Saturday, 10 July 2010


8/7/10, Barbican

4 hrs. I thought myself very stupid when, weeks after buying tickets for this concert performance with the intention of comparing and contrasting with the Paris production we saw at the weekend, we discovered it was exactly the same cast and crew. Was this to be evidence that it is in fact possible to have too much of a good thing?

In the event, no. Perhaps the singers, without McVicar's staging and the costumes to help them, had to work harder and so projected and connected better. Perhaps we were just a better audience, for (most of) whom English was our first language. The Paris audience liked it a lot, to judge by the rhythmic handclapping and multiple curtain calls at the end, but their applause for individual arias was muted and sporadic and they only laughed once.

We were a much more enthusiastic bunch. Act 1 still dragged. The counter-tenor was no better and there are only three good arias in an hour or more of music, including one each for Semele and Ino (who got big applause) and, of course, Endless Pleasure, in which Claire Debono seemed a little nervous.

But Act 2 is a cracker, with Richard Croft in great form singing I Must with Speed Amuse Her and Where E'er You Walk and Vivica Genaux getting huge applause for Iris, Hence Away. Both left the stage immediately after they'd stopped singing, so weren't there to acknowledge the applause. But Croft's ovation was so loud and prolonged he decided to return to acknowledge it... but got his timing wrong. His return coincided with the applause dying away. We resumed briefly out of embarrassment.

The singers' entrances and exits struck me as pretty random. There were chairs for all of them on stage throughout, as for a conventional oratorio, and sometimes they sat in them when they weren't singing and sometimes they drifted off stage. Could have been tighter.

Act 3 has both Myself I Shall Adore and No, No I'll Take No Less, within a few minutes of each other. Danielle de Niese gave her all in both (much more vigorously I thought than in Paris); she seemed a bit wobbly once or twice and took some sips of water in between the two arias, so she may have been struggling, but heavens! what energy. Both arias are completely over the top, but quite thrilling. There may not be anything subtle about this kind of performance but it's as exciting to watch and listen to as top-flight sport. There was also some entertaining by-play with Christophe Rousset (conducting his Les Talents Lyriques), who at one point took the mirror away from her. De Niese can also act, as can Peter Rose, in a wonderfully old-fashioned way, telegraphing his characters' reactions at the audience: he got several laughs as Somnus.

De Niese was dressed for stardom, in a bright red backless, strapless, bra-less number held up by two bits of string crossed over at the shoulders and revealing 1) quite a lot of rather droopy cleavage and 2) that she's a bulkier lass than at first appears. But the star singer was Genaux, with a deep mezzo voice at once creamy and harsh. At the curtain call she and Croft held hands: are they perhaps attached? or were they just happy to have upstaged Danielle?

A note on acoustics. We were closer to the singers near the front of the circle at the Barbican than we were in the second circle at Champs Elysees. Yet the sound was better in Paris: in London it often seemed thin and echoey. They speak of the Barbican's poor acoustics and one sees what they mean. The best bit was when Semele went to the rear of the stage, behind the chorus, where she was surrounded on three sides by wood, to sing a lament and we could hear every note.

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