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.

  1. Lovely read! Just wrote a review on Sibelius violin concerto performed by Christian Ferras. You may want to check it out : )

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