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Two big opera things today:

1) The ROH starting their new season by chumming up to readers of The Sun again, this time with cheap tickets to Carmen. It was the Don last year.

2) Lots of extra grant money for English and Welsh opera.


Bluedog left a comment here recommending Scottish Opera’s La traviata and letting me know about the 10 pound ticket offer the Scottish Opera has going for under 26s, and it looks like a good deal – the price is good for any performance and all categories of seats.

I picked up a promotional postcard with an interesting Rorschac-like graphic:

‘Decadence, love, despair: Everyone sees something different.

They also have a website about the offer.

Unfortunately I was dragging along a 27 year old (unfortunately for the ticket buying, not the quality of company!), so I went up to get day tickets and grabbed the last two at 1.15, they sell 50 or 60 on the day so the cheap tickets seem to be in demand.  Day seats are 8 pounds, and ours were on opposite sides of the auditorium – the front row and the second.  There were quite a few empty seats in the more expensive sections of the stalls, so maybe in tough economic times the company is feeling the need to advertise down market.

The performance was very good.  I tend to find Verdi so catchy it is exhausting, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen La traviata and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Violetta was played by Carmen Giannattasio, a wonderful Italian singer who dramatically upstaged the rest of the cast.  Richard Zeller was also very good as Giorgio Germont.  Federico Lepre was a decent Alfredo, but in comparison to Giannattasio his voice got a bit lost as he moved away from the front.  The cast also included an Australian singer, Catriona Barr, as Annina – a reletively small part done very well.

The production was new to Scottish Opera this year and the design was one of the best traditional opera stagings I’ve seen in some time – great dark colours and decadent costumes.  Brief stage nudity, as I’ve come to be expect.  The use of tracking curtains midway up the stage stopped the entirely interior-set story from becoming too static.

If I hadn’t been so busy last week I would have definitely gone to see it again.  Tonight was the last night in Edinburgh, but the production will be heading to Belfast early next year.

La traviata
Scottish Opera

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

The important issue of nudity in opera has finally been taken up by the mainstream media.

Read more of my ramblings about nude opera here and here.

I got to London from Brighton at about midday on Wednesday, hoping to find a ticket to Don Giovanni that night. The Royal Opera website indicates that cheap returned tickets are available four hours before the performance, so I went along at three to try and get one after checking into my hotel. I didn’t have much luck. Apparently these are actually called standby tickets and while they theoretically exist the box office never has any to sell. Returned tickets are sold at the original price as soon as they come back. He said I would have a good chance of getting something if I came back at about six, as they usually got a few last minute returns. Or he said I could wait underneath the white banner (he pointed to the side of the corridor) and he would call me back when anything came in.

I decided not to loiter in the hallway for hours and instead walked over to the National Gallery to spend some quality time with Cézanne and Manet. The National Gallery is a magical place. I was just wandering around for what I thought was just a little while, but when I looked at my watch I had been there for two and a half hours and had to head back to Covent Garden.

National Gallery

Back at the box office a very nice woman told me that the cheapest returned ticket she had was a hundred and ninety pounds. I told her that I couldn’t quite spend that much and considered waiting with the little group of desperate looking people with backpacks that had congregated under the white banner (clearly they didn’t have a hundred and ninety pounds either). But I smiled and thanked her and said “That’s such a pity. I was so looking forward to seeing it.”

I’ve found over the past few days that grovelling to box office staff is well worth the effort. She tutted sympathetically and said she could take another look.

“No, no, no. Wait. Do you have twelve pounds fifty? I can see a standing room ticket here for you that just came in. It’s a very good place to stand too, no poles.”

So I thanked her profusely and bought the ticket. Although she did seem a little surprised that my name was already in the ROH database. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t overdo the ‘poor cultureless guttersnipe from the colonies’ act.

Before the performance an announcement was made:

“Unfortunately, Marina Poplavskaya is recovering from a severe respiratory infection [collective groan]. We are delighted that she will still be performing the role of Donna Anna [audience cheers], but she asks for your understanding. [slightly less audible groan].”

Opera audiences are funny. I didn’t notice any weakness in Poplavskaya’s voice, but I can imagine how difficult it must be as a singer to make the decision whether or not to perform when you don’t feel your voice is at its best.

The current cast:

Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen
Donna Anna: Marina Poplavskaya
Don Giovanni: Simon Keenlyside
Commendatore: Eric Halfvarson
Don Ottavio: Ramon Vargas
Donna Elvira: Joyce DiDonato
Zerlina: Miah Persson
Masetto: Robert Gleadow

(Conducted by Charles Mackerras)

It was a wonderful performance. Usually my favourite part of Don Giovanni is Donna Elvira’s ‘Ah, Chi Mi Dice Mai’ in the first act (and DiDonato sung it very well), but at this performance I was completely blown away by Miah Persson as Zerlina. Her voice was incredibly strong and clear. Kyle Ketelsen was also particularly good as Leporello.

The bad thing about standing room tickets is sore knees. The good thing about standing tickets (aside from affordability, of course) is you get to hang around with some interesting people. Almost as soon as the curtain went up on the second half a man to my left started yelling ‘I want my seat! I always find a seat by the second half!’ and running up and down the aisle until he was forcibly removed from the auditorium.

The design of the production was traditional. Fairly static in the first half, but with plenty of stage lifts, flaming hellfire and swinging hands of judgment in the second. In that respect this production makes an interesting comparison to Opera Australia’s modern Don designed by Elke Neidhardt currently on at the Sydney Opera house. The OA production has modern costume and abstract sets (not a problem in itself), but with several cuts. So Don Giovanni, serial seducer (1003 women in Spain alone) does not refuse to repent in the face of commands from the ghostly spirit of the man he’s killed. He gets high and dies. These young people. They like the drugs. Apparently.

Unlike the OA version, this production kept the final sextet where the other main characters have a lovely little sing-song telling the audience to learn from the mistakes of Don Giovanni and be good. But just because a performance is faithful to the original score doesn’t mean it has to be too serious about the morality lecture at the end. After the final note in this production the curtain rose to reveal a devilish red lacquered box inside which Don Giovanni stood naked with a naked woman in his arms.* Heaven would be no fun for the Don.

Tickets for the first performance of Don Giovanni last week were sold through an offer in The Sun newspaper, all for thirty pounds or less. A bus full of page three girls was stationed at Covent Garden to hand out cast sheets. According to a report in The Guardian on Wednesday the young audience was more formally dressed than at those attending regular performances, better behaved (no mobile phones went off, there was no exodus at interval) and applauded the performance very enthusiastically. If readers of The Sun can enjoy a traditional unabridged performance of Don Giovanni, I don’t see why Opera Australia had to try so hard to make it relevant to modern audiences.

Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House

*More than one person has stumbled across this blog by searching google for ‘nude opera’ and ‘naked + opera’. Naturally I’m thrilled. With any luck this will become one of the world’s best blogs on nude opera. Although I’m not sure what sort of competition I have in this endeavour and I really don’t want to find out.

I knew my first full day in Edinburgh would be a good one when I was seated for breakfast at the hotel on a table next to a very Anglo Celtic man in a kilt and knee socks conversing confidently with his companion in Japanese. They were talking about “Euston”, “Hokkaido” and the “National Rail.” How exactly one gets from Euston to Hokkaido via the National Rail I couldn’t quite make out, but I’m all in favour of cultural exchange.

Edinburgh castle

After making my way to see Table 23 without falling in a jet-lagged heap, my second event of the day and first event for the Edinburgh International Festival was Krol Roger (King Roger), an Polish opera by Karol Szymanowski.

There isn’t much story to Krol Roger. A Shepherd wanders around seducing people; first the wife of the king, then the king, and then the king dies. The opera is really a Nietzschean anti-morality tale. The king is tempted away from religion by sensual desire, and abandons even that desire in death.

The music was fantastic. It swings from very classical religious chorus music to very modern sections with gypsy and oriental influences. I particularly liked the soprano Elzbieta Szmytka and her performance of the aria in the second act where Roxana pleads for the king to pardon the shepherd.

The production was a bit overstated for my liking. The beginning in particular was a bit odd, with actors filing into a few rows of seats making up the pews of a church prior to a service. The crowd didn’t seem to realise that the performance had started and continued talking for some time. From my seat in the third balcony I could see the conductor crawling stealthily into the orchestra pit to avoid initiating conventional applause.

The production also had plenty of what seems to be an essential ingredient of serious modern opera: the greasy nude actor. Plenty of them were employed to writhe enthusiastically, pose suggestively with the glowing semi-albino shepherd and then tear the reluctant king’s clothes off.

At the second interval I was jotting some thoughts down in my notebook when I was lucky enough to overhear the conversation of a middle-aged group of women seated behind me.

“I understand that Szymanowski is a homosexual, but why does he have to make such a song and dance about it?”

The opera was completed in 1924 so I doubt Szymanowski is still making songs and dances about anything (indeed Wikipedia tells me he died of tuberculosis in 1937). In any case, you would think that opera composers are generally granted a licence to make songs and dances about whatever they like.

Focusing on Szymanowski’s sexual orientation seems to be missing the point. The story is a unique refashioning of Euipides’ The Bacchae and is all about temptation and desire and destruction in a typically mythical sense. Excessive nudity aside, I really enjoyed it.

Krol Roger
Mariinsky Opera Company
Karol Szymonowski

Festival Theatre Edinburgh

July 2018
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