Blog Archives

Where is the Feldmarschall out hunting?

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!

Giulio Cesare returns to Glyndebourne 2018

Glyndebourne 2013

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 😉

Glynderbourne 2018

Der Rosenkavalier at its most lyrical and tame (ROH, 11 January 2017)

Die Marschallin’s boudoir (click for more ROH ‘kavalier images)

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
everyone else1
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.

Faninal's drawing room

Faninal’s drawing room

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.

Act III's brothel d'amour

Act III’s brothel d’amour

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?


  1. 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 

ROH’s 2016/17 Winter Season now on General Sale

roh tunnelThe 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.

The cheerful awfulness of the Italian Singer

Preface

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.

Does the singing go with my hairstyle?

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.

…like, what?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


  1. 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! 
  2. 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. 
  3. Truly a great play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme

Would Octavian shave his legs?

click for a run-through of JDD’s Octavians

It may be a whimsical (yet burning) question but think about it: trouser roles are supposed to be men. Would they shave their legs? I’m sure a dude like Orlando wouldn’t even think the razor was for something other than offing enemies. Tancredi wouldn’t either. Neither would Holofernes, unless he was convinced that would win Juditha’s heart (maybe that’s what Dalila should’ve done to Samson). Cherubino’s probably smooth as a baby’s arse and I don’t see Sesto as particularly hairy, though you never know, he’s Mediterranean… Annio might, he’s a bit dapper and strikes me as a budding control freak.

Anyway, a few of these were originated by men, so maybe the answer is a decided hell no. But what about a bona fide trouser role like Octavian? Especially since it’s the one most likely to show some leg, both because of Mariandel and because he first comes to our attention whilst in bed. He’s older than Cherubino so he might’ve sprouted some. I think he’d be proud of it. As would The Composer, since nobody’s taking him seriously.

Revisiting the Bechdel test for opera

A while ago I put some of my favourite operas to this test, with various results. But on re-reading it today, an idea about how perception complicates matters came to me. Let’s first see what happened when I Capuleti e i Montecchi’s turn came:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.

It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).

Right, it fails spectacularly, in grand Victorian tradition, which is unsurprising. But there is one interesting thing about it: namely that Romeo is specifically written for a woman1. So in a sense, there are two women in it and they do talk about quite a few things. They are also trying – with tragic results – to get away from “patriarchy”. It’s almost like a classic lesbian twist, which needs to end badly for all involved. I think nowadays that subtext is there even though it wasn’t always so.

The case of Der Rosenkavalier is somewhat similar, for the same reason. Octavian is supposed to be sung/played by a woman. You know that point where Octavian says “the Field Marshall is hunting in the Croatian forest and I’m here… hunting for… hehe…” – that always makes me imagine the Field Marshall as this big, forged in the heat of battle chap with large, black whiskers; and his wife prefers this giggly kid after all. I know it’s Strauss’s version of Le nozze but still2, the Field Marshall hunts for bears and boars for a reason. And we know they’ve been married since she came out of the convent – which was probably around age 16-18 – and they still don’t have any children. Maybe they couldn’t conceive but maybe she’s just not into black-whiskered boar hunters. Maybe he isn’t into women. Hofmannsthal was gay after all, can’t put this thought beyond him.

How Mozart/Bellini/Strauss intended it is one thing but how we see it today is almost always different.


  1. I know there are musical reasons why that is so – Bellini wanted the lovers to sound more alike so as to make a strong contrast to those who are opposing them. 
  2. I guess we could discuss Le nozze as well. Beaumarchais himself wanted Cherubino to be played by a girl and he still went on with the third part of the trilogy. You could say the kid had to be very pretty, that’s the point. You could also say, with the third part in place you know he meant for the Countess and Cherubino to really be getting it on, no ifs and buts there. What I’m getting at is you can’t get away from subtext, it’s just not possible, the way we think these days. 

Der Winterkavalier returns

rosenkactIINot that long ago I was whinging about my Zurich Der Rosenkavalier DVD 1 not working.

2016 brings a first success: I managed to make it work on another laptop and ripped it for good measure 😀 😀 😀

That means my DVD drive is lame…

Does your favourite opera pass the Bechdel test?

I was browsing idly after much Christmas food and found this clever post. So, to remind you, gentle reader, the Bechdel test quantifies the feminism of films. Let’s apply it to dehggi’s favourite opera:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Vitellia and Servilia, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about Tito choosing a wife and about saving Sesto, fail.

Two outta three ain’t bad, eh? Feminism isn’t the first thing I think about when it comes to Tito yet the women in the libretto are not damsels in distress; they are quite able to negotiate getting out of whatever messes they get into.

Now let’s put Alcina to the test:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; more than 2, woohoo! Alcina, Morgana and Bradamante, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: it turns interesting when Morgana gets sweet on Bradamante, check.

Alcina is a good example of how women in Baroque opera are more interesting than their later sisters. If the Bradamante-Morgana thing is not quite two women having a conversation about astrophysics or practical ways of eradicating famine in poor countries at least it’s not two women fighting over a man. You could say Morgana thinks she’s talking to a (goodlooking) man, does this count? I think it does, because 1) gender ambiguity = yes, 2) Bradamante is still a woman and though her actions are typical woman fighting for her man she is not wringing her hands expecting others (men) to fix everything.

Alcina famously does not need men to save her. It’s when she starts thinking she needs a man that things turn pearshaped. Cautionary tale, eh.

Stepping into the 19th century with I Capuleti e i Montecchi:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; ooops, not enough women in this, fail
  2. they talk to each other; N/A, fail
  3. they talk about something other than a man: ok, given that Giulietta has a long monologue, she ends up talking about how much she hates her life and would rather die than marry the man imposed on her by her father. Not really check but at least something. Still fail.

It’s a 19th century opera, what did you expect? The libretto is textbook woman oppressed by the patriarchy. You do want to cry during her first duet (or first part of the long duet) with Romeo and not just because the music is so damn beautiful (snif, snif).

How about 17th century’s L’incoronazione di Poppea:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; way more than 2: Poppea, Ottavia, Arnalta (Nutrice is just Nutrice), Drusilla, goddesses, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: they talk about the weakness of humans, attaining power, losing power, getting old, check.

If a Baroque opera is named after a woman chances are good she’s a strong one. Also in early Baroque you get at least 2-3 goddesses who talk about ethics, so the Prologue already passes the test.

I am afraid to put Die Frau ohne Schatten to this test 😀 But let’s try Der Rosenkavalier:

  1. There are two women in it, whose names are known; Die Marschallin (Marie Therese), Sophie, Annina, Marianne, check
  2. they talk to each other; they do, check
  3. they talk about something other than a man: not really, do they? Maybe Die Marschallin and Mariandel do 😉 fail

Can’t have everything, can we?

Whoever clicked on the Faninal’s Kitchen post…

…reminded me that evergrey November is the right time of the year to watch that particular Der Rosenkavalier. Trouble is, Disc 1 has stopped working for me about a year or so ago. Every time I give it a hopeful spin it rattles the CD/DVD drive worse than the mail coach and nothing vaguely Straussian comes out.

So: can anyone pretty please ❤ hook me up with it? I keep checking Amazon and it won’t come down in price (I know it’s hardly breaking the bank but I am peeved to pay again after already owning it :P). I actually got a very generous offer when it stopped playing but I am a bit embarrassed to ask now

but I want it 😉