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

Yet more Verdi

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, and it turned out to be the first night of the run so there was a buzz in the audience and we spotted several musical bigwigs during the intervals. The contrasts between this and the six-man Ballo in the pub on Thursday were mind-bending, though my personal enjoyment of both was high (and I preferred the seating in the pub).

Don Carlo is just about my favourite opera, and we must have seen this particular production at least three times. The music is magical and with Pappano at the helm I could have shut my eyes and been in bliss the whole evening. On stage, the opening didn’t quite grab me – Kauffman as Don Carlo, in spite of his admirable voice and acting ability doesn’t move me in the way both Villazon and Alagna have in this production, he and Hateros (as Elizabetta) were passionate, anxious and tentative in a modern way – and not enough to set up the drama, which needs vulnerability and individuals caught up and made helpless by bigger events (i.e. classical tragedy). EG was enthralled by the Cloister scene – as were the rest of the audience and I thought Kwiecień as Posa was in stunning voice and perfect for the part and they gave us a ringing duet. In the garden scene there was a new singer, Uria-Monzon, in the part of Princess Eboli, pretty, but her voice was uneven.

If anyone has read this far they will notice that I have sat though Acts I and II without becoming absorbed by the music – this may be my fault for being too tired or overdoing the opera this week. And yet, as the opera progressed and Furlanetto as Philip took the stage I did become involved and lose myself.  By the time of King Philip’s great nighttime lament that his wife never loved him, I was hooked. This was hauntingly sad and as good as I have ever heard it. Eboli’s aria to her beauty was much more secure than the veil song. Posa’s death and the final scene with Don Carlo and Elizabetta in the monastery were musically superb.

Three great operas in a week in a cinema, a pub and a grand opera house, with enthusiastic audiences of all ages. Tickets at the pub were £23 each [this is a correction]. Who says opera is dead or only for the rich?