Monday 27 April 2015

First impressions at the National Gallery

'Inventing Impressionism' is the current headline Sainsbury Wing exhibition at London's National Gallery and I have to confess that after reading about it for the first time, it dropped off my radar. Not sure why: perhaps I suffered from that feeling - fairly common, I think - that Impressionism is sort of everywhere. All those posters and greetings cards. Haven't I ALREADY seen EVERY Impressionist painting, for pity's sake? Well, far, far from it, as this exhibition proves with some gusto.

I suppose to a certain extent the audience for the show is self-selecting. If you're anywhere near London while it's on (you have until the end of May) and you like the Impressionists, you'd be mad to miss it. It's a huge enterprise and there's absolutely no way you'll regret going. And on the flipside, if you're not that keen on this style of painting, keep well away or you'll just get upset. After all, it's not simply about Impressionism - it's about support and enthusiasm for Impressionism: that of one man in particular, Paul Durand-Ruel.

I won't attempt to tell the whole story here, because the exhibition does so itself, remarkably successfully. In brief, Durand-Ruel was the art dealer who put the Impressionists on the map - at a time when seemingly all the critics were thinking "Here be monsters". Over a working life of 40 years plus, he consistently encouraged (personally and financially) this new, unusual breed of artist despite coming perilously close to penury himself on a couple of occasions. Along the way, he essentially invented new ways of dealership and display (sponsoring artists, for example, rather than buying works one by one, then exhibiting them for sale en masse).

As a result, the current exhibition creates a genuine narrative by re-enacting some of his obsessions and innovations - such as focusing an entire exhibition around a single, living artist (then extremely unusual). A Monet room presents five of his 'poplar' series, gathered from London, Paris, Philadephia and Tokyo - recreating the experience contemporary viewers would have got on seeing some of Monet's great sequence works actually displayed together. It certainly helps to give you a truer, er, impression of what the painter was trying to achieve: for example, I had no idea before seeing these alongside each other that Monet was trying to capture variations in wind effect as well as light.

Exploiting the Durand-Ruel connection - seeking to show the pictures he showed - gives the National the perfect reason to bring us lesser-seen Monets living elsewhere: two of my favourites are below. I love the way all the shapes in 'Windmills and Boats near Zaandam' - the mills themselves, the sails, the oars and posts - are all distorted rectangles, echoing each other, followed by the near-abstract 'Road at La Cavee', such a restful picture, drawing your eye to the sea purely through geometric blocks meeting at a mid-point.

But Monet only forms part of the overall survey. Manet receives similar treatment, with an arresting selection of his pictures displayed as a set (D-R was so impressed he indulged in a spree). I adored this painting, 'The Reader'. How all the colours merge (brown wall, chair, coat) apart from the shining focus of his face. The weight of the book, spine pivoting on the desk. His right hand.

I could list highlights into infinity, but I'd suggest this marvellous Degas view of the ballet as seen from the opera house stalls is brilliantly ambiguous. Has the viewer lost interest in the action on stage (blurred) so is people-watching among his fellow punters and the orchestra? Or are we seeing the kind of giddy visual bustle where our viewpoint constantly wanders and indulges in slight distractions?

There are some beautiful Renoirs included. Renoir is described by the exhibition notes as the Impressionists' "most celebrated portraitist". When I first read this, I raised an eyebrow - Manet seemed to me more or less the only other artist represented who was really concerned with painting 'recognisable' people - but that's to take nothing away from the soft-focus accuracy of Renoir's superb eye for detail. (The pair of pictures 'Dance in the City' and 'Dance in the Country' are especially strong here, the physiques of the rustic couple slightly more robust and clothes a tad shabbier than their townie counterparts.)

I also felt that Sisley emerged as something close to my 'man of the match': I had not noticed before how his composition and use of natural lines to compartmentalise the canvas seemed to me almost photographic (from the hidden half of the canvas in 'The Ferry of the Ile de la Loge: Flood' to the panorama of horizontals and verticals in the 'View of the Thames').

With a flourish, the final room pays tribute to Durand-Ruel's greatest achievement, the Grafton Galleries show where he displayed over 300 Impressionist works: multiple artists over multiple periods - again, a nudge forward for the skill of curating exhibitions with what must have felt like one of the first retrospectives of a movement. This exhibition follows ably in its footsteps: please get there if you can.

(Images taken from Wikipeida, unless the image labelling or watermark states othewise!)

Saturday 18 April 2015

Horticulture: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton's flower songs

Botanical art might be a familiar genre - in fact, I posted about some truly great examples only a short while ago. Botanical art song, however? Possibly under-explored - at least, until now.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson has teamed up with pianist Joseph Middleton for a new recital album, called 'Fleurs'. As the name suggests, every song featured is about or linked in some way to flowers. That said, the name doesn't quite prepare you for the dazzling variety of blooms on display: the title track is by Poulenc, and there is a French focus purely in terms of composers included: Boulanger, Chabrier, Debussy, Fauré, Gounod and Hahn (French by way of Venezuela).

Us plucky Brits keep our end up with Britten, Purcell and Quilter, and there are some deeper explorations into lieder thanks to Schumann, Strauss and, of course, Schubert.

CS is rightly renowned for her sublime baroque and early music performances, and the first real sign - I believe - that she was now up for something completely different was a stunning Wigmore Hall concert last year. She self-effacingly described it as her first 'grown-up' song recital - meaning classical song with just voice and piano - and perhaps it did feel like an experiment to her, a toe dipped in the water. But you would never have known. I remember feeling elated, privileged to be there, and in my round-up of my favourites last year, I remarked how disappointed I was not to see recording microphones above the stage.

Luckily, 'Fleurs' has arrived instead, and again, CS calls it a 'début' in the liner notes. As someone who has listened to pop, rock, jazz, folk etc for much of my life and got into classical music seriously within the last decade, I am still very 'artist-led' - so while I devour complete works or entire operas as greedily as anyone, I reserve a particular level of delight for when favourite singers or players put together a 'proper album'.

And 'Fleurs' is not just a proper album - it's a concept album, of course, its generous 70 minutes or so divided into four distinct sequences (it's like four sides of vinyl! - could this get any better?). And the overall sequencing works a treat - especially near the start of the album where a thread of real wit underlines the power: track 1 - 'Sweeter than roses' - is by Purcell, so seasoned Sampsonites are arguably placed immediately into the artist and listener 'comfort zone'. (In fact, it's a direct callback to her earlier Purcell disc, 'Victorious Love'.)

But the song is a great opening choice, as it seems to sum up the spirit of 'Fleurs' like an overture: gentle and stately at first, only to burst into ecstatic fervour around the two-and-a-half minute mark. You're reminded of all the things there are to love about CS's voice - the warm and generous tone, the supernatural precision of the diction and (many) notes, the way she seems to 'dance' over the accompaniment. And what accompaniment: JM - whose rapport with CS is audible - steers every moodswing and at one point is clearly 'rocking out' at the song's excited high.

Almost immediately, the duo delight in reminding us that, this time, all bets are off. Quilter's stately gentleness gives way to his fellow countryman Britten's 'The Nightingale and the Rose': the illusory lyric mirrored in the piano's irregular dissonance (JM scarily great here), with the vocal achieving a kind of agitated beauty as the accompanying 'safety net' fractures below it.

CS's inability to sing a less than gorgeous note works wonders in these high-octane moments - see also the way she glides over JM's stabbing turmoil in Fauré's 'Fleur jetée' or builds up to the, er, climax of Strauss's 'Monbluhmen' (*loosens collar*). And 'Fleurs' isn't afraid to smoulder, either: witness the volume-control intimacy of the final verse of Hahn's 'Offrande' or the middle verse of Schubert's 'Im Haine' where she emulates the breeze mentioned in the lyric by part-sighing the final line.

Even the production gives the record - in the best way - a seductive feel. There is no audience, but the ambience is anything but arid: you can hear the occasional pedal or breath and the experience is all the better for it. Use a decent pair of headphones and you're in the room with them; you get the impression that the pair are essentially performing for each other but, if you're good, they'll play just for you, too.

While the flower concept proves a brilliant device to include such a wide selection of songs, it leaves me with the nicest possible criticism: I want more. I hope this is the first of many recital albums. Including Debussy's 'De fleurs' makes me long to hear CS record all four 'Proses lyriques' ... and could the label let her loose in Schubert's vast catalogue, please..?

Until then, buy this CD and keep playing it. Rest assured, you will want to.

* * *
Concert-goers! Be advised that 'Fleurs' is on tour, as well. As I type, the duo are about to conquer a few places across the UK:

Take note that the London date is a 'rush-hour recital' and launch event organised by Rhinegold Live - so it is, in fact, free. You just need to follow the link, get in touch, and if there's still room they will e-mail you an invitation. So, make haste!

* * *
(A post-script on 'proper albums'. Song programming, of course, really lends itself to this. Other titles popping into my head include the great double album 'Between Life and Death' by Christoph Prégardien & Michael Gees, Gerald Finley's 'Ballad Singer' set with Julius Drake, Alice Coote's 'Power of Love' with Graham Johnson ... and most recently, Dorothea Röschmann's extraordinary 'Portraits' with Malcolm Martineau. For me, 'Fleurs' can stand proudly alongside these and all my other favourites. Outside song, I can also avidly recommend the recital albums of pianists Stephen Hough and Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion - brilliant programmers both.)

Sunday 12 April 2015

Letter of the boor: replying to 'Opera' readers

I suppose there's something appropriate about there being a lot of 'volatility' in the opera world. I've written on the blog from time to time about controversial subject matter in opera, or the baffling examples of critics 'crossing the line' when discussing performers - and even the artform's inexplicable magnetism for ill-mannered audiences.

And then there are events that I feel strongly about but haven't discussed in depth yet. One of these in particular - the funding issues surrounding English National Opera - I don't really feel qualified to write about at length. My emotional response to it is fairly simple: ENO is a bold, accomplished company, with a superb orchestra and chorus, producing really fine and utterly accessible work. The Arts Council, as a collective, may feel it should be wanging on about 'business models' and that its function must be, in some scenarios, punitive: but on the other hand, it could be taking positive steps to promote our most creative and innovative ensembles and ensure their survival and prosperity.

But today's problem I feel I may have flirted with - or skirted round - in the past, without getting stuck in. It's to do with audience response. (So, this is not the same as the current coughing, rustling, talking, texting and general epidemic of being bloody annoying that I tackled recently. That's simply a case of not knowing how to behave in public.) I'm talking about nastiness - most prominently of all, the practice of booing productions, but also making noisy negative pronouncements to anyone within earshot, or progressing to full-on character assassination on social media.

So here I am, getting stuck in: Just stop.

I ought to add that I consider myself very lucky on, say, Twitter. On the opera front, I follow - and am followed by - a group of folk (punters, critics and even a few singers/players), who are all, without exception, lovely. I'm being sincere and serious. I feel surrounded by wit, knowledge, love for the subject and enthusiasm for its performers - and if, as a relative beginner, I have a question or need a recommendation, any of them helps out without hesitation.

The thing is, that through outraged retweets or just innocent bouts of searching, it's all too easy to see the flipside - and away from the ether and into print, I was genuinely shocked by a couple of correspondents to the letters page of the latest issue of 'Opera' magazine (May 2015).

The first was written by a chap who was outraged at the magazine's stance on booing. It had invited critics, producers and performers (not punters, as the letter-writer was at pains to point out) to comment on the phenomenon and understandably, no-one was particularly keen. This guy was quite keen on booing - not singers, but producers and directors. He felt that if we can complain about a bad meal before paying in a restaurant, we should be able to voice our disapproval in the opera house.

(I'm struggling to think of another occasion where I've read such a galumphing blancmange of an analogy. It utterly relies on everyone wanting exactly the same thing from a personal experience, music or food, and then feeling entitled to yell about it at the top of one's lungs in front of anyone who'll listen. Inane.)

And the final flourish of uselessness came with his parting shot about protesting against these (somehow definitively) poor experiences when "needed". I read this with open-mouthed horror. At most of these things, you do tend to get a lot of other people along. Luckily, this modern-day iconoclast - a hero to us all - can decide for us, pitiful hive-mind that we are, whether we should've enjoyed it or not and then make a howling din about it accordingly.

I didn't find the second letter quite as offensive, but I was still thoroughly nonplussed by it. The writer felt that the ENO production of Wagner's 'Mastersingers' was much better than the ROH's 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny' ... but expanded it into a lament that ENO was under funding scrutiny rather than ROH. It's as if the financial fortunes of either company should not just be hardwired, somehow, into its skill and repertoire (rather than, say, rely on the people running the business), but on the particular pieces he happens to enjoy. Again, this seems to me a type of reverse-fannish lunacy.

I was so dispirited about all this, that I wrote to the magazine myself. Since open letters are - fittingly - all the 'rage', I'll leave you with the e-mail I sent, below:

"Dear Editor

I was thoroughly disheartened by the first two letters you published in your May issue.

The first complained about your not asking paying customers their opinion on audience misbehaviour. They reserved the right to boo "insulting nonsense" - comparing the scenario to complaining about a poor meal, as if you bawl loudly at the waiter and other diners before you even reach the chef - "whenever it's needed". Needed? Ugh.

The second seemed to think that because they like a recent ENO production - but are not so keen on a new ROH one - that the Arts Council should be gunning for the latter instead of the former.

I am tired of these people assuming they speak for me. You did well to pack both close-minded and small-minded into a couple of columns, but in future there's no need, I assure you.

It just goes to show, that in all the brow-furrowing and hand-wringing I see about opera's elitism/snootiness, our biggest worry is not the artform itself, nor those who stage and perform it, nor even ticket prices. Instead, it's the few - yet disproportionately vocal - arrogant buffoons in the audience who know an awful lot about opera, I'm sure, but very little about manners or understanding.

If that sounded excessively or indiscriminately insulting, well, yes: that's rather what booing is like.

Kind regards, etc..."

Thursday 2 April 2015

ROH: Reduced Opera House!

Most of the time when I go to the opera, it isn't just me: there's a group of us (including Mrs Specs) and I tend to organise the bookings in line with how many of us can or want to see the various productions. As a result, to accommodate the sundry needs (and availability) of my people, I sometimes find my Royal Opera House visits, in particular, fall at slightly odd intervals or 'bunch' together.

This is how, at any rate, I came to see three operas in quick succession at the ROH, considerably faster than I could hope to write about them. So, this is more like a diary entry - a quick summing-up, if you will - of how I found this particular vocal trio.

The most well-known of the three was the current production of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly', with Kristine Opolais in the title role. I'd seen this before, years ago, in the Royal Albert Hall in-the-round production - and I don't think my mind was quite opera-ready because I didn't remember much about the music, more the staging. (Indoor water garden!) The opera is so famous that I think most people know the story - a dashing US sailor on his travels, Pinkerton, marries the young Japanese geisha, Butterfly. From the outset, the union is merely a pleasurable distraction for him, while she is devoted - to the point of renouncing her Buddhist faith for Christianity. But as Act 2 opens, we find that he soon left again on his ship and Butterfly has been waiting for his return for some three years. When he does come back, hoping to avoid Butterfly altogether (understandable, given that he now has an American wife, called Kate) - the consul Sharpless forces him to face up to his responsibilities, which now include his and Butterfly's small son. For the sake of the child, the Americans decide that Butterfly should allow Pinkerton and Kate to bring up the boy. However, he still cannot face her; instead Butterfly - convinced until almost the bitter end that Pinkerton will come back to her - commits suicide. The libretto has Pinkerton find her, dying - this production has Butterfly send the boy out to meet his dad (who calls for Butterfly off-stage), while she kills herself alone, inside the house - emphasising her utter isolation as everything, piece by piece, is taken away from her.

Two aspects really struck me: first, what a sparse drama it is. Nothing happens. I don't mean this as a negative thing: it's like the opera really is an animated Japanese woodcut tableau - we never leave Butterfly's house, and all the plot is more or less done by the end of Act 1: we know Pinkerton's a cad, we know he's not coming back, and we know about the ceremonial dagger with which Butterfly's father was forced to commit hara-kiri. In short - we know where this is going. Which brings me to the second point: the opera is so dependent on its character study element - the delusion and disintegration of Butterfly - that the soprano's performance is crucial, and that's where Kristine Opolais lifted the evening into the stratosphere. I think the word I tweeted excitedly on the evening was 'searing'. Although it's clearly a heart-rending tragedy, MB's place in the pantheon could fool you into thinking that it's a bit of a 'safe', familiar night out. Well, not with an interpretation like this in it.

(Photo: Bill Cooper, from the ROH website.)

Opolais sang not just beautifully but cleverly - initially with a slightly clipped, meek tone to match the Japanese elements in the score - and (being a very good physical actress) stooped slightly and shuffled in deference to her American lover. However - even though the blade is eventually turned in on herself - the character undergoes transformation into something akin to an avenging angel, starting with a steely resolve first against her religious zealot uncle, then against a series of suitors, until finally - even as she sings defeat - she ends her life with a kind of defiant, gothic dignity. It's easy to see why Butterfly is regarded as one of KO's signature roles: the less actual 'story' there was to worry about, the more we could focus on the performance, and it was brilliant.

The opera itself is of course Tragedy with a capital 'T', and as such, the outcome is so clearly signposted and irony so thickly applied that it made me pine slightly for the deft and, I feel, more sophisticated storytelling of, say, 'The Girl of the Golden West' - where, if you didn't know the piece, there really is an in-built suspense element and a feeling that events could go in any direction.

Which allows me to clumsily - yet endearingly, I hope - link to what I think must be the most unpredictable night I've spent in an opera house so far: 'Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny' by Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht. A satire on, well, er, just how terrible everything and everyone is, the plot charts the potted history of Mahagonny, a city established by a trio of criminals on the run (Begbick and her sidekicks Fatty and Moses). At first, it succeeds as a 'paradise' for citizens from elsewhere to come and let their hair down, but it soon faces a double whammy of disaster: economic ruin and an approaching hurricane. Jimmy - one of a group of tourists - is already having something resembling a breakdown (as well as wrestling with his feelings for one of Mahagonny's prostitutes, Jenny) and proclaims that if destruction really is approaching, there should be no rules and people should run wild - "everything is permitted".

This philosophy really takes off, especially when the hurricane miraculously swerves around the city. The surreal second act goes through a catalogue of indulgences that end badly: eating (Jim's friend Jacob binges himself to death), loving (Jenny falls back in with the other prostitutes to satisfy a crowd of men), fighting (a further tourist pal of Jim's, Joe, is killed outright in a boxing match with Moses) and finally drinking. Jim - who lost all his money in a loyal bet on Joe in the fight - 'buys' drinks for everyone but cannot pay. He is sentenced to death. In the final act, Jimmy goes to his execution, after seemingly finding religion - which the crowd then reject. The chaos city-wide has finally led to Mahagonny's destruction, and the opera ends with the cast declaring there is no hope for anyone.

(Photo: Clive Barda, from the ROH website.)

Although the opera has some famous songs ("Show me the way to the next whiskey-bar...") it's not a feast of melody, and I felt a bit like I'd been to a play or some performance art. Certainly, it was woozily chilling, suitably decadent-sounding and harsh when necessary. What made it work for me on the night was the conviction of the performances, especially the central trio of villains - a splendid Anne Marie Gibbons (standing in for an ailing Anne Sofie von Otter), another superb, casually callous characterisation from Peter Hoare as Fatty (I'm still haunted by his Creon from last year's 'Thebans' at ENO), and Willard White's usual imposing power as Moses. Christine Rice also made Jenny touching as well as sassy, but avoided the 'whore with a heart of gold' cliche by keeping the character understated and enigmatic. Unusually for the ROH, this was translated into English - which I believe would be most of the cast's native tongue - so the half-singing, half-speaking (in places) still packed a hefty, confident punch.

In a way, though, the real star of the show is the actual production. The ROH had thrown itself completely into Mahagonny mode, with acid witticisms displaying on the curtain before start time, and a cunning staging that started small (a revolving cabin that switched from truck to bar to office) but exploded into a city built from container crates, summing up in just its appearance not only the transience of Mahagonny but also its foundation on commodities and greed. Captions were constantly projected to show narration and a kind of automated, mechanical inevitability to proceedings (I'm sure this must have played a key part in the decision to perform the opera in English), with the coup-de-theatre the stage-sized radar equipment tracking the path of the hurricane. There was so much going on visually at times, that I felt it was a bit like an assault on the senses - which was exactly Mahagonny's aim. Although I wouldn't necessarily buy this opera on CD, then, I would be interested in a DVD of this production if it came out, to enjoy the visuals, and the committed portrayals giving them an anchor.

And with mention of an anchor, I stumble on another seamless link to opera number 3: Wagner's 'Die fliegender Hollander' ('The Flying Dutchman'). It was an interesting time to catch this one, new to me on the night, because I went a mere three days after seeing the tremendous ENO production of 'The Mastersingers of Nuremberg' - literally three hard acts to follow. I wasn't sure if I'd be 'Wagnered-up' or 'Wagnered-out'.

I needn't have worried. It's a fascinating, riveting work, based on the myth of the ghost ship that can never land and spells doom for those who see it. Wagner's version uses the variation that the 'Dutchman' is the captain of the vessel, who - after invoking the devil - is cursed to remain at sea forever. At seven-year intervals, he is allowed to land; if he can find a faithful wife while ashore, the curse will lift.

The Dutchman crashes against captain Daland's ship, which is sheltering from sea storms in a port not far from home. On hearing about Daland's unmarried daughter, Senta, the Dutchman offers a wealth of riches for her hand, and Daland readily agrees. Back home, we meet Senta, who is already somewhat obsessed with the Dutchman's legend and dreams of being the one to save him. When the hunter Erik - who is in love with Senta - brings news that Dad's on his way back with a strange visitor, she realises what's afoot immediately. The two meet, and she resolves to be the faithful woman the Dutchman needs.

Senta prepares to leave with the Dutchman, but is delayed by a reproachful Erik, who reminds her that he got there first. The Dutchman, taking this rather badly, announces his identity for the first time in the opera and, assuming the curse still remains, sets sail. Then, as the more familiar ending has it, Senta throws herself into the sea. Redeeming the Dutchman in joint death, the couple ascend to heaven.

But this is not Wagner's original ending - he added the 'Redemption' passage later. The ROH production was based on the composer's first intentions: the entire opera given in a single act with no interval (he identified subdivisions to allow it to be performed in three acts after the fact), and coming to a sharp halt at the point Senta is deserted by the Dutchman.

As a result, the opera swerves any kind of pat spirituality and becomes a very modern, searching psychodrama. Everything leading up to the climax has suggested that all this may, just possibly, be going on inside Senta's head, and the low-key ending is true to that. Senta fantasises about saving the Dutchman, and accordingly, the 'reality' of the story reflects her 'buy-in' to the legend: it's interesting, for example, that the ships clash seven miles from Daland's home (the interval of the Dutchman's exile is seven years) - or for that matter, there's the extraordinary coincidence that the Dutchman would run into Daland at all. Daland simply behaves as his daughter's ideal scenario would have him do: agree instantly to the marriage then fade into the background once the introduction is made. Erik's niggling presence - at one point, he's made to play Senta's desires back to her through his nightmare - punctures the fantasy bubble, causing the Dutchman to retreat for another seven years. Who knows how many times Senta has played out the action of the opera in her mind? Does she get a bit closer to her goal each time?

The ROH production is a dark, muted affair, but teases out some of these aspects further. I found the staging really inventive, with just one metal hulk representing the ships, and various areas exposed or illuminated to suggest the story's small number of other locations. The lighting seemed particularly inventive - one memorable effect had the light from the (off-stage) Dutchman's ship beam directly along its gangplank and freeze Senta in the glare. Ideas came thick and fast. The dead crew of the ghost ship are literally trapped under its hull. Senta and her girlfriends work in a sewing sweatshop (the original description has them simply spinning in company)... which makes her escapism all the more believable. Brilliantly, she possesses - and arguably fetishises - a model ship: in the libretto, the object of her attentions is a portrait of the Dutchman, essentially her pin-up. Using a ship works not just as a nod to the origin myth (where the Dutchman is the ship), but also symbolises how the whole world of the Dutchman is part of her imagination, totally within her control. The final image of the performance has Senta sinking to the ground in despair, clutching the boat to her body.

(Photo: Clive Barda, from the ROH website.)

And what a performance. I'd been excited about seeing Adrianne Pieczonka again for months, after she was such a memorable and affecting Chrysothemis in the most recent ROH 'Elektra'. In Senta, we have another vulnerable character who papers over the cracks with flashes of resolve and stubbornness, and AP combined a ravishingly gorgeous tone with the necessary steel to make the character both driven beyond reason and heartrendingly sympathetic - never more so than her central solo singing the ballad of the Dutchman to her friends. Bryn Terfel - still a vocal powerhouse despite being laid low by a cold up to a few days earlier - was fearsomely charismatic in the title role, choosing the sinister rather than romantic route. Absolutely the product of Senta's dark vision - wrapping his extraordinary voice around the part like a cloak.