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Posts Tagged ‘Pamela Helen Stephen’

Review – What An Ochs

In Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Saturday 24 May, 2014)

Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Octavian – Alice Coote
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Herr Faninal – Mark Stone
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Valzacchi – Bonaventura Bottone
Annina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Major Domo/Landlord – Ted Schmidt
Marchande de Modes/Marianne Leitmetzerin – Elaine McKrill
Italian Tenor – Ji-Min Park
A Notary/Commissar – Eddie Wade
Vendor of Animals – Paul Curievici
Footmen/Servants – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrison, Joseph Kennedy

CBSO Chorus
CBSO Youth Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

It’s been a Rosenkavalier-Fest for many reasons recently. First the magnificently refined performances under Sir Mark Elder in London featuring Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe.

Then the opening night review of Glyndebourne’s new production overshadowed by the gratuitously vicious and uncalled for criticism of Tara Erraught.

And last night a complete concert performance at Symphony Hall. If I read the programme correctly, it’s somewhat surprising that this was the first complete performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Birmingham.

Even if it wasn’t, it was a performance of incredible musicianship, virtuosity, passion and sheer verve.

And as in London a few weeks ago, the casting of the three principles – or in this case four – was luxurious.

While it might be normal to start with the three leading ladies – and they were truly magnificent – the night ultimately belonged to Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs von Lerchanau.

His performance was a tour de force both musically and dramatically. Often in concert productions the directing is either intrusive or limp. On the stage of Symphony Hall it was well executed and meaningful. His Ochs was a blend of misinformed droit du seigneur and comedic timing that – for some reason – reminded me of Eric Morecombe. And securely riding above his stage presence was a vocal ability that was second to none. His voice was resonant and beautifully rounded and showed no signs of strain at either end of his range. His raison d’être in the First Act went beyond bluster to a meaningful – if misguided – Credo, and his singing at the close of the Second Act was a lesson in fine singing.

The three women were similarly impressive. Soile Isokoski is a finely nuanced interpreter of Richard Strauss but previously I have felt that her performances have lacked a certain vocal lustre. So I was incredibly pleased that her performance demonstrated that whatever ‘mojo’ she had temporarily misplaced was back. And in full force. From her first entry to her final ‘Ja, Ja’ she was a Marschallin in full control. There was a luminosity – a golden sheen – to her voice that fitted Strauss’ soaring music perfectly. From top to bottom there was a rich lustre to each and every note.

Her performance of Da geht er hin was markedly different to that of Ms Schwanewilms. As opposed to the philosophic, almost intellectual resignation of the latter, Ms Isokoski’s was firmly based in a more emotional spectrum and therefore the impact was incredibly forceful. While maintaining that aristocratic distance you really felt that at the heart if it this was a Marschallin who was very much a woman. And a woman not so much afraid of age, but of being left alone. It left a lump in my throat.

As her Octavian, Alice Coote married a beautifully bronzed and shining tone with incredible acting skill. Her comic turn and sense of timing with Ochs was brilliant and combined with the vocal splendour of her singing. There was a warmth and brilliance to her tone that didn’t bleach in the upper ranges and her technique – demonstrated in her ability to scale down her voice when appropriate – demonstrates what a unique and special talent she has.

And Sophie Bevan provided a steely Sophie. In character that is. Vocally she was equally splendid. Her lower and middle range has a beautiful smokiness to it and when she effortlessly rose to stratospheric heights in the Second Act it was breathtaking.

The remaining cast members all performed their roles with great vocal and acting aplomb. Special mention must go to Ji-Min Park’s Italian Tenor (and for his two handed farewell at the end of the evening); to Pamela Helen Stephen’s Annina and to Elaine McKrill’s Marianne Leitmetzerin. And also to Paul Curivici – his bright tenor promises a bright future.

And the final trio – let’s admit it – is often the ultimate reason for attending Der Rosenkavalier. Not only because it is the emotional pay-off we have known was going to happen from the Marschallin’s monologue in Act One, but also because it is the most sublime piece of music Strauss ever wrote.

And in Symphony Hall it was perfection.

Andris Nelsons daringly took the trio at a slower tempo than I’ve heard in a while. But he never lost control of its various strands, unfolding the glorious music with an authority that demonstrated he clearly knew the overall architecture of this opera. And not once did he allow the singers – as is often the case – to drown one another out. Each of the three vocal lines was clear and distinct as he drew them to that crushing climax at the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen at which point the singers – and the audience – were overwhelmed by the orchestra. As Strauss wanted.

How anything could follow that was impossible to consider but Mesdames Coote and Bevan then performed the most sublime Ist ein Traum, scaling their voices back to the finest pianissimi I’ve ever heard.

Supporting the singers was the CBSO – players and singers adult and junior. The Chorus was suitably full-throated and the Youth Chorus revelled in their role – especially manhandling Hawlata off stage. I hope the girl who fell over in the excited exit was okay.

And the orchestra – after a somewhat hesitant start – demonstrated that they actually have this music music not only in their bones but in their hearts. Under Nelsons’ superlative direction they had that European depth of tone – not only in the strings but also that elusive timbre in the woodwind and brass – that is vital in Strauss. Even more than usual, Nelsons and his players found that often-missed vulgarity in the Second and Third Acts and that necessary lilt in the waltzes that permeate this opera.

As the final notes died away, the audience could barely wait for the final notes to die before showing their appreciation for an incredible evening of music making and drama.

The ovation was a fitting tribute.

In Gottes Namen please record this.

The Cinematic Contradictions of ENO

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on May 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Reviews – The Flying Dutchman & Madam Butterfly

ENO is currently an artistic contradiction. On the one hand, and bar the occasional directorial and artistic misjudgment, the music making has never been of a higher standard.

Take the current productions on stage. Without a doubt Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a masterpiece of music theatre. It is visually cinematic and opulent – opera interpreted through the lens of a tasteful Hollywood camera lens. And while the individual production elements – the shoji screens, the masked and black-robed stagehands and the puppetry – could have threatened to distract, in fact they enhance the unfolding drama and work in perfect sync with the Puccini’s music itself. In an original interview at the time of the production’s debut, Minghella said that he had more than a few recordings of the opera on his iPod. And it shows. The directing and the production underline the nuances of the opera perfectly.

And the cast too is incredibly strong. The original ENO Cio Cio San, Mary Plazas, returns in fantastic voice and is ably supported by Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki, John Fanning as Sharpless and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. And in the pit Oleg Caetani, once Music Director Designate before the fall of Sean Doran. He drew wondrously warm and fluid playing from the orchestra and demonstrated that this is an opera he has a deep love for.

On the other hand there is The Flying Dutchman, a new production by Jonathan Kent. This production first and foremost is a triumph for Ed Gardner, the orchestra and the chorus. Never have they sounded so superb. The strings are warm with added bite, the wind are translucent and sonorous and the brass bright and clear. Gardner shows that at least in ‘Romantic’ Wagner he knows how to handle the ebb and flow of the music, picking out the orchestral detail and finely balancing the pit and the singers. I wonder how long he will remain at ENO? And the chorus too is as superb as ever. But the singers underline that there is still some way to go with casting sympathetic Wagner performers. The Dutchman of James Creswell may have the volume and heft for the role but there was a distinct lack of finesse throughout. His was a one dimensional Dutchman. Stuart Skelton’s Erik was finely sung and well acted but again – and because I think of the production and his last-minute appearance – a cipher. Of the male roles it was the Daland of Clive Bayley that drew the strongest performance and characterization.

But the greatest disappoint was the Senta of Orla Boylan. She does indeed have the notes and the heft but – and this may be isolated to this run of performances – her voice has a singularly unattractive edge to it which distracts from the music itself. Throughout the performance she was shrill to the point of discomfort.

Yet it was Jonathan Kent’s production that ultimately failed to knit everything together in a coherent manner. A series of clever ideas – like his ultimately flawed Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Marriinsky – Kent’s premise from what I could gather, that childhood influences were at the crux of this drama, didn’t quite gel. The First Act opened with Child Senta reading The Dutchman as fairytale while her father left her to go to sea. Clearly the love between the two was deeply founded and from the body language it was clear that Daland loved his daughter very much. This made his agreement to barter her for gold to The Dutchman more bewildering. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to portray Daland as cold and greedy from the start? That would have made Child Senta’s retreat into the land of make-believe more credible. Instead we are then suddenly presented with Adult Senta who, and one can’t fault Boylan’s acting ability, is clearly a woman on the edge and living within the confines of the book given to her by her father. There is no evolution from the child to the demented woman we are suddenly presented with.

And sadly it seems whenever the ENO is in production-drought in terms of ideas it falls back on the failsafe – a violent crowd scene complete with drunkenness, sex and rape. Granted sometimes these directorial motifs are relevant if overdone – I refer to Castor and Pollux – but at ENO they seem to happen rather a lot and for now apparent reason at all.

In this production, rather than blurring the lines between the reality of the factory floor and the crazed world in Senta’s mind we are instead provided with a scene replete with a square-dancing chicken, a cross-dressing sailor and – naturally – a muscled dancer who can’t wait to get his kit off after performing various sexual positions with members of the cast astride one of the conveyor belts. None of these motifs was ever suggested in previous scenes (I would loved to have seen Kent try and get in the comedy chicken suit) and therefore it was as visually and unnecessarily brutal as it was physically violent. But all credit to ENO’s wonderful chorus for making it as believable as it was.

And sadly for me, it dampened the denouement as Senta, realizing that in realty her life is stifled and ugly, kills herself with a broken bottle.

And this sense of confusion seems to me to be spilling off stage as well. Cue the curious remarks by Artistic Director John Berry a few weeks ago regarding opera at the cinema. In The Stage he commented that “this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work … It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb.

And clearly Berry spends a great deal of time chasing down those directors who have cinematic or television experience – Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam to name two. Granted their productions left a great deal to be desired. And Sally Potter and Abbas Kiarostami who faired only slightly better.

Anyway which director envisions his opera as being “made for the screen” rather than for the stage? Well apart from LePage perhaps.

Clearly it is well nigh impossible to determine if people who shell out £25 for a cinema ticket will as readily fork out up to £200 for a ticket at an opera house. But even if it attracts a small number of people to dip their toe in the water then surely that’s a good thing? And also Berry fails to recognize – almost selfishly – that it isn’t only about footfall into his own theatre he should consider, but also the simple fact that it might help the industry as a whole? To raise awareness, interest and expose opera to a potentially new and sympathetic audience.

I wonder if his remarks have more to do with the recent appointment of the new Chairman at ENO, Peter Bazalgette. While some people have been more than a little sniffy at his appointment, I think it is a bold move. Yes this is the man who brought us Big Brother, but he has an innate understanding of audiences and having met him a couple of times myself he has an incredible excitement about opera as an art form. He might not be a dyed-in-the-ink opera fanatic but he does hold incredible respect for what is done on stage. I think ENO is safe from any threat of dumbing down at the London Coliseum, as directors seem more than capable of doing that themselves.

So perhaps Berry’s comments are more of an artistic warning shot across the bow of his own Board? ‘I won’t tell you how to raise money for the company as long as you do not interfere in what’s on stage’.

If so that is a shame. I think that English National Opera has more of a responsibility to promote new ways to reach the audience. Now that they finally have a Chairman who is more than a little skilled in the world of artistic and creative diplomacy they should explore their options.

Surely taking opera to the widest audience possible would be in the spirit of Lilian Baylis?

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.

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