Showing posts with label Sarah Connolly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sarah Connolly. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas cracker? OAE strikes Offenbach


Here's a little piece I wrote for the Indy about Offenbach and his long-lost operatic extravaganza Fantasio, which the OAE is performing (its British premiere, btw) on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall. I can't go because it is Alicia's Gift in Hampstead that night, but I'm pleased to say that the show is being recorded for Opera Rara. The one and only Sarah Connolly sings the title role. Looking forward to hearing it...

The fate of Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio seems bizarre – if not quite as bizarre as the opera itself. Recently unearthed and published, having not been seen since 1927, it is about to enjoy its British premiere in a concert performance and recording for Opera Rara by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an all-star cast. The hope is that it may emerge as a neglected masterpiece that can shed new light on its composer. 

Admittedly this Offenbach is off-the-wall. Fantasio, an idealistic young student, loves a princess who is meant to marry a prince. To disrupt her wedding plans he disguises himself as the court jester, who has just died. It’s a peculiar premise, signalling a comic opera with a melancholy slant under the surface; but Offenbach could never escape his own bent for the quirky, the naughty and the magical.
Best known for having written the world’s most famous cancan, the composer is popular for his effervescent operettas – especially La belle Hélène and Orphée aux enfers – yet he dreamed of a career in serious music drama. Only one such work by him is in the repertoire today: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). For all its darkness it, too, remains as fantastical a piece as has ever graced a stage. 

The British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who takes the title role, describes Fantasio as “a convoluted, barmy farce. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz,” she adds. “It has that fantasy element to it, with cardboard cut-out characters – almost a Disneyesque feel. It is an ironic piece, though; it’s not to be taken at face value.” She affirms, too, that its nuttiness is worth it for the music: “It’s absolutely beautiful and the orchestration is very delicate. It feels like the sun coming out.” 

The story is based on an 1866 play by Alfred de Musset that had not been much of a success; and the odds were stacked even further against Offenbach’s adaptation when it was first aired at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. Offenbach – a German-born composer living and working in France – had been much attacked in the press during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and national sensitivities continued to run high after France’s defeat. If he hoped Fantasio would be a way to fight back, he was disappointed; the theatre curtailed the opening run after only ten performances. Saddened, Offenbach recycled some of its themes in Les contes d’Hoffmann

But if anyone wonders why Offenbach was so devoted to this opera, they would not have to look far. Fantasio is a “bitter clown”, the archetypal comedian weeping behind his pranks. It seems that Offenbach had found therein a character after his own heart.  

Fantasio, Royal Festival Hall, 15 December. Box office: 0844 875 0073



Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kaufmann sings Parsifal

I'm not a well Jess right now (spring lurgy) and haven't got anything very useful to blog about. While the Guardian says that 9 (nine) former Chet's/RNCM teachers are under investigation, Sarah Connolly as Charpentier's Medea is producing the sort of rave responses you see once in a lilac moon and all sorts of wonderful people are giving fantastic concerts all over the place (try pianist Jean Muller at Kings Place this evening), I regret that I don't feel up to doing anything except curling up with peppermint tea, an indignant cat and a hot laptop.

So there is only one thing for it...indulge in a spot of Kaufmania. Jonas Kaufmann is singing Parsifal in NY and the Met has posted on Youtube an extract from the final dress rehearsal. Reviewing his new CD the other day for Sinfini, Warwick Thompson sounds the question we've all had in mind since hearing JK's voice for the first time: is he going to sing Tristan someday? 




Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another 2 1/2p on the ENO issue

My interview with English National Opera's artistic director, John Berry, attempted to address a few tough questions. The company has won every award in town. It has also turned out to have a £2.2m deficit for the 2011-12 financial year. The piece is in The Independent, here.

[Above: Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams in the Oliver Award-winning Castor and Pollux.]

Time to reflect a little...

Reactions to my article via Twitter were intriguing. I have the impression that some read in it only what they wanted to read, which is normal enough, but means that false impressions may have circulated. Right at the start I ask whether ENO has been flying too close to the sun - all those awards, all those new, risky productions. Obviously, the answer is yes. John Berry does acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made, admitting that with hindsight perhaps they should not have done Weinberg's The Passenger or Glanert's Caligula. He doesn't "blame the audience", as one or two people muttered; he says, of The Passenger, "...but I couldn't sell it." He does acknowledge that there is a price-tag in taking risks, saying that he has no choice now but to "rebalance" the programme; and he also makes the point that the international co-productions that are the chief focus of this article enable the staging of work that ENO could never have afforded on its own.

Naturally the economic climate is nasty and the combination of that with the £1.3m cut in ENO's ACE grant accounts for a large proportion of the problem, but that isn't all there is to it. Some question why ENO has such a big a deficit when other artistic institutions don't. Clearly, a strategy of artistic risk that's then whacked with a massive grant cut is a kind of "perfect storm". But also, sadly, it's only a matter of time - and probably not all that much of it - until other institutions find themselves in the same boat. ENO is merely the first. (I lived through the '80s: been there, seen it all before, bought the t-shirt, now using it as a mop.)

Perhaps ENO is in a kind of double-bind with its international co-productions. Ingrained tastes in audiences vary a great deal from country to country, even from city to city. So, if you're going to produce an opera in collaboration with a place that is used to pushing the boat out in terms of directorial concept, it may not go down especially well with UK audiences, and you can probably forget it in America. (ENO is not the only place that's come up against this: think of "that" Rusalka last year at Covent Garden.) Perhaps that is why the Met is the most frequent of ENO's co-producers; a beautiful Satyagraha; a Klinghoffer [above] that was sensitive and visually striking; but a comparatively dreary Gounod Faust that was not very interesting at all.

I put the question of varying audience tastes to Berry. He defended his decisions, as you'd expect, and it's only fair that he should have the chance to do so. He pointed out that British creative work, this way, is exported and showcased all over the world. Yesterday someone asked where the singers are in all this. They don't usually do the travelling... In that Faust, we had the very fine Toby Spence. At the Met, they had Jonas Kaufmann.

Without those partnerships, and without a strong artistic vision, we might risk being reduced to wall-to-wall Gubbay-style Butterflies and Carmens, because there wouldn't be enough money for anything else. But the fact remains that "Eurotrash" productions have never been favourites with British audiences, yet houses in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere want them, expect them, encourage them. Essentially: you could be stuffed if you do them and stuffed if you don't.

On the other hand, even an old favourite like Nicholas Hytner's perennial production of The Magic Flute was not particularly full when I attended a few months ago; it's beautiful, but has been very thoroughly seen. A new one by a top director (there are rumours of Simon McBurney) with performance to match might draw the audience much more.

But here's another thought: as one canny "tweep" mentioned, it's the music that sells opera. Last year's ENO Rosenkavalier, in the staging by David McVicar, was as glorious a performance vocally and musically as anyone could have wished, with Ed Gardner going great guns in the pit and a cast consisting of Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly and Sophie Bevan, with John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs [left: Tomlinson & Connolly]. It was outstanding. It was unforgettable. I've been stirred, shaken and overjoyed by many, many performances I heard there last year. Gardner's conducting in The Flying Dutchman; Peter Hoare singing in Martinu's amazing Julietta; the list could go on and on. Under Gardner's music directorship, the standard has shot up to a whole new level, and there have been some terrific decisions in the casting department.

Are there solutions to the financial woes? As Berry is the first to admit, there will have to be a "rebalancing" of the programme, and one suspects that various structures in the company's operation will need a long, hard look: ticket pricing, website, marketing, message. ENO runs on minimal staff already and it neither likes nor could afford cinecasting. But most of the clangers, to my view, have been in the question of how they get the message across, or don't.

Round the corner from the Coliseum is the Royal Opera House, with its Tosca, its Trittico, its, er, La Sonnambula and its, ooh, Robert le Diable (if you're grumbling about turkeys, I've seen more of them there in the past couple of years than at ENO)... Christmas dinner aside, Covent Garden gets the Great Big Whopping International Names. It's the place you go to see Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Calleja, Terfel, Stemme, DiDonato, Florez, Beczala, Pappano, Bychkov...

ENO can't compete with that - or so we'd think. Yet ENO has its fair share of stars too: Toby Spence and Sarah Connolly are regulars, Stuart Skelton's rise and rise has happened largely on the boards of the Coli, Sophie Bevan has become a meteor under their auspices, Gerald Finlay brought the house down in Adams's Doctor Atomic [right] - these people are among the best in the world. And of course they pop up frequently at Covent Garden too. As for Gardner, I find him one of the most exciting conductors in the country at the moment. The standard seems to be so high now that that is almost taken for granted. Should we not be told about this a little more often?

But with Covent Garden doing the big traditional productions - Copley's perennial Boheme, Zambello's Carmen - and pulling in the grandest names, ENO needs a different, distinct identity, a defined and individual brand. Now it has one, and it is in these adventurous, internationally-minded productions.The new audience Berry seems to want to reach is not necessarily the one for fabulous star singers, but the one for experimental theatre.

Now, if it is going to keep doing cutting-edge, European-style directors' opera, which people may not "like", and it doesn't mind if not everyone likes them, it has to do a better job of convincing its public that it is OK to go to something and be provoked or stimulated or disturbed by it, rather than necessarily liking every moment This isn't "blaming the public". It's a question of how to speak to them. That will be up to marketing, box office strategy, et al, and will mean cutting out misfiring or patronising schemes like the "Undressed" venture. It's quite a few years since the incident of Aida and the cut-out-and-colour paper dolls, but these things stick in the mind. 

I sympathise with ENO's aims, their integrity, their courage and their musical standards [left: Ed Gardner, who works a lot of magic]. I don't "like" everything they do, but I'd rather be surprised, startled and stirred than bored silly. And if they're boxed into a no-risks, please-the-crowds corner, all that creativity might go down the drain. They deserve support for their vision and their ambition and their achievements. (I mean, that's a lot of awards they've got. Really. It's not just me that's cheering for all this.) That doesn't mean failing to acknowledge that there'll have to be some changes.

In a way, ENO is a little hobbled by its original mission statement. It's gone beyond English or National. It could be better described as British International Opera. That in turn might raise and slightly shift our expectations of what they're about - if it's weren't for the likelihood of such a name being shortened to BIO. And opera in English? That's a topic for another time... 










Friday, October 05, 2012

A last-minute trip to Valhalla

Where do you sit for Die Walküre? In the Gods, of course. And the single best thing about going to Wagner? No queue in the Ladies' Room. Though apparently there was a massive queue in the Gents. Now they know what it's like for us at almost everything else.

I managed, with the help of an eagle-eyed and quick-moused pal, to get a last-minute return for the Wagner at Covent Garden last night. Amid all our yadda yesterday about dressing-down, seat prices et al, I can report that a) the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House was very dressed-down indeed - Wagner is a long haul flight and you need to go for comfort rather than style; b) the rest of the audience didn't look excessively flash either; and c) you can see nearly six hours of opera with a world-beating cast like this one, a clear view of the complete stage and an excellent take on the house acoustic, for £61. I don't think that is overpriced, under the circumstances. Most people I spoke to had booked a year in advance. Everyone up there was a total Wagner nut, and the hush and stillness through the performance was something to marvel at.

Highlights of the evening appeared in unusual places. First of all, Sarah Connolly's Fricka: a nuanced, heart-rending, ruby-toned performance, exceptionally sophisticated and classy. Another call for someone, please, to award a recording contract, scandalously absent at present. Come on, people - Connolly is a national treasure. She's on disc. But not enough. [Connolly, left, not in character.] 

This, too, was the production's one real masterstroke: the tortured relationship between her and Bryn Terfel's Wotan is the heart of the story. Often Fricka is portrayed as little more than a backroom bully, a fundamental ideologist forcing Wotan's hand over a point of malign principle (it's a common enough problem) and you always wonder why he's weak enough to cave in (a common enough problem too). Here, though, there is still a great love between this long-married couple, on both sides. Connolly made you feel every twist of Fricka's shredded heart as the faithless Wotan cradles her with tremendous tenderness. Wotan lets her win because his love for her ultimately overrides his other amours. It makes sense out of the whole story.

It was more or less the only sense we got out of Keith Warner's production, which I have not attended before. It's cluttered, fussy and occasionally worrying: there's a distinct tendency for characters to trip over the red rope that is doing goodness knows what across the stage, and over the metal thingummyjig that rears up in the middle of the set, and then there's the ladder, from which Susan Bullock apparently had to be unhooked by a stage-hand on the first night - and will something elsewhere in the cycle make sense of the three-pronged fan under which Brunnhilde falls asleep? What's it for - repelling mosquitoes? On the top of a mountain? Most of the action appears to take place in a disused storeroom or perhaps a very messy study (a bit like mine) with a black office table, a leather chaise-longue and a huge heap of discarded books. I was constantly alarmed in case someone decided to do a Nazi-reference thing by setting light to it, though fortunately they didn't. If you're going to offer a concept Walküre, then clarity of that concept helps. This one, if it exists, eludes me. And according to Fiona Maddocks, the production has actually been streamlined since last time. [Above, Bullock & Terfel, pic by Clive Barda.]

The other unforgettable performance was Sir John Tomlinson's Hunding, who could dominate the stage with his first swing of the axe and the auditorium with his first note and all thereafter. A marvellous moment when he and Terfel's Wotan come face to face - these two legends together are not something you see every day. Marvels too from Terfel himself, of course, a Wotan incarnate; and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, creamy-toned, all-giving and ultimately transcendental as she blesses Brunnhilde. As the latter, a feisty Susan Bullock, tiny and ferocious. Simon O'Neill as Siegmund started strong, but threatened to fade out as Act 1 wrestled him and nearly won. Luxury singing from the Valkyrie gang and, below, Tony Pappano presided over a rich-toned and rhapsodic orchestra augmented by six harps plucking away in the stalls circle. 

At the risk of sounding heretical, though, I'm not convinced Wagner is Pappano's finest six hours. He has become incomparable in Italian repertoire - Il Trittico a year ago was one of the greatest evenings I've ever had in the ROH, and I mean it. But this was rather gentle Wagner: an interpretation that roused and glowed but didn't transfigure. It needs an extra hard-edge of ecstasy that simply wasn't there, despite the glories of the singing. 

Let's face it: we go to Wagner to get high. That's why people get addicted. And if you don't get the high, something isn't quite working. And the place it needs to be generated is in the pit. It's legal. But it shouldn't necessarily sound it.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A good cause at Glyndebourne

If you fancy going to Glyndebourne, getting a look at their new wind turbine (aim: green electric opera?) and supporting a truly excellent cause while you're about it, now's your chance. The mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby has organised a stellar line-up for a special gala on 29 April in aid of Young Epilepsy, Britain's only national charity devoted to children and young people living with epilepsy and other neurological conditions. The evening is being hosted by the actress Joanna Lumley (right), the woman we'd probably elect president if given half a chance. Money raised will go towards the support of the charity's information service, special school, college, residential homes, medical centre and a new school mini-bus.


Among those appearing are Ian Bostridge, Jason Carr, Sarah Connolly, Danielle de Niese, Gerald Finley, Dame Felicity Lott, Diana Montague, Paul Nilon, Brindley Sherratt, Timothy West and of course Jean Rigby herself. Glyndebourne's general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski will also be on hand.




Jean Rigby said: “Our son Ollie has severe epilepsy and is a residential student at Young Epilepsy. He is now in his fifth year and is very well looked after, contented and happy: learning to cope with the challenges he faces now and in the future. I feel so indebted for all Young Epilepsy has done for him and this concert is my way of giving something back.”

Concert and booking information:
The Young Epilepsy Gala Concert will run from 3pm to 5.30pm, including an interval. Guests will be able to wander the famous Glyndebourne gardens in the interval and experience the history and majesty of Glyndebourne.  Glyndebourne’s gardens will be open to visitors from 1pm. Ticket prices start at as little as £15, with prices going up to £85. BOOK NOW online at the Glyndebourne box office at www.glyndebourne.com
 There are a limited number of exclusive Premier Seat Packages available at £175, which includes a souvenir programme, interval champagne and a post-performance reception with the cast.  Or Premier Seats with Dinner at £250 include an additional three course dinner with wine, previewing Albert Roux’s new menu for the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival season.  To book Premier tickets or for more details call Young Epilepsy on 01342 831261 or email: fundraising@youngepilepsy.org.uk 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Gold stars for this silver rose

If you only do one thing in London over the next few weeks, make it this: go and see Der Rosenkavalier at ENO.

The opening night on Saturday...where to start? The dream-team cast? OK, Amanda Roocroft is The Marschallin for the first time - not that you would guess for a moment she had not been born singing this music. Roocroft is one of the finest actresses in British opera right now - look at her awards for all that Janacek. She can effortlessly evoke the charming, open-hearted aristocrat on the one hand, and, lurking just beneath the surface, a self-destructive woman whose fear of losing her beloved young lover leads her to chase him away; act I's conclusion leaves her cradling a cushion in despair. Sarah Connolly is everyone's perfect Octavian: glowing, dashing, her voice as silvery as her armour (and those of us who follow her updates on Facebook were extra-pleased to see her as she'd been stuck on a motionless train with points failure for half the afternoon).

Sophie Bevan as Sophie

But perhaps most stunning of all was the debut of Sophie Bevan as Sophie (above, pic by Clive Barda). A star is born? You can't argue with the goose-bumps: you can't always explain them, but you know them when they happen. The moment Sophie opened her mouth, it was clear that she is no common-or-garden girl soprano, but one with potential to reach some very special places indeed. At no point while she sang did one have to glance at the surtitles; every word was clear as the proverbial bell, and every twist of character projected with relish. The voice - pure, flexible, snowy and effortlessly voluminous when required - never faltered; and the magical moments following the presentation of the rose as Sophie and Octavian fall in love made us all fall in love too. The audience went mad for her. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

Nor can you argue with John Tomlinson as the odious Ochs. Some of us feel that the opera contains too much Ochs and too little outrage over his ghastliness (the programme notes said that Strauss makes us like Ochs, but actually no, he doesn't) - but 'John Tom' is so convincing that what one remembers is a) the 18th-century setting would have condemned him to the guillotine had Strauss and Hofmannsthal not shifted the action to Vienna instead of Paris, and b) the world premiere, in 1911, took place only six years before the Russian revolution. Rosenkavalier as social commentary for its own time and maybe for ours too... Meanwhile, so involved was the singer with his role that in the scene with the attorney he turned physically scarlet with anger.

David McVicar's direction of a production as opulently golden as its music is typically astute and detailed - probing, questioning and poetic. For instance, why doesn't Octavian dressed as Mariandel slip out of the boudoir to escape Ochs's attentions? Because the mystery doors in the wall are so mysterious that he can't work out how to get them open. And the last gesture of Octavian towards the departing Marie-Therese before turning back to Sophie sparks an idea that we may not have seen the last of that affair after all...while young Mohamed the page boy has a crush of his own to pursue after curtain-down.

Down t'pit, Ed Gardner was working a magic of his own. This was a shimmering, generous, expansive Rosenkavalier - running to 4 hrs 10 mins, it was 25 mins longer than the theatre's estimate - but not a second of it was excessive. The music had room to breathe, grow and smoulder. Super violin solos from leader Janice Graham and some very lovely woodwind playing.

I have only two complaints. First of all, fine though the diction of the singers was, this opera's entire musical world is so bound up with flow of the German language that in English it just sounds all wrong. That's nobody's fault. I imagine the translation could have been more inspiring, but perhaps it would be a losing battle in any case. The other issue is that the set scarcely changes from scene to scene - without differentiation between the Marschallin's olde-worlde palace and the Faninal's new-build house, half the matter of class distinction, which is such an overriding theme, can't help but be somewhat submerged. Still, sets cost money; and, quite honestly, this cast could have performed in concert alone and still convinced us every step of the way.

Runs to 27 February. I wanna go again!

Photos here: http://www.flickr.com//photos/eno-baylis/sets/72157629055732903/show/