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!)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Falstaff, 31st May 2012

My second opera of last week (i'm rapidly developing a backlog here!) was Falstaff back at the good old Royal Opera House. Verdi's final opera and based on Shakespeare's the Merry Wives of Windsor and, I learnt this morning, Henry IV parts I and II, this was a brand new production to Covent Garden (soon to be travelling to La Scala in Milan as well). The staging was set in 1950s Britain with Sir John Falstaff as an aging aristocrat of days gone by and the merry wives as upwardly mobile post-war middle class Brits. The staging swung from wood paneled stately home, to 1950s suburban semi to Windsor Great Park, and even included a real life horse.

As anyone who has read any of my previous blogs on Verdi operas will know, I'm a BIG fan of the Italian master. This season I've seen La traviata (for the second time)Aida and Rigoletto (both for the first time) and have enjoyed them immensely. I did enjoy Falstaff, especially the music which was wonderfully conducted, but not  as much as I've enjoyed his other work. I think in part I found the story a little hard to get a grip on, and I actually stopped following it towards the end. I think i'd tend to agree with a recent review I read in the Guardian about the third act being a bit laborious. It was at this point that I stopped engaging fully with the opera. The final moments were great through, especially the big rousing ending which was fun. In addition to not really following the story (perhaps I should have read the synopsis more fully) I'm also not a great fan of comic opera. As I've said in previous blogs, I find the gags don't always age that well. Whilst Falstaff didn't feel comic in the way some Rossini, Donizetti or Mozart operas do, some of the jollity passed me by I think.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Falstaff. I enjoyed it overall. The music was great and brilliantly conducted and played out by the orchestra. The cast was also excellent and all deserved the loud cheer they received at the end of the show. The staging was also engaging. My problem lays with the story itself and potentially the opera itself. It just didn't grab me in the way other operas have and certainly not in the way other Verdi operas have. I feel that i'd like to give this one another go in a few years time when I've learnt a little bit more about it and the intentions of Verdi in composing it.

Rating: ***
Seat: A28, Lower Slips, Amphitheater, £28 (I'm not really a fan of these seats for the price you pay. I think you're better off on a bench in the Upper Slips for around £9);

NEXT OPERA: Salome, 5th June

Monday, 4 June 2012

Caligula, ENO, 29th May 2012

So on Tuesday I went to see the first of two operas for the week, Caligula at the English National Opera (ENO). I was enticed by a fantastic deal on stalls tickets which were knocked down from £60 to £20, so I nabbed a seat in row A which essentially meant I was sat on top of the orchestra and virtually on the stage! For me this was perhaps a little too close, but it was the first time i'd sat in the front row at the opera, or even in a theatre full stop, so it had to be done. What I got was a close up of a pretty mad opera accompanied by some pretty intense music, and I have to say I think I enjoyed it, which is probably more than can be said for the poor chap sat behind me who had an electronic device malfunction at curtain up that resulted in him being heckled out of the auditorium....oooops.

Caligula is a very new opera, and this ENO production was it's UK premier. I believe Caligula was a Roman Emperor back in the day, and judging my the way he's portrayed here he was a completely insane megalomaniac. As there are plenty of completely insane megalomaniac political leaders still around today (no, i'm not thinking of anyone in the Tory Party, but I am thinking of the likes of President Assad of Syria) it meant that the subject matter was very timely. It's based on a play that was written in the 1940s around a time when some of the world's nastiest dictators had either been recently disposed of or where on the rise and rise following the end of World War II. Caligula charts the total breakdown of it's lead character into more and more sinister states of total madness as he and his state begin to fall apart around him. I some ways it all unfolds in a pretty predictable fashion with our lead character making increasingly ridiculous demands of those around him (him develops an unhealthy obsession with trying to obtain the moon for example) and becoming increasingly vicious and brutal to those in his inner circle. At times this is portrayed in a pretty stark fashion, especially in the case of the explicitly implied rape of one of his female aides. The whole opera culminates in Caligula being lynched by his own people, but even then he can't except his defeat and rises up battered and bloody to proclaim he's still alive....Total nutcase.

There were elements of Caligula the reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's version of Stephen King's The Shining. I think the music played an element as it's sinister, at times noisy, tunes conjured up images of Jack Torrance and his unsuccessful stint as hotel caretaker (some of the music in the film was by Stravinsky i believe...It was in a recent BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Barbican at any rate). Also I think some of the bizarre characters who filled the stage from time to time helped with the comparison. At one point we had people dressed as Kermit the Frog, Micky Mouse (a generic version so as to not be sued by the Disney) and a Ronald McDonaldesk clown. Added to this were some rather worse for wear cabaret dancers and various other charters wearing animal masks. It all reminded me of some of the less welcome guests at the Overlook Hotel, and added to a similar feeling of unease and intensity as that experienced in the film. I think the odd characters were supposed to say something about Caligula's deluded state of mind, but I couldn't be sure. They were unsettling at any rate, but then i'm never a fan of masks in that respect.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by Caligula. I wouldn't have gone at all had it not been for the reduced price tickets, but i'm glad I did. Once again I find myself warming to the ENO and i'm now pretty excited about their 2012/13 season. I think it's a pretty tough job to successfully stage some modern opera, or even modern takes on classics sometimes. But I think ENO are doing well in this area, I liked Caligula because it was a bit odd and different from a lot of the other opera I've seen recently. I'll certainly be attending a few more shows at the ENO in the not too distant future.

Seat: A19, Stalls, £20 **** (Excellent view,stunning sound, but a bit too close to the stage for my liking);

Sunday, 6 May 2012

La bohème, 5th May 2012

Puccini was back with devastating force at Covent Garden last night, and oh how I've missed him! La bohème is the first Puccini we've had since the brilliant Il trittico opened the 2011/12 season back in September last year. Last nights performance, my first for this opera, was simply wonderful. It was touching, at times funny and ultimately heartbreakingly sad, all set against the backdrop of John Copley's 19th Century Paris. It was also an unusual night as the final of BBC 2's Maestro at the Opera was being filmed. Act II was repeated with the winner conducting. We were asked by Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, to keep the winner a total secret as the show is not set to be broadcast for a number of weeks yet. So i'll do as instructed, and simply say that the winning Maestro did a very worthy job! I was also introducing my Mum to her very first opera last night. I think she liked it. She cried after Act I and said she was blown away by it all at the end! Good feedback indeed!

So what is that's cemented La bohème up there with Tosca and La traviata as one of my favourite operas? To begin with it had a head start. Puccini gets me every time with the drama and passion of his operas and the stunning music that accompanies them. I'm yet to see any Puccini that's not left me feeling shaken and stirred by the end of the evening.  La bohème's story is also an engaging and relevant one that I think can speak to everyone on some level, whether about love, loss, friendship, heartbreak or poverty. It's the tale of a group of 'bohemians' living in Paris in the 19th Century, and more specifically about the love and ultimate tragedy between the two central characters Rodolfo and Mimi. One of the most touching scenes i've seen in opera to date is the moment when the two first meet, on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in a Paris attic, their hands touch in search for a lost key, Rodolfo exclaims 'What a frozen little hand, let me warm it for you', and so begins one of opera's greatest loves! You can't convey the emotion of this scene in writing, you need to see it, to hear it, to experience it, but it's truly brilliant drama.

I'm sure I don't really need to say that everything in La bohème ultimately ends in tragedy. After an initial good start, love gets put to the test and Rodolfo's jealousy ultimately results in the two parting ways. Mimi is dieing from TB. They are reunited, there love as strong as ever, in Mimi's final hours. She searches out Rodolfo to be with him as she dies in the same Paris attic where they first met. The death scene is tragic. As Mimi's medicine is mixed by her friends, the fellow bohemians, Rodolfo paces the attic refusing to give up hope. She quietly dies in the background. All are heartbroken, Rodolofo is devastated, the music rises for just a moment as Rodolfo cries 'Mimi!, Mimi!', horns sound, there is a gentle drum role and then all fades softly to eventual quietness. It's said that the great man himself, Puccini, cried as he wrote this final scene and there was surely not a dry eye in the house last night as the curtains dropped.  It was just simply stunning and incredibly moving. Opera at his very best.

Rating: ****
Seat: J72, Amphitheater, £37 *** (not bad, but you can get slightly more central views for the same price)
Synopsis: La boheme

'Maestro at the Opera' continues on BBC 2, Friday, 11th May, 9pm. The final, which features Act II of La boheme being conducted at the ROH by the winner, will be aired on Friday, 18th May.

NEXT OPERA: Falstaff, 30th May

Sunday, 29 April 2012

ENO's 2012/13 Season

I've definitely not been quick off the mark with this one, but then there still isn't much about the ENO that really gets my ticker racing. However the ENO have announced their 2012/13 season, and it actually looks pretty interesting. Maybe this is the year that I truly find London's second opera company (to be fair, Eugene Onegin and Tosca this season were great). The full season can be found at the following link, below are my personal highlights. Oh and by the way, the old chap in the picture is Mr Walt Disney, lovely man, the reason why is below.

My ENO 2012/13 highlights

Carmen (Bizet), November/December 2012 - Apparently a pretty acclaimed version. I've only seen Carmen once and it was now quite some time ago. It's a fun opera, packed with great music and memorable tunes so I think this should be worth checking out.

La traviata (Verdi), February/March 2013 - La traviata is simply the best opera as far as i'm concerned. I'm sure this won't be on the same level as the Royal Opera's production, but it sounds interesting. Apparently it's an edited version...Not sure what that means as i'm not sure what you can edit! It'll certainly be worth a look though, if only to listen to Verdi's sumptuous score.

The Barber of Seville (Rossini), February/March 2013 - I enjoyed this at Covent Garden last year and I hoped to see it when it came to the Hackney Empire recently. This may even be the same production actually as it was the English Touring Opera who performed it in Hackney and I think they may be linked to the ENO. It's a fun opera anyway, so should be good.

The Perfect American (Glass), June 2013 - Yes, this is the reason for the picture of old Walt. Phillip Glass brings a brand new opera to the ENO all about the life and times of Walt Disney. I don't think it's really possible to paint a positive picture of Disney, and from what I've read this should be quite a gritty portrayal. I think this could be the highlight of the season for me. There's no dedicated area on the website yet, so sadly i can't provide a link through to production information.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

La Fille du régiment, 25th April 2012

I really hoped that Ann Widdecombe's cameo in La Fille du régiment on Wednesday wouldn't dominate my consequent review, but I'm afraid that is going to be totally unavoidable. The reviews of Ann's performance as La Duchess de Crackentorp in Donizetti's comic opera where pretty dire. I'm not one to take too much notice of the critics though, they have been in an exceptionally cranky mood all season when it comes to the Royal Opera. This time though they had a point. This was real 'head in hands' terrible, which is where my head was for much of her time on stage. It was SO far off the cringeometer that it sent you into a totally different universe. At one point i think I wanted to die. Why? Well where to begin?! Ann's French and French accent where appauling in a way that was so devastating that it MUST have been intentional, otherwise surely they wouldn't have let her go on stage. The added sprinkling of English thrown into the mix made it even worse. Like adding salt to a gaping wound. Then there were the constant references to Ann's other forays into 'show biz' such as Strictly Come Dancing and also her time as an MP, which was referenced through her randomly shouting 'order! order!' as she left the stage. Even more bizarre than this were constant references to the 'engagements olympiques 2012' or Olympic commitments....I've no idea why this was put into the script. I mean I know it's the Olympics this year, but what does that have to do with this opera or Ann Widdecombe?! The whole thing just highlighted how awful live theater can be and how desperately important casting really is. Poor Ann, I'm not a fan at the best of times (she is a Tory after all), and this didn't improve her standing with me at all. At curtain call she was met with a few boos, whether that was for her performance or because the character she was playing was a bit of an old bat, i'm not sure....Bad times.

Anyway...Ann aside. How was the opera overall? Very enjoyable indeed is the answer! It's a shame that such a small talking part such as La Duchess de Crackentrop can dominate in the way that it clearly can. I found the rest of the production and cast to be excellent. The staging was really engaging, made up of large maps of the Tyrolean Alps, which was the setting for this charming tale. The story is about a young girl who was adopted by an entire French army regiment as a baby and was then raised by them. She falls in love with a Tyrolean local boy whilst the troops are based in Austria, but as you can imagine their love is complicated and they can't marry and so on and so forth. It all ends well though and there are many genuine laughs along the way! It's an interesting opera too in the sense that it has some quite extensive talking scenes which sometimes makes it feel like a play. The singing was excellent, even exemplary in the case of Colin Lee. All in all it was a delightful evening at the opera and it cheered me up immensely after a dreary day at the office! So a pretty contrasting review for La Fille du régiment . Overall though it was a lovely evening and although Ann was shocking, i'd still recommend giving it a shot.
Rating: ***
Seat: G71, Amphitheater, £32: *** (typical Amphitheater seat really!)
Synopsis (courtesy of the ROH's brand new website!): La Fille du regiment
Reviews: See post of 22nd April 2012

NEXT OPERA: La boheme, 5th May

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Ann Widdecombe goes to the opera...

...And seems to have been met with some shocking reviews. Poor Ann, I suspected this might happen. She's performing in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment as the Duchesse de Crackentorp, a speaking part, last played by the great Dawn French. The Daily Telegraph described her cameo as 'mortifyingly inept' and The Guardian said her skills as a stage performer were simply 'nonexistant'. Apparently she didn't fall into the orchestra pit, but it was still 'an embarressment at every level.' The Independent was slightly less harsh and actually felt that Widdecombe's Parliamentary career should have prepared her well for what is essentially an pantomime dame role, as in Parliament 'pantomime behavior is the norm'. Anyway.....I'm yet to expereince Ann at Covent Garden. My chance comes on Wednesday this week, and I'll report back on my findings! For the record - My hopes aren't high. It'll take a lot for her to beat good old Dawn.

Reviews in full

Friday, 6 April 2012

Royal Opera's 2012/13 Season

Whilst I was away on my travels, the Royal Opera published details of it's 2012/13 season. There appear to be some interesting productions coming up, along with a good smattering of new productions and several big names taking to the stage, which is exciting. The full details can be found on the ROH's website at the following link: . Below are my personal highlights and the productions that I intend to see next season - in the interests of financial restraint I won't be attending every production in 2012/13 like I have done this season!

My 2012/13 highlights

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner) In four cycles from 24th September - 2nd November 2012 - Tickets have long gone for this, thankfully I managed to nab mine back in the autumn. Day tickets are available for individual operas within each cycle;

L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti) 13th,16th,20th,23rd,28th November and 1st,4th,7th December 2012; Roberto Alagna stars in November and the first two December performances;

Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky) 4th,6th,9th,11th,14th,16th,20th February 2013 - New production from the Royal Opera's own Kasper Holten and with Simon Keenlyside performing the title role. I enjoyed this at the ENO, so look forward to seeing what the Royal Opera has to offer;

Nabucco (Verdi) 30th March & 1st,4th,6th,8th,15th,20th,23rd,26th April 2013 - New production and featuring both Placido Domingo (performances from 15th April) and Leo Nucci (performances from 30th March - 8th April) in the title role. This for me is probably the highlight of the season!;

Die Zauberflote (Mozart) 16th,18th,22nd,24th,27th,29th April & 2nd,7th,9th May - I'm still unsure as to whether i like Mozart's operas. But this one is a famous one, so it's worth a look. Also conducted by a female conductor which is rare and nice to see;

Don Carlo (Verdi) 4th,8th,11th,15th,18th,21st,25th May - The second Verdi outing of the season, conducted by Antonio Pappano (always a treat) and staring Jonas Kaufmann in the title role (performances to 18th May);

La donna del lago (Rossini) 17th,20th,23rd,27th,31st May & 4th,7th,11th June - I'm not at all familiar with this opera, but it's a new production and has a great cast with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez;

Simon Boccanegra (1881 version) (Verdi) 27th June 7 1st,3rd,10th,13th,16th July - Another Verdi installment, which is always good! Conducted by Antonio Pappano for all performances except for 16th July;

La rondine (Puccini) 5th,8th,11th,13th,14th,17th,20th,21st July - The season ends with this Puccini opera, not one that i'm familiar with i must say. But it has a great cast including Angela Gheorghiu (all performances to 17th July, excluding the 13th July matinee) and Vittorio Grigolo (same performances as Gheorghiu) with Ermonela Jaho (one of my new favorites) taking up the role of Magda de Civry in Gheorghiu's absence).

These are my highlights and the performances I will definitely be seeing. In addition to these La boheme returns for a major run in December, January, February AND March! Some impressive singers perform including Rolando Villazon, Vittorio Grigolo and Barbra Frittoli. Also Tosca returns in March and then again in July. Always worth catching, although it does lack the menacing skill of Bryn Terfel as Baron Scarpia this time round!

Rigoletto, 2nd & 4th April - A welcome return to the richness and beauty of Italian opera

So after a three week break from my operatic outings, I was back with a vengeance this week with a double outing to Rigoletto. The reason for this double outing was that I was taking two separate groups of friends and family to Covent Garden, some for the first time, which is always a joy! It proved to be quite interesting too, as Vittorio Grigolo, who was due to play the Duke of Mantua for the entire run, pulled out of Wednesday's performance allowing for some constructive comparison between himself and Francesco Meli who stepped in.

I really enjoyed Rigoletto, as I absolutely thought I would. The music was fantastic and the story engaging. For me it was another triumph for Verdi and Italian opera. The cast in this production were good on both evenings, although I have to say that for me Monday night pipped Wednesday to the post. Some have been slightly off about Vittorio Grigolo's performance in this current run at the ROH, and there is some validity in what's been said. At times he seemed to be projecting loudly for the sake of it and not because it enhanced his singing or performance in anyway. He's been dubbed the new Pavarotti by some, whilst I don't think this was evidenced on Monday, the comparison isn't a ridiculous one (although personally, i don't think anyone will ever be able to match up to the late tenor!). I enjoyed his singing more that Francesco Meli's as it was stronger and richer in sound. He also did a better job of portraying the lecherous Duke of Mantua, his dashing looks helping him along the way! The role of Rigoletto was played by Dimitri Platanias, who again had some iffy reviews for his portray of the deformed court jester. I felt he did a good job though, I felt real empathy for the character through his portrayal and he added a real air of tragedy to this deeply tragic character.

The rest of the cast were also solid in my view and the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, really brought the dramatic score to life on both evenings. This was especially the case for me in the final act, which was the part I enjoyed the most. It's full of great music, including the famous La donna è mobile performed by the Duke of Mantua (you'll know this tune, even if you're not aware of it's name or origin:, as well as the tension and drama that brews through a thunderstorm to the tragic climax. I think the only complaints that I might have about this production is the staging. Overall it's not particularly bad. It's essentially a one set piece that alternates between being the Duke's house and Rigoletto's house, revolving when necessary. The revolving though is partly the issue for me. There is one moment during Act I when everything pauses for the set to revolve. The revolution thought takes just a few moments too long, to the point where I seriously wondered if the set had broken (not so, unless there were identical problems on two evenings). It just seemed to kill everything off for a moment as it seemed to be getting into it's stride. There is also a designated 'pause' between Act II and Act III. Normally this is for a set change of some kind, however on this ocassion, it simply seemed to be a pause in the action as the curtains remained up and nothing especially apparent happened to the set. I'm sure there was a good reason for it, i just couldn't see what the reason was!

In summary though, this was a great evening at the opera. It was something of a relief to be back at Covent Garden for the sort of opera that really gets me going. The last Verdi opera was back in January with La traviata. Since then it's been a run of Mozart and then Rusalka. None of which were especially bad (Don Giovanni aside!), but none of which really enraptured me in the same way as a good old fashioned opera from an Italian great does!Viva Verdi! Viva Rigoletto!

Rating: ****
Seats: E39 & C39, Amphitheater, £37, **** (Excellent value really for a full view of the stage and close to the front of the Amphitheater)

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Rusalka, 1st March 2012 - from 5 stars to 1 star and everything in between!

Well,well,well! What a minor controversy Rusalka at Covent Garden has turned out to be! Opening night of this production, new to the Royal Opera, was met with a 'chorus of boos' and there were tales of disgusted opera goers walking out at the interval. The Independent claimed that 'the vulgarities were manifold' and the Daily Telegraph published a raft of articles relating to the heckling received on opening night. It even crept out of the normal opera review pages and onto the BBC and prompted Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, to take to the ROH website to explain why he is a fan of this opera. Amoungst the uproar there were actually some very positive reviews too, the Financial Times loved it describing the production as 'theatrically exciting and musically compelling..' and Evening Standard were also very positive. In fact, even the Daily Telegraph ended up giving the show a fairly modest 3 stars.

So what was all the fuss about?? I think it largely stemmed from the directors' choice of setting the story in a brothel. Rusalka is based very closely on the fairy tale the Little Mermaid - In fact it's pretty much exactly the same, except the lead character is a water nymph instead of a mermaid and the evil Ursula (i'm going by the Walt Disney version here!) is an old witch instead of an octopus. So essentially this production turns the Little Mermaid into a whore. There are one or two racy moments, like when a big black tom-cat (one of the weirder moments of the show) semi-assaults Rusalka and when the witch cops a fondle with the kitchen boy in the final act. But to be honest, I think you'd need to have lived a pretty sheltered existence to find those moments cause to walk out in horror. It's a little strange that people seemed so surprised by all this as the production may have been new to Covent Garden, but it has already been given an outing before at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. Surely by reading up a little, you would have known what to expect?

Aside from the 'racy' moments and the concept of setting a story like the Little Mermaid in a brothel, I think another problem here was that people just didn't like the modern setting. I think that's a real shame. I've seen better modern takes on old operas - Cosi fan tutte earlier this month for example, or the brilliant production by the Royal Opera of The Tsars Bride last year. But I actually enjoyed this take on the story. It's refreshing to see attempts to bring opera into the present day, it can make it more accessible and appealing to a wider audience. The story told in Rusalka is gritty and dark, and the the characters in this production brought that out superbly. The sets at times looked a bit bare or unattractive, but i think the characters rose above that. I don't want to be rude towards the core Covent Garden audience, but they're not getting any younger. In order for opera to continue to thrive younger audiences are needed and modern productions such as this one are at least one way of attracting such an audience. I think it's important for Covent Garden to continue with productions like this and also those of Anna Nicole and Miss Fortune (coming later this month). They're tough to do as they often don't receive the best reviews and often seem to sell poorly. But i still think it's vital to push forward with new ideas around opera. It'd be devastating for new people to miss out on the chance to get into this exquisite art form!

Anyway - 'controversy' and production aside for a moment. What about the singers and the music? Both were absolutely fantastic! I'd never seen or even heard any of Rusalka before, but Dvorak's music was just utterly sublime! Dramatic, moving and beautiful, but also refreshing after a series of Mozart operas. I loved it, really loved it. I think it was enhanced further by the brilliant conductor in the pit, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, from Montreal. He conducted with passion and pace and really got the best out of a fantastic orchestra. I really hope we get to see more of him following this, his debut at the house. The singers were also excellent, especially Camilla Nylund in the title role and Agnes Zwierko as Jezibaba, the witch. Bryan Hymel also excelled as the Prince. The singers, orchestra and conductor all got a mighty round of applause, plenty of cheers and not a single boo on Thursday night - i think it helped that the directors, Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, didn't come on stage!

So, overall, was Rusalka at Covent Garden a boo worthy, dirty, controversial production? In my opinion, absolutely not. The production isn't perfect, but the concept is interesting and relevant. The singing was top class, the orchestra and conducting some of the best i've heard in awhile. It was a refreshing evening and nice to see something a little different on London's premier opera stage. I'm glad it divided opinion, opera should and does divide opinion and it has done since it's earliest beginnings!

Rating: ***
Seat: A99, Amphitheater Lower Slips Right, £13 *** (Good value, but be prepared to lean!)
Synopsis: Think the Little Mermaid and you're there.

NEXT OPERA: Rigoletto, 2nd April. It should of course be Miss Fortune, but sadly I will miss this as i'm on holiday for the entire run!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Aida, Royal Albert Hall, 23rd February - A questionable production with a cracking opera hidden beneath.

As I took my seat at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday I realised that Aida was only the third Verdi opera i'd ever seen. What a crime! Aida, the opera, was just magnificent! The music is just wonderful, plenty of big choral numbers and dramatic moments, there's even a triumphal march thrown in. In my opinion, the singers didn't perhaps do justice to some of the bigger numbers in the opera. I've not seen Aida before, not have I ever listened to a recording, but I just sensed that there was a need for a bit more power to bring things to life, which was lacking here. For me the evening was a bit of a split personality - the production wasn't great, for reasons i'll come to, but beneath it was clearly an operatic masterpiece!

Aida is a great story, a truly operatic story. It's set in Ancient Egypt and focuses on a love triangle between Radames (an Egyptian warrior), Amneris (the Pharaoh's daughter) and Aida (an Ethiopian slave). This takes place against a background of war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians. Radames is sent off by the Pharaoh to conquer the Ethiopians and he returns victorious, along with the King of Ethiopia, who also happens to be Aida's father. Whilst he's been away, Amneris has discovered the love between him and Aida, and isn't pleased. With all this going on, you know it's not going to end well. Indeed there are a number of dramatic deaths, Radames is entombed alive for crimes against the state, and Aida is killed in a resulting fight between Amneris, the High Priest and herself. However, the ending of this opera, like La traviata, is actually rather touching as opposed to dramatic. From what I could work out, Aida appears in the tomb of Radames following her death, and they're reunited once more in love as the music slowly fades away. It's brilliant stuff, and opera on a grand scale!

Thursday's production was in many respects very traditional, it was set in Egypt and the set was all Ancient Egyptian ruins set against a changing backdrop of images of the pyramids, the Nile and temples. However, for me it was a bit flawed. Before the opera started there were various characters milling around on stage involved in various archaeological activities, judging by their outfits this was supposed to be the late 19th or early 20th Century. There was one lady in particular who was on stage sketching various things...When the opera started the other characters left the stage, but the lady stayed with us for the entire thing, hanging around in the background. She was pretty annoying, and totally pointless i felt. I think the idea was that she was having some sort of vision harking back to the days of Ancient Egypt...Anyway, it wasn't clear without a programme to explain. The other thing I really didn't like about this production was the fact that the whole thing was amplified through speakers. I knew this would be the case, and I knew I probably wouldn't like it. I was right, I really didn't like it all! For me one of the great things about opera is the fact that it's so powerful, and at the same time so completely raw!It sends a shiver down your spine at it's best, and that literally done through the playing of instruments and the human voice - nothing added, nothing taken away. For me something was lost when it was relayed through speakers, I just really didn't like it at all. One final complaint - the surtitles. They were green, bright green and almost impossible to read at times!

Although't a fan of this production, what I have discovered here is a brilliant piece of opera! It's full of love, drama and everything else I love about opera. It's further cemented my love of Verdi as a composer too and also a lover of Italian opera. I've been a bit disappointed with my recent opera excursions, but Aida has re-confirmed to me why I love it so much. I can't wait for the chance to see Aida again in a more traditional performance.

Rating: ***

Thursday, 23 February 2012

La nozze di Figaro, 20th February 2012 - Mozart redeemed!

I still don't like Don Giovanni, let's make that clear, but I was beginning to think I really didn't like any Mozart opera. Well Monday night changed all that when I went to see La nozze di Figaro. I thought this was wonderful! I love the music, the singing and even the story, which I found pretty entertaining (if on the utterly ridiculous side!).

I can't even begin to attempt a description of what La nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro for those of us not familiar with the Italian tongue) is actually about. There is a marriage in there though, or three to be exact. There is also a lot of trickery going on with boys dressings as girls and girls dressing as other girls etc. The frustration evident in some of the characters to understand what the hell is going on was at times felt by myself. But then I decided to give up and just enjoy the show, which was brilliant conducted by Sir Tony Pappano, who also played the harpsichord interludes as well - we all love a multi-tasker! The staging was lovely as well, very classic. I even felt the singing was up to scratch, despite some reviews that implied otherwise. 

The 3hrs 25mins running time cruised by nicely for me. i'm not sure the lady sat to my left felt the same way. She seemed very upset by the view from her seat as she wasn't able to see all the action. I don't want to point out the obvious here, but anything sold with a 'restricted view' warning tends to mean exactly that, a restricted view of the stage. I was actually accompanied by two good friends of mine of this occasion, the first time in awhile. I think both enjoyed it, they're both second timers now - the true test will be if they return for a third outing! all in all this was a great night, a great production and a great opera. In fact, I reckon it's a brilliant first opera option. Mozart - harmony between you and I has been restored. Good job buddy, good job!

Rating: ****
Seat: A24, Amphitheater Lower Slips Left, £28 *** (Ok view, but can do better for £28. Requires full time leaning!)

Next Opera: Rusalka, 1st March

Sunday, 19 February 2012

My Covent Garden 2012/13 wish list

I'm not an expert at this, so instead of predicting what the Royal Opera might stage in 2012/13 I'm just going to draw up a list of what i'd like to see. I believe the new season will be announced over the next few months, many major opera houses have already announced their plans. What we do know of course is that the season kicks off in September with Wagner's Ring Cycle, for which I already have my (exceedingly cheap!) tickets for. I don't plan on attending every production next season as I have done in 2011/12 - I'll be more selective, especially as I'm now getting a firm idea of what floats my boat and what causes it to flounder rapidly! So please find below my wish list as it were - not one for the hardcore types perhaps, but it'd keep my smiling and throwing money at Covent Garden.

My ROH 2012/13

Carmen - The first opera I ever saw back in 2007. I would love to see it a second time round, and I would love to drag some lucky souls along with me to this as I think it's an excellent first opera!

Madama Butterfly - I did see this at the ROH only last year and loved it. What I would dearly like to see in 2012/13 would be the cast that was drawn together for the recent recording of this masterpiece. That would mean Angela Gheroghiu and Jonas Kaufmann conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. What a treat that would be!

Norma - No idea why as I know nothing about this opera at all!

Eugene Onegin - After seeing this at the ENO in December, i'd love to see a first class Royal Opera production. Great opera.

Tristan und Isolde - The jury is still out for me on Wagner, but this opera seems really appealing from what I've heard about it.

Aida - I was supposed to see this last year, but was ill. I've heard the current ROH production is a bit naff, but i'd still love to see it. I doubt this will be on though seeing as it's had two outings in as many years already.

Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail - After the Don Giovanni disaster this may seem like an odd choice. But I've wanted to see this Mozart opera for years, ever since I got a Mozart CD with 'Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder' on it!

Well there we go then - I think if they stage at least two of those i'll be happy! But I've still only touched the tip of the operatic iceberg so the new season is likely to be a winner for me regardless!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Don Giovanni, 16th February 2012 - Sorry Mozart, but it's not for me!

I've seen Don Giovanni THREE times now. Twice at the Royal Opera and once at the English National Opera. The latter was probably the worst production of anything I've ever seen, ever. The Royal Opera's production isn't the most well thought out staging I've come across either. It lacks something, the stage seems too minimalist and the centre piece, a glass (i think it was supposed to be glass) tiled thing covered in crosses and indents of hands reaching for the heavens, looks like what I would envisage a Malibu vicarage to look like. Anyway - the stagings might not be the real problem for me here. I'm sorry to say it Mozart, peace be with you, but I just really, really don't like Don Giovanni!!!

Each time I've seen this opera it's frustrated me. The story itself is a good one, based on the love excesses of Spanish lothario Don Juan, who's essentially a total slag and has slept with countless women across Europe. Anyway, for me that all gets lost in the tediousness of it all. It's not a short opera at 3 hrs 30mins, and last night I felt every minute of it. I just really hate the way it rambles along. It has around six or seven key characters, and each one seems to have to get their piece heard, which means every time anything happens all of them have to do some sort of solo or duet. Yawn. Then there are also the long pauses in music, common in opera from this era, where a man on what I think is called a harpsichord, plays a few random notes to accompany the singers speaking/singing on stage. There were so many moments when I just wanted the characters to spit it out, say what they had to say and then get off stage for the next scene. The ending of Don Giovanni is possibly the most annoying bit for me. Following a big dramatic scene which sees the Don condemned to hell (complete with roaring flames, and a rather naff looking gold hand swinging from the ceiling in the ROH production), the curtain drops, everyone cheers and it seems like the perfect place to end so we can all go home. No. Oh no. We have to then sit through the the other leading characters coming on stage to do a moral sing-song about what happens if you're a naughty, evil person. So pointless and so annoying!

I am aware that i'm bashing a piece that many see as an opera classic, and a Mozart opera classic at that. I love Mozart, he's probably my favorite composer. When the music does come in Don Giovanni, the Overture and the Don's final scene being great examples, it's as wonderful as ever. I thought it was well conducted yesterday evening too. There were some other positives as well. Erwin Schrott, playing the Don, was excellent. He was funny, mischievous and I have to say dashingly handsome in the role. The rest of the cast were also very good. They all had the audience roaring with laughter on many occasions. I wasn't one of them i'm afraid. I think I like my opera full of drama, deceit, murder and suicide! I think the problem for me, aside from only having seen mediocre to awful productions of Don Giovanni, is that these earlier operas, from the late 1700s, are just not really what I enjoy most about the genre. The more opera I see, the more I realise that it's the Italian greats of the 19th and early 20th century that really do it for me.

So please, Mozart, wherever you are, don't judge me for this account of Don Giovanni! Your music is wonderful, i'm just not sure your opera is for me. Not this one at least. That's probably my loss, but c'est la vie!

The Mozart/Da Ponte cycle concludes for me on Monday, 20th February with Le nozze di Figaro. 

Rating: **
Seat: A15, Lower Slips Left, £13 *** (A full time leaning seat, not bad for the price though)
The Guardian:

Next Opera: Le nozze di Figaro, 20th February