May 28, 2017

A sunny L'elisir d'amore at the Royal Opera House

It’s the bank holiday weekend and the sun is shining, both here in London and over the wheat fields and haystacks of 1950s rural Italy as conjured by Laurent Pelly and designer Chantal Thomas for their 2007 production of L’elisir d’amore, which is back at the ROH for its fourth revival. Last time round, in 2014, the big draw was Bryn Terfel making his first essay at the role of the fraudulent quack. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to hear both exciting ‘newcomers’ to the House, with South African soprano Pretty Yende making her ROH debut, and familiar returnees, with Italian bass-baritone Alex Esposito stepping into the duplicitous doctor’s boots for his role debut.

cBC20170525_L'elisir_0269 ALEX ESPOSITO AS DULCAMARA c ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgAlex Esposito (Dulcamara). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Three years ago, I described Terfel’s Dulcamara as ‘less sleazy smooth-operator and more grimy grease-ball’. Esposito’s swindler is even nastier: a veritable bruiser. Unshaven, dirty, with tattooed biceps and a contemptuous sneer, this Dulcamara’s dodginess couldn’t be hidden by designer shades and a scruffy white lab coat. No wonder the villagers scattered in advance of his arrival despite their excited chorus of expectation, but the strength of his call to his customers - ‘Udite, udite, o rustici’ - compelled, rather than charmed, them back. Esposito’s tone was wonderfully firm and strongly coloured. There was simply no arguing with his bullish self-promotion, as his side-kicks peered mischievously from beneath the dilapidated medic-truck watching their master humiliate and fleece his dupes. This Dulcamara could barely take the trouble to feign professionalism or concern, so gullible were the eager elixir-gulpers, and a grimy white ti-shirt poked out beneath the sleazy red suit he donned for the nuptial celebrations. In contrast, Esposito took great care with the text and the line; the grace notes in ‘lo son ricco’ were deliciously deft as the doctor made his pitch for Adina.

Pretty Yende’s Adina could look after herself though. Yende’s voice is plumper and more ample than the crystalline soprano of Lucy Crowe who took the part in 2014, and this gave Adina more obvious presence and self-possession: she pouted and posed with the panache of a 1950s Hollywood starlet. If Yende had any nerves on her first night at Covent Garden, she didn’t show them: her soprano was full and warm from the off, and she strolled through the arias with the ease, beauty and grace with which Adina lounged on the haystacks beneath a parasol. She was a feisty match for Liparit Avetisyan’s Nemorino in their Act 2 duet; the pause at the close was judged perfectly, allowing us to register the strength of the fiery emotions. But, Yende had the full measure of Adina’s heart and allowed her essential tenderness to shine through - as when revealing the extent of Nemorino’s delusions (he thinks because he worships her, she must return his love) to Belcore. Her Act 3 ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’ was absolutely exquisite, the coloratura roulades tumbling like jewels, the highest reaches clean and pure. It’s been quite a month for Yende: she’s won the International Achiever Award at the 23th annual South African Music Awards and her Sony Classical release, A Journey won the 2017 International Opera Award for Best Recording (Solo Recital). There will surely be many more such accolades.

cBC20170525_L'elisir_0404  LIPARIT AVETISYAN AS NEMORINO c ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgLiparit Avetisyan (Nemorino). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Armenian tenor Avetisyan made his ROH debut earlier this season (as Alfredo Germont in Il traviata) and found himself back in the House following the withdrawal of the previously advertised Rolando Villazón took a while to warm up as Nemorino; initially a rather rapid vibrato made his tenor somewhat tight and he was occasionally just under the note. But, as the ‘elixir’ (a bottle of Bordeaux) worked its magic, so Avetisyan relaxed into the role, and his impish charm - he hoisted a bale aloft with nonchalant swagger, and his chirpy knee-and-elbow wiggle of glee raised a grin - was as winning as his appealing, pliable tenor. The big test was, as always, ‘Una furtive lagrima’, and Avetisyan sailed through; unaffected and focused, he let Donizetti’s expressive lyricism do the work and the aria cast its spell - time stood still as if the whole House held its breath.

cBC20170525_L'elisir_0536 PAOLO BORDOGNA AS BELCORE, PRETTY YENDE AS ADINA c ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER.jpgPaolo Bordogna (Belcone) and Pretty Yende (Adina). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Paolo Bordogna made an impressive ROH debut as a ridiculously pompous Belcore, accompanied by two ‘warriors’ whose mismatched heights and over-enthusiastic goose-stepping added to the preposterousness of their boss’s cocksure conceit. Bordogna enjoyed his character’s pretentiousness, adding some neat details - chest-thumping through a trill, hip-twisting when demanding that Adina ‘Name the day!’, and launching into some impressive acrobatic tumbles down the haystack. His zealousness was not neglected either: Bordogna seemed to have Adina in a head-lock at one point, from which she struggled to extricate herself.

Jette Parker young artist, Vlada Borovko, has impressed me in the past (see Oreste at Wilton's and JPYA Summer Performance 2016 ) and here she was a rich, vibrant Giannetta who relished the opportunity to play to the crowd when delivering the latest gossip about Nemorino - she’s got the news from the haberdasher, so it must be true.

The ROH Chorus occasionally found it difficult to pick up conductor Bertrand de Billy’s beat - the opening ensemble was a bit scruffy and de Billy’s zippy accelerando in the closing scene of Act 2 wrong-footed them for a while. But, they kept cool heads and were in fine voice; the blocking and acting was precise and nuanced. The overture felt a bit ‘solid’ and I’d have liked a bit more brightness and sparkle from the ROH Orchestra but the playing was, as always, accomplished.

This was a beguiling evening which got better and better as it went on. The cast were committed to the drama, and there was an occasional sense of spontaneity which added a charming freshness (though, reassuringly, Alfie the dog and the bicycling sweethearts were back). The dashes of realism - the piles of rotting tyres and wonky lampshade that frame the sets of Act 3, the louring clouds on the back-cloth that seem to threaten storms ahead - were outshone by Nemorino’s heart-warming love, optimism and belief. In uncertain times, it’s good to be reminded that sometimes hopes and dreams do come true.

Claire Seymour

Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore

Adina - Pretty Yende, Nemorino - Liparit Avetisyan, Dulcamara - Alex Esposito, Belcore - Paolo Bordogna, Giannetta - Vlada Borovko; Director/Costume designer - Laurent Pelly, Revival director - Daniel Dooner, Conductor - Bertrand de Billy, Set designer - Chantal Thomas, Associate costume designer - Donate Marchand, Lighting designer - Joël Adam, Royal Opera Chorus (Concert Master - Peter Manning), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Saturday 27th May 2017.

image= image_description=L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden product=yes product_title=L’elisir d’amore, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Pretty Yende as Adina and Liparit Avetisyan as Nemorino

Photo credit: Bill Cooper
Posted by claire_s at 4:22 AM

May 24, 2017

Budapest Festival Orchestra: a scintillating Bluebeard

Not surprisingly, Béla Bartók was the fulcrum of the evening: but the programme was paradoxically both cohesive in spirit and diverse in medium. We enjoyed Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, presented with a decidedly Romantic slant, and an astonishingly transparent and detailed performance of the composer’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, both of which were preceded by examples of the folk sources from which Bartók’s invention sprang.

I feared that the first half of the concert was in danger of turning into a lecture-recital, with the visceral experience of the music itself pushed aside by scholarly ethnographical explanation. And, by the time we reached the interval, my misgivings had not been entirely dispelled. Fischer began by offering a brief introductory account of Bartók’s ethnographic research and innovation, supplemented by some archive recordings. Then, we had the ‘live experience’ as folk singer Márta Sebestyén and three instrumentalists performed some of the folk songs that had so stimulated Bartók’s musical imagination in the early years of the twentieth century.

Sebestyén - confident, composed, wryly playful but absolutely honest - is a master of her material; she makes no concessions, her tone quite hard but direct, but she has a piercing gaze and was a captivating presence in her deep red dress. But, why on earth did the RFH not provide surtitles? For it’s difficult to respond and evaluate when one doesn’t have a clue what situation, action or emotion is being conveyed in song. Moreover, given that Sebestyén’s attire seemed to nod in the direction of ‘authenticity’, why were her fellow musicians - playing folk violin, viola and double bass - dressed in Western concert dress? (The sticky resin-capped fingerboards of András Szabó’s viola and Zsolt Fejérvári’s double bass seemed a droll rebuke to the context in which they were performing.) Perhaps I was alone in sensing an air of constriction: I wanted these performances to break out more exuberantly. In the song offered at the end of the first half, the toes of violinist István Kádar did indeed seem to be twitching as nimbly as his fingers, and Fejérvári’s snapping pizzicati and fingerboard-cracking slaps did suggest that the music would flourish with freedom in the bar afterwards. But, I felt this was an ‘experiment’ that did not quite come off.

Fischer’s reading of Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs (1933) - an arrangement of 9 of the composer’s 15 Hungarian Songs for piano that date from twenty years earlier - emphasised the lyricism of the melodic writing and the richness of the orchestral colour. The opening unison was strikingly dense and opulent in tone and if the string playing was gloriously silky - and the players relished the characterful glissandi and harmonics, leader Violetta Eckhardt sometimes turning to smile at her section - woodwind and brass offered occasionally nasality to prevent the performance slipping into the syrupy folk nationalism of Brahms or Dvořák, and there were some darker colourings from the timpani and low brass. Fischer was simultaneously alert to the details and free in gesture: flicks and sways elicited precise responses by players who know their maestro well.

It was a real joy to experience such an attractive orchestral sound, but it was an extraordinarily vivid performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, by turns crystalline and ample, that brought the concert alive. Fischer himself recited (from memory) the opening narration while simultaneously indicating the beat to the musicians behind him. As the conductor gradually tightened the psychological screw, the BFO made every single one of Bartók’s scintillating, brilliantly defined sonorities tell, from ecstasy - the gleaming blast of golden C Major at the opening of the fifth door - to tragedy: the pathetic, weeping undulations of the lake of tears revealed behind the sixth - ‘What is this water?’ Judith gasps, her incredulity tinted by celesta, harp and flutes.

Hungarian mezzo-soprano Ildikó Komlósi has - according to the programme - sung the role of the naïve, curious Judith over 150 times. I have heard her sing the role twice in the last two years: here at the RFH with Sir Willard White’s Bluebeard in a performance by the LPO conducted by Charles Dutoit; and at the Proms in 2016 (again with Dutoit, conducting the RPO, and alongside John Relyea as Bluebeard). This time, however, I missed the ‘freshness’ and ‘youthful excitement’ I found in these previous interpretations. Certainly, there was an assured sense of dramatic progression but Komlósi did not convince me that she was an impetuous young bride, and her mezzo is not as steady as it once was. That said, there was real poignancy in the quieter moments, as when arriving at the castle, the disconcerted Judith questions, ‘What no windows?’; and, the astonished horror of the realisation, ‘Your castle is crying!’ was equalled for delicate expressivity by the cellos’ oscillating string crossings. Komlósi has the power, too, to ride the orchestra tumult: her demand that Bluebeard open the doors was spine-chilling and, though at the bottom of her range, her insistence that she be given the keys and her observation that ‘Your castle’s walls are bloody’ were perturbingly penetrating.

Bass Krisztián Cser was a striking portrait of steely repressed emotion allied with an almost unwelcome recognition of power - ‘You see the extent of my Kingdom’ - and of his own capacity for violent domination. There were hints of vulnerability too: ‘Judith, Judith’ Cser cried, accompanied by a lovely cello solo, and at times the warm horns suggested heart-feeling submerged and suppressed.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra pride themselves in being one of Gramophone’s ‘top ten’ world orchestras. On the evidence of this stirring and disturbing performance, the accolade is fully deserved.

Claire Seymour

Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), Krisztián Cser (bass), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Tuesday 23rd May 2017.

image= image_description=Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall product=yes product_title=Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall product_id= Above: Krisztián Cser

Photo credit: Péter Herman
Posted by claire_s at 8:21 AM

May 22, 2017

Elizabeth Llewellyn: Investec Opera Holland Park stages Puccini's La Rondine

‘There is a wonderful sense of style in her delivery, which sees her stand as a goddess, eternally elegant of bearing’, wrote one commentator. She returned to OHP the following year for more Mozart, performing Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, a role which found her ‘in her element’ and forming a partnership with Julia Riley’s Dorabella which resulted ‘in a vocal blend of the utmost sweetness and beauty’ (Classical Source).

The intervening years have seen Llewellyn blossom and develop largely in European houses and she has been a fairly infrequent performer in the UK. So, it is with delight and great anticipation that we look forward to her return to Investec Opera Holland Park, to sing the role of Madga - the society-girl as free and flighty as a ‘swallow’, who falls in love with Ruggero but sacrifices her own happiness to save him ruin - in Puccini’s La Rondine.

I ask Llewellyn what ‘tempted’ her back to these shores and without a doubt the opportunity to perform the title role in one of the outliers in Puccini’s canon, but one which has become increasingly popular in recent years, was a compelling draw. Her operatic debut was in 2010 as Mimì in Jonathan Miller’s La bohème at ENO (in which I admired her ‘warm, generous’ soprano), and since then her voice has gained in weight and depth allowing her to take on the title role in Suor Angelica - ‘a sensational debut in the title role … [her] voice has a beguiling combination of duskiness and velvety warmth. ’ - and Giorgetta (Il tabarro) at Royal Danish Opera in 2015. She followed this with her first Tosca at Theater Magdeburg last year singing with members of what MDR Radio described as ‘a downright dream-cast’: ‘in the first place to mention is the English soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn who sings and plays a glowing, passionate Diva.’

Llewellyn describes herself as a lyric spinto and says that the role of Magda feels absolutely right for her voice at this time. La rondine is not ‘typical’ Puccini, though; after all, it’s a ‘comedy’ - presumably because no-one dies, jokes Llewellyn - though the lack of tragedy might seem to remove Puccini’s defining motif. But, there’s no lack of heart-wrenching and soul-wringing in La rondine; and it’s this reaching for emotional extremities which are at once both larger-than-life and yet so familiar to us all that Llewellyn seems to find so powerfully absorbing in Puccini.

La rondine has its share of tear-jerking moments but there’s plenty of comedy too, especially in the first two acts: it’s a sort of cross between La traviata (the jaded courtesan who finds and loses true love) and La bohème (bohemians in bustling bars), with a splash of Fledermaus (charming waltzes and even a fox-trot) thrown in. For, despite having vowed to his friend and agent, Angelo Eisner, that ‘an operetta is something I will never do’, in 1914 Puccini signed a contract with the Carltheater in Vienna to do just that. However, Llewellyn laughs that, having completed the first two acts, the composer seems to have decided enough was enough, and Act 3 (which Puccini revised twice) takes us to more familiar Puccinian terrain - prompting Llewellyn and Matteo Lippi, who sings Magda’s beloved Ruggero, to ‘breathe a sigh of relief’!

I ask Llewellyn what is distinctive about rehearsing and performing at OHP, and she is in no doubt that the fact that those responsible for the ‘decision-making’ are closely involved with the rehearsal process is a huge benefit to the singers, and helps to create a ‘family atmosphere’ in which old hands, new faces and returnees are equally welcomed and comfortable.

Llewellyn clearly enjoys being given freedom to explore and experiment. We discuss her roles for ENO - where she participated in the Opera Works training programme - and she speaks eagerly of her appearance as Micaëla in Calixto Bieito’s Carmen in 2012. In reviewing, this performance I remarked that, ‘This Micaëla is no innocent; in Act 1, she professes to bring a greeting from José’s mother, but bourgeois sentiment is manifestly and unashamedly discarded when, rather than offering a demure peck on the cheek, she grabs her José in a passionate embrace.’ Llewellyn explains that Bieito was adamant that she should play Micaëla not as a prepubescent ingénue but as a ‘real woman’ - no one would travel that far if they were not driven by, and determined to satisfy, their own desires - and she welcomed this interpretation, and the fact that she did not have to pretend to be a sixteen-year-old!

After ENO, opportunities in Europe beckoned, including her first Wagner (Elsa, Lohengrin) for Theatre Magdeburg, and Elvira (Don Giovanni) for Bergen National Opera. Alongside these emotionally and vocally weighty roles were lighter diversions, such as The Merry Widow for Cape Town Opera, which will surely stand her in good stead as she interprets Magda’s capriciousness.

And, Llewellyn hasn’t been entirely absent from British shores. Her performance as Amelia in English Touring Opera’s 2013 Simon Boccanegra was described by the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen as the element of the performance that ‘truly comes alive’: ‘Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Amelia shines brightly: as well as negotiating one of Verdi’s trickiest arias with elegant aplomb and crowning the wonderful Council Chamber ensemble with glory, she also makes the girl’s hopes and fears vivid, suggesting that innocent womanhood can point the way out of the mess that men have made of the world.’ No wonder her performance saw her nominated for ‘Singer of the Year’ in OpernWelt magazine that year.

There have been more unusual ventures too, such as last year’s The Iris Murder with the Hebrides Ensemble, a new chamber opera by Alasdair Nicolson and librettist John Gallas which was commissioned to mark the Hebrides Ensemble’s 25th birthday. Though she is not a regular performer of contemporary music, Llewellyn enormously valued being about to work with one of the foremost chamber music collectives in the UK which, under its artistic director and co-founder, cellist and conductor William Conway, has placed contemporary music at the heart of its repertoire.

Llewellyn is obviously an intelligent musician - thoughtful and discerning - and I ask her what led her to a career as a singer. Her Jamaican parents both enjoyed choral singing, but it was when her elder sister abandoned her piano lessons and the piano at home languished in silence, that Llewellyn’s appetite was stimulated. An accomplished pianist, she has a strong sense of the structural and harmonic architecture of the operas that she performs, which must sharpen her musico-dramatic judgment and acumen. She remarks that, in rehearsal, she always needs a musical context to fully inhabit the role: it’s no good being told ‘here’s your note’, she needs to know where that note has come from and where it’s going.

There is a quiet determination about Llewellyn. Her career has been one of steady growth and development, rather than stellar ascendancy, but she’s reaching the stage where she can take her time to choose the roles that are right for her, and she’s not without ambition. She’d love to singAida and some Strauss, possibly Rosenkavalier or Arabella, and maybe some more Wagner will beckon.

Before that, this autumn she returns to Copenhagen for more Puccini (Madame Butterfly), and 2018 will see Llewellyn make her US debut at Seattle Opera, singing Bess in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a role she seems surprised but delighted to have bagged.

First though, it is Puccini’s sophisticated but compromised Magda whom Llewellyn will bring to life. Puccini may have struggled with the work, calling it a ‘pig of an opera’, but the ephemerality of Magda’s love - which is destroyed from without by bourgeois morality and within by Magda’s indulgent sensuousness - will surely be made poignantly tangible by Llewellyn’s elegiac lyricism.

Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn opens the Investec Opera Holland Park 2017 season as Magda in La rondine , 1-23 June.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Investec Holland Park 2017 product=yes product_title=Investec Holland Park 2017 product_by=An interview with Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Elizabeth Llewellyn as Fiordiligi Così fan tutte, 2012

Photo credit: Fritz Curzon
Posted by claire_s at 11:09 AM

Sukanya: Ravi Shankar's posthumous opera

Will we add Anoushka Shankar/David Murphy to the Trivial Pursuit card-pack in future years? For they have guided and shaped Ravi Shankar’s last musical thoughts and sketches to fruition: the result being the opera, Sukanya, which has been performed on its premiere-tour in Leicester, Salford, Birmingham and finally here at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

When sitar-player and musical guru Shankar died in 2012 at the age of 92, he left behind sketches of an opera. A coincidental meeting of the personal and mythological had triggered the eighty-year-old musician’s operatic imagination. He discovered that his third wife, Sukanya Rajan (the mother of his daughter Anoushka Shankar, a renowned sitar-player in her own right) shared her name with a character in one his favourite tales from the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, which recounts the story of a young woman who accidentally blinds an old sage, Chyavana, with whom she then falls in love and marries, and to whom she stays faithful despite the advances of two envious, roguish demi-gods. These Aswini Twins struggle to understand how a decrepit mortal can appeal to such youth and beauty. They put Sukanya to a test which she passes, and which proves redeeming.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0236 ALOK KUMAR AS CHYAVANA (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Alok Kumar (Chyavana). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Shankar’s sketches have been assembled and posthumously fleshed out by Anoushka Shankar and composer-conductor David Murphy. One can see that autobiographical resonances may have drawn Shankar to this tale but this staging of the work is anything but intimate. Director Suba Das’s sweeping, triple-staircase design raises and brings to the fore the soloists, dancers and Indian musicians, who make for a feast of colour against the black-clad BBC Singers ranged on the side-stairs and the London Philharmonic Orchestra nestled on the left and right of the stage below.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0100 RUKMINI VIJAYAKUMAR (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Rukmini Vijayakumar. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Visually, the collaborative outcome is a veritable feast. 59 Productions, led by Akhila Krishnan, and choreographer Aakash Odedra ensure that light, colour, movement - by turns sensuous and subdued - stimulate and provoke our sensual appetites. The kaleidoscopic diversity of the Indian sub-continent is conjured in all its mystery: from softly lit, pastel landscapes of rose pink and dusky grey, to jungles of emerald green and sun-drenched ochre plains whose colours blaze and dazzle. Digital animations seductively transport us from land to sky to sea, from the historic Mahābhārata to the present day.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0434 SUKANYA PRODUCTION IMAGE (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The performance was described as ‘semi-staged’ but with so many bodies on stage the responsibility for conveying the progression of narrative mood was largely born by the silk-draped, be-jewelled dancers whose captivating whirls and leaps were astonishingly athletic, and whose elaborate hand and facial gestures were enchantingly expressive. The combination of classical Indian movement motifs and the evocative timbres conjured by the five Indian musicians (M. Balachandar, Rajkumar Misra, Parimal Sadaphal, Ashwani Shankar and Pirashanna Thevarajah) was by turns magical and invigorating. The opening sitar improvisation, penetrating the semi-darkness, immediately erased the present time and place; there was some remarkable rhythmic explosiveness from the tabla - enhanced by konnokol (percussive vocal singing), while the shehnai oboe injected an elegiac wistfulness.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0272 MICHEL DE SOUZA AND NJABULO MADLALA AS ASWINI TWINS (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Michel de Souza and Njabulo Madlala (Aswini Twins). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The playing of the LPO was superb and David Murphy calmly and clearly held the large forces together. I was less convinced by the score itself though; and, it was difficult to know where Shankar ended and Murphy began. Some of the well-crafted orchestrations were effectively atmospheric and the familiar classical gestures and styles moved suavely along; but, West and East were placed side-by-side rather than integrated, and while the Indian elements seemed pungent and zestful, the Western fabric onto which the former were etched were harmonically and temporally repetitive. I appreciate that Murphy has striven to respect the conventions of raga in which improvisation on a set of given notes creates atmosphere and meaning through emphasis and articulation. But, the result was frequently somewhat banal minimalist mood-painting, occasionally enlivened by folk-inflections - at times, I was put in mind of Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano and of Enya’s multi-vocal fusion of Irish folk music and Rachmaninov-like Romantic rapture.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0723 KEEL WATSON AS KING SHARYAATI (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Keel Watson (King Sharyaati). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

More problematic still is Amit Chaudhuri’s libretto. I struggled to find the professed allusions to ‘Shakespeare, Tagore, T.S. Eliot and beyond’ amid its uncomfortable mix of poetic self-awareness and prosaic mundanity. It wasn’t helped by some awkward text-setting and unnatural verbal rhythms, though there were moments were word and music came together to create poignancy and honesty - as when Chyavana explains the mysteries of raga to Sukanya.

Fortunately, the cast offered strong vocal performances which pushed some of my misgivings temporarily aside. Bass-baritone Keel Watson was imposing and resonant as King Sharyaati while Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza, as the unscrupulous Aswini Twins, provided some much-needed mischief and lightness. Tenor Alok Kumar was convincing as Chyavana but it was soprano Susanna Hurrell who shone most brightly, her soaring lines glowing and warm, the pure tone blending beguiling with the Indian musical elements.

cBC20170510_SUKANYA_0661 SUSANNA HURRELL AS SUKANYA (C) ROH. PHOTO BY BILL COOPER.jpg Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Sukanya has had a long gestation: Shankar’s earliest ideas for the work date from the mid-1990s and excerpts were presented at the Royal Opera House with the London Philharmonic Orchestra - with whom Shankar enjoyed a long relationship - in 2014. This premiere tour has taken the opera from The Curve in Leicester, to Symphony Hall Birmingham, to the Lowry in Sheffield, finally arriving at the Royal Festival Hall. The many musicians, artists and administrators who have collaborated to bring Sukanya to the stage are to be greatly credited and thanked.

In his work with the LPO - who followed the first European performance of Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No.2 in 1982 with the world premiere of his Symphony in 2010 - and in his historic collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, Shankar never aimed for ‘fusion’. Indeed, the recording that he made with Menuhin is entitled ‘West Meets East’: Shankar aimed for interplay not amalgamation, and it was the conversation between idioms which was so spellbinding.

But, opera implies ‘synthesis’ and in Sukanya I did not feel that text and tone came together in expressive union. The layering of different aural and visual worlds was exciting, the result a vibrant, shifting, often mesmerising, mosaic. But, at the end my senses felt paradoxically over-stimulated and unsatisfied: it was hard to determine whence ‘meaning’ lay. This performance at the RFH was certainly a ‘spectacle’; I’m not so sure it was an opera.

Claire Seymour

Princess Sukanya - Susanna Hurrell, Chyavana - Alok Kuma, King Sharyaati - Keel Watson, Aswini Twins - Njabulo Madlala & Michel de Souza, Sukanya’s friend - Eleanor Minney; Director - Suba Das, Conductor/Arranger - David Murphy, Design - 59 Productions, Choreographer - Aakash Odedra, Lighting Designer - Matt Haskins, Aakash Odedra Dance Company, BBC Singers, London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London; Friday 19th May 2017.

image= image_description=Sukanya at the Royal Festival Hall product=yes product_title=Sukanya at the Royal Festival Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Sukanya

Photo credit: Bill Cooper
Posted by claire_s at 5:10 AM

May 21, 2017

Cavalli's Hipermestra at Glyndebourne

Blood on white sheets usually denotes deflowered brides but in Giovanni Andrea Moniglia’s libretto, derived from Aeschylus’s Danaid trilogy, it’s a symbol of decapitated husbands. This libretto has many streams of tears and red rivers of blood.

Pre-curtain-up the nuptial signs seemed favourable. Just as Pippa Middleton was getting hitched to a moneyed financier in Berkshire so, amid the rolling Sussex Downs, 50 white-frocked brides were marrying 50 sheikhs, resplendent in red keffiyehs and designer shades, the couples parading their finery in the gardens of Glyndebourne. But, once inside the House, the front curtain confirmed that these were the soon-to-be-slaughtered betrotheds of Danao’s daughters.

Cavalli’s grandiose three-act festa teatrale is an example of a pan-European dramma regio musicale which, like Cavalli’s and Bissari’s Bradamante - which was performed at the royal palace in Milan in 1658 - celebrated the birth of Prince Philip Prosper, the Spanish Infanta. Hipermestra had in fact been completed four years before its June 1658 premiere; it had originally been commissioned to celebrate the birthday of the Grand Duchess Vittoria Della Rovere, wife of Ferdinand II de’Medici, in 1654, but the re-design of the Florentine Pergola theatre, together with organisation and financial difficulties - and the threat of plague - led to it being postponed and its dedicatee changed.

The opera conforms to what Ellen Rosand (in Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice) describes as the ‘Faustini formula’ - after librettist Giovanni Faustini (1615-51): it narrates the history of ‘two pairs of lovers, surrounded by a variety comic characters, whose adventures involved separation and eventual reunion’.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-2493.jpgHipermestra (Emőke Baráth). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

King Danao, chased from Libya by the 50 sons of his brother, Egitto, has fled to safety in Argos, of which he later becomes King. Informed by an oracle that he will lose his life at the hands of one of his nephews, he commands his own 50 daughters to wed their cousins and kill his would-be assassins in their marital beds. However, Danao’s eldest daughter, Hipermestra, has fallen in love with Linceo and, revealing the threat to his life, helps him escape; her betrayal leads to her imprisonment. Linceo returns with a vast army to free his wife and destroy Danao, but jealous desire - in the form of Arbante who covets Hipermestra and denies his own wife, Elisa - intervenes: false accusations of infidelity and apocalyptic carnage ensue. Believing Hipermestra to be faithless and dead, Linceo seeks solace with Elisa, but saved from self-sacrifice by a magical bird who scoops her up as she falls from a tower, Hipermestra is ultimately reunited with Linceo.

No expense was spared for the first performances of this opera. The sets were by Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1689) and the detailed drawings of Stefano della Bella’s costume sketches (see the British Museum online ), which specify particular fabrics, colours, embroidered lace and jewels, testify to the care lavished.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-47.jpg Hipermestra (Emőke Baráth). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Stuart Nunn’s design and Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting are similarly rich and detailed. Multiple locations in Acts 1 and 2 are framed within the angled black-gold colonnades and porticos of Danao’s Arabian palace. East mingles with West, and past with present, much like any modern Middle Eastern state, I guess. Natty cerise outfits are shrouded in black hijabs; underneath sombre thwabs, business suits and glinting tie-pins attest to wealth and power. Director Graham Vick and his design team do not strive for direct parallels with modern Arab states or Caliphates. But, the links between oil-rich dynasties and oppressive regimes is clear: the women, even when permitted to momentarily voice ideals, beliefs, hopes, and to express desires, are quickly wrapped up in veils and abayas.

Act 1 opens in Danao’s garden, as the King oversees a circular parade of nuptial couples through a white and pink hoop of balloons: it’s an Alice in Wonderland illusion, all red roses and sparkling gold fairy-lights; the multi-tiered wedding-cake topped with sugar-icing Byzantine domes.

Nunn economically recreates the characterless luxury of a 5-star hotel bedroom, the rhythmically ‘in tune’ laundry where the tumble driers spin away bloodshed, and the stark sand-dunes where the pumping oil-rigs figuratively spew up black-slimed money. The desert garage where Danao Oil provides a petrol oasis - complete with Coca-Cola vending machine - is gate-crashed by Linceo’s armoured war truck, which spectacularly catches fire in Act 2. While the design is detailed, Vick’s direction is fairly laissez-faire: there’s a lot of lamenting and hand/head-wringing, prowling and machine-gun swinging, but the ‘arias’ themselves - such as they exist: Cavalli’s score is dominated by fluid arioso in which recitative and aria are barely distinguishable - are fairly inert, enlivened principally by quirky design features.

One challenge for the modern director is Cavalli’s blend of broad comedy and tragedy, a clash of sensibilities which jarred with contemporary audiences - at least those prone to aesthetic philosophising. In 1700, Giovanni Crescimbeni, spokesperson for the Accademia ’d’Arcadia, complained of Cicognini’s Giasone that, ‘with unparalleled monstrosity’, it mixed kings and heroes with buffoons and servants, resulting in a ‘hodgepodge of characters that caused the utter ruin of the poetic rules’ (cited in Readying Cavalli's Operas for the Stage, Rosand). Such complaints about the amalgam of tragic elements with farce led to the reforms associated with the poet Metastasio, which resulted in the ‘rules’ of opera seria.

Vick just about controls the schizophrenic lurching between farce and tragedy. The threat of imbalance is most forcefully represented by Hipermestra’s nurse, Berenice - played exuberantly by a bearded Mark Wilde. A clear descendant of Monteverdi’s Iro (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) and the wily old nurses of the commedia dell’arte, Wilde’s Berenice is a sly, pragmatic opportunist who forms a comic foil to the lovers’ idealism, jealousy and yearning; urging Elisa and Hipermestra to grab sexual fulfilment when it is on offer, Berenice disparages fidelity and steadfastness in favour of fickle self-gratification.

With more than a dash of Les Dawson’s handbag-swinging dames, Wilde’s Berenice confirms Jane Glover’s assertion (in her 1978 monograph on Cavalli) that the commedia-derived characters are more strongly characterised musically than their ‘serious’ mistresses and masters. And, Wilde uses his pliant tenor to add some realism: perhaps Hipermestra would be better advised to accept the handsome general Arbante’s marriage proposal than continue to lament the warring Linceo’s absence.

Wilde is boisterous and raucous, shoving musicians aside and launching himself amid the instrumentalists for a comic romp bewailing that ‘youth is wasted on the young’: after filching William Christie’s skull-cap and fondling his pate, Wilde scribbled down his mobile number and thrust it into the hands of a front-row audience member, signalling that he’d be expecting a call …

The 10-player ensemble, drawn from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, may be one of the smallest groups to accompany an opera at Glyndebourne, but they are in no way marginal to the action. Just as the singers prowl in their midst, they take to the stage, emphasising the fable-like quality of the opera. Nowhere is this fluidity more powerfully conveyed than at the start of Act 3 when, amid the ruins of Argos, a lone fiddler strikes up a musical call-to-arms: tentatively, the other musicians appeared, stepping over the blood-splattered bed, fractured furniture and collapsed columns to reassume their positions at the front of the stage. Anarchy is redeemed by culture, to misrepresent Matthew Arnold.

In the title role, Emőke Baráth seemed a little tentative initially, but her tone brightened and her voice relaxed. By the time we reached her Act 3 suicidal soliloquy she had mastered the move which Cavalli enacts in each lament from fragmented chromatic phrasing to more formal ‘aria’. Atop the broken walls of Argos, Baráth projected strongly. When she leapt to her ‘doom’, it was with startling alacrity that Juno’s peacock spooned up the falling suicide and bore her aloft to the lieto fine.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-1759.jpgLinceo (Raffaele Pe) and Arbante (Benjamin Hulett). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

At times I had difficulty reconciling the different vocal registers and colours with dramatic contexts. Raffaele Pe’s countertenor danced with light-weight frivolity when he and Hipermestra crawled out from beneath the frosted wedding cake; as he waited, with eager, self-preening lust, to consummate the marriage - teased for his haste - tenderness seemed lacking. And, in Act 3 Pe increasingly sounded hysterical rather than driven by hate-fuelled machismo: as the tessitura rose his voice sometimes lost strength and focus, and strayed sharp. But, these comments present an unduly negative portrait: overall, Pe captured the fervency and unpredictability which arises when devotion is undermined by disloyalty.

I admired Renato Dolcini’s Danao: a blend of Leontes and Lear, he is duped by oracle, demands duty from his daughter, and when defied disowns and punishes her - with scourges, chains and irons. Discovering that he has slaughtered the innocents while the guilty roam free, Dolcini was not afraid to give voice to growls and groans of self-castigation; finding that his daughter has betrayed him, he spat out plosive consonants of anger. Later, Dolcini conveyed the pathos of loss: no longer is he a father just a King, and soon he is not even that - like Lear, Danao finds his patriarchal and regal power dissolved, and with the advance of Linceo’s army anticipates ignominy and defeat.

Benjamin Hulett’s Arbante burns with Iago-like duplicity: the tenderness of his voice belies Arbante’s villainy. But, while Iago wants to destroy others, and what they covet, simply because they have a desire that he cannot recognise, in Act 3 Hullet reveals Arbante’s self-awareness with a lovely soft grain which he is not afraid to crack and strain when conveying recognition of his unredeemable evil. Ana Quintans is superb as Elisa, the glint to her soprano equal to the flash of Hipermestra’s redundant, disused knife.

Hipermestra-Glyndebourne-2645.jpgHipermestra (Emőke Baráth), Linceo (Raffaele Pe), Elisa (Ana Quintans) and Arbante (Benjamin Hulett). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

The last contemporary performance of Hipermestra took place in 1680 in Pisa in a commercial theatre, 8 years after Cavalli’s death, and the first modern performance since the 17th century took place in Utrecht, in August 2006, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the renowned Early Music Festival. Glyndebourne have done Cavalli and us all a service in giving us another chance to hear this detailed, contradictory work.

In the closing stages, one character sings - ‘I’m not sure if this love is wise or if it’s insane,/The more I think about it the less I understand.’ One might say the same about Cavalli’s opera itself. But, Glyndebourne, Vick, Nunn and Christie embrace the anarchy and in so doing tell us a lot about ourselves.

Claire Seymour

Francesco Cavalli: Hipermestra

Linceo - Raffaele Pe, Hipermestra - Emőke Baráth, Arbante - Benjamin Hulett, Elisa - Ana Quintans, Berenice - Mark Wilde, Danao - Renato Dolcini, Vafrino - Anthony Gregory, Arsace - David Webb, Alindo/Delmiro - Alessandro Fisher; Director - Graham Vick, Conductor - William Christie, Designer - Stuart Nunn, Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (leader, Kati Debretzeni).

Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Saturday 20th May 2017.

image= image_description=Hipermestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera product=yes product_title=Hipermestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera product_id= Above: Hipermestra (Emőke Baráth) and Elisa (Ana Quintans)

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Posted by claire_s at 10:27 AM

Dougie Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera: in conversation

On the day we meet, Boyd is dashing between rehearsals for two of this year’s productions: Semele, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, Artistic Director of Norwegian National Opera, and conducted by Jonathan Cohen who is making his Garsington Opera debut; and, John Cox’s production of Le nozze di Figaro which Boyd himself conducts.

Conversation quickly turns to Figaro, which Boyd describes as a ‘re-creation’ rather than a revival of Cox’s elegant, eighteenth-century production, first seen in 2005. It was time for Garsington to stage Figaro again, he says, but the more a ‘new’ version was contemplated, the more it seemed foolish to get rid of an ‘old’ staging, one which was and is much-loved. Boyd jokes that Garsington is being ‘cutting-edge’ in setting the work ‘in period’, when the trend is for updating and relocating - re-orientations which, if not carefully considered and delivered, can destroy the opera’s astonishing integrity of the union of music and drama. Cox’s production was last seen during the Festival’s final season at Garsington Manor in 2010 - Boyd conducted - and the wider stage and more professional technical facilities at Wormsley have necessitated alterations to the sets (their modular, reversible design has presumably proven fortuitously flexible), props and direction.

Figaro sees the return to Garsington of Joshua Bloom (Leporello, Don Giovanni, 2012) as Figaro and Jennifer France (Marzelline, Fidelio, 2014) as Susanna, with the baritone Duncan Rock and Canadian soprano Kirsten MacKinnon making their Garsington debuts as the Count and Countess. Glancing at this season’s cast lists and photographs on the rehearsal room wall, I remark that the quality and depth of Garsington’s casts and artistic teams seems to grow year on year; Boyd agrees that this artistic strength has developed in tandem with the increasing international recognition and repute of the Festival.

2017 also represents an adventurous increase in the number of operas and performances given. Previously the season would comprise three main operas; this year, four works will be staged and over thirty performances given. Boyd admits that such expansion comes with some risk, but is heartened by the advanced tickets tales, with many performances sold out and only limited availability remaining.

Alongside Semele and Figaro, Michael Boyd and Tom Piper (director and designer of last year’s acclaimed production of Eugene Onegin) re-unite for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, with Jac van Steen (Intermezzo, 2015) conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in its Garsington debut. Audiences also have the opportunity to enjoy Martin Duncan’s exuberant 2011 production of Il turco in Italia, conducted by Rossini expert David Parry.

Then, in late July, there will be three performances of Silver Birch, a new commission from Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by Jessica Duchen which draws upon Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and the testimony of a British soldier who served recently in Iraq to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Silver Birch, directed by Karen Gillingham, Creative Director of Garsington’s Learning and Participation programme and conducted by Boyd himself will bring together professional singers - those with sufficient talent to perform on the main Garsington stage, Boyd insists - and around 180 members of the local community, selected from local schools and organisations following auditions. Silver Birch follows 2013’s Road Rage by Richard Stilgoe and Orlando Gough, and clearly this sort of community celebration of music, poetry and dance will be an on-going part of Garsington’s commitment to increased participation and shared cultural experience. Indeed, Boyd is fervent in his belief in the Garsington ‘ethos’: that everyone should be welcome, and made to feel welcome, at Garsington, from the moment they enter the gates of the car park to the moment that they depart.

Boyd hopes that Silver Birch will help to build new audiences for the future and take opera to those for whom it is usually out of reach. Similarly, Garsington’s Opera for All series of screenings (a three-year partnership with the charitable trust Magna Vitae and the Coastal Communities Alliance, supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund) will take opera - via free public screenings of live performances of Semele - to coastal communities in Thanet, Grimsby, Skegness and Somerset, building on existing participation schemes. As one who survived adolescence in one such cultural desert, my operatic thirst slaked only - but gloriously so - by the energy and invention of Kent Opera - I can testify to the veracity of Boyd’s belief that such initiatives can ‘change lives’. The benefits are at least threefold, he argues: participation is increased; new audiences are stimulated; and Garsington gains further reach through such streaming. I ask if there are plans afoot for further cinema streaming, such as we have become accustomed to by the Met, the NT, Glyndebourne and others, and Boyd replies that its certainly something under consideration.

Last year’s Opera For All audiences enjoyed Michael Boyd’s Eugene Onegin and the venture forged further pathways when Garsington understudies gave a performance to an audience of local school students conducted by Boyd’s assistant conductor Jack Ridley; the production was then regularly screened on BBC Arts.

New collaborations are obviously an important part of Boyd’s vision for Garsington and recent years have seen exciting bonds formed with other artistic companies. In 2015, Boyd conducted Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to accompany a performance of the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company, while last year saw a cast of over 50 dancers from Ballet Rambert and the Rambert School join 70 musicians on the Garsington stage for a grand scale performance of Haydn’s The Creation. The outcomes of such endeavours cannot be foreseen, but they offer new artistic approaches and fresh ideas, though Boyd notes that they cannot be ‘forced’ and must grow organically.

Boyd also hopes that Garsington’s productions will travel more widely in future. In 2014 Fidelio travelled to the concert hall of the Philharmonie de Paris for a semi-staged concert performance in November 2016, and on 27 June this season’s Figaro will be presented in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris. Co-productions may become a more regular feature at Garsington too. Next year, Boyd will conduct his first Strauss opera, Capriccio, directed by Tim Albery - a co-production with Santa Fe Opera.

The 2018 season will open with Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Christian Curnyn and directed by Netia Jones, both of whom will be making their Garsington debuts. And, the partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra will continue when the orchestra returns for Bruno Ravella’s production of Falstaff under the baton of Richard Farnes. Garsington will present the world premiere of The Skating Rink by British composer David Sawer with a libretto - based on the short novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño - by award-winning playwright Rory Mullarkey. Commissioning and performing new work is obviously important to Boyd - to show that opera is not a ‘dead art form’ - and, given the recent successes of several new operas by British composers, such as Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Adès’ The Exterminating Angel, such work surely offers the opportunity to further raise Garsington’s international profile and impact.

When I ask Boyd about future programming plans, he is tight-lipped, beyond explaining the need to continue striking the right balance each season between new and old, familiar and unknown (though he doesn’t wish Garsington to focus unduly on ‘niche rarities’), operas with much work for the chorus and those without. But, he will divulge that he hopes that Capriccio is followed by more Strauss - perhaps Rosenkavalier ­­- and that he’d like to see Garsington staging more Janáček, following the acclaimed 2014 production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Boyd himself has had, and continues to have, a truly international career. He was a founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and principal oboe for 21 years, before taking up his first major conducting post as Music Director of the Manchester Camerata - alongside which he was a frequent visitor to the United States, as Artistic Partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota for 6 years and Principal Guest Conductor of the Colorado Symphony. He’s retained his ties with Europe, too, spending 7 years as Music Director with Musikkollegium Winterthur, and since September 2015 has been Music Director of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris.

Those early years at the COE have planted deep-rooted musical values, and he often speaks of the ‘COE spirit’. When I ask him what he means by this, Boyd explains: members shared the belief that playing with the orchestra was not a job it was a privilege; that one played every performance as it if was one’s last; and that this commitment and passion was equalled by the search for musical excellence.

As Boyd races back to the rehearsal studio, I cannot imagine him approaching any musical endeavour or challenge in any other way.

Garsington Opera runs from 1 June - 30 July.

Claire Seymour

image= product=yes product_title=Garsington Opera product_id= Above: Dougie Boyd (Artistic Director, Garsington Opera)
Posted by claire_s at 1:33 AM

May 20, 2017

I Fagiolini's Orfeo: London Festival of Baroque Music

Orfeo, first performed in 1607 at the Gonzaga court in Mantua is, in formal and stylistic terms, derived from earlier models: the madrigal, balletta, the intermedi, the pastoral tradition. But, it is also one of the boldest experiments: a favola in musica (a play in music) lasting 90 minutes, its units bound together by repeating ritornelli - an extraordinary conception in its day.

Robert Hollingworth directed a performance which urged us to remember what a thrilling occasion the first performance of Orfeo - in the Sala Nuova, 30 metres long and 7 metres wide, of the Gonzagas’ ducal palace in Mantua - must have been. But, his players and singers also made us aware of the musical roots of the opera, commencing the performance with a madrigal, a reminder of the aesthetics of the seconda prattica style - with its emphasis on melody over harmony, and the union of word and tone - from which opera sprung.

At first, I wondered at the appropriateness of adding a ‘preface’ to the ceremonial toccata with which the opera begins, but as the performance continued I appreciated the way the opening madrigal served to reinforce the lack of stylistic division between genres, as elements of the madrigal idiom appeared in the declamatory arioso, in the recitative and in the more discrete formal dances and songs. The latter, in which the voices came together in ensemble or chorus, were vivid portraits of joy and despair: the Act 1 balletta ‘Lasciate i monti’ skipped in pastoral sunshine, while the chorus of lamentation which closes Act 2 was weighted with despondent gloom.

The introductory toccata itself, a gloriously rich explosion of brass, immediately translated us to a world of courtly decorum and majesty. As the musicians took their seats - some in front of the stage, some behind and raised, replicating the placement which made the instrumentalists visible at the first performance - the singers processed in. Hollingworth, who had joined the madrigalists at the start, now took his position behind the organ, and it did not seem fanciful to envisage the hierarchically arranged horse-shoe configuration of the original audience, with the Duke elevated on a balustraded dais. The historical echoes must have been even more resonant when Tom Guthrie’s semi-staged production was first performed by these artists in 2015, in a ‘private’ performance for Martin Randall Travel in the scuola of San Giovanni Battista, Venice.

However, I’m not sure if simply having singers enter from the rear, or sing from the gallery, or assume a variety of positions on the platform really produces a performance which can be genuinely be described as ‘semi-staged’? I may be being unfair to Guthrie, though, for St John’s does not afford much opportunity for adventurous staging and the sight-lines are not good (so it wasn’t a good idea for La Musica to begin the Prologue seated on the floor, removed from view).

Monteverdi employs a large orchestra and the playing of I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble was stylish and incredibly accomplished. Whether it was the piquant descant recorders colouring the repeating Act 1 balletta with squeals of delight; the rhapsodic theorbo of Eligio Quinteiro underscoring the emotions of the text; the fleet, feathery decorative echoes of violinists Bojan Čičič and Jorge Jimenez in Orfeo’s impassioned plea ‘Possente spirto’; or the blazing richness of the cornetts allied with the warm blend of sackbuts singing in consort, the instrumental playing was an integral element in the drama - commenting, reflecting, building tension, celebrating.

In the title role, Matthew Long wonderfully illustrated the rhetorical eloquence of Monteverdi’s ‘musical speech’. Initially I wondered if his tenor would acquire sufficient range of colour to convey the music’s emotional diversity, but in ‘Possente spirto’ he probed every word for nuance and shade, showing sensitive appreciation for the mannerist aesthetic in which the style takes the text as the point of departure. Long treated the declamatory rhythms with just the right touch of flexibility, the slightest looseness deepening the expressive gestures of the vocal melody. The way in which Long gradually opened Orfeo’s heart to the listener, creating ever more heart-tugging empathy, was very impressive. Rachel Ambrose-Evans sang with a clear, attractive tone, but her Euridice was less strongly defined dramatically.

I noted the vivacity of baritone Greg Skidmore’s response to situation and text when reviewing a recent concert by Ex Cathedra , and here, once again, Skidmore had considerable stage presence, distinguishing effectively between the Infernal Spirit and the Shepherd. Christopher Adams’ Carone plumbed cavernous depths complemented by the dark-toned trombones, while Charles Gibbs was a regal Pluto, patently enjoying the affectionate attentions of Clare Wilkinson’s expressive, elegant Proserpina.

Hollingworth was intensely involved in all aspects of the musical drama, moving from the organ to join a madrigal or chorus, returning to the keyboard to supplement the musical mood with a percussive adornment. He epitomised the relaxed flow of the performance as a whole, further emphasising the astonishing formal synthesis of Monteverdi’s innovative and marvellous opera.

Claire Seymour

Monteverdi: Orfeo
I Fagiolini/The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble
Robert Hollingworth (organ & director)
Thomas Guthrie (stage director)

Orfeo - Matthew Long, Euridice - Rachel Ambrose-Evans, Messenger/Silvia - Ciara Hendrick, Ninfa/Proserpina - Clare Wilkinson, Speranza/Shepherd - William Purefoy, Apollo/Shepherd - Nicholas Hurndall Smith, Caronte - Christopher Adams, Plutone/Shepherd - Charles Gibbs, Shepherd/Infernal Spirit Greg Skidmore.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Thursday 18th May 2017.

image= image_description=I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square product=yes product_title= I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble at the St John’s Smith Square product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: I Fagiolini

Photo credit: Russell Gilmour
Posted by claire_s at 4:45 AM

May 18, 2017

The English Concert: a marvellous Ariodante at the Barbican Hall

Gone are the supernatural diversions and obfuscating sub-plots which complicate so many of Handel’s libretti. Here, Antonio Salvi, drawing upon Ariosto’s Orlando Jurioso, provides Handel with a blistering human drama of envy and evil, which hinges on the supposed infidelity of the Scottish Princess Ginevra who, loved by Polinesso, Duke of Albany, prefers the noble Ariodante.

Despite receiving only eleven performances during its first season in 1735, Ariodante has long been admired as one of Handel’s finest operas. The part of the hero Ariodante was written for Giovanni Carestini, who was renowned for his versatility, virtuosity and fully working three-octave range. Alice Coote - deputising in the European performances for the indisposed Joyce DiDonato who will resume the role for the American leg of the tour - matched Carestini’s fabled technique and sang with deep commitment: this Ariodante was an immensely sympathetic hero, and the emotional journey he experiences through the opera was laid bare.

In Act 1, Coote exuded regal confidence. Bold but dignified, Coote used her gloriously rich, bronzed mezzo to convey Ariodante’s serenity and certainty in ‘Quì d’amor’. As her lines floated freely, at times there was a rhapsodic quality to the tone, almost Mahlerian; but, later, when suspicion troubled her tranquillity, an urgency entered the strongly moulded arioso. She used the text brilliantly in her Act 2 aria, ‘Scherza infida’, communicating the bitterness, grief and devastation which spring from the imagined betrayal of her beloved Ginevra; lutenist William Carter wonderfully underscored Ariodante’s despair at the close. Having demonstrated incredible stamina in this long aria, Coote flew through the wide-ranging - literally and in terms of expressive breadth - and astoundingly virtuosic ‘Dopo notte’ in Act 3. She doesn’t make it look ‘easy’ - indeed, she sings with her whole body and almost deliberately seems to strive to convey the visceral intensity by making us notice the vocal and physical demands, further deepening our awe. Coote may have paired her stylish trousers with open-toed stilettos but, despite the flowing blond mane and the sensuousness of her mezzo, there was a convincing, and paradoxical, ‘masculinity’ about her anger. Or, perhaps it was just that gender seemed irrelevant in the face of such consuming despair and ecstasy.

Alice Coote.jpgAlice Coote as Ariodante. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Coote’s stunning vocalism held us transfixed but she was out-strutted by Sonia Prina’s dastardly Polinesso. Prina’s Iago-like persuasiveness and prowling were utterly compelling. Visually, the spikes, killer heels, tattoos and lace trousers over shorts were arresting, but the transgender attire was also entirely at one with the dramatic integrity and naturalness which Prina brought to the role. As she strode and slunk across the Barbican stage, she drew the eye, dominating the drama just as the scheming Polinesso coercively manipulates the naïve, Dalinda, toying with her affections so that she will carry out his ruse to make Ariodante believe that Ginevra is faithless.

Prina seemed less concerned with the actual sound produced than with the effect it could and would have - on Dalinda and the audience, equally. Some of the coloratura was less than clean and at the top there was an occasional harsh edge, but this mattered little, so thoughtful and dramatic was the phrasing - the rubato, the ornamentation, the dynamic variety. Prina allies rhetorical power with dramatic flexibility. Entirely off-score throughout the evening, she encouraged and supported her fellow cast members generously.

Christine Karg.jpgChristine Karg as Ginevra. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Christine Karg’s Ginevra was a cooler portrait of tender love and loyalty. In fact, despite her silky scarlet dress which stood out so strikingly amid the prevailing black, I felt Karg’s ‘ice maiden’ Ginevra would have benefited from greater musical contrasts. But technically she was flawless. Act 1’s ‘Vezze, lusinghe’ was poised and eloquent; Karg controlled the line expertly and her soprano had well-defined colour and a strong core. Ginevra’s quiet introspection was an asset, too, in ‘Il mio crudel martoro’; condemned as a whore by her father, the King of Scotland, Ginevra’s inner despair was palpable, immune to Dalinda’s consolatory solace. Karg may not have tapped the full emotional range that Handel offers, but this was a touching performance. And, her duets with Coote were affecting for the way that vocally and dramatically they seemed to draw the best from each other.

Mary Bevan, standing in at short notice for the indisposed Joélle Harvey, held her own impressively alongside the more experienced singers. Confident, characterful and with a nice range of colour, Bevan was a surprisingly spirited Dalinda. Her soprano was powerful in ‘Il primo ardor’, in which Dalinda deflects the smitten Lurcanio’s advances. Exulting in the reward promised her by Polinesso, at the bottom her voice acquired a mezzo-ish weight in ‘Se tanto piace al cor’. ‘Neghittosi or voi che fate?’ was a moving expression of regret and, reunited, Dalinda and David Portillo’s Lurcanio sang a beautiful final duet which was one of the highlights of the evening.

David Portillo.jpgDavid Portillo as Lurcanio. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Portillo had already impressed in Act 2’s revenge aria, ‘Il tuo sangue’, in which the tenor’s vocal athleticism served him well in passages of florid anger, where Carter again provided strongly accented support. Prior to that we had enjoyed Lurcanio’s warm profession of love, ‘Del mio sol vezzosi rai’, and admired Portillo’s lovely clean, even gentleness.

Matthew Brook played the King of Scotland as benign, cultivated patriarch, whose calm civility hides a deeper emotionalism which is distressingly released when he hears of his daughter’s supposed dishonour. A little more heft might have enhanced the regality, but the King’s disbelief was totally credibly and the pathos of his grief heart-rending. Bradley Smith sang the small, predominantly recitative, role of Odoardo with a sure sense of his character’s function in the drama.

English Concert.jpgAlice Coote, Harry Bicket, Christine Karg, Sonia Prina, Mary Bevan, David Portillo, Matthew Brook, Bradley Smith and The English Concert. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Bicket directed the small forces of The English Concert with economy and precision: the barest, swiftest flick of the wrist was all that was needed to bring about a change of colour or to usher a detail to the fore. The instrumental sound was fairly light, though capable of poignancy as well as brightness; it provided the singers with an airy support, and space to project.

This was a ‘concert performance’ but many of the cast dispensed with scores and stands, and the dramatic interaction was sustained and animated. Shakespeare’s tale of jealous delusion ends in tragedy, but in Handel’s opera covetousness and resentment are defeated by love. And, the performance was a veritable triumph.

Harry Bicket and the English Concert return to the Barbican Hall in March 2018 to perform Handel’s Rinaldo, with Iestyn Davies in the title role.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Ariodante (concert performance)
The English Concert: Harry Bicket, conductor

Ariodante - Alice Coote, Ginevra - Christiane Karg, Dalinda - Mary Bevan, Polinesso - Sonia Prina, Lurcanio - David Portillo, King of Scotland - Matthew Brook, Odoardo - Bradley Smith.

Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 16th May 2017.

image= image_description=The English Concert at the Barbican Hall product=yes product_title=The English Concert at the Barbican Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Sonia Prina and Mary Bevan

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Posted by claire_s at 3:43 AM

May 14, 2017

Riel Deal in Toronto

Mr. Somers’ challenging three act opera, set to a text by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jacques Languirand, charts the fascinating history of Louis David Riel. Now a national hero, Riel helped found the province of Manitoba, and he championed the plight of the Métis indigenous prairie people, seeking to preserve their culture and rights as their homelands came under increasing encroachment by the Canadian government. He led two resistance movements against the political sphere of the first post-Confederation Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald. Riel has attained the revered status of a folk hero.

This operatic treatment is no dusty, linear history lesson, far from it. The angular, pulsating, often jarring score mixes indigenous influences with classical music trends of its time, evoking the sonic world of Stockhausen, Boulez, Penderecki, Foss, and Xenakis. Although I came of age in that era and heard numerous such recordings, I never had the pleasure of experiencing compositions of this school in live performance. With Louis Riel, I made up for lost time.

LouisRiel-MC-0334.png(l-r) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché and Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel [Photo by Michael Cooper]

A brilliant aural palette called for a virtuoso orchestra and demanded extremely wide-ranging vocal accomplishments. This was a riveting, engrossing immersion into a model of its genre. Not to say that there aren’t some dramaturgical hiccups in the episodic, presentational structure. But sweeping all before it is a haunting blend of a capella melismatic arias; disorienting percussive effects; searing brass stings; scraping, then soaring strings; flighty woodwind licks; and flawless choral work (Sandra Horst, Chorus Master). Under the assured, inspired baton of Maestro Johannes Debus, this added up to a pretty spectacular evening of first tier, nay, virtuosic music making.

But if there are three key elements to the evening’s success, they are: Russell Braun, Russell Braun, Russell Braun. (Did I mention Russell Braun?) The Canadian baritone is at the top of his game, and commands the stage with a nonpareil traversal of the title role. Tour de force is too puny a phrase to describe the magnitude of Mr. Braun’s achievement. He tears into the punishing role with a De Niro-like intensity and draws on a rock-solid vocal technique that he daringly pushes to its very limit.

This was the sort of “personal best” triumph that, like its subject, merits legendary status; an “I-was-there” performance that I will cherish as a gold standard of operatic excellence for years to come. I am a long time Russell Braun fan, and all his familiar strengths were on ample display: the pointed lyricism, the easy top, the smooth legato, the vibrant tone, the supreme control, the intelligent musicianship. What I could not have anticipated was the reserve of firepower he had at his command, and the heart-stopping emotional commitment that he was able to invest in this towering role assumption. His disjointed, unhinged, anguished Mad Scene that closed Act One was gut-wrenching its impact. The composer often crafts fiendishly high lying phrases for Riel that verge on Sprechstimme shrieks, and Russell negotiated them all with raw power. There is simply no aspect of the complicated vocal line or the complex characterization that eluded him. Unforgettable. Bravissimo divo!

LouisRiel-MC-0898.png(l-r) Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Father André, Everett Morrison as Wandering Spirit and Keith Klassen as Father Moulin [Photo by Michael Cooper]

He was decidedly not alone in his success. Please read the large cast list below, and please know that each and every one of this prodigiously gifted ensemble of Canadian singers made their solo appearances into a true star turn, wondrously sung and fervently acted. Moreover, their efforts congealed into a brilliant, evenly matched musical ensemble that would be envy of any opera company.

It may be odious to single out any of these players, but baritone James Westman was first among equals with his snide, snarling, overbearing, blustering, duplicitous Sir John A. MacDonald (think Donald Trump with high notes). Mr. Westman’s powerful, secure baritone has an easy high extension, and as he effortlessly rode wave after wave of cresting orchestral sound, he seemed more like the world’s next great Heldentenor in making. While most of the arias are given to Riel, his wife Marguerite has an extended solo to open Act III. Singing in Cree, virtually unaccompanied as she cradled their baby, soprano Simone Osborne lavished creamy tone and negotiated seamless register shifts in one of the opera’s longest, most accessible passages. This alluring, poised vocalist surely has a bright future.

Jean-Philipe Fortier-Lazure displayed a ringing tenor as Cartier, and Peter Barrett showed off a burnished baritone as Colonel Garnet Wolseley. The two of them collaborated with Mr. Westman for a gripping, argumentative trio, all tumbling phrases and shifting tonalities. Allyson McHardy brought a dusky, well-schooled mezzo to Riel’s mother Julie, and his sister Sara was well served by Joanna Burt’s agreeable soprano. The two women were especially fine as they urged Riel not to execute Thomas Scott, whose strident non-PC slurs were passionately delivered by Michael Colvin. Mr. Colvin’s characterful singing was exceeded only by the conviction of his acting. Although a slight graininess could creep into his extreme upper register when pressured, veteran bass Alain Coulombe created a sympathetic, tortured Bishop Taché.

Peter Hinton’s inventive staging could hardly have been bettered, as he seized on the concept of ritualizing the story telling. There was much use of religious prayer circles and other symbolic formations, all highly stylized and visually apt. Mr. Hinton had a willing story-telling partner in set designer Michael Gianfrancesco. Mr. Gianfrencesco gave him a minimalist marvel of a playing space, backed by an amphitheater of benches upstage, that could separate, elevate, you name it, and were revealed or enclosed at will by stage width flying dividers. False proscenium towers right and left completed the look, all of it handsomely executed in blond wood.

LouisRiel-MC-0556.png(centre) Andrew Love as Dr. Schultz [Photo by Michael Cooper]

This simple design was then filled with all manner of carefully chosen pieces and effects including a roaring fire pit, falling snow, imposing desks, and lots and lots of chairs. The latter were inventively placed, sometimes up-ended, cradled as dead bodies, and even used as “stilts” for actors to tromp around the stage like menacing spiritual forces.

The success of Bonnie Beecher’s sumptuous lighting design cannot be over-praised. With such a sparse scenic realm, her beautifully crafted illumination was critical in delineating the shifting moods and locations. Of especial impact were the bands of color on the upstage cyclorama that were ravishing in well-calculated cross fades from red to azure to fuchsia and all shades in between.

The wide spectrum of Gillian Gallow’s costume design immeasurably helped identify the large cast of disparate characters, and made them readily identifiable to the audience in this sprawling narrative. Ms. Gallow’s skillful choices include garish tartan plaid suits for the Canadian officials. As the indigenous people are gradually absorbed into the general populace, they morph from the bright red garb that made them unique, to all black modern attire indistinguishable from that worn by the chorus. Santee Smith’s haunting ceremonial choreography was an important component in Mr. Hinton’s masterful directorial vision, with lithe Justin Many Fingers moving evocatively as the Buffalo Dancer.

Before I saw this piece I must confess, I did not know who Louis Riel was nor that, some years ago, Harry Somers composed a knotty, disturbing, soaring, compelling, illuminating, moving, unique piece of lyric theatre about a national hero who should have international recognition.

The rapt audience received the production with roaring enthusiasm, knowing they had just participated in an artistic adventure with a seldom-performed work that may not come along again. This profound production of Louis Riel may not send you out of the theatre with a tune in your ear, but it cannot help but have planted a new appreciation of a hero in your heart.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

The Activist: Cole Alvis; Folk Singer/Elzéar/Lagimodière/Court Clerk/Prison Guard: Jani Lauzon; William McDougal/Judge: Doug MacNaughton; British Soldier/Hudson’s Bay Scout/Father Moulin: Keith Klassen; Ambroise Lépine: Charles Sy; Thomas Scott: Michael Colvin; Joseph Delorme: Bruno Cormier; Janvier Ritchot: Jan Vaculik; Elzéar Goulet: Michael Downie; André Nault: Vanya Abrahams; Baptiste Lépine: Taras Chmil; Louis Riel: Russell Braun; Dr. Schultz: Andrew Love; Charles Mair: Thomas Glenn; O’Donaghue/a Fenian/B.B. Osler/a Prosecutor: Neil Craigshead; Bishop Taché: Alain Coulombe; Sir John A. MacDonald: James Westman; Donald Smith/Gen. Sir Frederick Middleton: Aaron Sheppard; Sir George-Étienne Cartier/Father André: Jean-Philipe Fortier-Lazure; Julie Riel (mother): Allyson McHardy; Sara Riel (sister): Joanna Burt; Colonel Garnet Wolseley: Peter Barrett; Marguerite Riel (wife): Simone Osborne; Gabriel Dumont: Andrew Haji; James Isbister: Clarence Frazer; Poundmaker: Billy Merasty; Louis Schmidt/Dr. François Roy: Bruno Roy; Wandering Spirit/War Chief of the Crees: Everett Morrison; F.X. Lemieux (lawyer): Dion Mazerolle; Buffalo Dancer: Justin Many Fingers; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Peter Hinton; Set Design: Michael Gianfrancesco; Costume Design: Gillian Gallow; Lighting Design: Bonnie Beecher; Choreographer: Santee Smith; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

image_description=Russell Braun as Louis Riel [Photo by Sophie I'anson]

product_title=Riel Deal in Toronto
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Russell Braun as Louis Riel [Photo by Sophie I'anson]

Posted by james_s at 9:10 PM

Concert Introduces Fine Dramatic Tenor

The program opened with a dramatic rendition of the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino. New to LA Opera, Bignamini’s interpretation included rough, loud chords at the opening followed by smooth legato playing in the overture’s more melodic sections. He drew a great variety of musical color from the ensemble and their sound often reminded me of multicolored Neapolitan ice cream. Thus, he notified California opera lovers that his interpretations are distinctive and architecturally strong.

Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Eyvazev opened with the ecstatic duet that ends Act I of Verdi’s Otello, “Già nella notte densa.” (“Now in the dark night”) The tenor had actually appeared at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion once before, singing the last performance of Pagliacci in the 2015-2016 season. Although not yet well known in the United States, Mr. Eyvazov, a pupil of Franco Corelli, is amassing fans wherever he sings. He has excellent stage presence and a full array of the skills most desired in a dramatic tenor. Ms. Netrebko was no stranger to the Pavilion audience, since she had already sung leading roles in Lucia di Lammermoor, Romeo and Juliette, and Manon at LA Opera. With the music from Otello, Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Eyvazov gave a delightful foretaste of what might some day be a good vehicle for both of them.

Maestro Bignami continued with the overture to Verdi’s early opera, Attila, and Ms. Netrebko began her interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Walking across the stage clad in blood red silk, she showed the predatory nature of her character’s personality as she read Macbeth’s letter. She sang a rousing rendition of the Act I aria, “Vieni t’affretta!” (“ Come, hurry!”) with it’s dramatic coloratura cabaletta “Or tutti sorgete.” (“All of you spirits rise up”) It is unusual for one singer to be able to contend with both the dramatic and florid aspects of the role of Lady Macbeth, but Netrebko handled each with ease.

Mr. Eyvazov countered with another blockbuster: “Ah si ben mio” (“Yes, my love”) and its exciting cabaletta “Di quella pira” (“From this pyre”) from Il Trovatore, which he topped off with a perfectly placed high C. The artists completed the first half of the concert with two selections from Verdi’s 1859 work, Un ballo in maschera: the prelude to Act II and the duet, “Teco io sto” (“I stand with you”). Verdi gave the harp a prominent part in this opera and JoAnn Turovsky played the music from Ballo with glistening silver tones. Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Eyvazov sang Amelia and Riccardo’s love duet with the red hot passion of irresistible attraction.

After the intermission, Mr. Eyvazov offered a complete change of pace with a memorable rendition of “Tu che m’hai preso il cuor” better known as Franz Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Hertz” (“Yours is my heart alone”) from Das Land des Lächelns. It took a bit of getting used to in Italian, but that melody still went straight to listeners’ hearts. Mo. Bignamini continued with the equally melodic Intermezzo from Macagni’s Cavalleria Ruticana.

Some of the less often performed operas by nineteenth and early twentieth century composers contain great arias. These artists presented memorable performances of arias from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Catalani’s La Wally, and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. I think many people will want to hear these exquisite pieces again. The finale, the verismo duet of the soon to be guillotined lovers from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier brought thunderous applause from the far reaches of the house.

These singers not only gave of themselves during the planned concert, they continued to be generous with encores. First, Ms. Netrebko sang a sweet and innocent version of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” (“Dearest daddy”) from Gianni Schicchi, then Mr. Eyvazov sang a full-blooded rendition of “Nessun’dorma” (“None shall sleep”) from the same composer’s Turandot. Together they sang the drinking song, “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La traviata before ending the evening with "Cantami" (“Let’s sing”) by distinguished contemporary Russian composer Igor Krutoy.

Maria Nockin

Musical Selections

Part One (Selections by Giuseppe Verdi)

Overture to La Forza del Destino

“Già nella notte densa” from Otello
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov

Overture to Attila

“Vieni t’affretta!… Or tutti sorgete” from Macbeth
Anna Netrebko

“Ah, sì ben mio… Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore
Yusif Eyvazov

Act II prelude from Un Ballo in Maschera

“Teco io sto” from Un Ballo in Maschera
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov

Part Two

“Tu che m’hai preso il cuor” from Das Land des Lächelns (Franz Lehar)
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov

Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)

“Poveri fiori” from Adriana Lecouvreur (Francesco Cilea)
Anna Netrebko

“L’anima ho stanca” from Adriana Lecouvreur (Francesco Cilea)
Yusif Eyvazov

“Ebben! Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally (Alfredo Catalani)
Anna Netrebko

“Un dì all’azzurro spazio” from Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano)
Yusif Eyvazov

Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (Giacomo Puccini)

“Vicino a te” from Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano)
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov


"O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi (Giacomo Puccini)
Anna Netrebko

"Nessun dorma" from Turandot (Giacomo Puccini)
Yusif Eyvazov

"Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi)
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov

"Cantami" (Igor Krutoy)
Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov

image= image_description=Anna Netrebko & Yusif Eyvazov product=yes product_title=Concert Introduces Fine Dramatic Tenor product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Above: Anna Netrebko & Yusif Eyvazov
Posted by maria_n at 2:33 PM

COC: Tosca’s Cautious Leap

Adrianne Pieczonka has one of the most beautiful, best-schooled soprano voices in the world. Her technique is rock solid, and she is capable of producing thrilling, pointed high notes, freely and effortlessly hurled over the full orchestra, pinging off the back wall with stunning resonance. Ms. Pieczonka also sports a delectably creamy, lustrous middle voice and descends effortlessly into a secure chest register. She is a sensitive and committed interpreter. And hers is an attractive and poised stage presence.

While all of Adrianne’s significant gifts were on ample display as Tosca, there was a coolness of approach that did not adequately suggest the tempestuous, variable moods of the fictitious diva. Her beautifully voiced Vissi d’arte seemed to owe more to Mozart’s poised Porgi amor that to Puccini’s tormented title character. Still, I am always grateful for any chance to hear this distinguished soprano and it cannot be disputed that her tonal beauty and musicality place her among the top tier of current practitioners.

Marcelo Puente has all the right attributes for a first rate Cavaradossi: ringing tone, sensitive phrasing, handsome physique, and a rather endearing Corellian self-absorption. When Mr. Puente is singing beautifully, which is often, he sometimes conveys an assuredness that he knows you must know it too. There was an initial darkness to the tone that vanished as the show went on. The slight cover and rapid vibrato that characterized Recondita armonia were completely gone by the time E lucevan le stelle rolled around, when his beautifully rendered diminuendo effects made it the high point of the evening. I suspect we will be hearing much more about him, especially if he can concentrate more on collegial “acting” than “starring.”

Tosca-MC-0181.png(l-r) Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Musa Ngqungwana as Angelotti [Photo by Michael Cooper]

Markus Marquardt did all the right things as Scarpia, and his interpretation was more nuanced than most. In a smaller European house, I would suspect Mr. Marquardt’s suave baritone would have more impact than it did in this large theatre, up against a tenor and soprano with more heft in their sound than his. Anyone (like me) who ever experienced a steamroller of a singer like Cornell MacNeil in this iconic villainous role has perhaps been spoiled forever. I admired Markus’s taste and intelligence, but I am not sure those are the prime requirements for a notable Scarpia.

Donato Di Stefano offered a nicely sung, if rather understated performance as the Sacristan, which was at least blessedly free of caricatured mannerisms. As Spoletta, Joel Sorenson’s bright tenor and wiry, animated stage deportment brought more (favorable) attention than usual to this comprimario role. Mr. Sorenson was well complemented by Giles Tomkins’ solidly sung Sciarrone. Bruno Roy was an uncommonly sympathetic Jailer, and Clara Moir’s pure-toned, off stage Shepherd Boy was serenely rendered. Musa Ngqungwana has an orotund, mellifluous bass-baritone that made quite an impression as Angelotti. However, Mr. Ngqungwana was unduly hampered by some awkward staging.

“Awkward staging” being the operative phrase. I have often admired director Paul Curran’s work. On this occasion, Mr. Curran seemed to be more concerned with manufacturing new and clever stage business than with developing character relationships. So, fine, Tosca tears up Cavaradossi’s paper ‘studies’ for the Attavanti Madonna, but does she have to throw them in the air like a giggly schoolgirl?

Tosca-GB-140.png(l-r) Markus Marquardt as Scarpia, Joel Sorensen as Spoletta, Donato di Stefano as a Sacristan and Giles Tomkins as Sciarrone [Photo by Gary Beechey]

The entire first encounter between the lovers was juvenile and shallow with no hint of the subtext that deception and jealousy will soon undermine the fates of both characters. Too often, singers faced front and sang to the balcony, when they should have been making a connection. When Mario sings of (I paraphrase) “seeing the world in Floria’s eyes,” he sings it to the parterre, when he should be, well, looking in her eyes. For all of the truly inventive touches, the sad fact is that Mr. Curran has failed to ignite any chemistry or passion.

And that is a pity, since the striking set and costume designs by Kevin Knight are all that could be desired. Monumental, striking scenery provided a visually fresh take on this operatic warhorse. I especially like the padded torture room that was revealed when a massive cabinet was pulled out from the wall in the Farnese Palace. Mr. Knight’s costumes were also spot-on, although I could have done with one less shawl on Tosca’s Act Two gown. Shedding one was illuminative of her character’s situation. Shedding two somewhat smacked of molting. David Martin Jacques’s well considered lighting design was all that could be wished. His isolation of Tosca in Act Two and Cavaradossi in Three for their big solos was subtly effective.

Best for last: In the pit, Maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson provided the real drama of the night. Ms. Wilson inspired this fine ensemble to fill in all the conflict, emotion and color that were missing from the stage. Whether playing solo or collectively the orchestra produced a stylish reading of a score, rich with detail and infused with dramatic fervor. Sandra Horst’s chorus contributed mightily with their full-throated Te Deum.

There were many elements to admire in this well-intended performance of a reliable classic. In the end, it left me wishing for much more inspired ‘shock and awe’ from this capable assemblage.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Cesare Angelotti: Musa Ngqungwana; Sacristan: Donato Di Stefano; Mario Cavaradossi: Marcelo Puente; Floria Tosca: Adrianne Pieczonka; Baron Scarpia: Markus Marquardt; Spoletta: Joel Sorenson; Sciarronne: Giles Tomkins; Shepherd Boy: Clara Moir; Jailer: Bruno Roy; Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson; Director: Paul Curran; Set and Costume Design: Kevin Knight; Lighting Design: David Martin Jacques; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

image_description=Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi [Photo by Michael Cooper]

product_title=COC: Tosca’s Cautious Leap
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi [Photo by Michael Cooper]

Posted by james_s at 2:18 PM

May 12, 2017

Matthias Goerne - late Schumann songs, revealed

If the breathiness that once made his style so immediate is gone, that's more than made up for by the authority with which he now sings. In this recording, the lustre of the voice combines with Goerne's truly exceptional powers of interpretation: an ideal channel for a composer like Schumann, whose genius, surprisingly, is still underestimated. Many of the songs in this collection come from the composer's later years, sometimes unappreciated because the style changes, heading toward new pathways. Schumann was well informed, aware of new currents in cultural life. Certainly he knew Wagner, but Wagner and Schumann were probably heading in different directions.

Goerne has been interested in late Schumann for many years, and sang many of these songs in his concert at the Wigmore Hall in 2015 with Menahem Pressler, where the songs were presented in the context of late Schumann piano pieces. Please read more about that here because it is important to consider the songs in relation to the piano works so dear to Schumann's soul). This recording, thus, is a must for anyone genuinely interested in Schumann beyond the "greatest hits" for it shows how Schumann remained a creative force, despite encroaching illness, an illness that might possibly be better understood today, which might have extended his creative years.

Schumann's op 90, to poems by Nikolaus von Lenau, were written in August 1850. Goerne and Hinterhäuser began with Mein Rose, the second song in the set, evoking the fragrance of love song which makes Dichterliebe an enduring masterpiece. Goerne's voice, though formidably powerful, can also be remarkably tender. The gentle lilt of Die Sennin suggests warm summer breezes wafting the herdgirl's songs down from alpine meadows to the valley. It's a song in which tenors excel, but Goerne captures its sunlit radiance. Then Einsamkeit, where the mood darkens. Under the densely overgrown spruce trees, "Still hier der Geist der Liebe", deep, hopeless love. Thus we are prepared for Requiem, the seventh and last song in Schumann's op 90. The Requiem sets a text by an anonymous poet, which is rather apt since the poem deals with the annihilation of personality that is death. The piano part is soothing, the lines long and sedate, but Goerne's artistry brings out the undercurrent of tragedy that lies beneath the conventional piety of the text.

We remain in the pensive solitude of Der Einsledler op 83/3 (Eichendorff) , also from 1850, before looking back on the past with a few songs from Myrthen (Heine) op 24 from 1840, the glorious Liederjahre in which Schumann's genius for vocal music suddenly blossomed, inspired, perhaps by his marriage to Clara. Die Lotousblume and Du bist wie eine blume are sensuous, Goerne's voice imparting tenderness as well as desire. Provocatively, though, Goerne and Hinterhäuser interrupt the floral reverie with two Rückert songs, Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint op 37/1 and Mein schöner Stern ! op,101/4 from Minnespeil, a collection from 1849 for different combinations of voices, reminding us of Schumann's interests in larger vocal forms. It feels as though a chill has descended upon the spring blooms. But Schumann's creative forces do not wither but change direction. The imagery in the songs on this disc switches towards wider panoramas. Nachtlied op 96/1, to the famous text by Goethe, is in Schumann's setting, much more haunted than Schubert's.

Goerne and Hinterhäuser then return to 1850, with the complete set of Sechs Gesänge op 89 to poems by a strange man who used the pen name of Wilfried von der Neun, "Wilfred of The Nine", meaning the nine muses, no less. This was the glorified pseudonym, allegedly adopted in his early youth by Friedrich Wilhelm Traugott Schöpff (1826-1916) who made a living as a pastor in rural Saxony. The poems are pretty banal, far lower than the standards Schumann would have revered in his prime. However, bad poetry is no bar, per se, to music. As Eric Sams wrote "the inward and elated moods of the previous year mingle and blur together in the new chromatic style in the absence of diatonic contrasts and tensions a new principle is needed. Schumann accordingly invents and applies the principle of thematic change....It is as if he had acquired a new cunning and his mind had lost an old one." The songs aren't premier cru : Schumann with his exquisite taste in poetry must have had a bad day. Nonetheless, Goerne and Hinterhäuser give such a fine performance that definitely justifies the prominence given to them on this disc. Lesser musicians beware. Though not ideal, these songs are worth knowing because they demonstrate Schumann's willingness to explore new directions. Sams is the source to go for studying these songs, for he analyses them carefully, drawing connections in particular to Am leuchetenden Sommermorgen and Hör' ich ein Liedchen klingen in Dichterliebe. Sams said "Schumann's memory is playing him tricks".

Moreover, this set was written close to the time Schumann wrote the superb Lenau set op 90 with which Goerne and Hinterhäuser began this recording. This shows that Schumann's powers were not failing. Like most creative people he wasn't afraid to take risks. It may be significant, though, that Lenau had some kind of mental breakdown in 1844, aged only 42, and spent the rest of his life incarcerated in an asylum. This recording ends with Abendlied op 107/6 from Sechs Gesänge (1851-52) to a poem by Gottfried Kinkel. The song is dignified, an exercise in balance and refinement. Listen to how Goerne shapes the lines, flowing smoothly from very high notes to very low. The song demonstrates his range and technical ability, but even more impressively his grasp of emotional subtlety. As night falls, the world sinks into darkness. But the stars appear "in Majestät". The poet hears "the footsteps of angels" and the advance of a golden, celestial chariot "in gleichen, festem gleise". No wonder the song ends, not with gloom but firm resolve."Wirf ab, Herz, was dich kränket und was dir bange macht". Definitely not "alone" in Einsamkeit. This song is so beautifully done, it's almost worth the price of the whole CD.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Robert Schumann : Einsamkeit. Matthias Goerne, Markus Hinterhäuser, Harmonia Mundi HMM 902243
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio

Posted by iconoclast at 11:42 AM

May 11, 2017

Schubert's 'swan-song': Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

Bostridge’s enunciation of the strange tri-syllabic rhymes - ‘Fremde durchmessenden,/ Heimat vergessenden,/ Mutterhaus hassenden,/ Freunde verlassenden’ - and his responsiveness to the unremitting dactylic repetitions created a cumulative force which was overwhelming. (Interestingly, his 2009 recording of the song with Anthony Pappano for EMI Classics is much less rhetorical and more introspective, and considerably slower.)

Rellstab depicts a protagonist who has fled his home and is oppressed by a broken heart and loneliness. He asks the murmuring wind and fleeting sunbeams to carry his greetings back to the one who broke his faithful heart and who now, a ‘fugitive’, sets out into the world. But, the text is almost untranslatable partly because English is less happy with gerunds - verbs used as nouns - as they are too like the present participle. In his translations, Richard Stokes makes use of the simple present - ‘Who roams foreign parts, who forgets his fatherland’ - and adjectives (‘Lüfte, ihr säuselnden,/Wellen sanft kräuselnden’ becomes ‘You whispering breezes, you gently ruffled waves’). Stokes is, as always, controlled, precise and expressive. But, what is missing here is a sense of the continuous progression which the German, with its amalgamation of noun and verb, conveys. Then, there is the problem of the nouns which begin each line - ‘Herze’, ‘Auge’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Heimwärts’, ‘Klage’, ‘Abendstern’, ‘Hoffnungslos’, in the second stanza - a pattern which disrupts English syntax.

Bostridge’s performance communicated every atom of the alienation that Rellstab’s linguistic strategies evoke. Stokes translates ‘Busen, der wallende’ as ‘The swelling breast’, but - so my German-speaking guest informs me - the German intimates the sea: the undulation of the waves and the echoes they return to the heart of the wanderer. Bostridge magically conveyed the way the protagonist’s sinking despair - submerged as his heart is by resounding pain - is transfigured into new determination. His appeal to the elements - angry rather than importuning - faded, just as the elements themselves ‘never linger’ (‘Nirgend verweilender’). Then - as the syntax ‘rights’ itself (‘Die mir mit Schmerze, ach!/Dies treue Herze brach’ - Ah! Send greetings to her who broke this faithful heart with pain) - he regained strength: the heartless one must be forced to bear witness to the suffering heart. Such is the Romantic agony.

But, this is to jump in at the deep-end of my response to this recital. If you are still with me, I’ll go back to the beginning.

‘In der Ferne’ is one of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab which, alongside six by Heinrich Heine and one by Johann Gabriel Seidl, were set by Schubert and published posthumously as the sentimentally titled Schwanengesang by Tobias Haslinger. They share the perennial Romantic obsession with love and death, but they are not a ‘cycle’, rather an embodiment of Haslinger’s commercial opportunism and shrewdness. As Richard Kramer has put it (in Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song), there are not only settings of different poets, there are different kinds of song: ‘The Rellstab songs sing the lyrical, expansive Schubert. The Heine songs scream and groan.’

Bostridge and Vogt performed the two sequences separately, with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte dividing them. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s brook) made for an optimistic, even magical, start to the sequence, with its excitedly rippling brook. And Vogt used the springy bass line to create energy and promise to match the protagonist’s hopeful dreams - beautifully conjured by Bostridge’s light tenor - of murmuring sweet repose to his beloved as he cradles her in his arms. But, menace and disappointment were not far away, in the dark coldness and tense rhythms of the piano introduction to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding), coupled with the low shadowy vocal line. Bostridge was characteristically keen to highlight the contrasts, textually and musically, though; references to the fire of longing that surges through the poet-speaker’s heart, and to the warm glow of his beloved as she lies in his arms, were vocally enhanced, and a more threatening heat rumbled through the piano’s resonant bass as the protagonist sang of his welling sadness and loneliness. Bostridge was able to create a marvellous, and unsettling, contrast between the sweetness and promise of rest and the anxiety of abandonment.

‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ (Spring longing) swept forward with urgency, though I did not feel that Vogt’s busy accompaniment was sufficiently crystalline. Again, Bostridge was alert to the emotional shifts, each stanza pushing exuberantly to a stalling, hesitant question - the fear of loss present in the heavily nuanced semitonal accent of the repetition: ‘Wohin?’, ‘Hinab’, ‘Und du?’ culminating in the final, desperate ‘Nur Du!’ (only you!). ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) was a beguiling exhortation, and the piano accompaniment a convincing guitar strum, though I felt that Vogt might have brought the piano’s echo-phrases rather more to the fore. The slides between major and minor tonality were effectively employed to trigger an escalation of emotion which sank back at the close into wistful wishfulness, ‘Komm’, beglücke mich!’ (Come, make me happy).

‘So my heart pounds without respite’ sings the poet-speaker in the nervous ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place) and Vogt duly obliged, while Bostridge revealed real power, angrily lamenting his grief, ‘Ewig derselbe/Bleibet mein Schmerz’. Vogt’s cantering accompaniment in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) needed to be lighter of touch - or perhaps initially lighter and then gradually increasingly, desperately perhaps, more insistent - if its irony was to be fully felt. As it was, it felt a little laboured at times, but the defiant, delusive self-belief of Bostridge’s poet-speaker was forcefully apparent in the power of the closing stanza.

Vogt seemed more attuned to the spirit of the six songs which make up Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte finding a dreamy lyricism at the start of ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’, as the poet-speaker gazes into the misty blue countryside towards the meadows where he first encountered his love, and flowering extravagantly at the close, embodying the protagonist’s hyperbolic emotion: ‘Und ein leibend Herz erreichet/Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!’ (and a loving heart is reached by what a loving heart has hallowed). The hopefulness of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ (Where the blue mountains) was undercut but the dreamily whispered pianissimo to which Bostridge shrank in the second stanza - the entirety of which is intoned on a single pitch. Straining to hear, we enacted the striving to believe of the protagonist.

Skipping restlessness was conjured by the incessant triplets of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) which only served to make the slower tempo and nuanced rubatos of the second stanza - with its autumnal imagery - more telling. Bostridge and Vogt pushed urgently through the sequence, the piano’s trills and echoes at the opening of the fifth song, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ (May returns) emphasising the poet-speaker’s fancies and delusion, and culminating in the powerfully sculptured recognition that the love he shares with his beloved ‘Kein Frühling erscheint,/Und Tränen sind all ihr Gewinnen’ (knows no spring, and tears are its only gain). In the final song, ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’ (Accept, then, these songs) time seemed to stand still as the ‘red light of evening’ drew ‘towards the calm blue lake’; but, no, the heroic Romantic life force was not to be denied, and a pulsing passion resumed in the final stanza, as an unstoppable upwelling of emotion subsumed all doubt.

Schubert’s ‘swan song’ resumed with Heine’s agonised ‘Der Atlas’ in which Logt unleashed the full power of the Wigmore’s Steinway - the dotted rhythms were torturously jagged - and Bostridge revealed baritonal strength and depth in the expressions of pain that ‘Will mir das Herz im Leibe’ (would break in my body). One felt that apocalypse could come at any moment, so tense were the underground tremblings, the yells of rage.

‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was, thus, a world apart: the unison piano and voice tentative, searching, rapt, blossoming briefly with harmonic enriching and hope. As if searching for a clear vision of the beloved, Bostridge peered absorbedly, keenly into the audience, involving and implicating us in the poet-speaker’s near-madness. The slight break in the voice - ‘Und ach, ich kann es nicht glauben,/ Daβ ich dich verloren hab!’ - was heart-clenching.

‘Das Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden) felt a little slow, and thus offered fewer opportunities for expressive rubatos; the tempo also made the slips between major and minor tonality more laboured, and lessened the pensive idealism of the song. But, Vogt struck just the right balance between definition and ambiguity at the start of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town), and the song - taut and anxious - progressed disturbingly towards an assertion of loss. The gentle beauty of ‘Am Meer’ seemed to offer some consolation and restoration; Bostridge’s tenor floated with effortless grace and quiet pensiveness, but troubling waters and rising gulls soon disturbed the vision of the gleaming sea: the image of the beloved’s tears - ‘Aus deinen Augen liebevoll/Fielen die Tränen nieder’ (from you loving eyes the tears begin to fall) - was perhaps the most tender, heart-welling moment of the recital, so ironically sweet was Bostridge’s head-voice phrasing. In this song, the performers’ attentiveness to Schubert’s power of suggestion was remarkable.

In ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The wraith) Bostridge captured us all in a steely, unwavering gaze, in which every pent-up emotion experienced during the evening was compressed. When these feelings were released, the pain of self-recognition was terrifying: ‘Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe - /Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt’ (I shudder when I see his face - the moon shows me my own form). The final stanza became more animated, the mood almost confrontational; but, the twisting turn - ‘So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?’ (so many nights in times gone by?) - was a squirm of Romantic painful pleasure.

Last week, attending a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet, I reflected on the way Schubert, having scaled heights and lows and wrung the soul dry in the great Adagio, astonishingly revivifies the spirit with the kick start of the Scherzo - a sort of musical defibrillator. And, such is the effect of Schubert’s setting of Johann Gabriel Seidl’s ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) at the close of Schwanengesang, the symbol of loyal return reinforcing the resilience of the Romantic heroic spirit. And, so, at the close of this recital, I was ready to return to the beginning; Bostridge made it easy to understand the Romantic addiction to the cycle of imagined fulfilment, denied satisfaction and lonely despair.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Lars Vogt (piano)

Schubert - Schwanengesang D957; Beethoven - An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 10th May 2017

image= image_description=Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title=Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id= Above: Ian Bostridge
Posted by claire_s at 11:23 AM

Baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé wins the 2017 Guildhall School Gold Medal

Josep-Ramon Olivé’s winning performance included Mompou’sJo et pressentia com la mar (Combat del somni, No. 3), Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, D776, Duparc’s Le manoir de Rosemonde, Rachmaninov’s O dolgo budu ja, Op. 4 No. 3 and Strauss’ Heimliche Aufforderung (Secret invitation), Op. 27 No. 3 with pianist Lana Bode. His programme also featured Handel’sSe il mar promette calma (from Lotario HWV 26), Korngold’sMein Sehnen, mein Wähnen (from Die tote Stadt) and Rossini’s Largo al factotum (from Il barbiere di Siviglia, accompanied by the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dominic Wheeler.

The other Gold Medal finalists, Daniel Shelvey, Bianca Andrew and Samuel Carl also performed programmes of songs and arias of their choice before a Barbican Hall audience.

Josep-Ramon Olivé commented: “I am completely overwhelmed, it’s a dream come true to win the Gold Medal. It’s a great achievement that is the icing on the cake for my time at the Guildhall School. I would like to thank my family, friends, fellow colleagues at the School and of course my tutor Professor Rudolf Piernay.”

The Final took place before a distinguished panel of judges including the Guildhall School’s new Principal Lynne Williams; General Director of Glyndebourne Sebastian F. Schwarz; Vice-Principal & Director of Music, Guildhall SchoolJonathan Vaughan; Head of Opera, Guildhall SchoolDominic Wheeler; and accompanist Malcolm Martineau.

The Gold Medal award was founded and endowed by Sir H. Dixon Kimber in 1915. Since 1950 it has been open to singers and instrumentalists in alternate years. Previous winners include William Primrose (1922), Jacqueline du Pré (1960), Patricia Rozario (1979), Tasmin Little (1986) and Bryn Terfel (1989).

Born in Barcelona, baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé studied at the Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya, followed by the Guildhall School’s Opera Course. He is currently on the Artist Diploma programme under Professor Rudolf Piernay and is a recipient of the Harry Rolfe Award.

His operatic roles include Il Conte in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro , Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Orfeo in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Lesbo in Handel’s Agrippina, Aeneas in Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, Frank in Strauss’Die Fledermaus, Pantalone in Wolf-Ferrari’s Le donne curiose, Thésée in Martinů’s Ariane ( review ) and Uberto in Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona. His Oratorio repertoire includes Brahms Ein Deutches Requiem, FauréRequiem, Duruflé Requiem, Mozart Requiem, OrffCarmina Burana, Handel Messiah and Bach B minor Mass, Magnificat.

He has performed with the London Handel Orchestra, Les Concert des Nations, Hespérion XXI, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He has performed all around the world in venues including: Palau de la Música Catalana, Shanghai Grand Theatre, Konzerthaus Vienna, Philharmonie de Paris, and the Barbican Hall. He has collaborated with Jordi Savall, Kazushi Ono, Laurence Cummings and Sigiswald, Kujken and has recorded for Alia-Vox, Columna Música, Phaedra, Discmedi and Musièpoca labels. He is currently a member of the Capaella Reial de Catalunya, conducted by Jordi Savall.

Josep-Ramon was awarded First Prize, as well as the Audience Prize, at the 2015 Handel Singing Competition; Second Prize at the 2013 International Singing Competition ‘Symphonies d’Autômne’ (Mâcon); Second Prize at the 2013 International Singing Competition ‘Germans Pla’ (Balaguer) and Second Prize at the 2011 Concurso Permanente of Juventudes Musicales de España. In 2015 he was nominated for ‘Oxford Lieder Young Artist’, together with pianist Ben-San Lau.

His future plans include The Count in Le nozze di Figaro with Clonter Opera; and Le Jardin des Voix Academy with William Christie and Paul Agnew.

image= image_description=Guildhall School Gold Medal product=yes product_title=Guildhall School Gold Medal product_by= product_id=Above: Josep-Ramon Olivé_

Photo credit: Clive Totman
Posted by claire_s at 3:08 AM

Stunning power and presence from Lise Davidsen

Of Davidsen’s first prize-winning performance of Wagner’s demanding aria ‘Dich teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser at 2015’s Operalia competition, I wrote, ‘she thrilled with a towering performance of majestic power and penetration. Her plush sound was pin-point accurate and her technical assurance unwavering’, and this comment would be similarly pertinent as an account of this Wigmore Hall recital. Of course, singing at the Wigmore Hall is not the same thing as communicating to the far reaches of the auditorium at Covent Garden: there were times when Davidsen’s fearless and unstinting commitment led her to give her hugely powerful voice full throttle, and one wondered if she really might raise the Wigmore roof. But, on the whole her technical control enabled her to measure the context judiciously. Moreover, her pianissimo is a thing of dreams, for she has the confidence to stay the vibrato, her soprano so perfectly centred and secure that she can aim for, and achieve, absolute purity of sound.

If one was to hair-split, one might say that while the top and bottom - the latter is surprisingly warm and textured - of Davidsen’s soprano are equally rich and strong, she occasionally neglects to colour the middle range with the result that it grabs the attention less forcefully. And, her diction is fair, but she could have taken a little more trouble with the text, especially in the German lieder.

Davidsen was accompanied by James Baillieu who was, as ever, a sensitive partner, alert to the details. If one were to say that one scarcely noticed his presence then this would be intended as a compliment, suggesting not that he was overshadowed but rather that he was perfectly attuned to Davidsen’s expression.

Though Davidsen’s natural home is clearly the opera house, she proved a penetrating interpreter of lieder, presenting sequences of the songs by Grieg, Richard Strauss and Sibelius. There was a real sense of excitement in both the voice and the piano’s exuberant accompaniment in Grieg’s ‘Gruβ’ (Greeting) with which the recital began, while the simple reflectiveness of ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (One day, my thoughts) introduced us to the mesmerising focus of Davidsen’s soprano when she reins back the volume and concentrates the power in the pure colour and tone. She can totally engage her listeners with a narrative, as the unfolding sequence of emotions in ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ (In the time of roses) demonstrated. But, her attention to detail is no less noteworthy: the way she coloured the semitone nuance in the rising motif, against low piano triplets, at the start of ‘Ein Traum’ (A dream) - ‘I once dreamed a beautiful dream, a blond maid loved me’ - gave an enticing hint of the astonishing rapture of the close of the song. ‘En Svane’ (A swan) was deeply expressive, the smooth fluency of the voice complemented by the cool transparency of Baillieu’s accompaniment.

Davidsen’s soprano swept gloriously through four songs by Richard Strauss, with ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ (Rest, my soul!) a particular highlight. The duo captured the full range of the song’s strange combination of emotions, from the delicate introspection of the opening verse - which warmed beautifully as the sun revealed itself through the dark leaves - through the stormy central section where the urgent peaks were wonderfully shaped, to the emphatic sentiment, ‘These are epic times’, of the close. The floating ascent of the piano playout confirmed the assurance and peace that the poet-speaker desires - ‘rest, rest my soul, and forget what is threatening you!’ - and, for once, there was not a single shuffle or snuffle from the Wigmore Hall audience in the brief pause between this song and Strauss’s ‘Morgen’. The soaring, impassioned close of ‘Cäcilie’ was brilliantly life-affirming: ‘If you knew what it is to live … if you knew it, you would live with me.’

Davidsen will make her debut at the BBC Proms in August, joining the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds to perform extracts from Grieg’s Peer Gynt alongside Sibelius’s Luonnotar, and the five Sibelius songs offered here were a delicious foretaste of what’s to come. From the mystery of the rippling of the dark reed beds in ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reeds, reeds, whisper) to the overpowering grief of ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black roses), from the restlessness of ‘Vären flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is swift to fly away) to the wistful rapture of ‘War de ten dröm’ (Was it a dream?) - in the latter the evenness of Baillieu’s cross-rhythms was aptly hypnotic - these songs conjured myriad emotions and told entrancing stories.

It was the opera arias that Davidsen really rose to the heights, though, for her soprano is not only hugely powerful, gloriously silken and richly glossy, it is also an incredibly ‘dramatic’ voice. She has a transfixing statuesque poise but can suddenly swell with astonishing passion, despair or rage. We believed in, and felt, the maternal love of Verdi’s Amelia as she pleaded with Renato to let her see her son one last time (‘Morró, ma prima in grazia’, Un ballo in maschera). And, though she is not a spinto, Davidsen has the high ease and effortless power to convince in verismo melodrama as her stirring but dignified account - encompassing both melancholy and heroism - of Maddalena di Coigny’s desperate suffering (Andrea Chénier) confirmed. Here and in ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ ( Cavalleria rusticana) Baillieu deftly established the dramatic and emotional context.

By the close of the recital, one could sense how much Davidsen wants to sing, and sing, and her joy was both beguiling and infectious. She closed with two prayers, which demonstrated her confidence and clarity about what it is that she wishes to communicate. First came Agathe’s ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’ in which, as she begs for her beloved Max’s life to be spared, Agathe hears his approach and is overcome by gratitude, love and enchantment. Lastly, Elisabeth’s prayer from Act 3 of Tannhäuser which scaled the heights and lows, musical and expressive, with lyrical majesty. One longs for Davidsen to add Sieglinde and Brünnhilde to the Wagnerian roles - Freia, Isabella - that are already in her repertory. And, surely she would make a terrific Salomé …

But before that we have Ariadne to look forward to, and then, in October, Cherubini’s Medea at the Wexford Opera Festival where Davidsen sings for the first time. As he listened to Davidsen’s searing account of Medea’s ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’, the Festival’s Artistic Director David Agler, who was present in the Wigmore Hall - having at the weekend collected the Best Festival Award at the 2017 International Opera Awards - must have been feeling lucky and thrilled.

Claire Seymour

Lise Davidsen (soprano), James Baillieu (piano)

Grieg: ‘Gruss’ Op.48 No.1, ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ Op.48 No.2, ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ Op.48 No.5, ‘Ein Traum’ Op.48 No.6, ‘En svane’ Op.25 No.2; Cherubini: Médée - ‘Dei tuoi figli la madre’; Richard Strauss: ‘Zueignung’ Op.10 No.1, ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ Op.27 No.1, ‘Morgen’ Op.27 No.4, ‘Cäcilie’ Op.27 No.2; Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’; Giordano - Andrea Chénier - ‘La mamma morta’; Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana - ‘Voi lo sapete’; Sibelius: ‘Svarta rosor’ (Black Roses) Op.36 No.1, ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Reed, reed, rustle) Op.36 No.4, ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37 No.4, ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte’ Op.37 No.5, ‘Våren flyktar hastigt’ (Spring is Flying) Op.13 No.4; Weber: Der Freischütz - ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer ... Leise, leise’; Wagner: Tannhäuser - ‘Gebet der Elisabeth’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 9th October 2017.

image= image_description=Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title= Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Lise Davidsen

Photo credit: Ole Jørgen Bratland
Posted by claire_s at 2:52 AM

May 10, 2017

LALO and COQUARD: La Jacquerie

The work had a tortuous genesis. In 1889, three years before his death, Edouard Lalo began working on it. He managed to complete the first act, interpolating into it—with new words—some extended passages from Fièsque, an early opera of his that had never reached the stage. (Fièsque survives and has in recent years been recorded—starring Roberto Alagna—and has even been staged.) Lalo orchestrated the first half or so of the first act—very effectively, as those who know his famous Symphonie espagnole will not be surprised to learn.

After Lalo died, Arthur Coquard, a composer-friend, completed the orchestration of the first act and wrote the remaining three acts, occasionally bringing back some of Lalo’s music from Act 1 and reworking it in dramatically apposite ways. Coquard is not entirely unknown today. Clarinetists still play one lovely instrumental work of his: Mélodie et scherzetto, which can be heard in five recordings on YouTube. Coquard also wrote notable music criticism and published two books that are still worth reading: one on the history of French music, the other a “critical biography” (as Coquard entitled it) of Berlioz.

The libretto of La Jacquerie, like the music, is the work of multiple hands. Begun by Edouard Blau, it was completed, at Coquard’s invitation, by Simone Arnaud, a playwright who attained substantial public success in her own day. Several of her plays were performed at the Odéon and the Comédie-française, and she provided librettos for two operas composed entirely by Coquard and another for an opera by Louis Bourgault-Ducoudray.

La Jacquerie had its first three productions in Monte Carlo, Aix-les-Bains, and Paris—all in 1895—and then more or less vanished. The small hardcover book that comes with the recording reprints an extended review of the Paris production (which took place at the Opéra-Comique). Written by Arthur Pougin, a celebrated critic and scholar of the day, the review praises the entire second act (“utterly moving and poignant”) and much of the fourth. The book also contains three essays by present-day scholars, one of which, by Gerard Condé, points out some attractive moments in the sung verses as well as recurring musical features that help unify the score.

When La Jacquerie reached the Opéra-Comique, the performers that made the strongest impression were mezzo-soprano Marie Delna, as the widowed farm-owner Jeanne, and tenor Henri Jérome, as her politically idealistic son Robert. On the present recording, the tenor playing Robert, New York-born Charles Castronovo, is first-rate. Some readers may recall him as Natalie Dessay’s sweet-voiced co-star in the documentary film Becoming Traviata. Here he is even more remarkable, emitting clarion phrases that may remind opera lovers of Bizet’s Don José or Saint-Saëns’s Samson. The soprano, Véronique Gens, is utterly magnificent as Blanche, a count’s daughter, whom Robert loves despite the social gulf between them. Her tone has a delightful shimmer, yet she also conveys the changing phases of Blanche’s devotion, distress, and—at several points—bitter anger. The remarkable “fit” between soprano and tenor can be sampled in their duet, online. The other singers are capable and mostly firm; only Nora Gubisch reveals a touch of wobble, but this is not out of character for the aging farm-owner Jeanne.

The singers, mostly French-born, deliver the text clearly and naturally, helping the listener appreciate Lalo’s and Coquard’s sensitivity to words and to dramatic situations. (Lalo was a masterful song composer: see my review here of a 2-CD set of his complete mélodies.) The only serious problems in pronunciation come from the 29-year-old Russian-born Boris Pinkhasovich as the hotheaded revolutionary Guillaume. I often had to check the libretto to find out what Guillaume was saying. Also, Pinkhasovich’s voice lies high for the role, making it difficult for him to deliver low notes with sufficient menace. Jean-Sébastien Bou, as Blanche’s father, likewise is strong in his high register—indeed eloquent and powerful—and weak where the role lies low. The choral forces of Radio-France sing superbly in their several dramatically crucial scenes.

The plot derives freely from an experimentalist play (in 36 highly episodic scenes, without division into acts) by Prosper Mérimée, who also penned the novella that is the source of Bizet’s Carmen. The two librettists added numerous then-standard operatic elements, including a central love story and a choral prayer (Stabat Mater) by a wayside cross. At the dramatic climax, the heroine, Blanche, shields her aristocratic father from attack by the peasant mob and is, in turn, shielded by her beloved Robert. The moment seems an elaborate riff on the climax of Beethoven’s Fidelio, where Leonore interposes herself between her beloved Florestan and the tyrant about to murder him. Though these elements may seem overly familiar when one reads the libretto by itself, in practice they provide welcome opportunities for ­­extended and sonorous musical numbers rich in dramatic impact. And, despite these moments of expansion, the opera as a whole moves forward at a satisfyingly brisk pace. I particularly love the moment when the ferocious orchestral music that opens Act 4 returns to signal that the army of the feudal landowners is arriving to put down the rebellion. The soldiers are not seen on stage: the music speaks for them, powerfully.

The Jacquerie was a major uprising of peasants and farmers in northern France during the summer of 1358. The term “Jacquerie” refers to the condescending nickname for a man from the rural provinces: “Jacques Bonhomme” (Jack Goodfellow). The Jacquerie uprising was finally put down by the landowners, but memory of it remained strong in France for centuries. By the time of Lalo and Coquard, a tale of a peasant uprising could resonate also with memories of more recent French revolutions and revolts, including ones in 1789, 1830/32, 1848, and 1871. A letter from Lalo drew just such a parallel, calling Guillaume a communard, i.e., someone who, had he been born centuries later, would have been a leader of the heavily socialistic Paris Commune (which ruled Paris for two months in 1871 until it was suppressed by the government).

Some of the strongest material in Act 1 (Lalo’s act) and Act 2 occurs when Guillaume, Robert, and the chorus bewail the lot of the working poor and argue over how much violence to undertake against the overlords. The single best scene occurs toward the end of Act 2, where Jeanne pleads with Robert not to risk his life by leading the impending revolt. (The scene resembles in some ways a famous one between John of Leyden and his mother Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le prophète.) Also particularly strong are two numbers in the final act: a duet for Jeanne and Blanche—both of whom are obsessed, in different ways, with Robert—and the subsequent duet, in which Robert and Blanche finally confess their love for each other. Though Lalo had begged Blau, without success, to de-emphasize the love element in the libretto, this long-awaited interchange between soprano and tenor ended up inspiring some of Coquard’s best music. And why not? This is opera, after all!

In the love duet, as elsewhere in the work, the orchestra is given stirring phrases that the voices either soar over or join, as in many of the mature operas of Wagner and other composers of the time. There is also an attention-getting chromatic sequence (over a rapid descending line in the low strings) that represents the demands of the peasants in Acts 2 and 3 and that seems directly inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The passage is introduced in the prelude to Act 2, and it gets reworked in fascinating ways, such as when Jeanne—no revolutionary herself—is singing about the uprising.

The phrase structure in the work is quite un-Wagnerian, being relatively clear-cut and thus closer to what one finds in mid-nineteenth century Italian and French operas by, say, Verdi, Gounod, and Bizet. Also, the work as a whole consists largely of a succession of relatively self-enclosed numbers, much as is the case in other French operas of Lalo’s and Coquard’s era, e.g., by Saint-Saëns and Massenet. The Blanche-Robert duet even ends with a cabaletta that gets repeated in full, harking back to a tradition from earlier in the century, but the repeat is dramatically enlivened by death threats from the peasant warriors who have just broken into the lovers’ hideaway. Two intriguing rhythms in the orchestral accompaniment reminded me of specific works by Brahms: a dotted rhythm on the upbeat, prominent in Brahms’s Tragic Overture (Lalo uses it at the beginning of Act 1, after the prelude) and a sarabande-like rhythm—triple meter with lengthened second beat—heard midway through the finale to the Fourth Symphony. (Coquard uses the latter rhythm near the beginning of Act 4 when Jeanne waits in agony for word of Robert’s fate.) A propulsive triple-meter dotted rhythm in Lalo’s Act 1 may have been inspired by various polonaise- or bolero-style cabalettas by Verdi (“Di quella pira”), Ambroise Thomas (“Je suis Titania”), and others; Coquard brings that very rhythm back toward the end of Act 3 to help ratchet up the tension as the revolutionaries face off against the nobles. These and other echoes of different European musical and operatic traditions—I think Coquard may have been listening to some Russian music—remind us how cosmopolitan French music could be at the turn of the twentieth century, and how fruitful that cosmopolitanism could be.

The orchestral preludes and postludes to the various acts are extremely characterful and involving, as are the three ballet numbers plus choral hymn-to-springtime that begin Act 3. (Blanche is being entertained by her handmaidens but cannot fully join in the joy.) Some enterprising conductor could make a fine suite for orchestra—perhaps with chorus—out of these portions alone.

Throughout the opera, the nicely detailed recorded sound allows the orchestral part to make its full impact, without ever scanting the solo voices or chorus. The numerous passages of commentary for solo winds (notably flute, horn, English horn, and saxophone) are beautifully rendered, and the engineers have balanced them well against the larger orchestral and vocal fabric. The brass plays superbly in the recurring orchestral passage (mentioned above) that represents the powerful landowners. One cavil: at a few points in the work, the pizzicato playing by the strings is so quiet that I have to strain to decipher the harmonic progressions.

La Jacquerie is the latest in “Opéra français,” a series of recordings that is produced by the Center for French Romantic Music (based at the Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice) and is devoted to unjustly forgotten French operas. Previous releases in the “Opéra français” series include works by such composers as Méhul, Félicien David, Gounod, and Saint-Saëns. (On the Center for French Romantic Music, see my review of a 3-CD set from a different Palazzetto series, “Portrait”; the album consists of music by Marie Jaëll.) The accompanying book contains a synopsis and libretto plus (as mentioned above) essays and documents about the work and its history, and everything is provided in two languages: French and English.

The English translations are largely smooth and clear, but some wordings are a bit laconic or even misleading. Many may wonder why one essayist briefly mentions an operatic character named Chimène. (My guess is that this is an elliptical reference to Debussy’s unfinished opera Rodrigue et Chimène.) Jeanne is described as a “farmer’s wife,” whereas a fermière can be, as Jeanne indeed is, a woman who owns a farm and works it. Most confusingly of all, the translated synopsis tells us that, in the final duet, Robert “conceals” his love from Blanche, but the French word means “reveal,” which is indeed what happens in the libretto.

All in all, the recording and its accompanying book comprise a major contribution to our understanding of what a skillful and relatively successful work could be like in the world of French opera during the era of the youngish Debussy. La Jacquerie would, I wager, hold the stage very well today. (The recording was made during a concert performance at Montpellier in southern France.) The enthusiasm of the performers on this recording can be sensed in a video. I certainly will now be on the lookout for other works by Arthur Coquard. And I await eagerly the next offerings in the Palazzetto’s “Opéra français” series. It occurs to me that the inherent problems of singing French correctly and sensitively may have worked against many fine French operas that deserve a hearing at least as much as—or perhaps in some cases even more than—certain more familiar Italian works by Boito, Cilea, Giordano, Ponchielli, or Zandonai. All praise to the Palazzetto for bringing these works back to life in such an admirable fashion, and for providing, in the accompanying books, materials that can help a listener today see what we have been missing all along!

Ralph Locke

Ralph Locke taught musicology for forty years at the Eastman School of Music. He continues to do specialized research but also enjoys writing for music lovers everywhere at American Record Guide (where a version of this review first appeared) and at,, and


image= image_description=La Jacquerie product=yes product_title=La Jacquerie product_by=Édouard Lalo and Arthur Coquard product_id=‘Opéra français’ Palazzetto Bru Zane series (Ediciones Singulares) | 2016 | Volume 12 [2CDs] price=$29.19 product_url=éronique-Gens/dp/8460850056/ref=as_sl_pc_tf_til?tag=operatoday-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=e334d3df99550076a0bf58c901daea21&creativeASIN=8460850056
Posted by Gary at 7:18 PM

May 6, 2017

Three Rossini Operas Serias

Yet today these works cling precariously to the repertoire, Each year, on the average, each receives one or two staged productions across the globe. Perhaps it is the looming 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death that explains an unusual opportunity to hear Rossini’s first and last works in this genre: Tancredi at Opera Philadelphia and Semiramide both at Opera Delaware in Wilmington and the Bayerische Staatsoper in München. I had not heard either one live on stage since Marilyn Horne headed casts in the 1980s.

Any company seeking to perform Rossini’s serious works today faces two challenges. One is that many contemporary spectators find the style archaic. Libretti written in a mannered literary style inherited from the Baroque are set to intricately stylized bel canto musical scores, often of Wagnerian length. To be sure, Rossini’s opera serie contain an exceptionally broad range of intense passions and conflicts, yet the characters enacting them seem to be archetypal monarchs and aristocrats from days gone by excessively concerned with preserving their honor.

Just a few decades after Rossini stopped composing, Verdi operas like Rigoletto and Il trovatore converted audiences to the modern belief that tragedy must be terse, hard, direct, and drawn from everyday life. Verdi swiftly supplanted Rossini on world stages, and he has gone down in history as the epochal musical innovator and great tragedian—as well as the harbinger of Italian national unity. Today’s audiences share this view: they find Rossinian comedy as natural—Barbiere and Cenerentola remain as popular as ever but his tragedies foreign.

Yet aficionados know that the intricately stylized vocal expression of bel canto tragedy is point. The need to bridge an extreme distance between style and substance drives singers to intense improvisation and interpretation. Powerful, idiosyncratically personal performances are the result. Displays of vocal virtuosity, at times bordering on the impossible, can drive audiences into a frenzy; yet the deeper purpose of these vocal acrobatics is to express extreme human emotion.

In Rossinian opera, the longer the phrases, the more intricate the embellishments, the more creative the vocal coloring, the higher the dramatic tension. In great performances of bel canto opera—as with classical ballet, Shakespearean drama, jazz, or any other stylized performance art—these physical demands seem to disappear in the moment, and the listener perceives highly stylized improvisation seems a natural and immediate way to express powerful human passions.

Yet therein lies a second challenge that helps explain why so few opera houses today perform Rossini’s opera serie. No operatic genre is more closely associated with individual vocal greatness. In every generation, only a few, truly exceptional singers possess the extraordinary technique and interpretive creativity to transform acrobatic vocal improvisation into searing drama. These operas were brought back to life a half century ago largely due to a few such artists: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, June Anderson, Marilyn Horne, Giuletta Simionato, Juan-Diego Florez, Samuel Ramey among them. Without such singers, operas like Tancredi and Semiramide just seem musty, repetitive, and exceedingly long.

Opera Philadelphia, the Bayerische Staatsoper and Opera Delaware are all innovative companies that take chances on unusual repertoire. The recent productions I witnessed illustrate three distinctive ways to cope with the demands of performing serious Rossini opera in the 21st century.

* * *

Tancredi was Rossini’s first mega-hit: its premiere in 1813 established him, at the seemingly impossible age of 20, as the world’s leading composer of opera. Yet it is clearly the work of a young man. The score, while fresh and vibrant, is filled with uncomplicated melodies in major keys. The libretto is thin, based on characters who combat misunderstanding rather than intrinsic evil, violence or weakness. Rossini’s own ambivalence is evidenced by the existence of two versions with different endings, one happy and one sad.

To breathe life into this drama, Opera Philadelphia assembled a promising cast of singers—yet success in staging Rossini demands more. The production was built around veteran mezzo Stephanie Blythe’s debut in the title role. Blythe’s wide repertoire, resonant voice, and commitment to deep characterization has propelled her into the ranks of world-class singers. Convincing her to sing this role for the first time was a coup.

Yet Blythe’s years of portraying deep and heavy roles such as Fricka, Azucena, Ulrica, and Mrs. Quickly seem to have taken their toll on her voice. Today she lacks the agility and natural lightness required for Rossini’s music, composed decades earlier. Blythe gave it her all, yet her admirably intense portrayal psychologically could not obscure smudged runs, uneven timbre from top to bottom, labored vocal production, and a voice that just seemed too broad for the role—though I am told her later performances gained more polish.

Brenda Rae, cast as Amenaide, the young woman in love with Tancredi, went to the opposite interpretive extreme. A young American soprano who has recently been quite successful in Europe, Rae possesses an extremely smooth and delicate soprano voice with astonishing command of fine gradations between piano, pianissimo and pianississimo. Her use of these talents displayed a fine dramatic imagination, yet the role ultimately demands more vocal variety, more edge to the voice, and a bolder characterization.

In the same interpretive universe was Michele Angelini as Amenaide’s father Argirio. This American-trained tenor is a singer on his way up after successful outings at the MET and Glimmerglass. Yet here the voice sounded insecure and stressed, especially in higher registers. Baritone Daniel Mobbs integrated acting and singing into a solid musical-dramatic portrayal of the warring clan leader Orbazzano—particularly strong when singing ensembles. The stylistic discrepancies between Blythe, Rae, Angelini and Mobbs, and were jarring in a way that further impeded musical coherence.

The stage direction and conducting added little. Tancredi, more often performed in concert than staged, requires little more than serviceable unit set with a few accessories. It did receive that, though the constant movement of furniture, obviously meant to add variety, proved an intermittent annoyance. Conductor Corrado Rovaris held the show together musically. Yet the orchestra seemed under-rehearsed and—as seems often to happen under Rovaris—the mood was excessively cautious. With unusually slow and steady tempi, slack rhythms and little Rossinian verve, even the famous overture made little impact.

* * *

Semiramide at the Bayerische Staatsoper in München, one of the world’s great companies, seemed a sure winner. The Staatsoper had secured the services of a talented young Italian conductor, Michele Mariotti (whose father used to run the Rossini Festival in Pesaro), under whose direction the celebrated München orchestra played brilliantly. It had also mustered nearly as fine a cast as one can find in the world today. To top things off, it commissioned a new staging from David Alden. The result was impressive and memorable—but in some respects too much of a good thing.

The singers largely fulfilled their promise. The main attraction was mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s role debut as Semiramide, the sinful and doomed Assyrian queen. This is unusual casting these days: in recent years, coloratura sopranos have appropriated this role. München returned to Rossini’s original intent in writing the opera for Isabella Colbran, who, like DiDonato today, was a mezzo with a warmer and darker middle voice coupled to a flexible extension into soprano heights.

DiDonato is great artist at the prime of her career. Her technical ability to deliver nearly any dynamic, color and attack as needed is marvelous. In middle of her range, the voice as luscious as any who have sung the role. At times the rougher sound of a mezzo, a slight strain when singing high at forte, and obvious efforts to lend psychological weight to specific lines seemed a bit jarring—particularly for those brought up on those smooth-sailing soprano Semiramides. Yet this incoherence clearly fit DiDonato’s conception of the character as at once a powerful Machiavellian queen, a guilt-ridden family member, and a seductive woman—and she was prepared to sacrifice some smoothness of line to portray Semiramide’s inner anguish.

The other truly world-class assumption was that of American tenor Lawrence Brownlee. He brought effortless virtuosity to the role of Idreno, an Indian suiter to the queen. He offered pinpoint accuracy in coloratura, a sweet and relaxed tone for more sustained passages and, despite being stripped of an aria, a clear emotional characterization.

Trieste-born mezzo Daniela Barcellona has sung, and indeed recorded, the role of Arsace for some time. Her voice is not what it once was, but it remains an impressive instrument that comes through when it has to. She stood up mezzo-to-mezzo with DiDonato, though some of her solo numbers (further hampered by being placed upstage) made less impact. In smaller parts, Christophoros Stamboglis sang in stentorian bass tones appropriate to the high priest Oroe, while Elsa Benoit radiated innocence as Azema.

That leaves Italian bass-baritone Alex Esposito, who sang powerfully and pointedly as the villainous Assur. Though his voice at times lacked true bass color, smoothness of line, and accuracy of coloratura, Esposito acted up a storm, strutting around in military uniform, stripping half-naked, writhing and clambering across the stage, taking an ax to a desk, and much more. He deserved an A for effort.

These antics bring us to the weakness of the performance, namely the new production. Staging and the ideas underlying them are always a big deal in Germany. It was doubly so in this case, because stage director David Alden had long been something of a “house director” in München, well-known for his controversially updated take on Wagner. Now he has turned to bel canto opera and, after ten years, this brings him back to München.

Alden is an energetic, imaginative and visually gifted director who has mastered the art of staging opera as post-modern pastiche. His productions are riots of diverse styles, symbols and analogies—including, as is so often the case with contemporary opera direction, ironic commentary on much that the characters sing—and some things they do not.

The Munich Semiramide is no exception. Most of the opera was set in a North Korean-style mausoleum dominated by a giant statue of a deceased political leader—to judge from the image, it is some combination of Kim-Il-Sung, Donald Trump and Saddam Hussein—with his hand raised, surrounded by heroic frescos of his life. The statue—a visual updating of King Nino, whose ghost does appear in the opera—was visually quite striking, even if its deeper meaning remained elusive.

The bewildering array of unnamed characters who populated Alden’s mausoleum did not clarify the matter. Alongside Babylonians, as per the libretto, were book-waving Sufi Berbers, strutting authoritarian military generals, sparklingly exotic princes, black-clad mimes, ax-wielding French foreign legionnaires dressed as butchers, and childhood Doppelgängers of the main characters.

Alden has said he sought to portray the psychological horror of religious fundamentalism, which tears children from their parents, encourages crimes of vengeance, and spreads debilitating guilt. Of course this is not what Semiramide is about, but sometimes ambitious efforts at “strong misdirection” spark deep insights. This was, I believe, the case in Alden’s earlier Wagner productions. Here, however, even after reading lengthy essays in the program, I remained more confused than ever.

Yet a far deeper weakness of the production lies in the fundamental incompatibility between Alden’s manic direction and the natural flow of bel canto opera. Alden is stone deaf to the most important imperative of directing bel canto opera: less is more. As discussed above, the leisurely and repetitive style of bel canto opera is a deliberate invitation to singers (and, sometimes, also to the orchestra) to creatively embellish the music, thereby elaborating more fully the characters’ emotions.

Alden compulsively obscures precisely those critical moments, which he appears to view as empty or redundant and thus in need of directorial intervention. The moment a singer reaches a second verse, a final coda or a cabaletta, or even sometimes a contrasting middle section, Alden sends in the clowns. Choristers, minor characters, dancers and extraneous actors stagger—and sometimes the singers themselves—around like zombies, sneak up on the singers from behind, writhe in anguish, wave props, turn pirouettes, shuffle in slow motion, walk up walls, and smash furniture. Sometimes the set itself mimics the action: walls move or pastel cartoon butterflies flit across giant screens. The constant commotion renders it almost impossible to focus on the vocal line at what should be precisely the moments of greatest musical tension.

Such distractions sap musical expressiveness and integrity. A typical example is Idreno’s big Act 2 aria (“La speranza più soave”). Lawrence Brownlee sang of amorous joy expressively and introspectively, adding miraculous roulades and ornaments—all bathed in a lovely tenor timbre. It was a performance of this difficult aria unsurpassed in modern times. Yet he had to share the stage with eleven dancers in sparkled exotic costumes striking Broadway poses, dozens of choristers in burkas shuffling back and forth, and two black-clad stagehands who rapidly dressed and undressed the ingénue soprano. In the end, to add insult to injury, he was obliged to carry the soprano off-stage on his back. A relatively discerning audience was so distracted from the singing that Brownlee received only short and tepid applause.

To see what might have been, we need only consider the immediately preceding number, a celebrated duet between Semiramide and Arsace in which son and mother find a fleeting moment of peace and reconciliation even though fate decrees that he will kill her. I do not know why this is the only place where Alden abstained, but no extra characters or scenic changes appeared. We simply saw two nearly motionless characters clutching one another on a large stage, expressing their deepest longings. Suddenly the theater seemed to shrank and the music seemed to connect listeners directly to the human essence of the characters. The audience responded with a stunned moment of silence and then erupted into the longest ovation of the night.

* * *

At first glance, Opera Delaware’s Semiramide was the least promising of the three productions I attended. Wilmington is a town of 70,000 struggling with urban renewal and Opera Delaware a modest company. To be sure, it has made something of a name for itself recently in debuting obscure works: last year Franco Faccio’s Amleto (Hamlet). Yet it is presenting only two performances of Semiramide—alternating with La Cenerentola in a one-week spring festival format. In an operatic world where fidelity to the score has become a fetish, Opera Delaware boldly (and quite successfully) cuts almost an hour of music. The singers are not global opera stars and the orchestra lacks the BMW-quality tonal sheen of the München pit band. The staging is rudimentary: singers in bright costumes stand on small, abstract unit set (a bit like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise), lit in changing colors.

Performing one of the grandest of Rossini operas under such conditions seems quixotic. Yet they are doing things right in Wilmington. In many respects, this was most consistently satisfying of the three performances I attended. It added up to far more than the sum of its parts, communicating the intense music drama at the heart of Semiramide.

A critical factor was the venue. I can think of no place in America I would rather hear this type of opera than Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. Like its counterparts in Philadelphia and München, this is an ornate 19 th century auditorium—but half the size and constructed of lovely painted wood. Glyndebourne and a few other venues show us that about 1200 seats is ideal for modern performances of 18th and early 19 th century repertoire.

All of this gives the Grand uniquely intimate acoustics. From the first orchestral downbeat, astonishingly warm and vivid sound envelopes the listener. A deep and relatively small orchestral pit with an overhang favors the voices, which seem far more immediate and resonant than in almost any other house. Italian diction and subtle textual emphases are so clear that even those reliant on the supertitles can easily catch the nuances. The fine acoustics are matched by clear and short sight lines.

Where the Philadelphia singers were vocally mismatched and those in München often overwhelmed by directorial distractions, those in Wilmington—thrown together on a small, simple stage—convey their emotions to each other and to the audience as if it were spoken dialogue in the most realistic of modern dramas. Stylistic distance disappears. Angry or sarcastic characters spit the musical embellishments at one another. Affectionate ones sinuously meld their tones. Joyous ones launch exuberant vocal fireworks. This is Rossinian opera as it was meant to be experienced.

Contributing decisively to the success of the Delaware Semiramide is also the conducting of the young American Rossini specialist, Anthony Barrese. He inspires the orchestra, to play with distinctive Rossinian articulation, phrasing, rhythmic pulse and exuberance—even if it concedes something to the great opera orchestras in terms of tonal gloss. The opening night timing of vocal entrances is impeccable—in part, perhaps, because someone had the good sense to book the same cast to perform the opera (as a concert performance in Baltimore) twice with piano less than a month ago

Opera Delaware has also assembled a cast of promising young singers, all about a decade into their careers—each enthusiastic, accomplished, and versed in bel canto style. Collectively, they demonstrate the remarkable breath and depth of American opera training.

The first voice one hears is that of Indiana-trained bass Harold Wilson, active in recent years in Germany and the US. It is so resonant and full that one is tempted to refocus the entire drama on the high priest. Also impressive in the cameo role of the Ghost of King Nino was Korean-born, New York-trained bass Young-bok Kim.

I last heard Aleks Romano ten years ago, when this young Connecticut-born mezzo was an undergraduate (I assume) singing in the chorus of a Zemlinsky double bill at Bard College. As Arbace, she demonstrates that ten years of vocal training at Yale and in young singers’ programs has produced remarkable agility, evenness of registers and musical insight—as well as expressive acting. Her performance, and increasingly high-level experience, suggest a singer headed for the top.

Soprano Lindsay Ohse, trained at the University of Kansas, has sung widely for US regional companies. Though she can handle the coloratura, her dark mezzo timbre, balanced against an intermittently metallic top, may portend a future as a more dramatic soprano, as her scheduled debut as Norma next year suggests. Tenor Tim Augustin, in the difficult role of Idreno, displayed impressive interpretive skills and a voice that can be lovely in the middle and top—though technical difficulties and lower-lying parts of the role sometimes proved dangerously challenging. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, who we already encountered in the Philadelphia Trancredi, was an audience favorite—not due to transcendent vocal glamor or precision, but due to enthusiastic integration of music and drama.

A final participant deserves mention. Whereas spectators in Philadelphia and München were only intermittently and randomly responsive, those in Wilmington inspires an audience to engage from the first moment. The night I attended, they displayed an unerring instinct when to break in with enthusiastic cheers, just as an Italian audience would, yet could be pin-drop silent for long periods of maximum tension. Opera in Wilmington is, as it was in Rossini’s day, a communal experience.

I encourage anyone who wants to hear Rossini performed by a polished ensemble in a uniquely appropriate setting to catch the last Opera Delaware performance on, a matinee on May 7. The Grand Opera House, so I found out, is a short stroll (past restaurants and cafés) from the Amtrak station, and thus convenient for anyone on the American Eastern seaboard. Those who long for a more star-studded experience or are curious about David Alden’s take on bel canto might try to snag one of the few remaining tickets for the Bayrische Staatsoper’s festival performances of Semiramide in July (not those in June, featuring a different cast) or Covent Garden’s November performances in London with DiDonato, Barcellona, Brownlee and others under Antonio Pappano.

Andrew Moravcsik

image= image_description=Gioachino Rossini [Photo by Étienne Carjat, 1865, courtesy of Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Three Rossini Operas Serias product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Above: Gioachino Rossini [Photo by Étienne Carjat, 1865, courtesy of Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 8:02 PM

Urania Remasters Marriage of Figaro

Recorded in 1958, it won a Grammy for Best Opera or Choral Performance, a category that was split into two in subsequent years. The features noted by many previous critics (e.g., in Alan Blyth’s Opera on Record, vol. 1, and the Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera) still register vividly today. The vocalism is splendid in the five central roles and strong even in the smaller ones.

The LP box trumpeted the cast as “selected by the Metropolitan Opera.” Of the five leading roles, four are filled by North Americans (Giorgio Tozzi was born in Chicago; George London was born to a Jewish family in Montreal, the family name being Burnstein). Lisa Della Casa was Swiss, and the comprimarios, orchestra, and chorus are nearly all European. The one exception in the smaller roles is that Marcellina is sung by the characterful Sandra Warfield (who performed 172 times at the Met and also appeared often in Europe). George London—renowned for his performances in Wagner—makes a very resonant and powerful-sounding Count. Scholars stress that Figaro is, for musical and dramatic reasons, the more bass-like of the two roles, whereas the Count should more properly be a suave baritone. But London makes a fine case for having a true bass in the role and never sounds uncomfortable on high notes. Much praise is due to Gabor Carelli, a character tenor whom I’d never encountered before. He nicely differentiates the two roles of Basilio and Don Curzio, and does Basilio’s Act 4 aria as well as anyone could wish.

Throughout the recording, the humor can get a bit exaggerated, notably in recitatives, as if for the benefit of audience members who don’t understand Italian and, in big halls, are sitting far from the singers. Supertitles have nowadays eased some of this pressure.

The singing is also rarely very soft, presumably another habit deriving from big halls. But this is no stand-and-shout performance: dramatic continuity is often paramount and is enhanced by welcome moments of intentional overlap between the end of one recitative and the beginning of the next or between a recitative and the beginning or end of a musical number.

Leinsdorf’s conducting is brisk and somewhat metronomic, in ways that paralleled habits that were developing around the same time within early-music performance. Few embellishments are made to the vocal lines. Leinsdorf actually wrote a book explaining his belief in trusting the letter of the score: The Composer’s Advocate: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians.

The recording quality is still vivid, 59 years later, with fine use of stereo directionality to help clarify on-stage movement, especially in the famously intricate Act 4. The performance is nearly note-complete: the only trims made during the recording sessions were in the Act 2 finale. Thus we get both Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias in Act 4, unlike on some other recordings and in many live performances.

To the Italian label’s credit, Urania has allowed the opera to spill over onto a third disc. Thus nothing from the original release has been removed. By contrast, EMI omitted Basilio’s Act 4 aria when it rereleased the famous Glyndebourne/ Gui recording on 2 CDs. (Too bad, as the performance of that aria by Hugues Cuénod had been singled out for special praise by critics of the original LPs.) The CD breaks are sensible ones: middle of the long Act 2 and beginning of Act 4.

With an opera as oft-recorded as Figaro, it is inevitable that certain musical numbers, especially arias, have been performed more magically somewhere else, e.g., on a recital disc. Ezio Pinza, for example, made two wonderfully detailed renderings of Figaro’s sarcastic “Se vuol ballare”; and that same aria is likewise more nuanced in complete recordings and videos of the opera with Samuel Ramey or Bryn Terfel than as sung here by Giorgio Tozzi. By contrast, certain arias and other numbers in the present recording are totally treasurable, displaying a near-ideal wedding of vocal command and dramatic intent. These include—to restrict myself to a single act, the third—the marvelously timed duet between the Count and Susanna, Lisa Della Casa’s exquisitely floated yet fully characterized “Dove sono,” the duet “Sull’aria”—with a nicely flowing accompaniment that somehow manages to suggest Susanna’s act of writing the Countess’s dictated words—and the scene in which, while a fandango is being danced, the Count surreptitiously receives the letter from Susanna and inadvertently pricks himself with a pin. (Leinsdorf conducts that fandango with an air of electric anticipation.) OK, I have to add Roberta Peters’s marvelous “Deh vieni” in Act 4, in which she marvelously suggests that she is at once trying to imitate the Countess’s (creamy) voice and also that she is expressing her own abiding love for Figaro, who, she knows, is hiding in the shadows, overhearing her. No wonder many people have loved this whole recording across the decades. I’m a little embarrassed that, until now, I had never heard it in its entirety. The orchestra and chorus, from the Vienna State Opera, do their jobs superbly (except for some slight problems with wind intonation in “Deh vieni”).

The set’s third CD has enough free space to permit inclusion of an entire three-movement instrumental work: what used to be called Mozart’s Symphony 37, which we now know was composed by Michael Haydn (brother of Joseph; it’s variously numbered Perger 16, Sherman 25, and MH 334). Mozart simply wrote a slow introduction for the first movement. As played by Leinsdorf and the Royal Philharmonic, the piece feels tuneful, compact, and consistently engaging. The performance is presumably the same one found in the conductor’s long-prized recording of the “complete” Mozart symphonies. This meant, at the time, the 41 works that had long been available in the Breitkopf und Härtel Gesamtausgabe. Since that time, additional early symphonies by the composer have become known and recorded. Originally available in the US on Westminster LPs, Leinsdorf’s symphony set is currently available on Deutsche Grammophon, 7 CDs. The early symphonies are in stereo. The symphony heard here is in relatively clear mono, with a nice balance between winds and strings. On the original releases the Royal Philharmonic was—presumably for contractual reasons—renamed the Philharmonic Symphony of London.

But to return to the main work here: Leinsdorf’s 1958 Figaro remains dramatically vital and musically gratifying and could easily be anybody’s first choice, especially if they own a copy of the score or libretto. (The booklet contains nothing but a track list, which, by the way, erroneously assigns Basilio’s aria to Bartolo.) Frequently recommended also are recordings conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (the one I know best, though the Count shouts too much), Erich Kleiber, George Solti, Bernard Haitink, and both of those that are conducted, with keen attention to theatrical effect, by Colin Davis. (Further, see the two books mentioned above and the Mozart Operas Overview, by Ralph Lucano, in the January/February 2002 issue of American Record Guide.) The René Jacobs recording has special attractions for its intimate atmosphere and quick interactions between cast members and for some bracing freedoms taken in the vocal parts. I have not heard the recent recording by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press).

image= image_description=Urania WS 121.304 product=yes product_title=MOZART: Marriage of Figaro product_by=Lisa Della Casa (Countess), Roberta Peters (Susanna), Rosalind Elias (Cherubino), George London (Count), Giorgio Tozzi (Figaro); Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus/ Erich Leinsdorf product_id=Urania WS 121.304 [3CDs] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

Tosca: Stark Drama at the Chandler Pavilion

Her lover, Cavaradossi, was an artist who preferred an out of favor political party and he helped hide an escaped political prisoner that Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, wanted to keep incarcerated. Scarpia was a womanizer who would have enjoyed a night with Tosca, after which he would have destroyed her as used goods. Caird did not pull any punches and he made his world every bit as brutal as that of twenty-first century television shows.

Scenic designer Bunny Christie showed us the appropriately dim Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle with a three story high scaffolding that held Cavaradossi’s enormous madonna-in-progress. In Act II, Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese was filled with boxed and partially unpacked works of art, evoking the realization that the police chief stole art wherever he found it. For her last act, Christie designed an execution room atop the Castel Sant’Angelo that focused the sound of the voices.

With movie-star good looks and a large, silvery dramatic voice, Sondra Radvanovsky was the perfect embodiment of Puccini’s early nineteenth century opera singer. She colored her tones to fit each circumstance and emphasized the intensity of her emotions with the passionate phrases of “Vissi d’arte” (“I have lived for art”). Her character grew from the naïve ingénue in Act I to a reluctant killer in Act II. In Act III, she hoped for life with Cavaradossi in a new country. Having discovered Scarpia’s deception, she brazenly proclaimed her intent to meet him before God and jumped into eternity.


Puccini asks his tenor to sing the aria “Recondita armonia” (“Obscure harmony”) very soon after his first appearance on stage, and fully warmed up, Russell Thomas sang it with the golden sounds of a solid, well-honed tenor voice. I would like to hear more of him soon. Ambrogio Maestri was physically imposing and his manner made Scarpia a sadistic bully. The possessor of a powerful baritone voice, he sang with slightly rough bronze tones that underscored his character's unrefinment. Only when he offered Tosca holy water in the first act was he the slightest bit polite.

Scarpia’s aides, Brian Michael Moore as Spoletta and Daniel Armstrong as Sciarrone, followed his lead dramatically and sang with dark tones. Nicholas Brownlee, as Cesare Angelotti, however, had a much brighter sound and interpreted his character as though he might once again hold high office. Veteran bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos was an amusing Sacristan who gave just the right comedic touch to this tragic opera.

Conductor James Conlon brought out the drama of Puccini’s music in what is said to be his seventieth rendition of the opera. Thursday night’s show was only his second performance of the work in LA, however, and he showed this audience his distinctive, carefully crafted, richly detailed interpretation. Grant Gershon conducted the adult chorus and Anne Tomlinson directed the children’s group who led the jubilation of the Act I "Te Deum." Tosca is an opera that needs to be performed with significant individual interpretations and this was a fine representation of Puccini’s masterwork.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Conductor, James Conlon; Director, John Caird; Scenery and Costume Designer, Bunny Christie; Lighting Designer, Duane Schuler; Chorus Director, Grant Gershon; Director Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Anne Tomlinson; Prompter, Miah Im; Cesare Angelotti, Nicholas Brownlee; Sacristan, Philip Cokorinos; Mario Cavaradossi, Russell Thomas; Floria Tosca, Sondra Radvanovsky; Baron Vitellio Scarpia, Ambrogio Maestri; Spoletta, Brian Michael Moore; Sciarrone, Daniel Armstrong; Jailer, Gabriel Vamvulescu.

image= image_description=Photo by Ken Howard product=yes product_title=Tosca: Stark Drama at the Chandler Pavilion product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Photos by Ken Howard
Posted by maria_n at 1:22 PM

May 3, 2017

Glyndebourne Festival 2018 programme announced

Sebastian F. Schwarz, General Director of Glyndebourne, said: ‘Given my first chance to programme a work at Glyndebourne, my thoughts quickly turned to this neglected masterpiece. It’s remarkable that there has never been a UK production of Vanessa, the first opera by such a popular composer - and the man who wrote the Adagio for Strings. Sixty years on from its 1958 premiere, I’m delighted that Glyndebourne will give it the UK showcase it so richly deserves.’

The new production will be directed by British director Keith Warner, fulfilling his long-held ambition to stage the piece and marking his Glyndebourne directorial debut. Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša returns to Glyndebourne to lead the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The cast includes British soprano Emma Bell in the title role, alongside Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas as Anatol.

The second new production for Festival 2018 is Claude Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. The new production will mark the Glyndebourne debut of the in-demand Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, and is conducted by Glyndebourne’s Music Director Robin Ticciati. Leading the cast are Austrian soprano Christina Gansch as Mélisande and American baritone John Chest as Pelléas. British baritone Christopher Purves returns to Glyndebourne in the role of Golaud.

Glyndebourne Festival 2018 opens with the Festival debut of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Originally staged for Glyndebourne Tour 2016, Annilese Miskimmon’s production is the first staging of the work at Glyndebourne. Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber will conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra, his first appearance at Glyndebourne since he made his debut conducting Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Glyndebourne Festival 2014. Taking on one of the greatest soprano roles in the repertoire is Moldovian soprano Olga Busuioc as Cio-Cio-San. The role of Lieutenant BF Pinkerton will be performed by American tenor Joshua Guerrero, with American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki.

Completing the 2018 Festival season are revivals of three of the most popular productions in Glyndebourne’s recent history. Offering a chance to compare and contrast one of Handel’s finest operas with one of his great oratorios are revivals of David McVicar’s ground-breaking 2005 production of Giulio Cesare and Barrie Kosky’s smash-hit 2015 staging of Saul.

A number of artists involved in the original Giulio Cesare production return for next summer’s revival, including director David McVicar, conductor William Christie and British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the title role. American soprano Joélle Harvey takes the role of Cleopatra. Barrie Kosky returns to Glyndebourne to oversee the first Glyndebourne Festival revival of Saul, with Laurence Cummings conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. German baritone Markus Brück will perform the role of Saul with British tenor Allan Clayton as Jonathan and British countertenor Iestyn Davies returning to the role of David, which he performed in the 2015 premiere.

Completing the season is the first Glyndebourne revival of British director Richard Jones’s stylish and original take on Strauss’s masterpiece, Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Robin Ticciati. British soprano Kate Royal stars as the Marschallin, as she did in the original 2014 staging, opposite American mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Octavian. British bass Brindley Sherratt performs the role of Baron Ochs.

Glyndebourne Festival runs from 19 May - 26 August 2018.

Fifty years of the Glyndebourne Tour in 2018

Glyndebourne’s first-ever production of Massenet’s Cendrillon forms the highlight of the Glyndebourne Tour, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. Cendrillon will be directed by Fiona Shaw, who previously directed a critically acclaimed production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne.

The second fully-staged opera in the 2018 Tour is a revival of Tom Cairns’s opulent production of Verdi’s La traviata, which had its premiere at Glyndebourne Festival 2014.

There will also be a return for Behind the Curtain - a new style of event introduced in 2016 with Don Giovanni: Behind the Curtain, to take audiences behind the scenes on the creation of opera. On this occasion, the event will take an in-depth look at La traviata, with performance extracts from the cast and orchestra of the main Tour 2018 production.

Glyndebourne Tour runs from 13 October - 1 December 2018.

Education and outreach

Recruitment will get underway in 2018 for Glyndebourne’s latest large-scale main stage community opera. The latest new commission will be composed by Howard Moody and directed by Simon Iorio. It will be delivered in partnership with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and staged at Glyndebourne in March 2019.

Also in 2018, a new Young Composer-in-Residence will join Glyndebourne. The position is a three year, part-time residency for an emerging composer, giving the holder an unrivalled opportunity to immerse themselves in the work of an opera house and observe the creation of new operas, as well as create new work of their own.

Based within Glyndebourne’s pioneering education department, the Young Composer-in-Residence will also involve themselves in Glyndebourne’s broader artistic, learning and audience development activities. An annual bursary of £17,000 is provided to cover time, expenses and any work composed for Glyndebourne during the residency. Recruitment for the position is open now via

Glyndebourne will crown the latest winners of its two biennial awards for young singers in 2018. The Gus Christie Award is for a young singer who has demonstrated outstanding vocal talent, while the Bill Weston Young Singers Award is for an exceptionally promising singer who would benefit from financial support to continue their development. Both awards were launched in 2016 to mark 30 years since the formation of Glyndebourne’s education department.

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Posted by claire_s at 4:08 AM

Major new international singing competition launched by Glyndebourne

The eight-strong panel of judges includes representatives from top international opera houses. Among them are Barrie Kosky, Artistic Director of Komische Oper Berlin, Sophie de Lint, Opera Director of Zurich Opera and Director designate of Dutch National Opera, David Devan, who runs Opera Philadelphia, and Fortunato Ortombina, Artistic Director of Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

Acting as honorary president will be Dame Janet Baker, whose own early career was fostered by Glyndebourne.

Sky Arts, Glyndebourne’s official UK broadcast partner, will bring the competition to a wider audience with a dedicated TV series. Following each stage of the competition, the series will feature preliminary rounds in a number of international cities, culminating in the finals at Glyndebourne, and will allow audiences to learn more about the individual competitors involved.

The Glyndebourne Opera Cup will be unique to other competitions of its kind in a number of ways. Firstly, alongside prize money, the overall winner is guaranteed a role at one of the opera houses represented on the jury within five years of their victory. The time frame is designed to ensure that a suitable role for the winner can be found and reflects the long planning times in opera.

In addition, the biennial competition will focus on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. This is in order to cater for the various specialisms within operatic training, and to ensure competitors can be accompanied by an orchestra with instruments appropriate for the period. Eligibility criteria, including age limit, will vary to reflect the chosen theme.

The inaugural competition, culminating in March 2018, will require singers to focus on Mozart, accepting entrants to an upper age limit of 28. Contestants will be accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

The competition has been devised by Glyndebourne’s General Director, Sebastian F. Schwarz, who will chair the judging panel. Glyndebourne already has an international reputation for discovering and nurturing new talent. This includes Glyndebourne Chorus members who have gone on to fame, such as Sarah Connolly and Thomas Allen, as well as stars, such as Kiri Te Kanawa and Luciano Pavarotti, who were given a place in the spotlight at early stages in their career.

Sebastian F. Schwarz, said: “I’ve been on the judging panels of a number of singing competitions and have seen what works and what doesn’t. When I arrived at Glyndebourne, with its giant reputation for discovering exceptional talent, it seemed an incredible opportunity to design the perfect singing competition from scratch. To me this means offering maximum benefit to those who enter. This is reflected in the jury which comprises esteemed colleagues representing houses that, like Glyndebourne, have a lot to offer competitors as they seek to develop careers. Our ambition is to establish The Glyndebourne Opera Cup as among the premiere competitions of its kind and we are delighted to be partnering with Sky Arts to bring this to a wider audience.”

Dame Janet Baker, also commenting on the competition, said: “My own career began at Glyndebourne so I’m well aware just how much the company has to offer to singers as they seek to establish themselves and develop as artists. This new competition is thoroughly in keeping with the strong commitment to nurturing singers that I observed and benefitted from during my time at Glyndebourne so I was delighted to be invited to act as honorary president.”

Sky Arts Director, Phil Edgar-Jones, says: “Sky Arts has had a long association with Glyndebourne over the years and, as opera enthusiasts, we are always keen to break new ground and seek out new audiences for this unique art form. So, when Sebastian brought us his idea for a partnership with Glyndebourne on its new opera singing competition his vision and infectious enthusiasm were impossible to resist. We’re sure it’ll hit the right note with our audience.”

The international jury for The Glyndebourne Opera Cup is:

  • Sebastian F. Schwarz, General Director, Glyndebourne (Chair)

  • Barrie Kosky, Artistic Director, Komische Oper Berlin

  • David Devan, General Director and President, Opera Philadelphia

  • Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director, Teatro Real de Madrid

  • Sophie de Lint, Artistic Director, Zurich Opera and Director designate of Dutch National Opera

  • Fortunato Ortombina, Artistic Director, Teatro La Fenice, Venice

  • Pål Christian Moe, Casting Consultant for Bayerische Staatsoper Munich and Glyndebourne

  • Maria Mot, Associate Director, Vocal & Opera, Intermusica

Applications for the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup open later this year, with preliminary rounds taking place in January 2018 in Philadelphia, London and Berlin. The final stages of the competition take place at Glyndebourne in March 2018.

Full details, including information on the application process, will be released this summer. image= image_description= product=yes product_title= product_by= product_id=

Posted by claire_s at 3:51 AM

May 1, 2017

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, at the Wigmore Hall

The finalists for this year’s award, the 62nd, included singers from the UK, the Commonwealth, Europe, the US and beyond - and only one of the six competitors for the £12,500 First Prize was a woman. But, at the Wigmore Hall, on Finals Night, standards were high, programmes were varied, and the musicianship on display, from singers and accompanists alike, promised much for the years to come.

One thing that struck me was the importance of each singer’s programme selection. Admittedly, for this last stage of the competition the finalists have fairly free range: their programmes must not exceed 20 minutes, must contain at least one English song and must present a balance between opera and song. And, performances in the preceding rounds are taken into account; so, the interloper at the concluding stage is perhaps not the best equipped to essay a judgement about ‘losers and winners’. But, those singers who impressed most were those whose chosen repertoire demonstrated both an appreciation of their own innate musical leanings and strengths, and a balance and range which intimated an ability to meet the technical and communicative demands of the successful professional careers which hopefully lie ahead.

The sole female competitor, Nigerian-American soprano Francesca Chiejina - a current member of the Jette Young Parker Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House - displayed deep and rich colours to convey the indignation of Handel’s jealous sorceress, Melissa, in ‘Il crudel m’abbandona’ (Amadigi di Gaula) and the grief-obsessed weariness of Debussy’s ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ (Tears fall in my heart). The latter was complemented by Dylan Perez’s plangent piano ‘tears’. But, her sequence was dominated by the emotive timbre and assertive power of Edward Boater’s arrangement of the spiritual hymn, ‘I want Jesus to walk with me’ and Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, two songs which conjured not dissimilar contexts and sound worlds - even down to the lazy chromatic slithers in the accompaniments. In a recent article , Chiejina has spoken of how she looks up to the American soprano Mary Violet Leontyne Price and her late compatriot Marian Anderson, admiring the duo for shattering racial barriers not just in the US, but also beyond in the world of opera, and her programme presumably reflected her belief that ‘what is about the people should be for all the people. Classical music is very relatable and approachable … and I want everyone, especially young African children, to believe it so’. Chiejina concluded with Richard Strauss’s ‘Ich liebe dich’ in which, as in the Handel and Strauss, the soprano sometimes struggled to centre the pitch and control her vibrato, though she displayed plenty of power and passion.

Strauss had opened the evening’s proceedings, with Catalan tenor Eduard Mas Bacardit’s rendition of ‘Nichts’ (Nothing). It’s always an additional challenge to take to the platform as the first competitor, and - for the inexperienced visitor to the Wigmore Hall - to judge the size and acoustic of the full auditorium. Here, and in de Falla’s ‘Olas gigantes’ which followed, Bacardit sounded a little tense, the phrasing somewhat unyielding, the tone at times lacking in tenderness. The English text of Britten’s setting of Thomas Hardy’s ‘A time there was’ ( Winter Words) was not clearly communicated; Bacardit’s head voice was a little unsteady and the swift tempo and Perez’s weighty piano chords created a strenuous, rather than poignant, mood. However, I had admired Bacardit’s performance in the GSMD’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta last autumn, and he once again characterised spiritedly in Verdi’s ‘De miei bollenti spiriti’ (La traviata), and captured both the bewildered disillusionment of ‘No puede ser!’ (It cannot be so!) from Pablo Sorozábal’s zarzuela La tabernera del puerto and the delicate sentiments of Fernando Obradors’ ‘Del cabello más sutil’ (From the finest hair) from the Canciones clásicas españolas. Hugo Wolf’s ‘Abschied’ (from Mörike-Lieder) confirmed Bacardit as a real stage performer.

JamesWay0851.jpg James Way

James Way was the other tenor in the final, and he really impressed me with his assurance, crystal clear and expressive diction, light but focused tone, and ability to subtly alter the colour and weight of a phrase. After a genial, engaging account of Schubert’s ‘An Silvia’, Mozart’s ‘Ah! qual gelido orror … Il padre adorato’ (Idomeneo) revealed Way’s ability to communicate character and dramatic situation with immediacy and directness, and a sure vocal technique which enabled him to make Idamante’s somewhat breathless perplexity and filial love credible. He was ably aided by Natalie Burch’s crisp, busy accompaniment. In Handel’s ‘I must with speed amuse her’ (Semele), Way demonstrated a strong appreciation of the idiom: the tenor had the vocal strength to truly sing through the line, ornamentation of the da capo was light of touch and clean, and excitement was generated by textual repetitions. This vocal prowess was capped by a charming presence and good eye contact with the audience. Way concluded his programme with Britten first Canticle, My beloved is mine, and here his excellent diction was a real asset, as was his comprehension of the dramatic form and progression of the work. Changes of tone and mood were convincing, as the canticle moved from barcarolle to recitative, from scherzo to slow coda. The second stanza’s expression of fulfilled love - ‘and after long pursuit,/ Ev’n so we joyn’d; we both became entire’ - was impassioned by vibrant freedom of the melismatic vocal line and the new energy propelled by the piano’s tumult. There was a peace at the close, ‘He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place’, which had a divine ambience. Way was awarded Second Prize.

With only one soprano among the six finalists, it was left to Wisconsin-born counter-tenor Patrick Terry to provide some registral balance. He began his programme, accompanied by pianist Somi Kim, with Judith Weir’s ‘Sweet Little Red Feet’, a setting of John Keats which forms one of the movements of The voice of desire (2003) which all present conversations between humans and birds. In this setting, the bird is in fact dead (‘I had a dove and the sweet dove died’), smothered, it is implied, by too much affection. This is a challenging song, both technically and musically, with which to begin, but Terry gave a confident and accomplished performance, his countertenor full and warm of tone, the pitch secure throughout the difficult vocal lines even though little assistance is offered by the piano’s dramatic rhetoric. Terry’s performance of ‘L’enamourée’ (The loved-one) by Reynaldo Hahn was one of the highlights of the evening: there was a real sense of rapture as Théodore de Banville’s poetry flowered from sparse gentleness to rich delight: ‘Tu t’évielles ranimée,/ O pensive bien-aimée’ (You waken, restored to life,/ O meditative beloved’). The exquisitely smooth phrases enticed the listener; the lines were nimbly flexible but contoured with total control. I found Gluck’s ‘Che faro senza Euridice?’ marred by a little too much vibrato and the intonation was less consistent, though Terry again revealed his ability to craft a delicious diminuendo and pianissimo. We were back in modern times for the final work of the programme, Jonathan Dove’s ‘Dawn. Still Darkness’ from his 1999 opera Flight, which was delivered with characteristic intensity. Terry was awarded the Song Prize.

patrickterry_1463479662_21.jpg Patrick Terry.

Two baritones completed the line-up. I thought Daniel Shelvey over-stretched himself a little in his programme choices. Altering the order of the published sequence, Shelvey began with Richard Strauss’s ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ (Secret invitation) and demonstrated dramatic presence and a beguiling tone to equal that which impressed me when he sang the role of Damyan in the GSMD’s premiere of Julian Philips’ The Tale of Januarie in February this year; but, the baritone needed to sing out more and do more with the ardent text to match the rapturous ripples in Perez’s accompaniment. And, Shelvey didn’t quite have the power and swagger for Don Giovanni’s ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’ (Until the wine …), sounding a little pushed even though the tempo was not breakneck, and struggling to stop the pitch wavering in the blustering exclamations. I liked the darker colour he found, however, for the refrain of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Don Juan’s serenade’, the second of two of the composer’s 6 Romances which Shelvey performed (the other being ‘None but the lonely heart’).

gamal1of221.jpg Gamal Khamis.

Both baritones included Billy Budd’s ‘Look! Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!’ in their programmes. Shelvey revealed a quasi-tenorial brightness at times, and found stillness and calm towards the conclusion. New Zealander Julien van Mellaerts used his head voice judiciously, balanced quiet unfolding with emotional enrichening, and captured the strangeness and indeterminacy of this operatic set-piece, in which time seems to stand still. Here and in his opening item, Berlioz’s ‘Mab, la reine des mensonges’ (Mab, queen of delusions) from Rom éo et Juliette, van Mellaerts cut an assured figure on stage, and sang with an open, engaging tone. His pianist, Gamal Khamis, danced lightly through the intricacies of Berlioz’s accompaniment. There was a lovely earnestness to Quilter’s ‘Go, lovely rose’ - just the right side of whimsy. The German texts of Wolf’s ‘Liebchen, wo bist du?’ (Sweetest, where are you?) and Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) were compellingly delivered, while in the latter composer’s ‘Der Contrabandiste’ (The smuggler) from Spanisches Liederspiel the baritone demonstrated the muscularity and vitality of his voice. Van Mellaerts was a worthy winner of the First Prize. Khamis was awarded the Accompanist’s Prize.

No doubt we’ll be hearing much more of all these performers in the future.

Claire Seymour

Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 28th April 2017

image= image_description=Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title= Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final 2017, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Julien van Mellaerts
Posted by claire_s at 1:46 PM