Sunday, June 15, 2014

Palau Des Les Arts Reina Sofia
13th June 2014

Even before the performance was underway in the cavernous main hall of the Palau de Les Arts, a standing ovation greeted conductor, Zubin Mehta, who responded with a big, powerful and distinctive sound in opening Giacomo Puccini's last opera, Turandot. Then, when the curtain was raised to reveal the majestic force of Chinese director, Chen Kaige's shimmering blockbuster production, which first premiered in the same venue back in 2008, it was clear the performance ahead would be a treat to the senses.

The music of Puccini's three-act opera is not big enough to veil the lunacy of the plot and the lack of character development it suffers, but it is big enough to inspire stunning entertainment. Dare I say, Kaige's direct approach and cautionary filmmaker's eye combined to create a production that could just as easily park itself on Broadway. Liu King's intricate sets depicting an ancient Chinese imperial complex, designed and built in China, beautifully enhanced everything from solo performance to large ensemble. The visual splendour continued with a glistening stage floor, exquisitely coloured and embroidered costumes by Chen Tong Xun and lighting that illuminated the stage with dramatic precision by Albert Faura.

On the downside, a few rather cheesy moments made the proximity to Broadway that much closer. A languid Mexican wave (unless it originated in ancient China) and a parasol-armed chorus of loyal subjects converging into a clustered formation seemed to express an uncertainty of not knowing how to keep a large chorus occupied. Also, the drama was diminished by a tendency for the performers to face the audience rather more frequently than they did to each other. But this is a fairy-tale after all and Kaige's filmmaking expertise (Farewell My Concubine) presented it as such, more than I’ve seen before.

And what an odd tale Turandot is! Love at first sight is taken to the extreme when an unknown stranger falls for an icy princess who vowed never to marry unless a noble suitor can solve three riddles. Of course, the riddles are too difficult to solve but they don't prevent noble fools trying, even if failure leads to beheading. Then along comes an unknown stranger (if you're dressed like a nobleman, you must be one) and upsets the princess by solving all three of them. Now why would a man force himself on a woman who clearly isn't interested, worse, faces death by trying? Being a tale, it might be forgiven for its irreconcilable plot, so if it wasn't for Puccini's rich, dramatic and emotional score brimming with tender arias, fearsome duets and surging choral music, the story might very well fall flat in the theatre. In saying that, I imagine Carlo Gozzi's 1762 play, Turandot, on which Puccini based his opera, is unlikely ever to see a stage again.

Puccini's subject matter was surprising, given the success of his verismo operas; La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), La Fanciulla del West (1910), La Rondine (1917). And of course, he had already delved into the Far East with Madama Butterfly (1904). Puccini died in 1924 without completing the final act but had left detailed sketches, which were entrusted to Franco Alfonso and the opera premiered in 1926 at Milan's Teatro alla Scala.

Heading back to the performance, after an impressive lead, it was the subtlety of sound that Mehta needed to establish in a theatre which amplifies the sound miraculously but unforgivingly. Initially, a divide seemed to exist between stage and pit but by midway through Act I Mehta harnessed the two. Elevating Turnadot's music to a level rarely heard, it was as if Mehta was able to give each of the hard-working, focused musicians of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana their chance to be heard in absolute glory.

Lise Lindstrom, rendered Princess Turandot with combined ruthlessness and grace, much to Kaige’s intentions, giving Turandot a great sense of approachability and humanity. Lindstrom's engaging soprano voice exhibited dramatic strength and colour, both sweetly edged and full of rich resonance in the lower range. In Turandot's extended Act II aria, "In questo reggia", and subsequent duet with Calaf (the unknown stranger), Lindstrom excelled, slicing the air with penetrating beauty and delivering a knife-edge chill before exposing Turandot's vulnerability after Calaf solves the three riddles.

Jorge de León expressed Calaf's determination to win Turandot's heart in fine, confident form. Already impressive in Act I, de Leon opened up in the second act to reveal a voice funnelling a warm viscosity and an emotion-filled, warbling, high, throaty tenor. De Leon was equally at ease in the duets he shared with Turandot and the slave-girl, Liu, as he was in his solos. The pressure of Act III's (everyone knows) "Nessun dorma" was beautifully delivered with clear, measured phrasing, expressing Calaf's contemplations with real pathos after which the hall erupted with a roar belonging in a football stadium.

Portraying Liu, young soprano, Jessica Nuccio catapulted herself into the role firmly before her Act I aria, "Signor ascolta" was over, at much the same time Mehta did in settling the orchestra. Nuccio's clean phrasing and delicate tone impressed, and a quivering vibrato preceding her public suicide in "Tu che di gel sei cinta" was heartfelt and masterly.

Timur, the deposed King of Tartary, and Calaf's long lost father, was convincingly carried off by Alexánder Tsymbalyuk in a broad pleasing, almost feathery bass voice. Lighter entertainment was provided by the trio of palace ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, each respectively performed by Germán Olvera, Valentino Buzza and Pablo Garcia López. In their lengthy and demanding Act II scene, mocking the endless imperial rituals and longing for their homes in the idyllic countryside, the trio effortlessly sang and danced their reflections in expert showbiz style.

Each of Turnadot's three acts end in much the same way, utilising huge boisterous brass and percussive strength to energise a large chorus, easily maximising the spectacle. Here, the Cor de la Generalitat Valencia reached explosive proportion and maintained clarity while being equally mesmerising during the score's soft musical hues.

The opera's final scene ends hastily as Turandot's icy cloak melts and she names Calaf, "Love". For me it doesn't quite work and I wonder if it would've for Puccini if he had completed or revised the score himself. It especially looked at odds as Turandot and Calaf strangely rushed off the stage in, presumably, blissful escape, but it looked more like an eagerness to get off the stage and out of their costumes. It also didn't seem to dignify the splendid chorus in their most magnificent moment singing in thunderous force, "O sole! Vita! Eternita".

I thought about the many operas (some I'm not even aware of) that have fallen out of fashion and vice versa over the last few centuries. Will Turandot's appeal fade? Will it disappear from the repertoire of popular operas it currently sits amongst? Or will its muscular music keep alive a far-fetched tale? In all the productions of Turandot I've seen, there has never been an attempt to redeploy the story outside its ancient Chinese setting and now, after seeing an impressively glittering staging, I wonder if it can be engineered with a radically new approach.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
Saturday 7th June 2014

The current Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rossini's 1816 opera buffa, Il Barbiere di Siviglia was first premiered way back in 1989. It raises a dilemma. The opera's popularity alone might draw existing and new audiences but bring in a star performer the likes of tenor, Juan Diego Flórez and it virtually guarantees a full house. From director, Ferruccio Soleri, there’s a real sense of complacency, however, and despite being plump full of expert vocal and dramatic performances it's surprising this lacklustre Il Barbiere di Siviglia has survived more than two decades.

Carlo Tommasi’s sets create a sense of 18th Century Southern Spanish realism but they’re clunky and lack thought. While may needing to seem impenetrable to protect Rosina, his ward, the Act I set for the exterior of Doctor Bartolo’s house is obtrusive and limits the scene’s action. Act II’s interior set of the house is vacant, with confused access points ill-suited to streamlined story telling and feels more like the hollowness of an empty old timber hall. Ute Frühling's period costumes, which creatively define each of the soloists and warm lighting, provide at least some salvation. But most annoyingly, is the creaking, thumping sound of the timber floors of the revolving stage when the cast make the slightest move. What's worse, there seems a point in emphasising it. How could this have escaped the director’s, or for that matter, anyone’s ears?

Conductor, Antonello Allemandi, led Rossini's overture in a blend of delightfully warm exchanges between the different sections of the orchestra, then maintained tight control to exact freshness and brightness. A tendency, however, to drag the tempo too far down than usual on the slower, more tender scenes, slightly hindered a balanced cohesiveness between poignancy and comedy.

Figaro, the wheeling-dealing scheming barber, ever ready to help carry the plot forward (for a price) is rendered with swaggering, cheerful confidence by Rodion Pogossov. Of course, everyone eagerly awaits Figaro's entrance aria, "Largo al factotum", and Pogossov obliged with vigour, adding his own colourful, baritone signature with a warm, rolling legato. Not so impressive, however, is Figaro's all-important prop, in the form of a disappointing, meagre offering of barber's paraphernalia in a leather wallet.

Kate Lindsey, as Rosina, ward of Doctor Bartolo and, just like everyone else, able to outsmart him, displays immediate self-assuredness in Rosina’s opening aria, “Una voce poco fà”, continuing with vitality and stunning vocal beauty. Ricocheting from one zany episode to the next, Lindsay also concocts an effusive chemistry with her surrounding cast.

The fast-paced pitter-patter of Doctor Bartolo, played by Renato Girolami couldn't be better enjoyed. Together with his accomplice Don Basilio, depicted solidly by Peter Rose, and Bartolo’s sneezing maid, Berta, rendered in squeaky delight by Hanna-Elizabeth Müller, the requisite spice is added to deliver a rollicking show of animated entertainment and adept vocal force.

But it was Juan Diego Flórez who everyone came to see, portraying Count Almaviva, as well as the disguises of a soldier and a music teacher, two of Figaro’s bright ideas to help get the Count into Doctor Bartolo’s house to see Rosina. Flórez starts with an easy, careful pace, notches it up, then in astounding form delivers the almost ten-minute Act II aria not often performed, "Cessa di più resistere", to wild, extended applause. I saw Flórez sing the role in Los Angeles in 2009 and Milan in 2010. As in the previous two, his performance was arresting, holding the troops at bay, but this time suddenly letting all the production's faults disappear for this interlude as the entire cast and chorus stood completely still so as not to upset the groaning stage. Finally, everyone on stage seemed to get it. And together with a steadfast, fine-voiced chorus of soldiers and musicians, the winning cast of characters give some polish to the night.

In the end it all goes horribly wrong (as it has for this production) for old Doctor Bartolo, who arrives just a moment too late to marry his ward, Rosina, instead finding her married to the Count. So, apart from the synergetic charm exuded by the cast and the enduring, catchy tunes courtesy of Rossini, it’s time to dismantle the pieces of this tiresome, dusty construct and find new form.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

London Coliseum
Premiere: Thursday 5th June, 2014

"I need a drink!", I hear uttered after the curtain closes on Act I of ENO's spectacular new production of Hector Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. "Perfect idea, but is one enough?", I say, feeling the need to celebrate this night of circus-infused entertainment and a production that truly embraces an audience. It's one of the most expensive undertakings ever by ENO despite the opera rarely being performed these days. Premiering in Paris in 1838, Benvenuto Cellini is a two-act semi-séria opera but more wildly demi-semi-séria from director, Terry Gilliam's exuberant handling.

Of Berlioz, Gilliam says "...he's crazy, flawed, exciting and he breaks the rules", a statement which easily describes much about this production too. First, it's gigantic. Set designs by Gilliam himself and Aaron Marsden move about and consume the entire stage, depicting a story set in 16th Century Rome with a visual collage of stylized period form, etched and printed surfaces, bold projections and a few 20th Century utilities. With the addition of elaborate and wacky period costumes by Katrina Lindsay and dynamic, cinematic-like lighting by Paule Constable, it's altogether a visual wonder.

There's unstoppable momentum as Act I reaches the 'Carnivale' climax, a scene rendering something far more than theatrical make believe. A giant street party does a twisted turn seemingly via Rome itself, jamming the aisles of the Coliseum stalls. A giant skull looms into the audience metres away from my seat, a reveller beats his drum alongside me and it's impossible not to be swept up in the sensational pandemonium. Might all this be a little too excessive? Just enjoy the ride, and let it all hover about and soak its way in.

By this stage, our eponymous Benvenuto Cellini (Michael Spyres), esteemed Florentine Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor and rogue, has escaped from the riotous festivities after having killed Pompeo (Morgan Pierce), friend of Fieramosca (Nicholas Pallesen), Roman sculptor and betrothed to Teresa (Corinne Winters). It's all over Cellini's attempts to elope with Teresa, daughter of Balducci (Pavlo Hunka), the Papal Treasurer upset that Pope Clement VII (Willard White) has commissioned a bronze statue of Perseus from Cellini instead of his intended son-in-law. With Cellini's business manager (Paula Murrihy), the innkeeper (Anton Rich) and Cellini's foremen, Francesco (Nicky Spence) and Bernadino (David Soar), there's plenty of fuel for a little confusion. It all unfolds in a swift, witty English translation by Charles Hart of Leon de Wailly's and Auguste Barbier's original French libretto.

After that drink and dazzlement, Act II settles, the energy is still aflame but the plot begins to reemerge with greater lucidity. Curiously, it seems any director's invention is unlikely to confuse the plot any more than Berlioz himself does with the music. There's lots of activity and complexity in the score, both over its 2 hour 45 minute duration and in any single moment. Even the first bars of music blast, then settle immediately as conductor, Edward Gardner, works his magic over the ENO Orchestra pit dwellers. Packed with sure-fast shifts of orchestral layers, the music is sound to behold.

To single out any one of the vocally expert, energetic and convincing performers on this opening night spectacular seems unfair. The spread of well-cast principals also successfully manage to compete with the glorious cacophony of Berlioz's music. Together with the indefatigable and ear-ringing force of the ENO Chorus, the clarity and fusion of voices work marvellously. A few performances under their belt will certainly clear up subtle issues with timing but the result is a triumph all the same.

Act II ends with Cellini having timely cast his Perseus in a deal with the Pope that grants him both Teresa's hand and freedom from hanging for Pompeo's murder. Then, after it's over,  the performers are as animated in their curtain call as the characters they portray, seemingly relishing the joy of having steered the production to safety. The entire evening makes believe the whole world exists right here in the vast Coliseum and leaving it to take the London Tube back to my lodgings seemed to be entering one slightly more mundane. It makes the world of Benvenuto Cellini well worth heading back to again.