Royal Opera House Covent Garden, The


Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Royal Opera House, 2013 | Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price | Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live, 20th February 2013

The very nature of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present. The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret. As such, it has the near impossible task of needing its performers to be able to express both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience through same person and - just to make it more difficult - express both positions almost simultaneously. Tchaikovsky’s remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult to achieve.

If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles in Eugene Onegin and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts. In the opera house it’s not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands. Certainly in the case of the young romantic and bookish 16-year old Tatyana, the director has the choice only of casting a younger singer who looks credible in the role but who may not be able to meet the extremely difficult singing demands, or else sacrifice credibility for a singer with the voice, maturity and the experience to make it work musically. In the days of High Definition broadcasts, the chances are that the director will opt for the former (as in the case of Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s 2012 Bavarian State Opera production with Ekaterina Scherbachenko), when the latter is what the work really needs. There is however another way, a way explored by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim for example in the 2011 production for De Nederlandse Opera, but it involves the kind of directorial playing around with the essential elements and timeline of the work that some find intrusive in what ought to be a stripped-back and intimate work.

Directing the Royal Opera House’s new production, and clearly focussing on those essential themes of love and regret, Kasper Holten has opted for an approach similar to Stefan Herheim, using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana - dancers who enact their younger selves - and having them both on the stage together in order to allow both those interlocking sentiments to play out simultaneously. As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it’s a valid idea, but it’s one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically. Holten’s direction, it has to be said, is rather less convoluted than Herheim’s all-encompassing approach that takes in aspects of the Russian temperament revealed in the work across the ages, and in that respect the Royal Opera House production works quite well while at the same time being relatively more faithful to the intentions of the composer. One can’t help but wishing however that the director (both Herheim and Holten) would just put their trust in the singer when they a Tatyana as accomplished as Krassimira Stoyanova who is capable of delivering such a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance as she does here.

And not just Stoyanova. The Royal Opera House’s production benefitted from the casting and terrific performances of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik as Onegin and Lensky. Both played these roles opposite each other in last year’s Bayerische Staatsoper production and were marvellous there. Here, unconstrained by the Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s attempts to bring out a gay subtext in their relationship (attempts it has to be said that were largely successful and certainly relevant to the composer’s own personal circumstances), they were free to concentrate on those expressions of deep emotional wounding and eternal regret. The title of the interval feature ‘Love and Regret‘ describes Kasper Holten’s focus for this production, and he couldn’t have been better assisted in getting this across than the exceptional, nuanced and deeply moving performances from the cast or from the superb account of Tchaikovsky’s majestic score from the Royal Opera House orchestra superbly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

A performance of Eugene Onegin perhaps doesn’t need anything more than that, but there were more than a few other beautiful little touches that validated the director’s approach. When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova’s moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart’s painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those simultaneous contradictory sentiments. Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret, unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled. The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn’t work quite so well. The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.

Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin. The Polonaise was more than just a beautiful interlude, but threw Keenlyside’s Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he would attempt to grasp but be unable to hold. Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seemed like everything he touched would just die in his hands. Mia Stensgaard’s set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds and lighting - was also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work. The role of the chorus - again often neglected for their dramatic contribution in favour of providing “folk” colour - were recognised here as being the social context of the work. The Royal Opera House have been criticised, with some justification, for a lack of adventure in their recent programming of revivals and some partially failed or misguided experiments (Rusalka, Robert le Diable), but when they bring together a strong cast for a thoughtful account of a major work like the 2011 Tosca or this year’s Eugene Onegin, they are simply unbeatable.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 2012 | David McVicar, Antonio Pappano, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Fabio Capitanucci, Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brindley Sherratt, Hanna Hipp, Barbara Senator, Robert Lloyd, Pamela Helen Stephen, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Holland, Ji Hyun Kim, Lukas Jakobski, Daniel Grice, Ji Min Park, Adrian Clarke, Jeremy White, Ed Lyon | Royal Opera House, Cinema Season Live 2012/13

It’s ironic that Berlioz’s epic creation based on Virgil’s ‘Aeneid‘ was never performed in full during the composer’s lifetime, yet we’ve had enough opportunities now to view the work to realise that Les Troyens is unquestionably a masterpiece. Having had the opportunity to see several productions however, it’s also possible to see why the opera would have been such a tricky proposition to stage in the first place. It’s a vast, all-encompassing work, one that not only demonstrates the complete range of the composer, but one that also takes in the considerable musical studies, theories and passions that were as much a part of the lifework of Hector Berlioz. Written over two years (1856-58) for the Paris Opéra (the only house with the resources to possibly stage it), a deeply personal undertaking that drew from the composer’s childhood imagination-inspiring readings of the ‘Aeneid‘ and his love for the Shakespearean epic drama, Les Troyens proved to be too ambitious an undertaking for the city’s major opera house and, eventually, only a cut-down version of the second part of the five-act opera was performed at the Théâtre Lyrique.

Now we have Blu-ray releases of no less than two complete productions of Les Troyens to be able to judge the quality of the work - the revelatory 2003 Châtelet production in Paris (in an impressive account conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) and the rather less successful attempt to modernise the opera by La Fura dels Baus in the 2009 Valencia production. A comparison between the two suggests that if it’s not a case of less is more (that’s something that you couldn’t say about Berlioz’s writing here), it is nonetheless a work where it’s necessary - and difficult enough - to strike a balance between the extravagance of the compositional elements with a huge dynamic that is inherent within the division of the two parts of the work that represent the Fall of Troy and the Trojans in Carthage, while at the same time also living up to the epic grandeur that it represents. Trying to impose an alternative reading or concept on top of Les Troyens (much less one as misguided as La Fura del Baus’ Trojan Horse computer virus concept) is risky and likely to conflict with the intentions and tone of the work. David McVicar therefore had quite a challenge in this new major production of the work for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and while it didn’t exactly meet with universal critical acclaim at the time, the weaknesses in the production seem rather less pronounced when viewed on the screen in this fine recording made for the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season 2012/13.

The fact that David McVicar and set designer Es Devlin went for their familiar industrial Steampunk style in the first act with weapons and military uniforms that were clearly not related to Ancient Greek mythology (or Roman in this case) proved neither here nor there. As ever with McVicar, the detail is less important than the overall impact, and both the Troy and Carthage scenes went for a mood and grandeur of scale that was commensurate with the work itself. The tone of the first half is inevitably dark, the celebrations of the Trojans at the departure of the Greek army after ten years of siege short-lived, giving way to ceremonial mourning for the loss of so many great warriors, dire premonitions of doom from an increasingly hysterical Cassandra, and the mass suicide of the Trojan women as the warriors flee for Italy, the city having been breached by the Greek soldiers through the ruse of the horse. It’s the huge mechanical construction of the Trojan Horse that is the imposing image of the first half and it’s suitably impressive. If the direction is otherwise fairly static in this section, it at least allows attention to be drawn to the magnificent musical construction of the first two acts, and it gives plenty of room for Anna Caterina Antonacci to dominate as Cassandra.

As directed for the screen, the frequent use of close-ups here went some way towards focussing on those strong points in the tone that was effectively established and in highlighting the qualities of Antonacci’s mesmerising performance, even if the actual staging and the power of the singing weren’t quite up to the demands of the music itself, superbly put across by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano’s direction. Fortunately, most of The Fall of Troy section relies on choral arrangements of celebrations and lamentations and these also came across wonderfully. The strengths and weaknesses within Les Troyens and the difficulty of coping with them in a staged production were emphasised here by the treatment of the rather different second half. The warmth of tone and presentation of the Trojans in Carthage section is in marked contrast to the darkness of the first half, but Berlioz’s arrangements are no less epic in his depiction of the utopian society of Carthage under the rule of their beloved Queen Dido. Even Bryan Hymel, who didn’t quite manage to rise above the dramatic power of the Troy section as Aeneas, seemed to find the North African climate more to his liking. The challenges of the second half of Les Troyens however lie in the presentation of those sentiments, and that wasn’t quite so well achieved as the first half.

Again, there is no faulting McVicar and Es Devlin’s approach to the stage design. Carthage is laid out in all the epic grandeur and warmth that is suggested in the score. While there’s much that’s beautiful about Berlioz’s scoring for these scenes, all the ballets and the celebratory love-fests can be a little bit too much - the rush into battle with Iarbas and the Numidians the only confrontational element in the first part and even that is given only a cursory treatment. The dances and celebrations can also be particularly difficult to stage in a way that retains the interest of an audience who has by that stage already had very nearly a full evening’s worth of Grand Opéra. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang beautifully and was excellent at conveying the dilemma of the Carthaginian Queen over her feelings for Aeneas and her promise to remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband. Westbroek has a fullness of tone and sufficient power in her soprano, but not quite the necessary colour that the role - written for a mezzo-soprano - demands. This was particularly noticeable for the lack of sufficient and complementary contrast that ought to be there in her ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie‘ duet with Hymel - a key moment in their relationship which never really came across here as it should.

Allowing for the longeurs in Act III and the inability of the director to make them sufficiently interesting, there was however still a lot to enjoy musically and in the singing during the final three acts. In addition to the strong performances of Hymel and Westbroek, there were some beautiful sounds coming from Brindley Sherratt’s concerned Narbal and Hanna Hipp’s devoted Anna, both providing the necessary counterweight to Dido’s mental disintegration in the closing acts. Masterfully orchestrated in musical and dramatic terms by Berlioz, Hylas’s song of longing for home at the beginning of Act Five, sweetly sung by Ed Lyon, the lure of the seas and the call of Italy urged by dark forces of the ghosts of the dead Trojans, combined well with the frisson of betrayal between Dido and Aeneas more strongly characterised than their romance, ensured that the conclusion at least was sufficiently tragic.

TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

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.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Erwin Schrott, Alex Exposito, Carmela Remigio, Ruxandra Donose, Pavol Breslik, Kate Lindsey, Matthew Rose, Reinhard Hagen | Covent Garden, 26 February 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how it is possible to play Don Giovanni in so many different ways, with subtle shifts of emphasis that can change one’s whole view of the work. That’s possible with most great operas in the hands of an imaginative director, but I find that it is particularly the case with Don Giovanni, a work that was brilliantly designed to be open and ambiguous, giving the appearance of moral rectitude where the villain is punished and his misdeeds reflected over in an epilogue, but in reality being much more complicated than that. I didn’t find that Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production, revived here at the Royal Opera House under director Barbara Lluch, had a whole lot to add to the various interpretations that have added different layers to the character of Don Giovanni, but the joy of the opera is that the Count is often defined by the other characters in the work and that leaves a lot of room for reinterpretation.

There was nothing new in the relationship between Don Giovanni and Leporello here then - the Don is a loveable rogue who can’t help himself when it comes to women, and Leporello is his admiring comedy sidekick, enjoying his adventures in seduction across Europe up until the moment that Don Giovanni’s wicked ways start to catch up with him. If there was a lack of imagination in how this is played out, it’s at least an enjoyable way to see the familiar pleasures of opera, and it may even have been an intentional decision on the part of the director Francesco Zambello, in order to place more emphasis on the female characters and allow them to take more of a central role. The women are by no means overlooked or underdeveloped by Mozart and Da Ponte, but they are often seen as secondary foils who are only there to unravel Don Giovanni’s schemes and bring him to justice for his crimes.

Under Francesca Zambello’s direction, the women are often positioned together, forming a kind of bond of sisterhood. In Donna Elvira’s Act II aria ‘Mi tradì quell’ alma ingrata‘, where she laments her inability to give up her unfaithful man, she is joined in silent sympathy by both Donna Anna and Zerlina, who both have their own problems not only with Don Giovanni, but with the other men in their life. Their bonding is celebrated again with hugs in the opera’s epilogue, but it’s not some kind of proto-feminist solidarity at their success in overthrowing the tyranny of male domination represented by the descent into hell of Don Giovanni - that would be inappropriate for the 18th century setting and contrary to the characterisation as it is defined in the libretto. Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the women of their nature - falling for good looks and charms of a man they know is no good for them, whose words can’t be trusted, who will seduce and abandon them, but who nonetheless makes them feel desired and special. Think how that would feel if he really meant it. That’s an irresistible prospect and the women just can’t help themselves and are powerless against their own impulses and these drives that Don Giovanni awakens in them.

Giovanni

I wouldn’t however give too much credit to Francesca Zambello for bring out this aspect of the work - like so many other interpretations it’s all there in the brilliant libretto and the stunning musical arrangements of the original work and just waiting to be explored - particularly as in most other respects the production here is surprisingly lacking. The stage sets may be well designed to fluidly switch between all the complicated location arrangements that take place in two long acts of the opera, but they are ugly and clunky, the huge bulky woodwork not remaining in the background, but swinging out over the whole of the stage, the positioning of the actors within it meaning that depending where you are seated, they can be often hidden from view. At best the set is functional - it didn’t hamper the progression of the drama or detract from the enjoyment of the fine performances - but it’s unwieldy and unattractive.

If there is not a great deal that’s new to be gained from this particular production, the audience at least has the pleasure of seeing a great work well performed. The last time I saw Erwin Schrott in a production of Don Giovanni (a 2008 Salzburg production on Blu-ray), he was a wonderful twitchy Leporello, but he can do the role of the master just as effectively, making it look effortless. Don Giovanni may not have any arias in the opera, but it’s a difficult role to carry off convincingly. It’s not just that Schrott fulfils the necessary bari-hunk credentials that one needs for the role nowadays, rather gratuitously in this production having to strip down to the waist, (although as he demonstrated to a lady in the Stalls Circle Left at the Royal Opera House, he has no shortage of magnetic charm), but his singing was assured and in character. A little comic exaggeration doesn’t go amiss in Don Giovanni, but when required, Schrott could carry the necessary noble contemptuousness for others while giving the impression of being utterly irresistible in his charms. It wasn’t required here as much as in other productions, but I’m sure he could carry off the nasty and cruel streak in Don Giovanni if the emphasis in a production were in that direction.

The fact that it wasn’t a dark and dangerous Don Giovanni however is by no means a flaw, but a matter of interpretation, particularly when one wants to draw on other aspects of the work. In order to shift the balance over to the female perspective however, it needs very strong singers in the more challenging roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Carmela Remigio and Ruxandra Donose met the necessary criteria as far as the demands of the production required, the two of them together certainly representing a formidable force to challenge Don Giovanni, their singing strong and filled with character, even if they didn’t always hold up to the technical demands of the more difficult arias. Kate Lindsey was a little anonymous in the role of the flighty Zerlina, and her voice wasn’t the most delicate of tones, but her interaction with the excellent Matthew Rose as Masetto was fine.

If you could say there was a weakness in the female make-up that didn’t necessarily compromise their position as far as the aims of this production went, there was in comparison a general solidity to the all the male roles, with Pavol Breslik an earnest Don Ottavio and Reinhard Hagen a commanding Commendatore. Seen recently as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Alex Exposito clearly specialises in strong, comic Mozartian character parts and he fully entered into the spirit of Leporello, with all the comic exaggeration that the role often demands, singing well, as ever, with heartfelt passion. There was no lack of commitment or fire in any of the performances - the orchestra also in form under Constantinos Carydis - and if fire is what you like, there was plenty of that in the final scene of Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, where the heat of the flames could be certainly be felt in the front rows. If the stage directions were questionable elsewhere, the orchestration of the final scenes were well-judged for maximum impact, not least in the final postscript where Don Giovanni seems to be quite at home in the underworld.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Phyllida Lloyd, Harry Fehr, Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto, Liudmyla Monastyrska, Elisabeth Meister, Nigel Cliffe, Ian Lindsay, Steven Ebel, Dimitri Pittas, Will Richardson | Opus Arte

If the concept behind Phyllida Lloyd’s direction at the Royal Opera House production of Verdi’s Macbeth (the 2002 production revived here under director Harry Fehr) isn’t immediately obvious and doesn’t seem totally coherent, it’s perhaps because the marriage of Verdi and Shakespeare itself in this earlier opera of the composer (unlike the magnificent later adaptations Otello and Falstaff) isn’t the most consistent or coherent either. Rather than attempt to impose a personal reading into some kind of structure or workable concept onto the work, or bring it closer into line with the dramatic intentions of Shakespearean original, Lloyd’s production rather impressively remains faithful to Verdi’s imperfect interpretation of the work, working closely to mirror the tone of the production with what Simon Keenlyside, in an accompanying interview on the DVD and Blu-ray, vividly describes as the “black tides” of Verdi’s score.

There are a couple of strong themes within the work that the director successfully latches onto in order to put that wonderful score right up there on the stage in visual terms. The most evident is the colour scheme (reflected in the poster designs and the packaging of the DVD) of black, white and red. That’s an obvious means to reflect the moral absolutes that are raised in the work, as well as the bloody violence that ensues from their transgressions, but it also effectively matches the colour of Verdi’s musical dynamic. Gold also features, as the prize of the crown, but also the “gilded cage” that entraps Macbeth. The other theme, one that is perhaps reflects the Shakespearean themes as much as Verdi’s treatment of them, is in how the production strives to make the horror itself and the full consequences of it visible. Here the violence is not something that takes place off-stage, but rather its true nature is made ever present, and its consequences must be lived with. The reign of blood that is embarked upon is visible throughout here and no amount of hand-washing will completely erase it.

Macbeth
Accordingly, right from the opening of Act 1, the witches - red turbaned and mono-browed – make their prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but instead of vanishing into the mist, they remain on the stage and appear throughout the opera at key moments – a witch can for example be seen delivering Macbeth’s letter directly to his wife, and one places the crown into Macbeth’s hands, another hands him the knife that takes the lives of the children of his rivals – a constant visual reminder to the audience of their prophesy being fulfilled, just as it the score and libretto also make direct reference to it. The stage is often littered with the bodies of Macbeth’s crimes that usually take place off-stage, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s actions here made plainly visible in all their horror. The announced execution of the former Thane of Cawdor, leading to the fulfilment of the first of the prophesies, is shown here and made real – Banquo’s ghost is not just the figure of a fevered imagination, his dead body serves as a physical reminder and his apparition is up there on the stage. There’s no holding back either on the “original sin” of Duncan’s death, his bloody and mutilated body displayed for all to see. Nor is there any sparing from showing the killing of children or the masses of victims among his own people that number among the king’s crimes. And since all this is so vividly described in Verdi’s score, why should it not be?

Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth is an opera nonetheless that needs a little bit of personality injected into it. It’s not entirely successful on its own terms, and playing as such, it can never entirely convince. Directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano seems determined to tease out some greater subtleties in the score that aren’t really there. It’s consequently a little bit too delicate, when a bit of a heavier punch would be more appropriate, but it does manage to tease that gloomy darkness out of the work. This Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare, it’s early Verdi, and yes, there are signs of the composer’s later greatness here, modernising and moving away from the Italian opera conventions for a purer dramatic tone (the bel canto coloratura of Lady Macbeth’s arias ‘Si colmi il calice di vino eletto’ and Macbeth’s mad scene notwithstanding) that is in keeping with the darker tone of the work, but with its Verdian patriotic laments and choruses (‘Patria oppressa!) it’s still not the most sophisticated or faithful treatment of Shakespeare.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating Verdi’s work here, because there are interesting elements that can be drawn out of the opera’s score and its treatment of the subject. The rather more daring 2010 production at the Paris Opéra under the direction of Dmitri Tcherniakov with Teodor Currentzis conducting makes a strong case for it, but if there’s any attempt to bring those elements out here, there’s a sense that the performances, the orchestration and the staging of the Royal Opera House production aren’t always working in common accord. For all its efforts to put the horror up on the stage and the close attention paid to the score, there’s initially a detachment between the orchestration and the performances in Act I at least, which seems to be down to there not being enough attention paid to the acting. Things warm up a little by the end of Act II, Act III’s potions, prophesies and apparitions are delightfully staged, and thereafter the deepening horror of the drama and the score starts to make the full extent of its presence felt.

At the very least, the listener will be beaten into submission – as they should be – by the singing and presence of Lady Macbeth. The formidable ringing tone and sheer power of Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s voice certainly achieves that, even if there isn’t always an emotional depth behind her pronouncements and her acting ability is practically non-existent. With that voice, and Verdi behind it, that’s not something to worry about in this particular opera however. On the lighter end of the register Simon Keenlyside is a true Verdi baritone. His consideration of his lines and delivery of them makes real the forced bravado and the underlying horror of his fate that lies in his character. That’s quite impressive, particularly in his death scene aria ‘Mal per me’ (the opera working from Verdi’s 1865 revision of the opera, but successfully reinstating some of the 1847 cuts). Banquo is also well served by American bass, Raymond Aceto, and his Gran Scena ‘Studia il passo, o mio figlio’ is sung very well.

The Blu-ray release of Macbeth is up to the expected high standards, the strong high contrast lighting showing good detail, while the mixing on both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks give a fine account of the score, the mixing (along with Pappano’s conducting), achieving a good balance between the orchestration and the singing voices. Extras on the BD include a Cast Gallery. Behind the Scenes Rehearsals and Interviews with Simon Keenlyside, Raymond Aceto and Liudmyla Monastyrska. I enjoyed listening to their views here on their characters and the challenges of the opera. The booklet contains an essay by Mike Ashman which considers the nature of the opera as it is presented in this production, and revival director Harry Fehr provides a detailed walk-through synopsis that is related to what is sung.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Lukas Jakobski, Jeremy White, Hubert Francis, Zhengzhong Zhou, William Payne, John Morrisey | Opus Arte, BBC2

I recently reviewed a production of Tosca on Blu-ray recorded at the Arena di Verona and summed it up by saying “This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.” As if to prove the point, just a few weeks later comes a version of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House earlier this year that, if not the best Tosca you’ll ever see (though it could make claims to be up there among the best) you could at least safely say that it is certainly among the best you will hear being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

In terms of concept, design and staging, there is nothing particularly innovative, imaginative, original or even too exciting about Jonathan Kent’s direction for this Royal Opera House production, which dates back to 2006. It adheres to the period locations and action as they are laid out in the original libretto, each of the three acts recognisably taking place in specific locations in Rome - Act 1 in the church of Sant’ Andrea, Act 2 in the Palazzo Farnese, Act 3 on top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo - actual locations that have been used in the past for filmed versions of Puccini’s opera. If there’s little that is striking about the stage designs, which are functional at best, Kent stages the dramatic action within them to the full extent of the verismo realism that the opera calls out for. All those major moments within each of the three acts - the Te Deum at the end of Act 1, the death of Scarpia in Act 2, and the powerful climax of Act 3 - are designed to achieve maximum impact. Everything is as you would expect it, there’s nothing clever attempted, and really nothing needs to be done with this particular opera. If it’s staged according to the indications of the libretto, if the dramatic action simply allows the score to dictate the pace and drive of the developments and the emotional pitch, and if it’s sung well, you’re more than half-way there with Tosca.

Tosca

What distinguishes a good traditional production of Tosca from many others, including the aforementioned Arena di Verona production, and what makes this Royal Opera House production something special, is the casting and the ability of those performers to bring something of their own unique character and ability to the work. It’s hard to imagine a more stellar contemporary cast in the three principal roles than the one assembled here. As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu is the ultimate diva playing a diva - a fact that she acknowledges and clearly relishes. Those characteristics can often be pushed a little too far with this particular singer, who often plays the diva whether it’s called for or not, but here at least it’s appropriate and Gheorghiu is totally convincing. It’s more than just good casting of course, since, as ever, Gheorghiu sings superbly. And not just from a technical viewpoint - which is hard to fault - but it’s also an impassioned performance that is perfectly judged with complete understanding of her character and fits in well with the overall tone of the whole production. Consummately professional then - you would expect no less - but Gheorghiu is also genuinely impressive on every level.

Jonas Kaufmann is another performer who continues to impress, slipping effortlessly into whatever role he plays with a great deal of personality, but more than impress, the manner in which he brings that extraordinary voice to bear on such familiar roles is absolutely astonishing and quite unlike any previous account you might have heard of that role, so far is it from a typical tenor voice. His recent version of Massanet’s Werther for Vienna and the Paris Opéra, for example, couldn’t have been more different than that of Rolando Villazon at Covent Garden in one of his signature roles, and likewise, Kaufmann’s powerfully controlled, dark near-baritone boom makes his Cavaradossi here totally unlike Marcelo Alvarez or indeed any how any other classic tenor would perform the role. There is a fear that with such a powerful voice he could end up bellowing the role, particularly as there is ample opportunity for it, but Kaufmann retains complete control over the voice and the character, dropping it to quieter phrasing where it is required. I’m not totally convinced by the heroic nature of his performance here, which doesn’t let in a great deal of humanity, but I suppose that’s how Puccini mainly scores the role.

Tosca

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia likewise has to make the most of how his role is scored and try to strike a balance between a human and a caricature. He also sings wonderfully and certainly looks the part with enough physical presence and steel in his vocal delivery to make the evil pronouncements of the Chief of Police, heavily underscored as they are by Puccini, more than menacing enough, so the additional grimaces and sneers perhaps aren’t all that necessary. The singing performances are all marvellous then, making the most of the roles and trying to find some balance and level of humanity in the characters - which isn’t always easy in this opera - but best of all is how well they work together. On a vocal level the singing is perfectly complementary and there appears to be no struggle for dominance on the acting side either, each of them existing within their own characters but working with each other in a dramatically convincing manner. It makes it very easy then for the viewer to become wrapped up in the melodramatic events that occur over the 24 hour period of the story.

That’s as much to do with the staging however, so while you can criticise Jonathan Kent’s lack of imagination in the production design and the stage direction, it does at least work effectively on a dramatic level. Part of the reason for this is the decision not to downplay the opera’s controversial depictions of violence. Make no mistake, it’s all there in the libretto, from the extended torture scene through to the attempted rape, murder and executions, but some directors might choose to underplay these elements, particularly to mitigate against Puccini’s full-blooded score. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. If you are aiming for realism in the set designs and you have singers who are also good actors, then it makes sense to let them fully enter into the roles and the cast here manage to do that without too much operatic grimacing or mannerisms. Matched with a perfectly judged performance of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano (that has all the dynamism that is lacking in the aforementioned Verona production), the result is an impressive, involving and, yes, near perfect account of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” as you could expect to see done anywhere in the world today.

SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House, 2011 | Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora | Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011

It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.

For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.

Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Sonnambula

Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.

The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.

A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.

Sonnambula

Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.

FaustCharles Gounod - Faust

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Evelino Pidò, David McVicar, Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Michèle Losier, Daniel Grice, Carole Wilson | Live HD Broadcast, 28th September 2011

It’s not too difficult to see why Faust is considered one of the jewels of French grand opera, nor why, featuring as it does in no less than three opera houses in my viewing schedule this quarter up to Christmas (Covent Garden followed by the Paris Opéra and the Met in New York), it still remains a popular fixture in the repertoire of many major opera houses around the world. With a tragic love-story, whose content is boosted somewhat with a cruel encounter between evil and innocence, all wrapped up in a sense of religious fervour, the purpose of the storyline might deviate from the original intentions of Goethe’s classic tale, but it has all the right elements for a passionate opera subject.

The storyline however is actually the least convincing thing about Faust, but the emotional range covered across those Manichean divisons provide Charles Gounod with everything he needs to spin it out into a wonderful variety of musical arrangements. It opens with the aged scholar Faust despairing and disenchanted with a life devoted to study that has failed nonetheless to provide any great revelations or even meaning. Given the chance by the demon Méphistophélès to seek the pleasures elsewhere, it’s a vision of a beautiful young woman, Marguerite, that convinces Faust to enter into a bargain that will mean the loss of his eternal soul. The dark, nihilistic tone of the opening – the first word spoken by Faust is a bleak utterance of “Rien”, “Nothing” – gives way to a sense of joyous hedonism, conquest and seduction that stands in stark contrast to the daily lives and modest passions of ordinary people and soldiers going to war. By the end of the opera, each of those characters is judged for their actions.

Within that not particular complex or surprising storyline where, of course, virtue is rewarded, there is nonetheless a wealth of tones, moods, emotions and tempos, and Gounod gathers them together with the all the most wonderful arrangements available to a composer of grand opera. Filled with memorable tunes and famous arias, including Marguerite’s famous Jewel Song, Faust also contains a fabulous waltz, rousing marches, numerous choruses and a ballet – all of which never fail to sweep up the audience and get feet tapping. And if that’s the simple measure by which you judge any performance of Faust, David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera House, with the superb playing of house orchestra under conductor Evelino Pidò, broadcast live in High Definition to cinemas across the UK and the world, was unquestionably a success.

Faust

I’ve never been particularly taken with David McVicar productions, failing to see much in the way of a convincing concept or even a personal touch in his style other than it usually being a hotchpotch of random and generic opera theatrics. That’s the case here with his production of Faust, but it’s a style that works quite well with this particular opera. There might be little to distinguish the all-purpose set, but with a couple of adjustments and a change of lighting it’s able to switch very effectively between a scholar’s study and a church with an organ or between a street-scene and a night-club cabaret. Even the random elements in the wings – the opera house boxes on the left, the pulpit on the right – provide space for nice little touches and coups de théâtre on a stage where there is always something interesting going on. The Act IV Walpurgis Night ballet was undoubtedly one of the high points of the staging, but McVicar’s one little perverse touch in this opera of having Méphistophélès dress as a woman in the scene where he shows Faust the queens of the world actually worked quite well. I would never have thought anyone could get away with putting René Pape in a dress and tiara, but it actually suits the nature of his character here perfectly.

The big selling-point for this particular production however is its top-flight cast that in addition to Pape as Méphistophélès, has Vittorio Grigolo as Faust, Angela Gheorgieu as Marguerite and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Valentin. If none of them are distinguished actors, you really couldn’t fault their singing. Each and every highpoint for their characters was reached and in most cases even surpassed. Grigolo started off slowly as the aging Faust, but more than came into his role as the younger rakish seductor (as he did when I last saw him in last year’s TV production of Rigoletto) while Pape, wearing a string of fine costumes was an appropriately magnetic and imposing presence in his demonic role.

Most impressive however was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who really put a heart and soul into Valentin with an absolutely knock-out, spell-binding performance, but it was also helped by McVicar’s strong direction of his scenes, using the character for additional impact. Surprisingly, it was only the diva Angela Gheorghiu, who really failed to shine. She sang perfectly well, if somewhat underpowered in the role of Marguerite (a consequence perhaps of the cold that saw last Saturday’s live radio broadcast replaced by a recording?), but failed to find the right level to pitch an admittedly difficult character. Sometimes however, it’s difficult to differentiate whether she’s wrapped up in her character or just wrapped up in herself. All in all however, this was a fine production of Gounod’s classic, well up to the exceptionally high standards we’ve come to expect from the Royal Opera House.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | Opus Arte

Dealing with a low-brow subject, treating it to an outlandish and tasteless staging, with crude language and bad-taste humour, there is a danger that Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage about the former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007, could be accused of making Eurotrash out of American Trash, but the language and the staging befits the tone of its subject. The barrage of rhyming couplets in the libretto from Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) may clearly signal their intention to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, but at the same time there is wit and pathos here in a libretto that actually manages to cut through the niceties directly to harsh crude reality of the circumstances of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, unpalatable though that might be to the average opera-going audience. Benjamin Britten and particularly Billy Budd comes to mind in the use of language, in its subject – which is also about a kind of loss of innocence on a bigger level than just the personal – and in Turnage’s score, which also adopts his usual jazz and American influences, successfully finding the right tone for each occasion.

The colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs by Richard Jones also adopt the right tone with plenty of eye-catching sights not commonly seen in an opera house, including a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with artificial breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles. The decision to present the opera as if it were a reality-TV show in which a chorus of TV hosts interview Anna Nicole Smith, already dead but looking back over her life and tracing the path from smalltown girl to media celebrity that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke and it imbues the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The tone darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in Smith’s life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, does well to allow the music score to assert its presence and not be overshadowed by the spectacle or the libretto. Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvellous in the title role, and well supported by Gerald Finlay and Alan Oke. As more of a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is not really tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sings exceptionally well and manages to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing the performance to descend into parody. Whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – if indeed there is anything deeper to be drawn from its subject – is questionable, but Anna Nicole demonstrates nonetheless that opera can still be a vital artform to address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that can connect with a modern audience.

On Blu-ray from Opus Arte, the opera – opening with a legal disclaimer that it is “not intended to be an actual factual depiction of any person” – looks every bit as bold as it should, the striking colours deeply saturated, with strong blacks and contrasts, and a good level of detail. This often looks just stunning, and it is well filmed, picking out the singers at the right moments, while also allowing the overall impact of the set to be appreciated. The audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are also effective in allowing the detail of the musical arrangements to come through. Subtitles are in English (so you can check that they actually sang what you thought they sang but couldn’t quite believe), French, German and Spanish. Aside from a Cast Gallery, the only other extra on the disc is a brief Production Report (8:25), introduced by Pappano, which nonetheless covers the development of the opera well with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.

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