Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Memories of the Barber

I’d better catch up quickly on Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Covent Garden the other day (er, week?).  I went on the Friday the 21st AND Monday 24th, which was the result of taking friends on the Monday and being seduced (later) by a stalls seat offer for the preceding Friday.

Row B of the stalls, relatively central, was an odd experience.  Acoustically not as revelatory as expected and, viewpoint-wise, alternately thrilling and neck-achingly inconvenient (especially for surtitles).  When the box-shaped set lifts at the end of Act 1 for the rolling coup-de-théatre, it was as though you were watching people perform opera on the roof of your house.  And the tickets were (I’m sorry to inform the marketing wonks at the ROH) through the ‘Danny Knows Best‘ initiative, that rather game but slightly clunky attempt to seduce reality-show junkies through the doors of the nation’s most venerable lyric theatre.   Ah, well this old Friend got a bit of a treat anyhow.  Claiming the free champagne in the Floral Hall was like day 1 of the Horrids’ sale, though…  You wouldn’t believe it, but the Amphi bar is a much more pleasant experience! (more…)

Catching up (again)…

Yes, yes, I know… this is becoming a habit.  Another roundup of several things at once because I haven’t got around to writing anything about them sooner.  So, today we have:  Felicity Lott at the Hampstead & Highgate Festival; The Barber of Salisbury; and a quick reference to the (non-musical) Yes, Prime Minister (for the sake of getting it off my chest). (more…)

Hungarian State Opera (1 of 2)

Or should that be 2 of 3?  With snow drifting gently from the heavens, we hit the Hungarian State Opera for performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia (matinee) and Tosca.

Before giving a run-down on them, I should say the the combined cost of tickets for those two performances and for this evening’s Eugene Onegin – for two people – was a rather pleasing £65.  One side stalls for Barbiere, one way up in the gods with side view (albeit front row) for Tosca, and we’re not quite sure where we’ll be for Onegin.  I mention this simply because it informed our expectations.  Having seen a rather lacklustre Don Giovanni in Kraków, an OK Ariadne in Leipzig and an intermittently-impressive Tannhäuser in Dresden, we didn’t expect great things of the Hungarians.  We were pleasantly shaken out of our prejudices…

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What a topsy-turvy end to the opera season

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind of late.  To summarise:

  • Orpheus in the Underworld at Holland Park;
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia 13th July (Keenlyside long-since cancelled; JDF withdrew; DiDonato in a wheelchair);
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia live relay to Canary Wharf 15th July (JDF present; DiDonato still in wheelchair obviously; absolute downpour for duration of the overture…)
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia 18th July matinee (Colin Lee unwell, acted role, Toby Spence sang from wings; DiDonato still rolling around);
  • Tosca 18th July evening (Voigt withdrew, replaced by Nelly Miriciou to questionable effect).

This account of our opera-going doesn’t of course take account of the fact that Marcello Giordani had a night off from Tosca on 16th, and Georghiu, having had a crack at ‘heroine riding to the rescue’ found it all rather trying and had a night off to be replaced by Amanda Echalaz (great envy at missing that performance!).  It’s all been rather trying of late for the Covent Garden casting managers, I don’t doubt.

But starting with Orpheus in the Underworld… where to begin?  I think that, if you play Offenbach like G&S you’ll get something that owes more to G&S than Offenbach.  It was all posh D’Oyly Carte voices or over-acted mockney accents.  The only characterisations which really stood out for me were Juno (Jill Pert) and Public Opinion (Nuala Willis) who were marvellous, even though they had relatively little to sing and weren’t tremendously audible when they did.  The sparring leads I couldn’t quite get on with, Orpheus especially (Benjamin Segal), who was the main culprit for over-posh public-school-parody G&S style mannerisms.  Jenni Bern’s Eurydice had a pleasantly incisive voice that cut through the difficult acoustic and was not unattractive at all, delivering the more ‘sparkling’ moments effectively.  I couldn’t quite adjust, however, to the changes in accent between speaking (cockney) and singing (music college diction-and-vowels).  The stand-out singer-actor was Pluto/Aristaeus who was wonderfully sinuous as Pluto and Ben Fogle-ish posh-but-dim as Aristaeus, with strong voice to match.  There were some effective dance-sequences, and a realtively traditionally-staged can-can, all underskirts and whooping.

The production was reasonable, with a fairly interesting concept based around a Hollywood studio with a curious addition of a German director barking orders in ‘Allo ‘Allo style which failed really to catch light and overcome the discomfort that such displays are wont to induce.  The Paramount inspired tall set was effective, where a gold-suit clad Bacchus (which, alas, wasn’t quite as titillating as one might have hoped) emerged as the gong-striking centrepiece.  However, the question has to be asked: in a piece with as much going on as Orphée aux Enfers, do you really need a really strong overlaid narrative?  Frankly, I tend to think it rather speaks for itself in something simpler and has the potential to get just as much of a laugh – more so – and hang together more effectively.  Just see the Laurent Pelly DVD for that.

Orpheus was the first near-opera I ever saw:  in the Opera North production at the (then newly-restored) Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.  It bowled me over and probably started me on my operatic career.  I’m not sure that this one would have had the same effect…

So then to the Barbieres…  Oh, such utter delights married to such frustrations.  You will recall my irritation at the withdrawal of Florez because of the proximity of the 13th to the live relay on the 15th.  Colin Lee, as a number of Florez-ticketholding commenters have mentioned on various blogs, was indeed good, and particularly in the more lyrical moments, but the difference was noticeable in the rapid-fire passages where there was a very significant difference in the success with which they were negotiated.  He also appeared, dare I say, a little lumpen alongside a very sharp and detailed performance by many of the other cast members.  On the 18th, when he couldn’t sing, Toby Spence provided some of what was missing in the florid passages, and a generally ‘sharper’ delivery, but with him off to the side (out of sight for us in the left Upper Slips, and occasionally out of hearing as well), it added an alienation which was wearisome.  They omitted the last long passage for Almaviva, and I can’t say I missed it.

But the other performers were wonderful, utterly wonderful.  DiDonato is stunning, a rich voice, flexible and expressive, secure and beautiful, allied to detailed acting and tremendous intensity.  Worth each visit just for that.  And the wheelchair detracted next to nothing – a real tribute to her artistry, and those of colleagues on the whole.  Corbelli as Dr Bartolo was equally detailed, characterful and genuinely funny.  Furlanetto was luzury casting as Don Basilio, surely: he was fabulously creepy and comedic.  Spagnoli was a vibrant Figaro, with a voice that was a joy to listen to throughout, and fully into the role.  Finally, I enjoyed Jennifer Rhys-Davies’ Berta every bit as much as Elizabeth Gale’s in the previous run (to the extent that I misattributed the performance to Gale in an earlier draft of this blog, oops, sorry!): fabulously incisive and characterful.  In addition, her trashing of the room in the storm scene to Rosina’s instructions was so effective, and they communicated between each other so effectively and movingly, that this should be left in if the production is revived.  And it should be:  I don’t hold with the scepticism about the basic sets and the comic book presentation, I think it is joyous throughout.  And the Act 1 close with the whole set on hydraulics, swaying about, is just a wonderful theatrical device.  I did keep having pangs of worry about how close Joyce DiDonato was to this massive tumbling contraption, but no further injuries were sustained, I’m pleased to announce!

JDF was indeed wonderful, even sitting in the rain on a plastic groundsheet filling with water (me, not him), watching him on a giant BP Big Screen with the orchestral crescendos reverberating off the glass towers around us at Canary Wharf and dying away into the night.  It stopped chucking it down with rain at the end of the overture and we survived from then on.  Quite magical, in a compromised typically London sort of way.

And then Tosca.  Oh blimey.  Well, this has to be the coarsest Tosca I have yet come across.  The production is perfectly serviceable, for all that it still looks to me like the old one has just been given a good dusting and a reshuffle.  The directing of the revival had added in a couple of touches here and there which brought some additional life to things.  But there was an issue with the principals and the conducting which made even the ‘shabby little shocker’ look like the proverbial nut cowering under the descending sledge-hammer.

Terfel was wonderful – amazing in power, sinister, constantly alert to all that was happening, totally in command of the stage.  He was vocally on his best form, from the lithe beauty of the sinister passages to the out-and-out power of, for example, the Te Deum.  Worth the ticket price alone.

Which is good, because Marcello Giordani and Nelly Miriciou were not easy listening.  In one way, though, I suppose Giordani was relatively easy-listening because he was simply so loud.  Everything seemed to be loud, and E Lucevan le Stelle lacked any dramatic tension as a result, or the necessary inwardness.  It got cheered to the rafters, but there you go.

And then there’s Miriciou.  I was so looking forward to hearing her in this role (or indeed, just hearing her, since I don’t think I ever have).  I was a few years too late, though, I fear.  She was undoubtedly committed and again engaged in many details of the production, but the vocal sound was quite simply unpleasant.  It was unwieldy in rapid dramatic passages with some very questionable pitching (to my ears, anyway) in the upper-mid-range.  Vissi d’Arte was delivered with some style, and some beautiful moments, but it was not moving because of what surrounded it.  It was very disappointing, and I found it difficult to keep attention on the third act.  I read the very real esteem in which she is held and trust that this was either an off-day or this Tosca was taken on as a chance to stay in touch with a role which has been so significant.  I wasn’t initially disappointed by Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal, feeling that her portrayal would have been rather glossy and unengaged, if beautiful, and I wasn’t unhappy not to be seeing Angela’s Tosca again.  However, I have learned to be careful what I wish for…

Add onto that Jacques Lacombe’s unrelentingly loud and unsubtle conducting and you have a rather dispiriting end to the season, and an evening that left me with very slight ringing in my ears on the train on the way home, and not very much by way of satisfaction.  I left Tosca humming tunes from the afternoon’s Barbiere

So what lies ahead in the summer…?  The Mariinski Ring; Glyndebourne for Rusalka and Tristan und Isolde; Forbidden Broadway at the Chocolate Factory; avoidance of the Royal Albert Hall.  Maybe not a season end after all, then…

A Covent Garden grumble

We have tickets for Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  We splashed out on a box in the Balcony, and invited friends to join us.  The production is great fun, and the cast is exemplary.  So far, so good.

Then an e-mail arrives from the ROH.  Juan Diego Florez has pulled out.  He’s doing the live relay two days later and needs more than a day inbetween to ‘rest his voice’. 

I am seriously unimpressed and very unsympathetic.  The rest of the cast can cope.  Does he think it’s a picnic for Joyce DiDonato?  Or Alessandro Corbelli?  Live relays are not decided upon overnight:  they take substantial planning, so he must have known that it was going ahead at the time that we were all going through the ridiculous booking procedures to get the tickets (do you remember logging on, going through the absurd ‘waiting room’ for the ROH site, every morning for four days, to book each production in turn?)  So who’s at fault?  Well, maybe we won’t know, but I am due some compensation from either the ROH or JDF for the hassle they have put me through for this result.

And I am sure that the people who say that Colin Lee is good are not lying, and that he is indeed very worthy and able to take the place of Mr Florez.  That’s not the point though, I’m afraid…

And finally, the interesting twist comes when you look at the original press release that announces the 08/09 season.  It has Colin Lee down for this performance.  JDF was definitely down for the performance at the booking, but Colin Lee was down beforehand, and is now ‘stepping in’.  What are we to make of that?  I shall ask the Opera House and post the reply.

Grrrr…