Proms PCM 2: Susan Graham / Malcolm Martineau - Cadogan Hall, 27 July 2009
Bizet Chanson d'avril Franck Nocturne Chabrier Les cigales Bachelet Chère nuit Duparc Au pays où se fait la guerre Ravel Histoires naturelles – Le paon Caplet Le corbeau et le renard Roussel Réponse d'une épouse sage Debussy Fêtes galantes – Colloque sentimental Honegger Trois chansons de la petite sirène Rosenthal Chansons du monsieur Bleu – La souris d'Angleterre Poulenc La dame de Monte-Carlo Encore: Hahn A Chloris
French mélodie is a tricky genre to master. It must appear insouciant, unforced. Effort must be imperceptible, effect achieved by suggestion alone. Forget the intensity of lieder, the operatic grand gesture too. The poetry is often allusive, but it stands alone - the greatest songs of the genre have a jewel-like clarity that needs no further decoration.
Harder to pull off than it looks. But Susan Graham succeeded better than most. The full, gleaming tone was delicately shaded. Gesture - vocal and physical - was minimal. The air of cool abandon masked a keenly-focussed attention to text.
She programmed a number of lighter songs - Ravel's Le paon, Caplet's Le corbeau et le renard, Honegger's Trois chansons, Rosenthal's La souris d'Angleterre. They were never overplayed or undersung - she maintained her line and let the humour speak for itself without adding arch vocal 'effects' as many singers are tempted to. The aching longing of Bachelet's Chère nuit and Duparc's Au pays où se fait la guerre was conjured without affectation. Only Bizet's Chanson d'avril, hard-edged and wiry-toned, failed to convince.
Poulenc's La dame de Monte-Carlo is in a different idiom to the rest of the recital - a miniature opera almost. Here she let down her hair (not literally - it was lacquered rigid) to colour the tale of the luckless gambler in bold theatrical strokes.
Malcolm Martineau added some finely-judged French seasoning. Like Graham he understands that this music is too delicate to be pulled around.
The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and is available on the iPlayer for a few days here (complete with gratuitous mid-recital interviews - the BBC clearly don't believe an audience can handle a whole hour of pure music).
And medici.tv have a free recorded stream of virtually the same recital from Verbier last week, here. (HD throws up some unexpected details - beneath the shoulder pads and helmet head, check out the multiple piercings and thumb ring.)
But from what I saw there last week, ideas seem to be in as short supply as ready cash. The two new productions which on paper seem the most forward-looking and adventurous of the season, La Damnation de Faustand Dr Atomic, were full of splashy technology but (for quite different reasons) surprisingly short on genuine effect.
Peter Gelb revealed the puniness of his expectations for Robert Lepage's Faust in a telling programme note:
"In the 1970s and 80s, Franco Zeffirelli made his vivid, larger-than-life brand of stagecraft a fixture at the Met. His productions.....elevated the possibilites for visual splendor that could be achieved here. This month, another visionary director makes his Met debut, and I believe that he too will help usher in a new era of theatrical excitement and visual thrills."
So Gelb's not interested in telling stories or exploring ideas, just giving folks something purty to look at. Even Zeffirelli at his most Zeffirelliesque could manage more than that. And Lepage's production fails to rise above the dismally low bar Gelb has set for it. It simply replaces the miles of curtain fabric with stacks of monitors, the corsets with leather pants and the crinolined chorines with six-packed acrobats.
To be fair, La Damnation de Faust is a challenge for any director, a sequence of tableaux not a linear narrative. But Lepage infers an overarching structure not reflected in the music by shoehorning the whole thing into a single set of shallow scaffolding across which characters process, videos play, and acrobats fling themselves. It's all slickly executed and some of the imagery is enchanting, even beautiful - a ghostly underwater dance rendered in video, Marguerite's ascension by ladder at the end. But much is over-literal - like the Rat eulogy complete with actual rat - and a potential coup de théâtre crucifixion is reduced to banality by excessive length and repetition.
There were long stretches where I felt, as with Achim Freyer's sweetly dotty Eugene Onegin in Berlin, that I really could have been watching anything, that Lepage could do, say, Don Giovanni or Les contes d'Hoffmann with exactly the same visuals and it would seem just as (in)appropriate.
But worst of all, a lot of it was just plain boring. Juddering from spectacle to spectacle without building any dramatic tension means that theatrical effect is entirely dependent on what's in front of the eyes at any moment - and as with any production, much was necessarily mundane. Lepage has some terrific ideas and a bold use of technology, but it's all just thrown in there. It needs moulding.
The musical side was more impressive, though some of the singing wouldn't win any prizes. Marcello Giordani (Faust) sounded unaccountably knackered, a pale shadow of the impassioned commitment he brought to the role at the Proms last summer.
Opera's favourite devil, John Relyea - this time got up as a foxy cockroach in a red leather suit and the traditional plumed hat - hardly sizzled. His Méphistophélès was earthbound, prosaic, though solid enough I suppose.
Susan Graham was the pick of the soloists by some distance, her angelic and charismatic Marguerite offering the only real hint that we were sitting in what likes to think of itself as the world's greatest opera house.
Ultimately it was left to James Levine to salvage standards, and although he didn't bring the precision, clarity and sheer perfectionism that he had to his Proms performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, there was warmth and focus and a total security to the sound. And not forgetting the Met chorus, who seem much improved from last year (has there been a weeding?) with clear diction and fine coordination.
The 22 November performance will be livecast, and I suspect that, more than most Met productions, it will be transformed by the process. Especially if Lepage himself is closely involved. The shallow stage, the use of vertical space, all help with vocal projection in live performance, but they also immediately lend themselves to screening, a sort of built-in framing device. As with so many Lepage productions the debt to cinema is an obvious one - and here's one opportunity for it to pay back.
Iphigenie en Tauride - Royal Opera House, 13 September 2007
Whatever its other flaws, at least this is an eco-friendly production. Director Robert Carsen minimises the carbon footprint by opting for a dimly-lit and empty charcoal box of a set and clothing everyone in plain and simple black. The principals' movement is limited, characterisation restrained, physical contact near-absent.
But this isn't polished minimalism. It's more of a cash-strapped regional theatre look, with chalked-up walls, buckets of water substituting for buckets of blood, and countless dancers flapping around the stage. The choreography is muddled and untidily executed, and often simply obscures the principals.
It's superficially coherent (black always goes with black), but insubstantial and generic. You could legitimately produce any opera from Orfeo to Peter Grimes like this, and it wouldn't make any less sense.
The production leaves the music a lot of work to do to keep the audience engaged. Unfortunately, the small forces of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ivor Bolton never quite measure up. Though I was sitting fairly close to the pit, they were so subdued I found myself straining to hear them at times. And the drama lacking on the stage is not to be found in the pit - Bolton conducts with an elegance and restraint which is immaculate, but fails to enliven proceedings.
Placing the chorus in the orchestra pit isn't much of a loss visually - the busy dancers fill the stage - but the remoteness of their sound was odd and jarring.
The cast is first-rate, but all the singers seemed weighed down by the grey confines of the production. Susan Graham as Iphigénie has a rich and beautiful voice, but rarely managed to transmit any of Iphigénie's internal conflict. Paul Groves was a noble but rather static Pylade who sang with a lyrical grace. Simon Keenlyside as Oreste went rather the other way, peaking so early with his inner tortures that he resorted to barking his most agonised lines. In the end though, it was the singers who held this most underwhelming of productions together as they rose above the dullness around them.
Fellow audience member Tony Pappano applauded politely at the end like everyone else, though I wonder how strongly he'll be campaigning for an early revival of this elegant but curiously damp squib.