Saturday, 30 May 2009

Three score and ten divided by two plus one less a day.

Woo. And yay, also. Birthday time has started. Having a small party tonight, but last night was the swish bit. Dinner at the Ivy (I know!) followed by Cosi Fan Tutte at ENO.

I'd never been to the Ivy before, but it certainly lives up to its billing. I hadn't realised it was such a lovely room, especially on a magnificently sunny afternoon/early evening such as yesterday's. I opted for Bang Bang Chicken followed by nettle and potato gnocchi, a kind of fusion cuisine menu I shall now christen 'Ithailian'. And they were very good, and that is my restaurant review. Oh no, I should mention the tomatoes. They were really small. Like, tiny. Size of blueberries, and they burst in the mouth in exactly the same satisfying way. So, my conclusion on the Ivy is that it's a pretty room where the tomatoes are really small.

My mother once devastatingly described a lot of Chekhov productions as having 'oatmeal sets and oatmeal costumes' and the same might apply to the new production of Cosi at ENO. It really is very very taupe indeed- sets, frocks, everything. The grand gesture of the set is its video wall- the chaps are watched by the bustling patrons of the 'Caffe Amadeo' (yeah, boom boom) in the first scene, then we get a nice big bay of Naples for most of the rest of the show. It adds much needed colour to the stage picture, and otherwise is used in a way which is sometimes charming (the gradual approach and departure of the boat either side of 'Soave sia il vento') and sometimes irritatingly tricksy (the filmed conductor and orchestra for the whole of the final scene raised a laugh but got pretty old pretty quick). Unfortunately, the video wall seemed to be the limit of the director's imagination. This was an achingly straightforward production. The three men raised glasses DS centre at the end of 'Una bella serenata', like they always do. The men stood to attention in the midst of the chorus during 'Bella vita militar', like they always do. Dorabella draped herself on furniture during 'Smanie implaccabili' and eyed up Guglielmo during 'Come Scoglio', as per. And if it took slightly longer for Fiordiligi to sink to her knees during 'Per Pieta' than usual, we all knew it was coming. I really can't think of a single piece of business that I haven't seen before, let alone an actual insight.

But the unforgivable element of this Cosi was that it was sexless. Neither 'Il core vi dono' nor 'Fra gli amplessi' generated any heat at all, despite by and large all the right things happening musically. The capitulation of the sisters needs all the help it can get- all those references to 'I can't believe it's only been a day and now we're getting married' don't make life any easier- but if you get no sense that they might actually fancy their Albanians, it just gets something close to silly. And then there's the ending. We all know that we like to get post-Freudian about the end of Cosi. There have been the traditional 'everyone gets married to their orginal partners and that's FINE thank you very much' productions, the 'let's stay with our second half partners because the duets suggest that'll be hotter' productions, and- most often, in my experience- the 'let's make everything dead ambiguous and have some exchanged glances or even do a strange kind of slo-mo minuet' productions. This one just dodged the whole thing. None of the four 'lovers' had any contact with the others as the finale was sung, in a straight line, facing out front, and then everyone rushed off excitedly, in different directions, as if they'd just finished the Marriage of Figaro, or Falstaff. A cop-out.

Musically, things fared a lot, lot better. The band sounded great under the direction of Stefan Klingele, who started very well, had a bit of a dip with a prosaic 'Soave' and a too-slow rendition of Dorabella's aria, and didn't subsequently put a foot wrong. He whipped up the end of Act One into something really a bit exciting. As for the singers- well, let's get one thing straight. I bloody love Susan Gritton. The tone quality is so consistently beautiful, her musicianship is exemplary, and there's just a glamour about her singing, as there is with all the best voices. If I were being picky I might say that the bottom of the voice isn't quite rich enough for Fiordiligi, and there were a couple of unfortunate phlegmy moments in an otherwise glorious 'Per Pieta'- but that would be very picky. Her singing in 'Fra gli amplessi' had me holding my breath, in that 'please let this never stop' kind of way that you really, really can't complain about.

As one of my companions of the night said, Gritton's voice is so beautiful in the flesh that it was really a little unfair to put Fiona Murphy as Dorabella next to her. Tall, flashing eyed, and with cascades of dark hair, she was reminiscent of Agnes Baltsa from where I was sitting- but while the face was more beautiful, the voice was a good deal less so. She sang very well- better in aria and duet than in ensemble- but the instrument itself isn't really all that. She has that glinty, slightly wiry sound familiar from singers such as Ann Murray or Delores Ziegler, and I guess I like a little more sofa-cushion in my Mozart mezzo sound. Sophie Bevan did a grand job as Despina. The lack of imagination in the production demanded no more of her than 'standard pert' which she pulled off well and to which she added some neat and polished singing. She was desperately unfunny as the doctor and the lawyer, of course, but then no Despina ever in the history of opera has pulled that one off.

Crikey, Liam Bonner's tall. It wasn't solely for this reason, though, that he was the most memorable of the men. This was a charismatic, cheeky, confident performance, very securely sung, and managing a real sense of rapport with the audience. Alone among the singers he managed to generate a few genuine laughs from time to time, which was welcome- and impressive, given the archness of the translation. 'Look, I'm rhyming' was the overall impression, and after ten minutes one wanted to sit the translator down with the Big Book Of How You're Not As Clever As You Think You Are. Thomas Glenn, the Ferrando, had a deal less presence than Bonner and at first I found his singing unpleasantly weedy. However, things began to change after one of the most purely beautiful renditions of 'Un'aura amorosa' I have ever heard, and he had a good stab at 'Tradito, schernito' and his part of the duet with Gritton. For once, it was a voice that I wouldn't have minded hearing in 'Ah, lo veggio', although of course that didn't happen. Steven Page is an old pro, isn't he? I mean that in the most laudatory sense possible. He didn't miss a trick vocally or dramatically, although he suffered from the fact that this production didn't have the first clue who Alfonso was or what he might have been for.

To wade into an ongoing debate, I think the odd bit of score-tearing, or someone writing 'ARIA' on a blackboard, or whatever, would have been welcome. What we got last night was some good acting and some excellent music making, in a production which was cautious, routine, and lazy. And for a masterpiece like Cosi, that ain't good enough.

Right. Off to get my hair cut and thence to my birthday party. Ah, the suffering of late-middle-youth.


JVaughan said...

p.s. I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Miss Gritton in New York on 18 March, 2005. She was _MOST_-generous with her time!

p.s.2 Unlike some times, usually when I am actually first writing, I seem unable to get one, or both, of these p.s.'s where they are supposed to go, thus my apology for this mess of a sort. Greetings From "Across The Pond!":

Miss Gritton is my favourite current soprano, but I have yet to hear her in this, possibly one of her signature roless. I am close to totally blind, and therefore can imagine a production any way I wish (preferably as composer and librettist wished), but am glad that, on the whole, things were kept rather straight instead of what is, in my personal opinion, all this _DREADFUL_ revisionism! Unless we have some way of knowing that Mozart, Da Ponte, and anyone else, was prepared to sanction, if not embrace, concepts other than their own, I think, where practicable, we should stick to what they wrote.

If you do not already know, Miss Gritton is due to give us a couple of discs of English songs in the fairly-near future, one of Elgar and Ireland on the Dutton Label, to be released, I am guessing based on information I was given, around August of this year, and one for Chandos, with ENO's Mr. Gardner conducting, recording and release date not yet known to me. I am eagerly looking forward to both!

Finally for now, thank you _VERY_ much for not enabling visual verification since, in addition to not being able to see the captia, the link for such as we to hear what we are expected to type _NEVER_ works for me unless something has recently changed!

Hoping that this finds you and yours well, and with many best wishes,

J. V.

David said...

Well, that's settled it: no Cosi for me this time. La G's sister when last she shone as Fiordiligi at the Coli was, of course, the small but perfectly formed Mary Plazas - yes, one of those soprano Dorabellas, but it worked.

Don't suppose Kiarostami being let in to the UK would have made for a better show - I believe it was trounced in Aix, was it?

Oh, and Happy Birthday. Oh, and there's JV.

JVaughan said...

Poster David, I have been _MOST_-lazily remiss in not responding to your kind comment in your owjn blog! My excuse must be that I have been kept rather occupied with a correspondence with another Londoner, we mainly sharing Handel in common, which has intensified of late. I wished to discuss with you what appears to be a _MOUTH_-_WATERING_ projected English _Ariadne_ for next January (recording date), with our hero on the rostrum and Miss Brewer in the title role, our "boyest boy," etc., also being in this rather-starry cast! I would also ask you what you think of the fairly-new Pappano _Butterfly_, which I personally enjoy, though gather that it is somewhat controversial, particularly as per Miss Gheorghiu's portrayal of the title role, though Herr Kaufmann has also received some reservations among non-professional critics, not so much among professional ones. I have come to like Maestro Pappano quite much, notably in Wagner, and I now find that he is quite the puccinian as well!

Proms of interest to me this Summer obviously include both from Sir Charles and La Gritton, though I have some concerns about Maestro Bickett's potential approach to _Samson_, and Sir Mark's Mendelssohn _Lobgesang_, in which I hope he will not distort his setting of "Nun Danket Alle Gott," notably as per tempo, as several seem to do. It is a work I have long liked, if not loved.

With again many renewed thanks and best wishes,

J. V.

p.s. I trust you know I meant to speak of "your" own blog!
Or rather your "own."