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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.

A Glass Half Full

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on June 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Review – Arabella (Opéra Bastille, Sunday 17 June 2012)

Arabella – Renée Fleming
Mandryka – Michael Volle
Zdenka – Julia Kleiter
Adelaide – Doris Soffel
Graf Waldner – Kurt Rydl
Matteo – Joseph Kaiser
Iride Martinez – The Fiakermilli

Director – Marco Arturo Martelli
Lighting – Friedrich Eggert
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind

Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris
Conductor – Philippe Jordan

Twice in the course of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella – his final collaboration with Hugo von Hoffmansthal – the protagonists make a reference to a glass of water. In the First Act Mandryka relates how a potential bride would offer a glass of water drawn from her father’s well and present it to her prospective husband, and in the Third Act Arabella offers him the said glass of water as an act of both forgiveness and acceptance.

If the water drawn was a reflection of this production, the glass would only have been half full.

A shame as a single element disappointed throughout – Philippe Jordan and the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris.

Arabella is directly evolved from the lyricism of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Die Äegiptische Helena, the chamber music sensibilities of Ariadne auf Naxos and the more conversational style of Intermezzo.

Therefore to be successful, it has to be conducted with an understanding of all the elements that Strauss had reached at this stylistic crossroads – not only of the nuances in the orchestration and the instrumental colour with which the opera is richly imbued but just as importantly a sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the vocal line.

Only then can Arabella be done full justice.

At this particular performance, Philippe Jordan disappointingly did not deliver. Not only did he conduct with metronomic precision but his tempi always felt a fraction too fast. And he failed to draw the magnificent playing I am accustomed to from this orchestra. On the whole they were lacklustre with none of the depth or colour required in every Strauss opera.

And Jordan’s unsympathetic performance in the pit directly impacted on the singers at times.

Renée Fleming sang the title role. As I have said before Renée Fleming is one of the leading – if not pre-eminent – Strauss sopranos performing today. Over the last few years her voice has developed an even more beautiful and burnished tone without any sense of sacrifice in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach.

Clearly with a sensitive and intuitive partner in the pit, Ms Fleming is a formidable singer. However as Jordan failed to give her the space or opportunity to spin out this heroine’s lines it took a while for her to warm up. There were one or two moments very early on where as a result, I believe, of trying to get Jordan to be more expansive she unexpectedly over emphasised individual syllables. And some of those moments which demanded a greater freedom of tempo – I talk here of her duets with Zdenka and Mandryka in the First Act respectively and more crucially, in the close scene at Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – the magic was undermined. With a less accomplished singer those moments might well have been tarnished or lost altogether. Fortunately for the audience, Ms Fleming has the voice , technique, musicianship and natural affinity for Strauss to carry through. As a result her Arabella was marvellous.

Having seen Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden I was impressed by his Mandryka which was strong both vocally and character-wise. With his rich baritone he delivered a role of intelligence and musicianship and while he may have slightly tired towards the end, he was a suitably dramatic and vocal foil to Fleming’s Arabella.

Both Julia Kleiter and Joseph Kaiser are new singers to me but they performed outstandingly as Zdenka and Matteo respectively. Again, Jordan’s rushed tempi and anti-lyrical inflexibility caused Ms Kleiter to pinch a few of her higher notes but her voice has a bell-like silvery tone. Kaiser has a pleasing tenor with suitable heft. A future Bacchus perhaps? Arabella’s parents – Kurt Rydl and Doris Soffel – completed the central ensemble, giving these two characters who are more often than not simply two-dimensional that added depth and human side. Never have I heard Adelaide sound so weary as when she expresses disappointment in her husband to Mandryka. In a single moment. Outstanding.

The remaining cast were good, the only disappointment being the Fiakermilli of Iride Martinez. While she may have had the agility for the coloratura, her voice was simply too thin and at times not only pinched but awry of pitch as well.

Having seen what I believe to have been Marco Arturo Martelli’s Tristan und Isolde ‘in a box’ as it were in Dresden, I was not surprised that he placed the entire opera within a single set, relying on revolving walls to create the different scenes. It was a nice touch when they revolved revealing sky to imply a balcony or window, but in the ball scene the lighting was too simplistic. It reminded me more of the coloured block lighting used by department stores or bars to create a sense of ambience. And what a shame that the only scenic backdrop was in the final act.

I can never make up my mind with the current directorial affectation for onstage action before the opera proper starts. Sometimes it works, particularly in the case of an overture. Here it didn’t. Having lackeys remove furniture as the audience entered the auditorium lacked any impact as it was too drawn out. And why was nothing made of the increasingly large pile of bills on the table. Also, in the original aren’t the Waldner’s staying in a hotel in Vienna?

But most disappointing was the block – quite literally – of stairs at the end. It was almost as if they were an afterthought. I’m not asking for a sweeping staircase complete with ornate balustrade, but any sense of potential drama having Arabella come down this flight of stairs was lost.

Perhaps Arabella is slightly too intimate an opera for a stage the size of that at Opéra Bastille? At times it seemed that there were large expanses of empty space in an opera that is so often focused on one or two singers and that Martelli didn’t know how to move his singers across it. His use of alter-Arabellas at the end if the Second Act was almost inspired. But the revolving walls had me worried that the dancers would waltz into them or, considering there wasn’t enough depth, that they would careen into one another. Either plenty of practice or luck meant there were no collisions but I sensed more than a few near misses.

And one final distraction worth mentioning. I am pretty sure that I spied Peter Gelb in the audience. He took his seat as the orchestra started and I am pretty sure that The Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning was trying to spot if he had returned after the interval. He didn’t. Perhaps he realised this production of Arabella wasn’t for his own House or he was on the lookout for a new baton for the Met.

Ultimately this production of Arabella belonged to the singers. Their musicianship and sense of ensemble ensured that their performances were incredibly strong. The few fault lines that did appear momentarily in their performances had more to do with what was – or was not – going on in the pit. Jordan was single-mindedly an unsympathetic Straussian from beginning to end, never once revelling in the wonderful lyricism that Richard Strauss had written on every single page of this score.

So if Gelb was indeed looking for a future baton, Jordan did himself no favours with this performance.

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