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A Slice Of Quattro (Mezzo) Soprani

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Sogno Barocco – Anne-Sofie von Otter (Sandrine Piau, Capella Mediterranea, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon)
Prima Donna – Karina Gauvin (Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Wiemann)
Dramma – Simone Kermes (La Magnifica Comunità, Isabella Longo)
Amoretti – Christiane Karg (Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen)

It seems that new CDs by leading singers are like buses. You wait ages and then a slew of them arrive at the same time. In the last few weeks I have bought no less than seven new recital discs. As well as those listed above I also have excellent recital discs by Joyce DiDonato and Soile Isokoski as well as Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s more lacklustre recital of Eighteenth Century arias. The latter bordering, sadly, on the disappointing.

While I will return to Mesdames DiDonato and Isokoski at a later date, the four recital CDs listed above have – to varying degrees – given me many hours of pleasure from repeated listening.

Heading the list – and rather unexpectedly I have to admit – is Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter’s Sogno Barocco. I do not say unexpectedly from any sense that the recital isn’t of the very highest standard but rather this isn’t necessarily music that I more normally delve into.

But I am glad I did. I have always greatly admired Ms von Otter. Her luxuriant and characterful mezzo is combined with an intelligent yet impassioned approach to performance. As well as having many of her performances on CD, I have seen her in recital as well as in a broad range of operatic roles including as Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde.

Following her magnificent disc of French arias, Ombre De Mon Amour with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Ms von Otter steps back further in time to the earliest Baroque opera composers and has created a recital interestingly coincidentally based on music for queens, either fictional or real. Accompanied by the excellent Capella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon the listener is further spoiled – and there is no other word to use – by the appearance of Sandrine Piau in three tracks. As well as Monteverdi, Ms von Otter has built a recital that includes Rossi, Cavalli and a rather boisterous number by Provenzale.

The mood and standard is set immediately by Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ‘l tormento. The strophic structure of this song with it varied instrumental interludes is beguiling in its simplicity.

But the standout highlights of the recital are undoubtedly Pur to miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and her impassioned soliloquy Di misera regina from Il ritorno d’Ulisse. In the first and famous duet, Mesdames Otter and Piau wrap their vocal lines around one another with a sensuality that I’ve not heard matched in other performances, and after a rhythmically alert middle section what can only be described as an almost sexual tension is heightened in the melting beautiful da capo. And in the second, Ms von Otter ensures that each and every word is carefully weighed for its emotional content and woven into a grieving whole.

But while the selections from Monteverdi define the album, this recital disc includes numerous other gems that demand repeated listening. For example Cavalli’s Dolcissimi baci (La Calisto) and Doriclea lamento (Doriclea) or at the other end of the unusual scale, Rossi’s Lamento de la Regina di Suezia with contralto Susanna Sundberg. Here von Otter runs the gamut of a whole range of emotions including a most impressive ‘battaglia’ section. And on a more boisterous note there is Provenzale’s Squaciato appena havea.

Throughout von Otter is brilliantly accompanied by the players of Capella Mediterranea led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon, and they provide a scattering of instrumental pieces throughout the recital alternating vigour with delicacy. Even if – like me – you are not normally an early Baroque enthusiast this is definitely a disc worth listening to.

Next was Karina Gauvin’s Prima Donna with the Arion Baroque Orchestra directed by Alexander Wiemann. All the arias on the disc were written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò and while the bulk of the arias are by Handel there are isolated arias by Vinci and Vivaldi. However it is with Handel that del Pò is mainly associated and for her he wrote key roles including Angelica in Orlando, Adelaida in Lotario and the title role in Partenope. Indeed it seems that Handel was responsible for her career as Charles Burney wrote she was “a singer formed by himself (Handel), and modelled on his own melodies. She came hither a coarse and awkward singer with improve talents, and he at last polished her into reputation and favour”. Sadly Burney cannot resist a rite critical stance on her appearance, writing “she had so little of the Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig”. Not something critics today would dare write methinks.

I tried very hard to love this recital disc as much as I have loved previous recordings by Ms Gauvin as well as her live performances. But after repeated listening – and I am sure I will return to it again and again – all I can admit to is admiring Ms Gauvin’s technical proficiency combined with her bright and sonorous soprano. But bar a few fleeting moments when she almost gets under the skin of the music, these are ‘glossy’ performances.

There’s little ‘bite’ or colour and very little interpretation. But she can throw off the coloratura as witnessed by a rather jaunty Scherza in mar from Lotario and Angelica’s No, non potra dirmi ingrata that opens the recital.

The moments where there are glimpses of what could have been are in the three numbers from Alcina – Ah! Ruggiero, crudel … Ombre pallide, Si, non quella and – what must be one of my favourite of all Handel’s arias – Ah! Mio cor. Here the emotional temperature gets above lukewarm but never to boiling point.

I think it part it is due to the colourless – almost polite and reserved – playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra and direction of Wiemann. Even the orchestral excerpts – including the rather odd decision to throw in a rather scratchy Grave from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in c minor for his Opus 6 collection – are lacklustre.

So in the end a disappointing disc that does very little to demonstrate Ms Gauvin’s very obvious musicianship and vocal brilliance.

Simone Kermes’ album Dramma delves into the world of the castrato with a disc of music of composers Giuseppe de Majo, Porpora, Pergolesi and Leo together with a single yet highly memorable Handel aria with great verve delivered in spades. And many of the arias world-premiere recordings.

Ms Kermes has carved out a place for herself as a coloratura soprano of some standing and this disc reinforces this position with authority. Not only is she in magnificent form but she digs deep to find the emotional dimension in each aria.

I don’t know if it’s my disc but the opening aria, de Majo’s Per trionfar pugnando has a scratchy opening almost as if listening to an old 78 but it doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the orchestral playing – and in particular the trumpets – or Ms Kermes’ vocal security and polished tone.

Indeed Ms Kermes throws out the challenging coloratura of many of the arias with both enviable ease and accuracy. For example in Empi, se mai disciplogo, Leo’s Son qual nave in ria procella with its pinpoint delivery or Pergolesi’s Sul mio cor.

But one of the most beautiful arias on this disc is Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo and coming as the second track underlines the breadth of Ms Kermes talent. The momentum – almost nervous pulse – of the accompaniment belies the beautiful vocal line that Ms Kermes spins above it. Her opening phrase – the simple dynamic control she exerts – is a lesson in musicianship and following the short middle section it’s return is stunning. This is the most wonderful preghiera.

In a similar vein is Porpora’s lilting Le limpid’onde from Ifiginie in Aulide with its luminous wind writing. Charming.

Hasse is represented by two arias and the first, Consola il genitore, has Ms Kermes accompanied only by harpsichord. The sheer simplicity of this aria is in stark contrast after the seven preceding arias yet the exposed vocal line is beautifully delivered. In the scheme of Hasse’s L’Olimpiade from which this is taken, it must have been an incredible moment.

Handel is represented by Lascia ch’io pianga. A difficult aria to carry off normally here it is nothing short of a heart-stopping event in this recital. The hushed da capo, almost totally unadorned in any way, is reason enough to buy this disc.

The orchestral playing under Isabella Longo as I have already said, is of the highest standard. Listen to the bold contrapuntal opening of Vedrà turbato il mare for example or the delicacy of Tace l’augello with its solo string writing complimenting Ms Kermes superbly. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the evident joy of La Magnifica Comunitá is Porpora’s Se dopo ria procella with its nothing less than raunchy but accurate horn playing.

Christiane Karg is new to me but Amoretti – with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry – is a gem.

Ms Karg has a beautifully clear and bell-like soprano combined with very sure technique. The opening aria from La Finta Giardinera – and the title of the album – is beautifully presented and sets the standard for the remaining arias by Mozart as well as the whole disc.

Ferma aspetta … Infelici affetti miei from Ascanio in Alba belies how young Mozart was when he wrote it and Ms Karg invests it with suitable dramatic power. And this emotional investment comes to the fore in the scena from Lucio Silla, Fra i pensier.

Mitridate’s Lunga da te is taken at a daringly measured pace but has both a superb horn obbligato and wonderful elegant legato phrasing from Ms Karg.

And if anyone is in doubt of Ms Karg’s technique then Biancheggia from Il Sogno di Scipione will dispel any concerns as she veritably flings out the divisions with incredible ease.

The selections from Gluck include the rarely performed Soumis au silence from Orphée et Euridice and Sacre Piante from Il Parnasso Confuso but it is the Adieu from Iphigénie en Aulide which stands out. Crystal clear diction and a real sympathy for the rhythmic structure of the vocal line, Ms Karg is a natural Gluckist.

But the real finds of this recital are the arias by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. In my teenage years, rummaging through a second-hand record shop I came across a recording of Grétry’s – I’m pretty sure it was his Richard, Cœur de Lion. At the time I remember trying anything from the Eighteenth century ‘rather than’ Mozart but have to admit that having got it home I was more than a little disappointed.

Having revisited Grétry more than once since it is no small shame that he is not performed more often, especially based in the selections made here. Comme in éclair from La fausse Magpie written in 1775 is an exercise in Galanterie and clearly influenced not only by his time in Italy but by a plethora of Italian contemporaries in its composition. Again the coloratura here holds no fears for Ms Karg and her vocal technique shines through.

Il va venir! … Pardonne o mon Juge from Silvain was a comédie written five years earlier and again clearly owes much to Italian opera. Following a well-crafted accompanied section the subsequent aria with its oboe interjections is almost Mozartian – early Mozart.

The third aria, Au bien supreme from the comédie Lucille was written in 1769 owes something to Gluck in its woodwind colouring.

Perhaps it’s about time that the spotlight was shine more fully on Monsieur Grétry. Any offers?

And throughout Ms Karg is confidently supported by Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. As in their disc with Iestyn Davies Cohen and the players demonstrate their instinctive talent and musicianship.

Another slice anyone?

Piau Wows

In Classical Music, Handel, Mozart, Review on October 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Review – “Ruhe sanft” – A Mozart Kaleidoscope (Wigmore Hall, Monday 15 October 2012)

Sandrine Piau (Soprano)
Jonathan Manson (Cello)
The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

It was quite simply an evening of the highest standard of musicianship from French soprano Sandrine Piau, brilliantly and sympathetically supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera under Ian Page.

The narrative of the concert included arias spanning the beginning and closing years of Mozart life, including his interest with Handel. Inspired by his discovery of JS Bach and Handel the concert opened with a dramatic, rhythmically alert and sonorous performance of Mozart’s Adagio & Fugue in c minor. The Adagio had all the tension of coiling a spring before the release of the fugue, driven forward with incredible care given to the individual lines by Page right into the stretto at the end.

Also in the first half the Orchestra gave a spirited performance of Mozart’s Symphony in F written when he was only nine years old but only discovered in 1981. What’s so clearly evident – as it was with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment only a few weeks ago – is the very clear enjoyment and pleasure that this ensemble has in music making. I’m beginning to wonder in fact if this evident enjoyment on the stage is unique to original instrument ensembles as I rarely see more ‘traditional’ orchestras even crack a smile when playing. Playing all the repeats again Page kept the tempos brisk and drove the music forward with rhythmic vitality.

Ms Piau first took to the stage with an aria from Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik, more commonly known as ‘What passion cannot Music raise and quell’ and an aria that Ms Piau has committed to disc recently.

Jonathan Manson, principal cellist with the Orchestra of Classical Opera deserves special mention for his delicate and fluid playing of the obbligato in this aria as well as one of two encores performed at the end of the evening. His rich, suave tone was a pleasure to listen to and he complimented Ms Piau perfectly.

The actual arrangement of this aria by Mozart made the original by Handel seem – to me at any rate – more like Haydn. Almost like something that would be out of place in The Creation for example.

Ms Piau immediately demonstrated why she is one of the leading sopranos. Her sure and solid technique combined with musical intelligence and eloquence underpins a voice of great beauty and character which is warm, bronzed almost, and even.

Ms Piau bestowed on Mozart’s arrangement of this aria a serenity that had the audience enthralled from the moment she began to sing.

Next she sang an aria from Mozart’s own oratorio, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, performed in 1767. Mozart only provided music for a single act, sharing the commission with Michael Haydn and Anton Adlgasser. Classical Opera are to make a recording of this for 2013 so it will be interesting to be able to compare the three composers side by side.

The aria itself, Ein ergrimmter Löwe brüllet (An Enraged Lion Roars) is a typical metaphor aria in da capo form where the middle section, with it’s reference to Mercy, is gentler and slower. While it can’t compare with later vocal number by Mozart it was a charming aria and showed that even at the age of eleven he could not only write confidently but had a clear understanding of the voice.

And Ms Piau imbued the aria with an emotional intensity that made you forget that this was in fact the work of a child – albeit it prodigy. I do hope that Ian Page has persuaded Ms Piau to participate.

I own – and I can’t recommend it enough – Ms Piau’s recital disc of Mozart arias with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Some of the arias from that disc she performed at Wigmore Hall and the first of these was Grazie al Numi … Nel grave tormento from Mitridate, re di Ponto, written by Mozart for Milan in 1771, a year before Lucio Silla.

Perhaps because it was a live performance, but compared to her rendition on the disc, that evening this aria seethed with emotion. And if anything, with the passage of time her voice had grown in terms of depth and lustre while at the same time losing neither its flexibility nor range. And the way she delivered the allegro coloratura – like bullets out of a gun – demonstrated her incredible technique.

Post the interval, Ms Piau returned for two arias from La Finta Giardinera – Geme la tortorella and Crudeli, oh Dio! Fermate … Ah dal pianto, dal singhiozzo. Written for the character of Sandrina, the are arias of contrasting emotions which Ms Piau carried off with both vocal and emotional aplomb. Similarly, in the second aria, Ms Piau handled the feisty accompagnato with a dramatic intensity that she carried into the ensuing aria.

In the first aria, supported by gentle yet precise playing from Classical Opera, Ms Piau demonstrated again that Mozart not only knew how to write for the voice but write with suitably tinged pathos.

I cannot admit to knowing all of Mozart’s symphonies and therefore the Orchestra of Classical Opera’s performance next of Symphony No. 27 in G Major was a nice surprise as I tend to start at Symphony No. 32 and move upwards. But this symphony is a real ‘Galant’ gem while at the same time acting as a precursor to the aforementioned symphony in many ways. The lilting triple time opening movement is followed by an gentle, almost rustic Andantino grazioso with rippling triplets and some delightful major-minor mode changes and some closing cadential humour. The contrapuntal final movement has distinct echoes of Mozart’s final symphony. It is definitely worth a listen.

Ms Piau then returned to the stage for her final two arias from Zaide. Ruhe sanft – with James Eastaway’s beguiling oboe obbligato – was taken at a speed slower than normal but not as slow as on her recital disc. Yet the tempo allowed Ms Piau to relish the vocal line especially in the melismas of the closing bars. Yet it was her performance of Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen which was almost the finest performance of the evening. Again the soprano inhabited the role from the first outburst but never let the emotion blur the purity of her singing.

I say it was almost the finest performance of the evening but Ms Piau delighted the audience with two superb encores.

The first was Mozart’s arrangement of Softly Sweet, In Lydian Measures from Handel’s Alexander’s Feast once again beautifully complemented by the obbligato playing of Jonathan Manson.

And with the second encore Ian Page informed the audience that he was sending us home “with death” – Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.

It was the ultimate lesson in how perfect a performance can be. Over the gentlest string accompaniment Ms Piau unwound the delicate vocal line with passionate intensity.

It was a most exquisite death and the perfect end to a perfect evening.

Wagner’s Wesendonck In Washington

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Wagner on October 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

Review – Wesendonck Lieder (Wagner, orch. Henze) & Symphony No. 7 in E Major (Bruckner)

Nathalie Stutzmann (Contralto)
National Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (Conductor/Music Director)

It’s been some time since I have seen Nathalie Stutzmann in concert, so while vacationing in Washington DC I seized the opportunity to see her in concert. I have her recital CDs of Handel and Vivaldi as well as her performance of Brahms’ Alton Rhapsody. For me she has always been the most attentive and intelligent of singers which she combines with a keen flair for, and innate ability of, conveying the emotions behind the music. I also read in the programme that Ms Stutzmann will soon release a recital disc ‘dedicated’ – as the notes put it – to Bach which I look forward to purchasing as I can’t believe it will be any less brilliant than her more recent disc of arias by Vivaldi.

Similarly, as well as having numerous of his recordings, the last time I saw Christoph Eschenbach was in London with Renée Fleming in a memorable performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. As with Ms Stutzmann, the maestro is a ‘details’ man, delving deeply into the score to reveal the intricacies and beauty within. In the aforementioned concert, his was an intelligent and thoughtful interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony surpassed only by his support of Ms Fleming in Strauss’ song cycle.

Therefore the opportunity to spend an evening at the Kennedy Center to hear Ms Stutzmann sing Wagner’s gem-like Wesendonck Lieder accompanied by Eschenbach was too good an occasion to pass up.

Additionally, more accustomed as I am to the more often performed Wesendonck Lieder in the version by Wagner/Mottl the concert afforded the chance to hear the songs in Henze’s 1976 arrangement. He arranged the five songs for alto and chamber orchestra including alto lute, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon as part of the usual ensemble and this was the first time that the National Symphony Orchestra performed this version.

And indeed the sound world created by Henze is notably different from the more commonly heard version. His sparser orchestration relies instead on the individual colours created by the ensemble and in particular a greater focus on the wind instruments and French horns. In a sense, Henze’s view of the Wesendonck Lieder is bleaker – not only bled of the lush romanticism normally associated with the cycle as most recently heard under Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, but of the very air that surrounds the songs themselves.

Yet the overall effect and the instrumental colours spun by Henze are unique and magical and of course mean that the words of Mathilde Wesendonck’s poetry are not so much revealed as exposed.

Therefore a performance of Henze’s arrangement not only requires a singer in possession of the most steadfast and confident technique but also a singer of incredible musicianship and emotional intelligence who is able to mine both words and music and deliver a compelling performance.

And that is exactly what Ms Stutzmann, supported by Eschenbach, delivered – an impassioned yet emotionally alert performance, perfectly in synch with the orchestra surrounding her.

Nathalie Stutzmann is a real contralto. Her voice is rich and even throughout its wide range with an incredibly attractive – sensual in fact – sonority in its lowest register but without any sense of strain as she moves up to the top of her range.

From the opening bars of Der Engel, Henze’s sound world was radically sparse – the violins seemed used so sparingly throughout for example – and this was exacerbated by Eschenbach’s incredibly slow tempo. I remember how slow he took the opening of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Fleming, but this was even more daringly slow. It was almost as if he was determined that the audience to come to terms with how radically different Henze’s arrangements really were. And indeed Eschenbach even seemed to s,ow and become more expansive at ‘Da der Engel nieder schwebt’ without – it seemed – any loss in momentum.

The tempo was picked up for Stehe Still! With both the ensemble and singer communicating a real sense of desperation. But Eschenbach and Stutzmann remained forever alert to the words and accordingly slowed for the third stanza. Indeed Ms Stutzmann’s handling of the text was marvellous. There was a real sense of hushed wonder at Wenn Aug’ in Auge wonnig trinken with a broadening and the greatest sense of poise as she guided the audience through to the end, indeed her unaccompanied (Keinen Wunsch mehr will) das Inn’re zeugen seemed to hang in air.

In Im Triebhaus Henze’s truly captured the sense of desolation. In this – so clearly linked to the final act of Tristan – his use of muted horns, harp and violas was a real feat of beautifully sensitive orchestration, capturing the light and shade of the poem with such a focused orchestral palette. And Ms Stutzmann matched the ensemble with her incredible vocal control of the songs sinuous phrases. Her sense of word painting at word painting at Und der Leiden strummer Zeugen was remarkable for example before Eschenbach urged a slight quickening of tempo for the third stanza.

And the poignancy of fourth stanza’s Wohl Ich weiss es, arme Pflanze and careful placing of Unsre Heimat is Nicht hier! again underlined how immersed Ms Stutzmann was in the performance,

Schmerzen – which often can be the weakest of the song cycle – was carried to its final bars by Eschebach’s and Stutzmann intelligent and persuasive control of the song’s dynamic and rhythmic momentum. The two crescendi in the second stanza were carefully managed so that the closing vocal line at O wie dank’ich was not undermined before Eschenbach faded the orchestra away.

But it was in Träume that the translucent orchestral writing – dolefully wrapped around the vocal line – was truly marvellous. And Eschebach’s gentle lilting tempo underlined Stutzmann’s careful attention to the words as each repetition of Träume was more insistent Until the closing bars where, after the soloist had almost sighed und damn sinken in den Gruft, Henze’s delicate arrangement dissipated ethereally away.

It was a remarkable performance, not only because of Ms Stutzmann’s performance but for the committed and intelligent support of Eschenbach and the members of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Interestingly the audience’s response was – while not muted – somewhat hesitant to start with. Perhaps Henze’s arrangement and Ms Stutzmann’s impassioned performance was not what they expected.

It was a disappointment therefore that it was a concert of unequal halves as the orchestra’s subsequent performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony felt just slightly under the boil.

This was a shame, not only after such an incredible first half but because it was clear that Eschenbach – conducting without a score – had a clear grasp of the overall architecture of the work as well as the intricacies buried within it. On the podium he seemed determined to drive Bruckner’s symphony forward despite his orchestra’s inability – or reticence – to follow resulting in what can only be described as a very mannered performance.

The opening certainly held promise but it very quickly disappeared. Most distractingly there was consistent and surprisingly imprecision in the First Violins. This manifested itself for example in indecisive, almost shy, entries – particularly in the first and final movements or – or intonation problems. And in the Adagio, their first chorale entry was completely marred by overtly aggressive and over-emphasised vibrato and on the whole the orchestra seemed almost distracted.

Interestingly it was the Finale, which often can sound curiously like an incomplete afterthought, that seemed almost the most successful movement. It’s careful moulding by the maestro only ultimately let down in the final bars by some untidy playing in the brass section.

I was surprised when members of the audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation until I heard the person next to me quip that a Washington audience would give the ‘reading of a menu’ a standing ovation.

Indeed even Eschenbach seemed surprised at the audience’s reaction as he took a bow.

Dancers In The Dark

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on October 6, 2012 at 11:41 am

Review – Julius Caesar, English National Opera (Thursday 4 October 2012)

Julius Caesar – Lawrence Zazzo
Cleopatra – Anna Christy
Cornelia – Patricia Bardon
Sesto – Daniela Mack
Ptolemy -Tim Mead
Achillas – Andrew Craig Brown
Curio – George Humphreys
Nirenus – James Laing

Fabulous Beast Dance Company

Director & Choreographer – Michael Keegan-Dolan
Costume – Doey Lüthi
Lighting – Adam Silverman

Conductor – Christian Curmyn

For the record, I wore jeans and trainers to last night’s performance of Julius Caesar – pace Giulio Cesare – at English National Opera. And I wasn’t alone. Somehow I think ENO’s latest bid to get ‘young people’ through the doors will fall flat. It doesn’t matter what you wear to the opera – one gent was in a track suit – as long as what is happening on stage commands your complete and total attention.

Sadly, ENO’s new production of Giulio Cesare did not.

John Berry continues with his obsession of employing ‘creatives’ who have no or little track record of previously directing opera. I am not saying that on occasion – a rare occasion – he doesn’t score a success. I am thinking in particular of Anthony Minghella’s cinematic production of Madame Butterfly. It may not have plumbed the depths of characterisation but it was certainly memorable.

Others have not been so fortunate. Terry Gilliam’s Faust was – after all the hype – disappointing; Figgis’ Lucia di Lammermoor was nothing less than bel canto cannibalisation and Rufus Norris’ Don Giovanni mistook crass violence for drama.

For this venture at the self-dubbed ‘House of Handel’ Berry selected to work with Michael Keegan-Dolan in a co-production with the latter’s Fabulous Beast Dance Company. Previous credits for Keegan-Dolan include ENO’s production of Alcina, which I remember with some fondness for the elegance of its choreography and their more recent production of The Rite of Spring, which I did not see.

ENO has assembled a pretty strong ensemble of singers for this venture. Led by Lawrence Zazzo it included Anna Christy, Patricia Bardon and Tim Mead whom I have seen before as well as Daniela Mack, Andrew Craig Brown, George Humphreys and James Laing.

And in the pit, Christian Curmyn.

On paper it all looked so promising. And overall musically it was.

Zazzo’s voice may have lost some of its bite and attractive starchiness over the years but he still sounds beautiful. He can still produce a gently honeyed tone although perhaps now there is a little less colour and shade throughout his still considerable range. And he has lost none of the vocal agility for which he is renowned and which was tested to the full in this role. I won’t go so far as to say his Cesare was a tour de force but there were moments of great beauty. In particular in the third act, his Aure, Deh, Pietà was just short of stunning and thankfully devoid of much of the pointless direction that littered the evening.

Before the metaphorical curtain rose, we were informed that Ms Christy was suffering from a severe cold. Apart from a slight hint of tightness at the top of her range and the smallest hint of flagging just before she rallied for the final duet, hers was an accomplished performance as Cleopatra. She handled the florid runs and her da capo ornamentation with gusto and almost pinpoint accuracy. I imagine that when she is fully recovered her voice will have an added softness that was sometimes missing on Thursday evening. Her V’adoro, Pupille – sung rather smartly I admit as a nightclub singer – was suitably graceful and light and her final aria – Piangerò la sorte mia – was heartfelt if lacking in the subtle vocal colouring that would have made it more memorable. However there was no faulting the end of the second act and Che sento? Oh Dio! Se Pietà di me non senti. Here Christy delivered a mesmerising, undistracted performance, emotionally focused and beautiful of tone. It was – for me – the highlight of the evening.

Patricia Bardon got off to a rocky start. Her opening aria Priva son d’ogni conforto – a pitfall for many singers exactly because of its simplicity – was too heavily sung but she got into her stride and by the duet at the end of Act One was in fine voice. She does have a slight tendency to untidiness in her ornamentation in the da capo return but the depth and richness of her voice always makes her a joy to listen to.

Tim Mead as Ptolemy was both vocally secure, with a pleasant bell-like tone sufficiently distinct to his Roman nemesis with confident technique to manage the coloratura. And Daniela Mack – in her Coliseum debut – was a striking Sesto. Played inexplicably as a girl, Mack’s Sesto was the character who most clearly evolved from child to avenger in the course of the opera. However how much this was due to Keegan-Dolan’s direction rather than her interpretation of Handel’s music and her own talent is open to question. Again her bright soprano eased through the music with agility and precise coloratura. I look forward to seeing more of Ms Mack on stage.

Curmyn led the orchestra with finesse. But as I remarked when he conducted Castor et Pollux, there was a lack of orchestral light and dark amongst the players – he didn’t really delve deeply into the sound world that Handel so carefully wove into the score. But his rhythms were sharp and crisp and he maintained a good sense of momentum through the recitatives. My only gripe is that sometimes his tempi erred on the side of haste. In particular in the wonderful duet between mother and daughter/son Son nata a lagrimar and Cleopatra’s Piangerò, where a little more breadth was really needed to do full justice to the music.

Unfortunately the quality and thoughtfulness given over to the casting and music was badly missing from Keegan-Dolan’s directing and choreography.

Bar one single instance of inspiration the entire evening was nothing short than a slow-footed mess. My heart sank when I first entered the auditorium to find the curtain pulled back to reveal the stage. This was a device used most recent at ENO by Barry Kosky in Castor et Pollux. But whereas his stage was empty, Keegan-Dolan’s revealed a suspended stuffed crocodile and a giraffe loitering at the back of the stage like a Toys R Us after a raid by particularly misbehaved children. I would like to think that the director selected the crocodile because of it’s Renaissance symbolism – as suggested in one review – but I think it had more to do with the geographical location of the opera and the allure of a cheap visual gag.

I also cannot fathom the reason why corps de ballet were on stage throughout except that the restrictive set design did not facilitate easy access or exit either stage left or right. When they weren’t dancing they were tidying up, pouring fake blood over the singers or sitting in one of the trenches.

And so to the dancing. I didn’t find it distracting overall but I do question what artistic or narrative value it added. I am not opposed to dance in opera – even when it isn’t implicitly written into the score. I think back to Alcina and the charming way Tornami a vagheggiar closed the first act. By Keegan-Dolan I note.

In this production’s programme the director/choreographer wrote that the dances reflected “the yearning of the characters to connect with the universal and express each characters’ attempt to find resolution and end their suffering.”

Really?

I am not expert in the vocabulary of dance but if the movements of the dancers were meant to express the feelings of the dancers then Keegan-Dolan saw the characters as emotionally bland and simple ciphers. The same flailing movements occurred again and again and again, either in solo or ensemble or, quite tiringly, starting as solos and then gradually more dancers joined one by one.

Indeed the single moment of beauty and insight in this masterpiece of Handel’s was at the end of the Second Act. Cleopatra’s Se pietà was heartrending not only in her performance but in the direction. Why? Because the stage was devoid of any dancing or pointless activity so that everything was focused on Christy. It threw the rest of the Opera’s tediousness direction into sharp relief.

A few years back I saw Piña Bausch’s Iphigénie at Sadler’s Wells. I remember being sceptical as the curtain rose thinking how could anyone merge Gluck’s masterpiece with dance. Well Bausch achieved it, creating a work of infinite beauty and emotional depth, intelligence and impact. All sadly lacking from Keengan-Dolan’s interpretation.

Also in the programme Keegan-Dolan, almost in defence of his production it seems writes – “As a choreographer or director one is vulnerable to making the mistake of adding too many extra elements to what Handel has given us, when in fact all that is necessary is to excavate thoroughly what is already there and simply allow its implicit power to emerge.”

It’s a shame that he didn’t listen to his own advice. Apart from the visual gags, the dancing didn’t add anything and in fact – while not overtly distracting – seemed to afford him with something to hide behind similar to the sheet behind which the onstage orchestra performed for V’adoro pupille. It enabled him to overlook, or more damning, neglect the development of the characters in this, only of Handel’s most carefully written operas in terms of characterisation.

And as for his comment about apple pie – “Adding ice cream to cream already on a slice of apple tart will smother any taste of the apple” – I can only assume that Mr Keegan-Dolan has an over-sweet tooth artistically speaking as he simply cannot leave anything alone. Apart from the crocodile and the giraffe complete with its ripped out tongue, Keegan-Dolan persisted in cramming nonsense into the production. Balloons, Caesar for some unknown reason as cowboy cum big game hunter and out of the blue a single moment of cruelty that was completely out of kilter, unexpected and therefore totally unnecessary. I refer to Ptolemy’s treatment of his sister in the Third Act. The abuse – and there is not other word for it – was more akin to the work of Calixto Bieito but at least in the latter’s productions it is consistently applied. Here it felt simply felt contrived and a desperate attempt to lift the drama through tawdry shock tactics.

And not content with interfering with the narrative thigh his ideas, he messed with the story itself. Why was Sesto a young woman? There was absolutely no dramatic justification for it nor any explanation. Pointless.

As for the lighting and costumes. Bland. Why was Caesar in cowboy boots and vest and why did Cornelia look more like a shop assistant from Estée Lauder than a grieving widow?

But to return one final time to Keegan-Dolan’s own note in the programme he writes – “If you close your eyes and listen to Handel’s music …”.

I am not saying that the Fabulous Beast Dance Company are not talented but by the start of the Second Act it was a very tempting to,take the director up on his offer.

It’s a tragedy, almost of Classic proportions, that singing and musicianship of such a high standard was almost universally marred by a bad original idea and worse than dreadful direction. It’s even sadder that I think that this production of Giulio Cesare will never see the light of day again.

Indeed if this was the Roman Coliseum it would definitely be getting the thumbs down.

ENO’s New Clothes

In Classical Music, Opera on October 4, 2012 at 9:43 am

As I have said before I fully support and admire any artistic company – and especially opera companies – who do their utmost to attract new audiences. As audiences shrink and budgets are cut I welcome almost anything that will bring classical music and opera to a wider – and yes younger – audience. So it’s rather disappointing to read today about ENO’s latest idea to try and lure new audiences into the Coliseum. It is also a tad worrying off the back of John Berry’s rather strange remarks about broadcasting performances in cinemas. What is their artistic ethos evolving into if it isn’t embracing technology for example to reach wider audiences? I laud ROH’s deal with Apple – a nice little revenue earner that again has passed ENO by.

Recently, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment‘s campaign – Not All Audiences Are The Same – caught my eye. It very smartly points out the different audiences that make up any concert evening without – in my opinion – creating a new divide amongst the audience as the new ENO campaign does.

Undress For Opera – as ENO’s initiative is called – is misguided, patronising and more dangerously threatens to create a new clique in place of the perceived old one. By trying to appeal to a younger audience, ENO are slapping their loyal audience in the face somewhat.

I wonder which operas Gilliam and Albarn attended to refer to the art form as “for the rich and successful and almost dead”? Clearly those who attended Gilliam’s Faust – as I did – may have died of boredom from the wholly unoriginal and crass ideas he bombarded the audience with; and as for Albarn’s Dr Dee, which I sat through in Manchester, it’s quite clear that ‘formal opera education’ has never been a prerequisite for writing music of intelligence, emotion and wit. Albarn’s vanity project only succeeded in being empty and insignificant. And by the way there were many suited people in the audience when I was there.

John Berry should also beware of such throw away comments that opera is “too stuffy, too posh, (and) too expensive”. Never bite the hands of those who pour money into your coffers as donors or more importantly regularly attend your productions and pay the standard prices, never being offered any form of discount or reward for their loyalty.

Of all the opera companies that I attend, ENO has always had – and rightly celebrated – it’s informality. Opera ‘for the people’ I think they used to say. Now they seem to be saying they’ve been as elitist as they perceive other companies to be.

What a shame.

I wear jeans, trainers and – god forbid – even just a t-shirt to the Coliseum and sit in the stalls. As do countless other people. The majority of people who support ENO are the same I would add. They are there for the music and the – hit and miss – productions. People – on the whole – wear to the opera what makes them comfortable. I don’t deny that if you are a corporate donor – or a guest of a corporate donor – you might feel a suit is more appropriate but I have been the guest of many corporate donors and have attended – as I have said – in jeans and trainers.

So what is it all about?

Rather sadly, it’s about ENO’s desire not to so much attract a new, younger audience but rather to be perceived as being “hip”. Attracting a young audience doesn’t mean telling them to “dress down”, or creating a club like atmosphere or offering them cheaper tickets. Believe you me, ‘young people’ enjoy dressing up and don’t mind spending money on tickets – full price tickets – if they think what they are getting is high quality and intelligent. Just look at how much they are willing to spend on seeing their favourite pop artists or football teams for example.

Any attempt to woo a new audience should be about celebrating the art form, not cheapening it.

People who consider – even on a whim – coming to the opera aren’t put off by old preconceptions of who is in the audience or what to wear. They are attracted either by a genuine interest in seeing what it is all about, following a named director or choreographer whom they admire outside the opera house or, let’s face, a bloody clever marketing campaign.

Undress For Opera isn’t a bloody clever marketing campaign. As an idea it’s heart is in the right place in the sense of trying to appeal to a new audience, but its execution smacks of a cheap shot at grabbing a headline. It’s patronizing to any new audience and potentially alienating to its current one. And I do wonder at how sustainable it is as a campaign. I see they are offering La Traviata and Don Giovanni. What incentive are they providing for any of the new audience to come and sample something else?

Perhaps they should consider a loyalty card scheme that all attendees of ENO can benefit from?

I also see this morning that Kasper Holten has tweeted – clearly in response to ENO’s announcement – that forty per cent of Covent Garden’s audience were under the age of 45 last season. No jeans and trainers diktat was imposed there methinks. And I do wonder why John Berry hasn’t embraced social media. Perhaps he has but I couldn’t find him this morning. Although perhaps it is better for ENO that he isn’t expressing himself in 140 characters considering some of his comments recently.

Perhaps a little more thought could have gone into ENO’s idea before they all sat down cross-legged on the stage to announce it? Perhaps a little less condescension and a little more strategy would have made this sound not so desperately hip?

Joie de Jouer.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 3, 2012 at 9:51 am

Review: Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divas (Royal Festival Hall, Sunday 30 September 2012)

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Soprano)
The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington (Conductor Emeritus)

Haydn – Symphony No. 85
Cherubini – Dei tuoi figli la made (Medea)
Gluck – Dance of the Blessed Spirits & Dance of the Furies
Gluck – O malhereuse Iphigénie (Iphigénie en Tauride)
Berlioz – Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité
Bizet – Symphony in C

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is – personally – one of the few orchestras that actively exude a real pleasure in their music making. And say what you will about Norrington’s conducting mannerisms, his enthusiasm – something I personally experienced when he conducted my school orchestra and choir when I was young – added to the almost festival atmosphere at the Southbank at the weekend.

The weekend’s concert was the opening in a quartet of concerts that will see performances by the Sarah Connolly and Emma Bell and a tribute concert to Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. This opening concert’s soloist was Anna Caterina Antonacci who – following her performance as Cassandre in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens seems to be the toast of the opera loving crowd at the moment. At least in the UK.

The concert opened in fine style and set the standard for the rest of the evening in terms of the standard of music making with Haydn’s ‘La Reine’ symphony. It was clear from the start that the players and Norrington have a deep-rooted connection – a camaraderie almost – that delivers such a high standard of playing. Immediately Norrington established a real sense of momentum with crisp rhythms, careful attention paid to dynamics and equal attention given to leveraging a real range of orchestral colour which was particular evident in the elegant theme and variations which made up the second movement.

I admit I am not a fan of the two dances from Orfeo ed Euridice. I admit they are well crafted but they leave me cold. Despite the wonderfully nuanced playing in Blessed Spirits and the vigorous string playing in The Furies they still remained simply filler for me. It was a shame that something a little more adventurous wasn’t programmed.

Similarly the closing Symphony in C by Bizet veritably fizzed along with similar rhythmic and dynamic acuity. Usually I can never quite hear this symphony either without thinking it light weight or without Beecham’s performance in the back of my mind but that wasn’t the case at the Royal Festival Hall. From the opening bars the Norrington and the orchestra revelled in Bizet’s score and demonstrated that this symphony – of which Bizet himself was almost ashamed – was less a pastiche or confection of styles but a symphony worthy of being heard in its own right. It was a fitting end to a excellent evening.

The rest of the concert featured Signora Antonacci in excerpts from French opera. As I have already mentioned, Ms Antonacci seems to be the toast of the town at the moment after Les Troyens.

And rightly so judging from her performance on Sunday night. As many have noted, she does not have a voice that will appeal to everyone. Indeed the programme referred to her ‘extraordinary vocal timbre’ but like singers such as Edda Moser her technique is sure and confident. Her voice may strain at the upper end of her register and acquire an uncomfortable tone but her dynamic control was incredible and throughout her diction was clear

Her performance of short extracts from Cherubini’s Medea, Berlioz’ Les Troyens and – sadly – a paltry extract from Iphigénie en Tauride demonstrated that what she may lack in vocal beauty is more than compensated for by how she invests her singing with real dramatic intensity, emotional intelligence and stage presence. I am not a fan of Les Troyens but now I am determined to catch one of the cinema broadcasts of ROH’s production to see her performance for myself.

Yet strangely it was her encore – Les Tringles des Sistres tintaient from Carmen – that brought the house down. Unlike earlier, not only was there no sense of vocal strain but she produced a warm, almost velvety tone that was absent before.

On an aside, at the interval I did hear a few people comment negatively on the OAE’s new marketing campaign. ‘Not All Audiences Are The Same’ is a clever twist on the Orchestra’s original strap line and continues in the same humour of their early campaigns. Its a shame that there were more than a few empty seats on Sunday night. But bravo OAE for once again taking a different route to attract new audiences. Some bigger institutions should take note. And while I’m at it, nice website too.

As ever, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment delivered a concert of the highest standard of music. They always find a way to invest evening the more commonly heard pieces with invention and insight. It seems that they didn’t record the evening for their own label which is a pity but I do look forward to the three remaining concerts in this set.

Wagner ohne Worte. Leider.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on October 1, 2012 at 7:28 am

Overture to Tannhäuser; Wesendonck Lieder; Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March & Immolation Scene (Götterdämmerung). Bridgewater Hall, Saturday 29 September 2012.

Brigitte Hahn (Soprano)
BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena (Conductor)

I was at Bridgewater Hall last year when Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic bravely opened their 2011/2012 Season with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. It was a gamble but it paid off superbly. The high quality of the music making and the intelligence of Mena’s interpretation made for an incredibly memorable evening.

This year, Mena and his orchestra gambled on an all Wagner concert. I cannot say whether this was a deliberate – yet smaller scale – foil to Covent Garden’s current Ring cycle, but as far as taking another gamble, it paid off. For the most part.

The concert opened with the overture from Tannhäuser and from the opening notes of the chorale it was clear that the BBC Philharmonic was on fantastic form. It wasn’t just the warmth and sonority of the playing but the way that each and every note was so precisely – almost reverently – placed without interrupting the seamless legato required for that opening section. And similarly the string figurations were beautifully articulated and a keen attention to rhythmic detail was evident throughout. And it was evident that Mena – as he had demonstrated a year ago in the Mahler – had a firm grasp of the broader architecture of the overture – not only in terms of the ensuing allegro section but in the nothing less than majestic return of the chorale in the closing bars. The playing from the brass section was superlative – both bold and bright; there was a pleasant earthy hue to the wind playing and strings were wonderfully burnished. And throughout Mena drew the widest dynamic contrasts from the players but – as in the Mahler – ensured there was sufficient added volume at the end.

Similarly the orchestral excerpts from The Ring continued the highest standard of music making from the first half. I am not always a fan of ‘bleeding chunks’ extracted from the Ring – or other large scale pieces come to that – but here Mena managed a continuous flow from Dawn to Funeral March and coaxed some incredible playing from the orchestra. The brass were, for example, suitably percussive in the Funeral March and the strings produced the depth of tone and vibrancy required particularly in the closing bars.

But while orchestrally the evening was nothing less than superb, I was not totally convinced by Mena’s handling of the vocal parts of the concert. Neither the evening’s Wesendonck Lieder or Immolation scene with Brigitte Hahn were as polished or created the same excitement

Don’t get me wrong, Brigitte Hahn possesses a lovely voice – both bright and clear with a firm even tone throughout bar potentially a few problems at the very bottom of her range. I say potentially as this was more evident in the Wesendonck Lieder and may in part be attributed to Mena’s approach to the songs themselves. And it is fair to say that Ms Hahn was clearly saving herself for the second half of the concert.

But for me in the Wesendonck Lieder there was almost a lack of the ‘Romantic’ in Mena’s interpretation. While the playing of the BBC Philharmonic was for the most part beautifully poised – although pace at times the flute did sound over exposed – under Mena’s baton it seemed almost distant and remote. Additionally at times Mena’s tempi were just a hair-breadth rushed. The opening song for example seemed ever so fractionally hurried which I think was the root cause of Hahn’s wobbly start.

Similarly Brunnhilde’s Immolation scene, while overall a solid performance, it did leave me wanting perhaps a greater sense of shade and colour. It is clearly a role that Hahn knows well and for the most part she acquitted herself with aplomb and delivered a conscientious performance. I would imagine that when singing the role in its totality – giving her an opportunity to develop and progress not only her characterisation but also the light and darkness needed vocally – she is formidable. But there were more than a few moments when I felt that Mena could have given her a little more time and – if truth be told – pulled back on the orchestra a little more. It’s inevitable in a concert performance of this scene that any soprano will run the risk of being drowned out but at times it did seem that Mena’s neglect overwhelmed Hahn. A shame as ultimately it made for a performance that was flawed – however small that flaw was.

These parts of the concert did make me think back the the BBC Philharmonic’s performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder with Anne Schwanewilms at the Proms. At the time I remarked that I didn’t think that Mena and the orchestra were particularly supportive but I am hoping that it is just an unhappy coincidence rather than something that needs to be addressed.

But as I said the combination of the BBC Philharmonic at the top of its game and a soprano wit a gleaming and rich soprano overall meant that this was an opening concert of the standard for which the BBC Philharmonic is known.

The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on October 7 and in spite of the few distractions I will definitely listen to it again. As I said the BBC Philharmonic were simply glorious.

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