Category Archives: richard strauss
Or the perils and joys of (contemporary) opera superstardom
Though I have seen JDD several times in staged operas and concert performances, this is the first time I’ve been to one of her recitals. She is nowadays one of the biggest opera stars under 70 but because she has such an engaging personality and is very switched on to what’s happening in the world I always forget just how well the marketting machine is working for her. Reality check:
I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by more music snobs in my life.
Posh Gent: I’ve told you before, it’s the way Wigmore Hall has gone these days. Everything is sold out and the only thing one can do is go to their seat and listen to music.
Lady wearing Chanel #5: This is supposed to be a very popular concert.
As the first song of the Heggie song cycle ended, someone at the front enunciated very earnestly and audibly, in a beautiful baritenor voice: bravissima!
And on and on. I swear this audience filled every pause with either coughs or commentary on what had just been performed (too long (Heggie), much better than Birtwistle (Heggie again), too heavy (the string quartet in general) etc.). Considering the median age, the sheer amount and immediacy of engagement she got out of people was remarkable (but exhausting).
However, we all know JDD is using the platform of superstardom to express her personal ideas as well as the music she performs, so (among quite a bit of politically slanted chatting at the very end) she offered this quip:
You know when “I say I love you” I really mean it. [bit where she said how much she enjoyed returning to London for a run] So thank you very much for opening your arms to me, a foreigner!
Hahaha, thanks JDD 🙂
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
All’ mein Gedanken Op. 21
Du meines Herzens Krönelein Op. 21
Die Nacht Op. 10 No. 3
Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden Op. 21
Traum durch die Dämmerung Op. 29 No. 1
Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Trois chansons de Bilitis (arr. Jake Heggie)
Jake Heggie (b.1961)
Camille Claudel: Into the Fire
Morgen (R. Strauss)
Silent Night (with audience participation)
I was sandwiched between two overly lively ladies and had behind me Chanel #5 and the posh gent let down by the recent offer of social engagements at Wiggy. One of the lively ladies turned to me about as soon as JDD closed her mouth to announce she thought JDD was better in Rossini. For whatever reason I had started tearing up during the second line of Silent Night and when JDD invited us to sing with her I actually couldn’t mouth more than a few lines before getting choked up but this lady was looking around her with the biggest and most conversational smile. Is this a generational thing or is it just me wanting a bit of privacy during a live performance?
As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this about as much as her Rossini. The string quartet was very good in itself (no pitch/intonation problems and very good interaction with each other and JDD) but I did agree with the chatty ladies that I like my Debussy lighter. I seem to like Debussy a lot so I should listen to some more. I did not mind the quartet in Strauss at all but the Lekeu piece stretched my tolerance for too much string. I’ve never heard of him before but it sounded to me just like what a 17 year old would write in the 1880s (and wouldn’t you know… 😉 ). By which I mean oh, the pathos.
I’d also never heard anything by Heggie before. The ladies around me were powered by some trepidation as to whether this would be another one of those dreaded “world premiere”-like moments and one of them appeared somewhat apologetic for preferring Schubert to most modern composers. The good thing about a song cycle is it’s a lot shorter than a full opera.
In the end everyone let out a sigh of relief, as Into the Fire fit very well with the rest of the program (which was only logical…). I liked it well enough, I wouldn’t mind listening to it again and it’s obvious it was written for JDD, as it showcases her strengths (there are even some not very tricky but finesse requiring trills).
I have come to the conclusion that JDD really likes what she does (and can do what she likes), because her commitment is always top notch. Also, the amount of pressure she must be having to carry now that she is the “popular concert” in town needs to have some other support beside just work ethic. Nearing 50 one can see that she’s cared very well for her voice, as only a technical perfectionist would. Yes, I think Rossini/belcanto might be her true home, but I am always impressed by her versatility. Her opera voice has a good size for large halls but she can sing just as easily/naturally in chamber voice when the rep needs it. Here she even used some vibrato. Then there is the way she controls her instrument, which is impressive as nothing seems forced or a last minute decision but fresh and natural. I also like her timing. I was watching how she traversed instrumental passages, how she communicated with the quartet and how she was easing the voice in, not a moment too soon or too late.
Her interaction with the audience is also interesting. As I was lamenting above, there’s a lot of hysteria and snobbery, but she doesn’t seem particularly affected by it. With other singers who do similar things/elicit diva-worship responses it always feels like “and now I should chum up to my people” but with her the mix of chat and “singer mode” comes off naturally. There is neither mistique nor feigned modesty, just “look, you guys, now that I got the world’s attention I’m going to put on a nice dress (shoulders!), get a cute haircut (tousled), talk about some serious issues and let you into some neat details of stuff composers old a new wrote. Who’s with me?”
(via Richard Jones’ Glyndebourne production from 2014 1, thoughts written in 2014 and, for whatever reason, never published)
Rosenkavalier is a pretty grubby little story of infidelity. To bring it off the characters must come over as sympathetic.
The text makes the characters sympathetic. A grubby little indiscretion only for the terminally uptight. I’m not advocating cheating on your partner but it’s pretty clear from the libretto that Die Marschallin was married off to the Marschal (as that it was the practice of the day, what with Sophie facing the same fate). Choices, eh.
Der Rosenkavalier is rooted in a painstakingly stylised version of Rococo Vienna that, paradoxically, is further fixed in a web of cannily juxtaposed anachronisms.
The problem is by throwing that out, Jones tended to make it a rather crude satire on a satire. The garish sets seemed totally at odds with what Strauss was trying to say and the costumes lacked any reality base in the period that was supposed to be satirised. They looked as if they’d wandered in from Alice in Wonderland.
A verbose way of saying you wanted a traditional production. It’s a show, fiction, make-believe of an opera that is very much about not taking yourself seriously.
The central character is the Marschallin but in trying to make her a ‘strong woman’ Royal only succeeded in making her more like the dirty duchess than the somewhat dignified and tragic figure Strauss intended her to be.
The Marschallin was not intended as a tragic figure. She’s a strong woman in the modern sense of the word. She faces reality and appears to move on with minimal distress. She’s kind, generous and playful. She’s intelligent but also tactful. She’s “in touch” with her emotions and her sexuality, as we’d say today. She’s pretty much the ideal woman 😉
Her relationship with Octavian was therefore distanced, voyeuristic and lacking in intimacy. In fact, the whole thing lacked intimacy and warmth.
More or less, that’s actually their relationship. I don’t know that’s a bad thing. It just is. How deep can a fling with a teenager be? It’s not meant to be a desperately intense Violetta and Alfredo type relationship. Here we have two people in no danger of poverty/illness or loss of social position due to their tryst2. There’s supposed to be a lightness about it, only just touched by the Marschallin’s emerging awareness of her own mortality. She’s still a young woman, there are reasons to believe this is the first time she’s imagined herself old. So just like Octavian is growing up from teenager to adult she’s moving into the next age. They are on different pages so a certain distance is perfectly normal but it’s not as if they don’t care about each other. The reviewer’s opinion is steeped in the Romantic view of opera. But this isn’t about the 18th century from the 18th century – or, worse even, from the 19th century of much judgment and prudishness. It’s from the point of view of the 20th century.
- At that time I was active on talkclassical and I asked a fellow poster about his impressions on this production under the assumption that I won’t bicker with him over diverging tastes. His comments (in italics) became a springboard for some musings on my part about DR in general which I thought I’d share here instead. ↩
- Would the Feldmarschall divorce Die Marschallin if he found out? I actually don’t know. But she’s a rich woman in her own right. ↩
It’s bright1 and early here for dehggi, as the loot was worth it:
Semiramide with JDD/Barcellona/Brownlee/D’Arcangelo
Salome being Salome (even with McVicar’s vision); next year I’m spoiled rotten: two cool operas to choose from for an outing on my birthday! I predictably went with:
Il ritorno d’Ulisse because when Monteverdi calls one must answer, especially after the great success with L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse two years ago. Let’s hope they’ll livestream this one as well.
There was 0 pain getting in/booking this time. Good job ROH!
- actually, it’s rather foggy (but warm). ↩
Octavian (lustig): Der Feldmarschall sitzt im krowatischen Wald und jagt auf Bären und Luchsen.
In Kopački Rit, most likely:
Hold on, you will say, Octavian talks about bears and lynxes and you’re showing me fish and water snakes?! Perhaps he’s hunting for neither 😉 Also, this was almost 300 years ago, so we can imagine the Eurasian wild was wilder back then.
But lynxes are cool, so let’s say the Feldmarschall said Croatia but meant Slovakia:
That landscape and the crunching snow makes me wonder if I wouldn’t like it better in the company of the whiskered husband… Had you asked me 15 years earlier there would’ve been no contest! Bonus at 3:50min in: kittens!
July is the time when the ROH audience checks on the house’s young artists to see how they’ve grown. I found this year’s programme rather ambitious and the results mixed.
Verdi: I due Foscari, Act II (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Lucrezia Contarini: Vlada Borovko
Jacopo Foscari: David Junghoon Kim
This is the kind of opera that kept yours truly aloof from the art form for so long. I couldn’t wait for the overwrought scene/duet to be over. If you can’t pinpoint it in your mind, imagine the typical belcanto duet between important/main characters who are about to be parted by fate. It’s mainly Italian angst, with moments of gloomy recit, ominous shredding from the string section for the moments when ghosts are mentioned (one of the characters is ever on the brink of a breakdown, the other one tries more or less feebly to be their rock but it’s obvious they are also suffering) then a cheerful tune gets shoehorned in (so that the audience can draw a breath) and is explained in the dialogue by “outdoors sounds” such as the gondolier, good moment for the whinger to draw attention back to their plight, so that the hand wringing can start anew and continue for another 15min. Kim is on the right track for this kind of thing and has a beautiful tone but he’s obviously too young for the finer details this 19th century brand of Italian neuroticism needs.
Nowadays they simply have women either dressed in an updated version of ’80s powersuits or as lalala bohemians. Borovko looked utterly in charge in her suit which I dare say was curious for
Amelia Lucrezia. Then again, I despise this opera so much that I might have missed something essential. I doubt it, Romantic opera womenfolk were utterly decorative.
Upon return home I realised this was not Simon Boccanegra.
Massenet: Cendrillon, Act II (duet)
Conductor: Matthew Scott Rogers
Cendrillon: Kate Howden
Prince: Angela Simkin
Massenet, eh? Poor mezzos, he wrote for them but alas, I don’t like his saccharine stuff. For once I would’ve like the mezzo singing the trouser role to wear sensible shoes but it was not to be. Aside from that, Howden and Simkin’s interaction was not bad at all. Sometimes when I see mezzos and sopranos singing to each other of love I feel the interaction is actually helped by them both being (straight) women. It’s almost like they think whew, it’s just her, I won’t get distracted by wayward hormones, I can focus on the notes I’m supposed to sing and when I have some free time I can glance at her in a chummy manner – which masquerades surprisingly well as young love. Howden covered for an indisposed Emily Edmonds and I can’t complain about anything, but then again, Massenet. Simkin had more of a moment here than as Isolier later on, obviously since this is a duet, and though I again have no complaints, I also didn’t feel particularly wowed by her tone.
Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act I (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Suzel: Francesca Chiejina
Fritz: Thomas Atkins
I find it a bit odd that I enjoy Mascagni quite as much as I do (Cavalleria) but there you go, I liked this duet as well. You might ask wait, how is this any less fluff than Massenet above? It’s not but it’s much more enjoyable music to my ears. Atkins and Chiejina had rather nice chemistry going and were well suited vocally. Plus, there was a really big bucket of cherries on stage and a hot summer day outside. Chiejina’s cutely colourful maid outfit exemplified what I said above about the lalala bohemian vs powersuit.
Strauss: Arabella, Act III (final duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Arabella: Jennifer Davis
Mandryka: Gyula Nagy
Jennifer Davis has a surprisingly large voice for her age, definitely able to cope with a Strauss orchestra as conducted by Syrus, and has a rather fearless attitude about attacking the highs and a good technique to back that. I could see from the Don Giovanni bit after the interval that Syrus was unusually careful in helping his singers do their best, so I suppose he was here as well. As far as the finer parts, well I guess that’s where both nature and experience come in. I remember the fairly recent (sometime last year) Bayerische livestream of Arabella with Harteros in the title role, which I loved, so I think that’s a good goal to keep in mind for aspiring Strauss singers.
Nagy sounded a bit stiff to me in what I imagine is a very tricky role. Aside from the livestream, my experience with Arabella is rather limited so I don’t as yet have a good idea about who Mandryka is supposed to be, aside from a vaguely wild force, personification of sexual desire as experienced by virginal women? Anyway, one needs a bit of stage and life experience to make that work.
Rossini: Le Comte Ory, Act II (final scene)
Conductor: James Hendry
Countess Adèle de Formoutiers: Francesca Chiejina
Isolier: Angela Simkin
Count Ory: David Junghoon Kim
This hilarious trio/scene elicited a lot of mirth, as it usually does, even though I dare say none of them are natural Rossinians, and thus the finer details did not shine. Hendry must’ve got a bit too much into it and, perhaps skewed by Strauss volume levels, let the orchestra rip which often covered the singers. But they were mostly funny, especially Kim who got into the nun act. The bed cover looking like something from Pylones added to the silliness.
Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II (from Zerlina finding Masetto to end)
Conductor: David Syrus
Fortepiano continuo: Nick Fletcher
Donna Anna: Vlada Borovko
Donna Elvira: Jennifer Davis
Zerlina: Haegee Lee
Don Ottavio: Thomas Atkins
Don Giovanni: Gyula Nagy
Leporello: David Shipley
Masetto/Commendatore: Simon Shibambu
As I was saying earlier, Syrus did a really good job with the volume here, definitely one of the better ways to approach DG that I have heard at ROH, where conductors seem to think this is early Verdi. The singers were properly cradled and it showed once again how good Mozart is for young singers regardless of what voice type their future has in store. It was easily the best moment of the evening.
Thomas Atkins as Don Ottavio got the most applause. It’s true he has a very fine tenor that works with many things and he coped pretty well with Il mio tesoro, a bold choice to be sure. Let’s say I’d rank my ROH Don Ottavios like so: Antonio Poli, Atkins, Villazon. Nagy was much more at ease with the Don than with Mandryka and I think he makes quite a dashing figure; I see this role in his future, he has it all going for him. ROH says he is a baritone but I felt he was rather a bass-baritone or he will be one soon.
Generally I was impressed with the density of the basses and the baritone voices on display – proper stuff. To that end, Shibambu divested himself well of the lugubrious DON GIOVANNI! cry one expects from the statue. He needs a bit more projection for the big stage but otherwise smooth sailing. Btw, I noticed he constantly gets to wear a military uniform but then I guess that’s the lot of basses, what with their authority figure repertoire. Shipley as Leporello was pretty good, too, not overly funny but his interaction with Nagy’s Don was on the money.
Borovko returned as Donna Anna. Now that I’ve seen her recently in a big role I can say this: her top is very good and her coloratura ace but the cloudiness from the middle down seems constant. I don’t know what others hear but if this is simply how her voice sounds I can’t see myself getting excited in the future. Or perhaps she needs to find herself very high roles and stick with those? How about contemporary opera, then. Davis as Donna Elvira wasn’t bad at all, coping very dutifully with all required, though I still think Strauss is where she needs to aim. This Donna Elvira was abjectly in love with the Don but I think Davis got her – tricky for the contemporary mind – preoccupation with saving DG’s soul from eternal damnation.
Sopranos: Vlada Borovko, Francesca Chiejina, Jennifer Davis
Mezzo-sopranos: Angela Simkin, Kate Howden
Tenors: Thomas Atkins, David Junghoon Kim
Baritone: Gyula Nagy
Basses: Simon Shibambu, David Shipley
If you think I was a bit hard on the young singers, bear in mind that I somehow managed to get there two hours before the start of the show (I thought it started at 16:30 instead of 6:30. I know, getting old…), after which I decided to wander around and (re)discovered what a consumerist Mecca Covent Garden is. Let’s start with the hapless straw hat “boy with guitar”, whom I was this close to pay a fiver to shut up for a few minutes. Worse even than a Verdi dirge is a wounded bohemian pop tune. You know the kind, something from the late seasons of Dr House. Try stepping into a shop, they all play music – your choice is now bubblegum pop with nondescript teen voices. Then there was the obligatory curly haired musician setting up his amp to blast what sounded very much like gentle Shoreditch downtempo cca 2003. I guess these moves are savvy, it’s touristy as all getout around there and all of the above are now part of the pop psyche.
I couldn’t take it anymore so I scurried into a book shop (where I knew they don’t play any music) to read Andrew Eames’ account of getting morbidly bored on a barge on the lower Danube. What was he thinking, right? Muddy water, catfish, poplars and weeping willows, engine fuel, moody sailors – a proper circuit party.
But the Comte Ory trio got stuck in my head for days, so things righted themselves to an extent.
Yes, the one we know and love, with Sarah Connolly, Patricia Bardon and Dumaux reprising their 2005 roles and Christie conducting. Now with Joelle Harvey as Cleopatra. Sounds like another picnic date to me 😀
We also get Saul (two Handels??) with Karina Gauvin among others and the first edition of the Singing Competition, with a Mozart theme.
Also in an attempt to get Leander into 20th century opera we have a revival of the 2014 production of Der Rosenkavalier with Kate Lindsey in the title role 😉
Sondra Radvanovsky recital or the triple queen of diminuendo takes London by giggle (Cadogan Hall, 16 March 2017)
It’s hard to believe this was Radvanovsky’s debut as recitalist in London, but I think there are two types of American singers: some who become household names there but rarely visit these shores/Europe and some who seem comfortable on both sides (those are the ones with Mozart/Strauss/Baroque in their rep and Radvanovsky seems to miss this).
Sondra Radvanovsky soprano
Anthony Manoli piano
VivaldiSposa son disprezzata from BajazetBelliniPer pietà, bell’idol mio; La Ricordanza; Ma rendi pur contento – she actually quizzed us about which one of his own arias Bellini ripped off in La Ricordanza 😉 do you know?StraussAllerseelen; Befreit; Morgen!; Heimliche Aufforderung
I don’t even know how well the event was advertised because I only learned about it via the Barbican newsletter last week, right around the time one of my shifts was moved from Thursday to Sunday. A time comes in an opera lover’s life when one doesn’t go to a show just because they worship a performer. Sometimes one goes because someone considered an important contemporary voice should be experienced live.
I’ve not been a fan and this performance did not make me one. But there’s no denying Radvanovsky’s qualities, regardless of what one wants in a performer. For fans though, this must’ve been one of those nights memory would return to often.
To begin with, she appeared very excited to be here. Enthusiasm always helps. Then there was the curiosity of American singers. There is something specific about their modus operandi, different from how the Europeans do it. The Europeans would mostly just toss together a bunch of songs/arias that show off their qualities, mix in their personal pizzaz – which quite often means throwing caution to the wind – and call it a day.
The Americans curate their shows – carefully. Everything has an explaination and is in place with the specific intent of winning the audience over. Hell, she even plugged her upcoming Met Norma! – though considering her encores, Casta diva was conspicuously absent. I can’t say it bothered me (it’s her space to entertain, and she was entertaining1) but this is not something I’ve ever heard from European singers. We also learned she will be debuting Andrea Chenier in Barcelona, so the places between songs functioned like chirpy tweeter moments.
This chattiness is another American thing. When speaking and walking about she constantly reminded me of Joyce DiDonato. I don’t know if they are friends, but I could easily imagine them have long convos over coffee (“… that time in Prague when-“, “Oh, but let me tell you what happened in Madrid! It was the weirdest thing!” etc.).
It is one of those weird things. Radvanovsky is one of those singers who is built, looks and sounds like a tragedian when singing but speaks like a soubrette (in content as well). After the dark or very covered sound (it’s one of her peculiarities so she probably doesn’t do it on purpose) during the songs/arias she just chimes in with a giggle.
When presenting the Vivaldi aria she made a face best represented by this ascii art:
(she said: I just like it! which could be a candid moment of pure music joy or hey Baroque fans, don’t judge! – because the way she and Manoli attacked it was with a Liszt-type feel; possibly both – but it was not the gesture of a tragedian). Again, I didn’t mind it, but it was quite different than most of my previous recital experiences.
As I mentioned in the title, diminuendo – the woman knows how to tackle this (as well as crescendo, but one could argue that’s easier). Her technique seemed simply fabulous to me. From that angle this was a performance to take voice students to: watch and learn, this is the kind of solidity you need to aim for and you’re going to have a long and fruitful career. Her control of dynamics and projection was wonderful through the night and her flights to the top of her voice illuminating (metaphorically and literally). The voice has a very alluring opacity at the bottom – let’s say indigo, like her second dress of the night – and an interesting rock solid brightness without ping at the top but the middle (I’d guess right around the area where mezzos tend to have the passaggio) was occasionally marred by cloud.
On the other hand, I can’t tell you that I connected much on an emotional level, this side of the Barber set and Vissi d’arte. It might be due to a difference in personality or just that I constantly sensed her position herself for best technical results rather than letting go enough for my liking. Even when she let rip (often, especially after the interval) – something the size of her voice easily allows for – it seemed strangely contained.
The audience responded very warmly to her coaxing, though, even when I thought she was going a bit far with the please like me attitude. American singers are not shy about their ambitions. But, come on, you’re Radvanovsky, not a beginner, of course people will like you if you drop by. Now, like she said she would like to, she could start with some Strauss – perhaps Ariadne? – and call again.
LisztS’il est un charmant gazon; Enfant, si j‘étais roi; Oh! Quand je dorsBarberHermit Songs – At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; St Ita’s Vision; The Crucifixion; The Monk and His Cat; The Desire for HermitageGiordanoLa mamma morta from Andrea Chénier
The surprise of the night was the Barber set. I felt it was the best suited to her voice, like she had reached her true home – and made me love it in the process.
Seeing as Barber wrote it for Leontyne Price (check them both out here), she talked a bit about fangirling Price. Apparently she decided to pursue an opera career after listening to Price sing Verdi. I can’t blame her, I think Price does the phattest maledizione there is (but the whole thing is worth it):
Yes. That last note was held exactly as long as it should’ve been. Even if it’s an old recording, you can tell how well her voice holds against the orchestra.
So whilst Radvanovky isn’t the second coming of Price, she does inhabit a similar vocal space.
Song to the Moon Rusalka
I could’ve danced all night My Fair Lady – and she could’ve!
Io son l’umile ancella… Adriana Lecouvreur
Vissi d’arte Tosca
4 encores after all that – Americans and their work ethic 😉 There’s never enough Adriana Lecouvreur in the recitals I attend, so I was right happy, but to be fair Vissi d’arte turned out to be surprisingly moving2. Perhaps because it was the last piece she dropped a bit of that control – and it was a good thing. What we learned tonight? Going out of your comfort zone can be surprisingly rewarding.
- I’d just finished a set of night shifts the morning before the performance and was afraid I’d doze off but I was far from it. Good job, SR! ↩
- Nice combo, two arias about living for art – prefaced by her comment that the world right now needs more music and less… all that stupid crap (she didn’t put it like that). ↩
I’m often not on board with critics but this time I found myself ditto-ing the entire Clements review for the Guardian back in December (which I read today, so as not to influence my opinion). If you haven’t done so, you can read it here as I’m not going to go over all that since I agree. I’m not sure I have seen a Carsen production live before but this re-tweaked Salzburg one certainly hasn’t made me a fan.
There isn’t – at least in this ROH incarnation – anything wrong with it; it rather reminds me of the current ROH Traviata (also associated with Fleming): goodlooking, lavish and little else. Also as here Act III happens in a brothel, the insistent hammering of “young love is so cute” in the coda (Sophie and Octavian’s duettino is reprised for our pleasure… and because they’re cute, innit) falls flat to me. Then again, maybe I’m a prude and brothels are really romantic. Maybe I just don’t get the deeper meaning but the way the production unfolded I didn’t feel intellectually stimulated to look for one.
On the very bright side I came away with a heightened appreciation for Andris Nelsons. His handling of the ROH forces – with special attention to details (the sprightly, buoyant brass in the overture, ideally evocative of the unencumbered cheerfulness of youth, the excellent interventions of the winds throughout) – and a much welcome Mozart filter through which he saw this Strauss score was close to a revelation for me. Light footed but with energy and body – I really liked hearing it this way! The ROH Orchestra felt fresher than ever. There were some moments, though, when I questioned the slowness/languidity of the tempi. But I was in a funny mood.
Die Marschallin: Renée Fleming
Octavian: Alice Coote
Sophie von Faninal: Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs: Matthew Rose
Faninal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Valzacchi: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina: Angela Simkin
Italian Singer: David Junghoon Kim
Marschallin’s Major Domo: Samuel Sakker
Faninal’s Major Domo: Thomas Atkins
Marianne/Noble Widow: Miranda Keys
Conductor: Andris Nelsons | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Robert Carsen
As ‘Rosenkavalier keen followers might remember, two years ago Coote spoke out for Tara Erraught when the Octavian media debacle happened around the Glyndebourne production. One thing is for sure: the costume department has learned the lesson taught by Glyndebourne. All Coote’s costumes, though not lavish, were studiously fitting. Good job ROH costume department! Keep up the excellent trouser role work!
That being established, through the evening I kept thinking about the 2014 Glyndebourne ‘Rosenkavalier production. For all its faults, that one had fizz and I feel it truly understood the spirit of farce so evident in the libretto. This one was overly lyrical and the comedy strangely demure. I wish we had that production with this conducting/orchestra work.
Though I like Strauss, the opera and Coote, the biggest attraction this time was Fleming in a Strauss role in which she has been very successful. I also considered that she isn’t so young anymore and we might not catch many chances to see her in full productions in the future.
My conclusion was manifold. As you know big diva sopranos aren’t my number one pull towards opera, thus I approached Fleming as someone rather exotic. There is indeed a diva air about her – the fur, the silk and, of course, she was bedazzling in jewellery for the grand finale (I genuinely can’t remember a time when I saw someone sparklier on a stage) – but it didn’t eclipse all around her.
The voice is quite obviously in decline – and frankly I don’t know if it’s a voice I would’ve liked at the best of times – with quite acidic edges at the top. Most would agree she has never been a natural on stage, though she certainly has learned to walk across it without fear and with enough classic elegance as to hold an audience’s attention – at least in a role like this. It seemed to me like a woman who has quantified her strengths very realistically and built a career on this realistic assessment.
She also proved her undeniable Strauss qualities to me. Where it counts – in Marschallin’s long Act I monologue – her musicality and vocal control (the famous Fleming portamento, various dynamics) was truly top notch and fleshed out the beautiful voice-orchestra (oboe, flute etc.) dialogue Strauss has written. I thought to myself I can see/hear why she has excelled in Strauss, the voice and her musical temper is made for it. If there is one thing I’m taking with me from having heard Fleming live is this.
The monologue, though, infused the mood of the night to such a degree – and I’m not entirely sure how much of this is it being a vehicle for Fleming, or just the production in itself, or Nelsons’ fault of judgment, or my mood because I’m closing in on a certain age these days and might subcosciously want to stop the clocks too – that it really put a damper of the comedy. Without the score being conducted in a too Wagnerian manner – far from it – maybe perhaps due to an occasionally overly lingering languidity I actually dozed off at the end of Act II and almost fell face first into the bald spot of the chap in the row below.
Sacrilege! Act II is both sweet and funny and Rose as Ochs was very interesting of voice and campy-buffoon rather than uncooth. But one expects Ochs to be boorish rather than just ridiculous. I couldn’t see the country cousin in Rose, as much as I enjoy(ed) his gorgeous bass tone. I’m trying not to be closed minded and as such I’m not saying this winky-campy take was wrong per se. In a sense, with the Marschallin lacking any hint of desperation (she’s just lyrically musing about the passage of time with Octavian as a cute accessory) and Octavian coming off as a completely benign young man, this polished Ochs made sense. The production, too, is clean enough to accomodate a good chap (albeit lecherous) type of cousin.
I still dozed off.
Coote, as a perfectly tame boytoy, drew the few laughs of the night – as she should’ve. I don’t think it was her fault as much as the general mood I mentioned above and what the production gave her to work with. Any Octavian to Fleming’s Marschallin is going to be less of the zany, fart joke type. You’re actually a bit surprised he would consider cross dressing – and in this case that – the fact he genuinely enjoys pulling this erotically charged prank, whilst his ex-lover is dining with the ancient uncle Greifenklau – springs out more than ever and makes you think he is right to move on. I thought Fleming and Coote’s chemistry was good enough, but it felt like Octavian came to life less in her company than when he was caught up in his schemes of deceiving Ochs. Now this might be just it but usually my focus is on wishing for him to return to Die Marschallin in a fictitious Act IV. Though I don’t buy the brothel-located young love, this time I was convinced that Octavian and Sophie had a future together.
Vocally I was surprised how well Coote projected. Her voice has always had good heft but I have only heard her in much lighter fare so far. Her top notes are solid and not bad at all. So though I think I may like a brighter tone (or possibly more colourful, but I always like extra colours) for Octavian I had no problems. Now we shall see how Vitellia comes off later this year.
Bevan was Sophie. She’s making quite a career here in London and I myself have seen her in a number of roles but, sort of like with Lucy Crowe, I don’t feel her very much, without being dead set against her. I normally enjoy a more “bell-like” tone in this role, with some semblance of innocence. Lacking that, she pulled off very well the bits where Sophie tells Octavian how she would stand her ground and bitchslap anybody who “dissed” her and also in Act III where she tells Ochs to stuff his marriage certificate where the sun don’t shine.
Supporting this production’s bent for elegance, the Italian Singer was (way) less awful than usual. David Junghoon Kim did a very smooth job in fact, possibly because he had the chance to step in for an indisposed Giorgio Berrugi. Well, good job, mister, in that case we can allow you to wow us with your chops for sacharine Italian tunes. He also lucked out when the Italian Singer was allowed to reprise his aria as a move on the director’s part – I imagine – to add even more pizazz to Marschallin’s morning audience, when the Italian Singer sees the Milliner’s beautiful models parading in front of Die Marschallin (really pretty dresses – the costume department did an ace job all around).
Much like Domingo, Fleming still pulls and this being a firm canon opera the hall was packed to the gills even this far into the run. The atmosphere was rather congenial, though in our tight quarters (aka, Upper Amphi) a fight almost broke out between over ’50s regarding knees touching shoulders once too often. I also had a revelation about the rather special self definition of class in this country whilst rushing (as ever) for my seat. What better opera to hammer home class distinctions?
Innkeeper: Alasdair Elliott
Police Inspector: Scott Conner
Notary: Jeremy White
Milliner: Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller: Luke Price
Doctor: Andrew H. Sinclair
Boots: Jonathan Fisher
Noble Orphans: Katy Batho / Deborah Peake-Jones / Andrea Hazell
Lackey/Waiters: Andrew H. Sinclair / Lee Hickenbottom / Dominic Barrand / Bryan Secombe
Mohammed: James Wintergrove
Leopold: Atli Gunnarsson ↩
The Winter Season at the ROH usually eludes me but this year I wanted to specifically catch two productions: the first revival of McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur and a new Der Rosenkavalier. Though I had work training today at the very time the tickets went on sale, I managed to sneak out for a 10min break and book tickets to said shows 😀
Some of you might know I have a soft spot for Adriana (and have never seen La Gheorghiu yet). As for Der Rosenkavalier, if it’s in town I’ll go. Probably still the most sensible thing to experience Renee Fleming in.
…and that’s my old skool diva loot for the year 😉 Now let’s hope no one catches a cold at that time of the year (me included).
I also thought about getting tickets to Written on Skin to hear Babs Hannigan. I’ve been vacillating because 1) I didn’t like the music the one time I listened to it and 2) is seeing Hannigan in an opera the best way to get her complex personality? As in, is this not too stifling and boxed-in?
edit 19/10: based on John’s recommendation below, I booked a ticket to Written on Skin as well.
R. Strauss is very exciting and “PoMo” (for his time) but there’s a
hell of a lot to absorb when you (by which I mean someone without musical education) first start listening to his music; especially if you’re coming from the very clear and neatly structured Baroque end of the music spectrum. His music is like a wall of sound crashing down on you from all sides, many layers of intricate lines now converging, now juxtaposed, styles put in a blender set on high. You feel alone at sea (un mar turbato, of course), there are 3 hours until the happy ending and your brain is already that little boat smashing against the rocks of too-clever musical writing with which you have no hope of keeping up1.
Clueless (but sincere and eager) novice opera lover: I think I like it but hell if I could say why or indeed if I like it at all… but it’s kinda cool…
It’s very useful to develop a well rounded idea about his music and the libretti he used if you want to – eventually – get the most out of it. Unless you’re one of those
strange people who goes with their gut instead of over analysing everything (but then why are you reading blogs? 😉 ) before deciding if they like something.
This is the reason why though I like virtually all the R. Strauss stuff I’ve heard, I very rarely write anything about it. I have learned enough to appreciate most of his wit and in-jokes but I may never be comfortable enough to express myself intelligently about it all. The first paragraph of this post is the result of a few years’ listening with an open mind and much reading, because there are others who are knowledgeable enough to ‘splain it to all of us alarmed helmsmen and helmswomen2 😉
The Italian Singer
So, the Italian Singer, right – from Der Rosenkavalier. Imagine the Clueless novice opera lover first coming across this one’s sole aria.
Clueless novice (now very serious, because s/he wants to grasp as much as s/he can): So I’m listening to Post-Romantic opera from the 20th century which is set in the 1740s’ Vienna and is based on Mozart/DaPonte/Beaumarchais’ Le nozze di Figaro from the 1780s – did I get my references right? – when all of a sudden, among orphans and dog trainers – don’t ask, I’ve yet to digest those details -, this opera singer within the opera shows up and starts belting out… right? Right.
He sounds sort of belcanto but the lyrics are all about fighting love which is kinda Baroque – am I still on, reference-wise? – but what’s the point of it all because he’s, well, awful…? Am I allowed to say that? Lack of musical education and all – but that’s kinda how I hear it. No, don’t ask me to tell you what’s wrong, I just know something’s wrong .” (the little boat smashes against another jutting rock)
This is the point where Clueless novice needs to be referred to two – yes, not just one, two – further readings. One is about the Baroque Singer in All His/Her Glory and the other is about another R. Strauss opera – remember his PoMo-ness? Self referencing is so on – which, though written later, explains so much about the in-jokes in this one.
- In layman’s terms, the Baroque Singer in Excelsis is a bit ridiculous and thus easy to make fun of. He both genuinely loves to sing – loves music – and is in love with his own singing/high notes.
- From getting acquainted with Ariadne auf Naxos, Clueless novice learns that R. Strauss and buddy Hofmannsthal were fond of making fun of the music profession.
These are the kind of people who can distance themselves from it all and have a good laugh about it (though I don’t think it’s a mean laugh, but a laugh nonetheless) – unlike the Italian Singer (but he has a plight and they do support it a few years later when they revisit and expand on the subject).
Clueless novice also learns that Ariadne auf Naxos, like Le nozze di Figaro, was inspired by a French play3, though this one’s libretto does not follow the play per se. Instead it picks up a secondary thread and runs with it in a very original manner. But all that the Clueless novice wanting to understand the reason why R. Strauss gave us the Italian Singer needs to know is that the main characters in Ariadne auf Naxos are the equivalent of the Italian Singer. Yes, he and Hofmannsthal referenced a play then referenced themselves referencing Beaumarchais et all as well…
Maybe – but this is pure theory now – Strauss and Hofmannsthal were also hinting at the general reception and function of art in society, and this view is more depressing. – Lankin <- click me! The Italian Singer needs your attention
I fully subscribe to that theory! Following up Der Rosenkavalier with Ariadne confirms this. Anybody who’s been involved in the arts – especially the more commercial side of it – knows things haven’t changed much. Which is why Ariadne (and the Komponist) has a very special place in my heart.
So if you’re still with me after all this rambling I really did not realise I had in me 😉 I point you to above quoted Lankin’s brilliantly clear and detailed dissection of the Italian Singer via his very aria. You (the now much wiser
Clueless novice opera lover) will love R. Strauss that much more for his attention to detail.
- And some people still wonder if ha-ha-ha coloratura is ever warranted! Hells yea, when your character is inhaling mouthfuls of algae-infested seawater! ↩
- That’s my translation of a favourite Baroque image: ‘l nocchiero spaventato (from Griselda‘s Agitata da due venti or Tossed around by two twenties 😉 ). Strauss is clearly parodying this type of typical (Italian) Baroque aria, where love’s sudden and disturbing effect on one’s emotions is compared to a storm at sea. ↩
- Truly a great play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme. ↩