May 31, 2016

The Threepenny Opera, London

But, the violence is no veneer and Norris expertly paces the exposure, like a torturer gradually tightening a thumb-screw, peeling away the paper patina to lay bare the darkness at the core.

Vicki Mortimer’s designs tell us that this is a paper-thin world: fragile, bitter and comfortless. The underbelly of both the theatre and the East End are exposed, and iron scaffolding and flimsy tissue flats embody the latter’s extremes. Blood-stained body-bags plunge from the heights, their red fly-ropes reminding us that both murder and the noose are never far away. The bands of beggars are a ghostly troupe of shadows, balaclavas masking their humanity. The stairwells swivel but they lead nowhere; there’s no way out of this underworld. Despite the updating, Mortimer and Norris don’t sweep away the spirit of the 18th-century East End, hungry and haunted. Its starkness is matched by Stephens’ coarse, smut-strewn text which adopts a contemporary vernacular — ‘What a twat!’ spits Peachum — and recalls John Gay’s practice, in The Beggar’s Opera, of superimposing new vulgar texts onto well-known songs: ‘Oh London is a fine town’ became ‘Our Polly is a sad slut!’

Jpeg 3.pngThe Musicians

An early tableau is the closest we get to a hint of ‘relevance’. Labels identifying the causes and victims of poverty are plastered on fragments of stage-machinery: Addiction, Alcohol, Lepers, Abused Children, Lunatics — then, as now. When the roll-call of misery gets to ‘Teenage Runaways’, the cast’s parodic knee-twist prompts a guffaw from the audience, but the succeeding comment that they are ‘all undoubtedly victims of the most horrendous sexual abuse’, quickly stifles it.

Norris doesn’t overdo the Brechtian alienation gimmicks: a few gestures, such as a barked ‘Scene Change’ or ‘Interval’, nod in the direction of ‘epic’. There are some self-knowing shrugs, as when Macheath hustles a saxophonist off the stage, or snarls at us after the interval, ‘So, you came back!’, but they’re not overly intrusive.

A t-shirt slogan — ‘Over’ front, ‘-ture’ back — signals the striking up of the band, who march to the fore-stage while behind a dumb-show parade sums up the action to come. Future victims of Mack’s knife spew rope-entrails and there’s a pantomimesque hyperbole which persists when we meet the rapacious, crooked Peachums. Nick Holder’s Mr Peachum — eyes powdered with dark-rings, lips painted vampire-red, dapper in pin-stripe, pinafore and spats — and Hadyn Gwynne’s scarlet-frocked Mrs Peachum, inebriated and projectile-vomiting, have a touch of Rocky Horror Show about them. But, if initially Peachum seems merely a rotund, mischief-making opportunist, we are swiftly disillusioned: no amount of perfume can hide the stench of this Peachum’s callousness — as the cringe-making snap of Jenny Diver’s wrist later confirms. Holder relishes the vulgarities of Stephens’ lyrics — they’re all crystal-clear — and he’s well-abetted by Gwynne in the comic ribaldry.

Jpeg 5.pngJamie Beddard (Matthias) and Rebecca Brewer (Betty)

Similarly, the clipped brusqueness of Kinnear’s business-like Mackheath — the fine cut of his double-breasted, midnight-blue suit would flatter a banker — eventually slips into a tight snarl, bursting with psychopathic viciousness. This Macheath might arrive in a glowing ring — like an old-time Hollywood legend — fairy-lights twinkling behind, but a knife-silhouette speaks of his ruthlessness and as the repressed violence is released it’s clear we’re watching a psychotic bully at work, one prepared to tyrannise, brutalise, sodomise to get what he wants. The only hint of ‘charm’ comes with ‘Mack the Knife’, delivered with style and appealing vocal warmth, where Kinnear’s enjoyment of Weill’s seductive sway and Stephens’ sharp lyrics almost convinces us that there might be a human heart beneath the hardness, after all.

But, no: Kinnear’s Macheath is a study in gratuitous nastiness. But, he’s not Brecht’s Macheath, who demonstrates pretensions towards bourgeois rites and taste — with his fondness for matrimony and pride in his ability to distinguish Chippendale from Louis Quartorze when his men supply him with stolen furniture. In Brecht’s text, Macheath’s has a reckless bravado and magnetic attractiveness that outweigh any capitalist manifesto. In contrast, Kinnear’s Macheath may get want he wants, but it’s not clear why he wants it — is he just a killing machine whose life has become the knife?

Macheath’s henchmen are a dysfunctional foursome, as emotionally impaired as their overlord. Jamie Beddard, who has cerebral palsy, is cast as Matthius (aka The Shadow): he may have a speech impediment but he spits out Stephens’ expletives to the far reaches of the Olivier with acerbic clarity and corrosiveness. Dominic Tighe conveys the stiff coldness of the ‘Iceman’, while you wouldn’t want to meet Hammed Animashaun’s explosive Jimmy Retail on a dark night.

Polly Peachum’s knee-length brown cardigan is out of place in this existential hinterland, though Rosalie Craig does later don some thigh-high red leather boots under her white floral frock. Craig stands out among the cast for her ability to tap into the emotional resonances of Weill’s music. She dispatches ‘Pirate Jenny’ with steely spite, revealing the strong core beneath Polly’s bespectacled, straight-laced exterior, and she excels in the ‘Jealousy Duet’ with Debbie Kurup’s Harlem-girl Lucy Brown. Kurup’s voice glows as vivaciously as her orange shirt and red hot-pants. It’s clear that neither girl is going to be a winner.

Jpeg 7.png(L‐R) Debbie Kurup (Lucy Brown), Rory Kinnear (Macheath), and Rosalie Craig (Polly Peachum)

Sharon Small is affecting as the drug-addicted Jenny Diver, though she struggles with Weill’s challenging vocal line. Peter de Jersey is a strongly characterised Chief of Police, but I didn’t get the sense that he and Macheath were ‘partners in crime’.

The stage-craft is slick. The sleight-of-hand shifts between scenes and locales are breathless and disorientating; the big musical numbers are tightly choreographed, their juxtaposition with the surrounding text highlighted by Paule Constable’s effective ‘Songlicht. The fight scenes are both vicious and balletic: the unintentional stabbing at the end of Act 1 is perfectly timed and Kinnear captures both Macheath’s shock — a momentary wide-eyed stillness — and defiance as, confident that he will indeed ‘wriggle out of this one’, Macheath is whirled off-stage in a wheel-chair.

This may be a ‘play with music’ but Weill’s music — the songs, ensembles and the instrumental interludes played during the scene changes — is anything but incidental. The ensemble cast may be singing thespians rather than acting singers — and some struggled to convey the dramatic and emotional richness of Weill’s score — but none of Brecht’s and Weill’s original cast, on 31 August 1928 in the small Theater am Schffbauerdamm in Berlin, was a professional opera singer. The occasionally unpolished vocal delivery matches the rough-edged set and they are magnificently supported by David Shrubsole and his musicians, who wander in and out of the action in macabre gothic get-ups. As Mortimer’s sets disembowel the theatre, so Shrubsole’s band turn the opera inside out.

This is a terrific production which I would urge no one to miss. But, reflecting post-performance I found myself more sceptical about what essential ‘messages’ the production was designed to communicate.

Jpeg 11.pngHaydn Gwynne (Mrs Peachum) and Nick Holder (Mr Peachum)

Die Dreigroschenoper was initially conceived as art about art. In Brecht’s text, during his wedding Macheath quips, ‘I’m not asking for an opera’; and, when the knifer is reprieved at the close, Peachum retorts, ‘So at least in opera, one can see how mercy comes before justice’. It may have drawn from diverse worlds — dance band, Lutheran chorale, jazz, popular song — but the work is consistently in dialogue with ‘high’ culture (John Gay, François Villon, Rudyard Kipling, Wagnerian leitmotiv, Stravinsky, Satie, Cocteau, Picasso …). Weill remarked thatDie Dreigroschenoper ‘presented us with an opportunity to make “opera” the subject matter for an evening the theatre’.[1]

But, when Brecht published a revised version of the libretto in 1931, he re-wrote the dialogue to strengthen the political message, and said, in a 1933 interview, that what mattered to him was ‘A critique of society. I had tried to show that the mind-set and emotional life of street robbers is immensely similar to the mind-set and emotional life of respectable citizens.’ Brecht designed his text to reveal the true unacceptable face of capitalism, in which criminals who are similarly bourgeois set the tone for business. It seems ironic that, for all Stephens’ skewering of fat cats, corporate golden handshakes and peers’ expense scandals, a lot of money has been spent at the National Theatre in depicting a world that has none, in order to perform ‘high’ culture, to an essentially middle-class audience.

We remember the words of Brecht’s ‘First Threepenny Finale’, delivered by a cynical Peachum:

Let’s practise goodness; who would disagree?
But sadly on this planet while we’re waiting
The means are meagre and the morals low.
To get one’s record straight would be elating
But our conditions such it can’t be so.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera (anew adaptation by Simon Stephens)

The Balladeer/Pastor Kimball — George Ikediashi, Captain Macheath — Rory Kinnear, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum — Nick Holder, Filch — Sarah Amankwah, Celia Peachum — Haydn Gwynne, Polly Peachum — Rosalie Craig, Robert (AKA The Iceman) — Dominic Tighe, Matthius (AKA The Shadow) — Jamie Beddard, Walter (AKA The Scholar) — Andrew Buckley, Jimmy ‘Retail’ — Hammed Animashaun, Chief Inspector ‘Tiger’ Brown — Peter de Jersey, Jenny Diver — Sharon Small, Vixen — Toyin Ayedun-Alase, Betty — Rebecca Brewer, Ruby — Ricky Butt, Officer Smith — Matt Cross, Lucy Brown — Debbie Kurup, Ensemble — Mark Carroll, Conor Neaves, Wendy Somerville; Director — Rufus Norris, Designer — Vicki Mortimer, Musical Director — David Shrubsole, Choreographer — Imogen Knight, Lighting Designer — Paule Constable, Sound Designer — Paul Arditti, Fight Directors — Rachel Bown Williams and Ruth Cooper (RC-ANNIE Ltd). Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, Saturday 28th May 2016.

[1] See Stephen Hinton, Wiell’s Musical Theater: Stages of Reform (University of California Press, 2012).

image= image_description=(L–R) Peter de Jersey (Tiger Brown) and Rory Kinnear (Macheath) product=yes product_title=The Threepenny Opera, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: (L–R) Peter de Jersey (Tiger Brown) and Rory Kinnear (Macheath)
Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

May 30, 2016

La bohème, LA Opera

Since the partially constructed Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background, the time of the action is set between 1887 and 1889. Attractive costumes by Peter J. Hall and Jeannique Prospere also set the time and place.

In Act I, the occupants of a rooftop apartment: Operalia winning tenor Mario Chang as Rodolfo, the writer, baritones Giorgio Caduro and Kihun Yoon as Marcello, the painter and Schaunard, the musician, along with bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee as Colline the philosopher, cavorted like college students. After Yoon’s warm-voiced rendition of Schaunard’s story, all four residents proceeded to enjoy the food he bought with the money he earned taking care of an ill-fated parrot. When he was alone in the garret, Rodolfo opened the door to Mimi, sung by Olga Busuioc. He started off with polished tones and her presence was magical. She had a sweet sounding middle register that was easy on the ear and her top notes bloomed like roses.

Kazaras’s second act was a Christmas Eve spectacular topped off by a comedic skit featuring the narcissistic Musetta. As the latter, Operalia winner Amanda Woodbury arrived in a horseless carriage from which she alighted in the utmost of 1880s finery to sing her Waltz Song with great tonal beauty and graceful phrasing. Philip Cokorinos, who had been amusing as Benoit, the landlord, was equally interesting as Alcindoro, Musetta’s long suffering sugar daddy. As Marcello, stentorian voiced Giorgio Caduro also suffered considerable indignity as Musetta made obvious advances to him right in front of Alcindoro. The chorus, including children, the stage banda, and many supernumeraries combined to show the California audience that Los Angeles can put on as grand a show as any opera company in the world.

In Act III, Marcello began arguing with Musetta and she joined him in a name-calling contest. At the same time, Mimì had come through the snow looking for Rodolfo. Busuioc and Chang sang an exquisite duet and, at its end, the soprano sang a most moving “Addio senza rancor.” Act IV brought the audience back to the men’s garret. Musetta brought the physically failing Mimì to the rooftop where she lay on a chaise in the open air while her friends tried to get her medical help. As Colline, Nicholas Brownlee sang his Overcoat Aria with burnished bronze tones and Musetta, having reformed her character, sells her earrings to pay Mimì's medical bill. Chang's acting was outstanding as his Rodolfo showed how much he loved the woman whose illness frightened him.

Conductor Speranza Scappucci, who had been giving a highly detailed rendition of the score, was at her best in Act IV. Words could never express the emotion that her orchestra encompassed at Mimì’s quiet death. Throughout the opera, Scappucci offered a luminous and often translucent accompaniment that showed the composer’s mastery of the art of orchestration and her ability as a conductor to weave his many threads into a complete whole. This was a truly fine performance of Puccini’s score that should be remembered for a long time

Maria Nockin

Cast and production details:

Marcello, Giorgio Caduro; Rodolfo, Mario Chang; Colline, Nicholas Brownlee; Schaunard, Kihun Yoon; Benoit and Alcindoro, Philip Cokorinos; Mimì, Olga Busuioc; Prune Vendor, John Kimberling; Parpignol, Arnold Livingston Geis; Musetta, Amanda Woodbury; Customs House Officer, Gregory Geiger; Sergeant, Reid Bruton; Conductor, Speranza Scappucci; Original Production, Herbert Ross; Stage Director, Peter Kazaras; Set Designer, Gerard Howland; Costume Designer, Peter J. Hall; Additional Costumes, Jeannique Prospere; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler; Original Choreography, Peggy Hickey; Recreated by John Todd; Chorus Director, Grant Gershon; Children’s Chorus Director, Anne Tomlinson; Supertitles, David Anglin.

image_description=Mario Chang as Rodolfo and Olga Busuioc as Mimi [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=La bohème, LA Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Mario Chang as Rodolfo and Olga Busuioc as Mimi [Photo by Ken Howard]

Posted by maria_n at 3:30 PM

Amazons Enchant San Francisco

In 1679, the opera was staged at the Teatro delle Vergini outside of Venice and has not been given professionally since.

Amazon women were popular in seventeenth century Venetian opera and more than one hundred librettos of the time included them. According to some ancient writers, Amazon warriors originated in Turkey. Others preferred to cite different mythological backgrounds. The women were said to mate only once a year. After they gave birth, male children were discarded and only the females were raised to adulthood.

The plot of Pallavicino’s opera involves Numidio, a captain in the Sultan’s army sung by the tall, blonde, muscular tenor, Ryan Matos. The captain has been shipwrecked on the Amazon’s island, where Princess Pulcheria, sung with exquisite Baroque style by French soprano Aurélie Veruni, falls in love with him. He seems to prefer Florinda, portrayed by creamy-voiced mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who proved to be both a lyrical lover and a dramatic powerhouse. Unfortunately, Numidio cannot make up his mind. Florinda has to deal with reconciling her vow of chastity with love. The only other male singer in this opera, bronze-voiced baritone Spencer Dodd, was the fearsome sultan who eventually invades the Amazon’s island.

Soprano Tonia D’Amelio as Auralba, who is also in love with Florinda and jealous of Numidio shows her strong dramatic ability when she appears to have more leadership qualities than the indecisive male. Soprano Cara Gabrielson sang Jocasta with notable vocal skills and mezzo Molly Mahoney was a fiery Cillene. Dancers Coral Martin and Casey Lee Thorne added to the graceful lines of choreographer Muriel Maffre’s stage pictures with their smooth, undulating gestures.

Stage director Céline Ricci made sure that the universal tales and of love, both straight and gay, were brought from seventeenth century directly to the twenty-first. Behind the action Patricia Nardi's thoughtful projections combined well with simple modern costuming topped by opulent colorful hairpieces and wigs that provided eye candy for the audience.

Conductor Derek Tam led Ars Minerva’s eight-piece orchestra, which consisted of theorbo, two violins, cello, two trumpets, harpsichord and percussion. The string players, especially the theorbist and harpsichordist, showed fabulous musical skills. Only the trumpets were a bit edgy at times. The problems brought about by humans falling in love with each other are not only of interest to those immediately concerned, some of its vagaries and situations are hysterically funny. The Amazons is a most amusing opera and I hope that Ars Minerva will soon make it available to a larger audience.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production details:

Il Genio, Tonia d'Amelio; La Difficoltà, Molly Mahoney; Il Timore, Spencer Dodd; Pulcheria, Principessa delle Amazzoni, Aurélie Veruni; Florinda sua Favorita, Kindra Scharich; Numidio, suo capitano, Ryan Matos; Auralba, amica di Florinda, Tonia d'Amelio; Jocasta, figlia adottiva di Pulcheria, Cara Gabrielson; Cillene, delirante per Amore, Molly Mahoney; Sultan Rè degli Egizzi, Spencer Dodd; Dancers: Casey Lee Thorne and Coral Martin; Stage Direction, Céline Ricci; Choreography, Muriel Maffre; Projection Design, Patricia Nardi; Lighting Design, Brian Poedy; Hair & Make-up, Metamorphosis Salon; English Translation, Joe McClinton; Conductor, Derek Tam; Harpsichord, Derek Tam; Theorbo, Adam Cockerham; Cello, Gretchen Claassen, Violin, Addi Liu and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo; Timpani, Henry Reed; Trumpets, Amanda Cienfuegos and Jose Sanchez.

image_description=Scene from Amazons in the Fortunate Isles [Photo by Emily Anderson]

product_title=Amazons Enchant San Francisco
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Scene from Amazons in the Fortunate Isles [Photo by Emily Anderson]

Posted by maria_n at 3:00 PM

Mathis der Maler, Dresden

The political situation made the legendary opera house’s new production of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Matthew the Painter) all the more urgent. This intellectually stimulating, musically enthralling, and utterly exhausting experience, made for a rare, highly enriching and unforgettable trip.

Though a popular composer with the avant-garde youth in Germany during the interbellum, Hindemith’s eleven operas are nowadays rarely performed. You might recognize the opera’s title from the composer’s instrumental precursor Symphony: Mathis der Maler. For the opera, he wrote his own libretto. Instead of Acts, Hindemith structured his magnum opus in seven Bilder (paintings).

Inspired by a visit to Isenheim and the altarpiece of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” by painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), Hindemith identified the Nazis’ artistic oppression of him with the painter’s struggle against the powers that be during the Great Peasants’ War--the largest uprising against the aristocracy before the French Revolution. Later, the Nazis would ban Mathis der Maler. Propaganda strategist Heinrich Goebbels declared Hindemith an “atonalen Geräuschemacher” (atonal noisemaker).

02_Annemarie_Kremer__Markus_Marquardt_-_Mathis_der_Maler_-_Foto_Jochen_Quast.pngAnnemarie Kremer and Markus Marquardt

With the scope of grand opera, Hindemith’s libretto nearly mythologizes the painter. Although the Cardinal protects him, Mathis joins the peasant cause and helps its leader Schwalb and his daughter Regina escape from religious persecution. Even though conflicted, Cardinal Albrecht is financially broke, so supports the wealthy. In the massive choral scenes, a book burning leads to a peasant uprising, then an aristocrat is publicly lynched, when the law ends the uprising with a public massacre.

There is also romance. Mathis has an unfulfilled love for the Protestant merchant Riedinger’s daughter Ursula, who must marry Cardinal Albrecht. They don’t, because Albrecht recognises her true convictions. After Schwalb’s death, Ursula ends up caring for the dying Regina. Mathis rejects Cardinal Albrecht’s offer for renewed protection. In the end, the painter bids farewell to all. The story and Hindemith’s industrious score make for consuming opera.

Director Jochen Biganzoli and set designer Andreas Wilkens successfully developed a concept that follows a reverse timeline of controversial 20th Century pieces of art in each of Hindemith’s Bilder. Roberto Longo, Roy Lichtenstein, Ernst Ludwig Richter, Claude Monet pass the revue. In Bild 6, Biganzoli critiques commercialisation of art in an over-the-top auction of Grünewald’s Altar.

There was a dark, sarcastic undertone that reminded of director/provocateur Calixto Bieito’s unsettling ambiences. Biganzoli portrays the powerful as corrupt, sinful hypocrites through Gestapo leather kink, and a philandering Cardinal. Also, during the peasant uprising, a body hangs dangling from his feet upside down over the stage till the scene ends. A bit too abrasive for my taste.

05_vorn_John_Daszak__Markus_Marquardt_-_Mathis_der_Maler_-_Foto_Jochen_Quast.pngJohn Daszak and Markus Marquardt

The last piece is Hindemith’s own rejected opera. After a recording with Goebbels speaks out against (I assumed) Hindemith at the beginning of Bild 7, the final statement involves a stage with a missing orchestra. The topic hit close to home with the current lack of political support for orchestras. This felt particularly urgent concerning the EUYO.

Markus Marquardt triumphed in the technically demanding lead. He offered a human take of the womanizing heroic artist. With his first aria “Sonniges Land” Marquardt demonstrated his wide range and stamina. Such power! His conflicted duet with the fierce Kremer enflamed Bild 3. They produced the highlight of the evening in a battle of frustrated romance presented with refined agita and impossible stamina, resulting in exhilarating chemistry. In Bild 5, Kremer had another showstopper with Daszak. Utterly displeased with the Cardinal, Kremer fired up her voice matching Young’s orchestral intensity.

Herbert Lippert put down a decent Schwalb with a depth that generated a protective vibe. Emily Dorn distinguished Schwalb’s daughter Regina with a resilient vibrato that perforated the orchestra’s volume, while retaining a vulnerable, touching, and utterly virtuous presence.

Simone Young made her debut at Semperoper. She produced a muscular sound from the Dresden Staatskapelle. While Hindemith’s score contains drab passages, Young produced a relentless momentum. Sometimes her forte fortissimo conducting led to overpowering volume that occasionally eclipsed the vocals, though most of the time, the soloists fit in Young’s musical fold.

The Saxony State Opera Chorus Dresden proved an indispensable presence. Its epic intensity increased with each Bild. Perfectly prepared by Jörn Hinnerk Andresen with an undeniable vocal zeal, the choir moved through defeat, rage, and madness. Stamping and swaying, Sylvia Zygouris’ choir choreography gave an extra surge to their stage intensity.

This demanding production of Hindemith at the Semperoper should be commended for its audacity. This rarity must be brought back, because opera fanatics deserve to hear such an intelligent and provocative production of Hindemith’s masterpiece. Impressive how the Semperoper made such a big risk pay off.

David Pinedo

image= image_description=Michael Eder and Tom Martinsen [Photo by Jochen Quast] product=yes product_title=Mathis der Maler, Dresden product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Michael Eder and Tom Martinsen

Photos by Jochen Quast
Posted by Gary at 12:50 PM

The Makropulos Case, Munich

From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.

The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos) perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa , more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Emilia Marty: Angela Denoke; Dr Kolenatý: Gustáv Beláček; Vítek: Kevin Conners; Krista: Rachael Wilson; Albert Gregor: Pavel Černoch; Jaroslav Prus: John Lundgren ; Janek: Aleš Briscein; Hauk-Šendorf: Reiner Goldberg; Chambermaid: Deniz Uzun; Stage Technician: Peter Lobert; Cleaning Lady: Heike Grötzinger. Director: Arpád Schilling; Designs: Márton Ágh; Lighting: Tamás Bányai; Dramaturgy: Miron Hakenbeck. Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)/Bavarian State Orchestra/Tomáš Hanus (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, Saturday 21 May 2016.

image= image_description=Angela Denoke as Emilia Marty, Chor und Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper product=yes product_title=The Makropulos Case, Munich product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Angela Denoke as Emilia Marty, Chor und Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Posted by Gary at 11:11 AM

Orphée et Euridice, Seattle

That difficulty was swept away in moments when the curtain rose on Gilbert Blin’s staging of C.W. von Gluck’s 1774 French-language adaptation of his boundary-breaking 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice. With polished professionals in the title roles, the marvelous “early music” specialist Stephen Stubbs, an orchestra of equally seasoned players in the pit, and a sensitive and visual concept by veteran music-theater artists, the youth, energy and lack of professional polish exhibited by the all-student chorus and dancers positively added to the power of the production.

For me the very word “projections” causes an anticipatory chill. How often has a staging been ruined by intrusive, inappropriate, ill-executed background imagery? These projections, seamlessly contrived by frequent Blin collaborators Travis Mouffe and Remy-Michel Trotier with lighting designer Peter Bracilano, were intrusive, but in just the right way: they glorified the stage action, sweetened and acidulated the mood, turned the often distracting but necessary business of titling into a marvelously inventive commentary on the very art of the librettist. Rarely has a “bare stage” seemed so richly evocative.

Valerie_Vinzant.pngValerie Vinzant

Meany Hall’s acoustic is ungrateful to the human voice. One hears clearly enough, but the sound is diminished as if by an invisible scrim. With barely 1000 seats, the singers seem a little lost in space. Amanda Forsythe was extravagantly cast as Euridice — a treat to hear. Former LA Opera Young Artist Valerie Vinzant was delicious as Amour, and provided by far the most idiomatic and expressive French diction of the evening.

As Orphée, the role upon which the entire work depends for its effect, Aaron Sheehan moved well, in the statuesque mode demanded by Blin’s staging, and sang with considerable beauty, particularly in his pure haut-contre register. I was surprised that a singer who has spent much of his career in the classical French repertory (he has recorded works of Charpentier and Lully) makes so little of the expressive power of the language’s mixed vowel and nasals: his “mute” e’s in particular often end phrases with a dull bump.

aaron-sheehan-l.pngAaron Sheehan

As to idiomatic French, the 20 student choristers might as well have been singing in Urdu, but they sang with precision, passion, and character. The movement scheme devised by Blin and his choreographer Anna Mansbridge allowed them to take an active role in the purely instrumental music, some of best dance tunes ever devised for opera, equal to Rameau’s at his most expressive.

The six dancers, all “pre-professional,” took all the roles specified by Moline’s ingenious libretto: mourners, blessed spirits, demons, celebrants, and (a lovely touch) the animals which legend says were as charmed by Orpheus’s lyre as were the fiends of hell.

One particular young man, self-effacing in his “straight” dancing, provided his turn as larve-in-chief with a sense of real menace and fury. Morgan Houghton is already an authentic stage animal. With luck he will soon be able to drop the “pre-” from his resumé and claim his full desert.

Roger Downey

Cast and production details:

Orphée: Aaron Sheehan; Euridice: Amanda Forsythe; Amour: Vealerie Vinzant. Director and supervising designer: Gilbert Blin; choreographer: Anna Mansbridge; Projections: Travis Mouffe; Texts and supertitles: Remy-Michel Trotie; Costume designer: Anna Watkins; Lighting designer and production manager: Peter Bracilano; Orchestra of Pacific Music Works, Tekla Cunningham, concertmaster; Music director and conductor: Stephen Stubbs; Dancers and music students of the University of Washington; Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, Seattle, May 22, 2016.

image= image_description=Amanda Forsythe [Photo by Arielle Doneson] product=yes product_title=Orphée et Euridice, Seattle product_by=A review by Roger Downey product_id=Above: Amanda Forsythe [Photo by Arielle Doneson]
Posted by Gary at 10:43 AM

May 28, 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich

Glyndebourne would come only four days later; my principal point of — inevitable — comparison would therefore be with Stefan Herheim’s staging, first seen in Salzburg, but later (this March) in Paris. Herheim’s production is, unsurprisingly, one for the ages. I have no doubt that it will reveal more upon every subsequent encounter. It comes, perhaps, closer to Wagner’s reconciliations. However, any good Adornian — is there such a thing? Are we not, necessarily, all at best bad Adornians? — will warn you of the dangers of such positive Hegelianisms. David Bösch’s staging gradually reveals itself to be quite the necessary negative indictment, with respect above all to two particular (related) aspects of the work: violence and gender. If less all-encompassing than Herheim’s staging — what is not? — then it lays claim to be the first Meistersinger production in my experience to address the work from a feminist standpoint. It also arguably offers the most intriguing treatment — I shall not say ‘solution’, for surely there is none — to the ‘Beckmesser problem’. Katharina Wagner’s notorious Bayreuth staging might have given it a run for its money, had only the competence of her craft matched the provocative thinking of her dramaturge, Robert Sollich. Above all, though, this proved to be great musical drama: everyone committed to something far greater than the sum of its parts, and that includes ‘parts’ such as Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko.

Let us start, however, with Bösch’s staging, with excellent designs by Patrick Bannwart and Meentje Nielsen. We are in the 1950s. What could be more apt? And no, I am not being sarcastic. This is a work concerned with reconstruction, set in a city which, more than most, has had to be concerned with reconstruction. Wagner, I suppose I should reiterate for the nth time, was in no sense concerned to present a historical Nuremberg; the ever-present — well, nearly — spirit of Bach makes that abundantly clear. And did not the 1950s see ‘New Bayreuth’, in particularly Wieland Wagner’s Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg? As John Deathridge once acidly commented, when Wieland spoke of “the clearing away of old lumber” (Entrümpelung), … [he produced] stage pictures bereft of their “reactionary” ethos — and, as sceptics were prone to add, most of their content as well.’ Indeed, and if many in the audience had more to hide even than Wieland, he had his own reasons too. The relationship between provincialism and the dreadful reconstructionalism of the 1950s is complicated yet undeniable. Lest we forget, 1955 was the year in which the West German Army was (re)founded, denying its origins in what had gone before; this was also the period of increasingly prevalent terraced dynamics and sewing-machine geometries of Bach performances by minor German chamber orchestras, performances that would soon metamorphose into ‘authenticke’ claims, deluded and cynically deluding, to ‘restore’ Baroque practice. ‘They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ as Adorno unforgettably put it. Wagner meant — and means Bach, and vice versa. There is nastiness as well as homeliness in provincialism; Bösch draws out the former, in a useful corrective to the norm.

What might seem a nostalgia for the period and its ‘popular culture’ — similarly in Bösch’s Munich L’Orfeo — is revealed to be far more complicated than that. For one thing, what does ‘popular culture’ mean? Such is a problem at the heart of the opera, at the heart of relationships between the Masters and the populace, and Sachs’s suggestion of testing the rules. And such has arguably become still more so given the rise of what some of us are old-fashioned enough still to regard with, the Frankfurt School, as the Culture Industry. If resistance is to come, it will be more likely to come from Helmut Lachenmann than from the world of commercial music, successfully masquerading as ‘of the people’. And so, when microphones and various other paraphernalia of the recording industry — ‘Classical’ in the deadly marketing-speak of that world, then as well as now — are put in place, we sense, amongst many other things, an act of domination such has been inflicted upon works by Bach, now more or less unperformable, and upon every other aspect of our ‘administered’ world and lives. Although the Personenregie of Bösch’s staging is always detailed, interesting, telling, it is only — as in the work itself — towards the end of the third act, in the Singschule, that things come closer into conceptual focus. It is, as always in the bourgeois state, with violence that that is accomplished. David has already, most intriguingly, seemed a nastier, vainer, and yes, more interesting character than usual, with the strong implication that his penchant for small-scale violent behaviour is owed in part not only to his provincialism but also to his inability truly to create. Walther has tried to defend David when the apprentices, at the beginning of the scene, attacked him, but he will have none of it; outsiders are not to be welcomed, perhaps not even for Magdalene’s sake. Will David prove a second Beckmesser? We shall see; it is, at least at this stage, the first Beckmesser who provides the shock — literally.

The electric shocks administered to Walther, forcibly restrained in his chair, by the Marker are the work of what Gudrun Esslin would soon call the Auschwitz generation; and as Ennslin went on, there is of course no arguing with them. That, despite, or perhaps because, of Beckmesser’s — and Pogner’s — relative attractiveness (relative to how we usually see them, and indeed to the definitely older-school Kothner). Who, after all, has not occasionally found something of attraction in the discipline of fascism, especially when (s)he has been emboldened by readily available bottles of Meisterbräu? Guilds had never been as stable as nostalgia suggested; that is surely part of Wagner’s meaning here. But Bösch brings already-existing divisions to the foreground. Some Masters look — costumes crucial here — and act with greater modernity, or at least in greater fashion than others. If the Guild is keeping things together — and such, of course, was the crux of nineteenth-century Romantic and Hegelian defences in the face of liberal attacks upon them — then it is not clear whether it will succeed for much longer. ‘Reconstruction’ tends to incite — as any Stolzing, Ensslin, or Lachenmann would tell you.

Sachs’s van — ‘Sachs’ says the neon, definitely not of Fifth Avenue — captures our attention at the beginning of the second act. There is no doubt that the mise-en-scene is of a grimmer 1950s: doubtless necessary in some ways given the cost of war, but this is not a suburb of joy. It is not the Munich we see in the second Heimat; nor is it the Nuremberg the tourist will see. But it is there. Beckmesser’s virtuosity comes to the fore. He is not a fraud, although he may be unimaginative; he has craft, even if he does not have art; he is, moreover, certainly not a mere figure of fun. His piccolo guitar to Walther’s full-size version invites a number of reflections. Yet his song works, in its way: perhaps of another age, another age that most likely never was, but such is reconstruction. Eva seems even more girlish than usual, almost Barbie-like; I asked myself whether we should ever see a feminist production that would address the monstrous nature of her treatment. The violence of the Prügel-Fuge’s staging eclipses any I have seen. Too often, we forget that there is real violence involved. (Perhaps Wagner did so too; if so, he stands as much in need of correction as anyone else.) Here, David’s deeds with baseball bat mark him out as every inch the neo-fascist; Pegida would welcome him with open arms. We then begin to wonder: what will the guild become in the hands of his generation. Is Sachs the last hope, rather than the harbinger? Likewise, how will Walther turn out? For ever Tariq Ali, think how many Blairs, or would-be-Blairs there have been. At the close, the Night Watchman (in modern policeman’s garb) is dealt with by the remaining small gang of young townsfolk. They take him back to his car and send him on his way, but it is made clear that he has no choice; this is their manor. Crossing themselves beforehand, they have mimicked the (deliberately?) incongruous procession at the opening; they know how to use traditional forms when it serves their purpose. The final punishment beating takes place as the curtain — and one of the thugs’ baseball bats — falls.

‘Sachs’ has lost its first and almost its second ‘s’ when we catch up, the morning after the night before. Make of that what you will. Walther has spent his night in the van. Beckmesser, when he hobbles back, is suicidal — quite understandably. It is discovery of the poem that turns his mood (just enough) around. Sachs is not the only one so to suffer, although Beckmesser would never have the imagination, nor the understanding, to come up with the Wahn monologue. Still, the ubiquity of Wahn is more than usually, atmospherically present. Yes, as Michael Tanner has pointed out, the work is about ‘coping’; and coping is difficult in a world such as this, which is one reason why we indulge in deluded and deluding reconstruction in the first place. Walther is too young, too callow really to understand; he and Eva are unable to keep their hands off each other, on top of the van, as Sachs confronts a further bout of depression. The violence of Wolfgang Koch’s — and the Bavarian State Orchestra’s — outburst here, the former occasionally edging towards Sprechgesang, even towards Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder , was especially telling, and complemented, extended the production memorably, indeed frighteningly. But Walther eventually appreciates his selfishness, and comes down to help: a touching moment, especially in light of such darkness all around.

Let us leave the staging as some would doubtless like the work to be left, before the Festwiese. Unlike them, those who misunderstand the Quintet and do not appreciate that its moment of ‘beauty’ is quite deliberately foreshortened, we shall return, but I should rather deal with Bösch’s final scene at the end. (Think of this, perhaps, as a rupture to the account of the staging, just as Peter Konwitschny once ruptured the aura of this allegedly problematical scene, in order, controversially, to put it mildly, to deal with the allegations, most of them unfounded.)

I have never heard the work conducted better ‘live’ than by Kirill Petrenko. I was less convinced by his Bayreuth Ring performances than many were; perhaps I did not hear him at his best. This, however, was Wagner conducting — in a work in which I have heard evenDaniel Barenboim and Daniele Gatti struggle to reach their highest standards — to speak of in the same breath as that of Bernard Haitink (my first). Petrenko’s command of the Wagnerian melos, assisted by, indeed expressed in, the outstanding playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra, was outstanding at every level. There was no doubting the overall structure, but that structure was formed by the needs of the moment, by the Schoenbergian working-out of the material, rather than imposed, Alfred Lorenz-like, upon it. This was not a David; this was a young Sachs. He could, indeed, hold back or press on when the singer seemed to be suggesting it, playing the orchestra like his own piano, albeit without the slightest hint of shallow virtuosity, for this was no Beckmesser either. But it would not jar; indeed, performance and work seemed to form one another, which, in this of all works, is surely the point. The orchestra had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons; rather, those with whom it might have been compared, should fear them. Likewise the chorus, whether in terms of vocal heft and colour, of clarity of line, or of stage movement. The dialectic between individual and society (and changing conceptions thereof) was brought vividly to life here and elsewhere.

I took a little while to settle down to Koch’s Hans Sachs. That is partly personal, I think; to my ears — and indeed to my eyes — he somehow seems more to be an Alberich. That I found disconcerting, but it was my problem, really. There was no doubting the intelligence of his portrayal, and in the third act, my reservations evaporated. Here, there seemed to be a perfect marriage of Wort and Ton, of Oper and Drama. (And yes, I know that is not quite what Wagner meant in the latter case, but it is considerably closer than it might initially seem.) He took us through Sachs’s struggles, and took us through some more. There was no false reconciliation of ‘mere’ geniality, although manipulation of Wahn might prescribe it, successfully or otherwise, if as a palliative rather than as a cure.

Kaufmann’s Walther avoided the drawback of his first performance in the role (I think), in concert at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. There, it was an astonishing performance, in which Kaufmann tired a little towards the end. Here, he was perhaps less golden of vocal tone, more baritonal, but that is an observation rather than an æsthetic judgement. There was no problem whatsoever with his pacing. And my goodness, he could act! The puppyish enthusiasm of the first acts, the inspiration Walther drew from Eva, whilst showing off to her, not unlike a tennis player at Wimbledon with his girlfriend in the crowd, the mixture of enforced, societal chivalry and the arousal of deeper, or at least more primal, urges: those and many more acutely observed moments denied the manufactured boundary between ‘musical performance’ and ‘acting’. If we are to talk of ‘Wagner’s intentions’, let it be in that manner.

Benjamin Bruns had a difficult time of it. This, after all, was anything but the typical David, but Bruns had us believe in the ‘new’ — or should that be ‘restored’ — character, his impotent (often, at least) rage as chilling as the ‘purely’ vocal delivery was thoughtful and indeed often beautiful. Sara Jakubiak really took to the demands of her role (on which more below). Visually and vocally striking, this was an Eva both at home in and estranged from her Nuremberg. Okka von der Damerau’s Magdalene brought a deeper, luxuriant vocal colour to the stage, again with clear ‘dramatic’ as well as vocal commitment. Tareq Nazmi’s Night Watchman was deep and dark of tone: just what the doctor has always ordered.

Of the other Masters, Christof Fischesser was definitely first among equals: handsomely, even suavely sung, a Pogner of ambition in which he was likely to succeed, rather than someone entering his twilight years. Kothner was played movingly by Eike Wilm Schulte, with the relative stiffness of his delivery, particularly striking in the first act, a move to distinguish this ‘old-school’ Master from the next generation(s). Markus Eiche’s Beckmesser was of the first class: more plausible a suitor than most, intelligently, often beautifully, sung, with a fine marriage of dignity and, increasingly, desperation.

Back, then, to the Festwiese. Who owns the guild, or at least its products? A corporation, albeit in the modern rather than the archaic sense: Pognervision. Privilege, be it of class, of gender, of other varieties, is always likely to emerge victorious. The early televisual variety show we see might seem ‘popular’ but it is deeply — and indeed shallowly — manipulative. (Admittedly, Bösch has nothing on ‘real life’, in this country at least, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appointing his friend, the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette, to chair the Arts Council, etc.) Falko Herold’s video work provides ‘titles’ for each Master (‘individual’ or styled to be corporate?) as he enters the scene, just ‘like on the television’. There is, of course, something for all the family — within strict limits. David and his camp dancers suggest what the real view of ‘deviance’ is: perhaps it will be tolerated as a harmless joke, but as for any serious attack on patriarchy… David is not in on the joke, anyway, and his humiliated by them: again, a proto-Beckmesser. When forced (‘peer pressure’ is like that) to drink too many shots, to prove his ‘real’ masculinity, he falls paralytic, unable to perform his functions (doubtless in any sense).

The cruelty meted out to Beckmesser will be even worse - although we should remember, and we are reminded, that he too would essentially buy Eva, our bartered bride, and he makes clear his desire to possess her, even against her will, so is no 'victim' at all in that crucial sense. Bedecked in gaudy ‘variety’ gold, in which he is clearly anything but comfortable, Beckmesser has been set up to fail. ‘Entertainment’ is the name of the game, and we are reminded of the cruelty of a work in which the comedy, in the common sense at least, is within, is of characters laughing at another; it is comedy, then, at which we should feel uncomfortable, and we do. Eva, who has learned a great deal during the course of the work, is increasingly disgusted by what she sees. Kothner is ‘marketed’ as celebrating his fiftieth year in office; even a ‘tribute’, indeed perhaps especially a tribute, must bear the ‘ratings’ in mind. (The relative stiffness of his delivery in the first act, via-à-vis that of Pogner and Beckmesser, thus falls into greater relief.) When Eva thinks that Sachs has fallen in with her father’s sell-off — for surely this ‘show’, with related ‘philanthropy’, is as much for business as anything else — she cannot bear to look at him any more. Whilst the crowd, manipulated by the ‘event’, sings his praises, she not only turns away; from her balcony, she haplessly throws the contents of her glass in his direction. No one notices; on stage, that is, for we do.

Yet Sachs is wiser than most, as we have always known. He realises that all has gone awry at the moment when most — whether on stage or in the typical audience — think it has been resolved. Has Walther joined the guild? It is not clear (deliberately so, I presume). In a more fundamental sense, however, Sachs is deeply troubled rather than triumphant. Beckmesser returns. Out of desperation, he tries to shoot dead the presumed author of his misfortunes, but falls before being able to carry out his punishment. The idea, we presume, was to let the poison, or whatever it was, do its work following the shooting. That may or may not be metaphorical. Of course, it does not work out as intended. It never did for Beckmesser; it never does for reconstruction. Well, not unless you are Wagner — or Herheim, and then you acknowledge that it is not what most people think it is. And even then…

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Walther: Jonas Kaufmann; Eva: Sara Jakubiak; Magdalene: Okka von der Damerau; David: Benjamin Bruns; Hans Sachs: Wolfgang Koch; Sixtus Beckmesser: Markus Eiche; Veit Pogner: Christof Fischesser; Fritz Kothner: Eike Wilm Schulte; Kunz Vogelgesang: Kevin Conners; Konrad Nachtigall: Christian Rieger; Ulrich Eisslinger: Stefan Heibach; Hermann Ortel: Friedemann Röhlig; Balthasar Zorn: Ulrich Reß; Augustin Moser: Thorsten Scharnke; Hans Foltz: Christoph Stephinger; Hans Schwarz: Peter Lobert; Night Watchman: Tareq Nazmi. Director: David Bösch; Set designs: Patrick Bannwart; Costumes: Meentje Nielsen; Video: Falko Herold; Lighting: Michael Bauer; Dramaturgy: Rainer Karlitschek. Chorus, Extra Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff) and Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera/Kirill Petrenko (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 22 May 2016.

image= image_description= product=yes product_title= Richard Wagner : Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bavarian State Opera, Munich product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=
Posted by iconoclast at 10:13 AM

May 25, 2016

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne

But, the opera’s comedy derives not from the abstract but from the human: specifically, the reality of human interactions and relationships in everyday situations. Comedy must be rooted in the ‘real’ so that it does not descend into farce or irrelevance. Arden’s production for Glyndebourne - the Festival’s first new production of the opera for 35 years - is less concerned with exploring these human situations from within and more focused on imposing motifs and images from without.

The set is stylised and non-naturalistic but the Spanish locale is indicated by the painterly Moorish blue and white decorative azulejos, their hexagonal geometrics picked out by James Farncombe’s magical lighting, and by the flamenco guitars and frocks. The period is non-specific but Almaviva’s Elvis quiff and Rosina’s Balenciaga-inspired dress allude to the 1940s and ’50s. Rosina’s bedroom is a carelessly strewn pile of plump pillows. A decorative bureau and some anaemic bookcases, one shelf supporting a snoozing servant, hint at specific locations within Dr Bartolo’s house, but it is not a ‘home’ in which real people might dwell.

Barber_GFO2.png Act I finale

Indeed, it seems as if Bartolo is only just moving it, for in Act 2 we find him enjoying a boozy picnic on the floor of his own library. Furniture removers trundle back and forth with a harpsichord - an aimless conveyance which is greatly distracting during Bartolo’s ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’, and a real pity when that aria is being sung by one of the best exponents of the role. And, the Act 1 finale descends into a visual charade of surreal images: ‘Fredda ed immobile, come una statua’ is accompanied by the arrhythmic, ‘Keystone-Cops’ jerks and salutes of the Officers of the Watch, as upside-down harpsichords descend from the ceiling. We might have wandered into a painting by Magritte or Dali. Arden has experience of physical theatre with Complicite, which may account for the emphasis that she puts on ‘movement’. And, she admits, ‘This kind of music I find very visual, with a sort of extraordinary rhythmic painting’ - but the images that she conjures at times have little to do with what is going on in the drama.

Act 1 starts promisingly, though. A beautiful trellised balcony hangs mid-set, a square pendant, garlanded with red roses which tumble down like the tresses of a fairy-tale princess. Fiorello (a personable Huw Montague Rendall) settles his guitar-bearing band of would-be serenaders beneath Rosina’s balcony, to wait for the arrival of the love-struck Almaviva. When the silver-cloaked Count does appear, some supernumeraries - who seem to have been borrowed from the commedia dell’arte - provide fun and games, re-enacting a bull-fight and conjuring some sleight of hand to create a conveyor-belt of chairs to transport Almaviva to the foot of the balcony. And, there’s a neat joke when conductor Enrique Mazzola ‘auditions’ the guitarists for the role of accompanist to ‘Ecco ridente’.

But, by Scene 2 the momentum has waned. Danielle de Niese may have charged about like a hyperactive teenager, arms horizontal like a zooming airplane, but for all Arden’s professed concern with movement - ‘When you find the movement of a thing, a tree or stone or whatever, it expresses something about its essence’ - for the most part the characters are seriously under-directed and resort to standing stock still at the front of the stage and singing directly to the audience. Lindoro’s ‘disguise-scenes’, usually the core of the comic capers, were woefully underplayed.

There is some witty banter between stage and pit, and a few knowing winks, as when Bartolo is jolted from sleep by our applause for ‘Contro un cor’, and leaps conceitedly to his feet to accept our adulation for himself. But, such tongue-in-cheek breaking through the fourth wall only deepens the artificiality and diminishes the opera’s ability to convey human insights still further. Act 2 regains some of the opening’s tautness - though the storm in Act 2 was rather a damp squib, especially when compared to the monsoon that deluged picnickers during the long dinner interval! - but the production never quite recovers from this lull in the centre.


Fortunately, the talents of the cast distract us when the drama loses its way. Björn Bürger’s ebullient Figaro is a man who pops up everywhere, and when you least expect - springing up in the pit before a confident, bright ‘Largo al factotum’; startling the prone Rosina by emerging through a trapdoor beneath her heaps of cushions; sneaking out from behind the bureau or climbing over the bookcase. Confident rather than swaggering, Bürger’s Figaro is an appealing blend of mischief and magnanimity: a jack-of-all-trades - barber, hairdresser, surgeon, herbalist, apothecary, veterinarian, he is happy to help, especially if his services are well-rewarded, and cheeky enough to steal a kiss from Rosina and earn nothing harsher than an indulgent smile.

As the Count, Taylor Stayton has a tendency to push a bit hard at the phrase-ends and melodic peaks, but his tenor has a lovely ring and if his coloratura is less than precise at times, then he negotiates the role’s demands with style. Stayton loses the virtuosic ‘Cessa di più resistere’ but Danielle de Niese’s Rosina is granted ‘Ah, s’è ver, in tal momento’ before the storm scene, which she sings rather indifferently and which slows down the action. That number aside, de Niese exhibits a lovely, natural ease in the lower register and crystal-clear diction, though at the top there’s a hard-edge to the tone. She throws herself into the part with physical exuberance, somersaulting onto her cushions, striding over the harpsichord and sparkling dramatically as well as vocally.

For Alessandro Corbelli, performing the role of Dr Bartolo must feel as effortless as putting on his slippers and sipping a night-cap: but, however familiar it all feels, the baritone doesn’t let a detail pass him by, and - as far as Arden’s direction allows - gives a masterclass in comic nuance, balancing understatement with hyperbole, with spot-on timing.

His Act 1 scene with Basilio made less impact than usual, though, largely because - despite revealing a lovely smooth bass - Christophoros Stamboglis under-characterised the role and passed by opportunities for pointed irony. The only ‘memorable’ feature of ‘La Calunnia’ was the smoke that wafted from the music-master’s cassock, which presumably was designed to signify the earthquake or storm that would arise from Bartolo’s rumour-mongering and which would hound the Count out of town. Stamboglis was more secure, musically and dramatically, in Act 2, happy to trade constancy for currency when offered the plenitudes of Almaviva’s pocket.

Janis Kelly showed that her Miss Marple-spinster’s outfit hid a rampant vivaciousness, and stole the show with Berta’s lament for missed romantic chances, ‘Il Vecchiotto Cerca Moglie’.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra fizzed and dazzled under conductor Enrique Mazzola. All in all, this is an enjoyable production with rich pickings both visually and vocally. If only the beautiful designs served the rich, human comedy.

Claire Seymour

This production will be broadcast live in cinemas across the UK on Tuesday 21 June: Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne Opera Festival

Further information about the season’s Glyndebourne productions can be found at:

Casts and production information:

Fiorello: Huw Montague Rendall; Count Almaviva: Taylor Stayton; Figaro: Björn Bürger; Rosina: Danielle de Niese; Dr Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli; Berta: Janis Kelly; Basilio: Christophoros Stamboglis; Officer: Adam Marsden; Actors: Tommy Luther, Maxime Nourissat, Jofre Caraben van der Meer. London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Glyndebourne Chorus. Conductor: Enrique Mazzola; Stage Director: Annabel Arden; Designer: Joanna Parker; Director of Movement: Toby Sedgwick; Lighting Designer: James Farncombe. Sunday 22nd May 2016, Glyndebourne Festival Opera.


product_title=The Barber of Seville at Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Janis Kelly as Berta, Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, Danielle de Niese as Rosina, Taylor Stayton as Figaro [All photos copyright Bill Cooper, courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 7:19 PM

Oedipe at Covent Garden

Oedipe had a long gestation - partly because the composer’s draft manuscripts were lost when they were sent to Moscow in a consignment of crates during the German offensive in Romania in 1917. Inspired by a performance at the Comédie Française in 1909 of Oedipus Tyrannus, by 1922 the opera’s vocal score was prepared; the finishing touches had been applied by 1931, and the opera reached the Paris Opéra stage in March 1936.

Librettist Edmond Fleg ignored the theatrical experimentations of his day - expressionism, constructivism, symbolism - and told the story straight. He also disregarded Aristotelian unities of time, place and action, and traced the eponymous hero’s life from birth to death in the manner of a Victorian Bildungsroman, drawing on both Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus - and also responding to inferences in Homer and Seneca - to re-construct the pre-history of Sophocles’ play. The libretto also emphasizes the parallels between the Greek myth and Christianity - the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt: Fleg’s Oedipus is both universal and Messianic.

Fleg had originally envisaged a Ring-like drama spread over two evenings but Enescu advised, ‘do what the best chefs do. Put it back on the stove and let it reduce’. There are six scenes grouped into four Acts. The first serves as a Prologue in which we learn of the birth of Oedipus and Tirésias’s prophecy that the child will kill his father, King Laïos of Thebes, and marry his mother, Queen Jocaste. Terrified, the monarchs order the Shepherd to take the baby to the Cithaeron Gorge where he will die of exposure, but the Shepherd gives the child to Phorbas who in turn exchanges him with the dead son of King Polybos and Queen Mérope of Corinth. The final Act is an Epilogue in which we see the aged king, attended in his last days by the faithful Antigone. These outer Acts frame the tragic drama.

Now a young man, when leaving Corinth Oedipus hears of his destiny; an angry encounter with Laïos results in the latter’s death. Oedipus then becomes a hero to the Thebans when, solving the Sphinx’s riddle, he saves them from its murderous clutches; in reward they offer him their kingdom, and the widowed Jocaste as a bride. Twenty years pass and Thebes is struck by a terrible plague which the Oracle declares will continue until Laïos’s assassin is punished. When Tirésias reveals the truth of Oedipus’s identity, the king confesses his guilt, blinds himself in atonement and leaves Thebes, accompanied by his daughter, Antigone.

Oedipe_ROH3.pngProduction by Àlex Ollé (La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco with set designer Alfons Flores and costume designer Lluc Castells

This production interweaves the timelessness of the myth with historical specificity, the latter in effect underpinning the former. Alfons Flores’s designs evoke both the cultural glories of the classical past - tiered galleries and statuary - and the destruction and disasters, manmade and natural, of the modern age. Baroque archways are juxtaposed with WWII fighter planes; the ubiquitous clay-coloured palette suggests both ancient pottery and a world ravaged by toxic devastation. In fact, Ollé explains that this visual scheme was inspired by a catastrophic chemical spill in 2010 which saw one million cubic meters of corrosive waste dumped on western Hungary: ‘that mud […] in our minds was also linked with the myth of man’s creation from primeval clay [and] symbolizes the plague that devastates Thebes, and is also the means by which the contagion spreads’.

Lluc Castells’s costumes reference contemporary combat fatigues while Peter van Praet’s lighting design keeps the world in shadow. Indeed, one might be forgiven for deducing that the opera’s message is, ‘we all live in a twilight zone’. The murkiness also obscures some of the set’s copious detail, and the unalleviated gloom is a bit wearying, although it does make the coup de theatre of the closing moments all the more powerful.

Oedipe_ROH2.pngProduction by Àlex Ollé (La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco with lighting design by Peter van Praet

In fact, the production opens with a striking theatrical moment too, when the motionless terracotta statues that populate the four-tiered edifice ‘come to life’, and reveal themselves to be the principals and expanded chorus, the people who bear witness to Oedipus’s tragedy. Such imposing effects conjure the epic grandeur of classical tragedy, but they also run the risk of impeding the dramatic momentum and turning the opera into a series of static tableau. And, while Enescu takes a very different path to that explored by Stravinsky in Oedipus Rex (1926-27 rev. 1948) - the austerity and Latin text of which establish a distance between the audience and the action - Ollé’s immobile figures brought to mind Stravinsky’s instruction that his opera-oratorio should be staged with minimal movement and the principal singers masked.

During the central two Acts, the tension is successfully built, as Tirésias’s prophetic assertions are confirmed one by one; but the early events are presented as stage-pictures and we have to wait until Oedipus’s confrontation with the Sphinx in Act 2 for the drama to take off. Interestingly, this is the point in the libretto where Fleg reveals his Oedipus to be not a tragic victim of higher powers but a modern man, a master of his own destiny.

Sophocles’s riddle had presented a summary of the three stages of human life: ‘What creature is it that moves on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?’ The answer is man, who crawls, then walks, then leans fragilely upon a cane in old age. Fleg changes the Sphinx’s question, ‘Name someone or something that is greater than Fate?’, but the answer is the same: ‘Man! Man alone is more powerful than Fate!’

Her sobs interspersed with cackles, the Sphinx begins to go mad, crying, ‘Only the future will tell whether the Sphinx, as she dies, was weeping at her defeat or laughing in her victory.’ Ollé and Flores heighten this moment by introducing a diving Spitfire plane - an elegant killing-machine - whose wings become those of the Sphinx. The fateful encounter with Laïos - a mad moment of road-rage - is blindingly intense and boosts the dramatic impetus.

Enescu’s Oedipe is a proto-Siegfried, a larger-than-life individual who faces extremities and fatal choices, and the demands placed upon the singer who takes on the marathon role are considerable. The Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter had the power to sustain the crests, singing with pliant, muscular force and clarity. Perhaps the tone colour was rather monochrome but this was still a deeply moving portrayal which conveyed the king’s rage and suffering - Reuter emitted a horrific scream when the truth of Tirésias’s revelation became clear to him - but also convinced us of Oedipus’s ultimate serenity in death.

It is almost a one-man-show, with the other characters somewhat eclipsed; but, the other principal roles were impressively defined and well-delivered.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux was terrifically unnerving as the Sphynx, letting rip a fearful Sphrechgesang howl as she died to an iridescent glissando on musical saw. Indeed, the uncanny orchestration and microtonal nuances formed an aural ‘nightmare’, but and it is a credit to Lemieux that the Sphynx’s so evident agonies won the sympathy of the audience. Stefan Kocan’s contribution to this scene, as the sombre Watchman, was also commanding.

Sarah Connolly was stylish and charismatic as Jocaste, using all the sumptuousness of her mezzo to reveal the Queen’s tragic suffering, while Sophie Bevan injected some welcome sweetness and delicacy as Antigone. Sigmund Freud may have given us the Oedipus Complex in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), a label for our anxieties about self-knowledge and identity, but it seemed a little unsubtle to place Oedipus on a psychiatrist’s couch during his scene with Mérope, though contralto Claudia Huckle sang the role with richness.

As the King of Athens, Thésée, Jette Parker Young Artist Samuel Dale Johnson revealed a lyrical baritone. French bass Nicholas Courjal was a sonorous High Priest, and the role of Phorbas was delivered with dignified composure by Korean bass In Sung Sim. Sir John Tomlinson uttered Tirésias’s two pronouncements with characteristic thunderous resonance.

The score of Oedipe is an amalgam of eclectic influences fused into a suave Romantic idiom in which Wagnerian leitmotiv and Straussian expressionism sit alongside a Debussy-ian melodism (the composer’s flair for setting the French language is one of the opera’s glories), and folk motifs reminiscent of Kodály are juxtaposed with quarter-tone colourings as in the agonised folksong when Oedipus approaches Thebes. There is both lushness - as in the quasi-Brahmsian richness of the joyous celebration of the hero’s birth and the triumphal response to the deliverance of Thebes after Sphinx’s demise - and sparseness, when the orchestration is pared down to a single woodwind instrument accompanying a poetic declamation.

Conductor Leo Hussain brought forth the vividness of Enescu’s orchestration but noted too its refinements, every colour and tone. The ROH Orchestra, and the Chorus - serving as Theban citizens, shepherds, the King’s bodyguard, and aged Athenians - rose magnificently to the challenges.

Enescu elevates Oedipus to almost God-like heights and in the Epilogue Ollé and Carrasco confirm his status as an existential hero, full of defiance and contempt for those forces that would destroy him. His final words, ‘I am innocent, innocent, innocent!’ My will never accorded with my crimes. I triumphed over Fate!’, convey a heroic resistance to oppression and it is not hard to imagine librettist and composer, writing in the aftermath of WW1 and as Romania found itself terrorised by a succession of dictatorial regimes, empathizing with their protagonist.

This production, in its stunning closing image allows Oedipus to transcend from the darkness of blindness to the clarity of celestial light: the directors present a radiant apotheosis as Oedipus walks into the light and regains his sight in death. The words of Sophocles’s Chorus seem apposite: ‘Citizens, listen to me: never glance away from your final day of life. Regard no man as happy until he has passed the boundary stone of death and has suffered no harm.’

Claire Seymour

Casts and production information:

Oedipe: Johan Reuter; Tirésias: John Tomlinson; Antigone: Sophie Bevan; Mérope: Claudia Huckle; Jocaste: Sarah Connolly; The Sphinx: Marie-Nicole Lemieux; A Shepherd: Alan Oke; The Theban High Priest: Nicolas Courjal; Laïos: Hubert Francis; Créon: Samuel Youn; The Watchman: Stefan Kocan; Thésée: Samuel Dale Johnson; Theban Woman: Lauren Fagan. Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Conductor: Leo Hussain; Stage directors: Àlex Ollé (La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco; Set Designer: Alfons Flores; Costume designer: Lluc Castells; Lighting designer: Peter van Praet. Monday, 23 May 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.


product_title=Oedipe at Covent Garden
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Johan Reuter as Oedipus [All photos copyright Clive Barda, courtesy of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]

Posted by michael_m at 5:51 PM

May 22, 2016

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

The final three performances featured the Roméo of Eric Cutler, whose contributions created a memorable atmosphere in what was already a movingly effective production. In addition to Mr. Cutler, Juliette was sung by Susanna Phillips, Frère Laurent by Christian Van Horn, Gertrude by Deborah Nansteel, and Lord Capulet by Philip Horst. The younger generation related to and associated with the Capulets and Montagues was represented by Jason Slayden as Tybalt, Takaoki Onishi as Count Paris, Joshua Hopkins as Mercutio, Anthony Clark Evans as Gregorio, and Marianne Crebassa as Stephano. David Govertsen portrayed the Duke of Verona. Mmes. Nansteel and Crebassa and M. Slayden were singing in debut roles at Lyric Opera. The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Emmanuel Villaume; the production - owned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York - was directed by Bartlett Sher in his Lyric debut; Michael Black prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

Before the overture commences, members of the chorus process, in costume, onto the stage. Some carry chairs to stationery positions, others simply move through the courtyard. This activity continues during the overture until all are assembled and face the audience. From dress, hair-style and decorative accoutrements the atmosphere of a court, from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, and its associated festivities are suggested. When the chorus declaims the prologue detailing the enmity of rival families in Verona, the production emphasizes the overbearing pressure of the court and its ability to snuff out the spark of individual emotion. No secret is made of the tragedy which the chorus relates. Indeed here the figure of Roméo is poised at stage front as he scans the tumult of the court, while Juliette surveys amusedly the doings from her balcony. Both principals are, in these early moments, simple elements in a larger courtly milieu. At the sudden sound of a bell, many of the courtiers don masks and respond to the raucous tone of both music and text, while they pursue pleasure and one another about the stage. Once the scene thins to individual characters, Tybalt and Paris speak of the feast at the Capulet house and, specifically, of the young Juliette who is destined to wed Paris. Mr. Slayden’s impressively supple voice lingered on the description of Juliette as “le trésor unique,” as he guided Mr. Onishi’s Paris toward the family. The male and female members of the chorus trade the line “Ah! qu’elle est belle!” in excited succession as Juliette enters accompanied by her father. In Ms. Phillips’s characterization the heroine still revels in the court’s frivolity as she declares with noted vehemence, “Tout me fȇte et m’enivre!” [“All to celebrate and to enchant me!”]. Soon after the entrance of Roméo with his friends he complains of a dream bearing an unexplained premonition. At once Mercutio seizes the topic and sings the “Ballade de la Reine Mab,” which credits Queen Mab with rule over all human dreams. Mr. Hopkins performs this frenetic depiction delightfully with touching intonation on the final word in “Et te fait rȇver de baisers!” [“And makes you dream of kisses!”]. Within seconds Roméo is indeed struck by the sight of Juliette and of her “beauté celeste” [“heavenly beauty”]. Already in this brief, opening narration Mr. Cutler captures the persona of his character by communicating vocally his emotional entrancement. Each word seems here laden with the weight of growing attraction. Mercutio drags him away at the moment of Juliette’s reappearance. In her protestations to Gertrude, Juliette’s aria “Je veux vivre” [“I wish to live”] celebrates her freedom to revel in the joys of court life before the onset of an emotional attachment. Ms. Phillips’s delivery of this well-known piece is assured in its transitions and runs, while she also omits the decorative top notes before “un doux trésor” [“a sweet treasure”].

Once Juliette is able to send Gertrude away, the subsequent madrigal for two, starting with “Ange adorable” [“Adorable angel”], expresses love in its purest essence. Here the two singers express their attraction innocently believable by accenting individual words. Cutler’s high pitches at the start are followed by an aching, softer color on “vermeille” in “une bouche vermeille” [“a rosy mouth”] signifying Roméo’s growing ardor. Phillips places similarly telling emphasis on “Non! Je l’ai pris!” [“No! I have taken it!”], when refusing to return the penitent’s sin taken up symbolically as her responsibility. The finale of the act halts such touching banter at the return of Tybalt and his recognition of Roméo beneath a mask. As they take leave, both lovers realize the purity of their emotional transformation.

At the start of Act II the result of this change is surely apparent. Roméo sings of the night [“O nuit!”] at he emerges from the darkness at stage rear, just as he soon begs the daylight to commence in the tenor showpiece, “Ah! lève-toi soleil!” (“Ah! Arise, o sun”)]. The light in Juliette’s window induces an ardor made eminently sincere in this aria by Cutler’s fervent appeals. His graceful approach to top notes and remarkable application of piano give the breathless impression of a hero coming to terms with his true love. With the final, extended high pitches on “viens! parais!” [“Come! Appear!”] Cutler’s Roméo has convinced both himself and us of his devotion. The subsequent pursuit of Roméo initiated by Gregorio and the Capulet servants allows for a confrontation with Gertrude who purports to shield the family’s name. In her role as protector of Juliette Ms. Nansteel makes a strong impression. Her deep, rich voice is used with comfortable flexibility and her assumption of this role indicates a natural skill at acting. Indeed her participation with Mr. Van Horn’s Frère Laurent in the emotional commitment of Juliette places a convincing seal on this tragic love. Before these elders witness the secret marriage of the young couple Juliette has undergone an emotional transformation; she tells Roméo that only a sincere love will suffice. In their lovers’ duet on the preceding night the principal voices blend most effectively with an ideal unison on “tristesse” in the line adapted almost literally from Shakespeare, “De cet adieu si douce est la tristesse” [“From this sweet farewell comes such sorrow”]. The final words in this scene belong to Roméo, a parting sentiment made especially poignant in Mr. Cutler’s performance. While imitating the sweet sleep that he wishes for Juliette the word “sommeille!” is held on an extended, dreamlike note. Cutler concludes the scene with an ethereal, high pitch to decorate the “baiser” [“kiss”] that he sends via the night’s breezes [“Que la brise des nuits te porte ce baiser!”].

Religious, spare motifs are assembled for the secret visit to Friar Laurence on the following morning. An appropriate voice of authority is assumed by Van Horn as he declares “Entends ma prière fervente!”]. The tragic irony of the future “enfants” [“children”], who will never be, is emphasized in Van Horn’s embellishment on the repeated word in “Et les enfants de leurs enfants!” [“and the children of their children!”]. With the official pronouncement of marriage Gertrude is recalled for the final moment of happiness in a quartet. “Sois béni” [“Be blessed”] is intoned in innocent ardor while no one yet realizes the tragic consequences to follow.

In the second part of the opera tragedy and misunderstanding indeed predominate. The song of Roméo’s friend Stephano, sung outside the Capulet house, “Que fais-tu, blanche tourtourelle?” [“What are you doing, white turtledove?”] precipitates the series of arguments and duels leading to several deaths and the banishment of Roméo. Ms. Crebassa gives a masterful rendition of Stephano’s chanson, replete with fluttering runs and decorative touches mimicking the flight of a bird. When he is challenged by Tybalt, it is Mercutio who defends the Montague honor. Despite Roméo’s entreaties Mercutio is killed; Roméo’s anger prompts his duel with Tybalt who in turn falls from a sword-blow. The demand of “Justice!” by Lord Capulet summons the Duke of Verona. In this role Mr. Govertsen assumes an authoritative yet sympathetic declamation, when he spares Roméo’s life yet banishes him from the city.

In the final two acts Juliette expresses her understanding for Roméo’s actions, just as he visits to bid farewell. Their extended duet, “Nuit d’hyménée” [“Night of our marriage”] shows both characters entranced in a vocal web, that Phillips and Cutler create as a mirror of their emotions. Their voices blend repeatedly in “toujours à toi” [“Forever yours”] and “il faut partir” [“You must leave”]. In order to thwart the family’s plan of Juliette’s marriage to Paris, Friar Laurence provides the famous potion that will cause her to sleep as if dead. Paris, Lord Capulet, and the assembled court are horrified at her collapse during the marriage ceremony; they prepare instead for a funeral.

The touching, shared death in the final scene of the opera is prefigured by Roméo’s monologue at its start. Here Cutler delineates the anguish, resolution, and faithfulness of the ultimate loving soul in his delivery. Once he enters Juliette’s tomb, unaware of her feigned death, Roméo must take farewell and drink the true poison. Distinct vocal color is applied here to “éternité” and to “peur” [“fear”] which he shuns when facing death for the sake of Juliette. When addressing his own lips, Roméo instructs them to give Juliette his last kiss. Cutler’s soaring pitch on “votre dernier baiser” leads to the heartrending revival of Juliette and the final tragedy of the musical drama.

Salvatore Calomino

image_description=Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]

product_title=Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago
product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino
product_id=Above: Joseph Calleja and Susanna Phillips [Photo by Todd Rosenberg]

Posted by jim_z at 12:00 PM

L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO

John Ramster’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, performed in Shoreditch Town Hall by Royal Academy Opera, is a brilliant illustration of Raymond Leppard’s pithy summary. Updating the opera to a generic ‘present’, Ramster sets out to impress upon us that this ‘shocking story of a psychopathic despot and his gold-digging mistress [is] so fresh and current that it could be taken from a sensational novel set to be published next month’.

With their Marylebone home currently undergoing major renovation and re-design, the singers studying on the Royal Academy Opera programme find themselves nomadic, and Shoreditch Town Hall is their fourth temporary home, after performances at Hackney Empire, the RADA Studios and Ambika 3 ( May Nght). Built in 1865, and with a heritage as one of the grandest Vestry Halls in London, the venue was established as an independent arts and events venue in 2004. With its high ceilings, Italian marble panelled walls and Matcham style balcony the Assembly Hall certainly evokes the soon-to-fade glories of Imperial Rome, but the room presents some challenges — not least the proximity of the motorbikes and buses which can be heard roaring through this regenerated and ‘hipsterfied’ hotspot.

Designer Louis Carver does well to overcome the potential acoustical and sight-line problems. He confines the action within a raised white cube, the back-wall of which presents the shimmering blue and green plumage of a peacock, its head turned to admire its own beauty. It’s a fitting image of Roman pomp and pride, not least because the peacock’s meat and tongue were a favourite Roman gastronomic delicacy and the bird’s glorious feathers were a common decoration in mosaics and frescoes. But, more than that, Roman mythology endowed the peacock — created by Juno from Argus, whose hundred eyes symbolize the vault of heaven and the ‘eyes’ of the stars — with the power to ‘see everything’, and here the tail feathers create an air of tense ‘watchfulness’.

The protagonists — and there are a lot of them in Francesco Busenello’s libretto — enter through apertures in the peacock’s tail and side walls, and the stepped platform which raises the singers aloft emphasises both the hierarchies of the heterogeneous Imperial court and the courtiers’ propensity for self-adulation. Though Monteverdi’s opera retells the story of Poppea’s rise to the throne, it is more concerned with the psychological development of characters who represent a wide range of temperamental aspects of humanity, and whose complex and increasingly intense interactions raise timeless moral questions.

Ramster and Carver make the connections and convergences clear, and the complexities are unified by Jake Wiltshire’s vibrant lighting. Turquoise, emerald and purple consolidate the affections portrayed, deepening to blood-red at the end of each act, as first Seneca welcomes the violent death that awaits him and then Nero and Poppea glory in their supremacy. Michelle Bradbury’s costumes blend the majestic with the mundane — there’s a lot of checked cloth, and some clownish pantaloons for Amor — while the Tyrian purple sported by various soldiers, senators and servants reminds us of the historic setting.

The opera begins with a Prologue which makes clear that the action we are about to witness is the result of a three-way dispute between the goddesses of Fortune (Slovenian soprano Nika Gorič), Virtue (mezzo soprano Katie Stevenson) and Love (soprano Alys Roberts), which leaves the latter victorious. The three singers introduced themselves feistily, their bright, clear voices establishing a confidence and sense of entitlement which was shared by the audacious mortals whose fates they design. Fortuna and Virtù’s duet ‘Human non è, non è celeste cor’ was refreshing and lively, while Roberts’ crisp clarity confirmed her utter conviction that the crown is hers and the World will change direction at her bidding. The goddesses then settled down to view the salacious spectacle from the sides of the stage. And, what a roll call of mortal dissipation, depravity and decadence the seventy-five-year-old Monteverdi conjures in this, his last, opera.

We know, from Monteverdi’s correspondence, that the composer exerted a strong influence on the form and character of the text, persuading Busenello to add scenes and characters and, most importantly, to give pride of place to the human affections. The year before Poppea was performed Monteverdi’s Le Nozze d’Enea con Lavinia was presented in the same theatre, the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, and while the score is lost the Argomento in Badoaro’s libretto contains its author’s remarks: ‘I avoided all farfetched thoughts and conceptions and paid more attention to the affections as Monteverdi wished to have them’.

Similarly, in Poppea the real ‘subject’ is man and his ‘affections’. Ramster and his young cast presented the characters with striking intensity and realism, giving us a wonderfully concentrated drama of human passions in conflict.

At the centre of this conflict are the deluded Emperor and his adulterous mistress. As Nerone, Canadian Eve Daniell used her powerful soprano with skill, control and good judgement. Her voice is silkily rich, and as agile at the top as it is secure and full at the bottom. Its clarity and beauty were piquantly at odds with Nerone’s intentions. The appealing, bright sound communicated the Emperor’s misguided optimism and assurance, as well as his immaturity. Daniell captured the despot’s absolute self-absorption, posing and strutting with the preoccupied narcissism of a modern-day reality-TV contestant. The soprano was excellent in the rapid dialogue — indeed, the cast’s Italian diction was uniformly idiomatic — and vibrant in the stile concitato episodes, as in Nerone’s violent quarrel with Seneca; while the florid passages, such as the duet with Lucano (William Blake), were nimbly executed.

Emma Stannard was a veritable vixen as Poppea, viciously feline and ruthlessly egocentric. Her mezzo soprano is magnificently rich and full, and she knows how to control it — just as her Poppea knows how to get what she wants. The first duet for Nero and Poppea flowed with intoxicating sensuousness, though Ramster’s ‘gimmick’ — the lovers sang their spicy ‘sweet nothings’ into their mobile phones, Nero pleasuring himself while Poppea callously toyed with the desperate Ottone — grew tiresome after a while.

Patrick Terry’s Ottone, returning from the remote regions whence he has been despatched by the calculating Nerone, was a portrait of tentative hope and confounded misery, superseded by violent vengeance. The countertenor struggled to project the more low lying passages in this opening number but he was moving as Poppea’s spurned lover, and agile in in the melismatic word-painting, ‘Sogni portate a volo’ (Fly my dreams, into hers). Ottone’s later monologue, in which plans to murder Poppea was affecting, conveying both pain and implacable wrath.

I was impressed by Claire Barnett-Jones’s Ottavia: ‘Disprezzata Regina’, in which Nerone’s neglected and rejected spouse swears vengeance, was a convincing, burning portrait of an aggrieved wife and wronged womanhood. The mezzo soprano showed control and flexibility in the short phrases which convey Ottavia’s changing moods and ‘A Dio Roma’ was full of pathos.

I had admired Barnett-Jones in British Youth Opera’s production of Holst’s Riders to the Sea ( review), writing that ‘Barnett-Jones’s declamation was grave and transfixing, taking us compellingly through the inexorable journey, and submission, to death; she sustained the vocal and dramatic intensity through her long monologues … Barnett-Jones is clearly a young singer to watch’. Her performance as Ottavia certainly confirmed this.

Timothy Murphy lacked the strength at the bottom necessary to convey Seneca’s astonishing dignity, but the Irish bass baritone showed a good sense of musical line when espousing his quiet philosophy in his scene aria with Ottavia, and when renouncing all worldly desire and accepting his fate. Warned by Pallade (Nika Gorič) of his impending death, Seneca knelt calmly and welcomed his ascension to the heavens, ‘Venga, venga la morte’, the deep red glow behind him, which sank into blackness, ominously embodying his decease and destiny.

Arnalta’s tender lullaby was beautifully sung by Helen Brackenbury, and her mezzo contrasted effectively with Stannard when the Nurse cautioned her mistress of Ottavia’s jealousy. Spanish Lorena Paz Nieto exhibited a thrilling shine to her soprano as Drusilla. Laura Zigmantaite (Valletto) joined with Alys Roberts’s Damigella for a delightful duet which was a refreshing moment of sincerity in an opera drowning in deceit.

Conducted by Jane Glover, in her last performance as the RA’s Director of Opera, members of the Academy’s Historical Performance department accompanied the cast, the instrumentalists moving stylishly and naturally through Monteverdi’s diverse forms and idioms. The bass playing from cellists Anne-Linde VIsser and Tabea Debus, alongside double bass player Marianne Schofield, was particularly impressive: unobtrusive yet decisive.

The final all-conquering duet for the crowned lovers, ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’, was ecstatic and sweeping. Ramster had a twist in store for us, though. The Monteverdi scholar Leo Schrade declared that ‘at the close Poppea is the incarnation of love, and love Nero’s destiny’, and it does seem as if lust, passion and ambition have won the day. However, as Ramster reminds us, ‘This Union of Love and Ambition is a mere snapshot, a moment in time, for all that it appears to be happy-ever-after’. So, as Nerone and Poppea welcomed the admiring congratulations of their court, Amor, squeezed between them, slumped to the floor — his victory an ‘empty’ one, as symbolised by the space between the two lovers. Violence is the true victor here — Nerone will kill his empress — as a pistol-pointing soldier behind the regal pair reminded us.

In his writings, Busenello praised Monteverdi as the man who brought music in general, and dramatic music in particular, to perfection — a musician whose art is immortal. Who, after this tremendous performance, would disagree?

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Fortuna/ Pallade — Nika Goric , Virtù/ Venere — Katie Stevenson , Amor/ Damigella — Alys Roberts, Ottone — Patrick Terry, Soldato 1/ Famigliaro 2 — Mikhail Shepelenko, Soldato 2/ Mercurio — Alex Otterburn, Poppea — Emma Stannard, Nerone — Eve Daniell, Arnalta — Helen Brackenbury, Ottavia — Claire Barnett-Jones, Seneca — Timothy Murphy, Valetto — Laura Zigmantaite, Druslla — Lorena Paz Nieto, Liberto/ Littore/ Famigliaro 3 — Dominic Bowe, Lucano — William Blake , Famigliaro 1 — Tristram Cooke; director — John Ramster, conductor — Jane Glover, set designer — Louis Carver, costume designer — Michelle Bradbury, lighting designer — Jake Wiltshire, Royal Academy Baroque Orchestra. Shoreditch Town Hall, London, Friday 20th May 2016.

image= image_description=Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Music product=yes product_title=L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above image courtesy of Royal Academy of Music
Posted by Gary at 10:56 AM

May 21, 2016

Madame Butterfly , ENO

So much depends upon Peter Mumford’s stunning lighting design which in the opening moments floods Minghella’s cinematic vista with the fiery red of the rising sun against which a geisha’s silhouette curves and bends in elegant pirouettes and graceful bows, her folding-fan catching the sun’s gold as it flutters like a butterfly wing. Mumford’s colours are stirringly vibrant but, paradoxically, shift subtly from hue to hue. Acidic orange fades to an apricot which mutates to dusky rose, then deepens through cerise to purple: it is as if we are sliding through a shimmering rainbow, an oxymoronic fusion of intensity and insubstantiality.

Above the stage a shiny dark slope hangs, lacquer-black, hazily and suggestively reflecting the shifting movements and colours below — like a liquid mirror. Mumford illuminates Han Feng’s glorious rich-coloured and glossy textured costumes with searing intensity. When day turns to night, the preciousness and fragility of Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s delusory dreaming at the end of Act 1 is evoked by the raindrops of blush-tintedsakura petals which float down between the drifting paper lantern-domes, forming trailing fronds of starlight — reminiscent of the hannabi displays so familiar of Japanese summer nights. At the close, the burning crimson returns: as Butterfly commits ritual self-sacrifice, the trains of her kimono, with which the black-clad dancers of Blind Sight encircle and bind her at the opening, now unravel like streams of blood, drowning all in guilt and repentance.

The visual opulence made even more impact than I remembered from my previous viewings. As the characters entered from the rear via the crest of designer Michael Levine’s sharply sloping stage, the nation’s culture of regal ceremony and ritual was powerfully intimated. The sliding shoji swept across the minimalist stage forming countless spatial permutations, like the screens of a magician who deftly tricks us with his optical illusions and mirages.

The dancers and puppeteers of Blind Summit were also even more hypnotic and dexterous than I remembered, pulsing and swirling with a dangerous energy (choreography is by Carolyn Choa). The mime-dance at the start of Act 2 Scene 2 where a fan/knife makes ambiguous patterns in the air, foreshadowing Butterfly’s suicide, was compelling and disquieting.

Moreover, the intimations aroused by the extraordinarily sensitive manipulations of the bunraku puppet which embodies Butterfly’s child, Swallow, were truly affecting — highly nuanced and allusive. Tiny footsteps suggested both animation and the unsteadiness of youthful feet; a backwards glance at his mother conveyed an unquestioning love and trust as the child stumbled towards the out-stretched hand of the American Consul. Moreover where I previously found the uncanny veracity of the marionette rather distancing and alien, now the ‘strangeness’ seemed to perfectly convey the clash of cultures. Cio-Cio-San has declared her allegiance to her husband’s United States of America and invites the Consul her house — a tiny part of ‘home’ in this ‘foreign’ land — proudly and defiantly revealing her blue-eyed child. But, the stylisation of the puppet’s movements belies the sailor-suit he wears: he is exotic, Japanese, a literal representation of that culture’s traditions and values.

It was a pity, then, that the cast’s achievements were so mixed. In the title role, American soprano Rena Harms was a surprisingly confident — and at times coquettish — fifteen-year-old in Act 1. I have lived in Japan and I have yet to see a Japanese woman laugh without turning her face and covering her mouth, but this young geisha was full of self-possession, aware of her own charm. This Butterfly really was more American than Japanese. Harms’ soprano is fairly light and when challenged to rise above the ENO orchestra — who were encouraged to play with rather too much enthusiasm and force at times by conductor Sir Richard Armstrong — her voice acquired a slightly hard edge and astringency. More spinto strength was needed — such as was exhibited by Stephanie Windsor-Lewis who was a sympathetic Suzuki — so that the dramatic climaxes could be conquered without strain. A Romantic fullness would have benefitted ‘One fine day’, where the instrumental doubling tended to obscure the vocal line in the lower registers. Disappointing, too, was Harms’ diction: scarcely a consonant was audible and vowels were oddly distorted — the surtitles which should be redundant in a house which prides itself on performing in English were absolutely essential. The only, partial saving grace was that one was not distracted by the inappropriate intonation and tone of the English language within this Italianate idiom.

The same could not be said of David Butt Philip whose F.B. Pinkerton was the epitome of RP. In fact, so elevated in style and tone was his diction that he was more reserved English gentleman than swaggering Yankee. But, he sang with consistently stylish phrasing and, though his tenor is not a big voice, was able to project without vocal tension.

This Pinkerton seemed bewildered at how such things had come to pass. Taken together with Harms’ assertiveness, this altered the tragic dynamic between the protagonists and between Butterfly and her environment. Pinkerton was less a villain than a naïve romantic, too immature to reflect on consequences; Butterfly less a victim than a misguided dreamer, desperate to assume the regalia of Pinkerton’s idealised fantasy.

When I heard George von Bergen in the role of the American Consul Sharpless in 2013 I was not overly impressed, finding him resonant but lacking in focus, dramatically and vocally. On this occasion, he was the leading light. Singing with excellent diction and real vocal warmth, his compassion and contrition when confronted with Butterfly’s unwavering faith and love was utterly convincing, and more affecting in the light of his earlier complicity in Pinkerton’s colonial presumption.

Alun Rhys-Jenkins reprised his Goro of 2013 but while his phrasing and tone were engaging, I found this marriage broker less vivacious and mischievous than at the previous hearing. Matthew Durkan was a noble Prince Yamadori but his implorings did not equal the majesty of his ceremonial attire. Mark Richardson, also returning to the production, made a menacing impression as The Bonze, Butterfly’s fierce uncle. Samantha Price sang confidently as Kate Pinkerton.

Overall, whatever the unevenness in the casting, this Butterfly is worth catching for the ocular sumptuousness and gratification that it supplies in to heady excess.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Cio-Cio-San — Rena Harms, Suzuki — Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, Pinkerton — David Butt Philip, Sharpless — George van Bergen, Goro — Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Prince Yamadori — Matthew Durkan, The Bonze — Mark Richardson, Yakuside — Philip Daggett, Kate Pinkerton — Samantha Price, Imperial Commissioner — Paul Napier-Burrows, Official Registrar — Roger Begley, Cio-Cio-San’s Mother — Natalie Herman, Cousin — Morag Boyle, Aunt — Judith Douglas, Sorrow — Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva; director — Anthony Minghella (revival director — Sarah Tipple), associate director/choreographer — Carolyn Choa (revival choreographer — Anita Griffin), set designer — Michael Levine, lighting designer — Peter Mumford (revival lighting designer — Ian Jackson-French), costume designer — Han Feng, Orchestral and Chorus of English National Opera, puppetry — Blind Summit Theatre, Mark Down & Nick Barnes. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, Wednesday 18th May 2016.

image= image_description=Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles] product=yes product_title=Madame Butterfly , ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Rena Harms as Madama Butterfly and David Butt Philip as Pinkerton [Photo © Tom Bowles]
Posted by Gary at 9:57 AM

An interview with Tobias Ringborg

‘Things must be going well,’ I remark to Tobias Ringborg, and the Swedish conductor confirms that the cast and creative team are greatly enjoying the excitement and intensity of these initial rehearsals. There is, however, an enormous amount to take in during the limited preparation time available, and that day he’d judged that the singers needed to pause, absorb and reflect on the day’s work. Director Tim Albery, with whom Ringborg worked on Opera North’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth in 2014, pushes every one hard; his direction is incredibly detailed and he takes trouble with every single word — what it means, what it infers, how it should be delivered.

The rehearsal studio contains a model of Hannah Clark’s design — though Ringborg didn’t let slip any clues — and Clark and Albery have been visiting Garsington/Wormsley to see the set constructed on site. It will be Ringborg’s début in architect Robin Snell’s award-winning Pavilion at the Wormsley Estate, though he enjoyed the 2014 production of Fidelio as an audience member and is looking forward to the exploring the venue’s potential and its challenges.

It must help that for Ringborg Idomeneo truly is ‘in the blood’. He is returning to the work for the third time, having conducted the opera in Malmö in 2012 and before that for Danish National Opera in 2010, where he led 25 performances with 5 different orchestras —sometimes presenting an evening performance with one orchestra, having been rehearsing with another during the day! But, each production brings fresh ideas and insights, he explains, as one sees new things in the score and hears new things in singers’ interpretations. Ringborg finds Idomeneo a very ‘modern’ work, whose harmonic ambiguity is present right from the overture. Indeed, in his Cambridge Opera Handbook on the work, Julian Rushton commented that ‘part of the abiding fascination with Idomeneo is the tension between conventional forms and a radical form of continuity’.

Ringborg has a terrific cast to work with. Toby Spence is making his Garsington Opera début in the title role, alongside Caitlin Hulcup — who was Ringborg’s Dorabella in Così fan tutte at Scottish Opera in 2009 — and Louise Alder who makes début with Garsington Opera as Ilia, following her highly regarded ROH début as Euridice in Keith Warner’s production of Luigi Rossi’s Orpheus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this season.

While he is an experienced Mozartian, Ringborg explains that his heart really lies in nineteenth-century Italy, in the ‘big’ Romantic works of Verdi and Puccini. The latter, in particular, gets straight to the soul, bypassing ‘thought’ and touching the essence of human emotion and feeling.

In fact, Ringborg began his professional career as a violinist and still performs as a soloist and chamber musician — although he admits that an international opera schedule does not facilitate a regular practice routine. Having begun learning the instrument at the age of three, in 1994 he won the prestigious Swedish Soloist Prize and graduated from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, before moving to New York where he spent two years studying at the Juilliard School. While his career as a professional violinist began successfully, Ringborg later reflected on where his musical passions were taking him and took a diversion from the concert hall to the opera house.

I ask if he had always had a yearning to be a conductor and he replies that, while he had no conscious plan to pick up the baton, a subconscious desire may well have been present. He remembers a performance of Tosca when he was ten-years-old which left him transfixed and which sowed the seeds of a life-long fascination with the music of Puccini. He still owns the copy of the score of Tosca over which he obsessively poured — he wonders why a young boy who knew nothing of love, hatred, torture should be so overwhelmed by Puccini’s opera? — and has memories of his younger self listening to other operas, score perched on a music stand as he conducted along to the music flowing through the headphones.

Success as a conductor came swiftly. Having participated in a masterclass, he quickly found himself winning a conducting competition in Helsingborg in 2000, and the following year made his operatic début at the Stockholm Folkoperan with Verdi’s La traviata, and at the Royal Swedish Opera with Puccini’s La Bohème. A two-year association with Malmö Opera followed, leading to performances of diverse repertoire including Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Verdi’s Otello.

Ringborg reflects that he was fortunate in the early stages of his conducting career to do school and youth concerts — educational programmes are an essential part of Swedish institutional music-making — which offered the opportunity to perform wide-ranging repertoire and to re-visit and repeat works many times. He might find himself conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ten times in a week — where else would one get that chance?

The aforementioned Così in Scotland marked his first performance in the UK and he returned to Scotland for Rigoletto in 2011 and Il Trovatore in 2015, while at Opera North he has since conducted La Bohème, Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Macbeth (with Albery) and, most recently, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.

I ask what works are top of his wish-list. Inevitably, Puccini looms large: Ringborg would really like to tackle Il Trittico, having previously conducted Il Tabarro (along with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci). Does any less familiar repertoire tempt him? After all, it was Ringborg who rescued the Italian/Swedish composer Jacopo Foroni’s 1849 bel canto masterpiece, Cristina, Regina di Svezia, from obscurity when he conducted the opera at the 2007 Vadstena Summer Opera Festival, subsequently making the world premiere recording of the work with Gothenburg Opera in 2010 (Cristina). I recall the Wexford Festival Opera production of 2013 ( Wexford 2013) and Ringborg is full of enthusiasm for Foroni who, he is certain, would surely have rivalled the ‘greats’ of Italian Romantic Opera had not revolutionary events in 1848 led him to leave his native land for more northern climes — ‘At that time Sweden was like the North Pole!’ exclaims Ringborg.

He would also love to conduct Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, with its fantastic role for the eponymous mezzo soprano, and, venturing into the twentieth century, Wozzeck and Peter Grimes both appeal.

But, first there is more Mozart and Italian repertoire. Just days after the close of Garsington’s Idomeneo run, Ringborg will find himself back at Danish National Opera rehearsing Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani, with director Annilese Miskimmon — and he notes that it was interesting to hear the composer’s first opera when Opera Rara gave a concert performance of Adelson e Salvini at the Barbican Hall earlier this month ( Adelson e Salvini ). Despite the ‘weaknesses’ of the student score, one could hear where things began and where Bellini was heading. Then, in October, Ringborg returns to Scottish Opera for a revival of Sir Thomas Allen’s much-loved production of The Marriage of Figaro.

When Ringborg conducted Il trovatore at Scottish Opera in 2015 the critical press was eulogistic, praising the ‘near-perfect balance between pit and stage’ (Herald), ‘razor-sharp rhythms and ominous bass lines … true Verdian music-making’ ( The Times), and the ‘clarity of texture and energised, but disciplined, pacing’ (The Scotsman). The Stage reviewer declared that much of the credit for the ‘taut music-making and unstoppable dramatic momentum … goes to Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg, who pushes the score along as if he had real fire and brimstone in his veins’. This energy and passion is evident throughout our conversation: despite the day’s strenuous and demanding rehearsal, Ringborg is animated, intent and lively company.

No doubt he will bring this characteristic vigour to Idomeneo, which opens at Garsington on 19 June and continues in repertory until 11 July.

Claire Seymour

Garsington’s 2016 season presents four masterpieces by some of the most enduring composers of all time. Tchaikovsky’s most famous and exquisite opera, Eugene Onegin , is brought to life for the first time at Garsington Opera by Michael Boyd together with the company’s Artistic Director, Douglas Boyd. The work of Rossini makes a return to the Festival with his sparkling L’italiana in Algeri , led by David Parry. Idomeneo , Mozart’s sublime early masterpiece is directed by Tim Albery and conducted by Tobias Ringborg. In addition, Garsington Opera collaborates with Rambert on a joint project, providing a rare opportunity to see Haydn’s The Creation illuminated through dance.

For further details see: Garsington 2016

Eugene Onegin will be screened to the following locations as part of the Opera for All project:

Skegness — Saturday 2 July; Ramsgate — Saturday 23 July; Bridgewater & Burnham — Saturday 20 August; Grimsby — Friday 30 September.

image= image_description=Tobias Ringborg [Photo by Ryan Garrison] product=yes product_title=An interview with Tobias Ringborg product_by=An interview by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Tobias Ringborg [Photo by Ryan Garrison]
Posted by Gary at 9:45 AM

May 17, 2016

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

La straniera ’s rarity on the opera stage is often blamed on Felice Romani’s libretto, perhaps a tad unfairly. Neither plot nor subject matter is more unlikely than your average early nineteenth century Italian opera. Like Rossini’s La donna del lago and Donizetti’s La favorite, La straniera features an alluring leading lady with royal affiliations in idyllic and/or gothic surroundings. The plot line is stop-and-go because of the lengthy scenes. Bellini intersperses his melodious arias and scampering cabalettas with half-sung recitatives. This canto declamato, innovative at the 1829 première, requires fine singing actors to set it alight. The many tropes in the plot are a weakness: bucolic surroundings, persecution of outsiders, love versus duty, a love triangle (or two), and more. However, Bellini’s spicy brass and percussion and gracefully coiling melodies, effortlessly evoking everything from crystal lakes to a vigilante mob, almost justify this thematic patchwork.

The plot is tenuously historical. Around the end of the twelfth century, Philip II of France became a bigamist when the Pope refused to recognize the annulment of his first marriage. After sending Ingeborg of Denmark away after their wedding night, Philip married Agnes of Merania. Brandishing excommunication and worse, the Pope forced him to take Ingeborg back. The real Agnes died of a broken heart, ending Philip’s papal problems, but at the end of the opera it is Ingeborg who dies, and Agnese, aka Alaide, the “foreigner” of the title, is revealed as the rightful queen. Because Alaide lives alone in a hut, the local peasants naturally accuse her of witchcraft. Equally naturally, a young nobleman, Arturo, becomes smitten with her. Her brother has moved close by, to watch over her, disguised as Baron Valdeburgo, and when he advises Arturo to forget her, the latter takes him for a rival and wounds him in a duel. Alaide is tried for Valdeburgo’s murder before the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers. To complicate matters, Arturo is engaged to Isoletta, the daughter of the local lord. Although she is in love with him, Alaide urges Arturo to go through with the wedding. He almost does, but abandons Isoletta at the altar, only to fall on his sword when he learns Alaide’s true identity. The opera ends in her anguished final aria, aflutter with trills and hopefully ending in a cracking high D-flat.

Soprano Annick Massis held on to that glorious final note for no less than eight seconds. Indeed, her top notes were piercing and pleasingly metallic. After a quavering opening cadenza, her technique settled, revealing an impressive virtuosic toolbox. Despite less than steadfast pitch, her phrasing was sensitive and stylish. Unfortunately, her voice was too small and soft-grained for the role, and her diction not sharp enough to compensate for the lack of dramatic scale. She deftly negotiated chromatic runs, but they were rendered uneven by timbral differences in the registers — her voice loses quality the lower it goes. Ms Massis was frequently inaudible in the big ensembles. In fact, none of the singers except Alisa Kolosova had the volume to match conductor Giancarlo Andretta’s decibels. Although her first appearance had some pitch issues, with her rich, shiny mezzo and emotional intensity Ms Kolosova was immediately a flesh-and-blood Isoletta. Her heartfelt rejected bride aria was one of the few moments when this mostly earthbound performance took flight.

With most of the singers glued to the score most of the time, acting, vocal and otherwise, was inhibited. Tenor Leonardo Capalbo tried his best, and mostly succeeded, in transmitting Arturo’s pain. He was sweetly ardent in the love duet and thereafter increasingly distraught, his clear enunciation injecting drama into the fast strettas. He has a very attractive, light lyric voice with a tendency to press at forte and to end beautifully emitted phrases with unsupported notes. His was a rather exasperating performance — copious natural talent and a lovely mezza-voce, but also some decidedly unlovely pushing. Like Mr Capalbo, baritone Luca Grassi had excellent diction, but his grayscale performance suffered from unreliable intonation and was relentlessly dour. That is, until his animated Act II aria, “Meco tu vieni, o misera” when Valdeburgo, presumed dead, appears at the trial to acquit his sister. Supporting roles were well-sung. Bass Massimiliano Catellani was a dignified Montolino, Isoletta’s father. Refreshingly unhitched from his score, bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi sang a commanding Prior with a voice of melted chocolate. It is a pity that Osburgo, Arturo’s confidant, sings mostly with the chorus. In his few solo lines, Luis Gomes displayed a pliant, brightly coloured tenor. Hopefully, Amsterdam will get to hear him in a bigger role.

Mr Andretta led the Royal Flemish Philharmonic at a forward tilt, with rhythmic tightness, but the overall impression was one of underprepared commitment. Uncertain entrances and tempo tugs-of-war indicated insufficient rehearsal time. It took a while for the men of the Netherlands Radio Choir to line up properly and the chorus as a whole lacked finish. Similarly, the orchestra showed little interpretative flair, despite many fine instrumental intros, including fragrant flute and oboe solos. Mr Andretta led thrilling crescendos, but elsewhere gloopy strings and matt dynamics robbed the score of its airiness. In spite of these reservations, the NTR ZaterdagMatinee deserves high praise for programming this kind of repertoire. The loudly enthusiastic Concertgebouw audience would certainly welcome more of it.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Alaide: Annick Massis; Isoletta: Alisa Kolosova; Arturo: Leonardo Capalbo; Baron Valdeburgo: Luca Grassi; the Duke of Montolino: Massimiliano Catalani; the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers: Roberto Lorenzi; Osburgo: Luis Gomez. Netherlands Radio Choir, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Conductor: Giancarlo Andretta. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Saturday, 14th May 2016.

image= image_description=Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini] product=yes product_title=Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=Above: Annick Massis [Photo by Gianni Ugolini]
Posted by Gary at 10:27 AM

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

The words of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) convey the composer’s innate sensitivity to the English language — a perspicacity which was recognised during his lifetime and which continues to provide a model for composers committed to song and opera in English to the present day. As Benjamin Britten remarked, ‘Here surely is the way to make the English language live again in song’. And, in his Introduction to Peter Grimes Benjamin, Britten professed, ‘One of my chief aims is to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the days of Purcell’.

But, Purcell was just one of bright crop of fresh talent working who benefited from the renewed flowering of music at the Restoration court, with its new theatres, a new court orchestra and new Chapel Royal. Matthew Locke, John Blow, Pelham Humfrey and Michael Wise, among others, were hailed as leaders of a burgeoning national school; as Purcell himself noted, ‘Poetry and painting have arrived to their perfection in our own country; music is yet but in its nonage, a forward child, which gives hope of what it may be hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more encouragement.’

In a programme entitled ‘Words With Purcell’ countertenor Iestyn Davies, accompanied by Jonathan Manson (bass viol), Alex McCartney (lute) and Jonathan Cohen (harpsichord/organ), allowed us to experience some of Purcell’s best known and much loved songs alongside the music of his contemporaries, and to imagine cross-influences and emulations — not only within the court of Charles II, but also from the European musical centres without.

Pelham Humfrey’s ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin’ sets John Donne’s elliptical text in which the pun which recurs at the end of each of the three stanzas — ‘When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done’ — suggests that autobiographical reflection on the transience of artistic achievement (‘I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun/My last thread, I shall perish on the shore’) co-exists with the speaker’s more obvious supplication for forgiveness for that Original Sin that he has not committed but merely inherited. The twists and turns of doubt were wonderfully expressed by the subtle chromaticism and major-minor juxtapositions of the organ, viol and lute accompaniment, descending to low realms in the central verse, while Davies’s beautiful arioso line revealed the emotive strength of Humfrey’s melodic voice and a feeling for the accentuations of words to rival that of Humfrey’s pupil, Purcell.

The metaphysical questing continued in William Croft’s well-wrought ‘What art thou? (A Hymn on Divine Musick)’ where Davies’s fluid countertenor engaged dramatically with Manson’s viol as the latter roved and delved. After a series of questions, the acceleration of the final five lines suggested growing certainty, and climaxed with an exquisite whispered apotheosis: ‘But either thou art Heav’n, or Heav’n is thee.’ Jeremiah Clarke’s ‘Blest be those sweet regions (A Divine Hymn)’ brought forth more animated viol playing while Davies floated the attractive Italianate, triple-time line, with its repetitions and beguiling sequences.

John Blow was represented by ‘No, Lesbia, no, you ask in vain’, a funeral ode, setting Mr Herbert’s verse, on the occasion of the death of Queen Mary II. This number afforded Davies the opportunity to demonstrate nimbleness and purity of sound as he negotiated the florid melodic line. A repeating decorative flourish made visceral the ‘sorrow’ of ‘ev’ry Nymph and Swain’ who ‘Hang down their Heads, and weep!’, while extended melismas on ‘Lesbia’, underpinned by a chromatic bass line, communicated the agony of a ‘Loss can’t be exprest’. ‘Sighs’, ‘groans’ and ‘throbbings’ were painted onomatopoeically but Davies’s shaping of the final phrases conveyed the serene composure of the Queen’s subjects in their conviction that their monarch ‘shines beyond the Skies’.

Continental influences were represented by Robert de Visée (c.1655-1732/33) — lutenist, viol player, singer and composer, and guitar teacher to the Dauphin, at the court of Louis XIV — and Giovanni Battista Draghi (c.1640-1708), who travelled to England in 1663 to join an ensemble of Italian musicians established under royal patronage.

De Visée was a disciple of Jean Etienne Vaudry Sayzenay and the latter is named as the Portuguese composer’s ‘Master’ in the manuscript of 1699 which is his legacy. Alex McCartney revealed the strikingly modern rhetoric of the Prélude: Entrée d’Apollon (after Lully), Sarabande and Courante from this manuscript; McCartney was supremely sensitive to the elegant gravity of the idiom — the slow courante in the French style epitomised the prioritisation of atmosphere over virtuosity — and explored interesting low registers and unexpected metrical accents with variety of tone and diversity of strums. My only misgiving was that the material seemed to suggest an intimacy which it was difficult to satisfy in the large nave of St John’s.

Draghi’s ‘Italian Ground’ (from The Delightful Companion of 1686) revealed a plushness and Italianate idiom in which the delicacy of the viol line deepened in weight towards the close. In contrast, Christopher Simpson’s Division in D major (from The Division Viol of 1665) revelled in its English idiosyncrasies. ‘Division’ referred to temporal partitions: the aim was to play 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and so on notes for each note of the original theme. Simpson’s own preface explains that the division bow arm was to be kept absolutely rigid and straight at the elbow, with almost all movement made solely by the shoulder joint, in radical distinction to European practice. In this performance by Mason and Cohen the ever-increasing intricacy was compelling.

Purcell was naturally centre-stage in this programme, though, and here Davies’s warm, rounded tone came into its own. The flawlessness of the countertenor’s technique enables rather than prohibits expressive depth, but the effortlessness of his delivery did conjure a persuasive ease, preventing numbers such as ‘O Solitude’ from indulging in sentimentality. Davies knows when to let the text speak and when to prioritise musical gesture: the open vowels at the close of ‘O Solitude’ were exploited to imbue the song with ecstatic force, and the four verbs — ‘strike’, ‘touch’, ‘wake’, inspire’ — which open the birthday ode of Queen Mary of 1694, ‘Come, ye Sons of Art, away’, burst forth with vigour.

Occasionally I found Mason’s organ accompaniment too penetrating in the acoustic of St John’s. But, in ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ Davies’s crystalline tone gave definition to the vocal explorations, while ‘Lord, what is man’ was laden with emotive emphasis of the text, complemented by exuberant viol motifs. ‘Music for a While’ certainly beguiled cares, but its impact was rather diminished by the tardy reappearance of many audience members after the interval. Should Davies have waited until all were seated? I can understand his impatience to proceed but perhaps on this occasion frustration should have taken second place to pragmatism.

‘Sweeter than Roses’ benefitted from a more settled ambience, and the dissonant aching quality was beautiful wrought combining seductive lilt with telling ‘edge’. After the virtuosity of John Weldon’s ‘An Alleluia’ (for so long attributed to Purcell) the thoughtful meanderings of the ‘Evening Hymn’ were delivered directly and without undue interpretative meddling.

Throughout this programme, the performers let the music speak for itself: beautiful and stylish, their technical polish blended with the expressive intensity which so defines the music of this period. Quite simply, and at the risk of indulgent hyperbole, Davies’s voice is one of utter beauty and sweetness; what an unrivalled joy it is to indulge in its loveliness.

Claire Seymour

Performers and progamme:

Iestyn Davies — counter-tenor, Jonathan Manson — bass viol, Alex McCartney — lute, Jonathan Cohen — harpsichord/organ.

Henry Purcell — ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, ‘Strike the viol, touch the lute’ (from Birthday Ode for Queen Mary 1694), ‘Here the Deities approve’ (from Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day 1683); Robert de Visée — Selection from the Vaudry de Saizenay MS (1699); Pelham Humfrey — ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin’ (A Hymne to God the Father); William Croft — ‘What art thou?’ (A Hymn on Divine Musick); Giovanni Battista Draghi — The Italian Ground (fromThe Delightful Companion 1686); Henry Purcell — ‘Tis Nature’s voice’ (fromOde for St. Cecilia’s Day), ‘Lord, what is a man (A Divine Hymn), ‘Music for a while’ (from Oedipus, King of Thebes); Jeremiah Clarke — ‘Blest be those sweet regions’ (A Divine Hymn); Henry Purcell — ‘Sweeter than roses’ (from Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country); Christopher Simpson — Division in D major (from The Division-Viol 1665); John Blow — ‘No, Lesbia, no, you ask in vain’ (The Queen’s Epicideum); John Weldon attr. Henry Purcell — An Alleluia (ed. Benjamin Britten); Henry Purcell — ‘Now that the sun hath veiled his light’(An Evening Hymn on a Ground).

St John’s Smith Square, London. Sunday 15th May 2016

image= image_description=Iestyn Davies [Photo by Marco Borggreve] product=yes product_title=London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
Posted by Gary at 8:54 AM

May 14, 2016

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

Is Hans Zender’s Winterreise (1993) part of the same trend? After all, it might be described as a sort of polystylist mix of one the sacred icons of the classical repertoire, in which the spirit of the nineteenth-century German lied is fused with echoes of other musical ‘voices’ as diverse as Mahler, Weill, Berg, Berio and even Michael Nyman. Now, to this musical synthesis director Netia Jones has added a visual complement, creating ‘The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise’, which is being staged in the Barbican Theatre by tenor Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann.

Schubert’s Winterreise has inspired responses — musical, artistic, theatrical — of many shapes and forms. In March 1996, tenor Martyn Hill and pianist Andrew Ball performed the song-cycle within an installation conceived by Christian Boltanski and directed by Hans Peter Cloos at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Artist Mariele Neudecker, working with baritone Andrew Foster-Williams and pianist Christopher Gould in 2003, used Schubert’s songs as the basis for a compilation of 24 short films — each of which existed as both a live performance and gallery version — using locations along the 60th parallel north. In the same year, choreographer Trisha Brown populated Schubert’s cycle through a ballet in which baritone Simon Keenlyside both sang and danced.

Among many re-instrumentations are Liszt’s transcriptions for piano solo, and the solo violin studies created in the 1880s by Richard Sahla from three of the cycle. Zender, though, does more than transcribe or arrange: his ‘composed interpretation’ deconstructs Schubert’s original while sustaining a meticulous analytical engagement with Schubert’s score. The composer/conductor described how his Winterreise makes use of ‘the liberties that all composers intuitively allow themselves: the slowing or quickening of tempi, the transposition into different keys, and the revealing of more characteristic and colourful nuances’ while all ‘possibilities remain subject to compositional discipline’.

While the vocal line is more or less intact — though fragmented by stops and starts and some spoken delivery — the songs are given expanded introductions and postludes (which Zender equates with practice of the great pianists at turn of century of ‘improvising small bridges between the different pieces they performed during a concert’), and new counterpoints which build harmonically and melodically on Schubert’s original. Zender creates a sonic narrative through instrumentation which includes prominent percussion, including wind and rain machines, and eclectic orchestral voices — oboe d’amore, soprano saxophone, guitar, harp, harmonica, accordion. These are theatrically deployed, though the onomatopoeic effects — mimicry of howling dogs and clattering chains (‘Im Dorfe’/In the Village) and the stormy winds (the dislocating rhythms, harmonies and percussive battery of ‘Der sturmische Morgen’/The Stormy Morning) — wear a little thin.

The first and last songs are subjected to the most radical transformations, prefatory and concluding respectively. ‘Gute Nacht’ opens with a prolonged soundscape — precisely and delicately performed by the members of the Britten Sinfonia — in which tentative sound-gestures emerge from silence, the col legno tappings cracking like desiccated twigs and fracturing ice. Accordion and guitar add what Zender calls ‘archaic references’, but with the entry of the voice, the Romantic string timbre evokes the cultural richness of the Biedermeier era. Despite such sensitive evocation, though, I missed the obstinate, enduring tread of Schubert’s piano which both initiates this particular winter journey and seems to resume an everlasting cyclic venture upon which we are all embarked.

Zender’s orchestral story-telling is vivid and Brönnimann’s attentiveness and care was impressive. The explosiveness of marimba and trombone in ‘Irrlicht’ (The Will o’ the Wisp), was matched by the astringency of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) and the virtuosity of ‘Die Post’ (The Post). Rhythms and registers were exploited effectively. The coincidence of the horn with the vocal line triplets in ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) was slick and urgent, while the high trombone melody in ‘Aum dem Flusse’ (On the River) voiced the tension felt by the singer who, overcome by exhaustion, has surrendered song to spoken text.

Brönnimann demanded unwavering restraint from his players and Bostridge was never required to force his voice above the instrumental textures. But the conductor pointedly communicated harmonic and temporal arguments. In ‘Rast’ (Rest) the strange, disorientating harmonic twists extended Schubert’s own arguments between major and minor tonalities, while in the subsequent ‘Frühlingstraum (‘Dream of Spring’) — where a flood of light was suggestive of the hallucinatory intimations of the text — the comforts of the harp were overcome by the sleep-shattering cock-crow of the horns, an acceleration forcing the wanderer to abandon his nostalgic reminiscences and push on along the wintry path. In ‘Mut!’ (Courage), the wanderer’s false renewal was constantly undermined by harmonic disintegration and divergence; phrases lurched between different keys, and jarring returns to the ‘home key’ evoked the pathos of futility.

Reflecting on Zender’s ‘re-composition’ I was struck, in fact, by the score’s conservatism. When one thinks of the playful, innovative deconstruction and collage of the past in works such as Lucas Foss’s Baroque variations (1967), Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), Andriessen’s Anachronie I and II (1966/69), Arvo Pärt’s Credo (1968) and Schnittke’s First Symphony (1969-72), one might anticipate a more discomforting contact zone between 1820s Vienna and more modern times. But, then, Zender’s lack of ironic distancing is perhaps refreshing.

Moreover, the concept of ‘staging’ Zender’s work is inherently present; for the composer included ‘stage directions’, which even instruct the orchestral members to move: ‘Another possible extreme I make use of is the shifting of sounds within the room […] Musicians themselves are made to travel, sounds ‘travel’ through the room, even outside the room, and such interventions into the original text highlight the poetic idea of individual songs’.

Here, the Britten Sinfonia stayed seated, and we ‘travelled’ through Bostridge’s embodiment of the literal and psychological journey, and Jones’s cinematic complement and accompaniment. I confess that, having recently endured Tal Rosner’s projections to accompany Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes — performed ‘next door’ in the Barbican Hall in March — I had some misgivings.

In the event, Jones’s images were not distracting or abstractly theoretical as I had feared, but neither did they add much and there was little to surprise: the Will-o’-the-Wisp was conjured by clouds of light which blossomed and then dissolved into a black expanse. Adopting a chiaroscuro default mode, which at times faded to an obliterating blankness of white or deepened to a consuming agape of black, Jones offered us shadows, superimpositions and slashes: criss-cross lacerations of gnarled bark barred the wanderer’s way and intimated a splintered psyche. The journey is both geographical and mental, and bleak wintery scenes were the backdrop for montages of Bostridge’s visage, the agonies of hopeful youth countered by the gaunt realism of disenchanted age: ‘I thought I was an old man already’ … ‘And I’m horrified by my youth’ (‘Der greise Kopf’/The Old Head).

English translations of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry were projected within the images and in her programme article Jones explained the choice of typeface, which in German, ‘more than in most other languages’, is ‘fraught with politics and subjectivity’. Two Grotesque (an early san serif typeface that emerged in the early 19th century) fonts were employed: Akzidenz-Grotesk, released by the Berthold Type Foundry in Berlin in 1896 and Grotesque No.9, use by the British Vorticists in the magazine BLAST which was published just twice, in 1914 and 1915. I allow that in the darkened Barbican Theatre it was impossible to read the texts printed in the programme, but I found their intrusion into the projected images diverted the eye from the visual and aural signals which are sufficient to communicate the words’ meaning and inference.

And, so to the performance of Ian Bostridge. As the singer himself commented in a pre-performance article in the Guardian newspaper: ‘I’ve approached this extraordinary work from all sorts of angles. I’ve sung it “straight”, in halls all over the world, dressed in concert gear. I’ve made a TV film of it with the director David Alden, broadcast in 1997, the year of Schubert bicentenary. I’ve recorded it with the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. I’ve dramatised it with the pianist Julius Drake, on the vast stage of the Teatro Comunale in Florence, under the direction of Roberto Andò. Most recently, I’ve written a book about it, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. And here I am, returning to it again, at the Barbican. Obsession indeed.’

Dressed in immaculate evening dress, Bostridge initially conjured both the extravagance and expressionism of the Weimar Republic. But, seated aloft on an unforgiving chair at the raised end of a high, sloping platform he cut a figure both baleful and alien: trapped in utter, impenetrable loneliness. Then, at the mid-point in Schubert’s cycle, he discarded formal wear for more dishevelled attire, moving to the ‘dark mirror’ of the black, glossy forestage.

Far from bringing us closer to the distressed wanderer, this reorientation plunged him deeper into an existential hinterland. In ‘Krahe’ (The Crow), Bostridge curled inwards on the ground and courtesy of Jones’s images we viewed this vulnerable, huddled figure from the perspective of Ted Hughes’s Hawk — ‘fly up, and revolve it all slowly —/ I kill where I please because it is all mine’ — as the singer anxiously exclaimed, ‘It has flown above my head’, while the shadows of flapping wings flickered on the cowered form: ‘ Are you planning soon to get hold of my body as your prey?’

‘Täuschung’ (Delusion) triggered a disturbing attempt to regain equilibrium. After a fragmented instrumental prelude, the orchestra introduced a gentle lilt — ‘a light does a friendly dance ahead of me’ — while Bostridge, once more in evening dress, struggled to right a music score upon a stand — a desperate attempt to re-establish sanity through the rituals of musical performance.

I may have been mistaken but it seemed to me that the pace of many of the songs was a touch slower that I am used to hearing from Bostridge. ‘Lindenbaum’ (The Linden Tree) and ‘Mut!’ in particular seemed to drift more wistfully. And, I felt that the less urgent tempo and the expansion effected by Zender’s supplementations lessened the sense of narrative and psychological momentum and inevitability; that we were not increasingly sucked into the wanderer’s own psyche but remained in an observer’s domain, our understanding of the protagonist’s pain filtered through Jones’s visuals.

Reviewing Bostridge’s performance of Winterreise with Thomas Adès at the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival, I wrote: ‘while [Bostridge’s] characteristic range of vocal colour, from bright lyricism to gritty accentuation, and textual meticulousness were much in evidence, this performance had something different, and new: a sense of introspective estrangement and repressed bitterness which was not released until the final songs when the emotions finally surged in an outpouring of disillusionment and wrath, before exhaustion overwhelmed all other feeling.’ In this performance there was not the same sense of dissolution, carthartic or destructive, for Zender’s timbral and motivic expansion of ‘Der Leierman’ (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) contradicts the dry harshness of rejection which infuses Schubert’s original.

Overall, Bostridge was more withdrawn and introspective than in his concert hall performances: the text was rendered with his distinctive deep expressiveness, but the heightened, sometimes violent, intensity which has characterised his more recent performances of Schubert’s cycle — and which so startles and challenges, as the singer colours a line with a rasping timbre or howl of pain — was absent here. There was a more gentle prevailing lyricism. Perhaps the singer judged that the instrumental colours and visual images added their own nuances which did not require, or leave room for, vocal paroxysm, idiosyncrasy or hyperbole? That said, this was an incredibly sensitive rendition, and Bostridge was as insightful when communicating through Sprechstimme or spoken text as he was when melodising.

When the tenor reprised his Aldeburgh performance with Adès a few months later at the Barbican I wrote, ‘Bostridge sings with his whole body and soul, and — lurching clumsily, leaning languidly or exhaustedly on the piano, his stance by turns hunched then bold — he seemed at times the epitome of adolescent suffering and defiance. […] one might say that this was less a musical performance than simply theatre — a sung dramatic monologue.’

Reflecting on this issue of ‘theatricality’, it seems to me that Zender’s composition raises many interesting issues relating to the nature of the musical ‘work’ and to questions of ‘interpretation’. He has professed to have merely developed features that are ‘only latent in Schubert’ but has admitted ‘that no interpretation can ever be really true to the original’: ‘each note in a manuscript is primarily a challenge to action and not an explicit description of sound.’ I am struck by Zender’s development of this idea — that the ‘creative effort, temperament and intelligence of the performer, as well as the sensitivity formed by the aesthetics of his or her own time, are necessary to create a lively and exciting performance’ — for The Dark Mirror seems to leave little room for the idea of the ‘performer as creator’; no space for the singer to ‘interpret’.

Following the 2015 Barbican Hall concert noted above, I remarked: ‘Bostridge has performed Winterreise over 100 times. His interpretations, with different partners and in different contexts, have evolved, as have his musical priorities, and indeed his voice itself. […] After this performance — spell-binding, persuasive and utterly bleak — it is hard to imagine how much further Bostridge can take Schubert’s wanderer? Perhaps he has reached the end of the journey …’

Perhaps I should now amend that to ‘personal and private’ journey, for Zender’s palimpsest seems to have offered Bostridge another path to tread.

Claire Seymour

Tenor — Ian Bostridge, Conductor — Baldur Brönnimann, Britten Sinfonia. Barbican Hall, London. Friday 13th May 2016

image= image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning] product=yes product_title=The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Hugo Glendinning]
Posted by Gary at 11:35 AM

Great Scott Wows San Diego

On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. The Dallas Opera had given the piece a star-studded world premiere on October 30 of the previous year. Heggie is best known for Deadman Walking, which premiered in 2000, and Moby-Dick, first seen in 2010. Unlike its predecessors, Great Scott is a comedy, not just an amusing work, either, but a rollicking belly laugh-inspiring comedy.

McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing. He writes great faux Rossini. One of the most often quoted passages is the beginning of “Ah, non giunge uman pensiero” (“O, inconceivable thought”), the cabaletta or last section of “Ah, non credea mirarti” (“I didn’t believe I would see you”), the most important soprano aria in Bellini’s La sonambula (The Sleepwalker).

The opera opens on a rehearsal of the bel canto opera-within-an-opera, Rosa Dolorosa, figlia di Pompei, which had been composed in 1835, but never performed. Great diva Arden Scott, sung by Kate Aldrich, will portray the title role in a performance at the diva’s hometown opera company and she tells the company how she discovered the long-lost manuscript. Aldrich sang her long and difficult role with golden bel canto tones when they were called for and with dramatic emphasis when that was appropriate.

KA1_0839A.png(Left to right) Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann, Garrett Sorenson is Anthony Candolino, Joyce El-Khoury is Tatyana Bakst, Anthony Roth Costanzo is Roane Heckle, and Philip Skinner is Eric Gold

Traveling with Arden is a young and brash but tremendously talented Eastern European soprano, Tatyana Bakst. Played to the hilt by Joyce El-Khoury, her “variations” on the National Anthem at the beginning of Act II brought the house down. Later, when Sid Taylor, portrayed by Nathan Gunn, comes in to pick up his son who is in the opera, he and Arden, who has once been lovers, sing of their different life styles.

Arden’s one-time piano teacher, Winnie Flato, sung by Frederica von Stade, is sponsoring the show that local performing company, American Opera, is relying upon to put its finances in the black. She is also concerned about her husband’s football team, The Grizzlies, which hopes to win the Superbowl on the same night the opera opens. The team’s financial position is as perilous as that of American Opera. Thus, football lovers and opera lovers have something in common. A singer many of us remember as Cinderella, Cherubino, and Octavian, von Stade is as charming as ever and still has that special sound in her voice that appeals directly to the listener’s emotions.

Conductor Eric Gold, sung authoritatively by Philip Skinner, is surprised by Stage Director Roane Heckel’s personal interest and here the plot adds a few extra strands that have to be tied up later. Dulcet-voiced counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of the few cast members who appeared in Dallas and San Diego, sang Roane with bell-like tones while acting the part of a very recognizable stage director. He is a gem and I hope we will soon hear him again in San Diego. Garrett Sorenson as Anthony Candolino and Michael Mayes as Wendell Swann rounded out the cast as a tenor and a baritone who manage to impress Winnie for the future.

_KA32931A.pngA scene from Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei the opera within the opera Great Scott

Jack O’Brien’s stage direction was totally realistic and thoroughly amusing. Bob Crowley’s diva costumes were spectacular for both Arden and Tatyana. His outfits for Winnie were amusing and eye-catching and his costuming for the other characters was always appropriate for the time and place. Crowley's scenery and Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections put Tatyana in front of an American flag for the football game and allowed Arden to sing Rosa’s final scene before a monumental version of Vesuvius. Both stage pictures worked amazingly well, but I did wonder why it took so long to lower Rosa’s sacrificial alter ego into the caldera.

Choreographer John de los Santos gave us interesting dances and Chorus Master Charles Prestinari’s singers sang in exquisite harmony while letting us understand the words. Maestro Joseph Mechavich brought out the San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s ability to play the music of both bel canto and twenty-first century opera with consummate skill. This was a wonderful night at San Diego Opera and a most auspicious rendition of a fabulous new opera.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Eric Gold/Ghost of Bazetti, Philip Skinner; Tatyana Bakst, Joyce El-Khoury; Winnie Flato, Frederica von Stade; Anthony Candolino, Garrett Sorenson; Wendell Swann, Michael Mayes; Roane Heckel, Anthony Roth Costanzo; Arden Scott, Kate Aldrich; Sid Taylor, Nathan Gunn; Tommy Taylor, Ezra Dewey; Anonymous Voice, Steve Hoagland; Amor Lawrence Gonzalez; Announcer, Christopher James Stephens; Conductor, Joseph Mechavich; Stage Director, Jack O’Brien; Set and Costume Designer, Bob Crowley; Lighting Designer, Brian MacDevitt; Projections Designer, Elaine J. McCarthy; Choreographer John de los Santos; Chorus Master, Charles Prestinari; Supertitles, Charles Arthur.

image_description=Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott and Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann. [Photo by Karen Almond]

product_title=Great Scott Wows San Diego
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Kate Aldrich is Arden Scott and Michael Mayes is Wendell Swann

Photos by Karen Almond

Posted by maria_n at 9:20 AM

May 13, 2016

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

This opera semi-seria also has a counter-element in the form of Bellini’s only comic operatic role, although just as much laughter is generated by the more farcical improbabilities of the melodrama — a knife swung in a desperate frenzy gets caught in a cloak and misses the heart; a lover prepared to kill himself in unrequited misery is cured of his infatuation in the twinkling of an eye.

If the comic and serious elements don’t knit into a coherent whole, the fault probably lies with the minor French writer François-Thomas de Baculard d’Arnaud (1718-1805) whose novella Anecdote anglaise provides the raw material for Tottola’s libretto (which had previously been used by Valentino Fioravanti for the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples in 1816). D’Arnaud’s sappy text is less a narrative than a series of implausible episodes but it is typical of the sort of sentimental drama so popular in Neapolitan theatres during the early nineteenth century — indeed, several of d’Arnaud’s novels and verse dramas were the sources for opera plots, including Donizetti’s La Favoriteand we should probably not judge librettist or composer too harshly for the undeveloped characterisation and haphazard dramatic development.

As always, Opera Rara deserve credit and gratitude for once again mining the archives in order to resurrect forgotten works of the past and allowing us to re-assess composers’ reputations and development. This fine performance at the Barbican Hall, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniele Rustioni, has resulted in the production of a new critical edition using Bellini’s original score. And, the concert staging revealed a young Bellini keen to impress the Neapolitans — his teachers, fellow students and, he hoped, the paying public — absorbing elements of the new ‘Rossinian’ style and showing distinct, if only intermittent, signs of his own musical voice and of the long-breathed melodic curves that would earn him the nickname, ‘the Swan of Catania’.

Kathryn Rudge, Leah Marian-Jones & David Soar with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni_(c) Russell Duncan.png

Kathryn Rudge, Leah Marian-Jones and David Soar

Bellini must have had high hopes for this ‘graduation piece’ for the Real Collegio di Musica di San Sebastiano in Naples. Performed originally by an all-male cast — even though there are three female roles — it proved so popular that it was reprised at the Conservatory every Sunday for a year, and the Intendant at the Teatro di San Carlo was prompted to commission Bellini’s first professional opera. It has also been suggested that the opera was also designed to impress the parents of Maddalena Fumaroli, a singing pupil of the composer, whom he hoped to marry.

There was disappointment all round though: the Fumarolis were not moved by the opera’s success and Bellini’s attempt to secure a professional production proved fruitless. He revised the original three-act score (which was never published), creating a two-act opera buffa version which remained unperformed. Bellini must have recognised the work’s musical merits though, for he plundered it, cherry-picking some of the best bits for re-cycling in later works. So, Salvini’s cabaletta turns up in Il pirata, the cantabile interlude ‘Ecco signor la sposa’ from the Act 2 finale was recast for La straniera, and Nelly’s romanza ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ was reshaped into Giulettia’s ‘Ah, quante volte!’ in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

The action is set in seventeenth-century Ireland and concerns the melancholy Lord Adelson and his impassioned protégé, the Italian painter Salvini, whom Adelson has befriended. Unfortunately, back on M’Lord’s Irish estate Salvini becomes starry-eyed when he meets Nelly, Adelson’s betrothed. Nelly’s exiled uncle, Colonel Struley, uses Salvini’s adoration as a means to get revenge on his ‘enemy’ Adelson: while the latter is in London, the first of several false letters arrives. Apparently written by Adelson’s father, it tells of Adelson’s impending marriage to a London noblewoman. Salvini, who has been charged by his master with the care of Nelly, tries to comfort her in her distress but as his ardour grows he becomes increasingly distraught, bordering on insane. With the help of Adelson’s unscrupulous servant, Geronio, Struley attempts to abduct Nelly so that he can force to her wed a rich French friend. Salvini foils his plot but during the chaotic kidnapping and chase, fears that he has killed Nelly. Adelson’s return ensures a happy ending. Despite Salvini’s fears, Nelly is safe and sound and preparing to marry Adelson. Salvini, miraculously purged of his romantic fixation, is given an allowance and despatched back to Italy. He vows to return in a year, to wed his young pupil, the orphan Fanny — his compensation prize.

Maurizio Muraro, Daniela Barcellona, Simone Alberghini, Kathryn Rudge, Leah-Marian Jones & David Soar with conductor Daniele Rustioni_(c) Russell Duncan.png

Maurizio Muraro, Daniela Barcellona, Simone Alberghini, Kathryn Rudge, Leah-Marian Jones and David Soar

There were several changes of cast from the originally advertised line-up, but fortunately Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro stepped into the shoes of Salvini’s servant, Bonifacio, as planned, for he instantly leapt light-footedly to life and created a three-dimensional character whose irreverent pragmatism in the face of the prevailing over-emotionalism was entirely winning. Bonifacio sings in Neapolitan dialect and Muraro relished the text, dealing deftly with the patter in his Act 1 cavatina, ‘Bonifacio Beccheria qui presente’ and resonantly questioning why Salvini believes he’ll never find another girl as sweet and beautiful as Nelly. After all, whether named Nell-y, Mariann-y, Ros-ì, Pepp-ì, Che-cchì Fann-y, or Caro-lì … all those who end with ‘i’ are equally devilish [diavol-i]! Muraro’s full-voiced artistry was as subtle as his acting; this was a superb performance.

Replacing Lawrence Brownlee as the would-be Werther (Goethe’s eponymous novella was published two years after d’Arnaud’s Anecdote), Italian tenor Enea Scala was fittingly handsome and ardent, but he didn’t get into his stride until the second act. Perhaps this is forgivable for Salvini is introduced to us in a wickedly stratospheric cabaletta which forms part of a duet with Bonifacio — but which is the first full solo statement for the lead tenor and so functions like an entrance aria — and which includes an outlandish surfeit of high Cs, Ds and even an E. Scala nailed them all and the hypersensitive painter’s extravagant vocal roulades — ‘Pietà crudele!’ — but not without some strain and a rather hard edge to the tone. The elegance of line required rather more mellifluousness.

However, the tension in Scala’s tenor lessened markedly once the testing opening was under his belt and his Act 2 duet with Simone Alberghini’s Adelson, ‘Torna, o caro, a questo seno’, was moving and dramatic: unaware that they are rivals in love, Adelson asks Salvini to safeguard Nelly in his absence while the painter is increasingly destabilised by the thought of the forthcoming nuptials. Best of all was the Act 3 aria in which Salvini begs to be killed; this number was meltingly beautiful and utterly entrancing, and Scala revealed a greater flexibility and polish than Act 1 might have led us to imagine he possessed.

Alberghini (who replaced the scheduled Nicola Alaimo) initially lacked vocal colour and impact, and he did not seem entirely comfortable embodying an Irish patrician, but the Italian baritone was technically secure: muscular in the broader phrases, nimble in the more elaborate passages.

Daniela Barcellona was a gentle-natured Nelly. She sang her Act 1 romanza with delicacy and a soft-grained mezzo which, while beautiful and affecting, needed greater ampleness to travel through and over the orchestral fabric. Barcellona was quite subdued, too, in more florid passages but she imbued the role with great dignity.

In the minor roles, bass David Soar (Geronio) and Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov (Struley) were a dastardly pair whose characterisations were energetic, but whose attractive tone and vocal restraint prevented them slipping into parody. Mezzo-sopranos Kathryn Rudge (Fanny) and Leah-Marian Jones (replacing Patricia Bardon as Madam Rivers) had little to do except satisfy the conventional balance of vocal forces but they both acquitted themselves well.

The (scaled-down) BBC Symphony Orchestra were on sparkling form under Daniele Rustioni’s baton, playing with impressive rhythmic bite, bright tone and varied colours, obviously inspired by their conductor’s lively engagement with the drama. The playing of the four horns particularly impressed: we were treated to spot-on intonation, appealing tone, impressive clarity and subtle pianos. Rustioni bounced and bopped on the podium, constantly involved with the characters, glancing over his shoulder to cue, coax or embolden his cast. The overture was full of interest — harmonic, rhythmic and dynamic. Rustioni demonstrated equal instinct for the eloquence of the bel canto idiom and the score’s Rossinian gestures. The graded crescendos and hastenings were perfectly judged, though at times I felt that the conductor wanted to push even harder on the accelerator pedal, but was sensitive to his singers. The male voices of the Opera Rara Chorus (replacing the BBC Singers) were strong of tone as Adelson’s servants, and if the basses and baritones tended to out-sing the tenors, then the ensemble had been well-marshalled by chorus master, Eamonn Dougan.

This was a concert staging, but stage director Kenneth Richardson’s slick managing of the singers’ entrances and exits created a sense of dramatic continuity that would not have been achieved had the cast been seated on stage — and which was often not present in the libretto! Somewhat oddly, Bellini chose to employ the French opéra comique convention of spoken dialogue rather than secco recitative, but with the majority of the spoken text delivered by native Italians, dialogue director Daniel Dooner must have had a fairly easy task.

Bellini’s score may be a rather loose dramatic concoction and have more than a few melodic clichés but it contains much of interest too. It points intriguingly to the composer’s all too brief future career. And, with only ten other operas for the Bellini aficionado to enjoy, it’s good to add another to the list.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Nelly — Daniela Barcellona, Salvini — Enea Scala, Bonifacio — Maurizio Muraro, Madame Rivers — Leah-Marian Jones, Lord Adelson — Simone Albergini, Fanny — Kathryn Rudge, Struley — Rodion Pogossov, Geronio — David Soar; conductor — Daniele Rustioni, stage director — Kenneth Richardson, dialogue director — Daniel Dooner, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus. Barbican Hall, London. Wednesday 11th May 2016.

image= image_description=Enea Scala and Daniela Barcellona with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni

Photos © Russell Duncan product=yes product_title=Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Enea Scala and Daniela Barcellona with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus and conductor Daniele Rustioni

Photos © Russell Duncan
Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

May 11, 2016

Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men

The company’s brave and bold choice to end its 43rd season with Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men based on John Steinbeck’s classic novella is the latest in that canon, with the 145-minute production stage directed by Winnipeg-born Michael Cavanagh held April 23, 26 and 29, at the Centennial Concert Hall.

Notably, opening night’s audience included the renowned, now-90-year old South Carolina-born composer/librettist. Regarded one of America’s greatest living opera composers, Floyd is perhaps best known for his 1953/54 opera Susannah, with his latest opera, Prince of Players remarkably just given its world premiere by the Houston Grand Opera in March.

The MO show co-produced with Utah Symphony and Utah Opera, Cleveland Opera and Vancouver Opera, also featured effective sets — including a treacherous raked stage — by Vicki Davis and costumes by Susan Memmott Allred with Scott Henderson’s lighting design. Tyrone Paterson skillfully led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through Floyd’s all-American score infused with the spirit of Copland, Barber and Bernstein that also eschewed the rampant compositional serialism of the day.


Set at the height of the Great Depression, Steinbeck’s 1937 tale (later morphed into a play and film) tells of two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who dream of owning land until the latter’s penchant for stroking soft rabbits, puppies and baby mice literally to death ultimately leads to tragic consequences. Like shucking an ear of corn, Floyd has stripped Steinbeck’s text to its core essence, while adding poetic license to his operatic version that premiered in 1970.

Marking his MO debut, Michael Robert Hendrick’s deeply compassionate portrayal of the hulking Lennie, described in today’s kinder, gentler terms as a person labeled with an intellectual disability, perfectly balanced his character’s raw emotional vulnerability with volatile, brute strength. Hendrick resisted all temptation to fall into easy stereotypes, while also nailing Floyd’s wide dissonant leaps and melting lyricism as he sang of “living off the fat of the land,” projecting both heartbreak and eternal hope.

Winnipeg’s Nikki Einfeld appearing as the attention-starved, aspiring Hollywood starlet simply called “Curley’s Wife” brought prismatic colour to her tarty role, slinking about the stage and wheedling the lusty ranch hands for sex that made the bunkhouse hotter than a heat wave in July. Her impeccably controlled, flexible soprano voice impressed as she artfully shaded her dynamics on her uppermost notes.


Former Winnipegger Gregory Dahl also delivered a strong performance as George, with his robust baritone matching Hendrick’s vocals note for note. His Act I solo in which he tells how his life “would be so simple by itself” created soulful, introspective counterpoint to Lennie, and particularly when he sings “One day soon” during their subsequent duet.

Also making his MO debut, American tenor Joel Sorenson plays the sadistic Curley like an explosive powder keg ready to blow. However, had we been shown more emotional undertow and multi-layering with his characterization, his whip-cracking fury would have become more potent by contrast. Less is often much, much more, and the brief moments during Act II in which he (almost) becomes pulled in by his wife’s seductive ways provided critical sub-text — albeit all-too-fleeting. Relationships are paramount in opera, and too often these rang hollow.

The always rock solid character bass-baritone Peter Strummer’s Candy, and veteran bass-baritone David Watson’s Slim, provided substantive backbone throughout the production, with Strummer’s own furry sidekick, the well-trained pooch Cailean inspiring audible oohs and ahs from the audience. Peter John (PJ) Buchan’s melodious tenor rang out as the harmonica-playing balladeer, despite his role not being particularly well integrated.

The libretto’s pacing is somewhat challenging, and the opera teeters toward melodrama. The narrative’s relatively scant action only diluted the dramatic tension and overall forward thrust. The opening scene, in which police sirens wail, and blinding searchlights penetrate the darkness, is ironically more powerfully urgent than the show’s climax in which George ultimately pumps a bullet into Lennie’s head as an act of mercy. Strangely, Curley’s rabid lynch mob falls (mostly) silent when they should be reaching a fevered pitch during the finale.

Still, Steinbeck’s timeless tale about shattered dreams still resonates nearly 80 years since first penned. Kudos to MO for choosing lesser-performed works, and giving voice to those who once held — or continue to do to — their own wistful longings for home.

Holly Harris

Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. April 23, 26 & 29, 2016.

image= image_description=Michael Robert Hendrick as Lennie and Gregory Dahl as George [Photo by R. Tinker] product=yes product_title=Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men product_by=A review by Holly Harris product_id=Above: Michael Robert Hendrick as Lennie and Gregory Dahl as George

Photos by R. Tinker
Posted by Gary at 1:25 PM

May 10, 2016

Opera Las Vegas Announces Full Production of Carmen

April 27, 2016 — Las Vegas, Nev. — Opera Las Vegas, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing high quality opera productions to the Las Vegas valley, announces tickets for the production of Carmen are now available for purchase through UNLV’s Performing Arts Center Box Office, or by calling 702-895-ARTS (2787). Coming to the Judy Bayley Theatre in the Performing Arts Center at UNLV on Friday, June 10th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 12th at 2 p.m., tickets are priced at $95, $75 and $55.

Carmen will be conducted by Metropolitan Opera Maestro Gregory Buchalter and star Maya Lahyani as Carmen, Viktor Antipenko as Don Jose, Suzanne Vinnik, a Las Vegas native and graduate of the Las Vegas Academy, as Micaela, and Trevor Scheunemann as Escamillo. The director, Henry Price, is a former internationally renowned tenor who now leads the Pepperdine University’s Flora L. Thornton Opera Program.

Supporting roles feature talent from the Las Vegas community and include: Eugene Richards from Henderson; Brian James Myer, a Las Vegas native and UNLV graduate; Emily Botts a graduate student at UNLV, and Kylee Slee from Las Vegas. The chorus is drawn exclusively from the Las Vegas valley and includes current and former students from the Las Vegas Academy and UNLV, as well as well-known singers such as Marco Valera from Las Vegas, who sings professionally. The orchestra is comprised of top musicians from the area including many from the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Since 2011, Opera Las Vegas has worked with multinational opera singers from The Metropolitan Opera in New York and brought them to the Valley to perform alongside up and coming talent from the Las Vegas community. Opera Las Vegas nurtures local talent and provides them the only opportunity possible in Las Vegas to work alongside top professionals in the opera community, including renowned vocal stars, leading conductors and acclaimed directors. For more information about Opera Las Vegas and how to support the nonprofit organization visit

Opera Synopsis:

Carmen , a four-act French opera by Georges Bizet, is one of the most popular and often performed operas in the repertoire. It boasts one of the most tuneful and memorable scores of all time, with such world famous melodies as the title character's sinuous “Habanera,” and the immediately recognizable “Toreador Song.”

Set in the heady, highly charged atmosphere of Seville in southern Spain, Carmen tells the story of Don José, a naïve soldier who is first seduced by the calculated wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen, and then succumbs to a slow and inexorable descent into passion, obsession, and despair. José rejects his devoted village sweetheart Micaela and abandons his military duties, yet he ultimately loses Carmen's love to the charismatic 'rock-star' toreador Escamillo.

The depictions of peasant life, immorality and lawlessness, and the explosive intensity of the final scene broke new ground in French opera. While Carmen was initially highly controversial, it rapidly gained enduring celebrity in all of the world's opera houses.

For more information about the opera Carmen, its performers or Opera Las Vegas, email . To request photos, in studio live performances, credentials to the event or access to rehearsals, contact

About Opera Las Vegas:

Opera Las Vegas is a Nevada nonprofit corporation, which is dedicated to producing quality operatic performances for opera lovers. The organization is dedicated to promoting and encouraging interest in operatic music. In addition to offering familiar works from traditional opera repertoire, Opera Las Vegas also seeks lesser-known operas and encourages the creation of new works. Opera Las Vegas works in partnership with other fine arts organizations, educational institutions and entertainment corporations to nurture development of professional skills in students and young artists through apprentice programs. Recognizing the significance of art as communication, Opera Las Vegas strives to offer the community performing arts of the highest caliber. Opera Las Vegas was established in 1999 by Mr. Mark Thomsen, Tenor; Dr. Paul Krieder, UNLV Faculty; and Ms. Gloria Marinacci Allen, a world renown opera singer; as well as several other like-minded individuals who wanted to bring this art form to Southern Nevada. Opera Las Vegas is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with a staff comprised solely of volunteers skilled in management, planning and marketing, as well as the musical and theatrical arts. For more information about Opera Las Vegas and how to support the organization visit

image= image_description=Maya Lahyani as Carmen [Photo courtesy of the Wolftrap Opera, Teddy Wolff] product=yes product_title=Opera Las Vegas Announces Full Production of Carmen product_by=Press release by Opera Las Vegas product_id=Above: Maya Lahyani as Carmen [Photo courtesy of the Wolftrap Opera, Teddy Wolff]
Posted by Gary at 7:54 PM

May 5, 2016

The Rose and the Ring

As I’ve written elsewhere (In conversation) , with its merry-go-round exchange of deluded and bewitched lovers, an orphan-turned-princess, a usurped prince, a jewel and a flower with magical properties, a march to the scaffold and a meddling ‘mistress-of-ceremonies’ who encourages the young lovers to disguise and deceive, it invites transformation into an opera buffa. Delighting in its absurdities, Sir Nicholas Jackson has done just that, composing new vocal lines which set a libretto formed from Thackeray’s text, and combining them with arrangements of some of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. The result is an opera whose action and music are fresh, piquant, splendidly absorbing and charmingly wrong-footing; and, which retains the oxymoronic blend of innocence and sophistication which characterises Thackeray’s original.

Set ‘ten or twenty thousand years ago’, the novel presents the outlandish and convoluted outcomes of the Fairy Blackstick’s meddling and cursing. The titular rose and ring are magical objects that result in the ocular duping of those who behold the bearer, rendering the latter utterly irresistible. After years of granting this blessing of ‘beauty’ to generations of royal spoiled brats, Blackstick decides to change tack, telling her godchildren that ‘the best thing I can send you is a little misfortune’.

As a result, Prince Giglio, rightful King of Paflagonia has lost his throne, which has been usurped by his uncle, Valoroso XXIV. Princess Rosalba, rightful Queen of Crim Tartary, was thrown into a lion-infested forest after Duke Padella overthrew her father, and there she wandered until turning up in Paflagonia. Now known as Betsinda, Rosalba endures a life of servitude as Princess Angelica’s maid. Meanwhile, Blackstick’s ring (presented by the besotted Prince Giglio who inherited it from his mother) has bestowed deceptive loveliness on the ugly frump Angelica, and her admirers include Prince Bulbo, Padella’s fat, idle son, who has inherited his mother’s rose. The protagonists, who include the wonderfully named Governess Gruffanuff and Captain Hogginarmo, play pass-the-parcel with the rose and ring, and romantic chaos ensues: hostages are taken, obdurate porters are turned into door-knockers, and Rosalba is sentenced to death in the lion-arena. Finally, bewitchments are reversed, rightful betrothals fulfilled … and Blackstick disappears.

Retaining as much of Thackeray’s text as possible, Sir Nicholas has arranged the action into two Acts of ten and twelve scenes respectively, illuminating the credence-straining links between them via narration which was delivered immaculately and captivatingly by actor Tim Pigott-Smith. As raconteur, he displayed persuasive sincerity as events became ever more incredible; only the merest raising of an eyebrow, the slightest of pauses, or a telling stare hinted that there was anything remarkable about the hocus pocus. Evidently himself beguiled by both the tale and its sung rendition, Pigott-Smith encouraged our applause — ‘Well, I’m enjoying it!’ — and managed to be both guileless participant and knowing observer.

We were also treated to a slide-show of some of the illustrations which Thackeray himself provided for the book. He had originally hoped to be an illustrator, but when Charles Dickens declined his drawings for Pickwick Papers, Thackeray embarked on a writing career. The illustrations, here coloured in the bright tints of fairy-tale by Nadia Jackson, suggest that it was Dickens’ loss, for the scenes and portraits depicted add considerable irony. Thus, the first is politely captioned, ‘This is Valoroso XXIV, King of Paflagonia, seated with his queen and only child at their royal breakfast-table ...’, above which we see the king engrossedly pouring over a letter which has been sent by Padella, while his fleshy, jowly wife greedily tucks into the dozen boiled eggs and monstrous tureen of porridge which have been prepared for her breakfast feast.

This visual dimension of the evening was an appealing enhancement. Eccentric fantasy or slapstick romance, The Rose and the Ring is also a sharp caricature of people and events of Thackeray’s day, presenting stereotypes of the worst elements of human nature. As the illustrations flashed in sequence I was put in mind of both John Tenniel’s drawings for Lewis Carroll and William Hogarth’s satirical cartoons. Indeed, it wouldn’t be amiss to describe this opera as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Rake’s Progress, not least because Sir Nicholas’s superimposition of well-defined vocal lines upon Scarlatti’s audacious music evokes the neoclassical invention of Stravinsky’s eponymous opera.

The young cast acquitted themselves admirably in what are challenging vocal roles. The melodies, often quite long-breathed, and sit in quasi-alignment with Scarlatti’s harmonies and phrase structures. Indeed, it is the asymmetries and unexpected twists, turns and convergences which give the music its distinctive and engaging identity. But, these vocal parts also require a lot of technical discipline and control, particularly as many of the arias are precipitous and have accompaniments characterised by busy interchanges and alternating textures. Moreover, there are a lot of words to fit in, and often no obvious place to take a breath. That the singers were not wedded to their scores but also aimed to communicate the dramatic inferences and contexts to the audience was even more noteworthy. With just an array of headwear — a crown, tiara, towering feathered hat, fez, porter’s cap — together with a regal gown and garter, and a sparkly wand, the soloists instantly defined character and relationships, even though many were taking two or more roles.

I found Sir Nicholas’s score intriguing and engaging throughout; there was always some detail, contrast, juxtaposition or tartness to capture the interest. In Scenes 1 and 2, the steady decorated triplets of Scarlatti’s K.215 sonata said much about the sluggish pomposity of King Valaroso XXIV, a role sung impressively by Michael Mofidian who used his stentorian but warm bass to convey the King’s self-absorbed inanity. Mofidian, whose diction was superlative, threw himself enthusiastically into a range of minor parts — coachman, gaoler, officer and porter; and in the latter role demonstrated a tangy cockney accent.

The slow climb through irregular major/minor thirds and subsequent tip-toeing descent which commences Scarlatti’s K.30 — known as ‘The Cat’s Fugue’ — was the perfect introduction to Fairy Blackstick in Act 1 Scene 3, and this challenging aria was sung with character by soprano Robyn Parton who here modified the sweetness and brightness with which she imbued Rosalba’s melodies. Parton found diverse colours, and negotiated the harmonic quirks and awkward arcs of this aria securely. The bouncing octave leaps and pounding rising arpeggios of K.2 marked the arrival of Prince Bulbo in Scene 4, a role sung by bass Edward Grint, with a lovely dark edge to the tone. Scene 5 in the same Act, ‘In the Palace Gardens’, was a boisterous ensemble enlivened by the strings’ mordants and trills (K.460).

In Act 2 Scene 5, the male quartet in Captain Hedzoff’s (Peter Aisher) army were booming of voice, as William Morgan’s Prince Giglio won them over with his persuasive lyricism, in order to save Rosalba from King Padella’s lions. The ‘tremendous battle’ of Scene 10, certainly lived up to Thackeray’s account of ‘Trumpets pealing, chargers prancing, stabbing, slashing, axing, lancing’, with the syncopations of K.546 put to good effect. Completing the cast, mezzo-soprano Katy Coventry displayed poise and vocal relaxation as Gruffanuff, soprano Katherine Crompton sparkled as a soubrette-like Angelica, while soprano Sophie Shilson (Queen) struggled a little to project but displayed a clean line.

In many ways the Drapers’ Hall was the perfect venue. The opulent Livery Hall, enlarged to its present size by Herbert Williams in the 1860s, boasts twenty-eight marble columns, an impressive display of the Drapers’ Company’s collection of royal portraits, and Herbert Draper’s rich-toned ceiling panels, commissioned by the Company in 1901, presenting scenes from The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — a fitting counterpart to The Rose and the Ring’s blend of hyperbole and artifice, grandiosity and magic, particularly as the story grew out of a set of Twelfth Night pictures that Thackeray made for his young daughters.

In practice, however, the dimensions and acoustic of the venue presented some challenges. I was fortunate to be seated at the front of the Hall. But, with the low-level raised dais placed at one end of the long room and the screened illustrations stage-right, sight-lines may have been more restricted behind me. The size of the platform necessitated the placement of the singers behind the instrumental players, making both projection and ensemble more testing. The singers did not seem entirely happy with their positioning in the opening few numbers, but as they gained in confidence most reached out clearly over the instrumentalists, and the men in particular demonstrated crystal clear diction. As the cast increasingly embraced the more outré qualities of Thackeray’s outlandish creations, and engaged in lively dramatic interplay, I regretted that there had not been some way to move the singers to the fore, so that they could indulge their thespian instincts and we could enjoy more immediate engagement with the characters’ antics. Presumably, the different spatial dimensions of The Charterhouse, where the opera was to be formed the following evening, accommodated a more comfortable stage arrangement.

It can’t have been ideal for the instrumentalists either, with strings spread in a thin line at the front of the platform, woodwind forming a quartet to one side and harpsichord placed to the rear; in particular, the sound of the latter, played with refinement by Masumi Yamamoto, struggled to rise over the intermediate collective sound-mass.

Sir Nicholas had previously described his intention to place the instrumentalists antiphonally, and in the light of the score’s juxtaposition of string and wind timbres — and lively interplay between them — a necessary compromise must have been disappointing, but also short-lived and ultimately inconsequential, for the playing of the Concertante of London was splendid. Leader Madeleine Easton did sterling work from a centrally placed position, indicating tempo, articulation and dynamic with utmost clarity and, seemingly alert to every detail of the complicated score, offering clear guidance to the whole ensemble of players and singers.

I did wonder whether the decision to use baroque bows was the right one, though, for some of the scores more delicate contrapuntal dialogue would surely have been more incisive with modern alternatives: the opening of the Prologue did not quite make the mark it deserved as, with one player to a part, the initial string arguments were rather lacking in definition and decisiveness. The strings were, inevitably, also out-powered by the woodwind quartet — bassoonist Adam Mackenzie relished the coloristic effects and registral contrasts of his part, while Jade Bultitude’s flute added a vitalizing sweetness to the timbre. A better balance will no doubt be engineered for the forth-coming Nimbus recording.

Sir Nicholas Jackson has done a terrific job in marrying diverse worlds while retaining the idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thackeray’s novel. Initially, I was surprised that the music of some sonatas were chosen to accompany more than one scene but, then, each Scarlatti sonata seems to possess unlimited variety of passion and expression. Sir Nicholas’s The Rose and the Ring shows us the inventiveness, unpredictability and joviality common to both Thackeray and Scarlatti, as well as their underlying perspicacity.

Claire Seymour

Production details:

Libretto: Sir Nicholas Jackson, based on William Makepeace Thackeray

Composer: Sir Nicholas Jackson (adaptions of harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti)

Narrator: Tim Pigott-Smith

Prince Giglio — William Morgan (tenor), Prince Bulbo/Count Hogginarmo — Edward Grint (bass), Rosalba/Fairy Blackstick — Robyn Parton (soprano), Angelica — Katherine Crompton (soprano), Gruffanuff — Katy Coventry (mezzo-soprano), Hedzoff — Peter Ainsher (tenor), King Valaroso XXIV — Michael Mofidian (bass), Queen — Sarah Shilson (soprano); Conductor — Sir Nicholas Jackson, Designer — Janette Bonar Law, Artwork — Nadia Jackson, Concertante of London (Madeleine Easton — leader).

Drapers’ Hall, City of London, Wednesday 4th May 2016

image= image_description=Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855) product=yes product_title=The Rose and the Ring product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Frontispiece from The Rose and Ring (1855)
Posted by Gary at 11:28 AM

May 4, 2016

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

Such was the production mounted by Opera Parallèle, an ambitious San Francisco operatic enterprise that offers two productions each season in theaters appropriate to specific repertory. The Lighthouse took place in the Mission district’s 300 seat, very arty, black box Z Space. Earlier this season Champion, an Opera in Jazz was performed at the SFJAZZ Center.

Peter Maxwell Davies (pronounced Davis) became resident of the bleak Orkney Islands above Scotland’s most northerly coast a few years before composing this bleak operatic masterwork about three real-life keepers who vanished from a lighthouse on a bleak island far off Scotland’s west coast. These Scottish extremes remained in fact a powerful Davies muse, interweaving climatic challenge with emotional isolation. A huge body of affective and very effective music results from these complementary components.

The Davies stage pieces, The Lighthouse in particular is not a narrative, rather it is like an ABA musical form: exposition, development and recapitulation (with a twist). The musical forces (12 fine instrumentalists) mustered by Opera Parallèle succeeded in creating climatic and emotional chaos, transforming it from time to time into ballads and hymns that organized the inherent despair of the lighthouse keepers. Crucial to the success of this production was the presence of the musical ensemble on the acting stage itself, this immediacy infused an almost overwhelming musicality into the performance.


The percussion sat stage right, the balance of the ensemble and conductor were stage left enveloping within the music the three singers and the lighthouse of skeleton steel with its huge beacon lamp. The supply ship relief crew were at once the lighthouse keepers and the demons that inhabited and destroyed this troubled humanity. The final wallop, and it was complex and huge, happened when the chaos of all unknown and unsolved mysteries erupted into a final hysterical hymn.

Stage director/designer Brian Staufenbiel used no more than the named props — a table and two chairs, a lighthouse, and the sea. The sea itself was created by four ninjas who brandished poles of gauzy cloth and who themselves became the rats of the libretto. The three singers were always positioned or moved musically rather than dramatically. Costuming and lighting fulfilled a cool professional production standard.

All three singers were impressive, baritone Robert Orth added histrionic depth, bass-baritone David Cushing brought rich, evangelist tone, and tenor Thomas Glenn found true beauty of tone in his love song.

Conductor Nicole Paiement ably kept the complex musical forces together, coaxed careful, fine playing from her ensemble and drove the Davies score to a searingly effective climax.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Sandy/Officer 1: Thomas Glenn; Blazes/Officer 2: Robert Orth; Arthur/Voice of the Cards/Officer 3: David Cushing. Conductor: Nicole Paiement; Stage Director/Set Designer: Brian Staufenbiel; Costumes: Christine Crook; Lighting Designer: Matthew Antaky. Z Space, San Francisco, May 1, 2016.


product_title=The Lighthouse in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Robert Orth as Blazes, David Cushing as Arthur, Thomas Glenn as Sandy [All photos copyright Stefan Cohen, courtesy of Opera Parallèle]

Posted by michael_m at 4:32 PM

King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall

In the event, while there were many opportunities to enjoy Vivaldi’s melodic gifts and colourful scoring, and players and singers were undoubtedly committed, the various parts of what is essentially a pasticcio didn’t quite add up to a persuasive whole.

In fact, ‘serenata’ derives from the Italian ‘sereno’: calm and clear. The form emerged in the mid-1660s as a sort of hybrid nestled somewhere between cantata, oratorio and opera, and serenatas often composed to mark a festive or celebratory occasion. Usually comprising two acts, they were presented ‘in concert’ by two or more soloists, who did not wear costumes and were not required to act but simply took turns to sing their arias, which employed the general musical style of contemporary opera. Indeed, there was often no ‘action’ to speak of; rather, the inevitably laudatory texts commonly presented discursive debate between allegorical figures. (I am indebted to Michael Talbot, from whose programme article and longer essay, ‘The Serenata in Eighteenth-Century Venice’ (Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No.18, 1982) I have gleaned historical information.)

Vivaldi’s La Senna festeggiante fits this bill. Domenico Lalli’s libretto sends L’Età dell’Oro (The Golden Age) and La Virtù (Virtue) on a quest beside the River Seine (La Senna). In a succession of fairly succinct arias, duets and trios they sing each other’s praises in verse of somewhat tedious verbosity, then espy the splendours of the Palace of Versailles and eulogize the French King, rejoicing in the glories that await him.

As might be expected of the form, there is no dramatic content, which might have played to Vivaldi’s advantage as he is able to exercise his melodic flair without concern for ‘plot’ and dramatic form, and the score certainly has an air of freedom and resourcefulness. Historically, the static nature of the performance probably aided the singers too — especially if expediency meant there was little time for compilation and rehearsal — for they were not required to learn their roles from memory. On this occasion, though, advantage became drawback, and of the three soloists — soprano Julia Doyle (L'Età dell'Oro), contralto Hilary Summers (La Virtù) and bass David Wilson-Johnson (La Senna) — only Summers was confidently off-score and as such communicated much more directly and powerfully, establishing a more three-dimensional ‘character’. (Summers sang the role for conductor Robert King’s Hyperion recording of the work in 2002: Hyperion CDA67361/2.)

But, there was plenty to admire, not least the nods towards the Gallic style which pepper the Italianate elements of the score. Although only three of Vivaldi’s known eight serenatas survive, several are thought to have been connected with events at the French court of Louis XV, and commissioned by the recently appointed French Ambassador to Venice, Vincent Languet, Count of Gergy. Thus, La gloria Imeneo (1725) was composed to celebrate Louis’s wedding to the Polish Princess Maria Leszczynska, while the lost serenata L’unione della pace e di marte honoured the birth of royal twins in 1727.

La Senna festeggiante deals with Louis’s accession to the throne in 1724 and was probably intended to be delivered as a homage on the feast of St. Louis — though Talbot laments the absence of a central bifolio from the long final recitative in which conventionally the circumstances of performance are elucidated, noting that King has supplied extra music to text by Carlo Vitali to fill the gap.

Vivaldi’s enthusiastic experimentation with the French style is evident in the dance-like pulse which enlivens many of the arias and in the extensive use of accompagnato recitative. The Gallic idiom was immediately apparent in the animated dotted rhythms of the first part of the opening Sinfonia (and the more aggressive counterpart in the Part 2 overture). The five string players of the King’s Consort played with robustness but despite their obvious hard work, the violin tone was a little thin. The central movement of the Sinfonia lacked lyrical warmth as a result, though the final Allegro was bright and buoyant. Elsewhere the ‘off-the-string’ bowing was a little dry. Perhaps aware of the challenge for the strings, King extended the use of Vivaldi’s prescribed two recorders and two oboes to double or replace the strings elsewhere in the score, so it was fortunate that the intonation discrepancies in the Sinfonia were quickly settled.

Julia Doyle was a pure-toned, innocent Golden Age, singing with lightness and fleetness and exercising consistent vocal control and an impressive precision in the higher registers. Typical was the delicate flourish which embodies the lines ‘If sometimes here I go in search of peace, the nightingale for flies around singing, pauses in flight and answers: peace’ in Doyle’s opening aria (‘Se qui pace talor vo cercando’), which would happily have substituted for the bird-song mimicry which Vivaldi incorporates joyfully into his concertos. Similarly, ‘Al mio seno il pargoletto’ (which Vivaldi borrowed from his 1716 opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto) was characterised by charmingly fluid, clear lines and arcs: ‘At my breast I will feed the little Baby on milk alone, sucked there with unsullied lips.’ The soprano used the barest sprinkle of vibrato which graced the role with freshness and refinement, but at times I longed for a little more depth and colour, particularly as the arias themselves lacked any notable variety of vocal style. The Part 2 aria ‘Giace languente’ (Conquered Fate) found Doyle at her best: following a minor-key recitative to which the theorbo’s expressive spread chords (Eligio Quinterio) had lent poignancy, this was singing of agility and stronger expressive presence, as the soprano engaged thoughtfully with the energetic woodwind interspersions.

Virtù was a figure of dignity and regality as crafted by Hilary Summers. Her contralto is silky and full but she restrained its more voluptuous layers and used its depth to convey sincerity and profundity. Her tuning was impeccable and the melodic line focused and fluent, most particularly in the Part 2 aria ‘Stelle, con vostra pace’ (modelled on an aria from Vivaldi’s Arsilda), in which she sustained a flowing melody against an assertive unison line for violins. ‘Così sol nell’aurora’, which began with the violins’ gentle pastoral prelude, showed off the contralto’s nimbleness of voice and closed with an exciting instrumental diminuendo to depict the ‘sun, with his shining rays appear among the stars, full of splendours’. Summers’ arias were also notable for the clarity of the diction, which was aided by her obvious familiarity with the role.

The ladies’ voices blended appealingly in their duets, but it was David Wilson-Johnson who had the lion’s share of the virtuosity to negotiate. The baritone was secure in the more challenging numbers such as ‘L’alta lor gloria immortale’, with its racing vocal line, and the pitching in La Senna’s first aria, ‘Qui nel profondo’ was very focused as Wilson-Johnson negotiated the nimble lines in unison with the accompaniment. I’d have liked a bit more heroism in ‘L’alta’, though, and while ‘Pietà, dolcezza’ which opens Part 2 was expressively phrased — and the preceding recitative featured a wonderfully quite plummet at the close — the gentleness of Wilson-Johnson’s baritone was rather subsumed by the forceful instrumental bass lines. The final chorus is in four parts, and tenor Tom Robson made a brief appearance to form the quartet.

The arias succeeded one another apace and King kept things swinging along, his swift, sharp hand gestures supplemented by twists of the shoulder, nudges of the elbow and nimble sways. But, this patchwork score — there are copious musical borrowings from Vivaldi’s earlier works and textual borrowings from his operas Apollo in Tempe, Calisto in orsa among others — required more consistently penetrating vocal performances and, perhaps, more lavish orchestral accompaniment, to triumph over the short-comings which even King’s evident, unflagging enthusiasm could not quite overcome.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

The King’s Consort: Robert King — conductor, Julia Doyle — soprano (as L’Età dell’Oro), Hilary Summers — contralto (as La Virtù), David Wilson-Johnson — baritone (as La Senna), Tom Robson — tenor (as Chorus).

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 3rd May 2016

image= image_description=The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf] product=yes product_title=King’s Consort at Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: The King’s Consort [Photo by Taco van der Werf]
Posted by Gary at 1:45 PM

Bampton Classical Opera 2016

Bampton Classical Opera’s summer 2016 production will be a double-bill of one-act works: the UK première and first staging in modern times of Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis, and Thomas Arne’s The Judgment of Paris, which the company performed in 2010-11. The operas will be staged by the same creative team as the highly-successful 2015 production of Salieri’s Trofonio’s Cave ( review): director Jeremy Gray, translator Gilly French, and conductor Paul Wingfield, who was a Jette Parker Young Artist from 2012-14 and is currently a member of the music staff at the Royal Opera House.

The cast for both operas features Canadian soprano Barbara Cole Walton, making her company début, mezzo-soprano Catherine Backhouse, who sang in the London performance of Salieri’s Trofonio’s Cave in 2015, and two other cast members from the same production: soprano Aoife O’Sullivan and tenor Christopher Turner. They are joined by tenor Robert Anthony Gardiner and baritone Robert Gildon.

Bampton Classical Opera has made a unique commitment to performing some of Gluck’s barely-known shorter operas, including UK premières of La danza and Il Parnaso confuso (review). Gluck is all too easily assigned to a single musico-historical category – that of operatic reformer. However, his works extend far beyond the ‘reform’ opera style with which he is most commonly associated, encompassing youthful Metastasian opera seria, numerous ballet scores and several delightful one-act festal serenatas.

As a long-time employee of the Hapsburg estate, Gluck was required to devise suitable entertainments for festive occasions. In 1769, when Ferdinand, Duke of Parma and grandson of Louis XV, was to marry Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and sister of Marie Antoinette a series of events was planned, comprising a tournament, elaborate feasts, a Chinese fair, and a festival illustrating contemporary advances in art and science. The festivities stretched over several months, and included an opera-ballet commissioned from Gluck entitled Le feste d’Apollo, which consisted of a prologue and three essentially unrelated acts: Aristeo, Philémon e Baucis and an abridgement of the composer’s Orfeo.

Characteristically, the subject of Philemon and Baucis was taken from Classical mythology. It tells of the story of two young lovers, the eponymous shepherd and shepherdess, who show great respect and care for Jupiter when he appears before them disguised as a pilgrim. In return, the rustic couple are blessed by Jupiter with everlasting life and elevated to the status of demigods. At the same time, he curses their fellow Phrygians who had refused to help him.

The score blends the charmingly simple with the intricately sophisticated. One commenter has observed of the work that ‘Shorter numbers have an epigrammatic compression of charm and style that is very French, but the longer arias possess a majestic breadth of treatment that both looks back to Italian Baroque models and forward to Mozart’.

Gluck borrowed from several earlier works – inevitably commissions for festive occasion-pieces needed to be dashed off in haste – but there is some striking original music too, not least Jupiter’s aria di furia against the uncharitable Phyrigians, Bauci’s joyful, florid, stratospheric ‘Il mio pastor tu sei’, and a thunderous storm sequence.

This new première will be given in an English translation by Gilly French, with a performing edition based on a manuscript in the Royal College of Music.

The Judgment of Paris is one of three masques composed by Thomas Arne between 1738 and 1742. It represents, along with The Masque of Comus and The Masque of Alfred some of the composer’s finest work. It was first performed in London on 12 March 1742, and it has been suggested that it may have been intended to upstage Sammartini, the protégé of Frederick the Prince of Wales, for the Italian’s own The Judgment of Paris had been performed at Cliveden in 1740 alongside Arne’s masque, Alfred.

William Congreve’s text had been set before, in 1700, when it served as the vehicle for a composing competition whose 200 guinea prize was shared between Daniel Purcell, John Weldon, John Eccles and Gottfried Finger. The winning compositions were subsequently performed at a special concert. Perhaps in choosing the same libretto forty years later, Arne hoped to make a point about his own superior standing, although by then the original competition pieces had long been forgotten.

Arne’s inventive music perfectly matches Congreve’s droll wit. The action relates the episode in which Paris, a shepherd, is obliged to choose the fairest among the three goddesses Juno, Pallas and, inevitably, Venus. During the competition, Paris finds himself the subject of various enticements as the goddesses attempt to persuade him in turn to award them the symbol of victory, a golden apple. Far from displaying bucolic gaucheness, Paris demonstrates unanticipated wile in delaying his judgement for long enough to incite the impatient goddess into singing several arias and engaging in a degree of disrobing. Just how is a director to treat Paris’s line, ‘When each is undress’d, I’ll judge of the best’?

The overture is well-known but there is also much lovely writing for solo voice, which in the words of one modern commentator shows Arne to be ‘at the height of his powers […] unequalled by his English contemporaries for the matchless flow of his melodic invention’. In addition to the beautiful, Paris and Mercury (two tenors) share a splendid duet and the three goddesses have a lively dance-like trio. As with Gluck, the music ranges the simple – strophic airs – to the intricate, as in ‘Gentle swain’ with its elaborate cello obliggato.

Bampton Classical Opera performed The Judgment of Paris in concert performances marking Arne’s 300th birthday in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room and in Wigmore Hall in 2010-11.

Claire Seymour

Production details:

Philemon and Baucis/The Judgment of Paris , with free pre-performance talks:

The Deanery Garden, Bampton, Oxfordshire OX18 2LL

7.00 pm Friday 22 July, Saturday 23 July

The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Glos GL8 8QG

5.00 pm Monday 29 August

St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA

7.00 pm Tuesday 13 September

Philemon and Baucis

Baucis – Barbara Cole Walton, Philemon – Catherine Backhouse, Jupiter – Christopher Turner, Chorus soprano (shepherdess) – Aoife O’Sullivan, Chorus tenor – Robert Anthony Gardiner, Chorus baritone – Robert Gildon

The Judgment of Paris

Juno – Barbara Cole Walton, Pallas – Catherine Backhouse, Paris – Christopher Turner, Venus – Aoife O’Sullivan, Mercury – Robert Anthony Gardiner, Chorus baritone – Robert Gildon

Conductor: Paul Wingfield

Director/designer: Jeremy Gray

Movement director: Triona Adams

Costume designer: Vikki Medhurst

The Deanery Garden and Westonbirt:

Tickets: £35 (under 18: half-price)

By Telephone: 01993 851142


By post: Bampton Classical Opera, 1 Deanery Court, Broad Street, Bampton, OX18 2LY

St John’s Smith Square:

Tickets: £15, £22, £30. Booking for Friends of St John’s opens 4 July, for General Public 11 July

By Telephone: 020 7222 1061


By post: St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA

image= image_description=El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904 [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Bampton Classical Opera 2016 product_by=A preview by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: El Juicio de Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904 [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 1:25 PM

May 2, 2016

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Indeed, at the Cadogan Hall Gemma Lois Summerfield, the 2015 Ferrier winner, had impressed with her poise and expressive richness, as Berenice in Jommelli’s opera; and, Jennifer France, winner of the Song Prize in the 2014 Awards, had demonstrated great maturity, a confident stage presence and bright, alert tone. There is every evidence that the six singers participating in the Finals of this year’s competition, and many of those who competed in the earlier rounds, will equal their forerunners’ successes.

Chinese-born soprano He Wu, a Young Artist at the National Opera Studio, had the difficult job of getting proceedings underway and, understandably, she seemed a little nervous in Massenet’s ‘Frère, voyez! … Du gai soleil’ (Werther), struggling to control the intonation and producing a hard edge to the tone. Schubert’s ‘Nachtviolen’ also suffered from thin tone and vocal tension: the melody felt perilously perched and lacked the soft-scented radiance that it requires to support its modest nature, though pianist Ben-San Lau provided an airy accompaniment and as the song progressed the interplay between voice and piano suggested unity and warmth.

Richard Strauss’s ‘Amor’ played to the 26-year-old’s strengths, and she demonstrated considerable power and agility, although there remained a tendency to shrillness at the top which diminished the silvery delicacy of the melody. I felt, too, that Lau could have taken a more insouciant approach to the lazy rhythms of Strauss’s triplets and spread chords. An overly wide vibrato marred Frank Bridge’s ‘Come to me in my dreams’ and Matthew Arnold’s text was not always intelligible, though the piano postlude was affecting. Wolf’s ‘Auch kleine Dinge’ was unevenly phrased, but He Wu was at her best in the final item, Puccini’s ‘Chi il bel sogno’ (La rondine) in which her lustre, long-breathed phrasing and vocal strength suggested she will be a terrific Mimi.

27-year-old Alessandro Fisher, who studied the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is currently singing with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, began his programme with Lalo’s ‘Vainement, ma bien-aimée’, the aubade from Act 3 of the composer’s opera Le roi d’Ys, in which Mylio, a young warrior, tries to convince Rozenn, his bride-to-be, to leave the protection of her handmaidens and join him in the wedding procession. Fisher was an engaging story-teller, relaxed of voice, singing with sensitive phrasing and good appreciation of the French idiom. The final pianissimo high A — ‘Je vais, hélas! mourir, hélas!’ — was floated with finesse.

Rachmaninov’s ‘The morn of life’ (Sey den’ ya pomnyu) presented an austere contrast to the subsequent repertoire staple, ‘Ach so fromm’ by Flotow (Martha), in which Fisher used his light, bright tenor to good effect, soaring gracefully and silkily. Ashok Gupta was a splendid accompanist in Schubert’s ‘Die böse Farbe’ (Die Schöne Müllerin); the delicate arpeggiated chords were beautifully crisp and the repeated tolling note, which strike the wandering miller with the devastating reality that the girl he loves does not love him in return, rang with unalleviated sadness.

Michael Head’s ‘A Blackbird Singing’ was infused with an equal poignancy. Fisher’s enunciation of the text was clear but unmannered, and the simplicity of the strophic form — and the lilting honesty of the folk-like melody, with its hopefully rising octave followed by waning, falling thirds and the simplicity of the final statement — offered little consolation: ‘A blackbird singing I hear in my troubled mind.’ Fisher’s tenor was sweet and dreamy, but never unfocused, perfectly conveying the mystery and pathos of loss.

Two songs from Reynaldo Hahn’s cycle Venetia closed the tenor’s sequence, and they were sung with tenderness and touching import. Hahn wrote these songs in 1900 when visiting Venice with his lover Marcel Proust. If the composer himself was reputed to have ‘a slim thread of a voice’, which he muted further by singing with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Fisher sculpted the lines beautifully and with nuanced rubato, matching the easy rocking of the piano accompaniments — he seemed to be inviting, ‘step into my gondola and let me transport you elsewhere’. ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ possessed a hint of wit and charm, and the tenor rose easily to its vocal challenges; ‘L’avertimento’ was vivid and firmer of tone. Again, Gupta created telling drama even in the quietest sways and ripples of the accompaniment.

New Zealand mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew (26), who is currently a student of Yvonne Kenny on the Opera Studies course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, made a strong impression in Meyebeer’s ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’ from Les Huguenots, singing the bright recitative with striking character and colour. Against the backdrop of the St. Bartholomew Massacre, the page Urbain asks the hero Raoul to meet with Queen Margaret, who wants to arrange a political marriage; Andrew’s sumptuous directness suggested that she would make a striking impact on stage.

Dylan Perez’s rippling arpeggios made an attention-calling opening to Richard Strauss’s ebullient love song ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, which Andrew sang with fervour and freshness. Her mezzo was sweet, the line fluent and Perez’s accompaniment was well wedded to the vocal nuances. Hahn’s ‘Phyllis’ was one of the highlights of the evening, endearingly characterised by elegant phrasing, variegated tints, a burnished lower register and touching pianissimos. The mezzo-soprano captured the gentle intimacy of this song and seemed fully aware of the relationship between vocal colour and meaning.

Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’ was full of breathless excitement, but Andrews’ mezzo is a tad too fruity for the adolescent page. She was on more comfortable and fitting territory in Ben Moore’s ‘Sexy Lady’. An encore piece written originally for Susan Graham, the song is a comic complaint of a star mezzo-soprano trapped en travesti — as Mozart’s lovesick adolescents, Handel’s dysfunctional knights — and it was quite a risky choice, prioritising dramatic presence over vocal technique, but Andrew pulled it off with aplomb, aided by the deadpan gravity of her accompanist.

28-year-old Anna Rajah, a graduate of GSMD and RCM, opened the post-interval sequence with Bellini’s ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta … O quante volte’ from I Capuletti e I Montecchi, revealing an impressive grasp of phrase structure and a vocal intensity which enlivened even the finest unaccompanied melodic threads, although the tuning was not always rock steady. In Fauré’s ‘Clair de lune’ Rajah showed her appreciation of the suggestive intimations of the composer’s restrained melodic utterances and through-composed structure; the gentle reticence of the song suited the rather small magnitude of her soprano. Debussy’s ‘La romance d’Ariel’ was meltingly sweet throughout the challenging coloratura of the elf’s pyrotechnics, but I found Rajah oddly detached and cold in Pamina’s ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’: her vibrato was quite tight and there was little sense of the fluidity of line — Pamina is, after all, no Ice-Queen. Fortunately, there was copious and consoling joy and warmth in Roger Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’.

Baritone James Newby, currently in his last year of study at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, was the youngest of the finalists at 23 years-of-age but he showed impressive maturity in a diverse programme. Papageno’s ‘Papagena! Weibchen! Täubchen!’ wasn’t the easiest number to start with, as more usually we have had three hours to understand and empathise with the bird-catcher’s idiosyncratic, infuriating and endearing qualities; but, Newby demonstrated care, thoughtfulness and clarity in the shaping of Mozart’s phrases, suggesting that he will make a charming and lovable semi-rogue. Finalists are required to balance song with opera and in the aria’s brief spoken episodes Newby suggested that he will have dramatic presence to match his appealing vocal tone. Pianist Panaretos Kyriatzidis was attentive to the details and the duo effected a beguiling transition to the more animated closing episode.

Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ was exciting: fast, vibrant and emotionally febrile. Again, Kyriatzidis impressed, his galloping accompaniment persuasively tempestuous, and Newby embodied all four protagonists with striking directness. Massenet’s ‘Danse macabre’ revealed also a rich lower register and a telling way with the text.

Britten’s ‘Look, through the port comes the moonshine astray’ (Billy Budd) began with a flow of sensuous anticipation. Newby’s free vocal line was beautifully lyrical and expertly phrased, with well-controlled breathing and dynamics, and a teasing pianissimo. As the aria developed, the tenor conveyed Billy’s vigour forcefully, but the sentiments were never over-staged, as Newby sang with stylishness and vitality. The vocal lines had smoothness and continuity, the many and slight ritardandos were impressively negotiated, sustained high notes were vehement but not forced, and the coda was explosive but always controlled. Butterworth’s ‘Is my team ploughing’ offered a poignant contrast which communicated powerfully to the audience in the Hall.

Samling Artist Nardus Williams (25) brought the Finals to a close. Accompanied by Welsh pianist Jâms Coleman, she presented a challenging programme which gave ample opportunity for us to appreciate her superbly controlled, sensuous soprano which has sheen and shimmer as well as real focus of tone.

Williams recently became the first singer to win the Trinity Laban Gold Medal Competition at Kings Place, fulfilling the promise that she had shown as an undergraduate when she was awarded the Audrey Strange Memorial Prize for Most Promising Young Singer in the 62nd Royal Over-seas League Competition. She is a 2015/16 Park Lane Group Artist and is currently continuing her studies at the Royal Academy of Music with Lillian Watson and Ingrid Surgenor.

Williams opened her programme with a bold choice, Walton’s lively ‘The Lord Mayor’s Table’, which she sang with good pitch and gentle humour, enunciating the words clearly. The Wagnerian opulence of Duparc’s ‘Extase’ was well-controlled, the gentle rises and falls creating a dreamy detachment while the sentiments remained sincere. Perhaps Donna Elvira’s ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’ didn’t have quite enough bite, and I found Williams’ vibrato too heavy for Brahms’s ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ (Motionless mild air), which revived the Tristan­-like ambience of the Duparc’s mélodie, but the passionate imploring of the text was direct and heartfelt, and the diminishment into nothingness at the close beautifully nuanced. Cameron’s accompaniment established a sighing slumber, his delicate trills evoking the fitful fall of the fountain which alone disturbs the garden’s gloom.

Rachmaninov’s ‘Spring torrents’ was a powerful and compelling conclusion; the sweeping triplets and sextuplets of the piano accompaniment conveyed the enthusiasm and need which greets the return of spring, and the joyful power of Williams’s soprano built to a triumphal piano postlude.

The women may have dominated the programme but it was the men who walked off with the honours. For only the second time in the 61-year history of the Awards, First Prize was shared by Alessandro Fisher and James Newby, with no Second Prize awarded. Bianca Andrew won the Ferrier Loveday Song Prize for her rendition of songs by Alvén and Wolf in her semi-final programme, while Ashok Gupta was awarded the Help Musicians UK Accompanists Prize.

Claire Seymour

He Wu, soprano: Massenet, ‘Frère, voyez! … Du gai soleil (Werther), Schubert — ‘Nachtviolen’, R. Strauss — ‘Amor’, Wolf — ‘Auch kleine Dinge’ (Italienisches Liederbuch), Bridge — ‘Come to me in my dreams’, Puccini, ‘Chi il bel sogno’ (La rondine).

Alessandro Fisher, tenor: Lalo, ‘Vainement, ma bien-aimée’ (Le roi d’Ys), Rachmaninov — ‘The morn of life’, Flotow — ‘Ach so fromm’ (Martha), Schubert — ‘Die böse Farbe’ ( Die Schöne Mçüllerin), Head — ‘A Blackbird Singing’, Hahn — ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada; L’avertimento’ (Venezia)

Bianca Andrew, mezzo-soprano: Meyebeer — ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’ (Les Huguenots), R. Strauss — ‘Heimlicher Aufforderung’, Hahn — ‘Phyllis (Études Latines), Mozart — ‘Non so più, cosa son, coas faccio’ ( Le nozze di Figaro), Ben Moore — Sexy Lady.

Anna Rajah, soprano: Bellini — ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta … O quante volte’ (I Capuletti e I Montecchi), Fauré — ‘Clair de lune’, Debussy — ‘La romance d’Ariel’, Mozart — ‘Ach, ich fühl’s ( Die Zauberflöte), Quilter — ‘Love’s Philosophy’.

James Newby, baritone: Mozart — ‘Papagena! Weibchen! Täubchen! (Die Zauberflöte), Schubert — Erlkönig’, Saint-Saëns — ‘Danse macabre’, Massenet — ‘Vision fugitive’ (Hérodiade), Butterworth — ‘Is my team ploughing? (A Shropshire Lad).

Nardus Williams, soprano: Walton — ‘The Lord Mayor’s Table’, Duparc — ‘Extase’, Mozart — ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’ (Don Giovanni), Brahms — ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’, Rachmaninov — ‘Spring torrents’.

Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 29th April 2016

image= image_description=From left to right: James Newby, Alessandro Fisher, Bianca Andrew and Ashok Gupta [Photo by Robert Piwko] product=yes product_title=Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016 product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: From left to right: James Newby, Alessandro Fisher, Bianca Andrew and Ashok Gupta [Photo by Robert Piwko]
Posted by Gary at 2:35 PM