December 30, 2013

Don Pasquale, Manitoba Opera

Donizetti’s opera buffa is typically set in circa 1840s Rome. 1840s Rome. This tongue-in-cheek version à la spaghetti western based on San Diego Opera’s 2002 production (originally conceived by David Gately) transplants the story 40 years later to an imagined American Wild West, where men were men and women pack pistols while belting out high Fs.

Stage directed by Winnipegger Robert Herriot, the 160-minute (with two intermissions) production also featured the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra led by Tyrone Paterson. Tony Fanning’s intricately detailed sets on loan from the SDO featured a hotel lobby, study and garden, with a wheeled horse providing dramatic entrances for the cowpokes. Bill Williams’ lighting design and period, western costumes by Helen Rodgers rounded out the show.

Manitoba Opera is to be commended for daring to mess with the popular comedy. However, all too often, the extra hijinks and stage business pulled focus from many of the opera’s “big” vocal moments, which inadvertently competed with mariachi bands, pantalooned floozies and even a stuffed squirrel. Ruffini’s libretto contains enough inherent comedy; by negating or avoiding poignant contrasts, such as with Norina and Ernesto’s heartfelt Act III duet “Tornami a dir che m’ami” in which they pledge their love, “more” actually became “less.”

However, Donizetti’s operas are ultimately about bel canto and MO’s newest production teemed with soaring arias and vocal pyrotechnics delivered (almost) flawlessly by the fine international cast.

Last seen delivering a sparkling portrayal of Marie in MO’s 2012 production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, Winnipeg-born Nikki Einfeld flounced about the stage as sassy widow Norina during her opening cavatinaQuel guardo il cavliere/So anch’io la virtù magic” before her wheedling “Via, caro sposino ” replete with gravity-defying runs. Her clear lyric colouratura soprano has only grown stronger and more confident with each passing year – plus she swings a mean lasso; proving herself both a comedic and vocal heir apparent to her renowned mentor, Tracy Dahl who performed the same role in 1997.

Another pleasure was seeing acclaimed character bass-baritone, Peter Strummer in the title role, last heard three years ago as Dr. Bartolo during MO’s The Barber of Seville. After a few balance problems with the orchestra resolved during opening “Ah, un foco insolito,” his booming voice and fearless buffo comedy always entertained.

American tenor Michele Angelini’s chaps-wearing cowboy Ernesto enthralled right from his first aria “Mi fa il destino mendico.” In Act II’s“ Cercherò lontana terra” his golden voice floated even higher than the frothy bubbles in his bathtub.

Lyric baritone Brett Polegato’s Dr. Malatesta stylized as a cigar-toting Buffalo Bill with requisite sidekick Hop Sing (Alan Wong) machinated the plot like a master puppeteer. His robust opening aria “Bella siccome un angelo” was matched equally by his rapid-fire delivery of “Aspetta, aspetta, cara sposina” performed with a spluttering Strummer. An encore reprise (usually performed), would have been the icing on this multi-syllabic show-stopper.

The Manitoba Opera Chorus ably prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki injected welcomed spectacle and energy as the newly hired household help during Act III’s “I diamanti, presto, presto” and later “Che interminabile andirivieni!” performed with mocking glee.

Holly Harris

image= Image_description=Nikki Einfeld [Photo:] product=yes product_title=Don Pasquale, Manitoba Opera product_by=A review by Holly Harris product_id=Above: Nikki Einfeld [Photo courtesy of artist]
Posted by Gary at 6:07 PM

December 26, 2013

Season 2014 at San Diego Opera

Other performances of this work are on January 28, 31, and February 2. Leoncavallo, who wrote both the text and the music, claimed that he based his story on a murder investigation that his father, a magistrate, had presided over many years earlier. San Diego Opera will present this tightly wound tale of love and sudden violent death in a new production by Andrew Sinclair who directed the company’s Aida last year.

On Saturday evening January 25, San Diego Opera opens its 2014 season with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s verismo blockbuster Pagliacci (Clowns). Other performances of this work are on January 28, 31, and February 2. The opera tells the story of an unhappy marriage, an unfaithful wife and a double murder. Leoncavallo, who wrote both the text and the music, claimed that he based his story on a criminal investigation that his father, a magistrate, had presided over many years earlier. French author Catulle Mendès sued him for plagiarizing his 1874 play, La Femme de Tabarin in which a clown murders his wife, but eventually dropped the charges.

San Diego Opera will present this tightly wound tale of love and sudden violent death in a new production by Andrew Sinclair who directed Verdi’s Aida for the company last year. Dramatic tenor Frank Poretta will be the clown, Canio, an older husband whose wife has a young lover. Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu will portray his trophy wife, Nedda. Baritone Stephen Powell will play Tonio, a misshapen, vicious clown who, having been rejected by Nedda, plots her downfall. It’s a fascinating story for which Leoncavallo wrote memorable arias.

Renowned conductor Yves Abel who will lead the performance writes: “Pagliacci is the most Italian of Italian operas. In addition to the Commedia dell'Arte comedy on a stage within the stage, there is the violent, lethal story behind the scenes, which culminates in one of the most famous arias, “Vesti la Giubba,” sung by the clown Canio, whose wife has cheated on him. This aria of uncommon beauty and sadness was made famous by Caruso and used in countless movies. Conducting the comedy while tragedy lurks close by makes this short opera a challenge for any conductor.”

Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) opens on Saturday evening February 15, and continues on the 18, 21, and 23. This bel canto work requires the type of excellent cast that Ian Campbell of San Diego Opera so often brings from various corners of the earth. It features Tatiana Lisnic as the wealthy young Adina, Giuseppe Filianoti as the poor but good hearted Nemorino, Malcolm MacKenzie as the attractive military man, and John Del Carlo as the traveling patent medicine salesman who has an elixir for every problem. Making her San Diego debut is conductor Karen Kamensek, General Music Director of the Hannover Staatsoper.

Director Stephen Lawless writes: “I have directed this production of Donizetti's comic masterpiece L’elisir d’amore many times both in America and around the world. It is always a pleasure to return to this piece. The opera is an humane and affectionate comedy examining the tribulations strewn along the path to true love. It is funny to those observing, but heartbreaking for those involved. Our production is set in Italy in the middle of the nineteenth century, at roughly the time of composition. It portrays a small rural community, in which everybody knows everybody else, and everybody else's business. It shows the chaos that ensues when a platoon of soldiers is billeted upon them. It contrasts the undying love of the shy peasant Nemorino for the local landowner Adina with her seeming inability to see the emotion in her own heart. Donizetti's score is suffused with Italianate warmth and understanding.”

San Diego Opera’s March presentations include of two works by Giuseppe Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) on March 8, 11, 14, and 16, and a single performance of his Manzoni Requiem on March 20. The opera’s cast includes tenor Piotr Beczala who is remembered for his exquisite rendition of Rodolfo in La bohème. He will sing Gustav III of Sweden and Krassimira Stoiyanova will be his wife, Amelia, who is thought to be unfaithful with Count Anckerström. Making his United States debut, Greek baritone Aris Argiris will sing the part of the Count who is Gustav’s best friend. Stephanie Blythe will be the sorceress Madame Arvidson and Kathleen Kim will sing the coloratura trouser role of Oscar. The performances will be directed by Lesley Koenig and conducted by Massimo Zanetti. Powerful, threatening, dangerous and romantic, this production promises to be one of the most visually exciting and musically moving ever to have graced the San Diego Opera stage.

Written in memory of Verdi’s literary contemporary, Alessandro Manzoni, the Requiem is sometimes called his greatest opera. Capitalizing on the casts of Un ballo in maschera and the opera that follows it, Jules Massenet’s Don Quixote, San Diego Opera’s Requiem will showcase the best of the best: soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo Stephanie Blythe, tenor Piotr Beczala, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.

Furlanetto writes: “There are few roles or vocal parts that could give an interpreter a total accomplishment, Verdi’s Requiem is certainly one of these. Every time it is a new emotion. To be in San Diego also for this event is a tremendous joy that I am happy to share with colleagues that I admire very much and with an audience that has given me so much since my debut in 1985.” Massimo Zanetti will conduct the San Diego Opera Orchestra and a double chorus consisting of the opera chorus and the Master Chorale. There is only one performance of this gem and no serious San Diego opera lover should miss it.

Don Quixote, the last opera of the season, was written for the great bass of the early twentieth century, Fyodor Chaliapin. Thus, it is a most fitting role for the great bass of our time, Ferruccio Furlanetto. He writes: “I will keep going doing the role of Don Quixote for the rest of my career because it is without any doubt a wonderfully accomplished character. Vocally it is just a splendid promenade. As a character it is basically impossible to find a more involving one, the satisfaction that comes from it is overwhelming. It is a role that gives me a few hours of total happiness, quite a privilege in these times.” Others in the cast are Eduardo Chama as Sancho Panza, and Anke Vondung as Dulcinea. The director is Keturah Stickann and the conductor Karen Keltner.

Maria Nockin


product_title=Season 2014 at San Diego Opera
product_by=A commentary by Marie Nockin

Posted by maria_n at 11:27 AM

December 24, 2013

Les Arts Florissants: Airs sérieux et à boire

The career of singer and theorbo player Michel Lambert may be a mere footnote to that of his more prominent son-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Lully, but it was Lambert who — having initially arrived at the court as a ballet dancer — served the King as Maitre de la Musique de la Chambre du Roi for 36 years until his death in 1696. Working in collaboration with Lully, the King’s perennial favourite, Lambert devised and produced lavish entertainments — the imposing dramatic works and church compositions that we most readily associate with the monarch’s reign. But, in addition, he also composed approximately 300 songs, numbers which are often self-consciously idealistic or sardonically witty — fodder to flatter the monarch and his fawning courtiers.

Adopting a quasi-operatic approach, Les Arts Florissants, almost imperceptibly directed from the harpsichord by William Christie, interspersed Lambert’s airs with songs by his contemporaries — Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre and Honoré d’Ambruys — weaving a seamless dramatic thread. They thus enacted an inventive, exuberant tale of love, lust and loyalty, in which the wedding plans of soprano Emmanuelle de Negri and baritone Marc Mauillon were interrupted by the amorous interventions of tenor Cyril Auvity and mezzo soprano Anna Reinhold, with bass Lisandro Abadie wryly commenting on the occasionally dissolute goings-on.

The air de cour was eventually subsumed by the rising tide of French opera; perhaps Les Art Florissants were arguing for the significance of Lambert’s dramatic airs in the development of the French opera tradition that would come to fruition at the hands of Lully and Rameau. Thus, the musical delights were served up as theatrical feast for our delectation, highlighting not the individual nature of each song, but linking the parts in a continuous progression. This ‘staging’ did have the advantage of introducing some variety — of pace, context and texture — into a series of songs which are broadly consistent in idiom and ambience, and also allowed for broader musical sweeps without the interruptions of audience applause.

Yet, often the playful antics — lovelorn swooning, secret embraces — seemed distracting and unnecessary. These courtly airs are intimate and subtle, rather than self-indulgently theatrical. Rick Jones’s programme notes suggest that in the satirical airs à boire the essence can be reduced to the mocking maxim, ‘Love is pain, therefore kill me’. But, it seems to me that there is a closer relationship between the poetry and its musical expression: that the sentiments of these melancholy, at times explicit, lyric poems — which admittedly do frequently express the anguish of the spurned or dejected lover, one who is almost without hope — are those of genuine loss and regret. Too much tom-foolery risks diminishing the unaffected emotional intensity conveyed by Lambert’s polished style in which, through scrupulous repetitions, elegant ornamentations and affecting chromaticism, text, voices and instruments fuse inseparably.

However, this misgiving aside (and judging from the audience’s jubilant reception, I suspect my reservations were shared by few!), musical standards were unwaveringly superb, voices and instruments in perfect balance. In Lambert’s ‘Le repos, l’ombre, le silence’ (Stillness, gloom, silence) the simplicity of the airy texture, with treble and bass lines widely spaced, emphasised the confidential, complicit mood; while the intertwining voices in ‘Ah, qui voudra désormais s’engager’ (Ah, who now will ever wish to pledge his love?) and ‘Il faut mourir plutôt que de changer’ (’Tis better to die than e’er to change) created restless exigency. Auvity’s solo rendition of Lambert’s ‘Iris n’est plus’ revealed an expressive flexibility in tone, rhythm and response to the text that provided an engaging contrast to the more homogeneous approach of the other singers, who tended towards an open, full and even style of delivery — undoubtedly beautiful but rather more ‘operatic’, projecting outwards, than Auvity’s beguiling manner of drawing the audience in.

Reinhold and Mauillon gave a deeply moving performance of ‘Le doux silence de nos bois’ (The soft silence of the woods) by Honoré d’Ambruys. Above the repeating rising bass line, the mezzo soprano’s opulent legato radiantly embraced the ornate melodic line while the tenor provided sweet yet more grainy foundations, suggesting in the first stanza the happiness of youth, ‘the time for tender loves and pleasures’ and, in the second, the gentle melancholy of regret.

Compositions by Marc-Antoine Charpentier introduced a lighter, more ribald tone, most particularly in ‘Intermèdes nouveaux du Mariage forcé’, incidental music for Molière’s farcical drama Le Mariage force in which the elegant rhythms of the minuet and gavotte were overwhelmed by the grotesque antics of the three male singers as Charpentier parodies the theatrical style and excesses of his Italian rivals. Auvity, Mauillon and Abadie delighted in the parodic vein, their ‘belle symphonie’ a mocking medley of onomatopoeic whelps and woofs; joined by de Negri and Reinhold, they formed parodic homage to the Soul of Music and Genius of Harmony aloft in the Wigmore Hall cupola, an ironic visual accompaniment to Charpentier’s final line: ‘Oh! Le jolie concert et la belle harmonie!’

William Christie’s ever-urbane accompaniments — all stylish grace notes and refined countermelodies — were never intrusive. Theorbo player, Thomas Dunford displayed effortless virtuosity, and for once the instrument’s intricacies were clearly audible, a superb balance being maintained throughout. Complementing Dunford’s agile embellishments, the string lines of Myriam Rignol (viola da gamba) and violinists Florence Malgoire and Tami Troman entwined tastefully and lamentingly with the voices. The rhythmic suppleness of Rignol’s varying chaconne line in the two-part air, ‘Quand une âme est bien atteinte’ (Once a soul is captivated) wonderfully captured the changes of affekt.

The only air employing all five voices was the final song by Lambert, a setting of Jean de la Fontaine’s ‘Tout l’Univers obéit à ‘l’amour’ in which de Negri’s pure soprano soared above the other voices before all came to rest with the fittingly homophonous closing line, ‘Aimez, aimez le reste n’est rien’.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

William Christie, director; Emmanuelle de Negri, soprano; Anna Reinhold, mezzo-soprano; Cyril Auvity, high tenor; Marc Mauillon, baritone; Lisandro Abadie, bass. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 19th December 2013.

Lambert, ‘D’un feu secret je me sens consommer’, ‘Le repos, l’ombre, le silence’, ‘Ah! qui voudra désormais s’engager?’, ‘Il faut mourir plustost que de changer’; Couperin, ‘Épitaphe d’un paresseux’, ‘Les Pellerines’; Lambert, ‘Iris n’est plus’, ‘Bien que l’amour’; Chabanceau de la Barre, ‘Quand une âme est bien atteinte’; Charpentier, ‘Intermède nouveau from Le Mariage forcé’; Lambert, ‘Chantez, chantez petits oiseaux’, ‘Pour vos beaux yeux, Iris’, ‘Que d’amans separez languissent nuit et jour; d’Ambruys, ‘Le doux silence de nos bois’; Charpentier, ‘Ayant bu du vin clairet’, ‘Auprès du feu l’on fait l’amour, ‘Vos petits yeux’; Lambert, ‘Jugez de ma douleur’, ‘Il est vrai, l’amour est charmant’, ‘Tout l’univers obéit à l’Amour’.

image= image_description=Michel Lambert [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Les Arts Florissants: Airs sérieux et à boire product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Michel Lambert [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 12:28 PM

December 19, 2013

Carmen, Royal Opera

Visually, a vibrant palette and slick choreography are the order of the day. The warm hues of designer Tanya McCallin’s looming sets complement the concentrated ochres and rusts of the Sevillians’ attire; in the bright sunlit square (lighting design, Paule Constable), an orange tree and a water conduit add a dash of ‘realism’. Wealthy passers-by stroll nonchalantly; children skip and prance, their comings and goings overseen by the watchful military guard. The choral numbers are meticulously manoeuvred; there is scarcely an urchin’s footstep or whirling parasol that is out of place. It is all very pretty and eye-pleasing, but the overall effect is rather soulless; the participants seem to perform for us, rather than engage with each other.

The same is true of the flamenco dancing in Act 2: the fancy footwork and showmanship (choreographer, Arthur Pita, revived by Sirena Tocco) remind one of a Christmas Nutcracker, designed to please the eyes and ears, without overly troubling the heart and mind.

Given the foregrounding of these highly managed ensemble routines, the omission of the Act 4 chorus at opening of last act is both surprising and a disappointment. And, there are some redundant ‘extras’: if the donkey in Act 1 looked perplexed as to its purpose, the decision to introduce Escamillo on horseback is even more unfathomable. McCallin’s high walls have swung inwards to create the cramped and darkened locale of Lillas Pastia’s inn; there is hardly room to swing the proverbial cat, let alone ride a horse.

Fortunately, Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, in the title role, offered much recompense. Passionate and committed, Rachvelishvili’s voice is huge, but also mellow and luxurious — although it is stronger at the bottom than the top. She used the sultry, exotic colours of her lower register to dominate the stage. Physically too she emphasised Carmen’s earthy sexuality, acting with untamed abandon, dismissive of moral boundaries, ruthlessly targetting her prey. I’m not sure that we needed to see quite so much leg, or quite so often. Rachvelishvili seemed to spend much of the opera with her skirt hitched up to her hips, legs astride the hapless males who strayed into her clutches; indeed, even when she promised to perform a special dance for Don José, in his honour, this Carmen promptly lay down and bared her flesh. The unalloyed sluttishness was rather overdone and diminished rather than increased her allure.

Carmen rather overwhelmed her José, Robert Alagna, in the first two acts; this gypsy is no ‘victim’ of patriarchal and racial oppression, simply a ‘bad girl’ who destroys her man. Alagna sang with his customary projection — indeed, a little less ‘con belto’ would have been nice at times — but the intonation was disappointingly inconsistent — most lamentably at the pianissimo close of his Act 2 Flower Aria, where Alagna’s tender cadence was marred by flat pitch. The acting was rather perfunctory to begin with but in Act 4 Alagna did begin to convey Don José’s torment, credibly portraying the complexity of the pitiable soldier’s divided affections and self-rebuke.

There was little rapport between Verónica Cangemi’s Micaëla and José: in the opening act, the reunited childhood friends sang side-by-side, clutching hands and facing the audience — again, singing to us, rather than each other. José’s perfunctory kiss — blink and you’ll miss it — suggested he mind was occupied with nostalgic thoughts of his much-missed mother rather than with amorous inclinations. The Argentinian Cangemi struggled technically — the top was insecure and there was some vocal roughness, but ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ communicated sincere feeling.

Italian bass-baritone Vito Priante sang well enough, but didn’t make much impact dramatically as Escamillo. A few poses à la toreador astride the table-top do not alone fashion a hero of the bull-ring.

In the secondary roles, baritone Ashley Riches (Moralès) and French bass Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga) made a stronger impression; the latter evinced the masculine power and authoritative presence that both Alagna and Priante at times lacked. Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly (like Riches, a Jette Parker Young Artist) was strong as Mercédès, and she was neatly complemented by Simona Mihai’s bawdy Frasquita.

The ROH Orchestra sounded ragged at times; Daniel Oren’s conducting was somewhat unpredictable — the overture began with breakneck swiftness, before trailing off dispiritingly; the Habanera was sleepily sluggish. In particular, the dancers in the second act seemed disconcerted by the irregular tempo, but throughout stage-to-pit co-ordination was weak. There was some fine individual instrumental playing but the parts didn’t add up to an accomplished whole.

There are several changes of cast to come in this production run, which continues until 9th January, including two more acclaimed Carmens: Anna Caterina Antonacci and Christine Rice. They will have a challenge to match the uninhibited, almost reckless, abandon of Rachvelishvili’s blazing intensity.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili; Don José, Roberto Alagna; Escamillo, Vito Priante; Micaëla, Verónica Cangemi; Frasquita, Simona Mihai; Mercédès, Rachel Kelly; Le Dancaïre,Adrian Clarke; Le Remendado, Stuart Patterson; Zuniga, Nicolas Courjal; Moralès, Ashley Riches; Director, Francesca Zambello; Revival director, Duncan Macfarland; Conductor, Daniel Oren; Designs, Tanya McCallin; Lighting design, Paule Constable; Choreography, Arthur Pita; Revival choreographer, Sirena Tocco; Fight director, Mike Loades; Revival fight director, Natalie Dakin; Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th December 2013.

Posted by Gary at 11:35 PM

December 17, 2013

Offenbach’s Fantasio from Opera Rara

Fantasio_Brenda-Rae-and-Sarah-Connolly.gifBrenda Rae and Sarah Connolly

On the evidence of this first UK performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Opera Rara, this failure was certainly not a result of a dulling of Offenbach’s characteristic wit or for want of a lively tune or two.

Jean-Christopher Keck — who is responsible for this new performing edition of Fantasio (the original was lost when the Salle Favart, home to the Opéra-Comique burned to the ground in 1887) — suggests that the opera bombed largely because of bad timing. As a German-born Frenchman writing during the aftermath the Franco-Prussian war, Offenbach was not popular among the musicians of the Opéra-Comique. Moreover, the French, eager for some light relief following the deprivations of war and their recent defeat by the forces of the German coalition, were probably less than delighted to be presented with an opera based on a play by Alfred de Musset which had had little success when staged at the Comédie-Française in 1866 and which, to top it all, was set in Munich.

Whatever the merits of de Musset’s drama, the libretto which his brother Paul fashioned from the original play is a rather limp affair lacking either the sparkle and zest of La vie parisienne, or the shadows and complexity of Les contes d’Hoffmann.

The beautiful Bavarian princess, Elsbeth, who is mourning the death of the court jester, Saint-Jean, has been betrothed by her father to the Prince of Mantua. The Prince has arrived with aide, Marinoni, to claim his bride, and is greeted by crowds of festive townspeople eager to celebrate the nuptial union. The students, however, do not share the general mood of euphoria; in particular, the melancholy dreamer, Fantasio, feels pity for the princess who is to be wed to a complete stranger. He decides to don the deceased jester’s costume, in order to approach the princess; the disguise will also, fortuitously, divert the police who are chasing him for bad debts.

Fantasio_Neal-Davies.gifNeal Davies

For reasons not entirely clear, Marinoni and the Prince swap identities, and when the ‘Prince’ is introduced to Elsbeth, Marinoni’s less than aristocratic comportment does not make a good impression on the princess. Her first meeting with Fantasio is hardly more promising, for she objects to the scholar’s ironic garb, but his waggishness and kindness soften her heart. Meanwhile, Elsbeth’s page, Flamel, has discovered the Prince’s subterfuge; when all are gathered in public, the ‘jester’ fulfils his courtly role by wickedly flipping the royal imposter’s wig into the air. Ailing in gaol as a result of his impertinence, Fantasio is rescued by the now enamoured princess, who gives him the key to her garden. The humiliated and Prince and the enraged King are about to declare war between their two nations, when Fantasio intervenes and pleads for peace. The Prince decides that Elsbeth is not the bride for him and sets off home. The King rewards Fantasio for his services, naming him a Prince; when Fantasio tries to return the key to Elsbeth, she urges him to keep it.

Offenbach’s score contains many musical gems, but the overture gives little hint of the treasures to come. During the slow, mysterious introduction, Mark Elder, conducting without a baton, subtly coaxed some delicate playing from the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The wide tessitura — gentle flutes aloft, unison celli below — and airy texture, together with the rather tentative melodic gestures, created an ambiguous, slightly unsettling tone, before the launch of a zippy allegro got the show on the road. But, the overall effect was rather fragmented.

This faltering forward momentum was a problem throughout the first act, with its fairly long exposition. Perhaps a staged production would create more dramatic drive, but here the spoken dialogue — even though the French was delivered with panache — and standard evening wear, barring Fantasio’s colourful jackets, made things feel rather sluggish.

The mood whipped up in the second act, though; for it’s here that the trademark Offenbach show-stoppers — offering both froth and charm, rapture and serenity — are to be found. And, it was also here that American soprano Brenda Rae’s star quality was revealed. As Elsbeth, in her first Act aria Rae’s rather understated downheartedness did not make much of an impression, the voice generally light and pleasant but lacking strong characterisation. However, in ‘Quand l’ombre des arbres’ the bright clarity, gleaming tone, pinpoint accuracy and sheer stylishness of Rae’s virtuosic runs, leaps and twirls were remarkable; despite the technical challenges she truly acted with her voice. The feistiness and pettishness beneath the decorous young maiden’s obedience came to the fore, particularly in the subsequent duet, ‘Je n’ai donc rien de plu pour consoler mon coeur’, when she pours out her heart to Fantasio: “When you’re sixteen you still have time to be miserable”!

Fantasio_Sir-Mark-Elder.gifSir Mark Elder

The title role seems tailor-made for Sarah Connolly’s luscious mezzo, as perfectly fitted as her gorgeous burgundy velvet jacket; but while she certainly looked the part and used the rich depths of her voice with customary acumen, Connolly’s melancholy dreamer, all brooding reflection and self-absorption, didn’t have quite enough spirit and romantic fire. It didn’t help that she was rather bound to the score, especially in the spoken dialogue, and in contrast to most of the other principals. Fantasio’s opening Act 1 aria, ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, in which he addresses the moon marvelling at its beauty, was suitably meditative and contained; and Connolly sustained a beautiful line in the Act 3 duet when, languishing in his prison cell, Fantasio is visited by Elsbeth, who fears that his bravery has been in vain and her marriage is inescapable. But, elsewhere I’d have liked a bit less Hoffmann-esque introspection and more roguishness and comic élan.

As the Prince and his manservant, baritone Russell Braun and tenor Robert Murray were a superb double act. They relished the score’s wit, and the energy of their exchanges made the farcical costume-swapping seem ‘credible’ — even as they wryly traded one black jacket for another! Braun’s naval-gazing aria, ‘Je ne serai jamai aimé pour moi-même’, was robust and fittingly narcissistic — ‘What rapture I’d feel if I were ever loved for myself’: the beautifully controlled weightlessness of ‘rapture’, complemented by some lovely woodwind solos, revealed the extent of the Prince’s solipsism. Murray’s Act 3 aria, ‘Reprenez cet habit mon prince’, as Marinoni hands back his master’s finery, was well-acted, the tone earnest, the trills graceful.

The rest of the cast were committed and uniformly more than competent. As Flamel, mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds sang with warmth and focus. Brindley Sherratt was appropriately regal in manner as the Bavarian monarch, but might have employed a touch more heft to suggest the weight of imperial haughtiness. Bass-baritone Neal Davies was excellent as Sparck, aptly conveying the buoyant confidence of youth; Aled Hall (Facio) and Gavan Ring (Hartmann) were convincing as his fellow students.

The Opera Rara Chorus were in gloriously full voice, responding with vigour to Elder’s encouragements — although at times, and perhaps understandably, heads were buried in scores. Elder made certain that every instrumental detail in the score was cleanly heard; pizzicati were precise and meaningfully placed, there was some lovely playing from the first horn, extending and duetting with the vocal melodies, and Pierre Doumenge’s cello solo was expressively executed. In the Act 2 prelude, imposing divided cello were balanced by the tender grace of the violin melody; at the start of Act 3, the blare of the brass was countered by the solo oboe’s seductive curling arcs. There are some self-quotations and some humdrum passages in the score, but Elder made sure that the moments that count really did speak. He even grabbed some of the dramatic limelight, as the tailor to whom Fantasio resorts to purloin the late jester’s gaudy motley.

Inevitably, there were some theatrical coups that did not come off on the concert platform, but some gentle, self-aware irony helped to smooth over the cracks. I felt that Elder might have stirred up the tempo still further, particularly in the act finales; perhaps in the theatre things would more naturally race along. I’m not sure that Fantasio has sufficient dramatic interest and coherence to deserve the epithet, ‘masterpiece’ (the opening is slow, and the third act finale a little cumbersome); but this welcome and accomplished performance certainly made a persuasive case for its musical merits.

Claire Seymour

Opera Rara will release a CD recording of Fantasio in 2014.

Cast and production information:

Brenda Rae, Elsbeth (La Princesse); Sarah Connolly, Fantasio; Victoria Simmonds, Flamel; Robert Murray, Marinoni; Russell Braun, Le Prince; Neal Davies, Sparck; Brindley Sherratt, Le Roi; Aled Hall, Facio; Gavan Ring, Hartmann; Sir Mark Elder, conductor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Opera Rara Chorus. Royal Festival Hall, London, Sunday, 14th December 2013.

image= image_description=Jacques Offenbach ca. 1860 [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Offenbach’s Fantasio from Opera Rara product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Jacques Offenbach ca. 1860 [Source: Wikipedia]

Photos by Russell Duncan courtesy of Opera Rara
Posted by Gary at 8:46 AM

December 16, 2013

Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier

Never one to tread customary paths, Kenny and her performers took us down unfamiliar by-ways during this evening of music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, beginning with a series of French noëls, carols and dances. Sung from the gallery, gradually increasing in intensity and joy, the traditional Noël, ‘A minuit fut fait un réveil’ (At midnight they were woken up), swept into the instrumental ‘Guillo, prens ton tambourin’, in which Clare Salaman’s boisterous hurdy-gurdy established a mood of spirited abandon.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Sells began a little tentatively in Charpentier’s ‘Noël pour les instruments’ (H534), in the air ‘Joseph est bien marié’ (Joseph is well married), but was more assertive when relating Joseph’s initial anger at his wife’s conception, the lines sharper and more agile; and, the angel’s words were emotively conveyed. Several instrumental numbers followed, full of musical and textural contrasts and enriched by adventurous chromaticisms. Salaman and leader Rodolfo Richter’s violin duet, in ‘Lassez paistre vos bêtes’, was particularly notable for its fluidity of line and beautiful clear tone.

When one considers French music of the seventeenth century, the word ‘oratorio’ does not naturally spring to mind. However, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was not only the first French composer to write oratorios, he also composed a substantial number of them, both secular and sacred. Having travelled to Rome in the 1650s to study painting, Charpentier found himself changing tack; he decided instead upon a career in music, studying with Giacomo Carissimi who was maestro of the chapel of Sant’Apollinare at the German College of the Jesuits from 1630 until his death in 1674, and one of the early masters of the Latin oratorio.

Returning from Rome, Charpentier found employment in the household of the Duchesse de Guise, where he was maître de musique until the Duchesse’s death in 1688, and the ‘Christmas oratorio’ that the Theatre of the Ayre presented here — In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum — was one of four which are known to have been written specifically for private performance by the Duchesse’s musical retinue. The composer declared that these musical servants were ‘so good that one could claim that those of several great sovereigns did not rival it’ (Mercure Galant, March 1688, p.306); the performers on this occasion certainly rose to the professed heights of their forerunners.

As we might expect, Charpentier enriched the traditional oratorio with elements of the contemporary French style, incorporating instrumental music, experimenting with concertato and contrapuntal textures, deepening the harmonic palette with progressive chromaticism, and widening the dramatic range of the vocal numbers. The members of the Theatre of the Ayre relished the musical conversations between voices and instruments. They captured the graceful lilt of the Preludium, with its pastoral rhythms and warm, full textures, before mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych related the ‘Récit de l’Historien’, giving us the first taste of the wonderfully full, sensuous tone with a wide range of expressive shades and colours that would delight throughout the evening, and which so beautifully enriched the closing ‘Air de Choeur’, the strophic rondeau ‘Salve, puerule’ (Hail, little child).

Despite asking for our understanding, as she was suffering from a chest infection, soprano Sophie Daneman, evidence little for which to apologise, finding a delicate softness for the gentle ‘Air de l’Ange’, accompanied by two recorders. The solo numbers of the oratorio are fairly brief — perhaps because the texts do not relate sustained expression of a single emotion that longer arias would require — and the tenderness of the angel’s song was quickly swept aside by the lively contrapuntal ensemble, ‘Choeur des pastores’, establishing a swift dramatic movement. The shepherds encourage each other to hasten to Bethlehem, and the ensuing instrumental march vigorously depicted their impetuous journey. Jonathan Sells’ short air, recounting the shepherd’s arrival at the stable, was fittingly mild and graceful, if a little understated.

The final hymn to the new-born Christ epitomised the way Charpentier used juxtaposition and diversity of texture and colour to create flowing dramatic-narratives: the solo soprano and mezzo-soprano passages contrasted affectingly with each other, and also with the ensemble verses and instrumental interjections. The closing choral diminuendo and relaxation of pace was sensitively accompanied by airy theorbo, and the rise into the final glowing cadence, ornamented by a lovely tenor decoration, was artfully controlled.

Indeed, this unrolling of diverse dramatic and musical episodes within a unified form made it apparent why the slightly surprising programming of Christmas Noels with a more substantial secular work, Charpentier’s ‘pastorale en musique’, Actéon, which was presented after the interval, made perfect sense.

Actéon relates an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A ‘miniaturisation’ of the tragédie-lyrique, the work incorporates all the musical elements of the full-scale form compressed into a smaller compass which suggests that it was originally designed for presentation in the home of a private patron, and which also makes it wholly suited to the intimate Wigmore Hall stage.

A sprightly French overture introduces the action, and the nimble, airy texture was characteristic of the instrumental playing throughout, the bright recorders contrasting sweetly with the warm but rhythmically incisive strings. The buoyant cries of the energetic ‘Choeur des chasseurs’ were interrupted by tenor Paul Agnew’s urgent avowals, as Actéon presses his hunters to take their quarry to the Goddess Diane’s grove, to offer it as a sacrifice to her divine beauty. Agnew sang with assurance and much expressivity, the tone beautiful, the text clearly conveyed. Actéon’s aria after the hunt, as he rests alone in the peaceful valley, was wonderfully crafted, the repeated rising appoggiaturas at the phrase-ends sensitively nuanced to communicate the emotions directly and movingly. There was an occasional sense of strain at the top, as when Actéon rejoices in the freedom of his heart, but Agnew’s sense of wonder when he espies the Goddess was spell-binding, the moment made all the more affecting as a result of the injection of tension and pace upon his subsequent discovery by Diane, and by the simplicity and openness of the tenor’s unworldly, innocent pleading, ‘Le seul hazard et mon Maleur/ Font toute mon offense’ (Only bad luck and my misfortune/ are my whole offence).

In the scene in which Actéon undergoes his tragic transformation, Agnew’s powerful monologue stirringly depicted the horrified visions of the dying man, as he declaimed the arioso lines with articulate eloquence. The violins’ delicate, halting response to the tragedy, and the concluding chains of falling suspensions played above a pianissimo continuo pedal, significantly added to the pathos.

Daneman was a fiery Diane, injecting brightness and vigour into the Goddess’s fury and chastisements. Starushkevych, as Junon, once again proved that she has undoubted star quality, using a variety of colours to convincingly depict character and singing the declamatory arioso with flexibility and style.

Charpentier’s characters and ensemble groups are clearly delineated. Here, the burly choruses of the hunters were complemented by the tranquil melodiousness of Diane’s nymphs. Helen Neeves and Heather Cairncross blended sweetly as Daphné and Hyale warn mortals not to stray into the Goddess’s grove, their entwining lines echoed sensitively by the two violins. Neeves also impressed as Aréthuze.

The larger ensembles were characterised by accuracy and concord, although there was still room for individuality and nuance. For, as Charpentier wrote, ‘Diversity is the very essence of music … Diversity alone is the source of all that is perfect in it, just as uniformity is the source of all insipidity and unpleasantness in it’ (Règles de composition fol.13). The Theatre of the Ayre, performing with complete commitment and considerable insight, as individuals and as a group, confirmed the truth of his words.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Charpentier: In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum H414, Seasonal Noëls, Actéon

Elizabeth Kenny, director, lute; Sophie Daneman, soprano (Diane); Helen Neeves, soprano (Aréthuze, Daphneé); Anna Starushkevych, mezzo-soprano (Junon); Heather Cairncross, alto (Hyale); Paul Agnew, tenor (Actéon); Jason Darnell, tenor (chasseur); Jonathan Sells, bass-baritone (chasseur); Rodolpho Richter, violin; Clare Salaman, violin, hurdy gurdy; Alison McGillivray, bass violin, bass violin; Pamela Thorby, recorder; Catherine Latham, recorder; Merlin Harrison, bass recorder; David Miller, theorbo, guitar; James Johnstone, harpsichord, organ. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 12th December 2013.

image= image_description=Elizabeth Kenny product=yes product_title=Theatre of the Ayre: Charpentier product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Elizabeth Kenny
Posted by Gary at 12:03 PM

Jihoon Kim, Royal Opera House, London

Kim’s rich, resonant bass is much admired. During his two years as a Jette Parker Young Artist in 2011/13 he was cast in a wide range of roles at the Royal Opera House, from Alessio in Bellini’s La sonnambula and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème to the Ghost of Hector in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. After completing the Programme, he was offered a one year contract as a Royal Opera principal, covering more than 50 performances in the current season - in fact, when he sings Stimme der Wächter on the first night of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten it will be his 100th performance on the main stage.

In Verdi Les vêpres sicilennes, Kim’s Robert was so distinctive that James Sohre wrote in, “As one would expect at Covent Garden, all of the minor roles were polished and poised, but I particularly enjoyed Jihoon Kim as Robert. The ROH is right to place such confidence in him and to nurture a performer of such accomplishment and real individuality. His rolling, dark bass surely has a bright future”. Watching the HD broadcast of that production, I noticed how often Director Stefan Herheim used Kim at many critical points in the drama, far more often than the actual singing part required. Kim appeared many times in close-ups because he has presence, even when he was not singing.

Particpants in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme have considerable professional experience even before they join the scheme. The programme polishes these skills so they learn all aspects of their profession. Coaching includes languages, musical style, interpretation, stagecraft, acting and movement. There is more to being an opera singer than singing alone. Because the programme focuses on practical performance skills, Young Artists give individual recitals, as well as participating in main house productions. Jihoon Kim’s recital in the Paul Hamlyn Hall in the Royal Opera House in December 2013was unique, however, because he sang Korean Art Song, a genre almost unknown in the west.

JIHOON-KIM_02.gifJihoon Kim with ensemble

Korean Art song or Gagok are songs composed in the Western form. Borrowing the melody of hymns from the end of the 19th century Gagok began in the 1920s, when Korea was occupied by Japan, and continues to flourish today. In South Korea, classical music is cherished and music education standards very high. The songs describe mountains, woodlands and the simple life of Korean peasants, celebrating national culture and identity, much as Grieg and Dvořák did in Europe. The lyricism in the music of Gagok expresses nostalgia, but also a more subtle sensibility. “Deep in the woodland” writes the poet Donghwan Kim, set by composer Wonshik Lim in 1942, “a spring never seen or found trickles secretly……I take a sip, returning home with pleasure, for the spring will remain my own, secretly”

“Another aspect of Korean Art Song”, says Kim, “is that it mainly consists of a lyrical melody (cantilena), which does not require a trained vocalization, to be sung easily by the general public.” Kim is modest, though, for some of these songs are technically sophisticated and benefit from his sensitivity to musical form. Dongsu Shin’s Dear Mountain (1983) is a particularly beautiful song, allowing Kim to showcase the range of colours in his voice. In Hoon Byeon’s Pollack (1952), fast paced, ever-changing rhythms suggest the movement of a fish frolicking in the sea before it gets caught in a net. Kim sang with agile flexibility and freshness, quite unusual in his fach. The fish is “ripped to shreds, my body may disappear but my name will remain, as Pollack, Pollack, I will remain in this world”. There is humour in the song, but also bitter irony. The very fact that Kim was able to express these complex feelings to an audience who did not speak Korean shows how well he can communicate : a valuable skill in opera. Kim could convey meaning so well that many in the audience could follow the spirit of the songs, such as the drinking song, without needing translations at all.

Kim sang some songs accompanied by pianist Jean-Paul Pruna. Pruna, who was a member of the Young Artists Programme in 2010/12, postponed his return to Holland for his current engagement with Reisoper in order to take part. Kim also built the programme to include performances on traditional Korean instruments, in order to show how modern art song connected to traditional form. Hyelim Kim played taegŭm, a transverse bamboo flute. She played Chʻŏngsŏnggok, a melody used in Korean court circles. It was transposed an octave higher in parts to maximize the distinctive buzzing articulation of the membrane within the instrument, which acts as a kind of sympathetic resonator.

Hyunsu Song played the haegŭm, a two-stringed bowed string instrument. A percussion ensemble joined Kim and the other soloists for larger pieces, such as the three variations of Arirang. The Koreans in the audience started to clap in rhythm with the percussive pulse, underlining the changing shape and form. For westerners, who aren’t used to participating in classical music, this was quite an education.

For an encore, Kim sang a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a baby. Although he was so young, he responded to the emotion in the song and used to weep. “Maybe it’s the song that made me become a singer”, he said. The ability to feel and express emotion is perhaps fundamental to the art of song. Kim sang the song first sotto voce, barely above a whisper, conveying the idea of a song heard as distant memory. Then he sang it again with confidence. We could hear the boy grown into a man with a bright future. I was very moved.

As an extra theatrical touch, Kim wore a hanbok, a spectacular silk costume, loaned by Somssimyoungga, the only luxury traditional company designing bespoke Korean garments. Kim thinks as an opera artist, who understands the importance of visual images. Kim also has exceptional organization skills, putting together the whole programme and people involved on his own initiative. Great attention to detail : at one stage, the bow of the haegŭm brushed too close to a microphone. Without missing a note, Kim bent over and fixed things.

This was a unique recital, from an unusually promising young singer who has justified the faith the Royal Opera House has placed in him.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Jihoon Kim [Photo by Marco Godoy]

product_title=Jihoon Kim : Royal Opera House, London
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Jihoon Kim

Photos by Marco Godoy

Posted by anne_o at 8:57 AM

December 11, 2013

The Magic Flute at Los Angeles Opera: Silent Film Style

Los Angeles Opera's new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute opened on November 23, 2013. Brought here from the Komische Oper in Berlin where it premiered last year, the production is a multimedia rendition in the style of the British theater group 1927. The concept by Suzanne Andrade, Paul Barritt, and Barrie Kosky combines opera with 1927's silent movie technique to produce a 'film noir' ambience. Throughout the evening singers interacted with the hand-drawn animation projected onto the screen to evoke the style of silent film. The use of projections instead of stick-built scenery is a growing trend among opera companies since it saves a good deal of time and money that can be used elsewhere.

Although designer Esther Bialas had to deal with the lighting from the projections, she made the singers look like their characters as they acted out the story in front of screens. Silent-film pictures with minimalist texts above Buster Keaton-styled images appeared during the opera's recitatives. Pianist Tamara Sanikidze accompanied them on an eighteenth century hammerklavier with music from Mozart's fantasias K 397 in D minor and K 475 in C minor. Her artistry was magnificent and the extra music provided an unexpected treasure.

MgF5223.gifTamino (Lawrence Brownlee, at left) and Papageno (Rodion Pogossov, at right) are sent by the Three Ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Peabody Southwell) to rescue Pamina.

The projected video sometimes involved nearly one thousand layers that had to be manually triggered by the stage manager so that the animation matched the conductor's tempi. Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon called the concept 'an extraordinary idea and an extraordinary execution of that idea', adding that 'for LA, the birthplace of movies, it's a perfect fit'. Barrie Kosky said that the rhythm of the music and the text had an enormous influence on the animation. He and his collaborators condensed the dialogues and transformed them into silent film 'intertitles' with piano accompaniment.

After a rousing rendition of the opera's overture, the voice of Lawrence Brownlee as Tamino resonated throughout the hall as he fought a huge dragon that wanted to devour him. He sang this aria and the rest of the role with beautifully cultivated tone. The Three Ladies who really did slay the monster were Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco, and Peabody Southwell. Chang's radiant, lustrous soprano was particularly well focused. Velasco provided sumptuous harmony, but Southwell's low notes could have been stronger. Evan Boyer, the Sarastro, is a very young bass with a pleasant voice but his low tones could have been more robust. As the Queen of the Night, Erika Miklósa negotiated her phenomenally difficult arias without missing the tiniest note. Most coloratura sopranos don't sing the Queen for very long, but she has sung it for more than four hundred performances.

MgF3236.gifThrown out of Sarastro's temple, Monostatos (Rodell Rosel) teams up with the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies (left to right: Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco, Peabody Southwell).

Dressed as Nosferatu, Rodell Rosel portrayed an evil Monostatos whose amusing aria did not win him much sympathy. The tenor voice of Vladimir Dmitruk, the First Armed Man, made listeners wonder when he will sing a larger part. Philip Addis was a stentorian speaker and Valentin Anikin a secure Second Armed Man. Amanda Woodbury was a charmingly sexy Papagena and the three boys from the LA Opera Children's Chorus added a piquant note to the mix. Grant Gershon's adult chorus sang with stirring harmony in their hand-drawn, animated state. Conductor James Conlon, who regaled the audience with a delightful pre-show lecture, had a little difficulty synchronizing stage and pit in the first moments after the overture. After that, he conducted with delightfully varied tempi and rubato that brought out the lilting qualities of Mozart's music. Premieres are always fun at Los Angeles Opera and this one was the cream of the crop.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Tamino, Lawrence Brownlee; Pamina, Janai Brugger; The Queen of the Night, Erika Miklosa; Sarastro, Evan Boyer; Papageno, Rodion Pogossov; First Lady, Hae Ji Chang; Second Lady, Cassandra Zoé Velasco; Third Lady, Peabody Southwell; Monostatos, Rodell Rosel; Papagena, Amanda Woodbury; The Speaker, Phillip Addis; First Armored Man, Vladimir Dmitruk; Second Armored Man, Valentin Anikin; First Boy, Drew Pickett; Second Boy, Charles Connon; Third Boy, Jamal Jaffer; Conductor, James Conlon; Directors, Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky; Animation, Paul Barritt; Concept 1927 (Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt) and Barrie Kosky; Scenery and Costume Designer, Esther Bialas.

image_description=The Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa, top) urges Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) to rescue her daughter. [Photo by Robert Millard]

product_title=The Magic Flute at Los Angeles Opera: Silent Film Style
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: The Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa, top) urges Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) to rescue her daughter.

Photos by Robert Millard

Posted by maria_n at 10:00 AM

War Requiem, Chicago Symphony

The featured singers were soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, tenor John Mark Ainsley, and baritone Matthias Goerne. In addition to the Chicago Symphony Chorus expertly prepared by Duain Wolff, the Chicago Children’s Chorus showed the careful supervision of its Artistic Director Josephine Lee. The Orchestra, soloists, and choruses were brought together under the direction of conductor Charles Dutoit.

Britten’s large-scale work was performed with deep respect yet also with the vitality that is needed to render a fresh impression of its predominantly pacifist sentiment. The soft choral repetitions on “Requiem aeternam dona eis” [“Eternal rest grant to them”] at both the beginning and end of the piece established such a requisite tone and allowed for variations by soloists, orchestra, and the choruses within these parameters. In the first solo piece, “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?,” Mr. Ainsley made an energetic leap into the poetic text by Wilfred Owen. His clear and idiomatic pronunciation underscored the ironic use of words from the realm of prayer and church-services used here to describe gun-and shellfire. Ainsley’s skilled sense of vocal decoration showed in his melismas on the words “prayers” and “rapid” to eluciate the violent sounds of war, just as “wailing” was similarly emphasized as both the sound of a rushing shell and the emotions elicited by its destructive force. High pitches on “held” and “speed” in the third stanza led into a gradual deceleration as Ainsley sang the concluding line, “and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds,” with a tempo matching the import of the text.

The intervening orchestral and choral passages devoted to the “Kyrie” and the “Dies irae” were played with stately emphasis and with careful attention focused on exposed writing for the brass. The second poem of Owen following immediately features the baritone as solo performer. In “Bugles sang” Mr. Goerne showed sensitivity to modulating his voice in the higher reaches at the start of the poem in Brittten’s scoring, while he ended the piece with an impressive, nearly bass emphasis in “Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.” Between those parts Goerne’s projection on sustained pitches showed an unpleasant waver which tended to diminish his dramatic effect. At the entrance of the soprano and the return to Latin text, the “Liber scriptus” was declaimed with authority and a secure sense of pitch. Ms. Pavlovskaya gave an impressive performance with high notes sung forte on the first and third syllables of each verse culminating in awe before the “Rex tremendae majestatis” (“King of tremendous majesty”) of the final stanza. The concluding verse as an appeal for mercy was sung with an equally effective piano line.

In the first of several duets for tenor and baritone, “Out there we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,” Ainsley and Goerne traced their vocal lines at times together, at times apart, as they portrayed two soldiers caught up in a combat platoon facing Death. In an emphatic reaction to this chilling prospect, both singers embellished their lines, “we laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.” Ainsley’s final recitation of “for Life, not men” with soft introspection led the pair back to the sober reckoning of war’s generic toll. Following the stately pronouncements of the choral “Recordare” Goerne invested Owen’s poem, “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,” with sinister force. The metaphor of an arm for a “gun towering toward Heaven” was caught in the baritone’s chilling curse demanding that this limb be separated “from our soul.”

In each of the next few numbers for chorus and soloists bells sound at the conclusion as if in dignified recognition that individual participants of the conflict are commended to the earth. Ainsley’s elegy for a fallen soldier, “Move him into the sun,” was especially poignant for his emphasis on the “fatuous” sunbeams which can no longer break this sleep. The next duet for baritone and tenor, introduced with distinctive performances by the CSO woodwinds, was held together expertly under Dutoit’s leadership. The narration by the soloists of the story of Abram and Isaac was punctuated by the children’s chorus singing the Latin “Offertory.” In this ironic statement on the Old Testament sacrifice being fulfilled through the horrors of war, the ensemble worked together as seamlessly as in the following “Sanctus.” Here Pavlovskaya performed with full chorus in her declaration to the deity. Embellishments taken on “sanctus” and “in nomine Domini” as well as a rising melisma on “in excelsis” (“in the highest”) were executed at full voice with the chorus providing an echoing background. In the final duet for baritone and tenor, “Let us sleep now,” an increasing complexity of melodic line was again supported by the choral forces in their growing appeal for peace. The final shudder of “Amen” united the ensemble in this epitaph for an end to conflicts.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description="Two bewildered old ladies stand amid the leveled ruins of the almshouse which was Home; until Jerry dropped his bombs. Total war knows no bounds. Almshouse bombed Feb. 10, Newbury, Berks., England." February 11, 1943 [Source: U.S. National Archives] product=yes product_title=War Requiem, Chicago Symphony product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: "Two bewildered old ladies stand amid the leveled ruins of the almshouse which was Home; until Jerry dropped his bombs. Total war knows no bounds. Almshouse bombed Feb. 10, Newbury, Berks., England." February 11, 1943 [Source: U.S. National Archives]
Posted by Gary at 9:06 AM

December 4, 2013

Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger

Readers will learn of his fishing trip with Bryn Terfel, why he was not safe at the Safeway, and his experience as John Lithgow’s dinner guest.

Jay Hunter Morris says that he has been keeping a diary of his experiences as an itinerant opera singer for more than fifteen years. Eventually, he edited its many chapters and formed them into a manuscript which he calls the Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger. Then he put it on his website and let fans read it for free for quite some time. Having first encountered it when I was digging for questions to ask him in an interview, I could not put it down. Now that it’s published in paperback, it can be read the old fashioned way in places the computer might not go, such as waiting in line for opera tickets.

After acknowledging the contributions of various people who helped him on his way to Heldentenor stardom, Jay covers non-operatic events from the years 2000 to 2011. He begins with his introduction to an earthy hippie commune that took place while he was in San Francisco singing his first Wagner role, Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. He describes its people, such as Wendy the windbreaker who wore no clothes, in a most amusing manner. Some readers might be offended by Morris's potty humor but he uses it in a good-natured way. Much of the writing is in dialect, but it’s not hard to read and his self-deprecating style is absolutely charming.

Under all that humor lies a sensitive artist, and he tells us beautiful stories of people who love opera so much that they devote their lives to it with no thought of stardom. Those of us who sit in the red plush seats don’t often think of the people who retire from non-musical jobs and devote their time to working backstage. Thank you for that, Mr. Morris. He finds interesting people in foreign cities, too. His description of Gunta, the German widow who was trying to maintain two gardens, that of her late husband and her own, told the reader as much about the writer as it did about her.

Not all of a singer’s life is high C’s and bravos, however, and Morris tells us about the lean times when the phone did not ring, as well as those thrilling moments when companies entrusted him with the most important roles in opera. He did not have to tell us what happened when he portrayed those heroic characters. That news was are all over the media. Readers will have to get the book to learn of his fishing trip with Bryn Terfel, why he was not safe at the Safeway, and his experience as John Lithgow’s dinner guest. There is a great deal of amusing reading in this book and I think opera loving readers will want to have a copy at hand to look at more than once. I also think that filmmakers should take a look at this work. It could be a very funny movie.

Maria Nockin

DIARY OF A REDNECK OPERA ZINGER. By Jay Hunter Morris. Washington, D.C., USA; Auckland, New Zealand; São Paolo Brazil: Opera Lively Press, 2013. 132 pp. Paperback $10.95

image_description=Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger

product_title=Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Opera Lively Press, 2013, ISBN: 978-0615793870

Posted by maria_n at 11:30 AM

December 2, 2013

Fat Knight in Los Angeles

Verdi, who composed more than twenty operatic tragedies and was a life long student of Shakespeare’s plays (witness his powerful Macbeth and heart wrenching Otello) had previously written only one comedy, Il Giorno di Regno (King for a Day). He wrote it when he was 27, at the very outset of his career, but sadly, immediately after the death of his young wife and infant children, and the work failed. Fifty years passed before he undertook this second comedy. He was 80 when Falstaff opened on February 9th 1893 at La Scala in Milan.

Shakespeare’s fictional Sir John Falstaff, a man bloated in body and spirit, and now immortal, is one of literature’s most renowned comic inventions. He appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays — first, in the histories; Henry IV, part 1 and Henry IV part 2, and later, in the comic Merry Wives of Windsor, which is devoted to his exploits alone. In the Henry plays Falstaff is deceitful, funny, and very smart. As the central character of The Merry Wives of Windsor, he is deceitful, absurd, and the butt of ridicule. The eminent 18th century scholar, Samuel Johnson found “nothing in [Falstaff] that can be esteemed.”. The eminent modern scholar Harold Bloom, considers the early Falstaff one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters.

FLS5040.gifLeft to right: Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mistress Quickly, Erica Brookhyser as Meg Page; Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Nannetta; Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford.

Composers Antonio Salieri, Michael Balfe and Otto Nicolai, based operatic works on the comically absurd Falstaff of the Merry Wives . British composers, Sir Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Vaughan Williams emphasized the historical British past in their telling of the fat knight’s adventures. Williams’ score contains British folks songs including “Greensleeves.” Verdi and Boito created a perfectly blended masterpiece — a comic opera set in oak timbered England, that sounds and plays like a manic French farce.

The story: Falstaff sets out to woo two wealthy women — his motives are simple: lust and financial gain. Sad for him, it turns out the women know each other and set out to trick him. They set a trap and succeed in making a fool of him. In fact, they succeed more than once — which should tell you something about Falstaff’s personality. However, there is a happy ending, and the would-be seducer is invited to a feast with the women and their families, including the husband he intended to cuckold.

Falstaff requires an extraordinary cast. Verdi had written a new and different kind of opera, an opera whose music is a perpetual motion of merry deceits. In planning its premiere he turned down singers, even renowned singers, “who express feeling and action by falling asleep on the notes.” This new opera had to be performed by artists who "articulate" and “sing with brio.”

Los Angeles Opera gets high marks for presenting an excellent cast. Baritone Roberto Frontali, properly plumped up as Falstaff, sang with attention to the lyric, as well as humorous aspects of the Falstaff’s music, and with clear articulation. Baritone Marco Caria, who was debuting with the company as the Ford, delivered a passionate rendition of the humorous monologue on women. Robert Brubaker was properly humorous in the thankless tenor role of Dr Caius. Argentine tenor, Juan Francisco Gatell, was a handsome, lithe, but light voiced Fenton in his company debut. Bardolph (Rodell Rosel) and Pistol (Valentin Anikin) were amusingly deceitful rogues.

FLS5059.gifLeft to right: Juan Francisco Gatell as Fenton, Rodell Rosel as Bardolph, Marco Caria as Ford, Valentin Anikin as Pistol and Robert Brubaker as Dr. Caius

Soprano Carmen Giannattasio and mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser, as Alice and Meg respectively, were charming schemers. Ekaterina Sadovnikova, a pert soprano, made the snatches of Nannetta’s love music, and her “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” gleam. Ronnita Nicole Miller was properly conspiratorial and panderous as Mistress Quickly. However her mezzo soprano voice lacked the darkness “to function” as Verdi intended, “as the double bass in the women’s quartets”. And speaking of quartets, the extremely difficult ensemble pieces in this opera — the male and female octet and the last glorious fugue, incorporating the entire cast and chorus, were sharp, crisp and joyous.

For this production the opera company engaged British director, Lee Blakely and designer, Adrian Linford. Before the performance began and as scene changes were required, a drop down curtain containing various Shakespearean excerpts referring to Falstaff were a thoughtful touch, which added a sense depth, and I think helped keep audience anchored to the background of the tale. The settings were traditionally, but skimpily, Elizabethan. I found the trap door entrance and exit in the floor of Falstaff’s first act quarters, perhaps to offer the gratuitous information that the impoverished rogue was living an attic, unnecessary and distracting. Clearly, Falstaff couldn’t get through that door. Unfortunately the setting and direction of the last act, the dramatic and musical climax of the opera did not match the magic of its music. The music and libretto call for a sort of midsummer night’s fairy land setting. Shakespeare’s text calls on “fairies”and “elves” to pinch, tease and shake the villainous Falstaff. The words are even more amusing in Boito’s Italian, “pizzica, pizzica, stuzzica, spizzica, spizzica.” Unfortunately, the stage was shallow and essentially bare except for the required oak tree. Falstaff ’s punishment, set front and center on the foreshortened stage with the chorus lined up behind him, and with only a few “un-elfish” and “un-fairy” like creatures “attacking” him, was heavy handed and unconvincing.

Ah, but under James Conlon’s baton, the conducting of the act, in fact, of the entire opera was all “pizzica, stuzzica,” touch and go, light, airy, bouncy and merry as it should be.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Dr. Caius: Robert Brubaker; Sir John Falstaff: Roberto Frontali; Bardolph: Rodell Rosel; Pistol: Valentin Anikin; Meg Page: Erica Brookhyser; Alice Ford: Carmen Giannattasio; Mistressuickly: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Nannetta: Ekaterina Sadovnikova; Fenton: Juan Francisco Gatell; Ford: Marco Caria. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Lee Blakeley. Scenic and Costume Designer: Adrian Linford. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Chorus Master: Grant Gershon.

image= image_description=Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford and Roberto Frontali as Falstaff. [Photo by Robert Millard] product=yes product_title=Fat Knight in Los Angeles product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Carmen Giannattasio as Alice Ford and Roberto Frontali as Falstaff

Photos by Robert Millard
Posted by E_Gilson at 10:00 AM

Weber’s Euryanthe, London

And then, at least in the case of Euryanthe and Oberon, there is the matter of the dreadful libretti he had to set — presumably part of the reason why companies are unwilling to perform them. (Oddly, dreadful music seems to be less of a problem, given the lashings endured of Donizetti, Verdi, et al.) The best one can say for Helmina von Chezy’s efforts in Euryanthe is that they are merely awful, as opposed to the execrable text for Oberon.Lucky Weber, then, to receive such a fine performance as this from the valiant forces of the Chelsea Opera Group.

Conductor Cameron Burns and his excellent cast should receive equal credit for what I have no hesitation in describing as the best COG performance I have heard — by some distance. Burns’s reading ought to have been welcomed with open arms in any opera house; indeed, it would have signalled a marked improvement in most of what we hear. A refreshingly elegant, unexaggerated style — no frenetic waving around of arms to no evident end — did not in any sense preclude engagement with libretto, whatever its shortcomings, and score alike. It was surely testimony to sound training that soloists and chorus not only enunciated clearly, but for the most part seemed really to mean their words — even when the chorus was compelled to comment, without a trace of irony, that Euryanthe’s alleged betrayal of Adolar was the most grievous deed the world had ever witnessed: ‘ O Unthat, grässlichste von allen, Die jemals auf der Welt erhört!’ Burns’s handling of Weber’s score was perhaps all the more revelatory, not least since it is about the music that, perforce, we truly care. Line was maintained throughout. Not a single passage sounded unduly hurried or remotely meandering.

The Overture was an interesting case in point. It offered quite a contrast with, say, Karajan’s account, firmly melded into an almost granitic Wagnerian whole as it is — and mightily, even wondrously, impressive. Here, however, we heard a greater variety of moods, textures, and tempi, arguably more faithful to the movement’s role as apotpourri introduction to Weber’s opera (as opposed to Karajan’s concert overture) and to the composer’s conception, without danger of lapsing into the merely sectional. Presentiments — one has to remind oneself that they are not echoes! — of Mendelssohn characterised the very opening, but a darker form of the supernatural made its voice eerily heard in the ghost music. Weber’s musico-dramatic experiments were communicated with apparent ease, boundaries blurred but not obliterated between more old-fashioned set pieces and the ‘forward-looking’ — at least to any self-respecting Wagnerian — treatment of recitative and arioso. Above all, dramatic tension remained tight and proportions simply sounded ‘right’, a far more difficult task to accomplish than many might appreciate.

The chorus sometimes lacked a little in youthful vitality, especially earlier on, yet became more animated as the opera progressed, later sounding impressive indeed in the great close to the second act. Not unfittingly, it was at that point that the orchestra perhaps gained its greatest dramatic heights too, though throughout there was a great deal of impressive solo playing, especially from the woodwind. If only Weber’s clarinet writing were as meaningful in his concertos as it is here; he clearly needed a dramatic impetus to reach the heights of which he was capable. Moreover, the strings, if at times a little reticent earlier on, subsequently showed themselves adept at providing just the right sort of musical cushion for vocal recitatives. I could not help but wish that we had heard Burns at the helm for the COG Die Feen earlier this year, not least since the amount the two works have in common — not solely influence, though there is a good deal of that — became increasingly clear, as indeed did the influences, perceptible yet again not exaggerated, upon Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. (If only, I thought, Weber had had a dramatist such as Wagner to shape the relationship between Lysiart and Eglantine, we might have had a more telling taste still of Ortrud and Telramund. Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, appallingly misunderstood by many critics at Covent Garden last year, also came to mind more than once.)

Kirstin Sharpin’s star shone brightly in the tight role, words and music honoured to equal extent and indeed in fine alchemy. Hers was a portrayal both impassioned and noble, clearly longing to be properly ‘on stage’, yet offering considerable dramatic compensation even in concert. Sharpin’s cleanness of vocal line and dramatic commitment were shared by Camilla Roberts’s Eglantine. Tricky coloratura apparently evoked no fears; more importantly, such ambiguity as the libretto permitted was exploited to its dramatic fullest. Stephen Gadd likewise offered a finely honed portrayal of her accomplice, Lysiart, malevolent and sophisticated — again, insofar as the libretto permitted, but considerably more so than one would have likely have expected. Jonathan Stoughton revealed an often pleasing tenor as Adolar, drawing upon lyric and heroic reserves as required. This is clearly a voice which, if sensibly marshalled, will be in great demand for heroic roles; however, more careful phrasing was sometimes called for on this occasion. Richard Wiegold projected a benevolent voice of experience as the king, and Melinda Hughes’s brief appearance as the country girl, Bertha proved full of charm. All contributed to a performance that was very much more than the sum of its parts. Now will one of our opera companies — ideally, the Royal Opera — kindly take its cue and do its duty by Weber?

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

King Louis VI: Richard Wiegold; Adolar: Jonathan Stoughton; Euryanthe: Kirstin Sharpin; Lysiart: Stephen Gadd; Eglantine: Camilla Roberts; Bertha: Melinda Hughes; Chorus of the Chelsea Opera Group (chorus master: Deborah Miles-Johnson)/Orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group/Cameron Burns (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, Saturday 23 November 2013.

Click here for more information on Euryanthe.

image= image_description=Carl Maria von Weber (1821) by Caroline Bardua product=yes product_title=Weber’s Euryanthe, London product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Carl Maria von Weber (1821) by Caroline Bardua
Posted by Gary at 8:56 AM