Posts Tagged ‘Massenet’

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.

Cendrillon, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, July 2011

6 July, 2011

The solid-looking walls in this production carry the text of Perrault’s fairy tale Cinderella, as if to reassure us that our lovely heroine will indeed eventually get her prince. For there is delicious uncertainty in Act III of this Massenet opera when Cinderella’s nasty step-mother and sisters assure her that after the bold intruder made her rapid exit from the ball, the prince decisively rejected her.

Off to the ball, all photos by Bill Cooper

This is too much for her father, who notices her grief and finally finds the backbone to defy his wife. In a tender duet with his daughter he promises they will return to his country seat and leave this town where he’s seen her cheerfulness fade away. Rather than allow her father to share her pain, however, she decides to run away and die alone. Her plaintive soliloquy Adieu, mes souvenirs de joie was most beautifully sung by Joyce DiDonato, ending with quietly sweet regret. The woodland scene that follows was played among roofs and chimney pots, and it worked well as the fairy godmother conjures up a gradual recognition between Cinderella and her prince, most gloriously and strongly sung by Alice Coote. Their duet was fabulous.

Elves surrounding Cendrillon

Why do we not see this opera more often? Preliminary plans were made in 1896 at the Cavendish hotel on Jermyn Street when Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain were in London for the premiere of La Navarraise. Upon its completion three years later a lavish first production was given in Paris at the Opéra Comique and was a great success, yet its first UK production was not until 1928, and this is amazingly its first performance at Covent Garden. In this version of the Cinderella story by Massenet and Cain, the two young principal characters are portrayed as desperate, lost children, hence the musical reason for not casting a tenor as the prince, yet the most widely available recording at one time did precisely this, and as Rodney Milnes writes in the Grove Dictionary of Opera, “there is neither authority nor tradition for this reprehensible practice”. Could this be partly a reason for the neglect of this opera? To be sure, Massenet was viewed unkindly at one time as a composer of drawing room romances, reflecting the personal and intimate nature of many of his works, but failing to credit their well-organised dramatic element, and the composer’s uncanny ability to fit music to words in a way that seems utterly natural. Cinderella’s Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant is a delightful example. And then there is the wonderful orchestration, such as the off-stage use of a lute, viola d’amore and ‘glass flute’ for the entrance of Prince Charming in Act II. The orchestration of this scene even reminded me of the meeting between Octavian and Sophie in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. Ballet lovers will also recognise some of the music from Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Manon, which was arranged by Leighton Lucas to music entirely from Massenet’s works.

The prince kneels to Cendrillon, surrounded by her rivals

But this is an opera that needs to be seen rather than just heard, and Laurent Pelly’s production, first staged at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006, is superb. I love the set designs by Barbara de Limburg, the choreography by Laura Scozzi, and the unnatural fairy tale element expressed by those extraordinary red costumes designed by Pelly himself, along with the red make-up on the footmen, and the absurd derrière of Madame de la Haltière, the stepmother. She was gloriously performed by Ewa Podles who used her vast range of pitch to the full, giving us low notes that seemed to run along the floor of the stage.

The nasty sisters were vivaciously played by Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel, both in the young artists programme, and Eglise Gutiérrez exhibited wonderful top notes as the fairy godmother. Jean-Philippe Lafont was a quietly engaging and immensely sympathetic father who gained vocal strength as the evening progressed, and I loved his gravelly tone. Altogether this was staged to perfection with a wonderful cast, and the fact that it is a co-production with Barcelona and the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels speaks for its international attraction. Well-known operas occasionally attract very odd and self-indulgent productions, but this relatively unknown work has been given the magical production it needs to engage us. Do not miss it, because although it will surely be revived, this is a terrific cast, with very fine musical direction from Bertrand de Billy.

There are only five further performances, the last being a matinée on July 16 — for details click here.

Werther, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2011

6 May, 2011

He’s an anguished young man in love, but Werther lacks the red-blooded energy of Des Grieux (Manon) or Athanaël (Thaïs), and his unrealisable love for Charlotte turns into a suicidal obsession. The opera is based on Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which can be seen as a cautionary tale where Werther dies alone, yet Massenet’s opera gives us a more glorious ending with the lovers united as Charlotte cradles the dying man in her arms. There they are in a lonely room within the stage, while snow falls outside, and the red shawl Charlotte wrapped around her white dress before rushing to Werther’s side matches the red blood on his white shirt. It’s a sad and lovely scene, and the audience roared their approval of Rolando Villazon in the title role, supported by Sophie Koch as an enigmatic Charlotte.

Act IV, Werther and Charlotte

Villazon seems ideally suited to this role, and though sounding a trifle underpowered he commanded the stage with his poetic anxiety. It was a super performance. The irony of this sad tale is embodied in a clash between the aristocratic sensitivities of Werther, and the simple small-town life personified by Charlotte, and her relations: her fiancé, later her husband, Albert, and her younger sister Sophie, along with the other characters and the children, who appear at the start and are heard again at the end during the death scene. Charlotte serves as their mother, sharing her love between them, but she cannot share love between Albert and Werther. She has different feelings for the two of them, well expressed in Act II when Albert asks her if she is happy and without regrets. Her response that if a woman has by her side such an upright and kind-hearted man, que pourrait-elle regretter? That says it all.

Bailli and children in Act I

This opera has an excellent libretto, the music is wonderful, and the orchestra played it beautifully under Pappano’s direction. Yet I feel it doesn’t grip audiences today in the way that Goethe’s 1774 story gripped sensitive souls of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We live in a rather different world, foreshadowed by the children whose happy singing is heard at the beginning and the end. Their appearance worked well in this fine production by Benoit Jacquot, with its excellent costumes by Christian Gasc, well matched by Charles Edwards’ lighting and set designs, which show a grey background to the scenes in the open air, making it appear that only the here and now matter. Werther’s tragedy is his suffering in the here and now, which he expresses in Act II when he sings that in dying you cease to suffer and merely pass to the other side. But while Massenet’s music for Werther brings out huge emotions and stress, he gives Albert a much simpler line, strongly sung by Audun Iversen. The other, un-tormented characters were all well portrayed, with Eri Nakamura delightful as Sophie, and Alain Vernhes suitably dull and cautious as the Bailli.

One thing, however, disturbed the calm atmosphere of Act I. From the Amphitheatre the sound of water was persistent and intrusive, and other people I spoke to felt the same way. There is a pipe and water trough on stage but no water flows so the noise was confusing, and clearly heard even in orchestral high moments. Could this be Tennyson’s Babbling Brook? But that poem ends For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever — yet fortunately it ceased after Act I.

There are five more performances, ending on May 21 — for more details click here.

Manon, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2010

23 June, 2010

If you want an opera about a femme fatale, this is it, based on Prévost’s L’histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. It is probably Massenet’s most popular work, though oddly it hasn’t been performed at Covent Garden since 1994. I love it and was thoroughly looking forward to this new production, with Anna Netrebko as Manon and Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux, making his debut with The Royal Opera. He performed superbly — his voice is extremely strong — and she sang and acted wonderfully as usual. But the whole thing left me cold — why?

Act I, Royal Opera photo by Bill Cooper

Certainly Act I was a great disappointment. The sets placed the inn on the stage level, but with the houses so high above it that the performers at street level could not all be fully seen from the front row of the Amphitheatre, and apparently from further back could not be seen at all. This ‘sight-line’ problem seems to plague Covent Garden, and if the directors won’t fix it then someone from the management has to step in — you simply can’t have almost the whole Amphitheatre as an area of ‘restricted view’. But it wasn’t just the sets in Act I; the singing and speaking boomed out far too loudly, and from a beginning like that there is nowhere to go. Evidently the director, Laurent Pelly intended that Christophe Mortagne play Monsieur GM as a loud-mouthed boor. But he seemed more like an angry tradesman than a powerful cabinet minister, and it was only when Anna Netrebko entered, portraying an ingénue that things improved. Her acting here, and when she dies in Act V, was convincing, and she interacted well with Vittorio Grigolo throughout the opera. Their singing was extremely powerful, though I would have preferred more gentleness at times, perhaps a hint of greater introspection. William Shimell had excellent stage presence as De Brétigny, with Russell Braun as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, and Christof Fischesser was excellent as Des Grieux’s father.

Laurent Pelly’s current Covent Garden production of La Fille du Régiment is wonderful, but I don’t think this opera should be played with the comic touch that he is so good at. The pantomime aspects of Act I returned in Act III, particularly with the superfluous ballet interlude, which led to the dancers being carried off by the ‘gentlemen’. Massenet’s music demands more emotional sincerity than was evident here. The plaintively coquettish pleading in Act III “N’est-ce plus ma voix? N’ai-je plus mon nom? N’est-ce plus Manon?” was strongly sung, but failed to bring out the pathos. Despite Antonio Pappano being at the helm in the orchestra pit, I felt a lack of sensitivity between orchestra and singers, and this opera should have a quiet side that seemed to be absent here. Manon herself has a dual nature, wanting to live simply with Des Grieux, yet still wanting the parties and jewels that money can bring, and at the end when Des Grieux urges her to wake up, as night is falling and he sees the first star, she sings “Ah! le beau diamant! Tu vois, je suis encore coquette“. There should be a pull at the heart strings, but it wasn’t there, and the audience seemed unmoved, though there was deservedly strong applause at the end for Anna Netrebko and Vittorio Grigolo.

Sets by Chantal Thomas, with costumes by Laurent Pelly, were modern, and there were some colourful touches. Manon’s costumes in Acts I and V were excellent, and her Act IV dress in shocking pink contrasted dramatically with the green of the gambling den, but her dress in the second scene of Act III, when she persuades Des Grieux to go with her and abandon his commitment to take holy vows, seemed out of place and unflattering. The black suits for the men were all a bit too much, and what was that vast orange balloon doing in the first scene of Act III? It looked like something out of the old 1960s television series The Prisoner.

Act III scene 1, Royal Opera photo by Bill Cooper

At the end, Manon’s final words are “Il le faut! Il le faut! Et c’est là, l’histoire de Manon Lescaut“, but if that was the story I missed it. I can admire the cold beauty of this production, but despite the powerful singing and orchestral playing, I was left unmoved.

Thaïs, live cinema screening from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Dec 2008.

3 January, 2009

This was terrific. The production by John Cox, with lighting by Duane Schuler, was imported from the Lyric Opera in Chicago, where I saw it in December 2002, but here it looked much better. I think the stage designs have been improved, because I remember the desert scene in Chicago looking pretty shabby, whereas here it was cleanly stylized, and made a good effect. There were also wonderful new costumes for Thaïs designed by Christian Lacroix, and the designer’s name, which was Paul Brown in Chicago, was omitted so I suspect other changes were also made. As in Chicago, Renee Fleming was Thaïs, and Thomas Hampson was Athanaël. They were wonderful — she was glorious as a great courtesan, and as a convent sister in the desert, while he gave a strong portrayal of a repressed fundamentalist Christian, struggling to contain his own desires. Alain Vernhes sang the role of Palemon, head of the order of monks, doing a fine job vocally and with his stage presence, but I found Michael Schade disappointing as Nicias, the ex-monk and lover of Thaïs. He did not have the rich tenor of Joseph Calleja, who appeared in the concert performance at the Royal Opera in June 2007, and as an actor he was rather dull, apparently unmoved by the sexual allure of the great courtesan for whose favours he has sold valuable acres of land. She had to go it alone in that respect, only aided later by the simmering desires of Athanaël. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducted with fine sensitivity, and the solo violin meditation was strongly and yearningly played by concert master David Chan, far better than the cloyingly weepy vibrato I heard in Chicago. These cinema screenings by the Metropolitan Opera cannot be as good as the real thing, of course, but by incorporating backstage information, such as details of the costumes, they do a superb job of bringing opera to the rest of the world. The Royal Opera’s pathetic attempt to do likewise, mentioned below, is simply embarrassing.