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Posts Tagged ‘Karita Matilla’

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

How Do You Save A Concert With Karita?

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Review: The Rest Is Noise Inaugural Concert (Royal Festival Hall, Saturday 19 January 2013)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Four Early Songs, Op. 33
Notturno, Op. 44 No. 1
Dance of the Seven Veils & Final Scene, Salome, Op. 54

Karita Matilla (Soprano)
Thomas Hampson (Baritone)

London Philharmonic
Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor)

An all-Strauss concert heralded the start of the Southbank’s The Rest Is Noise festival – literally chapter one in a one-year musical traversal of Alex Ross’ book of the same title.

It’s an ambitious and creative approach to the book. As well as concerts, talks and films are scheduled to bring 20th Century music to life for the audience.

So it’s a shame that the opening concert didn’t quite live up to the artistic and ambitious endeavor of the festival itself. Bar the most obvious programming of the evening Jurowski and the soloists didn’t manage to generate that frisson of excitement that underlined the reason why Ross embarks on his book with Richard Strauss.

The last time I heard Jurowski conduct Strauss was a mixed affair and the same was true of this opening concert. Also sprach Zarathustra – while smartly played by the London Philharmonic – was no nonsense – in fact almost perfunctory – in its delivery by the maestro. Played almost as an academic exercise, Jurowski gave no quarter or flex to allow the music to breathe. When speaking afterwards, Jurowski spoke of the piece’s nihilism. Clearly his idea of nihilism is to get to the final bar as quickly and unapologetically as possible with no pause for thought or reflection.

I just hope that by the time Jurowski gets to Die Frau ohne Schatten later this year that he has – for wont of a better phrase – relaxed into Richard Strauss a great deal more.

Sadly the four early songs that followed fared little better. Neither Verführung nor Gesang der Apollopriesterin were the best choices for Karita Matilla. Or vice versa. There is no denying that Matilla is still an incredible singer but she simply wasn’t able to negotiate the broad sweeping phrases as written by Strauss and in some cases not only quite literally ‘gulped’ them out but struggled at both ends of her register. There was little finesse and no colouring in her performance and as a consequence this inevitably meant that at times her diction was below par. I see that she is schedule to sing the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos. An unusual decision based on her performance of these two songs.

Thomas Hampson fared better. Marginally. A career of lieder singing was evident in his performance and focus on the words but he struggled not only against the orchestra at points (which male singer doesn’t in Strauss?) and again he wasn’t quite able to negotiate the range that Strauss had written in to the vocal line.

However again while Jurowski coaxed some resplendent playing from the orchestra I was not always convinced of his sympathy either for supporting either singer or the music itself. It was almost – despite his own comments to the audience about the influences of Wagner and the like – that these songs were a sideshow to what was to come.

The second half was immeasurably better but not always for reasons of musicianship.

I have not heard the Notturno performed in the UK before and not for some time generally. It is an interesting piece with Strauss being inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem to create a new and beautifully evocative palette of colours for a chamber ensemble that he was not to do again. As well as echoes of Mahler in places it is definitely forward looking but whether it had an influence on later composers is debatable. Strauss’ own retreat from this sound world proves that he was himself experimenting. Here Jurowski seemed to relax into the music more. Perhaps it was the intimacy and focus of the piece that inspired him as he allowed the players greater freedom and weaved the textures produced together around Hampson who sang with great diligence and some theatricality. However this piece is cruel in its exposure of any singer and here Hampson didn’t quite manage the lower parts of the vocal line and could perhaps have been braver in his interpretation. Hopefully however we will see Notturno become a rare, if not absent, addition to the performance schedule here in the UK.

And so to the closing music of the concert.

Personally I think that Strauss’ Dance of the Seven Veils could almost conduct itself. Beautifully orchestrated and cunningly constructed it moves inexorably to its denouement and for the conductor the challenge is to marshal the orchestral forces to ensure it doesn’t burn out too quickly, tease out the orchestral colours and inject a sense of sexuality and swagger. Jurowski did the first, mostly did the second but the third was sadly lacking. Again there was a sense of the perfunctory to his leadership that while it meant the Dance was beautifully played it didn’t quite have the sensuousness that would lead one to want to give Salome someone’s head.

And Karita Matilla’s Salome? Was she – as Hampson said – one of the greatest Salome’s alive? Did she deserve the standing ovation?

Yes.

And no.

Clearly this was the moment in the concert that Ms Matilla was completely focused on and she gave a mesmerizing – at times electric – performance. I could have been mistaken but did the Southbank lighting technicians bathe her in a red light. Why? It was not needed. She completely immersed herself in the character and music of Salome and while the sounds that she produced were not always beautiful, they were completely in character. When needed she cut through the orchestral most brutally but could then reduce herself to an almost Sprechstimme-like whisper. She pulled out all the stops and had clearly decided that this was not a moment for vocal beauty but rather a moment to forge an interpretation based on raw – almost physical – emotion.

And it worked in the confines of the concert hall.

And it was clear that wherever she went Jurowski was duty-bound to follow. The roles were reversed and she was in control. For the first time he seemed to release himself from some kind of self-imposed straitjacket and pushed himself and the orchestral to their limits. He mined the rich textures and colours that Strauss had written but more than that he surrendered and gave space for the lyricism that this closing section is steeped in as a juxtaposition to the music of Salome’s own deranged mind.

Together Matilla and Jurowski sought out and found beauty in the brutality of Strauss’ music. For the first time that evening you could completely understand why Alex Ross chose Strauss as the first chapter in his book. It swept away all the disappointment of the rest of the concert.

Quite rightly the audience showed their appreciation. But it was for Matilla’s memorable not musical Salome.

The evening was quite literally saved by serving up a head on a plate.

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