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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.

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When concerts can be as good as stagings

25 Aug

I’ve just blogged about the excellent Yeomen of the Guard at the Proms and now, less than a week later, we have a trulyoutstanding Peter Grimes in a concert in which I barely missed the staging.  With these and the Opera North Ring, it makes you feel that these concerts are not just cheapskate ways of getting some sort of performance of an opera but actually viable ways of producing a great operatic experience.  I remember also that probably the finest performance of Macbeth that I’ve seen was at the ROH when they’d over-estimated the problems of doing two new productions when you have the builders in and turned Phyllida Lloyd’s new production into a concert staging.

The common theme of all of those was that they had been wonderfully prepared and, in the case of two of them, had been prepared for or arose out of a full staging.  So what are the advantages?  First, the singers are in front of the orchestra engaging with each other. They are closer to the audience and there’s no chasm between them and us – there’s a direct engagement which is much more difficult in an opera house.  They don’t have complex sets or moves to negotiate and this enables them to concentrate on the acting and the essence of the performance.  There are also advantages in having the orchestra in full view, particularly in a piece like Grimes where the show-piece interludes benefit from the orchestra being visible.

There are disadvantages, of course.  If a singer isn’t quite prepared then the exposure shows (all here were magnficent).  The balance can sometimes be distorted – having the chorus and organ in the hall rather than offstage meant that they become the focus of the Ellen/John scene and (at least from where I was sitting) overwhelmed Amanda Roocroft when they really should have been no more than the background.  And, in Grimes, the chorus is a crucial part of the action and having them behind the orchestra and away from the principals meant they seemed separate – you had to make allowances.

Here these disadvantages were only minor.  The lynch mob in Act III was as terrifying as I have ever heard in the theatre.  The final scenes were as rivetting and moving as ever – you needed to make no allowances at all for Stuart Skelton, dishevelled, bare-footed, twitching and entirely withdrawn into his own nightmare for his last mad-scene.  And the pub scene was as well observed, witty and carefully delineated as it ever has been in a stage production.  You wouldn’t want to see Grimes like this all the time, but this provided the essence to give us among the finest performances of it that I’ve seen.

Skelton, as we know from the 2009 performances, is an outstanding Grimes, capable of managing both the brutality and sheer tenderness of the monologues.  He is more tender and sings more beautifully than Vickers and has greater strength and sheer brutality than either Rolfe-Johnson or Langridge.  I don’t think I’ve seen a more complete performance.

He was marvellously supported.  So far I’ve been a bit sceptical about Iain Paterson.  My apologies to him.  His Balstrode was outstandingly sung – displaying a huge voice, beautifully controlled and with outstanding diction – and committedly acted.  This was all the more creditable because he wasn’t part of the original production.  What struck me above all was how I wanted to hear him in Wagner and, particularly as Wotan.  In these straitened times there’s probably no hope of an ENO Ring to give him the opportunity, but we can dream…. Amanda Roocroft was a lovely Ellen, my only concern being that her words weren’t as clear as other Ellens have managed – the Embroidery song always causes problems but she just wasn’t clear enough at the opening of Act II, even when she wasn’t being drowned by the chorus.

Mark Richardson stood in competently as Swallow and the rest of the cast were as at the ENO production and it was marvellous to see such a gallery of detailed, thoughtful impersonations – Felicity Palmer marvellous and unexaggerated as Mrs Sedley, Leigh Melrose really good as Ned Keene and Michael Colvin a mad Bob Boles.  I felt that Rebecca du Pont Davies as Auntie and Darren Jeffrey as Hobson lost most from the absence of David Alden’s production: there they were given very specific, interesting aspects to the characters – Hobson as a probable abuser of boys himself and Auntie’s louche lesbianism didn’t come across so obviously.

Edward Gardner conducted surely – you were gripped by the drama, surely paced, building up the tension and allowing the full terror of the mob to explode.  The ENO chorus and orchestra were on outstanding form and everyone cohered to put across the pathos, the wit and the sheer terror and tragedy of this wonderful opera.

The worst irritation was the audience.  This one had been listened attentively and engrossed, then you come to those massive chorus cries of “Grimes” in Act III and people start applauding after the first one.  It’s a tribute to the performance that we were able to recover concentration almost immediately and the remain cries were just as terrifying as they should be.

This was one of those evening which reminded me of why I go to the opera – terrifying, moving, thought-provoking and entirely involving.

G&S at the Proms

20 Aug

I find the Prom performances of Gilbert and Sullivan hugely reassuring.  First, a packed Albert Hall suggests that there is a wide range of people of all ages who will pay to see the operas and enjoy them.  Secondly, it reminds you that they still work and stand the test of performance.  People tend to mock them these days and it’s nice to remember that they’re actually good.

This year on 19th August it was the turn of The Yeomen of the Guard – as, I suppose, was only to be expected in this patriotic year. There actually isn’t a lot, bar the grandeur of the music, that’s particularly patriotic about the piece, but I won’t worry about that: there hasn’t been a decent performance of it since the 1995 WNO performances and it was good to see it again.

It’s proof of the range of the two of them that they could produce from material only slightly less silly than that of The Mikado a piece which is entirely different from the others, with a greater level of pathos, where silliness becomes charm, while still retaining the wit and satire.  Most of the operas involve at least an element of disappointed or thwarted love. Yeomen is the only one where you feel it matters and, in Jack Point, Gilbert created his finest character – certainly his most human mix of comedy and humanity. While there are lots of great tunes, there’s a melancholy and seriousness about Sullivan’s music that surpasses even that of Iolanthe: I don’t think it’s his greatest score (there’s a dullness about the later numbers in the second Act) but it has its own very special character.

And this was a really good performance.  I thought that Jane Glover got the score pretty much exactly right – tempi well-judged, responsive to the singers and with a sense of style that reassured me that this hadn’t died with Mackerras.  The BBC Concert orchestra could possibly have done with another rehearsal but the BBC Singers were in fabulous form – it’s among Sullivan’s most difficult choral music and it was a joy to have musicians of their calibre singing it.

It wasn’t a bad cast either. Casting Mark Stone as Jack Point was a stroke of genius. He clearly has the lyricism for the role, but I’d not realised how fine he was at the patter – really clear diction – but he managed to deliver the dialogue with wit and panache and to dance as wel.  This was the most complete Point that I’ve seen and made me want to see him as Papageno, Malatesta and a whole range of other roles quite urgently.

Heather Shipp made a delightful Phoebe (as you would expect following her Mad Margaret at Opera North) – it’s a gem of a role and she caught the impulsive flirtatious silliness beautifully. I very much admired Toby Stafford-Allen’s Shadbolt – just the right level of surly intelligence. And it goes without saying that Felicity Palmer was as perfect a Dame Carruthers as you could imagine. All took their roles seriously and credibly, without exaggeration.

I was a bit less happy about some of the remainder. I was looking forward to seeing Lisa Milne as Elsie, forgetting that Elsie has some of Sullivan’s grandest music to sing – listen to Elizabeth Harwood on the 1964 D’Oyly Carte recording (still, for my money, the best) and you will hear what a grand, lyric soprano can do with it: you need an Elvira, not a Susanna, a Marschallin, not a Sophie. Milne sounded over-parted. I also prefer a rather lusher tone than Andrew Kennedy can find for Fairfax: the two arias need a greater freedom than what struck me as his rather cautious singing could muster.  They weren’t bad but they didn’t strike me as ideally cast.

Martin Duncan’s semi-staging updated it to the Victorian period without significant damage. Better, as with Patience three years ago, he had the cast speaking the dialogue (discreetly amplified, I think) naturally and with just the right style. I don’t understand why he isn’t a regular with the main companies. The movement of the principals was ideal.

So it was a joyous evening and well worth the trip on a sweltering day. The only regret was that all that work only went on for a single performance. It was recorded and will be on BBC 2 on Saturday 25th. It’s well worth seeing.