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Posts Tagged ‘Mozart 250’

2015 – Could do better.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

This is more an observation of my own performance last year, than of the operas, concerts and recitals that I attended and missed.

Well, for the most part.

A change of job meant that I was unable to attend everything I had originally scheduled in the year and more often than not had to give up my tickets. The lack of time also severely curtailed not only my ability to write about music in general but also listening to music as often as I wanted to.

And this was a shame as there were a number of standout recital discs last year that gave me great when pleasure when I found did have the time. A special mention must go to John Elliott Gardiner’s new recording of the b minor mass. It was hard to imagine that a new recording could surpass his first, but I was wrong. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there were moments that were as close to heaven as music can every get. Sadly, this incredible performance also made me realise that my own pilgrimage through the cantatas of Bach once again stalled in 2015, and I remained stuck in 1714. Progress must be made this year, or I shall have to admit defeat.

And there were other artists who gave me great pleasure. These included Elizabeth Watts in Alessandro Scarlatti; Max Cencic’s Arie Napoletane; Valer Sabadus in Caldara; Ann Hallenberg’s Agrippina and arias for Luigi Marchesi, Matthew Rose singing Mozart’s arias for Benucci and Evgeny Nikitin singing Wagner. If you haven’t had an opportunity to listen to these discs then I can’t recommend them strongly enough.

By the same token, there were some recitals that didn’t personally make much of an impact – surprisingly both Christian Gerhaher and Dorothea Roschmann’s Mozart recital discs left me slightly cold, as did Rattle’s Das Rheingold. And Diana Damrau’s Fiamma del bel canto misfired, as did Dagmar Peckova’s Sinful Women.

In terms of live performances, not all were strictly speaking concerts. The two that remain most vivid in my memory are Farinelli and the King and Joyce DiDonato’s Masterclass.

I was fortunate to bag tickets for Farinelli at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. The combination of an excellent acting casting led by the masterful Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies as the famous countertenor, made for a dramatic evening with ravishing music. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ms DiDonato’s masterclass was as compelling. Listening to her talk through the music of those students lucky enough to be on stage with her, to literally feel her enthusiasm and to hear the difference that she made to their performances was incredible. And Francesca Chiejina’s performance of Ah, chi mi dice mai still brings a smile to my face. She is a name to watch out for.

The single most exciting project launched last year was Classical Opera’s Mozart 250. I’ve just attended the most recent concert in this series – a retrospective of 1766. It was, as you would expect, excellent but of all the music performed it was Benjamin Hullet’s performance of Et incarnatus est from Haydn’s Missa Cellensis in honorem that really stood out. In 2015, Classical Opera provided enthusiastic audiences with a canter through 1765 – a year very much focused on Mozart’s tour of London with some superlative performances by Anna Devin, John Mark Ainsley and Ben Johnson and a complete performance of JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. This is a project both ambitious in its scale as well as superlative in terms of the quality of its music making. Ian Page must be heartily commended for his vision and passion, and I cannot wait for the next concert – Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

I attended three other opera performance of note in 2015. First, a performance of Act Three of Die Walküre at the Millennium Centre Handel represented by Semele, Giove in Argo and Saul. Koenigs might be leaving Cardiff but he leaves an impressive legacy at WNO – the orchestra was well-honed and the cast led by Terfel and Theorin were incredible. The London Handel Festival opened with Semele, which offered mixed performances but it was a delight to hear both the chorus, Louise Innes and Robin Blaze. A performance of Giove in Argo followed and was exemplary not only for the standard of the singers but also the direction and stage design. I also trekked to Glyndebourne for Saul but sadly didn’t get a chance to write it up. It was in turns, exuberant, poignant, joyful and tragic. In short, it was a masterpiece, with an incredible cast led by Christopher Purves in the title role, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan and Paul Appleby as his children and Iestyn Davies as David. Smartly directed by Barry Kosky and conduced by Ivor Bolton, it is a production I could see again, and again and again.

Sadly, both the opera houses in London had mixed years and in face, both could have ‘done better’ too.

ENO remains in trouble whether you believe it is because of mismanagement and misdirection or because there are ‘barbarians at the gate’. A revival of WNO’s Mastersinger of Nuremberg reminded everyone that at its best, ENO is a marvellous company with, at its heart, singers and players who fervently believe in the importance of ‘company’. But that success has since been eclipsed – or rather overrun – by a series of problems and no end seems in sight. It’s hard to believe at times that ENO can – or should in its current form – survive. I think that we might all find out this year.

2015 ended with Covent Garden announcing the departure of Kasper Holten as Artistic Director – and his departure almost felt like the end of a grand experiment. But is it one that has gone well? It’s hard to say. On the basis of productions such as Król Roger it would have to be a yes, but the same year witnessed productions such as Guillaume Tell and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaganny which fell way short of many peoples’ expectations. And in some ways, the same can be said of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice – save the excellent playing of the Monteverdi Orchestra and the singing of Lucy Crowe – and and Monteverdi’s Orfeo which was marred by being sung in English for no real reason.

2016 has started well with Mozart 250 and here’s hoping that I both make the time and find the discipline to improve on last year.

And there are things planned which I would rather resign over than miss – David Hansen in Giulio Cesare in Dresden, a suite of Richard Strauss operas in Berlin and ENO’s Tristan und Isolde – and that is before I have had a real chance to look at the new seasons that are being announced as I write.

So very belatedly, I wish you all a happy new year and hope that your year is filled with much music.

Cara il dolce London Bach

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

Review – Adriano in Siria (Mozart 250, Britten Theatre, Tuesday 14 April 2015)

Adriano – Rowan Hellier
Emirena – Ellie Laugharne
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Filipa van Eck
Osroa – Stuart Jackson
Aquilio – Nick Pritchard

Director – Thomas Guthrie
Designer – Rhys Jarman
Lighting Designer – Katherine Williams

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

A recording of JC Bach’s Opus 3 symphonies was – together with Dittersdorf’s Doktor und Apotheker – the very first album I bought. And it was in a dusty second-hand record shop that I began my life-long love of JC Bach. From my adolescence, whenever Mozart was mentioned I would pipe up about JC Bach’s influence. Since then I have picked up whatever recordings I could find but I have to admit that Classical Opera’s staging of Adriano in Siria is the first time I have seen a complete performance of an opera by the London Bach.

I admit it, Eighteen Century opera seria might not be to everyone’s taste – the perception of endless da capo arias, the perception of a lack of characterisation and of course the perception that the stories themselves are beyond incredulous. However, anyone who has read Martha Feldman’s excellent Opera and Sovereignty will realise not only the important role opera seria played then but also – I hope – recognize that some of the values portrayed then remain relevant.

Adriano in Siria is in some ways, atypical, of the norm. By 1765, JC Bach had realised that the genre needed ‘modifying’ and therefore this opera contains few choruses and many a deliberately abridged da capo aria and therefore I am glad that Classical Opera performed the opera with barely any cuts.

Overall, the opera offers the full range of seria arias, each demonstrating that JC Bach was a skilled and sensitive opera composer. It is not surprising that Cara il dolce fiamma has proved enduringly popular – it epitomises not only Bach’s own operatic style but, I think, the genre in that period which laid the foundations for Mozart’s own adventures in opera seria.

However I do have one small gripe. At a time when you can’t throw a score of a not-performed-for-over-two-hundred-years opera without hitting a countertenor, why wasn’t there one in the cast? Personally I felt it was a shame but overall it was a valiant effort. While not all the singers were quite suited to their roles, there was no doubting their musicianship and commitment.

Disperato, in mar turbato is a fiendishly difficult opening aria for any singer, but despite a less than confident start, Erica Eloff carried off the role of Farnaspe with some brilliance. Without a doubt Cara la dolce fiamma – which so impressed Mozart – was the highlight of the event, and Ms Eloff sang it with great elegance and sensitivity, but her performances of Dopo un tuo sguardo and Son sventurato, ma pure – where she sailed through Bach’s vocal lines with ease, demonstrated that she is a talent singer with a natural affinity with music of this period. As her beloved, Ellie Laugharne didn’t sound consistently confortable with Emirena’s music, stretched at the top of her range and with uneven moments in terms of her coloratura and maintaining a smooth legato line. However, there was no doubting her sincerity in the scena Ah, come mi balza … Deh, lascia, o ciel, pietoso.

The other star-crossed lovers fared less well. Rowan Hellier’s Adriano again got off to a less than confident start with cloudy and inconsistent singing in her opening Dal labbro, che t’accende but she fared better in the declamatory Tutti nemici, e rei. Sadly, the Sabina of Filipa van Eck was not ideally cast. Again there was no doubting her technique or investment in the role but her voice – at times overly strident and strained – was not suited to JC Bach’s music.

The Osroa of Stuart Jackson was, apart from Eloff’s Farnaspe, the most characterful performance. In possession of a light yet secure tenor, he tackled both his main metaphor arias – Sprezza il furor del vento and Leon piagato a morte – with both confidence and the regal gravitas. And finally Nick Pritchard waited patiently to deliver his single aria with impassioned gusto.

The production itself – led by Thomas Guthrie – was simple, smart and very effective. It conjured a Romanesque “Siria” up perfectly with more than a nod of inspiration to a classical staging, and I particularly liked the effective use of both lighting and silhouetted backdrops. However, and this is purely personal, I would have dispensed with the origami birds and perhaps reduced the number of extra people on the stage but this aside, it seems that the Britten Theatre inspires a more than usual thoughtful approach.

As ever, Ian Page conducted the opera with instinctive authority with well-judged speeds and in the main not overly ambitious ornamentation in the da capos. Recitatives were well balanced and Page also reveled in the sound world that the London Bach, however simple, wove into the score. In 1765, clarinets would still have been something of a novelty and his use of them – providing a sense of warmth to underline the passions at play – clearly influenced Mozart in his own operas.

I know that Mozart 250 will need to mainly focus on Wolfgang Amadeus, but this was a bold inclusion. I really do hope that we will see more JC Bach – as well as other contemporaries – during the rest of their ambitious project.

(Un)Mostly Mozart

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Review – Mozart 250 (Milton Court, Saturday 21 & Sunday 22 February 2015)

An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment
Anna Devin & Martene Grimson (Sopranos) Samantha Price (Mezzo-soprano)

London Concert Life in 1765
Eleanor Dennis (Soprano)
Ben Johnson (Tenor)

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

Ian Page and Classical Opera threw themselves headlong into a weekend of music and lecturesafter the successful opening concert of their adventure, Mozart 250. Sadly at the last moment I wasn’t able to attend the entire weekend but did manage to catch two of the concerts – An Exotic and Irrational Entertainment and the closing concert of the weekend, London Concert Life in 1765.

The first concert focused on Italian opera in London in the 1760s, offering a selection of arias by lesser-known composers that formed the backbone of – it seemed – a predilection for pastiche operas in London, as well as another selection from JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. I must admit that none of the arias by the ‘unknown’ composers truly stood out, except perhaps Se non ti moro a lato by Davide Perez with its unusual harmonic twists at the cadences, and indeed I did feel that Pescetti – and in particular his Caro mio bene, addio – slightly outstayed his welcome.

However the selections by JC Bach again begged the question of why his operas – or at least the arias – aren’t performed more often. Take Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso for example, with its dramatic accompagnato, noble melody and deeply hued scoring including clarinets. Indeed it made me wonder if the London Bach’s use of the instrument wasn’t the initial inspiration for Mozart’s own love of the instrument. And it was beautifully sung by Anna Devin, with beautifully controlled legato, intelligently shaded phrasing and a real sympathy with JC Bach’s music, as was further evidenced by her performance of Confusa, smarrita. Samantha Price also made a promising debut with Classical Opera. The full warmth of her voice and her technical ability – especially in Tutti nemici e rei – should ensure her a promising career not only in this repertoire but hopefully in lieder as well. I was less convinced by Martene Grimson, who never sounded completely at ease in the music. I felt there was breathiness to her singing and her coloratura, while good, was not as well defined or controlled.

I also must admit that much as I love Eighteenth Century opera – da capos and all – I did wont for some orchestral music as relief from the deluge of arias that were presented.

Sunday night’s concert, a snapshot of musical life in 1765 was therefore more satisfying, featuring as it did both arias and orchestral music. Of the orchestral inclusions, it was Karl Friedrich Abel’s Symphony in E Flat, Opus 7 that was the most delightful and weighty discovering. With its luxurious scoring and real sense of symphonic gravitas, it outshone the contributions of JC Bach and Mozart on the evening.

Two of the arias performed were ‘repeats’ from the opening concert. Ben Johnson’s performance of Va, dal furor portata was suitably confident and forthright – his full tenor soaring over the orchestra and providing a suitably bravura contrast to his touching and refined rendition of Non so d’onde viene from JC Bach’s Ezio. Eleanor Dennis is in possession of a bright and full-throated soprano with an impressive range, however her performances were slightly marred by slightly occluded diction as well as challenges in breath control, especially in her first aria Cara, la dolce fiamma which demands so much of the singer in terms of its expansive vocal line. However her encore, a beautiful aria by Giardini with its unusual scoring for obbligato cello and violas only, was a real gem.

Throughout Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera performed with both great virtuosity and sympathy to the singers. The warmth of their playing was combined with technical confidence and real attention to dynamic as well as rhythmic detail.

Both concerts provided an interesting slice of musical life in London at the time that Mozart visited. But it did seem odd that we didn’t hear more of Mozart’s own vocal music at the time. A few numbers from works such as Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots or Apollo et Hyacinthus or even La finta semplice would have provided a true sense of context and influence perhaps.

But after the weekend, it seems almost too long a wait for Adriano in Siria.

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