Giuseppe Verdi

Bland Ballo

A monument at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Upheaval seems to be baked into Verdi’s 1859 opera Un ballo in maschera: it was begun as a tale about a Swedish king, shifted briefly (in conception) to Germany, then finally premiered as featuring colonial Boston. Now Katharina Thoma has shifted it to pre-First World War Austria-Hungary for Covent Garden’s new production. The assassination of Riccardo at the end is seemingly intended to evoke the spirit of events on the town hall steps in Sarajevo in June 1914.

Not that it matters, since this rather hammy melodrama streamrollers forth, paying no heed to the new window-dressing. Outer acts appear to look backward to the clunkier operations of Il Trovatore or Nabucco, whilst the central act in the ‘spooky’ graveyard has more of the developed, conversational writing on which Verdi’s reputation is more justly based. Picking up on the spooky graveyard theme, not to mention the supernatural invocations of fortune-teller Ulrica, Thoma has opted for an omnipresent pseudo-Gothic décor (minus the pointed arches, incidentally). When funerary monuments are not required, the cloisters and weighty doorframes are rearranged to form libraries, bedrooms, etc., but in essence most of the action, loosely directed, takes place in a wide open space in the middle of the stage. The graveyard scene did have some quite effective business with statuary coming to life to caress the distressed Amelia. Otherwise not particularly engaging, but I suppose not too offensive either. Given Covent Garden’s recent run of flirting with more interventionist directorial ideas, it’s at least a more benign form of failure for a new production. (more…)

When in Rome…

Last weekend was spent amidst the overwhelmingly abundant delights of Rome. Quite why I’m now, on my return, a bit worn out may be explained by the amount that we packed in to four days: Pantheon, Colosseum, Forum, Palatine, Castel Sant’Angelo, St Peter’s, Vatican Museum, Galleria Borghese, San Clemente, numerous smaller churches and a good deal of wandering around the streets of this fascinating city. Unsurprisingly, I’m still digesting it.

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma... nothing to see here, move along...

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma… nothing to see here, move along…

Sadly, there was nothing on at the Teatro dell’Opera to coincide with our visit, but we did get along to two musical events: one planned, the other impromptu. We had prebooked a concert by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in their newer home at the Parco della Musica at the north side of central Rome. And then, in our hotel, we picked up a leaflet for a ‘dinner-and-show’ package featuring La Traviata. Being at an otherwise loose end, we thought ‘why not?’ and booked it; it turned out to be surprisingly good. (more…)

I due Foscari

Window on the Ca' Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice. John Ruskin, plate VIII from The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Not an evening to provoke wild enthusiasm. Verdi’s 1844 opera struck me as being some long way short of his later masterpieces, whether or not a particularly persuasive case was made for it. Its greatest virtue was brevity: 111 minutes of run time, and a half hour interval. The half hour of chatting was more eventful, frankly. (more…)

Rigoletto back with a bang

Discounting the dreadful Anna Nicole, to which wild horses couldn’t drag me back a second time, the Royal Opera’s season opened with Verdi’s dark 1851 masterpiece, Rigoletto. On 27 September, it was a full-blooded performance of Italian vigour, and definitely one to blow the cobwebs away.

Maurizio Benini was on duty in the pit, driving the orchestra hard whilst still allowing space for the singers: the contrast was thrilling as the big set piece act-closers hoved into view… The storm of act 4 – surely one of Verdi’s most atmospheric effects, with the chorus providing the howling wind to follow the orchestral thunderclaps – was beautifully, hauntingly realised. The orchestra played wonderfully throughout, with particularly characterful brass and woodwind contributions and some very threatening timpani. (more…)

Damrau rules

After a week in New York, with five performances at the Met (andfor which I still haven’t processed all my notes to write it up – that will follow!), it was nice to be back at ‘home’ (aka Covent Garden) for a revival of the nigh-on 20-year old production of La Traviata. Particularly nice, because from the soprano point of view I can’t recall being quite so completely dumbstruck by a performance. (more…)

Les Vêpres Siciliennes

Erwin Schrott as Procida and dancers in Les Vêpres siciliennes © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013

Erwin Schrott as Procida and dancers in Les Vêpres siciliennes © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013 – click through to ROH Flickr for more

Les Vêpres Siciliennes has had something of a bumpy run, not dissimilar to the last relative rarity that the Royal Opera pulled out of the bag (Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable): casting became increasingly fluid as the première and the first couple of performances went on. This threatened to overshadow the much-anticipated debut of director Stefan Herheim and, indeed, the performance of a piece not seen before at Covent Garden. (more…)

Ranging widely in scale and depth

A week of contrasts. From the superb, visceral intimacy of Macbeth at Blackheath Halls, to the grandeur of Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden, and then on to the curiously overblown La Rondine, with an equally curiously underpowered heroine. (more…)