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Archive for the ‘Mozart’ Category

Perfectly Don

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on June 21, 2016 at 6:16 am

Review – Don Giovanni (Classical Opera, Cadogan Opera, Friday 17 June 2016)

Don Giovanni – Jacques Imbrailo
Leporello – David Soar
Donna Anna – Ana Maria Labin
Don Ottavio – Stuart Jackson
Donna Elvira – Helen Sharman
Zerlina – Ellie Laugharne
Masetto – Bradley Travis
Commendatore – David Shipley

The Philharmonia Chorus
The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Mozart’s later operas are ensemble affairs. Of course he wrote stunning and psychologically insightful music for each protagonist, but it is in the ensembles that the music really comes alive. And I don’t only mean in Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro but also Clemenza and Die Zauberflöte as well.

But it is in Don Giovanni – dare I say his greatest late opera – that the ensembles are truly magnificent. Not only defining the characters but literally driving the drama forward almost as if jet-propelled.

And all credit to Ian Page, Classical Opera and the eight performers that this was truly an ensemble performance. With the exception of a rather speedy La ci darem la mano, the arias were all performed beautifully – so beautifully in fact that I can (almost) forgive Mr Page for his purist approach and not giving us Mi tradi. But it was in the ensembles that the evening took on an even greater dramatic frisson that at the end of each act was palpable.

Page directed an energetic and colourful performance from the orchestra – the first notes of the overture, with the surprisingly timpani sound eradicated any risk of an ‘end of the week’ feeling in the audience. The woodwind in Madamina, il catalogo è questo buzzed over energetic string playing which was throughout meticulous and the brass barked threateningly both in the overture and in the final scene.

As Don Giovanni, Jacques Imbrailo might have been slightly too light vocally but what he didn’t have in total heft and the occasional wandering tonality in the occasional recitative he made up for with a strong and underlying threatening characterization and a deft way of singing the vocal line. And while David Soar relished this Leporello, never missing a beat, it was good to see Bradley Travis reprise a vocally strong Masetto in a stronger production that the recent one by ETO. Stuart Jackson, a regular performer for Classical Opera, performed a vocally impressive Don Ottavio – performing a confident and fluid Il mio tesoro, As the Commendatore, David Shipley rounded off an overall impressive cadre of men.

Ana Maria Labin led an equally strong line up of women, her bright and shining soprano demonstrating equally impressive flexibility. Non mi dir, bell’idol bio rightly got the loudest cheer from the audience.. The Donna Elvira of Helen Sharman was vocally distinctive from her noble counterpart, rich and seamless but occasionally slightly marred by distracting vibrato. But personally, I would have enjoyed to see her bring her dramatic talents to Mi trade. Ellie Laugharne’s Zerlina was suitably coquettish in both Batti, Batti and Vedrai Carino, although occasionally sharp in at the top of her range.

This wasn’t part of Classical Opera’s ambitious Mozart 250 project but it did reinforce what everyone at Cadogan Hall already knew. Ian Page and his ensemble are consummate Mozartians.

Can we hope that, having performed Don Giovanni in concert now, when it returns in a few years time it will be fully staged? I hope so, but regardless of how it does return, expectations from the remaining da Ponte operas will be very high indeed.

Classical Opera won’t disappoint.

All Hail, Hallenberg

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

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

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

Ms Hallenberg has a thrilling bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any offers?

 

(Un)Mostly Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Review – Mozart 250 (Milton Court, Saturday 21 & Sunday 22 February 2015)

An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment
Anna Devin & Martene Grimson (Sopranos) Samantha Price (Mezzo-soprano)

London Concert Life in 1765
Eleanor Dennis (Soprano)
Ben Johnson (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Ian Page and Classical Opera threw themselves headlong into a weekend of music and lecturesafter the successful opening concert of their adventure, Mozart 250. Sadly at the last moment I wasn’t able to attend the entire weekend but did manage to catch two of the concerts – An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment and the closing concert of the weekend, London Concert Life in 1765.

The first concert focused on Italian opera in London in the 1760s, offering a selection of arias by lesser-known composers that formed the backbone of – it seemed – a predilection for pastiche operas in London, as well as another selection from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I must admit that none of the arias by the ‘unknown’ composers truly stood out, except perhaps Se non ti moro a lato by Davide Perez with its unusual harmonic twists at the cadences, and indeed I did feel that Pescetti – and in particular his Caro mio bene, addio – slightly outstayed his welcome.

However the selections by JC Bach again begged the question of why his operas – or at least the arias – aren’t performed more often. Take Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso for example, with its dramatic accompagnato, noble melody and deeply hued scoring including clarinets. Indeed it made me wonder if the London Bach’s use of the instrument wasn’t the initial inspiration for Mozart’s own love of the instrument. And it was beautifully sung by Anna Devin, with beautifully controlled legato, intelligently shaded phrasing and a real sympathy with JC Bach’s music, as was further evidenced by her performance of Confusa, smarrita. Samantha Price also made a promising debut with Classical Opera. The full warmth of her voice and her technical ability – especially in Tutti nemici e rei – should ensure her a promising career not only in this repertoire but hopefully in lieder as well. I was less convinced by Martene Grimson, who never sounded completely at ease in the music. I felt there was breathiness to her singing and her coloratura, while good, was not as well defined or controlled.

I also must admit that much as I love Eighteenth Century opera – da capos and all – I did wont for some orchestral music as relief from the deluge of arias that were presented.

Sunday night’s concert, a snapshot of musical life in 1765 was therefore more satisfying, featuring as it did both arias and orchestral music. Of the orchestral inclusions, it was Karl Friedrich Abel’s Symphony in E Flat, Opus 7 that was the most delightful and weighty discovering. With its luxurious scoring and real sense of symphonic gravitas, it outshone the contributions of JC Bach and Mozart on the evening.

Two of the arias performed were ‘repeats’ from the opening concert. Ben Johnson’s performance of Va, dal furor portata was suitably confident and forthright – his full tenor soaring over the orchestra and providing a suitably bravura contrast to his touching and refined rendition of Non so d’onde viene from JC Bach’s Ezio. Eleanor Dennis is in possession of a bright and full-throated soprano with an impressive range, however her performances were slightly marred by slightly occluded diction as well as challenges in breath control, especially in her first aria Cara, la dolce fiamma which demands so much of the singer in terms of its expansive vocal line. However her encore, a beautiful aria by Giardini with its unusual scoring for obbligato cello and violas only, was a real gem.

Throughout Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera performed with both great virtuosity and sympathy to the singers. The warmth of their playing was combined with technical confidence and real attention to dynamic as well as rhythmic detail.

Both concerts provided an interesting slice of musical life in London at the time that Mozart visited. But it did seem odd that we didn’t hear more of Mozart’s own vocal music at the time. A few numbers from works such as Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots or Apollo et Hyacinthus or even La finta semplice would have provided a true sense of context and influence perhaps.

But after the weekend, it seems almost too long a wait for Adriano in Siria.

(Twenty) Seven-Year Pitch

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on January 28, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Review – 1765: A Retrospective (Mozart 250, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 22 January 2015)

Anna Devin (Soprano)
Sarah Fox (Soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

Classical Opera has always taken a bold and innovative approach to their programming, but programming over a period of twenty-seven years is impressive and it got off to a very promising start.

Marking the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mozart’s sojourn in London, Ian Page gave us a snapshot of musical life not only in the capital but across Europe with very able performances by Anna Devin, Sarah Fox and John Mark Ainsley and some superlative playing from the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Mozart’s own contribution to the programme was two concert arias and his first symphony written when he was between eight and nine years old. While these works are clearly influenced by his contemporaries, you could already hear the seeds of genius. The symphony, in E Flat, might be reminiscent of the likes of JC Bach in the outer movements, but the central Andante showed that Mozart was already experimenting with texture and sound.

Va, dal furor portata, Mozart’s first concert aria, might on first listening sound rather simple, but is in fact remarkably eloquent with clearly shifting emotions both in the orchestral exposition and the vocal writing. John Mark Ainsley sang with a great deal of authority, with fluid legato deliver and technical ease, but I wish he had lifted his head from the score a little more, as it occluded the overall delivery. And this was a problem that clouded his later performance of Sacchini’s Barbara figlia ingrata.

Written only a short time later for soprano, Conservati fedele already underlines how quickly Mozart was developing – the beguiling simplicity all but masking his developing maturity and understanding of writing for the voice. And it was sweetly sung by Anna Devin whose technical brilliance and musicianship was more than amply demonstrated in her preceding aria, In mezzo a un mar crudele from Gluck’s Telemaco. Throwing off the coloratura with incredible confidence and aplomb, it reminded me why Ms Devin was such a star in last year’s Alcina.

Di questa cetra in seno from Gluck’s Il Parnasso confuso also featured. Originally written for a private performance by the Austrian imperial family it has a gentle and pastoral lilt to it with some elegant obbligato playing for the violas. Sarah Fox delivered a thoughtful and intuitive performance but as with Cara, la dolce fiamma in the first half, I was somewhat distracted by the underlying vibrato in her otherwise rich and sonorous soprano.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in g minor, featuring in the second half of the concert, again demonstrated the zest and enthusiasm of the orchestra who gave a beautifully observed and dramatic performance of this fantastic symphony.

Both halves of the concert ended with ensemble pieces. From Philidor’s Tom Jones was a duet performed by Ainley and Devin. To be honest, delightful as it was, I do think that this was a slightly odd choice in terms of programming but there was not faulting the trio that closed the concert from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I am looking to Classical Opera’s performance of the entire opera later this year, and both the earlier aria and Ah, genitore amato not only underlined the influence that the London Bach clearly had on the young Mozart, but also that in their own right JC Bach’s operas need more exposure.

A feeling almost of an embarrassment of musical riches with regards to choice did make the programming seem slightly at odds in places, and I did wonder if perhaps, as this was commemorating Mozart’s stay in London and then Holland, if the programming could have been chosen with a more ‘local’ flavor.

But there was no denying that as the first in twenty-seven years’ worth of music making, this opening concert marks an impressive start.

I just hope I am still around to enjoy the final concert.

Capital(ist) Flute

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on December 2, 2014 at 8:57 am

Review – Die Zauberflöte (Royal College of Music, Britten Theatre, Saturday 29 November 2014)

Tamino – Nick Pritchard
Papageno – Timothy Connor
Pamina – Sofia Larsson
Die Konigin der Nacht – He Wu
Sarastro – Matthew Buswell
Drei Damen – Gemma Lois Summerfield, Angela Simkin & Maria Ostroukhova
Drei Knabe – Louise Fuller, Katie Coventry & Polly Leech
Papagena – Turiya Haudenhuyse
Monostratos – Peter Aisher

Director – Jean-Claude Auvray
Designer – Ruari Murchison
Lighting Designer – Michael Doubleday

Royal College of Music Orchestra

Michael Rosewell (Conductor)

The Britten Theatre was the perfect venue for a very strong production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte by the students of the Royal College of Music under the direction of Michael Rosewell.

There’s something almost ‘life affirming’ about attending a performance of such high musical, vocal and instrumental standards, performed with such passion, commitment and – in the case of Timothy Connor’s Papageno – cheeky verve.

While they have years ahead of them to forge the refine their vocal talents, the cast were uniformly strong but the stand out performers for me was Nick Pritchard’s Tamino and Timothy Connor’s Papageno. While he may have tired mid-way through the Second Act his tenor was bright and forthright but he also displayed that oft-missing subtlety of tone and dynamic control that even today’s more tenured tenors lack. He shaped his phrases beautifully and also exuded that naivety that is essential for Tamino. Timothy Connor played his unwilling side-kick very well, finding the right balance between slapstick humour and pathos. His diction – even when speaking – was very good and like Tamino, he elegantly shaped the vocal line intelligently. His duet with Pamina – Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen – similarly displayed that he has a natural ability to blend with other singers.

As Tamino’s future bride, Sofia Larsson demonstrated that she had all the notes for the role with a bright top and the ability to spin the most sensuous legato line. Over time I have no doubt that she will increase her range of colours but like Pritchard, I think they are destined for a bright future. He Wu and her three ladies were all equally impressive – with some of the best ensemble singing and acting I have seen by the Three Ladies – Mesdames Summerfield, Simkin and Ostroukhova and I particularly enjoyed the latter’s smoky, resonant singing. Ms Wu was a formidable Konigin, with pin-point accuracy in the coloratura but also investing overall in the precision of her singing and with excellent diction. Again, as her voice matures she will be able to colour what is – quite clearly – an remarkable instrument. Matthew Buswell’s Sarastro deployed a notable bass voice – both rich and resonant – but I did feel that sometimes there was both a lack of clarity in his diction and his singing.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell drew exemplary playing from the student orchestra, with especially fine and pungent playing from the brass. His ensured that the music was transparent and clear but I did feel that some of his tempi were a little fast.

And I am not quite sure that “Greed Is Good” was quite the moral that Mozart intended for Die Zauberflöte, which was the conclusion that I drew from Jean-Claude Auvray’s production. But while the idea of lauding of wealth as the answer for wisdom might seem a strange approach, I did enjoy his simple, no-nonsense approach. The idea of ‘revelation’ through the opening and closing of the central set was smartly done and surprisingly didn’t feel over-used or tired by the end. And the Drei Knaben caught the awkwardness of youth very smartly.

The entire production made for a very rewarding evening and I look forward to seeing their production of Handel’s Giove in Argo in 2015.

Mozart. Thwarted.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Review – Idomeneo (Royal Opera House, Monday 3 November 2014)

Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
The Voice – Graeme Broadbent
Cretans – Tamsin Coombs, Louise Armit, Andrew O’Connor & John Bernays

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Designs – Annette Murschetz
Costume Designs – Heide Kastler
Lighting Design – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg – Olaf A Schmitt

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

In a recent interview in The Times, director Martin Kušej – clearly attempting to annoint himself the enfant terrible of opera – commented that “with knowledge, respect — and with some freedom — we could really bring [opera] out of the 19th century”.

But take it where?

Judging from the new production of Idomeneo for Covent Garden, Kušej has dragged the genre kicking and screaming to the director’s equivalent of an abbatoir and taken a huge, bloody knife to its throat.

I have no problems with a modern approach to opera – I didn’t object to Kušej’s Forza in Munich, and other productions have been both challenging and immensely enjoyable. But this production of Idomeneo showed scant appreciation of Mozart’s opera or indeed any understanding of its provenance.

But a production is made more tolerable if the singing and the musicianship is of a high standard. Sadly, and despite the impressive line-up, I didn’t think that overall, it passed muster.

However plaudits must go most certainly to Sophie Bevan and Matthew Polenzani as Ilia and Idomeneo. Having enjoyed her Sophie, as the Trojan Princess, Ms Bevan once again demonstrated that she possesses a beautifully bright, light and flexible soprano that was perfectly suited for this role. And she combined a natural talent for Mozart with a real sense of characterization. Padre, germani, addio! caught the conflict that she felt and while Minkowski to Zeffiretti lusinghieri far too fast – where the zephyrs would have not so much caressed as buffeted any young lover – her technique allowed her to negotiate the rapid passages while conveying her love for Idamante.

As the Cretan King, Polenzani once again demonstrated his agile, richly timbred voice. Fuor del mar was thrilling, especially the da capo, and the cavatina with chorus, Accogli, o re del mar was spun with great delicacy.

Special mention too of the Arbace of Stanislas de Barbeyrac – who rightly received one of the loudest cheers at the end. I won’t even begin to fathom why he was dressed like an accordion-carrying-rambler, but his aria – with gently floated dynamics – made for a promising debut.

I am always in two minds about Franco Fagioli. There is no doubting that he has incredible technique and an impressive range, however, I was not wholly convinced by his Idamante. While he was relatively sweet-toned throughout the evening, here was a distinct lack of diction – as if he was swallowing his words rather than projecting them.

Similarly, I am not sure – after such a strong performance most recently as Donna Anna – if Elettra is a suitable role for Malin Byström. Sure enough – and despite some lack of co-ordination with the pit – Ms Byström could channel the vocal fury of the scorned princess, but she simply sounded vocally stressed in Placido è il mar.

In the pit, apart from a few faster-than-expected tempi, Minkowski brought to life the rhythmic verve and highlighted much of the orchestras detail within the score – especially in the ballet music. And while I was not always convinced by the exuberance of the continuo playing, it wasn’t as distracting as some I have heard.

But ultimately it was the production that dragged down this Idomeneo. This opera was written for a ducal court influenced by Enlightenment principles. The libretto reflected the idea of conflicted yet benign sovereignty and ultimately a burgeoning new balance in the order of things. I don’t dispute that the opera can be read in many different ways – but his vision of unremitting thuggery and violence simply isn’t in either the text or in the music.

What Kušej gave us was, quite literally, like shooting fish in a Personregie-barrel. Men rushing around carrying machine guns. Men in underpants being abused. Men dressed rockers. A pantomime High Priest. Children dressed in what can only be described as gym kit. Children carry guns. Fish. And even a shark. The only alleviation from the inanity of it all was the revolving set and what little characterization played out by the singers seemed to be of their own making – and mostly one dimensional.

I also didn’t buy his line about the ballet music only being “partially interesting”. Because, in reality his series of tableaux spoke more eloquently that the anything that preceded it. The enduring image that the “new order” was tainted, that the new generation would repeat the mistakes of the previous generation struck home was actually quite powerful.

It’s just a shame that his sense of narrative didn’t extend to the opera itself.

Mozart’s Women – Part Two

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on April 22, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Review – Mozart Arias (Marina Rebeka, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Speranza Scapucci)

To listen to this Mozart recital disc immediately after that of Ms Gauvin is to enter a different world of sound and interpretation.

Marina Rebeka is a new name for me but judging from social media her star seems to be in the ascendant. It seems that she is not destined for the UK until February 2015 so before then I must try and see her in Europe. I see she is singing Mathilde in Guillaume Tell in Munich and based on this disc, I am inclined to make the trip to see her live on stage.

If Ms Gauvin’s recital was elegantly authentic, there is something ‘solid’ about this debut disc. But solidity in the reassuring and positive sense – this is definitely a ‘calling card’ of a recital disc, as Ms Rebeka literally works her way through Mozart’s heroines and anti-heroines.

It’s clear that from the outset that while this soprano still has a way to go in terms of individual characterization, vocally she has an impressive instrument – full-throated, bold but with a good degree of dynamic control and, when controlled, a thrilling top. And this voice married to strong technique and intelligent interpretation.

From Idomeneo she gives us Electra’s arias and immediately sets out the ambition of this recital disc. I would have preferred a little more ‘fury’ in O smania! O furie! but she sings D’Oreste, d’Aiace ho in seno I tormenti with a real expansiveness. And in Estinto è Idomeneo? Tutte nel cor vi sento the closing chorus – albeit a luxury – would have assisted in giving this track greater impact.

Staying with the anti-heroines her performances of Der Hölle Rache and O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn … Zum Leiden bin ich auserkoren clearly demonstrate that she has the notes if not the dramatic intent and it then feels rather dislocated somewhat to hear her sing Pamina’s Ah, Ich fühl’s. Compared to Ms Gauvin’s ‘chaster’ Pamina, I think that Ms Rebeka’s more robust daughter might have a “lived a little” and it is one of the most compelling performances in this recital.

She also gives us the key arias from Mozart’s earlier Singspiel. In Marten Aller Arten Mozart dispensed with any semblance of emotional depth and parked his coloratura tanks on the lawn of Eighteen Century Vienna. And here Ms Rebeka attacks the music with relish accompanied with similar glee by her concertante counterparts. The vocal line is controlled with the coloratura pinpoint accurate. A thrilling ride of a performance.

And it’s good to hear Kostanze’s Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose with the accompanying recitative, especially when played with such eloquence as it is here. And the ensuing aria, taken at a faster than usual lilt, conveys a sense that this is a role that Ms Rebekah is very comfortable with.

The rest of the recital is made up – rather generously – of the heroines from Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. But as a result, characterization is thin on the ground but there is some more thrilling singing.

Of the arias performed, Crudele? Ah no, mio bene! … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio again provides a vehicle to showcase the singer’s full-bodied – but well-clad technically speaking – soprano. And as a result – vocally speaking – this is the highlight of the disc while she shows enviable breath control in Elvira’s Mi tradì quell’alma ingrate.

As the Countess she delivers Porgi, amor more than elegantly – listen to the sotto voce of her opening phrase for example – and that elegance returns for Dove sono even if again, the tempo is slightly faster than I expected in the opening section.

From Così comes the war horse for any recital disc, Temerari … Come scoglio and this singer delivers it with some gusto. She flings the coloratura passages out with confidence and in this aria at least her trills are spot on.

But the real surprise for me in this recording was the playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Signora Scapucci. And surprising in a good way as considering the ‘glorious noise’ they make in Shostakovich under Petrenko – and definitely worth investigating if you haven’t already – here they play with a sensitivity, grace and sense of style that puts some other British orchestras to shame when it comes to Mozart.

As with Ms Gauvin, I heartily recommend this debut disc. Ms Rebeka might have been over-ambitious in terms of the number of characters she portrays but her commitment and thrilling singing is never in doubt.

Mozart’s Women – Part One

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on April 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

Review – Mozart Opera & Concert Arias (Karina Gauvin, Les Violons Due Roy, Bernard Labadie)

Over the last few weeks I have been throrougly enjoying two recital discs from opposite ends of the performance spectrum but both highly recommended.

The first is by Karina Gauvin, perhaps better known – to me at least – as a consummate Handelian so hearing her Mozart was – except for a random recording of Exsultate Jubilate – an almost new experience.

However, having seen her live as well as possessing both her recital and complete opera recordings, I did notice that while the technique definitely hasn’t diminished, her vocal tone – particularly in the upper part of her range – has narrowed. Yet while it might not have the robust quality of her Porpora recital for example there is a gleam to her singing that has fortunately replaced the ‘matronly’ tone of her Cleopatra in Curtis’ recording of Giulio Cesare.

And it certainly doesn’t detract from the quality of either her performance or musicianship.

Ms Gauvin is an elegant Mozartian.

Her opening aria, Aer tranquillo from Il Re Pastore is stylishly delivered, and beautifully articulated. And naturally the she cuts through the coloratura with ease.

On the strength of her Giunse al fin il momento … Deh vieni, non tardar, I would take her Countess over that of Ms Kermes any day. There is a lightness to the accompagnato with words delivered with laser-like precision that hardly prepares you for the beauty of the aria. She spins out the ensuing aria with a real purity of line, imbuing the vocal line with a beguiling sense of simplicity.

To this day, the entry of the piano obbligato in Ch’io mi scordi di te? Non temer amato bene still manages to catch me by surprise. So it’s a shame that as elegantly as it is played on this disc, I can find no trace of the soloist’s name. Perhaps it is Bernard Labadie? Who knows? But here paired with Ms Gauvin – even if the pace of the aria is somewhat sedate – I have to say that this is one of the best performances of this aria I have heard in a long time. A real gem.

It is in the second concert aria, Misera, dove son! Ah, non son io che parlo, where Ms Gauvin sounds particularly exposed but again her musical intelligence wins through with some elegant phrasing and dynamic control.

But if I had to choose one aria from this recital disc for my desert island, it would be her performance of Ach! Ich fühl’s from Die Zauberflöte. Wondrously controlled and beautifully sung, Ms Gauvin molds the winding vocal line, making her closing phrase – hanging in the air almost – one of incredible emotion.

Of her selections from Così fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito, I have to admit that her Despina – with it’s coquettishness – won me over more than her Fiordiligi and the sluggishness of Vitellia’s Non più di fiori was the only disappointing vocal track of the recital.

Throughout the recital Ms Gauvin is well supported by Les Violons Du Roy under Labadie, but considering the fire and spirit of other authentic ensembles I did wish for a bit more verve, particularly in the overtures included.

But it’s a pleasure to hear Ms Gauvin back on top form. And I hope to hear her in more Mozart in the future.

Figaro – It’s A Man’s World

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Review – Le Nozze di Figaro (W. A. Mozart)

Figaro – Christian van Horn
Susanna – Fanie Atonelou
Count Almaviva – Andrei Bondarenko
Countess Almaviva – Simone Kermes
Cherubino – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Marcellina – Maria Forsstrom
Bartolo – Nikolai Loskutkin
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Don Kurzio – James Elliott
Barbarina – Natalya Kirillova

Music Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis (Conductor)

In the twelve minute film that accompanies his new recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is undoubtedly passionate about music and music making – it is “not profession, not a reproduction, it’s a mission”.

No arguing with that.

There’s also no arguing with the idea that the problems that Mozart captures in this opera are the same problems people face today. There’s passion, love, betrayal and forgiveness within the span of this magnificent work.

So why does this recording sound so old fashioned, dry and most importantly lacking any sense of emotion – passion or otherwise – at all?

Perhaps it’s to do with his theories in terms of how singers should sing. In interviews he has criticized the “lifeless perfectionism” of classical music; that operas have been disfigured by the diktat of “volume at all cost” and “simplification” and that the original vocal palette of colours has been lost and that opera recordings today contain the “least operatic singing”.

Of course there are times when voices – both on stage and in recordings – don’t fit that particular music, but listening to this recording I did wonder if Currentzis had his own balance quite right?

During the course of the video interview Currentzis refers to Le Nozze di Figaro as a “fantastic monument of architecture with the finest lines … [into which] Mozart puts the defect inside”. By defect I assume he means the twists of the social commentary within the story itself and how the music underlines this commentary.

But in reality, Currentzis missionary zeal has injected the opera with a greater defect – his own in terms of the performance.

The opera starts well enough with a well-paced overture and with an attention to the orchestral detail that is immediate. Indeed the orchestral playing throughout is exemplary with a vigour and muscularity that shines a spotlight on the beauty and skill of Mozart’s scoring. There is a warmth of tone to the strings, the wind playing is light and airy and the trumpets and horns are more audible than normal, adding a frisson to the texture which is – when their enthusiasm doesn’t get the best of them – exciting. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the authenticity of the orchestra playing on their feet throughout and there were times when the orchestral volume threatened the chance of the singers being clearly heard.

Sadly however it’s the ‘over-attention’ that Currentzis pays to the singers that undermines the totality of this recording.

There is no doubting the forcefulness of the men in their roles. The Figaro of Christian van Horn and Andrei Bondarenko’s Count dominate the proceedings and it was sometimes be difficult to tell them apart, not only because of the – if at times one dimensional – forcefulness of their characterisations but because they often seem to be exceedingly loud. Take the trio Susanna or via sortite in Act One – it lacked an equality between the Count, Countess and Susanna that’s so necessary to impart the drama of this moment.

Indeed the only moment when Bondarenko does rein in the volume is at that critical moment in the Fourth Act finale when he begs Rosina’s forgiveness. In what should be a magical moment, this Count strangles his voice to such a diminuendo that the impact is lost.

Van Horn makes for a strong Figaro vocally. All his arias demonstrate his robust vocal ability and there’s a pleasant rhythmic spring to both his singing and his diction. But it seems that Currentzis cannot but tinker – the weird sound effect at the end of Se vuol ballare – I think created by holding down keys no the fortepiano so that they resonate – was simply distracting.

Bartolo fares a little better even if La Vendetta was a little faster than unusual. But in the ensembles Loskutkin seems forced to compete with the two other alpha males and the finesse of the music is lost.

But it is the women who suffer the most from Currentzis’ approach. There isn’t the ‘original vocal palette of colours’ that he refers to in the interviews he has conducted. Almost to a person, Currentzis has stripped these singers of their individuality and character, their vibrato-less voices bled of any emotion range or tone.

Personally I don’t believe that the use of vibrato didn’t exist in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Books on both performance practice and singing from the period refer to vocal techniques that clearly relate to the use of vibrato and it is remarked on by the commentators of the day. I don’t deny that vibrato has to be used sparingly in music of this period therefore to remove it completely as Currentzis has encouraged his singers to do effectively strips them of a fundamental and critical emotional dimension to their voices.

This is particularly evident in the Countess of Simone Kermes. In other recordings of music of this period and earlier, Ms Kermes demonstrates that she is an expert at using vibrato most effectively to colour the vocal line and add a real sense of emotional intensity. While listening to this recording I fancied that perhaps as her character developed from Porgi Amor onwards, she would begin to slowly but surely colour her singing to reflect her growing characterisaton. Sadly, it wasn’t so. Dove Sono was a particular ‘low-light’ – not only was the voice bland but the expected fluidity of the vocal line was uneven as a result. Essentially we have been given a Countess singing the notes without communicating them.

It was a similar case in point with Fanie Atonelou’s Susanna. A lack of vocal characterisation made this a bride-to-be without any bite. This was evident from the opening numbers when she is clearly not Figaro’s musical equal but also highlighted in numbers such as the sextet of the Third Act when we all discover Figaro’s parentage and she lacks the necessary vocal weight. Venite, inginocchiatevi was beautifully paced, but the use of ‘sound effects’ only served to highlight the blandness of the singing itself.

And the beautiful almost sensuous Che soave zeffiretto of the Countess and her maid passed – as it definitely should not – without any notice. A tragedy.

I admit to being most disappointed with this recording’s Cherubino. Mary-Ellen Nesi is an incredible mezzo but casting her in this role was a mistake. I’d like to think that perhaps Currentzis was trying to underline the fact that Cherubino is an adolescent boy whose voice is breaking which is why Nesi was given the role, as there was undoubtedly a ‘huskiness’ – almost a matronliness – to the vocal delivery. But in reality her voice is not suited to this role. Voi che sapete sounding particularly uncomfortable with embellishments that pushed Nesi’s voice uncomfortably at points.

Indeed of the women, only Maria Forsstrom‘s Marcellina was strongly cast, well characertised and it was a nice surprise to hear Il caro e la capretta.

Currentzis follows the vogue of embellishing the fortepiano line. There are contemporary reports of Mozart embellishing from the fortepiano himself and I have to say that the recitatives are handled well and are fleet of foot, with the improvisations on the fortepiano adding to the detail rather than distracting.

I can’t deny that once my ear had got used to Currentzis approach it was refreshing. But I did rather listen to this performance in terms of its ‘theoretical’ approach and argument rather than as a performance in its own right.

Ultimately however it is Currentzis’ theorising and the resultant unevenness of the voices that – despite well-judged tempi – undermines this Figaro. Le Nozze di Figaro and Beaumarchais’ original play discomfited the ruling classes not only because Figaro was an ‘upstart’ but because it offered a glimpse of women – of all classes – as equal both in intellect and power.

Currentzis has undermined the very “defect” that he himself recognizes that Mozart wrote into this opera.

It will be interesting – and hopefully not as disappointing – to hear Currentzis’ Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni due later this year and next.

Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

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