Too many ideas spoil the plot

This about opera, but I have a feeling I’ve been sent a lesson about writing too.

Last night I went to a performance of one of Verdi’s lesser known operas, La Forza del Destino – correction, since I saw it in English – The Force of Destiny. Powerful stuff, you might think, with a title like that. Well certainly complex, with a lifetime of doomed love and revenge for all three of its main characters.

The music for this opera is sublime; a parade of moving tunes and orchestral subtlety, with some humour and drunken revelry to lighten the inevitable fated march of all concerned. It is, however, VERY difficult to stage. It takes place in both Italy and Spain over a number of years, includes battles, pub scenes, a church and a hermitage.Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.18.26

This director opted for The Spanish Civil War (Verdi set his battles in Italy) and EVERYTHING else he could lay hands on. War is not funny, so all of the humour was stripped out (funny arias and characters turned particularly nasty). War is cruel, sadistic and misogynistic – true – so all these factors were hammered home. However, you can actually have too much of a bad thing. When the audience starts to wonder how far the priest is into S & M, or what they are using for blood (in every single scene), or why a warhorse is hovering over a building and was there really a public tearing up of books in that war, and surely that bare girl running was from Vietnam, you have lost the plot and replaced it with too many ideas. You have also splintered your viewer/listener’s attention.Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.15.02Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.14.03 Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.14.38Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.17.18

Verdi wrote a classical tragedy, in which the fates deal cruelly with three particular people in a volatile world. The drama of their story deserves as much respect as the music and much more than the setting.

I have another problem with this production. I go to opera for the music and the drama. Understandably, musical ability trumps all else when casting. However, if the director chooses singers who have no physical resemblance to, or are of a different age from, the people they are playing, he/she should (at the very least) minimise the discrepancies by adapting costumes and staging where necessary so that the drama is not lost, or the singers made a mock of, OR the opera become the joke stereotype of its genre (as this was in the first act – image below).Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.16.48In the centre (back to us) you have the beautiful, pure, young woman, whose father (left) refuses to let her marry the young soldier (right) because he is not noble. After killing her father in error, the soldier flees and later (disguised) will become a hero in the army and blood-friend of the girl’s brother (see image 2 above). This brother (also disguised) is searching for the soldier and his own sister to kill them. The girl (not much disguised) enters a hermitage. Everybody dies.

Finally, you can say stuff in Italian that sounds absurd in English. Italian words end in vowels (of which there are few) so many of the lines naturally echo each other. This is emphatically not the same as a rhyming couplet in English, which, unless handled by a skilled poet, often has a nursery rhyme humour to it.

Hope you enjoyed the pictures – all screenshots from the English National Opera website – if not the rant.

Rossini, I take it all back

WARNING: If you are not an opera fan, I’m going to let rip, so jump to the pictures at the end.

See also Nina Mishkin’s post BEL CANTO AT THE MET.

On Tuesday we saw the encore of the Live from the MET performance of Rossini’s Donna del Lago in the cinema. Now Rossini in a problem for me. Fabulous music and delicious arias, but it is all about the vocal gymnastics and not the passions of the humans, except in an absurd and comic way. I tend to end Rossini performances feeling aurally battered and emotionally underfed.

The METs production of Donna del Lago has made me eat my words. It satisfies in every respect. With a faultless cast, who invest every phrase, every note, with the emotion it deserves and no (well, no intentional) comic interludes. This success is in major part due to the director, Paul Curran. He was working with peach of a cast, but he ensured that they acted out their emotions to the full and my god this makes a difference. The voices and all their fireworks serve the drama instead of the other way round. (Flores admits that the same cast did not achieve this emotional cohesion in the La Scala production – see youtube excerpts).

This was in maddening contrast to the production we saw in the cinema a week ago of the English National Opera production of La Traviata – Verdi is my favourite opera composer and Traviata nearly top of my list. I am up for experimental productions and this one, in an attempt to appeal to a new, young audience, had made deep cuts, reduced it to a two-act opera and set it in modern dress. I could live with that. The soloists had fine voices and plenty of acting ability and I will happily go and see them again. Two things irritated the hell out of me. One was the endless pinching/plagiarism of other directors ideas (or as my companions more charitably suggested paying tribute to others’ ideas). The other was the endless dramatic misses. these are the moments when the characters intend to express love, pain, hate, envy, anger TO EACH OTHER. Time after time, it is the conductor on the receiving end of these passions. This does not work for me and a decent director could surely avoid this (though again, my companions had a wonderful evening).

Back to Donna. Joyce di Donato (listen to the 1.35 min audio clip here) and Juan Diego Flores in the two major roles, are unsurpassed and unsurpassable in their field. I can listen and watch both with endless pleasure. For me the novelty was in the mezzo Daneila Barcellona playing Malcolm, the love interest. She had, in addition to a wonderful voice, a commanding presence and confidence, which is so often missing in trouser roles. The villain Rodrigo, sung by baritone/tenor John Osborn was another new voice to me, different in timbre and colour from Flores, but with fabulous high, as well as low, notes. All of this held together so flawlessly by the conducting go Michele Mariotti.

I’ll stop there. Ah… a picture or two:

IMG_0962 - Version 2DSCN7114 And what we saw of the eclipse…DSCN7125

I Due Foscari – one opera; two experiences

One of our favourite operas – the rarely-performed I Due Foscari (Verdi)* – is on at the Royal Opera House. We went to see it last Thursday and followed this up on Monday by watching the live relay performance in the cinema.

First off, the reviews weren’t great, but experience has taught us to keep an open mind, as performances often warm up. On the stage, as far as the singers were concerned, all was well. With Pappano in the pit and Placido Domingo, Francesco Meli and Maria Agresta giving us glorious music with high tragedy and great passion, we were very happy listeners.

BUT this is a maddening production. It is set in a what looks like a Venetian bomb site. Background figures move constantly, but very, very slowly and distractingly, throughout the performance, with some gruesome slow-motion torture thrown in. If you succeed in ignoring the figures, then the scenery – that is the narrow platforms for keeping your feet dry in watery Venice – also move frequently and erratically. (It brought to mind slow-motion table football). If you manage to stop worrying about whether the singers will fall off the platforms, you are dizzied by the Doge’s dining room and bedroom, which appear on a flying, sloped platform, on which the 89-year-old Doge (72-year-old Domingo) has to look stable AND sing his heart out. Then there’s the costumes; these are a sort of riff on Russian Eighteenth century costumes – with a few spare metres of brocade thrown in, the wealthy have electric colours, the poor are clad in grey, brown and dirty white. The Doge’s son, Jacopo, a prisoner, was the only soloist who didn’t have to drag a weighty costume around as he sang, so instead they hung him above the stage in a cage, or tortured him as he sang. In spite of all the drama, the pace felt slow, due, I suggest, to the staging not the conducting.

So three days later, in some curiosity, we went to the


to see the same opera. In this case cinema wins, because the cameramen/women could focus on the singers and not on the distractions on stage, they can even correct for the sloping platform (see clip). Of course the sound is not as exciting as being in the same space as the musicians, but it was pretty damn good. In addition the singers responded to the extra stimulation of being on camera, and this performance was a couple of notches above the earlier one.

We just love the music, but I fear the staging of this production is such that we are unlikely to hear it again for a good few years.

*Plot: The Doge of Venice, now 89, is being forced by The Ten (his rivals and who actually rule) to condemn his last remaining son to exile for treason and murder. His daughter-in-law fights desperately to persuade him to use his power to release his son. The Doge is torn between his role as a ruler, who must uphold justice, and as a father whose, possibly innocent, son will be exiled until death.

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.

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.

Mozart plus and minus

Opera on DVD last night with friends, Marriage of Figaro (Mozart), one of the best recordings of all time from the Royal Opera House with Pappano and a great cast. Singing blissful, much enhanced by sublime acting and seriously good direction. Only problem is I always forget how long this opera is. I love Mozart at any one minute white listening, but… the music always seems to live within some kind of constraint that, for me, makes it less fulfilling than, say, Verdi, or Mahler. I am well aware that Mozart is sacrosanct and that stylistically he is of his period (and a great innovator within it), still, the fact remains, that I can admire, even feel faint at the beauty of it, but don’t have the same feel of new horizons found, or enlargement of mind and senses as I do with, say, Verdi.

Not the most coherent analysis – and I am not a musician – just trying to put inchoate feelings into words. I guess that’s what writers try to do.

Opera at home

28.2.13 We have 9 people round to watch the Salzburg 2005 Traviata (Verdi) with Netrebko and Villazon. Three new people who have seen one opera between. They coped very well, the old timers loved it though the new TV and sound bar made both the colours too heavy and the sound too shrill. I think we took out much of the bass to prevent throbbing. We’ll have to adjust it for the next one.