11 Dec 2010
Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London
Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.