Kim, Jihoon


DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it’s more of a case that audiences still aren’t ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it’s not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it’s never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly’s production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It’s faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there’s a “cardboard cutout” feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney’s designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III’s vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it’s just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer’s score - it’s simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone’s taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn’t have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There’s an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

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.

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.

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.