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Friday, 30 November 2012

L'incoronazione di Poppea Royal College of Music


Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, his last and maybe greatest opera, does not give up its pleasures easily to many listeners, who might find it dry and unyielding compared to the rich musical glories of the late Baroque that we are far more used to, let alone the perfection of Mozart. But like many of the best things, hard won pleasures often end up being the dearest held of all, and Monteverdi offers things which no other composer does. The psychological intensity and commitment to truth is staggering in this work, as is its eschewal of pat conclusions and plot devices for the sake of symmetry and the audience's peace of mind. Unlike the lunacy of many (if not most) 18th century opera plots of a century later, the wonderful libretto is conversational, psychologically driven, nonrepeating and therefore very fast paced, and Monteverdi matches every word with music of the same tone - intense, through composed, intimate and subtle. Nothing is illogical, farfetched, illconsidered or extraneous, though simultaneously almost no aspect of the human condition seems to be left untouched. (One passage that struck me quite forcefully this time, was a proto "Marschallin's Monologue" about ageing and the mystery of time's passing, all condensed into about 3 minutes). A cliché now to say it, but Monteverdi feels very modern.

Matthew Ward as Arnalta
Director James Conway's carefully considered production updates the action to communist Russia under Stalin. The depressing terracotta bunker like living quarters that the characters inhabit are claustrophobic and devoid of beauty or softness, representing the spiritual barrenness of the people in power in the opera, and the oppression of those that are forced to live in such close proximity with them. The capricious violence of the plot has its obvious parallels in the regime. Poppea is just a child out of her depth, not an innocent certainly - she knows what she wants and how to get it - but she's not aware of what she means to other people. Nerone is older and Poppea is initially attracted to his powerful masculinity, but he's also impulsive and quick to anger like a child. Conway is very good at presenting the characters as complex creations, always revealed in little details of characterisation so that none seem fully good or bad, no one is truly innocent or truly evil. This I feel is just the approach that is appropriate with L'incoronazione di Poppea, as we are never dealing with archetypes or characters that are merely channels for emotions "taken off the shelf".

Katherine Crompton and Annie
Frederiksson as Poppea and Nerone
Reviews are nothing if not personal, and there was a niggling doubt in my mind as I sat through this, that may be very personal, but I think is nonetheless valid. One of my strongest intuitions about opera (and one that is hardest to talk about, and most often ignored) is that what is going on visually and intellectually on stage needs to match the tenor of the music.The problem I have with this production is that the setting just "feels" wrong for the music - this music is intimate, small scale, understated, made of a thousand details of texture and mood. There's never any feel of some massive edifice in the background, some underlying terror, false jollity and mechanised violence, where emotion is secret and the emotional surface of society is ironed out. Everything is immediate, the characters are very much their own people unbridled by ideology or "the right thought". There's no communism in this music! That's glib, but I hope I make myself at least partially clear. People will disagree with me here no doubt, but it was something that struck me rather strongly, so I thought I'd mention it.

Any performance of Monteverdi is going to contain a lot of interpretation due to the choices that the folios force upon the performers. Here, the lack of any sustaining instruments in the continuo was a real problem - we had a triple harp, a theorbo and a harpsichord which provided constantly shifting, beautifully evanescent textures but didn't feel fully supportive to the singers or harmony. Much of the music felt a little dessicated as a result, despite moments of compelling intimacy. The string sound was a little thin, though the odd rambunctiousness of the harmony in the more festive elements of the score were nicely brought out, especially by the recorders.

Katherine Crompton
Katherine Crompton seemed a bit out of sorts as Poppea, not fully sustaining her lines, and struggling with intonation in the mercilessly exposed vocal writing. More assured was Annie Fredriksson as Nerone whose slightly brittle mezzo seemed ideal as the impetuous Nerone. High notes could be a bit disconnected from the rest of the line, but this was a fine piece of vocal characterisation and she acted the part well too. Fiona Mackenzie was a strong Ottavia, already doing expressive things and managing her wonderful music admirably, and I think she is capable of going much further. Angela Simkin in the small role of Nutrice her nurse handled the very low tessitura of her role very well and Hannah Sondison revealed a very attractive bright mezzo, also blessed with accurate execution.

David Hansford made a noble Seneca with a bass voice of impressive depth and alacrity. Tenor Matthew Ward played Arnalta, Poppea's nurse, a delightful piece of comedy casting, and in this setting she becomes a sort of Babushka figure. I kept thinking I was listening to a Marilyn Horne-alike singing in that ultra chest register she had - that is to say that despite the sillyness of it, I still found Arnalta a convincing woman! Bradley Travis gave a touching portrayal of Ottone and Peter Kirk revealed a gorgeous young lyric tenor which made one wish he had a larger part than just Lucano. I instantly recognised Vasili Karpiak's voice again with its throbbing Italianate legato from last term's Figaro - he didn't sound at all incongruent here, and was excellent casting in contrast to the more clipped tones of his fellow soldier Michael Buchard.

Just found this whilst rooting around Youtube which is absolutely stupendous:

Friday, 23 November 2012

John Tomlinson masterclass at the Royal Academy


John Tomlinson hardly needs introducing, but suffice it to say that he's one of my favourite currently performing singers. Yes, the voice is now well past its prime, but he's one of opera's best singing actors in my opinion, always living completely inside a role, nothing extraneous, nothing overwrought, we're never in any doubt about the musical and dramatic intent, and his presence and impact are always massive. And despite the serious vocal wear I still enjoy hearing that huge voice in Wagner with its virtually bottomless depth and superb diction. Some people see him as a thunderer and find him lacking in subtlety, but I have to say I've never seen this side of him.

credit: Robert Workman
Initially he seemed to have a bit of difficulty in communicating his ideas with the young singers, taking long pauses to think and try to articulate himself better. But soon he got into a rhythm and had helpful things to say to all the students. Gareth John is a vocally very accomplished baritone but wasn't communicating with enough immediacy with the audience in the prologue of I Pagliacci, so Tomlinson had him come into the room several times, and bring his centre gravity forward so that it was over the balls of his feet, which forced him into the right posture and attitude. Nicholas Crawley sung La calunnia from Rossini's Barbiere with great character, style and assurance, but Tomlinson helped him sing with a greater legato line, stressing the importance of breath support and movement - he said the breathing apparatus must always be moving and that when it stops, so does the air flow. This seems obvious, but only once it's been said. Proper support became a theme for the other singers too. Thomas Elwin gave the cutest account of the lascivious Count's Questa o quella from Rigoletto that I have ever heard, which impressed Tomlinson greatly, though he again stressed the importance of legato and taking care of all the notes, giving each one its due. Top notes need a definite shape and a rest in a phrase does not mean the ending of the phrase. Also an important but humorous point of tempo - if this is sung too fast, and indeed with a lot of Verdi, there's a danger of it becoming Gilbert and Sullivan!

I was most impressed by Ross Ramgobin, a young baritone with immensely finessed vocal control, capable of some very beautiful singing. Timbrally I was reminded of Kaufmann, that is, somewhere between a tenor and a baritone sound, but especially that special focussed intimacy in quiet passages, and he's well on his way interpretively too. He sang O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhauser very nicely, but with a little too much Italianate squillo, and not enough quiet rapture and innigkeit. Because the technical apparatus was so secure, Tomlinson was able to instruct his student on a higher level, and Ramgobin was able to effect significant changes immediately and really improved his interpretation in the short space of time that they worked together. Ramgobin is one to watch.

Tereza Gevorgyan is also an interesting singer. She sang Quando m'en vo from La Boheme with flirtatious swagger and with an astonishing intensity in the sound considering how slender her frame is. Tomlinson's comments chimed exactly with Barbara Bonney's comments on the attitude that this aria requires - there's no need for Musetta to moon around and be overly flirtatious - she knows her power and barely needs to move to be captivating and the centre of attention. Tomlinson identified a tendency to sing slightly flat in the passagio, but simply focussing on becoming conscious of this, not pressing, and making the sound shimmer and spin on the sharp side of the note was the difference between "OK, and classic". He was right - just this small change made these sections much more beautiful. Gevorgyan's voice is attractively full, with an especially lovely lower register - occasionally the top is over vibrant and too intense for comfort - though with more vocal support Tomlinson coaxed her into singing quieter. Her Donizetti (so anch'io la virtu magica) was delightful. She's not yet as finished as Ramgobin but she's definitely got something unique.

Not the most enlightening afternoon, but certainly enjoyable. One sensed that Tomlinson might have worked better on interpretive matters and acting with more finished singers, as these have always been his strengths, but there was still much to be gleaned here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Bieito's Carmen at ENO


I love Carmen. It's the score that does it for me, rather than the drama - the endless invention, bright, bold energy and simplicity, and wonderful scoring. The way Bizet uses what should be in theory rather superficial, banal material to such brilliantly subtle, and often genuinely unnerving dramatic ends, is quite unique in 19th century opera. For these reasons, in purely musical terms I would personally put it above any of Verdi's operas. I do not dismiss Verdi's undeniable dramatic potency, warm humanity and even inspiration, but Bizet unquestionably has the larger musical range. I sometimes have issues with the way Verdi just accepts his materials whole sale and it doesn't occur to him to truly subvert or undermine his Italian opera conventions - his many innovations are very much in line with what's come before and there's something wilful and very strange about his refusal to engage with what was going on around him musically at the time. Bizet is constantly pushing his rather conventional material to new expressive ends, and he finds so many solutions while maintaining a very strong overall profile, that I just delight in hearing the work every time I see it.

Where Carmen fails for me a bit is that I find it hard to care about the characters. They're all well drawn and develop well, and the dramatic situations are true and pure, but I find none that sympathetic, except maybe Carmen herself (though only in some productions). And so it was here - Bieito does a very good job of telling the story, but he still didn't make me care that much about any of the characters. Still this is a good production, and I was surprised by how uninterventionist it was. Yes it's updated and yes there's a bit
of nudity and violence, but largely it just tells the story, and does it mostly very well.

What is particularly striking about this production is its visual aspects (designer Alfons Flores) which are brilliantly atmospheric, strongly imagined and very cohesive; Bruno Poet's lighting too really adds something special. Bieito creates some very powerful images in this setting - Carmen is tied to the flag pole (an obvious phallic symbol), but it seems to be not Carmen but Don José who cannot leave, held by invisible restraints. Though she of course escapes, Bieito is keen to remind us that usually women aren't so lucky at the hands of men, and at the end of the scene dishevelled and presumably just violated woman is hounded by a gang of men and then strung up shrieking on the flag pole. In the final scene, Carmen's showdown with Don José is more directly linked to the bullfight in visual terms than I have ever seen before, and Don José, the miserable victor, drags Carmen away like the beast that has been slain inside the walls of the stadium.

The societal alienation, and latent critique of violent societies (that is all societies in Bieito's mind) which is the bread and butter of Bieito's usual approach is relative background here - perhaps he is treading lightly as the society in question is gypsy culture and criticising gypsy culture is not really very PC. Maybe I just expected something more jarring and disturbing. In this, Bieito's vision of lower class Spain, women are always shrieking, and men are always laughing - they're largely a rather inarticulate horde, apart from the tortured principal trio who are sort of trapped by the idiots, but it's also not clear that they're so different. There's a subplot about the underage sexualisation of young girls in this society, and so presumably we're meant to surmise that this was Carmen's (and Frasquita's and Mercédès etc. etc.) upbringing too - she can't help expressing herself in sexual terms, and though she does have a specially potent power over men, she has less autonomy here than in productions which see her as dangerously different from her sisters. This is especially apparent in the final scene where she seems not irritated, but sort of at a loss with Don José's ardency, not quite understanding his infatuation - is she incapable of understanding love?

There are a few mildly irritating tropes. Bieito indulges in a bit of McVicar-ian gay fantasy wish fulfilment - in Spain there is apparently an endless supply of shirtless muscle bound hunks in the army, that are constantly engaged in horseplay and tactile mateyness. The gorgeous Entr'acte no.2 contains the sole piece of full male nudity - another perfectly sculpted male specimen consecrates the bull ring with an incongruously graceful dance, considering he's a soldier. There's a bit of cartoonish gangstery violence when the Dancaire and Remendado kick Zuniga to death, then urinate on him* - not at all suggested in the music, and it also doesn't register ironically as a disgusting act set to jolly music - it just comes across as vaguely ludicrous and insignificant. Maybe the lack of shock value is meant to be the point? I doubt it.

Musically things are mixed. Ruxandra Donose is in some ways an odd choice as Carmen. She sings the part very beautifully indeed, with her exceptionally rich and even vocal production, and she's a good actress too. But, the lack of timbral variation means she ends up sounding like an old school english contralto, with nowhere near enough sex in the voice. She isn't helped by the unsexy translation, it must be said. Still she's my pick of the singers here. Adam Diegel, her Don José is OK, but the voice becomes pressured, nasal and incomprehensible in its upper reaches. Acting wise he has very little presence despite his burly physique and his spoken lines are wooden and forced.

Elizabeth Llewellyn's Micaela got the biggest ovation, and it is a very lovely voice in a rather generic way - it's a dark, yet ripe sound, and she doesn't let a note go by that isn't fully formed and voluptuous. However, and though it sort of pains me to say it, it wasn't enough for me and I found her performance rather bland - there's too little character on the stage, or in the voice. When you can sing this well, there needs to be some risk taking.

Leigh Melrose was a weak Toreador (Escamillo), vocally completely wayward stylistically, and nowhere near enough of the alpha male that the character's music and text suggests. Rhian Lois' Frasquita was the best of the supporting cast - the little she gets to sing was all dispatched beautifully, and I'd like to see her in a meatier role.

Though my seat meant I barely heard anything of the first half orchestrally (I moved for the second half), Ryan Wigglesworth seemed to have a firm hold on the score, especially in shaping the unsettling undertones that shine through the brilliant surface. Occasionally the ensembles and choruses came unstuck timing wise, but largely this was a fine reading I thought, energetic and vivacious.

Overall a worthwhile evening, though I wasn't that excited by any of the voices. Roberto Alagna was in the audience with Aleksandra Kurzak (taking a break from their L'Elisir run at the ROH) - perhaps surprisingly, Alagna has also sung in this production in an earlier incarnation. Cherie Blair was also in the audience - obviously controversial European Regie theatre is her thing.**

*forgot the urination thing before.
** I've been informed that her youngest son was in the children's chorus.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Tempest Met Broadcast


[Before I start: It's difficult to really review opera broadcast because the focus is so different. Visually we get far more close-ups and we are shown explicitly where to focus our attention. Aurally the voices are presented in very close sound which picks up far more detail than is audible in any seat in the theatre, which is good for some singers, and bad for others. So it's important to remember that this is partially a review of the broadcast, not just the opera production.]

I am currently preparing a couple of blog posts which will be an appraisal of Thomas Adès entire oeuvre, and so will leave comments about where I think this opera fits into the bigger picture of his work for there. Generally though, I do consider myself an Adès fan, but mostly for the works of the 1990s; after this I hear a dropping off in quality, his orchestral work Tevot aside, which may well be his best piece to date. The Tempest opened to rapturous reviews when it was premièred in 2004, the superlatives dripping easily from the pens of many a reviewer. But the initial elation I think was misplaced and a case of hearing what they wanted to hear rather than what was actually there. Since the premier it has been largely admired, but rarely with such fervency.

Though I agree that there are lovely portions, I think it has serious problems, musically and dramatically. Adès' The Tempest doesn't feel ambitious enough in how it deals with the problems of adaptation and the play feels traduced not just by Meredith Oakes' clunky libretto, but in terms of the emotional scope and variety that the opera offers. There is a long tradition of doing Shakespeare in opera, and the conclusion we surely must come to by now is surely that basically it doesn't work. The original language is too rich, the interactions too subtle, there's too much discussion, and action is often too psychological to work in the operatic medium. The plays are all very long, and always need to be cut down and simplified, but it seems to be impossible to do this whilst being faithful to the original, without the feeling that the work is hopelessly compromised, and often simply undramatic. (Verdi is a case apart that requires serious discussion elsewhere. Basically it works because they are so far removed from the original plays). As drama then, Adès' The Tempest is slow and murky, but as opera too it is a problematic work. Characters don't seem motivated by psychology and inner necessity and fundamentally lack an emotional inner world. Musical characterisation goes as far as each character being associated with particular intervals and melodic gestures (emphatically not leitmotifs), but fails to produce real living, breathing characters. The model for the word setting is very clearly Stravinsky with occasional hints of Berg, but the vocal lines never congeal into the true phrases that both of these composers manage to fashion out of very angular melodic material.

There are wonderful things though as I say - the Act II duet for the lovers is gorgeous music for instance (though feels synthetic emotionally). So too the final few minutes of Act III with its grand opera quintet, Prospero's moving farewell, and the ending in purish Db, Caliban left on the island with Ariel's wordless intonations floating into the air - very pretty music recalling Strauss wordless conclusion to Daphne, and though it accomplishes some of the quiet poignancy that it is meant to be evoke, it falls decidedly short of the true greatness that Adès has offered in previous work. In the end there is a feeling of a lack of necessity in the writing, an artificially, with little coming from the heart - these creatures are being conjured through skill and craftsmanship, with undeniable skill, but the sense of creative strain and effortful construction can't be avoided. Most tellingly and damagingly there's a lack of precision in the orchestral colours and vocal lines that belie the extraordinary polish that is Adès' norm, and the effect is that too often the opera feels like merely a sketch for the "real thing" (which in the event fails to materialise).

Source: Met website

Robert Lepage's production introduces Prospero, Miranda and Ariel on the island, but wait! It's not an island, it's the La Scala in the 19th century, after hours. Why this is a place of isolation is anyone's guess, but Lepage purpose becomes clear only later. In Act II when the shipwrecked court arrive, they are all onstage and Prospero remains in front of the footlights, metres away from them, yet in another world. Miranda is disappeared through the prompt box and no one can work out how. We begin to become aware of the metaphor - the Island is Prospero's stage, and the shipwrecked court are in his play, unbeknownst to them. He directs Ariel from the wings (she enters on a platform, lowered from above with ye olde stage mechanics: she's just another part of the machinery of his stage. Prospero's tricks and spells all derive from 19th century Milanese theatre effects because that's where he came from, and the opera house is what would have moulded his ideas about trickery. The third act makes things very explicit as we are given a cross section of the whole theatre and we see Ariel vanishing people using a trap door. But now the people are the audience, somehow having broken from the spell - had there been some deep metaphysical transformation that I missed (quite possible), or was this just a lapse in the production's internal logic?

This sort of idea has been done many times before in European houses, the stage within a stage, "all the world's a stage", "what's pretend, what's real?" etc. etc. It sort of works here, though becomes the main focus of the events, rather than the bigger, deeper issues that Shakespeare's drama raises, and I do wonder about what aspect of the drama that Lepage feels he is illustrating with this concept. The set (by Jasmine Catudal) is fit for purpose, though has the feeling of highest quality kitsch that the Met find it difficult to avoid, and costumes (by Kym Barrett) have the same slightly icky Hollywood blockbuster-ish feel. There's some fairly risible dance sequences by Crystal Pite.

 Source: Met website

As Prospero, Simon Keenlyside is magnificent. Having seen him live several times, I fully realise that he sounds much bigger on CD and on film than he does in theatre, but up close his baritone is so epically manful, intensely expressive, and his stage presence so commanding that I can only be thankful that he has been captured at short range for posterity. And it seems also that he was more at ease vocally than he has been on previous outings of this role (and indeed on disc) where the massive strain of the vocal writing meant that things could get blustery - he never once seemed overtaxed or anything but completely in control. My only criticism is that while his ultra intense acting is captivating, he is sometimes not specific enough, but really this is cavilling - he was magnificent on screen, visually and aurally.

This opera is notable for it's ridiculous casting requirements - an ultra high coloratura soprano (aka a soprano acuto sfogato), four tenors, all with very high tessitura, and Prospero essentially requires a Verdi baritone (which Keenlyside isn't, but he gets by on technique and dramatic focus).

Ariel's music is composed almost entirely in alt, that is above the treble stave, and it's not just the vertiginous tessitura that is death defying, but the coloratura balletics that are required to be dispatched at this altitude. The words of course become entirely indecipherable up there, but she has by far the strongest musical profile of any of the characters, and one ravishing aria, "Five fathoms deep", the best music in the piece. Audrey Luna acquits her self perhaps even more effortlessly than the Cyndia Sieden, the creator of the role, though the sound has a rougher edge, and doesn't have the floating lovelyness that Sieden mustered. Still, anyone capable of singing this role has to be a seriously impressive vocalist, and Luna certainly is that.

The four tenors were mixed. William Burden made a very sweet toned and touchingly acted King of Naples, and seemed completely unphased by the tessitura. Toby Spence sang the role of Antonio. In the premiere he sang the role of Ferdinand, and I wonder if his recent surgery for thyroid cancer (mercifully successful) has informed this change of role. He generally sang well, though didn't always seem comfortable, occasionally sounding rather stressed in higher passages, but I'm well aware that he can sound great in the hall as he did with his recent ROH Meistersinger David, and ENO Lenskys. His acting was unconvincing. Alan Oke as Caliban is a very, very different casting choice from the soft grained, delicate Ian Bostridge, and probably more in line with what we expect from the beastlyness of this character. Again though, the very high tessitura took its toll, and he often sounded rough.

The final tenor Alek Shrader is also the youngest singer, and was here making his Met debut. Ferdinand gets some lovely music to sing, and Shrader has a very beautiful voice that certainly does justice to the music. He's terribly good looking, just like his love interest Isabel Leonard (who is quite stunning to look at), but also like his on stage lover, he has little charisma and seemed a bit of a himbo. Lepage is probably as much to blame. Leonard is possibly slightly more committed dramatically, and has an absolutely gorgeously silken high mezzo voice (interestingly the role was created by lyric soprano Kate Royal), but text is always subservient to line and making the most beautiful possible sound (which admittedly is very beautiful). With such beautiful looks and voice, she surely has a big career ahead of her.

Comic relief is proferred in the form of Trinculo and Stefano's antics, but they aren't remotely funny text or music wise. Lepage also drew a blank. Very strange. Both Iestyn Davies and Kevin Burdette more than aquitted themselves vocally. John Del Carlo is fine as Gonzalo, though barely acts and his vocal lines frequently go lower than his voice is comfortably capable of going. Adès leads a solid, though not spectacular reading in the pit.

Adès is currently composing an opera based on Buñuel’s surrealist film The Exterminating Angel for Salzburg. I think this might suit him better and I look forward to it with hope as I do with all of Adès' work.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

L'Elisir D'Amore at the Royal Opera House


L'Elisir D'Amore is a firm favourite of mine, not because Donizetti is a particularly cherished composer for me, but because this opera has one of the best librettos of any operatic comedy. The characters are amongst the most rounded, believable and subtle in Bel Canto, and as a social drama it's one of the most sophisticated and realistic depictions of interactions between men and women that the art form offers, whilst also offering serious insights into the relationship between society and the individual, the psychology of groups, the sources of social worth and power, the value of intelligence and stupidity, cruelty and kindness. Dramatically it is also very tight, with the plot unfolding logically and economically, and the ending for once satisfactory. Donizetti responds to this fine text with one of his best scores - it's still not as memorable and brilliant as the best Rossini and Bellini - but he does match the action with the music very closely, and he uses a wider variety of orchestral colours than usual too.

Laurent Pelly's production updates it to the 1950s. Updating to the '50s is such a common regie trope that it barely feels like an updating anymore - it's just one of the generic eras where opera takes place along with with "slutty 18th/19th century" (so named by the inimitable Zerbinetta of Likely Impossibilities). It just stands for a nostalgia hit and escapism, and is roughly the time when the majority of opera audiences were young. Wouldn't this opera be better in 1914 or 1939 where signing up to the army would actually have meant something? Anyway, I don't want to go on about this, as it's basically just a neutral setting. What Pelly does do well is capture the boredom and crushing uneventfulness of provincial life in that time - the desolation of the town square is immeasurably brightened up by Dulcamara's truck and he puts on a dazzling show when he arrives. The people in the town also deal with boredom by make problems for themselves and each other purely for entertainment. Adina is particularly trapped because she is very bright, and she is prepared to do the incredibly reckless thing of marrying someone just for her own amusement in getting even with someone who has annoyed her. The comedy is astute and the characters resonate. Pelly is very good at creating mood, atmosphere and contrast from simple means too, and the night sky of surrealist lightbulbs that descend during Una furtiva lagrima just melt the heart a little bit more. Unfortunately Pelly was not present for this revival, so things were left in the hands of revival director Daniel Dooner, and as a result the action lacks the last degree of Pelly's trademark attention to detail and wry sense of humour. Other classic signs of a revival are that stage movement can seem unfocussed (i.e. "why are the characters walking over there now?") and the directions of exits and entrances sometimes make little sense.

But Pelly's touch usually shines through and everyone is clearly having fun. Most of all, the principals are really interacting with each other acting wise, which makes it fun to follow, which is just as it should be. Roberto Alagna sings a touching Nemorino, and for once he seems well suited to the acting requirements of his role too, though he is perhaps getting a little old to play this part. He has a tendency to sit slightly flat of the note these days, but his Una furtiva lagrima is still a treat - when not overtaxed as here, he can colour the voice beautifully and deliver a lovely line. Most critically for him, he is clearly engaged dramatically which usually means an excellent performance from him. So what if the voice isn't as beautiful as it once was: he's still better than 95% of tenors out there.

Aleksandra Kurzak is a good Adina, capturing the character's mix of intelligence, energy, youth, cruelty and sexyness well, though occasionally she can be a bit hyperactive with her gestures and sometimes borders on mugging. Vocally she is very accurate in the mild coloratura that this role requires and offers a generically pretty sound, with some lovely expressive portamenti and an excellent messa di voce. The voice is small but  well produced, though the very top notes are disappointingly thin and slightly unstable.

Ambrogio Maestri is an unexpected piece of luxury casting as Dulcamara, especially so soon after this summer's Falstaff. I really love how casual he is on stage, but he's weirdly charismatic too, and of course his outsize physicality is just funny on its own. His voice is massive, and he seems to be able to sing highs and lows without any effort whatsoever, as casually as his acting in fact, and the text is there for him to add fun and colour. His whistling during the "s" sounds of his Barcarolle with Adina is an inspired touch.

Fabio Capitanucci is an OK singer, with solid technique, though the sound is totally lost by his vocal covering  which means he is simply unable to sing above a mezzo forte. Acting wise he seemed a bit awkward as Belcore though he did his best, and offered more charisma than he did in last season's Les Troyens.

Bruno Campanella was in the pit, offering a lovingly nuanced and joyful account of a score that is hardly a conductor's opera - the playing of the ROH orchestra was exemplary, particularly from the strings. A fun evening.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

CD Review: Isokoski sings Strauss

Soile Isokoski

3 Hymns - Opera Arias Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Okko Kamu

Soile Isokoski's decade old recording of the Four Last Songs was rightly heralded by the critics at the time as a major new release - a voice of shimmering beauty in pristine condition giving a radiantly pure reading of the autumnal (yet evergreen) song cycle, along with a wide selection of other orchestral songs, most still relatively rare in the concert hall, presented with the most advantageous advocacy from singer and orchestra.

So how does this follow up fare? The focus this time is far more on operatic repertoire and we have excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne and Capriccio, along with the rarely heard Three Holderlin Hymns. The ultra silvery brightness and delicacy to the sound is still there, and the formidable technique still fully in evidence, though the vibrato has subtly widened, and there isn't that last degree of ease and fluency that was so appealing in the last record. Still, there are few sopranos around who are singing like this at the moment, so one cant complain too much in this regard.

What I do have issues with is the lack of commitment to characterisation. The blankness of her portrayals, a kind of anti-expressionismo, where an "instrumental" sound is almost always preferred to meaningful response to the text, simply will not do in Strauss of all composers, whose marriage of word and music is probably the tightest of any composer. (Wagner marries text and sound very closely too of course and is Strauss' principal influence along with Schubert and Schumann, but Strauss outdoes them all for specificity of colour on each word in a phrase.) Occasionally Isokoski will shade the line such as the moment of self mockery when the Marschallin imagines herself as "Die alte frau ... Die alte furstin Resi". But then in "Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar' Ding", she might be singing about anything and it is a million miles from the whispered moment of realisation and quiet despair that Strauss has so movingly composed for the Marschallin. The extent to which she ignores not just the text, but the emotional tenor of this music is almost wilful and borders on the bizarre. Is she not moved by the beautiful music at least, if not by words? In the last Strauss recording she made, this bland, uncommitted quality came across as a sort of floating radiant purity, unusual in Strauss singing where the beauty of the music, and arching, aching phrases are often or even usually suggestive of rather more carnal activity. But it's not enough here.

That the language is not a priority for her is again reflected in her German which rarely sounds truly idiomatic, and occasionally is just plain bad - "Mashmal steh ich auf, mitten in die Nacht". "Der aufgeblasni schlichte Kerl". Very surprising especially considering how often she sings this role, but also the fact that this is a studio recording, where these things are so easily rectified.

Isokoski is singing Ariadne at Glyndebourne next summer. Glyndebourne being a small house makes it the perfect venue for her to sing this role, which is at least one vocal category too big for her really. As I noted before when I saw Fleming's debut in this role earlier this year, my preference is for a silvery, lyric sound in this part (see: Schwarzkopf, Della Casa), though that doesn't mean that the low tessitura can be ignored. Isokoski lacks the chest resonance that this role ideally calls upon (which conversely is surely part of the reason for her vocal longevity), but she does sing very beautifully in the high lying phrases, and she can get away with less characterisation as Ariadne is not the four dimensional character that the Marschallin is. Still there are textual problems ("Stilla Gott"), and vocal shading seems incidental rather than chosen to match the music and text.

The final scene of Capriccio, one of Strauss' finest inspirations, is again beautifully sung, Isokoski giving full thrift to the huge arcs of melody, never once sounding strained, and from a purely singing perspective she is most successful here of the operatic excerpts. But once again, the lack of attention to the text means it isn't as moving as it should be. I won't go on about it.

The orchestral songs fare better. It almost goes without saying that operatic characterisation is very different from interpreting a song. The former is about creating and developing a believable, fully rounded character, the latter about presenting a poem in heightened form and communicating its ideas. Naturally, the same technical and interpretive skills are used in each but with a subtly different order of priorities. Some singers can do both superlatively, some can do one and not the other, and some can do neither, despite having a wonderful voice!

The Three Holderlin Hymns of 1921 are not top drawer Strauss, though they do point the way towards the "late" Strauss (which wasn't to emerge fully for another 2 decades) in their ecstatic soprano soaring against a softly shifting, fundamentally rather plain, though magically glowing orchestral background. There are many wonderful moments to cherish (not least the beginning of the second hymn, Ruckkehr in die Heimat, and the closing minutes of Die Liebe), though by this stage in his life, Strauss' finest song writing was mainly behind him and they lack the freshness, spontaneity and originality of his earlier orchestral songs. After his relentless exploration of presenting the text in his contemporaneous opera Intermezzo, Strauss takes a break here word painting wise, and he just lets the soprano sing on and on. This suits Isokoski just fine, and she finally recalls the lovelyness of her previous Strauss recording, seeming much more in her element, not just interpretively, but technically too, the voice ideally matched to the surging orchestral canvass.

The playing of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is mostly fine, accurate and detailed, though occasionally there is a little slackness, and Okko Kamu's direction lacks forward momentum and drive. This is not a matter of speed - things are on the brisk side even, especially in the Ariadne excerpts, but somehow the internal tensions of the music have to drive the music forward, and there's rarely a feeling of that here outside of the songs.


I don't want to seem like a one track reviewer, but this is my blog and so I will indulge myself. This CD made me return once more to Fleming's Strauss Heroines CD, and once again I simply marvel at the artistry. In it's prime in the late 1990s, Fleming had an even more beautiful instrument than Isokoski's, just gleaming and glowing with overtones, and a better technique that is even freer to sing every phrase exactly as the singer wants. But most importantly we get the sense that in German repertoire at least, she is an interpretive artist of the highest calibre and stature: her pointing of text and line is endlessly nuanced, her selection of vocal colours and timbres, emotions and mood always apt and can change on a knife edge, every word matters, yet almost miraculously she never gets in the way of the line, the legato absolutely exquisite and apparently endless. She knows when Strauss wants the voice to bloom and when to hold back, and these are portrayals of the utmost feeling and depth in every parameter. Bonney and Graham are ideal partners, and the Vienna Philharmonic with Eschenbach at the reigns make one of the most glorious sounds ever committed to disc.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Knussen at 60: Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! opera and orchestral works at the Barbican

Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!

All Knussen program with BBC Symphony Orchestra

This was part of one of those superb Barbican "Total immersion" career retrospectives of a significant living composer. I remember very fondly the Get Carter! one a few years ago with Knussen conducting dazzlingly precise accounts of Elliott Carter's clarinet concerto and double concerto. Knussen then is a conductor of the utmost élan and precision, using small, sensitive gestures to lead his colleagues through the most monstrously complicated works. Almost the same could be said about his music, whose complexity and beauty is comparable with many composers from the last third of the 20th century, but he outdoes them all not just for filigree orchestral detail, sculpted with thimble, matchstick, needle, but also in "perpetual dazzle", the internal energy and tension of which has surely not been matched since Strauss and Shrecker (and possible early mature Carter). Form hardly seems to register when you're simply (and desperately) trying to follow the quicksilver play of texture and colour, but the satisfaction one experiences and sense of "rightness" of every piece one feels must derive from a meticulously planned structure beneath the surface, which he then clothes with a glittering, pellucid tapestry of shimmers and shouts. The sense of evanescence to all this sparkle provides a bitter-sweet and rather touching edge - he is similar in this to Stravinsky or Janacek (in most other respects very different composers), who will show us something tantalising for just a second before moving on, and we're always left grasping after these tiny moments, crystalline fragments of sound, willing them to be worked into Teutonic climax and apotheosis, but the lack of this is part of what makes this music so beguiling and bewitching and what keeps us returning.

And it's never meretricious, never sparkle for its own sake - the notes speak and sing with joyous abandon, each one a tiny voice adding to the sweeping choir, music with something urgent to express. Nor is it all sweet - Knussen knows how to produce a primaeval din when he wants to, and his brass and wind writing can be overwhelmingly, shatteringly brutal (though never crude). One must admit that there is a certain lack of range, which is the only thing that could be said against this music, but if you're disposed to what it offers, it is a cavern of half lit delights, beauties and thrills. Carterised Ravel is what I would say if we are playing the comparison game. Or maybe Straussified Takemitsu.

His diptych of children's operas again offer comparisons with Ravel in their fleet paced absurdist action and precisely characterised protagonists with vocal interest rather secondary to the coruscating welter of orchestral colour. Based on Maurice Sendek's famous children's book, Where the Wild Things Are offers obvious challenges staging wise. Here they were navigated in a semi staged production by Netia Jones which made heavy use of live video elements. Unfortunately it was absolutely beset by technical problems, from microphones popping and crackling incessantly to surtitles not showing up, and the live video elements, potentially interesting but also very dominating, constantly skipping and jerking along as if they had never been tested: seriously annoying - if you're going to do this, get it right! It put the performers and audience on edge and distracted from the music. Claire Booth as the child Max valiantly strode through these difficulties, not least the challenging music, though I thought her diction was inappropriately proper for a raging, screaming child. The libretto too seemed wooden and lethargic - why was everyone speaking so poetically and formally?

I don't know if it was Jones' idea or Knussen's to have the mother (Susan Bickley) throw a drunken party with the attendees bearing striking resemblance to the Wild Things. Does this make them just the basis of Max's wild imaginings, or are they more directly involved? Presumably the suggestion of child abuse is not a desired connotation of this addition to Sendek's original plot. It sort of worked, but was also a distraction from the centre of the action, and partly because of the failure of the animations, and partly because of the lack of 3D characters (I mean this literally, not metaphorically as the usual opera critic complaint goes!) there was a certain lack of magic to proceedings, and the marvellous score had to do most of the heavy lifting in this respect.

Higglety Pigglety Pop fared better staging wise, again heavily relying on live video design, though the bizarre story and illogical dialogue makes it a hard piece to engage with emotionally. I really wonder what it was about it that meant that Knussen wanted to lavish such evidently enormous reserves of creative energy and effort on it - there is absolutely no letting up of attention to detail in every parameter in these works compared to his norm, both of which are composed over the much larger spans of time than he usually traverses. There are no concessions to them being "children's operas" either; one almost feels they're too much for children, (too good even!) much like the most famous children's opera of all, Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, that cornucopia of compositional generosity, children's music on a Wagnerian scale.

One moment that resonates particularly within the opera is the last scene. Finally, Jennie the dog has "made it" and has become the leading lady in the local theatre. The play is called Higglety Pigglety Pop, a sort of farce in Mozart pastiche, whose entire libretto is it's title, and whose action is as absurd in relation to the preceding action as the opera that contains it is to real life. (clue: very very absurd). But the characters keep repeating the exact same movements and actions choreographed to the same music again and again, which both adds to the lunacy, and becomes quite uncomfortable. When does it end? The same characters die and reappear, the same story is told and retold. We start to realise that this is a comment on our own fascination with theatre and opera, particularly our repeated viewings of the hallowed, hackneyed canon: we watch the same stories and characters again and again, living, falling in love and dying, again and again, always the same, highlighting particularly that it is even weirder for the performers than it is (or should be) for us.

An extraordinary end to an extraordinary piece, and I left the theatre dazzled by what I'd heard and thoroughly entertained by what I'd seen too. Both operas were well sung, though I really don't like amplified operatic voices as they sound so harsh and flattened timbrally, and they also never seem to blend with the orchestra. Lucy Schaeffer was a heroic Jennie, and the other parts well taken. Ryan Wigglesworth lead very good performances of both works, with the Britten Sinfonia on their best form.

On Sunday I had the pleasure to attend an all Knussen orchestral programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by the composer. It is an absolute joy to see him conduct generally, and I have extolled the virtues of his approach already - No one does this sort of ultra complex repertoire better (Boulez and Barenboim are equals) - but it was a special treat to see him lead his own music. Knussen has commented himself that there must be some sort of psychological underpinning to a very large man such as himself being so obsessed with tiny details and gestures (in his music, in other art, in life)- one clue might be that his ungainly gait and form are immediately transformed when he sits in front of his orchestra, apparently free now to make to make the most minuscule and efficient movements. The orchestra seemed fully on board, playing passionately and with responding deftly to Knussen's leadership. Flourish with Fireworks made a suitably impressive impact with its skittish fanfares and bold contrasts. More subtle and magical was the incredible early Choral for wind band, with its wonderful hazy scoring and particularly notable flute writing. The Whitman Settings brought Claire Booth to the stage for what was maybe the most beautiful piece of the evening: endlessly rapt and subtly shaded settings of some visionary Whitman poems. Claire Booth is an exceptionally engaging singer to watch, even if her technique is very unorthodox and sometimes leaves much to be desired. She has a very "instrumental" timbre, pure, bell like, always immaculately in tune, though also lacking legato or a supported line, but it seemed absolutely appropriate here and she sang with serious intent. The first half ended with the Horn concerto, a dramatic showpiece for the instrument, traditional in its heroic treatment of the solo instrument. Knussen also provides some luridly cartoonish orchestral touches so that the thing has more than a hint of ironic John Williams-esque grandeur. It's a wonderful work and was masterfully played here by Martin Owen.

Leila Josefowicz was sadly trapped in the US due to the recent hurricane, and so instead of the violin concerto we got the Two Organa instead, both very beautiful works, slightly pared down compared to the richest Knussen, but still glistening and gleaming as always. His beautiful Requiem "Songs for Sue" composed in memory of his wife half a decade ago, was dedicated by a visibly moved Knussen to the recently deceased Henze. Had Carter died two days earlier, I'm sure he would also have received a dedication as Knussen has been just as, if not more, committed to that composer. I'm not convinced that the Requiem is as great as the infinitely wrought Whitman settings, and like all the later music presented here it offers a marginally pared down aesthetic. The voice is still unmistakable however, intimate and luminous. We finished with the Symphony No.3, an enigmatic work of surprising darkness, though again with moments of sublime beauty. A wonderful concert.

This concert was scandolously underattended, though the amount of pre-eminent British musicians, conductors and composers in the audience spoke for itself. I left in a sort of dreamy elation, awed by the musical mind I had glimpsed and revitalised by its generosity and brilliance. Pure pleasure is rarely so generously proffered.