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Don Not Dusted

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 13, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Review – Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House, Wednesday 12 February 2014)

Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Il Commendatore – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – David Kimberg

Director – Kasper Holten
Set Design – Es Devlin
Video Designs – Luke Halls
Costume Designs – Anja Van Kragh
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is quintessential Mozart. Nothing after it surprises – or challenges – as much as this opera does.

Written in 1787, I think that Don Giovanni is the culmination of Mozart’s musical armoury. It finesses the ensemble writing of Le Nozze di Figaro that isn’t bettered in his final three operas; the orchestral writing is truly symphonic and his fusion of counterpoint and baroque idioms is more fluid and integrated here than in later works.

And in Da Ponte he had a librettist – a storyteller – who matched Mozart’s incredible talent with characters of flesh, blood and passion.

At the end of the day, Don Giovanni is a (pre) Gothic novel. It has murder, intrigue, sex, death and revenge. It might be the “graveyard” of opera directors but in a sense it is a very easy story to tell.

And it’s been a long time since I have seen a production of Don Giovanni as confident and coherent as this – perhaps not since Jonathan Miller’s production for ENO in the 1980s in fact. And while there is a great deal to enjoy in Casper Holten’s new production, there were moments when I wish he’d done a little less tinkering.

Above all this production was incredibly strong musically, with some of the singing of a very high standard indeed.

Mariusz Kwiecień is quickly making Don Giovanni a signature role, but I would argue that his Don is still a work in progress but nearing maturity. Vocally he is well suited to the music, with a commanding baritone of great flexibility that shows little strain at either end of his range. He displayed an intuitive sense of ensemble but in the solo numbers I would have preferred a little more colour rather than simple dynamic shading. His acting was very good – he clearly enjoyed and believed in Holten’s direction for the Don – and I would really enjoy seeing him in this production again when it inevitably returns.

I wasn’t so sure about Esposito’s Leporello. His was a one-size-fits-all performance vocally. Most disappointing was Madamina, il catalogo è questo. Almost barked through, it lacked both swagger and the necessary sense of emotional intelligence to make it meaningful in terms of both the characterization of the Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira.

On the other hand Antonio Poli’s Don Ottavio was vocally impressive. Poli’s supple yet confident tenor voice glided through his two arias and again he worked well in the ensembles. But I think – as with other productions – Don Ottavio was almost an after-thought for Holten. Granted he is probably Mozart’s most two-dimensional character, but it really did feel like he had slipped of Holten’s list. Similarly Masetto – well sung by David Kimberg – felt like a cipher rather than a real flesh and blood character.

But the women were magnificent.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira was a maelstrom of emotions wrapped in some of the most exciting and dramatic singing and acting I have seen in a very long time. From her first appearance with Ah, chi mi dice mai she inhabited the character and reveled in Mozart’s music. In quali eccessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata was the expected tour de force her ensemble work was equally thrilling. Protegga il giusto cielo is a real jewel moment in this opera and Gens and the Donna Anna of Malin Byström complimented each other perfectly.

And this Swedish Donna Anna was equal to the task. It’s a formidable role but Byström was more than equal to the task. In possession of a solidly grounded soprano in terms of technique, while there was some slight tightness at the top of her range she convincingly and confidently tackled Donna Anna’s music head on and it paid dividends as she turned in a compelling and sensitive performance.

I remember one of Elizabeth Watt’s first major appearances, as Hope in ENO’s L’Orfeo. Since then she has constantly demonstrated that she is developing into a soprano of talent and character. Her Zerlina displayed a rich and even soprano of some maturity as well as a real sense of style and dramatic (and comic) timing. I can’t wait to hear her impending recital disc of Mozart arias.

In the pit, Luisotti tempi was spot on and he drew some attentive and delicate playing from the orchestra. But I wasn’t convinced about the alternation from harpsichord to fortepiano.

I think that Holten’s production has drawn mixed – if not divided – opinion. On the whole I liked it but some elements were not convincing.

Starting with the ending, I can understand the dramatic impact from a directorial point of view but I simply don’t agree with cutting the sextet. Mozart made the cut for the Vienna premiere but he did so because of the Viennese audience. The Emperor Joseph remarked that the opera had “too much teeth” for the Viennese which prompted Da Ponte’s famous retort, “let them chew on it”. They didn’t and it was dropped after fifteen performances until after Mozart’s death.

Cutting that section unbalances the ending, denying the audience and the characters an important sense of closure. Without it Holten’s approach to Donna Anna is undermined. If – as he suggests – she is a willing accomplice in her seduction then that glorious moment when she asks Don Ottavio “Lascia, o caro, un anno ancora allo sfogo del mio cor” needs to be heard. But truth be told, I didn’t buy that supposition.

Throughout the opera, Don Giovanni is the sole instigator and his downfall is predicated on the violence of that initial act. It’s in the music both at the opening of the opera as well as infusing all of Donna Anna’s own music – her horror at seeing her dead father, the demand for Don Ottavio to swear an oath, her horror before Non mi dir. To make her an accomplice undermines her character and belief system.

Similarly his relentless pursuit of Zerlina was undermined by her ‘self-dishevelment’ at the end of Act One.

I also wish Holten had done more with Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira. One very smart touch was to have her try to save him at the end of Act One. It could have been developed.

But it was a smart and intelligent production. The use of video worked well in this production. From the projection of the catagolo during the overture set the scene immediately and use of ‘virtual environments’ was stunningly applied and the Escher-inspired set by Es Devlin suggested not only a sense of history constantly repeating itself but also futility. The futility of trying to escape the inevitable no matter what door or passage any of the characters tried. I don’t think we were necessarily in Don Giovanni’s mind per se, but rather in a world he had created but – as it got more complicated and convoluted – became a place he could no longer control.

And while I might have had reservations about the musical ending of Holten’s vision, the idea of the Don alone at the end – rather than the more traditional demons and flames – was very original.

Holten’s Don might have escaped his own maze and his attackers but had paid the ultimate price – solitude.

This Don Giovanni will undoubtedly return regularly at Covent Garden. I sincerely hope so but I do also hope that Holten will reconsider his ending.

Bravo Radamisto

In Baroque, Handel, Harry Bickett, Opera, Review on February 13, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Review – Radamisto (Barbican, Sunday 10 February 2013)

Radamisto – David Daniels
Zenobia – Patricia Bardon
Tiridate – Luca Pisaroni
Tigrane – Elizabeth Watts
Polissena – Brenda Rae
Farasmane – Robert Rice

The English Concert
Conductor – Harry Bickett

Handel composed Radamisto to open the Royal Academy of Music in 1720 and it was followed by a series of operas – Floridante, Lotario and Flavio – that were subsequently eclipsed by Giulio Cesare in 1724.

On the strength of the concert performance at the Barbican on Sunday night, Radamisto deserves to stand outside the shade of its illustrious successor. The beauty and depth of Handel’s music in this opera was brought to life by an incredibly strong cast and the English Concert under the expert direction of Harry Bickett.

And this in spite of an announcement before the overture that Mesdames Bardon, Watts and Rae were suffering colds.

Following a sprightly, well-placed overture the richness of Handel’s musical invention comes to the fore immediately with Polissena’s Sommi Dei which immediately lays bare the queen’s character. And despite her indisposition, Brenda Rae carefully judged and beautifully sang this tricky aria with its high tessitura and exposed vocal line. Indeed throughout Ms Rae delivered the most beautiful singing of the night. She has impressive technique and a bright yet light soprano that can both negotiate Handel’s coloratura but also switch to land the most delicate phrasing and float top notes with elegant ease. Her second aria – Tu vuoi ch’io parta? – with its inbuilt dramatic pauses, was also delivered with great poise and vocal security and her third act Barbaro! partirò, ma sdegno poi verrà was both vocally incisive and thrilling. I see from her biography that Ms Rae is a member of Oper Frankfurt and I am seriously considering a trip to Frankfurt in May to see her in Giulio Cesare.

Patricia Bardon had a more gradual take off but proved to be an impressive Zenobia. Her rich and resonant voice might not always find the right balance – as with her recent Cornelia – with the vocal line but hers is always an impassioned performance. Son contenta di morire was suitably vehement while Quando mai, spietata sorte – its beguiling simplicity underlined by its gentle scoring for oboe – was beautifully sung. And the duet with her husband Radamisto – indeed the entire scene – was one of the evening’s many highlights.

In the title role was David Daniels who remains one of the leading countertenors on the stage today. His soft grained voice did not always carry over the orchestral, but there was no doubt about his singing – musically intelligent, impassioned and technically faultless. His opening number, Cara Sposa was a lesson in how to sing a trademark Handel aria, exposed save for the continuo with a beauty of line that took my breath away. Similarly, Daniels’ performance of Ombra cara da mia sposa underlined why he remains one of the leading Handel interpreters on the stage. A purity of line was infused with incredible pathos. And as I have already mentioned, his duet with Bardon was joyous, their voices blending beautifully.

Yet when he needed to, Daniels could produce the necessary fire. Vanne, sorella ingrata more than ably demonstrated that Daniels has maintained a fine vocal instrument capable of the trickiest of runs that were delivered with great aplomb. And Daniels’ ability to spin out long, elegant phrases was fully exploited in Dolce bene di quest’alma.

As Tiridate Luca Pisaroni was perfectly cast. His deep and resonant bass suited the music like a glove and he was brilliant at capturing the menace of the role as evidenced in Si, che ti renderai. However the highlight was swaggering aria Alzo al volo di ia fama with its resplendently played natural horns that rightly deserved a cheer on the evening.

Special mention must go to for Robert Rice’s appearance as Farasmane. And a shame that they did not include his single aria.

But the strongest performance of the evening came from Ellzabeth Watts, a soprano who I first saw as a Young Singer at English National Opera. As Tigrane she threw herself into the role with great relish including frock coat and knee-high boots. With her bright and richly honeyed soprano each of her arias was delivered, despite a cold, with a high level of musical and technical accomplishment. None of the coloratura seemed a challenge to her vocal abilities and her da capo ornamentation was well judged. From her opening Deh, fuggi un traditore it was clear to me not only that Handel had been at is most inspired but that she relished the part from opening bar to final cadence.

If you haven’t already, snap up her recital discs of JS Bach and Richard Strauss.

More Elizabeth Watt please.

And of course the quartet in the closing act not only uniquely highlighted Handel’s dramatic genius but enabled us to enjoy for the cast singing together. Although I dispute the spurious claim in the programme that the quartet looks forward to those of Mozart and Verdi.

Supporting this incredible cast of singers was The English Concert conducted by Harry Bickett. The warmth of sound from the entire ensemble reminded me why The English Concert is one of the leading – and oldest – original instrument ensembles around. And Bickett is a consummate Handelian. They played the entire score with great panache and my only regret is that they didn’t include the instrumental movements from Radamisto or at least the famous passacaglia that was so beautifully played a few nights before at the Barbican.

But this is the small reservation. An incredible cast of singers accompanied with incredible verve and attention to detail under the direction of Harry Bicket created a memorable performance.

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