Ann Hallenberg superlative in Gluck and Mozart (Wigmore Hall, 23 May 2016)
It isn’t often that a highly anticipated performance actually surpasses expectations. There were some hints along the way that this would at the very least be a highly enjoyable evening:
- Ann Hallenberg for 18th century repertoire mezzo lovers (check out this very positive and timely review of her recent performance in Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo in Salzburg)
- last month’s truly outstanding Il Vologeso with Ian Page and Classical Opera
- exquisite Gluck and Mozart selections
I met Leander (read her take on it) and Baroque Bird before the show and I hyped Hallenberg up so much to them a sensible person should have feared she couldn’t possibly live up to it. Come the interval Leander said she was ready to buy everything Hallenberg has ever been in 😀 I reminded them that tickets are out for Juditha triumphans (2 November, Barbican), which is our next chance to catch Hallenberg in London.
Before I launch into much fawning over the setlist, let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to hear Classical Opera again. For a 20 piece combo they really make a lot of noise and it’s the right kind of noise too. Much like in last month’s Il Vologeso, I enjoyed the tightness of the ensemble and the aplomb, which came out most excitingly during Kraus. Thank you Ian Page and all for bringing this dashing piece to my and others’ attention. The oboe did an great job all night, spot on, great dialogue with Hallenberg in the arias and sweet tone if I’ve ever heard one. Also points to the horn (also very nice tone and timely in its interventions) and the harpsichord (bouncy, lots of fun) from me.
Though I’m not particularly familiar with Gluck beyond his reform operas, I have generally liked what I heard and I usually like opera from the Classical period, so things were looking good for the first half of the recital. But what made this performance unmissable for me was the Mozart side, with 3 of my top favourite arias of his, none of which, as it happens, I had so far heard in recital setting before.
Those who read this blog remember I had the chance to hear Il tenero momento only last month in Vienna, very enjoyably sung by Franco Fagioli, in Theater an der Wien’s semi-staged Lucio Silla. There are pros and cons for hearing a favourite aria within the context of its opera: the main pro (especially if things are well conducted/sung/recited up to there) is the added emotional build-up to make it particularly swoon-worthy. The con is that the singer is constricted by the whole and can’t very well show off their mad skillz 😉 A con specific to this aria is that Il tenero momento is Cecilio’s entrance aria and it happens within the first ~20min of a 3 hour-long opera, so it’s anti-climaticly placed if you’re particularly fond of it. It’s like, well, what now? In the context of a recital it can take centre place and the singer can go to town a bit. In our case, Hallenberg added an unaccompanied cadenza and it ended up in lots of applause and hoots. This is a fiendishly difficult aria but she dispatched the coloratura with customary accuracy and effortlessness. I did indeed believe Cecilio was deliriously happy.
That was all very nice and well but the biggest draw for me was another entrance aria, this one arriving within a whooping first ~10min of its opera. I’m talking about Ramiro’s Se l’augellin sen fugge from La finta giardiniera (yes, don’t remind me I scoffed at it and completely ignored the whole thing when Glyndebourne mounted it last year). La finta giardiniera is, for those unfamiliar with it, not exactly the kind of opera one would spend much time analysing. Namely, the libretto is buffa-light peppered with domestic violence; in confectionery terms it’s a trifle (with a spoonful of strychnine). If you’re really blunt it’s moronic 😉
However, it’s got one of those irresistibly perky Mozart overtures and some really neat buffa arias/ensembles. Sort of like really good summer sorbet. But we’re talking about the composer of complex comedies (dramedies?) like Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and perhaps Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (it’s complex all right but perhaps not quite for the best 😉 ) so this one can hardly compete when it’s just light fare (albeit really well done) of the kind Cimarosa and the like were churning out every other month.
I really like Se l’augellin sen fugge because it’s one of the (musically) cutest things I’ve ever heard and, as most cat owners, I have a bit of a thing for anything cute. Mozart had a light/giddy side that allowed him to make complete nonsense irresistible. So in preparation I’ve been listening to quite a bit of ‘giardiniera. Yes, in preparation to hearing just this one aria I’ve listened to a few versions of the entire 3 hour opera. In my defense, I’ve had an unusually convincing introduction to this opera (thanks to Anik), the likes of which one can but wish to have the good luck to stumble upon, especially when coming to random, lesser known operas. Suffice to say I was won over before even hearing a single note 😀 and then I heard Se l’augellin and it was game over, no more snide remarks from me (well, other than about the libretto…).
Anyway, there are several versions out there, none of which is absolutely spot on. The most fun production is the Salzburg one conducted by Ivor Bolton, which happens in the Garden Section of a B&Q/Home Depot type shop. All you need to know is that there are giant cacti, a flesh eating plant and the main soprano has a topiary plant/plastic bag hairdo. Adriana Kucerova in the secondary role of Serpetta steals the show as far as I’m concerned.
The most excitingly conducted Se l’augellin comes from Harnoncourt (to me the best champion of lesser known Mozart, a subject on which I should expand elsewhere) who gets just the fleeting nature of the little bird, hopping from here to there. Once you hear it you will find it very hard to return to other versions, who don’t manage the jerkiness of rubato anywhere near as effectively. Ramiro is sung there by Monica Bacelli, who has always been a very solid singer in this repertoire. However I feel the aria needs more hunour (yea, Ramiro is quite a stiff character but you can play him with a bit of winky detachment). Vocally my favourite version has been Marie-Claude Chappuis‘ (because I think a brighter voice works better with it) but I found the conducting a bit bland or conventional-Mozart. On the other hand, she might need a bit more stiffness. Tough customer, I know.
I’m very happy to report Hallenberg has just the voice for this, tinsy bit of stiffness included when needed. She got the humour right from the start, in the flat out silly way she said sen fugge and conveyed it with her general attitude. She also has the cheerful, unselfconscious personality to pull off arias about hopping little birds. Ian Page’s Classical Opera was consistently bouncy, if perhaps a bit speedier than I’d have gone for. But, really, I’m saying that as someone who has already devoted 5 paragraphs to this little aria. It was excellent, I had a big grin on throughout 🙂
All this before we even got to Deh, per questo instante solo. Haha. Dear reader, I must not be going to enough Mozart-centred mezzo recitals if this is the first time I’ve heard it outside its own opera. What can I say? Half way through I contemplated the very good idea of seeing Hallenberg as Sesto. I would like that. Her voice works surprisingly well with it for those of us more familiar with her as Baroque singer par excellence. She has made (more or less successful) forays into later repertoire and it seems she’s right after all (I was put off by her Isabella but her Arsace (with a smaller/HIP orchestra? better recording?) was almost a revelation – at least in that Rossini isn’t necessary hopeless for her). Of course we’re talking about Wigmore Hall not about ROH and about a 20 piece orchestra but I’d still think somewhere like Glyndebourne (or Theater an der Wien) would work very well.
Wishful thinking (?) aside, she’s the kind of consumate performer to bring the drama out. You can – and I have heard it done quite often – sing this as the beautiful, wistful rondo it is. Or you can really go for the different moods: nostalgia, regret, embarrassment, ambivalence, heroism. She made it all vivid and moving without sacrificing the Mozartness of it all. In the end, everybody – performers and audience – looked happy and we all went home satisfied (or so I hope). The atmosphere was particularly congenial.
The Gluck side. My favourite bits were O del mio dolce ardor (Paride ed Elena), where Hallenberg had the chance to wow us with some moving ppps. This is the kind of thing you want to hear, brilliant technique as tool for conveying emotion. The ability to end a note firmly yet naturally-sounding (no hard landing) seems to be particular to flexible voices; it’s very enjoyable. The other one I specifically liked was the closer, Misera, dove son… ah, non son io (Ezio), where the pathos was so compelling I kept catching my breath along with the character and as a consequence I ended up feeling a bit sick by the end. It’s certainly one of Gluck top arias, listen to it and maybe enjoy getting a tad unwell, too 😉
This was without a doubt one of the best recitals I’ve ever had the pleasure and good luck to attend. Several times during the night I felt relaxed as if bathed in a sort of primordial soup of musical goodness.
Posted on May 24, 2016, in classical period, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, mozart, wigmore hall and tagged ann hallenberg, classical opera, gluck, jc bach, kraus, mozart, wigmore hall. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.