Posts Tagged ‘Handel’

“Music, moody food … of us that trade in love”

In Baroque, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on January 16, 2018 at 4:50 pm

Review – Regula Mühlemann (Prinzeregententheater, Monday 15 January 2018)

Regula Mühlemann (Soprano)
La Folia Barockorchester
Robin Peter Müller (Director)

Hello. It’s been a while. Perhaps for some too long, for others not long enough. The last couple of years have not been filled with as much music as I would have liked. That’s not to say that the last two years have been completely bereft. There was Renée Fleming’s farewell to the stage as the Marschallin at the Met (as well as a superlative Hello! Dolly with Bette Midler the same weekend); exhilarating performances by the likes of Sonia Prina, Ann Hallenberg and even one or two good evenings at ENO. Well, one and “a half”. However, finding time to put ‘fingers to iPad’ has proved literally impossible. But I’m going to give it another try in 2018.

So, here goes …

I have to admit I had not heard of Regula Mühlemann before I tripped over her Mozart recital disc. If you haven’t heard it, then I heartily recommend it. Ms Mühlemann has a bright and lithe soprano. Her coloratura fearless, she shapes it with great skill and sings with a fluency of line that is impressive.

Her second recital disc is inspired by Cleopatra. Concept albums are very popular. There’s Joyce DiDonato’s War and Peace (the album was good, the recital wasn’t); Ann Hallenberg’s superlative Carnevale and more recently, Delphine Galou’s Agitata! This disc offers Handel, Hasse and Graun as expected, but also Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Sarti Legrenzi and Mattheson. It’s an excellent disc – vocally stunning with excellent support from La Folia. So when I found out she was performing in Munich it was a done deal.

The Prinzregententheater is not a venue I had visited before. On the other side of the Isar river not far from the Maximilianeum, it was built in 1901. Now the home of the Theaterakademie August Everding, it has previously been the home of the opera and opened with a performance of Meistersinger. Since completion, the venue has been refurbished and I have to admit that I found the acoustic very dry. The sound died almost immediately, swallowed up by the hall and perhaps explains why it took me, and the performers a while to settle into the first half.

The players of La Folia Barockorchester launched the evening with a vigorous performance of Graun’s French style overture for Cleopatra e Cesare with studious attention to rhythmic detail in both sections. Ms Mühlemann’s first aria, Tra le porcelle assorto was a simile aria from the same opera. It set out her credentials immediately married with crystal clear diction. Her da capo was tastefully ornamented and considering the ease of her vocal technique I hope in future performances she will be more ‘daring’ with her ornamentation – not something I say often. Next, a step back to 1725 and Legrenzi’s Antioco il Grande, not only to offer contrast but to remind the audience that not every opera with Cleopatra features a Caesar or Marco Antonio. With just continuo, Se tu sarai felice demonstrated how she can sustain and colour longer notes with telling effect.

Next, Il Folia performed Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul, soloist Robin Peter Müller. This is a substantial concerto and for the most part, held together well. However sandwiching an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti between the second and third movements, plus some awry intonation and ensemble playing distracted slightly. Personally, it would have been better to follow the Legrenzi with Alessandro Scarlatti’s Antonio e qual destino … Vò goder senza contrasto from his opera Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra. Floating miraculously above some wonderful [chittarone] playing, Ms Mühlemann spun the older Scarlatti’s vocal line with great skill and dare I say it? Sensuality.

From Vivaldi’s Il Tigrane, or to give it its correct title, La virtù trionfante dell’amore e dell’odio, we got Squaciami pure il sento closing the first half. An aria of alternating moods, Ms Mühlemann made great play of the words and together with the orchestra, made a convincing case for Vivaldi as opera composer. A case I’m not often convinced of.

The second half featured composers that were more well known – Hasse and Handel – with Geminani’s Concerto Grosso in d minor. Once again, energetic playing was slightly marred by a lack of ensemble but you couldn’t deny their enthusiasm.

Haste’s Serenata Marc’ e Cleopatra bookended the closing part of the evening. Following the overture, the soprano sang the expansive Quel candido armellino. I’ve a real soft spot for Hasse -especially his slower arias. Valer Sabadus’ performance of Cadra fra poco in cenere remains an absolutely favourite of mine. Here, Hasse writes a similarly exposed vocal line, which says a great deal about the singers he was writing for. Ms Mühlemann displayed enviable breath control, spinning out luminous line after luminous line above a delicately scored strong accompaniment without a single hint of pressure. It was simply wondrous. The concert proper finished with a rollicking rendition of Morte col fiero aspetto orror, the singer spitting out her words and coloratura with true fury.

However the highlight, before the encores that is, was Ms Mühlemann’s Che sento, oh Dio, … Se pietà di me non senti from Handel’s Guilio Cesare. It’s hard, even having heard the Hasse before, not to see why Handel towers above his contemporaries. When it comes to portraying pure agony, this is one of the great moments in baroque, if not all opera, and singer and ensemble did Handel proud. From the opening notes, with the most plaintive and pained bassoon playing I’ve ever heard, we were caught up in the Egyptian queen’s misery and despair. The achingly slow tempo of Se pietà, which surprised me when I first listened on disc, was perfect. It allowed Ms Mühlemann the opportunity to invest every note and every phrase with pain and pathos. Her da capo was beautifully rendered, not only in terms of her ornamentation but in the slight delay she masterfully deployed at certain cadences. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as it ended.

Quite rightly, the audience clapped and stamped for an encore and the ensemble obliged. Sandwiched between an aria by Sarti was Johann Matheson’s Mein Leben ist hin. With violin obbligato this heartrending lament left silence in its wake. However it was Sarti’s Quando voglio which brought the house down. Twice. Sarti loves to surprise, and here the audience couldn’t have been more surprised when the harpist, Katerina Ghannudi seductively launched into this lilting and seductive song. Joined by a more coquettish Ms Mühlemann in duet and La Folia including Mr Müller on tambourine, it was the perfect end to the evening. And at the curtain call it was evident how close the entire ensemble had become. It’s not many singers who – beaming with joy – would hug a harpist and other members of the orchestra. Such a shame that this recital has not made it to London but Ms Mühlemann is singing Rosina in La Fanta Giardinera in June. Beg, buy or steal a ticket.

As I left the Prinzregententheater, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. In the Second Act, she says “Give me some music; music, moody food…of us that trade in love”. It’s a fitting tribute to an evening of beautiful music making and love.



My Raptur’d Soul

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on July 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Review – Arias For Guadagni
Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen

Guadagni was one of the most famous – or infamous – castrati of the Eighteenth Century and his career included close association with composers from Handel to Hasse and Gluck who’s Orfeo ed Euridice he championed.

After a shaky start his musical career blossomed and Charles Burney referred to him at least twice. In 1755 when he was in London he remarked on his “full and well-toned voice” and later when visiting Padua – where Guadagni later settled – he remarked that he was “for taste, expression, figure, and action … at the head of his profession”.

And these two descriptions could be similarly ascribed to Iestyn Davies. In the year that we are celebrating – even if it is in rather muted fashion – the centenary of the birth of Alfred Deller, the first great countertenor, it is only fitting that the Iestyn Davies’ talent is being fully recognised and his star is in the ascendant.

And among the numerous countertenors on the stage today it is refreshing that he hasn’t been subjugated by marketing but has focused on musicianship and intelligent performance.

That is not to say that his colleagues are not accomplished for the most part but in a sense Davies has more in common with Andreas Scholl’s scholarly and measured manner than his other European counterparts.

And the similarities in the timbre and the shape of their voices can’t be denied in my opinion. As well as seamless legato they both posses an evenness of tone throughout their range and a bell-like upper register without any sense of the harshness of their colleagues. There is something slightly more metallic and angular in the vocal timbres of a countertenor like Jaroussky or Cencic and to a certain extend Valer Barna-Sabadus but that is not to say that they are unattractive. They are simply the flip side of a vocal type that I do enjoy.

But Iestyn Davies is in an entirely different league. An intelligent performer, he has an incredible grasp of technique married with a faultless sense of interpretation.

I have seen and enjoyed Davies’ numerous stage performances over the years. Those that come most readily to mind are his performance as Creonte in Steffani’s Niobe at Covent Garden, a wonderful and poignant production, and his numerous roles for ENO including a beautiful performance in Mark Morris’ King Arthur, as Armindo in Partenope, and his magnificent Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And this recital disc, of arias written for the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni, is simply brilliant and he is more than ably supported with a mix of gusto and delicacy by Jonathan Cohen and the players of Arcangelo.

From the hushed opening of O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless to the closing aria on the disc composed by Guadagni himself, Davies’ musicianship and simple enjoyment of the arias he sings is manifest. All combined with crystal diction effortless technique.

His Handel is unsurpassed. The purity and control of the vocal line combined with the dignity he imbues in the embellishments in the opening aria from Solomon sets the standard for the entire disc. And The Raptur’d Soul from Theodora has a true sense of rhythmic alertness in the triplet flourishes combined with real fluid legato. And – as I have said before – how refreshing not to have the da capo too heavily ornamented.

Yet, Can I Hear That Dulcet Lay, from The Choice of Hercules is exquisite and sadly so rarely heard and again plays to the strengths of Davies technique as he spins out the gentle coloratura with complete ease.

However the ‘Handel highlight’ of the disc is the magnificently martial Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar. Davies flings out the divisions with abandon and is brilliantly supported by bright yet light playing from the players and in particularly the crisply articulated brass. Whole I thought Marie Nicole Lemieux was enjoyable this Iestyn Davies’ rendition is stellar.

Hasse is a countertenor’s dream and quite rightly as he wrote some of his most beautiful music for castrati. Like Barna-Sabadus he opts for a selection from Didone Abbandonata but not the same arias.

Ah, Che dissi! … Se Resto Sul Lido with its accompagnato and then unexpected slow opening vocal section is a real gallant gem with the tempo changes expertly handled by both singer and orchestra. And Davies never makes the short declamatory phrase sound clipped or snatched as might be expected. And again he avoids the temptation to over-ornament in the returning opening section.

The martial returns with Odi Colà La Frigia Tomba? … A Triofar Mi Chiama with its impressive horn playing and Lombardy snaps and also give ample opportunity to enjoy the breadth of Davies vocal range and especially the bell-like upper notes I referred to earlier.

Guadagni didn’t not only sing Handel roles when he was in London and Davies includes two arias by English composers. The first is from JC Smith’s The Fairies Say, Lovely Dream and the second is from Thomas Arne’s Alfred, Vengeance, Oh Come Inspire Me. The former aria is deceptively simple with its gentle and murmuring string writing below a vocal line that belies its simplicity and requires a strong and confident technique to deliver its sustained notes and high tessitura as well as the delicate roulades and trills. The Arne is almost a typical period ‘vengeance’ aria that Davies dispatches with the necessary vigour and bite. What makes it more notable is Arne’s use of unison between voice and orchestra as well as use of dramatic pauses.

It makes one wish that Davies and these players will consider a disc of arias by Handel’s English contemporaries and successors alone.

But if I had the tiniest reservations with the disc it is this – the inclusion of a symphony by CPE Bach. I am not convinced by the argument made in the sleeve note. Again don’t misunderstand me, I love CPE Bach’s symphonies and it is brilliantly played with real Emfndsamer-stil style, but that is exactly the problem. The narrative of the disc works for me in terms of Handel to Hasse to Handel’s contemporaries to finally Gluck. CPE Bach is literally world’s apart in terms of style and emotion.

But as I have said it is a small price to pay. And in some ways it serves to clean the palette in preparation for Davies’ Gluck.

From Telemaco comes Ah! Non Turbi Il Mio Riposo with its doleful oboe obbligato and hesitant phrasing. Davies captures the poignantly of this aria beautifully while maintaining the exposed legato vocal line.

The most startling thing about the opening bars of the arioso Che Puro Ciel! from Orfeo ed Euridice is how – for some reason – it reminded me of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I can only put this down to the wonderfully articulated playing of the orchestra. A real moment and this is heightened when Davies enters and there is no sense that the orchestra is in any muted below the singer. I don’t think I have heard this arioso performed with such clarity and beauty in a long time.

One review I read that said that Davies didn’t convincingly carry off the broad phrases in Orfeo. I don’t agree at all. If anything Davies elegant phrasing and attention to the words highlights the simplicity of Che Farò to greater effect.

The final aria of the recital, Pensa a sebarmi o cara, was written by Guadagni himself. To be honest after the gems that precede it his own aria – while clearly playing to his vocal abilities – is a pleasant enough example of galanterie but nothing more.

Yet it doesn’t detract from the overall impact of either the entire recital or Iestyn Davies’ talent.

This is a hugely enjoyable recital and one I return to often. I am looking forward to his performance at Wigmore Hall this November and in advance of that I heartily recommend this disc to everyone.

Cleopatra Comin’ At Ya

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 2, 2012 at 12:09 am

Review – Giulio Cesare, Opera North, The Lowry (March 1 2012)

Giulio Cesare – Pamela Helen Stephen
Cleopatra -
Sarah Tynan
- Ann Taylor
- Kathryn Rudge
- James Laing
- Andrew Radley
- Jonathan Best
 – Dean – Robinson

 – Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer
 – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer
- Thomas Hase

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Robert Howarth

Opera North’s flat-pack Egypt and abridged version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare once again demonstrated the Company’s sense of ambition yet failure to follow through.

The one exception was Sarah Tynan. I first heard her as Iphis in English National Opera’s moving production of Jephtha where she was coincidentally a Young Singer alongside the wonderful Elizabeth Watts and Lee Bissett. Since then I have seen her at the London Coliseum in Don Giovanni, Xerxes, The Mikado, Ariodante and Der Rosenkavalier but more recently in a disappointing performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Lorin Maazel.

As Opera North’s Cleopatra she dominated the stage with her both her top-notch singing and credible acting. Granted by the end of the evening she was exhibiting signs of tiredness and more than once she was out of time with the players in the pit, but overall it was a strong and well-rounded performance. Occasionally there was a shrillness in her upper register and some of her coloratura was less than secure but her technique and musicianship continues to develop with every production. I believe that given a few more years she will become a soprano of some note, particularly in Handel.

But if she was an almost ideal Egyptian Queen, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Cesare was more cipher than hero. Of course it’s difficult not to make the comparison with Sarah Connolly but even when that is put to one side, Stephen’s performance was lacklustre. She didn’t have the vocal projection or strength of technique needed for what is some of Handel’s greatest music. For example she was simply deluged in Va tacito e nascosto and despite some beautiful moments in Aure, Deh Per Pietà hers was not a robust generalissimo.

Kathryn Rudge’s Sesto was a pleasant discovery. Her warm and flexible timbre successfully negotiated most of the character’s music and indeed Cara speme, questo core was one of the highlights of the evening. It’s interesting to see that she has just joined ENO’s Young Singers programme. Clearly John Berry et al are good at identifying and developing promising singers.

Countertenor James Laing was a convincing Tolomeo with a promising voice. He skillfully handled most of the tricky coloratura and what he lacked in experience and overall technique he made up for with some skillful acting. However he did show a frustrating inability to articulate all his words. Hopefully something that greater experience will eradicarte.

Of the rest of the cast Ann Taylor’s rich mezzo was far from ideal for the role of Cornelia. I can imagine her soaring to great heights in the role of Opera North’s Cio-Cio San but the delicacy and pin-point accuracy so necessary for Handel eluded her.

And the only reason I can fathom for giving prominence to Jonathan Best Achilla was to provide a vocal counterpoint to the sopranos – female and male – and mezzos voices. However his strong bass made up for the lack of musical interest in his arias.

The set and lighting were simple and considering it had been designed for touring, pretty effective with just the right hint of ancient Egypt, although I am not so sure about the golden extended fingers. To me those were more chinoiserie than symbolic of the Nile civilization. But I could be wrong.

The biggest disappointment however was in the pit. The orchestra – sounding dull and muted and not because of the smaller string section – struggled at times with intonation and by the end of the evening the strings were noticeably awry. But it was Robert Howarth’s lacklustre conducting that was most frustrating. Not only was there a lack of true style or inteprettion, but with no real sense of momentum or bite I had to wonder if the below par performances on stage were not a little due to the direction from the pit.

So after two evenings spent in the company of Opera North I have to admit that while I was impressed with their sense of ambition I was left with a real sense that they had missed the creative mark.

But that isn’t putting me off. Their Das Rheingold demonstrates that this is a company with high standards in terms of music and performance. While they might not have quite reach the standard of their Wagner under the brilliant Richard Farnes, with Die Walküre later this year I am confident that the last two nights can simply be put down to over-ambition.

When Less Can Be More.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Gauvin, Handel, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Review on December 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

Review – Streams of Pleasure.
Karina Gauvin/Marie Nicole Lemieux/Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis.

Here’s a conundrum. When can an exceptional recital disc be marred by trying to cram too much into it?

For me this seems the case with this recital of arias and duets from Handel’s oratorios performed by Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux.

Having seen both of them in an outstanding concert performance of Alcina (alongside an incredibly heroic Joyce DiDonato) with Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis, it seemed only a matter of time before the two joined forces for a recital disc under Curtis’ direction.

While their decision to focus on Handel’s magnificent oratorios initially struck me as slightly unusual– and understandably they avoid any inclusions from The Messiah – this is in fact a superlative disc. Let’s be clear, they face inevitable comparison from Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Robin Blaze and their own oratorio disc released some years ago. Truth be told that remains a favourite recital disc of mine – Sampson’s wonderfully bright soprano coupled with Blaze’s clarion-like countertenor produces wonderfully intuitive music making. Whether by deliberate intention or accidental choice of repertoire, the Gauvin/Lemieux recital includes both duets and solo arias with few duplicate selections.

However what defines this new disc is a real sensuality in the performances as opposed to the almost chaste performances of the Sampson/Blaze recital disc. Don’t get me wrong, theirs are beautiful and often breathtaking performances, but the emotional reaction for me comes from the purity of their voices rather than any sense of emotion.

At fifteen tracks this new disc seems incredibly generous, so I was a little surprised to be left with a sense that a shorter selection would have made for a more enjoyable experience.

Without a doubt it is the duets that stand out appropriately so as it is the contrast of the vocal light and shade of Gauvin and Lemieux that lends this recital disc that aura of sensuality. The arias – with a few exceptions – do not match the emotional intensity of the duets and personally, ultimately seem to detract from the overall experience.

The disc opens with Destructive War, Thy Name Is Known from Belshazzar and Lemieux is in fine fettle, throwing out the coloratura with ease and supported by jaunty playing from the ensemble. However, it’s not the strongest opening argument for the disc which is why it seems a daring choice for the second track to be what must count as one of the finest duets, from either oratorio or opera, that Handel ever wrote – the heart-wrenching To Thee, Thou Glorious Son of Worth, from the second act of Theodora. Again a comparison unconsciously comes to kind – that of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and David Daniels in Peter Sellar’s unforgettable staging of the oratorio at Glyndebourne. Perhaps one of the most original stagings of Handel and fortunately – not only for Hunt-Lieberson’s unforgettable performance but also Sellars’ intelligent production and direction – caught for posterity on DVD. In comparison to the Sampson/ Blaze performance, Curtis chooses a slightly faster tempo but none of the beauty of the vocal writing or the tragedy of the duet is lost. And it is here that that feeling of sensuality comes to the fore, perhaps its the plangent bassoon, so clearly heard in the opening ritornello, that sets the mood which is underlined by how beautifully the voices of Gauvin and Lemieux intertwine and weave against each other. However Curtis does not allow the singers too much indulgence, maintaining a rhythmic alertness throughout – just listen to the precise delivery of the rhythmic line in the second section. Another wonderful touch happens with the return to the first section. As I’ve mentioned previously – and Curtis is somewhat guilty of this in the recording of Alcina – there can be a tendency to over-ornament da capo sections. Fortunately this is not the case here. Another nice touch is how in the da capo of this particular duet it is Lemieux who leads, ornamenting her vocal line that is then mimicked by Gauvin. A beautiful touch – and psychological insight of the two characters perhaps? – which helps to make this one of the highlights of the entire disc and therefore surprising to hear it so early in to the recital.

The remaining duets are all as impeccably performed with a real sense of drama. For example even the short duet From This Dread Scene from Judas Maccabeus, with its crisp martial accompaniment, is memorable. Both soloists capture and clearly enjoy the inherent drama in this short yet incentive duet.

Theodora’s Streams of Pleasure Everflowing, from which the CD takes its title, reminded me how this oratorio contains some of Handel’s most inspired music in English. Lemieux opens in suitably reverent tone, her creamy contralto wrapping itself wonderfully around the words. When Gauvin joins her, the effect as their vocal lines entwine is magical. Just listen to the wonderful pointed phrasing at ‘All the blissful holy choir’, especially in their mini-cadenza, to feel how in tune these two performers really are.

Our Limpid Streams With Freedom Flow from Joshua is the least effective duet on the disc. While this is a clean cut performance, wonderfully sung, it strikes more as a track filler for what follows – a remarkable performance of Can I See My Infant Gor’d from Solomon. Without a doubt the bass line and hesitant strings above are meant to represent the anguished thoughts of the mother, and Gauvin’s performance captures the mood perfectly, particularly as her diction is absolutely clear. The closing bars from ‘Spare my child, take him all’ is incredibly poignant.

The final track on the disc, and a worthy counterpoint to the first duet is the magnificent duet Great Victor, At Your Feet I Bow from Belshazzar. This is a beautifully crafted piece with Handel so brilliantly capturing the opposing emotions of the two protagonists. Gauvin and Lemieux fit the roles perfectly, the chaste and mournful queen and the young, impetuous yet magnanimous Persian king, investing their words with a real sense of meaning and passion.

Of the remaining arias, Lemieux provides a heart-stopping performance of As With Rosy Steps The Morn. The hushed orchestral opening is matched by the contralto’s own entry. I was once again reminded of Hunt-Lieberson’s haunting performance of this aria. Lemieux’s interpretation, balancing the restraint of the opening section with the increased emotional temperature of the middle section, makes this performance more than a worthy successor.

Joseph And His Brethren is rarely performed which is a shame based on Gauvin’s performance of Prophetic Raptures Swell My Breast. Clearly this aria was written for a soloist with an incredibly technique – not less evidenced by the opportunity for a cadenza at the soprano’s first entry. Research informs me it was written for Elisabeth Duparc, also known as La Francesina and for whom Handel also wrote the title role in Semele.

At almost nine minutes, this is a substantial aria and Gauvin delivers an impeccable and cheerful performance, throwing off the countless runs effortlessly. The minor mode middle section is memorable for the sudden shift in mood, and at the da capo Ms Gauvin’s ornamentation stays clearly on the side of intelligent – and perfectly delivered – addition rather than being over-florid and undermining the music.

Gauvin’s performance of My Father! Ah! Methinks I See The Sword from Hercules is suitably grief-laden. Written for the character Iole, it is one of Handel’s finest arioso-cum-arias. Despite the less melancholy second section, Peaceful Rest With Verdant Shade, Handel maintains an overall air of tragedy til the end.

Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – as ever – provide keen and alert accompaniment throughout and as I have mentioned above, show incredible restraint is shown in terms of ornamentation of the reprised da capo sections. It has been suggested to me that this is due to the fact that the selections are from oratorios and a nod to the less secular content of the music itself. However I don’t buy into this considering that Baroque and early Classical composers as whole imported their operatic mannerisms wholesale into ecclesiastical music as a whole.

Without a doubt, Stream of Pleasure is a superlative disc. The quality of the performances cannot be faulted and both Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux do not disappoint in the high standard of their musicianship. However, when I return to this disc – which I will do often – I have a feeling that I will be programming my selection in advance to provide myself with a bespoke, shorter and ultimately more satisfying listen.

Review – The Beauty of Baroque. Danielle de Niese, The English Concert/Harry Bickett

In Baroque, Classical Music, Danielle de Niese, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review on June 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm

A lesson learned – never listen to a new CD when in a bad mood. If I hadn’t revisited this album once again I would have missed what is, overall, a delightful, if not compelling, recital disc.

Danielle de Niese first came to public notice for her memorable performance as Cleopatra in McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. Since then she has played other roles, notably Poppea as well as released a disc of Mozart arias. This new album focuses, as the title makes clear, on a mixed bag of music from the baroque era – namely Monteverdi, Purcell, Pergolesi, Bach and naturally, Handel. And in some of the numbers she is accompanied by the countertenor Andreas Scholl.

The disc opens with Purcell’s Come again: Sweet love doth now invite and What if I never speed? both of which de Niese delivers with charm, delicacy and attention to the texts. However from the start de Niese displays a noticeable breathiness, and while this may, in part, be due to too close a recording set up, personally I also believe it’s also to do with her technique which during the recital affects her ability to produce a smooth, legato line as required.

Next come two old Handel stalwarts, Ombrai mai fu from Serse. and Let The Bright Seraphim from Samson. While de Niese does justice to the first aria, singing it with great simplicity and musical intelligence, she fails to deliver, as I mentioned above, the requisite fluid, legato line, but instead chops the vocal line and – in some cases – seeming to snatch her breaths. It might not be a definitive performance but her rich, golden tone is hard to resist. In the second aria, with it’s accomplished trumpet obbligato, de Niese’s bright and agile soprano comes into it’s own. And thankfully she doesn’t succumb to the common practice of superfluous ornamentation on the return of the first section.

They hand Belinda … When I am laid from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a deceptively difficult aria. It requires an ability to spin a smooth, almost unbroken line and surprisingly de Niese delivers it to produce what I think is almost the strongest performance on the disc. Her diction is crystal clear and her delivery of the phrase ‘Remember me’ is particularly poignant, emphasised as it is by subtle use of vibrato.

From Acis and Galatea comes Heart, the seat of soft delight. With its gentle recorder accompaniment, De Niese achieves the requisite sense of pastoral rapture. Indeed it immediately recalled her wonderful performance as Acis at Covent Garden when it was then second part of a double bill after Sarah Connolly in Dido and Aeneas. If you get the chance snap up a copy of the DVD.

Monteverdi is represented by the wonderful duet Pur ti miro from L’incoronazione di Poppea and Quel sguardo sdegnosetto. Joined by Andreas Scholl in the duet from the closing act, this is the crowning highlight of the recital disc. Their two voices entwine and blend perfectly above the delicate accompaniment in this rapturously erotic music. The second Monteverdi number with it’s fleeting lute work doesn’t work so well, de Niese failing to match the dance-inspired infectiousness of the her accompanist.

Scholl returns for Io t’abbraccio from Handel’s Rodelinda. It’s clear that he provides a clear focus of inspiration and support for de Niese as this duet rivals the previous for the top slot. However it fails to ignite in the same way but is still well sung.

Guardian Angels, Oh, Protect Me from The Triumph of Time and Truth is the last Handel aria on the disc. The rather turgid, plodding accompaniment from Bickett doesn’t help de Niese as she tries to convey what is one of Handel’s finest arias. Again the breathiness returns here and interestingly in this aria alone does she seem to have almost imperceptible problems with intonation.

The first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater follows and again de Niese and Scholl entwine their voices to beautiful effect although the performance lacks any sense of light and shade – sung practically at one volume throughout.

It’s a shame that de Niese’s disc ends with JS Bach, as personally these two arias are the least convincing on the disc. I am not sure that her voice suits his music at all. Sich üben im Lieben from the wedding cantata Weichtet nur, betrübte Schatten is marred by the obbligato oboists intonation problems and generally feels laboured rather than loved. Schafe können sicker weiden fares slightly better although she is challenged by the sustained vocal line and therefore remains unconvincing in this specific repertoire.

Ultimately however De Niese’s breath control – which I believe can only be blamed in part on the close recording – somewhat marrs what is a good, if not compelling, recital disc. Throughout de Niese is ably, if somewhat unimaginatively supported by The English Concert conducted by Harry Bickett.

However it is worth it for de Niese’s and Scholl’s magical performance of Pur ti miro alone.

Review – Alessandro, Handel (Jacobs/Boulin/Poulenard/Nirouët/Varcoe/de Mey/Le Petite Bande/Kuijken. Reissue.

In Classical Music, Opera on May 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Recorded in February 1984 this reissue of Handel’s Alessandro is testament that there is nothing ‘new’ anymore about performances on original instruments. In the early 1980s this recording would have had the thrill of being original and authentic in every sense of the word. And Kuijken and Le Petite Bande were one of the earliest exponents of ‘authentic’ performance.

Indeed, looking at the cast list, it is interesting to see that René Jacobs began his career on the other side of the continuo section – on the stage.

Alessandro was first performed in 1726 and follows such stalwarts as Rinaldo, Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, and precedes Alcina by a whole decade. It also has the historical envy of being the first opera that Handel wrote for Faustina Bordoni, later the wife of Johann Adolf Hasse. The other soprano soloist in the first performance was Francesca Cuzzoni, but alas it was not during Alessandro that they came to blows on the stage. If memory serves me correctly, an opera by Bononcini was accorded that honour.

So almost twenty years after it was recorded, how does Kuijken’s recording fare against more recent Baroque bands? Personally it could have been recorded yesterday so fresh, articulate and enjoyable is the performance, with not one weak element in the ensemble.

Vocally the soloists are incredibly strong. Jacobs sings the title role originally written for Senesino, with Sophie Boulin and Isabelle Poulenard singing the roles of Rossane/Bordoni and Lisaura/Cuzzoni respectively. From the beginning they deliver amazingly strong performances – vocally secure, beautifully sung and with a real sense of intelligence and understanding. René Jacobs countertenor has a beautifully rounded, bell-like tone across his range, coupled with strong technique. Boulin and Poulenard have distinct voices – clearly one of the reasons why they were originally cast – so that a listener interested in spotting which arias Handel specifically write for these two sparring sopranos can do so quite easily. Even the two other countertenors – Jean Nirouët and the delightful Guy de Mey – are easily distinguishable from one another.

The arias throughout are mainly da capo as expected, but it is interesting how far we have departed in terms of ornamentation in the returning da capo sections. There is virtually little ornamentation or embellishment on the return of the first section as opposed to some of the flights of fancy we hear these days in newer recordings and on stage. However if reports of the day are to be believed, neither interpretation is right nor wrong. Although I personally have to admit to a sense of relief when singers err on the side of intelligence.

Sigiswald Kuijken and Le Petite Bande – first formed in 1972 – play with great distinction and I quickly remembered that on the performance strengths of these early enthusiasts a whole dynasty of authentic orchestras has been built. The players play with great bite and spirit not only in the opening overture and the onstage sinfonia that follows immediately, but in all the arias.

And of the music itself? While Alessandro is no Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo or Alcina, it is a beautifully crafted opera, with almost all the arias – and not only those that have made it to recital discs – worthy of being heard more than once. Indeed the opera in its entirety bears repeated listening. Even the recitatives. It’s good to hear recitatives delivered with the clarity of diction and sense of momentum as they are here.

From the opening bars of the overture, Alessandro sets out to capture the attention of the listener. Not only are the arias delightful but there is also an attention to detail that encourages careful listening. For example the fast section of the overture with it’s delicate rhythmic bounce and then – most unexpectedly and already mentioned – a sinfonia complete with trumpets as the curtain rises onto Alessandro’s opening accompanied recitative.

In the arias for Alessandro – a role written for Senesino – we are not confronted by a leader in the same mould as Giulio Cesare, a role also created for this famous castrati. Instead for the most part the arias have an almost galant lilt to them. The first aria, Fra le stragi e fra le morti for example, with its delicate vocal divisions and trills, was clearly written to land the range of skills of Senesino immediately – a beauty of tone, agile runs and faultless trilling. His second of three arias in the First Act, Men fedele, e men costante, continues in the same vein, although the angular nature of the accompaniment leaves the listener in no doubt that this is ‘the King’ singing. The closing aria of the act is not the crowd raiser that is often expected at the end of acts in Baroque opera. The gentle strumming of the opening bars gives way once again to a feeling of galanterie. The sustained opening vocal line reinforces a sense of Alessandro as a benign (or Enlightened?) monarch. Indeed only in his final aria, Prove sono di grandezza perdonar l’alme soggette does Alessandro finally get the vocal fireworks more often associated with the leading man. However even here, there is no sense of grandeur – no trumpets, no timpani, simply a beautifully crafted aria left to stamp it’s own mark and underline Alessandro’s magnanimity once again before the closing duet.

The music that Handel wrote for Bordoni as Rossane made sure that she was given ample opportunity to display her vocal talents. Quantz via Charles Burney commented that she was an accomplished performer with a “flexible throat for divisions … so beautiful a shake … She sang adagios with great passion and expression … In short, she was born for singing and acting”. And within the short space of her two arias in the opening act this is quickly established and conveyed by Sophie Boulin. A clear, well articulated singer, Boulin clearly enjoys the role. Interestingly Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero bears a passing resemblance to Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina, performed in 1735. Rossane’s beautiful arioso at the beginning of Act Two, with it’s plangent recorders, is in marked contrast to her preceding arias and is the first of three occasions where Handel introduces recorders in the entire opera. Tassile’s Sempre fido e disprezzato, beautifully sung by Jean Nirouët, sees their return and provides a gentle respite in the opera as a whole. Rossane’s only other aria in the middle act – Alla sua gabbia d’oro soul ritorna talor, was again clearly written to specification for Signora Bordoni’s vocal prowess, and particular for her vocal trademark – the repetition of a single note rapidly. Yet it is Brilla nell’alma un non inteso ancor dolce contento which is one of the highlights of the opera and most often heard on recital discs. Again this aria has been cut to fit Bordoni’s cloth and performed immaculately by Boulin, it is nothing short of a show-stopper.

Lisaura, ably sung by Isabelle Poulenard, has one less aria than her protagonist but the music that Handel wrote for Cuzzoni is as beautiful. Cuzzoni’s abilities were already well-known to the composer, for he had created the roles of Cleopatra and Rodelinda for her, and it was during Ottone that he threatened to throw her out of a window. To this extent, her arias feel more rounded than those for Bordoni as, in a sense, Handel was only just getting acquainted with the latter’s voice. No, più soffrir non voglio in the First Act clearly demonstrates this fact, and Poulenard sings out off the rapid divisions and leaps with clear relish. In a more pathetic vein is Che tirannia d’Amor, with its delicate suspensions and nicely balanced by her final aria in the second act, La cervetta nei lacci avvolta.

Unusually the duet towards the close of the first act – Placa l’alma, quieta il petto – is between Rossane and Lisaura, and is clearly inspired by the sixth Concerto Grosso from his Opus 3.

Yet it is in the closing duet, In generoso onor, that Handel provides the audience with a final surprise. After an as-expected opening, with the castrato and soprano entwined in thirds, sixths and suspensions, Handel veers into new territory marked with a languishing melisma for Alessandro and the arrival of recorders one final time. At this point Rossane joins the King and Lisaura for a trio before they are ultimately joined by choir and trumpets to supply a martial ending to the whole opera.

So while Alessandro is not on a par with perhaps Giulio Cesare or Alcina it is a beautifully crafted opera. More importantly it is, overall, a memorable reissue. My only gripe? No libretto enclosed.

A Matter Of Choice

In Classical Music, Opera on April 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Listening to – Rodelinda (Il Complesso Barocco)

I recently attended two performances where – at the last minute – there were changes in the line of principals. Now I am not naive enough to think that this is not an occasional hazard for ensembles and that they make every effort to find suitable replacements. Yet the two performances I attended show how very different the experience can be.

First of all let it be said that in both cases the replacement artists were – we were clearly informed – both well-known in the respective roles themselves.

In the first instance the stand-in was in every way, superlative. I do not only mean in terms of the actual performance itself, but the fact that in her interpretation she did not in any way attempt to emulate the stylistic mannerisms of the performer that she replaced and which sometimes the audience expects. She very much made the character and the performance her own and this made for an unforgettable experience.

The second experience was not so enjoyable. It was hard to believe that the tenor in question had in fact performed the role in it’s entirety before. Of which more anon.

So back to the first performance. Alcina with Les Musiciens du Louvre. Anja Harteros was to perform the title role – for which she had already been lauded by critics. However she was unable to perform in London – the cold weather was blamed. Disappointing as it potentially was, she was replaced by Inga Kalna and I admit that she was not a soprano I was acquainted with. The slip note informed us that Ms Kalna had not only performed the role before in Europe, but had performed this specific role with Minkowski and Les Musiciens in Grenoble, their home town. So on paper at least she had form. And in performance she did not disappoint. Hers was an interpretation that was obviously built on experience, and while she did not deliver the vocal fireworks that I – as well as many people no doubt expected from Ms Harteros – was expecting, she provided vocal fireworks aplenty of her own. Her Ah! Il Mio Cor was not only heart-rendingly beautiful, but delivered with a real sense of musical pathos. My only gripe was that perhaps Minkowski took it a tad too fast. But overall Ms Kalna created her own Alcina – rich in both interpretation and character – which enabled the rest of the cast to reach their own musical and emotional peaks.

One small aside before I move on. Vessalina Kassarova. Despite what some critics wrote, she was superb and I feel that this was in no small way a result of Ms Kalna’s performance. Indeed her performance as Ruggiero led me to listen again to her CD of Handel arias with renewed interest – and taught me (again!) – never to take a critic’s opinion at face value.

And so to Tristan und Isolde. Now I am the first to acknowledge that this opera presents – even when the cast does not change at all – significant challenges. The original cast was meant to be American tenor Stephen Gould in the title role, with Katarina Dalayman as his Isolde. Unfortunately Gould was replaced by Kirov tenor Leonid Zakhozhaev. A quick glance at his homepage and nothing would seem amiss. Plenty of references to his perfect German diction and in fact, one glowing review of his performance of Tristan. As I have already said, this blog is about my personal experiences and opinions, but on this occasion I do not think I was far off the mark. I am sure that in some repertoire Zakhozhaev is an exceptional performer. Needless to say I would imagine he excels in Russian repertoire and indeed in most other tenor roles. But not as Tristan. I admit that some external factors need to be considered. He was dropped in cold into a production that he did not know. But the production was not challenging. For once, and with some relief on my part, it did not display the usual affections of Personregie that you sometimes see in German productions (Because it was a co-production with Montpellier perhaps?) and was pretty much static. Clearly the direction was just a little north of ‘stand and deliver’ but Zakhozhaev made this seem even more wooden.

So to his actual singing. Tristan requires a tenor that not only has the notes and the ‘heft’, but also one that that sing in shades of colour and delicacy. Heppner had this once and occasionally it still gleams through. Zakhozhaev struggled from the beginning. Singing at one volume, in one flat tone even his German – to a non-German like me – sounded strained, with his diction almost non-existent. His struggle was clear from his first appearance and his struggle at the end of Act I did not bode well for Act II. And he didn’t disappoint. The duet was long and arduous – for the audience. And there was clearly no ‘frisson’ between Zakhozhaev and Dalayman and even she gave up trying to lead him on stage. Needless to say the final Act was a disaster. Within minutes of his monologue I was myself praying that Isolde’s ship would come earlier and cut short both his and the audience’s agony.

I know that when a principal cancels at short notice it can be difficult to find a replacement. However I remember most recently when Christian Gerhaher was delayed en route for Tannhauser, the understudy more than ably performed until his arrival. Indeed much as I was thrilled by Gerhaher’s arrival in time for the final act, I did feel somewhat sorry for the understudy who so valiantly and rather brilliantly took on the mantle at short notice.

On this occasion I cannot believe that Zakhozhaev – all the way from St Petersburg – was the best option. Perhaps I am wrong but surely in the whole of Germany or indeed Northern Europe a more suitable Tristan could have been found than the lacklustre and troubled Zakhozhaev? Even if that meant – as at Covent Garden and Tannhauser – the replacement sang from the side of the stage while someone else acted the role.

Katarina Dalayman was an impressive Isolde. She certainly has the heft for the role but perhaps because of Zakhozhaev she was not at her best. The Liebestod – while moving and a worthy intepretation – was ‘of a single volume’ with little subtlety, and therefore any sense of a ‘blissful’ state was hard to muster or convey. However again this could be down to her Tristan.

A small word for Liang Li as King Mark. He made this small yet vital role come alive. His Act II monologue was palpable with regal disappointment and betrayal.

The production was interesting and, as I have said, pretty much devoid of the usual affectations prevalent in most Personregie – such as making tea or breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes – as in Loy’s Tristan und Isolde – subtle and well-placed direction adds great value and insight, but more often than not I find the discipline of Personregie sinks to the banal and a desire to fill the music with action. I won’t try to understand the ‘Samurai’ lilt to the production, but not too much was made of this. I did admire the inference that Isolde was trapped in her own mind that the bare walls of Act I produced and the second Act was beautifully conceived in terms of portraying the ‘endless night’.

And finally to Asher Fisch. I admire and enjoy his conducting of The Ring and in Tristan und Isolde he did not disappoint. He found the ‘chamber’ element in the orchestration and for the most part succeeded in finding the balance between the singers and the orchestra.

Apart from when Zakhozhaev was singing and at thus points – particularly when the tenor was exposed or alone – he ramped up the orchestral sound.

Confidence in his Tristan? I think not.

Enough said.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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