lietofinelondon

(Un)Mostly Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Review – Mozart 250 (Milton Court, Saturday 21 & Sunday 22 February 2015)

An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment
Anna Devin & Martene Grimson (Sopranos) Samantha Price (Mezzo-soprano)

London Concert Life in 1765
Eleanor Dennis (Soprano)
Ben Johnson (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Ian Page and Classical Opera threw themselves headlong into a weekend of music and lecturesafter the successful opening concert of their adventure, Mozart 250. Sadly at the last moment I wasn’t able to attend the entire weekend but did manage to catch two of the concerts – An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment and the closing concert of the weekend, London Concert Life in 1765.

The first concert focused on Italian opera in London in the 1760s, offering a selection of arias by lesser-known composers that formed the backbone of – it seemed – a predilection for pastiche operas in London, as well as another selection from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I must admit that none of the arias by the ‘unknown’ composers truly stood out, except perhaps Se non ti moro a lato by Davide Perez with its unusual harmonic twists at the cadences, and indeed I did feel that Pescetti – and in particular his Caro mio bene, addio – slightly outstayed his welcome.

However the selections by JC Bach again begged the question of why his operas – or at least the arias – aren’t performed more often. Take Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso for example, with its dramatic accompagnato, noble melody and deeply hued scoring including clarinets. Indeed it made me wonder if the London Bach’s use of the instrument wasn’t the initial inspiration for Mozart’s own love of the instrument. And it was beautifully sung by Anna Devin, with beautifully controlled legato, intelligently shaded phrasing and a real sympathy with JC Bach’s music, as was further evidenced by her performance of Confusa, smarrita. Samantha Price also made a promising debut with Classical Opera. The full warmth of her voice and her technical ability – especially in Tutti nemici e rei – should ensure her a promising career not only in this repertoire but hopefully in lieder as well. I was less convinced by Martene Grimson, who never sounded completely at ease in the music. I felt there was breathiness to her singing and her coloratura, while good, was not as well defined or controlled.

I also must admit that much as I love Eighteenth Century opera – da capos and all – I did wont for some orchestral music as relief from the deluge of arias that were presented.

Sunday night’s concert, a snapshot of musical life in 1765 was therefore more satisfying, featuring as it did both arias and orchestral music. Of the orchestral inclusions, it was Karl Friedrich Abel’s Symphony in E Flat, Opus 7 that was the most delightful and weighty discovering. With its luxurious scoring and real sense of symphonic gravitas, it outshone the contributions of JC Bach and Mozart on the evening.

Two of the arias performed were ‘repeats’ from the opening concert. Ben Johnson’s performance of Va, dal furor portata was suitably confident and forthright – his full tenor soaring over the orchestra and providing a suitably bravura contrast to his touching and refined rendition of Non so d’onde viene from JC Bach’s Ezio. Eleanor Dennis is in possession of a bright and full-throated soprano with an impressive range, however her performances were slightly marred by slightly occluded diction as well as challenges in breath control, especially in her first aria Cara, la dolce fiamma which demands so much of the singer in terms of its expansive vocal line. However her encore, a beautiful aria by Giardini with its unusual scoring for obbligato cello and violas only, was a real gem.

Throughout Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera performed with both great virtuosity and sympathy to the singers. The warmth of their playing was combined with technical confidence and real attention to dynamic as well as rhythmic detail.

Both concerts provided an interesting slice of musical life in London at the time that Mozart visited. But it did seem odd that we didn’t hear more of Mozart’s own vocal music at the time. A few numbers from works such as Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots or Apollo et Hyacinthus or even La finta semplice would have provided a true sense of context and influence perhaps.

But after the weekend, it seems almost too long a wait for Adriano in Siria.

Duel Monarchy

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2015 at 10:26 am

Review – Farinelli and the King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Thursday 12 February 2015)

Philippe V – Mark Rylance
Farinelli – Sam Crane & Iestyn Davies
Isabella Farnese – Melody Grove
De la cuadra – Edward Peel
Doctor José Cervi
Mestatasio – Colin Hurley

Musicians – John Crockatt (Violin); Arngeir Hauksson (Lute/Recorder); Jonathan Byers (Cello)

Director – John Dove
Designer – Jonathan Fensom
Choreographer – Siân Williams

Robert Howarth (Musical Director & Harpsichord)
Claire van Kampen (Writer)

The Wanamaker Playhouse is making a name for itself in terms of combining original drama and music. And their latest venture, Farinelli and the King, is a jewel of a production.

Written by Claire van Kampen, and clearly with her husband Mark Rylance in mind, it tells the story of how Farinelli was persuaded to give up the stage and travel to Madrid. At the request of Isabella Farnese, she believed his singing would alleviate Philip V of Spain’s depression.

It’s a perfect story to relate in a venue such as this theatre – van Kampen’s flexible yet direct writing enabled the intimacy of the relationships to shine. In well-crafted and elegant dialogue, the writer managed to convey not only the historical backdrop of contemporary Madrid as well as a Europe on the verge of war, but also the burgeoning belief of the time that music – and particularly opera – had spiritual and medical as well as entertainment value.

Rylance was a brilliant Philip of Spain. It isn’t so much that he skillfully steers from depression and anxiety back to recovery, but even when officially “well” there remained a real sense of human frailty and fear.

And he is right when he observes early on that Farinelli is as much a monarch as he. Not only in the sense of an adoring and loyal public but as well that his life was pre-ordained – for Philip as Louis XIV’s grandson and for Farinelli, from the moment the knife was applied. And as the singer, Sam Crane too captured that human frailty behind the popular mask. Their first meeting, a veritable duel of words and wits – both sharp and threatening – was well-penned by van Kampen.

The remaining cast was strongly cast, led by Melody Grove as the King’s suffering Queen. Her desperation to cure her husband was tangible as was the fear that she felt for her menacing spouse. However, I am not sure that I buy the clinch between castrato and Queen – especially as she eventually had him banished from court. And I particularly liked the grasping nature of Metatastio – again I am not sure it is based on actual reality but it provided a welcome emotional contrast.

But of course I admit that I was there for Iestyn Davies – and he did not disappoint. From the moment he began to sing Porpora’s Alto giove – a favourite aria of mine – he enraptured the audience. Vocally he was completely stunning – with beautifully controlled singing. Not only did he throw off the coloratura of Venti, turbini, prestate with complete authority but he also mesmerised in the slower numbers. Never has Cara sposa sounded so emotionally wrought as it did that evening. I just wish that the programme had listed all the arias.

But the highlight of the evening was the closing scene. Having retired to Italy, it was left to Farinelli to reminisce, and for Iestyn Davies to deliver a haunting and heartrending performance Lascia ch’io pianga that had many of the audience – including myself – in tears.

It was as if truly – as Philip of Spain had desired – that we were listening to the music of the stars.

Kunst & Company First.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 9, 2015 at 8:15 am

Review – The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (English National Opera, Saturday 7 February 2015)

Hans Sachs – Iain Paterson
Walther von Stolzing – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – James Cresswell
Eva Pogner – Rachel Nicholls
Magdalena – Madeleine Shaw
David – Nicky Spence

Fritz Kothner – David Stout
Kunz Vogelgesang – Peter Van Hulle
Konrad Nachtigall – Quentin Hayes
Ulrich Eisslinger – Timothy Robinson
Herman Ortell – Nicholas Folwell
Balthasar Zorn – Richard Roberts
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Folz – Roderick Earle
Han Schwarz – Jonathan Lemalu
Nightwatchman – Nicholas Crawley

Director – Richard Jones
Set Designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Buki Shiff
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Choreographer – Lucy Burge

The Chorus of English National Opera
The Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s me, I know, but Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is possibly the only opera by Wagner that I truly struggle with. Even more so than with Parsifal.

I am beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that it’s because it is slightly too “home and hearth” for me. I have a similar problem with Strauss’ Intermezzo. Maybe I just like dragons, magic potions and gods too much.

But don’t get me wrong, this is a magnificent production in spite of the broo-ha-ha currently taking the headlines over the (mis)management at English National Opera. I was afforded quite a good ringside seat during the last management meltdown at St Martin’s Lane, and then as now, despite what is happening two doors down in the management office, the company rises above it all to produce music making of brilliance. When Sean Doran and Martin Smith exited stage left, the company pulled together for an utterly sublime Billy Budd. And last night they did they same for Wagner.

Perhaps ENO should become a commune and dismiss all the management as well as the constantly interfering board. Perhaps democracy might be a better way forward?

ENO’s “Mastersinger” is in fact the WNO production that Richard Jones created in 2010. It’s a shame that – celebrating his quarter century with the Coliseum – it wasn’t a completely new production. But considering this is an opera of epic, almost Cecil B De Mille proportions, and ENO’s financial straits, this was probably the best option.

The production itself was replete with Jones’ usual vocabulary and visual style but that is not to say that it felt tired. Rather, as ever his attention to detail, the careful attention paid to each and every characterisation, made this a very rich and satisfying evening. As he made clear in the programme, his was not a Mastersinger set in the Sixteenth Century but rather in a period inspired by the year of the opera’s first performance – 1868. While I didn’t quite get the sense of ennui he mentioned, his approach did capture a sense of immured traditionalism, and indeed at the end I wasn’t so sure that von Stolzing wasn’t going to find himself – rather like the Emperor in FroSch – turned to stone rather than leading a revolution.

Gwyn Hughes Jones made an impressive Walther von Stolzing. His singing conveyed a real sense of the character’s impetuosity married to some marvelously lyrical singing and real attention to the dynamics. Rachel Nicholls, replacing (sadly for me) Wendy Bryn Harmer, also proved very able as Eva Pogner although her voice did, on occasion, sound slightly pushed. In contrast, Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalena was delightful, possessing a bright and focused soprano and real acting ability. I last heard James Cresswell in ENO’s Dutchman at which time I had some misgivings about his performance. But of his Pogner I had no reservations whatsoever with a performance that was vocally mellifluent, pleasingly resonant and beautifully articulated. Both Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser and Nicky Spence’s David turned in performances of credibility – even if at times both sounded slightly challenged by the music – to complete an able ensemble of key characters.

But of course, the main focus was for most people the debut of Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs. Having greatly enjoyed his Kurwenal at the end of last year as well as his Wotan for Barenboim at the Proms, his first Sachs was equally impressive. He is an intuitive Wagnerian and this shone through in this debut. Vocally assured – although there were some occasions when I felt we lost him in his lower register – there was a depth and intelligence to both his singing and his portrayal of the cobbler that bodes well for Paterson becoming much in demand in this role in future.

From the pit, the soon-to-depart Edward Gardner once again inspired some splendidly rich and eloquent playing from the orchestra and hearty singing from the chorus. While there were some slight glitches in negotiating the various gear changes in the overture, the panache of Gardner’s approach suited the grandeur of Wagner’s music. Indeed, it is sad to think that this is Gardner’s final season as Music Director at the Coliseum and it will be sad to see him depart.

So, no denying that ENO’s Mastersinger was a triumph and proof that when a crisis hits – as it so often seems to at this venue – the company itself can rise above the back-biting of the senior management and boardroom and produce great art.

A true company effort.

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