Oh, Carmen!

Dead Roses (c) Mark Tyson

(c) Mark Tyson

It is entirely possible that I was just not in the right mood last night, but I have to say that my spirits were not enlivened by the Royal Opera’s performance of Carmen. Having seen Francesca Zambello’s production a number of times over the years, I’d not really admitted just how absurd it is before now, what with the donkey and the horse for no reason other than gratuitous spectacle, together with a good deal of rather over-laboured ‘Spanishy’ dancing, on top of the perennially irritating children’s chorus that is built into the score. Maybe it was only more evident because the performance didn’t, on this occasion, ‘fly’. (more…)

Introducing ‘A Life in Opera Programmes’: Carmen, Royal Opera, 20 January 1947

I’ve long been thinking that, if this blog is to get a bit more interesting, then I need to branch out a bit from the current model, namely a string of my half-formed thoughts on recent opera performances.  My source of inspiration, for what will hopefully become a series of occasional posts, is my partner’s late uncle, Kenneth Wills.

Ken Wills Royal Opera Programme Collection (part)

Kenneth was an enthusiastic contributor to the work of a range of operatic companies in the Kent area, including Kentish* Opera as a chorus member, and other such heartwarming endeavours as the West Wickham Operatic Society.  He was a lifelong operagoer.  When he died, a few years ago, my partner’s aunt offered to us his carefully curated collection of opera programmes, the core of which is a collection of Royal Opera programmes, some annotated, some with signatures, and all catalogued, going back to 1947.  They make for a powerful account of a life dedicated to climbing those draughty stone steps from the side entrance up to the Amphitheatre of the pre-refurbishment Royal Opera House.  She retained the catalogue, to share the memories, so at some point – probably when my MBA dissertation is finally out of the way – I’ll create a substitute electronic catalogue.  For now though, it is interesting simply to dip in and reflect on individual performances from a life of operagoing expressed through this programme collection.  I hope also that it is, in some small way, a tribute to Ken Wills’ modest but determined contribution to opera, whether through Kent Opera or through being a loyal audience member at Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells and the Coliseum. (more…)

A tardy roundup 1 of 2: Carmen, Scriabin and a cut-down Ring

I’m supposed to be doing this as much for my benefit – to aid reflection – as for any reader.  I seem to be losing momentum.  Onwards…  there are a good couple of events worthy of an update.

In the vain hope that anyone is following, we last parted just as Carmen was looming on the horizon.  The production was the same reasonably picturesque but not terribly efficient affair it had been in previous incarnations.  Horses and donkeys were paraded; people abseiled in and out of the hideout; hoards of children did their thing in Act 1; and people made a great play of stomping about all over the tables at Lilas Pastia’s (word to the wise: if eating there, don’t scoop up food that falls off your plate, you don’t know who was last tramping, dancing or gyrating on that very spot, and I don’t think Lilas Pastia has a hygiene certificate).  Oh, and there was that naked-torso gymnast ostensibly there to entertain the crowds in Act 3, but also providing a pleasing diversion for us in our Balcony box…

I thought Alagna had more heft and body to his voice than I remember him having.  I came away quite impressed.  Maybe the hoo-ha with his wife has given him renewed vigour, but my recollections of him live are of a lighter voice.  I agree with the various people that have characterised Elina Garança’s Carmen as rather too shiny and glossy.  She did sound fabulous, and she must have been covered in bruises by the end of the run from being thrown on the floor so often in Act 3.  And whilst that was a tribute to her engagement in the drama, I did miss that earthy, vulgar, gritty tang that an outstanding Carmen has.  She was also unfortunate in that her predecessor (Anna Caterina Antonacci) could actually clack her own castanets, rather than passing up the honours to a man in a bow tie and DJ in the orchestra pit – I didn’t see his hips move once.  None of the others made quite that much of an impression on me.  I did so want to like Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Escamillio, but he was also a bit too mild-mannered, lacking that last ounce of heft which would have stood the character out from the crowd.  Ah well, it was an enjoyable romp.

At the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, a most curious confection was served up: Henk de Vlieger’s ‘Orchestral Adventure’ synthesised from the great orchestral moments of Wagner’s Ring.  The concert started with an interesting (and hitherto unknown to me) Scriabin Piano Concerto, which I couldn’t quite take in and follow but it was nevertheless a marker to come back to.  It sounded on first hearing like Rachmaninov shot through with lemon juice: rich, but with just a little more acid.  I will return… Yevgeny Sudbin was the pianist and I won’t attempt to comment – it’s not my particular study so I wouldn’t add anything insightful.  He played a Scriabin etude (so I’m told…) which was actually received with a stillness which I then realised had been missing from the concerto.  Interesting.

The Ring, reduced to a succession of bleeding chunks sewn together like a Frankenstein creation, was rollicking good fun.  It progressed, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes rather jarringly, from the Rhine, up to the Gods, down to Nibelheim, then back on up to Valhalla, skipped all of Act 1 of Walkure, flitted past the fight scene, then to the Ride and off to the magic fire, into idyllic Siegfried territory, via the dragon-slaying back to the fiery rock, thence a trip down the Rhine, off to the funeral and finally the great conflagration and vision of a new world.  A delight from beginning to end.  It would be so easy to be sniffy, but I can’t.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I had fleeting images of various Ring productions in my mind (I tried to banish the Mariinsky debacle), but equally I could just sit back and revel in the music free of the (inevitable) distractions.  A very worthy endeavour, and I am pleased to report being vindicated in that view by John Deathridge, whose pre-performance talk gave it a seal of approval, and invoked the shade of Wagner for a similar endorsement.  Neeme Järvi injected drama into the Royal Philharmonic and, overlooking some slightly off horns at some very exposed moments, gave the piece an impressive outing.