Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Girl of the Golden West End

I wrote this for the Indy's 'Observations' section last weekend, but can't find it online, so here it is in full glory...Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens at ENO tonight, with Susan Bullock as Minnie. Enjoy.




Sometimes you can wait two decades for a new production of a particular opera, only to find three turning up within a year. Until recently Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was a relative rarity on these shores. But with stagings this year at Opera North, Opera Holland Park and now English National Opera, where a new one directed by Richard Jones opens on 2 October, it looks as if this entrancing work’s day has arrived.

It is not before time. The composer regarded it as one of his greatest; leading sopranos put its heroine, Minnie, at the top of their role wish-lists. Yet this piece can raise awkward expectations in a movie-drenched public: it’s an operatic western. Puccini gives his all in the service of a story about miners, bandits and a feisty female saloon owner. Maybe opera-goers are more accustomed to tales of consumptive courtesans perishing by inches in 19th-century Paris.

To Puccini himself, though, the Californian gold rush was wildly romantic; as exotic as those topics he tackled elsewhere, such as the Geisha girls of Japan (Madama Butterfly) or rebellion, torture and passion in 18th-century Rome (Tosca). Basing the opera on David Belasco’s play of the same title – and, so the story goes, inspired by an illicit female muse a little way from his home at Torre del Lago, Tuscany – he set to work at fever pitch. The world premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910.

In Minnie he created a gigantic leading role, requiring great stamina and strength. It is a dream part for sopranos with the right voice and personality to carry it off; today such stars as Eva-Maria Westbroek and Susan Bullock, who takes the lead at ENO, cite it as a top favourite.

A passionate, complex character, with music to match, the saloon keeper Minnie risks all for love. She falls for the mysterious Dick Johnson, only to discover that he is a bandit in disguise. Despite the deception, she is willing to save him – with her own life, if need be – and the opera offers that rare treat: a happy ending.

The Wild West nevertheless may not be its only problem in reaching the modern public’s hearts. It lacks set-pieces that can be plucked out and popularised. There is no show-stopping aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot or ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca that can be played time after time on the radio. Instead, the entire score is magnificent, in a whole different way: it is riveting music-drama, a play set to sophisticated, wonderfully orchestrated, through-composed sonic treats. Take on Fanciulla and you take all or nothing.

Perhaps this gold rush of productions shows that finally we are ready for that. Meanwhile, if operatic westerns are having a moment in the sun, it is maybe time for a British company to present the American composer Charles Wuorinen’s recently premiered opera of Brokeback Mountain.

The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera, from 2 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Longborough Festival Opera: TOSCA

This is my review of lovely Longborough's terrific Tosca for the Independent. Four stars.  



Among the UK’s country house opera destinations, Longborough stands out as possibly the most audacious, unlikely and lovable. Near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds (beware: sat-nav black holes), it was founded as Banks Fee Opera in 1991 by its owners Martin and Lizzie Graham, Wagner devotees who have converted a barn into a Palladian-fronted theatre; last year it became the first privately-funded opera house in the country to stage Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, a magnificent effort duly recognised with a nomination for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.

This year’s festival got off to a flying start with Puccini’s Tosca. As with the Ring, the production proves that wacky concepts and costly sets are not necessary to create compelling drama. Take a row of pillars that can suggest church, palazzo and fortress, some steep slopes to be fallen down or jumped off, and a billow of dry ice; add a few very fine singers; and we have lift-off.

Richard Studer’s direction and designs hint at the Mussolini era without labouring the point. Rather than relying on spectacle, the entire drama is focused on the opera’s toxic love triangle of diva, artist activist and malign dictator, portrayed respectively by the soprano Lee Bisset, the tenor Adriano Graziani and the baritone Simon Thorpe; the characters emerge as very believable people caught up in events for which none of them are cut out.

Bisset’s Tosca – as she reflects in her aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ – really has lived for art and love; she is naïve enough not to suspect at first that her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured. She wants a quiet life with the man she loves; instead, faced with blackmail and rape, she first considers suicide, then turns murderer. She finds her weapon embedded in a loaf of bread – and afterwards wipes off the blood and puts it back.

Musically there are thrills aplenty. Bisset’s soaring soprano inhabits the full gamut of the role’s expressive possibilities: she has fabulous power at the top of her considerable range and her beauty of tone carries her from flirtation to fury, desire to despair. Graziani’s tenor is a fine match for her voice; his performance warmed as the evening went by, glorying in roof-raising high notes and culminating in a no-holds-barred account of ‘E lucevan le stelle’.

Thorpe’s Scarpia does not quite echo them in terms of vocal power, but his character is convincing: physically imposing, but psychologically weak, this dictator is a pathetic bully boy who does his dirty work by proxy. In the pit, the conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps the pace gripping and the score’s drama paramount. 

The set’s rather cumbersome mix of steps and rakes, the cut-down orchestration and chorus, and some slightly ropey amplification – notably for Act III’s offstage shepherd boy and the Act I finale’s pre-recorded canon effects – are a tad problematic. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.

The 2014 festival continues with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Handel’s Rinaldo. Next year: Tristan und Isolde.



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.” 

Monday, May 07, 2012

Noah Stewart: the director's cut

My interview with Decca's newest tenor sign-up, Noah Stewart, is in today's Indy, but I thought you might like to see the "director's cut"....

First, a spot of Puccini...




When Decca put on a launch in London for its starry new signing, the American tenor NoahStewart, technology malfunctioned. The video broke down, the dry ice played up and the microphone went on the blink. Perhaps that was the intervention of fate. After navigating some Puccini, plus ‘Nights in White Satin’ in Italian, Stewart ditched the dodgy microphone for ‘Amazing Grace’. Now the whole room realised that this man could really, seriously sing. 

His first solo album hasn’t malfunctioned at all. It has whooshed to no.1 in the classical charts, making Stewart the first black artist ever to top that category. Meanwhile he has been attracting attention in opera. He made his Covent Garden debut last month, in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune; he sang Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Opera North; and he is currently in Detroit, tackling The Pearl Fishers by Bizet for the first time. Later this month he’ll be back in the UK for his first solo tour.

Still, to misquote Joanna Trollope, it can take years to become an overnight success. Stewart’s journey may have landed him a five-CD recording contract – “a dream come true,” he says – but he’s had more than his fair share of tough times. 

Stewart grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a supermarket. He owes everything to her devotion, he says; she made sure he went to a good school and put his education first. When he was 12 a teacher recruited him for the school choir, with encouraging words about his voice. His mother thought he would be a comedian, “because I always loved making people laugh”; and young Noah, testing his wings in musical theatre, found he loved acting. “I was quite heavy as a kid, and I was happier playing someone else,” he admits. 

His first passion was jazz, not least thanks to his mother’s New Orleans background. Then, attending an arts school, he spotted a laserdisc of the Verdi Requiem with a picture of the great mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price on the cover. “She was the only person of colour in the image and I was immediately drawn to it.” The performance proved a giant shockwave: “It was the first time I heard a person of colour sing with an operatic technique in a different language. The combination of the voice and the orchestra drew me in immediately. Everyone around me in high school wanted to be a pop star or a gospel star. But I felt that, for me, this was the way to go. It wasn’t a road much travelled.” 

Role models were few. “I didn’t see images of any coloured men singing opera. I knew about Paul Robeson, Bobby McFerrin, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman, but the only tenor I could see was George Shirley, who retired from the stage when I was in middle school. I heard an interview with Leontyne Price, recorded in the 1970s, in which she said ‘I wish there were more black men in opera – I wish they would choose the operatic path.’ That only inspired me more to stick to it even when times were bad and people wouldn’t give me a chance.”

He won a scholarship to the Juilliard, New York’s most famous music college, but when he wanted to go to the summer school at the Aspen Music Festival, his mother couldn’t afford the fees. She wrote to the comedian Bill Cosby, who was appearing at a nearby club, and took the letter round to the doorman herself. Cosby sent a cheque. That summer in Aspen proved a seminal experience for Stewart. 

Breaking into the profession later, though, proved so tough that his confidence plummeted. While his former classmates were “ushered into theatres and young artists programmes”, he received rejection after rejection. He reached rock-bottom after auditioning for a conductor who told him he should reconsider his decision to be a musician. For three years he took other jobs – as a salesman, a restaurant host and a receptionist in Carnegie Hall, where his supervisor ordered him to stop singing at work. 

Finally, after studying with a new vocal coach, he auditioned and was accepted for the young artists’ programme at San Francisco Opera. There his big break arrived in classic style: he was understudying Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and had to stand in for the scheduled tenor at the last moment. “After that people started talking. I was singing for artist managers and so on, and they said, ‘Noah, where have you been?’” His answer: “Carnegie Hall!” 

His confidence came back. “I knew I had a lot to learn – but I knew that I could do it, because I did it for myself. No-one gave me the opportunity; they needed me and I was able to capitalise on that, but I was able to do it because I worked for it. 

“My mum told me early on: ‘You are a black man. You have to be better at everything you do.’ Not that I went around with a chip on my shoulder, but I knew I had to be the best that I could be, so I lost weight and worked on my languages and took coaching. My will and determination have just got stronger over time. People think it’s a ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but it is totally not. I got a couple of contracts, but when I wasn’t working I went back to the restaurant and back to temping, because I was so thankful I’d learned some trades. Growing up in New York was not only about education – it was also about how you survive as a person. 

“I’m not Noah the Opera Singer; I’m Noah the Person who loves to sing opera. I love jazz, I love hip hop, I’m a person with many different interests. I chose opera because I didn’t see people who looked like me doing it. And I’ve developed skills to be competitive. I’m still in love with it, but if it all fell apart tomorrow I’d be OK, because I know who I am and I could develop other skills and go into any profession I desired. There are so many young people now who feel so lost and I always say to them: ‘You have so many abilities, you can do anything you want to – just don’t stop believing.’”

What would he say to opera buffs who, having heard him sing Puccini, Massenet and Verdi, wonder why he’s also recording pop songs translated into Italian? “Just because I sing opera, that doesn’t mean it’s the only style I enjoy,” he insists. “I remember, early on, telling one a friend who was specialising in musical theatre that I was going to sing a musical theatre song. She said: ‘You can’t sing that – you’re an opera singer.’ And I thought maybe she’s right, maybe I’m not going to be taken seriously. But how can I let someone else dictate my life? If I want to sing a pop song, I’m going to sing a pop song! I’m going to sing it in its correct style, put my own spin on it and make it mine. 

“I’m happy that I’ve lived a sheltered life, so I did not have people influencing me. It wasn’t easy. I spent many times being alone while people made fun of me because I didn’t dress or speak like a guy from Harlem. It’s hard being different. But it’s much more fun. You get to create your own rules.”

Noah Stewart’s debut album is out now on Decca. His UK tour begins on 17 May at The Sage, Gateshead