Category Archives: operatic damsels in distress
There is WiFi! So as a first from yours truly, I’m waving at you from the Glyndebourne main lawn 🙂 it’s a gorgeous sunny day out here – very windy! My hair is messier than usual (a fright, as one says here), which is a good thing, as it would be too hot otherwise and I’m not wearing shorts today 😉
Tonight’s entertainment is Cavalli’s Hipermestra, or fifty brides for 49 soon to be dead dead husbands. There is a Saudi Prince waving in and out with his bride, so I’m guessing he’s the lucky one 😉
There will be pics!
Interval edit: ah, good acoustics, how I missed you! I think Glyndebourne hall is also on the dry side but, damn, that crispness is nice on these ears. The two theorbists really worked for their money! So do the rams in the distance, they’re making a racket 😀
distress the woods (ok, the desert), petrol pumps – deja vu?
Just after the show edit: gotta give it to Vick, that was some effective inserting of the band!
ps: Emoke Barath is sitting one seat up from me on the bus back to Lewes. Yes, I know, it’s that kind of summer.
Ariodante: Alice Coote
Ginevra: Christiane Karg
Dalinda: Mary Bevan
Polinesso: Sonia Prina
Lurcanio: David Portillo
King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
Odoardo: Bradley Smith
Conductor: Harry Bicket | The English Concert
This time I will spare you my usual bitching about the Barbican, because there are some good things I have to report. I found out there is at least another set of toilets (this one for the balcony crowd), though, naturally, one was out of order. If you exit quickly they are very handy. At some point I realised there were 6 of us wearing glasses in the queue, one after the other. To better see your wicked moves, Polinesso 😉
The venue has announcers who tell you which show will begin when, because there are concurent events in different halls. It’s like a very posh airport lounge so the feeling of we’re all here for the same reason is nonexistent. Weirdly enough – or because I took the detective-like approach of canvassing the main lounge area – I actually found Giulia and her lively bunch of Twitter friends, which was a very nice touch before the show. Let’s hope the Baroque thing at Teatro Regio Torino continues so we can meet again 🙂
Up and down the stairs and nooks and crannies, bars and lounges, you see people and (I) try to guage what event they are here for. It’s hard to tell, especially as the crowd is so mixed even in the main hall (where the opera was held). On my right I had a lady perhaps in her early 60s (who dozed off in Act I but braved Act II and III), on my left a woman in her 30s; in front of us there were two young (straight-looking) couples (mid to late 20s), further to the left two very Baroque-knowledgeable ladies in their 60s, on the other side a gent over 50 who spent the majority of the show hunched forward, watching intently as if he were going to write a report later – and so on. Though the show was not sold out, it felt like the troops around me multiplied rather than depleted as the evening went on.
There was definitely a lot of interest but somewhat glib – lots of laughter in all the appropriate places and then some. Maybe I am overly invested and felt people were taking it all lighter than I did. But then there were the knowledgeable ladies who seemed to have a whale of a time, there was the hunched forward gent and somewhere in the stalls was Giulia and friends. I can’t vouch for the very quiet and polite lady in her 30s (at least I think so, Asian people are hard for me to guage age-wise) next to me, who was very quiet and polite but applauded a lot. The young couples stayed gamely but I sensed a certain detachment – maybe it’s just my reaction to the sudden existence of people younger than me at classical music shows 😉 (the cheek! down with that kind of thing).
Another plus I noticed this time: it appears that if you sit central and avoid the balcony overhang, the acoustics aren’t bad at all, lots of (if not all) pianissime made their way up to the last row of the Balcony. There was an interesting feeling as the sound bounced off the nearby ceiling; it was filtered but not unpleasant and surprisingly clear.
Karg’s was the slenderest voice and there were still no problems (which shows her projection is ace). You could tell Bicket was very mindful of the singers, especially in Con l’ali di costanza, where the tempo was “casual jog” and the orchestra toned nicely down, a lesson to all interested parties. We could hear everything yet it was light as a feather.
Thadieu will laugh, but I’m still hung up on the harpsichord is a teamplayer1 thing so I continue to admire Bicket’s approach. It was always there to drive things (I could observe his lightness and rhythmic precision better at TADW, where I had a perpendicular view to match the sound) but never overpowered. You have Giulia‘s word of how the low strings were muscular without unnecessary over-shredding – in the words of Statira, I concur. Another shoutout goes to the wonderfully wistful bassoon work in Scherza, infida. When the bassoon started its mournful call and Coote turned towards it with a lost look on Ariodante’s face, I immediately teared up. In fact, I almost did as I wrote this. It was just a gently sad whisper, mad props to the bassoonist ❤
The big venue seemed to have cut down on the possibility of constant interaction between those on stage, unless they were right next to each other, singing to or talking to each other. I felt like they sang their arias alone on stage more often than before – I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but an illusion given that the stage is very large and bare, even with the orchestra there as well. I didn’t notice any particular winking/eye rolling from Polinesso and Dalinda during Ginevra and Ariodante’s lovey dovey moments – a bit disappointing.
However, Ariodante’s accusatory remarks towards Dalinda during Cieca notte were still in place (even from quite a distance, as Dalinda was sat on “her” chair by the wall), as was Dalinda’s engulfing shame. All direct interaction between Dalinda and Polinesso was there in technicolour (“praise the lord”). As others have noticed, Prina once again adjusted her manhandling to the type of dress Bevan was wearing. This time, as you know by now, Bevan had on a dress that hinted at just how ready Dalinda was for Polinesso’s attention. Prina made a show of Polinesso’s boredom with Dalinda’s professions of love, which, combined with Bevan’s credible ardour gave their scenes a very natural feel.
It was obvious Karg and Coote had developed a neat chemistry as the tour went on. Each had polished their characterisation so they meshed into a mutually appreciative and tender couple. By the end of the opera it looked like they might be more realistically positioned to build a future together. I know that doesn’t gel with the libretto per se, but that’s the beauty of concert performances 😉 Once again, their duets were some of the highlights of the evening, with their very nicely balanced voices – Karg light and precise and Coote full and ardent (so ardent, in Bramo aver mille vite she started a touch too loud; Bicket restored balance by the second line).
Coote, on home turf in London, put the pedal to the metal in general. After a brave tackling of Con l’ali di costanza she relaxed into things more up her alley (ie, soulful), that benefited from the many colours in her voice and its warm, affecting fulness (she’s a mezzo-mezzo, who reminds you why you like that voice type in the first place). Even so, the biggest applause of the night (in general) turned out to be for Dopo notte where she let it rip with what I would call furious joy.
I would say Prina’s performance was a bit toned down, though I’m sure mellow wouldn’t be how most of the audience saw it. Polinesso’s every intervention was as complex as we’ve seen before, both vocally and dramatically. The contrasts in Spero per voi were brilliantly delivered and her timing impeccable (then again, I’ve always admired her uncanny sense of rhythm). It’s interesting, every time I check back to the Aix recording I think she’s singing it better this time around. Then again, recording vs live rendition where one is there (so many factors converge to make something an experience rather then mere entertainment; I think it matters that Marcon is going for a darker mood than Bicket is, to match the very dark concept of the production; this Polinesso is more gleeful whereas that one is very dangerous).
This time around, after Polinesso gets stabbed and is being carried away, I thought she was going to sit down in one of the chairs, as they stopped for a moment at the top of the stairs that led down to the side of the stage. At the same time, Ariodante sprung up from this hatch at the beck of the stage. That was a very good use of the stage. Sometimes you get this at the Barbican (one that comes to mind is L’Orfeo a few seasons back, which incorporated the openings at the back of the stage into the action).
David Portillo trumpeted all the way to the back of the auditorium; like I said in the comments previously, no complaints there, as one could hardly imagine a better suited voice as a 21st century John Beard. He also has the right approach as Ariodante’s loyal and justice-driven brother Lurcanio. Alas, he will always be second best for Dalinda, as Bevan portrayed her emotionally conflicted to the end.
Bevan has indeed an interesting voice that sounds, as Anik predicted, to be developing into something more dramatic than Karg’s likely would. Perhaps unsual but fitting for Dalinda, as that darker fulness hints at her penchant for the dangerous. Again, absolutely no issues hearing her from the rafters, and also again, I loved her mad chemistry with Prina.
Perhaps in this densely-voiced company Brook’s voice came off a bit light as the lowest anchor but there are always those easy runs (and pps) to admire and his very sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted father-king (there would be no Baroque opera without someone agonising between love and duty).
Poor Odoardo is just kinda there, so it must’ve been strange for Bradley Smith to travel around just so he could drop a few Italian sentences here and there. No complaints about his involvement, though.
For my good deeds, Ginevra’s shoulder-bearing red dress was back (made me grin widely as soon as the singers came on stage) and as a bonus, so was Dalinda’s choker. Due to negligence, my camera died on me so there isn’t even a bad picture from yours truly, not even of the Barbican (I’m sure you’re mourning that loss). It was a hot, muggy day; so hot, in fact, I went out for fresh air during the second intermission and even by the pond there was no breeze (we’re talking about London, where it’s windy on a daily basis).
I’m really glad I could catch two (very different) nights of this tour and feel very lucky that we also got the Carnegie Hall webcast as a memento of how it all went down. We’ll see how things develop, but, as in the case of The English Concert’s 2014 Alcina, I think this will live long in my memory 🙂 Thank you Handel and thank you all involved.
- you can tell how traumatised I was by what Bates did to Renard and in general. ↩
Ariodante has been a slow burner with me. It’s precisely because it’s centred on the dopey dude, instead of the villain. I don’t mind heroes on white horses, it’s dopeyness that makes my eyes roll.
Ariodante: lalala, I’m in love!
Ginevra: me too! with you!
Ariodante: oh? Really? Whoa. Like, we should get married.
Ginevra: yes! But, oh, my dad is coming!
Ariodante: crap, what if he doesn’t like me for a son-in-law? [doubt already present; heavy foreshadowing]
The King: fear not, Ariodante, I want nothing more than the two of you to get married.
Ariodante: you mean you already knew we were in love?
The King: duh! Take her hand, you have my blessing.
Ariodante (~6min coloratura fest): like, wow.
Most directors insist on making Ariodante the centre of the action to unsurprisingly mild dramatic results. Luckily Richard Jones thought otherwise when he saw through the unidimensional sketch that is Polinesso on paper. This was the moment when, in spite of fine Polinessi of the past, things got turned on their head and the reign of evil wreaked havoc with the hearts of contralto lovers the world over 😉
Sorry dear Ariodanti, us damned love both of your arias with notte in the title and even the lalala and like, wow ones, but when one has the chance to see Prina as the villain it’s game over.
Ok, I’m trying to be objective here and talk about everybody because I genuinely thought the cast was strong from side to side. On the other heand I was genuinely giddy through the night so my objectivity may be called into question.
Judging by my previous comments, you wouldn’t know I noticed there are also 2 tenors and 1 bass in it and they were excellent too. I was very glad to sit where I did and be able to hear all the ppps employed (how often does that happen?! <- but that was the reoccurring theme of the night) by Matthew Brook. His is a very well developed (human) King, but I understand he’s been singing the role on stage concurently with the tour. You can tell from his fatherly glances that he loves his daughter and it’s only duty that makes him cast her away; a duty he perhaps doesn’t quite believe in but what’s a King to do, eh?
Portillo was also ideal for Lurcanio, both vocally (slender but not whingy, great command of coloratura) and dramatically (he’s the clueless one in shiny shoes; they were so shiny I was wondering if they weren’t rock solid; he thinks looking the part is what Dalinda is after. It’s interesting they have that duet in the end, when, even after Polinesso is dead, he still asks Dalinda if he loves (present tense) Polinesso. He may not be that clueless; then again, this is an opera centred on doubt and male weakness so he might actually not be aware he’s clueless). You probably remember Portillo from the seminal Aix production or the Carnegie Hall webcast (still on medici tv for your pleasure).
If you’d like further comments on his performance – and in general – check Anik‘s review of this performance, she knows what she’s talking about and she’s thorough enough to think about the tenor as well as the gender angle. I never spend too much time analysing secondary characters in Ariodante this side of Dalinda, who, with her split loyalties, is a genuinely interesting person. You know she’s good but she has some serious intimacy issues to work out, preferably not in Polinesso’s company. I think we can all, more or less, recognise ourselves in her, every time we make the same mistake again because there’s that personal weakness (whichever it is) that compels us in spite of knowing better. Though Bevan doesn’t get to such levels of inner darkness as Piau does in the Aix production – no that anyone would expect her to, in a concert performance – she brings out Dalinda’s wide eyed fascination with Polinesso vividly.
Their interaction, built on Bevan and Prina’s obvious ease with each other, drives the drama: visceral, freely given and forcefully taken, in stark contrast to Ariodante and Ginevra’s formal courtship. It’s telling that Ariodante doesn’t appear aware of it. How could anything like that enter his line of vision, before Scherza, infida? He’s not yet living, just imagining his life.
Though my love affair with Theater an der Wien continues unabated, you may be surprised to hear that TADW wasn’t my first choice of venue after the Barbican. That was easy, though the thought was tedious (not the wonderful environment of Brutalism again!).
When I realised this show was also going on tour1 the notion of taking myself abroad as well blossomed. My first choice was Theatre des Champs Elysees for another excuse of returning to Paris. But I found out that, in spite of its easy going atmosphere, the online booking was rather mysterious. Briefly put, I couldn’t tell if there were any tickets left.
Then came Hamburg, because hello new, muchly hyped venue. But that was completely sold out! Back in January, before all the other venues! Anik quipped that people go there for the novelty of the venue rather than for the music. I consoled myself with the thought that it’s too big and the reason I wanted to sample something else beside the Barbican was specifically its size. So what would be the point, wonderful acoustics or not? It’s either intimate or it’s not.
And we know which one of all those venues is the most intimate. Wouldn’t you know, there were still tickets left.
But I still wasn’t totally sold on Ariodante as a work. The thought niggled that perhaps investing in two performances, one of which involved travel abroad, was overkill. That notion was finally blasted away by the Carnegie Hall webcast. Yep, I definitely needed two performances, one of them preferably in a smaller venue. The webcast might famously have sound compressing problems but they could not take away from the wickedly fine performance of orchestra and cast under Bicket.
So after all that, on Friday I was back on the now familiar grounds of Linke Wienzeile, now with hot sun and not a hint of rain in those fluffy clouds. First Anik and I had a very enjoyable pre-opera chat (though I was a bit of a lame-o to begin with and waited outside whilst she was waiting inside). We both ate the desert she posted on her blog. I have to admit I too was so focused on our chat, on being there, on it being a gorgeous day that I’m not quite sure how it tasted either. I think it was suitably fluffy. This chat did contain snark 😉 on the usual topics you would imagine, but it turned out the cutoff time for snark was 7pm, with the cast stepping on stage.
We went to the venue, each to our own box, which happened to be on different sides of the hall (we waved to one another). My seat, bought cheap, was the third row in the very first box on the left as you look at the stage, right above the parterre box I sat in for Cavalli’s Xerse. The box was great, within 2-3m of the singers and with a perfect view of the orchestra. The seat was abysmal, especially for a short person like yours truly. I could see neither the orchestra, nor the singers and I had a feeling the sound would be muffled.
Luckily – remember, it was my lucky day! -, the TADW audience are polite people, who actually sit in their designated seats (mwahahaha!). To begin with we were 4 in our box, with chairs to spare: a couple at the front row (centre and right corner), a very stiff gent in the second row (left corner) and me, of variable positions. I sat in the second row centre until two ladies came, saying (again, super politely and also friendly) all they wanted was to sit together and I of course obliged.
When the lights went down I made a show of asking them if they minded me taking one of the unoccupied seats at the front (right under the surtitle screen, I learn from the picture on the right) and they said they were absolutely fine.
I was more than fine; I was thrilled: orchestra to the right, the singers (shoulders, tattoos, funky shoes) a couple of yards below. I was thinking “I’m here!!! (TADW but also in the middle of things)”. It really doesn’t get better than this. So because there was nobody in front of me and, if I squeezed against the wall, nobody behind me either, I, as Anik says, ended up hanging out of the box every time something particularly exciting was going on. Which was all the time. If you want to get from liking an opera to loving it this is the way to do it. At TADW if possible2.
I think it was the stiff gent who had shied away from taking the empty seat at the front who “shopped” me out to the usher, as how would the usher have otherwise known to come in and ask me to take my proper seat, “just in case those people at the front came”? I said sure, I will take my proper seat if (and only if) those people do come. I’s a seasoned warrior, yo. There was no point to start opera fights, especially not when I was having so much fun and we were so close to the action (I might occasionally be unfriendly to seatmates but I wouldn’t deliberately disrupt a performance. Ever). So after the intermission I demurely took my third row seat, up until the time the kind ladies who only wanted to sit together (oh? 😉 ) were ready to close the box door. I obliged and then moved to my claimed seat at the front. The gent went on seething whilst I was thinking whatcha gonna do? Sue me?
As we know, the low mood Act II is the killer of casual Baroque fans. In the case of our box we lost the ladies and – yay! – the seething gent. As my mum commented, why make a big deal out of it and then leave? So I took the opportunity to rearrange the seats a bit (there were too many at the front for just three of us and some plugs were poking into my thigh) and spent Act III in style (more hanging, more grinning, leading the applause on several occasions, major grinning, following the rhythm, watching Bicket play and interact with the singers etc. (nice detail: his emerald cufflinks)).
I’ve seen The English Concert a few times now in London (that amazing 2014 Alcina they did at the blasted Barbican (which also travelled to various places) among them) and they have that tight, phat sound that makes baroque strings bounce/menace most alluringly, especially in pieces like Cieca notte. That’s one aria (arioso-like in scope) that once you start liking it becomes the central moment of the night. Poor Ariodante, it’s his bitter revelation moment. The world isn’t always your cocoon, buddy.
As much as I like JDD’s supple sound and attention to detail, you really want a denser voice in this to match the somber mood of the low strings. A rock solid chest register just kills. Coote has both of those qualities, plus a special knack for tragedy. But as Anik says, in spite of Coote’s relatively recent move into much heavier repertoire, she also knows this is Baroque and doesn’t overdo it, neither does she lose sight of dynamic variation. Her voice has not trouble filling a venue this size but she let it drop to breathtaking ppps when needed (again, Anik, who takes notes tirelessly, pinpoints just where those were). It was because I have liked her so much in Baroque that I had not heard Coote live since that Alcina (also from a great, 2nd or 3rd seat row) <- actually I have! This year, even. As Octavian. Oops. It was then a pleasure to hear how good and idiomatic she still sounds almost 3 years (and many Mahler dirges (Anik again)) later from a few yards away. Hers is a direct approach, based on an often disarming combination of technique and emotional vulnerability.
You feel JDD’s Ariodante is a more complex character than usual, someone who’s on the verge of deserving the throne the King promises him, whereas Coote keeps him wide eyed and palpably youthful. He loves!!!, he is hurt as only one very young can be and he gets angry when he finds out it was all a lie. Then he gets breathlessly happy when all is fine again.
Speaking of a dense sound, every time Prina opened her mouth I wondered how can anyone imagine Polinesso otherwise than sung by a contralto (edit: perhaps because the role was created by Maria Caterina Negri?). It’s just right. I refer you again to Se l’inganno above, even if you know it well; listen again as you’re reading. Just like how Cieca notte is a defining moment for Ariodante (who has had some growing up to do over the course of the opera), this is Polinesso’s self actualistion.
I don’t know that great is the right word when it comes to Pina’s Polinesso. It’s more like Connolly’s Cesare and VK’s Sesto. It’s just how it should be and once you see it you wonder how else they ever did it before. Not only is there conviction in her acting, at no moment when she’s on stage – at the centre of attention, reacting to others’ lines/behaviour or simply sitting – do you forget that this is Polinesso and he’s the villain. Also Prina’s really good at improvising little things (her reaction to Ginevra’s entrance was a bit different than at Carnegie Hall) that probably energise those around her. Definitely she brought out the best in Karg when Polinesso shows himself as Ginevra’s defender with just the right touch of mocking flourish, and Karg let it rip (no fucking way!!!) in such a spontaneous manner I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.
Anik senses him as a misfit but I see him as a chap who does not accept failure or second best. He knows he has to fight for what he wants (Ariodante doesn’t know that initially and possibly even at the end) and he is ready to do anything to further his ambition. The way Prina acted right before Polinesso’s duel with Lurcanio makes me think he’s bluffing, that he knows he will lose but goes through with it anyway. Maybe this is just my way of making sense of his anticlimatic defeat. But I like the angle; if I think about it, I might have got that from Nesi’s Polinesso as well.
Related to what Anik was saying about how interesting Polinesso and Ariodante’s interactions are, it occurs to me that Polinesso, though without a doubt a strong character and a master manipulator, is never trying to solve his predicaments via force. He doesn’t stab Ariodante, he makes him kill himself. I suppose 18th century audiences would see that as cowardly but to me it seems more like orchestrating the perfect crime.
It was interesting to hear Prina’s trademark way with coloratura from up close. In the past it took me a while to get used to it but now I think it’s part of her take no prisoners approach. Others might lose their way if they did it like that but she’s on top of it. She’s another singer whose singing is closely related to her acting, to the point it’s not worth talking about them separately. All her moves are reflected in the sound and she’s not afraid to incorporate (evil) laughter or breaths (of indignation), gnashing of teeth etc. if the lines call for that kind of thing. It all comes off as strong but not over the top. She’s also not afraid to show us exactly how Polinesso seduces Dalinda but even that doesn’t appear overdone. Seduction is an around the clock job, you can’t punch out after 8 hours and hope the next shift will take care of it – because the next shift might just take care of it for good, haha, and all your toil will be for naught.
Karg as Ginevra had already made a strong impression on me in the webcast. Previously I had often wondered why she’s been constantly singing at Wiggy; I guess I should’ve trusted them. It was also lucky I had seen the webcast, because on Friday she was wearing a red dress with her (freckly) upper back exposed right under my very appreciative eyes. Here are some ……. for you to ponder that.
But the sound, right? I love it. You don’t hear me say I love a soprano’s voice so often, though I like quite a few sopranos. I usually like their personality or their vocal intelligence rather than the sound per se. But in Karg’s case, I just love the fullness of her tone, just right to avoid ping and just enough to accomodate excellent coloratura chops, just enough volume to carry well. It incorporates a bit of introspection, which is always very alluring to me.
She was quite reserved dramatically at Carnegie Hall – though I thought that suitable for Ginevra, who’s the bashful/upright kind – but I do agree she seemed more at ease at TADW, perhaps with a less complicated Ariodante. Like I mentioned in the comments over at Anik’s, I really enjoyed their duets, where you got a very appealing contrast between their voices, deftly emphasised by the way Handel entertwines their lines, especially in Bramo aver mille vite, which is easily one of the cutest awwww moments in Baroque.
Ariodante: do you still love me after all I put you through by believing you were a slut?
Ginevra: I adore you! Please take my heart! If I had more I’d give them all to you!
Ariodante: omg, me too! Let’s move in together and give each other many hearts!
Ginevra and Ariodante: let’s move in together and exchange hearts! Let’s! Let’s!
Statira (peeking in from another opera): wait, what? What’s this talk of heart exchange I hear? Stop the metaphorical talk, I’m having a panic attack!
Dear reader, it was wonderful. At the end I lingered in the box, just basking in the atmosphere. Perhaps it’s good I can’t go there all the time and see it lose its special charm. I still remember the “sardines” in the box across from mine, 10 people who stuck it out to the end, shoulder to shoulder, for the love of Handel. Or the chap in the first row centre, who was trying to keep track of the action via his programme. In the first row centre. Or the people in the standing room box just under the ceiling. I wonder how you see/hear from there (but not too hard; I like “my” box). Or sneaking amused glances at Anik scribbling away in her box whenever someone did something breathtaking, knowing she’s thinking along the same lines as I do. Or the lady in the box next to hers, who fanned herself vigorously through the entire show (TADW is on the hot side but not quite that bad, I’d say; maybe she was building arm muscle…). Or trying to figure out if Odoardo really has multicolour pastel socks on. Or wondering how they all decided which outfits to use for each venue (this one is more bare shoulder-friendly, that one wants patterns, does Carnegie Hall need more dramatic collapsing on the floor so the people up in the rafters get the point I’m a distraught father? (Brook scaled it way back down at TADW) etc.). Good geeky fun 😉
The previous times we met for shows at TADW, Anik and I spent the intermissions in a lively exchange of impressions but this time it was rather a goofy exchange of grins and gushing. After the performance I think we started to put together some coherent ideas as we lingered in front of the poster at the front.
Eventually the time came to hightail each to our own home (opera fans = regular party animals 😉 ) when Anik all of a sudden started tugging on my sleeve and speaking in a strangled tone: look! look! I was thinking whatever happened to her, she’s normally so eloquent? when who would be casually strolling by (from behind me, the general direction of the stage door) with spiky hair and spiky backpack (remember them, rubber spikes)? I’m sure you know who by now.
I was indeed speechless for once. Then that funny thing happened (a first!), where my knees went literally (not just “literally”) soft, so I had to actually grab onto the white wall you see in the picture above. Since I was still lalalala with excitement I found this hysterically funny even though it was happening to me. But as you can see from Anik’s distillation of our moment, I wasn’t the only one on the verge of pulling a damsel in distress. I mean, come on, do people actually go weak in the knees? Given the right contralto it turns out they do.
me (fronting by way of joke): be still my beating heart! …wait, I think it had actually gone still for a moment.
So after we came to, we had one of those whoa! moments you remember from your teen years. We spent the next few minutes coming to grips with what had just happened (I know, you’re like wait, she just walked past you, why all the fluster?! to that I say you had to be there), when who would just as casually be strolling back from wherever she and her friend went? (one of the shops a couple of doors down from TADW). How nice of Prina to give us a few moments to catch our breath! 😉
That’s when I knew we had to do something. Anik was all prim and proper (there is such a thing as too polite and apparently you don’t even have to be English) but all I could see in my mind was all the moments a chance presented itself and I didn’t grab it with both hands. I learned the hard way that you almost never get the same chance twice, so when you do…!!! Let me tell you I hate regret as much as Polinesso hates virtue.
I plastered the biggest grin on my face and made a beeline for Prina (I’m sure I barged into their conversation but what would Polinesso do, right?) and just went – without any intro – WE LOVE YOUR POLINESSO! WE LOVED THE SHOW! BUT MOSTLY WE LOVE YOU! She was a bit confused at the beginning (who the hell is this person, should I know her from somewhere? is she mad? is she asking me for change?) but let me assure you flattery will get you anywhere 😉 I grabbed her hand, shook it and went on blabbering about how great she was and I was seeing her on Tuesday in London as well and btw, she was also singing something a bit weird in London in September – how come? and here’s my friend too (that was Anik, in front of whom we had arrived in the meanwhile).
This was Prina’s cue to actually get a word in edgewise and she introduced herself to Anik (in my mind I was like WE SO KNOW WHO YOU ARE! WE LOVE YOU!) and then she introduced her friend to us, who – surprise, surprise – was also a contralto (two for one!). I told her friend WE LOVE CONTRALTOS! because duh! and it’s always exciting to meet another one, since everyone (around here) knows there should be more of them.
Not to lose momentum I asked Prina if she would be so nice as to take a picture with us and she chivalrously obliged. Her friend immediately took the initiative of snapping the picture (Anik is actually in it as well but she’s pulling a Zoro and her identity must remain hidden).
Gotta love contraltos, so laid back and friendly ❤ I wonder if they wouldn’t have accepted, had we invited them to a drink. But in spite of how it might sound, I was taking care not to be too intrusive and we let them go soon after. Not before laying some smooth moves on Prina, as you might know from the comment section in the Aaaahriodante post. One chance only and all that. But since it’s my claim to fame I shall reiterate. After we disengaged from the picture pose, Prina turned to me (you can see she was very close).
Prina: so you’re a singer too?
dehggi: yes! [I would’ve said yes to anything, haha] I mean no! (a beat, then winky eyes) Do I have to be a singer to like you?
She smiled like heh, good one! and I thought yes, she liked that and I felt even more buoyant than before. Then we said goodbye and good luck and they, just as casually, strolled back to where they came from, though they looked a bit undecided as to what to do next (have a drink with us!).
Given the daze of the moment I actually have no clue what Anik said or didn’t say so she’ll have to tell you that herself. But I hope she told Prina she was the one who wrote the post Prina had gushed about on FB.
Not 5 minutes pass (we’re back to gushing) and Anik tugs on my sleeve again – Karg with her mum or older relative and another woman passes by, in plimsols, leggins, backpack but still with the same hair, munching carrots 😀 Opera singers are so low key ❤ You really have to look, because they are so unflashy off stage you could easily miss them. Off the heels she’s almost tiny (I’m saying almost because I also thought Prina was short and… well, you can see above which one of us is the tall chief). However! as someone quite obviously not tall, I of course am very heartened when I see we are so well represented on stage 😀
Moral of the story: do linger after the show, a beloved singer might just walk by slow enough to make you get over your starstruck state. Or it might just be fun chatting with an equally enthusiastic opera lover. Did I mention I love TADW3?
- I really like this idea. Gives people from further afield the opportunity to see a high quality show as well as gives those who would like to travel the advantage of checking out different venues. ↩
- Because I’m a bit uncultured, I just found out TADW is where Die Zauberflote premiered. Also Die Fledermaus. I like it even better now (if possible). ↩
- They aren’t paying me to say this. Though if they want to, I’ll be very happy with that box seat for whenever I come over ;-) ↩
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.