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Posts Tagged ‘Brindley Sherratt’

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.

 

 

 

Donizetti alla Francese

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Review – Les Martyrs (Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 4 November 2014)

Polyeucte – Michael Spyres
Pauline – Joyce Al-Khoury
Sèvere – David Kempster
Félix – Brindley Sherratt
Callisthènes – Clive Bayley
Néarque – Wynne Evans
Une Femme – Rosalind Waters
Un Chrétien – Simon Preece

Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

Les Martyrs – originally Poliuto and the result of over-zealous censors – is a curious hybrid. It’s a very Italian opera restrained by the corset of grand French opera.

A combination of some thrilling ensembles, dark orchestral hues and unique instrumentation – ophicleide anyone? – Les Martyrs takes a while to warm up. The first two acts canter along sedately, if not with any sense of true excitement, and it isn’t until the third act that a real sense of Donizettian drama unfolds. A duet followed by an impassioned tenor aria and a final sextet for all the major protagonists is the highlight of this opera. Indeed, that dramatic momentum eases off considerably in the final act, and even the closing scene, with lions getting ready to pounce, doesn’t thrill as much.

Indeed, ultimately for me Les Martyrs seems to lack any real sense of character or depth.

So, on paper it shouldn’t work – it is hardly one of Donizetti’s finer tragedies – but by dint of the commitment of everyone on stage, it does.

And towering over the entire performance, was the passion, conviction and – when required – delicate caress of Sir Mark Elder. From the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment he evoked with great skill the unique sound world that Donizetti wrote into the score, and from the singers, some incredible performances.

Michael Spyres was more than an adequate replacement for Bryan Hymel. His French – as with all the singers – was excellent and his tenor while light and supple didn’t blanch in the more ambitious and – in some ways – vocally tortuous moments. However I remain to be convinced by the – almost unnaturally sounding – note he hit in his confidently executed cabaletta.

As Pauline, Joyce Al-Khoury took a while to settle into the role. She has a unique vocal timbre that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but coupled with formidable technique including the ability to float high notes confidence, she made a compelling case for the estranged-cum-converted wife. Her vocal fireworks at the end of the First Act were rightly cheered, although I did think that in later ensembles her voice was too forced. But at no point were her interpretive skills in question.

It seemed unusual to me that there were no other female roles – reminding me of Dom Sébastian, also written for Paris towards the end of his career and also available on Opera Rara – but the remaining roles were well covered. Brindley Sherratt, David Kempster and Clive Bayley– as Félix, Sèvere and Callisthènes respectively were all vocally strong, each finding some fine moments of vocal nuance within their roles, although I did perceive moments of strain with David Kempster. Wynne Evans’ Néarque was perhaps the weakest link in the ensemble. Some troubling vibrato – particularly at the beginning – was coupled with some one-dimensional singing, made this Christian more cipher than heroic martyr.

And, drawn from the Opera Rara Chorus, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece both gave committed performances.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their usual verve and spirit – they are never anything less than a joy to hear and to watch.

Ultimately Les Martyrs, his first French grand opera, feels more like an interesting experiment than a fully formed work. Perhaps if Donizetti had had more time, or perhaps returned and revised it whenhe returned to Paris –alongside Dom Sébastian – it might have been something more substantial.

But Opera Rara are to be commended for reviving the work with Elder and the OAE and I look forward to Le duc D’Albe in 2015.

Murder Most Magnificent

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Review – Medea (English National Opera, Wednesday 20 February 2013)

Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa/Phantom – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis/Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker

Director – David McVicar
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Lynne Page

Chorus Master – Jörg Andresen
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera

Conductor – Christian Curnyn

English National Opera is a company that operates at both extremes of the performance spectrum.

To put it bluntly. Their productions are either incredibly good and thought-provoking. Or completely dreadful and ill-conceived. Although in those cases they are saved from complete ignominy from the general quality of the casting.

With their current production of Medea they are off the spectrum of incredibly good. Excellent. Award-winning. And I would even hazard to say a potential long-runner.

ENO would do well to consider building on their French baroque credentials based on this production and their previous production of Castor and Pollux.

David McVicar has matured from being the enfant terrible of opera directors with great ideas with great ideas to a great opera director with a great vision full of sharp ideas.

But first, the cast.

Charpentier’s music moves seamlessly from air to ‘recitatif’ – through composed or not – and therefore has few main numbers as it were. Therefore attention to the detail to the music and a keen eye to the shift between the two is required. And all the singers keenly demonstrated both.

It was a strongly knit cast without a weak link but clearly this is a production that will most be remembered for the tour-de-force of Sarah Connolly as Medea. This role could have been composed for her. I saw her recently perform scenes from French Baroque operas and this is clearly a genre that suits her voice and temperament.

It is clear – as she said in an interview – that completely trusts McVicar but they obviously share common ground when it comes to developing a character. It goes without saying that musically this was an incredibly distinguished and passionate performance. Sarah Connolly is in possession of a lustrous voice that can switch from the lightest, most delicate of tone and colour to an instrument of incredible force and volume and never was a word dropped or muffled. Witness for example her scenes with Nerina and better still the scene when she wrestles with killing her own sons for example. And it was also a subtle yet masterful transition from loving wife to spurned, vengeful woman. Her acting was incredibly convincing not only in the most obvious scenes but for example in her scene with Jason before her descent into revenge and as well as those scenes with Creon and Creusa.

As the King’s daughter-cum-starlet, Katherine Manley’s bright and full soprano was perfect and glittered like her ill-fated gown. Her closing air – as she lay dying – was sung with great poise but each of her scenes was beautifully and eloquently sung even when she had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction. Katherine Manley is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

Jeffrey Francis as Jason was a pleasant find. His light, crisp yet sweet-toned tenor was a delight and a good fit for Charpentier’s music as well as with the rest of the ensemble. Particularly impressive was his love duet with Creusa.

The remaining warriors – Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Roderick Williams’ Orontes – completed the very strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Williams as Pollux in Kosky’s production at ENO last year and here he returned with an equally strong portrayal of Orontes, displaying the same strong, darkly hued baritone with excellent diction. And Brindley Sherratt was superb as Creon. His resonant bass dealt comfortably with the delicacy of Charpentier’s writing.

Special mention too of Rhian Lois as Nerina, Aoife O’Sullivan as Cleonis and Cupid, Oliver Dunn’s Arcas and Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman for the strength and intelligence of their performances.

And of course the ENO chorus sang not only with conviction but with passion. The chorus revealing the death of Creon and Orontes was particularly impressive.

Christian Curnyn led the entire ensemble with great verve and attention to the music. There was an equal balance of rhythmic vitality and beautifully phrased suavity combined with a greater attention to the orchestra colour of Charpentier’s score than I found in his Rameau last year.

And so to the production.

The production was built around a combination of McVicar’s motifs but didn’t suffer because of it. The set could have been borrowed from his Covent Garden Figaro for example, and he maximised the size of the Coliseum’s stage – sometimes its own handicap – by focusing some energy on the activity surrounding the main characters without it being distracting.

The setting was – with its Wrens manoeuvring armies around a map and the costumes – reminiscent of the Second World War and there was a general air of decadence to the entire production. Ms Manley may have inadvertently lost her underwear in the second act but it added to the subtle hint of loucheness – almost decadence – at the court of Creon. His own desire for his daughter made clear by the way he touched her early in the opera, was heightened when the Phantoms in the penultimate act are all doppelgangers of Creusa. Similarly Cupid’s night club scene was smart and witty but again managed to deliver and underlying sense of menace.

The scene when Medea calls upon her demons was brilliantly done, and McVicar spared none of the savagery as Connolly cut her own skin and while I was somewhat at a loss with the shaved-headed, red painted male demons in shift dresses and high heels, the dancing in this scene was brutally effective.

Indeed for the most part the choreography – always a difficult thing to integrate into baroque opera and ENO’s dismal Julius Caesar is testimony to – was smart and efficient. When it didn’t add to the narrative, as it did in the aforementioned scene, it was hearty and jovial, which was no bad thing.

Medea shows what ENO is capable of when everything comes together – an excellent cast led by a superb conductor under the auspices of a smart and intelligent director. It’s a shame that John Berry dismisses the idea of cinema broadcasts. This production would – I am sure – be successful on the big screen because it has everything – a great story committed to stage with great singing, marvellous playing and brilliant direction.

Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already purchased a ticket.

And the second of two very clever and enjoyable French baroque productions by ENO. I do hope that John Berry realises that here is repertoire that is waiting to be explored and will decisively stake a claim to this genre in the capital.

Can we hope for a more new productions? Indeed perhaps some Lully?

Maestro Maazel’s Misjudged Mahler Makes For Mediocrity

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on October 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Review – Symphony No. 8, Gustav Mahler
Sally Matthews, Ailish Tynan, Sarah Tyan, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Marie Owens, Stefan Vinke, Mark Stone & Stephen Gadd. Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir. Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel.

Maazel ended his Mahler cycle which he began in earnest in April of this year with Gustav’s Eighth Symphony. The cycle as a whole has had a mixed reception and I have two admissions.

First of all I did not attend any of the other performances in the cycle and therefore cannot testify if there was any sense of ‘greater architecture’ or cohension to the cycle. And secondly I still had the magnificent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic ringing in my ears from the previous weekend.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony always sets up a sense of various expectations. Not only in terms of the forces that must be assembled – although fortunately not always the ‘one thousand’ of legend – but also in terms of the line up of soloists and of course the credentials of both orchestra and conductor.

On paper it all looked very promising. I have Maazel’s complete recordings of Mahler’s symhonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and I don’t think that his approach to this symphony has changed much from set to stage. Additionally the soloists ranked on Sunday were potentially impressive.

So why did I leave the concert hall feeling disappointed? Granted there were some who stood and gave ovations. Perhaps they had attended the whole cycle? Perhaps they were genuinely moved?

For me it was a lacklustre and at times incredibly frustrating evening. I have heard the term ‘directionless’ used with reference to the other performances in the cycle and that seems the best description for Maazel’s performance of the Eighth Symphony.

Granted the opening, Veni, creator spiritus was magnificent and promising. But simply in a way that – I believe – you cannot get the opening of this symphony so completely wrong that it doesn’t have impact. From the opening chord of the organ, the opening bars are as much about simply marshalling the extravagant forces arrayed in from of the podium as creating the momentum that will carry through to the closing bars of Part One.

There was both immediate sound and weight, yet almost immediately Maazel showed that he didn’t really have a direction of travel. Almost from the beginning it seemed that what Maazel lacked was a sense of pace, direction and attention to detail.

While Mahler wrote what can only be described as a ‘wall of sound’ for the opening, he was – as I have said before – a master of orchestration. He had an innate knowledge of orchestral colour and balance and despite the furious activity in the opening bars Mahler scores the orchestra intuitively as he begins to lay out the thematic ideas that will dominate for the rest of the symphony.

It became evident that Maazel wasn’t so interested in delving into this level of detail and was simply conducting the notes. There was none of the transparency or sense of contrast written so clearly, lovingly and with deliberate purpose into the score. Even in terms of dynamic range Maazel seemed to operate in one of two modes – very loud or dynamically bland. In fact by the end of the performance I was convinced that Maazel was so detached from the performers on the stage that he almost gave the impression of wanting to be somewhere else.

The chorus’ first entry quickly gave way to blurred lines vocal lines and many orchestral entries were ragged.

The soloists – bar one – fared little better and as they are all exemplary performers I can only put this down to a lack of frisson with Maestro Maazel himself. For the most part they seemed to struggle against the conductor rather than working with him.

Stefan Vinke – whose bell-like tenor is usually a pleasure to hear and whose diction is a marvel – bravely attempted to rise to the challenge that Mahler set the tenor soloist. Let’s be clear, it’s a punishing role at the best of time when the conductor is sensitive to the music, but here from almost the start his voice sounded strained as he fought to be heard against Maazel and above the orchestra. At no point was there any sense that he was getting any sensitive or intelligent support from the conductor. And this was sadly true of the remaining soloists.

Sally Mathews’ normally resplendent soprano, so rich and warm in tone seemed unusually ill-matched in this performance. There were moments when her brilliant soprano shone through but not as often as Mahler would have envisaged. And Ailish Tynan – who stepped in at the last minute so thrillingly for Mena’s Mahler a few weeks back – on this occasion sounded shrill and in the Second Part seemed to develop a peculiar affectation of over emphasising and individually aspirating notes in what should have been fluid vocal phrases.

The third soprano, Sarah Tynan – positioned in one of the uppermost boxes in the Royal Festival Hall – was hampered by her distance from her compatriots. Like Lee Bissett, Sarah Tynan is a ‘graduate’ of the ENO’s Young Singers and I have always been an admirer. Alas, accustomed as I am to her bell-like soprano, she too sounded somewhat out of sorts and her voice has a strange veil over the expected brightness.

Of the remaining men, Stephen Gadd (and pace Brindley Sherratt for the mistake) failed to make any impact at all. His deep bass failing to convey any of the mastery of Mahler’s music or words and on occasion seemed to slide across phrases rather than singing individual notes. Singularly disappointing. And finally neither Mark Stone nor Anne-Marie Owens – again both incredibly talented artists in their own right – made any impact.

So it was left to the marvellous Sarah Connolly to rescue the performance. An ever accomplished and talented performer she single-handed exuded vocal confidence in her every entr. She alone rose above the distraction of Maazel to deliver a stunning and meanginful performance – words crystal clear, tone rich and resonant.

The Philharmonia Orchestra also failed to assert themselves, and at times seemed at odds with the man with the baton in his hand. Some superlative playing from the woodwind coulldn’t gloss over the less than burnished tone from the string section and – truth be told – some rather ‘hiccuped’ solos from them as well. The bleakness at the opening of Part Two had more to do with a clear lack of confidence in the players than conveying the notes on the page.

And pace to everyone, but I have to admit that the fainting double bass player just at the end may have achieved the only sense of momentum and excitement in the whole evening. But joking aside, I do hope that both she and her instrument are much recovered. And all credit to her colleagues who kept on going.

So while I won’t go so far as to say that the performance was a complete disaster, it was – and perhaps a worse indictment – a mediocre performance. Maazel – semi or completely detached on the podium – didn’t deliver any sense of breadth or understanding of the symphony’s broader architecture. As a result he failed to inspire either the orchestra or the soloists.

By the end of the performance I was left thinking of those dreadful equations that I had to do when I was at school. If a car is travelling north west at sixty miles per hour, and a truck is travelling south east at 35 miles an hour, what time do they pass one another? Or on this occasion, it was more if Maazel starts conducting at 7.30pm and merely trundles through the motions of conducting Mahler, what time is the earliest that I will get home?

Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

He Didn’t Drink The Poison

In Classical Music, Opera, Verdi on June 12, 2011 at 3:57 am

Siimon Boccanegra, English National Opera, June 10 2011

Simon Boccanegra – Bruno Caproni
Paolo Albiani – Roland Wood
Jacapo Fiesco – Brindley Sherratt
Amelia – Rena Harms
Gabriele Adorno – Peter Auty

Director/Set Designer – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Conductor- Edward Gardner

After the recent disappointments on the stage of English National Opera, it was good to see something resembling a return to creative form with Simon Boccanegra. Overall the production was good, and I can only hope that when it reaches the even higher standards of their co-production partner, the Bayerische Oper in Munich, it will lift itself even further artistically.

As I said, I have been disappointed with recent productions at the London Coliseum, so much so that I have yet to renew my ENO Friends’ membership. And while this production has gone some way to restoring my confidence it doesn’t quite counterbalance the recent rash of ill-conceived endeavours.

Figgis’ simply ridiculous Lucrezia Borgia, where it seemed that the entire stage budget had been spent on a handful of badly made, ‘let’s-play-the-opera-for-titillation’ episodic films. At the expense of any drama on the actual stage. The whole evening was short on quality on the stage and in the pit and this was exacerbated by the disastrous decision – backed by conductor and former house Music Director, Paul Daniel – of cutting some of the music as well.

Their complete gutting of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse was even worse. If the opening S&M prologue was an early low point, nothing prepared me for the smearing of greasy fried chicken on the walls and a lazy execution of Personregie. After that nothing could save the evening for me, especially not the majority of miscast singers. And despite a hope that Gilliam’s debut with The Damnation of Faust might be a turning point with subtle observation and some wit judging from the massive PR campaign behind the production, it proved hollow and desperately crammed full of clichés. Even the singing was only passable.

Thank God, therefore, for Tcherniakov.

Simon Boccanegra is a difficult opera in many ways. First, let’s face it, the story is convoluted to say the least. But Tcherniakov’s simple way of keeping the audience up to speed was effective.

Secondly, setting the opera itself. There is, naturally, the option to set it as originally intended in Renaissance Genoa. This was, of course, what Covent Garden did, scoring some success with a very traditional production by ????. But I also remember the more anonymous production that preceded the current attempt at ENO itself.

Tcherniakov is clearly a director cast in a more modern mould and overall – with some nice touches – the production generally works well. The pseudo ‘café italia’ of the opening hinted slightly at a Latin setting, as did the hysterical ‘Nona’ as Simon tried to steal Maria’s dead body. But I particularly liked Amelia’s opening scene. Here the director shrunk the tableau of the previous Prologue into a frame. A neat visual trick. The emptiness of the space – a single arm chair, the aforementioned picture and a large opaque window, seemed indicative of her state of mind.

His interpretation of the subsequent Council Chamber – a faceless office with theatre style seating which then dominated the rest of the opera – worked less well. A quick glance at the programme inferred that Tcherniakov had taken some inspiration from the European Commission or some other nameless chamber of deputies. Rows of chairs arranged theatre-style however, gave more of a sense of a corporate meeting room than the seat of government – although it did give an opportunity for some chair slinging.

However – and this was a relief – there was clear attention to detail in the direction of the main protagonists – who played their parts effectively for the most part. From the beginning it was clear that the director had spent some time with the singers, exploring their characters. In particular, I noted how Fiesco literally seemed to shrink, and Bocanegra himself grew more weary as events unfolded. But best of all was the Amelia of Rena Harms. She captured the real sense of an adolescent in rebellion, slightly damaged by her past, and desperate for love and identity. Personally I am surprised that Boccanegra would want to reclaim such a testy teen. Her final transformation, from goth in black leggings and baggy jumper to teenage bride in a suitably ‘off-the-shelf’ wedding dress and veil was another nice touch.

Some critics have made much of the direction of the chorus. While I do think that the ENO chorus is one of the company’s best assets – together with its orchestra and Music Director – I didn’t think that there was anything remarkable or different about their stage management in this production. For example, I think the chorus was far more effective and dramatic in a previous production of Jephtha.

As an ensemble, the cast were strong and melded well and this has always been a strength of ENO. Any weaknesses that individuals might have displayed effectively disappeared in the ensemble.

Bruno Caproni’s Simon Boccanegra was – for me – probably the weakest of the soloists as h3 didn’t project any real presence or dimension on stage. His voice lacked the rich, deep sonority that I think is necessary in this role. Additionally he sometimes lacked the heft to rise the above the orchestra. But his was a musically astute and sensitive performance.

The Albiani of Roland Wood reminded me of former Labour minister Ed Balls. I wonder if that was deliberate. Bar the almost comedic, Basil Fawlty moment when his ambition to marry Amelia is thwarted, it was a finely caricatured performance supported by some very fine singing. Particularly chilling was his reaction during the curse scene. I wouldn’t mind seeing Wood as Iago in the future.

Brindley Sherratt, a regular at ENO, delivered the finest performance of the evening. His rich, sonorous voice, even in tone throughout brought every scene he was in alive with drama. A strong actor, he successfully went from grieving and vengeful father, to a broken and resigned man.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of Peter Auty’s outfit. When he first entered, crash helmet in hand, I wondered if Gabriele Adorno was a part-time stunt man. However as the evening progressed I decided that he was, in fact, a pizza delivery boy cum hero. He was in fine voice and had no problems delivering the notes on the page with its often taxing tessitura. However his was not a performance of particular finesse, with no real sense of light and shade, and for the most part, one single volume – loud. This was particularly true when singing with Rena Harms.

And so to the Amelia of Rena Harms. Again I understand that she did not find favour with some critics. I beg to differ. Despite a somewhat shaky start, Harms has an incredibly flexible instrument. It has a rich warm timbre, except perhaps at the very top of her range where it can take on a slightly harsh tone. But she produced a clean vocal line with an real ability to float her highest notes. And she performed the role wonderfully, both as soloist and as a member of the many, beautiful ensemble moments. And her keen acting communicated her truly damaged character. This wasn’t the wooden cipher of the Amelia portrayed by Marina Poplavskaya at Covent Garden, but a real flesh and blood girl verging on womanhood but unable to cope. And Harms delivered the most memorable image of the opera – her breakdown in the closing scene. It will stay with me for some time.

And so to the most puzzling thing for me. The poison and the end of the opera itself. When I say poison, I mean the lack of poison. At the seminal moment of the opera, Simon Boccanegra does not drink from the poisoned glass. Now I realise that sometimes Personregie – and from here on in, I detected it’s particular influence – can result in some strange decisions (bamboo in Cologne’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for example), but for the main character not to drink the poison made no sense at all. Especially as it was constantly referred to in the text. More on the translation later. So having not drunk the poison, the final scene almost stepped from reality. For example, Boccanegra’s fashioning of an admiral’s hat from a piece of newspaper (clearly one he had made earlier) seemed nonsensical as it was the single reference to his nautical past in the whole opera. Indeed, at the beginning he seemed more ageing Fonzie than successful pirate. Then his descent, not into death, but rather into a trance-like state, or breakdown didn’t seem appropriate. His ambling exit stage right – quite literally – detracted from the emotional impact that Ed Gardner had led the audience to at that precise moment. Fortunately the brutal physicality of Harms’ breakdown returned us to the stark reality of the denouement, heightened even more by her inability, moments before, to hug her own father as he implored her to do.

I have always supported ENO’s mission to perform opera in English. But a small plea, and I know that this isn’t always possible, but it seems ludicrous and somewhat distracting, that the libretto can’t be more reflective of the drama onstage. The references to swords for example, seemed ridiculous coming from a man in a motorcycle outfit.

And finally to Ed Gardner and the orchestra. Without doubt the most thrilling part of the evening. A remarkable conductor and Music Director, he clearly has an exceptionally close relationship with the orchestra and they respect him immensely. He drew exceptionally fine playing from them, sympathetic to the singers, and tuned in to the fine detail of Verdi’s score. The sonorous brass at the opening, the wonderful string and wind playing for Amelia’s Come in quest’ora bruna, demonstrate now far the musicianship of the orchestra under Gardner has come,

So, all in all, a good evening and a welcome return to a higher standard for ENO. Hopefully in Munich however, Tcherniakov will allow Simon to drink the poison and die with dignity on stage.

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