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Not Chariots of Fire
I never buy a programme when I go to the theatre or the opera because I believe that, if you can't work out what a performance is about just by watching it, it can't be much of a performance. Fortunately I did read the synopsis of Zoroastre on Wikipedia before I watched it, otherwise I would not have the slightest idea what was going on.
Apparently Rameau's librettist Louis de Cahousac was a keen freemason and the opera is a thinly-disguised advertisement for freemasonry. In this respect it bears some similarity to Mozart's Magic Flute. In this production from the 18th century Drottningholm Theatre all the goodies wear white and all the baddies wear black rather in the manner of a western.
The plot, such as it is, pits the good magician Zoroastre and the Princess Amélite against the evil sorcerer Abramane and Amélite's scheming sister. The Wikipedia synopsis gives the impression that the opera is much more exciting than it really is, with Abramane whizzing around on his flaming chariot. The production does utilise Drottningholm's flying chair here but it is a rather creaky effect. Otherwise the production takes place on a bare stage.
Rameau's music, on the whole, is soporific. I quite enjoyed the duet at Zoroastre's and Amélite's wedding performed by Anders Dahlin and Sine Bundgaard but there are no big arias. As in most Rameau operas, there is a lot of dancing and Rameau seems to reserve his best music for these dances. He seems to be very unimaginative both musically and dramatically compared with, for example, his contemporary Handel.
This is a visually attractive staging, lit from above, emphasising the female singers' décolletage. So, on the whole, this production can only be recommended to dedicated titmen.
Not a Masterpiece
This is the first opera that I have seen under the auspices of the Opera Platform. This is a European group of opera houses that have got together to do something about the paucity of opera that is available today, both live and on television. They put recent films of European operas on the internet for all to see for free. This is very commendable and I am sure they are very proud of their achievement but I wish they had not put a huge Opera Platform logo on the screen. I needed copious amounts of insulating tape to mask it out.
This is a film of the recent production of Szymanowski's Krol Roger at the ROH. I learned that, in Polish, Roger is pronounced with a double d sound. So it's Roger the Dogger not Roger the Dodger. The opera is supposed to be set in 12th century Sicily although, in this production, director Kasper Holten follows the tedious modern practice of setting it in the period in which it was written eg the 1920s. The plot was fairly impenetrable to me. It appears to be about a king who is torn between Christianity and ancient religions. There is a shepherd who preaches the ancient ways but, in this production, he looks more like a pop singer. The queen and most of Roger's subjects go off with the shepherd. Roger agonises for a bit but finally seems to arrive at some sort of reconciliation between Christianity and the ancient ways. I have heard the suggestion that Roger's anguish reflects the way that Szymanowski was torn between his Christian faith and his homosexuality but I couldn't possible comment on that.
The first act is dominated by a giant head in the middle of the stage which does interfere with the action somewhat. In Act II the head revolves to reveal a scaffold on which scantily-clad men gyrate. Mercifully the opera is only 90 minutes long but it seems much longer that that. I could not detect anything worthwhile in the music although the three leads all acquitted themselves well: Mariusz Kwiecien as Roger, Georgia Jarman as his wife Roxana and Samir Pirgu as the Shepherd. I think that this is the first opera that I have heard in Polish. It seemed to me to have all the disadvantages of Russian as an operatic language with none of the compensating factors.
This production was very well reviewed and the ROH audience on the night were very enthusiastic so maybe it's just me who did not get it. Sometimes I think an opera is rubbish and I return to it 5 or 10 years later and realise that it is a masterpiece. Somehow, I do not think that this will happen with Krol Roger.
Much more than a star vehicle
One could be forgiven for imagining that Giordano is a service station on the M5 but Umberto Giordano was, in fact, an Italian composer of verismo operas. Andrea Chénier dates from 1896 and has a libretto by Luigi Illica, better known for La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Not surprisingly then, the libretto is the best thing about this opera. It tells a good story in the tight four act, two-hour structure that is familiar from Illica's other works. In fact, in a world of stupid opera plots, the libretto of Andrea Chénier would be a good candidate for the title of most intelligent opera ever.
Sadly, Giordano's music is not of the same standard. It is at best workmanlike. Although it offers plenty of opportunities for star performers to sing their hearts out there is nothing that you can actually hum as you go home from the opera house. Jonas Kaufmann and Eva Maria Westbroek give their all as the tormented poet Chénier and his aristocratic lover Maddalena but for me, the star is baritone eljko Lučić as the mentally-tortured servant Gérard.
The story starts in pre-revolutionary France. There is a ball at the house of an aristocratic family. Gérard, the butler, despises his employers and pities his elderly father: "For sixty years, father, you have been in service and fathered slaves". The poet Andrea Chénier arrives and Maddalena is immediately attracted to him. She wants to hear some of his poetry but, at first, he says he is not in the mood. Finally he relents and sings a song of love for his country, to the disgust of his fellow aristos. The ball ends in disarray with the news that the rebels are at the gates. Gérard throws off his livery and lets the rebels in. Rosalind Plowright, in a delicious cameo as the Contessa, delivers the best line in the opera: "That Gérard ruined by reading".
Six years later, Gérard is a leader of the revolution. Chénier is on the run and Maddalena is in hiding. Maddalena is captured and offers Gerard her body if it will save Chénier's life. There are shades of Tosca here but Gérard is a more complex character than Scarpia. He actually loves Maddalena and, for her sake, defends Chénier at his eventual trial. To no avail of course. Chénier is sentenced to the guillotine but Maddalena swaps places with another prisoner so that she can share her lover's fate. Shades of Aida here but the last scene as the doomed pair pledge their love is very moving.
I have seen the 1980's productions of Chénier, starring Plácido Domingo and Jose Carréras and like this David McVicar production they were both opulently and traditionally staged. The plot would lend itself to being staged in modern-day Syria but, fortunately no- one has thought of this yet. This is a fascinating production of an opera which is much more than a star vehicle. There are 23 named singing roles and also a lively chorus that is particularly effective in the trial scene.
Clouds Race on Cue
Reading the reviews of this production when it was performed live on Aldeburgh beach, it seems that the audience had an unforgettable experience although they had to suffer everything that the North Sea could throw at them in the process. This film of the production was shot in fairly calm weather although the sky still looks menacing and the sea has a lovely pink glow as the sun gets low. The orchestra is prerecorded and there is no sign of an audience although the DVD publicity claims that it was filmed during the three live performances. The soloists wear heavy-duty mikes but the chorus are unmiked. I am not sure whether they are miming or singing along to their own recording. There also seems to be some doctoring of the climatic conditions: when someone sings "It looks like there's a storm coming" we see the clouds start to race across the sky. I've no idea how this was done.
However it was done, the overall effect is quite brilliant. It is the best version of Peter Grimes that I have ever seen and it really tells the story in a way that I have never appreciated before. The set is a fairly abstract, jumble of jetties and boats. The costumes are updated to the 1940's but I did not even notice that till halfway through. Alan Oke gives a definitive performance as Grimes, both vocally and dramatically. In a strong cast Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford and David Kempster as Balstrode also stand out. The choruses are outstanding, whether or not they are mimed. There were old favourites such as Old Joe Has Gone Fishing and Grimes Is At His Exercise but I was struck more than ever before by how melodic and attainable this opera is in its entirety.
Pia de' Tolomei (2005)
The newly-rebuilt Fenice in Venice looks very attractive in this film, like a slightly reduced La Scala. The production gives us a welcome opportunity to hear a Donizetti rarity, Pia di Tolomei. It tells of the virtuous Pia who is accused of being unfaithful to her husband Nello della Pietro. In fact she has been secretly seeing her brother who is at war with Nello. Nello, played by Andrew Schroeder, poisons Pia with one of those slow-acting poisons beloved of Italian composers. She has plenty of time to sing a last aria and to encourage her husband and brother to bury their differences before she expires gracefully.
The story is Othello-lite. The Iago character here is Ghino degli Armieri played by the tenor Dario Schmunck. This breaks the first rule of opera, that tenors cannot be the bad guys but Ghino is a complex character. He betrays Pia because he secretly loves her. When he realizes that her virtue in inviolable he repents and dies a hero's death with much suitable tenor music. Donizetti makes the part of Rodrigo a trouser role, this being a convenient way to get a mezzo into the cast. Laura Polverelli certainly looks fragrant in her purple velvet trousers and her duet with Patrizia Ciofi's Pia is one of the highlights of the production. Strangely, it gets no applause and, in fact the applause throughout, from the Venetian audience, is very subdued.
The performances of the four principals are not world class but of good provincial opera-house standard. The part of Pia is a very big sing, which Ciofi handles well but I did not warm to her diffident manner and her irritating habit of singing with her head on one side, like a folk singer. The sets are simple and attractive, consisting mainly of flat panels in primary colours that slide up and down and across the stage. I was slightly disconcerted by a panel of Italian text that was lowered onto the stage: I thought the audience was about to be invited to participate in a karaoke session.
My only previous knowledge of this opera comes from the 1998 Salzburg version where is is performed in German with an illustrious operatic cast. I felt at the time that actors who could sing could probably give a better account of this piece than opera singers. This is mainly what we get in this Los Angeles production. Patti LuPone is an excellent Begbick and Audra McDonald is a sensational Jenny. Think Condoleezza Rice in a diaphanous body-stocking. Anthony Dean Griffey, who plays Jimmy, is of course an opera singer. I last saw him as Peter Grimes at the Met but I think he is miscast in Mahagonny.
Doing the opera in translation does make it more accessible to English-speaking audiences but I cannot say I understand the opera any more after seeing this production. It still strikes me as a lame satire on the evils of capitalism with cartoon characters and comic strip action. I felt alienated from the entire thing. Maybe that was what Brecht intended.
This is the first time I have seen Massenet's charming version of the Cinderella story. It makes an interesting comparison with Rossini's Cenerentola. Whereas Rossini eschews magic and has the Dandini subplot, Massenet's is a traditional telling of the story with plenty of fairies and magic. Massenet's music is tuneful without ever challenging the genius of Rossini's version. Joyce DiDonato makes the most of her music as Cendrillon. Alice Coote, as Prince Charming, seems slightly less comfortable possibly because of her small stature next to DiDonato. However the love duets between the two are the musical highlights of the opera. Eglise Gutierrez's performance as the Fairy Godmother is a tour de force. Dressed like Shirley Bassey, only with wings and with eye-popping cleavage she makes a big impression with the Queen of the Night-type music that Massenet gives her. She has a scene in the enchanted forest where the she draws an invisible barrier between the two lovers so that they cannot see each other that reminded me of the television programme Blind Date.
There is stalwart support from Jean-Philippe Lafont as Cendrillon's father and Ewa Podles as the stepmother. Madeleine Pieraud and Kai Ruutel play the not-so-ugly sisters. The two sisters do not have much singing to do but their amusing stage business, along with their mother, do much to enhance the charm of this production. This being a French opera, there are also a couple of ballets. I also like the maids in drab grey cardigans who assist Cendrillon in her transformation. They reminded me of the mice in the Walt Disney film but I suppose I got that the wrong way round since Massenet got there first.
The opera is directed by Laurent Pelly whose productions I either love or hate. He seems to excel at comedy, the problem being that he tries to turn everything into a comedy. No problem in this opera though. I also liked the design which was just two walls with the story of Cinderella, in French, written on them. The costumes are spectacular with the stepmother and the two daughters wearing fantastic creations that are huge at the hips tapering to nothing at the ankles.
Sadly, Joyce DiDonato does not get the big number at the end that you get in Cenerentola. Nevertheless this is an enchanting production of a rarely-heard opera.
La bohème (2010)
Hot in Abkhazia
At first glance, it is difficult to see why this production was filmed. Sky Arts bills it as John Copley's 2009 production of La Boheme but it is quite clearly a revival of his production which, incredibly, dates from the 1970s. I remember seeing the previous film of this production which was made in 1982 and starred Ileana Cotrubas. In fact, I think it is the first filmed opera that I ever saw and it is largely responsible for turning me on to the entire genre. It is not even as if the production is being revived as a star vehicle. Hibla Gerzmava may be hot in Abkhazia and Teodor Ilincai may be big in Romania but they are hardly household names.
However, having seen it, I am glad that it was filmed because it really is very good. John Copley effectively choreographs all the intricate bits of stage business that are so important to this opera. The ensemble scenes are particularly effective, foreshadowing Puccini's marshalling of much larger ensembles in La Fanciulla and Gianni Schicchi. Puccini's ideas here are quite groundbreaking, for instance when Mimi sings over Musetta's big number or where the big Act III love duet is interrupted by Marcello and Musetta arguing. Gerzmava and Ilincai are more than adequate as Mimi and Rodolfo. Gerzmava has a sweet, smallish voice which is not particularly a disadvantage in a filmed production. Ilincai lacks a bit of gravitas but he is most effective in that Act III duet "Addio, senza rancor. Best of the rest is Gabriele Viviani's endearing Marcello.
Although I have seen a dozen other Bohemes since seeing that 1982 version of this production, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and thought it was two hours well spent. Anyone watching La Boheme for the first time would be well served by this production.
Death in Venice (1981)
Beauty in the eye of the beholder
I recently saw the film of English National Opera's 2013 production of Death in Venice. It was interesting to compare it with this 1981 film, directed by Tony Palmer. The ENO production makes effective use of back-projections of Venetian locations whereas Palmer uses film of actual Venetian locations spliced together with scenes shot in a studio. It looks good, although the effect was somewhat marred in the fuzzy print that I saw.
This is very much a film, rather than a filmed opera. As the protagonist, Aschenbach, reflects upon his situation Palmer illustrates his thoughts. Also, controversially, he uses voice-over so that Aschenbach is seen silently musing while he sings on the soundtrack. Normally I would hate this but it seems to work and it helps in understanding the psychologically complex story to be able to see what Aschenback is thinking about. I could hear every word that tenor Robert Gard sang, something that could not be said for the ENO production where I had to listen with a synopsis in my hand. Only occasionally did I get the impression that I was watching a film with an operatic backing track.
John Shirley-Quirk successfully manages the seven cameo roles of various irritating people that Aschenbach comes into contact with. The object of Aschenbach's affection, the boy Tadzeo, played by Vincent Redman, is of course a non-singing, non-speaking role. To be honest, I found him less than beautiful beside his two beautiful sisters. Aschenbach, of course, does find him beautiful and describes his sisters as plain. I did enjoy the scene where the slender youth descends into a Turkish bath watched by fat naked Italians, a scene that is not in the opera but one that is used by Palmer to open out the action.
I like Britten's score with its sensitive orchestration and Balinese tinkling. Mifanwy Piper does her usual expert job on the libretto. Ultimately though this not one of my favourite Britten operas because I think the source material, the novella by Thomas Mann is too thin and, frankly, rather distasteful. I can understand why Britten empathised with this story of a dirty old man following an adolescent boy around Venice but it is a theme that probably does not have universal appeal.
There are plenty of daft opera directors in the world but Calixto Bieito has to be the daftest. In this 2011 production of Carmen he strips out everything that gives the opera its unique character. Instead of a wild gypsy in 19th century Seville we get a middle-aged factory worker dressed in a grey overall in a more-or-less modern setting. The stage is almost bare throughout, no tobacco factory, no Lillas Pastia's taverna, no mountains no Seville. Act I uses a bare stage apart from a telephone box and a flagpole. In Act II instead of a tavern we have a car. Act III features more men in cars. Is Bieito taking the title too literally? In Act IV Seville is represented by a circle drawn on a bare stage. I say more-or-less modern because Carmen is seen having a heated telephone conversation in the phone box on her first appearance. The same lack of mobile phone technology is seen later when Jose and Michaela take a selfie. They use a camera with a film in it which gives Jose the opportunity to rip out the film later when he unaccountably gets angry over something.
Ah, I hear you saying, Bieito has stripped the opera down to its essentials to lay bare the human conflict. I don't think so. This is a director who knows nothing about stage drama. He bungles scene after scene and cannot handle the most rudimentary stage business required to make the action plausible. Why, for example, does the Lieutenant take off his own belt at the end of Act I and hand it to Jose so that he can restrain Carmen? Why don't his trousers fall down?
What does Bieto bring to the party? The opera starts with a man running round the stage in his underpants. At the end of the first Act a woman, I don't know who, is hoist up a flagpole. A fat man wanders round in a string vest. Lillas Pastia looking for his taverna, perhaps? There is some fellatio and the final act starts with a man taking off all his clothes and dancing. So far so yawnworthy. I was more bothered though by a sexualised little girl dancing at the start of the second act.
Béatrice Uria-Monzon's Carmen lacks colour and characterisation. This is not surprising since she has to sing her habanera in a grey overall. The, normally reliable Roberto Alagna as Don Jose seems to be straining a bit in his upper register. Don Jose is supposed to be a broody character but most of the time Alagna looks as though he would rather be somewhere else. He is at his best when duetting with Marina Poplavskaya's lively Michaela. Erwin Schrott is a vocally effective Escamillo although he is not allowed to do much in Bieito's production. The production ends anticlimactically as neither Alagna nor Uria-Monzon can create sufficient tension in their final fatal confrontation.