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Aria For … Thursday – Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Mozart)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart on January 30, 2014 at 11:32 am

This is a gem of an aria. Written by Mozart for Aloysia Lange née Weber, she was Costanze’s sister and Mozart’s original love if reports are to be believed.

Even though his love was never reciprocated, Mozart wrote some of his most stunning and heartfelt arias– both concert and operatic – for Aloysia who clearly had formidable talent. She was his Vienna Donna Anna for example as well as the recipient of concert arias including Popoli di Tessaglia and Verrei spiegarvi. Oh Dio!.

Yet compared to those arias, Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! seems beguiling simple and belies the obvious talents that Ms Weber possessed.

Written in 1782 the text portrays an artist thanking her patrons for their support. It’s not clear why the aria was written, some have speculated it was for a benefit concert by Ms Lange as an encore piece and others have speculate that it was an insertion aria for a German performance of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.

I lean toward the first option and sung here by Miah Persson – with such grace and delicacy – and accompanied with elegant simplicity by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Sebastian Weigle, I can see why it often features as an encore for today’s recitalists.

The two-verse aria doesn’t attempt to plumb the emotional depths of some other Mozart aria but charms with its simplicity – the pizzicato strings, the added warmth provided by the woodwind, above which Mozart’s creates an almost lieder-like melody.

And Mozart skilfully constructs this aria to provide ample opportunity for embellishment by the singer. I have no doubt that Ms Weber would perhaps have indulged in more ornamentation but the restrained and simple additions by Ms Persson fit the music perfectly.

Nehmt meinen Dank always raises a smile with me and is a great way to start the day.

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Rameau ravissante.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 28, 2014 at 9:24 am

Review – La Grand Theatre d’Amour

Sabine Devieilhe (Soprano)
Amery Lefèvre (Baritone)
Samuel Boden (Tenor)

Les Ambassadeurs

Alexis Kossenko (Director)

Rameau can sometimes seem almost too much of a challenge but this new recital featuring Sabine Devieilhe and Les Ambassadeurs under the direction of Alexis Kossenko is one to cherish.

Suitably entitled La Grand Théâtre d’Amour, the recital is a well-judged balance of solo, ensemble and instrumental pieces that demonstrates the inventive breadth of Rameau’s genius.

In terms of technique and temperament, soprano Sabine Devieilhe fits Rameau’s music like a satin glove. There is a purity and delicacy of her voice that is beautifully offset by a well-controlled and gentle vibrato and excellent diction. But while her voice is crystalline and in that respect ravishing in the more delicate of Rameau’s airs, it did lack a wider range of colour and tone to more effectively evoke the range of emotions on this recital disc.

Forêts plaisible opens the disc with one of those musical sleight of hands that makes Rameau so delectable. Just as the listener is lulled into thinking it’s simply another danse, the soloists – Ms Devieilhe joined here by the sweet-voiced Amery Lefèvre – and then chorus enter.

What follows is an unexpected yet welcome inclusion – an air attributed to Charpentier. The mood, immediately created by the unaccompanied opening of Feillages verts naissez – delivered with aching simplicity – is transformed into something wonderful with the entry of solo flute.

Back with Rameau, Nérine’s coquettish Est-il beau is pointedly delivered by Ms Devieilhe who throws off the running passages with great skill while Viens, Hymen from Les Indes Galantes is poised with some elegantly controlled singing.

The bergère Je ne sais quel ennui me presse – characterised by the unique orchestral colours of Rameau’s scoring – exudes a naivety so fitting of Naïs and underlines the composer’s genius at using the simplest methods to convey character.

The gentle opening of Alphise’s Un horizon serein from Les Borédes is quickly dispelled with Rameau masterfully contrasting the serenity of the opening with the ensuing storm. His manipulation not only of the orchestra but the vocal line creating a real sense of dramatic tension is matched by Sabine Devieilhe vocal assurance if to a range of colour.

Samuel Boden joins the soprano for Pour voltages dans le bocage from Les Paladins. His light tenor a fitting counterfoil to her brighter soprano.

Tendre Amour from Anacréon is another of those wilting airs with flute most often associated with Rameau where he so effectively halts the drama and communicates the feelings of one of the main characters with such simplicity and grace through an armoury of suspensions and subtle harmonic shifts.

The closing Inca scène from Les Indes Galante brings all the soloists together for the only time during the recital and contrasts with Vaste empire des mers that follows – so imaginatively conjured up by Rameau once again complete with baroque sound effects and skilful use of the chorus and demonstrating why this composer’s Grands Motets are worth listening to.

The single selection from Castor et Pollux is Téläire’s Triste apprêts. It comes close to being the single highlight from the entire recital with its plaintive bassoons but that honour goes to Coulez mes pleura from Zaïs. It’s the halting, hesitant phrases in both the vocal and orchestral lines and once again the colour that Rameau’s use of the solo flute that makes this air is heart-rending.

The recital ends fittingly with an upstanding performance of Régnez, plaisirs et jeux from Les Indes Galantes.

And there’s no arguing the verve and spirit of Les Ambassadeurs in either their accompaniment of the soloists or in the orchestral inclusions. If you haven’t heard their disc of Vivaldi’s Dresden concerti then I would also recommend that. It not only the enthusiasm and energy of the playing, taut and rhythmically precise, but also the colours that they draw out of the music – such an essential part of Rameau’s sound world.

Take the overture to Pygmalion, the way that the players dig into the opening Grave, the piquancy of the oboes and bassoons and above all the intelligent shaping of the contrasting martial-like and legato passages. And this before they have even reached the elegantly articulated allegro section – every note discernible – and the texture light and airy.

The Contredanse from Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour is positively infectious as is the Tambourins from Les Fêtes d’Hébé while the alternating timbres of the two dances from Les Boréades demonstrate Rameau’s concern of pervading his orchestral textures with the unique colours he could draw from woodwind, brass and percussion.

It’s a shame that the only piece from Hippolyte et Aricie is a very short Ritournelle. Played with an inexorable sense of momentum it is nicely offset by the rhythmic majesty of the aptly-named Ballet Figuré from Zoroastre. The subsequent Air tendre en rondeau is subtly built on the tension between the flute solo and string counterpoint below. And while no French Baroque disc would be complete without a Chaconne – here represented in all it’s grandeur from Les Indes Galantes – the orchestral highlight of the disc is the Sommeil from Dardanus. The delicacy of the playing, the colours that Kossenko coaxes from the orchestra and the deliberateness of the phrases are heart-stopping.

Rameau may have come to opera late in his career but these performances demonstrate the inventiveness and life he breathed into French baroque opera.

And despite my small reservations, whether you’re an enthusiast – or someone who would more usually bypass Rameau – this disc is worth a listen.

Stand Up And Be Conti’d

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Review – L’Issipile (Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 22 January 2014)

Issipile – Lucy Crowe
Eurinome – Diana Montague
Rodope – Rebecca Bottone
Toante – John Mark Ainsley
Learco – Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Giasone – Lawrence Zazzo

La Nuova Musica
David Bates (Director)

Generally unknown, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti is the latest composer to be ‘rediscovered’ and we are fortunately that L’Issipile is seeing the light of day once again. It is one of two operas he completed in the year of his death and is rich with musical invention, contains clearly etched characters and has a keen sense of dramatic momentum.

Plaudits must go to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for bringing this opera to a modern audience. His academic research and evident passion should be congratulated.

Interestingly this libretto – the second Metastasio wrote specifically for Vienna – didn’t enjoy the success of his other works. Apparently the ‘bloody’ subject matter wasn’t popular with the 1732 Carnival audience. But I am not sure that is the only reason. Other operas of the period featured both suicides and murders – think Mitridate Eupatore (1707), Tamerlano (1731) and even later in Vienna Les Danaiïdes (1784) for example – and the quality of the music in my opinion outweighs any perceived weakness in the libretto.

I agree that perhaps it wasn’t ideally suitable to the Carnival season but perhaps Conti’s untimely death contributed to it not being revived again except for once in Hamburg five years later and also because ultimately the plot itself isn’t ‘typically’ Metastasian.

Issipile might be the ‘monarch’ but she isn’t the Enlightened despot more commonly associated with that leading role. Rather her emotional journey is more erratic and emotionally wrought. The villain is neither vanquished or saved by ‘reason’ or magnanimity but takes his own life and therefore ultimately the “lieto fine” – the return of balance and order – is somewhat diminished and doesn’t counterbalance the massacre at the beginning.

For these reasons perhaps it didn’t make comfortable listening for the aristocratic audience.

Yet, Conti etched out convincing characters from among the Metastasian characters-as-ciphers who more normally represent elevated principles or undeniably haughty emotions – duty, filial love, honour for example.

This is particularly true of Eurinome and Rodope. The former’s accompanied recitative and aria at the start of Act II was on a par with similar scenes in Handel and Conti’s other contemporaries. But I would also argue that Rodope’s emotional arc was the most complete. Her first two arias – beautifully crafted with some unexpected harmonic shifts – made clear her (misplaced) affection for Learco. And with his final rejection, her final simile aria was one of sharply defined emotion – anger and defiance.

In contrast – and perhaps deliberately by Conti – the music for the traditional characters of Toante, Issipile and Giasone was more ‘stock in trade’ as if reinforcing their more constricted emotions. That is not to say that the music was any less notable. Issipile’s simile arias were technically magnificent. And both Toante and Giasone – both their second arias respectively – were lessons in pre-Classical simplicity.

The arias for Learco were similarly well crafted and full of swagger. I particularly enjoyed the cello obbligato of the second aria for example.

And throughout Conti made effective use of accompanied recitative – not only at the beginning of the second act but also in the closing scenes.

If the music was of a high standard, then the music making was – for the most part – magnificent.

In the title role Lucy Crowe demonstrated an unerring sense of style, combined with flawless technique. Her bright and incredibly agile soprano – bursting with spirit and fire – not only negotiated the great expanses of coloratura but in her final aria of the first act – reminiscent of Gluck– she coloured her voice to express the anguish Issipile faced.

Personally however Rebecca Bottone – Rodope ‘enceinte’ – stole the show. Also in possession of a piercingly bright and lithe soprano, she expressed Rodope’s emotional journey through some of the most beautiful singing I have heard in a long time. Non che sai was the highlight of the evening.

Diana Montague as Eurinome shoed why she is a singer of both distinction and great ability. Joining the ensemble at late notice her performance was a tour de force of emotion and musicianship. It was also a pleasure to see John Mark Ainsley – whose ENO Orfeo remains with me to this day – in the role of Toante. A darker tenor than some would normally expect in a role such as this, he elegantly and smoothly managed the tricky coloratura and da capo ornamentations with grace.

And of course, Lawrence Zazzo was – both musically and dramatically – an impressive Giasone. His final aria – so skillfully performed – demonstrates why he remains in such demand as ever. I look forward to his forthcoming disc with La Nuova Musica.

Ultimately however I did wonder if the role of Learco should have been awarded to a more accomplished singer? There was no denying the enthusiasm Ferri-Benedetti brought to the role but personally his vocal technique felt just a little unfinished. The coloratura wasn’t as clean, even or defined as it should have been and there were problems of both intonation and breath control. And I have to admit that his “pantomime villainy” somewhat undermined Metatastio’s lofty sense of drama and led the audience to laugh at inopportune moments.

Supporting the singers, David Bates and La Nuova Musica were an incredible ensemble. A feisty ensemble, they clearly enjoyed performing Conti’s music. Bates drew some exquisite colours and timbres from the ensemble and also maintained the dramatic momentum throughout the recitatives.

Without a doubt, L’Issipile is an opera worthy of revival – the quality of the music and the high standard and enthusiasm of performance was extraordinary and memorable.

This revival – two hundred and fifty years after its premiere – deserved the ovation it received.

A recording please.

Countertenorism

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Review:
Arias for Caffarelli (Franco Fagioli, Il Pomo d’Oro, Ricardo Minasi)
Arias for Farinelli (Philippe Jaroussky, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon)
Che puro ciel (Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs)

It’s almost like being back in the Eighteenth Century when castrati dominated both stages and headlines. Today there seems to be a proliferation of countertenors and there always seems to be a new recital disc being released.

Here are three very different – but inevitably connected – recitals by three of the current leading countertenors performing today. Two programme their recitals around famous Eighteenth Century castrati while Bejun Mehta builds his recital on a more academic approach.

Franco Fagioli takes as his muse the castrato Caffarelli on the heels of David Hansen’s excellent and similarly inspired recital. The two castrati were contemporaries and in the and in the eyes of some, rivals. Needless to say both were incredibly talented, inspiring composers to write some of their most beautiful or dazzling music. But where Farinelli was a ‘soprano’, Caffarelli was perceived to be more of a mezzo. And where the former was renowned for his kindness and grace, the latter didn’t seem to endear himself much to either singers or composer, patrons of the public.

But judging from the music Caffarelli was in possession of an incredible voice – wide in range and technically impressive. Indeed Grimm commented that his voice was so ‘angelic’ that even those “less sensible to music would find it hard to resist”.

So it’s disappointing that while Fagioli turns in some proficient performances, overall his singing lacks a sense of depth and definition. There are times when Fagioli resembles no one more than Cecilia Bartoli in the smoothness – indeed over-smoothness with little or no bite – in tone and timbre particularly in his delivery of coloratura.

That is not to say that his singing is anything less that technically secure. Throughout the recital in arias such as Hasse’s Fra l’orror della tempesta, Vinci’s In braccio a mille furie or Porpora’s Passagier che sulla sponde he throws off the coloratura with ease. And in the slower numbers while he does produce some very fine legato singing maintaining breath control is sometimes a challenge.

Ultimately there is a wont of vocal texture and colour, of piquancy that adds that unique timbre of other countertenors like the others reviewed here as well as David Hansen and Iestyn Davies.

However where Fagioli recital does stand out is in the arias by ‘almost unknowns’ and the playing of the orchestral ensemble. Like Joyce DiDonato in her excellent Drama Queens recital, Fagioli shines a light on composer who – despite their obscurity now – clearly had talent. A favourite of mine is Carfaro’s Rendimi pìu sereno. A Galant-style gem.

And the playing of Il Pomo d’Oro under Ricardo Minasi is magnificent – it has a bite and a vivacity to it that is infectious. Listen for example to their playing in In braccio a mille furie and you can hear the fury and swagger in their playing. And the soloists – for example the oboist in Pergolesi’s Lieto così talvolta – is simply ravishing. Indeed it is the playing of the ensemble that has made me return to this recital more than Fagioli’s singing.

Philippe Jaroussky – always a favourite performer of mine – has also opted for a recital built around one castrato and like David Hansen, he has chosen Farinelli. But he has refined it even further by focusing on a single composer – Nicola Porpora, teacher of both Farinelli and Caffarelli.

In complete contrast to the previous recital, Philippe Jaroussky’s performances are beautiful, confident and musically impressive. A criticism often leveled at composers of this period was the sheer length of the arias they composed all but stopped any sense of dramatic flow of the opera itself. Metastasian principles, the da capo format as well as that the fact that they were more often than not written to showcase the talents of specific singers made this inevitable. But quite frankly the level of inspiration in these arias and the high standards of musicianship personally negates this criticism.

As well as arias, Jaroussky performs a couple of duets with Cecilia Bartoli that only further reinforces the Bartoli-Fagioli resemblance and sharp difference between their vocal timbres. Placidetti zeffiretti with its delicate orchestration and limpid imitative vocal lines is simply affecting and the two soloists are meld their voices beautifully especially as their voices float unaccompanied in their improvisation just before the final cadence. The second duet – La gioia ch’io sento – is all together a more joyous – even cheeky – number with its delicate vocal and violin figurations and the middle section with its sudden dip into the minor demonstrates the skill of Porpora’s writing.

And clearly the arias alternative between arie di bravura and slower numbers. In the faster numbers Jaroussky displays an enviable ability to cut right through the coloratura while ensuring that each individual note of each run is clearly articulated. But his talent in singing the most legato of lines – even in these faster arias – is also brought to the fore as in the opening aria, Mira in cielo. It also highlights his ability to colour both individual notes and whole phrases both in terms of dynamic control as well as employing subtle mezzo voce techniques. Come nave in ria tempesta continues to display Jaroussky’s bravura technique but it is Nell’intendere il mio bene which is the album’s coloratura tour de force.

Of all the slower arias it is Alto Giove that shows Jaroussky at his best and comes incredibly close to replacing Simone Kermes’ performance of this – Porpora’s most beautiful – aria. His stunning technique – both in terms of breath control and dynamic range makes this preghiera the highlight of the disc. However arias such as Si pietoso il tu labbro and Nel già bramoso petto demonstrate that Porpora was a master of the more ‘troubled’ affections of his characters.

The lilting siciliana of Le limpid’onde, with its flute and oboes adding depth to the orchestral texture, shows Porpora at his pastoral best. And above this, the countertenor weaves the most beautiful legato vocal line.

With the plangent oboe solo of Orfeo’s Sente del mio martir, you really can feel the torment of the singer who enters masterfully and ethereally. And Dall’amor più sventurato shows that Porpora could keep up with the more ‘modern’ Galant style that was quickly gaining a foothold in the operatic world.

And if you purchase the recital on iTunes it seems that you get a twelfth aria – and the only one with an accompagnato opening. Oh Dio! Chi sa qual sorte … Giusto amor. Taken from the serenata Gli orti esperidi, Porpora underpins the delicate vocal line with a fine cello obbligato.

It’s a fitting end to a remarkable recital disc that demonstrates that Jaroussky remains pre-eminent among his countertenor peers. And throughout and never less than expected, the Venice Baroque Orchestra led by Andrea Marcon provide bright, crisp and incisive accompaniments.

The final disc – by Bejun Mehta – takes a more ‘academic’ path. Taking as their starting point the operatic reforms instigated by Gluck and his some-time librettist Calzabigi, Mehta and Jacobs explore the search for a greater ‘naturalism’ in opera, reflecting polite Eighteen Century society’s search – all be it most of the time heavily sanitized – for the same thing. Think Marie Antoinette and her ‘farm’ at La Petite Trianon for example.

Featuring extracts from Hasse, Traetta , JC Bach and Mozart, it inevitably opens with Che puro ciel from Gluck’s Orfeo. Personally there is no greater evocation in this period of a desire to get ‘back to nature’. The orchestration alone must have made the chattering audience sit up and listen. But the vocal line – almost conversational and certainly more declamatory than the audience would have been used to – seals this as possibly one of the most beautiful ‘arias’ of the period.

The arias drawn from his opera Ezio, written in 1750 and then revised post Orfeo in 1763 don’t quite achieve the same sublimity of the previous piece. Pensa a serbarmi – an elegant Galant minuet – demonstrates Gluck’s skill at creating emotional momentum through the carefully built phrasing, but even he can’t avoid gentle coloratura to underline the emotional weight of the text. And Se il fulmine sospendi cannot escape the fact it is it to all intents and purposes your typical Metastasian simile aria albeit a beautifully crafted one.

Similarly the single contributions from Hasse and JC Bach hint at a move to a new style but not necessarily ‘naturalism’. The former’s Dei di Roma, ah perdonate! from Il trionfo di Clelia is a belt-and-braces Hasse aria for example. And the same can be said of JC Bach’s accompagnato No, che non ha la sorte … Vo solcando un mar crudele from Artaserse. An emotive recitative – foreshadowing those written by Mozart in his own opera serie – leads into a thundering aria with roulades aplenty, again hinting at influences on the younger Mozart.

With the selections from Ascanio in Alba and Mitridate, the brilliance and new sense of excitement that Mozart breathed into this dying genre are evident.

Vadasi … Già dagli occhi il veto é tolto from Mitridate, written when Mozart was 14 is remarkable for its musical and emotional eloquence both in terms of the orchestral writing and colour and the simplicity of the vocal line . Even at that tender age, Mozart could write music of such grace and elegance compared to those that had either preceded him or were his older contemporaries.

Perché tacer degg’io? Caro, lontano ancora from Ascanio in Alba was written a year later and show quickly Mozart’s musical style was developing, culminating in Lucio Silla only another year on in 1772. The accompagnato explores a gamut of emotions and resolve with the music echoing the character’s changing emotional state. And while the ensuing aria might lapse into a typical da capo aria it’s the way Mozart handles both the vocal line and the orchestral writing that against sets it above similar arias by JC Bach and Hasse.

And yet the most thrilling performances on the disc are those of Traetta – in my opinion a sadly neglected composer. The extracts from Antigona and Ifigenia in Tauride demonstrate the composer’s talent at creating dramatic tableaux. Take Antigona for example, written for Catherine The Great in 1772. The fury of the orchestra in Ah, se lo vedi piangere and the urgency of the vocal line not only hints at Gluck but in some ways look forward to Mozart’s Idomeneo. The gentility of Ah, sì, da te dipende with its graceful writing for flutes, has an almost Mozartian (granted early) lilt to it. Indeed I would hazard that it could easily be inserted into any Mozart opera seria and most people wouldn’t notice.

But it’s Dormi Oreste! that is the real jewel on this disc. Written in the same year as Gluck’s Ezio was revised and only a year after Orfeo it’s an amazing piece of writing – vocally, chorally and orchestrally.

The choral opening definitely harks back to Gluck and a more ‘pastoral feel’ but how quickly this is dismissed. The skills of the choral writing and the underpinning orchestral palette – especially at the section “Vendetta” – is thrilling and the soloist’s first entry pares back both sound and colour with dramatic effect before the chorus interrupt again. The ‘middle” section – an aria with cello obbligato is nothing less than noble – with an emphasis on a more declamatory style, with any coloratura such as it is at secondary to the quest for emotional impact. The chorus returns only to be stopped in its tracks by the plaintive cries of the soloist before finally it hurtles to its thrilling conclusion.

On the disc, nothing more than Dormi Oreste! typifies the quest for ‘naturalism’. which lies at the heart of this incredible recital.

Someone needs to record Ifigenia in Tauride immediately.

Central to the success of this very carefully constructed recital – which strikes the perfect balance between academic curiosity and music making of an incredible standard – is Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and René Jacobs. Mehta – who’s dusky countertenor is in fine form throughout, thrilling in his coloratura as much as in his elegant and measured legato singing, blending colour and dynamics together with the greatest skill – might be the vocal focus throughout but the level of musicianship, the enthusiasm of each and every performance are as much to the credit of the Akademie players and chorus and René Jacobs.

If you had to choose just one disc to listen to from these three – and pace Philippe – it would have to be this recital. It’s thrilling. It’s intelligent. And it reveals what an underrated genius Traetta truly is.

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

Prina Donna

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on January 1, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Review – Arias For Senesino – Sonia Prina & Ensemble Claudiana

Sonia Prina’s recital at Wigmore Hall was one of vocal verve, staggering technique and interpretive eloquence.

Rarely – if ever – have I heard these arias written by Handel for Senesino performed with such gusto, Ms Prina and Ensemble Claudiana imparting a deep love of Handel’s music from start to finish. Indeed Senesino himself must have been a formidably talented singer to have inspired the composer to some of his greatest music.

She reveled in the music, effortlessly capturing the mood and essence of each individual aria and character. She deployed her rich, smooth contralto with unerring musical intelligence, alternating between spinning out line after line of smooth legato with rapid-fire yet precise and beautifully articulated coloratura. And what’s more Ms Prina made ample use of her lower register with thrilling effect which was refreshing considering how many singers think that sometimes excessive use of the highest notes is the best way to ‘nail’ the returning ornamented da capo section.

Her first two arias effectively demonstrated how easily she could switch from the emotional agony of Ombra cara di mia sposa from Radamisto to the anger of Furibondo spira il vento (Partenope). The sense of desolation that she bled into her voice in the first aria contrasted with the swagger in the second.

However the highlight of the first half was the magnificent mad scene from Orlando – Stelle se tu il consenti … Ah Stigie larve. The dramatic intensity of Ms Prina’s performance – particularly Vaghe pupille – was gripping. And clearly she was totally absorbed in her performance as she nearly knocked over one of the music stands.

In the second half it was the majestic Pompe vane … Dove sei (Rodelinda) and Cara sposa from Rinaldo that sealed the deal in terms of this recital being one of the highlights of 2013. The emotional intensity of these two arias was almost suffocating. Rarely has Dove sei sounded both so eloquent and so devastating.

But the remaining arias after the interval – Empio, dirò, tu sei and Vivi tirano – were once again lessons in confident and beautifully delivered fluid coloratura. Again each individual note in every single run clearly and evenly articulated.

Personally I would have loved to have Ms Prina sing another slower as one of her encores as Ms Piau did with great effect when she performed at the venue, but I couldn’t complain when she returned to the stage and sang Venti, turbine, prestate.

And as I have mentioned, Ms Prina was supported throughout by Ensemble Claudiana. Displaying extreme virtuosity throughout, I was amazed by the sonorities that the players produced considering the size of the ensemble. From the overture to Theodora to the Passacaille from his trio sonatas, the colours and dynamic range they produced – not only in the instrumental movements but also the arias as well – would put some larger ensembles to shame.

And a nice touch, Ms Prina have each of the players introduced by name demonstrated how close their creative relationship seems to be.

I’ve not yet purchased the recital disc by Ms Prina and Ensemble Claudiana together with Roberta Invernizzi – Amore e Morte Dell’ Amore – but it’s now definitely on my list. And it’s a shame that this excellent recital has not been saved for posterity on Wigmore Hall’s own label.

But I don’t think anyone will forget Ms Prina’s vocal authority and technical brilliance, verve of performance or simple passion for Handel’s music in a hurry.

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