Sunday, June 14, 2009


Cavalli in Hampshire

First performance in England (Grange Park Opera, June 6) of one of forty or so operas by Cavalli. Who he? Pier Francesco Cavalli 1602-76, probably a pupil of Monteverdi and certainly his successor as Master of the Music at St. Mark’s, Venice. Glyndebourne did his L’Ormindo and La Calisto in hepped-up versions by Raymond Leppard some time ago. This one, Eliogabalo was composed in 1668 but apparently not performed until 331 years later, in Italy. Should we all rush to see the second production? Perhaps.

And who was Heliogabalus? He was a Roman Emperor and extremely bad news; he didn’t fiddle while Rome burned but he was just as wicked while he lived; which was not long; he was murdered in AD222 at the age of just eighteen. The opera is a tangled web mainly concerning three couples, the tangling not unknotted because of gender-bending. Heli (for short) was written for a castrato but since docking is not popular now it was sung at Grange by a female soprano (Renata Pokupic), likewise his military opponent, Alessandro (Julia Riley). The plot sickens with Heli’s nanny Lenia, sung by the tenor Tom Walker (better legs than most nannies); and so it goes on, a regular la ronde of sexes, lovers, mistresses both carded and discarded.

Cavalli’s music is very much of its time, a time when operas were only just beginning to be more than plays with continuous music. If any action there be, it occurs in recitative; there follows sometimes an aria or an arioso, dwelling on the emotion set up in the recit.; love, hate, jealousy, aggression or what have you. There is some comedy aboard, a couple of good numbers on a recurring bass, occasionally a concerted number, rarely a chorus. Alas, Cavalli does not possess the divine spark that Monteverdi’s music has, it rumbles on agreeably but, as a navy man might say, there are not enough shots in his locker. There is a lot of monotony because the various gambits of melody and harmony are not varied enough. Mind you, most of the singing was good and so was the ‘authentic’ orchestra with some nice trumpets, sackbut’s in plenty, harpsichord, harp and those forebears of the double-bass, theorbos whose long necks protrude from the pit like periscopes. Christian Cumyn was the conductor keeping things lively and timely.

I think the voices were miked and the vocal level was formidable. Staging and lighting were highly professional. The director/designer David Fielding had opted for updating (to about 1980) and a jazzy approach. Thus we had a car and a motor-bike on stage, a lift, scenes in a washroom (very mod. Con.) and playboy bunnies rabitting about. Good legs seemed as much a pre-requisite as a good voice.

A good section of the audience (full house) seemed well pleased with the whizzy-dizzy show but some of us were starved of memorable music. Heli was the second offering this season of Grange Park Opera (nr. Winchester) whose season opened with Norma and will continue until August with Flying Dutchman, The Cunning little Vixen and Rigoletto. The venue is a partly crumbling Palladian-type mansion set in glorious Hampshire countryside. Mérite un détour.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


There was booing at the close of Covent Garden’s latest new production Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, provoked by a staging that was a no-no, no furniture, no décor but screens, and a singer in the title-role without projection, charm or lustre; and a cast not permitted to make gestures. The singing however was spot-on and the orchestral playing, under music director, Antonio Pappano, was very fine.

The producer/director (I was there for the first of the run, June 4) was Christof Loy who writes in the programme book: “…my recent productions have been increasingly minimalist, aesthetically and gesturally.” Ouch!

But the orchestra in Lulu is gestural in the extreme, like a sea of seething emotions, sensual, some would say erotic. Yet the performers on stage were hamstrung, with no furniture, no props, and no gestures. The three male corpses were not allowed to stay dead; after some minutes they got up and walked off the stage! And the protagonist, Lulu herself, was miscast. No doubt the music staff checked on her voice, that she was capable of coping with Berg’s demands, her music covers a big range from bottom C to the stratosphere. Fine. The Swedish soprano, Agneta Eichenholz, was up to the mark in this respect. But did the staff find out if she could portray this femme fatale – she is too mature to be called a sex kitten, she is more like a sex cat – and could she convince us that she was so wildly attractive to men that they would die in the attempt to possess her? I think not. Without these qualities Lulu can even become boring, especially if drably dressed in a production that lacked suitable realism.

So we had a situation in which the singing and playing was outstanding but the behaviour on stage thoroughly unconvincing.

Within these limits the cast did its best, in particular Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa, Michael Volle as his father Dr. Schön, and Jennifer Larmore, the faithful lesbian Grafin Geschwitz (now she was sexy all right!)

Poor Alban Berg; he died in 1935 at the age of fifty as the result of a sting (where the bee sucked, there died Berg). He had completed the vocal score of the final act but not orchestrated it. Friedrich Cerha finished it off. What Berg did complete was an orchestral suite in six movements which personally I find more satisfactory than the opera itself. And I have a hunch (unconfirmed) that Berg composed first the accompaniment, the orchestral part of the opera and then added the vocal parts. Because the balance is often faulty, the voices often muddy, the texture preventing the music from projecting its full emotional force, with its slithering strings, sexy saxophone, trenchant piano chords and sensual harmonies.

Also, the plot is difficult to follow on stage, these are so many characters, some without sufficient dramatic substance. And the third act is too long. (Isn’t Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, superior, a true masterpiece, convincing in a way that Lulu is not, despite its many gorgeous moments of iridescent, orchestral, marvels?)

What a shame that the careful and loving vocal and orchestral preparation of Berg’s final work was let down by a wilful and surely wrong-headed stage director!


Donizetti had obsessions. Including one with the United Kingdom? Beside Roberto Devereux, which opened the Holland Park Opera season in London on June 2 (I was there), he composed Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and Emilia di Liverpool (which opens, you may remember ‘among the mountains near Liverpool’) not forgetting Rosamunda d’Inghilterra; that is; six Brit venues out of his seventy or so operas. Roberto was composed in 1837 when its composer was forty years of age, with another eleven years of life to go in his sad life and unique death (which I’ll come to later). The venue of the première was the San Carlo in Naples and Donizetti wrote to his publisher; “it is not for me to tell you now how it went. I am more modest than a whore: therefore I should blush. But it went very, very well. (They also called out the poet).” Ronzi di Begnis who played the part of Queen Elizabeth had a great success; and so did Majella Cullagh, the Irish soprano, at Holland Park. In fact, she triumphed. An impressive stage presence, she sang superbly, coping with the wide range and florid coloratura, her emotions and tones covering the gamut from tender to ferocious. Donizetti repaid her by giving her the best music, particularly the duets with Roberto of the title-role, a fluent and most capable tenor (the programme’s biography lists venues and appointments but, as so often, fails to tell us nationality). Yvonne Howard gave a good account, vocally and histrionically, of Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham, who is Roberto’s love (this opera grants Roberto no wife, as he had in reality). The music for the duets of Sara and Roberto are not nearly of such good quality as those of Roberto and the Queen.

There is banality sometimes in the music but the arias are good and the finale of act two is wonderful music, chorus included; once or twice Donizetti lets rip in a thrilling and passionate way. Richard Bonynge (mispelt in the programme) conducted a tidy performance that showed love and respect for the score. There are some interesting bits of scoring; woodwind introductions, dramatic use of trombone and side-drum. Our national anthem is briefly quoted in the prelude – but nobody stood up.

The season at Holland Park goes on until mid-August and the operas to be performed are: Hansel and Gretel, La Bohème, Orpheus in the Underworld, Un Ballo in Maschera and Kát’a Kabanová.

Lindsay Posner’s direction was free of ‘concept’ and tricks, thoroughly circumspect, frankly on the dull side. Adam Cooper was named as chorographer but was little in evidence. Costumes satisfactory.

It was a most enjoyable evening and the audience, graced by the presence of the conductor’s wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, responded with generous applause.

Donizetti’s death: apparently the composer was something of a sexual athlete – preferring trios to the more conventional duos; in his final mental and physical decline he indulged in onanism to such a degree that he died as a result. He might be said to have died by his own hand.

Dame Joan Sutherland and Holand Park Directors