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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Il Re Pastore at Salzburg Festival (with Rolando Villazon)

I reviewed it for Bachtrack. Here's a preview:

This opera requires three exceptionally agile sopranos, and two tenors with coloratura facility, so finding a cast with sufficiently contrasted voices is always going to be a challenge. Rolando Villazón is clearly still finding his footing after returning from a rest following a vocal crisis. The lower half of the voice is as firm and exciting as it ever was, fruity and vibrant and with an emotional surge that gives him a magnetic presence.

Read the whole thing here:

Singers are funny creatures, and it's never entirely possible to separate physical problems with mental blocks: because the brain controls the voice (even if unconsciously), a lack of confidence in being able to land a note adversely affects the ability to actually do so. It's a very, very tricky business for a singer to get back on track after suffering a vocal setback, because everything that they are is involved.

In the past, I have not been that keen on Villazón, who I thought was always pushing the voice too much, singing every phrase with a sobbing espressionismo that was often just innapropriate. But here, I saw for the first time what makes him so popular. Apart from the quality of the voice, which comes across better live than on recordings, he's just a very generous artist who clearly loves to give a lot of himself, and he has an energy and presence that is quite captivating. He was very sweet at the end too - kissing the score, and leading the whoops and bravos for his fellow singers. In his present condition he really cannot return to his old repertoire, but Handel, and Mozart should still be within limits, and as I say in the review, I was surprised at how well he did stylistically with the Mozart. Would he make an interesting Pelleas? And what about Rameau?

Astonishingly, DG have recently announced a project to record, in the studio, the last six Mozart operas, and Villazon is to sing the tenor parts in all of them. It doesn't make sense on any level, but apparently it's happening.

Salzburg's fetishization of Mozart is not just ubiquitous, but entirely nauseating too - blatant commercialising and profiteering off their most famous son, and usually to sell kitsch, tat, schlock and chocolate gonads. Everything about him is ironed out and made bland to reflect the Muzak status that he has in the mind of the general public (combined for many people paradoxically but entirely unironically with the idea that there is a "Mozart effect" that can be measured on the brain); the portraits that adorn every shop front all beautify him by making him look more handsome, more normal, than the real portraits that survive, removing his bulging eyes and lumpy nose and smirking mouth. This cosmetic cleaning up is of course also is mirrored in the cleaning up of Mozart as artist and human being. Nothing could be further from the real Mozart than all this guff - Mozart we know was not a man bound by conventions, possessing a sick sense of humour, and most importantly this is indicated in the music: endlessly inventive, radical, profound, and profoundly moving, whilst also admittedly never being anything less than elegant, beguiling and witty, and never a bar that is hard on the ear. Maybe this last point is the problem, the reason that that is exploited in this way. That he can touch the loftiest heights, and crack the most ridiculous gag in a single breath or even simultaneously almost goes without saying - both forms of expression came so naturally to him, that it is sometimes hard to decide which is which. These things are so far removed from the "Mozart brand" that the two seem (and in the end are) entirely unrelated. The most beautiful, and most grotesque of cultural phenomena posing as the same thing.

Rant over. Ahem.

There were a (perhaps not so) shocking amount of empty seats - maybe only 80% sold or so? My ticket was right up in the top balcony so I really couldn't hear very clearly in the first act, and I was worried that I wouldn't be able to write anything in the review,  but I slipped down into the stalls for Act II which I saw that many other people had done too. It's entirely true that Salzburg is targeted at the very very wealthy, but this semi staged of an unknown early Mozart was too expensive even for this audience to swallow. So much for the Mozart fetish.

Monday 30 July 2012

Rosenkavalier with Renée Fleming in Munich


Nice to see one of the classic Rosenkavalier productions in the flesh, and I have to say that this is probably the best "traditional" Rosenkavalier that I have seen. No prizes for guessing which kitsch fest productions I'm referring to in the review (linked to below) when I say that it's better than them. I personally am not the biggest fan of traditional with regards to Strauss - though his music is very evocative of action, tension and drama, I just don't think it is ever truly evocative of the era that he is setting it in. For me, Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Arabella and Capriccio all suffer in some way or another if presented in entirely "traditional" stagings with no degree of abstraction. I'd like to write about this at greater length at some point, so will leave it there for the time being.

The real point of this Rosenkavalier was surely as an outing for Fleming's Marschallin. She was MUCH better here vocally than in her recent London/LSO concert - more comfortable and giving more sound. Acting wise, this was not as moving as the wonderful Baden Baden DVD, where she seems quite on the edge and gives one of the most brilliant performances of her career, but this Munich performance was also not as terribly self conscious and indulgent as the last Met outing. She responds best to very detailed direction I think, but she knows this role so well that she has many ideas of her own that she can bring - as I mention in the review, some of them were just so brilliantly done, that I really felt quite misty eyed at the end of Act I.

This production/performance was the first time that Act II and III didn't drag for me, and actually it was Act I that one felt the lull - Ochs long section between the bed scene and the entry of all the other characters - just too much stillness and posey mooning around from all of them.

I was talking to Zerbinetta about Strauss, and about what my favourite stagings were... I found it hard to give an answer - I very much like the Carsen Capriccio, and the Baden Baden (originally Paris) Rosenkavalier mentioned above, and feel the old trick of updating a piece to the time the composer wrote it is particularly apposite for Strauss as he seems to be so much a man of the zeitgeist intellectually and artistically. I do very often think Strauss operas need rescuing from certain aspects of tradition and they are extremely hard to do well because they are so dense and so complex. This shouldn't be a bad thing though! Zerbinetta said that she thought Strauss was in some ways unstagable - the music is so choreographed, so detailed, so rich, that you couldn't hope to represent it all on stage, and I think that is very interesting and probably true. Textually too, Hofmannsthal's librettos are hopelessly, wonderfully dense and complex, which is both a blessing and curse. This is another reason I prefer some level of abstraction in Strauss - it allows us to hear the music more clearly and actually focus on the glittering orchestral canvas, rather than getting lost in the fuss and trinketry that so often clouds the visual field in traditional Strauss stagings... oops, said I'd talk about this later. Anyway.

I reviewed it for Bachtrack:

Here's a taste:

Renée Fleming is probably the most sought-after Marschallin of her generation and this is a role that still fits her like a glove, both vocally and temperamentally. She is now 53, and though there is no question that she can still sing every note of this part, the peerless control and breathtaking radiance of the sound that that earned her the nickname "The Beautiful Voice" is sadly now much diminished.
...Acting-wise, this was not the most poised or regal Marschallin that I have seen from Fleming, but there were certain details in the characterisation that rang heartbreakingly true...

Sunday 29 July 2012

La Traviata at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munchner Operfestspiele)

Anja Harteros was meant to be singing Violetta in this production but cancelled at the last minute and relative unknown Maria Agresta, who had sung the role here earlier this season. No announcement was made at the beginning of the performance, and I only found out through twitter. Strange. Quite annoying too, as she was the main point for seeing this, but Keenleyside made up for this. I met up with the always charming Zerbinetta beforehand who reminded me that Keenleyside had just been singing Wozzeck with Waltraud Meier, and that I had missed this. Damn!

I couldn't believe the average age of the audience - maybe mid forties with plenty much younger, rather than late fifties, early sixties as is the norm in London. The next day I went to see Rosenkavalier (review pending), where the audience was much older. Is this a repertoire thing? Or do older people like Fleming and younger people like Harteros? Probably the repertoire thing... (ALSO! the younger audience were MUCH better behaved)

Anyway, I reviewed it for Bachtrack:

Thursday 26 July 2012

Falstaff at Opera Holland Park


Falstaff is the subtlest and most refined of all Verdi's operas, dazzling us with its fast paced dialogue and action, softly animated, quicksilver music and delicately observed character interactions, which lie beside the broadest imaginable comedy. Verdi's lightness of touch and total mastery of dramatic momentum make it a joy to watch and contemplate, even though it might initially seem slightly lymphatic compared to the altogether more robust tragic dramas of his middle period.

Director Annilese Miskimmon has chosen to update the action to around WW1 time in small town England, with Falstaff as a war veteran with shell shocked survivors being tended to by nurses and priests in the opening scene. Ford is the town's imperious vicar, and also the instructor of his young curate Dr. Caius. The town is depicted by small buildings that rotate to display their twee post war interiors, which sometimes perform their job very well, but just almost as often look cluttered and unfinished on the stage. Still, Miskimmon captures much of the fun of the piece, and seems to understand its pacey comedy and particular charm. There are mishaps though, two of which are quite serious - first, the climax of the first half, where Falstaff is tipped out the window, which is here very awkwardly achieved, and also in the mystical forest scene which just looks like a piece of ropey am-dram. Maybe the latter was intentional, but the music suggests that the townspeople achieve more than just a school play in their farce.

Olafur Sigurdarson was impressively athletic as Falstaff, dashing about the stage and even performing a cartwheel at one point. I liked that this production revealed his irrepressible vigour and boundless energy - there seemed to be absolutely no question at all that he would be able to pull an entire crowd of people in a tug of war, nor that he would ultimately have the last laugh. Sigurdarson can really sing the part too and is as good as can be expected for an opera company of this size. His foil, Ford, was sung by George von Bergen with impressive power and force, and mostly his straighter delivery worked very well.

Linda Richardson was a rather less glamorous Alice Ford than we are used to seeing and hearing, and instead of the character's usual elegance and wit, she was portrayed as an awkward, good humoured, slightly scrappy and fussy housewife who always wins out due to her resourcefulness and practical intelligence. Vocally, she wasn't really adequate, and though the voice somewhat fitted the characterisation, Verdi's actual notes often suffered in a blur of wide vibrato, inelegant coloratura and shrieked high notes. She's the most vocally subdued of all Verdi's heroines, but no Verdi is easy to sing well and I wasn't really convinced here. Carolyn Dobbin as Meg and Carole Wilson as Mistress Quickly were both excellent and far more stylishly sung though Rhona McKail's Nanetta was rather unsteady and lacked the requisite sweetness of timbre and effortlessly floated high notes that this role needs. Benjamin Hulett's Fenton seemed promising though his dynamics control was limited, with impressively loud climaxes arriving from nowhere.

The pit orchestra seemed better rehearsed than in the Onegin I saw last week, though is a little quiet in the frankly awful acoustics of the Holland Park tent (only acceptable in the front, middle portion). Lots of nice touches though and most importantly there was a very good connection between pit and stage which allowed the comedy to come from the music.

Monday 23 July 2012

La Boheme at Glyndebourne


I didn't feel moved to write a full review of this at the time, and nor will I now: McVicar's now decade old updating is fine but not all that interesting, and though I think this is probably Puccini's finest opera it's not one I particularly love.

The entire cast were very decent, but I'll just talk about a few singers here.

Nahuel di Pierro's Colline was absolutely incredible - the richest, chocolatyist lyric bass-baritone sound you can imagine, beautifully produced and apparently effortlessly too. I have no idea why he wasn't in a more major role in this festival but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for next festival - maybe a Figaro, or a luxury Harlekin in Ariadne? Does he have the high notes?

Irina Iordachescu's Musetta was very interesting - she has the timbre of a mezzo, but seems to have an easy upper extention, and I liked the husky darkness of her voice in this role - it gives her a mildly grimy, seemy edge that contrasts wonderfully with Scherbachenko's Mimi and was entirely appropriate for this production.

Ekaterina Scherbachenko's Mimi was a mixed - in the first act, she did not sound good at all, with a rather harsh tone, and nary a phrase would pass without serious intonation issues. She improved throughout the evening though, and was already better in Act 2, and then better again in Act 3, and by Act 4 was making some really lovely sounds and her tuning was immaculate. Strange thing. She's not a natural actress and seemed a bit lost amongst all the other larger than life characters, but s

The Glyndebourne orchestra sounded absolutely fantastic under Kirill Karabits to an almost show stealing extent - the orchestral colours glowed and danced under the voices with a sweep and naturalness that carried the action along beautifully. One of the great boons of there being such a long rehearsal period at Glyndebourne, and also the runs being so long is surely the benefit to the orchestra - the ensemble, rapor, accuracy and detail is just so much better than can be expected from the working conditions necessitated by the way the ENO or ROH are organised and run. Magic stuff.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Le Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne


Quite a while ago now, but better late than never? This production (directed by Michael Grandage) was a frustrating as it seemed to have such potential as a concept, but had so many ideas that no one followed through with, and aside from the updating it didn't feel like there was enough risk taking or sense of purpose. At least it wasn't updated to the 50's.

photo by Alastair Muir

Putting Figaro in the Alhambra is cool - despite its setting being clearly set out in Da Ponte's libretto, Spanish references in productions of this opera are usually few and far between, so it's nice to bring out this element for a change. But here it changed nothing about the presentation of the action or the drama, and in the end this was as traditional a production as I have ever seen. Why bother making the Islamic reference if you're not going to follow up on it?* Just to look pretty?

Even more pointless was setting it in the early 70's - this creates problems because the whole plot centres around avoidance of the Almavida's Feudal right (and no attempt was made to address this anachronism), but added nothing in terms of casting the drama in a new light. My instant thought was that if they'd made it a commune (all the rage at that time), with Almaviva as the head honcho, he may well have had a "right" to the women in the commune, and he'd still be a figure of (abusive) power. Also, the Count cannot be a truly threatening character due only to his status in the 70's because there were of course by that time severe limitations on his power and what he could do to his servants. For there to be a real sense of dread he'd simply have to be a physically or psychologically threatening man (which he wasn't at all here) but then this would render certain character's actions inexplicable without some further serious character regie. I don't like when things are just glossed over. I've seen reviewers suggest that this weakening of the Count is a strength of the production (e.g. Rupert Christiansen of all people!) - it's not, it undermines the drama.

photo by Alastair Muir

I missed too the painful edge of this opera, the bitter tang of every trick which rebounds and causes almost as much suffering on the trick player as the victim. This idea is taken up by Da Ponte less subtly in Cosi Fan Tutte, and in fact becomes the central thrust of the drama, but in Figaro it's just one of a number of important interlocking elements. Itis of course also so beautifully encapsulated in Mozart's music that it's impossible to ignore; when it is, as here, the whole things falls flat and ends up being rather bland - nothing more than non threatening buffoonery, japes and mild humour. Of course there were roars of laughter every time people danced in a 70s style to Mozart's music. People are so very easily pleased.

As to Christopher Oram's sets - I have to say that though very detailed, I thought lots of the scenery was rather crudely rendered and far less beautiful than actual examples of Islamic architecture and ceramics of this period. One big problem was that both the window and the main door of the the Countess' bedroom were deeply recessed into the right hand wall and so key points of the action in Act 2 (Cherubino's jump, and the locking of the doors) were invisible to half the audience. So unecessary.

The cast were very young, each debuing their role as far as I can tell, and though youth is entirely appropriate in this piece, their inexperience showed. Michael Grandag 's direction, which is detailed but quite unspecific, rendered characters generic and largely uninteresting, with emotional content relegated to the background, and larger dramatic arches left undernourished. But more experienced singers can often transcend an indifferent production and at least effect something special in their own parts. Overall I found it hard to feel too much for any of the characters.

photo by Alastair Muir

Sally Matthew's Countess was vocally by some distance the most impressive cast member, but due to the production seemed short of genuine pathos, and so failed to move the heart. The costumes saw to it that she couldn't be elegant or graceful, but I'm not sure the voice is quite right either for capturing this character's poise, warmth or softness. A few months ago I wrote about her voice as it sounded close up in the Wigmore Hall, and my impression wasn't all that different here - it's superbly produced, extremely even, technically very secure, but also extremely covered which gives it a shiny, but rather dark and steely unfeminine edge. The top gleams, but it's laser like rather than crystalline. I love her Fiordiligi here and here and I think it's probably a much more interesting role for her.

Lydia Teuscher's Susanna was quite nice, but in voice types this common one can afford to be very picky, and she offerend nothing truly distinctive. I thought she was occasionally quite hoarse in the upper register too. Vito Priante's Figaro was also decently sung but overall slightly bland. Audun Iversen's Count Almaviva was more interesting vocally, but had too many comedy double takes (which the crowd ate up) to be credible. Isabel Leonard made a decent Cherubino, nicely sung, but again failed to be very memorable. All the supporting roles were adequately taken (except for Ann Murray's Marcellina who was far more than adequate - such a natural presence on stage, and still far more than acceptable vocally).

Robin Ticciati was in the pit and all eyes are surely on him at the moment since he was announced last season as Glyndebourne's next music director, succeeding Jurowski in 2014 (with a rumoured Rosenkavalier, another Glyndebourne classic). I was absolutely enthralled by his Don Giovanni last season with the OAE which was full blooded, ultra detailed and thrillingly intense. His Figaro was also very good, sensittively played and carefully thought out, but it felt a bit too much like the production: all a bit subdued and soft, lacking piquancy and bite. Still he's profoundly musical and has excellent rapor with his musicians who manage to play superbly apparently in spite of his almost obstinate lack of clear beat. He's so young too - I have no fears whatsoever about his take over (though at the moment Jurowski seems quite determined to make us regret that he's going with superlative performances every time.)

Perhaps surprisingly, this Figaro is a co production with the Met, a much larger stage, so presumably the sets will all have to be rebuilt for then. Hopefully they'll hire some experts in Islamic art, improve the look of it, and iron out some of the set's problems. Although it is an updating that will no doubt receieve some grumbles when it crosses the pond, there is nothing here at all to challenge the arch conservative Met audience intellectually, morally or emotionally.

*In fact, it gave me such a good idea for a production but I don't want to write it here for fear that the idea will be stolen!

Monday 16 July 2012

Renée Fleming with Gergiev and the LSO


A rather disheartening way to end the season for me. The two orchestral showpieces on offer, Debussy's La Mer, and Stravinsky's Petrushka were perfectly acceptably played (the LSO rarely plays truly badly) but both felt a bit by rote, and Gergiev didn't offer anything particularly personal with either of them. I must admit that I've never seen the LSO be as responsive or play with as much energy with Gergiev as I have seen with Previn or Colin Davis. I found out recently from personal anecdotes that they feel very affectionately towards both Previn and Davis, so I wonder whether there is just a fundamental personality mismatch with Gergiev. Difficult to know if I've just caught a lot of off nights, or whether there's something in this...

The main draw of the evening was surely Renée Fleming, who sang two French song cycles that she has recently also recorded. My comments on the pieces and a review of that disc can be found here. She started with Dutilleux's song cycle Le Temps L'horlage, a poignant and quirky song cycle about time and yearning (shades of the Marschallin, Rusalka?) written especially for her. This is not a cycle that allows for much vocal display until the last song, and this was a softly shaded reading aiming mostly at text. Though always just about audible, Fleming was just hardly giving out any sound, and her trade mark endless legato seemed compromised and hard fought for. The lower notes occasionally became quite unstable timbrally and occasionally also with regards to intonation, traditionally also strengths. The last song at least brought some more fortitude in the voice, but never for sustained periods. Lacking in the voice now is the extraordinary vibrancy and beauty of timbre that it used to have, and also its rock steady technical security; all the time we feel strongly that she is shepherding her resources. She fared slightly better in Ravel Shéhérezade, but again this was a very small scale reading, and it just sounds like a completely different voice from the one it used to be. Very sad. She was quite good in her Ariadne's earlier this year, but I am now worried for her Munich Rosenkavaliers that I will be attending.

It pains me to write this because I really do believe that Fleming is the greatest singer of her generation, and certainly she is the singer (along with Callas) who has given me more listening pleasure than any other. She has talked throughout her career of the mystery of the voice, how it can just leave a singer in a very short time, and about early retirement and knowing when to retire. She has been very careful and prudent with repertoire selection for this reason, to keep the voice young and avoid damage at all costs, but age catches up with everyone sooner or later. I am sure she is only too aware of her current vocal condition, but I imagine it is much harder to actually stop singing than talk about it - emotionally, psychologically and not least financially.  Farewell dates at the Royal Opera House are being mooted for the 2016-2017 season (when she'll be 58) but I wonder how much voice will be left by then and I wonder also whether these next few years of singing will damage her legacy. Leontyne Price was still singing with unbelievable beauty at 58 (see here), but every soprano is very different - it doesn't just come down to careful vocal management, but also to genetics, hormones, mental health, self confidence, luck, and innumerable other factors.

Ultimately I can only express my unending gratitude to Renée Fleming for her voice and artistry, mercifully captured for posterity on so many wonderful recordings, which have afforded me so many hours of extraordinary pleasure. Beauty is a very fragile and ephemeral thing and one must be supremely grateful for the times it touches our lives and the ability it has to lift us above the mundane and into the numinous.

Friday 13 July 2012

Otello at the ROH


Verdi's Otello is by common consent one of his very greatest scores, and there is no question that it's the work of a brilliant mind at the height of his powers. Everything is so skilfully wrought, in the excellent libretto every plot detail is essential and logical, the original Shakespeare stripped down to its barest essentials, everything driving forward and lean and dramatic. The music that Verdi provides too is always absolutely what is required and is immaculately composed - the thrilling storm scene, the lusty/comic drinking song, the syrupy love duet, the powerfully dark Credo and on and on throughout brilliant number after number, here seamlessly joined into half hour wholes, Verdi's inspiration virtually never lapsing in its entire 2.5 hour duration.

And yet. And yet. There is something slightly cold about the whole thing. It's so well put to together, so consummately made, so well thought out, that it's almost clinical, and one misses the open, honest humanity of Il Trovatore, Traviata and the other works of his middle period. Verdi's middle period succeeds because he leaves so much out - the spareness and simplicity of the writing, use of old fashioned bel canto conventions, coupled with his unerring belief in the drama, however ludicrous the situation, furnishes true artists with opportunities to provide the full gamut of emotion and meaning that singing and vocal line can offer to drama. It's where he is at his most successful and moving. Otello often feels like an attempt at something of the gravity and colossal mass of Wagnerian music drama, and brilliant though this opera is, it's just not where Verdi's genius lies. Everything is a little too closed, too rounded, with not enough ambiguity in plot, action, drama or characterisation to render the complex psychological states that Wagner provides us with. Though one cannot help but leave awed in a great performance such as this one, and whilst admitting that it contains some unquestionably truly great music, there's the creeping suspicion that something quite important is missing too. I'm sure that many will disagree.

I have to say that I also very much dislike the gross simplification of Iago's character compared to the Shakespeare, and think it's the job of the director to muddy the waters a bit again. I know this is opera, and things need to be clearer and simpler, but the Credo for instance, brilliant though it is in its way, traduces and makes blander this most conflicted, mysterious and interesting of all Shakespeare's villains. But this is a topic for another time perhaps...

This production is very traditional indeed. Elijah Moshinsky also directed the Met's now ancient production, and blocking wise it's very similar. Set designs by Timothy O'Brein are also similar to the Met version, though darker and more interesting.

What's particularly notable is that there's a reason for every action, Moshinsky having clearly thought a lot about the piece over many years, and amazingly he hasn't let it get tired or lose its impact. He doesn't try to change the story or add anything to Verdi's drama, a decision which I'm sure will make many people very happy. For those dissenters who prefer their villains murkier and less clear cut, their heroines less sugar and spice, and their Otellos more complex they'll have to focus on the superb vocalising on offer. I really don't have any real complaints, I'm just being difficult. I guess one could say however on the other hand that none of my notions of the work were challenged.

Aleksandrs Antonenko is quite astonishing vocally as Otello, with a shining, truly dramatic, brilliant italianate sound, never once sounding over taxed by the extraordinary demands of the part, whilst simultaneously remaining thrillingly heroic and manful. Very in tune too, and barely a scoop into top notes. It's absolutely huge as well, and actually gains colour and quality when louder. There are never that many great Otellos in the world at any one time; the last great one was Domingo, and Antonenko is surely destined to be the inheritor of that mantle. Vocally at least, he is even more accomplished, with a better top, bigger sound, and securer technique. Dramatically, he is not quite as compelling, not the natural instinctive actor that Domingo was in this role. Certainly not bad by operatic standards however. With singing like this, I'm willing to forgive just about anything. You owe it to yourself to see him. Do it. It doesn't look like he's done any Wagner yet... but surely Tristan, Siegmund and maybe even Siegfried await? The italian repertoire will no doubt remain central though.

Anja Harteros has been much talked about ahead of this appearence as she cancelled both of her previous appearances at the ROH this season (first Trittico, then Boheme) so people have been nervous that she might not show for this one either. I have to say, that after all this expectation I was slightly disappointed with her Desdemona. Dramatically she just never seems frail or vulnerable enough, nor does she have the big open hearted trust and warmth that Desdemona needs in very a traditional production like this to make her believable and sympathetic. The problem is also in the voice, which while often very beautiful, is not fragile sounding enough for this role. As a result of these things, she rarely tugs at the heart strings. The voice itself is very dark and full sounding, with a superb technique, and is particularly wonderful in quiet, floated high singing where the timbre is quite special; the last half of her Act 4 scena was a case in point, the tone finally lightened too to become silvery, shimmery and entirely fitting for the role. She's also capable of very significant volume in the climaxes of Act 3 (does Puccini lie ahead?), though her middle register can get quite harsh and even ugly when pushed and is not her strength. In general I also miss the vocal particularities, moments of true individuality and personality that mark out a truly exceptional artist. I do think however that this is not a role that really does her justice dramatically, and possibly not fully vocally either. She remains a singer of a very high order indeed, but for my money, she's not quite on the level of say a Kiri, or a Renée or a Leontyne. Again, others may disagree.

Lucio Gallo is vocally and technically not quite a match for his rivals, but is very good as Iago. The loud singing is not beautiful, but is often quite stirring and his Credo was brilliant. He indulges in quite a lot of unsupported head voice/falsetto singing which is the normal way of approaching Iago's intimate, high lying phrases, and makes him quite slimy and disgusting. One day I'd love to hear it sung by someone like Hvorostovsky in a true supported mezza voce, suggesting the hidden power and strength that could be (will be) unleashed, but on the other hand it's hardly necessary, and probably not what Verdi intended. Gallo does a strange thing often when singing loud where he'll pull his jaw into his neck and tilt his whole head forward which gives him a rather awkward posture, but perhaps this was a piece of characterisation? Dramatically he gets the job done, though doesn't create the depth of characterisation that would make the piece as a whole more emotionally engaging. I have my own ideas about how I would stage it all!

Supporting roles are all well taken with many also singing on alternate night in Les Troyens! Brindley Sherratt as Lodovico and Hanna Hipp as Emilia made the most impact, but really this evening is all about the three leads. Pappano is in the pit and drives the performance along admirably - it's a score he knows very well and he makes it deliver its considerable goods. On this first night, some sections still seemed a little scrappy from the orchestra, and there were times when it was lacking a bit in atmosphere, but largely the orchestra and chorus were on good form.

It seems that, just like last season, the Royal Opera House saved their best cast until last - would be interesting to look back at past seasons and see if this is coincidence, or whether they have always attempted this...

Saturday 7 July 2012

Joyce DiDonato at the Wigmore Hall


This week has been a bit of a mezzo fest for me - seven days ago I went to see the wonderful Susan Graham at the Wigmore Hall, then saw an extremely promising young mezzo in the RCM Figaro, then Elizabeth DeShong in yesterday's Brynfest, and today back to the Wigmore Hall for Joyce DiDonato.

Joyce DiDonato seems to have an immense following, so I'm going to risk courting controversy and suggest that I don't think she's a star because she has a particularly beautiful voice. The very tight, narrow vibrato gives the sound a brittleness and edge that isn't at all luxurious or warm, and it's (the vibrato that is) inherently unsteady too, with little "blips" heard in every note of extended duration. It's not vocal tension in the normal sense, with jaw shaking and tongue compression (with all its incipient problems), but there's a shivering tension in the sound that is slightly uncomfortable. This is not bad. This is its appeal. In the right repertoire she's exciting to listen to because of these vocal peculiarities and this distinctive sound and her risk taking. Unfortunately this evening's Venice themed recital didn't quite play to her strengths enough but was nevertheless pretty enjoyable.

One great thing was all the unusual repertoire she chose - I hadn't heard a single one of these pieces before. Sort of Bartoli-esque in this way (stylistically too the biggest audible influence, and sometimes not all that different in tone either). I never quite understand the chronological approach to recital building, except of course when it becomes the thematic point of a recital. Here the theme was Venice, but it seems that starting with Baroque music, as so often happens, is not the easiest way to warm up the voice, or "test out" the room. The two arias Onde chiare che sussrrate and Amato ben from Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte (nope, no idea either) were surprising and very inventive - really great to hear, and surprisingly good with piano. Unfortunately DiDonato seemed unsettled at this stage, legato singing not a strong point anyway, and here the awkward jumps in the vocal line proving problematic. The Fauré Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ are all about subtle line, quiet detail and atmosphere, but again didn't seem ideally matched to DiDonato's strengths - she was frequently out of tune and didn't sound at ease in the endlessly rapt cantilenas.

Next came another rarity, and an absolute beauty too - a late (1858) song cycle by Rossini. I love Rossini an unreasonable amount. Can't exactly say way. Easily my favourite of the bel cantists. He's just so cool. And I like his late, completely out of fashion stuff too, where he's ignoring everything that's going on around him musically and is just continuing to plough his own furrow. There's special stuff in there. Anyhow, Rossini for me is a perfect match for DiDonato and plays to all her strengths - excitement and abandon are what this music needs and that's what DiDonato delivered in spades. The Italian language seems to be by some distance the best for her voice in terms of sound and also interpretively - she sounds incisive, expressive, confident and commanding in a way she doesn't quite so fully in French or German, and when singing quietly too, the fluttery tone here seems just right. These songs (La regata veneziana) emerged as charming miniature masterpieces, quirky and inventive, DiDonato singing them with complete conviction and a humour, darting and swinging through their corners and heights.

After the interval, Schubert's wonderful Gondelfahrer was quite lovely, and the fluttery, shimmery vibrato here somehow recalled Schwarzkopf. David Zobel's piano playing was beautifully shaped here, and throughout he displayed a very lovely tone and unnerringly crisp playing. Schumann's Zwei Venetianische Lieder from Myrthen were less special but after that we got Head's Three songs of Venice which are atmospheric, subtly jazz inspired, slightly sentimental and include some lovely Straussian shifts in harmony and vocal line. We were back almost back on home ground with Hahn's turn of the century Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénetien which are lovely parlour pieces: funny, sentimental and catchy.

For encores we got another Vivaldi rarity, and then some more Rossini - here the famous finale of La Cenerentola which was delightful to hear. I must say however that I'm not at all a fan of her heavy aspirates in the coloratura much (Bartoli's influence again) as it really affects the line and muddies the pitch too. Certainly better than nothing though, and she took the final section at break neck speed, made it her own, took plenty of risks and raised a huge cheer as she finished. Finally a feel good end with a sincere and heartfelt (!) Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Friday 6 July 2012

Brynfest at the Royal Festival Hall


Ho hum, sort of a hum drum evening this. I don't know why I'm surprised... I saw the repertoire, didn't book the first time despite the singers, but couldn't resist the £20 Timeout offer. They were filming it which explains the desire to fill seats, but there were still loads of empty ones. Is it that Bryn no longer has the power to fill the RFH? Or was it just the poor repertoire?

(Please note that the Royal Festival Hall has a very strange accoustic which does singers no favours, so bear that in mind with the comments - I have too)

The repertoire choices were a bit mystefying - Mostly italian, with a few French things (and the Eugene Onegin Waltz of all things). Although he's always sung this repertoire, it's not exactly what he's known for - I would have thought that a bleeding chunk from Wagner, and possibly some Mozart (does he still sing this?) would have been more appropriate as the main body of this evening, with some French and Italian stuff chucked in. As it was, we got a series of very short, rather light snippets that never seemed to amount to much. Bryn himself was in rather leathery voice and I don't know if this just reflects his current vocal condition or whether he was having an off night. It's lost colour and resonance, and I don't like that he shouts so much, not something he used to have to do, though the sound is still recognisably him. A little disappointing as I would consider myself an ardent fan of his in the right rep. That said, look below for the underwhelming repertoire choices - Miei rampolli femminini from La Cenerentola? Really? Why?

Here's what was performed, just because I don't want to talk through it piece by piece. Maybe I should do this anyway in future reviews.
Giuseppe Verdi: Overture, I vespri siciliani
Giuseppe Verdi: Pietà, rispetto, amore from Macbeth
Giuseppe Verdi: Ecco l'orrido campo from Un ballo in maschera
Gaetano Donizetti: Pour mon âme from La Fille du Regiment
Gioachino Rossini: Una voce poco fa from The Barber of Seville
Giuseppe Verdi: Noi siamo zingarelli from La Traviata
Georges Bizet: Je crois entendre from The Pearl Fishers
Giacomo Puccini: Vissi d'arte from Tosca
Giacomo Puccini: Te Deum from Tosca
Gioachino Rossini: Miei rampolli femminini from La Cenerentola
Gioachino Rossini: Si, ritrovarla, io giuro from La Cenerentola
Gioachino Rossini: Nacqui all'affanno from La Cenerentola
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Waltz scene from Eugene Onegin
Arrigo Boito: L'altra notte in fondo al mare from Mefistofele
Arrigo Boito: Son lo spirito che nega from Mefistofele
Giuseppe Verdi: Tre volte miagola la gatta (Witches chorus) from Macbeth
Pietro Mascagni: Easter Hymn from Cavalleria rusticana
Georges Bizet: Duet, Au fond du temple saint from The Pearl Fishers
Encore: quartet from Rigoletto
Bryn Terfel bass-baritone
Oksana Dyka soprano
Elizabeth DeShong mezzo-soprano
Lawrence Brownlee tenor
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Gareth Jones conductor

Oksana Dyka was ok - she has a gorgeous top which is huge and very rounded, but in the middle the power falls away, and there's no lower register to speak of. Vissi d'arte was squally, but strangely, L'altra notte in fondo al mare wasn't at all - she was at her best there I thought. Hard to judge properly in such small bursts of singing though, so I suspend judgement.

This is the first time I have seen Lawrence Brownlee live. In a way it's amazing what he can do, but I found him rather dull. I found his tone monocromatic - the vibrato is identical everywhere and he manages to make every vowel have the same colour. It's a rather soft edged voice, and the top comes so easily that it just doesn't thrill. It might just be that the RFH was simply too cavernous to do his voice (or anyone else's) justice. Both he and Bryn were at their best though during the final number - the famous Pearlfishers duet, where both finally seemed a bit freer vocally.

Thank god for Elizabeth Deshong! She jumped in last minute to replace another (ill) mezzo. I've written about her before here and elsewere, but I just need to reiterate how wonderful this voice is. Gorgeously even throughout the range, agile, MASSIVE chest register, ultra shiny radiant top, and charming to boot. I very much like what she does interpretively too, she colours things nicely, her dynamic choices excellent, and the coloratura can be heroic sounding or tossed off (i.e. she can choose to add weight or not) which is very good. I feel the one thing currently missing is textual acuity - if she took more risks with this I would be even happier. On the way home this evening I was wondering whether she'll be the composer in next season's Glyndebourne Ariadne and this thought filled me with joy, but that is somewhere where text is of paramount importance. I'm not sure if it's an ideal Strauss mezzo voice (both the composer and Octavian were designated soprano parts originally and as a result sit very high) but I don't mind finding out.

One thing - both of the arias she sang are meant to be from rather meek, sweet, girlish characters, admittedly both with a strong core, but though she sings them wonderfully, the voice is anything but meek and mild. Rossini seems to suit so well though, so would love to see her in the "serious" Rossini roles. Would she consider Armida? A soprano role officially, but low lying.

Overall this evening was only really worth it for the contributions from DeShong and that lovely final duet. I would not have been happy had I paid full price.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal College of Music


I chose to review the second cast because usually they never get any press coverage, and it doesn't seem fair. Sadly I didn't see the other cast, but there it is. Luckily this cast was uniformly of a high standard, so I didn't feel the need to be blandly noncomittal in this review - all of them surely have careers ahead of them, but as is to be expected, they are not all equally finished as performers yet.

In this production, the sets were rather simple - clean white boxy rooms which descend from the ceiling and cocoon each other, and a four part screen at the front which had the words "Le Nozze di Figaro" on it. Not sure why this was written there, other than to break up the white. The rooms also had the beginnings of the famous arias on them, ostensibly to show you who the room belonged to I'm guessing, but no doubt also to break up the monotony of minimalist white. Quite vanilla then, literally and metaphorically. Unfortunately the direction reflected this - traditional, which isn't bad, but a bit plain and lacking in dramatic momentum. Figaro is an opera that really doesn't require a big budget to be done superbly - its all in the wit and subtlety of the social hierarchies and interactions (and that score!), which means you need a really sensitive director who is up to the job. To cut a long story short, the main problem with Jean Claude Auvray's production was that it lacked tension and dramatic impetus largely because the count was not in the least bit threatening - if he's just a buffoon, the endless vacillations to avoid his wrath seem frivolous and pointless, the dramatic and musical linchpin of the opera (the Act II finale) falls flat, the class tensions aren't explorable, and the final reconciliation of the count and countess loses some of its poignancy.

Emilie Renard as Cherubino

There were lots of nice unusual touches though - Susanna getting very angry at Figaro's insensitivity at the end of Act I; being able to see inside the closet in Act II; the lights going up for Figaro's Act IV aria about women, and he walks into the audience addressing us personally. But every time, the novelty was squandered, the idea wasn't developed enough, or didn't actually change the drama at all, or teach us anything new about the characters. On the plus side, the production was energetic and fast paced, so rarely felt boring, but too often the young singers seemed to just be going through the motions of the plot, rather than really having compelling reasons for their actions.

Musically this was a strong evening, and the cast really worked well as an ensemble. The RCM orchestra mostly played very well, a few intonation issues aside, and the score bristled with energy and dash as it should. Sometimes, the larger structures didn't seem to hang together quite as well as I would have liked, but maybe this is cavilling in a student performance.

For me the stand out in the cast was Emilie Renard as Cherubino. I first saw her in a concert performance of La Celemenza Di Tito and thought she was superb vocally there, so it's very satisfying to see that she is so good on stage too. She was the only person who presented a fully rounded and believable character, with subtle emotions, charming points of characterisation, never over or under acted in this often misjudged role. Her first aria,  Non so piu..., was exquisitely sung, with a beautiful tone and affecting ardency. She clearly enjoys the singing, but is never given to show boating - just really great to watch and hear. Probably precisely because it sounds so simple and is so exposed, her second aria Voi che sapete... didn't seem quite as ideal, but no doubt her interpretation will settle in time. I expect she'll sing this role everywhere very soon.

This cast's Countess, Abigail Mitchell, was sick so the other cast's Countess, Anastasia Prokofieva, stepped in. She has a very interesting voice which may be very beautiful indeed one day - she certainly delivered the goods beauty wise, in the two excrutiatingly difficult arias, negotiating the passagio admirably, and her Piú docile io sono at the end of Act 4 was as special as one was hoping for. However, her Italian was often quite muddled, and the vibrato was much too wide in the recitatives to hear what she was saying. Additionally, she wasn't really stylistically on the right lines - although I fully encourage the attempt to sing every phrase legatissimo as befits this character, there were a few too many portamentos for comfort. She still has plenty of time to develop and as I say, she has the makings of a gorgeous voice. Acting wise, (and I blame the director) her Countess was much too vampish for my tastes, really indulging in Cherubino's affections and acting completely inappropriately for a woman of her status and class. The result was that she seemed just as indulgent and vain and almost as hypocritical as the Count, which is an interpretation to be sure, but for me not the most effective or moving one.

Filipa can Eck and Bradley Travis
Filipa van Eck is really natural on stage, ultra smiley, ebullient and plucky, with a lovely youthful lyric voice that seems right in line with the traditional picture we have of Susanna. Occasionally I wanted a bit more emotional range from her, but she's a good actress, has a very fine voice and was clearly the centre of the show. A real charmer.

Bradley Travis' Figaro was similarly well sung, but his acting seemed a little more generic; not bad by any means, and again it might have been the fault of the direction, but just a little too blank to render a fully believable character. Morgan Pearse's count was splendid vocally, with an interesting timbre, lots of nuance, but as already mentioned physically lacked the dignity and menace that he needs. His Act III aria Vedro mentr'io sospiro was fantastic though.

One thing that I absolutely hate in Mozart is when the asides (and there are so many) are delivered directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, rather than as an internal commentary of the sort that occurs in real life all the time. This connects to the bigger issue of how arias should be presented. Personally I want to feel as if I'm looking into the scene, overhearing a moment of personal reflection, anger, jealousy, lust or whatever. Never that the character is telling me what he is thinking or feeling. It's a subtle but important distinction, and was another problem in general with the direction in this production. Only Renard fully avoided this pitfall.

Hannah Sanidison, Pnini Grubner and Vasili Karpiak
The smaller roles were all well taken. Best of all was Vasili Karpiak's Basilio (the music master) who was finally played as I always have wanted to hear him - as an italianate bel canto tenor, with a sob in the voice, every phrase milked for its lyricism, and with the occasional interpolated high note. He was also subtly characterised in actions too in a character that often barely registers. Great stuff. Pnini Grubner's Dr. Bartolo was pleasingly gruff and very well sung, and Hannah Sandison as Marcellina had a very pleasing and timbre. Anna Anandarajah's has a very sweet and pliant voice, but it is also rather dark and seemed a little inappropriate for the 12 year old Barbarina. Strangely in what is after all meant to be a show case for these students, the commonly cut Basilio and Marcellina arias were cut here too... I fully understand why this is done normally (though I like Marcellina's one as a feminist aria and foil for Figaro's anti-women rant) but I personally always regret the choice, and thought it particularly inexcusable here.

Overall I enjoyed myself very much, and it's always exciting to see new talent emerging and blooming.