29 Apr 2011
Anne Sofie von Otter, Wigmore Hall
For the second time in a matter of just a few weeks, the Wigmore Hall audience were treated to an evening of seventeenth-century song and dance.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17. Perfection, as one would expect from arguably the finest Rameau interpreters in the business, and that's saying a lot, given the exceptionally high quality of French baroque performance in the last 40 years.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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.
For the second time in a matter of just a few weeks, the Wigmore Hall audience were treated to an evening of seventeenth-century song and dance.
After the exuberant, high-spirited performance of Magdelena Kožená and Private Musicke in March, Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by Cappella Mediterranea, presented a more restrained account, delivering a powerful, controlled expression of love and grief.
We began with a sequence of numbers from Monteverdi’s tale of faithful endurance, Il ritorno d’Ulisse. The dark, resonant bass registers of the opening Sinfonia, as the members of the Cappella, led by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón at the organ, skilfully improvised on what the score presents as a simple minor chord, aptly conveying Penelope’s distress and anguish as she waits languidly for the return of the eponymous hero. Von Otter remained seated at the commencement of ‘Di misera regina’ (‘The queen’s misery’), her grief subdued, the soft-focused, flexible melodic line revealing her weariness and quiet despair. Rising to stand for the more declamatory text, as the queen angrily accuses Ulisse of neglect, even betrayal, von Otter injected a bitterness into the recitative, complemented by the astringent tone of Gustavo Gargiulo’s cornett. The heavy, portentous organ suggested that Penelope may be right in her fears that her fate shall ‘never alter’; here, and throughout the recital, Alarcón was eager to give every textual nuance a musical shade, although I found the organ timbre a little too grave and sombre, and welcomed the light fleetness of the final section, ‘Torna il tranquillo al mare’ (‘Calm returns the sea’) during which the organ was silent.
Von Otter’s Italian was crystal clear, but the Camerata proved just as adept at communicating textual meaning. For, the sequence concluded with an instrumental interpretation of the returning sailors’ Act 1 song, in which they celebrate man’s power and freedom in the face of the indifference of the gods. The players’ ornaments and figurations responded expertly to the text, conveying energy and swiftness, driving forward through an exciting sequence of rising modulations.
In Barbara Strozzi’s ‘Che si può fare’ (‘What can one do’), von Otter was once again surprisingly restrained, remaining seated for this monumental lament, but she demonstrated an effortlessly lyrical beauty in the tender melismas, delicately and poignantly contrasting with some startling harmonic dissonances. A deeply intense sentiment was conveyed, enhanced by a spirited dialogue between the two violins and the marvellous realisation – expressive, intricate but never overwhelming – of the repeating ground bass by theorbo player, Daniel Zapico.
‘Sí dolce è’l tormento’ (‘So sweet is the anguish’) by Monteverdi followed, revealing the rich, burnished quality of von Otter’s lower range. She ventured a daringly hushed pianissimo and rubato in the closing lines, conveying the paradoxical ‘sweetness’ of her anguish: ‘Su, su prendi arco e faretra,/ Casto amore, e ‘l cor mi spetra’ (‘quickly, take your bow and quiver,/ chaste love, and melt my heart’).
Francesco Provenzale was one of the leading figures in the musical life of Naples during the seventeenth century. ‘Squarciato appena havea’, conventionally attributed to him, is a lament-cantata in the Roman style with seven popular songs breaking in at unusual points in the sequence of sections in a recitative style. It is a satire of Luigi Rossi’s famous cantata, ‘Un ferito cavaliero’, which tells the story of the death of Gustavus Aldophus, husband of Queen Christina of Sweden in Lünzen in 1632. The Queen seems to die at the end of each strophe, and the purpose of inserting popular songs which interrupt the lamenting recitative, seems to be to create paradoxical contrast; for the songs are children’s ditties and lullabies, well-known repertory for voice and guitar from the seventeenth-century. Von Otter relished the ironies, exaggerating the emotions – at times introducing a rough grain to her voice to contrast with more lyrical outbursts, elsewhere emphasising the remarkable chromatic inflections. Her rhetoricism and theatricality was complemented by the musicians, a melodramatic organ tremolo underpinning the Queen’s grief-stricken exclamation, ‘Il mio Gustavo è morto?’ (‘Is my Gustavus dead?’). Zapico’s ornamentation of the phrase, ‘Onde morta ed esangue la Regina’ (‘When the Queen is dead and lifeless’) was masterful, evoking a remarkable still languor. Von Otter even turned instrumentalist herself, shaking and striking a tambourine, stamping and clapping energetically to the sprung, syncopated rhythms.
While there was no doubting the sincerity of the musicians, and their delight in the material, or Von Otter’s expressive involvement, the first half of this recital did not quite tap the spirit of joie de vivre and impassioned emotion that these songs embody. She certainly inhabited the dramatic personae of the lyrics, but von Otter did not seem entirely at ease. Despite the swaying and clapping, a certain sense of freedom, even recklessness, which is elemental in these songs was absent – her invitation to the audience to join her in her percussive accompaniment to the final song was not heeded. In the instrumental numbers, von Otter stayed seated centre-stage, the focus of the audience’s eye, and perhaps this inhibited the musical brio of the performers. At times Alarcón’s vigorous direction of the ensemble seemed a little too effortful. Moreover, even allowing for the instability of these authentic instruments, there was an awful lot of tuning and re-tuning, at the start of each half of the recital, and between numbers, and this (together with an extremely long interval) hindered the creation of musical momentum and over-arching dramatic shape.
In the second half we moved gradually from Italy, through France, to England. Over the same chaconne bass previously heard in Strozzi’s aria, the instrumentalists interpreted the text of ‘Mio ben, teco il tomento’ (‘My beloved’) by Rossi, which led into Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s ‘Quel prix de mon amour’ from Médée. This is a beautiful account of the pain wrought by infidelity, and von Otter expertly conveyed Medea’s anguish, exploiting the poignant cadential appoggiaturas and fluctuating tempo to powerful expressive effect.
Some superb cornett and violin playing in an instrumental rendering of Ariel’s ‘Dry those eyes’ from The Tempest, by John Weldon, was followed by the vocal flourishes of Henry Purcell’s short recitative ‘Hark! how all things’ (from The Fairy Queen) and the diverse colours, textures and tempi of ‘From silent shades’, in which the distracted snatches of the songs of ‘Bess of Bedlam’ are presented in a mixture of popular and classical idioms. As in Provenzale’s cantata, von Otter enjoyed the dramatic and unconventional aspects of this song, playfully delivering the occasionally unaccompanied text: the juxtaposition of the painful chromaticism of Bess’s self-pity, ‘Cold and hungry am I grown’, with a headlong, joyful carelessness, ‘Ambrosia will I feed upon’, forcefully conveyed the protagonist’s instability and insanity.
Two arias by Handel, separated by an instrumental passacaglia, brought the recital to a close. In ‘Where’er you walk’ from Semele and ‘Ogni vento’ from Agrippina, von Otter showed her mastery of the opera seria idiom, wonderfully shaping the melodic line during the first statement of the text, subtly ornamenting and elaborating on its return. The audience response was ecstatic. But, despite the unquestionable technical and musical talents on display, I felt that at times during the evening the performance lacked the natural exuberance and unrestrained liberty that this music requires and inspires.