October 31, 2016

The Tallis Scholars: Josquin's Missa Di dadi

The practice of basing both secular and sacred polyphonic compositions on cantus firmi exemplifies this referential symbolism and Josquin’s Missa Di dadi intensifies the use of aural and visual stimuli from the secular world in the service of the sacred to an extreme degree. The liking of French medieval society for dice games - legislation against which was stringent during the period - would seem at first glance, however, to be at odds with the purpose of the liturgy: gain without effort was akin to usury, and we might imagine that any musical reference or association was intended in only the darkest of humorous veins. Phillips links Josquin’s composition to the Milan of the Sforzas, a known ‘hot-house of gambling during the fifteenth century’, and speculates that the composer possibly ‘joined in with this fashion, at court and in private’. There’s an added ‘gamble’ in that there is some doubt as to whether the Missa Di dadi is a genuine part of Josquin’s oeuvre at all.

Whatever the conjectures, what is certain is that the tenor line of Robert Morton’s three-part rondeau ‘N’aray je jamais mieulx que j’ay’ provides the cantus firmus, and this aural dimension is enriched by the ‘dadi’ (the Italian for ‘dice’) which appear in the tenor part, signalling proportionality of form - symmetry in the Gloria and Credo, unpredictability in the Sanctus. For example, the Gloria is preceded by a pair of dice reading four and one, indicating to the tenor that the notes of the chanson need to be quadrupled in length to fit with the other parts. [1]

desprez-josquin-des-pres-missa-di-dadi-missa-une-mousse-de-biscaye-u-iext44267777.png

This recording of Josquin’s Missa Di dadi, on the Gimell label, is the sixth album (of a projected nine) in The Tallis Scholars’ project to record all of Josquin’s masses. Phillips explains the rationale behind the endeavour: ‘I chose to record all Josquin’s masses partly because The Tallis Scholars have been associated with his music for their entire career, and partly because his masses make the best possible project. 19 masses over nine discs is manageable - where Palestrina’s 107 masses is not - while their scoring sets them apart in Josquin’s output. Nowhere else did he concentrate so specifically on four-part chamber-music-like writing, yet every Mass has its own individual sound world.

‘I realised that in his masses Josquin had created a set of pieces of unique quality, designed to explore all the potential within the form, as Beethoven later did with the symphony. I wanted to gather them all together for the first time, so that the public can appreciate the scope of Josquin’s genius.’

From the first notes of the Kyrie, The Tallis Scholars summon an acoustic richness which is invigorating and dynamic. The balance between unity of ensemble and the characterisation of individual lines is exemplary. As pairs and groups of voices move apart and come together, with meticulous precision, even bare fifths have a tension which is released in the succeeding movement of voices. Close-voiced part-writing converges on unisons which then flower into searching vocal flourishes. Listening to the first Kyrie, one admires the way that the voices enter in turn, adding weight and depth; from the first there is a stylish confidence in the delivery - epitomised by the purity and focus of the final chord of this section.

The Christe frees individual voices within the polyphonic texture; one is able to focus on the melodic and motivic development of any particular vocal line while remaining always aware of the symphony of whole. Kyrie II is more ecstatic, with greater rhythmic vitality and a wider registral range; the bass is especially rich in this movement, and the warm major-key resolution conjures the jubilant effect of a resounding organ.

The Gloria is notable for the seamless movement from chant to polyphony. Rhythmic points gain impetus through repetition and there is a bracing contrast between rich harmony and unisons at cadences. The setting of ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ is sparser of texture and darker in tone; and while ‘Domine Fili unigenite’ descends still further into barer realms, the addition of the upper voices in the ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ and the greater floridity of the melodic line lifts the spirit of the music once more. In the ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere’ we can appreciate what Phillips means when he speaks of Josquin’s exploitation of the full potential of the four-part texture and mass form: the overall blend of voices seems to soften here, but distinction is still made between homophonic and polyphonic passages, with solo voices drawn forth, leading to a euphoric climax.

A lovely firm bass in the Credo forms a sure foundation above which the lighter tenors and altos can take flight. The contrapuntal points in the Crucifixus take on a harder ‘edge’ initially but as the lines become increasingly elaborate they acquire, almost imperceptibly, a mesmerising richness: the emotive mellifluousness is intensely spiritual, but the homophonic episodes too have great vibrancy.

The freedom and expansiveness of the Sanctus is immediately evident, while the Agnus Dei - especially the second of the three sections - has a refreshing transparency. This is a tremendous performance of the Missa Di dadi which showcases Josquin at both his most intimate and theatrical.

The disc also includes Josquin’s ‘Missa une mousse de Biscaye’ ­- a work thought to be the composer’s earliest Mass setting, dating from 1473-75, and in which there is the same sense of a composer exploring all the possible techniques and forms available to him. Typically, the mass is based on a secular tune - one with a French and Basque text (Biscay is a province in the Basque region of northern Spain). The French ‘mousse’ is derived from the Castilian ‘moza’ meaning ‘a lass’, and the original song presents a dialogue between a young man, speaking in French, and a Basque girl, who replies to all his amorous proposals with the puzzling refrain ‘Soaz, soaz, ordonarequin’.

The Tallis Scholars’ enunciation of the text of both masses is characteristically precise and clear. The music of the ‘Missa une mousse de Biscaye’ wanders quite waywardly through an unusually diverse harmonic palette - perhaps evoking the mis-communication of the lovers in the original song? - but the singers’ intonation is always true and the progressions sure. Long vocal lines are effortlessly spun, and individual parts come together to form strikingly plush bodies of sound.

The ensemble brings drama and intensity to the mass. The ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum Patris’ drives forward with rhythmic cogency and the sound is bright and energising; the singers create grandeur and spaciousness in the ‘Credo in unum Deum’ and expand confidently into the ‘Et iterum venturus est’. Similarly, after the stillness of the initial setting of ‘Sanctus’ there is persuasive movement into the ‘Pleni sunt caeli’, which in turn swells into a majestic first ‘Hosanna’ where the light-footed bass line and strong cadence bring a sense of joy.

The Tallis Scholars’ first album in this Josquin series won the Gramophone Record of the Year Award in 1987 and this new addition continues the ensemble’s masterly exploration of the way the composer’s music reconciles the earthly and the liturgical.

The album is available on CD and from iTunes in their “Mastered for iTunes” format. It is also available in a variety of high resolution Stereo and Surround Sound Download formats from the Gimell website at www.gimell.com.

Claire Seymour

Josquin Masses: Di dadi; Une mousse de Biscaye.

The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.

Gimell CDGIM 048 (CD: 71.13)



[1] Michael Long presents a comprehensive and persuasive account of the function and meaning of the dice in ‘Symbol and Ritual in Josquin’s Missa di Dadi’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol.42, No.1. (Spring, 1989): 1-22.

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Posted by claire_s at 8:27 AM

October 27, 2016

San Diego Opera Presents Charming Cinderella

On Saturday, October 22, San Diego Opera opened its main stage season with Rossini’s comic opera, Cinderella (La Cenerentola). I saw the performance on the following Tuesday. Lindy Hume’s production had already worked it intrinsic magic in Australia, New Zealand, and Leipzig, Germany but this was its first run of performances in the United States. Hume is the artistic director of Opera Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Her stage direction makes use of almost every kind of comedy that can be invoked on the opera stage and she kept varying each artist’s movements so that nothing was ever repeated. If a member of the audience looked away for even a moment he missed something. Dan Potra, who designed The Barber of Seville for Houston Grand Opera created the designs for Cinderella’s scenery and costumes.

The curtain opens upon a wall of library shelves. In this version of the opera, Don Magnifico, the father of Cinderella and ugly sisters Tisbe and Clorinda, owns a general store. He and his daughters live above it. The store contains all sorts of items, both useful and imaginative. Other scenes are denoted with appropriate decor. Potra’s costumes ranged from clownish togs for Magnifico and the ugly sisters, to a red velvet suit for Dandini as the false prince and a gorgeous dark blue ball gown for soon-to-be Princess Angelina.

Cinderella_Nocklin2.pngScenic and Costume Designer, Dan Potra

For all this fun and games, Egyptian-born bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as the prince’s tutor, Alidoro, was the only straight man. He sang with stentorian dark tones and maintained a singular dignity throughout the evening. In many ways, the charismatic presence of this artist kept the production centered and allowed the comedy to go on around him.

Lauren McNeece was a sweet Cinderella whose sisters bullied her constantly and whose father denied her paternity. For most of the opera she sang with a sweet lyrical sound. At the finale, however, she let loose and sang her high notes with unfettered full rich tones that I never suspected she had hidden all along. As her future husband, Don Ramiro, David Portillo negotiated his difficult coloratura line with exquisite grace and delightful lyricism. Right now, the opera world is blessed with tenors who can sing coloratura and it is a joy to see them spread their wings and fly with the most complicated Rossini roles.

Susannah Biller and Alissa Anderson were the “ugly” sisters Clorinda and Tisbe. They were always amusing and they earned a few laughs with their antics. Most importantly, they were never strident, a difficult feat in those roles. Either of them could be the next Angelina. Italian bass Stefano de Peppo is a gifted commedian and a past master of the fast “patter” that many of Rossini’s comic roles demand. Already dressed for laughs, he made Magnifico real by ever-so-lightly underplaying the part.

Although Los Angeles Opera Young Artist Program alumnus José Adán Pérez was already well known in Southern California, this was his San Diego Opera debut. He was a no-holds-barred Dandini who wanted Cinderella for himself. He sang with an opulent light baritone sound as he made his character realize that although he was a high level servant, he was a servant nonetheless.

Chorus Master Bruce Stasyna made his debut directing the all male ensemble who sometimes danced and at other times goose stepped as an amusing group of serving men and whiskered “women.” Gary Thor Wedow conducted the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in a well-paced translucent reading of Rossini’s elegant score. Patrons heard a multiplicity of interesting sonorities from the lower as well as the higher and brighter-sounding instruments. It was good to be back at the Civic Theatre and to realize that San Diego Opera is again on a firm footing in its community. I look forward to the chamber opera, Soldier Songs, next month and to more main stage productions in 2017.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information:

Cast and Production Information:

Conductor, Gary Thor Wedow; Director, Lindy Hume; Scenic and Costume Designer, Dan Potra; Lighting Designer, Matthew Marshall; Wig and Makeup Designer, Stephen Bryant; Chorus Master, Bruce Stasyna; Pianist, Catherine Miller; Movement Coach, Bernadette Torres; Supertitles, Lindy Hume and Navelle French; Clorinda, Susannah Biller; Tisbe, Alisa Anderson; Cinderella/Angelina, Lauren McNeece; Alidoro, Ashraf Sewailam; Don Magnifico, Stefano de Peppo; Don Ramiro, David Portillo; Dandini, José Adán Pérez.


image=http://www.operatoday.com/Cinderella_Nochlin3.png

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product_title=La cenerentola in San Diego
product_by=A review by Marua Nockin
product_id=Above: Lauren McNeecey as Cinderella [All photos by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson, courtesy of San Diego Opera]

Posted by maria_n at 2:10 PM

October 26, 2016

Macbeth, LA Opera

The Chandler audience saw the opera in the usual manner from across the orchestra pit to wherever they were seated. The park audience saw the singers so closely that they could observe their characterizations via the tiniest changes in facial expressions. Thus, the artists had to play to both the theater and HD audiences. They mingled large and small gestures so as to give each audience its due.

Opera is very different when audience members can look into a singer’s eyes and see what his character is contemplating. For opera singers and stage directors, high definition transmission is a new world. With Placido Domingo as Macbeth and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth the HD audience could watch the characters’ mental machinations grow into actions. Domingo’s interpretation of the title character was as affecting as that of any fine Shakespearian actor. He was a pliable Macbeth who needed his wife to help him plan his path through life. In this production, he could even be considered her victim. For Domingo, Macbeth is a baritone role that rides comfortably on his voice and allows him to act the great Shakespearian role for which he is aptly suited. He goes from jubilant thane and insecure king to soulless death at the hand of Macduff after Lady Macbeth’s demise.

KA1_434 (1).jpgPlacido Domingo (center) as Macbeth and Ekaterina Semenchuk (left) as Lady Macbeth

Semenchuk has a huge voice with a beautiful timbre. Verdi said he wanted an ugly voice for Lady Macbeth, but her gorgeous tones were most welcome, especially since she bestowed her vocal jewels more freely at this performance than she did at the performance I reviewed for Opera Today on September 22nd. This Lady was a calculating courtier who had no qualms about murder and could inspire her husband to act the part of a host when all he saw was the ghost of the murdered Banquo. At the same time, she included all the bel canto coloratura and trills that the young Verdi wrote for this early opera. Both Domingo and Semenchuk gave us a fine combination of early seventeenth century acting and early nineteenth century singing.

Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a thought-provoking Banquo who sang with bronzed stentorian tones. Tenor Joshua Guerrero sang Macduff with the resonant golden notes that have made him an up-and-coming matinee idol. He has a sizeable voice and a secure technique so he is not restricted to light roles Having been raised in the South Gate area, he garnered wild applause from the park audience.

Although no tickets were required at South Gate Park, Los Angeles Opera personnel were at the entrance to greet opera goers and show them where to set up blankets, chairs, and picnic baskets. They even had blankets for anyone who needed them. There were food trucks in the area and a few ice cream vendors. Many families brought their children and I enjoyed watching the little girl in front of me introduce her Barbie Doll to opera. The mother of an older boy told me he had read the Macbeth Comic Book in preparation for the show.

Since most of the people in the South Gate area speak Spanish, the on-screen titles were in both Spanish and English. Perhaps we can have that at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion soon. It was a beautiful evening with a full moon and even the songs of night birds. Los Angeles Opera gave us magnificent show that I hope draws many new enthusiasts to the opera house.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information:

Conductor, James Conlon; Director, Darko Tresnjak; Co-Scenic Designers, Darko Tresnjak and Colin McGurk; Costume Designer, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Design, Matthew Richards; Projection Design, Sean Nieuwenhuis; Chorus Director Grant Gershon; Macbeth, Plácido Domingo; Lady Macbeth, Ekaterina Semenchuk; Banquo, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo; Macduff, Joshua Guerrero; Malcolm, Josh Wheeker; Lady-in-Waiting, Summer Hassan; Doctor / First Apparition, Theo Hoffman; Second Apparition, Liv Redpath; Third Apparition, Isaiah Morgan; Fight Director, Steve Rankin; Climbing Consultant, Daniel Lyons.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KA1_279.jpg
image_description=Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth and Placido Domingo as Macbeth [Photo: Karen Almond / LA Opera]

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product_title=Macbeth in Los Angeles’ South Gate Park
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth and Placido Domingo as Macbeth

Photos: Karen Almond / LA Opera

Posted by maria_n at 8:20 PM

COC’d Up Ariodante

Mr. Jones and team have taken the courtly setting of the piece Handel wrote and displaced it from a medieval palace to a remote 1960’s Scottish island ”kingdom.” And although the King is still a character, the updated “realm” consists of a massive, unattractive setting that is one large part community meeting hall and one small part private residence. Well, “residence” in the sense that Ginerva’s bedroom and a cramped, ill-used “foyer” were all that were seen other than the rather primitive common room.

From the numbingly ugly bedroom wallpaper, to the floating doorknobs that open/close non-existent “doors,” to the confusing configuration of entrances, this was a depressing, intentionally dull atmosphere, meant to convey a mandated routine and an oppressive societal structure. Set designer ULTZ was also responsible for the drab, purposefully provincial costumes. The attire was at times confusing (chorus women were dressed as men but danced as women), at best functional (such as the wedding gown that gets passed around), and at worst, defeating (the titular prince looks like a hang-dog village simpleton). Although the whole dwelling was covered with a realistic ceiling which prevented down-lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin provided an admirable lighting design that featured evenly produced washes and meaningful area illumination.

So what was this concept all about? Some program ink was taken up justifying Ginerva as the main focus (Handel be damned), pursuing a rather heavy-handed subtext that she is forced into assuming the limiting woman’s role that society demands of her. To that end, Duke Polinesso was repurposed as a hypocritical evangelist who is in actuality an unrestrained sexual predator. More program notes expounded about Ibsen and Strindberg as some sort of inspiration for this interpretation, but that was not born out by inconsistent staging choices.

The ensemble (singing well under Sandra Horst’s tutelage) was treated more like a Greek chorus than anything those Scandinavian writers might have inspired. Often (make that “too often”) the chorus would enter or exit in single file, as if in some unspoken ritual that involved moving the wooded chairs on, off, and around stage like a poor man’s bus-and-truck tour of Grand Hotel. When they tired of that, they moved the heavy table to and fro. And characters certainly did not behave realistically, clambering over, on and under furniture as they ignored each other and sought merely to create different visual levels.

Characters that were said to be “asleep” had their eyes wide open, those said to be “kneeling” were standing, those hailed as being “together” were apart, well, you get the idea. Just like in a slam-bang, authentic Hedda Gabler, right? You can only stage against the text so many times before an audience tunes out. As if this weren’t enough, puppets were added to comment on the action at the ends of each act.

Sohre_COC2.pngA scene with puppets

Without meaning to insult anyone’s appeal in any way, it is telling that the puppets are actually more engaging than the live singers. The marionette enactment of marriage and family life at the end of One was a breath of delightful whimsy. But then came the thudding scenario at the end of Two in which mini-“Ginerva” was tarted up as a red-pumped, street-walking pole dancer. I am not making this up. The show ended with an Instant Replay of the end of One’s marital bliss, except with the real Ginerva packing a suitcase and leaving: the scene, the set, the show. The actress walked down off the raised set onto the front apron (unobserved by anyone else on stage), and made some odd gesture(s) as if to tell the follow-spot operator to kill her light. What ‘that’ meant prompted much discussion as patrons exited the theatre. No one in earshot understood it, but then I am not sure “understanding” Ariodante was what this staging was about. Talking about it was enough.

I will say that taken on its own terms, it was all of a piece. Within its dramatic suppositions, character relationships were clear, the plot was clear enough, and given the highly accomplished musical execution, the oddities were mostly forgivable even as they were often unhelpful. The completely unsavory take on Polinesso did neither the show nor the cross-dressing performer any favors. We should have a love-hate relationship with this character, but there was such an “ick” factor in the brutal rape scene that it was impossible to connect with the talented singer. Sigh.

Sohre_COC3.pngJohannes Weisser as the King of Scotland, Jane Archibald as Ginevra, Alice Coote as Ariodante,

Which returns us now to “sumptuously sung.” COC has spared no effort in assembling a veritable Dream Team of Handelians to sweep almost all of this before it. Alice Coote is at the top her considerable game in the title role, with every perfectly judged phrase confirming the impression that she has few (any?) equals in this Fach. Not only does Ms. Coote have a ripe, rich tone, but she also negotiates page after page of ungodly rapid coloratura with trip hammer accuracy. In addition to the fire, sass and brass she brings to such explosive passages, this talented artist can turn on a dime and offer limpid, affecting, introspective stretches of poised, hushed beauty.

I first encountered the equally thrilling soprano Jane Archibald in Semele with this same company, and as jaw-dropping as was that performance, she has only grown even finer in the interim. As Ginevra, Ms. Archibald summons a luxuriant tone, an unerring technique, and a compelling delivery to prove every inch a match for her Ariodante. When Alice and Jane duet late in the show, their almost mystic melismas tumbling over each other in haunting beauty, you got the impression this perfection was not meant merely for human ears.

In the trouser role of Polinesso, Varduhi Abrahamyan sported a creamy, responsive mezzo that was enormously pleasing, and admirably agile. Ms. Abrahamyan sang splendidly and went through the directed motions of sexual aggression with consistent commitment. Pity that her very real vocal achievement got eclipsed by a repugnant character concept. I will dearly look forward to encountering this wonderful singer in a happier situation. Dalinda was embodied by the assured soprano Ambur Braid portraying an endearing character, in this case made more sympathetic by the “concept.” Her subservient, sometimes cowering demeanor drew us in, and was well complemented by her secure, idiomatic singing. Impressive throughout, she was especially potent as she unleashed any number of gleaming phrases at full throttle.

At first, the role of Lurcanio seems like an after thought, even as winningly sung by Owen McCausland. Mr. McCausland made a good impression in his first aria, sharing a mellow, well-modulated tenor, albeit with a hint or two of strain at the very top. As the performance progressed, everything settled into place as he went from strength to strength, and assumed a progressively more integral role in the story. Young Aaron Sheppard had few lines as Odoardo, but served notice that his is a talent of good promise.

Among this roster of exceptional, almost exclusively Canadian principals, Norwegian Johannes Weisser was the King of Scotland. Mr. Weisser’s melismas were accurate enough, to be sure, but his bass is decidedly on the dry side, and he simply lacked the warm gravitas that would benefit the role.

Music Director Johannes Debus was conducting his first Handel but you would never have known it, given his total command of the style and his embrace of the dramatic possibilities. Maestro Debus proved to be a meticulous partner, not only with the accomplished singers but also with the dramatic intent of the composer and yes, even the director. His pacing of the evening was miraculous, making a long score fly by with a vibrant, informed reading.

Given the realities of having to produce popular bread-and-butter titles, COC is to be commended for not only programming this less accessible Handel opus, but then also challenging its patrons further with such a gritty re-interpretation. It is to the great credit of all concerned that the rapt audience willingly embraced the journey.

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Ariodante: Alice Coote; Ginerva: Jane Archibald; Dalinda: Ambur Braid; Polinesso: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Lurcanio: Owen McCausland; King of Scotland: Johannes Weisser; Odoardo: Aaron Sheppard; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Richard Jones; Set and Costume design: ULTZ; Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Choreographer: Lucy Burge; Puppetry Director and Design: Finn Caldwell; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

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product_title=Ariodante at Canadian Opera Company, Toronto
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Jane Archibald as Ginevra [All photos copyright Michael Cooper, courtesy of Canadian Opera Company]


Posted by james_s at 2:36 PM

October 24, 2016

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

But, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Prefaced by Baillieu’s grandiose and statuesque introduction, Barton launched bravely into the first song, ‘Cuando tan hermosa os miro’ (When I gaze on thy great beauty) from Joaquín Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega Op.90; and, the first phrase was gorgeously rapturous of tone and supremely floated, yet also wayward with regard to pitch. Perhaps it was nerves, but the note just drifted out of control. But, it didn’t really matter; Barton had such an instinct sense of the song’s drama and sensuality that her vocal allure carried the day. The trio of songs which form Turina’s homage to one of Spain’s truly great literary figures are surely among the composer’s best work; and, if there was some uncharacteristic unsteadiness at the start, there was also considerable nobility.

The subsequent song ‘Si con mis deseos’ (If by my desires) was more intimate, however, the change of mood signalled by Baillieu’s quiet, murmuring introduction. Lack of familiarity with the Hall’s dimensions and acoustic was an issue here, though; reflecting that ‘Y mis dulces emploes/ Celebrara Sevilla’ (my sweet employments would be celebrated by Seville), Barton’s mezzo bloomed to operatic dimensions - but the Wigmore Hall is not the Met, nor the Coliseum. In contrast, the delicacy of the conclusion, with its imagery of turtle doves and bridal beds was beguiling, but again the wide vibrato led the pitch astray. The final song of the trilogy, ‘Al val de Fuente Ovenuja’ (Into the vale of Fuente Ovejuna), was notable for the narrative fluency which Baillieu created. Barton imbued these songs with smokiness and sensuality but drama was not always equalled by secure vocal discipline.

It was a different story in the sequence of songs by Johannes Brahms. Barton made her Proms debut in 2015 with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Marin Alsop in Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a performance of great focus and dignity which confirmed her status - suggested by her performance at the Cardiff competition - as an important interpreter of this composer’s music. The beauty of the phrasing was remarkable, and was complemented in ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) by Baillieu’s initial lightness of touch and subsequent depth of sentiment. ‘Meine Liebe is grün’ (My love’s as green as the lilac bush) had a compelling rhythmic motion; ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ (Motionless mild air) was trancelike and transparent - Barton withholding her mezzo to a mere whisper, but releasing some warmth mid-song to question, ‘Sollten nicht auch deine Brust/ Sehnlichere Wünsche heben?’ (Should not your breast too heave with more passionate longing).

It was Antonín Dvořák’s Op.55 Gypsy Songs which finally released the dusky voluptuousness so beloved of Barton’s mezzo; each phrase was invigorated by colour and shade. Moreover, Barton’s ability to switch between emotional registers, and vocal styles, while still retaining the coherence of the sequence was evident. Several of the songs confirmed the power and richness of Barton’s lower register, and the idiomatic Czech pronunciation (as far as I am qualified to judge!) was impressive. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Barton sang in five languages in this recital: Spanish, German, Czech, English and Finnish.

The first song, ‘My songs rings with love to me again’ was notable for the relaxed interplay of voice and piano. The anxious cry ‘Aj!’ was the springboard for the passionate song of death which followed. ‘A les je tichý kolem kol’ (And all the wood is silent all around) was one of the highpoints of the recital; Baillieu’s falling arpeggios dripped with aching languor and there was a veiled quality to both the vocal line and the accompaniment that, while injected with greater definition as the song progressed, suggested a world beyond. In contrast, in the familiar ‘When my old mother taught me to sing’ Barton’s mezzo soared ecstatically but the slow tempo tempered the rapture with yearning. The final three songs of the sequence danced with theatricality.

After the interval we roved into less familiar territory, but Barton’s confidence in conveying the musical and narrative threads of the Charles Ives’ songs presented made this listener feel entirely at home. Commenting on her Cardiff programme, Barton has explained her inclusion of Ives’ work, including ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’: “I very, very pointedly, desperately wanted to do an American composer because I was representing the U.S. So I built a set around that.” There was a sort of intellectual distance to the first Ives’ song, ‘The Things Our Fathers Loved’, but this was refreshing after the subjective passion of the Brahms and Dvořák songs heard before. Ives’ setting of Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’ (1920) drifting wistfully, but I’m not sure that the allusive parodic impact of Ives’ quotation of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune - with the lines ‘Nature there or Earth or such./ And clever modern men have seen/ A Faun a-peeping through the green’ -really registered.

‘Immortality’ built to a fearful and aggressive climax; the piano’s syncopated freedoms in the aforementioned ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ were beguiling and Baillieu summoned an artist’s palette at the close. Indeed, the unassuming Baillieu’s contribution to the emotional and communicative impact of this recital should not be overlooked: especially given that Barton told us that her accompanist had spent much of the previous day in hospital - something to do with ‘a walnut’ was her explanation!

‘The Cage’ stemmed from a visit Charles Ives made with several friends to the Central Park Zoo, where they saw a leopard pacing restlessly back and forth in its cage. Reading the text I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ two poems, ‘The Jaguar’ and ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’, and although Ives’ song is much more epigrammic than Hughes’ poetry I was surprised that the audience seemed to find this song funny rather than sharing my disquiet at its uncanny claustrophobia. ‘Old Home Day’ provided a folksy playout, albeit it one tinged with tempering nostalgia.

Six songs by Sibelius closed the programme, and enabled us to enjoy the glossy voluptuous of Barton’s mezzo. There was pointed attentiveness to the text: a steeliness in ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses) when the rancour and pain instigated by the roses thorns are alluded too; an enriching of the tone and wonderfully profound registral descent with the reference to the ‘mournful lay’ at the close of ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Sigh, rushes, sigh). ‘Flickan kom ifråsin älskings möte (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) was a veritable operatic drama of Verdian proportions.

This recital was supported by the American Friends of Wigmore Hall and there was a large partisan presence in the Hall who delighted in Barton’s encores, ‘Never Never Land’ from Peter Pan, and Ernest Charles’s ‘When I Have Sung My Songs’. She held the audience in the palm of her hands; playful but pert, when challenged by an audience member to sing Eboli’s Act 4 aria ‘O don fatale’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos for her second encore, Barton’s rejoinder was ‘You sing Eboli!’ Barton was awarded Best Young Singer at the International Opera Awards in 2014; this performance suggested that her natural home is the opera house rather than the recital hall. How long will it be before Barton conquers triumphantly not just Cardiff but the London, and European, opera stage?

Claire Seymour

Jamie Barton - mezzo-soprano, James Baillieu - piano

Joaquín Turina: Homenaje a Lope de Vega Op.90, Johannes Brahms: ‘Ständchen’ Op.106 No.1, ‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ Op.63 No.5, ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’ Op.57 No.8, ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ Op.43 No.1; Antonín Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op.55; Charles Ives ‘The things our fathers loved’, ‘Grantchester’, ‘Immortality’, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’, ‘The Cage’, ‘Old Home Day’; Jean Sibelius: ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black rose) Op.36 No.1, ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reed, reed, rustle) Op.36 No.4, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ Op.37 No.5, Marssnön Op.36 No.5, ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37 No.4

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 23rd October 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jamie%20Barton.jpg image_description=Jamie Barton’s Wigmore Hall debut product=yes product_title=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Jamie Barton
Posted by claire_s at 12:52 PM

And London Burned: in conversation with Raphaela Papadakis

The London-based soprano met with me to talk about this exciting new opera. Librettist Sally O’Reilly, who worked with Rogers on The Virtues of Things which was premiered at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre last year, has woven together stories from The Great Fire, the flames of which were ignited shortly after midnight on Sunday 2nd September 1666 at the bakery of Thomas Farynor in Pudding Lane, in the east of the City of London. The Fire raged for three days, fanned by unseasonably strong easterly winds, destroying much of the City and eventually reaching The Temple, about a mile and a quarter to the west. King Charles II put his younger brother James, Duke of York, in charge of fire-fighting and rescue operations; James and his men probably did more than anyone to help stop the spread of the fire and they extinguished the last flames on the roof of Inner Temple Hall on Wednesday 5th September.

Rogers and O’Reilly seek to tell both the City’s tale and those of its dwellers. The opera - which is directed by Sinéad O’Neill, a regular Assistant Director at Glyndebourne - has a cast of five and Papadakis is joined by a team of rising stars and award-winning young singers: Gwilym Bowen, Alessandro Fisher, Aoife O’Sullivan, and Andrew Rupp.

Papadakis plays ‘London’ itself, at times moving among its citizens, the diverse populous being conjured by three singers who take on multiple roles. Then, there is a young Lawyer who finds himself torn between allegiances and values: as the flames devour Inner Temple, his private yearning to preserve the beautiful historical Temple battles with his duty to observe the edict which demands that the building be pulled down in order to prevent the Fire from spreading further. The Lawyer’s regret provides a poignant counterpart to the climactic events of the inferno itself. Papadakis remarks that the period design (by Kitty Callister) is complemented by more abstract elements; and, that the unfolding stories reveal much about human nature. At first, Londoners find the Fire a curiosity rather than a threat; then, as its fury escalates, panic begins to grow. To prevent an exodus, which would deprive the fire-fighters of desperately needed manpower, the Duke of York prohibits the population from leaving the City; the citizens in turn look for someone to blame for the catastrophe which has been unleased upon them - and turn upon the foreigners in their midst.

One thing that Papadakis has found revealing is the way that the opera shows the Fire to be simultaneously destructive and creative, viciously razing vast swathes of the city but also clearing away the old - including the rampant plague and the rats upon which the disease was born - and making way for the seeds of new beginnings.

And London Burned will be conducted by Christopher Stark, co-Artistic Director of the RPS Award Winning Multi-Story Orchestra which made its debut at the Proms this summer. The opera is scored for two cellos, two horns - Papadakis describes their distorted cries as the darkness in the opera - and two clarinets, plus organ; the latter will be played by Roger Sayer, the Organist and Director of Music of the Temple Church. Papadakis has found Matt Rogers’ approach to text-setting particularly interesting; she observes that the words are quite ‘drawn out’, the rhythms and syllables perhaps more elongated than would at first seem natural, but she believes that this will allow the text to be clearly heard by the audience, particularly in the Temple Church acoustic.

0861 CMF Sept2015 Raphaela Papadakis credit Ben Ealovega.jpgRaphaela Papadakis. Photo credit: Ben Ealovega.

Papadakis is supported by City Music Foundation, an organisation which uses its position and contacts with the City of London’s institutions to provide young musicians with the opportunities, tools and networks to develop a successful and rewarding career in music. The soprano is excited to be benefitting from the experiences that the two-year programme offers, not least the opportunity to meet and perform with internationally acclaimed musicians such as pianist Roger Vignoles and soprano Joan Rodgers. Such experiences are not just musically inspiring but can also help musicians develop their repertoire and make new contacts, as Papadakis has found, describing her discovery of new music suggested to her by Rodgers.

And, it’s not just the musical experiences that CMF has provided that Raphaela finds enriching, motivating and valuable; it’s the practical ones too. CMF’s unique two-year programme also includes business mentoring as well as professional development workshops covering topics such as managing finances, tax and pensions, copyright and contracts, presentation and interview skills, and publicity strategies - aspects of professional musical life which are not always part of conservatoires’ postgraduate training programmes.

Finally, CMF musicians are supported in devising, organising, funding and promoting a bespoke musical project to help them develop a unique niche and selling point. Papadakis’ project involves commissioning, producing, performing and promoting a double bill of new operas which will explore links between music and mental health. Following workshops, the operas will be performed in the autumn of 2017 and Papadakis hopes to take this new music into unconventional venues, extending opera’s reach and impact.

Papadakis is clearly busy with diverse projects and engagements. Last week she performed two ‘pop-up’ recitals at the Oxford Lieder Festival, in the city’s Ashmolean Museum, with the Gildas String Quartet. The musicians presented Aribert Reimann’s arrangements of songs by Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn for voice and string quartet, and Papadakis explains how she is intrigued by the dialogue that Reimann creates between the voice, which presents the songs’ melodies more or less in their original form, and the specially composed instrumental intermezzi which make use of subtle, evolving references to thematic material from the song as points of interpretative departure. The players will reprise this programme of Reimann’s works again at the SongMakers Festival in Sheffield in November.

But, this week Papadakis’ focus is on London, as final rehearsals get underway for the premiere of And London Burned on Thursday 27th October in the Temple Church - one of the most historic and beautiful churches in London. This artistic recreation of momentous past events, which have in turn shaped the present-day city, will undoubtedly create its own piece of history.

Tickets are available from https://www.templemusic.org/main-events/ and more information, including audio tracks of Rogers’ music and the director’s blog, at https://www.templemusic.org/shop/and-london-burned-performance1/ .

Raphaela Papadakis http://raphaelapapadakis.com/

@raphaelasings

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0787%20CMF%20Sept2015%20Raphaela%20Papadakis%20Ben%20Ealovega.jpg image_description=And London Burned product=yes product_title=And London Burned product_by=An interview with Raphaela Papadakis, by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Raphaela Papadakis

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega
Posted by claire_s at 4:34 AM

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Perhaps you cannot be blamed if you prefer your Druid tale to be more concerned with the love triangle that propels the story but love be damned, it cannot be denied that Director Kevin Newbury conspired with his set designer David Korins to keep impending violence in the forefront.

Mr. Korins has devised a playing environment that begins life as an armory, with heavy stone walls festooned with all manner of ancient weaponry. But hold on, he wants to have it both ways, so the huge double door flies away revealing rows of pale tree trunks, that tie in to the visual of the huge, severed, bare white tree that is suspended horizontally up center. Two enormous bull heads flank the upstage false proscenium, hovering ominously as symbols of the preferred sacrificial animal of Druid rites.

A gentle snow falls but rather than suggesting serenity it conveys a barrenness, a void of passion that would prove all too prophetic. And problematic. Significant scenic additions to this playing environment included a rolling, rustic, two-tiered wagon that may have wandered in out of an English Mystery Play. It existed solely to allow Oroveso and Norma a method of gaining focus by mounting the second level to address the populace like a politician working partisan supporters.

Sohre_COC5.pngThe immolation

And then there is . . .the bull. A giant, Trojan-horse-cum-bull made of rude wooden slats and set on a wheeled platform rolls on up right in the final scene to become the funeral pyre. Handsome enough as a sculpture, it was in the wrong place at the wrong time, first stealing, then lacking focus; proving awkward for Pollione and Norma to access; and decidedly unfrightening. As the “pyre” starts burning, it is safely and neatly contained along the front edge of the platform, clearly unthreatening, and it fires up well before the lovers can scramble into place for the effect. So, the big finish fizzled and amounted to just a lotta overwrought “bull.”

Jessia Jahn’s costumes had just the right primitive look along with a commendable variety. She made especially beautiful choices for Adalgisa, alluring in a simple blue gown, and Norma, radiant in sumptuous gold attire and blond wig. By making Norma look totally foreign to the rest of the citizenry, it was easy to believe that her “otherness” contributed to her veneration as a priestess. Duane Schuler is a renowned lighting designer whose his effects did not disappoint. Although some of the sudden color washes (red, green, etc.) seemed bluntly executed, they were obviously in collegial support of some rather blunt directorial choices.

Not that Kevin Newbury’s theatrical guidance did not have good intentions and some fresh ideas. Crowd management and motivation of group entrances/exits were well conceived overall, with only one instance of awkwardness when the chorus (and Oroveso) were left without a motivated focus. The smaller ensembles contained so many moments of meaningful interaction that it seemed a shame that there were also conspicuous lapses with characters upstaging each other, while doing their best to get out of the way of the focal singer.

Norma began the show on stage holding a torch aloft, a nice premonition of her fate, although it did deprive her of Bellini’s star entrance later in the scene. I liked the Druid “salute,” a “dap” variation on the sign of the cross that was well incorporated and conveyed a fine sense of communal religious observances. I was less persuaded by manufactured bits like having a group of female supers cross the stage bearing black stools just prior to the first Norma-Adalgisa duet, and being persuaded to leave two stools en route stage left so that the two soloists could “sit and chat.” It also rang false that those two leads casually folded the children’s blankets and played with their toys during the conclusion of their second duet! There is a bit more at stake at that point than tidying up the nursery like giggly schoolgirls.

If the staging sometimes called attention to itself, the performers were able to maintain musical integrity and make a solid case for Bellini’s masterpiece. In the pit, Stephen Lord led a robust, refined account of the score and the players responded with real, purposeful dramatic fire. The splendid cello solo was but one of many instrumental high points, and the entire ensemble excelled under Maestro Lord’s knowing baton.

The role of Norma is a “big sing” of course, and world star Sondra Radvanovksy more than fulfilled expectations. Is there anyone in the business that has a firmer command of her technique than Ms. Radvanovsky? She knows what she wants to do, what she can do, and has the wisdom to know the difference. And in an age when many voices sound somewhat anonymous, her instrument is recognizable and uniquely personal.

The soprano is never heard to better advantage than when she is ravishing us with beautifully controlled filigrees of pianissimo passages. Caballe, Sills and Scotto were past mistresses of this effect, and I would be hard pressed to name any current performer who is Sondra’s equal at this intense, hushed soft singing. It is when she presses harder that her tone can come to grief, with high notes that are admirably secure nonetheless taking on an occasional harsh, metallic tinge.

Still, the diva performs with total mastery of her art, both musically and theatrically. If her turn as Norma is not quite the complete triumph it may become, it is owing to a certain cerebral calculation of effects which are meticulously judged but somewhat wanting in spontaneity and emotional honesty. I have seen Ms. Radvanovksy be incredibly moving and genuine on past occasions, but on this night I was more aware of her consummate craft than her personal commitment.

Sohre_COC6.pngSondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa

We are spoiled by the perfection of legendary Norma-Adalgisa match-ups like Sutherland-Horne, Callas-Cossotto, Caballe-Verrett, or presently, Meade-Barton. It has to be said the luminous Isabel Leonard is a very affecting Adalgisa, and her plush, throbbing mezzo-soprano is thing of refined beauty indeed. Ms. Leonard is such a sympathetic presence, her bearing at once determined and contrite, that I wish she had been a better vocal match for her co-star. Her rounded, suave delivery had all the requisite coloratura at her command, but explosive phrases were executed within the vocabulary of her own distinctive, gentler firepower. The duets were always well-coordinated and cleanly managed, only at odds in tonal approach.

Russell Thomas proved to be an engrossing Pollione, his burnished, meaty tenor caressing plangent phrases one minute and hurling out riveting declamations the next. I had enjoyed Mr. Thomas some years ago as a promising Hoffmann, but nothing could have prepared me for the assertive star turn he provided in Norma. He is deservedly maturing into a major artist on the international scene. Dimitry Ivashchenko was a sturdy Oroveso, although his ample bass could turn hard when pushed for dramatic volume rather than deployed for musical finesse.

Young Charles Sy had pleasing tone to spare as he put his well-schooled tenor in good service of Flavio’s several scenes. Aviva Fortunata made a highly favorable impression, her attractive, substantial soprano imbuing each of Clotilde’s phrases with such real quality that it reminds us the great Sutherland once herself made quite an impression in this secondary role.

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Oroveso: Dimitry Ivashchenko; Pollione: Russell Thomas; Flavio: Charles Sy; Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky; Adalgisa: Isabel Leonard; Clotilde: Aviva Fortunata; Conductor: Stephen Lord; Director: Kevin Newbury; Set Design: David Korins; Costume Design: Jessica Jahn; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst.

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product_id=Above: Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma [All photos copyright Michael Cooper, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]

Posted by james_s at 12:00 AM

October 23, 2016

Arizona Opera’s Sapphire Celebration

Sapphire is the stone that represent forty-five years and at Arizona Opera’s Sapphire Celebration patrons wore blues, dark and light, brilliant and matte fabrics, with deep toned genuine or sparkling faux jewels.

Conductor Ari Pelto opened the program with a slightly rough rendition of Mozart’s overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio. Everything fell into place, however, when Mistress of Ceremonies Frederica von Stade joined Marion Roose Pullin Studio Artist Alyssa Martin in the soaring melodic duet from the same composer’s The Marriage of Figaro, “Che soave zeffiretto,” (“A gentle zephir”). The second vocal selection echoed the company’s first opera from 1972, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, as Martin blended her mellifluous voice with that of suave young baritone Joseph Lattanzi in the Act I Scene 2 duet: “Tu non m’inganni” (“You don’t deceive me”).

Arizona Opera has a fine chorus directed by Henri Venanzi and its members showed their abillity to set a scene and elicit emotional responses with their rendition of “Patria Oppressa” (“Oppressed Fatherland”) from Verdi’s Macbeth. Later, they would show us a sunnier scene with their rendition of a chorus from Mascagni’s verismo opera, Cavalleria Rusticana.

Daniel Montenegro is a fine young tenor who gave an excellent rendition of “La donna è mobile,” (“Woman is Fickle”) from Verdi’s Rigoletto, reminding us all that “locker room talk” is as old as mankind. Montenegro and soprano Laquita Mitchell then sang the universally loved duet from the first act of Puccini’s La bohème that began “O suave fanciulla.” As is usually done in a staged version of the opera, they took the final note off stage.

Craig Verm scaled down his sizeable baritone sound to match the lyric tones of Andrew Stenson for the duet “Au fond du temple saint” (“Into the holy temple”) from Bizet’s The Pearlfishers. Verm followed it with the burnished bronze tones of “O Nadir, Tendre ami” (“O Nadir, dear friend”) while Stenson followed their duet with the plaintive aria ‘Una furtive lagrima” (“A furtive tear”) from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.

Before the intermission, Arizona Opera celebrated its success with a duet the company had never before performed. Baritone Joseph Lattanzi and bass-baritone Zachary Owen joined their strong, virile voices with the orchestra’s brass to sing the gracefully melodic “Suoni la tromba” (“Sound the trumpet”) from Bellini’s I Puritani. The company then brought the first half of the concert to a delightful end with the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Rachele Gilmore was the deranged bride and her final high note was simply glorious.

After the intermission, Laquita Mitchell and Thomas Cannon caused vocal sparks to fly as they sang a dramatic duet from Verdi’s Aida. In it, the Ethiopian king convinces his daughter to ask her Egyptian lover to commit treason and reveal the route by which Egyptian forces will march to Ethiopia.

As the evening wore on, the fare became a bit lighter. Coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore and mezzo Mariya Kaginskaya sang a tuneful duet from Delibes’ Lakme about flowers blooming on a riverbank. Then Mistress of Ceremonies Frederica von Stade pretended to have drunk just one too many in a riotously funny version of “Ah, quel diner” from Offenbach’s La Perichole. Rachele Gilmore responded with her version of the mechanical doll from the same composer’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell returned with an icy aria from Puccini’s Turandot and baritone Thomas Cannon countered with the universally loved “O du mein holder Abendstern” (“O you my blessed Evening Star”) from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

Over the past decades, von Stade has sung myriad performances of Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Here she sang the duet “La ci darem la mano” (“Give me your hand”) with every baritone on the program and it was a delight to watch. Crowning the evening was a rendition of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, featuring everyone not already onstage. The audience was thoroughly enthused and the sounds of applause were enormous. We will have to wait five more years for Arizona Opera’s fiftieth anniversary, but I guarantee it will be a fantastic celebration.

Maria Nockin


Cast and production information:

Conductor, Ari Pelto; Stage Director, Joshua Borths; Scenic Designer, Anthony Diaz; Chorus Master, Henri Venanzi; Master of Ceremonies, Frederica von Stade; Sopranos: Rachele Gilmore, Laquita Mitchell; Mezzo-sopranos: Alyssa Martin, Mariya Kaginskaya; Tenors: Andrew Stenson, Daniel Montenegro; Baritones: Craig Verm, Thomas Cannon, Joseph Lattanzi; Bass-baritone, Zachary Owen.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/woolfe2-von_stade_frederica_eric_melear_0.png
image_description=Frederica von Stade [Photo by Eric Melear]

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product_id=Above: Frederica von Stade [Photo by Eric Melear]

Posted by maria_n at 1:30 PM

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Nikolai Gogol’s logic-defying tale of a runaway nose is magnificent in its extravagant absurdity. But, the when Collegiate Assessor Kovalov awakens one morning to find his olfactory proboscis has mysteriously gone AWOL and launches a madcap search for his errant sniffer, it is more than his sense of smell that he is desperate to retrieve. His Nose, inflated in size, status and ego, is now a ‘self’ in its own right; indeed, it has stolen Kovalov’s own sense of ‘self’. He appeals for help to a wide range of state institutions - police, medicine and media: he places an advertisement in the newspaper, “I am giving you an announcement … about my own nose: which means almost about me myself …”

Ambitious, pretentious - a petty poseur - Kovalov has not known his place, and now he has none. This is the ‘dark side’ of ‘The Nose’, but it is not an angle which is illuminated with any great intensity by director Barrie Kosky’s new production of Shostakovich’s modernist operatic romp currently being staged at the Royal Opera House (the first production of the 1928 opera in the House). Kosky does, however, give us a virtuosic vaudeville which makes for an entertaining, if not electrifying, evening.

Gogol’s hapless protagonist is a vain, flirtatious bureaucrat whose lust for status among the proto-bourgeois milieu is displayed in his casual amorous dalliances (he uses the military rank of ‘Major’ to impress women) and his obsession with his visual appearance - and its continual display during his daily strolls on Nevsky Boulevard. He awakens one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably vanished. Offended by its ‘owner’s’ habit of allowing the filthy barber Ivan Iakovlevitch to take his nose in his stinking hands when he soaps Kovalov’s cheeks, during his bi-weekly shaves, the Nose makes a bid for independence and embarks on a two-week spree of psychological revenge.

The_Nose_0002 MARTIN WINKLER AS PLATON KUZMITCH KOVALEV, JOHN TOMLINSON AS IVAN IAKOVLEVITCH (BARBER) © ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.pngMartin Winkler as Kovalov, John Tomlinson as Ivan Iakovlevitch © ROH. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The Nose first turns up in a loaf of bread, baked for breakfast by Iakovlevitch’s wife. Discarded in disgust, it then takes on a life of its own. Tormented by the thought of parading along the fashionable Nevsky Prospect sans nose, Kovalov sets off in pursuit, chasing his missing sensory appendage through the streets to the market place and the cathedral; he seeks help from the state and from science but the institutions fail to assist him. And, when the Nose has been tracked down, arrested and returned, the Doctor actually encourages Kovalov to sell the Nose to him in order to make it available for the benefit of modern science and medicine, and his own pocket: “As for the nose, I advise you to put it in a jar of alcohol … then you’ll get decent money for it. I’ll even buy it myself, if you don’t put too high a price on it.”

Shostakovich was in his early twenties when he wrote his first opera, The Nose. He had entered the Leningrad Conservatory in 1919 and graduated in 1925. These were years of multifarious literary and musical manifestos among the cultural avant-garde in Russia and with its deliberately disordered chronology and symbolic distortions of events, it’s easy to see why Gogol’s absurdist satire appealed to the young composer, offering as it does ample opportunity for experimentation with new musical idioms but also allowing for a re-interpretation of the Russian society of the past.

At its first fully-staged appearance, the opera was billed as an ‘experimental performance’ by the Artistic Council of Maly Theatre in Leningrad, who feared that some of proletarian audience might be ‘bewildered by the complexity and modernism of the musical medium’. And, Shostakovich does give us a riot of idioms, acrobatic vocalism and kaleidoscopic orchestration, along with a cast of almost 80 individual roles who perform a helter-skelter medley of scenes which race randomly and irrationally through umpteen St Petersburg locales with cinematic slickness. Sung and spoken dialogues alternate with diverse orchestral episodes, the latter serving as satirical embodiments of the dramatic events which ensue as Kovalov runs wildly through the streets in search of his nose, with all its social, and cultural potential.

The_Nose_0237 THE NOSE AT ROYAL OPERA HOUSE © ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.png © ROH. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Shostakovich’s daring musical comedy doesn’t always come off but the bravura bluster of the opera’s theatrical drum-rolls has been ingeniously exploited by Kosky and his set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg. Wisely, they do not over-complicate things, and instead allow Buki Shiff’s gaudy, exuberant costumes and choreographer Otto Pichler’s vaudeville absurdities to serve as a coloristic complement to Shostakovich’s chaotic, often deliberately cacophonous, score. The garish spectacle is set against a black-grey-white backdrop scheme. Grünberg has placed a proscenium circle within the ROH’s fourth wall, creating a spy-hole through which we can observe, from the safe distance of ‘reality’, the ensuing anarchy. Circular platforms and a few props allow for some suggestion of place but otherwise the ‘city’ is abstract. Gradually any hints of realism are consumed by the escalating nightmare: these small private ‘spaces’ grow in size and become huge circus-rings around which gather a mindless human collective which witnesses the nose-less, near-naked Kovalov’s public disgrace and scandal with rabid relish. The dissident body-part becomes synonymous with personal humiliation.

The_Nose_0132 MARTIN WINKLER AS KOVALEV © ROH. PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL COOPER.pngThe cast of The Nose © ROH. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Occasionally, as Kosky gives free rein to the lunacy, there’s a risk of absurdity blunting satire and the whole thing falling off the precipice into farce - some scenes have too much of a Keystone-Cops-capers whiff about them - but Pickler does give us some terrific set pieces. The sacred tranquillity of Kazan Cathedral is shattered when a bevy of belles whip off their fur coats to reveal basques and fishnets and, to a percussion interlude, enact an unbridled physical paean to the giant Nose-God - a sort of black parody of Stravinsky’s Rite. A Tiller-girl line of outsized noses gives us a dazzling tap-dance spectacle which, judging from the guffaws, tickled the audience’s ribs. And, we don’t need Freud to tell us that the nose is a symbol of Kovalov’s fears of lost virility - indeed, Madame Podtotshina mistakes the Nose for a sexual rival of Kovalov - and there’s the requisite phallic imagery to suggest an impotence complex.

But, Kosky takes a couple of wrong turns. Gogol’s protagonist laments, “How can I do without such a conspicuous part of the body? It’s not like some little toe that I can put in a boot and no one will see it’s not there.” And, herein lies a related problem for a director: how to show a missing nose when the singer performing the role clearly has one? Kosky’s solution is to give the entire cast extra-large prosthetic noses - in the director’s words, a nose ‘that morphs an anti-Semitic Nazi cartoon nose with a bit of Barbra Streisand’s nose’ - and to give the nose-denuded Kovalov a circus-clown red conk. But, as the surreal commotion escalates, this only serves to emphasise the farcical at the expense of the potentially subversive.

Then, Shostakovich’s Nose is sung by a high tenor but Kosky chooses to separate the Nose from its Voice. The Nose, which grows from animatronic mouse-dimensions to huge tap-dancing colossus, is performed by a boy dancer, Ilan Galkoff - who rightly received a hugely appreciative reception. But, this deprives the opera of one of Gogol’s most powerful scenes, when Kovalov, the preening careerist, is astonished to come across his Nose in the guise of a high-ranking official - a gentleman, as Gogol tells us, in a “gold-embroidered uniform with a big standing collar; he had kidskin trousers on; at his side hung a sword. From his plumed hat it could be concluded that he belonged to the rank of state councillor”. ‘Major’ Kovalov derides the poor, boasts about his fortune and status, and is fixated with image: he misses his nose because its loss inhibits his social climb. So, he summons his courage to confront the Nose with the fact that it is really his nose, but receives - aptly - just a sneer: “You are mistaken, my dear sir. I am by myself. Besides, there can be no close relationship between us. Judging by the buttons on your uniform, you must serve in a different department.” Kosky jettisons this crucial element of the original tale: Kovalov’s dream of personal advancement is destroyed by the personal part that defines his ‘self’ - his Nose has cut itself off to spite its owner’s face.

Amid all the wit and hyperactivity, though, there are moments of stillness, and Martin Winkler in the title role is almost single-handedly responsible for the redeeming interjections of bathos amid the bedlam. The moment when having been summarily dismissed by the newspaper officials when he tries to place a classified ad about his missing nose is laden with real anguish, and Winkler - despite - made us pity Kovalov in his shame and anguish, lending this loathsome, lecherous narcissist an almost tragic dimension. This was a tremendously committed, brave performance from Winkler, one that makes the show. Winkler is partnered by John Tomlinson’s shrewd triple-embodiment as the barber Iakovlevitch, the Newspaper Office Clerk and the Doctor. The production opens with a chilling visual image of Iakovlevitch sharpening his knife on his leather belt, and it’s clear that the barber, who is utterly indifferent to his own distasteful odours, is the main suspect implicated in the disappearance of the Nose. As his scolding wife, Praskovya Ossipovna, Rosie Aldridge pounced with fiery anger to demand that her husband remove the offending olfactory adjunct from her house; she negotiated the unalleviated high register - perfect for her foul language and nagging - with aplomb, her voice penetrating but never ear-splitting.

Alexander Kravets is an experienced ‘Nose-ist’: he has taken the title role (at the Aix en Provence Festival and Opéra de Lyon) and appeared as the District Police Inspector (at Staatsoper Berlin, Opéra de Lausanne, Dutch National Opera, and the Met). Here, he conjured piercing sounds as the embodiment of the state police, quite literally a bureaucrat shouting - though never nasally! - at the top of his voice.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was splendid as Ivan, Kovalov’s servant, and intoned his balalaika song with melancholy tinged with tongue-in-cheek irony. Ailish Tynan floated the Mourning Woman’s lament in the cathedral with grace and feeling, and Susan Bickley was assured and engaging as the Old Countess.

Shostakovich described the orchestra score as an ‘uninterrupted symphonic current’ and conductor Ingo Metzmacher made the individual exclamations and ensemble interjections, which form a backdrop to the various on-stage conversations with the Nose, transparent and biting. We were treated to a deluge of contrapuntal textures and wonderful sounds which at times struck an (intentionally) satirical discord with absurdity on stage

The opera is performed in a new English translation by David Pountney. While it has many admirable drolleries, I found the mis-accentuation of the text a bit galling at times. Shostakovich produced his own libretto from Gogol, in collaboration with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis, expanded the brief original with borrowings from other works by Gogol and a smattering of Dostoevsky. As he changed the narrative to direct speech, Shostakovich insisted that he aimed to achieve ‘a musicalisation of [the] words’ pronunciation’, and that described the vocal parts as building on ‘conversational intonations’.

The vivid grotesqueness of Shostakovich’s theatrical satire was undoubtedly influenced by the work of Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold. Though the opera ends with an ensemble which reinforces how pointless the story is - it doesn’t benefit the motherland, and has no moral value - Kosky risks reducing the opera to meaningless absurdities. One might take a moment to remember the Book of Matthew and to consider its relevance to Gogol’s tale: “If your right eye offends you (skandalidzei se), pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

Claire Seymour

Shostakovich: The Nose

Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov - Martin Winkler, Ivan Iakovlevitch/Clerk/Doctor - John Tomlinson, Ossipovna/Vendor - Rosie Aldridge, District Inspector - Alexander Kravets, Angry Man in the Cathedral - Alexander Lewis, Ivan - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Iaryshkin - Peter Bronder, Old Countess - Susan Bickley, Pelageya Podtotshina - Helene Schneiderman, Podtotshina’s daughter - Ailish Tynan, Ensemble (Daniel Auchincloss, Paul Carey Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Alan Ewing, Hubert Francis, Sion Goronwy, Njabulo Madlala, Charbel Mattar, Samuel Sakker, Michael J. Scott, Nicholas Sharratt, David Shipley, Jeremy White, Simon Wilding, Yuriy Yurchuk); Director - Barrie Kosky, Conductor - Ingo Metzmacher, Set and lighting designer - Klaus Grünberg, Costume designer - Buki Shiff, Choreographer - Otto Pichler, Translator - David Pountney, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Thursday 20th October 2016. image=http://www.operatoday.com/The_Nose_0041%20THE%20NOSE%20AT%20ROYAL%20OPERA%20HOUSE%20%C2%A9%20ROH.%20PHOTO%20BY%20BILL%20COOPER.png image_description=The Nose, Covent Garden product=yes product_title=The Nose, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id= Above: The Nose at the Royal Opera House

Photo credit: Bill Cooper
Posted by claire_s at 8:45 AM

October 22, 2016

The Source, an Important New Stage Work

More oratorio than opera, The Source is as new as today’s headlines. Doten’s libretto is taken from the United States Army field reports, diplomatic cables, and short bits of sound from miscellaneous sources. In 2010, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning gave the military materials to Wikileaks and its media partners. It was the outing of these papers, many of which were labeled secret, that resulted in this soldier being sentenced to serve thirty-five years in prison.

Doten humanized selected passages from the huge array of material and has allowed the listener to grasp some of the human cost of war, not only to Iraqi and Afghani citizens but to the press and American soldiers as well. One of the outside quotations he uses is from Steven Hawking: “And how insignificant and accidental human life is in it.” Although Hawking may not have been speaking of Middle East war, his thoughts on the insignificance of life are what The Source conveys with sensitivity as it invites its audience to enjoy Hearne’s enchanting musical fabric. Listeners may have come for the news-oriented show, but they leave with an appreciation for the fine artistry demonstrated by composer and librettist in their construction of this most interesting piece.

Hearne’s instrumental music combines the sonorities of a string quartet, in this case violin, viola, cello and bass, with keyboard, guitar, and drums. To the mix, he added electronics and a vocal quartet. The electronic sounds include snippets from recordings including Clay Aiken’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” the Dixie Chicks’ “Easy Silence,” and Dinah Washington’s interpretation of Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Hearne also used clips from interviews and occasionally a bit of electronic distortion. With these varied entries, he created a huge sonic tapestry that envelops his listeners in a multi-layered score combining classical string sounds sometimes played col legno (by the wooden side of the bow) with jazz rhythms and the previously mentioned electronics.

From this seemingly dry military material, Doten selected lyrical passages that came to life with Hearne’s creative soundscape. The twelve sections of the score reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. Doten and Hearne dramatized a dozen poignant musical snapshots of the horrors of war and its effects, both long and short term.

Director Daniel Fish had the audience seated on folding chairs on a level lower than the orchestra, which was behind a semi-transparent screen. Half the chairs faced the orchestra and half faced away from it, but there were screens on all four “walls” framing the space. At the post-performance Talk Back, we learned that the faces of people seen on the screens were relating to the presentation's final, musically unaccompanied combat video. The singers, all of whom were miked, sat among the onlookers. Garth MacAleavey designed the sound and Philip White was the vocal processing engineer. Doten and Hearne’s theater piece is revolutionary in its use of libretto material, it’s staging, and above all in the music from the fecund mind of Ted Hearne. Anyone in Los Angeles this week should definitely see The Source.

Maria Nockin


Cast and creative team information:

Composer, Ted Hearne; Librettist, Mark Doten; Director, Daniel Fish; Produced by Beth Morrison Projects; Production Design, Jim Findlay; Video Design, Jim Findlay and Daniel Fish; Music Director, Nathan Koci; Lighting Design, Christopher Kuhl; Costume Deign, Terese Wadden; Sound Design, Garth MacAleavey; Vocal Processing Engineer, Philip White; Assistant Director, Ashley Tata; Stage Manager, Jason Kaiser; Video Engineer, Keith Skretch; Sound Engineer, Nick Tipp; Vocalists: Mellissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, Jonathan Woody; Cover Vocalist, Martin Bakari; Keyboard, Nathan Koci; Violin, Courtney Orlando; Viola, Anne Lanzilotti; Cello, Leah Coloff; Guitar, Taylor Levine; Bass, Greg Chudzig; Drums, Ron Wiltrout.

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Posted by maria_n at 12:25 AM

October 21, 2016

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

Strange programming at San Francisco Opera. While these October performances of Janacek’s penultimate opera do mark the 50th anniversary of its American premiere (at SFO in November 1966) one might have wished for a change of opera — not theme. For one of many examples we might have had Janacek’s last opera — From the House of the Dead instead, a surpassing masterpiece that has yet to find its way to San Francisco.

But dismiss that thought. In many ways this seems like the first time we will have witnessed this strange Slavic comedy here in San Francisco, given a convergence of factors — notably a comedienne of such dimension that we were irrevocably and directly present at the final collapse and total disintegration of a 337 year-old woman, and, strangely, the absence of a star conductor, leaving us with the raw, unfiltered power of the Janacek orchestral specter. It was an evening of monumental art.

There will be many of us San Franciscans who recall the veritable Who’s Who of Makropulos Case personages over the past 50 years — the Paul Hager production of 1966 with the forever mourned Marie Collier (our Tosca when Maria Callas was not), the 1976 remount of the same sets but with legendary Anna Silja directed by the young David Pountney, conducted by Ernő Dohnányi, the 1993 remount of the same cloth painted sets now staged by legendary soprano Elisabeth Söderström and conducted by famed Janacek champion Charles Mackerras. Then finally in 2010 a new production. French born, Germany based director Olivier Tambosi created a vehicle for the powerhouse presence of Karita Mattila conducted by esteemed Janacek interpreter Jiří Bělohlávek.

Makropulos_SF2.pngNadja Michael as Emilia Marty, Stephen Powell as Baron Jaroslav Prus

But it has taken Leipzig born, Berlin based, American educated (IU) Nadja Michael to realize the Emilia Marty (formerly Elina Makropulos et al) in deepest and truest and most vivid essence on the War Memorial stage, aided in no small way by stage director Tambosi in this remount of his turntable, solid-walled production. The lithographic scenic texture grounded the storytelling in timelessness — even with the naive, gratuitous real time clock. The concentrated playing areas forced the action into high theatrical pitch, and the lighting burned through the threads of time with maximum intensity.

Soprano Nadja Michael was one with her costumes and platinum wig, brilliant quotations from historic haute couture, teasing where high fashion crosses into theater (and cinema) and visa versa. Her costumes gave free flow to the supple physical contortions she effected, that took us to a confusion of the real with the irreal, blurring human and the supernatural. Mme. Michael possesses a strong voice and riveting presence that dissolved into moral exhaustion and the finality of her existence.

Makropulos_SF3.pngThe death of Emilia Marty, Elina Makropolus, et al

But neither the men in her life nor the young singer aspiring to this artistic immortality had the size of personality or voice to illuminate much less confront the very complicated machinations of the plot. I wanted bigger, more important characters to effect the musical gestures of love and longing, hopelessness and realization that Janacek develops in all of his operas. It is possible that this pallid humanity was exaggerated by the naïveté of the conducting. Young St. Petersberg conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov permitted the primary, primitive motions of Janacek’s orchestral continuum to illuminate the diva but the maestro all but ignored the complex world in which she existed. As well, and disappointingly the young maestro did not achieve the shattering orchestral climaxes that would ordinarily cap each of the acts.

Given the conducting perhaps the supporting characters did not have a chance. Tenor Charles Workman as Berti missed the soaring climaxes of the hapless, incestuous lover, tenor Brenton Ryan, a participant in the L.A. Opera young artist program, does not yet have the chops to muster the intensity of compulsive infatuation. Joel Sorensen brought sharp brittleness to the role of the law clerk Vitek, and as well I found an unwanted caricature in the role of the aspiring singer Kristina, performed by Adler Fellow Julia Adams. As Gregor’s lawyer, Dr. Kolenaty, and Gregor’s opponent, Baron Prus, baritones Dale Travis and Stephen Powell left me wishing for more powerful voices and personages.

Nonetheless it was an exhilarating evening at San Francisco Opera.

Michael Milenski


Cast and production information:

Emilia Marty: Nadja Michael; Albert Gregor: Charles Workman; Baron Jaroslav Prus: Stephen Powell; Dr. Kolenatý; Dale Travis; Vitek: Joel Sorensen; Kristina: Julie Adams;
Count Hauk-Sendorf: Matthew O’Neill; Janek: Brenton Ryan; A Cleaning Woman/A Chambermaid: Zanda Svede; A Stagehand: Brad Walker. Chorus and orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Mikhail Tatarnikov; Stage Director: Olivier Tambosi;
Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. War Memorial Opera House, October 18, 2016.

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Posted by michael_m at 4:14 PM

October 20, 2016

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

The Pearl Fishers is an early work (Bizet's first full length opera) with a profound faulty libretto which a more experience composer would have surely done something to remedy. After Bizet's death attempts were made to correct and improve the work, but often these resulted in the removal of Bizet's more innovative details. ENO uses an edition by Martin Fitzpatrick which attempts to go back to Bizet's original intentions, and was performed in Fitzpatrick's own translation.

Woolcock's production, which has also been seen at the Met in New York, has undergone some development since it was new in 2010. Its 2016 incarnation (I did not see ENO's previous revival) emphasised the difference between the childhood friends, the headman cum political operator Zurga (Jacques Imbrailo) with his heavies were firmly in Western dress, contrasting with the local garb of the fisherman Nadir (Robert McPherson) and the rest of the village. Whilst Bizet's music is only loosely oriental (unsurprisingly as the libretto original set the story in Mexico), Woolcock, Bird and Pollard set the piece firmly in 20th century Ceylon/Sri Lanka with videos of real storm inundations between the scenes.

All three of the principals seemed to take a little time to warm-up and you felt that the production was not quite bedded in, and that it will settle admirably as the run progresses. A perennial gripe when performing 19th French opera nowadays is problem of style, and here the cast seem to have been very much left on their own. Roland Böer conducted a sympathetic, if perhaps four-square, account of the score but I thought that principals could have done with helping more in a unified approach to Bizet's music. It is after all an early work and heavily indebted to predecessors like Fromental Halevy (also his father-in-law), so inculcating a sense of style would have been helpful. As it was the three seemed to each go their own way, providing different approaches to Bizet's music.

Soprano Claudia Boyle as Leila combined fragile charm with a certain strength of personality, but Leila is a rather passive character and it was Boyle's command of the coloratura which counted. She has quite a slim timbre, and I wondered whether she had been listening to Mady Mesple, certainly something in her performance evoked the French soprano. But Boyle had a rather Italianate approach to the passagework, and I would have liked a greater sense of line and a sense of burnished sheen.

I last heard Robert McPherson as Percy in Welsh National Opera's production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena and his voice still has the same interesting combination of narrow focus and forward brilliant tone. It is a very distinctive voice, but one which makes a great deal of sense in this repertoire, giving us a sound something closer to the pre-War style of performance. It was a shame that is big aria was in Act One, because he really only seemed to get into his vocal stride in the second act. But his combination of lyric flexibility with extensive use of head voice was rather notable and greatly daring. Whilst there was the odd wobble at the very top, it was lovely to hear a tenor performing with something approaching the correct vocal style for the music.

The role of Zurga is vastly under written, so that in Act One Jacques Imbrailo was left to look good, spending a lot of time glad-handing the locals but in the famous duet he and McPherson turned in a beautifully crafted performance with a subtlety which reflected Bizet's original rather than the more tub-thumping revised version which is more popular. It was in Act Three, with his big solo scene that Imbrailo got something to work with. Whilst I thought his style owed a little too much to later 19th century opera, there was no doubting the thrilling intensity and psychological acuity of the performance.

The role the high priest Nourabad is not particularly big or rewarding, but James Creswell performed nobly and used his resonant voice to great effect. Almost a a star in its own right, the chorus were on thrilling form and thanks to Bird's tiered set we were able to see and hear them in a way which is not always possible.

Whilst I commend and appreciate the use of Bizet's original, there is no doubting that the final scene is rather under written. Musically Bizet contributes little as memorable as the burning of the village which the designers conjured up. Martin Fizpatrick's admirably straightforward English translation rather brought out the prosaic nature of the libretto, and you could not help feeling that singing it in French, or rather more poetic English might have been an improvement.

But the real star of the show remains the production, with its thrilling designs and wonderful images of the pearl divers going about their business. For all Penny Woolcock's desire to introduce an element of realism, this is a brilliantly theatrical show.

Robert Hugill

Georges Bizet: The Pearl Fishers

Leila: Claudia Boyle, Nadir: Robert McPherson, Zurga: Jacques Imbrailo, Nourabad: James Creswell; Director: Penny Woolcock, conductor: Roland Böer.

English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 19th October 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The%20Pearl%20Fishers%20Claudia%20Boyle%202%28c%29%20Robbie%20Jack.png image_description=English National Opera, The Pearl Fishers product=yes product_title= English National Opera, The Pearl Fishers product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Claudia Boyle

Photo credit: Robbie Jack
Posted by claire_s at 11:11 AM

October 19, 2016

Center for Contemporary Opera presents Jane Eyre (World Premiere)

The work draws on a cast of 9 singers, an orchestra of 34 musicians, and chorus. The production coincides with the 200th anniversary year of the birth of writer Charlotte Bronte.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan sings the title role, with Ryan MacPherson performing the role of Rochester. Among other singers in the cast include Thomas Meglioranza, Kimberly Giordano, Katrina Thurman, Adam Cannedy, David Salsbery Fry and Jessica Thompson.

Click here for complete press release.

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image_description=Jennifer Zetlan [Photo by J & J Photography courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]

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Posted by Gary at 9:46 AM

October 18, 2016

A Venetian Double: English Touring Opera

Giove (Jupiter) has wrought destruction upon the Earth, to punish mankind for their challenge to his authority following their receipt of Prometheus’ gift of the sacred fire of creation. Accompanied by his trusted Mercurio (Mercury), the all-powerful god descends to inspect the damage and to build anew the earthly planet, but finds himself enamoured of the nymph Calisto. Discovering his faithlessness, Giove’s enraged wife Giunone (Juno) seeks revenge and transforms Calisto into a small bear, only for her cosmic admirer to effect another metamorphosis which translates the minor nymph to the heavens to take her place, as Ursa Major, beside him in the eternal constellations.

Certainly, takis’ designs for Timothy Nelson’s new English Touring Opera production suggest an astral apocalypse: the chaotic stage presents a mechanical forest of twisted wires, cogs, wheels, out-sized desk-lamps, axles and chutes. But, alongside the whims and wildness of the gods there is scientific order, rationalism and humanity in the form of the shepherd astronomer Endimione, whose star-gazing leads to his devotion to the moon and to its deific embodiment, the goddess Diana.

Callisto, the second-largest moon of the planet Jupiter, after Ganymede, was discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei. Nelson picks up on contemporary sources which link the real-life Galileo - who bestowed his telescope as a gift to the city of Venice - to the character of Endimione, and extends the parallel further by envisaging his rival for Diane’s love, the goat-god Pane (Pan), as the embodiment of Rome and papal authority towards which Venice had a long-held antipathy and suspicion. Just as theology superseded mythology (‘Pan is dead’), so science has now supplanted theology: a point pressed home by Nelson, by turning Endimione into an Einstein look-a-like, complete with a mad-inventor wig, violin, and penchant for scrawling differential and integral calculus on a blackboard, alongside Galileo’s famous retort to the Inquisition, ‘Eppur si muove’ (And yet it moves). So, the Age of Astral Anarchy gives way to the Age of Enlightenment.

Cavalli had joined Monteverdi’s choir at St Mark’s Venice when he was 14, in 1612, and he was the first composer of opera to win widespread success. Audiences during the Carnival season, attending performances in the Venetian public theatres which had first opened in 1637, were beguiled by the composer’s risky combination of rapture, fury and wit with comedy and burlesque bordering on insanity. In La Calisto the heady mix of high and low passions makes for a challenging whole, and Nelson exacerbated the expressive dichotomy by emphasising the vulgarity of the first two acts so as to sink at times to the level of low-budget Carry-On bawdiness. Any hint of the work’s Platonic debates about the nature of spiritual love was obliterated by sexual innuendo.

Cavalli’s musical language can take a while to get used to, as well, and Nelson, conducting as well as directing, adopted a spacious approach which emphasised the seemingly unvarying nature of the declamatory expression and gently mellifluous accompaniment. Fortunately, after the priapic crudities pre-interval, Act 3 took a decidedly different turn, as Cavalli’s increased use of overlapping voices and ensemble forms, and what Nelson describes as the supplanting of irreverence with pathos and intellectual commentary, effected a shift to more cerebral, ethical and creatively enriching realms. In the latter stages, Nelson pushed the music onwards creating a more captivating muscio-dramatic sweep; there were more flashes of colour from the small instrumental forces, predominantly continuo instruments, adding sensuousness to the vocal lines.

The Prologue features familiar archetypes, Natura (Nature) and Eternità (Eternity), who introduce the work by foretelling the nymph Calisto’s fate: to be elevated to celestial dominions. Tai Oney and Susanna Fairburn had difficulty, though, projecting from their positions at the side and rear of the stage, and this was a recurring problem subsequently as characters manoeuvred around the cluttered set. In the absence of surtitles (only scene-setting titles were projected), the all-important diction and clarity - Cavalli puts a strong emphasis on the text - were hindered by the acoustic of the box-like stage which inhibited textual and musical definition, unless characters were placed well to the fore.

But, the cast’s commitment and accomplishment were winning. George Humphrey’s was a vibrant Giove, dressed in gold-brocaded black, and also strong-voiced in his falsetto, Drag-Queen-Diana transformations. (It’s complicated … but Calisto is the daughter of Lykaon, king of Arcadia and follower of the hunting goddess Diana, to whom she has sworn to remain a virgin for all her life; Giove pretends to be his wife in order to have his wicked way with the object of his desire.)

Nick Pritchard - in a startling pink-purple lamé get-up, with exhibitionist green stockings to rival Malvolio’s yellow hosiery, coped admirably with Mercurio’s high-lying line and relished the lascivious exuberance of the role.

As Diana, Catherine Carby combined a full mezzo of solemn and luxurious momentousness with, by turns, dramatic coolness and fire, to wonderful effect. Tai Oney’s Endimione was, paradoxically, blessed with other-worldly grace; beautifully expressive of phrasing, the colour more contralto than counter-tenor, he blended exquisitely with Carby in duet.

Susanna Fairbairn Giunone  Paula Sides Calisto Jane Hobson.pngSusanna Fairbairn as Guinone, Paula Sides as Calisto. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

I was particularly impressed by Susanna Fairbairn’s strong-voiced Giunone; her steel-edged soprano was spot-on for Nelson’s presentation of the wronged goddess as a whip-clutching dominatrix. Paula Sides was a portrait of sensitivity and sweet-toned virtue as the eponymous acolyte, but her soprano was not lacking in agility or rapturous frisson; she incited our genuine sympathy for her human innocence in the face of the gods’ narcissistic tantrums and sexual shenanigans.

I have sometimes had reservations about John-Colyn Gyeantey’s vocal presence and have on occasion found the tenor wanting firmness of line and evenness of colour. Not on this occasion though; Gyeantey was superb as the goat-god Pane, raging with rejection and randy petulance. Adrian Dwyer (as Linfea, Diana’s frustrated warrior nymph), Katie Bray (as a characterful Satirino), and Peter Brathwaite (a sonorous Silvano) breezed raucously through the sub-plots. But, it was the eloquent avowals of the lovesick Endimione which really touched the heart.

The following evening, English Touring Opera turned the clock back a few years and shifted their attention to the work of Cavalli’s teacher, Claudio Monteverdi, whose Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (here, ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming) was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1639-1640 Carnival season.

Once again, we are concerned with the interplay between the immortals and mankind, and as in Cavalli’s opera treachery and deception are outdone by constancy and virtue. Following the Trojan wars, Ulysses, King of Ithaca, makes a long journey home to find that a trio of iniquitous suitors are harassing his faithful Queen, Penelope. With the assistance of the Neptune, Jupiter and Minerva, as well as his son Telemaco and friend Eumaeus, Ulysses devises a trick to defeat the villains, slays all three, and is restored by the gods to his throne and his rightful place beside his loving wife.

Despite the familiar dramatic territory, though, in contrast to the layers of allegory and artifice that had characterised the previous evening’s La Calisto, here takis and director James Conway opt for minimalism and directness, stripping back the opera to its essence. Gone are the gimmicks and banished is the burlesque. In their place we have an absorbing focus and stillness. The simple set presents a high, white wall, with doors which open during the Prologue to reveal the gods of Time (Andrew Slater), Fortune (Robert Anthony Gardiner) and Love (Martha Jones); they mock the spirit of Human Frailty (Clint van der Linde) who, weak and wretched, is subject to the deities’ whims. This construction also has the benefit of pushing the performers to the fore, whilst, angled, it offers a distanced perspective to the rear. In Act 2 the walls retreat and retract to form three columns, offering useful hidey-holes for the three suitors.

takis’ colour scheme is gentle and nuanced. The white, mottled walls suggest at once an imposing edifice, a shore-side cliff, and a fragile sea-shell. In Act 2 the prevailing salmon-pinks and apricots are complemented with aquamarines and ultramarines, Penelope’s vibrant orange adding visual depth, drawing the eye and pointing to the permanence and unassailability of her fidelity. The unity of design is enhanced when the wooden ‘hooks’ stage-right - the jetty, the prow of a boat, crabs’ claws? - become Ulysses’ bow, and the red ropes of the ship’s mast, or fishing net, assume the role of the bow’s string.

The cast are unanimously outstanding. Benedict Nelson captures Ulysses’ essential and indomitable strength of body and soul, in a masterful vocal and dramatic characterisation. Though this is a performance of brooding intensity, Nelson still forms strong bonds with Nick Pritchard’s more energised Telemachus. Pritchard exhibits tremendous stamina and focus.

Ulysses Richard Hubert Smith JCG.pngJohn-Colyn Geantey as Eumaus, Nick Pritchard as Telemachus. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Initially, I worried that the role of Penelope might lie a little low in Carolyn Dobbin’s voice, particularly in the light of the introspectiveness of her characterisation; but Dobbin proved me wrong, evincing remarkable authority and poise, and thus ensuring that the scene in which she is groped and harassed by the suitors was cruelly troubling and tense. John-Colyn Geantey once more excelled, as an earnest Eumaeus, injecting great vitality and urgency into the numbers in which he informs the doubtful Penelope of first Telemachus’ and then Ulysses’ arrival.

The suitors.png Carolyn Dobbin as Penelope, with the three suitors. Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

As the suitors’ parasitic follower, Irus, Adam Player (in a garish purple Tweedle-dum fat-suit!) demonstrated good comic timing, but his preening antics did not overshadow the poignancy of his Act 3 suicide-monologue. Katie Bray repeated her tremendously spirited performance of the previous evening, surmounting the high-lying line with panache as a commanding Minerva whose rulings and instructions must be obeyed. Robert Anthony Gardiner sang beautifully as Eurymachus; no wonder he captivated Martha Jones’ high-spirited Melanto. Jonathan Peter Kenny drew playing of compelling vigour and direction from The Old Street Band.

My only (minor) misgiving came in the final moments when the reunited King and Queen delivered their rapturous duet to celebrate their love. It was strangely subdued and uneasy. The beloveds were seated side-by-side, gazing forwards - not daring to look, not bold enough to believe, fearful of their tested feelings? Conway and takis pared things back still further, illuminating the white-clad protagonists in stark white light. This seemed to convey modernist uncertainty rather than classical consolation?

But, these were mere fleeting hesitations. After last weekend’s fantastic Xerses, English Touring Opera have offered another two terrific evenings of opera. The productions tour to various venues until 26th November (Autumn tour 2016)

Claire Seymour

Cavalli: La Calisto

Calisto - Paula Sides, Giove - George Humphreys, Mercurio - Nick Pritchard, Endimione - Tai Oney Diana - Catherine Carby, Linfea - Adrian Dwyer, Satirino - Katie Bray, Pane - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Silvano - Peter Brathwaite, Juno - Susanna Fairbairn; Conductor and Director - Timothy Nelson, Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, The Old Street Band.

Friday 14th October 2016, Hackney Empire, London.

Monteverdi: Ulysses’ Homecoming

Ulysses - Benedict Nelson, Penelope - Carolyn Dobbin, Telemachus - Nick Pritchard, Eumaeus - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Antinous/Time/Neptune/Phaecian - Andrew Slater, Eurymachus/Amphinomous/Fortune/Phaecian - Robert Anthony Gardiner, Pisander/Human Frailty/Ericlea/Phaecian - Clint van der Linde, Irus - Adam Player, Melanto/Amore - Martha Jones, Minerva - Katie Bray, Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - takis, Lighting Director - Mark Howland, The Old Street Band.

Saturday 15th October, Hackney Empire, London.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La%20Calisto%20title%20image.png image_description=English Touring Opera, La Calisto at the Hackney Empire product=yes product_title=English Touring Opera, La Calisto at the Hackney Empire product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=

Photo credit: Jane Hobson
Posted by claire_s at 11:57 AM

October 17, 2016

Boston Early Music Festival announces the appointment of Melinda Sullivan to the new position of the Lucy Graham Dance Director

The position—named in honor of the late choreographer and frequent BEMF collaborator—will oversee the establishment of the BEMF Dance Company as a troupe of professional dancers who will take part in BEMF opera productions and other artistic projects. Ms. Sullivan, a 20-year veteran of BEMF opera productions who has recently served as BEMF Ballet Mistress, joins BEMF’s artistic leadership team featuring Artistic Directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Opera Director Gilbert Blin, and Orchestra Director Robert Mealy.

Click here for complete press release.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/hires_melinda_sullivan01.png image_description=Melinda Sullivan product=yes product_title=Boston Early Music Festival announces the appointment of Melinda Sullivan to the new position of the Lucy Graham Dance Director product_by=BEMF Press Release product_id=Above: Melinda Sullivan
Posted by Gary at 12:19 PM

October 14, 2016

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

Of course, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is itself a virtuoso example of the particular illusion which is theatre. And, it’s all too much for the characters charged with putting on a play within the play: Pyramus and Thisbe. The Mechanicals, with Bottom at the helm, have ‘never labour’d in their minds till now’ and struggle with the problem of what to include and what to omit, what to show and what to leave to the imagination. They come up with solutions which are paradoxically both pragmatic and ludicrous.

Directing the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall, Daisy Evans has confronted the same problems as Bottom and his fellow guilds-men. As she says in a programme note, ‘we’re creating it as we go along. Each piece is formed from the inside out, and everyone is on hand to help out. You walk into a creative space - an empty stage, light everywhere, costume wagons, hangers, wire and rope … Where will the theatrics go? What could unfold before your eyes? All will be revealed?’

The Fairy Queen made its first appearance in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London; a lavish staging, in the century-long masque tradition, it mixed spoken drama, song, dance and spectacle. Evans notes that ‘The Fairy Queen is, basically, the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; without the play behind it, we’re left with a sequence of perfectly formed masques’. But, in reinstating the play, or ‘a’ play, and bringing ‘Theatre’ to the fore, she risks pushing the music into the shadows - ironically so, given that the elevation of the musical element of the masque was one of Purcell’s greatest achievements.

During the prefatory Aire, Rondeau and Act 1 Overture, Evans leads us into a rehearsal, the Barbican Hall’s wide open stage inviting us to knock down the fourth wall. The performance space is littered with ladders, lights, luvvies in techies’ overalls, and musicians in mufti. Stage-hands in hard-hats and clutch clipboards and brooms dash about, dodging cones and wires, perplexed and purposeless: one grabs a programme from a front-row audience member, as if in search of guidance as to what’s supposed to come next. A penguin-suited singer arrives but is repeatedly denied the chance to deliver his aria; a late-arriving violinist wanders through the orchestra searching for her seat, before being briskly escorted from the stage. Music director Richard Egarr may have been sporting evening-dress, but he was hardly a figure of authority amid this hammy anarchy. And, the score was muffled by the aural paraphernalia: rustling paper, stamping feet, shifting props.

The Fairy Queen contains no musical number based on a Shakespearean text but the atmosphere of the Dream is retained in Purcell’s musical scenes: for example, the boisterous fairies invigorate the Masque of the Drunken Poet in the opening Act, while their magic adds a sheen of mystery to Act 2’s Masque of Sleep; moreover, the Act 3 dialogue between Corydon and Mopsa is reminiscent of the rustics’ inane antics.

Evans fills in the ‘gaps’ in Purcell’s masque with her own meta-theatrical narrative, the parts of which never quite cohere into a whole. The soloists are ‘cast’ as stage manager (Iestyn Davies), diva (Rowan Pierce) and personal assistant (Gwilym Bowen). The ‘gags’ are plentiful: characters tussle possessively over music scores, or frantically flick through sheaths of notes to find their place; singers are arranged in height order; arias are sung to characters who clamp their ears shut. Timothy West wanders languidly about, a morose Lear-cum-Prospero, delivering random nuggets of Shakespeare; in Act 4, his amplified voice booms from the balcony. Shakespeare’s play testifies, albeit ironically, to the transformative power of the imagination; so, Evans’ ushers morph into thespians, sheet music flutter into birds, and wire coat hangers twist into angels’ wings. There were moments when I was amused and entertained, and moments when the theatrical clichés - actors entering by the aisles, the spot-lights turning on ‘us’, torches turning into stars - began to grate.

The cast seemed to enjoy themselves, though, and were unanimously and whole-heartedly committed to Evans’ project. Ironically, such faux ‘spontaneity’ only works when it is meticulously prepared and executed. And, the vocal and instrumental performances were stellar, with Richard Egarr’s light-fingered, witty continuo - fey and fantastical - leading the way. The aquamarine-tinted ‘Dance of the Followers of Night’ which closes Act 2 was deliciously enchanting, as if the fairies had permeated the score itself, while the Act 3 hornpipe was punchy and proud. And, the Chorus sang with tremendous power and expertly unanimous dynamic ebbs and flows.

Rowan Pierce’s soprano was pure and well-centred. As ‘Night’ in Act 2, her subtly detailed phrasing evoked a moving sense of wonder and stillness, enhanced by lighting director Jake Wiltshire’s translucent pink gleam and the beautiful violin accompaniment. Pierce’s Act 5 ‘Plaint’ wove voice and solo violin in a beautiful chaconne-tapestry. Mhairi Lawson was a vibrant ‘Mystery’ in the same Act 2 scene and later, in Act 4, produced a line of floating freshness in Spring’s aria, ‘Thus the ever grateful Spring/ Does her yearly tribute bring’, accompanied by baroque guitar and theorbo.

Ashley Riches’ riotous Drunken Poet - ‘I’m drunk as I live boys, drunk’ - was blessed with a wonderful swagger of demeanour and voice; his confession of poverty was couched in such soft sweetness, that he won our sympathy despite his bluff buffoonery. Iestyn Davies quite frequently found himself at the lower end of his countertenor range, but evinced grace and nobility as ‘Secrecy’ in Act 2; and later, as Mopsa, his superb vocal control shone through the tomfoolery with Riches’ Coridon, as for example in the powerfully projected melisma, ‘Then lordlike you rule,/ And laugh at the fool’. Their Act 3 number ended in farcical fashion, with Davies hoisted aloft in Riches’ amatory embrace before, refusing the hand of friendship offered, he escaped in haste. In the final Act, Davies demonstrated intelligent musicianship and vocal flexibility, modulating the colour of his voice according to the harmonic shifts and implications of the accompaniment in the Chinese Man’s ‘Yes, Daphne, in your looks I find/ The charms by which my heart’s betray’d’.

Tenor Charles Daniels and Gwilym Bowen joined in joyful duet in Act 4, ‘Let the fifes and the clarions/ And shrill trumpets sound,/ And the arch of high heaven/ The clangour resound’; their lines resounded with rhythmic strength to match Purcell’s springy setting of the text. Bowen, equipped with banjo, exhibited similar vigour in Summer’s Act 4 number.

Shakespeare’s Theseus asks, ‘Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,/ To wear away this long age of three hours/ Between our after-supper and bed-time?’ Evans didn’t quite fulfil the role of the king’s ‘manager of mirth’; nor did her ‘drama-heavy’ concept satisfy the monarch’s request, ‘What masque, what music?’ But, the instrumentalists and singers of the AAM certainly did ‘beguile/ The lazy time … with some delight’.

Claire Seymour

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (semi-staged performance)

Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr director/harpsichord
Rowan Pierce - soprano, Mhairi Lawson - soprano, Iestyn Davies - countertenor, Charles Daniels - tenor, Gwilym Bowen - tenor, Ashley Riches - bass, Choir of the AAM, Timothy West - narrator, Daisy Evans - stage director, Jake Wiltshire - lighting designer.

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 10th October 2016. image=http://www.operatoday.com/G%20Bowen%20Ben%20Ealovega.png image_description=The Fairy Queen, Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall product=yes product_title=The Fairy Queen, Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Gwilym Bowen

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega
Posted by claire_s at 11:39 AM

October 13, 2016

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the opening concert, in which the Holst Singers under their conductor Benjamin Nicholas presented Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor alongside works by Parry, Stanford, William Lloyd Webber, Howells and Holst, in the remaining concerts Tilbrook was joined by her long-standing collaborator, tenor James Gilchrist, and members of Ensemble Elata. Together they explored themes such as ‘Songs of Travel’, ‘The Folk Connection’ and ‘The Spiritual Realm’. I attended the final two concerts in the series, in which the ‘Shadow of War’ cast its wistful, elegiac darkness over the nave of St John’s.

The first of these recitals paired vocal works by Arthur Bliss and George Butterworth (which Gilchrist and Tilbrook have recorded for Hyperion) with instrumental pieces by John Ireland and Edward Elgar. The items were performed in a seamless sequence, the prevailing blend of sombre intensity and ecstatic gleam unbroken by applause or distraction. Arthur Bliss’s poignant and little-known Elegiac Sonnet for tenor and string quartet was composed to commemorate the life of the Australian pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood, who committed suicide in December 1953 at the age of 31. Bliss asked Cecil Day Lewis to provide the text and set the resulting sonnet for tenor, string quartet and piano. The composer is not immediately associated with the genre of song, and the work proved a challenging one with which to open the recital. Gilchrist’s tenor is quite light of weight, and at times he struggled to penetrate through and above the accompanying instrumental texture, though he was always able to communicate the depth and warmth of feeling conjured by Bliss.

Tilbrook’s upwards-sweeping cascades - the ‘pure’ fountain that ‘plays no more’ - and the striving lines of high violin (Tom Norris) and cello (Louisa Tuck) established a mood of Romantic reverie, and after a somewhat tentative initial vocal phrase Gilchrist shaped the lines vividly, sometimes using quite a wide vibrato to give his tenor substance and to communicate passion: ‘How well those hands … Figured a brooding or brilliant phrase!’ He was not afraid to roughen the sound, suggesting anger and irony, but troubling outbursts - ‘the fury and the grace!’ - were sometimes redeemed by richly lyrical instrumental post-commentaries. When the voice plummeted to convey the inconsolable dark grief - this ‘simple exercise of human loss’ - the rippling piano and high cello offered a countering spirit of transcendence. Gilchrist’s enunciation of the text is always exemplary and his unaccompanied declamation, ‘He took his grief away’, reached to the heart of the poetry. He showed his vocal range too, climbing to a floating head voice, ‘and we are less’. The instrumentalists relished Bliss’s ever-changing textures and colours, particularly in the closing passage, after Gilchrist’s floating melisma, ‘A flower he never knew - the rose called peace’, had offered hope.

Gilchrist found himself on more natural territory in six songs from Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. Here, the gentle beauty of his tenor perfectly captured the innocent melodicism of the folk-like phrases and the bittersweet nostalgia of Housman’s poetry. He coloured the vowels in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ with wonderful sensitivity, conveying first joy, then sadness, while the narrative clarity of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ was beguiling. Tilbrook and Gilchrist were able to balance buoyancy with wistfulness, and the unaccompanied repetition in the final line, ‘And I am two-and-twenty,/ And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.’, portentously anticipated the vulnerability that the tenor introduced into the tone at the start of the succeeding song, ‘Look not in my eyes’. There was a compensating relaxation in the latter, though, at the mid-point of the poem, with the shift to the major tonality.

Anna Tilbrook Nobby Clark.pngAnna Tilbrook. Photo Credit: Nobby Clark.

‘Think no more, lad’ swept gentleness brusquely aside. Gilchrist’s tenor was initially firm and true, and the piano chased the vocal flourishes with vigour, but the reprise of the first six lines was shadowed by the sentiments of the poet’s last-line comment, ‘’tis only thinking/ Lays lads underground’. ‘The lads in their hundreds’ was probing and culminated with a piano postlude which conveyed the simplicity of truth. Gilchrist created an almost shocking contrast between the ethereal head-voice employed for the questions which drift from the grave and the direct, prosaic presence of the responses in ‘Is my team ploughing’. The tempo slowed - with heavy heart, under the weight of realisation - at the close. Gilchrist’s drawing out of the question, ‘And has he found to sleep in/ A better bed than mind?’ was redolent with a plangent pain that was only enhanced by the pauses on the two syllables of ‘sweetheart’ (‘I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart’). The fading pianissimo, ‘Never ask me whose …’ was haunting and echoed through the piano’s final plummet into darkness.

Butterworth’s Housman settings had been preceded by John Ireland’s The Darkened Valley, which Tilbrook played with lucidity. The string players re-joined her for Elgar’s Piano Quintet of 1919 which closed the programme. An excellent balance was achieved between the strings and piano, and though there was conflict and intensity the players did not give the impression that they were wrestling with the music’s arguments, rather that they were divulging and exploring them, allowing Elgar’s private voice, in the immediate aftermath of war, to speak nobly.

There was more Housman in the final concert of the series - Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, for tenor, piano and string quartet. But, before that we had songs by Ireland and Ivor Gurney.

Ireland’s ‘The Soldier’ sets Rupert Brooke’s well-known sonnet, and Gilchrist captured the earnestness and ardency of the text, as the poet-speaker reflects on ‘some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England’. There was a lovely sense of expansion with the image that closes the octet, ‘breathing English air,/ Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home’, before a magical diminishment into the sestet, ‘And think, this heart, all evil shed away’. The directness of Gilchrist’s expression was riveting, as - through elegant phrasing and focused tone - he conveyed the spiritual consolations offered by the image of ‘hearts at peace, under an English heaven’. ‘Blow out, you bugles’ marched ebulliently until a harmonic shift at the line ‘Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain’ signalled a retreat. Gilchrist’s delivery assumed an almost biblical intonation in the closing lines, underpinned by the even rhythm of the piano’s low, tolling chords: ‘And Nobleness walks in our ways again;/ And we have come into our heritage.’

‘Spring Sorrow’ completed the trio of songs by Ireland, evoking a measured calm which was sustained in the first of the Gurney settings, ‘Severn Meadows’, whose piano postlude drifted into trance-like reminiscence: ‘Do not forget me quite,/ O Severn meadows.’ Gilchrist’s innate appreciation of the lyricism of the text, and his ability to draw this forth through finely wrought phrasing, was greatly evident in both ‘Lights Out’ and, especially, ‘Sleep’. In the latter the evenness of tone across the registers created a steadily increasing gravity of feeling which was complemented by an enrichening of pertinent textual details. ‘In Flanders’ was a striking reminder of Gurney’s own war experiences and subsequent breakdown. The text was written by Frederick William Harvey (1888-1957), a close friend of Gurney who, like the composer, and served in Flanders and France. A pause at the end of the opening line, ‘I’m homesick for my hills again -’ ached heavily, and the repetition of this line at the close of the song acquired an extraordinary rhetorical power, ‘Cotsworld or Malvern, sun or rain!/ My hills again!’, the piano’s exuberant flowering subsiding ambiguously to the dominant degree. The low vocal line and quiet tread of the piano brought a reverential air to ‘By a Bier-side’ but this song, too, blossomed with heartfelt anguish, then came to rest with a surpassing acceptance. After the delicacy of Gilchrist’s announcement that ‘Death drives the lovely soul to wander under the sky’, the power of his proclamation, ‘It is most grand to die’, was both disturbing and uplifting.

Two instrumental items separated the song groups. Elgar composed Sospiri (Sighs) in 1914 and dedicated it to the young violinist William Henry Reed, who was leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and who performed in three of Elgar’s late chamber works: the Violin Sonata, String Quartet and Piano Quintet. Here, cellist Louisa Tuck communicated the beautiful simplicity and plaintive darkness of the melody in a performance of drama and intensity. Violinist Ellie Fagg performed The Lark Ascending with soaring freedom and crystalline tone.

Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (1909) brought the six-concert series to a close, as the performers came together to reveal the work’s emotional range and depth, with Gilchrist’s characteristic directness making a thought-provoking contrast to the more sophisticated, French-influenced instrumental textures and techniques.

The shimmering string tremolo with which ‘On Wenlock Edge’ commences evoked the cold windiness of the wood which is ‘in trouble’. Gilchrist was attentive to the word-painting, imbuing these two words with the merest of tremors, but also to the overall meaning, colouring the chromatic line to depict the danger and disquiet of the ‘woods in riot’. The next song, ‘From afar, from eve and morning’, was characterised by long-breathed vocal phrasing, as subtly enhanced declamation fused with lyricism. The syncopated upper three strings evoked a strange serenity at the start of ‘Is my team ploughing’, which was then violently shattered by the piano’s explosive intrusion, ‘the horses trample,/ The harness jingles now’. In the latter stages of this song a terrifying urgency ensued, driven by the piano’s insistent dissonances, and the sharp rhythms of the strings in the postlude seemed almost accusatory, before they faded into a restless niente. ‘Bredon Hill’ possessed an air of spontaneity at the start, as if the voice were searching for the melody, as the still string chords gradually grew in definition and energy. Vaughan Williams’ onomatopoeic effects were exploited to the full: the pealing bells clanged brightly, before being subsumed into a more funeral tolling. Gilchrist’s enunciation of the text was gloriously expressive in this song. ‘Clun’ brought the journey to an end: ‘’Tis a long way further than Knighton,/ A quieter place than Clun,/ Where doomsday may thunder and lighten/ And little ’twill matter to one.’

This was a stirring performance by all involved, the expressive drama underpinned by a quintessential Englishness.

Claire Seymour

Vaughan Williams and Friends

James Gilchrist - tenor, Anna Tilbrook - piano, Tom Norris - violin, Ellie Fagg - violin, Martin Saving - viola, Louisa Tuck - cello.

The Shadow of War Part 1: Bliss: Elegiac Sonnet; Ireland: The Darkened Valley; Butterworth: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad; Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84.

The Shadow of War Part 2: Ireland: ‘The Soldier’, ‘Blow out, you Bugles’, ‘Spring Sorrow’; Elgar: Sospiri Op.70; Gurney: ‘Severn Meadows’, ‘Lights Out’, ‘Sleep’, ‘In Flanders’, ‘By a Bierside’; Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending, On Wenlock Edge.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 9th October 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/James-Gilchrist%20operaomnia.co.uk.png image_description=Vaughan Williams and Friends product=yes product_title=Vaughan Williams and Friends, St. John’s Smith Square product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=James Gilchrist

Photo credit: operaomnia.co.uk
Posted by claire_s at 10:20 AM

October 12, 2016

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

On opening night there was really only one redeeming factor­ — Stefano La Colla’s Des Grieux. He is that rare vocal species, a spinto tenor with a beautiful, ardent timbre and the required heft for Manon’s tormented lover. La Colla rode all the role’s vocal crests without forcing. Theatrically, however, director Andrea Breth left him flailing until the last act. At the start of Act I, Manon and Des Grieux are already prostrate in the “bare and undulating” American landscape where she expires of exhaustion. The lovers keep rising from the sand to enact Manon’s life from the moment she and Des Grieux meet and fall in love in Amiens, against a sterile-white set. Disastrously for Des Grieux’s character, they move slowly, as if in a dream. Instead of a lover crazed by the irresistible but capricious Manon, he comes across as a morose semi-cadaver. La Colla’s connection with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s temptress was painfully awkward; he might as well have been making love to a dressmaker’s dummy. The playfully cynical “Tra voi, belle”, which Des Grieux sings before he sets eyes on Manon, was staged as an angry, misogynistic rant — a criminal waste of La Colla’s blazing, Italianate sound.  That he can actually act became evident in the final act, when Manon stops dreaming while dying, and actually starts dying. Called upon to act naturalistically, his singing also gained in intensity, but by then it was too late.

manonlescaut_80.pngEva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Alain Coulombe as Geronte di Ravoir, and Koor van De Nationale Opera

Being superlative actors, both Eva-Maria Westbroek and Thomas Oliemans as her foppish, parasitic brother, Lescaut, periodically broke through the flashback fog to breathe life into their characters. Unfortunately, although his musicianship was at his usual high level, Oliemans just does not have a baritone of Puccinian dimensions. His voice lacked enough impact at key moments. Westbroek looked exquisite in her 18th century finery. When not moving as if through molasses, she captured Manon’s many facets, most lucidly her boredom and frustration as Geronte’s mistress. The caressing looks she gave the jewels he had bought her made her inability to part with them, followed by her arrest and deportation as a thief, completely logical. Vocally, however, Westbroek was not at her best. Her generous vibrato had a mind of its own and her unique, platinum timbre sounded steely. Moments such as the rueful “In quelle trine morbide” and Manon’s gavotte required more tonal tenderness. Westbroek brought her great skills as a tragedienne to the finale, although in “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” volume triumphed over pathos, not least because of Alexander Joel’s enthusiastic but unsubtle conducting.

Joel led the Netherlands Philharmonic and the well-prepared DNO chorus in a variable performance that was at times pleasingly ebullient, often too loud, and marred in places with unsure entrances and tempo tugging. The high point of the performance was Manon’s frothy levee and dancing lesson, the low point the Act II Intermezzo, with sawtoothed sforzandi and the tragic depth of a bowl of spilled milk. Uncertainty about tempo could explain why Alessandro Scotto di Luzio made an equivocal impression as the lovers’ ally Edmondo, in spite of his lovely lyric tenor and strong stage presence. In the supporting roles, only booming bass Guillaume Antoine as the Innkeeper and the Sergeant offered worthy support. Alan Coulombe’s Geronte was gruff without being intimidating. Eva Kroon’s Madrigal Singer and her chorus made a striking flock of nuns with outstretched wimples, but sounded thick and out-of-sync.

manonlescaut_017.pngEva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut and Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut

The nuns, like most other characters, were garbed in the sartorial hyperbole of Federico Fellini’s 1976 film Casanova. Moidele Bickel, who passed away while working on the designs, and Eva Dessecker, encrusted the cast in spendour. They even reproduced specific costumes from the film, such as the gold-and-silver insectoid outfit for the Dancing Master, in which Peter Hoare performed some embarrassingly silly moves. It was not clear how Breth’s tribute to Fellini served the opera, except as a superficial aesthetic glaze. Puccini’s sundry street characters in Act I were transformed into an immobile masked chorus in black. They suggested the clergy, Des Grieux’s designated destiny before fatal attraction intervenes, and also carrion crow waiting to feed on Manon’s corpse. Four acts later, the production had not explored these themes any further. Dance doubles casting Manon as a victim of male violence and other distractions were just more signposts to nowhere. In the meantime, the supposedly entangled lovers circled each other as if they feared contracting the plague. By the time they fell into each other’s arms on the sand dunes, nobody really cared whether they survived or were devoured by scavengers.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Manon Lescaut: Eva-Maria Westbroek; The Chevalier Des Grieux: Stefano La Colla; Lescaut: Thomas Oliemans; Geronte di Ravoir: Alain Coulombe; Edmondo/A Lamplighter: Alessandro Scotto di Luzio; The Innkeeper/Sergeant of the Royal Archers: Guillaume Antoine; The Dancing Master: Peter Hoare; A Captain in the Navy: Lukas Jakobski; A Singer: Eva Kroon. Dutch National Opera Chorus, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Alexander Joel; Director: Andrea Breth; Set Designer: Martin Zehetgruber; Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel † & Eva Dessecker; Make-up: Cécile Kretschmar; Lighting Designer: Alexander Koppelmann. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, on Monday, 10th October 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/manonlescaut_84.png image_description=Eva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut, and Stefano La Colla as Il Cavaliere Renato des Grieux [Photo by Bernd Uhlig] product=yes product_title=Bloodless Manon Lescaut at Dutch National Opera product_by= product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Manon Lescaut, Thomas Oliemans as Lescaut, and Stefano La Colla as Il Cavaliere Renato des Grieux

Photos by Bernd Uhlig
Posted by Gary at 11:08 AM

October 11, 2016

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

Subsequent historians have been more inclined to raise a mocking eyebrow: ‘What good did it all do the tree?’ Aelian asks. And, such irony would probably have appealed to the Georgians’ love of satire, but in fact Handel’s Xerxes of 1738 didn’t go down too well in Hanoverian London, falling between two stools - the po-faced ethical extravagances of opera seria and the bawdy satire of native ballad opera - and disappearing from the stage after just five performances at the King’s Theatre in London.

And, while the opera must have appealed to the period’s penchant for Persia and the Levant, Nicolo Minato’s libretto, though ostensibly about the military campaigns of the eponymous Persian king Xerxes (c.500BC), is really a familiar operatic cats-cradle of convoluted, misplaced and unrequited desires. The wilful, petulant Xerxes is betrothed to the foreign princess Amastris, but has fallen in love with the commoner Romilda. The latter loves Xerxes’ long-suffering brother Arsamenes, who is also adored by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta. The seething passions and amorous competitiveness of the protagonists offer plenty of opportunities for wry comedy.

Moreover, one of the opera’s potentially most ludicrous moments has become the opera’s best-known and best-loved aria: Xerxes’ opening number, 'Ombra ma fu', in which the King addresses a plaintive song of admiration to the shade offered by a plane tree. The beauty of Handel’s ‘Largo’ (actually marked ‘Larghetto’ in the score) pushes aside any inclination to mock; and, in any case, it’s worth remembering that for dwellers on the dry plains of Asia, the sight of a large, shady tree would inspire enchantment, even religious awe.

This rather lengthy preamble leads us to the revival of James Conway’s ETO production of Xerxes, currently showing at the Hackney Empire before touring - with Cavalli’s La Calisto and Monteverdi’s Ulysses’ Homecoming - through the autumn ( ETO 2016 Autumn tour). Conway updates the action to 1940, replacing Xerxes’ campaigns in Greece with the Battle of Britain, and the King’s reverential address is directed not at any heaven-sent vegetation but at a Spitfire bomber-jet - as a flypast roars overhead, and newsreel footage and soundtrack accompaniment evoke the Blitz spirit. Designer Sarah Bacon presents us with a sparse set - a semi-circular recess serving as field hospital, Nissen hut and bedchamber - which Mark Howland lights with strong greens, blues and purples.

It’s certainly possible to update this opera to good effect. After all, Nick Hytner’s successful, much-admired and oft-reprised 1985 ENO production (and this production borrows Hytner’s translation) chose an Enlightenment setting, placing the action in an English pleasure garden, complete with the deck-chairs, outdoor concerts and tea-parties with which Handel’s contemporary Londoners were acquainted. But, there’s not anything inherently funny about the Battle of Britain; and, I suspect, from the meagre chuckles heard, that I was not alone in finding the bandage-clad, wheelchair-bound airman staggering into the field hospital to be entertained and distracted from their suffering and misery by the crooning of volunteer nurse Romilda to be somewhat distasteful.

Conway occasionally over-compensates with comic excess, as when Romilda and Atalanta engage in infantile fisticuffs which end with a bouquet being bashed into oblivion; or when the rise of an orange wind-socket serves as an indicator of erotic heightening. More problematic than the odd exaggerated effort to raise a laugh, though, is the fact that the cast’s diction is on the whole quite poor and no surtitles are provided (though there are screens which announce occasional changes of location or mood, and offer the audience instruction or advice: ‘Interval: off you go.’)

Strong vocal performances from the cast do provide compensation and round out the character-stereotypes. This presents quite a challenge for Julia Riley, in the title role, for her character is totally obsessed with a single-minded passion. But, Riley has both the stamina to convey the King’s blind sense of omnipotence and the vocal colour to convey varying emotions. The aria in which Xerxes recognises that Romilda’s love for Arsamenes is unbreakable revealed melancholy depths hitherto concealed and unsuspected. And, Xerxes’ closing outburst of frustration and fury at finding Romilda already wed was fiery enough to equal the raging ferocity of an enemy air-raid.

Laura Mitchell displayed strong vocal and stage presence as the proud, high-spirited Romilda and coped well with the coloratura demands, using her virtuosity, power and clean tone to demonstrate flashing feistiness when warning Galina Averina’s Atalanta to keep her hands off her man. Carolyn Robbin tackles Amastris’s vengeful Act I aria with aplomb, accompanied by vibrant playing from the ETO’s baroque orchestra, The Old Street Band.

Clint van der Linde’s Arsamenes was rather hooty to begin with, and the intonation was wayward at times, but the countertenor did settle and his aria of despair, when Arsamenes believes that Romilda has final capitulated under the insistence and authority of Xerxes’ relentless demands, was movingly phrased and delivered. As Arsamenes’ mackintosh-attired servant, Elviro, Peter Brathwaite injected a welcome dose of buffo; he has an appealing baritone and, rare among the cast, Brathwaite’s diction was excellent. Andrew Slater put in a fine performance as Romilda’s father Ariodate, here an RAF scientist.

Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny set a breezy pace in the overture and did not let the tempo relax. The performance lasted under three hours - the choruses are excised - and there was brisk movement from aria to aria, with Kenny only occasionally pausing to allow the audience to show their appreciation. In fact, at times it felt rather too hasty; and, it couldn’t have assisted the clarity of the singer’s text-delivery. But, Kenny did not waste any opportunities for pointed orchestral commentary and observation, adding an emphatic edge to many the cadence of many an aria-playout to press home the humour or sarcasm, drawing forth chromatic clarifications - as when the love-struck Xerxes is spurned by Romilda - and encouraging his players to deploy a wide dynamic range to heighten the emotional contrasts and impulsiveness.

This production offers many musical rewards but, in the absence of surtitles, audiences might want to do some homework before the show.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Xerxes

Xerxes - Julia Riley, Arsamenes - Clint van der Linder, Elviro - Peter Brathwaite, Amastris - Carolyn Dobbin, Ariodate - Andrew Slater, Romilda - Laura Mitchell, Atalanta - Galina Averina; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kenny, Designer - Sarah Bacon, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, Movement Adviser - Bernadette Iglich, Sound Designer - James Evans, Video Designers - Finn Ross/Ian William Galloway.

English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 8th October 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Julia%20Riley.png image_description=English Touring Opera Xerxes product=yes product_title=English Touring Opera Xerxes, at the Hackney Empire product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Julia Riley as Xerxes

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Posted by claire_s at 10:41 AM

October 7, 2016

English National Opera: Tosca

Catherine Malfitano’s production once had a somewhat literalistic yet straightforward integrity to it; now it seems simply to flounder. When I saw it previously, in 2011, the Personenregie at least proved generally accomplished; here it veers (too little rehearsal time for a revival, perhaps?) between the non-existent and the all-too-local am-dram. The lack of any discernible concept thus matters far more than previously it did. We simply have sets and costumes and wandering around. Quite why the Sacristan looks as though he comes from Shoreditch-cum-Kandahar I have no idea. Nor do I understand the weirdly inter-galactic backdrop for the third act. The rest - well, the rest is unobjectionable, yet nothing more.

The ENO Orchestra, as usual, was on excellent form. Oleg Caetani summoned up some luscious sounds, especially in the third act, although I found the first act a little jocular in tone. There was, in general, a reasonable sense of line, although Caetani fell some way short of the more distinguished ‘symphonic’ realisations. (No, it is not really quite the right word, but we all know what it means in this context.) Greater variegation would also have been welcome; I never felt Caetani was engaging with anything other than the score’s (impressive) surface. Choral singing was also of a high standard; let us never forget the sterling work the chorus undertakes day in, day out.

Keri Alkema (c) Richard Hubert Smith.jpgKeri Alkema as Tosca. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

It was not, however, a vintage night for solo singing. Keri Alkema offered an alert performance in the title role, but it rarely caught fire until the second act, and only intermittently then. Gwyn Hughes Jones clearly has quite a following at the Coliseum. Although he certainly has vocal heft, I was unable to discern much beyond that in his Cavaradossi: his singing was generalised - far too often a problem in this role, I have found - and his acting at best rudimentary. Craig Colclough’s underpowered Scarpia came across in strangely camp fashion, at least on those occasions when his voice rose above the orchestra and/or chorus. I am all for revisionist readings, but pantomime villain faces are not a satisfactory substitute for true malevolence. The smaller roles, however, tended to impress, Andri Björn Róbertsson’s Angelotti, Scott Davies’s Spoletta, and young Alessandro MacKinnon’s Shepherd Boy were all especially well presented.

There was nothing bad here, then, but nor was there much over which to rejoice. Next time, might we have something that engages with the dramatic possibilities of the work, rather than pandering to the reactionary ‘taste’ of an imaginary ‘general’ audience? The Arts Council has behaved disgracefully towards ENO, but timidity never helped anyone, and it certainly does not help Puccini.

Mark Berry

Giacomo Puccini, Tosca

Floria Tosca: Keri Alkema; Mario Cavaradossi: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Baron Scarpia: Craig Colclough; Cesare Angelotti: Andri Björn Róbertsson; Sacristan: Adrian Powter; Spoletta: Scott Davies; Sciarrone: Graeme Danby; Gaoler: Robert Winslade Anderson; Shepherd Boy: Alessandro MacKinnon. Director: Catherine Malfitano; Revival director: Donna Stirrup; Set Designs: Frank Peter Schlössman; Costumes: Gideon Davey; Lighting: David Martin Jacques, Kevin Sleep. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)/Orchestra of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani (conductor).

Coliseum, London, Monday 3 October 2016.

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Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Posted by claire_s at 2:44 AM

October 5, 2016

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

Don Pasquale is a most welcome visitor. It is the first of the three operas of the last year of Donizetti’s creative life, and one his few operas based on comedic formulae. Certainly a masterpiece it imposes physical, interpretive, musical and vocal challenges that were somewhat addressed just now in San Francisco.

The bel canto of early Romanticism is ephemeral stuff, far more content exploring the extended delights of fraught emotions than the rapidity and physicality of comedy. Donizetti’s libretto does indeed get serious, the usual triumph of youth over age accompanied by a deeper take on human emotions, though finally their frivolousness is forgiven.

Italian conductor Giuseppe Finzi (former assistant to SFO’s Nicola Luisotti) found the seriousness of musical purpose in Donizetti’s score and its warmth, and sustained the tempo of comedy as well. This gifted maestro discovered the lightness of musical touch, the delicacy of line and the richness of orchestral color that makes bel canto soar, and kept our musical sensibilities on edge for the duration of the opera.

Pasquale_SF2.pngAct I, all principals left to right Lucas Meachem as Dr. Malatesta (no photos of Edward Nelson were provided), Maurizio Muraro as Don Pasquale, Heidi Stober as Norina, Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto

The Laurent Pelly production ignores Donizetti’s (and comedy’s usual) forgiving humanity, exploring instead the emotional underbelly of spoiled, selfish youth. And finally it dwells on just plain elder abuse. This gifted French stage director divided the opera into two parts, the first (acts I and II) were straight forward comedic antics of contemporary images and sensibilities. It was pure, delightful, mid-last-century humor that melded gracefully into the pit.

Act III (after intermission) moved to comic book colors and imagery, everything upside down — very clever (there was an open curtain set change I did not witness). Norina was now in a crinoline layered, puffed out orange skirt, Ernesto in white, lose-fitting casual shirt and pants, the starry sky was facing up. Mr. Pelly deftly and smoothly managed his actors in crazy antics (Ernesto climbing through a window, though keep in mind that the window is upside down — as was Ernesto!).

Meanwhile however it was the same Donizetti musicality emanating from the pit. The concept short circuited into an abrupt, unsatisfying end because the two Laurent Pelly worlds did not, indeed could not converge, and the coldness of the concept could not reconcile with the intrinsic musical charm of Donizetti’s stock comic characters. We were left dramatically and musically bewildered.

The production was inaugurated at the Santa Fe Opera, with Santa Fe Opera principles, i.e. the back of the stage open into the New Mexico sky, in San Francisco a black void. But the scenery by French designer Chantal Thomas intelligently deployed forced perspective side walls to create the idea of classic comedy’s crossroads. In the center of the stage she constructed an angularly complex revolving structure that focused the story into a small area that wittily moved us in and out of Don Pasquale’s house. The sets well filled the War Memorial Stage.

Even the side walls played their role, the abstracted shapes becoming lighted windows that opened onto the the stage in the last moments of the opera, a hint at least that we were in the finale.

Don Pasquale himself was sung by Italian buffo Maurizio Muraro. A gifted comedian exhibiting genuine Italian buffo style his performance was pure delight beginning to end, his ample girth bouncing lightly off the floor on the several times he was laid out by situation. The role of Dr. Malatesta was double cast, veteran SFO house singer Lucas Meachem for four performances, Adler Fellow Edward Nelson for two performances including the one I attended. This young singer well held his own, but greatly confused the story, his youth and lack of earned buffo gravitas at odds with the dramatic responsibilities of the role.

House singer, soprano Heidi Stober sang Norina. Mme. Stober is a gifted comedian who acted Mr. Pelly’s concept with aplomb, missing however Norina’s youth. Mme. Stober seems to catch all the soubrette roles at SFO, from Sophie in Werther to Magnolia in Showboat, from Pamina in The Magic Flute to Johanna in Sweeney Todd. This fine, demonstrably generic singer did not find the vocal verve for Donizetti’s mid-voice, relying on big, loud high notes for effect.

Pasquale_SF3.pngLawrence Brownlee as Ernesto in Act III

Lawrence Brownlee was the Ernesto in his belated San Francisco debut. Beyond his status as one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors, upheld in this performance, Mr. Brownlee exhibited a surprising physicality and wit that I now understand he has been asked to suppress in recent high-concept productions seen elsewhere (Narciso in Aix, Don Ramiro in Pesaro, Tamino in L.A.).

Of note were the few lines of the Notary appropriately and gruffly sung by Bojan Knežević and the wonderful third act chorus cameo “Che interminabile andirivieni!” delivered with obvious gusto and evident pleasure by 24 members of the SFO Chorus.

Michael Milenski


Cast and production information:

Don Pasquale: Maurizio Muraro; Norina: Heidi Stober; Ernesto: Lawrence Brownlee;
Dr. Malatesta: Edward Nelson; A Notary: Bojan Knežević. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi; Stage Director and Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly; Set Designer: Chantal Thomas; Lighting Designer: Duance Schuler. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 4, 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Pasquale_SF1.png

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product_title=Don Pasquale at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Maurizio Muraro [All photos copyright Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 4:47 PM

October 4, 2016

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

Notes and sounds by Prabowo, Matthew Greenbaum, Wang Lu, and Leoš Janáček had vibrated against our eardrums before dissolving into the air; our cups of beer (custom-brewed by Sam Burlingame to pair with the chamber opera) had been drained and now sat empty in our hands. These words, which Prabowo had set from a love poem by Goenawan Mohamad, seemed to encapsulate the theme of the evening: the intensity and inherent transience of passion, love, and friendship—stories that are written in fire, but inevitably forgotten or erased.

Prabowo’s chamber opera, for string quartet and two vocalists, was composed in 2005 specially for the Momenta Quartet, the ethnomusicologist and experimental vocalist Nyak Ina Raseuki (aka Ubiet), and a Western-style soprano (which part was sung by Arnold in this performance). Mohamed’s text was not carved out into set divisions but rather freely shared and vaulted between the two vocalists. Some phrases were sung while others were spoken in a low guttural chant. Both Ubiet and Arnold overwhelmed the intimate space and boxed-in acoustics of the Tenri Cultural Center with sounds that seemed to defy the limitations of the human body. The rate of their vocal exchanges accelerated until the final two stanzas, which they sang in a silken, glossy unison: a fitting (and exquisite) embodiment of the ephemerality of human connection. The Momenta Quartet wended their way through extensive string passagework during periodic interludes that were so whispery they hurt your ears, but in a good way.

JM9_0567-1.png

Before the opera, the Quartet had performed three works selected by violist Stephanie Griffin. Each member of the quartet curated a night of the Festival, with Griffin’s “Written in Fire” the only of the four to feature a woman composer. The world première of Wang Lu’s Double Trance, commissioned for the Festival, was an exploration of a less straightforward, more fragmented kind of passion that felt real and honest. Its piece was inspired by the “desperation and resignation” Lu witnessed in a Piero della Francesca fresco on her recent travels through Rome. Its heterogenous texture comprised of crunchy groans, plucks, strained shrieks, tremolos, and stratospheric cello overtones. Prabowo’s imagery is full of movement (“Sometimes I want us to fall, like butterflies falling from a branch before the certainty of death”); Lu’s is an abstract assemblage of frozen moments, a scattering of puzzle pieces in which one can glimpse a beautiful whole.

More homogenous in texture was Matthew Greenbaum’s Castelnau, a 2002 quartet which was the first piece ever written for the Quartet. The piece felt like listening to a more distant kind of passion, or perhaps passion through the lens of nostalgia. Phrases echoed from instrument to instrument in overlapping shreds of sound like conversations relived obsessively in one’s head, before eventual unisons and the long draggy chords of forgiveness (or forgetfulness). Janáček’s Intimate Letters of 1927–1928 fit the theme most explicitly; the quartet was composed in the last years of the Czech composer’s life, offering a musicalized narration of the 600 love letters he had written to his married muse, Kamila. The quartet made me laugh on multiple occasion, from its tonal opening (always jarring at a new music concert) to the totally loony cascading delirium of the entire fourth movement. The soaring viola lines of the second movement—meant to portray Janáček’s beloved—were executed brilliantly by Griffin, who glowed all evening.

Rebecca Lentjes

image=http://www.operatoday.com/JM9_0550-1.png image_description=Momenta Quartet [Photo by João Magalhães] product=yes product_title=“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera product_by=A review by Rebecca Lentjes product_id=Above: Momenta Quartet

Photos by João Magalhães
Posted by Gary at 9:39 AM

October 3, 2016

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

And, there is an ambiguity at the core of the opera that is not answered by the libretto or the score: did she or didn’t she? That is, was it acquiescence or rape: when we see Donna Anna frantically resisting the Don’s clutches at the start of the opera, is she desperately escaping from a sexual assailant, or trying to save her own reputation having been caught out by the importune arrival of Don Ottavio?

Moreover, there is a paradoxical question-mark hanging over the eponymous reprobate’s reputation for sexual conquest, given that, on the evidence that the opera presents, we have only the successive failure of his strategies of seduction by which to judge.

In his new production of Don Giovanni for English National Opera, director Richard Jones dispenses with ambiguity and proposes some radical, subversive ‘clarifications’ in an interpretation which is often morose and repeatedly overturns expectation.

First, Jones’s Giovanni is no frustrated Casanova, though he is clearly insatiable. As the overture unfolds, the huge ‘Wanted’ poster which adorns the front curtain is raised to reveal a corridor-platform edged and lined with dull wooden doors, besides one of which Don Giovanni - haughty, sceptical, with an air of boredom - takes position. Beside him, Leporello - a Chris Evans-lookalike with messy carrot-top wig - assumes the role of doorman. Successive black-clad ladies process along the walk-way and prove unable to resist the shiny-suited Don’s allure: Leporello slickly whisks open the door, the donna and the Don disappear within, only to reappear in the blink of an eye, and the promenade resumes. There’s barely time for Leporello to bend his eye to the peep hole! It’s a walking catalogue of soulless sexual conquest, the living exemplification of Leporello’s ‘little black book’ (here, a red leather, telephone-directory tome which he draws from his hip man-bag). And, the conveyor belt of erotic convenience is given a gender-twist when a Leporello-double takes his turn in the pimp’s procession.

Don Giovanni is about sex so Jones and his designer Paul Steinberg begin the action in a brothel - a labyrinthine interchange of Orwellian, slate-grey corridors with featureless brown doors behind which imagined amatory encounters take place. Lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin’s chiaroscuro shadows only add to the ominous gloom. When the front panel splits in the middle and slides back, stage-left of a partitioning corridor we see a shabby bedroom in which Giovanni and the Don engage in bondage games. The noise of their S&M antics disturbs an old man and his concubine in the adjacent room and before she knows it Donna Anna is confronted by her father, the Commendatore, in his grubby white long-johns. Hardly a figure of gravitas, he is stabbed in the groin by Giovanni with his bondage knife - a grim and fatal parody of edge-play.

Don Giovanni James Creswell, Caitlin Lynch and Christopher Purves (c) Robert Workman.jpgJames Creswell, Caitlin Lynch and Christopher Purves. Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

Donna Anna’s subsequent feigned innocence when she and Don Ottavio discover her father’s prone corpse rather sticks in the throat, and the insincerity deepens later in Act 1 during Anna’s self-exculpating aria, ‘Or sai chi l’onore Rapire a me volse’, particularly as Don Giovanni is lurking in the shadows, covertly listening to every duplicitous plea. When Ottavio resolves to keep an eye on Giovanni in ‘Dalla sua pace’, Donna Anna slinks off with the degenerate rake for round two of their erotic subterfuge.

So far, so fun-lacking. And, Donna Elvira’s arrival does little to lighten the mood. Leporello’s catalogue aria - usually a moment for a director and singer to demonstrate their comic mettle - falls strangely flat. Similarly, the rustic guests celebrating the marriage of Zerlina - the latter’s white wedding-frock (bucolic innocence?) alleviates the prevailing black attire- and Masetto sing with all the gaiety and joy of a funeral lament, standing stock still behind a long trellis-table which is covered with a tacky nylon table-cloth. A tiered cake leans askew in the centre, separating the disengaged couple seated at either end, as the chorus present an epithalamium worthy of Somarone’s nuptial choir in Béatrice et Bénédict.

Christine Rice.jpgChristine Rice as Elvira. Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti’ is neither ironic nor erotic nor comic; in fact Masetto’s threatening raising of a knife in the face of his new bride’s apparent unfaithfulness has an alarming air of realism. Indeed, it’s a long wait before Elvira gives us our first laugh when the eager whipping back of the bedclothes, post-‘Là ci darem la mano’ (the text of which is translated into mundanity - roughly, ‘embrace me do, and all your dreams will come true’), exposes her as an interloper in the bed planned for Giovanni’s and Zerlina’s adulterous liaison.

But, Giovanni’s Act 1 party lacks energy and focus; a welcome splash of colour in the form of the red satin cocktail-bar drape does not compensate for the ugliness of the party-goers’ masks, the randomness of the apathetic streamer strewing, and the grey listlessness of the dancing and so-called ‘merriment’. The arrival of Leporello’s air-dancing clone, however, does add a note of uncertainty and raises the tension-barometer; and as Masetto plasters the lamp-posts and telephone boxes with ‘Wanted’ mug-shots of the Don, there is an ‘edge’ in the air.

Act 2, fortunately, brings some tongue-in-cheek diversions, not least the removal of Leporello’s ginger wig to reveal a pate as smooth and shiny as his master’s, the perfect guise in which to woo Elvira as Giovanni sings from the side-lines. And if Jones slips into cliché when Giovanni picks up the telephone in the dingy phone-box to call Elvira’s maid, it’s a neat inversion of the usual phone-sex dynamic and his seductive serenade causes her to wriggle and squirm on a burnished gold sofa. But, we soon sink back into misery, and Zerlina is slumped centre-stage in despair as Ottavio sings his vengeance aria, ‘Il mio tesoro’.

The graveyard scene is dramatically imposing, however. The Commendatore’s memorial is a military monument of grotesquely outsized floral wreaths and crosses, and from atop the massive pedestal he bears down in military dress. The epigraph warns of his intent to wreak vengeance on him who has ‘cast me into eternal darkness’. When he arrives for dinner, the Commendatore may have resorted to pyjamas once again, but James Cresswell’s sonorous bass ensures that his threats have a fiery energy.

The extending of his bloodied hand brings about the third master-servant swap of the evening (spoiler alert!), as Leporello’s double reappears bearing yet another carroty wig which Giovanni dons while the scalp-denuded Leporello is dragged down to the depths by the raging Commendatore. Some have argued that the opera should end when the protagonist dies; but this Giovanni lives to ravish and rape another day. Jones gives us the closing sextet anyway - ‘Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life’ - while the opening procession of potential partners recommences, with the replacement Leporello acting as the glib door-operator.

The cast do their best to overcome the dramatic short-circuits, and on the whole the women out-sing the men. Christine Rice’s Elvira adds a thrill and frisson which is lacking until the spurned Elvira launches into a furious ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ and her ‘Mi tradi’ is spine-tingling: she wildly flourishes a revolver with the terrible unpredictability of Bertha Rochester. Mary Bevan is vocally charismatic as Zerlina, but is never allowed to reveal her character’s charms in this production. American soprano Caitlin Lynch copes with the demands of ‘Non mi dir’ and reveals a pleasing shine to her voice.

Caitlin Lynch and Allan Clayton (c) Robert Workman.jpg Caitlin Lynch and Allan Clayton. Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

Ottavio is often something of a non-role, but Allan Clayton gives the flimsy aristo greater presence that usual with two rich, distinctively phrased arias which deservedly won applause. Christopher Purves’ Don Giovanni indulges in lots of post-coital smoking and pacing, and swigs champagne and shucks oysters a-plenty in sexual anticipation. It’s a wry touch before his ‘champagne aria’ and preceding the Act 2 dinner scene, in which the table is laden with aphrodisiacs - a tier of lobsters is a mocking parody of a wedding cake. But, this Giovanni is such an unpleasant thug that it’s impossible for Purves to win our sympathy. Clive Bayley is excellent as Leporello; his strong bass carries the text clearly and he acts with wry knowingness and subtle comic timing. Nicholas Crawley’s Masetto does lots of scowling and prowling around in shirt-sleeves and braces, but his squad of bovver boys who hunt down Giovanni proves ineffectual and at times his singing lacks strength and conviction.

Nicholas Crawley and Mary Bevan 2 (c) Robert Workman.jpg Nicholas Crawley and Mary Bevan. Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

Mark Wigglesworth does all he can in the pit to provide the champagne with the requisite fizz, and the ENO Orchestra works hard and with good effect, especially in the end-of-Act-1 finale, though there was some dodgy tuning in the masqueraders’ Trio.

So, Jones seems to be telling us that, despite the mock-heroic fugue and its moral maxim, sometimes evil-doers really do get away with it. I’m not quite sure that Jones gets away with so indifferently dismissing the evidence of text and score, but he does give us a lot to think about.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Donna Anna - Caitlin Lynch, Donna Elvira - Christine Rice, Don Giovanni - Christopher Purves, Leporello - Clive Bayley, Zerlina - Mary Bevan, Don Ottavio - Allan Clayton, Masetto - Nicholas Crawley, Commendatore - James Creswell; Director - Richard Jones, Conductor - Mark Wigglesworth, Set designer - Paul Steinberg, Costume designer - Nicky Gillibrand, Lighting designer - Mimi Jordan Sherin, Movement director - Sarah Fahie, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

Friday 30th September 2016; English National Opera, Coliseum, London.

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Photo credit: Robert Workman
Posted by claire_s at 11:47 AM

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

The basic architecture of Eötvös's The Sirens Cycle is simple, yet classic: three parts each devoted to different responses to the legend of the Sirens, whose singing is so lovely that those who listen are lured to their deaths. Seduction and destruction: opposite poles eternally pulling together and apart. The first part is based on James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the legend is retold in Joyce's highly unusual syntax, where words fragment and language is subsumed by sounds that aren't necessarily coherent but generate fleeting images. Tosh, perhaps, but oddly compelling. Indeed, abstract sounds amplify meaning. What to make of lines like "Chips … Horrid and gold flushed more" ? Eötvös replicates Joyce's choppy phrasing with flurries of syllabic sound. The word "Chips" is projected as a high-pitched gasp which claws at the ear, so the rounded "o" sounds in "horrid" and "gold" and "more" seem to churn around on themselves. Or lines like "A jumping rose on a satiny breast of satin, Rose of Castille, trilling idolores"? Eötvös breaks the words into tense, choppy figures, deconstructing the idea of satin and roses.

Images of bronze, gold and roses recur, linking the passages together with a kind of inner logic, highlighted by Eötvös's setting, as idiosyncratic as Joyce's poetry, for that is what it is, ideas evoked not by figurative meaning but by allusion. Thus the third section in the first part "O Rose! /Castille the morn is breaking/ jingle jaunten jingling coin rang /Clock clacked." Crazy, zany rhythms, almost joyous, yet brought down to earth by a sudden drop in the timbral temperature: a hard ending to flights of fancy. Similarly, the "Clap-clap, Clip-clap, Clappy-clap" of the sixth section where energy is abruptly cut short. "I feel", the line drawn out, going silent, then snapping back. "So sad". Joyce mentions "Liszt's Rhapsodies" and Eötvös creates a spooky nocturnal waltz. Wittily, he captures Joyce's bizarre wordplay, "my epp ripff taph/ Be pfrwritt".

Although Barbara Hannigan was scheduled to sing, I was thrilled to hear that Piia Komsi was stepping in at very short notice indeed, for Komsi's voice is phenomenal, capable of extremes of pitch and textures beyond the range of most, combined with extraordinarily crisp articulation. Her voice is almost superhumanly elastic, her diction precise even in phrases as convoluted as those thrown at her by Joyce and Eötvös. She embodied the Sirens, supernatural beings who defy the boundaries of Nature. Komsi's death-defying flights up and down the scale could drive one mad with rapture. Komsi is a vocal gymnast, but so poised that she can make the ethereal sound perfectly natural.

And thus the Interlude, by which Eötvös separates the Parts of the Siren Cycle. In this first interlude, the Calder Quartet created whooshing sounds, suggesting movement within a compressed range, like wind channelled through a tunnel. An image of time travel ? We fly into the ancient world, with Homer's verses in Greek, intoned with gravitas. Again, Eötvös captures the metre of the poet's individual language. The lines seem to curve upon themselves like sonorous echoes. The Sirens (or rather Komsi and the Calder Quartet) seduce in honeyed tones: Komsi's voice warms sensuously, the violins, viola and cello singing along with her, in luscious chorus. Significantly, Eötvös breaks off from the Siren's song with a short interlude where the strings sing troubled foreboding. Tough old Odysseus, despite his resolve, longs to listen.

Franz Kafka's story from 1917, Das Schweigen der Sirenen "Um sich vor dem Sirenen bewahren" supplies the text for the Third Part of Eötvös's Siren Cycle. Another change of literary syntax: Kafka's lines are more prose than poem. His handling of the subject is at once more brusquely down to earth, and yet more horrifying. Odysseus escapes the Sirens by stopping his ears up with wax. He's tied to the mast so he cannot break free and join them. But the Sirens have eine noch schreckliche Waffe als den Gesang, nämlich ihr Schweigen, (an even more terrifying weapon than song, namely their silence). Odysseus thinks he's outsmarted the Sirens but perhaps it is they who have outsmarted him by withholding their song, leaving him with his illusions. For a musician, that's a an astonishingly ironic solution. It thus casts the whole Siren Cycle as a meditation on the nature of song and art, and the absence thereof. This also connects with the references to song in Joyce's text, the Rose of Castille being Balfe's operetta, the cry "Martha" in Part 1 section 5 being Flotow's Martha and, of course the snatch of Liszt rhapsody. What, then, is the mood in this final part of the cycle? Its rhythms are sturdier than the skittish First Part, yet also oddly nostalgic. Are we to think of popular music wafting all around us, even if we'd like to remain aloof? Komsi's voice takes on a soubrettist tinge. Is she coquette, destroyer or Muse? No easy answers. But that is the beauty of Eötvös The Sirens Cycle : there's a lot more to it than meets the eye, or ear.

Purposefully, this recital began with Eötvös's Korrespondenz (String Quartet no 1, (1992) which the composer describes as "a mini opera for string quartet", since it's based on the correspondence between Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The son was lonely, in Paris. The father withheld news of the death of his wife, whom the son loved dearly. Deception, even though well meant: the ingredients of psychodrama. The first violin (Benjamin Jacobsen) and the viola (Jonathan Moerschel) talk at each other rather than to each other. Their music seems to connect but there's a palpable gulf. One of them is singing, but the other refuses to hear. It's The Siren's Cycle, in microcosm. Separating the two, defusing the dynamite, so to speak, the Calder Quartet played Debussy String Quartet in G minor op.10.

Anne Ozorio

Piia Komsi - soprano; Calder Quartet.

Peter Eötvös: Korrespondenz; Debussy: String Quartet in G minor Op.10; Peter Eötvös: The Sirens Cycle for string quartet and soprano (world première).

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 1st October 2016.

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Posted by claire_s at 9:16 AM

Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1

Even before the First World War, during which he served on the front line, Braunfels was preparing what is now his best-known work, the opera Die Vögel, which helped launch the seminally important series on Decca 20 years ago, which pioneered the rediscovery of Entartete Musik, the "degenerate" music the Nazis hated. Although his career dimmed, Braunfels wasn't actively suppressed by the regime, even though he was a half-Jewish convert. His three sons all served in the German army. His music itself would have made him an outsider to the Nazis and their taste for unquestioning sentimentality in art. Die Vögel is based on Aristophanes. Braunfels's treatment of the play highlights its powerful underlying message. The Birds aren't so much passive objects of beauty but the voices of women protesting against dominant hierarchies. Braunfels continually returned to these basic concepts throughout his career. In Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna and Die Verkündigung , Braunfels used medievalism as a disguise for ideas that were dangerous in a totalitarian regime. Braunfels was a resistance fighter no less, using the Gothic to subvert the Nazi preoccupation with glorifying the past. In Der Traum ein Leben, Braunfels even depicts a talentless fool following a false Fuhrer. The orchestration is lush but highly ironic. Attempts to rebrand Braunfels as dreamy-eyed romantic inflict on him a kind of posthumous castration.

This new recording begins with the Vorspiel und Prolog der Nachtigall Op 30/3 1913) a coloratura display for soprano and orchestra, a sampler for the full opera Die Vögel which premiered in 1920. Exquisitely refined playing from the Staatskapelle Weimar, emphasizing the delicacy of the scoring: to remind us that birds are fragile, like the ideas they symbolize in the opera. Valentina Farcas sings the fiendishly difficult part with assurance, not quite as miraculously as Hellen Kwon did for Lothar Zagrosek in 1997, though more idiomatically than some since. Kwon made the part feel almost supernaturally ethereal, like an elemental force of nature, which, arguably, is what the role is all about.

In Zwei Hölderlin-Gesänge op 27 (1916-18) Michael Volle is a commanding presence, and rightly so, for the poems have a strange unworldly quality "Willkommen dann, o Stille der Schattenwelt!" the poet wrote, wrote, fixated by death. The second song, Der Tod fürs Vaterland is even more unsettling. Swirling, almost Wagnerian flourishes in the orchestra lead to stillness, for we are on a battlefield awaiting the Valkyries. The legend long pre-dated Wagner. For Hölderlin "Fremdling und brüderlich ists hier unten" might have meant noble sacrifice, but to Braunfels, in the last years of the war, words like "O Vaterland,Und zähle nicht die Toten! Dir ist,Liebes! nicht Einer zu viel gefallen" would not have felt so grand. Significantly, Hölderlin came from Württemberg, which supplied Napoleon with thousands of troops, most of whom died in Russia in 1812, a detail not lost on Braunfels, who marked on the manuscript that it was written "in the forest camp at Neu-Württemberg at Christmas 1916". These two songs are neatly complemented by Auf ein Soldatengrab op 26 to a poem by Hermann Hesse, written in 1915 : new poetry, new music and very topical.

"Dich, Nachtigall, verstand ich eine Stunde" sings Klaus Florian Vogt in Abschied vom Walde op 30/1 which Hoffegut sings in Die Vögel when he leaves the Nightingale in the woods, and returns home a wiser man. The lustre of Vogt's singing makes one feel that Hoffegut learned more from the birds of the forest than Siegfried ever could.

This selection of orchestral songs has a wonderful unity, underlining the importance of respecting Braunfels as an intellectual as well as a composer. They are nicely set into place by Braunfels's Don Juan op 34 (1922-4) variations on the Champagne Aria from Mozart Don Giovanni. Seven variations follow the initial Theme, all of them played briskly, reflecting the humour oif the original. Leporello is perplexed and the aria is delightfully funny. But there's a darker side, as Donna Elvira discovers. One day, Don Giovanni will pay for this frivolity. Thus, beneath the post Jugendstil decorative filigree lurks menace. Variation 4 is serene, but Variation 5 ( Mässig-bewegter) begins with an ominous boom , as if winds were sweeping upwards, from a tomb. Is the Commendatore emerging? The mood in Variation 6 (Andante) is equivocal, the theme emerging on a solo wind instrument, "clouds" of rumbling strings enveloping it. In the final Variation (Presto) the old devil is back to his tricks, flying fleetingly, the brass blowing raspberries of defiance, though the ending, is, as we know, defeat . Braunfels is much more than a study in techiques and adaptation. It's a miniature opera, without words.

Congratulations to Oehms Classics for this superlative recording of Braunfels's Orchestral Songs, so good that I've already ordered the next in the series. But the same standards of excellence don't apply to the programme notes. What relevance does Yoko Ono have for Braunfels, happily married as he was? These songs aren't about love. This is something that Oehms should take more seriously. Good notes are important because they can enhance the listening experience: well-informed readers can better appreciate what they're listening to.

Anne Ozorio

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product_title= Walter Braunfels : Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt Michael Volle, Staatskapelle Weimar, Hansjörg Albrecht (conductoir) Oehms ClassicsOC1846p0]=]

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Posted by iconoclast at 6:56 AM

October 2, 2016

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Founded in 2008 by Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-born conductor Brendan McKeen, the youthful company’s mandate is to provide opportunities for performers to sing with an orchestra. In addition to this year’s pair of offerings, prior productions have included: Mozart’sLa Clemenza di Tito and Così fan tutte, Massenet’s Cendrillon, the Fable of Cinderella, and Handel’s Alcina, as well as smaller-scale concerts and recital programs.

This year, the company treated audiences to a “re-imagined” version of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, performed amidst the ruins of Winnipeg’s historic St. Boniface Cathedral, ravaged by fire in 1968 and located at the heart of its Francophone community. Its updated The Magic Flute…Retold (sung in German) essentially stripped away all the opera’s notoriously racist references for 21st century audiences, with the 125-minute production also including witty English dialogue penned by the company’s co-artistic director, Brenna Corner.

Mozart’s masterpiece is ultimately a tale about fortitude, character and steely resolve in transcending adversity. The company experienced its own travails opening night, forced to grapple with mid-show rain showers, ubiquitous mosquitoes and even a pounding rock concert heard from across the Assiniboine River that competed with the Wunderkind’s sublime score. The cast, orchestra and audience ultimately journeyed, well, underground to the church basement for half of Act I, shepherded again outdoors again by the unflappable McKeen for Act II.

Lyric soprano Andrea Lett (with alternating casts) crafted a particularly strong Pamina, her acting skills notably having grown since she performed the lead role in last year’s production of Cendrillon, the Fable of Cinderella. Tenor Jonathan Stitt likewise convinced as her heroic Prince Tamino, his mellifluous vocals soaring in “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” or seamlessly blending with the three ladies (Emily Diehl-Reader, Rebecca McIntosh, and Meghan Symon).

Audiences always wait on tenterhooks for the Queen of the Night’s “big” aria. Soprano Ashley Boychuk did not disappoint, fearlessly nailing her topmost notes while confidently skipping through florid colouratura runs during “Der Hölle Rache” that earned the evening’s only cries of bravo.

Baritone Elliot Lazar portrayed royal bird catcher Papageno as a quasi-counter-culture, peace-sign flashing hippie, presented not with magic bells but a flamingo-festooned music box. His characterization could still have gone further (a few love beads would have helped) although his giddy Act II scene in which he falls head over feathers with soprano Emily Ready’s Papagena proved a highlight. Bass John Anderson crafted a suitably menacing Sarastro, flanked by tenor Chris Donlevy’s Monastatos whose performance needed to - and did – grow more intense throughout the show.

The 17-member chorus prepared by Lisa Rumpel sang with gusto, while McKeen led the 23-piece orchestra throughout Act I, morphing into Renate Rossol’s sole keyboard accompaniment for Act II due to the inclement weather.

The company also returned to the Manitoba Legislative Building for its second production, Offenbach’s comic melodrama Orpheus in the Underworld. MUC first performed in the provincial government building with Cosi fan Tutti in 2014.

This year, stage director Jacqueline Loewen further exploited the building’s interior by cleverly moving actors and audience throughout its three physical levels to depict Thebes, Olympus and the Underworld, thus making the evening experiential. Its Tyndall stone interior that creates powerful reverberation proved challenging, especially during the spoken English dialogue sections that blurred, although conversely also underscored the gods’ solos and choruses – and especially bass Nicholas Urquhart’s Jupiter – with otherworldly omnipresence.

Soprano Susan Watkins injected enough sparkling personality into her lead character Eurydice to light up a celestial night sky, decrying fiddle-playing “Bore-pheus” husband Orpheus sung by tenor Wes Rambo with her razor sharp comedic skills as potent as her clear colouratura voice. She fleshed out her long-suffering housewife with subtle nuance and pouty sighs, even daringly rubbing thighs with Jupiter during the Act III Underworld party that also included a raucous “Infernal Galop.” Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Reimer’s Public Opinion provided steady ballast throughout the 90-minute show, as she told her tale of “high ideals, heroism and morality.”

The quartet of vodka swilling goddesses added further hilarity, although once again sound issues detracted from their choruses, including Act II’s tongue-twisting rondo “Pour séduire Alcmène.”

McKeen held a firm baton over his compact orchestra, its six musicians packing up their bows and stands to move with the audience and singers as we made our own odyssey in the company of gods from heaven to hell.

Holly Harris

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Posted by Gary at 3:22 PM

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On this evening they performed roles that are staples in their respective repertoires. Further, members of the Lyric Opera Chorus as well as the Ryan Opera Center participated in individual arias and ensembles. The concert was led by Lyric Opera’s music director Sir Andrew Davis, and the Lyric Opera Chorus was prepared by chorus director Michael Black.

The evening opened with two selections from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, which will be staged this season at Lyric Opera in December and January. The overture was led with a fine sensitivity for transitions in tempo. Flute and oboe parts were clearly forward in this performance as a means to suggesting their later significance in the score of the opera proper. The second part of the overture showed especially a sense of disciplined drive leading to a spirited conclusion. The first vocal selection featured Jonathan Johnson singing Tamino’s Act I aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” [“This portrait is enchantingly beautiful”]. Repeated top notes on “mein Herz” [“my heart”] became increasingly effective, just as the self-questioning hero issued his statements in a flood of hopeful legato. Mr. Johnson’s Tamino gave a sustained, summary emphasis to his final line of a determined quest for Pamina, “Und ewig wäre sie dann mein” [“and she would then be eternally mine”]. The second Mozart selection introduced a new voice to Lyric Opera audiences. Tobias Kehrer sang Osmin’s “O, wie will ich triumphieren” [“O, how I shall triumph”] from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The rapid passage work already from the start of the aria was tossed off effortlessly by Mr. Kehrer, as he sang the repeat of “schnüren zu” [“tighten your nooses”] with accelerating gusto. Kehrer’s lowest bass notes are easily sustained and especially resonant, as evidenced by his delivery of the downward scale in the line “Denn nun hab’ ich vor Euch Ruh [“Having rid myself of you”]. The expectant joy felt by his character was emphasized by a spontaneous cartwheel at the conclusion of the piece. The final Mozart selection, a quartet of soloists performing together with the Lyric Opera Chorus, was the brief “Godiam la pace” [“Rejoice in peace”] from Idomeneo. Featured singers were Diana Newman, Lindsay Metzger (Women of Crete), Alec Carlson, and Patrick Guetti (Men of Troy). The balance between soloists and chorus was carefully maintained with the male voices prominent on “libertà.” Yet another piece for soloist and chorus followed, the opening of Act II, Scene 2 from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Mr. Johnson sang here the part of Arturo, officially betrothed to the title character, a part he will also perform during Lyric’s staging of Lucia during October and November. Arturo’s optimism at the bridal festivities is captured by Johnson’s ringing notes of “stella” and “amico,” by which he anticipates a happy future once he joins the clan. This self-deluding hope (“piu bella”) and Arturo’s position of guarantor (“defensor”) are sung by Johnson with notable ironic energy.

As a transition from solo and choral performing, the audience was encouraged to sing along with the Lyric Opera Chorus in “Va pensiero” [“Go, my thoughts”] from Verdi’s Nabucco, the Italian passage of which was visible on a projected screen. Indeed, the balance of the program’s first half was devoted to works by Verdi. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner sang Princess Eboli’s “O don fatale” from Don Carlo. The lower vocal register so vital for this role was especially evident in Baumgartner’s description of her “terrible gift” as her beauty, “O mia beltà.” Her recitation, as though addressing the Queen, “O mia Regina,” was appropriately lingering and laden with emotion. The realization that she could expiate her guilt only in a cloister began with furious top notes and descended to the depth of pain in the line, “dovrò celar il mio dolor!” This wide range was applied effectively by Baumartner in her concluding declaration to act in Carlo’s favor and save him. “Un di mi resta” [“I have one day left”] expressed the immediacy of danger at court, while Eboli’s loyalty to the Prince was traced with a rising line to match the orchestral swell at “Ah! Lo salverò!” [“I shall save him!”]. After this selection, Eric Owens performed Procida’s aria, “O tu, Palermo” from I vespri siciliani, followed by the baritone showpiece, “Per me giunto … O Carlo ascolta” [“For me has come … O Carlo, listen”] from Don Carlo, sung here by Quinn Kelsey. The Marchese di Posa’s dilemma and sacrifice were projected by Mr. Kelsey with consummate skill. Piano moments at the start of this scene were capped with an excellent trill on “i suoi fedel” [“His faithful ones”]. The question to Carlo, “Perchè?” was phrased by Kelsey with palpable emotion, just as he encouraged Carlo’s commitment to the Flemish cause. The latter part of this scene, “Io morrò… alla Spagna un salvatore!” [“I shall die … but preserve for Spain a savior”] was sung with a true sensitivity for legato in Verdi’s writing.

In the second half of the concert Kelsey gave a similarly moving performance of Prince Yeletsky’s aria “Ya vas lyublyu” from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Again, top notes and line were secure guarantors of poignant delivery. Kelsey will perform this season in Lyric’s staging of Lucia di Lammermoor. The concert also previewed Carmen, to be given in February and March, with here the prelude to Act I and the “Habanera” sung by Ms. Baumgartner. A final highlight of the evening was the introduction of Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Samuel Youn, both presenting excerpts from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Mr. Schwinghammer sang Daland’s “Mögst du, mein Kind” in which the sailor tries to facilitate a relationship between his daughter and the Dutchman, just arrived. Schwinghammer paced the father’s characterization cleverly with a modest suggestion at the beginning. His progressively urgent appeal to Senta and the description of her virtues to the Dutchman culminated in a richly decorated delivery of the line, “Gesteht, sie zieret ihr Geschlecht!” [“You must admit, she’s a credit to her sex”]. The dramatic conclusion to the aria was emphasized with comfortable forte pitches on “Glaub mir … so ist sie treu” [“Trust me … she is faithful too”]. Mr. Youn’s performance of the Dutchman’s soliloquy, “Die Frist ist um” [“The time is up”] was a remarkably effective evocation of captive frustration. Youn’s description of the waves bearing him endlessly forward and the fruitless search for peace on land [“auf dem Land ich suche”] is a heartrending depiction of suffering. Shifts to piano declamation fit this sensitive consideration of Wagner’s text. His dramatic pitches toward the closed called out convincingly for a day of judgement when his own anguish might cease.

Both Schwinghammer and Youn will make their Lyric Opera debuts in Das Rheingold in the coming week, with Mr. Owens singing the part of Wotan and Ms. Baumgartner as Fricka. The season should have an exciting start.

Salvatore Calomino

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Posted by jim_z at 3:15 PM