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.


One thought on “A season like no other

  1. Ruth,

    “And Nabucco, which hasn’t been staged in London in a long while”

    It’s beyond my feeble capacity of imagination to comprehend why a premier opera company like the Royal Opera would give even a thought to, much less spend hard-come-by funding on, mounting such a piece of organ-grinder trash as Nabucco. And beyond my feeble capacity of understanding why audiences would fork over hard, cold cash to attend performances knowing in advance what to expect, and moreover, remain in their seats rather than make a beeline for the exit doors after being confronted with a cast of wobbly-voiced shriekers such as today.

    And what exactly is wrong with it? What makes it so excruciatingly bad? Shall I mention the perfectly empty orchestral writing—a collage of one cheap effect after another, the endless galloping runs up to some aria or end of an aria that you can see coming from a mile away, always with the same basic figures—either up the scale, sometimes down, sometimes up and down for extra excitement!? They, of course, last twice as long as even the most forgiving ears could tolerate. Then the big musical cues and signs: Here! Clap. Here! The end of this part. (I wish it had been the end, but it was merely the end of Act I of Nabucco.)

    The pointless, self-serving high notes, held forever: vocal fireworks that serve no musical purpose and are only introduced to show off some singer and his or her vocal (dis)ability. The whole thing was sickening. To think that Act II would be better than these ridiculous vocal passages was quickly shot down by a squealing soprano who pierced my good mood at unnecessary heights and decibels. It’s the equivalent of a Monster Truck race: nothing that has use in reality, only the aesthetic of big size and the ability to crush little things. Looking for subtlety–nay: beauty–here is pointless. The very few lyrical passages (like the gorgeous string quintet [?] leading to Nabucco’s aria in Act II) that could be considered pretty are ruined by the labored vocal approach and melodic ornamentation that ruins the musical line. And then, sooner or later, come those high squeals, anyway, courtesy of Abigaille. Bravos and applause invariably follow from an audience that has been duped into appreciating this junk over at least 100 years.

    Men belch out at superdramatic volumes (nothing ever sounds natural), and mezzos sound nothing short of ridiculous, their voices denatured by the attempt to imbue the music with highbrow seriousness and high volume. It ends up sounding like constipation of the throat, and the result, to these ears, is something that fits right into that analogy. Exposed singing through several keys ends up being woefully out of tune, half of the time. Does anyone really like that stuff?

    Nabucco is such a terrifyingly bad opera, you can actually see the bad acting, even on the radio. Meaningless, overly dramatic limb extensions, swelled chests carried high, and with that frown on their faces. Haughty women with their eyebrows pulled all the way back to their hairline and that interminable look of transfiguration. How that can come from the pen of the man who wrote Falstaff, Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos, and (I feel generous today) even Rigoletto?

    Suggestions on how to overcome this aversion—or how to aesthetically justify it so that I cannot be accused of musical ignorance—are most welcome.


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