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 (left), 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.
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.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Around 11pm yesterday, Richmond-upon-Thames was the scene of some strange nocturnal activity, besides the usual gaggles of drunken, semi-naked, apparently cloned teenagers. Along George Street towards the bus stops wandered small groups of dazed and bedazzled pensioners, many of them humming quietly, all of them wearing an expression that suggested they'd been at an ashram retreat and emerged with an altered sense of consciousness. The source? The Met Opera cinecast of Die Walkure.
I was lucky to be there at all, as our local Curzon sold out months ago - some friends had a spare ticket and called in the morning, so I dropped everything and ran. (I was one of just three or four under-60s in the place.) Of all the Wagner operas, this one is my favourite: its passions are the most convincing, its dilemmas the most interesting and its level of inspiration the most consistent. As you know, I have my doubts about opera in the cinema - too many tonsils - but with the prospect of Kaufmann, Westbroek, Terfel and Voigt in the Robert LePage new production...
It wasn't the tonsils that caused the problem - or even the occasional droplets of drool that came across too clearly on the big screen - but the volume. This was cinema volume, flattening out the dynamics at the uppermost level. Across a very big evening of Wagner this can leave you feeling assaulted. Just a notch down would have spared our heads and done the singers more favours - it is hard to get any idea of subtlety or variety of tone. Perhaps in future cinecasts this can be somehow addressed. But apart from that...
It's total surrender. How does one person, one bumptious little 19th-century man, create a work of art like this? How is it possible? Witness Die Walkure - especially in a performance like this - and you're left in no doubt that the potential of a human being is many thousands of times greater than we're usually allowed to believe, let alone aim towards ourselves. He creates a state of enhanced reality, a true raising of consciousness, a natural high that I'd defy any drug to match (not that I've tried any, but with Wagner around, who needs to?). Beside it everything else sounds...so small, so silly, such a waste of time.
Eurovision? You want Eurovision singing? Then see Wagner on screens in every country. Hear Eva-Maria Westbroek singing for The Netherlands as Sieglinde. Hear Bryn Terfel, fresh out of Wales, as the ultimate Wotan - the most powerful operatic performance I've ever seen, bar none. Hear Jonas Kaufmann compete for Germany in an oak-strong, desperate, tender Siegmund. And Deborah Voigt with her shining scimitar of a light-catching voice, flying through the high notes... And there is no need for anybody to win or lose.
Every argument is pallid beside this. All those fine words dissecting every word Wagner ever wrote, all those trendy debates about whether classical music is 'relevant', all the politically correct stuff, social engineering, box-ticking and dumbing-down - forget the lot. Just hear Die Walkure.
This is why we need music. This is the real thing. This is what it's all about. Showing us what a human being can truly achieve and share with others. Talk about Nietzsche if you like, talk about man and superman and Also sprach Zarathustra, but Wagner proves that something superhuman can come from humanity. And if it can, then it should. Don't tell me that anyone who can't hear it or doesn't 'get' it isn't missing out. Yes, they are. Wagner wanted this music to be for everyone. He wanted to reach the widest possible audience because he knew he had something vital to give them. He's still giving.
Down from the cloud, it's possible to dissect things a little more. Robert LePage's production hits many nails fair and square. Keeping a 'traditional' approach to the drama - naturalistic and rather prehistoric, complete with armour for Wotan and the Valkyries - does make the whole thing more engaging and believable than most tricksy updatings can. The set is extraordinary: a string of vast, tall panels, apparently weighing about 45 tons, according to the interval info, on pivots that shift, rotate and transform: they are a forest, a roof, a mountain and even the Valkyries' horses, dipping and plunging in the Ride: the girls dismount by sliding.
But the coup de grace is the final image of the sleeping Brunnhilde on her rock, watched from afar by Wotan: everything swings around until she is upside down, high up, a perspective evoking the sense that we're directly above her, looking down into the flames while rising into the sky with Wotan. My companions thought it might be a trick with a doll rather than the real Deborah Voigt, but if it was, it worked - the possibility never occurred to me. And if it was Voigt - she's brave. Have a look at the slide show of images from the New York Times.
We can pick holes, if you like. Voigt isn't the ideal Brunnhilde - at least not yet - though she may become one. Her middle voice isn't as strong as her high register, as she admitted herself in the interval interviews, with Placido Domingo and Joyce DiDonato as reporters, no less (they'll have Alan Titchmarsh out of a job if they're not careful). But it's her first run in the role - rare to be perfect first go - and in terms of personality and a strongly characterised tone, she more than carried it off. There were occasional things that we saw that we wouldn't have noticed on stage: moments when things get stuck, fail to cooperate or drip spectacularly. And the show started about 40 minutes late due, apparently, to 'machine malfunction'. We were glad to hear in the interval that this was stage machinery, not something inside James Levine, who looked unable to stand without support and didn't go up on stage for a bow. He has now pulled out of pretty much everything but this performance. A few raggedy bits in the orchestral playing, but only a few, in an opera in which scary amounts of stuff can go wrong, given half a chance.
Holes aside, this was the show of a lifetime. People speak of an aeons-gone 'golden age' of operatic singing, but I can only feel grateful to be alive to hear these guys. Terfel's Wotan is utterly superhuman, consumed with self-loathing and conflicting loyalties and with a voice that is a force of much more than mere nature. The way he kills Hunding took the wind out of everyone's sails. One word - "Geeeeeeeeh!" - and the character falls back as if struck in the stomach by a twelve-ton demolition ball. It will be a long, long time before anyone else can match the impact of Terfel's performance.
Westbroek is having one incredible year - first Anna Nicole, now this - and Sieglinde's ecstatic final blessing of Brunnhilde, wild and transported with joy, left us wondering whether it is she, in due course, who will become the next great Brunnhilde. Kaufmann, for all his assertions in his interval interview that he doesn't want to be a Wagner singer and nothing else, is going to be hard-pressed to escape more Wagner roles, so magnificent is his Siegmund. He has a German textual advantage, along with the fact that he was literally born into this music: in the interview, he recalled the days when as a small boy he sat at the piano beside his grandfather who was happily bashing through the piano scores of The Ring. Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was another huge success (in every respect) - every inch a match for Terfel's Wotan, she's a mezzo of glory.
Back to earth now. Let's slide down the Valkyrie horses...and get out to the shops before they sell out of rhubarb. Our fridge is mysteriously working again. Perhaps the energy generated in the cinema last night was enough to power everything up for miles around.