Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Donna abbandonata: Temple Song Series

Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.

Fortepiano Schubert : Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The English Concert [Photo by Richard Haughton]
03 Mar 2016

Orlando at the Barbican

In 1728 Handel was down on his luck, following the demise of his ‘Royal Academy’. Ever the entrepreneur, the following year he made a scouting tour of Italy in search of the best singing talent and, returning with seven new virtuosos — including the castrato Senesino.

Orlando at the Barbican

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The English Concert [Photo by Richard Haughton]

 

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):