Recently in Reviews
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but
this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas
Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings
can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough
and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy
will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies,
that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon
which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting
and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can
charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to
convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
12 Jul 2010
Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) at Iford Manor
Something rather extraordinary happened to opera seria in 1738. The
acknowledged master of that time, London’s George Frideric Handel,
presented two new operas at the King’s Theatre: Faramondo and
They were stylistically very different and with the latter the
German-born composer threw caution to the winds both musically and
It was a bad call at the time as Serse flopped completely. The trouble was
that he dared to change a tried and tested formula: the wholly serious, or
tragic, seria format was infiltrated by comic or buffo
elements; he mixed characters of both high and low class within the drama, and
he even tinkered with the classic A-B-A da capo form of the arias. In
Serse much of the vocal music is in arioso form, which drives
the action forward more than the traditional, more musically complex da
capo format. All this was too much for London audiences at the time and
Handel lost money and soon after abandoned opera for the oratorio form. Luckily
for us, today we can appreciate his innovations and revel in them — as
indeed did the audience at Iford Opera in Wiltshire last Friday night.
Andrew Radley as Arsamene [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]
Once again, Iford Arts is to be congratulated for rising so magnificently
above the apparent limitations of its charming venue — one could indeed
argue that those very limitations of size and accessibility produce something
special time and again and last night was no exception. Iford encourages young
talent and in its regular offerings of Handel masterpieces in intimate
surroundings it also encourages the singers to concentrate on expression and
colour, as they do not need to worry about pushing their voices.
The usual convoluted Handel plot of misplaced affections, thwarted plans,
ladies (and men) in disguise and the triumph of love and duty (in varying
degrees) was efficiently translated into the tiny, greenery-draped colonnaded
space that is the delightful Iford Cloister by director David Freeman. Although
advertised as “Serse”, the opera was given in English and this
“Xerxes” was a translation/edit by Andrew Jones which revived
memories of the famous Hytner production of the 1980’s in its language,
if not its staging. The lively score, regretfully drastically abridged, was
offered in spicy miniature by the well-regarded players of La Nuova
Musica directed from the harpsicord by David Bates who encouraged some
really meaty, full-blooded playing from his 10 piece ensemble. In Acts I and II
the cast were somewhat depressingly attired in budget-store casuals with a bit
of sequin tat here and there to suggest royalty (one felt particularly for the
female singers who suffered very unflattering wardrobes — surely at odds
with the story?) but come Act III things improved a little. A few pyrotechnics,
many tiny candles, and a clever exploding model bridge (to take King Xerxes
across the Hellespont into Greece) made the most of the tiny stage area.
Kristin Finnigan [Photo by and courtesy of Ralph Ripley]
More importantly, there was much to admire vocally with some excellent
singing from the young cast, many of whom are at the beginning of their careers
yet showed remarkable histrionic as well as musical abilities in this most
demanding of genres. There was no one outstanding performer, but we left with
perhaps three strong memories: the exciting contralto voice of young Kristin
Finnigan (Amastre) which promises to help revive the great tradition of this
most English of voice types, the impressive comic timing and agile baritone of
William Townend (Elviro) and the expressive warm-toned countertenor of Andrew
Radley (Arsamene). Verity Parker impressed with some spot-on high coloratura as
Romilda whilst also singing with some nice supple tone. She was contrasted
effectively with Kristy Swift in the soubrette role of Atalanta who
brought out the foxiness of this character with some sparkling high notes and
agile phrasing. Rather unusually, this production gave the title role to a
countertenor, the more experienced William Purefoy. These days, it’s more
often a mezzo soprano role (although written by Handel for a soprano
castrato of great renown, Caffarelli) but here at Iford the tiny stage
and proximity of the audience enables the less powerful countertenor voice to
take it on. Purefoy coped well enough with the high tessitura of this
demanding role, if not convincing us dramatically. His was no dangerously
vindictive King but rather a placid, slightly academic, royal. This was
particularly so in the scenes with his stage brother Prince Arsamenes, when
Radley acted for both of them. Purefoy is certainly a good singer (his
“rage” aria, Crudie furie in Act III was efficiently
despatched despite its huge demands on the singer) but rather miscast here.
The role of the bluff, if dim, General Ariodate was robustly taken by
baritone Jonathan Brown who made much of his limited role whilst contralto
Kristin Finnigan was forced to do the same. How one longed to hear more of
Amastre’s music and less of her creeping around the cloister, forever
listening to the plotting of others’ loves. Finnigan might just be
something special in the making — directors take note.
Cutting Handel is a fact of life — unpleasant but sometimes necessary
— but for this writer there were just too many “cuts too
far”. So many important, and lovely, arias went unheard. Everyone comes
to Iford by car (there is no evening public transport in this idyllic rural
location) so why not revel in more of Handel’s sublime music and get home
half an hour later? After all, another thirty minutes in this beautiful place,
with music of this quality, is hardly an imposition.
© Sue Loder 2010
Serse, by G.F. Handel continues on the 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th
July at Iford, near Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, U.K. More information: www.ifordarts.co.uk