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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.

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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.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Cantata Psychology

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on August 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)

There is some debate about Bach’s first cantata for 1715 – Alles, was von Gott reborn (BWV 80a). Some of the music is lost and Bach later expanded it into Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in 1730. Therefore I shall return to it when – and hopefully not if – I reach that decade.

Therefore the first extant cantata of the year is Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) for April 1716 and Easter. Despite the innocently sounding Sonata title for the first movement, it is anything but a quiet affair. Opening with timpani and trumpets but scored for an orchestra including oboes and strings and including some delightful interplay with the trumpets, its moto perpetuo rhythmic drive must have had them literally tapping their feet, if not wishing they could dance down the aisle of the church. The first chorus, Der Himmel lacht! continues the joyousness of the opening movement and yet Bach conveys a sense of frantic, almost raucous, joy as the chorus sing of rejoicing and laughter. But this is suddenly and dramatically cut short at Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen (He who chose the grave for rest) before an earnest canonic section brings the movement to a close.

Following a recitative for the tenor, the first aria s in contrast to the opening movements, is written for bass and continuo only but remains a intensely rhythmically driven both in the vocal line and the continuo. The tenor returns for the second recitative and the second aria accompanied by strings only. The final aria, preceded by a recitative for the soprano, features an oboe obbligato. There is an almost pastoral feeling to Letzte Sunde, brich herein (Last hour, break forth) which is only tempered by the interjection of the strings with the chorale melody Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.

Here is an example of what I will be calling Bach’s “Cantata psychology”. The aria, on the surface, urges the congregation to prepare for Jesus’ “gleam of joy”, and as they sat there listening to the first time to this beautifully crafted aria, they would have been surprised to hear the melody of a hymn they would have known well from singing in the church as well as at home – If the hour of my death is at hand. Bach, himself an incredibly religious man by all accounts, would have realized the power of music to remind the congregation of their own – and his – mortality. And Bach reinforced this message in the closing chorale by using the same melody.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bach had a clear intention in mind when writing this cantata. It was to celebrate Easter and the glory of God, but to remind the congregation – and himself –that no matter how great their rejoicing should be, ultimately they should remember their mortality.

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, (BWV 165) – first performed in June 1715 – is much more modest both in terms of the forces Bach employed by also scale. The first movement for soprano – no introductory instrumental piece – with its weaving counterpoint in the strings and the melismatc vocal line convey the flowing water of the text. An aria for alto, post a simple recitative for bass, is scored for continuo only. The compound time signature reinforces the sense of quiet confidence of the text, of a belief in Jesus’ love for the celebrant. The succeeding recitative, scored for strings and arioso in nature leads into an aria for tenor with unison strings. I can’t help but think that the moto perpetuo of this movement – so different from the opening movement of the preceding cantata – refers to the Heilschläglein of the text before bringing the cantata to an end with a simple chorale.

Despite being very different in structure and nature, in these two cantatas we continue to see Bach flexing his musical and thelogical muscle, increasingly finding ways to bring his congregation closer to God – through both grandeur and contemplation – through his music.

(Vibrato)

In Baroque, BBC Proms, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on August 2, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Review – Partitas & Sonatas for Violin (BBC Proms, Friday 31 August & Saturday 1 August 2015)

Alina Ibragimova (Violin)

Vibrato or not? It’s a debate that has been going on since the authentic performance movement began and continues to be discussed – thankfully in a civilized manner – as well as to inform performance. Indeed, Roger Norrington, an early exponent of authentic performance has performed Mahler without vibrato. Leopold Mozart condemned it, yet Martin Agricola was writing about its ability help convey emotion in the 1520s.

It was also interesting on the first night of this two-event recital to hear that this was the first time that the BBC had programmed the solo violin partitas and sonatas in their entirety at the Proms, and that they had not already done so at Cadogan Hall. These performances also form part of a triptych with solo recitals by András Schiff and Yo-Yo Ma later in the season.

Any reservations that Alina Ibragimova might be swamped in such a gargantuan space were immediately dispelled with the first flourish of the first Partita in g minor. And despite standing right at the front of the stage, Ms Ibragimova created an immediate sense of hushed intimacy on both evenings.

The sound she produced was of the purist clarity and enabled the multiple voices written into Bach’s music – and beautifully weighted and balanced in every movement – to be clearly heard. For example in the second movement Fuga of the g minor partita, the opening movement of the C Major Partita or the simply glorious Andante from the Partita in a minor. Personally speaking, this is one of the most sublime movements written by Bach.

A momentary lapse in the Partita in d minor on the second evening resulted in a compelling – almost driven – performance of the entire work with performance of the closing Ciaconna of incredibly intensity.

But Ms Ibragimova also demonstrated incredible virtuosity. The vivacity and aplomb of the opening E Major Partita – which he later transcribed for organ and orchestra – and the closing of the A minor with its echo motif for example.

Personally, I am ‘pro vibrato’. The added dimension it gives to music – especially works such as these – even when doled out in the smallest amounts can invest the music with added emotional intensity. There is no denying Alina Ibragimova’s virtuosity, musicianship and clear love for these works have ensured that the ambition to perform the sonatas and partitas will be memorable. And yet, as I listened to her performances – and thought of those performances I own which I truly cherish such as those of Isabelle Faust, Elizabeth Wallfisch and Arthur Grumiaux – I have to admit that I wonted for even the smallest hint or suggestion of vibrato.

Countertenorism – Nessuno suona la stesso?

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 24, 2015 at 10:45 am

Review – The Five Countertenors (Valer Sabadus, Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic, Yuri Mynenko & Vince Yi; Armonia Atenea & George Petrou)

It was inevitable that at some point an album such as this would appear – perhaps the marketing people thought it might do for countertenors what the Three Tenors did back in July 1990? It might not be the worst album cover, but it simply doesn’t do justice to the level of musicianship on this new recital album.

Rather than Nessun dorma of the three tenors, perhaps this album should be Nessuno suona la stesso, because what strikes me immediately is the broad range of voices in terms of range and distinctive tmibres of the performers.

And what is equally refreshing is that rather than a list of common-hackney’d arias, there’s music by Jomelli, JC Bach (hopefully is star will become increasingly in the ascendant), Mysliviček, Galuppi and Bertoni alongside Handel and Popora and Gluck.

Personally, the performances by Valer Sabadus are at the top of my list. Both the arias he performs here – by Jomelli and Gluck – were written for the same castrato, Felice Salimbeni and the demonstrate not only Sabadus’ technical virtuosity and his ability to deliver a beautifully sustained vocal line but also the warmth and depth of his voice. Jomelli’s Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio is a typical simile aria and perhaps also evidence of Jomelli’s more pioneering spirit in that the second section of the aria is simply an extension – but not a strict development – of opening material.

Non so frenare il pianto from Gluck’s Demetrio is more “pathetic” in mood. The composer fully deploys dissonance and rhythmic motifs to portray the grief and tears of the protagonist, above which Sabadus spins out the vocal line. The contrasting and faster mid-section remains in the minor key and only helps in reinforcing the tragedy befalling Demetrio before Sabadus’ ornamentation in the returning da capo ensures that this is one of the highlights of the entire disc.

Xavier Sabata more ‘earthy’ timbre is perfectly suited to O di spietati numi più spietato ministro! …Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima from Popora’s Ifigenia , written for Senesino in London in direct competition with Handel. After a suitably dramatic accompagnato, the defiance of Tu, spietato with its combination of declamation, coloratura and unison passages is wonderfully depicted by Sabata. If you’ve heard Sabata in the latest recording of Tamerlano and his own recital disc of villains, then you will now Sabata is a Handelian par excellence. Otton, Otton, qual portentoso fulmine è questi? … Voi che udite il mio lamento is remarkable, considering Agrippina was one of Handel’s first operas, for the confidence of the writing and its emotional weight. The aria is an excellent example of Handel’s innate ability of portraying the protagonist’s emotional and psychological state of mind.

Max Emanuel Cencic gives us Galuppi and Bertoni. From Galuppi’s Penelope and performed in London he sings Telemacco’s aria A questa bianca mano, a well-crafted aria set apart by its somewhat memorable rhythmic accompaniment and scoring for oboe. If Addio, o miei sospire from Bertoni’s Tancredi sounds somewhat familiar then it’s because it is often accredited to Gluck and inserted in Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s a jolly aria and performed with panache – coloratura and all – by Cencic.

The final two countertenors of the quintet are unknown to me. Yuri Mynenko has a very pleasing timbre and zips through Handel’s Crude furie degl’ orridi abissi before delivering a very accomplished performance of Ch’io parta from JC Bach’s Temistocle. Its alternating passages underline how in 1772 the composer was experimenting with more traditional aria formats, and it’s also easy to hear the influence that Bach’s son had on a young Mozart and why the latter held him in such high esteem.

While listening to this disc with a friend, he referred to Vince Yi as a ‘male sopraniste’ rather than a countertenor. It’s a term I have heard in the past but not quite sure in what context. Yi effortlessly throws off the coloratura in Mysliviček’s Ti parli in seno amore and sails through Ah, non è ver, ben mio from Hasse’s Piramo e Tisbe but there is no denying that Yi has a very distinct timbre. It offers the same flexibility and agility but with its more reed-like tone, doesn’t offer the same depth and colour. However it just demonstrates the range of ‘types’ when it comes to countertenors and he is – without doubt and like his companions on the disc – a performer of musical intelligence.

Underpinning each performance is some superlative playing by Armonia Atenea, directed by George Petrou. This ensemble produce a rich and intense sound, full of rhythmic vitality and for once I admit I wish that perhaps a few overtures had been thrown into the recital so that we could hear the ensemble in their own right.

This is not only a refreshing album, but an album brimming with excellent – and individually distinctive – performances, full of vigour and a clear passion for the music itself.

Perhaps these six will perform at the opening ceremony in Russia in 2018?

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Three) – Three Part Invention

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on April 29, 2015 at 6:46 pm

After all this time we remain, I am afraid, both 1714 and in Weimar but with three cantatas that underline Bach’s enduring inventiveness.

And we start with a joyous cantata, that in many ways presages his later – and some would say – grander works.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (BWV 172) (Resound, you songs; ring out, you strings!) was written in May as part of his original contact when joining Weimar. It opens with a jubilant chorus complete with trumpets and timpani in celebration of the seligste Zeiten – blessed times – and is, in miniature, the kind of opening chorus that most people associate with Bach’s cantatas. Think, if you will permit, a shorthand version of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. Following a short recitative, the subsequent bass aria, Heilige Dreieinigkeit (Most Holy Trinity) continues this celebratory tone with its unusual scoring for trumpets and continuo only. Without another recitative, the mood becomes more contemplative in O Seelenparadies for tenor and unison strings. The simplicity of this aria is further heightened by the sense of moto perpetuo in the strings by which Bach creates the sense of God’s Spirit literally wafting through – Gottes Gesit durchwehet – with some further word painting in the second section at Auf, auf, bereite dich (Rise up, get ready). Before the final chorale, Bach writes a duet but it is effectively a quartet for soprano, alto with oboe d’amore obbligato and elaborate continuo line. The vocal and solo instrumental lines intertwine in what can only be described as an almost sensual rapture as the soprano beseeches the Holy Spirit to “waft” through her heart, with the said Spirit responding with “Ich enquicke dich, mein Kind” (I will refresh you, my child).

Reading up on this cantata, it seems that it was particularly loved by Bach – he revised it for Leipzig, making careful and suitable alterations on at least four different occasions. With its change of mood so effectively negotiated, and the contrast of the jubilant opening movement and the sensuousness of the duet, this cantata is a real gem.

With Advent being the start of the liturgical year, the opening chorus of Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) couldn’t be anything but “mighty”. And that is exactly what Bach gives us – a grand chorus in the style of a French overture. I can’t – at the moment – think of another example in his cantatas, and considering that he only employs strings and no wind, trumpets or timpani, the effect is overwhelmingly sonorous and grand. The fugue at Des Sich wundert alle Welt quite literally gives the sense of the whole world marveling.

There follows a recitative and aria for tenor. The recitative ends with some delicate arioso writing which is reflected in the aria’s gentle, dance-like gait. But it is the subsequent recitative for bass that would have had the congregation sitting up in their seats. While only ten bars in length, this is the crux of the cantata – Jesus himself knocking on the door of the penitent. And Bach underlines the significance of this with the use of pizzicato strings to underline the word klopfe. Simply but incredibly emotive. The final aria, for soprano and continuo only is again deceiving in its simplicity. Bach unwinds a beautifully expansive vocal line. And the cantata ends as grandly as it began, with an exuberant chorus

In complete contrast is the more intimate Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) originally performed on December 30 1714 and therefore Bach’s last cantata of the year. However, with its use of recorder and oboe, it some ways it feels in some ways richer and opens with a two-part sinfonia, the second part being a fugue. The oboe provides the obbligato for the first aria for bass, and its easy to hear in the scales of both the instrument and soloist the path of faith (Glaubensbahn).

In the next recitative, Bach again employs arioso, before a more contemplative aria for soprano with recorder and viola d’amore obbligato. Despite its brevity, the interplay between the vocal line and two instruments makes this aria remarkable. A perfunctory recitative leads into a closing duet for soprano and bass – Jesus and the Soul – with the ritornello in the orchestra contrasting with the imitative writing in the vocal lines.

By the end of his first year in Weimar, it must have been evident to the people of the town that in Bach they had a exceedingly creative and inventive Konzertmeister.

By Giove

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 30, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Review – Giove in Argo (London Handel Festival, Britten Theatre, Thursday 26 March 2015)

Liacone – Timothy Connor
Diana – He Wu
Iside – Kezia Bienek
Arete – Gyula Rab
Calisto – Galina Averna
Erasto/Osiri – Timothy Nelson
Chorus – Tara Austin, Katie Coventry, James Davies, Sarah Hayashi, Catriona Hewitson, Polly Leech, Julian van Mellaerts & Joel Williams

Director – James Bonas
Designer – Molly Einchcomb
Lighting Designer – Rob Casey
Choreographer – Ewan Jones

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

It’s refreshing that you don’t have to rely on Covent Garden or English National Opera for performances of Handel operas, especially when they are performed with a consistency both of singing and staging that would put some productions at the bigger houses to shame.

Giove in Argo was written – or rather pulled together – during the final throes of Handel’s operatic career in London and his burgeoning move into English oratorio. None of the arias was newly composed for Giove, but rather lifted from other operas but even the richness of the arias themselves could stop Giove ultimately being a failure.

A shame as – despite its provenance – it’s a compelling opera especially when performed and staged so excellently by the London Handel Festival.

I saw the ‘second’ cast on the final night and overall the quality of their singing and interpretation was of a very high standard. Gyula Rab, in his final year at the Royal College of Music, definitely has a promising career ahead of him. His Arete – Giove in disguise – was both well-sung and acted. His tenor might be slightly heavier than you would expect in Handel but the warmth and depth of his tone – beautifully evident in Deh! V’aprite, O luci belle – was coupled with both impressive range and a vocal flexibility that made light work of Semplicetto! A donna credi? and Sempre dolci ed amorose. However, I would caution that like the rest of the cast, his returning da capos showed a lack of restraint in their often over ambitious ornamentation.

As Iside, the first of his two amours, Kezie Bienek is also destined for a promising career, with a mezzo that is burnished and darkly hued but with an impressive top and an agility that suits this music well. Her ‘mad scene’ was smartly tempered and shaded and also demonstrated that she is an accomplished actress. As her spouse, Timothy Nelson’s Erasto was equally impressive. Sporting a resonant and rich bass, he made much of what was – admittedly – not great Handel.

Galina Averina reveled in the role of Calisto. Her bright soprano made light work of the quicker numbers such as Lascia la spina and Combattuta da più venti and a very respectable Tornami a vagheggiar. But it was in the her slower numbers, Già sai che l’usignol cantando geme and in particular Ah! Non son io che parlo that she married it with a depth and weight that made the latter aria the highlight of the evening. And finally, having admired He Wu’s Queen of the Night previously at the RCM, I have to admit I was disappointed with her Diana. A distracting vibrato distracted in Handel’s glorious Ingannarmi, cara speranza and wayward intonation and troubled coloratura marred In braccio al tuo spavento.

Giove in Argo is unusual in having more than the usual number of choruses, but this production was blessed with a chorus that not only sang wonderfully but fully embraced their parts and acted wonderfully as well. From their opening chorus, through the cleverly directed Viver, e non amar to the sonorous S’unisce al tuo martir, these eight singers were an object lesson in clear, handsomely articulated singing.

James Bonas’ Argo might not have been an Arcadian paradise but this was a well-thought out and cleverly observed production, which must be commended for creating a convincing setting with minimal materials. His was a world, in many ways of both violence and brutality. The ‘trees’ of metal scaffolding, as well as affording the singers and chorus with ample climbing opportunities, underlined this harsh world as did the Samurai-inspired themed costumes for both chorus and Diana. Indeed, in many ways, Bonas’ approach reminded me of McVicar’s Clemenza di Tito for ENO many years ago. I noticed in the programme that he will be directing ETO’s Tales of Hoffman and I will be interested to see what his vision is for Offenbach’s opera.

The London Handel Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings were, as ever, brilliant. From the opening notes of the overture to the final chorus, Cummings led singers and orchestra with authority that made me wish that more complete and staged operas could be offered during this exceptional festival.

Seme(le)freddo

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 13, 2015 at 9:02 am

Review – Semele (London Handel Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 10 March 2015)

Semele – Anna Devin
Athamas – Robin Blaze
Cadmus – George Humphreys
Ino – Ewa Gubanska
Jupiter (and Apollo) – Rupert Charlesworth
Juno – Louise Innes
Iris – Maria Valdmaa

London Handel Singers
London Handel Orchestra

Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

I admit that Semele is one of Handel’s more curious works, but one rich in invention.

And this performance of Semele was an auspicious start to the London Handel Festival this year. I’ve always enjoyed this festival and realised as I sat down in the QEH, that I had missed last year’s festival completely. Fortunately, this year I am definitely seeing Giove in Argo and might just squeeze in a few other performances.

The cast overall was incredibly strong, but it did take a while for the individual performances to both settle down and warm up. However I must start with the London Handel Singers. Handel’s choruses in any of his oratorios are integral to the plot, but in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cummings managed to take it to an even higher dramatic level – excellent singing, clarity of line and excellent diction were combined with a rich palette of colours which made each and every chorus magnificent, not least the final chorus, a resounding Happy, Happy shall we be. The last time I heard choral singing of this quality was in ENO Thebans, sadly a production since overshadowed by the latest management fracas on St Martin’s Lane.

Of the soloists I must start with Louise Innes’ excellent Juno. She was alone in bringing a real sense of dramatic characterisation to the stage. Combine this with her rich and at times almost fruity mezzo and hers was a Juno not to be crossed. Both Hence, Iris hence away and Above Measure were delivered with vocal and regal authority combined with elegant ornamentation on both returning da capo sections.

I’ve seen Anna Devin a few times over the last few months, and clearly her star is in the rapid ascendant. But in truth, it took her a while to settle. Her normally bright and splendid soprano was often slightly harsh at the top of her range and her first aria, The morning lark to mine accords his note – a fiendishly difficult aria at the best of times – often slipped from her control. But as this Semele trod the path to her own fiery demise Ms Devin gripped the music more effectively. Both Endless Pleasure and Myself I shall adore – with the flighty coloratura – were delivered with more confidence and authority as was the arioso I am ever granting. However as the evening progressed I did think that perhaps less ambitious ornamentation in the returning da capos may have helped a little. Personally the highlight for me was her liquid and limpid Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me, which she sung with effortless grace and delicacy. However her performance was slightly let down by a lack of dramatic impetus. The bite that she found for I am ever granting was not then translated in her final demise. A lack – on this occasion – of a breadth of vocal colour meant that it limped slightly awkwardly to its end.

As her beau, Rupert Charlesworth was very impressive. His technique came to the fore in arias such as Lay your doubts and fears aside, where even at Cummings’ speeds, he delivered spontaneous and seemingly effortless coloratura. His vocal timbre is perfectly suited to Handel’s music – Where e’er you walk was an object lesson in both technique and interpretation as was Come to my arms, my lovely fair.

Ewa Gubanska’s Ino was slightly hampered by unclear diction but there as no questioning her complete commitment. Turn, hopeless lover, with its cello obbligato spun out so exquisitely by Katherine Sharman, was one of the highlights of the evening and demonstrated why Ms Gubanska won last year’s singing competition. Her lunchtime recital is one I am definitely going to try and make. Maria Valdmaa’s Iris was brightly and elegantly sung and clearly these two artists have promising careers ahead of them in this repertoire.

The Athamas and Camus of Robin Blaze and George Humphreys completed the septet of singers. I have long been an admirer of Blaze – is recording of duets with Carolyn Sampson is excellent and his performance as Katie Mitchell in ENO’s Jephtha many years ago will stay with me for a long time. While his voice may have lost some of its sheen and flexibility, his performance was incredibly strong and accomplished and he made much of music that – admittedly – is a little less than typically inspired for Handel. And George Humphreys wonderfully resonant bass – impressively hued but clear – ensured that his presence was felt both as Cadmus and Somnus.

The London Handel Players performed with both gusto and accuracy – responding to Cummings direction superbly, even at his fastest of tempi – and considering the simplicity of the orchestration, the players uncovered a wealth of colour and dynamic range.

Despite an uncertain start, this Semele shone a light on this not-often performed work that is full of inventiveness with soloists, chorus and orchestra delivering strong performances. And while it was sad to hear of the passing of founder Denys Darlow before the performance started, this was a fitting tribute to the man who has made the London Handel Festival such a success.

Duel Monarchy

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2015 at 10:26 am

Review – Farinelli and the King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Thursday 12 February 2015)

Philippe V – Mark Rylance
Farinelli – Sam Crane & Iestyn Davies
Isabella Farnese – Melody Grove
De la cuadra – Edward Peel
Doctor José Cervi
Mestatasio – Colin Hurley

Musicians – John Crockatt (Violin); Arngeir Hauksson (Lute/Recorder); Jonathan Byers (Cello)

Director – John Dove
Designer – Jonathan Fensom
Choreographer – Siân Williams

Robert Howarth (Musical Director & Harpsichord)
Claire van Kampen (Writer)

The Wanamaker Playhouse is making a name for itself in terms of combining original drama and music. And their latest venture, Farinelli and the King, is a jewel of a production.

Written by Claire van Kampen, and clearly with her husband Mark Rylance in mind, it tells the story of how Farinelli was persuaded to give up the stage and travel to Madrid. At the request of Isabella Farnese, she believed his singing would alleviate Philip V of Spain’s depression.

It’s a perfect story to relate in a venue such as this theatre – van Kampen’s flexible yet direct writing enabled the intimacy of the relationships to shine. In well-crafted and elegant dialogue, the writer managed to convey not only the historical backdrop of contemporary Madrid as well as a Europe on the verge of war, but also the burgeoning belief of the time that music – and particularly opera – had spiritual and medical as well as entertainment value.

Rylance was a brilliant Philip of Spain. It isn’t so much that he skillfully steers from depression and anxiety back to recovery, but even when officially “well” there remained a real sense of human frailty and fear.

And he is right when he observes early on that Farinelli is as much a monarch as he. Not only in the sense of an adoring and loyal public but as well that his life was pre-ordained – for Philip as Louis XIV’s grandson and for Farinelli, from the moment the knife was applied. And as the singer, Sam Crane too captured that human frailty behind the popular mask. Their first meeting, a veritable duel of words and wits – both sharp and threatening – was well-penned by van Kampen.

The remaining cast was strongly cast, led by Melody Grove as the King’s suffering Queen. Her desperation to cure her husband was tangible as was the fear that she felt for her menacing spouse. However, I am not sure that I buy the clinch between castrato and Queen – especially as she eventually had him banished from court. And I particularly liked the grasping nature of Metatastio – again I am not sure it is based on actual reality but it provided a welcome emotional contrast.

But of course I admit that I was there for Iestyn Davies – and he did not disappoint. From the moment he began to sing Porpora’s Alto giove – a favourite aria of mine – he enraptured the audience. Vocally he was completely stunning – with beautifully controlled singing. Not only did he throw off the coloratura of Venti, turbini, prestate with complete authority but he also mesmerised in the slower numbers. Never has Cara sposa sounded so emotionally wrought as it did that evening. I just wish that the programme had listed all the arias.

But the highlight of the evening was the closing scene. Having retired to Italy, it was left to Farinelli to reminisce, and for Iestyn Davies to deliver a haunting and heartrending performance Lascia ch’io pianga that had many of the audience – including myself – in tears.

It was as if truly – as Philip of Spain had desired – that we were listening to the music of the stars.

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