Archive | March, 2013

Brave Lombardi

24 Mar

University College Opera earned my eternal gratitude in 2003 by introducing me to Hahn’s Ciboulette and, since then, I’ve enjoyed a range of eclectic pieces, many of which were way outside even my wish-list, of varying worth but considerable interest, performed with enthusiasm.  This year they went relatively, for them, mainstream by choosing Verdi’s I Lombardi.  You may be able to get it on CD and DVD if you want but, by my calculations, this was the first UK staging since 1976.  This was my first serious encounter with it.

After this performance (on 21st March at the Bloomsbury Theatre), my main feeling was that this is pretty minor Verdi.  He and Solera wanted to build on the success of Nabucco, the year before.  There are similarities: a strong opening Act outlining the feud between the two brothers.  After that the opera seems to lose track when a second tenor love interest arrives in the second Act (while the heroine is captured in a harem).  He gets killed at the end of Act III and there is still another Act to go, Jerusalem to be captured and the two brothers to be reconciled.  One of those brothers disguises himself as a pilgrim. It makes La forza del destino (with which it has some similarities) look like a model of clarity and concision.  Like Nabucco there is a strong anti-hero in the tortured Pagano but the rivalry between him and his brother never really gets anywhere. The heroine, Giselda has some lovely music.  There are lots of very jolly ensembles and Verdi’s ability to build up those moments where time stands still is fully developed here.  There are some decent duets and a chorus clearly trying to ape Va Pensiero.  It’s not in the same league.

You can see lots of ideas that feature in other operas, on the whole done much better: brothers at  war, wandering hermits…   You can see plot elements of Forza, Boccanegra, Due Foscari and others but without the panache.  Above all, there doesn’t seem to be a figure with anything like the force of Abigaille or Nabucco or the sort of conflict between individuals that make the other operas so interesting.  It’s actually quite hard to see why it retained its huge popularity in Italy in the 19th century.

I don’t think it was helped in this performance by Jamie Hayes’s direction.  He updated it to the 1960s and set in gangland London – two rival gangs (it really doesn’t help that there are any major representatives of one of those gangs).  The programme suggested that this was because of worries about political correctness in showing a war between Christians and Muslims.  Neither Hayes’s synopsis in the profile, nor the surtitles reallyhelped to clarify the action and I spent much of the evening (not having done my homework on the plot – I reckon that if you have to do homework, the opera’s failed) completely bewildered.  The show was professionally drilled and looked reasonably good, but it made no sense of the opera.

As ever, the principals were professional and three, I thought, were very promising.  Katherine Blumenthal made a sweet, committed Giselda who sang her arias and duets very nicely.  As Pagano, John Mackenzie displayed a really powerful bass-baritone and a strong, louring presence.  I don’t think he was helped by a the Director deciding that, rather than a hermit, he was some sort of new age preacher – making him comic rather than interesting.  But I enjoyed his singing very much and he is a very watchable singer.  I also thought that Adam Smith showed a really strong, sappy, Italianate tenor for Oronte.  There were moments where I felt that he was over-stretched by the role, but this seemed to me to be a very promising performance.  Jeff Stewart made a decent Arvinio, the last of the leading roles.

The smaller roles were taken by students who acquitted themselves pretty well even if they couldn’t disguise the gap between them and their  professional colleagues – I thought that Edward Cottell, in particular, made a very brave, creditable stab at Pirro.  The chorus has a lot of work to do and much of it is quite enjoyable.  There were lots of people and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves.  They don’t produce the sound of a professional chorus – the men in particular sounded a bit anaemic – but they really coped very well indeed with some very brisk tempi and in helping those ensembles get off the ground.

The orchestra too was as good as I’ve heard it in a UCO production and Charles Peebles conducted with gusto and made the piece sound like strong early Verdi.  If only the staging and the opera had convinced me…

So one of their better efforts and I’m grateful to have seen Lombardi – the only Verdi that I’ve not experienced in a live performance is its younger sister, Jerusalem – any chance of someone doing that this year?
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Imeneo – enjoyable light Handel

24 Mar

There’s a temptation to feel that there’s a sameness about Handel’s operas.  Generally they seem to involve at least two couples, generally with names that no-one was ever called, who love each other in varying permutations and who get sorted out one way or another by the end.  There’s often a strong element of comedy and, in the better ones, some politics or something about power.  Structurally, the main characters have at least aria per act and, at times you feel Handel trotted out some of those arias pretty much by rote.  I can imagine people saying that, if you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen the lot.

Imeneo, which I saw on 14th March at the Britten Theatre as part of the London Handel Festival both confirms and disproves the prejudices.  The plot is pretty much a story of a woman, Rosmene, choosing between the man who loves her and whom she loves(Tirinto) and the man who has saved her life (Imeneo, otherwise the god, Hymen).  There is a second woman, Clomiri, in love with Imeneo and the obligatory bass father-figure, Argenio.  You see what I mean about the names.  What is interesting is that Rosmene chooses against love and there is a strange scene where she feigns madness or a breakdown in order to break the news to Tirinto.

It’s not a great libretto.  There’s none of the political shenanigans or the plot complexities that you get in other Handel operas and, to be honest, the relationships aren’t well developed and it’s hard to sympathise with the characters – they all look a bit stock.  What is most frustrating is that you can see no reason why Rosmene chooses Imeneo rather than Tirinto.  On the other hand, there’s some really attractive music.  That for Tirinto is the finest (a particularly gorgeous number early on) but his arias are all excellent. There are some jolly numbers for both women and for Imeneo.  There’s even a trio and some choruses.  For Handel, this is getting daring and there isn’t a bad number in the piece.  I spent the evening smiling at the man’s sheer joyous genius.  With a strong director, this could be a very enjoyable light evening.

Paul Curran’s direction had a lot going for it.  He set it in a luxury health spa on some Greek island.  The set was of pillars which moved easily to vary the scenes.  Imeneo sported a variety of swimwear and leisure gear throughout and Luke D Williams had the figure to carry this off with aplomb.  He directed his characters so that they conveyed the emotions well.  It was well-drilled, plenty of business to distract the eye without completly wrecking the plot.  He did not, however, solve the centrol problem of why Rosmene chooses Imeneo over Tirinto.  Without this, the evening is no more than beguiling, if slightly puzzling, entertainment.

The London Handel Festival’s performances often suffer from the fact that Handel was writing for singers who were hugely experienced stars – the Sutherlands, Domingos and Bartolis of their day. Here, we tend to have very promising students.  With that, quite important cavil in mind, however, there was a lot to enjoy in the performances.  I saw the second cast and thought that Tai Oney as Tirinto displayed a very fine counter tenor with a real sense of style even if he didn’t project the character as strongly as he might.  Hannah Sanderson made a strong Rosmene who was very effective in her mad scene.  Katherine Crompton as Clomiri was delightful, singing with ease and charm.  Luke D Williams sang Imeneo with the same confidence that he displayed in managing his costumes and displayed a very promising bass voice.

Laurence Cummings’s experience in this repertory paid off hugely.  He conducted an affectionate, stylish performance that knew what the piece was about.  The London Handel Orchestra seems to improve every year and provided considerable pleasure.

This may not be Handel’s finest opera, but it reminded me that even minor Handel operas can be huge fun and very rewarding and it was hard not to enjoy the evening.  There’s a concert performance of the piece at the Barbican in May with a very promising cast and I’ll aim to be there.

Fascinating polyglot Telemann

19 Mar

I’ve been to quite a lot recently and I haven’t had the time I’d have liked to blog about it all.  I hope I’ll get round at least to my thoughts on Written on Skin and Imeneo.  However, I’ve just been to the performance on 18th March of Telemann’s Orpheus at St George’s Hanover Square by the Classical Opera Company and wanted let my enthusiasm for it out immediately.

I’ve not seen an opera by Telemann before.  In fact, I know remarkably little of his music.  According to the programme he claimed to have written 35 operas for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg.  Only seven have survived and this one, written in 1726, relatively early on in his time in Hamburg, was only rediscovered in the 1970s.  And it’s not entirely complete.

It takes a French libretto in which the wicked queen Orasia is in love with Orpheus and organises the snakes to get rid of Euridice.  Once Euridice dies the story goes on much as usual until Orpheus returns.  He then rejects Orasia who orders him to be torn to pieces by a group of passing Bacchantes.  There’s a minor sub-plot for Eurimedes, Orpheus’s friend and Cephisa, one of Euridice’s nymphs – amounting to a couple of arias in the first Act.  Given that Orasia and Pluto each have a confidante, it’s quite a busy evening for those of us used to Gluck, or even Montiverdi or Birtwistle.  As someone who tends to find the Gluck, at least, a bit of a bore, I welcomed the additional interest.

The entirely eccentric thing about this opera is that it is in polyglot.  The recitatives and the majority of the arias are in German, but every now and then Telemann will put in an aria in Italian or French, or a chorus in French.  Thus, in the first scene, Orasia and her confidante Ismene have been have been having a conversation in German and Orasia has had a couple of German arias and then suddenly launches into a massive vengeance aria in Italian.  Generally, it seems to me that Italian numbers are the ones for heightened emotion and more exaggerated sentiments, while the French ones tended to be for the higher, more refined emotions, but this seemed to be by no means the rule and I’ve no doubt that a director could have lots of fun with this.  I didn’t find it damaged my enjoyment of the piece (though it might have been more obvious if what the cast were singing had been clearer) and I’d love to know if this were a regular occurrence.  The nearest I’ve got to this was at a recent ENO Elisir where the understudy Nemorino only knew the role in Italian and Andrew Shore changed language to suit.  The choice seemed far more random here.

What I enjoyed most was the sheer variety and quality of the music.  Judging by this, Telemann had significant talent as an opera composer.  The recitatives move swiftly, the arias express the emotions of the text and manage a splendid variety of tone.  I remember particularly Orpheus’s aria “Ach Tod, du süsser Tod” in the first Act with a delicate grieving pizzicato accompaniment, the beautiful sinfonia with flute obbligato as he charms Pluto, but there were many others that were incredibly grateful to listen to and served a really strong dramatic purpose.

It helped that Ian Page conducted a very strong performance indeed.  I’m going to mention the Classical Opera Company’s orchestra first because it played throughout with huge sensitivity and style.  It’s a busy score and this band’s clear, crisp, alert and really sensitive playing gave huge pleasure.

He had a young and very gifted cast of singers.  For this concert performance they had learned their parts and so could move and react without holding scores and it felt as though “semi-staged” would be a better description.  It wasn’t a perfect cast and there were a number of occasions when I wished for singers just a little bit more experienced and a little more alert to the words, but they were committed, intelligent and musical and this went a very long way indeed.

The main female role is Orasia and Eleanour Dennis had a very strong stab at it.  It reminds me of the sort of writing that Handel gave to Armida in Rinaldo and requiring that sort of soprano.  Dennis managed the differing emotions and brought some really fire to the coloratura of the angry, vengeance numbers, but I couldn’t help wishing far a little more freedom and experience to make a full effect.  Similarly, I really admired Jonathan McGovern’s thoughtful, simple, open singing as Orpheus and also wondered what Fischer-Dieskau would have made of it.  This may seem ungrateful but I felt that Telemann was probably writing for major and experienced singers at an important opera house.

The lesser roles are, I suspect easier, but I hugely enjoyed Alex Ashworth’s booming, accurate and very forceful Pluto, Alexander Sprague’s lilting, idiomatic, gentle Eurimedes and Rhian Lois’s appealing Euridice and Rupert Enticknap’s confident Ascalax.  The small forces sounded very good in St George’s.

Hand on heart, I can’t really imagine this hugely attractive oddity ever getting into the repertory or even being takne on by one of the major companies but I left hoping (a) that there’d be a recording of this excellent performance and (b) that this company and others, maybe students, maybe Opera North, will tackle some more of Telemann’s work.  This evening suggested that he’d far too good to be left forgotten.  And I’ll be eternally grateful to the performers this evening for demonstrating this to me.

Austerity Tito

2 Mar

I’d love to know how Mozart viewed Clemenza di Tito.  Was this a “duty” piece that he didn’t expect to last much in a form that he didn’t feel particularly comfortable with?  Or was it something that interested him, but lack of time didn’t permit him to do it justice?  Either way, it’s an opera that is not easy to make work and the performance I saw of Opera North’s production that I saw on 28th February at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, while having lots going for it, didn’t disguise the problems.

Let’s get them out of the way: there is an awful lot of recitative and it’s all rather repetitive – they don’t feel as though they are by Mozart and they lack .  They also lack the inspiration, the movement and interplay that Mozart would surely have provided had he been inspired by the subject matter.  Secondly, there are a number of arias and duets which are simply ordinary and there is a formality about them that you simply do not get in Zauberflote, which he was writing about the same time.  You can’t help feeling that you know which audience he preferred writing for.  The musical characterisation isn’t as clear or well-defined as in the other operas: it’s really hard to tell Sesto and Annio apart while, musically, Tito’s three arias strike me as interchangeable.  Indeed – you keep hearing echoes of other operas – particularly Cosí and Zauberflote, without feeling that there’s an individual timbre for this opera as there is for most of the other mature works. Finally, there is the plot which  is almost comic in the way that you just want to tell everyone to make up their minds and be a bit competent for a change.  It’s easy to see why it’s not done that often: for my money, Idomeneo is a far more interesting and enjoyable experience.

And yet, a good performance can make it interesting and the characters’ dilemmas matter.  For me, the heart is not so much the arias as the huge scene in the second act for Tito and Sesto.  In the rights hands that can be a fascinating, moving scene as the conflict of loyalties and emotions comes across.  I can recall two productions where it worked particularly well: Stephen Wadsworth’s with Scottish in 1993 and David McVicar’s at ENO in 2005.  Both of those were in English and you were able to follow the emotions properly.  During the endless recitatives here, I wished that Opera North had followed suit.  Surtitles help a bit, but you do need to be able to understand what they are seeing and, with no native Italian speakers in the cast, I’m not sure we would have lost much.  The Italian only succeeded in adding to the remoteness of the experience.

Despite this, John Fulljames’s production overcame many of the problems.  The setting was contemporary, even futuristic with the costumes fairly unspecific.  The set – a revolve with a large transparent panel and blank walls for projections – suggests an office with projections of buildings, geometric shapes and more (irritatingly including close-ups of Tito’s face).  Costumes, apart from Vitellia’s red hair, were dark and there was an over-powering sombre-ness about the look.  After the fire in the capitol, the cast were dusty and disshevelved as if after a major catastrophe.  There was no chorus onstage (an austerity measure? – McVicar took the same approach) and you were aware that the public aspect of this opera – those huge marches – needed some sort of crowd.

This was compensated for by the fact that there was little privacy.  The Tito/Sesto scene in Act II was watched by the rest of the cast, desperate for Sesto to be reprieved.  There was also some really fine acting and outstanding direction of the cast.  The emotions and motivations were beautifully directed.  Just as an example, the Annio/Servilia duet had the two of them sat on the edge of the stage with Servilia providing wisdom, comfort and strength to Annio, the two getting closer as the duet went on.  It was like watching Bei Männern in Zauberflote.  You believed in the closeness of the relationships and the conflicts.  Later, you sensed the seriousness of the betrayal of Tito and the danger Sesto was in. This, for me, really got to the heart of the opera and put it up there with the most successful stagings.  At the end, there might be forgiveness, but Fulljames sees little hope of reconciliation.  Tito was left on his own and I’m not sure that anyone was going to be marrying anyone else for a while.  It’s these insights that make Fulljames among my favourite operatic directors.

The were some really good performances two.  Annemarie Kremer made a memorable Norma last year and, I thought, made a strong Vitellia.  She gets the fiery temperament and the sense that she’s playing with Sesto beautifully and her remorse at the end was well expressed.  I felt that she wasn’t absolutely secure in Non piú di fiori: she sang it with an almsot Verdian approach which made me think that I’d quite like to hear her as one of Verdi’s Leonoras or even Lady Macbeth.  Helen Lepalaan was, visually, the most convincing Sesto that I’ve seen – a dark, tousle haired young man with a bit of a shadow.  I admired her, committed, really stylish singing hugely.  My only doubt was that, in Partò, partò, she really ought to look fired with enthusiasm and determination – I could understand why there might be a sort of fatalistic despair about her demeanour, but it didn’t really sit well with the singing.

I though Katherine Rudge was a really strong, convincing Annio and Fflur Wyn a really fine Servilia – about the only character with any sense – and she sang beautifully.

Paul Nilon was in excellent form as Tito – this was a worried Tito, full of integrity and doubts and he conveyed those really well, while singing outstandingly.  He’s one of Opera North’s strongest assets and this was probably the finest of the many fine performances I’ve seen from him here.  Henry Waddington also gave a really strong performance as Publio – he sang his aria with real style and security and looked convincing as the cynical minder.

Justin Doyle conducted.  The show had been prepared by Douglas Boyd who conducted all the other performances.  I thought that the tempi were sound and the orchestra played decently while making efforts to play in period.  I wasn’t convinced that the textures in the music were terribly well co-ordinated.  You were aware of the parts played by the different sections in the accompaniment but in a way that sounded slightly jerky, rather than seamless.  It was perfectly fine, but I’ve heard lots better.

So this was rather a glum Tito.  It didn’t solve all the problems, but it engaged and, particularly, in the second Act made a powerful case for the piece.  And the standards of acting and directing were everything you expect from this company.