Opera, Orchestral music

Leipzig Gewandhaus: St. Matthew Passion

Date: March 5, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Thomanerchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Gotthold Schwarz, conductor
Sibylla Rubens, soprano
Marie-Claude Chappuis, alto
Benjamin Bruns, tenor (Evangelist)
Martin Petzold, tenor
Klaus Häger, bass (Jesus)
Florian Boesch, bass

Bach supposedly wrote five Passions, but only two were completed and survived to this day. St. Matthew Passion precedes St. John but arguably surpasses its predecessor with lush framework and heavenly aesthetics. It would however be a mistake to characterize this evening’s performance merely as a clinical display of this framework or an apt conveyor of Bach’s beauty, however valid these two characterizations may be. Conductor Gotthold Schwarz meticulously built the magnum opus layer by layer, and eventually un-caged an all-consuming, ecclesiastical giant that reverberated into the evening long after the last note sounded. Soloists, Thomanerchor Leipzig and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cooperated seamlessly, in what could handily be the highlight of this year’s Festival.

The genesis of Bach’s masterwork is beyond doubt; it is nevertheless safe to say that few pieces in the entire canon of western music demand such a breath of challenge for the musicians, as vibrant music is matched eagerly with rhetorical implications; or for the conductor, as the piece’s sheer size demands an all-encompassing cohesion. In baroque music, and particularly in this Bach, there is very little room for the conductor to spray his own aesthetic nourishment to the proceedings, save for a measured enthusiasm here and there. That being said, Schwarz was able to conjure up something real and gripping, even if his sentiment remains loyal, and his delivery academic. About the only freedom that Schwarz took was going light on those end-of-phrase fermata, and by doing so, he was able to slim up the evening’s procession. The only time when Schwarz seemed to have lost his authority was at #35 (of 78 sections), when a growing impatience seemed to launch from nowhere to force a temporary and clearly audible mismatch in tempo between the orchestra and the male side of the chorus.

Marie-Claude Chappuis gave early promises of the evening’s high level of quality, with exceptionally well-crafted and nurtured singing in her #10 da capo piece d’resistance. Her version of events at #61 overflowed with melancholy, while the mournful dynamics between her voice and the upper strings bereaved the audience, as if each trying to out-languish the other. The Evangelist, a task bearer with very little melodic means to please, was sung by Benjamin Bruns, whose voice was meticulously controlled yet warmly refined. An explosion of textural coloring and dynamic range at #73, which came towards the end of the Passion, enacted with no inkling of exhaustion. In revealing Peter’s reckoning (#46), Bruns’ voice was especially wholesome and intimate, as if unveiling a sad story to a dear friend. Sibylla Rubens lent a dependable soprano voice, with good breath control and lyricism amidst the wide tessitura and long phrases in the fiendishly difficult #58. Martin Petzold and Klaus Häger had a fine evening musically as tenor and Jesus, even if neither of them brought enough charisma to their singing. The weakest link was Florian Boesch. His voice did not warm up enough at the start to comfortably output in his specified range. At #51, Boesch had trouble jumping from lower notes into the various mid-octave E-naturals. More tellingly, his transparent vibratos and declamatory timbre seemed ill-suited for this sort of Bach singing, which probably explained why, in the romantic universe of things, his Winterreise was so well received at Wigmore Hall.

The choir was in an enviable form all evening. The Leipzig boys produced a range of emotions, from frenzy at #43 to self-doubt at #15. In calling out “Barrabam” (at #54), the infliction of pain by the mob was excruciating. At #59, the layering of anger filled the concert hall with exactly the sort of passion that Bach must have intended. The lesser characters were all well rendered by young male voices in the chorus.

Indispensable in St. Matthew Passion was the obbligato playing, which was performed by the Gewandhaus musicians so masterly that they would have warranted a spotlight all to themselves but yet so humbly that they never really drew attention to themselves. Sebastian Breuninger’s violin solo at #51 was simply delightful to hear and luxurious to watch: his sound vibrant, and his body movement energetic. Hearing him attack, without timidity, the various sets of demisemiquavers would bring joy to anyone who has some musical training. While Boesch soldiered on with the bass line, a consensus could possibly be built in the audience that the true duet was between the swaying Breuninger and his instrument. As the piece drew to a close, a sullen, almost sinking atmosphere solidified so haunting and conclusively gloomy an image that one would be forgiven to forget that the certainty of resurrection was merely, by definition, a few days away. The music was never beyond the musicians’ grasps, and it remains a miracle that the choir boys, despite having to travel on a tight schedule (they are on a whirlwind Asia tour), drowned with jetlag, were able to maintain a heightened level of musical sensitivity for the entire two-plus hours of the work such a monumental work.

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SF Symphony/MTT: Fidelio

Date: June 25, 2015
Location: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

Jaquino: Nicholas Phan
Marzelline: Joélle Harvey
Rocco: Kevin Langan
Leonore: Nina Stemme
Don Pizarro: Alan Held
First Prisoner: Matthew Newlin
Second Prisoner: Craig Verm
Florestan: Brandon Jovanovich
Don Fernando: Luca Pisaroni

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

concert performance

Beethoven’s only opera is not an easy one to conduct: beginning effectively as a singspiel, its orchestration becomes denser and more complicated, eventually finishing off in a lengthy, majestic choral finale. A measured and gradual buildup, spanning the entire performance, could pay off handsomely. The San Francisco Symphony found solid leadership in the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas, who led with great patience and control. The septuagenarian conductor put a tight leash on Beethoven’s dynamics and dramatic dynamism until the end, where choral and orchestral wildfires finally spilled all over Davies in their full and unabated glory.

But first, the soloists. If Nina Stemme was not to be as widely acclaimed a Wagnerian specialist as she already is, she would surely be suffixed as the Leonore of our times. Very few sopranos could pull off the tessitura challenge of the role, but Stemme handled it with superb care and the sort of ease that characterizes all top singers in their prime (Stemme is most definitely in her prime right now.) Even without a production set to project onto, her dramatic instincts were genuine and emotionally fulfilling, without an inkling of forced acting. With “Abscheulicher”, she made meanings — of Leonore’s despair, hope, consolation, and steadfast resolution — out of mere words. Brandon Jovanovich, as Florestan, came off at his entrance sounding slightly hoarse and dry, but for obvious reasons that only enhanced, not hindered, his characterization of Beethoven’s imprisoned and impoverished hero. As the night wore on, it seemed clear that Jovanovich’s voice, purely on lyrical terms, was not at its most behaved; but his fearless approach to Florestan’s high notes revealed a committed musician who was willing to risk it all for his audience. In that respect, Jovanovich was Fidelio, and Fidelio was Jovanovich. The tenor would win the hearts of the audience, and the audience showed their love at his curtain call. Not everything portended perfectly: Beethoven’s robust Overture (first version) sounded stale and weighed on the deep lull of San Francisco’s summer. Crisp timpani action was dulled by the occasionally lifeless and mechanical upper strings, while the mostly brilliant horn playing was sometimes negated by a few parched notes.

Beethoven first premiered Fidelio at Theater an der Wien in November 1805, a few months after he debuted (in April of that year) his Third Symphony, in the same hall. The two pieces, written and presented at a time of Napoleon’s dramatic rise, represent a coherent vision of Beethoven’s political ideology: Fidelio exhibits the composer’s great passion for the common man’s liberty and freedom, while Eroica presents a hero who champions democratic and anti-despotic ideals. Both pieces require, in my opinion, a similar structural understanding of this ideological subject matter, the execution of which probably prefers an overarching ensemble control and orchestral narration over bursts of fiery brilliance. Here, Tilson Thomas showcased the sort of steady nobility and unwavering control that remained regrettably unfulfilled in van Zweden’s Eroica a fortnight ago.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony's Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

Nina Stemme, in SF Symphony’s Fidelio. Photo courtesy of SF Symphony.

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HK Phil/van Zweden: Das Rheingold

Date: January 22, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Wotan: Matthias Goerne
Donner: Oleksandr Pushniak
Froh: Charles Reid
Loge: Kim Begley
Fricka: Michelle DeYoung
Freia: Anna Samuil
Erda: Deborah Humble
Alberich: Peter Sidhom
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Kwangchul Youn
Fafner: Stephen Milling
Woglinde: Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde: Aurhelia Varak
Flosshilde: Hermine Haselböck

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden, conductor

concert performance

In the span of one month two years ago, the Hong Kong Philharmonic went from being an orchestra with hardly any significant footprint in the Wagnerian repertory to one with a couple: the orchestra performed Holländer, with Opera Hong Kong, and then The Ring Without Words a few weeks later, with Maazel conducting. Coincidence does not come by easily, and certainly not in the world of art programming. Any avid follower of the HKPO back then could not possibly escape speculating on the prospect of something more dramatic lurking on the horizon. Without fail, the orchestra announced within a year that it would embark on its most ambitious project in its 40+ years of professional existence: Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Granted, over the past few years the HKPO has markedly improved to become a credible orchestral ensemble under music director Jaap van Zweden. Granted, the “HKPO Ring” would be performed over four years – one opera per year. That being said, one ponders whether making baby steps with Wagner’s other early-in-career romantic works would have been a better choice to get the orchestra accustomed to the physical and mental demands of Wagner’s music, or whether the Ring Cycle should be presented at all to a city that is heretofore, sadly, underexposed to and relatively unfamiliar with the composer’s music. But something must start somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Van Zweden built up the E-flat chord of the opening bars with measured subtlety. His dynamics at the outset was so tightly leashed that one wonders whether he was deliberately trying to recreate the restrained sound of an enclosed orchestral pit. As the evening progressed, Van Zweden loosened much of that restraint, yet seemed determined to staying within a well-defined boundary of volume and exuberance. The maestro, attentive and committed to the score, showed no signs of fatigue despite standing on the podium throughout the evening. His timing at just a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes was fairly mainstream, but sounded slightly draggy during the Rhinemaiden scene at the beginning and the rainbow bridge passage towards the end. Except in respect of these varying tempi, he did not draw much attention to himself, deferring mostly to the singers and musicians. Without a culture of operatic playing – let alone Wagner’s – the orchestra by and large responded well and remained vigilant. Remarkably, the cellos unleashed a rapturous firework during Wotan and Loge’s descent into Nibelheim, and the violas displayed unfettered fury in the subsequent ascent. The 60+ strings stayed focused for much of the evening, with energy level ebbing only ever so slightly towards the end: when Donner is about to unleash his power in the billowing thundercloud, the strings did not manage to support with a corresponding rage. The horns, ever important in Wagner, had a “slip up” (pun intended) during the slippery reef scene, but otherwise compromised nothing of consequence. The woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, complemented with exquisite phrasings and a mystical voicing of their lines.

The ideal Wotan in Das Rheingold should sound confident, if not also slightly spiteful. But Matthias Goerne, in his debut as Wotan, was found sounding a little too sentimental and romantic, as if his character has been journeying forever and ready to face demise (Winterreise, anyone?). Perhaps his characterization today is better suited for the Wanderer in two years’ time. While Goerne gave a worthy output infused with a warm and sumptuous glow, his delivery lacked the sort of expansive projection required if he were to sing behind an orchestra in a real opera house, as opposed to in front of one in a concert hall. Peter Sidhom as Alberich sounded corrosive, dramatic, and well-suited for the role. Whether with a clenched fist while trying to catch the Rhinemaidens, or with a stomping foot during the love curse, Sidhom also managed to inhabit the role and, while reacting to the words and scenes, devoured the space with raw delirium. Kwangchul Youn nurtured a fatherly and buttery voice as Fasolt. With a heart-felt rendition of “Freia, die Schöne”, the Wagner veteran induced plenty of sympathy and awe from the audience (even a botched oboe clunker could not derail his triumph). As Froh, Charles Reid delivered his short stanza with a piercing projection and a shimmering metallic ring.

Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka was the evening’s most unfortunate miscast. The mezzo’s voice was full-throated and feisty, but sounded too much like a Sieglinde or a Kundry not to be a distraction. Kim Begley’s Loge had pitch problems as Loge, especially in the critical thematic passage “So weit Leben und Weben” when he sounded more like an old man droning about a minor league ballgame than an intellectual’s pontification of a man’s noble desire for a woman. Begley somewhat redeemed with lively acting and eye contact with the audience. David Cangelosi’s Mime was adequate but a bit too lyrical and not nearly menacing enough. Deborah Humble presented an Erda that was motherly and gracious, yet assured. Unlike the rest of the cast, who sang in front of the orchestra, Humble appeared on cue in the balcony behind the orchestra, dressed in a stunning velvet green gown. The color of her gown, which matched the concert hall’s green velvet upholstery, as well as her understated entrance on cue, said more about Erda the character than many productions today with luxurious sets possibly could.

Given its relative inexperience in the genre, the HKPO delivered well above expectations. Van Zweden was able to hold everything together with a coherent vision. If there were flaws, some musicians sounded rather clinical in their approach – as if they were playing for a Brucknerian perfection of harmonized cadence rather than a solo leitmotif in a dramatic passage. Some musicians looked (not necessarily sounded) towards the end as though they were relieved to be done with the evening than excited about bookending the beginning of the saga, as Wagner intended Das Rheingold to be. There are rumors that HKPO’s newly appointed principal guest conductor, Yu Long, will eventually bring this “HKPO Ring” to Beijing in 2017. Whether that is true or remains a good idea will depend on how well the orchestra improves upon tonight’s performance. The starting point has already arrived. The gold has been taken out of the Rhine. Yet there is still time.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

Das Rheingold in Hong Kong.

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Bayerische Staatsoper/Ettinger: Guillaume Tell

Date: July 6, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

Guillaume Tell: Michael Volle
Arnold Melcthal: Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst: Goran Jurić
Melcthal: Christoph Stephinger
Jemmy: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Gesler: Günther Groissböck
Rodolphe: Kevin Conners
Ruodi: Enea Scala
Leuthold: Christian Rieger
Mathilde: Erika Grimaldi
Hedwige: Jennifer Johnston

Bavarian State Opera
Dan Ettinger, conductor
Antú Romero Nunes, director

Guillaume Tell seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance after years of neglect (outside of Pesaro anyways). New productions have popped up recently in Amsterdam, Liège and Torino, and more new ones will be staged in Cardiff, Graz, Monte Carlo and Covent Garden. Part of it is due to the Florez-led revival of Rossini appreciation, but part of it is simply a matter of time: a tragic overdue.

Florez, as good as he has been in Rossini roles, would have no business in Rossini’s last opera. The major tenor role here, Arnold, belongs to a heavier lyrical voice, delivered in Munich majestically by Bryan Hymel, who is fashioning himself as the go-to person for French grand operas, having recently done Robert in Robert le diable and then Aeneas in Les Troyens. Between his Aeneas in 2012 and now, Hymel’s French diction has improved remarkably. With Asile héréditaire, he brought down the house with incredible breath control, fiery output, and pulsating pacing. More importantly, he delivered not with voix mixte but with a full and punchy voice.

The set, by Antú Romero Nunes, has nearly nothing other than enormous tubular pipes that descend, spin and angle to assemble into shapes, in a stage concept not unlike Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. For example, in the militarization scene, the pipes would descend and present themselves as though they are gun barrels. In Altdorf, the chapel is depicted with pipes angled at each other, as if presenting themselves as two slanting sides of a chapel roof. Trees in the forest are depicted with plenty of the pipes floating sturdily in midair. The difference here is that, unlike Lepage’s concoction, the pipes are not treacherous walking hazards. Nor are they making crackling noises that inhibit listening. In other words, the pipes are not so obtrusive as to affect the listening experience; it is simply a way, albeit an expensive one, to define a set and make an impression.

As Jemmy, Evgeniya Sotnikova was fine, sweet and persuasive. Michael Volle, in the eponymous role, was fine dramatically but couldn’t muster enough tonal color and lyrical beauty to be a truly great Rossini singer. More problematically, his voice often disappeared in the ensemble. Erika Grimaldi sang with sweet expressiveness in Matilde’s aria Sombre forêt, or rather Selva opaca – she was flown in as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Marina Rebeka and could only sing the opera in Italian (she is currently singing the Hapsburg princess in Graham Vick’s production in Torino). Dan Ettinger was a steady hand and delivered what Rossini promised: dramatic grandeur and joyous bliss. Some overt massaging of the score was done: the overture, instead of being played at the beginning, was moved to after the intermission, before which much of Act III has already been done and up to the shooting of the apple. However, in some perverted ways, this rearrangement worked, as the pulsating Swiss Soldiers March served to provide a cliff-hanger of a drama to the apple shooting scene. It also provided some context to the fascinating composition, which heretofore was relegated as an inconsequential show piece. Traditionalists be damned.

The production turns out to be a dark and cynical take on the idyllic themes of love, family, liberty and country. Act I comes with no dances, as would be expected from this Rossini opera. The showy grandeur and Schiller’s emphasis of nature seem coolly assailed by the listless roboticism of the tubes. Yet somehow the sheer presence of the gigantic tubes defines the scale of the opera without the need for an elaborate set and/or a show-stopping dance scene. Equally, the destructive nature of the tubes serves somehow to highlight an important theme in Schiller’s omen: that of the unpredictable and destructive power of the political man. In that respect, as perverse as it may seem, Nunes and Munich found an interestingly workable formula.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Bayerische Staatsoper/Petrenko: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Date: July 3, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

The Emperor: Johan Botha
The Empress: Adrianne Pieczonka
The Nurse: Deborah Polaski
Der Geisterbote: Sebastian Holecek
Barak: John Lundgren
Dyer’s Wife: Elena Pankratova

Bavarian State Opera
Sebastian Weigle, conductor
Krzysztof Warlikowski, director

One of the highlights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival is the return of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which debuted in Munich in November 2013 under the baton of Kirill Petrenko.

Warlikowski’s celestial action is set in a psychiatric ward, where characters are either employees or patients. Barak’s mundane world is set in a laundry room, perhaps part of the ward complex. Because both worlds occupy the same stage space, Warlikowski deftly uses an elevator shaft to whisk characters between the two worlds, thereby facilitating the transfiguration scene changes. This device reminds us of the dream elevator that takes passengers onto different dream levels in Inception, the Hollywood film. In Act III, Keikobad’s Temple is depicted as a crisis stabilization unit with a warden manning patient records and determining whether those who get wheeled-in need to be “secured”. While the Empress waits outside, the Nurse acts as if she is a real nurse in the procession, imploring the Empress to play ball and not getting herself declared insane. But by the Empress’ final awakening, the Nurse gets escorted away in a straight-jacket and “secured”. As it seems to suggest, proper humanity in Warlikowski’s vision is not so kind on the mentally disturbed.

Some visuals worked wonders, including the earthquake scene when projections helped to effectuate a collapsing world at the end of Act II. Others, such as the projection of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Batman and Buddha, suggested Warlikowski’s vision of humanity but looked corny and incomplete at best (a flipping slideshow with a broader representation could have been better, if silly). Projecting five minutes of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad at the beginning of the opera, before one note was played, brought some context to the psychiatric ward experiment: that even though all the evaluation criteria on the surface of Die Frau is objective (a shadow), the evaluation process itself is purely psychological. Nevertheless, by not having any music in the first five minutes, when everyone in the audience expects some, the audience is reminded of another non-traditional production in Munich not too long ago: the beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, which invited plenty of boos and little to cheer for.

Strauss’ music is meant to be enjoyed not on CD but in an opera house, because Strauss’ sound needs space to expand and flourish. Here, the Bavarian State Opera blossomed. At hand to conduct was Sebastian Weigle, who took over the podium from Petrenko because Munich’s music director had rehearsal duties in Bayreuth. The orchestra sounded with military precision, almost exploding in a sort of disciplined violence during the earthquake music. The sound was golden throughout, but especially noticeable during the renunciation, when Weigle seemed ready to hasten the tempo ever so slightly to catalyze a rapturous finish. Throughout the night the brass was in top form, shimmering in a glow of power and luxury. The trombones, when depicting Barak, uttered with high fidelity and persuasion in particular. String tremolos, in the water of life music, brimmed with sensuality and sensitivity, while reminding everyone that the opera is ultimately a cornerstone exposition of Romanticism. The ending, not dissimilar to the Faustian ending to Mahler’s Eighth, erupted with majesty and purpose. Of note was the eerily mesmerizing sound of a glass harmonica, in the beautiful passage just before the Emperor came back to life in Act III. The glass harmonica, placed in the box closest to downstage right, was lit with a golden glow, and seemed ready to pronounce the settlement of the opera’s end.

Most of the principal singers were exceptional. Johan Botha’s Kaiser sounded bright and radiant, while Deborah Polaski’s Nurse effused with immense emotion and rage. As an actress, Polaski was so nauseating as, perfectly so, to be anti-human and bound for purgatory. Yet, none compared with the immeasurable Elena Pankratova, whose voice, as Dyer’s Wife, displayed skillful finesse and plenty of power to carry over the orchestra. As the drama progressed, the contrast between a thunderous maniac and a tender wife was plainly evident, in terms of Pankratova’s vocal beauty and dramatic intonation.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Elena Pankratova in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Royal Opera/Pappano: Manon Lescaut

Date: June 28, 2014
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Manon Lescaut: Kristīne Opolais
Lescaut: Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Ravoir: Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo: Benjamin Hulett
Dancing Master: Robert Burt
Singer: Nadezhda Karyazina
Lamplighter: Luis Gomes
Naval Captain: Jeremy White
Act III Sergeant: Jihoon Kim
Innkeeper: Nigel Cliffe
Chorus: Royal Opera Chorus

Royal Opera
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Jonathan Kent, director

Manon Lescaut, written by Puccini perhaps at a time of the composer’s greatest personal and financial misery, provides a breathing room of idealistic escapism for the composer. In Manon, Puccini found a heroine who couldn’t fail to win the hearts of all, and in Des Grieux, a hero who would follow his love to the end of the Earth. In real life, however, Puccini could barely afford his rent in Milan, and his relationship with the married Elvira was met with fierce opposition from all corners and, in any case, not going well. In other words, Manon Lescaut the operatic output was the unwavering stability yearned for but not (yet) achieved in Puccini’s life.

In Jonathan Kent’s vision, most of that sentiment remains intact, though not without some questionable designs. Act I has all the proper trappings required by Puccini’s libretto – a motel, a staircase, a balcony and a casino, but the set, designed by Paul Brown, looks more like a trucker’s stop along the section of Route 66 closest to Las Vegas, than some casino-land, as suggested in the programme notes, in Baden-Baden. Geronte’s house is a stage within a stage where Manon gyrates feverishly in a peep show to attract the salivating glances of customers. By doing away with the musicians in the traditional dance scene and making Manon a total object of desire, Kent seems willing to assert the point that Manon couldn’t resist winning the hearts of all, even if in a customer-performer relationship — yet in doing so, seems willing to rob the audience of a good dance scene that is to be expected in the opera. Dressed in a pink Lolita nightwear, Lady-Gaga thigh-high white stockings and trashy blonde wig, Kristine Opolais’ Manon was there to demolish any notion of faux elegance, focusing squarely instead on the exploits of visual voyeurism. It was hard to believe that in Puccini’s original vision, this girl was actually about to go to a convent. The stage within a stage is boxed by a prison-like Teflon-made dollhouse, as if Manon is an object unwillingly trapped in the status quo. But she is not, as she seems happy to please her peeping onlookers and happier when she lingers on to fetch her jewelry even as Des Grieux is anxious to drag her out of the malice.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Des Grieux was noncommittal at first, with a weakly sung L’amor that was barely audible on top of the orchestra. The German tenor recovered enough to deliver a fine but not particularly inspiring Donna non vidi mai. His condition would stay sub-par (by Kaufmann’s typically high standards anyway), until Act II, when he blossomed in the face of Kristine Opolais’ formidable voice. Opolais had a sizzling top, seemingly limitless output in the glorious passages, and a sweet legato in the subtler passages. Though questionable in aesthetic taste, the dollhouse box turned out to be an acoustic aid that effectively helped to project the singers’ voice, especially in the Act II duet. Maurizio Muraro had an off-night as Geronte, as his output came with very little detail and support. In the thankless role of Lescaut, Christopher Maltman turned out just fine, with firm support and plenty of firepower to raise above Pappano’s orchestra.

There is rather something quite remarkable about Pappano’s conducting. The orchestra sounded resolute and dramatic, especially towards the end of Acts II and IV. A sense of drama was clearly evident, accomplished by measured, if in slightly slower tempi, build-up of layers upon layers of sonic goodness. The cello intermezzo in Act III was particularly devastating and melancholic. Towards the end, the orchestra came about in one voice, fully armed, committed as one, but never vulgar or drawing attention to itself. With this sort of fine casting and outstanding orchestral performance, no flaws in the production could dampen the spirit of the night.

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act II: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act IV: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

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ENO/Gardner: Benvenuto Cellini

Date: June 27, 2014
Location: London Coliseum, London.

Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres
Teresa: Corinne Winters
Balducci: Pavlo Hunka
Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen
Pope Clement VII: Willard White
Ascanio: Paula Murrihy
Francesco: Nicky Spence
Bernardino: David Soar
Pompeo: Morgan Pearse

English National Opera
Edward Gardner, conductor
Terry Gilliam, director

Terry Gilliam, most famous for being a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, made his debut as an opera director in 2011 with in an ENO production of Berlioz’s Faust. The enormous success of that collaboration led to another invitation this year: to direct Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s rarely-performed opera semiseria.

Loosely based on the life of the 16th century sculptor, the opera concerns the casting of a statue of Perseus, which Cellini struggles to complete but eventually does. That much remains true to history, but, in Berlioz’s version, the rest extrapolates from there. Python hoopla was on offer early on: supersized puppets, jugglers and stiltwalkers invaded the Coliseum during the overture while colorful confetti rained down on the audience. A carnival mask and a skull were so gigantic that, when paraded down the orchestra aisles, they humbled even the not-so-trivial size of the Coliseum. The sheer extravagance of the set, designed by Gilliam and Aaron Marsden, could be felt from the carpentry of Balducci’s residence to the Mardi Gras scene, in which over hundred performers and chorus members established an evening of festive splendor. Cellini’s studio and foundry presented in Act II were comparatively more modest: Cellini’s various works were depicted with silly cardboard cutouts. The triviality of the cutouts provided perhaps an important dramatic contrast with the enormous head of Medusa, placed right in the middle of the stage, suggesting the monstrosity of the Perseus project. But a more cynical view, where a stylistic contrast between Act I’s lavish abundance and Act II’s relative economy seems awkward and evident, would be that the production simply ran out of budget by the time Act II had to be built. Perhaps this contrast is precisely Gilliam’s very literal take on the semiseria genre. Michael Spyres, as Cellini, shaped his lines with care and grace. Trained originally as a baritone, his lower registers imparted a deep, fatherly tone. At the higher registers, a resonant head voice projected a bright, almost trumpety sound. While anticipating the arrival of Cellini early on in Act I, Corinne Winters’ Teresa, Cellini’s love interest, singing with emotion and gusto, exposed a character torn between love (for Cellini) and duty (to her family). Edward Gardner, spotted with more than a few strands of white hair, led a brisk and masterful reading of the score.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Carnival performer, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Head of Medusa and a golden Pope, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

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