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(Twenty) Seven-Year Pitch

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on January 28, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Review – 1765: A Retrospective (Mozart 250, Wigmore Hall, Thursday 22 January 2015)

Anna Devin (Soprano)
Sarah Fox (Soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

Classical Opera has always taken a bold and innovative approach to their programming, but programming over a period of twenty-seven years is impressive and it got off to a very promising start.

Marking the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mozart’s sojourn in London, Ian Page gave us a snapshot of musical life not only in the capital but across Europe with very able performances by Anna Devin, Sarah Fox and John Mark Ainsley and some superlative playing from the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Mozart’s own contribution to the programme was two concert arias and his first symphony written when he was between eight and nine years old. While these works are clearly influenced by his contemporaries, you could already hear the seeds of genius. The symphony, in E Flat, might be reminiscent of the likes of JC Bach in the outer movements, but the central Andante showed that Mozart was already experimenting with texture and sound.

Va, dal furor portata, Mozart’s first concert aria, might on first listening sound rather simple, but is in fact remarkably eloquent with clearly shifting emotions both in the orchestral exposition and the vocal writing. John Mark Ainsley sang with a great deal of authority, with fluid legato deliver and technical ease, but I wish he had lifted his head from the score a little more, as it occluded the overall delivery. And this was a problem that clouded his later performance of Sacchini’s Barbara figlia ingrata.

Written only a short time later for soprano, Conservati fedele already underlines how quickly Mozart was developing – the beguiling simplicity all but masking his developing maturity and understanding of writing for the voice. And it was sweetly sung by Anna Devin whose technical brilliance and musicianship was more than amply demonstrated in her preceding aria, In mezzo a un mar crudele from Gluck’s Telemaco. Throwing off the coloratura with incredible confidence and aplomb, it reminded me why Ms Devin was such a star in last year’s Alcina.

Di questa cetra in seno from Gluck’s Il Parnasso confuso also featured. Originally written for a private performance by the Austrian imperial family it has a gentle and pastoral lilt to it with some elegant obbligato playing for the violas. Sarah Fox delivered a thoughtful and intuitive performance but as with Cara, la dolce fiamma in the first half, I was somewhat distracted by the underlying vibrato in her otherwise rich and sonorous soprano.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in g minor, featuring in the second half of the concert, again demonstrated the zest and enthusiasm of the orchestra who gave a beautifully observed and dramatic performance of this fantastic symphony.

Both halves of the concert ended with ensemble pieces. From Philidor’s Tom Jones was a duet performed by Ainley and Devin. To be honest, delightful as it was, I do think that this was a slightly odd choice in terms of programming but there was not faulting the trio that closed the concert from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I am looking to Classical Opera’s performance of the entire opera later this year, and both the earlier aria and Ah, genitore amato not only underlined the influence that the London Bach clearly had on the young Mozart, but also that in their own right JC Bach’s operas need more exposure.

A feeling almost of an embarrassment of musical riches with regards to choice did make the programming seem slightly at odds in places, and I did wonder if perhaps, as this was commemorating Mozart’s stay in London and then Holland, if the programming could have been chosen with a more ‘local’ flavor.

But there was no denying that as the first in twenty-seven years’ worth of music making, this opening concert marks an impressive start.

I just hope I am still around to enjoy the final concert.

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.

Stand Up And Be Conti’d

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm

Review – L’Issipile (Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 22 January 2014)

Issipile – Lucy Crowe
Eurinome – Diana Montague
Rodope – Rebecca Bottone
Toante – John Mark Ainsley
Learco – Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Giasone – Lawrence Zazzo

La Nuova Musica
David Bates (Director)

Generally unknown, Francesco Bartolomeno Conti is the latest composer to be ‘rediscovered’ and we are fortunately that L’Issipile is seeing the light of day once again. It is one of two operas he completed in the year of his death and is rich with musical invention, contains clearly etched characters and has a keen sense of dramatic momentum.

Plaudits must go to Flavio Ferri-Benedetti for bringing this opera to a modern audience. His academic research and evident passion should be congratulated.

Interestingly this libretto – the second Metastasio wrote specifically for Vienna – didn’t enjoy the success of his other works. Apparently the ‘bloody’ subject matter wasn’t popular with the 1732 Carnival audience. But I am not sure that is the only reason. Other operas of the period featured both suicides and murders – think Mitridate Eupatore (1707), Tamerlano (1731) and even later in Vienna Les Danaiïdes (1784) for example – and the quality of the music in my opinion outweighs any perceived weakness in the libretto.

I agree that perhaps it wasn’t ideally suitable to the Carnival season but perhaps Conti’s untimely death contributed to it not being revived again except for once in Hamburg five years later and also because ultimately the plot itself isn’t ‘typically’ Metastasian.

Issipile might be the ‘monarch’ but she isn’t the Enlightened despot more commonly associated with that leading role. Rather her emotional journey is more erratic and emotionally wrought. The villain is neither vanquished or saved by ‘reason’ or magnanimity but takes his own life and therefore ultimately the “lieto fine” – the return of balance and order – is somewhat diminished and doesn’t counterbalance the massacre at the beginning.

For these reasons perhaps it didn’t make comfortable listening for the aristocratic audience.

Yet, Conti etched out convincing characters from among the Metastasian characters-as-ciphers who more normally represent elevated principles or undeniably haughty emotions – duty, filial love, honour for example.

This is particularly true of Eurinome and Rodope. The former’s accompanied recitative and aria at the start of Act II was on a par with similar scenes in Handel and Conti’s other contemporaries. But I would also argue that Rodope’s emotional arc was the most complete. Her first two arias – beautifully crafted with some unexpected harmonic shifts – made clear her (misplaced) affection for Learco. And with his final rejection, her final simile aria was one of sharply defined emotion – anger and defiance.

In contrast – and perhaps deliberately by Conti – the music for the traditional characters of Toante, Issipile and Giasone was more ‘stock in trade’ as if reinforcing their more constricted emotions. That is not to say that the music was any less notable. Issipile’s simile arias were technically magnificent. And both Toante and Giasone – both their second arias respectively – were lessons in pre-Classical simplicity.

The arias for Learco were similarly well crafted and full of swagger. I particularly enjoyed the cello obbligato of the second aria for example.

And throughout Conti made effective use of accompanied recitative – not only at the beginning of the second act but also in the closing scenes.

If the music was of a high standard, then the music making was – for the most part – magnificent.

In the title role Lucy Crowe demonstrated an unerring sense of style, combined with flawless technique. Her bright and incredibly agile soprano – bursting with spirit and fire – not only negotiated the great expanses of coloratura but in her final aria of the first act – reminiscent of Gluck– she coloured her voice to express the anguish Issipile faced.

Personally however Rebecca Bottone – Rodope ‘enceinte’ – stole the show. Also in possession of a piercingly bright and lithe soprano, she expressed Rodope’s emotional journey through some of the most beautiful singing I have heard in a long time. Non che sai was the highlight of the evening.

Diana Montague as Eurinome shoed why she is a singer of both distinction and great ability. Joining the ensemble at late notice her performance was a tour de force of emotion and musicianship. It was also a pleasure to see John Mark Ainsley – whose ENO Orfeo remains with me to this day – in the role of Toante. A darker tenor than some would normally expect in a role such as this, he elegantly and smoothly managed the tricky coloratura and da capo ornamentations with grace.

And of course, Lawrence Zazzo was – both musically and dramatically – an impressive Giasone. His final aria – so skillfully performed – demonstrates why he remains in such demand as ever. I look forward to his forthcoming disc with La Nuova Musica.

Ultimately however I did wonder if the role of Learco should have been awarded to a more accomplished singer? There was no denying the enthusiasm Ferri-Benedetti brought to the role but personally his vocal technique felt just a little unfinished. The coloratura wasn’t as clean, even or defined as it should have been and there were problems of both intonation and breath control. And I have to admit that his “pantomime villainy” somewhat undermined Metatastio’s lofty sense of drama and led the audience to laugh at inopportune moments.

Supporting the singers, David Bates and La Nuova Musica were an incredible ensemble. A feisty ensemble, they clearly enjoyed performing Conti’s music. Bates drew some exquisite colours and timbres from the ensemble and also maintained the dramatic momentum throughout the recitatives.

Without a doubt, L’Issipile is an opera worthy of revival – the quality of the music and the high standard and enthusiasm of performance was extraordinary and memorable.

This revival – two hundred and fifty years after its premiere – deserved the ovation it received.

A recording please.

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