Tosca

Tale of Two Puccinis

I’ve been behind on my jottings, and the performances to be reflected upon are mounting up. For a start, there are these two Puccinis, both from The Royal Opera: their recent outing of the Jonathan Kent Tosca and a new production, also by Jonathan Kent, of Manon Lescaut.

The Tosca is a well-known commodity: replacing the Zeffirelli, it was calculated not to frighten any horses and enjoys a similar visual grandeur and narrative simplicity. After a 30-odd year gap, Kent has brought back Manon Lescaut with decidedly less caution. He has attempted to bring to modern audiences some of the shock experienced by the first readers of the 1731 Abbé Prevost novel, and to do so, Kent and his design team have moved the action to a swanky three-storey hotel-cum-casino; this is followed by an Amsterdam-style glass-encased brothel; thereafter to the quayside for scenes of trafficked women; and ending on a motorway flyover as a contemporary vision of the ‘desert’ depicted in the original libretto. (more…)

Tosca back again

One of the Royal Opera’s many-cast money-spinners for this season, we caught the second cast of the run on Saturday night.  It made its mark, but not without some difficulties along the way.  A short set of jottings this time. (more…)

Tsk tsk Tosca…

A very ordinary sort of Tosca graced the ROH stage on Saturday, despite the stellar prices.  An acceptable cast performed creditably, from within the long shadow cast by the 2-performances-out-of-10 ensemble that will jet in in July and jet back out again pretty sharpish.

The undoubted stars of the evening were Pappano and the orchestra.  This was a big, meaty, red-blooded soundworld, with sinuous and insinuating nuance wafting from the pit in all the best moments.  Outstanding pacing and playing captured all of the melodrama full-on. (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…