martin randall 2015

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The real shame of the Royal Opera House’s Guillaume Tell

3 July 2015, London, UK

Gerald Finley as William Tell at London's Royal Opera House
Gerald Finley as William Tell at London's Royal Opera House(Photo: Clive Barda)

‘The offending scene in Guillaume Tell did not "remind" us of the horrors of war. What it did, through its sheer and obvious fakeness, was to cheapen those horrors, and to use them for self-serving ends.’

By Robert Thicknesse

Most cultural organisations love to be on the front pages of the newspapers. The exception is the Royal Opera, which usually winds up there for the wrong reasons. Because of this, the organisation has developed a media policy beadily devoted to treating the press like an enemy – and to be fair, it has a lot to hide. Imagine the storm if the popular press ever chose to publicise the true extent to which normal, opera-adverse working people’s taxes go to subside the stalls seats of millionaires; or the fact that the associate director of opera, John Fulljames – whose track record at the ROH so far isn’t anything to write home about – gets paid a handsome salary, well above industry norms.

At least on this latest occasion the ROH was joined in ignominy by all other parties to the flap: the director, the audience, the critics and the commentators. All for a ‘gang-rape’ scene that a) was nothing of the sort and b) would hardly have raised an eyebrow at English National Opera or in the straight theatre.

So what really happened? I’ll tell you: a young woman sitting in my row took noisy exception to a lengthy episode of molestation wherein a group of military officers indulge in conduct unbecoming with an unwilling female. This takes place to the jolly Tyrolean tunes Rossini provided for the forced merrymaking of Act III – one of those ballet divertissements composers were obliged to insert in Paris operas. Quite quickly a lot of other people joined in until the end of the scene was quite drowned in booing.

Extraneous scenes of violation, rape, GBH, child molestation and similar violence, sexual and otherwise, are extremely commonplace in current opera direction. Indeed I recall a particularly cack-handed instance in Fulljames’s own production of La donna del lago at Covent Garden in 2013, which passed without audience comment, other than deserved titters.
So why the big fuss? The definite impression was that it was a reaction to the imaginative poverty and lameness of the whole production: the audience, fed up with yet another ROH show performed in grimy vests, set in a tray of mud, without a pretty mountain or lake in sight and apparently determined to ignore just about everything the composer had made it clear he was interested in, happily latched onto what started as a lone protest to let the management know what they thought. Don’t get me wrong: certainly the scene had gone on far too long and was in any case gratuitous, distasteful, exploitative, bad art done in bad faith. But most of all it was just lazy – and this is the nub of the issue.

The truth is that directors do these things because it is much less effort than engaging with the matters that actually concerned the authors: six-part ballet featuring Tyrolean dances; or a bit of titillation masquerading as social comment? Hm, tricky one. Then they award themselves brownie points for the relevance of what they are doing. Who do they think they are fooling?

‘Kasper Holten!’ – I hear you cry. And yes, it does seem that the ROH’s affable director of opera has actually come to believe the astonishing drivel he has absorbed from the Arts Council’s Lexicon of Weasel Words, poor chap. As he was bound to, he hurried to the defence of Guillaume Tell’s director Damiano Michieletto, lecturing us with furrowed brow about how very bad the problem of rape in war is and how therefore all the kerfuffle was actually good. He came out with much the same line after La donna del lago, saying: ‘Part of our audience clearly do not like to be challenged.’ Ah yes! Not bored, insulted, fobbed off, cheated, sold shoddy goods or treated with contempt. Oh no. The trouble with you cowards is that you can’t face up to the world’s horrors. You were challenged, and you just couldn’t take it.

Where to start in combating this pathetic charade, if not with a public pillorying of the clowns and knaves involved? Opera has chosen to respond to its widely-perceived irrelevance by pretending to believe it is the obvious forum for examining such weighty matters as the rise of ISIS, FGM, homelessness, the banking crisis and God knows what else, in spite of how very clearly unsuitable most operas are for these purposes; and has been engaged in this for so long that it has come to believe it: so even the most gestural onstage reference to any buzz-issue generates a glow of righteous self-satisfaction inside opera houses.

However, glibly referencing an evil does not equal combating or even examining it. In short, it is vilely exploitative to depict sexual violence in order to shore up one’s own moral credentials, and that is what happened here. The scene in Guillaume Tell did not ‘remind’ us of the horrors of war. What it did, through its sheer and obvious fakeness, was to cheapen those horrors, and to use them for self-serving ends.

This is not a review: for that, you will have to buy September’s issue of Opera Now, where I shall detail the production’s other failings, such as its avoidance of any of the compelling issues Rossini actually raises, its taking of the easy option at every turn, its superficiality, its reliance on cliché, its musical shortcomings, its tawdry cheapness, and its uniformly excellent singing. Oh yes, and I should say this – some people do actually come out of the farrago well: Rossini, and the singers.

Damiano Michieletto's new production of Guillaume Tell runs at Covent Garden until 17 July 2015.

July/August issue out now

2 July 2015

We are honoured to welcome Plácido Domingo, one of opera’s most iconic figures, as guest editor of this special edition of Opera Now! Here Domingo gives us a snapshot of the issues that interest him the most in the opera world, from providing opportunities for young talent to celebrating the legacy of his background and using his considerable influence to the good. Leading ladies including Nina Stemme, Ana María Martínez and Angel Blue recount their experiences of performing with the maestro; Domingo offers some personal reflections on how the music of his homeland has provided inspiration throughout his career; and we visit LA Opera, an important springboard for Domingo’s artistic development and vision for the future of the art form. Plus Uruguayan soprano Maria José Siri looks forward to a summer singing Mozart and Verdi in Verona; Michael White on coping with performance anxiety; Opera Now’s guide to singing ‘Che gelida manina’ from La bohème; and your chance to WIN tickets to Domingo’s Operalia at the Royal Opera House.


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Dmitri Hvorostovsky diagnosed with brain tumour

25 June 2015, Katy Wright

HvorostovskyPavel Antonov

Dmitri Hvorostovsky has cancelled all of his professional engagements until the end of August after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

A statement on the Russian baritone's website reads: 'It is with great regret that Dmitri must cancel all performances from now until the end of August. He has recently been suffering from serious health issues, and a brain tumor has just been diagnosed. Although his voice and vocal condition are normal, his sense of balance has been severely affected. Dmitri will begin treatment this week and remains very optimistic for the future.'

Hvorostovsky, now 52, first came to international attention when he won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1989. He has since carved out an international career, winning particular acclaim for his portrayal of the title character in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Verdi's baritone roles.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 winners announced

22 June 2015, Cardiff, UK

Nadine Koutcher from Belarus took this year's first prize at Cardiff
Nadine Koutcher from Belarus took this year's first prize at Cardiff(Credit: Brian Tarr)

Report by Simon Rees

Nadine Koutcher, a 32-year-old soprano from Minsk in Belarus, walked off the stage of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on 21 June as this year’s ultimate victor in the 2015 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

This year, 20 singers competed for a number of titles, including the Song Prize (ably won by South Korean bass Jongmin Park) and the Audience Prize (carried off by Mongolian baritone Amartushvin Enkhbat).

The week began with the first two song rounds, held in the beautifully resonant Dora Stoutzker Hall. With only 450 seats, the venue wasn’t large enough to hold everyone who wanted to attend, so some in the audience had to make do with a relay to Cardiff University’s music department. The two official accompanists, Llŷr Williams and Simon Lepper, were joined by several other pianists brought along by individual singers. (One unexpected highpoint of the whole competition was Williams' transcendently dramatic performance of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’, which left the soloist somewhat outclassed).

Other fine moments in the preliminary song rounds were Nadine Koutcher performing Liszt’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’, a piece requiring exceptional virtuosity; and Jongmin Park singing ‘Danny Boy’, a daring choice brought off by his legato tone, marvellously wide dynamic range, and attention to the beauty of the words.

The main competition consisted of four preliminary rounds, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thomas Søndergård alternating with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Martyn Brabbins. These rounds had been ‘seeded’ by the competition’s artistic director David Jackson so that each round (unlike previous years) would produce a finalist, with a fifth singer to be chosen as a ‘wild card’. Previously it had been possible for one round to produce three finalists or more.

The worthy winner of the first round was Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov whose renditions of ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ and ‘Il mio tesoro’ broke the usual pattern of white-knuckle rides during high, exposed Mozart arias. His tender, sweet-toned performance of Lensky’s aria ‘Kuda, kuda’ from Eugene Onegin had even the most hardened and jaded music industry pundits in tears. Palchykov had a good stage presence as an innocent country lad (fitting for someone who’s biography states that they have collected 61 football scarves) and worked the audience well, driving off prodigious opposition from South Korea's Jongmin Park (who made it back to the final on the wild card) and Germany singer Sebastian Pilgrim’s massive, thundering bass.

The second night belonged wholeheartedly to American soprano Lauren Michelle, a diva in the making with superb stage presence (she made her own dresses in the haute couture mode) and an enthusiastic family group who nearly knocked me flying with their standing ovation. Her main bid for fame was the scena, aria and cabaletta from Act I of La traviata, where I didn’t feel she brought much personality to Violetta. However, she executed all the runs and trills with scientific skill.

Round 3 went to Enkhbat from Mongolia, whose beauty of tone made up for his absolute lack of facial expression. His aria from Prince Igor showed off his excellent Russian, and his style in Giordano and Verdi was admirably Italianate, with acceptable pronunciation.

The final round was a walkover by Nadine Koutcher from Belarus, whose comic performance of ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ from The Tales of Hoffmann was the highlight of the rounds, including a wind-up from Martyn Brabbins every time her clockwork mechanism ran down.

At the finals themselves, Enkhbat’s glorious ‘Eri tu’ from Un ballo in maschera rivalled that of Hvorostovsky 25 years ago. Michelle’s ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ from Hérodiade was expressively phrased, while Electra’s aria from Idomeneo was less so. Palchykov returned (rather tired) from Paris where he had been singing Ferrando in Così fan tutte to give a rousing performance of ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ which should keep him in business in the German and Austrian houses. Park sang (to my mind, most beautifully and dramatically of all) from Verdi’s Requiem, The Barber of Seville and La Gioconda.

Nadine Koutcher win was acclaimed with a standing ovation from the audience. Deservedly so, for her ‘Bell Song’ from Lakmé was mesmerisingly sung across three octaves, with perfect intonation and musicianship.

This splendid final was the culmination of an altogether  great week for world-class singing in the Welsh capital. Yet again, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World proved to be one of the finest series of concerts around – never mind that it’s supposed to be a competition.

Vancouver Opera to transform into a festival from 2017

19 June 2015, Vancouver, Canada

James Wright: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’
James Wright: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’(Photo: Vancouver Opera)

Vancouver Opera has announced that it will no longer present a full season, but is reinventing itself as an annual spring festival from 2017.

Vancouver Opera (VO) was founded in 1958 and has grown to become Canada’s second biggest opera company. The new format will concentrate three of its four productions over three weeks in late April and early May.

VO general director Jim Wright says that the move has been prompted by concerns over sustainability in the face of diminishing audiences. He said ‘the old model simply wasn’t working and was not getting the numbers we needed’. He added: ‘We are being as forward thinking as possible’.

The new format is expected to deliver substantial savings on marketing, which will be concentrated at one time of year. Job losses are also expected. Overall, the savings should amount to around 10 per cent of operating costs.

Wright says the new Vancouver Opera Festival will showcase innovation, with animated lobby and plaza spaces, pre- and post-performance events, programming for young people and families, workshops and forums, cultural concerts and free events: ‘If we keep up the quality and it's interesting enough … there's no reason why it can't become a destination festival.’

Wright himself will not be staying on to lead the new festival, but is retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season after 17 years at the helm of the company.

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