Wednesday, October 22, 2008


October 11, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Puccini’s Bohème is revived for the 22nd time in the production by John Copley. That surely is a record of some kind. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s time sets were first seen in 1974, John was then forty-one. He still looks like a rather scruffy, mischievous urchin, full of naughtiness, adored by singers, indeed everyone he meets or works with. I mean no disrespect when I say I don’t think he has ever done a production that was epoch-making or absolutely brilliant. But then he has never done one that was less than adequate in the best sense of the word. You can rely on Copley to serve the composer and the librettist; never does he give the impression that he thinks he is more important than they are, he is not trying to make one aware of John Copley rather than the opera he is directing. He would never bring Brünnhilde on with a paper-bag over her head or Canio singing his big aria with his pants down. Seeing La Bohème in his production again brought back memories of Bohème over the years at, and even beyond Covent Garden.

Beecham; “Your Majesty, can you tell me, which is your favourite opera?”
King Edward: “Bohème”.
Beecham: “May I ask you Majesty, why”?
King Edward:”It’s the shortest.”

Maybe it is, but after two quite long intervals, the main, big curtains did not descend until twenty-past ten by which time the audience was well satisfied, even anybody seeing the opera for the first time would have a good idea of Puccini’s best-loved and most-performed work. I often say to myself that I shall give up going to opera if the day ever dawns when act four of Bohème does not make me gulp with emotion, possibly shedding a tear. And why did Puccini choose to end it with the coda of Colline’s coat arietta? But how right he was, how potent!

Marian Nowakowski (as Colline): Psst! How does it go?
Ian Wallace (as Marcello) sings Collines opening phrase which is all on one note.

Christopher Maltman seemed to sing slightly louder than anybody else and he somewhat dominated the cast with his Marcello.

But Wookyung Kim, from Seoul, showed a pleasing toner, musically and vocally satisfying (we are getting used to the continental drift where opera singers are concerned: recently in Australia Verdi’s penultimate opera was performed with a black Desdemona and a white Otello).

We wondered why Bjørling could not be bothered to pick up the key, but when his heart packed up and he died a few weeks later we realised why. At least he got through the performance in London that time. What a voice! The perfect mixture of head and chest voice with that god-given and alcohol-soaked timbre.

Hei-Kyung Hong having returned to her native land, Mimi was sung by the Greek soprano Alexis Voulgaridou (no English substitute?) and her voice and personality were more than adequate if less than memorable.

Dame Nellie was heartbroken when her favourite Rodolfo Jean de Reszke retired and she found at first that the stocky, cocky Caruso could be tiresome when he quacked a rubber duck in her face when she was a Mimi a-dying. Nor did his Schaunard appreciate it when he went to put on his hat and found that Caruso had filled it with water. But she came to like his voice!

Roderick Williams is one of my favourite artists. Whether he has a main part or, as here, Schaunard, he always gives a superb performance as regards voice, music and histrionics (he is a good composer too).

New Zealand Anna Leese was Mimi’s friend Musetta, good voice, pleasant personality without setting the Fleet River on fire.

Usually kind and generous, Dame Nellie could be bitchy occasionally as when she was standing in the wings and sang –along with Musetta, above all trying to blot out Musetta’s final top note. Yet Mary Garden, the first Melisande and not given much to praising other singers wrote that she never heard a more beautiful sound in her life than Melba’s off-stage top C at the end of act one. And Lyuba Welitsch was sensational as Musetta, the best waltz song ever, at the end of which she hurled herself like a torpedo into Paolo Silveri’s arms.

The production was straightforward, content to let the singers and the music work out Puccini’s unerring stage sense and his inexhaustible flow of stunning tunes and enchanting orchestration. Despite the pleasure of the first two acts it is the third which grips the emotions deeply, the purely operatic couldn’t-do-it-in-a-play-quarrel of Musetta and Marcello simultaneously played out with the despondent Mimi and the on-off loving care of Rodolfo. Infinitely touching. The conductor here must take credit; Christian Badea steered well, faithfully observed Puccini’s carefully designed pauses and made the death scene work.

Sir Thomas: “Mimi (Lisa Perli, the Purley queen) please don’t sit up for your dying phrases but stay lying down.”
Lisa Perli: “But Sir Thomas, I cannot give a good performance lying down.”
Sir Thomas: “On the contrary, Miss Perli, I hear you’ve given some of the best performance of your life in that position.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Which opera tugs most persistently at your heart-strings? Surely is must be Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. He hits your emotions roughly every four bars, compared perhaps with Carmen and Porgy and Bess every eight bars, Puccini every twelve, Mozart sixteen, Verdi likewise. Richard Strauss every fifty and Wagner every hundred or so – perhaps this could be a new parlour-game. Mascagni’s misfortune was that he peaked with Cav. at the age of twenty-six, never hitting the jack-pot again. One opera of his had seven simultaneous premieres around Italy and notched up seven flops, poor chap, cocky little strutter that he was.

English National Opera on September 20 let loose new productions by Richard Jones of that remarkable double-bill Cav and Pagliacci. Now Richard Jones is a hot number amongst opera directors these days. There is no one better than him (or Zefirelli) at staging crowd scenes, as we saw but his other feature is that he likes to shock, even if shock comes form Richard Jones and has little or nothing to do with the composer or the librettist. He is the director that had Brünnhilde come on with a paper-bag over her head. But his production of Cav (translated in the programme as Sicilian Revenge which is another title for what we usually call Country Chivalry was mild, why even the first snog of the evening was discreetly staged behind a row of chairs). There seemed no harm in the décor (by the ingenious Ultz) keeping us confined in a sort of shopping mall, no open air, no church, think when we speak of (Alfio’s) horses there are none, and Turiddu the no-good-boyo is killed on stage. Maybe, we thought, Jones is biding his time, leading us up the garden path for mayhem in Pag. (too right, he was). True, Turiddu pours a glass of wine into Alfio’s pocket before the customary eat-biting which in Sicily preludes a duel.

The best singing, the only first class singing of the evening, came from Peter Auty as Turiddu, his first major role I think, but surely not his last. Otherwise we had tidy singing but nothing to fill the house (one has sympathy for the singers, the Coliseum is a great barn of a place) Jane Dutton, pregnant by no-good-boyo did not compare with the great ones of the past; and her and Jones’ idea of indicating anguish was frequently to clutch at her skirt, hoiking it up. Chorus fine, orchestra roused itself but Edward Gardner would seem not to be the man for verismo. He did not stir the heart, the head or the loins. Even more thin-blooded was I Pagliacci (The clowns but the programme insisted on comedians which is way off English)

The prologue went off half-cock. The singer was bespectacled so that he looked like Arthur Askey. He sang tidily and discreetly whereas the voice here needs to be full-blooded, even fruity.

In Pag Jones let rip, showing his utter disrespect for Leoncavallo’s score; the domestic drama was turned into crude farce with doors, cupboards, and Canio actually losing his trousers for goodness sake! The combination of that and a less than good tenor resulted in his big aria, Laugh, clown, laugh being received in frosty silence instead of the usual roar of acclamation.

The result of this larking about meant that the passion and tragedy of the drama disappeared with Canio’s trousers. This was an artistic betrayal. Shame, ENO shame Richard Jones, and shame the musical director Edward Gardner for allowing this travesty to happen!

A cut-price Falstaff

Verdi’s Falstaff on the cheap must be the verdict on Pimlico Opera’s production 21 September at the Grange Opera House (near Alton, Hampshire) before embarking on a tour of seventeen towns ‘where you are) although rather daftly the programme did not mention which they are. The orchestra was small, single players of wind and brass, no mention in the programme of who boiled down the score, and only ten string players. This robbed Verdi’s last opera of its unique iridescence and its kaleidoscopic charm. Nor did the conductor Alice Fordham do much more than keep the playing tidy. Verdi’s full-blooded score sounded anaemic. There was no chorus and there were cuts, Falstaff’s lute song for instance.

So what remained? Quite a lot. Firstly there was a finely rounded title role performance from the Falstaff, David Alexander Borloz and a fruity Mistress Quickly from Emma Carrington. Verity Parker had the notes for Nanette (her last top A was a treat, but a bit of wobble lower down – a pity she was given such dowdy clothes). Alice, Ford, Meg and Fenton all sang tidily but that tidiness excluded much in the way of vocal purity, elegance or character. Tidiness is not high art.

A brick arch cunningly did for all scenes with suitable different decorations, including a rather improbable swimming pool (yes, it was modern dress) and, for some reason, different clocks for each venue, not forgetting a lift chez Ford, where the lovers hid and lights indicated that at one point it was at five floors at the same time.

Although performing at the Grange Pimlico Opera is not to be confused with its sister company, Grange Opera, which plays for a whole summer (this year superior productions of Dvorak’s Rusalka and Puccini’s Fanciulla del West). Pimlico Opera began as the brain child of Wasfi Kani who conducted (rather well) before becoming a fund-raiser and administrator of Grange Opera. I remember their Sweeney Todd in Wormwood Scrubs which was performed by a cast combining Pimlico singers and prisoners. I taped some interviews with the inmates and foolishly asked a non-musical question: ‘what’s the worst thing about prison?’ ‘No visitors.’ ‘What, no nice girl-friend comes to visit?’ ‘Well, I murdered ‘er, din’ I?’.

The Calisto Show

Submarines in the pit of the Royal Opera House? No, what at first glance looked like periscopes were in fact theorbos in triplicate, the long-necked bass instruments used in the seventeenth century. Enlightenment dawned on me, as if I didn’t know that I was going to see a matinee performance on Saturday September 27 of what must surely be the oldest opera ever to be seen in Covent Garden, La Calisto, by Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676, a man of Venice, possibly a pupil of Monteverdi), described by him as a Dramma per musica. It was the ninth show by the composer and his librettist Faustini; it premiered in 1651 in Venice and, unlike its predecessors, it was a flop. It was revived in 1970 at Glyndebourne in a version conducted and orchestrated rather lushly by Raymond Lappard. Since then it has had many stagings.

Compared with Monteverdi, Cavalli’s is a much plainer style, no stabbing harmonies of voices clashing semitonally. But the score leaves much to the imagination of ‘realizors’, much of the accompaniments are anybody’s guess and were, indeed, partly improvised here as directed by Ivor Bolton with the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Much of the prologue and two acts lasting just short of three hours is recitative, merging sometimes into arioso, sometimes merging into arias, with an occasional tutti, merging into dance music. The music is pleasant but not as vital or ‘operatic’ as ? master Monteverdi’s.

Therefore, staging, singing and playing are all important. The noises from the pit were always lively and meaningful, easy on the ear. The singing reached a high standard, led by Sally Matthews, a true soprano sounding nothing but true notes, powerful and stylish. And she looked attractive, her curves actually increased by her pregnancy. For all this, she plays a virgin determined to remain so, until at the end she is transformed, by Jove (and by Jove!) into a bear, and set in a constellation. The whole plot is mightily concerned with kissing, smooching and so on, with two pairs of lovers and a cast including one handsome shepherd and so many god and classical references that you need a Who’s Who and a What’s What in Antiquity to unravel all the complexities of the plot. Alternatively you could just look and listen.

David Alden has devoted his life to putting on this kind of show and he has worked wonders in the production with sets and costumes that positively ravish the senses. Beautiful shapes and wondrous colours assail the eyes. Paul Steinberg uses several stagehands to move his large shaped pieces around whilst Buki Shiff’s costumes are among the finest, most gorgeous and imaginative I have seen on any stage, one damn thing after another, all of them pleasing and beguiling the eye.