Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“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.



Semi-detached bravura

In Uncategorized on October 2, 2016 at 11:27 am

Review – Max Emanuel Cencic (Wigmore Hall, Thursday 29 September 2016) 

Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor)

Il Pomod’Oro 

Maxim Emelyanchev 

Max Emmanuel Cencic repeated the same successes and failures of his last recital at Wigmore Hall two years ago. Whereas in 2014 he focused on Venice, on this occasion Naples was the epicentre. Composers included Porpora – every countertenor’s repertoire staple – as well as Sarro, Leo, Vinci and Scarlatti pere. 

With the cohorts of countertenors on stage today, Cencic stands apart in terms of the smokiness of his vocal timbre. It’s coupled with an expansive range – although what has crept in is a tendency to over emphasise the highest notes – and an impressive fluidity in terms of delivering coloratura and the limpid vocal lines so associated with composers of this period. The way Cencic can shape an expansive vocal line is enviable. 

However, unlike colleagues such as Iestyn Davies, Andreas Scholl and David Hansen, Cencic and others are challenged in terms of clearly annunciating the text. Whole words were lost. Clearly a case of prima la musica poi la parole. Metastasio and Zeno would be furious. 

And this was further exacerbated by what could perhaps be called a Cencic-ism. As in 2014, throughout the recital, the performer rarely if ever raised his eyes from the score in front of him, and because of this, there were times when the arias felt more akin to vocal exercises. Even in the slower numbers, Cencic was glued to the score. 

One has to wonder if Cencic can perform on stages sans score, why he needs to rely on it as a recital prop so intensely? I’m not asking that music be memorised – although Emelyanchev was able to surrender his score to Cencic for the encore with no difficulties whatsoever. No, but in a recital, the connection between audience and performer is paramount. It’s intrinsic to the experience. If the singer remains buried in the music, the emotional connection – the ability of the singer to effectively convey the words and to involve the listener in the moment – is lost.  

The bravura moments written by these composers – let alone the moments of more lyrical expressiveness – were not merely to display the singers vocal prowess and vigour but also to underline the text and emotion at a time when dramaturgy was all but non-existent. Part of communicating this directly to the audience was by a physicality of expression and gesture.  

That stage presence was virtually missing with Cencic. Except for a few moments in Alessandro Scarlatti’s Miei pensieri and No, non vedete mai from Leo’s Siface.  

That’s not to say that musically this was a thrilling evening, technically. The fastest arias were despatched with a brilliance of technique that was dazzling. Most impressive was Qual turbine che scende from Porpora’s Germanico in Germania, and the encore Si, di ferri mi cingete. Surprisingly this was the only aria from Hasse – his opera Irene. 

Il Pomo d’Oro provided sonorous and energetic support to Cencic and shone in the individual instrumental pieces. Auletta’s harpsichord concerto was a pleasant enough divertissement, but it was Hasse’s Fuga e Grave that particularly stood out for it intensity.

There’s no denying that hearing Cencic is exciting, but had he looked up for the score then seeing him perform would have altogether made this a more thrilling and emotionally satisfying evening. 

Look up, sir. Look up.   

Stormin’ Norma

In Classical Music, Uncategorized on September 16, 2016 at 11:52 am

Review – Norma (Royal Opera House, Monday 12 September 2016)

Norma – Sonya Yoncheva
Pollione – Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa – Sonia Ganassi
Oroveso – Brindley Sherratt
Flavio – David Junghoon Kim
Clotilde – Vlada Borovko

Director – Àlex Ollé
Associate Director – Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer – Marco Filibeck

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

It’s an almost impossible as – to sing Norma at Covent Garden. All those ghosts in the wings. Replacing a colleague who’s much trumped assumption of the role failed to materialise.

But it was, in my opinion, a triumph.

Sonya Yoncheva not only ensured the ghosts remained firmly in the shadows but delivered a fine debut. Of course, there are elements that need working on – no interpretation remains static but with time Yoncheva’s will be Norma to be reckoned with. Vocally this was an assured performance – she didn’t shirk from the challenge of either the coloratura or the tessitura that was at the extreme of her range. She tackled them head on, and it made for a thrilling experience. She is also firmly in control of a formidable technique that allowed for the exploitation of the dynamic range that is often missing on any stage. Casts Diva – so early on that the expectation was almost tangible – packed the necessary punch. Yoncheva’s control of the vocal line, spinning it out over chorus and orchestra, was impressive. I’ve no doubt that even in the space of the remaining performances at Covent Garden she will relax more and more into the role and begin to experiment with vocal shade and colour. The opening of Act Two was equally thrilling. Her torment and anger spilled out across the auditorium as she vacillated between thoughts of revenge and maternal love. Yet it was that single, simple moment when she makes her fateful admission that sealed her debut performance. The stillness of it. Bellini’s knows drama. Yoncheva made it come alive.

And yet Yoncheva wasn’t alone in this endeavour. It’s something that I realized while listening to Netrebko’s latest and possibly defining recital disc – the influence of Pappano. He always been a fine conductor, always a singer’s conductor, but at this moment in time Pappano has become pre-eminent. The relationship – that elusive bond – between soprano and conductor was front and centre in a way that wasn’t as evident with the rest of the cast.

The rest of the cast was fortunately caught up in the eddies of that musical and interpretive association. Calleja, always a wooden actor, sprung more to life in the second act but his singing was not his best. A slow start and moments of strain distracted. Ganassi, despite formidable technique and a voice that produced some fine light and shade, seemed lost in that space. She truly came to life in the Second Act duet within Yoncheva. Sherratt’s Oroveso was the strongest of them all, carrying clearly above chorus and orchestra in the first act. His final act was unexpected and shocking. Denying his daughter not only a painful death, but robbing her, I thought quite cruelly of her dignity.

The booing for the production team honestly left me nonplussed. Set, so it seemed to me in an alternate version of Franco’s Spain, the clash of religious fervor and military might was undermined by a simple reversal of roles. Women, led by Norma, as Catholic priests. A simple ‘heresy’ that was effective in raising questions of God, power and ultimately equality.

A set constructed of crucifixes was offset by what I could only see as a crown of thorns made from the same crucifixes. Àlex Ollé is clearly deeply affected by his upbringing in some way – that clash in Spain between Church and State.

Unlike others, I didn’t find the set distracting. I found it effectively oppressive. I believe that was the intention. The opening scene of the second act, suddenly thrust us into the twenty-first century. A secular world at odds with Norma’s life. It was no mistake that this world sunk into the ground, and out of sight. It was a world that needed to remain out of sight. And mind. And the significance of Warership Down? A desire for freedom? An escape to a new life free from authoritarian diktat? Perhaps.

I’ve already mentioned that special bond between Pappano and his chief protagonist but his mastery extended to the orchestra and chorus. From the opening notes of the overture, the precision was impressive. But he reached into the score and found the colour and timbre needed. Strings were lush. Woodwind and brass striking out above them plangently.

All in all, a strong opening for a promising season.




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.



In Uncategorized on June 2, 2016 at 8:26 am

Review – Oedipe (Royal Opera House, Thursday 26 May 2016)

Oedipe – Johan Reuter
Jocasta – Sarah Connolly
Tirésias – John Tomlinson
Theban High Priest – Nicolas Courjal
Créon – Samuel Youn
Antigone – Sophie Bevan
Sphinx – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Merope – Claudia Huckle
Phorbas – In Sung Sim
Shepherd – Alan Oke
Laios – Hubert Francis
Thésée – Samuel Dale Johnson

Directors – Àlan Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer- Peter van Praet

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Leo Hussain (Conductor)

While history may be kinder to Kasper Holten, his tenure as Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House has been more of a miss than a hit. However, two productions that stand him in good stead of a more positive place in Covent Garden’s history are the superlative Król Roger a year ago and George Enescu’s Oedipe.

Oedipe is Enescu’s only opera and, from reading the programme, had a troubled and complex gestation. In four acts, and classified as a tragédie lyrique it tells the story of Oedipus from birth to death, or perhaps transfiguration. Musically there are hints from folksong to Debussy, passages of opulent lyricism contrasting with scenes more reminiscent of the Second Viennese School an attention to orchestral colour that makes this opera enthralling. Stylistically, the vocal writing is forged from similar sources, with the choral writing also hinting at traditional Orthodox church music.

It is also written for a larger than usual cast – fourteen generously listed in the programme and a significant role for the chorus. In the leading role as the tragic son and king was Johan Reuter, who made Oedipe a compelling and flawed but very human character. Vocally he was on top form, wonderfully radiant, shading his voice with a angel of colour to underline the range of emotions this tragic character had to endure. And as with the majority of the cast, his diction was excellent. But it was in the final act and in particular the closing scene, that Reuter was truly masterful – a performance that won’t be forgotten easily. As his mother and wife, Sarah Connolly matched him note for note, word for word, emotion for emotion. Ms Connolly seems to be making a name for herself playing tragic Greek queens – not that I am complaining. The agony of having her son torn from her in the first act was more than matched by the horror as she realized whom she had married. It was a shame that Enescu didn’t write more for the character, but what music she had, Connolly revelled in. Her rich mezzo was perfect for this music and she invested it with both vocal colour and depth.

Similarly, John Tomlinson – as he did with both Moses and Marke – commanded the stage as Tirésias both vocally and dramatically. A consummate singer-actor he was rightly and loudly lauded at the end of the opera. It’s strange that we don’t see Marie-Nicole Lemieux more often in the UK. Her Sphinx was as dramatically imposing as her singing, perched precariously it seemed atop a Stuka bomber. The final members of the central quintet of singer was Nicolas Courjal’s accomplished and secure High Priest.

There was also luxury casting in the smaller roles, with very notable performances from Sophie Bevan as Antigone, Samuel Dale Johnson as Thésée and the Créon of Samuel Youn.

Special mention must also go to the Royal Opera Chorus – their singing was both impassioned and fulsome and a worthy reminder that there is more than one excellent opera chorus in town.

The production was slightly and unintentionally – in parts – reminiscent of Król Roger. The opening scene, as the programme suggested, seemed inspired by bass relief from an ancient sarcophagus, with each act moving us through time from Ancient Thebes to the 1930s of Corinth, via 1940s France complete with Stuka and berets to an apocalyptic plagued-infested present day. The final scene was set in a future with a white suited Thésée reminiscent of Logan’s Run, for Oedipe’s final death cum transfiguration. Despite this canter through history, Ollé from La Fura dels Baus and Carrasco never allowed their direction to impede the story – each action and reaction from cast and chorus was fitting to the moment and allowed them, when required to increase the emotional intensity with only the slightest adjustments but achieving incredible impact.

Leo Hussain teased out the colours of the score without ever diminishing the rhythmic foundation on which Enescu has built his opera. While there were moments of laxness –due to Enescu’s own challenge in composing the opera – Hussain never let the tension fade and inspired both singers and orchestra to an incredible performance.

I hope that this production of Oedipe is not a one-off and that it will return. Perhaps in a time after Holten, Covent Garden may consider some thematic programming inspired by Greek tragedy – Oedipe, Elektra, Il ritorno d’Ulisse, Ariadne auf Naxos to name but a few.

Perhaps someone on Bow Street could suggest it.


Brexit Stage Left

In Uncategorized on May 24, 2016 at 4:26 pm

Review – Mitridate, re di Ponto (La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday 15 May 2016)

Mitridate – Michael Spyres
Sifare – Myrtò Papatanasiu
Farnace – David Hansen
Aspasia – Lenneke Ruiten
Ismeme – Simona Šaturová
Arbate – Yves Saelens
Marzio – Sergey Romanovsky

Director and Costumes – Olivier Deloeuil
Lighting – Rick Martin
Video – Jean-Baptiste Beïs

Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie
Christophe Rousset (Conductor)

The most memorable production of Mitridate that I saw was at Covent Garden – an excellent cast in Graham Vick’s Eighteenth Century-inspired beautiful production that returns in 2017. La Monnaie’s production took as its starting point the current “Should I stay, or should I go?” state of European politics. In fact, some of the current posturing by both sides of the argument in the UK wouldn’t look out of place on the stage in general.

Yet this production did feel curiously dated. Perhaps it was the over-reliance on ‘live footage’ and rolling news reports at a time when most politics it seems are won and lost on social media.

However, director Deloeuil did remain faithful to the original drama and invested the singers with some credible characterisation. Making Mitridate an addict of sorts was a smart way to side-step actual poisoning but while there as something in his departure that made me think that he wouldn’t be gone for long it end did lack a suitable dramatic flourish that would have made the production more memorable.

Vocally, the standard of the performances was for the most part incredibly high with three of the performers standing out in particular. Pride of place goes to Simona Šaturová incredibly impressive Ismene. Her bright soprano had a real sense of depth and richness, with a beautiful legato line, impressive and clear coloratura and tasteful embellishments. Her confident stage presence captured the conflicting emotions of Ismene perfectly.

The eloquent delivery of So quanto a te dispiace not only demonstrated her vocal agility but the beauty and evenness of her tone throughout it range. And the nobility of Tu sai per che m’accesse – reminiscent of JC Bach – as one of the highlights of the entire performance, with Ms Saturova not only spinning out the vocal lines with great ease but also demonstrating some tasteful ornamentation.

David Hansen captured Farnace arrogance both musically as well as dramatically. He must be, in Mozart’s early operas, one of the most unlikeable characters. From his first appearance, he strutted across the stage like a spoilt oligarch’s son. Venga pur, minacci – a staple of many a countertenor recital disc – captured this arrogance perfectly, which was then echoed in the dramatic and vocal bravado in Va, l’error mio palesa and Son reo, l’error confesso. Dramatically, his scena in the closing act, Vadasi … Oh ciel … Già dagli occhi with its sumptuous orchestration and the sustained vocal line that unwinds above it, was a perfect vehicle for Hansen’s talents.

Completing the trio, Lenneke Ruiten possesses formidable technique and a bell-like soprano that negotiated the music that Mozart wrote for his original Aspasia with aplomb. Al destin, che la minaccia is an early show-stopper, with Ms Ruiten throwing off the coloratura with incredible ease before showing a more dramatic bent in Nel sen mi palpita and her two scenas, Grazie ai numi partì … Nel grave tormento and Ah ben ne fui presaga!.. Pallid’Ombre. Again the former aria shows a certain indebtedness to the London Bach in terms of its gentle orchestration and vocal line. Ms Ruiten sang it with great control – balancing the emotions of the contrasting sections both vocally and dramatically.

Michael Spyres – who I last saw in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs – bought his imposing tenor to bear as Mitridate. Without a doubt his delivery of the role was as effortless as it was confident – witnessed by an imposing Se di lauri il crine adorno, however his voice sounded at times too heavy for this Mozartian role and I am not sure it was as entirely authentic as it could have been.

Personally, and despite ringing cheers from the audience at the end, Myrtò Papatanasiu was disappointing as Sifare. While she possesses a bright and agile soprano, there were signs of strain and stress that on occasion led to intonation problems, uneven tone and a brittle and harsh edge in her upper register. Lunga di te in particular exposed these fault lines, a fact not helped by the painfully slow tempo that Rousset elected to take.

The orchestra played well under Rousset’s baton but I was surprised at some of the slower-than-expected tempos that he elected to take the music. At times slowing the drama to almost a standstill.

It’s still rare to see Mozart’s earlier operas – or his opera serie at all – which is a shame. While it wasn’t in the same league as Vick’s insightful production, by staying almost true to the original dramatic intent and fielding a strong cast, this production of Mitridate demonstrated that they can be compelling.


Vil Bastarda

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on July 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Maria Stuarda (Royal Opera House, Saturday 4 July 2014)

Maria Stuarda – Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta I – Carmen Giannattasio
Giorgio Talbot – Matthew Rose
Guigliemo Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Roberto, Conte di Leicester – Ismael Jordi
Anna Kennedy – Kathleen Wilkinson
Executioner – Peter Dineen

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Directors – Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Set Designs – Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designs – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Design – Christophe Forey

Bertrand de Billy (Conductor)

Hopefully this production will be best remembered for the quality of the singing and the interaction between the main protagonists rather than the – at times questionable – production.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda seems to be growing in popularity. I admit I never saw the Met Production nor that of WNO, but it’s easy to see why. Inspired by the story-that-never-happened, he wrote some incredibly beautiful music for the two key protagonists.

And in those two protagonists – Elisabetta I and Maria Stuarda – Covent Garden had cast two incredible soloists and in spite of some first night nerves, both Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio shone.

For Elisabetta, Donizetti wrote some of his most unforgiving music – not technically but emotionally. There is little warmth in her music, not even when she shrewishly begs for Leicester’s affections. It’s a skillfully penned musical portrait of that most famous Queen.

And Ms Giannattasio’s performance – despite her Blackadder-inspired gown – was equally matched in her performance. Exuding musical authority, there is a keen – almost steely – edge to her voice that is coupled a secure and natural technique. In both Ah! Quando all’ ara scorgemi and through to her exit after a magnificent Ah! dal cielo discenda un raggio, she displayed a notable control of the vocal line. This was finely matched by an equality of tone and balance throughout her range combined with a musically intelligent use of ornamentation. It’s no surprise that the audience was so appreciative as she stormed out. Her return for her confrontation with Leicester and closing duet was equally engaging even if de Billy drove the music slightly too hard for me.

As her nemesis, Joyce DiDonato was the perfect foil. Vocally – and again I put this down to first night nerves – it took a while for Ms DiDonato to settle but as I have said on countless, countless occasions, Joyce DiDonato has incredible natural talent. At her disposal she has a vocal armoury that is securely grounded on formidable technique. And coupled with this is a musical intelligence that enables her to create a character that is fully fleshed out.

And it all came together (almost) perfectly on opening night as she gave her second portrayal of the doomed Queen of Scotland.

From the opening phrase of Oh nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri Ms DiDonato portrayed a Queen conflicted, confident and ultimately resigned to her fate. And if her opening cavatina, gave the audience what they have always expected from her in the past, it was her performance in the ensuing sextet that took Ms DiDonato performance to new heights.

This was the moment audiences have always looked forward to. It might not have happened in history, but Donizetti creates one of the great moments in bel canto opera.

The vocal dignity of Morta al mondo, e morta al trono was genuinely reflected as she implored Elisabetta for mercy. And it made the English queen’s reaction all the more shocking and Giannattasio’s Va, lo chiedi, o sciagurata more thrilling.

From here, the inevitability of Maria Stuarda’s condemnation of Elisabetta – Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! – was inevitable. And de Billy remorselessly drove the music to its conclusion. No wonder the King and censors were perturbed by this opera. It wasn’t only the libretto they had fears of. It was the force of Donizetti’s music at this point.

But if Joyce DiDonato displayed Maria’s mettle in this sextet it was in the final Act that she displayed her humanity.

Again, Donizetti wrote some of his most powerful music for this heroine. Quando di luce rosea was aching in the simplicity with which DiDonato sang it. Again her vocal control and the way she coloured the arching phrases was masterful.

As Donizetti drove us inexorably to the denouement, DiDonato rose to the occasion with – seemingly – no effort. Effortlessly soaring over the chorus in Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono, the nobility of her last message to Elisabetta – D’un cor che muore reca il perdono – was mesmerizing.

But it was humility of Ah! se un giorno da queste ritorte that demonstrated that Joyce DiDonato is one of the great singers of our age.

Sadly Donizetti didn’t lavish such attention on the men in this opera. However they provided more than able support.

Of the three, it was Matthew Rose who proved the strongest man in the cast not only for the quality and assuredness of his singing, but for his ability to portray the conflict within the character itself. Jeremy Carpenter also ably portrayed Cecil although slightly more menace would have made him more three-dimensional.

I am afraid I was not as impressed by the Conte di Leicester of Ismael Jordi. Technically it was all there, indeed unlike some of his bel canto fellows, he can find the necessary dynamic contrasts required. But I found there was a slightly metallic and constantly strained quality to his voice, which didn’t enable any sense of light or dark in his singing.

In the pit – as I have mentioned – de Billy drove the music on occasion too hard for my liking, but there is no denying that he clearly had the entire sweep of the drama in his mind. And the orchestra played with finesse although – and perhaps because of how he drove the music forward – there were times when Donizetti’s scoring was lost.

If there was one thing of dubious parentage then it was the vision and direction of this production.

It certainly drew a response from the audience. There was boo-ing for Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. While this isn’t the place to discuss whether the actual act of booing is acceptable or not, I have to say that I spent most of the opera thinking what exactly had they been thinking.

Quite literally a ‘vil bastarda’.

There is no denying that the singers themselves acted their parts. And brilliantly. But I do have to wonder how much of this was the singers’ own work when the overall direction was so flawed.

I have no problem with modernity of interpretation, I have no problem with mixing old and new. I simply got the impression that Leiser and Caurier might have started with a good idea but promptly left it somewhere.

From the start the signs were not good. Before the opera actually started, they clumsily told the audience the ending. Why didn’t they use the overture to perhaps portray the events that led Maria Stuarda to be imprisoned in Fotheringay?

The opening chorus look deliberately dressed as caricatures of the Queen Mother, Kate Middleton and current sons and grandsons of the Queen. Perhaps Covent Garden had borrowed the outfits from ITV’s ‘drama’ The Palace? If so, it was a cheap shot rather than adding any resonance.

The over-exaggerated costume that they hindered Elisabetta with almost undermined the character herself had it not been for Giannattasio’s acting abilities. With echoes of Blackadder almost, the soprano seemed to spend more than a little time working out how to negotiate the stage. Every time the poor Queen sat down it looked like she was trying to park something not much smaller than a tank on a smaller lawn. And while we all know that Elizabeth was bald (and so too was Mary Stuart for that matter) it seemed like too easy a dramatic coup to make in the opening scene.

The scenes in prison initially seemed more promising. The use of projection was effective but wasn’t carried through and therefore a lack of variety – both in terms of lighting and setting – made for an incredibly lacklustre act with the only dramatic intensity – apart from the music – being Elisabetta throwing food and chair around the set.

The curtain – clearly venetian blinds – hinted at a sense of voyeurism that wasn’t realized until the closing scene and therefore any sense of dramatic impact – hinting that the audience was complicit in Maria Stuarda’s execution – was dulled.

The final scene itself suggested a scenario more usually associated with the execution of criminals in the USA. Visually powerful as it was – and I doubt it was any kind of political statement – it only succeeded in creating a sense of detachment that was out of sorts with the emotional weight of Donizetti’s music.

Maria Stuarda is not a difficult story to tell. It is a story of love, of fear and of power. But it’s also a story of identity.

Donizetti’s music might note have suffered due to the compelling and brilliant performances stage, but Leiser and Caurier simply demonstrated that they couldn’t tell the story.

The Berliner Philharmoniker have launched their own record label

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

The Cinematic Contradictions of ENO

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on May 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Reviews – The Flying Dutchman & Madam Butterfly

ENO is currently an artistic contradiction. On the one hand, and bar the occasional directorial and artistic misjudgment, the music making has never been of a higher standard.

Take the current productions on stage. Without a doubt Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a masterpiece of music theatre. It is visually cinematic and opulent – opera interpreted through the lens of a tasteful Hollywood camera lens. And while the individual production elements – the shoji screens, the masked and black-robed stagehands and the puppetry – could have threatened to distract, in fact they enhance the unfolding drama and work in perfect sync with the Puccini’s music itself. In an original interview at the time of the production’s debut, Minghella said that he had more than a few recordings of the opera on his iPod. And it shows. The directing and the production underline the nuances of the opera perfectly.

And the cast too is incredibly strong. The original ENO Cio Cio San, Mary Plazas, returns in fantastic voice and is ably supported by Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki, John Fanning as Sharpless and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. And in the pit Oleg Caetani, once Music Director Designate before the fall of Sean Doran. He drew wondrously warm and fluid playing from the orchestra and demonstrated that this is an opera he has a deep love for.

On the other hand there is The Flying Dutchman, a new production by Jonathan Kent. This production first and foremost is a triumph for Ed Gardner, the orchestra and the chorus. Never have they sounded so superb. The strings are warm with added bite, the wind are translucent and sonorous and the brass bright and clear. Gardner shows that at least in ‘Romantic’ Wagner he knows how to handle the ebb and flow of the music, picking out the orchestral detail and finely balancing the pit and the singers. I wonder how long he will remain at ENO? And the chorus too is as superb as ever. But the singers underline that there is still some way to go with casting sympathetic Wagner performers. The Dutchman of James Creswell may have the volume and heft for the role but there was a distinct lack of finesse throughout. His was a one dimensional Dutchman. Stuart Skelton’s Erik was finely sung and well acted but again – and because I think of the production and his last-minute appearance – a cipher. Of the male roles it was the Daland of Clive Bayley that drew the strongest performance and characterization.

But the greatest disappoint was the Senta of Orla Boylan. She does indeed have the notes and the heft but – and this may be isolated to this run of performances – her voice has a singularly unattractive edge to it which distracts from the music itself. Throughout the performance she was shrill to the point of discomfort.

Yet it was Jonathan Kent’s production that ultimately failed to knit everything together in a coherent manner. A series of clever ideas – like his ultimately flawed Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Marriinsky – Kent’s premise from what I could gather, that childhood influences were at the crux of this drama, didn’t quite gel. The First Act opened with Child Senta reading The Dutchman as fairytale while her father left her to go to sea. Clearly the love between the two was deeply founded and from the body language it was clear that Daland loved his daughter very much. This made his agreement to barter her for gold to The Dutchman more bewildering. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to portray Daland as cold and greedy from the start? That would have made Child Senta’s retreat into the land of make-believe more credible. Instead we are then suddenly presented with Adult Senta who, and one can’t fault Boylan’s acting ability, is clearly a woman on the edge and living within the confines of the book given to her by her father. There is no evolution from the child to the demented woman we are suddenly presented with.

And sadly it seems whenever the ENO is in production-drought in terms of ideas it falls back on the failsafe – a violent crowd scene complete with drunkenness, sex and rape. Granted sometimes these directorial motifs are relevant if overdone – I refer to Castor and Pollux – but at ENO they seem to happen rather a lot and for now apparent reason at all.

In this production, rather than blurring the lines between the reality of the factory floor and the crazed world in Senta’s mind we are instead provided with a scene replete with a square-dancing chicken, a cross-dressing sailor and – naturally – a muscled dancer who can’t wait to get his kit off after performing various sexual positions with members of the cast astride one of the conveyor belts. None of these motifs was ever suggested in previous scenes (I would loved to have seen Kent try and get in the comedy chicken suit) and therefore it was as visually and unnecessarily brutal as it was physically violent. But all credit to ENO’s wonderful chorus for making it as believable as it was.

And sadly for me, it dampened the denouement as Senta, realizing that in realty her life is stifled and ugly, kills herself with a broken bottle.

And this sense of confusion seems to me to be spilling off stage as well. Cue the curious remarks by Artistic Director John Berry a few weeks ago regarding opera at the cinema. In The Stage he commented that “this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work … It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb.

And clearly Berry spends a great deal of time chasing down those directors who have cinematic or television experience – Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam to name two. Granted their productions left a great deal to be desired. And Sally Potter and Abbas Kiarostami who faired only slightly better.

Anyway which director envisions his opera as being “made for the screen” rather than for the stage? Well apart from LePage perhaps.

Clearly it is well nigh impossible to determine if people who shell out £25 for a cinema ticket will as readily fork out up to £200 for a ticket at an opera house. But even if it attracts a small number of people to dip their toe in the water then surely that’s a good thing? And also Berry fails to recognize – almost selfishly – that it isn’t only about footfall into his own theatre he should consider, but also the simple fact that it might help the industry as a whole? To raise awareness, interest and expose opera to a potentially new and sympathetic audience.

I wonder if his remarks have more to do with the recent appointment of the new Chairman at ENO, Peter Bazalgette. While some people have been more than a little sniffy at his appointment, I think it is a bold move. Yes this is the man who brought us Big Brother, but he has an innate understanding of audiences and having met him a couple of times myself he has an incredible excitement about opera as an art form. He might not be a dyed-in-the-ink opera fanatic but he does hold incredible respect for what is done on stage. I think ENO is safe from any threat of dumbing down at the London Coliseum, as directors seem more than capable of doing that themselves.

So perhaps Berry’s comments are more of an artistic warning shot across the bow of his own Board? ‘I won’t tell you how to raise money for the company as long as you do not interfere in what’s on stage’.

If so that is a shame. I think that English National Opera has more of a responsibility to promote new ways to reach the audience. Now that they finally have a Chairman who is more than a little skilled in the world of artistic and creative diplomacy they should explore their options.

Surely taking opera to the widest audience possible would be in the spirit of Lilian Baylis?


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


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera