Extraordinary – in part

Hello, everybody – long time no blog. I meant to tell you about the Proms and the Covent Garden Ring, and to do a tribute piece to mark the final farewell of the much-loved ENO/Hytner production of The Magic Flute – but ultimately I’ve been far too busy *going* to all of these things, and holding down the job that pays my wages and enables me to continue to buy tickets for them, to subject you to my thoughts about them as well.

Last night I attended the “Our Extraordinary World” gala at the Royal Opera House – a Diamond Jubilee event (the Queen was in attendance along with the Duke of Edinburgh), a fundraiser (tickets carried a donation supplement, which on the higher-priced tickets was eye-watering) and a celebration of all of the ROH’s activities – onstage, backstage and in the community. With the posts of Director of Opera and Director of Ballet both only recently in new hands, it was also styled as something of a marketing presentation to donors and members – it was run as a private event for which booking was available by invitation only – about where the company is at present. As an employee of a fairly large organisation I’m familiar with how this concept works in more conventional companies: an occasional compulsory meeting involving a hired conference room, a projector, free biscuits, a guest speaker on behalf of senior management, and lots of talking-head videos from all ranks and corners of the organisation.

The auditorium of the ROH is certainly more attractive and better-lit than most of the venues I’ve been in for such things, I don’t recall ever attending one of them in a cocktail frock and killer heels, and the Queen has always been conspicuous by her absence. (Although there were no free biscuits, which is clearly a point that needs addressing for next time.)

What we DID have were several new and nearly-new pas de deux, mostly choreographed by current members of the Royal Ballet – a demonstration of exactly the kind of creative innovation that the House can boast from within its staff, and something to be very proud of as a flagship British arts organisation. In a more conservative vein, to show off the corps de ballet, there was also a fully-costumed performance of Ashton’s La valse. Looking at the dance component of the programme, I can really see only one point – the MacMillan ‘Farewell’ pas de deux – where a snip could perhaps have been made without major compromise to this event’s apparent purpose of demonstrating the variety, innovation and importance of the work that goes on behind the scenes at the ROH.

And what representation did opera get? Arias and choruses, presented uncostumed and basically unstaged, not one of them under a century old. When guest soloist Eva-Maria Westbroek had to withdraw at short notice due to illness, the opportunity was taken to shorten an overlong programme by replacing her in only one of her scheduled items and cutting the other completely. Indeed, looking through the operatic items on the bill, I struggled to find any great over-arching statement of current artistic vision in there. That Westbroek’s intended ‘Pace, pace’ was the missing item was almost immaterial; pretty much any other number could have been selected for the chop without real creative compromise, as high-class as much of the singing was.

We all know that arias sung in evening dress are about as far removed from the main body of the RO’s day-to-day activity as it gets. It’s hardly as though the RO doesn’t have a huge amount of important new creative work and artistic development in constant motion. OK, there are no world premieres scheduled for the main stage this season, but we do have the upcoming UK premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which is a house co-commission, as well as a revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur which was commissioned by the RO and received its world premiere here in 2008. And in Kasper Holten, the company now has a Director of Opera who will be acting in a directorial capacity (he’s directing Yevgeny Onegin in early 2013) as well as an administrator. Could something not have been made of this new state of affairs in this evening’s festivities? And whatever became of the Royal Opera House Youth Company, who debuted on the main stage in La bohème last season? Some of its members were seen in the talking-heads footage, but there was no showcase for them here. They could surely at least have had a presence in the Tosca Te Deum which, led by Bryn Terfel, provided the evening’s grand finale.

Other then the mighty and hard-working Royal Opera Chorus, who we heard (and saw, if only in concert black and wielding scores) in several items, the only hint we got of the Royal Opera attempting to showcase itself as an artistic force for the future was in the use of singers emerging from the company’s world-class Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme. With Westbroek indisposed, Santuzza’s solo in the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana was taken by excellent JPYA alumna Elisabeth Meister, who has covered Westbroek several times and is the RO’s current Helmwige and Third Norn. The baritone Ashley Riches, new to the programme, was impressive in the small role of Saint Jacques when Roberto Alagna and the chorus gave us ‘Ô Souverain’ from Massenet’s Le Cid. But the most memorable JPYA contribution came, ironically, in one of the dance pieces – the excellent mezzo Justina Gringyte, performing alongside RB principals Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in Alastair Marriott’s In the Hothouse, for which the music was Wagner’s Im Treibhaus (a.k.a. Wesendonck-Lied no.3). Of the evening’s vocal performers, she alone was fully integrated into the fabric of the piece concerned, with costume and movement.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that ballet came out of this far better than opera did. And I think that was a wasted opportunity.

OK, now for the realism: this was a fundraiser. I realise it would have been counter-productively expensive to present the RO’s forces in a programme of fully-integrated excerpts requiring comprehensive staging rehearsals, so I don’t think that particular solution would have been viable. What’s more, the company’s halfway into the last of four Ring Cycles, for goodness’ sake – it came as no surprise when Tony Pappano, originally down to conduct the operatic items in this gala, withdrew and handed over to Daniel Oren (Barry Wordsworth conducted the dance pieces). It’s worth noting, mind, that withdrawing on the grounds of an artistically-excessive schedule is a luxury which one of the ROH’s other greatest assets, the orchestra, do not have. They’ve been knocking out Swan Lake on pretty much every evening they haven’t had a Ring opera.

Practicalities like this can’t be ignored. But when it came to the evening’s purported theme, I felt I got a great impression of the “extraordinary world” of the Royal Ballet, but saw barely a scratch on the surface of the Royal Opera’s. If one company can be brave enough to present an intelligent and largely contemporary programme in the stuffed-shirt environment of a Royal gala, what’s stopping the other?


A season like no other

Apologies for the recent radio silence. I meant, as I mentioned in my last post, to do a detailed report on the Royal Opera’s Les troyens, what with it being a brand new David McVicar production and all, but the time came, and I somehow found myself caught up in the end of the opera season to the extent that I had a sixteen-night stretch in mid-July during which I had not one single evening at home.

This sort of thing became quite a habit this past year, in a way in which it never has before. It was partly, I think, a reaction to the previous season when I was concentrating more on my singing and found myself without sufficient free time to get to all the things I would have liked to see. Then there was the switch that seemed to flip inside me last Autumn, reawakening an emotional hunger for opera which I think I’d lost somewhere along the way without realising it.

As a result I’ve had a wonderful time, on balance. An ironic choice of words, perhaps, because balance hasn’t featured large in my life over the past year. Indeed, I wonder how on earth I actually managed to get through the 2011/12 season without having some kind of meltdown. The intense emotional connection I felt with some of the finer performances I witnessed had me unable to settle down or get a good night’s sleep for the duration of each opera’s run, as I replayed the operas in my mind and obsessively hunted down tickets for as many additional performances as time would allow. I was pretty much always out, and when I wasn’t I was too tired or distracted to do anything remotely useful; I didn’t cook for about nine months (beyond throwing the odd shop-bought pizza into the oven), was constantly wired on adrenalin, and once or twice I found myself booking up last-minute tickets for things on the odd free evening just to sustain the flow of activity to get me through the next few days and evenings (as any brief gaps in my schedule inevitably resulted in an energy crash). And having spent the previous year focussing on my singing, in the year just gone I barely did any singing at all, other than my Sunday choir job and the odd concert opera chorus.

One of the reasons I’ve been to hardly any Proms so far this summer is that since the opera season ended (a couple of weeks later than usual) I’ve rather valued the chance to be home more evenings than I’m out; to regain a bit of sanity, get considerably more sleep and spend a lot less money. And at the time of writing this, I haven’t been to a live performance of anything for eight days (though I’m looking forward to a particularly fine selection of choral Proms over the coming weekend) or to a live opera for two and a half weeks. I’ve been cooking and cleaning at home, watching TV, getting eight hours’ sleep a night… I actually don’t think I’ve ever been this well-behaved. Part of me expects a call from my credit card company to check that I’m still alive. I almost don’t recognise myself, and calm is restored. For now.

But here are some passing observations about the season just gone:

I’ve seen fourteen operas I had never seen before; three others I’d have liked to see eluded me because of schedule clashes. No matter how much opera I get to, this supply of new experience is not yet showing any signs of drying up. Well done ENO for being the richest single seam of new repertoire, with The Passenger, Jacob Lenz and Caligula (Dr Dee was one of those I missed). Of the fourteen, a handful were genuinely contemporary; I especially enjoyed Jonathan Dove’s Mansfield Park at the Royal Academy of Music, but really don’t care if I never see Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune (thanks, Royal Opera) again.

I’ve been to eighteen ballet performances (15 at Covent Garden, three elsewhere). This really is a change in focus for me – I saw approximately twice as many ballet performances this season as in my entire life before that. I’ve started to develop a taste for certain dancers over others, and to know which principal dancers I prefer in which types of role. I’ve certainly got over – at last – my old mental barrier of “it’s lovely, but I wish somebody would sing” (in Les troyens, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Didon’s line calling an end to the ballet sequence and asking Iopas for a song instead). I’ve decided that from now on, each booking period I’m going to make the effort to get to know one of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire classics in detail, and at the time of writing this I have tickets for four different casts of Swan Lake in the autumn. I look forward to doing the same with Onegin, Mayerling and La Bayadere in 2013.

I always knew I loved Verdi, but oh boy, in the past year that love has been sparked anew. There were 43 Verdi performances at the Royal Opera House, and it probably won’t surprise most of my regular correspondents to learn that I was at 26 of them, plus several elsewhere. Those marvellous Traviatas early in the season, those terrific Otellos in its final days (not to mention the Rigolettos and Falstaffs in between)… all I could possibly have asked in addition was for the other two of my Verdi “top four” to be on here as well. Oh look – the Royal Opera is bringing back both Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra in 2013! And Nabucco, which hasn’t been staged in London in a long while…

I’ve, how shall we put it, been about a bit. Somehow this season I’ve managed to see a performance of every show Opera North has done (well, I haven’t quite completed the set yet, but their Carousel is opening in London this month and I’ve already booked). In fact I’ve seen performances by all of the major UK regional companies, and been abroad once. I don’t quite know what I’ve started, because coincidentally, not one of the singers I really go out of my way to hear is singing again in the UK at all this side of Easter 2013. There’s only one thing to be done, and that’s to spot where they are singing and go there.

I’m impatient like that.

Grange Park Opera 2012

I’ve had so much I’ve wanted to blog about in the last couple of weeks, and absolutely no time to do so. Work’s been insanely busy, and at the same time I’ve been out of town for opera on both of the last two weekends, and trying to fit my aforementioned insane work schedule around various early finishes to make it to performances of the Royal Opera’s new Troyens (the subject, I hope, of my next blog post – if I can only find the time). But first I must write about my last two Sundays, which I spent in Grange Park Opera’s idyllic home in rural Hampshire, seeing Madama Butterfly and The Queen of Spades.

I love Grange Park Opera, not least because unlike most opera companies, they still consider me a spring chicken, and I qualify for their Meteor scheme (cheap tickets for young people) which cuts off at 35. Last year the limit was 40! As long as they keep that scheme as it is till next year – and an enquiry at the box office suggests that they will – so I can see I puritani and Dialogues des Carmelites for an affordable price, I’ll continue to love them for making me feel young.

Perhaps the most eccentric of the better-known UK summer opera festivals – they have a resident Dalek, for one thing – Grange Park Opera casts some of my favourite singers on a regular basis, and as long as they continue to do so, I hope to continue my relationship with them when my access to cheap tickets ceases (which is exactly the idea of the Meteor scheme – to tempt a long-term continuing audience).

The eccentricity and the casting decisions are, obviously, further reasons for me to love them.

There is still a little way to go on some fronts, however. I can’t review the Butterfly in any detail on account of having friends in the cast, but what I will say is this: the singing was brilliant, but the staging was, let’s just say, not up to the company’s usual standards. I’ve seen more interesting stagings in fringe theatres on zero budget (and with ticket prices which fairly reflect the circumstances). Revived from a production created two years ago for the company’s Rising Stars young artists’ programme, this looked cheap and undirected. And when you’re capable of putting on something as good as the concurrently-running Queen of Spades (or indeed last year’s Tristan und Isolde) that’s a misrepresentation of the company to those for whom Butterfly may be their only Grange trip of the year.

So I’m extremely pleased to have been back the following week to see Queen of Spades, which was outstanding. On my travels a few months ago I had a chance meeting with the Ghermann, American tenor Carl Tanner, which led to me promising him I would go, and further interrogation of the cast list whetted my appetite beyond measure. Booking tickets through the Meteor scheme leaves one rather in the hands of fate when it comes to seat allocation, but hey presto, I found myself a third of the way along the front row! I was in just exactly the right spot there – for the electric moment when Lisa first succumbed to Ghermann, for the gentlemen of the chorus advancing on Ghermann as the voices in his head to egg him on in his obsession with the three cards, and so much more.

Antony McDonald’s designed as well as directed this new production (looking at his credits, I note I’m much more familiar with him as a designer than as a director) which perhaps accounts for how integrated and coherent the whole thing felt. The set had an outer and an inner chamber, the former decorated in smart white and grey, and the latter open at one side and mounted on a revolve so it was sometimes a room (dark and claustrophobic) and sometimes just an exterior wall matching the other. The contrast between breezy and oppressive was brilliantly realised, and the detail – especially in the chorus scenes – was finely drawn.

Yes, I had some quibbles. The masked ball of Act 2 Sc 1 just didn’t seem like the sort of party an Empress (which Empress? a change in period made the answer to this question a little hazy) would turn up to, and everybody was in commedia dell’arte-inspired costume – putting Yeletsky in whiteface and a giant ruff does not underline his aria with dignity. And in the penultimate scene, McDonald also had Lisa shoot herself instead of throwing herself into the canal, then remaining crumpled in one corner of the stage for the whole of the final scene – it was horrifyingly powerful, and a haunting image, but must have been a trifle uncomfortable for the leading lady…

The singing was, for the most part, wonderful. Carl Tanner’s Ghermann was riveting of both voice and presence. Anne Sophie Duprels – one of those sopranos whose very presence on a cast list makes me go weak at the knees – could have been taxed by the role of Lisa in a bigger house, but not here – she was passionate, vulnerable, captivating. Lisa’s Act 1 aria and the ensuing duet with Ghermann were one of the most gripping pieces of pure human theatre I’ve seen in a long time.

I was a little frustrated by the Yeletsky, Quirijn de Lang – I liked him very much EXCEPT in his aria, when I wanted more evenness and bloom. Anne-Marie Owens seemed less physically frail than some Countesses (in all honesty she didn’t quite seem old enough) and came across more world-weary and frustrated than out-and-out terrifying as I’ve usually seen the character played in the past. Roman Ialcic was a first-rate Tomsky, robust of voice and full of energy. The supporting cast was uniformly strong, and the chorus and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (GPO’s first collaboration with them, I think) terrific under conductor Stephen Barlow.

I am now kicking myself that I did not find the time to catch last year’s Rusalka by the same director and with Duprels (who returns to sing Blanche in Carmelites next year) in the title role. Kicking myself HARD. But I Googled McDonald’s CV and found he has a Grange Park Boris Godunov listed as an upcoming project in 2016 – that should be worth catching, as this comparatively tiny opera house continues to explore large-scale dramatic repertoire.

One more little plea to the company, if any of them are reading this. The Grange is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hugely expensive to get there without access to a car. A minicab from Winchester station costs a minimum of £20 each way, and the return train fare from London is over £30 full fare (£20 with my annual gold card). As a single opera-goer, that means my transport currently costs a little over twice as much as my ticket. When I get too old for Meteor tickets, GPO will cost me £200 a trip for ticket and travel combined, which will realistically limit me to one visit per year when sometimes, casting permitting, two or even three would be great.

I realise your operations are not on a large enough scale to lay on an audience bus from the nearest major station, as Glyndebourne now does for free and Garsington does for a fee – but would some kind of lift-share/cab-share noticeboard facility on your website be too much to ask?

The great outdoors

Ah, British summertime! So far this year I’ve managed to remain largely in the comfort of my own home and office while rain has battered against the windows, observing friends and acquaintances commiserating with one another on Twitter about the weather for their first summer-venue opera trips of 2012. Today, though, I take the plunge – possibly literally, though I’ll try not to drown – as it’s opening night of the season at Opera Holland Park, where in the last couple of years I’ve come to feel something of a member of the family. And the weather is absolutely revolting. In fact, other than a week and a half of mini-heatwave at the end of May, it’s rained pretty much solidly since the middle of April.

Yes, given the climate in this country it seems a peculiar British eccentricity that so many of us choose to spend the summer traipsing round outdoor and semi-outdoor opera venues, often in full evening dress. Some, like Glyndebourne and Grange Park, at least have the advantage of a proper indoor auditorium, leaving only the peripheral considerations of interval picnicking and appropriate shoes and outerwear. And then there are those venues which are essentially glorified tents – like Garsington and Holland Park – where the temperature and the damp of the great outdoors are shared in full with the stage and auditorium, and where a torrential rainstorm pounding on a tented roof can render the performers almost completely inaudible both to the audience and to one another.

I was at a particularly memorable Holland Park Nabucco in 2007 in which the finale of Act 1 yielded completely to the noise of a rainstorm, and the start of Act 2 had to be postponed for several minutes. A Don Giovanni matinee in 2002 was inaudible from a few bars into the overture right up to the entrance of Zerlina and Masetto. Best (worst?) of all, in 2001 – on my birthday – I turned up there for a performance of La traviata only to find it cancelled because a wind storm the previous night had damaged the lighting-rig.

Things are, however, much better than they used to be at OHP. The current canopy roof, new in 2007, may be noisy when attacked by heavy rain, but at least it no longer flaps about as its predecessor did, and – I say this with heartfelt gratitude as a frequenter of the cheap seats at the edges – at least it’s now wide enough to be fit for purpose! What’s more, I’ve been increasingly impressed by OHP’s attempts to use the venue’s idiosyncrasies to artistic advantage. Here’s my review of their Don Pasquale last year, one of the last formal reviews I wrote.

Anybody reading this – indeed, anybody visiting the UK at the moment – might be forgiven for thinking this is all the weather ever does here. It isn’t. It’s just all down to luck. After tonight, the weather has a week and a half to dry itself out before my first of two visits this year to Grange Park Opera, in an idyllic spot near Winchester. Two years ago I recall sheltering from a deluge during the dinner interval of Tosca there, but the previous year Norma took place in 35-degree heat. And it isn’t until mid-July that I make this year’s first visit to Glyndebourne, where I’ve sat shivering in my winter coat (Billy Budd 2010) but have also experienced a delay to the start of a Figaro (on my first-ever visit there in 2003) because half the orchestra was stranded on a train the wrong side of a rail which had buckled in the heat.

For now, I’m thinking positive as usual. I’m off to see Lucia di Lammermoor tonight – how very kind of the weather gods to assist in bringing the sodden Scottish moors to the middle of West London! And unlike the smart country houses on the circuit, Opera Holland Park has the great advantage of imposing no dress code. Duffle coat and wellies it is, then…

A plethora of Bohèmes

No doubt it’s a symptom of needing to fill theatres in a difficult economic climate, but the proliferation of performances of La bohème in the UK in the next few months is slightly overwhelming.  It’s everywhere. Between now and the end of next season it’s getting 30 performances from WNO, 14 at the Glyndebourne Festival and 14 at ENO – as well as no fewer than five casts across 24 performances in John Copley’s 1974 warhorse of a production at the Royal Opera House.  If I were to catch each Royal Opera cast once and each of the other productions once each, I would rack up eight performances in fifteen months without duplicates.  A couple of months ago I even participated in one.

In my view the pick of these, in the sense of actual interest value, will be the WNO one (as it’s a new production, by Annabel Arden), opening in early June and continuing onto the autumn tour with some casting variations along the way, and the Glyndebourne Festival one which original director David McVicar is reviving (and, I’ve heard, significantly revising) himself, with a cast including two memorable former Cardiff Singer of the World prizewinners: soprano Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, the 2009 winner, and baritone Andrei Bondarenko who took the Song Prize in 2011.

I had a youthful love affair with Bohème.  When I first saw ENO’s old Stephen Pimlott production in its 1999 revival, I was 21, penniless and living in a house-share in which the boiler had just broken in the middle of winter.  Balcony day seats at the ENO were £2.50 at the time, pretty much the cheapest evening out in town, and there was a fabulous cast.  That wasn’t my first Bohème, and the parallel with my own circumstances at the time undoubtedly had something to do with it, but it was the first time I ever fell so in love with an opera that I ended up going to the majority of performances in a long run.

After that it’s fair to say that I swiftly became a little jaded and bored with the piece.  I certainly pretty much gave up on the Royal Opera staging after seeing it inhabited by a variety of casts between 2000 and 2005. It’s now so ancient that when it was premièred, its current first-cast Rodolfo was not yet even a twinkle in his father’s eye.  You’d think that kind of statistic might be a trigger for a new production to be considered.  It had already had several revivals by the time it was first filmed for video release in 1982.  I last saw it in 2005, with an all-star cast who didn’t really seem to have their hearts in it.  By sheer coincidence of scheduling, the following day I attended a matinee of the same opera, in English, in a tiny studio theatre with a young cast and a piano accompaniment, and despite all the constraints of such a performance, it highlighted everything that had been missing from or wrong with the one I had watched the previous night.  It had passion, heart and intimacy.  It was at that point that I decided I hadn’t entirely gone off the piece, but that I was not going to see the Copley production again for a very long time, if ever.

Seven years later, having missed three interim revivals, I’m back. So is original director John Copley.  The cast has come together partly by accident; the combination of Joseph Calleja and Anja Harteros was what tempted me to book again after such a long break, but having lost Harteros and her original replacement Celine Byrne, we ended up with Carmen Giannattasio (a terrific artist in my view, who doesn’t appear in the UK enough, and who I would certainly have booked for had she been cast originally).  So far, so good.  Meanwhile, visa issues forced Yuri Vorobiev (the young Russian bass whose Gurnemanz in the Mariinsky Parsifal was recently so impressive) to pull out of his first few scheduled performances as Colline, his place being taken by Matthew Rose.

I’m not sure whether absence played a part in making my heart grow fonder, or whether the presence of the original director was particularly instrumental in invigorating the revival, but I enjoyed it very much. I’ve seen Bohème all over the place since I last saw this production, and it’s a very long time since I’ve found one so emotionally involving.  I was at the second night, and having seen almost unanimous (mostly positive) comments from the first-night reviewers, I suspect the one I saw was stronger.

For a start, the whole thing was full of energy and (new) detail.  And the singing! Calleja is sounding simply brilliant at the moment, and that bright, youthful, tireless sound is finally being matched by natural and instinctive acting.  Giannattasio’s substantial, soft-grained soprano is a good foil for it, and more importantly they have real chemistry together on stage.  The contrast in their physical appearance helps – he a strapping gentle giant, she a tiny, fine-featured waif.  The development of Rodolfo and Mimì’s first meeting in Act 1 was infinitely touching, and if I hadn’t already been feeling their pain in the travails of Act 3, the moment in Act 4 when he swept her bodily into his arms would certainly still have done the trick.  I was hugely impressed too with the Marcello, Fabio Capitanucci – a beautiful voice, great stage instinct and a natural interaction with his colleagues.  Looking at future listings, I’m pleased to see we’re due to see more of him here in London, in Les troyens and L’elisir d’amoreSemyon Bychkov’s conducting was another highlight – despite a slow start to the second act and a few hairy moments in the ensemble, the cast and chorus seemed responsive to his broad sweep. And he’s a master of moments, sensitive to every subtle change of key and tempo in the few minutes of Mimì’s death scene.

I don’t mean to overlook the contribution of the other singers (among them Nuccia Focile as Musetta and Thomas Oliemans as Schaunard) but I didn’t set out to write a detailed review – just some thoughts on the specifics of what it was about this revival that made the production work for me this time, when it hasn’t in the past.

I’m very happy that my Bohème ennui seems to have lifted – gioventù mia, tu non sei morto! – though I can’t imagine that my boredom with the Copley production will ever cease to bubble under the surface. But until the Royal Opera dares to scrap and replace it (its 1970s vintage is evident in the sheer amount of orange and brown in the costumes!) it’s amazing what difference a good, well-matched cast and a bit of dramatic conviction can make…

Edited to add: I received notice this morning of this concert on Tuesday 15th May at St Paul’s Covent Garden (the “Actors’ Church” on the the other side of the Piazza from the ROH). It’s early and it’s short, timed so that anybody with a ticket for the ROH Falstaff can go to both, and it features several of the aforementioned excellent Bohème cast.  Tickets £15.


On Twitter yesterday, the comedian Sarah Millican announced – very apologetically – that she was ill and was having to cancel last night’s gig.  Today, she tweeted again: “Oh and to those saying ‘man up’, can I just say this is the first tour show I’ve cancelled due to ill health in over 220 shows. So f*ck off.”

As it happens, the subject of the attitude of some fans toward performers has been much discussed this week among opera Tweeters.  In the midst of a couple of weeks peppered with cast-change announcements from Covent Garden and elsewhere, I and many others – especially some performers – have been disappointed by the sense of personal affront displayed in some more than usually petulant reactions from certain ticket-holders.

Live performance is part gift, part gamble.  If you invest in it, the rewards are extraordinary and a source of constant variety. But there has to be some degree of acceptance that something might go wrong, or at least not turn out quite as you expected.  I’ve turned up for a performance to find it cancelled due to an unexpected technical problem; I’ve been all the way to Rome and found a performance cancelled due to a strike. And when you get into the matter of casting – the bit of the experience that, on a show by show basis, hinges upon living, breathing human beings – you have to make an allowance that not everything can be predicted.  If you want certainty, I’m afraid you’ll need to go and see a film instead, or listen to a CD.

A few points, then, to lovers of live performance.

1. There are hardly any performing artists out there who cancel capriciously.

They can’t afford to.  Firstly, on a brutally practical level, they won’t get paid if they don’t turn up.  And if they have to not turn up on two or three occasions in succession? Well, as anybody in any profession should know, perpetual unreliability ultimately results in unemployability. In the massively competitive and mainly freelance world of opera, it happens more readily than in other careers. What artist would willingly put themselves into that position?

Most of the time, the person who’s cancelled will be at least as disappointed about it as you are.  S/he will be keenly aware of not only the disappointment of not performing, or the disappointment that it will cause to some of the audience, but of the professional bridges it may burn, especially if it isn’t the first time.  There are very, very few in the opera world who are popular and famous enough to be sure that the opera company they let down today will still ask them back next season, and that if that company doesn’t, somebody else will.  And the vast majority of those who ARE that popular and famous conduct themselves with professionalism and wouldn’t do so anyway.

As for the diva who’s such a big name that she still gets work at the major houses (and sells them out) despite being so unreliable that Covent Garden always rehearse her alongside a second-cast soprano who already has scheduled performances of her own?  Who always turns up on the nights when the critics or HD-relay cameras are in, but cancels other performances seemingly randomly?  Well, the less said about her the better. She’s ONE singer, among thousands.  And for all I know, she too may have very good reasons.  Which brings me on to…

2. When a singer cancels an appearance, they are not morally obliged to tell you why.

I can appreciate why they sometimes want to.  When a big-name artist has built up a bit of a reputation as a serial canceller, and they’re obliged for some good reason to cancel something new, keeping the fans on side is probably an astute move.  But for the vast majority of artists in the vast majority of circumstances, a simple “health reasons”/“family reasons” explanation should be considered acceptable.  There aren’t many jobs in which, in order to take a bit of unavoidable time off, you are expected to divulge the minutiae of your health or family problems to the general public.

When Simon Keenlyside pulled out of the Royal Opera’s recent revival of Figaro, I found it disheartening to read his detailed and heartfelt statement via his fan site as to why he had had to do so.  I’m sure it placated a few people, but I’m sad that he felt the need to release it.

And as for those serial cancellers (of whom, just to be clear, Mr Keenlyside is not one) – when I buy a ticket, my agreement is with the opera company, not the artist.  If I have an issue with the company charging high prices for tickets while continuing to employ guest artists who cancel more often than they show up – IF I believe that a certain artist is terminally unreliable – then it’s the company I should be expressing displeasure with, not the artist.

3. One man’s serial canceller is another man’s paragon of reliability.

That diva I mentioned above? The exception to the rule?  Well, somebody I know has been hearing her since she debuted at Covent Garden twenty years ago, and has never managed to be there on a night when she hasn’t turned up.  Just saying.

4. Do you really want to hear somebody brilliant give an awful performance?

Because if somebody who’s unwell feels under pressure to sing a performance they really should have cancelled, it’s entirely possible that that’s what you’ll get.  I’ve been to a few.  It’s painful to witness, and must feel a hundred times more horrible to be the performer doing it.  It’s to nobody’s advantage – especially if having been pressurised into performing has knock-on implications for their next performances or, more importantly, their vocal, physical or mental health.

5. Not having heard of somebody is not a reason to be angry or disappointed.

If your favourite singer cancels and is replaced by somebody you hated last time you heard them, fine – return your ticket (though for goodness’ sake, don’t hold a grudge against the canceller for foisting an inferior artist upon you – he or she is not responsible for the management’s casting decisions, nor for the availability at a day’s notice of other possible exponents of the role).  But if your favourite singer cancels and is replaced by somebody you’ve never heard of, which has happened to me more times than I can count, that’s cause for five minutes of disappointment and an entire evening of potential.

Which leads me on to…

6. There’s a good chance you’ll get somebody even better, or at least somebody interesting.

Remember what a vintage year 2011 was for sopranos in Verdi and Puccini roles at Covent Garden?  I can think of five about whom the press and audiences raved (I didn’t manage to hear all of them, regrettably!), every single one of whom was either a replacement on that occasion or somebody whose original big break with the Royal Opera happened under similar circumstances.  In one case, both.

And it’s always been the way – fifteen years ago I heard an unknown 24-year-old Peruvian tenor called Juan Diego Florez storming the Royal Festival Hall as a late replacement for Giuseppe Sabbatini in a Royal Opera concert performance of Donizetti’s Elisabetta, ossia Otto mesi in due ore. Replacing an indisposed star is a time-honoured way of getting a big break, and lord knows there are enough excellent artists out there who long for such an opportunity.

One point, though, to the opera companies…

Ticketholders appreciate honesty and transparency.

When I buy a ticket for a performance, my agreement is with you, not with the singer.  You know casting is a selling point, or people wouldn’t expect you to publish cast lists in your marketing material.  If a certain person can’t appear, it’s only reasonable for me to expect you to tell me about it with as much warning as reasonably practicable.  And when the reason given for a cancellation is something which would have been known about by the management some time in advance, it rankles when the audience isn’t told about it until they arrive.

Similarly, if a headline singer is fully intending from the outset to miss a certain performance, it’s dishonest for the management not to disclose this and give proper billing to the alternate artist.  I recently learned this to have been the case with a performance some time ago by a UK regional company for which I travelled some distance out of interest in the singer in question; had the company been honest, I could have opted to book for a different night.  Or indeed, to choose to travel for both – the cover in that instance was an acquaintance of mine making her role debut.


I enjoy catching my favourite singers in as many performances as I can, and of course I hope that they won’t cancel – especially if I’ve planned to travel a long distance.  To date I’ve actually been pretty lucky with my absolute favourites (or rather, they’ve been lucky with their health and reliability) though my propensity for loving female singers in a certain age group brings yet another factor – family planning – into the equation. Hours after I started thinking about formulating this blog post, the Royal Opera lost Diana Damrau from their upcoming Robert le diable due to pregnancy.  It’s just one of those things, and a factor that makes planning to attend live performances even more of a gamble.

Disappointment in somebody’s absence is a compliment to them.  But hurtful comments, gossip and speculation are unnecessary and give “fans” and “music lovers” a bad name.  I use those quotation marks advisedly.  There are times when a bit of perspective is required.


Considering that my operatic travels to date have been comparatively rare – London alone being packed with so many performances that I already struggle to find the time or money to see everything I’d like to – 2012 so far has been something of an odyssey. Following a flying visit to Birmingham in January for the final Meistersinger of the Royal Opera run, and a trip to Hamburg at the beginning of February for La traviata and Aribert Reimann’s Lear, March took me on opera trips to four different corners of the UK (from Scotland to the south coast) as well as to the usual range of venues in my home city. A further excursion awaits next weekend.

This frequency of travel is not sustainable. I have a full-time job, Monday to Friday office hours on the whole, without a particularly generous leave entitlement. And travelling at the weekends causes me loss of income from my Sunday-morning church singing job, without which I would struggle to afford such trips in the first place. I’ve now built into my budget an allowance enabling me to lose an average of one Sunday’s choir fee every two months – but even then, I find myself wanting to use up many of my free Sundays on weekend singing events elsewhere. Plus, I love my Sunday job – it’s an important part of my life, and I don’t like missing it too often.

But the Hamburg trip in particular – which turned out to be a good deal cheaper than I had feared it could be, and which could easily have been cheaper still – made me yearn to travel more often than I have to date. Before that point, I hadn’t left the UK to see an opera since 2008 when I spent my birthday in Paris with friends, seeing Don Carlo at the Opéra-Bastille.

I work 15 minutes’ walk from London’s Eurostar terminus. Getting to Paris or Brussels is fast, easy, and under certain circumstances cheaper than a trip to somewhere like Edinburgh. If only the Opéra-Bastille, Châtelet or La Monnaie would do Saturday matinees, I might be nipping off on a Friday night on a fairly regular basis, getting back to London by Saturday evening. But no, sadly the standard matinee slot across much of Europe is Sunday, which is far less convenient. There’s another problem, too – few of my favourite singers and directors seem to be in favour in Paris or Brussels! It tends to be a choice between chasing them further afield and waiting for them to pop up in the UK. Until now, I’ve almost exclusively done the latter.

While I’m on THAT subject, wouldn’t it be nice if my favourite singers always worked with one another, and with my favourite directors, to create a brief and well-co-ordinated list of things I long to go overseas for? Or at least in concurrent productions on consecutive evenings, in the same easily-accessible European city…

For now, having worked out a wish-list on the back of an old envelope, I note with some dismay that almost all of my annual leave allowance for next leave year, which runs July-June, is provisionally spoken for. A couple of favourite-singer/ideal-role combinations here, a couple of favourite-director/interesting-project combinations there, and all my time – never mind all my money – is swallowed up. And that’s before some companies have even made their season announcement… At least I know I’m going to have a brilliant time!

The Rake’s Progress: Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, 21st March 2012

As I said in my first post here two weeks ago, I am not primarily here to write opera reviews – but I think a new production by my favourite director is a good excuse for a little one, at least. It also seemed like a marvellous excuse to sit in the front row of the Stalls – especially as in Glasgow these sell for a paltry £38. What a fabulous view we had from there, and what clarity and immediacy of orchestral sound.

The Rake’s Progress has been on my David McVicar wish list for YEARS, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that it’s been on his, too. It’s surreal, dark, knowing, sleazy, self-consciously theatrical, and simultaneously historical and modern. All the things he seems, in my experience, to be most successful in evoking on stage.

The visuals of McVicar’s new production, by his regular collaborator John Macfarlane, are contained within a set of wooden frames, evoking the stage of an 18th-century theatre, and are closely inspired by the period and style of Hogarth. But where Hogarth’s 1733 paintings are in muted shades, and the better-known engravings of 1735 obviously monochrome, MacFarlane’s costume designs are grotesque caricatures with hugely augmented wigs, their bold colours dominated by red and black and a vast amount of hot-pink (Anne remains clad in a simple white dress throughout). The sets, however, are more subtle; even the tall trees on the backcloth in the rural idyll of the opening scene are looming and mysterious, while the walls of Tom’s apartment appear to be decorated with storm clouds. The spectre of death, in the form of giant images of a twisted skeleton, is never long absent. Even Mother Goose’s cuckoo-clock contains a grinning skull.

It’s a lively production – choreography by Andrew George, another long-time McVicar collaborator, ensured that the moments of stillness, such as in the madhouse, are thrown into relief. Cast, chorus and orchestra (conducted by Sian Edwards) are uniformly strong and full of energy. Indeed, so spirited was Baba’s scenery-trashing rant that she apparently broke a chair – one upon which Nick Shadow was required to sit later in the scene. I don’t think it was supposed to collapse beneath him.

It was great to see a bit of imagination successfully employed in the casting, too. Ahead of seeing the performance, I’d had reservations about hearing a Tom for whom it was the first-ever attempt at an English-language role (it’s hardly an easy option for a beginner!) and an Anne who I don’t think I’ve previously encountered in anything much later than Bach. In the event, I found I noticed Edgaras Montvidas’s slight accent at first then instantly forgot about it – the Lithuanian tenor delivered Auden’s text as crisply as anybody. And both the compass and the character of Anne were a lovely fit for Carolyn Sampson, who was especially touching in the dialogue with Baba and later in the madhouse lullaby. Steven Page was an attractive, sardonic Shadow and Leah-Marian Jones a glamorous and poised Baba.

The final Glasgow performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, though sadly Carolyn Sampson was off sick that day. It’s a shame it isn’t being captured on film, as it’s a very visual production – it is a co-production with Turin, though it’s some considerable time before it’s due to pop up there. Scottish Opera’s brief seven-performance run has now moved on to Edinburgh, where it ends this Saturday.

Back south of the border, meanwhile, I’m seeing two more McVicar productions in the space of the next week (both things I’ve seen before – his WNO Traviata and Royal Opera Rigoletto), while yesterday news emerged of a Tristan und Isolde in Vienna in summer 2013 – I haven’t worked out whether this is a repeat of the one he did in Tokyo a year ago. Then my Glasgow travelling companion pointed out his new Elektra in Chicago in October. I’ve never been to the USA, and it’d be a horribly extravagant expedition, but I can’t say I’m not tempted. All that remains to be seen is how much willpower we have!

A little mid-week day trip

Scottish Opera will always be dear to my heart. When I was growing up in Durham, which at the time had no theatre suitable for professional touring companies, the Newcastle Theatre Royal was a regular port of call for Scottish Opera. So when I had a compulsion to see my first opera at the age of 17, it was to Scottish Opera that I turned, and to Scottish Opera that I ran back two days later to see the same opera a second time! But for as long as I can remember, the state of the company’s finances has been parlous, and over the years their operations have eroded further and further, shedding full-time personnel and no longer touring regularly to venues south of the border – though they do now pay the odd visit to Belfast. It is a matter of wonder and relief to me that they are somehow still managing to produce, cast and tour several full-scale operas per year at a level which never seems to have diminished.

Sadly for me as an itinerant audience member, one recent casualty of Scottish Opera’s circumstances is the practice of running two or three shows at a time. I used to be able to make more of an occasion out of a visit, staying two or three nights to see Norma and Rigoletto, La traviata and Così fan tutte, Inez de Castro and Il trovatore or Die Fledermaus and Orfeo ed Euridice. Nowadays, while I can still make a long weekend of a trip to Opera North or WNO, I can no longer make more than a one-opera stay out of a Scottish Opera trip. It can seem an awfully long way to go, and time to spend travelling, for a possibly brilliant but all-too-short treat at the destination.

Some things, like their current Rake’s Progress, are appealing enough to justify the effort. And as it happens, there’s an inexpensive and non-time-consuming way of doing it from London – the Caledonian Sleeper rail service from London Euston, on which fares are available for as little as £29 per person each way. Supposedly the starting rate is £19 but I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of these available, even booking almost the moment they’ve come on sale! The sleeping-quarters are tiny twin cabins with reasonably comfortable bunk beds and a washbasin; there are clean shared toilets and a comfortable lounge/bar which serves hot snacks, and in the morning you get a cup of tea or coffee delivered to your cabin.

The Sleeper isn’t for everybody. It doesn’t run on Saturday nights. If you travel alone you may have to share a cabin with a stranger (unless you’ve paid a much higher fare to guarantee you won’t have to) and there are no showers on board, so check if your destination station has facilities – Glasgow and Edinburgh both do, London Euston doesn’t (though nearby King’s Cross does). It’s also probably not suitable if you sleep lightly. But if you don’t mind roughing it a bit and you’re organised enough to book when the cheapest tickets are released, the Sleeper can be a great way to travel, especially with a friend. No hotel bill, only one day off work required, and the dullest part of the trip happens while you’re asleep, leaving a full day of waking hours to explore your destination. It turns 800 miles of travel into what is effectively a day trip. I was out at an event at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday night, and back in my office by 8:30 on Thursday morning, having had a lovely day in Glasgow in between. There’s also the crucial point that a morning arrival means you won’t be late for the show if your train breaks down – a realisation born of bitter experience.

On this occasion we did have just such a delay on the outbound journey, and arrived in Glasgow at 9:30am. Having not eaten for nearly ten hours by that point, we immediately sought out a restorative brunch at the Tea Rooms upstairs at The Butterfly and The Pig – Scotch pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for me, Eggs Benedict for my companion, both washed down with substantial quantities of coffee. We wandered westwards and spent the rest of the morning exploring the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. An early-afternoon snack and proper, excellent-quality coffee was tracked down at Tinderbox on Byres Road. After a look around the architecturally-impressive but confusingly-laid-out Riverside Museum in the afternoon, we convened with a friend from Scottish Opera in the café-bar at the Centre for Contemporary Arts before heading to seafood restaurant Gamba for their pre-theatre meal deal. Not one morsel that passed our lips over the course of the day was anything short of delicious, so many thanks to the people on Twitter and elsewhere that pointed us in the right direction!

Then of course we went to see The Rake’s Progress, of which more in a separate post…

Ubiquitous McVicar

I’m off to Glasgow tonight to see tomorrow’s performance of The Rake’s Progress. When Scottish Opera announced their current season, it was the one opera which jumped out at me immediately as a must-see – a favourite opera, a new production by a favourite director, but more to the point, an opera/director combination which has been on my wish list for years.

I recently noticed that in the space of five months, from Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden on 14th February to La bohème at Glyndebourne on 13th July, I’ll have seen no fewer than eight David McVicar stagings in British houses – six revivals and two new productions. Curiosity got the better of me, and delving back into the further recesses of my memory, I was quite stunned to realise that Rake will be the twenty-first McVicar opera production I’ll have seen live. It should have been more – his Ring in Strasbourg was pencilled into my diary, but just as the four operas had been produced individually, the funding for the complete cycles sadly fell through. Of those I’ve seen, there’s only been one (the Royal Opera’s Aida) that I’ve fully failed to understand, and have since avoided in revival.

I may quip about McVicar’s directorial tics (I imagine my #McVicarBingo Twitter hashtag will be resurrected at some length tomorrow) but I like his understanding of theatre, and how best to choose a period and setting to maximise the audience’s understanding of the characters. If there’s one frequent negative criticism I often have of him, it’s that some of his decisions diverge excessively from the spirit of the libretto in order to create a great show or great drama. Occasionally I wonder if some of his work might be most effective if you don’t know the piece in advance. For me, his Alcina, Faust and Rosenkavalier are near-definitive. But as brilliantly as his splendid romp of a Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare succeeds on its own terms, it ultimately fails to get to the heart of the piece. And his Scottish Opera/WNO Traviata is terrific theatre, but it plays like a straight adaptation of La dame aux camélias set to music, without much thought given to the fact that Francesco Maria Piave bothered writing an opera libretto with its own slant on the source material. Before I saw that production, I wondered how McVicar had reconciled himself to directing a work he’d dismissed in a 2003 interview as inferior – it soon became very clear that this was how.

Curiously, I have absolutely no idea what to expect of his upcoming Troyens at the ROH. I imagine that I’ll recognise elements of his earlier work, but have no idea how he will use them. Unlike Rake’s Progress or Salome, it’s not a piece I’d have thought would automatically appeal to him. I have a ticket for the Royal Opera’s In Conversation event with him on 24th May, so we’ll see.

But the man is second to none in knowing how to deal with a stage full of people, in memorable and telling detail, and how to bring to life the cruelty of the world and of humans’ relationships with one another. More of the same, please – Peter Grimes, perhaps?