tue 23/07/2024

Francesca da Rimini, Opera Holland Park | reviews, news & interviews

Francesca da Rimini, Opera Holland Park

Francesca da Rimini, Opera Holland Park

Hell is an opera by Zandonai in this thankless staging of a dinosaur

Is it something I have to sing? Julian Gavin's Paolo expresses his desperation to Cheryl Barker's FrancescaFritz Curzon

They're having a laugh at Holland Park, surely: offering 700 pay-what-you-like tickets to hook newcomers on the wonderful world of opera, and then serving up a Pythonesque staging of an immoveable Italian dinosaur.

Three fine singers wasted, a fourth prematurely past his prime: with these and less, director Martin Lloyd-Evans, the man who among many other things brought you Wallace and Gromit: Alive on Stage, apologetically presents Francesca da Rimini: Dead on Arrival.

They're having a laugh at Holland Park, surely: offering 700 pay-what-you-like tickets to hook newcomers on the wonderful world of opera, and then serving up a Pythonesque staging of an immoveable Italian dinosaur. Three fine singers wasted, a fourth prematurely past his prime: with these and less, director Martin Lloyd-Evans, the man who among many other things brought you Wallace and Gromit: Alive on Stage, apologetically presents Francesca da Rimini: Dead on Arrival.

Worse plots have had better scores, that's for sure

Clearly we're not talking the Francesca of Tchaikovsky's searing fantasy overture or even Rachmaninov's already over-extended one-act opera, both indebted to all too few lines in Dante's Inferno about the adulterous lovers of Rimini. One-trick pony Riccardo Zandonai fatally modelled his 1914 extravaganza on a flatulent drama by proto-Fascist Gabriele d'Annunzio.

The libretto, by publishing doyen Tito Ricordi, does nothing to pare down the purple poetry and in a second act battle between Guelphs and Ghibellines even more confusing than the background harum-scarums of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, you might as well give up trying to understand who's doing what to whom. All this is further compounded by the mayhem of Lloyd-Evans's production, when lovers Francesca and Paolo (the usually stalwart Cheryl Barker and Julian Gavin) try their best to hold the attention on a rickety wooden battlement while chorus members do daft things with bows. Some of us shook with suppressed mirth when we weren't rigid with embarrassment.

So: the music - worth enduring the halting action for? Worse plots have had better scores, that's for sure. You think Zandonai's going to serve up a feast of imaginative orchestration as conductor Phillip Thomas plunges us into trumpet tuckets and vivid colour at the start of Act One. But already Lloyd-Evans is sucking what intermittent vitality there is by having the chorus members stand like blocks of wood on stage - why? - while minor characters try to go about their sparring business. What he's begun, Zandonai quickly finishes off. Later, at least, there's a good build up of excitement from Francesca's bubbly quartet of serving women before the scene of love at first sight between Francesca and Paolo, brother of her bridegroom-to-be. It unfolds to a long, sensuous cello solo - a more exotic five-stringed antique instrument in the original - but again, our director flattens any possible glamour by having Gavin prosaically appear with his clumping entourage between the two shunted walls. What could at least look like a Straussian Presentation of the Rose goes for nothing.

FdR_249Can this be the same tenor who gave us such a sexy, real Cavaradossi in Catherine Malfitano's quietly brilliant English National Opera production of Tosca? Can, for that matter, Barker be the same soprano who scoured our souls as Puccini's Suor Angelica or Strauss's Salome? For a start, physically they get no help from the director; but musically, too, even their later love scenes are all foreplay and no luscious climax, though they sing out lustrously when they can. Zandonai seems to have scotched the big numbers of a more healthily vulgar Italian operatic style in favour of the through-composed music-drama of his age. But he was no Strauss or Puccini, and his Francesca is neither fish nor fowl.

The lovers' dark counterparts are the lame and one-eyed Malatestas (pictured above), Francesca's husband and brother-in-law, nothing more than melodramatic stereotypes of deformity. Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts's edgy intensity is wasted on Malatestino, and Jeffrey Black's Gianciotto has a vibrato a mile wide (time was when he served as the dashing baritone of choice). But you doubt if anyone could do much with Zandonai's tiresome exploitation of that "devil in music" the tritone or the tediously repetitive jazzy syncopated figure that has to bear the weight of malcontent Malatestino.

Francesca's four serving women fare better with several pretty Pre-Raphaelitish interludes. Each of the singers -  Madeleine Shaw, Emma Carrington, Anna Leese and Gail Pearson -  deserves equal praise for coaxing the diversions to life, and Thomas draws rather beautiful colours from the City of London Sinfonia both here and in the introduction to Paolo's and Francesca's fatal reading of an old romance. But Thomas, excellent in the cut and thrust of Verdi's Ernani at ENO and able if anyone can to bring out the best in his singers as a vocal coach second to none, has little chance to develop a line. The abrupt double murder which ends the opera is as inept musically as most of the rest. If only Zandonai and d'Annunzio, like Dante, had consigned the lovers to hell, there might have been a better epilogue. But then you came to realise that this evening was indeed hell, and we were in it.

Some of us shook with suppressed mirth when we weren't rigid with embarrassment

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What an extraordinary response to what was obviously a very special performance to those of us who were in the audience. Where you actually at the performance last night? It was by a long way the most outstanding opera in the current Holland Park season with sensational performances from Julian Gavin (ringing clear tone), Jeffrey Black (beautiful sonorous baritone - sorry where was the vibrato????) and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts - brilliant characterization. The clarity of the relationship between these three powerful artists and the sensitive conducting of Philip Thomas made for an exciting and wonderful work that should be part of the standard repertoire.

Well said Daisy. How cloth eared must you be to miss the breathtaking orchestration in this work? It was a stunning production of an incredible - if flawed - opera. Seems to me that some 'critics' (EVERYONE is a critic with the net these days) have spent their life listening to the dot-to-dot repertoire and are almost incapable of hearing something new to them without trying to be clever. Given the reaction I heard last night, he might be regretting being the first to get his review out. How utterly bizarre. Obviously got out of bed on the wrong side.

So why are you reading it, brain boy? As you note, the arts desk is written by people not good enough to get proper jobs as critics. It's unmoderated (unlike the comments!), unedited, self-indulgent - as most stuff is when it's not limited to the 500 words which should be perfectly enough for anyone to say what they have to say (if they have anything at all to say, which is rare). Mr Nice is perfectly entitled to say that FdR is drivel, with a preposterous Spamalot production. And the Guardian is perfectly entitled to give the show 5 stars. Anything in between, frankly, would be stupid.

You have this absolutely right David ... well said! There is no justifiable reason for putting so much effort into such tosh. It is not as if the opera is even politically correct what with it poking fun at people with disability, as well as, all the sadistic violence. D'Annunzio - on whose play the libretto was fashioned - was an important figure in the rise of the Italian fascists and then Mussolini and it is clear some of his personal ideology has leaked into the story! The music is derivative and indeed the staging was like 'Spamalot' and only needed the coconuts! Also the music of 'Spamalot' is in fact more memorable than anything by Zandonai - apart from if you have already heard it before in a Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Debussy or Wagner opera! A critic next to me told me some operas are neglected for a good reason and this is one of those - I could not have agreed more!

If I might interject.... David is perfectly entitlted to his view, no matter how wrong I or anyone thinks he is. I know he has a decent record as a writer on many (mainly Russian) subjects and whilst I thought he might appreciate the romanticism in Zandonai's score, I cannot make him like the piece. Sometimes, at a production, you either go through the large window into the heart of the opera, or you don't; on another night he may have. I would only take issue with his pithy dismissal of the recent career of Lloyd-Evans who has a pretty distinguished record of wonderful opera productions at Holland Park. When things are made quite so personal, it always threatens to undermine what might otherwise be a credible expression of an opinon. I ought to apologise to David too since when he arrived at the theatre we were not aware he was coming; thus I was unable to give him what would normally be better seats. I am sure he was pretty cross with us - so, mi dispiace David. As for some of the other views expressed about the piece on here; is there any opera composer who isn't in some way or other derivative? This particular school of composers were extremely open about the fact that they were looking to Strauss, Debussy, Wagner et al as they tried to create a new musical language for Italian opera. Indeed, they were often referred to (these works) as the 'Children of Tristan'. Fascist sentiment? Making fun of the disabled ? Possibly true, possibly irrelevant and complete bollocks. Make your own minds up. Anyway, we have a long record of giving the public such things and this is another in a long line. The audience reactions have been pretty conclusive over the years and they have been for FdR too. You pays your money... All the best. MV

Thank you, Michael, for that very gracious response. No, I wasn't especially miffed about the tickets - which had, incidentally, been set up with a nice lady who sent me the pix well in advance. I came with the highest hopes, as my little kick for your 700 seat offer in the Buzz section might suggest. The first bars tickled me. And then my jaw progressively dropped. I know I'm not alone - but it is encouraging to see other people passionately holding an opposite view. It doesn't make me reconsider. Sorry I couldn't resist the Wallace shot - but there is nothing personal against the director, of whose work I have little experience. Act 2 was just terrible to look at; Act 3 much more the real thing. And the bottom line is, I do salute Opera Holland Park for tackling rarities. It just surprises me that what I might wrongly perceive as common sense doesn't kick in early on when you realise you have a stinker on your hands. Again a view I know isn't shared by Phillip Thomas, who believes passionately in the piece, and showed it in his conducting. Ti salute, everybody (well, nearly everybody) involved.

Well, I think it is an extraordinary piece of orchestral writing. Despite our passion for such works, we do tend to take a fairly dispassionate view of the business on stage and I have to say, whislt it is an incredibly difficult thing to stage, Martin and Jamie produced some wonderful moments. I was very drawn into it - but then I have been listening to the opera for years.

As far as operatic rarities go, it's not that rare - there are 2 versions available on DVD (from the Met with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, and from Macerata with Daniela Dessi) - it appeared in Rome last season, Chelsea Opera Group did it a good few years back and there are several versions on CD. I have a feeling that the people who are so dismissive are probably impatient of the whole period of Italian opera that 'Francesca' is so characteristic of. The first time I heard the piece I was rather captivated, but by no means uncritical. Having become rather fond of it over 20 years, I think it has sufficient individuality to merit an occasional airing in big houses. And it's an age old gambit, when hearing a piece new to you to pick up references to pieces you already know: it's like Strauss/Debussy/Amy Woodforde-Finden or someone's Aunt Fanny: most people have the discipline not to put such raw, unformed, even ill-disciplined observations in print. It really doesn't tell a reader anything but the limitations of your listening. As for the political correctness angle: I agree with Mr Volpe: what bollocks........you could go through any number of repertoire pieces and find them offensive to someone. God, some of the comments remind me of those folks who want to neuter folk/fairy tales because they might scare or offend children... pfah! What I find interesting is that a comparable piece, exhumed by Holland Park two years ago, Montemezzi's 'L'amore de tre re' which I personally found stronger and more compact, does not get anything like the international outings that Zandonai's piece does - I would imagine it's much cheaper and easier to put on - any comments on that?

Didn't use the term 'rarity' in the review, though it hasn't actuall been staged here, has it? And I'd once seen the Scotto/Domingo film. Nor did I use, in fact, Puccini and Strauss as anything but yardsticks of pacy music theatre, which this isn't, by any standards. In retrospect I do feel Mr. Volpe might have been suggesting that since Russian rep is my core - only a core, mind - I don't know my Italian opera. So I'd better add I'm sympathetic to what I regard as the good 'uns - in fact because I loved it so when I heard the Scotto recording, I'll be spending five weeks with my City Lit students on Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, which I DO find almost as good as Puccini. And I think Wolf-Ferrari might be a better choice for elegant off-centre rep, though again I Quattro Rusteghi isn't easy to bring off in the theatre.

All horses for courses naturally: I have a feeling that a piece that polarizes opinion to this extent must have something going for it. I enjoy Cilea's 'Adriana Lecouvreur' very much too, but find it a very different proposition to the Zandonai, which inhabits a very different aesthetic. Frankly, by 1914 Italian opera was in total crisis - the Italians got sick of the 'well made play (Second Mrs Tanqueray)' that Adriana is such a good example of, and were trying to compete with the foreign Jones's - I guess D'Annunzio's medievalism seemed the way out of it - attempting to capture some of the - what we now possibly see as 'preciousness' of the Debussy symbolist movement, and adding a bit of Italian machismo and robustness. The 'lengths' are part of the problem when you try and showcase bejewelled poetry by complementing it with virtuoso orchestral writing. Frankly, Strauss can err that way too. I actually find Zandonai's score memorable, and well constructed - something I don't find with many other Italian operas of the period - particularly Mascagni. As for neglected for a reason - i've sat through many rare operas that I thought had far less puff than this one. (Martinu's 'The Greek Passion' for one - talk about composing with ADD, despite the advocacy of the marvellous Mackerras at ROH)......... Anyway god bless Holland Park for mining this seam - roll on Catalani's 'La Wally' (interesting to see an avalanche on the Holland Park stage) - and when are we going to see Alfano's Risurezzione', Giordano's 'La cena di beffe' etc etc etc etc.....

Welcome, Julian. This one could run and run - I do hope so, given that polarities breed debate and at least we're being polite to one another. And the one man's meat etc question is stirred by your loathing of Martinu's Greek Passion, which I love to bits, though I wouldn't go so far as some who said it was the most moving thing they'd ever seen at the Royal Opera House. Curious that you remember the music of Francesca, presumably on longer term acquaintance than I, but usually something sticks, and on Friday nothing had except...no, I won't say it. I would ask, though, if you've, erm, seen the OHP staging yet.

To my mind the 'new school' and the like of Zandonai, Montemezzi, Cilea etc borrowed from Puccini, Debussy and Wagner cleverly and to great effect, but and therefore if their pieces were original and flawless surely they themselves would be considered to be the 'masters' rather than the 'young pretenders' . I absolutely love the fact that OHP put this kind of stuff on every season as a small part of its repertoire in and amongst its more established seat fillers. I find these pieces interesting, educational and always at points breathtakingly beautiful but not flawless. As for this production I agree that some of the battle scenes were allowed a little too much license and the guards looked a little comic at times perhaps but to ridicule the whole production to such an extent as this review does is churlish. The conducting in particular and the playing was mesmeric, wonderful singing and acting by both the leads and chorus and a story that is beautiful and ugly in equal turns but always gripping and frankly bloody (very) exciting. I found the review to be neither accurate or insightful and thoroughly recommend you to get a ticket.

Alas no, I'm on the wrong continent at the moment. Friends have sent me very conflicting views on the staging - though I do think it is a very difficult space to do anything on - it's impossible to achieve lighting effects before the interval as it's always light, for one thing! I was in town to see Pelleas and Carmen earlier this season - one makes allowances for the limitations of the Holland Park stage. Thing about this whole breed of 'lesser' operas: Zandonai, Schreker, late Rimsky, Massenet - name your poison - , they do need a sort of opulent advocacy that is hard to achieve even in the major houses. Zandonai's 'Francesca' was hugely enjoyable at the Met because of the period piece approach and the stars inhabiting it to the hilt. I've seen many lesser-known operas at Holland Park and enjoyed them hugely, but possibly always had a more fully realized theatrical presentation in my mind's eye.

Mr Melmouth I agree that L'amore is a more compact work - a genuine masterpiece as opposed to FdR which has 'almost' status. The Montemezzi is quite, quite brilliant and should certainly be a core rep piece. It is not especially cheap - perhaps there is difficuly finding a soprano who will lay still and 'dead' for the entire third act! We had Amanda Echalaz who was more than happy to do so (especially after that febrile, incredible second act duet). La cena della beffe has been on the planning table for a long while and remains so - Risurrezione was actually slated for 2011 but for various casting reasons we have delayed it. add to that Mascagni's 'Ratcliff', 'Zanetto', 'Il piccolo Marat', 'Parisina', 'Isabeau' (we are doing Fritz next year) and several other gems, (I'd love to look at Monetmezzi's Giovanni Gallurese) there is lots to look forward to. David, the reference to Russian - opera and orchestral - was in relation to the fact that I felt you would appreciate the romanticism of the Zandonai as opposed to you not knowing your Italian rep. Adriana we certainly did a few years ago and it is a gem of an opera. Rosalind Plowright was the Princess. Probably due a new production in a couple of years!

Thanks for the qualification, Michael. Sorry to have missed your Adriana, though of course she gets the de luxe treatment with diva Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Opera soon. Re the romanticism, well I'm as much a Strauss man as a Russianist, and I would agree with Julian that even parts of Strauss go horribly wrong - viz second act of Aegyptische Helena. But IMHO there's nothing quite as bad there as I found Francesca, or for that matter Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane (perhaps my all-time bete noir, but again, horses for courses. And I love Violanta!) Now, what about Wolf-Ferrari?

Well, I sat through Wolf-Ferrari's 'Sly' at the Met - and if you thought 'Francesca' was unmemorable - well that was a pale grey moderate noise in comparison.......Aren't the comic operas a little bland?

Mr Volpe....Parisina??? Wow - now that's ambitious - who on earth would/could sing it? Maybe you could do a konzept production with a different soprano for each act. And you'd have to start it at 4.30 in order to finish on time.......though I've never heard the recording from La Scala where Maestro Gavazzeni fillets the whole thing down to two hours. But surely, if you are considering that - you should go the whole hog and exhume Montemezzi's La Nave .... where the amazonian warrior queen is fixed to the prow of a ship and sent out to sea at curtain fall -----I even have a score of that piece, not easy to find! David, replaying Francesca in my head, I am at a loss to explain why you find the whole opera so unmemorable. Surely in Act 1 alone, the entrance chorus of Francesca with the lutes is exquisite - the following duet where Francesca says goodbye to her sister, with its luscious, almost bluesy culmination, and the whole build up to Paolo's entrance followed by that rapt silent adagio is composing of a very high order? I would be be more than happy to write something as good as that.

Yes, a little (except for Susanna's Secret). But I could see the potential of I Quattro Rusteghi when I saw it in Zurich - not a great staging, but it could work well in the hands of a Daniel Slater, say. Whereas I really don't know what you would do with the look of the Zandonai without chucking a lot of money at it, as Julian suggests. Maybe just a little visual beauty could be managed on a shoestring?

Re: Wolf-Ferarri, Il Campiello is a lovely piece, one of the five Goldoni plays the composer set and better, I think, than I Quattro Rusteghi.

Parisina is on the board - not on the schedule! But there are several Mascagni's worth exploring (Iris we did to great success in 97 and 98). Wolf-Ferrari - segreto di Susanna may make 2012 - watch this space. I would LOVE to do La Nave Galurese may be the way to capitalise on Montemezzi's success here. As for Alfano - Sakuntala has some exquisite music. I agree with Julian about his challenge to David re ALL the music in Francesca. I have been listening to it for many years but many of our audience have been utterly smitten with the soundscape; perhaps once you have decided that something is wrong, for whatever reason, it is hard to step back..I do it myself if I am perfectly honest. But I really am totally drawn into the world that is created on our stage, in a way that is extremely rare in my twenty years here. That has to count for something in my book but perhaps I am just mad. Another show tonight and we are still terribly excited about the reactions we get form the audience (a full house I might add!) All best.

Prolonging this, I know, but enjoying the propositions being thrown up: you probably don't think I'm the right one to ask, but I'm glad you didn't say Alfano's Risurrezione, which I saw done (probably very badly) by the opera group I used to sing in (and yes, I was in a really bad 'un - Vaughan Williams's The Poisoned Kiss). As for Francesca, maybe I need to hear it a lot more - though the mind has gone into shutdown now - but I do think that even on a first hearing of an Italian opera, you should come out humming at least one tune. Zandonai does write melodies, but to my thinking didn't observe Prokofiev's plea that they should be original and unhackneyed in their turn of plea. And basically I agree with SSP: melody, or at least theme, IS the most important element in music.

David, I have heard first time listeners to Strauss operas complain there are no tunes - simply because they are not signposted and flagged up in the way that Puccini manipulates them - they come adrift in an orchestral flood. Is it that people expect an Italian opera to contain 'big tunes'? I think that Zandonai's generation were trying to react against that a little - as did Puccini himself in 'Fanciulla del West', against which I have heard similar complaints. I quite agree that Zandonai was not a distinguished melodist, (and he had the misfortune to be marketed as Puccini's successor which leads to certain types of impossible expectations) ...... and that his melodies don't characterize in the way the 'greats' can - but I can certainly walk out humming many choice moments - and also distinguish composerly fingerprints in them. There's an aural atmosphere to this opera and a through current that is in its way, masterly, albeit by a minor figure.

I think that Sebastian Melmoth is absolutely right when he wrote that "the people who are so dismissive are impatient of the whole era of Italian opera that Francesca is so characteristic of". Many critics seem determined to pour scorn on almost any Italian opera written between about 1890 and 1930 unless it is Puccini (and I remember that in my youth La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico and La Rondine were held in low esteem). I have long wanted to see Francesca, but living in Scotland I had not realised that OHP were putting it on. The opera is not an unqualified masterpiece, the libretto is a bit over the top and at times Zandonai goes into a brutal mode (such as the battle scene) that is just loud. But there is so much that, to my possibly unsophisticated taste, is marvellous. Act 3 in particular is lovely; the final duet between Francesca and Paolo, where they read from the Morte d'Artur and finally cast their inhibitions aside contains music of real power and beauty. It is much too good to be never heard again. While the influences are obvious, I think that Zandonai has his own voice. He does not write tunes like Puccini, but he wasn't trying to. If we write off all 20th century music without tunes there will not be a great deal left. I have found that I had to listen to Zandonai's music repeatedly before fully appreciating it, but now whenever I watch the Metropolitan DVD of Francesca I find that I have bits of the music going round in my head for days. There is some beautiful music too in Zandonai's forgotten Giulietta e Romeo, which was successful in its day and was performed at the Verona arena as late as 1939. If OHP ever put that on I will certainly head south!

Timothy, absolutely: Italian music of this period is perceived as 'tacky': I know many learned music types who get all excited and interested with the contemporaneous German 'second raters' - Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Pfitzner and seem to ascribe to them some kind of intellectual mystique to them: there's some fascinating stuff there too, but those pieces are just as cheesy/decadent (and often less musically striking) than their Italian contemporaries

To me, with an admittedly superficial acquaintance of many, it's ALL tacky, but can be fun. I except Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg (Birthday of the Infanta), which I've been lucky enough to see twice, and I think it's a masterpiece. And I should have said to Julian that I didn't acknowledge his excellent note (which I've now read online) since the ticket debacle meant I didn't get a programme. Not sour grapes, just an explanation.

Not one of the greatest al fresco evenings out, but not quite as bad as we feared either, after reading David’s review. As far as the opera itself goes, we thought that if Act 1 was reduced to a Prologue and Act 2 cut completely, there’d be the makings of a suitably paced melodrama, preserving some of the better bits of the score. But the production did it no favours at all! Why use those two rickety boxes when there was so much empty space to play with? It was anxiety provoking to see the set wobble when the door opened and closed. Why have the chorus all doing the same thing at the same time? The lying down moment with roses aloft, followed by the slow motion of reversible arrows was corny in the extreme. We thought these elements harked back to school productions when everyone acting in unison was the main aim, and all had to be grateful for the contributions of D&T students. The spurting blood was grotesque and, since there was so little else to look at, ludicrously prominent in hammer horror style. The singers were a mixed bunch and not well cast surely. David’s description of Jeffery Black's vibrato was spot on: a singer who needs to retire gracefully (ditto Ben Heppner by the way). Maybe Roberts could have made something of Malestino but he looked quite wrong, not all convincing as the youngest brother. Seems to call for a lithe and slippery kind of stage persona, which Roberts is far from being. Don't know what has happened to Julian Gavin since his sure-footed and compelling Caravadossi in Tosca at ENO. Here he was at best OK in parts (eg some of Act 3). Likewise Cheryl Barker: she did sing well in parts though challenged at the top. In her case, the direction seemed to have rendered her immobile, despite the febrility of the score (how come her shoes stayed on for the entire second half, passionate abandonment not withstanding?). Other than that, we liked the small women's chorus. Their entries were perhaps some of the few moments of disbelief suspended. Overall, the evening left us with a slight interest in D'Annunzio and questions about how and why Zandonai came to adapt the playscript. As a fin d'siecle piece, it has a lingering morbid fascination that should have been a gift to an opera composer – or producer. It’s possible to imagine a set design by Beardsley, for instance, and at Holland Park, they could have had walk on peacocks for free.

I was invited to another performance of Francesca so went along to see if perhaps I had been mistaken in my original comments. I can only say Janet that like your friend Mr Nice I fail to see your twisted view of this exceptional performance of an admittedly slightly flawed opera. I thought the presentation of the rose had a sensual simplicity and the moving trucks a clever solution to balance the intimacy of the love story within the sparseness of a grand landscape. I think it would be a great loss to opera if the baritone Jeffrey Black were to retire. There are very few baritones who could sing this very difficult dramatically demanding role with such conviction. Apart from his commanding stage presence, he handles the fiendish tesitura with ease singing gleaming top notes with clean resonance and cutting through the orchestra with real focus. If you really want to find it, most singers over a certain age have some wear and tear on the voice - even a certain great Welsh bass/baritone or a certain overused ENO baritone. Again with Julian Gavin there are very few tenors who can sing this dramatic repertoire with such control and ease. This is big singing and it is a relief to hear singers who have been cast because they really can sing this repertoire and not to have to sit through pretty singers who are over-parted.

Please show a bit of respect for others' very well expressed points of view, Ms Williams. I can take being asked 'w(h)ere you actually at the performance?', but when an operagoer makes the effort to give her point of view, it is extremely discourteous to call it 'twisted'. Indeed, on the edge of the moderation one poster complains about (and which is so rarely applied here). We are not going to agree about Jeffrey Black, of course, and neither of us said 'this is the worst performance on a stage...' etc, but I'll say it: in my experience, and mine and several others', this was the worst performance on a stage by a baritone since Andreas Schmidt made Vladimir Jurowski's performance of Korngold's grisly Das Wunder der Heliane unfit for CD release.

It has been interesting reading the responses and exchanges. Now that only one of the shows remains, I feel I have been able to get a much clearer picture of this work. The run will end up having been at around 95% capacity - nearly seven thousand people - so an appetite exists (we knew that anyway I suppose). Certain traits have appeared among audiences, principal among which has been the love of the music and a good many who feel unable to trust themselves and their instinct that what they think they have heard and liked is indeed music they like! I know that sounds a little curious but I know what I mean. Certainly those who have seen it twice have come out the second time hugely enthused. Remember many of these people would have seen L'amore which is a more compact piece of drama but to my mind FdR has the more opulent score. And that brings me onto the issue of the music in more specific detail. There seems to have grown, around this piece, a mantra that there is no memorable melody. Well having heard it on record for many years and now live about ten times in all, I can reassure myself that I find this to be a most terribly misleading judgement. There are so $any moments of astounding music and scoring in this opera and yes, I can hum many of them. I know that over the years I have learnt to hear better the connective tissue - it is why I am now utterly convinced that Fanciulla is the greatest of Puccini's musical achievements (another opera famed for not having many choons) but there is plenty of clear, set piece melody - admittedly most frequently in the orchestra) that at times leaves me breathless. After twenty years in this business I am certain that my judgement has not suddenly deserted me.

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