Archive | April, 2016

Jommelli rarity

30 Apr

The Classical Opera Company’s exploration of the operatic scene in Mozart’s lifetime continued on 28th April with a concert at the Cadogan Hall of Niccolo Jommelli’s Il Vologeso.  Me neither – well, I’d heard of Jommelli but, if I’m honest would have struggled to date him, let alone identify him as a composer of over 80 operas.   This was the UK premiere. Try stopping me going along.

The story bears remarkable similarities to the elements of most opera seria of the time: a tyrant, Lucio Vero, is in love with Berenice who believes her husband, King Vologeso, to be dead.  Vologeso turns up, is imprisoned, but the tyrant’s fiancée, Lucilla, turns up as well.  This version seems to have some spectacle: Berenice jumps in front of a lion in the arena in order to save (or be killed) with Vologeso and there’s some gothic horror later (she thinks she’s in the same room as his severed head).  Otherwise, the piece seems to be largely about  Vero avoiding Lucilla and trying to persuade Berenice to give up Vologeso.

The structure appears to be pretty standard opera seria: the characters taking it in turns to have their arias.  Interestingly, the first two acts end with a quartet, the second with a trio and, unlike any other finales I can think of, the number of participants reduce towards the end, so they end up as a duet and solo respectively.  The most interesting character is Lucio Vero, while Vologeso doesn’t seem to have much to do this.  This maybe because of the cuts here, which brought the show in at about 2hrs 50, which was long enough: three of the arias were cut and a further three lost their second sections and da capo repeat.  Apparently about 10% of the recit was cut as well.

The arias, on the whole, struck me as the least interesting parts of the opera.  The best ones being for Vero whose arias in the second and third acts required a huge vocal range and real agility.  He’s also the best drawn character.  Otherwise, as Ian Page says in his excellent programme note, the interest is in some very, very fine recitative writing, with orchestral accompaniment and an impressive sense of atmosphere and, generally, some interesting and fine orchestral accompaniments to the arias.  Jommelli seemed to have a good sense of how to draw dilemmas and reflect emotions.

Hand on heart, it’s not a forgotten masterpiece. It’s interesting to see the work of another 18th Century composer and it made for a pleasant evening but not particularly one that interested you in the characters or their dilemmas.  It might have worked better on the stage and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was not a mistake to cut those arias.

The performance was pretty good within the limitations of a cast of very talented young singers in roles written for highly experienced stars.  Stuart Jackson, as Vero, impressed by his alert, beautifully timed and intelligent articulation of the recitative, getting laughs and keeping spirits up.  He did his arias really creditably without disguising the fact that he was stretched to his limits.  He had four out of the 13 remaining arias.

As Berenice, Gemma Summerfield probably had the best of the remaining and impressed with a strong, creamy voice and easy vocalism.  Rachel Kelly, as Vologeso sang her arias capably, intelligently, without making him an interesting character.  Angela Simkin as the Lucilla and Jennifer France as Flavio, her sidekick, were lively and sang  the arias well, without you feeling that they had much opportunity to shine.  Tom Verney as Aniceto sang his single aria really nicely – it’s one of the more curious, individual ones in the opera.

Page conducted with understanding and had the orchestra playing well.  He played the purple passages for all they were worth and you just wished that there were more of them.

I won’t consider it a disaster if I never see another piece by Jommelli but, equally, if another came up, I’d go along. There’s a lot to enjoy in them, even if they’ve had their day as operas.


Tannhäuser after thirty years

27 Apr

It’s over thirty years since I last saw Tannhäuser  – when the old Moshinsky production was new.  I missed its only revival because the performance I’d booked for was cancelled because of a strike and, for other reasons, I missed the first run of the ROH’s present production.  I made up for that by making sure I got to the first performance of its first revival on 26th April.

I still remember that 1984 performance because of the sheer luxury of the singing.  I remember feeling that I’d never heard such gloriously easy Wagner singing before and that cast – Gwyneth Jones, Klaus König, Thomas Allen and Eva Randova -was probably about as good as you could get at the time.  On reflection, it may just have been the sheer volume of some of that cast that impressed me.  And Colin Davis knew what he was doing with the score.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t think much of the production and thought the opera a bit of a bore.

I still have my doubts about the opera.  I’m not sure that it’s much more than a piece of 19th century hokum on the same sort of level as, say, Faust, which is far more entertaining.  What seems wrong these days is that Venusberg, whatever that symbolises, is unreflectingly seen as A Bad Thing – and nothing Wagner does suggests that there might be a half-way house between that and the ghastly society of the Wartburg.  With that lot, it’s no surprise that Tannhäuser broke free.  And an exploration of the tension between the two would make the opera more interesting.  As it is, we have tale of redemption which Wagner did better in, say, Dutchman, Tristan or the Ring.  There’s some nice music, but there’s a fair bit that plods.

Tim Albery’s production was highly praised first time round.  I’m not sure.  Of course, it’s a professional, thoughtful piece of work that looks good, but I’m not convinced that it makes the opera seem good. The problem begins quite early on.  We see Tannhäuser at the beginning, lured away by Venus through a replica Royal Opera House proscenium and curtain.  He’s followed by a group of other men, taken away by Venus’s harpies.  The Venusberg ballet takes place round a vast table which revolves.  The choreography by Jasmin Vardimon is clever and takes your breath away with the sheer athleticism and precision that it requires.  But you’re watching a spectacle.  It isn’t erotic, even though the men lose their shirts and the women their tops.  It isn’t dangerous – except insofar as you wonder whether one of them might fall off that table.  And it’s slightly comic.  It’s hard to see what the Wartburg mob were getting so worked up about.

Act II is set in a wrecked hall – parts of the proscenium covered in dust and rubble.  The Landgrave’s people are armed, poor and suspicious.  Shouldn’t they be religious too?  This asks for a statement about a theocracy or some other totalitarian state and it simply doesn’t get it.  And the failure of the contrast, for me, makes the whole thing seem a bit pointless.  The third act is well enough done but I was unconvinced by the identification of the ROH or any other theatre with depravity.

The characterisation of the roles is generally good and strong, as you would expect, but this didn’t engage or , particularly, interest me.  It was a clear, sensible narrative of the story but I didn’t think the production went beyond that.

The cast was good and almost entirely different from the 2010 incarnation (a good thing Albery was back to direct).  The exception was Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, who was highly praised in 2010.  You can’t doubt the quality of his singing or that you were listening to a really wonderful lieder singer, relishing the words, communicating through the words and the notes without show and making it sound easy and natural.  His enunciation is a joy, his colouring of the notes outstanding.  For much of the time he sings softly, drawing you in, making you listen, but he can open up the passion and volume when he wants to without sacrificing the beauty of the tone or the sheer consistency of the line.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard singing of this care and integrity in this theatre.  And yet…  Dramatically, Gerhaher seems to present Wolfram as an outsider, gauche, uncertain, thoughtful – his look seemed to be one of perpetual earnest concern.  It’s hard to see how he relates to everyone else or to understand the conflict between his friendship with Tannhäuser and his love for Elisabeth.  I still remember how outstandingly Thomas Allen did that and how his fuller voice and just more open buoyant personality made more of the role.  As I write, I’m listening to Haitink recording – Weikl gets greater generosity a more operatic sound to Wolfram’s piece in Act I.  There’s room for both and I’m glad I experienced Gerhaher’s performance.

For me, however, the real star was Emma Bell as Elisabeth.  This was the finest performance I’ve yet heard from this singer.  Here is a full, beautiful voice capable of managing the sheer radiant joy of Dich teure Halle and the passion and despair of her third Act number and the honesty of her duet with Tannhäuser.  And she sang precisely and clearly with none of blowsy spreading that you often get with Wagner sopranos.  She’s an expressive actress and makes the words tell.  She’s an outgoing, generous singer who made Elisabeth into a believable, moving character.  Can we please have her back as Sieglinde, Agathe, Ariadne, Chrysothemis and Senta?

It’s more than 25 years since I saw Peter Seiffert here as Parsifal.  The voice is still in remarkably fine fettle, managing the horrors of Tannhäuser, if not with ease then convincingly, which is about as much as you can ask.  Words were clear and expressively sung and I thought that he did the narration in Act III really well, getting the  despair and anger over really well.  It’s a shame we haven’t heard more of him in the interim.  Visually, he’s stolid and not an expressive actor.

Sophie Koch was Venus.  She’s a singer whose integrity and voice I admire, without ever finding her particularly exciting or interesting.  Venus needs an element of glamour about her (which Randova had redoubled in spades) and, despite the beauty of her singing, I never felt that this Venus was a significant rival to Elisabeth.  She struck me as rather passionless.

Stephen Milling made an excellent, dark-voice Landgrave, Ed Lyon sang Walther von der Vogelweide strongly, more than holding his own in this company and Michael Kraus made his mark as Biterolf.

I’d expected more sheer noise from the chorus, given the fact that there were approaching 100 of them, but their singing was clear, strong and distinguished.  This seemed in line with Hartmut Haenchen’s approach to the score: clear, detailed, concentrating on the texture and accompanying the singers thoughtfully, intelligently. The orchestra played very well indeed for him and you couldn’t doubt the quality of the interpretation.  But there were points where I would have welcomed just a bit less care, a bit more passion and the sweep to remind us that this is early Wagner, still writing with the Parisian, even Italian influences there and that there’s a melodramatic, grand operatic side to this score.  I never felt he quite let go.

This sounds as though I had a disappointing evening.  It wasn’t.  It was a performance of really high quality with intelligent, strong direction and really good singing and conducting.  It was good to see the opera again even if, ultimately, I’m not convinced that it has a lot to say to us today or if the interpretation completely worked.  And Bell and Gerhaher were very special.





Intelligent, feminist Lucia

12 Apr

I’m not a fan of Katie Mitchell’s work – I have memories of an Iphigenia in Aulis at the National where people milled around moving suitcases for about half an hour and I wanted to shoot myself.  Nor do I particularly like Daniel Oren – remember that plodding Sonnambula and that tedious Robert le Diable?  So I was not particularly expecting to enjoy the new ROH Lucia di Lammermoor, which I saw on 11th April.  This was the second night and there were reports of booing on the first night.

What I actually saw was one of the most brilliant, intelligent and interesting Lucias I’ve ever seen due, largely, to Mitchell’s direction and some very fine singing.  There were some doubts but, overall, this was took opera for the serious, dramatic piece that it is.

It’s set in the 1850s – not a bad decision for a patriarchal society where women were still seen as chattels and in a rather richer environment than Scott may have imagined. It also catches the gothick, sensational element of the opera.  The set is split in two for the whole opera with Lucia onstage for virtually the whole time and so we see what happens offstage with her while the men are telling the story.

So in the first scene she is preparing to meet Edgardo.  In the second they make love.  The third scene is between her bedroom and a very fine bathroom – she is clearly suffering from morning sickness.  During that scene, men remove her property from the room, presumably to take it to Arturo’s place: it brilliantly symbolises her helplessness and sheer lack of privacy: her retreat to the bathroom doesn’t save her from having to listen to Enrico and Raimondo.  During the Wolf’s Crag scene, we see her murder Arturo – he puts up quite a struggle – and then have a miscarriage, which is what pushes her over to madness.  In the last scene, we see her bleeding to death in a bath and taking an overdoes – the water floods onto the stage.

Within this, there is some marvellously truthful acting and direction that has you watching and engaging – you could feel the audience holding its breath in the pause before the sextet and actually watching the piece as if it were a play.  Enrico is a bullying, violent brother who threatens to hit Lucia – while Edgardo actually does so.  It’s a production that makes you angry and which treats the opera for what it is, an adult, angry, feminist drama.

There are some doubts.  Vicki Mortimer’s set looked a bit cramped in some scenes and I was not convinced by the need to have two ghosts.  More seriously, I couldn’t help feeling that Mitchell was telling Donizetti’s story the way she wanted it told by distracting you from the inconvenient bits that he actually wrote.  The Wolf’s Crag scene may not be great Donizetti, but it must have been extraordinarily frustrating for the Edgardo and Enrico to sing it, presumably acting their socks off, knowing that nobody in the audience will be watching them at all because a graphic murder is happening a few feet away.  Much the same happened to Raimondo’s aria – it must be quite difficult to sing knowing that, this time, Lucia’s having a miscarriage.  She took her overdose during Edgardo’s aria, but at least he got to sing the cabaletta in the bathroom with her.  What we had was Mitchell telling Donizetti’s story but using a different method from his.  It was compelling stuff and absolutely nailed what this opera is about, but at a price.  And the ROH might find that the price includes finding that decent baritones and basses may be reluctant to sing in future revivals.

Diana Damrau was Lucia.  She’s a singer I admire hugely and she threw herself into this interpretation.  Her mad scene was soft, internal, sung with fabulous pianissimi and a really intelligent, angry use of the coloratura.  Her entrance aria was nicely done and the duet with Edgardo wonderfully tender, that with Enrico angry and pathetic.  She portrayed Mitchell’s conception – an angry, helpless, loving woman – to perfection and her singing was of a piece with it.  And yet, it also felt a bit studied.  I missed the sheer virtuoso bravura that you get on record from Callas and Sutherland and which I remember particularly from Edita Gruberova in this house – this didn’t knock your socks off, it had you listening intently.  There’s room for both and you can’t argue with the sheer quality and intensity of Damrau’s performance.

Charles Castronovo was probably the best Alfredo that I’ve heard in the theatre: ardent and tender in the love duet and singing his final aria and cabaletta really well.  You believed in him.  Ditto Ludovic Tezier as Enrico – a heavy, bully of a man, singing with force rather than elegance, which fitted absolutely in this production.  I’m pretty sure that they both did the Wolf’s Crag scene really well.  Kwanchul Youn sang Raimondo nicely but didn’t make much impression as a character – possibly because his big aria was being upstaged.  Taylor Stanton was good as Arturo (a serious, slightly weedy character) and Peter Hoare very, very fine as Normanno – luxury casting here and it paid off.

Daniel Oren seemed to be entirely at one with the production and gave the finest performance I’ve heard from him.  I remember particularly his phrasing of the love theme – slow, loving, arching and heart-stoppingly tender.  The mad scene was delicate, hushed, the glass harmonica unearthly and working really well.  He worked up the drama and speed for the wedding and Act II finale which was as exciting as it should be.  The orchestra and chorus were with him throughout.

I’ve never believed that Lucia is a canary-fancier’s piece of nonsense and it’s great to see it treated as the serious drama of conflict and politics that it is.  This thoughtful, intelligent and compelling evening with some outstanding music was, with the recent Cav and Pag a reminder of how good the ROH can be and how opera can work as theatre rather than simply as a costume in concert.

Elpidia at the LHF

1 Apr

Another Handel pasticcio courtesy of Opera Settecento and the London Handel Festival. This time it’s his first, Elpidia, from 1725. I saw the concert performance at St George’s Hanover Square on 31st March.

A fortnight before, at the same venue I saw a performance by La Nuova Musica of Berenice.  I’m sorry I didn’t get round to blogging about their Berenice but, for the record, I thought it was an excellent performance, had some great music, some less great and surely his most confusing plot: I completely lost track of who was in love with whom and avenging what.

Elpidia’s plot by contrast is quite simple and if I tell you that it’s subtitle is “The Generous Rivals”, you’ll probably get the picture.  Elpidia has three suitors two of whom are noble and one of them (by far the most interesting) abducts her.  It all gets sorted out.  The libretto, by Zeno was heavily cut by either by Handel or by one of his associates to the extent that the piece veered towards the comic.  I’m not sure that worried Handel.

The purpose really was to let London hear arias by the great contemporary Italian composers who hadn’t been heard there.  On the basis that one aria about tempests, or breezes, or guinea fowl is as good as another and can be fitted more or less where you like, they selected some numbers by those composers to slot in at appropriate places.  It struck me that this performance had a similar purpose.  How many of us have heard anything by Vinci, Orlandini, Lotti or Sarri?  This was an opportunity to hear some fine music.

And there were some lovely arias among them.  If none matched Handel at his finest, none had that anonymous quality that some of his lesser arias hold.  Most of the Vinci arias are seriously lovely pieces and I was particularly impressed by the tenor aria Al mio tesoro from his Rosmira, while Orlandini provided a gorgeous alto farewell aria from his own Berenice.  If I have a complaint it was that I would (a) have welcomed a bit of contrast among the arias – there was much less bravura opportunity than you get in the Handel arias of the time and no lighter numbers.  You also don’t get a feel for any of the composers’ personalities.  The evening felt like what it was – a selection of rather good arias sewn together.

All praise to Leo Duarte who did the reconstruction of the piece and who conducted. The reconstruction must have been fascinating with some difficult choices about arias.  His conducting struck me as outstanding – considerate of his singers, bringing out the best in the music.  He got refined, well articulated, secure, confident playing from the very excellent band.  This was marvellously assured baroque playing and conducting.

The singers were strong, all on the threshold, I would say, of pretty strong careers.  Erica Eloff is obviously a favourite with the Opera Settecento management.  She sang Elpidia’s varied arias confidently and with considerable beauty.  Rupert Enticknapp as Olindo, the rival that Elpidia loves, has the more heartfelt arias of the two counter tenor roles and sang them really well.  Joe Bolger, as Ormonte, who has to make do with the seconda donna (who conveniently falls in love with him at first sight) needed a tad more power but I liked his soft-grained but very attractive voice.  Rupert Charlesworth as Vitige, the villain, insofar as there is one, seemed to me to have the finest numbers of all and sang them really convincingly and with great beauty.  Chris Jacklin as Belisario and Maria Oustroukhova as Rosmilda didn’t let the side down either but did not have the same opportunities as their colleagues.  Being hyper-critical, these arias were written for stars and what I missed was the charisma and that last ounce of bravura that, say, a Sutherland or Baker could bring.  I’m not sure that it mattered.

I can’t think of any reason to stage the piece but this was an interesting, rewarding evening.  It made me feel that I’d like to hear a full piece by Vinci and some of the others.  Are there extant versions of his Ifigenia or Rosmira? The latter, in particular, seems to have some gems of numbers in it.  Any chance of Opera Settecento having a go?  We owe a lot to that organisation and I’d strongly recommend booking for their performance of Hasse’s Demetrio at Cadogan Hall in September.