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?

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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.

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!