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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.

Terrific Adelson e Salvini

12 May

Opera Rara tends either to uncover interesting, neglected works that would repay a staged a performance or interesting neglected works that wouldn’t.  Bellini’s first opera. Adelson e Salvini, is probably in the latter category, but it was great to have the opportunity to hear it at the Barbican on 11th May.

Musically, there’s a lot to enjoy.  He wrote it when he was 23 and there’s a huge amount of very strong music in it, much in his mature style.  Indeed, a good deal of the music got recycled into later operas (the heroine’s Act I aria went straight into Capuleti.  There’s also a good deal of music betraying the influence of Rossini – given that Bellini had been studying in Naples, this isn’t surprising; indeed, Bellini writes very good cod Rossini.  For me, the best numbers were a superb duet tenor/baritone duet for Adelson and Salvini and Salvini’s 3rd Act number but there isn’t one that is less than enjoyable and well made.

There are a couple of curiosities. It was written for male voices, presumably the women being sung by boys or male altos, which explains why the heroine has relatively little to do. Also, the first version was written with spoken dialogue rather than recitative – I don’t think I’ve come across an Italian opera with dialogue before.  Here, it was well spoken by the cast who had been nicely directed by Kenneth Richardson and Daniel Dooner.

The problem is the plot which is an uneasy mixture of comedy, melodrama and genuine feeling.  The first act does little more than set up the plot and takes 70 minutes to do so.  The relationships are complicated to work out and there’s a villain who is determined to abduct the heroine for no very plausible reason.  in fact the whole premise is silly.  I think it would be roared off the stage if you ever tried it.  It might be fun for students, though.

The performance, however, was very fine indeed.  Daniele Rustioni conducted outstandingly.  He caught the style perfectly and made the music exciting, interesting and, for me, caught all the strengths of the piece.  The BBCSO played strongly for him.

The most interesting role is that of Salvini, caught between a conflict of love for his friend and his friend’s beloved.  Enea Scala began a rather uncertainly but warmed up as the evening went on and gave a truly outstanding performance of his Act III aria.  This is another very promising bel canto tenor and that aria got the audience justifiably excited.  Adelson is much less interesting but Simone Alberghini did what he could and the two did their duet, torno, o caro, very well indeed.

The opera contains Bellini’s only comic character – a Neapolitan servant, Bonifacio.  He has the most Rossinian music and you can see why Bellini didn’t write more like him.  Having said that, Maurizio Muraro gave a really lovely, endearing performance of the role and had the audience in the palm of his hand.  I’d love to see him do more of this sort of role.  He’d be a smashing Don Magnifico.

Daniella Barcellona was a bit wasted as Nelly but sang very nicely.  Rodion Pogossov was a nicely melodramatic Count Struley, the villainand displayed rather a good voice.  David Soar, Kathryn Rudge and Leah-Marian Jones were fine in the smaller roles.

I doubt that this will ever be a viable stage piece, but this excellent performance showed its strengths, was invaluable in teaching us more about Bellini and was hugely enjoyable into the bargain.  Look out for the CD.

Strong Opera North Chenier

6 Mar

You wait thirty years for an Andrea Chenier and then two come along in quick succession.  Following the ROH’s luxury, all-star version last year, Opera North have come up with, their essential or, perhaps “value” version on, I imagine, a pretty small fraction of the budget.  I caught it in Newcastle on 5th March.

It’s good to see the piece again and I can feel that I’m begin to get something of a soft spot for it.  I like the mixture of public and private, I think that the portrayals particularly of Gerard and Maddalena are very strong indeed and I rather enjoy the music.  It may not be earth-shatteringly original; it may be slightly slow moving in places, but I rather enjoy seeing a pretty well made opera which has strengths even if it’s not quite the way Puccini would have done it.  In a performance as good as this, it feels like a strong, convincing opera.

Opera North’s big advantage is that it works in relatively small, intimate theatres where you can get away with voices that probably wouldn’t work at Covent Garden and avoid lavish sets so that you can concentrate on the plot and on the characters.  There’s a concentration about this that works and which enable different effects, provided that you’ve a good cast and director.

Annabel Arden’s production was very strong indeed.  Joanna Parker’s set is bare-bones – screens of chain mail (the servants also wear this in Act I) and scaffolding provide a very flexible arrangement for the different locations – a huge staircase and windows for Act I, an auditorium for the trial in Act III, a bare stage for the last act.  In Act I, instead of hordes of servants doing extravagant routines, you have a single chaise longue and Gerard’s father weighed down by a huge harp.  The poor stick their hands through the chains which is all you see of them.  The smaller stage means a smaller group of people for the party, but you can concentrate on who is who, get more out of the conversations and the Chenier/Maddalena/Gerard triangle is strongly set up.

In Act II, there’s a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty: characters shifting, spying – and the spies are not remotely funny.  The chorus turns convincingly into an angry crowd, staring straight out at the audience at the end.  This continues into Act III where you sense that Gerard’s power is fragile but the confrontation between him and Maddalena is intense and convincing and the pared down approach continues to the final scene.  The great conversations come over truly, between individuals with great emotions rather than cardboard characters.  You get this in an intimate auditorium on a small-ish stage to an extent that you simply cannot at the Royal Opera House.

It was outstandingly well cast.  Annemarie Kremer made an entirely convincing, strongly sung Maddalena.  She sang with a clear simplicity that made her obsession with Chenier convincing.  The big Act III aria was sung in a way which made you follow the emotions and words and understand what she was going through.  Her voice is large and, managed the climaxes with no trouble at all.  I’d love to see her do Tosca here.  What about Turandot?

Robert Hayward’s voice isn’t the most beautiful instrument but he can convey that sort of decent, angry, conflicted emotion that this role needs as well as anyone else.  This was an intensely honest, open portrayal of the role and he has the heft for it.

In the title role Rafael Rojas again, has the power for the role and, again, sang intelligently.  The big ideas of the Improviso and the last aria were built superbly.  He’s not necessarily a convincing revolutionary hero but he portrayed a thoughtful, honest outsider.

But is wasn’t just this trio.  The smaller parts were done without a single weak link.  I expected Fiona Kimm to be excellent as the grotesque Countess and the simple Madelon, but Ross McInroy as the gaoler and Dean Robinson as Fleville, both from the chorus, made really strong impressions. Anna Dennis was an excellent Bersi, Phillip Rhodes, a new name to me, was a very strong, sympathetic Roucher and his voice struck me a very promising.  Daniel Norman doubled the Abate and Incredibile very effectively indeed – neither were comic or figures of fun.  This detailed direction created just the sense of community that this opera needs.

I’ve left Oliver von Dohnanyi last, but his vivid, very clear conducting was as central to the success as Ms Arden’s direction.  He paced it convincingly, caught the passion and terror and phrased the numbers idiomatically.  You didn’t notice any gap between music and staging.  The Opera North orchestra was on superb form.  This was gutsy playing from the heart.  The chorus seemed to be having a great time.

Now I’m not arguing that this performance could have worked in the much larger spaces of the Royal Opera House or that Messrs Rojas and Hayward are in the same league as Kaufmann and Lucic, but in a smaller auditorium, with more daring, interesting direction and equally committed conducted, this Chenier packed as great a punch.

The opera hasn’t been done in the North in living memory and this audience had the opportunity to see it in as good a light as possible.  It demonstrates why I love Opera North – the ability to do projects that ought to be over-ambitious but which they in ways which are practical and which succeed triumphantly.

Discovering Zaza

28 Nov

Normally, I don’t have a problem with going to the opera on my own – quite a good thing you may say.  I don’t see it particularly as a social occasion, but one where I’m quite happy just to appreciate by myself.  However, Opera Rara’s performance of Leoncavallo’s Zaza on 27th November was one of those where I wanted to have someone with me to share the experience, not because I think that Zaza is an undiscovered masterpiece, but because this performance made a very strong case for it and featured a fabulous achievement by Ermonela Jaho in the title role.

It was first performed in 1900 and achieved quite a decent success.  Leoncavallo revised it in 1919 (the performance Opera Rara did was that version).  Geraldine Farrar had a huge success with it at the Met in the 1920s and Loewenberg notes that it was still being performed in Italy in the early 1940s.  It’s now got rather lost with those other operas composed under the shadow of Puccini.

At this performance it came across as rather an appealing piece, albeit with a couple of potential problems. Zaza is a minor cabaret singer who infatuates the wealthy businessman Milio. They are blissfully happy until Zaza discovers that there appears to be another mistress. She goes to Paris to discover not a mistress, but a wife and child. She gives Milio up after a suitable scenery-chewing scene – her last words are “e tutto finito”.
It struck me as quite a technically well-constructed piece. The first act, which reminded me a bit of the opening of Adriana Lecouvreur, is in the cabaret – lots of bustle, you hear the different acts from backstage and has an appealing duet for Zaza and Milio. The second act has less bustle and is the most concise – a nice scene for Zaza and Milio before Cascart, her old flame, reveals the existence of the “mistress”.

The third act is potentially the trickiest. There’s a good aria for Milio after which he leaves. Zaza then arrives and meets his daughter, Toto (“my real name’s Antoinette but everyone calls me Toto”). There is a real danger that this could be so saccharine (“I will play an Ave Maria because it’s my mother’s favourite”) as to induce serial vomiting in an audience or gales of laughter. You need a very strong Zaza to be able to carry it off. The last act has a very good aria for Cascart as he comforts Zaza and that final confrontation.  Leoncavallo’s orchestration is beguiling, detailed and he builds up the drama really well.

Aside from the little child Toto, the problems could be the fact that it’s really quite hard to like Milio who evidently is quite happy to leave his family for six months to live with Zaza without mentioning his wife, and the fact that the music isn’t as instantly memorable as Puccini. Lots of the same techniques are used – conversation, bustling orchestration – but it feels less certain, the music more incidental to a sung play rather than an integral part. You get glimpses of strong ideas that somehow fade away – at least in the first couple of acts. What actually is happening, is that Leoncavallo is building up to a strong finale, leaving me, much to my surprise, involved and rather moved.  This is an opera which could be revived in mainstream houses successfully.

That success will depend on the performance of the leading role. You need a good old fashioned singing actress capable of holding the performance together – you can understand why Geraldine Farrar made it such a success. I imagine that Netrebko, Gheorghiu, Freni when she was singing her heavier roles, would be or have been smashing in it. However, I don’t think their services will be required after the performance that Ermonela Jaho gave here. She took the role completely seriously, developing from the flippant prima donna of the first act, to the smitten lover of the second, through the tortured anguish of Act III to the anger, bitterness and despair of the last act. She has a way of conveying emotions and a fundamental honesty and decency so that they are utterly believable.  This wasn’t a showy, self-conscious performance but one where you she created someone entirely believable.  She held the hall mesmerised by the sheer passion, anger and sadness that she got into that final scene. She sang it superbly – it’s a gorgeous voice and she seizes the words and makes them mean something. I do hope the Royal Opera House have some plans for her to return for things other than Angelica. She’s a very special soprano indeed.

The rest were pretty good too. Riccardo Massi sang strongly as Milio, conveying the charm and fecklessness of the character and gave lots of pleasure with singing that struck me as perfectly in style.  He has a very attractive spinto tenor that has some heft behind it.  He’s doing Cavaradossi at the ROH later in the season and could be worth catching. Stephen Gaertner was a late-ish replacement as Cascart, Zaza’s ex and confidante, but he’d sung it before and I really enjoyed his concerned, stylish and intelligent singing. He did his Act IV aria really well. There may be some starrier names out there who could do the roles, but I’m not sure that I’d swap either of them.

There are quite a lot of small roles which were pretty strongly cast here even if not always easy to distinguish. I’d single out Nicky Spence for his outstandingly stylish and committed Courtois (Zaza’s boss) and Kathryn Rudge as Natalia the maid. Patricia Bardon was ill and Rebecca Lodge learned the role of Anaide (Zaza’s drunken mother) in 24 hours and put in a performance that did the job admirably.  Julia Ferri played Toto and managed to avoid making you want to strangle her or to rush for the sick bucket.

Some of that must be due to Susannah Waters’s direction.  She managed the comings and goings pretty well in front of the orchestra.  I’m not sure how far she can credited with helping Ms Jaho, but she obviously did nothing to hinder her and, as I’ve suggested, managed the third act really well.

Maurizio Benini conducted strongly. He took the piece absolutely seriously, played it for what it was worth and more and was well supported by the BBCSO and by the BBC Singers. This performance took place after the cast had recorded the opera and, as a result, they were all well into their roles – most used the scores as a fall-back and looked at each other and reacted.

This then struck me as demonstrating that Zaza is a viable opera – certainly no less so than, say, Adriana Lecouvreur or Fedora. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if this were even approaching the bottom of Mr Holten’s list of operas to perform at the ROH.  I’d say it would be worth it if only for Ms Jaho.   I’d certainly like to see a staging and will definitely be buying the CD when it comes out.