October 31, 2019

The Dallas Opera Cockerel: It’s All Golden

Since that outdoor New Mexico venue is celebrated for its open upstage wall that affords sunset views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I wondered how the scenic “environment” might adapt to an indoor proscenium house. The answer is, quite wonderfully well.

If anything, I found Gary McCann’s industrial grid work scenic elements even more effective. Although appearing more compact on the Winspear Opera House stage, the whole artful edifice seemed better placed, especially the sweeping skateboard-like ramp/wall stage right that also served as a projection screen.

For Act II’s “mountain pass,” a series of broken rings and girders was added upstage, a stacking of half-finished roller coaster loops perhaps subtly suggesting a rooster’s tail. The raked stage floor included an effectively used trap door, that allowed for the loopy entrance of King Dodon, seated with legs splayed on a greatly over-sized gilded throne, recalling (intentionally?) Lily Tomlin’s Laugh-In persona, Edith Ann, who was dwarfed by the huge chair she occupied.

Driscoll Otto’s inventive projection design remains one of the production’s glories, especially when he utilizes the upstage back wall in Acts Two and Three, after intermission. Curiously, that upstage screen was not utilized in Act One and the playing space lacked the maximal visual depth it might have had. Of course, in Santa Fe that upstage space was open to nature and was not a projectable surface, but were this production package to have further life, I would urge adding upstage projections in Act I. The animated cockerel proved an especially effective decision.


Mr. Otto’s inspired creations sometime even spilled dizzyingly onto the proscenium, and his work was beautifully complement by Paul Hackenmueller’s amazing lighting design, which was a malleable marvel of vibrant color washes, selectively deployed follow spots, dramatic side-lighting, austere down-lighting, and all manner of moody illumination that perfectly suggested just the correct atmosphere, ranging from brutally tragic to playfully comic.

Mr. McMann also provided a colorful and varied costume design, a veritable explosion of folk wear that riffs on peasant Matroyushka dolls, Orthodox religious icons and pompous royalty with equal aplomb. The King/Tsar was presented as the emperor that has no clothes on, caped but with a distended beer-belly in his red BVD’s, an inspired touch. And a final costume reveal near the end suddenly alters the tone and period, and injects contemporary resonance into the political satire, should any still be needed.

With an almost entirely new cast, director Paul Curran has recreated and further enhanced an excellent arsenal of stage business and blocking. The use of the huge throne was notably daffy, with the King, his dimwitted progeny, General Polkan, and even housekeeper Amelfa clambering on, over, and off this huge piece, ducking under armrests, standing on the seat and arms, leaping to the floor, and clambering back up on the rungs of the braces over and over again. That they did this entertaining workout routine seemingly tirelessly is a testament to their stamina, fitness, and dedication.

I still loved that the Queen of Shemakha was announced and accompanied by a bevy of white clad showgirls brandishing white ostrich plume fans, like an upscale supper club floor act. Later, these chorines and their feathers conspired with King Dodon in a Ziegfeld-Follies-routine-gone-wrong, which found the dippy monarch hilariously bumping, grinding, and popping a few outrageous hip moves that had the audience giddy with amusement.


Mr. Curran not only used the chorus ingeniously and meaningfully during longer orchestral passages to visualize the action, but also devised well-choreographed interplay between the principals that began as lighthearted political commentary and then morphed into sobering tragedy as the stakes were inexorably raised.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume had led a most persuasive reading in Santa Fe and he has only honed his interpretation to an even more telling rendition. Nothing about this challenging score eludes him or his finely tuned group of Dallas instrumentalists. The composer remains an acclaimed orchestrator to this day, and Maestro Villaume elicited every drop of color and variety of effect from this wide-ranging score. The exquisite woodwind soloists are arguably first among equals for their spirited contributions, many of which conveyed an effortless exoticism and piquant commentary.

The brass fanfares and motifs were commandingly rendered, and the percussive effects were tastefully stirring. The strings could effortlessly segue from regaling us with banks of lush and ravishing ensemble work, to providing sardonic, characterful commentary. This was an exceptional reading of a knotty, difficult piece, and Villaume proved to be completely in command of his large forces, to include Alexander Rom’s exquisitely prepared chorus. The soloists, too, were uniformly excellent.


Two holdovers from their Santa Fe triumph were Barry Banks and Kevin Burdette. Of the former I had written: “Barry Banks was born to play the Astrologer.” I remain convinced of that fact, and if anything, Mr. Banks’ utterly secure, freely produced tenor rang out even more thrillingly on this occasion as he made child’s play of the role’s forays into the stratosphere, without ever sacrificing beauty of tone. And Mr. Burdette seems to be having even more fun than before as General Polkan, characterized by his rock-solid bass singing, coupled with securely delivered Cassandra-like prophecies, loose-limbed physicality, and a most winning, mustache twitching comic impersonation.

Nikoloy Didenko’s bass-baritone anchored the show as the clueless, pliable King Dodon. At first, his delivery seemed just a bit muted, the rich tones of his lower and middle register thinning out a bit at the very top. At the matinee I attended, Mr. Didenko warmed substantially to his task as the show progressed, and he was soon firing on all cylinders, the top turning over with sheen and power. Although his voice has good thrust and has a nice hint of metal, this is a somewhat lighter instrument than I have experienced in the part, although no less effective, since it was performed with unerring musicality. Best of all, Nikoloy was a committed, no holds barred comedian, able to throw himself into the wide-ranging serio-comedic demands of this lengthy role with commendable abandon.

Viktor Antipenko (Prince Guidon) and Corey Crider (Prince Afron) were true luxury casting as the King’s boneheaded sons. Hmmm, a clueless, uninquisitive, vain head of state with two clueless male offspring…where have we encountered this before? But I digress…Mr. Antipenko deployed a freely ringing Heldentor which imbued the brief part of Guidon with burnished vocal pleasures, while Mr. Crider’s imposing bass-baritone pinged off the back wall with powerful beauty. Between the two of them, they not only delivered some of the show’s best vocalizing, but also wholeheartedly bought into the political mockery and silliness of purpose.

Jeni Houser’s pliant, soaring coloratura soprano was so assured and attractive in her offstage declamations as the titular Cockerel, that I wished she had been given more to sing. Lindsay Ammann’s rolling, robust contralto ably served and informed the character of the servant Amelfa. Ms. Ammann’s rich intonations at the lowest reaches of the part were especially impressive, although her registers are well knit and uniformly, powerfully pleasing. Lindsay’s ‘goof’‘with a “parrot” prop was particularly memorable for its ingenuity.

Rounding out the cast was the Queen of Shemakha as embodied by the delectable coloratura soprano, Olga Pudova. First, she is an attractive, pert, petite young woman with the requisite beguiling physical presence. There are precious few sopranos who could not only sing the role this ravishingly, but could also simultaneously, uninhibitedly, strip from a flowing gown and headdress to a skimpy, two-piece harem showgirl bikini.

Ms. Pudova’s gleaming voice is on the smaller, lyric side, but she has a superior sense of line and focus that easily communicates in the house. Her coloratura is flawlessly rendered and her sly manner with a comic turn of phrase imbues her singing with infectious joy. While she vamped the King without inhibition, she could turn on a dime and become a deadly, manipulative siren when the drama demanded it.

If her finely spun phrases in alt were her crowning achievement, she could not quite summon the requisite ominous weight for the more sobering dramatic (and musical) turn of events. Still, Olga emphatically proved that she was the undisputed Queen of all she surveyed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic acclaim.

What a pleasure to encounter this worthy production again and have the opportunity to appreciate so many artists new to me that made for such a rewarding afternoon in the theatre. The Dallas Opera is to be lauded for bringing to life this operatic rarity, a Cockerel that was golden in every way.

Happy Tenth Anniversary at the Winspear venue. And many more.

James Sohre

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel

Astrologer: Barry Banks; King Dodon: Nikoloy Didenko; Prince Guidon: Viktor Antipenko; General Polkan: Kevin Burdette; Prince Afron: Corey Crider; First Boyer: Jay Gardner; Second Boyer: Christopher Harrison; Golden Cockerel: Jeni Houser; Amelfa: Lindsay Ammann; Queen of Shemakha: Olga Pudova; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Director: Paul Curran; Set and Costume Design: Gary McCann; Lighting Design: Paul Hackenmueller; Projection Design: Driscoll Otto; Chorus Master: Alexander Rom

image=http://www.operatoday.com/GC_First_0289_C.png image_description=Photo credit: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera product=yes product_title=The Dallas Opera Cockerel: It’s All Golden product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Photo credit: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
Posted by james_s at 3:11 PM

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The role of Luisa is sung by Krassimira Stoyanova and that of Rodolfo, known first as Carlo, by Joseph Calleja. Luisa’s father Miller is performed by Quinn Kelsey, and Count Walter, father of Rodolfo, is Christian Van Horn. The Duchess Federica is sung by Alisa Kolosova, while Solomon Howard performs as Wurm, a subordinate of Count Walter. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Enrique Mazzola, and the Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its Chorus Master Michael Black. The production, owned by the San Francisco Opera, is by Francesca Zambello. Sets, costumes, and lighting are designed by Michael Yeargan, Dunya Ramicova, and Mark McCullough respectively. Mr. Howard makes his debut at Lyric Opera in these performances.

In the first scene of the opening act Luisa stands apart at stage right while the chorus of villagers seems to fill much of the remaining open space. In this production the sets are conceived with an imaginative use of an open space at stage rear. The space is at times covered - in this first scene with a cloth bearing illustrations that denote an Alpine landscape - or it is left open to accommodate entrances or departures altering the focus of performers on stage. The position of society as a witness to individual or familial misfortune in love is a frequent device in the genre of late eighteenth-century “bourgeois tragedy” to which Verdi’s source by Friedrich Schiller belongs. For the lovers themselves the tragedy lies in the unbridgeable distance occasioned by class.

Once the villagers sing their good wishes to Luisa on this her birthday, Miller enters to add his paternal compliments. In this role Mr. Kelsey makes the most of the declamatory phrasing which expresses both joy and apprehension. His flexible baritone assumes an ominous cast when he broaches the topic of an “ignoto” (“unknown”) Carlo with his daughter. In her first aria, as a response to Miller, Ms. Stoyanova sings of her love for this newcomer [“m’amo, l’amai” (“He fell in love with me, and I with him”)] after calming her father’s fears. Rather than singing the individual notes in a skipping progression suggesting the character’s infatuation Stoyanova expresses the line in sustained pitches, so that Luisa effectively sounds more mature.

Almost immediately Carlo enters. In this role Calleja displays the focused, urgent commitment so vital to a principal Verdian tenor. The impetuous lover Carlo and Luisa exchange their assurances of continued devotion. The protagonists sing in succession and jointly of language’s inability to express their love, during which Calleja and Stoyanova sing with rounded, full-voiced lyrical ardor. Their momentary disappearance with the crowd into the Alpine church is followed by the appearance of Wurm and his confrontation with Miller.

The role of Count Walter’s deputy Wurn is performed with imposing force by Mr. Howard, yet his voice retains a flexible line with considerable variety in low pitches. His opening words to Miller, “Ferma ed ascolta” (“Stop and listen”) are rife with menace, just as the following address Howard expresses Wurm’s “gelosia” with accelerating pressure while assuring Miller that he will not relinquish his desires for Luisa. In the gloriously lyrical response, “Sacra la scelta” (“Sacred is the choice”) Mr. Kelsey’s Miller resists the threats of authority and elaborates on his duties as father and protector. Kelsey performs this central aria with accomplished legato as well as decorative touches to enhance repeated phrases such as “Non son tiranno, padre son io” (“I am not a tyrant, I am a father.”). Kelsey is especially adept at singing Verdi’s descending lines with emotional force, just as his extended pitches at the close emphasize the significance of this aria.

In general, the low voices in the cast leave an especially strong impression. In a subsequent scene in the noble’s palace Count Walter muses on his position. He has summoned Rodolfo in order to force a meeting between his son and the Duchessa as a prospective bride. Mr. Van Horn’s performance resonates with noble demeanor, his steadfast convictions on family and obligation reflected in his urgent declamation of “Il mio sangue, la vita darei” (“I would give my blood, my life”), followed by forte top notes matching the orchestra and a concluding phrase descending to the depths of the Count’s soul. At the same time when confronted later by Rodolfo’s awareness of his secret Van Horn expresses shades of vulnerability which his character is eager to conceal. Music from afar, growing gradually in volume, announces the Duchess’s arrival. Ms. Kolosova’s imaginative entry on a stylized horse heralds her characters noble lineage while causing awe among those who greet her. In her pivotal scene with Rodolfo Kolosova’s solid vocal range captures the Duchessa’s importunate declarations with chilling emotional fervor. Calleja’s requests to be released from this grip are equally exciting as the scene emerges as one of the most dramatically exciting of the production. The duet also sets into motion the remaining ensembles of the first act culminating in the near arrest of Luisa and her father as well as the rupture between father and son.

The scenes of Act II and III are considerably more intimate than the public gaze and pageantry associated with preceding, longer act. The dramatic structure of Act II allows for the intrigue from the German source (“Kabale”) to be realized. Despite Rodolfo’s threat to his father, Miller has been jailed before the start of the nexr act. Luisa must agree to Wurm’s demands in order to aid her father. At the scene between Wurm and Luisa Stoyanova projects an heroic determination new to her character just as Howard’s selfish insincerity as Wurm seems to grow with each line. By insisting that she sign a letter committing herself to Wurm, this henchman of Count Walter provides testimony for Rodolfo’s eventual mistrust of his beloved. Calleja’s reaction captures the wistful mood of “Quando le sere al placido” (“When at evening in the calm light”) and recalls his bristle of outbursts at the close of the first act. Yet by the start of Act III the protagonist lovers have here reached a series of fatalistic resolutions. Both Stoyanova and Calleja sing poignantly of their renewed devotion but society’s threat now limits their love to the time they have left until the poison takes effect. Once Wurm is killed in a parting blow, Count Walter is left alone with his secret and its torments.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/luisa_miller_6.png image_description=Joseph Calleja and Krassimira Stoyanova [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Joseph Calleja and Krassimira Stoyanova [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by jim_z at 3:06 PM

Philip Glass: Music with Changing Parts - European premiere of revised version

Glass’s revision of Music with Changing Parts, which premiered in New York in 2018, doesn’t fundamentally alter the musical patterns, those propulsive rhythms or the sense of predictability in a work which is always unpredictable - what has changed is the lack of astringency, the greater range and just different sounds in a revision which places it between two poles of Glass’s creative output.

If there is one thing which Music with Changing Parts does display it is a discipline to the intricacies of how every bar, every phrase and every line are carefully processed, even if you’re hearing the same ones, multiple times. This is the Boulanger effect on Glass’s early music. But what is equally striking about this particular piece - and this remains true whether you hear it in the original or the revision - is a debt to Stockhausen, if not consciously inspired then certainly as a musical parallel. The Glass of Music with Changing Parts is about the geometry of patterns, the polyvalent, unpredictable randomness which runs through a piece like Klavierstück XI, the clusters of electronic sound which reach a colossal apex and the psychoacoustic effects of voices which recall Stimmung, a work written just a few years before in 1968. What the revision does, and does so well, is turn Music with Changing Parts into an almost full-blown choral piece, and in doing so expand on those overlayered voice frequencies, the kaleidoscopic complexities of long and short vocal sounds into something significantly more minimalist and hypnotic than one usually experiences in Stimmung.

As the title of the work suggests there is nothing fixed about the orchestration of Music with Changing Parts. If I recall, the 2005 performance at Tate Modern used significantly more players than the Philip Glass Ensemble had used on their ground-breaking recording of the work in 1971. Whilst doubling of instruments is an option (as it was for the recording) what the revision does is to simply expand the number of players and instruments (beyond the normal keyboard and woodwind). For this particular performance, that was two horns, two trumpets, a flute, a tenor trombone and a bass trombone. What this does to the tone of the work is to markedly change its musical direction. It can, in one sense, just sound much less radical, much less primitive a score - much of the asceticism has been torn from its pages, its landscape less jagged and now more sensuous, almost opulent. The colours aren’t as shocking or vivid as they once felt; now they seem more tenebrous. In a work which sometimes seemed it was striding multiple musical genres, from minimalist classical to quasi-symphonic clusters of rock (at one time, I rather thought some of this music resembled the cumulative, kinetic power of Santana’s Soul Sacrifice - the 1969, psychedelic Woodstock version, that is), it now sounded comfortably, and eerily, closer to Akhnaten. Not a bad thing - just a different aural experience.

Originally, the use of voices in Music with Changing Parts was strongly tied to the improvisatory geometry of the work - and those voices were in every sense unwritten. The words had no structured meaning, they occurred only at breaks in the playing - and those breaks were themselves determined by the players, not by the score. The notes given out for this performance didn’t make anything clear (in fact, Mr Glass was extremely minimalist in telling us anything about what we were going to hear) so what follows is largely based on how I heard it.

Philip Glass Ensemble Barbican.jpgPhilip Glass Ensemble. Photo credit: Mark Allan/Barbican.

If the fundamental randomness of the instrumentation remains largely untouched - that is, patterns of varying lengths, repeated as often as a musician wants - the choral writing is a whole new layer in itself. The momentum is clearly forward-looking, each section sounding different to the previous one. The chorus is divided - and part of the work’s spectral unpredictability is that often only the left or right chorus will sing - though sometimes one experiences the chorus in unison. Quite how far the impact of this is random, of whether the ear will ever be tuning in to one side or the other, to a stereophonic or a more monophonic distribution of sound, is difficult to tell. A choral conductor suggests this is entirely possible. Glass has also opted for a children’s chorus, which if it seems a touch Mahlerian is actually much more inventive. If this is now a work which is about contrast and depth, about the possibility of range and tone, the layers in it have become enmeshed in quite complex textures. The rhythm remains entirely uniform - what feels alien to the original Music with Changing Parts is an exploration of different pitch than we have in the later version.

The performance itself was beyond first rate. If I clearly heard parallels with some of Glass’s later works (especially the operas after Einstein on the Beach) this was an incredibly hypnotic experience. The biggest irony of Minimalism is that its simplicity masks huge complexity. What can seem structurally slight is actually vast in scale. It would be easy to take the virtuosity of the Philip Glass Ensemble for granted, but the concentration, especially from the keyboard players (Lisa Bielawa, Nelson Padgett and Mick Rossi), was of an exceptional quality. This was the kind of performance you were transfixed by - something you watched as well as listened to. This often went beyond music into a kind of visual art.

The London Contemporary Orchestra, who provided the brass players, were entirely immersed in this music. I warmed especially to the dark trombones (Iain Maxwell and Dan West) as well as the piercing and bright trumpet playing (Katie Hodges and Dave Geohagen). The Tiffin Chorus had, I think, something of a challenging evening - but this was a performance which lasted for ninety rather intense minutes. Glass makes few, if any, allowances for the fact that huge amounts of this score is to be sung by children. Much of the rapid repetition of same-note patterns, the varying length and intensity of the notes themselves, the shifts in register or the apparent discretion of the choral conductor were all taxing on them, but they acquitted themselves very well.

At times one sometimes felt that the audio and sound engineering (Ryan Kelly and Dan Bora) felt a touch over reverberant, especially when capturing the voices of the Tiffin Chorus. It was possibly meant to be deliberate. The theory is that Glass came to compose Music with Changing Parts precisely because of the effect of reverberation he heard in a performance of an earlier work. Distraction in this case may well have been purposeful effect. It did little in the end to weaken a performance which had been masterfully conducted from the keyboard by Michael Riesman and the choral conductor, Valérie Saint-Agathe.

The question one might ask after hearing this concert is whether Philip Glass intends this revision of Music with Changing Parts to completely supplant his earlier version. His notes were elusive about this, and I don’t know the answer either. Musically, it was a superlative evening - and I think compositionally it improves on the original. Performances of the latter were a rarity; perhaps this will change that.

Marc Bridle

Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman (music director), Valérie Sainte-Agathe (conductor), Players from the London Contemporary Orchestra, Tiffin Chorus (James Day - Tiffin Chorus director)

Barbican Centre, London; Wednesday 30th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PGE%20Barbican.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Philip Glass: Music with Changing Parts, European premiere of revised version, Barbican Hall, London product_by=A review by Marc Bridle product_id=Above: Philip Glass Ensemble

Photo credit: Mark Allan/Barbican
Posted by claire_s at 9:17 AM

October 30, 2019

Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams

As the label is an offshoot of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, its choices are eclectic rather than mainstream, but illuminate aspects of Vaughan Williams’ life and work which might not otherwise be covered in mass market releases. While Albion’s first collection “Heirs and Rebels” presented archive recordings of well known songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, the choices on this recording places less familiar songs – some unpublished – by each composer beside each other for comparison and also their settings of the same texts.

Holst’s fascination with visionary themes can be glimpsed in “Invocation to Dawn”, from Holst’s Six Songs Op15 H68 (1902-3). This was the first of his settings of his own translation from Sanskrit. It’s contemporary with his The Mystic Trumpeter (1904 rev. 1912), and works like Savitri Op 25 and the Choral Hymns to the Rig Veda Op. 26 (1908-12). While neither Holst nor RVW were conventionally religious, the ardent vocal line and rolling piano part in this song connects to transcendental themes prevalent in that era. Holst includes three settings of Thomas Hardy, “In a Wood”, “Between Us Now”, and “The Sergeant’s Song”, which text Vaughan Williams also used in Buonaparty (1908), which can be heard on the recent “The Song of Love” album, also from Albion. (Please read my review here). Holst’s version is animated, more attuned to the irreverent satire in the poem, with Roderick Williams at his idiomatic best. The suppressed passion in “I will not let thee go”, to a poem by Robert Bridges might remind some of Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, from 1904, though Silent Noon is by far the masterpiece.

A E Housman verses inspired Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (1909), and also Along the Field (1925-7). These songs, set for high voice and solo violin (Mary Bevan and Jack Liebeck) are exquisite studies in minor key modality, so refined that they seem to hover in mystical trance. In “We’ll to the Woods No More”, the vocal line stretches, with seemingly little dynamic variation, mirrored by the violin. But perhaps that is the point : the mood is so elusive that the song floats away, like a ghost. “Along the Field ”develops the mystery. The plaintive vocal line suggests plainchant, or possibly vespers, for the lovers will soon be parted by death. The leaves of the aspen tree know what lies ahead but cannot speak. “And I spell nothing in their stir” sings Bevan with hushed deliberation. Even the relatively cheerful “In the Morning” is melancholy, and “The Sigh that Heaves the Grasses” drips with portent. The violin part in “Good-Bye” is subtly discordant, picking up on the unspoken emotions of the lad so abruptly dismissed by the object of his affections. The text of “Fancy’s Knell” resembles “Clun” from On Wenlock Edge, though the wordier scansion of this poem doesn’t invite quite such a strong setting. The set ends with “With Rue my Heart is Laden”, also set by George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams’ version even more aphoristic and enigmatic. Although these songs are usually heard with tenor, the silvery timbre of Bevan’s voice, in my opinion, enhances their strange, surreal magic. This performance is so beautiful that it makes this recording an absolute must.

Two settings of A Cradle Song to a text by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one by Vaughan Williams from 1905, the other By Holst from his Op.16 H6 (1903-5) contrast with Vaughan Williams’ Blake’s Cradle Song (1928) , the composer responding to the greater complexity of Blake’s poem. Holst’s Four Songs Op.14, H14 (1896-98) are fairly early works, setting poems by Charles Kingsley, Henrik Ibsen and Heinrich Heine (both in English translation) and Robert Bridges.

Vaughan Williams’ Bushes and Briars (1908), introduces the group of folk songs in this collection. Bushes and Briars is seminally important, since it was the first song the composer collected in the field, having heard it sung by a labourer in Essex in 1903. It’s been performed hundreds of times in many forms, including by modern urban “folk”, but here Roderick Williams brings out the sophistication of Vaughan Williams’ transcription. The first verse is unaccompanied, as traditional ballad usually was, but the piano part develops it as art song, warmed by the natural sincerity of Williams’ style. A memorable performance. Vaughan Williams collected The Lark in the Morning (1908) in Essex, expurgating more ribald aspects of the original. The Captain’s Apprentice (1908) from a fishing community in Kings Lynn, was adapted into the Norfolk Rhapsody, on which the composer was working at that period.

Holst made sixteen arrangements of folk songs, two of which we have here, The Willow Tree (H83/6 1906-8), and Abroad as I was walking (H83/1). Holst’s Four Songs for Voice and Violin (Op. 35, H132, 1916-17) display a more “modern” sensibility. There are no time signatures. “Bar lines are used for coordination purposes, but the length of each bar varies freely according to the melodic line”, as stated in the uncredited programme notes. Two settings of Walt Whitman’s texts from Whispers of Heavenly Death form the basis of the songs Darest Thou Now O Soul. Holst’s version H72, 1904-5) is declamatory, delivered here with dramatic flair by Roderick Williams. Vaughan Williams’ version, which he was working on at the same period, incorporated the text into A Sea Symphony. Here it is heard in a setting for solo voice and piano, from 1925. The unison version for voices and string orchestra – a hymn with chamber orchestra – can be heard on Martyn Brabbins’ recent recording of A Sea Symphony. (Please read more about that here).

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Time-and-Space.png image_description=Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams product=yes product_title=Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams. product_by=Mary Bevan (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), William Vann (piano), Jack Liebeck (violin) product_id=Albion ALBCD038 [CD] price=$17.13 product_url=https://amzn.to/2BZLaTM
Posted by iconoclast at 7:00 PM

October 28, 2019

Wexford Festival Opera 2019

Artistic Director David Agler is presenting his fifteenth, and final, Festival Programme – one which offers Wexford audiences their first Baroque opera since the Festival’s 1985 production of Handel’s Ariodante.  Artistic Director Designate Rosetta Cucchi first came to Wexford as a member of the music staff in 1995, has been Agler’s Associate Director since 2005, and has directed many WFO productions including Francesco Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana (in 2012) Mariotte’s Salomé (in 2014) and Alfano’s Risurrezione (in 2017). 

During an animated press conference, Cucchi introduced her programme for WFO 2020 and set out her plans for the future, which include ‘themed’ programming, four late-night Cabaret des Artistes performances, WFO 2.0 - a series of free pop-up, multi-disciplinary performances featuring music, drama, singing and dance which will be performed in non-traditional settings in various locations around Wexford town - and, perhaps most significantly, the establishment of the Wexford Factory, a new intensive academy which will offer professional and financial support to fifteen young Irish or Irish-based singers in the early stages of their careers. Cucchi will be the eighth Artistic Director of the Festival, and on 1st November she will present this year’s Tom Walsh Lecture alongside Elaine Padmore, who was the Festival’s fifth Artistic Director, from 1982-94.

And so, what of this year’s operatic offerings? Well, the first production that I saw during this Festival was borrowed from La Fenice in Venice, where it was presented earlier this year, with several members of the cast reprising their roles here. Antonio Vivaldi’s three-act melodramma eroico pastorale, Dorilla in Tempe, was first performed on 9th November 1726 in Venice’s Teatro San Angelo and in several ways exemplifies the mores and practices of Baroque opera. Antonio Maria Lucchini’s libretto mixes pastoral and heroic elements in presenting its ‘X loves Y, who desires Z etc.’ plot.

Dorilla Act 1 Clive Barda.jpgManuela Custer (Dorilla), Véronique Valdès (Nomio) and Marco Bussi (Admeto). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Thus, Apollo, who is disguised as the shepherd Nomio, has fallen in love with Dorilla, daughter of Admeto, King of Thessaly. She, however, is in love with the shepherd Elmiro. When the valley of Tempe is threatened by a sea-serpent, Admeto is compelled to offer Dorilla as a human sacrifice, but she is rescued by Nomio who claims her hand in marriage as his reward. Elmiro and Dorilla flee; Filindo sets out to find them, hoping that his deeds will win the heart of Dorilla’s sister, Eudamia, who also loves Elmiro. In fact, it is Nomio who captures the fugitives and resolves the conflicts, first saving Dorilla from waters into which she throws herself when Elmiro is condemned to death, and then, as Apollo, restoring harmony through divine intervention.

Structured conventionally as a series of da capo arias with celebratory choral scenes concluding each act, the extant score is in fact something of a patchwork. Dorilla in Tempe was revived several times during Vivaldi’s lifetime, with various alterations, and the score that survives seems to be that performed during the Carnival season of 1734, when Vivaldi converted the work into a pasticcio, inserting music by his contemporaries (including Hasse and Giacomelli). At least ten arias are not from Vivaldi’s own pen, while the Sinfonia concludes with a version of the composer’s Primavera concerto which, fittingly, evolves into the opera’s opening chorus in praise of spring.

Director Fabio Ceresa and set designer Massimo Checchetto take their cue from this seasonal reference and present the drama against the backdrop of a year’s unfolding cycle. Visually, it’s a feast. We begin with the purity and innocence of springtime: a sparkling white double staircase rises in pristine glory, decked with fecund green and cerise branches, and topped with statues representative of handsome Hellenic heroism. When summer comes, nymphs and shepherds sunbathe languorously in a golden glow. By autumn the trees are at their full height, but their heavy copper boughs hang low in the soft rosy light. Finally comes the stark chill of winter, the icy white garden now bare and unforgiving.

Rosa Bove as Filindo.jpgRosa Bove (Filindo). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The well-defined colours of Simon Corder’s lighting design and Giuseppe Palella’s luxurious costumes, and the extravagance of whole design, remind us how important the visual dimension of Dorilla in Tempe would have been in 1726, when the audience enjoyed Antonio Mauro’s elaborate sets and danced choruses choreographed by Giovanni Galletto. Here, the feats of Vivaldi’s contemporary engineers are matched by the slithering menace of the Chinese-dragon sea-snake; the giant tree-trunks that surge upwards more swiftly and slickly than Jack’s beanstalk; the beautiful stag-masked dancers who recreate the balletic triumph of the hunt, to the accompaniment of the horns’ stirring flourishes.

José Maria Lo Monaco.jpgJosè Maria Lo Monaco (Elmiro). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The dramatic conception is less satisfying, though. Essentially, Ceresa presents an opera of three acts, the constituent parts of which don’t cohere into a convincing whole. In Act 1, Greek Classicism provides an opportunity for some Carry On capers and campery. Dorilla (Manuela Custer) is a May Queen, her ‘wedding-dress’ sprinkled with spring flowers. Admeto (Marco Bussi) is a spoiled, sulky, tantrum-prone tyrant, encumbered with an emerald train so long that he must gather it up like a babe-in-arms in order to assert his authority, and more interested in stuffing himself with sugary swiss roll sweet-treats than saving his subjects from the marauding Python (Pitone). Faces are often covered (why the surgeons’ masks for the chorus - is the valley of Tempe less than temperate?); legs and midriffs are frequently bare. As the gold lamé boots, silver hot-pants, John Lennon sunglasses and floral effusions piled up, I felt as if I’d been gorging on Admeto’s candied cup-cakes.

Marco Bussi & Chorus.jpgMarco Bussi (Ademto). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

While some gentle mockery of the gods might be apt and advantageous - offering subtle pastoral irony to soften the dramatic heroics - Ceresa’s histrionics run counter to the sincerity of Vivaldi’s music. Surely when Elmiro (an ardent Josè Maria Lo Monaco) defies Admeto and Eudamia, and insists on the integrity of his love for Dorilla, we should believe and admire him? So why are his avowals treated as a joke, mocked by a parade of exploding parasols?

Similarly, when Filindo (an impetuous and impassioned Rosa Bove) declares his intent to track down the errant lovers, why are his preparations - the cleaning of his rifle barrel - interrupted by a paper bird on the end of a pole which dangles, distracts and diverts from the sentiments of his aria? Time and again, arias are disrespected in this way: when Eudamia (whose haughty presumptuousness was well communicated by Laura Margaret Smith) issues her challenge to the smitten Filindo, she - or at least, her gown - is transformed into a sea cave, equipped with treacherous waves and struggling boats - into which Filindo is himself drawn (to drown in the service of love?).

Eudamia Laura Margaret Smith and Rosa Bove .jpgLaura Margaret Smith (Eudamia) and Rosa Bove (Filindo). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Then, in Act 2, things quieten down (and lose momentum as the da capos accumulate), while in Act 3 they turn decidedly nasty. When Nomio returns with the fugitive lovers, Admeto orders that Elmiro be executed. Nomio’s subsequent aria has a grisly backdrop: a dancer is hung upside-down by his ankles and his ‘skin’ flayed, as the blood-red glare deepens. Presumably this is a reference to the slaying of Marsyas, who had the gall to challenge Apollo, played his flute abominably, and whose punishment was to be stripped of his skin (which was destined for a wine-sack) in a cave near Celaenae? Nomio/Apollo as vindictive victor?

Veronique Valdés.jpgVéronique Valdès (Nomio/Apollo). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

All credit to Véronique Valdès for her vocal virtuosity which competed admirably with such visual diversions. While the cast were entirely comfortable with Vivaldi’s elaborate vocal demands, Valdès was the most compelling among them, her tone full and dark - her delivery robust and agile. Ironically, this Nomio was convincingly ‘human’. Bass Marco Bussi was much more persuasive in magisterial mode in Act 3 than as the King of Camp at the opening. Manuela Custer’s Dorilla was a cool-headed maiden, singing with purity and intensity. Fortunately, we had an opportunity to enjoy the full range of Custer’s expressive arsenal - a strong chest voice, superb control of phrasing and dynamics, pliancy of line and beautiful vocal tone - in an imaginatively programmed recital of Italian song, which took us on a journey through her homeland, in St Iberius Church two days later.

Conductor Andrea Marchiol encouraged the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera to play with vigour and dramatic punch, and they obliged, but at times the orchestral fabric felt a little too heavy for voices already working hard to surmount Vivaldi’s virtuosic challenges.

If one may have doubts about the staging, then Ceresa’s production certainly convinces one of the merits of Vivaldi’s score - whatever the provenance of its constituent parts - which complements the range of dramatic moods explored, from melancholy to rage, despair to triumph. The final apotheosis of Apollo - a golden god whose magnanimity bathes the mortals in its glorious gleam - was a satisfying conclusion to what was a rather bombastic Baroque burlesque.

Cast of Dorilla in Tempeby Vivaldi.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

The following evening, there was more visual extravagance: in the form of the three-tier wedding cake that forms the centrepiece of Tiziano Santi’s designs for Rosetta Cucchi’s production of Rossini’s Adina, a confectionary explosion which is complemented by the coloristic extravagance of Claudia Pernigotti’s costumes. This was another ‘import’, first seen in Pesaro in 2018. Here, Adina was preceded by a new work by Andrew Synnott, La cucina - a work designed less as a companion to Rossina’s one-act farce, and more as an explanatory preface to Cucchi’s hyperactive production.

Emmanuel Franco and Luca Nucera.jpg Emmanuel Franco (Camillo Aiuto cuoco) and Luca Nucera (Alberto). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Cucchi, who wrote the Italian libretto for La cucina, explains that ‘La cucina serves a very specific purpose: it is a short prelude leading gently to the comic drama of Adina’ and that she and Synnott ‘worked hard to establish a very different mood from Adina’s’. Whereas Adina is a ‘dream’ - a ‘party of the mind’ - La cucina is ‘set in a very mundane world where disappointment, failure and setbacks are always around the corner’. Well, okay, but both are marked by Cucchi’s restless creativity which refuses to let score, text or action speak for itself.

Adina by Rossini.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

La cucina is essentially the story of the cake: the one that must be dished up to satisfy Alberto - the famous chef, who has been left mute and traumatised by a Bake Off soggy-bottom disaster at La Scala - and the one that, in Adina, serves as a ground-floor Caliph’s bathroom, and a first-floor boudoir for Adina as she awaits her marriage to the Caliph, and a second-floor prison for Adina’s beloved Selimo. And, which is topped by live ‘Ken and Barbie’ avatars who add to the roster of ‘extras’ Cucchi deems necessary to tell Rossini’s tale.

Máire Flavin in La cucina.jpgMáire Flavin (Bianca). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Synnott writes sympathetically for voices (as evidenced by his Short Work based on two tales from Joyce’s Dubliners, presented at the 2017 Festival), and his culinary caper is neatly devised and executed.  Bianca (a superb Máire Flavin, who whizzes through the kitchen whirlwinds and relishes her more sombre reflections), assistant to Michelin-starred Alberto (Luca Nucera), is teaching a newcomer to the kitchen (Emmanuel Franco – whose lunchtime recital suggested, rightly, that while his baritone is a little wayward at times, he has a keen feeling for dramatic opportunity and an agile, responsive voice) the rites of professional perfectionism.  Flour is flourished, dropped and mopped; deliveries don’t appear.  The patience of Alberto’s put-upon staff runs out and they flounce off.  Alberto has an epiphany: his ‘special ingredient’ is redundant and his power of speech restored.  The kitchen personnel are eventually reconciled, and the cake is confected – just in time to take pride of place in the ensuing Adina.  Whether Synnott’s opera will find a suitable occasion when it might be revived is another matter.

Sheldon Baxter, Manuel Amati, Máire Flavin & Emmanuel Franco.jpgSheldon Baxter, Manuel Amati, Máire Flavin and Emmanuel Franco. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

In a programme article, Cucchi explains that while devising her production of Adina she was ‘deeply inspired by the whimsical worlds of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The semiseria libretto makes reference to only five characters, but Cucchi includes so many others - gardeners, cooks, marching bandsmen, ‘men in black’ wielding plastic rifles, two mini-Adina maids - that I half expected the White Rabbit to race through the harem or the Red Queen to strut in and order heads to be whipped off. Farce requires a certain simplicity and neatness, but here Cucchi offers superfluous personnel, ceaseless busyness and unnecessary complication.

Manuel Amati & Daniele Antonangeli.jpgManuel Amati (Alì) and Daniele Antonangeli (La Caliph). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Adina is enslaved by a Caliph who, astonished by her resemblance to his first love, Zora, urges her to marry him, while respecting her personal feelings (four decades after Mozart’s Seraglio, Rossini thus presents a more light-hearted version of contemporary orientalism). Adina, believing that her beloved Selimo is dead, reluctantly agrees to be his bride. But, of course, Selimo is very much alive, and trying to wangle his way into the harem. With the aid of the gardener, Mustafà, Selimo and Adina are reunited, but their plot to elope is discovered by the Caliph’s close friend, Alì. With Selimo under threat of death, a portrait concealed in a necklace reveals Adina to be Zora’s, and thus the Caliph’s, daughter. A happy ending thus ensues.

Rachel Kelly Adina.jpgRachel Kelly (Adina). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly was a fine Adina. Lisette Oropesa made her Pesaro debut in Cucchi’s 2018 production (Oropesa will sing in concert with the WFO Orchestra at next year’s Festival), and this was also the role in which Joyce DiDonato first appeared at Pesaro, in 2003. But, Kelly was, rightly, in no way daunted or overshadowed by these illustrious forbears, and her clear, crisp mezzo made a strong impression, even though the tessitura of the role is fairly low. Vibrato was used sparingly but expressively, emphasising Adina’s innocence. Kelly competed gamely with some dangling strawberries in Adina’s most familiar aria, the ‘Strawberry cavatina’, and with Cucchi’s ‘extras’ elsewhere.

Italian tenor Manuel Amati employed his firm and focused tenor effectively, as the eunuch, Alì, while Emmanuel Franco once again displayed a strong stage presence as Mustafà. Daniele Antonangeli was a magisterial Caliph, the Italian’s dark, handsome bass-baritone suggesting that Adina’s romantic choice was not as simple as it might seem. South African Levy Sekgapane’s deliciously seductive tenor stole the show, for this listener. As Selimo, his Italian diction may have been in need a bit of work, but Sekgapane rose gloriously to Rossini’s rapturous high-flying lines and his tenor delighted with its soft sweetness. Many in the O’Reilly Theatre evidently enjoyed Cucchi’s production very much, though I found it over-populated and rather out-dated in manner.

Levy Sekgapane.jpgLevy Sekgapane (Selimo). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Rossini made another appearance during the Festival, at Clayton Whites Hotel, in the form of one of this year’s Short Works. L’inganno felice (The fortunate deception) was composed for the San Moisè Theatre in Venice in 1812 (along with Adina, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, Il Signor Bruschino and La Scala di Seta - it was a busy year for the 20-year-old Rossini). In his Vie de Rossini, Stendhal praised L’inganno felice as a herald of great things to come: ‘Here genius bursts forth from all quarters’. And, we were treated to an excellent staging by director Ella Marchment and designer Luca Dalbosco, whose economical set - a few wooden mine-shaft entrances, tables and stools - deftly conjured the locale and offered opportunities for intrigue.

Peter Brooks & Rebecca Hardwick.jpg Peter Brooks (Tarabotto) and Rebecca Hardwick (Isabella). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Marchment demonstrated a sure sense of how to balance the opposing moods of the semiseria plot. Yes, there was an exuberant, erotic dream-escapade during the overture - which was played with a light, crisp touch by pianist/music director Giorgio D’Alonzo - but thereafter all was rooted in reality: a sooty, grimy and briny reality of the sort that communicated the experience of Isabella (Nisa), once betrothed to Duke Bertrando but deceived and betrayed by Ormondo - who hoped to win Isabella for himself - with the aid of his snivelling side-kick Batone. Having been cast adrift on a stormy sea, Isabella was rescued by the kindly Tarabotto, head of the local coal mines, from whom she has kept her identity secret … until, some years later, the Duke comes calling.

Thomas D Hopkinson & Henry Grant Kerswell Paula Malone Carty.jpgThomas D Hopkinson (Batone) and Henry Grant Kerswell (Ormondo). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

The cast demonstrated vocal and dramatic poise throughout the quick-moving action. Rebecca Hardwick was an assured Isabella, easing through Rossini’s coloratura, demonstrating a sure sense of phrasing, and convincingly balancing melancholy with determination. As Duke Bertrando, tenor Huw Ynyr was forthright of heart and voice. Thomas D Hopkinson, as Batone, coped admirably with the expansive range required and if he was occasionally defeated by Rossini’s fiendish fioritura then this was more than compensated for by his theatrical nous. Peter Brooks’ light baritone was perfect for Tarabotto, Isabella’s saviour, while Henry Grant Kerswell was an imposing Ormondo who, flung down a sealed-up mine at the close, satisfyingly got his comeuppance. Breezing along buoyantly, Marchment’s well-judged production told its touching tale of fidelity rewarded and virtue triumphant most engagingly.

Daydreams and down-to-earth reality were similarly entwined in the other two Short Works presented this year. The eponymous protagonist of Bizet’s Doctor Miracle has nothing to do with the murderous villain who, in The Tales of Hoffmann, persuades Antonia to sing, thereby causing her death. Offenbach is, however, indirectly responsible for Bizet’s second opera which the then 18-year-old Frenchmen wrote in 1857. A competition organised by Offenbach required entrants to compose an operetta to a libretto, Le Docteur Miracle, by Léon Blum and Ludovic Halévy. There were 78 candidates, and first prize was shared by Bizet and Charles Lecocq, the winning entries subsequently being performed, eleven times each, in alternation, at Offenbach’s Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in April 1857.

Lizzie Holmes, Guy Elliott, Simon Mechlinski & Kasia Balejko.jpgLizzie Holmes (Laurette), Guy Elliott (Pasquin), Simon Mechliński (Mayor) and Kasia Balejko (Véronique). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Blum and Halévy’s drama stretches credibility but does show how far the besotted will go in the name of true love. The Mayor’s daughter, Laurette, is in love with Captain Silvio, but her father disapproves and advertises for a servant whom he hopes will protect his daughter from amorous and military advances. Disguised as ‘Pasquin’, courtesy of eye patch and club, Silvio is appointed to the role. He cooks a disgusting omelette for lunch, is promptly sacked, and then sends a note to tell the family they’ve been poisoned by his culinary cock-up. Silvio returns, this time in the guise of Dr Miracle, previously dismissed by the Mayor as a quack, to administer the ‘cure’. So, pleased is the Mayor that he allows the unmasked Silvio to marry his daughter.

If the tale is a trifle, Bizet’s music sparkles. And, Roberto Recchia’s production fizzed along merrily with characteristic wit and satirical style, and the extensive dialogue flowed smoothly. Luca Dalbosco’s straightforward set divided the stage into dining-room and lounge, with a wheel-on ‘kitchen’ providing a focus for the operetta’s musical highlight: the omelette quartet during which - as the salivating diners whipped themselves up in an ecstasy of gustatory anticipation - Guy Elliott’s Pasquin deftly stirred, whisked and seasoned, and delivered the offending outcome to the table.

Guy Elliott & Lizzie Holmes Paula Malone Carty.jpg Guy Elliott (Pasquin) and Lizzie Holmes (Laurette). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Elliott was a pugilistic Pasquin and relished the physical theatre; he threw himself over sofas and tables with aplomb, and his tenor was no less agile. Simon Mechliński used his eyebrows and voice with equal expressiveness as the patriarch who is outgunned by his womenfolk and servants but who likes to maintain a veneer of imperious command. As Laurette, Lizzie Holmes’s light, lithe soprano was complemented by strong theatrical characterization, while Kasio Balejko’s warm, plump mezzo made her an excellent foil as Laurette’s stepmother, Véronique - painting her nails during her adopted charge’s melancholic romanza, her hugs heaving with insincerity. Doctor Miracle may be slight, but it was slickly delivered here; an amusette and operatic amuse bouche far more appetizing that Pasquin’s poisonous pancake.

Rachel Goode, Ceilia Gaetani, Isolde Roxby & Richard Shaffrey Paula Malone Carty.jpgRachel Goode (Maguelonne), Cecilia Gaetani (Armelinde), Isolde Roxby (Marie) and Richard Shaffrey (Le Prince Charmant). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Davide Garattini Raimondi’s production of Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon, first seen in April 1904 in the Salon of Mademoiselle de Nogueiras, a former pupil of Viardot, was not quite so convincing, principally because Luca Dalbosco’s set - piled up boxes, trunks and up-turned cobwebby lampshades in the (abandoned/dilapidated?) Hotel Viardot - seemed an unlikely domestic locale for Le Baron de Pictordu - the grocery boy made good who now lives a life of wealthy inertia and idleness. Plastic sheets, slightly torn and grubby, and hung across the length of the platform, marked a shift to the ‘palace’ of Prince Charmant - though as Marie/Cendrillon gleefully flung first pumpkin then mousetrap over her shoulder and beyond the sheets, Johann Fitzpatrick’s illuminated silhouettes deftly signalled a magical transformation to gilded coach and footmen.

Mark Bonney & Ben Watkins.jpgMark Bonney (Le Comte Barigoule) and Ben Watkins (Le Baron de Pictordu). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Viardot came from a family of singers - her father was Manuel Garcia Senior, the Spanish tenor for whom Rossini composed the role of Count Almaviva, her older sister was Maria Malibran - and so it’s no surprise that she gives her cast some elegant and eloquent music to sing. Isolde Roxby was a wonderfully ‘genuine’ Cendrillon, delivering the sung and spoken text assuredly, with thoughtful interpretative gestures and a beguiling sweetness of character and tone. As her ghastly, grasping sisters, Cecilia Gaetani (Armelinde) and Rachel Goode (Maguelonne) were garbed in suitable garish red-and-green frocks and sang with glamorous gusto and vibrancy. Mark Bonney enjoyed his ‘prince-for-a-day’ sojourn, singing with pleasing tone and dramatic conviction, while Richard Shaffey’s Prince was indeed charming. Ben Watkins’ Baron was no mere caricature, some subtle vocal inflections adding a sharper, spicier edge.

Cinders’ Fairy Godmother - here, a real estate agent, whose quill served both to record the hotel inventory and to raise the spirit of magic - was sung by Kelli-Ann Masterson from Gorey, a recipient, alongside tenor Andrew Masterson from Omagh, of the PwC Wexford Festival Opera 2019 Emerging Young Artist Bursary Award. Masterson’s soprano gleamed with a cool transparency matched by the Fée’s self-composed manner when instructing and guiding her charge.

Kelli-Ann Masterson.jpgKelli-Ann Masterson (La Fée). Photo credit: Paula Malone Carty.

Rodula Gaitanou’s production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte opened this year’s Festival, on 22nd October, but I saw the second performance in the run - and I was glad that I had, as this enabled me to enjoy the lunchtime recital presented in St Iberius Church by Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze (when he was accompanied by WFO’s Head of Music Staff, Andrea Grant) before I heard Janelidze embody Cervantes’ aging, noble dreamer in the O’Reilly Theatre. For, while Janelidze’s lunchtime programme perhaps lacked stylistic diversity - his chosen arias from Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra, songs by Tchaikovsky and Georgian folksongs, alongside Don Quichotte’s Act 5 death-bed apotheosis all leaning towards the serious and melancholic - it offered the listener an opportunity to hear and relish the soft-grained potency of his powerful bass, its lyrical warmth, its mellifluous fluency, its animation where apt, its directness and immediacy.

Goderdzi Janelidze & Olafur Sigurdarson.jpg Goderdi Janelidze (Don Quichotte) and Olafur Sigurdarson (Sancho). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

And, thus, Janelidze’s performance as Don Quichotte was revealed as a dramatic and expressive tour de force, a remarkable embodiment of nostalgia, nobility and gentility communicated physically and vocally. The ravages of time made their presence felt in Janelidze’s physical frailty: the limbs that needed a gentle nudge to bend or straighten; the slow steps and graceful prod that propelled the gallant knight’s bicycle onwards. Somehow Janelidze had the discipline to restrain his vocal weight - though his projection is so strong that even a whispered phrase made its mark - for the dramatic highpoints which impress upon us the knight’s honour: the riposte to the bandits who attach and abuse him in Act 3, ‘Je suis le chevalier errant’, or his death-bed promise to the loyal Sancho, ‘Prends cette île’. These sudden moments of enrichening and colour were so much more telling for the grave and tender fragility within which they were framed. I was deeply moved, almost to tears, by Janelidze’s courage and conviction.

Quichotte and Dulcimee.jpg Goderdi Janelidze (Don Quichotte) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Dulcimée). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdason’s Sancho justly received the audience’s warm appreciation too. Sigurdason, loyally following his master on a Vespa, balanced a quasi-Falstaffian pride with sincere service and love. Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina shone as Dulcinée, her voice creamy and seductive, her dancing joyful and free. Her cruel rejection of Quichotte’s proposal of marriage - a rasping laugh, bordering on vulgarity - was instantly regretted, Dulcinée’s honesty communicated with pathos but not self-pity.

Aigul Akhmetshina & chorus .jpg Aigul Akhmetshina (Dulcinée) and Chorus. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Gaitanou and designer takis serve up, via the simplest means, a veritable visual banquet of Spanish spirit. Four wooden platforms spin and transform to create a fiesta fairground ruled by the Carmen-esque Dulcinée, furnish the bandits with their hideouts, and taunt Quichotte with ‘giants’. Simon Corder’s lighting is hypnotically enchanting: purple merges with indigo, which slithers into emerald, then blurs into gold, then orange. Henry Grant Kerswell was a crude and callous bandit; Gavan Ring a virile but frustrated suitor of Dulcinée. The Wexford Festival Chorus sang with tremendous heart and spirit, and during the interludes between the acts the Orchestra were given plentiful encouragement to shine by conductor Timothy Myers: there were more superb solos than there is room to mention, but the woodwind rose to the occasion and the cello solo which serves to foreshadow the Don’s demise was beautifully played. This Don Quichotte was a truly memorable way in which to end my visit to Wexford.

Claire Seymour

Bizet: Doctor Miracle (23rd October, Clayton Whites Hotel)

Laurette - Lizzie Holmes, Véronique - Kasia Balejko, Silvio/Pasquin/Dr Miracle - Guy Elliott, The Mayor - Simon Mechliński; Stage Director - Roberto Recchia, Music Director - Andrew Synnott, Stage & Costume Designer - Luca Dalbsoco, Lighting Designer - Johann Fitzpatrick.

Vivaldi: Dorilla in Tempe (23rd October, O’Reilly Theatre, National Opera House)

Dorilla - Manuela Custer, Admeto - Marco Bussi, Nomio/Apollo - Véronique Valdès, Elmiro - Josè Maria Lo Monaco, Filindo - Rosa Bove, Eudamia - Laura Margaret Smith, Ninfe - Rebecca Hardwick/ Lizzie Holmes, Pastori - Meriel Cunningham/Emma Lewis, Dancers; Director - Fabio Ceresa, Conductor - Andrea Marchiol, Set Designer - Massimo Checchetto, Costume Designer - Giuseppe Palella, Lighting Designer - Simon Corder, Assistant Director/Choreographer - Mattia Agatiello, Chorus master - Errol Girdlestone, Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera.

Pauline Viardot: Cendrillon (24th October, Clayton Whites Hotel)

Le Baron de Pictordu - Ben Watkins, Marie (Cendrillon) - Isolde Roxby, Armelinde - Cecilia Gaetani, Maguelonne - Rachel Goode, La Fée - Kelli-Ann Masterson, Le Prince Charmant - Richard Shaffrey, Le Comte Barigoule - Mark Bonney; Stage Director - Davide Garattini Raimondi, Music Director - Jessica Hall, Stage & Costume Designer - Luca Dalbosco, Johann Fitzpatrick - Lighting Designer

Andrew Synnott: La cucina & Rossini: Adina (24th October, O’Reilly Theatre, National Opera House)

Bianca (Sous-chef) (La cucina) - Máire Flavin, Tobia (La cucina)/ Alì (Adina) - Manuel Amati, Camillo (La cucina)/Mustafà (Adina) - Emmanuel Franco, Zeno (La cucina) - Sheldon Baxter, Chef Alberto (La cucina) - Luca Nucera, Adina (Adina) - Rachel Kelly, Selimo (Adina) - Levy Sekgapane, The Caliph (Adina) - Daniele Antonangeli; Director - Rosetta Cucchi, Conductor - Michele Spotti, Set Designer - Tiziano Santi, Costume Designer - Claudia Pernigotti, Lighting Designer - Simon Corder, Assistant Director - Stefania Panighini, Chorus master (Adina) - Errol Girdlestone, Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera.

Rossini: L’inganno felice (25th October 2019, Clayton Whites Hotel)

Isabella - Rebecca Hardwick, Duca Bertrando - Huw Ynyr, Batone - Thomas D Hopkinson, Tarabotto - Peter Brooks, Ormondo - Henry Grant Kerswell; Stage Director - Ella Marchment, Music Director - Giorgio D'alonzo, Stage & Costume Designer - Luca Dalbosco, Lighting Designer - Johann Fitzpatrick

Massenet: Don Quichotte (25th October 2019, O’Reilly Theatre, National Opera House)

La belle Dulcinée - Aigul Akhmetshina, Don Quichotte - Goderdzi Janelidze, Sancho - Olafur Sigurdarson, Juan - Gavan Ring, Pedro - Gabrielle Dundon, Garcias - Elly Hunter Smith, Rodriguez - Dominick Felix, Footman 1 - Thomas Chenhall, Footman 2 - René Bloice-Sanders; Director - Rodula Gaitanou, Set & Costume Designer - takis, Lighting Designer - Simon Corder, Choreographer - Luisa Baldinetti, Chorusmaster - Errol Girdlestone, Orchestra and Chorus of Wexford Festival Opera.

image_description=Olafur Sigurdarson, Goderdz Janelidze and Aigul Akhmetshina [Photo credit: Clive Barda]

product_title=Massenet: Don Quichotte - Wexford Festival Opera, 25th October 2019
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Olafur Sigurdarson, Goderdz Janelidze and Aigul Akhmetshina

Photo credit: Clive Barda

Posted by claire_s at 5:07 PM

Cenerentola, jazzed to the max

The production debuted Australia , and is described in the program as follows: “Inspired by the whimsical worlds of Charles Dickens and Tim Burton, director Lindy Hume sets the familiar classic in and around a Victorian emporium filled with period costumes, multi-level sets, and unexpected twists.”

Among the twists are: a scene set in a forced-perspective formal garden in summer when the rest of the show seems to be taking place in the dead of winter; a proscenium-filling wall of bookshelves equipped with a fifty-foot-long hidden bar; a number of primly-aproned and -capped nannies with long luxuriant beards and moustaches; and an origami shopfront stocked with collectible Victoriana.

Oh, the music? It was pretty good (as always depending where you’re sitting; in row T on Sunday evening all the singing seemed dry and distant, while from row P on Saturday afternoon the singers seemed to be in the same room as I. )

This is Gary Thor Wedow’s fifth round in the pit here, but his first conducting Rossini, who presents particular problems of pacing and ensemble, mostly in the composer’s pedal-to-the-metal act-ending accelerations. Here the accelerator seemed in need of a tune-up. Cenerentola was written in two weeks against a deadline, and more of its music feels a little off-the-rack, those careening finales above all.

It also is more dependent for success than most Rossini operas on a single number: the title character’s final (only) aria “Non più mesta” (no more sadness). It’s sort of the coloratura contralto’s “Casta diva”: a summation of what the voice type is technically and emotionally capable of at full stretch.

Neither of the gifted artists singing Angelina here is really a coloratura contralto, each has difficultly producing the frequent very low notes in the role, and each has a personal approach to dealing with the character’s octaves- spanning streams of ornamented melody.

Ginger Costa-Jackson bets the farm on “Non più mesta,” playing Angelina as a bit of a pill, whiny and sulky by turns, making her transformation to radiant butterfly in the last five minutes of the show absolutely stunning.

Her alternate, Wallis Giunta, takes the opposite tack, playing the character as a Disney princess for today, twinkly, spunky, good-humored; think Amy Adams in Enchanted and you’ve got it. Her way with “Non più mesta” is in the same vein; instead of ripping into the roulades she points them slyly, consciously, making us co-conspirators rooting for her, a damsel dancing through a vocal minefield.

Her approach to the role may be why I very much enjoyed the Saturday matinée and left McCaw Hall energized, while Friday’s performance left me feeling a bit pummeled by a staging so extravagantly out of scale with the material. (That and those seats.)

The tenor leads and capable supporting players were all personable. Michele Angelini (of the Brooklyn Angelinis) is the Rossini-tenor version of a Bari-hunk: he has a puckish smile, ease of movement, and technique so fast and fluent that it’s easy to believe the rumor that he has long been the go-to tenor to cover for Juan Diego Flórez. In a way his facility with florid music is a bit of a downside; he makes it seem too easy to be astonishing. But there’s no chemistry between him and Costa-Jackson’s morose Angelina.

Saturday’s Don Ramiro was Matthew Grills. His voice is coarser than Angelini’s, but almost as facile. Most important, he and Giunta “click” at first glance: they’re as sure to end up together as Hepburn and Tracy, Rock and Doris, which in romantic comedy is more important than high-notes any day.


All the rest of the cast perform in both versions of the show except for the character of Dandini, Figaro to the Prince’s Almaviva. Here there’s little to compare between Friday’s Joo Won Kang and Saturday’s Jonathan Michie; Michie’s a born clown, Kang isn’t.

The bad-guy trio of Don Magnifico and his vain, grasping daughters (Peter Kàlmàn, Maya Costa-Jackson, Maya Gour) suffer from this staging’s (and most others) reduction of their characters to completely witless cartoons. Kàlmàn bills himself as a basso buffo, but he’s not a true bass, and his buffoonery is dryly cynical, not really comic.

I would love sometime to see a Cenerentola where Clorinda and Tisbe were permitted to exhibit one trace of human behavior amid the usual enforced gamboling, squalling, and preening, but I’m not expecting to. But Costa-Jackson and Gour have lovely voices; they deserve to be treated as more than wind-up toys.

The remaining character (and the singer performing him) stands apart from the general goofiness and superficiality of this staging. Bass Adam Lau has performed primarily secondary roles at Seattle Opera. But the role of Alcindoro, though small is central to Cenerentola. He’s described in the opera itself as the Prince’s tutor and as a “philosopher.” He also takes the place of the usual fairy-godmother. But he’s not, like her, just a deus-ex-machina. He’s the embodiment of the opera’s alternate title: “La bontà in trionfo”: the triumph of goodness, a gentle Sarastro, a sincere Don Alfonso.

Every time he appears, however clumsy the presentation, he suspends the whirligig motion around him for a few moments of calm, warmth, and good-will. You’d expect it to stop the action cold, and in a way it does; but it leaves us refreshed, better prepared to ride out the turbulent hi-jinx we know will soon be back.

And Lau, though he doesn’t have the resonant bass notes that ground the role, has something more important. A plot device in a greatcoat and top-hat, he’s the most human creature we encounter in the whole show.

A last word: the men’s chorus of Seattle Opera has gotten the reputation in recent stagings (Trovatore, Carmen, Rigoletto) of being the a musical version of The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. With the help of choreographer and co-director Daniel Pelzig, they set a new standard forclassy movement and even do some deft dancing along the way. Let’s hear it for the boys.

Roger Downey

Gioachino Rossini: La cenerentola, ossia Bontà in trionfo

Cenerentola/Angelina: Ginger Costa-Jackson (Oct. 19); Wallis Giunta (Oct. 20); Prince Ramiro: Michele Angelini (10/19); Matthew Grills (10/20); Dandini: Jooo Won Kang (10/19); Jonathan Michie (10/20); Don Magnifico: Peter Kàlmàn; Clorina: Miriam Costa -Jackson; Tisbe: Maya Gour; Alidoro: Adam Lau.Production directed by Lindy Hume; production designer: Dan Potra; Lighting: Matthew Marshall; Choreographer and associate director: Daniel Pelzig. Seattle Opera Male Chorus (Chorusmaster John Keene). Member sof the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gary Thor Wedow, conductor.

Seattle Opera, Marion McCaw Hall, October 19th and 20th, 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/20191016_cinderella-day01_seattleopera_sunnymartini_14125.png image_description=Photo © Sunny Martini product=yes product_title=Cenerentola, jazzed to the max product_by=A review by Roger Downey product_id=Photos © Sunny Martini
Posted by Gary at 2:47 PM

October 26, 2019

Bottesini’s Alì Babà Keeps Them Laughing

For the libretto, Bottesini and Taddei used the text of a French opera by Luigi Cherubini based on the famous story from French orientalist and archaeologist Antoine Galland’s version of The Thousand and One Nights. Taddei translated it into Italian and shortened it considerably. Bottesini premiered the opera in 1871. The 2019 version directed by Foad Faridzadeh was an uproarious comedy set in the 1940s. His clever, wickedly amusing production had the Southwest Opera audience laughing out loud on numerous occasions.

What this opera needed was a star to carry the show, and Opera Southwest presented a perfect answer in the sensational bass-baritone, comic actor and all around showman, Ashraf Seweilam as Alì Babà. He celebrated his character’s riches by dancing nimbly across the stage but cowered in terror when threatened by thieves. His presence filled the stage as his resonant, bronzed tones flowed throughout the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s moderate-sized Journal Theater.

LWO TODOS JUNTOS _191017_31767-Edit-Edit.pngMonica Yunus as Delia, Ashraf Seweilam as Alì Babà, and Christopher Bozeka as her lover, Nadir.

Richard Hogles’ scenery consisted mainly of neon-lit arches crowned by a circle. The back of each scene was a projected wall, building, or cave designed by Media Vision that denoted the area in which the action took place. Daniel Chapman’s lighting created the appropriate ambiance for each setting. Carmella Lynn Lauer’s costumes, colors for female soloists but black and white for everyone else, established the time period as the forties.

Monica Yunus was a sweet, loving Delia who commanded attention as she sang with lustrous tones, an occasional trill, and some surprisingly hefty soprano sonorities. Her tenor was the lyrically gifted Christopher Bozeka whose smooth but warm and hefty legato immediately won the audience over to his side of the argument. They made a delightful young couple and they succeeded in making the audience want them to be together. Laurel Semerdjian was a conniving Morgiana who fascinated onlookers with her hijinks and comic timing. She sang with excellent diction and strong tones.

As the Head of Customs Aboul Hassan, Kevin Thompson had an imposing physique and a voice with a nasal tone that made him a fine villain. It was no wonder that Delia did not want to marry him. One of the most interesting voices in the show belonged to Darren Stokes, the bass-baritone who sang Orsocane (Beardog). While acting a “tough guy” part, he sang with rich, resonant dark tones.

LWO_191017_33053-Edit-Edit.pngKevin Thompson as Aboul Hassan and Ashraf Seweilam as Alì Babà with chorus.

Three members of the 2019 Opera Southwest Young Artist Program: Matthew Soibelman as the Treasurer, Jonathan Walker-VanKuren as Orsocane’s Adjutant, and Kameron Ghanavati as Alì Babà’s Slave Faor, impressed me with both their vocal abilities and their stagecraft. Chorus Master Aaron Howe’ s women’s ensemble sang with light, mellifluous harmony as they moved across the stage. His men’s group portrayed believable cut-throat thieves and thugs while singing with strong masculine sounds.

Conductor Anthony Barrese put together the score for this production, the first in nearly a century. He gave a rousing, propulsive rendition of this rarely-heard work that allowed the singers enough space to breathe comfortably and interpret their characters, but never let the tension lag. He commanded a fifty-piece orchestra that gave listeners all the tunes and sonorities of this wonderful piece. The composer, who was an orchestra player and conductor, knew how to color the events and situations of this complicated story. Alì Babà was a fabulous evening’s entertainment and I’m glad I traveled to Albuquerque to see it.

Maria Nockin

Cast and Production Information:

Alì Babà, Ashraf Sewailam; Delia, Monica Yunus; Nadir, Christopher Bozeka; Aboul Hassan, Kevin Thompson; Orsocane, Darren Stokes; Morgiana, Laurel Semerdjian. Calaf, Thamar, and Faor, young artist program members: Matthew Soibelman, Jonathan Walker-VanKuren and Kameron Ghanavati. Conductor, Anthony Barrese; Director, Foad Faridzadeh; Costume Designer, Carmella Lynn Lauer; Scenic Designer, Richard Hogle; Lighting Designer, Daniel Chapman; Projection Designer, Media Vision; Chorus Master, Aaron Howe. Journal Theater, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 25, 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LWO_191017_33561-Edit-Edit.png image_description=Ashraf Seweilam as Alì Babà [Photo by Todos Juntos] product=yes product_title=Bottesini’s Alì Babà Keeps Them Laughing product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Above: Ashraf Seweilam as Alì Babà

Photos by Todos Juntos
Posted by maria_n at 6:24 PM

October 24, 2019

Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’

Metamorphosis is the final part of a larger work, Renewal, based on Ovid’s epic poem about myth, creation, transformation, love and deification. But elements of Ovid’s poem have much to do with violence, and this is not a work which wears its tension between art and nature with a cloak of uncertainty about it. Indeed, much of Ovid’s Metamorphosen is entirely in conflict with the natural world – a theme that does sit neatly with some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn symphonies. The problem is, Matthews’s Metamorphosis is the end piece of a larger work and it follows on from a scherzo, Broken Symmetry, of uncommon violence – it’s just none of these Ovidian themes penetrate this particular Matthews piece. Musically, it feels entirely like the ending of one work, and not like the preface to another. Metamorphosis might open on a deep-pedal C, which remains somewhat rooted throughout, just as the first movement of the Mahler opens on C minor – but the hushed, reflective coda with its strangely muted chorus is in direct contrast to the 42 bars of the funeral march with its oppressive lower strings which explodes like a storm at the opening of the Mahler. Simply elided into one another, this wasn’t a natural fit at all.

Jurowski’s approach to Mahler’s Second is refracted through some very cool lenses. This was not a performance which proved notably gripping when it came to the much deeper thought process – there was never much doubt that Jurowski had the sound the London Philharmonic could project in mind than any perceived notion that the decibels had concepts of anger, fear or terror beyond that. It could be thrilling, but you felt you were being short-changed on the expressive range. It’s not as if Mahler doesn’t elaborate his score like a kind of musical Baedeker: when he hints that phrases in the first movement should be likeMeeresstille (‘Calm like the sea’) or that there are marked differences between piano and pianissimo one wants to hear to them. There was little of that on offer here. But the fluidity of Jurowski’s tempo did make a difference in the Andante Moderato where the staccato strings and the pacing of the ländler were quite distinctive. The counterpoint between the strings and the woodwind wasn’t just refined it was mysterious. The Scherzo plunges between dissonant and turbulent surges (typically measured out in oodles of high-powered accents by Jurowski and the LPO) but it’s also a movement that prefaces ‘Urlicht’ and which has complete musical union.

Perhaps Jurowski needed this moment – the setting of Mahler’s Wunderhorn text, and an alto to give it meaning – to shift the emotional axis of this performance and it seemed right in the context of this conductor’s forward approach to the symphony to have placed Sarah Connolly in the choir stalls. This is a mezzo with a voice swathed in the most orchid-like of colours and heliotropic in its conviction to turn towards the Arcadian. She shone against the orchestra’s wind players off stage – and never exposed herself against the harp and solo violin which Jurowski shaped with the kind of divine reverence he had forsaken before. Diction was impeccable.

If this proved a turning point in the performance it is because apocalypse rarely proves impossible to conduct badly. Jurowski’s full-blooded descent into the terror of the Day of Judgement, the scale of the prophesised anger in the playing, the proclamations of the Dies Irae and its trembling power were all graphically done. Timpani, drums and tam-tam had a torrential, crust-shattering conviction – an earthquake of sound that tore through the orchestra. Mahler had wanted to paint a musical image of fright, and Jurowski gave us that; the orchestra could collapse its weight below the bar line with a crushing weight that felt like a burial of sound, but simultaneously scale above as if trembling outside the gates of heaven. The opposing directions of off-stage brass and timpani sounded truly stereophonic.

If Jurowski hadn’t always been attuned to Mahler’s score markings, in the Resurrection Chorale, based on Friedrick Klopstock’s ode, the chorus, soprano and mezzo were closer to the text and cleaner than one expected. The first two stanzas were just about Misterioso – the ppp of the voices quiet enough to be distinct from the third stanza which Mahler writes as piano. Not until the fourth stanza does Mahler increase the dynamic range and here the LPO choir shifted gear, but with enough in reserve for the final stanza to be sung at fff.

You always come away from those closing of pages of Mahler’s Second with the impression you have heard one of the greatest conclusions to any symphony – and you have. But it is a long journey to get to this moment of finality and renewal. The problem with this performance began before the symphony had even started, and for long stretches of it Jurowski seemed more concerned with projecting the power of the music rather than giving us anything of note behind it. This was aloof, sometimes dispassionate, Mahler. There was much to admire in the playing, but this symphony requires so much more.

Marc Bridle

Sofia Fomina – soprano, Sarah Connolly – mezzo-soprano, London Philharmonic Choir, London Youth Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra – Vladimir Jurowski

19th October 2019, Royal Festival Hall, London

image_description=Vladimir Jurowski [Photo © Matthias Creutziger]

product_title=Ovid and Klopstock clash in Jurowski’s Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Photo © Matthias Creutziger]

Posted by Gary at 1:56 PM

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Posted by Gary at 1:45 PM

Incoming Artistic Director Rosetta Cucchi announces her 2020 programme inspired by William Shakespeare and the launch of the Wexford Factory Academy for young Irish singers

2020 marks the inaugural Festival for Rosetta Cucchi as Wexford Festival Opera’s Artistic Director. To date only seven previous Artistic Directors have programmed the Festival over its 68-year history. Today Rosetta Cucchi announced her first exciting programme for 2020. For the first time, in a major new development, the Festival will be themed. Inspired by William Shakespeare, each of the three main evening productions in the National Opera House will be based directly or indirectly on the life and work of this great poet and playwright. The three day-time operas, retitled, Pocket Operas / Opera Beag continues this Shakespearian thread, with new productions on the themes of love, fun and the darker side.

Posted by Gary at 1:38 PM

October 21, 2019

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

In the beginning, then, was Orpheus, his myth repeated, elaborated upon, throughout Western musical tradition, and especially throughout Western operatic tradition. It is surely no coincidence that it was with this monumental work that Birtwistle sought his most radical extension yet of that line. He wanted, he said, ‘to invent [my italics] a formalism which does not rely on tradition in the way that Punch and Judy, my first opera, relied on tradition. There I used forms such as the chorale, toccata and gavotte. I injected them into my work just as Berg injected formal ideas into Wozzeck. In The Mask of Orpheus, I didn’t want to hark back any more; I wanted to create a formal world that was utterly new.’

Expectations could not have been higher. For some, yours truly included, this was a moment for which we had been waiting the whole of our musical lives. From a career strewn with masterpieces, here came at last a second staging of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus: heard only once complete, in concert, since its 1986 premiere, and never since seen in the theatre. I had previously only managed to hear a single act, in concert, at the Proms : an unforgettable experience that only increased my hunger to hear - and to see - more. Present at that first, ENO performance, Alfred Brendel extolled The Mask of Orpheus as the first English musical masterpiece since Purcell. Many will find that view a touch harsh on some music and composers - even assuming Handel’s exclusion - intervening. Be that as it may, no one with any serious interest in music or opera, indeed no one with a passing interest, yet possessed of half an ear and a little curiosity, would deny the work’s stature.

Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw, Katie Coventry.jpgKatie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw, Katie Coventry. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

Musical values were high, as they would have to be: there is no more point putting on Birtwistle with musicians unequal to its challenges than there is Stockhausen. That excellence we heard from ENO forces should nevertheless not be taken for granted. The conflict between rational and irrational, between what Orpheus must do to win back Eurydice and what his urge to act as a human being, a conflict as old as that between Apollo and Dionysus and in many respects to be identified therewith, lies at the heart of this work. The climax to the second act, indeed the whole of that extraordinary structure of recollective arches, not only retains its enormous, truly post-Wagnerian power; it seems to increase with every hearing. This proved no exception. One was truly left reeling then - and not only then - at least insofar as one could separate the musical performance from its sadly inadequate scenic realisation, on which more shortly.

Moreover, if that conflict between the demands of reason and those of emotion lies at the work’s dramatic heart, so too does the variety of ways in which its participants, us included, might look at, experience, reflect upon that conflict, not least through time, ours and the characters’ (broadly speaking, as human, myth, and hero, though never in linear fashion, and just as much musically - lyrically and formally - as verbally and scenically). In a sense, this is true of all opera; ‘all opera is Orpheus’. But it is perhaps more so here, more overtly so, more strenuously. Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw, assisted by Adam Hickox, did a superlative job of enabling the excellent orchestra, chorus, and cast to express what they could of this, Peter Hoare a fascinatingly flawed, multifariously tragic Orpheus the Man, Marta Fontanals-Simmons an alluring, inscrutable, even alluringly inscrutable Eurydice the Woman, ably supported by penetrating, intelligently contrasted performances from Daniel Norman and Claire-Barnett Jones as their mythical counterparts. James Cleverton as Aristaeus and Claron McFadden as the extraordinary Oracle of the Dead also stood out dramatically, but there was nothing approaching a weak link to the cast. Barry Anderson’s electronic realisation, with sound design by Ian Dearden, proved as liminally dramatic in its way as Stockhausen, as pregnant with dramatic purpose as an ‘interlude’ in Wagner.

Claire Barnett-Jones.jpg Claire Barnett-Jones. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

If only Daniel Kramer’s bizarre, ultimately vacuous production had been remotely equal to its task. Where the work speaks of and with starkness and complexity, Kramer seemingly mistook the latter for a gaudy variety show, validated by inclusion of more and more unconnected - with each other, let alone with the work - acts. This was not the idea of the circus, nor indeed the idea of anything else; it was a hideous and, doubtless, highly expensive mess. Occasionally, the possibility of recollection, of memory, even of dream sequence, asserted itself, more by default than anything else. For the most part, we suffered an absurd - never, alas, absurdist - display of exaggerated, ‘saucy’, latex-clad nurses and medical equipment; of supposedly shocking, yet actually deeply tedious, sexual acts; of people - often entirely unclear who they were, and to what end - emerging and sinking into bathtubs; of highly skilled acrobats (for the opera’s mime action) removing and replacing their clothes, before resuming their distracting activity; of general hyperactivity that not once seemed to enquire what it, let alone of anything else, might be for, let alone of whether its seemingly hapless orientalism might prove a tad problematical to some. It was unclear that the ‘concept’, if one may call it that, was anything more than an ageing rock musician - we see the platinum discs on the wall - Orpheus, holed up in his extravagantly equipped hotel room, having a bad trip. And even that was perhaps to dignify it.

Was this, perhaps, opera for a world with its eyes - and possibly ears - on several screens at once, craving instant diversion rather than satisfaction? Was there even something of the postdramatic to it? I can see that the argument might be made, but frankly, in this particular case, I think not; or if it is, then there really ought to be more to it than this. Constant changing of the emperor’s still newer, still more sparkly, clothes - ‘by artist, campaigner and designer Daniel Lismore, described by Vogue as “England’s most outrageous dresser”’ - was not enough, never nearly enough. Nor was there any sign of irony, of critique, of anything more than camp excess really - which is not to deny the excellent artistry of those on stage, doing what they could. Carry on Birtwistle, then? It just about qualifies as a point of view, I suppose; or, better, as the slender basis for one. I cannot help but think that it would have been better left on the shelf, along with the rest of this wasteful production: a non-ironic cross between Robert Lepage and Liberace.

Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks.jpg Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

The absurdity might have worked; all manner of things might have worked; however, in the absence of a connecting pair of ears, let alone anything between them, this was doomed to remain an endless parade - in a decidedly non-Birtwistle sense - of effortful vulgarity on- and offstage, as idiotic as it was wasteful. Wherever one looked, one was assailed with advertisements for a crystal company to which I shall refrain from granting further publicity. Nothing could have lain further from the essence of Birtwistle’s score, nor indeed from Peter Zinovieff’s libretto. Yet such contradiction was not fruitful; nor even, so it seemed, intentional. If anything, it simply suggested a director out of his depth - and not even in the opera’s shallows. The true tragedy, of course, lies in the damage this may do to prospects for a third production, even for a further concert performance. Not for the first time, alas, ENO has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mark Berry

Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Orpheus the Man - Peter Hoare; Orpheus the Myth, Hades - Daniel Norman; Orpheus the Hero - Matthew Smith; Eurydice the Woman - Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Eurydice the Myth, Persephone - Claire Barnett-Jones; Eurydice the Hero - Alfa Marks; Aristaeus the Man - James Cleverton; Aristaeus the Myth, Charon - Simon Bailey; Aristaeus the Hero - Leo Hedman; The Oracle of the Dead, Hecate - Claron McFadden; The Caller - Robert Hayward; First Priest, Judge of the Dead - William Morgan; Second Priest, Judge of the Dead - David Ireland; Third Priest, Judge of the Dead - Simon Wilding; First Woman, Fury 1 - Charlotte Straw; Second Woman, Fury 2 - Katie Coventry; Third Woman, Fury 3 - Katie Stevenson; Dancers - Joan Aguila-Cuevas, Sam Ford, Ripp Greatbatch, Stefano de Luca. Director - Daniel Kramer; Set designs - Lizzie Clachan; Costumes - Daniel Lismore; Lighting, Video - Peter Mumford; Choreography - Barnaby Booth; Sound design - Ian Dearden. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus masters - James Henshaw, Mark Biggins), Orchestra of the English National Opera/Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw (conductors).

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Friday 18th October 2019.

product_title=Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: William Morgan, Peter Hoare, Simon Wilding, David Ireland

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

Posted by claire_s at 9:40 AM

October 20, 2019

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

It was off to a good start with its show curtain, a huge architectural drawing detail of a corinthian capital aside a partial façade, slowly morphing, videographically, into a fully realized façade elevation (drawing) of the aristocratic home we were about to enter. This occurred in precise, riveting synchrony to Mozart’s well-conducted overture. It was a visual distraction, very finely and thoroughly done, making apparent that the evening was not to be about Mozart’s hallowed score.

It was about the house we entered, essentially the world and its order (the droit du seigneur) that had been constructed in front of our eyes. And its noisy inhabitants, lots of them, in the act of moving in. While the house was slowly making itself ready for its entering occupants their worlds began falling apart. Finally, very late in the evening, we arrived at the perfectly finished garden where everyone, absolutely everyone’s world did indeed fall apart. Including Mozart’s.

Nozze_SFO2.pngAct I, with construction scaffolding

The inhabitants seemed fairly random. A Hungarian Count, a South African Susanna, an Italian Cherubino, a Countess coming via Houston (where else?). Bartolo, Marcellina and Basilio were summoned from the Opera’s warehoused treasury of singers. And there was Figaro, baritone Michael Samuel, who held it all together with musical aplomb, and a dignity that was sorely missing from everyone else. That was director Cavanagh’s point.

It was an avoidance of the perfection that we anticipate in a Mozart DaPonte opera production, a world we cherish for its rarified, distilled emotion and high moral and musical concept. Instead it was an imagined, rowdy world of Beaumarchais’ pre-revolutionary France and its hero Figaro. And a catch-all of opera casting.

Starting with Count Almaviva, sung by Budapest Opera’s Levente Molnar who chased a fly around the room in his famed “Hai gia vinta la causa.” Mr. Molnar, a fine singer who well intoned the showpiece, is an accomplished dead pan comedian. Light on his feet, exposed, he collapsed in a heap onto the floor to beg the Countess’ forgiveness. The Countess, sung by soprano Nicole Heaston, was simply overwhelmed by it all. Lost in the impressive, expansive confines of her new home, in beautiful voice she gave us a lonely "Dove sono i bei momenti” threatening to fall below pitch in her depression, aided by the conductor who provided unsustainable tempos.

Susanna, sung by soprano Jeanine de Bique of small voice and great big presence, blatantly teased the Count and Figaro and everyone else, and in general displayed a lot of attitude about most everything. She was at her wit’s end in the third and fourth acts, coping, it seemed, as best she could, vocally and emotionally. Figaro, baritone Samuel, was the moral conscience of Beaumarchais’ revolutionary world, a conspirator with Mozart in an intense emotional world, and the one character who grounded director Cavanagh’s raucous household through the innately solid musical and vocal confidence he displayed in his first act aria “Se vuol ballare signor contino” and his last act aria “Aprite un po' quegli occhi.”

Cherubino, sung by Serena Malfi, was the star turn of the casting, her Cherubino is present on the world’s major stages. Here very unlike the sweet energy and innocence of Federica von Stade’s renowned Cherubino, Mlle. Malfi’s Cherubino was a true boy brat, persistently annoying throughout the opera, akin to the fly Almaviva chased around his study. With her famed “Non so piu cosa son” Mlle. Malfi made it clear she could do just about anything with her character, including coping with some weird tempos imposed by the conductor.

Of utter perfection were the Marcellina of Catherine Cook and the Basilio of Greg Fedderly, well known in these roles in previous San Francisco Opera Nozze incarnations. But here their delightful, heavy caricatures of Mozart’s subversive characters were a bit out of place in the grittiness of the production, with Mr. Fedderly’s costume surely borrowed from a Cunning Little Vixen production. Bass James Creswell was over-parted as Bartolo, this character needing a warmth and strength of personality that Mr. Creswell did not find.

A big player in Mr. Cavanagh’s destruction of our expectations was Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, last heard in San Francisco conducting the ninety-some players of the 2017 Elektra. Mo. Nanasi is not an early music conductor, nor is the San Francisco Opera Orchestra a period instrument ensemble, attributes that might have played more appropriately with this irreverent take on the Mozart masterpiece. The 45 players of the Opera orchestra created a very present, appealing sound that challenged our sense of balance with the generally smaller-voiced cast, voices appropriate to more intimate European Italian style theaters. Well, except for the voice of Adler Fellow Natalie Image’s Barbarina that filled the 3200 seat War Memorial to its brim.

But the maestro did often fall into a wonderful flowing lyricism that promised and delivered great musical reward for the Mozart heroines of the evening. Unfortunately Mo. Nanasi acceded to the temptation to drag out this wonderful lyrical atmosphere with excessive retardandos in the final moments of the arias.

It all went well until the fourth act when in our exhaustion (there were intermissions after both Act 1 and II, usually united) we were ready for some Mozartian emotional and musical idealism that could bring Beaumarchais’ troubled characters as envisioned by director Cavanagh some peace. This was not to be. Both stage director and conductor had shot their wads by that point, and glibly wrapped up this monument to 18th century Enlightenment as quickly and efficiently as they could.

With set designer Erhard Rom director Cavanagh created a setting that was fully 18th century in image and fully 21st century in technique with the set participating in the action — a three section wall with a door fell from time to time, all or in part, to isolate a singer or a scene on the stage apron creating a new, stronger focus on the moment. Lighting designer Jane Cox used modified versions of avant garde lighting cliches to amusing effect.

Nozze_SFO3.pngCherubino marching off to America, Figaro on drums, Susanna on fife

Director Cavanagh exposed great wit non-stop throughout the evening, with inspired ideas like sending Cherubino off to join French general Lafayette in America, with piquant moments like the prompter reaching out of his box to fetch the jar the Count had used to briefly imprison the fly, and with weirdness like Curzio, sung by tenor Brenton Ryan, insanely writhing in the doorways during the wedding minuet. The plethora of choreographed gags sometimes flowed impeccably, and sometimes did not.

All in all it a was an auspicious debut for the Michael Cavanagh Mozart DaPonte trilogy.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Michael Sumuel; Susanna: Jeanine De Bique; Count Almaviva: Levente Molnár; Countess Almaviva: Nicole Heaston; Cherubino: Serena Malfi; Doctor Bartolo: James Creswell; Marcellina; Catherine Cook; Don Basilio: Greg Fedderly; Don Curzio: Brenton Ryan; Barbarina: Natalie Image; Antonio: Bojan Knežević. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Henrik Nánási; Director: Michael Cavanagh; Set Designer: Erhard Rom; Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman; Lighting Designer: Jane Cox; Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. October 16, 2019.

image_description=Photo by Christian Dresse courtesy of the Opéra de Marseille

product_title=Le Nozze di Figaro at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Levente Molnar as Count Almaviva

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

Posted by michael_m at 2:33 PM

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

Puccini’s composition teacher, Amilcare Ponchielli, found him a librettist, the young journalist and playwright, Ferdinando Fontana, who was willing to furnish him with a plot for a meagre fee. Puccini seems to have been delighted with it, writing to his mother in August 1883, ‘It should be a good little subject, one that I like very much indeed, as it will mean working quite a lot in the symphonic descriptive genre, and that will suit me very well, because I think I can succeed in it.’ [1]

However, despite Ponchielli’s presence on the prize jury, Puccini’s opera, titled Le Willis, did not even garner an ‘honourable mention’. Subsequently, friends of the composer, among them one Boito Arrigo raised sufficient subscription funds to stage a performance at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 31 May 1884. Julian Budden reports that the orchestra included several students from the Conservatory, including Pietro Mascagni on the double bass. The performance was such a success that Antonio Gramola, the critic of Il Corriere della Sera, proclaimed: ‘We honestly believe that Puccini could be the composer for whom Italy has been waiting a long time.’

Ricordi, presumably prompted by Ponchielli, purchased the score and set about arranging a performance in Turin to open the 1884-85 Carnival season, persuading Puccini to expand the opera into two acts. The composer added a cavatina for Anna (‘Se come voi piccina’); an intermezzo (‘L’abbandono’); a dramatic ‘scena’ for Roberto; and a reprise of the duet ‘Tu dell’infanzia mia’ in the finale ultimo, interwoven with fragments of ‘L’abbandono’. The revised work, Le Villi, was subtitled ‘opera-ballo in due atti’. It was not a great success. Nor was a subsequent revival in Milan on 24 January 1885 which brought further additions which were, with other modifications, included in the editions of the opera that were published in 1888 and 1892.

No more was heard of the one-act Le Willis. Until, that is, Opera Rara presented a concert performance of the opera at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2018, in which Sir Mark Elder conducted a fine trio of soloists - Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto) and Brian Mulligan (Guglielmo) - alongside the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera Rara Chorus (as mountain folk, Willis and Spirits) in the modern-day première, utilising a new critical edition prepared by musicologist Martin Deasy. Now, Opera Rara have released a world première studio recording of the Le Willis, made shortly after that live performance.

The starting point for Fontana’s libretto was the short story, ‘Les Willis’, by the French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, which also formed the basis for Adolphe Adam’s ballet, Giselle. But, Fontana gave the original legend of Le Vila - the spirits of young girls who have died of grief after being betrayed by their beloveds - a few grim twists.

The tale is set in the Black Forest, where we find Roberto and Anna celebrating their engagement, though Anna is forlorn as Roberto must travel to Mainz to collect the inheritance of his deceased aunt. Despite his vow to be eternally faithful, when he is in Mainz Roberto is seduced by a ‘siren’ who lures him to ‘obscene orgies’ and robs him, leaving him penniless. Anna dies of a broken heart and is transformed into a Willi, who, the legend tells, force their deserters to dance to their deaths. Guglielmo, bereft and distraught, asks the Willis to avenge his daughter’s death. When Roberto returns to the forest, Anna’s spirit appears and sings of her suffering. He asks for forgiveness but - in contrast to Giselle where the young village maiden’s love sustains the fickle lord of the manor through his ordeal, until he is saved by the midnight bell - Roberto is shown no such mercy and Anna orders the Willis to punish his dalliance with their dance of death.

Le Willis is a strange, hybrid work, lasting less than an hour but incorporating dances which are woven into the action and two brief passages of declaimed poetry to cover ‘gaps’ in the drama (and during which Anna’s body is seen, behind a gauze curtain, being borne across the stage to the accompaniment of an unseen chorus). Budden suggests that the integration of different genres is characteristic of the contemporary ‘scapigliatura’ movement, whose members rebelled against accepted artistic and even moral conventions - something which Deasy explores further in his informative liner book essay, ‘Freshness of fantasy and phrases that touch the heart: the story of Puccini’s Le Willis’.

Sir Mark Elder is comfortably at home in this repertory and inspires energy and vibrancy from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose soulful upwellings and surges repeatedly raise the emotional temperature with blazes of colour, and the Opera Rara Chorus. The mountain folk in the Introductory Chorus are hearty of voice and light on their feet. Puccini’s score may be the work of a young man in his twenties, and the sequential melodic build-ups may be rather perfunctory lyrical effusions, but the sheen of the LPO strings draws our attention to the evidence that Puccini’s mature voice was already burgeoning beautifully. There is delicacy too, as when woodwind wisps unfold at the start of the Preludio, the clarinet curls, sleepy horn birdcalls and winding bassoon conjuring the mysteries and myths of the Black Forest. The orchestral interlude which follows Roberto’s departure for Mainz is similarly evocative - first, of the lovers’ innocence and passion; then, of the wildness of the ‘lewd orgies’ into which Roberto is enticed; and finally, of the febrile frenzy of the whirling Willis who dance in demonic anticipation of Roberto’s return to the forest.

Fragile intensity is one of Ermonela Jaho trademarks (see Leoncavallo and La traviata) and this allying of the vulnerable and the feverish is evident from the first when Anna tells, in her opening duet with Roberto, of a mind troubled by foreboding. When she appears as a Willi before the repentant Roberto, Jaho’s stirring vocalism is the very representation of both Anna’s fearsomeness and his terror. Even though we barely have time to ‘get to know’ Anna, Jaho makes the innocent girl’s memories of the purity of her love and the agony of her heart’s suffering utterly convincing.

As Roberto, Arsen Soghomonyan offers plentiful throbbing Italianate ardour, as when reassuring Anna of his devotion, but is a little strained at the top, though this is not unfitting in the dramatic context. Roberto’s plea to Guglielmo for his blessing, on the eve of Roberto’s departure, is earnest. Brian Mulligan captures Guglielmo’s geniality and warmth in the prayer he offers, which is firm of resolve and faith, and later communicates the bereaved father’s wrenching grief, aided by dark churnings and thudding anger in the lower strings, insisting that Roberto’s guilt must be avenged.

At the Festival Hall in November last year, some of Puccini’s later additions were performed as encores, following the final duet for Anna and Roberto, and they are included in the recording as an appendix. Jaho’s aria ‘Se come voi piccina’ - sung as she puts flowers in Roberto’s suitcase, futilely imagining the petals will not fade and thus will keep his memory of his love alive - is impassioned and sincere. And, in this more expansive vocal number we can hear how Puccini winds together the strings and voice while using the woodwind as coloristic strokes of his emotive paintbrush. Similarly, the broader canvas allows Soghomonyan to inhabit his character more fully and sweep through a range of emotions; he’s at his best in ‘Torna ai felici’ where Roberto’s heart-wracking regret is deepened by the oboe’s nudging reminders of his loss. Again, Puccini’s orchestration makes it mark, the interaction between horns and voice adding urgency of feeling.

It’s hard to imagine the one-act Le Willis being staged: it’s not surprising that Puccini felt bound to extend the work, for, with the bulk of the action ‘represented’ by the orchestral interlude and ballet in the centre it feels rather like a sandwich without its dramatic filling. But, Puccini’s score is rich and rousing. Opera Rara’s recording is a treat for both Puccini aficionados and all lovers of a stirring tale and fine music, well sung and well played.

Claire Seymour

[1] See Julian Budden, ‘The genesis and literary source of Giacomo Puccini's first opera’ in Cambridge Opera Journal, 1(1) (1989): 79-85.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Le%20Willis%20Opera%20Rara.jpg image_description=Opera Rara ORC59 product=yes product_title=Puccini: Le Willis product_by=Ermonela Jaho (Anna), Arsen Soghomonyan (Roberto), Brian Mulligan (Guglielmo), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Rara Chorus, conducted by Sir Mark Elder product_id=Opera Rara ORC59 [CD] price=£14.99 product_url=https://amzn.to/2J7ZugP
Posted by claire_s at 6:48 AM

October 18, 2019

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

‘[A] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog, wrote Friedrich Schlegel (Athenaeumsfragment 206). For Schlegel, the fragment is ‘complete in itself’ but remains ‘incomplete’: in its opposition to other fragments within the ‘surrounding world’, it reveals the world to be a ‘chaotic universality’ of antagonistic elements.

Like Schlegel’s hedgehog, the individual songs of Dichterliebe are broken pieces, complete in themselves but implying a larger whole, one which they can never represent. The song-cycle epitomises the negative dialectic of early Romantic poetry which emphasises possibility rather than closure and strives, in Novalis’s words, to ‘represent the Unrepresentable’. The Romantic ‘Self’, too, is fragmentary, never fully ‘knowable’. And, from these ‘gaps’ arises our longing to see and know, a desire that can never be fulfilled but that we strive to achieve through art.

One might see Schumann’s music as the poetry of the fragmented Romantic Self. Piano and voice are autonomous and interdependent; symbiotic entities seeking the elusive Other. The poems which form Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo similarly eschew coherence. The text does not present a linear narrative, but rather is a self-reflective network of repeating images - birds and flowers, stars and angels - associated with love. A sort of dream sequence of suggestion.

So, in some ways the decision by Bernard Foccroulle and Martin Crimp to view Schumann’s omission of four of his settings of the twenty poems from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo when he published Dichterliebe in 1844 - another ‘gap’ - as an invitation to ‘intervene … and finally to extend’ is a logical one. Zauberland begins by presenting the sixteen poems of Dichterliebe, with a single ‘intervention’, and then takes the piano postlude to Schumann’s final song as a starting point from which to continue the self-reflective discourse through a new cycle by Foccroulle which sets poems by Crimp.

It’s a venture which works best at a musical level. After all, Schumann’s cycle begins falteringly with a melody that seems to have begun playing elsewhere, before we hear a sound. And often the songs seem to dissolve, tonality and text unresolved, only to emerge from the silence and continue their searching in the following song. Foccroulle’s initial translucent piano textures and gestures of rippling limpidity sit comfortably alongside Schumann’s inconclusive and harmonically ambiguous utterings. And if Foccroulle’s language grows progressively more discordant and aggressive, finding its own voice as its canvas expands, then that seems fitting, and a natural response to the unfolding text.

Zauberland 5 © Patrick Berger.jpg Photo credit: Patrick Berger.

The impact made by the performance of Zauberland in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House was in no small part owing to the superb performances of soprano Julia Bullock and, especially, pianist Cédric Tiberghien. Bullock seemed more at home with Foccroulle’s more extrovert vocal idiom, but sang Schumann’s songs with integrity of feeling, capturing their increasing darkness. In Tiberghien’s hands, the piano’s cascading teardrops were hauntingly beautiful, conveying at the start of the cycle the delicate wistfulness of remembered happiness, capturing the cold bitterness which creeps in almost imperceptibly, and etching the ambiguous rhythmic gestures with wonderful clarity.

Crimp’s text, and its dramatic interpretation by director Katie Mitchell, were less successful. The dreams and fairy tales which pervade the later poems of Heine’s cycle - when we enter Zauberland where green trees sing melodies from the beginning of time and vague shapes rise up, a strange dancing chorus, out of the earth - seem to have provided Crimp and Foccroulle with their point of departure. Zauberland presents the journey of a young woman, five months pregnant, who has been forced to leave Syria and who arrives at a European border checkpoint, hoping to enter Germany - to her, a ‘magic world’ of security peace. Having left her husband and family behind in Aleppo, she settles in Cologne where she gives birth and then resumes her career as a professional opera singer. On the eve of her husband’s death she has a dream in which her concert performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe becomes mixed up with her traumatic journey from Syria and her life in Aleppo before the war.

At least, that’s what the programme tells me. I would have gleaned little of this from Mitchell’s staging, which began in the manner of a formal lieder recital, pianist and singer the only presences on the soft-lit stage. Then, men in suits entered, in profile. As the drama unfolded, they undressed and redressed the singer; pushed or carried on, and off again, chairs, tables, lamps, trees, garden furniture; made shadows dance and flicker on the singer’s face. A woman in a bridal dress danced by, as the men used their mobile ’phones to take photographs. Later, glass boxes containing dolls lying in contorted positions were wheeled in, and off again.

Julia Bullock.jpgJulia Bullock. Photo credit: Patrick Berger.

I had no clear idea who these personages were: at times Crimp’s text gave clues as to location or action, and one might identify a border guard or medic. But, who was the girl in the wedding dress? The singer’s daughter, or the singer herself? “Heine - Kraus - rhymer - what does it mean? Why are these gentlemen in my dream?” the singer asks. Quite. Mitchell’s repetition of gesture had none of the haunting melancholy of Schumann’s echoes. It was just dull. And, Crimp may have stayed true to the spirit of Heine’s imagery, with its ironic parodying of Romantic medievalism, but lines such as “‘Girls,’ she says ‘have flowers names - heart - rhymes with pain.’” or “Today I’m trading nightingales for dollar bills - each brown bird sold brings me closer to escape” are no match for Heine’s hothouse of roses and lilies, or his magic garden where the nightingales are singing and the moonlight is shimmering - “es singen die Nachtigallen,/ es flimmert der Mondenschein”.

Novalis wrote of literary narratives that, like nature itself, are without coherence and work instead by means of association, like dreams, and whose effect is like music. Dichterliebe embodies this aesthetic of fragmentation and survived Zauberland’s attempt to fill in the gaps.

Claire Seymour

Zauberland : Music - Robert Schumann and Bernard Foccroulle, Text - Martin Crimp and Heinrich Heine

Soprano - Julia Bullock, Piano - Cédric Tiberghien, Actors - Natasha Kafka, David Rawlins, Raphael Zari, Ben Clifford; Director - Katie Mitchell, Lighting designer - James Farncombe, Set and costume designer - Chloe Lamford.

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London; Tuesday 15th October 2019.

product_title=Zauberland at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Julia Bullock

Photo credit: Patrick Berger

Posted by claire_s at 7:01 AM

October 16, 2019

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Old and young, rich and poor, spendthrift and miser, dreamer and realist: the opera, through the interventions of Dr Malatesta, tells us, it seems, that such discords can be reconciled. Or does it? In his new production at the Royal Opera House (shared with Paris and Palermo), director Damiano Michieletto suggests that Malatesta’s ‘magic’ is just that: a fantasy happy ending at odds with realities of human life.

Michieletto and his design team (sets, Paolo Fantin; costumes, Agostino Cavalca; lighting, Alessandro Carletti) oppose two worlds, past and present, to illustrate internal and external divisions. This Don Pasquale lives a nostalgic dream of times past. His house is an iconographical relic of his childhood. A sepia photograph of his mother rests affectionately on a bed-side table; his living room and kitchen celebrate 1950s design, and Pasquale’s frugality; family heirlooms - a grandfather clock and nineteenth-century landscape painting - evoke the spirit of history. At times, Pasquale slips back into wistful memories: an unhealthy yellow-green tint bathes the stage as ‘ghosts’ of his boyhood self enter, and perch on Pasquale’s knee, or playfully blow out the candles on a birthday cake.

DP Act 1 set.jpg Olga Peretyatko as Norina, Bryn Terfel as Don Pasquale and Markus Werba as Malatesta. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

However, the fragility of Pasquale’s nostalgic dreaming is exposed by the neon strip lights which form a cruelly bright cat’s-cradle roof above Fantin’s sparse revolving set. The latter is littered with doors unconnected to any walls which might prevent the fantasy from falling down. When Pasquale starts to think of the future - if his recalcitrant nephew won’t obey his instructions, and marry as Pasquale commands, then he will disinherit the sulky spendthrift and take a young bride himself to ensure a brood of heirs to prevent Ernesto getting his hands of the family fortune - then disaster is inevitable.

Markus Werba as Malatesta.jpg Markus Werba as Malatesta Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Malatesta proposes his sister, the virginal ‘Sofronia’, fresh out of the convent, as a suitable marriage match, and Pasquale is delighted. But, when his bashful bride morphs into a reckless fortune-hunter who plans to bling-up his house, spend his money on fast cars and fancy frocks, and dash around town with a mystery lover while he’s left lounging alone on his new sofa, staring at his minimalist décor, he is less thrilled. The decorators arrive and begin dismantling his home. In desperation, Pasquale clings to his grandfather clock, enmeshed in the plastic sheeting which condemns his past to history. It’s an image of pathos, whatever Pasquale’s flaws.

Michieletto emphasises the cruelty inflicted upon Don Pasquale by Norina and Malatesta, and if this doesn’t dampen the innate comedy then this is in no small part due to the wily acting of Bryn Terfel as the lecherous old Pasquale. There’s a touch of Terfel’s Falstaff in Don Pasquale’s lustful, deluded, anticipation of the bliss that awaits him: his housekeeper dyes his hair, he discards his grubby pyjamas and crams his corset-restrained belly into his ‘smart’ trousers, pulling up the zip with a playful whoop. Terfel manages the transformation from misanthropic miser to would-be Romeo, and later to despairing dupe, will enormous skill - and fine judgement of the details that will tell. His baritone may have lost some of its smoothness and warmth, but it’s a ‘human’ voice that conveys feelings directly and with sincerity - just what’s needed here. And, Terfel makes sure that the text does its work too, enunciating the Italian with expressive nuance.

OP and Ioan Hotea as Ernesto.jpgOlga Peretyatko as Norina and Ioan Hotea as Ernesto. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Terfel was equalled, perhaps eclipsed, by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, making a superb Royal Opera debut as a hard-hearted, on-the-make Norina. The gold-digger shoves aside the dull patina of Pasquale’s past with a blast of colour and light. We are first introduced to Norina in her workplace: a fashion photographer’s studio, where she’s a dresser. The clothes-rail of couture, the flashing cameras and the posing models embody her own dreams of fame and fortune - the latter emphasised by projected video images which also reinforce her role-playing insincerity. Peretyatko has natural comic flair which helped to keep our sympathies in good balance, though the famous slap which she dishes out to her disgruntled husband in Act 3 seemed unnecessarily vicious. Technically, she was immaculate, breezing through the coloratura and demonstrating how to trill with delicious delicacy. Her soprano had just the right sharpness of edge as it rose, to convey Norina’s ruthlessness.

Romanian tenor Ioan Hotea struggled a little with some of the higher reaches of Donizetti’s music for Ernesto, though the final duet for Norina and Ernesto was well-sung. But, with Michieletto seemingly disinterested in Ernesto’s romantic dreams, it wasn’t clear what the minx would see in this teddy-bear clutching moocher, who with the help of Pasquale’s put-upon, chain-smoking housekeeper, when disinherited and evicted, douses Pasquale’s precious classic car with oil. One could only wonder what the old man had done to deserve such punishment and payback.

BT with puppet.jpg Bryn Terfel as Pasquale, holding a puppet of Norina. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Markus Werber is a suave, handsome schemer - though not necessarily a convincing ‘doctor’ - and equals Terfel for panache in their patter duet: all the more impressive as they have to manipulate puppets while scooting through the syllables - and a neat suggestion that Pasquale is imagining taking back control while we can see that it’s Malatesta who is really pulling the strings. The puppets are Michieletto’s solution to Donizetti’s failure to really integrate the chorus, who don’t appear until late in the day, and three puppeteers kept us entertained when Pasquale’s servants reflected on his misfortunes. In the pit, Evelino Pidò led a vibrant and well-paced account of the score.

Only the ending seemed a false note. The deception revealed, the humiliated but humbled Don Pasquale forgives everyone and gives a green light to Norina and Ernesto’s marriage; he recognises that although Malatesta has tricked him, the trials of his pseudo-marriage have in fact saved him from his own stubbornness and the very real disaster that would have ensued had he actually entered into wedlock with a younger woman. Michieletto eschews any such happy ending. Here, Pasquale is consigned to a wheelchair and packed off to a nursing home. An unnecessarily callous final act of cruelty? But, he has one consolation: he’s still got the keys to the house.

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale - Bryn Terfel, Norina - Olga Peretyatko, Ernesto - Ioan Hotea, Doctor Malatesta - Markus Werba, Notary - Bryan Secombe, Actors (Sam Alan, Ashley Bain, Josh Cavendish, Peter Cooney, Jerome Dowling, Jane Eyers, Judith Georgi, Jamal Low, Lockhart Ogilvie, Jeremiah Olusola); Director - Damiano Michieletto, Conductor - Evelino Pidò, Set designer - Paolo Fantin, Costume designer - Agostino Cavalca, Lighting designer - Alessandro Carletti, Video designers - rocafilm, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 14th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Bryn%20Terfel%20as%20Don%20Pasquale%20and%20Olga%20Peretyatko%20as%20Norina.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, at the Royal Opera House product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Bryn Terfel as Don Pasquale and Olga Peretyatko as Norina

Photo credit: Clive Barda
Posted by claire_s at 3:39 AM

October 14, 2019

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

The premiere of his second opera, following Oberto, was a flop; after the first-night fiasco La Scala cancelled all further performances and forgot about Il giorno di regno until 2001. There were a few other performances in Italy but after the 1859 production in the Teatro Nuovo in Naples over one hundred years passed before it was seen in an Italian opera house: at Parma’s Teatro Regio, where it was revived to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Verdi's birth.

Felice Romani’s libretto (based on Alexandre Vincent Pineu-Duval’s play Le faux Stanislas) tells of a French military officer, Il Cavaliere di Belfiore, who has agreed to help out his friend Stanislaus, the future King of Poland, by impersonating him while Stanislaus travels to Warsaw to take the throne. The ‘King for a Day’ sets about using his ‘power’ to do good deeds: that is, by disentangling some unhappy betrothals. Giulietta’s father, the Barone di Kelbar, is threatening to wed her to his elderly, rich friend, Signor la Rocca, but she’s got her eyes on the latter’s nephew, Edoardo di Sanval. Belfiore himself is adored by the Baron’s niece, a young widow, the Marchesa del Poggio, but, fed up with his philandering ways, she has engaged herself to another. A double-wedding is planned, and the Baron’s pride is tickled by the promised presence of Stanislaus. The meeting of the surprised Marchesa and the disguised Belfiore on the wedding morning results in confusion and further masquerades, as the plot twists and turns in contortions that are not always clear to the audience.

Allowing for the shortcomings of Felice Romani’s libretto, I’m not sure that Chelsea Opera Group, supporting a fine team of soloists and conducted by Tom Seligman, captured every humorous ‘nuance’ of this Rossinian tale - the laughter in the Cadogan Hall was of the occasional chuckle rather than belly laugh kind, and the Chorus, though confident and firm of voice, looked decidedly serious throughout. But, then, Verdi labelled his opera a melodramma giocoso - a drama with some humour rather than a comic caper - and, in any case, it’s hard to capture the full spirit of an opera in a concert performance. But, Chelsea Opera Group emphasised the geniality and vitality of the work with their affectionate and accomplished reading.

The cast of soloists were excellent. We don’t seem to have enough opportunities to see and hear baritone George von Bergen in London, though he has appeared at Opera Holland Park in recent seasons (in this summer’s Un ballo in maschera and Isabeau in 2018) and will sing Sharpless when Madame Butterfly returns to the Coliseum next spring. His dark, fluid, juicy tone, ability to make the most of the text, and dramatic presence made his Belfiore as dashing as he was dastardly. I described tenor Luis Gomez (a former JPYA) as a suave-toned Fenton when he appeared in the ROH’s Falstaff revival in July 2015, and ‘suave’ was an apt word on this occasion: his dulcet tenor rang freely and with refinement, emphasising Edoardo’s passion, sincerity but not neglecting his comic gaucheness.

Edoardo’s Act 2 duet with Giulietta was one of the highlights, and this was in no small part owing to the sparkling brightness of Paula Sides’ soprano. Sarah-Jane Lewis evinced a grace and maturity which befitted the older of the two women, especially in her aria of disillusionment and despair, but her Marchese lit some combative sparks with Belfiore: however, Lewis’s soprano - though warm and rich, doesn’t quite have the weight to dominate some of the exchanges or soar above the orchestral accompaniment, though did Seligman provide sympathetic support.

John Savourin (Barone di Kelbar) and Nicholas Fowell (Signore la Rocca) were a rather bitter pair of buffos, though both projected the text well and their basses were ear-pleasing. Perhaps to make the comedy felt, a greater physical and kinetic dimension is required - not easy when pinioned behind a music stand in a stationary line. And, at times the cast were rather bound to their scores, thought this is forgivable given that after this single performance they are unlikely to be asked to reprise their roles any time soon. The minor roles of Il Conte Ivrea and Un Servo were competently sung by Aaron Godfrey-Meyers (tenor) and Kevin Holland (bass) respectively.

There was a time when I found the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra less than polished with regard to style, intonation and ensemble, but things have improved steadily and markedly of late, and this was a very persuasive orchestral performance characterised by assured tuning - particularly in the woodwind and brass, who played with confident attack - well-defined colour, and technical competence. Seligman had evident faith in his players, and his economical and precise gestures ensured rhythmic clarity - important during the strings’ frequently busy accompaniments to the arias. The occasional, ever so slight, relaxation of tempo - as during some string scurrying in the overture - ensured the collective fingers found the notes tidily. If I were to quibble, I’d observe that in Act 1 the loud volume was unalleviated, but Act 2 brought far more dynamic, and thus dramatic, variation. Seligman kept things moving swiftly along, even when the action was tying itself up in contortions, and the secco recitatives were unfussily presented by harpsichordist (and assistant conductor) Davide Levi - one can imagine them being much more disruptive than they were.

I think, overall, that the soloists might have taken a few more risks. There are plentiful opportunities for hamming up, of the kind that that Savournin, especially, usually relishes and delivers with discerning style. There was some attempt to conjure some ‘action’: Giulietta gave Edoardo a feisty sideswipe, and when Belfiore’s squire Delmonte (John Vallance) delivered the King’s letter to his master, he was aided by the orchestra playing parcel-the-parcel.

This was a performance that became increasingly ebullient and lively. At the end, the cast shrugged their shoulders and declared that, in the light of all the confusion and cock-ups the best thing would be to just forget what’s just happened: sounds to me like a maxim that could usefully serve in other arenas at present.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Il giorno di regno

Il Barone di Kelbar - John Savournin, Signor la Rocca - Nicholas Folwell, Delmonte - John Vallance, Il Cavaliere di Belfiore - George von Bergen, Edoardo di Sanval - Luis Gomes, La Marchesa del Poggio -Sarah-Jane Lewis, Giulietta di Kelbar - Paula Sides, Un servo - Kevin Hollands, Il Conte Ivrea - Aaron Godfrey-Mayes; Conductor - Tom Seligman, Chorus Director - Lindsay Bramley, Assistant Conductor & Continuo - Davide Levi, Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group.

Cadogan Hall, London; Saturday 12th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/George%20von%20Bergen.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Chelsea Opera Group: Verdi’s Un giorno di regno at Cadogan Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: George von Bergen (baritone)
Posted by claire_s at 12:20 PM

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert Lieder develop the piano part with greater elaboration than Schubert’s originals where naturalism is of the essence. Liszt’s own songs and Lieder reflect the international circles he moved in and the more “modern” times he lived in. As Dubois and Raës explain, “Liszt’s ardour and expression resonate with the youthful nature of our duo, just as his music, so demonstrative and accessible, answers the tumult of our troubled times”.

This is demonstrated in Die Loreley, second version, LWS273 (1841), to the poem by Heinrich Heine, and possibly one of the most beautiful Lieder ever written. The structure is dramatic: almost an opera in miniature, the piano evoking the richness of an orchestra. The first motif rises like an overture, the repeat softer, descending as if from some rocky height to the river below. “Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten” his voice delicately restrained, so the words “Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten”, are infused with a sense of wonder. Near-declamation turns to lyrical warmth. “Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt, Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein” the melody dances: the music evoking the flow of the river., complete with sparkling figures and the repeating phrase “Die Loreley”. On the short phrase “Im Abendsonnenschein”, Dubois shapes the dramatic crescendo, expressing the thrill the poet feels as he sees at last the lovely maiden combing her golden hair. The line “Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme” is repeated twice, each time with difference emphasis, a pattern that runs through the whole piece. Enchantment turns to horror, as the poet sees the sailor in his boat dashed upon the rocks. Rolling figures in the piano part descend, like engulfing waves. Tristan Raës low pedalling exudes menace. After the tumult, an eerie calm. Is this the spirit of the Loreley herself, innocently oblivious to what has been done? The song ends with the line “Die Loreley getan!” repeated, the last taken with tessitura so high that it seems to soar to the skies.

Dubois and Raës preceded Die Loreley with Liszt’s Hohe Liebe (LWN18/S307, 850, Uhland), Jugendglück (LWN61/S323, 1860, Richard Pohl), Liebestraum (LW N18/S298, 1850, Freiligrath), Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (2nd version, LWN16/S290-2, 1859, Heine), and Es rauschen die Winde (2nd version, LWN33/S294, Rellstab). With Vergiftet sind meine Lieder (LW N29/S289, 1859, Heine), its intensity belied by its compact duration, contrasting with the delicacy of Bist Du (LW N29/S289, 1859, Prince Elim Metscherskey). Die Zelle in Nonnenwirth (4th version, LW N6/S274-2, 1860, Furst von Lichnowsy), is a dramatic scena based on medieval legend. Liszt’s setting lifts it above its maudlin text, and Dubois gives it heroic ring. The very well-known Ein Fichetenbaum steht einsam (1st version, LW N36/S309, 1860, Heine) is followed by Nimm einen Strahl der Sonne (LW N20/S310, 1860, Rellstab), and two settings of Liszt’s friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Laßt mich ruhen (LW N55/S314, 1859) and In Liebeslust (LW N55/S314, 1859). Der Fischerknabe (1st version, LW N32/S92-1, 1847) is one of three settings Liszt made of poems from Friedrich von Schiller’s William Tell. Thus, the spirit of full-throated freedom. Raës plays the piano line so it evokes “alpine” images - tinkling figures that might be cowbells or pure water in a mountain lake, swelling forth, then precipitately descending. One crescendo after the other in the voice part, posing no problems for a singer like Dubois whose technique is so agile.

Four settings of Victor Hugo : S’il est un charmant gazon (1st version, LW N25/S284-1, 1844),.Enfant, si j’étais roi (2nd version, LW N24/S283-2, 1859), Oh! quand je dors (2nd version, LW N11/S282-2, 1859) and Comment disaient-ils (2nd version, LW N12/S276-2, 1859), showing how Liszt was at ease with Mélodie and with Hugo’s idiom. The last song, in particular, is beautifully balanced, Dubois bringing out its elegant, understated charm.

Liszt’s Three Petrach Sonnets (Trois Sonnets de Pétrarque) (1st version, LW N14/S270-1, 1846) (S270/1 1842-6) are extremely well known, and here receive superb performances, making this recording a recommendation for admirers of the composer. “E nulla stringo, tutto l’mondo abbracio” sang Dubois. His poise is superb - this is how rubato should properly be used. He breathed into “i sospiri e le lagrime e ‘l desio” so it seemed to well up from deep within. Raës sculpted the piano line, as firm as marble. Surprisingly, Liszt only wrote two other songs in Italian. Angiolin dal biondo crin (2nd version, LW N1/S269-2, 1856 Cesare Boccella) is a gentle lullaby for Liszt’s daughter Blandine, then 4 years of age, a little angel with blonde hair. The Marquis de Boccella was a family friend of Liszt and Marie d’Agoult. Thus, the tenderness and intimacy of Dubois’ delivery, Raës’ piano like an embrace.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Aparté AP200

product_title=Liszt: O lieb!
product_by=Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Tristan Raës (piano)
product_id=Aparté AP200 [CD]

Posted by iconoclast at 10:40 AM

October 13, 2019

Mark Padmore reflects on Britten's Death in Venice

He jokes that his wife - the designer, Vicki Mortimer, whose period sets for McVicar’s production we will see in November - probably knows Britten’s opera better than he does, but by the end of our conversation it’s clear that Mark’s preparation for and reflections on the role of Gustav von Aschenbach - and the ‘meaning’, or ‘meanings’, of the opera and the novella by Thomas Mann on which it is based - have been extensive and that he is deeply absorbed in the score and text.

I ask Mark if this is a role that he has had in his sights for some time, and he replies with characteristic diffidence: “There aren’t that many operatic roles that I can sing - my voice isn’t really an operatic voice.” Esteemed for his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, Mark has sung some smaller roles in Baroque works as well as performing the roles of Don Ottavio in Peter Brooks’ staging of Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence (1998) and Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (2010). He has also sung Peter Grimes, in 2008 at the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall of which he is Artistic Director, and he tells me that, while the role is more frequently considered a Heldentenor role these days, he doesn’t feel that it need be. Indeed, the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen, though doubting ‘whether he has the welly to project Grimes convincingly in a major opera house’ found that ‘in the intimacy of St Endellion, he was enthralling, singing with consummate intelligence and sensitivity (“Now the Great Bear” was heart-stopping) and presenting the lonely fisherman as a haunted, helpless victim of his own darker urges’.

But, Mark had to wait until 2013 for his first major operatic role in Britain when he performed the part of Captain Vere in the revival of Michael Grandage’s 2010 staging of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. It’s clear that he found this an immensely rewarding experience, but he seems a little surprised by the acclaim that his own performance garnered. One critic commented that he ‘projected the full force of Vere’s complex character while giving unparalleled sweetness of tone and crafting of melodic phrases’ declaring Mark to be ‘a worthy wearer of the mantle of Peter Pears’; another wrote that ‘his musicality is faultless and his rendering of the textual nuances crystalline: what a feeling artist he is’. When the production subsequently transferred to New York, Mark’s performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earned him Musical America’s 2016 Vocalist of the Year award.

Mark has also been an advocate for modern opera and for new works. He enjoyed singing in the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure (in 2015, at the Aldeburgh Festival and the ROH’s Linbury Theatre) - Mark later remarks that while Birtwistle’s music is difficult and time-consuming to learn, the composer writes well for the voice - and was the Third Angel/John in the revival George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at Covent Garden in 2017. In 2018 he sang in the world premiere of Tansy Davies’ Cave , giving a performance, I recall, of astonishing vocal and physical commitment. Mark remarks that the venue - Printworks, the former south-east London home of a newspaper printing-press - played a large part in the impact of the performance, but while that’s certainly true I remember that it was his own performance as the questing protagonist that made it so compelling: ‘Whether lyricising or crooning, speaking or howling, clapping or whistling, every utterance was delivered with care and sensitivity; and, the purity of his voice was immensely touching, creating credibility and empathy for a character whose situation and intent might seem distanced from our own experiences.’

Our conversation turns back to Thomas Mann’s and Benjamin Britten’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, the celebrated writer whose self-discipline and ideals are undermined by a vision of Beauty in the form of a young Polish boy Tadzio whom he encounters during a visit to Venice; Aschenbach subsequently submits to his passionate impulses, releasing opposing inner forces which ultimately destroy him. Is it a ‘difficult’ role, vocally, expressively and emotionally? Mark immediately opens his vocal score at the first page. “I can’t sing these lines without thinking Tristan,” he says. “I can almost hear the Tristan-chord.” It’s a pertinent point, as Mann, who repeated explored the corruptive force of passion in his writing, was fascinated by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde - the opera (and myth) which served to illustrate the 20th-century Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont’s warning (in his 1939 book, Passion and Society), that the aesthetic preoccupation with passion can be destructive. Moreover, in a letter to Carl Maria Weber, Mann had explained that his aim in Death in Venice was to achieve an ‘equilibrium of sensuality and morality’.

I suggest to Mark that at the heart of Mann’s novella and Britten’s opera are complex, troubling questions about the relationship of Beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual life. Mark’s response prompts me to see Aschenbach’s - and by implication the singer’s - journey not just as literal one, to the South, but also as an ethical one, an idea strengthened when he mentions Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the way a singer reflects on the experience of which the Evangelist sings, as Christ journeys towards death.

Death in Venice is driven by the play of antagonistic forces - Apollonian and Dionysian - as Aschenbach’s creativity, stagnant and sterile, is stimulated by ideal Beauty, releasing opposing compulsions: aesthetic sublimation and physical consummation. That’s why, as Mark explains, “Britten’s notes really matter.” He points to the recurring harmonic ambivalences and semitonal dissonances in the score that articulate this battle of incompatibles, particularly the opposition of the pitches G♮ and G# and their related harmonic areas. Mark turns quickly to the closing scenes of Act 1, at the point where Aschenbach has determined to leave the city: as Tadzio walks through the hotel foyer, Aschenbach regrets that this is the last time he will see the boy: “May God bless you.” “Aschenbach sings the notes of Tadzio’s motif, but the final note is G♮, not G#,” Mark observes, “but then it’s immediately ‘corrected’ in the strings. It’s like the worm in the rose.”


Britten’s score is indeed densely motivic in this way, so much so that I previously described the score as holding its creators, performers, protagonists and listeners in the ‘claustrophobic embrace’ of inescapable tragedy. Mark comments on the significance of the Traveller’s ‘Marvel’s unfold’ theme, which heralds the arrival of the stranger whose intoxicating song, “Go, travel to the South”, fills Aschenbach’s “tired heart” with “inexplicable longing” and compels him to submit to his restlessness. Even though Aschenbach seems rarely to reflect on the Traveller once he has embarked on his journey, the ‘Marvels unfold’ motif permeates the score. (It infuses the ‘Serenissima’ motif introduced by the Youths on board the boat that transports Aschenbach to Venice; and the tuba’s ‘plague’ theme.) Mark turns to the scene in Act 2 where Aschenbach pursues Tadzio and his family through the streets and waterways of Venice, right to the door of Tazdio’s room into which the boy has just disappeared. At this point, Aschenbach must linger outside the door, he explains, because of what is conveyed by the oboe motif. It’s to these details, he feels, that some directors are not attentive; moreover, some singers seem concerned more with ‘singing the notes’ than with the expressive and dramatic implications embedded in the musical language, and are happy simply to ‘be directed’.

“It’s really important to remember that Britten and Mann were meticulous,” Mark says, and it’s clear that he’s reflecting not only on the need to perform ‘accurately’ what Britten wrote, but also on the ‘meaning’ that Britten’s music expresses, often ambiguously, and how this can be communicated in the theatre. He raises Aschenbach’s acknowledgement and acceptance of his feelings in the closing bars of Act 1. During the beach games scene, Apollo’s ethereal, disembodied voice has reached out to Aschenbach as he watched the children’s athletic games: “He loves beauty who worships me.” Aschenbach glories in the ideal he has witnessed; when Tadzio passes him on the way to the hotel, Aschenbach finally understands the truth: “I love you.” I’ve previously commented on the way the apparent harmonic conclusiveness (E major) is disturbed by the lingering G♮ which concludes the three rising notes which Aschenbach sings on the word “I”, but Mark suggests that the falling major third, “love you” (G#-E) is more significant than I suggest: “It’s important in the theatre. After all the unfolding and yearning of Act 1, this statement prepares the audience for the exploration of what has been revealed in Act 2.” As the ‘theorist’, I’m convinced by the practitioner’s argument!

I ask Mark whether the role poses any particular vocal challenges? “With Vere, I occasionally had to push my voice a little, but here I don’t feel any strain.” He raises an interesting idea about Aschenbach’s dry, declamatory style: “Is this vocal irony?” I reflect on Mann’s employment of an objective narrator, but one who adopts a subtly critical perspective. There is no such distancing in the opera, and Mann’s narration is replaced by Aschenbach’s recitative monologues, and in the first of these - the writer’s proud presentation of himself, “I Aschenbach, famous as a master writer, successful, honoured” - is undermined by the trumpet’s mocking commentary. Aschenbach’s address is defiant, but even here, in the opening pages of the score, he is vulnerable: his dignified declamation lacks self-knowledge, and the severity of his vocal style does indeed seem ironic. Mark points out, too, that Aschenbach rarely speaks to any of the other characters in the opera, which leads me to speculate on the possibility of an ‘abstract’ production which might present the action as taking place entirely in the writer’s own mind.

Mark suggests that, lacking a grand, rousing ending, the close of the opera is in a way anti-climactic, and I add that so often in Britten’s operas at the close the tensions are unresolved - in the drama but often in the music too. I recall that in November 1975 Britten returned to Venice, having completed his Third String Quartet the preceding month; the final part of the quartet is called ‘Serenissma’ and the score resonances with echoes of Death in Venice, especially Aschenbach’s “I love you” motif which is reiterated in countless torturous permutations. In the final two bars of the Quartet, the viola and cello resist the efforts of two violins to assert an unequivocal tonal centre, and the work ends with a semitonal discord. “I want the work to end with a question,” Britten said, and I suggest to Mark that all Britten’s operas end with a question! Moreover, as Mark - who has been re-reading Mann’s early short stories and parts of Buddenbrooks - observes, both Mann and Britten return to the same themes and symbols again and again: an endless revisiting of intractable moral and aesthetic concerns in search of evasive resolution.

Is Mark’s interpretation informed by other performances or productions, I wonder? He did see Deborah Warner’s 2007 ENO production, with Ian Bostridge in the title role (I saw this production in 2013 when John Graham-Hall sang Aschenbach), and has listened to Philip Langridge’s performance as conducted by Richard Hickox on the Chandos label, and the original Decca recording with Peter Pears - though he suggests that Death in Venice is not an opera that lends itself well to recording. “It’s more a case of just working through the score and learning the notes.”

McVicar will present the opera ‘in its period’, the 1910s, which Mark feels is appropriate, not least because it prompts us to reflect on what the opera ‘means’. “Today, most people are comfortable with issues that in the past were problematic and accept things such as same-sex marriage; but we’re not comfortable with paedophilia.” Does he think that audience members may bring with them images from Visconti’s 1971 film, in which Aschenbach, now a composer, was played by Dirk Bogarde and his suffering so associated with the music of Mahler? “Well, it’s about the need to look beneath the surface; much like with Venice itself.” Indeed, the opera’s moral dilemma is in many ways embodied in the floating city, which, in Mann’s novella, carries disease - Asian cholera - in the very thing which defines its beauty.

One element in the production that does allude to the cinematic or visual is the presence on the beach of a period cine-camera, reminding us, as Mark explains, of the significance of ‘looking’ and ‘the gaze’ in both the novella and opera. Indeed, when Aschenbach is first confronted by the haughty Traveller, the narrator remarks that he seems to stare at Aschenbach, ‘so straight in the eye, with so evident intention to make an issue of the matter and outstare him’, and Aschenbach’s ‘relationship’ with Tadzio is purely visual.

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Mark the inevitable question about his future plans and whether there are any works - operatic or otherwise - that are still on his ‘to do’ list. It’s clear that he does find Grimes tempting, but isn’t very hopeful of an opportunity arising, and he’d like very much to sing Vere again. He reflects on how much longer he will go on performing: he has another St Matthew Passion on the horizon but wonders if that might be his last performance of that work. “If I can keep singing Britten, Schubert and Bach, that’s enough.”

Mark seems a little surprised by my final question: is he excited about the forthcoming Death in Venice production? Noting that in the 2017 production of Written on Skin he was part of collective ensemble in a fairly busy production, he smiles, “I guess it will be my premiere here.”

There will be five performances of David McVicar’s new production of Britten’s Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House, from 21st November to 6th December.

Claire Seymour image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mark-Padmore%20MB.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Mark Padmore reflects on singing the role of Aschenbach in the Royal Opera House’s forthcoming production of Death in Venice product_by=An interview with Claire Seymour product_id=Images © Marco Borggreve

Posted by claire_s at 5:10 PM

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

My preparatory research in advance of Emma Rice’s new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at English National Opera was inauspicious. Her dismissal of opera as an artform, in an interview in The Guardian in 2012, together with her recent remark to the newspaper’s associate editor (culture) Claire Armitstead that after agreeing to take on the production she found herself thinking, “‘Bloody hell, how do I get through this?’ It would be easier if I knew how to read a score”, didn’t inspire confidence.

Pre-performance, a programme article informed me that Rice’s starting point for re-writing the spoken text of the libretto - the new English lyrics have been supplied by Tom Morris - had been to put the French text through Google Translate and that, as she chopped and changed the opera, particularly Act 2, ENO’s Artistic Director Daniel Kramer had had to remind her, “let’s get the music back in. We are an opera house!” Returning to the score Rice seems to have been quite surprised to find that “yes, there was all this lovely music I’d left out so back it went in and I cut a lot of the text I’d written”. Not enough of the latter, was my post-performance assessment.

Bevan Euridice.jpgMary Bevan (Euridice). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Rice seems to have taken the fact that Offenbach didn’t leave us a definitive score as evidence of a schism in the Werktreue pact between composer and performer, and as licence to act as co-creator and ‘rectifier’. “I started to look at the two-act and the four-act versions and at the three English translations of the libretto that I found. None of them said what I wanted to say.” What about what Offenbach wanted to say?

Rice is probably not inaccurate to observe that “A lot of the satirical nineteenth-century French jokes just don’t work”. Nowadays, Offenbach’s mockery of myths and Gods, and of Gluck’s presentation of them, is unlikely to prompt either a giggle or the disgruntled self-righteousness of the critic, following the 1858 premiere at the Bouffes-Parisiens, who condemned the operetta as a ‘'profanation of holy and glorious antiquity’. And, while Flaubert had been prosecuted for obscenity in 1856 for his daring depiction of the adulterous Emma Bovary, marital discord and infidelity no longer raise eyebrows.

Peep Show.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

But, what Offenbach really had in his sights was the Second Empire elite and his operetta’s revolutionary energy derives from its lampooning of the veneer of glamour and wealth which masked corruption and authoritarianism. A satire on pompous politicians and their vices surely has some contemporary relevance? After all, Act 2 ends with the gods’ declaration that their ‘strong’ leader is taking them all down to hell. Quite.

Rice seems to have decided otherwise. I was interested to read a comment by the Spectator’s Kate Maltby, written in October 2016 following Rice’s departure from her position as Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre: ‘Rice seemed to view Shakespeare’s texts as obstacles to be avoided, rather than challenges to be solved. […] Why probe a Jacobean playwright’s blindspots if you can just rewrite them?’ Plus ça change

Chorus Orpheus.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

Don’t be misled by the balloons. Courtesy of the valiant ENO Chorus we have balloon bees, balloon sheep, balloon tutus, balloon clouds, even a taxi borne aloft by balloons, but, set in Soho in the 1950s, Rice’s production is no party. During the overture she presents a ‘pre-story’ which sees the genuinely enamoured Orpheus (Ed Lyon) and Euridice (Mary Bevan) wed, conceive a child and then suffer a tragedy which results in marital breakdown. A wreath spelling BABY casts a depressing and not entirely tasteful shadow on proceedings.

Lucas and Lyon.jpg Lucia Lucas (Public Opinion) and Ed Lyon (Orpheus). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The traumatised Euridice runs off with ‘shepherd’ Aristaeus (Alex Otterburn’s Pluto in disguise) and Public Opinion (Lucia Lucas) - a London cabbie who has ‘The Knowledge’ - persuades Orpheus to hop into his TX4 and head for Hades to win her back. First, though, we stop off in Olympus, a luxury lido where the gods are bored and behaving badly. Ambrosia and amorous adventures are no longer gratifying, and Jupiter is a sexual predator. When the Hackney cab rolls up in Hell, we find Euridice imprisoned in a hovel, the horrors of which are exacerbated by her inebriate gaoler, John Styx (Alan Ope is brilliantly sinister but it’s not clear why he laments his lost kingship of Poland, rather than Boeotia?).

Forced to work in a sleazy Peep Show, Euridice is leered at by dirty old men-in-macs and a beer-bellied Bacchus (the ENO Chorus’s Peter Willcock). Where Offenbach’s score gives us the sparkle of life-affirming laughter, Rice gives us misogyny and #MeToo sexual abuse. Euridice sings: “Dance! Till you feel your soul goes. Dance until control goes and you can’t ask why. Embrace the frenzy and the pain until the mad becomes the sane.” Infernal it certainly is, but not the time and place for a can-can.

Orpheus Act 4.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

Rice declares, “if I do one thing I will make people care about [Orpheus and Euridice]”; it might have been better if she’d made us laugh. Even our London cabbie’s humour fails, though Lucas does her best with the ponderous dialogue. And, if we do care, then it’s because Lyon and Bevan, and the rest of the strong cast, sing with courage and commitment, not because of Rice’s meddling.

Alex Otterburn Pluto.jpgAlex Otterburn (Pluto). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Bevan’s beautiful warm soprano gives some weight to Rice’s conception of Euridice as a woman wronged, and Lyon is a sympathetic Orpheus in contrast to the slimy sleaze-balls who plague his beloved. Alex Otterburn’s campy Pluto flicks his forked tail with aplomb and delivers an agile performance. Ellie Laugharne looks and sounds good as the gold-lame hot-pant wearing Cupid, though her words evaded me, and Idunnu Münch sings Diana’s decidedly unchaste aria superbly. Judith Howarth (Venus) and Anne-Marie Owens (Juno) are strong vocally but under-directed, though the latter gives a masterclass in how to declaim the spoken dialogue. Keel Watson dons a medal-decorated white bathing-gown over his combat fatigues as the bellicose Mars. Dressed in Bermuda shorts and drawing on a cigar, Willard White sings resonantly but is a rather stern and disengaged Jupiter; perhaps he was disaffected by having to sing lines such as “When I wiggle my bum, my little wings begin to hum” in the fly-duet.

Lizzie Clachan’s set and Lez Brotherston’s costumes are eye-pleasing and colourfully lit by Malcolm Rippeth. In the pit, Sian Edwards does her best to serve up some sparkle, but the stop-starts caused by the dull (amplified) dialogue take the edge of the dramatic pace. Glitter and be gay this Orpheus is not. By the end, the balloons had well and truly burst.

Claire Seymour

Eurydice - Mary Bevan. Orpheus - Ed Lyon, Public Opinion - Lucia Lucas, Pluto- Alex Otterburn, Jupiter - Willard White, Juno - Anne-Marie Owens, Cupid - Ellie Laugharne, Diana - Idunnu Münch, Venus - Judith Howarth, Mars - Keel Watson, John Styx - Alan Oke; Director - Emma Rice, Conductor -Sian Edwards, Set Designer - Lizzie Clachan, Costume Designer - Lez Brotherston, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Choreographer - Etta Murfitt, Sound Designer - Simon Baker, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Friday 11th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Orpheus%20ENO%20Barda.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=English National Opera: Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: ENO cast

Photo credit: Clive Barda
Posted by claire_s at 1:41 AM

October 11, 2019

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

Alongside masterly direction, Janáček’s vibrant score was fabulously well served by the WNO orchestra on opening night, and the array of impressive performances on stage was especially memorable for the talent of award-winning northern Irish soprano Aiofe Miskelly in the title role.

With a libretto based on the exploits of a wily fox illustrated in a Brno newspaper in 1920, Janáček’s opera offers a refreshingly simple plot in which a young vixen is captured by the local Forester. After killing his hens, she escapes, marries, rears a family and, in a moment of provocation, is shot by a poacher. While this is no cosy fireside fable, its bittersweet fairy-tale world is filled with larger than life woodland creatures whose brief lives are inextricably linked with their human counterparts. It engages on several levels, firstly in the symbiotic connection between man and nature, and secondly in the relationships between animal and human that generate a deeper commentary on the cycle of life and death and the inevitability of renewal. Of this universal and timeless reality Janáček would have been acutely aware when he began composing the work just two years before his seventieth birthday. To this ‘personal meditation on the brevity and fragility of existence’, to borrow from Philip Ross Bullock’s programme article, the composer responds with music of intense lyricism and restlessness.

Beyond the pantomime-like caterpillar (complete with concertina), cricket and dragonfly are themes of sexual awakening, regret and time passing that underpin a work Janáček referred to in a letter to his muse Kamilla Stösslová as ‘a merry thing with a sad end’. This tragic aspect is leavened by the arrival of new beginnings, so touchingly delivered near the end when the Forester meets a grandchild of a frog encountered in Act One and one of the vixen’s daughters - both poignant moments of vanishing youth. Not far from its jaunty and simultaneous pastoral surface are subsidiary ideas on freedom, socialism and the empowering of women - wittily dealt with when the vixen dreams of freedom, scolds the hens for their subservience to the cockerel, and later evicts an indolent badger from his sett.

Vixen Aoife Miskelly.jpgAoife Miskelly (Vixen). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The whole is amply thought-provoking, but its concepts are all conveyed with a light brush. For those who are persuaded by spectacle, there’s plenty; this visual feast repeatedly draws the eye to silhouetted hills (set against deep blues and pinks), patchwork quilt landscapes (snowy sheets reminding us of the harshness of nature) and cutaway dwellings for the Forester’s cottage and local pub where the ageing schoolmaster and priest share lost opportunities. Gossiping birds suspended from the ceiling tell tales of other creatures in the community, one condemning a starling’s promiscuous daughter for being ‘a filthy slapper’. The massacre of the hens (dressed as charwomen) is brutal and the shower of red leaves as each one is slaughtered is a nice imaginative touch.

If sparkling wit and charm provide atmosphere for this production, it’s driven by a strong cast including some well drilled school children. Above all, it’s Aiofe Miskelly as the feisty vixen Bystrouška whose clear-toned soprano and gleeful presence is a perfect match for this role and equally convincing whether brazen or maternal. Hers was a portrayal glowing with humanity and if she overshadowed Lucia Cervoni’s eager fox, their duet was a special joy. Claudio Otelli, as the Forester warmed to his role and gave an impassioned closing soliloquy as he fondly recalled his younger self. There was much to enjoy too from Peter van Hulle’s lonely Schoolmaster, Wojtek Gierlach’s dignified Parson and David Stout’s unsentimental poacher. A host of fox cubs, creatures winged and of the four-legged variety also left their mark.

Down in the pit Tomáš Hanus directed his WNO forces with flair, bringing out the score’s vivid detail and energy, allowing individual players their moments in the sun, yet keenly alert to balance. In short, it’s a must-see production bursting with life.

David Truslove

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen

Bystrouška - Aiofe Miskelly, Forester - Claudio Otelli, Fox - Lucia Cervoni, Poacher - David Stout, Schoolmaster - Peter Van Hulle, Parson - Wotjek Gairloch, Forester’s Wife - Kezia Bienek, Innkeeper - Martin Lloyd, Innkeeper’s Wife - Sarah Pope, Badger - Laurence Cole; Director - David Pountney, Conductor - Tomáš Hanus, Associate Director and Revival Choreographer - Elaine Tyler-Hall, Designer - Maria Bjørnson, Lighting Designer - Nick Chelton, Original Choreographer - Stuart Hopps, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera.

Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Saturday 5th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Aiofe%20Miskelly%20%28left%2C%20Vixen%29%20and%20Lucia%20Cervoni%20%28right%2C%20Fox%29%20%28c%29%20Richard%20Hubert%20Smith.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen, Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff product_by=A review by David Truslove product_id=Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Posted by claire_s at 12:05 AM

October 9, 2019

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The role of the wily Rosina, ward of Doctor Bartolo, is sung by Marianne Crebassa. Her suitor Lindoro, or Count Almaviva, is performed by Lawrence Brownlee. Bartolo is Alessandro Corbelli, and the music master Don Basilio is sung by Krzysztof Baczyk. The barber Figaro is Adam Plachetka. The roles of the domestic Berta and Almaviva’s helper Fiorello are sung by Mathilda Edge and Christopher Kenney. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus. The original production is by Rob Ashford and the revival director is Tara Faircloth. The set designer is Scott Pask and the lighting design is by Howard Harrison. Ms. Edge and Mr. Baczyk make their house debuts in these performances.

During the overture, led by Davis with varying tempi in keeping with the changeable stage action to follow, a tawny yellow scrim covers the stage. Stylized sketches of the Count and Rosina facing each other on this scrim are flanked by a faceless form bearing a wig and positioned as though in watchful proximity. As the scrim lifts an outdoor scene represents the darkened streets of Seville. Although the lighting at this point in the performance indicates a nocturnal scene, rotating elements of the stage and a judicious use of lighting will subsequently transform the stage into an interior setting. For now the Count’s men led by Fiorello appear beneath the balcony of Dr. Bartolo’s house. Group movements are humorously staged, and blocking sets the men in comical tandem with motivic shifts in the orchestra Count Almaviva’s entrance and ardent serenade of the beloved Rosina does not minimize but rather enhances the humorous movements of the supporting group. AS Almaviva Mr. Brownlee delivers a meltingly heartfelt performance of “Ecco ridente.” The plaintive, touchingly decorated line in the first part of the aria is expanded into daringly accurate runs and exciting top notes in the conclusion of the piece. At the sound of others approaching the outdoor scene empties and is immediately transformed into the barber’s public domain. Mr. Plachetka’s Figaro is athletic, both in physical movement and vocal projection. In his solo aria, ”Largo al factotum,” Plachetka negotiates leaps and hurdles on the stage while at once soaring to top pitches with equivalent ease. His breath control yielded a final, sustained pitch of remarkable evenness. Plachetka’s agility in coloratura line is noted only in the following duet with Almaviva, who returns for a conspiratorial duet outdoors with the barber. In this scene Brownlee’s glittering and rapid runs, punctuated with fervent top pitches, are matched by Plachetka’s simultaneous line, sung with comparable decoration. The plan between the two is made.

Lighting and rotation reveal an instant transformation for the balance of the act into the home of Dr. Bartolo. In her reaction to the sound of Lindoro’s voice from without Rosina sings “Una voce poco fa.” Crebassa’s approach to this well-known number illustrates a strategic use of vocal color. Her extension of low notes is particularly strong so that her downward runs in this aria elicit a rich, full sound; since the voice tends to grow thinner at the top, Crebassa accents individual phrases so that meaning is enhanced by an alternate projection. In a further male progression of planing and advice, now inside the house, Dr. Bartolo and Don Basilio discuss plans for Rosina and the matter of Almaviva’s reputation. Mr. Corbelli has so frequently identified with this role internationally that his singing seems equivalent to an extension of the character’s speech-patterns and bodily movements. Mr. Baczyk’s Don Basilio leaves an appropriately surly impression, yet more importantly he sings with a full palette of expressive color and technique. In the first part of “La calumnia” rubato phrasing is cleverly tucked into decorated lines, while the rapid tempo and forte pitches of the second part capture the threat imposed in the text of the aria. The menacing flourish executed by the music-master with his cape was conceived perhaps as an emphatic gesture with a comic self-assuredness, yet Baczyk’s vocal performance alone communicates this tone with decided elegance. The finale to the first act is populated with frenetic singing and motion, interrupted by lyrical, repeated phrases and the arrival of the municipal police. Brownlee feigns inebriation believably and lends discreet correction to bring this ensemble to a close.

In Act Two the music lesson and its aftermath are staged to emphasize the growing zeal in the attraction felt by the young lovers while Dr. Bartolo continues to snooze in his adjacent chair. The staging is here especially laden with humor” Brownlee is dressed as a slighter Don Basilio, sporting cape and mortarboard, while Crebassa’s florid aria os punctuated with Dr. Bartolo’s resonant snores. Before he awakens to deliver his own idea of musical form, the lovers have at least initiated plans fir subsequent meeting. Berta’s commentary on the tumult in the household shows Ms. Edge singing a flexible line with assured pitch and graceful transitions. Despite Plachetka’s urgently expressive attempts to coax the lovers to leave, the sober logic of action does not interrupt their Romantic duet of revealed identity, as here lovingly performed. Caught as they are by such multiple vocal delays, Dr. Bartolo insists that the authorities should intervene. The moment prompts Almaviva to sing “Cessa di piu resistere,” easily the most exciting vocal display of the performance. Brownlee excels in this type of writing with a wide range of decoration, rapidly accelerating runs, rubato and sudden shifts in tempo, as well as the opportunity to include individualized notes as here. The aria brought a volley of approval from the audience and led to the final ensemble of this happy production.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Adam%20Plachetka_Marianne%20Crebassa_Lawrence%20Brownlee_THE%20BARBER%20OF%20SEVILLE_Lyric%20Opera%20of%20Chicago_LYR190925_185_c.Todd%20Rosenberg.png image_description=Adam Plachetka, Marianne Crebassa, and Lawrence Brownlee [Photo © Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Adam Plachetka, Marianne Crebassa, and Lawrence Brownlee [Photo © Todd Rosenberg courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Posted by jim_z at 8:00 PM

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

A similar pattern followed at Wigmore Hall, where Watts and pianist Julius Drake opened their recital with lieder by Richard Strauss and Alban Berg, subsequently complementing the late-Romantic richness with the lighter ‘salon’ songs of Cécile Chaminade. The latter seemed to introduce a more relaxed directness into Watts’ expression which was sustained in the lovely sequence of songs by Rachmaninov with closed the recital.

Watts performed the recital from memory - no unimpressive feat given the range of styles and languages she confidently explored. There’s no doubt that her soprano has ample power, fullness and shine and she launched impassionedly into the opening series of lieder by Richard Strauss, but I felt that she had a tendency to work too hard in these songs, striving too often for climactic expressive and dynamic peaks which might have blossomed with the natural effortlessness embodied in Strauss’ music - and which the generous Wigmore Hall acoustic would complement and carry. At times I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the sound, and the swelling volume occasionally - at the close of ‘Einerlei’ (Sameness) and ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red roses), for example - affected Watts’ intonation, as did the prevailing wide vibrato that she employed, particularly in the chromatic twists of ‘Winterweihe’ (Winter consecration)

Drake’s accompaniments were more modulated: the opening of the aforementioned ‘Einerlei’ was relaxed; the tension built convincingly through ‘Rote Rosen’ which concluded with the piano’s delicately fading dream-image; the dramatic narrative of ‘Cäcilie’ was persuasively shaped. Watts was most convincing when she softened the tone, as in ‘Meinen Kinde’ (To my child), which had a lovely distanced gentleness through which we could hear the subtle interplay of the piano’s inner voices. Similarly, the simplicity of ‘Die Nacht’ (The night) sensitively brought forth its mystery.

Of the 88 songs that Alban Berg composed, 70 remained unpublished during his lifetime. In 1928, however, he combined seven of his early songs - written 20 years before when he had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg - into a ‘cycle’ and published them in piano and orchestral versions. Bearing a dedication to Berg’s wife, ‘My Helene’, the Sieben frühe Lieder do not present a ‘narrative’ but do communicate a story of love through Straussian outpourings which give musical embodiment to textual intimations of ecstasy. They also show the influence of Debussy and, not surprisingly, Berg’s then teacher, in their exploratory harmonic digressions.

Watts was more self-composed in this sequence, singing with greater refinement and shaping the vocal lines with elegance and discernment. The dreamy piano sequences and elaborations which open ‘Nacht’ seemed to signal a change of tenor - and a more natural responsiveness to the texts: for example, there was a slight ‘pressing’ quality in the first stanza, as through the mists the valley was unveiled, building to the portentous, ‘Oh gib acht!’ (Take heed!). Watts created a convincing protagonist in ‘Schilflied’ (Reed song) through the firm shapeliness of the vocal line, while quietude at the start of ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The nightingale) built skilfully through the bird’s murmured wanderings, towards the final ecstatic proclamation, ‘Die Rosen aufgesprungen’ (the roses have sprung up). ‘Traumgekrönt’ (Crowned with dreams) floated wistfully, while ‘Im Zimmer’ (In the room) revealed the richness of Watts’ lower register, which Drake complemented with his darkly plummeting final chord. An intoxicating scent, a fin de siècle sumptuousness, billowed through the closing songs.

After the heady opulence of the first half of the recital, I was surprised, and delighted, by the natural and uncomplicated manner with which Watts inhabited the personae created by Cécile Chaminade in her charmingly innocent salon songs. Drake opened ‘Ronde d’amour’ (Love’s roundelay) in boisterous fashion and Watts responded with coy intimations which blossomed fulsomely at the close. The piano’s shimmering high chords embodied the once strong sheen of the silver ring that the lover of ‘L’anneau d’argent’ wishes would return to her dulled love-token. Here Watts’ really made a virtue of the voice’s reticence, a sweet but potent pause making us reflect on the image of eternal sleep when the silver ring may shine still, on a ‘bony finger’. After the persuasive rhetoric of ‘Ma première lettre’ (My first letter), ‘Attente’ (Expectation) glittered with the lover’s yearning anticipation, pushing forward through feverish visions, retreating fragilely with disillusionment. Each song, however ‘slight’, told a story. Drake’s lazy chords at the start of ‘La lune paresseuse’ (The idle moon) presaged an intense declaration of anticipated passion and fulfilment, the piano ringing with golden fervour at the close. Drake’s playful, precious sparkling in ‘Écrin’ (Jewel-case) - all ripples and rushes - captured the barely suppressed ecstasy of the over-excited girl who has been captivated by ‘mischievous eyes the colour of emeralds’ and ‘satin lips’, as Watts’ soprano flew upwards, light and free. ‘Villanelle’, which depicts a harvest dance, romped with rustic vibrancy, joy and exuberance. This was a truly lovely sequence of songs.

And there was more pleasure to come in the closing set of songs by Rachmaninov. While I am not qualified to judge the authenticity of Watts’ Russian pronunciation, she did seem to inhabit the spirit of these songs, communicating their sentiments with strength, directness and honesty. The tranquillity of ‘Sireni’ (Lilacs), with its tender piano oscillations, contrasted with the urgency of ‘Otryvok iz Musse’ (Fragment from Musset) in which the torments of a troubled, lonely heart sank into a sad pathos, ‘O loneliness, O poverty’, then raged forth in the piano’s desperate postlude. The tender rhapsody of ‘Zdes’ khorosho’ (Here it’s so fine) was transformed into ecstatic longing in ‘Ya zhdu tebya’ (I’ll wait for you). After the lively dialogue of ‘One olvechali’ (They answered), ‘Ostrovok’ (The isle) floated dreamily. The rapture which spills into uncontrollable desire in ‘Kakoe schast’ye’ (What happiness) brought the recital to a fittingly euphoric end.

Well, not quite end - we had two encores. In the first, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Drake delicately suffused an oriental perfume through Watts’ beautifully languorous melody, gently calming the lingering fervour of Rachmaninov. The second, ‘Someone’s been sending me Flowers’ by the American jazz singer-pianist Magrethe Blossom Dearie, lowered the temperature still further, and - though charmingly sung - swept aside the sincerity that had been established so powerfully in the second half of the recital.

Claire Seymour

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Richard Strauss: ‘Einerlei’ Op.69 No.3, ‘Meinem Kinde’ Op.37 No.3, ‘Rote Rosen’, ‘Liebeshymnus’ Op.32 No.3, ‘Winterweihe’ Op.48 No.4, ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3, ‘Cäcilie’ Op.27 No.2; Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder; Cécile Chaminade: ‘Ronde d’amour’, ‘L’anneau d’argent’, ‘Ma première lettre’, ‘Attente’ (Au pays de Provence), ‘La lune paresseuse’, ‘Ecrin’, ‘Villanelle’; Rachmaninov: ‘Lilacs’ Op.21 No.5, ‘Fragment from Musset’ Op.21 No.6, ‘Dreams’ Op.38 No.5, ‘How fair this spot’ Op.21 No.7, ‘I wait for thee’ Op.14 No.1, ‘They answered’ Op.21 No.4, ‘The isle’ Op.14 No.2, ‘What happiness!’ Op.34 No.12.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Elizabeth%20Watts%20%28c%29%20Marco%20Borggreve.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Elizabeth Watts

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Posted by claire_s at 3:47 AM

October 8, 2019

Annilese Miskimmon appointed as English National Opera’s Artistic Director

She joins from Den Norske Opera and Ballet/Norwegian National Opera & Ballet where she has been Director of Opera since August 2017.

Prior to this, she was General Manager/Artistic Director of Den Jyske Opera/Danish National Opera since 2012 and from 2004 to 2012 was the Artistic Director of Opera Theatre Company Ireland. She is from Bangor, Northern Ireland and studied English Literature at Christ’s College, Cambridge and Arts Management at City University, London.She has worked extensively as a director in many prestigious international opera houses.

Annilese Miskimmon said: "I am honoured and delighted to be joining ENO, a company whose consistently ambitious and thrilling work I have loved for all my opera-going life. I can’t wait to join the world-class artistic, music and technical teams at ENO. It has been a great privilege and pleasure to lead Norway’s national opera company over these past 3 years and an equal joy to now join ENO."

Stuart Murphy, CEO, ENO said: “We are absolutely delighted to appoint Annilese as ENO’s new Artistic Director.

“Annilese understands ENO’s significance as the artistically adventurous, creatively daring national opera house for everyone. Her values of excellence, kindness and impact chime absolutely with ours and she is as committed to broadening out opera as we all are. Annilese has innate artistic flair and a deep knowledge of opera, so her vivid vision for ENO will be welcomed here with open arms.”

Harry Brunjes, Chair, ENO said: “It has been a diligent, long and thorough process to appoint a new Artistic Director with every member of the ENO Board playing their part. We were really impressed by Annilese who brings with her significant experience of working as a director and developing an artistic programme. Her creative ideas and knowledge of the opera and arts landscape will be invaluable. We look forward to welcoming her to ENO.”

Martyn Brabbins, Music Director, ENO said: “I look forward very much to working alongside Annilese in planning future seasons at ENO. Her integrity as a colleague and artistic tastes and experiences will be the ideal match for today’s ENO.”

Annilese Miskimmon will remain as Oslo’s Director of Opera until the end of the 19/20 season, officially starting with ENO on 1 September. She will have input on ENO's future seasons from 1 January without compromising her existing commitments in Oslo which will remain her priority. She will move full-time from Oslo to London for the 20/21 season.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Annilese%20Miskimmon.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title= product_by= product_id=Above: Annilese Miskimmon
Posted by claire_s at 5:31 AM

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

Given the social and ideological context of our own present, the words of the German dramatist Georg Kaiser, written at the end of World War 1, might serve as both a dispiriting reminder and uplifting inspiration.

Certainly, it’s not difficult to see why English Touring Opera’s Artistic Director, James Conway, thought that Kaiser’s third and final collaboration with Kurt Weill, Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake), would resonate with audiences when the company take it on tour around the UK, alongside another that other sui generis ‘singspiel’, Mozart’s The Seraglio .

For while Der Silbersee is both informed by and a critique of its immediate context, it combines contemporary political allegory on the condition of Germany in the dying days of the Weimar Republic - it was premiered on 18th February 1933, less than a month after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany - with utopian symbolism that enables it to transcend that context. Der Silbersee thus both addresses the condition of a historical present and articulates Kaiser’s ambition of saving the future, through social solidarity and reparation for injustice; and, the power and relevance of its promise of a better world will surely never cease.

That said, the contemporary reception of Der Silbersee suggests that its utopianism can’t easily be ‘disassociated’ from its specific historical moment. Following the Magdeburg premiere there were complaints from community organisations about ‘the degradation of art to the one-sided, un-German propaganda of Bolshevist theories … This play preaches the idea of class hate and contains innumerable open and veiled invitations to violence,’ while the Nazi newspaper Leipziger Tageszeitung sneered: ‘Kaiser, though not himself a Jew, belongs to the circle of Berlin literary Hebrews. His latest clumsy piece of staged junk is called Der Silbersee and has ‘music’ by Weill.’

Later, the writer Hans Rothe recalled the Leipzig premiere: ‘Everyone who counted in the German Theater met together for the last time. And everyone knew this. The atmosphere there can hardly be described. It was the last day of the greatest decade of German culture in the twentieth century. The Nazis’ barracking and yelling were somewhat disturbing.’ Indeed, the simultaneous productions in Leipzig, Erfurt, and Magdeburg were suspended, Weill departed shortly afterwards for the US, and there were no public performances of Weill’s music until the war had ended.

The challenge that Conway must rise to, then, is to respect Der Silbersee’s explicit refutation of the prevailing political trend of its time, while also communicating the ongoing relevance of its promise and embodiment of social transformation. We must understand the explicit darkness which Der Silbersee satirises and challenges, and also connect such shadows with those that darken our own disturbing days. It’s no easy task, and Conway is, I feel, only partially successful - but that’s in no way to diminish the dynamism and conviction of his production.

The work’s full title is Der Silbersee: Ein Wintermärchen , ‘a winter’s fairytale’ alluding both to Shakespeare and, significantly for its German audience, to Heinrich Heine’s 1844 satirical poem. Deutschland: Ein Wintermarchen. And, the action truly takes place in a ‘winter of discontent’: Kaiser’s libretto is peopled by the hungry dispossessed and rapacious capitalists whose policy of over-supply keeps prices high. Food banks and Lehman Brothers, anyone?

SL Ensemble.jpgETO Ensemble.

The action begins with Severin and his unemployed, starving comrades symbolically assuaging their hunger by burying a life-size doll. When they raid a grocery store, Severin is shot by Olim, a policeman, who, discovering that his victim has stolen only a pineapple - a token of aspiration rather the sustenance he needs - feels remorse and determines to make recompense by falsifying his report and resigning from duty. When he wins the Lottery, Olim buys a castle (a symbol of the Weimar state), installs Frau von Luber (a representative of the old Wilhelmine order) as housekeeper and devotes himself to serving as Severin’s anonymous benefactor. The latter, confined to a wheelchair, rages with vengeance towards his assailant. The intrigued Frau von Luber engages her penniless, guileless niece Fennimore to spy on Olim and Severin, and discovering Olim’s secret she blackmails him into signing away control of his property to her. Olim and Severin are expelled from the republic, in a winter snowstorm, and head towards the silver lake where they risk drowning in suicidal despair. However, Fennimore, who has brought about a reconciliation between the two men, explains that ‘whoever must continue will be carried by the Silver Lake’. Though it is spring, the lake has frozen over, and Olim and Severin are able to escape to a new world.

Ronald Samm (Olim); David Webb (Severin).jpgRonald Samm (Olim); David Webb (Severin).

One of the challenges is how to deal with Kaiser’s lengthy text. When Der Silbersee was performed at the Wexford Opera Festival in 2007, director Keith Warner used Rory Bremner’s English translation of the complete text, but several critics found the ratio of spoken words and song unbalanced and in favour of the former. Except for the choral items which are sung in English, Conway and conductor James Holmes retain the original German for the sung numbers - a sensible decision as it foregrounds the historical particular - and have written a new, abbreviated English text for the narration, which is spoken by Bernadette Iglich. However, Conway throws the emphasis back on the ‘play’ at the expense of the ‘song’, by rejecting conventional surtitles in favour of Brechtian placards and banners, scrolls and even tickertape, upon which translations of the lyrics are stamped and scribbled. The problem is that as our eyes cast around Adam Wiltshire’s folding-scaffold set, searching in the gloom for the next cue, where the words are becomes more of a preoccupation than what they are saying.

This is particularly detrimental to the impact of the Chorus, whose interjections - as Brecht would have intended - are designed to both influence and articulate our own views: as when, for example, the Chorus persuade Olim to resist the allure of the Lottery Agent’s promise of compound interest in favour of altruistic investment in the common good. However, as Shop-girls, Grave-diggers and disaffected Youths, the Ensemble and Streetwise Opera make a strong-voiced chorus and deliver Bernadette Iglich’s choreography with vitality, complemented by Holmes’ slick direction of the instrumentalists, though the latter’s tone might have had a little more grit and grain.

Weill Ensemble.jpgETO Ensemble.

Kaiser’s drama is driven by the transformation of the characters’ motivations, but it might be argued that in defining his protagonists the librettist relies less on psychological realism than on the emblematic depiction of social developments. Indeed, the Austrian director and actor Heinrich Schnitzler complained that Kaiser’s characters ‘often suddenly cease to be characters and only speak with Georg Kaiser’s mouth and brain about abstract philosophical and sociological matters’.

The ETO cast do, however, succeed in communicating credible feelings and motives. David Webb made Severin’s anger palpable and his singing was taut, while Ronald Samm’s Olim was appropriately reflective, his baritone languid at times but always gracefully solemn. Clarissa Meek avoided the temptation to turn Frau von Luber into a pantomime wicked witch; James Kryshak was a slick Lottery Agent and, as Baron Laur, joined the castle-commanding Frau in a deliciously wry duet celebrating the restoration of the old order - pointedly named ‘Schlaraffenland’, the fool’s paradise. Rising above all - quite literally at the close when she delivered her aria of reconciliation - was Luci Briginshaw’s Fennimore, whose sweet, light soprano perfectly captured the dream of liberation.

Olim RS.jpgRonald Samm (Olim).

Historically, as we know with hindsight, Kaiser’s utopia remains just that, even though his play ends with a ‘miracle’. And, so the ending poses further challenges, for while Der Silbersee is a social commentary it is also a fantasy, and a production must create a gradual transition from realism to symbolism. In this way, Der Silbersee is closer to Die Zauberflöte than to Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Conway’s solution is to drape his cast and chorus in silver-foil cloaks, but this does not really effect a mediation between life and dreams, such as Shakespeare achieves in A Winter’s Tale, when Paulina summons the ‘statue’ of Hermione to life: ‘ Music, awake her; strike!/ ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;/ Strike all that look upon with marvel.’

Kaiser prophesied: ‘The music to Der Silbersee is something immortal, because art lives longer than all politics.’ Can we, today, believe in Der Silbersee’s concluding promise of escape and redemption? That, through the intervention of fate and the wheel of fortune, the hours of night will give way to the dawning of the light? Does our present foretell of future catastrophe, or can the social collectivism which Kaiser and Weill espouse ‘save’ us? I’m not sure that Conway makes us ask, or answer, this question, but if a production of Der Silbersee is to transcend its specificity then surely it must?

I suspect, however, that Der Silbersee has irreconcilable feet in both past and present; moreover, present-day German audiences surely respond differently to its historical particulars, in ways not accessible to Anglophone audiences. That said, audiences around the UK should be grateful to Conway and ETO for the opportunity to reflect on such matters. Can we transform ourselves and our world? Does the future offer hope?

Claire Seymour

Kurt Weill: The Silver Lake (Der Silbersee)

Olim - Ronald Samm, Severin - David Webb, Fennimore - Luci Briginshaw, Frau Luber - Clarissa Meek, Baron Laur/Lottery Agent - James Kryshak, Shopgirl 1 - Abigail Kelly, Shopgirl 2 - Hollie-Anne Bangham, Gravedigger 1 - David Horton, Gravedigger 2 - Andrew Tipple, Youth 1 - Jan Capinski, Youth 2 - Bradley Travis, Ensemble (Rosanna Harris, Amanda Wagg, Maciek O’Shea), Narrator - Bernadette Iglich, Streetwise Opera; Director - James Conway, Conductor - James Holmes, Designer - Adam Wiltshire, Lighting Designer - David W Kidd, Orchestra of ETO.

Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 5th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Silver%20Lake%20title%20Richard%20Hubert%20Smith.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=English Touring Opera, Autumn Tour 2019: Weill’s The Silver Lake product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: ETO Ensemble

All images © Richard Hubert Smith
Posted by claire_s at 5:12 AM

October 7, 2019

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

This October 1 performance was the only one of the seven performance run entrusted to Egyptian-born soprano Amina Edris as Juliet. With Gounod’s famed “Je veux vivre” Mlle. Edris took command of the stage, revising this aria from its usual status as a soprano showpiece to become the portrait of a young girl full of life, ready to fall in love. Mlle. Edris possesses a beautifully colored, burnished tone, rare for a lyric coloratura soprano, her voice fully capable of sailing through the brilliant coloratura to create a freedom of spirit that we know will soon be crushed.

And fall in love at first sight Romeo did, pouring out his feelings in “Ange adorable,” and opening the second act with the famed “Ah! leve toi soleil” flawlessly sung in well-focused, beautifully colored tone. Then the tender duet “O nuit divine, je t’impore” begun and concluded by the smitten Romeo in lovely pianissimos, the scene in which Juliet gives herself to Romeo.

Tenor Pene Pati came into this beautifully finished voice for Gounod’s Romeo over the seven performances. I first heard the Somoan-born tenor in the third performance of this run. I was not persuaded that his voice possessed a convincing intonation though it was lyrical and elegant singing, and most of all it was very secure, youthful singing by an appealing and highly communicative artist. And tenor Pati did indeed provide sufficient foil for the vocal fireworks of the Juliet, sung by young opera star Nadine Sierra at this performance.

I heard Pene Pati’s Romeo a second time (the fifth opera house performance) at Opera at the Ballpark sipping $15 margaritas and munching garlic fries. There were more than 15,000 of us at this 12th annual simulcast of a War Memorial Opera House performance onto the gigantic scoreboard of the SF Giants ballpark. The audience is a cross section of San Franciscans, opera aficionados to be sure, and even the “why not wander in — it’s free!” Astonishment at the discovery of opera is sometimes uniquely expressed at the ballpark — “This is better than a f***in' ballgame!” was a men's room exclamation I overheard.


While the transmission of the voice of soprano Sierra to the ballpark was flattering, and the virtuosity of this brilliant young singer was even more apparent than in the real acoustic of an in-house performance, Pene Pati’s transmitted voice lacked much of the warmth that I had heard a few days before in the opera house. Though, remarkably, his strong and secure high C at the end of the Act III banishment sextet surely set a new record for high C home-runs.

At this final performance in the opera house with the Juliet of Mlle. Edris tenor Pati may have held the high C even longer than at the ballpark. But most striking was his discovery of a natural flow for the lyricism of Gounod’s ill-fated lover, the young tenor finding Romeo’s poetry without superfluous emotive emphasis and without mannerism. It was pure bel canto, and pure poetry.

With Mlle. Edris tenor Peti delivered the famed duet “Nuit d’hyménée” with unfaltering elegance, both singers revelling in the bel canto of their love. And finally Romeo’s wrenching “Salut! Tombeau sombre et silencieux” held true to the lyricism of Gounod’s musical line, the drama of Shakespeare’s tragedy laid bare in the beauty of young love, not in its angst.

It is true that Romeo is the voice of Gounod’s expressive poet, and that Juliet is the tragic victim of this love story. She must take the sleep potion offered her by Friar Lawrence to simulate death, and suffer the angst lying in the family mausoleum near her slain brother Tybald who, she imagines, demands that she reject Romeo. These, then, are the most dramatic moments of the opera, moments that are opportunities to amplify the work’s emotional outpourings into virtuoso operatic display. Mlle. Edris did not forsake the innocence of character she had created. While easily meeting the challenging technical demands of the poison aria (“Amour ranime mon courage”) she as well quietly underlined her angst by descending into a chest voice, almost spoken, from time to time.

This last performance vindicated a masterpiece status for Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Canadian conductor Yves Abel built plateaux of orchestral lyricism that clearly inspired the ill-fated lovers to find Gounod’s poetry. Or perhaps it was that these two young artists inspired the maestro to create this world of innocence and musical beauty.

Not that the maestro did not foment the tensions to the utmost in the Act III fight scene, here noisily encouraging Juliet’s brother Tybald to skewer Mercutio, sung by Lucas Meacham, who had let loose with a Figaro-gone-mad act that truly needed to be silenced.

For my full September 19 review of this production please see Roméo et Juliette at San Francisco Opera.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RomeoJuliet_SFbis (1).png

product_title=Romeo & Juliet at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Amina Edris as Juliet, Pene Pati as Romeo [Photo: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 1:21 PM

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

If Strindberg and Alwyn do differ slightly in how they tackle the class issue in Miss Julie, it’s probably down to the almost century-old difference between when both the play and opera were written. Miss Julie’s aristocratic values, and her lack of modernity, are widely derided by Strindberg just as Jean is seen by him as more fit to thrive because he is breaking through those tight-knit social barriers. It seems almost inevitable to Strindberg that Miss Julie will fail, and Jean will triumph as the old order is turned upside down. Alwyn has almost seventy years of social change to draw upon; for Alwyn, Miss Julie’s very lack of modernity and her inescapable bonds to her social class become much more tragic, just as Jean’s new-found status is motive enough for cruelty.

Alwyn Ensemble with BBCSO Oramo.jpgEnsemble. Photo credit: Tom Howard.

All of this, of course, makes for either good theatre or good opera. Strindberg’s play is certainly notable for being very compact; it’s arguable that Alwyn’s opera isn’t always. The addition of a fourth character, Ulrik, only alluded to in the play, substituted in full for the chorus of villagers by the composer, adds some heft to the narrative of Alwyn’s opera which doesn’t always work in its favour. As a device, he seems rather Falstaffian - though lacks almost everything Falstaff does to warrant our attention. In an opera that is already saturated with allusions to drink - and in Kenneth Richardson’s concert production almost literally so, with bottles of beer, wine and potion as copious as the dramatis personae itself - Ulrik seemed like overkill. Strindberg had alluded to the invisible count by his boots and gloves - Alwyn keeps these symbols of oppression in his libretto but doubles it up by giving him a motif - a bell-like triad - within the orchestra as well. I often wondered if Ulrik might have been better served this way, if at all.

If there are failing in Alwyn’s handling of the plot, the music he wrote for this opera is often of a very high order. He was of the view that some of what he composed was radically new - the use of anticipation in the music, for example, by giving rhythm to a significant phrase before it is sung; this sometimes works in the opposite direction as well. His implication that motifs were somehow revolutionary disregards almost all of Wagner, however. But the score is extraordinarily lush, unsurprisingly cinematic in its scope and detail given that Alwyn is probably best known for his film scores. The orchestration is ravishing in its precision - you could hear the harp every time, for example, and I suspect what Alwyn was doing in the orchestra was mirroring the lucidity and clarity of human speech which is also completely crystal clear.

But you sometimes wonder when listening to Alwyn’s Miss Julie just how short on inspiration he was without the music so many composers had written before him. There’s Stravinsky’s Firebird (the opening of Act II), a shocking reference to Puccini immediately followed by a direct quotation from the Trio of Der Rosenkavalier (Act II’s ‘The Scum on the Surface of Water’) - and it goes on, Salome, Tristan, Troilus and Cressida, the film music of Herrmann (Hangover Square, and the tenebrous ‘Concerto Macabre’) and hints of Ravel and Szymanowski. There are waltzes (of the Richard Strauss kind) but they are never fulfilled - their glory is that they collapse, incomplete. Despite all this wash of theft it’s still impressive and completely absorbing to hear.

Jean and Kristin.jpgBenedict Nelson (Jean) and Rosie Aldridge (Kristin). Photo credit: Tom Howard.

Sakari Oramo didn’t so much conduct this music, he caressed it, coaxed it out of a BBC Symphony Orchestra on magnificent form. You sometimes wished the orchestra had been arranged differently - divided violins, cellos seated in the middle and basses along the top to give a slightly more balanced depth to the sound. That richness of the lower strings seemed just a little out of kilter, something which might well addressed in the recording which is imminently to be done.

The singing was also of the highest quality. Benedict Nelson (a very short notice replacement for Duncan Rock) as Jean was so dominant he was in danger of overshadowing everyone else. The role is a gift for a singer capable of expressing the breadth of this character’s journey - from a subtle, if Don Juan like charm, to a brutal callousness and cruelty. In one sense, Nelson’s performance lived the text - even in this minimalist staging he was magnetic enough to throw off the advances of Kristin, the plain cook with whom he is romantically entangled, to embrace, like a chameleon the next moment, the forbidden love of Miss Julie in an entirely erotic way. Nelson’s high, slightly heroic, baritone (impeccably phrased) was persuasive enough to suggest his Straussian hubris and his new-found virility. Nelson’s gritty performance was quite some way from being even close to Strindberg’s idea of a man with dreams of cosmopolitanism - rather, this was dripping in anger and an almost off-hand suggestion Miss Julie commit suicide. It chilled to the bone.

Anna Patalong’s Miss Julie relied in part on her ability to navigate the spread in intervals that Alwyn wrote for the part - that she coped with superbly. I was less certain she managed a clarity of diction, sometimes sacrificing that for an aristocratic tone. But her voice had a glorious tonal middle which hugged around the strings, or the solo violin which so often accompanied her singing. This, too, was a performance of considerable subtlety. Perhaps helped by the fact she is married to Nelson, the sexual chemistry between the two was highly charged and her singing in the ‘Midsummer Night’ aria had every suggestion of fecundity and freedom to it. If her seduction of Jean seemed particularly real, so did her suffering as she faces the choice of suicide - though Jean’s massacre of her finch (in Strindberg) or her dog (in Alwyn), and Miss Julie’s hysterics because of it, has always struck me as a ludicrous plot addition.

Rosie Aldridge’s Kristen didn’t really deviate from being an entirely memorable nag. Jean mentions that she is often enough, and Aldridge was both witty in her acting and dour enough in her phrasing to bring the cook to life. Samuel Sakker’s Ulrik, bawdy, devious, teasing and with a bright tenor, rounded off a cast of singers which really didn’t have a single weak link.

Given it has been over twenty years since this opera was last heard, and forty since it was first recorded, this BBC concert was, in a sense, overdue. This was an exceptionally fine performance, even it doesn’t quite stand as a masterpiece of British opera in ways that Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, or many of Britten’s operas do. The Philharmonia recording, made in 1977, is magnificent - I suspect the forthcoming BBCSO one, based on this concert performance, will fully equal it.

Marc Bridle

William Alwyn: Miss Julie

Miss Julie - Anna Patalong (soprano), Jean - Benedict Nelson (baritone), Kristin - Rosie Aldridge (mezzo-soprano), Ulrik - Samuel Sakker (tenor); Director - Kenneth Richardson, Conductor - Sakari Oramo, BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 3rd October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Patalong%20and%20Nelson.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=William Alwyn’s Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall product_by=A review by Marc Bridle product_id=Above: Anna Patalong (Miss Julie) and Benedict Nelson (Jean)

Photo credit: Tom Howard
Posted by claire_s at 8:22 AM

October 6, 2019

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

Handel’s librettist was the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747), whom the composer had met during their student days in Halle. Brockes’ text combines elements of the Passion story selected from all four gospels, but while the sacred narrative is well-known, the startlingly rich, raw imagery of the text imbues the drama with an unusually strong human dimension. On Good Friday 1719, when the citizens of Hamburg had the opportunity to hear four settings of Brockes’ Passion text - by Richard Kaiser (1712), Georg Philipp Telemann (1716), Handel (?1716) and Johann Mattheson (1718) - at an event organised by the latter (then director of music at the city’s cathedral), the emotive immediacy of Handel’s Brockes-Passion must have been striking. (See my review of the AAM’s 2019 performance for further information about the Brockes-Passion’s libretto and the work’s historical context.)

The AAM’s presentation of Handel’s Brockes-Passion is handsome. The three discs are enfolded within a deluxe sleeve-box decorated with original artwork by Emma Safe, a portrait of Handel and a manuscript facsimile. They are accompanied by a sumptuous 220-page hardback mini-book containing the libretto (in the form of the original MS text, the sung German text and an English translation) and numerous scholarly articles. The latter are illustrated by performance and recording photographs; manuscript facsimiles; portraits and engravings drawn from significant archival collections at Handel House Museum London, Handel House Halle and the Gerald Coke Handel Foundation; and reproductions of Emma Safe’s mixed media artwork, each of which (Sands to Shore, Thirst Black Maw, Break My Heart, Performance Study) was created as a live response to particular arias during the AAM’s 2019 performance at Barbican Hall.

The extent and diversity of the scholarship and contextual documentation is impressive. Included too are images, transcriptions and translations from the contemporary journal Hamburg Relations-Courier (as published in George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents, vols. 1 and 2, the editorial team of which is led by esteemed Handel scholar Donald Burrows). Thus one can read a detail from a performance announcement for the Brockes-Passion, 21 March 1730: ‘Next Thursday being the 23 March [12 March os], the very famous Passion Oratorio written by His Honour Herr Brockes and composed by Herr Hendel, will be performed in the Drill House here before the most excellent and honourable Council, to begin at half past 4 precisely.’

AAM Cody Q Robert Workman.jpgCody Quattlebaum (Christus).

Alongside such scholarly exploration and assessment, a wealth of insightful personal responses is also offered. It was the discovery of a box-set recording of the Brockes-Passion in a Cambridge record shop during his student days by the AAM’s Music Director, Richard Egarr, that ultimately led, more than 30 years later, to this recording, and Egarr argues persuasively that, alongside masterpieces such as Messiah (1741) and La Resurrezione (1708), the Brockes-Passion is the crowning achievement of Handel’s response to Holy Week, because the composer was setting a text in his own native tongue, responding to the content and nature of the text as a German.

Editor and principal oboist Leo Duarte writes of the process of discriminating between the different manuscript sources of the Brockes-Passion - including recent discoveries, such as a manuscript started by Handel’s principal copyist J.C. Smith and a copy purportedly belonging to Haydn, and most interesting of all, one created for Handel’s friend Elizabeth Legh, a notable collector of his manuscripts from 1715 until her death in 1734. The AAM’s Chief Executive Alexander Van Ingen explains how decisions were made about performing forces while Dr Ruth Smith offers an eloquent and comprehensive account of the text, Handel’s setting and the factors which may have motivated the composer to set Brockes’ words.

The wider context is not neglected. Professor Joachim Whaley and Dr Bettina Varwig provide interesting articles which illuminate how the Brockes-Passion was a product both of ‘the remarkable political, religious and artistic culture of the Holy Roman Empire’, and of Hamburg in 1719, which offered visitors a ‘thriving public concert culture that was, at this time, still rather unusual even in the larger urban centres across Europe’. Handel arrived in London not long before it is believed he composed the Brockes-Passion and excerpts from Jane Glover’s Handel in London: The Making of a Genius inform us about Handel’s early years in the city.

A performer’s view is presented by Joseph Crouch, the AAM’s co-principal cellist, who considers the way an instrumentalist may respond to the text: ‘It is not easy for the cellist’s bow to delineate between the hope for revenge and the hope for salvation!’ writes Crouch, explaining that it is not so much semantics but phonetics to which an instrumentalist responds: ‘Singers work for years on clarity of diction, whether or not they are singing in their native tongue … playing parlante does not mean simply playing non-legato, but rather it involves creating musical phrases made up of words, syllables, vowels and consonants. The baroque string player’s right hand corresponds to the lips, teeth and tongue of the singer.’ It’s fascinating and thought-provoking reading.

On a lighter note, food historian and period cook Seren Charrington-Hollins uses the ‘virtues and faults of Handel’s love affair with food’ as a springboard for wider reflections on 18th-century fare, table manners, street food, including recipe excerpts for delights such as ‘Solid Syllabub’ and ‘Artichoke Bottoms’.

Petrus Gwilym Bowen.jpgGwilym Bowen (Peter).

In my 2019 review, I pondered whether Brockes might be termed the ‘Metastasio of Hamburg’, so numerous were settings of his text. Here, a full list of known and likely performances of musical settings during the years 1712-50 is provided - there are approximately 60, presenting works by 10 composers from Keiser to J.S. Bach, from Mattheson to Telemann - along with a list of recordings and broadcasts of Handel’s and others’ settings of Brockes’ text. Finally, for the first time the text of Charles Jennens’ partial English translation is given in the Appendices - alongside alternatives, variants and additional items in the sources - and the music of both is presented on CD3.

The AAM have not just presented the listener with ‘all one needs to know’ about the Brockes-Passion but have produced a comprehensive and engaging accompaniment to their performance - one which represents the best in scholarly, interdisciplinary, performance-related research.

So, what of the performance itself? The vocal and dramatic immediacy which was so notable in the Barbican Hall is reproduced on the recording, and is in evidence from the first bars of the Symphonia in which punchy lower strings and continuo provide rhythmic propulsion for the fleet violin runs and sweet oboe contributions, before a harmonic turn introduces contrapuntal conversations which are both energised and melodically engaging. Here and throughout, Egarr, while always pushing forward, maintains transparency and clarity, and the engineers have ensured that the sound is bright and equally well-balanced in the choruses and arias. Handel’s melodic invention and ear for instrumental colour in the arias’ frequent instrumental obbligatos have a powerful emotive effect.

Robert Murray’s Evangelist and Cody Quattlebaum’s Jesus particularly benefit from the immediacy of the recorded sound. In the Barbican Hall, placed behind the instrumentalists and in front of the AAM Chorus, they had to work hard to communicate with directness and to sustain the narrative of the recitatives. Here we can more fully enjoy the contrast between Murray’s poised, shapely tenor - tinged, appropriately, with urgency at times - and Quattlebaum’s beautifully tender bass: in particular, the pathos of Jesus’ recitatives seems stronger, as the organ complements rather than obscures the voice. Similarly, during the sequence in which Jesus foretells of Peter’s denial the voices feel more integrated, the drama seems more compelling. Quattlebaum’s plump, dark tone and agility establish the authority of Jesus’ declaration that he will ‘smite the shepherd and the whole flock shall shatter’, while, as Peter, Gwilym Bowen’s responses are insistent yet instilled with a beautiful pathos and sincerity, particularly as the latter’s tenor falls in register.

Mead Judas.jpgTim Mead (Judas).

There are too many ‘highlights’ to term them such. Tension in the pressing string and organ rhythms which support Jesus’ appeal to his Father are matched by Quattlebaum’s intensity as the vocal line almost trembles with anguish, though there is a softening, ever so slight, as Jesus’ resigns himself to the suffering which is his Lord’s will and must be fulfilled.

Elizabeth Watts’ response, as the Daughter of Zion, to the physicality of Jesus’ crucifixion seems almost too calm and pure to articulate her vision of the Saviour’s fear - ‘see how his tongue and lips thirst, hear his whimpering, sighing, longing’ - but her elegant decoration of the da capo repeat, and the delicate string gestures which stroke her vocal line, intimate the passion which breaks free in the soaring concluding image, as ‘Jesus’ body dissolves in blood’. Her riposte to the Soldier who strikes Jesus fairly bristles with a fury made more searing by Handel’s unexpected harmonic stings, but when the Daughter of Zion reflects on the ‘piteous rubies, formed from clotted blood on Jesus’ brow!’, Watts’ soprano has a sheen that seems to reflect the glowing beauty of the figurative jewels. Her admonishments to the ‘brazen sinners’ have a focus and candour that it would be hard to deny.

Bowen’s tenor burns with self-loathing, the text fiercely declaimed, the rapid divisions clear, when Peter calls on ‘poison and fire, lightning and flood’ to ‘engulf the false betrayer’, as the perfectly tuned ensemble of unison strings race and roar; subsequently, the sincerity of his simple plea to share Jesus’ suffering and fate is strengthened by the eloquence of the continuo cello’s melodic echoes and elaborations. If the angularity and fierceness of the accompaniment to Peter’s self-lacerating outburst does not make one squirm with shame, then Bowen’s piercing delivery of the text and Duarte’s mocking oboe obbligato surely will.

Faithful Soul Ruby Hughes.jpgRuby Hughes (Faithful Soul).

The strings’ dotted rhythms fairly seem to tear Judas’ flesh and crush his bones to avenge his deed, as Tim Mead’s rich countertenor swells with almost ecstatic strength to beg that his ‘damned soul’ may suffer ‘in eternal torment’. As a Faithful Soul, Ruby Hughes’ soprano sails with angelic sweetness as if its purity embodies the love that leaps from Jesus’ blood as the soldiers thrash him, while Nicky Spence’s beautifully shaped comments on Jesus’ apparent gratitude to his Father for ‘bestowing on him the cross he long desired’ convey awe and fear. Hughes is joined by Rachael Lloyd and Morgan Pearse for one of the score’s few ensembles: a sonorous trio of reassurance -following Jesus’ cry, ‘It is accomplished’ - that the power of Death and Hell is vanquished and mankind will be redeemed.

The AAM Chorus are in fine voice as the disciples, soldiers and crowd of Jews: their cries to free Barabbas are flung forth with frightening fervour and conviction. But, as so often in Passion settings, it is the chorales that are often most affecting. When the Christian Church hunger for God’s benevolence and nourishment, the vitality and warmth of the voices, complemented by buoyant violins, suggests that the very anticipation of mortal union with God provides sufficient joy and consolation. Their later appeal to God for redemption, despite their sins, is straightforward and honest, and if they are later mortified by those sins, then in the closing chorale the glowing ensemble sound confirms that they are sustained by Jesus’ shed blood and assured of eternal life in death.

In the Barbican Hall, Egarr was not always able to maintain dramatic momentum, particularly in the latter stages of the Brockes-Passion , during the long series of exchanges between the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls. In one’s armchair, this is less of a problem: one can simply enjoy the musical richness and the expressive impact of the performance.

The Brockes-Passion - both Brockes’ text and Handel’s setting of it - may be rooted in its immediate historical context, but the AAM’s recording offers a Passion for all times and all places.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Brockes-Passion.png image_description=AAM 007 product=yes product_title=Handel: Brockes-Passion: Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr (director, harpsichord),Elizabeth Watts (Daughter of Zion), Robert Murray (Evangelist), Cody Quattlebaum (Christus), Gwilym Bowen (Peter), Tim Mead (Judas), Ruby Hughes (Faithful Soul) Nicky Spence (Faithful Soul), Rachel Lloyd (Mary/Faithful Soul/Soldier), Morgan Pearse (Pilate/Faithful Soul/Centurion). product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=AAM 007 [3 CDs]

All images below © Robert Workman price=$49.62 product_url=https://amzn.to/2pMFYzv
Posted by claire_s at 6:25 AM

October 5, 2019

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

In their treatment of this coming-of-age comedy, in which two young men trick their girlfriends into cheating on them with themselves in disguise, the directors emphasise the extreme youth of the couples. They even transform the sonorous Dutch National Opera Chorus into a pack of slouchy, surly teenagers. In this adolescent context, the couples’ overreactions to setbacks in their love life, including several suicide threats, make perfect sense.

Unfortunately, despite plenty of frantic stage business, the production is practically devoid of humour. Whenever the audience laughed it was at Da Ponte’s dialogue. The staging as a whole is illogical. Yes, even the improbable premise that two women can become intimate with each other’s boyfriends and not recognize them has to follow some kind of psychological, if not naturalistic, logic. When the sisters first meet their suitors, in reality their boyfriends pretending to be minor celebrities, Despina the waitress/chambermaid is treating them to a striptease in the hotel lobby. It’s anyone’s guess why Fiordiligi and Dorabella should be so outraged by this. After being rejected, the celebs start making out with each other, under the influence of the poison they pretend to have swallowed—an original idea that contributes nothing to their wearing down the women with their incessant wooing and pestering. Even worse are the unmusical choices, such as the silent scenes. There’s no excuse for stopping the music while characters get dressed when there’s yards of rhythmic, bouncy recitatives. Equally exasperating is the defacement of arias with unacceptable noise, such as Dorabella smashing a sideboardful of breakfast things during “Smanie implacabili”.

Così fan tutte - De Nationale Opera - Hans van den Bogaard 1165.png

There are a couple of insightful, even witty, touches. Electric lights flicker when Despina, dressed as a turbaned doctor/alternative healer, weaves her hocus pocus. And Ferrando physically attacking Guglielmo when he finds out that Dorabella has been unfaithful is totally believable. However, such moments are sparse. Eighteenth-century Naples is traded for an unspecified seaside resort in the 1960s, but if this conjures up colourful vintage postcards, think again. It is true that the hotel guests wear a garish tangle of fifties and sixties fashions. But the only beachy thing about the unspeakably ugly set, a peanut butter-colored revolving platform partitioned into three hotel interiors, is the sprinkling of anaemic sand in front of it. There isn’t a hint of blue sky or water anywhere, not even through a window. Luckily, the performers supplied the much needed elan.

Ivor Bolton maintained a sprightly pace with deft and unfussy conducting. He expertly modulated the volume of the charmingly fluent Netherlands Chamber Orchestra to suit the soloists, creating pleasingly balanced ensembles. Another asset were the dry recitatives, during which the singers and continuo players kept up a stream of well-timed, sparkling repartee. Besides Bolton on the harpsichord, and a cello, the continuo included a guitar strummed by a superfluous but endearing beach hippie. Bolton and the soloists rescued the production from being a disappointing muddle. Thomas Oliemans made a fine role debut as a pipe-smoking, beard-stroking Don Alfonso, the puppetmaster behind the sadistic charade. I think he was supposed to be the hotel owner. His vocally secure cynic crackled with energy, occasionally revealing glimpses of the sadistic nature behind his amiable bon vivant act. Oliemans’s tangy timbre contrasted nicely with the other baritone in the cast, Davide Luciano, whose voice poured out like coffee liqueur, making him a particularly attractive Guglielmo. He and Angela Brower sang an exquisite “Il core vi dono”. Such a shame that this erotically charged duet was directed to exude the sensuality of a stock-taking session.

Così fan tutte © De Nationale Opera - Hans van den Bogaard 1012.png

Brower was a delightful Dorabella, the flightier of the two sisters, her poised mezzo-soprano flawlessly produced. Soprano Annet Fritsch successfully captured Fiordiligi’s highly strung earnestness. The low notes lacked body, which is problematic in this role, and during her first big aria, “Come scoglio”, it sounded as if she was overtly managing every phrase. Given the manic staging, she probably was, having to negotiate the music’s Olympic leaps and runs while fussing aimlessly with books and glasses of water. In the second act she sang more organically, delivering a potent "Per pietà", sadly marred by a case of persistent hiccups in the horn solos, and an arresting surrender duet with her Ferrando, Sebastian Kohlhepp. Kohlhepp, who commands a robust, darkish tenor with slightly clipped Germanic vowels, sounded slightly pressed in “Un’aura amorosa”, but then went on from strength to strength. This production retains the frequently cut taxing aria “Ah, lo veggio”. Kohlhepp sang it with supreme control and conviction. Last but not least, Sophia Burgos as the free-spirited Despina left nothing to be desired. Her diction was clear, her musical instincts unerring, and her vocal acting as natural as her feline movements, even in her parodic disguises as the doctor and the notary. The cast served Mozart and Da Ponte well, even if the production team didn’t.

Jenny Camilleri

Mozart: Così fan tutte

Anett Fritsch, Fiordiligi; Angela Brower, Dorabella; Sophia Burgos, Despina; Davide Luciano, Guglielmo; Sebastian Kohlhepp, Ferrando; Thomas Oliemans, Don Alfonso. Jossi Wieler, Director; Sergio Morabito,Director; Barbara Ehnes, Set Designer; Anja Rabes, Costume Designer; David Finn, Lighting Designer. Ivor Bolton, Conductor. Dutch National Opera Chorus. Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. Seen at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, on Thursday, the 3rd of October, 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Cosi%CC%80%20fan%20tutte%20-%20De%20Nationale%20Opera%20-%20Hans%20van%20den%20Bogaard%20%280034%29.png image_description=Scene from Cosi fan tutte [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard] product=yes product_title=Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=Above: Scene from Così fan tutte

Photos by Hans van den Bogaard
Posted by Gary at 4:00 PM

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

Stephen Medcalf’s production opened English Touring Opera Autumn 2019 tour of three Singspiels in well-drilled and satisfying style, aided in no small measure by conductor John Andrews’ easy manner and no-nonsense approach which ensured that sustained Mozartian clarity complemented sure dramatic direction throughout.

The instrumental colours were vibrant, the textures clear and crisp; the transparency allowed us to appreciate the inventiveness, and dramatic expressiveness, of Mozart’s contrapuntal writing. Rushing string scales flew with a flourish, martial motifs danced merrily, and the prevailing animation and blithe spirit was tempered by judicious grace and sincerity. This was some of the best playing I’ve heard from the ETO Orchestra characterised by excellent intonation, uniform string style and plentiful lovely woodwind colouring.

Andrews was faithful to the invention and variety of the score. Blonde’s authoritative chastising of Osmin at the start of Act 2, as she pummelled him on his table-turned-massage bench - tender coaxing may conquer a gentle maid’s heart, but surly commands will get him nowhere - was made wry by the beautiful softness of the strings’ accompaniment, and still more piquant by the dry staccato of their subsequent duet. The gentle sincerity of the final quartet, in which the forgiven escapees honour Pasha Selim’s benevolence, dwelled sensitively then swelled heart-warmingly. Andrews made no small contribution to the really lovely Mozartian style that we enjoyed.

Designer Adam Wiltshire offers an economical but effective Moorish milieu, ideal for touring: Turkish candle-lamps, elegant arches and columns, a prevailing cream and indigo architectural palette, with costumes of rich blue, magenta, crimson, emerald, serve to conjure a sumptuous luxury.

Nazan Fikret (Blonde), Matthew Stiff (Osmin).jpgNazan Fikret (Blonde), Matthew Stiff (Osmin). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Act 1 opens in Osmin’s estate-manager office in Act 1, set against a starry night-sky backdrop. Ottoman learning makes its presence lightly felt, via the trunks, piles of books, telescopes, tapestries and tools that line Osmin’s walls. He is no mere harem-keeper or rough boor: rather, he is the overseer of the Pasha’s property, a man of clout, cleverness and status. Wiltshire’s set swivels to reveal the Pasha’s harem: a glittering aviary of gilded arches for his cantabile concubines. One further twist, in Act 3, takes us to the pristine heart of the Pasha’s palace.

Medcalf’s energetic direction is not overly fussy: the characters are always on the move, looking through doorways and windows, circling and swapping places, but this seems a natural physical manifestation of Mozart’s busy counterpoint. Moreover, the cast’s choreography is perfectly timed: if there is little room for spontaneity then the rigorous rehearsal will serve them well on tour. The extended quartet at the close of Act 2 is a perfect example of their accurate agility: the two angry women, accused of infidelity by their ungallant beaux, switch back and forth with the grace of a pair of doves, indignation and accusations swirling. If the scene does not quite equal the dramatic transition effected when the Count begs forgiveness of his maligned Countess in the final Act of Figaro, then the number is discerningly executed. Andrew Porter’s English translation is very clearly sung and spoken, amusing with its deft rhyming couplets and occasional blunt colloquialisms.

Die Entführung was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, first performed at the city’s Burgtheater on 16 July 1782. The vocal virtuosity it demands of its cast is a result of the stellar singers at Mozart’s disposal at the National Singspiel, including Johann Ludwig Fischer (the first Osmin) and Catarina Cavalieri (the first Constanze) - whose ‘flexible throat’ Mozart had admired in a letter to his father of 26th September 1781.

John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte).jpg John-Colyn Gyeantey (Belmonte). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

The ETO cast were equal to the challenges. Indeed, the role of Osmin seemed tailor-made for bass Matthew Stiff, who managed to be simultaneously imposing and foolish, nasty and pitiful. Even when insulting the hapless Belmonte in Act 1, this Osmin’s elegance of line and beauty of tone intimated a dignity beneath the derogatory rudeness. It didn’t matter how high or how low Stiff’s bass was asked to venture, his tone was attractive and expressive, agility complementing basso profundity. Perhaps alone among the cast, Stiff transcended character stereotype: we could sense a real, human dilemma, as desire battle with duty, and an innate misanthropy resulted in personal misery. Stiff’s Osmin was certainly menacing and brusquely short-tempered - slipping with delicious ease into a roll call of the panoply of punishments he wishes to inflict on his foes, whom he dreams of slaughtering and quartering. But, he also had a heart that he, perhaps unwillingly, exposed and with which we empathised.

I haven’t always found John-Colyn Gyeantey’s tenor to be firm and focused, and he’s no natural stage animal; but Gyeantey has a surer feel for comedy than for the tragic tone and was well-directed here by Medcalf. Indeed, Belmonte is not an easy role, and somewhat passive: as Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin ‘act’, so he hangs about waiting for a rescue-bid that others organise for their ‘conquering hero’. Gyeantey was a slightly cautious Belmonte, but his stage capers with Osmin and Pedrillo were niftily executed. His diction was clear, though his divisions were not always clean and at times he fell behind Andrews’ nimble beat. If his romantic effusions were not always suave then the tenor conveyed the sincerity of his love for Constanze most touchingly at times. Occasionally there was a tendency to try to make too much of the words, thereby disrupting the lyrical flow of the line: Gyeantey could just let Mozart’s phrasing do the work and more effortlessly achieve a shapely legato line. But, he offered some attractive singing and well-centred characterisation.

Alex Andreou (Pasha Selim), Lucy Hall (Konstanze).jpgAlex Andreou (Pasha Selim), Lucy Hall (Konstanze). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Constanze is probably one of most challenging soprano roles in the standard repertoire, and Lucy Hall’s essay of the musical mountains was admirable. Although she leapt with impressive accuracy to the peaks of her Act 1 aria, in which she reiterates the strength of her love for Belmonte, there was a little tightness as she ventured upwards, but subsequently she demonstrated stoical grace, vocal stamina, and by Act 3 the translucent shine was certainly glowing.

Nazan Fikret’s Blonde was not a maiden one would want to mess with: confident, subtly comic, she reached to the extremes of the role’s extended vocal expanse with ease. As Pedrillo, Richard Pinkstone was appealingly chirpy of manner and spirited of vocal tone; his lovely romance, sung while balancing on the rescuers’ ladder, was a masterclass in less-is-more communicativeness. Alex Andreou was a firm, fierce but fair Pasha: his latent majesty and menace would certainly have worried Belmonte, but he demonstrated reflectiveness and a truly regal beneficence. The four-strong ensemble were well-drilled, dramatically and vocally, and their gracious decorum - as guardsmen and concubines - contributed to the consistent tenor of the whole.

Matthew Stiff (Osmin), Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo).jpgMatthew Stiff (Osmin), Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Poor old Osmin receives much (unwelcome) moral guidance in the closing moments: having been admonished by Pasha Selim that it is better to show justice and forgiveness than to punish one crime with another, he is then reminded by the forgiving quartet that a noble heart does not concern itself with vengeance. Medcalf largely avoids acknowledging the intrinsic, and undeniable, European triumphalism of the Singspiel, in which enlightened Western values conquer a degenerate and demonised Orient. And in this regard it’s worth remembering that Pasha Selim is not ‘converted’ to Western liberalism: he is a renegade Westerner who has taken refuge in Turkey, taken up the Islamic faith and risen by merit: were he of Oriental origin - as Osmin’s example illustrates - he would, according to eighteenth-century opinion, be immune to the forces of Enlightenment.

Medcalf doesn’t really show us the way that Mozart’s music humanises the libretto’s stereotypes. This is a light and lively Seraglio, rather than a philosophically profound exploration. But, perhaps there is rather too much to ponder and worry about in the world at the moment, and Medcalf is wise to encourage us just to sit back and enjoy Mozart’s musical tale of love lost and found.

Claire Seymour

Mozart: The Seraglio

Konstanze - Lucy Hall, Blonde - Nazan Fikret, Belmonte - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Pedrillo - Richard Pinkstone, Osmin - Matthew Stiff, Pasha - Alexander Andreou, Ensemble (Rosanna Harris, David Horton, Bradley Travis, Hollie-Anne Bangham); Director - Stephen Medcalf, Conductor - John Andrews, Designer - Adam Wiltshire, Lighting Designer - David W Kidd, Orchestra of English Touring Opera.

Hackney Empire, London; Friday 4th October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ETO%20The%20Seraglio%20Jane%20Hobson%20%281%29.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=English Touring Opera, Autumn Tour 2019: Mozart’s The Seraglio at the Hackney Empire product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: ETO Ensemble

Photo credit: Jane Hobson
Posted by claire_s at 9:12 AM

October 2, 2019

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

First up is Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, in neither its 1762 Viennese nor 1774 Parisian manifestations, but rather in Hector Berlioz’s 1866 rearrangement, in which the French composer amalgamated, re-orchestrated and re-wrote the part of Orpheus for mezzo-soprano (specifically, for Pauline Viardot-Garcia).

But, in fact, what ENO really offers is not Gluck’s opera, but director-choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance-opera. Of course, dance is integral to Gluck’s opera and aesthetic. One critic at the first performance of Orpheus praised the dancer-choreographer Gasparo Angiolini for ‘uniting choreography with the choruses and the story in such a way as to give the performance an appearance no less splendid than exemplary’. The visual aspect of the work was no less vital and the crucial in this regard was the influence of Count Durazzo - ambassador to the Viennese court, and from 1754 director of the city’s imperial theatres - in engaging not just the ballet-master Jean-Georges Noverre but also the scene-painter Giuseppe Quaglio whose designs contributed substantially to the success of Gluck and librettist Calzibigi’s opera.

Indeed, Gluck’s Orpheus is inherently classical in its fusion of the musical, linguistic, visual and gestural. The composer’s aim was not so different from that, one hundred years later, of Nietzsche and Wagner: the revival of classical Greek tragedy through a synthesis of the arts in accord with the ancient Greek’s principle of orchestique: the incorporation of dance and gymnastics into theatre. So, it’s not surprising that choreographers from Isadora Duncan to Frederick Ashton to Pina Bausch have been drawn to Gluck’s opera, aiming to visualise the music through physical movement and bodily gesture.

Wayne McGregor dancers Act 2.jpgDancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Bausch conceived of three dancers’ roles to perform alongside Gluck’s characters, and McGregor nods in this direction, with two of the fourteen dancers from Studio Wayne McGregor, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, seeming to serve as avatars for Alice Coote’s Orpheus and Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice respectively. At times, the dancers successfully evoke the characters’ circumstances and imagined feelings - as when, upon the death of Eurydice, O’Connell is pinned to the floor by the Furies until the latter are charmed by Coote’s song and release their captive. Similarly, the final reunion of the mortals is touchingly expressed in a physical duet which embraces the singers’ bodily forms too.

ST and dancer.jpgSarah Tynan and Jacob O’Connell. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

However, all too often the danced mimes and extended choreographic sequences do not, to my mind, bring about a union of movement and music. While McGregor’s choreography is expressive in its own right, and some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings are exteriorised through movement in a general way, there seemed to me to be little attempt to give corporeal form to the emotions and ideas that are expressed by Gluck’s musical rhythms. Moreover, McGregor seems uninterested in the singers themselves, despite song being at the heart of the materialisation of the opera’s ideological foundations. And despite having three terrific singer-actors with whom to work. There is practically no ‘direction’ of the cast, while the Chorus - in excellent voice - are consigned to the shadows. Surely, the latter’s interaction is central to the drama? They are far, far more than just a disembodied sound? By down-playing the importance of Gluck’s music and concentrating solely on the physical and the visual, McGregor undermines the very essence of the opera, shifting our attention away from the sonic beauty and power of Orpheus’s song.

Moreover, ‘visual’ here refers to light and costume. There is no ‘set’ as such, though the cavernous black hole of the ENO stage serves as a fitting representation of hell, even if it doesn’t provide much context or acoustic support for the singers. Instead, designer Lizzie Clachan relies on Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’ video projections to indicate situation and mood. So, when Eurydice dies and descends, it’s not so much to the Underworld that she is heading, rather under-water, as indicated by the projection of rippling waves above a yellow-tinted glass tank in which Eurydice is suspended in the manner of a Damien Hirst shark floating in formaldehyde. The reason for her death is also obscure: she seems to proffer her arm up willingly to the deathly syringe (snakebite?), twice, and appears to have left behind a suicide note.

Initially Louise Gray’s costumes are monochrome: Eurydice wears a bridal gown scrawled with instructions such as ‘Do not look’ (so, why does she get so upset later when Orpheus does as he’s told?); the dancers sport skull-embroidered leggings; Coote is forced to don a shapeless sack-dress graffitied with random words and phrases - ‘deprivation’, ‘tendre amour’ ‘underground’. What is the point of such redundant gimmicks?

Dance of Blessed Spirits.jpgDancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

The slide down to Hades is marked by an eye-blinding red-and-green light show - a sort of sonic-kinetic visualiser - and the dancers spice up their skimpy costumes with day-glow legwarmers and stripes. Were the Furies confronting Orpheus with his own sexuality? Asymmetrical clashing primary colours - and a tender pas de deux for two male dancers - mark the harmony of the Elysian Fields. Coote and Tynan are left to their own devices in the final Act, the only directorial-design ‘assistance’ being a sequence of projected squares and rectangles of analog noise: the fact that random, flickering dot-pixel patterns of static indicate a lack of transmission seemed ironically apt - they are of no relevance at all to the tragic drama to which the singers are giving voice.

Gluck Act 4.jpgSarah Tynan (Eurydice) and Alice Coote (Orpheus). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

The three soloists coped gamely with the directorial tabula rasa. It was announced that Coote was suffering from a viral infection, but while Act 1 felt a little effortful, ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ was intensely expressive. Gluck himself remarked that ‘Nothing but a change in the mode of expression is needed to turn my aria “Che farò senza Euridice” into a dance for marionettes’, and Coote demonstrated the capacity that Gluck implies a fine singer possesses to make his apparently simple music almost painfully affecting. Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice burned with credible human emotions which were delivered with luminosity and strength. As Love, Soraya Mafi phrased Love’s guidance and entreaties with grace and silkiness.

Conductor Harry Bicket set off at a furious pace - perhaps determined by choreographic necessities? - and pushed hard throughout, seldom taking time to bring the details of Berlioz’s orchestration to the fore.

Those who want to see talented dancers perform interesting choreography will enjoy McGregor’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Those who want to hear Orpheus’s loss, rather than see it, will be less satisfied.

Claire Seymour

Orpheus - Alice Coote, Eurydice - Sarah Tynan, Love - Soraya Mafi; Director/Choreographer - Wayne McGregor, Conductor - Harry Bicket, Rehearsal Director - Odette Hughes, Set Designer - Lizzie Clachan, Costume Designer - Louise Gray, Lighting Designer - Jon Clark, Video Designer - Ben Cullen Williams, Translator - Christopher Cowell, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Tuesday 1st October 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sarah%20Tynan%2C%20Soraya%20Mafi%2C%20Alice%20Coote%2C%20%28c%29%20Donald%20Cooper%20Act%201.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: ENO, directed/choreographed by Wayne McGregor product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Sarah Tynan (Eurydice), Soraya Mafi (Love) and Alice Coote (Orpheus).

Photo credit: Donald Cooper
Posted by claire_s at 8:38 AM

October 1, 2019

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

However, as the works progressed they cohered as a collection of individual expressions of a nation’s ‘spirit’ through musical language.

The programme was essentially constructed around Mustonen’s new work, Taivaanvalot, or ‘Heavenly Lights’, which the Finnish pianist-composer-conductor describes as a ‘Symphony for Tenor, Cello and Piano’ and which sets texts originating from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. The last-minute switching of the first- and second-half items placed Taivaanvalot in the pre-interval slot, preceded by works by Sibelius and Bartók.

Each of the short pieces for piano which form the latter’s For Children is based on a folk melody, either Hungarian or Slovakian, which in most cases Bartók presents intact, accompanied by harmonies derived from the melodies which often eschew Western idioms, “in order to acquaint the piano-studying children with the simple and non-Romantic beauties of folk music”. The pieces, most of which last less than a minute and which have become a cornerstone of piano pedagogy, present few significant technical challenges but they do pose some musical ones.

Mustonen adopted a Romantic, rhapsodic approach, curling his hands high in the air before they fell heavily onto the keyboard, shaking his head with vigour and intensity. A fortissimo dynamic prevailed during the seven pieces he chose to perform, and at times the degree of ‘effort’ expended resulted in a rather hard, even stabbing, tone. While there was rhythmic interest and vitality, there was little of the simplicity, playfulness and effortless eloquence inherent in these miniatures.

Such intensity was more fitting in Sibelius’s Malinconia for cello and piano, which was composed in a three-hour outpouring of grief, in March 1900, following the death of the composer’s infant daughter, Kirsti. The cello’s chromatic weaving at the start seemed to be reaching for a way through and beyond the despair, but it was violently silenced by the piano’s wildly sweeping ascents and cascades. The extended virtuosic solos for both instruments palpably throbbed with emotion. Projecting forcefully, Isserlis sought every colour and texture through which Sibelius conveys his private pain, employing a wide vibrato and diverse tones ranging from gravelly to ethereal, finding both desolation and tenderness. Mustonen’s waves of sound pressed forward, while the piano’s extreme bass range thundered darkly, occasionally obscuring the cello line.

Sibelius made frequent use (in works such as the Kullervo Symphony and the Lemminkäinen Suite) of the Kalevala - the epic comprising poems, stories and songs which Elias Lönnrot compiled in the 19 th century from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, and which was instrumental in the development of Finnish national identity. In Taivaanvalot, Mustonen has set the Finnish text as translated into English by Keith Bosley - excepting the final section which presents the potent magical words of the demigod Väinämöinen, the Kalevala’s central character - in order that “with the help of music it might be possible to convey some of those untranslatable, at times even hypnotic and shamanistic qualities of this poetry to an audience not fluent in our unusual language”.

Seeming initially to echo Malinconia, Taivaanvalot begins with the cello alone, spinning a chromatic line that is intensified by the piano’s entry. The vocal line begins in declamatory fashion and Ian Bostridge, characteristically attentive to the text, sang with a directness and coolness which put me in mind of Aschenbach’s opening recitatives at the start of Britten’s Death in Venice. In vengeance for the theft of the Sampo - the magical artefact constructed by the ‘Eternal Hammerer’, the blacksmith and inventor Ilmarinen, that brings good fortune to its holder - Louhi, the “gap-toothed hag of the north”, has plagued the Väinämöinen’s people with disease, sent Otso the Bear to attack them, and, infuriated by her failures, stolen the sun, moon and fire, leaving Kalevala in darkness. With increasing lyricism and dramatic intensity, the narrator unfolds the tale of Väinämöinen’s conflict with Louhi, and the efforts of Ilmarinen to forge hoes and ice-picks to free the moon and the sun from the rock and cliff where Louhi has hidden them, and a collar with which to chain the Northland hag to “a mighty slope’s edge”.

Bostridge was a compelling storyteller, conveying Väinämöinen’s quiet wisdom, Louhi’s fierce anger and Ilmarinen’s relentless determination. His unaccompanied voice compelled with its directness and provided moments of pause instilled with dramatic tension; at the close, the vocalise in which Väinämöinen heralds the release of the moon and sun was spellbinding. Elsewhere, Mustonen employs focused instrumental gestures to reflect and enhance the speaker’s emotions. Louhi’s vehement intensity, as she threatens the sun and moon that they will never be released unless “[I] come and raise you myself with nine stallions borne by a single mare!”, bristled in the cello’s fierce pizzicatos and staccato attack against a pounding piano gallop, as Bostridge’s tenor became a wild yell. Ilmarinen’s anger burned in the piano’s stabbing underscoring of Bostridge’s spiteful articulation of his adversary’s name - “the gap-toothed hag of the North” - and erupted as Isserlis fairly threw his bow at his cello’s strings when the blacksmith imagines Louhi enchained by his iron collar.

The vocal line frequently falls quite low and Bostridge was not always able to surmount the instrumental tumult at the bottom of his range. And, while there are individual moments of striking specificity of feeling, I found Mustonen’s stylistic palette a little repetitive over the work’s 30-minute span, with frequent alternation of fluid lyrical passages of folk-like melodic gestures (occasionally Vaughan Williams-meets-Sibelius) with busy, more dissonant and abrasive sections comprising ostinato-like repetitions. That said, the Finnish composer could not have had better advocates for his ‘Symphony’.

In the second half of the recital, German lieder framed Hungarian miniatures for cello and a setting of a seventeenth-century English text which the literary scholar Harold Bloom described as ‘the most magnificent Anonymous poem in the entire language’.

Relaxed of voice and manner, Bostridge comfortably adopted what are surely familiar fictional personae in three songs by Robert Schumann in which, while occasionally employing a dominating forte dynamic, Mustonen was more attentive to the nuances of the vocal melody and text. ‘Die feindlichen Brüder’ (The warring brothers) was fast and intense, hurtling through the image of the rival siblings’ rage-inflamed duel over the mutually beloved Countess Laura. Bostridge’s tenor swelled assertively with the righteous challenge to the sword, “enscheide du!” (let you decide), and howled despairingly, “Wehe! Wehe!” (Alack, alack), against a dry piano backdrop, when the brothers are both felled. Mustonen’s rhythmic bite added a dash of quasi-Mahlerian irony to ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ (The two grenadiers), and Bostridge grippingly captured the despair of the defeated soldiers at the fall of their beloved country and Emperor. The slightest pause in the final avowal to rise from the grave to defend the Emperor was an emotive ‘choke’, made more touching and melancholy by the piano’s bleakly fading afterword.

Isserlis’s presentation of four of György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages - his ongoing 60-year diary of musical miniatures - was a masterclass in quiet, precise, concentrated expressiveness, demonstrating enormous insight into musical colour and pulse. The pairs of short pieces framed ‘Steven Isserlis 60’ which was composed especially for him by Márta and György Kurtág, and first performed at the Wigmore Hall in December 2018. There followed what was, for me, the highpoint of the recital: Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1961 dramatic scena for tenor and cello, ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’, which Bennett wrote for Peter Pears. Here, Bostridge and Isserlis equalled each other for storytelling prowess, Bostridge’s poetic ravings clearly distinguishing the Bedlam beggar’s lunatic and lucid ‘selves’ and slipping effortlessly between the intersecting identities. They were re-joined by Mustonen for the final work, Schubert’s ‘Der Strom’ (On the river), which offered some salving sweetness after the dramatic intensities of the preceding works.

So, a somewhat unusual assemblage of musical ‘tasting notes’ which, if not quite forming a vintage blend, certainly provided much delectation and satisfaction.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano)

Bartók - For Children (Old Hungarian Tune, Round Dance, Soldier’s Song, Allegretto, Drinking Song, Allegro Robusto, Peasant’s Flute); Sibelius - Malinconia Op.20; Olli Mustonen - Taivaanvalot (a symphony for tenor, cello and piano) (UK première); Schumann - ‘Belsazar’ Op.57, ‘Die feindlichen Brüder’ Op.49 No.2, ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ Op.49 No.1; György Kurtág - Signs, Games and Messages (‘Az hit ...’, ‘Souvenir de Balatonboglár’); Márta Kurtág/György Kurtág - ‘Steven Isserlis 60’; György Kurtág - Signs, Games and Messages (‘Schatten’, ‘György Kroó in memoriam’); Richard Rodney Bennett - ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’; Schubert - ‘Auf dem Strom’ D943.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30th September 2019.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IB%20%C2%A9%20Sim%20Canetty-Clarke.jpg image_description= product=yes product_title=Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano): Wigmore Hall, London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke
Posted by claire_s at 8:11 AM