Cooper’s London

Some Nights at the Opera…

I Love Lucrezia!

The English National Opera has been having a good run lately, not that you would know it from some reports. The biggest “disaster” was supposed to be their production of Donizetti’s rarely performed Lucrezia Borgia. Directed by Mike Figgis (known for films like Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas, and the early Stormy Monday), he has interwoven with the live opera beautifully filmed extracts of the earlier, back story of Lucrezia. The filmed extracts, like the stage picture, referenced Renaissance paintings constantly and cleverly and, for me, the two informed each other brilliantly.

The original libretto for this opera is actually rather weak, so I found the films a wonderful gloss on the whole story that made the opera itself more plausible and comprehensible. The critics hated it. On my way in to the third or fourth performance (I was too ill to attend the opening night) I ran into several Donizetti buffs who suggested, having read the damning reviews, that we all bail out together at half time and go to a Chinese restaurant in Soho. By half time, not one of them wanted to leave. Everyone was simply having a wonderful time, and I don’t believe it’s because we went in with such low expectations.

This is a bel canto opera and, for openers, the singing was superb–Claire Rutter a stunning and convincing Lucrezia in every way, dramatically and musically, with rising young American tenor Michael Fabiano brilliant as Lucrezia’s long-lost son (whose birth and its circumstances you see in the remarkable films). The music direction of Paul Daniel was assured, idiomatic and exciting, as usual. A very difficult opera to stage came across as a classic in almost the same league as Lucia di Lammermoor or Anna Bolena. I have no idea what the nay-sayers were perceiving.

Maybe I missed the one bad performance in the run? Maybe opening night was more like a preview than the real thing, and it settled down afterwards? Yet I have still to hear of any actual member of the audience at any performance who didn’t enjoy it thoroughly, and I hope that the ENO are not put off either reviving this Lucrezia Borgia very soon and often, or getting Mike Figgis to direct another opera!

Miller and Lehnhoff Get it Right, Again

Equally interesting and satisfying were the revivals of Jonathan Miller’s hilarious take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Parsifal.

I cannot let them pass without noting that John Tomlinson played Gurnemanz in English for the very first time, a role he first played in German in the 1990s. Every word was clear, his singing was wonderful, and he made of what is potentially the most boring character in all of opera a deeply impressive, fascinating and sympathetic man, conveying also the story of the Grail as compellingly as if you were sitting around a campfire one night listening to an old sage.

The singing of all the cast was superb. Stuart Skelton sang brilliantly the part of Parsifal, the ‘innocent fool’ who revitalises the Grail Knights’ moribund, moralistic world through the power of his human compassion; and Jane Dutton, was a compelling Kundry. I have some quibbles about the production (I would like the transformations back, please) but essentially this was an exceedingly intelligent as well as dramatically and musically strong Parsifal.

The Mikado, the famous Jonathan Miller production being now revived for its 25th anniversary, is still hilarious. It’s also timely and was good to see again after the recent and special Elixir of Love that Miller directed for the ENO last year. What I like about Jonathan Miller is that he always interprets what the composer or author actually gives him; he always illuminates what is truly in the text, whether we’ve noticed it there before or not; and he never simply imposes some idiosyncratic vision. However idiosyncratic things may appear when the curtain first goes up (Rigoletto in 1950s New York, Elixir in 1950s Nevada, Cosi in 1990s Bosnia) Miller justifies the concept as the evening goes on and you “get” the opera in new ways that really work. He also knows how to stage things so that the singers can actually move and sound their best.

Not surprisingly, his productions age well. Is Jonathan Miller perhaps the most under-rated great director produced by the UK in recent memory? Or does that award go to Elijah Moshinsky? Despite Miller’s successes, no one seems to quite acknowledge how versatile he is and how much he tends to illuminate, with complete ease, any opera or play he undertakes.

Another Discovery…

The Warners Classical label is developing a new violin superstar–Charlie Siem. I first heard him in London when he was a teenage prodigy a few years ago, and I must say that the prodigy is growing up; his first CD announces the arrival of someone to keep listening for. It’s a collection of virtuoso dazzlers such as Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, played with both dash and intelligence, and a stunningly controlled and rich tone. The accompaniment by Caroline Jaya-Ratnam is a perfect match. A disc, then, that is a pure pleasure today and a promise of much more to come. In fact, it’s musically exciting and utterly charming. Have a look and listen at: http://www.charliesiem.com/

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