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Sunday, 29 September 2013

L'Orfeo at the Barbican

Academy of Ancient Music

This "concert hall staging" of L'Orfeo was the first in a projected Monteverdi cycle that the Academy of Ancient Music plans to undertake over the next three seasons. Director Orpha Phelan updates the piece to the present day, the wedding guests marching down the isles of the stalls in preparation for what looks like a typical British wedding. Security guards stand around in the foyer and onstage, one of whom it turns out is conductor/musical director Richard Egarr who surprisingly takes his place at the harpsichord. As Orfeo awaits his bride Eurydice, who it seems is not that keen to marry Orfeo, it is announced that she has been killed by a snake, though it seemed here that she might actually have been in some way murdered. Orfeo is lead by a nurse (Speranza) to Eurydice cadaver on a mortuary bed, and is discouraged from staying by an angry doctor (Coronte). Orfeo's grief here becomes a sort of mad scene, where he merely imagines going to hell. John Mark Ainsley is extremely moving here as he casts around desperately looking for a way out of his predicament. After the interval we see that Orfeo has hit the bottle, and he makes a scene in front of the party guests - the madness has not yet subsided as he hallucinates images of his dead wife. One of the guests (Plutone) takes pity on him at the urging of his wife (Prosperina) by giving Orfeo more drink and dressing him. Orfeo's father (Apollo) intervenes, telling his son to get a grip and Orfeo listlessly returns to society.

This basically coherent retelling of the story is a clear attempt to remove any classical references or supernatural elements from L'Orfeo, but it's not clear what the audience gains from this. Much of the libretto is rendered bizarre by the new context and it takes a long time to get used to the fact that what the characters are singing is meant to be only an approximation of what they actually mean. I find this sort of production distancing and alienating because you can't rely on your normal expectations of where suspension of disbelief is and isn't required - in short you have relearn the rules of the theatre. Or to put it another way, the realist setting suggests a realist/non-supernatural interpretation of the text, but since that is not attempted here (references to supernatural elements are merely ignored), the dramatic effect is jarring for longer than is comfortable or surely intended. Caroline Hughes' design is simple but serves the idea perfectly well - her lighting is the best part of this and she manages to create a real sense of atmosphere in Act III's mortuary mad scene.

Musically things were much more convincing. John Mark Ainsley is a moving Orfeo, still extremely controlled and expressive, though the voice has lost some of it's former bloom and flexibility. I instantly recognised Katherine Manley's voice having been so impressed with her as Creusa in the ENO's Medea earlier this year. She once again revealed a gleaming, expressive full lyric soprano with an excellent technique in the roles of Prosperina and one of the Nymphs - I would love to hear her in more recent repertoire. Sophie Bevan is luxury casting in the small role of Eurydice. Daniela Lehner was good as La Musica and Speranza, particularly in her low register which has an attractive colour. Thomas Hobbs made a powerful Apollo, beautifully matching John Mark Ainsley in their Act V duet. The smaller roles were mostly excellently taken by the rest of the young cast, though Paul Gerimon was sounding a little choked in the usually fearsome role of Coronte.

Richard Egarr's direction of the Academy of Ancient Music orchestra is energetic and large scale, an approach announced in the magnificent opening fanfare which here didn't so much dance as march into action. The continuo accompaniment is tasteful and varied, if not quite as colourful as seems to be the fashion in some French baroque ensembles. Orchestral playing is unerringly excellent, supporting the singers as gracious equals and Egarr doesn't underline anything - the sighing beauty of the string and woodwind lines, and the blaring majesty of the brass is left to speak for itself.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Calixto Bieito's Fidelio at ENO


Opening night at the ENO proved to be a much more exciting affair than the run of the mill Turandot that the ROH proffered. The ENO has taken on two of Calixto Bieito's less shocking stagings over the last two seasons, though they are still unexpected and radical enough to raise a few eyebrows and boos, always a good thing when you see who it is who's booing. This is a thought provoking production, and my criticisms are extensive only because I sense that it has the seed of something very powerful.

For Bieito, all of the characters in Fidelio are in a prison of sorts, be it mental or otherwise. The astonishing set (designed by Rebecca Ringst) is a 3D maze constructed out of perspex and strip lighting, which the characters wander through looking for an escape. The opening sequence, set to the Leonore III overture (which works superbly), is a breathtaking spectacle. The actors crawl out of the pit into the desolate, flickering beauty of the labyrinth. Tim Mitchell's lighting designs are exceptional here and throughout. The meaning is ambiguous, but perhaps Bieito is showing the characters choosing to enter the prison and is by extension saying that we choose and define our own restraints. Once all the characters are in, it's surprising however how literal the prison remains.

There's a weird episode in the first scene where Jaquino forces himself on Marzelline as if to rape her in his frustration - a horrible and shocking display of what his own prison of sexual obsession has done to him. She pushes him off, but the whole event doesn't convince - two seconds later she looks totally happy as if nothing has happened, and is singing joyously of Fidelio. Most of Act I passes slowly and even verges occasionally on being boring as the plot becomes abstracted by the lack of dramatic logic. Act II flows better and raises more interesting questions. After the interval, the set pivots down into a horizontal position, making the prison seem more real and physical now than mental. When Florestan is rescued by Leonore a really surprising thing happens - a caged string quartet descends from the sky, playing the unearthly slow movement Heiliger Dankgesang of Beethoven's op.132, while Florestan and Leonore sit quietly with each other. It's a profoundly touching moment, and we realise that even though Florestan has been rescued by his love, he is either not ready or too damaged to be helped by her; Bieito seems to be saying we cannot truly be "saved" by others. Before this though there's a major dramatic misfire - the ecstatic duet that precedes this scene sees the newly united couple first dressing into a suit and elegant dress, while singing about the joy of the other's embrace. Bieito deliberately ignores the words, showing us that these two seem far more interested in propriety and getting back to their old gender roles than they are in each other. Again it's the music that's the sticking point here though - Bieito is clearly trying to make this scene laughable, but it isn't emotionally or dramatically convincing because nothing has prepared us dramatically for these actions, and Beethoven's music (let alone the text) makes this dramatic choice feel phony and utterly implausible. Ironically avoiding Beethoven's total lack of irony is one thing, but comedy and irony requires just as much truth as serious drama and the characters still need to have some sort of logic to them if we're meant to believe in their onstage reality.

The ending is extremely ambiguous. With Don Pizarro's plot foiled, Don Fernando enters from one of the ENO's boxes as a bewigged, wealthy 18th century gentleman/prince, totally at odds with the rest of the production's period or aesthetic - a representative of a past era which was exactly what Beethoven was saying in this piece that we needed to get away from. What I took it to mean was that with all the talk of equality, hope and freedom, this nobleman playboy is still required to actually grant everyone freedom, and he sees his role in the rousing final chorus as a fun amusement for himself. Don Fernando is not subject to the rules that everyone else is (OK, possibly a clear message in line with what I've just said) - he shoots Florestan dead, but then Leonore mysteriously revives him, and the episode isn't further commented on. I have no idea why or how this happens.

As so often with Bieto, the "Konzept" seems interesting and pregnant with possibilities and is rendered with a compelling visual strength, but these things are far stronger than the moment to moment action. In Bieito's narrative, it's clear that the characters are meant to be alienated from each other, but this usually manifests itself in vague standing around, ironically not so far from the park and bark aesthetic of a bygone era. Interaction between characters, especially during the big conflicts always seems both clumsy and overly rehearsed ("now you fall down here"), intentions rarely specific or easy to read.

But even if this is deliberate, and the characters are meant to seem physically unconvincing, and even if they're not talking to each other, or are talking past each other, for me at least, characters still need to be acting within the confines of whatever psychological situation they find themselves in for us to believe in them. I need to feel that they are experiencing something, even if it's only a mental phenomenon.* Alternatively, if planning a very unusual production like this, where the actors (deliberately) feel dislocated from what they expect in a role, they need to be provided with a new language of acting in order to be expressive and interesting as characters. Here every character seemed very generic and unspecific to me. I don't mind when directors have a political point that they want to make about an opera using a radical "konzept" - it adds to the variety of the stultifying canon and may possibly make us see a work afresh, which is always a rare gift. But for me at least, it has to work as drama on a moment by moment basis too. Opera is not primarily an intellectual art form: this aspect has to work alongside the emotions and senses. These things are the remit of the music - it cannot be ignored.

If the ENO want to continue doing modern productions like this, and I strongly think they should, in my opinion they really have to look at their translation policy, since they also seem committed long term to opera in English as an idea. Me and my companion (coincidentally also a translator) found that David Pountney's translation felt consistently totally at odds with either the piece or the style of the production. The beautiful passages by Borges for the spoken parts made the contrast all the keener. Is rhyme really the most important aspect of this libretto? So often in this translation it takes precedent over good grammar, beautiful language, and appropriateness to the setting. I mean some people might value rhyme above poetic sense, but for me it seems that translation is one of the very few a chances we get in opera to change the "sacred" text! Surely the opportunity should be used to bind text, drama and music together better. This same thing was one of my only criticisms of last season's brilliant ENO Wozzeck.

Musically, the cast is very good. Emma Bell makes a vocally thrilling Leonore, her fierce commitment to expression and communication totally overshadowing the slightly approximate moments of coloratura. The range of colours she gets out of her voice is admirable - it's not that it's the widest palette ever, but rather that they are always precise and apt. Stuart Skelton is similarly very impressive as Florestan - a truly heroic voice that is capable and unafraid of singing with detail and finesse. His crescendo opening word "God" was simply astonishing - exactly what was wanted. Sarah Tynan's Marzelline was the most vocally impressive of the rest of the cast, possessing a voice with a youthful Mozartian timbre and flexibility. Philip Horst's Pizarro was sometimes straining to be heard, but he convinced dramatically at least. James Creswell's Rocco offered the reverse - a sonorous voice, but the most at sea dramatically. The ENO chorus is on excellent form.

Edward Gardner does fascinating things in the pit. There was a precision and elemental power in the overture that was transfixing. Elemental not in the normal sense of "man and nature" that we expect of Beethoven - elemental in the sense of it seeming to correspond with very precise and fundamental mental/psychic states. The late quartets and piano sonatas contain this same quality, which seems to entirely transcend style and period. This almost worrying yet cool intensity extended to almost all of the purely orchestral passages of the opera and worked wonderfully with the staging. The vocal music is treated rather differently. Gardner makes it sound like Beethoven was picking up where Mozart left off with Die Zauberflote - dancing, joyous, almost graceful, that most un-Beethovinian quality! The contrast is large, but it seems to me not entirely unwarranted - Gardner brings to the fore the experimental nature of Beethoven's score, and also the wealth of influences it contains. Although this lightish approach to the vocal music can jar aesthetically with the darkness of the staging, Bieito's production is clearly trying to get us to question our assumptions about the piece, so paradoxically Gardner is not at odds with the spirit of the staging. He cements his place as one of this country's most talented opera conductors.

Bieito's Fidelio is not great as drama, but it is as an intellectual exploration of Beethoven's opera. Certainly worth seeing for this reason, and musically also.

*Maybe not everyone thinks this?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Elektra at ROH


There's this myth that is still perpetuated by many that Strauss was a progressive up until Elektra and that from Der Rosenkavalier onwards, his compositional career represents a retreat from Modernity. To posit this view is to grossly misunderstand not just Strauss's compositional development and place in history, but more importantly perhaps for our understanding of Elektra, it represents a taking of the will for the deed, an attitude very common amongst people who claim that Elektra and Die Frau Ohne Schatten are Strauss's greatest operas. The "will" in question, or the "selling point" is that Strauss/Hofmannsthal produced a shattering study of the terrifying violence of the story of Elektra with up to the minute pyschologising and music, an exalted drama of extremes, marrying ancient and modern. The furious opening seems to set us up for just that, but we soon realise that something is up: the "deed", that is the actual notes on the page, the actual sound of the score, the actual experience of the drama (rather than what has been promised), is not quite as disturbing, as serious or shocking as intended or as is often claimed. If we know the score of Der Rosenkavalier well (and not just the famous excerpts) we soon realise that there is virtually not a bar in Elektra that doesn't have its counterpart in the sentimental comedy that followed it. Of course Elektra is much more clangorous and the subject matter very different, but the artistic parallels are undeniable and legion.

The frequency of near or direct quotations in Der Rosenkavalier makes comparison not just tempting, but unavoidable. The music of the whole second half of Elektra is so saturated with waltzes, so ravishingly plush, so gemütlich, that the music of both operas can seem cut from the same cloth. Once we hear it here, we can soon trace it back into the beginning of the piece also. Technique, style, harmonic usage, and so often the actual content of the notes, are identical! Not to mention the librettos, both by Hofmannsthal, which are very comparable in the way ideas are expressed and the way that the language is used, and also in their underlying philosophical message. I would go so far as to say that each work contains the other. The principal difference is a shift in the centre of gravity of the tone of each piece: in the later work towards parlando, nostalgia, sentiment and sentimentality, in the earlier one towards extremity, violence and huge orchestral apotheosis.

People will take from it what they want. I personally think Elektra is overrated and that both Salome and Der Rosenkavalier are more musically satisfying, honest and original works (despite their more apparent languors) because they are less pretentious and lie closer to Strauss's authentic sphere of genius. I also find that the unremitting extremity of Elektra's story and music very quickly makes one inured to its shock value, and its dramatic effectiveness is attenuated as a result. That said, I do still hugely enjoy it, perhaps more musically than as a dramatic whole, above all as a supreme example of Strauss's ability to compose for soprano and orchestra: it can't be doubted that this piece is the product of one of the most abundantly gifted of all composers at the very height of his powers. But the point remains - if Strauss did indeed start retreating (a highly dubious claim in my opinion), then it started before Elektra, not after.

Charles Edwards' production updates the piece to a vaguely 20th century looking setting, though ancient Greece is present in the form of a ruin that has been co-opted for some new semi-industrial use. The house is falling to pieces, the carpets drenched with blood and boarded over, with papers, the records of the previous order, littering every surface. Elektra addresses a bronze bust of her murdered father, to which she is erotically attached; later she shows similarly incestuous attraction to her brother. Chrysothemis is the more glamorous sister, her (actually perfectly reasonable) desire to move on and forward with life appearing trivial and vain here. Klytamnestra is simply a cackling witch. The entire production is geared to make us sympathise with Elektra, not a far fetched interpretation, but it also makes some scenes feel overlong and dull because Elektra's mindset or moral superiority fundamentally isn't ever being challenged. Beyond this, it's a rather plain production which doesn't attempt to interpret too much - some will like this, others will find it boring.

Christine Goerke scores a triumph as Elektra, magnificently managing every hurdle of Strauss' infamously impossible role, perhaps the most demanding 100 minutes of the soprano repertory. The voice is extremely large, tireless and always in tune - these three things alone elude most interpreters of the part. But it's also got a wonderfully rich, thick timbre, from the mahogany and steel of the chest register, to the intense power of the middle, to the driving, solid top. The vibrato is fairly wide, but is also very fast, which gives it an appealing vibrancy and truly dramatic carrying power. In her opening monologue, Goerke proved to be a committed actress, but it was her textual clarity and force of expression that impressed me the most. It is exceptionally rare to see this role so well sung.

Michaela Schuster's Klytamnestra was quite understated I thought as far as anyone can be in this role. Much of her delivery approached sprechgesang, the text extremely clear but at the cost of line and depth of vocal colour. The voice is large and fully up to the task required of it though. Iain Paterson's Orest is vocally decent though a little pale in the present company. Adrianna Pieczonka revealed a much larger voice than I suspected she had from her recordings (or perhaps it's grown in the last few years?) - in volume it yielded nothing to Goerke's instrument (though of course the role of Chrysothemis requires a little less stamina than the title role). It's a shiny, very generous dramatic soprano, and if diction wasn't always the clearest it was mainly because Andris Nelsons bizarrely encouraged the orchestra to blaze whenever Pieczonka was singing. This was a problem generally in the performance - Strauss's comic-serious instruction to play Elektra as if it was "fairy music" was never heeded by Nelsons. When everything is this loud and full throttle, the ear quickly tires, and actually there were orchestral balance issues so that much of Strauss's peerless orchestration didn't sound quite as magically as it can. More problematic still was simply not being able to hear words - I didn't hear a single one in the opening maid's scene, and even the heroic and diligent Goerke, while always audible, was often difficult to understand. The ROH orchestra certainly weren't at fault - the playing itself was largely excellent, the orchestral sound unified and (over-) brilliant, and at least Nelsons managed to keep the pit very well coordinated with the stage. A rip-roaring ride, and many will love the no holds barred attitude, but it's a conducting style that focusses on orchestral splendour rather than drama or musical detail. The elusive balance in Strauss between detail and power is something that only few conductors manage to achieve - that so many who do manage it are also superlative Mozart conductors gives credence to Strauss's "fairy music" comment.

All photos copyright Clive Barda/ROH

Friday, 20 September 2013

Turandot at ROH


After my previous Puccini experience I vowed not to go to any more Puccini. But curiosity got the better of me and amazingly I actually enjoyed this Turandot quite a lot! Andrei Serban's production, revived here by Andrew Sinclair, is a totally silly and really fun romp, that scrapes the surface of the piece, to reveal more surface. There's a certain grotesqueness to everything, Sally Jacobs' designs included - the hideous crudeness of the costumes, the cartoonish avoidance of realism in all of the acting (Ping, Pang and Pong look and act like they are rehearsing for a panto. I'm not exaggerating one iota), the total lack of intimacy in any of the relationships. The chinoiserie in the design is so over the top and vulgarised that it seems to be a parody of the traditional approach to in some way represent China on stage - Serban seems to be showing us that the truly demented psychology, saccharine emotionalism and furious bombast of the score is all Puccini and not ancient China. Musically it makes sense too - the ubiquitous pentatonics are barely even a point of stylisation for Puccini - they are absolutely a hallmark of his writing in all his most characteristic work. The orchestration too, amongst Puccini's very best, always seems more Puccinian than self consciously "exotic" in the manner of the French impressionists when they want to conjure up "the orient".

Ping, Pang and Pong, with the heads of two previous contenders for Turandot's hand, illustrating 
what I mean about the panto grotesquerie, and how it's not at all trying to look like actual China.

Turandot is fascinating because it seems as though Puccini is virtually unfiltered in terms portraying what he loves. He deliberately produces the most violent, unsympathetic, self obsessed and callous central romantic couple in all of opera, taking every opportunity to alienate us from them - if anything Calaf is more unpleasant than Turandot, whose fractured mental state is perhaps ascribable to her oppressive, warped and neurotic upbringing.

This opera is seriously troubling and problematic when viewed through the lens of serious art. But by not requiring the singers to act (much less interact) Serban absolves the audience of the responsibility of taking the opera seriously as drama - no attempt is made to untangle the extremely disturbing character psychology or message of this piece, and having all the characters stand around doing stock gestures draws attention to what a silly and fun piece of Italian opera it is if Ping, Pang and Pong are accepted as the work's norm, rather than taking the Calaf/Turandot saga at face value. This is a risky business, approaching as it does almost a parody of Italian theatre, but Serban has made it visually engaging enough that it's never boring for a first timer like me. And you have to admire a director who makes the tenor wear what appears to maternity clothes during Nessun Dorma. I wouldn't choose to see it again however because the sole virtue of the show is spectacle. Kate Flatt's extensive choreography is attractive, feeds the eye, and again is mercifully free of orientalisms. The famous "problem ending" is ironically underlined as Liu is paraded in front of the happy couple on a hearse. The vertical red ribbons that we saw at the beginning of the show are dropped again, and this time pool on the floor like rivers of blood. The theatrical tenor of the rest of the show has not been dark, so it seems like a macabre and blackly funny illustration of what we've witnessed. In another context it would be chilling. I've yet to see a production that fully owns up to the psychotic cruelty of both romantic leads in a non panto way, but this production was really not aiming at that. It's just pure entertainment. You could almost call it: Turandot!

the red "blood" ribbons
Eri Nakamura as Liu
I know we don't really do "season opening" over here like they do at the Met, but this first production of the season was conspicuously unstarry. Eri Nakamura was vocally the most interesting cast member as Liu, a role traditionally cast as the juiciest lyric soprano around, and despite the fact that timbral beauty is not Nakamura's strong suit, she did well in the role. Her torture porn death scene contained probably the best singing of the evening, soaring as it did with power and conviction.

Lise Lindstrom's Turandot is a harsh decibel machine - a huge sound without colours, like cold steel. The voice is built like an inverted pyramid with its stentorian top, large middle voice, and rapid disappearance below the stave, but Lindstrom really can pack in the volume when required. Marco Berti's Calaf is not quite as huge, but it's still a big dramatic tenor, and as described already is short on dramatic or musical nuance. Again I enjoyed the fact that both voices were loud but totally unsexy as it drew attention again to the weirdness of the erotic content in this opera. Oddly great casting.

Conductor Henrik Nanasi led a powerful and driven account of the score, though perhaps disappointed in a few of the "high points" such as in "In questa reggia" which felt a little unclimactic. In other places, a little more delicacy and lushness would also have been appreciated, but balance and accuracy was good throughout.

All photos (c) Tristram Kenton/ROH

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Le Nozze de Figaro at ROH


David McVicar is back at Covent Garden to direct this revival of his production of Mozart's most perfect opera. When it was done last season I wrote very positively about the production and music making. That review contains many of my thoughts about the piece and my basic thoughts on the production, so I won't recap, but this time I wasn't nearly so captivated.

The biggest problem was surely John Eliot Gardiner in the pit, whose approach to this music is sounding distinctly "old school" these days. Banning all vibrato, insisting on brisk tempos and dessicated, spiky textures, expunging any legato playing or sense of the longer line and leaving Mozart's ravishing orchestration undernourished due to poor balance were all perhaps hallmarks of early "historically informed performances" but we've moved on so far since the 1960's and 1970's. Just look at the magnificent work of the OAE or William Christie with Les Arts Florissants for modern HIP where the music is allowed to live and breathe again. (The recently departed Charles Mackerras and Colin Davis were also bastions of truly great Mozart performance with modern orchestras and contemporary taste.) The orchestral playing was scrappy throughout the entire evening - ensemble was poor, there were endless tuning problems and stage and pit were very often totally at odds. Banning a modern orchestra from using vibrato or legato is a very risky business - deprived of expressive resource, players feel very exposed and on edge and as a result tend to make poor music.

I found David McVicar's direction very fussy this time: the stage positively teems with extras, presumably to provide a sense of the daily bustle of the household and reflect the hectic activity of the score, but the result is always the appearance of "stage business" without any feeling of real life. Perhaps it was Leah Hausman's revival direction last time, or a cast that were better at acting, but for whatever reason, the show was more successful then. Character regie is very detailed throughout, but only intermittently convinces - what was with all the direct addresses to the audience, double takes, knowing glances and other self consciously "stagey" acting? The result wasn't bad exactly, but was quite uninvolving emotionally with little pain to temper the slapstick.

The cast is decent though not stellar. (I didn't envy any of them having to sing with what was going on in the pit, and it must have been off putting for all.) Head and shoulders above the rest is Christopher Maltman as Count Almaviva who is at every moment musically and dramatically expressive, the only fully rounded character on stage. Maria Bengtsson's Countess is vocally beautiful, if occasionally a little small scale. The sotto voce she did during the second "verse" of Dove Sono was arresting and lovely though. McVicar makes sure we know that the Countess is still a girl, but she is also totally in the thrall of Cherubino in Act II and so her protestations make her seem almost as vain as her husband. Mary Bevan impressed vocally as Barbarina, but shared with Bengtsson the unsettling feeling of looking somehow too modern - certainly something to do with their hair and make-up (probably no fault of their own) and perhaps also their bearing. Hard to put one's finger on, but definitely there. Lucy Crowe's Susanna was charming and very well sung, though occasionally a bit too cutesy acting wise for my taste. Renata Pokupic's Cherubino was short on legato and so struggled to make an impact vocally. Luca Pisaroni's Figaro was fine though a little bland vocally next to Maltman's Count - the timbral and expressive palette is by comparison quite narrow. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is in the unfortunate position of having to play Don Basilio as an OTT gay stereotype, such a boring cliché in this role.

All in all a so-so revival.

Photos copyright Mark Douet/ROH

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Anne Schwanewilms and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall


Anne Schwanewilms is one of the most accomplished and distinctive sopranos on the international circuit today, and this lunchtime recital, the first of the Wigmore Hall's new season, revealed all of her very best qualities. It seems to me that her strengths lie in lieder singing - the endlessly varied vocal timbre, the nuanced approach to text, the quietly shining vocal colours. It's a voice of great beauty with virtually perfect intonation, but it's very unusual too - the bottom is mezzoish, slightly grainy, cross hatched, with developed chest tones which are however never used forcefully. There can be a suggestion even of androgeny as she moves into the middle register but she's also capable of seductive womanly warmth and girlish gleaming. The radiant top is the only place in the voice where we got a blast of the raging torrent that seems to course behind the good humoured charm and elegant quietude of the surface of most of her singing. Her hands held in front of her, she remained relaxed and eschewed large movements throughout this recital, and dared to sing very quietly indeed, but was always audible and engaging because the sound is so well produced, and the life of each song is so clearly expressed in the sound and in her face.

Debussy's early Proses Lyriques (1892-3) are a relative rarity in the concert hall, though as always with this composer one is hard pressed to give a reason why - he is amongst the most talented and ingratiating song writers of the fin de siècle. These songs sit quite low, and for Schwanewilms they became a patchwork of glimmering moments, a mosaic of vocal colour, always matched thoughtfully to the text. The texts for these songs are by Debussy and all read as highly descriptive, poetic stream-of-consciousness reflections on some scene or other. Schwanewilms with Roger Vignoles her sensitive partner at the piano, managed to capture this improvisatory quality whilst simultaneously evoking the strong moods that Debussy asks for, and in a performance such as this, the much debated literary quality of Debussy's verse was simply never in question.

In her recordings from the naughties, Schwanewilms often did this thing where she'd sing entirely without vibrato in her angelicly pure upper middle register, which was an arresting effect, but could sound mannered, disjointed and very strange in some contexts. It seems that she has left this habit behind, to the enormous benefit of her legato and expressivity - the sound still shimmers, but there's the warmth and glow of a (narrow) continuous vibrato which seems to allow her access to a more consistent airflow too. None of the vocal apparatus seems to move extraneously - the sound is made as effortlessly as if it were speech.

The first phrase of "In der Fremde" from Schumann's Eichendorff Liederkreis op.39 (1840) emerged as a ribbon of perfect legato, disarming in its simplicity and emotional directness. But it's not just the silvery, hushed beauty of this song and others like it ("Mondnacht" was also exceptionally special) that came naturally to Schwanewilms - the funnier, lighter songs were dispatched with character and wit too - "Waldgespräch" was a genuinely exciting piece of storytelling for instance. To be able to hear this great masterpiece afresh was a great gift. Again, the importance of Roger Vignoles's truly excellent piano playing cannot be overstated - this was a true partnership of exemplary and imaginative music making.

If there is a better currently performing female lieder singer, I haven't heard her. An artist fully in her prime: truly exquisite.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Die Walkure Act I at St. John's Smith Square


This was a great way of spending an hour. Even in this reduced setting, the three soloists in concert dress with piano accompaniment, the overwhelming drama of Wagner's musical conception is what kept making itself felt. It helped that all three singers looked like they were in character throughout, even if actual stage movement was minimal, and in fact the piano accompaniment meant that the text came to the fore and the singers were able to do many more subtle and beautiful things with vocal colour and phrasing than would be possible or effective when faced with an orchestra. Peter Selwyn played the piano reduction with unerring sensitivity and vigour, tempos ideally chosen - clearly a very able Wagnerian.

As Siegmund, Ronald Samm revealed a thrillingly heroic sound, with a tight, Italianate vibrato and superb legato - always a treat to hear in Wagner. Almost most impressive was his evident care for the text and desire to communicate the drama through it. The vocal line was also beautifully shaded with a wide palette of colours - it is so rare to get Wagnerian singing of this refinement and power. I now really regret not having seen his Opera North Otello - his voice seems to me like it would be absolutely ideal for that role also.

Opposite Samm, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers' slightly husky, shining and wonderfully feminine sounding Sieglinde was a very sympathetic presence. The scooping into high notes could be forgiven because it didn't interfere with the beautiful phrasing or superb German diction - again Wagner singing of a very high order. I would have been very, very happy to have seen these two in place of who was actually cast at the recent ROH Walkure. Long may they continue singing this repertoire in this country - I will certainly be looking out for them, and hopefully they'll be cast together in a Walkure?

Simon Wilding's Hunding was also extremely impressive. There's an incipient wobble in the high notes, but it's hardly a deal breaker in this role or fach - the voice is thunderingly huge, the timbre of the inkiest darkness, ideal then, and his brusque and commanding delivery of Hunding's music was thrillingly forceful.

What a wonderful start to the season!