October 29, 2017

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

An indignant sense of unjust usurpation was probably just as prevalent in Hanoverian London - that is, among those Jacobites who sought to re-establish a Stuart monarchy. But, despite the large map of Milan which looms from the wall of the political headquarters in Jones’s production, there is little sense of ‘specificity’ of geography or ideology. Instead, we find ourselves in a mid-twentieth-century mobster-land - dimly lit, ugly, bleak. Characters - a steadfast but resourceful wife; a conflicted villain; a noble, self-knowing ‘deliverer’ - take precedence over locale or period which, given the striking musical portraits created by Handel, is fitting.

For Acts 1 and 2, Jeremy Herbert’s set divides the wide Coliseum stage in two. Stage left is a dingy incarceration cell where Rodelina - whose husband Bertarido, King of Milan, has been ousted from the throne by the iniquitous Grimoaldo who nurtures amorous aims and claims upon his rival’s wife - languishes in grief, with her son Flavio. The grimy prison houses an array of surveillance cameras and telescreens worthy of an Orwellian dystopia. In the panelled office of state, stage right, the supplanting despots pour over the transmitted images of their captives with voyeuristic slathering; when, that is, they are not eagerly destroying iconic images of the rightful King and decorating the walls with their own visual propaganda. The split stage is most powerfully deployed at the close of Act 2, when the reunited beloveds are forced to sing to each other, first through a dividing wall, then separated by a central corridor, before the rooms left and right slide torturously away from each other, cruelly entrenching their severance. The emotional segregation of the characters is further exacerbated in the final act, when horizontal partitions isolate individuals with only their own emotional crises and inadequacies for company.

R ENO Act 2 end jpg.jpgRodelinda end of Act 2. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Rodelinda has one of Handel’s least convoluted plots. Nicholas Haym’s libretto, adapted from a text by Antonio Salvi, presents Rodelinda’s fidelity to her ‘dead’ husband (he has faked his own demise to both spy on his grieving wife and surprise his usurpers), Grimoaldo’s inner conflict (he is torn between genuine desire for Rodelinda and a lust for absolute power), and Bertarido’s honour. There are a couple of ‘grotesques’: Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, who is rejected by Grimoaldo, and the brutish thug Garibaldo who makes overtures to Eduige in the hope of gaining the throne for himself. In the end, ‘right’ triumphs over rapacity.

Jones (as revived by Donna Stirrup) and Herbert offer plentiful visual, aural and choreographic details, with varying degrees of relevance and effectiveness. Some will welcome and others lament the aural verisimilitude: the door slamming, foot stamping, pained wailing that punctures the exquisite music. The notion of fidelity which is at the heart of the opera is represented visually by a recurring tattooing motif and some blood-letting: one of the closing images of Act 3 is of a huge forearm, tattooed in gilt with the name ‘Rodelina’, lying askew in the sand beside a giant fist clutching a broken-off sword hilt: ‘Ozymandias’ meets Planet of the Apes.

Jones essays some humorous counterpoints to the prevailing tragic gloom, but they don’t all hit the mark. During the overture, three turning treadmills propel the characters into the dramatic maelstrom, but it’s not so far from such cartoon capers to the farce of Keystone Kops. Indeed, subsequently, when the loyal but ineffectual Unulfo (beautifully sung by Christopher Lowrey), fleeing from his aggressors, spins and swirls along and off the treadmill with the grace of a ballerina, one wonders if he’s auditioning for English National Ballet.

Christopher-Lowrey-c-Jane-Hobson.jpg Christopher Lowrey. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Sometimes, mockery undermines a strong dramatic point, as when Flavio’s rabid gesticulations present a violent charade to Grimoaldo which swerves our attention from the fact that, in daring the tyrant to kill her son - an act which will confirm his dastardliness but which she believes him too cowardly to fulfil - Rodelinda proves herself an equal Machiavellian. Similarly, when she dances a tense tango with Grimoaldo and then taunts him, ‘I loathe you’, the bathos prompted a (surely unintended) chuckle. By Act 3, when Unulfo is accidentally wounded by the imprisoned Bertarido and staggers through the final act - ‘Don’t worry, it won’t be fatal’ - the comic drollery has the upper hand over potentially tragic conflict. One wishes that Jones had had faith that Handel’s own penchant for irony would be sufficient.

The cast are, fortunately, superb, many reprising their roles from the first run. Rebecca Evans captures all of Rodelinda’s dolorous grief and self-examination, untroubled by the heights from which so many of Handel’s phrases start, then fall lamentingly. She imbues her soprano with freshness and warmth to convey the depth of her love for Bertarido, and their Act 2 duet is a musical and emotional peak of the performance.

Rebecca-Evans-1-c-Jane-Hobson.jpgRebecca Evans. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Tim Mead surprised me with the impact and strength of his performance as the exiled King; his always expressive countertenor seems to have found new fullness and depth, and he persuasively communicated Bertarido’s sincerity and self-belief. Bertarido’s aria of despair when he believes that Rodelinda has forsaken him was utterly compelling, sung beneath the fluorescent illuminations of a cocktail bar - the motif was perhaps a nod towards David Alden’s 2004/05 Munich/San Francisco 1930s film noir infused production which presented a similar neon sign, ‘Bar’, at the start of Act 2, above seedy backstreets.

Tim-Mead-c-Jane-Hobson.jpgJuan Sancho and Tim Mead. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Juan Sancho was striking as Grimoaldo; though his tenor is quite light, he made genuine the villain’s inner conflict - between his desire for power and his desire for Rodelinda. The aria in which he reflects on his dilemma - if he has Bertarido killed, he will retain his power but will lose all hope of persuading Rodelinda to marry him; if he frees Bertarido, he will lose both Rodelinda and, most probably, the throne - achieved the seemingly impossible task of arousing some small sympathy for the rogue. Here, though, one problem of Amanda Holden’s crisp translation was emphasised; the English text is sometimes too sparse to convey the inferences of the original Italian. In his self-doubt, Grimoaldo compares his complicated torment to the simple life he imagines a shepherd to lead; the comparison, and the lilting rhythms of the aria which suggest the peace offered by the pastoral, are entirely authentic within an eighteenth-century context, but the rather blunt translation raised an awkward laugh.

Juan-Sancho-2-c-Jane-Hobson.jpgJuan Sancho. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Susan Bickley’s Eduige was sparky and larger-than-life - a bit too Mrs Slocombe (Are You Being Served) for my liking, but the role was well sung. Neal Davies was a terrifically rough-edged Garibaldo without ever sinking into pantomime mode. Actor Matt Casey is given a lot to do, more than Handel probably intended, in the silent role of Flavio, and almost suggested psychopathic tendencies equal to those of his captor.

Susan-Bickley c-Jane-Hobson.jpgSusan Bickley and Rebecca Evans. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Conductor Christian Curnyn guided his instrumentalists through an elegant, attentive reading of the score - there was some lovely, prominent woodwind playing - but it felt at little sedate at times; Act 2, in particular, needed more dramatic impetus.

Handel provides the expected lieto fine, as all sing in praise of the sun which warms the land and brings peace and harmony; but Jones, characteristically, has one final twist up his sleeve. Whether you like this production may well depend on whether you delight in such pouting and piquancy; but, if you enjoy superb Handelian singing then you should get yourself along to the Coliseum before the run finishes on 15th November .

Claire Seymour

Handel: Rodelinda

Rodelinda - Rebecca Evans, Bertarido - Tim Mead, Flavio - Matt Casey, Grimoaldo - Juan Sancho, Eduige - Susan Bickley, Garibaldo - Neal Davies, Unulfo - Christopher Lowrey; director - Richard Jones, revival director - Donna Stirrup, conductor - Christian Curnyn, set designer - Jeremy Herbert, costume designer - Nicky Gillibrand, lighting designer - Mimi Jordan Sherin, choreographer - Sarah Fahie, video designer - Steven Williams, fight director - Bret Yount.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Thursday 26th October 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO-1718-Rodelinda-Matt-Casey-Rebecca-Evans-Tim-Mead-Juan-Sancho-c-Jane-Hobson.jpg image_description=Rodelinda, English National Opera product=yes product_title=Rodelinda, English National Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Matt Casey, Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Juan Sancho

Photo credit: Jane Hobson
Posted by claire_s at 4:54 PM

October 28, 2017

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

In it he replaced the spoken words of the film with recitative, arioso, aria, and an occasional orchestral interlude, the building blocks of opera. Technically, it was not an easy job because Morganelli’s music had to fit into the exact timings of the film.

In April 2015, when Los Angeles Opera asked Morganelli to arrange Hercules vs. Vampires for showing in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he revised it saying, "I completely re-orchestrated the score to take advantage of a bigger orchestra.” He added, "There was about 10 minutes that I was honestly not happy with, so I completely tossed it and wrote new material." Arizona Opera presented Hercules vs. Vampires in its new version on October 21, 2017 at Phoenix’s Symphony Hall.

In the opera, Hercules visits Acalia where blonde and beautiful Princess Dianara should have become queen after the recent death of her father, the king. However, her evil uncle Lycos has put the young woman under a spell and she is too weak to rule. Hercules, played by body builder Reg Park, consults Medea for advice and she tells him he needs to obtain a golden apple from the Hesperides and a living stone from Hades.

Francis Giacobini as Telemachus and George Ardisson as the incredibly handsome Theseus join Hercules on the journey. Eventually they have to sleep and the queen of the Hesperides captures them. Hercules climbs a gigantic tree and grabs the apple but Telemachus and Theseus end up in the clutches of the murderous Procrustes. Hercules saves them and opens up the portal to Hades where the living stone is surrounded by boiling lava.

Having fallen into the lava, Theseus wakes up in the Underworld where he meets Persephone, a brunette almost as charming as Dianara. They fall in love and he hides her on the ship that will take him back home. Eventually, Persephone erases Theseus memories of their love and returns to the Underworld taking the living stone with her. Hercules kills Lycos and saves Dianara as the opera ends.

Although the acting and stage decor in the film were a bit old fashioned, the singing was as new and fresh as a rosebud. I particularly loved Lacy Sauter’s dramatic Dianara and Katrina Galka’s silvery coloratura. As Persephone, Stephanie Sanchez sang velvet tones. Jarrett Porter was a commanding Hercules who faced monsters with commanding robust sound.

Anthony Ciaramitaro was a lyrical Theseus and Justin Carpenter a collegial Kyros. Paul Nicosia was a warm-toned Telemachus while bass-baritones Zachary Owen and Brent Michael Smith broadcast their evil-sounding pronouncements across the wide movie landscape.

Lately audiences are seeing a great many mixtures of opera and film. From full length opera movies, to snippets of film projected into live opera, and new scores for classic films, the mélange works and opera companies are reveling in it. Meanwhile, movie composer Patrick Morganelli is writing an opera that we can hope to experience live in a year or so. It’s all good theater for us to enjoy.

Maria Nockin


Movie Cast/Opera Cast, and Production Information:

Hercules, Reg Par/Jarett Porter, baritone; King Lico, Christopher Lee/Zachery Owen, bass-baritone; Dianara, Leonora Ruffo/Lacy Sauter, soprano; Theseus, George Ardisson/ Anthony Ciaramitaro, tenor; Aretusa, Marisa Belli/Katrina Galka, soprano; Medea, Gaia Germani/Katrina Galka, soprano; Helena, Rosalba Neri/Katrina Galka, soprano; Persephone, Ida Galli, Stephanie Sanchez, mezzo-soprano; Kyros, Mino Doro/Justin Carpenter, tenor, Telemachus, Franco Giacobini/Paul Nicosia, tenor; Procrustes, Brent Michael Smith, bass-baritone; Composer, Patrick Morganelli; Conductor, Shawn Galvin; Lighting, Gregory Allen Hirsch.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Herc.png
image_description=Hercules vs. Vampires [Image courtesy of Arizona Opera]

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product_title=Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera
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product_id=Above: Hercules vs. Vampires [Image courtesy of Arizona Opera]

Posted by maria_n at 10:17 PM

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Notable performances are also given by Matthew Polenzani as the Duke of Mantua and by Rosa Feola as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The siblings Maddalena and Sparafucile are portrayed by Zanda Švēde and Alexander Tsymbalyuk. Count Monterone, Borsa, Count and Countess Ceprano, Marullo, Giovanna, and a page are sung by Todd Thomas, Mario Rojas, Alan Higgs, Whitney Morrison, Takaoki Onishi, Lauren Decker, and Diana Newman. Debut performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago are being given by Mmes. Feola, Švēde, and Morrison as well as by Messrs. Tsymbalyuk, Rojas, and Higgs. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Marco Armiliato, and the Chorus Master is Michael Black. The production is owned by San Francisco Opera and is given under the direction of E. Loren Meeker.



During the orchestral prelude the dramatic tensions in Verdi’s score are revealed by the set design and the positioning of characters. A Renaissance courtyard is suggested by buildings framing either side of the stage. Doorways open out onto the courtyard - which will also function as the interior space of the Duke’s residence - allowing for fluid movements in multiple scenes. As the brass sound ominously, Mr. Kelsey’s Rigoletto emerges from a backdrop reddish glow surrounded by both his professional and domestic environments. While Rigoletto stares blankly forward, the audience is permitted a brief view of the Duke positioned behind Rigoletto with two women of the court in ornate costume. Gradually the light fades on the latter three characters, and the jester dons his fool’s costume and cap. At the conclusion of the prelude, courtiers stream out of the lateral doorways, a backdrop of arches descends, and the lively atmosphere of the Duke’s immoral residence prevails now as an interior.


The brief, first scene of Act One showcasing the Duke’s personality is staged with rapid movement. Interchanges with the courtiers concerning future conquests lead to the Duke’s aria, “Questa o quella” [“This woman or that one”]. Mr. Polenzani sings this aria with emphasis on his character’s determination, ending verses with frequent sustained, top notes; here a greater application of legato could bind the individual lines into an even more credible image. While the Duke searches for the Countess Ceprano, Rigoletto weaves about athletically and comments on the atmosphere of debauchery. Mr. Kelsey’s striking facial expressions and kinetic postures speak for a complete involvement in the role of jester. Kelsey’s voice rises in defiance when threatened by Ceprano, and he declares himself untouchable as “del Duca un protetto” (“a favorite of the Duke”). Once the courtiers conspire with Ceprano to exact revenge on the fool, Count Monterone enters demanding an audience. Mr. Thomas is appropriately stentorian as the nobleman seeking justice for a father’s grief. When Monterone is detained and led away from the court, Polenzani and Kelsey diverge in their reactions, the Duke showing indifference to the nobleman’s curse while the jester is now serious and shaken.


The transition to Rigoletto’s conversation with an assassin at the start of the following scene shows an effective maneuver of the stage. By means of corresponding lighting and blocking, the Duke’s court becomes a dim deserted street with a single, cloaked figure positioned in a doorway. As Rigoletto proceeds homeward, he is lost in thought, still musing on the powerful curse of Monterone. During his change out of jester’s clothing, performed significantly away from the setting of home, the assassin begins a conversation while elaborating on his murderous offer. Mr. Tsymbalyuk’s vibrant and even vocal delivery in describing his practice with Maddalena plants an unforgettable seed in Rigoletto’s complex of thoughts, as if invigorating Kelsey’s cry in his sustained note on “Quel vecchio maledivami!” (“The old man cursed me!”). While shrugging off such concerns from his public life at the court, Rigoletto opens the gate to his private sphere with the baritone’s voice here swelling defiantly to insist “Ah no, è follia!” Rigoletto’s domestic scene with his daughter Gilda shows Kelsey blending singing and acting in a convincing display of protective concern. Ms. Feola’s light voice seems at first especially comfortable in the middle range while she projects in her character both innocence and anticipation. During the course of the touching duet with her father the soprano shows a wider range and greater emotional color. Kelsey stands behind Gilda as a shield while softening top notes to emphasize his paternal affection. Feola’s understated approach gains intensity until the moment of Rigoletto’s departure, nearly coinciding with the arrival of the Duke. In the subsequent duet both singers embellish their lines to indicate a growing emotional attachment. Feola’s expressive delivery of “miei vergini sogni” captures the developing love which has invaded her “maiden dreams,” just as Polenzani intones “fama e gloria” as worthless attributes compared to this new love. At the sounds of Ceprano and other courtiers arriving outside for the planned abduction, the Duke takes leave preparing for lyrical and dramatic highlights that bring the act to a close. First, Gilda’s musing on the alleged name of the Duke in “Caro nome” (“Beloved name”) furnishes the soprano great opportunity for vocal and dramatic display. Feola uses aspirated notes at the start to inject a tone of anticipation into her admission of the quickened pulse of her heart (“festi primo palpitar”). Feola binds phrases gracefully and shows admirable breath control while acting the part of infatuated maiden. Trills are suggested, and top notes are sung cautiously, while phrases are sufficiently varied to create a convincing image. Perhaps the most striking moment in the ensuing drama begins after Rigoletto’s return in the darkness. The courtiers reveal a plan to abduct the wife of Ceprano while concealing their actual goal. Rigoletto is blindfolded and dons a mask so that he assists by holding a ladder to permit access unknowingly to his own home. Only Gilda’s belated cries alert the jester to his mistaken collusion. Kelsey’s portrayal of Rigoletto’s participation is remarkable primarily because of the silently delivered bodily movements and poses. His assumption of the character’s physical impairment is ever-present while he holds the ladder, yet an exaggerated grin of mistaken mischief remains visible beneath the mask. For several heartbreaking moments Kelsey stands alone, gripping the ladder in self-satisfaction, until the offstage cries of his daughter shatter the jester’s domestic world forever.


At the start of Act Two the Duke’s aria enumerating conflicting emotions on loss and recovery is given every possible shade of nuance by Polenzani. His gentle piano notes and introduction of wistful phrasing diminuendo characterize what the Duke feels he no longer possesses. Only after the conspirators reveal their prey does the Duke’s personality revert to the triumph of conquest, a tone invested with lively, vocal decoration in Polenzani’s reprise. The jester’s subsequent appeal to the courtiers that his daughter be released, “Cortigiani,” counts as one of the great baritone solo arias composed by Verdi. Kelsey sings this piece as an anguished lament tinged with desperation when he confronts the falsely trusted Marullo for information on Gilda. Stage lighting in the final moments of this aria emphasizes Rigoletto’s isolation from the courtiers, standing in dim recess, while Kelsey’s voice blooms with emotion on the last “Signori … pietate!” (“My lords … have pity!”). Once Gilda is returned to her father, she confesses the details of her growing infatuation with the nobleman. Tempos in “Tutte le feste” (“On all the holy days”) are taken slowly to encourage Feola’s delineation of a gradual, inescapable affection. In the concluding duet between father and child Kelsey and Feola sing truly as equal voices, the father swearing revenge, while Gilda begs that the Duke be forgiven. The final chilling top note is indeed shared dramatically, yet Kelsey’s ominous “Vendetta di quest’ anima” (“Revenge from my heart”) resounds even longer at the close.


The ensemble pieces of Act Three show in this production Rigoletto’s humble dwelling transformed on stage into the space for Sparafucile’s lair. Gilda and Rigoletto remain outside while the Duke enters and demonstrates, in his approach to Maddalena, the betrayal of Gilda’s innocent love. Polenzani’s performance of “La donna è mobile” (“Women are fickle”) captures the Duke’s swagger ideally, line and top notes securely in place, and with volume modulated throughout the piece to excellent effect. The following quartet (“Bella figlia dell’ amore” [“Fair daughter of love”]) between the pairs outside and inside of Sparfucile’s “rustica osteria” depends, as here, on a mastery of balance among the four singers. Ms. Švēde’s lush and deep repeat of “Ah! Rido ben di core” (“That really makes me laugh”) contrasts notably with Feola’s arching line recognizing betrayal. Gilda’s ultimate decision to sacrifice herself by taking the place of the Duke in her father’s murderous pact with Sparafucile becomes here an inevitable consequence of Rigoletto’s actions and the “maledizione.” (“curse”). Gilda’s love and innocence will remain, at best, as a memory.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Quinn%20Kelsey_RIGOLETTO_LYR171004_175_c.Todd%20Rosenberg.png
image_description=Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]

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product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino
product_id=Above: Quinn Kelsey [Photo © Todd Rosenberg]

Posted by jim_z at 9:43 PM

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

Battered by Hurricane Ophelia during the preceding weekend, this south-east tip of Ireland had suffered power cuts lasting several days, leading to disrupted and abandoned dress rehearsals and countless administrative complications and obstacles. With the power still down just a day before curtain-up on the 66th Wexford Opera Festival, there must have been doubts whether there would be an Opening Night at all. As it was, only the fireworks fell victim to the prevailing gusts and hail (and have been rescheduled for the closing celebrations). This Festival, the tenth in the National Opera House, promised much and did not disappoint, although the hits did not always come from the quarters that one might have expected.

Jacopo Foroni (1825-58) has given Wexford one of its biggest successes in recent years: Stephen Medcalf’s 2013 production of the composer’s Cristina, regina di Svezia garnered great accolades from audiences and critics, and became the deserving winner of the ‘Best Rediscovered Work’ category at the 2014 International Opera Awards. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Artistic Director David Agler has decided to plunder Foroni’s slender operatic catalogue in search of another winner. In the event, Margherita, Foroni’s first opera (composed in 1848 when he was in his early twenties), is no match for Cristina’s musical invention, remarkably coloristic orchestration, stirring characterisation and dramatic persuasiveness; but, it is melodically rich, balances vivacity and comic drollery with theatrical tension, and was given a slick and entertaining presentation by director Michael Sturm and set/costume designer Stefan Rieckhoff.

Giorgio Giachetti’s libretto, based upon Eugène Scribe’s op éra-comique, Marguerite (originally intended to for François-Adrien Boieldieu), has a characterful cast, a central story of frustrated love, and rather too many subplots. Roberto uses his connections to the newly appointed mayor, Ser Matteo, to badger the pretty Margherita, a rich orphan, to marry him. Margherita, however, is in love with the soldier Ernesto; when the latter’s regiment returns from the wars, Ernesto’s sister Giustina begins to plan the forthcoming nuptials. Her preparations are disrupted, however, when Ernesto’s cap is found at a ‘crime scene’ and he is accused of having attacked Count Rodolfo, his colonel, and is arrested; in fact, he was trying to help the Count avoid a duel arising from his own amorous entanglements. With Ernesto holed up in the town gaol, Roberto seizes his chance to bully Margherita: he will engineer her lover’s release if she agrees to marry him. To save Ernesto from the scaffold, she submits to this demand. At a timely moment, Count Rodolfo re-appears and reveals that Ernesto is innocent; the latter is freed but is dismayed to learn that Margherita has proved faithless, until Giustina enlightens him and the lovers are reunited. At which point, the Count once again saves the day when he recognises Roberto as his assailant: the marriage contract is declared null and void, and Roberto is carted off to prison leaving the villagers to sing in praise of the strength of true love.

margherita-adj-clive-barda-resized.jpgThe cast of Margherita.

Rieckhoff’s set, fronted by a semi-transparent drop which adds detail and perspective to the street-corner interchange, cobble-stone piazza and imposing façade of the Church of the Blessed Virgin and Martyrs behind, ingeniously conjures post-WW2 Italy. The girls’ frocks and the chaps’ shirts are a clatter of primary colours as they whizz about on bicycles, gather in the piazza to welcome home the troops, dance and cavort during a celebratory street party, and jostle in the town-hall court-room. Sturm’s choreography is excellent: despite the fact that the stage is often crowded, there is never clutter or stasis, only naturalistic energy and movement. And, he is ably aided by the neat shifts and transformations of Rieckhoff’s set: a tree descends and the backcloth is bathed in night-blue light to evoke a ruined castle; a square of patterned wallpaper is lowered to create an intimate bedroom interior; the chorus nonchalantly carry chairs, beds and tables on and off, creating merry-go-round scene-changes. And, the Wexford Festival Chorus were in fine voice (on 20th October), particularly in the first 20 minutes or so, during which the drama unfolds in a swiftly moving sequence of ensemble scenes (although thereafter Foroni has a tendency to mimic Verdi in rum-te-tum mode).

As the eponymous beauty, Alexandra Volpe revealed a mezzo-soprano that can convey both integrity and mischief: reunited with Ernesto she removes her stocking suspender to adorn his hat with a memento of her love. Margherita’s extended Act 2 aria was a highpoint of the evening: Volpe used the layers of velvety warmth in her voice to make us feel the maligned, sacrificial innocent’s suffering; she was complemented by a beautiful violin obbligato. Giuliana Gianfaldoni was a lively counterpart as the breezy Giustina, relishing her role as the community’s source of gossip and direction. Gianfaldoni’s soprano has enormous power and clarity; and, just when I was beginning to find these qualities a little unalleviated, she reduced her voice to the most exquisite wisp of a pianissimo in the Act 2 duet with Margherita.

GG -clive-barda-resized.jpg Giuliana Gianfaldoni.

Andrew Stenson was a little ‘wooden’ as Ernesto, but perhaps that’s the nature of the role; his tenor was bright and true, however, and one could feel his delight when he nailed the top Cs beautifully in his Act 2 aria, poised on the scaffold, anticipating an undeserved, tragic end. Yuriy Yurchuk gave a masterclass in how, with scant time and space, to inject a role with a profundity not immediately apparent in the action, or indeed the score. Count Rodolfo’s Act 1 aria was both nuanced and psychologically weighty.

As Ser Matteo, the fittingly named Matteo d’Apolito milked the overture-accompanying mime to amusing effect, wandering insouciantly into the piazza swinging a leather briefcase from which he pulled a flask of piping hot coffee and a newspaper, settling himself comfortably into a chair to declare, as the townsfolk celebrated his new appointment, that he’s the perfect job: he intends to stroll, eat and drink and do nothing! The Mayor’s Act 1 duet with his scheming nephew Roberto is engagingly choreographed with both d’Apolito and Filippo Fontana’s indignant Roberto indulging in a panoply of deft comic gestures. Fontana has shown us his comic nous before at Wexford ( Cagnoni - Don Bucefalo ; Nino Rota - Il Capello Di Paglia Di Firenza ) and it’s clear from this performance that he continues to sharpen his skills and his ability to darken his bass as required.

Conductor Timothy Myers kept things bustling along, even when the score lacked originality, and the Wexford Festival Orchestra entered into the spirit of the drama with lightly enunciated playing that was punctuated by exuberant dramatic motifs. At the close, the greying long-johns and vests which had dangled from the overhead clothes’-line at the start were substituted by a primary-coloured fashionable array - all wars, of state and of love, are truly over.

Another, perhaps the biggest, enticement of this Wexford Festival was the prospect of hearing Lise Davidsen sing the title role in Fiona Shaw’s production of Cherubini’s Medea, for which the Norwegian soprano had whetted our appetites at the Wigmore Hall earlier this year. Davidsen was, as anticipated, a towering force blending epic fury, violence and indecision. Sadly, her statuesque grandeur and gravity did not really find a happy home in Shaw’s ‘concept’ of the opera, in which the mundane outweighed the mythic and petulance triumphed over perspicacity.

Davidsen Barda.jpgLise Davidsen.

Shaw seems to have striven to wipe the slate clean of her own, acclaimed theatrical interpretations and embodiments of Euripides’ tragedy: indeed, in an interview reproduced in the Festival programme book she remarks, ‘It’s useful to have Euripides in the hinterland, but I’m starting from scratch, without preconceptions.’ Nothing wrong with that, but alarm bells started ringing when I read that Shaw, anxious not to let her experience of performing (during 2001-03) Deborah Warner’s vision of the play (for which Shaw received the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress and a Tony nomination), had decided to delegate the determining of the visual ‘concept’ to designer Annemarie Woods - do not visual and narrative elements go hand-in-hand?; and, that initial plans had involved turning the preparations for Jason and Glauce’s wedding, which form Act 1, into a ‘hen night’. This idea and setting had then been jettisoned in favour of a gymnasium. And, because the aftermath of the French Revolution was at the forefront of Shaw’s mind - the opera was premiered in 1797 - the obsessive fitness fanatics cum wedding guests swapped their lycra for mock-eighteenth-century hoops, silks, flounces and wigs.

It sounded, and subsequently looked in realisation, somewhat random - and almost entirely trivial. Myths are not simply ‘history’ or ‘stories’; nor is myth a singular mode of thought. Watching this production, I was put in mind of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s remark that myths ‘get thought in man unbeknownst to him’. Surely, there must be some pattern of conceptual thought evident as the mythic tale unfolds? But, Shaw and Woods gave us simply gimmicks, hyperactivity and frippery. Having filled the gym with a display of exercise and rowing machines, they deemed it imperative that all of them be used, incessantly, creating constant visual distraction from the establishment of character and narrative. Champagne was quaffed with abandon. When Medea entered, spoiling the engagement party, she squirted detergent at Creon in a pique of anger, contempt and frustration: perhaps, a single gesture of this nature would have made its mark, but when kitchen-cleaner spray becomes the perennial weapon of choice, disenchantment ensues.

Acts 2 and 3 are set in a dingy bedsit/children’s bedroom which is dominated by a huge rock - described by Shaw as ‘representing the problem of the failure of Jason and Medea’s marriage’ - on which the ghost of Medea’s dead brother is splayed. Volcanic passions, perhaps? This accident-trap is later draped with a red wedding-carpet … only for a cleaner to appear with a carpet-sweeper, thereby puncturing any sense of dignity and regality. As Medea contemplates her revenge she bounces a basket-ball and essays a shot at the hoop - it seems fitting that she misses the target.

Some potentially interesting pathways are opened up at the start. During the overture, Medea’s children play a mime-game which, along with a few words on the house curtain and some childish drawings and squiggles on a white front-drop, fills in the ‘back-story’ - the murder of Medea’s brother, the theft of the Golden Fleece. The latter is given a Damien Hirst-treatment: a glass rectangular box containing the formaldehyde pelt is wheeled on, it’s brown-paper wrapping peeled away for the children’s delectation. Subsequently, however, it’s just a sheepskin rug to be carelessly tossed around.

Thankfully, the cast provided vocal splendour to assuage the visual mish-mash. Davidsen used every inch of her height and every ounce of her vocal heft to convey the all-encompassing force of Medea’s aggrievement, grief and conviction. She was a still centre amid blustery stage business. At times, I questioned the wisdom of such seemingly relentless vocal capaciousness, wondering whether a little less might have been more; but, then the Norwegian soprano turned up the volume still further - what for most would be an effort and an extreme is, for Davidsen, entirely natural. And, she did not neglect Cherubini’s lyricism; moreover, she balanced Medea’s nobility with her very human hesitancy. Davidsen worked hard to make us understand why Medea behaves as she does; the pathos of her final murderous act, the smothering of her children, was deepened when she dragged their pitiful bodies onto the rock, to prevent Jason claiming possession of his dead children. In a different production this would have been a towering performance in all dimensions.

As Medea’s slave, Neris, Raffaella Lupinacci really impressed, singing her Act 2 aria with a haunting penetration which suspended the dramatic haste; her mezzo is beautifully appealing - one wondered how Medea could resist Neris’ pleas, full of both sadness and affection, for her to leave the city of Corinth. Ruth Iniesta’s Glauce was appropriately wary and disturbed in Act 1; Iniesta has an alert lyric soprano, and displayed vocal assuredness, well-centred intonation and strong projection.

Sergey Romanovsky held his own against Davidsen in the two duets for Jason and Medea, finding an almost baritonal colour to match the soprano’s vocal strength. Adam Lau had just the right balance of weight and flexibility as King Creon and - despite his mundane garb - established a regal presence. The children were excellent, never once slipping out of character and, when murdered, lying still with almost unnatural self-discipline for ones so young!

Lise-Davidsen-Rioch-Kinsella-Anthony-Kenna-in-Medea-by-Cherubini-WFO-2017-photo-by-Clive-Barda1-700x455.jpgLise Davidsen, Rioch Kinsella, Anthony Kenna.

Cherubini’s opera is a tragédie lyrique: a noble and elevated drama presented in arias, spoken dialogue (in French), and with opportunities for choruses and ballet. But, in recent times it has become best known to us in the bastardised form performed by Maria Callas: an Italian version, with the original dialogue replaced by the recitatives which Franz Lachner composed thirteen years after Cherubini’s death in 1842. Conductor Stephen Barlow declared their intention to do Cherubini’s original ‘lean, sharp and elegantly classical articulations’ justice: and, the orchestral playing was indeed incisive and pointed, though having adopted the Italian version, the decision to include the odd line or two of spoken dialogue ‘when we believe this is justified - including an extended melodrama of dialogue spoken against and over music when the marriage ceremony is happening offstage’ produced questionable results, tending to hold up the dramatic momentum.

The third of Wexford’s 2017 productions, Franco Alfano’s Risurrezione (1904), rather slipped under the radar in the lead-up to the Festival but, for this listener at least, it was the ‘hit’ of the trio. Best known for his role in completing Puccini’s Turandot, and languishing in the shadow of Puccini and other verismo masters such as Mascagni, Alfano is in fact the composer of nine operas, of which Risurrezione was his first major success. He was in his mid-twenties, making a living writing ballets for the Folies-Bergère, when he read Tolstoy’s novel, Resurrection. Two friends, Camillo Traversi and Cesare Hanau, helped him devise a libretto and five months later the opera was completed.

Each of the four acts centres around an encounter between Prince Dimitri and Katiusha; the latter has been taken into Sofia Ivanovna’s house as a young girl, and has spent her childhood growing up beside her ward’s nephew, under the condescending eye of the servants. When Dimitri returns home, he seduces and then abandons Katiusha; finding herself pregnant and evicted from Ivanovna’s home - ‘contaminated goods’ - she waits at a train station for her beloved, hoping that he will return and redeem her. Espying him with a woman on his arm, she disappears into the snowy night. In Act 3 we learn that she has become a prostitute; wrongly convicted of murder she is awaiting transportation to Siberia when she is visited in prison by Dimitri who, assailed by guilt (he had been on the jury that convicted Katiusha), vows to make amends. Learning that the son she bore has died, the Prince offers to marry her, but the drunken, debauched Katiusha seems beyond redemption. Act 4 takes place in Siberia: Dimitri arrives bearing a pardon for Katiusha but she chooses to marry Simonson, a fellow prisoner, while admitting her unwavering love for Dimitri. Despite his own misery, Dimitri rejoices in Katiusha’s spiritual ‘resurrection’.

Whereas Tolstoy’s novel had, inevitably, a strong political dimension - a critique of the ills inflicted by Russia’s ruling elite - the opera focuses not on the spiritual and ethical rebirth of the noble Prince Dmitri [Nekludoff] but on the fall and redemption of the young girl whom he seduces and abandons - a spiritual ‘resurrection’ may prove discomforting and dissatisfying for the modern viewer. When Katiusha avowed her love for the man who has condemned her to a life of degeneracy, punishment and terrible suffering, her words - ‘You have always been so good to me’ - incited incredulity and irritation in this observer. The Prince has secured her pardon and given her a ‘free choice’: they are now united by their mutual love … but, still, such victimhood sticks in the throat! The final image offered to us by director Rosetta Cucchi and designer Tiziano Santi - a sun-drenched field of wheat in which Katiusha and her younger alter ego, the embodiment of lost innocence who has shadowed Katiusha throughout the drama, dance with freedom and joy - was just too saccharine for my taste, though probably true to Alfano’s conception. One can imagine Janáček being drawn to Tolstoy’s tale - but he’d have engineered a different ending …

On the whole, though, Santi’s sets are persuasive and emotionally probing. The red-glowing warmth of the Russian reception room of Act 1, in which Katiusha is beguiled by Dimitri’s deceitful charming, is replaced by the chill starkness of the lamplit bench on the station platform in Act 2. Impatient passengers loiter and bustle beside glimpses of train track and beneath the oversize clock - an emblem of the terribly slow passing of time experienced by the desperate, though still hopeful, Katiusha. One might have longed for Dimitri and his female acquaintance to have been held for just a fraction longer in Katiusha’s vision, to impress the pain of her abandonment and rejection. But, there was no doubting the biting nip in the air. A black box lined with rows of labour-desks recreated the brutal inhumanity of a Russian prison with discomforting realism in Act 3; one could almost feel the cold gusts piercing through the white cracks. No wonder the condemned women - superbly embodied by the Wexford Festival Chorus - found solace in cigarettes and vodka. Act 4 took us to the white wastes of Siberia, where the pitiless cold cleanses away all past lives and identities.

Much of the success of this production was due to Anne Sophie Duprels’ unwavering commitment in the role of Katiusha. Twice, recently, I have admired Duprels’ unstinting vocal and theatrical integrity ( La Voix humaine ; Zazà ) and here she again excelled and astonished. Scarcely absent from the stage, she encompassed the challenging vocal and dramatic range of the role with assurance, spiralling from gauche impressionability to incipient passion, from abysmal desolation to transcendental ecstasy. Alongside the heart-rending cries and virulent ripostes, Duprels floated some exquisite pianos. She balanced radiance with harshness, and fortitude with vulnerability. This was true singing-acting: no wonder Duprels looked exhausted, overcome and elated in equal measure at the close.

Anne-Sophie-Duprels-Chorus-in-Risurrezione-by-Alfano-WFO-2017-photo-by-Clive-Barda1.jpgAnne Sophie Duprels and Chorus.

At times the drama struck me as Hardy-esque: Katiusha is a sort of hybrid of Madame Butterfly, Pushkin’s Tatiana and Hardy’s Tess; even the opera’s ‘happy ending’ seems a parallel of the uncomfortable marriage of Angel Clare and Liza-Lu at the close of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So, it seemed fitting when tenor Gerard Schneider first entered, debonair in boots, breeches and blue frock-coat, looking unnervingly like a cross between Terence Stamp’s Sergeant Troy and Leigh Lawson’s Alec Stokes-d’Urberville! Schneider sang with honeyed warmth - in fact, so beautiful was his tone that at times it was difficult to remember that Dimitri has behaved with selfish, reckless irresponsibility. Perhaps that’s the point: Schneider just about pulled off the difficult task of making us feel some sympathy for the abusing aristocrat; after all, as he says when he finds Katiusha in prison, debauched, degenerated, utterly ‘spoiled’, it is his Calvary that begins here too.

Dmitri and Katiusha.jpg Gerard Schneider and Anne Sophie Duprels.

Given that he had only moments to establish Simonson’s character, baritone Charles Rice gave an astonishingly captivating performance as the compassionate prisoner and his Act 4 aria was incredibly moving. Louise Innes (Sofia Ivanovna), Veta Pilipenko (Korableva/Vera) and, especially, Henry Grant Kerswell (Kritzloff/Contadino) were all dramatically persuasive. Romina Tomasoni made a strong impression as Ivanovna’s supercilious housekeeper, Matrena Pavlovna, and as Katuishka’s confidante, Anna. Her performance was all the more admirable given that Tomasoni had stepped in at short notice just a few hours before to replace the indisposed Andrew Stenson, presenting a stunningly vibrant lunchtime recital in St Iberius Church. Tomasoni’s programme ranged from a Vivaldi lament and Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (Almira), which showcased her idiomatic and expressive ornamentation, through embodiments of Cherubino, Charlotte (Werther), Carmen and Rosina ( Il barbiere). But, it was Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne - suavely phrased with imperceptible registral shifts and richly layered tone - which brought the house down: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer performing a lunchtime recital at Wexford receive a standing ovation before the final item.

Although one feels the shadow of Puccini resting on Alfano’s score, the composer undoubtedly had an unerring instinct for the telling melodic motif which could push down the dramatic and emotional accelerator - often to the floor! - and under conductor Francesco Cilluffo the WFO played with impassioned richness and deep, vibrant colour. At the close, I would happily have gone back to the beginning for a repeat performance.

Wexford also offered us the customary three Short Works (performed in Clayton Whites Hotel) and, again, one couldn’t confidently place a bet where the riches might lie. Perhaps the most enticing proposition was Andrew Synnott’s new double bill of two of Joyce’s stories from Dubliners, ‘Counterparts’ and ‘The Boarding House’, directed by Annabelle Comyn and designed by Paul O’Mahony. (This is a co-production with Opera Theatre Company which will be performed at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, 9th-11th November.) The performance I attended (20 th October) received a very warm, appreciative reception, and my own slight misgivings probably stemmed from my familiarity with the literary texts. But, any operatic adaptation inevitably necessitates alterations and shifts in emphasis, and both design and delivery were strong.

Joyce’s ‘Counterparts’ focuses on the economic and emotional stagnation that results from meaningless, repetitive working-life in early-twentieth-century Dublin. The title refers to the endless/pointless copying of legal documents undertaken by those such as the protagonist, Farrington, an infinite repetition that is echoed in the ‘rounds’ that are bought in the public house after work each evening, paradoxically, to assuage the Dubliners’ paralysis. O’Mahony’s clever set shifted almost imperceptibly from the claustrophobic office where Farrington is bullied and humiliated by his superior, Mr Alleyne, to the public house where he is humbled by the arm-wrestler, Weathers, the typewriters whipped from the marble topped tables and replaced by a tumble of glasses and bottles.

Cormac Lawlor was superb as Farrington: comically incompetent, pitifully vulnerable, shamefully irresponsible, tragically aggressive. Left alone in the office at the end of the day, Farrington’s lament about his lack of opportunity and money was especially probing; pathetically, he pawns his watch to buy the alcohol on which he is dependent, but which will not even provide him with the solace of inebriation. Arthur Riordan has adapted Joyce’s text and isolates particular phrases and lines to good effect: Farrington’s ‘Blast him!’ is rather over-used, but the protagonist’s riposte to his domineering employer’s question, ‘Do you think me an utter fool?’ - ‘I don’t think sir, that that’s a fair question to put to me’ - is effectively employed to create a vibrant ensemble of disdainful reflection.

Dubliners.jpgDubliners.

Andrew Gavin was a striking Mr Alleyne, pomposity and puerility embodied; and Gavin - like all the cast, taking multiple roles - needed barely moments, just a change of jacket, a loosening of tie, to transform himself into Farrington’s drinking partner, O’Halloran. Gavin had performed earlier that day alongside soprano Sinead Campbell, in a lunchtime programme, The Thomas Moore Songbook, compiled, presented and accompanied by Una Hunt, which showcased diverse settings of Moore’s songs, from authentic folk ballads to art songs by composers ranging from Stanford to Duparc. Gavin was at his best in Schumann’s Venetian airs, drawn from the composer’s Myrthen cycle, where the tenor’s strong sense of line and articulate diction was showcased; Campbell’s performance of Duparc’s ‘Élégie’ impressively negotiated the song’s wide range, extended phrases and sustained tones.

The need to alleviate the prevailingly male vocal roles in ‘Counterparts’ was accomplished by casting soprano Anna Jeffers as Weathers, a portrait of masculine conceit and arrogance, a role which she carried off with aplomb. Emma Nash was a vibrant presence as the rich client Mrs Delacour, the flirtatious barmaid, and as Farrington’s vulnerable, pyjama-clad son Tom who, having let the fire go out in his mother’s absence (she is at chapel), earns a beating from his father. Rory Beaton’s lighting was appropriately discomforting at this point. There was, however, little sense of Joyce’s bitter critique of Catholicism at the close, a significant dimension of the story, when Tom tells his father that if he stops beating him, he will say a Hail Mary for him.

Synnott’s score - for piano and string quartet - to some extent mimics Joyce’s representation of ‘paralysis’, comprising as it does a mosaic of ostinato fragments, assembled like a jig-saw; any one of which may be dramatically illustrative but which, together, do not really form a coherent whole. The text setting is Britten-esque which some effective rhythmic displacements, but multi-syllabic words tend to be rushed; when we need to hear the text, the accompaniment is appropriately and effectively reduced to a medley of sustained strings, piano chord punctuations and pizzicato interjections.

There was one major change to the narrative of ‘The Boarding House’ which significantly altered the perspective and satire, and reduced the ironic weight of the ending. In this story, unusually, Joyce takes us to a world dominated and organised by women: Mrs Mooney, a butcher’s daughter, is, Joyce tells us ‘a determined woman’: her husband ‘drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt’, and when he ‘went for his wife with the cleaver’, Mrs Mooney ‘went to the priest and got a separation from him with care of the children’. O’Mahony attests to Mrs Mooney’s background via the carcasses, cleavers and hand-saws that hang behind the glass, replacing the whiskey bottles of ‘Counterparts’; and the carving knife that rests menacing alongside the hunk of dinner-time meat tells its own tale. But, the libretto does not fully convey Mrs Mooney’s striking power, as a woman, in a patriarchal, Catholic society - a power which has led her to self-determination.

Synnott and O’Mahony turn Mrs Mooney’s son, Jack, into our ‘narrator’ - a self-confessed cad who is, in his own words, as quick with his wits as he is with his mitts; but Jack doesn’t inform us of Mrs Mooney’s rapacious intent to marry her daughter off to one of their unsuspecting boarders - a Mr Doran, who is ‘not rakish or loud-voiced like the others’ - by demanding ‘reparation’ for the deflowerment of her daughter. Joyce presents marriage as a ‘trap’, sprung by a conniving mother and her daughter on a sober young man; whereas the opera presents Mrs Mooney as oppressive and disapproving of her daughter, Joyce makes clear that Polly has been nudged towards her fate by her mother. Mr Doran agrees to marry the girl he has, almost inadvertently, kissed, out of concern for conventional morality and fear of losing a lucrative position - not, as in the opera, because he fears the reprobation of his family. ‘[H]is instinct urged him to remain free’ and he ‘had a notion he was being had’, but he cannot face the realities and risks of action - he is another of Joyce’s paralysed Dubliners. At the close of Joyce’s tale, Polly has convinced herself that marriage will bring her happiness; at the close of the opera, recognising her husband-to-be’s sadness, she is served up like a sacrificial lamb. She is, in Joyce’s tale, sacrificed at the altar of her mother’s greed, but she does not realise it; hence, Synnott and Riordan deprive the tale of its most painful irony.

Despite this, we are again presented with a striking, swift dramatic skewering of pretence and hypocrisy. Anna Jeffers was a fearsome Mrs Mooney, Emma Nash a charming blend of ingenue and seductive opportunist. By repeatedly seating ‘Bob’ [Doran] (Andrew Gavin) with his back to the audience - as during Mrs Mooney’s interrogation of her daughter, or when Polly urges Doran to resolve the dilemma - Comyn mimics the reticence of Joyce’s narrator in revealing Doran’s feelings. The boot of Jack Mooney on the kitchen table was, I felt, an unnecessarily aggressive presence; the threat to Mr Doran’s public reputation at work and within the Church - Joyce tells us that ‘he had been employed for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine-merchant’s office’ and that the ‘recollection of his confession of the night before was a cause of acute pain to him’ - is sufficient to make a man of Mr Doran’s conformist inclinations cower. Overall, though, these were compelling dramatic vignettes: perhaps they might benefit from expansion - each story seems to hold a wealth of nuance and inference, worthy of a more extended treatment.

Rossini’s La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder), a one-act farsa comica in fifteen scenes, is mostly known to audience for its spirited overture, and its panoply of secret rendezvous and mistaken identities promised more insouciant entertainment the following afternoon. Written in 1812 when the composer was only 20 years old, the opera’s plot and characters are rooted in the commedia tradition. Giulia, an opera singer, has secretly married Dorvil, against her guardian Dormont’s wishes, and each night lets down the eponymous silken ladder so that he may climb into her room. Dormont wishes his charge to marry Blansac; his old retainer, Germano, spies on the amorous intriguers. Much misunderstanding and meddling ensue but eventually Giulio tricks Blansac into falling for her cousin Lucilla and all ends well.

Luca Dalbosco’s over-elaborate set - more bordello than back-stage boudoir, with countless ladders draped in silk, a chaise-longue and an over-laden dressing-table crammed onto the platform - made things even more complicated than they need have been, and potentially treacherous for the cast. The overture (played by music director Tina Chang, who had accompanied Tomasoni with similar unassuming accuracy and grace just a few hours earlier), was neatly dramatised by director Nathan Troup. Germano (Filippo Fontana), crept in bearing the diva’s flowers and chocolates, and finding the latter to his distaste hastily shoved a half-eaten sweet back into the box before Giulia’s (Galina Bakalova) arrival. Bakalova donned a towering wig and passed through the stage curtain erected stage left, to perform to a posse of adoring fans whose slow-motion clapping and rose-throwing was visible through the open curtain. This swiftly established where the egos and eccentricities lay, but thereafter the crowded platform proved impractical for deft comic gesture. There were not many laughs to be had and it did not help that Rory Beaton’s red-hued, dim lighting seemed to cast a patina of grey over the characters, though perhaps that was just a peculiarity of the angle from which I was viewing the action.

The cast were rather uneven. Best of the bunch was Fontana, whose Germano was a mixture of drollery and dunceness. The role comprises a lot of recitative and here, and in the numerous duets with Giulia, Fontana proved himself a strong singer-actor; he had to wait a while for his aria moment, but when it came ‘Amore Dolcemente’ was full of lyric charm and accurately sung, with firm, full tone. Chase Hopkin’s Dormant was also a strong, convincing presence (despite being lumbered with a silly, spiralling goatee) and Cecilia Gaetani made much of the small role of Lucilla singing her aria, ‘Sento talor nell’anima’, with grace and clarity.

As Giulia, Bakalova acted with spirit and sparkle, but her soprano was often shrill and hard; she whipped through the coloratura precisely, but did not win our sympathy for the flustered diva. Ji Hyun Kim struggled with Dorvil’s ardent tenor aria, ‘Vedro qual Sommo Incanto’; the dynamics were unsubtle, the intonation strayed, and the bravura section went entirely adrift. I’ve heard and enjoyed the Korean tenor’s performances at the ROH, where he was a Jette Parker Young Artist, many times, so perhaps this was just a case of first-performance nerves.

Some of the ensembles were ragged, but the finale scene, which saw the entire cast tied up with the silken ladder before they wriggled free from Dormant’s clutches and accusations, bubbled nicely. Overall, though, the production fell rather flat. Thank goodness for Fontana who, despite Germano’s incompetence, proved an utterly safe pair of hands at the core of the drama.

That just left Rigoletto to complete the trio of Short Works. One might be forgiven for agreeing with director Roberto Recchia who, in his programme note, wrote of this most well-known of Verdi’s operas, ‘What is left to be said by the poor director?’ But, that would be to under-estimate Recchia who has proved year after year at Wexford that he can be relied on to distil the essence of a work and communicate it to the audience with precision, focus and impact. Here, his answer to his own question was pertinent: ‘Maybe nothing, if not digging as deep as possible into every character.’ And, Recchia was ably aided by his talented cast, most particularly by his hunch-backed, vengeful jester.

Together with his stage/costume designer, Dalbosco, and lighting designer, Beaton, Recchia offered a masterclass in just how much can be achieved with minimal means: and, the Act 3 Quartet was the pinnacle of such discerning visual and dramatic conception. Prevailing shadows and swirling mist conjured a sinister mien, which was intensified by the menacing carnival masks donned by the Duke’s courtiers - a threatening band of vicious rabble-rousers - and Rigoletto himself. Just two black blocks were required to evoke the ducal palace, raising Aidan Coburn’s preening Duke of Mantua to a position of worshipful elevation. As Recchia says, we all know ‘what happens’: and he foreshadowed the tragic outcome of Monterone’s curse in the opening visual image - a body-bag centre-forestage, over which a distraught figure bowed in grief before lifting his burden and bearing it through the curtain at the rear. The subsequent reprise of this image was replete with pain and pathos.

Occasionally I felt that Music Director Giorgio D’alonzo pushed the tempo along a little too impetuously in the ensembles; but, the pared-down performance, lasting 90 minutes, told a clear tale and the singers were well cast. Coburn has plentiful bright ring and rattled off ‘La donna è mobile’ with confidence and éclat. Thomas D Hopkinson was a forceful presence as Monterone, his dreadful bitterness apparent in the dark hues of Hopkinson’s bass. Toni Nežić has quite a light-weight voice for Sparafucile, but it’s an appealing sound and he acted convincingly; this was no cardboard cut-out villain, but a three-dimensional, conflicted rogue who retained some small sense of moral integrity. As Maddalena, Veta Pilipenko revealed a richly coloured full mezzo-soprano; when she begged Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life it was easy to believe that she was motivated by genuine love. The minor roles - Giovanna (Vivien Conacher), Count Ceprano (Malachy Frame), Matteo Borsa (Simon Chalford Gilkes) and Marullo (Steven Griffin) were all more than competently filled.

Giuliana Gianfaldoni was the vocal and visual embodiment of ‘goodness’; Gilda’s love for her father was fiercely communicated; her silky, pure soprano caressed ‘Caro nome’, and the ornamentation was angelically clean and sweet. But, it was Charles Rice’s Rigoletto who held the audience rapt; this was a tremendously committed performance, as detailed vocally as it was dramatically. This Rigoletto held his crooked body at an angle from his condescending tormentors; masked or not, his face was bent slightly downwards - he never allowed himself to catch their eyes. Every word was clear and made to serve the characterisation. Rice’s baritone is full of different hues and textures, and we heard them all; perhaps a little more light and shade in terms of dynamics might have been the icing on the cake, but who could fault such a committed, captivating performance? Rice looked both overjoyed and overcome at the close; he fully deserved his ovation.

And so my 2017 Wexford Festival drew to a close all too quickly, with only the thought of next year’s programme to cheer me up! In 2018, once again eschewing German repertoire, David Agler has chosen to present a double bill of Saint-Saëns’La Princesse Jaune and Franco Leoni’s L’oracolo, Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, and the original version of Gounod’s Faust.

Claire Seymour

Foroni: Margherita (20th October)
Conte Rodolfo - Yuriy Yurchuk, Ser Matteo - Matteo d’Apolito, Margherita - Alessandra Volpe, Ernesto - Andrew Stenson, Giustina - Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Roberto - Filippo Fontana, Gasparo - Ji Hyun Kim; Director - Michael Sturm, Conductor - Timothy Myers, Set and Costume Designer - Stefan Rieckhoff, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood.

Alfano: Risurrezione (21st October)
Prince Dimitri - Gerard Schneider, Katiusha - Anne Sophie Duprels, Simonson - Charles Rice, Governanate/Anna - Romina Tomasoni, Sofia Ivanovna - Louise Innes; Director - Rosetta Cucchi, Conductor - Francesco Cilluffo, Set Designer - Tiziano Santi, Costume Designer - Claudia Pernighotti, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood.

Cherubini: Medea (22nd October)
Medea - Lise Davidsen, Glauce - Ruth Iniesta, Neris - Raffaella Lupinacci, Jason - Sergey Romanovsky, King Creon - Adam Lau; Director - Fiona Shaw, Conductor - Stephen Barlow, Set and Costume Designer - Annemarie Woods, Assistant Director - Ella Marchment, Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood, Choreographer - Kim Brandstrup.

Synnott: Dubliners (20th October)
Polly/Mrs Delacour/Barmaid/Tom - Emma Nash, Mother/Weathers - Anna Jeffers, Bob/Alleyne/O'Halloran - Andrew Gavin, Jack/Flynn - David Howes, Higgins - Peter O' Donohue, Farrington - Cormac Lawlor; Stage Director - Annabelle Comyn, Music Director - Andrew Synnott, Set Designer - Paul O'Mahony, Costume Designer - Joan O'Clery, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

Rossini: La Scala di seta (21st October)
Dormont - Chase Hopkins, Giulia - Galina Bakalova, Lucilla - Cecilia Gaetani, Dorvil - Ji Hyun Kim, Blansac - Nicholas Morton, Germano - Filippo Fontano; Stage Director - Nathan Troup, Music Director - Tina Chang, Stage & Costume Designer - Luca Dalbosco, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

Verdi: Rigoletto (22nd October)
Rigoletto - Charles Rice, Gilda - Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Duke of Mantua - Aidan Coburn, Sparafucile - Toni Nežić, Maddalena - Veta Pilipenko, Giovanna - Vivien Conacher, Count Ceprano - Malachy Frame, Matteo Borsa - Simon Gilkes, Count Monterone - Thomas D Hopkinson, Marullo - Steven Griffin; Stage Director - Roberto Recchia, Music Director - Giorgio D’alonzo, Stage & Costume Director - Luca Dalbosco, Lighting Designer - Rory Beaton.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Risurrezione%20final%20image.jpg image_description=Wexford Festival Opera, 2017 product=yes product_title=Wexford Festival Opera, 2017 product_by=A review Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Anne Sophie Duprels (the closing image of Risurrezione)

Photo credit: all images by Clive Barda
Posted by claire_s at 10:48 AM

October 26, 2017

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King's Consort at the Wigmore Hall

Framed at the centre of the platform by bass violist Reiko Ichise and theorbo player Lynda Sayce, with violinists Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel to right and left, and Robert King’s harpsichord and chamber organ to the rear, Sampson looked and sounded the epitome of elegance and expressiveness. Her smoothly polished soprano is a perfect fit for Purcell’s melodic fecundity. The tone was clear as a bell, the diction superb: the words seemed to float on the melody. And, the purity and easefulness of Sampson’s sound production is wonderfully suited to Purcell’s rhythmic shifts and quirks which were pliantly absorbed into the flowing phrases. Moreover, while Sampson’s tone is unblemished it is never colourless: she imbued the clean line with judicious expressive radiance.

The programme alternated some of Purcell’s ‘greatest hits’ with instrumental sonatas, largely drawn from the Ten Sonatas in Four Parts that Purcell’s wife, Frances, published in 1697, two years after her husband’s untimely death. The first and third of the composer’s three settings of Colonel Henry Heveningham’s ‘If music be the food of love’ bookended the performance. In the 1692 setting, Purcell often assigns two notes to each syllable and Sampson flowed freely through the relaxed vocal line, accompanied by bass viol, theorbo and harpsichord. The third setting, dating from three years later, is more extravagant and elated, and here Sampson’s melismatic elaborations had a delightful ‘slipperiness’ which captured the poet-speaker’s excited appeals; the latter were echoed in Ichise’s vivacious but eloquent bass viol line.

The tempo of ‘Music for a while’ seemed to me to be fairly swift and the angular ground bass unfurled with compelling forward motion as it searched for new harmonic terrain and then retreated to home ground in an unceasing exploratory cycle. Similarly, the vocal line seemed to be perpetually striving towards something just out of reach, the small leaping motifs creating energy and brightness. When the peaks are reached many of the vocal phrases slip down scalically, and the flowing tempo helped Sampson create a fluid, silky vocal line and to integrate the shifts of register into a sinuous whole which was enriched by plangent instrumental suspensions.

The text for ‘Not all my torments can your pity move’ is just four lines long, but Purcell manages to traverse a wide emotional landscape. Above the grave, slow-moving bass line, Sampson sang with recitative-like freedom at the start, flourishing through Purcell’s melismatic rhetoric in the opening line to convey the anguish of the rejected poet-speaker’s unrequited love, a biting pain which seems to deepen with the extended, more angular repetition. The contrasting simplicity of the monosyllabic directness of ‘your scorn’ was thus a more pressing assertion of an angry despair which overflowed in the impassioned excess of ‘increases with my love’. ‘Yet to the grave I will my sorrow bear’ sank to the depths, yet Sampson’s voice remained full of emotive weight; and, while there was vigour in the hopeful repetition of ‘I love’, the final melisma was a cry of desolation. This was wonderfully dramatic, communicative singing.

Ichise’s ground bass again created a fluent momentum in ‘O! fair Cedaria’, which complemented the freedom and grace of Sampson’s opening melisma, while the gracefulness of the soprano’s ornamentation was an exquisite embodiment of the ‘beauty and charms’ which shine so dangerously from Cedaria’s visage. Again, lovely interaction between voice and bass viol created a beguiling lyrical rhetoric, suggestive of the enslavement of one who ‘Unless I may your favour have/[cannot] one moment live’, an almost delightful torture which was emphasised by the major/minor harmonic tensions and the sustained sequences played by the organ and theorbo which underpin the final magical vocal descent.

Such cares were swept aware by the unadorned purity and melodicism of ‘Fairest Isle’, in which the two violins provided invigorating inter-verse reflections, the two fiddlers injecting freshness and life through interesting bowing which created a sense of airiness and lift, above the lightly tripping harpsichord. King chose the chamber organ to accompany ‘O solitude’ but there was no sense of ‘heaviness’, particularly as Sampson’s isolated single-syllable utterances were so perfectly placed and the rises in the vocal line were infused with a frisson of brightness. She withdrew to an enchantingly delicate pianissimo, though, when reflecting on her own ‘fancy’ - ‘I hate it for that reason too,/Because it needs must hinder me/From seeing and from serving thee’ - and the tierce de Picardie in the final phrase, ‘O solitude, O how I solitude adore’, evoked the self-reflective indulgence of the poet-speaker.

‘Incassum Lesbia, incassum rogas’ (In vain, Lesbia, do you beseech me), written following the death of Queen Mary in December 1694, was a highlight of the recital. In the framing recitative-like sections Purcell employs every rhetorical harmonic and rhythmic gesture in his arsenal to communicate unassuageable grief. Sampson relished the dissonant cries and sobs, which were paradoxically both sweet and sorrowful, a dualism complemented by the instrumental swings between major and minor harmonies. In contrast, the central aria ‘En nymphas! En pastores!’ (Lo, the nymphs, lo the shepherds) lilted flowingly, and the dark colours which saturated the final lines were assuaged by the warmth and stability of the final image of the Queen’s ‘star’, which ‘Shines on in the heavens’.

The final item, ‘If love’s a sweet passion’, was given persuasive direction by the bass viol and enlivened by the contributions of the two violins. We had had the opportunity to enjoy the instrumentalists’ conversation in the Sonatas which had intervened between the vocal numbers. The King’s Consort combined precision and flexibility, creating varied textures and timbres within single sonatas. Yet, even when the harmonic dissonances created density there was a prevailing lightness which allowed the interplay between instruments to come to the fore, as in the Allegro of the Trio Sonata in G minor, or the Canzona of the Sonata of Four Parts in A minor. Elsewhere, there was a seamless blending, as in the beautiful evenness and serenity of the Largo which closes the Sonata in D Minor. The instrumentalists did not overlook even the slightest harmonic nuance, and guided unobtrusively by King used Purcell’s myriad harmonic devices and discordances - the yearning suspensions of theLargo of the Sonata in B minor were particularly telling - to create rhythmic impetus and build coherent forms from diverse parts.

The Sonata in F major which opened the second half of the concert was especially appealing, with second violinist Huw Daniel making a lively contribution in the Canzona and ensuing Grave, the violins’ dialogue creating a sense of ‘theatre’ - fitting for a work commonly known as the ‘Golden’ Sonata. Here, too, the bass viol line was full of vigour and freedom; indeed, King reminded us in a programme note that the sonatas had initially been written in three parts but that a separate basso continuo part had been added - for ‘the Organ or Harpsecord’ - which strengths the harmonic foundations of the sonatas and enhances the chromatic colouring so characteristic of the composer’s harmonic language.

The full house at the Wigmore Hall were warmly appreciative at the close, and when King disturbed the symmetry of the WH florist’s platform adornments, plucking a red bloom to bestow upon the unassuming Sampson, the gesture seemed an appropriate mirror of our own gratitude and admiration.

Claire Seymour

The Genius of Purcell : The King’s Consort - Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Cecilia Bernardini & Huw Daniel (violins), Reiko Ichise (bass viol), Lynda Sayce (theorbo), Robert King (harpsichord & chamber organ)

Henry Purcell: Sonata of Four Parts in A minor Z804, ‘If music be the food of love’ (first setting), ‘Music for a while’, Trio Sonata in G minor Z780, ‘Not all my torments’, ‘O! Fair Cedaria’, Sonata of Four Parts in D minor Z805, ‘Fairest Isle’, Sonata of Four Parts in F Major Z810, ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, Sonata of Four Parts in G minor Z807 (Adagio), ‘Incassum Lesbia’ (The Queen’s Epicedium), Sonata of Four Parts in B minor Z809, ‘If music be the food of love’ (third setting), ‘If love’s a sweet passion’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 25th October 2017 image=http://www.operatoday.com/Carolyn%20Sampson%20credit-Marco-Borggreve.jpg image_description=The Genius of PurcellCarolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title=The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall product_by=Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Carolyn Sampson

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Posted by claire_s at 5:50 AM

October 23, 2017

Opera Rara - How to Rescue a Lost Opera


Opera Rara - How to Rescue a Lost Opera from Opera Rara on Vimeo.

Posted by Gary at 9:53 PM

October 18, 2017

Hans Werner Henze : Kammermusik 1958

A landmark recording because it reflects the Scharoun Ensemble's years of experience with Henze and his music. Their relationship began in 1983, shortly after the ensemble was formed. Kammermusik 1958 is one of their signature pieces. "It soon became clear" they write "that the composer's interpretation of Kammermusik 1958 was freer than the written score. Henze took some tempi more slowly, which resulted in more songful, indeed quite romantic music". This performance is outstanding, more assured and more idiomatic than the original recording made in November 1958 with Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Though Henze himself conducted that premiere, he was young, still very much in thrall to Britten, Pears and their cliquey circles. As Henze developed, he became himself, finding the freer, more poetic approach this recording honours. Obviously the first recording is part of the archive, but this new performance opens horizons: very much in the spirit of the poetry of Hölderlin's text and of Henze's mature work. This performance also uses Henze's 1963 revision of the score.

Kammermusik 1958 is also a landmark because it represents a period in which Henze made a creative breakthrough. It connects to the sensuality of Undine and to the esoteric Being Beauteous, but also explores ideas which Henze would develop in later years. The piece begins with a horn call, which is repeated more quietly, as if in response — a deliberate reference to Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Almost immediately, though, Henze breaks into new territory — long, shimmering lines that seem to stretch into endless space. The clarinet leads, like the call of a shepherd's flute sounding out over distance.

From this evolves the first song with its long, arching lines that rise expansively, accompanied by guitar. The text is abstract, almost impressionistic in its evocation of colour and mood. "In lieblicher Blue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchtum." Hölderlin in his tower, singing to the moon, Andrew Staples and Jürgen Ruck, eternal troubadours. Hölderlin's poetry fascinates modern composers.This particular hymn has also been set by Wilhelm Killmayer and Julian Anderson (whose version will be heard 21/10/17 at the Barbican.) Staples's singing is pristine, for "Reinheit aber ist auch Schönheit". Two Tentos for solo guitar frame the second song in which Henze sets another section of Hölderlin's hymn. Innen aus verschiedenem entsteht, where the poet connects humble mankind with the vastness of the universe. "als der Mensch, der heisset ein Bild der Gottheit". Ruck's playing creates intimacy, cradling the song with protective warmth. It also recreates the flowing rhythms of Tento I which Henze titled "Du schönes Bächlein", a reference to images in the text, which resurface in the third song, where the pace picks up. Staples sings the phrase "Du schönes Bächlein" with minimal accompaniment, as if the poet were transfixed by a vision.

As the voice falls silent, the ensemble emerge in a short Sonata for the ensemble, brisk, turbulent figures that seem to have a life of their own. "Möcht ich ein Komet sein?" Staples sings. Key phrases like "eine schöne Jungfrau" deliciously savoured. The final line "Myrten aber gibt es in Greichenland" shone with intense light, for this epitomizes Hölderlin's concepts of beauty, from the ideals of antiquity far into the future. For Henze, the guitar is more than a “Mediterranean" device. It connects to the lute of Orpheus and all that implied in classical mythology. An inventive cadenza, where the strings dance and cor and bassoon moan, until strong chords in ensemble introduce the next song, "Wenn einer in den Spiegel siehet". which flows with great freedom, as if the clarity of the mirror were drawing ideas into sharper focus. The tento for guitar, which follows, is titled "Sohn Laios" which connects to the references to Oedipus in this and the final song, "Wie Bäche reißt des Ende von Etwas mich dahin". Henze creates a stream of consciousness, weaving text, music, ideas and images together in a stream that's at once elusive yet intriguing. Hölderlin contemplates the destiny of suffering. "Leben ist Tod , und Tod ist auch ein Leben". Long, plaintive vocal lines,yet oddly affirmative, merging into a beautiful wind melody, which might suggest ancient flutes. Horn, cor, bassoon and contrabass create mysterious atmosphere, lightened by strings. This last Epilogue, added by Henze in1963, is extraordinarily moving, very "inwards", true to Hölderlin and his visionary imagination. In the notes, Jürgen Ruck comments on the connections between the Oedipus legend and Henze's socio-political views and his work in music theatre. In some ways, the Oedipus theme might also apply to other things in Henze's life, including his relationship to Britten.

The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin paired this Henze Kammermusik 1958 with Henze's Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge (183/1996) for Bassoon, Guitar and String Trio. Excellent choice, for these extend the idea of Arcadian "Shepherd" songs and fit well with Hölderlin. These songs were premiered by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin in 1997, presumably with Henze himself in attendance.

Anne Ozorio

      

image=http://www.operatoday.com/7198_t.png image_description=Tudor 7198 [CD] product=yes product_title=Hans Werner Henze : Kammermusik 1958, Neue Volkslieder und Hirtengesänge product_by=Andrew Staples, Tenor; Markus Weidmann, Fagott; Jürgen Ruck, Gitarre; Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. Daniel Harding, Dirigent product_id=Tudor 7198 [CD] price=€15.99 product_url=https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/classic/detail/-/art/neue-volkslieder-und-hirtengesaenge/hnum/6882747
Posted by iconoclast at 5:18 PM

October 15, 2017

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

Conductor Oliver Zeffman is taking the members of the Melos Sinfonia - the ensemble which he founded at the age of just sixteen - and a cast of young soloists (Lauren Fagan, Ross Ramgobin, Patrick Terry, Bethan Langford and Nick Pritchard) through their paces as they prepare the concert staging of the opera that they will present in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg in the coming days.

In contrast to many new operas, Written on Skin has not been condemned to post-premiere obscurity and since the first production at Aix in 2012 it has travelled far and wide, receiving two stagings at Covent Garden, in 2013 and earlier this year . I ask Oliver Zeffman what drew him to the opera - which, with its large orchestra which includes a panoply of percussion, glass harmonica and bass viol among its coloristic palette, presents considerable logistical challenges. A semi-staged performance at the Barbican in 2016 with composer Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra evidently had him hooked: Oliver passionately extols - at the breakneck tempo which is evidently his default mode - the riches of the score and, most especially, the disturbing ‘precision’ of Martin Crimp’s visceral libretto, offering snatches to illustrate: ‘Strip the cities of brick’, ‘Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Blind him with it! Make him cry blood!’

Reviewing Written on Skin at the ROH in January this year, I described it as ‘spare, harrowing and unsettling’. Crimp’s tale blends sensuality and sadism, retelling a medieval Provence legend from a contemporary vantage point. The librettist himself has described his ‘instinctive desire to allow our contemporary world to bleed through the drama. Hence my invention of the 21st century angels who initiate and provoke the action and even - in the case of the Boy enter into it’, and we are constantly shifted from medieval to modern by reference to contemporary settings such as a shopping mall or a ‘Saturday car park’. The text juxtaposes the religious with the erotic and conjures a poetic register which is both timeless and of our time; refined yet ruthless. The shocking close of the opera perfectly illustrates this, as Agnes taunts her abusive husband, The Protector, who has just forced her to eat her lover’s heart: ‘No force you use, nothing you forbid, can take away the pictures that Boy’s hands draw on this skin. He can unfold the tight green bud, unwrap the tree, darken the wood, lighten the sky, blacken the dust with rain - each mark he makes on me is good - each colour clear.’

I enquire about the particulars of the Melos’ planned staging. Oliver seems happy to leave the dramatic decisions to Jack Furness, founder and Artistic Director of Shadwell Opera - he says that it’s important to trust the people with whom you’ve chosen to work - but explains that although the Melos Sinfonia will present a ‘concert staging’, the direction will delineate the action of the text precisely for the audience. It strikes me that there is a ‘quasi-ceremonial’ quality about Written in Skin, as the vocal arioso slowly unfolds, as incisive as the text itself, which lends itself to a concert staging format. Indeed, the libretto incorporates narrative, as the characters explain and describe their own actions: ‘The Boy takes from his satchel an illuminated page’, or ‘The Protector wakes up …’

Nick Rutter.jpgOliver Zeffman. Photo credit: Nick Rutter.

It seems apt, too, for Oliver - still only twenty-five - to be performing the music of George Benjamin, who was himself similarly precocious and full of initiative, travelling - at the age of sixteen - to Paris each month to study with Messiaen at the Conservatoire, and earning a contract with Faber when still a teenager. Benjamin went on to studies at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Oliver’s undergraduate life began at Durham University where he initially studied History, before adding Russian, a move which saw him spend a year in St Petersburg where he became fluent in the language and studied at the Conservatory under the direction of Alexander Polishchuk: ‘harmony, analysis and useful things like that’, he says, ‘I had had very little proper grounding in those kind of things before SPB and they were incredibly important for me to study, both there and at RAM.’ He also made the sort of contacts which have clearly been crucial in determining his future path.

After graduation, further studies followed at the Royal Academy of Music; he was the youngest of eight nominees for the Néstle-Salzburg Young Conductor’s Award in 2015, though he makes light of the question of ‘technique’, telling me that if a conductor really knows the score then their baton will communicate. He admires the work of Valery Gergiev - who has been an important mentor and who has invited the Melos to perform Written on Skin at the Mariinsky Theatre - and when I criticise the Russian maestro’s ‘hand-fluttering’ gesture which I struggle to interpret when watching Gergiev conduct, Oliver immediately rebukes me for, he says, it can really work. ‘If you have your own way of communicating something to the orchestra, however unconventional, and it succeeds in communicating what you want, then it shouldn’t matter what it looks like to the audience. It’s about the resultant sound - which is the main goal - and whether you can affect the sound the orchestra makes in the ways you want with your gestures, whatever these might be.’

I ask Oliver why he felt the need to establish his own orchestral ensemble at such a young age. As a violinist (‘not very good’ he says - though these things are surely relative!) in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, he wanted to try his hand at conducting, but as no-one is going to ask a sixteen-year-old to conduct he just got on with things for himself. Originally, the ensemble comprised chiefly musical ‘friends and family’, but gradually his musical network expanded. Casting an eye over the programmes performed during past seasons, it’s interesting to see how the scope, ambition and innovativeness of the Melos’ music-making have evolved. Operas have included Mozart’s The Impresario, Walton’s The Bear and Rachmaninov’s Aleko. There have been world premieres of music by Philip Ashworth, Joel Rust, Edward Nesbit, Arthur Wabel and others. Unusual works are paired together. Oliver introduces a culinary metaphor: it’s like when you’re cooking at home and you’ve got the basic dish and you think, ‘what would go with this?’, and experiment a bit. So, Andrzej Panufnik’s Cello Concerto might be programmed alongside the UK premiere of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No.27; or, Walton’s Façade might share the billing with Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King.

One of the Melos Sinfonia’s major projects has been the fostering of a ‘cultural dialogue’ between the UK and Russia, which has involved several tours to Russia - the ensemble has appeared as part of the International Conservatories Festival and the Sound Ways Festival, and performed in venues including the Mariinsky Theatre, the St Petersburg Philharmonia and St Petersburg State Conservatory - and the commissioning of new works from both British and Russian young composers. An important element of this exchange has been giving Russian audiences the opportunity to hear unfamiliar works: thus, Russian premieres have been plentiful and eclectic - Ligeti’s Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, Dmitri Smirnov’s Dream Journey, Alexander Goehr’s Triptych, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lo spazio inverso, Holst’s Savitri and Colin Matthews’ Divertimento, to name but a few. Oliver insists that Russian audiences are more open-minded than those in the UK: the latter tend to opt for programmes of music with which they are already familiar, or whose composers are personal favourites, whereas Russian audiences are eager to open their ears to the new - although, paradoxically, he says that he encountered little contemporary Russian music in concert halls during his one-year sojourn in the country.

For a twenty-five-year old, Oliver has built up an impressive list of achievements and experience. He has worked with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, assisting conductors such as Ed Gardner, David Zinman and Manfred Honeck, rehearsed Mahler’s Symphony No.8 with the New Japan Philharmonic for Daniel Harding, and recently prepared the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra for concerts with Valery Gergiev in a programme including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 2017 has been a busy and exciting year. In the summer, he made debuts both at West Green House Opera conducting Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In the coming months he will again work with Gergiev, preparing the Rotterdam Philharmonic for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.7, and in the summer of 2018 he will work with the LA Philharmonic, assisting Gustavo Dudamel and others, at the Hollywood Bowl.

To be honest, one hour in Oliver’s company was exhilarating but exhausting! The cliché ‘force of nature’ really does seem apposite. No sooner had the rehearsal at St Cyprian’s ended than he was among his players, chatting and thanking them as he collected in parts, folded music stands, disassembled percussion instruments. Alongside concert-planning and conducting, he adds administration and fundraising to his responsibilities. He seems genuinely surprised when I suggest that taking seventy musicians to Russia is an adventurous logistical exercise. After our meeting, I reflect back on Oliver’s response when I had asked about his music-making activities at Durham: he doesn’t seem to have been heavily involved in the undergraduate music scene, and explained that there was a prevailing attitude of ‘this is the way it’s always been’. Oliver is clearly not one to let ‘convention’ stand in his way; if there is music that he wants to play - more Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss’s tone poems are on his wish-list - then you can be sure that he will, and to acclaim.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Oliver%20Zeffman%20Andy%20Staples_2.jpg
image_description=Melos Sinfonia perform Written on Skin in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg
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product_id=Above: Oliver Zeffman

Photo credit: Andy Staples

Posted by claire_s at 3:22 AM

October 11, 2017

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation was a fitting opener, presenting as it does both mysterious obscurity - what Charles Burney described as ‘organised confusion’ - and the explosive brilliance of the birth of Light. Here, sharply defined woodwind sparkled tantalisingly within the sonic darkness; the slightly raw horn sound and the hard edge of the timpani evoked an unruliness which was swept aside by the cleansing power of the fortissimo C-major chord which heralds the blaze of the fire of heaven - a truly divine musical moment. Bass-baritone’s Henry Waddington’s ‘And in the beginning’ was coloured by quite liberal vibrato, slightly at odds with the orchestral delicacy and reticence, and the Classical Opera Chorus’s gentle sotto voce delivery of ‘And the spirit of God mov’d upon the face of the waters’, but subsequently Waddington was a bolstering presence alongside tenor Stuart Jackson (as Uriel).

Ian Page had clearly striven for continuity and links between these first-part items. The programme explained - in a sort of musical Chinese whispers - that Haydn’s librettist, Baron Gottfried van Swieten had been a driving force behind Mozart’s interest in baroque music in his later life and was in possession of an admirable library of scores from which Mozart created re-orchestrations of several works including ‘Leidenschaften stilt und weckt Musik’ from Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Jonathan Byers’ cello obbligato was the embodiment of Classical eloquence, while soprano Anna Devin allied a sumptuous tone to a lean musical line. The ensemble was not always ‘perfect’ - I wondered how much time the performers had had to get used to the Hall and its acoustic - but there was much to captivate. I’d have liked a few more consonants from Devin in the first movement of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate but there was terrific rhythmic verve, aided by some sparky oboe playing.

The entry of the oboes also added greatly to the dignified gentility of the March which precedes Idomeneo’s ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’, from Act 3 of Mozart’s opera seria. The men of the chorus delivered a very focused unison above the vibrant string pizzicato, and Jackson’s phrasing was both earnest and flexible as his private feelings, in the words of Mozart scholar Julian Rushton, are ‘subsumed within the collective, ritual solution to the nation’s agony’.

The first half concluded with Beethoven’s Aria and Chorus, ‘Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht’ from the composer’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a work which Beethoven himself never got to hear. Once again, beautiful oboe and bassoon solos imbued the performance with real elegance; indeed, the woodwind rather ‘outshone’ the strings throughout the evening, though I think this may have been because there had not been opportunity to really get the measure of the acoustics of the Hall - filled with a hearty audience - during rehearsal. With Claudia Huckle indisposed, Anna Devin stepped in at short notice, and joined with the chorus to create compelling impetus and joy through the gradual expansion of the sound-scape. The women of the chorus sounded a little strident and rough-edged at times but this did not prevent us going full-circle, with another ascent towards the light.

These musical items were interspersed with short poems, for, as Page reminded us, ‘Words have a powerful effect on us and can play an important part in influencing how we experience music’. Given that for the musical items we had both original language texts and translations in the programme booklet - which, with characteristic comprehensiveness and detail, informed us of both the contextual history and musical detail of the works performed - and English surtitles, it seemed a little odd not to include the poetry texts in the programme; especially as the reader, Barbara Flynn, was positioned on stage right and provided with neither a lectern nor ‘formal’ presentational folder. Thus, there was an air of casualness about the poetry readings which certainly was not present for the musical elements of the evening. Though there was a ‘thread’ of music connecting the poems by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (Ode: ‘We are the music-makers’) and Peter Porter’s ‘Three Poems for Music’, I struggled to link in e. e. cummings’ ‘who knows if the moon’s a balloon’ and Robert Frost’s ‘For Once, Then, Something’, with its questions about what it means to see ourselves, as we ‘kneel’, always ‘wrong to the light’, into a coherent ‘concept’. Given Page’s eloquence elsewhere in the programme booklet, it would have been good to have had some explication.

A swift reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony concluded proceedings. Page certainly showed courage and conviction in pushing the tempi - which made the determination of some audience members to applaud each movement even more infuriating - and had a clear vision of the structure of the work. As noted above, the ensemble balance was not always ideal - the woodwind and brass ‘out-played’ the strings, and this was exacerbated by the division of the double basses, who might have given a firmer foundation had they not been separated and placed on both sides of the stage. But, Page found the drama when it was needed, and his soloists - all seated on the conductor’s left - did not let him down. Waddington, positioned far right (those seated at the opposite end of the Hall might have felt ‘cut off’ from the ‘action’ when the solo voices entered), was communicative and sure, his ‘O Freunde,’ an appealing invitation. Natalya Romaniv, replacing the indisposed Miah Persson, soared above all with poise, precision and power. Misgivings about the female chorus withstanding, this was a warm, embracing performance - a fitting tribute to music, culture and democracy - the qualities which Classical Opera/The Mozartists embody.

Claire Seymour

Haydn - ‘The Representation of Chaos’ from The Creation, Handel/Mozart - ‘Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik’ from Ode to St Cecilia, Mozart - Exsultate, jubilate (first movement), March and Cavatina, ‘Accogli, oh re del mar’ fromIdomeneo, Beethoven - ‘Da stiegen die Menschen’ from Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, Beethoven - Symphony No.9 in D minor

The Choir and Orchestra of The Mozartists: Ian Page (conductor), Barbara Flynn (reader), Natalya Romanic (soprano), Anna Devin (soprano), Stuart Jackson (tenor) Henry Waddington (bass-baritone).

Barbican Hall, London; Monday 9th October 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Anna%20Devin.jpg image_description=Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall product=yes product_title= Classical Opera, 20th anniversary concert at the Barbican Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Anna Devin

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega
Posted by claire_s at 2:26 PM

Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017

The previous winners were mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych (2013) and soprano Galina Averina (2015). Bampton Classical Opera has a reputation for its commitment to young talent and a number of singers who have appeared on the Bampton stage have gone on to work with national companies such as The Royal Opera, English National Opera and Opera North.

The first round of the Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017 (closed sessions) will take place on 28 and 29 October in London. Six singers will be selected for the public final, which will take place in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, on Sunday 19 November at 6pm. Judges for the competition will be two renowned British singers: tenor Bonaventura Bottone and mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby, as well as conductor and accompanist from the Royal Opera House Paul Wynne Griffiths.

First prize £1,500 - Second prize £600. For the first time there will also be a £500 Accompanists’ Prize.

The winner of the first Young Singers’ Competition in 2013 was Ukranian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych and British soprano Rosalind Coad was the runner-up.

Since then Anna Starushkevych performed the role of Erato in Gluck’s Il Parnaso confuso and the title role in Bertoni’s Orfeo (UK première) for Bampton Classical Opera, both during summer 2014. In summer 2015 she sang the role of Ofelia in Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio, also for the company. She is one of the soloists on the Resonus Classics CD of song cycles by Pavel Haas released earlier this year, including the world première recording of Fata Morgana. She also sang the role of Matilda on Decca Classics’ recently released recording of Handel’s Ottone.

Rosalind Coad was a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist from 2014-15 and sang a number of roles for the company. She sang the role of Daughter in the Bampton Classical Opera concert performance of Maurice Greene’s Jephtha in 2014. Other performances have included Gianetta ( L’elisir d’amore and Clotilde (Norma) for Opera Holland Park.

In the Young Singers’ Competition 2015 Russian soprano Galina Averina won first prize and Welsh soprano Céline Forrest was the runner-up.

Since the competition Galina Averina sang the role of Atalanta ( Xerses ) for English Touring Opera in 2016. Earlier this year she sang Pamina (The Magic Flute) for Mid Wales Opera, Oscar ( Un ballo in maschera) for West Green House Opera and took part in the Mozart Residency at this year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival. She returns to English Touring Opera this season as Iphise in the company’s new production of Dardanus and as Lauretta in the spring 2018 production of Gianni Schicchi.

Céline Forrest studied at the National Opera Studio in 2015/2016. Her opera training took her to Opera North and Welsh National Opera, where she worked with Graham Vick and Elaine Kidd. Recently she covered the role of Jessica in Welsh National Opera’s The Merchant of Venice by Tchaikowsky and sang the role of Mina in Verdi’s Aroldo for UCOper

Tickets to the final are available:
By telephone: 01993 851142
By post: 1 Deanery Court, Broad Street, Bampton, Oxfordshire, OX18 2LY
www.bamptonopera.org

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Galina%20A%20BCO.png image_description= Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017; Public Final: November 19, 2017 at Holywell Music Room, Oxford. product=yes product_title=Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017; Public Final: November 19, 2017 at Holywell Music Room, Oxford. product_by= product_id=Above: Galina Averina

Photo courtesy of TACT International Art Management
Posted by claire_s at 7:56 AM

October 9, 2017

Peter Kellner announced as winner of 2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship

The following evening, on Friday 6 October, IO presented its inaugural Voice Scholars’ recital, its response to the needs of the artists it has supported since 2005. Recognising the importance of professional experience as well as training, IO’s five 2016-17 Voice Scholars - sopranos Samantha Clarke, Charlie Drummond and Nika Gorič; and mezzo-sopranos Katie Coventry and Jade Moffat - whose IO scholarships provided them with £5000 towards their final year of study, additionally received professional mentoring from IO’s Creative Director Natalie Murray Beale. The singers were accompanied by James Baillieu who worked previously with two Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellows.

Preceding the recital, IO announced two major initiatives for 2019: sponsorship of the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition and a new commission from composer Joby Talbot. The new commission takes its inspiration from Queen Victoria’s diamond and sapphire coronet designed for her by Prince Albert, and acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum thanks to a generous gift from William and Judith Bollinger. In 2019, the coronet will be the centre-piece of the newly-refreshed William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery, one of the finest and most comprehensive collections in the world. Joby Talbot's oratorio will also receive its première in 2019. IO’s relationship with the Wigmore Hall dates back 10 years to its first Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellowship awarded to baritone Matthew Rose. He was selected from amongst the participants of the biennial Wigmore Hall International Song Competition formerly supported by the Kohn Foundation (1997-2017), and auditioned by IO’s Creative Director Natalie Murray Beale. Subsequent Wigmore Hall/IO Voice Fellowships have been awarded to Gaëlle Arquez, Clara Mouriz, Dominik Köninger, Anna Huntley and James Newby.

Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells was founded in 2005 to support outstanding young artists in every discipline of opera. Seeing the need to bridge the gap between raw talent and a professional career, co-founders William and Judith Bollinger, together with Alessandro Talevi, devised a series of initiatives to support young and talented artists. IO mounted its first production - Rossini’s La Scala di Seta - directed by Alessandro Talevi, within the year and, two years later, launched its comprehensive Artist Support scheme. To date IO Artist Support has provided professional mentoring support together with funds worth more than £750,000 to 110 artists in the fields of singing, directing, design, choreography and production. William and Judith Bollinger were recognised as Philanthropists of the Year at the 2016 International Opera Awards.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/kellner_peter_02.jpg image_description=2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship product=yes product_title=2018 Wigmore Hall/Independent Opera Voice Fellowship product_by= product_id=Above: Peter Kellner

Photo courtesy of Cademi Artists Management
Posted by claire_s at 6:25 AM

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Dardanus is the first time ETO have tackled the French baroque. The opera got caught up in its own war: the war of words that raged during the 1730s between the Lullistes, who posited themselves as the defenders of French musical traditions, and the Ramistes, who supported Rameau’s innovative introduction of dissonance, colour and virtuosity. The premiere in 1739 ran for 26 performances, but the libretto by Charles-Antoine Le Clerc de La Bruère was criticized for its absurdities and supernatural elements, and the composer and Pierre-Joseph Pellegrin subsequently carried out extension revisions, excising the mythological prologue, the dream sequences and sea monsters, focusing on the human elements of the tale, and entirely re-shaping the last three acts. The new version was given in 1744 and it is this score which ETO are presenting, incorporating some of Rameau’s further 1760 revisions.

Dardanus is a treatment of the legend of the eponymous founder of Troy. The plot is a simple one. The Phrygian King Teucer wants his daughter Iphise to marry his ally, Anténor, but she has fallen in love with her father’s enemy, Dardanus. Isménor, who was a priest to Dardanus’s father Jupiter, agrees to help when Dardanus reveals his love for Iphise, and when the latter arrives to solicit advice, Dardanus disguises himself as the soothsayer. Though delighted to learn her passion is returned, Iphise is torn between love and duty. Dardanus is defeated in battle and imprisoned, but Venus takes pity on the captive and frees him, just as a sea monster attacks Teucer’s kingdom. Dardanus succeeds where Arténor fails and, incognito, slays the monster: asked by Arténor to name his reward, the disguised saviour requests permission to ask for Iphise’s hand in marriage. Learning of Dardanus’ identity, Arténor wavers and Venus again intervenes, persuading Teucer to agree to the marriage.

ETO Rameau 1.jpg ETO - Dardanus. Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Designer Cordelia Chisholm’s dimly lit, dirt-streaked sandstone bunker evokes the ravaged landscape of a contemporary Middle Eastern war zone. Within the three towering walls which frame the sides and rear, a grey ash-pit dominates the stage floor. Gliding panels allow for the imperious entrances of the war-mongers, down the central steps at the rear; coloured light (Mark Howland) flickers through windows aloft indicating the fire of battle. The windows slide shut when Dardanus is incarcerated in Act 4, though a ladder offers a means of escape.

Dardanus Act 4.jpg Anthony Gregory (Dardanus). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

During the overture, military personnel in modern-day fatigues and helmets turn the ash pit into a grave for eight dead soldiers, the memorial stones formed from relics of war and soothed by flickering candles. The visual image created by director Douglas Rintoul is slightly at odds with the jaunty, sparky oboe playing and lithe rhythms that we hear, but it’s a focused one. The problem with this sand-pit, though, is that it’s just too big, forcing the cast to the margins, restricting movement - any essay at the dance that is so central to Rameau’s idiom would be limited to a tip-toe foray - and eradicating the very union of the expression of the body and the expression of the score which is essential to this operatic aesthetic.

Iphise Rameau Act 1.jpg Galina Averina (Iphise). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Fortunately, there is much fine singing to enjoy. As Iphise, Russian soprano Galina Averina displayed the crystalline brightness that I admired at last year’s London Handel Festival . Although she was a little under-powered in Iphise’s first aria, in which she pleads with Cupid to cease tormenting her heart, Averina quickly adjusted to the acoustic in the full Hackney Empire and Act 3 opened with a much more stirring monologue. Averina displayed an acute sense of Rameau’s phrasing, colouring the text beautifully to convey Iphise’s emotional suffering and bringing roundness to a character who is in fact rather passive.

Anthony Gregory’s Dardanus is even more powerfully communicative: his tenor is both focused and flexible. Gregory has strong stage presence and knows how to pin moments of dramatic intensity. His honeyed warmth grew in fullness, climaxing in Dardanus’s Act 4 prison monologue, ‘Lieux funestes’, in which the careful apportioning of emphasis, ornament and expressive swell was both impressive and deeply moving.

Grant Doyle seems to be making a habit of playing authoritarian patriarchs of late (see review, Mansfield Park) , and the baritone was an imposing Teucer, immediately establishing his no-nonsense command in Act 1 when the King and Anténor pledge allegiance. The Act 4 confrontation between Teucer, Iphise and Dardanus, in which the latter offers to sacrifice himself was one of the dramatic highlights of the production, and Doyle conveyed all of Teucer’s inner conflict when he learns of his daughter’s love for his enemy.

Bass-baritone Frederick Long was equally well-defined as the magician, Isménor, establishing his occult power compellingly in Act 2, and in the small role of Arcas, Anténor’s supporter, tenor Alessandro Fisher was characteristically dramatically convincing and vocally reliable. Only baritone Timothy Nelson, as Anténor himself, seemed a little out of sorts. He struggled to tune the higher vocal lines and the phrases lacked persuasiveness, seeming to ‘wander’ without a sure sense of destination, lacking confident feeling for the declamatory veracity of the melodic shapes.

Antenor TN .jpg Timothy Nelson (Anténor). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

In musical and dramatic terms, the small chorus would have benefited from enhanced numbers; but, though they came momentarily adrift in the first two ensembles, they thereafter settled into an effective unit. Similarly, though they were a little ragged at times and generally the instrumental phrasing was in need of greater flexibility, under conductor Jonathan Williams The Old Street Band produced some fine musical moments: dashing strings were matched by soothing flutes and expressive bassoon playing darkened the miseries of the prison scene still further.

Rameau’s sparkling and varied instrumental dances grew in assuredness and spirit, culminating in a final dance around the ash-pit - which was now transformed into a memorial to an unknown soldier or, perhaps, to the grave of War itself - in which soldiers, freed at last from conflict, snatched Cupid’s wings, played kiss-chase and raced around in a supermarket trolley. The irony felt a bit of a jolt after the staid steadiness of the drama: only the arrival of Eleanor Penfold’s white-winged Venus had served as a reminder for the strata of humour which is embedded in the opera. Perhaps the production would have been vivified if such drollery had been more consistently integrated and sustained? But at least we were spared gimmicks. In the event, beautiful though the singing, it did not generate a lot of dramatic momentum, but Rameau’s score - of striking richness, variety and strength of character - packed its punch.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare the following day offered a sharper dramatic edge. Indeed, there were plentiful knife-blades in James Conway’s production: from the dagger with which Cleopatra slices off a general’s buttons and nicks her own lip to relish the taste of blood, to Achilla’s blade of assassination which haplessly slashes the air, narrowly missing Cesare’s back; from the hand-knife which Sesto uses to draw blood from his own arm and thus courage and purpose from his heart, to the flashing sword which the unyielding Caesar swirls with the panache of a musketeer.

The glints of steel establish a cruel air, and are complemented by the glimmer of gilt that Mark Howland’s lighting conjures from the high walls, transforming the cold, damaged stone of Dardanus’ prison into the gleaming marble of a Roman citadel. Chisholm replaces the ash-pit with a smaller stone dais which draws the eye to the heart of the opera’s seditious intrigues. Sliding panels now retreat, suggestive of the majestic portals and porticos of an imperial city. The splendid costumes set the action in Handel’s eighteenth century while a fabric and light palette of gold and Egyptian blue evokes the historic past.

Sesto.jpg Benjamin Williamson (Tolomeo), Catherine Corby (Cornelia) and Kitty Whately (Sesto). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

James Conway’s production defines the characters keenly and choreographs the conspiracies with skill. It avoids theatrical excess and the paring down of the visual elements shifts the focus from the external action to the internal dramas. However - to get the gripe out of the way at the start - it’s too long. Declaring that he wishes to ‘present Handel’s work absolutely uncut’ and fears that ‘4 hours would not wash’ with audiences, Conway gives us 5 hours instead.

The action is divided into two parts: on tour they will presented both consecutively on a single day (as I experienced), and on successive evenings. The first part, ‘The Death of Pompey’, takes us from Caesar’s defeat of Pompey and his reconciliation with the latter’s wife Cornelia and her son Sextus, through the decapitation of Pompey by Achilla at the orders of Tolomeo, and his sister Cleopatra’s ruse to disguise herself as the chaste ‘Lydia’ in order to seduce Caesar in a bid to be sole ruler of Egypt. There follows the boy-King Tolomeo’s imprisonment of the vengeful Sesto and his (and Achilla’s) futile attempts to woo Cornelia, and the first part culminates with the arrival of a group of conspirators demanding Caesar’s death and Cleopatra’s revelation of her true identity and love for Caesar.

For the second part, ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, Conway shifts into reverse gear, takes us back to the third scene of Act 2 in which Achilla pleads for Cornelia’s heart, and re-runs the action that we’ve already seen, before completing the tale with Caesar’s presumed death by drowning, Sesto’s attempts to murder Tolomeo and Cleopatra’s attempts to depose her brother with the help of Achilla who switches allegiances. At the close Cesare reappears, rescues Cornelia and Cleopatra and is crowned, with Cleopatra as his ‘tributary queen’.

Conway explains that ‘to fashion two nights of one opera […] we have chosen to overlap - with variation - some of the content. It meant we could look at the opera’s central scenes from subtly different perspectives’. Well, these different perspectives certainly are ‘subtle’ as I couldn’t detect any ‘variation’ other than some open wall panels and the omission of several da capo repeats, thus depriving those who attend only the second part of some glorious music and fine singing.

Moreover, despite the best efforts of the cast, the persuasively crafted development of character and dramatic momentum which Conway and conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny created through Part 1 was dissipated with the resumption and repetition. It’s difficult to tell if my own disenchantment was responsible for the impression that singers too were a little weary second time around, but if they were, who could blame them? Five hours of Handel is a cruelly long sing, and not all of Handel’s score avoids note-spinning.

Tolomeo.jpg Benjamin Williamson (Tolomeo) and Catherine Corby (Cornelia). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Those joining the action part-way through must have struggled to understand some of what are, in fact, Conway’s and Chisholm’s most creative motifs; wondering, for example, just what was the grey ash in the glass urn that Tolomeo viciously scattered and stamped on before the distraught Cornelia (Pompey’s blooded glass head having morphed into a funeral urn in Part 1). And, who were the clumsy oaf and the black-frocked mourner he so clumsily attempted to ‘seduce’? Why was Cleopatra wearing and clutching a blue velvet drape (a relic of the revelation of her love for Caesar, when she is dressed as the virginal Lydia - see below). Surtitles during the overture had offered some backstory: ‘Previously …’ raised a chuckle initially, but I doubt the good humour lasted when they were halted before the recap had been concluded, as the end of the overture had been reached.

[In fact, the surtitling needs attention before the tour commences, having gone astray on both evenings. The scene-preface summaries in Giulio Cesare are neat, but too often the recitative surtitles present asides before they are spoken, thereby undermining the irony, while the Rameau titles lagged behind the action and malfunctioned at one point.]

‘Late-comers’ also miss out on some terrific coup de théâtre, not least the revelation of ‘Lydia’ for Cesare’s delectation: a Renaissance Madonna, posing gracefully within a golden niche, the epitome of idealised beauty and tenderness - a deliciously ironic disguise for the devious, scheming queen, whose head-dress now glowed like an angelic halo. The iconography may be anachronistic but it’s superb theatre. The droll summoning of the choral entry from the dress-circle by Frederick Long’s smug Curio in the opening scene is complemented first time through by a vibrant burst of song and light as Cesare prepares for battle in Act 2, but the latter is omitted from the reprise.

There is also some skilful choreography in the opening Act which, for once, does not detract from but complements and enhances the sung arias. As Sesto vows to avenge his father’s murder, Cleopatra’s counsellor, Nireno, flicks a knife with cruel nonchalance in the sacred urn. Cesare’s return for once last glimpse at the noble Lydia who has entranced him, is perfectly timed to coincide with Cleopatra’s da capo: she hastily tries to reassemble the disguise which she has begun to let slip. The attempted assassination scene is superb, revealing all of Tolomeo’s inexperience and ineptness: Caesar tips the poisoned wine into Tolomeo’s own glass, and evades the swipe of Achilla’s blade, with perfecting timing and mocking insouciance.

Thankfully, once again the ETO cast is uniformly outstanding. Soraya Mafi’s crystalline soprano casts a golden glow over the stage and she has the stamina to sustain the brilliance and sheen through every one of Cleopatra’s seven arias. Mafi is every inch the confident and calculating strategist: unlike the passive Iphise, she doesn’t rely on the men to sort things out but takes control, believing and showing how a woman’s beauty and allure can bring her power. In her first aria ‘Non disperar’, she taunts Tolomeo with dismissive disdain, and her amoral irreverence wins our admiration against our better judgement. Then, struck, to her surprise, by genuine love for Caesar, Mafi imbues ‘Se pietà di me non senti’ with heart-aching depth and colour which break through the queen’s supercilious façade and reveals her emotional fragility. The despairing phrases of ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ seem to bear the weight of the throb of suffering; this Cleopatra is a convincing ally, unwavering in her loyalty throughout her imprisonment.

Cesare and Cleopatra.jpg Christopher Ainslie (Cesare) and Soraya Mafi (Cleopatra). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

This is the best performance I’ve seen from Christopher Ainslie, whose Cesare is by turns a man of noble command, trusting integrity and poignant compassion. I have sometimes found Ainslie’s countertenor rather character-lite but here he found range and weight. ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ was an authoritative put-down to Tolomeo, aided by a superb horn contribution which added the necessary touch of heroic colour. The contrast with Act 3’s ‘Aure, deh, per pieta’ in which Cesare recognises his own mortality and humility made a striking impact, as Ainslie crafted a beautiful legato line, the purity of tone serving to emphasise both Cesare’s loneliness and his honesty.

Benjamin Williamson’s Tolomeo is no one-dimensional villain but a convincingly querulous boy-King, indiscrete and injudicious, perpetually frustrated in his attempts to assert his power and fulfil his sexual desires. In the contemporary political climate, we don’t need to be reminded that fools can be dangerous. Williamson’s keenly focused, bright-edged countertenor captured Tolomeo’s petulance while the sweetness of tone hinted at finer qualities and emotions struggling to break through the yoke of immaturity. As Achilla, Benjamin Bevan’s glossy baritone took on a dark unctuousness at the bottom, as he attempted to seduce Cornelia with bullying menace in Act 1’s ‘Tu sei il cor di questo core’, brilliantly complemented by the nasal bassoons in unison with the voice. Thomas Scott-Cowell’s Nireno lurks and sneaks with Iago-like creepiness.

Cornelia and Achilla.jpg Catherine Corby (Cornelia) and Benjamin Bevan (Achilla). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Initially Catherine Carby had a little too much vibrato and portamento for the purists, but her Cornelia grew in stature and dignity, her bronzed mezzo laden with the dark hues and sorrowful burden of grief. The depth of the bond between mother and son was beautifully conveyed in ‘Cessa omai di sospirare’, as Carby and Kitty Whately’s Sesto scheme anew to kill Tolomeo. Whately’s mezzo was wonderfully clean in ‘Cara speme, questo core’, Sesto’s response to the first murderous plot against Tolomeo, and as gracefully sculpted as the elegant obbligato cello. Whately communicated Sesto’s growing resolve and maturity, and sailed through the sequence of revenge arias using the vocal virtuosities to reveal not merely stereotypical rage but also real human suffering. ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa’ was invigorated by moral conviction although I thought that Jonathan Peter Kenny was pushing the tempo just a whisker too fast for Whately, who struggled to keep up with the bass’s racing quavers; second time around, things were a tad more settled.

At the final reckoning, although Conway’s decision to reprise the second act might leave some punters feeling short-changed and seems to undermine his aim to avoid cuts in order to present Handel’s opera so that the ‘proportions would be as he made them’, the quality of the singing, the clarity of the drama, and the sheer ambition and commitment of these two ETO productions make them shows not to be missed.

English Touring Opera continue theirtour until 24 th November.

Claire Seymour

Rameau: Dardanus (Friday 6th October 2017)
Dardanus - Anthony Gregory, Iphise - Galina Averina, Teucer - Grant Doyle, Anténor - Timothy Nelson, Ismenor - Frederick Long, Arcas - Alessandro Fisher; Director - Douglas Rintoul, Conductor - Jonathan Williams, Designer - Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting - Mark Howland, The Old Street Band.

Handel: Giulio Cesare (Saturday 7th October 2017)
Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie, Curio - Frederick Long, Cornelia - Catherine Carby, Sesto - Kitty Whately, Cleopatra - Soraya Mafi, Nireno - Thomas Scott-Cowell, Tolomeo - Benjamin Williamson, Achilla - Benjamin Bevan; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Peter Kelly, Designer - Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting - Mark Howland, The Old Street Band.

English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rameau%20Jane%20Hobson%20Act%201.jpg image_description=Dardanus: English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire product=yes product_title=Dardanus and Giulio Cesare: English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: ETO Cast, Dardanus

Photo credit: Jane Hobson
Posted by claire_s at 5:53 AM

October 7, 2017

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The roles of Orphée, Eurydice, and Amour are sung by Dmitry Korchak, Andriana Chuchman, and Lauren Snouffer. Dance sequences are performed by members of the Joffrey Ballet. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Harry Bicket, while the Lyric Opera Chorus has been prepared by its Chorus Master, Michael Black. The director and choreographer of this new Lyric Opera co-production, shared with the Los Angeles Opera and the Staatsoper Hamburg, is John Neumeier. Sets, costumes, and lighting are also the creation of Mr. Neumeier. Debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago are being made by Mr. Korchak and by members of the Joffrey Ballet.

During the overture a pantomime associated with the title couple exemplifies those changes behind the substance of Mr. Neumeier’s reinterpretation of Gluck’s opera. Orphée - now playing the role of a choreographer - enters in modern casual dress from stage rear to rehearse a ballet based on Arnold Böcklin’s 1880s painting, “Die Toteninsel” (“The Isle of the Dead”). A reproduction of one version of the painting remains on an easel at stage right. Soon a quarrel ensues with his spouse Eurydice, who also plays the role of lead female dancer in Orphée’s troupe. Eurydice responds with indignation and storms out of the rehearsal. The sonic and visual presence of an automobile indicates Eurydice’s accidental death, just as Orphée remains downstage left perusing his performance notes. Once the horrible realization of Eurydice’s death is communicated, the overture has ended and Orphée’s manifest grief, as well as the opera proper, commences.

During the first scene of lament Orphée is surrounded by dancers representing the nymphs and shepherds from Gluck’s score. We hear the choral declamation, “Il soupire, il gémit” (“he sighs, he moans”), although the members of the chorus are positioned offstage. We do, however, see and hear the plaintive, distended cries of Orphée, as Mr. Korchak injects a sense of anguished loss into his repeated cry, “Eurydice!” At his appeal, “couvrez son tombeau de fleurs" [“cover her tomb with flowers”], the dancers indeed respond with multiple offerings, until Orphée begs for solitude and contemplates alone the significance of Eurydice’s departure. In his solo, “Objet de mon amour” [“Object of my love”] Korchak continues his lament with regular forte pitches, whereas some differentiation would render more credible the spirit of his “air en rondeau.” Korchak’s motion toward an artificial tree positioned left suggests his roaming “through the vastness of the woods” while he closes his thoughts with a nascent trill taken piano. In this production the choreographer Orphée’s assistant assumes the part of Amour. Ms. Snouffer’s approach to both the character and his music provides a soothing balm to Orphée’s mighty suffering. In her well-known aria, “Si les doux accords de ta lyre” [“If the sweet tones of your lyre”] Snouffer performs with liquid tones and a sensitive application of vibrato. Her voice glides through the melodic line while inserting subtle variations in keeping with expectations of the period. Encouraged by this bright evocation of a happy turn of events, Orphée resolves to seek out his Eurydice in a descent to the underworld. In the aria “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme” [“Hope is reborn in my heart”], composed by Gluck as a supplementary number for the French version of 1774, the performer is challenged to strike both an heroic and a self-reflective tone. Korchak is here convincing in heroic sentiments, such as “Les monstres du tartare ne m’épouvantent pas!” [“the Tartaren monsters hold no terror for me!”]. Yet in lighter passages there could be greater attention layered onto the performance of runs and vocal decoration, both of which should add to the beauty and the strategic function of this aria.

Lauren Snouffer_Andriana Chuchman_Dmitry Korchak_ORPHEE ET EURYDICE_LYR170920_2018_c.Todd Rosenberg.pngLauren Snouffer, Andriana Chuchman, and Dmitry Korchak

After having been apprised by Amour of Jupiter’s conditions for the successful retrieval of Eurydice, Orphée beings his descent in Act II. A backdrop of mirrors alternates, in its reverse, with a large representation of the Böcklin painting. Shortly after the interplay of choral voices and dancers at this brink of the underworld, Orphée sings a second, major number. Dancers assuming the roles of furies, specters, and demons move rhythmically at the approach of the mortal. With the appeal, “Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs” [“Let me move you by my tears”] he attempts to gain admission to their realm. Despite repeated choral responses of “Non, non, non,” Orphée persists in pleading until “the Specters express their having been moved”. At the words “La tendresse qui me presse, Calmera votre fureur” [“The tender love which I feel will calm your fury”] he wins their permission with the sweetness of his song. Of his predominantly solo passages Korchak performs here with the most noticeable assurance. The moderate tempos furnish Korchak’s vocal timbre sufficient opportunity to linger effectively and produce lyrical variation on those lines which will win over the opponents of his quest. Once Orphée enters past the dancing spirits into the equally mobile underworld, he is astounded by the tranquility of the Elysian Fields. The pastel shades of costumes and scenery, as well as the slower, multiple dance movements, contribute to the atmosphere of “bonheur” [“happiness”], as described by one of the blessed spirits. Orphée’s complementary, piano lines shift suddenly to a loud outburst, as Korchak declares, “Mais la calme qu’on y respire, Ne saurait adoucir mes maux” [“But the calm which I breathe here cannot alleviate my pain”]. By the close of the act Eurydice is led by and among the dancing spirits to rejoin her “tendre epoux” [“tender husband”], both of whom join in the collective movement.

During the attempted departure from Elysium in Act Three the tension between protagonists increases after the initial, happy reunion. Chuchman’s impressive command of the tender, yet insistent vocal line continues through to a duet with Orphée. As an effective gesture they stand back to back while communicating without sharing a glance. After they fail, however, to maintain the command of the gods, Eurydice is whisked away by the spirits at her gasp, “Ô ciel, je meurs!” [“O heavens, I am dying”]. Orphée’s famous reaction, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” [“I have lost my Eurydice”] is sung by Korchak with effective, soft tones in slower passages, yet with variable pitch in some of the faster, decorated lines from the enhanced, later version of the score. The dancers return to rehearsing a ballet in studio in the concluding scenes, with the beloved memory of Eurydice remaining in Orphée’s heart. Ultimately Gluck’s music, and the association of the character Orphée with the spirit of music, defines any production of this opera, just as George Bernard Shaw reminds his readers of Gluck’s “perfect union of the poem and the music.”

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dmitry%20Korchak_Andriana%20Chuchman_The%20Joffrey%20Ballet_ORPHEE%20ET%20EURYDICE_LYR170915_1039_c.Todd%20Rosenberg.png
image_description=Dmitry Korchak and Andriana Chuchman courtesy of Stefany Phillips (Lyric Opera, Chicago)

product=yes
product_title=Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago
product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino
product_id=Above: Dmitry Korchak and Andriana Chuchman

Photos courtesy of Stefany Phillips (Lyric Opera, Chicago)

Posted by jim_z at 3:01 PM

October 5, 2017

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The concert was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen. I missed the first concert in 1983 when a very young Salonen substituted at a few days’ notice. The score was new to him, but he learned fast, earning the respect of the orchestra. In 2007, he conducted Mahler 3 again to mark the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall and its then new season (see here). Shortly afterwards, I was at an airport with members of the orchestra, saying how much they enjoyed working with Salonen, though they didn't realize civilians were listening. Orchestras are often a hard-bitten bunch, so that was praise indeed.

So I booked Salonen's third high profile M3 with the Philharmonia months in advance. (it goes without saying that these weren't the only M3's) No regrets, even though it made a long commute on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere in the hall was mellow.. Sitting beside me was a gentleman of 90 who was a junior engineer working on the building of the Royal Festival Hall, nearly 70 years ago. His eyes were shining, as he described the engineering innovations that went into the structure. State of the art, for the time. I didn't understand the technicalities, but what an honour it was to meet someone as enthusiastic as that.

A majestic introduction, establishing the key motives with intense impact. The horns blazed, timpani rolled, the trombones blasted, evoking the majesty of the mountains, evoking the metaphysical mountain peaks to come. Thus the power of Nature, or whatever, versus the individual, in the form of the orchestral leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. No messing about : Salonen led straight into the fray, rapid marching "footsteps" lit by bright figures in the smaller winds : the idea of setting forth on a brisk spring journey. Danger lies ahead though, as the sharp attacks on percussion suggest, but the vigour of the ensemble playing suggested vigour and energy. And so the vast panorama opened up before our ears, the long lines in the horns suggesting distance. When the principal trombone, Byron Fulcher, entered, he made his instrument sound like a highly sophisticated Alpenhorn. The first movement is long and in some hands it can turn to mush, but Salonen observed the structure carefully, so each transit marked a stage in the journey, moving purposefully forward. Wonderful rushing "descents" the way you feel leaping downhill after scaling a peak. Peak after peak, vistas stretching endlessly ahead. This first movement is a work-out. At the end, Salonen drank what seemed to be a whole bottle of water.

The next two movements aren't a respite, but rather a way of looking at other vistas, perhaps from the past. Memories of sun-drenched meadows and shepherds’ flutes perhaps, but still the pace is fleet. Exquisite playing, so beautiful that it felt painful to know it couldn't possibly last forever, probably the point Mahler was trying to make. A delightfully sassy Comodo, confident and brisk, like a cheeky Ländler becoming a joyful romp. Pan rushes in, with merry anarchy. But why does Mahler add the posthorn call, deliberately heard from a distance ? I love this passage because it makes you think. The panorama here is something so vast, it's beyond earthly vision.

Michelle DeYoung, as magnificent as the mountains. Her voice was rich and moving, but visually, she embodies the majesty in the fourth movement. This does make a difference, because she's singing about Eternity, not merely the experience of man, and it helps when a singer can fill the auditorium with her presence. "Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht". Earth Mother here is absolutely of the essence. Another moment which I wanted never to end. This symphony is a rollercoaster between beauty and loss, despite its overall positive thrust. Thus the juxtaposition of the eternal Erda and the fresh, young voices of the Tiffin Boys’ Choir an d the women of the Philharmonia Voices - past and future, struggle and rebirth. Mahler's Fourth already looming into focus. Or Das Lied von der Erde, for that matter.

A lustrous, shimmering final movement, the Philharmonia strings drawing their lines so they seemed to search out beyond earthly horizons. Yet note the quiet tolling, as if a bell were being rung, marking the passage of time. Excellent balance between the different string sections, creating a rich mass of sound that seemed to vibrate like the very pulse of life. Perhaps now the "individual" has reached a place beyond human comprehension. The violin soared, pure and clear, soloist leading the ensemble still further onwards. A hint of the "Alpine" melody and then crescendo after crescendo, echoing the structure of the First movement. At the end, the purity of the flute, quiet pizzicato "footsteps" and the return of the trumpet, horn and trombone themes. Structure matters so much in the interpretation of this symphony and Salonen has its measure. MGM last moments, but in a good, spiritually rewarding way.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Michelle-DeYoung-c-Kristin-Hoebermann-WEB.png
image_description=Michelle DeYoung [Photo by Kristin Hoebermann]

product=yes
product_title=Gustav Mahler : Symphony no 3, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philharmonias Orchestra, Michelle DeYoung, Philharmonia Voices, Tiffin Boys Choir, Royal Festival Hall, London. Sunday, October 1st 1017
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Michelle DeYoung

Photo © Kristin Hoebermann

Posted by iconoclast at 12:00 PM

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Do we need to know the political context in which a work was created in order to fully appreciate its ‘worth’? Does that political context need to be made ‘relevant’ to present audiences? There are no simple or ‘right’ answers to those questions, but in the light of director Daisy Evans’ decision to entirely discard Dryden’s original text for this performance of Purcell’s semi-opera with the Academy of Ancient Music and to offer in its place something abstract and topical - ‘King Arthur in the Age of Brexit’ - it might be worth reflecting on the work’s origins and allegories. Evans’ declares that her production ‘isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur’ - but isn’t the latter just what Dryden and Purcell were reviving and engaging with, too?

So, a brief re-cap. In the 1680s the Civil War was still a recent memory, and political and religious divisions had the potential to re-ignite. As the 25th anniversary of Charles’ restoration neared, plans were made to celebrate it through grand architectural and artistic projects. A new palace was built in Winchester, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the foundations of which were said to stand on the remains of the castle that had been home to the court of King Arthur: the ceiling of its great ‘St George’s Hall’ was lavishly decorated with a painting of Charles, the north wall presented Edward III and the Black Prince, while at the west end was St George and the Dragon.

Dryden drafted an Arthurian epic, a semi-opera with music supplied by Louis Grabu, Charles’ former Master of the King’s Musick; but this was eventually supplanted by Dryden’s Albion and Albanius, which was intended as a prologue to King Arthur, presenting a thinly veiled allegory concerning the ‘exclusion crisis’ (which had sought to exclude the Catholic Duke of York - Charles’ brother, James - from the throne and have the Duke of Monmouth declared the legitimate heir). As Dryden wrote, ‘the Allegory itself [is] so very obvious, that it will no sooner be read than understood’.

Six years later, though, Albion and Albanius was totally unsuitable for the new political situation brought about Charles’ death in 1685, the deposition of James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the ascension of William and Mary the following year. Dryden had converted to Catholicism in 1685 and his loyalty to the new monarchs was mistrusted. In 1691, Dryden and actor-manager Thomas Betterton had to convince the censors that they had altered ‘the first design’, and that King Arthur would in no way ‘offend the present Times’.

The result was considerable allegorical obfuscation: most people would identify William III with Arthur, but there are intimations of a seditious allegory in which Arthur is Charles II and William III is Monmouth. The final chorus ‘St George, the patron of our isle’, for example, alludes to a ‘foreign king’: ‘Our Natives not alone appear/ To court this martial prize/Foreign Kings adopted here/ Their Crowns at home despise.’ King Arthur’s apparent patriotism may have been insincere.

Evans sets out to explore whether the ‘idea’ of King Arthur is ‘the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for’: she describes her staging as ‘almost like a stage-invasion protest. There will be Brexiteers and Remainers, and everyone will have a chance to give their perspective on the current stage and meaning of British identity’. The music has been reordered: things start with daylight, before the Brexit vote as if ‘everything can still be OK’, and move through ‘uncertainty and war, before arriving at this state of frozen, nightmarish night, where no-one knows what to think or feel anymore.’

Not much allegorical mystification there, then. Indeed, the production’s intent is signposted by Brechtian flip-charts that tell us that we are not in Dryden’s royal apartments, woods and groves, or in Merlin’s cave, but rather in commonplace modern locales whose inhabitants are rent by divisions: ‘A Street - Leave v. Remain’, ‘A Pub - Girls v. Boys’, ‘A Nightclub - Idea v. Reality’, ‘A Station - Us v. Them’, ‘A Polling Station - Left v. Right’, ‘A Streetcar - Hope v. Despair’. Singers and instrumentalists were in casual modern dress - all leggings, baggy t-shirts, jeans and hoodies; but, in case we forgot that this was about ‘us’, the final poster reminded us, ‘The Barbican - Today’. The cast and chorus swapped red and blue placards, which they hung around their necks, to indicate their changing allegiances.

Alder, Fearon, Lawson.jpg Photo credit: Louise Alder, Ray Fearon, Mhairi Lawson. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

It was hard to remember that King Arthur is essentially comic - sometimes verging on pantomime - and that while Purcell’s music was never intended to explore psyche or develop character it did advance the action at times and certainly added to the atmosphere, ceremony and spectacle in the manner of an English masque. Here, music and text seemed in opposition.

And, what of the text? Semi-opera integrated choruses, songs, dance, instrumental numbers and spoken dialogue. Evans’ retains the latter verbal element but, having jettisoned Dryden, has sought to replace the original with a variety of poems that provide a ‘context of the music and Dryden’s original sung texts’ and present ‘a strong and vivid view on the central topics of nationalism and identity’ - both ‘for’, ‘against’, and ‘don’t know’. So, we have ‘The Bloody Sire’ by Robinson Jeffers, alongside Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’; Blake’s ‘The Garden of Love’ followed by Rose Macauley’s ‘The Picnic’. Shakespeare (‘Henry V’), Wislawa Szymborska (‘Hatred’), Charles Bukowski (‘Trashcan Lives’) and Arthur J Kramer (‘Victory’) make up the textual tapestry that is brought to a close by T.S. Eliot, ‘This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper’ (‘The Hollow Men’).

Perhaps the most successful was the first text, an extract from Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’, which opened the performance as the sonorous voice of narrator Ray Fearon drew the singers down the aisles of the Barbican Hall, their eyes fixed on their mobile phones, to join him in his anaphoric declamation: ‘All across the country, people felt …’ Throughout, Fearon moved authoritatively through the cast - who themselves weaved around and between the players of the AAM - but he could not overcome the inherent problem of dramatic pacing and the different rates at which the ‘action’ moves forward during spoken word, song and music. Not all of Fearon’s recitations - some, literally, read from a crib sheet (was this part of Evans’ ‘design’?) - had equal conviction: he raced through the ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ rhetoric and shouted his way, breathlessly and without nobility, to the end of Henry V’s ‘band of brothers’ oratory, as if he didn’t quite believe in the words in this context and wanted to get to the end as fast as possible.

Ray Fearon, narrator in centre.jpg Photo credit: Ray Fearon (centre). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The singers, too, sometimes looked uncertain, as they took and shared selfies, charged back and forth across the stage, read newspapers, ripped the latter to shreds. Fortunately, they did not sound uncertain. Mhairi Lawson sang with precision and agility, injecting colour and weight into her soprano with expressive thoughtfulness. Louise Alder’s soprano shone with richness and her arioso was sensitively shaped. Raised and spotlit, at the end Alder looked as if she might burst into ‘Rule Britannia!’ rather than ‘Fairest Isle’: the latter was characteristically communicative although the interjection of spoken text over the air’s instrumental introduction and inter-verse episodes was criminal. The two sopranos blended well in their duets, often creating an air of exhilaration.

After some intentionally ‘yobbish’ yells in the ‘Pub’ Scene, Ashley Riches was permitted to show us the strength and elegance of his bass-baritone as an excellent ‘Comic Genius’, prone and shivering during the strings’ strange throbbing introduction, then rising as if in imitation of the ascent from beneath the stage which elaborate machinery would have effected in Dryden’s day. Riches really captured the grave melancholy of the text. Ivan Ludlow’s baritone had colour and breadth in ‘Ye blustering brethren’; Charles Daniels’ tenor occasionally sound effortful.

Purcell provided Dryden with an abundance of varied musical numbers - ritornelli, dances, preludes, chaconnes and ceremonial descriptions - and Richard Egarr drew wonderfully light, fresh playing from the instrumentalists of the AAM, himself leaping lightly to his feet time and again to shape and guide with nuanced gestures. The sprightly rhythm for strings and oboes which commenced the ‘Nightclub’ scene crept in with Mendelssohnian animation and airiness; the closing cadence faded with beautiful softness. Extreme dynamic contrasts were just that, dynamic; accents were emphasised creating fleetness and momentum, especially in the dances. The trumpets offered both a warm glow and pungent rawness, as required. Part 2 opened with a tender ensemble for solo trumpet, violin and oboe, accompanied by eloquent cello.

Overall, I found the stage business a distraction rather than an addition; but, coherence and assimilation was and is an inherent problem in semi-opera, so perhaps the struggle for integration of the various parts in Evans’ concept is pretty authentic after all.

Claire Seymour

Purcell: King Arthur
Academy of Ancient Music, AAM Choir: Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord)
Ray Fearon (narrator), Louise Alder and Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Reginald Mobley (countertenor), Charles Daniels (tenor) Ivan Ludlow (baritone), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone); Daisy Evans (stage director), Jake Wiltshire (lighting director), Thomas Lamers (dramaturg)
Barbican Hall, London; Tuesday 3rd October 2017

image=http://www.operatoday.com/purcells-arthur-002.jpg image_description=King Arthur: Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall product=yes product_title=King Arthur: Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: AAM Chorus

Photo credit: Robert Workman
Posted by claire_s at 7:23 AM

October 4, 2017

Elder conducts Lohengrin

Hence the appeal of recording a concert performance. This CD set was edited from two such performances in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on December 18 and 20, 2015. The performance was semi-staged, i.e., done without costumes and sets. Some evocative lighting was employed. Characters made entrances and exits through various doors, and characters and (I gather) brass players appeared on balconies.

An injured shoulder forced the scheduled conductor Andris Nelsons to cancel. Fortunately, the conductor who stepped in on a week’s notice, Mark Elder, is an experienced hand not only with opera but also symphonic music, always a crucial element in a Wagner opera. Elder was music director of the English National Opera in 1979-93, led the Rochester Philharmonic in 1989-94, and, since 1999, has been at the helm of the renowned Hallé Orchestra (in Manchester, England). Here he moves things along at a generally bracing clip, yet he also gives the more “spiritual” elements of the score their due, as in the beautifully sustained yet forward-moving prelude to Act 1. The entire performance takes just about as long as the recently released 1963 recording—from a staged performance in Munich—by renowned Wagner specialist Hans Knappertsbusch. (See my review here.)

The singers all bring clarity and dramatic point to the sung words. Most of them are native German-speakers or Scandinavians, but the Russian Evgeny Nikitin and the South Korean Samuel Koun articulate the words well, too. Unfortunately, most of the cast members are afflicted at times by a certain roughness of sound, often combined with a slow and somewhat wide vibrato, presumably the result of singing heavy roles in large theaters over some years. Camilla Nylund manages to find a clean line at the beginning of the bridal-chamber scene, only to regain her slight wobble the moment Elsa gets agitated.

The best of the singers, for my taste, is Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), whose singing is somewhat unusual in timbre—very focused, a bit like the Evangelist in a Bach Passion—but consistently clear and controlled, as if this character floats in some higher realm than the rest. (One of his other major roles has been Mozart’s Tamino. He has recently added Tannhäuser.) Vogt’s remarkable use of a light, lyrical, utterly unforced tone conveys many nuances of feeling, including resignation, confident determination, and purity of intent. He phrases beautifully. (He was a professional trumpet player before becoming an opera singer.)

The combined choral groups sound absolutely marvelous. Like Vogt, they are a balm to the ear—maybe they, too, are heaven-blessed?

Katarina Dalayman, in the complex role of Ortrud, manages to combine (or alternate, really) viciousness and insinuating sweetness. She is, almost inevitably, not always a balm to the ear, but she gives quite a portrayal!

The Concertgebouw Orchestra plays, as one might expect, superbly throughout. There is no scrambling when things get excited, and no unsteadiness during slower, reflective passages. What a relief from many opera recordings made during a minimally rehearsed, somewhat helter-skelter performance!

A work as complex as this must be the devil to record during a performance (whether staged or not). Occasionally a singer here is not captured fully by the microphones, and the orchestra’s sonority often lacks the subtle glamor that listeners have come to expect from symphonic recordings made by this same orchestra in this same hall. I also wonder whether some of the singers would have been less tempted into vocal vehemence and high intensity if the orchestra had been tamed by being tucked away in a pit, rather than playing right behind them on the stage. But “opera in concert” seems to be a compromise that we are fated to live with nowadays, even on recordings.

Complete libretto, an excellent translation, and a brief essay emphasizing the work’s historical references. Also some photos, which reveal that a barefoot male dancer made an entrance—down the aisles—in the silent role of the long-awaited savior-swan. He wore a white dinner jacket and trousers, with white ruffles (suggestive of feathers) on the back of the jacket, and he was carrying the head and neck of a swan (made of cloth). More details about the semi-staging can be found in a review of the first of the two performances, at Bachtrack.com.

This recording and Woldemar Nelsson’s (Bayreuth 1982) are both available online through the Naxos Music Library. This one is also on YouTube, in whole and in segments: here is Act 1 (jump to minute 39 to hear Lohengrin thank his beloved swan).

Despite the many strengths of this recording, especially its tenor, the choral singing, and the orchestral playing, I would continue to recommend as a first choice the Kempe studio recording. It is one of the few that restore a five-minute chunk of Act 3: a stirring and operatically effective (almost Italianate) ensemble after Elsa faints. The singing of all the roles in that famous recording is generally firm and youthful. Most of all, Elisabeth Grümmer sings the role of Elsa cleanly throughout. And Christa Ludwig portrays Ortrud with a seductive sweetness that the listener—like, alas, Elsa—may find impossible to resist.

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. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about 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). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).

      

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lohengrin_RCO.png image_description= product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin product_by=Camilla Nylund (Elsa), Katarina Dalayman (Ortrud), Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Evgeny Nikitin (Telramund), Falk Struckmann (King Heinrich), Samuel Youn (herald). Concertgebouw Orchestra, Dutch National Opera and Netherlands Radio choruses, conducted by Mark Elder. product_id=RCO17002 [3SACDs] price=$29.45 product_url=https://www.amazon.com/Richard-Wagner-Lohengrin-Evgeny-Nikitin/dp/B06VX3Y8JJ/ref=as_sl_pc_tf_til?tag=operatoday-20&linkCode=w00&linkId=2ae2adb134b2db9dcad30018339bc567&creativeASIN=B06VX3Y8JJ
Posted by Gary at 1:01 PM

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

Indeed, it was very much a recital of two distinct halves. Franz Schreker’s 5 Lieder, Op.3, which opened the evening, are songs about personal loss and grief (“Ich sitze trauernd ein Grab zu hüten”) and, frankly, Ms Schwanewilms gave a performance of them that was too tentative for my taste. It all felt rather arid. There were moments, few and far between, where Ms Schwanewilms felt able to colour her voice - at the end of the second song, Im Lenz, for example, but mostly she didn’t feel vulnerable enough. There are elements of innocence that ripple through the underbelly of these texts, but I was left with the impression she was simply uncomfortable in these songs, at least on this occasion. Das Glück was riddled with hazy phrasing, particularly at the end of stanzas. In Umsonst her diction was simply unclear. It was not the most promising beginning.

Schubert, which ended the first half and began the second, didn’t fare much better. The three Ellens Gesänge were variable - even an Ave Maria! in which her German felt unusually demotic, understated and lacking in emotional involvement. There’s no denying the brilliance with which she is able to float a phrase or note - but it was also combined with some less than ideal diction. In Ellens Gesänge III, for example, the line “Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen” ended in a mush of flawed intonation and incomprehension. An interval, however, makes all the difference because the Schubert that she sang in the second half was at a somewhat different level of inspiration. Schwestergruss was both fleet and incisive with much more pointed phrasing and detail - it was little short of brilliant in conveying the sense of gothic horror that cascades through much of it. Likewise, Der Tod und Das Mädchen had rhythmic precision and a mounting sense of terror. Whereas much of the singing in the first half of the recital had been plagued by a lack of discipline, here it was very detailed and precise: the staccato passagework, the observation of the anacrusis, the beautifully shaped piano markings, the precision of the fermata which certainly had its mark stamped firmly upon it.

The three Wilhelm Tell songs by Liszt, perhaps because they draw on elements of musical harmony, nature and human sexuality more than they do on death and gothic horror, found both singer and pianist on happier terrain. There is a thrilling virtuosity to these songs which is almost the complete antithesis of the folk-like simplicity suggested in their narrative, though these songs unquestionably demand an emotional and expressive range that is very high. That was amply met in this wonderful performance of them. The pianist, Charles Spencer, revelled in the music of the first song, Der Fischerknabe, making semiquavers of water out of his piano keys, whilst Ms Schwanewilms evoked the calls of alpine horns through her ringing high notes. If her Schreker and Schubert had been devoid of inner-meaning and had only shallow hints of emotional depth, her Liszt was sultry and inflamed with the danger of knowing sexuality. She took risks. The third song, Der Alpenjäger was a tour de force: chords had colossal weight, marcato and staccato octaves were wrenched out with monumental force, the sustained pedal gave weight. The piano had almost orchestral power. The voice, for the first time, simply enmeshed the acoustics of the hall in a fireball of glorious sound. Mr Spencer, who had sounded so understated in the Schubert songs, was here craggy and breath-taking in his use of pianistic colour.

The Korngold songs which finished the programme were just as inspired. The Opus 22 trilogy performed here were written just after Korngold had completed his magnificent opera, Wunder der Heilane - and you can hear the influences of that opera at work in the chromatic scales, intensely lyrical melodies and vocal glissandi. The songs were dashed off with a breath-taking ease and in part it’s easy to see why they were so well done given this singer’s special relationship to the music of Richard Strauss, which is in part typical of how Korngold treats the voice here with its soaring lines. It was fitting, therefore, that Ms Schwanewilms’ only encore should be by Strauss - an effervescent and infectious performance of Strauss’ Op 49 no 8, Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen.

Marc Bridle

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)

Franz Schreker - 5 Lieder Op.3; Schubert - Ellens Gesang I D837, Ellens Gesang II D838, Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria) D839, Die junge Nonne D828, Schwestergruss D762, Der Tod und das Mädchen D531; Liszt - Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell S292 (No.1 Der Fischerknabe, No.2 Der Hirt, No.3 Der Alpenjäger; Korngold - Was du mir bist? Op.22 No.1, Mit Dir zu schweigen Op.22 No.2, Welt ist stille eingeschlafen Op.22 No.3

Wigmore Hall, London; 2nd October, 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Schwanewilms-7-c-Javier-del-Real-WEB.jpg image_description=Anne Schwanewilms and Charles Spencer at the Wigmore Hall product=yes product_title=Anne Schwanewilms and Charles Spencer at the Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Marc Bridle product_id= Above: Anne Schwanewilms

Photo credit: Javier del Real
Posted by claire_s at 3:55 AM

The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry

Forster’s short story - which he described in another letter (to Florence Barger) as ‘violent and wholly unpublishable’ - seems to bring together the concerns that the writer explored in two of his novels, A Passage to India and Maurice. It tells of a young English missionary, Paul Pinmay, who travels into the wilderness to attempt to convert a powerful tribe leader, Vithobai, who has so far resisted the earnest Edwardians’ proselytising. When he preaches to Vithobai of Christ’s love, in what is to be a tragic confusion of the literal and metaphoric the native chief wants to hear more about ‘“this god whose name is Love”’. Seeing ‘how intelligent the boy was and how handsome, and determining to win him there’, Paul plants a kiss on Vithobai’s forehead and ‘drew him to Abraham’s bosom’: ‘And Vithobai had lain in gladly - too gladly and too long - and had extinguished the lamp. And God alone saw them after that.’

When Pinmay returns, he seems to have failed in his mission but a message arrives that Vithobai and his entire people have embraced Christianity. Pinmay’s ‘reward’ is to be appointed by the Bishop to become the minister of the district. When Vithobai, now baptised as Barnabus, visits Pinmay and asks him to ‘“come to Christ”’, the Englishman is torn by conflicting feelings of guilt, attraction and repulsion. He forbids Vithobai ever to speak of what happened that night or to seek his company, but when the chief seems about to turn back to his ‘false gods’, Pinmay prevaricates: ‘“I said Never speak, not that I would never come.”’

Innocent and trusting, Vithobai waits. Five years pass during which both he and Pinmay marry, but when the chief offers Pinmay a dog-cart as a wedding gift and invites him again to come to Christ, this time the missionary is adamant: he will never come. During the rest of Pinmay’s ten-year term, the colonists bring exploitation and disease; the chief loses his wealth, his land and his health. When Pinmay learns that Vithobai is dying, he determines to visit him once more, to explain the chief’s theological misunderstanding, so that they might forgive each other and repent before Vithobai enters ‘the life to come’. Though initially disillusioned - ‘“I am pure I am evil I am pure I am foul … What difference does it make now?”’ - Vithobai becomes assured that there really is life after death. He takes a knife and stabs Paul - ‘“I served you for ten years”, he thought, “and your yoke was hard, but mine will be harder and you shall serve me now for ever and ever.”’ - before himself succumbing to the life to come.

Life to Come image 1.jpg Themba Mvula (Vithobai) and Martin Lindau (Paul Pinmay). Photo credit: Phil Wallace.

This terribly ironic tale - Vithobai is converted to a ‘love’ that he has totally misunderstood - which pits erotic permissiveness against religious prohibition has been adapted into an opera, with music by Louis Mander and a libretto by Stephen Fry. I attended a terrific performance of this opera by Surrey Opera at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill (the opera had been premiered the preceding evening).

Whereas Forster’s short story proceeds in four taut scenes - Night, Evening, Day, Morning - Fry tells the tale chronologically. Forster begins with the fateful nocturnal communion - ‘Love had been born somewhere in the forest’ - and so the reader’s knowledge colours their response to the ensuing events, whereas Fry, to create a compelling dramatic structure, shifts the sermon which initiates the sexual contact between the two men to the end of the first of two Acts. In the fictional account, we are repeatedly reminded of the passing of the ten-year span of the story, but the events seem more compressed in the opera, fulfilling the need for dramatic intensity.

The story’s background figures - the other missionaries, Paul’s wife and brother-in-law, the tribespeople - are expanded by Fry to provide the requisite cast of characters, vocal variety and a role for the community chorus - although inevitably some of the characterisation is a little thin, as Forster has little concern with these peripheral figures.

Understandably, too, there can be none of Forster’s narrative complexity and irony in the opera; from the start of the story we are made aware that Paul has been sent ‘partly to discover his own limitations’. We see his distress and shame, but also his repression, restrictiveness and stridency, as ‘he who had been wont to lay such stress on the Gospel teaching, on love, kindness … now reacted with violence and treated the new converts and even Barnabus himself with the gloomy severity of the Old Law’.

Much of Forster’s narrative is focalised through Paul’s consciousness. Pinmay’s condescension towards those ‘“so unlike ourselves”’ is implicitly criticised as is his hypocrisy when he uses his power to gain an ascendancy ‘which it was politic to develop’ over Barnabus who ‘respected him, and would not willingly do harm - had even an affection for him, loathsome as the idea might seem’. And, we condemn his cowardice: he dares not explain Vithobai’s error and call a ‘fellow sinner to repent’, for such an action will force him to acknowledge his own need for God’s forgiveness.

Lacking these narrative insights, we perhaps judge Fry’s Pinmay less harshly; the focus is on his inner schisms rather than the conflict between progressive and restrictive interpretations of scripture, although Forster too makes it clear at the end of his tale that both the Englishman and the native are victims.

Surrey Opera’s staging is direct and moving. Director/designer Jonathan Butcher (who also conducts) and lighting designer Alan Bishop skilfully evoke the discomforting distance between Edwardian conformity and a native ‘otherness’, using a simple set (realised by Jill Wilson) which emphasises contrasts, and effective symbols. The stark blue backdrop evokes both the strong, pure heat of this foreign land and a sense of ‘exposure’, to the sun’s rays and to an innocence which is, paradoxically, dangerous. A cross-shaped platform on stage raises an altar and a church porch bearing the words, ‘God is Love’, while benches to the fore are populated by a segregated congregation, natives on one side, Edwardians removed from those they consider their spiritual inferiors. When Pinmay becomes more reproving of the natives, we have simply a bare cross. African masks indicate Vithobai’s village.

Strong injections of coloured light deftly suggest feeling; costumes are fairly conventional - flowered robes and dresses for Vithobai’s tribe, clerical attire and business suits for the colonials - but serve their purpose well. Pinmay’s change from compassionate missionary to more hostile oppressor is indicated by the white suit that replaces his vestments in Act 2. Vithobai’s authority and exoticism is revealed by his strong, bare-footed stride, his colourful sarongs and the elaborate mask which is removed when he submits to Pinmay’s theological instruction.

Louis Mander’s score is attractive and interesting. He writes sympathetically for the voices - I could hear every word of the text - using quite sparse but imaginative textures which make copious use of string pizzicato and harp, and the score offers beguiling melodies for the woodwind. There are no superficial musical exoticisms but timpani, percussion, celeste and harmonium conjure strongly defined worlds. Butcher ensured that these textures were precise and lucid, and his orchestra played very well for him.

The production is superbly cast. Martin Lindau showed us every atom of Pinmay’s inner conflict - his earnestness, his disingenuousness, his cruelty, his suffering - and conveyed pomposity and pathos in equal measure and with real impact. The Swedish tenor has just the right touch of ardency and crafted focused, well-phrased melodies. Perhaps there was a little too much melodrama at the start of Act 2, when Pinmay fell to the floor and desperately gestured for his fellow churchmen to depart when they bring news of Vithobai’s conversion; but, then, there is melodrama in Forster’s account too, when Pinmay awakens from his encounter and hurls the scarlet flowers of love with which the chief has bestrewn them in the stream before rushing out to retrieve them, ‘in an agony of grotesque remorse’; or when he ‘scuttled back for his pistol. “Only one end to this,” he thought.’ Pinmay’s pain and weakness was laid bare by Lindau: “Oh, what have I done?”, the missionary sobbed, without dignity.

Lindau’s duets with Themba Mvula’s Vithobai were powerfully expressive of profound emotions and crises. Mvula is every inch Forster’s ‘gracious and bare-limbed boy’ in sarong or nakedness, and looked fittingly awkward and diminished, stripped of his mystery, in Act 2, appearing just as Forster wryly describes, ‘a dusky youth in western clothes … looking like a waiter’. Mvula has a natural grace that is complemented by a rich and appealing baritone. The sexual encounter between the two men was staged in a manner which was poetic, powerful and true. In Act 2, when Pinmay took the chief aside to advise him that he will explain subsequently how the chief is in error, the ‘frozen’ cast and striking lighting made time stand still, and emphasised the poignancy of Vithobai’s misperception and bewilderment.

As missionary nurse Verily Romily, Pinmay’s wife, mezzo soprano Hannah Poulson provided a welcome vocal diversity in Act 2, her full, rich tone suggesting sincerity. James Schouten’s high baritone conveyed mine-contractor Ernest Romily’s haughty confidence, although the effects of colonialism and imperialism were less cynically presented than in Forster’s tale. Forster’s narrator stresses the disease and poverty which the colonisers bring along with their ‘civilisation’: when Vithobai makes Pinmay a makes gift of a horse and cart, Pinmay avers that is too expensive a wedding present and the narrator explains, ‘For the chief was no longer wealthy; in the sudden advent of civilisation he had chanced to lose much of his land.’ In the opera, this exploitation was represented by some mimed mining at the rear of the stage, and a few canes and straps.

Jonathan Kennedy acted well as Reverend Tregold although occasionally he pushed his baritone a little hard, perhaps to suggests the churchman’s unforgiving orthodoxy and insensitivity. The minor roles were very competently taken by Jolyon Joy (Ronald, a missionary), Denver Martin Smith and Bobby Jeffrey (Head Tribesmen) and Tim Baldwin and Robert Trainer (Head Missionaries), creating a convincing milieu. The community chorus were a little self-conscious in the opening scene as the different social groups joined together for a church service - though perhaps that was appropriately authentic! They grew in ease and confidence, and when Vithobai was accepted into the Christian faith, they blazed in powerful, well-tuned unison.

In a letter to Sassoon, Forster wrote of a planned but abandoned ending for ‘The Life to Come’: ‘I wish the story could have another ending, but however much skill and passion I put into it, it would never have satisfied you. I tried another chapter, it is true, in the forests of the Underworld “where all the trees that have been cut down on earth take root again and grow forever” and the hut has been rebuilt on an enormous scale. The dead come crashing down through the foliage, in an infernal embrace.

‘Pinmay prays to his God who appears on high through a rift in the leaves, and pities him but can do nothing. “It is very unfortunate” says God: “if he had died first you would have taken him to your heaven, but he has taken you to his instead. I am very sorry, oh good and faithful servant, but I cannot do anything.” The leaves close, and Pinmay enters Eternity as a slave, while Vithobai reigns with his peers.’

However, Forster viewed this ending to be ‘A gloomy prospect you see - except for Vithobai, who has won the odd trick’. Instead, we are left with an ending which is frustrating, painful and inevitable. As Vithobai says, ‘“I forgive you, I do not forgive, both are the same.”’ Mander, Fry and Surrey Opera make us understand and feel the depth of this tragedy.

There are further performances in Croydon (21st October) and Brighton (29th October) - see Surrey Opera.

Claire Seymour

Louis Mander: The Life to Come (libretto by Stephen Fry, after E.M. Forster)

Paul Pinmay - Martin Lindau, Vithobai - Themba Mvula, Revd. Tregold - Jonathan Kennedy, Verily Romily - Hannah Poulson, Ernest Romily - James Schouten, Ronald - Jolyon Joy, Head Tribesmen - Denver Martin Smith/Bobby Jeffrey, Head Missionaries - Tim Baldwin/Robert Trainer; conductor/director/designer - Jonathan Butcher, design realisation - Jill Wilson, lighting designer - Alan Bishop, Surrey Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Missionaries and Villagers).

Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, Surrey; Friday 29th September 2017.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Set%20for%20Life%20to%20Come.jpg image_description=The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry, performed by Surrey Opera product=yes product_title=The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry, performed by Surrey Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Martin Lindau (Paul Pinmay, right) and Jonathan Kennedy (Revd. Tregold, centre)

Photo credit: Phil Wallace
Posted by claire_s at 3:37 AM

October 2, 2017

‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’: Thomas Kemp and the OAE present a film of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at the Oxford Lieder Festival

The film was half the length of the opera but included some additional scenes such as a huge outdoor battle scene - the FeldMarschall, absent from the opera, is seen doing his patriotic duty on the battlefield when he learns of his wife’s dalliances at home - an open-air masked ball and a garden fête coloured by some delicate 18th-century dances.

On Monday 12th April 1926 Strauss travelled to London to present the film at the Tivoli Theatre on the Strand, accompanied by a chamber version arranged and conducted by Strauss - an event described by the Evening Standard the following day as ‘the most distinguished event in the history of cinematographic entertainment’. However, the emergence of ‘talkies’ in 1927 interrupted plans for a US tour and subsequently the film was lost, until musicologist and film music specialist, Berndt Heller, reassembled a print from sources in London, Prague and Vienna.

I ask conductor Thomas Kemp how he came to be involved in the screening of the original film which will take place during the Oxford Lieder Festival , where he will conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as they accompany the silent film with Strauss’s own chamber orchestra arrangement.

Thomas Kemp’s musical interests are quite eclectic: he is Music Director of Chamber Domaine, an ensemble which focuses on 20th and 21 st century music, and Artistic Director of Music@Malling - an international festival that promotes the works of contemporary composers alongside masterworks from the Classical and Romantic periods. However, Tom explains that he has specialised largely in late 19th- and early 20th- century repertoire, interpretation and performance practice, and it’s clear during our conversation that he has become fascinated with and energised by an event which he notes is often just a “footnote in Strauss biographies” but which he believes was much more significant than people realised in terms of the development of the medium and, indeed, the film industry: “It was the first example of a major composer arranging their music for the screen.”

Thomas Kemp points out that the original artistic team was illustrious: for example, the set designer, Alfred Roller, was chief set designer for Mahler in Vienna. He argues that film composers from Korngold to John Williams owe a huge debt to Strauss. I wonder whether he would describe Strauss’s music as ‘cinematic’ in nature? After all, Debussy was the first to draw attention to the visual and narrative qualities of Strauss’s music, suggesting that in Till Eulenspiegel the orchestra has a role ‘comparable to the amusing illustrations in a book’, and that Ein Heldenleben is characterised by ‘a frenetic motion, which carries you along wherever - and for however long - it wants to’. The latter, Debussy commented, is ‘a book of images […] even cinematographic. […] But it must be said that the man who can construct a work of this sort with such continuity is very close to genius.’

Tom replies that certainly the use of leitmotif could be seen in this way. The climactic music of the overture of Rosenkavalier also has similarities with the sense of the ‘spectacular’ which early 20 th-century film composers were seeking to create.

Some have argued that Strauss himself had little interest in the film. Alex Ross, for example, commenting on a presentation in 1995 by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein at Avery Fisher Hall, described it as ‘an intriguing but imperfect spectacle, conspicuously marred by indifferent efforts on the part of Strauss’. Kemp admits that while Strauss supervised the chamber version, the work of arranging and preparing the music required for the additional scenes was undertaken by Strauss’s was carried out by assistants Otto Singer and Karl Alwin, and that some of the extra music was drawn from existing pieces such as Strauss’s Couperin Suite. Even at the time, a commentator remarked that a march for the Field Marshal, was ‘tonic-and-dominant stuff almost in the vein of Beethoven’. But, Thomas Kemp disputes suggestions that Strauss was apathetic about the project, contending that he believes the composer saw the medium of film as an innovative way to embrace the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. He draws attention to a letter from Hoffmansthal to Strauss which suggests that they saw film as a way of introducing new people to opera and of enabling those who were already familiar with his operas to experience them again in a new light. So, the film may have been intended to promote, rather than replace, the staged opera: to whet the audience’s appetite, so to speak.

Rosenkavalier Image - credit Filmarchiv Austria.jpgPhoto credit: Filmarchiv Austria.

Tom also notes that film offered a new way of working; that opera productions in Vienna and Dresden were often fairly static and that singers would often come in and perform ‘cold’, with little or no rehearsal. Moreover, he explains, it was quite common for composers, including Strauss, to make salon arrangements of works that had initially been performed in full symphonic versions, to allow them to be heard in new venues - such as cinemas, music halls, hotel lounges and private music clubs - and by diverse audiences.

Strauss embraced new technology: he made many recordings of his own music and, in fact, the day after the Tivoli Theatre performance the composer made a recording with an augmented orchestra. Tom observes that during Strauss’s day there was a much more flexible approach to music-making - in Vienna, the film was presented with just violin and piano accompaniment - compared to our own time when performance practice has been so changed by the growth of the recording industry.

Thomas Kemp imagines, too, that Strauss would also have enjoyed the film’s “whole raft of ironies”: some obvious - as when a Viennese waltz accompanies a scene set in 1740s Vienna, “as if Haydn had put a scherzo in a symphony rather than a minuet” - but others more profound and sometimes difficult to ascertain. Tom suggests that, in this way, the film might be said to embody Hoffmansthal’s remark that music is “eternal but also in the present”. He refers me to another letter from the librettist to Strauss, the concluding comment of which is apposite:

‘Sophie stands beside the Marchallin as girl beside woman, and once more Octavian stands between, and both separates and links them. Sophie is deeply bourgeois, like her father, and so this pair stands opposite the noble, the great, who will allow themselves every freedom of action. Ochs, be he what he may, is still kind of nobleman; Faninal and he need each other…Octavian draws Sophie to him - but does he really and for ever? Perhaps that remains in doubt. So group stands opposed to group, the once united are divided, the divided united. They all belong together, and the best of all is what lies between them: it is momentary and eternal, and this is the realm of the music.’

Thomas Kemp’s two performances at this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival will be the first time he has worked with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and I ask him what impact he thinks that performing this score with period instruments will make? “Colour,” is his immediate response. Surprisingly, there is no place for the horn among the eleven instrumental parts, and Tom points out that the “texture of the sound will be altered by the use of gut strings”. He notes, too, that as there is just one player per part the music is extremely virtuosic, and that the instruments employed are properly differentiated: the Vienna oboe creates a totally different sound-world to that produced by a modern instrument. He suggests that Strauss’s notation is essentially ‘Classical’: for example, the last note of a slur is closed off, shorter.

The parts of the salon version were littered with inconsistencies and so he has found it necessary to put together a new score but this offered a way to “unpick what an arranger would have to do to make it come alive”. The OAE will be expanding their horizons too, engaging with performance practices which are in living memory.

Thomas Kemp’s passion for the music of Strauss is infectious. His animated description of Rosenkavalier’s presentation scene, with its magical celeste entry, and of the directness of Strauss’s music, of the “masterful” way in which he “colours” his scores, makes me want to put the CD on immediately! Strauss, Kemp believes, gets “inside the orchestra”: “he really understands how the orchestra functions and how to use sound to create spine-tingling music.” Tom compares Strauss with Mahler. The latter was more of a “control freak”, and more inconsistent - he changed his mind and every few years a new edition would be required. Strauss, he suggests, gives the performer less information; he had less need to be “in control”. When one watches Strauss conduct he seems almost “passive”, but he makes strong eye contact with his instrumentalists who always play well for him.

Thomas Kemp and the OAE will be opening the Oxford Lieder Festival with more ‘salon’ arrangements and more Strauss, when they perform Schoenberg’s chamber arrangements of Mahler’sLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde with soloists Toby Spence, Dietrich Henschels and Kate Royal, who will also sing some Strauss songs. Again, Tom notes that it was very commonplace for composers to make such arrangements to enable members of private music societies to listen to new music, though subsequently, when the country was hit by hyper-inflation, many such societies closed. Moreover, he remarks, the songs Kate Royal will sing were actually published by Universal Edition in a collection of existing works in arrangements specifically intended for film accompaniment: the Vindobona Collection, which was published in 1926 through to the mid-1930s.

At the Tivoli Theatre in April 1926, what the Evening Standard critic described as the ‘magnetic presence’ of Strauss himself was clearly a big draw for many of the ‘vast and tremendously eager’ audience, although the reviewer noted that there was some applause for the film itself, including one scene ‘showing a curved street with high buildings, a cortege passing and spectators at every window, a stimulating study in animated décor, recalling (as did much of “Rosenkavalier”) some of the charming scenes from Dr. Ludwig Berger’s “Cinderella”.’

The Standard described the film as the equivalent of a ‘visual ballet, with screen figures instead of dancers interpreting the music’. And, although at the premiere there had been some technical problems - Strauss became annoyed that he had to keep stopping because of the difficulty of co-ordinating with the projectionists - at the Tivoli the synchronisation of music and image was praised, with the suggestion that Strauss had re-orchestrated the score using ‘the screen as a metronome’: ‘Dr Wiene has succeeded in making every movement of the players a rhythm, and the movement of the picture as a whole has also definite rhythm, so that ear and eye alike are equally delighted’.

Tom explains that in Strauss’s arrangement the vocal material has been transferred to the instrumental parts - the Italian Tenor’s aria is delegated to the trumpet and harmonium, for example! - and he notes the significance of a pamphlet by Hoffmansthal in which the latter argues that gesture is more powerful than the written word: the music thus acts as a ‘gesture’ which is co-ordinated with the moving image on the silent screen.

The significance of the Tivoli Theatre screening is evidenced by the fact that it was broadcast by the BBC, and on Tuesday 13th April 1926 a review (in the ‘Wireless Notes and Programmes’ column) appeared in the Manchester Guardian. The wireless listener had been pleasantly surprised: ‘Over the wireless one had something far short of the real thing, but fully enough of the familiar and captivating melodies of this great comic opera to be very worthwhile’, although the sound quality had left something to be desired, for ‘[the melodies] came through between shrieks and gusts of unintelligible noise. The microphone needs a cutting-out device for noise!’ This commentator, too, complemented the co-ordination of image and music noting that there ‘was none of the sudden jumping from a half-finished phrase that is one of the comic elements of the average kinema [sic] show, the perennial triumph of the conductor over the discomforted conductor’. In his opinion, the wireless broadcast had captured all of the opera’s moods - the ‘humour, agitation, serenity, passion’: and, ‘never were such sensuous waltzes broadcast’. His hyperbolic conclusion was, ‘Never was such advertisement for a film!’

This screening was clearly seen as the start of something new. The Manchester correspondent dismissed Strauss’s avowal that he was too old to write film music with the riposte that ‘it is just his young spirit that is needed for a much more adventurous exploration of … the uncharted wilderness of the ether’.

In May 2018, Thomas Kemp and the OAE will be bringing Rosenkavalier to London and taking the film back to Vienna. Before that, however, they will travel to Shangai to give China its first opportunity to see this remarkable film.

In April 1926, the Evening Standard suggested that this film had ‘done more for the prestige of the cinema in one night than six months of Hollywood’s pretentious efforts’. And, Tom argues that the screenings of Rosenkavalier in Dresden and London in 1926 were not merely a ‘footnote’ but were central to the cultural philosophy of the period. Sadly, the last 625-metre reel of film - which offered an ‘alternative’ ending, in which the Marschallin and her husband were reconciled - is missing. Presumably, no one will ever again be able to see their reunion, but the result is, as Thomas Kemp remarks, that it is therefore Strauss’s music which has ‘the last word’.

Claire Seymour

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Posted by claire_s at 11:46 AM

October 1, 2017

Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

recently posted on OperaToday.com, than the world-premiere recording of Mayr’s Telemaco nell’Isola di Calipso reached me, an opera from 16 years earlier, when Mayr was 34 years old. Franz Hauk, who is a conductor (and organist) in Munich, has made numerous recordings of Mayr operas, oratorios, and liturgical works for Naxos, and many of them have been praised by reviewers.

Telemaco (I abbreviate the title as the jewel-case does) is a three-act work first performed in 1797 at the famous La Fenice theater in Venice. It is freely based on a didactic French novel (1699) by François Fénelon that was intended as a sequel to Homer’s The Odyssey. Numerous other creative works, in the intervening century before Mayr came along, had been inspired by Fénelon’s novel (e.g., operas by Gluck and by Berlioz’s teacher Lesueur; also several famous oil paintings).

In Mayr’s opera, Telemaco (i.e., Telemachus, Ulysses’s son, now grown up), his tutor (unnamed: simply the “Mentore”—“mentor”), and his other male companions are shipwrecked on the island of the enchanting nymph Calipso (Calypso), whom his father Ulysses had once loved and abandoned. Calipso is still enraged at this betrayal by a mere mortal and has vowed to kill any outsider who arrives at her island. Instead, she finds herself attracted to Telemaco. He, however, is drawn to the innocent Euchari (Eucharis). Finally, Telemaco is persuaded by the Mentore to flee this island of entrapment, even though he is thereby abandoning Euchari, whom the vindictive Calipso has already threatened to kill. When Telemaco and the Mentore reach a cliff overlooking the sea, the young man suddenly hesitates, the Mentore pushes him into the water, and the Mentore then jumps in as well. The ship carrying their companions collects the two men and heads back to Greece as the curtain falls.

The story relates to a long tradition of chivalric romances (e.g., by Tasso and Ariosto) in which a young hero must free himself—or be freed by upright male comrades—from the wiles of a foreign and powerful woman. It also bears some resemblance to another myth-based opera: Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762; expanded and revised in French, 1774). But Telemaco has none of the stately grandeur that marks long stretches of that famous work. It feels instead very much like a series of conversations between people whom we all know. The closest parallel in Gluck’s Orfeo to what we often encounter in Telemaco is the quarrel between Orpheus and Euridice (halfway through Act 3), when he is leading her from Purgatory back up to earth and—for reasons that he has been forbidden to explain to her—he refuses to look at her.

The performance here keeps the conversations among the characters vivid and involving. Tempos are brisk, but they are also often adjusted for appropriate momentary effect. One number moves right into the next, with no long pauses to dissipate the tension.

The singers, all clear and light-voiced, color their voices in a variety of ways, allowing us to distinguish the characters from each other and to recognize the feelings that each is experiencing at the moment. Even slight shifts in vocal color are important because the basic layout of voice-types for the four major roles could have been problematic, at least for a modern listener: the two female roles of Calipso and Euchari are sopranos; Telemaco, being a young male warrior, was written for a castrato (as were Mozart’s Idamante and Sesto) and is here likewise sung by a female soprano; and the Mentore is a tenor.

The most consistently firm and nuanced singing comes from Siri Karoline Thornhill. She is a rising star on the early-music scene, having sung Mozart’s Donna Anna under Sigiswald Kuijken and recorded a number of Bach cantatas. Markus Schäfer, a well-established recording artist (Don Ottavio and Ferrando, both under Kuijken; and Bach cantatas under Helmuth Rilling), brings great authority and variety to the role of the Mentore. Any moments where his voice sounds just a bit worn seem perfectly appropriate for a character who is old and wise. Andrea Lauren Brown is attentive to Calipso’s often-intense words, allowing us to ignore an occasional lack of solidity in her vocal production. Her embellishment of the melodic line at the end of Calipso’s final aria is beautifully realized and feels quite in character.

The acoustics are sometimes very resonant, giving undue emphasis to the three sopranos’ high notes. (The recording was made in a large meeting hall in a former Jesuit school in Neuburg, Bavaria.) The orchestra—a smallish but alert group—is recorded clearly and somehow free of that mildly annoying echo.

The basic style of the music is post-Mozartean (or post-Cimarosa, or post-Paisiello), with none of the anticipations of Donizetti and Verdi that will crop up in Mayr’s aforementioned Medea in Corinto. Still, numerous moments make a vivid impression. An early biographer of Mayr rightly praised two extended orchestral passages: a storm scene and a hunt, the latter with chorus. No less strong are the dances for Calipso’s nymphs, and the funeral march for the condemned Euchari (which alternates, to great dramatic effect, with a military march announcing the imminent departure of Telemaco’s soldier buddies—will he join them?). The orchestra often interacts in productive ways with the vocal parts: adding brass fanfares or a pastoral drone bass to an aria to point up the imagery in the sung words, or turning a recitative into a mini-scena before the aria proper begins.

Some passages of recitative are accompanied by a small string ensemble, with one player, or just a few, per part. (The whole recording is available in separate files on YouTube. An example of a recitative with reduced strings can be heard here; the character singing is Calipso.) The otherwise informative booklet-essay does not indicate whether this orchestrational “downshift” was specified by Mayr, but it works well, refreshing the ear and making the words easier to hear. The single most pleasant surprise for me in the whole recording was the end of a choral number for the Greek sailors in distress (“Ah, che fai!”): before the chorus has completing its singing, Telemaco suddenly begins to sing “What horror! By me will you have vengeance!”; his first note is long and high, emphasizing his determination and adding to the startling effect.

As for Calipso, Mayr’s skill at setting text makes the character a worthy member in opera’s long line of powerful, often vengeful women, from the Medeas of Cavalli (in Giasone), Charpentier, Cherubini, and Mayr himself to Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Azucena and Ulrica, Wagner’s Kundry, Dvořák’s Ježibaba (in Rusalka), and beyond. I found particularly satisfying the two trios, in which Calipso, Telemaco, and the Mentore express their different concerns in overlapping and contrasting lines. (For the trio that ends Act 1, click here. The characters heard are, in order, the Mentore, Telemaco, and finally Calipso.) In short, a fertile musicodramatic imagination is at work here, and I now understand better why generations of opera scholars (including Hauk himself, in a German-language book, 1999) have drawn attention to Mayr as a crucial figure in the development of Italian opera.

The downloadable libretto is Italian-only and not free of typos (“piagnente” should presumably be “piangente”). Fortunately, the synopsis included in the booklet is very detailed and contains track numbers to help you know where you are. In that synopsis, and also in the booklet-essay, the English translation is unidiomatic at times but never incomprehensible. The discs are slightly mislabeled: CD 1 contains not just Act 1 but also the beginning of Act 2.

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. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about 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). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).

      

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