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

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Cosi fan tutte, 7th February 2012: Vogueing in the middle of Mozart? It's not for me really!

Vogueing in the middle of an opera? It doesn't really work for me if i'm honest. However in spite of this small blip, the evening was very enjoyable.

Cosi fan tutte is only my second Mozart opera and it made for a very pleasant evening out. Mozart's music is always a completely winner for me. It's simply beautiful and often as scrumptious as a fresh Viennese cream cake! Johnathan Miller's 1995 production for the Royal Opera brings all the action up to present day - think i Phones, Starbucks coffee, laptops and that unfortunate bout of Vougeing. It actually worked really well, even if it didn't succeed in side stepping the odd cringe-worthy moment altogether (again I refer to the Vougeing incident, i'm sorry, but it was just really, really BAD). This owes a lot to the story of the opera itself. Cosi fan tutte essentially translates as 'Women are all the same' - not exactly the most politically correct title, but it was written in the 18th Century remember. Also, I think Mozart was creating an piece aimed more at mocking the stupidity of the male characters in the opera as opposed to one that degrades women. Anyway, I digress. The opera can be updated easily because it's essentially a story of boys vs girls. The two male characters are convinced that their girlfriends will always be faithful to them, but they're mocked and ultimately challenged to question this by their friend, Don Alfonso. He claims that all women are prone to infidelity and will always cheat given the opportunity. And so unfolds a farcical comedy of sorts where the men pretend to have been called up to join the army, leaving their loved ones behind, only then to turn up in disguise (another bug bear of mine, as they come back dressed as Hell's Angels or something awful) in an attempt to seduce their respective partners.

You can imagine what unfolds - it's all very silly and lots of daft tricks are played to try and get the women to cheat on their partners..well...with their actual partners. It all sounds a bit daft, and it is really, but it's still an enjoyable opera to watch . Of course Mozart's music is really the star here, and conducted by Sir Colin Davis, it was especially sumptuous. The orchestra looked like they were loving it from where I was sat. Thomas Allen (County Durham born and bred), playing Don Alfonso was also excellent. He was fun and engaging to watch, as was the soprano playing Despina (Rosemary Joshua who hails from Wales), the assistant to the two central female characters. Miller's production might even be a relatively good choice for a first time opera. The modern setting does make it easier to follow and understand the plot. However, it's not the shortest of operas at 3hrs 30mins and I don't want this to sound like a blasphemy, especially seeing as I love Mozart so very much, but it did drag a bit at times! I seem to find this with Mozart operas. They lack the same level of intensity that the later works of Verdi and Puccini do, and I think this is where me real passion for the genera lies. Cosi fan tutte is a nice one to perhaps have on in the background whilst cooking or reading the Sunday papers (this makes me sound like a proper Granddad. An Uncle I am, an Granddad, i'm not.Yet.).

What was also a winner about this evening was my seat. I paid just £13, yet I was sat virtually on the stage and literally on top of the orchestra pit! It was great to be so close to the action for virtually no cost whatsoever! For reference the seat was in the Stalls Circle. It also proved a great vantage point for a bit of people watching, always a joy at the opera. I was quite surprised to see how many people were catching 40 winks or were doing as I was and staring randomly around the auditorium!

A final word. Cosi fan tutte may be about trying to prove the weakness of women towards infidelity, but to in my opinion it was the med who came out worse here. If i were either Fiordiligi or Dorabella, i'd serious be considering what I was doing with either of the idiots there engaged to in this story. Seriously - sack 'em off girls and find some proper men!

Rating: ***
Seat: C99, Stalls Circle Right, £13 ***** (The best value seat I've ever had at Covent Garden. £13 to be sat virtually on the stage. Complete bargain in every sense!)



The Guardian :

Next Opera: Don Giovanni, 16th February