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Twerp it.

In Opera, Review on September 30, 2018 at 9:25 am

Review – Salome (English National Opera, Friday 28 September 2018)

Salome – Allison Cook
Jokanaan – David Soar
Herod – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins and Jonathan Lemalu
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson and Adam Sullivan
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu and Ronald Nairne

Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk and Nicole Neolove

Director – Adena Jacobs
Designer – Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer – Lucy Carter
Choreographer – Melanie Lane

Conductor – Martyn Brabbins

It was somewhat ironic that the most successful moment in ENO’s new production of Salome, was the precise moment when other productions have usually not been as effective. Namely, Salome’s Dance.

But here, Adena Jacobs pitched it almost perfectly. A pity, as the rest of the evening failed in all but three instances, completely flat. Salome should disgust, excite and ultimately leave you feeling slightly queasy. This production left me totally cold.

This was a shame as it opened stun such promise. The  clarion-like tenor of Stuart Jackson floated beautifully out into the auditorium. No hint of strain, his mellifluous tenor, coupled with crystal clear diction was a joy to listen to. I’m not quite sure why he was made out to be a cocaine addict (if that was what his bleeding nose was meant to infer), but his was one of only two completely coherent and three dimensional characters in the entire production.

The second was the magnificent Susan Bickley. Her Herodias was superb. Vocally secure coupled with incredible acting that was wonting in the rest of the Antipas family. Whenever she was on stage, her commanding presence was formidable. Finally, all credit to the Jokanaan of David Soar. I was relieved when he shucked his stilettos and his singing was impassioned and wonderfully coloured. There were moments when I almost though the Messiah would arrive on stage.

Sadly, the rest of the cast only passed muster. This Salome is clearly a work in progress with some moments of promise in Allison Cook’s performance. Musically, her diction was, like the rest of the cast, impeccable. However, while there was much to admire in her singing, all too often it was either underpowered – more overwhelmed by Brabbins’ conducting – or under the note. The use of Sprechstimme in this role adds depth to the portrayal but the singer must also have laser-like precision of each and every note. Dramatically, this production couldn’t decide ‘who’ Salome was. The transition from waif-like princess through petulant child to suicide and/or victim was not wholly convincing.

Similarly, her step-father fidgeted from crazy to petulant to spoiled without first anchoring the character with any coherence.  Indeed, from the onset it seemed that direction from the director was rather hit and miss, focusing on individual dramatic peaks in isolation rather that providing an overall narrative syntax.

From the headless My Little Pony complete with guts made of s comfort blanket, to Herod’s Santa sack, the production team seemed to have approached the opera as a bag of tricks and symbols to be thrown across the stage haphazardly. The most striking and effective scenes were those with Jokanaan despite the all too obvious emasculating stilettos.

So it was a surprise, and a relief that this production offered a coherent and uncomfortable Dance. From Salome’s sexualised poses reminiscent of the kinds of portrayals we see in mainstream media everyday to the tweaking of the four dancers was both riveting as well as almost too uncomfortable to watch. So a shame that the Dance was so unsupported by particularly lacklustre and sterile playing as I’ve ever heard from ENO’s orchestra. The closing scene, with some of the most erotic and evocative music ever written was dramatically undermined by having Salome not reveal Jokanaan’s head. There is nothing remotely erotic or shocking about singing to a plastic bag. Therefore, it felt like the final denouement – rather non sensical as it wasn’t derived from any of the narrative that proceeded it – was bolted on simply to provide a frisson of shock.

Surprisingly, in terms of the orchestral playing, I was disappointed by the ENO orchestra. Their usual lustre and brilliance was missing, and Brabbins more often than not failed to find the right balance between the pit and the stage.

Salome should be a tough opera to watch a well as to listen to. The sensuality and brutality of the music should elicit an uneasy emotional response; and the drama doesn’t need to be overtly shlocking to shock. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Music, moody food … of us that trade in love”

In Baroque, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on January 16, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Review – Regula Mühlemann (Prinzeregententheater, Monday 15 January 2018)

Regula Mühlemann (Soprano)
La Folia Barockorchester
Robin Peter Müller (Director)

Hello. It’s been a while. Perhaps for some too long, for others not long enough. The last couple of years have not been filled with as much music as I would have liked. That’s not to say that the last two years have been completely bereft. There was Renée Fleming’s farewell to the stage as the Marschallin at the Met (as well as a superlative Hello! Dolly with Bette Midler the same weekend); exhilarating performances by the likes of Sonia Prina, Ann Hallenberg and even one or two good evenings at ENO. Well, one and “a half”. However, finding time to put ‘fingers to iPad’ has proved literally impossible. But I’m going to give it another try in 2018.

So, here goes …

I have to admit I had not heard of Regula Mühlemann before I tripped over her Mozart recital disc. If you haven’t heard it, then I heartily recommend it. Ms Mühlemann has a bright and lithe soprano. Her coloratura fearless, she shapes it with great skill and sings with a fluency of line that is impressive.

Her second recital disc is inspired by Cleopatra. Concept albums are very popular. There’s Joyce DiDonato’s War and Peace (the album was good, the recital wasn’t); Ann Hallenberg’s superlative Carnevale and more recently, Delphine Galou’s Agitata! This disc offers Handel, Hasse and Graun as expected, but also Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Sarti Legrenzi and Mattheson. It’s an excellent disc – vocally stunning with excellent support from La Folia. So when I found out she was performing in Munich it was a done deal.

The Prinzregententheater is not a venue I had visited before. On the other side of the Isar river not far from the Maximilianeum, it was built in 1901. Now the home of the Theaterakademie August Everding, it has previously been the home of the opera and opened with a performance of Meistersinger. Since completion, the venue has been refurbished and I have to admit that I found the acoustic very dry. The sound died almost immediately, swallowed up by the hall and perhaps explains why it took me, and the performers a while to settle into the first half.

The players of La Folia Barockorchester launched the evening with a vigorous performance of Graun’s French style overture for Cleopatra e Cesare with studious attention to rhythmic detail in both sections. Ms Mühlemann’s first aria, Tra le porcelle assorto was a simile aria from the same opera. It set out her credentials immediately married with crystal clear diction. Her da capo was tastefully ornamented and considering the ease of her vocal technique I hope in future performances she will be more ‘daring’ with her ornamentation – not something I say often. Next, a step back to 1725 and Legrenzi’s Antioco il Grande, not only to offer contrast but to remind the audience that not every opera with Cleopatra features a Caesar or Marco Antonio. With just continuo, Se tu sarai felice demonstrated how she can sustain and colour longer notes with telling effect.

Next, Il Folia performed Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul, soloist Robin Peter Müller. This is a substantial concerto and for the most part, held together well. However sandwiching an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti between the second and third movements, plus some awry intonation and ensemble playing distracted slightly. Personally, it would have been better to follow the Legrenzi with Alessandro Scarlatti’s Antonio e qual destino … Vò goder senza contrasto from his opera Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra. Floating miraculously above some wonderful [chittarone] playing, Ms Mühlemann spun the older Scarlatti’s vocal line with great skill and dare I say it? Sensuality.

From Vivaldi’s Il Tigrane, or to give it its correct title, La virtù trionfante dell’amore e dell’odio, we got Squaciami pure il sento closing the first half. An aria of alternating moods, Ms Mühlemann made great play of the words and together with the orchestra, made a convincing case for Vivaldi as opera composer. A case I’m not often convinced of.

The second half featured composers that were more well known – Hasse and Handel – with Geminani’s Concerto Grosso in d minor. Once again, energetic playing was slightly marred by a lack of ensemble but you couldn’t deny their enthusiasm.

Haste’s Serenata Marc’ e Cleopatra bookended the closing part of the evening. Following the overture, the soprano sang the expansive Quel candido armellino. I’ve a real soft spot for Hasse -especially his slower arias. Valer Sabadus’ performance of Cadra fra poco in cenere remains an absolutely favourite of mine. Here, Hasse writes a similarly exposed vocal line, which says a great deal about the singers he was writing for. Ms Mühlemann displayed enviable breath control, spinning out luminous line after luminous line above a delicately scored strong accompaniment without a single hint of pressure. It was simply wondrous. The concert proper finished with a rollicking rendition of Morte col fiero aspetto orror, the singer spitting out her words and coloratura with true fury.

However the highlight, before the encores that is, was Ms Mühlemann’s Che sento, oh Dio, … Se pietà di me non senti from Handel’s Guilio Cesare. It’s hard, even having heard the Hasse before, not to see why Handel towers above his contemporaries. When it comes to portraying pure agony, this is one of the great moments in baroque, if not all opera, and singer and ensemble did Handel proud. From the opening notes, with the most plaintive and pained bassoon playing I’ve ever heard, we were caught up in the Egyptian queen’s misery and despair. The achingly slow tempo of Se pietà, which surprised me when I first listened on disc, was perfect. It allowed Ms Mühlemann the opportunity to invest every note and every phrase with pain and pathos. Her da capo was beautifully rendered, not only in terms of her ornamentation but in the slight delay she masterfully deployed at certain cadences. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as it ended.

Quite rightly, the audience clapped and stamped for an encore and the ensemble obliged. Sandwiched between an aria by Sarti was Johann Matheson’s Mein Leben ist hin. With violin obbligato this heartrending lament left silence in its wake. However it was Sarti’s Quando voglio which brought the house down. Twice. Sarti loves to surprise, and here the audience couldn’t have been more surprised when the harpist, Katerina Ghannudi seductively launched into this lilting and seductive song. Joined by a more coquettish Ms Mühlemann in duet and La Folia including Mr Müller on tambourine, it was the perfect end to the evening. And at the curtain call it was evident how close the entire ensemble had become. It’s not many singers who – beaming with joy – would hug a harpist and other members of the orchestra. Such a shame that this recital has not made it to London but Ms Mühlemann is singing Rosina in La Fanta Giardinera in June. Beg, buy or steal a ticket.

As I left the Prinzregententheater, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. In the Second Act, she says “Give me some music; music, moody food…of us that trade in love”. It’s a fitting tribute to an evening of beautiful music making and love.

 

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’.

Drama Queen

In Review on November 23, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo soprano & executive producer)
Director – Ralf Pleger
Lighting Designer – Henning Blum
Dancer/Choreographer – Manuel Palazzo
Video Designer – Yousef Iskandar

Il Pomo d’Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev (Director)

The idea of concept albums and recitals are not new. Cecilia Bartoli is probably the foremost exponent although there was the ill-advised Prom concert last year featuring Alice Coote and a bath. Less said about that the better.

It was inevitable that Joyce DiDonato would at some point embark on a ‘concept’ herself. There is no denying her heartfelt and deep devotion and commitment, and combined with the sheer level of her musicianship and musical intelligence the idea is more than appealing. If any musician can call for revolution – as she did at the end of the entire performance – then it is she.

The musicianship – the vivacity, the pathos, the verve the tragedy – was all more or less there. DiDonato’s formidable talent combined with a genuine passion for the music itself makes her a compelling and intelligent performer. Each aria was a vehicle for a range of very emotions and in some cases breathtaking technique from the very beginning.

In the first half, the tortured souls of Handel’s Jephtha in Scenes of horror and Andromaca in Leo’s Prendi quell ferro were exquisitely counterbalanced by heartrending performances of Lascia ch’io pianga and Dido’s Lament. In the latter Barbara Bonney’s rendition remains a favourite – but whereas Bonney is a queen, DiDonato is very much the abandoned woman. After the interval two Handel arias – the beautiful and oft-overlooked Crystal stream in murmurs flowing from Susanna and Augelletti, che cantata – were beautifully off-set by an almost-coquettish Da tempeste and a suitably jubilant Par che di giubilo from Jommelli’s Attilio Regolo. One small gripe? Being robbed of Agrippina’s Pensieri in its entirety.

Il Pomo d’Oro performed the instrumental numbers with confidence if not entirely the distinctiveness that I’ve heard from them before. The exception was Pärt’s Da pacem, Domine – a piece I was more than happy to be reacquainted with.

So why, for me at least, didn’t it work?

I think because ultimately it was a ‘concept’ that DiDonato didn’t need. As well as being a consummate performer, the mezzo is set apart from many others by being an incredible actor. In countless recitals, staged and concert performances she convincingly inhabits the characters she is portraying. But more than that, she draws the listener into a sound and imagined world without the aid of props.

At the Barbican what we got was a layer of artifice that didn’t add, but rather distracted from the recital. Especially, I am afraid to say, Palazzo. His cavorting in the Pärt ran the high risk of undermining the piece’s sublimity.

The most telling evidence of this however was her ‘real’ encore – Strauss’ Morgen! Laid bear with no choreography or light projected distractions it was as pure a performance as I have ever heard. Pure in terms of its musicianship, integrity and emotional candour.

Ms DiDonato has asked us all where do we find peace.

Hand on heart, Ms DiDonato, it was in that hushed performance. Locked into my memory I will return to it again and again.

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.

Bruckner and Me.

In Classical Music, Review on April 26, 2016 at 6:34 pm

I’m hoping that everyone has a composer that, when they see his music listed in concerts, thinks “Hmmm, perhaps not”.

For me, it’s Anton Bruckner. Or at least his symphonies. I grew up singing his choral music as a choirboy but his orchesrtal music remains almost impenetrable to me. I’ve been to concerts of his symphones, bought recordings and entire box sets. And in the past, sat down – sometimes with score in hand and sometimes just sitting back – and listened.

To date, to no avail.

However, not one to be defeated and because I love the fact that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment refused to be pigeon-holed in the Eighteenth century, I went to their recent Bruckner, Brahms and Rott concert.

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 in A major is perhaps not his most oft performed and that was another reason for going. The theory that the ‘more unknown’ might be an advantage. I am acquainted with the more famous symphones – the Fourth, Eighth and Ninth for example – but perhaps tackling a lesser known one would help.

First of all, the OAE under Rattle played exquisitely. There was, it seemed to me a greater level transparency with the orchesrtal detail truly shining through without any loss of depth or weight. As ever, the OAE’s wind and brass brought their unique vibrancy and piquancy o the music and there was real lustre to the string tone, especially in the magically hushed Adagio. It was like one continuus love song – the highlight of the evening.

Rattle exercised complete authority as you would expect, coaxing a range of colours from the orchestra and maintaining a firm grip on the scale and architecture of each movement. And conducting without a score there was an intimacy to his performance that pulled you in.

So what was it, that by the end of the evening, had me thinking that while it was a good – if not excellent concert – I was still left slightly at odds Bruckner?

The playing was excellent. Rattle’s mastery beyond doubt. So that only leaves Bruckner’s music itself.

Thinking back perhaps I was listening too hard?

And that had me thinking. A very good friend who sadly passed away a few years back observed that with age, musical appreciation changes. Because of life experience. Music that you once didn’t cherish becomes more important. More relevant. You stop listening to the notes and something in the music resonates with you as a person. Your emotions, memories and, as he pointed out to me, what is happening in that instant in your life affect how you listen and what you are listening for.

It’s a no-brainer really. It’s surely like everything else in life. To my friend’s knowledge and insight of Mahler, plus his patience in me, I attribute my now unassailable love of everything that Mahler composed. And now, whenever I hear Mahler, and especially his Tenth Symphony, I remember and miss my friend.

So perhaps that is what I need. More age, time and experiences.

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