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Posts Tagged ‘Mary-Ellen Nesi’

Figaro – It’s A Man’s World

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Review – Le Nozze di Figaro (W. A. Mozart)

Figaro – Christian van Horn
Susanna – Fanie Atonelou
Count Almaviva – Andrei Bondarenko
Countess Almaviva – Simone Kermes
Cherubino – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Marcellina – Maria Forsstrom
Bartolo – Nikolai Loskutkin
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Don Kurzio – James Elliott
Barbarina – Natalya Kirillova

Music Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis (Conductor)

In the twelve minute film that accompanies his new recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is undoubtedly passionate about music and music making – it is “not profession, not a reproduction, it’s a mission”.

No arguing with that.

There’s also no arguing with the idea that the problems that Mozart captures in this opera are the same problems people face today. There’s passion, love, betrayal and forgiveness within the span of this magnificent work.

So why does this recording sound so old fashioned, dry and most importantly lacking any sense of emotion – passion or otherwise – at all?

Perhaps it’s to do with his theories in terms of how singers should sing. In interviews he has criticized the “lifeless perfectionism” of classical music; that operas have been disfigured by the diktat of “volume at all cost” and “simplification” and that the original vocal palette of colours has been lost and that opera recordings today contain the “least operatic singing”.

Of course there are times when voices – both on stage and in recordings – don’t fit that particular music, but listening to this recording I did wonder if Currentzis had his own balance quite right?

During the course of the video interview Currentzis refers to Le Nozze di Figaro as a “fantastic monument of architecture with the finest lines … [into which] Mozart puts the defect inside”. By defect I assume he means the twists of the social commentary within the story itself and how the music underlines this commentary.

But in reality, Currentzis missionary zeal has injected the opera with a greater defect – his own in terms of the performance.

The opera starts well enough with a well-paced overture and with an attention to the orchestral detail that is immediate. Indeed the orchestral playing throughout is exemplary with a vigour and muscularity that shines a spotlight on the beauty and skill of Mozart’s scoring. There is a warmth of tone to the strings, the wind playing is light and airy and the trumpets and horns are more audible than normal, adding a frisson to the texture which is – when their enthusiasm doesn’t get the best of them – exciting. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the authenticity of the orchestra playing on their feet throughout and there were times when the orchestral volume threatened the chance of the singers being clearly heard.

Sadly however it’s the ‘over-attention’ that Currentzis pays to the singers that undermines the totality of this recording.

There is no doubting the forcefulness of the men in their roles. The Figaro of Christian van Horn and Andrei Bondarenko’s Count dominate the proceedings and it was sometimes be difficult to tell them apart, not only because of the – if at times one dimensional – forcefulness of their characterisations but because they often seem to be exceedingly loud. Take the trio Susanna or via sortite in Act One – it lacked an equality between the Count, Countess and Susanna that’s so necessary to impart the drama of this moment.

Indeed the only moment when Bondarenko does rein in the volume is at that critical moment in the Fourth Act finale when he begs Rosina’s forgiveness. In what should be a magical moment, this Count strangles his voice to such a diminuendo that the impact is lost.

Van Horn makes for a strong Figaro vocally. All his arias demonstrate his robust vocal ability and there’s a pleasant rhythmic spring to both his singing and his diction. But it seems that Currentzis cannot but tinker – the weird sound effect at the end of Se vuol ballare – I think created by holding down keys no the fortepiano so that they resonate – was simply distracting.

Bartolo fares a little better even if La Vendetta was a little faster than unusual. But in the ensembles Loskutkin seems forced to compete with the two other alpha males and the finesse of the music is lost.

But it is the women who suffer the most from Currentzis’ approach. There isn’t the ‘original vocal palette of colours’ that he refers to in the interviews he has conducted. Almost to a person, Currentzis has stripped these singers of their individuality and character, their vibrato-less voices bled of any emotion range or tone.

Personally I don’t believe that the use of vibrato didn’t exist in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Books on both performance practice and singing from the period refer to vocal techniques that clearly relate to the use of vibrato and it is remarked on by the commentators of the day. I don’t deny that vibrato has to be used sparingly in music of this period therefore to remove it completely as Currentzis has encouraged his singers to do effectively strips them of a fundamental and critical emotional dimension to their voices.

This is particularly evident in the Countess of Simone Kermes. In other recordings of music of this period and earlier, Ms Kermes demonstrates that she is an expert at using vibrato most effectively to colour the vocal line and add a real sense of emotional intensity. While listening to this recording I fancied that perhaps as her character developed from Porgi Amor onwards, she would begin to slowly but surely colour her singing to reflect her growing characterisaton. Sadly, it wasn’t so. Dove Sono was a particular ‘low-light’ – not only was the voice bland but the expected fluidity of the vocal line was uneven as a result. Essentially we have been given a Countess singing the notes without communicating them.

It was a similar case in point with Fanie Atonelou’s Susanna. A lack of vocal characterisation made this a bride-to-be without any bite. This was evident from the opening numbers when she is clearly not Figaro’s musical equal but also highlighted in numbers such as the sextet of the Third Act when we all discover Figaro’s parentage and she lacks the necessary vocal weight. Venite, inginocchiatevi was beautifully paced, but the use of ‘sound effects’ only served to highlight the blandness of the singing itself.

And the beautiful almost sensuous Che soave zeffiretto of the Countess and her maid passed – as it definitely should not – without any notice. A tragedy.

I admit to being most disappointed with this recording’s Cherubino. Mary-Ellen Nesi is an incredible mezzo but casting her in this role was a mistake. I’d like to think that perhaps Currentzis was trying to underline the fact that Cherubino is an adolescent boy whose voice is breaking which is why Nesi was given the role, as there was undoubtedly a ‘huskiness’ – almost a matronliness – to the vocal delivery. But in reality her voice is not suited to this role. Voi che sapete sounding particularly uncomfortable with embellishments that pushed Nesi’s voice uncomfortably at points.

Indeed of the women, only Maria Forsstrom‘s Marcellina was strongly cast, well characertised and it was a nice surprise to hear Il caro e la capretta.

Currentzis follows the vogue of embellishing the fortepiano line. There are contemporary reports of Mozart embellishing from the fortepiano himself and I have to say that the recitatives are handled well and are fleet of foot, with the improvisations on the fortepiano adding to the detail rather than distracting.

I can’t deny that once my ear had got used to Currentzis approach it was refreshing. But I did rather listen to this performance in terms of its ‘theoretical’ approach and argument rather than as a performance in its own right.

Ultimately however it is Currentzis’ theorising and the resultant unevenness of the voices that – despite well-judged tempi – undermines this Figaro. Le Nozze di Figaro and Beaumarchais’ original play discomfited the ruling classes not only because Figaro was an ‘upstart’ but because it offered a glimpse of women – of all classes – as equal both in intellect and power.

Currentzis has undermined the very “defect” that he himself recognizes that Mozart wrote into this opera.

It will be interesting – and hopefully not as disappointing – to hear Currentzis’ Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni due later this year and next.

Unglücklich Gluck

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on June 25, 2012 at 8:06 am

Review – Il Trionfo di Clelia (Linbury Theatre, Sunday 24 June 2012)

Clelia – Hélène Le Corre
Orazio – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Tarquinio – Irini Karaianni
Larissa – Lito Messini
Porsenna – Vassili Kavayas
Mannio – Artemis Bogri

Director – Nigel Lowery
Costume – Paris Mexis
Lighting – George Tellos

City of London Sinfonia
Conductor – Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio

Not since the Mariinsky production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten has a production disappointed me as much.

On paper, and based on the recording of the same opera with – bar a few exceptions and the orchestra – an identical cast list, the performance of Il Trionfo di Clelia at the Linbury Theatre should have been indeed, triumphal.

Sadly it wasn’t for two reasons. The production. And the orchestra.

What a shame.

Quite simply, what did Nigel Lowery think he was doing? The principles of Metatasian opera are clean and simple. Lofty, Enlightenment ideals such as love, honour, dignity and magnanimity, are portrayed through historical or mythical characters and the composers who set these texts – among them Leo, Hasse, Vinci, Mozart and Gluck – wrote music of stunning virtuosity and incredible pathos. And as opera seria evolved, not only through the work of composers such as Gluck, but also Traetta and Jommelli, it became more complex, with the use of techniques such as accommpagnato to breathe even deeper meaning and emotional insight into the characters.

In the Eighteenth century every technique was similarly deployed on stage to heighten the audiences experience. Marvellous machines bringing to Gods to stage in chariots, dragons and demons when required, beautifully decorated backdrops and screens that flew in and out to the wonder of the audiences.

Granted this isn’t quite as possible today – except if you go to the extremes of LePage and his folly at the Met – so what Lowery offered us according to the programme note by Magnolia Albertazzi was a simpler set. To quote Singora Albertazzi, “the set recalls the simplicity of the baroque scenes, depicting a different universe beyond the proscenium arch, which, when Rome is involved, opens up into a sketched-out perspective, a sort of post-constructivist revision of a Renaissance set”.

What a load of rubbish.

What we were presented with was a set that most of the time threatened to come apart at the seams, crammed full of the worse crimes of confused RegieTheater pretention that did not hang together in any real sense of narrative.

From the very beginning nothing worked as Lowery’s farrago of ill-thought ideas flooded the stage. The characters on stage seemed to range in inspiration from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup characters for Orazio and Clelia, Larissa’s Sarah-Jessica-Parker-Grayson-Perry and the band Fleetwood Mac for Porsenna and Tarquinio. And why exactly was Mannio dressed like a bellboy?

Lowery then bombarded the audience with RegieTheater affectation after affectation. There was a book burning; some flag waving; a beach-ball-cum-globe referred to quite literally at the end by Albertazzi as “a new world rising above this small universe” as it was pathetically passed between the protagonists in the closing chorus; some unrelated potion-making at the end of the second act; some pointless undressing; a doll motif carried by the puerile Larissa; a wooden horse (thankfully not of the nature of LePage’s in his Ring cycle) to carry Clelia behind; an over-sized puppet head and worst of all a curtain splitting the stage in two which kept raining its runners onto the stage.

The one moment of inspiration – the building of the bridge over the Tiber was ruined by the animation of the battle. It just looked like a rag-tag group doing battle with someone wearing pyjamas. Dreadful.

The lighting was incredibly basic – someone behind me referred to it as being like a “High School Play” and as you may have deduced from above, the costumes were a ridiculous mixed bag.

And sadly the playing in the pit was well below par. In the recording Armonia Artenea are superlative. Their sound is rich and sonorous, their playing crisp and alert, their articulation, colour and contrast precise and invigorating. In the programme, conductor Giuseppe Sigismondo de Risio comments that Il Trionfo di Clelia had a richness in orchestration that was “almost without equal in Gluck’s work”.

Where was that in evidence in the Linbury?

It wasn’t.

For whatever reason – and I think it was lack of rehearsal – the City of London Sinfonia were ragged from the start and failed almost singly to rise to the occasion. An untidy sinfonia both rhythmically and pitch-wise set the trend for lacklustre, unconfident and bland playing from the pit. And as a consequence the rich palette of Gluck’s score failed to shine through.

And a final point for Messieurs Cross and Young in the trumpet section. You can be seen in the pit and while it is fine – I suppose – to read a novel when you aren’t playing, what seemed like checking the progress of England on your mobile phones is simply distracting.

But against all this the singers put in a valiant effort and were – to a man and woman – brilliant.

Hélène Le Corre’s Clelia was well-sung and managed the tricky coloratura – scored and embellished – with ease. She conveyed great sympathy and understanding of the music and if there were moments of strain at the top of her register they were few and far between.

The Orazio of Mary-Ellen Nesi was impressive and if at times she interpreted emotional intensity as increased volume, she possesses a rich and dark mezzo that was a wonderful foil to the soprano of her lover.

Irini Karaianni as Taquinio however stole the show and it is a shame that in one of her arias Lowery directorial distractions marred her performance. A honeyed and burnished tone with an impressive vocal range, she sailed through Gluck’s music and her final aria was simply impressive.

Porsenna was sung by Vassilis Kavayas who bravely and brilliantly handled the tortuous tessitura and coloratura written by the composer. It was refreshing to hear such a clear and confident tenor, with such a light touch voice.

And finally the Larissa and Mannio of Lito Messini and Artemis Bogri respectively. It is a shame Bogri did not have more to sing because like Karaianni she had a rich, round mezzo. Messini was a last minute stand-in and handled the role – including some difficult passages of coloratura – with more confidence than I would have expected.

Looking at the programme note I did wonder what impact the crisis in Greece will have on its classical music scene. It cannot, sadly, be a positive one.

Ultimately, it is a shame that de Risio didn’t opt for a concert performance. The singers were to a person top-notch but I feel were hampered by Lowery’s ridiculous and pretentious production and perhaps the time could have been more well-spent by the orchestra learning the notes.

If you haven’t heard it though I would recommend the recording of Il Trionfo di Clelia. Not only is it a fantastic opera but also the performances are brilliant.

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