Joseph Calleja

Bye bye Bohème

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

So, it begins: the last run of Covent Garden’s production of La Bohème by John Copley, originally premiered during the period of electricity cuts and the 3-day week in 1974 – in fact, on the eve of Edward Heath asking for a dissolution of Parliament for the February 1974 General Election. In contrast 2015’s final revival saw ample full-on star-wattage blazing, albeit distractingly at times, from the two lead performers. In the meantime, the production showed its steadfast muted colours by carrying the the story with convincing straightforwardness. Nice though it was to see it a last time, I confess myself ready for something with rather more insight.

Given my lack of success in seeing her on the Covent Garden stage in the past, it was pleasing to note that Anna Netrebko was indeed present – and then some. As the evening progressed the celebrity sheen was slowly dimmed in favour of her genuine acting talents. Vocally as well, she seemed to ‘free up’ as the performance went on, after a first act in which her vocal voluptuousness threatened to tip over into an excessively mezzo-ish tone with stodgy consonants. Nonetheless, she won me back over as she stood behind the tumbril in act 3 and reacted most movingly to Rodolfo’s changing explanations of why he had left her. At the close, she anchored the death scene with her stillness, matching her vocal beauty to the failing health of the character. (more…)

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…)

A romping good Faust

David McVicar’s Faust was back on the Royal Opera stage, and in rather good form. Gothic backdrops, a scene in the Cabaret L’Enfer, the Les Mis-style tricolore-waving crowd number, and Méphistophélès rocking up in a black diamanté-encrusted ball gown, all added to the fun. Throw in a few acrobatic shirtless demons for Méphistophélès’ retinue from the standard McVicar toolbox – as well as his characteristic concern for acting details, nicely recreated by revival director Bruno Ravella – and a long evening wasn’t quite as long as expected. (more…)

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. (more…)

Bohème 2012

As old as me, John Copley’s production of La Bohème creaked its way onto the Covent Garden stage for another outing. There’s no denying it’s extraordinarily effective, even if the more jaded amongst us might wish for the refreshing tonic of a new production. Then again, bearing in mind the ROH’s choice for a Rusalka production, it’s probably best we stick with this for the foreseeable. (more…)

Two treats

Two marvellous musical treats today: one live, one recorded. 

At Covent Garden, Renée Fleming was displaying her Violetta in the fast-becoming-a-warhorse Richard Eyre production of La Traviata.  With Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja alongside, and Pappano in the pit, it was probably the best revival of that production I’ve seen, having seen pretty much all of them.  Indeed, interestingly, it’s not far off 15 years since that Gheorghiu debut, and a matter of weeks from my 15th year anniversary of attending Covent Garden, so to see the production being so well inhabited and delivering its not inconsiderable goods so efficiently was a real treat.

Fleming was wonderful.  I’ve always had a bit of scepticism about her doing anything other than grand aristocratic ladies (Marschallins, Countesses, that sort of thing).  There’s something in both voice and demeanour which seems regal and somehow detached.  She misses that febrile intensity that you get with a Mattila or even the early Gheorghiu.  The voice is glorious, though, and there is something almost thrilling simply in the technical security of it.  However, in this Traviata, I think she won me over to something else.

The first act was not her strongest.  Somehow, she couldn’t get coquettish and flighty, either vocally or in acting terms, despite the most detailed and ‘active’ presentation of the work of any singer to inhabit the role.  Her performance was a wealth of detail and activity, but she still sounded just a little bit too glamorous and smooth.  The second act was amazing, however, and the pathos that she generated, coupled with a continued attention to all of the acting demands, was tremendous.  The best I’ve seen, I think, in this most wonderful of all operatic passages.  Her third act continued in this vein, with some heartbreaking declamatory moments at, for example, ‘e tardi!‘ and ‘Gran Dio, morir si giovine…‘.  I think act two, in particular, of Traviata is more verismo than Tosca or Butterfly could ever be.
Calleja has a remarkably strong voice which was effortless listening, with good shading even if the acting wasn’t quite as full-on as his co-star.  One blog noted that “he’s a little too easily flattened by Hurricane Renee“, but the security of his voice is thrilling.  Hampson is a little more the Germont père than when last I saw/heard him, and delivered Di Provenza il Mar in a way which belied its usual mild dullness.
I was also full of admiration for Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing:  a red-blooded account of the score that struck me as more exciting, more nuanced than I’ve heard since Solti conducted the premiere of this production.  We’ll miss him when he moves on…!
And we get to see it again next Friday.  So indulgent…
And the other treat?  Dame Felicity Lott in Fallen Women & Virtuous Wives on DVD.  An odd project, seemingly, involving some enthusiastic patrons who have invited the great lady to their country pad and video’d the show she did for the Wigmore Hall (and on tour).  It’s an odd setting, with no audience and each number fading out at the end, so it has a surreal stagey quality which is not entirely unsuited to the content.  There’s also a different frock for nearly every number, from simple empire lines to accompany Wapping Old Stairs and Haydn, through to dramatically art deco numbers for Coward and Weill.  It is recorded at a low volume, which is a bit frustrating, but this is a minor carp when the quality of the performances are considered.  I have to confess to being somewhat partisan when it comes to Lott, I think she’s utterly wonderful.  There is something of real pathos in her style and a really direct simplicity, which this DVD just enhances.  I love her doing Noël Coward – anyone who brings his work to greater attention is a star in my book – as well as her way of changing the mood at the appropriate moment in, for example, Was bekam die Soldaten Weib.  Thoroughly recommended.  Haven’t watched the accompanying documentary about Sussex yet but looking forward to it…