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All Hail, Hallenberg

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on May 28, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Review – Che puro ciel (Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 May 2016)

Ann Hallenberg (Mezzosoprano)
The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Ms Hallenberg has a thrilling bottom.

Don’t get me wrong, she has a most magnificent instrument – her voice gleams at the top, she can deliver the most beautifully sustained singing and her technique, especially in terms of her coloratura, is second to none. And in terms of musical intelligence, this was a masterclass in period performance. Not an embellishment out of place, no extravagant ornamentation in the da capos.

But when she sweeps down to the low notes, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

This recital, with Classical Opera at Wigmore Hall will be one of the most enjoyable and memorable concerts that I will undoubtedly attend this year. If not in a long time. Programme-wise, it was perfectly balanced – a combination of the unknown, the vaguely familiar and the instantly recognizable. But it all sounded so fresh, and so new that it sounded like we were hearing some of the music for the very first time.

Ms Hallenberg’s selections from Gluck – Il trionfo di Clelia, Paride ed Elena, Orfeo ed Euridice and Ezio – showed the full range of Gluck’s prowess and musical development. Opening with the bravura of Resta, o cara complete with messa di voce entry – a common technique to showcase the castrati of the day – Ms Hallenberg’s performance was beautifully poised with the coloratura delivered not as a virtuosity vehicle but wedded to the overall feeling of the aria itself. Similarly, Misero dove son … Ah, non son io che parlo might be better known as a concert aria by Mozart, but Gluck’s aria in the hands of Ms Hallenberg matched it note for note for dramatic intensity. Biting into each note, this performance was a fitting end to the first half. From Gluck’s ‘later’ operas – a sensitively performed O mio dolce amore – one of my favourite arias by Gluck and Che puro ciel. Ms Hallenberg’s performance had the requisite ethereal quality required, her phrasing and diction spot on. It’s a difficult aria – it is really an aria? – to carry off cold but this performance was exquisite. And bravi to the members of the orchestra who provided the chorus.

In the second half, Ms Hallenberg turned to Mozart. Personally I’ve not heard her in this repertoire but I hope that a recital disc is being planned. Ms Hallenberg effortlessly steered from the drama of Che scompiglio, che flagella written by 12-year old Mozart to the more flirtatious Se l’augellin sen fugge however it was the other two arias that were the highlight of the seconda parte if not the entire evening. The confidence and bravado of her Dunque sperar … Il tenero momento from Lucio Silla made for a flawless performance. The coloratura held no terrors for her and indeed her technique gave her ample space to elaborate even further in the da capo. But it was Sesto’s Deh per questo istante solo that personified the incredible talent of this singer. This aria epitomises the new direction that Mozart’s music was moving in just before he died – an even purer ‘classical style’ than he had achieved before. One can only marvel at what direction classical music would have gone in had he lived a while longer. Ms Hallenberg’s opening phrase – which I had forgotten was so exposed – summed up the entire evening – beautifully even and controlled, richly hued and resonant. Each phrase was perfectly placed, with the orchestra – who had played magnificently all evening – finding from somewhere the ability to meld even closer with the singer.

And the Orchestra of Classical Opera was indeed on top form. I’d dare say better than I have heard them in a long time. Their surprise was Kraus’ symphony in c minor. With its rich textures and it seemed copious independent viola writing, it made JC Bach’s g minor symphony beautiful as it is, seem almost like a ‘typical’ Eighteenth Century run-of-the-mill minor key symphony. No mean feat. And while accompanying Ms Hallenberg, clearly someone they love performing alongside, there was a real sense of partnership and enjoyment. So rare to see on the stage these days.

However it was the encore that sealed it for me. My money had been on Che faro – it seemed an obvious choice – but Ms Hallenberg surprised us all with Giordani’s Caro mio ben. The simplicity and innocence of her rendition – avoiding the all-too common pitfall of making this aria sound cloying – surprised everyone. For me, it she sang it as if, somewhere in the back of her mind, it held a particularly importance. It made it all the more special. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

I asked if Classical Opera would be recording this recital. Sadly not.

If it’s a case of economics, I am pretty sure it would be something that many people would more than happily help crowdfund.

Any offers?

 

Brexit Stage Left

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2016 at 4:26 pm

Review – Mitridate, re di Ponto (La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday 15 May 2016)

Mitridate – Michael Spyres
Sifare – Myrtò Papatanasiu
Farnace – David Hansen
Aspasia – Lenneke Ruiten
Ismeme – Simona Šaturová
Arbate – Yves Saelens
Marzio – Sergey Romanovsky

Director and Costumes – Olivier Deloeuil
Lighting – Rick Martin
Video – Jean-Baptiste Beïs

Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie
Christophe Rousset (Conductor)

The most memorable production of Mitridate that I saw was at Covent Garden – an excellent cast in Graham Vick’s Eighteenth Century-inspired beautiful production that returns in 2017. La Monnaie’s production took as its starting point the current “Should I stay, or should I go?” state of European politics. In fact, some of the current posturing by both sides of the argument in the UK wouldn’t look out of place on the stage in general.

Yet this production did feel curiously dated. Perhaps it was the over-reliance on ‘live footage’ and rolling news reports at a time when most politics it seems are won and lost on social media.

However, director Deloeuil did remain faithful to the original drama and invested the singers with some credible characterisation. Making Mitridate an addict of sorts was a smart way to side-step actual poisoning but while there as something in his departure that made me think that he wouldn’t be gone for long it end did lack a suitable dramatic flourish that would have made the production more memorable.

Vocally, the standard of the performances was for the most part incredibly high with three of the performers standing out in particular. Pride of place goes to Simona Šaturová incredibly impressive Ismene. Her bright soprano had a real sense of depth and richness, with a beautiful legato line, impressive and clear coloratura and tasteful embellishments. Her confident stage presence captured the conflicting emotions of Ismene perfectly.

The eloquent delivery of So quanto a te dispiace not only demonstrated her vocal agility but the beauty and evenness of her tone throughout it range. And the nobility of Tu sai per che m’accesse – reminiscent of JC Bach – as one of the highlights of the entire performance, with Ms Saturova not only spinning out the vocal lines with great ease but also demonstrating some tasteful ornamentation.

David Hansen captured Farnace arrogance both musically as well as dramatically. He must be, in Mozart’s early operas, one of the most unlikeable characters. From his first appearance, he strutted across the stage like a spoilt oligarch’s son. Venga pur, minacci – a staple of many a countertenor recital disc – captured this arrogance perfectly, which was then echoed in the dramatic and vocal bravado in Va, l’error mio palesa and Son reo, l’error confesso. Dramatically, his scena in the closing act, Vadasi … Oh ciel … Già dagli occhi with its sumptuous orchestration and the sustained vocal line that unwinds above it, was a perfect vehicle for Hansen’s talents.

Completing the trio, Lenneke Ruiten possesses formidable technique and a bell-like soprano that negotiated the music that Mozart wrote for his original Aspasia with aplomb. Al destin, che la minaccia is an early show-stopper, with Ms Ruiten throwing off the coloratura with incredible ease before showing a more dramatic bent in Nel sen mi palpita and her two scenas, Grazie ai numi partì … Nel grave tormento and Ah ben ne fui presaga!.. Pallid’Ombre. Again the former aria shows a certain indebtedness to the London Bach in terms of its gentle orchestration and vocal line. Ms Ruiten sang it with great control – balancing the emotions of the contrasting sections both vocally and dramatically.

Michael Spyres – who I last saw in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs – bought his imposing tenor to bear as Mitridate. Without a doubt his delivery of the role was as effortless as it was confident – witnessed by an imposing Se di lauri il crine adorno, however his voice sounded at times too heavy for this Mozartian role and I am not sure it was as entirely authentic as it could have been.

Personally, and despite ringing cheers from the audience at the end, Myrtò Papatanasiu was disappointing as Sifare. While she possesses a bright and agile soprano, there were signs of strain and stress that on occasion led to intonation problems, uneven tone and a brittle and harsh edge in her upper register. Lunga di te in particular exposed these fault lines, a fact not helped by the painfully slow tempo that Rousset elected to take.

The orchestra played well under Rousset’s baton but I was surprised at some of the slower-than-expected tempos that he elected to take the music. At times slowing the drama to almost a standstill.

It’s still rare to see Mozart’s earlier operas – or his opera serie at all – which is a shame. While it wasn’t in the same league as Vick’s insightful production, by staying almost true to the original dramatic intent and fielding a strong cast, this production of Mitridate demonstrated that they can be compelling.

 

Jolly Good Jommelli

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 3, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Review – Il Vologeso (Cadogan Hall, Thursday 28 April 2016)

Vologeso – Rachel Kelly
Berenice – Gemma Summerfield
Lucio Vero – Stuart Jackson
Lucilla – Angela Simkin
Flavio – Jennifer France
Aniceto – Tom Verney

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page Conductor)

Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 project continued apace with the first London performance of Niccolo Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

Jommelli will always, I fear, be consigned to the ‘side show Bob’ category of Eighteenth Century opera composers together with composers such as Traetta, JC Bach and Hasse to name a few. It’s not that his music isn’t well-crafted but rather his music was strait-jacketed into the constraints of opera seria. Characters are more unusally ciphers of Enlightened ideals of perfection or imperfection needing to be changed who deliver beautiful and rather arias with formulaic and expected emotions, with the music providing a vehicle to showcase the talents of the celebrated singers of the day. It would take Mozart to explode those constraints with the result that famous in his day, Jommelli and his brethren became consigned to the wings.

For this performance, Ian Page took a red pen to the score, eliding da capo arias as well as excising some of them completely, together with what one imagines to be swathes of recitative. Admittedly it made for a shorter evening but the result felt slightly unbalanced despite the extremely high level of music making underpinned by extremely alert yet sensitive playing the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Gemma Summerfield’s Berenice stood out from a pretty well-chosen and strong cast of singers. She had a bright, gleaming soprano that was very flexible and even throughout her range. Her Act Three scene, Ombra, che pallida fai? was not only heart-achingly sung but demonstrated Jommelli’s skill in writing large-scale tableaux of emotional intensity.

Lucio Vero was finely sung by Stuart Jackson, the Osroa of Classical Opera’s Adriano in Siria last year. Suitably imperious, he negotiated his arias with aplomb although I did wont for a bit more depth and colour in his voice.

Angela Simkins’ Lucilla was sadly hampered by having her head buried in the score for most of the performance. Understandably, Jommelli might not be in everyone’s repertoire but it was more noticeable in Ms Simkins’ case than the other singers. Despite that, her rich mezzo was beautifully suited to the music with her arias Tutti di speme al core and Partirò, se vuoi cosi sounding marvellous.

I did wonder why Classical Opera didn’t find a countertenor to sing the role of Vologeso himself. It is something I also wondered about their Adriano in Siria. It’s not that I have a problem with trouser role performances but surely it simply cannot be because there aren’t any anywhere who could tackle this role? Rachel Kelly delivered an accomplished performance, again Jommelli’s music held no terrors for her, singing Invan minacci with astonishing agility as well as bringing touching beauty to Cara, deh serbami.

As the various attendants Jennifer France and Tom Verney acquitted themselves ably although I would have preferred more bite and a fuller timbre in Verney’s countertenor.

Classical Opera and Ian Page are to be lauded for bringing Il Vologeso to an UK audience. I am not sure that there were many Jommelli converts as a result but it was an enjoyable addition to their ambitious Mozart 250 project.

Elektra-fied

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on May 2, 2016 at 11:15 am

 

Review – Elektra (Metropolitan Opera HD Live Broadcast, Saturday 30 April 2016)

Elektra – Nina Stemme
Chrysothemis – Adrienne Pieczonka
Klytmänestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – Eric Owens
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
Fifth Maid – Roberta Alexander

Director – Patrice Chereau/Vincent Huguet
Set Designer – Richard Peduzzi
Costume Designer – Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting Designer– Dominique Bruguière

Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

It’s rare to get that feeling, when attending an opera or a concert, that you are witnessing greatness. Even rarer to think you are witnessing history. And almost impossible to consider it happening over a live HD broadcast.

The Metropolitan Opera’ s production of Elektra managed all three. Perfectly.

There was literally a musical convergence – an alignment of incredible talent, inspired staging and direction and outstanding music making. And the gravitational force that pulled it all together was Nina Stemme. And she has done this before – at the Proms.

This Elektra undoubtedly establishes her as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos ever. It was a performance of complete commitment and with the close-up afforded by the broadcast, of super-human, searing intensity. Vocally she was superb and compelling, creating emotional shock wave after shock wave, portraying Elektra with a full spectrum of conflicted feelings – revenge, love, hope and despair. Her voice has never sounded better, deploying a full range of colour and dynamics combined with astute musical intelligence in terms of phrasing, articulation and most importantly, a focus on the words.

As her sister, I can think of no better Chrysothemis than Adrienne Pieczonka. Her music is as difficult and formidable as her sister’s. It requires a soprano who can quite literally soar above the orchestra and Ms Pieczonka was vocally resplendent. Her soprano gleamed and shone brightly, but she tempered it brilliantly, shading the music to truly reflect this character’s vulnerability.

Waltraud Meier completed the trio of women of House Atreus. This was not a queen racked by fear and guilt – well not all the time – but one very much in control and unrepentant. It built on her portrayal in Dresden. From her first entrance, striding onto the stage, to the moment when her maid gives her the letter about Orest, Meier created a role that was more even in its emotional spectrum rather than relying on and wallowing in extremity. The humanity of her relationship with Elektra – stroking her hair as if reliving happier times – was especially poignant. Her was also a masterclass in the marriage of music, meaning and diction. Each phrase perfectly placed, every word loaded with emotion.

The men – Orest and Aegisth – were brilliantly supportive of the three women. Owens’ detachment seemed fitting but did mean than vocally he wasn’t as compelling as the Orest of the Tobias Lehrer I recently heard in Berlin.

But the surprise of the production was the Fifth Maid of none other than Roberta Alexander. I did not realise it was Ms Alexander until after the broadcast, but from her very first note it was a performance that made everyone sit up and listen. There was a keenness and precision to her portrayal the likes of which I’ve not witnessed in this role before.

Chereau’s production – first seen in Aix – only made me wish that I had seen it live. It also made me realise, at a time when good directors seem to be lacking, we have lost someone of incredible talent and insight.

This was an Elektra full of humanity and colour – finally an Elektra not deluged in blacks and greys. His attention to detail, not only of each character but how they related to and acted with each other also stood out. How a servant stepped intervened to protect Ms Alexander’s Fifth Maid. How the maids doubled as the Queen’s advisers. The desperate attention Chrysothemis paid to the young man. And at the end, Orest’s departure and Elektra’s retreat into a catatonic state.

Theirs wasn’t a victory but total and utter defeat.

While it’s hard to gauge the orchestra filtered through HD, they undoubtedly were magnificent, not for the lush to harsh sounds they produced as required but for the way they clearly responded to Salonen in the pit. His conducting brought out the very best of the score from its rhythmic vitality to its surging romanticism.

Even thousands of miles away, sitting in the dark, this Elektra was a complete privilege.

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