Donizetti alla Francese

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Review – Les Martyrs (Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 4 November 2014)

Polyeucte – Michael Spyres
Pauline – Joyce Al-Khoury
Sèvere – David Kempster
Félix – Brindley Sherratt
Callisthènes – Clive Bayley
Néarque – Wynne Evans
Une Femme – Rosalind Waters
Un Chrétien – Simon Preece

Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

Les Martyrs – originally Poliuto and the result of over-zealous censors – is a curious hybrid. It’s a very Italian opera restrained by the corset of grand French opera.

A combination of some thrilling ensembles, dark orchestral hues and unique instrumentation – ophicleide anyone? – Les Martyrs takes a while to warm up. The first two acts canter along sedately, if not with any sense of true excitement, and it isn’t until the third act that a real sense of Donizettian drama unfolds. A duet followed by an impassioned tenor aria and a final sextet for all the major protagonists is the highlight of this opera. Indeed, that dramatic momentum eases off considerably in the final act, and even the closing scene, with lions getting ready to pounce, doesn’t thrill as much.

Indeed, ultimately for me Les Martyrs seems to lack any real sense of character or depth.

So, on paper it shouldn’t work – it is hardly one of Donizetti’s finer tragedies – but by dint of the commitment of everyone on stage, it does.

And towering over the entire performance, was the passion, conviction and – when required – delicate caress of Sir Mark Elder. From the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment he evoked with great skill the unique sound world that Donizetti wrote into the score, and from the singers, some incredible performances.

Michael Spyres was more than an adequate replacement for Bryan Hymel. His French – as with all the singers – was excellent and his tenor while light and supple didn’t blanch in the more ambitious and – in some ways – vocally tortuous moments. However I remain to be convinced by the – almost unnaturally sounding – note he hit in his confidently executed cabaletta.

As Pauline, Joyce Al-Khoury took a while to settle into the role. She has a unique vocal timbre that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but coupled with formidable technique including the ability to float high notes confidence, she made a compelling case for the estranged-cum-converted wife. Her vocal fireworks at the end of the First Act were rightly cheered, although I did think that in later ensembles her voice was too forced. But at no point were her interpretive skills in question.

It seemed unusual to me that there were no other female roles – reminding me of Dom Sébastian, also written for Paris towards the end of his career and also available on Opera Rara – but the remaining roles were well covered. Brindley Sherratt, David Kempster and Clive Bayley– as Félix, Sèvere and Callisthènes respectively were all vocally strong, each finding some fine moments of vocal nuance within their roles, although I did perceive moments of strain with David Kempster. Wynne Evans’ Néarque was perhaps the weakest link in the ensemble. Some troubling vibrato – particularly at the beginning – was coupled with some one-dimensional singing, made this Christian more cipher than heroic martyr.

And, drawn from the Opera Rara Chorus, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece both gave committed performances.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their usual verve and spirit – they are never anything less than a joy to hear and to watch.

Ultimately Les Martyrs, his first French grand opera, feels more like an interesting experiment than a fully formed work. Perhaps if Donizetti had had more time, or perhaps returned and revised it whenhe returned to Paris –alongside Dom Sébastian – it might have been something more substantial.

But Opera Rara are to be commended for reviving the work with Elder and the OAE and I look forward to Le duc D’Albe in 2015.

Mozart. Thwarted.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Review – Idomeneo (Royal Opera House, Monday 3 November 2014)

Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
The Voice – Graeme Broadbent
Cretans – Tamsin Coombs, Louise Armit, Andrew O’Connor & John Bernays

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Designs – Annette Murschetz
Costume Designs – Heide Kastler
Lighting Design – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg – Olaf A Schmitt

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

In a recent interview in The Times, director Martin Kušej – clearly attempting to annoint himself the enfant terrible of opera – commented that “with knowledge, respect — and with some freedom — we could really bring [opera] out of the 19th century”.

But take it where?

Judging from the new production of Idomeneo for Covent Garden, Kušej has dragged the genre kicking and screaming to the director’s equivalent of an abbatoir and taken a huge, bloody knife to its throat.

I have no problems with a modern approach to opera – I didn’t object to Kušej’s Forza in Munich, and other productions have been both challenging and immensely enjoyable. But this production of Idomeneo showed scant appreciation of Mozart’s opera or indeed any understanding of its provenance.

But a production is made more tolerable if the singing and the musicianship is of a high standard. Sadly, and despite the impressive line-up, I didn’t think that overall, it passed muster.

However plaudits must go most certainly to Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani as Ilia and Idomeneo. Having enjoyed her Sophie, as the Trojan Princess, Ms Bevan once again demonstrated that she possesses a beautifully bright, light and flexible soprano that was perfectly suited for this role. And she combined a natural talent for Mozart with a real sense of characterization. Padre, germani, addio! caught the conflict that she felt and while Minkowski to Zeffiretti lusinghieri far too fast – where the zephyrs would have not so much caressed as buffeted any young lover – her technique allowed her to negotiate the rapid passages while conveying her love for Idamante.

As the Cretan King, Polenzani once again demonstrated his agile, richly timbred voice. Fuor del mar was thrilling, especially the da capo, and the cavatina with chorus, Accogli, o re del mar was spun with great delicacy.

Special mention too of the Arbace of Stanislas de Barbeyrac – who rightly received one of the loudest cheers at the end. I won’t even begin to fathom why he was dressed like an accordion-carrying-rambler, but his aria – with gently floated dynamics – made for a promising debut.

I am always in two minds about Franco Fagioli. There is no doubting that he has incredible technique and an impressive range, however, I was not wholly convinced by his Idamante. While he was relatively sweet-toned throughout the evening, here was a distinct lack of diction – as if he was swallowing his words rather than projecting them.

Similarly, I am not sure – after such a strong performance most recently as Donna Anna – if Elettra is a suitable role for Malin Byström. Sure enough – and despite some lack of co-ordination with the pit – Ms Byström could channel the vocal fury of the scorned princess, but she simply sounded vocally stressed in Placido è il mar.

In the pit, apart from a few faster-than-expected tempi, Minkowski brought to life the rhythmic verve and highlighted much of the orchestras detail within the score – especially in the ballet music. And while I was not always convinced by the exuberance of the continuo playing, it wasn’t as distracting as some I have heard.

But ultimately it was the production that dragged down this Idomeneo. This opera was written for a ducal court influenced by Enlightenment principles. The libretto reflected the idea of conflicted yet benign sovereignty and ultimately a burgeoning new balance in the order of things. I don’t dispute that the opera can be read in many different ways – but his vision of unremitting thuggery and violence simply isn’t in either the text or in the music.

What Kušej gave us was, quite literally, like shooting fish in a Personregie-barrel. Men rushing around carrying machine guns. Men in underpants being abused. Men dressed rockers. A pantomime High Priest. Children dressed in what can only be described as gym kit. Children carry guns. Fish. And even a shark. The only alleviation from the inanity of it all was the revolving set and what little characterization played out by the singers seemed to be of their own making – and mostly one dimensional.

I also didn’t buy his line about the ballet music only being “partially interesting”. Because, in reality his series of tableaux spoke more eloquently that the anything that preceded it. The enduring image that the “new order” was tainted, that the new generation would repeat the mistakes of the previous generation struck home was actually quite powerful.

It’s just a shame that his sense of narrative didn’t extend to the opera itself.

I Due Domingi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on October 28, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Review – Il due Foscari (Royal Opera House Live, Monday 27 October 2014)

Francesco Foscari – Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari – Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini – Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano – Maurizio Muraro
Barbarigo – Samuel Sakker
Pisana – Rachel Kelly
Fante – Lee Hickenbottom

Director – Thaddeus Strassberger
Set Designs – Kevin Knight
Costume Designs – Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Director)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

While you can’t fault Domingo’s commitment in the role of Francesco Foscari, I am still unconvinced – after I due Foscari – of his aspirations as a baritone.

There, I said it.

In terms of characterization, he has – as he said in the interval interview snippets with Pappano – a whole career of singing tenor roles, seeing these characters from a different perspective, which enables to him bring real depth and insight when playing these roles. And his Francesco, in terms of stage presence – and even real tears I would hazard – was compelling. Domingo caught almost to perfection the conflict of Doge and father and at the end, of a man defeated by both cruel fate and age.

But vocally it was a different manner. As with his recital of Verdi arias for baritone released last year, it wasn’t that his performance wasn’t musical. It was. Each and every phrase beautifully crafted and intelligently sung. What was missing wasn’t so much heft – although there were times when he seemed lost amid the other singers and the orchestra – but timbre and resonance. Of authority. And yet ultimately of course, it didn’t matter. The musicianship, the characterization overcame the vocal limitations.

However of the two other main cast members, there was no sense of any limitation. Maria Agresta as Lucrezia Contarini – was simply magnificent. She didn’t so much tackle the vocal demands of the role as dominated them. Her soprano – with an appealing hard edge when she chose to deploy it – gleamed and shone in Verdi’s music. Vocally impressive as she was when full of fury or castigating her peers or in her formidable duet with her father in law, it was in the more tender moments that she demonstrated that she is a true Verdi soprano. Her preghieraTu al chi sguardo onnipossente – was achingly sung and during the duet with her husband in the Second Act, time itself seemed to stand still. It was an incredible debut at Covent Garden and while I admit that I very rarely travel abroad for Verdi, for Maria Agresta I will be booking flights and hotels.

As her husband, Francesco Meli was as impressive. One criticism I often have of tenors in this repertoire is that they cannot always find the shade – as well as the light – in their singing. Not so with Signor Meli. From his opening aria until his final ‘addio’, he delivered a performance that was both beautifully nuanced and totally committed.

It’s a shame that these three characters dominated I due Foscari but all the smaller roles – led by the Jacopo Loredano of Maurizio Muraro contributed to a vocally strong evening.

In the pit, Pappano demonstrated impeccable Verdian credentials. He seemed to be conducting as if his life depended on it. But as well as the brute force the Verdi wrote into the score from the beginning, Pappano ensured that the Royal Opera House Orchestra found the right tinta for the more intimate moments of the opera. And similarly, the chorus delivered their usual high standards of precision and passionate singing.

Together with Glare – which I will be seeing in a few weeks – this was Thaddeus Strassberger’s debut at Covent Garden. His CV is impressive and on the whole, his vision for this opera was impressive. He did capture – together with Kevin Knight – not only the darker side of Venice, but any one who has been there – as I have – will have smiled when the flood-boards made an appearance. However it was a shame that Strassberger resorted to a hackney’d device for no reason that I could – pardon the pun – fathom. From her first appearance, Lucrezia Contarini isn’t so much determined to prove her husband’s innocence, but rather would rather see him die that have him exiled. Then why, when he is dead, does she go mad and then drown her (eldest) son in a puddle. Seeing this proud and brave woman reduced to insanity, didn’t add to the tragedy, but deflected from it unnecessarily. It was almost as if – having avoid cliché from the start – Strassberger felt obliged to throw one in at the end.

A shame.

I hope that when it returns – and with any luck alongside Herheim’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes – that Maria Agresta and Francesco Meli will return along with a true baritone.

However, as with my ever-so-slight reservations of Domingo’s baritonal aspirations, the slightly marred ending did nothing to reduce my overall enjoyment of this production.

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