ROH canters to a close for 2011/12

Notes and half-formed thoughts on three performances from the closing weeks of the Royal Opera season are still hanging around, not set down for posterity. Since posterity likes completeness (not that it ever gets it), I’d better crack on.

Il Viaggio a Reims, 19 July 2012

We only managed half of this performance, with tiredness and general work intrusions finishing us off at the interval. This Jette Parker Young Artists’ 10th Anniversary reunion concert brought together old hands with more recent students and graduates. The orchestra of English National Opera were raised from the pit, presumably to allow the house band a much-needed night in front of the telly with a glass of Merlot, sandwiched as they were between performances of Otello and Les Troyens.  The emphasis was on vivid rather than refined,  but that was no bad thing, matching the bouncy energy of Daniele Rustioni’s reading, and the music was imbued with the requisite Rossinian bite. Singers came and went, most with score, a few able to detach themselves and, consequently, there was a mix of dramatic engagement.

Marina Poplavskaya was most dramatically engaged in her duet with Edgaras Montvidas’s well-sung Belfiore and, although enjoyable, it did little to efface memories of a distinctly wayward opening harp-accompanied melody. Her voice seems to be big and fulsome in the middle, and she displayed some lower tones that were quite intriguing, but it becomes unwieldy higher up, especially noticeable when being reined in for not-quite-controlled singing, which makes for some uncomfortable listening.  The star turn from what we saw of the first Act was Madeleine Pierard, whose showpiece about the loss of her wardrobe constituted an entire opera in itself. She threw herself into the camp histrionics with wonderful abandon, and a beautiful tone. I couldn’t warm to Ailish Tynan’s Madama Cortese, either, and none of the men really won through for me. Just one of those nights.

Otello, 21 July 2012

How different can two experiences be? This was a thrilling night of full-on Verdian thunder and power. Quite possibly the best night of the season.  The old Moshinsky production, which on previous outings I’ve thought clumsy, over-fussy and tired, was brought stormingly back to life. Light and shade were in abundance, the chorus where in effortlessly drilled splendour, and underpinning it all was an orchestral maelstrom of amazing detail and contrast, by turns elegantly supportive and astonishingly vivid. Pappano took the whole piece in his stride, perfectly structuring and shaping each act.

The Desdemona of Anja Harteros was one of the principal draws when the performances were announced, and her past cancellation form meant it was all-the-more eagerly anticipated as the run approached. She didn’t disappoint, and her voice – sensitive but strong, controlled but seemingly effortless – delivered pleasure after pleasure.  If she was a little cool in the Willow Song, it was a consistent part of a portrayal of dignity and poise, and was effaced by the purity and gleam of her tone. Magic stuff. Roll on next year’s Don Carlos.

Alexandrs Antonenko was her Otello, and a thing of frightening power and scale, convincingly the leader of battling armies. His descent into paranoid anger, turning so quickly to remorse in the final minutes, powered the on-stage drama. He had a big voice that he was able to deploy with agility and shade, always alert to shifting moods.

Alongside Antonenko, Lucio Gallo had a tough job to make Iago stand out – and he divided our little group. I though he was magnificent, fitting to the inch my conception of Iago as a low-rent playground bully, rather than the all-consuming evil force of a Scarpia. The programme interestingly quotes Arrigo Boito’s outline of the characters in Otello, where he says of Iago:

The grossest error, the most vulgar error an artist attempting to interpret this character could commit would be to represent him as a kind of human demon, to put a Mephistophelian sneer on his face and give him Satanic eyes.

Gallo insinuated himself into confidences with convincing deceptive suavity. His more slender voice aided this portrayal, even if others in our group looked for something more meaty and threatening. The wonders of art and the different responses it draws.

Antonio Poli was a slightly fey Cassio, unconvincingly the choice of Captain over Iago, but he sang with style, beauty and urgency as the need arose.  Hanna Hipp continued her winning run of supporting roles with a great performance as Emilia, wonderfully launching the closing passage as she reveals Iago’s deception.

Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Winners’ Concert, 25 July 2012

A very definite mixed bag, though certainly not a Curate’s Egg, of an evening. The orchestra of the Royal Opera House were on the stage where the ENO orchestra had been a week earlier, and they adapted to the varying styles of the repertoire – Wagner here, versimo there, a bit of bel canto never far away – with wondrous aplomb. They are an utter marvel, and London should be proud to have them as a foundation stone of its premier lyric theatre. Indeed, the same could be said of Pappano, who led the various items performed as though a master at them all.

Skipping over the less successful bits first, the presence of Rolando Villazòn was a typically partisan affair. Some loved him; for me his opening Kleinzach from Les Contes d’Hoffmann was singularly underwhelming. He sang down to the front rows of the Stalls instead of out to the theatre, was barely audible in parts, had variable tone, and no amount of hyperactivity with arms or eyebrows could redeem it. As the opening number, it was a dispiriting affair. He returned for an item from I Capuleti e I Montecchi after the interval, and again for O Mimì, tu più non torni from La Bohème with Domingo. The latter piece was better, but I’m afraid he suffered in the Bellini from standing in stark contrast to the reliably sensational Joyce DiDonato.

The contrast between that muddy Kleinzach and Joseph Calleja’s bright, clarion contribution to the duet Caro elisir! from L’Elisir d’Amore couldn’t have been more unfortunate, with Sonya Yoncheva proving a fresh-voiced Adina. Calleja rounded off the solos with about as stylish a performance of that old potboiler Nessun dorma as I think I have ever heard or am likely to for a long time. For something so oft-heard, it’s a great thrill when someone so evidently seems to have really thought about and shaped each phrase, not to mention when they despatch them with such ringing, fulsome tone.

Amongst other solos, Joyce DiDonato gave us a glimpse of next year’s Rossini treat, La Donna del lago, with all the style and vocal luxury we’ve come to expect applied to Tanti affretti. Stefan Pop was slightly constricted of tone and couldn’t redeem what is (for me, anyway!) one of Verdi’s most dull tenor numbers, La donna è mobile or bring very much ‘different’ to Che gelida manina, pleasant though it was. Julia Novikova gave us Ah! non credea mirarti from La Sonnambula, with a distractingly physical way of negotiating the coloratura, and uneven volume between the agile and more steady passages, but overall a broadly satisfying result. Two of the crowning solo moments, though, came from Domingo and Sonya Yoncheva. She took on Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise (until then unknown to me), which was despatched with such a still, affecting and captivating pathos. Plácido Domingo essayed the baritone role of Gérard from Andrea Chenier, with a wonderful Nemico della patria. Nina Stemme threw out Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser as though it were nothing, the result being very definitely something.

Great as these solo pieces were, Stemme and Domingo weren’t on quite such good form in Siegmund and Sieglinde’s Act 1 duet from Die Walküre: Du bist der Lenz didn’t seem to sit easily for her, and it followed on from a distinctly bumpy Winterstürme by Domingo, some still-wonderful tone notwithstanding. Domingo was better – if a little hesitant, reading from the score – in the Pearlfishers’ duet with Calleja, and really rose to a sensational Act 2 close from Rigoletto, with Novikova delivering a winning Gilda, more successful than her Sonnambula.

For an encore, we got Chi mi frena in tal momento, from Lucia di Lammermoor, with multiple Lucias, Edgardos and everything. Great fun. The evening was intercut with films of singers talking about the Operalia competition and how it had helped their careers, all of which will apparently be packaged into a DVD at some point. All in all, a sensational evening, with just a few tricky moments, but not enough to prevent us being sent jubilant into the Covent Garden night. A tremendous curtain-down on the ROH 2011/12 season.

[Thanks to the ROH running out of programmes, you can download a copy here, or check out the on-the-day running order here (revised to take account of the late withdrawal of Erwin Schrott.]

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