Rice, Christine


RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Royal Opera House, London 2012 | John Eliot Gardiner, David McVicar, Leah Hausman, Ekaterina Siurina, Dimitri Platanias, Vittorio Grigolo, Matthew Rose, Christine Rice, Gianfranco Montresor, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora, Pablo Bemsch, Susana Gaspar, Zhengzhong Zhou, Andrea Hazell, Nigel Cliffe | Royal Opera House Cinema Season, Live in HD, 17th April 2012

I’ve rarely been entirely convinced by any David McVicar production I’ve seen (other than perhaps his Der Rosenkavalier for the English National Opera). I think I know what he’s doing, and it seems clear enough that he’s simply using whatever means necessary to create the right mood that is appropriate for a particular work, even if that means introducing a hotchpotch of incongruous and anachronistic elements into a nominally period set and costume design. That’s fine and I can live with that, even if it is often a little messy and inelegant, but I don’t think he always gives the same consideration or shows understanding of the characters when it comes to directing the performers.

Originally created in 2001, McVicar’s production of Rigoletto for the Royal Opera House comes under the stage direction of Leah Hausman for its 2012 revival (viewed here in a live HD broadcast part of Opus Arte and the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season on 17th April 2012), but there’s not a lot of room for the director to develop beyond the oppressiveness of the production’s uniformly dark set design that somewhat overshadows the broader range of human emotions and behaviour that are part of Verdi and Piave’s magnificent account of Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’. Fortunately, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, along with some very fine singing performances from a strong cast, were enough to draw out some of the finer qualities that are missing in McVicar’s presentation of the work.

Rigoletto

If then Act I, Scene 1 of this Rigoletto in the palace of the Duke of Mantua is somewhat dark and grungy-looking, and has some trademark McVicar shock elements of topless women running around and full-frontal male nudity, it is at least in keeping with the depraved and sordid quality of the Duke’s entertainments that are indeed described in the libretto by Count Monterone as orgies. It’s appropriate to show this rather dark side of the Duke’s character emphasised by the abuse endured by Monterone’s young daughter who walks around in a state of nervous shock, an unpleasant side that is to set courtiers against him and result in the curse of vengeance that is to resound throughout the work. The sinister qualities of this behaviour laid out in Act I need to be sufficiently established, and McVicar certainly aims for that, even if such “realism” and naked cavorting proves to be distracting and not entirely convincing on the stage of an opera house. Verdi portrays this much more vividly in his music score than anything McVicar can visualise on the stage.

There’s no problem however with carrying this sinister outlook through to the second scene of Act I, since the references to Monterone’s curse against Rigoletto for his part in the Duke’s crimes continue to be recalled by the jester and echo throughout the score. So too does the introduction of the assassin Sparafucile and the abduction of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda add to the oppressive nature of a drama that leads to such a dark, melodramatic conclusion at the inn in Act III, a place that Gilda observes is like a scene from Hell itself. It probably doesn’t need any further emphasis from the director, who keeps the stage dark throughout, and retains the grungy feel with sheets of corrugated iron and wire-mesh fencing, but in its own way much of this reflects Rigoletto’s keeping of secrets and his protective attitude towards his daughter, which is to lead to such tragic circumstances. The skeleton masks used by the abductors at the end of Act I likewise suggest that the kidnapping of Gilda isn’t just fun and games, as if that isn’t already obvious.

Rigoletto

That’s all very well then, and certainly in keeping with the nature and tone of Verdi’s moody melodramatics, but there is much more to Rigoletto than this and a far more rounded view of the characters that is not really given sufficient coverage in the limiting darkness of McVicar’s production. There’s also love and protectiveness in the father/daughter relationship that stems from Rigoletto’s sentiments towards the mother of his daughter, a woman who was able to love a deformed specimen like himself. It’s a twisted kind of love certainly, as is the love of the Duke for Gilda - his nature not allowing him to treat her in any other way than how he treats other women - and it’s the inability to deal with the contradictions within that kind of love on the part of her father and the Duke of Mantua that in the end drives Gilda to make an otherwise inexplicable sacrifice. If you aren’t able to show both sides of the contradictions within the characters however, then the behaviour from each of them risks seeming irrational.

Fortunately for this production, not only does a close listening to Verdi’s writing for these figures reveal the kind of complexity that is missing from this production, but it’s brought out wonderfully in John Eliot Gardiner’s working of the Royal Opera House orchestra and it’s also sung with genuine feeling for the nature of the characters and their predicament by an exceptional cast. Dimitri Platanias is an earnest and tormented Rigoletto, one made even more complicit in the crimes of the Duke in this production, yet Platinias’s singing brought out the other finer qualities in the character well. Vittorio Grigolo, reprising a role he performed in 2010 live television broadcast of Rigoletto filmed in the actual locations in Mantua, seems to continue to grow in confidence and stature as the Duke here, likewise combining the charm of the character as well as his flaws. Ekaterina Siurina’s voice seemed occasionally lost among the strong voices around her, but then that’s the position the young Gilda finds herself here, and she rose to the other singing challenges of her role (including a beautiful ‘Caro nome’) marvellously and sympathetically. It all went a long way to adding the necessary lightness to McVicar’s otherwise shady production.

HoffmannJacques Offenbach - The Tales of Hoffmann

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Antony Walker, Richard Jones, Barry Banks, Georgia Jarman, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice, Iain Paton, Grame Danby, Simon Butteriss, Catherine Young | The Coliseum, 23 February 2012

For his final opera - his only opera proper, since his prolific output up to 1880 consisted principally of comic operetta - Jacques Offenbach found a suitably inventive and imaginative mind to “collaborate” with in the shape of ETA Hoffmann. Using three of the writer’s fabulous stories, interlinked through involving their original author in the relating and playing out of the stories, finding common connections in character types that allow them to be played and sung by singers in multiple roles, The Tales of Hoffmann is consequently a very rich work where the contributions of the composer and the original author can be played upon to interesting effect. The English National Opera’s new production of the opera (already seen in Munich as a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera) seems to find a like-minded stage director of inventiveness and imagination in Richard Jones, but while his stage design for the production delivers everything you would expect from this type of match, it also feels a little too neat and obvious and doesn’t yield any unexpected results.

There’s a balance between playfulness and tragedy to be achieved in The Tales of Hoffmann and Jones (as seen most famously recently in his Royal Opera House production for Turnage’s Anna Nicole) can be good at showing an underlying dark unease beneath the surface kitsch and colour. As if it’s all conjured up from within the fevered imagination of an alcoholic writer at his wits end (only a little licence involved in relating this to the real-life circumstances of ETA Hoffmann), the action in each of the acts takes place in a uniformly shaped, trompe d’oeil twisted room, with a bed, a bookcase, a sink, a writing desk and several other elements that change subtly in form and colouration according to each of the three gothic romances that Hoffman relates to his assembled (imaginary?) audience, three affairs that have taken him to the edge of despair and self-destruction. The sense that this fevered imagination is enhanced by the smoking of mind-altering substances is reinforced by the repeated appearance of Hoffmann, his muse and three gentlemen smoking pipes in between each of the stories, the smoke forming the names of the three women involved - Olympia, Antonia and Giuletta.

Hoffmann

Each of those three parts then is deliriously coloured to emphasis the fairytale quality of the original stories along with the dark undercurrent of gothic horror and tragedy that underpins them, and Richard Jones’s designs couldn’t be faulted for being eye-catching and imaginative in this respect. Just as in Offenbach’s score, there’s room for those familiar broader comic touches as well as for the more sensitive plays of character and emotion that lies within the situations, but it often feels perfunctory when compared to Offenbach’s wilder flights of fancy in his opéra comique, and merely playing on opera conventions. The production mirrors the nature of the work perfectly well in this respect, in other words, but it doesn’t manage to make anything more of those links and contrasts in the stories, in the differing views that Hoffmann and Offenbach bring to them, or in how they even relate to each other.

Some lovely melodies aside, The Tales of Hoffmann isn’t the most sophisticated work, and there perhaps isn’t much to delve into beneath the surface, but these elements and contradictions could be exploited further in the hands of a more adventurous director. Considering that the theme of the banal realities of life being enhanced by the imagination of a disturbed character or lunatic form a core part of the films of Terry Gilliam, I couldn’t help think that this opera would have been a more interesting vehicle for the former Python than Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO (notwithstanding his success with that) - whereas with Richard Jones, The Tales of Hoffmann just feels in safe hands. It’s all very entertaining and visually impressive, but personally, I think this particular opera, with its rather old-fashioned storytelling devices relating a confusing and strange narrative needs rather more than a straightforward telling. Jones gets the surface down well, but there’s not a whole lot of sense or depth in it as a whole.

Hoffmann

It’s left to the singers then to try and bring something more memorable out of the production and, while the performances are terrific, it’s not enough to bring any new qualities out of the work. Barry Banks sings his heart out, but without any depth to the work or the production, he seems, like the character of Hoffmann in his choice of women (and like Offenbach himself), to be expending an awful lot of energy and investing a lot of emotion in something that doesn’t seem worthy of his efforts. Georgia Jarman acquits herself admirably across a notoriously difficult singing of the opera’s multi-part soprano role, bringing some genuine sensitivity to the character of Antonia at least, if he is unable to do much within the staging for the other parts. Christine Rice also brought some heartfelt emotion and character to the muse disguised as Nicklausse - indeed surpassing the otherwise unimaginative director’s interpretation of the character. Clive Bayley sang well and was suitably sinister as the villain of the pieces.

Antony Walker’s conducting of the score was excellent, but like all the other aspects of the production, it didn’t raise the work to any new levels - but that might perhaps be asking for too much. That perhaps sums up my overall impression of the ENO’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which on its own terms was a delightful and entertaining account of the work, marvellously performed with skill and commitment, but anyone looking for something a little more thoughtful or challenging from Richard Jones’s production could well feel a little bit disappointed.

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 2010 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Christine Rice, Bryan Hymel, Aris Argiris, Maija Kovalevska, Dawid Kimberg, Nicolas Courjal, Elena Xanthoudakis, Paula Murrihy, Adrian Clarke, Harry Nicoll | Real-D Inc

To my mind, there are two ways to play Carmen for maximum effect – one is slow and sultry, the other is fast and passionate. I will admit though that I haven’t seen a production of Carmen in well over ten years, so I was prepared to accept that there may be other aspects that could be brought out of the opera. With a 3-D version on a theatrical run in the cinema, it seemed like a perfect opportunity then to consider what other ‘dimensions’ could indeed be found in Bizet’s opera. While the Royal Opera House production did indeed reveal that there are indeed deeper elements to an opera with more than its share of terrific, universally-known, crowd-pleasing tunes, it never really settled however on any one approach, and, perhaps most disappointingly – although perhaps not unexpectedly considering the experience of 3-D movies at the cinema – it failed to convince that the 3-D experience is anything more than a gimmick that doesn’t work all that well.

This is a production that never really comes to life, and the use of 3-D, in an attempt to bring you closer to the experience, doesn’t make up for failings in the performance itself. Opera already has an extra dimension that cinema and theatre don’t traditionally have in their acting and storytelling, and that is the expression of sentiments, actions and themes through the music and the singing. There is nothing lacking in opera – and if anything the 3-D production confirms this – that needs to be brought out by any other means than the interpretation of the performers under the direction of the conductor and stage director. Francesca Zambello’s stage direction for this production of Carmen is in this respect fairly conventional, working with the opera and playing to its traditional strengths, a composite almost of every cliché associated with the opera’s vision of Spanish gypsy culture, but not really having anything new to contribute to it, no modern reinterpretation and – I suppose we should be thankful for this at least – nothing added to make it more accessible for either television viewing or 3-D cinema projection. It’s a traditional, old-favourite opera, and it’s played very safely.

As to whether the performance, more importantly, gets to the emotional core of the opera – personally, I found it unconvincing. The pace of Act 1 opts, I presume, for slow and sultry, with gypsy girls aplenty, legs spread, arms akimbo, skirts hitched up and much heaving cleavage on show during la Havanaise – “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”, but the real expression of the underlying passions and temptations are better expressed in the music and singing, and here it just feels lifeless with a tempo that drags. There is little wrong with the singing of Christine Rice and Bryan Hymel in the principal roles, but whether they felt the pressure of performing before cameras that get in much closer than usual in filmed opera – although there was no toning down of theatre mannerisms – the performances felt perfunctory, never getting beneath the surface of whatever dark passions drive the characters to their tragic fates. Only Maija Kovalevska in the role of Micaela, brought out that other dimension I was looking for in the opera in her Act 3 “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”, showing that there are more noble sentiments and a more pure love can exist, but that it doesn’t really stand a chance against the all-consuming lust and the jealousy that fires Don José and Carmen.

Carmen

If the lust doesn’t come across convincingly, the painful jealousy that is going to lead to the tragic conclusion is there also to some degree in Act 3 of this production, but it’s too little and too late when the connection that brings Don José and Carmen together hasn’t been sufficiently established. To its credit then this production at least convinced me that there are other ways of playing Carmen than slow and sultry or fast and passionate, and that really, a balanced production should incorporate all those elements, as well as the more noble sentiments of Micaela’s love and a mother’s concern for her son. All those elements are there in this production, but none of them seem to reach the heights demanded, nor indeed work in common accord. The failure to achieve this is likewise across the board, the staging not really finding a way of exploring these emotions in any depth, the singing and acting feeling largely perfunctory, and the filming for the screen never succeeding in bringing it to life.

The RealD 3-D filming, directed for the screen by Julian Napier, was extremely disappointing in this respect. The most effective use of the 3-D effects were backstage at the start of the opera, where the lighting is strong enough to set figures in the foreground against the background, and in the opening shot on stage when an imprisoned Don José stretches out his hands pleadingly – one of the few original touches that indicate that both deaths foretold in the Carmen’s card-reading come to pass. Elsewhere, backgrounds were black or too dark, and figures were not close enough in the foreground to achieve anything like the same effect, save for the very occasional close-up arrangement, and only one or two obvious attempts to project images towards the camera. Where the 3-D also fared badly in comparison to regular High Definition live broadcasts and particularly with the exceptionally high standard of Blu-ray discs, was in the artificiality of the shimmery digital image that was created, one that also blurred excessively in movement and, even when static, failed to produce a sharp or detailed enough image.