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);