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Archive for the ‘BBC Proms’ Category

Arts about tit.

In BBC, BBC Proms, Classical Music on September 8, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Why can’t the BBC ever get their commitment to classical music right?The latest blunder in quite a long line of missteps is their dedication of Saturday nights to the arts.

Laudable. To an extent.

Landing it on a Saturday night, a veritable ratings graveyard for BBC Two is simply an admission that they should stop competing. If they’d made a commitment to a midweek arts night, it would actually have demonstrated that Tony and his cronies are serious about putting arts at the heart of the schedule.

I suppose they didn’t want any risk – however small – of cannibalising their own ‘alternative’ schedule of baking, sewing and, no doubt at some point is in the future, celebrity candlestick making. 

It’s not that I don’t like poetry. Or Julie Walters for that matter. But, let’s be honest, do we really need to hear Kate Tempest darken this world yet another hip-hop version of someone else’s more original idea?

So in this cornucopia of the arts, where is the classical music?

Non-existent. You’ve got more chance of hearing a countertenor in X Factor.

What about the Proms, I’m sure the BBC will argue. Run by the BBC since 1927, it’s hardly new. And the very few concerts that are broadcast on television are on BBC Four. So basically relegated to the garden shed of television, just past the compost heap of BBC Three.

Young Musician? Similarly, a faux commitment to young talent sidelined because quite possibly unlike the endless programmes about young people making it in the ‘real world’, the BBC doesn’t consider an aspiration to becoming a world-class musician a ‘real job’.

The same for Cardiff Singer. A wholly missed opportunity.
And what about such ventures as Maestro at the Opera, or the new venture to find an amateur orchestra for the Prom In The Park? No. That’s not commitment. It’s badly oroduced entertainment and the BBC finding s way to simply fill their supposed arts quota with cheap fodder.

Sky Arts recently gave us the Bayreuth Ring. When was the last time the BBC gave us an opera? It’s been a while.

When will the BBC commit to an arts strategy that is meaningful and universal?

Rather than continuous slip of the banana skin of false intention to fall unceremoniously on its arse?

Probably never. 

(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.

Served On A Silver Platter.

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 31, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Review – Salome (BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Saturday 30 August 2014)

Salome – Nina Stemme
Jokanaan – Samuel Youn
Burkhard Ulrich – Herod
Herodias – Doris Soffel
Narraboth – Thomas Blondelle
Herodias’s Page – Ronnita Miller

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Donald Runnicles (Conductor)

Den Kopf des Jochanaan.

The very first time that she magically floated that terrible line was the moment that Nina Stemme nailed her characterisation of Salome.

From her first appearance to what can only be described as her final – and visceral – transfiguration, Nina Stemme took the audience in the Royal Albert Hall on a singularly intense and gratifying journey – both emotional and musical. Indeed, as with her performance as Brunnhilde last year, Ms Stemme captivated the audience and kept them in rapt attention.

So often singers don’t so much sing the notes that Strauss committed to paper as charge through them. Notes are blurred, phrasing is unbalanced and often singers revert to performing parts of the role as if it were Sprechstimme.

Nina Stemme performed the role with impressive musical intelligence and authority. Each note, each phrase and each word was delivered with an attention to detail that created a sense of vocal spontaneity – the conversational tone that is so often sadly missing when others perform Strauss’ heroines. It was almost as if the ink was still wet on the page.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ms Stemme perform a couple of times – including Ring cycles in San Francisco and at the Proms as well as in Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden. And every time, vocally she went from strength to strength.

And as Salome she was simply resplendent. Totally secure throughout her range she demonstrated technique, a depth of tone and a range of colours that is simply enviable. She impressively demonstrated the ability to scale back her voice to almost a whisper while retaining the clarity and precision but when required she ramped her voice up in terms of both volume and range. In the final scene, she soared above the orchestra, filling the entire hall with thrilling sound.

It was difficult at times not to just focus all the attention on Nina Stemme, but she was for the most part supported by a very strong cast, especially the women. Doris Soffel simply reveled in the role of Herodias. Stalking across the stage, she delivered the role with confidence and finding a vocal timbre that perfectly suited Herodias’ atavistic and cruel nature. And it was good to see Ronnita Miller as her Page. I remember her from the San Francisco Ring as both Erda and Norn. She has a rich mezzo and there is a sensual growl in her lower register that is thrilling. I hope to see her on stage again soon. Hopefully in London if not Germany.

Samuel Youn was committed as Jokanaan, but personally I would have preferred more resonance and vocal security in his performance.

Both tenors – Burkhard Ulrich as Herod and the Narraboth of Thomas Blondelle – were impressive. Blondelle’s bright, bell-like voice was perfect for the pleading, love-lorn soldier and Ulrich compellingly inhabited the role of Herod both vocally and temperamentally.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but he drew archly beautiful and characterful playing from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Opera is always tricky at the Proms but unerringly he balanced the demands of ensuring that Strauss’ overtly orchestral score in Salome was sufficiently transparent and ensuring that the singers could be heard. I would have preferred the Dance of the Seven Veils to have been ‘dirtier’ rather than ‘precise’ but it was a small price to pay for playing of this excellence.

And at the end, the audience showed their appreciation. First and foremost for Nina Stemme, but overall for a memorable and electrifying Salome.

When the Rose is Faded …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Prom 6, Tuesday 22 July 2014)

Der Marschallin – Kate Royal
Octavian – Tara Erraught
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Sophie – Louise Alder

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

Memory may still dwell on – to quote Walter de la Mer.

Perhaps it was too much to expect three near perfect performances of Der Rosenkavalier in a row. If Germany can score seven goals in a game, why can’t we score a hat-trick with Strauss’ most perfect opera?

But after incredibly memorable performances in London and Birmingham it was seemingly too much to ask for a perfect – or at least passable – Rosenkavalier at the Proms.

Perhaps something got lost in translation on the road from East Sussex, but despite the well-fuelled controversy of the first night reviews, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier is a pale shadow of this opera’s true glory.

I am not sure the semi staging – raised above the orchestra – helped matters but then again Richard Jones over-used vocabulary – fussy and at times crowded and distracting – didn’t either. Staging operas at the Proms – as witnessed last year by Barenboim’s Ring – need not be trial by error as was the case here. Perhaps Glyndeborne should have settled for a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier or perhaps chosen Rinaldo, more suited to the ambition they tried to deliver.

And personally I think that on the whole, this was a miscast Rosenkavalier.

Of the three women – and I am sure no one will agree with me – Kate Royal’s Marschallin was the weakest musically. To debut as the Marschallin is daunting enough but I am not sure that this is a role suited to her voice. That is not to say that Ms Royal is not an accomplished soprano – just not in possession of the temperament, insight or specific technique required for this incredibly challenging role.

It requires not only incredible technique but also the ability to find the nuances of light and shade in the music that Strauss wrote for the greatest of his heroines. The Albert Hall might be an unforgiving acoustic but there was – to my ear – a discernable and distracting ‘beat’ in Royal’s voice and a harshness where there should have been warmth and depth of tone. Often as the vocal line soared above the stave, she snatched at the highest notes and she delivered rather than interpreted the words she was singing.

Tara Erraught as Octavian was bright – almost brittle – in her singing. No amount of thigh slapping could hide the fact that again this was more about singing the right notes over interpreting the role. With a tendency to too much vibrato in the higher reaches of her voice, again there as a lack of – dare I say it – meat on her vocal bones.

Both Sophie and Baron Ochs were replaced for this performance. Franz Hawlata – a magnificent Baron in Birmingham – made the greatest impression in the leading roles although he also seemed somewhat lost on the stage and sometimes stuggled to be heard above the orchestra.

Louise Adler replaced Teodora Gheoghiu and clearly has a promising career ahead of her. Seemingly a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School and the inaugural Kir Te Kanawa Scholar, if this was her debut it was a promising one as she demonstrated a natural affinity with the role of Sophie. She capably negotiated the soaring lines – despite a slight hint of strain and steeliness – with confidence. The Presentation Scene was particularly affecting but also threw up in contrast that Erraught’s voice lacked much needed warmth.

The remaining members of the ensemble performed their roles with confidence if not – with the exception of strong performances by Andrej Dunaev as the Italian Singer and the Valzacchi of Christopher Gillett’s – clarity.

Yet if the singing was below par then Robin Ticciati’s direction ‘below stage’ was also disappointing. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced some wonderful but inflexible and colourless playing under his baton. There were no braying horns or transparency in the woodwind and the strings didn’t play with the much needed Straussian sheen. But most noticeably, there was a lack of two things. First, ebb and flow – most noticeably in the Marschallin’s First Act monologue and subsequent closing duet with Octavian as well as in the Presentation Scene. In the latter scene, it’s not enough to rallentando simply into the forte before the Presentation. Indeed, Ticciati’s conducting didn’t allow the conversational nature of Strauss’ music – so critical in this opera – to come through. And the second missing element, just as critical, was swagger. This opera needs swagger. And it was missing.

Again perhaps the transitions to a stage at the Royal Albert Hall had a marked effect on the overall production, but singer-for-singer, this was a pallid Rosenkavalier.

молчание (Silence)

In BBC Proms, Classical Music on August 8, 2013 at 8:52 am

AMENDED – 11 August 2013.

I wasn’t going to write this blog. But the silence of Russian artists over Putin’s vile position on gay rights continues to unsettle me.

I cannot hope to be as eloquent as Stephen Fry and everyone should read his letter to the IOC and David Cameron.

It is inspiring.

Music and politics have always been fused together. From the medieval times, if not before, music was used to demonstrate wealth and power both by the aristocracy as well as the clergy.

Opera – the genre I love above all else – was originally an art form exclusively for the nobility.

By the Eighteenth Century composers, singers and instrumentalists were part of the aristocratic and royal households. Some of the music we all know and love – the quartets, symphonies and masses by Haydn, the early operas by Mozart as well as the music of JS Bach, Handel and countless others – was written specifically for the elevation of either the landed classes and government or priests.

As society changed – as revolutionary and then Romantic ideals swept across Europe – music also came to symbolise, and in some cases personify the great movements that wracked the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. Think of Rouget de Lisle’s Marseillaise, Beethoven’s original intention for the Eroica, the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary operas of France.

And after music itself had been totally liberated from a reliance on patronage, the relationship of power and music remained.

Of course there have been times when music and artists have been ‘appropriated’ – willingly or not – by regimes. Fascism is the example we all can think of. But in the midst of that darkness music also became the path of resistance for some. I think specifically of the music on the haunting recital disc, Terezin-Theresienstadt.

Therefore because of the relationship between power, politics and music, musicians are in a privileged position. Not only in terms of the patronage they received but also the power they themselves have to express on the widest platform their own feelings or the feelings of the wider audience and community.

So it stuns and depresses me that the Russian performers that many of us love and admire – from Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko to Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Marina Poplavskaya – have been so stubbornly silent on the single issue of Vladamir Putin’s vicious, thuggish and – let’s face it – murderous homophobia.

I struggle to think what is stopping these educated people – and all their Russian colleagues and peers – from stepping forward and making their position known.

They cannot ignore the simple fact that Russia boasts some of the greatest artists whose work is still cherished and performed today – and who were gay.

There is an irony that the opening night opera at the Met is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and two of the world’s most eminent performers will be on stage and in the pit that very night.

Of course it could be fear of stepping forward that makes then unable to say anything. Putin is a thug. People have lost their lives opposing him.

Or it could be that they don’t want to lose Putin’s patronage which looking at Gergiev, is clearly munificent.

But what if – and it has to be considered – that the reason they haven’t said anything is because they actually agree with Putin – that they agree with – and support – his ignorant view?

I admit that this is – hopefully – not the case. But it is worth thinking about considering their silence.

And if this is the case, what then?

Surely one of the next questions has to be what are artistic institutions outside Russia prepared to do about it?

Will the Edinburgh Festival ask their Honorary President to clarify his position?

Will Peter Gelb ask Gergiev and Ms Netrebko for their view on LGBT rights in Russia ahead of his opening gala night?

Will the Board of Directors at the London Symphony ask Gergiev ahead of his Prom next Tuesday? Will Tony Hall or Roger Wright at the BBC?

Will Kasper Holten challenge Marina Poplavskaya?

Will their fellow artists – and their labels – also ask the question?

And finally, what will we – the audience – do?

Again it comes down to power. In the digital world we live in, none of us is powerless.

What if we were all to ask these people to clarify their position?

Andrew Rudin has started a petition in advance of the opening of the Met Season. Can they truly ignore everyone?

Stephen Fry puts it bluntly – [Putin] is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.

If Russia’s artists continue to remain silent, their silence is a sign of their complicity.

Amendment
Anna Netrebko has since issued the following statement:

“As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.”

Clearly written by her PR people it’s a meaningless and cowardly statement as it doesn’t address the issue of Putin’s thuggery.

Stemme Shrinks Then Soars

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

Review – Götterdämmerung (BBC Proms, Sunday 28 July 2013)

Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Gutrune & Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Waltraute & Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Royal Opera Chorus
Staatskapelle Berlin

Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Nina Stemme performed a magic trick last night – over and above her stunning performance and that of her colleagues.

The Swedish soprano managed to shrink the Royal Albert Hall so that over five thousand people believed that they were alone with her and she was singing just to them.

Astounding.

There aren’t words to adequately describe this performance of Götterdämmerung. Or indeed the entire cycle brought to London by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

From the opening bars of Das Rheingold, through the drama of Die Walküre and the closing ecstasy of Siegfried to the final Immolation Scene last night, this is a cycle that stands comparison with the greatest. In fact, personally it surpasses all too many of them.

A constant throughout the four nights was the superlative playing of the Berlin Staatskapelle. Never have I heard such precise yet flexible playing. Every note was imbued with colour, every phrase articulated to perfection, every dynamic not only realized but also chased down with unerring precision. And if the drama was played out in front of them, then the players realized the drama themselves. Last night alone I watched as the clarinetists swayed, as the Second Violins dug deeper than ever before as Barenboim urged them to ever grittier playing the Siegfried’s Funeral March, as the brass lit up the entire hall with some of the most accomplished, and assured ensemble and solo playing I have every heard.

Yet at no point did the orchestral overpower the singers. Marshalled to perfection, under Barenboim’s leadership they were the singers’ willing friends, lovers and accomplices throughout. No detail was too small to be brought to the fore, no texture too inconsequential to highlight. Lavish attention was paid to the inner detail of Wagner’s music, no section rushed through or simply played to get to the next tableau. For example the transition to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey was full of the expected panache and arrogance of youth, but the transition back before the incredible confrontation of Stemme and Meier managed to convey the familial gloom that was about to descend.

Rising above the Staatskapelle was a cast of singers that was nothing short of the perfect ensemble.

The Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja – made a welcome return to the stage, delighting with their finely crafted ensemble singing. Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn alongside her sisters was in possession of a darkly hued voice perfectly suited to the role and her attention to the words was telling.

Johannes Martin Kränzle also returned as Alberich for the dream sequence at the opening of the Second Act. The return of so many of the singers in the same roles delivered in spades in terms of characterisation. Kränzle‘s Alberich of the final opera in the quartet was a Nibelung that had surpassed greed and revenge and had reached desperation.

Anna Samuil improved on her initial outing as Freia as both the Third North and Gutrune. While her voice retained a slightly brittle and brassy tone and ventured a little wayward above the stave, her performance – particularly as she awaited Siegfried’s return – as the tragic Gibichung sister was never anything less than committed. And as her brother, Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther balanced some fine singing with strong acting skills.

What Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen may have very occasionally lacked in heft he made up for in the malevolence of his characterization. Like Terfel in Die Walküre, Petrenko deployed his stage whisper with chilling effect and combined with his fine ability to sneer through his words, he made his Hagen eminently believable and dislikeable. And ranged alongside him as his cohorts and conspirators, the excellent chorus of the Royal Opera House.

But what a difference a Siegfried can make, and in Andreas Schager I think we finally have a Siegfried of note. Schager is the man who stepped into Barenboim’s Ring when the contracted Siegfried – Lance Ryan – did not turn up.

Lucky for us Schager set his watch correctly.

From the get go this was a Siegfried to be reckoned with. Vocally stunning til the end, Schager was not only technically stunning, but he also possesses a clear, bright tenor voice, burnished and even and – most importantly – able to deliver the broadest dynamic range with any drop in the quality of his singing. From his opening duet with Nina Stemme to his final monologue, Schager was Siegfried and this was only made more pronounced by his excellent acting. This was a Siegfried with swagger, exuberance and more than a little naïve arrogance.

So finally to the two leading ladies.

First, Waltraud Meier. I still remember her Ortrud in Munich and here, both as Waltraute and Second Norn, she once again demonstrated that she is, quite simply, a singer of incredible distinction, experience and authority with a voice that literally shines. And the audience showed their appreciation and veneration for Ms Meier at the end. Waltraute might be a small role but in Waltraud Meier it had both stature and nobility.

And Nina Stemme? Over the course of the cycle – from the exuberance of her opening Hojotoho in Die Walküre to her final Selig grüsst dich dein Weib! – this magnificent soprano took the entire audience on Brünnhilde’s journey from Immortal Warrior to Woman.

Stemme’s performance had everything. Vocally secure throughout, there was a steely sheen and gloss combined with a depth and weight in her voice that carried her both above and through the orchestra. And it was a Brünnhilde of great subtlety. Stemme displayed a stunning control of both dynamic range and colour that was thrilling. Her sense of horror at the end of the First Act was nothing compared to the white-hot rage as she realizes her deception by Siegfried and the resultant blood-curdling trio as she exacts her revenge. And all delivered with such passion, vitality and breadth of colour that the audience collectively held its breath.

But nothing prepared the audience for the final scene. Here the sweep of grandeur of Stemme’s voice, her total commitment, the sense not only of finality, but both justice and love was wrapped up in the most incredible Immolation scene ever heard.

And what a dramatic coup – placing her above the orchestra, above the audience. Amazing.

Her success was evident in the roar of approval from the audience. It was nothing short of any shout than can be heard in any sports stadium.

Finally to Daniel Barenboim. Genius. Simply genius.

Over four nights he brought Wagner’s music to life, painting a succession of scenes in both words and sound that was nothing short of perfection. And his short speech at the end, after all the cheering, was brilliant.

And his clear love of the Ring cycle was evident throughout. Not in the fact that he didn’t always need the score; or that he energetically exhorted the orchestra to dig deeper and deeper into the music; or that he coaxed and directed the singers, shaping their phrases with his gestures.

No. It was in those moments when he stood back against the podium and let the music sing out for itself.

This was a Ring cycle not of note but of history. And to be part of it was more than exhilarating. Or exciting. Or momentous.

It was humbling.

Brangäne und (Tristan und) Isolde

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Review – Tristan und Isolde (BBC Prom, Saturday 27 July 2013)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violea Urmana
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
King Mark – Kwangchui Youn
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Andrew Staples

Cor Anglais – Alison Teale

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

Personally it was an odd choice for Roger Wright to programme Tristan und Isolde smack bang in the middle of Barenboim’s magnificent Ring cycle at the Proms. With Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried still fresh in the audience’s mind – unkindly or not – comparisons would have been made.

For the most part favourably I would imagine.

It also struck me – attending the Berlin Ring and last night’s performance – how many Prom debuts were being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred years.

The beauty of the Proms is that they sometimes reveal to the UK audience a number of previously unknown remarkable performers.

Ultimately I think that this Tristan und Isolde will be remembered for the stand-out and utterly compelling performance of Mihoko Fujimura.

Her Brangäne even surpassed her mistress Isolde with an absolutely stunning performance. Ms Fujimura’s mezzo was both bright and warm with a depth and richness that was missing from her colleagues.

Ms Fujimura gave an impassioned, vocally secure and musically intelligent performance the likes I have not seen since Sofie von Otter for Peter Sellars or Sarah Connolly for Jurowski.

And the singer ensured that her Brangäne was no cipher. Her horror in the First Act was palpable and her interjections in the Second Act nothing short of mesmerizing. Even her final short interjections in the final act were wonderfully accomplished.

It is not surprising that Ms Fujimura was the recipient of the loudest cheer and applause of the evening. So why do we not see more of this mezzo-soprano in the UK?

Sadly Peter Seiffert cancelled as Tristan and was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. I have mixed feelings about this tenor. Having seen him previously successfully negotiating the the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and a splendid Bachhus in Ariadne auf Naxos, his Tannhauser disappointed – it was strained and one dimensional.

And sadly his Tristan was very much the same.

Even having drunk the love potion, this Tristan was emotionally flat and vocally disappointing. The strain of singing this role is most telling as Robert Dean Smith heads towards the end of a phrase – the tone tightens and more often than not the last note is clipped or snatched.

There was some fine singing – especially the opening of the exquisite O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe – but it was rather a Tristan of individual moments, not a sustained performance. At times he resorted to barking above the orchestra – and pace Maestro Bychov, you weren’t always the most sympathetic conductor to you singers – and at points of the vital Third Act monologue completely lost. As a result the dramatic impetus of this marvelous scene was mostly lost on me.

But most distracting was the ever increasing ‘beat’ in his voice that became evident in the Second Act, undermining to an extent the duet.

Again it could be that the venue isn’t doing the singers any favours, but when the vast majority of other singers are managing and in fact overcoming similar challenges, that can only form part of the problem.

Violeta Urmana was by contrast an emotionally intense and vocally formidable Isolde. Her voice may adopt a slightly harsh and brittle tone at the top of her register but she uses it to her advantage. It was thrilling in the curse scene and her confrontation with Tristan in the First Act for example but in the Second Act love scene an added warmth infused her voice. And the Liebestod was both beautiful and dramatic. Rising above the orchestra, Ms Urmana powered up to the inevitable climax but then didn’t fail to float those final few notes perfectly.

Of the rest of the cast Andrew Staples, as the Young Sailor high above our heads after the opening was clear and bright. The remaining singers were passable without being notable. Kwangchui Youn was a solid King Mark – the notes were there if nothing else.

The gentlemen of BBC Symphony Chorus were in fine voice and the Orchestra found that balance between the sensuality and swagger of Wagner’s music. The opening of the Prelude and the final act were beautifully wrought and the fevered intensity of the opening of the second act was both articulate and transparent.

And extra special kudos for the eloquent and haunting playing of Alison Teale. Simply beautiful.

Semyon Bychov himself was a conductor of two extremes with – surprisingly – very little in between. Her drew some excellent playing from the orchestra – as I have mentioned the sensuality was there as were the crowning moments – but there was little of the ebb and flow that Tristan und Isolde should have and some of the tempos – in the duet and final Liebestod for example – felt slightly hurried. And at times the orchestra simply overwhelmed the singers.

It cannot be denied that by the end of the performance this Tristan und Isolde was ‘Proms perfect’ in that sense of a star revealed.

The audience got to hear and revel in the beautiful voice and memorable Brangäne of Ms Mihoko Fujimura.

Pseudo Siegfried

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 27, 2013 at 10:26 am

Review – Siegfried (BBC Prom, Friday 26 July 2013)

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Mime – Peter Bronder
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah
Erda – Anna Larsson

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

I suppose if I had paid attention at school, the law of statistics – or was it probability – would have told me that things cannot remain constant.

After an excellent Das Rheingold and a white hot Die Walküre that something had to give. It was also interesting to note that after the crush of the first two operas, there were noticeably a few empty seats. Personally I struggle with Siegfried at the best of times and it’s good to know that perhaps I am not alone.

That something was Siegfried. Literally.

That is not to say that Lance Ryan wasn’t a competent and in some parts, a formidable Siegfried – and perhaps it was the unforgiving acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall at times – but it wasn’t a consistent Siegfried.

He clearly has the vocal range for the role and there were moments in the Second and Third Act where he sang with both great authority and eloquence. Daß der mein Vater nicht ist was beautifully delivered as was his monologue before the appearance of Brünnhilde. And dramatically there were some telling moments – for example his confrontation with the Wanderer. But in the First Act and the final duet with Nina Stemme it wasn’t so much the strain of singing above the orchestra as the lack of heft and in some places – the Forging Song –it was very noticeable. Indeed there were times when Ryan didn’t seem able to follow what Barenboim was clearly seeking from him.

I am in sure in an opera house, with the orchestra in the pit, Ryan’s Siegfried is the whole package, but while in South Kensington it was both compelling and well acted, vocally it lacked that vital sheen and depth.

And just a note here on the acting. It faltered in Das Rheingold but in both Die Walküre and Siegfried the singers have literally inhabited the stage.

Barenboim drew some wonderful singing from the rest of the cast. The Mime of Peter Bronder might have fared better with stronger vocal characterisation and there were moments when I almost felt like he was shouting to be heard, but both Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich and the Fafner of Eric Halfvarson continued their strong performances from the opening opera of the quartet. Similarly, Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was incredibly strong – both vocally and dramatically. His performance oozed a real sense of experience.

Anna Larsson returned as Erda sans the excessive vibrato of Das Rheingold and delivered the Earth Goddess with deep and velvety authority and the Woodbird of Rinnat Moriah was a delight. Perched at the top of the hall, her bright soprano literally shone and floated and whereas it is quite commons for the Woodbird to sound rushed, Barenboim indeed expertly made it all sound fluid, relaxed and birdlike without halting or slowly the tempo.

And Nina Stemme continued to enthrall the audience and delivered an incredibly strong, vocally secure and impressive Brünnhilde in the final act. She commands the stage as ever from her first appearance. It has been a long time since I have heard the Siegfried Brünnhilde sung with such a range of emotion and colour.

As ever Barenboim drew some incredible playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. I have never heard the horn solo – or any of the instrumental solos in Siegfried – played with such aplomb and beauty. The brass were particularly impressive and I have never heard any performance where the players and conductor have created so many different colours and hues. The opening, so expertly controlled by Barenboim in terms of dynamics and tempo was chilling but it was the playing in the final scenes – Barenboim almost up from the podium to exhort the brass to ever greater brilliance – that was simply astounding.

The combination of Barenboim, the Staatskapelle and a cast including Stemme, Waltraud Meier and Mikhail Petrenko promises an incredible end to the cycle on Sunday with Götterdämmerung.

O hehrstes Wunder!

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

Review – Die Walküre (BBC Prom – Tuesday 23 July 2013)

Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck soprano
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

Sieglinde’s O hehrstes Wunder said it all.

On the strength of the first two performances and if the BBC is smart it will find a way to issue this Prom Ring cycle on CD or download.

Clearly Das Rheingold was simply the warm-up because on the second night of the BBC Proms’ first ever complete Ring cycle, Daniel Barenboim, a second-to-none cast and the Staatskapelle Berlin delivered a Die Walküre of such intensity that I haven’t personally experienced either on stage or in concert performance.

The quality of the performances, the playing and the acting on that limited stage all came together in a perfect moment.

It brought back memories of that night in 2005 and a single, isolated performance of Die Walküre. However the emotional intensity of the Berliners performance exceeded even the emotional temperature of that evening.

And Bryn Terfel sung in both. I will admit, I have never truly been convinced by his Wotan – until last night.

Having also seen him at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan I have always felt that there was that final ‘something’ missing. Not so of his Wotan on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps it was because he was stripped bare of the distractions of a stage setting that his performance was incredible. Vocally he chartered the descent of Wotan from arrogant God to loving and distraught father. Every phrase was thought through and convincingly delivered – the words always clear, his voice marvelously shaded, the phrasing beautifully shaped, his singing always incredibly expressive. His was a Wotan worth reckoning with – from his incredible scene with Fricka to his final showdown and heartrending breakdown. His Leb wohl was both majestic and human.

As his wife, Ekaterina Gubanova continued her tour de force as Fricka. And my God from her first appearance, as she slinked down the stairs, she sounded and looked the part. I have yet to finish my review of Gergiev’s recording of this opera simply because I struggle to get beyond listening to the second act with Ms Gubanova. And here she displayed the same high level of musicianship, that beautifully rich and almost muscular mezzo that perfectly conveys the haughty grandeur required of Fricka. Throughout the scene this was a Fricka in control – not completely the woman still hopefully in love of Stephanie Blythe – but a Goddess. Yet, right at the end, once she had extracted the necessary promise from Wotan, there was a sudden and unexpected sign that this was a Fricka who still loved her husband as he sat broken.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum was Anja Kampe’s incredible performance Sieglinde. From the vulnerability of her opening scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and their burgeoning love, her distress in the Second Act to her final exultant and ringing O hehrstes Wunder, Kampe displayed a vocal authority that has definitely grown since I first saw her in this role. Her voice was strong and even throughout its range and again the colours she injected into her singing was tingling.

Opposite Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill was a credible and vocally secure Siegmund. I wonted for more drama in his characterization and perhaps at times greater depth to his singing but there was no denying his commitment in the role.

Hunding as bully was brilliantly portrayed by the deep and brutal singing of Eric Halfvarson. But his was no cipher in performance. Above the brutish and threatening vocal stance he adopted – and led by Barenboim – Halfvarson also uncovered the oft missed – and in many ways – more threatening ability to find those moments in Hunding’s music to sneer and patronise.

And Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde? Personally there aren’t sufficient superlatives.

Unlike in San Francisco, where she was head and shoulders above her colleagues, here Ms Stemme was equally matched by the rest of the cast and it strengthened and enriched her performance. Vocally secure throughout her Brünnhilde was simply stunning and spot on. Her eloquence in the role was simply mesmerising. She made you hear and feel everything – from Brünnhilde’s initial bravado as Wotan’s favourite to the wonder and awe as she witnessed true love to the anguish and fear of defying of father.

There simply isn’t a Brünnhilde like her today.

Even the Walküre – sometimes a hit and miss affair of competitive singing – were marshalled and made a thrilling ensemble. Vocally secure, each had a sufficiently identifiable vocal timbre that made them individuals as well.

So to Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Simply genius.

Barenboim – conducting the first act without glancing at the score – seemed more involved than his measured conducting of Das Rheingold. Clearly this is an opera he loves dearly and it showed in his gestures to the orchestra. Never was this more noticeable than when he was driving the orchestra towards the final bars of each of the three acts. Or when he was exhorting the excellent brass section to greater – if it was possible – grandeur in their playing. Or threat and menace generated at the very beginning, when his physical gestures that had the strings digging deep from the beginning. Or when he motioned to the singers at critical moments in the drama.

And the Staatskapelle responded with deeply committed and passionate playing. Focused, attentive and engrossed in the music, each and every player was part of the drama that Barenboim unfolded on the stage.

I did not see the ‘altercation’ at the end of the Second Act but if performance is sometimes about artistic difference then it worked because I do believe that the playing in the final act even managed to surpass that of the preceding acts.

After a brilliant Das Rheingold, it was impossible to think that the ensemble could raise the bar with Die Walküre. But they did.

It makes the expectation of the Siegfried to come almost unbearable.

All That Glistens …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Review – Das Rheingold (BBC Prom – Monday 22 July 2013)

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Loge – Stephan Rügamer
Fasolt – Stephen Milling
Fafner – Eric Halfvason
Mime – Peter Bronder
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Freia – Anna Samuil
Donner – Jan Buchwald
Froh – Marius Vlad
Erda – Anna Larsson

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)

… is most definitely gold.

Daniel Barenboim, an almost excellent cast and the luminous Staatskapelle launched the BBC Proms’ first ever Ring Cycle with an incredibly dramatic and committed performance of Das Rheingold.

Even before he had raised his baton, an excited and enthusiastic audience greeted Barenboim. And he didn’t disappoint. Seemingly from out of nowhere he drew the opening notes from the Staatskapelle Berlin with both incredible precision and dynamic control.

Das Rheingold is not the most dramatic of the four operas that make up the cycle but from the onset Barenboim found an unerring sense of drama in both the music and the singing. Indeed, there was a muscularity to the orchestral playing that is often lacking from this opening opera and not once – despite the sometimes troubling acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall – did Barenboim fail also to point up the delicacy of Wagner’s orchestral writing.

And the orchestra responded in kind with some of the most luminous playing I have heard in a long time at the Proms or anywhere else. The strings – including the harps – had both depth and warmth, the brass was incredibly burnished and the woodwind’s beautifully pointed playing sparkled throughout.

And Barenboim kept a tight leash on the dynamics, not unleashing the full force of the orchestra until the very end as the Gods entered Valhalla.

I could easily have listened to the Staatskapelle perform Das Rheingold “ohne worte”, but above their incredibly and accomplished playing, Barenboim deployed an almost faultless cast. Glancing at the programme most of the singers have sung in this production it seems with Barenboim in Berlin and the sense of ensemble shone through.

And none of the singers was ‘lost’ in the hall’s acoustic either.

The three Rhinemaidens – Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja – not only sang their roles individually with great aplomb and vocal warmth but their ensemble singing was mesmerising.

The Alberich of Johannes Martin Kränzle was a strongly nuanced performance and his curse was chilling. For his short time on stage, Peter Bronder captured the sniveling character of Mime perfectly and I look forward to his return in Siegfried. Similarly the giants Fasolt and Fafner were nicely caricatured with Fasolt bringing at times an almost lieder-like delivery to some of his vocal lines. And while Jan Buchwald and Marius Vlad as Donner and Froh respectively gave fine performances, personally I found Anna Samuil’s Freia rather sharp with a distracting vibrato. Strangely it seemed to fit the goddess’s sense of hysteria but I hope that her Gutrune is less shrill.

I have always enjoyed Anna Larsson’s singing and her Erda – from above the orchestra – was thrilling. Ms Larsson has a rich and resonant mezzo perfectly suited to this role and again I look forward to her confrontation with Wotan later on.

But it was Fricka, Wotan and Loge who stole the evening vocally.

Stephan Rügamer was a perfect Loge. His light yet bright tenor rose above the orchestra to portray the character to perfection and put me in mind of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Loge for Opera North. From his initial appearance to his final – almost snarling – closing words as he left the Gods to their own devices, Rügamer made it clear that this Loge had nothing but contempt for his half-brothers and sisters. It was a shame to realize we won’t be hearing him again.

I enjoyed Iain Paterson’s Gunther in the Met’s production of the Ring and his Wotan for Barenboim showed great promise for a complete Wotan in a cycle at some point in the near future I hope. His interpretation of this Rheingold Wotan was both thoughtful and well sung. He displayed both Wotan’s godlike arrogance as well as his insecurity with some distinctive and shaded singing.

But for me it was Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka who gave the strongest performance. As in the recent Gergiev recording, she manages to find the balance between Goddess and Wife with a lustrous, well-rounded and even voice that digs into the words. Simply marvelous and her confrontation with her husband in Die Walküre should raise the temperature a few degrees.

There was always going to be a real sense of excitement and high expectation with this Ring Cycle at the Proms.

Barenboim, the soloists and the Staatskapelle did not disappoint.

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