Posts Tagged ‘Valer Barna-Sabadus’

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Il Divino Valer Barna-Sabadus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Review – Hasse RELOADED. Valer Barna-Sabadus, Hofkapelle München & Michael Hoffstetter.

If you purchase this album skip straight to the fifth track and listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Valer Barna-Sabadus is the latest in a line of distinguished and talented countertenors from Alfred Deller and James Bowman to David Daniels and Andreas Scholl through to the new ‘generation’ of Philippe Jaroussky, Max-Emmanuel Cencic and the UK’s very own Iestyn Davies and Robin Blaze.

Again I have to take slight issue with the marketing slant of the album – Hasse RELOADED. Not “Reloaded” which would be bad enough, but “RELOADED”. According to the sleeve notes by Barna-Sabadus himself, the title intends to “get rid of – once and for all – any and all prejudices about the supposedly contrived and dusty court music of the eighteenth century! With Johann Adolph Hasse I have selected a composer who couldn’t possibly have been more esteemed during his lifetime, but who nowadays has slipped into oblivion.”

My first encounter with Johann Adolph Hasse was William Christie’s superlative recording of Cleofide with a cast that included Emma Kirkby, Dominque Visse and Derek Lee Ragin. I think that the dust was well and truly blown away with that recording – not only for me but a great many others – and it led to a renewed interest in the music of Il Divino Sassone – as he was known – at the court of Dresden. Since then there have been a number of recordings of either Hasse’s arias from his extensive operatic output as well as complete operas and serenatas as well as his church music. Each and every one of them demonstrates Hasse’s originality and talent.

So it’s just a tad disingenuous for Signor Barna-Sabadus to make this claim but there is no doubt that this disc reinforces the fact as to why Hasse was considered a leading composer of his day and should have more prominence today. Something which I would like to hope is slowly happening.

Some people may disagree – and pace if you do – but countertenors are never ‘bland’. They all have a distinctive vocal timbre unlike some of their colleagues – from soprano to bass – who might display great technique but whose actual voice has a flat and almost “so what?” and one dimensional quality.

Not so the countertenor.

Valer Barna-Sabadus has a voice that is clarion-clear and well-rounded, with an even tone through his entire range that is well matched by its flexibility and impressive dynamic control. If I had to draw it – it would be a sphere. Listen to Cadrà fra poco in cenere and you will see what I mean.

Hasse was, in my opinion, the greatest exponent of the Metastasian opera ethic – grand and often historical-based opera serie more often than not also serving as a specific allegory for whomever it was written for. And to quote my nom de plume, there was always a “lieto fine” – or happy ending. The unjust were punished, the hero could display magnanimity, lovers were united and Enlightenment and Reason triumphed.

And as Order was the fundamental principle of polite society at that time then the basic but rigorously followed format was of a succession of da capo arias with clearly placed duets and a closing chorus. In fact the structure had remained the same for decades – the format of Vivaldi and Handel but suddenly across the staves of Hasse and his contemporaries such as Leo and Jommelli, it became even more a vehicle of the individual singer and opera serie reached the limits of its creative straitjacket. The heroes, heroines and villains described their changing moods through vocally custom-fitted music that displayed their unique talents from flights of impressive coloratura, stunning breath control and dynamics domination and hid their weaknesses. These arias were their calling cards and were designed to display their virtuosic abilities and inspired some composers – such as Hasse – to some incredible beautiful and impressive music.

Ultimately however, the reaction to this elegant and manufactured emotional artifice was the emergence of opera buffa and it would take a genius like Mozart to breathe real life into opera seria once again with his final opera, La Clemenza di Tito.

Returning again to the sleeve note, the singer refers to Hasse’s “suspenseful connection between Handelian drama and the instrumental virtuosity of a Vivaldi” and while this is just a little over-written, it’s evident from the opening sinfonia and throughout the entire disc.

Barna-Sabadus selects his arias from Didone abbandonata (1742/43), the serenata La Gelosia (1762 aka Perdono, amata Nice, bella Nice) and Artaserse (1730; subsequently revised in 1740 & 1760).

The first four arias are for Iarba from Didone abbandonata, a role that Barna-Sabadus has performed in Munich with the same ensemble under Hofstetter and more recently at the opera house at the Chateau of Versailles.

I believe that the original role was written for the famous castrato Farinelli who was famous – according to Charles Burney – for his breath control, vocal agility and his three-octave range.

The arias selected clearly show how Hasse wrote with the specific artist in mind. Tu mi disarmi il fianco for example starts with a furious ritornello which is immediately quelled with Barnus-Sabada’s first entry, literally the “disarmi” of the opening sentence with it’s charming sforzandi Lombardic rhythm. The return of the allegro sees a vocal line that leaps across the stave and well-executed coloratura. The alternation of slow-fast continues with increasing elaboration as would have been expected by the audience. And all performed with vocal aplomb by this soloist.

Leon ch’errando vada with its hunting horns is a beautifully crafted ‘galanterie’ gem with an arching vocal line and Scottish snap rhythms and Chiama mi pur cosi with its flights of coloratura clearly demonstrates how agile Farinelli’s voice was across it’s wide range.

However clearly Cadrà fra poco in cenere would have had the audience holding its breath. A beguiling simple vocal line spanning an impressive range spins itself out above a delicate accompaniment with increasing ornamentation. These days countertenors often rely on speed of vocal agility to ‘wow’ but Barna-Sabadus’ performance of this aria is a total show-stopper – combining a beautifully controlled and even vocal line, impressive dynamic contrast and tasteful ornamentation.

The arias taken from La Gelosia, written for private performance are similarly well-crafted vehicles for the respective original performer. Bei labbri che Amore is typically Galant in terms of its melodic structure, rhythmic gesture and delicate ornamentation as well as its brief minor-mode middle section. With Giura il nocchier you can clearly hear the “Hasse-hints” that had an impact on Mozart and his own early opera serie although clearly Hasse’s style was but one of the stylistic launch pads that Mozart absorbed and synthesised.

The final aria on the disc is to all extent and purpose an insertion aria by Porpora written superficially for Farinelli for a performance of Hasse’s Artaserse in London. With its charming roulades and lilting ‘galanterie’ it is a delightful -if unusual – end to a beautifully performed album.

Hofstetter and his ensemble, the Hofkapelle München, are accomplished in their support of Barna-Sabadus. They provide perfectly balanced and nuanced accompaniments with a real sense of both the rhythmic verve and bite or delicacy and liltingly quality required of music of this period which captures the mood of the individual arias.

From beginning to end this is a brilliantly performed disc. The fact that some of the arias are what some people might call ‘lengthy’ is dispelled by the quality of both Hasse’s music and the musicians one and all.

I recommend that even if you haven’t ventured into the music of Hasse before you should take the plunge, listen to and savour this remarkable set of performances.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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