Archive | September, 2016

Two Normas

24 Sep

Three Normas, in fact, if you count the ENO one earlier this year.  I’ve been a fan of the opera for a while and been frustrated at the lack of performances it gets these days.  So I took a trip to Edinburgh to go to the Festival Theatre on 5th August, when Cecilia Bartoli appeared as Norma in the Salzburg production of that opera.  Then I saw the ROH’s new version on 16th September.  There’s no question which I preferred.

For me, the Bartoli production went straight into the top ten of great operatic performances that I’ve seen and provided the conviction that I’ve longed for that Norma is one of the great operatic masterpieces.

Let’s deal with the last point first.  Norma has always seemed to me to be interesting and worth seeing because of its plot: a conflict for a woman who has loved the leader of the occupying force, is spurned by him and has the opportunity to kill him.  As an adjunct the relationship with Adalgisa – of support rather than hatred – is really well done. It’s political and it’s personal.  And Bellini’s genius lies in his ability to provide the vocal music to express those conflicts, to manage the conversations between the characters.  And also to provide some of the most glorious melodies in opera.

My point is, however, that the genius of Norma doesn’t lie in the great melodies or the gorgeousness of the music, but in the declamation, the dramatic development of character and the situations: the dialogues between Norma and Adalgise, Adalgisa and Pollione and that glorious Norma/Pollione scene beginning In mia man alfin tu sei.  It’s in that outstanding scene for Norma at the beginning of Act II when she considers murdering her children.  This is dramatic, vocal writing of highest order and, when it’s done well makes you realise what an outstanding composer Bellini was, how tragic his death was and how far he exceeds Donizetti and influenced Verdi and Wagner.  It’s a riveting dramatic piece.

But it’s an unforgiving piece.  If you don’t have musicians with the understanding and ability to sing and play it and a director who is able to overcome the fact that druids look rather silly to us and to get the singers to act  and understand the roles, then the opera can seem tedious, even silly.  The triumph of this performance was that we had both musicians and directors who took the piece seriously and made it work as a piece of drama.

Patirce Caurier and Moshe Leiser set the piece in occupied France.  Pollione is Nazi governer, Norma the teacher at a school which becomes the headquarters of the resistance.  Maybe the supernatural and religious element gets lost slightly but that barely matters: the issue here is the resistance to occupiers not the significance of mistletoe.. Norma’s house has a kitchen table for her and Adelgisa to sit at for their heart to heart  It’s intimate and allows you to concentrate on the fact that these are people with emotions rather than mythic figures in silly costumes.

This is further accentuated by a period band – I barroccisti – in the pit and lighter voices that you usually associate with the work.  Gianluca Capuana – deputising for Diego Fasolis – take things pretty briskly on the whole, but also allowing space for the situations to breathe and develop: the dialogues between the characters for example.  The tempi felt unusual but never wrong and they clearly suited the band and the singers.  I thought the orchestral playing was excellent: attuned to the singers and to the emotions: lovely woodwind particularly at the beginning of the second act.

It’s all built around Bartoli and many critics will say that she has no business doing Norma: she’s not a soprano and the voice is too and then carp at the rest for being built round her.  Bartoli argues that this is going back to what Bellini would have expected: lighter voices, a soprano Adalgisa and so forth.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter given that the performance struck me as so convincing on its own terms.  Bartoli catches all the emotions: the anger, tenderness, conflicts and, ultimately, the heroism of the role.  She uses the words, colours them and makes you realise how marvellous Bellini’s writing is.  There’s an intensity and understanding about her acting that I’ve never come across in her before: the archness has gone and we have an honest, raw, highly emotional performance. I won’t easily forget her agony at the start of the second Act, the way she made her voice soft and gentle in the scene with Adalgisa and, at the end with Pollione: the perfect sustained piano at the end of Casta diva.  The coloratura works,  If you want a Norma with a huge barn-storming voice, this isn’t it – I don’t know how she would fare in the Royal Opera House with a huge modern band between her and the audience.  What I got was refined, delicate singing backed with real venom and anger when it was need.  The audience stood for her at the end and, for me, this was a performance to set beside Janet Baker’s Alceste, Anja Silja’s Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s Irene as among the great individual performances that I’ve seen.

We then had John Osborn as Pollione.  He created a very credible, nasty military governor and sang outstandingly well.  I don’t think I’d imagined the final duet being done so tenderly, so lovingly.  I’d not come across Rachel Olvera, the Adalgisa, before.  She has  very light soprano and looks right as the young, naïve priestess.  I thought she sang expressively, understanding the issues and matching Bartoli extremely well vocally.  She created a strong figure even if her singing was less memorable than Bartoli’s.  She could only get away with the role in a performance of this size and I suspect that her future lies in the baroque and Mozart rather than here.

Peter Kalman was a strong Oroveso, the chorus didn’t strike me as ideally confident but I suspect that the very low key Act II interlude for them was intended as exactly that: depressed, low key and dim.

This is a particular type of Norma. It won’t appeal to those who demand the vocal security of Sutherland and the soprano/mezzo contrast: those who think it’s as forerunner of Aida.  I don’t think it is and this intimate, intelligent, engrossing performance delighted me in showing me a side of Norma that I knew was there.  And the audience was with it: you felt the silence as they listened to the music, leaned forward to take in the intimate moments, laughed in the right way at the moment when Norma asks Adalgisa who her lover is and, again, when Pollione arrives.  This was opera as theatre and it was worth every inch of the journey to Edinburgh and every penny of the rail fare.

So the ROH production was going to have some problems keeping up with this and it wasn’t helped when Anna Netrebko decided that her voice was going in a different direction.  After her withdrawal from Marguerite, the ROH seems to be permanently slightly behind her vocal developments.  Faced with this, the company decided to take a punt on Sonya Yontcheva for the title role, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never sung it before and her cv (Marguerite, Violetta, Lucia, Alcina with Tatyana coming up) isn’t exactly classic preparation for a Norma.

It wasn’t a disaster.  The voice is large and has a steely edge at the bottom, not unlike Callas.  The problems struck me as being at the top, particularly during the runs in the first act, where you felt that the top notes were snatched, uncomfortable.  There was a nice legato for Casta diva but the cabaletta sounded ordinary.  It’s an impossible role, needing brilliance, flexibility, depth, fire – the sort of qualities that very few voices can match.  It also needs a feeling for the words and an ability to colour them that Yontcheva possess only patchily.  She doesn’t have, as yet, the sheer intensity that Bartoli brings and the concentration and integrity that triumphs over the odds.  Context is everything: it might have felt a lot better somewhere smaller but with a programme note reminding you of Callas and Sutherland in this house, you couldn’t avoid feeling that Yoncheva is not yet in this league.  There were fine moments: the recitative at the beginning of Act II was fine, the duet with Adalgisa was gorgeously done and the last scene with Pollione was musically very fine – even if she didn’t reach the depths that Bartoli managed.

Sonia Ganassi sounded a bit frayed as Adalgisa, the voice a bit tired.  She dueted very well with Yoncheva but seemed mature and I wished I’d heard her in this role ten years ago.  As Pollione Joseph Calleja sang mostly loudly and with none of the acting ability that John Osborn brought the role.  He sounded out of place with the other voices and the bleat in the voice still irritates me.  Brindley Sherratt was a strong Pollione.

The stars were Antonio Pappano and the orchestra.  This was entirely different from Edinburgh but equally valid.  The tempi felt right but what was most special was the way he managed the textures and the playing to keep the tension in the music and, again, make you realise what a masterpiece this opera is.  This was some of the finest big house bel canto conducting I’ve heard.  It’s wonderful that Pappano is at last beginning to take bel canto seriously here.  The chorus were on excellent form too.

Alex Olle’s production was about as far away from Edinburgh as it was possible to be.  Norma is the priestess of some extreme catholic sect (maybe not catholic since she’s a woman and, last time I looked, the catholics weren’t too hot on that) and he almost makes them the villain of the opera.  Certainly there’s almost nothing to suggest that Rome is an oppressive state or to bring out the political side of this opera.

It looks splendid – a forest of crucifixes, beautifully lit frames the stage – a one point some of them turn to make a crown of thorns.  You get a sense of the furtiveness of the rebels but it seems strange that their numbers include some very nattily dressed generals.  It’s set in contemporary dress.

There are irritations: I’m not sure why you needed a huge censer swinging during Casta diva – relegating Norma to the side of the stage.  I thought that the play area for the children with Watership Down on the DVD distracting and having one the children bounce around on a space hopper during the latter part of mira o Norma was just silly.  What irritated me most, however, was the sheer lack of direction of the singers.  For all the spectacular set and modern costumes, the movements were rarely any different from what you would expect in the most traditional production.  The communication, the sheer intelligence and humanity of the direction in the Caurier and Leiser production was completely missing.   Ms Yoncheva deserves better than this.

So a moderate, curate’s egg of an evening that didn’t do justice to the opera partly because of the production and partly because Ms Yoncheva simply didn’t strike me as ready to do the role in this theatre at these prices.

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Compelling new ROH Cosi

24 Sep

The interpretations that directors get out of Cosi fan tutte seem limitless.  Some of them don’t work but it’s rare to come out of a Cosi thinking that you’ve learned nothing new about the work.  And this was confirmed by the marvellously intelligent and inventive new production at the ROH, which I saw at its first night on 22 September.

The majority of Kasper Holten’s imported directors have misfired but we have a notable exception in Jan Philipp Gloger.  His idea is that the performance begins after a production of Cosi and we see the four lovers in the audience, the boys arguing about the opera until invited up on to the stage by Alfonso.  Gradually, the couples are drawn backstage and he beautifully catches the mix of artificial commedia dell’arte comedy with the real emotions.  Alfonso and Despina are part of the troupe and use their theatrical resources to set up the different set pieces.  At times we see the audience as well – watching during Alfonso’s summing up of the moral and, themselves, illustrating the idea.  And Gloger has the idea that Fiordiligi and Dorabella realise what’s going on at the beginning of Act II and play along for the fun of it.

It’s a very busy production with multiple sets and props moving about, heavily choreographed and very precise.  But none of this detracts from the emotional side.  Ferrando sings Un aura amorosa looking at the sleeping girls – a beautiful, ambiguous moment.  During Per pieta, Guglielmo comes on to retrieve some of the clothing he’s lost during the previous duet while both the men’s arias catch the seriousness of the emotions.  It’s a lovely, fascinating, happy production that catches the artificiality of the opera while keeping its emotions close to you.  It reminds me of the sort of invention that we got with Christoph Loy’s Ariadne here.  Some have described it as charmless – since I’ve never found Cosi a particularly charming opera, that didn’t worry me.

We had a lovely young cast, four of them making their debuts here.  Corinne Winter was Fiordiligi – I wasn’t completely convinced that she’s a natural Mozart soprano – not all of the singing sounded completely true – but she delivered an outstanding Per pieta – one of the most moving and intense that I’ve heard and her acting was clear, direct, youthful.  Angela Brower was a lighter, flightier Dorabella, in excellent voice.  Sabina Puertolas was a lively, intelligent, stroppy Despina.

Daniel Behle sang one of the best Ferrandos that I’ve heard – some gorgeous, intense pianissimi, an outstanding stylist and a nice actor.  Alessio Arduino caught the livelier, stroppier Guglielmo and Johann Martin Kraenzle was a heavier than usual Alfonso but alert, enjoying stage managing the show and, as is the fashion at the moment, rejected by Despina and everyone else by the end.

Semyon Bychkov was conducting his first ever Cosi.  It was a loving, intense, very leisurely reading.  I’m not sure that I’ve heard slower Mozart since Haitink’s four hour Don Giovanni.  Bychkov didn’t quite reach that but an opera that some conductors can get through in three hours took three hours 40 and that was with the usual cuts.  I didn’t mind.  None of the tempi felt wrong (that for Per pieta felt intensely, beautifully right) and I loved the way in which he handled the textures, the interplay of the instruments and the phrasing.  I heard new things, new ideas in the pit and the orchestra played wonderfully for him.  This was elegant, thoughtful, happy Mozart.

This run doesn’t appear to be selling that well: an unknown director and a cast without big names.  That’s a shame: it’s an engaging, highly professional, beautifully sung and prepared piece of work and is breath of fresh air at the ROH.  I hope that Mr Gogler is invited back and I hope this Cosi returns regularly.  Go and see it.

Hasse’s Demetrio after 270 years

24 Sep

One more for the collection – and a new composer too.  Opera Settecento continued its exploration of the lesser known works of the 1720s-1740s with Hasse’s Demetrio. Naturally I went along to the concert at the Cadogan Hall on 21 September.  Apparently, this was the opera’s first performance since 1744.

At least it educated me about Hasse – an important composer of his time who for much of his career commuted between Dresden and Italy to write operas.  He became Metastasio’s composer of choice to give the first opportunity to set a new libretto.  His wife was the prima donna, Faustina Bordoni.  He was rated by Mozart and the other composers of his day.  He wrote in an era, as the programme informed us, where the public went to see spectacle and singers and the opera itself was pretty disposable.  Composers wrote and recycled arias and probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the plot of the emotions.  It’s obviously interesting to experience one of his operas.

I don’t know whether Demetrio is the ideal one to begin with and I’m not sure whether anyone else does.  What I saw struck me as a fairly typical plot of the time: long lost prince brought up as shepherd, queen falls in love with him to disgust of higher ranking suitors and a sub-plot involving frustrated love.  It’s not very interesting.  It feels as though there’s a lot of recitative and, even with surtitles, there’s not a lot to engage the attention.

The arias are almost all da capo and are quite long.  They struck me as being written for display rather than to show emotions.  They have that typical rather busy 18th century feel about them – lots of hectic strings and hyperactive harpsichord, with the occasional horn to add a bit of excitement.  There was one particular aria for Cleonice, the heroine, which had rather lovely fluttering flutes which was attractive if only for the change in texture.  But there none which made the heart stop or you feel that, suddenly, you had discovered a neglected masterpiece – so different from the Pergolesi last year.  Overall, if Gluck was seeking to reform this sort of opera, this performance showed why it was a jolly good idea to do so.

There is another problem with these operas.  They relied on outstanding singers.  Bordoni was the most highly paid singer of her time (earning four times as much per performance than her husband got for writing the opera) and, presumably, justified it.  The ensemble at Dresden attracted singers of her calibre.  Opera Settecento can’t afford them and, presumably, doesn’t have all the time it would like to prepare those who are singing.

This was a major problem here.  It is deeply dispiriting in a cast of six, where nobody has fewer than three arias, to find that at least three of the singers either aren’t qualified to sing their roles or are simply not in best voice.  After three rather long badly undersung arias in succession, I found myself losing the will to live.  Fortunately, Ray Chenez as Olinte injected some life into the proceedings by seizing a particularly florid aria by the scruff of the neck and throwing everything at it.  He has a really impressive, fluid counter-tenor and considerable agility and a great sense of bravura.  That aria in the second act suddenly made you sit up and begin to enjoy the proceedings.

The other real success was Rupert Charlesworth as Fenicio who again seized his arias and seemed unfazed by the runs and the coloratura and actually appeared alert and interested in what was going on.  Both of those feel like people to watch.

Erica Eloff sang Cleonice.  She’s a favourite with Opera Settecento (who gave her a long Hello magazine-type profile in the programme).  She sang efficiently enough but I found her cool, disengaged and, again, with the spark or bravura to make you remotely interested in what she was singing.

Leo Duarte conducted his own edition of the piece.  I had the feeling that he was hugely enjoying the orchestral textures and the vigour of the piece at the expense of really engaging with what was going on with the characters.  It may well be that there isn’t much in the piece that enabled him to do that.  The orchestra, some clumsy horns apart, played very well indeed.

Of course it’s interesting to see the piece and it feels ungrateful to be unenthusiastic about the enterprise that gives us the opportunity to see them.  But shouldn’t Opera Settecento be exercising a bit more quality control over the operas that it chooses and, also, perhaps being realistic about the capabilities of the singers that it can cast?  I suspect that this performance will have put quite a lot of people in the audience off Hasse for the rest of their lives and that they may well not return to the company’s performances.  I doubt in any case that the Cadogan was near half full.  What it does is too valuable to risk on some dodgy performances.

Stunning Semiramide

24 Sep

Rossini has a reputation for idleness – all those self-borrowings and the early retirement.  What struck me at Opera Rara’s concert performance of Semiramide at the Royal Albert Hall, as part of the Proms season, on 4th September, was how incredibly prolific and hard-working he must have been.

First there is the sheer number of his operas.  He wrote Semiramide in 1822, when he was thirty.  Since his first full length opera, La pietra del paragone in 1812, by my calculations, he wrote almost  thirty operas, most of them full length pieces.  Small wonder that he did some borrowing.  Secondly, I was reminded of the length of those operas.  Admittedly, he occasionally used pupils and assistants to write some of the less important bits, but the bulk of these operas come in at well over two and a half hours of music each.

The length was particularly visible in Semiramide.  Mark Elder admitted to a few cuts in it but even so this concert began at 7 pm and was not scheduled to finish until 10.45.  When I left at 10.20 to catch my last feasible train, that seemed a bit optimistic.  It’s a shame that the Prom organisers did not take account of Sunday trains and start the performance half an hour earlier.  What was not evident was any borrowing: this is a wholly original, carefully constructed, very convincing opera.

It’s a very classical story.  Semiramide and Assur murdered her husband, Nino but their child, Ninia was saved and brought up as Arsace.  He becomes a fine general and, of course, Semiramide, falls in love with him.  He is in love with Azema, who is loved by the rival prince Idreno.  Act I sets up the situations and ends with a dramatic appearance of Nino’s ghost to thwart Semiramide’s intended marriage to Arsace.  In Act II, Arsace discovers his true identity, has a confrontation with his mother and ends up killing Assur and, accidentally, Semiramide.  It’s an opera of arias and duets with, as ever, some really outstanding ensemble numbers: that to the end of Act I being one of the finest that Rossini ever wrote.

But it is all very long and it moves at a leisurely pace, exploring emotions rather than providing significant dramatic action or confrontation.  For my money the shorter, equally classical, but hugely charged Ermione is the more convincing, exciting opera and, even if it doesn’t quite have arias to match those for Semiramide and Arsace or duets which quite reach Giorno d’orrore, it has a finale that challenges it and an intensity and sheer energy that this opera lacks.  I’ve no idea how you’d begin to stage this piece – and feel some trepidation for the planned ROH production.  It works remarkably well as a concert.

In his essay on opera, Kobbe remarked that Semiramide appeared to have had its day but, if there a soprano and mezzo ever appeared cabable of doing justice to Semiramide and Arsace, then it might return..  It’s a mark of how things have changed that there seem to be one or two singers in each category capable of achieving that.  We had Albina Shagamuratova in the title role.  She’s making her reputation as a Queen of the Night, Konstanze and in that high lying baroque field.    I was hugely impressed by the flexibility of her coloratura, by her sense of dynamic range and the sheer force of her performance.  Maybe she lacks the range of colour that Sutherland brings to the role and, perhaps, in a staged performance, she’d bring out more of the anguish in the part, but this was an enormously impressive performance.

Daniella Barcellona was Arsace.  I wondered at the start if she was unwell but she warmed up and had me beguiled by the warmth of her mezzo, the agility of her runs and the intelligence of her acting.  Again, a staged performance might bring out more of the passion in the role but both her arias were astonishingly well sung.

The supporting cast was excellent.  Barry Banks stood in late as Idreno and, apart from the occasional slightly shriek high note, delivered a fluent, idiomatic and agile account of one of Rossini’s challenging tenor roles.   Was an excellent Assur from Mirko Palazzi, very strongly acted and I was sorry to miss the high point of his role at the end of Act II.    Gianluca Buratto Was a very strong Oroe, the high priest, while James Platt boomed convincingly as the ghost.  I’d be very happy with a cast like this in any theatre you care to mention.

Mark Elder conducted.the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  They were on outstanding form and reminded me of how good Rossini sounds on period instruments.  They played with outstanding commitment and pretty untiringly trough a hugely long evening. – the first act alone came out at only just under two hours.  Elder’s conducting was persuasive in so many ways: elegant, wonderfully phrased, the pauses, the balance of instruments beautifully achieved, the singers intelligently supported and there was a precision about it that was hugely impressive.  And yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was something calculated about it: a performance topiarised – every pause weighed, every dynamic graded and that the result was a slightly lack of passion and of spontaneity: you admired, you weren’t caught up.

Minor cavils.  It was a great evening and  I’m looking forward to getting the CD.  It added to my admiration of Rossini and convinced me that here is an opera that needs to be seen.

One act entertainments

20 Sep

One act operas always have a bit of a rough time in terms of performance so, as a collector of operatic rarities, I tend to snap them up when I have the opportunity.  The last week gave me the chance to see three.  All were pièces d’occasion from the mid 18th century and, while none were pieces I’d particularly want to see ever again, they were mostly worth the visit.

Two came out of Bampton Classical Opera’s welcome annual visits to John’s Smith Square on 13th September:  Gluck’s Philemon and Baucis and Arne’s Judgement of Paris.

The Gluck appears likely to be receiving its first staged performance since 1769.  Frankly, I’m not surprised.  It was written as one act of a larger group for the court at Parma.  That court could call on the services of a very remarkable soprano and the most notable aria in the piece – an astonishing florid, high-lying (think Konstanze, Blondchen and Zerbinetta and then add a bit) that seems entirely unsuitable for a simple Shepherdess.  As an aria, though, it’s exciting.  The opera itself has about zero plot interest, a selection of pleasant arias and, at 45 minutes in length, just about manages to avoid outstaying its welcome.  It’s stately, comfortable, pleasant and cultured and has absolutely nothing of any interest to say: it says quite a lot about the courts in the ancien regime.

The Arne is a setting from 1744 of a Congreve text written about half a century earlier.  Most of us know the plot: three goddesses in a beauty competition.  So far as I could tell, Congreve avoids mentioning the most famous part of it – the involvement of Helen of Troy.  Here Venus wins by the sheer voluptuous seductiveness of her arias.  The airs in the opera are pleasant enough, though not nearly as fine as those for his later Artaxerxes.  The best number is a trio for the three goddesses.  The text, what I could hear of it, struck me as elegant rather than witty.

Jeremy Gray decided to set them both in an airport and, for the goddess scene in Paris, on the plane itself.  It’s probably no worse than any other completely irrelevant situation and didn’t throw any great interpretative light on the operas.  Since, I doubt that any form of lighting could make them look interesting, I don’t complain.  The gags were pretty obvious: the safety announcement done by the goddesses as air hostess in the trio, a sick bag for Paris during a spot of turbulence, an intrusive security guard.  The apple is one of that company’s products.  You get the picture.  It was done gamely enough and I found myself smiling indulgently.

The musical side wasn’t bad.  Paul Wingfield conducted Chronos elegantly and without it being particularly obvious that this was the only performance of the operas that they were doing.  They were hidden behind the set, which seemed rather hard luck.  Barbara Cole Walton, a new name to me, sang Baucis and Juno.  In the former she made an astonishingly secure and confident performance of that aria – better than we had any right to expect in this context.  If she can get a bit more heft and a little more personality, she’ll be rather major.  Caroline Backhouse as Philemon and Pallas, has a warm, juice mezzo and was very elegant in the Gluck, funny in the Arne. Aiofe O’Sullivan was understandably successful as Venus.  Christopher Turner sang the main tenor roles – Jupiter and Paris, securely, intelligently and acted gamely.  Robert Anthony Gardiner sang Hermes’s aria rather well.  Gilly French’s decent translation of the Gluck came over rather better than Congreve’s original – the words there not clear at all.

Bampton have also done Haydn’s La canterina which the Classical Opera Company did as a concert performance at Wigmore Hall on 19th September.  It was probably written in 1766 which is the year that the company’s currently exploring.  I suspect they would have done it with more vigour, if less elegance.

It’s Haydn’s first opera – a short, 40 minute or so intermezzo in a couple of parts written for an Archduke-let’s birthday.  The story is a cynical little comedy about sex and money where two women dupe two men out their money.  It’s slight and, in the right hands probably quite amusing. There are four arias and two short quartet finales.

The piece summed up my problem with Haydn’s operas which is that they aren’t really that good as operas.  One of the main arias here is a lesson aria which the tenor has written in order to get close to the soprano.  The joke is that the bulk of it is for orchestra.  The problem is that it goes on too long.  Similarly, the soprano’s aria of remorse is possibly a witty parody of serious opera arias but it’s just not as acute as, say, Come scoglio and we don’t really know the originals well enough to get the joke.  It’s all pleasant enough music but I suspect that the piece has to be staged as a bit of romp before it will really make an effect.  For example, one of the women has disguised herself as an old woman: at the first performance it was done by a tenor in drag, singing falsetto.  There are loads of opportunities for gags, for over the top acting and general mugging to overcome the slightness of the musical content.

Here we had some very good young singers rather lost on the entirely inadequate Wigmore platform, doing their best to remember the recits and floundering in terms of acting and direction. They certainly didn’t have the room and probably hadn’t had the rehearsal to make much of an impression.  Still Susanna Hurrell made a flighty Gasparina, Rachel Kelly displayed a beautiful voice if little personality as Appollina, Robert Murray had the most to do as Don Pelagio the landlord/music teacher and did his best.  I wasn’t convinced he was in best voice.  Kitty Whately as Don Ettore was effective enough though it would have been nice to have had aria.  I smiled at some of the arias and at the surtitles and wished that it had been a stronger staging and in English.

Before that we had heard Haydn’s 34th Symphony and four arias of Myslivicek’s Semiramide.  Shorn of their context, it was rather difficult to get a feel for them.  They came across as good, vigorous, intelligent arias of their time without necessarily justifying their place on the programme.  Each of the singers sang them well enough.

Ian Page conducted the Classical Opera Orchestra with wit and intelligence and it all made for a pleasant enough evening even if, for me, it didn’t add up to much.

So three more the collection.  I’m glad I saw them, even if I wish that the Haydn had been given more of a chance to make an impression.  I can’t say that I’ll be rushing back to see any of them again and your lives will not be wasted if you give them a miss.

Normal service resumed

17 Sep

I’m sorry that I’ve been silent recently.  No good reason for it beyond idleness.  The opera going certainly didn’t tail off.  Anyway, autumn has begun and it’s time to get back to writing.  I thought I’d use this blog to as a catch up, before doing some separate entries on the more recent activity.

I left a quarter of the way through the Opera North Ring.  It was a fabulous achievement for Richard Farnes and his orchestra, for Kelly Coe Hogan as Brunnhilde, Mats Almgren as Fafner and Hunding, Andrew Foster-Williams as Gunther and Jo Pohlheim  as Alberich and, above all, for Opera North that managed to produce a convincing, fascinating and gloriously played cycle.  Of course there were flaws – neither Siegfried was ideal – and the semi-staging doesn’t tell the full story.  But it left me on one of those unforgettable highs that great Wagner performances do and it demonstrates Opera North’s ability to produce something uniquely special on limited resources.

The Glyndebourne season has been mixed this year.  They revived Melly Still’s rather lacklustre Vixen with lovely conducting from Jakob Hrusa and a splendid Forester from Christopher Purves.  Beatrice et Benedict had all its colour washed out of it by an extraordinary decision by Laurent Pelly to set it in some sort of grey post-war austerity era in boxes.  But there was a glorious performance of Beatrice by Stephanie d’Oustrac and her second Act aria was unforgettably staged as servants slowly moved all the chairs surrounding her, leaving her alone.  It’s a very patchy opera.

Altogether better was the Nozze di Figaro revival which was probably the best of the incarnations of Michael Grandage’s amiable production.  Jonathan Cohen conducted a fizzing, alert, witty and exciting performance from the orchestra and there were lovely performances from Rosa Feola as Susanna, Golda Schultz as the Countess and Gyula Orendt as the Count.  Finally there was a lovely revival of the classic Peter Hall production of Midsummer Night’s Dream with Tim Mead and Kathleen Kim outstanding as Oberon, Elizabeth DeShong luxury casting as Hermia and Matthew Rose very funny as Bottom.  There wasn’t a week link in the cast and the 35 year old production came up as fresh as if it were brand new.

Finally, I ought to give a plug for a performance by Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall of two Offenbach one-acters: Croquefer and The Island of Tulipatan.  Both are daft, both diverting, both have some gorgeous and witty music and Tulipatan, in particular, is a small masterpiece with at least three numbers that nag away at you for days afterwards.  They were given cheerfully cheap, witty performances that probably weren’t a million miles away from the spirit of the originals.  There was a nice translation, daffy choreography and a particular engaging couple of performance by the tenor Anthony Flaum who, in Tulipatan made everything out of being a very masculine boy brought up as a girl.  It was one of those evening where the life, the enjoyment of the material conveyed itself to the audience and a really lovely time was had by all.

More to come.