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Unglücklich Gluck

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 25, 2012 at 8:06 am

Review – Il Trionfo di Clelia (Linbury Theatre, Sunday 24 June 2012)

Clelia – Hélène Le Corre
Orazio – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Tarquinio – Irini Karaianni
Larissa – Lito Messini
Porsenna – Vassili Kavayas
Mannio – Artemis Bogri

Director – Nigel Lowery
Costume – Paris Mexis
Lighting – George Tellos

City of London Sinfonia
Conductor – Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio

Not since the Mariinsky production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten has a production disappointed me as much.

On paper, and based on the recording of the same opera with – bar a few exceptions and the orchestra – an identical cast list, the performance of Il Trionfo di Clelia at the Linbury Theatre should have been indeed, triumphal.

Sadly it wasn’t for two reasons. The production. And the orchestra.

What a shame.

Quite simply, what did Nigel Lowery think he was doing? The principles of Metatasian opera are clean and simple. Lofty, Enlightenment ideals such as love, honour, dignity and magnanimity, are portrayed through historical or mythical characters and the composers who set these texts – among them Leo, Hasse, Vinci, Mozart and Gluck – wrote music of stunning virtuosity and incredible pathos. And as opera seria evolved, not only through the work of composers such as Gluck, but also Traetta and Jommelli, it became more complex, with the use of techniques such as accommpagnato to breathe even deeper meaning and emotional insight into the characters.

In the Eighteenth century every technique was similarly deployed on stage to heighten the audiences experience. Marvellous machines bringing to Gods to stage in chariots, dragons and demons when required, beautifully decorated backdrops and screens that flew in and out to the wonder of the audiences.

Granted this isn’t quite as possible today – except if you go to the extremes of LePage and his folly at the Met – so what Lowery offered us according to the programme note by Magnolia Albertazzi was a simpler set. To quote Singora Albertazzi, “the set recalls the simplicity of the baroque scenes, depicting a different universe beyond the proscenium arch, which, when Rome is involved, opens up into a sketched-out perspective, a sort of post-constructivist revision of a Renaissance set”.

What a load of rubbish.

What we were presented with was a set that most of the time threatened to come apart at the seams, crammed full of the worse crimes of confused RegieTheater pretention that did not hang together in any real sense of narrative.

From the very beginning nothing worked as Lowery’s farrago of ill-thought ideas flooded the stage. The characters on stage seemed to range in inspiration from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup characters for Orazio and Clelia, Larissa’s Sarah-Jessica-Parker-Grayson-Perry and the band Fleetwood Mac for Porsenna and Tarquinio. And why exactly was Mannio dressed like a bellboy?

Lowery then bombarded the audience with RegieTheater affectation after affectation. There was a book burning; some flag waving; a beach-ball-cum-globe referred to quite literally at the end by Albertazzi as “a new world rising above this small universe” as it was pathetically passed between the protagonists in the closing chorus; some unrelated potion-making at the end of the second act; some pointless undressing; a doll motif carried by the puerile Larissa; a wooden horse (thankfully not of the nature of LePage’s in his Ring cycle) to carry Clelia behind; an over-sized puppet head and worst of all a curtain splitting the stage in two which kept raining its runners onto the stage.

The one moment of inspiration – the building of the bridge over the Tiber was ruined by the animation of the battle. It just looked like a rag-tag group doing battle with someone wearing pyjamas. Dreadful.

The lighting was incredibly basic – someone behind me referred to it as being like a “High School Play” and as you may have deduced from above, the costumes were a ridiculous mixed bag.

And sadly the playing in the pit was well below par. In the recording Armonia Artenea are superlative. Their sound is rich and sonorous, their playing crisp and alert, their articulation, colour and contrast precise and invigorating. In the programme, conductor Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio comments that Il Trionfo di Clelia had a richness in orchestration that was “almost without equal in Gluck’s work”.

Where was that in evidence in the Linbury?

It wasn’t.

For whatever reason – and I think it was lack of rehearsal – the City of London Sinfonia were ragged from the start and failed almost singly to rise to the occasion. An untidy sinfonia both rhythmically and pitch-wise set the trend for lacklustre, unconfident and bland playing from the pit. And as a consequence the rich palette of Gluck’s score failed to shine through.

And a final point for Messieurs Cross and Young in the trumpet section. You can be seen in the pit and while it is fine – I suppose – to read a novel when you aren’t playing, what seemed like checking the progress of England on your mobile phones is simply distracting.

But against all this the singers put in a valiant effort and were – to a man and woman – brilliant.

Hélène Le Corre’s Clelia was well-sung and managed the tricky coloratura – scored and embellished – with ease. She conveyed great sympathy and understanding of the music and if there were moments of strain at the top of her register they were few and far between.

The Orazio of Mary-Ellen Nesi was impressive and if at times she interpreted emotional intensity as increased volume, she possesses a rich and dark mezzo that was a wonderful foil to the soprano of her lover.

Irini Karaianni as Taquinio however stole the show and it is a shame that in one of her arias Lowery directorial distractions marred her performance. A honeyed and burnished tone with an impressive vocal range, she sailed through Gluck’s music and her final aria was simply impressive.

Porsenna was sung by Vassilis Kavayas who bravely and brilliantly handled the tortuous tessitura and coloratura written by the composer. It was refreshing to hear such a clear and confident tenor, with such a light touch voice.

And finally the Larissa and Mannio of Lito Messini and Artemis Bogri respectively. It is a shame Bogri did not have more to sing because like Karaianni she had a rich, round mezzo. Messini was a last minute stand-in and handled the role – including some difficult passages of coloratura – with more confidence than I would have expected.

Looking at the programme note I did wonder what impact the crisis in Greece will have on its classical music scene. It cannot, sadly, be a positive one.

Ultimately, it is a shame that de Risio didn’t opt for a concert performance. The singers were to a person top-notch but I feel were hampered by Lowery’s ridiculous and pretentious production and perhaps the time could have been more well-spent by the orchestra learning the notes.

If you haven’t heard it though I would recommend the recording of Il Trionfo di Clelia. Not only is it a fantastic opera but also the performances are brilliant.

Renée Fleming – Un moment exquis

In Classical Music, Review on June 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Review – Poèmes. Ravel – Shéhérazade; Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi; Dutilleaux – Deux Sonnets de Jean Cassou & Le Temps l’Horloge.
Renée Fleming, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France & Alan Gilbert; Orchestre National de France & Seiji Ozawa

I purchased this disc on the day it came out some time ago but for reasons of work, travel and repeated listening I haven’t had a chance to commit my thoughts to ‘byte and metadata’. But following Ms Fleming’s brilliant performance in the title role of in Arabella in Paris I resolved to write about this marvellous disc.

For most people including myself Renée Fleming is more usually associated with the music of Richard Strauss – her recent debut as the Prima Donna and heroine of the title in Baden Baden’s recent and excellent production of Ariadne auf Naxos for example – and Mozart as well as, but a lesser extent, the bel canto composers. Even her foray into cover versions of pop songs was an interesting and not-unsuccessful venture.

A self-confessed Francophile, her latest disc finds her exploring the music of French composers Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux. However Ms Fleming has been performing the music on this disc for some time in the case of Dutilleaux’s Le Temps Horloge and more recently for Ravel’s piece.

Continued listening to this disc either in part or from beginning to end simply underlines for me the depth and integrity of Ms Fleming’s musicianship as well as her ability to communicate the even through what some might find the toughest listens.

Singing in French can sometimes cruelly expose a singer’s diction yet throughout the recital the language holds no challenges for Fleming. Her clear diction is combined with pinpoint accuracy in placing even the trickiest consonants.

And in committing her performances to disc for the first time she brings the inevitable comparison with Regine Crespin for Shéhérazade and Pollet for Poèmes pour Mi.

But while these two singular performances are excellent – and to the latter I would add Anne Schwanewilms’ performance of the Poèmes – personally I believe that Ms Fleming more convincingly captures the aura – almost a voluptuousness of sound without sacrificing the need for clarity – of these individual pieces more convincingly, aided and abetted throughout by her orchestral accompanists and warmer acoustics.

As I’ve remarked in previous blogs Renée Fleming’s voice has evolved and developed in recent years. Her last recording of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder with Thielemann saw a more burnished, richer tone which was even more in evidence when she performed this quartet of songs more recently in London under Eschenbach. And this more burnished tone does not come at the sacrifice of anything else in her vocal armoury. Her technique remains formidable with no loss in her ability to spin great, expansive legato lines underpinned with fine diction.

And all these elements of her musicianship come to the fore in these four song cycles. Indeed her credentials in Strauss create the very foundations on which this disc is built as she finds a lyricism in this music that people might not associate with these composers, bar Ravel of course.

From the shimmering opening of the opening song in Ravel’s Shéhérazade Fleming’s intention is clear. Her evocation of Asie – listen to her handling of the third repetition – the orchestral skittering and her clear declamation set the mood immediately.

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Alan Gilbert provide the lush accompaniment that brings Fleming’s interpretation to life as singer and orchestra ebb and flow through Ravel’s masterpiece. Alert to the rhythms that Ravel splices to the sonorous harmonies – quite Debussy-esque in places – as well as the almost percussive wordplay in the text itself, the interplay between Fleming and the instrumentalists is nothing short of magical and creates the sense of wonder that underpins the entire cycle. The sense of momentum through ‘Je voudrais voir’ from both Fleming and the orchestra to the resultant climax is thrilling and perfectly balanced with the closing bars and the final violin solo.

In La Flûte Enchantée, Fleming voice and the flute obbligato seamlessy and sensually entwine and play above Ravel’s most delicate and shimmering orchestration.

In the final song, L’Indifférent, Ravel focuses his luxuriant sound world around sonorous pallet imbued with woodwind colour. The entire song leaves the vocal line perilously exposed above the most delicate orchestration yet Ms Fleming displays complete mastery of her technique and understanding of how to inflect the vocal line to produce quite possibly the most beautiful track of the disc.

In short Fleming’s performance of Shéhérazade is nothing short of a music-based opiate.

Written in 1936, Messiaen’s Poèmes Pour Mi – where Mi was his affectionate pet-name for his wife, has always struck me as having more than a passing nod to the influence of jazz with its moment of quasi vocal improvisation in sharp relief to the more precise and percussive accompaniment. This is of course ironic since the composer apparently detested the genre.

The nine-song cycle not only requires a soprano with absolute vocal authority and ability to negotiate both music and words, but a conductor and orchestra that can create Messiaen’s unique sound world. And this is evident from the opening song in Poèmes, Action De Grâces. Listen to the closing bars as Fleming intones Alleluia above flute and shimmering strings for example, or the beautiful placement of words and sound at the beginning of Paysage, where the strings skitter away leading to warm and fluid wind playing and holds true to the final song Prière Exaucée. In this last song in the cycle, the juxtaposition of the percussive brass alternating with the tightly knit ensemble playing between singer, flute and strings before Fleming revels with the orchestra in the rush of orchestral colour and rhythm as the cycle closes is ravishing. Throughout Alan Gilbert’s conducting and real sense of colour is absolute and thrilling and together with the players matches Ms Fleming’s emotional intensity in each and every song.

Dutilleaux is only known to me through his Oboe Sonata which I enjoyed learning at university. His musical language is more influenced by Stravinsky but with repeated listening I heard increasing similarities with Messiaen’s Poèmes.

His Deux Sonnets De Jean Cassou create contrasting sound and rhythmic worlds. The first song with its insistent rhythms and sense of urgency – the opening brass reminding me somewhat of Debussy’s Le Mer – is finely balanced with the dreamy, almost soporific second Sonnet where once again Fleming’s technique and complete vocal control negotiates the broad legato phrases spun by Dutilleaux with ease.

The five movement Le Temps L’Horloge – taken from a concert performance – was written for Renée Fleming with the composer going on the record to say that he was inspired by her voice “voice’s character” and “power of expression” and again he plays with the sound world, as well as a harpsichord in the opening song I am pretty sure that the third, Le Dernier Poème, featured an accordion. I have to admit I did not enjoy this song cycle as much as Dutilleaux’s previous work or the other works on the disc. While the cycle is clearly written around Ms Fleming at the end I did wish for a greater sense of contrast between the individual songs. However, the final song, Envirez-Vous stands out. By the cycle is performed brilliantly and the audience show their appreciation at the end.

All in all, Poèmes is an exquisite and interesting recital disc. Renée Fleming, both conductors and the orchestras create a heady musical atmosphere that with repeatedly listening reveals a little more within the music.

L’achetez immédiatement.

A Glass Half Full

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on June 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Review – Arabella (Opéra Bastille, Sunday 17 June 2012)

Arabella – Renée Fleming
Mandryka – Michael Volle
Zdenka – Julia Kleiter
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Graf Waldner – Kurt Rydl
Matteo – Joseph Kaiser
Iride Martinez – The Fiakermilli

Director – Marco Arturo Martelli
Lighting – Friedrich Eggert
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind

Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Conductor – Philippe Jordan

Twice in the course of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella – his final collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmansthal – the protagonists make a reference to a glass of water. In the First Act Mandryka relates how a potential bride would offer a glass of water drawn from her father’s well and present it to her prospective husband, and in the Third Act Arabella offers him the said glass of water as an act of both forgiveness and acceptance.

If the water drawn was a reflection of this production, the glass would only have been half full.

A shame as a single element disappointed throughout – Philippe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris.

Arabella is directly evolved from the lyricism of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Äegiptische Helena, the chamber music sensibilities of Ariadne auf Naxos and the more conversational style of Intermezzo.

Therefore to be successful, it has to be conducted with an understanding of all the elements that Strauss had reached at this stylistic crossroads – not only of the nuances in the orchestration and the instrumental colour with which the opera is richly imbued but just as importantly a sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the vocal line.

Only then can Arabella be done full justice.

At this particular performance, Philippe Jordan disappointingly did not deliver. Not only did he conduct with metronomic precision but his tempi always felt a fraction too fast. And he failed to draw the magnificent playing I am accustomed to from this orchestra. On the whole they were lacklustre with none of the depth or colour required in every Strauss opera.

And Jordan’s unsympathetic performance in the pit directly impacted on the singers at times.

Renée Fleming sang the title role. As I have said before Renée Fleming is one of the leading – if not pre-eminent – Strauss sopranos performing today. Over the last few years her voice has developed an even more beautiful and burnished tone without any sense of sacrifice in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach.

Clearly with a sensitive and intuitive partner in the pit, Ms Fleming is a formidable singer. However as Jordan failed to give her the space or opportunity to spin out this heroine’s lines it took a while for her to warm up. There were one or two moments very early on where as a result, I believe, of trying to get Jordan to be more expansive she unexpectedly over emphasised individual syllables. And some of those moments which demanded a greater freedom of tempo – I talk here of her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka in the First Act respectively and more crucially, in the close scene at Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – the magic was undermined. With a less accomplished singer those moments might well have been tarnished or lost altogether. Fortunately for the audience, Ms Fleming has the voice , technique, musicianship and natural affinity for Strauss to carry through. As a result her Arabella was marvellous.

Having seen Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden I was impressed by his Mandryka which was strong both vocally and character-wise. With his rich baritone he delivered a role of intelligence and musicianship and while he may have slightly tired towards the end, he was a suitably dramatic and vocal foil to Fleming’s Arabella.

Both Julia Kleiter and Joseph Kaiser are new singers to me but they performed outstandingly as Zdenka and Matteo respectively. Again, Jordan’s rushed tempi and anti-lyrical inflexibility caused Ms Kleiter to pinch a few of her higher notes but her voice has a bell-like silvery tone. Kaiser has a pleasing tenor with suitable heft. A future Bacchus perhaps? Arabella’s parents – Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel – completed the central ensemble, giving these two characters who are more often than not simply two-dimensional that added depth and human side. Never have I heard Adelaide sound so weary as when she expresses disappointment in her husband to Mandryka. In a single moment. Outstanding.

The remaining cast were good, the only disappointment being the Fiakermilli of Iride Martinez. While she may have had the agility for the coloratura, her voice was simply too thin and at times not only pinched but awry of pitch as well.

Having seen what I believe to have been Marco Arturo Martelli’s Tristan und Isolde ‘in a box’ as it were in Dresden, I was not surprised that he placed the entire opera within a single set, relying on revolving walls to create the different scenes. It was a nice touch when they revolved revealing sky to imply a balcony or window, but in the ball scene the lighting was too simplistic. It reminded me more of the coloured block lighting used by department stores or bars to create a sense of ambience. And what a shame that the only scenic backdrop was in the final act.

I can never make up my mind with the current directorial affectation for onstage action before the opera proper starts. Sometimes it works, particularly in the case of an overture. Here it didn’t. Having lackeys remove furniture as the audience entered the auditorium lacked any impact as it was too drawn out. And why was nothing made of the increasingly large pile of bills on the table. Also, in the original aren’t the Waldner’s staying in a hotel in Vienna?

But most disappointing was the block – quite literally – of stairs at the end. It was almost as if they were an afterthought. I’m not asking for a sweeping staircase complete with ornate balustrade, but any sense of potential drama having Arabella come down this flight of stairs was lost.

Perhaps Arabella is slightly too intimate an opera for a stage the size of that at Opéra Bastille? At times it seemed that there were large expanses of empty space in an opera that is so often focused on one or two singers and that Martelli didn’t know how to move his singers across it. His use of alter-Arabellas at the end if the Second Act was almost inspired. But the revolving walls had me worried that the dancers would waltz into them or, considering there wasn’t enough depth, that they would careen into one another. Either plenty of practice or luck meant there were no collisions but I sensed more than a few near misses.

And one final distraction worth mentioning. I am pretty sure that I spied Peter Gelb in the audience. He took his seat as the orchestra started and I am pretty sure that The Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning was trying to spot if he had returned after the interval. He didn’t. Perhaps he realised this production of Arabella wasn’t for his own House or he was on the lookout for a new baton for the Met.

Ultimately this production of Arabella belonged to the singers. Their musicianship and sense of ensemble ensured that their performances were incredibly strong. The few fault lines that did appear momentarily in their performances had more to do with what was – or was not – going on in the pit. Jordan was single-mindedly an unsympathetic Straussian from beginning to end, never once revelling in the wonderful lyricism that Richard Strauss had written on every single page of this score.

So if Gelb was indeed looking for a future baton, Jordan did himself no favours with this performance.

Tristan Now He’s Older

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Saturday 2 June 2012)

Tristan – Ben Heppner
Isolde – Ann Petersen
Brangäne – Susan Bickley
Kurwenal – Phillip Joll
King Marke – Matthew Best
Sailor & Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle
Helmsman – Julian Boyce

Director & Designer – Yannis Kokkos
Revival Director – Peter Watson
Original Lighting Director – Guido Levi
Lighting Realised by – Paul Woodfield

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs

It is wonderful and inspiring to think that some of the best Wagner performances in the UK are not happening in London but elsewhere in the UK. For example, Opera North’s near perfect Das Rheingold after which I am very much looking forward to their Die Walküre this summer. And there was a moment during Welsh National Opera’s final performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Millennium Centre when it dawned on me that the evening’s performance was exceptional from which the evening’s sideshow distractions could not detract .

It was the beautifully nuanced cor anglais playing of Max Spiers in the Third Act. More often than not, both in live performances and on disc, this moment is overlooked. Under the baton of Maestro Koenigs, Spiers attention to rhythm and dynamic contrast and the overall phrasing underlined the exceptional musicianship of conductor and orchestra alike.

Indeed from the first Tristan chord, the night belonged to the players in the pit. The strings played with great warmth, except and deliberately at the opening of the final act where they eschewed any colour and produced exactly the right sound – bled of any vibrato to reflect the desolation that the audience were presented with as the curtain rose. The wind playing was translucent and a perfect foil to the percussive brass playing. And rarely have i heard each and every note of the off-stage horns in the Second Act so clearly articulated.

And after the opening chords of the Prelude, which Koenig allowed to hang in the air, suspended almost in time, he then drove his players and singers inexorably forward towards the end, pausing again only before the Liebestod itself, as if drawing breath. In the programme, Lothar Koenig remarked that Tristan und Isolde was the first opera he ever saw as he grew up in Aachen. Not only did he see eight subsequent performances of that production, but he resolved to become a conductor.

And the audience was amply rewarded. Only on the rarest of occasions did they threaten to drown out the singers and only once, when Tristan and Isolde were reunited at the beginning of the Second Act did the momentum threaten to wrest itself from his grasp. Yet it was his overall marshalling of the orchestra, with the greatest care and attention given to detail, that enabled the chief protagonists to give their very best.

A great deal has been written about “Ben Heppner’s Tristan”. I was unlucky to fall victim to both his and Deborah Voigt’s cancellations during their Met run in 2008, but I did see him alongside Nina Stemme in Christof Loy’s production for Covent Garden. It was not good. Not good at all.

So I admit to more than a certain amount of trepidation as I arrived in Cardiff. But it was, on the whole, misplaced. Heppner is an incredible musician and his knowledge and experience of this role is without comparison. And it was this talent and ingrained knowledge, combined with brilliant support from Koenig, the orchestra and his Isolde, that made this a most mesmerising and compelling performance. Of course all the notes were not there.

Of course there was more than ample evidence that this role doesn’t so much challenge him but more drives him beyond his current vocal stamina. But it was a great performance. There were moments of clear discomfort in the Second Act but those who stayed for his monologue in the final act – and yes some people seemed to have left in the interval – witnessed an incredible performance. Heppner’s delivery of the text was as clear as crystal and he invested the words with real passion and understanding. Yet it was a performance that clearly took no prisoners in terms of the physical demands.

Wrong as it may be to suggest it, but how many Tristans does Heppner have left one wonders? I hope he records it in the safety of a multi-session recording before he finally agrees to retire the role to Kareol.

Alongside Heppner was the radiant Isolde of Ann Petersen. Clearly there is something in the water of Scandinavia – or at least in the training they give their sopranos – which has created such a list of magnificent Isoldes. And while Ms Petersen might not yet be magnificent she isn’t that far off as her stature in the role continues to grow and develop. While she may not have the ‘biggest voice’, Ann Petersen’s performance was one of great intelligence, musicianship and, when it mattered, heft combined with a clear and bright tone. At no point – and once again due to Koenig’s masterful control of the orchestra – could she not be heard above or – just as importantly – through the orchestra. She supported and led Heppner through the Second Act and spun some of the most delicate singing as I have ever heard in what is often just seen as an ever-increasing crescendo that starts forte. And he musicianship elicited a similar performance from Heppner. And her Liebestod was simply beautiful. With none of the more common directorial gimmicks to distract, everything and everyone was focused on her performance. And it was, as I said, radiant. As the light finally faded you felt the audience truly believed she had been transfigured through her love of Tristan. Magical.

And as with Heppner, every word was invested with meaning and incredibly clear. I want to see and hear more of Ms Petersen, not only as Isolde but as other Wagner heroines as well as Strauss’ Marschallin.

And perhaps because the stage was dominated by two such strong and focused performances, the remaining singers were in sharp and lacking relief. I am afraid I am not convinced that Brangäne is a role for Susan Bickley. She delivered a musically accomplished performance but there was a metallic brittleness to and lack of warmth in her voice that at times verged on the unpleasant.

Of the men it was the Sailor/Shepherd of Simon Crosby Buttle and the Helmsman of Julian Boyce that were most well sung and beautifully phrased. For me, Matthew Best’s King Marke had all the notes but was bland and the Kurwenal of Phillip Joll was too blustery and had a real lack of diction.

The staging – as was clear from an interview with Yannis Kokkos in the programme – more than nodded to both Adolphe Appia and Wieland Wagner with devices including a frame within the proscenium arch, hints at, but no delivery or understanding of the importance of lighting and their focus on the relationship of shapes and angles with the space that the drama inhabits.

For example, having hinted at, and focused on the only curve on the stage in the first act, where Isolde draped herself, it didn’t feature again although it remained until the end. The Second Act felt too hemmed in with its two-dimensional wood and curving balustrade. Neither added depth or were sufficiently knitted into the narrative except for the obvious use in Brangäne’s warning. All the soldiers for example, simply looked awkward – and slightly Ming-The-Merciless-Meets-Buster-Crabbe – as King Marke sang his monologue of betrayal.

I always thought revivals were an opportunity to review and learn, much as one hopes that when Covent Garden revives their Loy production they don’t allow him to shunt everything to stage-left again. My friend who attended with me said it was the same production with no changes from 1993 so what did Peter Watson do? He clearly even didn’t think of redirecting the two hapless singers to avoid the ham acting in their Second Act duet. And there was one word for Act Three. Clutter. After the minimal clarity of the first act and the ‘here’s-one-I-prepared-earlier’ Second Act, Kareol looked distinctly, well, messy. Loy littered his final act with toys and memento mori of Tristan’s childhood, Yannis Kokos and Peter Watson clearly visited the local beach or driftwood shop. If they were inspired by Appia and Wieland why suddenly the over-crowded set which simply distracted from the simplicity of Wagner’s drama. Beats me.

Even the lighting was less than inspired until the very closing moments.

However the simple fact is that Kokkos’ production did not detract from the incredible level of musicianship and commitment of the Tristan and Isolde and the players in the pit. All brilliantly led and inspired by Lothar Koenigs.

For this we have the original conductor, performers and director of that Tristan und Isolde all those years ago in Aachen to thank.

Further Reading
1. Something Rotten In The Opera House In Gotham
2. Wolfram Alpha – A Lesson In Perfection
3. More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

Vocalympics 2012

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on June 2, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Review – Handel & The Rival Queens (St. John’s, Smith Square, Saturday 26 May 2012) and L’Olimpiade (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 28 May 2012)

Handel & The Rival Queens, Lufthansa Baroque Festival
Lisa Milne (Francesca Cuzzoni)
Mhairi Lawson (Faustina Bordoni)
Christopher Benjamin (Narrator)

Early Opera Company
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

Megacle – Romina Basso
Licida – Delphine Galou
Aristea – Ruth Rosique
Argene – Luanda Siqueira
Clistene – Jeremy Ovenden
Aminta – Nicholas Spanos

Venice Baroque Opera
Conductor – Andrea Marcon

Two different concerts but both based around the idea of competition and rivalry.

Vocalympics in a sense and if you’ll pardon the simplistic play on words.

First up was a concert based on the legendary rivalry of Cuzzoni and Bordoni in Handel’s London. The idea of Handel’s “rival queens” is not new. There is a magnificent CD with Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott for example and I can’t believe that this is the first concert to emulate this moment in time. Indeed Handel himself wrote for both these prima donne in Alessandro as I have mentioned before.

Christian Curmyn and his exemplary Early Opera Company were joined by Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne, a late stand in for Rosemary Joshua who cancelled for personal reasons. And as narrator there was Christopher Benjamin. I was not wholly convinced by his contribution and while the anecdotes were amusing some seemed overlong.

However the quality of the singing and musicianship was incredibly high. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Mhairi Lawson and was slightly anxious as the last time her performance was marred by over indulgent vibrato. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and enamoured of her performance as her voice had a bright and elegant sheen and she excelled in the virtuosity demands of the music, throwing out clean and accurate coloratura and embellishments throughout. The highlights were Brilla nell’ alma from Handel’s Alessandro and Son qual misera colomba from Hasse’s Cleofide. Lisa Milne valiantly and most ably stepped into the breach in place of Ms Joshua. Her richer and more resonant soprano was a perfect foil to Lawson’s and while her embellishments were not as sophisticated as her colleagues – perhaps as a result of being a late stand-in – hers was nevertheless a great performance with Che sento … Per pietà from Giulio Cesare and Porpora’s Miseri, sventurati, poveri affetti miei both displaying the polar opposites of her talent.

Yet – and quite rightly – the final duet proved the ultimate highlight of the concert as their voices melded together seamlessly.

Curmyn and his orchestra played with get poise and style. Tempos were easy and there was real bite in the strings and bar a few intonation problems in the Porpora, the oboists were suitably mellifluous. So all in all a very enjoyable evening.

And it was inevitable that the classical world would provide its own homage to the forthcoming Olympics. The Lufthansa Baroque Festival performed Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade and Andrea Marcon and his Venice Baroque Orchestra’s contribution was a pastiche opera – which they have also recorded – using Metastasio’s same libretto as its basis. This libretto was first used in 1733 by Caldara as well as composers as diverse as Galuppi and Leo on the one hand to Mysliveček, Piccinni and Cherubini from the other end of the century. All featured here alongside Vivaldi, Gassmann, Jommelli and Traetta as well as a new composer to me, Davide Perez.

While in principle a clever idea, it tripped over a few hurdles on the night. First and foremost the orchestra led by Marcon, was ragged. Entries were disconcertingly imprecise, tuning was often awry and Marcon’s own tempi were more often than not rushed and hence unsympathetic to the singers. It was this that in my opinion was the root cause of the lower than expected quakity of the playing from the orchestra. This marred some of the more beautiful arias that evening and in particular Jommelli’s Lo sequitai felice where the oboes and French horns simply struggled as did mezzo soprano Romina Basso herself.

That was a shame as Signora Basso was one of two singers who clearly deserved Olympian laurels on the evening. Hers is a velvety and sonorous mezzo soprano voice and once I had become used to her slightly eccentric mannerisms it was a joy to sit back and listen to her. From her opening aria, Superbo di me stesso she commanded the stage and audience throughout the evening. Similarly the second mezzo Delphine Galou displayed both great technique and musicianship – her Mentre dormi by Vivaldi being the highlight of the evening.

The other singers were of varying success. Luanda Siqueira had a bright soprano but would have benefitted from not singing into her score for the majority of the evening while Ruth Rosique, albeit a convincing actress, had a tendency to shrillness in her upper register as she snatched the higher notes. Of the two men, Jeremy Ovenden was a fluid if bland tenor and Nicholas Spanos had gentle timbred pleasantly reedy countertenor but lacked sufficient support to project the bottom notes of his range.

However the one nagging question for me was this – had Marcon simply chosen too many composers? Like a child when confronted by too much choice in the candy shop, had he over-indulged in his choices over too great a span of time? As a result, stylistically his Vivaldi sounded like his Hasse which sounded like his Jommelli which sounded like his Cherubini. Indeed Cherubini complete with harpsichord and lute – strange. Perhaps a narrower range of composers would have left a more stylistically coherent performance at the end of the evening.

Yet it was an interesting experiment. I have purchased the CD and happily admit that I listen to it a great deal mainly because Marcon adopts a more measured pace which allows the beauty of the individual arias stand out, and in particular the aforementioned Jommelli. But at the end of the day it remains more a compilation of charming arias than a coherent pastiche opera seria.

Further Reading
1. An Invigorating Dasch Through Mozart. Enjoyment Assured.
2. Review – Prima Donna. Vivaldi Arias (Nathalie Stutzmann & Orfeo 55)
3. Handel With Care


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