Tell-Tale Too Far

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 30, 2015 at 6:02 am

At what point does art go too far?

At what point do artists stop and think that perhaps their actions go beyond what is necessary to make a point?

At what point do artists think they should speak up?

I wonder if any of these questions came up during the gestation of the new production of Guillaume Tell at Royal Opera House?

Of course I think that productions – art in general – should be challenging but an advisory that the “production features a scene involving an adult theme and brief nudity” did nothing to prepare me – or quite a lot of the audience – to the escalating and vicious violence inflicted on Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera by director Damiano Michieletto. I don’t think I’ve attended any performance where booing has actually been heard during the performance itself. But as it became apparent that the rape scene wasn’t going to stop, as it went beyond uncomfortable to disturbing to watch, an isolated boo in the upper reaches of the auditorium gained momentum until quite a large number of the audience were booing.

Normally agnostic about booing, I admit that on this occasion I was on the side of the outraged. If Michieletto thinks it is fine to depict such graphic savagery – completelout of sync with the original libretto – then members of the public can exercise their rights too.

I questioned Covent Garden’s support of Thaddeus Strassberger’s Glare at the end of last year. In my view, the objectification of women and the violence against one of the leading female singers in Strassberger’s production was questionable and the sudden violence at the end was neither smart nor honest to the plot.

With Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden went even further. During rehearsals didn’t anyone step back and think that in the context of the story and of the music, what Michieletto was asking the performers to do was wrong?

If it’s okay to ask performers what their stance is on Putin’s homophobic intent, then one has to ask what the performers in this production thought during rehearsals? And more importantly what they think after the audience’s reaction on the first night?

That single error of judgement sadly marred the entire experience for me. A staid and stodgy first act and a general creative malaise in terms of the production had begun to be redeemed in the Second Act. But despite a general improvement in the singing, and an increased athleticism and drama in the pit, the rape scene could not be erased or swept to one side. The singers, and in particular Gerald Finley, Malin Byström and John Osborn gave some committed if uneven performances.

They were, quite rightly, recognized and cheered by the audience but if opera is the complete experience, then the worm in this apple made the whole thing unpalatable.

It completely destroyed the magic.

Countertenorism – Nessuno suona la stesso?

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 24, 2015 at 10:45 am

Review – The Five Countertenors (Valer Sabadus, Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic, Yuri Mynenko & Vince Yi; Armonia Atenea & George Petrou)

It was inevitable that at some point an album such as this would appear – perhaps the marketing people thought it might do for countertenors what the Three Tenors did back in July 1990? It might not be the worst album cover, but it simply doesn’t do justice to the level of musicianship on this new recital album.

Rather than Nessun dorma of the three tenors, perhaps this album should be Nessuno suona la stesso, because what strikes me immediately is the broad range of voices in terms of range and distinctive tmibres of the performers.

And what is equally refreshing is that rather than a list of common-hackney’d arias, there’s music by Jomelli, JC Bach (hopefully is star will become increasingly in the ascendant), Mysliviček, Galuppi and Bertoni alongside Handel and Popora and Gluck.

Personally, the performances by Valer Sabadus are at the top of my list. Both the arias he performs here – by Jomelli and Gluck – were written for the same castrato, Felice Salimbeni and the demonstrate not only Sabadus’ technical virtuosity and his ability to deliver a beautifully sustained vocal line but also the warmth and depth of his voice. Jomelli’s Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio is a typical simile aria and perhaps also evidence of Jomelli’s more pioneering spirit in that the second section of the aria is simply an extension – but not a strict development – of opening material.

Non so frenare il pianto from Gluck’s Demetrio is more “pathetic” in mood. The composer fully deploys dissonance and rhythmic motifs to portray the grief and tears of the protagonist, above which Sabadus spins out the vocal line. The contrasting and faster mid-section remains in the minor key and only helps in reinforcing the tragedy befalling Demetrio before Sabadus’ ornamentation in the returning da capo ensures that this is one of the highlights of the entire disc.

Xavier Sabata more ‘earthy’ timbre is perfectly suited to O di spietati numi più spietato ministro! …Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima from Popora’s Ifigenia , written for Senesino in London in direct competition with Handel. After a suitably dramatic accompagnato, the defiance of Tu, spietato with its combination of declamation, coloratura and unison passages is wonderfully depicted by Sabata. If you’ve heard Sabata in the latest recording of Tamerlano and his own recital disc of villains, then you will now Sabata is a Handelian par excellence. Otton, Otton, qual portentoso fulmine è questi? … Voi che udite il mio lamento is remarkable, considering Agrippina was one of Handel’s first operas, for the confidence of the writing and its emotional weight. The aria is an excellent example of Handel’s innate ability of portraying the protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind.

Max Emanuel Cencic gives us Galuppi and Bertoni. From Galuppi’s Penelope and performed in London he sings Telemacco’s aria A questa bianca mano, a well-crafted aria set apart by its somewhat memorable rhythmic accompaniment and scoring for oboe. If Addio, o miei sospire from Bertoni’s Tancredi sounds somewhat familiar then it’s because it is often accredited to Gluck and inserted in Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s a jolly aria and performed with panache – coloratura and all – by Cencic.

The final two countertenors of the quintet are unknown to me. Yuri Mynenko has a very pleasing timbre and zips through Handel’s Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi before delivering a very accomplished performance of Ch’io parta from JC Bach’s Temistocle. Its alternating passages underline how in 1772 the composer was experimenting with more traditional aria formats, and it’s also easy to hear the influence that Bach’s son had on a young Mozart and why the latter held him in such high esteem.

While listening to this disc with a friend, he referred to Vince Yi as a ‘male sopraniste’ rather than a countertenor. It’s a term I have heard in the past but not quite sure in what context. Yi effortlessly throws off the coloratura in Mysliviček’s Ti parli in seno amore and sails through Ah, non è ver, ben mio from Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe but there is no denying that Yi has a very distinct timbre. It offers the same flexibility and agility but with its more reed-like tone, doesn’t offer the same depth and colour. However it just demonstrates the range of ‘types’ when it comes to countertenors and he is – without doubt and like his companions on the disc – a performer of musical intelligence.

Underpinning each performance is some superlative playing by Armonia Atenea, directed by George Petrou. This ensemble produce a rich and intense sound, full of rhythmic vitality and for once I admit I wish that perhaps a few overtures had been thrown into the recital so that we could hear the ensemble in their own right.

This is not only a refreshing album, but an album brimming with excellent – and individually distinctive – performances, full of vigour and a clear passion for the music itself.

Perhaps these six will perform at the opening ceremony in Russia in 2018?


In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Review – Król Roger (Royal Opera House, Friday 1 May 2015)

Król Roger – Mariusz Kwicień
Roxana – Georgia Jarman
Shepherd – Samir Pirgu
Edrisi – Kim Begley
Archbishop – Alan Ewing
Deaconess – Agnes Zwierko

Director – Kasper Holten
Designs – Steffen Aarfing
Lighting Design – Jon Clark
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Choreography – Cathy Marston
Dramaturg – John Lloyd Davies

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

My first experience of Karol Szymanowski was his Stabat Mater, and ever since I have been smitten. His music, both for orchestra and singers is both beautifully crafted and mesmerising – the sound world he creates is a beautiful fusion – however subjective – of Debussy, Stravinsky by way of Scriabin.

This was Król Roger debut at Covent Garden and it was an impressive and memorable evening.

Mariusz Kwicień has been championing this opera for some time delivered the title role with both vocal and dramatic authority. Indeed had Kasper Holten not referred to his indisposition just before the final act, I wonder if anyone would have truly noticed? Vocally, his was a very nuanced interpretation and supported by strong and committed acting. His journey from confident monarch to, what exactly – enlightened individual? – was completely absorbing. And following his final confrontation – victorious or not – with his inner demons, his final paean to the Sun was hypnotic.

In the role of the Shepherd, Samir Pirgu was as much his very embodiment as Kwicień was of the King. He seemed effortless in managing not only the high tessitura of the role but also the expansive vocal lines that Szymanowski wrote for this character, his bright, clear tenor effectively conveying his almost messianic self-belief.

And Georgia Jarman made an equally impressive debut as Roxana. Vocally assured her rhapsodic ‘aria’ of the Second Act was, quite rightly, one of the highlights of the evening. She soared across the composer’s vocal lines, shaping each phrase beautifully, matching it with a real attention to colour and timbre. I hope that this is the first of many appearances at Covent Garden for this exceptionally talented soprano.

As the Edrisis, Kim Begley tenor was in thoughtful contrast to that of the Shepherd and together with the Archbishop of Alan Ewing and Agnes Zwierko’s Deaconess, they made up what as an impressive line up of soloists.

The Royal Opera Chorus was in excellent and dramatically compelling form. From their first hushed Hagios, they were a critical element of the evening, underpinning and contributing to the unfolding drama and producing sumptuous sound.

Pappano drew some exquisite and full-blooded playing from the orchestra. He has always been a conductor of the finer details, and he drew each and every from Szymanowski’s score. Perhaps it was first night nerves, but very occasionally the orchestra verged on overwhelming the singers, but there was no doubting that Pappano and his players had the full measure of the score and the riches written into it.

On Twitter after the first night, Kasper Holten commented, “I enjoy doing difficult titles, sometimes they are easier”. He might not have been speaking of Król Roger specifically but it certainly fits. This was a thought-provoking and detailed production. Set it in the 1930s, it invoked not only an overpowering sense of authoritarianism – be it the church or, as embodied by the massive bust that dominated the stage, of Roger himself – but also of mysticism with the seemingly Byzantine-inspired gallery. and effective use of both lighting and video designs further heightened the sense of suffocation. For the Second Act, the bust rotated to reveal Roger’s palace as well as his own mind. Roger’s sense of identity and self-control was clearly identifiable in the books piled on the various levels, but on ground level Holten effectively portrayed his dark side. Sinuous, masked dancers writhed with increasing frenzy and sensuality – but not sexuality – as Roger confronted his own fears and desires that eventually engulfed him as the curtain fell. In the Third Act, the book burning was particularly chilling and, handled so effectively, completely believable, as was the sudden and shocking violence as Roger battled with himself.

And the ending? Personally, I felt that Roger had confronted his demons – not only those kindled by sensual world of the Shepherd, but also the King’s own desire for individuality and control – and had emerged more fully enlightened.

Szymanowski’s Król Roger might only have had its debut at Covent Garden eighty-nine years after its premiere in the Grand Theatre of Warsaw but, judging from the excited buzz as people left after the first night, I am very much hoping it remains in the repertoire of the Royal Opera House for many years to come.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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