Thursday, 29 January 2015

Vienna Staatsoper: Khovanshchina & The Cunning Little Vixen; Theater an der Wien: Les Pêcheurs de perles

[From OPERA, February 2014, pp. 171-175]

The two new productions unveiled in the Austrian capital in the second week of November could not have been more different: a light-hearted, satirical and pop-culture-savvy Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Theater an der Wien from the young Dutch director Lotte de Beer, and a boldly austere and powerful—not to mention musically superb—Khovanshchina at the staatsoper from Lev Dodin, the long-standing director of St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre.

One of the main attractions of the Bizet (seen on the first night, November 16) was Diana Damrau’s Leïla. She gamely threw herself into De Beer’s entertaining conception of the piece, which dragged its quaint and clunky orientalist plot into the 21st century. Before the opera even started, a TV production crew came onto the stage and kicked out the Ceylon natives, tearing down their hut and erecting fake palm trees in readiness for ‘Perlenfischer: The Challenge!’—as Fin Ross’s projection luridly proclaimed onto a large, round, semi-transparent screen. The chorus was contained behind that screen, revealed during its numbers as representative groups of the TV-watching public, glued to the show in tightly-packed compartments (the set was designed by Marouscha Levy).

There were hints of The Truman Show in the way the action was manipulated by the production team, as well as echoes of half a dozen recent reality shows, with Zurga and Nadir delivering their arias to camera in a hastily-assembled booth, their super-size faces projected behind. It was all entertaining and tongue-in-cheek, and done with imagination and flair, if not always the necessary economy (videos spelling out Zurga and Leïla’s backstory were entirely superfluous). But it presented the inevitable problems, not least in a yawning chasm that developed between De Beer’s Konzept, in which scenario and emotions were presented as so manufactured and manipulated, and the opera—particularly as the latter started to get serious.

The characters, already stock and ill defined, inevitably became yet more confusing. On her arrival, for example, Damrau’s Leïla was pointedly nervous and jittery, getting ready to play her bizarre role as part love-interest, part celebrity yoga instructor. The German soprano had to deliver her first aria while demonstrating her latest yoga routine—an impressive feat, no doubt—and the voice itself was never less than beautiful, with an effective mixture of creamy allure and steely core, if not quite the all-out lyrical ease and seductiveness one might want.

As Nadir, presented as the winner of the show’s previous series, Dmitry Korchak sang with a voice that tended to harden at higher volumes, but which was beautifully flexible and honeyed in the quieter passages; the tenor delivered a meltingly lyrical account of his romance. There was less vocal allure from Nathan Gunn’s buff, slightly gruff Zurga, with the phrases often cut a little shorter than ideal. Nicolas Testé’s suave Nourabad served as the ‘presenter’ of the whole thing, merrily rhubarb-rhubarbing to camera when he didn’t have actual lines to sing. The ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played vibrantly for Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who offered an efficient, unsentimental reading of the score.

The Staatsoper’s Khovanshchina was defined by a seriousness of purpose and sense of concentration that seemed to be exactly what this great, implacable and unconsoling work demands (seen at the second performance, on November 18). The conductor Semyon Bychkov had clearly taken enormous care with the orchestra and chorus (bolstered by the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and children of the Staatsoper’s opera school) and the musical result was plain to hear: the playing was gloriously refined but also unrestrained in its primal power, the choruses controlled with the utmost dynamic precision. This was very much a case of the drama’s iron fist clad in the most velvety of musical gloves, especially so given Bychkov’s decision to go with Shostakovich’s orchestration (for the Staatsoper’s previous production, Claudio Abbado had gone for a hybrid, employing much of Shostakovich’s version but stripping away what were deemed to be un-Mussorgskian luxuries).

If the orchestral sound seemed to grow inexorably from beneath the pit, this is more or less literally what happened with the way that the drama in Dodin’s bald, unnaturalistic production was presented. Alexander Borovsky’s set arrayed the action in confined vertical planes, on a pair of gnarly, ramshackle, multi-level, grid-like structures—the bare, dark planks also gently hinting, it seemed, at poorly-made crucifixes—which rose out of the stage floor. Further characters made their appearances out of a central opening downstage. Behind all of this this stood a rough, tan-coloured wall. In an understatedly poetic touch, the grids rose up from a flat position during the prelude, returning to that position and lit to resemble glowing embers once the Old Believers had made their final descent into the stage (the atmospheric lighting was by Damir Ismagilov).

The effect each time as the massed choral ranks materialized impassively from the depths was powerfully disturbing, as was the way the principals stood alone on their own level of the structure, or separated—as was most often the case with Marfa—downstage. Occasionally it bordered on bathos, such as when minor characters popped up and down rather too swiftly, while the Dance of the Persian Slave Girls (choreographed by Yury Borovsky) was also somewhat unconvincing. 

The way in which the principals were, by and large, prevented from interacting, delivering their words to the audience rather than each other, might have irritated some, as might also, conceivably, the closing spectacle of Dosifey, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa and the Old Believers rooted to the spot and stripping down to their white undergarments. For me, however, it only emphasized the disciplined austerity of Dodin’s conception of the piece—its stark, unflinching poetic imagery reflecting the political and personal structures from which its characters are unable to escape. 

As Dosifey, Ain Anger was enormously impressive: a tall, imposing stage presence, he rolled out his phrases in a generous, beautiful bass, mixing dignity and dangerous charisma in his characterization. Ferruccio Furlanetto, in terrific voice, made an authoritative, care-worn Ivan Khovansky, acting with understated nobility. Andrzej Dobber’s dark, menacing Shaklovity was outstanding, sung with smooth, plangent tone. Elena Maximova brought a gorgeously plummy, tangy mezzo to Marfa, whose Act 3 aria—gently adorned by Shostakovich’s jewel-like glockenspiel—was a highlight. Lydia Rathkolb was a vibrant, clear-voiced Susanna. Herbert Lippert was a bitingly emphatic Golitsyn, Norbert Ernst a vivid Scribe, and Christopher Ventris robust as Andrey Khovansky. They, and others I’ve not space to mention, all helped make this a memorable, powerful evening.

Finally to Otto Schenk’s nearly-new Staatsoper production of The Cunning Little Vixen, which opened in June—the veteran director said at the time that it would be his final production for the house—but which was not covered in these pages at the time. On its return in the autumn (seen on November 17), it had to do without Franz Welser-Möst. He was replaced in the pit by Tomáš Netopil, who certainly knew how to bring out all the shimmering, quivering detail of Janáček’s glorious score. He hadn’t quite mastered bringing that out without occasionally overwhelming his singers, however, with some of the exchanges between Chen Reiss’s clear-voiced Vixen and Hyuna Ko’s appealing Fox getting lost in the melee. This was less of an issue for Gerald Finley’s beautifully-sung Forester, who oozed thoughtfulness and gentle melancholy. There were vivid contributions from Donna Ellen as his wife, James Kryshak (Schoolmaster) and Wolfgang Bankl (Harašta); Heinz Zednik made a wonderful (tenor) Rooster.

Schenk’s production is a predictably lavish, old-fashioned affair, in which a vast and extraordinarily realistic forest set (designed by Amra Buchbinder) is a permanent feature—think of the director’s long-serving Met Rusalka minus the pond. There are no scene changes as such, and other locations are evoked with an incongruous sparingness by the straightforward addition of extra scenery downstage. The lavish animal costumes for the children are initially enchanting, but with all the arm-waving and bouncing up and down, the whole thing did risk resembling the world’s most expensive school play. The final minutes are beautifully and powerfully staged as a moment of blinding revelation (with help from Emmerich Steigberger’s lighting), but Schenk’s overall interpretation of the piece, though loving, feels too straightforward, too resolutely bright and bushy-tailed.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Guildhall School of Music and Drama: The Cunning Peasant

[From OPERA, January 2014, pp. 88-9]

Despite the fact that Rusalka is now a repertory staple, and that The Jacobin gets an occasional airing, Dvořák’s other nine operas still remain out-and-out rarities—this side of Prague, at least. This opportunity to see The Cunning Peasant staged, therefore, was especially welcome.

The piece, composed to a libretto by Josef Otakar Veselý in the first half of 1877, and originally given the altogether more scurrilous title of ‘A Slap for the Prince’, is usually described as a sort of mixture between The Bartered Bride, Le nozze di Figaro and The Jacobin. The arrival of the latter certainly put a major dent in The Cunning Peasant’s popularity, and the two operas share many elements: a rustic setting, true love finally finding its course, and a plot arguably crammed with a few too many elements, as well as a score in which melody after melody tumble over one another. But in the earlier work that plot is slighter (and without The Jacobin’s weightier political element), while Dvořák often also seems less adept at yoking all those folksy tunes to the dramatic action. The piece’s charms, however, are many, and the short second act, with its extended dancing-round-the-maypole sequence, is a delight. It is also a gift for smaller companies or, as here, student performers, with nine decent roles for a cast to get stuck into.

There was certainly a great deal to enjoy in Stephen Medcalf’s production for the Guildhall, even if his decision to transfer the action to rural England raised a few questions. Chief among these was regarding the fact that the wealthy Václav—one of several with an eye on the lovely Bětuška, or Bathsheba as she was here in Clive Timms’s translation—became the Jewish Reuben, his eventual humiliation suddenly taking on unhelpful Beckmesser-like overtones. Nevertheless, in Francis O’Connor’s clever set, in which rustic toy-town houses seemed to morph into nature, the action was clearly and imaginatively conveyed.

The cast—the second of two that the Guildhall presented—was led by Laura Ruhi-Vidal’s charming Bathsheba, sung in a small but appealing and soft-edged soprano. As her beloved Joseph (Jeník), Lawrence Thackery performed persuasively, but showed that his tenor is still a work in progress, as did Robin Bailey as Reuben. Martin Hässler as the Duke (rather than the original’s Prince) seemed nervous, but some intonation problems couldn’t disguise his handsome baritone. David Shipley, as Gabriel (originally Martin, Bathsheba’s mercenary father), was impressive, his bass rounded and full; Emma Kerr was also excellent, unveiling a rich mezzo as his sassy, eye-rolling housekeeper Victoria (Veruna). John Finden, as John, the Duke’s valet, made a very strong impression, his voice full and easy, and his stage manner natural. He was well matched by Anna Gillingham as Fanny (Berta), maid to Alison Langer’s dignified Countess.

Dominic Wheeler’s conducting kept the score skipping merrily along, while also being alert to its moments of more expansive lyricism, and the orchestra played with plenty of verve, underpinning what was ultimately an irresistible evening.

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse: Ballo in Maschera

From OPERA, January 2015, pp. 52-3

For its new staging of Un ballo in maschera (seen at the third performance, on October 5), the theatre du capitole put its trust in the same creative team behind its 2013 La Favorite. Vincent Boussard’s staging was, it seemed, tailored to a modest budget, and Vincent Lemaire’s minimalist set was basically a blank space, a box within a box. Items of furniture came and went; a recurring motif was the projection, onto the back of the box, of an overexposed 18th-century portrait, which began, at various points, to weep blood. For the brightly-lit, entirely unatmospheric ‘orrido campo’, a ragdoll-like figure hung from the flies. A single welcome flourish came in the final scene with the arrival of a grand, abstract chandelier of thin silvery chains—but it had been quite a long time to wait.

Scenically, then, there was not much to enjoy, and Boussard’s greatest failure was that, rather than make use of a clutter-free space to explore the drama, he appeared content to rely on Christian Lacroix’s costumes for theatricality. Those costumes, however, seemed to have been devised entirely independently of the opera in question: mildly historicized modern dress, a mash-up of suits, overcoats and ruffs for the men. Riccardo, denied any dressing up for his confrontation with Ulrica, had rococo regalia for the first scene and the (maskless) ball itself. Amelia made her Act 2 entrance in a black dress and translucent mac, looking as if she was trying to hail a cab after a night out. The way Boussard dealt with his singers was also a frustrating mixture of under- and over-direction—in the Act 2 duet, Amelia was forced to sing her climactic ‘T’amo’ on her back, feet pointing upstage. What he was trying to say about the piece, or why, was never clear.

There was no such indecisiveness musically speaking. Nor, however, was there much in the way of subtlety or colour. Daniel Oren’s wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am way with the score offered undeniable excitement—and the playing of the Orchestre National du Capitole was lively and virtuosic—but his rubato is a matter more of manhandling than of coaxing, and the big central Riccardo-Amelia duet was more stop-start than ebb-and-flow.

The young Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov sang Riccardo with tirelessly bright and vibrant tone, and his voice is big and exciting, with plenty of heft and ring at the top. The photos in the programme of Carlo Bergonzi, who sang the role here in 1955, prompted unfair comparisons, and served to emphasize how Popov, although clearly capable of some subtlety, seemed to treat the assignment primarily as a vocal showcase. Opposite him, Keri Alkema (an American singer whose CV includes both mezzo and soprano roles) didn’t quite have the amplitude for Amelia, and the voice, glamorous-sounding in the middle of the range but short on spinto steel, tended to thin out in the bigger, higher phrases. Vitaliy Bilyy, another Ukrainian, showed plenty of style and musicality as Renato, as well as a nice, pingy top to his baritone, but the voice itself felt a size too small for the role. As Ulrica, Elena Manistina might well have been having an off-night, but she tired quickly after trying to fill out her mezzo beyond its natural size with forced chest voice and pushed top notes. Julia Novikova’s voice sounded occluded early on, meaning that her appealing Oscar lacked initial sparkle. Among the smaller roles, the Brazilian baritone Leonardo Neiva (Samuel) showed that he’s a singer to watch.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Un ballo in maschera and Tristan und Isolde at the ROH

Ever since the announcement was made that the Royal Opera House would entrust a new production of Un ballo in maschera to Katharina Thoma, whose 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne had been widely disliked, there had been a certain amount of speculation as to, first, what she'd done to deserve a new Covent Garden production and, second, what she'd make of Verdi's tricky middle-period work. Would we get another dubious concept? Would the cast--a big-voiced bunch, but hardly the most willing or adventurous thesps--be happy to play along with what she'd come up with? More generally: should a theatre like Covent Garden should be entering into a morganatic marriage with an outfit like Theater Dortmund (and I don't mean any offence to Dortmunders there), where the production was unveiled in September?

In fact, it's interesting to read in Der Westen's review of the Dortmund premiere how the fact that it was co-produced with a major house was held responsible for it being, according to the reviewer, 'backward and ridiculous'. 'Because Covent Garden is a star-theatre and a fossilized/frozen theatre as well ["Star-Theater und starres Theater dazu"]. If you want to have the Netrebkos and Garancas, the Grigolos and Callejas as nearly daily visitors, to fill the house with tourists, you're not going to take risks.' (You can read the piece -- auf Deutsch -- here.)

Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden with (centre, left to right) Serena Gamberoni (Oscar),
Joseph Calleja (Riccardo) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato) (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)

It's an unfair view, perhaps, and it's difficult to know to what extent Thoma was indeed trying to pander to what she perceived to be the requirements of Covent Garden. What she delivered achieved perhaps one notable thing -- it wasn't booed at the curtain call as a string of the Royal Opera's new productions have been. That, in itself, is perhaps no great achievement, however, and reflects, if anything, the production's convictionless conservatism. (I've maintained before that the Covent Garden booers have in the past reacted to quality rather than simply booing anything 'modern', but this seemed to prove that I have, after all, being giving them too much credit.)

But what we saw had no place on the Royal Opera's stage: a fusty, half-hearted compromise conceptually speaking, marred by stagecraft more inept, I think, than anything I've seen on the Royal Opera Stage--certainly for a long time. As with her Glyndebourne Ariadne, Thoma chose to update the action to the eve of war, in this instance positioning Riccardo as, I think, a Habsburg on the eve of WWI, the conspirators as Balkan troublemakers. As at Glyndebourne, however, the updating had little to do with the opera in question, and seemed, once more, like a somewhat crass attempt to syphon some gravitas off from an historical moment (of the most monumental significance) to bestow profundity on her own concept (which is of rather lesser significance). The final gesture of giving Oscar an army coat and tin helmet, presumably ready for him to be shipped off to the trenches, struck me, in this regard, as in very poor taste.

Other ideas came an went, with the set (by Soutra Gilmour) -- the main feature was pair of wobbly chunks of scenery on castors, which contained the action in between them while offering rooms for additional unnecessary details on their outer sides -- moved and removed into various configurations. One feature was human statues (we were metres from Covent Garden piazza, after all) in the sort-of graveyard of the 'Orrido campo'; this tendency to memorialization (a fetish of the Habsburgs, of course) was emphasized by Ricccardo being manhandled onto a large marble-ish plinth (wobbly once more) for his death.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
There were dodgy dancing (choreographed by Lucy Burge), dodgy costumes (designed by Irina Bartels), and plenty of superfluous bits and bobs. During Riccardo's 'Forse la soglia attinse' there was some fussy business with him imagining a confrontation with the human statues; a little boy, the son of Renato and Amelia, made several distracting appearances. The whole thing was so poorly thought through, though, that a central gauze had to go up and down in the middle of scenes and lackeys were required to stroll on and off to remove bits of furniture and push the set around. Worst of all, it all looked several decades old: it felt like the umpteenth revival of a dusty production that a company has been itching to ditch for years.

This impression was reinforced by conducting from Daniel Oren that was crude and insensitive and which--as when chorus and orchestra parted company for several bars in the final act--sometimes flirted with something closer to basic incompetence. Big moments passed for nothing, much was rushed and messy--there was little sense that the conductor liked the music at all. This seeped through into the playing, much of which was depressingly brash and unrefined.

In this context, the big-name cast seemed like it was left to fend for itself. Joseph Calleja's unusual tenor always walks a line between strange bleatiness and glorious freedom and expressiveness, but seemed here more firmly rooted in the former category, the very top, in particular, showing a rasping quality I'd noticed when he sang Faust earlier in the year, but which I'd hoped was down to temporary indisposition (I hope those 'Nessun dormas' haven't taken their toll on this essentially lyrical instrument). His phrasing was lumpy and foursquare, he often rushed, and, without much direction, his acting was exposed as almost comically rudimentary.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky did his usual thing, but the loss of sap in the middle of his voice is more noticeable now, even if the top remains generous and burnished. There was plenty of quality in Liudmyla Monarstyrska's Amelia, the quiet singing in particular, but her top is rawer than it once was, and there wasn't much acting from her either. Marianne Cornetti chewed the scenery enthusiastically as Ulrica, but her vocalism was pretty rough and ready. Arguably the most charming performance was that of Serena Gamberoni as Oscar, sparky and engaging and sung in a voice with ping and also some appealing lyrical beauty. There was some good work in the supporting roles, but this was an unequivocally grim evening at the Royal Opera.

Certainly it was difficult to believe that this was being presented by the same company that had performed Christof Loy's Tristan the evening before (I'd been away so was only able to catch up with it then). I'll be brief, but I should admit I was left unmoved by the performance -- perhaps something to do with my seat, at the front of the amphitheatre round to the right, perpendicular with the wall stage-right, which seemed to amplify the singers' voices rather unpleasantly -- but at least there was quality and conviction in spades.

But I'm still unconvinced by Pappano's conducting of this piece, which remains, I feel, more physical than metaphysical, and am never going to like Loy's production, even if I think I admire parts of it more now than I did first time round. The singing of the leading couple is astonishing, though: Nina Stemme's Isolde, although the voice (from my seat at least) is losing some of its allure, is imperious; Stephen Gould's Tristan is tireless and musical. I particularly enjoyed Iain Paterson's Kurwenal, too, but--as others have noted--Sarah Connolly's big moment (Brangäne's watch) was somewhat undermined by her positioning on stage. Plenty of quality in the rest of the cast, too. I'll hold my tongue regarding John Tomlinson's King Marke.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Falstaff and Turandot at the Deutsche Oper

I'm currently on a quick research trip in Berlin, during which time I've taken the opportunity to pay a first visit -- or, rather, two -- to the Deutsche Oper. The repertoire I sampled was central; the productions were more left-field. With the Falstaff it was good to be reminded that Christof Loy can do comedy; there won't be much of that when I catch up next week with his Royal Opera Tristan. (He's a director whose work I have generally not greatly enjoyed: after a first encounter with the Royal Opera Ariadne, I really didn't like the Tristan first time round, missed the Lulu, but really took against his cop-out 2011 Salzburg Frau, which, along with his po-faced and drearily ernst Barcelona Entführung, I have seen only on DVD.)

Christof Loy's 'Falstaff' at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Anyway, his Falstaff, new last November, makes a fascinating comparison to Damiano Michielletto's production from the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Both take the same starting point, with a reference to the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Verdi set up for retired singers and musicians. Michielletto's production deals unimaginatively with this idea, letting it -- and a fixed single set -- constrain the drama. (There's a disapproving review from me in a forthcoming Gramophone -- I can't say I thought much of it), Loy lets the action run riot on an open stage. Bits of minimal scenery come and go, the exception being a large, grand wall that appears (then is whisked up) at the start of Act 3, separating a disconsolate Falstaff, left nursing his wounds in a suitcase-strewn wasteland at the very front of the stage, from the rest of the 'cast', dressed up and clinking glasses in the bright, clean space on the other side.

Production details
I put 'cast' in inverted commas, because it's a production that constantly suggests multiple levels of performance. It also seems to pick away at its own central concept, questioning and even undercutting it. The evening starts with from a witty film (accompanied by Victor Maurel's 1907 recording of 'Quand'ero paggio') in grainy black and white, which dissolves leaving Kiril Manolov's lank-haired Falstaff singing the same arietta at the piano before the opera proper kicks off.  The singers are at first dressed up to look like Casa di Riposo residents, then remove wigs and fusty outfits to show their more youthful selves beneath. The action is presented as part performed, part lived, the line between the two entirely porous. During the final ensemble, everyone -- chorus included -- finds wigs, slacks and cardis in the suitcases that have been lying about. By the final curtain, as a Verdi portrait is brought on (much as it had been, if memory serves, in Michielletto's staging), everyone's back to being 'old' again.

I'd admit I'm not entirely sure what Loy's point is, and it was inevitable that, in the context, the magic of Herne's Oak was somewhat lost, but I'd much rather this looser approach to a concept that Michielletto's straitjacketed one: the fluidity, the unpredictability and, even, the slightly chaotic bafflingness of it all appealed to me. Here's a trailer to give an idea:

It helped, of course, to have a good musical performance. Stefan Solyom conducted a straightforward account of the score -- slightly tentative tempos in the zippier ensembles was perhaps due to a lack of rehearsal time in the house's busy repertoire system. As London heard in Salome at this year's Proms, the orchestra is a very classy band, producing a rich sound but capable of necessary agility and lightness of touch.

There was a fine cast, with Manolov (a name new to me) combining a big, leonine baritone and larger-than-life, bear-like physical presence -- only a hint of old-world charm was lacking. Elena Tsallagova was a charming, slightly geeky Nannetta, well matched by Alvaro Zambrano's Fenton. Maria Pia Piscitella's rich soprano made her a fine Alice, and Dana Beth Miller was an impressively fruity Mrs Quickly. John Chest's Ford was well focused, if a probably a size or two too small, and Marko Mimica's resonant, powerfully-sung Pistola stood out among some fine performances from the rest of the cast (click the thumbnail right for a full list).

Turandot at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Bettina Stöß)
Another name new to me was that of Lorenzo Fioroni, a protégé of Ruth Berghaus and Götz Friedrich, who provided the production of Turandot, dating originally from 2008. His view is a brutal and cruel one, in which much of the action seems choreographed by the aged, almost benign Altoum (Peter Maus, dressed in the grey suit favoured by some dictators). He appears, along with a handful of other doddery dignitaries to watch from a rectangular viewing gallery set into a wall. In front, the oppressed, cowering 'Popolo di Pekino' sing his praises -- at one powerful moment, one woman stood defiantly looking the opposite way, only to be beaten into submission as the paean recommenced.

Turandot becomes a slightly petulant princess, her riddling with Calaf played out down stage as a face-off (shades of Minnie vs Rance, without the poker) over a small table. Once she finally succumbs to love, she murders her father; Calaf, in turn, dispatches poor old Timur. It's all pretty heartless in the final act, where the scope for mischievous humour seems to be exhausted -- much of it stemming from Ping, Pang and Pong, here (in a touch coincidentally reminiscent of Loy's Falstaff) repeatedly dressing up to play their roles in the 'entertainment'. Again, I'm not sure it amounted to anything terribly coherent, but it certainly had its compelling moments.

Musically speaking, the greatest pleasure probably came from the magnificent Deutsche Oper chorus, and there singing was matched by fine playing once more from the orchestra -- even if Ivan Repušić's conducting was pretty broad-brush and four-square. Kamen Chanev was a stentorian Calaf, the voice impressively ringing and trumpety, although lacking in much Italianate honey; a certain unflinching machismo in his stage manner was not unsuited to Fioroni's conception.

Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's current Brünnhilde and a British singer who's carved out an impressive career in Germany, had quite a lot of dodgy moments intonation-wise as Turandot, and the voice seems to take some time to warm up -- both during the course of an evening and, strangely enough, during the course of some notes. In full flight, though, it's an impressive sound, and the lack of steely edge is in some way made up by a softness in the timbre that suggests this Turandot's heart has gone some way to thawing from the start. Heidi Stober brought a highly attractive, gently lyrical voice to her sympathetic Liù, and Simon Lim an impressive, powerful if also rather soft-grained bass to Timur.

Monday, 1 December 2014

ETO: Life on the Moon

Hackney Empire, October 17

[From OPERA, December 2014, pp. 1572-3]

At a time when Haydn seems increasingly sidelined in the concert hall—at least in Britain, where not a single work of his was programmed in the 2014 BBC Proms—we should welcome any opportunity to hear one of his 15 operas. It’s just a shame, then, that despite ETO’s best (and arguably slightly excessive) efforts, his Il mondo della luna proved so forgettable on the first night of the company’s autumn season. There’s plenty of charming music, of course, the Act 2 finale in particular, but it does nothing to flesh out the entirely conventional characters of Carlo Goldoni’s libretto, two of which, including the castrato role of Ernesto, had in any case been quietly excised from ETO’s show (performed in James Conway’s witty translation). It’s also a work that betrays the circumstances of its commission in every bar: as a jolly entertainment composed to celebrate an Esterházy family wedding in 1777, it’s a comedy that’s all molar and no incisor.   

Perhaps acknowledging its deficiencies, the company had engaged Cal McCrystal (whose credits include being Physical Comedy Director for the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors) to squeeze the laughs out of the material—and then pile on plenty more on top. As such, with a cast giving its all, and attractive designs by takis—a Baroque garden that gave much scope for visual gags, and which was draped in white for the ‘moon’ in Act 3, plus lots of imaginative lunar costumes—there was no denying that there was a full evening’s worth of clowning around, even if, by the second half at least, I’d started to feel immune.

The whole thing would have been a lot less convincing, however, had it not been delivered by singers so clearly having a great deal of fun, right from an introduction—containing an account of the action, as well as gentle mocking of the cast—by the tenor Ronan Busfield. He also bore a great deal of the comic burden as the servant Cecco, which drew attention away from some eminently decent singing. As his boss, the quack astronomer Ecclitico, Christopher Turner sang and acted with relish. Andrew Slater brought easy volume and plenty of comic bluster to the duped Buonafede. Jane Harrington, as Clarice (the two daughters for Buonafede in the original were here amalgamated into one) didn’t quite have the agility for all of Haydn’s demands, but sang with spirit, as did Martha Jones as Lisetta, Buonafede’s predictably spunky maid.

Christopher Bucknall managed to highlight some of the score’s delights, which mainly featured the mellifluous wind soloists of the period-instrument Old Street Band; the string playing was occasionally a little raw, but buoyant and lively.