The Royal Opera, London

Manon at ROH

Roh What follows is a piece about Manon at Covent Garden from Miss LCU, the second of three segments from her European holiday.

* Tattling *
I saw Manon at Covent Garden on July 7th and it is now September. Clearly, I am delinquent with my reporting duties. It does not seem to make sense at this point for me to write an actual review. I will, however, use this performance as a jumping off point for an editorial piece.

Can anyone tell me how old Manon is supposed to be in this opera? Anyone? Well, she is very young - fifteen, perhaps sixteen-years-old. So who got cast to portray Manon in the ROH production opposite the Italian tenor heartthrob Vittorio Grigolo? That would be a sultry and rather rotund Anna Netrebko with her rich, dark voice. So what is wrong with this picture? One word: verisimilitude (or the lack thereof).

For some, a few pretty voices are enough to qualify an operatic experience as good or even great. But for me, opera is a Gesamtkunstwerk - a holistic, all-embracing artistic experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. If one component of the equation is lacking, everything else comes crumbling down. Which brings me to why I (and many others) go to the opera in the first place, I go to the opera because I want to completely immerse myself in an alternate reality. For those few hours I am in the theater I want to escape from my life and my world and walk in the shoes of Violetta, Tatyana, or Wotan. I want to be able to relate to the characters - to sympathize with them and to share their joy, heartache, jealousy, suffering, and agitation as if those feelings were my own. When it all comes together - when the verisimilitude is intact - it is magical. You lose yourself and get sucked right into the production. But it is a rare and fragile cohesion, like a house of cards. If one piece is amiss, the spell is broken, and you find yourself in just another uncomfortable seat before a stage full of costumed clowns shrieking their heads off.

My point is how the heck could I possibly relate to Manon as a young teenager when she looks, acts, and sounds like a 40-year-old woman? It is much easier to condone the silly blunders of a naive, hedonistic 15-year-old coquette who is bound for the convent, but hungry to experience all the pleasures life has yet to offer. Chalk it up to her tender age, lack of experience, and insatiable appetite for curiosity. However, a woman in her late 30s who makes those identical mistakes will not inspire the same level of compassion from the audience. Those mistakes will not be viewed as unfortunate errors of judgment by a reckless neophyte, but considered character flaws of a wicked, manipulative, and seasoned gold-digger.

A poor casting decision could easily result in two completely different takeaways from the same story. Instead of compassion and pity for the female protagonist, the audience will feel that Manon got what she deserved at the end - which completely ruins the tragic effect of the opera. What makes a tragedy tragic is getting the audience to fall in love or at least identify with the protagonist (Manon in this case), despite her hamartia (or rather accepting her harmartia as a part her humanness), and then have her die. It is very formulaic, derived from Greek tragedies, and Manon's youthful charm and naivete plays a huge part in this formula as it allows her to ingratiate herself with the audience. Netrebko failed miserably in conveying these attributes. I did not buy her act and that deficiency alone ruined the verisimilitude of the opera for me. Instead of a spirited young woman, I saw someone who resembled a Russian hooker on stage. I do not have anything against Netrebko (though I did find her bragging about her distressed jeans being $1,200 during a 60 Minutes interview extremely gauche and distasteful). She is simply wrong for the part of Manon. If you want to see what a really good Manon looks like, check out the DVD with Renee Fleming in the Opéra national de Paris production. Now Fleming is no spring chicken either, but she was able to portray Manon beautifully.

Monkey: Journey to the West

Monkey Damon Albarn's Monkey: Journey to the West finished a short run at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from July 23rd to 26th. The work is in Mandarin but was first performed last year in Manchester, and has since appeared at the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Spoleto Festival USA.

Reviews of ROH Performances: Daily Mail | The Independent | Telegraph | Guardian UK | Bloomberg | Financial Times | Times Online | Evening Standard

Reviews of Spoleto Performances: New York Times | Charleston City Paper | Washington Post | Greenville News

The Royal Opera's The Rake's Progress Reviews

Robert LePage's production of The Rake's Progress is currently at Covent Garden. The reviews seem mixed, Rupert Christiansen found the production dull, but Warwick Thompson found it magical. I should have liked to hear John Relyea sing Nick Shadow, as I found James Morris a bit boring in that role last year.

Richard Morrison's Review in the Times Online | Evening Standard | The Stage | | | The Telegraph | Bloomberg | Metro | Hugh Canning's Review in the Times Online

Opera in The Economist

This week's The Economist has an article on Peter Gelb's simulcasts. San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House are also mentioned.

I especially like these two sentences from the article:

Opera purists are not at all happy about Mr Gelb's foray into cinemas. They argue that opera was made to be seen live in opera houses and they worry that cinemacasts will hasten the demise of an ailing art form.

I believe I know a good many individuals who might like to claim the title "opera purist," and yet I have not heard this sort of thing from anyone. The Met simulcasts are enjoyable, but I hardly think anyone who would normally go to the opera house would go to one in lieu of a real performance. Opera in movie theaters is a supplement rather than a replacement for opera in real life.

Music for the Masses | The Met Live in HD

ROH's 2008-2009 Season

September 8- October 4 2008: Don Giovanni
September 16-29 2008: La fanciulla del West
September 23- October 10 2008: La Calisto
October 11-18 2008: La Bohème
October 23- November 11 2008: Matilde di Shabran
November 9-24 2008: Elektra
November 25- December 13 2008: Les Contes d'Hoffmann
December 9 2008- January 1 2009: Hänsel und Gretel
December 22- January 23 2008: Turandot
January 20-31 2009: The Beggar's Opera
January 27- February 17 2009: Die Tote Stadt
February 10 -25 2009: Rigoletto
February 23- March 10 2009: Der fliegende Holländer
March 2- April 11 2009: I Capuleti e i Montecchi
March 31- April 20 2009: Dido and Aeneas/Acis and Galatea
April 13- May 7 2009: Il trovatore
April 27- May 16 2009: Lohengrin
May 12-25 2009: L'elisir d'Amore
June 4-20 2009: Lulu
June 19- July 6 2009: La Traviata
June 26- July 18 2009: Un Ballo en Maschera
July 7-18 2009: Il barbiere di Siviglia
July 9-18 2009: Tosca

Simon Keenlyside and Mariusz Kwiecien share the role of Don Giovanni, and Keenlyside also sings Figaro in Il barbiere. David Alden has his ROH debut directing a production of La Calisto from Bayerische Staatsoper. Bryn Terfel is singing in Holländer and Tosca, while Deborah Voigt sings the title role of the latter. Renée Fleming is singing opposite Joseph Calleja in La Traviata and Thomas Hampson sings Germont. Die Tote Stadt has its UK premiere, Ingo Metzmacher will conduct. The production is from Salzburg and is the one that will be at San Francisco Opera this September. Lucas Meachem will be singing Aeneas in his ROH debut.

Bloomberg Article | Press Release [PDF] |Official Site

Carmen at ROH

Carmen_2* Notes *
A new co-production with the Norwegian Opera of Carmen opened at the Royal Opera House opened last month and runs until February 3, 2007. All the performances are sold out, but 67 tickets are held to be sold the day of the performance as day seats. Last Thursday I tried this, getting to the entrance situated under the covered arcade in the corner of Covent Garden Piazza at 7:15 in the morning. The queue was already 20 people long, but getting tickets wasn't a problem, we got bench seats in the Stalls Circle. The ticket seller seemed surprised and said it wasn't always so crowded.

The production, directed by Francesca Zambello, was not perfectly congruous. The costumes were traditional, but the set was just a few large walls placed at different angles for each act. There were props such as an orange tree and a statue of the Virgin Mary that were in keeping with the costumes but not the set. Also featured were an abundance of live animals, including a donkey, a horse, and chickens. Another crowd-pleaser was Arthur Pita's choreography in the form of acrobatics and dancing.

None of the singing was particularly good. Anna Caterina Antonacci had her Royal Opera House debut with the title role, which she is sharing with Marina Domashenko. Antonacci is a strong actress, she was sultry and a bit mean, perfect for the role. Her voice is nice within a certain range, but has some unpleasant qualities outside of that. She gasped a few times and was occasionally flat. I appreciated that this production had the castanets played by a percussionist in the pit, but it would have been nice if they had Carmen at least mime the playing instead of having her alternately stamp the rhythm in her feet or bang together mugs in her hands. Jonas Kaufmann was strained as Don José, his voice is small and slightly nasal. He was quite underpowered compared to Marco Berti, with whom he is sharing this role. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo looked uncomfortable as Escamillo, quite stiff. His voice sounds constrained somewhere in his throat, it has a husk-like feel. He sang half of "Toreador en Garde" on horseback, which was silly but the audience enjoyed it. Norah Amsellem was an insipid Micaëla, she was shrill, out of tune, had too much vibrato, and was even off from the music a few times.

* Tattling *
People talked during the overture, but were fairly quiet the rest of the time. There was some cellophane being unwrapped during Act I, which was hushed quite vigorously, and not by me for once.

Antonacci flashed her undergarments several times during the course of the opera, impressive given that her skirts were all ankle length.

The performance was only 3 hours and 10 minutes long with one intermission, even though they did the longer spoken dialogue version of the opera. They cut "A deux cuartos" from the beginning of Act IV, so that may have contributed to the brevity of the performance.