Monday, 26 April 2010

Review of Der Freischütz

My review of Weber's Der Freischütz performed by Midsummer Opera is here on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the Naxos recording of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda is here.

Nowhere near a library recommendation. ...

A name new to me; a collection of Lita Grier's songs is reviewed here.

If the alternative, tonal pathways of late 20th century music interest you then do try this disc. ...

And a disc devoted to the music of Robert White is review here, performed by an excellent new group called Gallicantus.

Gallicantus make a strong case for performance by a vocal ensemble, with nice balance and well modulated tone. …

Finally, Messiah from New York, reviewed here. All the reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Charming, approachable and likeable …

London Festival of Contemporary Church Music

The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music opens in a couple of weeks time, on May 8th. Based, as usual, at St. Pancras Church, the festival has events in churches such as the Temple, St. Paul's Cathedral and Southward Cathedral. The music covers quite a wide range including Gabriel Jackson, Judith Bingham, Francis Grier, Anthony Pitts, Patric Standford, Simon Brown and many others, with premieres of pieces by Elizabeth Winters, Giles Swayne, Gregory Rose, Graham Ross, Tim Ambler, TAP Bennett and Robert Busiakiewicz But more importantly, much of it is performed in context in services with Choral Evensong and Choral Mattings; plus, a wide scattering of organ recitals and some concerts. Concerts include the choir of Royal Holloway College under Rupert Gough performing contemporary Baltic composers (Pa&aauml;rt, Miskinis, Dubra and Sisask).

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Reading this month's Opera magazine, there's a review of Menotti's The Saint of Bleeker Street from Marseille. As usual with performances in English of operas without any native speakers, you are curious (well I am) about how successful the diction was. In this case the reviewer (Joel Kasow) commented favourably on the clarity of the enunciation; which is nice to know.

Also in the magazine, I spotted a comment about Rene Kollo (one of my all time favourite Siegfrieds) making his debut as Aegisth (in Strauss's Elektra). Nothing very startling in this, except that Kollo is over 70. Big dramatic voices are not always known for their longevity so it is heartening to learn that Kollo is still singing.

That said, I understand that Martha Mödl continued performing into old age, a friend was involved in one of her very late performances as Klytemnestra. Evidently the voice left something to be desired, but the dramatic instincts were still superbly in place.

Over in the Opera Magazine Festival's supplement there is an interview with Evans Mirageas, the artistic director of Cincinnati Opera. First of it is heartening to read that he is in a relationship with another man; this is information that people remain astonishingly coy about. Secondly, he tells a lovely anecdote about starting at Decca in 1994, being an American in an English company and starting off volunteering to make the tea.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Review of Il Turco in Italia

Amazingly it is 5 years since the Royal Opera last performed Rossini's Il Turco in Italia and this was the first revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's 1950's inspired production. More particularly it is inspired by 1950's Italian films.

Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak has stepped into the Sophia Loren-like role of Fiorilla. She has a very different voice than Cecilia Bartoli who sang the role when the production was new. Kurzak sang Rossini's elaborate lines more naturalistically, her performance didn't have the quotation marks around it that you felt with Bartolli. Kurzak's Fiorilla was pert and sunny, insoucicant and charming. At first I found her performance a little understated, but it grew on me and her final aria was a moving tour de force.

Colin Lee as Don Narciso was also new to the cast. Lee sang with a lightness and freedom in the top range which seemed new in his voice. He seemed relaxed in the role, despite suffering from the after effects of Gastric Flu, and this showed not only in his acting but in the warmth of his voice.

The 3rd new member of the cast was Leah-Marian Jones as Zaide, a relatively small but important role. Jones turned in a performance which was outstanding, both supportive and musical.

The remainder of the principals were returning to their roles. 5 years on Thomas Allen's voice is showing hints of age, but he is still a consumate artist and brought a charming world weariness to the poet Prosdocimo, who opens the show trying to find a subject for his opera libretto and spends the remainder of the opera trying to turn the opera's participants into an opera plot.

As Don Geronio, Fiorella's elderly husband, Alessandro Corbelli gave a masterclass in how to sing Rossini, have fun and be funny. And he formed a superb double act with Allen.

Ildebrando d'Arcangelo was suitably saturnine and dashingly attractive as the Turk Selim. But he didn't just look good, he sounded good as well. D'Arcangelo brought a beautifully focussed bass tone to the role. He displayed little buffo bluff and bluster, instead actually singing Rossini's notes. He seems to be taking care of his voice, his roles centring on Mozart and Italian bel canto and it shows.

Steven Ebel, one of the current Jette Parker young artists, sang Albazar, a small bu important role.

Maurizio Benini conducted. He had the measure of this score and conjured sparkling singing and playing from singers and orchestra. But I felt that he was a little too relaxed and indulgent, particularly in the long first act, and that a little more urgency was needed.

This was definitely a case of the revival being as good as the original. We got some superb music making and above all everyone on stage seemed to be having fun.

ENO New Season

So we have details of ENO's new season as well. As usual, the second half of the season is only sketched in, no fine detail provided. John Berry is pursuing his obsession with film directors and both Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam are making their operatic debut. There is finally a feeling that ENO have got over their obsessive re-making of the core repertoire, this new season seems to include only 1 new production which replaces a viable existing one. In this case Rufus Norris is doing a new Don Giovanni and whilst I found the Calixto Bieto production unsatisfactory in some ways, it had its moments. The new production stars Ian Paterson, with Katherine Broderick, Rebecca Evans and Sarah Tynan as Giovanni's women. Worth a look.

First on my list is the new production of Handel's Radmisto, from Santa Fe. This is a gorgeous looking production, directed by David Alden, which was originally mounted for David Daniels. ENO are using Lawrence Zazzo, which is all to the good. Zazzo is joined by Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan and Ailish Tynan. Conducted by Lawrence Cummings. Running time is listed as 3 hours 10 minutes, so the opera is going to be quite heavily cut I suspect. Also, no word as to which version of the opera they are doing. When the piece was done by Opera North (with a cast including a young Emma Bell), they used a version which mixed things up.

Next on my list is Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which will be conducted by Paul Daniel and directed by Mike Figgis. It is good to see Daniel making appearances at his old house and terrific ENO are doing another bel canto piece, FINALLY. Goodness knows that Figgis will make of the opera, it certainly isn't a naturalistic opera. No word as to who will be singing the title role, which will have a very big effect on the desirability of the performance. Lucrezia needs a diva.

A revival next, as Amanda Roocroft is taking the title role in The Makropoulos Case. Christopher Alden's production isn't my favourite, but I love the opera and am a great admirer of Roocroft. Richard Armstrong conducts, hurrah!

Terry Gilliam is directing Berlioz's Damnation of Faust in 2012 conducted by Edward Gardner, with Christine Rice and Christopher Purves. Whatever it looks like, it is good to have Berlioz back on the Coliseum stage with such a strong cast.

In another co-production with the Met in New York, American director Des McAnuff is in charge of a new production of Gounod's Faust with Toby Spence, Melody Moore and Iain Paterson. This goes onto my list mainly because I want to seen Spence in the title role.

Other interesting items:
Christopher Alden's production of Midsummer Night's Dream.
Edward Gardner conducts Simon Boccanegra in a production by Russian enfant terrible Dmitri Tcherniakov.
Parsifal is coming back with Sir John Tomlinson.

But this is a season where the really unusual items are the two new pieces, Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Heart (directed by Simon McBurney in collaboration with Complicite) and Nico Muhly's new opera (another Met collaboration). Apart from these, there is no really unusual repertoire. Nothing English from the 19th or 20th Centuries, apart from Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, which was in repertoire relatively recently in Robert Carsen's production. No Strauss. Little in repertoire terms that makes you go wow, instead we have a series of high profile (or high risk) directors taking on main-stream operas. Why not some Tippett. The problem is that directors new to opera are unlikely to be keen on directing pieces of out of the way repertoire. Under John Berry ENO are creating a distinctive personality for themselves, but it is still a long way from what our National opera ought to be doing

Saturday, 17 April 2010

On Wednesday we heard a preview the programme for Charles Owen's Wigmore Hall recital which takes place on Wed 21st April. He opened with a strong account of Bach's 4th Partita, following it with three Faure Barcarolles (Nos. 1, 4 and 5) and Debussy's Images, series one (Reflets dans l'eau, Hommage a Rameau, Mouvement. An exuberant account of Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel concluded a meaty and involving programme.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

New season at Covent Garden

The programme for the Royal Opera's 2010/11 season has been announced. The new productions certainly cover an interesting range. Agostino Steffani's Niobe makes its UK debut in a production from the 2008 Schwetzingen Festival. Steffani was an older contemporary of Handel's. Steffani was Kapellmeister at the Hanoverian court and may have been responsible for Handel getting his job there. Niobe was first produced, in Munich, in 1688. The Covent Garden production will include Veronique Gens as Niobe and a Polish high counter-tenor, Jacek Laszczkowski as Anfione.

Receiving its first production at Covent Garden since 1902 is Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. The title role requires a real diva and Covent Garden have engaged the services of the diva du jour, Angela Gheorghiu, with Jonas Kauffman as Maurizio. David McVicar produces and Mark Elder conducts. Certainly an unmissable evening.

Another rarity, Massenet's Cendrillon is receiving its first ever Covent Garden production, with a fabulously enticing cast. Alice Coote as the Prince, Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon and Eglise Gutierrez as the Fairy Godmother. Betrand de Billy conducts and Laurent Pelly produces.

Just as rare, but in a rather different style is Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. Mark Elder conducts again and Paul Curran makes his debut as director with the Royal Opera. The cast is mainly Russian and includes Marina Poplavskaya, who made an impression as Elisabeth in Don Carlo.

The final new production is Wagner's Tannhauser with Johan Botha and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Semyon Bychkov conducts with Tim Albery directing. This is the first time the opera has been given at Covent Garden since 1987, when Gwynneth Jones sang Elisabeth. Its not my favourite Wagner opera, but its rarity makes it unmissable.

There is actually one other new production, this time of a new opera. Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole. The libretto is by Richard Thomas, one of the creators of Jerry Springer the Opera. Richard Jones directs, with Eva Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole, Antonio Pappano conducts. Promises to be an interesting evening.

Over in the Linbury there are two further premieres. ETO bring Alexander Goehr's new opera Promised End, based on King Lear. Another unmissable evening. And James MacMillan is developing a new opera for the Linbury in May 2011.

As regards revivals, we have Charles Mackerras conducting Don Pasquale and Hansel and Gretel, with Christine Rice and Ailish Tynan in the title roles. Simon Keenlyside makes his debut as Macbeth, certainly an interesting piece of casting. McVicar's Aida returns with Roberto Alagna as Radames (memories of his Milan walk-out well behind him I hope). Ben Heppner is heading a revival of Peter Grimes (perhaps I'll like the production a little more this time). And Rolando Villazon and Sophie Koch appear in Werther, at least we hope that Villazon will appear. And it will be lovely to hear a native French speaker as Charlotte.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Recent CD Reviews

Two re-issues today.

My review of a disc of Cistercian plainchant from the Heinrich Isaac ensemble is here.
Striking and very attractive ...

And my review of a recital of arias by Donizetti and Bellini from Raul Gimenez is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
Gimenez brings considerable vocal ability, variety and intelligence to these arias ...

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Review of the Chapelle du Roi

My review of the Chapelle du Roi's Tenebrae concert from St. John's Smith Square last week is now here, on Music and Vision.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Review of Les Troyen in Amsterdam

To Amsterdam for a rather wet weekend which culminated in the first night of Berlioz's Les Troyens performed by the Netherlands Opera at het muziektheater in Amsterdam on 4th April 2010. We missed Pierre Audi's production when it was new in 2003 and so welcomed the opportunity to see the revival.

The production had sets designed by George Tsypin (with costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer). For the first two acts (the Troy acts) Tsypin's set was based around three horizontal bars across the stage, each made from a different colour of moulded, scupted translucent glass like substance. These formed both backdrops to the action as well as being substantial enough to form platforms for the action. The three platforms moved up and down as well as tilting, moving back and forth. The back drop was an abstract projection. Initially the colour scheme was relatively pale colours, which were off-set by the black worn by the Trojans. The only strong colour was the red on Cassandra's cloak. Eventually the colour red starts to see in, as it became identified with the Greeks. The Trojan horse when it appeared (as a head which descended down from above) was suffused with red and this colour took over the the whole production by the time the Trojan women committed suicide in Act 2.

For the remaining 3 acts the horizontal glass bars became vertical items which punctuated the set. The base colours remained pale, particularly because the Carthiginians wore pale cream/beige outfits.

The opera opened with the chorus of Trojans arrayed on the platforms, providing not a dynamic, vigorous stage image, but a rather stylised static one. The use of the chorus remained very static, providing stylised images which were emphasised by the use of co-ordinated movement and hand gestures.

The first two acts were very much Cassandre's story and she was on-stage for virtually all the time (except for the opening scene of Act 2 when the ghost of Hector appears to Enee). Cassandre was played by the Dutch dramatic soprano Eva Maria Westbroek, making her role debut. Westbroek's Cassandre was a tortured, rather witch doctor-like figure, sung with a beautiful flexible tone. Westbroek wasn't a huge voiced, dominating singer, instead she was more subtle and sympathetic. Though I must admit that there were moments when I would have liked more edge to the tone. She was beautifully partnered by the Chorebe of Jean-Francois Lapointe. Not only was Lapointe a native French speaker, but he sang Chorebe with nicely focussed tone, without the over emphasis on dramatic vibrato which I have found in other recent performances.

This wasn't a performance which was about big dramatic voices. In the pit conductor John Nelson kept things under control and emphasised subtlety rather than bombast. This was particularly noticeable in the casting of Enee, sung by the American lyric tenor Bryan Hymel. Frankly, Hymel seemed to find Enee's opening scenes no easier than other bigger voiced tenors. His lyric flexibility was welcome, but his upper notes rather lacked freedom.

For the processing of the Trojan treasures, we were introduced to the besuited, bald rather odd looking dancers and actors who popped up rather too much in the opera. But it must be admitted that for the dance movements in Act 1, Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn's choreography fitter rather well.

By the first interval (end of the Trojan acts) the production had made a strong impression, and we looked forward to how the remaining acts would play out.

For Act 3, Didon (Yvonne Naef) was rather formally dressed with a huge fur coat (strange for North-African Carthage) and her hair up, the chorus seated all expecting to watch to dancing. Unfortunately, the danced parts of the Carthage acts rather let the production down. In Act 3, truncated parts of the horizontal glass bars became bases on which the dancers appeared, their dancing seeming not related to Berlioz's scenario and frankly rather risible.

Things improved with the appearance of the Trojans, which upped the dramatic impetus. One of the big positive things about Audi's production was that he dramatised what Berlioz gave him rather than inventing extra details. This gave the production rather a fine clarity, singers appeared and disappeared according to the requirements of the music rather than Audi inventing extra details. Another big advantage was the way that Audi and Tsypin use the various platforms and the stage's lift, to keep the action moving. Scenes flowed naturally into each other without long waits.

Things went a bit awry again at the opening of Act 4 in the Royal Hunt and Storm. The scenario was not quite that which Berlioz intended, but might have worked had not Audi and Tsypin decided to turn the more dramatic sections into a son et lumiere involving the whole scenery (certainly striking, but lacking dramatic clarity). For the duet between Anna (Charlotte Hellekant) and Narbal (Alistair Miles), we were again back on track.

But then. Audi's intention was obviously to focus attention on Didon, just the way attention focussed on Cassandre in Acts 1 and 2. For the remaining dance movements of Act 4, the drama was refocussed as a dream of Didon's. This might have worked but I found the choreography rather less than enlightening and at times risible. Then with the conclusion of the danced portions, Audi's dramaturgical clarity returned.

In some productions I have found that the directors need to invent extra action rather ruins these closing moments of Act 4. Instead, Audi brought on singers when needed by Berlioz and the results were musically and dramaturgically convincing.

At first Yvonne Naef had seemed a rather stiff Didon, with some problems in her upper voice. But by the end of Act 4 both she and Hymel had warmed up. Audi's staging of the concluding duet wasn't quite magical, but it worked. And allowed Hymel and Naef to give of their musical best.

The dramaturgical strength of the production continued into Act 5 and Audi seemed to completely re-gain the momentum from Acts 1 and 2, with Tsypin's scenery becoming a series of broken spaces in which the action takes place. Hymel seemed to draw strength as the drama progressed and his Enee was ultimately everything you might desire. The lyric nature of Hymel's voice, which had proved limiting at first, was musically a strong feature of the final act.

Similarly Naef's Didon seemed to relax as the acts progressed. Her upper register became more flexible, less stressed and she became a noble and moving Didon. Perhaps not the finest Didon that I have seen, but a very notably one; noble of bearing, and all the more heart-breaking when she collapses at the end.

Charlotte Hellekant was a flirtatious, suitably contrasting Anna. Alistair Miles did not seem entirely comfortable as Narbal, it didn't seem to suit that cut of his voice the way the role works for a bass like Robert Lloyd. Greg Warren, as Iopas, had a rather too high-tension voice for the role, which needs a greater degree of lyric beauty than he could provide. But Sebastien Droy as Hylas provided all the lyric beauty required in his solo.

Conductor John Nelson included the Sinon episode in Act 1, but made no significant changes to Act 5 as John Eliot Gardiner did at the Chatelet in 2003. Nelson's conducting was exemplary, he and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra gave a fine performance and provided strong support to the singers.

This wasn't the best Les Troyens that I've ever seen. But it was certainly the most dramatic and the most brilliantly designed. For most of the production, Audi's personen-regie brought a clarity to the piece which was enviable. Though it has to be admitted that there were moments, especially towards the end, when it was a production about (rather than of) Les Troyens, there were just too many moment which lacked dramaturgical clarity and you wondered what on earth was going on, this applied not so much to the singers as to the actors and dancers. It worked best if you knew the opera well. This wasn't a production for the faint hearted, but it was certainly stunning to look at and highly intelligent.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Recent CD Review

A pair of rather different CD's reviewed. First off contemporary music, by Christopher Roberts, for the ancient Chinese instrument, the Qin. The review is here.

For those inclined to explore - do try this evocative disc …

Then a re-issue of Jordi Savall's 2001 recording of Vivaldi's Farnace; review is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Three hours of top quality Vivaldi ...