Thursday 20 December 2012

The primrose path

In Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along it leads backwards in time from the hell of compromise and failure to the sunlit plains of youthful optimism. In Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable it meanders ineffectually until finally fizzling out in the face of an equally pallid angelic challenge. Having seen the two works on consecutive nights – the opera first at Covent Garden, the musical next at the Menier Chocolate Factory - I know which path I’d rather take. But let’s put duty before pleasure and have done with the French devil first.

Is Robert really a grand opera? Its length and scenario would suggest so; the music, apart from the passing low brass threat, would better be suited in selective dollops to semi-disposable opéra comique. That Meyerbeer could write a good tune we know from Constant Lambert’s arrangements in Les Patineurs, drawn from Le Prophète – yes, it really did have a roller-skate ballet – and L’Etoile du Nord. There’s arguably one catchy number here, the Sicilian song in the first act. Otherwise you wait and wait for the promised improvements in later acts. Like so many second- or third-rank operas, this one always seems about to deliver and always stops short at foreplay.

 Instrumental colour can be interesting – good girl Alice’s arrival in a dangerous place is marked by a sweet woodwind chorus – and one ungainly novelty stands out, the a cappella trio in which the tenor and soprano shoot up to insane heights while the bass hits rock-bottom (its concluding counterpart makes the most of its half-tune, blueprint perhaps for the better effort towards the end of Gounod's Faust). If Princess Isabelle’s plea to Robert to forsake his wicked ways is another hit, the second replacement coloratura, Sofia Fomina, failed to make it so despite the support of harp and cor anglais.

In fact of the four principals only Bryan Hymel, a surprisingly beefy tenor capable of hitting the top notes, seemed in technically good shape. Usually reliable bass John Relyea (pictured above with Hymel) struck gravel in his upper register and the picture-pretty Marina Poplavskaya did her usual of swooping in and out of focus and tuning (so frustrating – there’s certainly something there if only a good teacher could bring it out). Conductor Daniel Oren didn’t seem to be helping anyone much. Laurent Pelly’s production restricted itself to naff rhythmic steps for the chorus and didn’t bother much with trying to mine any psychological truth from the principals (probably there’s no point). 

Some of the 19th century style picturebook designs were fun, but only the ballet of zombie nuns in the graveyard where Robert has come to claim a magic branch, strikingly choreographed by Lionel Hoche, managed to triumph over anodyne music. Worth staging? I think not. A concert performance would have been enough to show us the bits that influenced Wagner* – and Sullivan, so much creepier in Ruddigore. If the Royal Opera wants to do a French grand opera, albeit one of less historical significance, it could try Massenet’s Le Cid. But no more Meyerbeer, please.

On, vitement, to Merrily We Roll Along. I hadn’t really wanted to bother with it again, having taken away so little from the Donmar production 12 years ago with Daniel Evans and the gorgeous Julian Ovenden. But then I learned from colleague Matt Wolf's enthusiastic review that the leading trio this time round included Damian Humbley, so dazzlingly good in the ill-fated and unfairly maligned Lend Me a Tenor, and lovely lady Jenna Russell, outstanding star of the Regent’s Park Into the Woods. Josefina Gabrielle, who eclipsed Tamsin Outhwaite in the Menier’s Sweet Charity, was also playing a chunky role. So I decided to give it another try.

Even before the night, assisted by the 1992 Leicester Haymarket cast recording with Maria Friedman – the present production’s clearly able director – I was hooked. The show is based on a Kaufman and Hart play and follows the blueprint of a (usually resistable) self-referencing showbusiness rise and fall, but told in reverse. As Sondheim points out in the excellent Finishing the Hat, Merrily not only traffics in the regular 32-bar songs of the musical golden age but, thanks to the time-travelling premise, previews them in fragmentation or dissolution before piecing them together in their pristine state. Thematic transformation is almost as skilful and pervasive as in Into the Woods, a work of incredible musical sophistication. The winning song penned by the musical’s composer and lyricist, ‘Good Thing Going’, is cheesy but earwormy, and there’s an infallible blend of post-G&S patter with pathos.

The Menier cast was, as anticipated, flawless. Russell (pictured above with Mark Umbers) doesn’t really get the limelight she deserves as Mary, but manages the backward transition from overweight, outspoken drunk to hopeful author beautifully. Humbley brings the house down with impeccable timing in Charlie Kringas’s self-destructive rant against his sellout buddy Franklin Shepard ‘Inc’ during a 1973 TV interview. Handsome Umbers achieves the difficult task of winning our sympathy as we regress to understanding a little more about Frank’s compromises.

The biggest transformation is realized by Clare Foster as his first wife Beth, maintaining a stillness in heartbreaking anguish in the first, divorce-scene rendition of ‘Not a Day Goes By’ – no easy task considering we’ve only just met her – before lighting up the stage with her younger enthusiasm (Foster's in the top picture with Russell, Umbers and Humbley). Gabrielle (pictured below with Glyn Kerslake), like Russell, doesn't quite get to strut all her stuff. She's a terrific dancer and the show number adapted with Sondheim's permission could give more room to that. As her first husband, Joe Josephson, Kerslake comes magnificently if briefly into the limelight in the middle of the fabulous young-professionals number 'Opening Doors'. 

The scene-changes are evocative bearing in mind the Menier’s limited space, the band excellent, but I have the one usual cavil in this place: why mike in a small theatre? You can’t tell where the voices are coming from in ensemble scenes, and you lose their natural timbre. Anyway, on with the West End transfer, and here’s to Broadway for Friedman and Co.

It's been an equally mixed week for Arts Desk assignments. I'll be damned if the Zurich Opera's concert performance of Wagner's Die Fliegende Holländer wasn't the best event of 2012 thanks to the Senta (all-giving Anja Kampe) and Daland (relaxed veteran Matti Salminen) rising to the superhuman level of Bryn's Dutchman.

But then there was a 26th-revival Copley Bohème at Covent Garden cruelly exposing the current problems of Rolando Villazón, and no-one else really making it worthwhile (though Elder's orchestra, despite being too loud and slow at times, revelled in the detailed beauties of Puccini's fabulous score). As for the old Copley production, at least Act Three looks good - below, Villazón with Maija Kovalevska's bright but unItalianate Mimì.

*though I reckon the Abbate/Parker claim that Senta's Ballad would not have been possible without the example in Robert's Act One must be wrong; the one in Marschner's Der Vampyr, which when I saw that opera in Munich struck me as close to the world of Dutchman, predates Meyerbeer's example by three years.

Production photos of Merrily We Roll Along by Tristram Kenton for the Menier Chocolate Factory
Production photos of Robert le Diable and La Bohème by Bill Coooper for the Royal Opera
Photo of the Zurich Dutchman by T+T Fotografie


Willym said...

I'm sorry but I still enjoyed the Robert for all its unfulfilled promise but I understand several of the cast members like you would have been just as glad if it had been a concert performance also.

I'm am still undecided as to an extra day should be spent in Dresden in May to catch La Juive????

David said...

No need to apologise for enjoyment. For myself, I can only say it was not in the hair-tearing category of boredom and I was fitfully intrigued. And if that's the kind of thing you like - I'm not averse to French grand opera, as the remark on Le Cid should have indicated - why not give La Juive a try? It went down not terribly well in concert here a couple of years ago.

Me, I'm looking forward to catching the early Wagners (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot) next year...

Paul Richardson said...

Like you, David, I got little out of Robert le Diable, and before I went I thought this is exactly the sort of thing the Royal Opera should be doing. Unfortunately I'm not a Sondheim fan but you make a good case for Merrily We Roll Along. And I wish I'd been to the Dutchman.

David said...

Well, Paul, I wouldn't say it was a complete waste of time, for the few reasons I've given. But I'm not the sort of operagoer for whom vocal prowess triumphs over substance (though if you've got a true stylist like, say, Nelly Miricioiu in Donizetti, there can be exceptions to that too).

David Damant said...

Robert the Devil has everything a grand opera needs except that it has not the tiniest trace of genius. One note after another, in sequence, but nothing else. As for the plot, it is no more bizarre than The Magic Flute but one phrase of Mozart etc etc

Yet in the nineteenth century the Meyerbeer operas were played hundreds of times. So this opera was very worth seeing to try to work out what the Victorians (OK OK I know she did not come to the throne until 1837) were like. Whether it will ever be possible to get them in perspective I cannot say

David said...

More or less agreed - though I'd argue there are just the tiniest traces of genius, if originality is genius - though possibly it isn't. I can't find the quotation in the Prokofiev diaries where a pundit says of a quirky work 'it is important to the history of music, but not to music'.

Maybe substitute Victorians with 'bourgeois Parisians' - though of course it went down all too well here.

Will said...

Meyerbeer is not exactly clinging even to the underside of the repertory here, but the MET did one season only of Le Prophete several decades ago that I didn't see. Then Opera Orchestra of New York did a very fine concert Huguenots that inspired Bard College to mount a really tremendous fully staged production, both of which I did see, against any expectation that it could happen in the US in my lifetime. There's no question in my mind that Huguenots, at least, is a completely viable and at times very powerful work.

So is Merrily, which I had the great pleasure of designing with a really good director. I think Sondheim has stopped trying to revise it (a year before we did it, the boys at Harvard were given the rights to do it on the understanding that Sondheim and George Furth would come into residence and work on the show in rehearsal); whatever changes they may have made did not show up in the edition we were sent to perform. But Merrily is being performed with some frequency all over the country -- and it is really a good piece of material.

David said...

I must dust off my Sutherland/Bonynge Huguenots LPs and listen again. Marguerite de Valois's aria is certainly more memorable than any of its counterparts in Robert.

What fun to be involved with Merrily. I'd love to have done it in my student days. But as Sondheim points out in Finishing the Hat, which I'm now reading from cover to cover, the young people originally cast didn't 'get' the disillusionment of their older selves, while singing actors approaching their middle years can at least recreate a sense of youthful optimism.

Will said...

David, for real thrills, abandon the French language and style and go for the La Scala with Sutherland, Corelli, Smionato, Ganzarolli, Bastianini, Tozzi, Ghiaurov and Cossotto. If you don't know it, it's staggering. Vrenios (sp?) on the Sutherland isn't all that; Corelli is stupendous. Arroyo is really something, though!

A very Happy Christmas to you both!!

David Damant said...

The late Sir Ian Hunter, having discovered that I had never visited Naples, said that I should certainly attend the Italian repertory at the opera there, since it is performed in Naples without the inhibitions that one experiences in the performances at - I expected him to say, at the ROH, or at the MET but no - at La Scala.....!!!!!Can anyone confirm this?

David said...

I imagine La Scala is like anywhere else on a grand scale - it depends on the visiting artists (I was lucky enough to see Domingo on top form in La fanciulla del West opposite the demented Mara Zampieri and FLott in Arabella, very idiomatically conducted by Sawallisch). And what a line-up that is, Will: I'll put the box set (with the tenor who is generally excoriated) to one side.