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Perfectly Don

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on June 21, 2016 at 6:16 am

Review – Don Giovanni (Classical Opera, Cadogan Opera, Friday 17 June 2016)

Don Giovanni – Jacques Imbrailo
Leporello – David Soar
Donna Anna – Ana Maria Labin
Don Ottavio – Stuart Jackson
Donna Elvira – Helen Sharman
Zerlina – Ellie Laugharne
Masetto – Bradley Travis
Commendatore – David Shipley

The Philharmonia Chorus
The Orchestra of Classical Opera

Ian Page (Conductor)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Mozart’s later operas are ensemble affairs. Of course he wrote stunning and psychologically insightful music for each protagonist, but it is in the ensembles that the music really comes alive. And I don’t only mean in Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro but also Clemenza and Die Zauberflöte as well.

But it is in Don Giovanni – dare I say his greatest late opera – that the ensembles are truly magnificent. Not only defining the characters but literally driving the drama forward almost as if jet-propelled.

And all credit to Ian Page, Classical Opera and the eight performers that this was truly an ensemble performance. With the exception of a rather speedy La ci darem la mano, the arias were all performed beautifully – so beautifully in fact that I can (almost) forgive Mr Page for his purist approach and not giving us Mi tradi. But it was in the ensembles that the evening took on an even greater dramatic frisson that at the end of each act was palpable.

Page directed an energetic and colourful performance from the orchestra – the first notes of the overture, with the surprisingly timpani sound eradicated any risk of an ‘end of the week’ feeling in the audience. The woodwind in Madamina, il catalogo è questo buzzed over energetic string playing which was throughout meticulous and the brass barked threateningly both in the overture and in the final scene.

As Don Giovanni, Jacques Imbrailo might have been slightly too light vocally but what he didn’t have in total heft and the occasional wandering tonality in the occasional recitative he made up for with a strong and underlying threatening characterization and a deft way of singing the vocal line. And while David Soar relished this Leporello, never missing a beat, it was good to see Bradley Travis reprise a vocally strong Masetto in a stronger production that the recent one by ETO. Stuart Jackson, a regular performer for Classical Opera, performed a vocally impressive Don Ottavio – performing a confident and fluid Il mio tesoro, As the Commendatore, David Shipley rounded off an overall impressive cadre of men.

Ana Maria Labin led an equally strong line up of women, her bright and shining soprano demonstrating equally impressive flexibility. Non mi dir, bell’idol bio rightly got the loudest cheer from the audience.. The Donna Elvira of Helen Sharman was vocally distinctive from her noble counterpart, rich and seamless but occasionally slightly marred by distracting vibrato. But personally, I would have enjoyed to see her bring her dramatic talents to Mi trade. Ellie Laugharne’s Zerlina was suitably coquettish in both Batti, Batti and Vedrai Carino, although occasionally sharp in at the top of her range.

This wasn’t part of Classical Opera’s ambitious Mozart 250 project but it did reinforce what everyone at Cadogan Hall already knew. Ian Page and his ensemble are consummate Mozartians.

Can we hope that, having performed Don Giovanni in concert now, when it returns in a few years time it will be fully staged? I hope so, but regardless of how it does return, expectations from the remaining da Ponte operas will be very high indeed.

Classical Opera won’t disappoint.

Jolly Good Jommelli

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 3, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Review – Il Vologeso (Cadogan Hall, Thursday 28 April 2016)

Vologeso – Rachel Kelly
Berenice – Gemma Summerfield
Lucio Vero – Stuart Jackson
Lucilla – Angela Simkin
Flavio – Jennifer France
Aniceto – Tom Verney

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page Conductor)

Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 project continued apace with the first London performance of Niccolo Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

Jommelli will always, I fear, be consigned to the ‘side show Bob’ category of Eighteenth Century opera composers together with composers such as Traetta, JC Bach and Hasse to name a few. It’s not that his music isn’t well-crafted but rather his music was strait-jacketed into the constraints of opera seria. Characters are more unusally ciphers of Enlightened ideals of perfection or imperfection needing to be changed who deliver beautiful and rather arias with formulaic and expected emotions, with the music providing a vehicle to showcase the talents of the celebrated singers of the day. It would take Mozart to explode those constraints with the result that famous in his day, Jommelli and his brethren became consigned to the wings.

For this performance, Ian Page took a red pen to the score, eliding da capo arias as well as excising some of them completely, together with what one imagines to be swathes of recitative. Admittedly it made for a shorter evening but the result felt slightly unbalanced despite the extremely high level of music making underpinned by extremely alert yet sensitive playing the Orchestra of Classical Opera.

Gemma Summerfield’s Berenice stood out from a pretty well-chosen and strong cast of singers. She had a bright, gleaming soprano that was very flexible and even throughout her range. Her Act Three scene, Ombra, che pallida fai? was not only heart-achingly sung but demonstrated Jommelli’s skill in writing large-scale tableaux of emotional intensity.

Lucio Vero was finely sung by Stuart Jackson, the Osroa of Classical Opera’s Adriano in Siria last year. Suitably imperious, he negotiated his arias with aplomb although I did wont for a bit more depth and colour in his voice.

Angela Simkins’ Lucilla was sadly hampered by having her head buried in the score for most of the performance. Understandably, Jommelli might not be in everyone’s repertoire but it was more noticeable in Ms Simkins’ case than the other singers. Despite that, her rich mezzo was beautifully suited to the music with her arias Tutti di speme al core and Partirò, se vuoi cosi sounding marvellous.

I did wonder why Classical Opera didn’t find a countertenor to sing the role of Vologeso himself. It is something I also wondered about their Adriano in Siria. It’s not that I have a problem with trouser role performances but surely it simply cannot be because there aren’t any anywhere who could tackle this role? Rachel Kelly delivered an accomplished performance, again Jommelli’s music held no terrors for her, singing Invan minacci with astonishing agility as well as bringing touching beauty to Cara, deh serbami.

As the various attendants Jennifer France and Tom Verney acquitted themselves ably although I would have preferred more bite and a fuller timbre in Verney’s countertenor.

Classical Opera and Ian Page are to be lauded for bringing Il Vologeso to an UK audience. I am not sure that there were many Jommelli converts as a result but it was an enjoyable addition to their ambitious Mozart 250 project.

Cara il dolce London Bach

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

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

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

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

The Orchestra of Classical Opera
Ian Page (Conductor)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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