lietofinelondon

Drama Queen

In Review on November 23, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo soprano & executive producer)
Director – Ralf Pleger
Lighting Designer – Henning Blum
Dancer/Choreographer – Manuel Palazzo
Video Designer – Yousef Iskandar

Il Pomo d’Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev (Director)

The idea of concept albums and recitals are not new. Cecilia Bartoli is probably the foremost exponent although there was the ill-advised Prom concert last year featuring Alice Coote and a bath. Less said about that the better.

It was inevitable that Joyce DiDonato would at some point embark on a ‘concept’ herself. There is no denying her heartfelt and deep devotion and commitment, and combined with the sheer level of her musicianship and musical intelligence the idea is more than appealing. If any musician can call for revolution – as she did at the end of the entire performance – then it is she.

The musicianship – the vivacity, the pathos, the verve the tragedy – was all more or less there. DiDonato’s formidable talent combined with a genuine passion for the music itself makes her a compelling and intelligent performer. Each aria was a vehicle for a range of very emotions and in some cases breathtaking technique from the very beginning.

In the first half, the tortured souls of Handel’s Jephtha in Scenes of horror and Andromaca in Leo’s Prendi quell ferro were exquisitely counterbalanced by heartrending performances of Lascia ch’io pianga and Dido’s Lament. In the latter Barbara Bonney’s rendition remains a favourite – but whereas Bonney is a queen, DiDonato is very much the abandoned woman. After the interval two Handel arias – the beautiful and oft-overlooked Crystal stream in murmurs flowing from Susanna and Augelletti, che cantata – were beautifully off-set by an almost-coquettish Da tempeste and a suitably jubilant Par che di giubilo from Jommelli’s Attilio Regolo. One small gripe? Being robbed of Agrippina’s Pensieri in its entirety.

Il Pomo d’Oro performed the instrumental numbers with confidence if not entirely the distinctiveness that I’ve heard from them before. The exception was Pärt’s Da pacem, Domine – a piece I was more than happy to be reacquainted with.

So why, for me at least, didn’t it work?

I think because ultimately it was a ‘concept’ that DiDonato didn’t need. As well as being a consummate performer, the mezzo is set apart from many others by being an incredible actor. In countless recitals, staged and concert performances she convincingly inhabits the characters she is portraying. But more than that, she draws the listener into a sound and imagined world without the aid of props.

At the Barbican what we got was a layer of artifice that didn’t add, but rather distracted from the recital. Especially, I am afraid to say, Palazzo. His cavorting in the Pärt ran the high risk of undermining the piece’s sublimity.

The most telling evidence of this however was her ‘real’ encore – Strauss’ Morgen! Laid bear with no choreography or light projected distractions it was as pure a performance as I have ever heard. Pure in terms of its musicianship, integrity and emotional candour.

Ms DiDonato has asked us all where do we find peace.

Hand on heart, Ms DiDonato, it was in that hushed performance. Locked into my memory I will return to it again and again.

Semi-detached bravura

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2016 at 11:27 am

Review – Max Emanuel Cencic (Wigmore Hall, Thursday 29 September 2016) 

Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor)

Il Pomod’Oro 

Maxim Emelyanchev 

Max Emmanuel Cencic repeated the same successes and failures of his last recital at Wigmore Hall two years ago. Whereas in 2014 he focused on Venice, on this occasion Naples was the epicentre. Composers included Porpora – every countertenor’s repertoire staple – as well as Sarro, Leo, Vinci and Scarlatti pere. 

With the cohorts of countertenors on stage today, Cencic stands apart in terms of the smokiness of his vocal timbre. It’s coupled with an expansive range – although what has crept in is a tendency to over emphasise the highest notes – and an impressive fluidity in terms of delivering coloratura and the limpid vocal lines so associated with composers of this period. The way Cencic can shape an expansive vocal line is enviable. 

However, unlike colleagues such as Iestyn Davies, Andreas Scholl and David Hansen, Cencic and others are challenged in terms of clearly annunciating the text. Whole words were lost. Clearly a case of prima la musica poi la parole. Metastasio and Zeno would be furious. 

And this was further exacerbated by what could perhaps be called a Cencic-ism. As in 2014, throughout the recital, the performer rarely if ever raised his eyes from the score in front of him, and because of this, there were times when the arias felt more akin to vocal exercises. Even in the slower numbers, Cencic was glued to the score. 

One has to wonder if Cencic can perform on stages sans score, why he needs to rely on it as a recital prop so intensely? I’m not asking that music be memorised – although Emelyanchev was able to surrender his score to Cencic for the encore with no difficulties whatsoever. No, but in a recital, the connection between audience and performer is paramount. It’s intrinsic to the experience. If the singer remains buried in the music, the emotional connection – the ability of the singer to effectively convey the words and to involve the listener in the moment – is lost.  

The bravura moments written by these composers – let alone the moments of more lyrical expressiveness – were not merely to display the singers vocal prowess and vigour but also to underline the text and emotion at a time when dramaturgy was all but non-existent. Part of communicating this directly to the audience was by a physicality of expression and gesture.  

That stage presence was virtually missing with Cencic. Except for a few moments in Alessandro Scarlatti’s Miei pensieri and No, non vedete mai from Leo’s Siface.  

That’s not to say that musically this was a thrilling evening, technically. The fastest arias were despatched with a brilliance of technique that was dazzling. Most impressive was Qual turbine che scende from Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, and the encore Si, di ferri mi cingete. Surprisingly this was the only aria from Hasse – his opera Irene. 

Il Pomo d’Oro provided sonorous and energetic support to Cencic and shone in the individual instrumental pieces. Auletta’s harpsichord concerto was a pleasant enough divertissement, but it was Hasse’s Fuga e Grave that particularly stood out for it intensity.

There’s no denying that hearing Cencic is exciting, but had he looked up for the score then seeing him perform would have altogether made this a more thrilling and emotionally satisfying evening. 

Look up, sir. Look up.   

Stormin’ Norma

In Classical Music, Uncategorized on September 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

Review – Norma (Royal Opera House, Monday 12 September 2016)

Norma – Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione – Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso – Brindley Sherratt
Flavio – David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde – Vlada Borovko

Director – Àlex Ollé
Associate Director – Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer – Marco Filibeck

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

It’s an almost impossible as – to sing Norma at Covent Garden. All those ghosts in the wings. Replacing a colleague who’s much trumped assumption of the role failed to materialise.

But it was, in my opinion, a triumph.

Sonya Yoncheva not only ensured the ghosts remained firmly in the shadows but delivered a fine debut. Of course, there are elements that need working on – no interpretation remains static but with time Yoncheva’s will be Norma to be reckoned with. Vocally this was an assured performance – she didn’t shirk from the challenge of either the coloratura or the tessitura that was at the extreme of her range. She tackled them head on, and it made for a thrilling experience. She is also firmly in control of a formidable technique that allowed for the exploitation of the dynamic range that is often missing on any stage. Casts Diva – so early on that the expectation was almost tangible – packed the necessary punch. Yoncheva’s control of the vocal line, spinning it out over chorus and orchestra, was impressive. I’ve no doubt that even in the space of the remaining performances at Covent Garden she will relax more and more into the role and begin to experiment with vocal shade and colour. The opening of Act Two was equally thrilling. Her torment and anger spilled out across the auditorium as she vacillated between thoughts of revenge and maternal love. Yet it was that single, simple moment when she makes her fateful admission that sealed her debut performance. The stillness of it. Bellini’s knows drama. Yoncheva made it come alive.

And yet Yoncheva wasn’t alone in this endeavour. It’s something that I realized while listening to Netrebko’s latest and possibly defining recital disc – the influence of Pappano. He always been a fine conductor, always a singer’s conductor, but at this moment in time Pappano has become pre-eminent. The relationship – that elusive bond – between soprano and conductor was front and centre in a way that wasn’t as evident with the rest of the cast.

The rest of the cast was fortunately caught up in the eddies of that musical and interpretive association. Calleja, always a wooden actor, sprung more to life in the second act but his singing was not his best. A slow start and moments of strain distracted. Ganassi, despite formidable technique and a voice that produced some fine light and shade, seemed lost in that space. She truly came to life in the Second Act duet within Yoncheva. Sherratt’s Oroveso was the strongest of them all, carrying clearly above chorus and orchestra in the first act. His final act was unexpected and shocking. Denying his daughter not only a painful death, but robbing her, I thought quite cruelly of her dignity.

The booing for the production team honestly left me nonplussed. Set, so it seemed to me in an alternate version of Franco’s Spain, the clash of religious fervor and military might was undermined by a simple reversal of roles. Women, led by Norma, as Catholic priests. A simple ‘heresy’ that was effective in raising questions of God, power and ultimately equality.

A set constructed of crucifixes was offset by what I could only see as a crown of thorns made from the same crucifixes. Àlex Ollé is clearly deeply affected by his upbringing in some way – that clash in Spain between Church and State.

Unlike others, I didn’t find the set distracting. I found it effectively oppressive. I believe that was the intention. The opening scene of the second act, suddenly thrust us into the twenty-first century. A secular world at odds with Norma’s life. It was no mistake that this world sunk into the ground, and out of sight. It was a world that needed to remain out of sight. And mind. And the significance of Warership Down? A desire for freedom? An escape to a new life free from authoritarian diktat? Perhaps.

I’ve already mentioned that special bond between Pappano and his chief protagonist but his mastery extended to the orchestra and chorus. From the opening notes of the overture, the precision was impressive. But he reached into the score and found the colour and timbre needed. Strings were lush. Woodwind and brass striking out above them plangently.

All in all, a strong opening for a promising season.

 

 

 

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