Die tote Stadt - Royal Opera House, 27 January 2009
I'd been looking forward to this premiere. 90 years after it was written, 5 years after this particular production premiered in Salzburg (hay, even scenery-applauding San Francisco got there first), the Royal Opera House finally took the plunge and brought us Die tote Stadt for the very first time.
And though it wasn't a horrendous disaster - far from it - there were some major disappointments all round.
Firstly the production itself. Willy Decker's manic off-kilter dreamworld (rehearsal pics here) is immaculately realised. But I saw this production in Vienna last year, and his bold surrealistic tableaux had far less impact the second time round. Once you know what to expect, the illusion of a waking dream where anything is possible starts to crumble. The images are still striking, but the whole is less convincing.
There were many good things about Ingo Metzmacher's conducting. The Royal Opera House orchestra were immaculately prepared, the sound light and translucent. The singers could be heard above the dense orchestration (not something that could be said about Philippe Auguin's Viennese efforts), details came across clearly, even quieter instruments like the celesta had room to breathe. Caesuras were brilliantly placed and literally breathtaking. The rare shards of modernism spiking the lush romanticism were shaped to shock.
But this music needs passion and abandon. It should teeter on the brink of over-the-topness. Without that, it sinks into slush with every tonal chord. And it seemed Ingo Metzmacher didn't believe in the music quite strongly enough to push that extra inch.
Not a charge you could level at Stephen Gould. Paul is on stage the whole time, mostly singing at the top of his range over a big orchestra. Not an easy part then, but he gave a committed and energetic performance, choppy at first, but vastly improved by the end.
And a big plus - he has an indefinable likeability that eludes most heldentenors. He's a big beefy guy with a voice to match - but - it's big but time (heheh) - it's a voice that needs a sword in the hand to convince. For all its technical demands, Paul is a romantic role not a heroic one, and Stephen Gould never quite tugged on the heartstrings.
Nadja Michael, flinging her long limbs this way and that, certainly looked the glamorous part of Marie/Marietta, and in the comfortable centre of her range, her voice has the sort of steely power that removes limescale without scrubbing. But it's about as alluring as Harriet Harman however much her looks say otherwise - a less beguiling Glück, das mir verblieb is hard to imagine. Up top, where much of the role sits, she thins out and slips below the the note in a truly excruciating fashion, and for bonus ouch points, she has a couple of scarily blokey Amanda Lear notes at the bottom.
Step forward saviour of the evening, Gerald Finley, whose Frank/Fritz was quite perfect in every way. Noble as Frank, admirably deranged as Fritz, he provided a much-needed dose of humanity. And although Brigitta is not a large part, Kathleen Wilkinson made it her own with her endearingly fussy solicitude.
It was a surprise to see a near-full house - Covent Garden audiences are usually wary of anything new - but the muted applause said it all. An opportunity missed.