I'm guessing Simon Keenlyside did his own grey hairspray* on Monday night and forgot to check the back. I mean, he can't have been going for the caramelised badger look deliberately. Can he?
It was part of his stab at playing Germont much older than I can recall any other singer attempting in this production - even last month's Leo Nucci. Accessorised with a walking stick that he sometimes forgot he needed and a stoop that failed to mask his natural gymnast's posture, he recalled my own brother's portrayal of Polonius. In the school play, aged 16.
Roméo et Juliette (Gounod) - Royal Opera House, 27 October 2010
Gentlemen of the chorus - if you're forced to don clinging tights, at least demand an Acosta-sized dance belt to sweeten the deal.
Nicolas Joël's 1994 production of Roméo et Juliette is medieval Verona as a French and Saunders sketch. It's been revived only once since - as a Gheorghiu/Alagna vehicle - but with no megastars to demand its resuscitation this time round, one has to wonder why the Royal Opera House dug it up. Devoid of psychological insight or dramatic impetus, it serves the opera poorly. Gounod's music does its best to sweep you up in the young lovers' disastrous passion; Joël simply has you sniggering at the number of knobbly knees and saggy y-fronts on display.
Netrebko sang Il bacio by Luigi Arditi, followed by the duet Quanto amore from L'elisir d'amore with Erwin Schrott, who later treated the audience to some tango. With Piotr Beczala she performed a duet from La bohème. Beczala returned for Ah! lève toi, soleil from Roméo et Juliette. Other performers included Christopher Maltman, Mikhail Petrenko, Joel Prieto and Anna Prohaska.
I was crying at the end of this Bohème alright. With laughter. Had Musetta sacrificed more than her earrings for Mimì? Let's just say the resemblance between the proffered fluffy white muff and her show-stealing Act 2 canine companion* was a striking one. (*'Pickle' the German Spitz, per programme).
But it's the least of this dreadful old production's problems. Where do I start? The artist who can't afford to eat but can pay a nude model? The door which supposedly leads to a staircase placed in what is clearly an external wall ? The wagon which rocks throughout the Act 3 prelude then spills out a flustered couple at its end (a 'colourful' addition unsupported by either music or libretto)? The vast distance between Rodolfo and Mimì as he sings of gazing on her face? Even the welcome sight of Kostas Smoriginas in his underpants was, on mature and objective reflection, gratuitous, though it pains me to admit it. I won't go on. Cinematic style realism, which is this production's aim, relies on getting the details right - all of them. No amount of gasp-inducing fake snow can cover that up.
Some productions are traditional in a good sense. They respect the music and the words, and deal with both honestly if unimaginatively. But this one is simply tired, lazy and past it. I can only guess at what sort of internal politics keep it on the schedules.
The music was some compensation for the torture of the visuals. Andris Nelsons, on the third of his five nights, began brilliantly. The first two acts displayed a chamber-like grasp of colour and detail. Every single note mattered. His dynamic range was broad and bold, his daring luftpausen perfectly judged to highlight what followed without losing track of what had passed. The orchestra played beautifully for him, as well as they have for Pappano and Bychkov in recent months. Something changed after the interval though. The exuberance had faded, the lustrous detail was blurred. Still perfectly good, just not quite as emotionally gripping. I didn't, incidentally, notice any of the pit/stage co-ordination problems some of the first night reviewers commented on.
The cast too is a solid one. Although there was an air of routine to Piotr Beczala's Rodolfo, he stepped up a gear to project his big numbers with more ardour. Hibla Gerzmava was a strong Mimì, perhaps too robust to be entirely sympathetic. Gabriele Viviani (Marcello), Inna Dukach (Musetta), Jacques Imbrailo (Schaunard) and Kostas Smoriginas (Colline) completed the well-rounded central ensemble, the only small complaint being a certain similarity between the voices of Hibla Gerzmava and Inna Dukach. They deserve a better show.
Here first! - a full list of all the Royal Opera House's main stage productions for the 2009/10 season.
The 2009/10 Covent Garden season opens with neither bang nor whimper but with a credit-crunching concert performance on 7 September (repeated on 14 September). Makes a change from last year's Sun readers' special I suppose.
The opera in question is Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, and the conductor is bel canto genius Mark Elder. The cast includes potential Next Big Things Stephen Costello, Eglise Gutierrez and Luciano Botelho, plus the incomparable Alessandro Corbelli, the first of several welcome appearances this season.
The first staged opera of the season is Nicholas Hytner's lego-loving Don Carlo, with - OMG!- Jonas Kaufmann !!! in the title role. John Tomlinson joins him as the Grand Inquisitor, and the rest of the cast is lifted straight from the first run - Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, fans' favourite Ferruccio Furlanetto, Sonia Ganassi and Pumeza Matshikiza.The conductor is Semyon Bychkov.
This season's contribution to the 2013 Wagnerversary is a new Christof Loy production of Tristan und Isolde. Antonio Pappano conducts Ben Heppner, Nina Stemme, Matti Salminen, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch.
Neigh! Francesco Zambello's ghastly Carmen returns in October, with the latest Covent Garden favourite Elina Garanca back for the title role, fighting off Roberto Alagna, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, and a farmyard full of furry friends. Bertrand de Billy conducts. It's resuscitated again in June 2010 with a distinctly 'B' cast.
October also sees one of Richard Jones's more subtle and effective efforts back on stage - and attractively cast. The shouldn't-work-but-it-does double bill of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole (Christine Rice, Yann Beuron, Christopher Maltman, Andrew Shore and Bonaventura Bottone) and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (Thomas Allen, Maria Bengtsson and Stephen Costello) is conducted by Pappano.
Francesco Zambello steps into Tchaikovsky's The Slippers in November. The new production will be conducted by Alexander Polianichko and features some serious talent fresh from the Mariinsky - Olga Guryakova, Vsevolod Grivnov, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Matorin and Maxim Mikhailov.
John Schlesinger's elderly Der Rosenkavalier is dusted off in December. Kirill Petrenko conducts and the cast includes Soile Isokoski, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen and Lucy Crowe.
Littering the December and January schedules is the inevitable La Bohème. This time Andris Nelsons conducts most of the double-cast performances, which begin with Piotr Beczala and Hibla Gerzmava and end with not a few tbc's.
Robert Lepage's intermittently effective Rake's Progress returns in January 2010. Ingo Metzmacher, Toby Spence (a Tom Rakewell tdf), Kate Royal, Kyle Ketelsen and Stephanie Blythe promise much on the musical side.
Female conductor alert! Top Lisboan Julia Jones wields the baton over Jonathan Miller's Cosi fan Tutte in January. The cast includes Charles Castronovo and Sally Matthews.
A new Richard Jones production of Prokofiev's The Gambler in February is conducted by Pappano, with a cast including Roberto Sacca, Angela Denoke, John Tomlinson and Jurgita Adamonyte.
Plácido Domingo's first appearance of the season is as a tenor. Graham Vick's acclaimed production of Handel's Tamerlano(recorded in Madrid and availableon DVD con Plácido) makes its first visit to Covent Garden in March with Christianne Stoijn, Sara Mingardo and Christine Schäfer. Baroque specialist Ivor Bolton conducts.
Bill Bryden's family-friendly The Cunning Little Vixen returns in March with Emma Matthews, Christopher Maltman and Emma Bell, though the presence of Charles Mackerras on the podium has to be the main draw.
Caurier and Leiser's lovely Il Turco in Italia is back in April, with Maurizio Benini conducting, and Aleksandra Kursak, Colin Lee, Alessandro Corbelli, Thomas Allen and Ildebrando d'Arcangelo in the cast.
Aida is subjected to the David McVicar magic in April. His new production is conducted by Nicola Luisotti and features Micaela Carosi, Marcelo Alvarez and Luciana D'Intino. Bare naked elephants?
The last of the Big Three, Richard Eyre's subtly intelligent La Traviata, makes its annual appearance in May and July. This time her name's in the programme - Our first Lady of the Camellias is the fabulous former Netrebko sub Ermonela Jaho. Joining her in her long-awaited return to Covent Garden in May are Saimir Pirgu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. July's 'B' Violetta is Angela Gheorghiu, who makes do with James Valenti and Zeljko Lucic. Yves Abel conducts.
Laurent Pelly's now-legendary La Fille du Régiment returns in May with the unbeatable original cast of Juan Diego Flórez, Natalie Dessay, Alessandro Corbelli and Felicity Palmer back in place. Bruno Campanella conducts.
What would tempt Sir Colin Davis back into the pit? How about David McVicar's Le Nozze di Figaro? Erwin Schrott, Camilla Tilling, Maruisz Kwiecen. Annette Dasch, Soile Isokoski and Christine Schäfer head the strong cast.
Antonio Pappano conducts Laurent Pelly's new Manon, coming to Covent Garden in June with the announced cast including Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Anyone fancy a bet?
In one of those rare operatic fairy stories, June sees a baritone with less than a year's experience thrust into a leading role at Covent Garden. Yes, it's Plácido Domingo again, and this time he's Simon Boccanegra. Antonio Pappano conducts a strong cast including Marina Poplavskaya, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Joseph Calleja. It's the 1991 Elijah Moshinsky production by the way, not the Ian Judge one seen last year.
The season ends in July 2010 with the first revival of David McVicar's controversial Salome. Angela Denoke takes the central role, with Johan Reuter as Jokanaan. Hartmut Haenchen conducts.
Verdi's Requiem - Royal Opera House, 13 March 2009
Antonio Pappano followed Verdi's opening instruction for his Requiem - il più piano possible - to the letter. The hushed voices of the chorus hovered barely audible above the muted strings. I held my breath. It was the only time in 90 straight minutes I needed to. From where I sat near the front of the stalls, the ear-bludgeoning loudness of what followed masked everything, including what appeared to be a full-blown conversation between the elderly couple in front of me.
I suppose too much noise is better than not enough, but the range of dynamic nuance between f and fff permitted little subtlety. Marked only by a slight shift in volume, the Dies Irae lost its terror. Each time Sir Colin Davis launched into it with the LSO a few weeks ago, I nearly leapt out of my seat. Here I simply shrunk back a little further. The acoustic reflecting panels boxed around the orchestra on stage may have been rather more effective than the ROH realised.
For a reading leaning firmly to the secular, theatrical side, there were surprisingly few dramatic moments, though the trumpets blaring from the side boxes on high in the Tuba Mirum certainly grabbed the attention.
But that said, it was accurately played, perfectly co-ordinated, and there were plenty of compensations in the singing.
Micaela Carosi, a late sub for Barbara Frittoli, looked understandably tentative. A few wobbles at the top aside, she sang confidently and firmly, though I couldn't find her any more engaging than I did in last year's Tosca.
It was almost enough that serial canceller Olga Borodina actually turned up for a change. Her voice was lush and firm, her manner coolly imposing. Worth the wait.
The otherwise reliable Piotr Beczala cracked on the opening note of the Hostias. (Quick, cue the career death announcement!) The most impressive solo singing came from the Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov in his ROH debut, solid and dignified, but the immaculately prepared Royal Opera House chorus took home the vocal honours.
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Der Rosenkavalier - Zurich Opera - Royal Festival Hall, 12 April 2008
Tackling the intensely theatrical Der Rosenkavalier without a full staging is rather like doing Star Wars as a radio play. Disguises, asides, gestures are so integral to the drama. Setting the singers for this concert performance on a small platform behind the orchestra wasn't an entirely successful compromise. It gave them a few inches of space to act and interact, but left them stranded far from the audience. My cheapie stage side seat became an asset -- people seated further back in the main hall had difficulty hearing some of the singers. It may have been the reason a fair number left after the first act, depleting the already far from sellout crowd even further.
Or it may have been the turgid morning-after feeling of the first act. Despite Franz Welser-Möst's crisp pacing, it tended to drag. This arid account couldn't be accused of over-indulgence. Piotr Beczala's brief appearance as the Italian Singer was a welcome highspot, and Alfred Muff's splendid and wily Baron Ochs provided the vital vulgarity that Welser-Möst seemed to fear. Nina Stemme was a commanding Marschallin, but stony cold as a pillar in her white draped Grecian goddess gown. At least she had the sheer power to soar over the orchestra, something the tailcoated Michelle Breedt's otherwise sturdy Octavian lacked.
The second act began a huge improvement. Finally Welser-Möst came out of his shell and injected a little spunk and vitality. A few ensemble problems were a small price to pay. Laura Aikin's bright, pure-toned Sophie complemented Michelle Breedt's warm and mellow Octavian perfectly. The Pavarotti-shaped Rudolf Schasching and Kismara Pessatti manoeuvred perilously around the narrow platform, but provided more comic counterweight as Valzacchi and Annina.
Nina Stemme's switch to a burgundy brocade ensemble for her final act appearance signalled a slight increase in performance temperature. Or perhaps she'd just spilled her interval snack down the white frock, who knows. Her voice positively but there was still no vulnerability, no wistfulness or regret. All passion was left to Octavian and Sophie.
Although the orchestra was buffed to a sheen under Welser-Möst's tight control, and despite some fine individual performances, the evening - all four hours of it - was an endurance test at times. The danger with sidestepping sentimentality and vulgarity is that sometimes engagement - and entertainment - gets left by the wayside too.
Marina Poplavskaya, now 30, has been singing the part of Tatyana since she was 18. And she's Russian. Not a difficult casting choice, then. This is her biggest Covent Garden role to date -- unfortunately framed in a dull, uninspired production. First seen in 2006, but looking more like a '70's relic, or the Met on a budget, its period setting is dominated by bare minty walls and the main novelty, a Vegas-scaled water feature. This massive puddle nearly fills the first act stage, pushing the action out to a thin strip at the front of the stage and a tired-looking grassy knoll at the rear. Tatyana's mid-act letter scene is accommodated by a hut-like bedroom, which has to be ludicrously manhandled out of the 'river'.
Scrim-projected paintings open each act (for the first, Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer by Hippolyte Flandrin, left). They connect tenuously with the action, and indeed with Tchaikowsky's own life but, crucially, they don't help tell the story, and their dreamy repose jars horribly with the austere sets and the contrastingly lavish and lurid costumery.
Tatyana's dream scene at the start of the second act is almost brushed over as it melds confusingly with the following ball scene, animal-masked apparitions seemingly becoming part of the later celebrations.
But this is perhaps the most attractive part of the production, thanks to the beautiful and detailed costumes, like a Berwick Street haberdasher's window with their authentically Russian bold colour palette. The problem here was that the large crowd clustered into the compressed space sometimes obscured the real action. The snowy wastes of the following duel scene worked better in all respects.
The water feature is trotted out again for the final act, only this time it is frozen over and packed with skaters. Opera on Ice! Complete with back-projections of olde St Petersburg. Although this created some symmetry with the first act and successfully points out how youth, with all its possibilities, has given way to the rigid strictures of age, etc etc, its main effect is simply to get in the way, again. There was also, curiously, no sense of the passage of time, of the fact that this act takes place some years later than the first.
The only unqualified success of the production concept is its generosity to the singers, who for the most part perform standing up and facing forward at the front of the stage, so nothing gets lost. And as it's strongly cast, from top to bottom, the vocal performances became the highlight of the day.
Marina Poplavskaya has enormous presence, and she made a commanding Tatyana. The unrelenting steely power of her voice was most effective in the drama of her final confrontation with Onegin. Doubt and vulnerability seem to come less naturally, but she is enough of an actor to convey something of Tatyana's shy bookishness in her physical performance.
Gerald Finley's solid Onegin provided the warmth in this coupling. His suavity on the initial encounter with Tatyana wasn't fettered by condescension, and his desperation and passion were plain to see in the finale. He faltered a little in the duel scene,
Piotr Beczala, with his clear, flexible tenor, conveyed Lensky's ardour and impetuosity well, and he captured something of the self-regarding nature of Lensky's 'poetic soul'. Ekaterina Semenchuk (ex-wedding singer made good), despite a richly-coloured and exceptionally controlled vocal performance, somehow failed to make any clear impression as Olga.
Diana Montague's Larina and Elizabeth Sikora's Filipievna were both excellent, elevating the opening scene to a convincing exploration of memory and regret. Brindley Sherratt, playing Gremin (Hans-Peter König takes over for the rest of the run), balanced authority and pathos beautifully. In the small part of Zaretsky, Vuyani Mlinde made a strong impression. Robin Leggate's campissimo Monsieur Triquet seemed to have wandered in from a different production (Gilbert & Sullivan en français?), but he provided some superbly comic relief.
In line with the general tone of the production, conductor Jirí Belohlávek gave a rather safe and uninspired reading, but it was a cleaner performance than we sometimes get at the ROH, and his dynamics and pacing showed great consideration for singers.
As with last year's rather duff Fidelio, the Royal Opera House chose a weekend matinee for the opening performance. I count myself duly warned for the future.