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Posts Tagged ‘Karina Gauvin’

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.

Mozart’s Women – Part One

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on April 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

Review – Mozart Opera & Concert Arias (Karina Gauvin, Les Violons Due Roy, Bernard Labadie)

Over the last few weeks I have been throrougly enjoying two recital discs from opposite ends of the performance spectrum but both highly recommended.

The first is by Karina Gauvin, perhaps better known – to me at least – as a consummate Handelian so hearing her Mozart was – except for a random recording of Exsultate Jubilate – an almost new experience.

However, having seen her live as well as possessing both her recital and complete opera recordings, I did notice that while the technique definitely hasn’t diminished, her vocal tone – particularly in the upper part of her range – has narrowed. Yet while it might not have the robust quality of her Porpora recital for example there is a gleam to her singing that has fortunately replaced the ‘matronly’ tone of her Cleopatra in Curtis’ recording of Giulio Cesare.

And it certainly doesn’t detract from the quality of either her performance or musicianship.

Ms Gauvin is an elegant Mozartian.

Her opening aria, Aer tranquillo from Il Re Pastore is stylishly delivered, and beautifully articulated. And naturally the she cuts through the coloratura with ease.

On the strength of her Giunse al fin il momento … Deh vieni, non tardar, I would take her Countess over that of Ms Kermes any day. There is a lightness to the accompagnato with words delivered with laser-like precision that hardly prepares you for the beauty of the aria. She spins out the ensuing aria with a real purity of line, imbuing the vocal line with a beguiling sense of simplicity.

To this day, the entry of the piano obbligato in Ch’io mi scordi di te? Non temer amato bene still manages to catch me by surprise. So it’s a shame that as elegantly as it is played on this disc, I can find no trace of the soloist’s name. Perhaps it is Bernard Labadie? Who knows? But here paired with Ms Gauvin – even if the pace of the aria is somewhat sedate – I have to say that this is one of the best performances of this aria I have heard in a long time. A real gem.

It is in the second concert aria, Misera, dove son! Ah, non son io che parlo, where Ms Gauvin sounds particularly exposed but again her musical intelligence wins through with some elegant phrasing and dynamic control.

But if I had to choose one aria from this recital disc for my desert island, it would be her performance of Ach! Ich fühl’s from Die Zauberflöte. Wondrously controlled and beautifully sung, Ms Gauvin molds the winding vocal line, making her closing phrase – hanging in the air almost – one of incredible emotion.

Of her selections from Così fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito, I have to admit that her Despina – with it’s coquettishness – won me over more than her Fiordiligi and the sluggishness of Vitellia’s Non più di fiori was the only disappointing vocal track of the recital.

Throughout the recital Ms Gauvin is well supported by Les Violons Du Roy under Labadie, but considering the fire and spirit of other authentic ensembles I did wish for a bit more verve, particularly in the overtures included.

But it’s a pleasure to hear Ms Gauvin back on top form. And I hope to hear her in more Mozart in the future.

A Slice Of Quattro (Mezzo) Soprani

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Sogno Barocco – Anne-Sofie von Otter (Sandrine Piau, Capella Mediterranea, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon)
Prima Donna – Karina Gauvin (Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Wiemann)
Dramma – Simone Kermes (La Magnifica Comunità, Isabella Longo)
Amoretti – Christiane Karg (Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen)

It seems that new CDs by leading singers are like buses. You wait ages and then a slew of them arrive at the same time. In the last few weeks I have bought no less than seven new recital discs. As well as those listed above I also have excellent recital discs by Joyce DiDonato and Soile Isokoski as well as Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s more lacklustre recital of Eighteenth Century arias. The latter bordering, sadly, on the disappointing.

While I will return to Mesdames DiDonato and Isokoski at a later date, the four recital CDs listed above have – to varying degrees – given me many hours of pleasure from repeated listening.

Heading the list – and rather unexpectedly I have to admit – is Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter’s Sogno Barocco. I do not say unexpectedly from any sense that the recital isn’t of the very highest standard but rather this isn’t necessarily music that I more normally delve into.

But I am glad I did. I have always greatly admired Ms von Otter. Her luxuriant and characterful mezzo is combined with an intelligent yet impassioned approach to performance. As well as having many of her performances on CD, I have seen her in recital as well as in a broad range of operatic roles including as Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde.

Following her magnificent disc of French arias, Ombre De Mon Amour with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Ms von Otter steps back further in time to the earliest Baroque opera composers and has created a recital interestingly coincidentally based on music for queens, either fictional or real. Accompanied by the excellent Capella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon the listener is further spoiled – and there is no other word to use – by the appearance of Sandrine Piau in three tracks. As well as Monteverdi, Ms von Otter has built a recital that includes Rossi, Cavalli and a rather boisterous number by Provenzale.

The mood and standard is set immediately by Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ‘l tormento. The strophic structure of this song with it varied instrumental interludes is beguiling in its simplicity.

But the standout highlights of the recital are undoubtedly Pur to miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and her impassioned soliloquy Di misera regina from Il ritorno d’Ulisse. In the first and famous duet, Mesdames Otter and Piau wrap their vocal lines around one another with a sensuality that I’ve not heard matched in other performances, and after a rhythmically alert middle section what can only be described as an almost sexual tension is heightened in the melting beautiful da capo. And in the second, Ms von Otter ensures that each and every word is carefully weighed for its emotional content and woven into a grieving whole.

But while the selections from Monteverdi define the album, this recital disc includes numerous other gems that demand repeated listening. For example Cavalli’s Dolcissimi baci (La Calisto) and Doriclea lamento (Doriclea) or at the other end of the unusual scale, Rossi’s Lamento de la Regina di Suezia with contralto Susanna Sundberg. Here von Otter runs the gamut of a whole range of emotions including a most impressive ‘battaglia’ section. And on a more boisterous note there is Provenzale’s Squaciato appena havea.

Throughout von Otter is brilliantly accompanied by the players of Capella Mediterranea led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon, and they provide a scattering of instrumental pieces throughout the recital alternating vigour with delicacy. Even if – like me – you are not normally an early Baroque enthusiast this is definitely a disc worth listening to.

Next was Karina Gauvin’s Prima Donna with the Arion Baroque Orchestra directed by Alexander Wiemann. All the arias on the disc were written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò and while the bulk of the arias are by Handel there are isolated arias by Vinci and Vivaldi. However it is with Handel that del Pò is mainly associated and for her he wrote key roles including Angelica in Orlando, Adelaida in Lotario and the title role in Partenope. Indeed it seems that Handel was responsible for her career as Charles Burney wrote she was “a singer formed by himself (Handel), and modelled on his own melodies. She came hither a coarse and awkward singer with improve talents, and he at last polished her into reputation and favour”. Sadly Burney cannot resist a rite critical stance on her appearance, writing “she had so little of the Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig”. Not something critics today would dare write methinks.

I tried very hard to love this recital disc as much as I have loved previous recordings by Ms Gauvin as well as her live performances. But after repeated listening – and I am sure I will return to it again and again – all I can admit to is admiring Ms Gauvin’s technical proficiency combined with her bright and sonorous soprano. But bar a few fleeting moments when she almost gets under the skin of the music, these are ‘glossy’ performances.

There’s little ‘bite’ or colour and very little interpretation. But she can throw off the coloratura as witnessed by a rather jaunty Scherza in mar from Lotario and Angelica’s No, non potra dirmi ingrata that opens the recital.

The moments where there are glimpses of what could have been are in the three numbers from Alcina – Ah! Ruggiero, crudel … Ombre pallide, Si, non quella and – what must be one of my favourite of all Handel’s arias – Ah! Mio cor. Here the emotional temperature gets above lukewarm but never to boiling point.

I think it part it is due to the colourless – almost polite and reserved – playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra and direction of Wiemann. Even the orchestral excerpts – including the rather odd decision to throw in a rather scratchy Grave from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in c minor for his Opus 6 collection – are lacklustre.

So in the end a disappointing disc that does very little to demonstrate Ms Gauvin’s very obvious musicianship and vocal brilliance.

Simone Kermes’ album Dramma delves into the world of the castrato with a disc of music of composers Giuseppe de Majo, Porpora, Pergolesi and Leo together with a single yet highly memorable Handel aria with great verve delivered in spades. And many of the arias world-premiere recordings.

Ms Kermes has carved out a place for herself as a coloratura soprano of some standing and this disc reinforces this position with authority. Not only is she in magnificent form but she digs deep to find the emotional dimension in each aria.

I don’t know if it’s my disc but the opening aria, de Majo’s Per trionfar pugnando has a scratchy opening almost as if listening to an old 78 but it doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the orchestral playing – and in particular the trumpets – or Ms Kermes’ vocal security and polished tone.

Indeed Ms Kermes throws out the challenging coloratura of many of the arias with both enviable ease and accuracy. For example in Empi, se mai disciplogo, Leo’s Son qual nave in ria procella with its pinpoint delivery or Pergolesi’s Sul mio cor.

But one of the most beautiful arias on this disc is Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo and coming as the second track underlines the breadth of Ms Kermes talent. The momentum – almost nervous pulse – of the accompaniment belies the beautiful vocal line that Ms Kermes spins above it. Her opening phrase – the simple dynamic control she exerts – is a lesson in musicianship and following the short middle section it’s return is stunning. This is the most wonderful preghiera.

In a similar vein is Porpora’s lilting Le limpid’onde from Ifiginie in Aulide with its luminous wind writing. Charming.

Hasse is represented by two arias and the first, Consola il genitore, has Ms Kermes accompanied only by harpsichord. The sheer simplicity of this aria is in stark contrast after the seven preceding arias yet the exposed vocal line is beautifully delivered. In the scheme of Hasse’s L’Olimpiade from which this is taken, it must have been an incredible moment.

Handel is represented by Lascia ch’io pianga. A difficult aria to carry off normally here it is nothing short of a heart-stopping event in this recital. The hushed da capo, almost totally unadorned in any way, is reason enough to buy this disc.

The orchestral playing under Isabella Longo as I have already said, is of the highest standard. Listen to the bold contrapuntal opening of Vedrà turbato il mare for example or the delicacy of Tace l’augello with its solo string writing complimenting Ms Kermes superbly. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the evident joy of La Magnifica Comunitá is Porpora’s Se dopo ria procella with its nothing less than raunchy but accurate horn playing.

Christiane Karg is new to me but Amoretti – with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry – is a gem.

Ms Karg has a beautifully clear and bell-like soprano combined with very sure technique. The opening aria from La Finta Giardinera – and the title of the album – is beautifully presented and sets the standard for the remaining arias by Mozart as well as the whole disc.

Ferma aspetta … Infelici affetti miei from Ascanio in Alba belies how young Mozart was when he wrote it and Ms Karg invests it with suitable dramatic power. And this emotional investment comes to the fore in the scena from Lucio Silla, Fra i pensier.

Mitridate’s Lunga da te is taken at a daringly measured pace but has both a superb horn obbligato and wonderful elegant legato phrasing from Ms Karg.

And if anyone is in doubt of Ms Karg’s technique then Biancheggia from Il Sogno di Scipione will dispel any concerns as she veritably flings out the divisions with incredible ease.

The selections from Gluck include the rarely performed Soumis au silence from Orphée et Euridice and Sacre Piante from Il Parnasso Confuso but it is the Adieu from Iphigénie en Aulide which stands out. Crystal clear diction and a real sympathy for the rhythmic structure of the vocal line, Ms Karg is a natural Gluckist.

But the real finds of this recital are the arias by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. In my teenage years, rummaging through a second-hand record shop I came across a recording of Grétry’s – I’m pretty sure it was his Richard, Cœur de Lion. At the time I remember trying anything from the Eighteenth century ‘rather than’ Mozart but have to admit that having got it home I was more than a little disappointed.

Having revisited Grétry more than once since it is no small shame that he is not performed more often, especially based in the selections made here. Comme in éclair from La fausse Magpie written in 1775 is an exercise in Galanterie and clearly influenced not only by his time in Italy but by a plethora of Italian contemporaries in its composition. Again the coloratura here holds no fears for Ms Karg and her vocal technique shines through.

Il va venir! … Pardonne o mon Juge from Silvain was a comédie written five years earlier and again clearly owes much to Italian opera. Following a well-crafted accompanied section the subsequent aria with its oboe interjections is almost Mozartian – early Mozart.

The third aria, Au bien supreme from the comédie Lucille was written in 1769 owes something to Gluck in its woodwind colouring.

Perhaps it’s about time that the spotlight was shine more fully on Monsieur Grétry. Any offers?

And throughout Ms Karg is confidently supported by Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. As in their disc with Iestyn Davies Cohen and the players demonstrate their instinctive talent and musicianship.

Another slice anyone?

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 – Arias by Nicola Porpora, Karina Gauvin/IlComplesso Barocco/Alan Curtis(ATMA Classique)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on June 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Having enjoyed both Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux at a recent concert performance of Ariodante alongside the most wonderful Joyce DiDonato, I decided to search out their solo recital CDs.

Recital discs are unusual creatures. Some are faithful to one composer. Some try to capture the mood of a specific period or style. And others follow a programmatic narrative. Each has its own merits and on the whole are normally enjoyable whatever format they take. In the case of Ms Gauvin, accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco, she has dedicated the whole disc to Nicola Porpora, a contemporary of Handel. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, with the Orchestra National de France conducted by Fabien Gabel, has created a disc derived from French opera from the late 1780s to the early 1890s. A separate review will follow shortly.

So first to Ms Gauvin’s disc. The entire recital – as I have already mentioned – is drawn from operas and serenatas by Nicola Porpora. Two operas written specifically for London – Arianna in Nasso, Polifemo and La Festa d’Imeneo – provide the majority of the arias in this recital. During this time he was employed by the Opera Of The Nobility to best Handel, but considering that during that time Handel composed Ariodante and Alcina, it is hardly surprising that the ‘noble’ enterprise failed. Interestingly Gauvin/Curtis do not perform the arias in strict chronological order – Adelaide (1723); Ezio (1728); Polifemo (1735); Imeneo (1723); Angelica (1720) & Arianna in Nasso (1733). Additionally Handel himself composed operas on Ezio (1732), Imeneo (1740) and of course Acis and Galatea in English in 1718.

On the strength of this recital disc, Porpora was not a bad composer and in fact, while he does not attain the brilliance of Handel’s greatest arias, it is easy to see why they thought he could rival the Saxon.

The arias from Polifemo are well crafted and – as with Arianna in Nasso – can be directly compared with Handel as they were written to compete. The arioso-style of Aci, Amato mio bene for example with it’s recorders and mood swings is a highlight of the recital and well sung by Gauvin. The subsequent siciliana, Smanie with it’s delicate coloratura and interplay between the vocal line and the violins is equally memorable.

The arias from Adelaide, Nobil Onde and Non sempre invendicata, with the runs, trills and generous use of martial trumpets clearly show that Porpora was writing for particularly skilled singers and, more importantly, knew how to write for the voice. Non son io che parlo from Ezio has a particularly pathetic yet beautiful character as does Mi chiederesti from Imeneo and in fact there is something remarkably similar about them. Another notable aria is drawn from Angelica. With its suspensions and use of dramatic pauses its an unusually beautiful aria to be found in a serenata, and clearly the event for which it was written at the Palazzo del Principe di Torella was of particular significance.

Arianna in Nasso, might predate Polifemo but is the stronger of the two ‘London’ operas and therefore awarded more space in the recital. Following the overture, with it’s modified French-style structure, it’s easy to see why the Nobility thught they might be onto a ‘winner’. Il tuo dolce mormorio and Misera sventurata with it’s oboe obbligato are particularly fine. The final aria Si caro ti consola comes the closest to Handel in terms of beauty and musicianship with dramatic recitative interrupting and replacing the aria and makes a fitting ending to the recital.

Karina Gauvin, Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco make more than an eloquent argument for Porpora with this disc. Even more than at Ariodante at the Barbican, Ms Gauvin displays a very sure and confident technique balanced with intelligent singing and embellishment. Perhaps because it is a studio recording, her tone sounds warmers and more silken. She clearly enjoys the arias and her diction is clean and meaningful, and while it is well-nigh impossible to impart any sense of character, she makes a real bid to make these characters seem more than one dimensional.

I know that Il Complesso Barocco is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I think they are a great band of players. As on their Handel recordings they play with great sensitivity and style.

I did read somewhere that Handel was directly influenced by – and in some cases plagiarised from – his contemporaries. And while very few of these arias stand the comparison test, there are moment when my memory was pleasantly jolted. So if you like Handel operas, and on the merit of the performances on this disc, then this recital would make more than simply an interesting addition to your collection.

Handel – With Care (Wednesday 25 May @ The Barbican)

In Classical Music, Handel, Opera on May 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm
  • Ariodante: Joyce DiDonato
  • Ginevra: Karina Gauvin
  • Lurcanio: Nicholas Phan
  • Dalinda: Sabina Puértolas
  • King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
  • Polinesso: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
  • Odoardo: Sam Furness
  • Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco are one of the leading – if not the premier – original instrument ensembles at the moment. Their recordings of Handel’s operas are second to none and Curtis always assembles the strongest and most distinctive case.

The evening’s concert performance of Ariodante– part of a promotional tour for the new recording that they have just released – was no different. A quick glance at the cast – with three leading baroque specialists in the lead roles – meant that on paper it could not disappoint and in reality it exceeded expectation.

Ariodante has never been one of my favourite Handel operas. I have – like many people I think – enjoyed individual arias from the work, but previously the opera as a whole has not appealed. I can safely say that after this evening’s performance that has changed. I will be listening to their new recording of the opera with renewed interest.

Joyce DiDonato is a superlative, intelligent and charismatic performer. I first saw her in Hercules at the Barbican theatre in 2006 and – I must admit – have been a fan ever since. Her voice is beautifully round, robust and even through her whole – and extensive – range and she throws out pin-point precise coloratura. And her dynamic control, of light and shade, is always well judged. It is breathtaking how she can simply float a high note as was demonstrated this evening.

But what sets  DiDonato apart from many of her colleagues is how she inhabits the character she is singing. And tonight was no different. A stunning performance throughout, with a real sense of intelligence and insight of the lead character but for me – and I think many people in the auditorium – the standout moment was Scherza infida. Of course this is the most famous aria in the opera, and in Handel’s entire operatic output, but tonight was truly special. From the recitative immediately preceding, as Ariodante she was a broken man. Not only in her acting – and indeed she seemed to almost shrink into herself – but even how she modulated her voice into what can only be described as sobs. It was a searing interpretation and the whole audience seemed to collectively hold its breath until the final bar faded.

Yet this aria was merely the highpoint of an outstanding performance. Through every aria, from the pastoral arioso Qui d’amor nel suo linguaggio, the menacing Tu preparati a morire in the second act to the final, thrilling Dopo notte atra e funeste, with its perfectly executed, show-stopping bravura, DiDonato portrayed a character going through every emotion in the book.

Yet unlike many performances where one singer stands alone, this performance of Ariodante was different. DiDonato was one of a sterling team of singers.

Karina Gauvin as her spouse, created a Ginevra who was as human as her hero. Again from her opening Vezzi, lusinghe, e brio to her masterful final scenes of the Second Act, Gauvin delivered an amazing performance. Before the audience she went from princess-in-love to princess-on-the-edge, and made even her most difficult coloratura seem effortless and she spun her silvery voice around the notes.

And whenever DiDonato and Gauvin sang together, their voices blended perfectly.

Yet for me, the most pleasant surprise of the evening was Lemieux’s Polinesso. In her swagger it immediately reminded me of Kassarova’s Ruggiero from a recent performance of Alcina. With a rich, velvety voice Lemieux revelled in her character, again alternating between throwing off brilliant and effortless coloratura and beautiful legato phrases. Dover, giustizia, amor was particularly memorable. Indeed, this evening I have returned home and downloaded her latest album – Ne me refuse pas – Airs d’opéras français – and cannot wait to listen to it.

And what made each of their performances seem even more vital and alert was the incredible attention they paid to diction.

The rest of the cast, Matthew Brooks’ King, Nicholas Phan’s Lurcanio and last-minute stand-in, Sam Furness as Odoardo were all very good. Sabina Puértolas as Dalinda was a completely new singer to me. Her bright, light and flexible soprano was a delight and I look forward to hearing her again.

Needless to say Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco were exemplary in their support of the singers. Special mention must be made of the horn players who acquitted themselves more than admirably.

It is clear that Curtis is unrivalled in his understanding of, sympathy with and interpretation of Handel’s music. Tempos were perfect and the recitatives flow naturally.

I read in the programme that Giulio Cesare, Arianna in Creta and Agrippina are listed as future engagements and I, for one, cannot wait.

But this evening definitely belonged to the ladies. And the audiences showed their grateful appreciation.

Thank you one and all.

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