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A Darker Rose

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Royal Opera House, Thursday 22 December 2016)

The Marschallin – Rachel Willis-Sörensön
Octavian – Anna Stéphany
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs auf Lerchanau – Matthew Rose
Herr von Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Marianne Leitmetzerin & Noble Widow – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi –Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke
Annina – Helene Schneiderman
Italian Singer – Giorgio Berrugi
Police Commissioner – Scott Conner
Major Domo – Samuel Sakker
Hairdresser – Robert Curtis
Noble Orphans – Kathy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Andrea Hazell
Milliner – Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller – Luke Price
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott

Director – Robert Carsen
Set Designers – Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau 

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s often tempting to dismiss Der Rosenkavalier as ‘ein farce’. Shrouded in the Eighteenth Century setting, the opera is as much about change – inevitable both in terms of relationships as well as society – as it is about love. And it takes an exceptional director to bring out its darker side.

Robert Carsen is such a director. I’ve long been a huge admirer of his works – strong on narrative but full of insight and inventiveness. His Iphigénie with Susan Graham, his Frosch in Vienna, his take on Handel’s Rinaldo and the more recent brutal and heartrending Les Carmelites are among those productions that have had the greatest personal impact.

While this Der Rosenkavalier had its lighter moments, it was Carsen’s attention to detail that made it so involving. Combined with an innate understanding of human behaviour and his intellectual capacity to tell a story, this is of the most rewarding productions I have seen.

Visually the staging was stunning. The Marschallin’s own room, with its paintings of Emperor Franz Josef and other Austrian and Habsburg aristocracy, immediately created a world of ivory tower privilege. Faninal’s palace was in rude juxtaposition. The howitzer and other weapons immediately made it clear how he had amassed his new wealth and also underlined the cruellest irony that his daughter’s future husband – at this stage Ochs but ultimately Count Octavian Rofrano – would be victims of his class’s aggrandisement. For the final act a seedy bordello masquerading as an elegant brothel, complete with the cross-dressing maitre-d’ of Alasdair Elliott and the two-way paintings. The detail paid to individuals as well as to creating specific images led an additional depth. For example, the Gigli-like Italian Tenor – beautifully sung by Georgio Berrugi – presenting an autographed record; the forward looking fashion for the Marschallin to peruse but ultimately dismiss; the arrogant militaristic snapshot that closed the second act. All these and many other effortlessly created a sense of time. Most interesting was the Marschallin’s ‘chemistry’ with the Police Commissioner and final departure from the stage with him. Arm in arm, Carsen intentionally or not seemed to hint that the Marschallin had decided to eschew young men for boys. Without a handkerchief to retrieve at the end, Carsen was able to end of the darkest of notes.

On stage, Covent Garden fielded a cast that was strong if yet all wholly establishing themselves in these particular roles. Given time, I’ve no doubt that some of these singers will become closely associated with their specific roles.

Without dispute however, the Octavian of Anna Stéphany dominated the evening. There was a strength – almost a masculinity – to her singing with hardly any hint of strain throughout the evening. If her ‘Viennese’ dialect was not as strong as that of other singers I have heard in this role, her acting definitely convinced. She effortlessly shifted from spoiled boy, to privileged youth to beguiling maid.

Sophie Bevan was a scintillating and experienced namesake – finding the right balance between ingénue and young woman. Vocally the part held no terrors for her. From the stratospheric writing of the presentation scene to the final duet her liquid tone was full of warmth without any hint of strain.

The Ochs of Matthew Rose and the Marschallin of Rachel Willis-Sörensön were both works in progress but show much promise, particularly Willis-Sörensön. She has a warm and resonant soprano and hopefully more experience in the role will deepen her characterisation as well as result in more fluidity and seamless phrasing of the vocal line as well as more colour

The remaining cast, led by Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal and the Valzacchi and Annina of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperhacke and Helene Schneiderman – completed a strong ensemble cast. Special mention must also be made of Miranda Keys’ Marianne Leitmetzerin.

Sadly, the efforts in the pit were not as polished. After a stunning Rosenkavalier in Birmingham, it seemed that Andris Nelsons couldn’t find his mojo for this performance. The playing of the orchestra – usually so burnished and warm – sounded decidedly brittle and rarely matched the magic of Strauss’ score and his direction wasn’t focused enough to pull out the transparency that is much needed in this music.

Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier is a joy to observe and listen to. Rachel Willis-Sörensön is definitely a Marschallin to keep an eye out for and when Covent Garden revives this –soon rather than later – I hope that they will cast her again.

Misero, dove son?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 18, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Review – Ezio (Oper Frankfurt, Saturday 17 December 2016)

Valentiniano – Rupert Enticknap
Ezio – Max Emanuel Cencic
Fulvia – Cecelia Hall
Massimo – Theo Lebow
Onoria – Sydney Mancasola
Varo – Michael Porter

Director – Vincent Boussard
Assistant Director – Carerina Panti Liberovicí
Staging – Kaspar Glarner
Costume – Christian Lacroix
Lighting – Joachim Klein
Video – Bibi Abel
Dramaturg – Zsolt Horpácsy

Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester
Simone Di Felice (Conductor)

Gluck originally wrote Ezio for Prague in 1750, for which there is an excellent recording by Il Complesso Barocco under the late Alan Curtis. Gluck subsequently edited the opera for Viennese performances in 1763, replacing some of the music that had found its way into Orfeo and adding new arias.

Eighteenth Century opera – and in particular Metastasian opera seria – is all about balance. Admittedly for some it might not always seem like that if you view sitting through one as an ‘interminable marathon of da capo aria and secco recitative’ as a friend once put it. He’s still a friend – we just don’t go to opera seria together anymore. The balance is more that just the music. It’s the relationships between the characters. Their interplay as the drama unfolds. And following the rules set out by Metastasio himself, and followed almost slavishly by composers including Gluck – at least to start with.

Without that balance something doesn’t quite feel right and that feeling grew as my evening in Frankfurt passed by. I’m far from an expert on this opera – despite enjoying Curtis’ vibrant recording – or opera in general but something seemed awry. And I don’t just mean the singing, playing and production. I don’t know what hybrid of the original score(s) were used but by the end it felt that Attila – Ezio’s adversary – had himself taken a sword to the score. Personally I don’t see what the problem is with performing all three acts as originally intended – squeezing the drama into two halves is simply nonsensical. There were also specific moments when it was clear that arias had been ejected. For example, the end of the first ‘half’ didn’t end with an expected aria or duet, but rather a slightly awkward glove puppet narration by Varo. Any sense of dramatic momentum from the first half – which was already minimal – was completely destroyed. The second half opened with a huge swathe of secco recitative – by my watch almost, if not over fifteen minutes. I can’t imagine that this would have been in the original score unless Gluck really wanted his patrons to finish another round of canasta in their boxes. Even for me, it was almost interminable.

On stage, Rupert Enticknap’s Valentiniano was ultimately entitled to Caesar’s laurels. He may have tired towards the end, most noticeably in the trio, but his voice was bright, light and true. At times Enticknap’s voice could have benefitted from more heft and as with the rest of the cast, his da capo lines could have shown greater originality in their ornamentation. As this lack of inventiveness was true of all the singers, I had to wonder if Broussard and his dramaturg Horpácsy had forgotten that Gluck wrote this before his own reforms excised ornamentation from his music.

Of the remaining cast, Theo Lebow’s Massimo and the Varo of Michael Porter came off best. Lebow’s singing was both characterful and mostly effortless – matched by some pretty smart acting – and Porter had a mellifluous tenor which came across well in his single aria.

The two women, Cecelia Hall’s Fulvia and Sydney Mancasola’s Onoria were miscast for different reasons. Both had pleasant enough voices although Mancasola’s was on the slightly harsh and brittle side, but neither had the necessary heft nor range of colour. This was particularly true of Hall with a distinct lack of colour or dramatic delivery missing most of the time. She was more often than not inaudible in the Gluck’s excellent trio and in Misera, dove son? she failed to deliver any of the range of emotions contained therein.

However, Max Emanuel Cencic proved the greatest disappointment. Having recently seen him in London, I had hoped that on stage, sans score, there would be a noticeable improvement. There was some, but not much. It may be the fault of the direction – there was a lot of leaping on benches but not much else – but Cencic’s dramatic vocabulary didn’t extend beyond raising his hands quite a lot. Vocally, his diction was indistinct much of the time, his da capos lacklustre and at times he failed to carry above the orchestra.

The orchestra itself didn’t acquit itself from the start. There was a lack of vigour from the opening notes of the overture, with brass and winds mysteriously muted. Simone De Felice single approach to the music seemed ‘tutissimo legato’ although as if to banish the aural cobwebs that had collected at the beginning of the second act, the subsequent aria had more bite before the musicians returned to a more lax – even lazy – performance attitude. Indeed, by the final chorus everyone sounded like they just wanted to go home. Judging from the audience departures at half time, they weren’t the only ones.

Boussard’s direction was handsomely supported by costumes by Monsieur Lacroix, although Fulvia almost came a cropper on her first entrance. There was some clever use of light and reflection but nothing could quite mask the overall lack of inspiration. I’ve already mentioned the quite distracting – almost comic – leaping on and off strategically placed benches which seemed to be the extent of the acting lexicon. At the end, the transition to a modern museum seemed more like a desperate attempt to inject some actual interest than a logical part of the drama. If Fulvia was lost, so were we.

I am not saying that Eighteenth Century opera has to be performed precisely as it was in the 1700s but Oper Franfurt’s Ezio didn’t so much fall between stools as much as leap off the creative abyss. I’m sure the company is excellent in many operas but I’m not sure Gluck is ‘their man’.

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.

Deathly Hollow

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on June 10, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Review – Tristan and Isolde (English National Opera, Thursday 9 June 2016)

Tristan – Stuart Skelton
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Karen Cargill
Kurwenal – Craig Colcough
King Marke – Matthew Rose
Melot – Stephen Rooke
Young Sailor – David Webb
A Shepherd – Peter Van Hulle
A Helmsman – Paul Sheehan

Director – Daniel Kramer
Set Designer – Anish Kapoor
Justin Nardella – Associate Set Designer
Christina Cunningham – Costume Designer
Paul Anderson – Lighting Designer
Freider Weiss – Video Designer

Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner (Conductor)

It’s hard not to be incredibly disappointed by ENO’s new production of Tristan und Isolde on every front except one – the magnificent playing of the orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. His tempos weren’t always convincing but the opening prelude – and the singing of David Webb as the Young Sailor from on high – set up a sense of expectation that was dashed like a ship trying to negotiate entry to Kareol.

Everything else – the confused staging, the poor direction and overall, the quality of the singing, just left a great empty hole which even Wagner’s music couldn’t fill.

Arguably, Tristan and Isolde are two of the biggest roles in opera and ultimately the two leads, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton, did not deliver. As Tristan, Skelton sounded mostly vocally under-powered and musically distant in the First Act. While he improved in the Second Act, he was hampered both by lacklustre direction and having to negotiate the set and in the Third Act he sounded vocally strained and at times literally ragged. Ms Melton was sadly wholly unconvincing. Vocally, this was much more than just a stretch and she sounded severely compromised at the higher end of her range. Top notes seemed only to be achieved through sheer physical effort and jarred Wagner’s vocal line. The resultant stress and strain then created a sound that was often harsh and unappealing – the greatest shame being the strangled final notes that sank below the lush, luminous sound of the orchestra’s closing bars. Personally I don’t think that this role is suited to her voice and in the long term could actually do some damage. Her acting was similarly under-developed.

In the supporting roles, Matthew Rose made an uneasy start but steadied quickly. Karen Cargill delivered a rich and mainly nuanced performance although there was at times a worrying amount of vibrato. Colin Colclough’s Kurwenal was also vocally strong but marred but a characterisation that – like the rest of the production – betrayed the opera itself.

And what of the production? Anish Kapoor has clearly researched previous productions of Wagner operas – from Wieland to the present day. Fused with his own previous work it just created a lack of coherence. The set for Act One was visually arresting, smartly creating both the idea of a ship as well as the distance between the two protagonists, but I did wonder about sight lines issues and the clumsy management of the two lovers once the potion had been drunk. The Second Act presented its own problems. Having the singers clamber around destroyed any sense of intimacy or – let’s face it – eroticism, and I would imagine that quite a few in the audience became distracted by the lightshow. And what were they clambering around? The moon? Their imagination? Or did King Marke really have an ugly grotto in his forest? Who knows and by that point did anyone care. The sudden appearance of surgeons and hospital beds upon their discovery by Marke felt contrived – a need to create a sense of sudden and unrelated drama. The final act – again relying on animation as distraction became tiresome and lacked any sense of dramatic impact.

As this production trudged inexorably it wasn’t helped by Kramer’s direction – or general lack of it as evidence by a reliance on stock dramatic gestures. There were some well observed moments in the opening act, but overall Kramer leeched any emotional intensity or electricity from the stage. Isolde’s self-harming was an interesting insight but wasn’t developed except by the two leads smearing themselves in blood and I why Kurwenal’s brutality towards Brangäne? He is a squire if not a knight after all. Neither eroticism nor sensuality stood a chance in the Second Act and the drama of Tristan’s monologue was undermined by Kurwenal’s clowning.

In terms of the costumes the clash of styles was more suggestive of time bandits than timelessness. The Eighteenth Century inspiration for Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal – by way of the blockbuster Mockingjay series it seemed – contrasted with the oriental-inspired costuming for King Marke’s court, except for his doctors. Yet by the Third Act, time seemed to have moved on – the characters had been aged with the resultant loss or growth or grey hair. Tristan had the stamina to survive a mortal wound, and Isolde was rowing herself to his rescue.

Ultimately, this Tristan und Isolde failed to convince, impress or excite on any level but one – the orchestra and Edward Gardner. The singers were disadvantaged; the direction was devoid of dramatic intent and Kramer, unwittingly I hope, bleached this great love story of any emotion.

A tragedy? Yes, but in every wrong way.

 

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?

 

Jolly Good Jommelli

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

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

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

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page Conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elektra-fied

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Play – Strauss in Berlin

In Classical Music, Opera, Richard Strauss on April 13, 2016 at 9:49 am

Four days of exceptional singing.

Four days of brilliant orchestral playing.

Four days and a full range of emotions.

Four days in Berlin for Elektra, Die Äegyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier.

The standard of each performance was remarkably high. At times, incomparable.

It began and ended with two remarkable performances – Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and the Marschallin of Michael Kaune. Ms Herlitzius divides people like a Riesling. But whatever your taste, there’s no denying that her interpretation is both formidable and mesmerising. Not always vocally beautiful or precise, it is searing in its intensity, emotionally raging and matched by a dramatic commitment that is almost overwhelming. What is missing is the breadth of phrasing but it was nonetheless an exceptional performance. And in the ‘other corner’ of this emotional boxing match, Doris Soffel invested Klytemnestra with authority both regal and musical.

Replacing Anja Harteros, Michaela Kaune immediately erased any sense of disappointment with an incredibly memorable Marschallin – beautifully observed, musically intelligent and delicately nuanced. It was perhaps one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard in a while. Every word, each phrase carefully shaped and delivered. The result? She did suddenly look old at her levée; bitter and resentful of youth as she muttered about ‘Resi’ and without a doubt the wife of a Feldmarschall when she finally dismissed Ochs. Yet it was her performance in the final trio that was definitive. Her singing and her acting conveyed a simple fact – that her life was entering a new and final phase. One of loneliness. No more Octavians hiding in her bedchamber. It wasn’t resignation as much as defeat. Heartbreaking.

In Helena, Ricarda Merbeth and Laura Aiken were vocally resplendent, effortlessly riding the crest of Strauss rich and heady orchestration. Indeed in the opening of Act Two, Merberth’s post-coital vocal rapture not only matched that of the music but had me wondering she had abandoned Menelaus – wonderfully sung here by Stefan Vinke – for the boy Paris if the sex was so good? And as ever it was delightful to hear Ronnita Miller. When will we hear her in London, I wonder?

The real discovery of the four days was Daniela Sindram. Her Octavian went from swaggering seventeen year old to love struck teenager over three acts. Combined with real acting talent is a remarkably rich, burnished yet darkly hued mezzo that shows no sign of strain throughout its range. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan both delivered conscientious performances. Delevan’s was both musical and dramatically confident but slightly underpowered. Uhl’s Chryosthemis failed to ignite the much needed desperation and her vocal line didn’t soar quite enough as others in the role. As Danae, and I saw her in exactly the same production a few years ago, she gave a beautifully nuanced performance but it took until the final act before she shone vocally.

As Der Rosenkavalier’s Sophie, Siobhan Stagg’s performance captured the young girl’s skittishness. I’ve also no doubt that the harsh edge to her voice will be ironed out as her voice develops further. When that happens, Ms Stagg could become a memorable Sophie.

Each and every other singer over the four nights was of an exceptionally high standard. Exceptional mention for Tobias Kehrer’s broodingly resonant Oreste, Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s patrician Faninal and the brightly voiced Midas of Raymond Very. All three particularly stood out in roles that more commonly suffer. It’s also easy to forget that Der Rosenkavalier is truly an ensemble opera and there were exceptionally strong performances across the board including Stephanie Lauricella as Annina, Fionnuala McCarthy’s Marianne and tenor Matthew Newlin.

It was also refreshing to sit through four intelligent, well-thought out productions.

Elektra, directed by Kirsten Harms, was couched in the inevitable doom and gloom of overwhelming tragedy. Enclosed by three walls, it was reminiscent of the garbage chute in Star Wars, especially as the ensemble spent a lot of time floundering around in the mud. Just once I’d like to see a bit more colour at Klytemnestra’s court. She’s a rich woman at the head of a corrupt and debauched court – you think she’d have some fun with it, wouldn’t you?

The Kismet-meets-Indiana Jones of Die Ägyptische Helena (Marco Arturo Marelli) was a visual delight. And xxx managed the shift from the more comedic opening to the closing pathos with great skill. And as Helena says farewell to Aithra and her cohorts, it felt that perhaps she wasn’t really going to completely give up her flirtatious ways, as Menelaus reaction also seemed to convey.

Strauss was often criticised for his commercial acumen. He fought hard to control the copyright of his music, and perhaps rightly so having witnessed the chaos of Wagner’s own attempts. The sheets-of-music-cum-shower-of-gold in Die Liebe Der Danae was a clear reference to this, as was the piano spinning ominously overhead throughout. Yet at the end, Danae willingly handed over the gold/music to Jupiter in exchange for eternal happiness with the donkey herder. Not sure Strauss would have agreed.

Götz Friedrich’s Der Rosenkavalier was first performed in 1993 and is ample demonstration that if a production works, why change it? It seamlessly brought together the worlds of 18th Century Vienna with the world that would have been more familiar to Strauss himself. I loved the fact that the ‘maskerade’ referred to by the Marschallin at the ended actually begun before the opera started. As mistress and lover dressed for their breakfast in Act One, they clearly donned outfits inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Another nice touch was when the Marschallin scented the silver rose in Da geht er hin – it added a certain frisson in the Second Act when Octavian smells the rose and then looks up at Sophie.

But it was the poignancy of this production that was most enduring – especially the final scene. After a ‘Ja, ja’ of resignation, the Marschallin stood in the background, destined only ever to observe Octavian from a distance. In some productions, there’s a lingering hope that Octavian might return to her. Not in this one. For director Friedrich, the Marschallin’s First Act view of men cruelly rings true.

The bedrock on which these four days rested was the superlative orchestral playing and singing of the Deutsche Oper. The players in the pit executed each opera perfectly on four successive nights – a testament not only to their stamina but also their knowledge and clearly evident love of the music. They were directed by a quartet of conductors with an intimate knowledge of every musical detail which enabled them not only to balance singers and the orchestra, but most importantly giving both time and space to breathe.

I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but his Elektra revealed an incredible range of colours and sororities with a vigorous attention to rhythmic detail. Andrew Litton veritably wallowed and revelled in the lush and sensuous sound world of Helena, finding a muscularity to it but never letting it swamp singers or players alike. Sebastian Weigle brought a transparency to the score of Danae – rarely have I heard the opening of the final act played with such luminosity. And while Rosenkavalier got off to an unsteady start, control was quickly asserted, with each and every waltz theme given loving attention.

In all, an incredible four days. Yet it’s hard not to bemoan the quality of musical life beyond London. I know funding is different, but it’s a shame that our own government doesn’t recognise the value – both cultural and economic – of a serious commitment to the arts and arts education.

Similarly it’s hard not to wonder how artistically Berlin gets it so right, and more often than not our own opera houses – both of them – get it so, so wrong.

 

 

Alcina, undone.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 28, 2016 at 11:37 am

 

Review – Alcina (Semper Oper, Saturday 19 March 2016)

Alcina – Heidi Stober
Ruggiero – Serena Malfi
Bradamante – Angélique Noldus
Morgana – Veronica Cangemi
Oronte – Simeon Esper
Melisso – Sebastian Wartig
Oberto – Elias Madler

Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Dramaturgy – Sophie Becker
Stage Designer – Ben Baur
Costumes – Karin Jud
Lighting – Fabio Antoci

Sächsiche Staatskapelle Dresden
Christopher Moulds (Conductor)

While the previous evening’s Giulio Cesare was let down by a weak production and some critical miscasting that didn’t do justice to either the music or the lead, this Alcina was deliberately disfigured. I am not against modern productions, and can find RegieTheater and its ilk interesting and thought provoking but what director Jan Philipp Gloger did was akin to vandalism.

Alcina is a ‘fantastical’ opera – magic, demons, transformation – in which the very human emotion of love intrudes and ultimately wins the day. Gloger actually had a basic premise very smartly worked out but a devastating decision ruined not only the production but showed a scant lack of respect for the original opera.

Fortunately, the musical standard was very high with strong performances from all the leads and in the pit.

I’d not heard Heidi Stober before this production but she is certainly an impressive soprano who delivered a vivid portrayal of everyone’s favourite sorcerer. Her piercing soprano – with only the occasionally hint of strain and stress – was well-suited to Alcina’s music, and she was comfortable both in delivering the vocal line with a true sense of legato as well as tackling the fiendishly difficult coloratura with theatrical flourish and personal relish, switching easily from pride and fury to a more plaintive tone. And fortunately the director didn’t distract too much at those major moments such as a beautifully delivered Ah! Mio cor or the memorable scena, Ah! Ruggiero crudel … Ombre pallide.

Serena Malfi’s Ruggiero had a wonderfully dark vocal timbre and a ‘no nonsense’ approach to her portrayal of the knight that was refreshing. Sta nell’ircana was undoubtedly a highlight but there was a wistfulness to her Verdi prati but did make me wonder if Ruggiero was as truly as committed to reforming his character as he pretended to be.

As Morgana, Veronica Cangemi got off to a rocky start, but she recovered quickly to perform a thrilling Tornami a vagheggiar with just the right amount of embellishment in da capo. And she also gave a heart-stopping Credete al mio dolore in the second half, with wonderfully floated top notes and some beautifully rendered ornamentation.

The remaining principles were equally strong. I’m always impressed when Oronte is well-classed and Simeon Esper showed a light, airy tenor that showed no strain in the florid passages of his arias. Both Angélique Noldus and Sebastian Wartig were solid as Bradamante and Melisso respectively, but I did wont for a bit more characterisation from Noldus.

Without wanting to seem churlish, casting choirboy Elias Madler as Oberto probably has more to do with a directorial whim that musical intent.. Of course he had the notes, just, but through no fault of his own wasn’t best able the convey the emotion – fury or otherwise – of the music.

Christopher Moulds led a confident ensemble who seemed to relish this music more than that of the previous night. His choice of tempi was well-judged, allowing the music to breathe, his support of the singers was sympathetic and stylistically it was very rewarding.

As I said earlier, the production was – at the start – well-considered and designed. The moving set chimed well with the idea of a constantly shifting world created by Alcina to unsettle her victims. Personally there seemed to be a quiet nod to the 1980s in terms not only of the costumes but a latent idea of greedy, self-satisfied businessmen being undone by their own greed and being driven insane by a desire for the unattainable Alcina. I’m not sure the be-jeaned Bradamante quite fitted into this narrative – why was she dressed so plainly? A more suitable disguise, perhaps as a business man, would have worked as well.

Visually the most affecting scene was Si, son quella when Ruggiero was confronted by an ‘older’ Alcina. The poignancy of this scene was felt throughout the audience.

So when it was going so well, why did Gloger then go and ruin it?

The final scene which should be the defeat of Alcina and the expected lieto fine was completely re-written. But here, Ruggiero, seemingly unable to choose between the wife and the sorceress, shoots himself in the head. This leaves the cast to quit the stage, the walls to recede and for Alcina to sing – in the wrong place – Mi restano la lagrime against the backdrop of her own possessions.

It was a barbaric act. Vandalism, pure and simple – the director’s vanity at play, ignoring the original ending because he feels that he has something more ‘interesting’ to say.

I’m all for modern productions, but surely a director should remain true to the original? It’s like cutting the final ensemble in Don Giovanni. And what next? Figaro unmarried? Fidelio unsaved? Carmen raising three kids in a suburban neighbourhood?

It simply smacked of conceit, an attempt to demonstrate he was cleverer than anyone else. This single thoughtless concept ruined what had been, until that moment, a strong and insightful production teamed with some great music making.

EN … Oh.

In Classical Music, Opera on March 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

Most people who visit the opera expect to see the drama unfold on stage. Yet English National Opera more consistently creates more interesting drama off-stage than it does for the paying public.

Just when you thought the company and its management might get at least a short period of respite having averted a strike by the chorus, ENO has now lost its Music Director.

It’s an organisation be-devilled by constant crises. Not since Handel’s day, I reckon, has an opera company been more threatened with bankruptcy, failing box office receipts as well as back stage and corridor shenanigans and bad behaviour.

Personally, I think it’s unfair to completely and wholly blame the most recent management teams for the current crisis. There has been financial insecurity at ENO since the so-called ‘powerhouse’ years. There’s no denying that some great and memorable productions were created in that period. But at the same time, the cavalier fashion in which they wielded the finances is at the root of ENO’s current malaise. And if I am honest, it’s a bit disingenuous for those people associated with that period to come out now and be critical of recent attempts to secure a more stable footing.

But it is rather like bemoaning spilt milk. Whether you call it financial naïveté, ignorance or bad decision making over the years,, the result has been a company often forced to accept short-term respite over long-term security. Desperate times always result in desperate reactions and such has been, and remains the case, at the London Coliseum. Indeed occupying the building itself seemed more foolhardy at the time than a wise and calculated decision. Accepting bail-outs from Arts Council England – more about them later – was all well and good, but rather than stabilise the company properly, the money was over-spent on over ambitious plans that couldn’t hope to realise the consistently high box office return required from every single production.

Granted some management choices are questionable – the appointment of Sean Doran and Oleg Caetani for example. Both appointments took longer than they should and ultimately Doran left the company prematurely and Caetani never actually stepped through the door. But I will say that in aftermath of Doran’s departure, the board did the right and proper thing. Yes, they appointed without a proper selection process, but it could be the one and only time that the board acted decisively and with the future of the company first and foremost in their minds.

It created stability for a period. Stability that ENO hadn’t enjoyed in quite a while. However, that temporary stability came to an abrupt end with the departure of Loretta Tomasi. She might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but she was an able, tough yet fair administrator who kept a tight rein in the company’s finances. The company’s error was not to replace her and to allow John Berry – undoubtedly creative but not a man for whom details matter – complete sinecure at St Martin’s Lane.

It’s also too easy the blame the board. It’s unfair to think that they are just a bunch of rich old men and women who convene once a month and criticise management. I won’t say they’re behaviour hasn’t at times seemed churlish, and sometimes they overstepped their duties, but you cannot fault their commitment and passion for both the company and the art form itself. And let’s not forget their own financial contributions in times of need.

Yet I do feel that their recent appointment at a senior level within the company smacks of the “better do something quick” rather than a thought-out plan. I’m sure Cressida Pollock is very able in some environments. I’m just not sure this is one of them. Now confirmed in her tenure, it seems that Pollock seems unwilling or incapable of owning a decision, as the recent conflagration with the chorus shows. Reading the coverage and her own blog – clearly not one media outlet was willing to print her authored piece or was not asked – there is not only a lack of understanding of what ENO stands for.

She seems to have found some more money with regards to the chorus but one has to wonder if this is another reaction rather than a strategic decision. Whether the package helps or hinders is yet to be seen. There will be costs associated with helping the chorus find ‘summer work’ for a workforce already spread thin.

And what of Mark Wigglesworth and his decision to quit a job after just seven months? Surely he knew what he was getting into or did he naively not ask the right questions in his interview? And did no one at St Martin’s Lane take note when he wrote “Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike – would damage it irreparably”? Did the ENO’s press office not read the draft?

Whatever happens next at ENO, Wigglesworth must accept a share of the reaction for the decision he has made this week.

So, Arts Council England? In turns cast as Mosostratos, Scarpia and Iago. It’s fair to say that no brave decision has ever been made by ACE with regards to ENO. Rather a series of random acts of little coherence. Even Henley’s weak-penned apologia seemed more aimed at the Treasury and Spending Review than in the interests of the company or ‘Culture UK’.

So, what is left to come? And what denouement would either be a fitting tragedy or lieto fine for the audience to witness?

What about total closure? Is it really that unpalatable? London has another opera house and also plays host to other UK opera companies as well as companies from overseas. And, in this multi-cultural, multi-platform, variegated ‘Google-translate’ world we live in, do we really need to hear opera performed in English. Lilian Bayliss’ mission had a purpose when the company was originally founded, but does it have that same purpose today? With soaring ticket prices, ENO can hardly still be seen as providing ‘opera for everyone’ and the released funding could be distributed to other non central London-based opera companies.

But if not closure, then what about a reduced company? Rescued in size and scale but not quality or ambition. A company that finally accepts it must leave the Coliseum to the lions at ACE and seek a home – transient, seasonal but definitely smaller – elsewhere – even occasionally outside London. This could take more than a few years and tears to realise, and will result in short and potentially medium-term hardship. However, a transformed company could emerge triumphant with renewed purpose and an identity still true to its origins but firmly focused on the audience, and potentially more attractive to sponsors and philanthropists with a more sustainable economic model.

Or do we just leave ENO as it is? Stumbling along creatively and artistically. Lurching from one month and year end to the next. Reacting rather than acting. Slowly fading away until it is a company of no consequence. Ultimately a burden, by when the decision will be inevitable.

Surely, as a management consultant, Ms Pollock must consider even the most radical ideas even if this means her footnote in the history of St Martin’s Lane is more Queen of the Night than Tannhauser’s Elizabeth.

Personally not having ENO in my own future would be a disaster. Yes, I don’t like everything they do. Or say. This government is doing it’s damnedest to snuff out culture one candle at a time and while that is not acceptable is it acceptable to spend public money in this way?

But perhaps it is time to ask the last person out the turn off the lights.

 

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