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Mass Transfiguration

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on December 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Ian Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

Transfiguration (Def)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/

Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”

The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.

It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.

And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.

It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.

Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.

As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.

While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.

Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.

And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.

Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.

But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.

Magical.

I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.

And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.

Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.

And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.

And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.

Capital(ist) Flute

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on December 2, 2014 at 8:57 am

Review – Die Zauberflöte (Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre, Saturday 29 November 2014)

Tamino – Nick Pritchard
Papageno – Timothy Connor
Pamina – Sofia Larsson
Die Konigin der Nacht – He Wu
Sarastro – Matthew Buswell
Drei Damen – Gemma Lois Summerfield, Angela Simkin & Maria Ostroukhova
Drei Knabe – Louise Fuller, Katie Coventry & Polly Leech
Papagena – Turiya Haudenhuyse
Monostratos – Peter Aisher

Director – Jean-Claude Auvray
Designer – Ruari Murchison
Lighting Designer – Michael Doubleday

Royal College of Music Orchestra

Michael Rosewell (Conductor)

The Britten Theatre was the perfect venue for a very strong production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte by the students of the Royal College of Music under the direction of Michael Rosewell.

There’s something almost ‘life affirming’ about attending a performance of such high musical, vocal and instrumental standards, performed with such passion, commitment and – in the case of Timothy Connor’s Papageno – cheeky verve.

While they have years ahead of them to forge the refine their vocal talents, the cast were uniformly strong but the stand out performers for me was Nick Pritchard’s Tamino and Timothy Connor’s Papageno. While he may have tired mid-way through the Second Act his tenor was bright and forthright but he also displayed that oft-missing subtlety of tone and dynamic control that even today’s more tenured tenors lack. He shaped his phrases beautifully and also exuded that naivety that is essential for Tamino. Timothy Connor played his unwilling side-kick very well, finding the right balance between slapstick humour and pathos. His diction – even when speaking – was very good and like Tamino, he elegantly shaped the vocal line intelligently. His duet with Pamina – Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen – similarly displayed that he has a natural ability to blend with other singers.

As Tamino’s future bride, Sofia Larsson demonstrated that she had all the notes for the role with a bright top and the ability to spin the most sensuous legato line. Over time I have no doubt that she will increase her range of colours but like Pritchard, I think they are destined for a bright future. He Wu and her three ladies were all equally impressive – with some of the best ensemble singing and acting I have seen by the Three Ladies – Mesdames Summerfield, Simkin and Ostroukhova and I particularly enjoyed the latter’s smoky, resonant singing. Ms Wu was a formidable Konigin, with pin-point accuracy in the coloratura but also investing overall in the precision of her singing and with excellent diction. Again, as her voice matures she will be able to colour what is – quite clearly – an remarkable instrument. Matthew Buswell’s Sarastro deployed a notable bass voice – both rich and resonant – but I did feel that sometimes there was both a lack of clarity in his diction and his singing.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell drew exemplary playing from the student orchestra, with especially fine and pungent playing from the brass. His ensured that the music was transparent and clear but I did feel that some of his tempi were a little fast.

And I am not quite sure that “Greed Is Good” was quite the moral that Mozart intended for Die Zauberflöte, which was the conclusion that I drew from Jean-Claude Auvray’s production. But while the idea of lauding of wealth as the answer for wisdom might seem a strange approach, I did enjoy his simple, no-nonsense approach. The idea of ‘revelation’ through the opening and closing of the central set was smartly done and surprisingly didn’t feel over-used or tired by the end. And the Drei Knaben caught the awkwardness of youth very smartly.

The entire production made for a very rewarding evening and I look forward to seeing their production of Handel’s Giove in Argo in 2015.

Exsultate!

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 28, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Review – Miah Persson (Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 26 November 2014)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Joyous.

Simply the best description of this recital by soprano Miah Persson and the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page.

I’ve long admired Miah Persson. She is an exemplary performer, investing both intelligence and passion into her performances combined with flawless technique. Her early recording of Mozart arias – Un moto di gioia – remains a favourite of mine. Fast-forwarding to today, her soprano has now developed a warm, burnished tone and depth, with a pleasing vibrato but with absolutely no loss of flexibility, brightness nor range.

Ms Persson is an instinctive Mozartian and her Exsultate, jubilate was joyous. Clarion-clear diction was matched with real investment in the – albeit – religious words. And taken a quite a zip under the baton of Ian Page, Ms Persson not only skillfully negotiated the sometimes tricky coloratura but ensured it remained knitted seamlessly to the entire piece rather than simply being bravura for bravura’s sake. Indeed, I am not usually a fan of this motet as it is often over-performed, but last night at Wigmore Hall I rediscovered its charm, simplicity and overall beauty.

Despite having written one of my dissertations at university on Haydn’s opera even I admit that his stage works, on the whole, have moments of greatness rather than greatness overall. The strength of Haydn’s operas for me is the marriage with his symphonic prowess and “alternate” world view of the form.

That’s not to say however that I wouldn’t love to see them performed with more regularity and Ms Persson made a very persuasive case.

Her flawless vocal control brought incredible poise and heightened emotion to the first aria, Navicella da vento agitate from Il marchese which was echoed in the third selection written twenty-five years later, Aure chete, verdi allori from Orlando Paladino. But it was in Amore nel mio petto from Lo speziale that allowed Ms Persson to display her dramatic talents in communicating the character’s indecision. And she was perfectly complemented by the delicate playing of principal oboist James Eastaway whose resonant tone perfectly balanced the vocal opulence of Ms Persson.

Indeed, she was accompanied throughout by the excellent players of The Orchestra of Classical Opera throughout. And in the two symphonies that book-ended the concert they shone with enthusiasm, precision and verve. With its opening slow movement, harking back to an earlier era, they effortlessly switched from the intensity of the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 21 to the moto perpetuo of the ensuing Presto. Then Ian Page and his players found that rustic charm that is often so present in the composer’s minuets of this period before launching with full-blooded confidence into a vigorously rhythmic Finale.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 is one of my favourites and perfectly balanced the Haydn in terms of emotional intensity. I love the contrapuntal yearning that Mozart weaves throughout the opening movement, the elegiac Andante with its sonorous wind writing, the rusticity of the minuet and trio and then vigour of the final movement. And just as in the Haydn, The Orchestra of Classical Opera played each and every note as if their lives depended on them. Simply invigorating.

So if you haven’t already, book your tickets for Classical Opera’s exciting 2015 Season but the most wonderful thing about this particular evening? That Wigmore Hall has recorded the entire performance for their own label and our continued enjoyment.

The release of this disc cannot come too soon.

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