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Mommy, dearest.

In BBC, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 1, 2014 at 11:28 am

Review – Elektra (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 31 August 2014)

Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Klytemnestra – Dame Felicity Palmer
Oreste – Johann Reuter
Aegisthus – Robert Künzli
Maids – Katarina Bradić, Zoryana Kushpler, Hanna Hipp, Marie-Eve Munger & Iris Kupke
Overseer – Miranda Keys
Young Servant – Ivan Turić
Tutor – Jongmin Park

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

An all-most perfect Elektra made for a weekend of memorable Strauss.

Overall it was an electrifying ensemble performance led by an incredible performance by Dame Felicity Palmer as Klytemnestra.

It’s a role I have seen her perform once before – under Gergiev at the Barbican. Then as now, she was in total command not only of the role musically and interpretively, but of the rest of the cast when she was on the stage. Her diction was perfect, her interpretation of the text flawless, her projection over the orchestra masterful and her characterization beautifully balanced and intelligent. In contrast to the introspection of Waltraud Meier in Dresden earlier this year, Dame Felicity’s Queen was made of steelier stuff, regretting nothing and only briefly showing any sign of affection for her estranged daughter.

As her other daughter, Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Chrysothemis was similarly strong both vocally and in terms of portrayal. While overall she lacked the rich timbre of Adrienne Pieczonka, her bright and gleaming soprano was beautifully matched to the role, and at times her sense of desperation – to escape not only her life but the horror of what her sister proposed – was palpable. In Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust Barkmin negotiated Strauss’ difficult vocal line, delivering the often-missed bloom and her closing calls for her brother were searing in their intensity.

The two men were equally very good. Johann Reuter was a darkly toned Oreste – luxury casting similar to Pape – and Robert Künzli’s light, supple voiced Aegisthus was pointedly arrogant.

Of the rest of the cast, the maids and Overseer also delivered particularly strong and clearly delineated performance – vocally and dramatically. Katarina Bradić has a beautifully rich and lustrous tone and the Fifth Maid of Iris Kupke was also impressive.

What of Elektra herself? I often think that there isn’t the subtlety of characterisation required for Elektra as there is for Salome. The characterisation here is much more focused on a single act – revenge – and without the need for an evolution and awakening of feeling – the dawning sexual desire that is required for Herod’s stepdaughter and which Nina Stemme captured perfectly the previous night.

I admit – as I have said before – that I remain to be completely convinced by Christine Goerke. As at Covent Garden while there is thrilling vocal heft in the middle and lower register, I find that Ms Goerke’s upper range can sound somewhat constricted and at times there is a slight hesitation before singing the higher notes. As the evening progressed I also discerned a slight burr in her voice as well as challenges of intonation. And in those moments of tenderness her voice still lacks that sense of warmth which would give her Elektra a fully-rounded interpretation.

Yet there is no denying her total commitment in the role. The confrontation with her mother was chilling because of her demeanour and the delivery of the text. And there was no denying that that overall it was a compelling performance and stronger than that of Covent Garden.

On the podium Bychov gave the music the necessary space to breathe, indulging in the opera’s lyricism without losing momentum – the perfect balance for Strauss’ music. From the opening bars to the final C major chord, he tempered the orchestra and never let it drown the singers but he also highlighted the more chamber-like moments of the score, drawing out the orchestral light and shade – for example in Klytemnestra’s opening scene and just before her death. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded in kind with some of the most eloquent playing I have heard from them in a long time.

With the final C major chord, as Elektra lay dead on the stage, Chrysothemis weeping over her body, there was no doubt that together with Salome, it was a luxuriant – almost decadent – weekend of Strauss to remember.

Served On A Silver Platter.

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Review – Salome (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 30 August 2014)

Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Burkhard Ulrich – Herod
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

Den Kopf des Jochanaan.

The very first time that she magically floated that terrible line was the moment that Nina Stemme nailed her characterisation of Salome.

From her first appearance to what can only be described as her final – and visceral – transfiguration, Nina Stemme took the audience in the Royal Albert Hall on a singularly intense and gratifying journey – both emotional and musical. Indeed, as with her performance as Brunnhilde last year, Ms Stemme captivated the audience and kept them in rapt attention.

So often singers don’t so much sing the notes that Strauss committed to paper as charge through them. Notes are blurred, phrasing is unbalanced and often singers revert to performing parts of the role as if it were Sprechstimme.

Nina Stemme performed the role with impressive musical intelligence and authority. Each note, each phrase and each word was delivered with an attention to detail that created a sense of vocal spontaneity – the conversational tone that is so often sadly missing when others perform Strauss’ heroines. It was almost as if the ink was still wet on the page.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ms Stemme perform a couple of times – including Ring cycles in San Francisco and at the Proms as well as in Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. And every time, vocally she went from strength to strength.

And as Salome she was simply resplendent. Totally secure throughout her range she demonstrated technique, a depth of tone and a range of colours that is simply enviable. She impressively demonstrated the ability to scale back her voice to almost a whisper while retaining the clarity and precision but when required she ramped her voice up in terms of both volume and range. In the final scene, she soared above the orchestra, filling the entire hall with thrilling sound.

It was difficult at times not to just focus all the attention on Nina Stemme, but she was for the most part supported by a very strong cast, especially the women. Doris Soffel simply reveled in the role of Herodias. Stalking across the stage, she delivered the role with confidence and finding a vocal timbre that perfectly suited Herodias’ atavistic and cruel nature. And it was good to see Ronnita Miller as her Page. I remember her from the San Francisco Ring as both Erda and Norn. She has a rich mezzo and there is a sensual growl in her lower register that is thrilling. I hope to see her on stage again soon. Hopefully in London if not Germany.

Samuel Youn was committed as Jokanaan, but personally I would have preferred more resonance and vocal security in his performance.

Both tenors – Burkhard Ulrich as Herod and the Narraboth of Thomas Blondelle – were impressive. Blondelle’s bright, bell-like voice was perfect for the pleading, love-lorn soldier and Ulrich compellingly inhabited the role of Herod both vocally and temperamentally.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but he drew archly beautiful and characterful playing from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Opera is always tricky at the Proms but unerringly he balanced the demands of ensuring that Strauss’ overtly orchestral score in Salome was sufficiently transparent and ensuring that the singers could be heard. I would have preferred the Dance of the Seven Veils to have been ‘dirtier’ rather than ‘precise’ but it was a small price to pay for playing of this excellence.

And at the end, the audience showed their appreciation. First and foremost for Nina Stemme, but overall for a memorable and electrifying Salome.

A-Mused – Part One

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 26, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Review – Semiramide – La Signora Regale (Anna Bonitatibus, La Stagione Armonica, Academia degli Astrusi, Federico Ferri)

Two exquisite albums inspired by two very different women – both real but worlds apart.

In the first, the muse is ancient Semiramis. Depending on who and what you read, either she was a noble Queen and subsequent Assyrian Regent, a murderer or an (almost) incestuous mother. But regardless of what or who she was, she inspired some incredible music.

In a very well chosen and balanced recital, Anna Bonitatibus selects music from Caldara and Porpora via composers such as Traetta and Meyerbeer to that better-known opera by Rossini. En route, she also performs music by the likes of Francesco Bianchi, Sebastiano Nasolini and Manuel García.

Once again the current vogue for dusting off lesser-known composers has paid off with the added bonus of an incredibly well researched booklet that accompanies the disc.

I have only one regret when I listen to this album – that I didn’t get the chance to hear Ms Bonitatibus recently as Cherubino at Covent Garden. She has an elegant, flexible and beautifully balanced mezzo. Brightly focused, there is a precise and even agility to her voice as well as a pleasing and beautifully controlled vibrato – a rarity among singers – that gives her voice a very appealing texture in terms of both warmth and depth that is perfectly suited to the range of emotions required in these selections.

But the most incredible thing about this recital is the sheer sense of joy and musicianship that Ms Bonitatibus communicates in every aria. As you would expect there is more than a fair amount of coloratura in this music that she delivers with aplomb from the start as in Povera navicella from Caldara’s Semiramide in Ascalona or with great delicacy as in Meyerbeer’s Più non si tardi… Il piacer, la gioia scenda with its obbligato harp. But the recital is not without its more ‘pathetic’ music. Andrea Bernasconi’s Ah non è vano il pianto and Paisiello’s Serbo in seno il cor piagato are typical of the period with their sighing phrases and elegantly styled legato vocal lines, spun with incredible finesse and interpretative intelligence by Ms Bonitatibus. And in these arias – and throughout the recital – her attention to ornamentation in the returning da capos is both sensitive and stylish.

However, the highlight for me is Traetta’s Il pastor se torna aprile. With its violin obbligato – and almost Mozartian swagger – Ms Bonitatibus sings not only with incredible precision through the coloratura, but also with a real sense of verve. Traetta might have been an opera reformist and here – despite the overt virtuosity that he writes, its worth noting how the composer writes a shortened da capo, but then can’t resist two cadenzas, one for each soloist. Clearly his own muse inspired this incredible aria and with music of this quality and performed to such as high standard but both soloists, you can forgive Traetta for stopping the drama for almost ten minutes.

Almost thirty years later, Nasolini wrote a well-constructed scena with chorus that looks forward to composers such as Rossini. With its imposing brass and sonorous choral singing, it makes quite an impact, as does Rossini’s famous scena Serena i vaghi rai… Bel raggio lusinghier. And it is in the latter that Ms Bonitatibus’ controlled use of vibrato is thrilling as she spins out the vocal line.

The album proper ends with Già il perfido discese… Al mio pregar t’arrendi from Manuel García’s Semiramis, first performed in Mexico. Following a darkly-hued accompagnato, García pens an eloquent and darkly sonorous preghiera accompanied by wind only

Generously the album also includes three extra tracks – all from Semiramide riconosciuta – but drawing on three different composers. First, the aria Fuggi dagl’occhi miei, composed by Handel and Gluck respectively, and then Salieri’s overture to his opera of the same title. It’s interesting to listen to how Handel and Gluck approached the same aria differently – for me Handel has just a little more emotional intensity. But again both are impeccably performed.

Under the direction of Federico Ferri, La Stagione Armonico and the Academia degli Astrusi perform with great finesse and sensitivity throughout. In the arias Ferri finds a broad range of sonorities and balances for each composer. Listen to the brass in Nasolini and the wind in García for example, the lightness of touch in the Caldara, the breadth of sound in the Traetta or the warmth that he draws from the strings in the Bernasconi. And of the instrumental pieces, enjoy the delicacy of the moto perpetuo in Catel’s dance.

Beautifully performed and lovingly researched, this is an album to savour.

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