Posts Tagged ‘Simone Kermes’

Figaro – It’s A Man’s World

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on February 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Review – Le Nozze di Figaro (W. A. Mozart)

Figaro – Christian van Horn
Susanna – Fanie Atonelou
Count Almaviva – Andrei Bondarenko
Countess Almaviva – Simone Kermes
Cherubino – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Marcellina – Maria Forsstrom
Bartolo – Nikolai Loskutkin
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Don Kurzio – James Elliott
Barbarina – Natalya Kirillova

Music Aeterna
Teodor Currentzis (Conductor)

In the twelve minute film that accompanies his new recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, Teodor Currentzis is undoubtedly passionate about music and music making – it is “not profession, not a reproduction, it’s a mission”.

No arguing with that.

There’s also no arguing with the idea that the problems that Mozart captures in this opera are the same problems people face today. There’s passion, love, betrayal and forgiveness within the span of this magnificent work.

So why does this recording sound so old fashioned, dry and most importantly lacking any sense of emotion – passion or otherwise – at all?

Perhaps it’s to do with his theories in terms of how singers should sing. In interviews he has criticized the “lifeless perfectionism” of classical music; that operas have been disfigured by the diktat of “volume at all cost” and “simplification” and that the original vocal palette of colours has been lost and that opera recordings today contain the “least operatic singing”.

Of course there are times when voices – both on stage and in recordings – don’t fit that particular music, but listening to this recording I did wonder if Currentzis had his own balance quite right?

During the course of the video interview Currentzis refers to Le Nozze di Figaro as a “fantastic monument of architecture with the finest lines … [into which] Mozart puts the defect inside”. By defect I assume he means the twists of the social commentary within the story itself and how the music underlines this commentary.

But in reality, Currentzis missionary zeal has injected the opera with a greater defect – his own in terms of the performance.

The opera starts well enough with a well-paced overture and with an attention to the orchestral detail that is immediate. Indeed the orchestral playing throughout is exemplary with a vigour and muscularity that shines a spotlight on the beauty and skill of Mozart’s scoring. There is a warmth of tone to the strings, the wind playing is light and airy and the trumpets and horns are more audible than normal, adding a frisson to the texture which is – when their enthusiasm doesn’t get the best of them – exciting. I have to admit that I am not convinced about the authenticity of the orchestra playing on their feet throughout and there were times when the orchestral volume threatened the chance of the singers being clearly heard.

Sadly however it’s the ‘over-attention’ that Currentzis pays to the singers that undermines the totality of this recording.

There is no doubting the forcefulness of the men in their roles. The Figaro of Christian van Horn and Andrei Bondarenko’s Count dominate the proceedings and it was sometimes be difficult to tell them apart, not only because of the – if at times one dimensional – forcefulness of their characterisations but because they often seem to be exceedingly loud. Take the trio Susanna or via sortite in Act One – it lacked an equality between the Count, Countess and Susanna that’s so necessary to impart the drama of this moment.

Indeed the only moment when Bondarenko does rein in the volume is at that critical moment in the Fourth Act finale when he begs Rosina’s forgiveness. In what should be a magical moment, this Count strangles his voice to such a diminuendo that the impact is lost.

Van Horn makes for a strong Figaro vocally. All his arias demonstrate his robust vocal ability and there’s a pleasant rhythmic spring to both his singing and his diction. But it seems that Currentzis cannot but tinker – the weird sound effect at the end of Se vuol ballare – I think created by holding down keys no the fortepiano so that they resonate – was simply distracting.

Bartolo fares a little better even if La Vendetta was a little faster than unusual. But in the ensembles Loskutkin seems forced to compete with the two other alpha males and the finesse of the music is lost.

But it is the women who suffer the most from Currentzis’ approach. There isn’t the ‘original vocal palette of colours’ that he refers to in the interviews he has conducted. Almost to a person, Currentzis has stripped these singers of their individuality and character, their vibrato-less voices bled of any emotion range or tone.

Personally I don’t believe that the use of vibrato didn’t exist in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Books on both performance practice and singing from the period refer to vocal techniques that clearly relate to the use of vibrato and it is remarked on by the commentators of the day. I don’t deny that vibrato has to be used sparingly in music of this period therefore to remove it completely as Currentzis has encouraged his singers to do effectively strips them of a fundamental and critical emotional dimension to their voices.

This is particularly evident in the Countess of Simone Kermes. In other recordings of music of this period and earlier, Ms Kermes demonstrates that she is an expert at using vibrato most effectively to colour the vocal line and add a real sense of emotional intensity. While listening to this recording I fancied that perhaps as her character developed from Porgi Amor onwards, she would begin to slowly but surely colour her singing to reflect her growing characterisaton. Sadly, it wasn’t so. Dove Sono was a particular ‘low-light’ – not only was the voice bland but the expected fluidity of the vocal line was uneven as a result. Essentially we have been given a Countess singing the notes without communicating them.

It was a similar case in point with Fanie Atonelou’s Susanna. A lack of vocal characterisation made this a bride-to-be without any bite. This was evident from the opening numbers when she is clearly not Figaro’s musical equal but also highlighted in numbers such as the sextet of the Third Act when we all discover Figaro’s parentage and she lacks the necessary vocal weight. Venite, inginocchiatevi was beautifully paced, but the use of ‘sound effects’ only served to highlight the blandness of the singing itself.

And the beautiful almost sensuous Che soave zeffiretto of the Countess and her maid passed – as it definitely should not – without any notice. A tragedy.

I admit to being most disappointed with this recording’s Cherubino. Mary-Ellen Nesi is an incredible mezzo but casting her in this role was a mistake. I’d like to think that perhaps Currentzis was trying to underline the fact that Cherubino is an adolescent boy whose voice is breaking which is why Nesi was given the role, as there was undoubtedly a ‘huskiness’ – almost a matronliness – to the vocal delivery. But in reality her voice is not suited to this role. Voi che sapete sounding particularly uncomfortable with embellishments that pushed Nesi’s voice uncomfortably at points.

Indeed of the women, only Maria Forsstrom‘s Marcellina was strongly cast, well characertised and it was a nice surprise to hear Il caro e la capretta.

Currentzis follows the vogue of embellishing the fortepiano line. There are contemporary reports of Mozart embellishing from the fortepiano himself and I have to say that the recitatives are handled well and are fleet of foot, with the improvisations on the fortepiano adding to the detail rather than distracting.

I can’t deny that once my ear had got used to Currentzis approach it was refreshing. But I did rather listen to this performance in terms of its ‘theoretical’ approach and argument rather than as a performance in its own right.

Ultimately however it is Currentzis’ theorising and the resultant unevenness of the voices that – despite well-judged tempi – undermines this Figaro. Le Nozze di Figaro and Beaumarchais’ original play discomfited the ruling classes not only because Figaro was an ‘upstart’ but because it offered a glimpse of women – of all classes – as equal both in intellect and power.

Currentzis has undermined the very “defect” that he himself recognizes that Mozart wrote into this opera.

It will be interesting – and hopefully not as disappointing – to hear Currentzis’ Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni due later this year and next.


A Slice Of Quattro (Mezzo) Soprani

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Mozart, Opera, Review on October 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Sogno Barocco – Anne-Sofie von Otter (Sandrine Piau, Capella Mediterranea, Leonardo Garcia Alarcon)
Prima Donna – Karina Gauvin (Arion Baroque Orchestra, Alexander Wiemann)
Dramma – Simone Kermes (La Magnifica Comunità, Isabella Longo)
Amoretti – Christiane Karg (Arcangelo & Jonathan Cohen)

It seems that new CDs by leading singers are like buses. You wait ages and then a slew of them arrive at the same time. In the last few weeks I have bought no less than seven new recital discs. As well as those listed above I also have excellent recital discs by Joyce DiDonato and Soile Isokoski as well as Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s more lacklustre recital of Eighteenth Century arias. The latter bordering, sadly, on the disappointing.

While I will return to Mesdames DiDonato and Isokoski at a later date, the four recital CDs listed above have – to varying degrees – given me many hours of pleasure from repeated listening.

Heading the list – and rather unexpectedly I have to admit – is Swedish mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter’s Sogno Barocco. I do not say unexpectedly from any sense that the recital isn’t of the very highest standard but rather this isn’t necessarily music that I more normally delve into.

But I am glad I did. I have always greatly admired Ms von Otter. Her luxuriant and characterful mezzo is combined with an intelligent yet impassioned approach to performance. As well as having many of her performances on CD, I have seen her in recital as well as in a broad range of operatic roles including as Brangäne in the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde.

Following her magnificent disc of French arias, Ombre De Mon Amour with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Ms von Otter steps back further in time to the earliest Baroque opera composers and has created a recital interestingly coincidentally based on music for queens, either fictional or real. Accompanied by the excellent Capella Mediterranea under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon the listener is further spoiled – and there is no other word to use – by the appearance of Sandrine Piau in three tracks. As well as Monteverdi, Ms von Otter has built a recital that includes Rossi, Cavalli and a rather boisterous number by Provenzale.

The mood and standard is set immediately by Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ‘l tormento. The strophic structure of this song with it varied instrumental interludes is beguiling in its simplicity.

But the standout highlights of the recital are undoubtedly Pur to miro from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and her impassioned soliloquy Di misera regina from Il ritorno d’Ulisse. In the first and famous duet, Mesdames Otter and Piau wrap their vocal lines around one another with a sensuality that I’ve not heard matched in other performances, and after a rhythmically alert middle section what can only be described as an almost sexual tension is heightened in the melting beautiful da capo. And in the second, Ms von Otter ensures that each and every word is carefully weighed for its emotional content and woven into a grieving whole.

But while the selections from Monteverdi define the album, this recital disc includes numerous other gems that demand repeated listening. For example Cavalli’s Dolcissimi baci (La Calisto) and Doriclea lamento (Doriclea) or at the other end of the unusual scale, Rossi’s Lamento de la Regina di Suezia with contralto Susanna Sundberg. Here von Otter runs the gamut of a whole range of emotions including a most impressive ‘battaglia’ section. And on a more boisterous note there is Provenzale’s Squaciato appena havea.

Throughout von Otter is brilliantly accompanied by the players of Capella Mediterranea led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcon, and they provide a scattering of instrumental pieces throughout the recital alternating vigour with delicacy. Even if – like me – you are not normally an early Baroque enthusiast this is definitely a disc worth listening to.

Next was Karina Gauvin’s Prima Donna with the Arion Baroque Orchestra directed by Alexander Wiemann. All the arias on the disc were written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò and while the bulk of the arias are by Handel there are isolated arias by Vinci and Vivaldi. However it is with Handel that del Pò is mainly associated and for her he wrote key roles including Angelica in Orlando, Adelaida in Lotario and the title role in Partenope. Indeed it seems that Handel was responsible for her career as Charles Burney wrote she was “a singer formed by himself (Handel), and modelled on his own melodies. She came hither a coarse and awkward singer with improve talents, and he at last polished her into reputation and favour”. Sadly Burney cannot resist a rite critical stance on her appearance, writing “she had so little of the Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig”. Not something critics today would dare write methinks.

I tried very hard to love this recital disc as much as I have loved previous recordings by Ms Gauvin as well as her live performances. But after repeated listening – and I am sure I will return to it again and again – all I can admit to is admiring Ms Gauvin’s technical proficiency combined with her bright and sonorous soprano. But bar a few fleeting moments when she almost gets under the skin of the music, these are ‘glossy’ performances.

There’s little ‘bite’ or colour and very little interpretation. But she can throw off the coloratura as witnessed by a rather jaunty Scherza in mar from Lotario and Angelica’s No, non potra dirmi ingrata that opens the recital.

The moments where there are glimpses of what could have been are in the three numbers from Alcina – Ah! Ruggiero, crudel … Ombre pallide, Si, non quella and – what must be one of my favourite of all Handel’s arias – Ah! Mio cor. Here the emotional temperature gets above lukewarm but never to boiling point.

I think it part it is due to the colourless – almost polite and reserved – playing of the Arion Baroque Orchestra and direction of Wiemann. Even the orchestral excerpts – including the rather odd decision to throw in a rather scratchy Grave from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in c minor for his Opus 6 collection – are lacklustre.

So in the end a disappointing disc that does very little to demonstrate Ms Gauvin’s very obvious musicianship and vocal brilliance.

Simone Kermes’ album Dramma delves into the world of the castrato with a disc of music of composers Giuseppe de Majo, Porpora, Pergolesi and Leo together with a single yet highly memorable Handel aria with great verve delivered in spades. And many of the arias world-premiere recordings.

Ms Kermes has carved out a place for herself as a coloratura soprano of some standing and this disc reinforces this position with authority. Not only is she in magnificent form but she digs deep to find the emotional dimension in each aria.

I don’t know if it’s my disc but the opening aria, de Majo’s Per trionfar pugnando has a scratchy opening almost as if listening to an old 78 but it doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the orchestral playing – and in particular the trumpets – or Ms Kermes’ vocal security and polished tone.

Indeed Ms Kermes throws out the challenging coloratura of many of the arias with both enviable ease and accuracy. For example in Empi, se mai disciplogo, Leo’s Son qual nave in ria procella with its pinpoint delivery or Pergolesi’s Sul mio cor.

But one of the most beautiful arias on this disc is Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo and coming as the second track underlines the breadth of Ms Kermes talent. The momentum – almost nervous pulse – of the accompaniment belies the beautiful vocal line that Ms Kermes spins above it. Her opening phrase – the simple dynamic control she exerts – is a lesson in musicianship and following the short middle section it’s return is stunning. This is the most wonderful preghiera.

In a similar vein is Porpora’s lilting Le limpid’onde from Ifiginie in Aulide with its luminous wind writing. Charming.

Hasse is represented by two arias and the first, Consola il genitore, has Ms Kermes accompanied only by harpsichord. The sheer simplicity of this aria is in stark contrast after the seven preceding arias yet the exposed vocal line is beautifully delivered. In the scheme of Hasse’s L’Olimpiade from which this is taken, it must have been an incredible moment.

Handel is represented by Lascia ch’io pianga. A difficult aria to carry off normally here it is nothing short of a heart-stopping event in this recital. The hushed da capo, almost totally unadorned in any way, is reason enough to buy this disc.

The orchestral playing under Isabella Longo as I have already said, is of the highest standard. Listen to the bold contrapuntal opening of Vedrà turbato il mare for example or the delicacy of Tace l’augello with its solo string writing complimenting Ms Kermes superbly. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the evident joy of La Magnifica Comunitá is Porpora’s Se dopo ria procella with its nothing less than raunchy but accurate horn playing.

Christiane Karg is new to me but Amoretti – with arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry – is a gem.

Ms Karg has a beautifully clear and bell-like soprano combined with very sure technique. The opening aria from La Finta Giardinera – and the title of the album – is beautifully presented and sets the standard for the remaining arias by Mozart as well as the whole disc.

Ferma aspetta … Infelici affetti miei from Ascanio in Alba belies how young Mozart was when he wrote it and Ms Karg invests it with suitable dramatic power. And this emotional investment comes to the fore in the scena from Lucio Silla, Fra i pensier.

Mitridate’s Lunga da te is taken at a daringly measured pace but has both a superb horn obbligato and wonderful elegant legato phrasing from Ms Karg.

And if anyone is in doubt of Ms Karg’s technique then Biancheggia from Il Sogno di Scipione will dispel any concerns as she veritably flings out the divisions with incredible ease.

The selections from Gluck include the rarely performed Soumis au silence from Orphée et Euridice and Sacre Piante from Il Parnasso Confuso but it is the Adieu from Iphigénie en Aulide which stands out. Crystal clear diction and a real sympathy for the rhythmic structure of the vocal line, Ms Karg is a natural Gluckist.

But the real finds of this recital are the arias by André Ernest Modeste Grétry. In my teenage years, rummaging through a second-hand record shop I came across a recording of Grétry’s – I’m pretty sure it was his Richard, Cœur de Lion. At the time I remember trying anything from the Eighteenth century ‘rather than’ Mozart but have to admit that having got it home I was more than a little disappointed.

Having revisited Grétry more than once since it is no small shame that he is not performed more often, especially based in the selections made here. Comme in éclair from La fausse Magpie written in 1775 is an exercise in Galanterie and clearly influenced not only by his time in Italy but by a plethora of Italian contemporaries in its composition. Again the coloratura here holds no fears for Ms Karg and her vocal technique shines through.

Il va venir! … Pardonne o mon Juge from Silvain was a comédie written five years earlier and again clearly owes much to Italian opera. Following a well-crafted accompanied section the subsequent aria with its oboe interjections is almost Mozartian – early Mozart.

The third aria, Au bien supreme from the comédie Lucille was written in 1769 owes something to Gluck in its woodwind colouring.

Perhaps it’s about time that the spotlight was shine more fully on Monsieur Grétry. Any offers?

And throughout Ms Karg is confidently supported by Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen. As in their disc with Iestyn Davies Cohen and the players demonstrate their instinctive talent and musicianship.

Another slice anyone?


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