lietofinelondon

A masterclass Masterclass

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 16, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Review – Joyce DiDonato Spotlight Masterclass (Milton Court Hall, Wednesday 15 April 2015)

It’s rare to come away from a masterclass feeling that – as a non-singer – I have learned something other than the importance of the technique required by singers. But Joyce DiDonato’s masterclass, as part of her highly successful residency at the Barbican, was one of those rare occasions where you it felt less like a ‘lesson’ than watching a conversation.

And above all, it felt like a complete privilege.

I readily admit I am a massive fan of Joyce DiDonato – both of the performances themselves and the great joy and wonder that she communicates when singing. And during the masterclass, not only was that joy and wonder ever present, but both also true sense of humility at the gift she possesses as well as the hard work and hardship that singers must endure.

It must be daunting for young singers to participate in any masterclass but all four – Francesca Chiejina, Dominic Sedgwick, Alison Langer and last minute replacement Eliza Safjan – took the occasion in their stride.

With each and everyone, Joyce DiDonato achieved immediate and noticeably positive results regardless of the fact that they weren’t all in her specific Fach. For each young singer, she offered advice that was a combination of technique, character interpretation and often through creative visualization. For example, when talking of breath control with Dominic Sedgwick and Eliza Safjan. With the baritone it was how breath control would enable a smoother legato, even in the recitative of Mozart’s Hai gia vinto la causa. With Ms Safjan, it was about the relationship between dynamics and breath control that saw immediate results with Adina’s aria Prendi per me sei libero from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.

With both Ms Safjan and Alison Langer’s Gilda, DiDonato also discussed the words themselves– not only the meaning but also the context. This enabled both singers to bring their performances more to life. This was particularly evident in Langer’s Caro nome when Ms DiDonato had the soprano sing the aria as if trying to convince a skeptical friend. It brought a whole new dimension to the performance and I have to wonder how long it will be before we see Caro nome as a conversation on stage somewhere. It could be highly effective.

But above all Joyce DiDonato also discussed the importance of taking risks. And the most interesting and insightful discussion on this happened with the most memorable singer, Francesca Chiejina. This young soprano has the most amazing voice – rich, warm, even through it’s range and matched with very strong technique. Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi mi dice mai is clearly an aria close to Joyce DiDonato’s own heart and at Milton Court her discussion of the aria with Francesca paid incredible dividends. A discussion of context, the words and the vocal line that Mozart had written, revealed not only the mastery of Mozart’s ability to create a flesh and blood character through the music, but also Joyce DiDonato’s ability to reveal it to both singer and audience. In the first section of the masterclass, the two singers discussed motivation as well as the musical requirements of this aria, and DiDonato was able to coax Francesca Chiejina out of her comfort zone and transform her first rendition of the aria – impressive and solid as it was – into the kernel of Chiejina’s own interpretation of one of Mozart’s most famous heroines.

It was nothing short of revelatory and I have no doubt that Francesca Chiejina has a remarkable career ahead of her.

And a special note of thanks to the two pianists – Dylan Perez and Harry Sever. Their playing was exemplary.

Surprisingly, two hours zipped past without anyone noticing and at the end Ms DiDonato took some questions from singers in the audience. At no point during this session, did she sugar coat her answers – indeed, her honesty was refreshing. But it was the final question that summed it up for me. What’s at the centre of Joyce DiDonato’s being? What keeps her going?

Music. And with a passion, commitment and talent such as hers – and all three she shares so selflessly – I do believe music could change the world for the better.

Cara il dolce London Bach

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

Review – Adriano in Siria (Mozart 250, Britten Theatre, Tuesday 14 April 2015)

Adriano – Rowan Hellier
Emirena – Ellie Laugharne
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Filipa van Eck
Osroa – Stuart Jackson
Aquilio – Nick Pritchard

Director – Thomas Guthrie
Designer – Rhys Jarman
Lighting Designer – Katherine Williams

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

A recording of JC Bach’s Opus 3 symphonies was – together with Dittersdorf’s Doktor und Apotheker – the very first album I bought. And it was in a dusty second-hand record shop that I began my life-long love of JC Bach. From my adolescence, whenever Mozart was mentioned I would pipe up about JC Bach’s influence. Since then I have picked up whatever recordings I could find but I have to admit that Classical Opera’s staging of Adriano in Siria is the first time I have seen a complete performance of an opera by the London Bach.

I admit it, Eighteen Century opera seria might not be to everyone’s taste – the perception of endless da capo arias, the perception of a lack of characterisation and of course the perception that the stories themselves are beyond incredulous. However, anyone who has read Martha Feldman’s excellent Opera and Sovereignty will realise not only the important role opera seria played then but also – I hope – recognize that some of the values portrayed then remain relevant.

Adriano in Siria is in some ways, atypical, of the norm. By 1765, JC Bach had realised that the genre needed ‘modifying’ and therefore this opera contains few choruses and many a deliberately abridged da capo aria and therefore I am glad that Classical Opera performed the opera with barely any cuts.

Overall, the opera offers the full range of seria arias, each demonstrating that JC Bach was a skilled and sensitive opera composer. It is not surprising that Cara il dolce fiamma has proved enduringly popular – it epitomises not only Bach’s own operatic style but, I think, the genre in that period which laid the foundations for Mozart’s own adventures in opera seria.

However I do have one small gripe. At a time when you can’t throw a score of a not-performed-for-over-two-hundred-years opera without hitting a countertenor, why wasn’t there one in the cast? Personally I felt it was a shame but overall it was a valiant effort. While not all the singers were quite suited to their roles, there was no doubting their musicianship and commitment.

Disperato, in mar turbato is a fiendishly difficult opening aria for any singer, but despite a less than confident start, Erica Eloff carried off the role of Farnaspe with some brilliance. Without a doubt Cara la dolce fiamma – which so impressed Mozart – was the highlight of the event, and Ms Eloff sang it with great elegance and sensitivity, but her performances of Dopo un tuo sguardo and Son sventurato, ma pure – where she sailed through Bach’s vocal lines with ease, demonstrated that she is a talent singer with a natural affinity with music of this period. As her beloved, Ellie Laugharne didn’t sound consistently confortable with Emirena’s music, stretched at the top of her range and with uneven moments in terms of her coloratura and maintaining a smooth legato line. However, there was no doubting her sincerity in the scena Ah, come mi balza … Deh, lascia, o ciel, pietoso.

The other star-crossed lovers fared less well. Rowan Hellier’s Adriano again got off to a less than confident start with cloudy and inconsistent singing in her opening Dal labbro, che t’accende but she fared better in the declamatory Tutti nemici, e rei. Sadly, the Sabina of Filipa van Eck was not ideally cast. Again there was no doubting her technique or investment in the role but her voice – at times overly strident and strained – was not suited to JC Bach’s music.

The Osroa of Stuart Jackson was, apart from Eloff’s Farnaspe, the most characterful performance. In possession of a light yet secure tenor, he tackled both his main metaphor arias – Sprezza il furor del vento and Leon piagato a morte – with both confidence and the regal gravitas. And finally Nick Pritchard waited patiently to deliver his single aria with impassioned gusto.

The production itself – led by Thomas Guthrie – was simple, smart and very effective. It conjured a Romanesque “Siria” up perfectly with more than a nod of inspiration to a classical staging, and I particularly liked the effective use of both lighting and silhouetted backdrops. However, and this is purely personal, I would have dispensed with the origami birds and perhaps reduced the number of extra people on the stage but this aside, it seems that the Britten Theatre inspires a more than usual thoughtful approach.

As ever, Ian Page conducted the opera with instinctive authority with well-judged speeds and in the main not overly ambitious ornamentation in the da capos. Recitatives were well balanced and Page also reveled in the sound world that the London Bach, however simple, wove into the score. In 1765, clarinets would still have been something of a novelty and his use of them – providing a sense of warmth to underline the passions at play – clearly influenced Mozart in his own operas.

I know that Mozart 250 will need to mainly focus on Wolfgang Amadeus, but this was a bold inclusion. I really do hope that we will see more JC Bach – as well as other contemporaries – during the rest of their ambitious project.

By Giove

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 30, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Review – Giove in Argo (London Handel Festival, Britten Theatre, Thursday 26 March 2015)

Liacone – Timothy Connor
Diana – He Wu
Iside – Kezia Bienek
Arete – Gyula Rab
Calisto – Galina Averna
Erasto/Osiri – Timothy Nelson
Chorus – Tara Austin, Katie Coventry, James Davies, Sarah Hayashi, Catriona Hewitson, Polly Leech, Julian van Mellaerts & Joel Williams

Director – James Bonas
Designer – Molly Einchcomb
Lighting Designer – Rob Casey
Choreographer – Ewan Jones

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

It’s refreshing that you don’t have to rely on Covent Garden or English National Opera for performances of Handel operas, especially when they are performed with a consistency both of singing and staging that would put some productions at the bigger houses to shame.

Giove in Argo was written – or rather pulled together – during the final throes of Handel’s operatic career in London and his burgeoning move into English oratorio. None of the arias was newly composed for Giove, but rather lifted from other operas but even the richness of the arias themselves could stop Giove ultimately being a failure.

A shame as – despite its provenance – it’s a compelling opera especially when performed and staged so excellently by the London Handel Festival.

I saw the ‘second’ cast on the final night and overall the quality of their singing and interpretation was of a very high standard. Gyula Rab, in his final year at the Royal College of Music, definitely has a promising career ahead of him. His Arete – Giove in disguise – was both well-sung and acted. His tenor might be slightly heavier than you would expect in Handel but the warmth and depth of his tone – beautifully evident in Deh! V’aprite, O luci belle – was coupled with both impressive range and a vocal flexibility that made light work of Semplicetto! A donna credi? and Sempre dolci ed amorose. However, I would caution that like the rest of the cast, his returning da capos showed a lack of restraint in their often over ambitious ornamentation.

As Iside, the first of his two amours, Kezie Bienek is also destined for a promising career, with a mezzo that is burnished and darkly hued but with an impressive top and an agility that suits this music well. Her ‘mad scene’ was smartly tempered and shaded and also demonstrated that she is an accomplished actress. As her spouse, Timothy Nelson’s Erasto was equally impressive. Sporting a resonant and rich bass, he made much of what was – admittedly – not great Handel.

Galina Averina reveled in the role of Calisto. Her bright soprano made light work of the quicker numbers such as Lascia la spina and Combattuta da più venti and a very respectable Tornami a vagheggiar. But it was in the her slower numbers, Già sai che l’usignol cantando geme and in particular Ah! Non son io che parlo that she married it with a depth and weight that made the latter aria the highlight of the evening. And finally, having admired He Wu’s Queen of the Night previously at the RCM, I have to admit I was disappointed with her Diana. A distracting vibrato distracted in Handel’s glorious Ingannarmi, cara speranza and wayward intonation and troubled coloratura marred In braccio al tuo spavento.

Giove in Argo is unusual in having more than the usual number of choruses, but this production was blessed with a chorus that not only sang wonderfully but fully embraced their parts and acted wonderfully as well. From their opening chorus, through the cleverly directed Viver, e non amar to the sonorous S’unisce al tuo martir, these eight singers were an object lesson in clear, handsomely articulated singing.

James Bonas’ Argo might not have been an Arcadian paradise but this was a well-thought out and cleverly observed production, which must be commended for creating a convincing setting with minimal materials. His was a world, in many ways of both violence and brutality. The ‘trees’ of metal scaffolding, as well as affording the singers and chorus with ample climbing opportunities, underlined this harsh world as did the Samurai-inspired themed costumes for both chorus and Diana. Indeed, in many ways, Bonas’ approach reminded me of McVicar’s Clemenza di Tito for ENO many years ago. I noticed in the programme that he will be directing ETO’s Tales of Hoffman and I will be interested to see what his vision is for Offenbach’s opera.

The London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings were, as ever, brilliant. From the opening notes of the overture to the final chorus, Cummings led singers and orchestra with authority that made me wish that more complete and staged operas could be offered during this exceptional festival.

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