Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Ring & I

At 7:30pm on Tuesday, 2nd October 2012 something truly wonderful started to unfold in WC2. The lights at the Royal Opera House faded, and faded and faded until the entire auditorium was plunged into pitch dark, including the orchestra pit. Then one deep, deep note began to sound. It was joined by another, slightly higher note, then another note and then another. Building and building and building in the pitch dark, the sound rising, more and more instruments joining in. Das Rheingold and my first ever Ring Cycle had begun!

What followed was four evenings and over 16 hours of the most sublime music and singing I think I've ever heard. This was something on an epic scale. It took Richard Wagner 20 years to write Der Ring Das Nibelungen, he even purpose built a theater in which to stage it at Beyreuth in southern Germany. It's probably the most challenging thing an opera house can undertake. In fact, there's probably nothing like it across any art form anywhere that compares to the Ring Cycle. It's simply huge. Not just an opera, but an event.  I actually shouldn't call it an opera at all, Wagner referred to his works as 'music dramas', hinting at his dislike of traditional opera and what it represented.

The story of the Ring Cycle is based heavily around Nordic mythology with a good dash of Germanic culture thrown in. It's the story of a gold ring. The owner of the ring has power over the entire world, but the price for this is that they must renounce love. An evil dwarf (why is it always us short people who are evil?!), Albrich steals the gold from the Rehin Maidens in Das Rheingold and forges it into a ring. What unfolds eventually results in the end of the world, which is a good thing it turns out! The plot, as you can imagine, is pretty complicated so i won't go into it here. Just think along the lines of the Lord of the Rings and you're about there (which was inspired by this very music drama). 

What is truly wonderful about the Ring Cycle lies fairly and squarely with the absolute genius of Wagner as a composer. You won't hear music or opera like it anywhere, EVER. It's just simply unique. Love him or hate him, Wagner is a musical genius. It's difficult to describe in words the effect that the music of the Ring Cycle has had on me. It's just magical. It's a wonderful unending sound that twists and turns, ebbs and flows and tells a wonderful story along with it. It rarely stops throughout the four operas. There are very few pauses, which in the case of Das Rheingold means around 2hrs 40mins of unbroken playing for an orchestra as there's no interval. At times it's it can be touching and beautiful at others bombastic and thunderously loud (Siegfried's funeral march in Götterdämmerung for example).

I think there are four key musical moments for me across the Cycle. Firstly there's the opening to Das Rheingold, starting with it's single, lonely low note and building, layer upon layer into the most beautiful music before the Rhine Maidens burst into wonderful song. The second is the opening to Die Walküre. Tense, rolling, menacing. Stunning. The third is the most famous of all Wagner music, and probably all opera, the opening to Act III of Die Walküre, commonly know as the 'Ride of the Valkyries' (many will know this from the famous helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now). You've simply not experienced life until you've heard this played by a world class orchestra, live. It's simply an experience like no other. The noise blows you away. If you're not shaken to your core by the experience then you're made of stone. The final moment for me is the closing of Götterdämmerung and the Cycle itself. The world as we've known it throughout the Cycle comes to a clattering, fiery end as the Rhine Maiden's reclaim the ring and their gold and equilibrium is restored to the universe. It's big, bold, dramatic and finally beautiful. You genuinely leave feeling that everything will be ok and that peace has returned to the magical world of the Ring Cycle.

I'm still trying to work out exactly what the Ring Cycle and Wagner has done to me over the last week.... I've laughed, I've cried, I've lost faith in love and had it completely restored again, I've gasped, I've sighed and I've spent HOURS leaning forward in my tiny Lower Slips seat at the opera house. I've been completely drawn into Wagner's mythical world of giants, dwarfs,  gods, valkyries, superheros and Rhine Maidens. One thing I am certain of though, and it's a fact, is that music is a simply wonderful, wonderful thing and Wagner is an absolute genius. Here's to a week of the unforgettable. Das Ende!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Otello, 24th July

Well as the date suggests I actually saw this a bloody long time ago now!It's been a busy few weeks what with the London 2012 Olympics and much of my day job being taken up with that. So whilst it's quiet before the Paralympics kicks off in wonderful style, I'm catching up with other parts of my life. I'll keep this review short - Otello was a real winner for me and a great end to the 2011/12 season at the ROH. It was dramatic and musical in true Verdian style. There were one or two slow moments, but over all it was a good paced piece of opera and very refreshing compared to my Les Troyens nightmare. I think my two opera novices enjoyed it too - at the very least they were being exceptionally polite if they didn't!

I think one of the highlights of the evening was the singing itself (it sounds odvious, but that's always the case) - It almost turned into a disappointment when it was announced that Anja Herteros had pulled out of the final show due to ill health. She'd recieved rave reviews in the press and I was really looking forward to hearing her sing. However, after a season of cancellations by top stars, the ROH cam up trumps with a stellar replacement. Marina Poplavskaya happened to be in the audience that night and was called upon to fill the shoes of Herteros in the role of Desdemona. I really like Poplavskaya, so I was pleased. In addition to the singers, Pappano was on top form with the ROH Orchestra. He really does seem to be in his element when it comes to the Italian greats!

Overall a great opera, and a good one for beginners too, especially if you like your Shakespeare and know the story of Othello (Otello in Italian). It makes it easy to follow and it's a good length too. A great end to the season!

Rating: ****

Monday, 2 July 2012

La boheme,Take 2, 23rd July 2012

A bit back to front, and only a brief entry on this one, but on 23rd June I saw La boheme for the second time this season. The reason being, it was a special anniversary performance by one of opera's biggest couples: Angela Gheroghiu and Roberto Alagna who met in this very production some 20 years ago. They split a few years back, and this was the first time they'd sung together since then. I'm a big fan of Angela's, and despite her many critics I think she's got a stunning voice, and that really shone through in this performance. I'd never seen Roberto Alagna in anything before this, although i'd heard much about him (largely because he stormed of stage after being booed at La Scala, Milan, a few years back). He was delightful - really powerful singer and he was a good actor too in the part of Rodolfo. I love La boheme and I love a big performance at the Royal Opera House - there's always an extra air of excitement around for these occasions - a bit like the supersonic performances of Tosca last summer. This is what I enjoy about going to the opera, and this is the sort of opera I enjoy: A beautifully tuneful, compact Puccini with a great cast. Stuff Les Troyens, this was a major win for the 2011/12 season - indeed the highlight for me!

Rating: *****
Seat: V64, Upper Amphitheater,* (Worst seat I've ever had the the ROH - right at the very back crevices of the Amphitheater, with an unexpectedly restricted view due to a very tall man a few seats in front!)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Les Troyens, 25th June 2012

I know the Gheroghiu/Alagna La boheme from Saturday still needs a post, but I feel the need to write about my experience last night right away! It was an interesting one that has thrown up a number of big questions for me around opera and what I like and what I'm finding I don't like about it. 

Les Troyens is a mighty, mighty opera. Not staged by the Royal Opera since 1969 (according to the gentleman sat next to me) it's immensely expensive to stage and stretches the Opera House to its very limit (this new production is by the recently knighted Sir David McVicar). Probably only Wagner's Ring Cycle is more demanding. That of course makes it a fascinating spectacle to behold. It also makes it painfully long - I was in the Opera House for 5hrs 45mins in the end last night and I left feeling totally exhausted. From the emotional drama of the opera, yes, but also from sitting on a bench seat rammed between two people and leaning forward for a view. Anything of this length means taking provisions with you which mean a sandwich, plenty of water and crackers and hummus. I'm sorry, but it's all a bit too much. I really did enjoy the show, it was a good theatrical production from my basic knowledge of these things, and the singing was good. In fact it was exceptional in the case of Anna Caterina Antonacci. Antonio Pappano was great in the pit too, as always. I have to say it - Bryan Hymel was great..But what if Joans had been there?

I guess the telling of the story of the Trojans needs to be on an epic scale, it's an epic tale after all. The staging came complete with a gigantic, metallic Trojan horse, a mass suicide at the end of Act II, a full on ballet for much of Act IV. Essentially it had everything you could possibly cram into an opera. But for me it was all just a bit too much. I can't fully concentrate on anything for much over 3hrs, let alone 5hrs. I just can't see where the real, serious enjoyment is in watching something on this scale. For me it was a test of endurance, and that therefore means it wasn't enjoyable. As I near the end of my self proclaimed mission to see the Royal Opera's 2011/12 season I'm getting a crystal clear picture of what I like and don't like when it comes to opera. Berlioz's Les Troyens is something I can tell my nephew I've done, but it's certainly not something I'll be going to see again in my lifetime. Once is enough for an epic like this, and maybe that's the way it should be....

Perhaps I should rethink my Wagner Ring Cycle for October!

Rating: ** (I feel it deserves 4 stars just for the sheer scale of the whole thing, which is a major achievement, even if I didn't personally enjoy the experience that much)
Seat: AA27, Upper Slips Left, £15 (I actually really like these seats, but NOT for a marathon like this)
Synopsis: Les Troyens

NEXT (AND FINAL!) OPERA: Otello, 24th July

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Austerity opera

As the 2011/12 season of opera comes to a close (yes, there's only a matter of weeks left!), my attention is turning to the 2012/13 season in earnest. Today I booked my first performances in the new Royal Opera season as Friends booking opened. In addition to Wagner's Ring Cycle, which I booked last year, I've nabbed my tickets for L'elisir d'amore (November), Robert le diable (December) and The Minotaur (January). Going to the opera regularly can be an expensive affair if you let it be, and considering i'm far from being a wealthy man I've decided that for this season any tickets I buy will be the cheapest in the house (or close enough to). Today's bill for three operas came to a very reasonable £20, with tickets to The Minotaur coming in at just £4 (I could have gone for a £3 option, but thought i'd treat myself). Even my Ring Cycle tickets only set me back a very respectable £14, thanks to a incredibly generous gift certificate from colleagues at work. So for 2012/13 the theme is austerity opera. Or rather how to indulge in a passion and keep the bank manager happy!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Netrebko/Schrott/Vargas, Royal Albert Hall, 6th June 2012

My second outing to the opera this week was to the Royal Albert Hall and the star studded extravaganza that was Netrebko/Schrott/Vargas. Originally Jonas Kaufmann was in the line up but very sadly he had to withdraw due to an on going illness. A big disappointment indeed. His replacement was Ramon Vargas, not someone I was familiar with before this show, but he did a solid job of filling Kaufmann's shoes. The Daily Telegraph referred to this show as 'The dream of hearing beautiful music sung beautifully by beautiful people' something which Rupert Christiansen went on to say never quite materialised. For once I think Rupert and I are on the same page. Overall, I actually found the evening pretty naff and at times just full on cringy! Whilst the singing was of course top notch, it didn't blow me away as i thought it would, especially in the case of Anna Netrebko, someone who I've been waiting to see perform for years. I actually thought this might be an opportunity for Anna to replace Angela Gheroghiu as my favorite opera darling - but don't worry Angela, you're still firmly at the top of my list!

I think one of my issues was with the way in which the show was broken up with musical interludes, performed solidly by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. During the first half i think we heard more from the orchestra than any of the singers, who came and went in the blink of an eye. I also found it annoying that the conductor kept leaving the stage and then immediately returning after almost every song or orchestral piece. What's the point in doing that?? He must have walked off stage and then turned straight back round again. It meant a lot of unnecessary clapping in my opinion. The second half did improve, with a lot more singing from the stars we'd all come to watch and it was in this half that we had the best music. But again, none of it really brought down the house for me and I found the romantic husband and wife duet between Netrebko and Schrott especially painful to watch. The whole evening ended in one too many encores (I blame the Russian Oligarch contingent down in the stalls who'd turned out en mass for Netrebko), although Netrebko did perform O mio babbino carro which was a bonus.

All in all, I agree with Rupert again - the evening was cheesy, but kind of fun at the same time.

Rating: ***

Salome, 5th June 2012

First things first. This particular outing to the Royal Opera was top draw, really top draw. There i was sauntering up to my lowly standing position in the Balcony area for which I'd paid a very reasonable £9. No sooner had I started to settle than a very nice member of the ROH staff came up to me and offered me a central Balcony seat worth a whopping £106!Well as you can imagine I was straight in there. It makes a difference you know when you sit in these immensely expensive seats - I'm not sure quite a £97 difference, but a difference at any rate. There's a lesson to be learnt here: If you can nab a cheap standing ticket for a production that's not selling well, you could end up with a very nice upgrade (then again, perhaps I was just lucky with the staff on Tuesday night).

Right, back to the opera: Salome by R.Strauss (not to be confused with the multitude of other Strauss' out there). It's based on Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, which is in turn based on a biblical story I believe. This particular production is set in the 1920s/30s in the home of a wealthy family (The Telegraph described the main character as being similar to a Nazi starlet, one that invites Jewish guests over for dinner at any rate). For some reason this wealthy family have a man, John the Baptist, hiding in a celler beneath the house. A bit odd in my opinion, but there we go. Salome develops a very unhealthy obsession with John the Baptist, a very unhealthy obsession indeed. This obsession grows after John the Baptist refuses to kiss Salome, which was a big mistake for poor John. Playing up to her stepfather, Herod, who offers to grant her any wish, Salome demands that he bring her the head of John the Baptist. A demand she refuses to let go of until her stepfather gives in and orders a naked thug to go into the basement to bring the requested head. It all gets very grisly from here on in, as you can see in the above picture. It gets a bit too much for poor old Herod too, so he decides to add to the blood bath and commands that the naked thug, now covered in blood, kill Salome. THE END.

That is obviously a very simplistic breakdown of the plot but It was all pretty intense stuff set against some brilliant music. This is the third German language opera I've seen now, the first that isn't Wagner, and I've realised how beautiful German can be when sung, right up there with Italian. I really enjoyed this production as well. The setting in the home of a wealthy family was good, and I liked the 1920s/30s feel too. One of my favorite scenes was actually a 'dance' performed by Salome and Herod. I say 'dance' because it was more about the staging dancing than the characters. It was a psychological trip through Salome's life and her relationship with her stepfather. David McVicar uses a range of different images and lighting to portray this whilst sections of the scenery move across the stage. I really enjoyed it, it fitted the accompanying music perfectly.

All in all I enjoyed Salome, and not just because of the seat upgrade! It was certainly different from much of the other opera i've seen this year, both in terms of the story and the music. It might not be for everyone as it's a pretty intense show, but it's short (1hr 45mins) and snappy and perhaps a good introduction to non-Italian/less mainstream opera.

Rating: ***
Seat: B2 originally, but upgraded to C43, Balcony ***** (The second best seat i've ever had at the ROH after The Tsars Bride Stalls seat. Brilliant view!)
SynopsisSalome (Wikipedia)

NEXT OPERA: La boheme, 23rd June (take two with opera's star couple Angela Gheroghiu and Roberto Alagna - done well, this could be THE event of the year, stay tuned!)