Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Nuns and chisellers




The French word 'ciseleur' is preferable, and, embracing as it does 'engraver', gives a better sense of the guild to which that master goldsmith and fantasist Benvenuto Cellini belonged. But the point here is to contrast the feminine strength of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites with the testosterone-driven wonders of Berlioz's liveliest opera - indeed, possibly the liveliest opera in the repertoire - which I had the good fortune to see on consecutive nights last week (Royal Opera images by Stephen Cummiskey; ENO photos by Richard Hubert Smith).

We've spent seven weeks apiece on these operas in my City Lit classes, and I've never been more absorbed (equally, certainly, but not more). I wish I could say the same about one of the two productions. By the way, for Cellini I used the only DVD so far, from Salzburg - great idea with the robots, spirited performances from Maija Kovaleska and Laurent Naouri especially, don't mind the feeling of Broadway show, but there's a general sense of trying too hard - and all the recordings. The first Sir Col with Gedda is peerless, though interesting to hear alternatives on the recent John Nelson edition.

Let's get the reservations out of the way first. Terry Gilliam's return to Berlioz is a bit of a mess in its first half. I don't think he's worked on the crucial Personenregie: we hardly give a damn about Benvenuto's amatory escapade, and poor Corinne Winters, though she sings reliably throughout, can't make much of Teresa in a bad blonde wig (though I don't think the aria is anything like as animated in detail as Nicole Cabell's marvellous Cardiff prizewinning performance).

There's always too much business going on, too many scene changes happening while the set pieces are winding up. The should-be-funny guys, father Balducci (Pavlo Hunka) and comic suitor Fierramosca (Nicholas Pallesen), just aren't; the Roman carnival should be disciplined but is just a lot of chaotic milling around, albeit colourful.


Part (Act) Two is so much better, and soon lifted me from my interval despondency. Edward Gardner's conducting, which had been much too heavy and exaggerated for any needlepoint comedy - the featherlight trio wasn't helped by having the singers too far away, and too high up - came into its own for weightier matters, and even Charles Hart's arch translation brought some unexpected pleasures. It beats me how those commenters on Alexandra Coghlan's Arts Desk review could advise us to leave at the interval ('the party's over'). What do they want, just more froth? Because while the only number in Berlioz's score which is marginally less involving than the rest, the second duet for Cellini and Teresa, is cut, there are a string of beauties: the duet for Teresa and Ascanio against the monk's chanting, the great ensemble with the Pope - how I loved both Gilliam's high camp for his entry


and Willard White in fine voice frou-frouing around, even getting a bit nasty when his statue looks as if it might elude him


- and then the best set-pieces of the evening: the lovely rondo for Ascanio sung perfectly by Paula Murrihy, the only singer not to put a foot wrong throughout and a real Octavian in waiting (wish there was more of her in the picture selection than just a supporting role in this image)


and the wistful 'wish I were a country man' solo for Cellini.


Michael Spyres sounds surprisingly hefty for the Rossini tenor his biography suggests, and can't quite maneouvre around the insane heights, but he carried this off well, and Gilliam let him do it in peace. The forging of the Perseus was, I reckon, done as well as it could be on stage, even if I heard Michael Palin in the audience as we left wryly refusing to tell someone what hadn't gone quite according to plan. Anyway, the point is that I left exhilarated, when I might have left precipitately deeply disappointed.

No major reservations about the arrival of the now-classic Robert Carsen Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden (even bigger audience star-check: within seconds on exiting, I saw Jonas Kaufmann, Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner). Carsen's painterly instincts for a nearly bare stage informed by evocative lighting brought us one stunning, apt tableau after another, none more haunting than the body language and grouping of the nuns in prison awaiting their sentence. There doesn't seem to be a better photo of that than this one.


I think for me this was the most choking moment of all in an emotional evening, so quietly and authoritatively did the strange-toned but always compelling Emma Bell deliver Madame Lidoine's words of wisdom. Here she is earlier in the action.


Nobody was found wanting. Sally Matthews' is an odd technique, sometimes cloudy, but she sent the sound up top with emotional truthfulness, fell to her knees very eloquently and conveyed the sense of Bernanosian limitless fear superbly. How we jumped when she dropped and broke the statue of the Infant Jesus, even if we knew it was coming.


Deborah Polaski's First Prioress may not have gone through her death agonies with as much harrowing realism as the peerless Anja Silja on the DVD of the same production from La Scala, but she sang the role with far more refinement and dynamic variation.


Anna Prohaska almost over-coloured Soeur Constance but she's a precious new talent on the scene, and Sophie Koch redeemed her baffling Octavian here some years back with a compelling and ultimately touching Mere Marie.


Equal star to Bell for me was Yann Beuron, such a powerful lyric tenor and an extremely sympathetic actor, as Blanche's desperate brother


and he was well offset in the first scene by Thomas Allen's baffled father. The final scene, of course, had both of us trying to restrain ourselves from sobbing out loud


and the lady next to us, come to see it for a second time because her two sons were in the people's ensemble (which she said had raised a few hackles with Equity, but they certainly added another dimension)

This was a redemption, too, for Simon Rattle: one of the best things I've heard him do recently, though come to think of it his Pelleas in the same house was very fine too, and it helps to have conducted that vital inspiration for Poulenc first. The chop-change style, modelled sometimes, I feel, on Prokofiev's mosaic operatic technique, suits him well; the extremes of dynamics were striking throughout and having the harp in a box made those great upbeat swooshes clutch at the heart. Slightly disconcerted by the brass vibrato which sometimes made it sound like a Broadway show (ditto the overamplified guillotine). But otherwise, nothing but praise for the dedication of the players.

It's been an amazing operatic couple of weeks - all this, Feuersnot in Dresden, the shattering and surprising Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh on my birthday - an action-packed occasion I hope to chronicle here - a meeting with the galvanizing Kristine Opolais and her first night as Manon Lescaut yesterday with Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano, all three just about transcending the vague sterilities of Jonathan Kent's production. Here's a photo I couldn't fit into the review from Bill Cooper.


Both Benvenuto Cellini and Manon Lescaut have the benefit of livescreenings around the world (Cellini, I note, got the HD treatment last night; Manon is due soon). Dialogues des Carmélites did not, but at least an earlier incarnation of the Carsen production, as I've mentioned above with reference to Silja, provides a different document. Much more troubling is the removal of Adams' challenging, ambiguous The Death of Klinghoffer from the Metropolitan Opera's HD schedule. This blog post, linked originally by my somewhat erstwhile blog friend Jon Dryden Taylor, expresses everything I feel very succinctly (albeit from a different perspective, that of a 'left-wing, liberal Jew')*.

We still have half a class left to go on Carmelites: I can't leave these nuns, or their various authors alone. And that means I'm skimping on my beloved Ariadne. But this has been an awfully big adventure through a score which, as with Cellini, I didn't know in detail. Grim times ahead, sadly, for the City Lit: a bombshell fell this week. But I need to get my facts together before I report and protest. I leave you with an astonishing film, courtesy of our Australian wanderer, of Joan Sutherland in a role I had no idea she'd taken on beyond the Royal Opera premiere, where Poulenc apparently adapted on hearing her. The diction up top is mush, as usual, but what authority, what passion in the voice.


Wonders will never cease - there's also the 1958 recording of the same scene at Covent Garden, conducted by Kubelik. Of interest if only to compare the change in vocal weight over decades.


*19/6 Further light in the darkness in some of John Adams's responses quoted here.

20 comments:

Susan Scheid said...

Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh for your birthday, how marvelous! Happy birthday, clearly belatedly, and many more to come! You are clearly awash in wonderful opera, from these reports. I wish I were more conversant, but as it is, I must stand back and simply admire, The Klinghoffer cancellation is of course appalling. Over here, a respected music site named it a "Profile in Cowardice," as indeed it is. I weighed in as I could and lodged a protest at the Met. It was bad enough, at the time of the original production, to end up losing Goodman as a librettist for once and for all. My own view, which I have expressed "out loud," is this: I saw the opera when it premiered, and have since seen the beautiful movie directed by Penny Woolcock. The opera handles this explosive material in an intelligent and sensitive manner, and is a magnificent work of art. Above all, it teaches the very thing we need to know about ourselves as human beings: evil is not "other." It is a human thing, and if we are not attentive to that aspect in ourselves, we will fall prey to it. We need this lesson, and repeatedly. Tom Service has written intelligently about it, too. This terrible decision simply cannot stand.

Susan Scheid said...

PS: just read the TAD review and was struck by your positive comment about Aimard in his Festival Director role. I recall our shared concerns about him as a bit of a fox in the chicken coop in the past (in this role, only; he is of course wonderful in many other respects). Has he come around a bit then vis-vis Britten?

David said...

Yes, Sue, Wingrave wouldn't normally be my birthday opera of choice, but when done as well as this it couldn't have been bettered. And of course it took me back to 1983 when as a 'Hesse student' I was shoving scenery around the stage for The Turn of the Screw and I had 'happy birthday' sung to me by Pears, the Pipers and Basil Coleman...

Don't know what more can be added to the Klinghoffer debacle. I see Adams has responded with his usual eloquence. These people just cannot be shifted in their absolutes. Nor, of course, can many on the other side. This is why the Palestinian issue will never be resolved. Terrible, such hate.

Aimard - I don't know. Many of the programmes are still pretty hardcore. But he is such a genial presence, very smiley and very much there.

Susan Scheid said...

On Aimard: what you describe counts for a lot, and actually accords with my one experience of him--a recital of Bach, paired with contemporary works. After, he sat at a table and signed CDs, an unenviable task, but with a smile for everyone and a twinkle in his eye.

David said...

Yes, he seems to be a Mensch (what's the French equivalent?) And much of his playing I very much admire, though not in all rep. Because we arrived on Saturday afternoon we rather regretfully missed his shared recital that morning.

Howard Lane said...

Blimey! what was not to like in Gilliam's Cellini. Perhaps there were some benefits in seeing the close-ups at the live screening although at one point in the carnival scene there was too much camera cutting - you didn't need clever camera work to know there was a riot going on on stage, and you wanted to see the whole glorious picture! I'm not sure what you took against Corinne Winters, David. I found her enthralling and enchanting with a remarkable voice - nothing shrill but very powerful and with a gorgeously smooth quality.

Both she and Michael Spyres really stood out for me even amidst the contrived insanity of Gilliam's flying circus. I loved the whole thing. My main disappointment was that the director didn't appear to take a bow - he was the reason I went in the first place, but was so glad that I did.

At 90 minutes the first act had it's longueurs (I loved Teresa's disapproving "aunts" though!) but the carnival was a glorious riot, putting the paltry Coney Island carney characters from last month's Cosi completely in the shade. I can see how the second act would seem like an anticlimax to some but it was soon rescued by the pope and his flouncy minions in red. Were they cardinals or the Vatican guard? Who cares. Willard White's disapproving inspection of an enormous statue of a bum in Cellini's workshop was perfect, along with the final reveal of the statue's legs right up to its naughty bits.

Plenty of laughs as well as a fantastic Berlioz score, superb performances and Gilliam's phantasmagorical staging - just wow!

David said...

Well, Howard, I've told you what was not to like from my perspective - and now you've given yours, fine. I might be rather condescending and say that you don't know what the first half can be, with a lighter and sharper touch in the wooing scenes (and don't tell me you found the 'comic' characters funny, because they just weren't: try Laurent Naouri on the DVD, even though that production, too, doesn't take the best from him). There should be no longueurs. And I like even my riots clearly staged a la Richard Jones.I like to see meaningful gestures between characters and not the usual operatic cliches or individual notions of 'comedy' (always overdone if the director doesn't find the precise language).

And I've written about what I very much admired, and how I eventually came away happy, so you can't say I'm a killjoy. And I didn't take against Corinne Winters, apart from the wig: I just know from her Traviata that she can be better, and so can the role of Teresa (though she was spirited in the final scene).

Howard Lane said...

Of course! I only meant to express my own enthusiasm for what I experienced, not to challenge your verdict, so don't be peeved. I had no context or prior knowledge of the work or the performers. Although I recognised some of the rousing carnival music.

I missed the Music Matters edition on it unfortunately. Claire told me that there had been a lot of cuts and production problems mentioned. The "humerous" characters were pompous but not funny. The humour was in all the other stage business, a triumph of style over content I know, but a very enjoyable one. Not sure if Gilliam really does "clarity"...

I had no problem with the wig, and to see Corinne Winters performing better than she did on Tuesday, well, even more wow.

David said...

Oh dear, did I come across as peevish? Probably over-sensitive but yes, we all have our own opinions. The cuts were, I think, intelligent (it always troubled me that the Innkeeper's solo sounds like more of a Jewish caricature than anything in Wagner, who incidentally must have known this work - how much does Siegfried's forging of the sword owe to the Perseus sequence, I wonder?)

Geo. said...

Transplanting the prior Poulenc thread here: glad to send you the links to the P-D articles. One more for you, namely the review of the 1st night, a generally good review. I saw it last night, and the critic came back for a second helping. (There's another fellow who goes to every single performance each season, but that's another story.) On the whole, a very fine production, where here, instead of Carsen's bare stage or Dexter's cruciform platform, we get Guarino's "box" that reminds me of an Asian-type tea room, if that makes sense. The 'ceiling' of the "box" was actually latticed, so sound could travel up and out that way. I was expecting from the review for the room to be a full-on roof (i.e. no holes), but fortunately that wasn't the case. It made for some striking shadow effects.

I'm somewhat in agreement with SBM of the P-D that KK may have perhaps over-projected, granted that the Webster University space there is not the most sympathetic acoustically. However, I can rationalize that as her way of vocally projecting the character's nervousness. KK also had her "panic attack" moments in character, cringing against a corner of the 'box', that sort of thing. She is a very intense actress as well as singer, although fortunately when you meet her in the tent after the show, she's sensible enough to turn it off once the performance is done, and become a regular person again.

Ward Stare conducted well overall, with some over-emphatic gestures IMHO, which seems odd given that he was past assistant conductor with the SLSO. He could learn a bit from Stephen Lord, OTSL's music director, to trust the musicians a bit more and not overdo the upper body stuff. Of course, SSR isn't immune to the over-expressive facial gestures, so nobody's perfect. But again, a good job on the whole from WS.

One brilliant touch that came just before the final scene was that each of the nuns wrote her real birth name on the white wall at the back of the set. So Ashley Emerson (Sister Constance) wrote out 'Marie-Genevieve Meunier' on the far left of the wall, and so on. I sort of wish that I'd taken a photo, although any photo pales before seeing it in person.

The way that Guarino staged the final scene was to have each nun walk into the box, singing, and with each guillotine thwack, each nun slumped and sat down. At the very end, KK added a touch just as the musical blade was about to hit, namely that you saw her hands visibly shake, to qualify the 'overcoming of all fears' a bit.

Lots to talk about potentially, so maybe will save some for later.

David said...

How was Brewer for you? I see even more powerful precedents than I'd thought, including Jessye Norman, no less. What do you think of Sutherland here?

wanderer said...

You've hijacked my day; if I were on a plane we'd be landing at Dubai by now.

That Owen Wingrave is finding itself a live stage (also the beneficiary of a shoe-string budget here too in 2013, another missed post I'm afraid) is more than timely - where was it when we needed it most, Vietnam especially. I was conscripted; another painful story, another time.

I am most interested to know how the end was staged. In Sydney there was a visible suicide by gunshot - an understandable approach and shocking but completely negating the (case built for all the preceding opera) exceptional courage involved in being true to self; a courage that belies suicide in my opinion. For the tele, death by ghost, attrition of will-to-live, expiration of spirit, or otherwise death-by-opera is more manageable.

The role of women, white feather givers, is easily overlooked or underplayed in the complexity of all this. Britten plays it so well. Britten was raped at school are you saying? How much that explains.

Wigglesworth and Britten are a match.

Reading more about Joan, Kubelick and Poulenc, she apparently read Bernanos' text as well as anything she could find on the Carmelites. The mature Joan Lidoine continues to astound me each and every time, and what a contrast to hear that lovely sliver, and no less sincere or impassioned, first 1958 recording. The call to courage by the younger less matronly prioress is arguably more powerful, so strong to override any youthful doubts or insecurities, as with Owen.

Summers is a stayer isn't he.

David said...

You make another powerful comparison between Carmelites and Wingrave, wanderer - I think it was sitting in the back of my mind somewhere that Mme Lidoine's calm, quiet words to her sisters in prison has all the resolution of young Owen's and you're right, a younger singer makes it in a way even more poignant. Would love to have been a fly on the wall if Joanie and Francis ever conversed.

The revelation Britten apparently made to Eric Crozier, and though no-one else in the inner circle heard it, it's not a reason to doubt that he was telling the truth. Carpenter is very good on it. Can't bring myself to read the Kildea book because his programme notes beat so around the bush, never really mentioning the music (the one for Aldeburgh, which enraged our friend Juliette, was especially poor).

The end was superbly understated. Since we'd had the present-day soldier 'ghosts' ever present, and the violence had so often been threatened, it was superfluous to show them despatching him behind the door. Final tableau was the old soldier cradling his grandson, Pieta style, and the ghost-soldiers saluting with the ballad singer, the conscience of today, stopping short of joining them. I agree, suicide is absolutely out of tune with the heroic resolve, though it gives me goosebumps the way the optimism bleaches out of the big solo. And our Owen was clearly almost driven mad by the pressures.

Said Juliette will be delighted by your observation on the women, about whom she wanted me to write more. But at least I mentioned them. There was an extraordinary Independent review which credited not one of the female singers (and the Kate was absolutely a young star, though all were superb). Maybe there had been a cut, but it looked awful.

Curious to know more about your drafting, but in good time. Wingrave was begun in '68 - was that not reasonably timely?

wanderer said...

Premier was 1970 I believe, but somehow I thought it was later, which it was in my consciousness which I must remember is worryingly fallible.

I didn't serve having been deemed unsuitable although subsequently we were blessed with a change in Government and our troops pulled. From here we seque (or not) into Robert McNamara's Fog of War.

Isn't that they (the ghosts) dispatched him in itself a presumption? My concern is the word 'dispatched'. He, Britten, was after all the master of incertitude.

David said...

Well, yes, that is a presumption, but this was still kept ambiguous. We'd seen all the threats, culminating in the soldiers with all the boys in pajamas around Owen, a really menacing scene, so nothing could have capped that.

Three cheers, incidentally, if you helped to oust that hateful (as in full of hate, hate-inciting) homophobe Tamar Iveri from Opera Australia's Otello. What she - or her husband, who now cares which - wrote was certain career suicide. A shame - she was a very poised Elisabetta in a Cologne Don Carlo we liked all round.

wanderer said...

2835Rifling through my Bookmarks on another matter, I chanced upon this, The Mantle of Elijah, a long and rather jerky reflection on the aggregation of mystics in France (and an extended discussion on mysticism, prophets, religion and art) that cumulated in the execution of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne.

The Carmelites trace their origin back to hermits who lived at the fount of Elijah on the slopes of Mount Carmel and therein lies a close association with the prophet (not as foreseer but one who calls the people of Israel to return to former fidelities) and a fiery ascent to Heaven.

Anyway, should anyone make it through, there are interesting thoughts about the hesitation to confront evil out of fear - great evil, and everyday evil. I thought again of Mme Lidoine (Blessed Teresa of St Augustine) and Owen Wingrave.

And even by extension to Opera Australia and it tardy response, initially accepting apologies and back-peddling, (as its fears shifted perhaps from sudden disruption in casting, to public shaming, to box office loss, to loss of sponsorship) in its response to this blatant evil unlike the immediate and elegantly principled, admittedly free of the pressure of time, statement from La Monnaie.

Disclaimer: I have no special belief in salvation though sacrifice.

David said...

Nor did Madame Lidoine, wanderer (have special faith in salvation through sacrifice, at least as represented in martyrdom). It's one of the many fascinations of the text that it puts the arguments pro (the fundamentalist Mere Marie) and contra (Lidoine).

As for the blatant evilspeaker, comment 1 ('she's intitaled [sic] to her opinion') astounds me. It's all a question of where free speech ends and incitement to hatred begins (and she was very happy that the demonstrators got their jaws broken by the 'Orthodox' thugs). No doubts about how far Iveri crossed the line here. Well, I like the comment that 'the faecal masses have risen up and spoken'. Russia and Georgia will no doubt still give her work.

Will dig out that volume.

wanderer said...

Meanwhile, two Bernanos have arrived (Monsieur Ouine and The Diary) as well as the Speight biography. Need to be snow bound.

David said...

Excellent, you won't regret it. Drizzle and mud would be the perfect climate to read these stories of French provincial life. I'm still dream-haunted by the strange world of M Ouine. Glad you tracked down a copy of the biog.

For me it's back to a Vonnegut binge after coming close to Slaughterhouse 5 in Dresden (it does exist, but it's not the old slaughterhouse in which we heard Cameron Carpenter). Rereading that classic I now treasure every sentence all the more.

Geo. said...

Here, CB did fine as Madame Lidoine, but no surprise there, given that she definitely carries authority by dint of being a generation or two ahead of the younger singers here at OTSL, even if the real Madame Lidoine was just 34, per Brewer's quote in that one article. I was not aware of Joan Sutherland's portrayal of Madame Lidoine, but in retrospect, that should have been no surprise. I see what you mean about her diction at times, but then the soprano range isn't the most friendly for clarity in English in general, IMHO. JS definitely has that air of authority from her manner that would serve the part well.

BTW, if you want to read an out-of-towner's dissenting review of OTSL's production of Carmelites, here you go. Of course, this is the same critic who downrated OTSL's Champion last year, but actually gave a better, if still somewhat mixed, review to Santa Fe Opera's production of Oscar, speaking of gay-themed operas in the USA last year. Cantrell got it exactly backwards. Champion is flawed and uneven, but has a much stronger story and sense of drama, while Oscar is the worst sort of PC-dreck imaginable, that totally makes Oscar Wilde into "Saint Oscar".

BTW, on Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five, the one sentence that I would make an exception for is the one that mentions David Irving, because of the taint that associates with his name now. But that aside, point taken.

I may try to catch Act II of Carmelites at OTSL this evening, if the chamber concert tonight ends early enough that I can barrel down there afterwards, if for no other reason than another chance to see the "writing on the wall" moment. We shall see.