Sunday 19 July 2020

A Life On-Line: Garsington Opera Unmuted, Handel times two from Göttingen, and Eboracum Baroque

Handel: Lotario - Jorge Navarro Colorado, Judd Perry - Göttingen 2017
Handel: Lotario - Jorge Navarro Colorado, Jud Perry - Göttingen 2017
We started the week with Unmute, a lovely live concert (albeit with no audience) from Garsington Opera, with Douglas Boyd conducting members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Nardus Williams (soprano), Sam Furness (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Joshua Bloom (bass) and Brindley Sherratt (bass), along with actor Samuel West doing readings.

Things began with a selection of ensembles from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, first all six soloists in the sextet (Nardus Williams as Marcellina, Joshua Bloom as Figaro, a role he sang at Garsington in 2017, Brindley Sherratt as Bartolo, Sam Furness as Curzio, Roderick Williams as the Count and Soraya Mafi as Susanna), then the Countess and Susanna's duet (Williams and Mafi), and the Act Four trio (Mafi, Bloom, Williams), ending with Soraya Mafi singing 'Deh vieni'.

Next another ensemble, the quartet from Act One of Beethoven's Fidelio (which should have been in the 2020 season), with Soraya Mafi, Nardus Williams, Joshua Bloom and Sam Furness. The final vocal contributions were all from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, with Roderick Williams as Onegin, Sam Furness as Lensky and Brindley Sherratt as Gremin (both Williams and Sherratt sang these roles at Garsington when we saw Michael Boyd's production in 2016, see my review).

The event finished with a chance for the instrumentalists to show off, with the sextet from Richard Strauss' Capriccio. All in all a lovely concert, and we look forward to being able to hear opera live at Garsington next year. [YouTube]

For the rest of the week, we had a focus on Handel. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Internationalen Händel Festspiele Göttingen and in celebration NDR released 10 films of Handel opera productions at the festival (from 2009 to 2019). First we sampled Handel's Lotario in a production from 2017 directed by Carlos Wagner and conducted by Laurence Cummings (artistic director of the festival). Handel's 1729 opera has always been seen as a problem, because the rather compressed nature of the action can deprive the work of a sense of emotional logic. But I was impressed with the CD recording based on this 2017 production [see my review], and Wagner certainly got strong performances from his cast.

There were moments when you wondered why something was happening, but Wagner eschewed the libretto's ostensible settings (so no dramatic sieges and battles), instead concentrating on the emotional drama, and he got terrific performances from his young cast. Jorge Navarro Colorado and Ursula Hesse von Steinem were terrific as the baddies. Hesse von Steinem as Mathilde was positively terrifying, whilst her husband Berengario was more of a wimp, but major operatic roles for tenors in Handel are relatively rare, and on this showing I do hope we get to see Navarro Colorado in a couple of the others. Marie Lys made a fine Adelaide, very put upon but rising to the challenge in her defiance, with Sophie Rennert has the heroic, but relatively uninteresting hero Lotario. Jud Perry as Iderberto and Todd Boyce as Clodomiro rather brought up the rear in dramatic terms but both gave fine accounts of their arias. The film is available on the NDR website.

The other Handel opera from Göttingen that we chose was the 2016 performance Handel's penultimate opera, Imeneo. This is a slightly strange piece, we spend three acts with the heroine Rosemene (Anna Dennis) trying to choose between the man she loves, Tirinto (James Laing) and the man her father wants her to marry, Imeneo (William Berger) because he rescued her from pirates. Completing the cast are Rosemene's father, Argenio (Matthew Brook), and her friend Clomiri (Stefanie True). The interest in the opera comes from the fact that, though Handel and the libretto set Tirinto up as the hero (he is the castrato role, and has most arias), in fact it is the baritone, Imeneo, who gets the girl!

When I saw the opera at the Royal College of Music as part of the London Handel Festival in 2013 [see my review] it was played as something of a comedy, which worked well. Here it was entirely serious, and the production by choreographer Sigrid T’Hooft, was in period style. Historically Informed Production is still very much in its infancy, and such experiments are still relative rarities. But it is valuable to try and recreate the style in which the original was performed. The problem with Imeneo is that essentially nothing happened, and Sigrid T’Hooft's dramaturgy was not compelling. Yes, the production was very decorative, and yes it was fascinating to see the singers using suitable rhetorical gestures, but at a certain point you want something more.

Strong individual performances, particularly from Anna Dennis as a very self possessed Rosmene, William Berger as a delightfully self-important Imeneo, and James Laing as Tirinto heroically overcoming a profoundly effete-looking costume!  Sigrid T’Hooft main innovation was to expand the piece with dances, in period style, to extra music from Handel's Water Music. I find the idea of Historically Informed Production rather intriguing, and I would love to see one of Handel's heroic dramas performed this way. The opera is available on the NDR website.

Handel: Imeneo -  Göttingen 2016 - (Photo © Teodoro da Silva)
Handel: Imeneo -  Göttingen 2016 - (Photo © Teodoro da Silva)

Finally on Saturday, there was Eboracum Baroque's Heroic Handel concert. I interviewed Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum, a few weeks ago [see my interview] when we talked about this concert and it was lovely to see it in action. Everything had been recorded remotely by the 25 singers and instrumentalists, and assembled beautifully by David Sims into a convincing and attractive package, complete with suitable period images to accompany the items. We got to hear two opera arias, from soprano Charlotte Bowden as Cleopatra (Giulio Cesare) and John Holland Avery as Argante (Rinaldo). After an opening fanfare from Rinaldo, we started with the opening chorus from Acis and Galatea and finished with an impressive account of Zadok the Priest, and along the way there was a trio sonata and a recorder sonata. I have to confess that one of the eternal fascinations with such videos is looking at the varied backdrops of the rooms in which the performers recorded the music, varying from the plain magnolia wall to some very much grander. This sort of performance can never replace live, but in the present circumstances this was an impressive and satisfying way for us to catch Eboracum Baroque in performance. You can see their concert on their YouTube Channel.

Lockdown prevented the 2019/20 cohort of Young Artists at the National Opera Studio from giving their end of year concert, but not to be outdone the young performers curated and recorded a concert from lockdown. This was a lovely, and substantial concert mixing well-known and lesser known opera arias and ensembles, with traditional song including one Ukrainian one. The video is available on YouTube for a limited time.

Another event supporting the Cathedral Choirs Emergency Fund, this time a video of 250 choristers from across the UK recorded in lockdown in a project organised by musicians at Norwich Cathedral with the singers performing Robert Prizeman's Sing Forever arranged by Ashley Grote (Master of Music at Norwich Cathedral), with solos from the boy and girl 2019 BBC Young Choristers of the Year, and from Aled Jones and Elizabeth Watts (both former choristers). The video is on YouTube, and you can support the appeal on JustGiving.   

Chris Parsons (artistic director of Eboracum Baroque) posted a lovely clip on Facebook of him rehearsing with a live pianist for the first time since lockdown began [Facebook]. The flute and guitar duo Flaugissimo happen to live together and so have been sharing duo concerts, their latest on YouTube, featured music associated with the 18th century Swedish flute virtuoso Johan Helmich Roman when he was in Handel's London. Pianist Simon Lepper has being doing a series, Music from my Garden (and yes, he seems to have a garden big enough to do music in, again more on-line nosiness!). This week was baritone Julien van Mellaerts, and in fact the audience is in the garden with the door to the music room open, and a lovely programme including Ravel, Quilter, Lerner & Loewe and more, all in aid of the Royal College of Music. [YouTube]

One of the things about lockdown has been that artists who have continued to work on-line have been discovering new audiences. In our interview Chris Parsons, of Eboracum Baroque, talked about how the group's Coffee Concerts via Zoom had started to generate an international audience. And the potential is large. Cecily Ward has been broadcasting a series called REALLY Big Class! where she invites a musician to give a masterclass and this week it was Rachel Podger and we had 150 minutes of masterclass with one of the world's leading Baroque violinists. Like the ETO video (see below), the result gets into the essentials of technique in a way that simply going to a concert misses. [YouTube]

English Touring Opera's sequence of videos continues, not only with singing lessons and more, but with fascinating videos exploring the nitty gritty of opera production, under the title Warm Technical. So this week soprano Sky Ingram, baritone Stephan Loges and conductor Holly Mathieson (who were all performing in the 2020 English Touring Opera production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte), talked about manipulating the tempo in the opera [YouTube]

By accident I came across Irish National Opera's on-line Seraglio, Mozart's opera done as a mini-series set in contemporary lock-down, with lots of the dialogue replaced by texting. The production style is visually engaging and imaginative, I loved the way in the introduction to her aria, Blonfr goes onto a dating app and the guys she is swiping are all the musicians playing in the orchestra! The result is engaging and delightful. This week was episode four, with Sarah Power as Blonde singing 'Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln'. I can't wait for the next episode, and I wonder what will happen! [Facebook].

Longborough Festival Opera's 2020 season was supposed to include Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, singers who should have been in the opera have recorded the choral prayers from Act Three, directed by Robert Howarth, and they have been used with new animation by Amber Cooper-Davies to create a delightful film of the story [YouTube].

The problem with on-line watching is that there is a lot going on, and some of it is at inconvenient times. This meant that I missed soprano Kristine Opolais and pianist Alexandra Dariescu's live recital from Berlin in which they performed Verdi, Chopin, Clara Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini [Idagio], but it is worth keeping an eye on Idagio's Global Concert Hall, their next event is Beethoven's Triple Concerto with the Freiburg Baroque Ensemble.

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