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(Un)Mostly Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Review – Mozart 250 (Milton Court, Saturday 21 & Sunday 22 February 2015)

An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment
Anna Devin & Martene Grimson (Sopranos) Samantha Price (Mezzo-soprano)

London Concert Life in 1765
Eleanor Dennis (Soprano)
Ben Johnson (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Ian Page and Classical Opera threw themselves headlong into a weekend of music and lecturesafter the successful opening concert of their adventure, Mozart 250. Sadly at the last moment I wasn’t able to attend the entire weekend but did manage to catch two of the concerts – An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment and the closing concert of the weekend, London Concert Life in 1765.

The first concert focused on Italian opera in London in the 1760s, offering a selection of arias by lesser-known composers that formed the backbone of – it seemed – a predilection for pastiche operas in London, as well as another selection from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I must admit that none of the arias by the ‘unknown’ composers truly stood out, except perhaps Se non ti moro a lato by Davide Perez with its unusual harmonic twists at the cadences, and indeed I did feel that Pescetti – and in particular his Caro mio bene, addio – slightly outstayed his welcome.

However the selections by JC Bach again begged the question of why his operas – or at least the arias – aren’t performed more often. Take Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso for example, with its dramatic accompagnato, noble melody and deeply hued scoring including clarinets. Indeed it made me wonder if the London Bach’s use of the instrument wasn’t the initial inspiration for Mozart’s own love of the instrument. And it was beautifully sung by Anna Devin, with beautifully controlled legato, intelligently shaded phrasing and a real sympathy with JC Bach’s music, as was further evidenced by her performance of Confusa, smarrita. Samantha Price also made a promising debut with Classical Opera. The full warmth of her voice and her technical ability – especially in Tutti nemici e rei – should ensure her a promising career not only in this repertoire but hopefully in lieder as well. I was less convinced by Martene Grimson, who never sounded completely at ease in the music. I felt there was breathiness to her singing and her coloratura, while good, was not as well defined or controlled.

I also must admit that much as I love Eighteenth Century opera – da capos and all – I did wont for some orchestral music as relief from the deluge of arias that were presented.

Sunday night’s concert, a snapshot of musical life in 1765 was therefore more satisfying, featuring as it did both arias and orchestral music. Of the orchestral inclusions, it was Karl Friedrich Abel’s Symphony in E Flat, Opus 7 that was the most delightful and weighty discovering. With its luxurious scoring and real sense of symphonic gravitas, it outshone the contributions of JC Bach and Mozart on the evening.

Two of the arias performed were ‘repeats’ from the opening concert. Ben Johnson’s performance of Va, dal furor portata was suitably confident and forthright – his full tenor soaring over the orchestra and providing a suitably bravura contrast to his touching and refined rendition of Non so d’onde viene from JC Bach’s Ezio. Eleanor Dennis is in possession of a bright and full-throated soprano with an impressive range, however her performances were slightly marred by slightly occluded diction as well as challenges in breath control, especially in her first aria Cara, la dolce fiamma which demands so much of the singer in terms of its expansive vocal line. However her encore, a beautiful aria by Giardini with its unusual scoring for obbligato cello and violas only, was a real gem.

Throughout Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera performed with both great virtuosity and sympathy to the singers. The warmth of their playing was combined with technical confidence and real attention to dynamic as well as rhythmic detail.

Both concerts provided an interesting slice of musical life in London at the time that Mozart visited. But it did seem odd that we didn’t hear more of Mozart’s own vocal music at the time. A few numbers from works such as Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots or Apollo et Hyacinthus or even La finta semplice would have provided a true sense of context and influence perhaps.

But after the weekend, it seems almost too long a wait for Adriano in Siria.

Bewitched. Beguiled. Bedazzled.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Review – Alcina (Barbican Centre, Friday 10 October 2014)

Alcina – Joyce DiDonato
Ruggiero – Alice Coote
Morgana – Anna Christy
Bradamante – Christine Rice
Oronte – Ben Johnson
Oberto – Anna Devin
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

The English Concert

Harry Bicket (Director/Harpsichord)

Alcina is – for me – Handel’s greatest opera. Personally, it trumps Giulio Cesare in the magnificent invention of its music and outdoes the likes of Rodelinda and Orlando in its depiction of human nature.

And at the Barbican on Friday evening, this performance was the musical equivalent of a perfect storm. All the elements came together magically and deluged the entire hall in wave after wave of perfectly attuned, emotionally charged and dazzling brilliant musical performance.

Part of the Joyce DiDonato’s residency at the Barbican, it followed a magnificent recital drawn from her latest bel canto disc, Stella di Napoli. I never got round to writing up my thoughts on either disc or the concert itself but suffice it to say that both were magnificent.

Needless to say, as Alcina she was vocally superb – flawless even– and musically intuitive. And although there were no tomatoes this time, once again she was impressively attired to suit both character and occasion.

And each and every cast member – and the English Concert – were similarly impressive. In terms of the quality of the singing, their technique, their interpretation of Handel’s music including very tasteful embellishment and ornamentation, the commitment of everyone was stage was absolute.

While her Alcina on disc – recorded with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – is formidable on stage she brought a sense of humanity – of womanhood – to the role that is often missing in other performances. There was a heartrending frailty to Si, son quella! and a real sense of anguish in Ah! Il mio cor – possibly one of the finest arias Handel ever penned – that completely floored me. In Di mio cor, her Alcina was more than a woman in love, she conveyed a real sense of coquettishness, of almost innocent, true love. As a result, when this Alcina – rebuffed – turns to fury, it was a believable journey. This wasn’t so much a sorceress not getting her own way, but a woman scorned, seeking revenge and ultimately resigned to her fate. From her disbelief in Ombre pallide when the shades do not answer her summons, through her ‘righteous’ anger when she dismisses Ruggiero in Ma quando tornera to her almost final realization that she has lost him forever in Mi restamo le lagrime, was an emotional journey that was etched on the audiences’ minds. And I say almost, because in the trio, Non e amor, né gelosia – which I could have sworn was shorn – there was a palpable sense that should almost got her man back.

That she didn’t was evident from the moment Alice Coote stepped on stage. Like Ms DiDonato her total commitment not only to the role, but when singing Handel – and indeed in general – makes for an incredibly special performance. Her Ariodante at ENO will remain with me forever – not to mention her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

To Ruggiero, she brought brashness – a youthful and naïve impetuosity that was palpable. But while Di te mi rido might have been suitably dismissive, with Mi lusinga il dolce affetto Coote’s Ruggiero began to doubt his own reality. In Mio bel tesoro Coote’s asides managed to sound slightly indecisive and the eloquence which she brought to the wonderful Verdi prati made it sound not so much an aria of adieu but one of regret. But there was no doubt that duty and true love had won out with Ms Coote’s spectacular performance – complete with braying horns – of Sta nell’ircana.

Following her impressive Cleopatra for ENO – one of the only things worth remembering from that dire production – Anna Christy brought crystalline accuracy, immaculate attention to detail and line, accomplished interpretation and more than a little wit to the role of Morgana. Of course everyone was on the edge of their seat for Tornami a vagheggiar – and Ms Christy did not disappoint, but for me it was Credete al mio dolore that set the seal on Ms Christy’s Handellian credentials. With support obbligato support from Joseph Crouch, Ms Christy not only negotiated this most difficult aria but imbued it with a real sense of pathos.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Christine Rice –ENO’s Partenope perhaps? – but it was a pleasure seeing her in the role of Bradamante. Her rich, velvet-toned mezzo was well matched to the role. Similarly, the Oberto of Anna Devin was superb. Chi m’insegna il caro padre was beautifully delivered with expert control of both the exposed line and embellished da capo and quite rightly, her bright soprano in Barbara! Io ben lo so brought cheers from the audience.

And both Ben Johnson as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach as Melisso breathed new life into their arias – which compared to those of the other cast members – can often seem lackluster. Gierlach’s resonant bass made for a beautifully articulated Pensa a chi geme and Johnson sailed effortlessly through Un momento di contento.

The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bickett similarly excelled themselves. I have already mentioned the wonderful playing of Joseph Crouch and similar plaudits must be awarded to the wonderful playing of the leader, Nadja Zweiner in Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende with Ms Christy – soloist and singer in perfect synchronization.

By the end of the evening this was an Alcina to cherish and remember. And wonder why the Barbican doesn’t have its own label to capture magical moments like this.

Trimming La Traviata

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2013 at 8:15 am

Review – La Traviata (English National Opera, Tuesday 12 February 2013)

Violetta Valery – Corinne Winters
Alfredo Germont – Ben Johnson 

Giorgio Germont – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Flora Bervoix – Clare Presland
Doctor – Grenvil Martin Lamb
Annina – Valerie Reid
Viscount Gaston – Paul Hopwood
Baron Duphol – Matthew Hargreaves 

Marquis – Charles Johnston

Director – Peter Konwitschny
Designer – Johannes Leiacker 

Lighting – Designer Joachim Klein

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Conductor – Michael Hofstetter

It wasn’t only Violetta’s life that was cut short in ENO’s new production of La Traviata.

I have to admit that when I read of the “edited” version being proposed by English National Opera I was, at best, unconvinced. I think there are few justifiable reasons – bar perhaps in some baroque works – to cut actual music from operas, particularly if – as is the case of La Traviata – it was never originally considered by the composer.

And yet all credit to Konwitschny, the singers, chorus and orchestra for creating – bar a few questionable elements – a compelling and thought-provoking interpretation.

I studiously tried to avoid reading any reviews of this production before attending the performance on Tuesday evening.

This was literally a Traviata stripped bare. No gowns. No lace. No frippery. A series of curtains across the stage, a single chair and a pile of books.

Of course this isn’t the first time that a director has pared this opera back to a minimalist setting. I am thinking of the Met’s recent production for example. But here – despite the size of the Coliseum’s stage – it seems starker and more brutal.

There was no escaping from the inevitable tragedy.

Clearly the curtains represented the various layers of Violetta’s own life, peeled away as the story unfolded. But perhaps also they were representative of other things?

For instance, they literally drew a convenient veil over the uglier aspects of Violetta’s life – the cruelty of her society friends, the voyeurism with which they intruded and ultimately as the curtains were ripped down, the fragile balance of her life itself. Also it underlined the emptiness of her life. There was literally nothing in it.

But there seemed something almost Freudian – sexually suggestive if you will, as let’s not forget that Violetta is a courtesan who plied her trade – in the way that the curtains were not only pulled apart but also in the way that the characters wrapped themselves in the folds of the fabric.

And quite movingly at the end the two main protagonists pretended to pull them back to their original positions as they vainly tried to recapture the past and ignore the present.

Yet there were some elements that I think need a bit of fine-tuning.

The brutality of Germont pere, for example, was not totally convincing. Nor was the idea of introducing a daughter into the equation. Dealing with the latter first, it was an interesting theatrical device – but for some reason Konwitschny portrayed her as a schoolgirl which didn’t work for me. The daughter is on the verge of getting engaged, which is the why the father has turned up, so why is she in pigtails? Secondly the sudden and violent outburst from the father was out of kilter with his general character and particularly his subsequent – and touching – scene with his own son. Yes, to the audience he is being a cruel man in persuading Violetta to give up Alfredo, but from his point of view it’s a question not only of his daughter’s future but also of family honour.

And while using the auditorium was effective, particularly in the closing scene, I think they need to rethink Alfredo clambering over the audience in the front row. Not only was it slightly comical but also I can imagine those in the first two or three rows weren’t best amused especially in the closing and emotionally charged scene to be so distracted. But there is not denying the emotional impact of those closing moments – Violetta alone on the stage and suddenly it is the audience who are – uncomfortably – the voyeurs.

Any production that strips away the artifice requires a strong cast. And this production was fortunate as sometimes casting can be a hit and miss affair at ENO.

Corinne Winters made an extraordinary House debut in the role. Her bright, at times glittering soprano could also – when needed – acquire the hard edge of characterization as well as reduce itself to the slightest vocal whisper. And she was a good and credible actress throughout. Her sense of isolation at the end was gripping. But perhaps they could rethink her costume in the second act? While the device was clear – eschewing all glamour for Alfredo – it seemed almost too absurdist.

Ben Johnson was a promising Alfredo but personally his tenor was a tad too light for me. On the other hand Anthony Michaels-Moore as his father had a resonant bass/baritone and delivered some beautifully phrased singing.

And special mention must go to the Annina of Valerie Reid. Often a role that is cast as an after thought she combined a clear soprano with strong acting.

The ENO chorus once again proved to be a strong card in the production, playing to a tee a ground of self-centred, cruel posse of voyeurs. The choreography in what would have been the third act was particularly chilling.

In the pit the ENO orchestra were on top form, with warm string playing and clearly etched support from wind and brass. Michael Hoffstetter – a conductor I more commonly associate with baroque and early classical repertoire – brought a real clarity and chamber quality to much of Verdi’s score. My only wont was for a bit more flexibility – ebb and flow as it were.

This production was undoubtedly thought provoking and strongly directed. There is no denying that Konwitschny’s vision hurtles towards the tragic denouement but I couldn’t help thinking that this Traviata was a creative yet theatrical experiment.

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