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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.

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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.

Yet more J C Bach

18 Apr

Two JC Bach operas in three weeks isn’t bad going. The latest, Adriano in Siria, was done by the Classical Opera Company at the Brtitten Theatre. I saw the performance on 14th April, apparently it’s first performance in over 250 years.  They’re doing as part of their exploration of what was going on at the same time as Mozart.  The opera was being performed at the time the nine year old Mozart was in London and it’s not inconceivable that he might have attended one of the performances.

It;s a setting of a libretto by Metastasio which was set over 40 times in as many years. It’s fairly classic Metastasio stuff – a couple of love triangles and a benign emperor. There are palpable similiarities with La clemenza di Tito. There are one or two amusing moments – as when Adriano’s betrothed arrives just as he;s about to propose to somebody else and there’s a rather clumsy attempt at a misunderstanding between hero and heroine. Dramatically, it’s as interesting as any other Metastasio libretto and, as Ian Page pointed out in his really outstanding programme notes, the interest is in how they are set by the composer.

The first act struck me as pleasant but ordinary: a series of efficiently pleasant entrance arias and quite a good duet. It did strike me, after that Page’s claims of wonderful psychological insight were a bit overdone – none as penetrating as Mozart or Gluck or Handel – just generic 1760s type arias.

Things perked up considerably in Act II when both hero (Farnaspe) and heroine (Emirena) have a couple of heartstoppingly beautiful arias. These struck me as worthy to be ranked with Mozart and Handel both in terms of the sheer aural pleasure of the music but also in the way in which they mirrored the emotions.  There was also that extreme rarity in this sort of opera, a trio – and rather a good one. This continued into the third act when the final aria for Farnaspe was really moving.  Other things that struck was the relative swiftness of the opera.  Page had made a few minor cuts and the three acts moved quickly and we were out in under two and three quarter hours. Hand on heart, I’m not sure that this will ever be a repertory opera but it made a very rewarding evening and I’d like to hear a number of the arias again.

The music was pretty safe in the hands of Ian Page. His conducting was vigorous and kept things moving.  This was the first night and I felt that, early on, there was some nervousness among the singers.  The music was sung efficiently but I felt that it needed more variation, more attention to the words and more individuality if it was to succeed.  As I’ve suggested, this was largely remedied as the evening went on.  However, I couldn’t help wondering what a group of more experienced, virtuosic singers might have made of the piece.

This stricture didn’t apply to Stuart Jackson as Osroa – the Parthian King trying to defeat Adriano.  He radiated anger, gave real attention to the words and sang with an assured style and understanding of the character that promises really well for the future.  He’ll be an outstanding Mozartian.  Erica Eloff grew in stature as Farnaspe and did her final aria very beautifully indeed. Ellie Laugharne as Emirena matched her and, again, got steadily better as the evening went on.  Filipa van Eck was a flashy, glamorous Sabina (Adriano’s betrothed) and sang her arias impressively.  Rowan Hellier struck me as rather an anonymous Adriano – and looked very feminine.  Nick Pritchard, as Aquilio, the notional villain, displayed a nice, clear tenor and sang his single aria well.

The production was by Thomas Guthrie and did the piece few favours.  The set was attractive with some nice silhouettes, but it looked very like those pictures of old Handel Opera Society productions or even stretched student ones.  More seriously, I didn’t feel that he’d really engaged with the singers to help them project and get across the long arias and, particularly, the long orchestral introductions.  At times, I wasn’t sure what we would have lost if this had simply been a concert performance – I think that there’s a lot more you could have done with the piece and a contemporary setting might have helped.  Worst of all was his habit of changing scenes or having people come on with bird puppets during the arias, distracting from the singers and making you feel that he just wasn’t interested in the arias.

This was more than just an interesting piece of archaeology.  There is music of real stature and beauty and it was great to have the opportunity to hear it and see how it worked as a staged piece.  However, I can’t help wondering about the business model of this company: a few weeks ago I received a begging letter from them telling me that even full houses over the four performances would only cover 25% of the costs of staging it.  That’s pretty staggering and raises some questions.  I do hope that they found enough sponsors to cover it.