Posts Tagged ‘Covent Garden’

Nabucco, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March 2013

31 March, 2013

After Verdi’s dissatisfaction with his second opera he nearly gave up, but thank goodness he didn’t because this third one is magnificent, apart from its rather weak ending. Placing the action in the 1940s rather than the original setting of 586 BC is a good idea, but it never really gelled and I found Daniele Abbado’s new production disappointing.

Va pensiero

Va pensiero

The singing however was quite another matter. Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska was spectacular as Nabucco’s adopted daughter Abigail. Covent Garden audiences who remember her terrific Lady Macbeth from June 2011 will know what to expect, and she certainly provided it, giving huge colour to a bland production. Her recitative, aria and cabaletta at the start of Act II were riveting — her voice so expressive and powerful.

Her fellow Ukrainian, Vitalij Kowljow brought a full rich tone to the bass role of the Hebrew high priest Zaccaria, and Italian tenor Andrea Caré sang beautifully in the tenor role of Ismaele who is loved by both Abigail and her half-sister Fenena. Ismaele loves Fenena and although the heavy presence of Marianna Pizzolato in that role was rather lifeless, she sang with a lovely clarity of tone.

Royal Opera

Conducting by Nicola Luisotti showed great attention to the singers, and the chorus sang superbly, with a lovely Va pensiero in Act III. Leo Nucci as Nabucco showed very well the confusion that Solera’s libretto gives him after he calls himself a god, and then produced a glorious Act IV aria accepting the God of Israel. The cello solo when Abigail shows remorse was beautifully played, and Luisotti produced fine musicianship from the orchestra.

Zaccaria, Nabucco, Abigail

Zaccaria, Nabucco, Abigail

From the Amphitheatre the movements of the chorus looked rather contrived, with one group of people waiting to move forward before another group moved aside, though it may have appeared more natural from lower in the House. And the video projections were not fully visible from the front row of the Amphi rendering them only partially visible to nearly half the audience — no wonder it was not liked from the greater heights of La Scala. The fact that it’s a co-production with Milan, Barcelona and Chicago doesn’t surprise me in these days of austerity, but if resources are scarce perhaps we should leave such minimalist new productions to the English National Opera, with Covent Garden concentrating on bringing in world class singers, which they have done here to great effect.

Performances with this cast continue until April 8, and from April 15 to 26, Domingo takes over from Nucci — for details click here. On April 29 there will be a delayed live cinema screening, and it will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 8 at 6pm.

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Tosca with Opolais, Lee and Volle, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 20 March 2013

21 March, 2013

In this new cast, Kristine Opolais and Yonghoon Lee complemented Michael Volle, who has sung Scarpia all this month at Covent Garden. From my previous experience of him in other bass-baritone roles (from Salome to Aida) he more than lived up to expectations, but it was Yonghoon Lee as Cavaradossi who was the new find of the evening.

All images ©ROH/ Tristram Kenton

The Act I set, all images ©ROH/ Tristram Kenton

From his Recondita armonia in Act I to his final moments in Act III this man was a revelation. His passion for Tosca was palpable, and after his glorious E lucevan le stelle in Act III, which he started very quietly and gently, he grasped at her when she appears with the safe conduct. Unlike the usual plump tenors, Yonghoon Lee is admirably slim, and he used his body to great effect. His Vittoria in Act II was the outburst of a committed young artist, his whole body showing passionate commitment, and emphasising the brutal mendacity of a police chief in the dying days of a lost regime. Then in the late moments of Act III standing with his back to the audience while the soldiers fire, he crumpled, his life blown away like the flame of a candle.

Scarpia in Act II

Scarpia in Act II

As Scarpia the police chief, Michael Volle’s characterisation and voice came over with huge power. From the dramatic sweep of his entrance in Act I to his grasp of a prize that eludes him and suddenly kills him in Act II, this was a great performance. Standing on the lower level near the Attavanti chapel in Act I you can see him thinking, and as the act closes his determination against the forces of the orchestra below, and of God on the upper level, came through with a certainty of success. Then in Act II as he moves into Ha più forte, expressing his relish for a violent conquest rather than soft surrender, we witness the dark forces impelling this man to destroy the individual liberty. When Kristine Opolais as Tosca kills him she does so with despatch, and her anxiety for the safe conduct and placing of the candles was beautifully done. She acted the entire role with great conviction, but vocally seemed not yet ideally suited to the heady drama of Tosca.

Among smaller roles, Jeremy White made a fine Sacristan, and among small matters of production, the slow steps of the firing squad in perfect time to the music, and Spoletta’s putting an arm out to stop the captain of the guard delivering a finishing shot, show great care for detail by revival director Andrew Sinclair.

This whole performance was a treat, but what really raised its level, apart from the singers, was Maurizio Benini in the orchestra pit. His conducting of Puccini’s wonderful score generated huge emotion, with gloriously powerful sounds from the orchestra at moments such as the point in Act I just before Tosca’s exit, and in Act II when Tosca finally realises what is going on in the other room, and in the crescendo as Scarpia presses her and she screams for the torture to stop.

This was a knock-out, and the vocal characterisations by Yonghoon Lee and Michael Volle are not to be missed. Unfortunately performances with this cast are sold out, but further ones with Serafin, Antonenko and Hendricks under the baton of Daniel Oren take place in July — for details click here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with Sarah Lamb, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, March 2013

20 March, 2013

This cleverly whimsical ballet, reflecting the essence of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, provides stage magic for the whole family. You don’t need any experience of ballet to appreciate the various vignettes, including the Adagio for the Queen of Hearts and four playing cards in Act III, a wicked take on the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Itziar Mendizabal as the Queen played it to perfection, inspiring the audience to their biggest applause of the evening.

Dancers appear in the audience, all images ©ROH/ Johan Persson

Dancers appear in the audience, all images ©ROH/ Johan Persson

Yet the main applause must go to the pure refinement of Sarah Lamb’s Alice, who takes all the strange happenings with perfect equanimity. It all starts with a garden party, and when Lewis Carroll takes a flash photograph of her, the lighting changes dramatically, throwing the guests into an otherworldly aura, while Ricardo Cervera as Carroll opens a hole in the ground, and assuming the persona of the White Rabbit takes Alice into Wonderland. The other characters from the garden party reappear in various roles, with Federico Bonelli as Alice’s beloved Jack turning into the Knave of Hearts.

Alice and Jack

Alice and Jack

Act I is full of clever stage effects and video projections, and when Alice sticks her head through the little door to peep into the world beyond, colourful dancers suddenly appear in the audience. Act II contains one magical incident after another including the Cheshire Cat that decomposes and eventually reconstitutes itself as a single large face, the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the mushroom with a Caterpillar that later scurries off stage on multiple feet en pointe, and much more. Alexander Campbell, Thomas Whitehead and James Wilkie were superb as the Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse, and Gary Avis and Kristen McNally were terrific as the Duchess and the Cook in Act I, reappearing in an aggressive pas-de-deux in Act III.

Sarah Lamb was lovely in her final pas-de-deux with Bonelli in Act III, and the Company performed with precision and vivacity. Yes, it’s all nonsense, very different from the ethereal magic of Sleeping Beauty, but Christopher Wheeldon and his designer Bob Crowley have recognised the very different magic of Lewis Carroll, and created something fun for dancers and audience alike. Joby Talbot’s music, orchestrated jointly with Christopher Austin, is full of the atmosphere of a warm summer’s day at the right moments, as well as the staccato confusion of the characters in Alice’s dream, and this co-production with the National Ballet of Canada was very well conducted by David Briskin from that company.

Performances with various casts continue until April 13, with two Saturday matinees. All are sold out, but there is a live cinema screening on March 28 — for details click here.

Royal Ballet Triple: Apollo/ 24 Preludes/ Aeternum, Covent Garden, February 2013

23 February, 2013

Two completely new ballets, plus one staple from the Balanchine repertoire, made a very well judged triple bill. Alexei Ratmansky’s dances to Chopin’s 24 Preludes were sandwiched between the ethereal Apollo, and Christopher Wheeldon’s powerful new creation to Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. More on that later, but first to Apollo.

Nuñez and Acosta in Apollo, all images ROH/ Johan Persson

Nuñez and Acosta in Apollo, all images ROH/ Johan Persson

Patricia Neary’s staging goes back to Balanchine’s original including the prologue, and Carlos Acosta was an Apollonian character of huge power. The three muses performed with great precision, Marianela Nuñez making a wonderful Terpsichore with her lyre. Calliope with her scroll of paper was portrayed by Olivia Cowley, and Polyhymnia in a mask, holding a finger to her mouth to represent silent mime, was a very musically expressive Itziar Mendizabal.

Sarah Lamb in 24 Preludes

Sarah Lamb in 24 Preludes

Following the serenity of Apollo, Ratmansky’s 24 Preludes made a complete contrast with its effervescent choreography. Chopin’s Preludes are composed in all 24 different keys (12 major alternating with 12 minor) and in these 24 pieces there were solos, duets, trios, and more, ending with all eight dancers in D minor. Lovely costume designs by Colleen Atwood: girls in flowing dresses, two silvery-blue, two purple, and the four boys in silvery tops and black tights. Neil Austin’s lighting design for the backdrop involved subtle changes throughout, and Chopin’s music sounded intriguingly contrarian in a version orchestrated by French composer Jean Françaix. A superb performance by eight of the Company’s star performers.

Kish and Nuñez/ Aeternum

Kish and Nuñez/ Aeternum

Finally came Wheeldon’s Aeternum to music that represents the peak of Britten’s early orchestral writing. It was originally commissioned by the Japanese government for the 2,600th anniversary of Emperor Jimmu in 1940, and although they initially accepted Britten’s idea it was later rejected as completely unsuitable. The three movements are: Lacrymosa (a slow marching lament), Dies irae (a sort of dance of death) and Requiem aeternam (the final resolution), and as an expression of pacifism it was a reaction against dark political developments abroad in the world.

Bonelli and Nuñez/ Aeternum

Bonelli and Nuñez/ Aeternum

Wheeldon’s powerful choreography was complemented by a hugely impressive three-dimensional backdrop by Jean-Marc Puissant, cleverly lit by Adam Silverman. At the start of Part I and end of Part II a body lies on the stage, but in Part III all is clear with the backdrop lifted, and just before the final curtain two silhouettes walk away from the audience. In the meantime Marianela Nuñez and Nehemiah Kish were wonderful together in Part I, James Hay performed a fine solo in Part II, and Nuñez and Bonelli were beautifully expressive in their Part III pas-de-deux.

This intriguing ballet demands a second view, but all performances are sold out. Here is one of the perils of success. The Royal Ballet has shown itself to be so good at putting on mixed bills, yet there are only five performances. Preparing new works like these is such a huge job, and although standard three-act ballets sell more performances and at higher prices, there really should be more chance for audiences to see this wonderful new material.

Performances continue until March 14 — for details click here.

Ashton Mixed Bill, with Yanowsky and Bonelli, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, February 2013

14 February, 2013

This review is for the cast on the second night, and what a treat it was again to have Emmanuel Plasson as maestro for this delightful mixed bill of short Aston pieces. As a serious conductor who is happy to perform ballet music he showed a sure touch with orchestra, instrumental soloists and dancers.

La Valse, ROH image/ Johan Persson

La Valse, ROH image/ Johan Persson

Musically, Plasson is ideal for a French work such as Ravel’s La Valse, and under his direction the dancers produced elegant flowing movements to Ashton’s choreography. Plenty of attack from the men, and Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani and Valeri Hristov made a superb central couple.

In the ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs Sarah Lamb, beautifully partnered by Rupert Pennefather, showed exquisite arm, head and body movements. The lifts were serenely executed, and their poetry in motion was an example of how glorious this pas-de-deux can be. Then from the sublimeness of Massenet’s music, lovingly played on the violin by Vasko Vassilev, to the bounce of Johann Strauss’s Voices of Spring. This came through with wit and joy from Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell, who were both, if possible, even better than the previous night.

Hirano, Arestis, Kish in Monotones II, ROH image/ Tristram Kenton

Hirano, Arestis, Kish in Monotones II, ROH image/ Tristram Kenton

After the interval, Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies, which Ashton used for Monotones I and II, came over beautifully under Plasson’s direction, and Christina Arestis, Ryoichi Hirano and Nehemiah Kish were in excellent harmony in the heavenly Part II.

Yanowsky and Bonelli, ROH image/ Tristram Kenton

Yanowsky and Bonelli, ROH image/ Tristram Kenton

Then to Marguerite and Armand where it was the turn of Zenaida Yanowsky and Federico Bonelli to perform the five tableaux from La Dame aux Camélias. There are those who say that since Ashton wrote this specifically for Fonteyn and Nureyev, no one else should perform it, but Yanowsky gave a very moving portrayal of the beautiful, consumptive Marguerite. Gliding with perfect grace, yet distracted by her fatal disease, she brought out the soul of this misunderstood young woman, with Bonelli showing the joy, tension and aggression that finally turns to quiet despair as she dies. Again an excellent portrayal of the father by Christopher Saunders, and very sensitive piano playing by Robert Clark.

These Ashton pieces form an unmissable evening — call for returns on the day of the performances, which continue with various casts until February 23 — for details click here.

Ashton Mixed Bill, with Rojo and Polunin, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, February 2013

13 February, 2013

This was Tamara Rojo’s evening, ending with a lovely bouquet of flowers for her — making up for their lack of such tributes in her last days with the Company, after accepting the artistic directorship of the ENB. In Ashton’s take on The Lady of the Camellias, she was a captivating Marguerite, glamorous and consumptive, showing fine textures of emotion. So lovely in her red dress in the second tableau, so apparently serene yet emotional in the third with Armand’s father, her broken bourrées heart wrenching in the fourth, and in the last tableau her demise left me spellbound.

Rojo and Polunin, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Rojo and Polunin, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Her partner, Sergei Polunin also left the Company last season, but in a far more abrupt way, and it was good to see this extraordinarily talented dancer back again. Their pas-de-deux were flawlessly executed and full of the tension that Ashton brought to his choreography for this ballet. Polunin himself showed a deft and light touch as he entered in the first tableau. Secure in his dancing and dramatic in his portrayal he only perhaps lacked command at the odd point when he was no longer with her. But this was a beautifully sensitive performance, and Christopher Saunders gave a fine portrayal of the father.

Watson, Nuñez, Bonelli in Monotones II

Watson, Nuñez, Bonelli in Monotones II

It ended a thrilling evening of ballet preceded by Monotones I and II between the intervals. Superbly danced, and Marianela Nuñez, Federico Bonelli and Edward Watson formed a heavenly triple in Monotones II. Nuñez in particular brought an ethereal quality to her performance, with extraordinarily graceful arm movements as she developed them from one position to another. When geometry in motion has such quality it leaves the mere human realm, which of course is exactly what Ashton intended.

Campbell and Choe in Voices of Spring

Campbell and Choe in Voices of Spring

Before the first interval was a short triple bill starting with Ravel’s eerie La Valse, which the Company danced beautifully, and ending with Johan Strauss’s enduringly happy Voices of Spring, gloriously performed by Yuhui Choe and Alexander Campbell. As they danced I couldn’t help but think of the dreadful stuff one sees in the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna, but there is of course no comparison. This is Ashton, and the brief middle item in the first part, his ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs, was magical, drawing a calmly riveting performance by Leanne Benjamin and Valeri Hristov. She floated in the air and his body movements exhibited huge strength and security.

Benjamin and Hristov in 'Meditations'

Benjamin and Hristov in ‘Meditations’

Musically too this was a treat. Vasko Vassilev played a wonderful violin for the Meditation, and Robert Clark a fine piano in the Liszt. But the main plaudits must go to Emmanuel Plasson for some of the best conducting I have heard for the Royal Ballet in recent years. His French background is perfect for the Ravel, and the Satie in Monotones, and to my taste he fully brought out the tension and lyricism in the Liszt for Marguerite and Armand.

This is a sell-out, and as some seats can be bought for £6, better value cannot be had in London. Performances with various casts continue until February 23 — for details click here.

Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2013

5 February, 2013

Artistic director Kasper Holten decided quite sensibly to take over the scheduled revival of an earlier production, and do something new. He was already endowed with some fine singers, so there were excellent performances here, including sympathetic conducting by Robin Ticciati.

Onegin, ROH images/ Bill Cooper

Onegin, all imags ROH/ Bill Cooper

Simon Keenlyside sang strongly as Onegin though the production prevented him from giving a full portrayal of the character. His Tatyana was Krassimira Stoyanova, who sang powerfully, but the production curtailed her dramatic interpretation by having an actress/ dancer portray the emotive moments. No such problems for Pavol Breslik as Lensky, who sang superbly; I loved his sincere apology to Madame Larina after challenging Onegin to a duel while being her guest, and his soliloquy at the start of Part II before the duel brought the house down.

Among the secondary roles, Tatyana’s nurse Filippyevna was beautifully sung by Kathleen Wilkinson, Zaretsky (Lensky’s second) was strongly portrayed by bass Jihoon Kim, and Peter Rose delivered a stunning monologue as Prince Gremin. Glorious singing then from cast, and chorus too, and with eyes closed, like one man near me, it was wonderful.

The production itself was a bit too clever as the director plays with time, flashbacks, and a dream world. It all starts before the overture with the mature Tatyana showing silent grief, and Onegin appearing on stage during the overture. In Scene 1 when he and Lensky arrive at the house it is Onegin who enters first, and replaces a book in a cupboard he has never seen before. Then Onegin reappears in the letter scene, as he does in Cranko’s ballet Onegin, which the ROH is currently performing, and though Simon Keenlyside is one of the few top rate singers who can do ballet lifts, the choreography seemed unnecessarily melodramatic in an opera context.

Lensky

Lensky

In the duel scene there are two Onegins, with Keenlyside as the mature one regretting the act, and an actor as the young one with a killer instinct. When Lensky is shot his body lies on stage for the rest of the opera, and in the final scene between Onegin and Tatyana, Prince Gremin appears as if in her imagination. Finally the young Tatyana and Onegin reappear as a bit of what-might-have-been, but to me a distraction.

Tatyana

Tatyana

Both Tatyanas wear a red dress throughout, with the mature one covered by a white ball gown in the last two scenes, and the chorus ladies in their voluminous black dresses reminded me of a Cromwellian Puritanism, which doesn’t seem to suit the story. The director has said part of his aim was to do it all on a tight budget, but in the past year I have seen enjoyably imaginative productions by Opera Holland Park and English Touring Opera, both of which work to very tight budgets.

As an opera director at Covent Garden, Kasper Holten has more to learn about sight-lines. Some of the action was entirely front stage-left and I met people who could not see it. Pity.

Performances continue until February 20 — for details click here.

Onegin, with Bonelli and Morera, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, January 2013

23 January, 2013

After John Cranko worked on the choreography for Tchaikovsky’s opera he wanted to turn the story into a ballet, which he later did in Stuttgart. Apparently he intended to use music from the opera, but the Stuttgart Ballet commissioned a score by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, using alternative music by Tchaikovsky. The resulting creation is rather different from the opera, which Covent Garden will perform in a couple of weeks’ time.

Morera and Bonelli/ Bill Cooper

Morera and Bonelli in Act I

Onegin here is a less nuanced character than the one based more firmly on Pushkin’s original in the opera. Here in the ballet he tears up Tatiana’s letter in Act II when she refuses to take it back, and his flirtation with Olga is cruel rather than showing her fiancé and his friend Lensky what a silly vacuous girl she is. But the choreography is glorious and the poetic justice of Tatiana tearing up Onegin’s letter at the end of Act III is very effective.

Within this context, Federico Bonelli gave a fine portrayal of Onegin, showing coolness rather than anger as he rips up the letter, and avoiding an excess of nastiness as he dances with Olga at the Act II party. The main character in the ballet however is Tatiana, and Laura Morera showed a lovely dreaminess in Act I particularly in her pas-de-deux with the imaginary Onegin who appears through the mirror, followed by emotional wildness in Act II after Onegin dances with Olga, and serenity in Act III as her pas-de-deux with her husband Prince Gremin flowed with life and joy. Gary Avis as Gremin was superb, his fine stage presence at the party turning to a beautiful expression of love for Tatiana in their duet together, and perplexed concern with what bothers her later in her boudoir. Bonelli, who has shown admirable angst at Gremin’s party when he realises who Gremin’s wife really is, then comes in to face Morera, and their pas-de-deux was quite rightly the high point of the evening. Finally she rejects him with a fine mixture of assertiveness and regret.

Morera and Bonelli in Act III, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Morera and Bonelli in Act III, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Avis, Morera, and Bonelli brought the performance to a glorious conclusion in Act III, while Yuhui Choe as Olga was sheer delight, and after an uncertain start in Act I, Nehemiah Kish as Lensky came into his own in Act II showing excellent anger and forcefulness in challenging Onegin to a duel.

Lovely work from the whole company, and Dominic Grier in the orchestra pit gave an excellent account of the score. The designs by Jürgen Rose, based on the Stuttgart Ballet originals from 1969 are wonderful, and I shall report again tomorrow after seeing a different cast this evening.

Performances with various casts continue until February 8 — for details click here.

Firebird/ In the Night/ Raymonda Act III, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, December 2012

30 December, 2012

What a terrific triple bill this is, and on the evening of 29 December it was beautifully danced.

Among cast changes in Raymonda, Zenaida Yanowsky and Ryoichi Hirano replaced Nuñez and Pennefather in the main roles, and Ricardo Cervera replaced Whitehead in the Hungarian dance. Cervera showed a fine cutting edge and dramatic sense, and his partnership with Kristin McNally worked like a charm, the two of them looking like dolls together in perfect time to the music. The dancers in the female variations, the same as before, were even better if that is possible. Hikaru Kobayashi showed beautiful control and musicality, Yuhui Choe’s arabesques en pointe with a bending of the leg were extraordinary, Itziar Mendizabal was lovely in the slow variation, and Helen Crawford’s jumps in the fourth variation were a thrill to watch.

Raymonda Act III, all images ROH/ Tristram Kenton

Raymonda Act III, all images ROH/ Tristram Kenton

As a ballet Raymonda has a rather silly story, but the Act III wedding of its eponymous heroine with Jean de Brienne, recently returned from the crusades, is a feast of dancing, and Yanowsky and Hirano were outstanding in these roles. I can’t resist a quick mention of Fumi Kaneko, Emma Maguire and Yasmine Nagdhi who were brilliantly on the music in the pas-de-trois. Raymonda Act III makes a glorious finale, and as the curtain opened Barry Kay’s ravishing set once again elicited spontaneous applause.

Galeazzi and Watson as Firebird and Prince

Galeazzi and Watson as Firebird and Prince

Firebird, so often the finale itself, is the starter here, with Mara Galeazzi showing beautiful arm movements as the Firebird. Edward Watson gave a well-nuanced performance as Ivan Tsarevich, Alastair Marriott was suitably dramatic as the wicked Kostcheï, and Christina Arestis was a gorgeous princess. The story is the reverse of Swan Lake, the prince abandoning his passion for an exotic female to accept a royal and more appropriate partner, but Stravinsky’s music is, or should be, hugely dramatic, though Barry Wordsworth’s conducting with its elegantly rounded corners lacked energy and bite.

No problem on that score with the second item, In the Night, where Robert Clark gave an excellent performance of Chopin’s nocturnes to accompany some glorious choreography by Jerome Robbins.

In the Night, Campbell and Maguire

In the Night, Campbell and Maguire

Against a starlit background, Alexander Campbell and Emma Maguire made a wonderful first couple, he so full of energy, she showing a gentle gracefulness. And in the third variation, Carlos Acosta and Roberta Marquez made a dramatic entrance on their shaft of light, moving apart and together with great passion. It was a super partnership, but in the second movement Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish did not manage the same success as a week ago. She seemed far less comfortable than with Hirano in Raymonda, and a couple of the lifts went slightly awry. In the Night ends with a delightful waltz, and interactions between the six dancers — it is a superb vehicle for the individual brilliance that this Company has in spades, and they should dance it more often.

In the Night, Yanowsky and Kish

In the Night, Yanowsky and Kish

Unfortunately all three later performances are sold out, but click here for details and possible returns.

Robert le Diable, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, December 2012

7 December, 2012

Before the first night of this hugely theatrical opera the ROH sent out a dramatic announcement saying they were “extremely grateful to Patrizia Ciofi, who has taken over the part of Isabelle at extremely short notice and will sing the role for the first four performances”. In the event she was wonderful, having sung the role before under conductor Daniel Oren, and as soon as she appeared in Act II, warmly vocal in her grief at the apparent loss of Robert, the whole performance rose to new heights.

Act I, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Act I, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Robert himself is a prey to forces beyond his control in the form of his demon father Bertram, and Alice, a Micaela-like character who adores him and brings a letter from his mother. That letter forms a small coup de theatre when she produces it in Act V. In the tug of war between her and Bertram, it persuades Robert to take her side, and go on to marry Isabelle, while Bertram is consigned to the fires of hell.

Congratulations to director Laurent Pelly for persuading the Royal Opera to put on this ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ as he has called it. It was a huge success at its first performance in 1831, remaining immensely popular throughout the nineteenth century, though unseen at Covent Garden since 1890. Could Pelly make it work, like Carmen, for a modern audience? Well, he can and he did.

Alice and Robert

Alice and Robert

He was helped by a superb cast, Bryan Hymel singing the very difficult role of Robert, which has seven high C’s in the first forty minutes, to say nothing of later exigencies of the role. Marina Poplavskaya sang beautifully as Alice after an uncertain start, looking serene, yet spitting defiance at John Relyea’s Bertram as she clung weakly to the cross in Act III. Relyea was superb, so full of menace as he threatens Alice, yet so urbane in his dealings with Robert as he persuades him to gamble away everything, before conjuring up the Prince of Granada, very well sung by Ashley Riches, to challenge him for Isabelle’s hand.

This opera reflects a nineteenth century view of the Middle Ages, cleverly signified by imagery at the very start. Two drinkers sit at a table, under a picture of a bottle of Vino di Sicilia labelled 1831, indicating the year of the opera and the location of the action in Sicily. The libretto was based on old legends of Robert of Normandy, father to William the Conqueror, and the star singers and sensational stage effects on at its first performances inspired Chopin to call it a masterpiece and doubt anything in the theatre had ever reached its level of splendour.

Bertram and Alice

Bertram and Alice

Pelly succeeds brilliantly with his production, the primary colours of the horses and the court ladies in the first two acts giving way to a heady German Romanticism in Act III showing mountainous terrain reminiscent of Der Freischütz, first seen in Paris seven years before Robert. The set turns, a cave appears, and inside the mountain devils use pitchforks to toss condemned souls to the flames of hell, in a scene reminiscent of the right panel of Hans Memling’s Day of Judgement. In Act V a beast of hell with flames in its mouth appears as a cardboard cut-out, and from the other side of the stage cut-out clouds bring on Alice. Battle between heaven and hell can commence, and Pelly has captured what for us is the kitsch nature of the opera, making it a theatrical treat.

Wonderful costumes by Pelly himself, with sets by Chantal Thomas beautifully lit by Duane Schuler who managed the trick of having Alice in the light, and Bertram in the dark as they come together in Act III. And then of course there is Meyerbeer’s music, superbly conducted by Daniel Oren. It worked its magic for me in Act IV as it evoked the play of higher powers, until arpeggios on the harp give a pause for reflection as Isabelle launches into a lovely aria professing her love for Robert.

Heaven versus Hell

Heaven versus Hell

Congratulations to the Royal Opera for giving us this hugely revitalised staging of a work that had a profound effect on both opera and ballet. The Act III music for the dance of the nuns reminded me of Løvenskiold’s La Sylphide, which it foreshadowed by a year. It was probably the first ballet ever performed with white tutus, and was a raunchy affair from which Maria Taglioni pulled out after her contracted six performances.

Timings in the cast list: Acts I and II 75 minutes, Act III 48, Acts IV and V 67 minutes, with two intermissions. That makes about 4 hours 35 minutes if the intervals are 30 minutes each, or less if they cut the length of the second interval, as they did on the first night.

Performances continue until December 21 — for details click here.