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Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

(Twenty) Seven-Year Pitch

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on January 28, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Review – 1765: A Retrospective (Mozart 250, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 22 January 2015)

Anna Devin (Soprano)
Sarah Fox (Soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

Classical Opera has always taken a bold and innovative approach to their programming, but programming over a period of twenty-seven years is impressive and it got off to a very promising start.

Marking the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mozart’s sojourn in London, Ian Page gave us a snapshot of musical life not only in the capital but across Europe with very able performances by Anna Devin, Sarah Fox and John Mark Ainsley and some superlative playing from the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Mozart’s own contribution to the programme was two concert arias and his first symphony written when he was between eight and nine years old. While these works are clearly influenced by his contemporaries, you could already hear the seeds of genius. The symphony, in E Flat, might be reminiscent of the likes of JC Bach in the outer movements, but the central Andante showed that Mozart was already experimenting with texture and sound.

Va, dal furor portata, Mozart’s first concert aria, might on first listening sound rather simple, but is in fact remarkably eloquent with clearly shifting emotions both in the orchestral exposition and the vocal writing. John Mark Ainsley sang with a great deal of authority, with fluid legato deliver and technical ease, but I wish he had lifted his head from the score a little more, as it occluded the overall delivery. And this was a problem that clouded his later performance of Sacchini’s Barbara figlia ingrata.

Written only a short time later for soprano, Conservati fedele already underlines how quickly Mozart was developing – the beguiling simplicity all but masking his developing maturity and understanding of writing for the voice. And it was sweetly sung by Anna Devin whose technical brilliance and musicianship was more than amply demonstrated in her preceding aria, In mezzo a un mar crudele from Gluck’s Telemaco. Throwing off the coloratura with incredible confidence and aplomb, it reminded me why Ms Devin was such a star in last year’s Alcina.

Di questa cetra in seno from Gluck’s Il Parnasso confuso also featured. Originally written for a private performance by the Austrian imperial family it has a gentle and pastoral lilt to it with some elegant obbligato playing for the violas. Sarah Fox delivered a thoughtful and intuitive performance but as with Cara, la dolce fiamma in the first half, I was somewhat distracted by the underlying vibrato in her otherwise rich and sonorous soprano.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in g minor, featuring in the second half of the concert, again demonstrated the zest and enthusiasm of the orchestra who gave a beautifully observed and dramatic performance of this fantastic symphony.

Both halves of the concert ended with ensemble pieces. From Philidor’s Tom Jones was a duet performed by Ainley and Devin. To be honest, delightful as it was, I do think that this was a slightly odd choice in terms of programming but there was not faulting the trio that closed the concert from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I am looking to Classical Opera’s performance of the entire opera later this year, and both the earlier aria and Ah, genitore amato not only underlined the influence that the London Bach clearly had on the young Mozart, but also that in their own right JC Bach’s operas need more exposure.

A feeling almost of an embarrassment of musical riches with regards to choice did make the programming seem slightly at odds in places, and I did wonder if perhaps, as this was commemorating Mozart’s stay in London and then Holland, if the programming could have been chosen with a more ‘local’ flavor.

But there was no denying that as the first in twenty-seven years’ worth of music making, this opening concert marks an impressive start.

I just hope I am still around to enjoy the final concert.

Oimè ! Non parlo Italiano

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Review – Orfeo (Royal Opera House at The Round House, Friday 16 January 2015)

Orfeo – Gyula Orendt
Euridice – Mary Bevan
Sylvia – Susan Bickley
First Pastor – Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo) – Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor – Christopher Lowrey
Charon – James Platt
Pluto – Callum Thorpe
Prosperina – Rachel Kelly
Nymph – Susanna Hurrell

Director – Michael Boyd
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman
Sound Design – Sound Intermedia
Circus Director – Lina Johansson

Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

It seems that following the success of L’Ormindo at the Wanamaker, Covent Garden has once again performed ‘off-site’. But while I applaud the intention I’m not wholly convinced by their approach on this occasion.

But before I go further there was no doubting the commitment of the performers – both the singers and dancers – on stage. While I would personally have preferred a lighter-voiced Orfeo, Gyula Orendt made a vocally impressive and mesmerising Orfeo. His voice is beautifully resonant and darkly-hued and while he might not have as gracefully negotiated the melismas and other vocal decorations of the vocal line, he did bring to it a pathos and depth of feeling that matched his acting. As his tragic spouse, Mary Bevan’s singing was clean, clear and articulate. Her voice made me wont for ‘more’ Euridice and I can only hope that we see her in other Monteverdi and baroque roles with increasing frequency. Despite the diminutive role, Susan Bickley effectively dominated her own scenes as well as many of those where she was simply spectating. Her singing was rich with experience and weight, and Susanna Hurrell brought grace and charm to the role of the Nymph.

As members of a Renaissance-inspired court, the remaining cast provided strong if not strongly characterised support. The trio of pastors – and in particular Alexander Sprague – showed the most sympathy with Monteverdi’s music and the students from Guildhall acquitted themselves well in the choruses.

The dancing – by member of East London Dance – improved as the drama unfolded, moving from simply feeling like movement to fill the stage to some cleverly constructed tableaux for Orfeo’s descent into hell.

Boyd’s production, as I have already mentioned, drew its inspiration from the original courtly performance in Mantua, and considering the challenges of The Roundhouse, it was a well thought out production. I can’t think that there was a ‘good seat’ in the house. Personally I had to crane my neck to watch any action on the ramp and some of the stage was also obscured, but Boyd and his team kept things simple enough to create a sense of intimacy. However, Orfeo’s final ascent to heaven seemed more a theatrical gimmick than coup-de-theatre, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience more worried about the potential for Orendt to plunge headlong onto the stage that the closing moments of the music.

And finally, Christopher Moulds led a sprightly – if slightly colourless – band of musicians from the back of the stage, delicately shaping Monteverdi’s lines.

So why didn’t it work for me?

Well, try as I might, I couldn’t find anywhere in the programme where it said that that Orfeo was to be sung in English. It was on the website I admit but almost unnoticeable. I’ve no problem with opera in English but I think that Covent Garden’s reason is somewhat flawed. As expressed by them on the night I attended it was in English “for an audience unfamiliar with the opera”.

I understand that they are – like every other artistic organisation – desperate to attract new (and younger) audiences but I’m not sure translating Monteverdi was the best way. The words were critical to Monteverdi and his contemporaries – listen to any of his madrigals where word painting and the weight of emotion is wrapped up in the language used.

Translate it into English and invariably some of that – even with the best translation – is lost. For example, when the Messenger arrives to tell Orfeo of Euridice’s demise we get this:

Silvia: La tua diletta sposa è morta
Orfeo: Oimè

A single, crushing word that contains within it the complete tragedy of the opera. In translation we got “Oh, no”. Simply not the same.

If Covent Garden was bent on attracting new audiences, why not opt for Purcell? If they wanted pathos and tragedy then they needed look no further than Dido and Aeneas. And in terms of marketing I reckon “Britain’s First Great Opera” would have worked just as well.

Again, I searched the programme but I couldn’t find a clear explanation of why the singers were wearing microphones. Again, on the night, I was told it was “because of the acoustics of the place”.

So why The Roundhouse?

It’s not the first time – and speaking from personal experience of using this venue as well – this it has been acoustically-challenging. Did no one think of this and perhaps thought of finding a more suitable venue? The Wanamaker is already booked but what about Wilton’s? They would then have got the uber-trendy Shoreditch crowd to boot. Or why not schedule it for the main stage itself which has seen performances of Dido and – many years ago – a wonderful production of Steffani’s Niobe. Or the Linbury. Even ENO managed a very respectable production of Orfeo on their gargantuan stage with much success.

With top price tickets at £75, cynically I must wonder if the profit-per-seat ratio was an overriding factor.

Opera companies must find new ways to attract audiences as well as express themselves creatively, but (ad)ventures like Covent Garden’s Orfeo demonstrate how tricky it truly is. I’ve no doubt that there were many people in the audience who had never been to the opera before, but perhaps they might have enjoyed it more – and be tempted to try opera again – if Covent Garden had held truer to the original?

2014 – Birthdays, booing and Bach. More and less.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 5, 2015 at 12:09 pm

I’d like to start by thanking everyone who visits my blog. It started as a bit of an experiment and when I started writing this in 2011, I didn’t think it would last. Reading back over past entries reminds me some of the great – and not so great – performances I have attended, recordings I have listened to and general comments on aspects of classical music that have either intrigued me or irked me.

So thank you all.

In 2014, it felt like I attended fewer performances in 2014, and wrote less that in the previous year but in truth it seems that isn’t true.

The year began and ended with two performances that I don’t think I will ever forget. In January, Elektra with Evelyn Herlitzius in Dresden to mark the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth; and just a few weeks ago, an emotionally wrenching Tristan und Isolde with Nina Stemme. On both occasions the outstanding quality of the singing, the playing and the production all came together perfectly. Having admired her as The Dyer’s Wife in FroSch, Herlitzius’ Elektra was a masterful and nuanced characterization combined with a vocal performance that took big risks which paid off. And with Anne Schwanewilms as Chrysosthemis, Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra and Thielemann in the pit drawing some beautiful playing from the Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden it was an unforgettable evening. I saw the Loy production of Tristan und Isolde when it premiered five years ago, and it remains on of my favourite productions. Nina Stemme was superlative as the Irish princess, and since 2009 it’s almost as if the music and Isolde herself have become fused into Stemme’s very bones. I was transfixed by her performance and again she was supported by an incredible cast including Stephen Gould and Sarah Connolly.

Nina Stemme also delivered a stunning performance as Salome at the Proms as part of the BBC’s rather half-hearted Strauss celebration. On the following night, Christine Goerke took to the stage as Elektra, but I admit I remain to be wholly convinced.

Staying with Richard Strauss, I managed to see three – well two and a half – performances of Der Rosenkavalier. Over and above all the fuss about the Glyndebourne production, I was not overly impressed. Ticciati’s colourless and rhythmically bland conducting failed to ignite despite some superlative playing by the LSO, and he was not helped by the musically-wan performances of Kate Royal and Tara Erraught. But perhaps it was simply because the other performances remain indelibly etched on my memory. I was incredibly privileged to attend two performances featuring Anne Schwanewilms and Sarah Connolly at the Barbican and then Soile Isokoski and Alice Coote in Birmingham. These beautifully poised, emotionally intense performances were conducted by Sir Mark Elder and Andris Nelsons respectively. It was hard to believe that it was the first complete performance of the opera in Birmingham but it reminds me that musical life outside London remains vibrant. Opera North ended their Ring cycle with incredible aplomb and authority in the summer. While there were inevitably some weak moments, I look forward to the complete cycle. Welsh National Opera brought Moses und Aron to Covent Garden, led by a forthright performance in the title role by John Tomlinson, most recently Covent Garden’s King Marke and Glyndebourne’s revival of Rinaldo demonstrated why Iestyn Davies is one of the most talented countertenors performing today. His performance of Cara sposa was heartrending.

Staying with baroque opera, Joyce DiDonato continued to wow and amaze with a stunning performance as Handel’s Alcina as part of her Barbican residency. Bedecked in what must surely now be ‘signature’ Vivienne Westwood, she was so successful in creating a flesh and blood sorceress, that her Alcina became more anti-heroine than villainess. At the beginning of the year, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti’s L’Issipile was given a long overdue airing. All credit to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for his painstaking research and the stellar performances by Lucy Crowe, Diana Montague and Lawrence Zazzo who brought Conti’s music to life. I believe that we can expect a recording this year so keep an eye out as this opera contains some stunning music.

The Rameau Project – with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – 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 combination of intellectual curiosity and a palpable passion for Rameau’s music made for two evenings of fantastic music making. And at the Wannamaker Playhouse, the Royal Opera House breathed life into Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. With a cast including Samuel Boden, Ed Lyons, Susanna Hurrell, Rachel Kelly and Joélle Harvey, the high standard of the music performances under Christian Curnyn were matched by Kasper Holten’s well-crafted production.

Sadly, the main stage at Covent Garden didn’t always show as much wit, style or even intelligence. Standout productions of Tristan und Isolde, and a simply overwhelming Dialogues des Carmélites were in sharp relief to the rest of the season. In terms of Strauss, Holten gave us the La Scala production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. At the time I remember being so very excited by the prospect of this production and the cast. But as I left the performance, I remember feeling a sense of “premature expectation”. Neither cast nor production was consistently strong and I wish that Holten had imported his own production from Copenhagen.

The much anticipated Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio was musically beyond reproach but the audience – including myself – were torn by the production by Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier. I thought the production was flawed, as did others in the house that resorted to booing. I’ve nothing against booing, but it seems to have become a house staple on Bow Street. The shocking irreverence that Martin Kušej showed for Mozart’s Idomeneo solicited an even angrier response from the audience. And on that occasion I can’t blame them. Kušej showed scant regard for Mozart’s music, the narrative or the intent of this opera. I hope that he doesn’t return to Covent Garden until he has learned his trade. Holten’s own Don Giovanni – replacing Francesca Zambello’s lackluster production – was almost perfect. A strong cast, led by Mariusz Kwiecień was marred by his decision to cut the final sextet. I can’t deny the emotional impact created by Kwiecień’s Don left alone at the end, but it unbalanced the opera. I due Foscari might have provided a lightning rod for Domingo fans and non-fans alike but it gave the rest of us an opportunity to hear a rarely performed Verdi opera. Thaddeus Strassberger’s double debut felt slightly unfinished and the ‘mad tableaux’ at the end somewhat misplaced. But it was nothing compared to his production of Glare a few weeks later in the Linbury. I didn’t write about it at the time – I couldn’t find the right words – but I still feel that the violence against women that it portrayed was a step too far and completely undermined the opera itself.

In terms of new works, I saw ROH’s Quartett and ENO’s Thebans. Luca Francesconi is, without doubt, a smart composer. Creating layers of sound, this opera can only be described – both narratively and musically – as brutal. Julian Anderson’s Thebans by contrast, failed to pack a consistent punch. Indeed, both operas displayed the same weakness – how to create spans of music that knit together structurally, rather than a series of juxtaposed set pieces.

And finally, a special mention to the Royal College of Music for their smart and inspired production of Die Zauberflöte. A promising ensemble of soloists demonstrated that we have – in the wings – some exciting new voices to be heard.

2014 was also the year I made the decision to listen to all Bach’s cantatas. I admit that it’s been while since I wrote anything. That’s not for wont of listening to them, but rather finding the time. But I am determined to get beyond 1714 in 2015.

In terms of recordings, recital discs by Bejun Mehta and Philippe Jaroussky stood out for me as did Teodor Currentzis’ Le nozze di Figaro. His over-intellectualised approach occasionally intruded but there is no doubting his enthusiasm and passion for Mozart. Whilst not all the singers sound entirely convincing, Currentzis’ approach is invigorating.

But there are three discs that I return to regularly. First, Marina Rebeka’s Mozart recital disc. Her warm yet flexible soprano is well-matched to Mozart’s music and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Speranza Scapucci play with grace. Carolyn Sampson produced a recital based around Eighteenth Century French soprano Marie Fel and it is a masterpiece both in terms of programming and performance. Composers from Mondonville to Rousseau blow the cobwebs of any thought that French music of this period was “all the same” but it is her performance of Rameau’s Tristes apprêts that is worth the price of the disc alone.

And especial mention must go to Anna Bonitatibus and her inspired recital built around Queen Semiramis. This is simply a joyous album featuring composers that might not be all that famous, but demonstrate that there is still plenty of excellent music waiting to be discovered. My favourite? Traetta’s Il pastor se torna aprile. With its violin obbligato and swagger you would almost believe its Mozart.

And for 2015? Looking at my pile of tickets, I didn’t realise I had so many to look forward to. First out of the gate is L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse.

But I daren’t say too much, I don’t think I want to suffer from “premature expectation again”.

So it only leaves me to wish you all a (belated) Happy New Year. May 2015 bring you much joy and good music.

Thank you for reading.

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