Archive for Covent Garden

Madama Butterfly

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on April 9, 2015 by telescoper

I have half an hour to spare this lunchtime so I thought I would do a quick review of  the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly I saw last Saturday (4th April) at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I got up at 4.30 on Saturday morning to get the 6am bus from Cardiff into London in order to see this Matinee, which started at 12.30, as the trains were screwed up by engineering work over the Easter weekend. As it happened the National Express coach  ran right on schedule so I had plenty of time to get breakfast and pick up the tickets from the Box Office before the performance.

The story of Madama Butterfly must be familiar enough to opera-goers. Cio-Cio-San – the Madam Butterfly of the title – a 15 year old Geisha, is betrothed to Lieutenant BF Pinkerton of the United States Navy who has come to Japan with his ship. Pinkerton is contemptuous of all things Japanese, and shows his true nature by explaining that he has paid just 100 Yen  for his new wife via a marriage broker. She, however, is devoted to her new husband; so much so that she renounces her religion in favour of that of her man (although I doubt Pinkerton ever goes to church). Act I culminates with their wedding and a gorgeous love duet with the kind of ravishing music that only Puccini can supply. Butterfly, who is really just a child, has certainly fallen for Pinkerton but the music seems to suggest that he has even convinced himself that it’s real love.

Act II is set three years later. Pinkerton has gone back to the States, but Butterfly waits patiently for his return, singing the beautiful aria Un bel di vedremo, or One Fine Day as it is usually translated. Her maid Suzuki thinks that he will never come back – she never liked Pinkerton anyway – and points out that they’re running out of money, but Butterfly refuses to contemplate giving up on him and marrying again. She  has had a son by Pinkerton and intends to remain faithful. At the end of Scene 1 we find that Pinkerton’s ship has arrived and Butterfly waits all night to greet him. The exquisitely poignant cora a bocca chiusa (humming chorus) accompanies her vigil.

After this intermezzo, Scene 2 finds  us at dawn the following day. Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton shows up, but he has brought with him a new American wife who offers to rescue Butterfly from poverty by adopting her son and taking him to America. Butterfly awakes, finds out what has happened. Pinkerton has left money for her but she refuses to take it, having already decided to kill herself.  She says goodbye to her son with the heartbreaking aria  Tu, tu piccolo iddio, binds his eyes so he can’t see, then kills herself. Pinkerton and his wife arrive to see her bloody corpse.

Well, what did you expect from an opera,  a happy ending?

In this production the principals were the brilliant soprano Kristine Opolais as Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde, who was a solid but unspectacular Pinkerton.  It turned out to be the last performance with these particular leading performers before a cast change. In fact this performance came up as “sold out” when I first looked on the website, but I persevered and managed to find a couple of tickets a few days later. I’m certainly glad we got to see Kristine Opalais who was in superb voice as the tragic heroine and acted with great subtlety and conviction. I’d also like to mention Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki, who was also very good.

The performance got off to a strange start, with an announcement from the stage that it would be delayed by about 30 minutes due to “serious problems backstage”. I wondered whether it was some mechanical problem with the set or a bust-up between members of the cast that needed to be calmed down. The orchestra began a bit hesitantly too, perhaps unsettled by the delay, but soon recovered.

The original production of Madam Butterfly was staged in 1904 (although it took several revisions before the two-act version we saw last night emerged). It therefore dates from a time when Europeans (including Puccini) were quite ignorant about Japanese culture. Modern audiences probably find some of the stereotypes rather uncomfortable. I would say, however, that the only two characters in the Opera to show any moral integrity and nobility of spirit are the maid Suzuki and Butterfly herself. The rest are unpleasant in some way or other, especially Pinkerton who is completely odious. So the Opera is not at all nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated and the whole opera glosses over the reality that the world of Cio-Cio-San is basically one in which child prostitution is commonplace.

Madama Butterfly is worth it for the music alone. Call me a softi,e but I love Puccini’s music which, after a slightly ropy start,  was handled beautifully by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Nicola Luisotti.  This production was also visually beautiful, with exquisite costumes and a set consisting of a simple open space, accentuated from time to time with splashes of cherry blossom and glimpses of landscape and night sky revealed through sliding panels.

Here’s the trailer of the 2011 version of this production (with the same scenery and costumes) to give you an idea:

There’s only a couple of performances left of this run, but something tells me it will be revived again in the not too distant future.


Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

After yesterday’s examiners meeting at Queen Mary  I downed a quick beer and took the tube to the West End in order to meet up with  a couple of friends (Joao and Kim) to see last night’s production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Just over a year ago I posted about Welsh National Opera’s Tosca here in Cardiff, so I’ll refer you there for details about the plot synposis and background. Let me just say even though the WNO production was very good, it’s very difficult to match the special atmosphere of Covent Garden. It’s such a famous venue but at the same time is so intimate. I’d forgotten just how close you get to the stage.  The prices were special prices too! Our tickets were £220 each and drinks in the two intervals were eye-wateringly expensive. But then you don’t go to Covent Garden for a cheap night out.

This was the only night that I could make it to this run, and as a result we actually saw the “second” cast: no Bryn Terfel, no Angela Gherghiou, and as it happens to Marcello Giordani either (owing to illness). In the performance we saw, Floria Tosca was Martina Serafin, Baron Scarpia was Juha Uusitalo, and making his Covent Garden debut as understudy thanks to Giordiani’s indisposition was  was the young tenor Giancarlo Monsalve as Cavaradossi. I wasn’t too disappointed not to see Angela Gheorghiou, as I think she’s quite overrated, but I would have loved to have seen Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia. Perhaps some other time.

Anyway, it was a thoroughly enjoyable production if perhaps lacking that extra sparkle that the headline cast might have supplied. Serafin took a while to get going but from Act II onwards was very good, although she never quite managed to get across the fiery unpredictable side of her character’s persona. Uusitalo was a brutish Scarpia with a strong stage presence; the dashing Monsalve took his opportunity well and was warmly received by the full house.

I’ve often wondered how this Opera, which on the face of it is a straightforward melodrama, manages to work so well. I think part of its magic is that the characters, as is often the case with Puccini, are not quite what they seem. Tosca is the heroine but she’s far from Snow White. She’s jealous and temperamental and in many ways quite unattractive. In this production, after initially stabbing Scarpia in self-defence, she carries on stabbing him in a kind of bloodlust which is quite scary. Cavaradossi is the hero, but he’s not a particularly heroic hero because he crumbles under the strain of his imminent execution in Act III. And then there’s Scarpia, the baddy. I find him the most fascinating of all because, although he’s evil,  there are flashes of loneliness and contrition. I think he’s monstrous because something in his past has made him monstrous. A prequel to Tosca based on Scarpia’s earlier biography would make a very interesting opera indeed..

I know it’s deeply unfair to make comparisons, but I thought nevertheless I’d include this clip of a live broadcast of  Tosca from the same venue, way back in 1964, featuring perhaps the greatest Scarpia, Tito Gobbi, and perhaps the greatest Tosca, Maria Callas.  I heard the composer Michael Berkeley talking about what a revelation it was to see Callas at Covent Garden in this role; he simply hadn’t imagined that acting in the opera could be so good. Even in black-and-white you can get idea of the mesmerising stage presence that was Maria Callas and what a fine actress she was. Here she is, with hatred burning in her eyes, plunging the knife into Scarpia, standing over him willing him to die, then realising what she has done, turning back into a frightened, vulnerable and remorseful woman then doing the best she can to pay respect to his dead body. Magnificent.


Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , on June 6, 2009 by telescoper

On Thursday (4th June) I went to the first night of the Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu, an Opera by Alban Berg. I was planning to blog about this yesterday but after the Opera my birthday celebrations descended into drunken chaos and I ended up getting back very late to Cardiff yesterday; I had to catch up a number of things so I didn’t have time. After the performance and dinner in a nearby restaurant we sat out on Joao’s roofgarden in Notting Hill drinking until the sun started to come up. That part is a bit of blur, but judging by the scale of my hangover yesterday it must have been good. Anyway, I’ve now recovered enough write something about the Opera.

Before Thursday I hadn’t seen Lulu in a live performance, although I do have it on DVD so I knew a bit about it. Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds  serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful: it’s constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big  nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and jagged. Sometimes there is no music at all and the singers use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This  is used only sparingly in Lulu, but it is wonderfully effective dramatically when it is.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano, were absolutely fantastic throughout the performance. I’m no musician but I reckon this music must be extremely difficult to play, especially in the brass section, but they played with great passion as well as flawless precision. They really brought Berg’s music to life, and invested it with a vitality that positively glowed throughout the performance. With playing like this, it was easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, for example.

So what about the Opera itself? The play revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is getting older and  losing her looks. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point on, her decline is inexorable and death inevitable.

The new production is quite unlike the recording I have on DVD in that the staging is resolutely minimal. There is no set, just an occasional translucent screen, the costumes are modern and colours are monochrome. Lulu is dressed at one point  in a black cocktail dress very like that worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This might have been a deliberate reference to the parallels between Lulu and Holly Golightly (at least in Truman Capote’s novella, which is a much darker concoction than the film based on it); soprano Agneta Eichenholz bears more than a passing resemblance to Audrey Hepburn too. Her slender build -unusual for an opera singer with such a powerful voice – allowed her to play Lulu’s vulnerable aspects very well.

Against a sparse backdrop  the characters emerge as series of grotesques, which – at least in principle – is not a bad way of  presenting this Opera. Set in such a way it appears as a piece of absurdist theatre which is definitely part of what it represents. There are two problems, however.

One is that the sets give very little clue as to the location of the drama: I wouldn’t have known that the last scene was meant to be Victorian London unless I’d seen it before, so Jack the Ripper’s appearance must have been very  confusing to those who hadn’t picked up on that. Lulu is also meant to be a lot older in the last Act, but no attempt is made to age her in this production.  The libretto makes repeated reference to a painting of her, and it serves at the end to remind her of her age, but no portrait ever appears; I found that a bizarre omission.

The other problem is that there are strong links between the story of Lulu and the Grand Guignol  genre of horror plays, with their  opulently macabre  stagings and exaggeratedly gory endings. Throwing all those connections  away robs the Opera of all of its schlock value and, with that, a great deal of the irony needed to make this blackest of black comedies work the way it should. The killing of Lulu in fact happens off stage in this production which makes the ending very tame. I wouldn’t want to go over-the-top in depicting the horror of Lulu’s death – I wanted to see an Opera, not a snuff movie – but the audience should be shocked by the brutality of her final moments; these are the key to what the Opera is about. Perhaps the director was concerned not to let the drama descend into mere titillation. There’s always a danger of crossing the line into vulgar pornography in depicting explicit sexuality and violence, but I think this production is too afraid of taking risks. This opera should feel more dangerous than this setting allows it to be. Ypu’re not meant to feel comfortable about this Opera.

Although limited by the stylized nature of the production, the principals were good. Agneta Eichenholz’s is a  desensitized creature, damaged by abuse and inhabiting a moral vacuum. Her detachment in the face of the death and destruction around her is perfectly judged. She sang beautifully for the most part but – possibly because of first night nerves – her voice came apart on a couple of high notes early on. Other characters worth mentioning are Michael Volle who was outstanding as Dr Schön and Philip Langridge in the dual role of the Prince and the Marquis.

This morning I read Andrew Clements’ review in the Guardian which I thought was a bit harsh: only two stars doesn’t really do justice to a fascinating evening. I would have  given three stars for the quality of the music alone. Personally, I could have listened to the whole thing in a concert performance and still enjoyed it. But having decided to go for a full staging,  it seems to me a bit perverse to have stripped  it down so drastically. Clements claimed he was “bored” by what happened on stage. I certainly wasn’t, but I did find myself more perplexed by the production than by the moral ambivalence of the story itself, so I’d have to say it didn’t really do justice to an Opera which I still think of as masterpiece.