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Les huguenots

Plus Ca Change
I wanted to see a production of Les Huguenots but I got more than I bargained for. It turns out that this was Joan Sutherland's final performance and the film ends with a 20-minute standing ovation. This was a fitting tribute to the second best soprano of the 20th century. Of Dame Joan's performance as Queen Marguerite of Navarre I will maintain a diplomatic silence, only saying that her decision to retire at that stage of her career was probably the right one. The outstanding performer in this production is Suzanne Johnston as the Queen's page Urbain. In a dour opera she lights up every scene in which she appears.

Meyerbeer's opera tells of the conflict between French Catholics and Huguenots in the 16th century culminating in the St Bartholemew's day massacre of the Huguenots in 1572. Don't watch it expecting a history lesson as the story concentrates on the love interest between Raoul, a protestant gentleman and Valentine, the daughter of a Catholic count. To be fair to Meyerbeer and his librettist he does give a good account of the animosity between the two factions at this stage in French history. We see the religious tolerance of Raoul, Valentine and of her Fiancé Le Compte de Nevers. Protestant bigotry is represented by Marcel, Raoul's servant. Catholic bigotry is represented by Le Compte de Saint-Bris, Valentine's father. Sometimes it all seems a bit too familiar as though the human race has not made much progress in the last 450 years.

The weakness of the plot is that it hinges on a familiar device in opera. Raoul witnesses Valentine, from a distance, talking to Nevers. She is breaking off their engagement but Raoul jumps to the conclusion that they are having an affair. He subsequently spurns Valentine, in the presence of the Queen, prompting her father to plot the revenge that culminates in the massacre.

Although this performance is from 1990, it seems much more dated than that, possibly it is was a production that was brought out of retirement as a vehicle for Dame Joan. As you might expect, it is a bit fuzzy and is not in widescreen. It is done dead straight with period costumes and scenery and a stand and deliver style of performance. Most of the male characters are named Le Compte de something or other, dress in doublet and hose and sport curly moustaches and little pointy beards so it is sometimes difficult to remember who is who.

Meyerbeer's music is pleasant and tuneful without being memorable. The best music comes in the fourth and fifth acts of this long opera, for those who are still awake. Anson Austin as Raoul and Amanda Thane as Valentine have a long scene together where Raoul has to choose between his love for Valentine and his loyalty to the Hugeuenot cause. The final act is quite brutal and shocking and I did not see it coming. It's nice sometimes to see an opera for the first time and not know how it is going to end.

Some of the ballet sequences and pageantry have been cut from this production, not surprisingly given its length. More surprisingly, the whole of Act V Scene I is cut in which the protestants celebrate the marriage of the Catholic Queen Marguerite to the Protestant King Henry of Navarre.

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Every Sperm Is Sacred
I don't know what possessed the usually reliable librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to write this. It has been compared with The Magic Flute but, to me, A Midsummer Night's Dream came more to mind. We have three levels of characters, the spirits, the regal and the ordinary people. The story, as far as it is possible to summarise it, concerns an emperor and an empress who cannot have children. This is because the empress is the daughter of Keikobad, the king of the spirits and she has lost her shadow during her transformation into human form. For some reason that I don't understand, not having a shadow is symbolic of being unable to bear children. Her nurse suggests popping down to earth to see if they can pick up a shadow from someone who does not need one. They end up in the home of Barak, a dyer, and his wife. The dyer's wife does not have a name even though she is the main character in the opera. She is unsympathetic to Barak's urge to have children on account of their impoverished circumstances. In fact, she also wants him to kick out his three disabled brothers who live with them. If you must know, one has only one arm, another has only one eye and the third is a hunchback. The wife readily agrees to sell her shadow but later regrets it. The empress then has second thoughts mainly because she is impressed by what a good, honest man Barak is. It turns out that this has all been a test and when she refuses to take the wife's shadow she acquires one of her own. The opera ends with a joyful quartet with the two happy couples looking forward to having many children.

I cannot say that I was enamoured of the theme. It all sounded like Pro-Life propaganda, only more so. There is a chorus of unborn children but, more accurately, they are not yet conceived children. It's as if there were all these children waiting to be conceived if only their parents were not so selfish.

This could have been a disaster in the hands of a German postdramatic director. In fact director Jonathan Kent plays it with a pretty straight bat, possibly taking the view that the opera is so weird that it does not need extra layers of symbolism. He successfully manages to convey to the stage most of von Hofmannstahl's weird imagery although the chorus of unborn children singing in a pan of frying fish is quite a big ask. Even with a synopsis in front of me and with Kent's clear staging I struggled to make sense of the plot.

It is, though, quite beautiful to look at with a fabulous castle for the emperor and empress who look like a pimped up version of the king and queen of hearts. Barak's hut is also a fabulous set. It is a room that serves as a garage, a launderette for his dying business and a bed-sitter. I was impressed by way that Mariinsky kept changing the scenes from one to the other. I don't know whether this was done in real time but I suspect that it was because Strauss provides lots of intermezzi to cover these changes.

From a musical point of view these intermezzi are almost the best bits of the opera. There is a huge orchestra, under Valery Gergiev that makes the most of the sumptuous tunes and luscious harmonies. To be honest, the vocal lines do not add much to what the orchestra is doing. The exception to this, if you are still awake at the end of this long opera, is in the final act. Here we have the vocal lines soaring over the orchestra, particularly in the joyful final quartet which is somewhat reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. Edem Umerov is a lovable Barak in his one size fits nobody tee shirt. Mlada Khudolei gives a touching performance as the unhappy empress with some frighteningly high and complex music. The star of the show is Olga Sergevea as The Wife in another high soprano part of stunning complexity. She gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Mike Leigh's the Pirates of Penzance - English National Opera

Poor Wandering One
Director Mike Leigh must have fond memories of schoolboy productions of G&S operas as he faithfully reproduces one here. What is most noticeable about this production is that he succeeds in removing all trace of humour from the proceedings. There is no attempt to give the pirates or the young ladies individual characters. The ladies, in particular move around the stage like a flock of sheep. The choreography, such as it is, is lamentable. The production looks lost on the vast Colluseum stage. Designer Alison Chitty vignettes some of the scenes in garish geometrical shapes but this only serves to emphasise the emptiness of most of the stage. The recording of the vocal dialogue is unpleasantly boomy.

Joshua Bloom as the pirate king and Robert Murray as Frederic are rather bland. Andrew Shore struggles with his Major-General patter song and too often parts company with the orchestra. Claudia Boyle is an impressive Mabel and deserves to be in a better production.

This is one of Gilbert's sillier libretti although Sullivan provides some of his best music. It is debatable whether this silly story of pirates who are really noblemen who have gone astray can ever be successfully produced for a modern audience. The evidence of this production suggests that this opera is a poor wandering one.

Britten's Peter Grimes

Expressionist Llareggub
This is the strongest cast that I have ever heard for Peter Grimes. The sweet-toned tenor of Stuart Skelton in the title role reminded me of Peter Peers. Elza van den Heever is outstanding as Ellen, both dramatically and vocally. There is an excellent ensemble of supporting characters plus a huge chorus representing The Borough, which is really another character in this opera.

Director David Alden sets the opera in the 1940's. It almost seems de rigueur these days to set an opera in the period it was written rather than the period that the composer intended. In a grim tale, perhaps it is excusable to try to inject some light relief but, in my view, Alden makes the minor characters too grotesque. I kept on getting the feeling that I was watching Dylan's Llareggub rather than Crabbe's Borough. Auntie, the pub owner, is a cross-dresser in a pinstripe suit and Bud Flanagan fur coat. Her nieces, usually ladies of easy virtue, are robotic schoolgirls. This gives an unhealthy edge to the interest shown in them by Bob Boles and Ned Keene. Keene, the apothecary, is portrayed as a 1940's spiv, in keeping with the period setting. I have to admit that the grotesquery does come into its own in the superbly choreographed and sung set pieces such as "Old Joe has gone fishing" and "Grimes is at his exercise".

The set is expressionist. This works well in the sharply-angled dockside of Act II but it is less successful in other scenes. Act I is confusing since it takes place in a bare box with just a few trestle tables for scenery. The crucial scene where Grimes' apprentice is killed while climbing down the cliff from his hut is botched because the boy clearly has to climb up a ladder to get out of the hut. The street scene in Act III is like something out of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

I think that this film is the ENO's first venture into live screening for a cinema audience. Apparently, the director's previous experience is in making pop videos. There are lots of flashy camera angles but I was continually disconcerted by the fact that the camera kept on showing one character while another was singing.

Terry Gilliam's Benvenuto Cellini - English National Opera

Lost in Translation
This early opera by Berlioz is rarely performed and I have never heard or seen it before. On first viewing I was not impressed so I watched it again. This just confirmed my impression that it is a perfectly listenable two hours or so of lightweight music with a plot that verges on the pantomimic. It is an ideal subject for director Terry Gilliam with his background in animation. I was reminded of his Monty Python cartoons by the scuttling bent figures of the servants in this production. The stage fizzes with activity in an opera that is set during the Venice carnival. There are children, clowns tumblers and acrobats everywhere, on stage and in the audience. I got the impression that the production was probably more fun to watch live than on film.

The plot concerns Cellini's wooing of Teresa, the daughter of Balducci the papal treasurer. Balducci has promised Teresa to Fieramosca, a rival sculptor. Cellini plans to elope with Teresa despite the fact that he is still working on a papal commission: a huge gold statue of Perseus. During Mardi Gras Cellini clashes with Balducci and accidentally kills one of Balducci's henchmen. There is a showdown with the Pope who is mainly concerned with getting his statue finished. Cellini promises to do so by the following morning. He eventually succeeds in this, gaining the Pope's forgiveness, admiration from Balducci and Fieramosca and the hand of Teresa.

The vocal lines of Berlioz's music for the opera seem to be quite sparsely written. Most of the tunes are given to the orchestra while the singers mainly provide a sort of conversational counterpoint. This is not unusual; many composers, Verdi and Wagner to name just two, use the same technique but with Berlioz it all seems a little unsatisfactory. The production is given in English, which may be part of the problem. The translation is perfectly serviceable but somehow does not sit well with the music. Berlioz recycled some of the music in his Roman Carnival overture. There is a standout tenor performance by Michael Spyres in the title role but even he, singing "Light of my life…", cannot quite make it fit the Roman Carnival tune. Try singing it yourself and you'll see what I mean.

Corrine Winters, as Teresa, is easy on the eye but, occasionally hard on the ear in this high soprano role. I found myself fantasising how good Natalie Dessay might sound in the part. The two baritone roles Balducci and Fieramosca sung by Pavlo Hunka and Nicholas Palleson come over as pantomime characters. Paula Murrihy is charming in the trouser role of Ascanio, Cellini's apprentice. Willard White gives great value for money as a rather camp Pope with a mincing papal guard.

This was an Anglo-Dutch co-production and a film version, which I have not seen, exists of the Dutch production which was given in the original French. I would be interested to hear whether this version sounds better than the English one.

Blue Jasmine

Blanchett DuBois
I struggled to watch this film. If it had been made by any other director I would have turned it off after 10 minutes. I only persevered because I have admired most of Woody Allen's work over the last 50 years. I have to admit that my main problem was with the character of Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett. Although it is probably a brilliant performance, Jasmine is the kind of person that I would run a mile from and I did not relish the idea of 90 minutes in her company.

The film is an homage to, or a rip-off of, A Streetcar Named Desire with Jamine channelling Blanche DuBois' flaky neuroticism and uncertain grip on reality. A quick google confirms my suspicions that Cate Blanchett has previously played Blanche DuBois on stage. The situation where Jasmine goes to live with her impoverished sister Ginger and her rough and ready boyfriend Chili echos Tennessee Williams' play: so much so that the only thing that wrong- footed me in the plot was that Jasmine does not end in some sort of sexual situation with Chili.

I have a problem with Allen's European-set films because of the clunky dialogue and implausible plotting. I don't have so much of a problem with his American films but it may simply be that I am not so well acquainted with the milieu. The plot does turn on two unlikely chance meetings in the street. Also Blanche and Ginger each find new boyfriends when they go to a stranger's party on a Sunday afternoon. Do sophisticated San Franciscans throw parties on a Sunday afternoon? Can strangers just turn up? Or is that just clunky plotting? Jasmine manages to fool her millionaire new boyfriend to the point where they are about to get married. I did not buy this for a moment as even a modicum of curiosity about her past life would have indicated that she was telling him a pack of lies.

The action in San Francisco is interspersed with flashbacks to Jasmine's previous life as a society hostess married to Alex Baldwin's financial wizard who turns out to be a Ponzi swindler. I will not give away how the swindle is unmasked. Let's just say that I found it implausible.

I admired the way that Cate Blanchett was able to ring the changes from glamorous confident wife to grovelling, unattractive fantasist although her performance does rather shout: 'Look at me I'm actress'. She won all the awards but, personally, I thought that the best performances came from Sally Hawkins as Ginger and Bobby Cannavale as Chili.

The Damnation of Faust

Height of Bad Taste
This is a production, in English, of the Berlioz piece that can never quite make up its mind whether it is an oratorio or an opera. It is certainly difficult to do as an opera because of its episodic nature although the Met's 2009 production made a good case with its imaginative staging.

Terry Gilliam's big idea is to set the opera in Nazi Germany. This does not work. The only thing that Mephistopheles has in common with the Nazis is that they were both evil. It seems trite to try to shoehorn a story about Mephistopheles' damnation into a plot concerning the persecution of the Jews, or vice versa. Shockheaded Peter Hoare is a problem in the leading role. With his vertical orange hair he looks like a cartoon character and is an unlikely lover for Marguerite. His strangulated tenor just cannot get round the music and his diction is so poor that I had to turn on the subtitles. Christopher Purvis is a much more creditable Mephistopheles. Best of all is Christine Rice who makes the most of the beautiful music Berlioz wrote for the saintly Marguerite. The ending of the opera strikes me as the height of bad taste. If I understood it correctly, we see a dead Marguerite on top of a pile of bodies in a gas chamber. A heavenly light shines on her as a chorus of children welcome her soul to heaven.

Cassandra's Dream

Ten years after it was made, I tracked this film down on Amazon. It never got much of a release in the UK and, as far as I know, it has never been shown on television. I'm not surprised. It is even worse than Woody Allen's other two British ventures: Match Point and Scoop. Everything I said about those two films applies in spades to Cassandra's dream: implausible plot, terrible dialogue and wooden acting. It employs a large number of fine British actors. I can only imagine how thrilled they were at being invited to appear in a film by the great Woody Allen and how shattered were their illusions after they had read the script. It was like a 1950's British second feature. Surprisingly, it lasts for 148 interminable minutes. Woody usually confines himself to a snappy 90 minutes. The kindest thing I can say about this film was that I never would have recognised that it was a Woody Allen film. There are a large number of 1 star reviews for this film on IMDb, most of them saying more or less what I have written here so there is not really anything else that I can usefully add.

Verdi's La Traviata - English National Opera

The Emperor's New Curtains
This is a film of the revival of Peter Konwitschny's production for English National Opera. It is difficult to see why anyone would want to film this unphotogenic production. The scenery consists of red curtains, although, occasionally, a character will draw back the curtains to reveal… more red curtains. There is a chair onstage throughout and, in Act II, we have the additional excitement of a pile of books. Don't get too excited though. Konwitschny has made cuts to the libretto so that any trace of light relief has been removed, notably the gypsy/toreador business in Act II. The result is just the gloomy bits of La Traviata, played continuously, without an interval.

Ben Johnson has to play Alfredo as a charmless, borderline Aspergers' character who is totally inept socially. Unfortunately, this lack of charm also rubs off onto his singing. At the ball, while everyone else is in evening dress, he wears a duffel coat, white, woolly cardigan and corduroy trousers. In Act II, captioned three months later, he is in the same cardigan and trousers which must have been getting a bit niffy by then. As Violetta, Elizabeth Zharoff, with a startlingly wide vibrato, gets off to a shaky start and does not impress in the virtuoso numbers that end Act I. One does have to sympathise with her having to sing, say, Sempre Libera in English. The English translation, throughout, is very clunky and the singers often have to sing several syllables on one note to fit everything in. Zharoff's performance does get better though and she is much more moving in the two final acts. A young-looking Anthony Michaels-Moore lacks gravitas, both physically and vocally as Germont. Not much is made of the minor roles either with, in particular, Martin Lamb having to play Dr Grenvil as a buffoon. The chorus, throughout behave like rampaging idiots.

Mentioning idiots brings me back to director Konwitschny. He introduces a character, Germont's daughter, who looks like a 12- year-old schoolgirl, which completely undermines Germont's argument about her engagement being in danger of being broken off. Konwitschny makes no attempt to dramatise the card game; the participants just stand there flicking cards in the air. In the final scene Violetta does not even get a deathbed; she has to manage with the same old chair. The final quintet is performed with Violetta on stage and Alfredo, Germont, Annina and the doctor standing in the audience. Alfredo keeps changing his position from the centre aisle to the side aisle forcing the unfortunate audience members on the second row to stand as he barges through them. I think that this is supposed to be funny but the people on the second row did not look amused. At the end, Violetta does not die she just walks off-stage. I would like to think that this is her expression of disgust at all that has gone before. Sadly, she does not seem to be the only one to be suffering from consumption. The audience at ENO could cough for England.


Not Chariots of Fire
I never buy a programme when I go to the theatre or the opera because I believe that, if you can't work out what a performance is about just by watching it, it can't be much of a performance. Fortunately I did read the synopsis of Zoroastre on Wikipedia before I watched it, otherwise I would not have the slightest idea what was going on.

Apparently Rameau's librettist Louis de Cahousac was a keen freemason and the opera is a thinly-disguised advertisement for freemasonry. In this respect it bears some similarity to Mozart's Magic Flute. In this production from the 18th century Drottningholm Theatre all the goodies wear white and all the baddies wear black rather in the manner of a western.

The plot, such as it is, pits the good magician Zoroastre and the Princess Amélite against the evil sorcerer Abramane and Amélite's scheming sister. The Wikipedia synopsis gives the impression that the opera is much more exciting than it really is, with Abramane whizzing around on his flaming chariot. The production does utilise Drottningholm's flying chair here but it is a rather creaky effect. Otherwise the production takes place on a bare stage.

Rameau's music, on the whole, is soporific. I quite enjoyed the duet at Zoroastre's and Amélite's wedding performed by Anders Dahlin and Sine Bundgaard but there are no big arias. As in most Rameau operas, there is a lot of dancing and Rameau seems to reserve his best music for these dances. He seems to be very unimaginative both musically and dramatically compared with, for example, his contemporary Handel.

This is a visually attractive staging, lit from above, emphasising the female singers' décolletage. So, on the whole, this production can only be recommended to dedicated titmen.

Król Roger, Opera in three acts

Not a Masterpiece
This is the first opera that I have seen under the auspices of the Opera Platform. This is a European group of opera houses that have got together to do something about the paucity of opera that is available today, both live and on television. They put recent films of European operas on the internet for all to see for free. This is very commendable and I am sure they are very proud of their achievement but I wish they had not put a huge Opera Platform logo on the screen. I needed copious amounts of insulating tape to mask it out.

This is a film of the recent production of Szymanowski's Krol Roger at the ROH. I learned that, in Polish, Roger is pronounced with a double d sound. So it's Roger the Dogger not Roger the Dodger. The opera is supposed to be set in 12th century Sicily although, in this production, director Kasper Holten follows the tedious modern practice of setting it in the period in which it was written eg the 1920s. The plot was fairly impenetrable to me. It appears to be about a king who is torn between Christianity and ancient religions. There is a shepherd who preaches the ancient ways but, in this production, he looks more like a pop singer. The queen and most of Roger's subjects go off with the shepherd. Roger agonises for a bit but finally seems to arrive at some sort of reconciliation between Christianity and the ancient ways. I have heard the suggestion that Roger's anguish reflects the way that Szymanowski was torn between his Christian faith and his homosexuality but I couldn't possible comment on that.

The first act is dominated by a giant head in the middle of the stage which does interfere with the action somewhat. In Act II the head revolves to reveal a scaffold on which scantily-clad men gyrate. Mercifully the opera is only 90 minutes long but it seems much longer that that. I could not detect anything worthwhile in the music although the three leads all acquitted themselves well: Mariusz Kwiecien as Roger, Georgia Jarman as his wife Roxana and Samir Pirgu as the Shepherd. I think that this is the first opera that I have heard in Polish. It seemed to me to have all the disadvantages of Russian as an operatic language with none of the compensating factors.

This production was very well reviewed and the ROH audience on the night were very enthusiastic so maybe it's just me who did not get it. Sometimes I think an opera is rubbish and I return to it 5 or 10 years later and realise that it is a masterpiece. Somehow, I do not think that this will happen with Krol Roger.

Andrea Chénier: Live from the Royal Opera House

Much more than a star vehicle
One could be forgiven for imagining that Giordano is a service station on the M5 but Umberto Giordano was, in fact, an Italian composer of verismo operas. Andrea Chénier dates from 1896 and has a libretto by Luigi Illica, better known for La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Not surprisingly then, the libretto is the best thing about this opera. It tells a good story in the tight four act, two-hour structure that is familiar from Illica's other works. In fact, in a world of stupid opera plots, the libretto of Andrea Chénier would be a good candidate for the title of most intelligent opera ever.

Sadly, Giordano's music is not of the same standard. It is at best workmanlike. Although it offers plenty of opportunities for star performers to sing their hearts out there is nothing that you can actually hum as you go home from the opera house. Jonas Kaufmann and Eva Maria Westbroek give their all as the tormented poet Chénier and his aristocratic lover Maddalena but for me, the star is baritone Željko Lučić as the mentally-tortured servant Gérard.

The story starts in pre-revolutionary France. There is a ball at the house of an aristocratic family. Gérard, the butler, despises his employers and pities his elderly father: "For sixty years, father, you have been in service and fathered slaves". The poet Andrea Chénier arrives and Maddalena is immediately attracted to him. She wants to hear some of his poetry but, at first, he says he is not in the mood. Finally he relents and sings a song of love for his country, to the disgust of his fellow aristos. The ball ends in disarray with the news that the rebels are at the gates. Gérard throws off his livery and lets the rebels in. Rosalind Plowright, in a delicious cameo as the Contessa, delivers the best line in the opera: "That Gérard ruined by reading".

Six years later, Gérard is a leader of the revolution. Chénier is on the run and Maddalena is in hiding. Maddalena is captured and offers Gerard her body if it will save Chénier's life. There are shades of Tosca here but Gérard is a more complex character than Scarpia. He actually loves Maddalena and, for her sake, defends Chénier at his eventual trial. To no avail of course. Chénier is sentenced to the guillotine but Maddalena swaps places with another prisoner so that she can share her lover's fate. Shades of Aida here but the last scene as the doomed pair pledge their love is very moving.

I have seen the 1980's productions of Chénier, starring Plácido Domingo and Jose Carréras and like this David McVicar production they were both opulently and traditionally staged. The plot would lend itself to being staged in modern-day Syria but, fortunately no- one has thought of this yet. This is a fascinating production of an opera which is much more than a star vehicle. There are 23 named singing roles and also a lively chorus that is particularly effective in the trial scene.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach

Clouds Race on Cue
Reading the reviews of this production when it was performed live on Aldeburgh beach, it seems that the audience had an unforgettable experience although they had to suffer everything that the North Sea could throw at them in the process. This film of the production was shot in fairly calm weather although the sky still looks menacing and the sea has a lovely pink glow as the sun gets low. The orchestra is prerecorded and there is no sign of an audience although the DVD publicity claims that it was filmed during the three live performances. The soloists wear heavy-duty mikes but the chorus are unmiked. I am not sure whether they are miming or singing along to their own recording. There also seems to be some doctoring of the climatic conditions: when someone sings "It looks like there's a storm coming" we see the clouds start to race across the sky. I've no idea how this was done.

However it was done, the overall effect is quite brilliant. It is the best version of Peter Grimes that I have ever seen and it really tells the story in a way that I have never appreciated before. The set is a fairly abstract, jumble of jetties and boats. The costumes are updated to the 1940's but I did not even notice that till halfway through. Alan Oke gives a definitive performance as Grimes, both vocally and dramatically. In a strong cast Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford and David Kempster as Balstrode also stand out. The choruses are outstanding, whether or not they are mimed. There were old favourites such as Old Joe Has Gone Fishing and Grimes Is At His Exercise but I was struck more than ever before by how melodic and attainable this opera is in its entirety.

Pia de' Tolomei

Slow-acting poison
The newly-rebuilt Fenice in Venice looks very attractive in this film, like a slightly reduced La Scala. The production gives us a welcome opportunity to hear a Donizetti rarity, Pia di Tolomei. It tells of the virtuous Pia who is accused of being unfaithful to her husband Nello della Pietro. In fact she has been secretly seeing her brother who is at war with Nello. Nello, played by Andrew Schroeder, poisons Pia with one of those slow-acting poisons beloved of Italian composers. She has plenty of time to sing a last aria and to encourage her husband and brother to bury their differences before she expires gracefully.

The story is Othello-lite. The Iago character here is Ghino degli Armieri played by the tenor Dario Schmunck. This breaks the first rule of opera, that tenors cannot be the bad guys but Ghino is a complex character. He betrays Pia because he secretly loves her. When he realizes that her virtue in inviolable he repents and dies a hero's death with much suitable tenor music. Donizetti makes the part of Rodrigo a trouser role, this being a convenient way to get a mezzo into the cast. Laura Polverelli certainly looks fragrant in her purple velvet trousers and her duet with Patrizia Ciofi's Pia is one of the highlights of the production. Strangely, it gets no applause and, in fact the applause throughout, from the Venetian audience, is very subdued.

The performances of the four principals are not world class but of good provincial opera-house standard. The part of Pia is a very big sing, which Ciofi handles well but I did not warm to her diffident manner and her irritating habit of singing with her head on one side, like a folk singer. The sets are simple and attractive, consisting mainly of flat panels in primary colours that slide up and down and across the stage. I was slightly disconcerted by a panel of Italian text that was lowered onto the stage: I thought the audience was about to be invited to participate in a karaoke session.

Great Performances: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Episode 4, Season 36

Still puzzled
My only previous knowledge of this opera comes from the 1998 Salzburg version where is is performed in German with an illustrious operatic cast. I felt at the time that actors who could sing could probably give a better account of this piece than opera singers. This is mainly what we get in this Los Angeles production. Patti LuPone is an excellent Begbick and Audra McDonald is a sensational Jenny. Think Condoleezza Rice in a diaphanous body-stocking. Anthony Dean Griffey, who plays Jimmy, is of course an opera singer. I last saw him as Peter Grimes at the Met but I think he is miscast in Mahagonny.

Doing the opera in translation does make it more accessible to English-speaking audiences but I cannot say I understand the opera any more after seeing this production. It still strikes me as a lame satire on the evils of capitalism with cartoon characters and comic strip action. I felt alienated from the entire thing. Maybe that was what Brecht intended.


Blind Date
This is the first time I have seen Massenet's charming version of the Cinderella story. It makes an interesting comparison with Rossini's Cenerentola. Whereas Rossini eschews magic and has the Dandini subplot, Massenet's is a traditional telling of the story with plenty of fairies and magic. Massenet's music is tuneful without ever challenging the genius of Rossini's version. Joyce DiDonato makes the most of her music as Cendrillon. Alice Coote, as Prince Charming, seems slightly less comfortable possibly because of her small stature next to DiDonato. However the love duets between the two are the musical highlights of the opera. Eglise Gutierrez's performance as the Fairy Godmother is a tour de force. Dressed like Shirley Bassey, only with wings and with eye-popping cleavage she makes a big impression with the Queen of the Night-type music that Massenet gives her. She has a scene in the enchanted forest where the she draws an invisible barrier between the two lovers so that they cannot see each other that reminded me of the television programme Blind Date.

There is stalwart support from Jean-Philippe Lafont as Cendrillon's father and Ewa Podles as the stepmother. Madeleine Pieraud and Kai Ruutel play the not-so-ugly sisters. The two sisters do not have much singing to do but their amusing stage business, along with their mother, do much to enhance the charm of this production. This being a French opera, there are also a couple of ballets. I also like the maids in drab grey cardigans who assist Cendrillon in her transformation. They reminded me of the mice in the Walt Disney film but I suppose I got that the wrong way round since Massenet got there first.

The opera is directed by Laurent Pelly whose productions I either love or hate. He seems to excel at comedy, the problem being that he tries to turn everything into a comedy. No problem in this opera though. I also liked the design which was just two walls with the story of Cinderella, in French, written on them. The costumes are spectacular with the stepmother and the two daughters wearing fantastic creations that are huge at the hips tapering to nothing at the ankles.

Sadly, Joyce DiDonato does not get the big number at the end that you get in Cenerentola. Nevertheless this is an enchanting production of a rarely-heard opera.

La Bohème

Hot in Abkhazia
At first glance, it is difficult to see why this production was filmed. Sky Arts bills it as John Copley's 2009 production of La Boheme but it is quite clearly a revival of his production which, incredibly, dates from the 1970s. I remember seeing the previous film of this production which was made in 1982 and starred Ileana Cotrubas. In fact, I think it is the first filmed opera that I ever saw and it is largely responsible for turning me on to the entire genre. It is not even as if the production is being revived as a star vehicle. Hibla Gerzmava may be hot in Abkhazia and Teodor Ilincai may be big in Romania but they are hardly household names.

However, having seen it, I am glad that it was filmed because it really is very good. John Copley effectively choreographs all the intricate bits of stage business that are so important to this opera. The ensemble scenes are particularly effective, foreshadowing Puccini's marshalling of much larger ensembles in La Fanciulla and Gianni Schicchi. Puccini's ideas here are quite groundbreaking, for instance when Mimi sings over Musetta's big number or where the big Act III love duet is interrupted by Marcello and Musetta arguing. Gerzmava and Ilincai are more than adequate as Mimi and Rodolfo. Gerzmava has a sweet, smallish voice which is not particularly a disadvantage in a filmed production. Ilincai lacks a bit of gravitas but he is most effective in that Act III duet "Addio, senza rancor. Best of the rest is Gabriele Viviani's endearing Marcello.

Although I have seen a dozen other Bohemes since seeing that 1982 version of this production, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and thought it was two hours well spent. Anyone watching La Boheme for the first time would be well served by this production.

Death in Venice

Beauty in the eye of the beholder
I recently saw the film of English National Opera's 2013 production of Death in Venice. It was interesting to compare it with this 1981 film, directed by Tony Palmer. The ENO production makes effective use of back-projections of Venetian locations whereas Palmer uses film of actual Venetian locations spliced together with scenes shot in a studio. It looks good, although the effect was somewhat marred in the fuzzy print that I saw.

This is very much a film, rather than a filmed opera. As the protagonist, Aschenbach, reflects upon his situation Palmer illustrates his thoughts. Also, controversially, he uses voice-over so that Aschenbach is seen silently musing while he sings on the soundtrack. Normally I would hate this but it seems to work and it helps in understanding the psychologically complex story to be able to see what Aschenback is thinking about. I could hear every word that tenor Robert Gard sang, something that could not be said for the ENO production where I had to listen with a synopsis in my hand. Only occasionally did I get the impression that I was watching a film with an operatic backing track.

John Shirley-Quirk successfully manages the seven cameo roles of various irritating people that Aschenbach comes into contact with. The object of Aschenbach's affection, the boy Tadzeo, played by Vincent Redman, is of course a non-singing, non-speaking role. To be honest, I found him less than beautiful beside his two beautiful sisters. Aschenbach, of course, does find him beautiful and describes his sisters as plain. I did enjoy the scene where the slender youth descends into a Turkish bath watched by fat naked Italians, a scene that is not in the opera but one that is used by Palmer to open out the action.

I like Britten's score with its sensitive orchestration and Balinese tinkling. Mifanwy Piper does her usual expert job on the libretto. Ultimately though this not one of my favourite Britten operas because I think the source material, the novella by Thomas Mann is too thin and, frankly, rather distasteful. I can understand why Britten empathised with this story of a dirty old man following an adolescent boy around Venice but it is a theme that probably does not have universal appeal.


Carmen Phones
There are plenty of daft opera directors in the world but Calixto Bieito has to be the daftest. In this 2011 production of Carmen he strips out everything that gives the opera its unique character. Instead of a wild gypsy in 19th century Seville we get a middle-aged factory worker dressed in a grey overall in a more-or-less modern setting. The stage is almost bare throughout, no tobacco factory, no Lillas Pastia's taverna, no mountains no Seville. Act I uses a bare stage apart from a telephone box and a flagpole. In Act II instead of a tavern we have a car. Act III features more men in cars. Is Bieito taking the title too literally? In Act IV Seville is represented by a circle drawn on a bare stage. I say more-or-less modern because Carmen is seen having a heated telephone conversation in the phone box on her first appearance. The same lack of mobile phone technology is seen later when Jose and Michaela take a selfie. They use a camera with a film in it which gives Jose the opportunity to rip out the film later when he unaccountably gets angry over something.

Ah, I hear you saying, Bieito has stripped the opera down to its essentials to lay bare the human conflict. I don't think so. This is a director who knows nothing about stage drama. He bungles scene after scene and cannot handle the most rudimentary stage business required to make the action plausible. Why, for example, does the Lieutenant take off his own belt at the end of Act I and hand it to Jose so that he can restrain Carmen? Why don't his trousers fall down?

What does Bieto bring to the party? The opera starts with a man running round the stage in his underpants. At the end of the first Act a woman, I don't know who, is hoist up a flagpole. A fat man wanders round in a string vest. Lillas Pastia looking for his taverna, perhaps? There is some fellatio and the final act starts with a man taking off all his clothes and dancing. So far so yawnworthy. I was more bothered though by a sexualised little girl dancing at the start of the second act.

Béatrice Uria-Monzon's Carmen lacks colour and characterisation. This is not surprising since she has to sing her habanera in a grey overall. The, normally reliable Roberto Alagna as Don Jose seems to be straining a bit in his upper register. Don Jose is supposed to be a broody character but most of the time Alagna looks as though he would rather be somewhere else. He is at his best when duetting with Marina Poplavskaya's lively Michaela. Erwin Schrott is a vocally effective Escamillo although he is not allowed to do much in Bieito's production. The production ends anticlimactically as neither Alagna nor Uria-Monzon can create sufficient tension in their final fatal confrontation.

Donizetti: Roberto Devereux

Tears in Heaven
I recently listened to Britten's Gloriana which covers similar territory to Donizetti's Roberto Devereux. Both operas tell the story of the real life Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex who was a favourite of the elderly Queen Elizabeth. In Britten's opera Essex, a married man, is an ambitious politician and general who flirts with the elderly queen in order to obtain political advancement. He leads a bungled military campaign in Ireland followed by a half-hearted rebellion against the queen. Elizabeth reluctantly sentences her favourite to death.

Donizetti's version reduces the politics to a simple love triangle. Elizabeth loves Essex but Essex is having an affair with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. Essex is sentenced to death for his Irish bungling but Elizabeth signs the death warrant in a fit of jealousy because he will not reveal the name of his lover. There is some business with a scarf and a ring which Shakespeare might have made much of but Donizetti's librettist was no Shakespeare. Donizetti does something similar in his opera Maria Stuarda where, again, Elizabeth is engaged in a love triangle. It gives the impression that the court of the virgin queen was a hotbed of rampant sexuality.

Roberto Devereux is a much better opera than Maria Stuarda and what really matters is that this opera contains some of Donizetti's best music. Elizabeth is a huge part and it is brilliantly executed by the Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, a new name to me. She is imperious in the first two acts, although she does rather overdo the hands on hips stance that would be more appropriate to Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII. In the final act she descends into madness with some extraordinary music that strains the boundaries of conventional musicality. There is good support from Andrew Schroeder and Frederica Bragaglia as the duke and duchess of Nottingham. As Essex, Massimiliano Pisapia is the equal of Luciano Pavirotti, but only if they were having a pie-eating contest. He does have his moment though in his final "Tears in Heaven" aria before going for the chop.

This production from Begamo is conventionally staged and traditionally costumed, which will please most opera lovers. It ends in enthusiastic applause for Dimitra Theodossiou. I think there is a convention that the character that the opera is named after takes the final bow. Not in this opera though where Roberto Devereux wisely gives precedence to the Queen at the final curtain.

Don Giovanni

Empty Experience
Don Giovanni has a picaresque plot in eight separate scenes. If the opera is entirely presented in a empty room the audience has no change of understanding what is going on. This is what we get from Australian Opera. The lack of a set suggests that it was designed, if that is not too kind a word to be presented at village halls throughout Australia. Perhaps it was. The graveyard scene is particularly silly with just a coffin in the middle of the stage and the Commendatore's ghost standing next to it. In the final banqueting scene the coffin has to double as the Don's table.

The singing is as undistinguished as the set. I personally find Teddy Tahu Rhodes' booming baritone quite unpleasant to listen to. Conal Coad and Rachelle Durkin are an elderly Leporello and Donna Elvira and both look and sound as if they should have been performing these roles 20 years ago. Maybe they were. The rest of the cast are young but equally unimpressive. I shall not name names because these young performers may want to put this feeble production behind them.

The scene where the Don and Leporello change clothes often does not work in an updated production. In this production the Don does indeed have fine clothes and Leporello has a servant's dress. The scene still does not work though because tall, thin Tahu Rhodes changes clothes with small, fat Conal Coad and the effect is unintentionally ridiculous.


Tough Listen
Strauss's Elektra is a tough listen but this excellent production repays the listener amply. It comes from Salzburg, which often means silly productions but here director Nikolaus Lehnhoff gives us an ungimmicky production on a fascinating expressionist set.

Irene Theorin gives a riveting performance in the title role. She is grey-faced, black-eyed with bloodshot eyeballs and matted hair, think Ozzie Osbourne. She exudes hatred throughout her two hours on stage as she rails against her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegistheus who have murdered her father Agamemnon It is a role that calls for incredible stamina and concentration.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is also impressive as her ditzy sister Chrysothemis whose main ambition is to make babies and just wants to let bygones be bygones. For me, the best music comes at towards the end as the two sisters together soar above the orchestra in typically Straussian fashion. Waltrauud Meier is the nervous mother Clytemnestra, fearful of her daughter revenge. Rene Pape is luxury casting for the small role of Orestes, Elektra's brother, who finally appears to exact the revenge that she has been calling for.

Mercifully, the slaughter is carried out offstage but we do get a brief glimpse of, presumably, Waltraud Meier's body double hanging upside down on a meat hook. I don't know whether this was performed before a live audience. There is certainly no sight or sound of an audience nor of the orchestra or conductor. Film director Thomas Gunn wants us to concentrate solely on the drama.

The Metropolitan Opera HD Live: Wagner: Siegfried
Episode 3, Season 6

Every Understudy's Dream
This is the third outing for Robert Lepage's ingenious set of rotating slabs, simple in appearance but hugely complicated in the execution. In Siegfried the slabs effectively conjure up a forest, magic fire and Mime's hut. Here we see Gerhard Siegel as a rather endearing Mime, more of an absent-minded professor than an evil schemer. In the prologue we actually see Mime rescuing Siegfried from his dying mother.

Siegfried is sung by Jay Hunter Morris, stepping into the role at short notice. It must be every understudy's dream, and nightmare. Morris's voice appears rather light at first but then I was entranced by the beauty of his tone and the fact that he was singing within himself rather than belting out the role. By the time he gets to his meeting with Brunnhilde he sounds a little bit tired, quite excusably since he has already been singing for three hours.

Deborah Voigt has the opposite problem appearing for just the last 40 minutes of the opera and having to launch straight into possibly the most sensuous music ever written. Voigt gives a stunning performance, every bit as good as that in Die Walkure. I can't wait to hear her immolation in the final part. I do not think the interaction between Morris and Voigt is as sexy as I have seen in some Siegfrieds. But I do always enjoy the bit where Siegfried removes Brunhilde's breastplate and exclaims "This is no man."

Elsewhere, Eric Owens continues his fascinating interpretation of Alberich and Hans-Peter Konig soon shrugs of his dragon costume to continue his effective role as Fafner. There is a beautifully sung Woodbird from Mojka Erdmann but we only see a 3-D animation on the high-tech stage. I must admit I prefer to see my Woodbird as well as hear her. Patricia Bardon is an undramatic Erda and I felt that her scene with Bryn Terfel's Wanderer was not as effective as it could have been.

The cast take a bow at the end of each act, not surprising really as each act is almost an opera in itself. At the end of each act, the enthusiastic Met audience applauds before the music has ended. One admires their enthusiasm while wishing that they could exercise just a little bit more restraint.

The Metropolitan Opera HD Live: Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Episode 8, Season 6

Totally Thrilling
Robert Lepage's elegant set continues to impress with its endless transformations in this final part of the Ring. It can be Brünnhilde's abode, a boat on the Rhine, the Hall of the Gibichungs. In one stunning moment, when the 24 slabs become the Rhine, Gunther appears to wash his bloody hands in the water and the whole river turns red. There are some stunning performances too, particularly from the Gibichung trio. There is the voluptuous Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune and the well-characterised performance of Iain Paterson as the diffident Gunther. Best of all is the wonderful portrayal of glowering menace from Hans-Peter König as Hagen. He even manages to outglower Eric Owens's Alberich in the brief scene that the Niebelung father and son have together.

In this 4½ hour epic there are scenes that I sometimes feel that Wagner could have trimmed since they just provide back story. I never had that feeling during this production. I loved the Norns scene that opens the opera and, because it is presented in such a dramatic and visual way I concentrated on the back story much more than usual. The Rheinmaidens are as ravishing as ever, although they appear to have lost their tails since Rheingold and Waltraud Meyer gives a barnstorming performance as the Valkyrie Waltraute. I even enjoyed the long scene where Siegfried, essentially rehashes the plot of the previous opera. Jay Hunter Morris's imitation of the woodbird was charming. Some of Morris's double takes are quite amusing although I think they would be better suited to a Hollywood romcom.

Neither Jay Hunter Morris nor Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde quite attain the level of perfection that they achieved in the final act of Siegfried. I guess that they had performed that opera a couple of days earlier and were still suffering. If their performances were less than perfect they were still totally thrilling. Voigt immolation scene was a fitting climax to this 15 hour epic. At the end, she really does climb onto her horse and ride into the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre. That is the first time that I have ever seen that particular stage direction of Wagner's taken so literally. After that, the end is an anti-climax. I fully expected Robert Lepage's versatile set to recreate Valhalla going up in flames but everything ends quietly.

The Metropolitan Opera HD Live: Mozart: Don Giovanni
Episode 2, Season 6

Be Careful What You Wish For
I have seen a lot of Don Giovannis. I've seen it set in a strip club, on a slag heap and in modern dress. I often wish that I could see a straightforward production in period costume with no gimmicks. Well here it is and, ungrateful wretch that I am, I found it quite boring.

Michael Grandage's production uses a simple but effective set set consisting of a network of boxes. This is becoming a Met trade mark. Similar sets were used in their productions of Doctor Atomic and The Damnation of Faust. At least it makes for quick scene changes.

There are some big names in the cast but the overall effect is underwhelming. Mariusz Kwiecien lacks gravitas as the Don. Luca Pisaroni is a colourless Leporello. Ramon Vargas is a stodgy Don Ottavio. Joshua Bloom is a decent enough Masetto. At least these roles are competently sung. I was less keen on Marina Rebeka's foghorn Donna Anna and Barbara Frittoli's shrill Donna Elvira. Mojka Erdmann is a charming Zerlina. It was good to see her too, after only hearing her as the Woodbird in Siegfried. Even she cannot reduce the embarrassment of her aria imploring Masetto to beat her. Most directors these days allow a touch of irony in this aria but this production appears to be an irony-free zone.

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