On 25 March an unusually strange event occurred in St. Petersburg.
Ivan Yakovlevitch donned a jacket over his shirt for politeness’ sake, and, seating himself at the table, poured out salt, got a couple of onions ready, took a knife into his hand, assumed an air of importance, and cut the roll open. Then he glanced into the roll’s middle. To his intense surprise he saw something glimmering there. He probed it cautiously with the knife — then poked at it with a finger.
“Quite solid it is!” he said to himself. “What in the world is it likely to be?”
He stuck in his fingers, and pulled out — a nose!
He realized that the nose was none other than that of Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, whom he shaved every Wednesday and Sunday. (The Nose by N.V. Gogol, 1835)
Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov: Martin Winkler
Ivan Iakovlevitch/Clerk/Doctor: John Tomlinson
Ossipovna/Vendor: Rosie Aldridge
District Inspector: Alexander Kravets
Angry Man in the Cathedral: Alexander Lewis
Ivan: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Iaryshkin: Peter Bronder
Old Countess: Susan Bickley
Pelageya Podtotshina: Helene Schneiderman
Podtotshina’s daughter: Ailish Tynan
Ensemble1: see below
Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH | Co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia
Director: Barrie Kosky
For the very first time at ROH (though written between 1927-28), The Nose will be at large (and occasionally caught) in London until 9 November <- and on that day ROH will apparently broadcast it online. If you enjoy surrealist humour do yourself a favour and be one of those who catch it. I for one have never seen anything madder (and I see a lot of nutty stuff “irl”)😀 My favourite things were the bicycles/tables that stood in for any number of things.
The Gogol fan that I am, I have to report that the libretto, the music and the translation – it’s performed in English (supposedly so we can better follow the madness – a wise choice) – all do perfect justice to the short story. The production, too, is mad as a box of frogs and gets the Russian-ness of it all (though I guess there’s room for even weirder takes than the length to which ROH stretched itself). It’s never taking itself seriously nor is it trying to be clever for cleverness’ sake or to the detriment of humour. It’s modestly aiming at absurdist (and also gets the feel of the period it was written in and the theatrical influences on Shostakovich <- imagination abounded). An excellent achievement, all! I think it’s quite safe to say this is my favourite ROH production so far.
This is the kind of opera that – at least for me – fares better in the house. I tried listening to it at home and I just couldn’t sit through it. I decided to put up with it live because I simply love the short story. I have no regrets! No snoozing to report, lots of laughs and I noticed some interesting musical decisions along the way (strange but welcome noises that wouldn’t normally be heard in
polite company opera, various spoofs of opera cliches – I loved the cathedral scene, where Kovalov meets his nose and tries to engage him in conversation whilst a funeral is going on and people are wailing: sometimes Kovalov conversational music is “seamlessly” picked up and given centre stage by one of the mourners; I guess he too is mourning a loss😉 ). It is a bit of a tour de force noise-wise, though it’s not constantly (nor stupidly) obnoxious – there are lots (lots!) of moods packed in those 2 hours.
I was afraid of screechiness from Ossipovna (the singer in the recording I heard just about made my ears shrivel with her abrasive top) but Aldridge was a very good choice here and so my ears remain intact, which will come in handy as there’s Baroque to come in a couple of weeks.
Also paramount are singers’ acting skills. Comedy timing in this case – quite low brow comedy – but you do need to carry a flimsy joke for 2 hours. The characters are supposed to be at least partly caricatures2, as there’s a layer of satire, and Winkler as the beleaguered Kovalov and Kravets as the District Inspector were hilarious in my book. Also highly humorous was Kovalov’s servant, who had not so much arias (though he had one… song), but 2 or 3 (very!) long held notes, a clear snipe at traditonal opera excess.
The nose pops out of/is shaved off (?) Kovalov’s face and takes on the identity of a high ranking official with no one the wiser only to at long last be apprehended by the corrupt District Inspector – I guess he can smell deception😉 – but the story and the music focuses on maudlin Kovalov’s plight as well as indulging in the weirdness of what could be dream sequences or drunken hallucinations (neither Kovalov nor the barber rule out the possibility they could be drunk). No surprise then, that the biggest applause of the night was earned by 11 tap dancing noses. The choreography (drawing from the world of cabaret) supports the music faithfully – which is to say it’s very lively.
Really, though, it’s the kind of thing words (mine, not Gogol’s) on their own can’t do justice. Even pictures aren’t enough; you have to see the whole put together, music, text and dancing noses. Until then, you can check out ROH’s Insights where they are more coherent than I can (or in this case, care to) be:
- Andrew O’Connor, Paul Carey Jones, Alasdair Elliott, Alan Ewing, Hubert Francis, Sion Goronwy, Njabulo Madlala, Charbel Mattar, Samuel Sakker, Michael J. Scott, Nicholas Sharratt, David Shipley, Jeremy White, Simon Wilding, Yuriy Yurchuk ↩
- The other part it’s just acting strangely but in a silly rather than sinister manner. ↩
The Winter Season at the ROH usually eludes me but this year I wanted to specifically catch two productions: the first revival of McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur and a new Der Rosenkavalier. Though I had work training today at the very time the tickets went on sale, I managed to sneak out for a 10min break and book tickets to said shows😀
Some of you might know I have a soft spot for Adriana (and have never seen La Gheorghiu yet). As for Der Rosenkavalier, if it’s in town I’ll go. Probably still the most sensible thing to experience Renee Fleming in.
…and that’s my old skool diva loot for the year😉 Now let’s hope no one catches a cold at that time of the year (me included).
I also thought about getting tickets to Written on Skin to hear Babs Hannigan. I’ve been vacillating because 1) I didn’t like the music the one time I listened to it and 2) is seeing Hannigan in an opera the best way to get her complex personality? As in, is this not too stifling and boxed-in?
edit 19/10: based on John’s recommendation below, I booked a ticket to Written on Skin as well.
On 15 October, opera, innit? turned 3 years old. I actually forgot about it (this time of the year is always busy) until I read the WP congrats, by which time I was so tired, I was falling asleep in my cornflakes (it was way past the bedtime of a healthy 3 year old). It feels like I’ve been doing this since forever! When I started I didn’t have any plans beyond writing when I felt like, about what I felt like, for as long as I would feel like. 482 published posts later, I’d say the feeling has been rather intense😉
The blog has brought about many fun unexpected adventures, so this year I thought I’d leave you all (who read, comment and have shared said adventures virtually or in real life) with Mozart’s little ode to friendship – which gives me the opportunity to combine Tito, mezzos and the memories of all those good times😀
I was watching the recent Lausanne Orfeo and started feeling critical as things went on. By Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi I stopped for a quick break of “that performance you keep returning to”. If the YT comment section teaches us one thing it’s there’s no accounting for taste. I’m not saying my preference is law but it seems it’s strong enough for me to reserve a post for it. Here are a few different takes (there are plenty out there!):
Though I’m not a diction nazi, I think for Monteverdi a strong command of it is more important than in other cases. Just like how Gerhaher makes a wonderful case for the German language, so does ACA for Italian. I just love the sound of the sound of the words coming out of her mouth! (phrasing included, not just beauty) Which is a reason I gave you this black screen instead of this where you can also see her but the sound isn’t as good.
Next we have said Gerhaher, because I had never heard him sing in Italian before. I would say he’s not an ideal Orfeo and this production1 itself is a bit too German/neurotic but he is quite obviously fully committed and musical enough (plus the honey tone) to get my attention. The percussion also gets a thumbs up from me. If you wait, this video includes Boni singing Messagera’s lament.
Here we have a singer who has so far left me cold. I know he has a lot of fans but I just never quite got him (and speaking of Gerhaher, he came on top where Papageno is concerned, though Keenlyside was equipped with a duck hat). However, to my surprise, here he does a very commending (and commanding) job. It’s perhaps the most positive Orfeo I have seen and also the most magnetic (of the male ones); most Orfei seem rather self-effacing. Also, his athleticism gets him an extra cookie. I still feel his singing a bit too polished2 but susprisingly I have no other qualms about it.
Just goes to show you never quite know when you’re going to like a singer.
- When I saw the VW van my first thought was “hey, they stole it from Manrico’s over at ROH!” And it turns out that, yes, just like Kusej brings his boys in tighty withies everywhere and Guth his angels, so does Bösch travel in a beat-up VW van around his various stagings :-D ↩
- Though it fits the stylised choreography. ↩
Having gobbled up a good number of opera productions I think I’m pretty aware by now how hard it actually is to do something interesting which also fits the spirit of the libretto/music. One of those felicitous productions is the Théâtre du Châtelet staging of Rossini’s La pietra del paragone. I’ve hinted at my appreciation for it but I never gave it centre stage before.
A few things started this one off the right path:
- (and you’ll have to bear with me if I always mention it) this is the opera that shares an overture with Tancredi
- it’s got Sonia Prina in one of those Rossini feisty women roles (TM) (with just a bit of cross-dressing, when Clarice disguises herself as her (convenient) own brother)
- it contains action figures (those who remember the old opera, innit? header know the look is right up my alley)
- Spinosi’s mad tempi give it a very modern feel
The reason I felt the need to talk about it was a recent surge in disparaging YT comments:
“I understand they didn’t have money to build sets, that’s OK, LOL, but abusing technology…to create a background and special effects does not represent the story in Pietra di Paragone. I doubt Rossini would have liked it.”
“I agree that the sets are nothing more than a perversion totally unrelated to the story of the opera. It is preferable to listen to it without viewing it.”
The sets are most certainly not a “perversion totally unrelated to the story of the opera” unless one’s idea of staging opera starts and ends with this. But we already have that so why not try something else?
Let’s start by settling what this opera is about – deception. The decided lack of much of anything on stage matches several things that lack – or appear to lack – in the libretto (the Count’s money, most of the women’s genuine interest in him, what’s his face talent for poetry). The clever projection of luxurious things that aren’t really there fits the Count’s ingenious scheme of getting rid of undeserving pretenders. Lastly, it’s really silly and funny and that is the deeper essence of Pietra – a comedy of bantz.
(I know you didn’t think this one had a deeper essence😉 but if you’ve read this blog more than once – or better yet, met me – you know I find witty banter a fine art worth pursuing. (Whilst we’re indulging in that old skool favourite – musing about “what composers really wanted”) I’m fairly sure so did Rossini so ha to the bit where the YT warrior above says he doubts Rossini would’ve liked it. Keeping Tancredi in mind, you can follow Rossini’s brilliant sendup of opera seria (the overture, the chorus, the duet tenor-baritone/bass, the fake-seria duet between the Count and Clarice etc. – everything is… well, perverted opera seria structure. Tongue-in-cheek grand.)
I will give detractors one thing: it must’ve been pretty confusing to see it in the house as it’s so obviously meant for DVD (and in that sense, the TV direction is great). But the singers are all superior actors and that must’ve gone a long way. On the other hand, the sense of everything not being what it appears must’ve been heightened.
That type of cane shaking goes back to the 1600s? Haha. Probably beyond. But upon further investigation it’s just another Early Baroque nurse being cheeky (I have it on good authority that nurses are still cheeky, foul mouthed and) poking fun at young people nowadays:
Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.
I lor vezzi sono scherni, che fan l’alme sospirar.
Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.
Paion tanti Endimioni le zitelle in lusingar.
Ma se v’è, ch’il cor li doni, è una luna a vaneggiar.
Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.
I think this silliness is a good end to a week of solid contralto/mezzo worship😀 I should mention that today I put aside 3hrs of my time for L’incoronazione di Dario so you know I’ve been most serious about mezzo/contralto rituals. If there was a god and that god was a low tessitura female singer1, I’d’have payed for a lot of sins this week…
PS: how good does this stuff fit DG’s voice? I’d fall in love with it… if I weren’t besotted already…
- The thought alone is making me feel pious… ↩
As mezzo fans know, in 2014 Boni put together a themed CD centred on Semiramide, a very popular character throughout the 18th century and even a little beyond. She’s still touring this project and on Wednesday the tour reached London to much acclaim from the Wigmore Hall audience.
Václav Luks conductor
Anna Bonitatibus mezzosoprano
Semiramide “La signora regale”
Semiramide in Ascalone Antonio Caldara
Semiramide HWVA8 (pasticcio) George Frideric Handel/Vinci
Fuggi dagl’occhi miei
Semiramide riconosciuta Niccolò Jommelli
Barbaro, non dolerti… Tradita, sprezzata
Sémiramis Christoph Willibald Gluck
La Semiramide riconosciuta
Fuggi dagl’occhi miei
Semiramide riconosciuta Ferdinando Bertoni
Non so se più t’accendi
I was introduced to Boni via Handel’s coloratura tour de force that is Come nembo/nube. Anyone who comes a winner in that Italian Handel battle has my attention. Up to this point I’d seen her as Cherubino at ROH and saw her Sesto from Brussels (not live). Cherubino was cute but hardly enough. Sesto – driven by demons in that production. I needed a bit more.
A few things came out of this performance: her exceptional involvement in recits/ariosos, crystal clear diction (a rarity these days) and the freeflowing coloratura (some gents at the back were very glad for the lack of aspirates in general).
From the getgo I’ve been a big fan of her tone, especially in the middle. It’s just so… mezzo. There’s that stubborn feel to it, like the character is a bit ticked off (think grounded teenager). That’s a good thing! Especially for trouser roles and revenge arias😀 Though not so good for super happy arias, where I want more of a smile in the voice. But, really…
At the top her voice gets very bright but still mezzo (very audible but amazingly no ping, no matter how much forte she puts into it). In conclusion, she can sing these high mezzo/soprano roles but she still sounds solidly mezzo.
My favourite thing of the night was the Jommelli arioso Barbaro, non dolerti… Tradita, sprezzata of up and down moods, where she showed her superior skills at sustaining drama, coupled with excellent mix with the orchestra. As I later said to Baroque Bird, I found myself happy each time we returned to another recit. She’s the kind of singer who, though she can obviously spin coloratura at the highest speeds, does not randomly rush things. Couple that with the super crisp diction (hers are some rrrrolled Rs! plus you can make out _every_ word) and the beautiful middle, you just want her to tell you more.
La vendetta di Nino, o sia Semiramide Francesco Bianchi
La Semiramide in Villa Giovanni Paisiello
Serbo in seno il cor piagato
La morte di Semiramide Sebastiano Nasolini
Deh, sospendi ai pianti miei… Serbo ancora un’alma altera
Sémiramis (Dance No. 1 and No. 2) Charles-Simon Catel
Semiramide Gioachino Rossini
Bel raggio lusinghier this is an early version of the aria, not the one we’re used to
Semiramis Manuel García
Già il perfido discese… Al mio pregar t’arrendi
? Boni named this one as something (Semiramide related) from Isabela Colbran’s repertoire. Sounded like a shortish arioso.
Vanne fido, e al mesto regno Semiramide regina dell’Assiria Porpora
When a performance covers a century of music you get to observe how music changes. Boni flowingly moved through Baroque, Classical and Belcanto.
It’s also very interesting hearing the same aria done differently by different composers, like in the case of Fuggi dagl’occhi miei. As you probably guessed, Semiramide riconosciuta is a libretto by Papa Metastasio. Like in the case of most of his libretti, this one was the basis of pretty much all the Semiramide operas through the 1700s. So you get to hear the same arias tweaked this or that way by composers but they remain the same in spirit, because Metastasio had already worked the tune in his lines. Gluck, still in Baroque mode, puts an interesting spin on his, which here came off sort of jazzy – less straight-laced Baroque, though rhythmical.
Boni was so focused on the concept, we got 4 different outfits, two of which you can see here (starting with the very first, flesh/”gold” coloured one in Povera navicella and ending with the last one, the white/”Assirian”, in Vanne fido…). There was also a red and a black one in between.
Vanne fido… is an excellent example of all I was talking about so far – taking her time, dramatic involvement, beautiful “mezzo” middle, sharp diction, soft, flowing attack on coloratura (which I now understand is a fast vibrato – well there you go, Baroque Bird, you were right!).
Though she was very serious through the performance, Boni appeared very touched by the reception after the encores (I thought she was going to step down into the audience and chat with us😉 ). For me, surrounded as I was by very well behaved fans (though the gent in front of me constantly positioned himself at an angle and I had to angle along), it was an introspective evening, but Baroque Bird encountered heavy breathers (not that kind…), rustlers and a chatty lady.
In conclusion, somebody stage/organise a concert performance of that Jommelli with Boni in the title role, please🙂
Stutzmann and Orfeo 55 got one of the most enthusiastic receptions I’ve heard at Wigmore Hall. A lady next to me, who confessed to her seatmate that she had never heard of Stutzmann before the show, sounded like she became a convert about the time Stutzmann turned her note stand around and opened her mouth.
Initially this show was supposed to be comprised of more obscure morsels but for whatever reason a change of programme was announced a month or two back. Judging by how packed and buzzing the hall looked nobody was complaining – especially since we did not get this show when she was touring it originally.
Handel: Heroes from the Shadows
Nathalie Stutzmann and Orfeo 55
Overture Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV17
Sinfonia from Act 3 Poro, re dell’Indie HWV28
L’aure che spira Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Sinfonia from Act 3 Serse (‘Xerxes’) HWV40
(I) Larghetto Concerto Grosso in E minor
Son qual stanco pellegrino Arianna in Creta HWV32
(III) Allegro Concerto Grosso in E minor
Sinfonia from Act 3 Orlando HWV31
Pena, tiranna Amadigi di Gaula HWV11
Those who have seen Stutzmann live know the turning of the stand is done with a lot of dramatic flair (albeit of the understated kind). In fact, that is one Stutzmann’s strengths. It’s not just a show, it’s a performance with a start and an end. Her attention to detail in conducting, singing and performance is second to none.
My reaction to seeing the Overture to Giulio Cesare in the programme was a bit meh. Perhaps because of its over exposure I’ve never properly warmed up to this opera. Don’t get me wrong, I do get into it if I start watching/listening but I don’t have that feeling of “you know what I’d like to listen to again?” with it.
Well, wrong! First of all the overture is rather perky. Also Orfeo 55 are no slouches and sounded on and energetic from the getgo. Like I said before, you can tell they play a lot together because it’s a finely tuned machine, the different sections sound so good together and Stutzmann gives them all their chance to shine. With them you have a very good chance of finding all sorts of things in the score you never noticed before.
I was even more wrong about L’aure che spira. With Giulio Cesare I almost invariably focus on the Cesare/Cleopatra thread (surprisingly, I know) so this aria was almost new to me. It’s also got the added bonus of noticing my seatmate’s mouth gape at Stutzmann’s unexpected sound. Have you noticed the effect of something you like on others have an effect on you? Anyway, it’s the kind of semi-bravura aria that fits Stutzmann’s mellow voice.
The instrumental pieces were characterised by Stutzmann’s architectural sense of the whole, with the instrumental lines as building blocks and a lot of contrasts emphasised between the different sections. I like her brand of conducting, it’s always illuminating and easy to follow, with a very muscular base in the rhythmically driven low strings.
(I) Allegro Sinfonia in B flat major HVW338
Sinfonia from Act 3 Partenope HWV27
Son contenta di morire Radamisto HWV12
Voi che udite il mio lamento Agrippina HWV6
Concerto Grosso in D minor Op. 3 No. 5 HWV316
(IV) Allegro ma non troppo
Non so, se sia la speme Serse (‘Xerxes’)
(IV) Allegro Concerto Grosso in G minor
Sarò qual vento Alessandro HWV21
For the Concerti grossi in this section, Stutzmann chose what I would call a “Venetian feel”. Last time I saw her I sensed her voice and personality fit the more relaxed, melodic Venetian Baroque than the very structured, “dramatic Baroque” of Handel. But she can make Handel work for her without a doubt. And this Venetian Handel was very fetching indeed and I would like to listen to it again.
It doesn’t come off in the version above (or in general) but last night in the hall Sarò qual vento had a prominently wistful tinge. I was unexpectedly moved by it, right around the time the A section repeat started, to the point I wanted the show to end there. This has never happened before but her voice fits that wistfulness so well I just felt like staying cocooned in that bitter sweet place. I also wanted the very happy convert next to me to stop grinning and looking around, for fear of her noticing I was on the brink of tears when she was ready to whoop mid-aria.
Luckily, as soon as the first bars of Dover, giustizia… started I was right back in my element. There’s never enough Polinesso in recitals, dear contraltos. Please, feel free to bring him in :-D Anyway, Stutzmann does a great rendition (pointed to me a while ago by thadieu), with the kind of subtle, breezy irony that fits Polinesso’s self assured arogance. She tweaks the words in the title just a bit on every repeat and every time she added a bit of sarcasm, my seatmates would chuckle loudly. I don’t know if she’s sung him in a production but without a doubt she’d make a great Polinesso. I would be looking forward to his seduction of Dalinda, which I’m sure she’d pull off with the right balance of charm and evil. And she’d probably laugh Ariodante off the stage😉
She finished with Senti, bell’idol mio from Silla (yes, Handel wrote about him, too) which is just the kind of amorous thing (“Venetian”) that her voice is made for and is sure to turn the audience into eternal worshippers. Whilst she was wooing us with her delicately adoring inflections I thought to myself, imagine someone sing that kind of thing like that specifically to you? That, my friends, is how seduction sounds like. We are only human, eh? Anyway, this was also a moment for her theorbist to spin us around his finger(s). The audience was putty.
I’m telling you, Venetian is the way to go, Handel or no Handel.
ps: sorry for any typos, I’m rushing to work.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says contralto? For me it’s Vivaldi:
How awesome is this aria? “Awesomer” is only:
Whenever I hear these arias I really, really want to be a contralto myself, drop from acuti to the chest register and thrash things on stage as mad Orlando😀
…but in all seriousness I’m just getting pumped for hearing Stutzmann sing some wrist-slashing Handel contralto arias (because, unlike Vivaldi, that’s what Handel usually gives his lowest voiced ladies).
This is another Tito from the vault and comes from the beginning of the memorable year 1989. I have no idea how long I’ve had it as I grab Titi as I see them. Though any contemporary ones will take precendence, that’s not always the best idea, as some of these seemingly random oldies can surprise you.
The sound is quite boxy but, like I always say, something’s better than nothing in the case of live musical recordings. At first glance there a few names here who were making the Mozart rounds at the time. A classic Vitellia in Varady, Winbergh who was also singing Idomeneo then and Murray, who sang Sesto at Salzburg and elsewhere during that period. So how will it fare against the other 25 or so Titi I’ve gone through?
Tito: Gösta Winbergh
Vitellia: Julia Varady
Sesto: Ann Murray
Servilia: Helen Donath
Annio: Susan Quittmeyer
Publio: Karl Helm
Conductor: Bernard Klee | Cuvillies Theater Munich, 12 January 1989
Overture: quite sprightly, Klee keeps the things moving
Ma che, sempre l’istesso: well acted, driven by Varady, yet very fast so it’s important to know what they’re saying or you’d miss a bit. We know Varady was a ball-breaker type of Vitellia and we’re not disappointed.
Come ti piace, imponi: very full of life, both Vitellia and Sesto. I approve! Now I wish the sound was better because this is worth the replay button.
Annio: rushes in, again good snaky acting from Varady. Murray’s Sesto is quite on the edge already.
Deh se piacer mi vuoi: starts before 10min of the show are over! Yes, it’s that fast. But after my recent Cosi experience this is a breath of fresh air. Don’t get too used to it, though😉
I know I criticised Varady before (similarly to how ACA has made me uncomfortable in this role, but also like ACA) she is a very good Vitellia. I don’t think we have this kind of Vitellia voice nowadays, though I have not heard them all, obviously. But I would like to hear one that is similarly bright and forceful at the same time, with such clear phrasing and easy flow coloratura at the top.
Annio : Sesto: we move on in that energetic way young people have about themselves. And they waltz right into
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso: they blend very well and this duettino sounds really nice when it’s faster. I’d really like a clearer recording…
March/Serbate dei custodi: the March is fast and Serbate even faster. Somehow the March keeps the solemnity. The recording is warped on the choir (especially the sopranos) but they sound rather good all things considered. It goes with the bright and energetic ethos we had so far.
Tito : the BFFs: we skip the loot talk, Tito just wants Sesto and Annio to stay behind.
March reprise: what’s not to like? I wish all Tito performances used the March as fanfare after the intermission🙂
Tito : Sesto : Annio: Sesto immediately asks about Berenice, manly Tito sounds rather touched but heroic and tells him he wants to marry Servilia. Annio jumps in and says omg, poor Sesto, he’s tongue tied but Servilia, she’s so great! Good choice, boss. Tito is pleased and tells him to go deliver the good news so he can remain alone with Sesto and look into each other’s eyes because tutto tormento e il resto.
Del piu sublime soglio: not one of my favourite Tito voices but Winbergh’s has an undeniable heroism to it that is not unpleasant. He’s an uncomplicated Tito by contemporary standards.
Annio : Servilia: this Annio hates his mission but somehow manages. Servilia is very sympathetic.
Deh, perdona il primo affetto: beautiful tone for Donath’s Servilia. They are easily distinguishable from each other (for once) but mix very nicely.
Tito : Publio: this Tito has no time for pettiness. He’s happy to see Servilia, and perhaps even a bit surprised. He immediately tells Publio to skiddadle. Servilia is youthfully gutsy. She passionately makes her case. And we segue into
Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: Winbergh is the most heroic Tito I’ve heard since Bonisolli. Not Italianate like that one but equally as forceful in approach. This not particularly detailed take works well with the direct treatment of the tempi. A bit like a game of darts. A Tito-head won’t want this kind of ethos everyday but it makes a good case for Tito for those who might still be unconvinced. By the time it’s over it’s only been 35min since the start.
Servilia : Vitellia: Vitellia sounds like she wants to learn the truth from the horse’s mouth and keeps it professional until Servilia leaves. Varady does a good job later with getting her Vitellia worked up in a credible manner.
pre-Parto recit: Sesto’s Mia vita! sounds breathless, like he’d quickly run up the stairs. Vitellis jumps into her nagging. You worthless, you good for nothing, you! Have you done what I’ve ordered you to do? Sesto’s like …err, not yet? She just blows off: No? NO? And you dare face me? You worthless, you good for nothing, you scum! It’s one of those handbag moments, though I think this Vitellia uses her hairbrush to domestically molest her adoring man. Poor Sesto, in which way must’ve his parents screwed him up so when his sister is so well put together?
This Vitellia shows no vulnerability, she is constantly attacking. Do it or I don’t want to see your worthless mug ever again! This of course has the effect of Sesto getting worked up as well. No, no, Vitellia! You will see what I’m capable of for you! I will plunge my dagger into Tito’s breast… oh, gods, what am I saying??? Vitellia’s rolling her eyes, you’re soft like a duvet. Sure, you’ll go there but you’ll lose your guts before getting the job done. We’re finished. Sesto is mega alarmed, wait, wait, don’t go! I’ll do it, I swear! Vitellia answers: Well, then. Very involved acting from both.
Parto: the intro is dramatic (“that’s it!”) and the partos are both placating, with Sesto taking deep breaths and puffing his chest in order to appear worthy. The screechy strings mirror that. I like how the cleanly meandering line of the clarinet underlines (ahead of time) the ma tu ben mio bit. No matter how incensed he is, Sesto does not forget to hold Vitellia to her part of the deal. Murray goes for colour but it’s not easy to pick everything up because of the poor quality of the recording.
The general feel is of a very young/inexperienced Sesto, who is fronting a bit too much for such a slick Vitellia. But one of the quel che vorrai faros is done with genuine-sounding adoration (very soft faro), which I liked. The cadenza has some viariation in tempi. Murray’s coloratura seems free and flowing, coping well with the speed. She gives us a rather plump belta in that sensitive spot where mezzos can add a bit of oomph. I liked it. For some odd reason the bootlegger cut the applause short.
Vedrai, Tito, vedrai: Varady is a pro, though Maestro has instructed everybody to zoom through the recits. If you can keep up you see that she is going for drama. Publio sounds a bit taken by surprise himself. Annio is as usual in a hurry to deliver the good news.
Vengo! Aspetatte…! Sesto!!!: very quick. Nice resonance from Publio, he usually ends up burried here. Varady isn’t afraid to sound screechy. They all sound as if they’re in the next room so it’s – again – hard to focus on details but it sounds like a very precise and effective rendition. Enthusiastic applause sneaks in between this and the finale but the public, in spite of their appreciation, is disciplined enough to immediately desist when Maestro moves on.
Act I finale
The orchestra starts frantically and Sesto seems to have stumbled on stage. OMG, what’s happening? he asks. His youth comes through again. Murray gives him a lot of humanity, alternating almost verismo voice acting with some very effective soft (youthful) lines. You feel like he’s ready to curl up in a ball and cry but he learns as he goes that he can’t. Murray says traditor gently, as if Sesto is afraid to admit to it and Maestro slows things suddenly but not sharply in this section. Nice touch. Then the and who did I betray? The best Emperor there ever was! bit is phrased in a way I hadn’t heard before.
Sesto has not lost it, he seems focused on understanding just what has happened to him. How could I let things get this far? he’s thinking aloud. Vitellia, I can’t do what you’re asking of me – as if he just realises it was an odious request. Well, he’s young. I’m really impressed with what Murray has done here. Some of the best/most interesting Sesto voice acting I’ve heard so far and everybody tries in this monologue. In believeable horror, he tries to halt the insurrection only to realise the fire has been set. OMG! he cries again.
So we have frantic Sesto, mad as a badger Sesto, suicidal Sesto, cunning Sesto, world weary Sesto and then this young, hotblooded but ultimately well intentioned Sesto, who genuinely hopes for the best as he grows up during this recit.
I also like the way Murray says …lo sapprai very softly (Sesto to himself) when Annio shows up, all clueless. Servilia is very alarmed, so is the choir (who, as usual in this recording, sounds warped) and Helm takes his cue with a lot of serious aplomb. Vitellia is also very serious. The orchestra seems called to give it a harsh sound – though that might be the recording… In any case, the drama is amped up. Generally speaking I commend Maestro’s navigation of moods in this finale.
Vitellia is the frantic one. Varady’s Tito? has the intensity of someone who’s ready to do whatever it takes to get their arse covered. Sesto, on the other hand, is sad and Maestro lets the orchestra paint that regret. He also lets the unresolved pain hang in the air a bit before having the ensemble move in. I also like how he uses the uncertain low strings underline the way Sesto makes up his mind to confess. Quickly, Vitellia moves in to silence him. Taci, forsennato! is strident, as if she’s looking around to see if anyone has caught on to what Sesto was about to do, but by deh, non te palesar she has already regained her sang froide. The choir sounds a lot better at lower intensity, where it’s not warped (please, bootleggers, don’t set your equipment to the highest volume).
All this is done in a surprising 57min.
Annio : Sesto: in this version of the dialogue Sesto’s confession indeed seems to slip out. Then he – almost liberated – goes on with the rest (I organised the riot). Annio is stunned. But he clearly loves Sesto more than he loves justice. It’s all good if you repent, he rather quickly advises. Is it?
Torna di Tito a lato: Quittmeyer has a typical lyric mezzo voice and she sings with pleasant softness but I’d like more detail variation.
Partir deggio…?: Youthful Sesto simply tries to see which is the better option, staying or leaving. Frantic Vitellia rushes in – run, run! If anybody finds you I’m lost! There is a short fight of wills broken by Publio’s arrival. Sesto sounds like he straightens his back and puts on his frontin’ face. But Publio isn’t fooled. Helm’s not the best voice actor (his delivery has rather randomly mixed authority and sympathy) but we know he explains how Lentulo confessed. Vitellia is more annoyed than anything, Sesto again feels very young. He also sounds a bit embarrassed to be ousted as a failure.
Se al volto mai ti senti: to me the oboe always sounds neat in the old sense of the term – prim and proper -, like someone who wakes up early to make sure they are perfectly presentable at work or on a date. In short, the oboe is never careless, it’s always polite and self aware. So is Sesto’s line in this trio. If he dies, he reckons, at least his guilt will be washed and his love for Vitellia will shine. Murray has phrased it before in such a way – present here also (cooing trill on ancora from in questo stato ancora) – that it seems her young Sesto is genuinely in love with Vitellia, that kind of young love that is still in awe of itself. Helm occasionally seems to go off pitch…
Ah, grazie si rendano: nice entrance by the choir but I don’t think the orchestral set up for Tito was the smoothest. Also, remember Winbergh’s Tito? He’s very muscular and lively. Hard to believe this one had just survived an assassination attempt.
Publio : Tito: Publio sounds very reasonable. Tito is incredulous. Winbergh has this perky sound that makes me imagine Tito rolling his sleeves to get to work. His lines are choppy. I could’ve sworn he says bring me Sesto and I will kill him with me bare hands! Helm has his own way with the lines, where he ululates the longer ones whether logic calls for it or not. The Senate and the beasts, ohhh, they are a-waiting! he says, and Tito answers he might be innocent or he might be a bastard, I want to see him! Well, like I said, the choppy phrase sounds like that. By all that is holy, Lentulo confessed! Publio wails again and sounds more like the High Priest of some ambiguous Eastern Cult than the Chief of the Pretorian Guard. Are you really saying Sesto might be a traitor? Oh but I will not believe something like that etc. Ma… signor, non han… tutti… … il cor… di Tito… replies the High Priest of Elzebum.
Tardi s’avvede: Helm likes piano singing which is very nice in itself. Whether Publio should sound like that is another thing. He does vary it a bit like TARDI! s’avvede (<- very softly). It’s not quite an incantation but I think going for a bit authority is the way here.
Tito : Annio : Publio: Tito with his rolled sleeves does not believe his buddy is a traitor. He gets all vulnerable with Annio (con-solami!). Annio, of course, can only ask for forgiveness for his bro-in-law. Alas, my prediction has come true! says the High Priest of Elzebum. Sesto is, oh, the culprit! Tito is alarmed: can this be true? Well, Tito, he told you just 5min ago and you didn’t believe him then, so why are you asking him now? But the High Priest indulges (his sort loves hearing themselves talk): too true, alas. The paperwork is ready, all it needs is (softly) the Royal Seal. We all know the royal seal is to be spoken of in hushed tones.
Tito is upset. Annio approaches very, very meekly. Tito blows off. Hey, no need to chew his head off. The High Priest mumbles, Tito tells him off, Annio goes on in the same way a peasant would, after having thrown himself at the feet of the Czar. Tito is either left speechless or ignores him. Peasant-Annio crosses himself and starts:
Tu fosti tradito: very well sung, no complaints from me, good support from the orchestra. There was applause and the bootlegger – or whoever fiddled with the file – edited most of it out, supposedly to keep the thing moving. I like clapping, as long as it’s not too loud.
Tito’s anguished recit: the Tito with the rolled sleeves is anguished all right. Treason! Who would’ve thunk it? Winbergh follows most of the words with an exclamation mark so, again, it’s hard to follow. Occasionally he throws a bit of rubato in, seemingly randomly, which has the effect of further throwing me. Yes, the traitor should DIE! ….die? But should I have him killed (amorously) before listening to what he has to say? Clearly, Tito likes to listen to Sesto; I haven’t heard this line done so romantically before. Yes, Tito, we want to listen to Sesto, too, he has his second big aria coming up.
Winbergh’s default soft way of saying his lines is amorous, it seems, as he keeps going that way. A heartbreaker? I think he also likes life in the countryside; maybe what he’s really doing when thinking about the peasant is fantasising about him and Sesto growing olives somewhere nice and quiet, fresh air, clean water. Hurry up, Tito, we’ve got 4 more arias coming up, one trio and the grand finale.
Quello di Tito e il volto: Sesto and Publio must’ve got in surrepticiously. Sesto starts softly, fitting his trembling accompaniment. Tito is touched to see his contrite face. The High Priest of Elzebum is in sermon mode. Sesto is pussyfooting, Tito growing impatient. Good blending, I think – and this may be just based on the position of the bootlegger – that they lose their timing a bit by the end (as the tempo changes). Murray does a nice job with this, softly/self effacing (but not self-anahilating) sung in great part (the trill too).
Tito : Sesto: after all, Tito is still amorous. He must’ve been whipped to start with. Sesto notices, too, and – after Tito gets impatient – decides to confess in a bright, youthful manner. Only he catches himself. When Tito is at the end of his tether Sesto puffs up his chest much in the same way he did with Vitellia earlier and says well, I’m in the wrong. I deserve to die and moreover, I want to (take that, High Priest of Elzebum and everyone else at the court who always thought I was some trendy kid).
Tito doesn’t like this turn of events. He gets in Sesto’s face and wants him to piss off. It sounds like Sesto says wait, I was kidding! but Tito keeps poking him in the chest with his index finger. You’ve annoyed me now! Off with your (pretty) head! Sesto realises he’s about to become lunch for the beasts, so he manages to ask for a last request.
Deh, per questo instante solo: I like how the intro unfolds in such a luminous way. After all this angst, there is a moment of calm and brightness. Sesto starts tentatively but Murray infuses il primo amor and questo cor with a lot of wistfulness which makes Sesto’s personality bloom. Maestro gives her a bit of space for the reprise of the main phrase, which she does very softly. Disperato vado a morte picks up steam and now Sesto is back to sounding like the young fronting kid. But by tanto affanno soffre un core we’re back to wistfulness (with some angst thrown in). I’m not a fan of Murray’s odd trill on questo (cor) – sounds like she halfway through remembered she needed a trill in there somewhere – but the rest is highly engaging. The different sections are well differentiated and carried with much dramatic skill.
Murray’s Sesto was such a pleasant surprise that I am now sad I had not heard this sooner, as I think thadieu and I ran into Murray once when coming out of Wigmore Hall. I would’ve chanced stopping to tell her how much I enjoyed this performance! Maybe some other time at Wigmore Hall, then.
Tito decides: his anger fluctuates; it doesn’t come off clearly what his decision might be but that doesn’t make for suspense
Se all’impero: very fast! Winbergh says it like fellow Swede Gedda – Seall’impero. Maybe it’s a Swedish thing? You probably want a fast tempo for this one, if you want to come out of that coloratura a winner. The B section suffers from Winbergh’s perhaps not understanding clearly who Tito is. He does manage the coloratura with aplomb, though, and on the last return of the main verse he leaves us with an accomplished and unexpected drop to piano on (seve-)ro and from there he continues on crescendo to the end. Pity about the B section!
Annio : Servilia : Vitellia: alarmed youngsters, haughty Vitellia. Varady does a good job with Vitellia’s surprise at inferring Sesto did not shop her out to Tito and them. She, of course, catches herself. But Servilia isn’t fooled. Vitellia is ready to fall apart.
S’altro che lagrime: I want a sister like Servilia! What a together, devoted person she is, eh? Sesto, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. Donath has a lovely voice and it works very well here. The gioveras bloom as they should. Maestro gives it a wistful tinge, and, indeed, the intro reminded me of Deh, per questo instante solo. It’s another aria where a character is asked to think about love before making an important decision (about Sesto).
Ecco il punto, o Vitellia!: Varady says this in a clipped tone, as if Vitellia doesn’t really want to examine her behaviour up to this point. I bet she doesn’t! She continues with an interestingly withered Sesto!… (after il tuo Sesto fedel), which tells us thinking of what has become of him exhausts her. Varady’s Vitellia isn’t sentimental at all. Her sarcasm extands to herself. She also uses a lot of colour in her phrasing and her dramatic control is excellent even at the high speed of her delivery. Clear and concise and highly skilled = exquisite accomplishment, one of the top Ecco il puntos and highly reccomended to everyone, Titoheads and bourgeoning Vitelliae alike. It’s one of those performances that transcends its time and place.
Non piu di fiori: very slow and introverted from the intro put picks up considerably along the way. Varady started as a mezzo and you can tell she’s not afraid of this one. Good no-nonsense support from the basset horn. She picks chi vedesse il mio dolore right from the tone of the basset horn, then that one gives her a few glib notes as if to say who cares about your pain? – to give you an idea about the close collaboration between them. I also liked how she let the last syllable of (qual) orrore! drop to piano, as if Vitellia caught herself getting sentimental and decided to cull the pretense. It’s such an intelligent rendition, I forgive her for muddling about with the low G. The public did too, as it shoved in the applause, knowing full well they’ve be denied otherwise (I love an informed audience). Then again, they were so loud, Maestro gave in to them, haha.
Act II finale
Starts with a good deal of grandeur. Tito is still rather amorous to Sesto but trying hard to be commanding. Annio and Servilia rush in, Tito holds the authority but is finally surprised by a very contrite Vitellia. Winbergh’s heroic take works well for Ma quel giorno e mai questo?! Declamative etc. Sesto is quick to tell him what he wants to hear, Tito heartily approves, they’re BFFs again. The sopranos start Eterni dei with drive and they are well matched by the rest of the choir. Though Winbergh comes off very audible in Troncate… quite a bit or warping marrs an otherwise commendable effort from the choir.
In conclusion, it’s a bit of a mixed bag but wisely strong in the most important elements, Vitellia and Sesto. Varady and Murray each do a memorable job especially on their own but they come off well in their interaction with each other too. Constantly strong singing from them through the performance and intelligent, outstanding recit skills. Sesto’s monologue and Ecco il punto, o Vitellia… as presented here are well worth studying by anyone interested in getting to know these characters better.
Maestro kept it brisk but knew to vary the tempi as needed. The others had some issues with the recits (perhaps not ready to step into the last decade of the last century) but generally good singing. The orchestra and the choir were up to the task. If you come across this performance don’t hesitate to listen to it.