Category Archives: operatic damsels in distress

The last classic diva – Adriana Lecouvreur (ROH, 7 February 2017)

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.

Il trovatore (ROH, 7 July 2016)

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.

the gypsy camp | click for more pictures

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.

the ROH Amphitheatre terrace is at the top. It’s a good (though crowded) spot to spend the intermission(s) especially on hot days

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 😀


  1. Azucena’s lair as Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs sounds like a very good idea to me! 

Tannhäuser and eternal damnation (ROH, 8 May 2016)

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.

Like, what?

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

VENUSBERG!!!!

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

VENUSBERG!!!!

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!

The end.

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!

Akhnaten take 2 – the subtle takeover (ENO, 8 March 2016)

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.

akhnaten8march

curtain call with Conductor Karen Kamensek

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.


  1. What a great line! 
  2. 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
  3. 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. 

Akhnaten keeps the mystery (ENO, 4 March 2016)

click to see rehearsal pictures

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.

Ariadne in London (ROH, 10 October 2015)

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.

Can somebody explain Mimi to me?

Mimi’s hiding behind the bottle of wine

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.

Thursday’s Something Else (2nd Poulenc)

tseLa 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: