Puccini's La fanciulla del West certainly went for gold on the first night of Richard Jones's new production for English National Opera. There's not much I can add to my Arts Desk review, or the BBC Radio 3 Music Matters chat with Tom Service and Alexandra Wilson, about Minnie's return to the original Americanization of David Belasco's The Girl of the Golden West. One thing I ought to admit in a marginally more private sphere is that, once past the thrill of being hurtled into Puccini's sheer showmanship in as brilliant a grab-you-by-the-throat start as any he composed, I wept to the point of sobbing at the miners' yearnings for the folk back home, and at the sheer candid insecurity of Susan Bullock's Minnie (pictured above by Robert Workman for ENO at the end of Act Two with Peter Auty's half-dead Ramerrez and Craig Colclough as the defeated Ramerrez glowering through the window) in the beautifully paced, clinch-postponed scene with the man she loves at the end of the First Act. I love it that Richard, in his typically pithy responses for the Music Matters slot, described the plot as being about 'three people with very low self-esteem'.
The key word about Jones's careful stagecraft is truthfulness, not easy in a piece which can slide into hammy melodrama. It's overwhelmed me to the point of obsessiveness since I saw the show on Thursday, reminding me that any imperfections in the purely vocal qualities of the principals can be far outshone by the lasting impression of a terrific piece of staging. For vocal thrills untroubled by questions of dramatic fidelity onstage, you still have to go back to peerless Birgit Nilsson* on the 1958 studio recording with Teatro alla Scala forces. Her tenor, the now more or less unremembered João Gibin, ain't bad either. But what surely makes this one of the great opera recordings is the perfect theatricality of Lovro von Matačić's conducting. It's all here on YouTube.
What some top-notch singing can be without staging of Jones's peerless know-how and thoughtfulness struck me all too forcibly when I went to see ENO's other new production of the season so far, of Verdi's Otello, two evenings later. I don't doubt that Stuart Skelton will make a great Otello sooner or later. But David Alden's was not the production to help him. Maybe it was an especially lethargic, energy-dimmed Saturday night, but I didn't even get the sense of any outsider status in this tormented warrior to make up for an avoidance of the elephant in the room, the racial issue (which matters less in the opera, certainly, than in Shakespeare, who makes Othello's apartness the crux of Iago's manipulation).
Sadly, there was little dramatic spark until Skelton's protagonist fell to his knees and launched into a suddenly thrilling 'Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro' (or whatever that is in the rather dreary, antiquated-sounding English translation). Veteran Jonathan Summers backed him up and suddenly we were experiencing again the true theatrical spark (the two below pictured by Alastair Muir for ENO).
For me, that was it. No doubt it wasn't Summers' fault but the production's that Boito's text for Iago's Credo just struck me as downright silly. I didn't see or hear the feistiness many had detected in Leah Crocetto's Desdemona, either. She can do the works, the top and the pianissimi, but I didn't hear much pathos or lower tones in the bright, well-schooled soprano voice; not was there the bearing which can make Desdemona effective even when the voice is lacking (as it certainly wasn't with Crocetto). Alden's mise en scene conveyed very little to me, but the real death blow was the fatal unpaciness of Edward Gardner's conducting. Yes, the orchestra delivered all the detail on top form, but why did we come away at the interval - despite that duet-finale - feeling so torpid? The score should fly like an arrow until the bedchamber scene, which was neither set where it needs to be nor affecting in any way. Here was a case where fine singing and playing didn't constitute the musical supremacy which might have made up for the sheer incoherent movement and apparent indiscipline of the dramatic picture.
Back to school tomorrow - or rather today, since it's now past midnight - but no longer to the City Lit; slight regrets about having sacrificed Fanciulla, which was on the menu there before it all went pear-shaped, in favour of Prokofiev's War and Peace, so as not to be accused of replication. My Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club kicks off at 2.30pm, and I'm confident about the fabulous resources of the place; this was the right choice. Loyal students, and some new faces, have helped to make it happen. And I'd particularly like to acknowledge the generous support of David Pickard, Laura Jukes and James Hancox at Glyndebourne in giving the course a big push in the house's October e-newsletter which went out on Saturday. On Thursday we'll see how the Nielsen/Sibelius course works at St Andrew's Fulham Fields; for the first week we'll be in the church proper while there's a winetasting in 'our' lecture room.
One disappointment was that the BBC Symphony Orchestra management came back to me, after three weeks of persistent e-mailing on my part (some staff were away, others weren't) to check whether we could have the usual student discount, to tell me that wasn't possible for 'privately-run courses'. So with the agitated action that I've been prone to since having to start afresh, I approached the London Philharmonic Orchestra and they'll give us 50 per cent discount on selected concerts next year. I've opted for two classes on 12 and 19 March to cover three Ballets Russes scores being conducted by Jurowski - Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe on the 14th, excerpts from Prokofiev's Chout and Stravinsky's complete 1911 Petrushka on the 21st. One of Bakst's paintings associated with his designs for the original production of Daphnis pictured below.
Then on 23 April we anticipate the last concert in Jurowski's Rachmaninoff: Inside Out series on 29 April. So that's a new start, and I may well add other one-off classes depending on how things go. But it's a fun adventure so far, not least to discover that I can administer my way out of a paper-bag; I have the internet, and xls, to thank for that. Again, my e-mail, if you'd like further details: email@example.com.
*This is serendipity, since I'm off to Stockholm for the Birgit Nilsson Prize, recipients the Vienna Philharmonic who'll be playing under Muti. I look forward to hearing the reasoning.