Sunday, 19 April 2015

Adriano in Siria: Johann Christian Bach (1765)

(Classical Opera, conducted by Ian Page, Britten Theatre, 18 April 2015)

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As Hadrian is one of my historical favourites, I was amused to discover that he's the subject of a Metastasio libretto, set to music by more than sixty composers between 1732 and 1828. Classical Opera's production is, rather remarkably, the first staging of the version by J.C. Bach (son of the Bach) since it opened in London in 1765. It's been making waves in the press: the dominant reaction is amazement that we don't hear more of J.C., especially since he spent most of his career in London* and was much admired. One of his greatest fans was a precociously talented child who happened to be visiting London in 1765 when Adriano had its premiere, with Giovanni Manzuoli singing Farnaspe and Tenducci singing Adriano. Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart almost certainly went to one of the performances (indeed, it was probably a birthday present since he turned nine the day after the premiere), and Bach had a profound impact on him. One of the most striking aspects of Adriano is how much like Mozart it can sound (or, to be more accurate, how much Mozart can sound like it).

Characteristically, Metastasio's libretto flirts with history without committing itself. It's based on the time Hadrian spent as interim governor in Syria after Trajan's subjection of Parthia: he was still in Syria when news came of Trajan's death and his own succession to the throne. Beyond that, the plot is pure Baroque fantasy.** Adriano (Hadrian) is enamoured of his captive, the Parthian princess Emirena, but she is already in love with the prince Farnaspe, one of her father Osroa's vassals. When Farnaspe comes to Adriano's court to beg the return of his fiancee, Adriano invites Emirena to make her feelings known. But she has been advised by the Emperor's officer Aquilio to conceal her affection for Farnaspe, so as to avoid angering Adriano. (Aquilio has reasons of his own for trying to push Emirena into Adriano's arms.) Faced with his beloved's coldness, Farnaspe is horrified; but Adriano is delighted, believing there might finally be hope for his own suit. But there's one little detail the Emperor has forgotten about. What of his own fiancee, Sabina? Unfortunately for him, Sabina has come posthaste from Rome to congratulate him and arrives, with impeccable timing, just in time to spoil Adriano's fun (unaware that poor Aquilio nurtures a hopeless love for her). She isn't the only inconvenient visitor to the court. One of Farnaspe's companions is the disguised Osroa, who burns to avenge the conquest of his people by striking at the heart of Rome. And so, as the young people work themselves up into a romantic tangle, Osroa occupies himself with his own plots: setting fire to the imperial palace and, if luck is on his side, perhaps even cutting down the Emperor himself.

The impressive cast: Stuart Jackson (Osroa), Rowan Hellier (Adriano), Ellie Laugharne (Emirena), Erica Eloff (Farnaspe)
Filipa van Eck (Sabina) and Nick Pritchard (Aquilio)
The plot is occasionally clunky. I'm not sure whether I should blame Metastasio for this or Bach himself, since I read that he chopped and changed some of the original libretto. After all, Adriano offers to return Emirena to Farnaspe in Act 1 and it's only because she follows Aquilio's (unconvincing) advice to hide her love that we get a further two hours of romantic tribulation. There are parts which really didn't feel much like Metastasio: the duet between Farnaspe and Emirena at the end of Act 1, for example, for all the melting beauty of its music, sounded too sentimental, but perhaps that was just the translation. Some parts, however, were pure Metastasio, to the point that there was quite a serious sense of déjà vu. Running around setting fire to royal palaces was clearly as popular a pastime under Hadrian as it was under Titus; and Adriano perpetuates the eternal Metastasian truth that, if you go to meet your girlfriend in a garden, someone will inconveniently turn up with a bloody sword and give it to you, resulting in your immediate and entirely undeserved arrest. 

Visually everything was splendid. The director Thomas Guthrie and designer Rhys Jarman should both be congratulated. The simple backdrop screen was lit with gradients of blue or gold, against which colonnaded palaces, trees and statues appeared in silhouette. Paved in mosaic, the set was dominated by a fluted column, broken off at the stump in the first act, which grew taller with every act, twined about with vines. Interior scenes were gorgeously fitted out with bronze incense stands, flambeaux and hanging cloths showing Roman frescoes. The costumes were perfect: late antique, with a Near Eastern flavour rather than the standard-issue togas you usually see in Classical productions. There was, appropriately, more of Byzantium than Julius Caesar here. Aesthetically, I was in my element; though as the whole production goes, there were a couple of things which grated. One of these was the puppet birds. They were an attractive conceit and I liked their first appearance, but I think that should have been it. I could quite happily have dispensed with them entirely in the second act, where they proved to be an unfortunate distraction from a couple of really very beautiful arias. The other slight problem was the fact that no one seemed quite sure what to do during the introductions to the arias: the action of the recitative would be over and the poor singers sometimes looked a little stranded, left with nothing to do but stroll around the stage waiting for the words to start again. 

While all the singers were strong, some had more opportunity to show off than others; Nick Pritchard (Aquilio) was restricted to only one aria in Act 3, though this was beautifully done; and Rowan Hellier's eponymous Adriano had only a couple of moments to shine, fewer than usual (it seemed) even for a title character. One of her arias, however, was the rather wonderful Tutti nemici e rei: she turned in an impressive vocal performance as her Adriano stalked back and forth between his Parthian captives, practically incandescent with rage. As the vengeful Osroa, Stuart Jackson had a little more stage time: I enjoyed the warm burr of his voice and the lightness of touch that he brought to his coloratura, though in the first two acts I'd have liked a touch more drama and vocal power (we were in the Upper Circle and he was occasionally on the quiet side). In Act 3, however, he turned in a tour-de-force with the splendidly defiant aria Non ritrova un' alma forte, in which he gave me a glimpse of the real Osroa: noble, proud and determined rather than simply an obstreperous baddie. 

Farnaspe (Erica Eloff) and Emirena (Ellie Laugharne) | Act 3 and still no resolution for the lovers (but a good shot of the costumes)
Only now do I realise that Farnaspe spends a considerable portion of the opera tied up.
Filipa van Eck impressed as Sabina, with a powerful, supple voice which easily tackled some very Mozartian flights of notes, as in Act 1's impressive Numi, se giusti siete (she also had one of the loveliest costumes, with a billowing mantle of Tyrian purple). Part of me wishes that Bach had taken the chance to give Sabina a full-on angry aria of the 'miffed princess' variety, because she certainly had plenty of cause and I think van Eck might have handled it rather beautifully. Another time, perhaps. Her rival in love was Ellie Laugharne's Emirena (equally finely turned out in cream and gold), whose more delicate soprano proved to have a truly sparkling command of coloratura. Crucially for this role, Laugharne was also a strong actress: I say 'crucially' because Emirena and Farnaspe aren't, on paper, the most gripping pair of operatic lovers I've encountered. It'd be easy for the characters to come across as a bit bland: the fact they didn't is a testament to the singers' acting. Laugharne's Emirena was thoroughly, convincingly besotted with her beloved (once she'd stopped playing cold), and one of the highlights for me was the duet Se non ti moro at the end of Act 1: an intimate intertwining of desperation, hope and resolution, performed with complete conviction by both parties.

But, of course, it takes two to duet; and the revelation of Adriano was Erica Eloff's Farnaspe. Now, it's true that she shouldn't have been a revelation: I saw her Marzia in Catone a month ago and was impressed with her then; but while I liked her ice-queen Marzia, I was utterly captivated by her Farnaspe. Like most of Metastasio's heroes, Farnaspe is a lover at heart and is more inclined to sit bemoaning his outcast fate than actually doing anything; and the danger is that he could seem a bit wet, but Eloff gave him a completely plausible blend of inner nobility and youthful nervousness. She turns out to be remarkably good at trouser roles, perhaps helped by her statuesque height: she moved and stood like a slightly gauche young man, and her chemistry with Laugharne was thoroughly believable. I know she can do crazy coloratura with ease, thanks to her Vo solcando in Catone, but she didn't have as much chance to show that off here (there was the obligatory storm-at-sea aria in the form of Disperato in mar turbato, but it's not quite the same). Instead she had some absolutely gorgeous romantic arias, and proved to be just as good at those as she is at the bravura, which is no mean feat. There was the duet, of course, but Farnaspe's big moment in Adriano is the famous aria Cara la dolce fiamma. I know this through Philippe Jaroussky's recording and I can say, hand on heart, with no hesitation at all, that Eloff absolutely left him in the dust, with a long opening note of such delicacy that it suddenly swelled above the music before I'd even realised that it had started. Meticulous control blended with such gentleness and emotional conviction that I found myself getting slightly misty-eyed and, about halfway through, I decided that was that: whenever Eloff does anything Baroque from now on, I'm going to be there if it's humanly possible.

And so, overall, an excellent night, beautifully designed and finely sung all round. I think Bach is going to require some further study on my part; I like what I've heard very much, and this was an ideal introduction both to his work and to the opera itself. It's only a shame that more people aren't going to get to see it, especially because there really aren't that many production photos available (yet?). However, with cameras and recording equipment in the house, I can't help hoping that this means either a DVD or CD is in the works; and if one is ever released, I'd recommend it wholeheartedly. For now, you can get another point of view on the production at Opera innit (Dehggial was there on the 16th), and if you fancy listening to the music for yourself, there are recordings of other productions on YouTube. Those who enjoy compare-and-contrast might like to know that Eloff will be making a return as Farnaspe in Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's version of Adriano in the autumn. Now that's something to look forward to...

The curtain call with a glimpse of the set and costumes (courtesy of Baroque Bird): left to right in front row:
Sabina (van Eck), Adriano (Hellier), Emirena (Laugharne), Farnaspe (Eloff), Osora (Jackson) and Aquilio (Pritchard)
And a lovely pic of the ladies of Adriano via Twitter - I can't find the link to credit it, but I hope it's OK to use it here.

* And thus, like Handel, is obviously basically English.*** Only now do I discover, via Planet Hugill, that University College Opera put on Bach's Amadis de Gaule just a few weeks ago. J.C.'s star is obviously in the ascendant; and long may it last.

** Hadrian was, very famously, not keen on girls.

*** N.B. Tongue firmly in cheek (before I get indignant emails from people living in Halle).

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Giove in Argo: George Frideric Handel (1739)

(Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, 26 March 2015)


The final event of this year's London Handel Festival for me was this staged version of the pasticcio opera Giove in Argo. Although Catone in Utica was also a pasticcio, the two differ because Giove is made up of arias and choruses from Handel's own earlier operas rather than those of other composers. (Though I'm still very much a Handel beginner, so most of them felt new anyway!) It dates from 1739, the year after Serse, and represents one of Handel's very last forays into Italian-language productions in London; but despite its comparatively late date, Giove nevertheless has a very early Baroque flavour to its plot, with a pastoral setting full of nymphs, shepherds and romantic confusion. After attempting to get my head around the synopsis, I decided the best way to look at it was as a Baroque version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Jupiter and Diana in similar roles to those of Oberon and Titania as they dabble in the romantic fates of mortals.

Iside, princess of Argos, has come to the forests of Arcadia on the trail of her father's murderer, the evil tyrant Licaone. Hell-bent on vengeance, she asks for help from the shepherd Arete, who has become a rather persistent admirer of hers. Arete gladly offers his assistance in return for one small favour: her love. It's a tempting offer. There's just one problem: Iside is already betrothed to Osiris, king of Egypt. But Arete can help her exact her revenge, and Osiris is far away, so... She begins to waver. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a young man calling himself Erasto is trying to find out what has become of Iside. He too encounters Arete, who takes an instant dislike to him: for Arete knows that this is no mere shepherd, but the disguised Osiris, come in pursuit of his errant fiancée. In yet another part of the woods is Calisto, daughter of Licaone, who has come searching for her father but who finds instead a world of possibilities that she had never imagined. Encountering the nymphs and hunters of Diana's entourage, Calisto falls under the spell of the formidable goddess and pledges herself to join Diana's followers. As the goddess inducts her into the rules of her service - which fundamentally boils down to 'no men' - Calisto finds her vows immediately put to the test, when she unexpectedly runs into the handsome and very persuasive Arete. Flitting in and out of the scene, a lurking dark presence, is Licaone himself, fuming at the coup which has toppled him from his throne and eagerly awaiting his chance to get revenge. As these four mortals - Iside, Erasto / Osiris, Calisto and Licaone - stumble towards one another and their destinies, the gods watch, and pull their strings. For Arete is far more than he seems. He's no mere shepherd, but the god Jupiter in disguise, come down to amuse himself in Arcadia. And so, when he falls for both Iside and Callisto, nothing - not the king of Egypt and not his jealous daughter Diana - can be allowed to stand in the way. But Jupiter has counted without one tiny problem. What if the women he's pursuing refuse to be caught?

Kezia Bienek (Iside) | Gyula Rab (Arete / Jupiter) | Galina Averina (Calisto) | He Wu (Diana)
Timothy Connor (Licaone) | Timothy Nelson (Erasto / Osiris)
My overall memory of the production will be the creative and austere stage design by Molly Einchcomb, which conjured up the sense of a dream-landscape which could all too easily tip over into nightmare. Arcadia's forests are suggested by a group of poles studded with foot- and hand-holds, among which the characters weave their way. It was visually immensely effective: the starkly skeletal 'trees' often silhouetted against a block-coloured backdrop, and the colour palette largely restricted to black, white and red. There was a definite Japanese flavour to the production, especially as regards Diana. Her followers ritually dress her in a kimono-style robe and crown her with a headdress of arching gazelle horns, almost like a samurai helm. In the first act, wooing Calisto into her cult, she serves up tea with formal elegance; later, merciless and cold, she draws a samurai sword on her. Her chorus of followers wear black hats and tops with bright red harem pants, armed with poles which double up as hunting spears and ritual instruments. This Arcadia is a fantasy otherworld, a place where anything can happen.

There were two alternating casts for the opera, each one made up of students from the Royal College of Music, and from what I've read it seems that each cast has some particularly strong singers in it. Three in particular stood out for me on this night. The one who caught my attention right from the beginning was Kezia Bienek's commanding Iside. Her voice, a luxurious mezzo-soprano, already seems to have the power and control of a seasoned professional; but her acting was also compelling to watch. Hair slicked back, formidable, swaggering and short-tempered, this was an Iside to cast fear into the hearts of men. Opposite her, as the meeker, milder Calisto, Galina Averina initially didn't have quite as many chances to show us what she could do; but she blossomed in the second and third acts, where she proved to have a superb command of coloratura. This was shown off to simply stunning effect in her aria Combattuta da più venti, where Calisto, inwardly torn between Arete's charms and Diana's commands, was ensnared in a web of ropes, physically constrained even as her voice spiralled through the tumult of her notes. The men were slightly overshadowed in vocal terms, but I have to mention the wonderful physical performance of Gyula Rab as Jupiter / Arete. Lithe, feline and predatory, he slunk across the stage, or flowed up to perch halfway up one of the poles, savouring the chaos he had caused. It's rather amusing that two of my standout performers in this festival have both been Jupiters*, though Rab's dangerously seductive god sometimes felt more like Dionysus in the Bacchae than Jupiter.

It was wonderful to see a fully-staged opera as part of the festival and it was also great to have a glimpse of the next generation of singers of whom we'll be hearing a great deal more in a few years, I have no doubt. Dramatic, evocative and with some very strong performances, Giove was a real treat and I'm already looking forward to what the Britten Theatre comes up with for next year.

Diana prepares to exact her revenge on Calisto | Arete / Jupiter looks on as the chaos unfolds | Arete / Jupiter works his magic
* The other, of course, was Rupert Charlesworth in Semele.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Recital: Randall Scotting and Marie van Rhijn

A Year in the Life of Handel: 1738

(Handel House Museum, 22 March 2015)

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Randall Scotting | Handel (obviously) | Marie van Rhijn
Back in October, on visiting Handel House for the first time, I wrote about their exhibition, A Year in the Life of Handel. This focused on the works produced by Handel in 1738 and the challenges he faced at the time. Not least of these was the growing indifference of the English public to Italian opera seria: audiences were thinning out and there was barely enough interest to sustain one Italian opera company, let alone Handel's team at Covent Garden and the rival Opera of the Nobility. As if that wasn't enough, Italian opera was also being satirised in English-language burlesques, most famously The Dragon of Wantley. So, the cultural climate was hostile; the financial situation was verging on dire (as usual); and Handel himself was recovering from a stroke. And yet, in this year when everything seemed to be stacked against him, he nevertheless produced two operas, a pasticcio and an oratorio. Today's recital by Randall Scotting, with Marie van Rhijn on the harpsichord, brought some of these works to life; and it was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

Just to quickly run through the programme: we began with a rather fiery aria from Faramondo, sung by the character of Gernando: Nella terra in Ciel. This was followed by a gentler piece, Che posso dir, o cara from the pasticcio Alessandro Severo: an opera I don't know at all yet; but I want to, because I found this aria exquisitely beautiful. Next up, for some light relief, we had a piece from The Dragon of Wantley, composed by John Lampe, which I'll come back to in a moment. Freeing ourselves from its scurrilousness, we returned to more elevated realms thanks to the splendours of Serse. Scotting kicked off, as I suppose one must, with Ombra mai fu, that deceptively simple aria. The opening is a killer and there may have been a split second of unevenness here, but only that; and thereafter I was treated to one of the most beautiful renditions of this aria that I've heard so far. (Scotting graciously repeated it at the end, as he had no encore prepared, and it was even more sublime second time round.) He followed it with two of Arsamene's arias, the showy Sì, la voglio e la otterò (one feels that Arsamene is fighting back against all the flashy arias his brother gets) and then the gentler Meglio in voi. Finally we rounded off with another of Gernando's dramatic arias from Faramondo, this time Voglio che mora, siand, last of all, a piece of melting beauty from Saul: David's aria O Lord whose mercies numberless

So: The Dragon. The deliciously subversive Oh hoh Master Moore was an aria written for the dragon himself, sung in the original performance by a bass (Scotting, of course, sang it in his own range but charmingly explained afterwards that he had been trying to sing it with a 'bass quality'). The music was intended to satirise the flamboyance of Italian opera, complete with a rapid sweeping scale of coloratura at the end. The lyrics are, however, somewhat more robust than you'd find in Handel, namely: 'Oh hoh Master Moore / You son of a whore / I wish I had known your tricks before'. (Metastasio, one imagines, wasn't troubled by sleepless nights.) But The Dragon enjoyed such a huge success: Scotting explained that it ran for 69 performances and was packed out every day. The longest run any Italian opera ever achieved in London was 23 performances; and, to draw a direct comparison, Handel managed eight performances of Faramondo and six of Alessandro Severo. It doesn't say much for our national taste, I admit. But it was great fun to hear an excerpt of The Dragon today; and I'm only sorry that I won't be in London in early April, when a complete performance will be taking place; it'll clearly be quite an event.

The Rehearsal and Performance Room at Handel House (slightly differently arranged) where the concert took place
I know very little about harpsichords, but even I could see that Marie van Rhijn played with poise, crispness and grace. Her skill was most evident during her rendition of an improvised harp solo at the end of O Lord whose mercies numberless. I think everyone in the room was startled by the change in the sound of the instrument, which with the help of a little felt damper suddenly took on the deeper, fuller sound of a true harp (I had no idea that 18th-century harpsichords had so many options). However, the more challenging job must have been keeping up with some of the formidable flurries of notes in the arias, which she did with aplomb. I feel on slightly firmer ground talking about the singing. Being a newbie, I hadn't come across Scotting before and wasn't sure what to expect; but Nella terra in Ciel displayed a richly textured, full voice with a somehow buttery quality, and a brief flash of more powerful high notes at the end. 

But, actually, crazy high notes actually weren't necessary to enthral me today. As Che posso dir began, I found myself riveted. Part of the reason for this was Scotting's gorgeous low notes - and more on those anon - but I was also caught by his grasp of the aria's emotion. He sang lightly and clearly, but with heart-rending feeling; and to my slight embarrassment I felt myself getting misty-eyed. The same was true in Arsamene's Meglio in voi, where there were some fine sustained notes; and O Lord whose mercies numberless, which was equally beautiful with a forceful final note. I was interested to hear Scotting say at the end that he loves singing the more contemplative, gentler arias, because it's here that he feels Handel's genius truly lies. And you can tell: he shone in these tender, introspective pieces. Not only that, but many of them allowed him to show off an incredibly strong lower range. From what I've heard so far (and I'm far from expert), it seems to be rare for a countertenor to have a rock-solid foundation to the voice like this. Most singers, when they get this low, seem to be teetering on the edge of cracking and going down into chest voice, but Scotting gave us sumptuously strong, velvety low contralto notes which gave me goosebumps. I'd love to hear him do Alto Giove one day; I'm sure it would be almost unbearably beautiful. 

And it wasn't just the music that made the recital so fun. Scotting started off with a brief introduction to Handel's situation at the time, and then took the time before or after each aria to put it in context. For example, after Ombra mai fu he told us the story about Handel having borrowed much of this famous aria from Bononcini's setting of Ombra mai fu (he didn't add that Bononcini's aria was itself taken from a libretto originally set by Cavalli). In a rather nice touch, van Rhijn played Bononcini's version on the harpsichord so that we could directly compare; Scotting apologised for not singing, but explained that it was set a little too high for him. Again this caught my attention, because it emphasises the variety in voices. (Since coming home this afternoon I've noticed that Scotting chose to sing Gernando's arias from Faramondowritten for a contralto, as opposed to the dizzying arias written for Caffarelli as primo uomo.*) His readiness to explain gave the recital a personal touch which I absolutely loved. Of course grand concerts are wonderful too in their own way, but in an intimate setting like the Rehearsal Room at Handel House, it felt appropriate to have something a bit more discursive and informal. Warm and engaging, with a taste for a good story, Scotting was an excellent guide.** 

For those who'd like to see him for themselves, he'll be at Handel House again on 14 May with a concert intriguingly titled The Thief, the Priest and the Lover, with music by Ruggieri and Vivaldi. To my immense annoyance I can't make it, because real life is getting in the way; but it will be worth your time, I assure you. If anyone does go, please do come and tell me about it; likewise The Dragon of Wantley, which I'm also going to have to miss. For a taster, his ensemble Ballo Baroque have uploaded him singing Son sventurato from Ristori's Adriano in Siria on YouTube. As for me, for now, I'll just have to loiter around Scotting's website (where you can also listen to his recordings of arias by various composers) and keep my fingers crossed that he gets some more London dates in his schedule soon. 

Some snaps of Scotting in his role as Giulio Cesare at Forth Worth in 2011 - I imagine he's very good at the acting side of things too

* To see the difference in pitch, one just has to listen to arias from the recording of Faramondo. Here, Gernando is sung by Xavier Sabata, making characterful and ample use of his lower range. Compare his Voglio che mora to that of Faramondo's Voglio che sia l'indegno, which Max Cencic blitzes with even more stratospheric dazzle than usual.

** There was just one tiny glitch in the introductions: Ombra mai fu is, of course, not an aria sung by Arsamene but by the brat-prince Serse himself. But I'll overlook that, since he sang it so beautifully.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The 5 Countertenors

(Decca; available in both CD and MP3 format)

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I'm not going to make a habit of writing about individual albums, but this new CD really does need to be mentioned, especially in the light of August's 'countertenor albums' post. There's rather a lot of excited bouncing below, and not an awful lot of knowledgeable critique; but, with three members of Team Artaserse featured here, why not bounce?

Let's establish from the outset what this is not. Based on the title and boy-band-style cover, some of my friends wondered if it was intended as a 'pop' classical super-group (a better-looking, higher-pitched version of the Three Tenors). But it isn't: on the contrary, it's a feast of music at its most deliciously Baroque, and its release was inspired by a concert series in which Max Cencic and Parnassus rallied a bit of a dream team. Their voices show off the remarkable development of countertenor singing in just the last few years. I imagine the cover has been designed to capture a broader audience: perhaps one which still imagines countertenor voices as thin, reedy and artificial. We know better, of course. 

Although I have my favourites, certainly, there's a real effort to show off every voice to best advantage. And the most exciting thing about the album is that it allows us to hear how some of the younger singers have matured and developed since we last had the chance to hear them. Indeed, it's worth buying this album for one voice alone; but more on that in a minute. Let's take things in order. The privilege of opening the programme goes to Valer Sabadus, with Jommelli's Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio. It's a glittering, grandstand aria: the kind that makes you sit up and take notice, and it gives Sabadus the perfect opportunity to display his vocal agility with some rapid coloratura. As you may be aware, he's one of my favourites and I already knew, from his recent Gluck album, that he's made striking progress since Artaserse (though I liked him well enough there). His voice seems to be warmer now, with a velvety nap to the sound and a stronger, more secure foundation. If he shines in the sprezzatura of the Jommelli, he is equally good in the gentler Non so frenare il pianto from Gluck's Demetrio, which is a more understated piece of romantic melancholy and thus closer to what Sabadus has done on his earlier CDs. It allows him to savour those gentle, long, high notes that I've always enjoyed, with a sudden burst of energy in the central section. Even if the aria doesn't have the champagne glamour of the opening track, it lets him show his range (but the Jommelli is the one I'll be listening to most). 

Xavier Sabata steps up next with Porpora's Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima from Ifigenia in Aulide. It's gloriously elaborate, bristling with violins. Its opening recitative displays Sabata's expressiveness as a singer, before launching into an aria that's best described as a coloratura firestorm. Every time I hear Sabata I'm struck all over again by how good he is: the emotional intensity of his performances is second to none, always bringing out the story at the heart of the aria. Fewer singers are capable of this than you might imagine. And Sabata is also technically strong, each note perfectly placed without feeling remotely pedantic. He can sweep from melting gentleness to imperious disdain in the space of a few lines; and I have a soft spot for the way he rolls his Rs. Sometimes he sounds almost as if he's purring. Sabata and Cencic, of course, are the most experienced singers on this disc and it shows in their mature, polished professionalism. Since Cencic recently had an entire post to himself, in which I gushed about how wonderful he was, I'm not going dwell on him too much here because I would merely repeat myself. Suffice it to say that his first aria, Galuppi's A questa bianca mano is a moment of calm in the programme, a more restrained and elegant piece with the odd soaring note thrown in here and there to catch your breath with its loveliness. His second piece, Addio o miei sospiri, has attracted some comment from more knowledgeable friends who've been intrigued by its attributional history; but for my part I've just been thoroughly enjoying it as a piece of music. It's tremendously lively and, it turns out, surprisingly difficult to shake out of one's head; Cencic, of course, sings it beautifully.

The boys in more informal mode / recent roles: Cencic | Sabata in costume as Alidoro in the recent Frankfurt Orontea
Sabadus after a recent concert | Yi (photo shamelessly taken from Twitter as there's no decent photo from Indian Queen
Mynenko in a really rather fabulous hat; no idea when, where or what this was; but I couldn't resist (sorry Yuriy)
There was one reason I was especially looking forward to hearing this album, and one particularly compelling reason for you to buy it, and that is Yuriy Mynenko. He is not only a forceful singer, with a delicious swagger to his voice, but he's also immensely difficult to track down on recordings. In the aftermath of Artaserse, eagerly buying up the back catalogues of the various singers, I was stumped by Mynenko and ended up making do with three tracks from his Mortelmans album (which are worth a listen simply to appreciate the stupendous grace of his voice). But there isn't yet a solo CD and I don't know if there ever will be. This beggars belief because Mynenko is one of a rare breed: his Mortelmans songs proved that he could do melting elegance, but he was also born to sing crazy bravura arias, thanks to his strong, flamboyant and very agile voice. Here, for me, Mynenko steals the limelight with his sheer pizzazz. His first track is Crude furie, which has been done a hundred times, it's true (he sang it in the 2009 final of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition), but he does it immensely well. It drips with disdain and, complete with a wrathful sweep of ornamentation in the da capo section, from soprano to baritone, it made for a royal tantrum worth remembering. But even this risks being overshadowed by Mynenko's other track, J.C. Bach's Ch'io parta? from Temistocle. This is a slow-building dramatic treat, whose menacing beginning flourishes into splendour with a full-throated orchestra, complete (to my inexpressible delight) with hunting horns. I haven't yet seen Mynenko live, of course, but his voice sounds immensely powerful compared to those of his peers. It is a swashbuckling, domineering performance and it leaves me even more determined to see him in something.* 

The final member of the line-up is Vince Yi, whom my opera buddy and I saw a couple of weeks ago in The Indian Queen. As I said at the time, he has a very unique voice. High-pitched and very clear, his notes soar far above anyone else's; there is something positively ethereal about some of the sounds. Some of his notes have an timbre which I can only describe as slightly metallic. There's something diamond-like about this voice: brilliant, sparkling and cool; and his technique is very impressive. His rendition of the closing track, Hasse's Ah, non è ver, ben mio sounds virtually effortless, with a couple of remarkably sustained notes, and a closing section which hovers somewhere up around the vaults. His purity and angelic tone will appeal to many people and, though my personal weakness is for more sensual, roughened-velvet voices, I certainly find it intriguing. The only thing I'd say is that sometimes I felt a little more emotion would have helped to bring out the power of the story behind the music. For example, in Ti parli in seno amore from Myslivecek's Farnace, Yi sings with delicacy, but there isn't a real sense of the anguish that I'd expect to hear from a man who's urging his wife to slaughter their son rather than risk him falling into enemy hands. Nevertheless, the whole point of this CD is that it offers us a range - both purity and power. 

Some might say that there are too many big showpiece arias one after another, although I would never complain about such a thing because that's precisely the kind of music I most enjoy: give me a tempest aria and I'm happy as a sandboy. My one regret is the brevity: I could happily have had another five or six tracks, especially as this might have been a chance to introduce even more singers, perhaps some bright (even) young(er) things that haven't had their big break yet. And perhaps this is the point to address the elephant in the corner of the room. Many people I've spoken to about the album have immediately said, "But what about Fagioli?" It's a fair question and I don't know the answer. I think we have that reaction because we expect to see him in such a company; but - and here I'll be interested to know what others feel, if we can put aside our partiality for a moment - I don't feel that the album is weakened in the slightest by his not being there. Don't misunderstand me. Fagioli can do no wrong for me and, yes, I'd have been thrilled if he'd been on the CD as well; but, if we treat this disc as an exploration of the countertenor voice, then Mynenko does an extremely fine job of covering the powerful, swaggering end of the spectrum. As such - a compilation, not a manifesto for something permanent or longer-term - I think it works extremely well. 

I'm slightly embarrassed at how long this post has ended up being. My apologies. Back to normal service shortly. For another take on the album, pop over to Opera innitDehggial not only beat me to it on reviewing the CD, but has also developed a most individual way of summing up each singer's particular voice.

For more information on the CD and to see the chaps in action (along with Mynenko looking dramatically moody as he attacks Bach), here's a little introductory film:



* Rumour has it that Mynenko is singing the title role in Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria this coming winter, with Fagioli as Farnaspe. That pretty much falls into my 'must see at all costs' category. I also hear that he's singing in a revival of Vinci's Artaserse in Kassel in the autumn, although strangely enough he's apparently due to sing the role of Artaserse. I say 'strangely' because Mynenko would surely make a magnificent Arbace, with his taste for flamboyant arias; but 'tis not our lot to reason why... 'Tis just our lot to start thinking of any way we can humanly afford all these tickets...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Catone in Utica: George Frideric Handel (with a little help from his friends) (1732)

(Opera Settecento at St George's, Hanover Square, 17 March 2015)

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We're all going to be hearing rather a lot about Catone in Utica this year, so let's get things off to a roaring start with a performance I saw last night at St George's, Hanover Square, formerly Handel's parish church, as part of the Festival. Although the opera was put together by Handel for his 1732 season, it's stretching the truth a bit to say that it's by him. Handel had to fill out his programmes somehow and so, at this stage of his career, he often produced one or two pasticcio operas each season alongside his own works. These pasticci were assembled from arias by several other composers and tailored by Handel to meet the taste of his demanding British public. I hasten to add that they were 'demanding' in the sense that they were easily bored by recitative and apparently needed a series of big hits to keep their attention: Catone in Utica is stuffed full of storm arias. Handel's choices are interesting in other ways too: he gave the character of Arbace some surprisingly upbeat arias from other operas, which in turn affects his characterisation (positively, I felt); and he chose to cut Catone's first aria, Con sì bel nome in fronte. In some versions this can drag on slightly and I wonder if Handel  felt it was best to get his audience straight into the midst of the characters' romantic tribulations. The rather fabulous thing is that Opera Settecento's production last night was the first time that Handel's Catone pasticcio had been staged since 1732. I find that rather wonderful.

So. Imagine yourselves in 46 BC (there are spoilers ahead). Roman liberty is on its last legs and all that remains of the Republican resistance has regrouped on the coast of northern Africa, at Utica. Their figurehead is the charismatic but uncompromising senator Cato the Younger. Having watched Caesar's inexorable approach, the Republican forces march out to meet him under the command of Cato's colleague Metellus Scipio, at the Battle of Thapsus. It's a bloodbath. The Republicans are beaten and Caesar, conscious of the threat they pose, has every single man slaughtered. Cato, who wasn't present, sees his dream of Roman liberty dashed before his eyes. He commits suicide, bloodily and gruesomely, a few weeks later. So far, so Plutarch. Metastasio's libretto, unsurprisingly, fleshes out the political machinations with some romantic entanglements. His Catone (Cato) has a daughter, Marzia, whom he plans to marry to the African prince Arbace, as a way of cementing their alliance. Arbace is delighted at the prospect, but Marzia is less enthusiastic. She is in love with Cesare (Caesar), who reciprocates her feelings; and, though Marzia knows her father would be furious if he knew of her affections, she dreams of making peace between the two men she adores. More to the point, she knows she's the only one who can do so. However, her efforts are doomed. Metastasio's Cesare is the archetypal noble conquerer. He's gracious; willing to make concessions. But Catone is obdurate. He will only accept peace if Cesare renounces all his powers and gives himself up to be judged as a tyrant. Unsurprisingly, Cesare's generosity only goes so far and their negotiations founder. Catone's pride, however, proves to be his undoing. As he watches the grim defeat of his army, knowing that nothing now stands between Cesare and absolute power, Catone chooses death above servitude. But he has one final demand of his traumatised daughter: marry Arbace and learn to hate Cesare as he, Catone, has done. Despite everything, Marzia is a devoted daughter and feels she must respect her father, even if it means being forever separated from the man she loves. It's hardly an upbeat ending. In fact, Vivaldi thought it so depressing that he rewrote the final scene in his version, giving the opera a happy ending in which Catone lives and is reconciled to Cesare, while Marzia and Cesare stare lovingly into one another's eyes as the curtain comes down. But that doesn't happen in Vinci and it doesn't happen here. Oh no. Here, my friends, the angst is out in force.

I hadn't come across Opera Settecento before, and was delighted by this lively young ensemble who delivered the goods with passion, pizzazz and plenty of panache. From where I was sitting I couldn't see many of the musicians, but I could see the director Tom Foster at his harpsichord, fizzing with energy and driving the arias along at a robust pace. His company of (mostly) young singers rose to the challenge with aplomb. Christopher Jacklin's baritone Cesare had many of the really fun arias and he tackled them with glee: after his first piece, Porpora's Non paventa del mare, I found myself simply scrawling 'stunning' in capital letters across the page. But that was cast into the shade by the pure joy of his So che nascondi, set to the music of Vivaldi's Benchè nasconda from Orlando furioso. I fell in love with this aria on the basis of the introduction alone, played with irresistible verve and bounce by the orchestra. I spotted more than one member of the audience surreptitiously bopping along to the rhythm. I may have been one of them. Cesare is certainly a challenging role, demanding an agility and a command of coloratura which I am sure would daunt most singers. Every aria is a storm aria, with all that implies; but Jacklin leapt in to tackle each complicated section with ease. He also had an endearing habit of grinning with delight when he knew that something especially mental was coming up. I always love to see people who are evidently enjoying themselves and having fun with this crazy music. Christina Gansch, playing the vengeful Emilia*, had her own fair share of dramatic flair in Act 3, after a string of dutifully grief-stricken arias in the earlier acts. These were movingly sung, but rather overshadowed by the flourishes of her co-stars; and she pulled out all the stops for her late flash of fireworks, with Hasse's Vede la nocchier la sponda from Euristeo. Effectively another storm aria, this was delivered with furious élan, and Gansch rounded things off with a glare at the audience and a proud toss of the head, which sparked off surprised laughter and applause as she flounced off. I was glad she had the chance to sing something more diverting because she has a gorgeously throaty voice, particularly good at commanding full, swelling high notes, and Emilia's earlier arias hadn't really given her full scope to unleash herself. 

Allies and enemies: Christopher Jacklin (Cesare) | Christina Gansch (Emilia) | Christopher Robson (Catone)
Erica Eloff (Marzia) | Emilie Renard (Arbace)
The role of Catone was meant to be sung by Andrew Watts but, due to his last-minute indisposition, the role was taken over with a mere 48 hours' notice by Christopher Robson. I am torn in what to say: his generosity in stepping in should, in some ways, preclude any criticism; but at the same time, if I am to review the performance, I have to admit that I was profoundly disappointed. Robson is in his early sixties and it seems that the countertenor voice doesn't age as well as others: time has certainly taken a harsh toll here. But to say more, under the circumstances, feels desperately unfair. The situation was summed up by a friend's laconic comment at the first interval: "Not quite Senesino." 

For me, the joint stars of the show were Emilie Renard as Arbace, and Erica Eloff as Marzia. Renard in particular was a joy to watch. She achieved the admirable feat of completely reversing my opinion of Arbace as a character. In the versions I've heard on CD, I've always found Arbace a bit of a wimp: the languishing descendent of Monteverdi's nice but uninspiring Ottone. Last night, though, he developed personality in spades. Renard played the African prince as an optimistic lover, refusing to let his spirits be dampened by Marzia's obvious disdain and bouncing back every time with youthful enthusiasm. In a suit and loosened tie, with spiked hair, Renard looked like a grinning, punked-up schoolboy. Her infectious smile won the audience over from the word go, so that I'm sure many of us found ourselves secretly rooting for poor Arbace to get the girl in the end. It helped that she also had a fine, strong mezzo and a deliciously mischievous sense of drama. In contrast to Arbace's boyish exuberance, Erica Eloff's Marzia was dignified and cool to the point of being positively icy. In her arias, though, Eloff managed to express all the despair and confusion of a woman whose heart and duty pull her in two different directions. She has a beautifully light, agile voice which turned out to have quite astonishing power, as I discovered in a rather unexpected way. The website spoke vaguely of arias by Hasse, Porpora, Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci, so I hadn't known how many to expect by each composer, nor which they'd be. Since Leo, Vivaldi and Vinci had all written settings for Metastasio's Catone libretto, I assumed the arias would be cherry-picked from among the different versions. I also thought that, since Handel had relied so much on Vinci in his pasticcio of Artaserse (cunningly renamed Arbace), he'd draw heavily on Vinci's Catone here. Not so. This was predominantly Leo's evening. Of the sixteen arias, eight were lifted from his Catone; the others were adapted from completely different operas by the other composers. Again Handel proved interesting in his arrangement of the acts. Catone is the title character and, in most versions of the opera, Cesare gets the best arias; but Handel focuses the spotlight firmly on Marzia. She has a showpiece aria at the end of each act, reminding us of her love, her misery and ultimately her despair. As the opera comes to a close, Marzia is denied the lieto fine granted to most Baroque heroines. Handel couldn't throw in the traditional final chorus celebrating justice or mercy or love, because it wouldn't have worked in this context; and so he decided to give Marzia a way to express the tumult of her feelings, while also ensuring that the audience went out into the night with a spring in their step. This takes the form of nothing less than Vinci's Vo solcando. 

You could have knocked me down with a feather. As most of you know, Vo solcando occupies a very special place in my heart. It's no exaggeration to say that this aria got me hooked on Baroque opera; and I've listened to Franco Fagioli sing it more times than I can remember. For me, his version is sheer perfection; and I hope Erica Eloff will forgive me for being so slavishly enamoured of it. However, despite my bias, I was still deeply impressed by Eloff's phenomenal performance, which left my mouth open and my eyes sparkling. To make the whole thing more deliciously insane, the aria was ramped up to frenetic speed: a little too fast at times, in fact, but it was delivered with drama and daunting sprezzatura, crowned with some dazzling high notes. It was a stupendous way to finish.

All things considered, it was a very enjoyable night. I'm thrilled to have come across Opera Settecento and I'll be keeping an eye on their future projects; it seems their next opera will be Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria in the autumn, so I suspect I will find my way to that. It was also a great introduction to some very exciting young singers, all of whom I would be absolutely thrilled to hear again. What a superb way to become acquainted with the story! It's going to be very interesting to compare this version - for which Handel was effectively able to put together a 'greatest hits' selection - with Vinci's, which was the very first setting of the libretto. But we'll have to wait for May for further information on that score...

In the meantime, for an excellent diagram explaining the plot, head over to Opera innit for Dehggial's quirky but very knowledgeable take on things. 

The church and the conductor: a glimpse of St George's | Tom Foster in a rehearsal for the production
* An interval discussion brought up the problem that Pompey's wife is sometimes called Cornelia (Giulio Cesare) and sometimes Emilia (Catone). Why is this? Answers on a postcard, please.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Indian Queen: Henry Purcell (1695)

(English National Opera, 6 March 2015)

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It’s safe to say that reactions to English National Opera’s new production of The Indian Queen have been mixed. Some critics have praised it as a creative and courageous reworking of Purcell’s opera, which dares to acknowledge the atrocities carried out during the colonisation of the New World. Other people (friends and colleagues) have expressed bafflement and rising irritation. Apparently audience members have vanished during the intervals in a number of performances. It was clearly going to be a challenging experience but, when I went last Friday, I was nevertheless determined to enjoy it. I wanted to enjoy it. It was my first Purcell, after all! But, alas, halfway through the first act I began to sympathise with the comments my friends had made. I stuck it out to the end, of course – I am a stubborn soul and don’t like to be defeated – though the same can’t be said of the people further along our row, who absconded during the interval and simply didn’t come back. True: it’s challenging; but unfortunately, in my opinion, it has too many ideological agendas and too little narrative clarity to be satisfying. 

Purcell’s Indian Queen was first performed in 1695, reworking an earlier play. However, only an hour’s worth of surviving music can be associated with the piece. (Over the weekend I borrowed the recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner from my local library: the entire programme lasts for only 62 minutes). The ENO version, directed by Peter Sellars, pads that out to three hours and forty minutes. Thus, even without the interval, you have two hours and twenty minutes of added stuff to account for. Some of that is other music by Purcell, which one friend described as his ‘greatest hits’, including both secular songs like Sweeter than roses and some of his religious music. This is all well and good; if you have to pad out a composer’s opera then it’s logical to draw on some of his most celebrated works. Much of the music was also played at what seemed (to me) to be a desperately slow pace, giving it an dirge-like air, which probably accounts for a few minutes. 

However, the most significant additions to Purcell’s work are the spoken texts taken from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma (1996) by Rosario Aguilar, performed by an intense, urgent Maritxell Carrero. I haven't read the book, but I understand that it uses imagined histories to retell the story of the Spanish conquest from the intertwined perspectives of six women. The texts chosen for the opera emphasise the sympathy and openness of female settlers' engagement with the New World (embodied here by the character of Doña Isabel). Their desire to assimilate, to create and to understand is juxtaposed, without much nuance, with the ambitions of male settlers / soldiers to dominate, overpower, command and destroy. Subtle it ain't: a more finely-shaded attitude might actually have made for a more engaging story. And yet this socially-conscious narrative is set off by some spoken sections of unexpectedly intense eroticism.* I'm not saying that the ideas in themselves were necessarily poor: simply that they felt like a series of ideological posturings rather than an organically-developing story. 

Women betrayed by men: Techulihuatzin (Julia Bullock) and Noah Stewart (Don Pedro) | Lucy Crowe (Dona Isabel)
Techulihuatzin threatened by the Spanish, but protected by a native deity (Anthony Roth Costanzo)
Now, I don’t like being critical; I’d much rather bounce out of something enthusing about how wonderful it is; but I have to be honest if something leaves me cold. The worst thing is that there were things I liked and wanted to like. The set designs were based on vividly colourful paintings: not the kind of thing I normally enjoy, but which worked extremely well in this context, creating spaces and suggesting the emotional states of the characters. Indeed, all the performers were doing their damnedest with what they’d been given. I found the dancers especially captivating. Through their rhythmic, simple and powerful choreography they evoked Mayan creation myths in the opening scenes and returned throughout the production as embodiments of the native spirits of the New World. Even as their people were forced to accept new overlords and new gods, these ancient spirits continued to appear in dreams and visions: an effective concept. 

And what of the singers? There were some very talented people on that stage and they were almost criminally underused. Take Lucy Crowe as Doña Isabel, for example. She’s one of our most celebrated young sopranos and was the undeniable highlight here. Her glorious silvery soprano was effortlessly spot-on: the most memorable point for me was her exquisite rendition of O solitude, already an established favourite of mine. Julia Bullock as Techulihuatzin / Doña Luisa, the titular Indian Queen, was almost equally impressive. The part was written for her and so she had some powerful moments, brought to life with a gorgeous dusky voice with a rich underlying burr. Mind you, it was announced after the interval that she was suffering from a heavy cold but wished to continue and begged our understanding; perhaps that burr was due to the cold? Still immensely impressive though. Among the men, one in particular stood out. According to the programme, Vince Yi was playing the 'trickster deity' Hunahpú, but on stage he seemed to move between various generic roles. This baffled me slightly because he deserved more. He sang the title role in the tour of Artaserse last year; he's singing Emilia in Vinci's forthcoming Catone; and he has a voice of extraordinary bell-like purity and clarity which is unlike any other countertenor voice out there. But, if I wished that Yi had more to do, that's true to an even greater extent for the promising young tenor Noah Stewart. I hadn't come across Stewart before and certainly didn't know he's had a chart-topping classical album until I did my research afterwards. Here he didn't sing a note until the second half, having spent much of the first half in a state of undress which led me to believe that Don Pedro was a silent role. Once he was allowed to sing, he had a beautiful voice; but why bother getting people of this calibre involved if you're not going to make the most of them? 

Frustratingly there were aspects and concepts that I liked: under other circumstances I might have found it an illuminating interpretation. But I feel there was just simply too much going on and too many competing agendas – an attempt to force Purcell’s music into an ideological straitjacket that didn’t work. It was also much, much too long. I’m not going to be put off Purcell. The music itself was beautiful and much of the singing was very good, especially from those I mention above. I’m just sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic about the experience as a whole. Now, as I've said, there are many examples of critics being very enthusiastic about this production; in fact, the vast majority are positive - more so, at least, than I am here. See, for example, the 3-star Guardian, and the 4-star Telegraph, while the Evening Standard praises its 'ever-resonant social commentary'. However, specialist sites Classical Iconoclast and Bachtrack are unimpressed, as I was; the latter to the tune of a withering 1 star. It really seems to be a divisive production and ultimately, for me, a unsuccessful one, with Purcell’s music smothered by the imposed narratives of an overly earnest, self-conscious critique of colonial oppression and racial, sexual and religious inequality. 

* In a first draft, I compared this to Purcell meets Fifty Shades of Grey

The chorus brandishing painted signs | Don Pedro troubled by the New World | Dancers accompany the wedding night rites
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