Summer diversions

As we await the start of the Covent Garden season, as ever there is plenty to amuse. As well as the Proms, which I can’t really say ‘amused’ but had their moments, the last couple of weeks saw a Glyndebourne foray into the French Baroque (Hippolyte et Aricie) and the Bolshio’s Swan Lake washing up at Covent Garden.

The Glyndebourne Hippolyte et Aricie

The Glyndebourne visit was, actually, one of the more disappointing experiences I have had in the Sussex Downs. Musically, everything was in fine fettle, except a minor disappointment in that I hadn’t noticed when booking that William Christie was not conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, having handed the baton over to Jonathan Cohen for the last four performances. Cohen was slightly more sprightly, I fancied, than Christie’s performance (as available online), and he kept everything in crisp form, some minor stage-pit tentativeness aside; the OAE gave a  beautifully plangent sound to the tragedy. Crowned by Sarah Connolly as a burningly intense Phaedre, the family tale included a robust Stéphane Degout as her husband Theseus, Ed Lyon as the virile and impetuous stepson, Hippolytus, and Christiane Karg, singing with immediacy and purity as his lover, Aricia. The family were caught up in the power-play of the Gods: Ana Quintans a punkish Cupid despoiling the cool realm of Diana, played by Katherine Watson as a stand-in for Stéphanie D’Oustrac in slightly low-key style despite ravishing costumes. Anyway, in summary, there were vocal delights a-plenty.

Visually, the production was, I’m afraid, something of a dog’s breakfast. The preposterous opening scene was founded on a pathetic triviality: Diana’s world is cool, chaste, frigid = a fridge. Yeah, yeah, I know – anyway, check out the photos around the web for yourself. After a scene in which everyone danced around the broccoli spears, we moved into Hell, which was a pleasantly diverting scene of infernal unpleasantnesses, again providing a rather spectacular set of costumes, especially for François Lis’s Pluto (just one of three senior Gods he played). Thence to a Habitat-inspired ’70s setting for the ‘soap opera’ antics of this dysfunctional family which, whilst I quite liked it as a setting, failed to connect to what had gone before. Finally, it all ended in a completely soulless morgue scene, which robbed the long, discursive closing passages of much of their interest. To be honest, I felt the whole thing rather petered out. Whilst that may have been partly Rameau’s construction, the haphazard production did little to help. Oh! for David McVicar’s more sure, confident touch, as in Charpentier’s Medée at ENO: at least he gave the impression of believing in the piece, which problem is seemingly becoming a common stumbling block with current exploration of the French Baroque. Glyndebourne’s Rameau, I’m afraid, had too much in common with Barrie Kosky’s oh-too-clever Castor et Pollux: the effort to ‘sex it up’ for our supposedly disinterested times tending to crush the piece in the process.

The Bolshoi Swan Lake

Some of the production visuals were among the most impressive things about the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake, brought to Covent Garden by the less-than-tender ministrations of the Hochhausers. Cue absurdly overpriced tickets and programmes, and slightly disappointing experiences when set aside a typical night during the season at the Royal Opera House. We saw the matinee on 10 August and, in a rather conventional sort of way, there was a nice sense of atmosphere about the piece, particularly the transitions from court to lake, and the magical first appearance of the swans. The ending, however, was odd and (a bit like Hippolyte) it sort of rambled to a close, which is not the dramatic climax to Swan Lake I recall from previous experiences. I’m aware that there are controversies about this version of the piece, by Yuri Grigorovich, but can’t really tell you whether this is a facet of it – it certainly seemed a less sure ending to the work.

Musically, the orchestra, I’m sorry to say, sounded thin, scrappy in places, and with shaky intonation. Things improved as it went on, but it was a long way from the rich, clean sound of that particular pit’s usual occupants. The aural experience was, as is usual at ballet, and especially a matinee, augmented by talking and the occasional squeaks, yelps and whines of children from distantly expensive parts of the theatre.

Not being a balletomane, I find it difficult to reflect on dance performances.  Kristina Kretova danced Odette/Odile and Dmitri Gudanov took Prince Siegfried. Neither really gripped me. Kretova displayed considerable grace, but Gudanov’s choreography seemed to give him relatively little to really do – and for a while, everything seemed to end with him pausing, taking two steps, and executing a very fast spin as the music came to a close – all of which got a bit repetitive. Some of the secondary roles (whose names I don’t have to hand) were impressively taken for set piece dances: the foreign princesses in particular, and a very notable performance of sharp, crisp and expressive movement from the Jester. The corps de ballet made the most notable impression on me of those I have seen: a real sense of well-drilled ‘togetherness’, the force of which added considerably to the effect, especially in the swan scenes.

The constant stop-start of applause, and the fractured storyline that resulted, became a bit tedious, particularly by the end of the first act. I really struggle to adjust to the exaggerated applause etiquette of ballet compared to opera, and there were a number of points at which the audience had quite finished their applause, thanks very much, but a few steps down to the footlights demanded it be revived.

It was an interesting afternoon, and Mum loved it so that was the main thing. For me, I’m looking forward to getting back to the ROH main season.

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