lietofinelondon

Archive for the ‘Handel’ Category

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.

Fail Caesar

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on March 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

 

Review – Giulio Cesare (Semper Oper, Dresden. Friday 18 March 2016)

Giulio Cesare – David Hansen
Cleopatra – Elena Gorshunova
Tolomeo – Matthew Shaw
Cornelia – Tichina Vaughn
Sesto – Jana Kurucová
Achilla – Evan Hughes
Nireno – Yosemeh Adjei

Director – Jens-Daniel Herzog
Dramaturg – Stefan Ulrich
Staging & Costumes – Mathis Neidhardt
Choreography – Ramses Sigli
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Sāchsische Staatsopernchore
Sāchsische Staatskapelle Dresden

Alessandro De Marchi (Conductor)

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of his more sophisticated operas in terms of the characters he brings to life and therefore notoriously difficult. It does have a simpler storyline than most but the characterisation woven into the music is such that it’s not difficult to understand why it can be a hit or miss affair. Just consider the contrasting success of Glyndebourne’s production versus ENO’s travesty.

Semper Oper’s production, first performed in 2009, had a few flashes of inspiration, but ultimately failed to convince. And in doing so, it failed its cast and in particular David Hansen who was making his debut in Dresden. This was the first time that a countertenor had performed the lead role and he should have been served with a better production and direction.

I’ve long been an admirer of Hansen. In the increasingly crowded countertenor world, he has a stratospheric, bright and flexible voice with a distinct timbre that, like Iestyn Davies, sets him apart. It was an impressive debut. Clearly there is work still to do and I hope that he will perform the role again and again because Hansen’s interpretation could become a defining Caesar. Handel wrote some of his greatest music for this role and Hansen acquitted himself well although I wish he’d deployed more of his bright, ringing top in the da capos. A highlight was Se in fiorito ameno prato and it was an inspired touch to have the obbligato violinist on the stage. Seeing the two performers sparring created one of the few dramatic and joyous moments of the evening.

His Cleopatra, Elena Gorshunova possesses an impressive instrument. It’s full-throated, has a pleasant weight and depth to it, a pleasant vibrato and is certainly agile. She successfully managed the vocal demands of the score, finding the agilità demanded of Non disperar, Tutto puó donna vezzoso and Da tempeste as well as a beautifully sustained line and added vocal light and dark for V’adoro pupille and Piangeró. However, whereas Hansen and some of the others managed their da capo ornamentation with both intelligence and grace, Gorshunova’s embellishments were too unstylistic in most cases and so ambitious that they strained the voice, b,urged the vocal line and led to intonation problems.

As Sesto, Jana Kurucová was a pure joy to listen to and whether it was deliberate or not, she captured the gauche quality of a teenage boy. In the dramatic arc of her interpretation, Kurucová successful portrayed Sesto’s transition from awkward boy to young man with Cara speme one of the highlights of the evening.

Sadly as his mother, Tichina Vaughn did nothing but disappoint but it’s not the first time that I’ve heard a miscast Cornelia. Are people so thrown by the seemingly simple music and misunderstand what Handel was conveying to the audience? Cornelia is a Roman matron, dignified yet destroyed and desperate, and her music reflects this. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than her first aria, Priva son d’ ogni conforto. Laden with pathos, the simple vocal line is incredibly exposed and requires a singer with magnificent technique and interpretive ability. All her arias – beguilingly simple yet notoriously difficult – require it. Sadly, Vaughn severely lacked the qualities and the technique for the role. I see she is scheduled to perform Klytemnestra in a new production of Salome this Autumn in Dresden. It’s difficult to see her in this role.

Of the remaining cast, Matthew Shaw’s Tolomeo and the Achilla of Evan Hughes passed muster without being exceptional.

De Marchi directed the orchestra briskly throughout, and at times too briskly although he did find a range of co,ours in the score although I’m not sure a harp featured in the original score. However he criminally marred one of the highlights of the entire opera – Son nata a lagrimar – by taking it at a gallop, although you have to wonder if that was for Vaughn’s benefit.

The production itself fell into the easy and obvious option of an eastern Mediterranean – probably Turkish – setting. Maybe it was just me, but there was also something slightly disturbing in the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Eastern’ characters. The staging was smart, with the café setting in Act Two well done but it was undone by details such as Tolomeo’s cruelty – overdone and unsubtle – and the banality of the choreography.

Ultimately this Giulio Cesare was a disappointing production that let down Handel and Hansen and which resulted in the ‘politest’ audience reaction I’ve ever witnessed at the Semper.

The beauty and emotional impact of Handel’s music, Hansen’s baroque credentials and the audience deserved better.

Much better.

By Giove

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

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

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

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

London Handel Orchestra
Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seme(le)freddo

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

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

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

London Handel Singers
London Handel Orchestra

Laurence Cummings (Conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattoo’ll Do Quite Nicely

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Review – Rodelinda (English National Opera, Sunday 2 March 2014)

Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie
Flavio – Matt Casey (Actor)

Director – Richard Curtis
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Video Design – Steven Williams

Members of English National Opera Orchestra

Christian Curnyn (Conductor)

I think that English National Opera has a way to go before it can claim back it’s self-professed title of being the ‘House of Handel’. But Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda has salvaged the indignity that Giulio Cesare suffered at the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan.

However it has to be said that musically speaking, Christian Curnyn has pulled together an excellent cast for this production and displayed once again his innate sense of style and verve in terms of his interpretation of one Handel’s’ greatest operas.

Leading the cast was the excellent Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. I don’t think that I have ever heard Dove Sei? sang with such authority, musical intelligence or emotional eloquence. Pure of tone and displaying incredible vocal technique and control, he delivered one of the vocal highlights of the evening. Indeed Davies is a naturally innate Handelian in terms of performance style and coupled to his portrayal of Bertarido made his the strongest performance of the evening. His confident and flawless delivery of Vivi, tiranno provided the perfect book-end to his opening aria.

Similarly Rebecca Evans’ Rodelinda was a tour de force. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni for whom Handel also wrote Cleopatra and Lisaura (Alessandro) this is a formidable role with some incredibly challenging music right from the start. Ms Evans carried off the role with both vocal aplomb and again an innate sense of Handelian style. From the incredibly exposed Ho perduto il caro sposo and Ombre, piante, urne funeste through such coloratura-ladened arias as L’empio rigor del fato, Morai, si; l’empia tua testa and a fiery Spietati, io vi giurati Rebecca Evans demonstrated a sure-footed technique and bright, agile soprano. However it was her rendition of what is for me one of Handel’s greatest arias – Se ‘l mio duol non è si forte which was the second highlight of the evening, coupled with sensitive playing by orchestra and Curnyn finding the right colours in Handel’s delicate scoring.

But it was their Act II duet, the beautiful Io t’abbraccio which was the single highlight of the evening. Richard Jones’ simple yet devastatingly effective staging at this moment made for an almost perfect moment. ‘Almost’ but for the audience clapping before the return of the da capo sadly.

Around these two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero and heroine. Grimoaldo’s Se per te giungo a godere and Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena not only displayed Ainsley’s talents and ability to manage Handel’s challenging vocal writing for the tenor voice but why he is one of the leading Baroque tenors on stage today. Burkhard similarly reveled in the music that Handel wrote for what was effectively a secondary character. I defy anyone not to be drawn in by arias such as Di Cupido imiego i vanni and Tirannia gli diede il regno when sung with such gusto by Burkhard. Christopher Ainslie demonstrated that he had the technique for Unulfo’s music but despite his smooth lucid tone, he was underpowered throughout.

And finally plaudits to Susan Bickley. Her Storgè (Jephtha) and Sidonie (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) remain two of her most memorable ENO performances for me and her Eduige has made it a tryptich. While her voice took a while to settle down she delivered a performance with both style and substance.

So why wasn’t it a return to the ‘House of Handel’?

I enjoy Richard Jones’ productions – they are smart, intelligent and often reveal interesting perspectives in terms of the characters themselves. I refer again to his Petra von Kant for ENO and before that his Love For Three Oranges as well as his Macbeth for Glyndebourne and WNO’s disturbing Wozzeck.

His Rodelinda clearly demonstrated that he had spent time with the performers. In his short interview on the ENO website he talks of Rodelinda being a “forensic” examination of people in extreme situations and it is clear that this formed the basis of creating characters who evolved during the course of the opera.

I am not sure that I agree that it was set in ‘post-war’ Italy as some have commented. To me, it smacked more of Fascist Italy with motifs such as the monument to Bertarido, the use of spy cameras, the sense of claustrophobia – heightened in the final act by smaller rooms – and the ever increasing paranoia and spying. Even the costumes were more reminiscent to me of photos that my mother showed me of her youth in Italy. Sadly the Argentinian-inspired tango didn’t quite work nor did that final image – of Bertarido’s wife and son exacting ‘la vendetta’ against their enemies. It unbalanced the sense of justice that the hero had only just magnanimously delivered

The use of tattoos however was inspired. Particularly touching was the moment when Bertarido unexpectedly revealed his own name on Unulfo’s back. Loyalty and ‘unspeakable’ love in that single moment. Although I did think that Garibaldo should have revealed a tattoo – of his own name to underline his own selfishness.

In the same interview Jones stated that Rodelinda was an opera about faithfulness and constancy, and then taking it one step further than perhaps the audience of the Eighteenth Century would have, of erotic obsession, sadism and masochism.

If that was the case then why did some moments seem to court laughter? Was the slapstick deliberate? Was it because ratcheting up the emotional intensity would be too much to ask of the audience? I have no trouble with humour if it doesn’t feel contrived. And sadly there were moments when it did.

The use of oversized swords for example was oddly juxtaposed with the image – with its contemporary associations – of Bertarido blindfolded and tied to a chair.

Or the fact that a laugh was raised when Bertarido accidentally knifes Unulfo when in fact the subtext there is that even when tested, the latter’s loyalty remains steadfast. And while I think the use of treadmills was rather smart it was slightly overdone. For instance, when during one of his arias, the audience was more impressed by Unulfo’s fancy footwork than the delivery of the music.

Handel’s operas do contain humour. Look at Agrippina, or Partenope for example. But I am not sure that Rodelinda does to the same extent.

But there’s no denying that Richard Jones can pack a punch. It wasn’t just the beauty of the music that made Io t’abraccio so poignant. It was the beautifully judged staging – literally pulling the lovers apart – that made that moment incredibly special.

Ultimately this was a Rodelinda of exceptional musicianship but out-of-kilter stagecraft.

If the ‘kinks’ can be ironed out and as long as John Berry doesn’t make the same mistake with his next Handel production as he did with Giulio Cesare, perhaps finally English National Opera can reclaim its own lost throne.

Prina Donna

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on January 1, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Review – Arias For Senesino – Sonia Prina & Ensemble Claudiana

Sonia Prina’s recital at Wigmore Hall was one of vocal verve, staggering technique and interpretive eloquence.

Rarely – if ever – have I heard these arias written by Handel for Senesino performed with such gusto, Ms Prina and Ensemble Claudiana imparting a deep love of Handel’s music from start to finish. Indeed Senesino himself must have been a formidably talented singer to have inspired the composer to some of his greatest music.

She reveled in the music, effortlessly capturing the mood and essence of each individual aria and character. She deployed her rich, smooth contralto with unerring musical intelligence, alternating between spinning out line after line of smooth legato with rapid-fire yet precise and beautifully articulated coloratura. And what’s more Ms Prina made ample use of her lower register with thrilling effect which was refreshing considering how many singers think that sometimes excessive use of the highest notes is the best way to ‘nail’ the returning ornamented da capo section.

Her first two arias effectively demonstrated how easily she could switch from the emotional agony of Ombra cara di mia sposa from Radamisto to the anger of Furibondo spira il vento (Partenope). The sense of desolation that she bled into her voice in the first aria contrasted with the swagger in the second.

However the highlight of the first half was the magnificent mad scene from Orlando – Stelle se tu il consenti … Ah Stigie larve. The dramatic intensity of Ms Prina’s performance – particularly Vaghe pupille – was gripping. And clearly she was totally absorbed in her performance as she nearly knocked over one of the music stands.

In the second half it was the majestic Pompe vane … Dove sei (Rodelinda) and Cara sposa from Rinaldo that sealed the deal in terms of this recital being one of the highlights of 2013. The emotional intensity of these two arias was almost suffocating. Rarely has Dove sei sounded both so eloquent and so devastating.

But the remaining arias after the interval – Empio, dirò, tu sei and Vivi tirano – were once again lessons in confident and beautifully delivered fluid coloratura. Again each individual note in every single run clearly and evenly articulated.

Personally I would have loved to have Ms Prina sing another slower as one of her encores as Ms Piau did with great effect when she performed at the venue, but I couldn’t complain when she returned to the stage and sang Venti, turbine, prestate.

And as I have mentioned, Ms Prina was supported throughout by Ensemble Claudiana. Displaying extreme virtuosity throughout, I was amazed by the sonorities that the players produced considering the size of the ensemble. From the overture to Theodora to the Passacaille from his trio sonatas, the colours and dynamic range they produced – not only in the instrumental movements but also the arias as well – would put some larger ensembles to shame.

And a nice touch, Ms Prina have each of the players introduced by name demonstrated how close their creative relationship seems to be.

I’ve not yet purchased the recital disc by Ms Prina and Ensemble Claudiana together with Roberta Invernizzi – Amore e Morte Dell’ Amore – but it’s now definitely on my list. And it’s a shame that this excellent recital has not been saved for posterity on Wigmore Hall’s own label.

But I don’t think anyone will forget Ms Prina’s vocal authority and technical brilliance, verve of performance or simple passion for Handel’s music in a hurry.

Spellbinding Commitment – A Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on June 4, 2013 at 9:31 am

Review: Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers (The Barbican, Monday 3 June 2013)

Anna Stéphany (Mezzo-soprano)
Renata Pokupić (Mezzo-soprano)
Karine Deshayes (Mezzo-soprano)

The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment

William Christie (Director)

Alex Ross – in his article on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – wrote that the mezzo was “the most remarkable” singer he had ever heard. I never saw Lorraine Hunt Lieberson live, only ever hearing her on CD and seeing her on DVD. But even then her amazing ability to communicate the meaning of both the music and the words – exactly the “pull-down-the-blinds, unplug- the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful” feeling that Ross has about her disc of Handel arias – leaves me in awe.

Last night’s final installment of the OAE’s series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers was a tribute to the singer. The series has been incredible strong in terms both of programming and the high standard of the performances. Here’s hoping that they revisit this kind of programming in future – perhaps a tribute to Faustina Bordoni or another Eighteenth Century singer?

Both William Christie and the Orchestra itself had performed with Hunt Lieberson in the wonderful Peter Sellars Theodora and their performance last night was never less than intensely personal.

In fact I don’t think I have ever heard the OAE sound better. They have always been on of my favourite ensembles. The joy and pleasure they communicate in all their performances is well nigh unique, but last night they surpassed event their own high standard to produce the sort of gutsy, rich and beautifully articulate playing that provided the foundation for a memorable evening.

And William Christie – in his funky red socks – directed with such passion. His attention to each and every phrase, the wonderfully balanced tempi, the dynamic range and the sonorities he drew from the orchestra were evident throughout.

Never has the overture to Giulio Cesare sounded so grand – so grand in fact that the audience had to be prompted to clap, almost as if mentally they were waiting for the complete opera to follow. And in Theodora, Christie created a real sense of threat and urgency that I had not heard in the piece before.

Indeed, where normally the orchestral selections are more often that not viewed as ‘fillers’ between arias by most concert programmer, here together with the two concerti grossi, they were equal to the vocal numbers.

The Concerto Grosso in b minor from Opus 6 is not that often performed. A shame as it is one of the most beautiful and individual of the twelve in the opus. The last in the set and in the unusual b minor key, it is a model-perfect example of the genre and it was played with such intensity. The allegro is for me – in many ways – the ultimate piece of Baroque concerti writing – just listen the passage coming out of the first circle of fifths and you will see what I mean. The elegant and expansive ‘Aria – Larghetto e piano’ was perfectly paced and the final gigue – with its fugue – was sharply etched.

And throughout Kati Debretzeni, Alison Bury and Jonathan Manson shone in the shear vivacity of their playing.

The second concerto grosso from the Opus Three set continued in the same vein. The elegance of the first movement – again with some incredible playing by Mesdames Debretzeni and Bury – was followed by a poignant slow movement. Unfortunately the programme didn’t list the name of the principal oboist who spun that most beautiful melody above the celli obbligato. And in the final movement Christie hinted at its more Galant style.

The arias were drawn from roles most closely associated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Theodora, Sesto and Ariodante – and last night three mezzo-sopranos took to the stage.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac was sadly indisposed but was replaced by Karine Deshayes who displayed formidable technique and a dark mezzo in the role of Sesto. A brisk L’angue offesa, with its lush string writing, was confidently delivered but it was in Svegliatevi nel core that Ms Deshayes really shone.

The arias from Theodora – possibly the role most associated with Ms Hunt Lieberson – were sung by Anna Stéphany. Perhaps because of this closer association, the commitment of Ms Stéphany – who has a burnished, bronzed mezzo that was perfectly suited to this music – was complete. Rarely has As with rosy steps the morn been sung with such utter conviction and poignancy and the hushed da capo – most simply ornamented – only heightened the emotional intensity of this aria even more. It was one of the highlights of the evening. And her heartfelt Lord, To Thee each night and day with its contrasting middle section was as memorable in its utter simplicity.

I saw Renata Pokupić only recently as Tirinto in Imeneo and while her voice may not always have carried over the orchestra then, in this concert she had no such trouble. For her were allocated arias at the other end of the Handelian emotional spectrum – from Hercules and Ariodante – and she sung them both with vigor and emotional intensity.

Where Shall I fly? is one of the great mad scenes. Ever. Christie kept a tight handle on the alternation of tempi and accompanied recitative and aria to great effect, giving Ms Pokupić the freedom to express the horror of Dejanira’s actions and allowing her to navigate the vocal gear changes with ease. And what a gown.

Yet Dopo Notte was the highlight of the evening. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson balanced finely wrought arias of emotional white heat with the trickiest coloratura that Handel wrote. Listen to her performance of this aria under McGegan. On stage, a now trousered-up Ms Pokupić equally sang it with the bravado it demands, flinging out with the coloratura with an abandon that belied her incredible technique. It was for me the second highlight of the evening.

The encore was the Musette from the sixth concerto grosso from Opus 6. Although it seems impossible, from somewhere the orchestra pulled out their most sonorous and beautiful playing of the night.

In the programme Martin Kelly, viola player in the OAE and its Vice-Chairman wrote that anyone who had heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was “spellbound by her commitment” and that the concert was to pay tribute to “the memory of a wonderful artist, a musical heroine, in glorious music by a genius, Handel”.

By God they succeeded.

Handel’s Opera In Operetta’s Clothing

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on May 30, 2013 at 10:01 am

Review – Imeneo (The Barbican, Wednesday 29 May 2013)

Rosmene – Rebecca Bottone
Clomiri – Lucy Crowe
Tirinto – Renata Pokupić
Imeneo – Vittorio Prato
Argenio – Stephan Loges

Choir of the AAM
Academy of Ancient Music

Conductor – Christopher Hogwood

Imeneo was Handel’s penultimate opera for London and like its successor – Deidamia – failed to win the approval of the London audience.

This is surprising. While it doesn’t have the grandeur of Giulio Cesare, the dramatic sweep of Ariodante or the emotional pathos of Rodelinda, Imeneo is a real gem. Individual arias appear occasional on recital discs and there is a good recording available on CPO featuring Ann Hallenberg and Siri Karoline Thornhill that is definitely worth a listen.

Handel might have called it an operetta but this is an opera of surprises. As well as some beautifully crafted arias – especially for Tirinto – I do believe that Imeneo features the only trio in one of his operas bar Orlando. And it has to be said that there are similarities between the two. Indeed there is a sophistication to Handel’s music for Imeneo – the sometimes abrupt harmonic changes as well as the sometimes distinctive structure of the vocal and instrumental lines – that belies the impression of Imeneo’s simplicity.

Listening last night, it made me think that perhaps Handel was making something of a statement to his audience. Perhaps a not-so-subtle attempt to show them what they might be missing if his Italian operas were to fail. Fortunately for us all he took that genius and applied it to his oratorios.

From the overture Hogwood and his ensemble dug into the music with an innate sense of musicianship and infectious enthusiasm.

As you would expect of the Academy of Ancient Music and Hogwood himself, it was sprightly and rhythmically alert performance. Due care was given to dynamics and – with the current Baroque vogue for over-embellishment – the da capo ornamentation was very restrained.

And the soloists were – for the most part – very strong.

Lucy Crowe was on excellent form as Clomiri. Her bright and lush soprano was perfectly suited to the music and she cut through the coloratura of the role with ease. From her first aria V’é una infelice she demonstrated formidable technique with an innate sense of style with its hushed da capo. And her Third Act aria, Se ricordar ten vuoi was suitably agile and clean.

Renata Pokupić’s Tirinto was a similarly strong performance. Her rich mezzo may not have always carried over the orchestra but she invested her singing with real panache and passion. A personal highlight was her aria in the Third Act. With fine and beautifully articulated playing from the strings, Pieno il core raised the emotional temperature of this Arcadian opera by more than a couple of degrees. And in Sorge nell’alma she showed off her formidable technique.

The title character Imeneo was strongly performed by Vittorio Prato. His Italianate baritone suited the role like a glove. In both his arias – according to the programme written for William Savage who was relatively inexperienced – he sailed through the music with a burnished and even tone throughout. Stephan Loges provided a fine foil as Argenio. His simile aria on Andronicus and the Lion was beautifully delivered as was his opening aria, Di Cieca notte, even if his overall performance was slightly marred by some sluggish embellishments at times.

Sadly, the Rosmene of Rebecca Bottone was disappointing. Her bright – almost too bright – soprano was lacked depth or colour and I could her a rather distracting beat in her voice. There is no doubt that she could manage the music on the page but it was a one-dimensional portrayal. For the most part – and particularly in the mad scene – she sang but didn’t perform Rosmene.

And the AAM Chorus rounded off the performers with incredibly fine and full-bodied singing of the choruses.

So overall it was an incredibly enjoyable night.

Imeneo might never make it to the stage again – and perhaps might not be heard in London again for some time – but Hogwood and his performers have ensured that it won’t be forgotten by many of those who attended this performance.

Aria for … Monday – Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on April 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm

One of the most frustrating things is not always having the time to write up and give due justice when a notable new recital disc is released.

On this occasion it was Christopher Purves’ disc of Handel arias for bass with the marvellous ensemble Arcangelo.

Sadly work and travel got in the way.

Again it’s nice when shuffle throws up something unexpected. And especially after a long day in the office and Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori from Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo was a perfect antidote to commuter-dom.

I have to admit that I prefer this, Handel’s earlier Italian version – by a decade – to the English version of 1718. As well as this aria there is the heart-stopping Verso gia l’alma col sangue and generally the music is beautifully original.

Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori shares the same sentiment and warm instrumental colouring of the aforementioned but there the similarity ends. This is possibly one of the bleakest simile arias ever written – the dying moth burnt from the lure of the flame drawing a parallel with a soul that will never know either hope nor pleasure of love.

And Handel writes an aria of great yet simple poignancy completely at odds – you would think – with the inhumanity of Polifemo. But personally, I prefer to think that Handel wished to make the giant less a monster and more a man as witnessed by the music written for the role over and above this aria.

With the distinct colouring of a flute – so often associated with death and tomb scenes in Handel’s operas and melancholy in general in Baroque music – the range required of the singer is vast. And married to this is the requirement for the singer to have absolute technical virtuosity and control to deliver and sustain the vocal line.

And Christopher Purves has it in spades. Of course I still have burned into my memory his incredible performance as The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin. Here his resonant and richly coloured bass effortlessly manages both the wide tessitura required but sung with complete mastery, never once letting the vocal line sag.

Purves’ performance in this aria – and the entire disc – only reaffirms him as a remarkable talent and one of the leading basses performing today.

And as ever, sympathetically supported by Arcangelo directed by Jonathan Cohen.

This aria would be reason enough to purchase this disc if it wasn’t for the fact that the entire disc is magnificent.

Aria For … Wednesday – Se il mar promette calma (Lotario)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Handel, Opera on April 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

What I love about hitting shuffle on the iPod is that way it can throw out not only something that I haven’t heard in a long time but something that I don’t know that well.

Se il mar promette calma from Handel’s Lotario is an example. It’s not an opera I know at all well and this aria – for bass – doesn’t even ring the most distant memory.

A shame as it’s a jaunty number for the remarkably named character Clodomiro and here sung by Vito Priante accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis.

From what I can understand it’s one of those typical simile arias about crossing a stormy sea, which in baroque terms is all about overcoming adversity. You can’t beat a good simile aria and I love Metastasio’s perfect model.

The aria itself is incredibly simple yet both elegant and effective. The string accompaniment and running bass in the continuo are clearly meant to refer to the sea and wind and the playing of Il Complesso is both exemplary and exhilarating.

The vocal line itself is surprisingly florid for a bass aria and from what I can gather for a secondary character but Priante delivers the aria with both gusto and incredible musicianship. Not only are the more florid passages managed with great skill and a beautiful legato line but also his voice is both mellifluous and resonant through his entire range. And the returning da capo is tastefully decorated.

This is an aria that shouldn’t be anything less than a recital item for bass singers.

As I said, I love it when something like this happens and now I am off to listen to the entire opera.

Marvellous.

Subitolove

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

( A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective

OBERTO

Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera