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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.

 

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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.

Misero, dove son?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 18, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Review – Ezio (Oper Frankfurt, Saturday 17 December 2016)

Valentiniano – Rupert Enticknap
Ezio – Max Emanuel Cencic
Fulvia – Cecelia Hall
Massimo – Theo Lebow
Onoria – Sydney Mancasola
Varo – Michael Porter

Director – Vincent Boussard
Assistant Director – Carerina Panti Liberovicí
Staging – Kaspar Glarner
Costume – Christian Lacroix
Lighting – Joachim Klein
Video – Bibi Abel
Dramaturg – Zsolt Horpácsy

Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester
Simone Di Felice (Conductor)

Gluck originally wrote Ezio for Prague in 1750, for which there is an excellent recording by Il Complesso Barocco under the late Alan Curtis. Gluck subsequently edited the opera for Viennese performances in 1763, replacing some of the music that had found its way into Orfeo and adding new arias.

Eighteenth Century opera – and in particular Metastasian opera seria – is all about balance. Admittedly for some it might not always seem like that if you view sitting through one as an ‘interminable marathon of da capo aria and secco recitative’ as a friend once put it. He’s still a friend – we just don’t go to opera seria together anymore. The balance is more that just the music. It’s the relationships between the characters. Their interplay as the drama unfolds. And following the rules set out by Metastasio himself, and followed almost slavishly by composers including Gluck – at least to start with.

Without that balance something doesn’t quite feel right and that feeling grew as my evening in Frankfurt passed by. I’m far from an expert on this opera – despite enjoying Curtis’ vibrant recording – or opera in general but something seemed awry. And I don’t just mean the singing, playing and production. I don’t know what hybrid of the original score(s) were used but by the end it felt that Attila – Ezio’s adversary – had himself taken a sword to the score. Personally I don’t see what the problem is with performing all three acts as originally intended – squeezing the drama into two halves is simply nonsensical. There were also specific moments when it was clear that arias had been ejected. For example, the end of the first ‘half’ didn’t end with an expected aria or duet, but rather a slightly awkward glove puppet narration by Varo. Any sense of dramatic momentum from the first half – which was already minimal – was completely destroyed. The second half opened with a huge swathe of secco recitative – by my watch almost, if not over fifteen minutes. I can’t imagine that this would have been in the original score unless Gluck really wanted his patrons to finish another round of canasta in their boxes. Even for me, it was almost interminable.

On stage, Rupert Enticknap’s Valentiniano was ultimately entitled to Caesar’s laurels. He may have tired towards the end, most noticeably in the trio, but his voice was bright, light and true. At times Enticknap’s voice could have benefitted from more heft and as with the rest of the cast, his da capo lines could have shown greater originality in their ornamentation. As this lack of inventiveness was true of all the singers, I had to wonder if Broussard and his dramaturg Horpácsy had forgotten that Gluck wrote this before his own reforms excised ornamentation from his music.

Of the remaining cast, Theo Lebow’s Massimo and the Varo of Michael Porter came off best. Lebow’s singing was both characterful and mostly effortless – matched by some pretty smart acting – and Porter had a mellifluous tenor which came across well in his single aria.

The two women, Cecelia Hall’s Fulvia and Sydney Mancasola’s Onoria were miscast for different reasons. Both had pleasant enough voices although Mancasola’s was on the slightly harsh and brittle side, but neither had the necessary heft nor range of colour. This was particularly true of Hall with a distinct lack of colour or dramatic delivery missing most of the time. She was more often than not inaudible in the Gluck’s excellent trio and in Misera, dove son? she failed to deliver any of the range of emotions contained therein.

However, Max Emanuel Cencic proved the greatest disappointment. Having recently seen him in London, I had hoped that on stage, sans score, there would be a noticeable improvement. There was some, but not much. It may be the fault of the direction – there was a lot of leaping on benches but not much else – but Cencic’s dramatic vocabulary didn’t extend beyond raising his hands quite a lot. Vocally, his diction was indistinct much of the time, his da capos lacklustre and at times he failed to carry above the orchestra.

The orchestra itself didn’t acquit itself from the start. There was a lack of vigour from the opening notes of the overture, with brass and winds mysteriously muted. Simone De Felice single approach to the music seemed ‘tutissimo legato’ although as if to banish the aural cobwebs that had collected at the beginning of the second act, the subsequent aria had more bite before the musicians returned to a more lax – even lazy – performance attitude. Indeed, by the final chorus everyone sounded like they just wanted to go home. Judging from the audience departures at half time, they weren’t the only ones.

Boussard’s direction was handsomely supported by costumes by Monsieur Lacroix, although Fulvia almost came a cropper on her first entrance. There was some clever use of light and reflection but nothing could quite mask the overall lack of inspiration. I’ve already mentioned the quite distracting – almost comic – leaping on and off strategically placed benches which seemed to be the extent of the acting lexicon. At the end, the transition to a modern museum seemed more like a desperate attempt to inject some actual interest than a logical part of the drama. If Fulvia was lost, so were we.

I am not saying that Eighteenth Century opera has to be performed precisely as it was in the 1700s but Oper Franfurt’s Ezio didn’t so much fall between stools as much as leap off the creative abyss. I’m sure the company is excellent in many operas but I’m not sure Gluck is ‘their man’.

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