Moor or less

Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.

The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.

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When I was young and charming, I practiced baby-farming


Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.

That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.

And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.

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Guillaume Tell in London

“Staging opera means interpreting a score’s ambiguities, and each
performance must bridge the space between operatic history and the
present. Inevitably, modern anxieties and prejudices fill the gaps. And
few issues are more personal and contentious than the representation of

I wrote about the Royal Opera’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for the New York Times. You can read my piece there, or in the July 19 Arts and Leisure section.

photo copyright Clive Barda

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TB is cured—La traviata in London

I spent last weekend in London at a seminar discussing canon formation in opera. When, how, and why have some operas become canonic while others have not? Who gets to decide? It’s a complicated question (and one we will attempt to tackle in a book). But it was only fitting that while I was in town I saw La traviata, today one of the most canonic of all operas. (The other operas on were, go figure, La bohème and Carmen, but my schedule precluded attending either of those.)

I love Traviata, but I’ve seen it a million times. It’s the kind of opera that I go to see if a singer or conductor or the production particularly appeals to me, or if I feel like I just want that nice familiar feeling (that’s canonicity from an audience’s perspective). In this case,  the novelty wasn’t the production: the Royal Opera House has trotted out this Richard Eyre production on the regular for more than 20 years. It was actually my first experience of Traviata, in the form of the DVD with Angela Gheorghiu; I’d never seen it live before. I signed up because I wanted to see Sonya Yoncheva, because she’s the latest hot singer and when it comes to hot singer bandwagons I am eager to hop on (or tell you that you should not hop on) as early as possible. (In this case I arguably already missed the boat.) She cancelled and her replacement was Marina Rebeka, a singer I’ve heard before and think is only OK. Bummer.

I probably should have given Marina Rebeka slightly more credit. Technically speaking she is an extremely accomplished singer: exceptionally accurate and possessed of the wide arsenal of skills to sing all three acts of Violetta with equal strength. Her coloratura was good in Act 1’s “Sempre libera” (and she sang the final interpolated E-flat), she’s plenty loud in Act 2’s dramatic outbursts, and she’s tasteful and graceful enough for Act 3’s letter aria. Her sound is slightly metallic with a dark sheen, attractive if not immediately memorable. As an actress, she did all the production asked her to do. The problem was that she is not gifted in showing us her character’s inner life. Most obviously, she did very little to suggest Violetta’s illness until Act 3 and even there it was rather spotty. For all its accomplishment, her performance remained curiously unmoving.

The last time I wrote about Traviata I was dealing with Natalie Dessay, a singer whose vocal fragility at times merged with her character’s bodily decay. Dessay was obviously dancing on the edge, pushing her voice places it didn’t want to go. That was a dangerous game and musically there was a price to pay. But her performance had an undeniable depth, even tragedy, which Rebeka’s heartiness never approached. This isn’t an either/or proposition–vocal health is, in general, a good thing and it didn’t really get in, say, Anja Harteros’s way–but it’s nonetheless an interesting question. Rebeka’s vocal wholesomeness ended up being, well, a symptom of her larger disinterest in vocal acting. Your voice doesn’t need to be falling apart, but you need to somehow use it to suggest your character is. A production this bland needs a stronger presence at its center.

Rebeka didn’t really have any help from Marc Minkowski in the pit, who made the fast parts very fast and the slow parts extra, extra slow. He did, however, in his customary HIP fashion, open up many of the opera’s customary cuts, including all the cabalettas (it felt like some of the cabalettas had their own cabalettas) and the second verses of “Ah! fors’è lui” and “Addio del passato.” His prelude was the quietest and slowest I’ve ever heard, a very thin thread of sound which eased into the (still slow) waltz. Later in Act 1 there were some unfortunate coordination issues with the chorus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ismael Jordi was an energetic, bouncing Alfredo. His voice is bright and fresh and also kind of uneven. At times he micromanages his phrasing and color to discontinuous effect, he bops between registers, and his intonation wasn’t always accurate. That being said, all the effort Rebeka didn’t expend, he definitely did. My pick of the cast might have been Franco Vassallo’s Gérmont, to which he gave a highly sympathetic interpretation. He’s got a real Italian sound and made the text sound more spontaneous than any of his castmates.

I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about the production, which is itself locally canonic. It’s not, however, particularly iconic; the most well-known image is probably Violetta’s Act 2 Scene 2 dress (right). It’s nineteenth-century period, the sets are relatively spare (lots of circular elements), and if you are looking for a symbolic interpretation of the gypsies and bullfighters you are definitely barking up the wrong production. I don’t think this production invented the so-called “victory lap,” in which Violetta takes a triumphant jog around the stage before she dies, but given Rebeka’s blooming health I think it’s safe to say that this was not its most cathartic iteration.

The production continues for 200 more performances this spring and summer and another 750 next season. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.)

I will be back at the ROH in July for Guillaume Tell. As much as I like London this again has far more to do with academic conferences than anything else. Why aren’t there more conferences in Berlin? But first I will be seeing Yardbird back home in Philadelphia, where I have already returned.

Verdi, La traviata. Royal Opera House, 5/25/15. Production by Richard Eyre (nth revival), conducted by Marc Minkowski with Marina Rebeka (Violetta), Ismael Jordi (Alfredo), Franco Vasallo (Gérmont)

photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/ROH

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You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

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Farcical aquatic ceremonies: La donna del lago at the ROH


According to the Royal Opera House’s new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. But while the production’s vague juxtaposition of barbaric highlanders and European-style courtiers doesn’t really work, there’s a lot of exciting singing, Joyce DiDonato as the titular aquatic lass, and Juan Diego Florez in a kilt.
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Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House’s straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar’s production is, for the most part, not bad, but it’s not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion–the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal “we’re putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn’t in four parts.”

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2012. New production directed by David McVicar, sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Fabio Capitanucci (Coroebus), Bryan Hymel (Aeneas), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Dido), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Jin-Min Park (Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ed Lyon (Hylas).

David McVicar is a smart and slick director, but rarely a profound one and over the past few years his productions seem to be losing more and more intellectual weight. (I think his Faust is legitimately brilliant, and I love his Zauberflöte, both at the ROH, but his more recent Anna Bolena and Trovatore, both at the Met, are adequate at best.) For Troyens he pulls one of his favorite tricks, setting the opera in the time in which it was composed, here around the 1850s. But that’s about the extent of his Konzept, which never creates a compelling reason for why this siege and escape happen. Who are these Trojans, Greeks, Carthaginians, or future Romans? (This exposition is something McVicar achieves with model efficiency in his Giulio Cesare, seen nearly everywhere already and coming to the Met next year). It doesn’t have to be a historically specific definition–though since he sets the piece in a historically specific milieu that might be the most satisfying–but it has to be something dramatically convincing. Here too much is left empty, with familiar-looking nineteenth-century images that do little to define the setting or characters. Nor did the cast seem to be on the same wavelength as this setting, or for that matter with each other.

The Troy acts are far easier to stage and the production works best here. The Trojans have holed up in a vaguely steampunk setting of industrial detritus surrounding a giant metal tower. Why the industrial stuff? I thought momentarily of the broken machines in Heart of Darkness, but that’s all I got. For people suffering under a long siege the Trojans look damn good, the women in beautiful dresses and the men in elaborate uniforms. (While I’m not sure why it was there, much of the design in this half is very striking.) Swooping through all of this is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s old school Cassandra, with the dramatic postures and oversized gesture of, maybe, the 1850s, or a visitor from Planet Sarah Bernhardt. Eyes painted on her hands lets her tell people’s fortunes–based on her reactions, most of them aren’t getting happy endings. If there’s anyone who can pull this kind of thing off it’s Antonacci, and she’s great fun, but Gesamtkunstwerk it’s not.

The set piece effects in Troy work well. While the Horse might seem a challenge I’m pretty sure that as long as you produce something very big and equine it’s going to be a hit, and this one, welded of abandoned weapons and snorting fire, is no exception. It looms large and is very exciting. McVicar does a good job with the ceremonies in this act as well, coming up with something convincingly ritualistic and appropriate to the music. The dancing, however, made me decide that if I ever run an opera company I will ban the use of cartwheels, somersaults, handsprings, back handsprings, backwards somersaults, and any other gymnastics in all of my productions. (The dances in Carthage made me want to expand this ban to all dance entirely–more on that in a second.)

While the Troy acts are all dark excitement and desolation, Dido’s Carthage is a land of plenty and peace and sunniness. The dark metal tower turns into a multi-tiered sandstone city, as well as a model of a tiny city that variously sits on the stage and hovers above it to no clear purpose. Unfortunately McVicar gives into a wide variety of tired Orientalist cliches out of an unironicized Ingres painting (without the nudity, surprisingly enough). Like in many other productions of Troyens, the Carthaginians have built a glorious city but not yet discovered chairs, and prefer to languish on cushions while wearing robes and shiny jewelry. The dances are more frequent and far more annoying, with lousy slinky choreography, some horribly tacky rainbow costumes and, during a typically McVicarian naiad abduction in the Chasse royale, a tree that bursts into flames. Presumably it was struck by lightning, but the effect is that Aeneas and Dido’s love is signaled by a burning bush, Old Testament style.

There is some lazy stagecraft in the last act, with a large portion of Dido’s final scene played extreme downstage in front of a black curtain, presumably as the pyre is set up behind it. While this got Eva-Maria Westbroek right down to the apron, it’s more than a litle anticlimactic and out of character for the rest of the production. The final step, however, is a mistake not of economy but of opulence. Perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be “spoiled” but a giant head with a pointing hand enters at the curtain, looking like a man version of the Horse, presumably pointing Italie-wards. Maybe it’s Hannibal. Whatever, it’s embarrassingly like a last-minute cameo from the Terminator (not, strangely enough, pictured in any of the official photos).

McVicar knows how to create engaging Personenregie, but the staging fails to provide a larger vision, and the weirdness in the design and especially the dance unwelcomingly recalls the commodity elements of the grand opera genre. It’s a luxury buffet of what we purportedly want to see, unfortunately all the dishes don’t work together. I must say the lighting is gorgeous, though.

The cast ranged from decent to excellent. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was straightforwardly exciting and quickly paced, but tended to shortchange Berlioz’s quirkiness. I missed the orchestral detail, unusual timbres, and rapid changes of mood of Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra sounded absolutely excellent until the end, when the brass began to tire. The chorus sounded super the whole way through, and with this opera’s number of choruses that makes a big difference. The aforementioned Antonacci was surely the highlight, out of place as she was, she can declaim with such conviction and vivid presence that you forget anyone else is onstage. It’s a shame Cassandre is only in the first few hours of this epic–and only Antonacci managed to transmit a sense of the epic.

Antonacci also held a monopoly on gravitas among the cast, the rest of whom were lacking in this department. I like soprano Didos, and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s shimmering tone suits the part. She sounded lovely despite a certain lack of French style. But I wasn’t entirely convinced on a theatrical level. In roles like Sieglinde her down to earth, big sister stage persona is a great asset, but it worked against her here. Her Dido began insecure and worried and only gradually gained in stature (as her voice tired)–but it was too late, in my opinion. This interpretation could have worked had the production fit it, but as it was the second half lacked a strong center.

As Aeneas, Bryan Hymel sang some spectacularly powerful high notes, and his super technique kept his smallish voice even and consistent through the entire long role. But despite really throwing himself into it, both he and his sound are severely lacking in glamour and charisma–the voice is basically monochromatic and plain, particularly in the lower register, and like Westbroek he seems like a guy you’d hang out with rather than an ancient hero. (I have little doubt he sang the role far better than Giordani is likely to do at the Met in December, however.)

The supporting cast was solid, highlighted by Hanna Hipp’s Anna, who was slow to warm up in the duet with Dido but whose rich tone sounded absolutely lovely in the duet with Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci was a stiff but authoritatively-voiced Coroebus, Brindley Sherrett a first-rate Narbal, and Ed Lyon one of the few cast members who sounded French-ish as Hylas.

After around four hours of opera, I peered into the pit to see a cellist flipping to the back of his part, counting the pages remaining. I hate to say it but I could kind of see his point. This was a missed opportunity.

Les Troyens at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Photos copyright Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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Anna Nicole: All power to boobs

That’s a quote from the libretto. There’s an aria about them. Boobs, I mean. Big fake ones.

As you may be aware, there’s an opera about the late not-so-merry (or was she?) widow Anna Nicole Smith playing at the Royal Opera House in London at present. I went and saw it, and found it fascinating, brilliant, and infuriating. Herein I will attempt to write about it. Not about how it relates to operatic history or what its media attention means for the world of opera. Because while we might have a publicity circus around this opera, what we’ve got onstage is a circus already.

Mark-Anthony Turnage–Richard Thomas. Anna Nicole. World premiere production, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 26 February 2011 (fourth performance). Production by Richard Jones with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, and choreogrpahy by Aletta Collins. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern), Alan Oke (J. Howard Marshall II), Peter Hoare (Larry King).

This opera has been all over the news and blogosphere, so describing it feels a little superfluous, but here are the basics.

Anna Nicole in her young, semi-innocent days.

Possibly due to rumored legal threats, the opera presents Anna Nicole Smith’s life in documentary fashion. In Act 1, we see her early life through the reportage of a chorus of TV journalists. As events unfold, Anna Nicole’s family and friends comment on the action. In Act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads, the only allusion to Anna Nicole’s reality TV show. They observe her at every second, eager to know everything for reasons that are never clear. The sole voice of conscience is Anna Nicole’s mother, who occasionally interrupts to protest that “it so didn’t happen like that” and condemn the world to which her daughter has submitted–or that she is squeezing dry. Or both.

The plot, roughly speaking, moves from Anna Nicole’s miserable childhood in rural Texas, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, career change to stripper, career ascent as stripper via fake tits, marriage to an oil billionaire, his death, her decline into helpless drug addiction, dependence on a sleazy lawyer, her son’s death, and finally her own death at 39. We see her at her stripping job, we see her get her new boobs, and meet her decrepit consort, but increasingly, in Act 2, she disappears into her own isolated world.

Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother

This is, more or less, a number opera, though the music flows continuously. The libretto is, like Anna Nicole herself, determinedly obscene. Thomas’s ear for American speech is good enough that the few mistakes stand out (we don’t say “car park”). It also is of a flashiness that, for the first act at least, largely eclipses the sparky, energetic music. It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun. But much of the time the score just doesn’t assert itself. In Act 2 things get more interesting, including a wonderful intermezzo just as the proceedings become more serious and eventually tragic (as Anna Nicole’s son dies, there is, I think, a Kindertotenlieder reference–oh no you didn’t). Anna Nicole delivers something like a lament at the end, before tiredly climbing into her own body bag.

He’s rich.

But the very obscenity is part of the reason why this work, for all its brilliance, is somehow unfulfilling. Simply put, there’s a shortage of dramatic conflict. The excesses of American culture are skewered at every opportunity. I’m OK with this, I realize we’re a big fat target. (Sometimes I wondered if the British audience realized how much of the “satire” was simply truth–y’all know that Wal-Mart really does have an obsession with smiley faces? They didn’t make all that shit up.) The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it. The chorus pronounces her fabulous, but she seems like a passive object of the plot, with few moments of genuine autonomy. This makes her, as a heroine or as an anti-heroine, lacking.

The text’s perspective is relentlessly male, right down to the descriptions of domestic violence and rape. Anna Nicole, proclaimed for all her obvious dumbness to be somehow street smart, never has a real moment of self-insight, something equivalent to Carmen’s fortune-telling, Violetta’s “È strano!” or even Lulu’s instinctual self-perception, and we never get a good look inside her head, empty though it may be. In her brief final monologue, she condemns America as a “dirty whore,” but it’s too little, too late, and too male again. The libretto suggests a few times that she was both victim and master of American culture, manipulator and manipulated. But it’s only an occasional theme, mostly voiced by the poignant but unintegrated character of Anna Nicole’s mother. It seems like this is where the real substance and center of the story should lie.

Cameras are intruding

The libretto’s naughtiness aspires to subversive glee. But is that possible for a production as elaborate and accomplished with as many patriarchal roots as this one? It might have worked in a gay community center’s basement during some Fringe Festival, but on the stage of the Royal Opera House, written and directed by famous and sophisticated men, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of exploitation. Is this another group of the privileged taking advantage of Anna Nicole Smith yet again? The (as yet empty) threat of a lawsuit from self-avowed Anna Nicole babydaddy Larry Birkhead against the Royal Opera House is fitting, and suggests the opera has now become not just a telling of her sad life but itself another strange coda to it.

I suppose that sounds like a severe condemnation, but despite its disappointments I actually enjoyed it a lot. The stagecraft on display is dazzling and full of wit, even if making fun of Texas hicks is something like shooting fish in a barrel. (I’ve never been to Texas, by the way, though I’m from a rural area not too far from Appalachia, so I have the general idea. We make meth jokes too.) It’s not always too original. The opening scene, in which a row of reporters tells us they are going to present the story of Anna Nicole, repeatedly declaiming her name at top volume, is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Sweeney Todd, right down to the staging. Also, those uniform-ish reporters plus a little house on stage, well, Jones’s Bayerische Staatsoper Lohengrin, anybody?

The Lawyer Stern thinks he’s the dad

But as a show a lot of it is brilliant, action-packed, funny (sometimes awkward funny), full of panache, and every bit as tacky as the libretto. The orchestra under Pappano sounded, as far as I could tell, great, and the cast is all top-notch and can’t be faulted for their commitment (or for their English diction). The production is a fast-changing of colorful but minimal settings with garish detail, from a strip club (with acrobatic actual pole dancers) to a Wal-Mart to Anna Nicole’s tacky final living room, and the transitions are seamless and perfectly timed.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Texan accent swam in and out, but as Anna Nicole she gave a star performance, and she was never less than fabulously present–or appropriately out to lunch on Anna Nicole’s distant planet–and she gave the character more heart than the libretto ever did. Vocally, she doesn’t get too many chances to use the full force of her large voice, and I can image more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role (especially considering the light amplification). But she sounded great; her sound is truly luminous. Gerald Finley’s lawyer–a role rumored to have been rewritten when his guilty verdict in Anna Nicole’s wrongful death giving Anna Nicole drugs was overturned last month (corrected–I was not a devoted follower of Anna Nicole Smith news, sorry)–is unfortunately something of a nothing role and a waste of his talents. Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s aged second husband got better material, sung with verve. Susan Bickley as Virgie, the mother, was almost too poignant in an opera of caricatures.

Something of a disappointment compared to what it might have been, but an interesting one. I hope it gets picked up by another house, with revisions, because it has the polish of something big with the seeds of something far more poignant. Right now, despite the awkward bits, it’s still rampantly entertaining.

There are a few more performances, but it’s quite sold out. Queue early in the morning for day seats.

Video from CBS News–not an option you get with most operas, though it’s not embedding correctly:

Photos copyright by Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

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Adriana Lecouvreur: You don’t bring me flowers

This is a production that should under no circumstances be seen while sober. Before a large glass of wine during second intermission, I had been enjoying a deluxe, reasonably intelligent star vehicle. And I admitted to myself that the score is really not that great. After wine, OMG two beautiful people singing beautifully on a beautiful stage and WHY does she have to die waahhuaaargh. If the mere presence of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann together onstage is enough to put you into such a state, you’re all set. If your brain, like mine, requires some inducement to turn off, well, do what you need to do because once you stop thinking this is a giant sugar rush.

Cilèa, Adriana Lecouvreur. Royal Opera Covent Garden, 30/11/10. New production directed by David McVicar with sets by Charles Edwards, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lights by Adam Silverman. Conducted by Mark Elder with Angela Gheorghiu (Adriana), Jonas Kaufmann (Maurizio), Olga Borodina (Principessa de Bouillon), Alessandro Corbelli (Michonnet), Maurizio Muraro (Principe de Bouillon), Bonaventure Bottone (Abbate)

Thanks to the generosity of a benefactress who wishes to remain anonymous, I found myself in the first row at the Royal Opera on Tuesday night.  Sitting in the first row, by the way, is awesome.

While David McVicar’s production is not quite as straightforward as it initially appears, it certainly has more than enough lavish period detail to satisfy the literal-minded. The libretto’s stage directions are carefully followed, right up to Adriana extinguishing thickets of candles at the end of Act 2.

The centerpiece of the set is a functional 18th-century stage, of the sort that can be seen today at Český Krumlov or Drottningholm. This one is modeled on a Baroque theater in Bayreuth (pictured in the program). We see it at various points from the sides, front, and back, and the gadgetry–ropes and pulleys, gods descending on a cloud, and rapidly changing flat scenery–are catnip for a tech nerd like me (I only wish they could have put in one of those cannonball-powered thunder effects*).  It dominates even Act 2, the only act to not take place in a theater or involve a performance

This stage serves as a central plot function in the first and third acts (and serves as a realistic and atmospheric backdrop in Act 4), but through the entire opera a rather obvious symbolic one as well. The trompe de l’oeil curtains (which are period accurate), the mixture of two and three dimensions, and all those pulleys and ropes stand in for the plot’s layers of artifice and deception, or, less generously, its convolution.  For these characters, life can be as staged as a play.  But this makes it sound more illuminating than it is. It’s a nicer idea in general theory and aesthetics than it is in specific practice, and only in the opening of Act 2, when it serves the most symbolic and least literal function, does it really seem to help the drama of the plot. All the world’s a stage, etc.

But the production is elegant eye candy, opulent without being a Zeffirellian wedding cake. The lighting alone is wonderful, the Act 3 ballet is a delight. The Personenregie allows strong characters to emerge from the elaborate backdrops, from the colorful theater scenes at the start to the society of Act 3.  The plot may be confusing, but the character relationships are drawn so clearly the drama keeps going at full tilt.  Even if you can’t figure out quite why everyone is reacting the way they are at any given point, it does seem to express some kind of logic, which for this libretto is no small achievement. Adriana is such a flimsy piece to start with that a direct route seems the safest way of going about it, and while McVicar doesn’t take any risks here, he doesn’t make any mistakes either.

This production exists for Angela Gheorghiu, who is found at its center doing her very best impression of Angela Gheorghiu. This “Angela Gheorghiu” conveniently has a lot in common with grand and fragile diva Adriana Lecouvreur. With a few reservations, she is marvelous. Is her voice a little on the small side? Yes, and I would appreciate some chest voice, but the sound is totally gorgeous and isn’t it nice to hear an Adriana without a wobble for once?  She’s lyric, but her sound is rich, smooth, and shaped.  Is her acting kind of similar to what she does as Violetta (and I suspect also Tosca)? Yes, but Adriana is a very similar sort of character, and her mixture of grandeur, pride, insecurity, and artifice is just the right one, and she was genuinely heartbreaking by the end (after I had the wine).  When she’s good, she’s really good.

Jonas Kaufmann sounded wonderful as double-dealing manslut Maurizio, more idiomatically Italian than I think I have ever heard him, and committed from the quiet notes up to the (very) loud ones. He is ideally cast as a romantic lead and puts together a charismatic performance, but even he can’t really get fickle Maurizio to add up to a coherent character. Through the first two acts he seemed committed to Adriana and to leaving the Principessa, only to completely ignore Adriana in Act 3 for unknown reasons. Act to act this makes sense but overall it is confusing and some directorial intervention could have helped. Like many things in this production, it is best not to think about this too closely and just sit back and listen.

While Gheorghiu and Kaufmann were recognizably of the School of McVicar (meaning generally good and detailed acting, plus a lot of grabbing each other), Olga Borodina’s Principessa came from a more melodramatic, fan-snapping place. I believe this was her first performance in this production (maybe second, she is not in any of these photos, which show alternate cast Princess Michaela Schuster), and I doubt she got as much rehearsal as the others. While more generic, her blunt style of casting imperiously dirty looks and pointing at people gets the job done, and as an unambiguous antagonist character, it didn’t matter as much that she seemed to be out of a different production. She sang as loudly and temperamentally as she acted, and got some louder singing out of Kaufmann than when he was trying not to step on Gheorghiu’s toes.  I saw her in the Met’s Adriana in 2008, and she gave more or less the same performance here.

Michonnet is a role that is inevitably an “unexpected” hit, probably because he is the only character in the opera who seems to have both feet on the ground, as well as being a surrogate for the fascinated audience. And a hit Alessandro Corbelli was, with pathos, sensitivity, and humor. The other supporting roles were all on a high level, and showed the cohesion and detail that is the true reward of a new production. Bonaventura Bottone’s Abbate was a particularly sharply-characterized amusement.

Mark Elder’s conducting kept things moving and animated, less focused on the contrast between the light theater music and the serious stuff than, like the production itself, their similarities. The orchestra sounded excellent and never drowned out the singers, even from my front of house seat.

Cilèa’s score is more functional than memorable, but once you forgive it that and the many holes in the plot… wait, that sounds like a lot of forgiving, doesn’t it? Maybe it is, but Adriana has definite virtues as a star vehicle, with no scruples about sticking in undeservedly extended diva death scenes, pointless military tenor arias, implausible recognition scenes and rage duets, and all the other sorts of highs you expect out of Italian opera.  When badly performed, it’s pointless (like at the Met’s last revival with the hopelessly miscast Maria Guleghina and a frequently modulating Plácido Domingo–Borodina was the only redeeming factor of that performance), but when done like this it can be a sort of drug.  If you just relax and let it wash over you as an emotional button-pusher, it works much better than it does as a serious piece of anything. But it would be hard to find a better-sounding or better-looking operatic candy shop than this one.

This performance was taped for DVD, check it out and you may be able to hear my distinctive clapping.  I am going to continue enjoying the unearned vacation of an extended stay in London, possibly at the ENO!

I traveled for four operas this fall and three featured cancellations in the leading soprano role.  Who would have guessed that Angela Gheorghiu would be the only diva to sing as planned?

*Edited to add that you can see and operate one of these gizmos in the Theatre section of the V&A.  It’s fun, but visually I think a wind machine would be a better idea…

Photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera, except the below.


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Je vais marcher dans votre co-production

La Fille du Régiment, Met Opera, 4/21/08. Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli et. al. Marco Armiliato.

Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment is an obsession-filled story of a twisted nuclear family. Only when Marie has shed her fractured paternal attachment with the regiment and reluctantly conformed to a traditional model of feminine conduct can she be united with her love, Tonio, who must in turn trade his lederhosen for a uniform to prove his masculinity. Don’t make me tell you about the tank.

Just kidding. Mostly. Been reading some Freud recently; it gets to you.

This production is a hoot. It kept coming very close to the line of Too Much, but never really crossed it.

I liked Natalie Dessay’s Marie a lot more than I liked her Lucia (not reviewed here because I saw the dress rehearsal). Her Marie is a little like a cartoon character, mixed with a slightly mystifying dose of Olympia and occasionally capable of brief introspection. Her voice is still razor-like and somewhat vinegary, but it suits this role and her interpretation of it precisely. Her middle voice had something of a glow to it that I didn’t hear in her Lucia, and her manic presence is also more at home as Marie than as Lucia (where she was hopelessly muted until the Mad Scene). “Forceful” would perhaps describe her voice, but, well, Marie is forceful too. The coloratura is so integrated with the stage action, it’s both funny and entirely verisimilar in an operatic way.

My appreciation of this opera will probably be forever hampered by my utter ambivalence about the 9 or however many high C’s that take up residence in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis.” I have nothing but praise for Senor Flórez’s panache in singing them, and recognize that it’s an amazing feat, it’s just not my preferred mode of vocal athleticism. And I don’t find the music itself of this number very interesting. Yes, he sang it twice, it was pretty great the second time too, I’m sure I just saw vocal history but give me the regiment song or the Act II trio, or something with lots of coloratura, or whatever. Bwah. Sorry.

But I love love love Juan Diego Flórez. He’s got a lot more than the high C’s, namely charm and style. The slow parts were beautiful, and the cute parts totally cute. He’s funny without forcing anything.

I think Alessandro Corbelli has somewhat more than the amount of voice required of your average buffo but somewhat less than would be required by most other operatic roles. Tonight, at least, he sounded somewhat small and not quite boomy enough. He’s very amusing and his French is fine, though. Felicity Palmer was, as usual, both hilarious and vocally authoritative as the Marquise, nice piano playing too (and re Maury’s question: her piano bit sounded vaguely like Act III of Wozzeck to me). Marian Seldes didn’t steal the show as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, which I think is a good thing. She did make it pretty funny though, including a recurring joke about a bobsled team that made wonderfully little sense.

They all sell the thing, perhaps a little too well. There isn’t a lot of time to breathe. Sometimes the production feels like a slightly overoiled machine. Donizetti comedy is goofy but lovable, without the spicy touch of the surreal that can invade Rossini opera buffa. To be the truly anarchic experience this sucker wants to be, it could use a few more touches of interpolated Wacky to take it out of the “mildly zany” (pace Maury) and into the “totally weird” (though a little bobsled joke goes a long way), or it needs to take the piece as it is and play it a little more straight. It feels like they’re going to squeeze the opera too hard and it’s going to break, though it never quite happens. The emotional scale is a little too big, they want to be able to be touching and wacky at the same time but the gear shifts don’t happen quickly or completely enough and you end up on a fence.

These sell-out-before-anyone-has-seen-it productions bother me. I don’t think it’s been overhyped exactly, it just seems like it has been ordained a hit regardless of its actual quality. Like the encore, it seems somewhat planned out and calculated when it could use some spontaneity. It’s symptomatic of the gains and the losses you get when you import or co-produce something with other houses (in this case, two others–ROH and the Wiener Staatsoper). It arrives battle-tested but maybe just a little bit shrink-wrapped.

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