Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ercole sul Termodonte di Antonio Vivaldi (Foto (c) Michele Crosera)
22 Oct 2007

Biondi’s Labors Won, or Unearthing The Lost Vivaldi

An expedition against the famed warring women, the Amazons, ranking as Hercules’ ninth labor out the canonic twelve, provided the subject for the libretto by Antonio Salvi (not Giacomo Francesco Bussani, as hitherto misattributed) that Vivaldi set to music in 1723 as his own sixteenth operatic labor.

Antonio Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte, 6 October 2007
Antonio Vivaldi, Bajazet, 7 October 2007

Teatro Malibran, Venice
A Fondazione La Fenice production

Above: Photo © Michele Crosera

 

Rome’s Teatro Tordinona was the ordering venue, thus bringing gender ambiguity to a peak, due to the papal ban preventing women from appearing onstage in the Holy City. What the original Roman audience actually saw and heard was a bunch of seven castrati, partly disguised as ladies in androgynous warriors’ costumes, partly as heroes of Ancient Greece - all of them warbling in soprano and alto pitches around one single tenor impersonating the most macho character imaginable, Hercules. To make things even worse, on the podium stood a Catholic priest, Vivaldi himself, acting in the many capacities of composer, conductor, solo violinist - and probably also stage director. Suspension of disbelief, albeit on the basis of lip-service to morals, was apparently much needed…

The pendulum has now swung so far that, having to dispense with the unavailable castrati, Fabio Biondi selected no less than five ladies, plus one countertenor - and yes! two tenors, one of them very high-pitched — for the world premiere revival of the same opera. Since not any complete score of it is extant, Biondi undertook one more labor, that is tentatively reconstructing one from the sets of detached arias preserved in the libraries of Paris, Münster, Turin and several other locations, then discarding and substituting some of them for the sake of inner balance and, last but not least, composing all the missing recitatives. This bears witness to the situation recently described by the Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot: “Today, there is not one performable Vivaldi opera that someone has not staged somewhere, and those still desirous of novelty for its own sake are now forced to explore the margins of his operatic output where fragmentary works or works of multiple authorship reside. Even there, it has grown hard to discover material for a genuine prima assoluta”.

Was the whole painstaking process worth trying? Judging from the results, it was. Vivaldi’s Ercole according to Biondi (different reconstructions might be attempted, and probably will, sooner or later) fits well into the general pattern of Venetian baroque opera prior to the Metastasio-Hasse-Farinelli revolution, which was due to start very soon, in the late 1720s. It exhibits most features thereof: mainly the intricacies in the plot and sub-plots, which result in mixed styles of singing, ranging from quasi-comic through amorous, to utterly heroic or tragic, sometimes all within the same character. In other words, variety pays a premium over dramatic consistency or psychological credibility. Thus, for instance, the title-role Ercole aptly delivers a row of warlike and menacing arias as he keeps clubbing his way to the final triumph; nevertheless, he also produces himself in a sort of love lesson paternally delivered to Martesia, an Amazon princess who ignores the very basics of marriage and wavers between the competing Greek princes Alceste and Telamone, both in love with her. Enhanced by the charm of Vivaldi’s compelling rhythms, unison accompaniments, colorful orchestral palette, all that amounted to some three hours of sheer, if not particularly highbrow, entertainment. Needless to say, lovers’ complaints, warriors’ bravados, last-minute rescues — and an unusually high rate of battle scenes involving brasses and kettledrums — led to the unavoidable happy end, when peace was restored and sealed with a double marriage.

Among the singing company, high praise was due to both Amazon queens (and sisters), mezzo Romina Basso as Antiope and soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Ippolita, for their unfailing intonation and agility, clear diction, style competence and acting stamina. The same was true for Laura Polverelli in the trousers role of Alceste, prince of Sparta, as well as for tenor Carlo Allemano in the title-role, who displayed a doughy quasi-baritone register and a bodily appearance well matching the muscular demi-god he was supposed to impersonate. Pity that the young and lovely soubrette Stefanie Irányi as Martesia, reportedly impaired by a cold, was a bit short of breath now and then. Nor did the mellifluous Catalan countertenor Jordi Domènech (Teseo), just perfect as a subdued lover, sound fully up to the requirements of an hero, mainly because of lacking dynamic variety. Both Emanuela Galli as Orizia and Mark Milhofer as Telamone got going very hard, yet their vocal technique still needs some refinement in order to meet the stipulations of this particular repertoire.

In the (Vivaldi-like) double bill of conductor and first violin, occasionally also grabbing the viola d’amore, Biondi led the performance with a relentless overall pulse, a nuanced choice of tempi and, most notably, a careful insight into the singers’ needs for breath and action — nowadays not a terribly common feature among opera conductors, whether of period bands or regular pit orchestras. His Europa Galante sounded like a large multi-register theorbo struck by a single hand: an amazing outcome, considering the frequent turnover of instrumentalists within its ranks. Biondi has clearly got a signature sound, one of the most exciting in the early music scene today — to say nothing of his individual prowess on the baroque violin.

Generally appreciated were the costumes, a mixture of fanciful 18th-century fashions and military paraphernalia much in the guise of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Some disappointment was instead caused by the fixed set which, according to ongoing anticipations, was due to be part of an historically informed staging care of the Arts Faculty, University of Venice, under the supervision of Walter Le Moli, a respected professional. Actually, it was all about huge square portals in the mould of stock Neoclassic, providing functional in-and-out access to the backstage. No machines, no decorations, no spectacular effects whatsoever.

***

The same set was re-used for the ensuing Bajazet, less than a novelty for early opera freaks since Biondi’s award-winning recording released in 2005 by Virgin, yet still a rarely staged title. (Back in 1994, this writer attended a fully-staged production under the alternative title Il Tamerlano — at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico where it originally had premiered in 1735, but the singers were hardly historically informed).

As it turned out, the present Venice production was only semi-staged, with the characters dressed in modern black attires as if for a formal cocktail party, and all of the action revolving, in a rather indecipherable manner, around a Victorian-style couch in red velvet. Once again, the real centerpiece was the singing cast, studded with heavier sounding women’s voices. The barbaric warlord Tamerlano was Daniela Barcellona, towering for her imposing physical shape no less than for the force and precision of her deep mezzo. As the destitute Little Orphan Asteria, Marina De Liso unfolded hot temperament and versatility in her four widely diverse arias. As Prince Andronico, Lucia Cirillo delivered a passionate rendering of “La sorte mia spietata”, a Vivaldi borrowing from Hasse’s Siroe. Notoriously, Bajazet is a thoroughgoing pasticcio, in which several arias are favorites of the singers themselves, a.k.a. arie di baule, mostly in the ‘new’ Neapolitan style. This doesn’t apply to the unfortunate Bajazet, who, besides one exciting showpiece from Vivaldi’s own Motezuma (“Dov’è la figlia?”), is just allotted a row of angry utterances or frantic vocal gesticulations with very little thematic substance in them. Despite that, tenor Christian Senn emerged with full honors from his unrewarding part.

The sole survivor from the 2005 recording was Vivica Genaux, in the not-so-important role of Irene. However, her appearance raised an unprecedented salvo of curtain calls among the demanding operagoers of Venice. Clad in a funereal black attire vaguely resembling a chador, the Alaskan mezzo machine-gunned an incredible amount of vocal pyrotechnics in “Qual guerriero in campo armato”, the treacherous coloratura piece written by Riccardo Broschi for his brother Farinelli, bristling with inter-registral leaps extending over two and a half octaves and featuring endless florid passages in semiquavers. In contrast, another Farinelli suitcase aria, “Sposa, son disprezzata” (by Geminiano Giacomelli), gave evidence for her deep dramatic potential and faultless legato technique. During the intermissions, there was much arguing among the patrons about the frantic quivering motions of her lips and lower jaw. While some cognoscenti tended to identify a technical device for hitting each note more clearly and precisely (“finding the position”), others called that a disturbing mess or a pointless mannerism. The dispute was solved by an old gentleman who suggested with a meek smile: “Perhaps she’s not from Alaska, but from somewhere in the outer space: the Planet of Steel Nightingales...”.

Carlo Vitali © 2007

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):