Sunday 14 June 2020

A Life On-line: Thais from the Metropolitan Opera, Sorochinsy Fair and Eugene Onegin from the Komische Oper, and Covent Garden re-opens

Tchaikovksy: Eugene Onegin - Asmik Grigorian, Günter Papendell - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo: Holger Jacobs)
Tchaikovksy: Eugene Onegin - Asmik Grigorian, Günter Papendell - Komische Oper, Berlin
(Photo: Holger Jacobs)

Our listening to opera on-line in the last few months has been very much characterised by seeing productions of operas that we were unlikely to see live, and with a particular emphasis on rarities, operas which are hardly ever staged in the UK.

I was lucky enough to see two of the UK stagings of Massenet's  Thais (at the Royal Northern College of Music in the 1970s, and at Grange Park Opera in 2006), so it was fascinating to catch up with the Metropolitan Opera's luxurious staging directed by John Cox in 2008 with Renée Fleming in the title role and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos. Visually the production seemed to combine an Edwardian period setting with elements of something more exotic. Thais' luxurious costumes were by Christian Lacroix, but no other designer was credited. It struggled somewhat in the desert scenes, and the Cenobites long robes, hairy wigs and beards seemed straight out of central casting. Perhaps more seriously, each scene change was marked by a significant pause which affected the musical flow. Thankfully, the musical side of things was entrancing; López-Cobos conducted a fluent performance with Fleming luxuriating in the title role, and Hampson being suitably trenchant whilst finding a suaveness of line as well. Michael Schade made Nicias a strong presence, and Alain Vernhes gave Palémon suitable gravity.

To Berlin next, for another rarity, Mussorgsky's unfinished comedy Sorochintsy Fair, in Barrie Kosky's 2017 production from the Komische Oper, Berlin (available via OperaVision), conducted by Henrik Nánási. Kosky used the 1932 completion of the opera by Pavel Lamm and Vissarion Shebalin, but also added some extra choruses and an aria for the tenor 'hero' Gritsko. There is almost no plot, simply a series of vignettes of peasant life strung together around the attempts of Gritsko, a peasant lad (Alexander Lewis) and Parasya (Mirka Wagner), but though Parasya's father, the peasant Cherevik (Jens Larsen), supports them, her step-mother Khivrya (Agnes Zwierko) does not. Throw in Khivrya's affair with the local priest, and a legend about the devil returning each year to the fair to look for his missing red coat and you have the entire plot.

But Kosky made the piece erupt with engaging energy, using the large chorus to maximum effect and keeping a stripped down stage. There were plenty of dramatic tropes familiar from other Russian operas, but the result had an energy and poignancy which came over on the small screen, and must have been superb in the theatre.

On Thursday were returned to Russia by way of the Komische Oper, Berlin, for Kosky's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. This profoundly beautiful production featured striking designs by Rebecca Ringst and Klaus Bruns, which set virtually the entire action (bar the ball scene in Act III) in a luxuriant meadow. The 2016 performance was conducted by Henrik Nánási, with Asmik Grigorian as Tatiana, Karolina Gumos as Olga, Christiane Oertel as Larina, Margarita Nekrasova as Filippyevna, Aleš Briscein as Lensky and Günter Papendell as Onegin.

The protagonists were all believably young, so that Grigorian's remarkably Tatiana did go on a journey, from gauche interior girl to poised, and perhaps a little heartless. Much of Grigorian's intensity came over on the small screen, so much so that one regretted not seeing her in the role live. Papendell was almost as remarkable, creating a character which was believable if not likeable, sexy and charismatic but complex and going on a journey of his own. The supporting cast were equally fine and this was very much an ensemble piece. My only regret was that Kosky effectively dropped the ball scene, there was no dancing, Act III started with the polonaise played with the curtain down; Kosky clearly had decided that there was enough vividness in Tchaikovsky's music, and he concentrated on the intimate scenes. It felt something of a loss, but perhaps came over differently in the theatre.

Both the Russian operas were available via OperaVision, which is a fantastic project which enables you to visit opera houses all over Europe and beyond. Garsington Opera's 2018 performance of David Sawer's The Skating Rink is now available on OperaVision until the end of this year, do catch it [see my review of the original production].

On Saturday, there was a very great occasion, the re-opening of Covent Garden, albeit without an audience [available via their streaming website]. We had a mixture of song, opera and dance, all accompanied by Antonio Pappano on piano (without anyone to turn pages). For the song and opera, the camera was turned to face the empty auditorium, a rather poignant image. We started with English song, soprano Louise Alder sang Britten's On this Island, and then Toby Spence sang Butterworth's Six songs from A Shropshire Lad. Both pieces, perhaps, explore common themes but Auden set by Britten is far spikier than Housman set by Butterworth, but 'The lads in their hundreds' remains my candidate for my favourite English song. Next came a new piece by choreographer Wayne McGregor danced by Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales (who are partners in life as well as art), set to Richard Strauss' Morgen sung by Louise Alder with an uncredited violinist. Alder is wonderful in this repertoire, and McGregor's response to the music was fascinating, not at all what I expected; far more restless and intense, a long way from the dreamy melancholy applied to this music. No mention, of course, that Henry Mackay's original poem was written from one man to another, though we doubt Strauss knew this [see my article]

There was more English song, Gerald Finley sang Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Songs which were written for Finley in 2000 and set cat poems by Stevie Smith, Thomas Hardy and Walt Whitman, and showed us another, delightful side to Turnage. Finley followed with another animal, Britten's The Crocodile! Then gave us Gerald Finzi's profoundly beautiful, yet melancholy Shakespeare setting, Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun.

Louise Alder then returned, and really turned up the heat with Morgana's Tornami a vagheggiar from Handel's Alcina, killer coloratura sung in a way which made you understand that Winton Dean could refer to Morgana as one of Handel's 'sex kitten' roles! We finished in more sober territory, 'Au fond du temple saint' from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles sung by Spence and Finley.

Next week we return to Covent Garden for Sarah Connolly and David Butt Philip in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and dance by Frederick Ashton to music by Gluck.

Massenet: Thais - Renée Fleming - Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)
Massenet: Thais - Renée Fleming - Metropolitan Opera (Photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Elsewhere online there was plenty to catch up with.
We saw Ceruleo's performance of Burying the Dead, Clare Norburn's concert drama about Henry Purcell, at Baroque at the Edge in 2019 [see my review], now the company is taking us deeper into the work with a weekly series of videos which started last week on their YouTube channel.

To mark what should have been the 2020 festival, Nevill Holt Opera has launched a series of song performances made in the theatre, starting with soprano Aoife Miskelly singing Zerlina's 'Vedrai, Carino' from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Mendelssohn's So schlaf' in Ruh!, the Song to the moon from Rusalka by Dvorák, 'She moved thro' the fair' (Trad/Irish) and 'I could have danced all night' from My Fair Lady by Loewe accompanied by the artistic director of Nevill Holt Opera, Nicholas Chalmers (who did benefit from a page turner, as he and tenor Laurence Kilsby share a house), see Nevill Holt's YouTube channel and the performances are given in support of Nevill Holt Opera's education programme.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly accompanied herself in a beautiful account of Schubert's An die Musik [Twitter] - "Beloved art, in how many a bleak hour, when I am enmeshed in life’s tumultuous round, have you kindled my heart to the warmth of love,  and borne me away to a better world!". And continuing the uplifting mood, soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Michael Karcher-Young performed Walk with me [Twitter]. Benjamin, like a number of artists sought to reflect the events surrounding George Floyd's death, baritone Roderick Williams made explicit reference on Twitter to #BlackLivesMatterUK, in his performance of his own arrangement of the spiritual Deep River, with Roger Vignoles on piano [YouTube]

Eboracum Baroque's latest virtual coffee concert was a grand tour of 18th century Italy featuring works by Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Tartini [see their YouTube channel]. The group is one of those which embraced early the new technology and new ways of developing an audience, and I will be chatting to Chris Parsons next week about their forthcoming plans.

Opera Story has been giving us a series of mini-operas on-line, called Episodes. Five are now available as a playlist [YouTube], featuring performers Nicky Spence, Alice Privett, Nicholas Lester, Katie Coventry, Oliver Brignall and Chloe Latchmore in music by Dani Howard, Alex Woolf, Lucie Treacher and Vahan Salorian. And we are promised more!

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