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Posts Tagged ‘Iestyn Davies’

Duel Monarchy

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2015 at 10:26 am

Review – Farinelli and the King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Thursday 12 February 2015)

Philippe V – Mark Rylance
Farinelli – Sam Crane & Iestyn Davies
Isabella Farnese – Melody Grove
De la cuadra – Edward Peel
Doctor José Cervi
Mestatasio – Colin Hurley

Musicians – John Crockatt (Violin); Arngeir Hauksson (Lute/Recorder); Jonathan Byers (Cello)

Director – John Dove
Designer – Jonathan Fensom
Choreographer – Siân Williams

Robert Howarth (Musical Director & Harpsichord)
Claire van Kampen (Writer)

The Wanamaker Playhouse is making a name for itself in terms of combining original drama and music. And their latest venture, Farinelli and the King, is a jewel of a production.

Written by Claire van Kampen, and clearly with her husband Mark Rylance in mind, it tells the story of how Farinelli was persuaded to give up the stage and travel to Madrid. At the request of Isabella Farnese, she believed his singing would alleviate Philip V of Spain’s depression.

It’s a perfect story to relate in a venue such as this theatre – van Kampen’s flexible yet direct writing enabled the intimacy of the relationships to shine. In well-crafted and elegant dialogue, the writer managed to convey not only the historical backdrop of contemporary Madrid as well as a Europe on the verge of war, but also the burgeoning belief of the time that music – and particularly opera – had spiritual and medical as well as entertainment value.

Rylance was a brilliant Philip of Spain. It isn’t so much that he skillfully steers from depression and anxiety back to recovery, but even when officially “well” there remained a real sense of human frailty and fear.

And he is right when he observes early on that Farinelli is as much a monarch as he. Not only in the sense of an adoring and loyal public but as well that his life was pre-ordained – for Philip as Louis XIV’s grandson and for Farinelli, from the moment the knife was applied. And as the singer, Sam Crane too captured that human frailty behind the popular mask. Their first meeting, a veritable duel of words and wits – both sharp and threatening – was well-penned by van Kampen.

The remaining cast was strongly cast, led by Melody Grove as the King’s suffering Queen. Her desperation to cure her husband was tangible as was the fear that she felt for her menacing spouse. However, I am not sure that I buy the clinch between castrato and Queen – especially as she eventually had him banished from court. And I particularly liked the grasping nature of Metatastio – again I am not sure it is based on actual reality but it provided a welcome emotional contrast.

But of course I admit that I was there for Iestyn Davies – and he did not disappoint. From the moment he began to sing Porpora’s Alto giove – a favourite aria of mine – he enraptured the audience. Vocally he was completely stunning – with beautifully controlled singing. Not only did he throw off the coloratura of Venti, turbini, prestate with complete authority but he also mesmerised in the slower numbers. Never has Cara sposa sounded so emotionally wrought as it did that evening. I just wish that the programme had listed all the arias.

But the highlight of the evening was the closing scene. Having retired to Italy, it was left to Farinelli to reminisce, and for Iestyn Davies to deliver a haunting and heartrending performance Lascia ch’io pianga that had many of the audience – including myself – in tears.

It was as if truly – as Philip of Spain had desired – that we were listening to the music of the stars.

Schoolroom Shenanighans.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Review – Rinaldo (Glyndebourne, Saturday 9 August 2014)

Rinaldo – Iestyn Davies
Almirena – Christina Landshamer
Goffredo – Tim Mead
Armida – Karina Gauvin
Argante – Joshua Hopkins
Eustazio – Anthony Roth Costanzo
A Christian Magus – James Laing
Sirens – Anna Rajah & Rachel Taylor

Director – Robert Carsen
Associate Director – Bruno Ravella
Designer – Gideon Davey
Lighting Designers – Robert Carsen & Peter Van Praet
Movement Director – Philippe Giraudeau

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Ottavio Dantone (Conductor)

Glyndebourne’s production of Rinaldo proves that with a star cast combined with a thoughtful approach by a director of the calibre of Robert Carsen, Handel’s operas contain the perfect balance of drama, tragedy and humour.

Who hasn’t endured a playground crush and wanted their rival vanquished?

In the lead role was Iestyn Davies, and following his outstanding performance in Rodelinda earlier this year, is there a countertenor to rival him in terms of his singing and acting performance? I dare say not. The quality of his singing is remarkable, combined not only with incredible technique but a flawless legato that enables him to convey every emotion with great clarity and emotional weight. After hearing him sing Dove sei? at the London Coliseum I didn’t think I would hear a more emotionally powerful performance of any aria, but the anguish he conveyed as he sang Rinaldo’s Cara sposa was heart-rending, and provided the first highlight of the evening. And he also demonstrated that he could as easily negotiate the more technically demanding arias that Handel wrote for his first Crusader, Nicolini. There was a thrilling bite and the necessary Handelian swagger in Venti, Turbini, Prestate and Abbruccio, avvampo a frema as well as that showcase aria Or la tromba.

Davies also displayed an innate sense in ensemble singing in the various duets. The delicacy of the singing of Scherzano sul tuo volto with his Almirena was beautifully matched by the teenage gaucheness of their actions. And I don’t think I’ve heard Rinaldo’s duet with Armida – Fermati! Oh crudel – not only performed with such verve but also a distinct sexual tension. Personally I’ve no idea why he chose Almirena over Armida.

As his nemesis, Karina Gauvin also demonstrated why she is one of the leading Handel sopranos. In the past I have voiced concern over her performances but here she was in stunning form, and clearly relished her schoolmistress-cum dominatrix as realized by Carsen. Her vocal agility in Furie terribili and Vo’ far Guerra, e vincer voglio – with Dantone light-fingered harpsichord concertante solo – was never in doubt but the sheer beauty and flawlessness of Ah! Crudel, il pianto was the second of three vocal highlights of the evening.

The third highlight of the evening was, from the start, inevitable. It always shocks me how quite suddenly Handel raises the emotional temperature in the Second Act of Rinaldo. Expecting, as Argante declares his love for her, for Almirena to launch into an aria of some fury, instead Handel writes one of his most beautiful arias ever – Lascia ch’io piangia. It might be somewhat common hackney’d but sung with such conviction and dramatic intensity as it was by Christina Landshamer at Glyndebourne and I am sure it wasn’t only me and my immediate neighbour who shed a tear.

And her bright soprano was a perfect foil not only to the Gauvin of Armida but also her beau, their voices melding perfectly in their duets. Her opening Combatti a forte immediately displayed that her lively voice was solidly grounded on strong technique, and the grace and delicacy of Augelletti che cantata was delightful while she confidently faced-off the inherent difficulties of Bel piacere e godere with aplomb.

Joshua Hopkins’ Argante found the perfect balance of arrogant king and – I am sure it was intended – pantomime villain. Vocally I would have preferred slightly more depth and darkness to his voice but it was a strong and well-defined performance.

Sadly, it’s difficult not to compare the other countertenors in the cast – Tim Mead, Anthony Roth Costanzo and James Laing – with the hero of the title. Tim Mead, who is Eustazio in the excellent DVD of the 2011 production and one of the only saving graces of ENO’s Giulio Cesare debacle, displayed secure technique and a honeyed tone, however first night nerves perhaps led to some untidy passage work and there were times when his voice didn’t project crisply enough. The same challenge faced the Eustazio of Anthony Roth Costanzo. It took a while for him to settle but he has a clear, bright voice and a real control of dynamic range which came beautifully to the fore in Siam prossimi al porto. Definitely a singer to watch in the future. Sadly James Laing was ill-suited to the role of the Magus. His voice was too thin and perhaps he invested too much in caricature and not his vocal performance.

And under the energetic direction of Ottavio Dantone it was hard to believe that this opera was Handel’s first opera he composed for London. There was an authority in his interpretation – not only in terms of tempo but also in the range of colours he brought out – that spoke volumes of his love of the music.

I know that Robert Carsen’s approach doesn’t please everyone, but personally I have always found his direction fresh and thought provoking.

And Rinaldo is no different, and he demonstrated the same attention to detail that have made his Carmelites and FroSch so memorable.

Here, he retold the story in a school and it was perfectly logical. Where else are the conflicts of both in love and rivalry more intense – and more keenly felt – than in the playground among emotionally-overwrought teenagers? And let’s face it, which of us when at school didn’t daydream in class about the demise of either a classroom rival or teacher?

And it was all beautifully observed and directed in revival by Bruno Ravella. Be it the gaucheness of a playground crush, the awkwardness of burgeoning friendships and even the sense of competitiveness. And perhaps I was the only one, but did I spy a series of hommages – intentional or not – to films as wide-ranging as ET, St Trinians and dare I say it, Harry Potter?

And the sets themselves never overwhelmed the narrative but seamlessly enabled the story to flow with a smart use not only of the stage but simple animation. And I can’t think of another opera where football has played such a seminal role.

And it is a rare director indeed who can manage to inject a sense of humour into Handel without it coming crashing down. But the deft way that Carsen delineated the characters, portraying them with sharply edged lines, enabled him to find that perfect balance of ‘fast and funny’ – slapstick almost – with duty and love.

In many ways, Carsen delivered the most cinematically-realised production of Handel I have seen without interfering with Handel’s incredible music once.

And with an incredible cast or singers and performers, it worked beautifully.

Tattoo’ll Do Quite Nicely

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Review – Rodelinda (English National Opera, Sunday 2 March 2014)

Bertarido – Iestyn Davies
Rodelinda – Rebecca Evans
Grimoaldo – John Mark Ainsley
Eduige – Susan Bickley
Garibaldo – Richard Burkhard
Unulfo – Christopher Ainslie
Flavio – Matt Casey (Actor)

Director – Richard Curtis
Set Designer – Jeremy Herbert
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Video Design – Steven Williams

Members of English National Opera Orchestra

Christian Curnyn (Conductor)

I think that English National Opera has a way to go before it can claim back it’s self-professed title of being the ‘House of Handel’. But Richard Jones’ production of Rodelinda has salvaged the indignity that Giulio Cesare suffered at the hands of Michael Keegan-Dolan.

However it has to be said that musically speaking, Christian Curnyn has pulled together an excellent cast for this production and displayed once again his innate sense of style and verve in terms of his interpretation of one Handel’s’ greatest operas.

Leading the cast was the excellent Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. I don’t think that I have ever heard Dove Sei? sang with such authority, musical intelligence or emotional eloquence. Pure of tone and displaying incredible vocal technique and control, he delivered one of the vocal highlights of the evening. Indeed Davies is a naturally innate Handelian in terms of performance style and coupled to his portrayal of Bertarido made his the strongest performance of the evening. His confident and flawless delivery of Vivi, tiranno provided the perfect book-end to his opening aria.

Similarly Rebecca Evans’ Rodelinda was a tour de force. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni for whom Handel also wrote Cleopatra and Lisaura (Alessandro) this is a formidable role with some incredibly challenging music right from the start. Ms Evans carried off the role with both vocal aplomb and again an innate sense of Handelian style. From the incredibly exposed Ho perduto il caro sposo and Ombre, piante, urne funeste through such coloratura-ladened arias as L’empio rigor del fato, Morai, si; l’empia tua testa and a fiery Spietati, io vi giurati Rebecca Evans demonstrated a sure-footed technique and bright, agile soprano. However it was her rendition of what is for me one of Handel’s greatest arias – Se ‘l mio duol non è si forte which was the second highlight of the evening, coupled with sensitive playing by orchestra and Curnyn finding the right colours in Handel’s delicate scoring.

But it was their Act II duet, the beautiful Io t’abbraccio which was the single highlight of the evening. Richard Jones’ simple yet devastatingly effective staging at this moment made for an almost perfect moment. ‘Almost’ but for the audience clapping before the return of the da capo sadly.

Around these two singers Curnyn had assembled an equally strong cast. John Mark Ainsley, most recently seen in L’Issipile, and Richard Burkhard as Grimoaldo and Garibaldo provided the perfect counterbalance to the hero and heroine. Grimoaldo’s Se per te giungo a godere and Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena not only displayed Ainsley’s talents and ability to manage Handel’s challenging vocal writing for the tenor voice but why he is one of the leading Baroque tenors on stage today. Burkhard similarly reveled in the music that Handel wrote for what was effectively a secondary character. I defy anyone not to be drawn in by arias such as Di Cupido imiego i vanni and Tirannia gli diede il regno when sung with such gusto by Burkhard. Christopher Ainslie demonstrated that he had the technique for Unulfo’s music but despite his smooth lucid tone, he was underpowered throughout.

And finally plaudits to Susan Bickley. Her Storgè (Jephtha) and Sidonie (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) remain two of her most memorable ENO performances for me and her Eduige has made it a tryptich. While her voice took a while to settle down she delivered a performance with both style and substance.

So why wasn’t it a return to the ‘House of Handel’?

I enjoy Richard Jones’ productions – they are smart, intelligent and often reveal interesting perspectives in terms of the characters themselves. I refer again to his Petra von Kant for ENO and before that his Love For Three Oranges as well as his Macbeth for Glyndebourne and WNO’s disturbing Wozzeck.

His Rodelinda clearly demonstrated that he had spent time with the performers. In his short interview on the ENO website he talks of Rodelinda being a “forensic” examination of people in extreme situations and it is clear that this formed the basis of creating characters who evolved during the course of the opera.

I am not sure that I agree that it was set in ‘post-war’ Italy as some have commented. To me, it smacked more of Fascist Italy with motifs such as the monument to Bertarido, the use of spy cameras, the sense of claustrophobia – heightened in the final act by smaller rooms – and the ever increasing paranoia and spying. Even the costumes were more reminiscent to me of photos that my mother showed me of her youth in Italy. Sadly the Argentinian-inspired tango didn’t quite work nor did that final image – of Bertarido’s wife and son exacting ‘la vendetta’ against their enemies. It unbalanced the sense of justice that the hero had only just magnanimously delivered

The use of tattoos however was inspired. Particularly touching was the moment when Bertarido unexpectedly revealed his own name on Unulfo’s back. Loyalty and ‘unspeakable’ love in that single moment. Although I did think that Garibaldo should have revealed a tattoo – of his own name to underline his own selfishness.

In the same interview Jones stated that Rodelinda was an opera about faithfulness and constancy, and then taking it one step further than perhaps the audience of the Eighteenth Century would have, of erotic obsession, sadism and masochism.

If that was the case then why did some moments seem to court laughter? Was the slapstick deliberate? Was it because ratcheting up the emotional intensity would be too much to ask of the audience? I have no trouble with humour if it doesn’t feel contrived. And sadly there were moments when it did.

The use of oversized swords for example was oddly juxtaposed with the image – with its contemporary associations – of Bertarido blindfolded and tied to a chair.

Or the fact that a laugh was raised when Bertarido accidentally knifes Unulfo when in fact the subtext there is that even when tested, the latter’s loyalty remains steadfast. And while I think the use of treadmills was rather smart it was slightly overdone. For instance, when during one of his arias, the audience was more impressed by Unulfo’s fancy footwork than the delivery of the music.

Handel’s operas do contain humour. Look at Agrippina, or Partenope for example. But I am not sure that Rodelinda does to the same extent.

But there’s no denying that Richard Jones can pack a punch. It wasn’t just the beauty of the music that made Io t’abraccio so poignant. It was the beautifully judged staging – literally pulling the lovers apart – that made that moment incredibly special.

Ultimately this was a Rodelinda of exceptional musicianship but out-of-kilter stagecraft.

If the ‘kinks’ can be ironed out and as long as John Berry doesn’t make the same mistake with his next Handel production as he did with Giulio Cesare, perhaps finally English National Opera can reclaim its own lost throne.

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

Hamstrung Handel

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Review on November 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Handel’s Altos – Music for Countertenor & Castatro (Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 27 November 2012)

Iestyn Davies (Countertenor)
Alexis Kossenko (Recorder, flute)
Jean-Marc Goujon (Recorder)
Neil Brough (Trumpet)

Ensemble Matheus
Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Conductor)

Iestyn Davies opened his residency at Wigmore Hall – A Singularity of Voice after the biography of Alfred Deller – with a concert inspired by selections from oratorios and three arias from Partenope together with instrumental selections from Handel and Telemann.

Iestyn Davies is – personally – one of the leading countertenors performing today. He has a wonderfully rich timbre, even and resonant with a sure-footed technique that cuts through even the most devilish divisions written by Handel. And what was particularly stunning last night was his complete control of dynamics and vocal light and shade in his singing. Marvellous.

So it was disappointing that this inaugural concert took a while to settle down and ultimately didn’t quite gel.

Not through any fault of Mr Davies.

The opening piece, Eternal Source of Light Divine, so ravishingly performed only last week at OAE’s Nightshift, sounded distinctly hesitant and ragged under Spinosi’s direction. Indeed intonation and inconsistent playing seemed to be Ensemble Matheus default position for most of the evening and was clearly a distraction not only sitting in the audience but it seems for Davies himself.

Eternal Light simply failed to shine. Indeed Davies looked almost ‘discomforted’.

The remaining arias in the first half of the concert were delivered with increasing measures of success. Davies was much more secure in Their Land Brought Forth Frogs from Israel in Egypt but again Spinosi’s players played the notes with some rhythmic indistinction and poorly attuned ensemble playing. This was particularly noticeable in the middle section of The Peasant Tastes The Sweets of Life from Joseph and his Brethren with the continuo player had clear intonation problems.

By the fourth aria Davies seems more in control – perhaps a sharp word in the green room between appearances? – and the selections from Jephtha and Semele were much more decisive and alert. The figurative melisma in Up The Dreadful Steep Ascending (Jephtha) were thrown off with great confidence by the countertenor and Despair No More Shall Wound Me from Semele was a suitable tour de force to end the first half.

Spinosi also included the overture and Sinfonia from Handel’s Xerxes in the first half. For some reason – and I don’t buy the programme notes line about “optional at all – there were no oboes present on the stage. This led to a distinct lack of colour, piquancy and weight in the overture. An ill-conceived decision.

The second half opened with the cantata Splenda in Alba when Ensemble Matheus were supplemented with additional flutes but despite a reference in the programme note, still no oboe. Davies sailed through this relatively unknown cantata with ease. His voice was clarion clear and he sang the arias with beautifully poised affection.

The Ensemble then performed a well-executed if bland performance of Telemann’s Concerto in e minor for flute, recorder and strings. At this point Spinosi returned to the stage violin in hand and in a rather affected manner seemed to take an age to tune. Distracting. It’s a wonderful concerto but failed to grip me. I was not a fan of Kossenko’s over-blousy recorder timbre and while both soloists were technically proficient there was a distinct lack of character in their playing. As I said it was a well-executed performance but didn’t seem to delve into the richness of Telemann’s music full as his music is with the baroque Affections. And the gypsy-inspired foot-stamping by the ensemble in the final movement seemed more contrived that the result of infectious and joyous music making.

Davies closed the concert with three arias from Partenope. Again he was slightly let down by his orchestral players. Sento amor was spun out with great delicacy, with Davies demonstrating he most perfect skill in delivering Handel’s wonderful arcing phrases. And his musical intelligence and sensitivity was underlined here – as in other arias of the evening – with beautifully placed ornamentation on the da capo return. But the wonderful Ch’io parta was marred by what can only be described as turgid playing leading the aria to drag and undermining the simplicity of this aria. And again the continuo cellist suffered from intonation problems in the middle section.

Fittingly, if not chronologically correct, Iestyn closed the concert with the firework-laden Furibondo spira il vento. As well relishing the coloratura of this aria, Davies revelled in delivering with bell-like clarity the vocal leaps and bounds. Suitably the audience roared their approval.

The encore was the beguiling, almost Galant-style Un zefiro spirò from Rodelinda. Once again Davies sang in pure, honeyed tone, beautifully spinning out the triplet melismas with great delicacy. Sadly it was ever so slightly undermined by dodgy intonation once again from the continuo cellist although full plaudits to the wonderful harpsichord playing.

So perhaps not a completely auspicious start to this innovative residency but again not due to any lack of musical brilliance on the part of Iestyn Davies. Without a doubt he was vocally and musically on top form but his performance was undermined – if not marred – by Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus.

Having most recently enjoyed his Arias for Guadagni with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, I only regret that they weren’t the ensemble on stage with this amazingly talented countertenor at Wigmore Hall.

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.

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