Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano / Thomas Hampson / Klaus Florian Vogt - Cadogan Hall, 27 February 2011
It's not often the worker bees of the Royal Opera House orchestra are released from their Covent Garden nest. It's not often either that the Cadogan Hall, despite its fine acoustic, hosts much worth listening to. But after Andres Orozco-Estrada's splendid Tonkünstler Orchestra they managed to pull a second terrific evening out of the bag.
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski / Alexander Markovich / Melanie Diener / Thomas Hampson - Royal Festival Hall, 26 January 2010
At this stage in the anniversary celebrations, I'm all for a few bars rest from Mahler wherever possible. But it seems there is no escape, even when he's not on the menu. As Vladimir Jurowski explained during a brief furniture-reshuffling break, this Mahler-free programme should be considered as contextualisation for the LPO's next concert (centrepiece: Das klagende Lied). Nice sales pitch Vlad, maybe it won over some of the fidgety teenagers padding out the stalls.
A sound production, a spectacular cast, a few roast heretics for supper - this could have been the greatest Don Carlo ever. If only they'd rehearsed it. Following an airing in January, Jürgen Rose's ten year old production was revived for just two nights. Some critics complain that Munich's summer opera festival is not imaginative enough, that it doesn't have new productions coming out of its ears like Salzburg's does. But for out-of-towners like me, one of the main attractions is well-cast revivals of old favourites.
However when the most convincing actor on stage is Ramón Vargas, you know you've got problems. The singing was uniformly terrific, but the cast, to a (wo)man, looked as if they'd been shoved on stage and told to get on with it. It didn't help that the temperature outdoors was a muggy 80-plus degrees, and worse inside. In their heavy period costumes, sweat running down their faces, running around the stage was probably the last thing any of them wanted to do.
A few events that may have slipped beneath your radar:
If you missed out in the ticket scrum for Esa-Pekka Salonen's Philharmonia Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Festival Hall with Gary Lehman and Violeta Urmana, you might consider travelling to Birmingham Symphony Hall (where the sound is also immeasurably better) on 23 September 2010 for the UK premiere. Not many tickets left so don't hang around too long.
Birmingham is also the furthest south that Opera North will bring their new Das Rheingold (semi-staged) next summer. It's on 24 June 2011 and there are plenty of tickets left at the time of writing, though the best are going fast.
Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra take a rare step outside Covent Garden on 27 February 2011 when they perform at Cadogan Hall. Thomas Hampson and ~Klaus Florian Vogt~ join them for the chamber version of Das Lied von der Erde, with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll also on the bill. Tickets went on sale yesterday.
Tomorrow at 2pm Thomas Hampson is coaching a Mahler Masterclass at the Manhattan School of Music. The Hampster's affinity for Mahler has been bolstered by countless hours of study, so he should have plenty of precious gems to share. Unusually, his students this time are not singers, but instrumentalists, who will work on transcriptions of the composer's songs.
The session is open to the public - for free - on a first-come first-served basis. It will also be streamed live on http://dl.msmnyc.edu/live.
And in what is believed to be a first for live classical music, it's available via iPhone (by downloading the free app 'Thomas Hampson').
The (scanned below) programme's eclecticism suggested the brief was "sing what you like, just don't throw a sickie". So Joyce DiDonato revealed her inner Judy Garland, Professor Thomas Hampson nourished our grey matter, Joseph Calleja auditioned for Malta's Got Talent - and Pappano took the whole lot in his stride, equally at home in Mahler and Arlen, as if he'd practising for weeks. Vasko Vassilev's Russian violin interlude was a bonus.
Like Arsenal's trophy cabinet, the stage was bare but for a mirrored backdrop (pinched from Un ballo in maschera, which opens later this week) - an unfortunate reminder that the house was not exactly packed.
Joseph Calleja is one of the big successes of the current La traviata, and set against the simple backdrop of the humble piano his voice is even more impressive. It's just such a gloriously big, open, honest instrument, so full of warmth and sincerity. It took talent to capture Rodrigue's aria from Le Cid so perfectly, but how much more to turn the slushy Because into a heartfelt utterance.
La regata veneziana is one of Joyce DiDonato's party pieces, and she tells the tale with such conviction ("row, Tonio!" she commanded with a wink to her sturdy pianist). She's got the jazz chops for Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man too - not the excruciating trial you might get from some opera-trained singers. But the Willow Song, where she softened that wiry edge that sometimes coarsens her tone, was the highlight. She looked stunning too, in a moss green satin gown with twinkly seaweed beading.
Thomas Hampson (known to cognoscenti as "The Hampster" due to his habit of secreting sunflower seeds in his capacious cheek pouches) just filled the stage from the first note he sang. What amazing presence.
And I was pleased to find the geriatric tone of his Germont in the current La traviata is no more than dramatic licence. He was in robustly healthy voice here for two of his great specialities, Mahler and American song. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was delivered with raw, unapologetic intimacy, as if we were all clustered right there on the stage with him. And it offered the chance, rare in this evening of bits and pieces, to be drawn in for more than a couple of minutes. A draining ride.
He spoke a few useful introductory words before launching into Burleigh's Ethiopia Saluting the Colors - a fascinating piece of folklore.
His Les pêcheurs de perles duet with Calleja wasn't the most delicately nuanced reading, but it underlined how well-paired they are as la famille Germont. Against the odds, a successful evening, and a fitting end to it.
First Dmitri kindly took over when Rolando cancelled his 24 June Royal Opera House recital with Antonio Pappano.
Now the saviour of the day is sick himself. According to the latest Royal Opera House press release:
"Unfortunately Dmitri Hvorostovsky is now also under doctors' orders to completely rest his voice and it is with great regret that he has had to cancel all his current engagements."
(UPDATE - he apparently caught a severe throat infection during his recent Russian tour).
The good news is that the concert goes ahead - with three for the price of one! Joyce DiDonato, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson have stepped into the breach, with ROH concert master Vasko Vassilev providing further support.
Statistics indicate that at least one of them should still be standing by Wednesday night.
Every Violetta needs backbone - it is after all her iron resolve and strength of character that so impress Germont. But this becomes the defining characteristic of Renee's Violetta. It makes her proclamations of love hollow and her tragic end self-regarding. The key weapon of the courtesan - making the man believe he's in charge - is never displayed. And the act around which the whole plot pivots - Violetta's sacrifice - is rendered simply unbelievable. Why would this feisty Scarlett O'Hara give up the man she loves if there's nothing in it for her?
In her Sempre libera, Renee pauses to deliver a cheeky arse-slap to the naked lady ice sculpture (one of this production's delightfully subtle references to the evanescence of beauty). The way she lined up to the sculpture, pausing before administering the immaculately-judged tap, robbing the moment of all spontaneity, exemplified everything about her approach. I bet she irons her knickers.
The little-known Ermonela Jaho, who stepped into the part last year, has nothing like Renee's technical prowess, but her portrayal was an infinitely more touching one. That said, it was impossible to remain unimpressed by Renee's craft, her magnificent breath control, effortless trills and artfully-considered nuances of tone. A croaky start and her habitually mushy diction aside, she was a living, breathing singing lesson - impossible to imagine anyone improving on her musical choices, or executing them with greater skill.
She looks splendid too. She may be 50, but Restylane and Pilates belie the fact. When Germont sings of her youth and beauty, you believe him. The age difference is gracefully set aside in her relationship with Joseph Calleja, who is in reality young enough to be her son. It's more of a seasoned Sarandon/Robbins pairing than a cradle-snatching Madonna'n'Jesus - no suspension of disbelief required.
That's a tribute to the stature of Calleja's Alfredo as well. He's a little too easily flattened by Hurricane Renee - the second act denunciation comes off as a brave attempt to stand up for himself. But especially in his scenes with Germont, there is a growing maturity and confidence about his performance. But he's never too knowing - Alfredo's weakness and impetuousness are effectively conveyed as he cowers before his father. Calleja's singing is old-fashioned in the best possible sense - a big, powerful masculine voice with a touching lyrical side.
He was one of the best things about the evening, alongside Thomas Hampson's Germont. Hampson's voice sounded less fresh than the last time I heard him. Whether it's an artfully-created effect for this role, or simply the toll of time, who knows, but it conveyed Germont's patrician demeanour to perfection. Hampson has never been a 'Verdi baritone', but he's a terrific singer and actor, so who cares?
One of the most gratifying aspects of this revival was the care and attention to detail taken with the smaller roles, perhaps an effect of Richard Eyre's return as director. Sarah Pring as Annina, Kostas Smoriginas as the Marquis D'Obigny and Haoyin Xue as Gastone were particularly impressive, and the chorus were well-deployed, though never fussily so.
I was pleased to see Eyre hadn't changed much. Bob Crowley's mostly tightly-packed boxy sets not only look good, they provide those all-important hard reverberent surfaces to bounce the singers' voices off. The decor may look busy, but it's mostly deceptively achieved with surface pattern and lighting.
Only the last act, which should be the emptiest, looks over-cluttered, with too many bits'n'bobs for the singers to bash into and knock over, and too much of the action forced into the central space. I love the dressmaker's dummy with its skeletal skirt frame though, a reminder of Violetta's parties past.
The action is grippingly choreographed - I think everyone in the theatre gasped as Germont shoved Alfredo to the ground in the second act. The only failing remains Violetta's much-debated speed-lap round the bed moments before her death. The comedy is only piled on when, instead of expiring wiltingly in Alfredo's arms, Renee rams at full speed into his 'ample middle range' (thank you Edward Seckerson) like a quarterback hitting a blocker five yards from touchdown. Does she die of consumption or concussion?
The Royal Opera House orchestra have been playing splendidly recently, and this night was no exception. Pappano caressed them through the preludes like a tiny newborn kitten, as if he were trying to compensate for Renee's lack of fragility. Precious moments of introspection before red-blooded passion and champagne sparkle took over. Traviata is not generally reckoned the best of Verdi's scores, but Pappano makes you realise it's anything but routine.
Performances of this level of all-round quality don't come around often. It's a reminder that the problem with most traditional stagings of familiar operas is not the traditionalism or the familiarity, but simply that they're done without the love and care and skill and thought lavished upon this one.
******** Click over to see Renee Fleming senza makeup and more! ********
Thomas Hampson may not be everyone's idea of a Verdi baritone, but on the showing of today's dress rehearsal, he may turn out to be the best thing about the Royal Opera House's forthcoming La traviata revival. At least he fully inhabited his role, and he sang unarguably well. Renee Fleming and Joseph Calleja both made predictably lovely sounds, but she overplayed and he underplayed, and neither convinced me of any passion for each other. Still, they've got two days to sort it out. The orchestra, at least, sound quite ravishing, and Pappano has introduced a few daring little tricks that prove he understands this score as much as he loves it.
Unlike most of the critics, I really quite like Richard Eyre's 1994 production - it has a traditional look, but there's more to it than comfortingly sumptuous decor. Much has been made of his return to Covent Garden to personally direct it (last year's revival and others were left to underlings). Thankfully, he doesn't seemed to have messed with much. But I was disappointed by the accumulation of stage clutter and pointless action in Act 3, which used to make an eloquent point about the price of freedom with its vast emptiness.
A couple of comic additions had my whole row shuddering with suppressed giggles. Perhaps they were one-off experiments/cock-ups rather than misjudgements, but I will explain no further at this stage in case it spoils anyone's opening night surprise. Just keep your eyes peeled at the end.
Not long now till the Royal Opera House summer season opens for booking - 25 March for Friends and 28 April for the rest.
The highlight for me is Berg's Lulu, in a new production by Christof Loy, a director for whom drama is never confined to the stage. He famously (allegedly) sacked Tubby Voigt from his Ariadne in 2004, then walked out of his own production - La finta giardiniera - a couple of years later, citing Spinal Tap style "musical differences" with the conductor.
For his Lulu, newbie Agneta Eichenholz takes the title role, but more importantly, Klaus Florian Vogt makes his Covent Garden debut as Alwa. (Which means he'll be hanging around Covent Garden while Lohengrin's on, should either of the scheduled leads catch Netrebkoitis - we can but hope). A welcome return for Michael Volle (Dr Schön / Jack the Ripper) too. Pappano conducts.
Richard Eyre's beautifully coherent and underrated La traviata returns, this time with the cougarific pairing of Renee Fleming and Joseph Calleja in the leads. Will la Renee's unconcealable chemistry with Thomas Hampson (Germont) lend an 'interesting' dimension? Tony Pappano conducts this one too.
The hugely jolly if puddle-deep Leiser and Caurier Il barbiere di Siviglia gets an all-star cast this time round - Simon Keenlyside, Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez, with the fabulous Alessandro Corbelli and the great Ferruccio Furlanetto the cream on top. More Pappano.
Bryn Terfel is the main attraction in Jonathan Kent's tourist-friendly Tosca. Marcello Giordani attempts to fill the shoes last worn by Jonas Kaufmann and Deborah Voigt displays her slimmed-down talents. Jacques Lacombe conducts.
I can't get too excited about Un ballo in maschera with Ramón Vargas and Angela Marambio, though I look forward to Anna Christy's ROH debut as Oscar.
The Mariinsky's summer Ring Cycle is also booking - no casting yet announced. I don't know whether that's good or bad news. But given that the company harbours everything from wet-behind-the-ears teens to world-class soloists, we can only hope for the best. Check out the ticket prices carefully before you book - there are very few cheap seats, even in the amphitheatre.
Gambling types may grab a ticket for Rolando Villazón's recital with Tony Pappano on 24 June. 'Mixed form' doesn't begin to describe Rolando's recent performances, but at least with the opportunity to pick and fine-tune his programme, we may see him at his best.
ThomasHampson/Wolfram Rieger - Wigmore Hall, 15 December 2007
Judging by the photos, it seems that Thomas Hampson wears the same suit for all his recitals. But then, he does so few concerts that it would be an extravagance to own any more. I felt duly privileged to be present at his first Wigmore Hall appearance for five years. And with something of a Schumann drought recently in London (no doubt in response to last year's 150th anniversary overload) it was a pleasure to anticipate his all-Schumann programme, which began with the Kerner Lieder.
Uneven intonation and a gruff delivery diminished the impact of the opening Lust der Sturmnacht. I wondered if the celebrated technician had a cold. But I guess it must have been just a public warm-up, because he was back on top with the next song, Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'! Hampson negotiated its tricky high-lying passage, the prayer of a young girl, in solemn and faultless falsetto, to breathtaking effect.
There is a moment at which you know if a recital is going to be a very special one, and that was it. Hampson has lived with these songs for a long time. Now it is as if he inhabits them. His voice has lost some elasticity and crispness of contour over the years, but it has gained in richness and colour. There is an underlying frailty, a vulnerability which Hampson could call up at will, but also an elemental power, operatically-scaled. Hampson deployed this fearlessly, notably in Wanderlied, but never simply for effect. Vocal and physical gestures never outsized the performance space. Any accusations of 'ham' would have been very wide of the mark. He didn't display these songs, he experienced them, from line to line, each word spun out afresh. And incidentally, a few of those words and notes weren't exactly as I recalled them, but such was the conviction of Hampson's performance, I couldn't say whether he was using an obscure edition, or was merely fudging with the most consummate of skill.
In Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes, the contemplation of the wine glass of a departed friend, Hampson spun the elegiac and celebratory elements together into a warmly reflective whole. The trio of Stille Liebe, Frage and Stille Tränen was the high point of the first half, the final verse's sustained Schmerz ripping open like a fresh wound. Even the inveterate coughers at the back of the hall could do nothing but hold their breath after that one.
For the second half, Hampson presented a Dichterliebe with a difference. This was Schumann's original version, complete with an additional four songs (eventually published separately) to the final sixteen, and a few very minor musical differences. Although the existence of this original twenty song version has long been known, the shorter version is generally held to be the one Schumann himself considered definitive. Hampson's programme notes presented compelling reasons to consider otherwise. As did his performance, into which the extra songs slipped seamlessly.
He also proved that this is not just a young man's song cycle. Hampson could conjure up the wistful beauty of Ich will meine Seele tauchen with lightness and freshness. And Heine's irony, so often conveyed as youthful petulance, was from Hampson a bitter snarl of frightening depth in Ich grolle nicht and Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen. By the time we got to the final Die alten, bösen Lieder, the despair was absolute, no empty posturing. Wolfram Rieger was no less than an equal partner throughout, responding with the utmost sensitivity to Hampson, resisting any urge to grandstand the postludes. The attentive creation of every single note made the whole cycle utterly engrossing from start to finish, with scarcely a cough emanating from the transfixed audience.
Ear-shattering applause could only squeeze one encore out of them, a charming Du bist wie eine Blume. As Hampson explained afterwards (in a bizarre euratlantic accent, like a verrry posh German who's watched too many Hollywood movies), he's getting to the age when it's wise to leave the audience wanting more. More is most definitely wanted, though when he'll be coming back to London is up in the air. As he makes clear in an interesting interview in this month's Opera News, his intention is that his future now lies mainly in the US.
She finds Thaïs an "incredibly glamorous role", musically speaking. Although most people imagine she's very familiar with Thaïs because of her well-known recording, in fact she's only sung it once on stage, 4 years ago, before the current mini tour (which started in Paris and Vienna and will move on to Barcelona next month). She joked that this suits her, because she finds the more she repeats a role, the more she finds something wrong with her performance. In 2009 she's scheduled for a fully-staged John Cox production at the Met.
With her opera and touring commitments these days scaled back so that she can spend more time at home with her children, the low rehearsal format of the concert performance attracts her. She also thinks that the imagination can invest a great deal in a piece, which a production can take away. She goes on to talk a little about the stresses of touring, musical values in opera and her recent work with Gergiev (who "brings magic to the podium").
Not a hugely revealing interview, but at least it's a relief to hear she hasn't caught the throatus cancellitus bug that's going round. And talking about sopranos with sore throats, does Alberghini have a let's-stay-friends arrangement with Netrebko (currently pawing the oiled pecs of Erwin Schrott nightly - for artistic purposes of course - in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House)? Or has some poor ROH lackey been assigned the thankless task of keeping them apart?