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Good times at the opera in 2016

Cotroversial in everyday life and politics, 2016 was a good opera year for yours truly. I went to Vienna again and returned to Paris after two decades, lots of fun! London wasn’t too shabby either, with its mezzo/contralto traffic jams and my love affair with Wigmore Hall only intensified this year ‚̧ Last but not least, looking over the many shows that sign posted this year I had another opportunity to think about the fine people I shared some of these good times with. Thank you all and a much happier 2017!

January

11 Benjamin Appl | Wigmore Hall: a Schubert start to the year

February

20 L’Etoile | ROH: a bit of a weird romp, but a romp nonetheless (le romp francais). I hope whoever succeeds Holten at ROH sprinkles the seasons with wackiness of this sort.

March

4, 8 Akhnaten | ENO: X-Files meets Aida = most spectacular show of the year! Let’s keep ENO in business for more of the same.

12, 14 Ariodante | RCM Britten Hall: students go hardcore Highlands

14 Maria Ostroukhova | St George’s Hanover Sq: Cecca notte!

16 Ekaterina Siurina/Luis Gomes | Wigmore Hall: there is still Belcanto, lest we forgot about it

17 Berenice | St George’s Hanover Sq: hit and miss Handel

21 Boris Godunov | ROH: Terfel, the Welsh Boris(h)

23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: Il pianto di Maria

31 Elpidia | St George’s Hanover Sq: very good singing, so-so pasticcio

April

14 Lucia di Lammermoor | ROH: Damrau is no damsel in distress

27 Lucio Silla | Theater an der Wien: the Arnold Schoenberg Choir! with not that much to sing ūüėČ

28 Il Vologeso | Cadogan Hall: proof that Jommelli rocks

30 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall: super stylish Boroque with La Piau

May

08 Tannhauser | ROH: an opportunity to see Christian Gerhaher sing Wagner lyrically.

23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: ūüėÄ

26 Oedipe | ROH: almost as spectacular as Akhnaten

June

24 Werther | ROH: Pappano gets it

29 Sonia Prina | Wigmore Hall: the first of two shows this year; this is the feisty one.

July

02 Nathalie Stutzmann | Wigmore Hall: the smoothest contralto takes on Vivaldi

07 Il trovatore | ROH: Bosch brings his caravan to Verdi

17 JPYA | ROH: ROH students return

August

03 Bluebeard’s Castle | Proms/Royal Albert Hall: there are a few things I will always attend and this is one of them.

September

21 Demetrio (Hasse) | Cadogan Hall: musically not the most exciting

22 Cosi fan tutte | ROH: this one was a bit of a miss…

October

02 Nathalie Stutzmann/Orfeo 55 | Wigmore Hall: oh yea!

05 Anna Bonitatibus | Wigmore Hall: …and yea to Semiramide, too.

21 The Nose | ROH: between this and L’Etoile we covered Eastern and Western wackiness.

November

02 Juditha triumphans | Barbican: the mezzo/contralto fest of the year

05 Dorothea Roschmann | Wigmore Hall: dramatic Roschmann is here

07 Les contes d’Hoffmann | ROH: traditional tales of sexism (with mezzos)

13 Oreste (Handel) | Wilton’s Music Hall: the Atrides in Jack the Ripper’s neighbourhood

20 Luca Pisaroni | Wigmore Hall: Luca sings the Schubert

24 Stuart Jackson/Marcus Farnsworth | Wigmore Hall: more Schubert!

28 La Calisto | Wigmore Hall: Wigmore Hall goes kookoo-funny

30 La finta giardiniera | RCM Britten Hall: students being successfully silly

December

05 Don Giovanni | Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Don Leporello muses in the beautiful surroundings of TCE.

06 Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana | Opera Bastille: Sancta Susanna = the runner up in the badass production contest of the year

29 Sonia Prina/Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall: oh so quiet and gentle

Bluebeard’s Castle (Proms, 3 August 2016)

RAH pipe organ: hair raising sound

Prom 25

DvoŇô√°k, Cello Concerto
Cello: Alban Gerhardt
Bart√≥k, Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard: John Relyea
Judit: Ildikó Komlósi
Conductor: Charles Dutoit | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Radio 3 broadcasts all the Proms, so in case you’ve missed this event, you can listen to it here¬†(opera starts at 1:19:00). The pre-opera¬†talk (starting at 54:00) about Bluebeard‘s libretto and how Bart√≥k got to writing an opera is also¬†worth listening to, considering it’s both metaphorical and a keen psychological exploration of love and its consequences. In regards to the vocal¬†style,¬†two important things are discussed: Bart√≥k was inspired by Debussy’s¬†Pell√©as et M√©lisande and adapted that very unoperatic¬†way of writing to the prosody of Hungarian language, which is of course very different from French.

Alban Gerhardt did the solo cello honours on the DvoŇô√°k and then encored with Bach’s Prelude to the Cello Suite #6 in D major, which, though I didn’t know (and I didn’t hear what he said) I was able to recognise as Bach. So it’s not just Vivaldi ūüėČ You can tell I’m not the biggest cello fan and I was actually a bit alarmed when I saw him return for an encore (let’s get on with the main dish!), but I will say I appreciated the emotional complexity of¬†DvoŇô√°k’s Cello Concerto¬†as well as Gerhardt’s gentle/feathery style.

Having (for sentimental reasons) booked a seat dangerously close to the organ and… behind the singers, I missed a great deal of the vocals so I returned to the Radio 3 broadcast myself, for further edification. Either the singers didn’t want to shout (well, they shouldn’t, it’s not that kind of opera) or sitting behind a bass and a mezzo is another definition for snookered. Common sense would sway one against sitting behind singers… except the hall is so big (capacity: 5,272) that the prospect of sitting central but too far from everything didn’t appeal.

The moral: if you want to hear the singers you need to fork out for a central seat or stand in the pit. I don’t want to stand in the pit unless it’s a rock concert (and even then, if a lawn chair is on offer I’ll leave the young and restless the pleasure of early onset varicose veins).

The good news is the orchestra’s sound was crystal clear. Even the harps were¬†perfectly audible. Let alone the pipe organ, which unsettled me with its interventions. The radio broadcast will give you clarity for singers but loses orchestra’s¬†spaciousness. If nothing else, the huge Royal Albert Hall showcases the sound of the orchestra.

And this is a mesmerising score that has to be heard in a¬†hall rather than on record. Since seeing it last year and due to its brevity, I’ve become quite familiar with it (I’ve probably listened to the Kertesz/Berry/Ludwig version for about 20 times). I was on the edge of my seat throughout, with my eyes glued to¬†the orchestra, eager to see who makes all the wonderful sounds which build this musical mystery. The singers didn’t much interact but in this case it made sense. Bluebeard should stay a cypher to the end.

But as far as I could hear,¬†Koml√≥si sounds a shade brighter in the house compared to the broadcast. Relyea keeps the solidity and darkness but on the radio you can actually understand what he’s saying ūüėČ Both of them did a very good job, with¬†Koml√≥si downright outstanding in navigting this very interesting role; Judit’s initial¬†enthusiasm, her subsequent forcefulness and her fears and horror were all there. Then again, she’s sung it once or twice, as well as recorded it.

I was curious if the spoken word intro would be skipped. It was kept, with Relyea reciting it in English, which was not a bad idea in itself, but I wish it wasn’t superimposed to the very evocative orchestral intro. It’s one of my favourite intros/overtures and I sometimes listen to it for its own sake.

There’s a strong jazz era atmosphere to it. In fact the music is so rich in texture and so vivid (with the xylophone and the celesta and all sorts of other percussion and the army of winds heavily featured and the harps and the pipe organ) it’s basically a¬†film noire. It helps to know the jist of the libretto but you can survive very well without knowing every word; the music will show everything in a way that words can’t quite. This is, I think, one of Bart√≥k’s great achievements: expressing the essence of the libretto, the beyond-words deep recesses¬†of the human soul. Judit¬†is the reasonable one who names the experiences behind each door.

The pre-opera talk panel members emphasise the¬†extreme darkness of the libretto. I would say it’s rather just enough. Intimacy isn’t a walk in the park, is it? Usually there is a reason why hidden things aren’t being aired. And also: forcing someone to show things about themselves – things they are used to hiding – has an unsettling¬†effect on that person.

As the opera starts, Bluebeard keeps urging Judit to enter. He sounds (to me) a bit uncertain, as if he doesn’t want to lose his nerve. Judit, of course, is all sunshine and good (she thinks) intentions. The panel touched on the role reversal, with Bluebeard beckoning and Judit being the active/penetrating force, the agent of change. Upon entering she discovers with amazement and some alarm that the castle has no windows/sunshine. But she plows on – and here Judit¬†veteran Koml√≥si phrases the line with a wonderful mixture of apprehension and determination – to find the truth, because, as Judit says, she loves him.

With each demand for the key to the next door, the determination turns into the frenzy of realisation there is no way back and the admission of love gets smaller and more uncertain. It’s also interesting that Bluebeard, far from being menacing, keeps advising her to be cautious. He sounds like there is a struggle within him between being unable to resist her demands and a great reluctance to reveal himself. Anyone with a bit of Richard Strauss experience will recognise his influence in the piercing call of the flutes, heralding a new discovery.

The plinking of the celesta suggests¬†the sparkling of the gold and jewels in the third¬†room. I like how it keeps plinking whilst they’re talking. As I was saying, super cinematic. A solo horn then expresses the spaciousness of the garden (and its link to hunting, I suppose) behind the fourth door. The¬†winds join it to add layers of foliage and then the flutes bring in the birds and butterflies. The broadcast really can’t translate¬†the tremendousness of sound that came out that huge pipe organ when the 5th door opened. I knew what was coming and I was still like this :-O :-O :-O

All is thine forever, Judith.
Here both dawn and twilight flourish.
Here sun, moon, and stars have dwelling.
They shall be thy deathless playmates.

Can’t¬†get more poetic than that in a libretto, eh? You can read the English translation here.

So Bluebeard has opened up to her but she, to the tune of a distant trumpet¬†that acompanies the same grandious phrase now paler and sort of desintegrating, still focuses on the underlying bloodiness of his world. It’s hard, when you’ve opened up to someone, to see them¬†underwhelmed and realise that they still have their own version of it all, which is¬†a lot less grand than yours. Poor Bluebeard’s music gets downwright jazzy when he tries to entice her with his version of who he is. His style of seduction is cool and relaxed earlier on when he responds to her very energetic (dramatic soprano playground)¬†demands and playful – even amorous – here. Yet she still wants to open the last two doors.

Finally Bluebeard has allowed the sunshine in, which was her goal (or so she thought) in the beginning, but now she‘s not happy. You can tell they both influenced each other. She made him share the burden, which, in turn, made him happy. He made her change her goal, from simply seeking happiness to looking for truth. Or maybe he just made her unhappy ūüėČ

The lake of tears is illustrated with the help of the harps and the celesta and it feels (to me) like stale water in a cement basement. This is a pretty good metaphor for tears. Then, interestingly again, the same phrase is done on a lower key on the harps when she doesn’t answer his call to kiss him. This is the trouble with these cinematic scores: you end up dissecting every phrase to the best of your ability, because every phrase hits emotionally.

The moment before the seventh door is opened is another very loud one, now heavy, as opposed to the major key one for the 5th door. It’s a good time as any to say that Maestro did an excellent job with the work, which covers a very wide range, from delicate ppps to Strauss-loud’n’heavy. Like I was saying earlier, I was on the edge of the seat throughout (thank goodness it’s short), never losing focus of the ever changing moods. And even on second listen via the broadcast I can tell it wasn’t just my appreciation for the music speaking. He reined in the orchestra very well and he navigated the transitions with lots of care, so that the myriad of details wouldn’t be lost.

A last interesting detail in the libretto is how, when telling Judit the stories of his three silent wives, Bluebeard doesn’t finish at the third one, but goes on to talk about her¬†in the third person. Judit reminds him she’s still there. The description of the wives and Bluebeard giving them each the rule over the time of day when they met has echoes of Hades and Persephone. I’ve always felt they weren’t so much dead as enslaved in some way.

Most traditional societies tend to have myths where some earth spirit takes a wife from the land of living. She has a lot of freedom within his realm, with the one rule that she can never leave. Perhaps a metaphor for¬†traditonal marriage ūüėČ It’s interesting how, in what is essentially a pagan story, the truth does not set you free. People often stay together because of the convenience of familiarity.

An emotional – as well as intellectually challenging – evening and equally emotional re-listening to it on the radio. It’s one of those works that has wormed a special place in my heart, the kind I would always be happy to see live.

Salome at the BBC Proms (Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2014)

If you’ve ever wondered how Salome might sound from the Royal Albert Hall Gallery I’ve an answer for you: vocally muffled. On the other hand, the orchestra carried upwards to great effect, a delight for the Strauss fan.

Herod: Burkhard Ulrich
Herodias: Doris Soffel
Salome: Nina Stemme
Jokanaan: Samuel Youn
Narraboth: Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page: Ronnita Miller
Jews 1-5: Paul Kaufmann | Gideon Poppe | Jörg Schörner | Clemens Bieber | Andrew Harris
Narazenes 1-2: Noel Bouley | Carlton Ford
Soldiers 1-2: Marko Mimica | Tobias Kehrer
Cappadocian: Seth Carico

Conductor: Donald Runnicles | Deutsche Oper Berlin
Stage director: Justin Way

Catch it on Radio 3 for a month.

I joined the Gallery1 day ticket queue, which was very well organised by Door 11. For those who don’t know, you’re given a queue number upon arrival, based on which (+¬£5 in cash only) you’re admitted into the hall about 45min before the start of the show. Apparently the queue was a lot less hefty yesterday than the one for Mahler’s 2nd the day before. In any case, it advanced¬†quickly.

I’d never been to the Gallery before but I liked the anything goes attitude. You can eat, drink, read, sleep etc. at your heart’s leisure up there, as it’s very much like a promenade. Most still dutifully followed the libretto. I took a walk sometime in the middle of the show, to try out different angles (you can walk from one side of the organ to the other) and out¬†of sheer pleasure of¬†strolling and listening to live music at the same time. For a while people kept the “windows” open for ventilation. Good idea, as towards the end of the opera it had started to get stuffy. I don’t know if the people in the Arena could hydrate but I was glad I could.

The downside was the muffled singing, but I’d say Nina Stemme was in good voice. I could even catch some of the softer singing on occasion and when she particularly projected there was no problem hearing her at all. Considering it was a concert performance (with some stage direction thrown in) she was very into it, as was Doris Soffel as Herodias in a satisfyingly evil red… dressing gown. Samuel Youn as Jokanaan also made a good impression even from half a mile away. I guess it’s not easy playing an overly hormonal teenager at 51 but Stemme wasn’t bad, especially when she made her entrance (she skipped onto the stage I’d say). Youn, in turn, stumbled. It wasn’t clear if he was doing it for the art or for real but it worked for me.

But the real treat was the very tight orchestra. With the voices turned lower I could focus on Strauss’s writing. I heard enough of his stuff by now to be able to catch favourite turns of phrase that he’d reuse or develop during his career, the way he transitioned from one mood to another, how he used the strings to support¬†the vocal line etc. The ending had all the panache you could hope for. I’ll definitely do the Gallery thing again, but I’ll invest in one of these first.


  1. There was also an Arena day ticket queue, by door 12, for those missing the rock concert feel.