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Served On A Silver Platter.

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Review – Salome (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 30 August 2014)

Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Burkhard Ulrich – Herod
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

Den Kopf des Jochanaan.

The very first time that she magically floated that terrible line was the moment that Nina Stemme nailed her characterisation of Salome.

From her first appearance to what can only be described as her final – and visceral – transfiguration, Nina Stemme took the audience in the Royal Albert Hall on a singularly intense and gratifying journey – both emotional and musical. Indeed, as with her performance as Brunnhilde last year, Ms Stemme captivated the audience and kept them in rapt attention.

So often singers don’t so much sing the notes that Strauss committed to paper as charge through them. Notes are blurred, phrasing is unbalanced and often singers revert to performing parts of the role as if it were Sprechstimme.

Nina Stemme performed the role with impressive musical intelligence and authority. Each note, each phrase and each word was delivered with an attention to detail that created a sense of vocal spontaneity – the conversational tone that is so often sadly missing when others perform Strauss’ heroines. It was almost as if the ink was still wet on the page.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ms Stemme perform a couple of times – including Ring cycles in San Francisco and at the Proms as well as in Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. And every time, vocally she went from strength to strength.

And as Salome she was simply resplendent. Totally secure throughout her range she demonstrated technique, a depth of tone and a range of colours that is simply enviable. She impressively demonstrated the ability to scale back her voice to almost a whisper while retaining the clarity and precision but when required she ramped her voice up in terms of both volume and range. In the final scene, she soared above the orchestra, filling the entire hall with thrilling sound.

It was difficult at times not to just focus all the attention on Nina Stemme, but she was for the most part supported by a very strong cast, especially the women. Doris Soffel simply reveled in the role of Herodias. Stalking across the stage, she delivered the role with confidence and finding a vocal timbre that perfectly suited Herodias’ atavistic and cruel nature. And it was good to see Ronnita Miller as her Page. I remember her from the San Francisco Ring as both Erda and Norn. She has a rich mezzo and there is a sensual growl in her lower register that is thrilling. I hope to see her on stage again soon. Hopefully in London if not Germany.

Samuel Youn was committed as Jokanaan, but personally I would have preferred more resonance and vocal security in his performance.

Both tenors – Burkhard Ulrich as Herod and the Narraboth of Thomas Blondelle – were impressive. Blondelle’s bright, bell-like voice was perfect for the pleading, love-lorn soldier and Ulrich compellingly inhabited the role of Herod both vocally and temperamentally.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but he drew archly beautiful and characterful playing from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Opera is always tricky at the Proms but unerringly he balanced the demands of ensuring that Strauss’ overtly orchestral score in Salome was sufficiently transparent and ensuring that the singers could be heard. I would have preferred the Dance of the Seven Veils to have been ‘dirtier’ rather than ‘precise’ but it was a small price to pay for playing of this excellence.

And at the end, the audience showed their appreciation. First and foremost for Nina Stemme, but overall for a memorable and electrifying Salome.

A-Mused – Part One

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 26, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Review – Semiramide – La Signora Regale (Anna Bonitatibus, La Stagione Armonica, Academia degli Astrusi, Federico Ferri)

Two exquisite albums inspired by two very different women – both real but worlds apart.

In the first, the muse is ancient Semiramis. Depending on who and what you read, either she was a noble Queen and subsequent Assyrian Regent, a murderer or an (almost) incestuous mother. But regardless of what or who she was, she inspired some incredible music.

In a very well chosen and balanced recital, Anna Bonitatibus selects music from Caldara and Porpora via composers such as Traetta and Meyerbeer to that better-known opera by Rossini. En route, she also performs music by the likes of Francesco Bianchi, Sebastiano Nasolini and Manuel García.

Once again the current vogue for dusting off lesser-known composers has paid off with the added bonus of an incredibly well researched booklet that accompanies the disc.

I have only one regret when I listen to this album – that I didn’t get the chance to hear Ms Bonitatibus recently as Cherubino at Covent Garden. She has an elegant, flexible and beautifully balanced mezzo. Brightly focused, there is a precise and even agility to her voice as well as a pleasing and beautifully controlled vibrato – a rarity among singers – that gives her voice a very appealing texture in terms of both warmth and depth that is perfectly suited to the range of emotions required in these selections.

But the most incredible thing about this recital is the sheer sense of joy and musicianship that Ms Bonitatibus communicates in every aria. As you would expect there is more than a fair amount of coloratura in this music that she delivers with aplomb from the start as in Povera navicella from Caldara’s Semiramide in Ascalona or with great delicacy as in Meyerbeer’s Più non si tardi… Il piacer, la gioia scenda with its obbligato harp. But the recital is not without its more ‘pathetic’ music. Andrea Bernasconi’s Ah non è vano il pianto and Paisiello’s Serbo in seno il cor piagato are typical of the period with their sighing phrases and elegantly styled legato vocal lines, spun with incredible finesse and interpretative intelligence by Ms Bonitatibus. And in these arias – and throughout the recital – her attention to ornamentation in the returning da capos is both sensitive and stylish.

However, the highlight for me is Traetta’s Il pastor se torna aprile. With its violin obbligato – and almost Mozartian swagger – Ms Bonitatibus sings not only with incredible precision through the coloratura, but also with a real sense of verve. Traetta might have been an opera reformist and here – despite the overt virtuosity that he writes, its worth noting how the composer writes a shortened da capo, but then can’t resist two cadenzas, one for each soloist. Clearly his own muse inspired this incredible aria and with music of this quality and performed to such as high standard but both soloists, you can forgive Traetta for stopping the drama for almost ten minutes.

Almost thirty years later, Nasolini wrote a well-constructed scena with chorus that looks forward to composers such as Rossini. With its imposing brass and sonorous choral singing, it makes quite an impact, as does Rossini’s famous scena Serena i vaghi rai… Bel raggio lusinghier. And it is in the latter that Ms Bonitatibus’ controlled use of vibrato is thrilling as she spins out the vocal line.

The album proper ends with Già il perfido discese… Al mio pregar t’arrendi from Manuel García’s Semiramis, first performed in Mexico. Following a darkly-hued accompagnato, García pens an eloquent and darkly sonorous preghiera accompanied by wind only

Generously the album also includes three extra tracks – all from Semiramide riconosciuta – but drawing on three different composers. First, the aria Fuggi dagl’occhi miei, composed by Handel and Gluck respectively, and then Salieri’s overture to his opera of the same title. It’s interesting to listen to how Handel and Gluck approached the same aria differently – for me Handel has just a little more emotional intensity. But again both are impeccably performed.

Under the direction of Federico Ferri, La Stagione Armonico and the Academia degli Astrusi perform with great finesse and sensitivity throughout. In the arias Ferri finds a broad range of sonorities and balances for each composer. Listen to the brass in Nasolini and the wind in García for example, the lightness of touch in the Caldara, the breadth of sound in the Traetta or the warmth that he draws from the strings in the Bernasconi. And of the instrumental pieces, enjoy the delicacy of the moto perpetuo in Catel’s dance.

Beautifully performed and lovingly researched, this is an album to savour.

Schoolroom Shenanighans.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Review – Rinaldo (Glyndebourne, Saturday 9 August 2014)

Rinaldo – Iestyn Davies
Almirena – Christina Landshamer
Goffredo – Tim Mead
Armida – Karina Gauvin
Argante – Joshua Hopkins
Eustazio – Anthony Roth Costanzo
A Christian Magus – James Laing
Sirens – Anna Rajah & Rachel Taylor

Director – Robert Carsen
Associate Director – Bruno Ravella
Designer – Gideon Davey
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet
Movement Director – Philippe Giraudeau

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Ottavio Dantone (Conductor)

Glyndebourne’s production of Rinaldo proves that with a star cast combined with a thoughtful approach by a director of the calibre of Robert Carsen, Handel’s operas contain the perfect balance of drama, tragedy and humour.

Who hasn’t endured a playground crush and wanted their rival vanquished?

In the lead role was Iestyn Davies, and following his outstanding performance in Rodelinda earlier this year, is there a countertenor to rival him in terms of his singing and acting performance? I dare say not. The quality of his singing is remarkable, combined not only with incredible technique but a flawless legato that enables him to convey every emotion with great clarity and emotional weight. After hearing him sing Dove sei? at the London Coliseum I didn’t think I would hear a more emotionally powerful performance of any aria, but the anguish he conveyed as he sang Rinaldo’s Cara sposa was heart-rending, and provided the first highlight of the evening. And he also demonstrated that he could as easily negotiate the more technically demanding arias that Handel wrote for his first Crusader, Nicolini. There was a thrilling bite and the necessary Handelian swagger in Venti, Turbini, Prestate and Abbruccio, avvampo a frema as well as that showcase aria Or la tromba.

Davies also displayed an innate sense in ensemble singing in the various duets. The delicacy of the singing of Scherzano sul tuo volto with his Almirena was beautifully matched by the teenage gaucheness of their actions. And I don’t think I’ve heard Rinaldo’s duet with Armida – Fermati! Oh crudel – not only performed with such verve but also a distinct sexual tension. Personally I’ve no idea why he chose Almirena over Armida.

As his nemesis, Karina Gauvin also demonstrated why she is one of the leading Handel sopranos. In the past I have voiced concern over her performances but here she was in stunning form, and clearly relished her schoolmistress-cum dominatrix as realized by Carsen. Her vocal agility in Furie terribili and Vo’ far Guerra, e vincer voglio – with Dantone light-fingered harpsichord concertante solo – was never in doubt but the sheer beauty and flawlessness of Ah! Crudel, il pianto was the second of three vocal highlights of the evening.

The third highlight of the evening was, from the start, inevitable. It always shocks me how quite suddenly Handel raises the emotional temperature in the Second Act of Rinaldo. Expecting, as Argante declares his love for her, for Almirena to launch into an aria of some fury, instead Handel writes one of his most beautiful arias ever – Lascia ch’io piangia. It might be somewhat common hackney’d but sung with such conviction and dramatic intensity as it was by Christina Landshamer at Glyndebourne and I am sure it wasn’t only me and my immediate neighbour who shed a tear.

And her bright soprano was a perfect foil not only to the Gauvin of Armida but also her beau, their voices melding perfectly in their duets. Her opening Combatti a forte immediately displayed that her lively voice was solidly grounded on strong technique, and the grace and delicacy of Augelletti che cantata was delightful while she confidently faced-off the inherent difficulties of Bel piacere e godere with aplomb.

Joshua Hopkins’ Argante found the perfect balance of arrogant king and – I am sure it was intended – pantomime villain. Vocally I would have preferred slightly more depth and darkness to his voice but it was a strong and well-defined performance.

Sadly, it’s difficult not to compare the other countertenors in the cast – Tim Mead, Anthony Roth Costanzo and James Laing – with the hero of the title. Tim Mead, who is Eustazio in the excellent DVD of the 2011 production and one of the only saving graces of ENO’s Giulio Cesare debacle, displayed secure technique and a honeyed tone, however first night nerves perhaps led to some untidy passage work and there were times when his voice didn’t project crisply enough. The same challenge faced the Eustazio of Anthony Roth Costanzo. It took a while for him to settle but he has a clear, bright voice and a real control of dynamic range which came beautifully to the fore in Siam prossimi al porto. Definitely a singer to watch in the future. Sadly James Laing was ill-suited to the role of the Magus. His voice was too thin and perhaps he invested too much in caricature and not his vocal performance.

And under the energetic direction of Ottavio Dantone it was hard to believe that this opera was Handel’s first opera he composed for London. There was an authority in his interpretation – not only in terms of tempo but also in the range of colours he brought out – that spoke volumes of his love of the music.

I know that Robert Carsen’s approach doesn’t please everyone, but personally I have always found his direction fresh and thought provoking.

And Rinaldo is no different, and he demonstrated the same attention to detail that have made his Carmelites and FroSch so memorable.

Here, he retold the story in a school and it was perfectly logical. Where else are the conflicts of both in love and rivalry more intense – and more keenly felt – than in the playground among emotionally-overwrought teenagers? And let’s face it, which of us when at school didn’t daydream in class about the demise of either a classroom rival or teacher?

And it was all beautifully observed and directed in revival by Bruno Ravella. Be it the gaucheness of a playground crush, the awkwardness of burgeoning friendships and even the sense of competitiveness. And perhaps I was the only one, but did I spy a series of hommages – intentional or not – to films as wide-ranging as ET, St Trinians and dare I say it, Harry Potter?

And the sets themselves never overwhelmed the narrative but seamlessly enabled the story to flow with a smart use not only of the stage but simple animation. And I can’t think of another opera where football has played such a seminal role.

And it is a rare director indeed who can manage to inject a sense of humour into Handel without it coming crashing down. But the deft way that Carsen delineated the characters, portraying them with sharply edged lines, enabled him to find that perfect balance of ‘fast and funny’ – slapstick almost – with duty and love.

In many ways, Carsen delivered the most cinematically-realised production of Handel I have seen without interfering with Handel’s incredible music once.

And with an incredible cast or singers and performers, it worked beautifully.

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