11 Dec 2010
Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London
Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.
You sense that many people would be happy to listen to her whatever the repertoire. So, it was heartening to find that for her Barbican Centre concert, Bartoli devoted so much time and care to Handel’s operatic output and generating such enthusiasm for material which can still be regarded as specialist.
After exploring the life and work of Maria Malibran and the music written in Italy for the castrati, Cecilia Bartoli was back on more familiar territory at her concert at the Barbican Centre, London on Wednesday 8th December. She sang a sequence of arias from Handel’s Italian operas including substantial extracts from Giulio Cesare with Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli, accompanied by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.
Handel’s major operas were written for some of the greatest singers of the day; great talents can articulate the drama within music and present the emotion behind the showers of notes. Technically Bartoli is amazing, if idiosyncratic, but her greatest strength is neither as a technician nor as a stylist (thought she is strong in both these areas). Where she excels is in telling a story and drawing the listener in.
When not singing her stage manner was a little too winsome for my taste. But when the music started she was transformed. Rarely have I been at a recital where each aria was so strongly presented with its own character. For the opening sequence, the overture and two of Armida’s arias from Rinaldo she was transformed into the sorceress, her musical gestures matched by flashing eyes and dramatic arm movements.
This drama was then contrasted with a light bright aria from Lotario, a charming simile aria where Handel’s plays with the text (about a little boat in the breeze on the ocean) by adding running passages in the music.
The orchestra then played the Allegro from Veracini’s Overture No. 6 in G minor. Veracini was a violinist, contemporary of Handel, who came to London and had some success with his concerts. He also ventured into the operatic sphere, with less success, though his operatic version of As You Like It sounds intriguing.
Bartoli then returned with “Ah! Mio cor” from Alcina, sung with great power but also a strong sense of line. In this aria, Bartoli presented Alcina as a quicksilver, captivating woman and you wanted to hear more of her in the role. Her mercurial take on the aria was in fascinating contrast to Inga Kalna’s account of it at the recent complete performance of Alcina at the Barbican.
The orchestra then played two short overtures by Porpora, another contemporary and rival of Handel’s. Both from cantatas written late in his career after he had left London. Full of dramatic contrasts and striking orchestrations, they seemed effective preludes rather then works in their own right.
In “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo, Bartoli was paired brilliantly with solo oboe, the pair creating a sparkling duet partnership in the complex passage-work in the aria. Whilst it would be fascinating to hear Bartoli as the sorceress Medea from this opera, her account of this aria for the opera’s heroine Agilea was everything that it should be. But she turned to another evil sorceress, Melissa from Amadigi di Gaula for the closing item in part one, “Destero dall’empia Dite” in which Melissa threatens to raise every fury from hell, with the help of solo oboe and trumpet. Another bravura showpiece which Bartoli turned into a mini drama.
Both this and the preceding item were performed with recitative .I think this makes all the difference to a baroque aria and could have wished that Bartoli had included more; she is after all Italian and her was with the words is vivid.
Bartoli’s Cleopatra, a role which she has sung on stage, was richly coloured and fascinatingly varied, giving us a tantalising glimpse of what her performance of the full role might be like. “V’adoro pupille” was erotic but aristocratic, though it was a shame that the accompaniment lacked Handel’s full orchestration here. “Se pieta” was perfectly judged, showcasing Bartoli’s marvellous way with line, musical and dramatically involving. Finally “Da tempeste” was all that you could imagine, brilliant, charming and vivid.
Fagioli’s Cesare was not quite yet in the same league. He has an attractive, high counter-tenor voice with a strong vibrato and quite a feminine cast. His voice lacks the edge which some counter-tenors have and this was something that I missed in this music. “Va tacito” was superbly sung with fine solo horn playing, but lacked that element of danger which needs to underlay the music. His voice seemed too soft grained for the dramatics of “Al lamp dell’armi” but he did interpolate some superb high notes in the da capo. But the lyric beauty of “Aure, deh, per pieta” suited his voice perfectly. Finally Bartoli and Fagioli joined a lively performance of Cesare and Cleopatra’s duet from the opera.
This was a long and generous programme with Bartoli singing 8 substantial arias plus duet. In response to the enthusiasm of the audience at the end we were treated to 3 encores, one from each singer and a duet from Rinaldo.
Bartoli’s choice of arias seemed to highlight two particular ways she has of performing baroque music. Lyrical music was sung with gloriously long lines, floated beautifully and emphasising high quietness. There were moments which reminded me of Caballe’s habit of opening recitals by singing a group of arie antiche with the music placed high in the voice and floated in a glorious pianissimo. There was something of this showing off in the way Bartoli placed many of the high lying passages. In contrast passage-work was sung in her distinctive, robust manner. This is something you either love or hate, the way that her intense, vibrato laden voice moves round the running passages at high speed creating a remarkable, and distinctive effect. I must confess that on disc I have found this sometimes rather difficult to take, but that heard live the effect was less disturbing and I could relax and appreciate the artistry that was going into the performance.
The Basel Chamber Orchestra, leader Julia Schröder performed without conductor, a nice sized group with 18 string players. From the first notes of the overture to Rinaldo they gave the music a fresh, crisp, newly minted feel. All the solo instrumental parts were superbly played and we even got a wind machine in the opening aria. The group were far more than just support and made themselves fine partners in Bartoli’s performances.
Bartoli held the audience spellbound for this long programme of baroque arias, something not every singer could do. All I wish for now is that we could hear her in a complete opera.