21 May 2013
La bohème at ENO
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
Miller has often been over-praised, particularly by those ‘of a certain age’, apparently unaware or unwilling to accept that the world has moved on from the 1960s of their youth; indeed, Miller’s Royal Opera Così fan tutte is not simply bad, but one of the most objectionable stagings I have seen of anything. This Bohème, whilst hardly groundbreaking, does its job reasonably enough. For some reason, the action is updated to the Paris of the 1930s. Beyond imparting a certain cinematic quality — though not necessarily nearly so much as Miller and his designer, Isabella Bywater seem to think it does — it is not clear what is gained, but nor for that matter is a great deal lost. An individual’s fondness for the photography of George Brassaï does not in itself seem to me justification for a production, but anyway... The characters are for well directed on stage, for which revival director, Natascha Metherell should doubtless receive much of the credit. (Both Metherell and Miller appeared on stage to take a bow.) Occasionally, I wondered whether the action were a little too prey to domestification of the wrong way; the meeting between Rodolfo and Mimì is decidedly low-key, more akin to a neighbourhood watch meeting than an ignition of passion. However, the selfishness of ‘Bohemian’ youth comes across at least as strongly as I can recall upon other occasions: are not these boys to some extent playing at poverty, whilst Mimì’s suffering is the real thing?
Described in the publicity blurb as a ‘cast of young British talent’, that is for the most part what it is. I have little patience with those who castigate ENO — or Covent Garden, for that matter — for ‘failing to promote British artists’. The arts world has, let us be grateful, yet to capitulate to the insidious yet hysterical nationalism pervading much of our political class and media. What we want are singers, artists in general, who are good, and preferably more than that. With the exception of Gwyn Hughes Jones, we did pretty well. Though his Rodolfo improved somewhat during the third and fourth acts, and was not without sensitivity, there was too much that was simply crude, almost an allegedly ‘Italianate’ parody, or strangely faceless. The vacuum extended to stage presence too; it would have been well-nigh impossible to believe in him as a Romantic lead. Kate Valentine’s Mimì, on the other hand, was a credit to her and to ENO. Nobility of spirit was allied to sterling, necessary musical values of phrasing and tonal variegation. It was a delight to make the acquaintance of the charismatic American singer, the splendidly named Angel Blue (an exception in terms of nationality, but certainly not quality). She sang as well as she acted, holding the stage without effort, imparting both ‘artistic’ superiority to Musetta as singer and, increasingly, warm humanity to her as woman. Richard Burkhard’s Marcello impressed too, as did the excellently sung — and acted — Colline of Andrew Craig Brown and Schaunard of Duncan Rock. It was a pity that Simon Butteriss over-acted — ‘silly voice’ rather than expression of the text through singing — in the role of Benoit; maybe he was doing so under orders. A greater pity was the banality of Amanda Holden’s translation; making Puccini sound satisfactory in English is not the easiest of tasks, but too often, a tin ear revealed itself in the straightforward incompatibility of words and vocal line.
Oleg Caetani made a very welcome return to the Coliseum. His direction of the ENO Orchestra was splendid, rich in tone — sometimes, a little more, alla Daniele Gatti, would have been appreciated there, but then Gatti, last summer, had the Vienna Philharmonic — but above all, dramatically alert. Temptations to linger, to sentimentalise, were eschewed, without draining the drama of its lifeblood. Wagnerisms — I noticed some especially Tristan-esque progressions — and modernisms were not necessarily underlined, yet, given Caetani’s ear for balance and line, caught one’s ear nevertheless. I should love one day to hear a properly modernistic Bohème — or Tosca. This was not it, but refusal to play to the gallery, and underlining of solid, yet certainly not stolid, musical virtues proved a great relief for a work in which superficial gloss can all too readily hold sway. Choral singing and direction of the chorus also proved estimable throughout.
Cast and production information:
Marcello: Richard Burkhard; Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Colline: Andrew Craig Brown; Schaunard: Duncan Rock; Benoit: Simon Butteriss; Mimì: Kate Valentine; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Angel Blue; Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman; Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater (designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis) of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 29.4.2013.