Monday, 29 November 2010

We are back at the Barbican next Saturday for their concert performance of Alcina. As usual with their operas in concert, the cast seems to be going through some changes. But what is highly interesting is that we seem to be getting the role of Oberto sung by a boy soprano. It was written for a talented boy soprano, William Savage, who went on to sing a number of roles for Handel including (as a baritone) the title role in Imenio. But casting Oberto as a boy is not the sort of authenticity opera houses usually give us.

Last Saturday we used the Barbican's Waterside Cafe for the first time since its re-vamp, it is now called the Food Hall. They seem to have improved the flow round, somewhat. But the new seating is still cramped and is laid out in such a way that the audience on Saturday, generally older than us, seemed to find confusing. Somehow the old layout did the same thing. Perhaps the designers don't consider older people when they design such places?

Pergolesi Stabat Mater at the Barbican

Harry Bicket and The English Concert had put together a fascinating programme for their concert at the Barbican on Saturday. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, preceded by Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and the Salve Regina by Porpora. There were a number of cross links, both Porpora and Pergolesi were Neapolitan, both the Porpora and the Vivaldi pieces were written for Venetian ospedale. But the best laid plans ....

Anna Caterina Antonacci, who interestingly now bills herself as a soprano, was ill and replaced in the Pergolesi by Susan Gritton. This entailed dropping the Porpora and replacing it with a Handel concerto grosso (Opus 6, no. 6).

The group opened with the Handel, a beautifully restrained, intimate performance. Continuo consisted of William Carter's theorbo will just occasional support from Bicket on the chamber organ (no harpsichord of course, because the original programme of sacred music would not have needed one). Bicket shapes this music a lot, perhaps too much at times; beautiful thought it was there were occasions when I just wanted him to let go and let the musicians get on with it.

Sara Mingardo was the soloist in the Vivaldi. She turned in a finely tuned, beautifully relaxed performance, making the most of the dramatic moments but keeping the filigree vocal work for such movements as Cum dederit. It wasn't a self-consciously showy performance, just one that was highly musical and from a consummate artist.

Gritton and Mingardo's performance in the Pergolesi gave no hint that the pairing was a last minute affair. Inevitably there were changes, it would have interesting to have heart the piece with two dark Mediterranean voices. But Gritton provided a poised contrast to Mingardo and the two joined beautifully in the duets. This wasn't a performance that tried to milk the piece for all it was worth, thank goodness, instead Bicket and his performers allowed Pergolesi's chromatic harmonies to do their work.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I see from this month's Opera Magazine that performances of Handel operas continue to crop up with pleasing regularity, if one is prepared to travel. The Opéra Royal at Versailles is presenting both Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare. Though neither production was actually created for the baroque theatre itself. Rinaldo comes from the National Theatre in Prague and is directed by Louise Monty. Giulio Cesare is directed by Christian Schiaretti and is a co-production between the Théâtre Lyrique de Tourcoing and Grand Théâtre de Reims. Still, just to see such opera in baroque surroundings would be great (in fact we are going to attend on of the Giulio Cesare performances). Versailles are also presenting Purcell's King Arthur (production from Opera de Montpelier) and Dido and Aeneas, Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, plus Gounod's opera based on Moliere's Le Medecin Malgre Lui, as well as Racine's play Berenice.

Further ahead, David Alden is doing a new production of Handel's Deidamia for Netherlands Opera in 2012 (conducted by Ivor Bolton), and Buxton are staging Handel's Saul next year, with Jonathan Best in the title role. The director will be Olivia Fuchs and the conductor Harry Christophers.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Review of Die Entführung aus dem Serail

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for a concert performance of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail given by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Bernard Labadie, who is the conductor on Ian Bostridge's recent Three Baroque Tenors disc.

Like Cherubini's Médée (which I have recently learned needs to be spelt with two acute accents), Die Entführung aus dem Serail has lots of spoken dialogue. And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement (like Chelsea Opera Group at Saturday's performance of Médée) decided to use a narrator. In this case, Simon Butteris, who also wrote the narration and has in fact translated the opera (the singers sang in German but Butteriss's translation was broadcast as surtitles). Mozart's opera gives the poor narrator an added complication in that it is semi-serious.

18th century comic operas (both Italian and German) often mixed the comic and the serious; it was typical to have aristocratic characters who were always serious and provided the love interest, but surrounded by comic servants etc. (This was a style of comedy pioneered by Galuppi and Goldoni). This is true of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, where Konstanze and Belmonte are entirely serious, as is the spoken role of the Pasha, but their servants Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin are comic.

So any narration had to take account of this. Butteriss opted for simple and direct, using verbal puns and such to provide comic relief. When the moment demanded it he shaded into seriousness in an entirely apposite way. The main draw backs of having a narration were that we lost the rather interesting juxtaposition of music and speech in the opening when Belmonte's spoken questions are ignored by a singing Osmin. More importantly, we lost an entire character as the Pasha never sings so his doings were only ever reported by Butteriss. But, if we had to have a narration (and I understand why concert promoters feel it would be better) then let it be one like Butteriss's, simple, direct and amusing, rather than that used during Médée on Saturday.

OAE had assembled a terrific cast who performed, by and large, without scores. Only Alistair Miles as Osmin used a score all the time and he was a last minute substitution, so it was understandable. Susan Gritton, who sang Konstanze, carried a score but used it more like a comfort blanket than for reference. All the others sang without. The result was a performance which had a surprising amount dramatic vitality.

Susan Gritton made a moving and dignified Konstanze, there were moments when she seemed to push the vocal line about a little, but Marten aller arten had all the power and firmness that could be required. Frederic Antoun as Belmonte was a name new to me. Antoun is a Canadian tenor whose lyric voice brought just the right combination of ardour and firmness to the role.

Malin Christensen was a delight as Blonde, combining focussed accuracy with a delightful pertness, only a badly placed high note in her opening aria marred things. Tilman Lichdi was a charming Pedrillo. Perhaps he mugged slightly too much, but its a tricky role when deprived of the dialogue, but musically he was entirely on form.

Alistair Miles made a slightly serious Osmin, but the part was so finely sung that you barely noticed.

All in all this was a beautifully balanced cast, one that would have done a great deal of credit to a full staging of the opera.

Under Bernard Labadie, OAE gave a lively performance, turning in some lovely instrumental solo moments. The overture seemed to scurry rather too much and seemed in danger of upsetting itself, but things settled down and the danger was averted.

Such a fine performance of the opera made me wonder why we don't seem to have a production of this lovely opera. I can't remember when we last saw Covent Garden's 1987 production, which was notable for having heart-throb Oliver Tobias as Pasha Selim. Lets hope we get a production soon.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Review of Medee

My review of Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of Cherubini's Medee is here, on MVDaily.com (Subscription site).

Monday, 22 November 2010

Cherubini anniversary

On Saturday we went to see Cherubini's Medee given by Chelsea Opera Group. This year is the 250th anniversary of Cherubini's birth but people do not seem to be beating a path to his door. It is disappointing that no opera companies seem to be planning a full staging of this opera. The last time we saw it in London was, I think, the 1989 production at Covent Garden with Rosalind Plowright on good form but in a very poorly conceived production. Having heard Yvonne Howard's assumption of the title role for COG, we are just crying out for someone to snap her up and stage the work, Grange Park, Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera, anyone?

Having been taken with the opera all over again I went looking for a recording. There only seems to be one solitary recording of the piece in French, on Newport Classics with Phyllis Treigle in the title role, released in 1997. And this does not seem to have made it into The Gramophone so I have no idea what it is like. There is also a live recording with Iano Tamar which evidently has rather poor sound.

So not only do we want a production, but we need a decent recording from a period band as well!

This neglect is perhaps not so surprising. Carmen apart, opera companies seem nervous of doing operas which require lots of French dialogue, even in France! Adrian Noble's new production of Carmen at the Opera Comique trimmed the dialogue down to the bone. And when we saw Medee at the Chatelet a few years ago, in a production from Toulouse, it was performed in Italian with the recitatives!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tess interrupted

I have always been fascinated by the idea Baron Frederic d'Erlanger's opera based on Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, though I've never heard a note of it. The libretto was written by Luigi Illica, who wrote librettos for Puccini. Now I find out from the latest British Music Society Newsletter that the opera was premiered in Naples in 1906, at the San Carlo, and the premiere was interrupted by volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius - surely a reason in itself for someone digging out the opera.

In fact Hyperion are recording d'Erlanger's Violin Concerto as a coupling to that of Frederick Cliffe. D'Erlanger's concerto was championed by Kreisler; Hyperion's disc will be issued in February so we'll be able to judge for ourselves then.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Review of Adriana Lecouvreur

I first saw Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur in the 1980's at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, with Maria Chiara in the title role. It wasn't an opera that I knew, we'd gone because Puccini's La Boheme was promised, with Caballe (who in the event cancelled). As it turned out, we were entranced by Cilea's opera. People from English National Opera were seen in the audience, which led to gossip and rumour that ENO were considering a production of the opera with Valerie Masterson in the title role - which would have been extremely interesting had it come off.

As it happened, it was not until Opera Holland Park performed Adriana Lecouvreur in 2002, with Christine Bunning as Adriana and Rosalind Plowright as the Princess that I saw the work again. Whereas Plowright was wonderfully dramatic, Bunning was restrainedly elegant in the title role. This made me realise that, for the opera to work, it needed a real diva in the title role. Then in 2009, Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance with Nelly Miriocioiu and Rosalind Plowright. Here we had a nicely balanced casting, with Miriocioiu's performance restoring my faith in the work.

So now Covent Garden have presented a new production of Adriana Lecouvreur, their first since 1906! We saw it on Thursday 18th November, the first night.

David McVicar's production was entirely traditional, set firmly in the 17th century. Charles Edwards set was an entire delight. In Act 1, which is set back-stage at the Opera Comique, we see what seems to be the rear of the theatre, with the detritus of the back-stage dressing rooms in front. It gradually becomes apparent that what Edwards has created is a very large scale model of an 17th century theatre, one which almost entirely filled the Covent Garden stage. During Act 1 this model gradually rotated so that by the time Michonnet comes to describe Arianna's performance, we can actually see through the wings to the 'real' performance on the 18th century stage.

This model theatre stays central to the whole opera. In Act 2, the Prince de Bouillon's villa seems to be build out of the proscenium and fore-stage of the theatre. Then in Act 3, the ballet is performed on the model stage with the 18th century audience sat in front, their backs to us. Then finally in Act 4, Adriana's lodgings are in front of the theatre model, now stripped back to its basic wood. But it is at Adriana's death that McVicar presents his greatest coup; the main stage lights dim, leaving just the lights on the model stage and the member's of Adriana's acting troupe come forward on the model stage for one last time, the doff their caps and bow to Adriana. A truly magical moment, and one which makes sense of the dying fall of Cilea's opera.

But of course, all this would be for naught if we didn't have a diva in the title role. And Covent Garden have mounted the production around the diva de nos jours, Angela Gheorghiu. Gheorghiu's Adriana was a sensitive creature, not a temperamental monster, but one who could credibly hold the stage and fascinate all around, she looked fabulous, truly a cynosure for all eyes.

Musically the part revolves around the two big arias (her entrance aria in Act 1, Poveri fiori in Act 4). Here Gheorghiu did not disappoint, quite, but she sang Adriana with a quavery fragility, which was aided and abetted by Mark Elder's transparent accompaniment with the Royal Opera House orchestra. At her entrance she is supposed to appear, at the top of a staircase, rehearsing her part apparently unconscious of her audience back stage, this sets up a lovely dynamic for her opening aria. Of course, Edwards set meant that we were unable to have a grand staircase, so instead Gheorghiu was discovered in her dressing room, as supers moved away a screen; not quite the same thing, but effective and rather intimate.

The moment when Gheorghiu's performance disappointed most was in her big duet (duel?) in Act 2 with Michaela Schuster's Princesse de Bouillon. Schuster sang the Princess with a big, gleaming voice and you wanted Gheorghiu to match this, but she didn't.

By the end of the opera, I had started to warm to Gheorghiu's approach, but I did rather tire of her conscious emoting and the fragile quaveriness of her delivery. For me, Adriana is a spinto role and I would have liked more firmness and steel at times. In fact, having heard Rosalind Plowright twice as the Princess and heard her in the title role of La Gioconda, I just can't help wishing that someone would have asked her to sing Adriana when she was still singing soprano parts; her gleaming, passionate voice would have been perfect.

Adriana's love interest, Maurizio, was played by Jonas Kaufman. Now, I'd never heard Kaufman live before and his baritonal delivery took a little getting used to. On first hearing, you were surprised that he could deliver the top notes. But he did far more than deliver, Kaufman has a highly intelligent control of his idiosyncratic voice.

Somewhere in my archives I have a recording of the Act 1 love duet from Verdi's Otello, sung by Tiana Lemnitz and Torsten Ralf. The Swedish tenor shows himself willing and able to fine his upper voice down in ways that few Italianate tenors dare, so that the love duet for once is sung to a ravishing pianissimo. I was that that Kaufman did, supplying a series of gloriously shaded and finely performed moments.

Of course, he looked wonderful, every inch the soldier; glorious for once to have a tenor who is neither tubby nor tiny. And he rose effortlessly to the big moments, but it was his way with the quieter ones that counted, especially his duetting with Gheorghiu. I will still want to go back to Domingo's account of the role, with is glorious Italianate gleam, but Kaufman's intelligence in using his instrument won the day.

The other important role is Michonnet, the theatre manager; Adriana's friend who is in love with her, but never dare tell her. Alessandro Corbelli is adept at mixing comedy and pathos in comic roles, here the balance was adjusted slightly and we had a serious role with comic elements. Corelli can steal a scene without appearing to do anything and he brought comic timing and real pathos to the scene. In a way, he was the heart of the opera, without a central performance from Michonnet the piece will fail.

Michaela Schuster sang the Princesse with real relish, she ate the scenery but kept her voice within control so that it was never forced or over the top. It is a relatively short role, she only appears in 2 acts. But Schuster ensured that we remembered her for both musical and dramatic reasons.

The remaining cast were equally strong in the supporting roles. Janis Kelly, Sarah Castle, Iain Paton and David Soar as the four actors who animate the back-stage antics in Act 1 and re-appear in Act 4 to persuade Adriana to return to the stage. The four made a strong, vibrant ensemble. Maurizio Muraro was suitably authoritative as the Prince of Bouillon with Bonaventura Bottone as a delightfully camp Abbe.

The Act 3 ballet, The Judgement of Paris, was performed in Edwards' model 17th century theatre, with authentic, functioning 17th century scenery. The dancers had, by and large, authentic 17th century costumes (except for that of Paris which was closer to the 19th century). But Andrew George's choreography seemed to oscillate between camp send up, and 19th century period manners, which seemed to be a shame. Cilea wrote evocative 17th century style music for the ballet and we should at least take it seriously.

Cilea's score is beautifully melodic, as he makes full use of the melodies from his two hit numbers for Adriana. Mark Elder and the orchestra gave a sensitive and beautifully modulated account of the score, discovering in it far more than simple melodic bombast. Elder seemed concerned to bring out the fine textures of Cilea's orchestration; perhaps over concerned, there were moments when the performance could have taken a dose of something closer to high-voltage verismo.

Adriana Lecouvreur is quite a long opera, there's a lot of plot to get through and Cilea does it in 4 acts, lasting around 150 minutes. For some reason (probably to do with the logistics of the set), the Royal Opera chose to perform Acts 1 and 2 together, with a 5 minute pause between. There was a 25 minute interval after Act 2. Act 3 lasted just 30 minutes, then there was another 20 minute interval. This made a long-ish opera into something closer to a marathon. Thanks goodness the production was worth it.

I don't think the opera will ever be quite mainstream, but David McVicar and Charles Edwards have created a magical production and I do hope that the Royal Opera will bring it back and give other diva's the opportunity to sing Adriana's glorious arias in their proper context.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of volume four of Brilliant's Complete Schütz Edition is here.
At Brilliant’s prices it is easy enough to buy the set and dip in. The performances may sometimes be ordinary, but the music never fails to astonish.

And my review of a reissue of Pro Cantione Antiqua's recordings of Victoria motets is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.

Do try this. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Jean de Reske



Having read in the programme for Saturday's performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette that Jean de Reske had sung the role of Romeo, with Melba as Juliette, at Covent Garden in 1889, I became curious because Reske was renowned for his Wagner singing.

Jean de Reszke was a Polish tenor, born in 1850 who became one of the most celebrated tenors of his day. Training initially as a baritone, he re-trained as a tenor and became one of the most notable performers of his day performing in Paris, London and New York. His repertoire covered the heavier roles and he sang significant numbers of Wagnerian roles, but also the French repertoire of his day (Meyerbeer, Gounod and Bizet). He sang his Wagner roles in both Italian and German.

We don't have many recordings of De Reske, there are a few live cylinder recordings of operatic performances, but no studio recordings seem to have survived. It is illuminating an instructive to look at how his repertoire changed over the years, the following is a list of his roles at Covent Garden (his Met roles were almost identical); it should be borne in mind that up to 1892, operas at Covent Garden were usually presented in Italian. I've not heard of Bemberg's Elaine, but the composer seems to have been South American, trained in Paris, De Reszke also sang the role of Lancelot at the work's American premiere at the Met in 1894. Esmeralda is by Arthur Goring Thomas and dates from 1883, it is based on the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame; it was performed at Covent Garden in French.

1888: Vasco da Gama( L'Africaine - Meyerbeer), Raoul( Les Huguenots - Meyerbeer), Faust, Radames (Aida), Riccardo (Ballo in maschera), Lohengrin.
1889: Radames, Raoul( Les Huguenots), Lohengrin, Walter (Die Meistersinger), Romeo Roméo et Juliette - Gounod)
1890: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Romeo, Faust, Don Josè (Carmen), Lohengrin, Walther, Phoebus (Esmeralda - Goring Thomas).
1891: Raoul ( Les Huguenots), Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Faust, Romeo, Don Josè, Otello, Lohengrin, Walter.
1892: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète), Romeo, Don Jose, Lohengrin, Lancelot (Elaine - Bemberg)
1893: Raul ( Les Huguenots), Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter.
1894: Faust, Romeo, Werther, Radames, Lohengrin, Walter, Lancelot (Elaine)
1896: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1897: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried)
1898: Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried and Gotterdammerung)
1899: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1900: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter

As with any helden-tenor, it is noticeable how the non-Wagner roles are reduced as the Wagner roles increase. But quite what defines a helden-tenor seems to have changed. Nowadays we would not really expect such a voice to sing Meyerbeer. But more remarkable is the way that the Gounod roles seem to persist in his repertoire. The idea of a tenor nowadays singing Siegfried, Faust and Romeo. De Reske was a re-trained baritone, which is often a help when it comes to singing Siegfried, but this is not a voice type that we would expect to hear in Faust or Romeo. As an example, think of the mature Domingo and then try to imagine him singing Faust or Romeo!

It was De Reske who suggested that Melba might sing Brunnhilde to his Siegfried in New York. Which she did with notable lack of success. But that she should attempt it at all is remarkable.

All this leaves me wishing that we had more record of De Reske's voice and technique. If fascinates me that he combined roles in ways that are not done nowadays, perhaps indicating that his approach to Wagner was far more bel canto than is done nowadays.

The picture at the head of this post is De Reszke as Romeo. There are many more pictures, plus information about his brother Edouard, here.

Review of Don Carlo from Midsummer Opera

My review of Midsummer Opera's concert performance of Verdi's Don Carlo in the 4-Act 1884 version, is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Review of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette

On Saturday we attended Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at Covent Garden. My review is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Buxton Festival

This year's Buxton Festival looks as tempting as ever with Mary Plazas taking the title role in Donizetti's Maria di Rohan in a production by Stephen Medcalf and Jonathan Best as Handel's Saul in a staged performance directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Harry Christophers. Staging Handel's oratorios is always tricky, but Saul is one of the more dramatic ones and it can be made to work. Annilise Miskimmon is staging Ambroise Thomas Mignon, definitely a rarity on these shores nowadays though it used to be extremely popular. The Wexford Festival staged the piece many years ago in a production by Richard Jones, but this does not seem to have started a revival.

Buxton have also announced their new artistic Director, Stephen Barlow, who takes over from Andrew Greenwood in 2011. We have seen Barlow conduct quite a number of times at Grange Park Opera, and his own opera based on Thomas Beckett and Henry II was premiered at Canterbury Cathedral. It will be interesting to see what mark he makes on Buxton

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Critical (re)evaluation

This month's Opera Magazine has a review of ETO's premiere performance of Alexander Goehr's new opera Promised End by Andrew Porter. Porter gives the piece a long and thoughtful review which is very positive, quite a lot more positive than some of the reviews in the daily newspapers. I also found the work a little disappointing but Porter's valuable review has made me want to re-assess the work and hear it again. This is particularly true as ETO's performance will undoubtedly develop as their tour progresses.

Also in this month's Opera Magazine is a review of the CD of Michael Berkeley's latest opera, For You. For this opera Berkeley worked with Ian McEwen rather than David Malouf who had done the librettos for his previous operas. I have to confess that I have not seen For Your but have admired Berkeley's previous work. George Hall, in his review, seems unconvinced, describing the 'grey and anonymous ariosos', referring to the work as 'tiresome' and saying that Berkeley's two previous operas were more engaging.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Recent CD reviews

My review of Ockeghem's Missa de plus en plus from the Orlando Consort on Brilliant Classics is here.

A superb recording of the mass and if you can live with the chansons, then I would go for it.

And my review of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Bergamo on Naxos is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Too much of a danger that you will listen to it and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Recent CD Review


My review of Hummel's opera Mathilde de Guise, released on Brilliant Classics, is here, on MusicWeb International.

At Brilliant’s budget price, highly recommendable for anyone interested in what was happening to German opera in the period between Beethoven and Wagner.

Friday, 5 November 2010

New Mailing List

I am trying out new mailing list software, this comes with a web-form sign-up, so if you are not already on my mailing list then here you are:-