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Bell-a Emma

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Review – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers – Curtain Raisers & High Drama. (Emma Bell, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 8 March 2013).

The Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers season by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is turning out to be a cracking series. If this particularly concert didn’t have the fizz and sizzle of the preceding concerts I think it had more to do with the programming than the music making.

I will never understand why we don’t see more of Emma Bell in the UK. I have her CDs of Handel and lieder by Strauss et al and they are both magnificent. I have seen her at ENO as Vitellia in McVicar’s Clemenza di Tito; Violetta in Connal Morrison’s La Traviata and in Katie Mitchell’s bland Idomeneo saved somewhat by her magnificent Elettra.

As the soloist in this concert Ms Bell was on excellent form. While at time her diction wasn’t complete crystal clear, vocally she was on brilliant form. Her voice is strong and even throughout and she has a pleasant – pardon the unintentional pun – bell-like bloom at the top of her register. And she handled the tessitura of the arias selected with confidence while at the same time displaying excellent dynamic and dramatic intelligence.

Her opening performance of the aria, O smania! O furie! O disperata Elettra! captured both the disintegration of Elettra and the dramatic substance of the music that the twenty-five year old Mozart wrote. Following a gripping rendition of the accompanied recitative Ms Bell effortlessly swung from the more declamatory sections to the most sweeping phrases and cleanly managed the sometimes tricky closing chromatic phrases.

A change from frock to trouser suit and Emma Bell returned to sing Beethoven’s Abscheulicher, wo eislt du hin … Komm, Hoffnung. This is a wonderful scena and in complete contrast to her Elettra, her Leonore was one of both tenderness and resolve. I noticed that she is due to sing the role at ENO and her performance at the Southbank Centre bodes well indeed.

Her final appearance was in in Ocean! Thou mighty Monster from Weber’s Oberon. I admit that this piece always reminds me of Victorian music hall music. Harsh I admit but I can’t get away from that impression. Possibly it has something to do with the fact I struggle with Weber’s music and a dreadful experience while studying Der Freischutz when I was in school. Emma Bell performed it convincingly – well sung and suitably wide-eyed dramatically – but it still failed to convince me to revisit either that particular opera or Weber in general.

The remainder of the concert was made up of the overture from Idomeneo, Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 and Schumann’s Symphony No.2 in C.

Marin Alsop is also someone we regrettably see very little of in the UK. And again it is something that needs to be remedied. She is a conductor of passion and warmth as well as great intelligence and intuition. And she has the rare ability of being able to talk to the audience and communicate her own enthusiasm and passion for music making.

In the first half I would have personally liked a slightly faster tempo and a bit more bite and moodiness in the overture to Idomeneo but by the time of Leonore No. 3 both Marin Alsop and the Orchestra had got into the groove of the music and delivered a crisp and rhythmically alert performance full of the orchestral colour that Beethoven wrote into the music. Often the menace of the opening bass line is glossed over in performance but not so here.

Before the Schumann, Alsop took to the microphone briefly to give some explanation to the piece. Clearly it is a symphony that is close to her heart judging not only from her conducting without a score but also from the eloquence with which she spoke and the intensity of the performance that she evoked from the players. And indeed the highlight of the entire symphony was the elegiac and lied-like third movement. The orchestra belied claims that period instrument orchestras cannot play with warmth and depth, producing a wonderful sound that did real justice to this movement. The scherzo was suitably light on its feet and the two outer movements were invested with a sense of weight without ever sacrificing the transparency required to do this symphony real justice.

Indeed throughout, whether it was accompanying Emma Bell, or relishing their own orchestral contributions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with their characteristic verve and spirit.

As I have said, this series has shaped up beautifully and while this particular concert didn’t quite raise the temperature as the preceding concerts or the promise of the future instalment, it was more a case of the programming that the performances.

Yet again the OAE excelled in their musicianship and note for note, temperament for temperament they were matched by Emma Bell and Maestro Alsop.

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  1. […] Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new series The Works and the most recent concert featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was that […]

  2. […] installment of the OAE’s series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers was a tribute to the singer. The series has been incredible strong in terms both of programming and the high standard of the performances. […]

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