2017 was a busy opera year for yours truly, with plenty local outings as well as opera trips to Italy, Austria and Germany, and a return to Glyndebourne in style (3 out of 4 dates = sunny). I met old and new friends and even ran into a certain contralto on the street 😉 And then there was the Summer of Tito. Plus a couple of duds and misses… 😉
A woosh of dread went through the packed hall when an announcer came out, so strong I thought it would push her back to where she’d come from.
Announcer: No, no, no, everything is fine. All I wanted to say is that JDD had a respiratory infection last week but she is much better tonight. Enjoy the evening!
Frenetic applause and a general sigh of relief. More applause when Pappano came out (there normally are, but these were extra jaunty).
Let’s start with the conclusion: thank you Pappano and all. You convinced me this is truly a great opera and I wish it made its way back into the repertoire so we can hear/see it more often. Rossini outdid himself here. It’s got it all somehow melded into a whole: his playfulness, his expertise with the opera seria formula, lots of innovation and the great tunes never stop.
One of the great things about it is that Rossini knows how to write for the voice and won’t let the orchestra intrude but he has also written excellent instrumental parts. Also peppering the score with ensembles and keeping the choir active really makes a difference in regards to pacing (always fresh).
However, it most likely needs a great team – top singers and a very intelligent conductor. An insightful production doesn’t hurt. It really is shortchanged when the focus is on noodling runs of coloratura or if the conductor thinks the drama needs too much push. Pappano trusts Rossini and focused on bringing out all the inventive details, which are a pleasure to hear. His voice-orchestra balance was optimal.
Compared to the 25th it was like this: Arsace and Semiramide’s act II duet = best moment of the night (and not just in my opinion either. My seatmate dubbed it “fantastic!”, lots of applause and shouts etc. and some teary eyes from me). I just wanted it to go on and on (and luckily Rossini knows a good thing, so, as most duets here, it’s quite long). I still think Ah, come mai quell’anima is the more beautiful duet but this is wonderful, especially with Barcellona and JDD who work together so well. Have a listen to how they sounded in Munich earlier this year (imo, not nearly as good. I actually don’t like that recording and I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before going. I had to agree with the commenter who heard JDD off pitch a lot of the time. Esposito came off majorly bland of tone (to me, who am not his greatest fan to begin with). The duet is beautiful, though).
Brownlee (still no ping, from the lower slips in the auditorium) had some of the most amazing floated notes I’ve ever heard in Ah dov’è il cimento? Seriously, that stuff was staggering, to the point I had to remember where my loyalties lay 😉 cue in severe shaking from Azema1 and that quip about how if she didn’t think Arsace was the biggest hero in the world she’d totally go for Idreno. Don’t listen to his 2013 rendition found on ‘tube as it’s vastly inferior. Sadly it seems to be his only rendition on youtube.
His interaction with JDD in the act I finale, where everybody was trying to come to terms with the appearance of Nino’s ghost was acoustically interesting: his lines were louder than hers but this appeared deliberate, giving a very welcome depth to the sound. However his act II aria saw surprising ups and downs in concentration, which makes this performance one of the most curious I’ve witnessed.
Pertusi’s pre-mad aria recit was again his strongest moment – he’s really good at that kind of thing, vivid and credible. Also he had many very Verdian flashes through the night (and I mean that in a good way. Philip II was calling?). JDD did sound (even) more cautious with the very highs and I think I remember a moment where the sound came out a bit unfocused but other than that she was as strong and committed as usual.
Now that I could focus more on things other than the immediate impact, I thought Arsace spends a lot of time in the lower recesses of the mezzo voice, so perhaps this is a reason VK never sang it (as her voice is darker rather than low, where Barcellona’s is both dark and solidly low). I’m now compelled to hear Hallenberg’s take again. I also had time to realise I’ve been spending so much time listening to Baroque specialists that even a little – understandable – vibrato throws me a bit (Barcellona and Pertusi). I won’t fault them, of course, but it was interesting to see how little JDD uses in comparison. Come to think of it, Brownlee did the same. Unless he has the type I don’t catch. Might be an issue of American vs Italian style?
The choir was (I think) better this time, thought the beginning of the opera still posed challenges.
She may be wicked but she is my mother
Arsace as a character is a bit underdeveloped for contemporary sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, he’s given a pony 😉 I’ve noticed this thing in pre mid-19th century opera (though, come to think of it, heroes continue to be rather intellectually fluffy (see all Wagner)), where we have supposedly accomplished warriors/strategists act very naively in private matters. They are also way too young for those military accolades. Something’s got to give, eh, and that is usually intelligence.
As per libretto Arsace is characterised by being brave (commander of the Babylonian army at the tender age of… about 25, I’d say), dutiful (rushes back to headquarters when Semiramide calls and is unwaveringly on her side even before he learns she’s his mother) and very much in love (his entrance aria reminisces about how he saved Azema from marauders and then their eyes met = opera love).
All of a sudden he’s hit with major existential questions, which he is ill equipped to answer. Then again, who of us would have an easy time with a mother who wants to marry us and who has also, incidentally, offed our father? Plus the realisation that we’re next in line as the country’s top honcho? All of these revelations in one day, the same day we were merely supposed to announce our wedding (to someone else than the mum)! Barcellona is very good at portraying the youthful hero with all his youthful imaturity mixed with the earnest desire to do the right thing by everyone. I have cats to hug when things get weird, why shouldn’t Arsace have a pony? I also see that moment as his return to his childhood room, with the pictures and the toys one’s parents keep in the attic (or spare room).
The ending is rather poignant, with the hacked to death Semiramide reaching wordlessly (a victory for realism! thank you, Rossini) towards her son and Arsace’s duty tragically winning over love in grand opera seria style, as he ascends the stairs to the throne and glory. For his unexpected ascension to top honours he looks shattered so who knows che mai sarà.
Singing-wise, Barcellona was the picture of understated poise, with excellent stamina and that beautiful lyric tone needed for best results in belcanto trouser roles.
So now that this first ever ROH run is over I can’t wait until they revive it 😉 hopefully with a similarly strong cast and Pappano (or someone else who can do Rossini justice on this level).
- Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). ↩
ROH hasn’t seen Semiramide staged in over 100 years but it’s good they did it now, when they have a Rossini-appreciative conductor in the house and such an exceptional team of Rossinians to sing it. It’s the most expensive production of the season but it’s definitely worth it musically. Dramatically I guess I’m not an Alden fan but it’s not a stupid staging either. I just thought more (or prettier) could’ve been done to match the singers’ skills and commitment to the drama.
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Assur: Michele Pertusi
Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee
Oroe: Bálint Szabó
Azema: Jacquelyn Stucker
Mitrane: Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Royal Opera House Choir and Orchestra
co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper
This is “another modern staging” that places the action amidst a moment of acute power vacuum within a dictatorship – with good reason, Babylonia wasn’t a shining example of enlightened democracy (not that we should be talking).
The story is wonky enough: even though Nino, the former North Korean style dictator, here referenced by a giant statue and apparently Trump-like family portraits, has been dead for 15 years, it is only now that a new – read: male – leader is needed. It appears that so far Semiramide (his widow) and Assur’s (descendant of Baal, so Mr Macho) regency has been good enough. Or perhaps this is just heavy foreshadowing/convenient plot device.
Nino and Semiramide’s son Ninia has secretly survived his infancy and has gained a reputation for himself by rising to the position of commander of Semiramide’s army, under the (Scythian) name of Arsace. It seems like Assur has not been careful enough when sweeping his path to power.
It’s the ancient world so rituals and the mysterious (ie: vague, confusing) will of gods are par for the course. Alden indulges adequately. Knee crawling and extensive “praise the gods” genuflecting from the choir pepper the duration of the opera. Agathe observed that it’s even more exaggerated than in Munich, so perhaps it’s intentionally made to appear ridiculous. I for one did not, in any case, get a feeling that Alden has any spare affection for this world.
The best quip is Azema’s completely constricting (albeit technically very accomplished) golden dress. Her constant facial expression of defeat brings out the straitjacket feel induced by the hampering overlong sleeves. Usually carried to and fro (like a sack of potatoes) by a male attendant (she seems to be needed everywhere, although it is never clear why, as she barely has a voice, mostly to express dissatisfaction with her lot1; perhaps to make up the quota of women at the court), she is at some point placed on a cordoned off plinth, with Idreno agitating around like a blood hound. I liked Bachtrack reviewer‘s comment that she looks like an
Grammy Oscar statuette, considering her suitors (Assur, Idreno and “lucky” winner Arsace) engage in what was in 1823 – and possibly still today, in certain circles – a singing contest.
Though, to be fair, the way Rossini is sung here is as far removed from showcasing fireworks as anything I’ve seen. Not that the singers don’t cover all that, because they all do with lots of skill and style, but because the focus is staunchly placed on conveying a believable drama to contemporary audiences. We have come a very long way from the ’80s. This a 3 1/2 hour opera and I didn’t flag once. A great accomplishment by all – less so by the choir, who had some issues keeping up with Pappano and Rossini, something both Agathe and I noticed, so it’s not just me always finding fault with
them something 😉
I really enjoyed Pappano’s supple and lucid conducting and the precision with which the orchestra responded to him. It’s late, more through-composed Rossini, but Pappano didn’t make it unnecessary loud and kept the drama under control. It’s still Rossini and you can still smile at jaunty tunes at dramatic moments. I was also pleased to notice the germs of “angsty soliloquies” later developed by Bellini and mastered by Verdi – at moments when the main characters have scenes which combine tuneful lines with more recit-based passages – ariosos? I’m not sure they were still called that into the 19th century – and even include “distant sounds of the city”.
JDD did a tour de force with Semiramide. He interactions with both Pertusi’s Assur (he’s an old school bad guy but a convincing one) and Barcellona’s youthful, conflicted Arsace brought out a very well rounded, strong woman, who tries and fails to reconcile outward personal ambition with an inward sense of right and wrong and sort out different kinds of love/attraction. A busy day, indeed. Though a subject well explored in the 18th century, it is perhaps no surprise that this heroine found her strongest voice in the 19th century, the one where female leads aren’t supposed to win.
I’m not saying that offing your husband should be given a pass if you beat yourself up for it for 15 years or if you then defend your child with your life but such is the scarcity of women with agency in opera that one finds it hard not to side with her – especially the unsentimental way JDD plays her. I felt from the getgo that Semiramide was ready to meet her fate whatever the costs but she was optimistic that things would turn out right in the end. Regardless of what she did that one time 15 years ago, she seems to want to right things now – get rid of dictator in waiting Assur and secure the throne for upright hero Arsace. Of course her motives are complex but that’s what we like in our fictional heroe(ine)s.
For his part, Arsace appears like a decent sort, law abiding to a fault and the opposite of a politician. He’s also, for someone who presumably grew up in the saddle and has seen a serious amount of combat, eyebrow-raisingly naive. At first Semiramide uses subtlety when pursuing him but he only gets it when she corners him cougar-style in her nightgown. Ok, battle experience does not prepare one for being chased by a woman that someone has a lot of respect for and sees as outranking him. But still, he seems young (Barcellona’s channeling Tancredi); no wonder Alden gives him a stuffed pony to remember his childhood by (he also has some unexplored issues regarding family).
The two most dramatically impressive moments for me were when Semiramide tells Assur that she would gladly renounce the throne for her child, were he to be found alive (after a conversation where Assur implies that she too has been power mad) and her desperate chase for an embarrassed Arsace. JDD portrays a moving mother-Semiramide which only makes the later scene that much more sad and tragic.
JDDs duets with Assur and Arsace were the most moving vocally. I loved the gentle way she delivered her lines in the duet where she and Assur are in bed (and he just provides long sustained vocal backing), and the very fine way she interacted/echoed the orchestra. Her second act duet with Arsace was lovely for the unassuming way JDD and Barcellona meshed their voices (mezzo-mezzo duets = ❤ ) and made the moment of mother and son reconciliation simple and moving. Agathe remarked that so late in the opera there is nothing for the singers to prove; I welcomed it as I enjoyed the consistent commitment to exploring the drama at the expense of needless showing off.
Brownlee’s Idreno and Pertusi’s Assur were less developed – and both were meant to come off as unpleasant but no less vocally accomplished. Brownlee got his shorter aria back (it was axed in Munich) and got deserved applause come curtain time (and before; most arias did). He doesn’t have JDF’s piercing wail at the very top but I don’t know that we’re poorer for that. His tone is very handsome and the voice has just the right flexibility for Rossini, no wonder he’s made his name in this repertoire. He comes off as a nice chap in interviews but here he managed to infuse Idreno with an amount of entitlement disguised as passion for Azema that reminded me of an annoying wasp.
I understand Pertusi was unwell during the premiere but everything was fine on Saturday. I hadn’t heard him before but I enjoyed his tone and elaborate skills, especially in Assur’s act II mini mad scene when Assur is hallucinating about Nino’s return. Agathe mentioned that in Munich, Esposito had acted this mad scene in such a strong manner that she hadn’t even realised just how beautiful the music was. I was quite impressed with the complexity of vocal emotion Pertusi used for this mad scene.
Out of the smaller roles I liked Szabó’s tone a lot – very easy on the ears and nicely solid singing. His dramatic skills were good, too.
There was a feeling of everyone on stage knowing that they are part of something special and behaving accordingly, with congenial help from Pappano and the orchestra. A highly enjoyable performance and a wonderful showcase of Rossini’s complex skills. During the evening I started thinking I’d like to see it again and I’m pleased to report I just managed to secure a reasonably priced second ticket this late in the game 😀 Everyone who likes great singing, try to go. The surprisingly good news is you can luck out on a return at any time (only two days ago the cheap available seat situation looked dire).
Agathe and I got tickets on the Stalls Circle left, because she knew from Munich that was the best position for the “important action” (Arsace and Semiramide singing directly at us; Barcellona’s dark, gently heroic tone caused Agathe to be on the verge of passing out 😉 several times during the evening). We were only a few feet away from the stage also with a good view of the orchestra/Pappano. There was a bit of muffle for the ppps but only in the sense of lack of ping across the board, which we supposed would not be the case from the auditorium (I’ll get back to you on that next week, especially re: Brownlee). Otherwise we heard it all in all its glory (though I had a blocked ear which caused me to strait during act I; it finally popped by the end of act I) and a badass evening it was 😀
We spent the – clear but very cold for London – day walking about central London and catching a truly beautiful sunset from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Out of fangirl anxiety we arrived one hour early at ROH and spent time chatting in the very cosy amphitheatre lobby (ROH is in the midst of major refurbishing). I don’t shower ROH with enough praise but it’s got a lovely lobby area design – grand but not overly so; you’ll soon relax – and the ushers have once again been super accommodating. Agathe commented that the applause wasn’t quite as mad as in Munich but I thought by Stalls Circle standards it was warm indeed. In spite of the cold weather there was minimal coughing, too.
- Or, somewhat confusingly, how much Idreno’s first aria has moved her, and she’d think twice about his (very aggressive) attentions if only Arsace wasn’t the love of her life. This can be a very funny moment, though I’m not sure that’s how it’s played here, in spite of the fact that this is Rossini. By funny I mean if it’s played as a comment on the tenor’s singing skills and the relationship between star singers and their fanbase. But then it’s mixed with what today is glaringly read as a lack of agency (not one aria for her) when she’s at the centre of the entire sublot and things become funny har har. ↩
Now that we’re nearing the end of 2017, 2016 memories have started to take firmer shape.
Three productions had a profound impact on yours truly this year: ENO’s Akhnaten and ROH’s The Nose and Oedipe. Hard to miss that all of them are 20th century operas. Perhaps they just lend themselves a lot better to contemporary takes. Also, to apparently fresh takes, as none is particularly often performed. The thrill of the lesser spotted is its own reward.
Becoming who you are
Akhnaten the opera is, for me, a great example of an intelligent way of dealing with a subject (apparently) alien to our contemporary sensibilities. Our sources of understanding are 2000 years of Christianity, the Curse of the Pyramids, National Geographic aesthetics and Tutankhamen as pop culture symbol. The assertion of the self resonates through centuries.
The Nose is comedy in its purest sense. Laughing – letting go of words – is letting go of rationality (= identity). We laugh at something when it becomes absurd and words to describe what is happening fail us. Laughing is also an act of confidence: identity is revealed as silly self importance.
Identity as burden
Oh, poor Oedipe, he is cursed to be who he is. The terracotta living wall is visceral and primordial, sun-infused and of slithery mud at the same time.
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). ↩
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:
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).
You ever imagine Tristan and Isolde with a happy ending? No? The French did (of course they did!) and so did the Italians, even more successfully. It was 1832 and women in opera had a few more years left to be intelligent, poke fun at hackneyed stories and crucially not die by the end.
I bought this ticket wrongly and long before I knew how contralto-mad times would get. So let me make a belcanto pitstop before I get back to my German adventures.
Adina: Pretty Yende
Nemorino: Liparit Avetisyan
Dulcamara: Alex Esposito
Belcore: Paolo Bordogna
Giannetta: Vlada Borovko
Conductor: Bertrand de Billy | Chorus and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Laurent Pelly
(Co-production with Opéra National de Paris)
I missed this “much loved” production the last time it was aired but I caught it on the radio and kicked myself for missing it. This time I was determined to see it – but as cheap as possible. It was only after booking that I realised I got the second cast, at the time including Rolando Villazon. Though you might remember I got a bit googly eyed for Alexandra Kurzak during Il turco in Italia and was rather annoyed to miss her this year, I decided to see the glass half full and check rising star Pretty Yende out.
At the weekend I (half enthusiastically) mentioned to Agathe that I would be seeing Villazon on Tuesday. Well, what with not being a Villazon aficionado I don’t know when the change happened but today I noticed his name was not part of the cast.
I had no idea who Avetisyan was but he turned out to be a very welcome surprise. He’s a good singer, really looks the (dorky) part and has excellent comedic timing. In spite of the dorkiness, the man has serious stage presence. For my money he was the best actor tonight in a cast that was by no means shabby, continuously drawing laughs and not just because he had obviously learned his part (and stunts) very well. The man has a feel for the stage and is lucky to have caught our attention in such a carefully detailed production. His diction ain’t bad either. He does have to work on making his vocal performance more detailed, more personal, but I suppose that is the kind of thing that comes with experience. If he’s intelligent and has a good team to support him I think he will do very well in the future.
Yende has more of a Netrebko-type voice than what I’d expect in an ideal belcantist. Though she can pull off the trills and the top seems to come easy at her age, I imagine she will soon grow into heavier roles. It’s always interesting “getting to know” a voice for the first time live. I’d heard some stuff on zetube and couldn’t quite make up my mind. Live I liked her soft singing best, which is genuinely warm with just enough roundness. A congenial voice.
Her stage presence, in fact, is very girl-next-door (and she and Avetisyan made a very cute village couple). She sort of reminded me of Veronique Gens as Dona Elvira – a bit (or perhaps way) too nice for the role. At the beginning we need to be unsure of Adina’s feelings or to laugh with her at Nemorino. She’s the local landowner so she can’t be too chummy with Nemorino from the getgo. It might be part of the production but I felt Yende’s Adina was just another girl in the village, gently teasing Nemorino and getting girlishly sulky when he’s pretending not to care for her.
Though her soft singing has quite a bit of character (the emotion came through), she tended to be more abstract in the coloratura and when deploying the very top – neither of which were unpleasant on the ear, mind. Maybe next time she convinces me that coloratura isn’t just there to wow the audience with pure technical skill.
This is the kind of production where even the baddies are lovable. Bordogna was quite the bufoon as the self satisfied Sargent Belcore. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Esposito and by far the most pleasant. He must enjoy singing in an undershirt, as I think this is probably the third time I see him in one. It’s neither an opera nor a production interested in commenting on consumerism and public gullibility, so his Dulcamara is simply amusing, the way he keeps popping up and tying his magic potion to everything that works well.
Dulcamara: hello everybody, I’m Dr Dulcamara and I came up with that magic potion that works on everything from bedbugs to constipation, you may have heard of it1.
Villagers: ooooooooooh! Hello Dr Dulcamara, can we have some of that?
Dulcamara: of course! It’s cheap too. And it can make you great in bed and rich at the same time, like Nemorino here!
Villagers: OMG, how did we live without it all this time?!
Pelly productions always have extra little somethings, and here the curtain at intermission was a giant Dulcamara advert (in Italian, which made it even funnier), with pictures and text describing various ailments cured by the miraculous drug (you can see pictures here).
De Billy and Co. did a reasonably good job. Maybe it’s my seat (horseshoe left), maybe it’s my ears, but I felt like the sound from the orchestra was particularly uniform. The flute, oboe, bassoon and harp did their job when called for solos and/or lead, with the flute faring best, though nothing to write home about. I can’t say maestro made any efforts to pick out interesting sounds from his team. Likewise the chorus, who had quite a bit to do on stage – the villagers are very present in the opera. They sounded solid and on time but aside from one instance when the male side of the chorus sprung up quite nicely they seemed satisfied with merely keeping to the rhythm. The whole thing (orchestra included) could’ve benefited from more rubato. Belcanto comedy is built on simple, hummable tunes which can sound very mechanical without a bit of imagination.
The audience loved it, laughed a lot, clapped a lot and gave the team a very warm reception. It’s a likable production, I can’t complain. The atmosphere was congenial, with my seatmates on the left jolly and relaxed as well as knowledgeable, and my seatmate on the other side not particularly knowledgeable but certainly friendly and enjoying herself. It’s great to see Londoners letting their hair down at times like these.
- The good old days when quacks prescribed placebo! Imagine if all the pill-poppers around us merely drank weak wine. ↩
I went to see Adès’ latest offering mostly on the strength of the cast. Then I thought the Bunuel connection could be interesting. Also it’s good to know what’s being written these days, although the vocal writing makes Baroque vocals sound positively natural by comparison. Pehaps this artificiality is intentional.
Leonora Palma (Dr Conde’s patient/stalker): Anne Sofie von Otter
Blanca Delgado (pianist, wife of Roc): Christine Rice
Edmundo, Marques de Nobile (party host): Charles Workman
Lucia, Marquesa de Nobile (his wife): Amanda Echalaz
Count Raúl Yebenes (explorer): Frédéric Antoun
Doctor Carlos Conde (GP/Psychiatrist): John Tomlinson
Alberto Roc (conductor): Thomas Allen
Francisco de Avila (Silvia’s younger brother): Iestyn Davies
Eduardo (Beatriz’ boyfriend): Ed Lyon
Leticia (opera singer): Audrey Luna
Silvia de Avila (young, widowed mother): Sally Matthews
Beatriz (Eduardo’s girlfriend): Sophie Bevan
Lucas (footman): Hubert Francis
Enrique (waiter): Thomas Atkins
Señor Russell (dude who dies): Sten Byriel
Colonel Alvaro Gomez (Marquesa’s lover): David Adam Moore
Julio (butler): Morgan Moody
Conductor: Thomas Adès | Royal Opera Choir and Orchestra
Ondes martenot: Cynthia Millar
Librettist/Director: Tom Cairns
Co-production with Salzburger Festspiele, Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Danish Opera
Seeing the composer himself conduct is another interesting angle. I had the kind of seat (on the right arm of the trusty horseshoe, where I’ve sat many times) from where I could see him at work. His style of conducting struck me as very clear, though what do I know? As far as sound levels he did not go easy on his singers, though the whole (wall of sound) benefitted in my ears. It’s pretty much just Sprechgesang so it’s not like you’re missing some beautiful ppp lines. That’s not to say singers didn’t indulge in dynamic variation, they did (I remember some nice work from Workman and Rice) and these were sometimes swallowed by the whole. Which was rather fitting.
It turned out Cairns’ libretto was wickedly funny.
“I slept worse than that time on the train to Nice that derailed!” and “Perhaps I’m insensitive but the fate of those squashed common people [3rd class carriage] didn’t affect me at all”. These are gems from Silvia de Avila, who also boasts “I love this oddness! I don’t like anything normal!” or words to that effect. The answer to that is “We’ve all noticed that [in reference to her overly maternal (Oedipal) relationship with her whingy/neurotic brother] but we never said anything because we’re polite!” – this by the opera singer character (soprano), Leticia Maynar, who speaks in acuti only. Luckily Luna wasn’t pingy, because she had quite a bit to say.
As you can tell from the Surrealist connection, the shadow of Freud looms large. The voice of reason is the Doctor, who is GP and Psychoterapist rolled in one. This gives him funny lines like “In 5 days s/he will go completely bald” – his answer to any medical question posed to him. But even that has a funny answer “That’s not bad, she has a very fine skull!”
The libretto offers one of the most positive portrayals of Psychiatrists I’ve seen, with the Doctor reminding everyone of the need to preserve their humanity. The day is, however, saved by the soprano, who organises a reenactment of the moment everything went pearshaped, which in turn restores order. So music fixes everything. But it also screws things up (that’s sopranos for you).
It sounds like the host’s enthusiastic/polite quip that “you can’t leave now! This is the most intimate hour!” trapped them all in his drawing room for what seemed like an eternity (sounds like most parties after about 3am). I enjoyed both sides of the conversation – with the hosts complaining about being tired or bored and the hosts – subtly – trying to get them to leave already (“Give them breakfast and they’ll leave”).
The libretto boasts astute observervations along the way, such as people’s transition from abject hunger to contradictory complaints about the cooked meat when sheep appear out of thin air. Speaking of sheep, there were live (and very docile) sheep on stage when we were allowed into the auditorium and I could only relate their presence to their connection with sleep/dreaming.
So I took this as a meditation on human condition via a “very bad trip”, from luxury to degradation and back. The Ondes Martenot (related to the Theremin) was the anchoring instrument of the evening, with its eerie, early electronica sounds. Millar played it from the left Dress Circle (the orchestra is so big it takes the entire pit, with a few instruments spilling below and above) and I had a very good view at her work and got to appreciate it.
It wasn’t an easy evening but it kept me constantly engaged, even though I had had a long (and very cold) day, which included some flitting about in the ROH vicinity, because I had time to kill and I realised I knew very little about the area beside tube station – opera house – Covent Garden Market, which all in all comprises about 200m. Because of this I had the
misfortune chance to hear a busking opera singer whose chief tool was a heavily undulating vibrato which rivaled that Martenot but completely obscured the tune of whatever he was attempting to sing shout.
The singing in the opera was more conversational but it’s still not easy for me to gauge how the singers fared. With so many characters it was initially a challenge to figure out who was who and what they were on about. It seemed like a marathon of dramatic intensity and focus rather than one of singing prowess. Everyone appeared engaged and did their thing when called for it – sometimes after long periods of not singing, though they were all stuck on stage at all times. Thomas Allen as conductor Roc had it easiest, one would say, as his character slept through most of the drama. As someone quipped, “why did Sr Russel die, why not the conductor? What difference does one conductor less make?” There were other such in-jokes in the libretto, not the least Francisco’s (I think?) reccurent cry “play us something by Adès, I implore you!” when the pianist, Blanca, regales them with a few phrases on the piano.
Dramatically, I really enjoyed the way Silvia was drawn as a character (obsessed with oddness, caricaturally overprotective of her brother + ambiguously close to him whilst potentially oblivious of Padre Sanson’s intentions towards her son, homeschooled by him. Though considering it’s her brother Francisco who voices doubts about Padre Sanson’s saintliness it was hard to tell whether she was negligent or he was paranoid. Matthews showed some top comedic timing when delivering her lines. Davies as Francisco also did a very good job acting neurotic/infantilised. Tomlinson as Dr Conde was very credible as the well intentioned “saviour of humanity”.
In conclusion, it was highly entertaining, though I think I need to see/hear it a couple of times before I can form a more coherent idea about the whole. Also seeing the original Bunuel film might help.
- Padre Sanson (Yoli’s teacher): Wyn Pencarreg | Yoli (Silvia’s son): Joshua Abrams | Pablo (cook): James Cleverton | Meni (maid): Elizabeth Atherton | Camila (maid): Anne Marie Gibbons ↩