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I Due Domingi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on October 28, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Review – Il due Foscari (Royal Opera House Live, Monday 27 October 2014)

Francesco Foscari – Plácido Domingo
Jacopo Foscari – Francesco Meli
Lucrezia Contarini – Maria Agresta
Jacopo Loredano – Maurizio Muraro
Barbarigo – Samuel Sakker
Pisana – Rachel Kelly
Fante – Lee Hickenbottom

Director – Thaddeus Strassberger
Set Designs – Kevin Knight
Costume Designs – Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Director)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

While you can’t fault Domingo’s commitment in the role of Francesco Foscari, I am still unconvinced – after I due Foscari – of his aspirations as a baritone.

There, I said it.

In terms of characterization, he has – as he said in the interval interview snippets with Pappano – a whole career of singing tenor roles, seeing these characters from a different perspective, which enables to him bring real depth and insight when playing these roles. And his Francesco, in terms of stage presence – and even real tears I would hazard – was compelling. Domingo caught almost to perfection the conflict of Doge and father and at the end, of a man defeated by both cruel fate and age.

But vocally it was a different manner. As with his recital of Verdi arias for baritone released last year, it wasn’t that his performance wasn’t musical. It was. Each and every phrase beautifully crafted and intelligently sung. What was missing wasn’t so much heft – although there were times when he seemed lost amid the other singers and the orchestra – but timbre and resonance. Of authority. And yet ultimately of course, it didn’t matter. The musicianship, the characterization overcame the vocal limitations.

However of the two other main cast members, there was no sense of any limitation. Maria Agresta as Lucrezia Contarini – was simply magnificent. She didn’t so much tackle the vocal demands of the role as dominated them. Her soprano – with an appealing hard edge when she chose to deploy it – gleamed and shone in Verdi’s music. Vocally impressive as she was when full of fury or castigating her peers or in her formidable duet with her father in law, it was in the more tender moments that she demonstrated that she is a true Verdi soprano. Her preghieraTu al chi sguardo onnipossente – was achingly sung and during the duet with her husband in the Second Act, time itself seemed to stand still. It was an incredible debut at Covent Garden and while I admit that I very rarely travel abroad for Verdi, for Maria Agresta I will be booking flights and hotels.

As her husband, Francesco Meli was as impressive. One criticism I often have of tenors in this repertoire is that they cannot always find the shade – as well as the light – in their singing. Not so with Signor Meli. From his opening aria until his final ‘addio’, he delivered a performance that was both beautifully nuanced and totally committed.

It’s a shame that these three characters dominated I due Foscari but all the smaller roles – led by the Jacopo Loredano of Maurizio Muraro contributed to a vocally strong evening.

In the pit, Pappano demonstrated impeccable Verdian credentials. He seemed to be conducting as if his life depended on it. But as well as the brute force the Verdi wrote into the score from the beginning, Pappano ensured that the Royal Opera House Orchestra found the right tinta for the more intimate moments of the opera. And similarly, the chorus delivered their usual high standards of precision and passionate singing.

Together with Glare – which I will be seeing in a few weeks – this was Thaddeus Strassberger’s debut at Covent Garden. His CV is impressive and on the whole, his vision for this opera was impressive. He did capture – together with Kevin Knight – not only the darker side of Venice, but any one who has been there – as I have – will have smiled when the flood-boards made an appearance. However it was a shame that Strassberger resorted to a hackney’d device for no reason that I could – pardon the pun – fathom. From her first appearance, Lucrezia Contarini isn’t so much determined to prove her husband’s innocence, but rather would rather see him die that have him exiled. Then why, when he is dead, does she go mad and then drown her (eldest) son in a puddle. Seeing this proud and brave woman reduced to insanity, didn’t add to the tragedy, but deflected from it unnecessarily. It was almost as if – having avoid cliché from the start – Strassberger felt obliged to throw one in at the end.

A shame.

I hope that when it returns – and with any luck alongside Herheim’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes – that Maria Agresta and Francesco Meli will return along with a true baritone.

However, as with my ever-so-slight reservations of Domingo’s baritonal aspirations, the slightly marred ending did nothing to reduce my overall enjoyment of this production.

Vocalympics 2012

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on June 2, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Review – Handel & The Rival Queens (St. John’s, Smith Square, Saturday 26 May 2012) and L’Olimpiade (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 28 May 2012)

Handel & The Rival Queens, Lufthansa Baroque Festival
Lisa Milne (Francesca Cuzzoni)
Mhairi Lawson (Faustina Bordoni)
Christopher Benjamin (Narrator)

Early Opera Company
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

L’Olimpiade
Megacle – Romina Basso
Licida – Delphine Galou
Aristea – Ruth Rosique
Argene – Luanda Siqueira
Clistene – Jeremy Ovenden
Aminta – Nicholas Spanos

Venice Baroque Opera
Conductor – Andrea Marcon

Two different concerts but both based around the idea of competition and rivalry.

Vocalympics in a sense and if you’ll pardon the simplistic play on words.

First up was a concert based on the legendary rivalry of Cuzzoni and Bordoni in Handel’s London. The idea of Handel’s “rival queens” is not new. There is a magnificent CD with Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott for example and I can’t believe that this is the first concert to emulate this moment in time. Indeed Handel himself wrote for both these prima donne in Alessandro as I have mentioned before.

Christian Curmyn and his exemplary Early Opera Company were joined by Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne, a late stand in for Rosemary Joshua who cancelled for personal reasons. And as narrator there was Christopher Benjamin. I was not wholly convinced by his contribution and while the anecdotes were amusing some seemed overlong.

However the quality of the singing and musicianship was incredibly high. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Mhairi Lawson and was slightly anxious as the last time her performance was marred by over indulgent vibrato. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and enamoured of her performance as her voice had a bright and elegant sheen and she excelled in the virtuosity demands of the music, throwing out clean and accurate coloratura and embellishments throughout. The highlights were Brilla nell’ alma from Handel’s Alessandro and Son qual misera colomba from Hasse’s Cleofide. Lisa Milne valiantly and most ably stepped into the breach in place of Ms Joshua. Her richer and more resonant soprano was a perfect foil to Lawson’s and while her embellishments were not as sophisticated as her colleagues – perhaps as a result of being a late stand-in – hers was nevertheless a great performance with Che sento … Per pietà from Giulio Cesare and Porpora’s Miseri, sventurati, poveri affetti miei both displaying the polar opposites of her talent.

Yet – and quite rightly – the final duet proved the ultimate highlight of the concert as their voices melded together seamlessly.

Curmyn and his orchestra played with get poise and style. Tempos were easy and there was real bite in the strings and bar a few intonation problems in the Porpora, the oboists were suitably mellifluous. So all in all a very enjoyable evening.

And it was inevitable that the classical world would provide its own homage to the forthcoming Olympics. The Lufthansa Baroque Festival performed Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade and Andrea Marcon and his Venice Baroque Orchestra’s contribution was a pastiche opera – which they have also recorded – using Metastasio’s same libretto as its basis. This libretto was first used in 1733 by Caldara as well as composers as diverse as Galuppi and Leo on the one hand to Mysliveček, Piccinni and Cherubini from the other end of the century. All featured here alongside Vivaldi, Gassmann, Jommelli and Traetta as well as a new composer to me, Davide Perez.

While in principle a clever idea, it tripped over a few hurdles on the night. First and foremost the orchestra led by Marcon, was ragged. Entries were disconcertingly imprecise, tuning was often awry and Marcon’s own tempi were more often than not rushed and hence unsympathetic to the singers. It was this that in my opinion was the root cause of the lower than expected quakity of the playing from the orchestra. This marred some of the more beautiful arias that evening and in particular Jommelli’s Lo sequitai felice where the oboes and French horns simply struggled as did mezzo soprano Romina Basso herself.

That was a shame as Signora Basso was one of two singers who clearly deserved Olympian laurels on the evening. Hers is a velvety and sonorous mezzo soprano voice and once I had become used to her slightly eccentric mannerisms it was a joy to sit back and listen to her. From her opening aria, Superbo di me stesso she commanded the stage and audience throughout the evening. Similarly the second mezzo Delphine Galou displayed both great technique and musicianship – her Mentre dormi by Vivaldi being the highlight of the evening.

The other singers were of varying success. Luanda Siqueira had a bright soprano but would have benefitted from not singing into her score for the majority of the evening while Ruth Rosique, albeit a convincing actress, had a tendency to shrillness in her upper register as she snatched the higher notes. Of the two men, Jeremy Ovenden was a fluid if bland tenor and Nicholas Spanos had gentle timbred pleasantly reedy countertenor but lacked sufficient support to project the bottom notes of his range.

However the one nagging question for me was this – had Marcon simply chosen too many composers? Like a child when confronted by too much choice in the candy shop, had he over-indulged in his choices over too great a span of time? As a result, stylistically his Vivaldi sounded like his Hasse which sounded like his Jommelli which sounded like his Cherubini. Indeed Cherubini complete with harpsichord and lute – strange. Perhaps a narrower range of composers would have left a more stylistically coherent performance at the end of the evening.

Yet it was an interesting experiment. I have purchased the CD and happily admit that I listen to it a great deal mainly because Marcon adopts a more measured pace which allows the beauty of the individual arias stand out, and in particular the aforementioned Jommelli. But at the end of the day it remains more a compilation of charming arias than a coherent pastiche opera seria.

Further Reading
1. An Invigorating Dasch Through Mozart. Enjoyment Assured.
2. Review – Prima Donna. Vivaldi Arias (Nathalie Stutzmann & Orfeo 55)
3. Handel With Care

Review – Prima Donna. Vivaldi Arias (Nathalie Stutzmann & Orfeo 55)

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on August 18, 2011 at 7:25 am

Anyone not acquainted with French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann should immediately listen to her performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsodie (Op. 53) with John Elliott-Gardiner. From her first entry at Aber abseits wer ist’s?, through her wonderful control when the male chorus enters at Ist auf Deo em Psalter, to the final pleading with so enquicke Seinfeld Herz! will immediately know that Ms Stutzmann is an artist of great talent, intelligence and refinement. And similarly her performances and recordings of music by Handel and Bach through to Schumann, Schubert, Mahler and beyond show a similar dedication to attention to detail and the highest performance standards.

Together with Orfeo 55, the original ensemble that she founded in 2009, Ms Stutzmann has recorded a disc of Vivaldi arias and instrumental pieces from his opera and oratorios. Aptly named Prima Donna, the arias are those written for specific singers – Chiara Stella Cenacchi, Angela Zanucchi, AnnaVincenza Dotti, Anna Maria Fabri and Maria-Maddalena Pieri – as well as the more normal castrati.

The accompanying notes claim that Vivaldi himself loved the contralto voice and while he is not – in my opinion – a great opera composer, individual arias on recital discs such as this can make for an argument for ‘one more go’ but currently I struggle to sit through any of his operas in its entirety. On the whole I find a lack of diversity or invention in the arias as well as a lack of either characterisation or emotional intensity that you find in Handel for example. Here, where individual arias are specifically selected because they stand out among the plethora in a single work, their impact is all the greater.

For her disc, Ms Stutzmann has chosen carefully and produced a balanced recital that for me certainly, might lead me to reconsider Vivaldi’s operatic credentials.

The opening aria is certainly a curtain raiser. With its typical string figurations, Agitata infido flatu from Juditha Triumphans is also one of the more commonly performed Vivaldi arias and she confidently handles both the chromatic line and veers away from an overtly florid da capo. Similarly the florid La gloria del mio sangue (Tieteberga) with its oboe obbligati demonstrates not only her ability to negotiate Vivaldi’s coloratura but also exhibits her range as she dips down to her wonderfully resonant chest voice. In Gemo in un punto e tremo (L’Olimpiade) she revels in the words of the text above more typically Vivaldi figuration.

Throughout the recital Ms Stutzmann demonstrates an absolute control of Vivaldi’s arching vocal lines in the slower numbers. Io sento in questo seno (Arsilda Regina di Ponto) supported by elegant playing from Orfeo 55 shows, for example, of how Ms Stutzmann avoids a common pitfall of some more recent baroque and classical vocal recitals – wild, over the top ornamentation with the da capo return. Throughout she applies an intelligent level of ornamentation that not only provides variety but heightens the emotion without being distracting.

The pizzicato accompaniment in both Sento in seno ch’io pioggia di lagrime (Il Giustino) and Cor mio, che progion sei (Atenaide) certainly demonstrate that Vivaldi could provide orchestral colour and in the same way Ho hel petto un cor si forte from (Il Giustino) and Transit aetas (Juditha Triumphans) feature delicate mandolin playing. Indeed, in the latter you can also feel time and years flying away.

Sovvente il sole is certainly one of the disc’s highlights and the sleeve note speculates that perhaps Il Prete Rosso played the violin solo himself. Written as an insertion aria for the serenata Andromeda liberata, it is one of the longer, more emotionally substantial arias on the disc, clearly to showcase Vivaldi’s talents as opposed to the other composers involved. Throughout singer and violinist entwine in delicate counterpoint and thirds and sixths throughout, resulting in a mesmerising performance.

The Lombardy rhythms of Vincerà l’aspro mio fatto (Semiramide) with the unusual addition of horns tom add to the martial effect and the vigorous rhythms of the final aria Cara gioia e bel diletto (Arsilda Regina di Ponto) complete with recorder and tambourine that intensify and highlight the love felt by the protagonist, again help lift Vivaldi’s operatic credentials and are performed with suitable enthusiasm by one and all.

Throughout Orfeo 55 – including in their own orchestral numbers – provide enthusiastic, direct and warm playing for Ms Stutzmann. Its certainly a disc worth buying even if by the end of the disc I am still not entirely convinced that Vivaldi’s opera arias are as well crafted as those he wrote in some of his sacred pieces. Yet Ms Stutzmann makes a credible case for reconsideration but like Magdalena Kozená’s equally accomplished disc of Vivaldi arias – which does, I admit, include some pretty impressive numbers – ultimately it fails to convince me overall that I should return and listen to complete Vivaldi operas wholesale. Pace.

However, for the passion and intelligence of Ms Stutzmann and Orfeo 55 alone this is a disc worth acquiring for repeatedly listening.

Related Blogs:
1. Review – The Beauty of Baroque. Danielle de Niese, The English Concert/Harry Bickett
2. When Less Can Be More

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