Posts Tagged ‘Royal Opera House’

I have never met anyone who would say that La Forza del Destino is their favorite opera by Verdi. It does feature some of Verdi’s best arias and duets, but everything else is either dramatically ineffective, pointless, kitsch or a combination of these adjectives. I myself have seen it in the theatre only twice: once at the Met (Voigt, Komlosi, Licitra, Delavan, Pons, Ramey) and once in Tokyo (I left after the intermission, so technically I saw it 1 1/2 time).

The reason why I was at the Royal Opera House this evening is the same reason the performance was sold out: the starry group of singers. The role of Leonora, for instance, is particularly hard to cast. Its tessitura is exceptionally low for a soprano and yet it requires exceptional control of dynamics and legato in high lying passages. I have never heard a Leonora that I could call faultless – and Anna Netrebko comes really close. The naturalness with which she plunges in her low register is something to marvel, and one never has the impression of crudeness suggested by some singers who just knock the audience out with their chest notes. Accordingly, she has tackled exposed high notes with a softer, essentially lyric approach that made her sound consistently dignified yet vulnerable. Ms. Netrebko produced beautiful mezza voce throughout and delivered a La vergine degli angeli poised but not purely angelical, an element of disquiet still lurking in the background. It is difficult to listen to Pace, mio dio with any other singer once you have got used to Leontyne Price, but I have to say that this evening I did not feel shortchanged.

Jonas Kaufmann’s tenor has grown throatier and more effortful since I last saw him sing an Italian role. His acuti lacked brightness and he was often overshadowed by the baritone (what is unusual) and yet he sang with his customary care for the text and tonal variety. His phraseology does not always go along with legato, and at some point one would trade all the highlighting and nitpicking by just good old cantabile. That all said, differently from most tenors in this role, Mr. Kaufmann was able to project a sense of fragility and desolation that made his Alvaro simply interesting in terms of drama. In comparison, Ludovic Tézier sounded as a paragon of vocal health in the role of Carlo, his baritone dark, rich and vibrant. He is not the most electrifying singer in this repertoire, though. Don Carlo is a character difficult to pull out, there must be a psychotic drive behind everything he does – and Mr. Tézier rather skated on the surface of a generic intensity.

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s bass is big and dark enough for Padre Guardiano, but the tonal quality does not suggest the spiritual authority deeper and ampler voices can provide here. In any case, he was better cast than Alessandro Corbelli, who – in spite of his comic verve and congeniality – lacks volume for the part. Veronica Simeoni’s light, slightly hooty mezzo is not my idea of Preziosilla. Last but not least, it was endearing to see Roberta Alexander and Robert Lloyd in the first scene.

Although Antonio Pappano received a standing ovation, his conducting was kappellmeisterlich in the bad sense of the world. After a band-like overture, strings scarce in sound, he seemed to be accompanying his singers in a way that no one of his stars would complain of having their lives made difficult. As a result, one never felt his soloists enveloped in orchestral sound and pretty much alone to produce themselves all excitement and expression. This is not the kind of score that works its magic by itself – so we had to do with the magic-less version this evening.

Christof Loy’s was a one-trick production. Leonora has always been trapped in her childhood of abuse – and the audience soon realized that by watching the same set of her father’s house morphing into Padre Guardiano’s church, Preziosilla’s inn and the barracks. But that cannot be all that he had to say. The plot of La Forza del Destino has a lots of blanks to be filled, and not all of them by pocket psychology, I am afraid.


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There is something about Simon Boccanegra that makes it special among all operas by Verdi. The fact that the composer himself never really got over its unsuccessful premiere in Venice shows that he himself was fond of it the same way die-hard Verdians are. Even after Arrigo Boito’s revision for the Milanese performances in 1880, the libretto remains contrived, but still I find Amelia/Maria, her fiancé, her father and her grandfather some of the most congenial characters in the operatic repertoire. Their inconsistencies, grudges, passions are often as illogical as real life is. Most important, the fact that, in spite of all the convoluted turn of events, their family ties never let them go really far from each other. Literally: although they are hiding from each other or pretending to be someone else or simply disappeared,  the Doge can see from his window the house where Fiesco and Amelia/Maria have lived all those years. Of course, all that would be of little importance if Verdi’s music were not as inspired and expressive as it is, especially in what regards the episodes involving father and daughter. What I mean is: the creators of Simon Boccanegra give performers a lot of material to work with. You don’t need a genius director or the most spectacular cast to make it work. I am not sure if I would say the same thing of the demands made on the conductor. The opening of act I is very hard to pull out. As far as I remember, only Claudio Abbado could make something of it.

This evening, for instance conductor Henrik Nánási took a while to gain his footing. Come in quest’ora bruna, for example, sounded its most mechanical and unaffecting, but the performance slowly got momentum. The last act, in particular, found the right balance between orchestra and soloists and also in terms of ensemble. The cast, as well, took some time to warm, but after the intermission after the first act, responded to the duets and trios in a very coherent and sensitive way.

The first time I saw Simon Boccanegra was the very same Elijah Moshinski production in a video release from the Royal Opera House. It is not the most memorable staging in the world and it seems to concentrate in just telling the story without calling special attention to any scenic element. Everything is discrete to a fault, but the point seems to leave singers all the necessary leeway to do their thing. Although the cast on video was very impressive, I have to say that the acting this evening was even more convincing. And again, this has to do with the way singers responded to each other. Boccanegra’s death scene was particularly well blocked, everyone’s gestures perfectly timed without making impossible demands in terms of acting abilities,  all directorial choices very sensible. It was indeed touching.

On video, Moshinski (and Georg Solti) had Kiri Te Kanawa in her best Verdi role. Although I would not call her the definitive Amelia in terms of singing (Freni and Ricciarelli, for example, were better equipped for the part), maybe her personal story made her relate in a very special way. I write that to explain that I could not help comparing any singer in that blue dress with my memories of the video. And Hracuchi Bassenz was not really at ease in her opening aria. She would gradually gain in confidence, but I have the impression she was not at her best voice. Hers is a velvety soprano that needs an extra push to pierce through in both ends of her range – and that had a cost. By the end, she sounded a bit tired. She had to work hard for high mezza voce, and one could hear her effort to keep her pianissimo on pitch when notes were a bit longer. And they usually were. If her performance was rather unspectacular in purely vocal terms, she never showed herself less than involved and the final impression was mostly congenial. Francesco Meli is an experienced Adorno and seemed to be more at ease with softer dynamics than his soprano. However, when he had to sing forte, he could sound a little emphatic and short on legato. In any case, he is very well cast in this role and offered an almost ideal balance of ardor and sense of style. It is amazing how healthy Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice still is. At this point in his career, he cannot offer the round and extra-rich nobility of tone the role of Fiesco requires, and yet he sang reliably and expressively throughout. I leave the best for left. I had not seen Carlos Álvarez since he recovered from the health problems that kept him away from the operatic scene for a while, and I am glad to report he was in beautiful voice and that he sang with feeling, sense of line, awareness of style and commitment.

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Lucy Ashton is the epitome of Romanticism’s favorite character: the innocent victim. Reading books like the Bride of the Lammermoor, one is convinced that being beautiful and good natured is very dangerous: the poor girl is emotionally and physically abused, publicly humiliated, gets involved in a gruesome murder only to die herself of a mental exhaustion. But that is how men portray the ordeals women had (have?)  to endure on the whim of a male relative or a husband. Now let’s call a woman to tell Lucy’s story. Director Katie Mitchell rescues Lucy from her passiveness and places her along her sisters Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw. That means, Lucy may finally succumb, but not without a fight.

Here, she is no ingénue. Her relationship with Edgar is everything but spiritual (there is an awkward almost graphic scene during Veranno a te to make that clear), her reluctance to marry Arthur has to do with the fact that she is very much pregnant and the fact that she kills him is no insanity: Alice and her premeditate his murder hoping to get rid of the body probably to allow her time to explain Edgard the whole situation and elope. Now the reader will ask: hmm, what about the MAD scene? That is precisely the point: something else happens this evening. The stress of the murder has other casualties that evening: a miscarriage that accounts for 95% of the blood on her dress and her mental breakdown.

Although I do find that Ms. Mitchell is telling a story only slightly related to the libretto, it finally paid off in a truly gripping mad scene, the gore only enhancing the pathos, the musical theme of act I love duet transformed in a lullaby to her unborn child. This alone made me forgive a great deal of the unnecessary excess. First: Lucia is shown either dressing or undressing in almost every scene. Since her gowns are not easily put on, this involved some nervous and diligent effort from these singers to get her ready. Second: Vicky Mortimer’s exquisite Kersting-like sets are permanently split in two different spaces, with independent dramatic action. During the Wolf Crag’s scene, while Henry and Edgard discuss the details for their duel, we see Lucy kill Arthur. Of course, nobody paid any attention to what the libretto actually wanted you to watch by then. Third: there are two ghosts who are so omnipresent that one almost expects them to be served a glass of wine in the wedding scene.

As usual, the director’s concepts veer towards the crafty, but the visual element is powerful and beautiful and the Personenregie is effective and finely knit to musical gestures.

The A cast of this run of performances had Diana Damrau, Ludovic Tézier and Kwangchul Youn, but – tempting as this is – I opted for the B team. Basically because I’ve already seen Damrau in this role in New York and was not really convinced by her bel canto credentials. On the other hand, a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi with Aleksandra Kurzak made me wish for more. However, some days ago, a friend warned me about decay in her high register, and I was suddenly apprehensive about what I might hear in the theater. It is true that her voice now looses focus as it reaches its acuti, which  often sound breathy. On the other hand, her soprano sounds bigger than when I last saw her live as Donna Anna in Venice. That did not prevent her from producing crystal-clear coloratura and trills. She was not truly adventurous with ornamentation, eschewed some florid options during the opera, but gave us the Melba cadenza in the mad scene. She also insisted in singing the puntature, all of them in pitch, but rather smoky in tone. She is no Renata Scotto or Maria Callas, but sang with affection and poise. Truth br said, She even produced some aptly raw sounds in specific moments of the mad scene, for chilling effects.

Stephen Costello is an intense Edgardo, whose high register never sounds relaxed and whose phrasing is sometimes too square. Although David Jonghoon Kim (Arturo) is not really exciting, the sound of healthy, round tenor high notes did highlight this problem in the leading tenor. As usual, Artur Rucinski is a paragon of breath control and firm tone. He could have tried a bit more nuance to make it really memorable.

Daniel Oren is a conductor attentive to the dynamic demands un the score, shifting to singer-friendly accompaniment to full orchestral sound (as in the sextet) for flashing results.

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David McVicar’s 2002 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto was premiered and has been revived with starred casts, such as the one featured on DVD. The staging is about a revolving set that suggests rather the Bronx than Mantua, while failing to portray the Duke’s palace, Rigoletto’s house and Sparafucile’s lair. It works better framed by the cameras. It has called some attention by the somewhat graphic orgy in the opening scene, but the only shocking thing about it is the way it interferes with synchrony in ensembles.

This is my first time in an amphitheatre seat; I cannot tell therefore if what I heard was only the effect of the hall’s acoustics: voices sounded unnaturally loud as if they were miked and the orchestra seemed brassy, recessed and dry. The fact that John Eliot Gardiner was the conductor was the main source of interest this evening to me, but under these circumstances it is hard to say much. I had the impression that the conductor wanted a lean orchestral sound, clear articulation and propulsive, agile tempi. If this was indeed the case, it proved to be an a priori approach: the house orchestra is no Vienna Philharmonic and failed to fill the auditorium and his leading soprano and tenor struggled with the maestro’s fondness for a tempo phrasing. Lucy Crowe at least has an excuse – this is her first Gilda and a replacement for Ekaterina Siurina.

I confess that I was at first disappointed to learn that I would miss the lovely Russian soprano, but retrospectively this proved to be quite rewarding. Crowe does not have an Italianate voice, lacking brightness above all; however, her lyric soprano is developing into something really interesting – the tone is rich, the low register is solid, the volume is quite generous for her Fach and she can yet trill and produce high mezza voce. Sometimes one feels an irregular support, what brings about grey-toned patches, unfocused notes and some tension. One tends to forget all this, given her musicianship, good taste and commitment. That said, what I could “read” in her singing this evening is an eventual shift into a Countess/Fiordiligi and maybe, who knows?, Agathe/Arabella in a couple of years, if she does not get carried away with the prospects and burn herself out before that.

I must confess as well that I was hoping to see Francesco Meli as the Duke, since Vittorio Grigolo’s Alfredo in the Deutsche Oper Traviata last year gave me mixed feelings. Well, I am glad I could see him in a role – and I don’t mean this as a compliment –  closer to his personality. Although this tenor gave many examples of his skill this evening – mezza voce, tone coloring, clear divisions, firm high notes – these things seemed less related to the demands prescribed by Verdi than by his whimsical intent of making an impression. The fact is that he is unacceptably free with note values, making Gardiner’s life very difficult and putting his debuting Gilda in a very dangerous situation in their duet, when nobody got an entrance rightly.

I had never heard the name of Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias before, but I will hardly forget it now. It is a very powerful voice, hard-edged in a Gobbi-esque manner, the kind that seems almost even more exciting when on its limits. Although he is not an electrifying stage presence, his singing is always gripping in its raw energy and vivid declaratory phrasing. It is curious that, in a cast where the high voices were very economical with optional high notes, the baritone seemed eager to take every one available, most excitingly in the closing scene.

Christine Rice was a fruity, strong Maddalena and Matthew Rose a firm, dark-toned Sparafucile.

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Massenet’s Werther is hardly anyone’s favorite opera. Many dismiss it with the label “tacky” – and truth is that, were it not for the fancy of some star tenors, it would not be produced at all. All that said, the whole French repertoire has been rediscovered – even in France – and Werther, thanks to the advocacy of tenors like Roberto Alagna, Ramón Vargas, Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann, has mushroomed in the seasons of many opera houses.

This does not mean these tenors had to start over from a forgotten tradition. On the contrary, almost every important French tenor has left a recording – and even a secondary tradition of Spanish tenors such as Kraus, Carreras and Domingo may be traced back in the discography. Although Rolando Villazón’s French is quite more realistic than many Spanish-speaking Werthers, I would have no doubt in placing him among the Spaniards, for his emotionalism and fervor. I had seen Villazón only once as Lensky in the Lindenoper in Achim Freyer’s infamous production that makes any possibility of acting impossible. This evening, I could understand the Mexican tenor’s artistry. Guided by unbridled emotional generosity, he plunged into the predicaments of the young Werther with almost ferocious intensity. What in less sincere hands could sound and look exaggerated seems vehement, intense and very moving. He drives his lightweight yet rich and dark-hued tenor dangerously hardly, but the tonal quality is dulcet, the coloring is varied, the inflections are expressively drawn and the commitment is enormous. By the end, few eyes were still dry. Indeed, Villazón is a very special singer.

His Charlotte, Sophie Koch, has an ideal voice for the role. It is vibrant, full-toned and large enough, but still light enough to suggest youth. Act III maybe took her to her limits, but her adeptly focused high notes survived the test. Although she started the evening a bit too cool for the circumstances, she increasingly gained in pathos during the evening and almost matched the tenor in intensity by act III. Audun Iversen (Albert) has a noble and large voice, a little bit wooden in the end of the range, but even that worked out well for the role. He only seemed uncomfortable on stage. On the other hand, the bell-toned Eri Nakamura wad a vivacious and sensitive Sophie. Last but not least, Alain Vernhes was a congenial Bailli.

I am hardly a specialist in Massenet’s music, but I have found Antonio Pappano’s conducting very convincing in its large, late Romantic gestures. Act III sounded almost Tristanesque in its richness of sound, flexibility of beat and forcefulness of accent.

In the days of Regietheater, Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production might seem unimaginative in its historical propriety and unobstructive concept, but his meticulous direction of actors (as revived by Andrew Sinclair) is immensely refreshing; the level of dramatic engagement achieved here unfortunately rarely found in operatic stages. Although acts I and II could feature more interesting sets, acts III and IV found inspiration in Hammershøi and looked beautiful and expressive. I just wished each character had been allowed more than one costume during the whole opera.

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Although what we use to call the ”Paris” version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is usually seen as stylistically uneven in comparison to a more homogeneous ”Dresden” version, I have no doubt in my preference for the ballet music and a more ambitious Venusberg scene. Does it makes some of act 2 seem too well-behaved? Well, it does – but this is too small a price to pay for the more sensuous and sophisticated music Wagner wrote later  – and the Royal Opera House made the right decision in opting for it.  The problem is that the more complex Venusberg scene requires a difficult choreography for the bacchanale and a more psychologally elaborate character development for both Venus and Tannhäuser. And I do not believe that the Royal Opera House could provide that in its new staging.

Tim Albery’s nondescript production probably tried not to displease anyone and ended on not pleasing anyone. The liberties taken with the libretto and its stylized visuals suggest a Regie staging, but it does not bring any kind of ”reading” to the story. The Royal Opera House program publishes some texts about artists and excesses and about ”gated communities”, but their relation to the staging is more hinted at then intimately related to it. The sets are basically variations on the theme of the Royal Opera House curtains. They are in perfect shape at the Venusberg,  are replaced by a tree to depict the fields where Tannhäuser sees the pilgrims, then they return as partially ruined for act 2 and are finally shown as entirely ruined in act 3.  I can remember these ideas from a couple of productions I have seen this year – Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for Bayreuth, for example. However, if Albery found inspiration in Herheim, he limited it to the sceneries. I could not find a coherent approach in this Tannhäuser other than what clearly meant in Wagner’s libretto.  The shepherd as a projection of the young Tannhäuser – that could be  interesting, but it comes and goes without further development (and I guess I have seen that in Herheim’s Parsifal too…). Showing the Landgraf’s noble guests as a  ”gated community”-meeting of armed vigilantes seems a pointless inference when Venus is seen a vamp in a sexy gown purring on a white bed (both in acts 1 and 3), Elisabeth as a girl in white lace and a veil, Tannhäuser as a guy in a suit and Wolfram as… another guy in a suit. Someone should have explained the director that he could have chosen a traditional staging if he had no ideas to add to Wagner’s well-conceived ones.

Semyon Bychkov knows his Tannhäuser and was able to find the right atmosphere for every scene: the warm tonal palette and flexible tempo for the Venusberg scene, the large scale and depth of sound for the pilgrims, the quicksilvery excitement for the hunting party, the grandeur for the arrival of the guests, the Innigkeit for Elisabeth’s prayer and Wolfram’s song. The Royal Opera House’s hardly belongs to the world’s leading Wagnerian orchestras – more blunders in the brass section than one would expect, poorly synched chorus, some dangerously messy ensembles and  noticeably hard-working violins in fast divisions did not entirely spoil the show, but one wonders what the conductor would do with a truly world-class formation.

Although Eva Maria Westbroek is admirably full-toned, Elisabeth is definitely not her role. She sounds too mature, lacks purity of tone in lyrical episodes, is often tested when softer dynamics are required and is ill-at-ease handling delicate feelings (her prayer came through as rather gutsy than touching). Michaela Schuster surprised me with the warmth and sexiness she could inject in her singing, but the role – as often in this repertoire – takes her too her limits and many exposed high notes were cut short rather than rounded out.  I have enjoyed Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram less than probably everybody else. Although his voice is intrinsically beautiful, I find his phrasing lacking legato and often inclined almost to parlando, the tone too open and metallic now and then and the interpretation more studied than expressive. Compared to most baritones who tackle the role, it is of course an elegant performance – but I wouldn’t say that he was the shining feature of this performance. Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf, producing focused low notes. Pity he seemed to be not really concentrated this evening.

Johan Botha’s physique and lack of stage presence may be for some too much to put up with, but if you like Wagnerian singing, you should listen to his healthily sung Tannhäuser. While most tenors in this role have a baritonal quality and become increasingly strained during the performance, this South-African tenor has an unending supply of powerful top notes and is entirely at ease with the somewhat angular writing. His voice has a spontaneous, bright-toned quality that flashes rather than climb through a Wagnerian phrasing. The results are unusually polished and musicianly. He is not an electrifying performer, but offered a particularly moving account of the Rome Narration and sounded really sincere in his sorrow on listening about Elisabeth’s death in the end of the opera.

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I remember a couple of years ago when this young sweet-looking pure-toned mezzo-soprano from the Czech Republic surfaced into the world of classical music media. I first saw her on video singing Bach’s Kantate BWV 199 and was immediately converted into a Magdalena Kozena’s fan. That said, I cannot state I have been an unconditional one – I believe that the French opera disc was a bit misguided (although there is much to cherish there) and the Handel disc… well, scroll down to read what I’ve said about it. But it seems that the fickle nature of the public has turned its thumbs downwards at the moment and, as much as poor Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, her luck has suddenly changed for a while. The ease with which she has been raised to fame has now become a constant effort to prove herself, which – in my opinion – is extremely unfair. Even when she is wrong, Kozena does not have to prove herself: she has already done it and proved she belongs into the list of serious artists in her generation (I would write “…of great singers…”, but it seems that this kind of artistry is usually measured in dB and histrionics).

I don’t know how wise was the idea of singing Rossini’s Cinderella live in such an inauspicious moment in her career. I remember an old interview in which she said she did not see herself singing anything by the composer from Pesaro in the future, because she didn’t feel connected to his music (truth be said, she mentioned then that Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier would be more like it, but I guess experience probably showed this was something like a pipedream for her). The outcome couldn’t be less promising – reviews were cold at best.

I feel inclined to write that certain externalities has some share of responsibility in the lukewarm impression on Kozena’s Cenerentola. By one of those coincidences made in hell, Cecilia Bartoli happened to be in town with her Malibran-on-the-road and include the Scene and Rondo finale from… La Cenerentola in the programme. It was expected from reviewers to compare them, but when an insensible one had the bad idea of liking Kozena better, the whole legion of Bartoli-fans started a gruesome campaign against the trespasser.

As I didn’t happen to be in London, I have to rely on Parsifal‘s in-house recordings (and thank him for his generosity) to say anything. Before I say anything, I must confess the Roman Diva does not count me among her admirers but nonetheless I muss admit that she still sings the hell out of that scene. I just don’t understand why Bartoli’s so-called supremacy must mean that Kozena should be stoned for her beautiful performance. Yes, I said beautiful.

I was surprised to find, against what I should expect, her low register fully functional in that role. Also, her excursions to the extreme top notes sounded crystalline to my ears, not to mention her fioriture are admirably clean (as usual). I am not a die-hard believer in Italianate style and never resist Mozartian poise (yes, I belong to those who like Gundula Janowitz’s Elisabeth, Gwyneth Jones’s Aida, Tatiana Troyanos’s Amneris [btw, I’ll be poisting on this subject next]). However, maybe because Kozena does not has a natural feeling for Rossinian lines (as she herself has acknowledged), her performance is basically uncommunicative. She expresses little sense of infatuation in her duet with the Prince, does not convey the necessary party-stopping glamour in her arrival at the ball and is a bit mechanical in the closing scene (a slower pace might have helped her there, I reckon). However, her vocalism is always secure, musicianly and pleasant in the ear. Therefore, I consider the stern criticism against her rather mean. I would even say she was probably the must-see feature in the show: the settings are widely considered ugly, the orchestra was indisciplined (and the conductor didn’t seem worried about making things less spectacular but tidier) and although Toby Spence sang well, the role is too high and fast for his voice and the results were rather hearty than charming. Of course, Simone Alberghini is a most reliable Dandini (as he was at the Met in 2005) despite a vibrato that can get loose sometimes and Alessandro Corbelli is a most experienced and charismatic if over-the-top Don Magnifico – but one could have sampled them in many other Cenerentole around the world.

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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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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 maestro’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 has the looks, the acting skills and 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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