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Cenerentola charms

3 Mar

Opera North’s new Cenerentola begins in Don Magnifico’s dancing school.  During the overture, we see him giving a lesson to some ghastly-looking children.  I started giggling happily at Henry Waddington’s preening, not-too corpulent Magnifico going through his paces after about three seconds and the smile remained on my face for the remainder of the evening at the performance I saw that Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 2nd March.

Aletta Collins’s production manages to be witty and touching in the right places and gets as close to the heart of the piece as any other that I’ve seen.  It would be easy to think that this was just a neatly choreographed romp were it not for the tenderness of the Ramiro/Angelina duet, for the sheer nastiness of the way Magnifico and the sisters treated Angelina and for the happiness of the ending.  Her take on the opera uses Giles Cadle’s unit set really effectively, moving from dancing school to backstage at the ball really cleverly and without making you feel short-changed.  It’s possible to take this opera too seriously and I thought Collins got the balance spot-on.

Just as important, this was a slick, happy show that kept its audience engaged and where the cast was alert and intelligent.  It felt as though they were having a lot of fun.

This went a long way to overcome the fact that, on occasion, the cast was pretty stretched by Rossini’s savage writing.  There were two very good performances from the leads.  Wallis Giunta has a lovely, gentle mezzo and the waif-like figure that the role needs.  She’s an appealing actress.  Her tuning wasn’t always completely spot on, but she managed the bravura finale (together with dance movements) really impressively.  I think we’ll hear more of her.

Sunnyboy Dladla has a light, Florez-ish voice that suits the music well.  The top notes didn’t seem to be a problem and he sang with real taste and expressiveness and acted really intelligently.  I don’t know how far his voice would work in larger houses but here it sounded like an answer to Opera North’s bel canto tenor prayers.  Any chance of some Donizetti/Bellini revivals with him please?

Quirijn de Lang doesn’t strike me as a natural Rossini baritone.  The florid passages made you realise exactly how difficult they are.  But he’s a smashing performer.  He did the entrance number beautifully – very nervous in disguise indeed, hands, shaking with the coloratura and his confidence built up quickly.  His acting was alert and witty.

Henry Waddington made a really good Magnifico, vain, nasty and utterly self centred.  He is a great comedian and was just as monstrous as he ought to be.  He sang it with absolute confidence.  Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne had a lovely time as his daughters – very funny and nasty.

John Savournin was a splendid Alidoro.  He’s a natural stage performer – alert, able to express stuff simply by raising an eyebrow.  The director had him firmly in control of the action.  He also sang pretty well including and made as good a job of La del ciel as you could hope for.

The chorus were on good form and had lots of fun as photographers, make up artists, waiters etc.  The orchestra was less so with some rather lax playing.  Derek Cowan conducted lightly and looked after his singers well.  He caught the wit in the score.  I enjoyed the music.

The score was sensitively cut – quite a lot of recitative was missing, as was one of Magnifico’s arias.  Neither was an unbearable loss and we were out in just over two hours 30 with the show never having felt remotely too long.

I’m not saying that this clever, economical, happy show would necessarily go down well at classier addresses, but it made for a happy, honest, hugely enjoyable evening.  It’s well worth catching.  Not a bad introduction to opera for children either – they’re doing a matinee on Saturday.

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CD Shopping

4 Jun

One of the sadnesses of 21st century life is the paucity of specialist classical music CD shops.  In Central London, only Harold Moores seriously caters for the classical music lover.  I find it hard to believe that we are all really so addicted to internet shopping or downloading that a major capital city cannot support more than one shop to supply a population that must include at surely tens of thousands of classical music lovers.  One of my great pleasures used to be to wander into MDC or one of the specialist shops with no particular intention of buying  anything, but open to temptation, and leaving, with my wallet rather lighter and my shopping bag quite a lot heavier, simply because I’d seen all those CDs that I didn’t know I wanted at prices that, on balance, were too good to miss.

Internet shopping, for me at least, isn’t the same and, if my wallet is heavier and my shelves filling at a slower rate, life has lost a bit of its joy.  On the internet, somehow, the eye isn’t caught by that reissue of a CD you’d never have bought at full price, or that collection that contains two or three things you realise your own collection desperately needs, or the import or live performance that you didn’t know existed.  Maybe I just haven’t got the knack or found the sites that will do that for me.

I was reminded of this on a visit to Newcastle.  I get there pretty regularly because (a) I have family there and (b) Opera North visits.  There are two places there that I always look at.  First, there is JG Windows, not what it was, but still a decent source of the odd off-beat or unexpected recording or the special price – where you need at least half an hour to browse and weigh up the options.  The second is HMV which, unlike many of its other branches, still has a classical section in an area a bit removed from the general sound system and where, again, you can find the occasional keenly priced item.  My normal routine is to have good browse in HMV, then wander to Windows to compare and, if necessary, return.

This time my eye at HMV was caught by Decca’s reissue of La cenerentola with Bartoli and Chailly.  I’ve coveted it for a while but, with three others (Gui, Abbado and Ferro, since you ask), could never quite bring myself to pay full price for it.  At HMV, it was a tenner.  Windows charged slightly more, but then they had the Hampson recording of Thomas’s Hamlet, substantially cheaper….  What interested me, however – and this is the real, musing purpose of this blog – was that the alternatives, or lack of them, to the Bartoli Cenerentola.

In both shops the only alternative was the Glyndebourne version conducted by Gui from 1953.  And it was about £2 more expensive.

I looked online.  As you would expect, I could have got all of the recordings a bit cheaper (shaving off about £1.50, so barely a massive consideration) by going to itunes or Amazon or one of the specialist online dealers.  What interested me was that, unless you want the original Decca Bartoli recording (presumably because it has a libretto), it’s quite difficult to find a respectable Cenerentola for more than about £15.  And, apart from Amazon which had it quite sensibly priced at £7.50, the Gui was more expensive than all the more modern versions.

Now one of the things that has improved in my lifetime is the standard of Rossini performance.  With conductors like Ferro, Rizzi and Scimone, mezzos like Larmore, Valentini-Terrani and di Donato, tenors like Matteuzzi, Gimenez and Florez and buffo baritones like Corbelli, Dara, Alaimo and Pratico, it’s very hard to go wrong with any recording made after 1980. So what on earth is going on here?  There are lots of things I like about the Gui recording – not least Gui’s own conducting, Bruscantini’s stylish Dandini and a nice sense of ensemble.  It’s of historic interest as probably the earliest Rossini recording with a true sense of ensemble and style.  But the Angelina is ordinary, it’s not complete and Ian Wallace’s Magnifico sounds quite leaden compared with his successors.  Even in 1976, Harold Rosenthal didn’t think it was completely recommendable.  At the moment, even Glyndebourne aren’t stocking it in a season when they’re doing the opera.  That must tell you something.

It took me a while, but then I realised that the only reason that I could think of for the premium was the fact that EMI have included an extra CD with text, translation and synopsis.  They have done the same with the really pretty dreadful Giulini Italiana in Algieri, which no-one in their right minds will buy other than for masochistic reasons or to prove beyond doubt that we do Rossini better nowadays.  Most of the others don’t include a libretto or make you go online for one.

So there are two questions.  First, would anyone pay more for an older, inferior recording simply because it has a CD with libretto and synopsis?  Personally, I wouldn’t but then I have a libretto and know the piece pretty well and rarely follow CDs with libretto in hand.  But maybe I’m not the demographic EMI have in mind.

Secondly, is it any wonder that nobody goes to CD shops if you have a choice of only two recordings of quite a major opera?  It seems to me that there is a vicious circle going on there: shops aren’t making enough money from classical CDs to justify the space, so they stock fewer, which means that fewer people buy from them because there is less choice.  And so the random CD buyer like me, buys less.

Anyway, unless you’re allergic to Bartoli (and this is her in the 1990s  before she became more mannered), I do strongly recommend this Cenerentola – it’s fabulously good.

Cenerentola at Glyndebourne

23 May

It’s good to be back at Glyndebourne and particularly on the warmest day of the year so far.  Since last year, they’ve built the famous wind turbine and have managed it so that, while it dominates most of the countryside around, it’s possible to avoid it being obvious from a number of parts of the garden.

The best news is that this Cenerentola is a very special experience indeed.  It’s 60 years since Glyndebourne started the post-war Rossini revival with this opera and gained for itself a special reputation for Rossini style.  This struck me as being fully within that tradition and also showing that Glyndebourne can still create an alert, vibrant ensemble of young singers, giving a superbly prepared, alert and stylish performance.

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast which had three UK stage debuts.  You knew it was going to be special when Elizabeth DeShong, as Angelina, sang her opening phrases.  This is among the finest Rossini contralto voices that I’ve heard – think Simionato or Marilyn Horne without the metallic edge – a gloriously rich, even, generous sound.  And she can manage the pathos and the bravura features of the role as completely as anyone else I’ve heard.  I now want to hear her as Isabella, Rosina, Isolier and maybe some of the Handels too.  This is a real star in the making.

Taylor Stayton only made his professional debut two years ago but he struck me as a mature, confident Ramiro, well able to manage the notes, singing stylishly, acting with wit and getting the words across.  He had a lovely double act going with Armando Noguera’s Dandini.  Noguera (a late replacement for the advertised singer) has one of those attractive, dry-ish voices that work so well for this sort of music – not unlike Bruscantini or Corbelli and he sang it as fluently and idiomatically as those two.  As all good Dandinis should, he created a rapport with the audience but never quite overdid the clowning – you felt that there real disappointment at his return to being a valet. Whether he (or Mr Stayton) would come across as well in a larger house is more debateable but here was an audience favourite who suits this theatre well and I hope he’ll be back.

Umberto Chiummo struck me as on the young side for Magnifico without quite the authority that his predecessors here have had, but he was always intelligent and created a really unpleasant character.  Again, there was a great rapport with the other cast memebrs.  Shenyang, the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World, made as a good an Alidoro as the role allows.  The sisters were strong.

James Gaffigan conducted an elegant performance – shaping the lines well, enjoying the dialogues between the instruments, building the crescendos with perfect timing.  Maybe he isn’t quite Gui, but he will do very well and the LPO were on alert, strong form.

The slight down-side comes from Peter Hall’s production.  It was never his strongest piece of work and looked pretty old-fashioned in 2005 when it was new.  The routines feel self-conscious and the cast comes to face the audience in a row in the great ensembles a little too often.  You can overlook this because the acting and the way in which the characters interact is fresh, intelligent and rings absolutely true.

This was a true ensemble performance of strong, young singers, working together, interacting, treating the piece seriously and as if it mattered – fresh, unhackneyed and hugely enjoyable.  It made you realise what a gem of an opera this is.  I don’t think I’ve seen a better performance.  I suspect it can only get better as the run goes on and they can relax a bit..