Page 14, 10th February 2012

10th February 2012
Page 14
Page 14, 10th February 2012 — Singing nuns without a hint of kitsch

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Singing nuns without a hint of kitsch

MUSIC REVIEW Michael White

Puccini Plus



ENO, LONDON The operatic life of France inevitably focuses on Paris, but the number two house is in Lyon, where the company is run by Serge Dorny: a man wellknown in London from his time here running first the LPO and then the Southbank Centre. Dorny’s been at Lyon now for nine years, and he’s spent them working tirelessly to make the Opera more attractive to young people. An astonishing 25 per cent of attendees are under 26 – drawn there partly by outreach projects, partly by the architecture of the building (totally revamped in 1993, it’s the last word in French chic: uncomfortable but stylish) and partly by imaginative programmes. I was there last week for a festival billed as “Puccini Plus”, which took the three short operas of Puccini’s Triptych – Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicchi – and staged them separately on successive nights, each paired with something by a composer who was one of Puccini’s contemporaries but working on radically different, less popular terms (and medicinally in need of some Puccini-esque sugar to go down with audiences). The pairings were clever, exploiting musical contrasts but related themes. Il tabarro ran with Schoenberg’s Von Heute aufMorgen (two takes on matrimonial infidelity). SuorAngelica ran with Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna (two lots of hysterical nuns). And Gianni Schicchi ran with Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (two deaths in the same Italian town).

With multiple directors (including John Fulljames, recently recruited to Covent Garden as associate director of opera), multiple designers (notably the English-based Johan Engels, who cheered the not-quite comedy of the Schoenberg with a swift, slick visual guide to 20thcentury style), and multiple conductors, it must have been a tough call to stage so much repertory back-toback in such a short time.

But it’s challenges like this that energise a company and generate a buzz that opens ears, eyes and minds. The Schoenberg wasn’t funny (it’s hard to be humorous and serial) but it was fascinating. The Zemlinsky proved a stronger piece than I thought. And though I don’t much care for operas about nuns – they’re usually ridiculous and sentimental–the Angelica/Susanna evening was well done, with a Hungarian soprano, Csilla Boross, who wonderfully fulfilled the conflicting requirements for vulnerability and dramatic powerin Suor Angelica with no trace of winsomeness or kitsch (the usual pitfalls). Not all the singing that I heard in Lyon reached that level, but enough came close to make the trip worthwhile. I was impressed.

When established opera productions are revived you never know what will happen. Sometimes they bounce back with a new lease of life, sometimes they’re a shadow of their former self. And though the revived Rosenkavalier at ENO is a perfectly acceptable show, it nonetheless comes with more shadow than bounce. A David McVicar production, considered one of his best, it’s a traditional take on the piece and delivers everything you expect (except for the substitution of an awkward black youth for the cute black child that Strauss envisaged in the oddly significant small role of Mohammed the servant).

But energy levels weren’t so high this time round – despite the furious pace with which conductor Edward Gardiner began each act. The comedy routines felt tired. And the general sense of déjà vu wasn’t helped by the way this production plays every act on the same set. The ancien régime palace of the Marschallin (in Act I), the nouveau riche one of the Faninals (Act II), and the low-life tavern where Baron Ochs takes his girls (Act III) are different worlds, and have to be presented as such. Making them share a set is not only cheapskate, it’s wrong. The singing in this Rosenkavalier, though, was compensation. Amanda Roocroft’s Marschallin didn’t project well but had exquisite elegance. Always good in trousers, Sarah Connolly demonstrated why she ranks among the leading Octavians of our time. And John Tomlinson sang everyone off the stage as Baron Ochs, the voice frayed at the edges now but still of fabulous dimension and arresting clarity.

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