Carmen last night – again

I like this opera but not that much, and we have seen quite a lot of Carmens over the years, but last December we went to Carmen at the Royal Opera House because we wanted to hear the fabulous mezzo Elina Garanca. Sadly we had failed to note a later cast change. To make matters worse, the opera was conducted at a funereal pace and in spite of fine singers in the cast, the director had opted for an ‘earthy’ interpretation. So we watched the unfortunate female leads (some strapping) singing in a permanent squat, with theirs skirts above their less than seductive knees.

So on Tuesday, when our opera friends came round to watch a DVD of Carmen, I was not wild with enthusiasm.

We had put on the Luis Lima, Maria Ewing, 1997 recording from the Royal Opera House, (not sophisticated in today’s filming terms). I had forgotten how simply fabulous this recording is. Luis Lima, his voice clear, warm, melodic and infinitely touching, and acting his socks off is a vulnerable, passionate Don José.

Maria Ewing has the voice and style to carry off the very tricky combinations required of a Carmen. She makes the singing look easy! She is sexy, languid, fatalistic and proud and clearly prizes freedom above her life.

Escarmillo (Gino Quilico) has a good strong baritone, with plenty of colour, he is proud without any over-the-top narcissism. Micaela (Leontina Vaduva) was sweetly pretty in both voice and appearance.

Top of the bill, however is Zubin Mehta’s conducting. The spanking pace gives the drama extra edge and the sense that we are caught up in fatal events over which we have no control. The amazing contrast achieved by this speed and Ewing’s deliberately slow pace, gives the whole drama enormous tension.

One very happy opera fan here. Luis Lima deserves to be remembered more often.

Operatic tragedy Nutcracker style

I’ve just got to get a couple of things off my chest.

I had been looking forward to my first production of the early Verdi opera Sicilian Vespers for some months. I was a little concerned by reviews which talked of excessive violence. This opera is a political tragedy set in the 12th century and murder, rape and treason are very much at its heart. HOWEVER, the director had decided to set it in the 18th century (when it was first written and performed) in ballet mode. The cast of Swan Lake appeared to have strayed onto the stage (and were promptly ravaged en masse), they reappeared several times for more of the same treatment. The villain doubled as a distinctly camp dancing master. The Sicilian conspirators lined up at a bar to execute ballet steps and the executioner was a barely-clad child-as-cherub with an axe.

There were some very clever wheezes when the audience appeared to be watching themselves on stage, the singing was often beautiful and moving AND the saving grace was the sublime music and the conducting skills of Antonio Pappano. But… I like tragedy to be tragic, I want to be moved to tears not giggles.

Grouse two. I read one of a series of books by a popular historical fiction writer (for a book group). I was given some facts I never knew. Fine. I was also treated to a scummy, slanderous, prurient version of the mental state of several historical figures. I was left with a feeling of disgust – a real mental indigestion.

Here is a suitably sad silver birch in winter to express my feelings.

Betula Tristis

Betula Tristis

From the New York MET to the Hackney Empire – opera for all

A great week for opera.

Last Saturday we went to the cinema to see the Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky) Live from the MET. A superb production set, wonder of wonders, in the period originally intended and with exquisite attention to the real character and feelings of the characters. So Tatiana, sung superbly by Anna Netrebko (one of opera’s most ebullient  personalities) came over as an introverted dreamer, easily embarrassed and desperately sensitive. The rest of the cast matched this too. No expense was spared to give authentic detail to this production and to hiring singers at the pinnacle of their careers. It was the best Onegin we have seen. On top of this, we could watch it in cinemas all around the world for a reasonable sum.

Last night we went to the Hackney Empire (recently and beautifully renovated) for a live production of an even grander opera, Verdi’s Aida. Set, as intended, in the glory days of Ancient Egypt, we were lucky enough to watch the Moldovan Chisinau National Opera & National Philharmonic Orchestra performing this challenging opera – for one night only. By tonight the cast, musicians, sets, costumes and equipment will have travelled to Buxton Opera House and performed with most of the same cast all over again. Their schedule is terrifying; they are touring from Eastbourne to Aberdeen, from Windsor to Belfast, mostly for one night only.

Their budget must be a tithe of the MET’s. Every part of the production has to be portable, and along the way they manage to involve the local communities as extras and dancers. So four enchanting small boys danced for us in the princess’s boudoir, valiant locals marched across the stage (several times) to supply the impression of returning armies and the Ethiopian prisoners were very youthful indeed.

This company, directed by Ellen Kent, will bring live opera right into local communities, small English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish towns often with only one small theatre. They gave us an evening of delight and for many a very first taste of opera.

Opera zeitgeist – industrial market garden, gas station or the kitchen?

Not sure what the zeitgeist is here.

Last week we saw L’Elisir d’Amore set in the distribution area of a market garden (Holland Park Opera). This looked good and was a very jolly production, but musically a little pedestrian? less elastic than it should be?

In Bayreuth they have set Das Rheingold in a gas station. This, plus other violations of the audiences expectations, seems to have lit the blue touch-paper and caused fury. I am not a Wagner enthusiast, so not sure what the big beef is here as musically it was apparently great.

Last night we saw Glyndebourne’s Baroque opera, Hippolyte and Aricie (Rameau) set, at least for some of the time, inside a commercial fridge. As the director Jonathan Kent said in an interview: ‘Just think of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics – that was a Baroque event.’ I just wish I had read this interview before watching the opera.

For me, new to the Baroque genre, this was a baffling mixture – every part of which gave me something – from the exquisite sounds of the ancient instruments, to a farcical sailor dance routine from the vaudeville stage. At the heart of it was a moving, classical forbidden-love story.

I admired the way the stage designer had observed The Fridge and put all the details of it on stage. Cupid breaking cockerel-like out of an egg, on the upper shelves, in orange-yolk colours against the crystalline white of the ice-flakes (hand-maids of Diana) in fur coats, was a delight. Hell was depicted in amongst the working entrails at the back of a (gigantic) fridge – great detail.

I could just about follow the main story as the characters were dressed in modernish clothes. There was a really moving scene in which both upstairs and downstairs rooms of a 1950-60s house were seen. Each room had a singer stuck in their own dilemma within.  BUT, the mayhem of styles among the gods and chorus that surrounded them, the killing of stags and distributing of blood onstage and the costumes of the denizens of the underworld distracted me from the singing and the story.

Dancing – and there was masses of it (essential in French Baroque opera) – was beautifully executed but randomly choreographed. I don’t mean it was unskilful, it wasn’t, but the sense of going in whatever direction the whim took you was extreme.

Having, too late, read the interview between the director Jonathan Kent and Cori Ellison, I think they achieved exactly what they intended and that this was a clever modern update of the composers wish ‘to astonish and delight’ and to appeal to all the senses. I also think that a trad opera goer probably needs to read this elucidation in order to sit back and enjoy.

Highlight for me the long and sweet aria (from the upper chamber of a giant morgue fridge) by, I think, a shepherdess. This must be the Nightingale aria, but I don’t know the opera well enough to be sure.

Sorry, long post, but a weird and wonderful experience for me, though of limited interest to non-opera goer.

Below is an intro video from Glyndebourne, including part of the opera and below that a couple of good reviews.

writing, painting and Tolstoy

I am more than half way through Anna Karenina now, and I had an ongoing draft blog about several things that struck me. However, this morning I read Tolstoy’s description of an artist letting visitors into his studio to look at his latest painting. Tolstoy writes about the moment that the artist, unveiling the painting, sees it anew from another’s point of view. “…he saw it with their indifferent, estranged, new eyes and found nothing good in it.” He saw banality and a “heap of defects”.

The idea of their attention excites the artist, the smallest praise, the slightest suggestion of defects affects him deeply and alters his own judgement of his work. The fact that he had assessed his visitors fairly accurately on sight and knew that they were unlikely to offer him constructive comments does not alter their effect on him.

Although Tolstoy is talking about painting, every word can be translated to written work. Since I started writing I have been baffled at how one day you can read a piece you have written and be surprised how well it reads and a few days later the same passages will strike you as banal or defective in some way. Pick up the book a year later and you could have either of these reactions. It is as if some malign optician is forever changing your glasses until you have no idea when you are seeing straight.

In October I will be meeting a reading group to discuss a novel about an opera singer I published in 2008 (Unseen Unsung). I will have to re-read it. Will I be appalled, amazed, embarrassed? I really wish I knew.

Independent Swallow in the opera house

Although I have seen bats joining in on stage at Glyndebourne, this was the opera La Rondine – the Swallow at the Royal Opera House, London.

EG said that, as usual Puccini’s female lead was a victim. But as we talked about this, we realised that this is not the case. The story, like Traviata, is of a courtesan finding true love with an innocent boy. In Traviata, the boy, Alfredo, knows all about Violetta’s past, but she is persuaded by his father into sacrificing her happiness to free Alfredo’s family from the shame of associating with her. In Rondine, Magda deceives her innocent lover into thinking of her as equally innocent, and then when he wants to marry her, freely decides to renounce her him and return to her courtesan life, rather than pollute the expectations of his pure family. She is distraught, but she is a free agent and it is her lover, Ruggero, who is the weeping victim at the end.

The setting, in charming detail, was the 1920’s. The direction was so detailed that the singers gestures brought the period to mind as much as the costume. All the characters continued to act their roles (with some very funny by-play), while the main singers carried the story. It was an evening beautiful to watch and listen to and especially moving at the end. It was the last of three performances by the two singers of the main parts – Magda and Ruggero – and they both ended in tears at the final onstage parting.

And in this opera there are no bodies on stage, everyone lives, though not necessarily happily, ever after.

Carmen in the Garden

Carmen, with an orchestra of 6 and a cast of 6 in a marquee in the grounds of a beautiful house (Thurston End Hall) in the wilds of Suffolk.

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A balmy summer evening, a garden smelling of roses, everyone picnicking happily on the grass, (very high quality Portaloos), and an entertaining, well sung interpretation of Carmen. This was in English (which I don’t usually like) but as they had set it in a New York bar with a boxing theme, it worked perfectly and I heard every word. Escamillo, the Toreador, was a boxer. Carmen, Frasquite and Remendado were immigrant siblings running a bar. And Jose was a new police recruit with a murky past, while his commander, Zuniga, ran a protection racket. This cast of six managed to be chorus and all parts, it was impressive, fun and wonderful to hear. The orchestra created amazing effects.

Butterfly in Venice

Since EG had three day’s work in Venice, he naturally needed my support. I learnt more than I probably needed to know about managing digital archives (though a session on appraising records was very helpful. I will now write a plan of what needs keeping, set a timetable, then select and delete accordingly. The loft will lose some of it boxes-of-paper insulation, but there will be less to deal with in the long run.)

I love Venice.

Canaletto lives.


Walk one minute in any direction off the main drags and you find a cool, empty, grey-green world.

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We got lost in one empty quarter and were rescued by a cheerful elderly lady with a trolley who marched us to the vaporetto stop. She explained that she was a little deaf, yet she chatted, coping well with my stumbling Italian, and at the same time guiding my footsteps round every small obstacle (polythene bag, dog mess, loose flagstone).

And then there is La Fenice opera house. We were able to buy (restricted view) tickets for Madame Butterfly and spent a happy evening peering over people’s shoulders and listening to a terrific production. The humming chorus was sung from the back of the auditorium and during Butterfly’s long night of waiting, after she had left the stage, a backdrop came down leaving Suzuki and the boy asleep in view. Then vast and incredible cosmic fireworks were shown while they orchestra played to match. We knew none of the singers, but all were good.

A city you could visit over an over again and still find something new.

Hungary to Japan in a weekend

Wonderful couple of days. Small but international poetry meeting with the theme ‘dwelling’ very freely interpreted. Poems ranged from the romantic to the starkly tragic, with English, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and Bengali contributions, most read in both English and the original. For bonus we had two singers – one operatically trained (who indulged me and delighted us all with the Handel aria Did You Not Hear My Lady unaccompanied), the other a charming cabaret/folk story-teller singing in (?) Turkish. We all regretted that these meetings are so very rare.

Yesterday we went to the Holland Park Opera for Madame Butterfly. The best interpretation and staging of this that I have ever seen. A story of its period, but no longer silly. Anne Sophie Duprels made us believe in Butterfly’s moral outlook, her dilemma and her ultimate choice. She brought out a strangely modern problem – that of the cultural immigrant who accepts a country’s hype at face value, and is fatally damaged as a consequence. Strong stuff, cleanly and simply staged.

Sleepwalking opera

Last night four of us watched the DVD of the MET Sonnambula (Bellini). New opera, new composer for two of us. I love this production (Mary Zimmerman), it breathes dramatic life into a rather unlikely, sentimental story set in a Swiss village and gives the fabulous music  a chance to shine. The setting is a New York rehearsal room and by interleaving the tribulations of the modern lovers who are singing the main parts with the story, the whole thing becomes a glorious comedy. Of course, with Juan Diego Flores and Natalie Dessay the casting is perfect.

We talked afterwards about what works for new opera goers. The singing, according to the newcomers is mainly noise to start with, so you need to fall for the principal singers and be able to follow the story they tell. Sonnambula was a little complex from that point of view. Two DVDs work well are the made-for-Cinema Bohême (Puccini) directed by Dornhelm. The mangled subtitles bother me, but Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon are beautiful, passionate and have voices I could listen to as I leave the world. This is made for screen viewing too. For me though, the best of all to start off with is La Traviata (Verdi – my favourite opera composer), in the 2005 Willy Decker Salzburg Opera production. Same soloists as the Bohême in a production that is almost like Greek theatre. This seems to be a hit for new comers and old timers every time we watch.

We also talked about the difference between live and DVD/Cinema. In the first a sound experience so amazing in quality and a total view of the events on stage. In the second wonderful close-ups, emotional contact with the singers/actors… plus comfortable seats, good view and freedom to stop and start. Both great ways to watch/listen to opera, just different.

Personally I like my opera in the original language – it fits the music and the libretto much better that way – with English subtitles.