Monday, July 21, 2008

A Rake Without Progress

Neither Stravinsky, Hogarth nor W.H Auden were best served by the new production at Covent Garden of The Rake’s Progress, first night of five shows on July 7. Robert Lépage seems to be one of those directors determined to stamp a production with his own personality rather than project that of the composer or librettist. So, here we have yet another of these ‘concept’ productions. In this case Lépage’s stated idea is to angle the opera from the point of view of the period/time during which the composer was writing; so we are in a world of 1950, of tv (flickering sets all over the stage), oil (there’s a nodding donkey in the Trulove garden – which turns into a film camera in the brothel scene – Hollywood for the moment, it’ll be Las Vegas by and by) oh! The unnecessary expense of all the gadgetry! Tom Rakewell is dressed initially as a cowboy; in the scene of Baba’s first appearance, Anne arrives in a red sports car, Baba in a sedan outside on Oscar evening-cinema exterior. In Tom’s town house there is a bubble which turns into an indoors caravan. Baba is not submerged by the usual tea cosy but in a swimming pool, later the scene of the Auction. There are some better ideas: the explosions of light when Tom shakes hands with Nick Shadow; and the way in which the coupling Tom and Mother Goose literally disappear through a hole in the bed.

But the director, for all the gimmicks, floors that up and down neon lights etc., does not add anything to the story nor bring the characters to life.

So, what of the music? Thomas Adés conducts but fails to point up the sharpness, the pathos or the tenderness in the score. The orchestra plays well, the chorus sings well but the result is dull, lacklustre. And of the voices, only John Relyea’s Nick Shadow seems truly worthy to stand and deliver on our number one operatic stage where so many great voices have been heard in the past. Sally Matthews sings her lullaby in the looney-bin beautifully softly but her louder notes do not charm, move one, or seem in focus.

Charles Castronovo’s voice for the Rake on this occasion dealt with the notes but lacked sap and projection. Patricia Bradon sang well as Baba and showed an almost totally hirsute body above a good pair of legs. Sellem, the auctioneer was badly cast, neither well sung, funny or interesting.

Stravinsky seemed pleased with the libretto but most of act two sounds as if he didn’t quite understand all the intellectual quirks and implications of the text which surely tries too hard to establish its literary credentials, too often trying to show an eighteenth century style but giving the composer some pretty unsolvable problems.


Leonard Bernstein was the all-American Mr. Music. He adored applause, he courted it, he got it and he deserved it. On form he was the top conductor, a brilliant communicator, a compelling lecturer/educator/tv talker; his ‘serious’ compositions could be heavy, over intellectual, constipated but his work in popular music fizzed and was first-class: On The Town, Wonderful Town were hits and West Side Story (1957) is one of the great works of the 20th century. His film score for On The Waterfront is a classic.

But Candide, just now having a run of fifteen performance (last one July 12) at the London Coliseum by the English National Opera, that is another matter. It has been a problem child since the start and has been subject to endless revision. The music begins stunningly with a comedy overture in the Rossini class; piquant, tuneful, irrepressible, dashing, cleverly changing tempi to pile up a climax that whets the appetite for the operetta or musical comedy to follow. And then comes a brilliant opening number with unusual tricky rhythms that Max Adrian negotiated so magically in the first London run in the fifties at the Cambridge Theatre put on by Laurence Olivier.

But from then on it’s all downhill. The score turns clever, parodies that don’t click, tunes that sag, the whole thing becomes rather boring. The book is credited to six writers, including the starry names of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim. Even Mrs Bernstein wrote one number. And the current producer, Robert Carsen, has freely adapted the mélange in a joint production with La Scala, Milan and the Châtelet, Paris. Maybe something has got lost in transit; maybe the coliseum is too darn big. But the result is stale and too cutely American for words. The rot sets in early as the ear is distracted from hearing the overture because a movie runs right through it and destorys it. The plot, derived from Voltaire’s novella, becomes tedious and the production heaps flashy Pelion on Hollywood Ossa: armies, ship decks, elaborate dance routines (Busby Berkeley, thou shouldst be living at this hour). It is no fault of the performers that the characters are cardboard caperers and do not engage our sympathy or interest. Toby Spence sings pleasantly in the title role. Anna Christy looks a treat in a pink Marilyn Monroe gown; she can hit the high C’s but lower down the staves her voice lacks focus. Alex Jennings plays Pangloss and Voltaire but lacks the spicy individuality of the beloved Max Adrian of fifty years back. Beverley Klein does her best with the crashingly tiresome Old Lady (through pleasantly reminding me of the late Caryl Brahms). Everything happens cutely on cue and I have to say the audience responded (July 4) as if it were enjoying itself.

Since there were so many revisions the writers, including Bernstein himself, he must have known that they were working on a cardboard turkey. ENO keeps on trying to earn money by putting on musicals; bums on seats maybe, but no marks for artistic excellence.

Fanciulla and Rusalka

Grange Park Opera Triumphs

Grange Park Opera in Hampshire near Basingstoke has come of age in the current season with its production of Puccini’s Fanciulla del West and Dvorak’s Rusalka. In the past good work has been done but the house style could sometimes be a bit flighty (neon lights in Thais) but not consistent in standard, but this year these performances of two operas on the verge of being in the big league are worthy of the highest praise. True, the singing in the Puccini is not of the best but the Dvorak is strongly cast. The staging is blessedly free from ‘concept’ and is played in a straight way so that, rare these days, I think the composer and librettist would still recognize their work.

Fanciulla had a propitious send-off in New York in 1910 with the two most famous singers of the day in the leading roles: Emmy Destinn as Minnie, pub-keeper in gold rush California, and Caruso, bandit in disguise, with Toscanini conducting. Yet although the opera brought in the crowds it has remained a little sister to Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly and Turandot. Why? Only one big hit of an aria, no pathetic ‘little woman’ and no tragedy could be the answer. Yet the Puccini musical thumbprints are there, sumptuous orchestration, rich harmonies and idiomatic writing for the voices (including the chorus, all male of course). Perhaps the vocal writing breaks into lyricism not enough, proceeding too often in a kind of arioso, not enough of those winning moments that touch and provoke tears.

Yet a good performance is very satisfying, as at Grange Park (I was there July 4). Rory McDonald conducted a performance that sang full of passion, colour and pace (English Chamber Orchestra).

Another ‘yet’, there were no first-class singing performances. Cynthia Makris (Finnish) the soprano looked fine, was 100% sympathetic and held the stage very well. Her top notes were clean but lower down the tone was not pure or in the middle of the note. The tenor, John Hudson, sang his notes ok but looked more like an ageing bank clerk than a bandit. I warmed more to the Icelandic baritone, Olafur Sigurdason, but Puccini didn’t give Jack Rance, the sheriff in love with Minnie, more than an arietta to sing (Ravelish), little gem though it is.

Realistic sets by Francis O’Connor and sturdy chorus singing completed the evening’s pleasure factor. The director was Stephen Metcalf.

Rusalka was even better, with a strong cast and more starry singing. The title role was consummately performed by the French soprano, Anne-Marie Duprels, the mermaid who turns into a mute human in pursuit of a Prince. Alas, he grows tired of her silence (rare to find a voiceless soprano in opera) jilts her for a Foreign Princess, changes his mind and is given the kiss of death by his fishy bride. Duprels sang, mimed and acted in positively star fashion. Her merman father, Clive Bayley, matched her excellence. Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts was a portly Prince with a sympathetic face and a fine voice (they all sang in Hampshire Czech). Anne-Marie Owens was good, too, doling out her magic potion as a perfect bitch of a witch whilst Janis Kelly was fine and every inch the other Woman/Foreign Princess.

Stephen Barlow conducted the ECO in a reading instinct with power, passion and poetry. Dvorak was just coming up to 60 when he composed this opera in 1900. The music is supremely competent, rich in sound (bass clarinet and double bassoon help with that) even if it does not plumb the depths of feeling like Dvorak’s orchestral master-pieces. The production and design by Anthony McDonald was imaginative, could scarcely be bettered.

Grange Park Opera takes place in an opera house next to a partly derelict Palladian villa set in rolling country-side. It is the creation of Wasfi Kani a conductor turned wizard fund raiser. She will have a job keeping up this standard (but I bet she will succeed). In 2009, she promises Norma, Senta, Eliogabalo (that’s a difficult one!) and a Cunning Vixen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Opera At Its Best

Don Carlos at Covent Garden 12.10.58

From ’The Scotsman’ (

“To mark the centenary of the opening of the present Royal Opera House in Covent Garden a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlos was given on Friday night.

A magnificent cast has been assembled to give the work in Italian, with Luchino Visconti and Carla-Maria Giulini , the most renowned producer and conductor in Italy today. No expense has been spared to make this new offering a celebration worthy of the occasion.

On many similar occasions when such an effort is made, with all the stops pulled out, the result falls short of expectation. But this presentation of Don Carlos exceeds hope, and is nothing short of magnificent. There have been, since the Opera House reopened after the last war, comparable musical experience – notably Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier, Wozzeck, and Elektra, Beecham’s Meistersinger, Kubelik’s Jenufa and Kempe’s Ring, but of no opera has there been any complete performance as good as this Don Carlos.

Here everything combines to give the work in all its glory: singing, orchestral playing, musical direction, acting, décor – this is opera at its best. ‘Integration’ is the word that comes to mind to describe the rare harmony between first-rate talents that have combined to give here the most complicated of art-forms a near perfect representation.

Never have I seen such good use made of the big Covent Garden stage; each of the seven sets is a beautiful sight in itself and completely right in the context. Visconti has not only produced the opera, but also designed, with the help of two assistants, these sets and the fine costumes. He is perhaps better known as one of the foremost Italian film directors, but he shows himself now as a masterly operatic producer.

The opera – written in 1866, preceding Aida – is a long one, for Verdi sets himself the task of working out the many conflicts in Schiller’s drama of the court of Philip II of Spain: Catholic Spain opposed to Protestant Flanders, the liberal Rodrigo to autocratic State, King to Grand Inquisitor, and also the frustrated love between Don Carlos and the Queen, his intended bride who becomes his stepmother instead, owing to a change of State plans.

Verdi succeeds in his task and creates six substantial parts for singers: six genuine operatic characters of considerable depths. The score has many fine things in it, but the quality is not even; individual numbers do not always sustain otherwise excellent scenes and the promise of the opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau is not made good until after the big auto-da-fé scene in the third act. In the opening scene of Act IV occurs the extraordinary scene between King and Grand Inquisitor, two basses, followed by several numbers, including a quartet, that are amongst Verdi’s very finest creations.

The singing reached a high level; Boris Christoff, as the King, gave a performance that combined dramatic power with musical refinement; Gre Brouwenstijn, as the Queen, sang with more warmth and beauty of tone than hitherto; Tito Gobbi was in excellent voice and made a convincing Rodrigo; Jon Vickers both sang and acted with more subtly than would have been suspected from his past performance; and Marco Stefanoni was suitably dark-voiced for the Inquisitor. Fedora Barbieri had the misfortune to catch a frog in her throat in ‘Don Fatale’, impeding a performance that was anyhow not in the same class as her colleagues.

But the performance was dominated by the conducting of Giulini. Here was the complete realisation of the score in what was easily the finest Verdi that London has heard for many a long year.”

Hindsight: Even forty years later I still think that this Don Carlos was the best thing I ever saw on the operatic stage, the most completely integrated performance including all aspects; conducting, singing, acting, production, sets. Part of the secret of its success was, I believe, due to the fact that the designer/producer Visconti and conductor Giulini attended every stage rehearsal. Giulini at this stage of his career was at his most dedicated and passionate.

However, I have modified my view of the work in as much as I can now appreciate that the three duets at the end of act two are a marvellous dramatic feat even if the Posa-Philip one, despite endless revisions by Verdi, does not contain the beauty and depth of the act four wonders.

After Giulini, nothing can eclipse his total realisation of its strength, emotional pull and mastery. Pappano gets near but lacks the ultimate, quite how I find it difficult to say. Chorus and orchestra gave their worthy best. And Nicholas Hytner’s production is spot on.

Roland Villazon’s tenor rings out superbly, he is as neurotic as hell and taking vocal risks all the time – can he keep it up at this intensity? Marina Poplavskaya was truly adequate as the Queen without revealing any strong character in the voice. Simon Keenlyside was pure gold, bold, sympathetic and papering over the cracks in the role of Posa, political ardour and impulses not being the best weapons in Verdi’s armoury, sincere and motivated though he was. The Tebaldo of Pumeza Matshika was the best Tebaldo the page that I have seen, Sonia Ganassi was not, though it must be said that this role has seen many an Eboli stumble, the role is a Beecher’s brook. Ferruccio Furlanetta’s voice is not the most beautiful but his artistry is very fine (wonderful legs too!) He was the only Italian to appear (as the King) in this Italian sung version.

All in all it was a pleasurable, powerful evening (11 June) devoted to Verdi’s sprawling masterpiece, when the performance was obviously more trouble- free than the first night.