Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Veritably Verismo: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Simply put, Damiano Michieletto's new production of opera's most beloved double bill is superb. Set in a dusty and slightly impoverished South Italian town in the 1980s, Michieletto's set is 'verismo' in its truest sense; it accentuates the grittiness of Mascagni's score in particular and, amongst the unadorned and ungilded, the toxic cesspool of human emotions that forms the core of both operas is permitted to explode in the melodramatic and sensual way we have come to expect. I found myself recalling the vulgar, beautiful and wounded Italian youth 'Gino'* amongst the San Gimignano hills, untaught and untamed, driven only by brutish instinct. Michieletto's presentation has such an effect; the muted palette of greys and browns only serves to accentuate the wild lushness of the orchestration and the mounting delirium. The linking of the two operas through the production (with characters overlapping in both interludes) is not novel, but it is neatly and seamlessly incorporated, serving an interesting outlook on idiosyncratically human troubles. It is thus with no small degree of resentment that I think of opening night reports of boos from a section of audience who have not yet soothed their affronted feathers at Michieletto's Guillaume Tell. Not only does it show horrid disrespect to the artists currently onstage, it also belies the petty small-mindedness of a certain faction of the Covent Garden crowd who seem to desire the same tyrannical power as La Scala's loggionisti; how one could muster the energy to surface old grudges after such a sublime double bill is quite beyond my reckoning. As for Guillaume Tell itself, it suffices to say that I thought it the finest ensemble production and performance of the rather disappointing 2014/15 season. 

As Santuzza, Eva Maria Westbroek delivered what was unanimously declared as the performance of the evening. Although her range seems to now waiver towards mezzo, her Santuzza was delectable; at once indignant and wretched. Westbroek inhabited the role in a way that we have come to expect (her final act Maddalena was bright spot in an otherwise tepid Andrea Chenier) but vocally she has grown exponentially. Gone is the strain and harshness that used to envelope her phrases; here, she opens her voice to an alluringly bright tone that penetrates the deepest corners of the hall. As with the other characters of this goldfish bowl view of Italian life, Santuzza is virilely majestic in her impetuosity; Westbroek conveys this profoundly, in a particularly startling choreographed passage where the wax figure of the Virgin Mary, carried aloft a baying crowd in the Easter procession seemingly comes alive and berates Santuzza for her sins. 

Her Santuzza had a match in Elena Zilio's Mamma Lucia, a magpie figure of matronly affection. Aleksandres Antonenko's Turiddu gave an admirable effort but I perhaps question the limits of his capacity for verismo opera; his tone, while beguilingly in its own way, is not quite full and is at danger of being too self-restrained. With the effervescent Tony Pappano coaxing the best sounds out of the orchestra that I have for long time from the pit below, the audience long to be swept away by an indescribable plethora of bloody colours, to hear the roar from the stage coincide the rising tempers. As Turiddu, he fell slightly short of such euphoria. But ultimately, it mattered very little; being the jewel that it is, Cavalleria Rusticana is an easy charmer. It benefits from having no 'central' number such as Vesti la giubba - after which everything and anything appears necessarily anti-climatic. There is no wasted exchanges, no 'filler' moments; everything flows, simple yet riveting.

Pagliacci had more shortcomings; though they were widely casting issues. Carmen Giannattasio I unfortunately failed to warm to; her Nedda had a barren and desiccant quality, oscillating uncomfortably from vulnerable to cruel to wanton. The contrast with Westbroek before her was illustrative; neither characters are truly sympathetic, but we lived Santuzza's despair, whereas Nedda's  was disconnected. Antonenko gave a much improved turn as Canio; aside from slightly pre-empting his entries in vesti la giubba, there was a real maniacal edge to his performance and his final breakdown (no, Pagliaccio non son) was petrifyingly electric, laid bare on a converted gym hall stage. Tonio (Dimitri Platanias) was invigorating, if slightly unremarkable, and Dionysios Sourbis' Silvio was a pleasant surprise, adding weight and pathos to the role. 

Yet, there was much to admire in the staging, which was more adventurous than Cavalleria Rusticana. There was something perversely gripping about the school gym / village hall set up that seemed to grasp the bleakness of the drama. The faint ridiculousness that this great, sordid story is unravelling amidst monkey bars and school assembly rooms only accentuates the sense of voyeurism that pervades the opera, further knowingly directed at the end when Tonio, speaking to the real life, not stage, audience, declares with twisted triumph "the comedy is finished!" and we realise that it is in our faces that the lights are directed.  In the pit, Pappano continued his wonderful work, finding joy and voice in one of opera's most ravishing scores, truly embodying every ounce of Italianate blood within him. He, together with Michieletto and Westbroek, are the makings of these alluring new productions.

* E.M Foster's Where Angels Fear to Tread

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

New Russians: On the Cult of Trifonov and Discovering Kozhukhin

NB: Covers

Daniil Trifonov with the Philharmonia, conducted by Hrusa, 15/10/2015

"Here he comes - like a five year old boy!" was the jovial cry of the patron on my right, banging his hands together in frenzy. He had just spied Daniil Trifonov emerging onstage from our lavish second row seats.

Those around him smiled and chuckled in shared understanding at the good gentleman's exclamation, a mark of the initiated. Trifonov's somewhat gauche stage mannerisms are now well-known and, inexplicably, part of his immense charisma.

A mainstay of the international piano circuit since his resounding triumph at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky  Competition, Trifonov, aged only twenty-four, is a formidable force, as well as a walking paradox. His rise has been astronomical, garnering the kind of critical adulation and popular acclaim that is rarely seen in this age of musicians. Just over a year ago, in the September of last year,  I attended a solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall, lured by a 'platform seat' that would place me within five feet of performer. The programme informed me that the pianist was 'supreme young Russian, Daniil Trifonov', accompanied by a shot of an awkward looking boy and a list of competition accolades. Ah - another Russian virtuoso, I mused, unexpectant. I sat back and awaited the drama, the stoic confidence and - forgive me - the Bolshoi. 
Daniil Trifonov, Solo Recital, September 2014

Instead, I was humbled. There is something that immediately piques the attention about Trifonov; from his unchangingly awkward scurrying jog onstage, he defies categorisation. Seemingly so painfully aware of the crowd when bowing, he suddenly seems to forget us all upon connecting with the stool and transforms into music itself. Argerich famously described his playing as 'demonic', and I must insist that there is no term more fitting. On that evening, I sat transfixed as he brushed aside Rachmaninov's Chopin variations with fascinating depth and proceeded to unravel Liszt's devilish Transcendental Etudes with such purity of tone, rapture and deference that I was quite changed. That recital, performed to a half empty hall, remains the the finest concert I have ever attended.

It thus gave me great pleasure, upon entering the same hall on both the 8th and 15th of this month, to see it packed to the rafters, and most punters having travelled there with the sole purpose of seeing Trifonov, so unlike my clueless stumbling in a year prior. Had I not yet been initiated, I would never have gained entry.

The theme of his two week London residence was Rachmaninov. Very rarely have the composer's works been so articulately and imaginatively told of late. For instance, take his Russsian compatriot, Denis Matsuev, who two weeks ago and on the same stage presented Tchaikovsky's first concerto but whom I have also heard attempt Rachmaninov. Both pieces he dispatched with a compellingly haughty righteousness - a Russian playing the Russian - and industrially sound percussive technique, but all the delicacy of a grape. It is this bravado we have come to expect over the last decade or so, from the Matsuevs, Kissins and, more divisively, Pogorelics of the piano world.

Trifonov retains the pride and haughtiness of the modern Russian school, but marries it with humility. In his every touch is a conversation, a searching deference to the composer. He seeks guidance, he ponders the phrasing of every fleeting passage so deeply that he nearly always unearths, from deep within, something so wondrously imaginative it astounds. Such was the case, most clearly, with Rachmaninov's second concerto. Taken at a tempo a breath slower than most, Trifonov was unafraid to strike chords stridently, with a commandingly percussive ring, but also retreated and ebbed to a somewhat internal voice, convincingly poetic. The first movement rendered him unusually sombre, sat back straight, stripping back the layers of rolling melodies for a naturalistic and striking portrayal, commanding in its respect. The same pious offering to the composer was touchingly displayed in the second. Slow and measured, head up and eyes tightly shut, Trifonov seemed embroiled not with the sonorous theme, but a higher discourse. Yet, it is not mindlessly submissive nor onerously devout. His eccentric persona leaks through, sometimes at the expense of linear melody, culminating in some magnificent rubatos and a possessed third movement. The beast reared its fearsomely fascinating head as he hunched, channelling lewdly through the shoulders in the manner of the similarly wilful Gould, and he snatched at the strident chords with perverse glee, lifting his entire body off the stool. It was magnificent. It was Rachmaninov before his association with motion picture. It was grand, it was effacing, it was destined, all in one harrowingly ecstatic sob. Bravo indeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing to note of Trifonov's two concerts is that, once the last note has been triumphantly dispatched, he reverts immediately to that endearingly gauche young boy with the pale and pinched face. Yet, it is not the same. His audience have been touched; their eyes, both spring and wizened, hold a drop of the supreme rapture that is only now beginning to diffuse from him countenance. They are perplexed, but much gladder for it, even if their newfound icon seems to start from the piano bench, surprised by sudden reappearance of such frenzied crowds. He had not exhibited his world; we had trespassed in. 

The cult of Trifonov, I wager, is very real. What is truly extraordinary is that the artist at its heart constantly forgets that we are here.

Onwards. There is more good fortune to relay. As always, the good concerts seem to all arrive at once, making schedules fearsome to behold. On the Tuesday between the two Trifonov dates, sandwiched alongside a slightly grating appointment with Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, a bitter October day found an unlikely hero. 

That evening, the close of a very long day, saw the quiet and unassuming Denis Kozhukhin descend upon a dreary looking Westminster as the second item on this year's International Piano series. A name known to me only very distantly, I arrived chiefly to hear Liszt's crystalline Bénédiction and instead, uncovered glory.

I knew not what I expected from the cherubic blond pianist, but it was not a superior reading of Haydn. I have rarely heard Haydn more attractively presented, with the exact balance of gravity and light precociousness that found a comfortable home in the B minor sonata. There is the ardency of a student that surrounds Kozhukhin still, a sense of study and constant strive for betterment. But it is flattering on him; it casts a sincere filter over his fleet and crisp music, the nimbleness of his touch allowing an array of sympathetic nuance.

A whole other piece could be written on Kozhukhin's Liszt. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is perhaps the composor's most enlightened creation; dulcet, lingering and possessing a subdued introspection that escapes so many Liszt compositions. Kozhukhin's delivery was a myriad of compulsions, attracted not to overarching rapture, but the luxuriant contrast of sweeping ravishment, to the pensive and self-chastising. Underlying it was a supreme sense of calm surety; while not taken as stately slow as Arrau's famous reading, there was no haste marring the lyrical cry of the piu sostenuto quasi preludio, just as the subdued decline into the nothing was a resolute hum  that lingered in the chest, long after the evening had passed. In Kozhukhin, we found a pianist of most marvellous judgement and impeccable capability who, if things transpire as they ought, has great capacity to become a London favourite, for he is already one of mine. 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Lamb and Muntagirov Convince with Youthful Lustre in Macmillan's 'Romeo & Juliet'

To see Vadim Muntagirov is reward enough; to have Natalia Osipova as his Juliet is cause for jubilation. In was in this fervour that I too entreated well-placed friends to find me a ticket - and find they did - only to have her injured (a broken foot of sorts, if the grapevine informs correctly) and to have Sarah Lamb to step into the breach.

Audiences may quibble back and forth as to the qualities of the Royal Ballet's principal roster; but having seen the two paired with sublime results in last year's Manon, I embraced the replacement cast with keen anticipation. 

To start with the obvious. Vadim Muntagirov is, unequivocally, a spectacularly convincing Romeo - that long enchanting, long abused character whose foppish and wavering tendencies so oft pose a terrible challenge. Muntagirov's interpretation is deceptively simple; one may think the sheer classicism of his lines, long extolled, can convey all worldly ardour without much concerted effort. From my perch in the stalls circle, close enough to see every facial shift, I witnessed the supreme commitment and inimitable devotion that Muntagirov emitted from every detail. On his refined limbs, Romeo assumed an earthy realism. Muntagirov has the immense and rare ability to emote as a boy; we watched no ballet, no masque, but the progress to love and despair of a very real youth. Act I, for Romeo, is a fiend - yet no exertion was betrayed. Starting from boyish rapport with Mercutio and Benvolio, this Romeo's movements contained a yearning and hope. Both his solo variations were dispatched with the utmost ease - and upon spying Juliet, any awareness of the audience seemed to vanish as love unfurled, his ever attitude declaring: youth eternal - youth triumphant! Upon wandering the Paul Hamlyn hall in search of acquaintances during the first interval, I heard the wonderfully perceptive comment; "The whole audience are dancing with him, aren't they?" Reader, such was the convincing quality of his spell that I felt the statement deeply.

Aesthetically, Lamb is slight and girlish, enabling her to skitter along the stage in her first appearance in a manner most convincing of a young maiden. My past experiences with this dancer has conveyed the importance of her partner; with a natural poise that is sometimes perceived as slightly cold or unemotive, with the right partner, she blooms quite decadently. Muntagirov is such a catalyst, as is to be expected; Lamb is feminine and dreamy, not ardent and impulsive. It is natural that she would respond most becomingly in the arms of a Romeo embodying sincerity above all else. As evident in the stupendous balcony pas de deux, there can be no pairing in this run sweeter and as flush with first love as these two. 'Enraptured' is a term that ought not be used lightly - yet only upon the curtain's descending over the first Act did the audience seem to simultaneously, incandescently, exhale. 

Lamb individually has also grown exponentially. Her rejection of Nicol Edmond's Paris saw her come into her own; assertive, emotive and lined with a piercing quality I had not known her capable of. As she sat on the edge of her childhood bed, open and vulnerable to the world, sailing on the wings of the gritty Tchaikovsky score with an achingly potent combination of newfound steel and timidity that even Osipova cannot exude, we thought wildly of Juliet in that moment - here is a girl on the edge of something tremendous! 

Alas, it was only at the final tableau that the dreaded question that had thereto been impressively suppressed - what would Osipova have done? - bubbled to the fore. Such musings are inevitable in an audience so closely tied to the Russian's interests. The tragedy in the crypt wept for a sudden rush of impetuosity and blind grief that beckons the sacrifice of life. It was not to be. Lamb's outstanding feature is her sweetness and Muntagirov is a creature of day - the peculiar flush of adult sorrow lies further ahead this superlative artist's career, in the same way that he overflows with languid idealism as Lensky but should not yet attempt the complex Onegin. He is a prince amongst fairytales who has still more to learn of the human psychology. Romeo may have died in the tomb, but he died kindly, unobtrusively. It was the first and only sense in the entire performance that they were playing parts; thus, it stood out disconcertingly. Lamb too shunned wild outpourings of grief - but neither was her internalised resolution entirely convincing. That famous scream, when Juliet holds the still warm Romeo in her young arms, became a short broken cry and when she plunged the dagger into her abdomen, it was done with all the politeness of a schoolgirl - you wondered, in that moment, how such a docile creature could have been swept up in a tale of unshakeable passion. With the right nuance, perhaps within their next two performances, it may make for an evocative interpretation built on the same lines of youth - the purity of their enacted end embodying adolescents consumed and defeated by all too adult emotions - and indeed, their potential is bountiful. In spite of imperfections, the lasting impression of Lamb and Muntagirov is crystalline and unadulterated; a beauty so simple it almost appears unadorned but is in fact, in the lasting memory, the most heartfelt and tremendously moving kind. 

Across the company, there were equally engrossing performances. The Royal Ballet were deprived of Valentino Zucchetti's services for a large part of the previous season, and his return as Mercutio made that absence felt. Charming and dapper, thankfully without wandering too far into 'cheeky chappie' territory as most Mercutios are wont to do, he together with Hay were the fleetest and ablest of companions. Nimble and quick-footed, their sly disruptions to the Capulets were delightful to behold. Where Muntagirov excels in languor and finesse, Zucchetti ensures the trio remain tied to the heart of the company within the crowded marketplace scenes and his death at the hands of Tybalt was painful to watch in its excellent execution of human bravado and desperation.

Encompassing it all is the synergy between the company and Macmillan's most lauded creation. Though ostensibly remembered for its star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, in any medium, conveys profound messages of power and dignity. Upon this, we feasted royally; the haughtiness of the Capulet's masque, Christopher Saunders' prowling walk, Thiago Soares' mercurial Tybalt adding the effrontery so needed as the foil to the lovers' aching tenderness and the harlots' glee all served one purpose. It exemplified where the Royal Ballet most excel - not as mythical dryads, shades or even mindlessly jolly village folk. It is the study of human interaction, principally pride, that lends the production its appropriate gravitas, underscored by a Prokofiev orchestration that abandons lyricism for structure. In this, the company remains unrivalled.

Saturday, 22 August 2015


One of my most unfailing friends in adolesence was a beautiful, sleek Yamaha upright; one that required a soft touch and had great aptitude for romantic repertoire. We bonded easily and became fast confidants; my first port in times of outrage and euphoria alike. I was never fond of following proscribed lessons; instead, I played what I pleased - sometimes Rachmaninov, perhaps Chopin, a sprinkling of Bendel, but always Debussy - and my friend always yielded without a note of reproach.

And to the present day. London has many distractions; but the greatest motivator (and source of stress) in recent years has been the quest for professional fulfilment. A legal degree was always a forerunner to a precursory  shadow who turns the corner always a pace or two ahead, of a quest whispering droll promises of metropolitan grandeur. I wrestle with the financial news, I undertake internships in glassy offices, I enjoy champagne parties in lounges suspended high above the City. Of those indulgences I have left by the wayside, I think (fleetingly): ah, the luxury of youthful fantasy! the exotic extravagance of musical ache! I believed, perhaps indolently, that such personal weaknesses are the mould of formative years and thus serve little purpose now. On one particular evening, goaded to play a few notes on a wondrously full-bodied grand during an ignoble reception, the droll beckoned and a jazzy, insincere but well received rendition of 'somewhere over the rainbow' was duly dispatched. There, was my smug thought, see - those years of tutelage are a means to the same end as well!

But the summer season has a disruptive quality. The City empties, universities wind down - the weather is even balmy. Forced to stay put by regretted commitments, I spend my days wandering listlessly and wishing for rain, disrupted every now and then by menial tasks, one of which is the arduous process of changing digs. Our new abode - an aesthetically pleasing and dignified townhouse conversion - has the added attribute of being near to St Pancras Station, a destination I often think of with  the greatest fondness; the building's colonnaded arches where the first thing I spied when, wide-eyed, the train arriving from Scotland terminated and we tumbled out coltishly into a new life. It was with the same sudden twist of nostalgia that, one warm evening, spurred by itching impulse, I walked  the small distance to the station, an hour before midnight.

A train had arrived just as I entered; people streamed past, some irate, some jovial, most wearied by travelling on a Friday eve. The shops lining the long corridors had closed for some time yet a few things remained; friendly round tables around which groups laughed, a perpetually open Starbucks and - most surprisingly - three pianos, lined just out of earshot of each other, facing north.

The first was empty when I approached, the black and yellowing keys friendly. Buoyed by a stab of loyalty, I chose to play. Yet, I found the first few notes embarrassing, like arthritic feet trying to remember a youthful jig. I heard phrases and melodies in my mind, but those dratted fingers that had fallen out of properly proficient practice - they refused to cooperate to the same accomplished level I had once been so securely capable. Aggrieved, I stopped after two stilted Mendelssohn pieces - only to notice three prone figures to my right. I turned to see three young men holding backpacks and listening with interest.

At once, I felt regretful, feeling the odd compulsion to explain myself. I was once much more proficient! I wanted to call. Apologetic, I raised my fingers to the keys once more - and they found, of their own accord, the low B flat octave that marked the beginning of the most treasured piece in my repertoire; a little known Debussy nocturne, a fearsomely complex piece I had not attempted in a year. That first silken octave note, no more than a low murmur, was transportive. At once, I was sixteen. Emboldened, I continued - it is an odd thing, muscle memory! My mind no longer held a perfect score, but the fingers continued unbidden. They knew, not only the notes, but the touch - the caress that is applied to the muted opening arpeggios, the interchange of phrase between passages. They needed no direction, no thought to mar a bittersweet reunion with a fickly abandoned friend. The body can sometimes identify needs more pertinently than the mind; something innate released at that moment, a breath after holding still underwater for so long. It was then I remembered dreams that are chased away by dawn - the feeling of painted wood beneath the very tips of the fingers, the medium of control snapping at anticipating wrists, the curl of the fourth and fifth digits. I mourned in penitence; how could I have left you so?

I continued to play for an hour or so as the last trains pulled in, occasionally stopping an eclectic crowd, some of who spoke to me: a businessman who, having missed his train, bought a sandwich and sat around the corner to listen; Chinese tourists who, awkwardly, pulled out their smartphones to film; a PhD student at the same university, on his way home for the weekend; a slightly inebriated but talented young businessman who insisted on playing the left hand to my right hand for the Pathetique sonata. Demonstrating the strange pull of music, some spoke of their own musical experiences, their affinity for certain composers; they wished to share, it seemed, to relate, to articulate certain feelings. But most memorable of all was a middle-aged, mullet bearing European migrant who, plopping on the bench next to me with an almighty groan, proceeded to pull out several very crumpled and smudged sheets papers, while listening to heavy rock blasting from his earphones. I paid him no heed at first, thinking he was rooting through his bag for some lost item. But after several pieces, and a return to the Debussy nocturne, he turned and said (in a thick, almost impenetrable, accent);

"That's Debussy, isn't it?"

I told him I was surprised he recognised the obscure piece.

"I like it," he said simply. "You play it particularly well."

It was only then that I realised that the extremely tattered pieces of paper he had been perusing was sheet music. I asked him if he wished to play.

"I come here often - I have no piano. I can wait."

And so he did. I finished fairly quickly after that, partly out of courtesy, and partly because it was now past midnight. We exchanged a few words - it transpired (or so I think, beneath that accent) he was a manual labourer of sorts, not having been in the country for very long.

He had deep lines on his countenance, but they softened when he played.

Monday, 25 May 2015

'Woolf Works': The Ultimate Modern Masterpiece

Upon leaving the Royal Opera House, mid-Saturday afternoon, I was immensely and irrevocably
Ferri & Bonelli
moved. Woolf Works is, I mused, quite possibly the bravest and most profound work I've seen the Royal Ballet perform.

Unlike many others, I had no prior qualms about either choreographer or subject. Several amongst my acquaintance had previously waxed lyrical of McGregor's deficiencies - how inept they made him seem. From word alone, Raven Girl seemed dismal failure, and Tetractys a nightmare better forgotten. Yet, I was undeterred - more than once in my short tenure have I discovered that certain tastes lie very traditional indeed. Studies and the terrible May onslaught prevented me from catching what, by all accounts, seemed to be a most triumphant opening night - indeed, it was only for the final performance of the first cast that I found myself, once more, on that well-trodden path down to Soho.

As prudently advised, I had conducted my diligent research before-hand. Woolf I was scarcely familiar with; with a self-proclaimed history of preferring flowery prose, decadent in descriptors, the deconstructed nature of her writing seemed a fresh challenge. Yet, the more I read, the more intrigued I became; I could see it already - the abruptness, almost rudeness of unmitigated, unfettered thought - the flow and cadence of the subconscious - yes, it would suit McGregor very well indeed. There is an everlasting forlornness that dictates her words; a brevity and soliloquy to one's self. What a challenge lay before him! I waited for lights to dim with thinly veiled impatience.

It was a challenge most intimately and supremely met. I do not wish to delve into great depth and intricacies of the abstract tapestries McGregor slowly unfolded. If Woolf is to be taken in her true form, our view should be expansive, not detailed. Scrutiny of microcosms distort and deviate; McGregor presents theory, introspect and instinct as the supplanters of form and narrative. Movement pulses in one sinuous flow, each act bearing its own purpose and weight, but inextricably, undoubtedly bounded together in one heady vision.

Pulsating at the core is the luminous Alessandra Ferri, whom I finally had the pleasure of watching for the first time. I have seen many stars grace the stage; in the presence of many a illustrious artists have I sat, enthralled. Yet, there was no experience quite like this one, no immersion quite so recondite. Words fail to convey her power - the carriage of her shoulders, upon the first rise of the curtain in I Now, I Then; what a curious weight they bore! Every line of that sinuous body seemed erudite, achingly languid. Her gaze alone, watching her effervescent young self (Stix-Brunell) coquet with Sally Seton (Hayward) is terrible in its power, wistful as youth skitters and coltishly play in amongst the wood formations. Equally matched in power and emotional strain was Mrs Dalloway's 'twin' - the war-ridden Septimus Warren, who found a natural home in Edward Watson. How empty and pinched was his countenance; how jerked and paroxysmal his movements! Those long, marble limbs wept with unsaid misery - the plight of so many veterans. The interchange between Watson and Dyer as his departed friend, augmented so wondrously by Richter's score, is surely the single most magnetic modern pas de deux I have witnessed

Orlando moves away once more into more familiar McGregor terrain; sharp, acrobatic with a need for scissor-like accuracy. Yet, it was a necessary respite; the harsh and inhospitable new environment, the barely discernible figures shrouded in lasers and smoke were all deeply evocative of audacious and faintly hysterical world of Woolf's text. And then there was Osipova; so fearsomely, formidably extreme, a body truly made for McGregor choreography. Extreme pliancy, coated in icy metal, she dives and distorts into the most unforgiving positions, moulded by Watson and Mcrae. The passage between Watson and Osipova, right in the centre of the stage was serpentine and vagrant - most powerfully so. Yet, Orlando is without doubt a group creation - each dancer came forth with the same wild conviction and increasingly breathless audacity. The finale, mere shadows of gold and grey flitting through puddles of clear light at breakneck speed was intoxicating in its revelry. If anything, one must applaud McGregor for inspiring utter conviction out of such a wide array of contrasting dancers.

Thursday, however, marked a return to the dual world of Ferri and Woolf - indeed, it is more of a tribute of Woolf herself than Waves. There can be no other muse than Ferri herself; buffeted first by Bonelli, she is never reticent - even in the slowest, stillest movement, she undulates to the hypnotic rhythm of the tides - a trailing finger here, a worldly sigh there. McGregor focuses not on the inevitability of death, but the urgency of life; Lamb leads a bubbling gaggle of children daintily in languid patterns as Ferri looks on in wonder. And then there are the waves, made of the corps, rolling, rhythmic and almost extolling Ferri as she glides and slips from one watery embrace to another, dispersing into the restless depths until finally, she is laid to rest by Bonelli as the onrushing waves retreat.

Let it be known; this is, without peer a modern masterpiece of the most impeccable creation, the likes of which I have never witnessed before, complemented by a cast united with a shared vision. Rest assured. The future of ballet is in safe hands.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

'La Boheme' with Netrebko and Calleja

This run of La Boheme marks the final time Copely's handsomely dishevelled production graces the Covent Garden stage before it is retired for good. In a protracted farewell, this final cast is one of starry quality, headed by the elusive Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja.

It would be a while before the warm lushness of Puccini's most indulgent score penetrated the chill of the Parisian garrett. An odd sense of displacement interrupted the famous first act. Full of sparkling little jokes, shining like gems, the ponderous disconnect between stage and pit produced a ragged tempo which tampers most disconcertingly with Puccini. In La Boheme, where the orchestration is organic, mimicking the nuances and rises of speech, such liberal conducting is prone to elongate already extended passages, creating a general sense of sluggishness. Part of the fault must be chalked up to brief rehearsals; it was most apparent in Che gelida manina and O soave fanciulla that conductor and singer struggled to anticipate the other. Ettinger must refrain from waiting for the singer a guide them instead; the greatest vice that can befall a Puccini opera is over-indulgence - it can become unbearable in its saturation. I do not doubt that this fault that will dissipate over the run. 

Even working with such drawbacks, the quality of the cast cannot be overlooked. Beyond his overcooked Act 1 aria, Calleja was in good voice, clear and penetrating, although he must learn to connect more with the production. However, the making of the evening, as ever in La Boheme, lay with our Mimi, where Netrebko brought lustre and charm, if not quite the weight of believability. Yet, one must put their qualms about Netrebko's vocal suitability to one side and forget it outright, for it is inevitable. Any person who considers themselves to have any ounce of operatic knowledge will know that this magnificent singer has, in recent years, openly embraced the full thickness of her voice. She has traversed far and wide, Iolanta once minute, Lady Macbeth the next; she has already left the days where she could thin her voice to match Mimi's gentle tone far behind. Yet, there is still much to enjoy in her Mimi, even in the absence of youthful incandescence. Her voice remains hugely expressive, now endowed with both volume and gravitas. Her Mimi in Act 3 was a thing of great majesty; it is with eager ears and glad heart that Covent Garden welcomes her return and I can only hope that her next sojourn in London enables her to showcase her newfound tone to its most devastating effect. 

It may be said, however, that the most enchanting performance of the night lay with the other three occupants of the bohemian attic; Meachem's Marcello, Vino's Colline and Del Savio's Schaunard. When bandied together, they exuded a true sense of camaraderie, the sense of jovial warmth that brings heart and life to even the bleakest situations, a brief but captivating return to the heart of this historic production. 

Friday, 24 April 2015

Osipova and McRae Sparkle in 'La Fille mal Gardee', but Morera and Muntagirov Steal the Plaudits

Surely, Ashton's sunny, giggly confection of perpetual radiance that is La Fille mal Gardée is the happiest thing in the Royal Ballet's repertory. Filled with comedy galore, yet with an aching wistfulness that detracts any garishness, this gloriously clever eulogy of the old English countryside is as heartening as they come.

Thursday eve saw the Russian firecracker Natalia Osipova's debut in the most quintessentially English of English roles. There was no faulting her pyrotechnic agility - her great leap and frothy bourees filled the compact stage with great bursts of joy. Lise was a role she comfortably grew into as the evening went on; the first pas de deux, being so early, was a little tentative, as the debutant concentrated hard on mastering the ribbons and lifts, but as the evening progressed, she relaxed to embrace the nuanced comedy of the piece and was virtually faultless in the second act. 

Her Colas, Steven McRae, matched her in temperament; cheeky and possessing equally combustible jumping ability, complemented by an array of dazzling spins. Together, they conquered the stage admirably. However, as is my common complaint with McRae, his self-focussed dancing often forgets the heart of the ballet - that of a simple, rose-filled English country life, which glows without need for adornment. While some have, at the start of Osipova's London residency, noted the self-exhibitionist quality of her interpretations (an inevitable trait of a Bolshoi upbringing), she has improved remarkably in this regard, and is visibly integrating into the Royal Ballet culture. For McRae, however, after several years in the company, subtlety is still not a lesson well-learnt. Seemingly with intentions of raising his international profile, he has become increasingly profligate with his astounding technique, but very often fails to reach the point of poignancy.

Technical excellence and sincerity need not be mutually exclusive; one need only look to the opening night cast of the wonderfully Ashtonian Laura Morera and the other Russian debutant, Vadim Muntagirov, for confirmation of that. Muntagirov is surely headed for stardom of the loftiest sort; so eloquent is his arabesque and supple are his extensions that he need not really put on an 'act' - his Colas was as green and tender as the springtime grass, emanating sheer happiness. A strange pairing on paper, this Lise and Colas were ardent, coy and glowed internally, which is infinitely more rewarding. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Osipova & Golding 'Come-of-Age' with the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake

If one were to take away a single thing from this evening, it must be the maturing of the previously much maligned Osipova/Golding partnership. It is a partnership that started on shaky grounds, but has shown superlative results as of late, with the recent run of 'Onegin' bringing the kind of stalls-shaking, foot-stamping reception that is rarely witnessed at Covent Garden. 

This is a point I wish to express strongly. It has seemed to me, many times over the past year, that the rather aggressive vendetta fought against them by ROH regulars has verged on petty and childish. With such a coveted acquisition as the immensely technically and artistically gifted Osipova, a defector from the Bolshoi and a new breed of ballerina, nepotist hopes were high for a homegrown partnership between one of the Royal's established stars, with McCrae and Watson frequently and hopefully named. Yet, the subsequent acquisition of Golding, impliedly to partner Osipova, left many cold. His name, while well respected in ballet circles, carries far less weight than hers, which has reached starry echelons. Apparently, this was enough to ruin his favour and opinion turned against him before he had even arrived. It became not uncommon to hear in the Covent Garden corridors people recounting their performances with the repeated anecdote "Oh, she was marvellous, of course - all the marks of the Bolshoi - but he, dreadful!"

Yet, I find this early accusation carried little substance. Many of these preconceived notions were vented despite no full-length productions being performed by the pair in the 2013-14 season (Osipova remained injured for the entire 'Sleeping Beauty' run and their only joint performances took place in Ashton's 'The Dream', which, as a thoroughly English fare, was never likely to achieve widespread acclaim for two new principals). Similarly, this season has seen an onstage fall claim Osipova for the entirety of 'Don Quixote', leaving 'Onegin' as their first full-length ballet - and of course, we now know it to be a great success. To qualify the accusations a little, it must be noted that despite not dancing together, audience critics have failed to warm to Golding in any of his earlier performances with other dancers - but I hope I will now hear less of the deplorably condescending remark that; "Well, he's just not on her level, is he?" In all honesty, while Osipova has stunned repeatedly since her arrival, she has yet to lay down any truly remarkable partnerships - tonight is the closest she has come to achieving that euphoria.  

The best artists augment the performance of those around them; and that was evident today, but perhaps not from the quarter that we were expecting. Osipova is physically and emotionally hampered when it comes to Odette. She has the coveted Russian arms, to be sure, those willowy limbs which seem to have two joints more than anyone else. But she is not made in the way of the great Odettes, such as Makhalina and Zakharova, who are lithe and gracefully tall. Their Odette will carry an everlasting air of restraint and tragedy, the very length of their arms cradling all the sorrow in the world. Osipova is not so delicately conditioned. She is athletic and strong, with an impish smile and fiendishly fiery mannerisms. So profound is her technique that it exudes power; this Odette can balance just as well without any prince. Odette, that layered role which has to show reserve, grace, cold beauty and forlornness is challenging for her from the outset.

Thus, it is telling that Osipova's Odette is at its strongest in the presence of Golding's Siegfried. Her first appearance on stage was a little too skitterish, her alarm at his presence a little too abrupt that one wondered how she might contain her mighty energy for the still, marble like beauty of the white pas de deux. Yet, in Golding's grip she was transformed. Gone was the impetuosity and child slight dramatic flair. The white pas de deux passed beautifully and showed real feeling between the two leads, with his steadying presence carrying her through beatifically.

Yet, entirely predictably, Act III was where the electricity really lit the stage. The reason, I believe, that Osipova has difficulties embracing Odette is because she artistically operates best where there is human folly. As shown by her Manon and Tatiana, no one portrays the power of human fallibility better than Natalia Osipova - she is able to canvas perniciousness, longing and regret with the most vivid brush. She immerses herself so entirely in character flaws, that the audience feel that the dancer and the character have completely assimilated and we fail to tell where one ends and the other begins. Odette, in a truly romantic fashion, represents an ideal. She is perfect like a deity, poised and regal. Osipova on stage hungers to feel - she arches her neck all the way back and unfurls powerful swan wings - Odette is a cold creature and ill-met by such fire. 

Odile is much more real in a worldly sense and as her, Osipova becomes breathtaking. She is wicked - unapologetically so - but also dazzlingly unattainable and gloriously sexy. There is a fiercely fiery spark about her Odile, so much so that it is altogether too easy to see why Siegfried falls so helplessly into the trap. And of course, those fouettes - taken at such breakneck, incredible speed, doubled to start with and completely in time with the orchestra who almost sounded like they ran themselves ragged trying to keep up with the dancer on stage. It was virtuosic, powerful and utterly, utterly glorious. Golding's Act III variations were also executed with the marvellous bravado of a foolish young lover - truly wonderful. 

There were several other standout performances in the long cast. The two swans of Hamilton and Medizabal were wonderfully nuanced and added some much needed grace; I should think that Hamilton will have her own Odette opportunity before long. Avis' Rothbart was, as always, an utter joy to watch (although a little girl in my nearby vicinity did refer to his white Act getup as that of 'a big, dirty pigeon'.) Rather than a menace, he was a conniving opponent, most notably when skilfully manipulating the dangerous Odile to his gleeful bidding. Another high point came in the form of the effervescent Naghidi, who recently absolutely burst into Covent Garden's affections with her brilliant Olga, accompanied by Kay, who gave us a cheerfully wonderful rendition of the Neapolitan Dance. The corps in the white acts gave valiant efforts, making the most of a small stage and very fussy costuming.

Whatever grievances remain are completely removed from the dancers, and are all to do with the production which, if rumours are true, will be retired in the near future - and not a moment too soon! There is not enough that can be said against it. Despite the utter zeal of Act III, nothing will forgive the fact that the set resembles Harrods at Christmastime, fairy lights and all. The costumes in the busy Acts I and III are headache inducing, with too many colours and style reverberating off all the gaudy gold slathered ornaments. Despite so many runs, controversy still wages over the lack of 'pancake' tutus for the swans - in the right seats, the feathery effect of the current choice is passable, but from others, it looks like very cheap netting. Besides, it is this viewer's opinion that there is just something so otherworldly fantastical about the white swans in their great white tutus standby sculpturally still, against a dreamy, minimalist backdrop - it is a classical balletic symbol of grace, beauty and mystery. The Royal Ballet production is, in every scene, entirely too cluttered, noisy and simply detracts from the sheer beauty of the artistry at work, from Tchaikovsky's rampaging score to the outlandish but beloved tale. It becomes a showpiece, a gilded ornament as opposed to a living, breathing work of art. 

Such annoyances aside, with two Osipova/Golding dates remaining, one should make every concerted effort to catch what appears to be a enormously exciting trip to the lake.  

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Definitive 'Onegin' with Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares

Before the opening night of the Royal Ballet's 'Onegin', the assembled audience - largely comprised of Covent Garden regulars - were abuzz for two main reasons; the reunification of husband-wife couple Thiago Soares and Marianela Nunez on stage for the first time this season and for the imperious young talent Vadim Muntagirov's debut as Lensky. Both would go on to reward the crowd handsomely for their interest.

On the face of it, Cranko's adaption of the Russian epic is not immediately gripping. Despite several beautifully flowing pas des deux and a remarkable production replete with whimsical sets and a Slavic grandeur, the lack of choreographed vulnerability to any character but Tatyana has the potential to leave the audience a little cold. Moreover, despite a well-chosen Tchaikovsky score, only the music for the mirror and final pas de deux are truly arresting, with several climatic passages failing to rouse - the unfortunate arrangement of the Lensky's Act 2 solo orchestration remains a point of personal displeasure for me. Thus, much depends on the cast's interpretation of their bare tools, more so than many other ballets. 

What then of our eponymous anti-hero? Thiago Soares has played the mercurial noble many times to much acclaim - it is a role he portrays perhaps better than most, if not all, in the world. His very appearance is striking as that of the brooding figure who captures the young Tatyana's fancy as if straight from the realms of folklore. His look is strong and greatly mysterious and his manner imperious and rather abrupt. Such is his comfort that both of his solos were executed with breathtaking - almost flippant - ease. There is a self-contained poise about his Onegin that truly befits this shadowy character; the original poem contains scarce insight into his character other than what the wide-eyed, breathless Tatyana bequeaths of him. In his Act 1 solo, the exacting and domineering presence he exudes and he spins again and again exactly matches the nervous flutter of Tatyana in the wings, scared to meet his gaze. Indeed, it is not until Act 3, where she has become an elegant and less fanciful young woman that we truly get a glimpse of insight into his character; his utter surprise and pain at her transformation was very real.

Nunez is, in every role, a generously supple and achingly tender dancer - her technique is so secure that it is now very much taken for granted and rarely commented upon. Her Tatyana was crafted from the softest, most silken cloth. With an honest, open face and naturally sunny disposition, it is this kind of role in which she truly soars; as a Manon, she is too kind, as a Kitri, she is too structured. Tatyana, however, fits her like a dream. In Act 1, she shone and quivered as a pale slip of a young girl, only now unfurling to the world. It was truly quite remarkable; she was luminous, intoxicated by newfound desires and dreams. On the whole, it was an extremely naturalistic rendition from Nunez - in a role easily tempted by histrionics, she was acutely beatific. The mirror pas de deux passed by in one languorous simultaneous flow, as silken and trance-like as a real dream, hushed by a young girl's awe. And when she awakens from the secretive dreamworld, no actions are needed by Nunez to express the pivotally profound effect this experience has wrought upon her - all that is needed are her lustrous eyes and flushed skin staring out.

This delectable sense of a reverie that pervaded the first two acts make the third all the more striking. A key point of Pushkin's poem was the unassailable interchange between fiction and life, the boundaries of which are often blurred in Tatyana's dreamy mind. We see this onstage with Onegin's unexplained nature and mystery, with the often dark and indistinct backdrops, the picture-perfect poises of the corps de ballet, who stay perfectly still behind the 'E.O' monogrammed mesh, waiting for a chapter to begin before they whirl into a stately ball waltz. Even the death of Lensky, who falls silently and poetically is somewhat demure. Yet, in Act 3, this is abandoned. Years have passed, and Tatyana has matured. She arrives on the arm of her husband (Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin - so wonderfully stately and the antithesis to Onegin) and is resplendent as the adored princess - yet we see restrain and reserve about her that was so markedly absent in her adolescence. When she spies Onegin, who is profoundly shaken by her transformation, she displays intelligence in maintaining social courtesy and turning away to devote her attention to her husband, who is gracious and has treated her well. Yet, alone, she holds the remnants of the letter her tremulous self once wrote him and is greatly disturbed. Here, Tatyana and Onegin meet for the first time as mental equals. The result is thoroughly breathtaking; the final pas de deux is complex and transforming in the depths of its sorrow and repent. Yet despite the highly charged setting, there is no impetuosity in their movements - rather, Nunez's arms seem to fleetingly cradle Soares to her chest in a burst of unassailable longing before sadly releasing him. Soares' Onegin is desperate and bitterly repentant - he now sees the unmistakable virtue of the girl, but his own actions have removed her forever. Tatyana's youthful dreams of romance have ended and the two must part in the thrust of reality.

Nunez and Soares
As strong as the unbreakable bond and understanding between the two artists is, it is only amplified and augmented by the audience. The Royal Opera House is a peculiar place of tradition and reward; Nunez's services and complete devotion to Covent Garden is a point of pride - she is the prodigal, shining daughter and following the exits of Rojo and Cojocaru, the undisputed sweetheart, the one that embodies the Royal Ballet like no other. It is hard to overstate the depth of their love for Marianela Nunez; even starry additions to the principal roster have not dampened their interest. Where others can stun the audience into a frenzy and inspire awe, the tenderness that Nunez exudes has a poignancy that only the Covent Garden crowd can understand. Such a naturalistic, honest portrayal might not work in other houses, but here, its power is indescribable. The ovation she and Soares received upon their repeated curtain calls was well earned and honestly deserved - a real show of adoration for a remarkable artist.

The other remarkable performance of the night belonged to Muntagirov's Lensky, who made a most successful debut. He seems to come from the school of pure romance - every extension and line of his body has a noble mien, and there is a softness to the great elasticity of his leaps that commands attention. While his Act 1 solo perhaps lacked the charm that comes with experience in the role, his Act 2 passage of sorrow and disillusionment was a thing of pure beauty. His aching long limbs, boyish countenance and transparency provided the perfect foil to Soares' arrogance - he, more than anyone else, played into Cranko's vision of Tatyana's storybook romance.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

'Andrea Chénier' with Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek at the Royal Opera House

A new year at the Royal Opera House hails a new production of a rarely performed opera - Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, in its first Covent Garden appearance in thirty years. More hung on the opening night than imagined - in what has, so far, been an anticlimactic season for opera, with new productions of Un Ballo in Maschera and Idomeneo spectacularly failing to please.

The scene is set well enough. The curtain rises on a backdrop so opulent, so ostentatious, with every available surface slathered in gold, it is more overwhelming than aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps this is the intended effect, given the predicament of the Parisian aristocrats crowding the stage - studiously ignoring the rumblings of civilian unrest flooding the city streets. In comes our Maddalena, suitably petulant, and her mother, appropriately aggrieved. The guests flock in, all carefully attired if airy and insubstantial in pale pastels, determined to continue vapidly fluttering in their rapidly crumbling sphere of hierarchy prestige. At the edge hovers Andrea Chénier, a surly browed youth discomfited by such outrageous luxury. Teased, scolded and baited, he unfurls with righteousness - and an outpour of reproach, so affecting in its gravity and rectitude. Kaufmann's "Un dì all'azzuro spazio" was wondrous in its invigorated lament. 

And yet, for the best part of three acts, the glory of his vocal fortitude was unmatched in believability. Andrea Chenier is a character perhaps singularly affecting as the embodiment of compelled, virile youth - the child of ideals and brevity. This conviction colours his first meeting with Maddalena - she is profoundly shaken by the purity of his hope; while the sharpness of his reprimand strikes her and wounds her like a blow, affecting far deeper than any stimulant in her small gilded world. Kaufmann's Chenier is stately and self-assured, but wanting in passion. His voice is indisputably superb and unsurpassed - the torment in there is real - but he outwardly expresses no such full-bodied commitment. 

Within this drawback lies a more deep-rooted complaint about the production at large. Perhaps abashed and suffering from the criticisms plaguing most new productions at the ROH over the past year or so - notable examples being last season's Manon Lescaut and Don Giovanni - there is an air of caution that permeates the company. They tell us, on the promotional material, that this is a tale of glory! Liberty! Grand passion! Yet, nowhere is it evident. The sets are inoffensive, but lacking character - in particular, the expansive pale wood of Act 3 stripped the trial scene of much of its high tension, unfortunately denouncing it as the least gripping instalment of the tale. The orchestra play rousingly, but themselves fail to rouse the singers out of their refined shells (though Pappano tried so hard, I am told, that he nearly went through the boards in the final act). The characters are feelingly sung, but much defies emotional attachment. When Chénier and Maddalena unite in the heart of war-ridden Paris in Act 2, the climatic love scene whereupon two souls find idealistic solace in the midst of tragedy, we see not the abandon of passion that cannot be contained even in the face of danger, which precipitates their deaths. Chénier has searched blindly for a love that he has felt "brushing by him on the street", which he has chased with all the dogged determination of an artist in delirium. Yet, why does he recline on the table in such a stately and assured manner, calmly waiting for Maddalena to finish professing her sad story? Their first love duet was dispatched beautifully, but why did the audience not sigh collectively together with the crossed lovers? Why, in Act 3, does he not decry the parody of justice facing him, with the indignation and sorrow he expressed in the Contessa's drawing room, a parody which goes against his very ideals? The caution is not only his; the entire company had very much an air of 'getting the job done' rather than exuding the fiery fervour of a country overhauling its entire social regime. We are presented with Paris in the dirt, Paris in the dust, a Paris run by urchins - yet why does everything seem so orderly and undefiled? The result verges on disappointing.

Save, however, for Act 4, where something completely intangible seemed to fall into place. Call it first night teething problems, but at the bleak, cold end, Chénier and Maddalena seemed to truly reconcile for the first time. And what a stupendously wondrous effect it had! From his rousing solo "Come un bel dì di maggio" we heard what we had so long desired - profundity and conviction. A revolutionary, an idealist, an artist - the conviction, so solid and wrapped beguilingly in wistfully poetic language is manifest. Kaufmann's naturally magnetic open tone assumed profound new gravitas. The momentum continued, together with a gleeful Pappano. Westbroek's Maddalena too rose to the challenge. Their final duet, "Vicino a te" is gripping in its stark, steely grit - these lovers who walk towards death with a relieved heart and iron will are the embodiment of the liberty and passion we were promised. Their fascination of freedom extends to surpass mortal fear - they sing of death with such intensity, verging on piety, that it is darkly fascinating and truly gripping. Their end is not quite noble, but it is orphic and glorious.

Kaufmann & Westbroek curtatin call