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Aria for … Friday – O del mio dolce ardor (Paride ed Elena)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on May 31, 2013 at 6:11 am

What better way to start a Friday? Me. An empty office. And Dame Janet Baker.

Perhaps unusually my first Dame Janet Baker disc was her recital of Gluck arias on tape. I also have a hazy recollection that her Julius Caesar was also the first televised opera I watched. But I could be wrong about that.

But with this recital I was hooked on Gluck and Dame Baker – it’s been a life long love affair ever since.

In a time before period instruments and performance and even since these performances set the standard.

And this aria from Paride ed Elena – possibly almost unknown at the time of original recording to many people – is a little gem.

Above the gentle pulsating accompaniment of the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard, Janet Baker imbues the vocal line with an intensity that is hard to match.

Each phrase is beautifully shaped, spun out and given the space to breath.

Each word carefully and clearly placed.

Listen for example to “Cerco te, chiamo te” and then the delicacy of the glissando at ‘sospiro’ – it literally sends shivers down the spine. And then with the reprise she ratchets up the emotional intensity up a notch.

Definitely a desert island disc.

Handel’s Opera In Operetta’s Clothing

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on May 30, 2013 at 10:01 am

Review – Imeneo (The Barbican, Wednesday 29 May 2013)

Rosmene – Rebecca Bottone
Clomiri – Lucy Crowe
Tirinto – Renata Pokupić
Imeneo – Vittorio Prato
Argenio – Stephan Loges

Choir of the AAM
Academy of Ancient Music

Conductor – Christopher Hogwood

Imeneo was Handel’s penultimate opera for London and like its successor – Deidamia – failed to win the approval of the London audience.

This is surprising. While it doesn’t have the grandeur of Giulio Cesare, the dramatic sweep of Ariodante or the emotional pathos of Rodelinda, Imeneo is a real gem. Individual arias appear occasional on recital discs and there is a good recording available on CPO featuring Ann Hallenberg and Siri Karoline Thornhill that is definitely worth a listen.

Handel might have called it an operetta but this is an opera of surprises. As well as some beautifully crafted arias – especially for Tirinto – I do believe that Imeneo features the only trio in one of his operas bar Orlando. And it has to be said that there are similarities between the two. Indeed there is a sophistication to Handel’s music for Imeneo – the sometimes abrupt harmonic changes as well as the sometimes distinctive structure of the vocal and instrumental lines – that belies the impression of Imeneo’s simplicity.

Listening last night, it made me think that perhaps Handel was making something of a statement to his audience. Perhaps a not-so-subtle attempt to show them what they might be missing if his Italian operas were to fail. Fortunately for us all he took that genius and applied it to his oratorios.

From the overture Hogwood and his ensemble dug into the music with an innate sense of musicianship and infectious enthusiasm.

As you would expect of the Academy of Ancient Music and Hogwood himself, it was sprightly and rhythmically alert performance. Due care was given to dynamics and – with the current Baroque vogue for over-embellishment – the da capo ornamentation was very restrained.

And the soloists were – for the most part – very strong.

Lucy Crowe was on excellent form as Clomiri. Her bright and lush soprano was perfectly suited to the music and she cut through the coloratura of the role with ease. From her first aria V’é una infelice she demonstrated formidable technique with an innate sense of style with its hushed da capo. And her Third Act aria, Se ricordar ten vuoi was suitably agile and clean.

Renata Pokupić’s Tirinto was a similarly strong performance. Her rich mezzo may not have always carried over the orchestra but she invested her singing with real panache and passion. A personal highlight was her aria in the Third Act. With fine and beautifully articulated playing from the strings, Pieno il core raised the emotional temperature of this Arcadian opera by more than a couple of degrees. And in Sorge nell’alma she showed off her formidable technique.

The title character Imeneo was strongly performed by Vittorio Prato. His Italianate baritone suited the role like a glove. In both his arias – according to the programme written for William Savage who was relatively inexperienced – he sailed through the music with a burnished and even tone throughout. Stephan Loges provided a fine foil as Argenio. His simile aria on Andronicus and the Lion was beautifully delivered as was his opening aria, Di Cieca notte, even if his overall performance was slightly marred by some sluggish embellishments at times.

Sadly, the Rosmene of Rebecca Bottone was disappointing. Her bright – almost too bright – soprano was lacked depth or colour and I could her a rather distracting beat in her voice. There is no doubt that she could manage the music on the page but it was a one-dimensional portrayal. For the most part – and particularly in the mad scene – she sang but didn’t perform Rosmene.

And the AAM Chorus rounded off the performers with incredibly fine and full-bodied singing of the choruses.

So overall it was an incredibly enjoyable night.

Imeneo might never make it to the stage again – and perhaps might not be heard in London again for some time – but Hogwood and his performers have ensured that it won’t be forgotten by many of those who attended this performance.

Scotch Missed – Tartan With Everything.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Review – La Donna del Lago (Covent Garden, Monday 27 May 2013)

Elena – Joyce DiDonato
Uberto – Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm – Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo – Colin Lee
Douglas – Simon Orfila
Albina – Justina Gringyte
Serano – Robin Leggate

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Dick Bird
Costume Designs – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Choreographer – Arthur Pita

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor – Michele Mariotti

There is no doubt that the Royal Opera House has a hit on its hands. But I do think it would have been just as much of a success if it had been performed in concert and the production itself had been shelved.

I read somewhere that this was a brand new production as the original production was not considered strong enough. Did it have fried mars bars being dispensed before battle or something? Or something else suitably stereotypical of an Englishman’s interpretation of what Scotland is like north of the Border?

But first, the singing.

It was first rate. Mostly. It was definitely built around its two main singers – Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez.

Fan warning.

Without a doubt Ms DiDonato is the leading mezzo soprano performing today. She invests so much energy, enthusiasm, musicianship and credibility into every appearance that at times the intensity can almost be too much but not quite. She wraps herself into character completely.

Her Elena was everything it should be – passionate, devoted, defiant. The music itself held no terrors for her as she sailed through the coloratura and spun out perfectly even legato lines. It was interesting to hear a snippet of her recent masterclass at the Linbury. In a short five-minute excerpt she all but defined the basis of her own performance ethos when coaching a young singer – how an entire role informs her approach to the music as the narrative of the opera develops.

She really needs to write a book.

But it wasn’t only in her arias that she excelled but in the ensembles she demonstrated an innate sensitivity with the other singers. The trio and quartet that close the First Act for example and her duet with Daniele Barcellona were simply brilliant.

But it has to be said Oh mattutini arbori and Fra il padre, e fra l’amante were worth the price of the tickets alone. DiDonato really can switch from the smoothest legato singing – always beautifully and tastefully embellished – and the most ferocious coloratura with pinpoint accuracy. And it seems with incredible ease.

Outstanding.

As Malcolm, Daniele Barcellona was superb as well. Her dark, dusky voice was a perfect foil for DiDonato. She literally spat out her coloratura in her solo numbers in both acts but when required, melded her voice with her onstage partners.

Colin Lee was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a shame that Fulljames wrapped him in a character of such ungainly barbarity as his was an elegant, flexible and bright tenor voice, full of character and depth. And he was able to shade his voice most elegantly, with an acute sense of dynamic control. I understand in the past he has covered for Florez. I can understand why.

And on Juan Diego Flórez this may be unpopular but he was a disappointment. For the overwhelming majority of the time, he seemed to have one volume no matter what he was singing – loud. There is no doubt that he still has the technique and can hit all the notes but it seems to be at the price of finesse. Indeed, in the trio just after the start of the Second Act he seemed involved in a singing competition not only with Colin Lee but also with himself. And compared to DiDonato and Lee, his stand-and-deliver method of acting was decidedly wooden. A shame as I have heard him sing before and always been impressed by his performances which have been more nuanced and – well – musical.

But the audience was having none of it. Technique won out over a truly ensemble performance.

Simon Orfila’s Malcolm was suitably solid and special mention must go to the Scott of Robin Leggate. Justina Gringyte’s Albina was a little too harsh for me.

Michele Mariotti conducted a brisk but meticulous performance. The chorus has rarely sounded better and Mariotti pulled out the delicacy of Rossini’s orchestral writing from the orchestra who are on top form at the moment. And with all the tempos well judged, the music was given real space and opportunity to breathe.

Having seen John Fulljames’ La Clemenza di Tito I was interested to see what he would do with Rossini. His approach was an interesting one and on paper, and no doubt when the model was first presented for approval, showed promise.

However his Scottish Highlands lacked the finesse of his interpretation of Ancient Rome as corporate boardroom.

There are times when a traditional approach definitely works better. And this should have been one of those times.

The sets themselves not so subtly hinted at Scotland with their granite overtones and – in the second act – a hint of Highland trees. The stairwell cleverly suggested the sweeping staircase of a Scottish castle and the use of a painted screen to separate one world from another was a smart device.

The conceit however of bringing together the world of Rossini and Scott with a ‘real-time’ setting showed a director trying too hard. Reminiscent of A Night In the Museum without the slapstick, it led to a congested stage at times. For example the English soldiers’ chorus at the start had something of the Gilbert & Sullivan about it. Unintended I am sure.

However it was Fulljames’ general characterization that let the production down. Portraying the Highlanders as savages – complete with sexual assault and a general disdain of women – was simply ugly. It was clumsy and jarred dramatically. And it seems the idea of a hanging dead animal has migrated from the Coliseum to Covent Garden with the inevitable entrails and blood smearing oath sworn at the end of Act One.

And the ending – the stage sprayed in tartan with the onstage musicians clothed in what looked like dressing gowns – was similarly gauche.

Less Braveheart and more Bland-heart.

However the production couldn’t undermine the overall quality of the singing on stage.

I have another ticket. If Covent Garden can be persuaded to dispense with the staging and if Juan Diego Flórez can find his volume button then it will be a perfect evening.

Bicentennial Without A Bang

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on May 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Review – Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 22 May 2013)

Isolde/Brunnhilde – Susan Bullock
Sieglinde – Giselle Allen
Wotan – James Rutherford
Die Walküre – Magdalen Ashman, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Maria Jones, Mariya Krywaniuk, Elaine McKrill, Miriam Sharrad, Antonia Sotgiu

Director – David Edwards
Lighting Designer – David Holmes

Philharmonia Orchestra
Conductor – Sir Andrew Davies

Sometimes a party can peak too early.

Perhaps the expectation is too high. Perhaps those assembled don’t quite gel. Perhaps the party plan is a little too ambitious.

Wagner 200 kicked off its London-wide celebration of the bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth with what should have been – on paper – a splendid concert.

Sadly it didn’t quite come together. At the end of the concert I was left with the overwhelming impression of a concert to mark an event rather than an evening of exemplary and memorable performance.

The opening piece, the overture to Die Meistersinger underlined why Sir Andrew Davies is one of the leading conductors on the podium today. Personally I would have preferred a sprightlier tempo but Davies demonstrated an innate sense of the piece and attention to the inner contrapuntal detail.

The Philharmonia responded with some elegant – if not grand gestured – playing and by the end of the concert, this overture stood alone in terms of the strongest performance of the evening.

The first half ended with the Prelude and Liebstod to Tristan und Isolde. Again it was a question of tempo. While maintaining a keen sense of transparency, Davies’ decision to take the Prelude at a marginally quicker pace that undermined the sensuality inbuilt in Wagner’s music.

Susan Bullock was his Isolde and I admit that she is a soprano who leaves me undecided. Her performance of the Liebstod was not overwhelming as it should be. There was a metallic edge – almost strain – to the voice in her upper register and I felt that she didn’t manage the long-spun vocal line with any ease. Phrases were often not sufficiently shaped and in some cases seemed clipped.

The final act of Die Walküre followed after the interval. I am not sure about performances of stand-alone acts. I wasn’t convinced by Runnicles’ experiment with Tristan und Isolde for example simply because any sense of unity and momentum is missing.

And perhaps that was the central problem with this performance. Coming in cold to the final act is difficult without the emotional and musical impact of the preceding music.

The introduction got off to a brisk start and again Davies’ attention to the detail within the inner voices was notable. However it has to be said that more often than not the dotted rhythm – which the gentleman behind me was tapping out on his programme – was more like lazy triplets in the brass.

And sadly the singing was – for the most part – lacklustre and there was a clear lack of an ensemble knitted together. Indeed at times it almost felt as if we were attending the final rehearsal sadly.

In the surtitles Wotan described his Walküre offspring as a “gaggle”. Vocally he was right. Casting the eight sisters is a challenge. It works when there is a sense of ensemble without undermining the individuality of each of the singers.

This wasn’t the case here. For the most part these Walküre bordered on the shrill and when they sang together were unfocused and even at times ragged. Indeed at some points their seemed to be a not-so-silent competition as to who could sing the loudest.

Giselle Allen’s Sieglinde hinted at a potentially excellent Sieglinde. She possesses a warm and darkly hued soprano and her short moment on stage lifted the sense of drama and musicianship on a somewhat otherwise cold stage. To be able to see her sing her final scene as part of a complete performance would be thrilling.

James Rutherford was a sensible Wotan. However, while he has a dark and almost burnished bass I personally think that he is not quite ready for Wotan. He definitely shows promise but not just yet.

And sadly his reliance on using a score for the majority of the act meant that he was tethered to one of two music stands. This demolished any sense of being part of the semi-staged action – more of that later – but until his final and famous monologue, he seemed simply to sing the notes but not the part.

Finally released from looking at his score, Rutherford finally showed some potential in his final farewell to Brunnhilde. Sadly however it was at exactly this point that Davies’ hurried tempo undermined any sense of the music’s breadth or grandeur to shine through.

So, to Susan Bullock. I have to say that I do not think Brunnhilde is an ideal role. Like Deborah Voigt, she inhabits the character and can sing the notes but something is lacking. I listened to her Brunnhilde most recently when she performed the entire role at Covent Garden and once again I found her – overall – vocally short. As I have already mentioned there is a metallic hardness and strain as she reaches above the stave that – as Brunnhilde – took on an almost harsh quality at times. But individual moments – such as the opening and unaccompanied plea to her father – did reveal themselves. But overall I remain to be convinced of Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde.

Davies once again drew some wonderful playing from the Philharmonia but at times he seemed to lose his place in the overarching architecture of the act. However the Philharmonia were on good form and produced a wonderful burnished sound although at time they did overwhelm the singers. Inevitable I suppose especially in a concert performance of Wagner but more often it just felt that a little more restraint would have been the best cure.

In a concert performance any sense of staging an opera is a tricky business. Sometimes – as with Opera North’s current Ring cycle – it works well.

Here it did not. The Walküre’s use of beam light torches – when they weren’t blinding the audience seemed more reminiscent of miners than warrior maidens. And while it seemed like a good idea to utilise the seats being the orchestra, in reality it made for a difficult acoustic balance to get right and affect their ensemble.

And if the subtle use of smoke and the red lighting at the end was the only other contribution in terms of staging, then perhaps a traditional concert performance devoid of any distraction might have enabled a greater attention to the singing?

Ultimately this was a concert full of good intentions – an opportunity to mark London’s bicentennial Wagner celebrations but perhaps the programming was too ambitious. Tackling a complete act cold and in isolation is a brave choice. Perhaps it would have been more sensible to perform “bleeding chunks” of Wagner.

Perhaps Wagner 200 wanted to make a bold opening statement.

But in truth this concert got the party started with more of a whimper than a bang. However the rest of Wagner 200 – with its broad mix of performances and talks – remains incredibly promising.

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