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Christof Loy has acquired something of a reputation for minimalist productions. Like his recent Lulu, also at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, his Tristan und bolde (seen Sept. 29) is austerely monochromatic, Johannes Leiacker's sets (starkly lit by Olaf Winter) evoking the realms of night and day.

The sets are equally spare: a chair and a box of phials in Act I, a seat and table in Act III, rising to the height of luxury in Act II with two chairs, a table and candelabra. The stage is ingeniously divided into two, however. Most of the action unfolds in the front section, consisting of a brightly lit grey-white wall (day), counterposed by a black one (night). (In a drastic miscalculation, a large part of the action took place on stage right, invisible to punters on the left side of the theatre, who had to be compensated by the management.) The black wall is frequently retracted to reveal the (sometimes imagined) world of king and court.

In Act I, we see the treacherous Melot, with Tristan, Kurwenal and their courtly male friends bonding at a banquet. It's a world of dubious alliances and loyalties, its phantasmagorical quality enhanced by frozen tableaux and concealed views. For once, we really empathize with the blazing sense of indignity experienced by Isolde.

Just as there's no ship in Act I, so there's no flowery bank for the Act II love duet. Yet there's an authenticity in the way Tristan and Isolde, in their all-consuming passion, are oblivious to their surroundings. Brangane's lonely watch-tower vigil is enlivened by the attentions of Kurwenal, a tremendous performance by Michael Voile, bearing an alarming--but in the circumstances not inappropriate--resemblance to Jack Nicholson. The lovers' far-from-intimate tryst is, we find, under voyeuristic observation by the courtiers. At the conclusion, their world, too, comes to a bloody end.

Nina Stemme justified her reputation as one of the finest Isoldes of this or any age with a supremely confident performance, incandescent in her anger, thrillingly ardent in her passion. If Ben Heppner didn't quite maintain his initial security of line throughout the love duet, the trauma of his Act III breakdown was utterly convincing. Hepp-ner's difficulties--he was evidently not in peak physical/vocal form--were not aided by the decision to play the work without the traditional voice-saving Act II cut, and in fact he was replaced for the final performances of the run.

Sophie Koch's Brangane was a powerful presence, while Richard Berkeley-Steele's Melot was brilliantly acted and sung. John Tomlinson's patriarchal King Mark acquires almost biblical status by the end.

Antonio Pappano's conducting, wonderfully sensuous and tingling in every fibre, complemented Loy's enthralling production.--Barry Millington

After 10 days of assorted "concept opera"--Rupert Goold's Chinese-restaurant Turandot, Christof Loy's table-and-chair Tristan and, in Wexford, Roberto Rec-chia's barcoded-space-clone Cambiale di matrimonio--it was a relief to walk into London's Barbican Hall Oct. 25 to face a stage devoid of directorial deviance. Not that Les Arts Florissants' splendid concert account of Handel's Susanna was in any way drama-deficient. Anyone who's seen William Christie and his now 30-year-old ensemble in action will know how involved, and involving, their performances are, with or without stage trappings. No director was listed for what was in fact a semi-staging of this rarely performed oratorio, with singers moving fluidly to, from and within a central playing area and emoting freely and persuasively.

Soprano Sophie Karthauser beguiled eye and ear as the maligned biblical bathing beauty, aptly mated to countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic's elegant Joacim. The evening's unabashed scene-stealers were tenor William Burden (audibly no baritone, despite the program's and the Times critic's assertions) and bass Alan Ew-ing, as the duplicitous Elders, crack comics as well as superbly skilled Handelians. And Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee made the most of his Act III deus-ex-machina turn as the young prophet, Daniel (a role written for a boy soprano), his knowingly arch manner melting into a suave and sensitive paean to "Chastity, thou cherub bright." The chorus and orchestra, as ever with this group, were beyond reproach; and their wonderful leader was his usual irrepressibly kinetic self. Susanna is prime Handel and deserves to be better known; I kept thinking how good it would be to see it fully staged--until a recollection of the previous fortnight's misadventures made me happy indeed to "settle" for what I had.

Two nights later, another concert performance offered different values. Cadogan Hall is a fine place to hear music, and this night's fare was a genuine event: the London premiere of Offenbach's German romantic opera Die Rheinnixen (1864), presented by the venturesome New Sussex Opera. (The British premiere had occurred the previous week in the Lewes Town Hall.) As much as I'd like to share the enthusiasm of conductor Nicholas Jenkins, Offenbach scholar Jean-Christophe Keck and annotator Frank Harders-Wuthenow, all of whom have proclaimed this score a masterwork, I can't, because it's not. The story mixes a Giselle-like first act (peasant girl with weak heart and potentially fatal aspirations to perform) with a second, third, and fourth whose twists and turns make Il trovatores seem a model of linear clarity. It wasn't helped by an English translation--this was The Rhine Fairies we were hearing--by the conductor's father, tenor Neil Jenkins, that sounded like a W.S. Gilbert parody without the Gilbert wit. The music aspires to Weber and attains Lortzing--a more melodious Lortzing, to be sure, but these Rhineland villages and forests seem alien terrain to Offenbach, like Wagner at the FoliesBergere. The two familiar tunes are much more happily placed--and infinitely more sophisticated--in their resettings as Les contes d'Hoffmann's Giulietta-act Barcarolle and drinking song. Hoffmann, in whatever version, is hands-down the better "serious" opera.


Still, it was good to have the chance to hear the score--all of it, making for a very long three hours. And Jenkins fils and his gifted cast gave the work their own all in return. As with Hoffmann, Offenbach never had the chance to hear the work as he conceived it, though for very different reasons: a mentally unbalanced tenor diminished the integrity of the Vienna premiere, and the complete score wasn't heard until 2002, when the edition by Keck had its first performances in Montpellier. The intrepid Canadian tenor David Curry fully deserved the hearty applause he received at evening's end for singing his uncut, uncompromising role--a sort of cross between Hoffmann and Der Freischutz's Max--with utter commitment and a certain hard-won grace, even if the top notes didn't emerge as easily as I've heard him produce them in the past. Soprano Kate Valentine and baritones Quentin Hayes and Daniel Grice were all three first-rate, and mezzo Anne-Marie Owens something indefinably beyond that. The minor roles were taken, with more enthusiasm than finesse, by members of the New Sussex Opera Chorus, which delivered in aggregate much more than it could muster in part.--Patrick Dillon

When Sir Charles Mackerras returned to the pit for Act II of English National Opera's The Turn of the Screw in November, the ovation was warmer and more vociferous than any I have heard for a conductor at the Coliseum since the days of Reginald Goodall. It was in part recognition of the 83-year-old's entire career, but also appreciation for his spellbinding interpretation of Britten's opera. Never has the score sounded more beautiful or powerful than in the reading ENO's chamber ensemble provided for him.

David McVicar's production would not have made such a positive and coherent impression without Mackerras's inspired guidance, though the joint ENO/Marunsky production was well received on its original outings in London and St Petersburg. Tanya McCallin's sets and Adam Silverman's lighting use funereal and autumnal shades and eerie reflections to create a sense of death inhabiting the world of the living. The decision to set all the action in the house intensifies the sense of claustrophobia, and the shock tactic of having Miles kiss the governess passionately on the lips at the Act I curtain is justifiable. Less satisfactory is the governess's sitting solidly centre stage with no sense of movement for "The Journey," despite the text and Britten's train music. Having the scene-shifting choreographed (by Andrew George) to the musical interludes is risible--the composer did not intend his climaxes to illustrate the solemnly synchronised application of brakes to bed casters. And the representation of Peter Quint as a bloodied zombie lurching about rather than as the "handsome" ghost of the libretto is totally wrong.

Michael Colvin sang the dual tenor role with technical ease, but plainly as the Prologue and then, for Quint, adopting a curious characterization full of Pears mannerisms (especially approaching the notes from below). Would not the other way round have made more sense, giving Quint an unworldly blandness? He was required to roll around the floor with Miss Jessel (portrayed with defiant dignity by Cheryl Baker); elsewhere the crouching stumble made him look all too like an escapee from a Michael Jackson video. Opposite him, Rebecca Evans sang the governess with an oratorio-like coolness, so there was little sense of a credible power struggle between strong personalities. The most effective characterizations, both vocally and dramatically, came from the well-established Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose--utterly superb--and the very young Charlie Manton as Miles, already something of a veteran in the role. Nazan Fikret, a saturnine and far-from girlish Flora, sang cleanly and freshly.--Brian Hunt
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Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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