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Schoolroom Shenanighans.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Review – Rinaldo (Glyndebourne, Saturday 9 August 2014)

Rinaldo – Iestyn Davies
Almirena – Christina Landshamer
Goffredo – Tim Mead
Armida – Karina Gauvin
Argante – Joshua Hopkins
Eustazio – Anthony Roth Costanzo
A Christian Magus – James Laing
Sirens – Anna Rajah & Rachel Taylor

Director – Robert Carsen
Associate Director – Bruno Ravella
Designer – Gideon Davey
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet
Movement Director – Philippe Giraudeau

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Ottavio Dantone (Conductor)

Glyndebourne’s production of Rinaldo proves that with a star cast combined with a thoughtful approach by a director of the calibre of Robert Carsen, Handel’s operas contain the perfect balance of drama, tragedy and humour.

Who hasn’t endured a playground crush and wanted their rival vanquished?

In the lead role was Iestyn Davies, and following his outstanding performance in Rodelinda earlier this year, is there a countertenor to rival him in terms of his singing and acting performance? I dare say not. The quality of his singing is remarkable, combined not only with incredible technique but a flawless legato that enables him to convey every emotion with great clarity and emotional weight. After hearing him sing Dove sei? at the London Coliseum I didn’t think I would hear a more emotionally powerful performance of any aria, but the anguish he conveyed as he sang Rinaldo’s Cara sposa was heart-rending, and provided the first highlight of the evening. And he also demonstrated that he could as easily negotiate the more technically demanding arias that Handel wrote for his first Crusader, Nicolini. There was a thrilling bite and the necessary Handelian swagger in Venti, Turbini, Prestate and Abbruccio, avvampo a frema as well as that showcase aria Or la tromba.

Davies also displayed an innate sense in ensemble singing in the various duets. The delicacy of the singing of Scherzano sul tuo volto with his Almirena was beautifully matched by the teenage gaucheness of their actions. And I don’t think I’ve heard Rinaldo’s duet with Armida – Fermati! Oh crudel – not only performed with such verve but also a distinct sexual tension. Personally I’ve no idea why he chose Almirena over Armida.

As his nemesis, Karina Gauvin also demonstrated why she is one of the leading Handel sopranos. In the past I have voiced concern over her performances but here she was in stunning form, and clearly relished her schoolmistress-cum dominatrix as realized by Carsen. Her vocal agility in Furie terribili and Vo’ far Guerra, e vincer voglio – with Dantone light-fingered harpsichord concertante solo – was never in doubt but the sheer beauty and flawlessness of Ah! Crudel, il pianto was the second of three vocal highlights of the evening.

The third highlight of the evening was, from the start, inevitable. It always shocks me how quite suddenly Handel raises the emotional temperature in the Second Act of Rinaldo. Expecting, as Argante declares his love for her, for Almirena to launch into an aria of some fury, instead Handel writes one of his most beautiful arias ever – Lascia ch’io piangia. It might be somewhat common hackney’d but sung with such conviction and dramatic intensity as it was by Christina Landshamer at Glyndebourne and I am sure it wasn’t only me and my immediate neighbour who shed a tear.

And her bright soprano was a perfect foil not only to the Gauvin of Armida but also her beau, their voices melding perfectly in their duets. Her opening Combatti a forte immediately displayed that her lively voice was solidly grounded on strong technique, and the grace and delicacy of Augelletti che cantata was delightful while she confidently faced-off the inherent difficulties of Bel piacere e godere with aplomb.

Joshua Hopkins’ Argante found the perfect balance of arrogant king and – I am sure it was intended – pantomime villain. Vocally I would have preferred slightly more depth and darkness to his voice but it was a strong and well-defined performance.

Sadly, it’s difficult not to compare the other countertenors in the cast – Tim Mead, Anthony Roth Costanzo and James Laing – with the hero of the title. Tim Mead, who is Eustazio in the excellent DVD of the 2011 production and one of the only saving graces of ENO’s Giulio Cesare debacle, displayed secure technique and a honeyed tone, however first night nerves perhaps led to some untidy passage work and there were times when his voice didn’t project crisply enough. The same challenge faced the Eustazio of Anthony Roth Costanzo. It took a while for him to settle but he has a clear, bright voice and a real control of dynamic range which came beautifully to the fore in Siam prossimi al porto. Definitely a singer to watch in the future. Sadly James Laing was ill-suited to the role of the Magus. His voice was too thin and perhaps he invested too much in caricature and not his vocal performance.

And under the energetic direction of Ottavio Dantone it was hard to believe that this opera was Handel’s first opera he composed for London. There was an authority in his interpretation – not only in terms of tempo but also in the range of colours he brought out – that spoke volumes of his love of the music.

I know that Robert Carsen’s approach doesn’t please everyone, but personally I have always found his direction fresh and thought provoking.

And Rinaldo is no different, and he demonstrated the same attention to detail that have made his Carmelites and FroSch so memorable.

Here, he retold the story in a school and it was perfectly logical. Where else are the conflicts of both in love and rivalry more intense – and more keenly felt – than in the playground among emotionally-overwrought teenagers? And let’s face it, which of us when at school didn’t daydream in class about the demise of either a classroom rival or teacher?

And it was all beautifully observed and directed in revival by Bruno Ravella. Be it the gaucheness of a playground crush, the awkwardness of burgeoning friendships and even the sense of competitiveness. And perhaps I was the only one, but did I spy a series of hommages – intentional or not – to films as wide-ranging as ET, St Trinians and dare I say it, Harry Potter?

And the sets themselves never overwhelmed the narrative but seamlessly enabled the story to flow with a smart use not only of the stage but simple animation. And I can’t think of another opera where football has played such a seminal role.

And it is a rare director indeed who can manage to inject a sense of humour into Handel without it coming crashing down. But the deft way that Carsen delineated the characters, portraying them with sharply edged lines, enabled him to find that perfect balance of ‘fast and funny’ – slapstick almost – with duty and love.

In many ways, Carsen delivered the most cinematically-realised production of Handel I have seen without interfering with Handel’s incredible music once.

And with an incredible cast or singers and performers, it worked beautifully.

Tallis By Triptych

In Classical Music, Review on July 31, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Review: Thomas Tallis (Wanamaker Theatre, Sunday 27 July 2014)

Thomas Tallis/Dr Dee – Brendan O’Hea
Henry VIII/Priest – Simon Harrison
Elizabeth I/Queen Catherine/Mrs Prest – Susie Trayling

Kirsty Hopkins (Soprano)
Alexandra Kidgell (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Jeremy Budd (Tenor)
Tom Raskin (Tenor)
Ben Davies (Bass)

Director – Adele Thomas
Designer – Hannah Clark

Jessica Swale (Playwright)

The Wanamaker Theatre is making a name for itself in terms of some original productions.

Earlier this year I enjoyed their production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and I will be returning to listen to Trevor Pinnock celebrate the life of JS and CPE Bach in a few weeks and next year a dramatization of the life of Farinelli.

On this occasion, playwright Jessica Swale teamed up with members of The Sixteen to recount the life of Thomas Tallis. Almost like a triptych, Swale recounted his life under four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I. For each he wrote music that underlined their own beliefs in the role of music in religion and court.

But incredibly little is known of the man himself and Swale’s play combined – at times fanciful – theatre and Tallis’ music. Although economically done, there were moments of real magic. The realization of Edward VI’s single melody religious music was smartly done using the theatre’s own corridors for example. The end, with its evocation of the crucifixation, was also atmospheric and only slightly ruined – for me at least – by the appearance of someone more suited to Aladdin that Elizabethan England. The strange juxtaposition of period costume and anonymous soldiers in modern garb jarred slightly and I can only imagine was due to limited budget and the fact that halberds are slightly too dangerous to carry in such an enclosed space.

As we know so little about Tallis, Brendan O’Hea’s portrayal was both confident and assured but it was Simon Harrison who held the stage more brightly, bringing a tense and sensual allure to Henry VII and an almost righteous anger to the Priest of Waltham Abbey.

Sadly, the handling of the music was, ultimately, less than effective. A shaky start exposed how difficult Tallis’ music is to perform with both fluidity and grace, and in the very dry acoustic of this theatre the music suffered. Also I think too much emphasis was placed on fully integrating the music into the drama, using the stage and spaces of the theatre simply because they were. Perhaps it would be been more effective to have increased the number of singers and positioned them in the gallery space above the stage? From there they could still have provided the much-needed commentary to stich the play together but also more importantly provided much needed vocal opulence and depth. Additionally, more attention was needed with regards to dynamics and shaping Tallis’ lines and while the selections were varied, they never felt truly representative of Tallis’ prodigious talent.

And also interestingly, no mention of Tallis’ seminal relationship with Wiliam Byrd.

By the end, Swales’ Thomas Tallis felt unfinished. Despite occasional moments, this felt more like a canter through Tudor history than the exposition of one of the period’s greatest composers.

Welsh Exodus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Review – Moses und Aron (Welsh National Opera, Covent Garden, Saturday 26 July 2014)

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell

Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

I never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have struck a deal to bring one of their productions to Covent Garden.

I hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera House continues and it was a bold choice to bring Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to London.

Incomplete and originally conceived as an oratorio, Moses und Aron was composed in twelve-tone technique, a system invented by Schoenberg as a personal resolution to the move towards atonality. However while some people are put off by the mere thought of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg’s opera is a remarkable work.

Schoenberg was not an instinctive opera composer and many think that dodecaphony lends itself more to music of intellectual vigour than an emotional response.

This performance of Moses und Aron helped disperse this belief slightly.

The Second Act – and particularly the opening with its contrapuntal intricacy – is both dramatic and musically impressive. Personally – and I don’t only mean in this production – the infamous “orgy” scene could have done with a bit of a trim in the original score, but the desolation of the ending holds a tantalizing promise of what Schoenberg might have had in his head for the final act.

However it isn’t Moses who has the most exciting music. It’s Aron. And Rainer Trost found a lyricism in the vocal line, and at times it seemed drew an almost deliberate parallel with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. Despite a slight strain at the top of his range – and I believe this has more to do with Schoenberg’s ‘unsympathetic ear’ when it comes to vocal writing – there was a purity of tone and an eloquence and clear sense of diction in Trost’s performance that was mesmerizing.

As Moses, John Tomlinson inhabited the role, creating a real sense of Moses as a person. Even when not singing, he dominated the stage – from before the music started in fact. On occasion slipping more into speech than the vocal line required, there was no denying the power of Tomlinson’s performance. And the pathos he brought to the closing scene was incredibly powerful.

Of the multitude of smaller roles, Elizabeth Atherton stood out with a clear bright soprano both as the Young Maiden, and in the Second Act as one of the quartet of Naked Virgins.

In the pit, Lothar Koenigs shone a light not only of the lyricism but also the sensuousness of much of the music. Where some conductors might have labored the twelve-note row in an attempt to being a sense of inner architecture to the music, Koenigs’ interpretation focused on the entire sweep of the two acts. And the WNO Orchestra responded with some very fine playing. Under his baton, a real sense of transparency was maintained throughout, and the players drew out the wide-range of colours and details within Schoenberg’s score.

But as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, performing with a confidence and clarity that was incredible.

The production was a mixed experience. I struggle with the concept of any production starting with an open set. Here – with John Tomlinson standing at a window – it seemed far too long. So great was the time between his appearance and the music starting that any dramatic impact was lost.

The one-set-fits-all approach can work – and it almost did here. However, with current events in Gaza, the idea that the opera opened in a room more destined for peace negotiations was slightly unsettling.

But it was in the Second Act that the production came undone. Clearly it’s always difficult to realize something like an orgy on stage – although McVicar manages it quite well in Rigoletto – but here any sense of the destruction of law and order, of licentiousness, was lost with Wieler and Morabito’s idea of having the chorus watch an imaginary film. It wasn’t so much the idea but rather it was too static for too long – again like Tomlinson’s appearance at the beginning of the opera. However, what made matters worse was having the chorus – and I wonder how it was sold to them in rehearsals – indulge in acts of sexual depravity which – quite frankly – was more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. And potentially with the neighbours. Excruciating.

At the precise moment I wished Schoenberg has kept to his original intention of making it an oratorio.

However despite the weakness of the production itself, the daring of bringing this opera to the stage, and the level of music making both in the pit, among the soloists and in the chorus was a triumph.

Sadly I think it is too much to ask for Moses und Aron to remain in WNO’s repertory except perhaps if they revive it with the complete Third Act as composed by Zoltán Kocsis?

Well worth a personal exodus to Cardiff for that.

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