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Perfectly Don

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on June 21, 2016 at 6:16 am

Review – Don Giovanni (Classical Opera, Cadogan Opera, Friday 17 June 2016)

Don Giovanni – Jacques Imbrailo
Leporello – David Soar
Donna Anna – Ana Maria Labin
Don Ottavio – Stuart Jackson
Donna Elvira – Helen Sharman
Zerlina – Ellie Laugharne
Masetto – Bradley Travis
Commendatore – David Shipley

The Philharmonia Chorus
The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Mozart’s later operas are ensemble affairs. Of course he wrote stunning and psychologically insightful music for each protagonist, but it is in the ensembles that the music really comes alive. And I don’t only mean in Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro but also Clemenza and Die Zauberflöte as well.

But it is in Don Giovanni – dare I say his greatest late opera – that the ensembles are truly magnificent. Not only defining the characters but literally driving the drama forward almost as if jet-propelled.

And all credit to Ian Page, Classical Opera and the eight performers that this was truly an ensemble performance. With the exception of a rather speedy La ci darem la mano, the arias were all performed beautifully – so beautifully in fact that I can (almost) forgive Mr Page for his purist approach and not giving us Mi tradi. But it was in the ensembles that the evening took on an even greater dramatic frisson that at the end of each act was palpable.

Page directed an energetic and colourful performance from the orchestra – the first notes of the overture, with the surprisingly timpani sound eradicated any risk of an ‘end of the week’ feeling in the audience. The woodwind in Madamina, il catalogo è questo buzzed over energetic string playing which was throughout meticulous and the brass barked threateningly both in the overture and in the final scene.

As Don Giovanni, Jacques Imbrailo might have been slightly too light vocally but what he didn’t have in total heft and the occasional wandering tonality in the occasional recitative he made up for with a strong and underlying threatening characterization and a deft way of singing the vocal line. And while David Soar relished this Leporello, never missing a beat, it was good to see Bradley Travis reprise a vocally strong Masetto in a stronger production that the recent one by ETO. Stuart Jackson, a regular performer for Classical Opera, performed a vocally impressive Don Ottavio – performing a confident and fluid Il mio tesoro, As the Commendatore, David Shipley rounded off an overall impressive cadre of men.

Ana Maria Labin led an equally strong line up of women, her bright and shining soprano demonstrating equally impressive flexibility. Non mi dir, bell’idol bio rightly got the loudest cheer from the audience.. The Donna Elvira of Helen Sharman was vocally distinctive from her noble counterpart, rich and seamless but occasionally slightly marred by distracting vibrato. But personally, I would have enjoyed to see her bring her dramatic talents to Mi trade. Ellie Laugharne’s Zerlina was suitably coquettish in both Batti, Batti and Vedrai Carino, although occasionally sharp in at the top of her range.

This wasn’t part of Classical Opera’s ambitious Mozart 250 project but it did reinforce what everyone at Cadogan Hall already knew. Ian Page and his ensemble are consummate Mozartians.

Can we hope that, having performed Don Giovanni in concert now, when it returns in a few years time it will be fully staged? I hope so, but regardless of how it does return, expectations from the remaining da Ponte operas will be very high indeed.

Classical Opera won’t disappoint.

Deathly Hollow

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on June 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Review – Tristan and Isolde (English National Opera, Thursday 9 June 2016)

Tristan – Stuart Skelton
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Karen Cargill
Kurwenal – Craig Colcough
King Marke – Matthew Rose
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Young Sailor – David Webb
A Shepherd – Peter Van Hulle
A Helmsman – Paul Sheehan

Director – Daniel Kramer
Set Designer – Anish Kapoor
Justin Nardella – Associate Set Designer
Christina Cunningham – Costume Designer
Paul Anderson – Lighting Designer
Freider Weiss – Video Designer

Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s hard not to be incredibly disappointed by ENO’s new production of Tristan und Isolde on every front except one – the magnificent playing of the orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. His tempos weren’t always convincing but the opening prelude – and the singing of David Webb as the Young Sailor from on high – set up a sense of expectation that was dashed like a ship trying to negotiate entry to Kareol.

Everything else – the confused staging, the poor direction and overall, the quality of the singing, just left a great empty hole which even Wagner’s music couldn’t fill.

Arguably, Tristan and Isolde are two of the biggest roles in opera and ultimately the two leads, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton, did not deliver. As Tristan, Skelton sounded mostly vocally under-powered and musically distant in the First Act. While he improved in the Second Act, he was hampered both by lacklustre direction and having to negotiate the set and in the Third Act he sounded vocally strained and at times literally ragged. Ms Melton was sadly wholly unconvincing. Vocally, this was much more than just a stretch and she sounded severely compromised at the higher end of her range. Top notes seemed only to be achieved through sheer physical effort and jarred Wagner’s vocal line. The resultant stress and strain then created a sound that was often harsh and unappealing – the greatest shame being the strangled final notes that sank below the lush, luminous sound of the orchestra’s closing bars. Personally I don’t think that this role is suited to her voice and in the long term could actually do some damage. Her acting was similarly under-developed.

In the supporting roles, Matthew Rose made an uneasy start but steadied quickly. Karen Cargill delivered a rich and mainly nuanced performance although there was at times a worrying amount of vibrato. Colin Colclough’s Kurwenal was also vocally strong but marred but a characterisation that – like the rest of the production – betrayed the opera itself.

And what of the production? Anish Kapoor has clearly researched previous productions of Wagner operas – from Wieland to the present day. Fused with his own previous work it just created a lack of coherence. The set for Act One was visually arresting, smartly creating both the idea of a ship as well as the distance between the two protagonists, but I did wonder about sight lines issues and the clumsy management of the two lovers once the potion had been drunk. The Second Act presented its own problems. Having the singers clamber around destroyed any sense of intimacy or – let’s face it – eroticism, and I would imagine that quite a few in the audience became distracted by the lightshow. And what were they clambering around? The moon? Their imagination? Or did King Marke really have an ugly grotto in his forest? Who knows and by that point did anyone care. The sudden appearance of surgeons and hospital beds upon their discovery by Marke felt contrived – a need to create a sense of sudden and unrelated drama. The final act – again relying on animation as distraction became tiresome and lacked any sense of dramatic impact.

As this production trudged inexorably it wasn’t helped by Kramer’s direction – or general lack of it as evidence by a reliance on stock dramatic gestures. There were some well observed moments in the opening act, but overall Kramer leeched any emotional intensity or electricity from the stage. Isolde’s self-harming was an interesting insight but wasn’t developed except by the two leads smearing themselves in blood and I why Kurwenal’s brutality towards Brangäne? He is a squire if not a knight after all. Neither eroticism nor sensuality stood a chance in the Second Act and the drama of Tristan’s monologue was undermined by Kurwenal’s clowning.

In terms of the costumes the clash of styles was more suggestive of time bandits than timelessness. The Eighteenth Century inspiration for Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal – by way of the blockbuster Mockingjay series it seemed – contrasted with the oriental-inspired costuming for King Marke’s court, except for his doctors. Yet by the Third Act, time seemed to have moved on – the characters had been aged with the resultant loss or growth or grey hair. Tristan had the stamina to survive a mortal wound, and Isolde was rowing herself to his rescue.

Ultimately, this Tristan und Isolde failed to convince, impress or excite on any level but one – the orchestra and Edward Gardner. The singers were disadvantaged; the direction was devoid of dramatic intent and Kramer, unwittingly I hope, bleached this great love story of any emotion.

A tragedy? Yes, but in every wrong way.

 

Son-King

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2016 at 8:26 am

Review – Oedipe (Royal Opera House, Thursday 26 May 2016)

Oedipe – Johan Reuter
Jocasta – Sarah Connolly
Tirésias – John Tomlinson
Theban High Priest – Nicolas Courjal
Créon – Samuel Youn
Antigone – Sophie Bevan
Sphinx – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Merope – Claudia Huckle
Phorbas – In Sung Sim
Shepherd – Alan Oke
Laios – Hubert Francis
Thésée – Samuel Dale Johnson

Directors – Àlan Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer- Peter van Praet

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Leo Hussain (Conductor)

While history may be kinder to Kasper Holten, his tenure as Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House has been more of a miss than a hit. However, two productions that stand him in good stead of a more positive place in Covent Garden’s history are the superlative Król Roger a year ago and George Enescu’s Oedipe.

Oedipe is Enescu’s only opera and, from reading the programme, had a troubled and complex gestation. In four acts, and classified as a tragédie lyrique it tells the story of Oedipus from birth to death, or perhaps transfiguration. Musically there are hints from folksong to Debussy, passages of opulent lyricism contrasting with scenes more reminiscent of the Second Viennese School an attention to orchestral colour that makes this opera enthralling. Stylistically, the vocal writing is forged from similar sources, with the choral writing also hinting at traditional Orthodox church music.

It is also written for a larger than usual cast – fourteen generously listed in the programme and a significant role for the chorus. In the leading role as the tragic son and king was Johan Reuter, who made Oedipe a compelling and flawed but very human character. Vocally he was on top form, wonderfully radiant, shading his voice with a angel of colour to underline the range of emotions this tragic character had to endure. And as with the majority of the cast, his diction was excellent. But it was in the final act and in particular the closing scene, that Reuter was truly masterful – a performance that won’t be forgotten easily. As his mother and wife, Sarah Connolly matched him note for note, word for word, emotion for emotion. Ms Connolly seems to be making a name for herself playing tragic Greek queens – not that I am complaining. The agony of having her son torn from her in the first act was more than matched by the horror as she realized whom she had married. It was a shame that Enescu didn’t write more for the character, but what music she had, Connolly revelled in. Her rich mezzo was perfect for this music and she invested it with both vocal colour and depth.

Similarly, John Tomlinson – as he did with both Moses and Marke – commanded the stage as Tirésias both vocally and dramatically. A consummate singer-actor he was rightly and loudly lauded at the end of the opera. It’s strange that we don’t see Marie-Nicole Lemieux more often in the UK. Her Sphinx was as dramatically imposing as her singing, perched precariously it seemed atop a Stuka bomber. The final members of the central quintet of singer was Nicolas Courjal’s accomplished and secure High Priest.

There was also luxury casting in the smaller roles, with very notable performances from Sophie Bevan as Antigone, Samuel Dale Johnson as Thésée and the Créon of Samuel Youn.

Special mention must also go to the Royal Opera Chorus – their singing was both impassioned and fulsome and a worthy reminder that there is more than one excellent opera chorus in town.

The production was slightly and unintentionally – in parts – reminiscent of Król Roger. The opening scene, as the programme suggested, seemed inspired by bass relief from an ancient sarcophagus, with each act moving us through time from Ancient Thebes to the 1930s of Corinth, via 1940s France complete with Stuka and berets to an apocalyptic plagued-infested present day. The final scene was set in a future with a white suited Thésée reminiscent of Logan’s Run, for Oedipe’s final death cum transfiguration. Despite this canter through history, Ollé from La Fura dels Baus and Carrasco never allowed their direction to impede the story – each action and reaction from cast and chorus was fitting to the moment and allowed them, when required to increase the emotional intensity with only the slightest adjustments but achieving incredible impact.

Leo Hussain teased out the colours of the score without ever diminishing the rhythmic foundation on which Enescu has built his opera. While there were moments of laxness –due to Enescu’s own challenge in composing the opera – Hussain never let the tension fade and inspired both singers and orchestra to an incredible performance.

I hope that this production of Oedipe is not a one-off and that it will return. Perhaps in a time after Holten, Covent Garden may consider some thematic programming inspired by Greek tragedy – Oedipe, Elektra, Il ritorno d’Ulisse, Ariadne auf Naxos to name but a few.

Perhaps someone on Bow Street could suggest it.

 

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