opera reviews

Opera reviews

Lohengrin, Bayerische Staatsoper, March 31st 2016

I had booked for Klaus Florian Vogt, in the title role of this, one of his fêted roles. I was disappointed to see he was to be replaced. Burkhard Fritz was an unknown singer to me, but by the close of this show, I was won over, indeed, moved by his performance.

Here was a Lohengrin of humanity – and it worked. Fritz’s is not quite the angelic mein of Vogt, the paladin straight from Monsalvat, not the stolid crusader one imagines Robert Dean Smith (another replacement) may have done , nor the dream(swan)boat of Jonas Kaufmann. My fellow opera go-er friend likened him more to looking like a psychiatric nurse. The tracksuit with silver stripes and the blue t-shirt are a world away from more traditional productions. (I recall footage of Domingo in full armour off Youtube…). Director Richard Jones shies away from this imagery, and produces instead a cogent work which moves right to the core of Wagner’s concerns. In the hands of Fritz, the work was done good justice. He doesn’t have the strongest, nor the loudest voice but that’s not his selling point. He made up for any quibbles about his voice by investing his performance with sincerity and belief. the text flowed through him, and the libretto was given depth by virtue of nuance, perhaps more instinct than from study. Partly this may be because he was rather a last minute choice, without much time to prepare and partly too, because Mr Fritz is a stage animal, with good stage instincts. The performance was full of splendid moments.

I like Jones’ staging, where a house is raised almost before an audience’s eyes – much easier to build than a castle! – as it links the two lovers together, and becomes something they share. This Lohengrin’s love for Elsa was pure and strong. He kissed her on the forehead in gentle tenderness when in the house and laid down a cot with the light of hope and promise on his face. The remorse he felt  at Telramund’s slaying was shattering to see.  Knowing his life at Brabant over, we saw his sorrow as he knew that cot would be empty forever. We saw him take it down and then raze the house with fire. The interior journey, its movement from joy then in to pain was fully human, and if not quite in keeping with the idea of a pure Knight of Faith, then forgiveable because affecting, in keeping with Wagner’s setting of a doomed love.

Whereas Vogt often sings”In fernem land” as if witnessing the beatific, a vision as Wagner intended (Nelsons helps here of course), and Kaufmann’s care for cadence and attack work to suggest true nobility, Fritz brought forth from within himself memory, love, a saudade of a kind, and a grief at losing Elsa. His hands held together in contemplation, resolve and prayer, Fritz drew us all to him, and to his story (except the gentleman behind me who noisily cleared his throat as the aria was a few line young.) When remembering his father Lohengrin hugged the invisible form of the King to himself; one saw the grail before him and knew he had seen Monsalvat and loved it, and at the fatal utterance “bin Lohengrin genannt” his voice cracked (with sorrow, not force or shaky technique) at “bin”. Unfeigned, I think, and more powerful for it.

Summoning his swan (“Mein lieber Schwan”) he knelt at front of the stage over the pit and beckoned to its imaginary form, as it came closer he stroked it in affection and love. This was a man for whom Lohengrin the man and Lohengrin the opera mattered, and as such, it mattered for us.

Edith Haller as Elsa had an agile, youthful voice perhaps chosen for its potential match with Vogt. Some greater intensity of acting would have been good to have had, but her pairing with Fritz worked fine.

Günther Groissböck as the King was sonorous and one empathised with his conduct, his difficult position of leadership. Petra Lang seemed a little underpowered when she was not declaiming (but her declaiming “Gott?” was rather chilling!). She could do this role in her sleep I think, and certain critics might charge her with doing so, lately. Thomas J. Mayer as Telramund her husband gave  a strong performance, but not perhaps as evil as I would have liked. Notable for me was one of his henchmen, Tim Kuypers, who lent sincerity to his role and belief in the libretto. A stand-out performance, and a singer to keep an eye on.

Lothar Koenigs‘s conducting was of a generally high quality, but I would have enjoyed a more numinous accent to the opening of the whole work, and some more celestial shading at moments needing it.  (I don’t ask much, right?) The choir of the Staatsoper performed well, but some acting was variable, as was their “you’re on stage” discipline. Shuffling feet and wiping noses may be natural but can be a bit distracting! I enjoyed the fanfare trumpets being distributed around the house, aurally involving the audience, and it was a pleasure to see Utz and Jones’ intelligent staging of this magical text unfold before my eyes. Worth the trip.

Tosca-Gheorghiu, Youn, Massi – January 12 2016 – the Royal Opera House

“Where else can you pay £16 and experience world class opera?” enthused the man next to me, enthusing likewise to his son, at his first ever opera performance. Normally I am as enthusiastic about value for money, and credit must go to Arts Council for heavily subsidising the ROH, otherwise tickets would be at least a third more expensive. Normally I am a boring proselytiser for value for money/accessibility  (as opposed to being normally just boring.) We were, the man said, being treated to world class opera in one of the top five opera houses in the world with top name stars.
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La Bohème – Winters, Borichevsky, Rock – The Coliseum/ENO, 31st October 2015

I was – perhaps for the first time ever – offended by something I saw in an opera house.

I confess I admire Bohème. It has a touch of romance, tragedy and good music when well-played. This performance really had none of those elements.

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Ariadne auf Naxos – Mattila, Smith, Archibald, Donose – October 10th 2015 – The Royal Opera House

Part I

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange thing. Part light comedy (Prologue), part drama (The Opera) and at times a weird mixture of both (The Opera, again). Strauss seems to be playing with our expectations of what those forms of entertainment mean and what they can offer us of value.

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Turandot – Alvarez, Goerke, Morris, Gerzmava – September 23 2015 – The Metropolitan Opera

The audience applauded the scenery in Act two, Turandot’s golden palace emerging as if by magic from the darkness: wonderful coup de theatre, a moment still effective in this now venerable production.

Zeffirelli’s treatment is his usual: opera aiming to compete with film for possibilities of spectacle, this Turandot aiming to feast the eye at least, as Puccini tickles the ear (for me, Turandot will never nourish the soul as his Boheme might). The whole thing feels late 1960s epic film: never a dull visual, literalist in intent, overawing. The maximalist treatment (acrobats tumbling, Fu Manchu moustaches, a Chinese dragon puppet, scimitars and slanted eye makeup, costumes of ostentatious magnificence) speaks of a horror vacui: cram it in and hope the music helps, and the singing too.

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L’amore dei tre Re – Opera Holland Park, July 25 2015

L’amore dei tre Re was easily sat through and easily enjoyed. Montemezzi knew how to squeeze a good story into 90 minutes. In the grand old tradition of opera (or Shakespeare too, I guess) just about everyone dies. Further, as ever, the cause of conflict (since Homer, I guess) is – you guessed it – a woman.  Natalya Romaniw‘s princess Fiora sends three guys mad for her beauty.

The guys: local lad Avito (Joel Montero) semi-dumped by Fiora when she is forced into marrying the conquering prince Manfredo (Simon Thorpe) by his father Archiboldo (Mikhail Svetlov) who also has a bit of a thing for Fiora – so much so that he kills her.

I could see why the guys fell for her: Fiora has a romantic heart and soul, and judging by the incredible amount of kissing in this production (yes, even beyond usual operatic proportions – themselves beyond the wildest excesses of everyday life – or maybe that’s just me and my life…and if so, well, I want more operatic kissing in my life…) she is ardent hearted too. Romaniw was truly excellent in the role. Actually her kissing alone – to say nothing of her singing – was pretty no-holds-barred (some holds and clutches actually happily exploited) and I always feel bad for opera kissers because one day you will have to kiss someone who makes you go “no thanks” and you have to kiss them in rehearsal, dress rehearsal, then night after night and in public. The stupendous amount of kissing seemed to be director Martin Lloyd Evans‘s way of showing us passion, which seemed to be over-egging the operatic pudding a bit, but I got the message in the end: Avito and Fiora really have the hots for each other. I think the snogging gave it away.

But back to Romaniw’s Fiora. In seriousness, she was well acted and more importantly, well sung: many moments genuinely thrilled. When she declaimed “do you want my life?” dramatic tension flew high because notes were easy and gloriously produced. Similarly when Fiora cries out that her life is “torture!” the same remarkable intensity was in evidence. Her voice sliced through the orchestra with ease. Her performance was gifted with clear diction and more, investment in the text and in the role – truly a superb performance. At one point Avito – the name means “sweet death” she says, declares that her voice sounds “like sweet enchantment” and I agreed. L’amore dei tre Re was worth the trip just to hear and see Romaniw’s powerhouse performance.

L’amore dei tre Re - Italo Montemezzi - Opera Holland Park - 22nd July 2015

Fiora and Avito: illicit love never ends well! (Photo: Robert Workman)

Mr Montero may have been suffering from a cold or was a little slow to warm up at the performance I saw. (OHP wasn’t too warm itself that evening). Intonation was a bit wayward in his first few lines and occasionally throughout Act 1. By the final act he was fine. Chemistry didn’t truly sizzle between him and his Fiora – hence perhaps the massive amount of rubbing and kissing attempting to light the fire at this melodrama’s heart. That aside, he took some of Montemezzi’s crazy climaxes and stridencies in his stride. Bravo!

Montemezzi’s horribly cuckolded Manfredo manages to be infinitely forgiving of his wife – a neat device for drama. Simon Thorpe well embodied the love and anguish and yes, pity through which his character moves. Manfredo is in danger of coming across a bit of a wet blanket because of this tender heart – the libretto has him say he could not hear his wife’s approach as she is an angel with noiseless footsteps. These tweeful sentiments could quite easily smother the drama but it was to Thorpe’s credit that he sustained the balance between loving sweetness and later vengeful fervor. One is rather reminded of Otello (strong warrior absent by war suspects his wife of infidelity, only here it is true – she is shacking up with another guy.) Particularly touching were his last moments with his dead wife in the chapel.

Simon Thorpe (l) and Mikhail Svetlov (r) as Manfredo and Archiboldo in OHP;s L'amore dei tre Re

Simon Thorpe (l) and Mikhail Svetlov (r) as Manfredo and Archiboldo in OHP’s L’amore dei tre Re. (Photo: Robert Workman)

The last king was Archiboldo: pure evil in the grand Verdian tradition, and sung as such, his “Italia, Italia è tutto il mio ricordo!” aria garnering applause, partly due to Svetlov’s grandstanding approach to it. Playing a blind man is not easy, the gaze is important in any drama but I credit him with more than convincing acting. The scene where he dispatches Fiora in a pseudo-sexual act of strangulation (Otello again?) was pulse quickenly gripping – not least because of Romaniw’s strangulated cries and desperate wheezing. Chilling, and effective. Not many opera villains get summarily executed with a shot to the cerebellum but the Chekist looking thugs of the supernumeries decided that was the best way to be rid of this particular man. Again, chilling, plausible and well done.

This execution took place on exposed steps up high on Jamie Vartan‘s stage set, the stage itself a cube edge on, with steps on the outside and a door at the bottom. This meant that anyone at the sides (e.g. me in my “Inspire” seat) lost a small bit of sound and action, but for Inspire prices, I didn’t mind at all.

Speaking of action, Aled Hall‘s Flaminio – a soldier, was well given. He was every inch the stolid dependable military man, and well sung. I also would like to add that he spent almost the entire opera jogging off and onstage, and this was actually really convincing too, but I would have liked to have heard more of his singing. (Good arm position whilst jogging by the way, Mr Hall: small details count. As I said, “every inch the soldier.” Two thumbs up.)
Finally I must mention Jessica Eccleston as Fiora’s maid. Intimate opera such as here at Holland Park, where really there’s no poor seats, often reveals the true devotees of the operatic art. I don’t refer to the stars in the spotlights but to those hidden in ensemble and chorus. Although the part of the maid didn’t have Eccleston sing much (though when she did, it was lovely,) she did have to show grief and pay her respects to her dead mistress as part of a mournful ensemble. In that small moment she was the best thing in the whole show (which is saying something). Even as I write these words at a remove of nearly a month her expression and approach has stayed with me. She acted her socks off and it was amazing to watch. It was a quietly mesmerising performance. Were I a casting director she would have got a call the next day with offers – as would a guy I saw in Garsington Opera in Fidelio last year who was a member of Florestan’s imprisoned fellows. When released to taste the open air in an act of compassion by the prison boss the fellow made me utterly believe in his delight and astonishment at being momentarily free from care and privation; he made me believe that his soul was in spiritual release. On his face was writ emotion beyond gratitude, almost a look beyond acting – it was being lived. He was deeply moved and I will never forget that look, nor those moments. Similarly with Eccleston: emotion in spades, maybe some real tears-in-the-eyes. Splendid to see. Moments such as these are why I love the arts.

The chorus themselves were strong in voice. I am a fan of offstage chorus singing and this opera has some great bits of it, the prayer to God section especially sweetly sung.

Archiboldo meets his end.

Archiboldo meets his end. (Photo: Robert Workman)

Peter Robinson‘s conducting of the City of London Sinfonia was assured, the band whipping through the notes with aplomb but perhaps at times they nearly drowned some of the cast out! I do however wish to give special mention to the timpanist. My seat afforded me an excellent view of his art and it was a pleasure to see and hear his work from up close in this music, which made full use of his skills.

In all, a great evening out.

The Queen of Spades – English National Opera – June 19th 2015

I had expected Tchaikovsky but I had not expected an orgy in animal costume during the intermezzo, which I also got*. Actually in essence I got three hours of Alden madness, to the detriment of Tchaikovsky’s very fine score, which not even some excellent singing or playing could quite overcome.

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Carmen – English National Opera – Gringyte, Cutler, Melrose, Dennis, Lois – June 14th 2015

Calixto Bietio’s interpretative decisions usually upset either sensibilities or preconceptions. I for one greatly enjoy his bizarre tamperings and excursions into opera. It may be Regie, but it is intelligent regie. More than any other director, Bieito’s choices always refract the modern world through opera’s lens: no mean feat for works that might be hundreds of years old.  Which is why this staging of Carmen was surprising: it wasn’t greatly upsetting or contentious.

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Krol Roger – Kwiecien, Jarman, Pirgu, The Royal Opera House, May 6th 2015

Perhaps this production will become (in)famous for featuring a really big head onstage. We’re talking about fifty feet high or something. Certainly it didn’t have much else to recommend it, apart from some admittedly fine singing here and there, of which more later. “Roger” is an opera I like a lot, mainly for the libretto by Szymanowski and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and for the shifting leitmotiv filled musical score. To my mind Holten didn’t do it full justice.

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Die Zauberflöte – Breslik, Karg, Werba, Siminska, February 28th 2015

What a joyous, fun evening of music and comedy this was.

Schikaneder’s libretto explores high aspirations (human brotherhood, enlightenment) and gentle humour (Papagena’s “Padlock moment”, his search for a woman) and Mozart’s music brings all up into the highest art.  When it works, as here, it truly does propagate happiness. Yes, its chief concerns (the attainment of wisdom, knowledge etc,) are Enlightenment tropes which our “postmodern” times scoff at. Too, there are intimations of the Masonic, which are perhaps again, not relevant to our age. But who truly cares about that when the spectacle is done well?

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