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I Due Domingi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on October 28, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Review – Il due Foscari (Royal Opera House Live, Monday 27 October 2014)

Francesco Foscari – Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari – Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini – Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano – Maurizio Muraro
Barbarigo – Samuel Sakker
Pisana – Rachel Kelly
Fante – Lee Hickenbottom

Director – Thaddeus Strassberger
Set Designs – Kevin Knight
Costume Designs – Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Director)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

While you can’t fault Domingo’s commitment in the role of Francesco Foscari, I am still unconvinced – after I due Foscari – of his aspirations as a baritone.

There, I said it.

In terms of characterization, he has – as he said in the interval interview snippets with Pappano – a whole career of singing tenor roles, seeing these characters from a different perspective, which enables to him bring real depth and insight when playing these roles. And his Francesco, in terms of stage presence – and even real tears I would hazard – was compelling. Domingo caught almost to perfection the conflict of Doge and father and at the end, of a man defeated by both cruel fate and age.

But vocally it was a different manner. As with his recital of Verdi arias for baritone released last year, it wasn’t that his performance wasn’t musical. It was. Each and every phrase beautifully crafted and intelligently sung. What was missing wasn’t so much heft – although there were times when he seemed lost amid the other singers and the orchestra – but timbre and resonance. Of authority. And yet ultimately of course, it didn’t matter. The musicianship, the characterization overcame the vocal limitations.

However of the two other main cast members, there was no sense of any limitation. Maria Agresta as Lucrezia Contarini – was simply magnificent. She didn’t so much tackle the vocal demands of the role as dominated them. Her soprano – with an appealing hard edge when she chose to deploy it – gleamed and shone in Verdi’s music. Vocally impressive as she was when full of fury or castigating her peers or in her formidable duet with her father in law, it was in the more tender moments that she demonstrated that she is a true Verdi soprano. Her preghieraTu al chi sguardo onnipossente – was achingly sung and during the duet with her husband in the Second Act, time itself seemed to stand still. It was an incredible debut at Covent Garden and while I admit that I very rarely travel abroad for Verdi, for Maria Agresta I will be booking flights and hotels.

As her husband, Francesco Meli was as impressive. One criticism I often have of tenors in this repertoire is that they cannot always find the shade – as well as the light – in their singing. Not so with Signor Meli. From his opening aria until his final ‘addio’, he delivered a performance that was both beautifully nuanced and totally committed.

It’s a shame that these three characters dominated I due Foscari but all the smaller roles – led by the Jacopo Loredano of Maurizio Muraro contributed to a vocally strong evening.

In the pit, Pappano demonstrated impeccable Verdian credentials. He seemed to be conducting as if his life depended on it. But as well as the brute force the Verdi wrote into the score from the beginning, Pappano ensured that the Royal Opera House Orchestra found the right tinta for the more intimate moments of the opera. And similarly, the chorus delivered their usual high standards of precision and passionate singing.

Together with Glare – which I will be seeing in a few weeks – this was Thaddeus Strassberger’s debut at Covent Garden. His CV is impressive and on the whole, his vision for this opera was impressive. He did capture – together with Kevin Knight – not only the darker side of Venice, but any one who has been there – as I have – will have smiled when the flood-boards made an appearance. However it was a shame that Strassberger resorted to a hackney’d device for no reason that I could – pardon the pun – fathom. From her first appearance, Lucrezia Contarini isn’t so much determined to prove her husband’s innocence, but rather would rather see him die that have him exiled. Then why, when he is dead, does she go mad and then drown her (eldest) son in a puddle. Seeing this proud and brave woman reduced to insanity, didn’t add to the tragedy, but deflected from it unnecessarily. It was almost as if – having avoid cliché from the start – Strassberger felt obliged to throw one in at the end.

A shame.

I hope that when it returns – and with any luck alongside Herheim’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes – that Maria Agresta and Francesco Meli will return along with a true baritone.

However, as with my ever-so-slight reservations of Domingo’s baritonal aspirations, the slightly marred ending did nothing to reduce my overall enjoyment of this production.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Two) – Bach Presents His Creds

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on October 20, 2014 at 5:03 pm

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

It’s been a while and we’re still in 1714.

Bach had just been promoted to Konzertmeister, and – if we discount the much-revised Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis until the 1720s – Bach wrote seven cantatas including the two for alto that I previously wrote about.

If the two solo cantatas occupy a central space in that year (written and performed in the summer or Autumn), the remaining five cantatas of 1714 wrap around them.

In the first two cantatas of 1714, Bach seems to be presenting not only beautifully crafted works that demonstrate his compositional skills, but also demonstrating that he can also communicate the deepest religious devotion and belief.

In modern parlance? A ‘cred check’.

Himmelskönig, Sei Willkommen (BWV 182) with its delicate scoring is the first cantata that Bach wrote as Konzertmeister. For me, the short opening Sonata – with its recorder and violin concertante, defines the incredible elegance of this work. And it is carried through in the subsequent chorus – of absolute, unshakeable and joyous belief in the glory of God.

What then follows are three arias in succession, each with a different obbligato aria – bass with violin; alto with recorder and tenor with cello. While the first, Starkes lieben (What strong Love) maintains the same mood as the opening movements, with the second aria, Leget each dem Heiland unter (Lay yourselves down before the Saviour) the mood becomes more personal. The recorder obbligato – with its sinuous melody – wraps itself almost seductively around the vocal line. Jesus, Lass Durch Wohl Und Weh (O Jesus, through weal and woe) contains the more personal plea of a supplicant. The penultimate movement is a chorale, with the cantus firmus in the soprano while the rest of the chorus weave in counterpoint ahead of it before the final chorus, So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden, returns to the mood of the opening Sonata and chorus. But watch out for the minor key mood at Leiden (suffering).

Next is impressively mournful Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). It begins with one of my favourite oboe obbligatos in Bach – one that I remember playing as a student – and after the first original work for Weimar, its emotional intensity must have come as a shock.

As the oboe unwinds its melodic line, the strings weave the most intricate web below – the upper strings sighing, the violas like a heartbeat and the basses intoning every half a bar. And the subsequent chorus is one of those marvels unique to Bach. For me, there’s something slightly risqué in Bach’s use of a Chaconne – even one as chromatic and doom-laden as this – as the basis of this chorus. And above it the chorus intones the weeping, lamenting, grieving and trembling of the text, with beautifully crafted suspensions. And the simplicity at Angst und Not as the chorus comes together is overpowering. The short, faster ‘middle section’ doesn’t release any of the tension but rather with its busier contrapuntal lines, adds to it before a return to the opening section

It’s a gem. Of pure, unrelenting misery.

Over suspended chords in the strings, the following recitative again launches into three successive arias. The first, Kreuz Und Krone Sind Verbunden (Cross and crowns are bound together) features an oboe obbligato – slightly reminiscent of the opening sinfonia – and alto soloist. The two violin obbligati of the second aria, and the imitative nature of the bass soloist’s line, openly refer to the text – Ich folge Christo nach (I follow after Christ). But its Sei Getreu, Alle Pein Wird doch nut win Kleines seine (Be faithful, all pain will be but a little while) that provides the real surprise – a trumpet obbligato intoning a chorale above the tenor soloist. The purity of the sound is quite astounding.

The concluding chorale, Was Gott tut, das ich wohlgetan (Whatever God deals is dealt bountifully) is almost perfunctory after the emotionally journey of the preceding movements.

It’s almost as if Bach is saying despite the suffering, life goes on.

Indeed it does.

Bewitched. Beguiled. Bedazzled.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Review – Alcina (Barbican Centre, Friday 10 October 2014)

Alcina – Joyce DiDonato
Ruggiero – Alice Coote
Morgana – Anna Christy
Bradamante – Christine Rice
Oronte – Ben Johnson
Oberto – Anna Devin
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

The English Concert

Harry Bicket (Director/Harpsichord)

Alcina is – for me – Handel’s greatest opera. Personally, it trumps Giulio Cesare in the magnificent invention of its music and outdoes the likes of Rodelinda and Orlando in its depiction of human nature.

And at the Barbican on Friday evening, this performance was the musical equivalent of a perfect storm. All the elements came together magically and deluged the entire hall in wave after wave of perfectly attuned, emotionally charged and dazzling brilliant musical performance.

Part of the Joyce DiDonato’s residency at the Barbican, it followed a magnificent recital drawn from her latest bel canto disc, Stella di Napoli. I never got round to writing up my thoughts on either disc or the concert itself but suffice it to say that both were magnificent.

Needless to say, as Alcina she was vocally superb – flawless even– and musically intuitive. And although there were no tomatoes this time, once again she was impressively attired to suit both character and occasion.

And each and every cast member – and the English Concert – were similarly impressive. In terms of the quality of the singing, their technique, their interpretation of Handel’s music including very tasteful embellishment and ornamentation, the commitment of everyone was stage was absolute.

While her Alcina on disc – recorded with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – is formidable on stage she brought a sense of humanity – of womanhood – to the role that is often missing in other performances. There was a heartrending frailty to Si, son quella! and a real sense of anguish in Ah! Il mio cor – possibly one of the finest arias Handel ever penned – that completely floored me. In Di mio cor, her Alcina was more than a woman in love, she conveyed a real sense of coquettishness, of almost innocent, true love. As a result, when this Alcina – rebuffed – turns to fury, it was a believable journey. This wasn’t so much a sorceress not getting her own way, but a woman scorned, seeking revenge and ultimately resigned to her fate. From her disbelief in Ombre pallide when the shades do not answer her summons, through her ‘righteous’ anger when she dismisses Ruggiero in Ma quando tornera to her almost final realization that she has lost him forever in Mi restamo le lagrime, was an emotional journey that was etched on the audiences’ minds. And I say almost, because in the trio, Non e amor, né gelosia – which I could have sworn was shorn – there was a palpable sense that should almost got her man back.

That she didn’t was evident from the moment Alice Coote stepped on stage. Like Ms DiDonato her total commitment not only to the role, but when singing Handel – and indeed in general – makes for an incredibly special performance. Her Ariodante at ENO will remain with me forever – not to mention her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

To Ruggiero, she brought brashness – a youthful and naïve impetuosity that was palpable. But while Di te mi rido might have been suitably dismissive, with Mi lusinga il dolce affetto Coote’s Ruggiero began to doubt his own reality. In Mio bel tesoro Coote’s asides managed to sound slightly indecisive and the eloquence which she brought to the wonderful Verdi prati made it sound not so much an aria of adieu but one of regret. But there was no doubt that duty and true love had won out with Ms Coote’s spectacular performance – complete with braying horns – of Sta nell’ircana.

Following her impressive Cleopatra for ENO – one of the only things worth remembering from that dire production – Anna Christy brought crystalline accuracy, immaculate attention to detail and line, accomplished interpretation and more than a little wit to the role of Morgana. Of course everyone was on the edge of their seat for Tornami a vagheggiar – and Ms Christy did not disappoint, but for me it was Credete al mio dolore that set the seal on Ms Christy’s Handellian credentials. With support obbligato support from Joseph Crouch, Ms Christy not only negotiated this most difficult aria but imbued it with a real sense of pathos.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Christine Rice –ENO’s Partenope perhaps? – but it was a pleasure seeing her in the role of Bradamante. Her rich, velvet-toned mezzo was well matched to the role. Similarly, the Oberto of Anna Devin was superb. Chi m’insegna il caro padre was beautifully delivered with expert control of both the exposed line and embellished da capo and quite rightly, her bright soprano in Barbara! Io ben lo so brought cheers from the audience.

And both Ben Johnson as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach as Melisso breathed new life into their arias – which compared to those of the other cast members – can often seem lackluster. Gierlach’s resonant bass made for a beautifully articulated Pensa a chi geme and Johnson sailed effortlessly through Un momento di contento.

The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bickett similarly excelled themselves. I have already mentioned the wonderful playing of Joseph Crouch and similar plaudits must be awarded to the wonderful playing of the leader, Nadja Zweiner in Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende with Ms Christy – soloist and singer in perfect synchronization.

By the end of the evening this was an Alcina to cherish and remember. And wonder why the Barbican doesn’t have its own label to capture magical moments like this.

A Touch of Venus

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Review – Pigmalion & Anacréon (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday 8 October 2014)

Pigmalion – Daniel Auchinloss
Le Statue – Katherine Manley
Anna Dennis – L’Amour
Céphise – Susanna Hurrell

Anacréon – Matthew Brook
Chloé – Anna Dennis
Batile – Augustin Prunell-Friend

Choir of the Englightenment
Les Plaisirs des Nations
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Edith Lalonger (Choreographer)
Jonathan Williams (Conductor)

Following their performance of Zaïs earlier this year, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Les Plaisirs de Nations joined forces once again for the Rameau Project – for the actes de ballet Pigmalion and what I believe was the Anacréon that formed the third part of his original Les Surprises d’Amour, both written in 1748.

And under the watchful baton of Jonathan Williams, it once again provided an evening of some superb musicianship and some elegant dance.

Personally, the star of the evening was the returning Anna Dennis. L’Amour in Pigmalion, she took centre stage as Chloé in the post interval performance of Anacréon. Ms Dennis possesses a bright and flexible soprano – there is a crystalline quality to it that is perfectly suited to this music, as well as an uninterrupted sheen and fluidity throughout her range which made her performance ravishing. Additionally there was a flexibility to her voice that not only enables her to negotiate the more florid passages but also to highlight the delicate nuances in Rameau’s vocal lines.

And indeed it was the women who mostly impressed during the evening. Katherine Manley – as the statue – injected a real sense of simplicity – almost naivety – to her performance and all credit for her beautifully choreographed and graceful interaction with the dancers. And in her short appearance as Céphise, Susanna Hurrell also made a positive impression.

Matthew Brook’s Anacréon was the most convincing of Rameau’s gentlemen. He molded his robust and warm baritone around Rameau’s vocal lines and brought out the wit in his elegant performance. I did not warm to the Pigmalion of Daniel Auchinloss. Not only was there a lack of projection but also – in common with Augustin Prunell-Friend’s Batile to a lesser extent – there wasn’t the necessary lightness or flexibility to his voice which Rameau’s music demands – especially for the magnificent Regne Amour.

However for the most part, the diction of both the singers – and the Choir of the Enlightenment – was very good. And while I am no expert when it comes to dance but as before in Zaïs, Les Plaisirs des Nations combined graceful choreography with effortless grace and when required, humour.

After some indecisive playing at the beginning of Pigmalion, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their trademark verve and spirit. Jonathan Williams was every alert to the shifting rhythms and colours that abound in Rameau’s music and the players in the orchestra responded accordingly.

I hope that The Rameau Project continues to bring Rameau’s shorter works to the stage, supporting what I hope is a wider renaissance of his larger operas.


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