If you’ve ever heard me talk about opera (and let’s face it, you probably haven’t, unless you have) then you’ll know I have two major blind spots. Two great wodges of the operatic repertory remain more or less closed to me, despite my admittedly half-hearted attempts to the contrary. One is the works of Richard Wagner, a situation about which the Wagner-is-holy brigade get very shocked and lecture-y, and the other is bel canto.
The bel-canto aficionados don’t lecture; they just look wistfully disappointed when I tell them that I’ve never really got it. Like the most dyed-in-the-wool philistine, I have to explain using egregious, overused phrases like ‘it all sounds the same’ and ‘dramatically inert’.
I saw Anna Bolena at the Liceu last night (I’m in Barcelona, which helped with that) and although I haven’t been converted- sorry Greg, sorry John- I do come a little closer to seeing what the point might be. It’s not an opera I’ll joyfully come back to (that overture- I mean, seriously?) but it certainly has its moments, and I don’t just mean *that* one.
It helps, of course, if you have artists of the calibre the Liceu can offer. Edita Gruberova, still singing at the age of four hundred and sixty eight after a career spanning five centuries, is nothing more nor less than a force of nature. Her voice has always been more beautiful live than it was on record, and she made some transcendent sounds, especially in ‘Al dolce guidami’, which was met by a football stadium roar and an ovation lasting a good ten minutes. They like their Gruberova in Barca. Her voice is in miraculous condition (she is, in fact, 64). The middle is wirier, and she never had much at the bottom anyway, but the top still gleams and soothes and rings out as required. The highest of the high notes are something of a triumph of will these days, but she still has them. It’s a larger, more powerful voice than you might remember, too, by which I mean it’s a larger and more powerful voice than I remembered. A friend of mine described later Gruberova as ‘vilely mannered’ and I can see what he means- that whole trick of arriving on a note a few beats before the rest of the voice does (and yeah, that’s the technical term, so sue me) but the effect is breathtakingly lovely. Never an exciting actor, she nonetheless does by and large the right things (and cut quite a dash in her red hunting coat and leather pants- we’ll draw a gentlemanly veil over the fact that Anne Boleyn was 35 when she died, unfortunate given that Gruberova’s first costume, a regal frock-and-sash affair, made her look like a more recent Queen of England, which is to say the current one, as she looks now.) Reading this paragraph back I feel like I haven’t done her justice, been too picky; she knows how this music goes, she’s one of the reigning queens of this rep, and it was a privilege to be in the same room as she sang it.
Elina Garanca comes in for a hard time in certain quarters, because she has the effrontery to be tall and slim and beautiful, and is therefore apparently somehow responsible for the looksist dumbing-down of opera. REAL singers are the size of a battleship and would never stoop to something so base as a record contract, seems to be the implication. It’s odd, because a lot of the same people insist that opera should be about voice, voice and voice, and in this Ms Garanca has been as lavishly endowed as she was aesthetically. It’s a rich, full, even, big and beautiful sound from the bottom to the top. It sounds, again, like faint praise, but I haven’t heard such secure singing for a long time. Giovanna suits her slightly chilly stage presence, although she was able to access something a little more emotional and desperate in the duet with Anna and the plea to Enrico. That duet for the two women was comfortably the highlight of the evening, along with the first part of the mad scene as mentioned earlier (there was nothing wrong with ‘Coppia Iniqua’, nothing at all, bar a smidgen of an iota of a suspicion of tiredness from Gruberova). Garanca will make a hit in this role at the opening of the Met season next October, and this in a house which has arguably proved a little resistant to her. I would hope and imagine that David McVicar will give her something a little more interesting to do than the ‘stand there and look worried. Now, kneel’ that this production asked of her. One charming little extra- Garanca is the first opera singer I have ever seen corpse. During a particularly filigree cadenza from Gruberova in one of the Act 1 concertati, an audience member let out a strange, guttural groan. Garanca’s chin sank to her chest- always a dead giveaway- and she remained in that position, keeping as still as she dared, until she actually had to turn upstage to compose herself.
Josep Bros started a little nasally, and his voice isn’t an immediately beautiful one, but like Gruberova he was singing his music on his patch and the technical confidence he brought to the role was very welcome. In fact, it struck me that on my last two opera visits I had seen Guleghina, Licitra, Carosi and Cornetti, and one of last night’s great pleasures was the (for me, recently) novel experience of seeing a cast of singers in roles that were eminently suited to them, and which they were comfortably able to sing. On the interest, as they say, not the capital. Having sad that, Carlo Colombara has gone in my file of competent but dullish basses. It’s a big file. He didn’t do anything wrong (bar a slightly underpowered, husky first scene with Garanca) but he didn’t really do anything exciting either. The conductor, Andriy Yurkevich, made sure that the endless tonic-dominant cadences tootled away as rumtitumishly as necessary (what? I said right at the start I don’t like bel canto).
All in all, a very good night at the opera. It could have been worse. I will admit that before I took my seat I was worried about my antipathy to the genre, about Gruberova’s age, about the people I otherwise trust who had told me that Garanca was dullsville. I was especially worried when the curtain rose to reveal a bunch of dancers dressed as ravens. These ravens were clearly a favourite touch of director Rafel Duran (beware research: he’d obviously read about the legend of the ravens at the tower) and they popped in and out, pointlessly, throughout the evening, inevitably turning into Anna’s angels of death at the end. Duran introduced a few of these odd nods towards regie (Enrico and Giovanna’s Act 1 duet took place in front of a video backdrop of some koi carp, and no, I have no idea) in what was otherwise a fairly routine, stand-and-deliver kind of production. I have two things to say to this director. One is can we please have a moratorium on the whole ‘in this society everything is watched on cctv’ thing? Every production of Hamlet I’ve seen in the last ten years has used it. It’s become a kind of shorthand for a dictatorship and sure enough, there was the CCTV room downstage right, with a bored looking extra studying some footage of people who, the pinsharp clarity of digital video revealed, were clearly singing opera at each other. The other thing I would like to say to him is ‘Dogs on stage? Never a good idea’.
I really don’t want to gloat, but I have to stop now as I’m off to watch a match at the Nou Camp. Gruberova, Garanca, and the Nou Camp in one 24 hour period. Who am I kidding? I’m going to be gloating for MONTHS.