Tony Pappano's Opera Italia series ended with the maestro zooming through Tuscany in a flash car to investigate 'The Triumph of Puccini' with the help of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Thomas Allen and the legendary Renata Scotto.
I've already posted the first and and second episodes of the three part series, and now here's the whole of the final one, as kindly uploaded by teresa59:
Tosca - English National Opera, 18 May 2010 (first night)
I haven’t always been Ed Gardner’s biggest fan in the past, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not Puccini's either, but his breathtakingly superb conducting has got to be the main reason to catch this new Tosca. 'Revelatory' is a word that's often tossed lazily around, but here it's perfectly justified. This is a Tosca I could listen to over and over again.
La Bohème - Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, 30 December 2009
Otto Schenk's Munich Bohème, which recently celebrated its fortieth birthday, proves that a traditional production if thoughtfully crafted needn't have a sell-by date. From a glance at the photos, it doesn't look that different from Covent Garden's slightly younger yet markedly more tired effort. What sets it apart are the details. It's sensitive to the emotional temperature of the music, attentive to the text, and doesn't indulge in gratuitous additions. Nobody just stands there and barks out their lines across the stage. When Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love, they move closer together. When she's in bed dying, his arm supports her.
What is particularly successful is that even on the packed stage of the second act, the eye is unerringly directed towards the action. Not earth-shattering stuff but it takes great skill. A novice could follow the action without understanding the words or knowing the plot. The production illustrates the story, which is the one and only selling point of the traditional style. Otherwise it's just a concert performance with a twee backdrop. Mentioning no names.
Under Asher Fisch the orchestra were sleekly assured. Not the most detailed or dramatically exhilarating performance I've ever heard, but a beautifully balanced and mature reading.
This particular run is outstandingly well-cast, and there were some superb performances. All were slow to find their voices - we had to wait until the third act for Anja Harteros's wobbles to settle and her sweet and touching Mimi to blossom. I could forgive a little shoutiness from Levente Molnár's big-hearted joy of a Marcello, and Musetta's petulant charm was captured perfectly in the beautiful silvery soprano of Elena Tsallagova, a name to watch out for. But Massimo Giordano's Rodolfo stole the show, a reminder that the real tragedy in La Bohème is not Mimi's death, but Rodolfo's loss. Giordano's grief radiated across the auditorium - I wonder if anyone managed to stem a tear.
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.
Turandot - Metropolitan Opera New York, 28 October 2009
I caught Lise Lindstrom's Met debut and you didn't. With the house's resident screamer Maria Guleghina out with a cold, 'B' cast Lindstrom was brought in to make her first Met appearance a few days earlier than scheduled. She's played Turandot to great acclaim around Europe recently; this was New York's chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Did she nail it - yes she did! One could quibble whether her voice is the biggest or the best or the most beautiful, but its silvered laser is perfect for the role. And it's accurately pitched without a hint of wobble, indecently flexible and never showed any sign of strain. Within the limits of the ancient Zeffirelli production, which seems to have been choreographed rather than directed, she gave a more than acceptable dramatic performance too, cold and brittle to begin with, melting at the end.
Points must be deducted for her reaction to the warm applause she received at the second act curtain call. In conduct unbecoming a diva, she acted like she'd gone through to the next round of American Idol.
The audience seemed to enjoy the gushing and arm-waving. But then they'd not only applauded the Act 2 scenery (like a gladiator bathhouse from a gay p0rno) but also prematurely ovated on several occasions, ejaculating all over bars and bars of Maestro Nelsons' lovingly detailed score. There was even one knob who yelled out "Viva Puccini" before the Alfano completion started up
What a change from Ed Gardner's rampant decibels at the ENO last week. Nelsons - another Met debutant tonight - never took an extreme path, but subtly highlighted the music's complex layering, teasing out lines I'd never really heard before. And he paced it beautifully, never losing momentum, but not tempted to race either. No conductor is ever remembered for the greatness of their Turandot, but still, it's a tough test. I could see his score from where I was sitting - carefully marked up, and heavily rumpled, as if it had been dropped in the bath then left to dry. Clearly he's been doing his homework.
Vulnerability and determination were convincingly combined in Marina Poplavskaya's Liù. Not easy to pull off but she did it. Pitching issues (worse than usual tonight) and a desperately thin top detract, but not as much as they might with some other singers. Her musicality and conviction and sheer charisma carry her a long way.
Good old reliable Marcello Giordani was the unexciting Calaf. Moving lumpishly as if he'd had no rehearsals whatsoever (which may of course be the case) and mumbling through his lower register, he nevertheless managed to pull together some impressively ringing top notes. Nessun dorma of course brought the house down - some classy Bs the trigger. But for me the effect was diminished by having heard Pavarotti tackle it in the Met shop before the show. There's efficiency and then there's magic.
more photos tomorrow...........maybe.......if I can be........zzzzzzz........
L'Heure espagnole / Gianni Schicchi - Royal Opera House, 20 October 2009
This Richard Jones double-bill blew me away on its debut a couple of years back. I'm surprised to see it has faltered at the box office on this first revival (see here for half price tickets offer). I can only assume it’s the lack of star names and well-known titles that are keeping people away, because it’s one of the finest things in the current ROH repertoire.
Richard Jones is always at his best when he's showing human nature at its worst. Here he gets to play with lust, greed and deception - all shot through with wicked humour. Garish wallpaper and charity shop kitsch frame a pair of frenzied sitcoms. Ravel's has a certain French charm with its macaroon colours and gentle farce. A crudely-painted pair of Beryl Cook bewbs in a polka dot bra is spread across the curtain as the opening image. It sets the tone immaculately. For the darker humour of Gianni Schicchi, the wallpaper's stained and the opening shot is a plate of writhing spaghetti. Secks for the French, food for the Italians. Perfect.
Revivals can be shoddy affairs bearing little relation to the original - perhaps that's why Jones likes to direct his own. But this time he was gettin’ roped up and shot down elsewhere, so the task fell to staff director Elaine Kidd. A brilliant job she's done too. It looks better rehearsed than some revivals, and with most of the previous cast returning characterisations are rounded and performances assured.
Comic opera often isn't really that funny, however much we will it to be, but in the clock-stuffed L’Heure espagnole the timing is so acutely finessed the laughs are genuine. Ruxandra Donose is perfect as the frustrated housewife who baits her unsuitable suitors with barmaid bewbs and the sort of simmering allure I wish Elina Garanca had been able to muster up for Carmen. Yann Beuron as the self-obsessed poet she wants, AndrewShore as the clapped-out banker she doesn't, and Bonaventura Bottone as her unsuspecting husband are all superb. But it was the happiest of endings when she went for Christopher Maltman, a golden-voiced revelation in a vest.
OK, it sags here and there, but that’s down to the composer not the production. Ravel’s strengths are more pictorial than dramatic. The inventiveness of the score is enhanced by Pappano’s delicately evocative interpretation, but the dramatic pacing, or lack of it, is something even he can do nothing about.
Gianni Schicchi is a different matter. There’s as much action as a full opera, but it’s telescoped down to a fat-free sixty minutes. The music is trimmed to the bone and supports the text without cliche. If story telling is what matters, it’s Puccini’s finest creation. The misanthropy which sometimes strikes a sour note in his work is turned to advantage in darkening a cynical portrayal of the family who'll stoop to anything to get their hands on their recently-deceased relative's fortune.
Thomas Allen sings the title role as though born to it. Looking like he’s stepped out of a round of Super Mario Bros, he favours rude over beauty of tone – and his quivering impersonation of the dying man is a bonus. The young lovers weren't quite as perfect. Stephen Costello (Rinuccio) has a fine voice, but it's not consistently focussed. And he ran out of wind at a couple of critical moments, notably the final bar of Avete torto. On this showing, he's still a work in progress. Maria Bengtsson sang prettily though tentatively, and undermilked the big tune, Lauretta's O mio babbino caro. But this really is the quintessential ensemble piece, and all the cast (especially Gwynne Howell and Elena Zilio) revelled in the sheer awfulness of the grasping family.
OK, so it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Loy's remarkable Tristan und Isolde, and Richard Jones's ironic appraisal takes us even further away from empathising. But a little light relief is always welcome.
Sure, the glossy Chinese gastropalace and its population of post-modern archetypes look good in pics. That's because the designs are imaginative and meticulously executed. Even if we’ve seen some of the ideas before – the last act’s tiled kitchen from Goold’s Macbeth, the animal masks and typeface projections from his Enron, to name a couple – they’re still original enough to constitute an aesthetic rather than a shortage of ideas.
The problem is they're nothing more than an artsy backdrop to some decidedly old-fashioned stand and deliver action. Goold is used to working with the likes of Michael Gambon and Patrick Stewart. Here he’s saddled with a genre of performers for whom acting skills are a helpful bonus, not than a job requirement. That’s not to say that this cast are bad actors, just that they’re typical singers, and they need more direction than they’ve received here to bring out their best. The principals are left pretty much to their own devices. Amanda Echalaz as Liù reprised the memorable drug-addled victim of her OHP Un ballo in maschera. Kirsten Blanck (Turandot) has clearly seen a few Siouxsie videos. Gwyn Hughes Jones (Calaf) just wanders round in his cheap mac like a lost tourist.
The individually-costumed and fussily-blocked chorus and the superfluous dancers are more of a distraction than a compensation. Perhaps he’s trying to say that even people who consider themselves individuals can become complicit in a murderous regime. Whatever. That’s a side dish – it’s not what Turandot is about. When it comes to telling the real story, what Goold serves up is a concert performance in cool frocks.
The only character Goold shows much interest in is one he's grafted on. 'The Writer' - presumably a reflection of Puccini - is an irritating silent witness and occasional participant. He scribbles away in a book until bloodily despatched at Turandot's command towards the end - not uncoincidentally, at the point Puccini stopped writing. His book is picked up by a pig-headed dancer who writes the last few pages. You couldn't offer a clearer opinion of Alfano’s completion than that, but did we really have to suffer the previous hour and half to get there? To most operagoers, whether they like Turandot or not, Puccini's failure to complete it is simply a footnote, but Goold's staging elevates it to the raison d'etre of the entire production.
Relief came only from a handful of sterling vocal performances in the central roles, chief among them Amanda Echalaz’s thrilling Liù. Gwyn Hughes Jones offered a blank slate of a Calaf, unconvincing in his passion for the ice princess. At least he sang with some ardour and assurance. A more detailed portrayal would make him truly terrific in this part. Kirsten Blanck’s Turandot was heroically powerful, served up in a stern Marlene Dietrich accent with gale force top notes. Benedict Nelson’s Ping was the standout amongst the rest.
Edward Gardner hammered the score into submission as if he was repaying a grudge. It was a loud and dirty fight.
Gheorghiu has her knockers, but while her voice and her (un)professionalism are open to criticism, her presence is undeniably electrifying. The stage wasn't set on fire when she stepped on it (something of a surprise given the number of burning candles and the repeatedly-demonstrated clumsiness of the cast) but the temperature certainly rose a few degrees. Despite the teasing playfulness of her jealous outburst, she displayed a compelling nervy intensity - some compensation for puny and even tremulous singing that didn't firm up until the second act.
Her performance was gripping, but it simply wasn't moving. Even when she span out Vissi d'arte quite exquisitely in her tiny porcelain voice, it left me cold.
She's a generous performer though, and there was a real frisson to her interaction with Marcello Giordani, who never let his enormous voice overwhelm her tiny instrument. His physical rigidity (a health issue?) didn't convince. But he sang Cavaradossi with textbook precision, if like Gheorghiu he was ultimately uninvolving.
And I can't help thinking there's something wrong with a production where Tosca has more secksy-chemistry with Scarpia than Cavaradossi. There's a disturbing hint of complicity with Bryn Terfel's poison-hearted psychopath, a man who casually terrorises even his own staff. But then who wouldn't be drawn to him? - this is a magisterially compelling performance from Bryn, and immaculately sung, with penetrating attention to every syllable. Hiding his torture chamber behind a Bond-style secret bookcase door in his house is a clever touch - only the truly committed bring their work home.
Amongst the smaller roles, Kostas Smoriginas as Angelotti and Jeremy White as the Sacristan stood out as well-rounded and well-sung.
Jonathan Kent's traditional production has awkward, ugly sets, and the singers seem subservient to the scenery, forever negotiating a minefield of unduly fussy touches - bread drops from ladders, cheese rolls down stairs, windows open when they shouldn't, doors don't want to open when they should, singers walk into the furniture. If I'd bet a week ago on which show a singer would break a leg in, it would be this one. But it tells the story, straight.
Unlike Jacques Lacombe's efficient but prosaic conducting. Plain loudness substituted for real excitement, and dynamics shrunk in response to the size of the voices rather than dramatic necessity. Unlike the scenery, it never came close to catching fire.
Torrential summer rain sprayed through gaps in the canvas roof as the second half began, but I barely noticed. This is not a flawless Bohème, but musically and dramatically it's one of the strongest productions OHP have come up with.
Like Jonathan Miller's recent ENO production, the action is updated to the gritty milieu of Brassaï's Paris. But unlike Miller, Elaine Kidd has imbued these characters with life and vigour. The colour scheme may be drab - the action is anything but.
She's not great with the crowd scenes - the blocking doesn't highlight the key characters nearly enough. And I think it was a mistake to make the stage so narrow and shallow - it spreads out the action too much. But the fewer people on stage, the more their beautifully detailed interactions tell. Bohème is after all about relationships, and this production gives a stronger emphasis than usual to Marcello and Musetta, to Rodolfo and Marcello, to Colline and Schaunard. Instead of a simple romance played out against a backdrop of secondary ties, there's a real sense of interwoven lives. Purists may carp, but with Rodolfo and Mimi less central than usual, the story doesn't sag in between their scenes.
And there are some wonderful performances. Aldo Di Toro sang Rodolfo gorgeously, just occasionally dipping beneath the orchestra. Mimi's vulnerability can grate if overplayed, but Linda Richardson made her a more modern, self-sufficient character - I shared Rodolfo's surprise when she finally slipped away.
Marcello seems just as prominent as Rodolfo in this telling, with his vast smeary école de l'art menstruel canvases dominating the stage in the apartment scenes. Grant Doyle sang strongly and energetically enough to handle Hye-Youn Lee's endearingly feisty Musetta.
Robert Dean set a cracking Tour de France pace for the orchestra. Tender romantic moments suffered, and so did the pathos of the final scene, but the rest crackled with energy.
The rain brought out a plague of frogs on Holland Walk afterwards. Here's one of the little fellers:
Barely a week into the new season at Covent Garden, and already we're being asked to whip out our Amexes again, this time for November to March productions. Booking opens this week for those who've paid for the privilege, and next month for the common herd.
Rolando Villazón fights through miles of curtain fabric to reprise his Covent Garden debut role in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Antonio Pappano conducts the elaborate John Schlesinger production, inching ever closer to its sell-by date. Ekaterina Lekhina (Olympia) is a new name to me, but Gidon Saks, Kristine Jepson and Christine Rice promise sturdy support (photo: Clive Barda).
Rolando also submits to a live interview on 10 November. Space is limited, so early booking advised.
The other star vehicle of the season is a new Tim Albery production of Der fliegende Holländer with (cancelitis permitting) Bryn Terfel in the title role. Anja Kampe makes an overdue ROH debut as Senta. Tickets will be restricted to two per customer for this one.
Britten's The Beggar's Opera pops up in the Linbury Studio. The new production by Justin Way (not by conductor Richard Hickox as the website currently claims - there are limits to his talents) is likely to be popular, so again, early booking advised. The excellent and underused Tom Randle is Macheath.
The brilliant Willy Decker production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt that I caught in Vienna finally makes its way to London. Unfortunately Klaus Florian Vogt and Angela Denoke aren't coming with it, but Stephen Gould and Nadja Michael should be a more than passable substitute. And there's the bonus of Gerald Finley in the smaller role of Frank.
David McVicar's t1ts'n'todgersRigoletto returns with indecent haste. Francesco Meli, Leo Nucci, Ekaterina Siurina and Kurt Rydl are amongst the few cast members who get to keep their clothes on.
Elektra isn't illuminated by Charles Edwards's jumbled production, but with Mark Elder in the pit and a cast that includes Susan Bullock, Anne Schwanewilms, Jane Henschel and Johan Reuter it should at least push some musical buttons.
Even I can't get excited about yet another Turandot revival, but include it for the sake of completeness.
On the ballet side, I have to recommend the triple bill The Seven Deadly Sins / Carmen / DGV: Danse à grande vitesse, especially for the first of these and its wonderful music. Chanteuse Martha Wainwright returns to sing Weill's evocative music, and Zenaida Yanowsky is her dancing doppelganger (photo: John Ross).
Some commentators think Tosca shouldn't be mucked around with because its historical setting is so specific. June 17 1800, the aftermath of Napoleon's victory at the battle of Marengo, is a date that Puccini took great care in researching and reproducing for the stage, right down to getting the background Te Deum note-perfect.
But Stephen Barlow’s ingenious Opera Holland Park Tosca whips off the tired old pantaloons and updates the background turmoil to Rome in 1968, a year marked by violent student demonstrations and extremist clashes. And a few little quibbles aside, it works. That's because, despite all Puccini's attention to detail, in the opera he ended up writing the history is the wallpaper, not the drama. It's all about the personal relationships, and if you can ignore the odd reference to Napoleon, the real signficance of the context is in the more general sense of social turbulence.
The historical proximity clarifies the social distinctions, even if it's not quite apparent whether Scarpia is a police chief, politician, mafioso or all three. But he's suavely attractive in his immaculate suit, an unusually appropriate catch for the glamorous Callas-like Tosca. So her rejection of him only emphasises the depth of her love for the scruffy bohemian Cavaradossi.
It's set entirely outside in a piazza. This incorporates the unavoidable backdrop of Holland House's garden wall into church and cafe exteriors plastered with Scarpia's electioneering posters and Tosca's concert flyers. Act I's church interior scene is played outside its door, Scarpia's Act II room becomes the neighbouring cafe, and the Castello Sant'Angelo of Act III is the the piazza itself.
The ancient Fiat on stage throughout plays a crucial part in the final scene - Cavaradossi is pushed into it to be shot, Godfather-style, and Tosca leaps on to its roof to immolate herself in place of the traditional leap from the battlements. Details are well thought out, with a procession of locals adding colour to the bare set, and a picture perfect trattoria. A couple of props fell off the wall on this first night, but that sort of thing can happen anywhere.
End of Act III:
Amanda Echalaz was a stunning Tosca, with a big, creamy sound and plenty of stamina. She was far more effective in the role than the unsubtle Micaela Carosi in Covent Garden's recent production. (Amanda Echalaz and Jonas Kaufmann - now that would be a team.....).
Seán Ruane can certainly act, but his workmanlike tenor couldn't last the course, and his Cavaradossi was rather monochromatic and dare I say it, English (even though I'm guessing from the name he's Irish). Nicholas Garrett's Scarpia was so menacingly persuasive that it was easy to overlook the fact that his bantamweight baritone is a complete miscast. Other than his voice getting lost now and again, there were few drawbacks. And when Scarpia is several degrees hawter than Cavaradossi, Tosca's choices are cast in a completely different light. The other parts were very solidly cast too - I particularly liked Simon Wilding's Angelotti and John Lofthouse's meddlesome Sacristan. A sturdy, unshowy reading from Phillip Thomas in the pit completed the musical side most effectively.
Poor Micaela Carosi didn't have the best of luck in her Covent Garden debut as Tosca. On her big entrance - ping - she clipped her toe on something and almost went flying down a flight of steps. As she tussled with Scarpia mid-stab, a letter he'd been writing attached itself to her bead-encrusted shoulder, like some weird origami parrot. Only a tortuous back-scrubbing manoeuvre could make it drop. And the long train of her final act dress had a mind of its own, pausing to admire the scenery until she tugged it back into line.
I'd love to be able to say that after all her trials she delivered a dazzling performance. Well, she sang cleanly, powerfully and intelligently, but more like a stroppy housewife than a volcano of tempestuous passion. It left me cold.
Jonas Kaufmann on the other hand was the real thing. We all sort of knew his role debut as Cavaradossi might be pretty special - I wonder if the Royal Opera House would have been quite as packed out for a lesser tenor. But the brazen intensity of this performance was almost shocking.
It wasn't just the power - pushed to the max - or the thrilling ring to his top notes. He had the courage to make his final showpiece aria, E lucevan le stelle, conversational, almost meditative, a touching reflection on his memories of Tosca. There was tenderness and teasing humour in Qual occhio al mondo, where he drew from Carosi a human side that unfortunately failed to resurface agin later. His ability to bring something different and special to each role is what really marks him out as a performer though - there's never the slightest sense that he's repeating himself or falling back on time-proven tricks.
Paolo Gavanelli's Scarpia was another standout performance, intelligently underplayed with a chilling malice. And as is increasingly the case these days at Covent Garden, the smaller roles were all exceptionally well-filled. I particularly liked Kostas Smoriginas, a smouldering Angelotti, and the wheedling menace of Hubert Francis's Spoletta.
Antonio Pappano, apparently conducting at Kaufmann's insistence, lived up to his reputation as a singer's conductor, allowing perfomers all the space and freedom they needed. The vitality of the performance spilled over into untidiness in places, never to serious detriment, though I wish I'd had money on the horns mucking up the start of the third act - in retrospect, a banker.
The low lighting at the start of each act was irritating - I want to see what's happening on stage, not just guess at it - but other obvious staging pitfalls were avoided, and I liked Scarpia's torture chamber, set James Bond-style behind a fake bookcase in the study.
But the nicest thing I can say about Jonathan Kent's scrupulously literal production, here on its third outing, is that it doesn't get in the way much. Unless you're an accident-prone soprano that is.
According to the website (screen shot below) the small parts of Shepherd Boy and Gaoler have yet to be cast. Nothing a few panic calls round the choir schools and some major sucking up to Ferruccio Furlanetto can't fix......