Showing posts with label Kristine Opolais. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kristine Opolais. Show all posts

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Return to the magic mountains 1: Manon Lescaut in Munich

You may think you're on holiday. It depends, though, what you mean by "holiday". I've been away for two and a half weeks, but this time has been brimming over with music, serendipity and a good few marvels of both. Every day has brought something new, a character from past or present, a startling contact or renewal, a joy or amazement, a revelation or insight or several, and I may need to take them one at a time...

I headed first for Munich and the Bavarian State Opera, steamy in the midst of a massive heat wave; here the final night of the annual Opera Festival brought Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais together again for Puccini's Manon Lescaut, relayed to the city on big screens and webcast to the world. This was the production by Hans Neuenfels that at the start of the season saw Anna Netrebko drop her participation, citing "artistic differences".

The square outside the Bavarian State Opera prepares for the relay

It's a bit of a mixed bag. The relationship of Manon and Des Grieux and its development is by far the most convincing element, and so it should be; the final act, the two of them in extremis, is a searing tragedy, full of struggle - Manon's passion fighting against the invasion of death, thumping the ground to bring back her despairing lover to her side. Opolais blossomed vocally and dramatically in the role to an even greater extent, perhaps, than she did at Covent Garden last year; Kaufmann simply soared along at the summit. Fine singing throughout in the supporting roles and chorus - but I am not sure I will ever get my head around the necessity for this chorus to wiggle about in fat-suits and pink wigs. Alain Altinoglu's conducting too brought patchy results: the opening tempo felt extremely fast, and some of the accompaniment was too loud, but often - not least in the intermezzo - it held a gorgeous eloquence.

Here Neuenfels, Altinoglu, Opolais and Kaufmann explore and explain the concept and the challenges of the opera.

A few days later, discussing the issue of the fat-suits and other potentially dubious details with friends who loved the production, I tried to see it their way: it shows Manon and Des Grieux defying convention, a pair of individualists in a world in which everyone else looks and behaves the same (except, presumably, for the Dancing Master, who turns up bearing some resemblance to an orang-utan, perhaps a refugee from Munich's old Rigoletto production set on the Planet of the Apes). As the introductory film declares, Manon and Des Grieux are seeing the world around them as nothing more than a preposterous installation compared to their love. Yet Jonathan Kent's production at Covent Garden last year spoke far more to me of the darker truths of this story in an incarnation for today's world, where it remains the most "relevant" opera of them all.

So what's the essential problem with Manon Lescaut? It could just be that the original book is a short, terse, taut, action-packed, 18th-century thriller. It shows us Des Grieux torn apart by his passion for a girl who wants to have her cake and eat it and whose charm makes her attractive, but who is more anti-heroine than sympathetic lead. Romanticising her never quite works, and that is not the fault of Puccini, nor of any director: it's simply that Abbé Prévost's novel is too finely wrought to allow such a metamorphosis. Maybe that is why this opera, which blossoms with phenomenal music from start to finish, still does not have quite the same currency on the stage as Madame Butterfly or La Bohème. If any director has found a way to make the drama work 200 per cent, I haven't yet seen it.

More on the joys (?) of Regietheater shortly - from Bayreuth.

But even with all these reservations, it was a tremendous performance and an unforgettable evening. Oh, and if you'd managed to get backstage at the Staatsoper that night and you had this photo, you'd put it on your blog too.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Manon Top

The new production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, directed by Jonathan Kent, has already divided audiences into those who applaud the contemporary relevance of its updating and those who'd rather just see the beautiful Kristine Opolais clad in a nice pretty dress. Others still were so swept away by the music and its ravishing performance that they didn't much care what was going on on the stage in any case.

The Manon Top is not Jonas Kaufmann - well, he is, but there's someone else too. It's the conductor, Tony Pappano. That ROH orchestra blazed almost as if Toscanini himself had stepped out in front of them. The highlight of the evening was the Intermezzo before the second half, given to us with an urgency, sweep and intensity of tone that could raise your hair and crack your heart open. This rarely-performed opera is dramatically problematic - it could use an extra scene or two to make the narrative less patchy - but the music is some of Puccini's finest (personally I'd even put it ahead of Butterfly) and an interpretation of this quality is absolutely what it needs, restoring it to the front ranks where it belongs. Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann matched Pappano's glories turn for turn: Kaufmann contained and paced his ever-irresistible singing, saving the best for the last act, and Opolais infused every vivid note with her character's charismatic personality. The three together were a dream-team, inspiring one another to a level of artistic wonder that we're lucky to be alive to hear.

Now, back to the production. Manon Lescaut is not a nice pretty story. The book, by the Abbé Prévost, is light years away from big romantic tunes; it's a terse, nasty page-turner, an 18th-century thriller that careers at high speed through a hideous, greedy and depraved world which the clever Manon tries to use for her own ends, but which eventually destroys not only her innocence but her life.

Contemporary? Relevant? Just a little. Intriguing to note that there are no fewer than three different adaptations of the book on offer at the ROH this year: operas by Puccini and Massenet and, in the autumn, the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (including several performances with Natalia Osipova in the lead); four if you include the return of Turnage's Anna Nicole, which opens the season - the same kind of story, only real. This can't be a coincidence.

Jonathan Kent's production was booed on opening night - though it was cheered, too. It maybe needs time to warm up and settle a little more, but the concept is powerful and the tragedy overwhelming: Opolais and Kaufmann are stranded as if mid-air at the end of a collapsed and abandoned motorway in the middle of the American nowhere.

At the outset Manon arrives by car in a housing estate of pre-fab flats with a casino to hand; her wide-boy brother (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher Maltman) never flinches at the idea of selling his mini-skirted sister to the imposing Geronte. She becomes instantly an object, a blank slate for the depraved manipulation of all around her with the sole exception of Des Grieux.

Kaufmann's Des Grieux is a touchstone for other values, other worlds - choosing a book when others choose the gambling tables, holding on to the concept of love when it leaves others unscathed; however much the students sing about it at the start, they are clearly out for less exalted emotional encounters. Manon, meeting his impassioned declarations, responds like a rabbit in the headlights; such things are beyond her spheres of reference and when she runs off with him, she is running away from Geronte rather than towards her new life.

Puccini's opera, unlike Massenet's and the ballet, lacks a scene in which Manon and Des Grieux are poor but happy. Instead we cut straight to Geronte's mansion: Manon has abandoned love for luxury. Cue cameras: Kent turns Geronte implicitly into a porn king, filming Manon in a ghastly blonde wig and pink Barbie dress, the dancing master transformed into the director, instructing her while the visiting singer (Nadezhda Karyazina) engages in some apparently titillating girl-on-girl manoeuvres with her. There isn't much that any director can do to make her response more sympathetic, though, when Des Grieux arrives to rescue her and she hesitates too long because she doesn't want to leave her jewels behind.

The hypocrisy of this society, though, is underlined by the way Geronte and his friends debase, exploit and corrupt Manon, but then have her arrested and deported for prostitution. The scene by the ship in Act III turns into reality TV: Des Grieux's plea to go with her takes place under the lights and cameras. (Aside: reality TV is turning into an operatic trope and is on the verge of becoming a cliché: after seeing it in ENO's Götterdämmerung and, of course, Anna Nicole, I suspect that perhaps it's time to leave it for a while. One could say the same about staircases, spiral and otherwise.)

Act III, by the ship, is dominated by a huge poster: a beautiful face, a giant pink lily, the word NAÏVETE emblazoned across the image as if for a perfume advert. Later, the poster is slashed, across the model's cheek. This is a world that has gone beyond the romanticisation of naïveté, one that can only corrupt and disfigure beauty, one that experiences beauty only to squander it for greed. And when we see the blasted-out motorway in the final scene, it seems symbolic in the extreme. The crash barrier is broken. It is not only Manon that is dying, ruined and corrupted and learning her lessons too late; it is, quite possibly, western society as a whole.

Try seeing the production with open eyes. If you don't like it, close them and listen to the performance. But this Manon Lescaut succeeds because its director understands the story is too close for comfort.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Who's your Tosca?

Two rising stars of the opera world are taking on Tosca at Covent Garden: Amanda Echalaz and Kristine Opolais. They're very different. Which is the Tosca for you? I talked to them both and a bit of our chats is in today's Independent. More appears below. Incidentally, I popped into the ROH the other day to do some more interviews and found the foyers hearteningly packed with kids, who were excited and shouting after the first act of the Tosca schools' matinee. They saw Amanda, and she certainly seemed to be doing the trick for them.

Tosca is an opera for a diva about a diva. No wonder this perennial Puccini favourite is, to many sopranos, the ultimate prize of the repertoire. Floria Tosca is an opera singer trapped between the artist she loves and the dictator who lusts after her, and in the Royal Opera’s latest revival, the spotlight falls on two fast-rising stars who take on the role in turn. 

I remember speaking to Angela Gheorghiu about Tosca once: she declared that in this role she was simply playing herself. So does a soprano have to be a diva - in every sense - to be a great Tosca? 

Amanda Echalaz, 36, thinks not. She shot to prominence in this same work at Opera Holland Park in 2008, since when it has become her “signature” role (audiences may also have spotted her in the Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 in which she represented her native South Africa). More recently she has performed Tosca at ENO and, crucially, stepped in at Covent Garden about three years ago when Angela Gheorghiu dropped out - since when she has been hailed as this star's successor in the role. “I never get tired of singing it,” she says. 

For her, she adds, “Tosca is a very human figure: she’s full of wonderful qualities and like most people she has her flaws, which makes her very likeable. I’m drawn to the passionate, fiery side of her: she has a real zest for life. Her diva characteristics are obvious, but it’s more interesting to try to find the real woman behind that, especially the real woman in love.” Echalaz herself, unlike Tosca, seems serene and relatively down to earth. She identifies with Tosca’s vitality and passion for music – but there, she insists, the resemblance ends.  “Playing someone so extreme can be liberating, but I’m a little calmer in real life.”

But the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, 33, whose 2011 Royal Opera House debut in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly took her audience by storm, declares simply: “Tosca is like me! She’s an opera singer and she’s very jealous. 

"You can find everything in this very colourful and powerful woman. She’s strong, emotional and impulsive, and what happens to her is a great tragedy as she gives everything she is capable of giving for love. I feel very at home when I sing this role.”

Opolais, who is married to the conductor Andris Nelsons and has recently had her first child, adds with a laugh that she thinks “divas” are inherently “not normal”. “Who would want to do this job? You’re nervous, you go on stage and all the time you are afraid whether the audience will love you or not. Even if you are stable, you are always afraid. So I think Tosca is already a little bit crazy – as every big diva has to be.” 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

They're queuing overnight at Covent Garden

Yeah, classical music is really dying...not. Tonight at the Royal Opera House there's the first of two all-star performances of Tosca. Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel are Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia and we've learned that people have been queuing overnight outside the theatre for day seats that go on sale this morning. Don't despair if you can't get in: the thing is being filmed, along with the second performance by said megastars on Sunday, and it will be broadcast and (I think) cinecast later this year.

Last night the ROH beamed Massenet's Cendrillon into Trafalgar Square where a huge crowd listened to those mellifluous mezzos Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in rapt respect. What's that? Massenet's Cendrillon? No, we'd never heard it before either, but the ROH, the performers and the doughty director Laurent Pelly have apparently done it proud: thus Massenet has claimed his moment in the moonlight alongside the much more predictable Puccini. Last week's Trafalgarcast of Madama Butterfly attracted a crowd of 8000 - with another 2000 spectators turned away because there wasn't enough room for everyone in the UK capital's largest square.

Such is the popularity of opera that's it's outgrown its theatres. At Bayreuth, with about 1800 seats, it's almost impossible to get tickets, even if you can afford it. Glyndebourne, with around 1200, is probably not truly untouched by the financial crisis, but it can certainly look that way. Those are, admittedly, the slenderer-sized jobs, but even so Covent Garden, as we just noted, is packed out.

ENO has the biggest theatre in London and fewer appearances by the DiDonatos and Kaufmanns that draw the hordes; ergo, it's easier to get in. As for its ballet runs, I've managed to get hold of a good seat to see Osipova and Vasiliev. But when the reviews came out yesterday it seemed apposite to book in as PDQ as possible. The Coliseum, too, can sell out - witness the visit of Terry Gilliam to Berlioz.

So is it just the star names that sell? They don't hurt, that's for sure. Yet Madama Butterfly didn't involve megastars at all; instead it featured a comparatively little-known Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, who stepped into the role at very short notice after the scheduled singer fell ill. The budding diva is no longer so little-known. With Cendrillon, it was the other way round: a virtually unknown opera that, with Joyce and Alice aboard, and a production by the director who worked wonders with La fille du regiment a few years ago, was able to pull and get its coat.

As you'll know if you read my piece in the Independent a few weeks ago, I've some reservations about live opera on the big screen. For the audience it's not truly live; and because the stage demands one approach and film another, you see all manner of things that you'd prefer not to, while the sound can be flattened, or simply made too loud. I'm reliably informed, incidentally, that opera houses risk losing rather than making money on cinecasts - but in this day and age, it's expected of them for "access" etc. Still, what's the alternative?

Bigger opera houses? The chances of a Met-sized theatre being built in the UK are zilch: no money and no space. And huge theatres have their drawbacks; after seeing Eugene Onegin some years ago from the back row of the Met's balcony and finding I needed a NASA-sized telescope, I've never wished to try the place again; I'd rather go to the cinema. For similar reasons I avoided the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the O2...OK, maybe I need a visit to the optician. I  hope I'm less short-sighted in observing that these performances and screenings are going down very, very well. Now that they've 'bedded down' in public consciousness, there's a real and increasing demand. If you build it, they will turn up with their sandwiches and a bottle and have an excellent evening.

I'm not going to risk pre-judging the forthcoming appearance of Placido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu at the O2 on 29 July. I'm not a fan of either the place or the concept, but if it works, it works. Everyone deserves a chance to hear them and this is probably the only way to do it.

I've always maintained that we, the public, are not as stupid as some people like to think. When there's an artist of genuine star quality around, and when music truly speaks to us - no matter its genre - we go and enjoy. You can manufacture artists all you like, with sexy photos, fake-fur marketing and so forth, but ultimately that will be futile if the talent is not there to support it. The star has to be able to cut the mustard on stage, because there you can fake nothing.

Nothing is more exposing than to step forward and perform. Yes, I've witnessed some total charlatans receive standing ovations from time to time - but these are not the musicians whose performances are being beamed around the world to six or seven-figure audiences, or for whom Londoners are ready to camp out overnight on a cold Covent Garden pavement. You can't fake a Kaufmann. And people whose artistry is of that level are in short supply. They always were and they always will be. There is such a thing as magic.

The picture at the top, of Angela (credit: Jason Bell), is from the ROH's 2012 Olympics campaign and says it all.