Personal Reviews

Rusalka at the ROH

After the much publicised “boos” at the Royal Opera House on the opening night of the new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had purchased tickets a few months back for no other reason than the fact that I love Dvořák’s music and this is a good fairy tale for grown-ups.

I went to the performance last Sat, 3rd March and frankly, I did understand why it was booed though I must say that it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. I still enjoyed it but this was entirely due to the excellent cast, in particular Camilla Nylund, as the water nymph Rusalka, and the beautiful interpretation of the score by young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The production… Hum! Well, I’m sorry to say but it was pretentious, vulgar, at times crass, and did not work at all with the music.

Dvořák’s score is exquisitely romantic, full of beautiful melodies, moving, delicate and sensitive. The production set in a brothel did not really fit in with the music. I wasn’t bothered about the wood nymphs in scanties or the fact that it was a modern production. Modern is often good and it works well if the score is respected but sadly, this did not happen here. There were some good aspects: Rusalka’s fish tail, the witch’s giant cat during the transformation of Rusalka, the water nymph, into a human but there were too many antics on stage. The idea of having the singers roll and move on the floor to give the illusion of swimming through the water, although a good one, didn’t work at all. Simply, these are opera singers, not ballet dancers. They don’t have the flexibility or the lightness and grace of movement that a dancer naturally possesses, so, often, they appeared more like bad behaved children having a tantrum rather than anything else. And what about the animal (it wasn’t quite clear what animal it was) being prepared in the kitchen with all the fake blood? Supposedly, an attempt at realism to show the hard work in the kitchens of a palace. Was it needed? Was neither interesting nor funny. Personally, I found it unpleasant and detracting from the music. Worst of all is the scene where the young palace page (the character is supposed to be a young adolescent) lands by chance in the brothel where the old witch attempts to seduce him, beginning to open his trousers in a rather lecherous manner. I didn’t understand why this scene was necessary. Were the directors (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito) trying to alert us to the fact that an old woman attempting to seduce a minor is abusive and horrible? If yes, they did achieve it but the point is that it has no place in the opera and it doesn’t consider the subtleties of Dvořák’s beautiful score.

A real shame, as I’ve already mentioned, the cast was superb, the orchestra of the ROH gave one of their best performances and the conductor was brilliant. The need to captivate young audiences leads sometimes opera directors and opera houses to extremes such as this; however in a time where period dramas are flourishing on television (think of the success of Downton Abbey on ITV) and fairy tales and fantasy stories, dark or otherwise, continue to enthral audiences, is it really necessary to spoil wonderful music? I think not. Young or old; anybody loves a good story matched by great music even if not realistic! Who cares? Escapism is a good thing and as valuable as anything thought provoking or that makes us ponder on human society.

 

Senna: Best Documentary at the BAFTAS!

Senna won his first World Championship in 1988 driving the McLaren MP4/4 (photograph taken from Wikipedia)

Back in June 2011, I was so impressed with Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Ayrton Senna that I felt compelled to write a whole article about it in the shape of one of my posts! You can read it here. Then, you will understand why I was so delighted that the film was acknowledged yesterday at the Baftas, deservedly winning for best documentary and best editing.

Sadly, it has been overlooked at the Oscars, which is a shame but nevertheless, it received two prestigious awards. If you haven’t seen it, run to your videoshop, as quickly as you can, and hire it. You don’t need to enjoy Formula One or to have liked Ayrton Senna; all you need is to love a great film and Kapadia’s Senna belongs undoubtedly in that category.

 


Natal, em português (por alguém que não gosta desta época)!

NATAL!

Uma estrela no topo a brilhar

qual fogo vermelho na noite escura

constantemente ao longe a cintilar

como um doce convite à loucura.

Podia ser luz na escuridão,

chama d’alegria sempre a arder

mas é por vezes ferida num coração

onde o sangue não pára de escorrer.

No ar flutua uma canção,

melodia triste e já cansada

despida de toda a belíssima emoção

contida nela quando um dia foi criada.

Pelas ruas vagueando já sem rumo

inumeráveis e anónimas figuras

arrastam-se pelas lojas sem aprumo

extenuadas pelas suas vidas duras.

Lá no cimo da perspectiva dum telhado

um menino tão faminto de amor!

Com o olhar já triste e desolado

da sua breve vida repleta de dor.

Ecoam palavras de pura sedução.

É o espírito do natal e da família!

Mas ao longe no meio da escuridão

uma avó chora sua solitária vigília.

Procuro entre as gentes lentamente

sentimento como pétala de flor

colorido, suave e sempre quente,

fonte onde nasça um puro amor.

Procuro mas só sinto abertamente

hipocrisia geladamente incolor.

Mas de súbito num sorriso, num olhar

na terna mão quente de um amigo

vejo então por fim brotar

aquilo que tinha julgado perdido:

– Ouvir música no vento a assobiar.

Ver paixão numa onda de calor.

Sorrir com vontade de chorar.

Escrever um poema cheio de amor.

E do fundo do peito então gritar

que um segundo é também eternidade

como as vagas cintilantes ao luar

no mar azul imenso d’amizade.

Written in December 2007 by M G da Mota
Photo of Reindeer by Malcolm Bull

 

The ever fabulous Joyce DiDonato!

Photo of Joyce DiDonato by Sheila Rock

Yesterday, I went with a friend to the Royal Opera House for a performance of Massenet’s opera Cendrillion (Cinderella) with American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. I suspect that the entire audience was there because of her, as Cendrillion is not one of Massenet’s most beautiful or most popular operas. This honour goes for Thaïsor Manon.

As the opera was about to start, a lady came on stage to make an announcement. The audience held their breath, as this normally means that the star of the show or at least one of the lead singers will

 

not be able to perform. The woman began explaining that unfortunately Joyce DiDonato was not yet feeling one hundred percent and was still recovering, I presume, from a cold and/or a sore throat. It was actually nearly impossible to understand the nature of her problem because there was a thunderous sigh of disappointment. It turns out that we were all too quick to think that Ms DiDonato would not be singing. Shame on us! We should all have known better: After all, this is the singer that broke her leg during the premiere of The Barber of Seville, also at the ROH, and still finished the performance on crutches and who afterwards continued singing from a wheelchair for the entire run of the opera. So, as the woman on stage went on to tell us, the only thing that Ms DiDonato wanted was to ask for our understanding because she was not up to her best and, in her usual charming manner, she specifically asked the messenger to let the public know that (and I quote): “…you can rest assured that Cinderella will be going to the ball!” And to the ball she did go and so did we!

Ms DiDonato need not have worried. Her voice may have displayed a slight strain on some of the top notes but I bet that nobody at the ROH’s auditorium noticed or if they did, they didn’t care. Joyce DiDonato’s performance was as ever simply brilliant. She thrilled us not only with her singing but also with her acting. There has probably never been such a charming, moving or lovely Cinderella. I loved her portrayal and the audience adored it too, without exception, a fact perhaps better demonstrated by my friend (an Italian of the old school) who shouted “bravo” at the top of his lungs, for a considerable amount of time, as Ms DiDonato walked on stage to take the applause.

Photo of Cendrillion above by Ken Howard, downloaded from Ms DiDonato’s website with her permission

Joyce DiDonato is a truly great Star in every sense of the word. I have been impressed with her performances for a long time, be it on disc or live, as she is a consummate artist at the top of her art and an extraordinary singer with an impeccable technique and a beautifully warm voice but all that in itself would not be so special if she wasn’t also a great lady and the most approachable, kind and generous opera singer I’ve ever met. It was my privilege to have met her in person for an interview a couple of years back because, as with her performances, Ms DiDonato never disappoints.

 

 

 

Senna: The Ultimate Driving Artist!

Last week, I wrote about Joyce DiDonato and that I think she is the ultimate opera singer; well, today and in a different sense, I must write about Ayrton Senna, arguably the greatest Formula One driver ever, who died tragically at Imola, during the San Marino Grand Prix in May 1994, at the age of only 34.

Ayrton Senna da Silva  (his full name), as most people will know, was Brazilian and a great driver, a true racer from the age when Formula One did not have as many gadgets as it does now. He was unbelievably adored in Brazil and, some might say, strangely enough, he was equally loved in Portugal. It could be because of the language connection; after all, there are not many idols that speak Portuguese! Or it could simply be because of his naturally warm, pleasant personality (more obvious when he spoke in his native language than in English) or just his incredible skill driving a car at more than 300 Km/hour. Whatever it was, Senna has become a legend and this is not only due to his untimely death, as some cynics may say, but also to his artistry behind the wheel. Yes, artistry! Senna was an artist, a driving virtuoso that made something fiendishly difficult appear easy and within reach of any common human being!

I was always a great admirer of Senna’s skill, having grown up with a brother and a father who enjoyed motor-racing and appreciated the ability of the drivers but the reason that compelled me to write about Ayrton Senna today was the last documentary about his life and professional achievement. Yesterday, Fri, 3rd June, I went to Brighton’s The Duke of York cinema for a screening of Asif Kapadia’s brilliant documentary “Senna“.  The film is made solely of archive footage (most of which has never been seen before); it is primarily in Portuguese with subtitles and it is a beautiful, moving and loving portrait of a great iconic driver. It documents exceptionally well Senna’s career, his honest, sincere self; the politics surrounding his professional rivalry with Alain Prost and the FIA; his love for Brazil and how much he gave to his people emotionally, as well as in financial terms.

Asif Kapadia  manages to capture all the excitement along with all the poignant moments, particularly Senna’s moving reactions to other drivers’ accidents. It is full of dramatic tension, brilliantly edited, giving you the illusion that Kapadia was there with a film crew, which of course he was not. It makes you forget you are watching a documentary, as it is like the best of thrillers. It grips you and it does not release you until the credits roll slowly by but even then you will have footage not included in the documentary. It takes your breath away and makes you feel exhausted, as if you had been sitting with Senna in the cockpit of his car. The race sequences, often with footage from an in-car camera are electrifying and the build-up to the fatal accident is almost unbearably tense. Even though I knew of course that Senna was killed, I found myself unconsciously thinking that perhaps everything might turn out all right in the end and he would go fishing with Professor Sid Watkins (his personal friend), as if I was watching a fictional feature film.

Some people may wonder how can a person who loves opera and classical music, as I do, be so taken by somebody like Senna and a documentary about his life? Well, one thing does not exclude the other! After all, I think that everyone admires artistry, skill and virtuosity and there is plenty of all of three: in Senna, the racing driver, and in Kapadia, the film-maker. And it was Senna’s ability that inspired my novel “Vanished” whose central character is a Formula One driver. The most important thing however, is that whether you loved or loathed Senna and whether you like Formula One or not, this documentary transcends all that. It is a brilliant film, using archive footage only, no head interviews at all! It will transport you at lightening speeds into the world of a genius, a virtuoso driver, a kind human being, an impeccable professional and a racer through and through: the ultimate driving artist! Enjoy!

(Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Senna” is currently showing in selected cinemas)

The Ultimate Opera Singer!

Joyce DiDonato was simply magnificent last Wed, 25th May when she sang the title role in Handel’s Ariodante, an opera composed in 1735 for the Theatre Royal in London. Even though it was a concert performance, Ms DiDonato was in character from beginning to end, creating a very believable young prince Ariodante. Her singing was supreme and she brought the house down with her rendition of some of Handel’s most beautiful arias, which he created in this opera especially for the famous castrato Carestini.

Ms DiDonato is a wonderful generous artist who always gives her everything in any performance that she understakes. She told me once when I interviewed her:  “If you pay a lot of money to see me perform and I only give 80% effort, then you should get 20% of your money back!” I am absolutely sure that on Wednesday, no-one present at the Barbican wanted any of their money back! Ms DiDonato gave it all and exceeded expectations. She is undoubtedly a fabulous artist and a lovely person; to my mind, the ultimate opera singer!

Joyce DiDonato in Ariodante at the Grand Theatre de Geneve in 2007

Photo by Pierre Antoine Grisoni

 

The Met! A not so positive impression!

I was in New York City last week and attended a performance of Rossini’s Le comte Ory at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was my first attendance, in person, at the celebrated Met and I was really excited about it. Therefore, I am really sorry to say that while the production was excellent, the auditorium was a disappointment. It is far too wide and deep for lighter voices and early 19th Century bel canto operas, as was the case with Le comte Ory. Juan Diego Flórez sang the title role and, as ever, he was brilliant; however, through no fault of his own, his voice faded on occasions, as if he was singing from a great distance…and indeed he was! My seats were in the second row of the Grand Tier (some of the best seats in the house) and therefore a section of the auditorium where this kind of thing should never happen. This problem was even more noticeable with coloratura soprano Diana Damrau but again through no fault of her own. Of the lead singers, Joyce DiDonato was the one whose voice could be heard more distinctly, perhaps because of the nature of her instrument (she is a mezzo), as in terms of impeccable technique and singing quality, it will not get any better than the trio formed by Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato. Their performances were superb: the singing (in spite of sounding distant) was spot on, with the right balance between beauty and technical prowess; and dramatically, all three singers were very convincing in their roles. Flórez as the loveable rogue was very funny throughout, particularly while disguised as a nun, displaying some excellent comic timing; Damrau looked alluring in gorgeous colourful gowns but suitably innocent and, perhaps if I may say saving the best for last, DiDonato was absolutely fabulous as the page Isolier. Never before have I seen a woman playing a “trouser role” so convincingly! Her boisterous gestures, boyish posture and walking manner were so believably male that when she first appeared on stage and I whispered ‘That is Joyce’, my husband, sitting next to me, exclaimed in total surprise: ‘No, you’re wrong; it can’t be! It’s some young man!’

I liked this performance of Le Comte Ory very much (and will possibly purchase the DVD or the blue-ray when available) but I would have enjoyed it even more if the acoustics of the Met’s auditorium were better. I am not sure what could be done about the quality of the sound but it is clear that something must be done. I had the impression that the Met is perfectly built for grand or powerful dramatic operas but not for other genres. Operas from composers such as Verdi, Massenet, Meyerbeer, even Puccini but most of all Wagner will undoubtedly shine in an auditorium such as the Met’s; however, I am sorry to say that for other more subtle or delicate type of music and singing, it does not do it justice.

Finally, I must comment on American audiences and their need to continuously applaud (I am not talking solely about opera audiences at the Met, I have experienced the same at Broadway musicals or the Boston Symphony to name but a few). Why must this be? While their enthusiasm is touching and supportive of the artists, it goes one step too far, as there are instances when it becomes disruptive. As an example, during the second act of Le comte Ory there is a beautiful duet between the count (disguised as a nun) and the young countess whom he is trying to seduce. As the fist part of the duet finished, the audience immediately applauded and as a result, one could not hear the beginning of the second part! Flórez was moving his lips but all one heard was the loud clapping of the audience! It is fair enough that there is a roar of approving “bravos” once a piece, which was performed outstandingly, has come to an end but more than that it becomes intrusive and spoils the overall enjoyment of the performance.

A real shame then that the sound problem and the over enthusiastic audience spoiled some of the enjoyment of the evening, as the cast, settings and direction were superb. I must honestly say (and I hope it does not sound superior or arrogant, as this is not the intention) that in the european opera houses, which I often visit (meaning London, Berlin, Munich and Barcelona) the production would have come across as much more effective and enjoyable even with a lesser cast.

Restless

Restless…when darkness has a way of creeping in…

I moved
and I cried.
I screamed
and I died.
And I wanted to kill it,
to run away
and abandon it,
to move it out of my way.
 
And desperate I stared
at the dark side of dawn
and no longer cared
if it would die or be born

 

 

The above poem forms part of the prologue of my yet unpublished work “The Dark Side of Dawn”. It is sad and dark; restless and almost desperate. For some reason, it reflects how I feel today, after watching the natural terrifying events in Japan: From the earthquake of unbelievable magnitude to the morbid fascination of the tsunami and the consequences of the aftermath, which can be followed by something worse and more sinister, like the possible meltdown of the nuclear reactor or the horrendous fire at the oil refinery!

The darkness of life makes one want to escape and where can one find escapism but in the beauty of art? From the words in a fiction story or a poem to the music and the singing in a magnificent opera, escapism has many formats and appearances. It should never be snubbed! Art, in whichever format, as a form of escapism is as important as Art as a form of social criticism or of denouncing wrong doings. Escaping through art is as exhilarating as the experience of freedom for the first time and far healthier than a powerful drug. Escape to music! Take refuge in a book! Indulge your eyes in a beautiful painting or a delicate sculpture! Emerge your mind in an animated fantasy film! They are all wonderfully effective!

I escape to the world of my fictional stories where I can manipulate words, events, happiness…thus eluding the suffering and the sadness of life!

Book: “O Anjo Branco” by José Rodrigues dos Santos

José Rodrigues dos Santos is a Portuguese journalist and news anchorman of RTP (the national Portuguese television network); as well as an author of great quality. I have read several of his novels; they all demonstrate an exceptionally effective and methodical research and are extremely well written.

Rodrigues dos Santos is at his best when he concentrates on a particular period in History and moves his characters against that background, describing their conflicts, relationships and choices, sometimes conscious other times forced by the particular circumstances. His first novel, “A Ilha das Trevas” (The Island of Darkness) dealt with the terrible events in East Timor (a former Portuguese colony) at the time that the people voted for independence from Indonesia and the Indonesian government lashed their military power against the unarmed people, which resulted in horrific barbaric violence. Rodrigues dos Santos’s next book was about Portugal’s involvement in World War I, entitled “A Filha do Capitão” (The Captain’s Daughter). It is an extraordinary, insightful and moving work with incredible historical accuracy. He followed it with a magnificent novel, called “Codex 632”, defending the theory that Christopher Columbus was actually a Portuguese Jew; something also mentioned by Umberto Eco in his excellent book “Foucault’s Pendulum”. I am lucky enough to have read all of the above mentioned novels by José Rodrigues dos Santos in the original, in Portuguese. Sadly and as far as I’m aware, only two of his novels are translated into English: “Codex 632”, undoubtedly a page turner and his fourth “A Fórmula de Deus” under the title “The Einstein Enigma”, which clever though it is, to my mind, is not in the same league as the others.

As I did not enjoy “The Einstein Enigma” as much as his previous works, I was not interested in what he wrote after that; however, he has now returned to top form with his latest novel “O Anjo Branco” (The White Angel), the story of a Portuguese doctor in Mozambique. The novel finishes just a year or so before the Revolution of 25th April 1974 that deposed the fascist dictatorship. It is an excellent insight into a tumultuous period of the Portuguese Colonial History; impeccably researched, beautifully written, narrated in an objective, detached manner, presenting the facts from different perspectives: For example, the soldiers fighting the difficult guerilla war in the colonies; the honourable doctor who makes no distinction between his patients; the representatives of the fascist regime and the secret police who firmly believe in their views and that what they are doing is good. This impartiality in the narration of the facts is what makes the novel great and also rather moving, at times even poignant, as well as shocking. It grabs you, moves you and touches you in a way that very few books can. I felt as if I was watching a documentary on television; so vivid are the facts and so alive and human the characters.

“O Anjo Branco” is not translated into English but it should be. It is an important historical work that although focusing on a specific period of the Portuguese Colonial History is relevant for the situation of today’s world and reflects the human condition, our thoughts and reactions, moved by circumstances that are sometimes beyond our control.

“Anna Nicole”, Modern Day Tragedy at the ROH!

On Monday, 21st February I went to the Royal Opera House, in London, for a performance of a brand new opera, commissioned by the Royal Opera on what some people thought was an unlikely and inadequate subject, i.e. Anna Nicole Smith – model, sex symbol, actress & reality TV personality – who died, in 2007, at the age of 39, of an overdose of prescription drugs. [For more information, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_nicole_smith].

Anna Nicole’s rise to fame was due, as so many cases nowadays, not to knowledge, achievements or talent but sadly due to lack of it, as well as her beauty, her plastic surgery, her hunger for fame, publicity and a better life, which ultimately turned out to be hell. The story of her life and untimely death is a modern day tragedy but she is not a unique case and there have been other women throughout history who led similar lives to that of Anna Nicole, as interestingly described in an excellent article by David Roberts entitled “Two Millennia of Tragic Bimbos” and included in the Royal Opera House’s programme book.

The opera “Anna Nicole” was composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and the libretto is by Richard Thomas, based on Anna Nicole Smith’s true story. There are of course fabulous comic operas (think Rossini and The Barber of Seville for example); however, opera is often dramatic or tragic (remember Verdi’s great dramatic operas or Puccini’s melodramas) and so, I think that Anna Nicole Smith’s life is really a good subject for an opera. Although it received mixed reviews, I found the score excellent, with interesting elements of classical and jazz; the libretto is witty and merges effectively with the music; a fact that enhances the story dramatically and makes the tragedy quite poignant at the end. There is a moral lesson provided by comments of the chorus (functioning like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, i.e. as a kind of messenger between the audience and what is taking place on stage) regarding the lack of depth of “fame for the sake of fame” without talent to sustain its pressures.

The production is very effective at depicting our times and our obsession with fame and looks. To my mind, it is a solid work, enjoyable though sad but certainly with great modern day appeal. The performances were all excellent, in particular Alan Oke as J. Howard Marshall II (Anna Nicole’s billionaire second husband who was 62 years her senior) and Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role of Anna Nicole Smith. Antonio Pappano, as ever, led the orchestra of the ROH into a flawless interpretation of the music, enhancing the tragic and satirical elements of the action on stage. Finally, a word to the telling costume and set designs, which perfectly underlined facts that ultimately led to tragedy, as, for example, the excessive focus of the cameras on Anna Nicole. I particularly liked the fact that the paparazzi and the TV cameras were portrayed by people in expressionless, monochrome clothes with a camera as their heads.  Overall, a very rewarding evening and, as a long time friend of the ROH, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to all involved.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eleven + 7 =