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Monday 28 May 2012

Nelly Miricioiu sings Maria Padilla with Chelsea Opera Group

Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concert performance of Maria Padilla seemed to be a 60th birthday tribute to Nelly Miricioiu and conductor Brad Cohen gave her a rapturous introduction. She has sung with all the great tenors of the last 30 ish years and used to appear at all the big opera houses, but somehow she's never quite considered to be "up there". She certainly had the technique and intensity, but it was never the most beautiful voice, with a particularly strident and unblended top. Both in looks and sound one is more than occasionally reminded of Callas, though obviously its unfair to really compare any one with Callas.

Seeing singers after their international career is rarely fulfilling - you wait for a phrase, a gesture, a note that sounds like the artist you love, and you might get 3 or 4 in an evening. But it's not healthy. At 60, Miricioiu is holding up well for her age - she can still basically sing the notes, and is mercifully still in tune, though the signs of age in the voice are obvious: there's no longer a chest register, the volume is much reduced, the sound is pinched, top notes are uneven and screeched, she can't support the coloratura which is also far more approximate than it used to be. On the other hand, she can still sing a lovely pianissimo, and you still feel what it was that was special - the lovely timbral shifts, the legato, the expressive phrasing, all now appearing as in an Xray, the flesh and padding removed, but still the impression is felt. The huge ovations she received must surely have been because of people love her and her legacy, and also that she has the balls to do this role at 60. There was a moment where she lost her place in the score which she was reading right in front of her, and the performance had to stop for her. "that's 60" she said with a shrug and a laugh and the performance continued. This whole evening was a ridiculously camp affair - not just the repertoire or her silver dress with its glitter bodice, and her glitzy jewellery and gold nail polish - she also bowed between numbers, came out of character, hugged her colleagues, and generally acted like a diva. Rather endearing really, but a bit ridiculous.

The actual piece is hardly a forgotten masterpiece - classic noodling Donizetti, no feel for the larger canvas, occasional moments of beauty, but basically rather bland, unimaginatively scored, rather unemotional and 95% made of clichées. There are exceptions - Maria's early solo scena with Harp which is sometimes excerpted in concert and is notable for its cool chromatic shifts, and rather lovely melody. Still not the equal of Bellini or Rossini at their best though. The beginning of act III is also quite nice and contains a gorgeous little harmonic sequence, but with everything else so indifferent harmony wise, one wonders whether this is just accidentally lovely! The plot is predictably thin, slow moving and unconvincing. 

The casting was strange. Generally the older a character was meant to be, the younger the person was that was singing the role and vice versa. Nelly's father must have been a good three decades younger than her! Marianne Cornetti took on the only other major female role. She's decent and it's a big voice, though she sounds like she's singing in slow motion - the vibrato is slow, the coloratura is slow, you can hear the mechanisms shift to reach some top notes. Emma Carrington in the tiny role of Francisca had some lovely moments and it is a much bigger voice than I previously supposed. Funny, she seemed physically much bigger too than when I saw her as Jezibaba at Grange Park opera...

Marco Panuccio was the father, Don Ruiz , in this opera a tenor(!) It seemed like he was pushing quite a lot, though he was also doing quite a lot of fairly pretty croony falsettoing, unfortunately including one disastrous high note (D? Eb?). Richard Morrison as Don Pedro displayed good technique, and extremely impressive breath control, but the basic timbre of the voice is rather monotonous and not all that attractive. The smaller roles were all well taken by young singers: Paul Curievici (Don Luigi), Daniel Grice (Don Ramiro) and Piotr Lempa (Don Alfonso).

Friday 25 May 2012

Emmanuelle Bertrand and Pascal Amoyel at Kings Place


Emmanuelle Bertrand is one of my favourite currently performing cellists. If you have any interest in modern music and superlative cello playing, buy this disc. The best recording of the Dutilleux, Crumb and Ligeti works in my opinion. Just astonishing. The review there gives a very good idea of why - the enormous timbral palette, beautiful pointing, and wonderfully rich sound make her a very individual artist. Her other recordings are also very good - one to particularly treasure is her recording of the three Bloch solo cello suites.

Seeing an artist that one admires hugely in concert is of course risky as it's going to be very difficult for them to live up to your expectations. You know their recording of piece X played in the perfect acoustic and conditions of the recording studio, the best takes spliced together to make an ideal whole that never existed in real time in real sound. So with this in mind, I was a little underwhelmed by the first half of this concert, which consisted of Bertrand playing The Dutilleux Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher and pianist Pascal Amoyel in Grief's piano sonata.

The Trois Strophes are maybe the greatest solo cello works since Kodaly's solo sonata (OK, actually the Britten Suites are in there too. As good as those though. Really good then.) but they are extremely difficult, and few do them full justice. Bertrand seemed hesitant, and playing without a score was surely part of the problem. There was an early memory slip which seemed to put her on edge throughout, meaning she never really presented them positively enough. The sound which I love so much from the recordings is interesting when heard live - she never "digs in" to the instrument, everything is coaxed and stroked out as if she's using a baroque bow. Occasionally this makes the phrasing a little lumpy (especially as her confidence seemed shaken), but the sound is that of a dusky alto, warm, and round, if not always full, rather than the very unpleasant strident tenor sound that cellos make in the middle register if there is too much pressure. Low down, the notes seem to hum and throb out without any tension. It's an endlessly interesting sound, and the amount of colours she gets is sometimes bewildering. Very french one might say. As I say, the tradeoff is sometimes with line, though I am maybe extra sensitive to this at the moment as I have recently been watching Rostropovich during his prime in the 50s and 60s, and the legato is perfect, he is simply a voice.

After this shaky start, Bertrand left the stage, and Pascal Amoyel continued with Greif's Piano sonata no.22 op.319 "Les Plaisirs de Chérence": Égarements de La Roche-Guyon. Greif is a very interesting composer, all pain and moments of lyrical beauty who of course died young, but as the insanely high opus numbers suggest, his output is huge, and very inconsistent. This piano sonata is absolutely appalling, using every modern music cliche in the book, and one gets lost keeping up with the magpie's nest of references: the first movement is Schnittke meets Nyman, the second Satie meets Schubert, and after that I stopped caring because the result is so banal and has so little character of its own. When there are so many more interesting works in Greif's output, why this one? This performance didn't convince one otherwise as to its worth - heavy on huge physical gestures, grunting and frowning intensity - even with this clear commitment and belief  Amoyel couldn't sell the piece, and it all made it somehow even less appealing.

The second half was much better. Bertrand played Itinerance for solo cello, a piece composed by her duo partner. Sensibly she opted to take the score onstage this time, but she played with her eyes shut throughout and much more physical restraint than before. It's a touching piece within its limited means with a surprising ending. You can hear it here:

The final piece on the programme was Greif's Sonate De Requiem Op. 283 for cello and piano - finally the two artists were united on stage! This was the evening's finest portion. Although superficially there are many things that are similar to the piano sonata already essayed - polystylism, dynamic extremes, strangely dislocated "layers" happening simultaneously - the earlier opus is superior in every way, and one is tempted almost to call it a masterpiece. The word "haunting" is used far too often to describe classical music, but this music seems "haunted" - chorale like specters drift over skeletal landscapes of bleakly hollow chords, whilst traditional Jewish songs intone into the void. Motives return again and again, tunes like memories, circular, stuck, broken, but then moments of radiant calm and softn beauty appear, beacons of hope in the darking mists. It's quite an extraordinary piece, and the ending is a wonderful enigma. Finally we heard some truly great music making too - Bertrand and Amoyel feeding off each other, steering a careful course through the Sonata's veiled narrative and producing something quite special. If only they had chosen to play together more this evening!

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Die Walküre with Fulham Opera


I blogged about it for Bachtrack. Read it here:

It's a bonkers undertaking, and I admire them greatly for doing it. I didn't know whether to call it an amateur or a semi professional production - they're clearly all very trained singers, but clearly also doing it for the love of it, which is of course the true definition of amateur. Simple things would have made it better like just having blinds on the west facing windows so that we could see the projections, or having the surtitles projected from above rather than the side, but basically I was impressed. Much as I love Die Walküre, there are boring corners in it (sure, not that many), and they were made more trying by the piano only accompaniment. But again, how could you not admire someone for just playing the entire opera at the piano, and having to carry the entire thing musically.

This also occurred to me, which was maybe inappropriate to include in the review, but I did anyway:

The problem with "updating" The Ring (which usually involves stripping it of its supernatural aspects), is not just how to get round the constant references to swords, curses and gods, but also that the meaning of the text is changed by the context and by extension, the characters' motivations and beliefs, and therefore ultimately the content of the drama. The onus is on the director to supply this new interpretation with whatever is required to make the work as compelling and powerful as it is in the original mythological setting that Wagner envisioned.

Need to think about this, and expand on it in the future.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Falstaff at the ROH

Falstaff is one of my favourite Verdi scores, in all his huge operatic oeuvre the one with the lightest touch, the most delicate ideas and possibly the most touching moments. Oddly I see a parallel to the ageing Strauss, whose last opera Capriccio is similarly subdued and subtle, and possibly each work is the most felicitous, if not the most vital opera of each of their careers.

Although I consider myself to be a fan of Carsen, I found this staging a little disappointing. Carsen updates things to the 1950s (an opera updated to the 50s?!! How completely novel and unexpected!) which means English country clubs after the war with oak panelling and dark furniture, the rise of the middle classes (again, for the nth time in history, an obvious parallel with the original), and the women all tottering around like they've come from the set of Westside Story. The kitchen of Act 2 also looks quite American - is Carsen suggesting that these sparky young women are bringing American values to fusty old England? Unfortunately certain plot elements didn't sit well with this updating, but mostly the tone was just too jokey and sitcom like to let the touching intimacy of this ensemble piece to come through. Although the opening scene was pleasingly detailed, Nanetta and Fenton's romance was mishandled, and I felt the Merry Wives lacked the warmth that they needed for them to be truly likeable. The complicated plot was just about made clear, but as everyone remained bustling and moving around during the busy scenes, it was often difficult to know where to look, and it often wasn't immediately obvious who was singing. Overall it's a reasonably entertaining evening, well worth seeing (mostly for the singing see below) but I thought it lacked Carsen's usual sensitivity, sense of beauty, and focus on the human aspects of the drama.

Musically this was a superb evening. Ambrogio Maestri made a vocally very impressive Falstaff, a brilliant, rounded sound, loud without bellowing, with moments of shade, beautifully done. A bit of crooning was on show, especially sliding up to notes, but this was excellent singing. I never felt that he fully inhabited the role though, as say Bryn Terfel, Covent Garden's previous Falstaff, had.

The women were just as impressive. Ana Maria Martinez has a lovely voice, dark, even, rich across the range, with a good sense of line which can really soar when required. There's something slightly grainy in the timbre which means it's not the most beautiful voice, but I don't like it any less for that. She played Alice Ford with a nice mix of fun and poise and I'd like to hear more from her at the ROH. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has the most wonderfully rich alto with true chest tones (something I'm always immensely partial to) allied with an excellent technique. I thought she over acted, though the fault is surely just as much that of the direction. Vocally though this was a treat. Kai Ruutel in the smaller role of Meg Page also sang well.

Amanda Forsythe's prettily sung Nannetta exhibited some gorgeous piano singing, and thankfully she had many opportunities to show off this talent. Joel Prieto's Fenton was soft and sweet and made a good pairing. Dalibor Jenis (Ford) can certainly sing, and he does that ultra covered sotto voce that Jonas Kaufmann does, but somehow it never sounds that beautiful, and certainly it doesn't really thrill. Can't really say what the problem was other than that it was a little odd...

Daniele Gatti kept things pacey, but clearly also relished the wonderful subtleties of this great score. The Royal Opera House Orchestra rose to the occasion and delivered some beautiful ensemble playing - they've been on a roll since Figaro.