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Exsultate!

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 28, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Review – Miah Persson (Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 26 November 2014)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Joyous.

Simply the best description of this recital by soprano Miah Persson and the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page.

I’ve long admired Miah Persson. She is an exemplary performer, investing both intelligence and passion into her performances combined with flawless technique. Her early recording of Mozart arias – Un moto di gioia – remains a favourite of mine. Fast-forwarding to today, her soprano has now developed a warm, burnished tone and depth, with a pleasing vibrato but with absolutely no loss of flexibility, brightness nor range.

Ms Persson is an instinctive Mozartian and her Exsultate, jubilate was joyous. Clarion-clear diction was matched with real investment in the – albeit – religious words. And taken a quite a zip under the baton of Ian Page, Ms Persson not only skillfully negotiated the sometimes tricky coloratura but ensured it remained knitted seamlessly to the entire piece rather than simply being bravura for bravura’s sake. Indeed, I am not usually a fan of this motet as it is often over-performed, but last night at Wigmore Hall I rediscovered its charm, simplicity and overall beauty.

Despite having written one of my dissertations at university on Haydn’s opera even I admit that his stage works, on the whole, have moments of greatness rather than greatness overall. The strength of Haydn’s operas for me is the marriage with his symphonic prowess and “alternate” world view of the form.

That’s not to say however that I wouldn’t love to see them performed with more regularity and Ms Persson made a very persuasive case.

Her flawless vocal control brought incredible poise and heightened emotion to the first aria, Navicella da vento agitate from Il marchese which was echoed in the third selection written twenty-five years later, Aure chete, verdi allori from Orlando Paladino. But it was in Amore nel mio petto from Lo speziale that allowed Ms Persson to display her dramatic talents in communicating the character’s indecision. And she was perfectly complemented by the delicate playing of principal oboist James Eastaway whose resonant tone perfectly balanced the vocal opulence of Ms Persson.

Indeed, she was accompanied throughout by the excellent players of The Orchestra of Classical Opera throughout. And in the two symphonies that book-ended the concert they shone with enthusiasm, precision and verve. With its opening slow movement, harking back to an earlier era, they effortlessly switched from the intensity of the opening movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 21 to the moto perpetuo of the ensuing Presto. Then Ian Page and his players found that rustic charm that is often so present in the composer’s minuets of this period before launching with full-blooded confidence into a vigorously rhythmic Finale.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 is one of my favourites and perfectly balanced the Haydn in terms of emotional intensity. I love the contrapuntal yearning that Mozart weaves throughout the opening movement, the elegiac Andante with its sonorous wind writing, the rusticity of the minuet and trio and then vigour of the final movement. And just as in the Haydn, The Orchestra of Classical Opera played each and every note as if their lives depended on them. Simply invigorating.

So if you haven’t already, book your tickets for Classical Opera’s exciting 2015 Season but the most wonderful thing about this particular evening? That Wigmore Hall has recorded the entire performance for their own label and our continued enjoyment.

The release of this disc cannot come too soon.

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String Theory

In Classical Music, Review on November 27, 2014 at 10:23 am

Review – The Works (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 24 November 2014)

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment seems to have cornered the market in ways to bring music to audiences in fresh and innovative ways. And while The Works and Night Shift aim to bring new audiences to classical music, personally I enjoy attending these concerts because they always shed new light on music that I’ve known and loved for years and – almost always – begun to take for granted.

And the evening dedicated to Dvorak and Elgar was no different. I grew up loving both Dvorak’s Serenade and the latter’s Sospiri but after Monday’s concert I returned to them with fresh ears.

Naturally and as ever, the OAE themselves played with both skill and enthusiasm, drawing out both robust depth and sound as well as a range of colours. When they stood to perform, it really lifted both their playing as well as bringing a brighter, keener sound to the music.

And host-cum-presenter Rachel Leach did a brilliant job in sharing her enthusiasm and passion for both these pieces and classical music overall. Her no -nonsense and non-technical approach was so refreshing and invigorating despite the sad, old naysayer in the audience. I love the fact that she taught the audience a new term – hemiola – and that she did so by getting them to perfom it themselves. And forever more I shall not refer to ‘ternary form’ when speaking to friends not as conversant as I in musical form, but rather sandwiches. If there were more people like Rachel Leach – her love of music is infectious – then I’ve no doubt that there would be more people willing to at least try classical music.

Has the OAE considered podcasts featuring Rachel? And perhaps the BBC should enlist her skills.

By bringing out the detail of the Serenade, and placing it in the context of the form’s provenance as well as Dvorak’s life, she literally reinvented it for me. And similarly with Sospiri. I’d never truly realized it’s significance of being composed in 1914, and with the Centenary this year there was an added poignancy.

I have to admit I wasn’t so moved by the arrangement of Grieg’s Erotik for piano. While the arrangement was a smart one, for me it didn’t add anything to the original piece and in some ways detracted from it’s original emotional impact.

However the most startling performance of the evening was the performance of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There was a simple yet ethereal and translucent beauty to the performance with each individual line – and not only the harp – balanced and audible.

It was simply breathtaking.

Long may the OAE continue this series – and Night Shifts. While they may be brining a new audience to the music, they shouldn’t discount that they are teaching some old dogs new tricks when listening to cherished favourites.

Donizetti alla Francese

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Review – Les Martyrs (Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 4 November 2014)

Polyeucte – Michael Spyres
Pauline – Joyce Al-Khoury
Sèvere – David Kempster
Félix – Brindley Sherratt
Callisthènes – Clive Bayley
Néarque – Wynne Evans
Une Femme – Rosalind Waters
Un Chrétien – Simon Preece

Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

Les Martyrs – originally Poliuto and the result of over-zealous censors – is a curious hybrid. It’s a very Italian opera restrained by the corset of grand French opera.

A combination of some thrilling ensembles, dark orchestral hues and unique instrumentation – ophicleide anyone? – Les Martyrs takes a while to warm up. The first two acts canter along sedately, if not with any sense of true excitement, and it isn’t until the third act that a real sense of Donizettian drama unfolds. A duet followed by an impassioned tenor aria and a final sextet for all the major protagonists is the highlight of this opera. Indeed, that dramatic momentum eases off considerably in the final act, and even the closing scene, with lions getting ready to pounce, doesn’t thrill as much.

Indeed, ultimately for me Les Martyrs seems to lack any real sense of character or depth.

So, on paper it shouldn’t work – it is hardly one of Donizetti’s finer tragedies – but by dint of the commitment of everyone on stage, it does.

And towering over the entire performance, was the passion, conviction and – when required – delicate caress of Sir Mark Elder. From the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment he evoked with great skill the unique sound world that Donizetti wrote into the score, and from the singers, some incredible performances.

Michael Spyres was more than an adequate replacement for Bryan Hymel. His French – as with all the singers – was excellent and his tenor while light and supple didn’t blanch in the more ambitious and – in some ways – vocally tortuous moments. However I remain to be convinced by the – almost unnaturally sounding – note he hit in his confidently executed cabaletta.

As Pauline, Joyce Al-Khoury took a while to settle into the role. She has a unique vocal timbre that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but coupled with formidable technique including the ability to float high notes confidence, she made a compelling case for the estranged-cum-converted wife. Her vocal fireworks at the end of the First Act were rightly cheered, although I did think that in later ensembles her voice was too forced. But at no point were her interpretive skills in question.

It seemed unusual to me that there were no other female roles – reminding me of Dom Sébastian, also written for Paris towards the end of his career and also available on Opera Rara – but the remaining roles were well covered. Brindley Sherratt, David Kempster and Clive Bayley– as Félix, Sèvere and Callisthènes respectively were all vocally strong, each finding some fine moments of vocal nuance within their roles, although I did perceive moments of strain with David Kempster. Wynne Evans’ Néarque was perhaps the weakest link in the ensemble. Some troubling vibrato – particularly at the beginning – was coupled with some one-dimensional singing, made this Christian more cipher than heroic martyr.

And, drawn from the Opera Rara Chorus, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece both gave committed performances.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their usual verve and spirit – they are never anything less than a joy to hear and to watch.

Ultimately Les Martyrs, his first French grand opera, feels more like an interesting experiment than a fully formed work. Perhaps if Donizetti had had more time, or perhaps returned and revised it whenhe returned to Paris –alongside Dom Sébastian – it might have been something more substantial.

But Opera Rara are to be commended for reviving the work with Elder and the OAE and I look forward to Le duc D’Albe in 2015.

Mozart. Thwarted.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Review – Idomeneo (Royal Opera House, Monday 3 November 2014)

Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
The Voice – Graeme Broadbent
Cretans – Tamsin Coombs, Louise Armit, Andrew O’Connor & John Bernays

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Designs – Annette Murschetz
Costume Designs – Heide Kastler
Lighting Design – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg – Olaf A Schmitt

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

In a recent interview in The Times, director Martin Kušej – clearly attempting to annoint himself the enfant terrible of opera – commented that “with knowledge, respect — and with some freedom — we could really bring [opera] out of the 19th century”.

But take it where?

Judging from the new production of Idomeneo for Covent Garden, Kušej has dragged the genre kicking and screaming to the director’s equivalent of an abbatoir and taken a huge, bloody knife to its throat.

I have no problems with a modern approach to opera – I didn’t object to Kušej’s Forza in Munich, and other productions have been both challenging and immensely enjoyable. But this production of Idomeneo showed scant appreciation of Mozart’s opera or indeed any understanding of its provenance.

But a production is made more tolerable if the singing and the musicianship is of a high standard. Sadly, and despite the impressive line-up, I didn’t think that overall, it passed muster.

However plaudits must go most certainly to Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani as Ilia and Idomeneo. Having enjoyed her Sophie, as the Trojan Princess, Ms Bevan once again demonstrated that she possesses a beautifully bright, light and flexible soprano that was perfectly suited for this role. And she combined a natural talent for Mozart with a real sense of characterization. Padre, germani, addio! caught the conflict that she felt and while Minkowski to Zeffiretti lusinghieri far too fast – where the zephyrs would have not so much caressed as buffeted any young lover – her technique allowed her to negotiate the rapid passages while conveying her love for Idamante.

As the Cretan King, Polenzani once again demonstrated his agile, richly timbred voice. Fuor del mar was thrilling, especially the da capo, and the cavatina with chorus, Accogli, o re del mar was spun with great delicacy.

Special mention too of the Arbace of Stanislas de Barbeyrac – who rightly received one of the loudest cheers at the end. I won’t even begin to fathom why he was dressed like an accordion-carrying-rambler, but his aria – with gently floated dynamics – made for a promising debut.

I am always in two minds about Franco Fagioli. There is no doubting that he has incredible technique and an impressive range, however, I was not wholly convinced by his Idamante. While he was relatively sweet-toned throughout the evening, here was a distinct lack of diction – as if he was swallowing his words rather than projecting them.

Similarly, I am not sure – after such a strong performance most recently as Donna Anna – if Elettra is a suitable role for Malin Byström. Sure enough – and despite some lack of co-ordination with the pit – Ms Byström could channel the vocal fury of the scorned princess, but she simply sounded vocally stressed in Placido è il mar.

In the pit, apart from a few faster-than-expected tempi, Minkowski brought to life the rhythmic verve and highlighted much of the orchestras detail within the score – especially in the ballet music. And while I was not always convinced by the exuberance of the continuo playing, it wasn’t as distracting as some I have heard.

But ultimately it was the production that dragged down this Idomeneo. This opera was written for a ducal court influenced by Enlightenment principles. The libretto reflected the idea of conflicted yet benign sovereignty and ultimately a burgeoning new balance in the order of things. I don’t dispute that the opera can be read in many different ways – but his vision of unremitting thuggery and violence simply isn’t in either the text or in the music.

What Kušej gave us was, quite literally, like shooting fish in a Personregie-barrel. Men rushing around carrying machine guns. Men in underpants being abused. Men dressed rockers. A pantomime High Priest. Children dressed in what can only be described as gym kit. Children carry guns. Fish. And even a shark. The only alleviation from the inanity of it all was the revolving set and what little characterization played out by the singers seemed to be of their own making – and mostly one dimensional.

I also didn’t buy his line about the ballet music only being “partially interesting”. Because, in reality his series of tableaux spoke more eloquently that the anything that preceded it. The enduring image that the “new order” was tainted, that the new generation would repeat the mistakes of the previous generation struck home was actually quite powerful.

It’s just a shame that his sense of narrative didn’t extend to the opera itself.

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