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Posts Tagged ‘Mihoko Fujimura’

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.

Brangäne und (Tristan und) Isolde

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Review – Tristan und Isolde (BBC Prom, Saturday 27 July 2013)

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violea Urmana
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
King Mark – Kwangchui Youn
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Andrew Staples

Cor Anglais – Alison Teale

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra

Semyon Bychov (Conductor)

Personally it was an odd choice for Roger Wright to programme Tristan und Isolde smack bang in the middle of Barenboim’s magnificent Ring cycle at the Proms. With Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried still fresh in the audience’s mind – unkindly or not – comparisons would have been made.

For the most part favourably I would imagine.

It also struck me – attending the Berlin Ring and last night’s performance – how many Prom debuts were being made as a result of the Wagner bicentenary. I just hope that the BBC – with its newfound commitment to ‘culture’ – doesn’t wait another two hundred years.

The beauty of the Proms is that they sometimes reveal to the UK audience a number of previously unknown remarkable performers.

Ultimately I think that this Tristan und Isolde will be remembered for the stand-out and utterly compelling performance of Mihoko Fujimura.

Her Brangäne even surpassed her mistress Isolde with an absolutely stunning performance. Ms Fujimura’s mezzo was both bright and warm with a depth and richness that was missing from her colleagues.

Ms Fujimura gave an impassioned, vocally secure and musically intelligent performance the likes I have not seen since Sofie von Otter for Peter Sellars or Sarah Connolly for Jurowski.

And the singer ensured that her Brangäne was no cipher. Her horror in the First Act was palpable and her interjections in the Second Act nothing short of mesmerizing. Even her final short interjections in the final act were wonderfully accomplished.

It is not surprising that Ms Fujimura was the recipient of the loudest cheer and applause of the evening. So why do we not see more of this mezzo-soprano in the UK?

Sadly Peter Seiffert cancelled as Tristan and was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. I have mixed feelings about this tenor. Having seen him previously successfully negotiating the the Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten and a splendid Bachhus in Ariadne auf Naxos, his Tannhauser disappointed – it was strained and one dimensional.

And sadly his Tristan was very much the same.

Even having drunk the love potion, this Tristan was emotionally flat and vocally disappointing. The strain of singing this role is most telling as Robert Dean Smith heads towards the end of a phrase – the tone tightens and more often than not the last note is clipped or snatched.

There was some fine singing – especially the opening of the exquisite O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe – but it was rather a Tristan of individual moments, not a sustained performance. At times he resorted to barking above the orchestra – and pace Maestro Bychov, you weren’t always the most sympathetic conductor to you singers – and at points of the vital Third Act monologue completely lost. As a result the dramatic impetus of this marvelous scene was mostly lost on me.

But most distracting was the ever increasing ‘beat’ in his voice that became evident in the Second Act, undermining to an extent the duet.

Again it could be that the venue isn’t doing the singers any favours, but when the vast majority of other singers are managing and in fact overcoming similar challenges, that can only form part of the problem.

Violeta Urmana was by contrast an emotionally intense and vocally formidable Isolde. Her voice may adopt a slightly harsh and brittle tone at the top of her register but she uses it to her advantage. It was thrilling in the curse scene and her confrontation with Tristan in the First Act for example but in the Second Act love scene an added warmth infused her voice. And the Liebestod was both beautiful and dramatic. Rising above the orchestra, Ms Urmana powered up to the inevitable climax but then didn’t fail to float those final few notes perfectly.

Of the rest of the cast Andrew Staples, as the Young Sailor high above our heads after the opening was clear and bright. The remaining singers were passable without being notable. Kwangchui Youn was a solid King Mark – the notes were there if nothing else.

The gentlemen of BBC Symphony Chorus were in fine voice and the Orchestra found that balance between the sensuality and swagger of Wagner’s music. The opening of the Prelude and the final act were beautifully wrought and the fevered intensity of the opening of the second act was both articulate and transparent.

And extra special kudos for the eloquent and haunting playing of Alison Teale. Simply beautiful.

Semyon Bychov himself was a conductor of two extremes with – surprisingly – very little in between. Her drew some excellent playing from the orchestra – as I have mentioned the sensuality was there as were the crowning moments – but there was little of the ebb and flow that Tristan und Isolde should have and some of the tempos – in the duet and final Liebestod for example – felt slightly hurried. And at times the orchestra simply overwhelmed the singers.

It cannot be denied that by the end of the performance this Tristan und Isolde was ‘Proms perfect’ in that sense of a star revealed.

The audience got to hear and revel in the beautiful voice and memorable Brangäne of Ms Mihoko Fujimura.

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