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Archive for July, 2007

The fact that the visual imagery proposed by designer Marja Björnsson in this 2002 production by Francesca Zambello – frankly anachronical in its disparaged style of costumes and sceneries – is ultimately unconvincing could be the reason why the intendant decided to give it a twist by selling the show as a “feast to the eyes both to ladies and a gentlemen” (I swear this sounds more appealing in French when this woman said it to a friend next to me while entering the theatre).

What is beyond doubt is that the Royal Opera House has succeded in its purpose of catching the attention of new audiences – Lorenzo da Ponte’s jokes rarely missed the mark and the cast would more often than not felt inclined to overact in order to boost laugh in a way that would have been splendid if it not tampered with Mozart’s music.

Although Paul Syrus proved to know his Mozart, the house band did not feel inclined to respond to his athletic yet not overfast approach. The sound picture was restricted, ensemble often imprecise and articulation blurred. Laughs had an easy advantage on them.

Anna Netrebko was supposed to be a treat to the eyes, but she proved to be also a treat to the ears, even announced to be indisposed. That could be felt in her reluctance to sing softly and a certain caution with high notes. That did not prevent her, however, from pulling out a dramatic and full-toned Or sai chi l’onore, guilt, regret and revolt finely balanced. Although she felt she was unable to go on after the intermission, I could bet she would still be the highlight of this performance in case she had decided to keep singing. Her replacement, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya does have a forceful flexible voice, but not the polish of a Mozartian singer. She is scheduled to sing Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo soon – she should work on her mezza voce before that.

Ana María Martínez has indeed the temper for Donna Elvira, but cannot disguise the fact that she cheated with her high notes during the whole performance. When a young soprano has problems with a and b flat, something really wrong must be going on. After a shaky start, Sally Fox managed to produce a teazing lovely Zerlina in spite of a technique more proper to Bach cantatas than to Mozart. I have to say Robert Murray’s grainy tone prone to curdling in high notes is not to my liking, but he sang both his arias well. Erwin Schrott’s long experience with the role of Don Giovanni is evidentin his mastery of all dramatic aspects – especially the intelligent use of recitatives. The French would say he is bien dans sa peau as a seducer, as a rogue and as a nobleman. Sometimes he lets himself go too much and one is inclined to find the performance narcissistic but that is soon dispelled by the singer’s irresistible charisma. His bass-baritone is also in mint condition. The fact that Leporello has less rich a voice than his master’s is always a good dramatic point, but Kyle Ketelsen is more a baritone than a bass-baritone and the low tessitura really seemed uncomfortable for him. He was not fazed by that and sustained the challenge of interacting, establishing a splendid partnership with Schrott. Matthew Rose was a strong-voiced likeable Masetto and, in spite of the occasional rusty moments, Robert Lloyd was an efficient Commendatore.

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Roger Michell’s staging of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play is the perfect translation of Pinter’s dry playwriting style. Scenic elements are reduced to the minimum necessary and the different settings are cleverly told from each other with repositioning of props. Michell also had a great cast and it seems he has taken advantage of that to work on a very rigid palette of theatrical postures. This gives great strength to their every utterance and is particularly helpful to show the audience the development of the characters’ attitude in a story told backwards.

Although the three actors are outstanding, I must single out Dervla Kirwan, a magnetic presence on stage. This is an actress who knows how to radiate energy even when still or silent – a rare talent. Toby Stephens and Samuel West are aptly contrasted . While the former explores a more extrovert and vocally varied approach, the latter goes for a more restrained attitude – both do it to the manner born. A great show.

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Charles Mackerras does not need reviews – the audience felt honoured for having the opportunity to listen to Janacek’s Katja Kabanova conducted by such a widely acknowledged specialist. Although the Royal Opera House band cannot dream to compete in rich, crystalline and flexible sounds with the orchestra in the conductor’s studio recording, the Vienna Philharmonic, the great Australian conductor extracted the best from them – for more than commendable results. All orchestral effects were beautifully pulled out and the theatre was often bathed in exquisite sonorities. Also, Trevor Nunn is an experienced opera director and the cast seemed at ease with his sensible scenic solutions. I have found Marja Björnsson’s expressionistic settings striking and beautiful, but I was not entirely satisfied with having indoors scenes played outdoors, when the idea of claustrophobia is central to the libretto.The setting for Katja’s public confession of adultery was particularly misguided. This is supposed to happen during a rainstorm, but everybody looks really dry while lighting candles and painting icons in open air unsheltered from the bad weather. Katja herself is seen in a white dress and I ask you – who would go out under a rainstorm in the countryside in light colours? When the action is based on a naturalistic play called “The Storm”, details like that should deserve some consideration.

In the title role, Janice Watson displays a formidable sizeable voice with forceful top notes, a pleasant medium and rich, low notes. She can more or less fine down her soprano to piano, but it rarely floats. However, the sound tends to be really metallic. It works well for Katja, but I cannot imagine her singing other kind of repertoire in which this could be an advantage. As Katja, I repeat, she was tremendous. She is a beautiful woman, a very believable actress with reserves of stamina and offered a gripping performance.

Taking the role of the Kabanicha, Felicity Palmer confirmed what an immense artist she is – a powerful stage presence and an irresistible voice – forward, colorful and perfectly focused. She could even find a humane note to her role, bringing the obsessive motherly love to the core of her performance.

Kurt Streit has an amazingly spontaneous voice – bright, easy and homogeneous. His Boris did not not displayed Petr Dvorsky’s Italianate alpha male attitude – and that only helped to make Katja’s infatuation for him more touching.

Reduced to character roles such as Tichon, Chris Merritt still brings some satisfaction in his big, rather dark tenor. It is a difficult role for an actor, and he could find some truth it. Toby Spence was a great Kudrjas – a warm pleasant strong voice and a very likeable personality. Oleg Bryak (Dikoj) has a huge dark voice – and I suppose the off-pitch effects are part of the Slavonic kit of expressive resources. Finally, Liora Grondikaite (Varvara) has a very rich and vibrant mezzo and a lovely stage presence.

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