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In Opera, Review on September 30, 2018 at 9:25 am

Review – Salome (English National Opera, Friday 28 September 2018)

Salome – Allison Cook
Jokanaan – David Soar
Herod – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Jonathan Lemalu
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu and Ronald Nairne

Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk and Nicole Neolove

Director – Adena Jacobs
Designer – Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter
Choreographer – Melanie Lane

Conductor – Martyn Brabbins

It was somewhat ironic that the most successful moment in ENO’s new production of Salome, was the precise moment when other productions have usually not been as effective. Namely, Salome’s Dance.

But here, Adena Jacobs pitched it almost perfectly. A pity, as the rest of the evening failed in all but three instances, completely flat. Salome should disgust, excite and ultimately leave you feeling slightly queasy. This production left me totally cold.

This was a shame as it opened stun such promise. The  clarion-like tenor of Stuart Jackson floated beautifully out into the auditorium. No hint of strain, his mellifluous tenor, coupled with crystal clear diction was a joy to listen to. I’m not quite sure why he was made out to be a cocaine addict (if that was what his bleeding nose was meant to infer), but his was one of only two completely coherent and three dimensional characters in the entire production.

The second was the magnificent Susan Bickley. Her Herodias was superb. Vocally secure coupled with incredible acting that was wonting in the rest of the Antipas family. Whenever she was on stage, her commanding presence was formidable. Finally, all credit to the Jokanaan of David Soar. I was relieved when he shucked his stilettos and his singing was impassioned and wonderfully coloured. There were moments when I almost though the Messiah would arrive on stage.

Sadly, the rest of the cast only passed muster. This Salome is clearly a work in progress with some moments of promise in Allison Cook’s performance. Musically, her diction was, like the rest of the cast, impeccable. However, while there was much to admire in her singing, all too often it was either underpowered – more overwhelmed by Brabbins’ conducting – or under the note. The use of Sprechstimme in this role adds depth to the portrayal but the singer must also have laser-like precision of each and every note. Dramatically, this production couldn’t decide ‘who’ Salome was. The transition from waif-like princess through petulant child to suicide and/or victim was not wholly convincing.

Similarly, her step-father fidgeted from crazy to petulant to spoiled without first anchoring the character with any coherence.  Indeed, from the onset it seemed that direction from the director was rather hit and miss, focusing on individual dramatic peaks in isolation rather that providing an overall narrative syntax.

From the headless My Little Pony complete with guts made of s comfort blanket, to Herod’s Santa sack, the production team seemed to have approached the opera as a bag of tricks and symbols to be thrown across the stage haphazardly. The most striking and effective scenes were those with Jokanaan despite the all too obvious emasculating stilettos.

So it was a surprise, and a relief that this production offered a coherent and uncomfortable Dance. From Salome’s sexualised poses reminiscent of the kinds of portrayals we see in mainstream media everyday to the tweaking of the four dancers was both riveting as well as almost too uncomfortable to watch. So a shame that the Dance was so unsupported by particularly lacklustre and sterile playing as I’ve ever heard from ENO’s orchestra. The closing scene, with some of the most erotic and evocative music ever written was dramatically undermined by having Salome not reveal Jokanaan’s head. There is nothing remotely erotic or shocking about singing to a plastic bag. Therefore, it felt like the final denouement – rather non sensical as it wasn’t derived from any of the narrative that proceeded it – was bolted on simply to provide a frisson of shock.

Surprisingly, in terms of the orchestral playing, I was disappointed by the ENO orchestra. Their usual lustre and brilliance was missing, and Brabbins more often than not failed to find the right balance between the pit and the stage.

Salome should be a tough opera to watch a well as to listen to. The sensuality and brutality of the music should elicit an uneasy emotional response; and the drama doesn’t need to be overtly shlocking to shock.

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“Music, moody food … of us that trade in love”

In Baroque, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on January 16, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Review – Regula Mühlemann (Prinzeregententheater, Monday 15 January 2018)

Regula Mühlemann (Soprano)
La Folia Barockorchester
Robin Peter Müller (Director)

Hello. It’s been a while. Perhaps for some too long, for others not long enough. The last couple of years have not been filled with as much music as I would have liked. That’s not to say that the last two years have been completely bereft. There was Renée Fleming’s farewell to the stage as the Marschallin at the Met (as well as a superlative Hello! Dolly with Bette Midler the same weekend); exhilarating performances by the likes of Sonia Prina, Ann Hallenberg and even one or two good evenings at ENO. Well, one and “a half”. However, finding time to put ‘fingers to iPad’ has proved literally impossible. But I’m going to give it another try in 2018.

So, here goes …

I have to admit I had not heard of Regula Mühlemann before I tripped over her Mozart recital disc. If you haven’t heard it, then I heartily recommend it. Ms Mühlemann has a bright and lithe soprano. Her coloratura fearless, she shapes it with great skill and sings with a fluency of line that is impressive.

Her second recital disc is inspired by Cleopatra. Concept albums are very popular. There’s Joyce DiDonato’s War and Peace (the album was good, the recital wasn’t); Ann Hallenberg’s superlative Carnevale and more recently, Delphine Galou’s Agitata! This disc offers Handel, Hasse and Graun as expected, but also Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Sarti Legrenzi and Mattheson. It’s an excellent disc – vocally stunning with excellent support from La Folia. So when I found out she was performing in Munich it was a done deal.

The Prinzregententheater is not a venue I had visited before. On the other side of the Isar river not far from the Maximilianeum, it was built in 1901. Now the home of the Theaterakademie August Everding, it has previously been the home of the opera and opened with a performance of Meistersinger. Since completion, the venue has been refurbished and I have to admit that I found the acoustic very dry. The sound died almost immediately, swallowed up by the hall and perhaps explains why it took me, and the performers a while to settle into the first half.

The players of La Folia Barockorchester launched the evening with a vigorous performance of Graun’s French style overture for Cleopatra e Cesare with studious attention to rhythmic detail in both sections. Ms Mühlemann’s first aria, Tra le porcelle assorto was a simile aria from the same opera. It set out her credentials immediately married with crystal clear diction. Her da capo was tastefully ornamented and considering the ease of her vocal technique I hope in future performances she will be more ‘daring’ with her ornamentation – not something I say often. Next, a step back to 1725 and Legrenzi’s Antioco il Grande, not only to offer contrast but to remind the audience that not every opera with Cleopatra features a Caesar or Marco Antonio. With just continuo, Se tu sarai felice demonstrated how she can sustain and colour longer notes with telling effect.

Next, Il Folia performed Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul, soloist Robin Peter Müller. This is a substantial concerto and for the most part, held together well. However sandwiching an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti between the second and third movements, plus some awry intonation and ensemble playing distracted slightly. Personally, it would have been better to follow the Legrenzi with Alessandro Scarlatti’s Antonio e qual destino … Vò goder senza contrasto from his opera Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra. Floating miraculously above some wonderful [chittarone] playing, Ms Mühlemann spun the older Scarlatti’s vocal line with great skill and dare I say it? Sensuality.

From Vivaldi’s Il Tigrane, or to give it its correct title, La virtù trionfante dell’amore e dell’odio, we got Squaciami pure il sento closing the first half. An aria of alternating moods, Ms Mühlemann made great play of the words and together with the orchestra, made a convincing case for Vivaldi as opera composer. A case I’m not often convinced of.

The second half featured composers that were more well known – Hasse and Handel – with Geminani’s Concerto Grosso in d minor. Once again, energetic playing was slightly marred by a lack of ensemble but you couldn’t deny their enthusiasm.

Haste’s Serenata Marc’ e Cleopatra bookended the closing part of the evening. Following the overture, the soprano sang the expansive Quel candido armellino. I’ve a real soft spot for Hasse -especially his slower arias. Valer Sabadus’ performance of Cadra fra poco in cenere remains an absolutely favourite of mine. Here, Hasse writes a similarly exposed vocal line, which says a great deal about the singers he was writing for. Ms Mühlemann displayed enviable breath control, spinning out luminous line after luminous line above a delicately scored strong accompaniment without a single hint of pressure. It was simply wondrous. The concert proper finished with a rollicking rendition of Morte col fiero aspetto orror, the singer spitting out her words and coloratura with true fury.

However the highlight, before the encores that is, was Ms Mühlemann’s Che sento, oh Dio, … Se pietà di me non senti from Handel’s Guilio Cesare. It’s hard, even having heard the Hasse before, not to see why Handel towers above his contemporaries. When it comes to portraying pure agony, this is one of the great moments in baroque, if not all opera, and singer and ensemble did Handel proud. From the opening notes, with the most plaintive and pained bassoon playing I’ve ever heard, we were caught up in the Egyptian queen’s misery and despair. The achingly slow tempo of Se pietà, which surprised me when I first listened on disc, was perfect. It allowed Ms Mühlemann the opportunity to invest every note and every phrase with pain and pathos. Her da capo was beautifully rendered, not only in terms of her ornamentation but in the slight delay she masterfully deployed at certain cadences. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as it ended.

Quite rightly, the audience clapped and stamped for an encore and the ensemble obliged. Sandwiched between an aria by Sarti was Johann Matheson’s Mein Leben ist hin. With violin obbligato this heartrending lament left silence in its wake. However it was Sarti’s Quando voglio which brought the house down. Twice. Sarti loves to surprise, and here the audience couldn’t have been more surprised when the harpist, Katerina Ghannudi seductively launched into this lilting and seductive song. Joined by a more coquettish Ms Mühlemann in duet and La Folia including Mr Müller on tambourine, it was the perfect end to the evening. And at the curtain call it was evident how close the entire ensemble had become. It’s not many singers who – beaming with joy – would hug a harpist and other members of the orchestra. Such a shame that this recital has not made it to London but Ms Mühlemann is singing Rosina in La Fanta Giardinera in June. Beg, buy or steal a ticket.

As I left the Prinzregententheater, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. In the Second Act, she says “Give me some music; music, moody food…of us that trade in love”. It’s a fitting tribute to an evening of beautiful music making and love.

 

A Darker Rose

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Royal Opera House, Thursday 22 December 2016)

The Marschallin – Rachel Willis-Sörensön
Octavian – Anna Stéphany
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs auf Lerchanau – Matthew Rose
Herr von Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Marianne Leitmetzerin & Noble Widow – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi –Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke
Annina – Helene Schneiderman
Italian Singer – Giorgio Berrugi
Police Commissioner – Scott Conner
Major Domo – Samuel Sakker
Hairdresser – Robert Curtis
Noble Orphans – Kathy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Andrea Hazell
Milliner – Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller – Luke Price
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designers – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau 

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s often tempting to dismiss Der Rosenkavalier as ‘ein farce’. Shrouded in the Eighteenth Century setting, the opera is as much about change – inevitable both in terms of relationships as well as society – as it is about love. And it takes an exceptional director to bring out its darker side.

Robert Carsen is such a director. I’ve long been a huge admirer of his works – strong on narrative but full of insight and inventiveness. His Iphigénie with Susan Graham, his Frosch in Vienna, his take on Handel’s Rinaldo and the more recent brutal and heartrending Les Carmelites are among those productions that have had the greatest personal impact.

While this Der Rosenkavalier had its lighter moments, it was Carsen’s attention to detail that made it so involving. Combined with an innate understanding of human behaviour and his intellectual capacity to tell a story, this is of the most rewarding productions I have seen.

Visually the staging was stunning. The Marschallin’s own room, with its paintings of Emperor Franz Josef and other Austrian and Habsburg aristocracy, immediately created a world of ivory tower privilege. Faninal’s palace was in rude juxtaposition. The howitzer and other weapons immediately made it clear how he had amassed his new wealth and also underlined the cruellest irony that his daughter’s future husband – at this stage Ochs but ultimately Count Octavian Rofrano – would be victims of his class’s aggrandisement. For the final act a seedy bordello masquerading as an elegant brothel, complete with the cross-dressing maitre-d’ of Alasdair Elliott and the two-way paintings. The detail paid to individuals as well as to creating specific images led an additional depth. For example, the Gigli-like Italian Tenor – beautifully sung by Georgio Berrugi – presenting an autographed record; the forward looking fashion for the Marschallin to peruse but ultimately dismiss; the arrogant militaristic snapshot that closed the second act. All these and many other effortlessly created a sense of time. Most interesting was the Marschallin’s ‘chemistry’ with the Police Commissioner and final departure from the stage with him. Arm in arm, Carsen intentionally or not seemed to hint that the Marschallin had decided to eschew young men for boys. Without a handkerchief to retrieve at the end, Carsen was able to end of the darkest of notes.

On stage, Covent Garden fielded a cast that was strong if yet all wholly establishing themselves in these particular roles. Given time, I’ve no doubt that some of these singers will become closely associated with their specific roles.

Without dispute however, the Octavian of Anna Stéphany dominated the evening. There was a strength – almost a masculinity – to her singing with hardly any hint of strain throughout the evening. If her ‘Viennese’ dialect was not as strong as that of other singers I have heard in this role, her acting definitely convinced. She effortlessly shifted from spoiled boy, to privileged youth to beguiling maid.

Sophie Bevan was a scintillating and experienced namesake – finding the right balance between ingénue and young woman. Vocally the part held no terrors for her. From the stratospheric writing of the presentation scene to the final duet her liquid tone was full of warmth without any hint of strain.

The Ochs of Matthew Rose and the Marschallin of Rachel Willis-Sörensön were both works in progress but show much promise, particularly Willis-Sörensön. She has a warm and resonant soprano and hopefully more experience in the role will deepen her characterisation as well as result in more fluidity and seamless phrasing of the vocal line as well as more colour

The remaining cast, led by Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal and the Valzacchi and Annina of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke and Helene Schneiderman – completed a strong ensemble cast. Special mention must also be made of Miranda Keys’ Marianne Leitmetzerin.

Sadly, the efforts in the pit were not as polished. After a stunning Rosenkavalier in Birmingham, it seemed that Andris Nelsons couldn’t find his mojo for this performance. The playing of the orchestra – usually so burnished and warm – sounded decidedly brittle and rarely matched the magic of Strauss’ score and his direction wasn’t focused enough to pull out the transparency that is much needed in this music.

Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier is a joy to observe and listen to. Rachel Willis-Sörensön is definitely a Marschallin to keep an eye out for and when Covent Garden revives this –soon rather than later – I hope that they will cast her again.

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