several listens and two live performances but I must say the libretto isn’t that bad after all!
On Sunday we made our way back to Piazza Castello, where we could already recognise some people as dressed for the opera. After soaking a bit of the very congenial atmosphere we went up to our box on the other side (left) of the auditorium. Interestingly, the door was locked. We tried other doors and it seemed hit and miss. We noticed others had similar problems, so we made our way to the auditorium to look for an usher.
Suffice to say we sat somewhere central, next to these very nice old ladies, who had upgraded too. This was the last performance of the run and there were empty seats scattered around the venue. But no more cameras.
The sound from the auditorium was very good on both nights, perhaps a bit better on Sunday, when we had prime location. We could hear every singer’s consonants. Finally we could see what we missed stage design-wise on the first night (quite a bit).
You might remember the poster that says “the best voices in Baroque for Dario“. It didn’t lie. Regardless of one’s preference for one singer’s tone or another, Dantone had assembled a gorgeous sounding team indeed. Vivaldi saw to it that everybody had their time to shine and the direction dropped the curtain behind all but the two main ladies to give them centre spotlight at least once and they took the challenge with gusto.
Mameli’s phrasing in particular rivaled the main ladies’, though her role is quite clearly written for “we need to give something to the soprano” reasons. Alinda is Oronte’s ex, who is – as ever in Baroque opera – stalking him and generally putting spanners in his works with amazingly precise timing. She’s stealthy like a ninja and her outfit fits the description.
One has to comment on their very toxic relationship. She’s, as I was saying, a stalker and he is very abusive towards her up until the very end (he even has an aria along the lines of “leave me alone with your fidelity, I’ve moved on”). Yet they are “happily” reunited. Of course, we are led to believe that he’s only discarded her because of his ambitions to the throne, but he is still extremely emotionally abusive throughout. You don’t want to be reunited with someone who’s done that to you. You also might want to stay away from people who are so needy as to take you back unconditionally after repeated abuse. [ / soapbox]
I wasn’t too into Cirillo’s voice until she had a slow (and a bit boring) aria with long lines. Those came out rather nice. Perhaps Oronte’s music isn’t quite that gripping, on top of his character being a selfish dick, so I didn’t get that much out of the whole thing beside said long lines.
There’s that bit of sparring roughly in the middle, between Arpago’s soldiers and Oronte’s techies, which I guess makes less sense in reality than in this production. It reminded me of the military parade in the Aix Tito in that the sparring people shout at every move. For my money it was a bit slow but entertaining enough, moreso because all involved were women.
I was – predictibly – more excited when Argene pulled a gun on Arpago at the end and then even turned it on Dario himself. That Dario just plucked it away was, as thadieu already mentioned, less climatic, especially since he had not, at any point in the production, looked like much of a warrior (rather like middle management). Pointing a flashlight at Niceno and repeating back his creepy words at him doesn’t quite count as heroism in my book. Then again, Argene was in love with him and Oronte was hardly helping with his getting cold feet over killing Alinda (why not just throw her in jail?).
Did I mention that Argene, after mistakenly revealing to Dario the plan to get rid of Statira (in a last ditch attempt to get him) decided to get Oronte on her side and as consort? Why not Arpago, the chap without a stalking gf is anyone’s guess (clearly Argene digs administrator types). But after bitching about Oronte and Alinda’s disfunctional relationship I can’t say that any two people in this opera have a healthy relationship, aside from perhaps Dario and Statira, who look like they they’ll work it out.
Thadieu was suggesting a different take on the ending rather than the floppy plucking of the gun. I also thought that Argene’s last line of recit – “Every crime has a punishment” – was one of those Captain Obvious moments that 18th century librettists liked to tack on the ending for moralistic reasons. I’d’ve done away with that and just gone into Ferri, ceppi, sangue, morte! The announcement about Galou’s indisposition ran on Sunday as well, but she amped it up for the last show of the run, with an appropriately desperate cry on the last (il mio) furror! And she was hilarious in this super scheming role. I don’t think I’ve seen a more persistent schemer yet, 80% of what comes out of her mouth is post truth fare.
So because thadieu has goaded me enough over the (last) weekend I’ve raked my brains for my own description of Galou’s voice – as I feel it. Thus far I basked in an ah, so smooth! cloud every time I heard her, unusually not needing further word-anchoring. But after the “beam of light” analogy I thought I agreed but not quite. Then I listened a bit and right after this version of Quel torrente1 it hit me:
Luscious mascarpone cheese layered with espresso-soaked sponge fingers, with a touch of cognac or brandy.
Also known as tiramisu. Light (weight) and dark (colour) and soft and heady (and often humorous). I think the way she approaches singing is more impressionistic than architectural/visual, so too much analysis won’t leave you any more knowledgeable than the moment it hits you (or doesn’t). The sound just brushes you in passing, disolves almost instantly and you’re not quite sure if you’ve imagined it or if it was real. For instance it this bit of Stabat mater the sound just envelopes you much like darkness itself would. It’s there but it’s kinda not. Very poetic. Then for a return to Vivaldi, just check out the smile in the voice and general impishness in this cutest of arias (Io sembro appunto quell’augelletto; my mum was right after all, it is birds and flowers/leaves 😉 ). The delay in posting this was partly due to my spending a fair bit of time fawning over this charming aria.
On that note we should perhaps move on to Mr Dario, sung here by Mr Belcanto Tito. Allemano’s larger (and darker) voice makes a fine contrast to the others and sets him apart as “big boss”, though the role itself is pretty congenial. He more or less waltzes in without fantastic credits like Arpago and Oronte and gets the throne with the help of personal charm (un bel viso) and a few good decisions, like the one where he pretends to take Argene up on her offer, simply to find out where Statira might be. Allemano’s not a bad actor at all, looking a bit dorky here and showing good comedic skills (especially when Argene is – unsubtly – trying to put the moves on him). He copes well with the coloratura demands and has that typical Italian tenor smoothness when it comes to languid arias.
Though affable on both days, the public was more animated on Sunday and they also applauded different arias (the Sunday crowd liked Galou better 😉 – her “instant double manipulation” moment got (very deserved) applause too, whilst the Saturday one really loved Tomasoni (I also thought her big aria was done especially flashy on Saturday); thadieu felt she was trying to steal the show but I think she was simply making the most of her time on stage, given she is very young. It would have been very difficult to upstage the main ladies, though the public – and pretty much everyone else – seems to adore Mameli; I’m not all that taken with her tone, though, like I said, her artistry is very fine. Everybody was happy with Mingardo on both nights, though I think the giggles were louder on Sunday).
A large bunch of people took a delibrate selfie with the big Dario sign. Just to the far side of the collonade was a couple of buskers who drew a pretty good crowd singing what sounded like vaguely traditional Italian music. In Piazza Carignano a chap was singing The Ring of Fire, which struck me as very odd after the opera, but there you go.
That was our first experience of seeing Italian opera in Italy. I hope they hang on to the Vivaldi Festival, as there are more good things to see from him and I – in case it wasn’t clear – I really liked Teatro Regio. Just not the far boxes. Sounds from the chat after the radio broadcast that there will be reasons to return, as the Baroque project is mainstay at Teatro Regio. Also interesting from the chat is what Dantone says about Dario‘s place in Vivaldi’s oeuvre, due to the ascendence of opera buffa. Though he thinks that Vivaldi’s operas are usually harder to stage (back then it was apparently left to the singers to improvise in opera seria), this one, because of the commedia dell’arte influence, is a lot easier. As we know, Vivaldi, though very successful in his youth, died in poverty, because of changing trends he couldn’t buck. Dantone also says he was happy with the Teatro Regio musicians who were interested in the language of Baroque, though their usual repertoire is the typical late 19th century fare… etc.
And, yes, this post better be posted. I might tweak it a bit in the coming days (too many pictures to choose from!), I spent to much time playing with that curtain call picture…
- not that I’m going to convince TADW who’s already decided to have her sing Cornelia. ↩
Thadieu and I arrived bright and early in Torino on 21 April, after a (very smooth) redeye flight that saw us leave the house at 4am. As per instructions, we went to the train station across from the airport. It was deserted, the ticket machine broken. We went back into the airport looking for another machine, as per the instructions on the broken one, but in the end it turned out the train wasn’t running (don’t ask me why, my operatic Italian only goes so far) and we got bus tickets to the rail replacement instead, with assurance the bus will leave us in the proximity of the Dora Station, where we needed to get in the first place.
But this is a commuter bus and you need to know when your stop is coming up. We, of course, didn’t. We followed it on Google maps but then, at an unknown distance from our stop, the bus made a right turn and crossed the river. Oops. We got off and made our way on foot, which wasn’t bad at all, and it took us to China Town and to that – apparently – famous and very large street market near the Duomo, to thadieu’s delight.
After a very welcome nap (yours truly slept like a hollow log, heard nothing, smelt nothing whilst the host cooked downstairs), we got some tips from our host and went out exploring. The theatre was comfortably close, right outside Regio Parco, through an ivy covered wall and up a short, curved slope. From the outside it looked like all the other buildings lining up the square – all with collonades facing Palazzo Madama. Inside, though, is a modern building. Much to our enjoyment, L’incoronazione di Dario was advertised in immense letters and in various posters.
We ventured into the box office and I picked up a leaflet advertising the local Vivaldi Festival. If there is a Handel Festival – several, in fact – it only makes sense someone somewhere should celebrate the Red Priest 🙂 hopefully every year?
From the leaflet I learned that Galou and Cirillo were singing Vivaldi and JS Bach’s Magnificats with Dantone and the local orchestra and that night!
thadieu: should they be singing three nights in a row?
dehggial: I guess they can!
Whilst we gently wandered around the square, I inched towards wanting to attend the show even if thadieu wanted to get back due to raging allergies and in spite of the fact that we only had one key. But I learned a valuable lesson: the box office closes at 6pm during the week so no greed for dehggial. We also realised they had a Juditha with lesser known singers (including a contralto who sang Holofernes, Abra and Ozias!) on April 19, part of the festival.
To ease the pain 😉 we went and got 2 flavour gelato (€2) and capped the day off with fluffy pizza at a place frequented by locals (suggested by our host). On the way back we marvelled at – and approved – the homely feel of the practical use of window and balcony space.
After a 12 hours sleep (thadieu due to jetlag/allergies, yours truly due to lack of sleep in general) and an amazing racket made by the host’s cat in one of those mad moods, we were ready for the opera! We got there with enough time to leisurely marvel at the venue (selfie time with… everything, but especially the doors, which are very clever and the giant sign advertising Dario – pictures when I get home and also at thadieu’s blog) and realise our tickets actually needed printing. That wasn’t an issue, the staff at the venue/box office were very nice.
We then got to our box – as you can see from pictures of the venue, there is an open plan auditorium and one level of boxes all around. The layout reminds me a bit of Opera Bastille. The views are good from everywhere in the auditorium but not from all the boxes. Namely, not from ours, because the orchestra pit is curved, so I don’t at all recommend the first 6 boxes on the sides, unless you particularly want to see the orchestra – you get the best view in the house for that, and we did make the most of what we had. This production added insult to existing injury by having the singer’s often sing from the back of the stage, so, for instance, Dario’s first aria came to us through the wall, which made for some guessing. We also missed some of the visuals, like late Cyrus’ portrait and half the action during the fight scene.
However, you know we’re always looking to upgrade and I spotted central seats on the row with the camera. Yes, there were cameras in the house so one can hope for possibly a TV broadcast? Ideally a DVD, but who knows how Italian houses do it. Considering the market is not saturated with Dario DVDs and Dantone believes in this cast… in any case, we successfully upgraded to the 8th or so row centre for the second half and we could then see and hear everything.
It would have really been annoying to miss the “contralto in the woods” aria, with Mingardo’s back and forth flights to the back of the stage, because it was absolutely hilarious. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s the moment when Statira, having been tricked by her scheming sister, Argene, is imagining how beautiful the woods with the chirping birds will be when she meets Dario outside city walls. The aria repeats the A section several times and she keeps coming back to the centre of the stage, much to the annoyance of Argene and her paid help, who want her gone already. Suffice to say the aria showed off Mingardo’s artistry both in singing and with regards to comedy. I especially enjoyed a moment where she deliberately allowed the violin centre stage, having varied her dynamics in sorts of ways up to that point.
This is a good moment to mention that thadieu and I (along with Leander and Baroque Bird) saw a performance in London on the 20th, which left us perplexed by the conducting choices. So I was paying special attention to Dantone’s handling of a non-specialised orchestra with Baroque voices. Time and again it was clear that a very delicate touch did the job brilliantly, allowing the singers to vary their dynamics as needed, without being drowned.
However, remember that short convo thadieu and I had upon realising Galou and Cirillo were singing three days in a row? Well…
Teatro Regio announcer: Sra Galou has oversung but will still be with us tonight, just go gently on her.
So she’s not made of teflon, after all 😉 welcome to 40, Sra Galou. Only volume seemed affected, so upgrading helped. The coloratura was there, the silliness of course (Argene is very busy scheming, especially in part two, but all her efforts are thwarted, so she needs to be very resourceful) and the ravishingly beautiful tone as usual. I guess she could vary her facial expressions a bit, there is only so far mischievous winking can go – I say this myself as an abuser of said winking and veteran face puller. But this is an out and out comedy and she, along with everyone else, seemed to have lots of fun. I especially enjoyed the short aria where she manipulates both Dario and Statira and – of course! – the closer, Ferri, ceppi, sangue, morte!, when Argene, having been found out, is put in “the harshest chains” yet she boasts she’s not scared at all. We know she’ll be plotting away. Here was where a bit more volume would’ve helped with the shouts of “morte!” but still the legs to was beautiful (< that was autocorrect, but yes, legs indeed. Argene showed leg at every opportunity, not that anyone was complaining (except for Dario). What I actually meant was legato 😉 ).
I dind’t mind the costumes as much as I thought I would (but I will still bitch about them), though I didn’t understand why Cyrus and Niceno were dressed in Saudi garb, with the women in Gate of Ishtar attire, the army as guerillas, the Oracle in Western suit/PR clothes and Oronte, who’s the chief of Persian administration (so a Prime Minister of sorts) looking like the Captain of the Janitors. It’s especially amusing when Argene, in her sumptuous robes (blankets) asks Mr Janitor in fluorescent jacket and rubber boots to rule the empire alongside her. I guess that would assure special attention would be given to the local plumbing issues 😉 I also don’t think the piping/stage design made any particular statement, aside possibly from pointing to courtly internal machinations/more focus on Captain Janitor 😉 there were also lots of hanging curtains, some of each resembled he local Shroud suspiciously well, at least to my mind. I really admired the work put into the representations of Persian relief sculptures, though, again, the whole concept felt so scattered to me I didn’t particularly see need for them. For my money, the costumes (blankets) and filigree lamps gave enough suggestion of the era.
well, with Giulia’s explaination and after seeing it again, I have finally got the concept. More about that in the next installment.
So that’s it for now (more gelato and pizza after the show, of course). I know there is a lot I didn’t talk about – like more than half the cast – but this is due to the luxury of seeing two performances. I confess on occasion I was so focused on the orchestra/Dantone I had to sacrifice the attention paid to singers. For more impressions on this production, check out thadieu (this performance) and giulia (the premiere). There will be lots of venue (selfies included), town and maybe curtain call pictures when I get home, though as curtain call goes you’re better off with thadieu’s video for the feel of the place.
ps: sorry for any typos, the kindle isn’t made for writeups.
If you’re like me and spend most of your opera time with modernised productions of operas written in the 18th century, a traditional (with capital T) performance of an opera like Adriana Lecouvreur always feels like a trip to a very old relative’s house. You might enjoy spending time with said relative, you might even like their quaint taste in the inevitable knick-knacks but it’s still miles away from your life and views.
Though written in 1902, I was hard pressed to see anything 20th century about it. It’s simply old school and it needs singers who have a feel for that kind of thing.
Adriana Lecouvreur: Angela Gheorghiu
Maurizio: Brian Jagde
Abbé de Chazeuil: Krystian Adam
Princesse de Bouillon: Ksenia Dudnikova
Prince de Bouillon: Bálint Szabó
Michonnet: Gerald Finley
Mademoiselle Jouvenot: Vlada Borovko
Mademoiselle Dangeville: Angela Simkin
Poisson: Thomas Atkins
Quinault: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Daniel Oren | Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Coproduction with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera and Opéra National de Paris
Luckily for us, Angela Gheorghiu is one of those singers. The only properly old school singers I had seen live were Domingo and Nucci and even they are merely a few years older than my parents. Watching Gheorghiu at work was the closest I came to witnessing a classic diva. Though Fleming is older, she’s got that American knack for updating her image, getting on with times etc. and just blending grand with business casual whereas Gheorghiu seems to have made a conscious effort of sticking with the legendary image of a European diva. You’re never going to pull off shouting – in recit voice – I am Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy! if you haven’t embraced that.
I was fully expecting her to overdo it but she didn’t. She stayed within the schmalzy limits of the libretto/music. In this sense her death scene was the most telling. She couldn’ve snatched a last cry but she went gently. She also didn’t seem intent on outshining her co-stars, more power to her (because she really didn’t need to; Adriana has it all).
(Schmalz: you might think there isn’t anything OTT about Adriana and perhaps you’re right; I just have a very low tolerance for sentimentality; doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have fun trying something like that on stage).
This being the first time I heard La Gheorghiu live (her repertoire isn’t normally up my alley), I was very impressed with her vocally. She’s just this side of 50 and the voice shows no signs of wear and tear. Then again, I guess nobody could accuse her of oversinging. Her attacks are always smooth and measured without feeling emotionless, she can pull a breathtaking pianissimo when she wants, and that part of her range that has made her famous still boasts gorgeously rounded notes, whilst the lower part has matured. Like her stage persona, the voice also has an old school feel to it, like she’s grown up on a steady diet of Tebaldi and never found the need to fix what ain’t broken.
I’m glad she hasn’t. We need all kinds of personalities out there. Sometimes you feel like everybody rushes to be cool and modern. Evenings like this make you stop and consider that it’s not absolutely necessary to do that. Especially if we want to keep operas like this in the repertoire. Having developed a soft spot for Adriana, I would love it if singers could keep the link to this tradition alive, musty as it may feel on occassion. Not everything is about Handel and Mozart (in shorts).
In spite of the traditonal this, traditional that talk, I do think the libretto is one of the better ones out there (subject and character-wise; there were moments when I wasn’t sure who sends whom which letter). Adriana, Michonnet and the Evil Princess are all well done characters. There are worse tenor characters than Maurizio. I like the social angle, as well, though of course if I could sing one role it would be Princess de Bouillon, leftist values be damned. What a villain! But it’s good that Adriana tries, at least, to stand up for herself in the face of unyielding power and privilege.
This is a revival of the 2010 ROH production, the first in 100 years, originally designed for Gheorghiu. There are many things that could be said about La Gheorghiu (that she keeps to a narrow repertoire, for instance) but there’s no doubt that she is very good at what she does. It’s quite obvious she feels at home in this production.
The role is not for the faint of heart or beginners (though Michonnet alludes to Adriana’s young age), as Adriana gets right into the meat of things within a couple of minutes of stepping – appearing, more likely – on stage, with Io son l’umile ancella, which is a less catchy Vissi d’arte but still quite the aria. There is so much to recite as well as sing here that one needs to be well into their career to carry this – for indeed the opera’s success rests on the shoulders of the soprano.
If you also have solid singers in the other roles that’s a bonus, of course. We did. I’m quite the Finley fan and here (as Michonnet) he was not only in very fine vocal form but also touching dramatically. Michonnet is a sweetie but most likely the type of chap destined for the friendzone as most women of Adriana’s temper – the ones he is interested in – crave adventure and danger instead of reliability and quiet loyalty.
Jagde as the heroic dreamboat Maurizio was suitably dashing (though perhaps moreso for those who missed Kaufmann in 2010) and his Italianate tenor cries carried to the rafters without any issue. His voice is very good for that kind of thing and there’s a good deal of artistry there as well, which manifested itself in an ability to alternate dynamics and colour. The chemistry between him and Gheorghiu was believable.
There can’t be a satisfying Adriana Lecouvreur for a mezzo fan without a rumbling Acerba volutta. Yours truly awaited the start of act II with a bated breath and opera glasses at the ready. In good opera tradition, her shadow preceeds the Evil Princess, as her theme (also the opera’s theme) surges ominuously and then drops mysteriously into apparent bubbliness. Then she pulls her veil and we can see who will stand between our kind hearted to a fault (if self absorbed) Melpomene and her happiness.
Cilea really doesn’t do half measures here, the villain has to hold her own against Adriana. I didn’t know Dudnikova but she held my attention all right through the evening. The voice isn’t as metallic as one would expect from a Slavic singer. There is a good deal of velvet along with the dark chest notes and very clear top notes, at least as far as the role requires, and the voice carries very well. She’s also got the looks to rival Gheorghiu’s – Ice Princess vs. Southern European temper.
Their dialogue in the dark and the act III showdown at Bouillon’s party were without a doubt the best parts of the evening, pitting two strong personalities, barbed words and icy glances but also real emotions and hurt. Too bad the reason was so mundane.
As someone with at least some interest in the history of theatre/opera, I can’t say I didn’t appreciate the effort this production put into recreating an 18th century theatre experience within the opera per se (operas about opera/theatre usually rank high with me). We were shown everything – actors’ lives backstage, actors on stage, actors interacting with their public, actors as human beings, dealing with their personal emotions and in the end theatre and life getting jumbled.
As I was saying earlier, my favourite bit of the libretto is the dialogue Adriana and the Evil Princess have in the dark (where neither knows who the other one is) and their showdown in act III, because we can see different aspects of public and private personas. Adriana gets another kind of adulation and respect than the Princess, but it is real adulation and respect nonetheless and it does, even though briefly, win the day.
In conclusion, everybody was very good and La Gheorghiu has still got it. Go watch her in one of her strong pieces, especially if you’re at the younger end of the opera fans’ spectrum and don’t quite know how they did it back then.
I was so taken with the business on stage I can’t say much about the conducting/orchestra other that they didn’t hurt the stage action and there were a few instances with various singers where the interaction between the stage and the pit stood out clearly and in a good way. A standout night in a packed house, all the arias got hearty applause and there was much cheering at curtain call.
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!
The brown and gold sands of time dissipate to uncover the shadows of Egyptian dieties slowly twisting into 3D from their customary flat positions. Plastic screen-doors on the bottom tier of the stage half conceal the shrouded body of the late pharao. I like that, plastic + mummy. It is traditional but not completely. People in white coats fuss with the body. It feels like a lost X-Files episode.
Last night was my second time seeing Akhnaten live. I liked it more than the first time. The fact that I’ve been obsessively listening to it for the past week might have something to do with it. But perhaps that’s how this one works, it slowly insinuates itself into your awareness (like this).
The 15 March performance will be recorded for BBC3. One hopes there will be a DVD as well? It’s not like the market is crawling with Akhnaten productions.
My interest in the last installment of Glass’s trilogy can be traced back via this blog, the biggest success to date of my Thursday’s Something Else series (on first hearing it I called it “soothing classical music” 😉 ). It’s been a slow burner indeed but constantly at the back of my mind. No wonder people use terms like “mesmerising”. The more you dig, the more there is to discover. As usual, nothing focuses your attention more than a live performance (or two). Perhaps it’s because I’m very visual, but I focus better if I actually see what’s happening. Even watching the bow pulsate over strings makes it all more enjoyable. The cello features heavily and it was a pleasure to watch and listen, as was the brass section, the winds (especially the prominent flute(s) and bass clarinet (ftw!)) and the various percussion – epecially this one.
For this special event I chanced on the £20 “secret seat” twice. I’m so satisfied with my luck that I highly recommend the secret seat scheme. Both seats were in the Dress Circle, the first in row D and the second in row A (no heads in front! and awesome view of the orchestra – did you know Maestra sings along with the chorus?).
Also because it was so special (ENO had last mounted it in 1985) I bought a programme and from it I learned that Hymn to the Sun is a chaconne, Glass making a point of referencing Baroque style writing. The cello obligato part is indeed a thing of beauty. I’m still not sold on the vocal part. It wasn’t helped by the fact that ARC was – here and there – inaudible. Not quite sure what was going on but I don’t remember it from last time. Who knows, memory is very selective. To be fair to him, he soared when called for in his duets/trios with his ladies.
Friday, though, I was under the Balcony overhang which I more or less blamed for whatever was inaudible (mainly bass Clive Bayley as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; barely heard again, kind of annoying, as his part is rather interesting judging by this). Funny thing: this time around the jugglers dropped some of their balls/candles – something else I didn’t remember happening on Friday.
Choreography. The subject matter asks for the opposite kind of acting than what you normally hope for in opera. Namely, not naturalistic. It really feels more like dance than “acting” – underwater dancing, at that. But it works and it adds immensely to the hypnotic nature of the music. I thought Rebecca Bottone as Queen (Mum) Tye had the best knack for this. She looked right at home and (emotionally) moving to boot. She also gets points for great pitch (and ping and stamina) in the insane vocalise during The Temple, when Akhnaten and Tye banish the cult of Amon. In another hark back to Baroque tropes we get ha-ha-ha-has that are actual hahahahas (it feels like they are laughing at the High Priest). Gotta love ’em. Here they came off a lot more comical than in the Stuttgart recording – and what with the jugglers, even playful – so great job all.
Contrasts. It is, I think, unusual in the DVD age to discover an opera via an audio recording. But since this is not a frequently staged opera, I, like most other people, am mainly acquainted with the 1984 Stuttgart version. I enjoyed the Stuttgart Scribe better in the opening recit (Open are the double doors of the horizon, unlocked are its bolts1) because I felt the mythical mood needed a remote, monotonous presentation. But I liked the ENO Scribe (bass Zachary James) better in the recit preceeding The City, the scene that depicts the building of Akhnaten’s new capital, where his lively, theatrical rendition fits the buzz and excitment of the new.
This brings me back to the acting in Hymn to the Sun. I said last time that ARC did not possess the kind of charisma needed to carry this pivotal moment. Well, on seeing it again I think the fault isn’t entirely his (plus he did very well in the comical/violent Temple2 scene). It is true that he has a very ethereal presence – which fits the rest of the performance – but the personnenregie did not help him out here. Along with the two different ways I feel the Scribe should act, I am now convinced that we need both approaches for Akhnaten as well. There are plenty moments of contrast in this opera so I’m sure a production will one day successfully incorporate both.
Jugglers. We had jugglers, who very subtly introduced and carried to the end the ball motif. They started innocuous enough from the getgo, as if humbly providing a bit of pizzazz during the ceremonies. Only later – when they juggle them around the newly crowned Akhnaten – it turns out that their balls are foreshadowing the greatest ball (of fire). Astute detail, as I understand Amenhotep III had already planted the seeds of a revolt against a too powerful clergy. Another neat trick is how they intentionally drop the balls when Akhnaten is attacked and killed. It’s all very simple but it looks great. In the Epilogue, where we have the ghosts of the past the jugglers return pushing the balls on the ground, recalling dung beetles (and tumbleweed). But speaking of the Epilogue, I wonder why Akhnaten and the ladies appear in the afterlife dressed as their pre-Aton-loving selves3?
I had an epilogue of my own: from the side of the Dress Circle there is an exit that spits you out right into the street in 2min flat. I don’t remember ever getting out of a theatre so quickly before. You walk into a sort of loading bay which doubles as homeless shelter by night.
Go and see it if you can, perhaps in Los Angeles, since it’s done in colaboration with LA Opera.
- What a great line! ↩
- I especially enjoyed how he crept from the top tier, where the Horuses were flapping their giant wings. His nimble moves reminded me a bit of Dumaux’s scene stealing Tolomeo in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. ↩
- Even stranger is that Akhnaten’s cermonial robe, as well as Nefertiti’s, has many mini skulls sewn into it. By contrast, their (identical) robes from The Family scene are of beautiful white gauze, my favourite of the bunch. ↩
When I first heard about this new ENO production I hoped it wouldn’t be traditional. Well, it is but I can’t fault it much. It’s got its inner logic and the key moments are done with enough imagination. Visually it’s very close to stunning. I’m not sure why the costumes (all beautiful) mix Victorian style with the more or less abstract Ancient Egyptian. There seems to be an unwritten rule that productions must nod in some way to the country where the opera is being given. The very literal Egyptian “heads” are on the kitsch side but I don’t mind if anyone disagrees. On the other hand the lyrical scene of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s act II duet was done in a fittingly abstract manner, with just them two on stage entertwining matching red robes.
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti: Emma Carrington
Tye: Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab: James Cleverton
Aye: Clive Bayley
High Priest of Amon: Colin Judson
Scribe: Zachary James
the 6 daughters of Akhnaten and Nefertiti: Clare Eggington/ Alexa Mason/ Rosie Lomas/ Anna Huntley/ Katie Bray/ Victoria Gray
young Tutankhamun: Joshua Simpson
Conductor: Karen Kamensek | ENO Orchestra and Chorus
The libretto has a basic plot (Akhnaten’s rise and fall from power) but there’s plenty abstract stuff, especially in act II which is about Akhnaten’s implementation of his new cultural/political vision. Because it’s “out there” for his time it’s of course rich in symbols. On the other hand Amenhotep III’s funeral (which starts the proceedings) is a high tech version of “as literal as it gets”. Interesting for those curious about Ancient Egyptian royal funerary rituals, probably very informative for some people on my row who wondered aloud why did (the new and improved) Akhnaten have breasts. Nobody seemed to wonder why Akhnaten was written as a countertenor but that would’ve partly answered their question.
Glass, Minimalism – this is not the kind of opera you want to sit through if you can’t take repetition. It certainly needs subtlety in handling the transitions from one musical phrase to the next and in conveying the lyricism of act II, as I wouldn’t say Glass is a titan at writing vocal music. Maestra did a pretty good job with all this. The chorus added a lot of pizzazz with its very engaging interventions. It baffles the mind that the powers that be want to trim it down when everybody agrees it’s one of the main assets of the ENO.
Regardless of what one thinks of repetition, the endless arpeggios do fit the subject matter and the direction was centred on slowness of movement which added to the hypnotic nature of the thing. You settle into something as close to a trance-like state as possible without chemical help (though it would be interesting to experience it with the help of “street meds”) and just let music and visuals do their work, whatever that may be. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that needs overthinking on our part.
It being the first night I suppose some things need some tweaking – such as the orchestra covering the vocals during Amenhotep III’s funeral, which is drum/brass heavy. The three mains – Akhnaten, Nefertiti (his wife) and Tye (his mum) needed a bit of time to adjust to each other during their trio in the Window of Appearances but worked well afterwards.
Naturally Akhnaten has the chunkiest bit to sing. I found ARC rather on the bleaty side and really wondered how Sabadus would’ve sounded in this role, as it’s very high and his beautiful tone would work with the otherworldliness that Akhnaten needs to project throughout and especially during his act II hymn. Dramatically that is a pivotal moment in the opera, calling for a singer of considerable charisma. I wasn’t convinced ARC posses that level of charisma or the versatility needed to switch from the highly stylised to the engagingly realistic.
During the first and third acts Akhnaten acts in a hieratic manner but act II (especially the hymn) is the moment where we get a glimpse of the real him. So to say “real him”, as I personally don’t see Akhnaten so much as a person, rather as something. That something being autocracy, personal independence – a proto-Romantic ideal. The hymn is a moment of realness amidst pose and ritual.
The interesting thing that art history teaches us about Akhnaten is that his cultural revolution included an overhaul of the way pharaos were depicted visually, namely more realistic than before or after. But not too realistic, as he indeed was pictured with some feminine features, hence the breasts in this production. In that sense I think it was telling that he first appears on stage in the nude which thus leaves no doubt about his gender, only to have his appearence stylised after his reinvention as Akhnaten. I don’t think this curious change in image was explained by art historians but this production offers some ideas. Aside from the beginning when he ascends to the throne, Akhnaten is seen almost always in the company of women, which he seems to identify with. It is implied he has no interest in war and spends all his time with his family, which includes 6 daughters and wants the same for his kingdom.
The ending had a rather neat twist: the Scribe (the ancient narrator who keeps us abreast of plot development during the opera, now a history lecturer) talks to a class of not very interested students about how Akhnaten’s image and name was erased from history and his city has survived only in very poor condition to the point there’s not much to visit. Pretty piss poor job at erasing his name and image if 3600 years later we’re attending an opera based on his life… so the “ghosts” of Akhnaten and his ladies are lurking.
There’s more to say – of course – but I’ll leave that for next week, when I’m seeing it again.
Boasting mostly the same cast, Ariadne returns to joyful reception in London after 15 short months. We’re all one year older and wiser (?). In the past year I’ve also become acquainted with Semele’s story, which adds to the comic angle of the plot (when Bacchus tells his life story).
The Prima Donna/Ariadne: Karita Mattila
The Tenor/Bacchus: Robert Dean Smith
Zerbinetta: Jane Archibald
The Composer: Ruxandra Donose
Harlequin: Nikolay Borchev
Music Master: Thomas Allen
Dancing Master: Norbert Ernst
Scaramuccio: Ji-Min Park
Brighella: Paul Schweinester
Truffaldino: Jeremy White
Naiad: Sofia Fomina
Dryad: Karen Cargill
Echo: Kiandra Howarth
Wig Maker: Samuel Dale Johnson
Lackey: Simon Wilding
Officer: Nicholas Ransley
Major Domo: Christoph Quest
Concert Master: Sergey Levitin
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Every so often I comment negatively on fellow opera goers’ behaviour. This time the public has wowed me by showing great appreciation for the comedy, especially when the snarky quips from the vaudevillians turned into the Composer’s very serious moans. I think the conducting helped as well. I enjoyed the smooth transitions and the attention to detail, which brought out several instruments beautifully – for instance the oboe in Großmächtige Prinzessin.
The orchestra was mostly kept to chamber level, making the few bang! moments memorable. This allowed the singers to be expressive, such as in the case of Mattila’s wonderful phrasing of “you’re the captain of a dark ship ready to take me on a dark journey” in her duet with RDS’ Bacchus. I did believe Ariadne had developed a fascination with death (rather than a death wish).
This reminds me: the Composer, in his dialogue with Zerbinetta, is adamant that Ariadne dies at the end of his opera. But in the end it’s quite obvious (to me?) that she does not. So I wonder: is it because tossing the two world views together has influenced them both and the opera had, perhaps, taken on a life of her own? It is, after all, an opera that advises compromise and praises a sensible approach to life. Death can simply mean transformation.
One year later (and perhaps with all of us more relaxed), I liked both Mattila and Archibald better. Still not quite sold on JA’s tone but fearless (and ocassionally used to excellent comic effect) take on the coloratura fest as well as good acting through the evening. Last year I know I said I liked Mattila’s personality better than her voice but this time I must’ve been in a more receptive mood for her dark velvety tone. Now I think it’s an interesting sound, very appropriate for Ariadne the character.
I’ve enjoyed Donose’s Composer last year and did so again this year. It’s good to see things twice, as once the novelty of the production has cooled and it doesn’t capture so much of one’s attention you can focus on the most important thing: the singing. Although not the biggest fan of her tone, I have to admit that the woman can sing. The Composer is a tough role, very high for a mezzo, with a lot of angst in the top bit of the voice. It’s balm to the ear to hear a (properly timbred) mezzo who can extend there and be in perfect control.
Robert Dean Smith, whom I have not heard before, did a very good job with Bacchus. I preferred him by a good margin to last year’s Roberto Saccà. Less flashy in acting, he was an almost bashful Bacchus with a fluid tone, coping very well with the demands (Strauss not being too kind to tenors). He was also hilarious in the ugly wig the Tenor throws at the wigmaster.
The obligatory Strauss trio of ladies was reprised by last year’s ladies with similarly successful results. Listening to them I gave into fanciful thinking: how the (female) voice is like light – to enjoy its beauty best you want to separate it in three (ok, with light it’s more than three, but let’s keep the main idea in mind). Three voices together soar to heights of beauty one could not possibly encompass alone… or something along these lines 😉
There’s that strange business in the Ariadne-Bacchus conversation where Bacchus dwells on the fact that he did not succumb to Circe’s wiles. So Circe, the seductress, has not conquered… drinking? – whereas idealistic, “honest woman” Ariadne has. Bacchus likes the fact that she has sacrificed herself (gods like sacrifices), when obviously Circe did not have any of that in mind. Hardly a feminist take but yanno… beautifully sung and it’s perhaps disingenuous to over-analyse happy endings. It’s fair to say that Bacchus finds his meaning by saving Ariadne so they complete each other.
Lovely night at ROH – may this clever Loy production stay for a long time.
The heroine from La boheme, that is. Why are we supposed to care? Is this – finally!!! – a story about the good girl next door where – finally!!! – the cheeky, sexy one has to take the sidekick spot? Looks like Musetta can do her own rescuing.
Why is Mimi so popular? Because we feel sorry for her? I’ve been told “the music is so beautiful”, but I’ve always struggled to remember how stuff like Si, mi chiamo Mimi and Che gelinda manina goes. I do – unsurprisingly – have a better idea about Musetta’s aria.
Through the opera Mimi is massively passive belying her initial boldness of visiting Rodolfo and pretending she’s lost her key. Immediately after this somewhat lively entrance she settles into the role of Rodolfo’s girlfriend. There’s a bit of drama midway through where she wants to spare him heartache by passive-aggressively breaking up with him when she knows she’s dying. So she’s continuously lying to him in one way or another but it’s ok because she means well and she deserves a bit of happiness, doesn’t she? You’d think she could’ve got her happiness without these unnecessary lies. But then there’d be no plot. Because it’s the 1800s and Musetta is a bit too bold to take centre stage.
La voix humaine isn’t the first Poulenc I’ve talked about in this series, though it might be the first I heard. Upon first encounter I found it frightening, perhaps more so than Schoenberg’s Erwartung. I wasn’t necessary eager to give it another go. But since I am going to see it live in 10 days I thought it might be best for my own sanity to get reacquainted. Turns out I’ve matured a bit taste-wise and it wasn’t such a harrowing experience as before. It felt mostly bearable if overwrought. I don’t know that I’ve felt low enough before to actually get what the woman is going through. Thus I thought a bit of intellectual help from the woman it was written for would stir me in the right direction: