Friday, May 6, 2016

Catch up – a couple weeks of opera…

     It has been a couple weeks but I have still been able to view several great productions during this time.  I will make some brief remarks about several of the performances I have watched.

ROH – Boris Godunov – This production I got to see on the big screen in St. Louis.  It starred Bryn Terfel as Boris and was conducted by Tony Pappano.  I am not that familiar with Boris.  I have seen it several times and I have enjoyed it.  But it is usually long and rather epic.  As a result it has never felt like it hung together well.  The individual scenes are terrific, but the transitions seemed troubled – to me – and I am no expert.  However, this production at the Royal Opera House used Mussorgsky’s original version that reduced the opera to a 2+ hour piece in 7 scenes.  It was much more concise and for me it was a completely different experience.  No longer was this an epic story of Mother Russia, but rather a work that focused on the rise and fall of one troubled man.  It felt to me much more Shakespearean – reminding me of the great tragic character of Macbeth as the guilt and pressures of his position started to destroy this monarch.  Terfel was simply terrific.  I have always liked him but he is often better in some things than in others.  But as Boris in this version and this production he is simply outstanding.  I was riveted by his performance.  And the supporting cast was also equally outstanding.  Leading this group is the magnificent John Tomlinson as the Old Monk.  (Digression: A while ago I found a YouTube video of “Siegfried” that starred Tomlinson as the Wanderer.  And this performance for me was the most outstanding performance of that role I have ever experienced – which is saying something as I have seen James Morris live and consider him to be among the best Wotan’s ever.  But nothing compares with the opening of act 3 in the ROH production which Tomlinson’s Wotan found himself spinning on a world that he could no longer control.  I can’t even describe it.  It was simply amazing.)  But I digress – in this Boris, Tomlinson’s Old Monk was gorgeously sung and deftly acted.  It was a powerful performance.  He is easily one of my all time favorite artists.
     Then there is the rest of the cast – whose names flipped by way too fast for me to take down.  But they were excellent.  From the young tenor with a beautiful voice as the Young Dmitri, to a terrific character tenor giving us a magnificently slimy Shuisky, to the drunk Monk in the bar who simply stole the scene from everyone else during the tavern scene, to the terrifying fool whose condemnation of Boris pushes him over the edge.  And then there is the outstanding chorus and orchestra.  I would buy this DVD – it is a terrific performance of a terrific production.

ROH – Lucia di Lammermoor – This production has received quite a lot of press.  In fact the ROH sent a warning to all ticket holders warning them that this production by Katie Mitchell would probably earn an X rating for violence if it were a film.  And after having seen it I absolutely concur.  This production does not shy away from the extreme violence of the original story.  On one hand this is actually refreshing.  It was nice to see a Lucia that accepted and presented the violence of the story which too often is only hinted at. On the other hand, the violence was excessive to the point where I felt Mitchell crossed the line.  I found myself (especially in the last scene) wondering if all that gore was really necessary and in a couple cases I really don’t think it was.
     So, to understand this production one first needs to understand that the stage is split into two different locations – we open up with the outside garden on one side and a sitting room on the other; then Lucia’s bedroom and a bathroom; then Lucia’s bedroom and the men’s smoking room, etc.  And there is continuous action in both sections of the set.  For example, as poor Lucia is being forced to sign the marriage contract in the smoking room surrounded by all the men (how brilliantly intimidating), at the same time in Lucia’s bedroom Edgardo is climbing through the window ready to crash the party.  It mostly worked very well, though at times it was almost too much action and was distracting from the music.  And in the filmed version, of course, we can only watch what the film director chooses to film.  So this entire experience is probably quite different live in the house.
     But for most of the opera I thought it worked well.  It was engaging and certainly interesting.  But there are moments which pushed the boundary and at the top of my list is the very last scene that I felt simply did not work.  First of all, it was the only time where I felt that the action on the stage did not fit with the libretto.  (Spoiler alert) – The men enter and tell Edgardo that Lucia is dead, except here in the this production she isn’t dead because she is in the bathroom in the process of committing suicide by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. The drawn out suicides of first Lucia and then Edgardo were simply too excessively violent for me.  I just had had enough of all the blood by the end of the mad scene and it just got worse.  Really, is all that much blood necessary?  The other scene that at least came close to crossing the line was the Wolf’s Glen scene, which I normally really like, but the music and singing were almost rendered irrelevant as it took Lucia and her maid Alisa the entire scene to dispatch Arturo – he did not die easily.
     And that brings up some other stuff.  What is with the bondage play?  Whose idea was that – did Lucia suggest to Arturo that “wouldn’t it be fun if you let me tie you up on our wedding night – after the big confrontation with Edgardo?”  I mean really?  And then the murder takes so long and it is drawn out.  And would a poor ladies maid really be willing to risk being hung in order to participate in the murder like she did here?  Ok, so she is loyal, but really, how far does loyalty go?  I didn’t even feel that I understood the reason for the murder.  In this production Lucia is in such full control of her senses that the murder of Arturo seemed ridiculously illogical and it is pre-mediated and it is violent. The usual approach is that Lucia looses her mind sometime during the consummation and manages to kill Arturo all by herself (which also, frankly, seems a bit far-fetched – unless he was so drunk he fell asleep – well, it is opera, one should not over-think these things I suppose.) Still, it seemed a bit just too excessive.
     Nevertheless, I found the production rather riveting. At times, I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t help myself.  Part of the idea was to present a slightly older and more empowered Lucia.  And in this I feel that Mitchell only succeeded in part.  The pre-meditation of the murder of Arturo undermined this for me.  I also didn’t really get the doppelganger ghost for Lucia.  I understood the mother’s ghost but not the other one.  She didn’t make any sense to me, especially since Mitchell downplayed the “madness” and was trying to present a more empowered Lucia, so then what’s up with the ghosts?  On the other hand, I did like the depiction of the Rev. Raimondo very much.  I find in many productions that he is almost insufferable and he is such a lousy minister.  Here he seems a little more lost and struggling to react appropriately, which I preferred to the usual Raimondo as accomplice or dupe for Enrico.  I also really appreciated that he was not dressed as a Catholic priest, and that he did not do any Catholic gestures. The fact is that Raimondo is a Presbyterian so Catholicizing him is inappropriate.  But it seems like a lot of director don’t understand that.
     Rachel Lloyd was absolutely stunning as Alisa.  She has little sing (but sang it all beautifully) but she was on stage a lot and had a lot to do.  She was terrific, even if I feel that Alisa’s participation in the murder was a step too far to be believable.  I really liked the Normano also.  And I liked the way Mitchell used him throughout the opera, even when his singing part was technically over.
     The other principals were outstanding.  Diana Damrau’s performance as Lucia was a tour de force; a truly amazing performance in every way.  Her mad scene was probably the best I have ever heard.  Such control and delicacy!  And her interaction with the glass harmonica was simply stunning. The Edgardo of Charles Castronovo was also outstanding.  His was perhaps the most unsympathetic Edgardo I can remember seeing.  One had the sense that he wasn’t that much of an improvement over Lucia’s miserable brother.  This Edgardo was self-absorbed and had a cruel streak.  The Enrico of Ludovic Tezier was also very well sung.  I feel as though there was something missing in his acting though, but maybe Mitchell had him tone down the usual “villain” approach to the role.
    This review has wandered a bit.  In short, I really liked the production, but feel that it still needs work.  And there is just too much gratuitous violence and blood. 

Vienna – Ballo – This Ballo is perhaps one of the most traditional productions of this opera I have ever seen.  The sets and costumes were sumptuous.  The cast did little to no acting – stand and sing was the order of the day, especially for the chorus.  I found it all rather tedious as a spectacle. I did however enjoy the singers, especially Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato and Piotr Bezcala as Riccardo.  I also liked the Amelia quite a lot as well.  But maybe at this point with all the productions I have seen I am just finding these traditional productions to be boring.  This one certainly was.

Paris – Iolanta/Nutcracker – These two works by Tchaikovsky were premiered together originally and so Paris has paired them again and the production is directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Now I know Nutcracker very, very well, as I have played in the orchestra for many performances.  Iolanta I know not nearly as well having only seen it once before in the HD broadcast with Anna Netrebko and Beczala from the Met a year ago or so.  Still I was struck with the musical similarities of the respective scores.  They really do work well together, though it makes for a long evening.  The production of Iolanta was really nice.  It was a kind production.  In other words, Iolanta is treated kindly by everyone in the cast (even if her dad is a bit to protective.)  I mention this only because in the Met production there was a meanness that characterized how some of the cast related to Iolanta.  I liked this production better, frankly.
     Nutcracker began immediately upon the conclusion of the opera – and I mean immediately.  In fact the music of the overture was used for quasi-curtain calls and applause for the singers who were replaced by their dancing doubles.  And we begin in the same location with the same characters as the opera. And from there we fall into a series of fantasies, some of which are rather terrifying.  I found it all rather engaging, but at the end of the day, I just did not understand what Nutcracker was supposed to be about. It just seemed to drift far afield.  Now, I don’t mind that there was little resemblance to the original story or even that act 2 had a number of surprising cuts.  But I just never could figure out where we were and what we were experiencing.  Still the performances were excellent.  Sonja Yoncheva as Iolanta was gorgeous in every way, especially vocally.  The King Rene was also outstanding.  In fact all of the cast was very strong.  And the dancing principals were wonderful – especially the Iolanta double (Clara?) – who actually ends up with much more stage time than the singing Iolanta.
     It was really a fascinating production and I am glad I saw it.  It would be worth watching again to see if I could pick up more hints about what the director was trying to say.

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