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Archive for the ‘Baroque’ Category

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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Oimè ! Non parlo Italiano

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

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

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

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

Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why didn’t it work for me?

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

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

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

Silvia: La tua diletta sposa è morta
Orfeo: Oimè

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

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

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

So why The Roundhouse?

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

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

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

A-Mused – Part Two

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Review – A French Baroque Diva

Carolyn Sampson (Soprano)
Ex Cathedra
Jeffrey Skidmore (Conductor)

As with my previous blog, this recital dispels an often commonly-held belief. In this case, that French baroque and early Classical music is simply a catalogue of stifling, formulaic compositions that never escaped the shadow of Lully.

And furthermore, if you are searching for that gift for the classical enthusiast that ‘has everything’, then look no further.

Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra under the skillful baton of Jeffrey Skidmore have created a beautifully crafted recital disc that shows that musical life in France from the 1730s until the eve of the Revolution was incredibly rich and varied.

They take as their starting point soprano Marie Fel. She was at the very epicentre of musical life in the capital, performing in all of Rameau’s operas as well as at the Concert Spirituel and the court at Versailles and Fontainebleau. And she clearly inspired some of the most beautiful music. From the exquisitely affected style of the period to music of impressive virtuosity, Madame Fel was in demand not only on stage, but also before throne and pulpit.

This generous recital features music from six composers – Rameau, Mondonville and Lalande as well as the lesser known, for his music at least, Rousseau, Lacoste and Fiocco and also dismisses the belief that “le gout francais” was the only style in permitted in France. It might have dominated but by the 1730s Italian music was clearly jostling for a place and le Querelle des Bouffons – in which Rousseau himself took part – was not far off the horizon.

Rameau has the lion’s share of the operatic selections and it is hard not to select Un tendre intérêt vous appelle … Tristes apprêts from Castor et Pollux as a personal highlight. Ms Sampson captures perfectly the aching grief of what is in effect incredibly simple music with no effects, and Skidmore coaxes wonderfully delicate playing from Ex Cathedra, highlighting the exquisite instrumental colours of the score. At the opposite end of the Rameau spectrum comes Amour, lance tes traits from Platée with its more angular writing and runs and trills effortlessly delivered by the soprano.

Equally charming are the selections from La lyre enchantée from Les surprises de l’Amour which also included Anacréon. Juxtaposing vocal and choral movements with dances, Écoutons un doux frémissement with its doleful recorders underlines Rameau’s unique ability in creating contrasting sound worlds within very short spaces.

Lacoste’s Ah! quand reviendront nos beaux jours? from Philomèle, which opens the entire recital might fit the mold of French opera of this period, but it’s a beautifully emotive and sustained scene for soprano and chorus.

I’ve always associated Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville with religious music – especially his delightful motets. From his wonderful cantata Venite, exsultemus we have ravishing performances of Venite adoremus and Hodie si vocem – with its sustained choral writing. But we also have Gasouillats auzeléts from Daphnis et Alcimadure. Again there is an elegance to the orchestral writing and a natural fluidity to the vocal line – so very Galant – that belies Mondonville’s relative obscurity.

Michel-Richard de Lalande music written with court pomp and splendor in mind is infused with eloquence as Ms Sampson alternates with full-voiced choral writing in Regna terre. The Te Deum laudamus, opening with a Sinfonie reminiscent of Charpentier – is refreshing as is the contrast between the salon- like Tu rex gloriae and the rapture of Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem. Most commonly sung at Christmas, Viderunt omnes termini terrae has an almost rustic charm with its oboe writing and folk-like vocal line which then morphs into some truly virtuosic writing for singer and instrumentalist.

Joseph Hector Fiocco – hailing from Brussels – is the most forward-looking of the composers on this disc. Stylistically his Laudate pueri is written in an very confident early Classical style – the jaunty opening movement is followed by a heartfelt middle movement with obbligato flute and joyous Alleluia that could easily have been written by a Hasse or Bach sibling.

Remembered for his theoretical writings as well as Le devin du village, it’s surprising that philosopher Rousseau also wrote this rather charming, expertly constructed Galant-style Salve regina. The orchestration includes horns which give it an incredibly warm glow. The simplicity of the vocal line – much as with Devin – with the finely wrought motivic interplay with the violins illustrates that he was a rather accomplished composer as well as writer. The more dramatic Ad te clamamus with its declamatory opening, sighing and chromatic phrases at suspiramus and flentes demonstrate that the composer was well acquainted with all the technique for reflecting the words through the music. The closing O Clemens, o pia which would not be out of place on a stage for some lovelorn heroine, reminds me that in the Eighteenth Century the line between stage and sacristy became increasingly blurred.

Carolyn Sampson was born to sing this music. Coupled with incredible technique and a bright, gleaming soprano, she has an innate ability to light the vocal line from within. Her interpretation is second to none – finding the right tone and balance to suit both music and mood. From the beguiling simplicity with which she sings Tristes apprêts she effortlessly moves to the thrills and trills of Mondonville and every composer in between.

And Ex Cathedra – orchestra and chorus – similarly revel in this amazing music, directed with both grace and a complete understanding of the period’s style by Jeffrey Skidmore.

This isn’t just a recital of French music inspired by the clearly talented and love soprano Marie Fel, it is a disc to cherish and return to, constantly.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Two) – Bach Presents His Creds

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on October 20, 2014 at 5:03 pm

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

It’s been a while and we’re still in 1714.

Bach had just been promoted to Konzertmeister, and – if we discount the much-revised Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis until the 1720s – Bach wrote seven cantatas including the two for alto that I previously wrote about.

If the two solo cantatas occupy a central space in that year (written and performed in the summer or Autumn), the remaining five cantatas of 1714 wrap around them.

In the first two cantatas of 1714, Bach seems to be presenting not only beautifully crafted works that demonstrate his compositional skills, but also demonstrating that he can also communicate the deepest religious devotion and belief.

In modern parlance? A ‘cred check’.

Himmelskönig, Sei Willkommen (BWV 182) with its delicate scoring is the first cantata that Bach wrote as Konzertmeister. For me, the short opening Sonata – with its recorder and violin concertante, defines the incredible elegance of this work. And it is carried through in the subsequent chorus – of absolute, unshakeable and joyous belief in the glory of God.

What then follows are three arias in succession, each with a different obbligato aria – bass with violin; alto with recorder and tenor with cello. While the first, Starkes lieben (What strong Love) maintains the same mood as the opening movements, with the second aria, Leget each dem Heiland unter (Lay yourselves down before the Saviour) the mood becomes more personal. The recorder obbligato – with its sinuous melody – wraps itself almost seductively around the vocal line. Jesus, Lass Durch Wohl Und Weh (O Jesus, through weal and woe) contains the more personal plea of a supplicant. The penultimate movement is a chorale, with the cantus firmus in the soprano while the rest of the chorus weave in counterpoint ahead of it before the final chorus, So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden, returns to the mood of the opening Sonata and chorus. But watch out for the minor key mood at Leiden (suffering).

Next is impressively mournful Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). It begins with one of my favourite oboe obbligatos in Bach – one that I remember playing as a student – and after the first original work for Weimar, its emotional intensity must have come as a shock.

As the oboe unwinds its melodic line, the strings weave the most intricate web below – the upper strings sighing, the violas like a heartbeat and the basses intoning every half a bar. And the subsequent chorus is one of those marvels unique to Bach. For me, there’s something slightly risqué in Bach’s use of a Chaconne – even one as chromatic and doom-laden as this – as the basis of this chorus. And above it the chorus intones the weeping, lamenting, grieving and trembling of the text, with beautifully crafted suspensions. And the simplicity at Angst und Not as the chorus comes together is overpowering. The short, faster ‘middle section’ doesn’t release any of the tension but rather with its busier contrapuntal lines, adds to it before a return to the opening section

It’s a gem. Of pure, unrelenting misery.

Over suspended chords in the strings, the following recitative again launches into three successive arias. The first, Kreuz Und Krone Sind Verbunden (Cross and crowns are bound together) features an oboe obbligato – slightly reminiscent of the opening sinfonia – and alto soloist. The two violin obbligati of the second aria, and the imitative nature of the bass soloist’s line, openly refer to the text – Ich folge Christo nach (I follow after Christ). But its Sei Getreu, Alle Pein Wird doch nut win Kleines seine (Be faithful, all pain will be but a little while) that provides the real surprise – a trumpet obbligato intoning a chorale above the tenor soloist. The purity of the sound is quite astounding.

The concluding chorale, Was Gott tut, das ich wohlgetan (Whatever God deals is dealt bountifully) is almost perfunctory after the emotionally journey of the preceding movements.

It’s almost as if Bach is saying despite the suffering, life goes on.

Indeed it does.

Bewitched. Beguiled. Bedazzled.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Review – Alcina (Barbican Centre, Friday 10 October 2014)

Alcina – Joyce DiDonato
Ruggiero – Alice Coote
Morgana – Anna Christy
Bradamante – Christine Rice
Oronte – Ben Johnson
Oberto – Anna Devin
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

The English Concert

Harry Bicket (Director/Harpsichord)

Alcina is – for me – Handel’s greatest opera. Personally, it trumps Giulio Cesare in the magnificent invention of its music and outdoes the likes of Rodelinda and Orlando in its depiction of human nature.

And at the Barbican on Friday evening, this performance was the musical equivalent of a perfect storm. All the elements came together magically and deluged the entire hall in wave after wave of perfectly attuned, emotionally charged and dazzling brilliant musical performance.

Part of the Joyce DiDonato’s residency at the Barbican, it followed a magnificent recital drawn from her latest bel canto disc, Stella di Napoli. I never got round to writing up my thoughts on either disc or the concert itself but suffice it to say that both were magnificent.

Needless to say, as Alcina she was vocally superb – flawless even– and musically intuitive. And although there were no tomatoes this time, once again she was impressively attired to suit both character and occasion.

And each and every cast member – and the English Concert – were similarly impressive. In terms of the quality of the singing, their technique, their interpretation of Handel’s music including very tasteful embellishment and ornamentation, the commitment of everyone was stage was absolute.

While her Alcina on disc – recorded with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – is formidable on stage she brought a sense of humanity – of womanhood – to the role that is often missing in other performances. There was a heartrending frailty to Si, son quella! and a real sense of anguish in Ah! Il mio cor – possibly one of the finest arias Handel ever penned – that completely floored me. In Di mio cor, her Alcina was more than a woman in love, she conveyed a real sense of coquettishness, of almost innocent, true love. As a result, when this Alcina – rebuffed – turns to fury, it was a believable journey. This wasn’t so much a sorceress not getting her own way, but a woman scorned, seeking revenge and ultimately resigned to her fate. From her disbelief in Ombre pallide when the shades do not answer her summons, through her ‘righteous’ anger when she dismisses Ruggiero in Ma quando tornera to her almost final realization that she has lost him forever in Mi restamo le lagrime, was an emotional journey that was etched on the audiences’ minds. And I say almost, because in the trio, Non e amor, né gelosia – which I could have sworn was shorn – there was a palpable sense that should almost got her man back.

That she didn’t was evident from the moment Alice Coote stepped on stage. Like Ms DiDonato her total commitment not only to the role, but when singing Handel – and indeed in general – makes for an incredibly special performance. Her Ariodante at ENO will remain with me forever – not to mention her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

To Ruggiero, she brought brashness – a youthful and naïve impetuosity that was palpable. But while Di te mi rido might have been suitably dismissive, with Mi lusinga il dolce affetto Coote’s Ruggiero began to doubt his own reality. In Mio bel tesoro Coote’s asides managed to sound slightly indecisive and the eloquence which she brought to the wonderful Verdi prati made it sound not so much an aria of adieu but one of regret. But there was no doubt that duty and true love had won out with Ms Coote’s spectacular performance – complete with braying horns – of Sta nell’ircana.

Following her impressive Cleopatra for ENO – one of the only things worth remembering from that dire production – Anna Christy brought crystalline accuracy, immaculate attention to detail and line, accomplished interpretation and more than a little wit to the role of Morgana. Of course everyone was on the edge of their seat for Tornami a vagheggiar – and Ms Christy did not disappoint, but for me it was Credete al mio dolore that set the seal on Ms Christy’s Handellian credentials. With support obbligato support from Joseph Crouch, Ms Christy not only negotiated this most difficult aria but imbued it with a real sense of pathos.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Christine Rice –ENO’s Partenope perhaps? – but it was a pleasure seeing her in the role of Bradamante. Her rich, velvet-toned mezzo was well matched to the role. Similarly, the Oberto of Anna Devin was superb. Chi m’insegna il caro padre was beautifully delivered with expert control of both the exposed line and embellished da capo and quite rightly, her bright soprano in Barbara! Io ben lo so brought cheers from the audience.

And both Ben Johnson as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach as Melisso breathed new life into their arias – which compared to those of the other cast members – can often seem lackluster. Gierlach’s resonant bass made for a beautifully articulated Pensa a chi geme and Johnson sailed effortlessly through Un momento di contento.

The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bickett similarly excelled themselves. I have already mentioned the wonderful playing of Joseph Crouch and similar plaudits must be awarded to the wonderful playing of the leader, Nadja Zweiner in Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende with Ms Christy – soloist and singer in perfect synchronization.

By the end of the evening this was an Alcina to cherish and remember. And wonder why the Barbican doesn’t have its own label to capture magical moments like this.

A Touch of Venus

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 11, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Review – Pigmalion & Anacréon (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday 8 October 2014)

Pigmalion – Daniel Auchinloss
Le Statue – Katherine Manley
Anna Dennis – L’Amour
Céphise – Susanna Hurrell

Anacréon – Matthew Brook
Chloé – Anna Dennis
Batile – Augustin Prunell-Friend

Choir of the Englightenment
Les Plaisirs des Nations
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Edith Lalonger (Choreographer)
Jonathan Williams (Conductor)

Following their performance of Zaïs earlier this year, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Les Plaisirs de Nations joined forces once again for the Rameau Project – for the actes de ballet Pigmalion and what I believe was the Anacréon that formed the third part of his original Les Surprises d’Amour, both written in 1748.

And under the watchful baton of Jonathan Williams, it once again provided an evening of some superb musicianship and some elegant dance.

Personally, the star of the evening was the returning Anna Dennis. L’Amour in Pigmalion, she took centre stage as Chloé in the post interval performance of Anacréon. Ms Dennis possesses a bright and flexible soprano – there is a crystalline quality to it that is perfectly suited to this music, as well as an uninterrupted sheen and fluidity throughout her range which made her performance ravishing. Additionally there was a flexibility to her voice that not only enables her to negotiate the more florid passages but also to highlight the delicate nuances in Rameau’s vocal lines.

And indeed it was the women who mostly impressed during the evening. Katherine Manley – as the statue – injected a real sense of simplicity – almost naivety – to her performance and all credit for her beautifully choreographed and graceful interaction with the dancers. And in her short appearance as Céphise, Susanna Hurrell also made a positive impression.

Matthew Brook’s Anacréon was the most convincing of Rameau’s gentlemen. He molded his robust and warm baritone around Rameau’s vocal lines and brought out the wit in his elegant performance. I did not warm to the Pigmalion of Daniel Auchinloss. Not only was there a lack of projection but also – in common with Augustin Prunell-Friend’s Batile to a lesser extent – there wasn’t the necessary lightness or flexibility to his voice which Rameau’s music demands – especially for the magnificent Regne Amour.

However for the most part, the diction of both the singers – and the Choir of the Enlightenment – was very good. And while I am no expert when it comes to dance but as before in Zaïs, Les Plaisirs des Nations combined graceful choreography with effortless grace and when required, humour.

After some indecisive playing at the beginning of Pigmalion, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their trademark verve and spirit. Jonathan Williams was every alert to the shifting rhythms and colours that abound in Rameau’s music and the players in the orchestra responded accordingly.

I hope that The Rameau Project continues to bring Rameau’s shorter works to the stage, supporting what I hope is a wider renaissance of his larger operas.

Schoolroom Shenanighans.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Review – Rinaldo (Glyndebourne, Saturday 9 August 2014)

Rinaldo – Iestyn Davies
Almirena – Christina Landshamer
Goffredo – Tim Mead
Armida – Karina Gauvin
Argante – Joshua Hopkins
Eustazio – Anthony Roth Costanzo
A Christian Magus – James Laing
Sirens – Anna Rajah & Rachel Taylor

Director – Robert Carsen
Associate Director – Bruno Ravella
Designer – Gideon Davey
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet
Movement Director – Philippe Giraudeau

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Ottavio Dantone (Conductor)

Glyndebourne’s production of Rinaldo proves that with a star cast combined with a thoughtful approach by a director of the calibre of Robert Carsen, Handel’s operas contain the perfect balance of drama, tragedy and humour.

Who hasn’t endured a playground crush and wanted their rival vanquished?

In the lead role was Iestyn Davies, and following his outstanding performance in Rodelinda earlier this year, is there a countertenor to rival him in terms of his singing and acting performance? I dare say not. The quality of his singing is remarkable, combined not only with incredible technique but a flawless legato that enables him to convey every emotion with great clarity and emotional weight. After hearing him sing Dove sei? at the London Coliseum I didn’t think I would hear a more emotionally powerful performance of any aria, but the anguish he conveyed as he sang Rinaldo’s Cara sposa was heart-rending, and provided the first highlight of the evening. And he also demonstrated that he could as easily negotiate the more technically demanding arias that Handel wrote for his first Crusader, Nicolini. There was a thrilling bite and the necessary Handelian swagger in Venti, Turbini, Prestate and Abbruccio, avvampo a frema as well as that showcase aria Or la tromba.

Davies also displayed an innate sense in ensemble singing in the various duets. The delicacy of the singing of Scherzano sul tuo volto with his Almirena was beautifully matched by the teenage gaucheness of their actions. And I don’t think I’ve heard Rinaldo’s duet with Armida – Fermati! Oh crudel – not only performed with such verve but also a distinct sexual tension. Personally I’ve no idea why he chose Almirena over Armida.

As his nemesis, Karina Gauvin also demonstrated why she is one of the leading Handel sopranos. In the past I have voiced concern over her performances but here she was in stunning form, and clearly relished her schoolmistress-cum dominatrix as realized by Carsen. Her vocal agility in Furie terribili and Vo’ far Guerra, e vincer voglio – with Dantone light-fingered harpsichord concertante solo – was never in doubt but the sheer beauty and flawlessness of Ah! Crudel, il pianto was the second of three vocal highlights of the evening.

The third highlight of the evening was, from the start, inevitable. It always shocks me how quite suddenly Handel raises the emotional temperature in the Second Act of Rinaldo. Expecting, as Argante declares his love for her, for Almirena to launch into an aria of some fury, instead Handel writes one of his most beautiful arias ever – Lascia ch’io piangia. It might be somewhat common hackney’d but sung with such conviction and dramatic intensity as it was by Christina Landshamer at Glyndebourne and I am sure it wasn’t only me and my immediate neighbour who shed a tear.

And her bright soprano was a perfect foil not only to the Gauvin of Armida but also her beau, their voices melding perfectly in their duets. Her opening Combatti a forte immediately displayed that her lively voice was solidly grounded on strong technique, and the grace and delicacy of Augelletti che cantata was delightful while she confidently faced-off the inherent difficulties of Bel piacere e godere with aplomb.

Joshua Hopkins’ Argante found the perfect balance of arrogant king and – I am sure it was intended – pantomime villain. Vocally I would have preferred slightly more depth and darkness to his voice but it was a strong and well-defined performance.

Sadly, it’s difficult not to compare the other countertenors in the cast – Tim Mead, Anthony Roth Costanzo and James Laing – with the hero of the title. Tim Mead, who is Eustazio in the excellent DVD of the 2011 production and one of the only saving graces of ENO’s Giulio Cesare debacle, displayed secure technique and a honeyed tone, however first night nerves perhaps led to some untidy passage work and there were times when his voice didn’t project crisply enough. The same challenge faced the Eustazio of Anthony Roth Costanzo. It took a while for him to settle but he has a clear, bright voice and a real control of dynamic range which came beautifully to the fore in Siam prossimi al porto. Definitely a singer to watch in the future. Sadly James Laing was ill-suited to the role of the Magus. His voice was too thin and perhaps he invested too much in caricature and not his vocal performance.

And under the energetic direction of Ottavio Dantone it was hard to believe that this opera was Handel’s first opera he composed for London. There was an authority in his interpretation – not only in terms of tempo but also in the range of colours he brought out – that spoke volumes of his love of the music.

I know that Robert Carsen’s approach doesn’t please everyone, but personally I have always found his direction fresh and thought provoking.

And Rinaldo is no different, and he demonstrated the same attention to detail that have made his Carmelites and FroSch so memorable.

Here, he retold the story in a school and it was perfectly logical. Where else are the conflicts of both in love and rivalry more intense – and more keenly felt – than in the playground among emotionally-overwrought teenagers? And let’s face it, which of us when at school didn’t daydream in class about the demise of either a classroom rival or teacher?

And it was all beautifully observed and directed in revival by Bruno Ravella. Be it the gaucheness of a playground crush, the awkwardness of burgeoning friendships and even the sense of competitiveness. And perhaps I was the only one, but did I spy a series of hommages – intentional or not – to films as wide-ranging as ET, St Trinians and dare I say it, Harry Potter?

And the sets themselves never overwhelmed the narrative but seamlessly enabled the story to flow with a smart use not only of the stage but simple animation. And I can’t think of another opera where football has played such a seminal role.

And it is a rare director indeed who can manage to inject a sense of humour into Handel without it coming crashing down. But the deft way that Carsen delineated the characters, portraying them with sharply edged lines, enabled him to find that perfect balance of ‘fast and funny’ – slapstick almost – with duty and love.

In many ways, Carsen delivered the most cinematically-realised production of Handel I have seen without interfering with Handel’s incredible music once.

And with an incredible cast or singers and performers, it worked beautifully.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part One) – Alto Altissimus

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on May 26, 2014 at 8:15 am

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54)
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)

There is some discussion about what voice these two solo cantatas were written for – but I can think of no finer performances than these by Nathalie Stutzmann and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

It’s somewhat unusual that the first two cantatas that Bach would write following his elevation to Konzertmeister in Weimar would be for solo voice but there’s a newfound fluency and confidence to them – as if for the first time Bach was flexing his muscle of expression. Indeed in the case of BWV 199 there’s a heightened – almost unbridled – sense of dramatic and emotional urgency that personally I don’t think Bach exceeds in later works.

Before I go on, when listening to these two works something really came to life for me. The sheer talent and musicianship of the singers and players that Bach must have employed – either as colleagues or as itinerant musicians – must have been incredible. It is hard to believe that he would have written such sublime music if he didn’t believe not only that they could perform it, but also perform it convincingly.

The original altos that must have performed these works – for I do personally believe that these two cantatas suit the alto or mezzo voice best – must therefore have been incredible performers.

Widerstehe doch der Sünde was originally thought to be incomplete until a complete score was found. It is so perfectly formed I find it hard to see how anyone could have thought it incomplete.

The orchestration is simple – just strings – but Bach’s use of counterpoint, entwining the instrumental lines above a insistent basso continuo – almost like the pastor waving his finger at the congregation – that creates a deceptively lush sonority.

There is something quite powerful – almost risqué – that young Bach writes such sensuous music when the text is all about avoiding the temptation of sin.

The central recitative contains some wonderful word painting at Und übertünchtes Grab and the vigorous continuo line at the end to depict the stabbing sword before the final aria where Bach demonstrates his skill at counterpoint, with the subjects weaving from voice to combined violins and viola to the continuo.

It is the brevity of this cantata – almost a sense of earnestness – that seems to underline the seriousness of the text. And performed as eloquently as it is here by Ms Stutzmann with her resonant mezzo voice it is a cantata I shall return to regularly.

In complete contrast is Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199). It wears its heart quite literally on its sleeve from the beginning – My heart swims in blood.

Pain, torment and endless sorrow are deeply ingrained in the music of the first half. Not only does this cantata hint at the depths of Bach’s own religious feelings but also the confidence of a young composer wanting to show his musical mettle.

And in the skilful hands of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson it gores beyond a purely musical experience to a spiritual one. Her ability to convey not only the words but also the pain, torment and sorrow of Bach’s music is second to none.

The opening recitative – scored for the complete string ensemble – immediately sets the anguished tone that permeates the whole work.

The first aria – Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen – contrasts the eloquent oboe obbligato with an almost halting continuo and a vocal line that is so economical in contrast that it creates an uneasy tension. But what surprises most is the unexpected recitative in the middle. It’s almost as if Bach was writing for the stage – a heroine who, in the midst of her torment at some unrequited love or deceit, breaks into words.

But here the drama Bach conveys is one of religious fervour.

The second recitative leads straight into an aria that is deceptively calm. It’s almost pastoral in its simplicity as the singer admits her own remorse and guilt. And again it is all about sonority here with Bach masterfully creating a luscious bed of sound below the vocal line.

After the briefest of recitatives Bach uses a chorale – Ich, dein betrübtes Kind – as the emotional turning point of the cantata. The viola obbligato takes its thematic base from the chorale’s opening line that is intoned by the solo voice.

And this leads into – quite literally – a gigue. Wie freudig ist mein Herz, as the penitent sings of their joy in God led by the returning oboe to the ensemble, is nothing short of an affirmation of faith.

After the emotional gut punch of the opening sections, it must have had them dancing in the aisles. Or at least quietly humming the melody at home.

Worlds Apart.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 3, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Zaïs (Sunday 27 April 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London)

Zaïs (Jeremy Budd), Zélidie (Louise Alder), Cindor (Ashley Riches), Amour (Katherine Watson), Oromazès (David Stout), La grande Prêtresse (Katherine Manley), Une Sylphide (Anna Dennis) & Un Sylph (Gwilym Bowen).

Choir of the Enlightenment
Les Plaisirs des Nations (Ricardo Barros, Annabelle Blanc, Damien Dreux, Hubert Hazebroucq, Guillaume Jablonka, Fenella Kennedy, Adeline Lerme & Flora Sans)

Edith Lalonger (Choreographer)
Jonathan Williams (Conductor)

and

Arias for Farinelli (Monday 28 April 2014, Wigmore Hall)

Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (Director)

Last week I attended two concerts containing music written within roughly a decade or so of each other that couldn’t have been more different but of equal and incredible musical stature.

The first was Rameau’s Pastorale héroïque, Zais and the second was a musical biography of arias written for the famous castatro, Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi better known as Farinelli.

Both composer and singer are gaining in popular currency in terms of performance – for example at both ENO and Glyndebourne and recordings ranging from the exquisite recital discs of David Hansen, Philippe Jaroussky and Sabine Devieilhe.

And rightly so.

Rameau changed forever the direction of French opera and Farinelli inspired some of the most beautiful and audacious arias of his century.

Rameau’s operas are exceptional not only for the sheer delight of their musical invention and dramatic scale but also because of the intellectual dimension to his operas.

Rameau wrote his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 and it literally shook the musical establishment. Zaïs followed fifteen years later in 1748 and between he rewrote Hippolyte as well as composing Castor et Pollux and Dardanus. For anyone interested in his works, I would heartily recommend Charles Dill’s book Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the tragic tradition – which proposed as theory as to why Rameau rewrote – in some cases – substantial parts of his operas.

It’s simply brilliant that Jonathan Williams, Edith Lalonger and other colleages are leading the charge with The Rameau Project, using research and theory and performances to attain a better understanding of the composer and his works.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the orchestra and chorus were placed at the back of the stage, with the front part left tantalizing empty for the dancers.

The depiction of Chaos at the beginning and the creation of the world by Oromazès immediately sets this opera beyond the merely pastoral and in many ways it pre-empts Die Zauberflöte with its own masonic connections so much so that it will be interesting to see if the Rameau Project reveals any connections between the composer and an organization that was very active in Eighteenth Century France.

As with much Rameau there were moments of incredible beauty and poignancy throughout. Anna Dennis as une Sylphide was one of the highlights of the evening and it was a shame that we heard so little of her. Her opening number, Chantez les oiseaux was beautifully sung, with great control and elegance. Her voice, even throughout its range, had a bright ringing top and I am looking forward to hearing her on Handel’s Siroe which is released soon.

Of the two main characters, Louise Alder’s Zelidie was similarly impressive. With her bell-like soprano she displayed an instinctive sense for Rameau’s vocal line and Coulez mes pleurs – with its haunting flute – was the highlight of the evening. I was not as convinced with Jeremy Budd’s hero. Notwithstanding his constant use of a vocal score, I didn’t think that his voice was well-suited to Rameau’s music. Granted the notes were all there and sung, but I didn’t feel that there was enough nuance or colour in his singing. Both Katherines – Watson and Manley – however were also magnificent. Katherine Watson delivered just the right sense of arrogant bearing in her performance and together with Ms Alder, Katherine Manley added to the dramatic scale of the trio and chorus calling on Amour to descend from Heaven in the First Act.

Of the remaining men, Cindor, was mellifluously sung by Ashley Riches and his confidently held the stage during his temptation scene. I also think that Gwilym Bowen could be a name to watch out for in future French baroque performances.

I have some strong opinions about the use of dance in opera – especially when it serves no purpose– but here Les Plaisir des Nations delivered not only some graceful and exquisite dancing, but dancing that was central to the development of the plot. Rather than stopping the unfolding action, Edith Lalonger’s thoughtful and elegant choreography added extra depth to the emotions being portrayed by the singers.

There were moments of uncertainty and rhythmic untidiness in the orchestra – perhaps but the Enlightenment chorus was impressive performing with both clear diction and rhythmic finesse.

If there was one small distraction, it was the fact that the singers did resort to using scores when in the ‘performance’ area of the stage. While some of the singers actively engaged with the dancers, carrying around the music meant the others – in particular Budden’s Zaïs – was further dramatically hampered.

As a great innovator and experimenter, I think that Rameau would have approved of the ambitions of this performance and I look forward to seeing Pigmalion and Anacréon this October.

If France was hermetically sealed in its highly-mannered Baroque summer in 1748 the rest of Europe was galloping towards the Classical era. And this was demonstrated by an excellent evening at Wigmore Hall with Ann Hallenberg and Les Talents Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.

If Ms Hallenberg was indeed suffering from a cold – as Twitter claimed – then it was hardly noticeable except in the occasional shying away from greater ornamentation in the returning da capos. But from the start she established her vocal credentials and musical intelligence.

Not surprisingly, the recital started with two arias by his own brother, Riccardo. Son qual nave ch’agitata was written for Hasse’s Artaserse in London. Full of coloratura passages as well as vocal leaps and bounds it is impressive but rather outstays its welcome. Ombra fedele anch’io – made famous in the film – is once again well written without being exceptional. You do have to wonder if Riccardo didn’t somewhat hang off the coat tails of his brother.

Yet Ms Hallenberg performed these arias with incredible aplomb and bestowed on them performances that lifted their own lacklustre creativity.

Geminiano Giacomelli – who features on Joyce DiDonato’s Drama Queens recital disc – was one of the most famous composers of his generation. From Adriano in Siria, both arias demonstrated that the composer was at least fluent in the art vocal writing. In Già presso al termine the mezzo again skillfully negotiated the coloratura, while Passagier che incento was also scored with a concertante part for the principle violinist and was delightfully performed here.

Farinelli’s teacher Porpora was represented by Se pietoso il tuo labbro (Semiramide riconosciuto) and Alto Giove from Polifemo. Whlie there is no disputing the elegance of the former aria, surely Alto Giove must rank as one of the most beautiful arias of this age. If in the first aria Ms Hallenberg spun out the vocal line and the delicate embellishments with an incredibly light touch, her performance of the latter was simply ravishing. All too often this aria can been taken a tad too quickly but on this evening Rousset gave the music time to breathe and pulse, filling the entire hall.

And Ms Hallenberg was simply radiant. Her voice caressed the music, seamlessly from phrase to phrase with just the right balance of embellishment. Rightly recognized by the audience, it was the highlight of the evening.

The final two arias in the recital were from Catone in Utica by Leonardo Leo. With a slightly more baroque bent, Che legge spietata was smartly constructed with a single-minded opening that was contrasted with more legato sections. On the other hand, Cervo in bosco was an impressive simile aria – with gentler middle section – with rowdy horns and weighty coloratura, magnificently thrown off by Ms Hallenberg.

During the recital itself, Les Talent Lyriques also performed JC Bach’s Symphony in g minor from his Opus 6 and the overture to Cleofide. I must be honest that live I wasn’t too impressed with the Bach. Having listened to it again on iPlayer I have to admit it wasn’t as disappointing as I first thought. However compared to the Hasse it didn’t have any sense of the weight or grandeur that is much needed in JC’s symphonies and overtures. The overture to Cleofide was another matter altogether – confident, bright and simply more alive.

Her encore was Handel’s Sta’ nell’ircana from Alcina. Technically I don’t think that Farinelli ever sang for Handel in London but rather for Popora’s rival company but it was a performance of such vocal bravura and bravado that it made a fitting end to an incredible evening.

I hope that Ms Hallenberg return to London more often in future. She has a rare and exceptional talent and the audience loved her.

My Bach Pilgrimage – What A Difference …

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on April 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150)
Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143)

A year or so makes. After the emotional intensity of the cantatas written in Mulhausen we have a cantatas written in 1708 that seem to take a huge leap forward.

I have to admit that these cantatas as a whole didn’t grab me as much as those from 1707. Personally they didn’t have the emotional impact or scale – despite larger forces – of the cantatas of the previous year but there is a sense of experimentation.

It’s worth noting that these were the first orchestral works Bach wrote. The concerti that we all love came later and that there remains some debate as to the actual date of some of these early cantatas. Both Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150) and Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) have variously been listed as being written between 1703 and 1707, but after some research I have placed them in 1708.

Following a short sinfonia, the chromaticism of the opening bipartite chorus of Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich captures the mood of the text beautifully, especially the focus on ‘zuschanden’. And listen for the rising scale from bass to soprano in the second chorus, Leite Mich In Deiner Wahrheit.

Indeed it is the choruses in this cantata that truly stand out. And as John Elliott Gardiner points out in his brilliant book, Music In The Castle of Heaven, dance was seminal to Bach’s music and here the final chorus is a finely crafted ciacona.

Written for Easter, again Christ lag in Todesbanden opens with a short sinfonia before launching into the first chorus – a choral in the sopranos, the alto, tenor and bass lines weave around almost Italianate string writing in well-crafted counterpoint, concluding with an impressive Hallelujah ending.

A chorus definitely to get the congregation’s attention. Indeed the entire cantata is for chorus – no soloists required – but Bach deploys the forces smartly.

The second chorus, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (Death no one could subdue) scales the orchestra right back to continuo and a seductively woven vocal line above, contrasted with the vigorous string writing for the tenor chorus, Jesus Christus, Gottes sohn that follows and made even more famous by the over-orchestrated and ponderous arrangement by Stokowski.

But it is the chorus in the middle of the cantata that is most notable. Unaccompanied, Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg is in effect a motet – a furious one – with the chorale in the alto.

The final two cantatas of this period – Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) and Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143) – use an orchestra that I would imagine that most audiences most associated with Bach – woodwind, brass – in this case horns – and timpani.

BWV 143, Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele opens with a suitably exultant chorus, but its brevity demonstrates that perhaps Bach still wasn’t completely confident in terms of the large-scale choral opening movements of his later cantatas. Of the arias, it’s the tenor arias Tausendfaches Unglück, Schrecken (A Thousand misfortunes) and Jesu, Retter Deiner Herde (Jesus, Deliverer of your flock)where you hear for the first time the inventiveness that Bach would achieve in later works, especially his Passions. In the former, a delicate obbligato, in the second a distinctive bassoon continuo and the strings delivering the chorale.

As with the opening chorus, the final Hallelujah is more interesting for the hope it hold for future choruses than in itself.

Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) is the only cantata that Bach published in his lifetime and written for the annual council elections and therefore a cantata of somewhat impressive scale.

The opening chorus alternates between the necessary pomp and sections that are more reminiscent of an earlier motet style. And indeed this cantata is built on this tension of styles. The third movement is another unaccompanied movement, a fugue entitled ‘quartetto’, sandwiched between a tenor aria featuring an organ obbligato and the chorale delivered by a soprano soloist and an arioso for the bass, Tag Und Nacht Ist Dein, with its scoring for recorders and oboes. But it is the penultimate movement, the chorus Du Wollest Dem Feinde, again featuring recorders and oboes, above a rippling continuo and declamatory chorus that is the most memorable moment in this cantata, and points directly to his later works.

And naturally the cantata ends with a suitably expansive chorus – Das Neue Regiment – heralding the new council. Again alternating grander moments for full orchestra and chorus with motet-style sections, but the last word goes not to the chorus or trumpets but to the recorders.

Almost a musical wink, tt seems that Bach wasn’t quite the curmudgeon the world would like us to believe.

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