lietofinelondon

Worlds Apart.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 3, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Zaïs (Sunday 27 April 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London)

Zaïs (Jeremy Budd), Zélidie (Louise Alder), Cindor (Ashley Riches), Amour (Katherine Watson), Oromazès (David Stout), La grande Prêtresse (Katherine Manley), Une Sylphide (Anna Dennis) & Un Sylph (Gwilym Bowen).

Choir of the Enlightenment
Les Plaisirs des Nations (Ricardo Barros, Annabelle Blanc, Damien Dreux, Hubert Hazebroucq, Guillaume Jablonka, Fenella Kennedy, Adeline Lerme & Flora Sans)

Edith Lalonger (Choreographer)
Jonathan Williams (Conductor)

and

Arias for Farinelli (Monday 28 April 2014, Wigmore Hall)

Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (Director)

Last week I attended two concerts containing music written within roughly a decade or so of each other that couldn’t have been more different but of equal and incredible musical stature.

The first was Rameau’s Pastorale héroïque, Zais and the second was a musical biography of arias written for the famous castatro, Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi better known as Farinelli.

Both composer and singer are gaining in popular currency in terms of performance – for example at both ENO and Glyndebourne and recordings ranging from the exquisite recital discs of David Hansen, Philippe Jaroussky and Sabine Devieilhe.

And rightly so.

Rameau changed forever the direction of French opera and Farinelli inspired some of the most beautiful and audacious arias of his century.

Rameau’s operas are exceptional not only for the sheer delight of their musical invention and dramatic scale but also because of the intellectual dimension to his operas.

Rameau wrote his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 and it literally shook the musical establishment. Zaïs followed fifteen years later in 1748 and between he rewrote Hippolyte as well as composing Castor et Pollux and Dardanus. For anyone interested in his works, I would heartily recommend Charles Dill’s book Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the tragic tradition – which proposed as theory as to why Rameau rewrote – in some cases – substantial parts of his operas.

It’s simply brilliant that Jonathan Williams, Edith Lalonger and other colleages are leading the charge with The Rameau Project, using research and theory and performances to attain a better understanding of the composer and his works.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the orchestra and chorus were placed at the back of the stage, with the front part left tantalizing empty for the dancers.

The depiction of Chaos at the beginning and the creation of the world by Oromazès immediately sets this opera beyond the merely pastoral and in many ways it pre-empts Die Zauberflöte with its own masonic connections so much so that it will be interesting to see if the Rameau Project reveals any connections between the composer and an organization that was very active in Eighteenth Century France.

As with much Rameau there were moments of incredible beauty and poignancy throughout. Anna Dennis as une Sylphide was one of the highlights of the evening and it was a shame that we heard so little of her. Her opening number, Chantez les oiseaux was beautifully sung, with great control and elegance. Her voice, even throughout its range, had a bright ringing top and I am looking forward to hearing her on Handel’s Siroe which is released soon.

Of the two main characters, Louise Alder’s Zelidie was similarly impressive. With her bell-like soprano she displayed an instinctive sense for Rameau’s vocal line and Coulez mes pleurs – with its haunting flute – was the highlight of the evening. I was not as convinced with Jeremy Budd’s hero. Notwithstanding his constant use of a vocal score, I didn’t think that his voice was well-suited to Rameau’s music. Granted the notes were all there and sung, but I didn’t feel that there was enough nuance or colour in his singing. Both Katherines – Watson and Manley – however were also magnificent. Katherine Watson delivered just the right sense of arrogant bearing in her performance and together with Ms Alder, Katherine Manley added to the dramatic scale of the trio and chorus calling on Amour to descend from Heaven in the First Act.

Of the remaining men, Cindor, was mellifluously sung by Ashley Riches and his confidently held the stage during his temptation scene. I also think that Gwilym Bowen could be a name to watch out for in future French baroque performances.

I have some strong opinions about the use of dance in opera – especially when it serves no purpose– but here Les Plaisir des Nations delivered not only some graceful and exquisite dancing, but dancing that was central to the development of the plot. Rather than stopping the unfolding action, Edith Lalonger’s thoughtful and elegant choreography added extra depth to the emotions being portrayed by the singers.

There were moments of uncertainty and rhythmic untidiness in the orchestra – perhaps but the Enlightenment chorus was impressive performing with both clear diction and rhythmic finesse.

If there was one small distraction, it was the fact that the singers did resort to using scores when in the ‘performance’ area of the stage. While some of the singers actively engaged with the dancers, carrying around the music meant the others – in particular Budden’s Zaïs – was further dramatically hampered.

As a great innovator and experimenter, I think that Rameau would have approved of the ambitions of this performance and I look forward to seeing Pigmalion and Anacréon this October.

If France was hermetically sealed in its highly-mannered Baroque summer in 1748 the rest of Europe was galloping towards the Classical era. And this was demonstrated by an excellent evening at Wigmore Hall with Ann Hallenberg and Les Talents Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.

If Ms Hallenberg was indeed suffering from a cold – as Twitter claimed – then it was hardly noticeable except in the occasional shying away from greater ornamentation in the returning da capos. But from the start she established her vocal credentials and musical intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the recital started with two arias by his own brother, Riccardo. Son qual nave ch’agitata was written for Hasse’s Artaserse in London. Full of coloratura passages as well as vocal leaps and bounds it is impressive but rather outstays its welcome. Ombra fedele anch’io – made famous in the film – is once again well written without being exceptional. You do have to wonder if Riccardo didn’t somewhat hang off the coat tails of his brother.

Yet Ms Hallenberg performed these arias with incredible aplomb and bestowed on them performances that lifted their own lacklustre creativity.

Geminiano Giacomelli – who features on Joyce DiDonato’s Drama Queens recital disc – was one of the most famous composers of his generation. From Adriano in Siria, both arias demonstrated that the composer was at least fluent in the art vocal writing. In Già presso al termine the mezzo again skillfully negotiated the coloratura, while Passagier che incento was also scored with a concertante part for the principle violinist and was delightfully performed here.

Farinelli’s teacher Porpora was represented by Se pietoso il tuo labbro (Semiramide riconosciuto) and Alto Giove from Polifemo. Whlie there is no disputing the elegance of the former aria, surely Alto Giove must rank as one of the most beautiful arias of this age. If in the first aria Ms Hallenberg spun out the vocal line and the delicate embellishments with an incredibly light touch, her performance of the latter was simply ravishing. All too often this aria can been taken a tad too quickly but on this evening Rousset gave the music time to breathe and pulse, filling the entire hall.

And Ms Hallenberg was simply radiant. Her voice caressed the music, seamlessly from phrase to phrase with just the right balance of embellishment. Rightly recognized by the audience, it was the highlight of the evening.

The final two arias in the recital were from Catone in Utica by Leonardo Leo. With a slightly more baroque bent, Che legge spietata was smartly constructed with a single-minded opening that was contrasted with more legato sections. On the other hand, Cervo in bosco was an impressive simile aria – with gentler middle section – with rowdy horns and weighty coloratura, magnificently thrown off by Ms Hallenberg.

During the recital itself, Les Talent Lyriques also performed JC Bach’s Symphony in g minor from his Opus 6 and the overture to Cleofide. I must be honest that live I wasn’t too impressed with the Bach. Having listened to it again on iPlayer I have to admit it wasn’t as disappointing as I first thought. However compared to the Hasse it didn’t have any sense of the weight or grandeur that is much needed in JC’s symphonies and overtures. The overture to Cleofide was another matter altogether – confident, bright and simply more alive.

Her encore was Handel’s Sta’ nell’ircana from Alcina. Technically I don’t think that Farinelli ever sang for Handel in London but rather for Popora’s rival company but it was a performance of such vocal bravura and bravado that it made a fitting end to an incredible evening.

I hope that Ms Hallenberg return to London more often in future. She has a rare and exceptional talent and the audience loved her.

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  1. […] their performance of Zaïs earlier this year, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Les Plaisirs de Nations joined […]

  2. […] – continued their ambition to performance this composers stage works with performances of Zaïs, Pigmalion and Anacréon to the Southbank together with dancers from Les Plaisirs de Nations. Their […]

  3. […] Ms Hallenberg has a thrilling bottom. […]

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