Tamerlano, Royal Opera House, London
Don Pasquale, Sadler's Wells, London
Scoring a Century, Crescent Theatre, Birmingham
Songs of a Wayfarer, Royal Festival Hall, London
A change of cast left a Verdi audience in front of a Handel opera, and they were never going to make it to Act III of this lumpy marathon
Sunday 14 March 2010
First seen in Florence, Graham Vick's cool, contemplative production of Tamerlano would have been unlikely to feature in the current Royal Opera House season without Placido Domingo's endorsement.
When Domingo was taken ill, the company was left with a Handel opera and a Verdi audience. A 20 per cent credit note wasn't enough to keep them in their seats. By the end of the first interval, there was room to spread out. By the second, Bow Street was lined with getaway cars.
It would be simplistic to attribute Tamerlano's failure solely to Domingo's absence. While English National Opera has for the most part cracked how to handle Handel, its glitzy rival flounders in this repertoire. The thinking is 20 years out of date: adhering to a four-hour scholarly edition; casting young mezzos in castrati roles that cruelly expose the breaks in their voices; and settling for the rudiments of period-performance practice without exploring specific colours, tones and textures. Tamerlano is a battle of minds, not a magic opera or a grand romance. The tensions between Ottoman sophistication and Scythian barbarity are quickly established, and all that happens until Bajazet's death in Act III is salad dressing unless propelled by the music.
Exquisitely lit by Matthew Richardson and set by Richard Hudson in a pristine, white observatory, Vick's production clears space for this – perhaps too much space given the poor musicianship. From the first misplaced entry in the Overture, the performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ivor Bolton is flaccid and unfocused, its cellos and double-basses in constant dispute, the harpsichord continuo brusque, the sweetness of the woodwind in "Vivo in te" a rare moment of calm and control.
Much like Alice Coote in Orlando, Christianne Stotijn struggles with the tessitura of the title role. But why cast a lieder singer in a role that requires a heroic counter-tenor?As Asteria, Christine Schäfer sounds wan and dry. Sara Mingardo fares better as Andronico, her contralto darkly alluring, while Kurt Streit's Bajazet, though uncharismatic, is dignified and refined. For sparkle, there's Renata Pokupic's Irene, who arrives on a cobalt blue elephant, and Vito Priante in the small role of Leone. For Handelians and Verdians alike, this was a dispiriting evening. From stage and pit, it must have been dismaying.
Fresh from taking five Handel operas on tour, English Touring Opera is in rude health. A little too rude for me, at least in some details of William Oldroyd's staging of Don Pasquale, which takes to the road this week with revivals of The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Do people really spray their bottoms with perfume before a date, as Keel Watson does in the title role of Donizetti's daft, heartless comedy? I never have. Perhaps I should.
Watson peaks early, "conducting" the Overture from the stage, but it's an unhappily blustery performance from a bass-baritone better suited to playing evil geniuses than buffoons with a baton. Here the evil genius is Owen Gilhooly as Don Pasquale's slimy agent, Malatesta. While the orchestra plays merrily, stylishly and sensitively under its real conductor, Dominic Wheeler, and Nicholas Sharratt croons sweetly as Ernesto, Oldroyd searches fruitlessly for pathos, pausing to gasp at the vicious slap delivered by Mary O'Sullivan's shrill, pretty Norina. May-to-September couples should avoid this show, lovesick conductors too.
Tautly scored for chamber orchestra, David Blake and Keith Warner's modern singspiel, Scoring a Century, tells the story of Ernest and Edith Jedermann (Matthew Cooper and Lucie Louvrier), two song-and-dance artistes whose improbably long lives see them tossed about by world events like a pair of socks in a tumble dryer as they journey from turn-of-the-century Trouville to the Weimar Republic, Soviet Russia, free-love California and yuppie New York, with their composer-sidekick Berthold (Henrik Lagercrantz) in tow. This is history from the little person's point of view, the dreamer whose ambitions exceed his talents, the accidental dissident.
Directed by Warner and conducted by Lionel Friend, Birmingham Conservatoire's exuberant production revealed a work that is as much a history of music as it is a history of politics, as Blake's sentimental waltzes and sassy cabaret songs cede to a series of mini-operas in the styles of Berg and Stravinsky and a Shosta- kovichian show trial. This is a terrific choice for an institution that prides itself on producing voices for music theatre and opera, and a work that should be seen at the Young Vic or the Donmar.
At the Festival Hall, Bo Skovhus's extraordinary reading of Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio had a Wozzeck-like quality of latent violence and desolation. Skovhus's voice has lost its beauty, his breathing is laboured, his upper register grainy and occluded. But this wasn't art song. It was a scena for a war veteran or a former convict, the "gleaming knife" of the third song almost painfully bright against the verdant woodwind and oily strings.
Since Jansons's appointment, Bavaria's strings have found a blend to rival the very finest, and their playing is consistently daring and specific. Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, a bitter shrug at the death of Stalin, blazed. If only they had been in Britain for more than one concert.
'Tamerlano': Royal Opera House (020-7304 4000) to 20 Mar; 'Don Pasquale': Exeter Northcott (01392 493493) from 16 Mar
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