Poplavskaya, Marina


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.

TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Marc Piollet, Calixto Bieto, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplovskaya, Erwin Schrott, Eliana Bayón, Itxaro Mentxaka, Marc Canturro, Francisco Vas | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and one where opera houses are reluctant to stray too far from the stock traditional performance, Bizet’s Carmen is all too often just being trotted out without a great deal of thought put into it, and there’s consequently a danger of the opera fan becoming somewhat jaded about yet another production. Carmen is Carmen, as far as I’m concerned, and personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. Fantastic opera, brilliantly scored in a way that is full of life and passion, consummately operatic, but done to death, to the extent that it’s almost become a cliché, removed and detached from whatever real human emotions used to underlie it.

Consequently, until the recent Carmen in 3-D production from the Royal Opera House, I hadn’t seen or really listened to the opera in about ten years, and Francesca Zambello’s conventional and unimaginative staging for that production reminded me why. The production itself wasn’t bad, but there was just nothing new in it. It would really take something extraordinary to make me sit up and notice Carmen again, and not only notice it, but actually listen to it again in a new way. Calixto Bieto’s production for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, conducted by Marc Piollet, updating the opera to what looks like the 1970s is not then a staging that will appeal to traditionalists, but, personally, it most certainly is a version to make you sit up and notice just how incredible an opera Carmen can be.

From the standpoint of the casting alone however, there are plenty of good reasons to like this production, which has the right kind of blend that is needed in terms of experience for the two principal roles and up-and-coming young singers for the supporting roles. With Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon, both native French, the roles of Don José and Carmen are not just in reliable hands, but both invest a great deal into the interpretation, singing wonderfully and maintaining a strong presence on the stage. Erwin Schrott is a good Escamillo, again another fine actor willing to push interpretation as well as possessing a fine baritone voice – but this is a minor role for his talent. Marina Poplovskaya finds the right blend of freshness, innocence and purity that the opera needs as Michaëla.

Carmen

As good as each of the cast are in their own right, the famous arias as good here as any interpretations I’ve heard – Alagna’s ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ is terrific – they work wonderfully together and it’s the duets and ensembles that make the biggest impression, presenting a refreshing new perspective on the opera. The orchestra and the performance are also superb. It’s everything you expect Carmen to be, but with enough character, verve and energy of its own, and a willingness to explore the dynamic that make this something more vibrant and alive, (the HD sound reproduction on the Blu-ray is also outstanding), the music seeming once again to be organically part of the drama rather than illustrating a bunch of clichéd routines. It’s a long time since I’ve heard this particular opera sounding so fresh.

How much of this is down to the stage production is debatable. Other than modernising the period setting however, the essence of the drama isn’t touched or played around with, the emphasis shifted slightly perhaps to emphasise the masculine aspect of the opera and the culture of machismo (although a full-frontal naked bullfighter might be too much for the more sensitive traditionalist). Even if it were just for the fact of stripping away all those old routines and hackneyed gypsy imagery, Calixto Bieto’s production, often minimal, the stage permanently giving the impression of a bullring, at least forces the viewer to focus once again on the characters and how they express themselves through Bizet’s score and the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and that alone is a bit of a revelation. Yes, everyone knows that Carmen is all about jealousy, lust and Latin passions, but removing the set-pieces goes some way towards restoring the balance of the other more noble aspects the theme of love beyond all reason (“Love is a gypsy child who knows nothing of the law”) in the unconditional familial love on the part of Don José’s mother and also in the purity of Michaëla’s love for him. Whether it’s obvious or not (and all the better if it’s not), I’d say that the production and direction is certainly instrumental in achieving this.

TurandotGiacomo Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Andris Nelsons, Franco Zeffirelli, Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, Marina Poplavskaya, Samuel Ramey, Charles Anthony, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes | Decca

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that Turandot is an underrated opera, but its most famous aria, ‘Nessun Dorma’, has tended to overshadow the other qualities that the work has to offer. Puccini’s final opera (the last scene completed after his death by Franco Alfano) also has more to it than a superficial look at the fairy-tale nature of the story – based on a work by the 18th century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi – might suggest, or indeed the exotic Oriental inflections of the opera’s music score. Turandot actually contains some of Puccini’s finest musical compositions, the composer bringing his considerable talent to bear on the overall structure and arrangement, while also finding – as he always does – beautiful melodies that express a depth of emotion and character that one might not expect to find in the piece.

There’s a human heart in the story of a cruel princess, Turandot, who demands that anyone seeking her hand in marriage must first give the answer to three riddles that she sets – and where there’s a human heart, few are as expressive as Giacomo Puccini. Despite the consequence of failure being beheading, many noble princes have tried and failed to answer the riddles set by Turandot, and the deaths of so many have cast a long and bloody stain on the Emperor’s reign and despair on the people of his kingdom. An unknown prince however is determined to take his chance, despite the dangers, despite the warnings from the royal court, and despite the pleas of those closest to him, one of whom is Liu, a slave girl who is in love with him.

Puccini sets up the nature of this situation beautifully in Act 1, capturing the full range of the conflicting sentiments of each of the main players, and if the actual staging of the riddle contest in Act 2 is less than perfectly arranged, it’s an occasion for a terrific duel of singing voices between the soprano and the tenor. Although it seems like we have to wait until Act 3 to fully understand what is at stake (and get Nessun Dorma), there are nonetheless hints to the nature of the characters and the conflicting issues between them in the answers to the riddles. It’s hope that lies within Calef, but it is due to die at dawn, his answers to the riddles having failed to melt the burning ice of Turandot, and it’s only through the blood of Liu that the situation is resolved and the true nature of love is revealed. If this doesn’t quite add up to full character development, the beauty of Puccini’s musical arrangements makes up the difference. The Oriental touches are not merely pastiche either – Puccini seems to understand the nature of this foreign and discordant music and the sentiments that lie within it, and he meaningfully and skilfully weaves it into his score to great effect.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production for The Met could also be accused of extravagance, kitsch and overstatement, but in reality it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone and the nature of Puccini’s drama. Zeffirelli’s huge sets capture the grandness of the occasion, the decadence of the royal court and the magical qualities of the fairy-tale nature of the subject, but it also pays attention to the details in the costume design, as well as in the position of the characters within the sets and in relation to one another. Those qualities are also borne out in the performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons, who grasp the full force and dymanic of this extraordinary opera, and in the singing performances from a fine cast. Guleghina and Giordani play well together and rise to the exceptional demands of their roles, but it’s Marina Poplavskaya who positively shines as Liu. Poplavskaya can sometimes be a little inconsistent and out of her depth in certain roles, but she has a great emotional quality in her voice and it comes through here brilliantly. In every respect this production is just magnificent – there’s no other word for it.

The Blu-ray release from Decca has an unfortunate fault with the English subtitles – at least on the initial batch of copies. English subtitles are a full 37 seconds out of sync with the voices, though they seem fine on the other languages (I got by on French). The subs work fine if you access Act 3 directly from the chapter menu (if you want to get to Nessun Dorma, for example), but they cannot be made to synchronise for any of the other acts through this method. It’s a pity, because in all other respects, this is a superb High Definition presentation of the Met’s 2009 Live in HD recording that brings out the full colourful glory of Zeffirelli’s production, and packs a punch on the HD sound mixes. The recording keeps the same format as the HD Live broadcasts, introduced here by Patricia Racette, who also conducts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordani, and Charles Anthony during the interval between Act 2 and 3.

Don CarloGiuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson. | The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010

Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.

Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.

It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.

What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his “mother”), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.Don Carlo

That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.