One of these productions was full of gorgeous singing (almost uniformly well cast) set in a totally unbelievable setting, that only sort of worked, and, frankly removed the action about one level. The other was cast based on the fame of certain performers, not their vocal abilities, yet told the story much more effectively, with realistic performances that broke your heart.
So, first of all, Ballo. Apart from one person, I uniformly loved the singing in this production. Well cast voices, who brought their roles to life with passionate performances, mostly at, or close to, their peak of their careers. As you would expect at The Met (but often don't get) these were all luxury casting. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Siberian smoulderer, bringing his formidable talents to Renato, and Marcelo Alvarez as Riccardo, both convincing in their vocal performance, and well cast. Freaking Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica, the fortune teller, who comes on and dominates the whole cast for one scene, then never comes back. Yes, it is an important scene, but, wow, talk about luxury casting!! Also fine was Kathleen Kim, bringing her schtick of coloratura and crazy to a role that is always a bit annoying. Yes, she sang it well, but some of the directing choices with her characters were rather odd. There were times when she should not have been overhearing things that she was clearly involved in. Remember to focus on the story you are telling guys.
Which leaves Sondra Radvanovsky. Well, lets say she has a big voice. And when she is not singing, she looks every inch the Countess she is here. But, please, someone send her to a good singing teacher. If you are singing at this level, you should not take till after you have sung your big solo scena in the second act to really start producing pleasant sounds. And frankly, even then it was more a relief that it sounded better, rather than this is sounding good. I suspect it is to do with how she is singing and the unnecessary tension she is creating, because she is constantly producing facial expressions that do not relate to what her character is singing. It sounds to me, like she needs to learn to stop trying, and learn to let the voice be. Then again, what do I know? I am just a amateur who watches these things, and have not sung in anger (or otherwise) for ages.
It has to be said tho, this is a production for those that like things frenetic. At times there was movement for the sake of movement, at other times it made sense. All the scenes were set on a steep rake within a deliberately not square space, with every feature bar the floor moved at times. It worked, but not as well as it could have. The sets were all very bare, with only the props needed or mentioned in the libretto appearing. So, rooms would only have one chair in them, then others would be brought in by the chorus and taken out again..
To be honest, I was not convinced as a work of theatre. Yes, it was theatrical, but as a piece of storytelling, it failed dismally. You had great singers trying to throw there all in, and you found it hard to care for them, simply because there was nothing remotely believable about it. Most of the time it had almost a dreamlike quality to it, but not in a way that worked with the story. In the hands of a skilled director who knew how to milk emotion, the ending would be tragic and bring on all the emotions. Here? We wanted to care, but were left with a bunch of spoiled kids who were caught out playing up. Which is a shame.
Because if there was one thing that Les Mis does well as a movie, is bring all the emotions. The battle scenes will make you cry in Les Mis, because the characters have been brought to life. The students all spring forth larger than life (and most of them sung really well) demanding you respond. And you do too, with Jean Valjean at the end, because he has been made human.
But, Les Mis is a singer's musical, a story driven romp that relies on good singing and humanising of a huge bunch of characters as a tale of redemption of two men plays out over the years. Ultimately, this story was not as effective as it could have been. Who ever thought Russell Crowe would make a good Javert has clearly never sat through a good production of this in the theatre. It is a big long sing, and it only works if you believe him in his big numbers. If they do not let you get inside his head and understand him, you have failed. Miserably. Javert needs to be seen as a rule bound do gooder who actually thinks he is doing the right thing chasing Valjean down, till he finally realises that Valjean has done his time, and that he has lived a good life, AND brought good into the world through others. Compared to others, Crowe is a wooden log, and his singing was, well, I guess calling it singing is polite.
So, you have one half of a morality tale that fails. Does the other half work? Yes, absolutely. You get a sense of what goes on inside Valjean's head. You see him reduced to nearly human by the justice system, then given another chance by the Bishop, then rebuild his life. His rescue of Fantine worked to convince that he now knew he had to do what he could to undo any mistakes he made. So much more expression came across his face, and in his voice, even though the role is wrong vocally for him. (I personally would have rather have seen him as Javert, it would have been a much better movie)
The other roles? Well, I wanted the Enjolras to play Marius. Much better voice, much nicer screen presence. But not a star. Then again, Marius is a drip, so it really doesn't matter, does it? Eponine was great. She sang out, and played the lovelorn to the hilt. Altho, usually, the suggestion is she has been sleeping with him, which never came across in this. A conscious decision to play to the prudes perhaps?
Cosette, as sung by Amanda Seyfried, well, she is pretty and sweet, which really, is all she is expected to be. Her one moment of spunk and rebellion is to fall in love with a man after seeing him twice. And they are supposed to build a happy life together…
Fantine? Well, Ann Hathaway brings ALL THE FEELINGS. Yes, she brings them in capitals. There is nothing subtle about her role. Then again, it is not meant to be. Her death tho, is moving and provides ample motivation for much that follows.
Which leaves the Thenardiers, played by Pirellli and Mrs Lovett, err, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonhom Carter. To be honest, they did not work for me. They were portrayed as fleecing every single customer who came in, to the point of ridicule, rather than a little bit here, a little bit there. It went from being funny to being grotesque, and lacking in humour and humanity. And neither really are known for their singing…
So, if you have never seen a good Les Mis in the theatre, this is a good introduction to it. If you have, give it a miss unless you want a good cry. There is nothing uniquely special about it, other than the fact of seeing distress writ large across the screen. This production does play up the poverty and disease and general lack of care for the poor, in ways that most productions cannot. That is probably the only thing that it does better than most productions can.
As for Ballo? Well, I would have liked to have seen it live in the theatre, not on a screen. I might have changed my mind about some of the things if I saw it live, but I doubt it. However, will I go see it here at OperaAustralia? Maybe. Its a production prepared by a company noted for putting their own stamp on things in ways that do not always help bring the story to life. This is a story that needs to be treated seriously to work. And with the casting budget at Opera Australia? Well, we won't have these singers that is for sure!