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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Connolly’

Mass Transfiguration

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on December 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk

Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Antonio Pappano (Conductor)

Transfiguration (Def)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/

Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”

The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.

It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.

And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.

It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.

Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.

As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.

While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.

Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.

And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.

Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.

But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.

Magical.

I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.

And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.

Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.

And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.

And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.

Ja, Ja.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on May 10, 2014 at 9:25 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts) & Mozart Symphony No. 38
(Barbican Hall, Thursday 8 May 2014)

Marschallin – Anne Schwanewilms
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Sophie – Lucy Crowe

Additional singers – Gerard Schneider, Thomas Atkins, Johannes Kammler and David Shipley.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

What a magnificent evening of performances that made me fall in love with Der Rosenkavalier all over again.

But before the sumptuous world of Richard Strauss, Elder and the orchestra gave us a taut yet beautifully shaped performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38. Within its three movement structure there are hints of Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – a smart piece of programming alluding to love, intrigue and lust on which Strauss’ own opera set in roughly the same era is based.

If the orchestra played with grace and vitality in the first half, then in the second they launched into the introduction of Der Rosenkavalier with unabashed vigour and enthusiasm. There was no doubt in Elder’s mind what was going on in the Marschallin’s bedchamber as the curtain rises.

I don’t think I have heard the LSO sound – well – so European in some time. The string playing was warm and luscious, the winds luminous and the brass – and especially the horns – exultant.

They literally reveled in Strauss’ music. When accompanying the singers they were sensitive to the mood and the words but when needed the sound they produce was prodigious. The waltz interlude at the beginning of the Third Act extract, for example, was both vulgar yet triumphant.

And rising above Strauss’ opulent orchestration was a trio of singers who could not be bettered.

While it is hard to single them out individually, I must admit that Anne Schwanewilms established herself as the pre-eminent Strauss interpreter. I have long admired not only her concert and stage performances, but also her recordings and cannot fathom why she does not perform more often in the UK.

Our loss significantly.

As the Marschallin at the Barbican she was vocally formidable. But not only did she display a vocal authority – scaling down to the smallest yet still distinct softness as well as soar above the orchestra without a break in tone or vocal colour – but also a depth of understanding of how to communicate the Hoffmansthal’s words. Her crystal clear diction was coupled with an innate sense of the conversational nature of Strauss’ vocal line when needed – lingering on words that demonstrated an insight and level of musicianship that is hard to match today.

Da geht er hin was an incredible performance both in terms of her singing and her characterization. Her Marschallin was a woman of small, measured – almost calculated – gestures but they were gestures that spoke volumes. At Die Zeit im grunde, she literally bled her voice to a vocal pale that was chilling.

Sarah Connolly was her equal as the boisterous Octavian so acutely in lust – not love – with her. Connolly again reveled in Strauss music, effortlessly rising and falling with the vocal line, with a lustrous tone that sparkled.

And as Sophie, Lucy Crowe immediately captured the essence of the very short extract from the beginning of Act Two. A devilish part there was no hint of stress or strain as Strauss sent her into the vocal stratosphere.

That moment when Octavian and Sophie’s eyes meet over the rose was beautifully timed.

Also there was a real sense of luxury in having four male voices and again they all sang their small roles exuberantly.

But of course it was the trio that the audience was waiting for. And thankfully Elder and his performers gave us the necessary lead in into what must be Strauss’ most glorious pieces of music, and one of the most glorious scenes in opera.

That moment when the winds strike their chord and Octavian turns to Marie Theres’ was magical. And listening to Ms Schwanewilms unfurl that magnificent melody of resignation I would venture, broke a few hearts in the audience.

Definitely mine.

And as the three singers weaved around each other, Elder masterfully edged them closer and closer to that thrilling climax with the Marschallin’s In Gottes Namen leaping out clearly over the orchestra.

I’ve said before that for me the most critical words in this opera are the final words sung by the Marschallin.

And here, Anne Schwanewilms filled that single phrase– Ja, ja – with such emotion that in the final closing duet – with Strauss’ tangy harmonies in flutes and violins – Elder captured the sense of uncertainty of the young lovers future.

Indeed, it was an evening when the singers and the orchestra, marshaled by Elder, managed to create the same level of excitement and emotional weight as if we had watched the entire opera.

And I only wish we had.

But these extracts from Der Rosenkavalier will remain with the audience for a very long time.

And perhaps we shall see more of Anne Schwanewilms in the UK.

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

Murder Most Magnificent

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 23, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Review – Medea (English National Opera, Wednesday 20 February 2013)

Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa/Phantom – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis/Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker

Director – David McVicar
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Lynne Page

Chorus Master – Jörg Andresen
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera

Conductor – Christian Curnyn

English National Opera is a company that operates at both extremes of the performance spectrum.

To put it bluntly. Their productions are either incredibly good and thought-provoking. Or completely dreadful and ill-conceived. Although in those cases they are saved from complete ignominy from the general quality of the casting.

With their current production of Medea they are off the spectrum of incredibly good. Excellent. Award-winning. And I would even hazard to say a potential long-runner.

ENO would do well to consider building on their French baroque credentials based on this production and their previous production of Castor and Pollux.

David McVicar has matured from being the enfant terrible of opera directors with great ideas with great ideas to a great opera director with a great vision full of sharp ideas.

But first, the cast.

Charpentier’s music moves seamlessly from air to ‘recitatif’ – through composed or not – and therefore has few main numbers as it were. Therefore attention to the detail to the music and a keen eye to the shift between the two is required. And all the singers keenly demonstrated both.

It was a strongly knit cast without a weak link but clearly this is a production that will most be remembered for the tour-de-force of Sarah Connolly as Medea. This role could have been composed for her. I saw her recently perform scenes from French Baroque operas and this is clearly a genre that suits her voice and temperament.

It is clear – as she said in an interview – that completely trusts McVicar but they obviously share common ground when it comes to developing a character. It goes without saying that musically this was an incredibly distinguished and passionate performance. Sarah Connolly is in possession of a lustrous voice that can switch from the lightest, most delicate of tone and colour to an instrument of incredible force and volume and never was a word dropped or muffled. Witness for example her scenes with Nerina and better still the scene when she wrestles with killing her own sons for example. And it was also a subtle yet masterful transition from loving wife to spurned, vengeful woman. Her acting was incredibly convincing not only in the most obvious scenes but for example in her scene with Jason before her descent into revenge and as well as those scenes with Creon and Creusa.

As the King’s daughter-cum-starlet, Katherine Manley’s bright and full soprano was perfect and glittered like her ill-fated gown. Her closing air – as she lay dying – was sung with great poise but each of her scenes was beautifully and eloquently sung even when she had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction. Katherine Manley is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

Jeffrey Francis as Jason was a pleasant find. His light, crisp yet sweet-toned tenor was a delight and a good fit for Charpentier’s music as well as with the rest of the ensemble. Particularly impressive was his love duet with Creusa.

The remaining warriors – Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Roderick Williams’ Orontes – completed the very strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Williams as Pollux in Kosky’s production at ENO last year and here he returned with an equally strong portrayal of Orontes, displaying the same strong, darkly hued baritone with excellent diction. And Brindley Sherratt was superb as Creon. His resonant bass dealt comfortably with the delicacy of Charpentier’s writing.

Special mention too of Rhian Lois as Nerina, Aoife O’Sullivan as Cleonis and Cupid, Oliver Dunn’s Arcas and Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman for the strength and intelligence of their performances.

And of course the ENO chorus sang not only with conviction but with passion. The chorus revealing the death of Creon and Orontes was particularly impressive.

Christian Curnyn led the entire ensemble with great verve and attention to the music. There was an equal balance of rhythmic vitality and beautifully phrased suavity combined with a greater attention to the orchestra colour of Charpentier’s score than I found in his Rameau last year.

And so to the production.

The production was built around a combination of McVicar’s motifs but didn’t suffer because of it. The set could have been borrowed from his Covent Garden Figaro for example, and he maximised the size of the Coliseum’s stage – sometimes its own handicap – by focusing some energy on the activity surrounding the main characters without it being distracting.

The setting was – with its Wrens manoeuvring armies around a map and the costumes – reminiscent of the Second World War and there was a general air of decadence to the entire production. Ms Manley may have inadvertently lost her underwear in the second act but it added to the subtle hint of loucheness – almost decadence – at the court of Creon. His own desire for his daughter made clear by the way he touched her early in the opera, was heightened when the Phantoms in the penultimate act are all doppelgangers of Creusa. Similarly Cupid’s night club scene was smart and witty but again managed to deliver and underlying sense of menace.

The scene when Medea calls upon her demons was brilliantly done, and McVicar spared none of the savagery as Connolly cut her own skin and while I was somewhat at a loss with the shaved-headed, red painted male demons in shift dresses and high heels, the dancing in this scene was brutally effective.

Indeed for the most part the choreography – always a difficult thing to integrate into baroque opera and ENO’s dismal Julius Caesar is testimony to – was smart and efficient. When it didn’t add to the narrative, as it did in the aforementioned scene, it was hearty and jovial, which was no bad thing.

Medea shows what ENO is capable of when everything comes together – an excellent cast led by a superb conductor under the auspices of a smart and intelligent director. It’s a shame that John Berry dismisses the idea of cinema broadcasts. This production would – I am sure – be successful on the big screen because it has everything – a great story committed to stage with great singing, marvellous playing and brilliant direction.

Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already purchased a ticket.

And the second of two very clever and enjoyable French baroque productions by ENO. I do hope that John Berry realises that here is repertoire that is waiting to be explored and will decisively stake a claim to this genre in the capital.

Can we hope for a more new productions? Indeed perhaps some Lully?

Aria For … Wednesday – Io t’abbraccio (Rodelinda)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Harry Bickett, Opera on January 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Handel’s Rodelinda contains some of his most ravishing music and nothing more beautiful that the duet that closes the Second Act – Io t’abbracio – here sung by Sarah Connolly and Rosemary Joshua.

Written in 1719, for me this is a greater “fare thee well” duet than the one composed by Handel for the closing of the second act of Giulio Cesare.

It’s the utter simplicity of this duet that makes is so effective. The dropping vocal phrases, juxtaposed and contrasted with an independent instrumental line – which with any other composer would just be textbook Doctrine of Affections technique – are here molded by Handel into something wonderful and poignant. And in the middle section, Handel reverses the direction of the vocal line, again a simple textbook technique, but done with such style.

The music is further heightened by the impassioned performance of Mesdames Connolly and Joshua – possibly two of the greatest Handel interpreters on the stage today. And what makes this a great performance is their delicate, intelligent and emotionally sensitive embellishments in the returning da capo.

And this duet is only one small part of an excellent album of opera and oratorio duets with the bright and alert accompaniment of The English Concert conducted by the ever brilliant Harry Bickett.

“Remember Me”

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 17, 2012 at 10:21 am

Review – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers – French Exchange (Sarah Connolly, Fernando Guimarães, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jonathan Cohen).

The second instalment in the OAE’s QH&L’s series did not completely match the white hot intensity of the inaugural concert of the series. Personally, I think that this had more to do with the programming than the performers and performances themselves.

While I can understand the connection between the baroque French musical style and that of Henry Purcell, it seemed like a strange leap of artistic faith to conjoined him with Rameau who wrote his first opera almost forty years after Purcell’s death even if the programming included detours via Charpentier and Lalande.

Needless to say Sarah Connolly didn’t so much steal as command the evening. She is – in my mind – one of the greatest mezzos on the stage and concert hall today. I remember her more than notable performance in an otherwise disappointing Mahler Symphony No. 8 and have seen her on stage a number of times as well as having all her excellent recordings. And on the evening she not only bathed the audience with her wonderfully warm, resonant and luxurious voice but also demonstrated a keen and intelligent musicianship.

But it wasn’t in the set pieces taken from either Medée Hippolyte et Aricie but in the single and exquisitely performed aria from Dido and Aeneas, Thy Hand Belinda – When I Am Laid In Earth. A collective stillness settled on the audience during this most eloquent and beautiful rendition where Ms Connolly coloured each phrase and spun out gentle ornamentation. ‘Remember me’ has rarely – if ever – sounded so heartbreaking. I only wish the OAE had gone to the expense of closing with a real chorus – even just single voices.

Last minute changes to the programme led to some confusion as to who was singing what, when but even in the chunks of Charpentier and Rameau it was Ms Connolly who dominated. Her dignified yet impassioned delivery of the two scenes from Medée were a timely reminder that she will be performing the title role next year at the London Coliseum. Its a shame that her clear and fluent French diction won’t be heard in stage and you don’t have a ticket for ENO’s forthcoming production in 2013 now is the time to get one.

Cruelle mère des amour from Hippolyte et Aricie was another tour de force with Ms Connolly demonstrating that even within the confines of more-than-mannered French baroque opera there is plenty of scope for Phèdre’s emotional turmoil. And in the subsequent scene with her son, she more than compensated for the lukewarm Hippolyte of Guimarães.

Indeed and sadly Guimarães never really moved beyond lukewarm. While his voice has both a pleasing if one dimensional timbre and is both flexible and fluid, there was – for me – something of the bland about it. Perhaps it was the choice of repertoire on the evening but I didn’t think his voice particularly suited either the Purcell or the Rameau.

As before, the orchestra directed by Jonathan Cohen were superlative, digging with gusto into the orchestral excerpts from Charpentier, Rameau and Purcell and making the most of the rather non-descript Lalande. Indeed their clear enjoyment and passion for the music was demonstrated after the concert by two of the players extolling the joys and challenges of playing at a pitch of A392.

Ultimately however, Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers Parte Deux – bar inspired and assured performances by Ms Connolly – failed to reach the emotional intensity of the first concert.

Maestro Maazel’s Misjudged Mahler Makes For Mediocrity

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on October 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Review – Symphony No. 8, Gustav Mahler
Sally Matthews, Ailish Tynan, Sarah Tyan, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Marie Owens, Stefan Vinke, Mark Stone & Stephen Gadd. Philharmonia Chorus, BBC Symphony Chorus, Boys of the Eton College Chapel Choir. Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel.

Maazel ended his Mahler cycle which he began in earnest in April of this year with Gustav’s Eighth Symphony. The cycle as a whole has had a mixed reception and I have two admissions.

First of all I did not attend any of the other performances in the cycle and therefore cannot testify if there was any sense of ‘greater architecture’ or cohension to the cycle. And secondly I still had the magnificent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic ringing in my ears from the previous weekend.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony always sets up a sense of various expectations. Not only in terms of the forces that must be assembled – although fortunately not always the ‘one thousand’ of legend – but also in terms of the line up of soloists and of course the credentials of both orchestra and conductor.

On paper it all looked very promising. I have Maazel’s complete recordings of Mahler’s symhonies with the Vienna Philharmonic and I don’t think that his approach to this symphony has changed much from set to stage. Additionally the soloists ranked on Sunday were potentially impressive.

So why did I leave the concert hall feeling disappointed? Granted there were some who stood and gave ovations. Perhaps they had attended the whole cycle? Perhaps they were genuinely moved?

For me it was a lacklustre and at times incredibly frustrating evening. I have heard the term ‘directionless’ used with reference to the other performances in the cycle and that seems the best description for Maazel’s performance of the Eighth Symphony.

Granted the opening, Veni, creator spiritus was magnificent and promising. But simply in a way that – I believe – you cannot get the opening of this symphony so completely wrong that it doesn’t have impact. From the opening chord of the organ, the opening bars are as much about simply marshalling the extravagant forces arrayed in from of the podium as creating the momentum that will carry through to the closing bars of Part One.

There was both immediate sound and weight, yet almost immediately Maazel showed that he didn’t really have a direction of travel. Almost from the beginning it seemed that what Maazel lacked was a sense of pace, direction and attention to detail.

While Mahler wrote what can only be described as a ‘wall of sound’ for the opening, he was – as I have said before – a master of orchestration. He had an innate knowledge of orchestral colour and balance and despite the furious activity in the opening bars Mahler scores the orchestra intuitively as he begins to lay out the thematic ideas that will dominate for the rest of the symphony.

It became evident that Maazel wasn’t so interested in delving into this level of detail and was simply conducting the notes. There was none of the transparency or sense of contrast written so clearly, lovingly and with deliberate purpose into the score. Even in terms of dynamic range Maazel seemed to operate in one of two modes – very loud or dynamically bland. In fact by the end of the performance I was convinced that Maazel was so detached from the performers on the stage that he almost gave the impression of wanting to be somewhere else.

The chorus’ first entry quickly gave way to blurred lines vocal lines and many orchestral entries were ragged.

The soloists – bar one – fared little better and as they are all exemplary performers I can only put this down to a lack of frisson with Maestro Maazel himself. For the most part they seemed to struggle against the conductor rather than working with him.

Stefan Vinke – whose bell-like tenor is usually a pleasure to hear and whose diction is a marvel – bravely attempted to rise to the challenge that Mahler set the tenor soloist. Let’s be clear, it’s a punishing role at the best of time when the conductor is sensitive to the music, but here from almost the start his voice sounded strained as he fought to be heard against Maazel and above the orchestra. At no point was there any sense that he was getting any sensitive or intelligent support from the conductor. And this was sadly true of the remaining soloists.

Sally Mathews’ normally resplendent soprano, so rich and warm in tone seemed unusually ill-matched in this performance. There were moments when her brilliant soprano shone through but not as often as Mahler would have envisaged. And Ailish Tynan – who stepped in at the last minute so thrillingly for Mena’s Mahler a few weeks back – on this occasion sounded shrill and in the Second Part seemed to develop a peculiar affectation of over emphasising and individually aspirating notes in what should have been fluid vocal phrases.

The third soprano, Sarah Tynan – positioned in one of the uppermost boxes in the Royal Festival Hall – was hampered by her distance from her compatriots. Like Lee Bissett, Sarah Tynan is a ‘graduate’ of the ENO’s Young Singers and I have always been an admirer. Alas, accustomed as I am to her bell-like soprano, she too sounded somewhat out of sorts and her voice has a strange veil over the expected brightness.

Of the remaining men, Stephen Gadd (and pace Brindley Sherratt for the mistake) failed to make any impact at all. His deep bass failing to convey any of the mastery of Mahler’s music or words and on occasion seemed to slide across phrases rather than singing individual notes. Singularly disappointing. And finally neither Mark Stone nor Anne-Marie Owens – again both incredibly talented artists in their own right – made any impact.

So it was left to the marvellous Sarah Connolly to rescue the performance. An ever accomplished and talented performer she single-handed exuded vocal confidence in her every entr. She alone rose above the distraction of Maazel to deliver a stunning and meanginful performance – words crystal clear, tone rich and resonant.

The Philharmonia Orchestra also failed to assert themselves, and at times seemed at odds with the man with the baton in his hand. Some superlative playing from the woodwind coulldn’t gloss over the less than burnished tone from the string section and – truth be told – some rather ‘hiccuped’ solos from them as well. The bleakness at the opening of Part Two had more to do with a clear lack of confidence in the players than conveying the notes on the page.

And pace to everyone, but I have to admit that the fainting double bass player just at the end may have achieved the only sense of momentum and excitement in the whole evening. But joking aside, I do hope that both she and her instrument are much recovered. And all credit to her colleagues who kept on going.

So while I won’t go so far as to say that the performance was a complete disaster, it was – and perhaps a worse indictment – a mediocre performance. Maazel – semi or completely detached on the podium – didn’t deliver any sense of breadth or understanding of the symphony’s broader architecture. As a result he failed to inspire either the orchestra or the soloists.

By the end of the performance I was left thinking of those dreadful equations that I had to do when I was at school. If a car is travelling north west at sixty miles per hour, and a truck is travelling south east at 35 miles an hour, what time do they pass one another? Or on this occasion, it was more if Maazel starts conducting at 7.30pm and merely trundles through the motions of conducting Mahler, what time is the earliest that I will get home?

A Tale of Three Operas (In Two Acts)

In Classical Music, Opera on April 24, 2011 at 2:55 am

Listening To – Il Trovatore (Domingo/Plowright/Giulini)
I recently travelled to The Met and attended performances of three operas – Die Walkure in Lepage’s new production, Capriccio and Il Trovatore. Lepage’s Die Walkure will follow in a subsequent entry but for now to Capriccio and Il Trovatore.
First, the respective casting:
Capriccio – Renee Fleming, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Peter Rose, Morten Frank Larsen & Sarah Connolly. Production – John Cox. Conductor – Andrew Litton.

Il Trovatore – Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dolora Zajick. Production – David McVicar. Conductor – Marco Armiliato.

On paper similarly strong casts. Yet in reality how differently they turned out.

Capriccio had a superlative cast and with the exception of Andrew Litton, none of them were part of the original 1998 production which featured Kiri Te Kanawa. Naturally Fleming is today’s consummate Strauss interpreter, and while in places she had a tendency to overact – something she seems to do increasingly these days – hers was an almost definitive performance, superbly supported by an incredibly strong ensemble. Of course there is Sarah Connolly, but the Flamand of Kaiser and Braun’s Olivier were vividly brought to life, beautifully sung and provided perfect foils to Rose’s La Roche. The main cast was completed by Frank Larsen’s dashing and beautifully voiced Count.

Everyone’s diction and sense of ensemble was perfect. It reminded me precisely what a gem Capriccio was – a beautifully balanced scored, full of the achingly beautiful lines of Strauss’ final years. The final scene was just ravishing.

The production was simple yet effective, transplanted to 1920s Paris without any sense of loss in terms of the specific 18th century references to Gluck and the Guerre des Bouffons. The three and half hour performance – without an interval – flew by. Before the audience knew it, Litton was launching into the orchestral prelude before the Countess’ final monologue.

Litton’s conducting – he is simply underrated in the UK – was fluid and revealed a deep understanding and love for the luminosity of Strauss final opera. The Met’s orchestra achieved a real sense of warm glow, with the wind skittering brightly throughout the score.

The standing ovation – so common at the Met where the audience gives standing ovations to every production – was richly deserved. This was almost superlative Strauss.

I am so glad that I caught this – the final – performance. And one thing suddenly crossed my mind during the performance. Perhaps she chooses neither Flamand or Olivier. She ardently defends La Roche and subsequently commissions an opera for him to direct. Now La Roche is always portrayed as an older, slightly rotund figure. Almost a cultured Baron Ochs. Now what’s to say that in fact he isn’t Madeleine’s choice, bringing words and music together with his own skills of producer/director. And it is meant to be the 18th century when women married men older than themselves. Now that would make for an interesting denouement!

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Il Trovatore. This was my first ever production of this opera. It was at the Met. What could possibly go wrong?

It was obviously conceit on the Met’s part, and perhaps a fear of not shifting tickets for a commonly performed opera, that led them to cast the original quartet of principals.

In 2009 all four were probably – I imagine – at their peak and all are renowned Verdi performers. Sadly this just wasn’t the case on the evening I attended. From the start things went awry. In the opening scene Stefan Kocan’s Ferrando lagged behind the conductor, and Radvanovsky disappointed from the start. I have her singing Tacea la notte on CD and while I realise that a studio recording is vastly different from a performance on stage, at the Met her voice was unresponsive, bland and – dare I say it – forced to the point of being more suited to steering ships through the fog. Hvorostovsky fared no better. Il balen del suo sorriso was almost painful as he struggled to sing sotto voce and failed. His conceit at holding the final note – with no finesse – simply added insult to injury.

And Ms Zajick was simply a disaster. Her voice has seen better days and now her soprano is simply ravaged. Tonally it was all over the place, there was no sense of line and simply a desperation to get to the end, which the audience obviously took for passionate interpretation.

Poor Alvarez. Lumbered with such weak colleagues he too failed to shine. The end of the Second Act, combined with terrible ham acting, was almost the nadir.

Yet the final nail in the coffin was Armiliato’s completely lacklustre conducting. Uninspired. Dull. And simply failing to find the colours, sense of breadth or rhythm that Verdi so beautifully crafted into the score.

A shame as two things almost saved the evening for me. First the chorus provided the only sense of musicality on the stage. And McVicar’s production, inspired by Goya, was suitably brooding. As I said, almost saved the evening. It is an inexcusable conceit to cast as clumsily – or greedily – as this. There are other – and better – performers who should have had the opportunity to perform this production.

Strangely the audience seemed to love it and especially the principals. Clapping rapturously after every number even when it was clear – as in the case if Ms Zajick- that she had simply failed to hit the right notes, at the right volume or make any attempt to clear enunciate her words. As I mentioned above, the Met audience – or at least the Met’s Verdi audience – seem to think it is necessary to go wild for anything and everyone.

It was all I could do to get back to my hotel and immediately listen Domingo and Plowright under Giulini’s admirable baton.

Now that’s Il Trovatore as it should be performed.

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