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Chasing A Marvellous Shadow In Copenhagen

In Classical Music, Opera on May 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen), May 28 2011

The Emperor: Johnny van Hal
The Empress: Sylvie Valayre
Barak: James Johnson
Barak’s Wife: Linda Watson
The Nurse: Ildiko Szönyi

Conductor: Michael Schønwandt
Director: Kasper Holten
Set, Projections & Costume: Steffens Aarfing
Light Designer: Jesper Kongshang
Video Designer: Steffan Aarfing & Signe Krogh

Die Frau ohne Schatten must rank as one of Strauss’ most difficult operas not only for the performers but for the audience as well.

The almost impenetrable libretto crafted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal draws upon a great deal of symbolism and allusion to other works which, while it may have satisfied his intellectual bent, would have been lost on the majority of listeners in 1919 and probably still is today. Fortunately however, the audience can listen to the entire opera guided by the universal themes of true love, forgiveness and the defeat of evil, and just sit back to enjoy the sumptuous music and, in this case, a great production.

Often the music composed by Strauss has been dismissed as being ‘heavy duty’ and I suppose for audiences used to Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier it might seem so. Yet judging from this particular performance, I am beginning to think that this might be an observation made by those who have not listened to the opera in its entirety. I have long loved the beautifully constructed score of Die Frau. Within it, Strauss clearly shows himself to be a master in orchestration, switching from full orchestral might to heavenly chamber-like sequences in a turn, as well as adept at handling of motifs and overall structure.

And a quick word about the Copenhagen opera house – or Operaen as it is known. Designed by Henning Larsen, it is a modern architectural gem. Approached by boat it sits on the island of Holmen opposite Amaliehaven in the centre of town. The lobby areas are open, light and airy, affording great views of the theatre across the water as well as Copenhagen itself, and the interior is beautifully designed, with a rich, warm acoustic and comfortable seats! A visit – especially considering the high performance standards – is a must.

This particular Copenhagen production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was the swansong of Kasper Holten who will soon take up his new post as Director Of Opera at The Royal Opera House following the retirement of Elaine Padmore. And on the strength of this production I, for one, am excited about his intending arrival and the positive impact it will have at Covent Garden.

From beginning to end almost, the production was intelligent, well executed and I think, true to the original conceptions of librettist and composer. Often when animation and video are used in opera productions they tend to interfere with the drama onstage. I think back particularly to the recent Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera with Figgis’ badly judged Fellini-esque short films (which in fact almost took on the guise of badly made home porn) and the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde in Paris. In truth, when I saw the latter production last year in London again as a concert performance the accompanying films worked much better. In Paris they simply distracted from the stage action – which admittedly revolved around the characters sitting, lying or standing on a simple blackened stage with a black box doubling as a boat, bed and final funeral dais.

In this case the staging was well conceived. The manga/noir inspired animation worked well, although even I have to admit I had somewhat tired somewhat of the circling falcon by the end. But the use of imagery, from the gangster-like portrait of Keikobad, the trickling hourglass and, during The Empress’s dream sequence, the petrifying Emperor, all added a clear layer of explanation.

The set very tidily separated out the worlds of gods and humans, and in the final Act Holten rather smartly turned the chambers of the gods from the first two acts into the prison cells for Barak and his wife. Similarly breathtaking was the end of Act One when the Dyer’s wife leaves him to sleep alone as she wearily climbs to the upper level to gaze up at the tall, Gotham-esque buildings above her.

However the final scenes saw the entire set removed which at the start continued the dramatic momentum. This was particularly true of the scene where the Empress confronts her father. The sudden lack of the set created a real sense of a massive throne room, helped by the simple and imposing backdrop of Keikobad himself before which she reasoned. However, trial over and with The Emperor restored, the scene changed to a nineteenth-century landscape painting in the style, to me, of the Danish painter Christian Købke. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture yet personally it seemed like too great a stylistic change and was further exacerbated in the closing scene of five suspended ova onto which Holten projected caricatured images of children’s faces and foetuses. But on the whole, a smart and intelligent staging.

So to the music. As I have mentioned, it is often considered to be a difficult listen, and probably it is if the musicians are not of a high standard and not led by an intuitive and experienced conductor. Michael Schønwandt clearly loves the score and furnished a great attention to the orchestral detail, summoning impressive, secure and eloquent playing from his orchestra throughout, from the opening Keikobad motif to the final shimmering sounds of the closing bars. From the loudest crescendi to the most transparent of chamber-like sequences, the players demonstrated a high standard of playing throughout. But a special mention must go to the the Principal Cellist, Anders Öberg and his section for their beautiful playing at opening of the Second Act. Not only was the playing exquisite but for the first time it made me wonder if, as Strauss composed Metamorphosen at the end of his life, he did not think back – however fleetingly – to this part of the opera?

Of the singers, undoubtedly the night belonged to Linda Watson as Barak’s Wife. How I wish that she would sing in London more often for she has a marvellous voice – a rich, velvety tone which is supple throughout it’s whole range. She is an extremely talented singer, demonstrating an innate ability to colour the diction-pure words of her character throughout. Ms Watson easily negotiated the demands of this most difficult role, not only having the heft to ride above the orchestra when required but also able to float the softest notes even at the top of her register. Combined with a real talent for acting – so rare these days in singers – she made the character credible, from her avaricious and hawkish opening scenes to her final reconciliation with her husband. I will be listening to Thielemann’s Ring now I am back with renewed interest.

Ildiko Szönyi replaced Susanne Resmark on the night in question as The Nurse and did so admirably. Again she combined good acting with eloquent, straightforward singing. While her voice might not be to everyone’s taste, with a slight metallic ring when stretched, she inhabited the character of The Nurse so much so that her demise at the end definitely felt well-deserved.

Barak was played by James Johnson – a difficult role which he carried off with great skill and verve. From his initial cheerful demeanour, through his betrayal ton final act of forgiveness, Johnson performed credibly, although he did visibly tire at the end. Yet his deep, resounding bass – again with good, clear diction – was able to ride above the orchestra for the most part.

Sylvie Valayre’s Empress was – for me I’m afraid – less than passable. Not being acquainted with this soprano, a quick ‘google’ revealed that she is more well-known for her Verdi and Puccini heroines (apparently a notable Lady Macbeth at the Proms in recent years) rather than Strauss. It seems she came to Strauss quite late, starting with Salome before moving to The Empress in Die Frau, in which this was her Copenhagen debut. From her opening scene, with it’s bird-like runs it was clear that this was not going to be a first-class performance. I do not want to be unkind but throughout the performance Valayre sounded both challenged and strained vocally. At one point in the final act, a millisecond hesitation made it seem like she might not hit the note. Fortunately she did, but with neither grace or subtlety. In fact there was neither grace or subtlety in her entire performance, and for the most part a lack of vocal colour undermined further by some weak acting. I wonder if this role – and it does require a soprano with a formidable and secure talent – is now slightly too ambitious for Valayre? However I may be doing a disservice to her as an interpreter of Verdi and Puccini so will check out some of her recordings.

I’m afraid Johnny van Hal was similarly unimpressive, but for different reasons. His is an impressive voice – a beautiful, clear tone – but simply too light-weight for this role. Wonderfully expansive when the orchestra was in ‘chamber’ mode, he could not cut through when he was ranged against the whole cohort.

The three brothers were ably sung and interestingly, Holten had them portrayed almost as children – a nice gesture to the underlying friction in the Dyer’s household.

I did notice that Pappano was in attendance. I wonder if it was to consider Die Frau for a future ROH Season? I certainly hope so and that he won’t be put off worrying that the London audience might not enjoy it. If he was to bring this production to London – hopefully it would fit in the confines of Covent Garden’s stage – and with a strong cast including Ms Watson, it would definitely sell out.

Indeed the evening in Copenhagen belonged to Linda Watson and the production team and I shall be returning to Operaen again.

Handel – With Care (Wednesday 25 May @ The Barbican)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on May 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm
  • Ariodante: Joyce DiDonato
  • Ginevra: Karina Gauvin
  • Lurcanio: Nicholas Phan
  • Dalinda: Sabina Puértolas
  • King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
  • Polinesso: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
  • Odoardo: Sam Furness
  • Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are one of the leading – if not the premier – original instrument ensembles at the moment. Their recordings of Handel’s operas are second to none and Curtis always assembles the strongest and most distinctive case.

The evening’s concert performance of Ariodante– part of a promotional tour for the new recording that they have just released – was no different. A quick glance at the cast – with three leading baroque specialists in the lead roles – meant that on paper it could not disappoint and in reality it exceeded expectation.

Ariodante has never been one of my favourite Handel operas. I have – like many people I think – enjoyed individual arias from the work, but previously the opera as a whole has not appealed. I can safely say that after this evening’s performance that has changed. I will be listening to their new recording of the opera with renewed interest.

Joyce DiDonato is a superlative, intelligent and charismatic performer. I first saw her in Hercules at the Barbican theatre in 2006 and – I must admit – have been a fan ever since. Her voice is beautifully round, robust and even through her whole – and extensive – range and she throws out pin-point precise coloratura. And her dynamic control, of light and shade, is always well judged. It is breathtaking how she can simply float a high note as was demonstrated this evening.

But what sets  DiDonato apart from many of her colleagues is how she inhabits the character she is singing. And tonight was no different. A stunning performance throughout, with a real sense of intelligence and insight of the lead character but for me – and I think many people in the auditorium – the standout moment was Scherza infida. Of course this is the most famous aria in the opera, and in Handel’s entire operatic output, but tonight was truly special. From the recitative immediately preceding, as Ariodante she was a broken man. Not only in her acting – and indeed she seemed to almost shrink into herself – but even how she modulated her voice into what can only be described as sobs. It was a searing interpretation and the whole audience seemed to collectively hold its breath until the final bar faded.

Yet this aria was merely the highpoint of an outstanding performance. Through every aria, from the pastoral arioso Qui d’amor nel suo linguaggio, the menacing Tu preparati a morire in the second act to the final, thrilling Dopo notte atra e funeste, with its perfectly executed, show-stopping bravura, DiDonato portrayed a character going through every emotion in the book.

Yet unlike many performances where one singer stands alone, this performance of Ariodante was different. DiDonato was one of a sterling team of singers.

Karina Gauvin as her spouse, created a Ginevra who was as human as her hero. Again from her opening Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio to her masterful final scenes of the Second Act, Gauvin delivered an amazing performance. Before the audience she went from princess-in-love to princess-on-the-edge, and made even her most difficult coloratura seem effortless and she spun her silvery voice around the notes.

And whenever DiDonato and Gauvin sang together, their voices blended perfectly.

Yet for me, the most pleasant surprise of the evening was Lemieux’s Polinesso. In her swagger it immediately reminded me of Kassarova’s Ruggiero from a recent performance of Alcina. With a rich, velvety voice Lemieux revelled in her character, again alternating between throwing off brilliant and effortless coloratura and beautiful legato phrases. Dover, giustizia, amor was particularly memorable. Indeed, this evening I have returned home and downloaded her latest album – Ne me refuse pas – Airs d’opéras français – and cannot wait to listen to it.

And what made each of their performances seem even more vital and alert was the incredible attention they paid to diction.

The rest of the cast, Matthew Brooks’ King, Nicholas Phan’s Lurcanio and last-minute stand-in, Sam Furness as Odoardo were all very good. Sabina Puértolas as Dalinda was a completely new singer to me. Her bright, light and flexible soprano was a delight and I look forward to hearing her again.

Needless to say Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco were exemplary in their support of the singers. Special mention must be made of the horn players who acquitted themselves more than admirably.

It is clear that Curtis is unrivalled in his understanding of, sympathy with and interpretation of Handel’s music. Tempos were perfect and the recitatives flow naturally.

I read in the programme that Giulio Cesare, Arianna in Creta and Agrippina are listed as future engagements and I, for one, cannot wait.

But this evening definitely belonged to the ladies. And the audiences showed their grateful appreciation.

Thank you one and all.

Review – Alessandro, Handel (Jacobs/Boulin/Poulenard/Nirouët/Varcoe/de Mey/Le Petite Bande/Kuijken. Reissue.

In Classical Music, Opera on May 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Recorded in February 1984 this reissue of Handel’s Alessandro is testament that there is nothing ‘new’ anymore about performances on original instruments. In the early 1980s this recording would have had the thrill of being original and authentic in every sense of the word. And Kuijken and Le Petite Bande were one of the earliest exponents of ‘authentic’ performance.

Indeed, looking at the cast list, it is interesting to see that René Jacobs began his career on the other side of the continuo section – on the stage.

Alessandro was first performed in 1726 and follows such stalwarts as Rinaldo, Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, and precedes Alcina by a whole decade. It also has the historical envy of being the first opera that Handel wrote for Faustina Bordoni, later the wife of Johann Adolf Hasse. The other soprano soloist in the first performance was Francesca Cuzzoni, but alas it was not during Alessandro that they came to blows on the stage. If memory serves me correctly, an opera by Bononcini was accorded that honour.

So almost twenty years after it was recorded, how does Kuijken’s recording fare against more recent Baroque bands? Personally it could have been recorded yesterday so fresh, articulate and enjoyable is the performance, with not one weak element in the ensemble.

Vocally the soloists are incredibly strong. Jacobs sings the title role originally written for Senesino, with Sophie Boulin and Isabelle Poulenard singing the roles of Rossane/Bordoni and Lisaura/Cuzzoni respectively. From the beginning they deliver amazingly strong performances – vocally secure, beautifully sung and with a real sense of intelligence and understanding. René Jacobs countertenor has a beautifully rounded, bell-like tone across his range, coupled with strong technique. Boulin and Poulenard have distinct voices – clearly one of the reasons why they were originally cast – so that a listener interested in spotting which arias Handel specifically write for these two sparring sopranos can do so quite easily. Even the two other countertenors – Jean Nirouët and the delightful Guy de Mey – are easily distinguishable from one another.

The arias throughout are mainly da capo as expected, but it is interesting how far we have departed in terms of ornamentation in the returning da capo sections. There is virtually little ornamentation or embellishment on the return of the first section as opposed to some of the flights of fancy we hear these days in newer recordings and on stage. However if reports of the day are to be believed, neither interpretation is right nor wrong. Although I personally have to admit to a sense of relief when singers err on the side of intelligence.

Sigiswald Kuijken and Le Petite Bande – first formed in 1972 – play with great distinction and I quickly remembered that on the performance strengths of these early enthusiasts a whole dynasty of authentic orchestras has been built. The players play with great bite and spirit not only in the opening overture and the onstage sinfonia that follows immediately, but in all the arias.

And of the music itself? While Alessandro is no Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo or Alcina, it is a beautifully crafted opera, with almost all the arias – and not only those that have made it to recital discs – worthy of being heard more than once. Indeed the opera in its entirety bears repeated listening. Even the recitatives. It’s good to hear recitatives delivered with the clarity of diction and sense of momentum as they are here.

From the opening bars of the overture, Alessandro sets out to capture the attention of the listener. Not only are the arias delightful but there is also an attention to detail that encourages careful listening. For example the fast section of the overture with it’s delicate rhythmic bounce and then – most unexpectedly and already mentioned – a sinfonia complete with trumpets as the curtain rises onto Alessandro’s opening accompanied recitative.

In the arias for Alessandro – a role written for Senesino – we are not confronted by a leader in the same mould as Giulio Cesare, a role also created for this famous castrati. Instead for the most part the arias have an almost galant lilt to them. The first aria, Fra le stragi e fra le morti for example, with its delicate vocal divisions and trills, was clearly written to land the range of skills of Senesino immediately – a beauty of tone, agile runs and faultless trilling. His second of three arias in the First Act, Men fedele, e men costante, continues in the same vein, although the angular nature of the accompaniment leaves the listener in no doubt that this is ‘the King’ singing. The closing aria of the act is not the crowd raiser that is often expected at the end of acts in Baroque opera. The gentle strumming of the opening bars gives way once again to a feeling of galanterie. The sustained opening vocal line reinforces a sense of Alessandro as a benign (or Enlightened?) monarch. Indeed only in his final aria, Prove sono di grandezza perdonar l’alme soggette does Alessandro finally get the vocal fireworks more often associated with the leading man. However even here, there is no sense of grandeur – no trumpets, no timpani, simply a beautifully crafted aria left to stamp it’s own mark and underline Alessandro’s magnanimity once again before the closing duet.

The music that Handel wrote for Bordoni as Rossane made sure that she was given ample opportunity to display her vocal talents. Quantz via Charles Burney commented that she was an accomplished performer with a “flexible throat for divisions … so beautiful a shake … She sang adagios with great passion and expression … In short, she was born for singing and acting”. And within the short space of her two arias in the opening act this is quickly established and conveyed by Sophie Boulin. A clear, well articulated singer, Boulin clearly enjoys the role. Interestingly Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero bears a passing resemblance to Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina, performed in 1735. Rossane’s beautiful arioso at the beginning of Act Two, with it’s plangent recorders, is in marked contrast to her preceding arias and is the first of three occasions where Handel introduces recorders in the entire opera. Tassile’s Sempre fido e disprezzato, beautifully sung by Jean Nirouët, sees their return and provides a gentle respite in the opera as a whole. Rossane’s only other aria in the middle act – Alla sua gabbia d’oro soul ritorna talor, was again clearly written to specification for Signora Bordoni’s vocal prowess, and particular for her vocal trademark – the repetition of a single note rapidly. Yet it is Brilla nell’alma un non inteso ancor dolce contento which is one of the highlights of the opera and most often heard on recital discs. Again this aria has been cut to fit Bordoni’s cloth and performed immaculately by Boulin, it is nothing short of a show-stopper.

Lisaura, ably sung by Isabelle Poulenard, has one less aria than her protagonist but the music that Handel wrote for Cuzzoni is as beautiful. Cuzzoni’s abilities were already well-known to the composer, for he had created the roles of Cleopatra and Rodelinda for her, and it was during Ottone that he threatened to throw her out of a window. To this extent, her arias feel more rounded than those for Bordoni as, in a sense, Handel was only just getting acquainted with the latter’s voice. No, più soffrir non voglio in the First Act clearly demonstrates this fact, and Poulenard sings out off the rapid divisions and leaps with clear relish. In a more pathetic vein is Che tirannia d’Amor, with its delicate suspensions and nicely balanced by her final aria in the second act, La cervetta nei lacci avvolta.

Unusually the duet towards the close of the first act – Placa l’alma, quieta il petto – is between Rossane and Lisaura, and is clearly inspired by the sixth Concerto Grosso from his Opus 3.

Yet it is in the closing duet, In generoso onor, that Handel provides the audience with a final surprise. After an as-expected opening, with the castrato and soprano entwined in thirds, sixths and suspensions, Handel veers into new territory marked with a languishing melisma for Alessandro and the arrival of recorders one final time. At this point Rossane joins the King and Lisaura for a trio before they are ultimately joined by choir and trumpets to supply a martial ending to the whole opera.

So while Alessandro is not on a par with perhaps Giulio Cesare or Alcina it is a beautifully crafted opera. More importantly it is, overall, a memorable reissue. My only gripe? No libretto enclosed.

Review – Serenata a Filli & Le muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezza di Filli (Galli/Fernadez/Oro, La Risonnanza, Bonizzoni)

In Classical Music on May 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

Having enjoyed Fabio Bonizzoni and La Rizonanza’s recordings of Handel’s Italian cantatas, I was very interested when I picked a copy of his recording of serenatas by Alessandro Scarlatti. The two on this recording – written for Rome in 1706 – are Serenata a Filli and Le Muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezze di Filli and the soloists are Emanuela Galli, Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and the countertenor Martin Oro.

In the history of Baroque music Alessandro Scarlatti predates Handel, yet the former clearly had a direct influence on the young German who must have become more than well-acquainted with Scarlatti’s music doing his sojourn in Italy. Without a doubt Handel took what he learned from the elder Italian and wove it into his own musical language. From his Italian cantatas onwards to his operas, there is a clear debt owed to Scarlatti. Indeed, at times some of the arias in these serenatas could almost – I can only say almost – be mistaken for works by Handel himself – particularly the works that Handel wrote during his stay on the peninsula and immediately after.

To the performances. In short they are stunning. This disc is worlds apart from the recent recital disc of Mozart arias by Ildebrando Arcangelo. These performers clearly loved performing these works and it shows.

Bonizzoni clearly ranks as one of the most intelligent and thoughtful baroque interpreters around today, and his ensemble, La Rissonanza are faultless. This music is not easy to perform. Scored simply for strings and continuo it’s simplicity belies the challenge to deliver performances of subtlety, colour and verve. They deliver it in buckets. The playing is articulate, crisp, with a real sense of rhythm and gesture. Yet from the very start they achieve a rare feat – of balance. Balance between the singers and the instrumentalists but also the fine balance of emotions between the individual numbers.

And the singers similarly relish the challenge of delivering brilliant performances. They wrap themselves in the words of the text, with clean, clear diction, and produce music of an outstanding standard. I enjoyed Emanuela Galli on Bonozzoni’s Handel canatas, but Arias Fernandez and Oro are two artists I do not know at all, but I will keep and eye out for other discs and performances of these two singers.

While both of these serenatas were written for a specific patron in Rome, Serenata a Filli is the more substantial of the two works and it is a sheer pleasure from beginning to end. The structure may be simple but there is never a dull moment. Following a very simple sinfonia, reminiscent of one of Corelli’s concerti grossi, it is a succession of arias, duets and – for me quite surprisingly – trios interspersed with recitative. It is a credit to the performers that – because of their careful attention to the texts – even the recitatives come to life.

The arias are either basic da capo or strophic in form, and again Bonnizoni avoids over ornamentation in the vocal lines. The faster numbers dance along with great verve and the more gentle arias simply melt. The highlight of this serenata is clearly Ombre voi d’un cor fedele, performed with almost heart-stopping simplicity by Arias Fernandez. Below a simple vocal line the momentum is maintained by a dymanic ground bass – in this aria Bonnizoni doesn’t allow us to forget the fundamental debt that baroque music owes to dance idioms.

However Scarlatti moves the music on. No, non ingrannate which follows immediately after has a charming obbligato violin interplay with Galli and at the final return of the first section a subtle rhythmic change to the opening phrase. A beautiful little detail that just raises the attention of the listener once again.

The final trio, Svegliati o bello intanto, is a remarkable finish to the first serenata. The mournful opening clearly echoes the opening sinfonia and demonstrates Scarlatti’s sense of overarching form. The delicacy achieved in the heart-wrenching suspensions, the word play on svegliati and the sometimes surprising modulations demonstrate in a nutshell the genius of the whole serenata.

The performance of the Serenata e Filli would be worth having the disc alone, yet Bonnizoni and his merry band provide a second remarkable performance, of Le muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezza di Filli.

In tone and style this is a complete different work although the attribution of ‘di Filli’ means that they were written for the same patron. The opening sinfonia and trio, Viva, viva pur felice demonstrate not only Scarlatti’s influence on Handel, but also his Venetian compatriot, Antonio Vivaldi.

Again this serenata is a succession of arias and ensembles, and has a more pastoral yet melancholy feel. From the beginning Scarlatti achieves a completely different feel and in some ways the instrumental writing in this serenata is more ‘advanced’ than in the previous serenata. From Sua guancia vezzosa with its charming cello obbligato and the delicate violin filigree of Se rivolge quegli’occhi innamorata, to the returning cello obbligato for Questa si ch’in petto aduna, Alessandro Scarlatti creates a completely different emotional world.

And the simple final trio, Dormi o bella Filli concludes Le muse Urania e Clio lodano le bellezza di Filli, provides the perfect ending to an immensely enjoyable recital.

Without a doubt, this is a disc to buy for yourself and your friends.

Review – Mozart Arias (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo/Noseda)

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on May 16, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Mozart recitals by female artists are an almost weekly occurrence so it’s always always a pleasant change to be confronted by performances of Mozart’s lesser-recital’d arias for bass/baritone. And when the artist is the consummate ‘poster boy’ Ildebrando D’Arcangelo then the appetite is clearly whetted in advance. Add to that the conductor is Gianandrea Noseda and the combination should be perfect.

Having seen D’Arcangelo in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, I was looking forward to a more-than-enjoyable recital disc. On stage he is a consummate actor, his Leporello was just the right balance of servile accomplice and wannabe grandee. In fact I seem to remember he almost stole the show with his almost feral sexuality and sense of nihilism.

And on the whole the performances are literally flawless. That is to say that, note for note, bar one single aria, the performances are flawless. D’Arcangelo’s voice is rich and deep, with a pleasing and equal resonance through every register. The orchestra of the Teatro Regio Di Torino also play flawlessly for Noseda. Having now left the BBC Philharmonic after a wonderful final performance of Otello (see Verdi’s Otello – A Fitting Farewell), I understand that he will be spending more time conducting this orchestra. They clearly have a good relationship as the playing is also incredibly refined, particularly the playing by the wind sections.

Yet while the performances are flawless, they lack any sense of character. D’Arcangelo essays all the major roles of Don Giovanni, Figaro and Cosí together with some of the insertion and concert arias that Mozart composed. Yet from his entrance in Madamina, il catalogo è questo – in the Prague version apparently – that vital element of characterisation is missing. This isn’t Leporello singing jealously of his master’s sexual conquests across Europe but simply a performance. And similarly his Don isn’t the great seducer in Deh! Vieni alla finestra. Had he sung like this in reality perhaps the servant girl would have stayed in and washed her hair!

And so it goes on, his Figaro cuts no dash and his arias drawn from Cosí simply lack interest.

Potentially of more interest are the concert/insertion arias that are included on the disc. Yet again there is no sense of characterisation. Indeed more here than in the more famous opera arias, there is a real sense of D’Arcangelo simply going through the motions. Alcandro lo confesso… Non sò d’onde viene (K512) almost topples into disaster. He is clearly uncomfortable in the coloratura, which is quite extensive for a bass aria, with the result that this is the single turgid performance on the disc. However it has to be said that none of the arias in this category really hit the mark.

Naturally it must be difficult in a recital situation to perfectly capture the character of differing individuals. Yet Mozart’s music and the libretti make for more than ample tools for at least an attempt. Changing dynamic range simply isn’t enough. Naturally his diction is very good, but the texts do not come alive in anyway. There is no sense of irony in Se vuol balare, and no sense of swagger in Fin ch’han il vino for example. And fan of Noseda as I am, even I must admit that the orchestral playing simply serves as accompaniment rather than supporting any sense of portrayal. Where are the heckling wind and brass in the catalogue aria? I missed their expected intrusion.

Perhaps, as is often the case with recital releases now, D’Arcangelo will now tour a series of concerts. And maybe his performances will come alive when he is in front of a concert hall audience.

I certainly hope so because until then this CD simply remains – for me at least – just another technically flawless recital disc.

Die Walküre – The Misintentioned Mechanics of Lepage’s Production

In Classical Music, Opera on May 6, 2011 at 7:21 am

Listening to – Violin Concerto, Faust/Brahms

Having attended the opening night and second performance of Robert Lepage’s production of Die Walküre at the Met, there was something distinctly ‘baroque’ about the whole evening.

It seemed to me that rather than the stage machinery and technology providing a foundation to enhance the drama, in fact the whole production seemed to rely almost excessively on the mechanics and, in a sense, forsaking Wagner’s own concept of Gesamtkunst. That is not to say that the music, and the performances were not, on the whole, incredibly strong, but throughout both the evenings that I attended there was a real sense that mechanical intervention had been permitted – or instructed deliberately – to take precedence. Indeed it was interesting to hear the interval and post-performance chatter. It wasn’t about the performances, or Levine’s conducting, but it had a distinctly ‘How the devil did he do that’ quality.

In a sense Lepage’s production sought – as they did in baroque and early 18th century opera – to overwhelm the audience with feats of mechanical engineering. Of course, this may have worked well in operas of earlier generations when gods, flying chariots, and flying scenery changes offered a distraction from the recitative that alternated with the arias for which the audience even stopped talking. But in Wagner where the music is – to coin a distinctly 18th century term – through-composed, then it almost served as a distraction.

The use of a single, if impressive, mechanical plateau of moving planks also leant itself to restrictions. While the opening, driven forward by Levine’s knowledgeable conducting and love of the score, looked visually arresting as the projections morphed from a snow storm, via a forest to the wooden piles of Hunding’s hut, it offered little, if any, sense of atmosphere or real location. There was no sense of the singers interacting with their environment. Surprising and not a little disappointing considering that Hamburg’s recent production demonstrated that even a ‘big white empty space’ could invoke a sense of reality and emotional projection. For most of the evening, it felt like singing from the school of ‘stand and deliver’, with isolated moments when what would have seemed like perfectly acceptable actions simply felt wildly over-acted and almost inappropriate. I call to mind in particular Kaufman’s rushing about the stage swinging Northung.

Similarly the Second Act – where Deborah Voigt came a cropper on her first entry on the first night and which clearly unnerved her for the rest of the performance – felt similarly devoid of a sense of place. The use of an eye as Wotan recounted the events at led him to his current predicament to Brunnhilde had a definite Tolkiensian feeling and similarly, the previous scenes involving Fricka, literally glued to her rams’ chariot, would have had an almost comical feel had it not been for Stephanie Blythe’s mesmerising performance. I wondered if Fricka had been condemned to her chariot for fear of her own safety.

The Final Act began and ended ‘on Broadway’. The Valkyries arrived riding the automated, moving planks which elicited much applause from the New York audience, and until the final denouément, it felt like Lepage only threw in a few animations of falling snow (or was it clouds?) for fear that the concentration of the collective audience would wander. Clearly Lepage doesn’t know his Wagner audience. The snow, or clouds, were a distraction.

The final scene, seeing Brunnhilde – well an actress, not Voigt – upended on a cliff face was visually arresting but provided none of the sense of scale of the previous production by Schenk. This was not helped by the fact that Terfel and Voigt had to exit ‘stage left’ so that Wotan could rise in the lift backstage to hoist pseudo-Brunnhilde aloft. By that point it didn’t surprise and seemed a real sense of anti-climax as the picture was already in the public domain and therefore the reveal was spoiled.

And maybe because of the restrictions imposed by the stages, the lighting was incredibly simple, with an over-reliance on spotlighting the singers and, I admit, in one stunning moment, Northung plunged into the oak. Yet bar this specific instances, lighting seemed to be limited to two settings – on and off.

What was equally surprising were the costumes of the characters. From the chain mail of Siegfried and the breast-plated armour of Wotan and the Valkyrie to the distinctly pseudo-Celtic robes of Sieglinde, Fricka and Hunding, the costumes would not have looked out of place in Schenk’s production which this replaced.

In the same way, any direction of the characters was simply lacking. Again I put this down to a reliance on the mechanics to convey the narrative and sense of action. For the most part, and as I have mentioned above, the mantra seemed to be ‘stand and deliver’ but there were moments of genuine acting and it is worth noting which singers seemed keen to extend beyond the restrictions imposed on them. At the end of the first act, Kaufman and Westbroek engaged in some ‘real acting’ as they declared their love for one another, and Stephanie Blythe, despite being condemned to her horned throne, managed to convey a real sense of anger, frustration and – dare I say it – lost love for Wotan.

Yet despite the distractions provided by Lepage’s set, the singing and playing was of an incredibly high, if not consistent, standard. The main cast were: Jonas Kaufman (Siegmund); Eva-Maria Westbroek and Margaret-Jane Wray (Sieglinde); Peter Koenig (Hunding); Bryn Terfel (Wotan); Deborah Voigt (Brunnhilde) and Stephanie Blythe (Fricka). On the First Night Westbroek was replaced by Wray for the second and third acts.

This was, I believe, Kaufman’s debut at the Met, and considering his repertory roles in Germany, his first Siegmund. He was, on the whole, impressive. Having already sung principal roles in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Rienzi, Kaufmann has a real sense of Wagner’s vocal line, and a brilliant and bell-like upper register. However Siegmund pushes the vocal range for tenors at both ends of the scale, and there were occasional moments when Kaufmann’s delivery of lower notes grumbled. However this was a small rice to pay for a vigorous and beautifully sung Siegmund.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was also making her debut at the Met, yet Sieglinde is fast becoming a signature role for her. Despite her incapacity on the first night, she demonstrated hat she is one of the leading Sieglinde’s of today, comparable with the likes of Angela Denoke who performed the role in Hamburg. Incapacitated on opening night, on her second night, Westbroek revelled in the vocal lines, effortlessly rising against the orchestra when she needed to but also capable of dropping to a deathly whisper as required in the second act. Her final scene before departing to the woods was vocally secure, beautifully phrased and rang out over the orchestra. Without doubt she will on day move from an impressive Sieglinde to an equally defining Brunnhilde.

Margaret-Jane Wray stepped in at short notice on the first night and delivered a finely rendered character. She is a fine Wagnerian soprano, with the heft for the role although – perhaps because of the last minute nature of her appearance – she occasionally over-sang. Regardless, it was a brave and heart-felt performance.

Clearly Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde was the Met’s main focus. In costume she dominated the marketing for the production, and overall she did not disappoint. Despite her first night slip, she delivered a worthy Brunnhilde. Her musicality, and understanding of the role were never in doubt and she has gleaming top notes with an almost even tone through her range. However, and perhaps even on the second night she was still wary of the set, on occasion her voice would possess an almost metallic, harsh tone, particular in the upper register. Brunnhilde may be a role that Voigt wants to sing, but perhaps it isn’t ultimately a role that suits her. There were occasions when her voice felt too small for the role and she physically seemed to struggle. She is not – and perhaps never will be – a Brunnhilde in the manner of Stemme or Dalayman.

Stephanie Blythe demonstrated that despite the limitations imposed upon her, she is one of the leading acting singers in the stage today. She delivered a three-dimensional Fricka who – unlike the equally engaging Fricka of Lilli Paasikivi – was still in love with her husband and demonstrated a frailty that is certainly not the norm for Fricka. However, considering my distinct feeling of Lepage’s deliberate disassociation from actually directing the singers, I credit Blythe with this interpretation. And as for her singing? Simply wonderful. Hers is a rich and resonant mezzo, even throughout with a luxuriant, warm tone. It was probably the single moment in the whole production when all eyes and ears were focused on the singing and acting. The staging had melted away. Superb.

So to Terfel and his Wotan. It was a convincingly rendered role and Terfel is a fine singer. But he left me wanting more. He was in good voice and his characterisation was finely tuned – indeed his scene with Fricka was a highlight for me – but there was a sense that he was not engaged with the production.

And finally, what of Levine? He is an incredible conductor. His love of Wagner and his understanding of the scale and architectural expanses of score enabled him not only to draw fine playing from the orchestra and in particular the brass, but he also provided that real sense of the seamlessness so critical in this opera. His was richly deserved cheer and ovation at the beginning, middle and end of both evenings.

Yet, despite the excellent conducting and fine – and occasionally brilliant singing – I left the Lincoln Center feeling – like the singers – disengaged from the evening’s performance. Individually the performances were good, but with the exception of Blythe and Westbroek, they were not magnificent. And Lepage seemed to forsake any real sense of direction or narrative, relying instead on the mechanics of his staging for effect. Sadly, Lepage had tried – and in my view – failed in his self-professed goal – to marry twenty-first century technology with Wagner’s Gesamtkunst – the unity of music, text and scenic setting.

Perhaps they should have just given Schenk’s traditional sets a new coat of paint.

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