March 31, 2016

The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Opera

Oscar Wilde is the aristocrat of aphorists: a master of barbed eloquence. In his 2011 opera based on Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Irish composer Gerald Barry treats Wilde as the ultimate Tweeter and takes machete, sledge-hammer and jack-boot to the playwright’s perfectly phrased blend of realism and aestheticism. The result is a libretto that leaps hysterically from one soundbite to another, accompanied by a pastiche score which romps through a succession of musical idioms from serialism to a cacophonous piano-version of Auld Lang Syne, from Mahler to French revolutionary song.

Moreover, having cut two-thirds of Wilde’s text, Barry then musically murders what remains. Rather than singing with the smooth lyricism of Wilde’s supremely distilled verbal pearls, Barry’s characters deliver the text in a stilted idiom which wrenches syllables apart and strangles syntax: ‘The truth … is rare … ly … pure … and ne … ver sim … PLE’. Jack’s well-mannered avowal, ‘I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.’ becomes a manic yelp, ‘I want to marry Gwendolen!’ Even the play’s most celebrated charms are not spared: the arch symmetry of Lady Bracknell’s caustic quip, ‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness’, is reduced to the bland, ‘You’ve lost them both! That looks careless.’

The fact that Wilde’s play ‘survives’ is a testament to its brilliance. Indeed, it is Wilde — albeit in the form of brutally truncated surtitles — who inspires the opera’s few laughs, not Barry.

Wilde’s wit is simultaneously an exemplary reflection of his liberal education, the embodiment of his decadent aestheticism, and a quixotic subversion of social conventions. It may debunk — spotlighting hypocrisy and contradiction — but it does not condemn the society by which it has been engendered. Barry removes the very propriety with which Wilde toys so wickedly; and without the ‘manners’ there is nothing to mock, no barriers to cross.

Thus, accused of calmly eating muffins, Algernon urbanely munches, ‘Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.’ But, one can hardly imagine that the slouching Algernon would be so precious about canvas fatigues and Hawaiian shirt. With improbable irreverence, the composite Lane/Merriman — Barry seems to make no distinction although Wilde denotes that the former is Algernon’s manservant while Merriman is Jack’s country butler, a hierarchical distinction that Edwardians would have appreciated — violently hacks a cucumber, stuffs himself with Algernon’s sandwiches, and tosses cigarette cases and muffins about the stage.

The breakneck pace and textual excisions means that urbanity is replaced by aggression. Coyness and decorum have no place in Barry’s courtships, and the girls throw themselves at their beaus with wild abandon. There is no doubt that the girls are on top. In Wilde’s play, encountering her future son-in-law ‘mid-proposal’ Lady Bracknell urges Jack to rise from his indecorous ‘semi-recumbent posture’, but he is restrained by Gwendolen who wants to eke out the moment of adulation. Barry’s Jack sprawls prone, pinned down and perched upon. Similarly Cecily ensnares Algernon with a butterfly neck and brusquely drags him off.

The brittle shallowness of the girls’ exchange of social niceties over tea and cake is replaced by bludgeoning by megaphone, as Gwendolen and Cecily yell insults (in one of the opera’s several long episodes of spoken text) to the ear-splitting accompaniment of 40 plates breaking. And, if there’s little respect for the crockery, then the clergy come off no better: Canon Chasuble’s high-vis stripes and helmet prove no protection from racing ne’er-do-wells and, knocked from his bicycle, he spends the rest of the opera jovially sporting a neck-brace.

Does it matter that Lady Bracknell commands Gwendolen to remain in the ‘carriage’ while sending a text message? That smartphones rather than leather-bound library tomes yield Jack’s real name from the Army Lists — and that during the latter search, the cast repeatedly, and inexplicably cry, ‘Explosion!’? Proponents would surely argue that I am missing the point: that Wilde’s play is a hodgepodge of evanescent epigrams that amount to nothing, which finds its equal in Barry’s hyperventilating surrealism.

The set is fittingly Beckettian. Director Ramin Gray and Ben Clark, the Associate Set Designer, present a black box lit in random primary colours by glaring strobes. The Britten Sinfonia sprawl at the rear and to the left of the raked stage; the cast, seated at the front of the Theatre, mount the steps onto the stage. Climbing these steps seems to become ever more arduous and by Act 3, they resort to literally crawling and sliding on their bellies to get the action underway. Props are minimal: two tea-trollies and a table strewn with cut flowers, waiting for Miss Prism to plant them in the garden, suffice. A clothes rail, whisked across the stage by Lane/Merriman, miraculously releases Mrs Prism and sucks up Jack between Acts 1 and 2, producing a titter that relieves an awkward silence between the two acts.

It might be argued that Barry retains Wilde self-parodic mode. Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism both show a fanatical zeal for Schiller, and offer up their own settings of the ‘Ode to Joy’; Algernon and Jack adopt a stringent atonal seriousness for the most trivial bickering about muffins and teacakes. Is Barry puncturing musical pretentiousness?

Elsewhere though, pseudo-satirical musical touches seem to have little to do with the plot. Lady Bracknell’s assertion that she cannot possibly allow ‘vulgar’ French songs at her Saturday reception is the cue for the Britten Sinfonia, bathed in a Revolutionary red glow, to break out into a French military anthem. The absurdity of the notion that Jack should ‘acquire some relations’ is embodied by the farcical Irish jig in which he and Lady Bracknell indulge — no laughing matter on a precipitous stage strewn with cucumber peel. The bee that pesters Miss Prism in the garden is conjured by fantastic high double-trilling from the horns, doffing a hat to Rimsky-Korsakov. The merest mention of Bunbury sends Algernon and Lady Bracknell into flights of falsetto. Cecily’s stratospheric twittering presumably exemplifies her air-headedness. I’m not sure whether Barry is parodying Wilde’s parody, lampooning or imitating, deconstructing or paying homage; but, in any case, such musical moments seem merely coloristic — I didn’t sense any musico-dramatic argument.

However, it should be noted that since its 2011 Los Angeles concert premiere, Barry’s opera has been heard and staged in London and Nancy, to considerable acclaim; it won the Royal Society Award for best large-scale composition in 2013. So, clearly others do not share my disapprobation.

And certainly the cast — many reprising roles that they performed at the Barbican in 2013 — coped more than admirably with the vocal challenges that Barry throws at them. Tenor Paul Curievici did not allow Jack’s agitation and anxiety to produce vocal tension, and exhibited a light but focused sound, particularly at the top where Barry’s lines do not offer many lyrical moments. Forming a neat double-act with Curievici, Benedict Nelson was a debonair Algernon (vocally, if not sartorially).

Canadian Stephanie Marshall confidently used her vivid mezzo-soprano to convey Gwendolen’s vivacity and feistiness, while Cecily’s petulant spiritedness was expertly captured by Irish soprano Claudia Boyle, who had no trouble with the taxing high register or hysterical coloratura. She floated the opening statement of Act 3, ‘They have been eating muffins’, with wonderful faux-Wagnerian pretention. Boyle also delivered the spoken text with comic flair, prancing nattily in lurid green hot-pants and white platform-boots. The role of Miss Prism also demands its performer to range high and low, and Hilary Summers was both convincingly ‘butch’ when cajoling Cecily about the joys of German grammar and impressively fanciful, soaring whimsically, when recollecting the sentimental three-volume work of fiction which she absentmindedly placed in the perambulator.

As a pin-striped Lady Bracknell, Irish bass Alan Ewing was imposing of posture and thunderous of voice. Simon Wilding’s Lane/Merriman scowled implacably, and hung about with the disdainful menace of an extra in a gangster movie, while Kevin West’s Canon Chasuble was affably distracted.

Conductor Tim Murray kept an impressively tight grip on the musical mayhem, and the players of the Britten Sinfonia not only negotiated the tricky score with aplomb but also entered into the spirit of the chaotic proceedings, contributing some feisty collective foot-stamping and a vociferous mechanical chorus, ‘Where is that baby?’

One critic pertinently observed, ‘We cannot be Wilde, as his genius is beyond us, but we need to be as Wildean as possible in writing about him’. In the closing moments of Barry’s opera, Jack realises ‘for the first time in my life, the vital importance of being Ernest [sic]’. Wilde’s aphorisms are a playful pursuit of knowledge; they reflect the realities of fragmented social interaction. Barry’s mundanities are nowhere near so revelatory, explosive or memorable. His opera dispenses with the importance of being earnest.

Claire Seymour


Gerald Barry : The Importance of Being Earnest

Algernon Moncrieff — Benedict Nelson, John Worthing —Paul Curievici, Cecily Cardew —Claudia Boyle, Gwendolen Fairfax —Stephanie Marshall, Lady Bracknell — Alan Ewing, Miss Prism - Hilary Summers, Lane/Merriman — Simon Wilding, Rev. Canon Chasuble — Kevin West;

Director - Ramin Gray, Conductor —Tim Murray, Associate Set Designer —Ben Clark, Costume designer —Christina Cunningham, Lighting designer —Franz Peter David, Movement — Leon Baugh, Britten Sinfonia.

Barbican Theatre, London, Tuesday 29th March 2016

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PR8A1757%20THE%20IMPORTANCE%20OF%20BEING%20EARNEST%20PRODUCTION%20IMAGE%20%C2%A9%20ROH.%20PHOTOGRAPH%20BY%20STEPHEN%20CUMMISKEY.png image_description=Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey product=yes product_title=The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Posted by Gary at 9:36 AM

March 26, 2016

Mahler’s Third, Concertgebouw

After 21 years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic returned to Amsterdam. Gustavo Dudamel made the gutsy choice to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Adding a mythological dimension to the piece, Mahler conducted it at the Concertgebouw in 1903, so it takes some cojones to perform it here. Tonight’s performance grew into a success: while the second half of the performance impressed, the first part suffered from balancing issues and at times extremely loud play. As they slowly mastered the acoustics of the Great Hall, it was intriguing to witness Dudamel maneuver his orchestra’s greatly improving play over the performance.

The longest symphony in the Romantic repertoire, Mahler’s Third Symphony consists of six movements. Lasting over thirty minutes, the first movement Kraftig. Entschieden is almost a symphony in its own right. As Dudamel opened, immediately the volume hurt the ears. Throughout the first movement, the maestro made work of lowering the intensity of his sections.

The acoustics at the Concertgebouw are infamously tricky. Even performers from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra prefer the Musikverein in Vienna, because there they can hear each other, at the Concertgebouw less so. It is up to the Maestro to balance the orchestra. Experienced conductors know how to appropriate these effects and thereby enhance the orchestra's sound. Dudamel is one of these, though tonight it took the Venezuelan conductor quite some time before his orchestra found the dynamic.

Within the first movement, Dudamel reduced the piercingly shrill brass, bringing out a golden glow resonating from the trombones (with RCO’s Jörgen van Rijen as guest soloist). After some adjustment, from the strings a throbbing resonance emerged that carried a lot energy. Off-stage, snare drums marched on in the lobby. As the conductor dealt with balancing issues, the first movement experienced fragmented momentum, resulting in a repetitive moments. It took a while for Dudamel to reach his finesse.

Then Dudamel moved through the second and third movements Tempo di Menuetto and Commodo. Scherzando. Bending and skipping, he led LA Phil through Mahler’s rapidly changing tempi. Now less fragmented, he generated exciting momentum from his sections, though the continuing loud volume held you back from being swept off your feet. A delicate oboe solo offered a brief respite from the intensity, as did the subtly played soft colors from the trumpetist. Based on the musicians’ solo passages, there was no question about their excellence.

Finally everything came together in the fourth movement. Through the tranquil play, Dudamel created a haunting atmosphere. Reaching far into the audience, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford entranced with her darkened colours, adding a mysterious dimension. With fluid phrasing and clear diction, she brought out Zarathustra’s Mitternachtslied from Nietzsche. Dudamel deftly incorporated Mumford’s rich vibrato, as the impressive oboist returned as an exotic contrast and the concertmaster made his violin sing with great elegance.

For the fifth movement the Dutch choirs came into action with “Armer Kinder Bettlerlied” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. ‘Bimm bamm bimm bamm’, Dudamel entwined the voices with his orchestra, which led to much cheer and joy. The trombones offered gentle resonance with their lower registers. Mumford joined in, disarming with ‘Ach komm und erbarme dich’.

In this uplifting atmosphere and with a thin, but taut tension, Dudamel could start the heavenly ascent in the final movement. After the steady guidance over the preceding segments, Dudamel and the orchestra finally clicked with the acoustics. To see the LA Phil adapt was truly a marvel!

Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden , the Venezuelan thickened the strings’ suspense with a slow-burning momentum that kept the listener hooked. Brightness and brilliance glowed from the L.A. Phil. Gone was the painfully high volume. After a long and difficult journey, Dudamel had displayed his technical skills, as his orchestra adapted to its new environment. Now with full effect in Mahler’s heavenly finale, they had disarmed and moved the audience, who reacted in turn with a rapturous applause.

David Pinedo

image=http://www.operatoday.com/GD-credit-Nohely-Oliveros-1.png image_description=Gustavo Dudamel [Photo by Nohely Oliveros] product=yes product_title=Mahler’s Third, Concertgebouw product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Gustavo Dudamel [Photo by Nohely Oliveros]
Posted by Gary at 1:33 PM

March 22, 2016

La Juive in Lyon

The first production (1835) of La Juive at the Paris Opera demanded 20 horses on stage (in Lyon there was not even one!). In 1835 Paris la juive and Eléazar, her father threw themselves into a cauldron of water boiling upon a huge fire (in Lyon there was no leap, no cauldron or flame, the victims merely strode up stage into vague wisps of theatrical fog).

Not that the Opéra de Lyon was economizing as the sets were huge and complicated. Huge scenic elements moved continuously on and off a cross-stage moving belt, upstage there was another belt moving a forest of huge burned tree carcasses back and forth almost constantly. All of this was elevated 8 feet (2 1/2 meters) above the stage floor. An enormous bank of steps crossing the entire down stage descended to the stage floor (there was a net covering the orchestra pit to catch anyone who might trip and tumble). Not to mention the huge flat that hung flat way up above the stage, lighted spectacularly from time to time (surely a lighting designer’s nightmare).

Juive4.pngRoberto Scandiuzzi as Cardinal Brogni (production design by Pierre-André Weitz)

And surely a conductor’s nightmare in his attempts to coordinate the pit with the stage where in addition to the initial 8’ elevation much singing occurred on the additional three levels of a tower from which la juive and her father did not fling themselves into the cauldron [our assumption when we saw the tower in the first act was that it surely would serve such purpose].

The pit however was where the strengths of the production emanated. 33 year-old conductor Daniele Rustioni (music director designate of the Opéra de Lyon) ran a tight ship, feeling and communicating every quiver of musical emotion and energy from the soles of his feet to tips of his fingers (he conducted without stick). [I sat above the pit for the first act and had full view of this amazing young conductor.]

Metteur en scène Olivier Py and his designer Pierre-André Weitz envisioned Halévy’s opera in tones of black, the color of traditional European Jewish clothing, allowing only Cardinal Brogni and the catholic congregation to be clothed in light or white tones of generic modern dress. La juive’s nemesis, the Princess Eudoxie was in a lacy black gown allowing flesh to be seen (a lot of it from time to time), and she was wigged like a gangster moll. In her seduction of Leopold she slithered into brilliant red stockings [fueling our expectation that there would be red flames for la juive’s immolation though of course finally there were no flames].

The plot: Leopold returns victorious from a war to be received as a hero by the Christian people and Princess Eudoxie. He is however in love with la juive so he must pretend to be a Jew. When this pretense is discovered he flees to the palace into the arms of the princess. The Christians hear the news and condemn Leopold, la juive and her father to death. La juive and Princess Eudoxie agree that la juive will exonerate Leopold, sacrificing herself to the [absent] flames. When it is too late la juive’s father Eléazar tells the Cardinal Brogni that the juive is in fact the cardinal’s long lost daughter.

Juive3.pngNikolai Schukoff as Eléazar, Sabina Puértolas as Princess Eudoxie

Evidently all this is not really about religious tolerance. It is about making a story with emotive moments without inciting public judgement about Christians immolating Jews or Jews murdering anyone who profanes their rites. It is about love, forgiveness and sacrifice. French grand opera is purely about opportunities to sing and there were lots of them — declarations of love, denunciations of love, of vengeance, of pity, of anger, trios and sextets of frustration, incomprehension or comprehension. And huge choruses of support for all the above.

The cast for this grand opera event in Lyon generally lacked the power of voice, the color of voice and the stamina of voice to guide us safely through the musical intricacies of Halévy’s lengthy, singerly score (vocally it lies between Rossini and early Wagner). Agility for coloratura is a prime requirement, but equally important there must also be stamina for carving out longer phrases. Plus as characters have specific motivations voices must be those that add appropriate color to words and actions. Not that there was not a lot of fine singing. It was simply that most of the singing did not create big enough effect.

French grand opera composers structured the arias and ensembles to impress audiences who would then respond with applause. Few of the arias or ensemble in Lyon got applause, and when there was applause it was tepid. The hugest scene, the finale of Act III with all principles and the chorus of Christians on stage, had little effect because the too small voices of the principals could not soar over the chorus — blame also the place on the stage where the chorus was seated. It was a perfect megaphone, amplifying the chorus voices to the point that they shattered (sound waves colliding), ruining this magnificent scene.

Still it was a French grand opera and it is not often that these lengthy, difficult operas are staged in any manner. N.B There was no ballet, an integral component of French grand opera, though I am not sure where it should have occurred.

La Juive is the centerpiece of the Opéra de Lyon’s mid-winter festival, this year Festival pour l’Humanité, with the theme of tolerance. Metteur en scène Olivier Py could not help editorializing — in the Act I finale the Christian chorus places itself down stage center with placards urging “France for the French,” “Out with the Jews” [read Muslims], and in the silence prior to Act V (the death by fire) hundreds of shoes [the death-oven image] fell from the rafters. In coincidence both La Juive and Benjamin, Dernière Nuit used the library image to establish the presence of humanity in this Festival pour l’Humanité.

Michael Milenski


Casts and production information:

Eléazar: Nikolai Schukoff; Rachel: Rachel Harnisch; Princesse Eudoxie: Sabina Puértolas; Leopold: Enea Scala; Cardinal Brogni: Roberto Scandiuzzi; Ruggiero: Vincent Le Texier; Albert: Charles Rice. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Daniele Rustione; Mise en scène: Olivier Py; Scenery and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz; Lighting; Bertrand Killy. Opéra de Lyon, March 19, 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Juive1.png

product=yes
product_title=The Jewess by Jacques Fromental Halévy
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Rachel Harnich as la juive, Sabina Puértolas as Princess Eudoxie [All photos courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon, copyright Stofleth]

Posted by michael_m at 12:08 PM

March 21, 2016

Benjamin, Dernière Nuit in Lyon

The libretto was created by Régis Dubray (b. 1940), professor of philosophy at the University of Lyon, the music was created by Michel Tabachnik (b. 1942), conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic and champion of the music of Xenakis and Ligeti.

Both men possess extensive catalogues of original literary and musical compositions. Both men possess biographies placing themselves at the epicenters of our previous century’s social, intellectual and artistic avant-garde.

Add to this primordial soup British stage director John Fulljames and British set designer Michael Levine (and you have the usual addition of Anglo-Saxon critical know-how to make sense of esoteric continental thought).

You get the idea — it wasn’t an easy evening.

Benjamin3.pngActor Walter Benjamin and singer Walter Benjamin with bottle(s) of morphine tablets

However its ninety minute duration flew by in what seemed like ten minutes even though it was in ponderous, docudrama episodic form. There were 14 brief scenes documenting Walter Benjamin’s arrival and sojourn of one long evening at a Spanish hotel just across the French border. He was on his way to Lisbon where he would have embarked to the United States. Instead he committed suicide at this hotel.

The opera is his progression from life to death. The libretto imagines Benjamin’s suicide vigil encounters (imagined) with a few of the intellectual luminaries who had supported him in his escape and exile from Nazi Germany, namely Arthur Koestler (anti-Fascist author of Darkness at Noon), Gershom Sholem (German born Israeli mystical philosopher), André Gide, Bertolt Brecht, Max Horkheimer (interwar director of Frankfurt School of Critical Thinking, this institute later in exile at Columbia University together with Horkheimer), Asja Lacis (Benjamin’s mistress — a Latvian actress, avid communist, friend of Brecht) and Hanna Arendt (refugee German Jew, naturalized American political scientist).

Benjamin2.pngThe library/museum of human artifacts (below), video of Third Reich marching soldiers (above)

Yes, it was a lot to think about, the libretto projected high above the stage. The upper part of the stage itself was a huge three-sided box onto which were projections of Nazi and Stalin era propaganda films. The lower stage a huge three sided room of library shelves — books, artifacts, the above characters stuffed onto these shelves except when they came alive in Benjamin’s imaginings. Plus there were two Walter Benjamins, one a singer and the other an actor, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both being Benjamin. Not to mention eight ninjas (clothed in black) who were sometimes French Foreign Legionnaires and sometimes archivists of the above library. Plus there was a myriad of supporting roles divided among actors and singers.

Conceptual and visual cacophony, from beginning to end.

And, well, the music itself. There was a lot of it and a lot of it was musique concrete [a montage of any possible recorded sound] when it was not usually unidentifiable masses of orchestral sounds — triple or quadruple winds, full complement of strings, piano and harp, legions of percussion instruments, accordion, etc. No doubt is was more organized and structured than this quick appreciation of its general cacophony.

The genius of the production was however the seamless integration of the pit and the stage into a indecipherable, inexplicable, undefinable frenetic whole the magic of which created quite a wallop.

The Opéra de Lyon went for broke. We, the audience, roared our appreciation and roared some more, though I’m not sure how many of us would opt to see it a second time.

By the way, Benjamin, Dernière Nuit was one of three operas that comprise the Opéra de Lyon’s midwinter festival, this year entitled Festival pour l’Humanité with its theme of tolerance. This production rose well above such a prosaic formula, and succeeded in making art — an accomplishment not always achieved in opera houses these days.

Michael Milenski


Casts and production information:

Walter Benjamin (singer): Jean-Noël Briend; Walter Benjamin (actor): Sava Lolov; Asja Lacis: Michaela Kustekova; Hannah Arendt: Michaela Selinger; Arthur Koestler: Charles Rice; Gershom Sholem: Scott Wilde; Bertolt Brecht; Jeff Martin; André Gide; Gilles Ragon; Max Horkheimer: Karoly Szemeredy; Mme Henny Gurland: Elsa Rigmor Thiemann; La chanteuse de cabaret: Goele de Raedt; Joseph Gurland: Baptiste Mansot; Le Patron de l'Auberge: Emmanuel Amado; Le Médecin: Bruno Froment. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Bernhard Kontarsky; Mise en scène: John Fulljames; Scenery: Michael Levine; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: James Farncombe; Chorégraphie: Maxine Braham; Vidéo: Will Duke; Son: Carolyn Downing. Opéra de Lyon (France), March 18, 2016.



image=http://www.operatoday.com/Benjamin1.png

product=yes
product_title=The Final Night of Walter Benjamin
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Philosophers Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer [Photos courtesy of Opéra de Lyon, copyright Stofleth]

Posted by michael_m at 12:22 PM

Handel’s Berenice, London

‘Great fatigue and disappointment, affected him so much, that he was this Spring struck with the Palsy, which took entirely away, the use of 4 fingers of his right hand; and totally disabled him from Playing: And when the heats of the Summer 1737 came on, the Disorder seemed at times to affect his Understanding.’

Amid such strife, Berenice was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre in London on 18 May 1737, under the direction of Handel’s assistant John Christopher Smith. It was Handel’s worst flop. It is possible that the composer did not attend any of the four performances given before the run closed. After this Handel travelled to Aix La Chapelle to find a cure for his paraletick disorder. The opera was never revived although Handel plundered the score for several later works, including the Music for the Royal Fireworks which made use of the Sinfonia to Act 3 (which was not performed here at St George’s Hanover Square).

Emma_Stannard.pngEmma Stannard

The opera, based on the life of Cleopatra Berenice, daughter of Ptolemy IX, presents a typical seria erotic entanglement — though the usual quadrangle of thwarted lovers is further complicated by an additional fifth loser-in-love (thus leaving one spouse-less aristocrat at the close). Berenice loves Demetrio but, for the good of her country, she is advised to marry Alessandro, Prince of Rome. When he is introduced to Berenice, by Fabio, it is love at first sight for Alessandro, but Berenice is not so keen. The Roman prince is told that if the Queen won’t have him, then he’ll have to marry her sister, Selene, but the latter loves Demetrio with whom she is plotting to overthrow Berenice. Berenice tells her sister she must marry the besotted Arsace. The ensuing romantic stalemate threatens to erupt into war between Rome and Egypt. Berenice, in turmoil, orders Demetrio’s decapitation. After entreaties from all, and Alessandro’s declaration that he will not exercise his right to claim Berenice as he wants her to love him freely and not under coercion, she relents and decides that she does love the noble Alessandro after all. Demetrio is freed and a double wedding is planned, leaving only Arsace unloved and un-partnered.

If Antonio Salvi’s 1709 libretto wasn’t complicated enough, then Handel’s truncation of the text resulted in inconsistencies and non sequiturs which render the plot pretty unfathomable. But, David Bates and La Nuova Musica, together with a fine cast of young soloists, gave us a rare chance to hear a live performance of the work, and they made a credible case for the opera despite its uneven musical merits and the frequent nonsensical plot turns.

Berenice is certainly melodious, and the Queen has the lion’s share of the arias. In the title role, Charlotte Beament produced quite a steely tone at times — suggestive of regal bite - yet was also able to access lots of colour. The soprano coped well with the angular lines of the opening aria, ‘Co, che servire altrui’, acting effectively with the voice; and, after such rigid determination — Berenice will not have her romantic affairs dictated by others — Beament introduced a softness and warmth in some of her later arias, such as Act 2’s ‘Sempre dolci ed amorose’, which is essentially a bare-faced declaration to Demetrio that ‘I like you when you’re angry’! She captured the conflicting emotions of ‘Traditore, traditore’ though she didn’t quite pull of the final trill; and Act 3’s ‘Chi t'intende?’, with its beautiful oboe obbligato (presumably designed to showcase Giuseppi Sammartini’s oboe playing), demonstrated Beament’s vocal stamina. The solemnity of ‘Avvertite, mie pupille’ effectively conveyed the crisis in the Egyptian Queen’s heart.

Counter-tenor Michal Czerniawski showed dramatic discernment in crafting the character of Demetrio. The simplicity and lucidity of his Act 1 aria ‘No, soffrir non può', in which voice and cello engaged in relaxed exchanges, revealed a well-rounded tone and unforced upper register. Czerniawski’s lovely sweet arioso at start of Act 2 — part of one of Handel’s more successful sequences, and one which was well paced by Bates — gave way to disappointed envy in the heightened coloratura of ‘Su Megera, Tesifone, Aletto!’, the phrases of which were intelligently shaped. Czerniawski’s countertenor has a dramatic edge, as was apparent in the nimble vocalism of ‘Sì, tra i ceppi', a volatile aria di bravura which revealed the voice’s brightness and strength.

As Alessandro, Anat Edri displayed a clear spinto, forming a pleasing contrast with Beament. Edri sang with lightness and agility; she negotiated the coloratura confidently though she occasionally pushed the voice a bit hard, risking a dash of stridency, and she ‘threw’ her voice somewhat recklessly at the upper notes of the large leaps of the Act 2 aria in which Alessandro refuses to accept Berenice’s hand if it offered in fear not love (‘La bella mano’). Edri did, however, show judicious restraint in the use of vibrato in the Act 2 arioso in which Alessandro indulges in abstract reflections on love.

Emma Stannard was a superb, dark-toned Selene, displaying pleasing evenness and warmth. Her Act 1 aria, ‘Penso, timor’, conveyed the spirited princess’s emotional turbulence and Stannard achieved continuity of line through the short motifs and frequent rests. She produced stylish trills in the Act 2 finale ‘Si poco e forte’ which concluded with a delicate playout from La Nuova Musica. In ‘Tortorella che rimira’, Stannard crooned beautifully in imitation of turtle doves, above teasing string pizzicatos; but she was also able to negotiate the demands of the fioriture with confidence.

Some of best singing of the evening came from Christopher Turner, as Fabio, the Roman messenger; the tenor demonstrated great range too. There was both humour — the buzzing bees were embodied by the violins’ deliciously delicate triplets — and gentleness, in the relaxed, curving phrases of ‘Vedi l’ape che ingegnosa’, whose beauty ironically undercuts the courtier’s advice that Berenice should love for gain and not for pleasure. And the tenor injected some ardency in the B section of this aria, foreshadowing the impressive vigour of ‘Guerra e pace, Egizia terra’ in Act 2, in which Fabio sets out his country’s ultimatum: peace or war.

In the bass role of Aristobolo, Tim Dickinson underscored the higher roles effectively, although his appealing bass was not always even across the range. Arsace was sung very competently by counter-tenor Timothy Morgan; the part lies quite low but Morgan demonstrated flexibility in the coloratura — impressively off-score — and in Act 1’s ‘Senza nutrice alcuna’, Handel’s accompaniment was often helpful. In Arsace’s Act 2 aria, ‘Amore contro Amor’, Morgan produced a clear sound and true intonation in the coloratura roulades.

The opera is lightly scored — perhaps financial straits necessitated orchestral austerity — and there are no parts for brass and percussion. The leanness of the string writing was emphasised further by the use of just one player per part here, and the strings were supplemented by oboes and continuo. La Nuova Musica played with clarity and agility — noticeably in the poised first movement of the Act 1 Sinfonia — although occasionally the sound was a bit bottom-heavy. In the buoyant fourth movement of this Sinfonia, the players emphasised the variety of dynamics and made most of the major/minor contrasts.

Bates had a good sense of the dramatic rhythm and structure. The recitative felt swift but not precipitous ­ and there were some dynamic exchanges. At times the continuo was appealingly expressive — as in the exchange in Act 1 between Arsace and Selene, in which the latter pretends to have feelings for the besotted prince, and in Demetrio’s Act 2 reflections on Selene’s imagined faithlessness: here, the rich, dark theorbo emphasised the harmonic piquancy and led to deft, scurrying instrumental gestures in the ensuing — and rare — accompanied recitative.

Salvi’s libretto was sub-titled, ‘The Contest of Love and Politics’: ‘Ill-begotten politics’ are the ‘Tyrant of the affections’ so Aristobolo tells us. The feisty sisters refuse to be Roman Emperor’s marital poker chips and its conflict all the way until the final duet, where the two voices of Beament and Edri intertwined enchantingly. Bates and his team made a good effort to capture the prevailing ‘darkness’ — which is only alleviated in final chorus when the ‘rivalries of politics and love have ended’ — but I felt that some of the opera’s wicked mischief failed to shine through. There was an attempt to bring the concert performance to dramatic life: entrances and exits were made from different directions and the soloists moved around — Berenice’s first aria was delivered from pulpit, emphasising her regal imperiousness. The opera may lack a ‘sure fire hit’ number, and it was hard to feel much interest in the characters’ fates, but there was much to enjoy.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Berenice — Charlotte Beament, Selene — Emma Stannard, Alessandro — Anat Edri, Demetrio — Michal Czerniawski, Arsace — Timothy Morgan, Fabio — Christopher Turner, Aristobolo — Tim Dickinson; La Nuova Musica: director — David Bates, guest leader — Rodolpho Richter.St. George’s Hanover Square, London; Thursday 17th March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Charlotte%20Beament.png image_description=Charlotte Beament [Photo by Boyd Gilmour Photography] product=yes product_title=Handel’s Berenice, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Charlotte Beament [Photo by Boyd Gilmour Photography]
Posted by Gary at 11:39 AM

March 20, 2016

Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican

The shifting nightscapes were evoked with characteristic precision and transparency by conductor Oliver Knussen, but it was the very real, sometimes violent, physicality of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements which proved most exciting and evocative.

Gunter Schuller’s Dreamscape (2012) is a fantastical, and fun, exploration of poly-rhythms and instrumental colour. The composer, who died in June last year, professed to have received the whole work in a dream — along with the instruction to ‘play musical jokes’ — and, upon waking, to have been able to ‘write down, in both verbal and musical notation, all kinds of shortcuts and abbreviations, a whole 10 minutes of vivid, precise information’. These notations were then ‘fleshed out’ to exploit the quadruple woodwind and brass, two harps, piano, celeste, diverse percussion and large string forces made available to Schuller by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra which commissioned the work.

The Scherzo umoristico e curioso exploded into being like a fire-cracker and proceeded to throw musical scraps and fragments into a riotous mix: razor-edged brass assaults, violent string stabbings, warbling horns, jazz-inflected trumpet fanfares, and a battery of percussive blows and chimes (the six percussionists juggled, among a huge array, sleigh bells, tom-toms, slapstick, four Chinese gongs, bass and drum, marimba, woodblocks, ratchet, triangle, cymbals, bell tree, cowbell, and even a lion’s roar) formed a lunatic nightscape of moon, monsters and magic. In Ivesian fashion, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Yankee Doodle Dandy made an appearance, along with a yell of ‘No!’ from the clarinettist towards the close, before the maelstrom was silenced by an irreverent blast from the contra-bassoon.

After such bawdy frenzy, the Nocturne probed the mysteries of darkness. The atmospheric writing for strings was punctuated by huge outbursts for muted brass which surged then immediately subsided. The contemplative mood continued in Birth-Evolution-Culmination, a compressed study of musical development which grew from unsettling primordial rumblings in the lower strings, by way of emergent melodic pronouncements from the solo cello (Susan Monks), escalating babblings from the xylophone and savage string peroration, to build towards fierce brass flourishes, before the material was startlingly truncated, without ‘resolution’. Knussen relished the score’s technicolour exuberance and etched the diverse material with clarity.

George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song is similarly kaleidoscopic, if more eclectic, being scored for two oboes, four horns, two harps, strings and a percussion ensemble of glockenspiel, vibraphones, gongs and cymbals. The work was written for countertenor Iestyn Davies who, with a potent blend of fluidity and intensity, gave an impressive performance of Benjamin’s settings of two Hebrew poets from the mid-11th century, Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (sung in English versions by Peter Cole), in dialogue with texts by Gabriel Garcia Lorca (in the original Spanish) sung by the female voices of the BBC Singers.

The countertenor’s flamboyant, silky melismatic utterances in ‘The Pen’ were underscored by disturbingly impulsive undercurrents created by intricate string textures and pungent horns; the latter occasionally obscured the voice, though such overpowering was rare in the work as a whole. ‘The Multiple Troubles of Man’ required Davies to call upon the dark colours of his chest voice, while tentative motions from the lower strings and a plaintive oboe solo conveyed unease. The women’s choir made a dramatic contribution to the closing passages of ‘Gazing Through the Night’, intensifying the concentrated dissonances and anticipating the pained harmonies of the climactic fourth movement, ‘From Gacela Del Amor Maravilloso’, in which the choral voices formed a striking wall of sound.

‘The Gazelle’ was notable for the contrast and dialectic created between Davies’s astonishing pure, almost ethereal, vocal tone and the dark revolutions of the lower strings. A fine horn solo and the whispered choral gestures added further to the sense of mystery, as Benjamin juxtaposed two visions of dawn, past and present forming an intriguing palimpsest.

Benjamin’s melodies are strong, and the smooth, sinuous lines perfectly suited Davies who was simultaneously mellifluous and penetrating. Knussen shaped the interactions between solo voice, choir and orchestra with insight, bringing forth moments of brightness and colour, then allowing the motifs to sink back gently into the shifting textures.

Knussen was a model of economy and clarity in Debussy’s Nocturnes, but the conductor focused more on the individual crystalline delicacies of the score than on its overall emotive impact. This approach was apparent from the first bars of Nuages, when the slender, elegant motifs were beautifully defined but any semblance of expansion was instantly quelled. The result was that we could enjoy some fine solos and colloquies from the flute, cello and, especially, cor anglais (Alison Teale), and the clarinet’s melody sang enchantingly about the gentlest of orchestral murmurings. But, the streams of warmth which define the harmonic progressions sometimes lacked strength and dynamism.

Fêtes did conjure more vitality and there was an almost childlike excitement as the array of chattering instrumental outbursts paraded past in a dancing chain, enthralling with their panache and exoticism. With the entry of the horns and side drum, the march built to a thrilling and flamboyant climax, before the parade slipped, with one last self-assured flourish from the brass, out of town. Sirènes lilted mysteriously, as the voices of the female chorus (seated either side of the Hall) mingled with the cor anglais’s mystical air. Knussen undoubtedly drew forth the poetry in the decorative impressions but sometimes at the expense of the powerful undertones beneath the paint’s surface.

Dreams made their way into some of Stravinsky’s compositions too — The Soldier’s Tale supposedly includes a theme that the composer heard in a dream of a young gypsy sitting by the roadside, playing a fiddle to her child with long sweeps of the bow, while the sacrificial dance of The Rite of Spring was also said to have been inspired by night-time visions. But, there is nothing dream-like about the composer’s Symphony in Three Movements with its fusion of baroque forms and techniques, Russian folk idioms, jazz and self-parody, and with the final work of the programme the BBCSO seemed revitalised, playing with thrillingly animation.

The percussive playing of strings and piano (Elizabeth Burley) during the motoring episodes of the Allegro was exhilarating, acquiring a ferocity that was biting but never unrestrained. Knussen showed acute appreciation of the way the ‘concerto’ episodes articulate the architecture of the work, and in the development section he used the chamber-like scoring to give the independent instrumental statements stature, while maintaining the overall fluency of the contrapuntal textures.

The influence of baroque forms was even more clearly defined in the Andante where the ethereal obbligato harp and trilling woodwind offered a gentle respite after the onslaught of the opening movement, without any loss of harmonic tension. This underlying tension sprang forth once more in the lively syncopations of the Con moto; as varied instrumental voices interjected in vigorous debate, the wealth of material threatened to burst through the boundaries of the fugal forms which contained them, but Knussen retained a taut grip on the explosive, layered blocks as the movement thrust forward to its triumphant conclusion.

Extra-musical stimuli played their part in the Symphony in Three Movements — not dreamy imaginings but the modernity of the twentieth-century city: the mechanical pounding for strings and piano in the opening movement is said to have been Stravinsky’s musical representation of flashing neon lights experienced during a car drive. Moreover, in 1963, in Dialogues and a Diary, the composer noted the influence of cinema in the first movement (a documentary on scorched-earth tactics in China) and in the Con moto (newsreel footage of goose-stepping soldiers, declaring that the conclusion of the finale was associated with ‘the rise of the Allies after the overturning of the German war machine’. Knussen and the BBCSO punched home the contemporaneousness of the Symphony with vitality and verve.

At the start of the concert, Knussen paid tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who died on Monday at the age of 81, with a performance of Maxwell Davies’s own homage to Stravinsky — a short instrumental canon in which the spare, acerbic melodies wind and entangle themselves before arriving at a position of rest. Followed by a minute’s silence, it was a moving epitaph.

Claire Seymour


Programme and performers:

Gunther Schuller — Dreamscape (UK premiere), Debussy — Nocturnes, George Benjamin — Dream of the Song (UK premiere), Stravinsky — Symphony in Three Movements.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Oliver Knussen (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers. Barbican Hall, London. 18th March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/George%20Benjamin%20shaded%20portrait%20credit%20Matthew%20Lloyd.png image_description=Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt] product=yes product_title=Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt]
Posted by Gary at 6:07 PM

March 18, 2016

Ferruccio Furlanetto at San Diego

For this event Emanuele Andrizzi, who heads the Orchestra Program at Roosevelt University conducted. He opened the program with a rousing version of the overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco in which he alternated fast and slow tempi.

Furlanetto opened with Don Basilio’s comic aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, “La calunia” (“Slander is a gentle wind”), which he delivered with his usual artistic characterization and resonant tones. He followed it with an amusing version of Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a virtuosic rendition of the Don’s “Finch’ an del vino” (“While their heads are still hot from the wine”). As the servant he had rustic manners; as the master, the attitude of nobility. Here was an artist who could create a complete character with body language and vocal acting. One of Furlanetto’s most memorable parts at San Diego Opera was the title role in Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Again, with no props, his superb impersonation of Cervantes’ Knight came alive across the footlights and took our hearts along as his spirit ascended to the stars.

It’s no longer a surprise when major artists include older Musical Theater songs on concert programs. Usually they are at the end of the evening, however. Furlanetto put them in the first half of his program shortly before the intermission. He included “Ol’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat along with “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” from Richard Rogers’ South Pacific. His “Ol’ Man River” was more lyrical than most, his “Some Enchanted Evening” was an absolute charmer and “This Nearly Was Mine” pulled at the heartstrings. Since these two works are currently seen at opera houses and not on Broadway, placing selections from them among arias has begun to make sense.

After the Intermission Maestro Andrizzi gave a lyrical interpretation of Modest Mussorgski’s Introduction and Polonaise from Boris Godunov. Again convincing the audience of his characterization, Furlanetto sang the powerful Death of Boris with vividly colored resounding tones that culminated in a moving pianissimo. The next aria, “I am he whom you called” from Russian composer Anton Rubenstein’s The Demon was far less familiar then anything that preceded it. The opera is based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov and in 1875 the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg premiered it with Feodor Chaliapin. The aria did not have a striking melody, but it allowed Furlanetto to once more create an interesting character.

Again assuming the role of the devil, Furlanetto sang Mephistopheles’ serenade: “Vous qui faites l’endormie” (“You who pretend to sleep”) from Gounod’s Faust. A polished, urbane denizen of Hell, he created sarcasm with innuendo and magnificent vocal colors.

At this point, Maestro Andrizzi really came into his best material when he led the Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. That was a tearjerker, and so was the sad aria that followed: “Ella giammai m’amo” (She never loved me) from Verdi’s Don Carlo. As King Philip, Furlanetto varied the use of his expressive voice. Sometimes he emitted powerful ringing tones but as the end, when he sings that his young wife never loved him, he spun the finest of sad pianissimos.

The applause for this concert was long and loud. Only when the bass signaled that he would sing an encore did it cease. He announced the words: “Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima parea” and most of the audience did not recognize the title. It was the first line of Attila’s aria from Verdi’s ninth opera, Attila, which was first seen in 1846. Translation: (As my soul seemed to swell). Needless to say the applause of the San Diego audience again swelled when he finished. It was a fabulous concert that served to underline the vibrant life of both opera and symphony in San Diego.

Maria Nockin

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Furlanetto_sitting_cmyk.png
image_description=Ferruccio Furlanetto [Photo by Igor Sakharov]

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Posted by maria_n at 2:05 PM

Madama Butterfly, LA Opera

Puccini and librettist Giuseppe Adami later wrote in Il Tabarro: “Chi ha vissuto per amore, per amore si mori. (Who has lived for love, dies for love).”

American lawyer John Luther Long wrote the original short story, Madame Butterfly based on the recollections of his sister who went to Japan with her husband, a Protestant missionary. Another influence on Long’s story was the 1887 novel, Madame Chrysanthème by French naval lieutenant Julien Viaud writing as Pierre Loti. He tells of a naval officer and a geisha who were temporarily married while he was stationed in Nagasaki. Most likely Puccini heard French composer André Messager’s 1893 opera, Madame Chrysanthème, based on the Loti work. We know that when the Italian composer was in London he saw the turn-of-the-century play David Belasco based on Long’s story, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.

Ana Maria Martinez’s interpretation demonstrated to audience members that she studied her character thoroughly from both a musical and a dramatic point of view. Her vivid portrayal showed details in pose, gesture, and expression that made Butterfly a flesh and blood woman. Martinez completed her characterization with brilliant vocal artistry that included clear, well-focused tones replete with emotional color. Thus, her aria, "Un bel di," became part of a continuous action propelling her toward tragedy.

Milena Kitic was a warm voiced, dramatically believable Suzuki who sang meaningfully and with beautiful tones that blended sensitively with the voice of her mistress. Stefano Secco’s Pinkerton was a thoughtless oaf who never considered the feelings of anyone but himself. He sang with a warm Italianate voice but his tones were a bit tight at the very top of his range.

LABF_0462a.pngAna Maria Martinez (kneeling) as Cio-Cio-San, with Milena Kitic as Suzuki and Stefano Secco as Pinkerton

The surprise of the evening was Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program (YAP) member Kihun Yoon who brought distinction to the role of Sharpless with his strong, resonant voice and his characterization of the American consul as a sentient human being. As Cio-Cio San’s uncle, the Bonze, Nicholas Brownlee (YAP) was an outstanding actor. Keith Jameson was a persistent marriage broker who pestered Butterfly on behalf of Daniel Armstrong’s assiduous Prince Yamadori. Watching Secco’s Pinkerton, one wonders how long he would stay married to his new wife, Kate, whom Lacy Jo Benter (YAP) played as an innocent young woman.

No matter how many times I’ve heard an opera before, when James Conlon conducts it I hear new sonorities and gain new insight. On Saturday evening he played Butterfly's "Japonaiserie" with clarity and lyrical beauty. He imbued every phrase with meaning and produced a performance of consistent musical and dramatic values. Under his leadership, Madama Butterfly was a masterpiece of musical theater.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information: Cio-Cio-San, Ana Maria Martinez; B. F. Pinkerton, Stefano Secco; Suzuki, Milena Kitic; Sharpless, Kihun Yoon; Goro, Keith Jameson; Prince Yamadori, Daniel Armstrong; The Bonze, Nicholas Brownlee; Kate Pinkerson, Lacy Jo Benter; Imperial Commissioner, Patrick Blackwell; Official Registrar, Gabriel Vamvulescu; Uncle Yakuside, Sal Malaki; Cousin, Rebecca Tomlinson; Mother, Renee Sousa; Aunt, Danielle Marcelle Bond; Trouble, Nicholas Cuenca Terry; Conductor, James Conlon; Director Lee Blakely; Scenery Designer, Jean-Marc Puissant; Costume Designer, Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting Designer, Rick Fisher; Chorus Director, Grant Gershon; Movement Director, Nicola Bowie; Prompter, Susanna Lemberskaya.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LABF_0445a.png
image_description=Ana Maria Martinez as Cio-Cio-San [Photo by Ken Howard for LA Opera]

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product_title=Madama Butterfly, LA Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Ana Maria Martinez as Cio-Cio-San

Photos by Ken Howard for LA Opera

Posted by maria_n at 1:13 PM

March 16, 2016

Boris Godunov, Covent Garden

Bells loom large in Miriam Buether’s well-considered design which, paradoxically, combines complexity and clarity. The grey granite blocks of the cathedral-like walls which frame the stage — suggesting both Public Square and monastery interior — are embossed with replications of the Tsar Bell of the Kremlin. Three bells — dark projections — hang in the belfry about Pimen’s cell in the Chudov Monastery. And, we hear the carillons too, when the great bells clang in joyful cacophony in herald of Boris’s coronation, a clarion riot that foreshadows the more sombre knelling that will later echo throughout Russia.

Buether’s split-level set is plain and dark which makes the intermittent splashes of colour all the more melodramatic. Lit with a garish yellow glow, an arched aperture hangs above a bare blank stage and serves as both corridor of power and assassin’s alley. It is here that Jones sites his central motif, establishing the opera as an astute psychological study in responsibility and remorse. Before a note is heard we witness a mime in which three hooded cut-throats creep up upon the unsuspecting Dmitri — a carefree youth, with a shock of red hair, who nonchalantly plays with his spinning top — and slash his throat, in ghastly slow motion, while a troubled-looking Boris hunches in the Novodevichy Monastery below.

Throughout the production, Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design conjures skulking shadows; here, they blur deceptively with the black-clad figures, suggesting an even more numerous murderous posse. This dreadful dumb-show is repeatedly re-enacted — a looping re-play in Boris’s subconscious. Later, the distressed Tsar grabs his son Fyodor’s own whirligig and smashes it to the ground, but the pantomime — a ceaseless, tormenting merry-go-round of sin and retribution — cannot be so easily erased.

The ensemble is superb, but naturally the spotlight falls sharpest — both figuratively and literally, for Boris is frequently exposed to a penetrating bright glare which illuminates both his majesty and vulnerability — on Bryn Terfel, singing the role of the guilt-plagued Tsar for the first time. As a bass-baritone, Terfel may not be able to summon the sonorous darkness of a basso profundo — though his bass is by no means lacking in resonance — but the role does serve as a showcase for his dramatic and vocal prowess; and, he is able to negotiate the higher lying passages with flexibility and smoothness, conveying extreme emotions through both legato lyricism and soft-breathed fragmentation. His hallucinatory monologues are discomfortingly compelling.

Terfel’s Boris is no histrionic monster. And if, initially, he seems to hold something in reserve emotionally, this later seems to be part of a carefully judged slow-release of growing torment, which builds unstoppably to tragic confrontation and catharsis. Terfel finds the man beneath the stateliness; this is a father whose love for his children is tactile, intense and unwavering. He trades the simple attire of a boyar for the glittering glamour of his creme and gold coronation robes, but at the close Boris is a dishevelled, pitiful figure — body and mind in disarray: grey-haired, fur-coated, bare-footed, staggering and swaying like a wild Old Testament prophet. The contrast between Terfel’s physical stature and psychological vulnerability is deeply poignant.

Terfel’s prowess is matched by several other stand-out performances. As Pimen, the Estonian bass Ain Anger delivers a narration of his country’s misdemeanours and miracles which burns with intensity, as he stands before a story-board chronicle of Russian history upon which portraits of three former Tsars are followed by an unfinished likeness of the red-haired Dmitri.

In this monastery cell the Pretender’s career as the False Dmitry is launched, and David Philip Butt projects Grigory’s lofty romanticism with strong projection, lending the anti-hero a Byronic dimension. John Graham-Hall is superb as a sinister, sycophantic Shuisky, singing with sly sleekness; Kostas Smoriginas makes fine use of his dark, weighty bass, and crafts an appealing legato line, when announcing Boris’s refusal to become Tsar and foretelling Russia’s doom.

Contrast is offered by the exaggerated comedy of the scene at the Lithuanian border, where Rebecca de Pont Davies’ blowsy Innkeeper welcomes the two monks, Varlaam (John Tomlinson — a former Boris in this house — who blew the roof off, obviously enjoying the grotesquery) and his drinking companion Missail (Harry Nicoll). And, in the Tsar’s apartments — where a map marks Russia’s territories in red, as if the land is bathed in blood — sweet-toned relief is offered by Xenia (Vlada Borovko), who laments the death of her fiancé, and her Nurse (Sarah Pring), who tries to console her.

Andrew Tortise is very effective as the blessed Simpleton, sporting a tin hat reminiscent of the hoods of the assassins and border guards, foretelling disasters and defaming Boris. The Holy Fool’s obsessive hand-washing gestures during Boris’s demand for prayer send an ominous message. The role of Fyodor is sung by Ben Knight, his bright, clean soprano conveying a welcome freshness and innocence.

Antonio Pappano led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an impassioned and rich reading of the score, relishing its idiosyncrasies, and creating — through the powerful pizzicato tread of the cellos and bass - an unrelenting march towards exposure and death.

But, the quieter sequences were just as telling as the grandiose climaxes — particularly, the episodes with plangent, yearning woodwind accompaniment — and were notable for the way in which subtle tensions and anxieties were illuminated. At the emotional apexes, though, Pappano held nothing back, whipping the Orchestra and Chorus to magnificent peaks of sound. In the stunning opening scenes, the impact of the Chorus’s vocal power was matched by the vibrant primary colours of their celebratory dress, as they lined up like rows of matryoshka dolls. When, in Scene 6, they gathered outside St Basil’s Cathedral to denounce the Pretender their passive submission to deprivation and despair was heart-breakingly signalled by the beautiful lyricism of their folk-song begging the Tsar to save them.

In 1871 the Imperial Theatres directorate rejected Musorgsky’s score, on the principal charge that it contained no role for prima donna. Today, one can imagine that the original version’s compressed intensity — and its smaller cast and less lavish sets — appeal to opera companies, particularly in these financially austere times.

Jones and Pappano fashion a captivating, coherent narrative from Musorgsky’s loosely connected episodes — an uninterrupted two hours of compelling music-drama. Though historians have exonerated Boris of guilt in the death of the Tsarevich, the myth of a man driven by ambition to commit murder in the pursuit of power, a crime that returns to haunt him to madness and the grave, is — as Shakespeare knew — compelling. As we witness Terfel’s Boris lose his hold first on his country and then on his life, there can surely be little doubt that Musorgsky’s opera is a masterpiece. And, Jones’s final motif, as Grigory enters the raised corridor, his silver knife-blade gleaming menacingly in an ominous mirror-image of the opening assassination, is a masterstroke.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Boris Godunov — Bryn Terfel, Prince Shuisky —John Graham-Hall, Andrey Shchelkalov —Kostas Smoriginas, Grigory Otrepiev —David Butt Philip, Pimen — Ain Anger, Varlaam — John Tomlinson, Missail — Harry Nicoll, Yurodivy (Holy Fool) —Andrew Tortise, Xenia —Vlada Borovko, Xenia's Nurse —Sarah Pring, Hostess of the inn —Rebecca de Pont Davies, Mityukha —Adrian Clarke, Frontier Guard — James Platt, Nikitich — Jeremy White, Fyodor — Ben Knight, Boyar — Nicholas Sales; Director —Richard Jones, Conductor —Antonio Pappano, Set designer —Miriam Buether, Costume designer —Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting designer —Mimi Jordan Sherin, Movement director — Ben Wright, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Monday 14th March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/2746ashm_0652%20BRYN%20TERFEL%20AS%20BORIS%20GODUNOV%20%C2%A9%20ROH.%20PHOTOGRAPH%20BY%20CATHERINE%20ASHMORE.png image_description=Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov [Photo by Catherine Ashmore] product=yes product_title=Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
Posted by Gary at 11:32 AM

March 14, 2016

Ariodante, London Handel Festival

The story is set in Scotland, where, Ariosto tells us, 'any woman who engages in union with a man and is not his wife, must be put to death'. In this production, which opened the 2016 London Handel Festival at the Royal College of Music, director James Bonas seemed to travel even further north: there was an Icelandic vibe to the dim hues of cool blue, dull grey and grungy brown of the set and costumes — a monochrome palette and barren ruggedness which reminded me of the violent setting of Orson Welles’ Macbeth. The cast’s distressed combat fatigues and dreadlocks, together with the Scottish King’s pseudo-Arthurian vulnerability, evoked a dystopian hinterland which might be past or future. The bare set enhanced the timelessness: broken branches were suspended aloft, a resolute stump doggedly persisted. In the final act, a purgation by water as effected — not without risk of mishap. Beige curtains swished to and fro across the stage, inferring the passing of time or physical dislocation, but regrettably in noisy fashion. Darkness embraced all — even, at times, the singers, who disappeared into the dim recesses of the subdued stage.

The arias themselves were not encumbered by excessive direction; the singers were encouraged to use the music to communicate rather than indulge in superfluous gesture. The result was directness and a pleasing lack of fussiness.

As the eponymous prince, Kate Coventry worked hard — and with considerable success — to communicate the varied stages of Ariodante’s emotional journey. In the opening act, she conveyed the joy and serenity which springs from our hero’s confidence in Ginevra’s love and his delight at the bestowal of the King’s favour (‘Con l’ali di constanza’) singing with clear, fresh tone and dancing with bright vitality through the intricate melismas. She had staying power too: ‘Scherza infida’ was a bitter explosion of grief, which suggested the destabilising anger which follows his beloved’s perfidy.

London Handel Festival 2016 (2). Ariodante, cast A. c. Chris Christodoulou .png

As was the case with all the impressive cast, Coventry seemed to have little difficulty with the virtuosic demands of her role: ‘Dopo notte’ was gleefully florid, racing through the three-octave compass and powerfully conveying Ariodante’s almost supra-human ecstasy when he learns that his beloved is irreproachable after all. The part of the hero knight was originally written for Carestini, renowned for his agility and stamina; Coventry suggested that she’d have been more than a match.

Sofia Larsson’s Ginevra was impassioned and full of heart; occasionally the sound was a tad sharp-edged and her intonation took a little time to settle, but when she got into her stride we enjoyed dramatic changes of colour. Her lament of despair, ‘Il mio crudel’, was particularly affecting. Coventry’s and Larsson’s voices blended well in the three duets which Handel provides.

Galina Averina sang and acted well as Dalinda: she was foolishly gullible but her naivety and regret won our forgiveness. Averina has a piercing shine at the top and sleekness throughout the range; her virtuosic cascades were impeccably even and smooth. As the evil Polinesso, Elspeth Marrow exhibited the seductive allure of an Iago; although the part seemed to lie a little too low for her, she sang with a rich warmth and smoothness which, ironically, simultaneously belied and embodied the villainy and lustfulness of the cruel and ambitious reprobate.

Paul Aisher demonstrated an appealing tone and firm line as Lurcanio, although he had a tendency to shout in the more impassioned outbursts. Simphiwe Simon Shibambu was more restrained as an introspective King of unwaveringly regal bearing, but his well-focused, beguiling bass is an instrument of great beauty and Shibambu used it with thoughtful musicality to convey the monarch’s pensive dignity. Tenor Joel Williams sang with rich tone in the role of Odoardo.

Laurence Cummings urged the proceedings onwards at a brisk lick — at times too precipitously, I felt; while dramatic intensity accrued as the recitatives tumbled hastily onwards, the undue hurriedness meant that there was a lack of opportunity to absorb the sentiments of the preceding aria before we fell headlong into the next one. The playing of the London Handel Orchestra was vigorous and strong — perhaps the continuo was a little too present in the recitatives — and there were some well-phrased obbligato contributions from oboe and bassoon. However, I felt that, with greater spaciousness, the cast might have been able to show more sensitivity to the text’s emotional weight. While the performances offered much to admire — not least pinpoint accuracy from some of these young singers in the demanding coloratura — there was at times a certain ‘thrill’ lacking.

Claire Seymour


Handel’s Berenice will be performed on 17 March, in St. George’s Hanover Square; it will be followed by the pasticcio Elpidia , at the same venue, on 31 March. For further details see http://www.london-handel-festival.com/

Ariodante — Kate Coventry, Ginevra — Sofia Larsson, Dalinda — Galina Averina, Polinesso — Elspeth Marrow, Lurcanio — Paul Aisher, King of Scotland — Simphiwe Simon Shibambu, Odoardo — Joel Williams; James Bonas director, Laurence Cummings — conductor, Molly Einchcomb — designer, Rob Casey — lighting designer, London Handel Orchestra

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, 8th March 2016

image=http://www.operatoday.com/London%20Handel%20Festival%202016.%20Ariodante%2C%20cast%20A.%20c.%20Chris%20Christodoulou.png image_description=Photo by Chris Christodoulou product=yes product_title=Ariodante, London Handel Festival product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Photos by Chris Christodoulou
Posted by Gary at 8:43 PM

AZ Opera Presents Young Singers in Memorable Don Giovanni

The performance of Don Giovanni on Saturday February 27, 2016, simply bubbled with Mozart's melodic and harmonic invention as the orchestra provided a firm foundation for the excellent performances of Arizona Opera’s cast under Steven White’s caring but firm conducting. Leading with authoritative tempi, he drew luxurious tone and refined phrasing from the Arizona Opera Orchestra.

Tara Faircloth’s stage direction was realistic and gave the visual aspects of the performance a firm foundation. Peter Nolle and Douglas Provost’s functional sets allowed the singers to bring the libretto to life in all its glory while Kathleen Trott’s carefully researched, exquisitely detailed costumes placed the action firmly in eighteenth century Spain.

Don Giovanni 15.pngAlyssa Martin, Ryan Kuster, Matthew Burns and Andrew Penning as Zerlina, Masetto, Leporello and Don Ottavio

As Don Giovanni, Joseph Lattanzi was a delight both vocally and dramatically. His portrayal was entirely sympathetic and oriented towards the work's tragic overtones and its eventual outcome. Although Lattanzi’s voice is not large and he reserved his full power for the supper scene, he achieved a high plane of vocalism and dramatic purpose whenever he was onstage. Matthew Burns was a cunning Leporello whose comedic turns were both pointed and deliciously amusing.

Alyssa Martin was a charming Zerlina who sang with a sweet sound. A smooth Ottavio, Andrew Penning sang a well articulated "Il mio tesoro" and made a fine partner for Andrea Shokery’s dramatically eloquent and musically exquisite Donna Anna. Ryan Kuster made a telling contribution as Masetto. His interpretation reminded us that revolution was on its way and would eventually change the relationship between common people and the nobility.

Don Giovanni 02.pngAndrea Shokery, Andrew Penning and Peter Volpe as Donna Anna, Don Ottavio and The Commendatore

Sarah Larsen sang Donna Elvira’s music with taste and technical excellence as she encompassed the character’s mix of strong emotions. Her “Mi tradi’ was a delight. Veteran bass, Peter Volpe was a sonorous Comendatore. Working with Maestro Steven White, the excellent solo artists sang the concerted numbers with precision and accuracy. Henri Venanzi’s chorus moved gracefully as they embodied individual townspeople and sang their glorious harmonies.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information:

Don Giovanni, Joseph Lattanzi (1); Donna Anna, Andrea Shokery (2); Donna Elvira, Sarah Larsen; Don Ottavio, Andres Penning (1); Leporello, Matthew Burns; Zerlina, Alyssa Martin (1); Masetto, Ryan Kuster; Commendatore, Peter Volpe; Conductor, Steven White; Director, Tara Faircloth; Lighting Design, Douglas Provost; Scenic Design, Peter Nolle, Douglas Provost; Costume Design, Kathleen Trott; Chorus Master, Henri Venanzi; Fight Director, Andrea Robertson.

(1) Marion Roose Pullin Studio Artist

(2) Former Marion RoosePullin Studio Artist

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Don%20Giovanni%2016.png
image_description=Joseph Lattanzi as Don Giovanni [Photo by Tim Trumble]

product=yes
product_title= AZ Opera Presents Young Singers in Memorable Don Giovanni
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Joseph Lattanzi as Don Giovanni

Photos by Tim Trumble

Posted by maria_n at 8:33 PM

March 10, 2016

Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, London

The action is framed by a set which presents a traditional distillery, the planned technical renovation of which causes consternation among the country folk: a gentle allusion to the strife of rural industrialisation in the early 20th century. (Alexander Titel’s 2008 production with the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Academic Music Theatre in Moscow also adopted a 1930s early-Soviet milieu, ironically depicting lavish farmers’ feasts during an era of Stalinist deprivation.)

The vats and barrels, pipes and filters dwelt comfortably in the former concrete construction hall; it wasn’t always clear where set ended and venue began. A large keg, from which fumes (or fairy spirits?) spiralled, served as the moonlit pond. The split levels and ramps of the atmospheric design — by Bridget Kimak and students from Rose Bruford College — effectively facilitated the often farcical comings and goings.

May Night , Rimsky-Korsakov’s second complete opera, is based upon a Ukrainian folk-tale, ‘The Drowned Maiden’, from Gogol’s collection, Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka. It’s a cross between Dvořák’s Rusalka and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The dramatic structure is somewhat haphazard and the narrative negligible, but the opera’s unpretentious humour and warm rusticity — lots of drunken escapades, mistaken identities, and supernatural visitations — are as engaging as its cantabile folk-derived melodies and colourfully orchestrated score.

A pompous Mayor (Headman) and his son, Levko, are in romantic pursuit of the same girl, Ganna. Levko tells Ganna of an eerie local legend: a young girl, Pannochka, who drowned herself to escape her step-mother, has become a rusalka (a sort of Eastern European mermaid), but the step-mother herself has now drowned too and the ‘witch’ is rumoured to mingle undetected among the ‘good’ rusalki. Much chaos ensues: Levko discovers the Mayor serenading Hanna; a drinking party erupts exuberantly; the Mayor’s sister-in-law is mistaken for the devil and imprisoned in the cellar. To escape from the frenzy, Levko retreats to the lake, where he sings a panegyric for Ganna. His song summons the rusalki who, proving remarkably adept counterfeiters, produce a letter from the Military Commissar — to whom the Mayor must defer — commanding that Levko must get his girl: the young lover’s reward for saving the rusalki from the witch.

Director Christopher Cowell did not seem entirely sure if it wanted his production to be tongue-in-cheek or serious and sincere. I felt that it could have done with a bit more comic shtick; indeed, not until the entry of the wild, drunken charcoal burner, Kalenik, was it clear that it the work is in fact supposed to be a comedy. The opera is a slightly disconcerting amalgam of folk and fantasy, romance and realism, the supernatural and a dash of surrealism; and this production seemed to veer between these modes, rather than finding a happy blend and balance. After the romance of Act 1 and the farcical scenes of rustic life in the second act, Act 3 rather lost its way.

The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during ‘Green Week’ (Russian Whitsuntide), engaging in nocturnal escapades which saw them leave their watery depths in order to swing from birch trees. Jack Wiltshire’s lighting cast a fittingly lurid green glow but the choreography in this act (Mandy Demetriou) was disappointingly uninventive — a pity as elsewhere I was impressed by the effectiveness of the stage business. The problems may be inherent, but this act felt dramatically inert and amateurishly staged. I admit that perhaps that’s an overly harsh a judgement, especially because the score’s jewels sparkle most brightly in this final act and the superb singing made the musical treasures gleam. But, mock hauntings need to be staged with conviction and not just caricature.

Gogol’s story had sentimental value to Rimsky-Korsakov, for he had read this tale of thwarted betrothal with his wife, on the day that he proposed to her. Much of the libretto is drawn verbatim from Gogol’s narrative, and Royal Academy Opera chose to sing in the original Russian, an ambitious decision which demanded a lot of the young cast, and must have necessitated a great deal of language coaching and preparation. Not being sufficiently linguistically knowledgeable to judge the accuracy and authenticity of the results, I can only say that the text was delivered confidently and certainly sounded convincing! But, I wondered whether it was a wise decision: the humour might have communicated more directly in an English translation (and, in any case, the very high ceiling of Ambika P3 made reading the surtitles a neck-straining and distracting task).

The young cast were superb, producing performances which would have not been out of place, indeed would have been admired, on many a professional stage. As the two lovers, Oliver Johnston (Levko) and Laura Zigmantaite (Ganna) shared an excellent rapport and their lyrical duets surged with feeling (many of the melodies were drawn from authentic Ukrainian folk material, collected by Alexander Rubets).

Zigmantaite’s mezzo-soprano is a big, powerful instrument: occasionally she did not seem entirely in control of its power, but she did demonstrate a good range of colours and flexibility, and produced some very shapely phrasing. Tenor Johnston was steadier: he has a wide range which is ringing at the top, and rich at the bottom — and unfailingly beautiful of tone. He has the heft to rise effortlessly above an orchestra but also a tender sensibility. Levko’s Act 3 romance — entirely without mawkishness — was heart-melting. His was a tremendous performance.

Božidar Smiljanić, William Blake and Alex Otterburn — as the Mayor, Distiller and inebriated charcoal-burner, Kalenik, respectively — had a good stab at the broad humour. Smiljanić used his strong low bass register to convey the buffoonery and pretension of the lecherous Mayor. Otterburn proved a master of physical theatre, tripping, lolling and hopak-ing with oafish ineptitude. William Blake was appropriately unlikeable as the greedily entrepreneurial Distiller. As the Mayor’s sister-in-law — the butt of all the jokes and trickery — Katie Stevenson did not let the comic shenanigans distract her from producing a firm, full-toned melodic line. Alys Robert’s silvery soprano beguiled, arousing our sympathy for Pannochka’s plight and inspiring our delight in her rescue.

The members of the Royal Academy Chorus were in strong voice, and maintained an impressive level of focus, acting persuasively. If some of the dancing was a little underwhelming then that can be forgiven; there’s no reason why young singers should be expert at the tropak or troika. Under the baton of Gareth Hancock, who assumes the role of Director of Opera in July this year, the Royal Academy Sinfonia swept through the folk-coloured score with brio and style. Although the string sound was not always as rich as might have been desired, there was much to admire, not least some silkily sleek clarinet solos, horn playing which exhibited remarkable control and stamina, and magic and mystery from the two harps who accompanying Pannochka’s Act 3 song.

May Night’s melodic appeal, rhythmic vivacity, and vivid characterisation made it a very good choice for Royal Academy Opera, and offered the cast much and varied opportunity to demonstrate their considerable talents. Their performance was warm-hearted and, given the subterranean nature of the venue, surprisingly sunny. I have no doubt that we will be hearing from many of these young singers again in the near future.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Levko — Oliver Johnston, Ganna — Laura Zigmantaite, Kalenik — Alex Otterburn, The Headman — Božidar Smiljanić, Headman’s sister-in-law — Katie Stevenson, Distiller — William Blake, Pannochka — Alys Roberts, Clerk — Dominic Bowe, Stepmother/Rusalka — Helen Brackenbury, Brood-Hen/Rusalka — Iúnó Connolly, Raven/Rusalka — Marvic Monreal; Christopher Cowell — director, Gareth Hancock —conductor, Bridget Kimak —designer, Jake Wiltshire —lighting designer, Mandy Demetriou — choreographer, Royal Academy Opera Chorus (chorus master — Richard Leach), Royal Academy Sinfonia.

Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London, 7th March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Royal%20Academy%20Opera%20May%20Night%20%28C%29%20Robert%20Workman.png image_description=A scene from May Night [Photo by Robert Workman] product=yes product_title=Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: A scene from May Night [Photo by Robert Workman]
Posted by Gary at 7:25 PM

Entrancing Orlando at the Concertgebouw

The Dutch capital is spoiled when it comes to baroque opera in general and Handel in particular. The current season alone has included concert performances of Theodora, Tamerlano and Partenope, as well as a staged run of Ariodante. This surfeit would explain the many empty seats at the Concertgebouw last Monday. By rights, this entrancing performance deserved a full-capacity house. Orlando relates how Roland, Charlemagne’s chief paladin, goes mad when he realises that Angelica, Queen of Cathay, does not love him but the African prince Medoro. The action takes place around a grove, the habitat of a shepherdess named Dorinda. She also falls for Medoro but, although disconsolate, accepts that he will never be hers. Orlando, on the other hand, refuses to resign himself and suffers a psychotic episode. He imagines himself visiting the underworld, then goes on a vengeful killing spree, after which he falls into a deep sleep. Fortunately, the fifth character in the cast is Zoroastro, a magician who must be the hardest working deus ex machina in all of opera. Zoroastro foresees Orlando’s actions and intervenes several times, with escape chariots, topographical transformations and healing potions. In the end, he brings Orlando to his senses and also reveals that he has saved Angelica and Medoro from his murderous rage.

Harry Bicket, conducting at the harpsichord, took the cue from the opera's pastoral character and presented the score as a Rococo idyll in soft sunlight. The listener could just sit back and bask in the assured precision and shimmering sounds of The English Concert. Consistent with the emotion-driven plot, the musical story-telling was inwardly sensitive rather than ostensive. Dramatic eloquence emerged from the disciplined and meltingly beautiful playing, such as in Dorinda's sad nightingale aria “Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti”, where the laden rests suggested suppressed sobs. Such refined expression is impossible without soloists to match and all five were on a par with the orchestra. Soprano Carolyn Sampson was Dorinda, struggling valiantly between staying sensible and giving way to self-pity. Her first aria, expressing breathless infatuation, made a distant impression, but slowly her Dorinda developed into a detailed, endearing character. In an evening of stunningly sung arias, her lovelorn lines in “Se mi rivolgo al prato” lingered on, and the highs and lows of the whirlwind “Amore è qual vento” were a peak of technical brilliance.

Soprano Erin Morley and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke clad the desired couple, Angelica and Medoro, with befitting vocal glamour, diamantine glitter for her and heavy silk velvet for him. In “Vorrei poterti amar”, Medoro’s apology to Dorinda, Ms Cooke tugged a little below pitch, but elsewhere her performance was molten gold, especially her enchanting “Verdi allori”, one of Handel’s gorgeous tributes to vegetation. Ms Morley’s high-centred voice flared brightly at the top and she threaded Angelica’s bravura arias precisely and without a hint of effort. Zoroastro’s series of stunner numbers were entrusted to bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. His lowest notes are not pitch-dark, but his smoothly produced voice has a most comely timbre and his singing grew finer with every entrance. Mr Ketelsen’s rationalist magician was fresh-voiced and lyrical—a young and sexy Gandalf, if you will. Or, in modern terms, a wise and kindly therapist one goes to see when love not only hurts, but breaks. And who would not be consoled by the optimistic “Sorge infausta una procella” sung with such roundness and yards of sleek coloratura?

As it happens, pristine coloratura was in abundant supply all evening, not least from world-class countertenor Iestyn Davies as a guileless Orlando. The orchestra’s gathering speed in the showpiece arias “Fammi combattere” and “Cielo! Se tu il consenti” showed off his unerring agility. During the mad scene, his Orlando was pitifully confused rather than terrifying. With a voice rich and resonant in the middle, but less so at the bottom, Mr Davies had to contend against the lower strings to be heard in “Già latra cerbero”. The subsequent “Vaghe pupille”, in which Orlando imagines the queen of the underworld crying, captured the essence of his superlatively sung portrayal—unaffected pathos in the measured A section and a rankled, brittle psyche in the manic B section. Daring is required to slow down music almost to a standstill for expressive purposes. In Orlando’s sleep aria, “Già l'ebro mio ciglio”, accompanied by two soothing violas, Harry Bicket and Iestyn Davies dared to float their phrases in a torpid haze, creating musical opium. It was just one of the many spellbinding moments of the evening.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Orlando — Iestyn Davies, Dorinda — Carolyn Sampson, Angelica — Erin Morley, Medoro — Sasha Cooke, Zoroastro — Kyle Ketelsen, Conductor & Harpsichord — Harry Bicket, The English Concert. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Monday, 7th March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sampson.png image_description=Carolyn Sampson [Photo by Borggreve] product=yes product_title=Entrancing Orlando at the Concertgebouw product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=Above: Carolyn Sampson [Photo by Borggreve]
Posted by Gary at 7:06 PM

March 3, 2016

Orlando at the Barbican

He became joint manager of the King’s Theatre with the Swiss aristocrat John James Heidegger, opening the ‘Second Academy’ in December 1729. Orlando was designed to win back audiences eager to experience new works sung by star singers, and Handel garnered a stellar cast alongside Senesino, including rival sopranos Anna Strada del Pò and Celeste Gismondi.

Orlando was first performed on January 27th 1733 and received about ten performances that season before illness and temperamental unrest among the cast intervened, cutting short the planned run. In the summer of 1733, Senesino defected to the competing company, the Opera of the Nobility, and the opera was not revived again by Handel. But, it’s surely one of the composer’s best operas, bursting with inspired melody, imaginative instrumental colourings, immense formal invention, psychological richness, and expressive variety.

One of many operas based upon an episode from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, the opera presents a very human tale of conflicting forces: passion and ambition versus self-discipline and resignation. Advised by the magician-philosopher Zoroastro to eschew his passion for Angelica and follow the path of glory, Orlando adamantly pursues his romantic desires. But, Angelica has become enamoured of the soldier Medoro, who is himself adoringly worshipped by the sweet-natured shepherdess, Dorinda. Finding the lovers’ initials carved on a tree, Orlando learns of Angelica’s betrayal and descends into madness; he is prevented from carrying out his murderous threats by the intervention of Zoroastro, who casts Orlando into a cave and summons an eagle and magic potion to cure Orlando of his affliction.

At the Barbican Hall, Harry Bicket and the English Concert were joined by a splendid cast of five young singers, including a trio of Americans, for a ‘concert’ performance which was musically compelling and lacked none of the tension of the theatre. The soloists possessed varied and vibrantly expressive voices and inhabited their roles with utter persuasiveness, their modern dress emphasising the wider, and timeless, allegorical framework. This performance was the third in a five-concert tour (which ends at the Carnegie Hall in March), and the singers all performed impressively ‘off the score’, which aided the astuteness of their characterisation.

Stepping into Senesimo’s shoes on this occasion was countertenor Iestyn Davies. Bicket and Davies ‘warmed up’ for this performance in 2015, when they presented several arias from Orlando in the opening concert of the Wigmore Hall’s 2015-16 season, alongside arias from Rinaldo, Rodelinda and Partenope. The ‘infinite variety of colour’ and ‘expressive depth’ that I noted on that occasion were once again in evidence, and used to compelling effect in a portrayal which emphasised the dark introspection and inner rage of the troubled soldier. Alert to the disjunctions and disruptions resulting from Orlando’s mercurial temperament, Davies prowled the platform with lowering intensity; when seated, he was bowed with a seemingly unbearable burden of anxiety and despair.

Urged by the magician-philosopher Zoroastro to redirect his energies from love to combat, Davies presented his opening aria, ‘Non fu già men forte’, with brightness and warmth, the lyrical ardour supplemented by the glowing playing of the two natural horns, who injected a charming touch of mock heroism.

Technically impeccable throughout the performance, Davies launched into the score’s astonishing prestissimo flights with relaxed ease and without any loss of focus. The breath control exhibited in his Act 2 aria, ‘Cielo! se tu il consenti deh! Fà’, was remarkable, and equalled by the fluid passagework of ‘Fammi combattere’; there was continuity of tone throughout the vocal extravagances, and the latter unfailingly served an expressive purpose.

Emerging from behind the orchestra, where Orlando had been nursing his grievances and torments, Davies delivered a ‘mad scene’ which demonstrated expert appreciation of the protagonist’s disordered temperament, moving with discomforting readiness between dread and nonchalance, and gliding easily through the ever-shifting time signatures and tempi. ‘Ah Stigie larve’, in which the unhinged Orlando imagines a descent to the Underworld, was enhanced by fine theorbo playing; the fresh simplicity of the repetitions of ‘Vaghe pupille’ (Lovely eyes) were movingly interposed between the scene’s darker emotional tumults. Indeed, Davies’ lack of mannerism and simple directness movingly conveyed the destructive of the insanity inspired by his jealous ire; the poignancy was all the greater for the lack of affectedness. In Act 3’s ‘Già per la man d’Orlando … Già cl’ebro mio ciglio’, an invocation to sleep, Davies’ gentle yet elegant vocal pianissimo was complemented by a deliciously dulcet viola duet.

Erin Morley’s Angelica exhibited a sunny temperament, evidently not too troubled by the psychological distress her amorous indulgences had triggered in the hero. Morley’s soprano shone, gliding mellifluously through Handel’s graceful phrases in the numerous slow-tempo arias; the honeyed beauty of her opening solo, ‘Ritornava al suo bel viso’ (which is surprisingly truncated by arrival of Medoro, whereupon it slips into recitative) foreshadowed the silky loveliness of ‘Verdi piante’ in Act 2, the da capo of which was thrillingly soft. Morley’s phrasing was unwaveringly immaculate, though at times I felt that musical elegance was put before dramatic intensity.

As Medoro, Sasha Cooke delivered a gorgeous ‘Verdi allori’ — that among a less superlative might even have stolen the show — exhibiting a wonderfully lustrous, firm mezzo which has poise and presence. Cooke’s delivery of the text in the recitatives was especially noteworthy, and emphasised the integrity and nobility of Medoro’s character.

Handel’s work is distinguished by the addition of two characters who are not present in Ariosto. Kyle Ketersen’s Zoroastro was an imposing figure, a sort of benevolent Don Alfonso. He was perhaps a little more wedded to the score than his fellow singers, but his singing was agile and appealing of tone, and his projection of the text could not be faulted. Ketersen descended to the depths with tautness and evenness in his Act 2 aria, ‘Tra caligni profonde’, as he warned Orlando that madness beckoned if he did not open up his mind to the light of reason; and the bass was superbly animated in the faster passagework of his Act 3 ‘Sarge infausta’— without aspirating the coloratura as so many basses singing Handel are wont to do — as the tempest rose and darkened sky and sea.

As Dorinda, Carolyn Sampson began in playfully innocent, even gauche, fashion — a reminder that Orlando can be interpreted comically (some commentators have suggested that Senesimo’s distaste for the role was due in part to his uncertainty whether the protagonist was to be played with grave seriousness or as a love-struck fool, and whether Senesimo himself was being mocked). As her triplets skipped lightly in ‘O care parolette’, Dorinda’s naïve detachment initially seemed a little out of kilter with the prevailing dramatic mood. However, in Act 2, Sampson’s magically floated ‘nightingale aria’ and the gentle beauties of the following minor-key siciliano, ‘Se mi rivolgo al prato’, cast any doubts aside, and Act 3’s ‘Amor è qual vento’ swirled and leapt impressively through the wide-ranging compass, as Sampson moved in and out of chest register, with good focus in her lower register.

The players of the English Concert provided a buoyant, vibrant accompaniment. The four-part overture seemed to embody the opera’s emotional trajectory, the tight dotted rhythms of the opening movement initially finding release in the triple-time dance which follows; there was then a move into anxious realms in the minor-key, flourish-embellished Lento, before balance was restored by the lively celebratory triplets of the concluding gigue. Bicket’s approach throughout was distinctly ‘less is more’; he provided leadership through his alert harpsichord playing rather through overt gesture, but still coaxed meaningful interaction between instrumentalists and singers. It took a few numbers for the ensemble to settle but Nadja Zwiener was an authoritative and characterful leader. In Act 1 the swift movement from recitative to aria was complemented by the compelling forward impetus inspired by the vigorous string playing and a particularly characterful bass line; but after the urgency of the emotional arguments in Act 1, Bicket provided space in Act 2 for the romantic raptures of Angelica and Medoro to unfold, allowing the singers to linger and to shape the arioso phrases with thoughtfulness and care.

The ‘argument’ which was printed at the start of Handel’s libretto, rather than outlining the plot, unusually sets out an ethical ‘case’ — explaining that the opera is a sort of ‘morality play’ which demonstrates: ‘the imperious Manner in which Love insinuates its Impressions into the Hearts of Persons of all Ranks; likewise how a wise Man should be ever ready with his best Endeavours to re-conduct into the Right Way, those who have been misguided from it by the Illusion of their Passions.’

This exceptional performance certainly followed the ‘Right Way’ and insinuated its impression into this listener’s heart.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

The English Concert: Harry Bicket — conductor/harpsichord, Orlando — Iestyn Davies, Angelica — Erin Morley, Dorinda — Carolyn Sampson, Medoro — Sasha Cooke, Zoroastro — Kyle Ketelsen. Barbican Hall, London, 1 March 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The%20English%20Concert%2C%20photo%20credit%20-%20Richard%20Haughton.png image_description=The English Concert [Photo by Richard Haughton] product=yes product_title=Orlando at the Barbican product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: The English Concert [Photo by Richard Haughton]
Posted by Gary at 1:49 PM

March 2, 2016

Heroique flashes at Wigmore Hall

Last night's Rosenblatt Recital (25 February 2016) at theWigmore Hall was shared by the American tenor Bryan Hymel (known for his performances as Aeneas in Berlioz' Les Troyens at Covent Garden and his disc Heroique of French 19th century heroic opera arias), and the young American mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (who will be singing the title role in Bizet's Carmen with San Francisco Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin this year). The two singers were accompanied in a programme of RVW, Wagner, Gounod, Mascagni, Berlioz and Bizet by pianist Julius Drake. The programme opened with Bryan Hymel singing RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor, when he and Drake were joined by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski , then Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. Bryan Hymel then gave us Ah! leve-toi, soleil! from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Mamma, quel vino e generoso from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, with two excerpts from Bizet's Carmen to conclude the programme.

One of the fascinating things about Rosenblatt Recitals is the way the series places opera singers in a concert context, and showcases their repertoire choices when moving away from operatic drama. Bryan Hymel's choice of RVW's Four Hymns for Tenor was an intriguing choice indeed. The work is an early one, written in 1911 shortly after the Five Mystical Songs and partaking of the same aura of mystical rapture. We are used to hearing the work sung by classic English lyric tenor voices but Hymel has shown that his voice has the refreshingly old-fashion combination of narrow-focus power with remarkable flexibility. For all the big bright sound in at the opening, Hymel was able to bring his tone down and give us moments of lower key intimacy. This was quite a big boned performance, and Hymel was finely matched by viola player Krzysztof Chorzelski and pianist Julius Drake. However Hymel's performance seemed a little constrained and score-bound (it was the only work of the evening where he sang from the score), and it perhaps was not the ideal work to open the programme. For all the inward quality which he brought to it, the performance did rather miss the sense of mysticism that these songs need. However Hymel did give the music a very intense presence.

Irene_Roberts_2.pngIrene Roberts [Photo by Kristin Hoebermann]

Next, Irene Roberts sang four of Wagner's Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Wesendonck Lieder); she missed off Im Treibhaus, one of the two songs which Wagner labelled 'Studie zu Tristan und Isolde' (studies for Tristan and Isolde). The five songs should probably not be regarded as a song cycle, Wagner wrote them over the period of a year (1857-1858) and the present order of the songs was only fixed by the publishers, Schott, in 1862. However it was a shame that we missed the perfumed Tristan-esque exoticism of Im Treibhaus, and thankfully we were treated to it as an encore at the end of the recital.

Irene Roberts has a big, bold, dark-hued mezzo-soprano voice and is already singing Kundry in Parsifal and you suspect that other large dramatic mezzo-soprano roles will come into her repertoire. At this stage in her career though, she seemed to need something of a guiding hand from a director, as her performance of the Wagner songs was impressive and finely correct without really exploring the spark of erotic romantic languor. You felt that Roberts needed to relax somewhat and revel a little more in the wonderfully rich sound she was making. Instead this was a performance which impressed rather than seduced. Der Engel was beautifully done but too literal, and needed to be a bit steamier. Stehe still! was intense and vibrant, though Roberts sound occasionally verged on the wild. You sensed that with the right direction she could be a really exciting performer and in Schmerzen she brought a lovely dark tone to bear. For the opening of Träume Julius Drake gave us an object lesson in how to bring out the Tristan-esque subtlety of this music, playing with flexibility and seductiveness, with great care of the space between the notes. Roberts performance however, though intense and inward, was a bit too soberly serious.

Bryan Hymel opened the second half with Romeo's Ah! leve-toi, soleil from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Romeo is nowadays a role sung mainly by tenor with voices of a more lyric cast, but in the 19th century the great Polish tenor Jean de Reske used to perform Romeo and Tristan in the same season. Hymel sang without music and seemed far more relaxed, and at ease than in the first half, and this showed in his performance. He demonstrated that it is perfectly possible, bringing his flexible yet big bright sound to bear on Gounod's music and showing us how the lyricism of the aria can be combined with a thrilling sound, concluding with a fabulous top note.

He followed this with more conventional dramatic tenor repertoire, Mamma, quel vino e generoso, Turiddu's emotional leave-taking from his mother in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. In a vibrantly upfront performance of classic Italian verismo repertoire we notice the relative narrow focus of Hymel's voice compared to more recent Italian tenors. But this also meant that the performance had a lovely intensity and flexibility, combined with a strong sense of character and superb tone quality.

Irene Roberts sang Marguerite's D'amour l'ardente flammme from Berlioz's La damnation de Faust. Roberts showed a fine sense of control in a powerfully intense performance. Her French was nicely correct but she didn't really make enough of the words and in the more passionate moments her diction slipped. Overall I really wanted a little more sense of risk and a suppleness in her account of the role.

Finally we had two extracts from Bizet's Carmen. First Bryan Hymel sang La fleur que to m'avais jetee from Act Two, in which he demonstrated how ideal he is in this type of repertoire. Singing with finely expressive French and allowing the language to colour his tone in a way that most Italian-trained singers do not. He combined power and suppleness in ideal proportions. This and the Gounod made me wish that Hymel's repertoire choices for the recital had perhaps focussed on this area more.

Finally Hymel and Roberts gave us the whole of the final scene from Carmen. Granted we missed the off-stage chorus somewhat, but Julius Drake's piano went a long way to supplying that element of the drama. In this scene the dark intensity of Roberts voice really came into its own, and that strong, sober intensity made Carmen's 'Non, je ne t'aime plus!' really count. And she was finely contrasted with Hymel's wonderfully ardent and brightly intense Don Jose. I have to confess that I had been hoping for something a little more unusual in the recital, but this scene demonstrated a fine sense of style combined with powerful drama.

Finding an encore to follow that scene was inevitably difficult so Irene Roberts sang Im Treibhaus from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder which Julius Drake segued straight into Bryan Hymel singing Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot.

Robert Hugill


Programme and performers:

Vaughan Williams, Wagner, Gounod, Berlioz, Bizet

Bryan Hymel, tenor; Irene Roberts, mezzo-soprano; Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola; Julius Drake, piano. Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall, 25 February 2016.

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Posted by Gary at 12:22 PM

Il trittico, Royal Opera

Richard Jones ' 2011 production of Puccini's Il trittico has received its first revival at theRoyal Opera House (seen 29 February 2016), conducted byNicola Luisotti and revived by directorsSarah Fahie (Il tabarro,Suor Angelica), and Benjamin Davis (Gianni Schicchi). Baritone Lucio Gallo returned to the roles of Michele in Il tabarro and the title role in Gianni Schicchi, whilst soprano Ermonela Jaho and contraltoAnna Larsson reprised the roles of Suor Angelica and the Princess in Suor Angelica. In Il tabarro, Patricia Racette sang Giorgetta with Carl Tanner as Luigi, Carlo Bosi as Tinca, Jeremy White as Talpa, Irina Mishura as Frugola. In Suor Angelica,Elena Zilio was the Monitress,Elizabeth Sikora the Mistress of the Novices, Irina Mishura the Abbess. InGianni Schicchi, Paolo Fanale andDavid Kempster made their Covent Garden debuts as Runiccio and Marco with veteran bass Gwynne Howell (who made his Covent Garden debut in 1970) returning as Simone, Elena Zilio as Zita, Jeremy White as Betto, Marie McLaughlin as La Ciesca, Carlo Bosi as Gherardo,Rebecca Evans as Nella, and Susanna Hurrell (making her Covent Garden main stage debut) as Lauretta.

Richard Jones' production has revived very well (of course the production of Gianni Schicchi debuted in 2009 with the remaining two being added in 2011), and to a certain extent remains the star of the evening. Despite having three different set designers, Ultz (Il tabarro), Miriam Buether ( Suor Angelica), John MacFarlane (Gianni Schicchi), with costume for all three by Nicky Gillibrand, the three operas successfully form complementary parts to a whole, centred both by the common 1950's setting, and the stylised realism and detailed persononen regie of Jones' directorial approach. Puccini saw Suor Angelica as very much the centre of the triptych though the opera has been relatively neglected compared to the other two. In this revival, as in the 2011 performances, Suor Angelica is certainly back at the centre thanks to the remarkably intense performance from Ermonela Jaho.

Of the three operas it as Il tabarro which seemed the weakest. Puccini sets this with detailed naturalism and the production responds with a tapestry of small roles such as sailors wandering past, office girls in a building overlooking the canal, the neighbourhood tart as well as the song seller (David Jonghoon Kim) and the lovers (Lauren Fagan and Luis Gomes), not to mention the secondary characters Jeremy White and Irina Mishura's delightful Talpa and Frugola, plus Carlo Bosi as Tinca, who were all strongly characterised. The problem with this approach is that if the central drama is not strong enough, then this lively backdrop can sometimes pull focus.

All three principals, Patricia Racette (Giorgetta), Carl Tanner (Luigi) and Lucio Gallo (Michele) sang well and gave us some fine moments. Tanner was suitably virile and impressively trenchant in his denunciation of the life of barge workers, and the moment the Luigi and Giorgetta reminisce about their early life in Belleville remains a magical one. Racette brought out Giorgetta's frustration, but her voice tended to get a bit uneven when pushed in the upper register so it was the quieter moments that told. Gallo was suitably gruff as Michele, but the sense of simmering passions was only intermittently there. These were three individual performances, what we lacked was that essential crackle of underlying passion and need between the three. Perhaps Nicola Luisotti's relaxed, low key approach to the score was partly to blame. He brought out some beauties in the score, but this was definitely a performance which felt undercooked, all the right ingredients but it didn't quite coalesce.

It does not always pay to bring the same cast back together for a revival, the same intensity does not always come as well. But in the case of Suor Angelica, Ermonela Jaho and Anna Larsson repeated their amazing performances. Jaho's Suor Angelica remains a sustained and intense portrayal, remarkable for the way Jaho conveys Angelica's suppressed feelings through body language and dialogue, so that the great moments do not explode out of nowhere. And the relationship with Larsson's elegant, yet remarkably repressed Princess showed all the crackle and underlying tension which was lacking in the first opera. It helps that these two are surrounded by a very strong team of nuns, with some suitably fierce performances from Elena Zilio as Monitress, Elizabeth Sikora as Mistress of the Novices, and Irina Mishura as the Abbess plus a full array of nuns each of whom was clearly characterised (Melissa Alder, Kate McCarney, Eryl Royle, Lauren Fagan, Katy Batho, Elizabeth Key, Jennifer Davis, Emily Edmonds, Renata Skarelyte, Tamsin Coombs, Kiera Lyness, Anne Osborne, Amy Catt, Cari Searle).

Gianni Schicchi is mainly an ensemble piece, and though centred on Lucio Gallo's shady, down at heel and rather brilliant Gianni Schicchi, it is the ensemble of the relatives with their stylised group choreography (choreographer Lucy Burge) which is just as important. With some changes of personnel the ensemble was still crisp, stylised and very funny. Not surprisingly in Richard Jones' view none of the principals is very admirable, and Gallo's Schicchi is just as bad as the other relatives, only the two lovers Rinuccio (Paolo Fanale) and Lauretta (Susanna Hurrell) form a still small centre, with Fanale's lovely hymn to Florence, Hurrell's poised and beautiful 'O mio babino caro' and their final duet (though without the sight of a panorama of Florence).

The miracle is that the relatives create such a gallery of distinct characters whilst being very funny as an ensemble: Gwynne Howell as Simone, Elena Zilio as Zita, Jeremy White as Betto, David Kempster as Marco, Marie McLaughlin as La Ciesca, Carlo Bossi as Gherardo, Rebecca Evans as Nella. The supporting characters were equally highly coloured, with Matteo Peirone as Spinelloccio, Tiziano Bracci as Ser Amantio, Simon Wilding as Pinellino, David Shipley as Guccio, Peter Curtis as the late Buoso Donati and Gabriele Montano as the chief brat.

After giving us two slightly low key, rather relaxed accounts Nicola Luisotti and the orchestra launched with impressive energy into the prelude to Gianni Schicchi and thereafter the frenetic pace of the music matched the stage action brilliantly. But this wasn't an over-driven account and Luisotti knew where to relax so that the great moments really did flower.

This was not quite an ideally balanced account of Il trittico, with Il tabarro lacking the sense of strong meat and dark undertones, but overall this was a remarkably creditable account of a tricky trio of operas.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

Director: Richard Jones, Set Design: Ultz, Miriam Buether, John MacFarlane, Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand, Conductor: Nicola Luisotti

Il tabarro - Michele: Lucio Gallo, Giorgetta: Patricia Racette, Luigi: Carl Tanner, Tinca: Carlo Bosi, Talpa: Jeremy White, Frugola: Irina Mishura, Song Seller: David Junghoon Kim, Lovers: Lauren Fagan & Luis Gomes

Suor Angelica - Monitress: Elena Zilio, Mistress of the Novices: Elizabeth Sikora, Sister Osmina: Eryl Royle, Sister Genovieffa: Lauren Fagan, Sister Angelica: Ermonela Jaho, Sister Dolcina: Elizabeth Key, Abbess: Irina Mishura, Princess: Anna Larsson

Gianni Schicchi - Buoso Donati: Peter Curtis, Simone: Gwynne Howell, Zita: Elena Zilio, Rinuccio: Paolo Fanale, Betto: Jeremy White, Marco: David Kempster, La Ciesca: Marie McLaughlin, Gherardo: Carlo Bosi, Nella: Rebecca Evans, Gianni Schicchi: Lucio Gallo, Spinellocio: Matteo Peirone, Ser Mantio: Titiano Bracci, Pinellino: Simon Wilding, Guccio: David Shipley

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: 29 February 2016

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ermonela%20Jaho%20as%20Sister%20Angelica%20in%20Suor%20Angelica%20%C2%A9%20ROH%202016.%20Photograph%20by%20Bill%20Cooper.png image_description=Ermonela Jaho as Sister Angelica in Suor Angelica [Photo © ROH 2016 by Bill Cooper] product=yes product_title=Il trittico, Royal Opera product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho as Sister Angelica in Suor Angelica [Photo © ROH 2016 by Bill Cooper]
Posted by Gary at 11:45 AM

A trip with Captain Haitink into Bruckner’s Cosmos

This time, he led another first-class performance in Bruckner’s Te Deum in C Major with the Groot Omroep Choir and four excellent vocalists, followed by his Symphony No. 9 in D-minor. “To the beloved God” Bruckner dedicated his last symphony, and Haitink brought that cosmic love to light today.

Bruckner called his Te Deum the pride of his life. Haitink definitely did it justice in this performance. The conductor commenced “Te Deum laudamus” with the strings highly charged. Then the Groot Omroep Choir bellowed with a powerful grandeur. Underneath all this force, the magnificent Maarschalkerweerd Organ, the centre piece in the Great Hall, reverberated heavily reaching all the way to the balcony. What a spectacular opening!

Beginning with the strings’ crisp transparency and electrifying intensity, Haitink immediately anchored his trademark tension that he sustained throughout each movement. The brass, especially the trombones players, must also be noted for glowing sound resonating soulfully in their passages throughout the performance.

Of the vocalists, Sally Matthews impressed most. From her first passages in the opening to finale, her rich vibrato and powerful volume fought off the most intense of Bruckner’s fortissimos. In the quieter passages, where the suspense thickened, Matthews charged her voice with a subtle intensity that enriched Haitink’s tension.

Mark Padmore applied a solemnity to his voice, particularly in the second movement. There, in a wonderful duet with the concertmaster, he sung with clear diction and darkened colours, although his voice did not match up to Matthews’ intensity. In the third movement, the strings throbbed energetically in the low registers, and here the choir delivered vocal purity in the mighty “In Gloria”. This Dutch choir impresses with the seeming ease, with which it moves from crystalline fortissimos to simmering pianissimo.

Gerd Grochowski had his moment in the middle of the fourth movement where his deeply resonant bass created a haunting atmosphere with the choir. In the last movement, as the vocalists sing together “In Te, Domine speravi”, Karen Cargill emerged with her voice noticeably adding a deeper dimension to the quartet. With her darker contrasts she especially complimented Matthews.

During “In excelsis” Haitink conducted at his most expressive, raising his hands high up. As a result, the climax became a physical experience. With all this power, it almost felt as if the Concertgebouw was going lift off and ascend…producing plenty of goosebumps. Bruckner called his Te Deum the pride of his life. Haitink definitely did it justice with this performance.

Before the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra made Bernard Haitink famous in the 1960s, he was violinist and later Principal Conductor of the Dutch Radio Philharmonic. This afternoon with Bruckner’s Ninth, he continued their successful collaboration. The composer’s last symphony was left incomplete after his death, lacking a fourth movement. Still, the symphony is over an hour long, but with Haitink the piece flew by.

The conductor established a similar intensity but perhaps even stronger in underlying suspense. From the slow-burning opening, Feierlich, misterioso, he kept the strings highly charged. The highlight of the evening, in the the second movement the Scherzo-Trio Haitink nearly bruised his audience with the intensity of the Scherzo. The pizzicato strings opens, but then timpani and brass explode. Another visceral sensation! A youthful oboe solo softened the tone in between heavy beats. Haitink made for a very fast paced Trio, that surprised by its nervously adolescent, romantic mood.

For the final Adagio, it felt very much like an ode to Wagner—the most suspenseful slow passages in the strings, dripping with longing, almost sensually. The brasses resonated with a golden glow, full of promise. The flautist held her own during her solo against the high strings and the brooding basses. With the calm ending and tapering down of the intensity, still highly romantic, we returned from our trip up in Te Deum. With Haitink as our venerable Captain into Bruckner’s cosmos.

David Pinedo

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Haitink.png image_description=Bernard Haitink [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=A trip with Captain Haitink into Bruckner’s Cosmos product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Bernard Haitink [Photo by Clive Barda]
Posted by Gary at 11:23 AM

Félicien David: Herculanum

The French record magazines have been near-unanimous in praising the resulting 2-CD set, and the work itself. No doubt in part because of this sudden success, Wexford Festival Opera (in Ireland) has announced that Herculanum will be one of the three operas in their Fall 2016 season. The other two will be Vanessa, by Samuel Barber, and Maria de Rudenz, by Giuseppe Donizetti. Classy companions for a long-obscure composer and work!

Indeed, until now, opera lovers—including singers and musicologists—had no means of experiencing Félicien David’s only grand opera Herculanum (1859) except by playing and singing their way through the original piano-vocal score, which can be found in many large music libraries or downloaded at www.IMSLP.org. (The full score is likewise at IMSLP.) A single aria, Lilia’s “Je crois au Dieu,” continued to be published and performed into the early twentieth century, though deprived of its highly dramatic choral component. It, too, then vanished like the rest. With the present release, we now have ready access to the full work (well, not quite all of it), in a performance that ranges from highly proficient to masterful.

Félicien David (1810-76) is not even a name to most musicians and music lovers. His only frequently performed number is “Charmant oiseau,” from the first of his four French comic operas, La perle du Brésil. That aria, with obbligato flute, has been recorded by numerous coloratura sopranos across the decades, from Amelita Galli-Curci to Sumi Jo. In recent years, though, his output as a whole has been gaining more attention. The songs and chamber and solo-piano works were major rediscoveries.

A recording of his second comic opera, Lalla-Roukh—though minus its crucial connecting spoken dialogue—revealed it to be consistently accomplished, even at times magical. And one work has even been recorded twice: Le désert, an engaging fifty-minute secular oratorio (for one or two tenors, chorus, orchestra, and narrator), set in an unnamed Arab-world desert. As the work unfurls, a caravan moves across blistering sands, entertains itself while stopped for the evening, hears the morning call to prayer, and then sets off for another day of grueling travel. (The second, and more persuasive, recording of Le désert recently won a Grand Prix du Disque for the “repertoire rediscovery” of the year.)

The various works just mentioned are, for the most part, gentle and tuneful, with colorful touches in the orchestra. By contrast, a nineteenth-century French grand opera, composed for the prestigious Paris Opéra, needed to traverse a wide range of intense emotions and contrasting moods, corresponding to the libretto’s hefty conflicts between political powers, social classes, or religions. Opera lovers have a sense of the “French grand opera” genre—not least its sometime monumentality—from such works as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Halévy’s La Juive, and Verdi’s Don Carlos. (Also from a German work that draws heavily on devices typical of the genre: Wagner’s Tannhäuser.)

In 1859, many musicians and critics in Paris wondered whether the composer of the ear-tickling “Charmant oiseau” could meet the very different challenges of grand opera. As it turned out, Herculanum became a success, holding the Opéra stage 74 times during the next nine years. Indeed—as we learn from a richly detailed essay by Gunther Braam in the hardcover book that comes with this recording—Herculanum was, in its day, performed at the Opéra nearly as often as Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and more often than Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The numerous published reviews—excerpted and evaluated in the book—praised the singers and the impressive sets and staging. Contemporary illustrations and affectionate caricatures of scenes from the opera—likewise reproduced here—give some sense of the visual splendor. (Full disclosure: I wrote the booklet’s essay on the composer’s life, but I had nothing to do with the recording.)

The opera takes place in Herculaneum, a city near Pompeii, in the year 79 A.D., just before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. (In English, the town’s name contains the second e; in Italian it’s Ercolano.) The central tension is between a chaste, unmarried young Christian couple, Lilia and Hélios, and a nefarious sister-brother pair from the Middle East: specifically the Euphrates valley. Olympia has come to Herculaneum to be named queen of her native Eastern land by the Romans; Nicanor, Olympia’s brother, has been raised to the position of a Roman proconsul. Consistent with the prevailing operatic practice of the day, the two good characters are a soprano and tenor and the bad ones are a mezzo-soprano (or contralto) and a bass-baritone. Less typically, the latter two have some attention-getting passages of coloratura. The only other solo role is that of a Christian holy man, Magnus—another bass-baritone—who occasionally declares doom for those who practice sinful ways.

In Act 1, Olympia seduces Hélios by means of a potion, her dazzling beauty, and the splendors of her pagan court. In Act 2, the devious Nicanor tries to win the affections of Lilia, but the Christian virgin remains steadfast in her devotion to Hélios and to the God of Christianity. Frustrated, Nicanor declares that her god does not exist. A bolt of lightning strikes him dead, suggesting that his theology is faulty. Satan appears and shows Lilia, in a magical vision, what her sweetie-pie has been doing at Olympia’s court. Satan then grabs the corpse’s cloak so that, disguised as a mortal, he can continue stirring up misery on earth.

Act 3 begins with a great festival in Olympia’s court, at which Hélios appears; then Lilia, who, dropping to her knees, sings a stirring Credo: the aforementioned “Je crois au Dieu”; and finally Satan, now disguised as Nicanor. (Lilia, in horror, recognizes him, but, perhaps out of fear, does not alert the others.) Hélios is briefly torn, but, during an impressive act-finale, in which the characters interweave their music and words with much intensity, he—in order to save Lilia from being put to death by the pagans—claims again to love Olympia. Act 4 begins with Satan gathering the city’s slaves and urging them to avenge themselves on their masters. (He calls them “sons of Spartacus,” alluding to the famous slave revolt.) In the final scene, during which Vesuvius has already begun to shake the earth, Lilia and Hélios are briefly reconciled; their extensive duet was much praised by Berlioz and others. Satan reappears and causes Vesuvius to erupt. As hot lava buries the pagan city and all its inhabitants, the two Christian lovers—at least one of whom is still chaste—sing of their redemptive ascent to heaven.

The opera’s music largely resembles that of French grand operas of the day (and certain relatively serious opéras-comiques) that are somewhat better known today, by such composers as Auber, Meyerbeer, and Gounod. Several of the solo and duet cabalettas are similar in style to ones by Bellini and Donizetti (e.g., Norma’s “Ah! bello, a me ritorna”), and quite convincing in context. The orchestra sometimes provides refreshingly quirky effects. For example, the scene in which Satan urges the (male) slaves to rebel against their masters may remind listeners at times of certain fantastical moments in Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, a work that was performed twice in Paris in 1846 but not again for some thirty years. (The entire ten-minute scene can be heard on YouTube.) Audiences in David’s day, hearing this same scene, may have recalled instead something that at the time was much more familiar: the “Infernal Waltz” scene in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (“Noirs démons, fantômes”), in which Bertram convokes the spirits of hell (male chorus) to help him ensure his son’s destruction.

The Christian religious element is well caught by the composer in Lilia’s “Je crois au Dieu” in the middle of Act 3. The tune’s solid squareness makes it feel hymn-like and helps us appreciate the Christian maiden’s bravery and commitment, especially when the chorus of pagans calls for her death while she continues singing her profession of faith. The gradual entry of harp and then cornets to the orchestra as the number advances adds further grandeur and tension . The dramatic effect, in a live performance, of this faceoff between Christian soloist and pagan chorus can be sensed in a video excerpt—recorded in concert—by the same performers who are heard in the present recording. (That video “trailer” begins with the opening of the opera’s prelude and concludes with two excerpts from the big Act 4 duet between Lilia and the now-remorseful Hélios.)

A powerful confrontation of vocal forces likewise occurs in Act 1, when the pagan couple and their courtiers ridicule Magnus’s call to repent and to foreswear their evil ways. The pagans’ jaunty music here seems closely modeled on the main theme of the closing section in Act 1 of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. Indeed, numerous passages in the work have an opéra-comique lightness to them, appropriate to the pagans’ celebrations of pleasure and to their frequent expressions of sarcasm toward the outnumbered, impoverished Christians.

Only the very ending of the opera disappoints. David was hardly the composer for convulsive cataclysms. In fairness, though, the closing music was not meant to stand on its own—as it must in a recording—but to accompany a spectacular visual effect: Vesuvius erupting and destroying the town and everyone in it.

Among the many notable passages in the opera, I particularly like four that occur (or, in two cases, first occur) in Act 1. The romance sung by Hélios and then Lilia, “Dans une retraite profonde,” is a touching, sweet-sad description—with an exotically sighing oboe solo in the coda—of the modest, secluded life, religious commitment, and pure love that the two innocents share. (In Act 3, this romance will be restated in its entirety by the English horn while Lilia, in freer phrases over it, attempts to draw Hélios back from pagan bliss.) Olympia’s drinking song, the centerpiece of Act 1, uses a vigorous polonaise or bolero rhythm; perhaps this attractive number served as a model for “Je suis Titania,” a splendid aria—with similar rhythm—in Ambroise Thomas’s opera Mignon. The orchestral interlude portraying the effect of the love potion on Hélios is vividly descriptive, an aspect that Berlioz—not surprisingly, given his compositional inclination toward the descriptive or programmatic—specifically admired in his review. Hélios’s ecstatic declaration of love for Olympia, “Je veux aimer toujours” (“I want to love forever in the air that you breathe, O goddess of sensuality!”)—sung soon after the weak-willed man drains the potion-filled goblet—was much praised by Berlioz and other critics as being “truly inspired” and full of “passion” and “elegiac gracefulness.” Lilia is not on stage when Hélios sings this hymn in praise of the queen’s eyes, smiles, and “flower gardens” full of “balmy ecstasy.” The Christian maiden finally gets to hear, horrified, his traitorous song at the end of Act 2, when Satan, as noted earlier, uses his supernatural powers to let her see and hear—as if on a closed-circuit television monitor—Hélios, now decked in royal finery, sitting at the feet of the pagan queen Olympia, and singing his smitten joy .

All in all, this 2-CD set allows us to appreciate new aspects of David’s compositional deftness. For example, when a vocal melody or phrase is restated but to a different set of words, the composer often subtly adapts it to the new words, more than was usual in French and Italian operas of the day. This may make the vocal parts a little trickier to learn. But, in the end, it surely helps the singer articulate the new words in a natural and expressive manner and thus also helps the audience hear the words and grasp their point. (See, for example, Lilia’s reworking of the melodic line of “Dans une retraite profonde,” which had first been sung by Hélios. Not to speak of the more extensively altered return of this music in Act 3, involving the aforementioned English-horn solo; this moment was among the many that Berlioz singled out for special praise.) More generally, even certain numbers that may sound conventional at first—the festive choruses, an orchestral march—display intriguing touches in phrase structure, orchestration, or choral texture.

The five vocal soloists do the score proud, articulating vividly the old-fashioned but elegantly worded text. (Mary Pardoe’s English rendering in the accompanying book is admirable: accurate without ever sounding stilted. Her English version of the synopsis is more helpful on a few plot points than the version printed in French.) Orchestra and chorus are precise and full-toned. One minor objection: the English-horn player could have been more eloquent in his Act 3 solo, and even omits a particularly beautiful ornament written into the score.

My only overall complaint is that the recording favors the voices too much. For example, in CD 2, tracks 9 and 11, I had trouble hearing the orchestra’s changing harmonies until I switched to headphones. Similarly, in Hélios’s song of ecstasy to Olympia (CD 1, track 21), a listener is not made clearly and consistently aware of the 12/8 meter. David’s decision here to divide the beat into triplets, in the orchestral accompaniment, could have been made more evident to the ear; this would have increased the sense of illicit, throbbing desire that contributes so much to the dramatic tension in this work. Herculanum sometimes feels like a close predecessor to Samson et Dalila, a work that Saint-Saëns was just beginning to compose around this time and would toil away at for more than a decade.

Edgaras Montvidas is a Lithuanian tenor who performs in major opera houses and concert halls in Europe and America: for example, Lensky at Glyndebourne and the Bavarian State Opera, and Don Ottavio in Santa Fe. As Hélios, he maintains a firm, sweet tone, even when expressing (very well) such extreme emotions as ecstasy or remorse. His French is remarkably good, except on the nasal-i (e.g., jardin, ainsi). Véronique Gens is utterly magnificent as Lilia, maintaining a full, rounded sound even while conveying much dramatic specificity. Karine Deshayes, as Olympia, is at once commanding and subtle, quite an achievement. Occasionally she seems too far from the microphone to make full effect (as in Olympia’s coloratura-rich commentaries over the second statement of Hélios’s “Je veux aimer toujours”). Though these three masterful singers have never performed the work on stage, they bring remarkable alertness and seeming spontaneity to their solos and to ensemble scenes.

Nicolas Courjal , the singer of the roles of Nicanor and Satan, engages in frequent, incisive word-pointing, which would be welcome in a live performance. But, for a recording that one may want to listen to numerous times, I find his vocal quality grating: the vibrato on long notes is slowish (though fortunately not wide), the coloratura is labored, and short notes are not always perfectly pitched. As a result, his Nicanor is less than seductive in the fascinating Act 2 duet with Lilia. Imagine a young Samuel Ramey sinking his teeth into this double-role! Still, Courjal never forces or barks.

(An interesting complication: At the premiere, the roles of Nicanor—plus Satan in the guise of Nicanor—and Satan—as himself—were split between two different bass-baritones, perhaps mainly as a way of managing to have Satan appear while Nicanor’s lightning-struck body is still on stage. But having one singer take both roles works just fine on a recording, perhaps even better, since the characters are never present—or, rather, present and alive—at the same time.)

At the end of Satan’s scene with the slaves, Courjal manages the tricky scalar runs by gargling the notes rather than connecting them smoothly as the score plainly implies (“Ah . . .”); this can be heard in the ten-minute-long YouTube excerpt mentioned above, beginning just after the eight-minute mark. I suspect that here the performer is turning a limitation into an asset: the odd vocal production intensifies the weirdness of the moment and impresses the runs on our memory, so that, when the string instruments restate them in the scene’s creepy coda, we instantly recall Satan and his nastiness.

As for Julien Véronèse, who sings the smaller role of Magnus, he is a youngish bass (born 1982), frequently appearing in roles such as Sharpless, Colline, and Dr. Grenvil at secondary opera houses in France. He is capable here but, like Courjal, not ideally steady. More basically, he lacks the deep, rolling resonance that would help convey the moral authority of this divinely inspired prophet. One’s thoughts naturally turn to the sort of singer who could have made more of this character’s dramatic recitatives: say, José Van Dam or René Pape.

The recording omits, in Act 3, one major vocal number for Olympia (a Hymn to Venus: “Viens, ô blonde déesse”)—much praised by Berlioz and others—and the entire divertissement that follows it: an extended ballet, a choral hymn to Bacchus, and a chorus-assisted Bacchanale. Since CD 2 is only 49 minutes long, it could easily have included all the omitted numbers. (The aria was omitted because the mezzo-soprano was indisposed in the final days of the recording sessions.) This drastic cut, though, should in no way dissuade anyone from purchasing the recording, which—many opera lovers who hear it will agree—is one of the most important classical releases of 2015.

Herculanum is the tenth item in the ongoing “Opéra français” series produced by the renowned Centre de musique romantique française, located at the Palazetto Bru Zane (Venice, Italy). A convenient listing of the whole series, as well as of two parallel series—Prix de Rome cantatas and composer-portraits—is located at the website of the Centre. A lengthy article about the French-opera series—including an interview with the Centre’s enterprising and astute director Alexandre Dratwicki—appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gramophone.

As for the upcoming performances at Wexford, I trust that the missing sections of Act 3 will be reinstated, and hope that a video recording will be released commercially or made available online.

Ralph P. Locke

Musicologist Ralph P. Locke (Eastman School of Music) comments further on music by Félicien David in Jonathan Bellman, ed., The Exotic in Western Music (Northeastern University Press, paperback). The present review appears here with the kind permission of American Record Guide, where it first appeared (in somewhat briefer form).

  

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Herculanum.png image_description=Ediciones Singulares “Opéra français” no. 10 product=yes product_title=Félicien David: Herculanum product_by=Véronique Gens (Lilia), Karine Deshayes (Olympia), Edgaras Montvidas (Hélios), Nicolas Courjal (Nicanor and Satan), Julien Véronèse (Magnus); Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Philharmonic / Hervé Niquet product_id=Ediciones Singulares “Opéra français” no. 10 [2CDs] price=$31.19 product_url=http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=as_li_qf_sp_sr_il?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&index=aps&keywords=8460684393&linkCode=as2&tag=operatoday-20&linkId=YPXBFK5TVIQRAOTV
Posted by Gary at 10:48 AM

March 1, 2016

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

Now Locke has written a ‘prequel’, Music and the Exotic: from the Renaissance to Mozart, which elucidates the ways in which ‘otherness’ as represented in European culture during the years 1500 to 1800 was as much a means of understanding the western condition as it was a way of defining and controlling the foreign.

Music and the Exotic is divided into four Parts. Part 1 establishes the rational, methodology and organising principles of the book and tackles the knotty term ‘exotic’ (exoticism arises from relationships, and does not reside in ‘things’), identifying some of the techniques by which it can be depicted in music. The second Part provides us with cultural background and context through discussion of prose and visual imagery from the Greek, Roman and early Christian eras, set alongside similar accounts and images that arose during the first colonial explorations of the New World. The final two Parts explore representations. First, the words of popular songs and the musical styles of dances and instrumental music are examined; finally, in the lengthy concluding Part, Locke turns to the presentation of the ‘exotic’ in works which assimilate musical and other artistic forms of expression, in the theatre, church and concert hall.

Locke examines musical works and practices alongside cultural events and developments, such as conflicts between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, geographical exploration, the dissemination of ancient Greek and Roman writing about ‘the East’ and its peoples. Each chapter of Parts 3 and 4 chronologically explores a particular genre in the context of political and social issues of the day. The result is that we can see how evolving conceptions about kingship, religious authority, gender and the supernatural were crucial to formulations of identity — of both ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.

Locke notes the instability of extant scores and documents from the years 1500-1800, and he is concerned not just with documents but with performances also. In performance, subconscious decisions about accent, tempo may emphasise ‘Otherness’ or diminish it: as when the young Neapolitans in Jonathan Miller’s most recent production of Così fan tutte disguise themselves not as Albanians, but as bandana-ed bikers. In such instances, Locke argues, the deliberate avoidance of cultural stereotyping — or, simply, imaginative reinterpretation — may result in the removal of ‘questions of cross-cultural fear and attraction that are surely as valid today as they were in Mozart’s day’.

The text is supplemented by visual illustration, and such images are particularly engaging in Part 2, ‘The West and its Others’, which elucidates the historical, philosophical and religious trends that underpin the musical endeavours discussed subsequently. Contemporary drawings, engravings, paintings and maps enable us to appreciate how stereotypical qualities that characterised the ‘exotic’ — ‘unfettered passion’, cruelty, sensuous self-indulgence, superstition — came to be formed. These contemporary ‘images of Elsewhere’ — engravings by Théodore de Rey of ‘Sultan Soleiman Chan’ (Khan Suleiman I), Girolamo Benzoni’s scenes of life in the just-discovered ‘New World’, Erasmus Grasser’s wooden sculptures of moresca dancers, illustrations from Gregorio Lambranzi’s dance treatise of the stylised gestures of ‘Turks’ (with padded bellies, stiff legs, and puffy turbans) — guide the reader to appreciate the complexity of the West’s interaction with the ‘East’, an engagement which combined admiration and adulation with competition and conflict, fear and rejection with praise and appropriation.

The images also bring cultural events and musical performances to life, as when we enjoy an engraving by Étienne Duran of the 1617 French court ballet, Le deliverance de Renaud, in which the sorceress Armide, performed by a male dancer in a riskily revealing costume, is surrounded by her ministers disguised as outsize creatures risen from the ocean floor, who mock her impotence in the face of the challenge by the Christian knight Renaud. Or, when we witness the extravagance of the 1626 ballet, Dowager of Disorder, in which the ‘Entry of the Cachique and his Attendants’ was supplemented by a mock-elephant and blacked-up musicians wearing the leg-bells of the moresca and playing Ottoman pipes and kettledrums.

In this way, the groundwork is securely laid in Parts 1 to 3 for the extensive illustrations of the final section, ‘Exotic portrayals on stage, in concert and in church’. Locke takes us on a tour through high culture — courtly ballets, Venetian intermedi, oratorio, opera — as well as reflecting upon popular art forms — street entertainments, improvised theatre, the Paris fairs, and London ballad opera. I had previously paid little attention to Polly Peachum’s avowal, in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, that so deep is her love for Macheath she wouldn’t mind being a Caribbean plantation slave if only Macheath could be there with her! Locke speculates, with characteristic and persuasive impartiality, that the light-hearted allusion to a topical debate might have eased theatregoers’ concerns about slavery; or, equally, may have discomforted them with a reminder that their wealth was founded on unsavoury practices.

Through copious exemplars, Locke is keen to show us how the West’s approach to the ‘Other’ has evidenced both stereotype and sympathy. Thus, Handel’s ‘playful vividness’ in his depiction of the buzzing locusts which God inflicts upon the Egyptians ( Israel in Egypt, 1739) is placed alongside Alessandro Scarlatti’s Agar et Ismaele esiliati (Hagar and Ishmael Sent into Exile) of 1683, in which the title characters — biblical, but not ‘Us’ — are made ‘distinctly more sympathetic than their persecutors Abraham and Sarah’. We see, too, how cultural works sometimes employed anachronistic borrowing to comment on modern-day events, as in the case of Vivaldi’s Latin-language oratorio Judith triumphans (1716), a depiction of the Hebrew maiden Judith’s heroic slaying of the Assyrian leader Holofernes which is subtitled ‘sacred military oratorio in these times of war’ — a startlingly explicit allusion to Venice’s armed conflict with the Ottomans.

Locke visits both the unfamiliar and the well-known, and re-examines the latter with a fresh eye revealing contemporary contexts and associations. The musical devices which J.S. Bach uses to depict the Jews in his two Passions are, suggests Locke, designed to ‘frighten and disturb’. In Handel’s oratorios the implied identification of Old Testament kings with the ruling monarch, George II, is countered by the composer’s presentation of Israel’s enemies — the Canaanites, the Amalekites — as representatives of the enemies of England’s monarchy and Church, namely Catholic states and pretenders to the throne. Thus, in Charles Jennens’ libretto the eponymous Belshazzar ‘stands as a barely disguised example of specific complaints that Non-Jurors [who held that the Stuarts and Hanoverians were not legitimate rulers] had about the Hanoverian court’. In this way, the biblical ‘Other’ in familiar oratorios is shown to resonate various cultural and political messages relating to threats from outside the Christian community. Locke explores all possible, and often contradictory, interpretations. So, the Philistine warrior Harapha in Handel’s Samson may be ‘a New-Testament Jew reviling a Christ-like figure’ or ‘a stand-in for various Ottoman sultans’; both views are shown to be consistent with the attitudes of the day.

In the chapters exploring early operatic representations of ‘Elsewhere’, we travel across Europe, from Venice — where the fascination with the exotic (often female) ‘Other’ is exemplified by works such as Cavalli’s Giasone — to France, where the ‘Turkish scene’ in the Act 4 intermède of Lully and Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme — ‘at once hilarious, potentially disturbing, and, for its day, unusually self-conscious’ — is seen to have profound and lasting cultural influence. In England, Henry Purcell concludes The Fairy Queen (with its roots in Shakespeare) with a celebratory masque in which Chinese dancers perform a chaconne, while The Indian Queen is set entirely on exotic terrain. Indeed, the French opera-ballet might consist of what Locke describes as a ‘series of culturesque-éntrees one after another in the manner of a travelogue’: André Campra’s L’Europe galante of 1697 takes us on such a tour of France, Spain, Italy and ‘Turkey’.

Discussing opera seria by Lully and Handel, Locke asks, ‘What makes a serious opera exotic?’, and answers the question by considering musical style and practice, generic traits and traditions, the locales and subjects of Metastasian libretti, and the influence of myth, history and contemporary context. For example, did the commercial interests of investor’s in Handel’s London opera company explain the predominance of ‘the East’ in the composer’s works? Locke is always concerned to consider the way that exotic elements interact with other forces and factors, and his discussions and arguments are thus both diverse and balanced.

Similarly, ‘serious’ engagement with the ‘not Us’ is shown to have been complemented by more comedic — often fanastical, magical or just downright ‘silly’ — cultural commentary on ‘exotic peoples’ as in the commedia and buffa representations of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because comic forms presented not distant lands and the mythical or historical past, but were understood to be located in the ‘here and now’, they enacted the social life of the day; and thus could ‘work out anxieties regarding such matters as gender, class … and — crucially — the exoticness of various peoples. Moreover, Locke suggests that, ironically, a tone of levity could be conducive to allusion to sensitive issues. They also allowed a wider range of contemporary peoples to be represented on stage, and a recurring object of fascination, across Europe, were Native Americans as evident in operas such as Inkle and Yarico by Samuel Arnold (1787), Andre Grétry’s Le Huron (The Man from the Huron Tribe, based on Voltaire’s L’ingénu, 1768) and Nicolas Dalayrac’s Azémia; ou, le nouveau Robinson (Azémia, or The New Robinson [Crusoe]; 1786). Locke takes us succinctly and swiftly through many such little-known and rarely performed works, making his points persuasively.

Eventually we reach Gluck and Mozart, but even when we are on familiar ground Locke draws our eye to the unusual or overlooked. Gluck’s Cinesi, composed in 1754 for performance in the presence of Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, and set in the ‘present’, is a good example of how the exotic could be conjured through both the concrete (the overture makes use of an imaginative array of percussion) and the inferred. Locke suggests that beyond the artifice of the visual chinoiserie, the opera, by depicting Chinese courtiers as being no different from their Western counterparts, may have encouraged its audience to reflect upon the Other in a more positive way.

Locke uncovers manifold manifestations of cultural representation of the exotic which highlight both the ubiquity and diversity of such depictions. The journey through Elsewhere leads ultimately to Mozart, but it is not the more obvious candidates, the Pasha and Osmin of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, to whom most attention is given, but rather the ‘scharzer Stummer(mute man who is black) who is introduced in Act 3, and whose hand-signs inform Osmin of the Europeans’ escape. He is a character who reminds us of stereotypes such as the mute assassin, enslaved by Turkish rulers, whose dumbness protected his master from betrayal, and he also embodies the long tradition of portraying exotic foreigners through dance or mime. In Die Zauberflöte we have a quasi-Egyptian locale and priest, a princely hero who wears a Javanese cloak, and a Moorish henchman, Monostasos, whose exoticism is made apparent both by his black skin and alla turca style.

Locke’s research has been both meticulous and exhaustive; the notes and bibliography run to almost 120 pages, and the latter includes online resources and audio- and video-recordings. His prose is lucid and despite the density of information presented, it’s a fluent read. Moreover, handily for students perhaps, in the opening Parts, boxes are occasionally inserted into the text in order to highlight principal ideas, establishing threads. What might seem rather ‘dry’ and didactic is in fact extremely helpful.

Musical terminology is kept to a minimum and analytical observations are unfussy. Every theory or observation is supported by specific reference; the musical features of the alla turca style are exemplified by reference to two choruses from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail; the way text can colour music is exemplified by the conjunction of the familiar (and ethnicity-neutral) descending tetrachord of the Baroque with the Egyptian Hagar’s complaint that the blazing desert sun is causing her son to grow faint. Such examples illuminate convincingly.

This is a fascinating study which argues compellingly that exoticism — a troublesome term! — resides in relationships, which are formed within and between cultural contexts and practices. Locke identifies and evaluates the fruits of such cultural transferences during the years 1500-1800, which were based variously upon ignorance, assumption, knowledge, caricature, indifference, curiosity and admiration — and often a mix of many such perspectives. And, as he has previously shown in his companion work, Musical Exoticism, images of Otherness have been continually revived and developed in the years since — images of ‘Them’ which can help us to understand ‘Us’.

Claire Seymour image=http://www.operatoday.com/51LddEWSZYL.jpg image_description=Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart product=yes product_title=Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart product_by=By Ralph P. Locke product_id=Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-107-01237-0 price=$80.29 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/1107012376

Posted by Gary at 6:40 PM