Pietro Spagnoli

My week at the Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center - Metropolitan Opera House

The Metropolitan Opera House at night, as the audience files out of Madama Butterfly

I have just returned from New York, a trip that was based around celebrating a ‘significant’ birthday. During the 8-day stay, we took in five operas at the Metropolitan Opera House and, since I didn’t take a laptop with me, one post-trip round-up will capture thoughts on them all.

Overall, it was great to ‘live’ a different operatic experience for a week: everything about the Met is gargantuan, including (to be blunt) its own sense of self and the resulting hyperbole. In contrast, those fellow audience members with whom we chatted were reassuringly down-to-earth, and we had some great discussions, comparing notes on singers and performances across the Atlantic. And yet, from the security guards, to the rather prickly (and not particularly well-informed) backstage tour guide, to the social conventions around the front of house, it is all just slightly starchy when compared, dare I say it, to Covent Garden: more emphasis on a ‘sense of occasion’ than a night in the theatre, perhaps.  Maybe it’s the shades of all those Rockerfellers, Astors and Vanederbilts etched into the marble foyer. (more…)

1840: a year of contrasts

Last night was, originally, to have been La Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden. However, when we got lucky with tickets for the Christian Gerhaher recital at Wigmore Hall, La Fille had to go – well, in fact we moved to last Sunday’s matinee. The contrast between the two was marked, to be sure. It’s a bit difficult to think back on Fille with Gerhaher’s glorious, and resolutely serious, Schumann still fresh in my ears. (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…)

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…