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Posts Tagged ‘Opera North’

Northern Twilight

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 12 July 2014)

First Norn – Fiona Kimm
Second Norn – Heather Shipp
Third Norn – Lee Bisset
Brünnhilde – Alwyn Mellor
Siegfried – Mati Turi
Hagen – Mats Almgren
Gunter – Eric Greene
Gutrune – Orla Boylan
Waltraute – Susan Bickley
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Woglinde – Katherine Broderick
Wellgunde – Madeline Shaw
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Chorus of Opera North
Orchestra of Opera North

Concert Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford
Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Richard Farnes (Conductor)

The success of Opera North’s Ring cycle cannot be overestimated either in terms of ambition and vision but also – ultimately – artistic standards.

It’s to the Company’s credit and determination that they’ve delivered this cycle despite the initial media and public reservations and in a tough economic climate. And artistically, overall it has been a success.

What Ring cycle doesn’t have its weak links or moments of disappointment?

An incredible Das Rheingold was followed by a more disappointing Die Walküre and Siegfried but the final performance of Götterdämmerung in Leeds dissipated any previous concerns with playing and singing that was in the main superlative.

And superlative is the adjective best applied to the incredible playing of the Orchestra of Opera North.

Richard Farnes inspired some of the most luminous and rich playing I’ve heard in any Ring cycle. Not only was there a depth and volume to the strings but Farnes marshalled them with utter precision, and they responded accordingly to the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music. Wind and brass – from the opening chords – played with complete confidence, balancing the warmth of the strings with a bloom and – as required – piquancy that reverberated around the hall. And the percussion was every bit as committed. Never have the timpani beats, reminding the audience of Fafner and Fasolt, sounded so forbidding.

And as well as providing incredible support to the singers, the orchestra was very much part of the unfolding drama. From Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine to his devastating Funeral March, the orchestra provided an additional narrative of timbres and colours.

And in the podium, Farnes demonstrated a grip of the music and it’s overall architecture as he had in Siegfried. He had the sweep of the music firmly in his hands but didn’t allow it to swamp the finer details of Wagner’s score. While his departure from Opera North might be a loss to the Company itself, I sincerely hope that he will now be seen in other opera houses – and especially in Germany – where I think his talent and musicianship will be most welcome.

Of the singers, Alwyn Mellor as Brünnhilde was inevitably the focus of everyone’s attention. And rightly so. Following her appearance as Sieglinde in Opera North’s Walküre you have to wonder why Ms Mellor wasn’t cast as Wotan’s daughter for the entire cycle?

It was a very accomplished interpretation and performance. And I separate those two elements deliberately. Technically, apart from the occasional snatched note at the top of her range, Ms Mellor demonstrated that she has the heft and stamina for the role. And by stamina I don’t only mean that she can rise above the orchestra as required, but until the very end she demonstrated the ability to scale her voice right down. I always think it is a test of any Brünnhilde how she sings “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!”. The Immolation scene isn’t only one of volume, and this Brünnhilde showed that as well as providing the sheer volume, in the more reflective moments she could similarly project her vocal authority with eloquence. And in terms of interpretation, Ms Mellor revealed both the daughter of Wotan and betrayed wife of Siegfried. There was a convincing vulnerability to her characterisation, particularly at the beginning of the Second Act. But as a scorned woman she quickly revealed a steely determination before ending the opera once again as the daughter of a God – wise, forgiving and ultimately resolved to her fate.

And while Alwyn Mellor’s Brünnhilde – as with all Brünnhilde’s – will always be an evolving interpretation, her performance in Götterdämmerung suggests that she has it within her grasp to be a leading Brünnhilde.

I shall be looking out for her on stage in the future and I sincerely hope that Opera North have contracted her as all three Brünnhilde’s for their complete cycles in 2016. Indeed I hope one day to hear her as Isolde.

Mati Turi was pronounced slightly indisposed before the performance began. After my concerns about his pacing in Siegfried, clearly a solid technique helped him deliver a convincing performance in this final opera. If his singing felt was slightly ‘covered’ and less than heroic at times, it remained elegantly fluid and his narration in the Third Act was well nuanced and intelligently sung.

As Brünnhilde’s sister, Susan Bickley made for a totally convincing Waltraute. Having seen her most recently as Eduige in Rodelinda and Jocasta in Thebans, she brought her vast experience to bear on this small, yet pivotal, role. For a moment I almost thought she was about to convince Brünnhilde to return to Valhalla and thereby rob us of the rest of the evening. Fortunately they stuck to Wagner’s plan.

The three Rhinemaidens delivered some of the finest ensemble singing in these roles I’ve heard. Their voices remained distinct but melded beautifully, each displaying a keen ear in terms shaping their phrasing. And similarly Lee Bisset – an impressive Freia – returned as a vocally nuanced and confident Third Norn. I do wonder why we don’t hear her more in London?

Of the remaining roles, it was Alberich and his son Hagen who delivered the most convincing performances. In the dream scene, Jo Pohlheim instantly reminded us why he made such an impact in Siegfried. In signature black gloves, his resonant and darkly hued bass was matched by his acting ability. And like father like son in terms of Mats Almgren’s Hagen. The intonation and diction problems that affected his Fafner were nowhere to be seen in his performance as the Gibichung’s half-brother, sung with a malevolent and confident eloquence.

The Chorus of Opera North gave electrifying performances in the Second Act – diction clear, singing forceful yet clean and distinct.

As in her portrayal of Senta for ENO, I found Orla Boylan’s Gutrune rather hard-toned vocally. She has the heft and despite a tendency for her voice to spread at the top of her range, the technique but the edge in her voice diminishes any sense of gleam or warmth. But there was no doubting the passion and musicianship she invested in the role especially after Siegfried’s death. However, as her brother, Eric Greene’s Gunter was disappointing – vocally occluded and at times technically and musically strained.

Yet the sum of this Götterdämmerung’s parts outweighed its small disadvantages, making for a thrilling evening and fitting end to this ambitious project. And it seemed right and proper that Farnes and his incredible players received the loudest cheer and ovation at the end if it all.

Principally Flawed

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

Review – Siegfried (Opera North, The Lowry, Saturday 6 July 2013)

Siegfried – Mati Turi
Mime – Richard Roberts
Wanderer – Michael Druiett
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Fafner – Mats Almgren
Woodbird – Fflur Wyn
Erda – Ceri Williams
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson

Vocal Consultants – Dame Anne Evans & Sir John Tomlinson

Staging & Design Concept – Peter Mumford

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes

While Opera North’s Siegfried was an improvement on last year’s Die Walküre, it still remained far from a totally convincing performance on the whole.

It seems that the main impediment remains casting and like last year the strongest performances came from the singers in the smaller roles.

Jo Pohlheim’s performance as Alberich towered above the other male singers in the cast. His wonderfully dark, resonant base rose effortlessly above the orchestra and with diction was clear and precise making his characterisation of Alberich sharply etched. His repertoire includes both Wotan himself and Wozzeck and I would image that these would both be performances worth booking tickets for. Personally though, I didn’t get the gloves.

Fflur Wyn – who I admired in Opera North’s production of La Clemenza di Tito – continued to impress. She has a warm yet bright soprano with a vocal agility that made the role seemingly effortless as she glided through the Woodbird’s music. It’s a tricky role and perhaps Farnes could have given her a little more ebb and flow but it didn’t faze her at all. Definitely Ms Wyn is someone to keep and a look out for. Similarly Ceri Williams’ dusky and rich voice was perfectly suited to Erda and proved more than a match vocally for Wotan in the Third Act.

Problems with both intonation and diction marred what was otherwise a strong performance of Fafner from Mats Algrem who was of suitably pitch-black tone. Admittedly Fafner in Siegfried is a rather thankless role in Siegfried and I would like to hear either his Hunding or Hagen.

After Michael Druiett’s fine performance in Das Rheingold his Wanderer was disappointing. At the time I wondered if he had the heft for ‘later’ Wotan and sadly it proved he did not. A rather two-dimensional characterisation was not helped by a lack of both colour and depth in his singing on this occasion and more than once he was out-gunned by the orchestra despite Farnes’ sensitivity to an extent not suffered by the rest of the ensemble. Indeed at times the lower end of his range seemed to disappear altogether. Most tellingly, his confrontation with his nemesis Alberich left me wanting not so much a role reversal but two Alberich’s and no Wotan. His subsequent confrontation with his ‘grandson’ in the Third Act was only slightly alleviated by a slightly weaker than expected performance by Siegfried at that precise moment. Perhaps for the full cycle Opera North might consider casting Jo Pohlheim for the full cycle?

Similarly the reason for casting Annalena Persson as Brünnhilde continues to elude me completely. Even in this somewhat limited appearance, Persson was uneven in tone and distractingly shrill – almost squally – in her upper range. It seemed that she had forsake vocal accuracy for individual top notes that were less gleaming that brittle. Fortunately she is not cast in Opera North’s Götterdämmerung and having now seen two of her three Brünnhildes a year apart doesn’t fill me with confidence that this is a she should continue to sing.

And so to the two main protagonists.

I admired Richard Roberts’ original Mime in Das Rheingold. At the time I said it was no cipher yet in Siegfried while there were moments when that Mime re-appeared – for example just before his demise – for the most part it seemed to be missing for large parts of his performance. Vocally there wasn’t quite enough characterisation or colour and while his diction was good, he didn’t seem to revel in the particular German than Wagner scribed for this character much in the way that he wrote for Alberich.

And clearly Mati Turi has it in him to be a great Siegfried. One day. He received good notices for his performance at Longborough and there is no doubt that on the whole his Siegfried for Opera North was strong. However for me there was a question about his pacing of the role. Giving his all in the First Act, where his singing was full and round with beautiful phrasing and dynamic control, three quarters through the Second Act it did seem that his voice was tiring. And while the longer interval between the second and third Acts would have helped, his first entry in the final Act – his confrontation with Wotan – sounded for the most part snatched, almost as if he was deliberately saving himself for the closing scenes. And perhaps he was, because there was clearly a greater shine to his voice for most of his scene with Brünnhilde. Overall while his voice is clear and pretty even throughout its range, I did wont for a bit more light and shade and a more finely tuned interpretation of the role. All this I am sure is not far off and it’s a shame that he will not be singing Siegfried in next year’s Götterdämmerung.

Stage-wise, Peter Mumford continued with his smart – if now somewhat predictable – design concept. Seen a year apart they remain effective without being distracting, but I do wonder how quickly they will go from effective and non-distracting to tedious end-to-end when the complete cycle is performed over a single week or so.

But finally plaudits must go to Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. Farnes – bar a small slip in momentum during the initial meeting of the young lovers – had got to grip with the sweep and overall architecture of Siegfried. Tempos were well judged throughout and he pulled out the orchestral detail and allowed the leitmotivs to shine through without too much over emphasis. And this attention to detail resulted in some luminous playing from the orchestra and bar a single moment already mentioned, he was sensitive accompanist to the singers. And special mention must go to the Robert Ashworth for his exemplary solo in the Second Act, but throughout the ensemble playing was of the highest standard from start to finish. For example, the way Farnes singled out the harp line in the first act, and thebeautifully placed wind and brass chords just before Brünnhilde’s awakening.

Ultimately however this Siegfried continued to demonstrate similar fault lines – although not as deep – as last year’s Die Walküre. While Farnes’ grip of the third opera in the cycle was impressive, casting the principle roles remains Opera North’s biggest challenge. With Alwyn Mellor as their final Brünnhilde and Daniel Brenna perhaps they might have cracked it.

An Inclement Clemenza

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Review – La Clemenza di Tito (Opera North at The Lowry, Thursday 14 March 2013)

Tito -
 Paul Nilon
Vitellia -
Annemarie Kremer
Servilia
 – Fflur Wyn
Sesto – 
Helen Lepalaan
Annio – 
Kathryn Rudge
Publio – 
Henry Waddington

Director 
- John Fulljames
Movement Director – 
Tim Claydon
Set and Costume Designer 
- Conor Murphy
Lighting Designer 
- Bruno Poet
Projection Designer 
- Finn Ross

Orchestra & Chorus Opera North
Conductor
 – Douglas Boyd

Almost but not quite.

Perhaps a motto that Opera North could adopt more often than not based on some of their most recent productions and sadly also true of their new production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

This is often Mozart’s most misjudged opera when in fact it contains music of great depth and emotional intensity and a dramatic sweep that blows cobwebs off what was by then a dying art form. As well as the arias it contains some beautifully crafted duets as well as – in my view – one of Mozart’s most dramatically written trios and act closers.

While Opera North’s production came close so many times, it never seemed to quite get into its stride either musically or dramatically.

The main surprises of the evening were the magnificent Annio of Kathryn Rudge and the promising Servilia of Fflur Wyn. Ms Rudge displayed a full-bodied, warm soprano and some impeccable singing even if at times she didn’t quite seem to have the breath for some of Mozart’s longer phrases. However her arias – and in particular her arias Torna a Tito a lato and Tu Fosti tradito – were beautifully and stylishly sung and the duet with the bright voiced Fflur Wyn was beautifully and sympathetically blended. And the poignancy of Ms Wyn’s S’altro che lagrime was touching. I see that Kathryn Rudge is soon to perform a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall and if there was any a reason to take a longer break – or to put a fictitious meeting in the diary – hearing her sing again is very tempting.

Henry Waddington’s Publio was also well executed. He sung with confidence and authority and was particularly fine in the ensembles.

Sadly the rest of the cast – the principles – fared less well. Paul Nilon was an incredible Tito in McVicar’s production for ENO but in this production the role always sounded slightly beyond his grasp. But what he lacked in terms of vocal flexibility and colour he made for in terms of dramatic delivery even if reaching for the higher notes seemed more of a physical effort than seemed comfortable.

However both the Vitellia of Annemarie Kremer and Helen Lepalaan’s Sesto were strangely underpowered both vocally and dramatically. Clearly they sung all the notes although Ms Kremer seemed to spend most of the evening either distractingly ahead of or behind the beat but having seen her as Norma and not being convinced I was not totally convinced by her Empress-in-Waiting. Vocally she seemed uncomfortable and stretched, her coloratura often laboured or messy and sometimes both. She also had a distracting dramatic tic of raising her hand to the side of her face almost as if she was attempting to block out the other singers. Non piu di fiori was the closest she came to realizing the dramatic nature of the role but this was marred by Fulljames suddenly decision to ratchet up – for no clear reason – the violence. Similarly Helen Lepalaan never really got into the meat of her character. Vocally bland throughout even the majesty of the closing scenes of the First act and the magnificence of Deh per queste istante solo failed to rouse her from her sleepy performance.

Douglas Boyd conducted the orchestra with confidence and spirit even if the somewhat hurried tempi at time made the players scramble and crash through the notes and the recitatives seemed incredibly leaden.

The production – John Fulljames’ first for Opera North – was focused around a rotating glass wall and computer-generated graphics that seemed to place the drama in and around a corporate boardroom or a future inspired by Kurt Wimmer’s film Equilibrium. Personally I found it an effective compromise between a more traditional approach and the war-zone-cum-bombed-out-building that more often than not seems to be standard fashion for modern productions. Granted it does need some tightening up and could do without the projection of Tito’s face on the back wall. The end of the First Act for example could perhaps do with less or no confetti and Vitellia’s sudden and bloody mental collapse seemed over dramatic. And it’s a shame – although perhaps this was simple a space issue with the Lowry stage – that the chorus were relegated to the pit.

So while the production was not the most disappointing I have seen from Opera North it could do with a rethink. With the right attention to casting and some – but not much – tightening of the narrative, this production could more justly do honour to Mozart’s opera seria swansong.

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

NSA Don With Strings Attached

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am

Review – Don Giovanni (The Lowry Theatre, Wednesday 7 November 2012)

Don Giovanni – William Dazeley
Leporello – Alastair Miles
Donna Anna – Meeta Raval
Don Ottavio – Christopher Turner
Donna Anna – Elizabeth Atherton
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Oliver Dunn

Director – Alessandro Talevi
Set & Costume Designer – Madeleine Boyd
Lighting Designer – Matthew Haskins
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Anthony Kraus

It’s a hit and miss affair with Opera North it seems. A magnificent Das Rheingold but a disappointing Die Walküre. And productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare that were lacklustre and in the case of the Bellini, miscast.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to The Lowry for their new production of Don Giovanni.

However, bar a few misgivings this new production was smart and occasionally sassy. Some future fine tuning is needed and perhaps a new look at some of the casting will also strengthen what is, overall, an intelligent take on an oft-performed opera.

And personally, it’s originality is miles ahead of the schlock currently on stage at ENO and stringer than Covent Garden recent attempt.

Therefore it’s a shame that there was inconsistency in the quality of the singing. To start at the top, Dazeley’s Don was vocally and for most of the time dramatically one dimensional. It’s not that he isn’t a fine singer, he was just the wrong singer for the role. His light-weight voice didn’t only fail to always carry above the orchestra – not helped at the end by swinging him wildly around the stage ahead of his denouement – but didn’t possess the light and shade to reflect both the amorous and more threatening aspects of his character that needs clear portrayal in the music. For example, the dual vocal personality required in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. And there was little sense of the dual personality of a man who one moment is a charmer and seducer and the next a potentially brutal thug.

But where Dazeley did shine was as a foil to Leporello. Garbed – so it seemed – as a Victorian freakshow manager, Alastair Miles was both one of the more vocally accomplished characters as well as an intelligent actor. The only place where he didn’t seem to take advantage of the inherent humour of the narrative was at the opening of the Second act and his initial interaction with Donna Elvira. But side by side, their master/servant act was both humorous and Miles’ assured vocal delivery seemed to transfer to Dazeley.

Both Meeta Raval and Elizabeth Atherton as Donne Anna and Elvira respectively were vocally brittle. Ms Raval’s harshly metallic voice unpleasantly cut through her fellow Valkyries earlier this year and within the confines of this production it sat uncomfortable across Mozart’s music. Technically she is an accomplished singer but her voice simply has a brittle, harsh tone not suited to Donna Anna. Similarly Ms Atherton’s voice was on the hard side and struggled in places to get through entire phrases, leading to distracting pauses in her music. Also there were serious intonation problems throughout and most alarmingly in Mi tradi. However it has to be said that in ensemble the two ladies seemed re suited for example in Non ti fidar and Protegga il giusto cielo.

Don Ottavio is a difficult role to cast. It is not Christopher Turner’s natural ken but he made a valiant attempt at the role. A ‘stand-and-deliver’ tenor he was – again – marginally stronger in ensemble. Dalla sua pace – an often under-rated Mozartian gem – is beguilingly difficult to carry off and Turner struggled, relying at critical moments, such as the closing bars on a technique more suited to the verismo and bel canto roles that seem to make up the mainstay of his repertoire.

But by far the two stand-out performances came from the Zerlina and Masetto of Claire Wild and Oliver Dunn. While Dunn may not always have carried across the orchestra he sang and acted with conviction and possesses a warm, round baritone. And Ms Wild’s Zerlina was strongly characterised and her singing was bold, confident and burnished. Her Batti, batti quite rightly brought cheers not only for her acting ability but the musicianship she displayed.

Following the below par playing of Die Walküre the Orchestra of Opera North under Anthony Kraus delivered some clean, light almost chamber-like playing. It’s always interesting in the opening bars of the overture to see if the conductor observes the correct length of the double bass notes as pointed out by William Mann. Kraus did not and neither did he create enough of a contrast or tension between the adagio opening section and the ensuing allegro. Indeed on the whole, Kraus’ tempi was on the fast side, sometimes so fast that the singers struggled to keep up or get the words out. But the orchestra skittered though the music with aplomb if not much character.

So to the production.

Talevi’s take – with his colleagues – had some clever ideas hidden within it built around themes of control and time.

First of all the very obvious reference to Punch & Judy and puppetry. Talevi smartly and with charm incorporated this into the narrative. For example in the Catalogue aria as well as in the scenes with Don Giovanni and Massetto as well as Leporello and Donna Elvira. Framing Donna Anna and Don Ottavio as if in a painting, perhaps alluding to their more suppressed lives, was also intriguing. Where the puppetry seemed to come undone for me was with Don Giovanni himself. All well and good having him play puppet master as Massetto tries to escape in the second act but having him hoisted into the flies at the end as a puppet himself was more of a stretch, despite the nice touch of his demise at the hand of jilted brides. Similarly an inference at the end to the other characters merely as puppets of a Deus ex machina was confusing as relying on the connection with either the Punch & Judy element or the Commendatore’s return wasn’t enough.

There was also a sense of Victorian drama-cum-farce running through the production. As I’ve noted Leporello was a freak show circus master with Don Giovanni a booted and suited Dorian Gray-like character and Donna Anna and Don Ottavio extras from a Wharton novel. Don Ottavio as kleptomaniac slash grave robber got a laugh but was wasted or pointless – depending in your view – as it wasn’t developed.

And Donna Anna’s costume evolution from Like-A-Virgin Madonna to an Oscar Wilde female lead to Sharon Stone from Fatal Instinct hinted at a temporal theory to the story that didn’t really gel even with the inclusion of Masetto and Zerlina as teddy boys and girls.

Clearly the juxtaposition of different eras hinted that Don Giovanni himself was timeless – perhaps immortal to chime with the immortality of themes of Makropulos and Faust in the rest of Opera North’s season – but it didn’t really gain momentum even with the brides in the final scene.

Yet an unexpectedly poignant moment was Don Giovanni’s serenade, sung not to an individual but rather to the female characters daubed on the walls of the set. Was it a whorehouse? His house? Hard to tell. But it seemed as if at that precise moment it wasn’t so much Don Giovanni as seducer as Don Giovanni as dispossessed and tragic.

So in a sense Talevi had too much going on. A plethora of ideas – most of them good – that need thinning out and finessing.

If that can be done, and the casting can be sorted then Opera North has a production that will be not only bankable and enjoyable for the audience, but thought-provoking as well.

Minors Major By The Manchester Ship Canal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Review: Die Walküre, Opera North (Saturday 14 July 2012)

Siegmund – Erik Nelson Warner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Valkyries – Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Meeta Raval, Madeleine Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu & Catherine Hopper

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging, Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Perhaps my expectations were too high after a near perfect Das Rheingold, but Opera North’s return for Die Walküre at The Lowry on the banks of the Manchester ship Canal was not as satisfying. In fact, if truth be told it was more than a little disappointing both in the casting department and the overall sweep – or lack of it – from Richard Farnes.

And at the end of the evening, the two strongest and most memorable performances were actually those that are traditionally seen as minor characters – Hunding and Fricka.

I have most recently seen Clive Bayley as Daland in the ENO production of The Flying Dutchman and as I said at the time, his was an impressive, strongly characterised performance. And it was the same here. His Hunding was vocally rich and resonant, smooth and consistent throughout his range. And his diction was perfect. The way he sneered “Wölfling” summed up not only the way he viewed Siegmund but his very approach to life – brutal and arrogant.

And every time I see Die Walküre I am forced to reassess Fricka as a character. Twice before – in New York with the incredible human performance by Stephanie Blythe, and in Hamburg with the formidable wife of Wotan played by Lilli Paasikivi – I have seen Fricka portrayed not as an incidental character as she is so often considered by directors (and conductors) but as a pivotal role in the unfolding story.

And at The Lowry Theatre, Katarina Karnéus delivered an excellent performance. Unlike the other characters, from her first appearance she inhabited the stage, striding around her husband and before she exited stage left, sneering at Brünnhilde. And as she left, having secured her hollow victory – for had she not succeeded who knows how the Ring would have unfolded – that simple wave of her wrist said it all – Fricka was a woman of significance. And vocally, bar a few minor problems of intonation – which I have commented on before – it was a strong, characterised performance. Karnéus revelled in Fricka’s words and they were delivered with steely conviction.

Alwyn Mellor was similarly a strong Sieglinde. Her voice rode above the orchestra with ease and what it lacked perhaps in colour it made up for in richness. Her singing in the First and Second Acts was incredibly strong but by the final act she was clearly tired and her O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! sounded a little tight. But I see from the programme that she is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Paris in 2013 and, if she can resolve her pacing, that would be worth seeing.

Siegmund sounded like a role just ever so slightly outside the reach of Erik Nelson Warner. While he was a pleasant voice – although again without much sense of colour or dynamic inflection – it felt that even the First Act was just a little beyond his stamina. However he did recover admirably in the Second Act. As with Ms Mellor, it might just be a question of pacing himself correctly.

But it is a shame that the two major characters were such a disappointment overall.

The Brünnhilde of Annalena Persson was ultimately flawed. This is – pace Wotan – the principle role in The Ring cycle and it requires a soprano not only with heft, but one who has an iron grip on their technique. Persson’s voice can clearly cut through an orchestra and while she has a strong lower and middle range, as she moved above the stave her voice became uneven, shrill and suffered significant and uncomfortable intonation problems. And this was compounded as she forced her volume. It was a shame because literally in her closing moments I thought I caught a glimpse of potentially an amazing Brünnhilde. But I think it is a role she should in future approach carefully and perhaps with more study.

Wotan is certainly as big a casting challenge as his daughter and in my opinion it isn’t a role that Béla Perencz. While it was clear – as outlined in the programme’s biography – that he has had belcanto training – his voice was quite Italianate and there was no faulting his sense of legato or vocal colouring – he didn’t have the stamina. By the final scenes of the act he was vocally exhausted and as well as having quite significant intonation problems personally I found his verismo inflections – at Leb’ wohl for example – almost too distracting at times. If he does attempt this role in the future – and perhaps after some careful consideration – I hope he will be more Nordic god and less Pagliacci.

And for me the Valkyries were overly strident. The fact that they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up wasn’t from an electrifying and compelling performance but rather that they seemed – almost to a part – to sing everything at the loudest volume all the time and with little vocal finesse.

After the loving and careful attention to detail from the cast of Das Rheingold I had to wonder if Dame Anne Evans was as involved as in this Die Walküre.

As for the staging, it was very basic even for a concert production. Unlike Das Rheingold, Peter Mumford didn’t seem to have developed anything other than the most basic ideas. The projections were for the most part uninspiring as was the lighting. And a small niggle, why ravens for the Valkyries? The ravens serve a different and unique role in Wagner’s Ring and they are definitely not designated as dead-warrior-carriers as far as I am aware.

So finally to Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. As in Das Rheingold the playing of the orchestra was of an incredibly high standard. The strings were warm in that very European way, the woodwind were beautifully light and pointed and the brass suitably punchy.

Yet Farnes did not deliver a clear and cohesive performance and didn’t always pull out the orchestral colour and depth as he had in the first opera. The First Act was taken at quite a deliberate and measured pace. There is nothing wrong with that. Listen to Mark Elder’s recent recording for example. The Second Act was brisk enough with Farnes returning to a more measured tempo for the final Act. But personally it felt like Farnes was conducting a series of highlights with music in between. For example, in the First Act the closing section with all that wonderful music for Siegmund and Sieglinde seemed a little mechanical but more disappointingly, Wotan’s monologue in the Second Act seemed rushed and unarticulated with little attention to detail. Although I think for this Perencz must share some of the blame. And the closing scenes of the opera suffered too. Leb’Wohl was taken at what seemed an inordinate canter before Farnes slowed down the music to such an extent that the orchestra for the only time in the entire evening sounded messy at the cadences.

But when Farnes was in his stride the moments were glorious. The dialogue between Brünnhilde and Siegmund was both dramatic and otherworldly as it should be, and those moments with just Brünnhilde and the wind sections in the closing scenes were achingly poignant in terms of the colour and transparency he elicited from the orchestra. It was at those moments that you could glimpse Persson as Brünnhilde. Nowhere else.

After such a magnificent Das Rheingold perhaps it was inevitable that Die Walküre would disappoint. It’s a giant-sized leap from the opening opera of the quartet and I feel that this Die Walküre needs more work and attention to detail. I hope that this happens before Opera North perform the complete cycle – rumoured to be in 2015/2016 – but also earlier than that, before Farnes tackles Siegfried.

Cleopatra Comin’ At Ya

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review on March 2, 2012 at 12:09 am

Review – Giulio Cesare, Opera North, The Lowry (March 1 2012)

Giulio Cesare – Pamela Helen Stephen
Cleopatra -
Sarah Tynan
Cornelia
- Ann Taylor
Sesto
- Kathryn Rudge
Tolomeo
- James Laing
Nireno
- Andrew Radley
Achilla
- Jonathan Best
Curio
 – Dean – Robinson

Director
 – Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer
 – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer
- Thomas Hase

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Robert Howarth

Opera North’s flat-pack Egypt and abridged version of Handel’s Giulio Cesare once again demonstrated the Company’s sense of ambition yet failure to follow through.

The one exception was Sarah Tynan. I first heard her as Iphis in English National Opera’s moving production of Jephtha where she was coincidentally a Young Singer alongside the wonderful Elizabeth Watts and Lee Bissett. Since then I have seen her at the London Coliseum in Don Giovanni, Xerxes, The Mikado, Ariodante and Der Rosenkavalier but more recently in a disappointing performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Lorin Maazel.

As Opera North’s Cleopatra she dominated the stage with her both her top-notch singing and credible acting. Granted by the end of the evening she was exhibiting signs of tiredness and more than once she was out of time with the players in the pit, but overall it was a strong and well-rounded performance. Occasionally there was a shrillness in her upper register and some of her coloratura was less than secure but her technique and musicianship continues to develop with every production. I believe that given a few more years she will become a soprano of some note, particularly in Handel.

But if she was an almost ideal Egyptian Queen, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Cesare was more cipher than hero. Of course it’s difficult not to make the comparison with Sarah Connolly but even when that is put to one side, Stephen’s performance was lacklustre. She didn’t have the vocal projection or strength of technique needed for what is some of Handel’s greatest music. For example she was simply deluged in Va tacito e nascosto and despite some beautiful moments in Aure, Deh Per Pietà hers was not a robust generalissimo.

Kathryn Rudge’s Sesto was a pleasant discovery. Her warm and flexible timbre successfully negotiated most of the character’s music and indeed Cara speme, questo core was one of the highlights of the evening. It’s interesting to see that she has just joined ENO’s Young Singers programme. Clearly John Berry et al are good at identifying and developing promising singers.

Countertenor James Laing was a convincing Tolomeo with a promising voice. He skillfully handled most of the tricky coloratura and what he lacked in experience and overall technique he made up for with some skillful acting. However he did show a frustrating inability to articulate all his words. Hopefully something that greater experience will eradicarte.

Of the rest of the cast Ann Taylor’s rich mezzo was far from ideal for the role of Cornelia. I can imagine her soaring to great heights in the role of Opera North’s Cio-Cio San but the delicacy and pin-point accuracy so necessary for Handel eluded her.

And the only reason I can fathom for giving prominence to Jonathan Best Achilla was to provide a vocal counterpoint to the sopranos – female and male – and mezzos voices. However his strong bass made up for the lack of musical interest in his arias.

The set and lighting were simple and considering it had been designed for touring, pretty effective with just the right hint of ancient Egypt, although I am not so sure about the golden extended fingers. To me those were more chinoiserie than symbolic of the Nile civilization. But I could be wrong.

The biggest disappointment however was in the pit. The orchestra – sounding dull and muted and not because of the smaller string section – struggled at times with intonation and by the end of the evening the strings were noticeably awry. But it was Robert Howarth’s lacklustre conducting that was most frustrating. Not only was there a lack of true style or inteprettion, but with no real sense of momentum or bite I had to wonder if the below par performances on stage were not a little due to the direction from the pit.

So after two evenings spent in the company of Opera North I have to admit that while I was impressed with their sense of ambition I was left with a real sense that they had missed the creative mark.

But that isn’t putting me off. Their Das Rheingold demonstrates that this is a company with high standards in terms of music and performance. While they might not have quite reach the standard of their Wagner under the brilliant Richard Farnes, with Die Walküre later this year I am confident that the last two nights can simply be put down to over-ambition.

Putting the “No” in Norma

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

Review – Norma, Opera North, The Lowry (February 29 2012)

Norma – Annemarie Kremer
Adalgisa – Keri Alkema
Pollione – Luis Chapa
Oroveso – James Creswell
Clothilde – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Flavio – Daniel Norman

Director – Christopher Alden
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Costume Designer – Sue Willmington
Lighting Designer – Adam Silverman

Orchestra & Chorus, Opera North
Conductor – Oliver von Dohnányi

Opera North’s production of Bellini’s Norma is proof that you can’t always get it right and never enter the theatre with preconceptions. After their magnificent production of Das Rheingold last season as well as their previous Maria Stuarda, I had high expectations that an evening of bel canto awaited.

Sadly I was disappointed almost from the beginning. At this point it should be noted that Norma is – and not for reasons of previous performers and productions – a notoriously difficult opera to get right. It’s deceivingly simple and no company takes on the challenges it presents lightly.

And I have to say that there was no evidence that Opera North had done anything but take this venture seriously.

But it simply did not work. Admittedly there were some moments of beauty and drama but they were in bold relief in an evening that lacked that spark that makes you sit up in your seat and lean forward.

Annemarie Kremer as Norma had an ‘almost-but-not-quite’ quality to her performance with an unusual but not attractive timbre to her voice. However this was a role too far as it overstretched her capabilities leading to both problems with both intonation and accuracy. Having said that on more than a few occasions she produced a beautiful sound which quite dominated the unfold drama. It’s interesting to note that this is the only bel canto role listed in her biography and it has to be said that consistently she struggled with the Bellini’s vocal lines. I would like to see her in other roles but think that the art of great bel canto singing will always elude her.

Adalgisa was strongly performed by Keri Alkema. Her rich soprano contrasted strongly with Kremer’s and in some ways hers was a more successful performance. However again the role was slightly ambitious and there were problems with both accuracy and intonation. However to has to be said that the opening of Act II was remarkable and raised the bar significantly – Kremer and Alkema creating that remarkable stage chemistry that had been missing in the first half. Sadly it didn’t last.

Bellini and his bel canto counterparts created some of the greatest – and most difficult – roles for tenors. Indeed productions of their operas can rise and fall on the quality and skill of the tenors in the cast.

Sadly, the tenor in this production failed. From the very beginning Luis Chapa struggled – his intonation was consistently erratic and he had neither the tessitura nor the flexibility let alone the stamina for the role. Again looking at the repertoire listed in his biography there as no evidence that bel canto was an area of expertise or experience. In fact his presence on stage almost became a distraction.

But there was a silver lining. The Clothilde of Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was remarkable and show-stopping in spite of the small role. Hers was warm rich mezzo that dominated the scenes she was in. I missed her at Opera Holland Park last year and now regret it. I will definitely be watching out for her future performances.

And the Oroveso of James Creswell was similarly noteworthy. A resonant bass (or is baritone) which a controlled and beautifully fluid voice. Again someone to keep an eye out for.

So what of the production itself. I have long admired the Alden Brothers and in particular Christopher Alden’s The Makropulos Case and Partentope for English National Opera. He has never really gone for the traditional approach and this one was certainly one that got me thinking.

It was kind of Appalachian-Spring-Meets-Little-House-On-The-Prairie-Meets-Shaker-Loops. I wasn’t convinced that it worked in Norma (particularly with the very precise subtitles) but what Alden did – and does so well – was bring to life the sense of isolation between the main protagonists and the society that they live in through some very clear direction of the principals and the chorus. It’s just a shame that the Lowry audience thought some moments were funny rather than dramatic.

The only disappointment? The non-existent pyre at the end. For some reason, in the style of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, I expected Norma and Pollione to Be crushed by the rather phallic tree trunk that dominated the set.

And finally to Oliver von Dohnányi and the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North. Truth be told the chorus seemed rather ragged at times but compensated with the wonderful sound that they produced. The orchestra didn’t have the burnished tone that I remember from Das Rheingold and von Dohnányi didn’t seem to drive the music forward.

But contrary to what you might think, it was an interesting evening. It made me sit and listen almost with greater discipline. It makes me hopeful that Giulio Cesare tomorrow night will dispel any sense of disappointment.

But I am going to try very hard not to get excited in advance as tonight reminded me that even Opera North is mortal.

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

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