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Alcina, undone.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 28, 2016 at 11:37 am

 

Review – Alcina (Semper Oper, Saturday 19 March 2016)

Alcina – Heidi Stober
Ruggiero – Serena Malfi
Bradamante – Angélique Noldus
Morgana – Veronica Cangemi
Oronte – Simeon Esper
Melisso – Sebastian Wartig
Oberto – Elias Madler

Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Dramaturgy – Sophie Becker
Stage Designer – Ben Baur
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Fabio Antoci

Sächsiche Staatskapelle Dresden
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

While the previous evening’s Giulio Cesare was let down by a weak production and some critical miscasting that didn’t do justice to either the music or the lead, this Alcina was deliberately disfigured. I am not against modern productions, and can find RegieTheater and its ilk interesting and thought provoking but what director Jan Philipp Gloger did was akin to vandalism.

Alcina is a ‘fantastical’ opera – magic, demons, transformation – in which the very human emotion of love intrudes and ultimately wins the day. Gloger actually had a basic premise very smartly worked out but a devastating decision ruined not only the production but showed a scant lack of respect for the original opera.

Fortunately, the musical standard was very high with strong performances from all the leads and in the pit.

I’d not heard Heidi Stober before this production but she is certainly an impressive soprano who delivered a vivid portrayal of everyone’s favourite sorcerer. Her piercing soprano – with only the occasionally hint of strain and stress – was well-suited to Alcina’s music, and she was comfortable both in delivering the vocal line with a true sense of legato as well as tackling the fiendishly difficult coloratura with theatrical flourish and personal relish, switching easily from pride and fury to a more plaintive tone. And fortunately the director didn’t distract too much at those major moments such as a beautifully delivered Ah! Mio cor or the memorable scena, Ah! Ruggiero crudel … Ombre pallide.

Serena Malfi’s Ruggiero had a wonderfully dark vocal timbre and a ‘no nonsense’ approach to her portrayal of the knight that was refreshing. Sta nell’ircana was undoubtedly a highlight but there was a wistfulness to her Verdi prati but did make me wonder if Ruggiero was as truly as committed to reforming his character as he pretended to be.

As Morgana, Veronica Cangemi got off to a rocky start, but she recovered quickly to perform a thrilling Tornami a vagheggiar with just the right amount of embellishment in da capo. And she also gave a heart-stopping Credete al mio dolore in the second half, with wonderfully floated top notes and some beautifully rendered ornamentation.

The remaining principles were equally strong. I’m always impressed when Oronte is well-classed and Simeon Esper showed a light, airy tenor that showed no strain in the florid passages of his arias. Both Angélique Noldus and Sebastian Wartig were solid as Bradamante and Melisso respectively, but I did wont for a bit more characterisation from Noldus.

Without wanting to seem churlish, casting choirboy Elias Madler as Oberto probably has more to do with a directorial whim that musical intent.. Of course he had the notes, just, but through no fault of his own wasn’t best able the convey the emotion – fury or otherwise – of the music.

Christopher Moulds led a confident ensemble who seemed to relish this music more than that of the previous night. His choice of tempi was well-judged, allowing the music to breathe, his support of the singers was sympathetic and stylistically it was very rewarding.

As I said earlier, the production was – at the start – well-considered and designed. The moving set chimed well with the idea of a constantly shifting world created by Alcina to unsettle her victims. Personally there seemed to be a quiet nod to the 1980s in terms not only of the costumes but a latent idea of greedy, self-satisfied businessmen being undone by their own greed and being driven insane by a desire for the unattainable Alcina. I’m not sure the be-jeaned Bradamante quite fitted into this narrative – why was she dressed so plainly? A more suitable disguise, perhaps as a business man, would have worked as well.

Visually the most affecting scene was Si, son quella when Ruggiero was confronted by an ‘older’ Alcina. The poignancy of this scene was felt throughout the audience.

So when it was going so well, why did Gloger then go and ruin it?

The final scene which should be the defeat of Alcina and the expected lieto fine was completely re-written. But here, Ruggiero, seemingly unable to choose between the wife and the sorceress, shoots himself in the head. This leaves the cast to quit the stage, the walls to recede and for Alcina to sing – in the wrong place – Mi restano la lagrime against the backdrop of her own possessions.

It was a barbaric act. Vandalism, pure and simple – the director’s vanity at play, ignoring the original ending because he feels that he has something more ‘interesting’ to say.

I’m all for modern productions, but surely a director should remain true to the original? It’s like cutting the final ensemble in Don Giovanni. And what next? Figaro unmarried? Fidelio unsaved? Carmen raising three kids in a suburban neighbourhood?

It simply smacked of conceit, an attempt to demonstrate he was cleverer than anyone else. This single thoughtless concept ruined what had been, until that moment, a strong and insightful production teamed with some great music making.

EN … Oh.

In Classical Music, Opera on March 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

Most people who visit the opera expect to see the drama unfold on stage. Yet English National Opera more consistently creates more interesting drama off-stage than it does for the paying public.

Just when you thought the company and its management might get at least a short period of respite having averted a strike by the chorus, ENO has now lost its Music Director.

It’s an organisation be-devilled by constant crises. Not since Handel’s day, I reckon, has an opera company been more threatened with bankruptcy, failing box office receipts as well as back stage and corridor shenanigans and bad behaviour.

Personally, I think it’s unfair to completely and wholly blame the most recent management teams for the current crisis. There has been financial insecurity at ENO since the so-called ‘powerhouse’ years. There’s no denying that some great and memorable productions were created in that period. But at the same time, the cavalier fashion in which they wielded the finances is at the root of ENO’s current malaise. And if I am honest, it’s a bit disingenuous for those people associated with that period to come out now and be critical of recent attempts to secure a more stable footing.

But it is rather like bemoaning spilt milk. Whether you call it financial naïveté, ignorance or bad decision making over the years,, the result has been a company often forced to accept short-term respite over long-term security. Desperate times always result in desperate reactions and such has been, and remains the case, at the London Coliseum. Indeed occupying the building itself seemed more foolhardy at the time than a wise and calculated decision. Accepting bail-outs from Arts Council England – more about them later – was all well and good, but rather than stabilise the company properly, the money was over-spent on over ambitious plans that couldn’t hope to realise the consistently high box office return required from every single production.

Granted some management choices are questionable – the appointment of Sean Doran and Oleg Caetani for example. Both appointments took longer than they should and ultimately Doran left the company prematurely and Caetani never actually stepped through the door. But I will say that in aftermath of Doran’s departure, the board did the right and proper thing. Yes, they appointed without a proper selection process, but it could be the one and only time that the board acted decisively and with the future of the company first and foremost in their minds.

It created stability for a period. Stability that ENO hadn’t enjoyed in quite a while. However, that temporary stability came to an abrupt end with the departure of Loretta Tomasi. She might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but she was an able, tough yet fair administrator who kept a tight rein in the company’s finances. The company’s error was not to replace her and to allow John Berry – undoubtedly creative but not a man for whom details matter – complete sinecure at St Martin’s Lane.

It’s also too easy the blame the board. It’s unfair to think that they are just a bunch of rich old men and women who convene once a month and criticise management. I won’t say they’re behaviour hasn’t at times seemed churlish, and sometimes they overstepped their duties, but you cannot fault their commitment and passion for both the company and the art form itself. And let’s not forget their own financial contributions in times of need.

Yet I do feel that their recent appointment at a senior level within the company smacks of the “better do something quick” rather than a thought-out plan. I’m sure Cressida Pollock is very able in some environments. I’m just not sure this is one of them. Now confirmed in her tenure, it seems that Pollock seems unwilling or incapable of owning a decision, as the recent conflagration with the chorus shows. Reading the coverage and her own blog – clearly not one media outlet was willing to print her authored piece or was not asked – there is not only a lack of understanding of what ENO stands for.

She seems to have found some more money with regards to the chorus but one has to wonder if this is another reaction rather than a strategic decision. Whether the package helps or hinders is yet to be seen. There will be costs associated with helping the chorus find ‘summer work’ for a workforce already spread thin.

And what of Mark Wigglesworth and his decision to quit a job after just seven months? Surely he knew what he was getting into or did he naively not ask the right questions in his interview? And did no one at St Martin’s Lane take note when he wrote “Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike – would damage it irreparably”? Did the ENO’s press office not read the draft?

Whatever happens next at ENO, Wigglesworth must accept a share of the reaction for the decision he has made this week.

So, Arts Council England? In turns cast as Mosostratos, Scarpia and Iago. It’s fair to say that no brave decision has ever been made by ACE with regards to ENO. Rather a series of random acts of little coherence. Even Henley’s weak-penned apologia seemed more aimed at the Treasury and Spending Review than in the interests of the company or ‘Culture UK’.

So, what is left to come? And what denouement would either be a fitting tragedy or lieto fine for the audience to witness?

What about total closure? Is it really that unpalatable? London has another opera house and also plays host to other UK opera companies as well as companies from overseas. And, in this multi-cultural, multi-platform, variegated ‘Google-translate’ world we live in, do we really need to hear opera performed in English. Lilian Bayliss’ mission had a purpose when the company was originally founded, but does it have that same purpose today? With soaring ticket prices, ENO can hardly still be seen as providing ‘opera for everyone’ and the released funding could be distributed to other non central London-based opera companies.

But if not closure, then what about a reduced company? Rescued in size and scale but not quality or ambition. A company that finally accepts it must leave the Coliseum to the lions at ACE and seek a home – transient, seasonal but definitely smaller – elsewhere – even occasionally outside London. This could take more than a few years and tears to realise, and will result in short and potentially medium-term hardship. However, a transformed company could emerge triumphant with renewed purpose and an identity still true to its origins but firmly focused on the audience, and potentially more attractive to sponsors and philanthropists with a more sustainable economic model.

Or do we just leave ENO as it is? Stumbling along creatively and artistically. Lurching from one month and year end to the next. Reacting rather than acting. Slowly fading away until it is a company of no consequence. Ultimately a burden, by when the decision will be inevitable.

Surely, as a management consultant, Ms Pollock must consider even the most radical ideas even if this means her footnote in the history of St Martin’s Lane is more Queen of the Night than Tannhauser’s Elizabeth.

Personally not having ENO in my own future would be a disaster. Yes, I don’t like everything they do. Or say. This government is doing it’s damnedest to snuff out culture one candle at a time and while that is not acceptable is it acceptable to spend public money in this way?

But perhaps it is time to ask the last person out the turn off the lights.

 

Fail Caesar

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on March 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

 

Review – Giulio Cesare (Semper Oper, Dresden. Friday 18 March 2016)

Giulio Cesare – David Hansen
Cleopatra – Elena Gorshunova
Tolomeo – Matthew Shaw
Cornelia – Tichina Vaughn
Sesto – Jana Kurucová
Achilla – Evan Hughes
Nireno – Yosemeh Adjei

Director – Jens-Daniel Herzog
Dramaturg – Stefan Ulrich
Staging & Costumes – Mathis Neidhardt
Choreography – Ramses Sigli
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Sāchsische Staatsopernchore
Sāchsische Staatskapelle Dresden

Alessandro De Marchi (Conductor)

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of his more sophisticated operas in terms of the characters he brings to life and therefore notoriously difficult. It does have a simpler storyline than most but the characterisation woven into the music is such that it’s not difficult to understand why it can be a hit or miss affair. Just consider the contrasting success of Glyndebourne’s production versus ENO’s travesty.

Semper Oper’s production, first performed in 2009, had a few flashes of inspiration, but ultimately failed to convince. And in doing so, it failed its cast and in particular David Hansen who was making his debut in Dresden. This was the first time that a countertenor had performed the lead role and he should have been served with a better production and direction.

I’ve long been an admirer of Hansen. In the increasingly crowded countertenor world, he has a stratospheric, bright and flexible voice with a distinct timbre that, like Iestyn Davies, sets him apart. It was an impressive debut. Clearly there is work still to do and I hope that he will perform the role again and again because Hansen’s interpretation could become a defining Caesar. Handel wrote some of his greatest music for this role and Hansen acquitted himself well although I wish he’d deployed more of his bright, ringing top in the da capos. A highlight was Se in fiorito ameno prato and it was an inspired touch to have the obbligato violinist on the stage. Seeing the two performers sparring created one of the few dramatic and joyous moments of the evening.

His Cleopatra, Elena Gorshunova possesses an impressive instrument. It’s full-throated, has a pleasant weight and depth to it, a pleasant vibrato and is certainly agile. She successfully managed the vocal demands of the score, finding the agilità demanded of Non disperar, Tutto puó donna vezzoso and Da tempeste as well as a beautifully sustained line and added vocal light and dark for V’adoro pupille and Piangeró. However, whereas Hansen and some of the others managed their da capo ornamentation with both intelligence and grace, Gorshunova’s embellishments were too unstylistic in most cases and so ambitious that they strained the voice, b,urged the vocal line and led to intonation problems.

As Sesto, Jana Kurucová was a pure joy to listen to and whether it was deliberate or not, she captured the gauche quality of a teenage boy. In the dramatic arc of her interpretation, Kurucová successful portrayed Sesto’s transition from awkward boy to young man with Cara speme one of the highlights of the evening.

Sadly as his mother, Tichina Vaughn did nothing but disappoint but it’s not the first time that I’ve heard a miscast Cornelia. Are people so thrown by the seemingly simple music and misunderstand what Handel was conveying to the audience? Cornelia is a Roman matron, dignified yet destroyed and desperate, and her music reflects this. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than her first aria, Priva son d’ ogni conforto. Laden with pathos, the simple vocal line is incredibly exposed and requires a singer with magnificent technique and interpretive ability. All her arias – beguilingly simple yet notoriously difficult – require it. Sadly, Vaughn severely lacked the qualities and the technique for the role. I see she is scheduled to perform Klytemnestra in a new production of Salome this Autumn in Dresden. It’s difficult to see her in this role.

Of the remaining cast, Matthew Shaw’s Tolomeo and the Achilla of Evan Hughes passed muster without being exceptional.

De Marchi directed the orchestra briskly throughout, and at times too briskly although he did find a range of co,ours in the score although I’m not sure a harp featured in the original score. However he criminally marred one of the highlights of the entire opera – Son nata a lagrimar – by taking it at a gallop, although you have to wonder if that was for Vaughn’s benefit.

The production itself fell into the easy and obvious option of an eastern Mediterranean – probably Turkish – setting. Maybe it was just me, but there was also something slightly disturbing in the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Eastern’ characters. The staging was smart, with the café setting in Act Two well done but it was undone by details such as Tolomeo’s cruelty – overdone and unsubtle – and the banality of the choreography.

Ultimately this Giulio Cesare was a disappointing production that let down Handel and Hansen and which resulted in the ‘politest’ audience reaction I’ve ever witnessed at the Semper.

The beauty and emotional impact of Handel’s music, Hansen’s baroque credentials and the audience deserved better.

Much better.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Deceptively Simple.

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on March 6, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (BWV 185)
Nur jedem das Seine (BWV 163)
Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132)

Bach composed three more cantatas in 1715 and they continue in the same modest vein as O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad written in June of that year.

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (Compassionate heart of eternal love), first performed in July 1715 (and revised in 1723) opens directly with a lilting duet for soprano and tenor with obbligato trumpet that pre-empts the closing chorale melody. There is something in Bach’s handling of the melodic line, the use of trills – particularly around ewigen Liebe – that if not erotic, comes pretty damn close. Following an recitative/arioso, the aria for alto with oboe obbligato is a beautifully crafted and stately movement and begins to demonstrate Bach’s increasing skill in elongating his melodic line. Another recitative leads into a rather earnest – almost finger-wagging – aria for bass and unison strings and in many ways with a few amendments wouldn’t be out of place on the operatic stage. A chorale ends a cantata, which despite its almost perfunctory nature, contains some beautiful music.

Not until December did Bach compose Nur jedem das Seine (Only to each his own), which although it seems even simpler – almost chamber in style – to the preceding cantata, contains some surprising experimentation by Bach.

The opening aria for tenor, motivic in structure is again almost perfunctory in its nature but the following bass aria – Laß mein Herze gerne geben (Let my heart be the coin) seems sonically richer despite even smaller forces because Bach only employs the lower strings with some energetic writing for the cellos. But it is the recitative that follows that might have had people sitting up in the pews – a recitative for soprano and alto. Or rather an arioso, with a rather ethereal quality which fits the words – Ich woltte dir, o Gott, das Herze gerne geben (I would gladly, O God, give you my heart). Bach might have been a Lutheran by faith, but as early as 1715 he was a dramatist at heart. No onle sitting in the church would have been in any doubt about the sincerity of the text at this point, which leads in to a duet proper where the strings intone a chorale melody below the florid, joyful vocal lines.

The final cantata of the year, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132) was first performed just before Christmas and despite its small forces, has a breadth and joyousness that would have had feet tapping and heads nodding in time to the music.

The opening aria for soprano and oboe obbligato is almost concertante – If not secular – in style with singer and instrumentalist trading florid melodic lines which captures at its heart the message Messias kömmt an! (The Messiah is coming). The recitative for tenor that follows contains some imitative and arioso writing for both soloist and continuo. More finger wagging follows in Wer Bist Du? (Who are you?) for bass with lively continuo writing. A more contemplative mood pervades the recitative Ich will, mein Gott, dir frei heraus bekennen (I would freely confess to you, my God) that emotionally follows neatly from the previous aria. The final aria before the closing chorale is notable once again for a florid instrumental obbligato, this time for violin, which weaves itself around the alto’s vocal line.

Despite the apparent simplicity of these final cantatas of 1715, It’s worth remembering one things. In these years at Weimar, Bach had at his disposal some accomplished instrumentalists and it seems that he recognised that they could be usefully and effectively deployed both in church and chamber.

Not So Polish-ed

In Classical Music, Review on March 6, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Review – Tchaikovsky, Zemlinsky & Szymanowski (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 5 March 2016)

Symphony No. 3 “Polish” (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)
Six Maeterlinck Lieder (Alexander von Zemlinsky)
Stabat Mater (Karol Szymanowski)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Elzbieta Szmytka (Soprano)
Andrzej Dobber (Bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic

Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

A concert in part to celebrate the 1050th anniversary of the Baptism of Poland was somewhat of a schizophrenic affair.

There is a quasi-correct connection between Tchaikovsky’s mis-named “Polish” Symphony No. 3 and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater commissioned by the rather racy Princesse de Polignac. However I couldn’t find a direct connection with Zemlinsky except the fact that Louise Zemlinsky’s mother died in a concentration camp in Poland. But I think that is a coincidental connection rather than a deliberate one.

Apart from historical schizophrenia, it was also a schizophrenic event in terms of the overall musical performance. As I’ve commented previously, Jurowski can coax magnificent playing from his orchestra but he often shows little sympathy for singers that made for an almost missed opportunity with regards to Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder.

We simply don’t hear Anne Sofie von Otter in London often enough and last time it was in the ill-thought out The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She is an incredible and intelligent performer and she brought the whole of her musical experience and insight into the performance of these six songs. Poor Zemlinsky, he lost out to Mahler in more ways that one both as conductor, composer and lover but these songs are under-rated. Ms von Otter brought each song to life through a clear love and understanding of the texts. Never has Und ich sah den Tod, der ewartetihn auch (and I saw Death waiting for him as well) been so perfectly placed word for word and the opening of the fifth song, Und kerht er einst heim sounded both so wistful and yet full of forlorn hope. And again she drove the text forward to the final tragic words.

Yet while Ms von Otter shared a wealth of experience and a surge of emotion to each song with the audience, Jurowski’s support was almost perfunctory and at times, overwhelmed the singer. Zemlinsky’s orchestration creates a very particular sound world and we only caught occasional glimpses of it.

Anyone fortunate enough to see Król Roger at Covent Garden will recognize the heady, almost opiate-laden palette that Szymanowski uses and his Stabat Mater is not exception. What stood out most from this performance was the quality of the choral singing – impressive, clear and impassioned. The trio of soloists was a mixed bag. At first, I thought that Jurowski might have asked the singers to dispense with vibrato because of the almost Choirboy-ish timbre and delivery of soprano Elzbieta Szmytka. However this was dispelled by Ms von Otter own impassioned delivery of the Polish text. Personally and thinking back to Georgia Jarman, I would have preferred a soprano with more depth and richness for this vocal line. The third soloist. Andrzej Dobber had a resonant if slightly indistinct bass and seemed most subsumed by Jurowski’s conducting.

The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony – erroneously labeled the “Polish” symphony. It always feels like the ‘middle child’ of the composer’s six symphonies (seven if you include Manfred). It follows the creative freshness of the firs two symphonies, and while it teases at the last three in the set, this five movement work always feels more academic experiment than symphony. Personally, anyway.

It was well-performed, with Jurowski revealing much of the inner detail, however it didn’t seem to hang together coherently. But ultimately this has more to do with the symphony itself that the excellent playing of the London Philharmonic and in particularly some of the individual players and in particular the first bassoonist.

I’m not sure that the evening warranted a standing ovation from some parts of the Festival Hall (I think there was some partisanship going on) and I continue to hope that Jurowski will find a more sympathetic approach when he next performs with any singers.

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