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An Invigorating Dasch Through Mozart. Enjoyment Assured.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on March 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Review – Mozart Arias. Annette Dasch, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin & Marc Piollet

Buy this CD. It’s as simple as that. In the plethora of recital CDs by new and up-and-coming singers that quite literally litter the racks, Annette Dasch’s recital disc of Moart arias stands out.

I was fortunate enough to stumble on this CD while browsing the rather excellent CD shop at the Staatsoper Wien while waiting to attend a rather marvellous performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Having her recording of arias by various composers for the character of Armida led me to grab this CD.

Ms Dasch has a bright and agile soprano of which she displays great control in terms of dynamics and graceful fluidity. Firm and even throughout her range she also is in possession of a remarkable interpretative intelligence in each and every aria. There’s no excessive ornamentation and more to the point her own small interpretive decorative gestures around unexpected phrases delight rather than irritate Dove sono is a case in point for example.

And not only is her diction faultless but she puts meaning behind the text itself. Listen to her performance of the recitative of E Susanna non vien for example. Frustration, then hesitation then anger are all most effectively conveyed.

The recital disc covers all the major Mozart operas plus Zaide’s, Il Re Pastore and Lucio Silla and as much as possible the arias as grouped with respect to the operas they are from. And for the first time in a long time it was a joy – and I mean a joy – to revisit these old numbers. Ms Dasch breathes real life and honest interpretation into every single track.

The first three tracks are from Le Nozze di Figaro. Opening with Porgi Amor is really a make-or-break decision – sublimely beautiful but notoriously difficult to carry off, get it wrong and it can marr the entire recital. No worries here however as Ms Dasch – sensitively accompanied by the Akademie für Alte Musik – makes her musical intention clear – a beautifully poised, intelligent and faultless performance that sets the standard for the rest of the disc.

And that standard doesn’t slip.

Rune Sanft mein Holdens Leben with its oboe obbligato is delicately spun out with those vocal flourishes that I mentioned earlier adding to – rather than distracting from – the melody that Mozart rolls out. And there’s no hint of strain as Ms Dasch leaps on ‘Leben’ as is sometimes the case. Piollet takes the mid-section at quite a canter but doesn’t sacrifice the overall musical intelligence of this performance which is somewhat heightened with the return opening section and a sense of ‘preghiera’ in terms of Ms Dasch’s dynamic control.

Each and every aria is so beautifully performed it would be easy to write about each and every one but I sense that listening to the disc without too much commentary would be best.

But watch out for the vocal decorations in L’amerò costante for example; revel in the drama she unfolds in In quali ecessi … Mi tradi and how she effortlessly manages Donna Elvira’s sweeping phrases. Her Donna Anna is also a marvel. After a poignantly delivered recitative, her Non mi dir is both eloquent and dignified and Ms Dasch defies challenging tessitura and sails through the coloratura with incredible ease.

Non più di fiori from La clemenza di Tito and the two arias from Così fan tutte that follow throw into bold relief the rich and even tone that Ms Dasch has from her gleaming top notes to her resonant lower register. And in Fiordiligi’s two arias Come Scoglio and – for me the highlight of the entire disc – Per Pieta this incredible range is married with faultless technique as she flings off the coloratura with precise abandon. And hats off to the dexterous French horn player.

Ach, Ich Fühl’s brisker-than-normally expected pace blows cobwebs off what can sometimes seem a dirge with most singers. Again more ‘preghiera’ that hapless heroine formats Dasch and the same can be said for Giunia’s aria Fra i pensieri più funesti from Lucio Silla where the Akademie’s plangent wind sonorities are most effective in the opening section.

And no more fitting an end to a musically meticulous recital than A fuggi il traditor. The faux Baroque mannerisms are attacked with relish by the orchestra as Ms Dasch for one final time ratchets up the sense of dramatic to deliver an ovation-inducing Donna Elvira.

Bloody marvellous.

Throughout the soprano is brilliantly supported by Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under the direction Marc Piollet. This is authentic instrument playing of the highest standard. Alongside the gutsy string playing – you can almost feel the players digging into the music at some points – I was once again reminded of a sense of ‘wind band’ in the luminous playing of the wind and brass sections. Piollet drew an amazing sound from all the players and directed the entire ensemble and Ms Dasch with great sensitivity and understanding through some of Mozart’s most famous aria. It was almost as if I was hearing them for the very first time.

And one thing that keeps turning over in my mind every time I listen to this disc – and I have returned to it repeatedly? That Ms Dasch displays the same innate musical intelligence and clear joy of singing this music as Ms Edda Moser.

I have made it a general rule never to travel abroad for Mozart except in exceptional circumstances. Ms Dasch is about to put a pleasurable strain on my finances methinks.

I can’t recommend this recital enough. Enjoyment assured.

A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Wien Staatsoper, 17 March 2012)

Der Kaiser/Emperor – Robert Dean Smith
Die Kaiserin/Empress- Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme/Nurse – Birgit Remmert
Barak The Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib/The Dyer’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius

Director – Robert Carsen
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra & Chorus

Vienna, the home of The Secession, Freud, Jung and arguably the creative and spiritual home of Richard Strauss himself. The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘FroSch’ as Strauss affectionately referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, von Hofmannstahl) was held in the city in 1919 and Richard Carsen’s thoughtful and well-paced production is in some ways an homage to the city itself both musically, culturally and philosophically.

It’s impossible not to start with Carsen’s production itself. I have previously seen his Iphigénie at Covent Garden with Susan Graham and was impressed with the real sense of claustrophobia he created which added to Gluck’s drama.

In the same way, this was possibly the strongest production of ‘FroSch’ I have seen either on stage or screen. It achieved an almost perfect balance of superb singing combined with intelligent and vital support from conductor and pit and married to an insightful yet challenging production.

And all this in Strauss’ most complex and challenging collaboration with von Hofmannsthal.

Over and above the incredible density of the libretto with its symbolism the biggest challenge for any director is how and where to set the opera. Kasper Holten created and successfully delivered a well-executed fantasy world with nods to manga and animé; Jonathan Kent‘s production opted for a fantasy world that confused chinoiserie and the Ivan Bilibin’s Russian fairytale illustrations with a backstreet launderette in Putin’s morally and politically corrupt Russia. While these interpretations worked – bar the incredibly flawed and poor music-making of Gergiev and his untidy band from the Mariinsky – in the sense that they placed von Hofmannsthal’s drama in a make-believe world they both left me wanting for a deeper emotional interpretation of the drama.

Refreshingly, Carsen’s production firmly rooted the drama in a modern yet simultaneously a timeless world where the emotional drama was played out through the lens of psychoanalysis, a fitting tribute to the city where the discipline was born. I say timeless as the staging and the costumes alluded to succeeding centuries. The Nurse for example looked like she’d stepped of the latest TV hospital drama, but the robes of Empress and Dyer’s Wife and the shirt collars of the Emperor and Barak hinted at the previous Secession era.

The opera opens in a bedroom. The Nurse, in a white coat of the medical fraternity is observing her patient The Empress who is sleeping. The Messenger arrives – The Nurse’s medical colleague – and consults The Empress’ notes while delivering the ultimatum that unless she gains a shadow the Emperor will turn to stone. In a clever coup-de-théâtre the backdrop then fades to reveal a mirror image of the original room and the entrance of The Emperor. Yet this alter-space had one tiny and significant difference – the photo on the desk was not of The Emperor, but with it’s black ribbon at one corner, it was the photo of a dead man.

Keikobad – father of The Empress – is dead.

In a single fade and with so subtlety placed a visual motif I almost missed it, Carsen has revealed his intention and direction of travel. He has abolished any sense of fairytale and instead we are in the world of a daughter locked in a world of grief which is impacting on her marriage. As a result the symbolism of gaining a shadow takes on new perspectives. Not only is The Nurse the only character who is able to cross into The Emperor’s world as well as the various planes that Carsen constructs as the drama unfolds, but the very nature of what the ‘shadow’ represents is open to interpretation.

When The Empress wakes up it is clear that The Nurse is more psychoanalyst that pill-administering doctor. The significance of the three-day deadline takes on a new hue. To cure her. To find a breakthrough in her breakdown.

For Carsen, when The Empress begs The Nurse to take her to ‘the human world’ to find a shadow this isn’t about a physical journey but rather a journey into her own mind. That is where the problem lies and it is the intervention of psychoanalysis that will uncover it.

Again Carsen’s attention to detail and obsession with telling a clear narrative come to the fore as the fade returns us to the alter-world but this time a world wrecked and ruined with broken furniture and the chaos of mess. Clothes everywhere and tables overturned.

And The Dyer’s Wife is The Empress alter ego except she is dishevelled, distressed and desperate. Carsen’s reinterpretation of the relationship between the two women is a masterstroke. He removes the normal physical tension between these two protagonists and instead melds them into one. And he created a similar parallel between The Emperor and Barak. For me the question posed was this – was The Empress truly in her own mind or was what we were seeing in Barak and his Wife the true reality of her life?

It was here that the subtlety of the lighting became even more evident. The creation of shadow and shade is an important tool in any theatre or opera director’s kit of parts and when used with intelligence can be incredible effective. Here it was clear that careful thought had been given to its role. Tellingly Carsen ensured that The Empress never cast a shadow. She was always in the shade – a voyeur within her own mind. And only The Nurse was visible to Barak’s Wife.

Strauss’ opera is full of challenges and none is more challenging than how to handle the somewhat unexpected Night Watchman’s chorus that closes the first act. Holten for example placed them off-stage as his Dyer’s Wife – Linda Watson – gazed longingly at the metropolis that eluded her.

Carsen’s solution was similarly tidy. He used it as the leverage to literally lift the walls of the set and symbolically I believe to lift the walls of The Empress’ mind. The start of the intervention that might lead to a cure.

The Second Act continued along this route with the same attention to detail by Carsen and his creative team. Interestingly the appearance of a true nude – and more than physically beautiful – young man (where do they find them?) elicited no response from the Viennese audience. In London such a theatrical – and justifiable act – would have raised sighs of indignation or titters. But in this act, the most incredible moment – both dramaturgically and musically – was the dream sequence. With Kammersängerin Pieczonka hanging precariously – so it seemed – from her vertical bed we finally came to confront what we had always suspected had led to her ‘breakdown’ – the death of her father. Using a film projected onto gauze we switched from Ms Piezoncka’s amazing performance to a film of her adolescent-self going through the door of her father’s bedroom and inadvertently witnessing his death. Again Carsen tied his interpretation back to the text of von Hofmannsthal with closing images of the father tying a pendant – the talisman of the libretto – around his daughter’s neck. It was gripping and literally the stuff that psychoanalysis is made of.

In the Final Act the momentum continued. First of all, and in a scene similar to that in Copenhagen Barak and his Wife were alone on a bare stage, enclosed in cubes of light. As each came to the self-realisation of their love together then a door – the door from the previous film – opened at the back of the stage. The first step in freeing the alter egos of The Empress’ mind and beginning her own journey of recovery.

And Carsen’s interpretation of the Empress and The Nurse as they journeyed towards Keikobad was deftly dealt with. The Empress realises what she must to as a giant version – and I do mean giant – of the door to her father’s bedroom opens at the back of the stage. And The Nurse is left to face The Messenger/Doctor who proceeds to pull apart The Empress’ file page by page. As he abandons her, the prone bodies that have been lying on the floor – and perhaps her past patients – rise up and mob The Nurse, their own cases studies in hand.

The penultimate scene returns us to the bedroom of The Empress. Here the symbolism of the water in the previous film is brought to the fore as she finally faces up to her fears over the death of her father. It is not The Emperor that is turning to stone but her marriage bed before she finally gathers the strength to symbolically pull away the covers. Again the whole scene – so brilliantly directed – was made all the more luminous by Ms Pieczonka’s mesmerising performance and the incredibly simple but effective achievement of her shadow.

Again the final scene presents a challenge. For Holt it was an opportunity to raise – if rather late in the day of the production itself – questions over the pro-life argument. I can’t even remember how Kent managed it as by then all I wanted to do was leave.

For Carsen it seemed to be a combination of a metaphysical response to the proceeding drama mixed with – if I am honest – it seemed to me a 1950s Hollywood film interpretation of, well, Heaven. And weirdly it worked brilliantly. In front of a plain white canvas which so effectively projected the shadows – children of those on stage – the closing scene became a paean to love. It should have been schmaltzy but it simply wasn’t. And it worked.

To put it simply. Carsen had taken an incredibly complicated fairytale and remodelled it – bravely and I think successfully – as a modern love story.

And if Carsen’s vision was strong and consistent then the singing was some of the best have seen not only in FroSch but in a long time on any stage.

As I have said previously, Strauss does not write music that is kind to men. With the exception of Baron Ochs and the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, the roles for men in this and Ariadne for example are unforgiving. So full marks to both Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch for riding for the most part above the orchestra and delivering musically accomplished performances.

All the off-stage roles – and in particular Chen Reiss – was similarly of a high calibre. But it was the three leading ladies who stole the evening.

The Nurse is an incredibly challenging role and after a slightly shaky start Birgit Remmert delivered a strong and characterful performance. Hers is a dark timbred soprano and while she occasionally displayed some vocal unevenness manoeuvred the demands of the score with success.

Evelyn Herlitzius as The Dyer’s Wife was mesmerising and she brought to the role hints of both Elektra and Salome. Vocally bright and clear for me she on occasion tended towards stridency although I think that perhaps this was more a case of pacing herself than vocal problems. Her acting was faultless and for me the most telling moment of her incredible talent was at the very beginning of her appearance when she almost – but only almost – seemed to fold into herself and surrender to her husband’s affections before turning on him.

However the highlight of the evening was The Empress of Adrianne Pieczonka. An eminent Straussian – most memorably I saw her as the Marschallin in Munich – she delivered an incredibly strong, insightful and musical performance. The Empress is not an easy role buy any means but Ms Pieczonka not only managed the vocal demands of the score itself not only in terms of the soaring vocal lines but also rode above the orchestra while maintaining the highest level of musicianship and intelligent interpretation. Her is a voice of great warmth and depth with a lustrous even tone through her entire register. Combined with an innate sense in terms of acting the role, never have I seen or heard the penultimate scene performed so wonderfully. And as I have said, her dream sequence was mesmerising. Indeed the Wiener Zeitung’s review – “Märchenhaft schattige Kaiserin” – was full of praise for her performance and called her inspiring (“begeisternd”).

And in the pit, Welser-Möst commanded the score and drew the most luxuriant and luminous playing from the orchestra. The brass were bright, the woodwind were pointed and the strings burnished. A Straussian par excellence, he unfolded Strauss’ wonderful music but never lost sight of the transparency needed even in the most heavily orchestrated moments to ensure that the singers were supported. And above all else, Welser-Möst demonstrated – and as the programme argued – that Die Frau ohne Schatten is the last ‘Romantic’ opera.

I hope against hope that this production will be recorded in some format. It was one of those rare nights when the highest level of musicianship was drawn from an amazing ensemble of singers which then combined on stage under the careful and intelligent direction of Carsen to produce a most memorable evening.

If I could I would return this weekend (24 March) and experience it all over again.

Il Divino Valer Barna-Sabadus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Review – Hasse RELOADED. Valer Barna-Sabadus, Hofkapelle München & Michael Hoffstetter.

If you purchase this album skip straight to the fifth track and listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Valer Barna-Sabadus is the latest in a line of distinguished and talented countertenors from Alfred Deller and James Bowman to David Daniels and Andreas Scholl through to the new ‘generation’ of Philippe Jaroussky, Max-Emmanuel Cencic and the UK’s very own Iestyn Davies and Robin Blaze.

Again I have to take slight issue with the marketing slant of the album – Hasse RELOADED. Not “Reloaded” which would be bad enough, but “RELOADED”. According to the sleeve notes by Barna-Sabadus himself, the title intends to “get rid of – once and for all – any and all prejudices about the supposedly contrived and dusty court music of the eighteenth century! With Johann Adolph Hasse I have selected a composer who couldn’t possibly have been more esteemed during his lifetime, but who nowadays has slipped into oblivion.”

My first encounter with Johann Adolph Hasse was William Christie’s superlative recording of Cleofide with a cast that included Emma Kirkby, Dominque Visse and Derek Lee Ragin. I think that the dust was well and truly blown away with that recording – not only for me but a great many others – and it led to a renewed interest in the music of Il Divino Sassone – as he was known – at the court of Dresden. Since then there have been a number of recordings of either Hasse’s arias from his extensive operatic output as well as complete operas and serenatas as well as his church music. Each and every one of them demonstrates Hasse’s originality and talent.

So it’s just a tad disingenuous for Signor Barna-Sabadus to make this claim but there is no doubt that this disc reinforces the fact as to why Hasse was considered a leading composer of his day and should have more prominence today. Something which I would like to hope is slowly happening.

Some people may disagree – and pace if you do – but countertenors are never ‘bland’. They all have a distinctive vocal timbre unlike some of their colleagues – from soprano to bass – who might display great technique but whose actual voice has a flat and almost “so what?” and one dimensional quality.

Not so the countertenor.

Valer Barna-Sabadus has a voice that is clarion-clear and well-rounded, with an even tone through his entire range that is well matched by its flexibility and impressive dynamic control. If I had to draw it – it would be a sphere. Listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere and you will see what I mean.

Hasse was, in my opinion, the greatest exponent of the Metastasian opera ethic – grand and often historical-based opera serie more often than not also serving as a specific allegory for whomever it was written for. And to quote my nom de plume, there was always a “lieto fine” – or happy ending. The unjust were punished, the hero could display magnanimity, lovers were united and Enlightenment and Reason triumphed.

And as Order was the fundamental principle of polite society at that time then the basic but rigorously followed format was of a succession of da capo arias with clearly placed duets and a closing chorus. In fact the structure had remained the same for decades – the format of Vivaldi and Handel but suddenly across the staves of Hasse and his contemporaries such as Leo and Jommelli, it became even more a vehicle of the individual singer and opera serie reached the limits of its creative straitjacket. The heroes, heroines and villains described their changing moods through vocally custom-fitted music that displayed their unique talents from flights of impressive coloratura, stunning breath control and dynamics domination and hid their weaknesses. These arias were their calling cards and were designed to display their virtuosic abilities and inspired some composers – such as Hasse – to some incredible beautiful and impressive music.

Ultimately however, the reaction to this elegant and manufactured emotional artifice was the emergence of opera buffa and it would take a genius like Mozart to breathe real life into opera seria once again with his final opera, La Clemenza di Tito.

Returning again to the sleeve note, the singer refers to Hasse’s “suspenseful connection between Handelian drama and the instrumental virtuosity of a Vivaldi” and while this is just a little over-written, it’s evident from the opening sinfonia and throughout the entire disc.

Barna-Sabadus selects his arias from Didone abbandonata (1742/43), the serenata La Gelosia (1762 aka Perdono, amata Nice, bella Nice) and Artaserse (1730; subsequently revised in 1740 & 1760).

The first four arias are for Iarba from Didone abbandonata, a role that Barna-Sabadus has performed in Munich with the same ensemble under Hofstetter and more recently at the opera house at the Chateau of Versailles.

I believe that the original role was written for the famous castrato Farinelli who was famous – according to Charles Burney – for his breath control, vocal agility and his three-octave range.

The arias selected clearly show how Hasse wrote with the specific artist in mind. Tu mi disarmi il fianco for example starts with a furious ritornello which is immediately quelled with Barnus-Sabada’s first entry, literally the “disarmi” of the opening sentence with it’s charming sforzandi Lombardic rhythm. The return of the allegro sees a vocal line that leaps across the stave and well-executed coloratura. The alternation of slow-fast continues with increasing elaboration as would have been expected by the audience. And all performed with vocal aplomb by this soloist.

Leon ch’errando vada with its hunting horns is a beautifully crafted ‘galanterie’ gem with an arching vocal line and Scottish snap rhythms and Chiama mi pur cosi with its flights of coloratura clearly demonstrates how agile Farinelli’s voice was across it’s wide range.

However clearly Cadrà fra poco in cenere would have had the audience holding its breath. A beguiling simple vocal line spanning an impressive range spins itself out above a delicate accompaniment with increasing ornamentation. These days countertenors often rely on speed of vocal agility to ‘wow’ but Barna-Sabadus’ performance of this aria is a total show-stopper – combining a beautifully controlled and even vocal line, impressive dynamic contrast and tasteful ornamentation.

The arias taken from La Gelosia, written for private performance are similarly well-crafted vehicles for the respective original performer. Bei labbri che Amore is typically Galant in terms of its melodic structure, rhythmic gesture and delicate ornamentation as well as its brief minor-mode middle section. With Giura il nocchier you can clearly hear the “Hasse-hints” that had an impact on Mozart and his own early opera serie although clearly Hasse’s style was but one of the stylistic launch pads that Mozart absorbed and synthesised.

The final aria on the disc is to all extent and purpose an insertion aria by Porpora written superficially for Farinelli for a performance of Hasse’s Artaserse in London. With its charming roulades and lilting ‘galanterie’ it is a delightful -if unusual – end to a beautifully performed album.

Hofstetter and his ensemble, the Hofkapelle München, are accomplished in their support of Barna-Sabadus. They provide perfectly balanced and nuanced accompaniments with a real sense of both the rhythmic verve and bite or delicacy and liltingly quality required of music of this period which captures the mood of the individual arias.

From beginning to end this is a brilliantly performed disc. The fact that some of the arias are what some people might call ‘lengthy’ is dispelled by the quality of both Hasse’s music and the musicians one and all.

I recommend that even if you haven’t ventured into the music of Hasse before you should take the plunge, listen to and savour this remarkable set of performances.

Cleopatra Comin’ At Ya

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 2, 2012 at 12:09 am

Review – Giulio Cesare, Opera North, The Lowry (March 1 2012)

Giulio Cesare – Pamela Helen Stephen
Cleopatra -
Sarah Tynan
Cornelia
- Ann Taylor
Sesto
- Kathryn Rudge
Tolomeo
- James Laing
Nireno
- Andrew Radley
Achilla
- Jonathan Best
Curio
 – Dean – Robinson

Director
 – Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer
 – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer
- Thomas Hase

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Robert Howarth

Opera North’s flat-pack Egypt and abridged version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare once again demonstrated the Company’s sense of ambition yet failure to follow through.

The one exception was Sarah Tynan. I first heard her as Iphis in English National Opera’s moving production of Jephtha where she was coincidentally a Young Singer alongside the wonderful Elizabeth Watts and Lee Bissett. Since then I have seen her at the London Coliseum in Don Giovanni, Xerxes, The Mikado, Ariodante and Der Rosenkavalier but more recently in a disappointing performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Lorin Maazel.

As Opera North’s Cleopatra she dominated the stage with her both her top-notch singing and credible acting. Granted by the end of the evening she was exhibiting signs of tiredness and more than once she was out of time with the players in the pit, but overall it was a strong and well-rounded performance. Occasionally there was a shrillness in her upper register and some of her coloratura was less than secure but her technique and musicianship continues to develop with every production. I believe that given a few more years she will become a soprano of some note, particularly in Handel.

But if she was an almost ideal Egyptian Queen, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Cesare was more cipher than hero. Of course it’s difficult not to make the comparison with Sarah Connolly but even when that is put to one side, Stephen’s performance was lacklustre. She didn’t have the vocal projection or strength of technique needed for what is some of Handel’s greatest music. For example she was simply deluged in Va tacito e nascosto and despite some beautiful moments in Aure, Deh Per Pietà hers was not a robust generalissimo.

Kathryn Rudge’s Sesto was a pleasant discovery. Her warm and flexible timbre successfully negotiated most of the character’s music and indeed Cara speme, questo core was one of the highlights of the evening. It’s interesting to see that she has just joined ENO’s Young Singers programme. Clearly John Berry et al are good at identifying and developing promising singers.

Countertenor James Laing was a convincing Tolomeo with a promising voice. He skillfully handled most of the tricky coloratura and what he lacked in experience and overall technique he made up for with some skillful acting. However he did show a frustrating inability to articulate all his words. Hopefully something that greater experience will eradicarte.

Of the rest of the cast Ann Taylor’s rich mezzo was far from ideal for the role of Cornelia. I can imagine her soaring to great heights in the role of Opera North’s Cio-Cio San but the delicacy and pin-point accuracy so necessary for Handel eluded her.

And the only reason I can fathom for giving prominence to Jonathan Best Achilla was to provide a vocal counterpoint to the sopranos – female and male – and mezzos voices. However his strong bass made up for the lack of musical interest in his arias.

The set and lighting were simple and considering it had been designed for touring, pretty effective with just the right hint of ancient Egypt, although I am not so sure about the golden extended fingers. To me those were more chinoiserie than symbolic of the Nile civilization. But I could be wrong.

The biggest disappointment however was in the pit. The orchestra – sounding dull and muted and not because of the smaller string section – struggled at times with intonation and by the end of the evening the strings were noticeably awry. But it was Robert Howarth’s lacklustre conducting that was most frustrating. Not only was there a lack of true style or inteprettion, but with no real sense of momentum or bite I had to wonder if the below par performances on stage were not a little due to the direction from the pit.

So after two evenings spent in the company of Opera North I have to admit that while I was impressed with their sense of ambition I was left with a real sense that they had missed the creative mark.

But that isn’t putting me off. Their Das Rheingold demonstrates that this is a company with high standards in terms of music and performance. While they might not have quite reach the standard of their Wagner under the brilliant Richard Farnes, with Die Walküre later this year I am confident that the last two nights can simply be put down to over-ambition.

Putting the “No” in Norma

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

Review – Norma, Opera North, The Lowry (February 29 2012)

Norma – Annemarie Kremer
Adalgisa – Keri Alkema
Pollione – Luis Chapa
Oroveso – James Creswell
Clothilde – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Flavio – Daniel Norman

Director – Christopher Alden
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Costume Designer – Sue Willmington
Lighting Designer – Adam Silverman

Orchestra & Chorus, Opera North
Conductor – Oliver von Dohnányi

Opera North’s production of Bellini’s Norma is proof that you can’t always get it right and never enter the theatre with preconceptions. After their magnificent production of Das Rheingold last season as well as their previous Maria Stuarda, I had high expectations that an evening of bel canto awaited.

Sadly I was disappointed almost from the beginning. At this point it should be noted that Norma is – and not for reasons of previous performers and productions – a notoriously difficult opera to get right. It’s deceivingly simple and no company takes on the challenges it presents lightly.

And I have to say that there was no evidence that Opera North had done anything but take this venture seriously.

But it simply did not work. Admittedly there were some moments of beauty and drama but they were in bold relief in an evening that lacked that spark that makes you sit up in your seat and lean forward.

Annemarie Kremer as Norma had an ‘almost-but-not-quite’ quality to her performance with an unusual but not attractive timbre to her voice. However this was a role too far as it overstretched her capabilities leading to both problems with both intonation and accuracy. Having said that on more than a few occasions she produced a beautiful sound which quite dominated the unfold drama. It’s interesting to note that this is the only bel canto role listed in her biography and it has to be said that consistently she struggled with the Bellini’s vocal lines. I would like to see her in other roles but think that the art of great bel canto singing will always elude her.

Adalgisa was strongly performed by Keri Alkema. Her rich soprano contrasted strongly with Kremer’s and in some ways hers was a more successful performance. However again the role was slightly ambitious and there were problems with both accuracy and intonation. However to has to be said that the opening of Act II was remarkable and raised the bar significantly – Kremer and Alkema creating that remarkable stage chemistry that had been missing in the first half. Sadly it didn’t last.

Bellini and his bel canto counterparts created some of the greatest – and most difficult – roles for tenors. Indeed productions of their operas can rise and fall on the quality and skill of the tenors in the cast.

Sadly, the tenor in this production failed. From the very beginning Luis Chapa struggled – his intonation was consistently erratic and he had neither the tessitura nor the flexibility let alone the stamina for the role. Again looking at the repertoire listed in his biography there as no evidence that bel canto was an area of expertise or experience. In fact his presence on stage almost became a distraction.

But there was a silver lining. The Clothilde of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was remarkable and show-stopping in spite of the small role. Hers was warm rich mezzo that dominated the scenes she was in. I missed her at Opera Holland Park last year and now regret it. I will definitely be watching out for her future performances.

And the Oroveso of James Creswell was similarly noteworthy. A resonant bass (or is baritone) which a controlled and beautifully fluid voice. Again someone to keep an eye out for.

So what of the production itself. I have long admired the Alden Brothers and in particular Christopher Alden’s The Makropulos Case and Partentope for English National Opera. He has never really gone for the traditional approach and this one was certainly one that got me thinking.

It was kind of Appalachian-Spring-Meets-Little-House-On-The-Prairie-Meets-Shaker-Loops. I wasn’t convinced that it worked in Norma (particularly with the very precise subtitles) but what Alden did – and does so well – was bring to life the sense of isolation between the main protagonists and the society that they live in through some very clear direction of the principals and the chorus. It’s just a shame that the Lowry audience thought some moments were funny rather than dramatic.

The only disappointment? The non-existent pyre at the end. For some reason, in the style of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, I expected Norma and Pollione to Be crushed by the rather phallic tree trunk that dominated the set.

And finally to Oliver von Dohnányi and the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North. Truth be told the chorus seemed rather ragged at times but compensated with the wonderful sound that they produced. The orchestra didn’t have the burnished tone that I remember from Das Rheingold and von Dohnányi didn’t seem to drive the music forward.

But contrary to what you might think, it was an interesting evening. It made me sit and listen almost with greater discipline. It makes me hopeful that Giulio Cesare tomorrow night will dispel any sense of disappointment.

But I am going to try very hard not to get excited in advance as tonight reminded me that even Opera North is mortal.

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