Friday 20 July 2012

The Royal Opera Rounds Off the Season (but can we lose the Russian now...please...)


Once again (people will be beginning to think I do this deliberately) I find myself somewhat out of step with mainstream critical opinion which has lavished praise on this revival. There are some good things in it, and overall it is never less than solid, but for me there was a crucial lack of electric drive from the pit which made it an ultimately unsatisfying evening.

The best of this performance came from the two leads, Anja Harteros's Desdemona and Aleksandrs Antonenko's Otello. Of the two I personally found Harteros more dramatically convincing and musically satisfying, particularly in Act 4, but Antonenko gives a perfectly fine performance. Harteros is scheduled to sing Elizabeth in next year's excitingly cast Don Carlo revival  making another strong reason for catching that. Unfortunately the third leg of the triumverate, Lucio Gallo's Iago was a different story. I have, I find, previously heard him in the Royal Opera Il Trittico where he did not especially impress me and it was the same here. The voice is not big enough for the role, and at times I felt he could have been reading his shopping list rather than planning villainies. The other supporting players don't have much to do in this but generally perform well.

The production is a solid Royal Opera classic dating back to 1987 and originally directed by Elijah Moshinsky. There are some beautiful stage pictures but there are also one or two places that now feel a bit mechanical (particularly the tableaux of the opening scene) and generally the movement has that classic revival feeling of a slight lack of sharpness.

However, that may have been a consequence of the one area I really did feel suffered from shortcomings, Antonio Pappano's conducting. In fairness to him he drew some lovely moments from the score, but there was a critical lack of the kind of drive that great operatic conducting of a score like this really needs. The whole just didn't have the necessary inexorability to it.

Il Viaggio a Rheims

This is definitely one to file alongside such other silly pieces in the repertoire as Walton's Belshazzer's Feast. The difference is it's by Rossini who, even when silly (perhaps even more when silly) I find gloriously infectious fun. Don't get me wrong, I like to be emotionally wrung out by a good tragedy, but from time to time it's wonderful to be able to sit at the opera grinning from ear to ear from beginning to, almost, end.

Beforehand I was slightly puzzled to notice that the Orchestra of English National Opera were being brought in, and I wondered how they might fare. The answer is impeccably. They demonstrated (as under Edward Gardner in the recent Billy Budd) that with the right person on the podium they are a top notch band. Fine contributions were made from all sections including some great Rossinian accented string playing and marvellous woodwind solos (Principal Flautist Anna Wolstenholme was deservedly singled out for a solo bow in the first half). Altogether, Daniele Rustioni demonstrated that he is a fine Rossinian – if John Berry has any sense (regular readers will know my views on that one too) he would be rushing to engage this man for some new staged Rossini at the Coli. Well one can dream. The only slight caveat was the decision to place the orchestra on stage. I assume it was done because otherwise there was a fear the audience wouldn't have enough to look at but it caused a fairly persistent problem with balance (at least in the Amphi). All the voices sounded small against the band which I'm sure they actually aren't. As my ears adjusted this became less of a problem, and it was perhaps possible to appreciate the orchestral contribution more as a consequence, but it was I think a debatable decision.

The extensive raft of singers this opera requires were supplied from past and present members of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme. With one exception the  line up was very fine. I haven't space here to list them all, but I would particularly single out Madeleine Pierard as Contessa di Folleville and Matthew Rose's Sidney. I had the impression that Lukas Jakokski's patter aria as Don Profondo played better lower down the House than in the Gods. From where I was he was one of those who really struggled to be heard over the orchestra.

The one really weak link was once again Maria Poplavskaya. I have previously expressed my puzzlement at the Royal Opera House's continuing engagement of this performer. I've heard her there in quite a number of roles now and none of them has been really of the first rank. Here, to my ear, she managed alright in the first half but was pretty unpleasant to listen to in her final aria. The minimal accompaniment (it may indeed have been a harp solo) left her struggle painfully exposed. A follower on twitter informs me that her plans include Elsa in Lohengrin – I cannot think how the voice can possibly manage such a role.

Although this slightly dampened matters, being the last big number before the end, this was overall a hugely enjoyable evening. Rossini continues to be, to my mind, a bit of a neglected composer in terms of stagings. This is sad when his music brims over with such a sense of the joy of life. Like a good farce this is as necessary to a full life as a bloody tragedy. More please.

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