Renee Fleming

A sublime end to the season

21 July 2013 – I slept quite badly that night. My first live encounter (and first full-through encounter, for that matter) with Capriccio by Richard Strauss. I floated home completely transfixed and couldn’t go straight to bed. Whether the warmth or the power of the music, it seemed to be with me throughout the night as I drifted in and out of sleep, my mind having been completely switched on to abstruse aesthetic debates. Full moon without. The Mondscheinmusik within. Utterly intoxicating. (more…)

Bad boy Bryn does good

The end of another week.  As the dust settles, it’s in order to set down a  note of the enjoyment provided by Bryn’s concert at the RFH on Wednesday.

Having carped about ‘sing the CD’ concerts in connection with Renee Fleming’s rather mediocre effort the week before, I have to say that this show, based on Bryn’s recent (and, in my humble opinion., rather good) CD release ‘Bad Boys’, worked rather well.  The reason lies principally in Bryn’s force of personality, which made you forgive the orchestra being not top-notch, the chorus being a little less than that, and the whole thing having a distinct whiff of marketing, not least in the £5 Gubbay programmes (no libretto/translation, please note).

Different costumes accompanied each number, even if it was only a differently-coloured scarf draped around his suit jacket, which conjured up a rather raffish Poirot dinner party image.  A rifle accompanied Kaspar for the number from Der Freischutz and Dr Dulcamara carried his potions in a capaciously-pocketed cloak.  This included a bottle of the beer which was, I assume, of the brand with which Bryn’s programme bio gleefully reported him as having a “proud association”.  With so many proud associations, my side-on slips seat (which was worse than the website implied, SBC please note) suddenly seemed steep at £35.  Surely Rolex et al were subsidising it?  Oh, silly me, there’s the Grubbay factor.  Why do I feel so out of step with the world of today?  Sigh.

The numbers were, however, reasonably generous.  Freischutz, Faust, Mefistofele, Tosca (the highlight), Sweeney Todd (not the best choice from that piece), Threepenny Opera, Otello and an encore from Les Mis. But the stop-start feeling was generated by the regular detours to display the Sinfonia Cymru’s skills:  Danse Macabre, Faust ballet music, Night on Bare Mountain, that sort of thing.  The Faust Soldiers’ Chorus (sung in English) was a good display of full-on singing by the London Welsh Chorale, but I fear that their other interventions sounded less exciting: it all seemed a bit woolly and whispy in alternating measure.  Sinfonia Cymru were good, I thought, and gave us both full-throttle and sensitive moments with finesse and, to be honest, rather fewer horn-fluffs than there had been in the LPO’s Wagner/Scriabin concert of the other week.

The Sweeney Todd number was “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” instead of the CD’s offering of the Epiphany, presumably because the chorus were present rather than a Mrs Lovett (I’m not sure that Anne Sofie von Otter will make a landmark Mrs Lovett based on the disc’s evidence…)  However, in the audience there was one Maria Friedman so I did briefly entertain hopes of a call for ‘is there a Mrs Lovett in the audience?’, but alas…  She sat a couple of seats from Sir Ian McKellen, who provided one of the unintentional highlights of the evening when he cringed endearingly at the broadcast of his exhortation to switch off our mobiles, not cough, etc.  Awww…

We sang Bryn happy birthday as well (“better than Cardiff,” he admitted sotto voce), albeit at his own instigation which is rather cheeky.  And it was in these little moments that any misgivings evaporated about the marketing hype, Grubbay-managed, over-priced roadshow quality of the evening.  Despite some stilted verbiage in between numbers, those numbers were delivered with absolute commitment and in fine voice, with all of the dramatic engagement and nuanced singing that we expect from Bryn Terfel.  All in all, it was good fun, even if (despite all I’ve just said) the only really, absolutely top-flight number that really got the goosebumps going was the Tosca number that closed the first half.  I still don’t like the ‘sing the CD’ roadshow concept, but I do think Bryn brought it off:  with the starchy formal classical concert atmosphere set aside, enough fun prevailed to banish the misgivings. 

Then there was a signing in the Foyer, so I have pictures and we have a pleasant scrawl across the programme from our reigning operatic villain.  Lovely.  We trotted off home humming Stars from Les Miserables (not the best thing of the night, but the last thing of the night – and it stuck in my head!) and smiling.  For a Wednesday, what more can you ask?  Ta Bryn!

[A further quick note:  the ‘other half’ took himself off to Angela Gheorghiu at the RFH the other day.  Summary: far from full, which raises the question of whether the postponement had pee’d people off a bit too much, but she sang reasonably generously, gave four encores, spent some time singing to the people in the choir (which feels like quite a nice gesture) and at one point she forgot the words and stopped the number to consult the conductor’s score… Oo-er.]

Two very different visits to the Royal Festival Hall

Tuesday and Wednesday evenings of this week were both spent at the Royal Festival Hall.  The two evenings couldn’t have been more different.

First off was Renee Fleming and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Charles Dutoit whipping up the storms.  To say it was Renee Fleming and the RPO is a bit of an exaggeration; as has been remarked elsewhere (see comment thread in particular), it was the RPO with a brief appearance by Fleming to lighten the mood.  It was an oddly unbalanced concert to say the least.

For starters, it was a ‘sing the CD’ affair.  Something to plug?  Book the Festival Hall.  With Fleming, Terfel, Gheorghiu, Netrebko and Hvorostovsky all passing through in the space of a few weeks, it rather feels that the resident orchestras are only required to really put their minds to what to do to fill in the gaps left by the record company managements.  I may well be being unfair, and this may indeed be an exaggeration, but this concert left an unpleasant taste and I therefore feel that a bit of grumpiness is not out of place.

Two Romeo & Juliets – Prokofiev in the first half, Tchaikovsky in the second – were complemented by a few arias from Fleming’s Verismo disc (two by Leoncavallo, one each for Giordani and Puccini) and Eugene Onegin’s letter scene.  It didn’t add up to a whole lot.  Oh, and we had “one encore” (specifically announced in what felt like a ‘this is all you’re getting so make the most of it’ way): O mio babbino caro.  We sat in the choir so admired the back of her gown and the back of her head.  Sound wasn’t great, obviously, but what came across most vividly was the Manon Lescaut item (sola, perduta, abandonnata).  The others seemed to trot by rather blandly.  Sat within spitting distance of the brass and timpani (we restrained ourselves, obviously), the Prokofiev was an intermittently rumbustious affair.

Then Wednesday: the LPO tackled Wagner and Bruckner, with Petra Lang present to deliver a rich, fine Wesendonck Lieder, all led by Christoph Eschenbach.  This was a much more satisfactory affair all round.  Eschenbach was marvellous to watch, as he communicated the more expansive and climactic moments vividly.  If bits of Wagner have to be wrenched free of their settings, then I’ll take the Tannhauser overture quite happily, especially when played (as here) in a way that really ratchets the tension in the build-up to that glorious full-on rendition of the Pilgrims’ Chorus over squiggly violin motifs (that’s a technical term, by the way).  The Wesendonck Lieder were, as I say, rather wonderful.  Having last seen/heard Petra Lang munching her way through already well-chewed scenery in the ROH’s Lohengrin, with full-on vocal dramatics, I wasn’t expecting so refined and controlled a performance.  It was magnetic, with gorgeous tone throughout, and a rapt concentration that was held to the very end when Eschenbach took a good 10-15 seconds to drop his baton slowly in a silent Hall.  Magic.  And how very different from the atmosphere in the same hall the previous night.

I don’t understand Bruckner, and I think it will be a while before I do.  I like it, don’t get me wrong, but bar a rather ropey performance of the 4th by the Oxford University Orchestra in my student days, I haven’t attended a live performance of a Bruckner symphony.  One really needs to do the homework before going.  I see a lot written about the ‘architecture’ of these symphonies, of the overall structure which must be related to the individual building blocks, such as is only possible by the great Brucknerian conductors.  Well, if Bruckner’s 6th is architecture, I fear that I spent a lot of time admiring a couple of pediments, some window surrounds and a rather grand doorcase, but failed to get a full view of the edifice.  Don’t get me wrong, though, I like the sound-world:  I marvel at the glory of those climaxes that blaze forth as only Bruckner seems able to command;  the elegance of the rhythms in the gentler passages is a joy; but overall, the stop-start-soft-loud-soft approach leaves me pleasantly, at times giddily, bewildered, in this case, most particularly in the last movement.  Maybe as I get older I’ll understand…

I will also just remark on an individual in the choir – front row centre – who had the effrontery, pretty much from first bar of Wagner to last glorious climax of Bruckner, to repeatedly nod off and awaken, over and over again, in regular and distracting fashion, falling so far forward as to practically have his head on the rail in front of him, before bobbing back up again and then resuming his droop forward.  After the third movement of Bruckner the people behind him had a word, the effect of which lasted all of about 10mins.  Frankly, I was hoping that someone near by would pull out a sheet of cast iron, slip it between the pages of their programme and, under cover of a Bruckner brass chorale, give him a good stout crack across the back of the head.  He certainly deserved it.  A friend, who spent the first half in the choir behind the miscreant before moving elsewhere for the sake of his sanity, speculated that Eschenbach noticed the miscreant’s narcoleptic bobbing-about.  Unforgiveable, and all credit to Eschenbach for not stopping and demanding his removal.  I could discourse at great length on the irritations of audiences – and at some point will – but this seemed to me wilfully rude. 

So, two evenings, each very different:  the later of the two the more enjoyable and, I have to say, appearing to possess considerably greater artistic integrity.

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…