When the Royal Opera's 2010-11 season was announced, fellow blogger Intermezzo commented acerbically that the company were taking a real risk casting a lead singer notorious for cancelling (Angela Gheorgiu) as the leads in an opera which is basically a vehicle for two stars. Having had experience of a Kaufmann cancellation before, I thought I would be very lucky to get both stars the night I happened to be going, and so it proved, as the posters outside announced that Gheorgiu had cancelled (explaining the furious expression on the face of the woman in front of me in the ticket collection queue).
However, as other commentators have already noted, I have never heard anything like the reaction which greeted the announcement of her withdrawal from the stage. We have heard from the stalls; I can only add that the reaction in the Amphitheatre was every bit as ferocious including sustained booing and shouts of “Again!”“Again!”. One presumes if the management has any sense they will think twice about engaging Ms Gheorgiu for any further productions.
However, the management have also not, in my view, acted very sensibly with regard to Gheorgiu's understudy. Normally one should give an understudy every benefit of the doubt. However, in this case I think that requirement is mitigated by the fact that this understudy (Angelas Blancas Gulin) was already booked to sing two performances in the run. Granted this was her role debut, and granted it must have been a disturbing experience listening to the reaction from the audience to the announcement of Gheorgiu's indisposition, but the Royal Opera must surely have anticipated the likelihood of this eventuality and frankly ought to have engaged a singer with steadier nerves and a stronger voice. For most of the performance I'm afraid I found her uncertain, her voice sour, strained and often warbly (the lack of applause after her arias suggests I was not alone). She was capable of some nicely characterised singing in the more understated moments, but the money notes and the big arias were not sufficiently there. The real test of whether understudies are going to gravitate to the front rank of the profession is whether they seize such opportunities as this with both hands. Sadly, Blancas Gulin was not able to do so.
Jonas Kaufmann, however, sang and acted superbly and it is unfortunate that his part is really the secondary one. His voice, as well as having a rich full tone at top volume, also has a wonderful light softer quality in the more intimate moments, and I was glad overall to have had the chance to hear him again. The other major part is the stage manager Michonnet, sung by Alessandro Corbelli. Checking up, I find I previously saw him in last season's revival of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia where I was much impressed; I was somewhat less so this time. Maybe it was because the memory of ENO's Boheme was much in my mind, but I just felt that he was not quite able to construct the same deep sense of relations by mere presence that was so evident in many of the relationships in Miller's production. I also would have liked just a little more warmth to the voice in some places. Having said that he was very strong in the last Act.
The other major protagonist is the Princesse de Bouillon, sung here by Michaela Schuster who again was a little bit patchy. She was impressive in her confrontation with Maurizio (Kaufmann) in Act Two but a little bit shrill in Act Three. Of the minor characters, I also enjoyed the comic double act of the Prince de Bouillon (Maurizio Muraro) and the Abbe de Chazeuil (Bonaventura Bottone).
In the pit Mark Elder was as ever faultless, making the most of the etherial beauty of the best of the music, and the orchestra played superbly. Nor can one fault David McVicar's production which, similarly to his Rigoletto, plumps one set down in the middle of the stage (in this case a mock up of a theatre stage) and cleverly dresses it to switch for the various other locations. Together they made probably the best case possible for the work.
But the trouble is, for all this effort, for all the special pleading that Mary Jane Phillips and others engage in in the programme notes, this is a second rank opera (indeed it seems to be the year for the second rank in London's opera houses). Yes there are moments of great beauty, and probably would have been more of them if we had had a really first class soprano, but there are far too many dull passages. I could quite happily have dispensed with most of the First Act and the poorly performed ballet (one assumes it was supposed to look the way it did) which comprises most of the Third. The programme notes that the work has not been performed at the Royal Opera since 1906; overall I can see why.