Monday, July 26, 2010


Richard Strauss’s last fling at opera was premiered in the dark time in 1942 in Munich, when Germany was in distress and was still causing distress elsewhere. It was also a time of distress for many Germans, not least Strauss, at 78 a world figure but in trouble with the Nazis.

All his life he had tried hard to avoid politics but, being so famous, politics would not avoid him. He feared for the safety of his Jewish loved ones. The Nazis used him and his name when it suited them; eventually they dismissed him and his music as altvaterisch (old fashioned); also he had collaborated with Jewish writers.

As often before, Strauss tried to brush unpleasant things aside, so his 1942 Capriccio looks back to a long gone century for a conversation piece about words and music, which comes first? The plot, if you can call it that, posits a beautiful countess who has two suitors, a poet and a composer. The cast also includes a theatre director, an actress, a dancer, two Italian singers, a prompter and some scene shifters. The idea originally came from the (Jewish) author Stefan Zweig who committed suicide the year of the opera’s premiere. The conductor Clemens Krauss wrote the text of Capriccio in conjunction with Strauss himself; Krauss conducted the first performance and was uniquely rewarded with the dedication of the work (catch Verdi or Puccini doing a similar thing!).

The opera has notable highlights: the prelude played by a string sextet (some premonition here of the masterpiece Metamorphosen), the composer’s sonnet, the Italian singers duet (harking back to Rosenkavalier), a gorgeous intermezzo with horn obbligato, before the soprano’s solo final scene composed in Strauss’s typical D flat lush style. There are also two ensembles of complication, tricky to sing and not setting the world on fire. Some critics have called Capriccio the composer’s finest opera, above the claims of Elektra and Rosenkavalier (discuss?)

This latest addition to the repertory of the Grange, rapidly becoming a rival to Glyndebourne, is more that satisfactory if less than memorable. Stephen Barlow conducts it very well and the large cast is fine with Roderick Williams excelling as the Poet, Stewart Cale as the composer and Matthew Best as the Director. Despite accurate singing, skilled Susan Gritton lacks the cream and the charisma that the part requires. She is the wife, as it happens, of the director Stephen Metcalf who does a first-class and imaginative task in a dowdy set by Francis O’Connor. In the non-singing role of the Dancer Bryony Perkins contributes an enchanting droll cameo, eccentric and zany.

Capriccio is a work for connoisseurs of Strauss and it seemed to please many connoshers in the Grange audience (July 2).


Covent Garden is on a high forgetting the daft Aida there have been three outright winners in Turco in Italia, La Fille du Regiment and now Manon. Bravo, Pappano, bravo Padmore. Keep it up!

In his early forties Jules Massenet added to his earlier success with Manon, seventy performances in the first year, 1884, Paris. He had built his reputation on rather lachrymose religious dramas although he once said he didn’t believe in all that ‘creeping-Jesus stuff’. Funnily enough that was the public’s name for him. Apparently each night of a performance he crept round to the box-office to check the takings. The takings were good for the most part for twenty years. Until Pelléas came along and tastes changed.

Manon’s world is the second empire in this sumptuous no expense-spared production by Laurent Pelly (the cost fortunately shared with three other opera houses). The magnificent costumes and sets breathe the very atmosphere of the demi-monde, Renoir and the grandes horizontales. Manon herself is a “mixture of demureness and vivacity, of serious affection but meretricious preferment” – as Kobbé’s Opera Book succinctly puts it. She ruins the religiously – inclined Des Grieux but dies repenting in his arms.

Darling of the operatic public, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko really takes the stage in the title role, fine voice (perhaps a little too powerful sometimes), but she bulls eyes with her acting, her beauty and the way she wears Pelly’s gorgeous gowns like a denizen of the catwalk. Massenet had many good qualities as a composer, not the least his ability to characterize his heroines with a skilful mix of short notes and winsome harmonies. What easy charm!

As the not yet frocked priest Vittorio Grigolo, from Arezzo, was a worthy foil/lover for this Manon, ardent, impulsive, although he didn’t make one forget the less ardent but more elegant Heddle Nash, anymore than Netrebko made one forget the superior vocalism of Victoria de los Angeles but Grigolo gave a real performance. And so did his stage father, the excellent Christof Fischesser (German for fish eater!), as the Comte des Grieux.

The whole cast, the chorus and the orchestra were on top form under the vivid, stylish Antonio Pappano. A great evening!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


“Shabby little shocker” was the famous put-down by an American critic, a view not shared by the thousands that enjoy Puccini’s Tosca every year, an opera perennially in the top dozen of any house in the world (except Bayreuth), enjoyed for its melodies, its compelling passionate moments and its sumptuous harmonic orchestral passages. Sardou’s story is admittedly over-melodramatic but most audiences are drawn into the predicaments of the actress Tosca and her painter lover Cavarodossi. It was Puccini’s gift in 1900 to the world and a hundred and ten years later – on 27 June – to the Grange Park Opera in Hampshire, the audience applauded vocifierously a fine performance of it.

The production by Lindsay Posner is inventive in some details but it is straightforward and non-conceptual, Peter Mackintosh’s décor likewise. Speaking personally I must have seen the opera at least ninety times but my sob-count was at least four in the first act. Gianluca Marciano abetted and carried out Puccini’s intentions with an augmented English Chamber Orchestra. Only the Te Deum that ends Act One did not have the required weight and sonority.

None of the singers looked Italian but Claire Rutter was a full-voiced and telling Florian Tosca, Peter Auty a strong, satisfying Cavaradossi. Robert Poulton’s Scarpia was a bit less than menacing and his voice lacked the thread of metal required.

With a juicy Three Oranges and a fruity Tosca, Grange Opera is having a good harvest down in the southern shires.


Prokofiev was thirty when his opera The Love for Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago at the end of 1931. So it was not the youngest Prkfv (his own abbreviation) but it has youth written all over it. He intended to shock and he succeeded. The music is wild, manic, brittle, ironic, fantastic, contains a lot of stimulating, marvellous music; and quite a lot of second-rate stuff, written, as he admitted, in a hurry. It is a director’s dream, giving him room and a need for invention and an ability to make Prkfv’s extravagant demands work. At the Grange, Hampshire (June 26) it gets what is required from the director/designer David Fielding, gets it in spades (some of the cast are dressed as playing cards). A Prince is wasting away: only if he can laugh will his depression leave him. There are some who would like him to die, others wish him to live.

When one nasty, Fata Morgana, pratt falls the Prince laughs. He also sets out on a search for the trio of citrus fruit that Fata Morgana has told him about, although she warns him that the girls released from their oranges will die if they are not immediately given water. No. Three Orange is the girl that the Prince decides is the one he wants to make Princess. Alas, she turns into a rat. All comes right for the final curtain, after futher adventures with a giant cook and members of the audience who express their wishes for fun and games, not tragedy ..

Before the premiere the composer made the best numbers from the opera into an orchestral suite; this proved a popular success, particuarly the tiny, dotty march that we all know and love. The bits inbetween the suite numbers are rather dry and recitativeish, devoid of melody. The rather thin invention of much of the opera, however gave the director his chance to beguile us with every mod. con.: gimmicks, tricks, amazing lighting effects (the ubiquitous Wolfgang Goebbel, of course). There are many characters and a large chorus, all well sung and effective.

The English Chamber Orchestra (not so chamber neither) is put through its paces under Leo Hussain. There is not much real singing but honours go to the Prince (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts), his dad the King (Clive Bayley) Truffaldino (Gozzi wrote the original story, hence Truffo, well played by Wynne Evans), the P.M. (Henry Waddington) and Fata Morgana (Rebecca Cooper).

The only under-par performance was that of the sur-titles, frequently late or non-existent.

This was a happy event for a summer’s evening.