Tuesday, June 30, 2015

ROH's La Boheme Revisited

Joseph Callejah and Anna Netrebko
Photo: (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH
At one time I was viewing and writing about quite the Metropolitan Opera's HD opera broadcasts fairly regularly. I think it's a great medium for viewing opera, with prices usually in the Family Circle range or lower, usually great views and sound, and the availability of overpriced movie theater junk food to make the experience complete. (I don't think it's a complete substitute for experiencing opera in the opera house, though—that is a separate conversation.)

I've known for some time that other world-class opera houses have been doing similar broadcasts, and on Sunday I was thrilled to see an NYC showing of a June 10 live broadcast of La Boheme from Royal Opera House Covent Garden. This is the last season the beloved John Copley prodution will be used, and this was the final performance of the cast we saw—Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, Jennifer Rowley, and Lucas Meacham. There will be four more performances later on with a different cast. To thoroughly evaluate the performance would be redundant, considering Ed Beveridge's guest post of a few weeks ago. Let me say I quite agree with nearly everything Ed says. I merely have a few additional comments.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta with the waiter
Photo: (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH
Anna Netrebko in recent years has ventured into vocal territory that wasn't right for her—my humble opinion, and other opinions vary on that—but her Mimi on Sunday contained some of the best singing I've heard her do in years. Rich and subtle, with very sensitive phrasing and an uncommon commitment to the text. It seems Mimi is a role that suits her right now. Her Rodolfo, Joseph Calleja, usually has a pleasing sound and manner, and did not disappoint. In fact, his occasional tendencies to sing sharp or with a too-fast vibrato were seldom present in this performance. American Lucas Meacham was a delightful Marcello, with very solid, comfortable sound, and very convincing acting. I quite liked Marco Vinco as Colline. His Act IV coat aria was one of the most touching moments in the performance, sung with tender feeling and deep, resonant sound.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta—wow! I know I sound like a broken record, having written about her many times, but what a great, scenery-chewing performance! Her Act II aria was full of naughtiness and glorious in rich, creamy sound. I've compared her Act II Musetta to Veruca Salt of Willy Wonka fame. By Act IV, and even within Act IV, she is a changed woman. This is no longer an impetuous child, but a woman who has known sorrow.

Although this production has been in service for 42 years, we are told that John Copley himself is involved as often as possible with revivals. He directed this revival, and the performance was full of subtle directorial choices that make great sense. Each chorus member in Acts II and III had his own story. All of the cast reacted to each situation as if for the first time hearing it—which is as it should be. Rodolfo's "Una donna" in Act I (when Mimi calls from behind the closed door) should be more puzzled than lecherous, unless we are meant to imagine young ladies lose their flames (or anything else) on those garret steps more often than implied. Messrs Copley and Calleja had that bit right. We also learn just why the guard in Act III is so slow to respond, and sleep is not the reason! Miss Rowley, in her live intermission interview on Sunday, described many such detailed moments—far too many to repeat here—when there was always something happening behind the actions of the main characters.

Indeed, such details make one love and revere a production more and more, and wonder why, at 42 years, it isn't too early to retire it. We will have to wait and see whether the replacement production deserves its new place. It will have a tremendous lot of tradition and beauty to replace, as well as a tremendous amount of love and affection from the ROH and the worldwide audience.
Act II: Jennifer Rowley as Musetta
Photo (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Guest blogger Ed Beveridge has been at it again!

Season opening at opera Holland Park, June 2015

Il Trittico (Puccini) – Opera Holland Park, June 2nd 2015
Flight (Dove) – Opera Holland Park, June 6th 2015

Opera Holland Park could no longer be described as London’s best kept operatic secret, since its publicity machine is sophisticated and active, but unlike the other summer festivals in the UK, it is one of the most accessible. The performances happen on a temporary but robust stage and auditorium built in front of what remains of Holland House, in the middle of London's Holland Park. This summer the company presents five mainstage shows and one show for children. Repertoire is a mix of popular classics and collector’s items, mainly from the early 20th century Italian repertoire.

Suor Angelica at Opera Holland Park
Photo:  Robert Workman

This season is perhaps one of the most diverse yet. Later on we have Aida, Lakme and Montmezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. The first two shows neatly top and tail the last century—Il Trittico had its premiere in 1918 in New York, and Flight at Glyndebourne 80 years later. Quite different pieces and brave choices both, and happily the company scored not one, but two great successes.

Il Trittico is a fearsomely demanding work even for the best resourced company. The combination of canny casting, strong direction and first class music making makes the evening way more than the sum of its considerable parts. Holland Park wisely opts for a traditional aesthetic—by which I do not mean unimaginative—and in so doing brings a complementary view of the pieces to the more interpretative productions London has seen in recent years. 

The productions are by Martin Lloyd-Evans (Il Tabarro) and Oliver Platt (Suor Angelica, plus revival director for Lloyd-Evans’ Gianni Schicchi). Designers at this venue must take account of a potentially awkward space with a wide, shallow stage and no fly space above. Neil Irish uses versatile common scenic elements, but there is no attempt to make links between the three operas which are not present.

Ironically Il Tabarro’s midnight Parisian skulduggery takes place during the lightest part of a sunny London evening. A stage-wide realistic barge with quayside arches behind thrusts the action right out towards the audience. (One of the pleasures of this festival is how close the orchestras and singers are to the listener.) It looks to be set around the time of its premiere – the “lovers” who appear at points look like a first world war soldier and his girlfriend - and the pervading colour is grey, appropriate for the characters’ impoverished existence on the waterways of France. In her first role of the evening Anne Sophie Duprels, a diva-in-residence at Holland Park (and elsewhere in the UK) was Giorgetta – a Georgette from this French soprano, surely? Attired in a plain housecoat, cardy and skirt, she shows vestiges of her former, carefree existence, alongside flashes of searing pain when her dead child is mentioned; her resentment for her husband Michele is as vivid as her passion for the stevedore Luigi (the imposing Jeff Gwaltney, returning after Fanciulla last year). And what a clever soprano she is – it’s a lyric voice, punching far above its weight in this repertoire, but making it work; now throaty, now gutsy, the money notes present with a healthy high C. Michele is Stephen Gadd, whose careworn, grizzled husband becomes something far more dangerous as the opera progresses, sung in a baritone which begins rather grey but grows in stature as the opera progress. Had Luigi’s feet not been visible from under his cloak, we could have had a more gripping finale, but it was a strong start to the evening nonetheless.

Suor Angelica was the shattering centrepiece of this production. Traditional? Sort of, although the setting took us to Ireland and the Magadalen Laundries. Precious little redemption to be had here, in a regime where the young “novices” are subjected to constant abuse and humiliation. It’s a neat and valid interpretation of the piece, with the young women ruled over by a Badessa and Suora Zelatrice with precious little grace and plenty of venom. Irish’s set, again grey but beautiful, created an eerie sense of time and place, and Platt’s direction had some telling details – Angelica’s forlorn reaction when a delivery boy tries to play ball with her but is taken away, for example. I’m not sure the cruelty of this setting is quite present in the score, but the sheer impact of the ending – no redemptive vision of Angelica’s child, but an agonizing death – hits home with terrible force. 

Anna Patalong Richard Burkhard in Gianni SchicchiPhoto:  Robert Workman
Duprels returned as Angelica. Her performance was gut-wrenching. She is a singer who gives and gives, tiring slightly towards the end but turning the dramatic screw til the last. Again it was the intelligence of her singing—such scrupulous dynamics—which impressed as much as the technique. Her Angelica was a spirited, strong woman, whose defiance as she looked her aunt in the eye made her final collapse all the more shocking. As her aunt, La Zia Principessa, Rosalind Plowright, a notable Suor Angelica in the past, returned to a stage where she is much loved. She was no stiff psychopath but a proud, conflicted woman, full of guilt and unable to bear Angelica’s distress when she finally reveals the terrible news of her son’s death. Some wayward intonation apart, she can still pack a vocal punch. There was a charming Genovieffa from Johane Ansel (she was also one of the lovers in Il Tabarro) and a fine supporting cast.

After being put through the emotional wringer of Angelica’s laundry (sorry), Gianni Schicchi was a rich dessert, although one with a grown up flavour (think bitter chocolate with a liberal slug of liquor). The production is set around wartime, judging by Rinuccio’s uniform. Again, broadly traditional, although wickedly well directed, treading a fine line between slapstick and subtlety, and doing so by and large successfully. Richard Burkhard’s Schicchi is oily, charming and uncommonly well sung, eschewing pantomime geniality in favour of sinister but irresistible charm. Anna Patalong’s golden-voiced Lauretta scores with “O mio Babbino Caro”, whilst James Edwards (back from his cameo in Il Tabarro) is appealing as Rinuccio. No weak links in the cast but special mention for Sarah Pring’s campily venomous Zita (she was also an appealing Frugola in Tabarro) and Aled Hall’s bright Gherardo.

This was a long evening which did not seem so. Pacing was one of the many virtues of Stuart Stratford’s expert conducting, creating lucid textures and near perfect ensemble in what must be a tricky acoustic. He is shortly to become Music Director at Scottish Opera but has remained loyal to Holland Park. 

A word, finally, about Flight, since in my previous post I promised a review. From the “boarding passes” and airport announcements that greeted the audience in the foyer, to the dazzling production, this was a gamble that paid off thanks to a fine musical performance and a superb cast which brought the piece leaping—flying?—off the page in a way I have rarely seen.

George von Bergen and Kitty Whately in Flight
Photo:  Financial Times
Stephen Barlow’s production is wonderful and dare I say even more enjoyable than the original by Richard Jones. Andrew Riley’s set was a sleek, aquamarine arch of airport with three elevator doors and a tower for the Controller. It was transformed by the lighting—disco purple for the conga of the Act 1 ensemble, deep blue for the night in Act 2. There were evocative projections of weather radar, storms and, appropriately, an aircraft climbing into the clouds for the finale. Against this backdrop Barlow judiciously used extras to create crowds at some key moments, full of priceless detail (I love that the passenger boarding a plane with skis in Act 1 returned on crutches in Act 3), which in turn emphasized the intimacy and loneliness in other scenes. There was farce (Bill and the Steward’s scene, “We’re so high!”, was a riot, and had the Steward scouring the trolley for snacks throughout Act 3); and searing tragedy—the Refugee’s chilling aria describing his journey, stowing away under an aircraft with his brother, was far more compelling than I remember it before.

I suspect this was at least in part the result of James Laing’s gloriously rich, penetrating, communicative counter tenor which gave Dove’s lines such immediacy. The Steward (George von Bergen) and Stewardess (Kitty Whately) were a scream, whilst Tina (Ellie Laugharne) and Bill (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) were an older couple than when the piece was premiered, and made it work; dead ringers for Linda and Richard in Duty Free , for which cultural reference I apologise if you are not from the UK or of a certain age. Victoria Simmonds—who created Pinocchio in Dove’s very different opera some years back—brought proper gravitas to Minskwoman’s aria, “Whose bag is this?”. The standouts, apart from Laing, were Lucy Schaufer’s warm Older Woman—her music theatre credentials meaning every tart one-liner came pinging across the footlights—and the young Jennifer France whose performance of The Controller was little short of sensational; in full command of the stratospheric lines and of her enigmatic, misanthropic character.

The score, under Brad Cohen, sounded wonderful and I was delighted that both Jonathan Dove and April de Angelis were present for a curtain call. A wonderful evening and another huge success for the company.

Opera Holland Park, the mouse that roared. You just keep on getting better.

There are a few performances of Il Trittico and Flight remaining plus new productions of Lakme (Delibes), Aida (Verdi) and L’amore dei tre Re (Montmezzi) – www.operahollandpark.com

Flight:  Set design by Andrew Riley
Photo:  Robert Workman

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

My Bachtrack Review of Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia

Lawrence Brownlee as Charlie Parker
Photo:  Dominic M. Mercier
Opera Philadelphia is clearly doing something right with its American Repertoire Program. Begun in 2012 with co-productions like Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters(which I found brilliant), and Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2012 Pulitzer Prize winner), the program has earned Opera Philadelphia great praise for helping keep new opera alive. An Opera News quote in the program states the company is “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country”. Judging by the scarcity of empty seats on Sunday for the second performance of Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I'd say that must be true. This is the second “new” opera I've seen this season in Philadelphia, and Opera Philadelphia's first world première since 1976. It has completely sold out.

Read the whole review

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Guest blogger Ed Beveridge reviews ROH's beloved Copley La Boheme production

Addio, senza rancor - La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, London, May 23, 2015

Nothing lasts forever, and John Copley's much loved production of La Boheme has done sterling service for the company since it was new in February, 1974. Copley’s successor will have their work cut out. Rumour has it that it will be Richard Jones (whose Il Trittico demonstrates an aptitude for Puccini) and his sideways view will produce something quite different. Probably for the best. Rumour also suggests the Copley will be mothballed, not junked, but we shall see.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta in ROH's La Boheme
Photo:  Bill Cooper, ROH
May 23 was the start of a long run of farewell performances. It’s a popular production of a popular piece—this performance the 614th at the Royal Opera House. Clearly each revival needs to be special, and for these performances there is a mostly new cast with Copley himself directing and taking a well deserved curtain call at the close. Copley’s direction is naturalistic and detailed, subtle and skillful (it's not easy to direct the characters in the Act 2 crowd so that they both appear naturally and can be spotted straight away). Direction this understated but this good is rare.

With lesser performers, the evening could easily have been all about the production, which is absolutely beautiful. The late Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs seem definitive, traditional without being monumental or showy, intimate when they need to be. The colour palette is muted and earthy. The loft of the outer acts uses split levels to frame parts of the action and create effective entrances and exits. The interior and exterior of Act 2—the Cafe Momus with its steaming kitchen, the busy street outside—give way to the austere Act 3 city gate, queasy greenish sky and romantic snowstorm.

Joseph Calleja and
Anna Netrebko
Photo:  Bill Cooper, ROH
The cast was mostly new, but with familiar elements. Joseph Calleja's Rodolfo is a known quantity and he was on good form here, much better than his Gustavo in the disastrous Un Ballo in Maschera earlier in the season; not quite at his best though, and underpowered at times in this company. His characterization was straightforward and touching. Straightforward would not be a good description for Anna Netrebko’s Mimi. As ever she is utterly compelling to watch and hear and there was nothing routine about this performance. She was no shrinking violet, but neither was there Diva-style mannerism or affectation; she was almost ghostly in Act 4. It’s a big voice for Mimi—nothing wrong with that—and her basic sound is beautiful, smoky and complex. There was plenty of detail in her dynamics and phrasing. I don’t think she will be singing Mimi for much longer, as she gravitates towards dramatic soprano repertoire, so I am glad to have heard her score such a success here.

The second couple were American. Lucas Meachem is becoming a firm favourite at this house and his burly Marcello looked and sounded handsome, his disbelief at the end Act 4 very touching. Musetta was Jennifer Rowley, making an overdue house debut. She gave notice of an important singer—brassy and comic (and a dab hand at billiards) in Act 2, moving and sincere later on, delivered with a bright and ample soprano of which I would be happy to hear more.

It wasn’t all good news. The rest of the cast I found competent, but unremarkable, and the conducting of Dan Ettinger has some serious flaws, mainly around ensemble with the stage. I wondered at first if this was first night nerves or lack of rehearsal but as the evening went on it felt more of a fundamental failure to follow his singers. A great shame to find oneself wishing Pappano had been at the helm. Still, this was a great and in some ways historic night at Covent Garden, and Copley’s show is being given a fine send-off. Best of all, my goddaughter, who had never seen any opera before, had a ball and can’t wait for the next show. Definitely Addio, senza rancor.

Further performances with this cast before conductor Alexander Joel and singers Lianna Haroutounian, Piotr Beczala, Ekaterina Bakanova and Levente Molnar take over. Until July16th. www.roh.org.uk