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.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
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.