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Posts Tagged ‘David Hansen’

Fail Caesar

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on March 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

 

Review – Giulio Cesare (Semper Oper, Dresden. Friday 18 March 2016)

Giulio Cesare – David Hansen
Cleopatra – Elena Gorshunova
Tolomeo – Matthew Shaw
Cornelia – Tichina Vaughn
Sesto – Jana Kurucová
Achilla – Evan Hughes
Nireno – Yosemeh Adjei

Director – Jens-Daniel Herzog
Dramaturg – Stefan Ulrich
Staging & Costumes – Mathis Neidhardt
Choreography – Ramses Sigli
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Sāchsische Staatsopernchore
Sāchsische Staatskapelle Dresden

Alessandro De Marchi (Conductor)

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of his more sophisticated operas in terms of the characters he brings to life and therefore notoriously difficult. It does have a simpler storyline than most but the characterisation woven into the music is such that it’s not difficult to understand why it can be a hit or miss affair. Just consider the contrasting success of Glyndebourne’s production versus ENO’s travesty.

Semper Oper’s production, first performed in 2009, had a few flashes of inspiration, but ultimately failed to convince. And in doing so, it failed its cast and in particular David Hansen who was making his debut in Dresden. This was the first time that a countertenor had performed the lead role and he should have been served with a better production and direction.

I’ve long been an admirer of Hansen. In the increasingly crowded countertenor world, he has a stratospheric, bright and flexible voice with a distinct timbre that, like Iestyn Davies, sets him apart. It was an impressive debut. Clearly there is work still to do and I hope that he will perform the role again and again because Hansen’s interpretation could become a defining Caesar. Handel wrote some of his greatest music for this role and Hansen acquitted himself well although I wish he’d deployed more of his bright, ringing top in the da capos. A highlight was Se in fiorito ameno prato and it was an inspired touch to have the obbligato violinist on the stage. Seeing the two performers sparring created one of the few dramatic and joyous moments of the evening.

His Cleopatra, Elena Gorshunova possesses an impressive instrument. It’s full-throated, has a pleasant weight and depth to it, a pleasant vibrato and is certainly agile. She successfully managed the vocal demands of the score, finding the agilità demanded of Non disperar, Tutto puó donna vezzoso and Da tempeste as well as a beautifully sustained line and added vocal light and dark for V’adoro pupille and Piangeró. However, whereas Hansen and some of the others managed their da capo ornamentation with both intelligence and grace, Gorshunova’s embellishments were too unstylistic in most cases and so ambitious that they strained the voice, b,urged the vocal line and led to intonation problems.

As Sesto, Jana Kurucová was a pure joy to listen to and whether it was deliberate or not, she captured the gauche quality of a teenage boy. In the dramatic arc of her interpretation, Kurucová successful portrayed Sesto’s transition from awkward boy to young man with Cara speme one of the highlights of the evening.

Sadly as his mother, Tichina Vaughn did nothing but disappoint but it’s not the first time that I’ve heard a miscast Cornelia. Are people so thrown by the seemingly simple music and misunderstand what Handel was conveying to the audience? Cornelia is a Roman matron, dignified yet destroyed and desperate, and her music reflects this. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than her first aria, Priva son d’ ogni conforto. Laden with pathos, the simple vocal line is incredibly exposed and requires a singer with magnificent technique and interpretive ability. All her arias – beguilingly simple yet notoriously difficult – require it. Sadly, Vaughn severely lacked the qualities and the technique for the role. I see she is scheduled to perform Klytemnestra in a new production of Salome this Autumn in Dresden. It’s difficult to see her in this role.

Of the remaining cast, Matthew Shaw’s Tolomeo and the Achilla of Evan Hughes passed muster without being exceptional.

De Marchi directed the orchestra briskly throughout, and at times too briskly although he did find a range of co,ours in the score although I’m not sure a harp featured in the original score. However he criminally marred one of the highlights of the entire opera – Son nata a lagrimar – by taking it at a gallop, although you have to wonder if that was for Vaughn’s benefit.

The production itself fell into the easy and obvious option of an eastern Mediterranean – probably Turkish – setting. Maybe it was just me, but there was also something slightly disturbing in the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Eastern’ characters. The staging was smart, with the café setting in Act Two well done but it was undone by details such as Tolomeo’s cruelty – overdone and unsubtle – and the banality of the choreography.

Ultimately this Giulio Cesare was a disappointing production that let down Handel and Hansen and which resulted in the ‘politest’ audience reaction I’ve ever witnessed at the Semper.

The beauty and emotional impact of Handel’s music, Hansen’s baroque credentials and the audience deserved better.

Much better.

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2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

David Hansen – Il Nuovo Primo Uomo

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 17, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Review – Rivals – Arias for Farinelli & Co

David Hansen (Countertenor)
Academia Montis Regalis
Alessandro De Marchi (Conductor)

It seems that recital discs by countertenors are like buses. You wait for ages and then three come along at once. As well as this excellent recital disc by David Hansen, there have recently been recitals discs from Franco Fagioli and Philippe Jaroussky.

I have to admit that David Hansen is a new name to me. But I am very glad to have made his acquaintance for he possesses a gleaming voice, bell-like and bright throughout its range – which is in itself incredibly wide, stratospheric almost – coupled the ability to deliver the rapid divisions and ornamentation in the vocal line with pinpoint accuracy. While there is a bite to Hansen’s voice that makes it very attractive, when required he can spin the most delicate legato line and he demonstrates the ability to modulate both the colour and timbre of his singing to great effect.

The original castrati who inspired the music on this disc not only include Farinelli and his ‘rival’ Caffarelli but also Scalzi, Bernacchi and Carestini. These and others created some of the greatest roles and music in Baroque and early classical opera and Hansen performs each and every aria with consummate musicianship.

The opening aria In braccio a mille furie from Vinci’s Semiramide riconosciuta was originally written for a castrato by the name of Carlo Scalzi, whom Metastasio rated and compared to Farinelli himself. The aria bears all the fingerprints of a showstopper for any castrato – exploiting the widest vocal range coupled with florid coloratura and Hansen sails through it with great bravura. With his bell-like tone and excellent diction he glides through the music and his ornamentation in the returning da capo is – as it is throughout the recital – tastefully stylistic.

Anyone who saw the film Farinelli directed by Corbiau will remember the moment when the castrato bests Handel with his sustained singing of Ombra mai fu. This moment was brought back to me with Hansen’s performance of the second aria Sento due fiamma in petto from Vinci’s Il Medo, written specially for Farinelli. The delicate and beautifully played oboe obbligato by Per Luigi Fabrietti weaves its magic before Hansen’s opening sustained note, beautifully controlled and coloured with vibrato before continuing to deliver the vocal line with incredible technical and breath control. The result is some of the most incredibly heartfelt and sustained singing of the disc. And throughout both soloists display and innate sensitivity to each other’s melodic line especially in the manner that they intertwine in the returning da capo.

As you would expect on this disc, all the arias were custom-written to display the skills and technique of each castrato to the fullest, whether in their florid coloratura, wide leaps or the elegant sustained vocal lines of e slower arias. The majority of arias are drawn from works by Vinci and it’s interesting to note that with Taci o di morte – also from Il Medo – the composer writes an aria in almost exactly the same mold as Sento due fiamma except the composer replaces the oboe with a violin obbligato. Clearly Vinci knew how to please both singer and audience.

The most interesting aria on the disc has to be Son qual nave by Farinelli’s own brother, Riccardo Broschi. Written very specifically as the castrato’s vocal calling card it’s a shame that the composer’s own talent was not as great as that of his brother. That’s not to say it isn’t a charming aria but it does rather resemble a shopping list of technical elements rather than a heartfelt and inspired creation. But Hansen delivers it with musical aplomb.

Leo’s Freme orgoglioso a l’onda with its unusual sonorous oboe writing is similarly a case in point. With its wide leaps and coloratura alternating with a notably restrained middle section it would clearly have brought the house down.

Risveglia lo sdegno from Vinci’s Alessandro closes the disc in suitably show-stopping style, compete with trumpets, dramatic pauses and roulades of coloratura.

And yet for me the gem of the disc is Bonocini’s In te sposa, Griselda … Cara sposa. The delicate scoring with its violin obbligati underpinning the vocal line and its touching use of imitative entry, suspensions – the basic weapons of the period’s Doctrine of Affections but skilfully applied here – raises this aria above the rest. And above the ensemble Hansen spins out the vocal line with both great dexterity and sincerity. The way he sustains the closing note of the middle section of the aria is breathtaking for example.

Throughout the recital Hansen is ably supported by the Academia Montis Regalis directed Alessandro De Marchi. Their playing is crystalline and precise but there were times when I wonted for a bit more orchestral weight and colour. The accompanying CD booklet is informative and well written but I did sigh upon spying the topless shot of Hansen. There’s no denying it is ‘easy on the eye’ but I don’t quite get it’s relevance except obliquely to the “sex-symbol’ reference in the note. As I’ve said before, marketeers have a lot to answer for.

But overall this is a recital disc to cherish. Hansen not only displays awe-inspiring technique but also a sensitivity and level of musicianship that is incredible.

I hope that we get to hear Hansen in the UK sometime very soon.

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