Christian Gerhaher rides a white horse and causes a few damsels to joyously faint (Wigmore Hall, 15 July 2017)
Chatty mature lady: have you seen Gerhaher before?
dehggi: yes, but not in recital, only in Tannhauser.
Chatty mature lady: he was the only reason I went to see Tannhauser!
So it came to pass that I saw Gerhaher at Wiggy. I suppose had I hunted for returns I could’ve seen him earlier but for all my traipsing around I really am not the type to hang around for returns (or anything else). If they happen organically… you’ve heard me say that before. My current ticket was such an organic occasion – Baroque Bird couldn’t go and we had talked ahead of time that I would gladly take the ticket given those circumstances.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Die schöne Magelone Op. 33
Christian Gerhaher baritone
Gerold Huber piano
Ulrich Tukur actor
The beautiful Magelone is the story of a young knight who goes out on a maturity quest, which provides many occasions for exceptional feats of arms, proofs of great courage and wise choices for someone so young. Also, a seemingly endless opportunity to sing. His name is not Magelone – that’s the princess who falls madly in love with his jousting skills and singing chops. He is more modestly named Pierre. I’ve learned all this with the help of Tukur, who provided the (English) cliff notes to what happens in between the singing bits. Although he scared us all non German speakers when he did the introduction in German.
I’ve not seen a song cycle done this way before but it sure helps those on an erudition spectrum 😉 I saw on operaramblings that Soile Isokoski just had a recital with surtitles in Toronto, so perhaps this trend is catching. (Now that I dug a bit, here’s further proof of my sliding down the spectrum: this cycle seems habitually done this way; Goerne performed it the same way at Wiggy, 11 years ago!)
As you know I’m not the kind to spend a performance with my nose stuck in the programme (if it comes into my possession organically I will peruse it beforehand but unicorns are surprisingly rare at Wiggy). Surtitles = please bring them on. An actor reading it = even better, if all parties can afford the addition.
The story as read by Tukur proved hilarious. My fave part was this: a random nosy raven shows up just when our hero finds his three rings inside the locket of his conveniently asleep beloved – after he’d “eased off her dress”. Wait, what??? What kind of noble knight behviour is that? No wonder a raven showed up and flew away with the ring(s). Moral conundrums aside, our hero dashes off after the raven and, long story short, he falls into the Mediterranean, gets caught by moorish pirates and ends up sold into slavery to the Ottoman sultan (quite historically accurate, no?).
This is the type of story that ends well, so the two lovebirds find each other again – also by chance, after we understand that each of them has gained their gender required knowledge in the ways of the world (Magelone picks herself up, realises that he has not left of his own volition and waits for him whilst doing assorted au-pair duties for a farmer family in the Naples countyside – obviously back then even rich families didn’t enlist the help of local law enforcement to look for their missing damsels).
You might be wondering by now but dehggi, what happened to the raven? No? What about Gerhaher on his white horse? Oh, yes! He waited gamely for the cliff notes to unfold and then launched into Pierre’s mood-illustrating songs. Gotta love the Romantics, they were really confident in their genius. All these songs on a medieval theme sound absolutely nothing like one would imagine medieval music. No matter, though, because they are very fine indeed, and cover a wide range of moods. You can say that Pierre’s basic nature is jolly but, of course, what with loving and then losing (thanks for nothing, raven!), some somber tunes found their way within as well.
With this format there is inevitably a break in the mood, because reading a Romantic story in a 21st century English translation is one thing and singing Brahms in German is another. Sometimes I really wanted to find out what happened next and hear the music separately at a later time, Gerhaher or no Gerhaher. But his phrasing is really gorgeous and when he was singing I didn’t want us to go back to reading. I also really like his top (as well as his tie), as showcased by these songs. He’s the kind of singer whose fach affiliation you don’t have to question – he has the density and just enough weight – but who has heart flutter inducing notes up and down the range. So I gently fainted with the rest of the damsels (the hall was packed) and sighed behind my veil.
Cast update I somehow have missed:
Tito: Richard Croft
Be still my beating heart! ❤ ❤ ❤ Did I mention ❤ ❤ ❤ ?
Sesto: Anna Stephany
Wait, whatever happened to Lindsey? She’s not showing for the Proms either. It’ll have to do. I’m sure Stephany can sing it (in a pretty manner), not sure at all about her acting.
Date and time: 6pm GMT on 3 August, on the Glyndebourne page. In the event this isn’t working, try telegraph.co.uk and look for Tito. If you miss it/can’t make it, come back to the page and watch if for 1 week after the broadcast date.
You can see it at the cinema on the same date.
The Proms date is still 28 August (7pm), which you will be able to listen to here.
Full cast as of now:
Vitellia Alice Coote
Sesto Anna Stéphany
Annio Michèle Losier / Rachel Kelly (19, 21 August)
Publio Clive Bayley
Tito Richard Croft
Servilia Joélle Harvey
As I was saying in an earlier post, I liked this very much indeed, but being other it wasn’t easy to write about. Also I’ve been sucked into the blackhole known as other interests these days and have generally neglected to put words on
paper screen (what do you mean other interests? what can be more interesting than l’opera??? I know, I was shocked too. Sabotage!).
Anyway, a fitting return of Thursday’s Something Else. Let’s see what the blurb tells us:
In this special, one-evening concert, The Royal Opera joins forces with Shubbak Festival to showcase works by five composers from the Arab world. Shubbak is London’s major biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture, connecting London audiences with the best of Arab culture across visual arts, film, music, theatre, dance, literature, architecture and debate. This evening in two parts will share and celebrate short works by five composers, centring on the premiere of scenes from Bushra El-Turk’s new opera Woman at Point Zero.
Woman at Point Zero is based on the seminal novel by Egyptian author, feminist and doctor Nawal El Saadawi – an allegorical tale of historical female oppression in Egypt that questions what true freedom and empowerment can mean for women today. Preceding extracts of Woman at Point Zero are the UK premieres of chamber works by the four participants of The Royal Opera and Shubbak’s inaugural Arab Composer Residency programme: Amir ElSaffar (Iraq/US), Nadim Husni (Syria/Poland), Bahaa El-Ansary (Egypt) and Nabil Benabdeljalil (Morocco).
Though St Luke’s – an 18th century church converted into a musical venue – is located at Old Street and thus very convenient for yours truly and I got there with time to spare, I managed not to land a programme, being more focused on getting from point A to point B (seating) inside the venue, so that I could find a nice spot on the balcony to better view the stage. Thus I couldn’t tell which piece/composer came first, middle and last.
The pieces ranged from what a rather clueless Westerner (yours truly) would call Middle Eastern singing backed by a string quartet to some string shredding that would not look out of place in an extreme metal festival, via a piece that combined Polish folk singing and Middle Eastern instrumentation rather interestingly – so full circle. Unsurprisingly I felt serious kinship with the entirely instrumental string shredding – very fine work from the LSO violonist, whom I would nominate if I had the programme… – in spite of the heavy angst – or perhaps it was just simply very energetic.
After the interval we had the scenes from Woman at Point Zero, entirely orchestrated with an array of very good looking world music wind instruments and an accordion that sounded like no accordion I’ve ever heard. That was a very good thing, as if there is one instrument I can’t stand it’s that one1.
The scenes were staged in a manner that reminded me of Sellars’ treatment of The Gospel According to the Other Mary – that is, movement was integral, staging minimal. Now seeing as how this shapes up to be chamber opera, that was ideal. The orchestra, made up of 6 musicians, was also called to move throughout the piece. I was highly impressed with how they managed to interact with the main character (The Woman) whilst playing without scores (especially the flautist). I’m compelled to add that I find myself a lot more responsive to this contemporary type of dance than to its classical counterpart. Maybe I should start the broadening of my ballet horizons via this.
At the beginning they were all lined up at the back of the stage, in hieratic poses. As The Woman starts to breath, the wind instruments help her find her voice, coming closer and closer and offering her a variety of primordial sounds. This is a feminist text so that was an excellent illustration of one’s emerging sense of self. It also harked back – I think – to the Ancient Egyptian Ka. I loved it. Soprano Merit Ariane Stephanos (one of the forces behind the inception of the project) did a mesmerising job with the title role.
The scenes continued like this, The Woman recounting the events of her life that built on her present condition, which seemed both desperate (death row) and keenly self aware. It’s a very typical story of Woman trying to find her place in a society that does not offer her much of a choice. What impresses is of course her inner strength and desire to better herself/discover her worth.
The “recit” part of the text is spoken (no Spechgesang) in English and sung in Arabic, so we have an interesting and quite seamless combination of Western and Arab. The recits are contemporary music in ethos whilst the singing seems written in traditional manner from around the world, which also helps illustrate the divergent forces that create the drama at hand.
To get a better idea, check it out here and read the blurb below the video as well, it’s got more info:
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.
the nudes …another eyebrow-raising search engine term. Dear reader, I must disappoint you. I actually had to google Ms Gimadieva’s images as I had only a vague idea of how she looked (= brunette). Less of an idea about her in the nude 😉 but I can see how those who like typical Russian features might dig further (and they will have to, I don’t have any related pictures stashed around this blog).
the cave. I’m in the cave because I’ve been struck by ear blockage, which prevented me from going to see Spyres and El-Khoury yesterday. So much for giving Spyres another chance. After some in-house work on my ears I’m crossing my fingers Gerhaher projects tonight because I don’t want to miss him as well now that I finally chanced on a ticket to see him in recital. You see how fate keeps trying to stop me from seeing him?
Tito. It’s been a while, eh? But you might remember it’s not long now that Tito will return to Glyndebourne and the Proms, so there will be a lot of Tito talk around here, like in the good old days.
In the meanwhile, somebody graciously informed me that the Aspen Music Festival is running three Tito dates this August, so if you can get there check it out. I would love to see Tito in that kind of landscape (I’m from a mountain town myself).
Woman at Ground Zero. The show happened on Thursday, before my blocked ear wahala. I loved it! It’s the kind of contemporary opera project I can happily get behind. Post to come.
The Love for Three Oranges. Just for fun 🙂
This is, I think, the first production of Mitridate I watched on yt, early on in my opera days. Because it’s so old (1993) I didn’t think I would get to see it in the house but here we are! Thanks a lot to whoever had the idea this fun production of a very early Mozart opera should be unearthed 🙂
As we all know, this is one of Mozart’s first (the first?) important commissions and he got to conduct it in Milan, one month shy of his 15th birthday. They really did things differently back in ye olde 1700s. I mean 14 olds were surely more mature then, perhaps more like 17-18 year olds nowadays, but still.
Last night’s performance was recorded by BBC3 and you can listen to it here on 8 July.
Mitridate: Michael Spyres
Albina Shagimuratova Vlada Borovko
Sifare: Salome Jicia
Farnace: Bejun Mehta
Ismene: Lucy Crowe
Marzio: Rupert Charlesworth
Jennifer Davis Francesca Chiejina
Conductor: Christophe Rousset | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH
Director: Graham Vick
As you can glean from my scratches, we had some cast changes. The two above were last minute ones. But there were actually more. You may remember Anett Fritsch was first scheduled to sing Sifare, but she pulled out with time to spare. Marzio was initially meant to be sung by Andrew Tortise.
We ended up with a bunch of young singers. The lady next to me lamented aloud at the announcement about Shagimuratova. I, not being Shagi’s biggest fan (though she has plenty technical skills, as I saw with her Donna Anna here and heard with her Semiramide at last year’s Proms), was happy for the youngsters to get breaks. Borovko is a Jette Parker Artist here at ROH and has already had smaller roles on the main stage but this is surely a big break for her. You may remember Chiejina from the Guildhall Masterclass with JDD where she sang Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi mi dice mai (a dehggi favourite). I think she’s on the way to great things, lovely full voice and very amiable presence – she fit right in and her diction in Arbate’s recits was not bad at all. “We” know Charlesworth from many Baroque outings in town and elsewhere and were likewise happy for him.
Borovko had a steep night ahead of her, especially as Aspasia has the first aria. She showed strong nerves indeed, as she navigated it with poise and sang without a hitch. The public was very happy for her, lots of applause. As the night progressed her voice clouded but it’s unsurprising, given the tough task at hand. I was wondering if she covered or pushed a bit – she has a very plum voice so young – or if it was the nerves seeping through – but I really liked her pluck. A commendable effort. It’s very unusual to see such a young singer as Aspasia, as young Mozart was ruthless and in no way makes it easy for the singer. Rousset, on the other hand, went very gently on his singers, much more so than Minkowski did with Idomeneo.
Speaking of possible nerves and something that sounded like covering, I heard that in Charlesworth’s case too. No need, really. He has a beautiful, ringing tenor that projects well. His Marzio had a bit of Mighty Boosh going on, which was rather amusing. I can’t remember if this was the case in the previous runs.
Aside from some rambunctiousness from the brass side, the orchestra “behaved” in its supporting role, as much as a non-HIP orchestra will with this type of music (they really have a come a long way from that 1963 night with Karajan).
Another reason the singers were lucky with this production is its very stylised nature, spilling into stage movement, which doesn’t give one much room for spontaneous acting. Normally you’d think it a block but when you’re busy focusing on your very difficult arias it’s surely a blessing.
Nonetheless, Mehta and Crowe, matched again as a couple shortly after the gorgeous Rodelinda in Madrid, found ways to sneak spontaneity into their acting, to the delight of the packed auditorium. Yes, even an early Mozart sells ROH out, such is the Salzburg runt’s legacy.
This is one of my favourite ROH productions, matching two qualities dear to my heart: simplicity and imagination. At no time there is anything on stage that has no function, symbolic or otherwise. Vick had the good sense to make the red velvet side panels movable so when singers had a particularly important aria the walls moved closer and the sound was not lost backstage. You probably can’t make this out in the video but it was both practical and effective regarding stage action. The rectangle shape of the walls fit the abstract design too.
The costumes, though taking their cue from crinolines, were a lively take on the design, with striking bright colours in pleasing hues, adorned with intricate patters. I bet they were a fun challenge for the costume department!
The choreography added another positive accent. There are times when you – especially me, who don’t quite feel dance – aren’t sure why choreography is there but put up with it anyway. In this case the dancing fell to the attendants of this and that character – though in arias the singers sometimes were called to join in – who also acted like a silent chorus, marveling at or approving whatever else was happening on stage. This has the potential to be too much but not in this case, as it was done in a playful manner, which took a bit off the very earnest atmosphere of the libretto.
I like the plot quite a bit but it’s solidly post-Baroque what with a large amount of lamenting one’s harsh fate – I was happy for any levity. How can anyone not like Mitridate’s personal guards who look scary to the point of parody? But the OTT-ness felt to me in perfect keeping with the Baroque-Classical idea of entertainment (it’s opera, not a history lesson).
The quintessential stars of the evening were Lucy Crowe as Ismene and Bejun Mehta as Farnace, both of whom showed simply wonderful artistry and style. Still, for the “kick” arias in a large venue I feel the edge of a mezzo’s voice would add an extra oomph and evilness, yet I greatly enjoyed his sense of style (gorgeous dialogue with the orchestra) and the little, presumably spontaneous (once or twice just tossed off) trills he added on occasion.
It’s always great to see a role veteran at work, from the moment Farnace walzes in with feigned carelessness and asks Aspasia to stop rejecting him (or else), through Va, l’errore mio palesa, when he comically bumps Ismene out of the way, to his U-turn in Gia dagli occhi, which was taken super slow and the audience broke into applause before the last repeat of the A section – and I actually joined them! though I’m very well acquainted with this aria in its extended version. To quote the Emperor, too many notes, Wolfie. Seriously, when I overheard my very young seatmate sigh before the third repeat I couldn’t fault her for it. It goes on and on. Ffwd to 1791 and Mozart’s super brief take on opera seria – worlds away. Then again, not fair comparing a 14 year old with a seasoned 35.
But the audience was right to applaud, Mehta’s soft singing is buttah. His interaction with Crowe was some of the best stuff of the evening, you could feel the connection the characters are supposed to have beyond the momentary rough patch.
The first time Crowe genuinely impressed me was the above mentioned Rodelinda, where she sung the title role. I am very happy to report she continues to rock. She had the best night vocally (and likely otherwise), with all the (many) trills flowing effortlessly and her sense of Mozart style was fabulous. On top of this, she, as I said above, managed to act through the stylised choreography, making it a springboard for a dialogue with the public. This works for Ismene, who, as the second woman, is the wise character, always acting in diplomatic ways that ultimately restore order. We know Mitridate, his sons and Aspasia have to reconcile their differences; she is the one character who shares our knowledge that things can’t be as bad as everyone else laments they are.
I can’t say I was convinced by Jicia as Sifare. Her performance was patchy as far as I can tell – sometimes the voice was really on, flowing beautifully in difficult passages, at other times it seemed blighted by… something I can’t quite put into words. Almost as an old AM radio going in and out of proper reception. Her acting was pretty much what the stylised production required, nothing more, nothing less. I obviously don’t know about her interaction with Shagi but with Borovko it was rather cold – possibly understandably so. Still, as this is the main romantic relationship of the opera it felt underwhelming.
Michael Spyres in the title role was solid. He’s already sinking his claws into this role but to me he’s no Bruce Ford (the veteran of the ROH production). I’ve even sampled Richard Croft’s take on the role and I still think Bruce Ford is Mitridate. Even though both Croft and Spyres have more elasticity, that typical resonance and the spcific type of characterisation in Ford’s voice wins it for me1.
Out of the three, Spyres’ is the least recognisable voice, with a bit of Rossinian fervour seeping through. He was also struck by a bad case of nerves in his first aria but carried on without batting an eyelash and things got much better. He has the stage presence and the capacity to navigate the runs, yes, and his work with dynamics isn’t bad at all, but I didn’t feel the same level of musicality and Mozart-feeling as with Crowe and Mehta.
Genderwise, it’s interesting how they cast this opera nowadays, with a soprano as the good son and a countertenor as the sexually forceful villain. Make of that what you will.
The night was, objectively speaking, a mixed bag. But as far as I was concerned I had a swell time, because of the top drawer job Crowe and Mehta did and because this production is, to me, a thing of beauty2. It makes me smile, it suits my sense of design and I am really happy to have seen it in the house, especially in the company of these musicians.
It’s so OTT that it can still deliver even though times have changed so much since 1993 and only last year we’ve had those two game changing productions of Mitridate. It’s also probably lucked out – at least with me – that it returned to the stage in 2017 rather than last year, to compete with the very topical productions from Paris and Brussels. Post Brexit the focus has shifted yet again.
I may have finally stepped into the current decade as I found out today that ROH also provides wifi (duh, I know; please be patient with me 😉 ) and it’s very strong to boot. Expect a long entry about Mitridate, which is a lot of things – good (I really like this old but very stylish, Ponnellesque production and it’s official Lucy Crowe is enjoying a splendid season) and occasionally less so (stricken with a large number of cast changes – two just for today, which include our original Aspasia).
16:40 – just sitting on the lawn, listening to Sarah Connolly warm up with… Idamante? Didn’t expect that one; in fact it took me a while to figure out why I should know the tune.
It’s not raining! And it’s not nearly as windy as last time. Lots of bees doing their thing to plants in many shades of purple.
20:45 – that was the most boring opera first half I’ve ever willingly gone to see in the house. About halfway through I gave up the fight against zzzs and napped in earnest. Somehow I managed not to drop my opera glasses. During the second half I did not sleep but I entertained myself by trying to figure out ways to get Vitellia1 to lose some weight.
TO NAP OR NOT TO NAP
If you’re curious, Glyndebourne live streams it on 6 July, but for my £15 it was deadly dull, both at orchestra level and vocally. The singers did their job commendably when there was something for them to tackle. Give me Anna Nicole any day. At least that one is unabashedly pop and has fun with its idiom.
This is pretentious yet unimaginative. It pulls out all the boring contemporary opera tricks and none of the interesting stuff – like some unusual orchestration, interesting instruments, some sort of rhythmic inventiveness – or whatever they’re supposed to do so as not to repeat the past. The singing is pretty much Sprechgesang (the kind I pull out to liven up daily chores) peppered with ambulance siren ensembles2 and sort of arias, obviously to wake up the people lulled to sleep by the very serious dullness.
The sort of aria I have in mind is Ophelia’s, undoubtedly an homage to the mad scenes of yore, which, in this case and production is Zerbinetta having a breakdown. Poor Babs Hannigan, they had her jump around like a gymnast, throw herself and writhe on the floor, jump on someone’s back – the works, I suppose, of what posh women are expected to do when they’re having a manic episode. It’s also obviously hard to sing and she coped very well (because we know she likes this sort of thing, jumping around included) – but remember what Richard Croft said in the interview I posted the other day, it’s very hard to be spotless vocally with this kind of stuff and dramatically moving at the same time. I’m really glad now that I saw her in Written on Skin, where she got to be emotionally expressive; even though I’m not its biggest fan, that was a much more enjoyable experience all around.
Connolly and Tomlinson wasted their time with this, as far as I’m concerned. Il padre adorato was my favourite bit from her all night, glad I kept near the building where she was warming up 🙂 Allan Clayton in the title role put a lot of effort into it but I’ve never heard a more boring main part in an opera before. I can’t remember anything; based on just this, I find it impossible to judge his singing skills. I’m also not sure why they gave him a bushy beard that made him look like an extra from Boris Godunov.
The point of it all seemed to be staying as close to the play as possible, so we got all the famous lines, sometimes more than once and by different characters. Playing with what has penetrated popular culture to the point of cliche is fine if you do it cleverly. Not the case here. Just having The Ghost/Gravedigger say “to be or not to be” and wink is kind of har.har. Hamlet actually says “the rest is silence” as he’s expiring which almost made me chuckle. Surely you didn’t need that?! Especially as Horatio was just going on about how singing angels will guide him to his resting place. It’s like “oy, Horatio, I don’t need no stinkin’ angels! This is not the 1800s”. Are we supposed to laugh or are we supposed to be navel gazing?
As per Rupert Christiansen, “Neil Armfield’s effective and unassertive production is inoffensively updated to a modern setting”, which in my translation means it’s just there. They have these side windows at some point which I swear they recycled from that scene in Le nozze di Figaro where Cherubino has to jump out the window (though upon checking it looks more like th ROH production windows – but that kind nonetheless).
As a conclusion I think from now on I will 1) not allow myself fly off just because the cast looks brilliant, 2) avoid Brett Dean stuff.
On the upside, for that £15 I actually got to sit down in a central seat in the upper amphi, which is probably quite rare at Glyndebourne. Also the day progressed into very pleasant come the interval, so I just lay down in the grass and watched the clouds, which is another thing I don’t get to do often enough.
On the bus I chatted with a woman from NYC (not originally) who was visiting London and decided to come to Glyndebourne on her own when her friends balked out. How commendable! After the interval a seatmate thought to make conversation:
Chap (cheerfully): So how do you like the opera?
Dehggi: I think it’s terrible.
Chap (taken aback): Really? In what way?
Dehggi: I couldn’t get into neither the orchestral part or the singing.
Chap (turns around and starts talking to someone else).
Said chap was also a woop! woop! shouter and had this slow and emphatic way of clapping, as if he was sarcastic only I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. The claps were particularly loud, each clap like a gunshot. And when it was time to leave, he and his buddy cheerfully stopped dead at the end of the row, effectively blocking everyone else’s way. Clearly he liked it. The rest of us had a bus to catch and Glyndebourne is too lovely a place to leave in a hurry, especially on a balmy night, when it’s not quite dark.
- cat ;-) ↩
- Rupert Christiansen thinks “Dean is rare among contemporary opera composers in understanding how to present people singing together” but to me it sounded exactly as boring as most contemporary attempts at just that – people singing at such intervals as to cancel each other’s efforts and end up sounding like the din of the schoolyard. I mean, by all means don’t reinvent The Anvil Chorus but if I wantedto listen to a schoolyard ensemble I’d open the window. But read his review because maybe you don’t need to take my word for it. ↩
Or get over it, brov! Don’t let that unfaithful woman get you down.
Tenors get no(t enough) love around here 😉 Contrary to how it might appear, I like some of them quite a bit. Handel wrote some neat stuff for the voice in 1735:
I like how tight, clean and elastic this rendition is. (Honorary mezzo) Croft always has emotion in his voice, he doesn’t need to force the issue (the emotion bit is hinted at in the interview at the bottom). It helps that his tone is noble and has just the right amount of cojones so one doesn’t feel like his characters can be knocked down with a feather. Here’s a tenor I wish I’d seen live, because he’s doing well here too, at a tempo not many could cope with:
In this interview he says something rather interesting about how Minkowski helped him get back his confidence with (Baroque) coloratura and how you need to try it before you can figure out how you’re going to approach it; also about the challenge of composers who write “mathematically”:
It always surprises me when a naturally gifted singer comes from a not particularly musical family (in his case, it was both him and his brother, but apparently no one else).
I haven’t been able to write about this issue (old skool 20th century interpretations of Baroque opera) quite as I would’ve liked to. It always comes off – at least in my head – as a cross between a whinge and an eye-roll. I want to find something to like about it yet I could never get over all the hurdles (there are just so many). I try not to be dogmatic about things because I know that’s the easiest way to fence myself away from potential enjoyment. But this is like reading a book from another era and going “did decent people from back then really think this was ok?” Then I wonder what things we take for granted now that future generations will roll their eyes at. So whinge or not, I’ll go ahead and post.
WHEN PARSIPPEA STRIKES
1963 was a very long time ago, further from us than 1643 it seems. Just because it’s set in Rome it doesn’t mean it has to be GRAND. I take it Karajan did not have tongue-in-cheek in his vocabulary? Of course not, everybody belongs to the socially accepted gender-description. But if you don’t get the joke, then why even bother with a work like this? Is this merely an academic attempt? An overly earnest nod to “the genius of Monteverdi”? What exactly did someone of Karajan’s mindset think when looking at that manuscript?1
Jurinac is merely unsexy as Poppea (shouldn’t that be a capital offence in this opera? but in spite of myself I like her in the seduction duet – she shows potential compared with her hopeless Nerone). Perhaps she’s as sexy as a 30ft marble statue of Mother Earth could be; but even if she were able to do something closer to the original idea, what else could she do, given the dire context?
I mean the tempi! OMG. A kingdom – no, two kingdoms – for a hint of rubato and a lick of finesse. Everything is so square, there’s zero flow, life is completely sucked out of the score, details-what-details, (across the board) no sense of phrasing at singing level. There is a chugging GRANDEUR at orchestral level (I bet K used the full forces of Wiener Philharmonic) but that seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t this primarily vocal music?
The way Ottone’s entrance lament E pur io torno
cui qui was obliterated of any semblance of poetry and longing makes baby Jesus cry because that music is some of the most beautiful in the whole opera. Seriously, if you like it even a little bit don’t listen.
The chap (a Wagnerian baritone…) simply can’t wrap his voice around this stuff and neither can Wiener Philharmonic cope with the filigree. At funeral speed he uneasily sketches a couple of flourishes, much like a first timer on ice would try to get to the other side of the rink, but the only thing he conveys is a timid attempt at religious fervour from the very general ballpark of Bach’s Passions; you’re not quite sure where he should be arriving anyway, since at that speed and squareness the phrase is pretty much a candle’s flicker in a damp, dark tomb.
One of the beautiful things with Monteverdi is that it’s so sparsely written it allows everyone an opinion. Of course, it also allows for exercises such as this. The other beautiful thing about Monteverdi is it’s not rocket science. Just say (legato) that sentence in your head: E pur io torno qui. How simple and beautiful, eh? It really doesn’t need anything besides what it is. So, yea, you can have your vision but you also have to take what he gives you as he gives it to you. Don’t muddle it up; have some respect for the music.
But it’s Nerone who is so off the mark it defies description. Seriously, in the Nerone-Poppea duet of mutual seduction/manipulation he brays like an amorous donkey (hint: louder =/= more passionate; at least not before 1840).
Even so “the best thing” is the orchestration just prior to and on Pur ti miro. But then there’s the heldenchoir towards the end… seriously, the goodies keep on coming. Ottavia’s Addio, Roma! is hair raising. If I were Nerone I’d remove all the spanners and candle sticks within her reach^%&(()&&%$F!
Did everyone (aside from religious music specialists) sing like this back then? I mean, did they (ie, Karajan) just use the same singers for all the operas and did all the operas simply sound like either young or mature Wagner?
Did I mention the tempi and the
clever curious medieval accents? This is 1643 not the 1400s. Why would Ottavia sing Disprezzata regina as if she were a medieval princess locked in a misty tower on the northern edges of Norway (or perhaps Outer Mongolia)? It does sound like she’ll break into Vissi d’arte2 any moment now – which is neither Northern Norway nor Outer Mongolia and definitely not Monteverdi.
In spite of my usual snarkiness I don’t want to kick a sick puppy but this is just so odd, from a 2017 perspective. I enjoy when something is done slightly – or not so slightly – differently, but not if it’s not working. The very vision doesn’t match in this case.
Yet, like in the case of a car wreck, once you start listening it’s hard to stop. It’s very interesting listening to this in parallel with Harnoncourt’s version from 1979, which itself is way more flowery than what’s being done nowadays, yet clearly from another world.
ps: I need to write a separate post about E pur io torno qui. There are some interesting interpretive differences out there (and I’ve been a bit obsessed with it recently; that Ottone ain’t half bad; then that weird interaction with Ottavia… heh).
ps2: the title (and the mention of Turandot) comes from one of the wry comments below the yt video. It’s worth reading them.