Tuesday 19 February 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal, or, On Discipline and Inspirational Conducting (or the Lack Thereof)

Setting out for this performance I was bracing myself for a long evening. My parents saw the show earlier in the run and were sufficiently unimpressed to advise me to get rid of my ticket. Contrary to my expectations, however, I found quite a lot to enjoy.

First off, though, it must be admitted that there is one big problem, and he's standing on the podium. I have heard glowing reports from my brother about Robin Ticciati's work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and from my parents of his Mozart at Glyndebourne. Unfortunately he is on this evidence not a Tchaikovsky man. In the long first half, in particular, things plodded badly such that one had that terrible feeling at times that the cast might as well have been singing about the contents of their sandwiches. On one or two occasions Ticciati had a bizarre burst of speed (such as in the first big chorus number) – this wasn't much better. Things did improve after the interval, but I think a glass of wine may have assisted.

Much of the singing is also not entirely perfect. The best performance vocally was Peter Rose's magnificent Prince Gremin. It wasn't until I got home that I was able to check who was taking the role and I was somewhat astonished. I've heard him several times and have never been especially impressed, but tonight his performance was beautifully sung and very moving. I didn't find either Krassimira Stoyanova's Tatyana or Simon Keenlyside's Onegin entirely satisfactory. Stoyanova, especially in the first half, just sounded a bit too contained and somehow not the epitome of youthful exuberance. Keenlyside in a number of places disappeared under the orchestra. But again both were better after the interval, and never less than solid. Pavol Breslik's Lensky gave a fine account of his pre-duel aria. The rest of the singing was solid.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Charpentier's Medea at ENO, or, The Wait for a Hit Continues

English National Opera last had a hit by my reckoning exactly a year ago with John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer (there have been a couple of strong shows musically since, but nothing which ticked every box). Recent announcements of nearly £2.2million losses in the last financial year have demonstrated how badly they are in need of another one. On paper this was the best bet of this season's new productions for starting to reverse this situation. McVicar is one of the best opera directors currently working, who rarely succumbs to the kind of symbolic nonsense and ineffective management of personnel so beloved by so many. Sarah Connolly is one of the reigning mezzo-sopranos. Yet I did wonder even then about the wisdom of giving this work its British stage premiere, and I'm afraid I didn't feel the decision was justified.

As usual, let's start with the positives. There is some very good singing. Sarah Connolly gives a typically strong performance, though I didn't find her as commanding here as on other occasions. She is well supported by Roderick Williams's Orontes, Katherine Manley's Creusa and Brindley Sherratt's Creon. There is also one lovely McVicar directorial touch. In her few brief scenes, he turns Aoife O'Sullivan's Cleonis into a beautifully done timid, mousy lady-in-waiting (who quite frankly I would have taken out on the dance floor, providing she could put up with having her feet trodden on, in preference to either the dangerously barking Medea or the arrogant princess).

But, I'm afraid these positive elements are outweighed by the negatives. The big one from a performance point of view is Jeffrey Francis's Jason. Astute observers of the plot may notice that Jason is supposed to be irresistible to the leading women – Medea indeed is prepared to kill just about everybody else of any consequence in order to keep hold of him. Now it is true that Francis is not helped by costuming that appears designed to make him look as if he's old enough to be Orontes's father, but his acting doesn't help either – he just has no charisma. As a result I really couldn't see why anybody, and particularly any woman would waste their energies upon him. A ringing vocal performance would have helped too. Francis is passable in the role, but it isn't an exciting voice.