Category Archives: belcanto
belcanto composers are buttah
A woosh of dread went through the packed hall when an announcer came out, so strong I thought it would push her back to where she’d come from.
Announcer: No, no, no, everything is fine. All I wanted to say is that JDD had a respiratory infection last week but she is much better tonight. Enjoy the evening!
Frenetic applause and a general sigh of relief. More applause when Pappano came out (there normally are, but these were extra jaunty).
Let’s start with the conclusion: thank you Pappano and all. You convinced me this is truly a great opera and I wish it made its way back into the repertoire so we can hear/see it more often. Rossini outdid himself here. It’s got it all somehow melded into a whole: his playfulness, his expertise with the opera seria formula, lots of innovation and the great tunes never stop.
One of the great things about it is that Rossini knows how to write for the voice and won’t let the orchestra intrude but he has also written excellent instrumental parts. Also peppering the score with ensembles and keeping the choir active really makes a difference in regards to pacing (always fresh).
However, it most likely needs a great team – top singers and a very intelligent conductor. An insightful production doesn’t hurt. It really is shortchanged when the focus is on noodling runs of coloratura or if the conductor thinks the drama needs too much push. Pappano trusts Rossini and focused on bringing out all the inventive details, which are a pleasure to hear. His voice-orchestra balance was optimal.
Compared to the 25th it was like this: Arsace and Semiramide’s act II duet = best moment of the night (and not just in my opinion either. My seatmate dubbed it “fantastic!”, lots of applause and shouts etc. and some teary eyes from me). I just wanted it to go on and on (and luckily Rossini knows a good thing, so, as most duets here, it’s quite long). I still think Ah, come mai quell’anima is the more beautiful duet but this is wonderful, especially with Barcellona and JDD who work together so well. Have a listen to how they sounded in Munich earlier this year (imo, not nearly as good. I actually don’t like that recording and I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before going. I had to agree with the commenter who heard JDD off pitch a lot of the time. Esposito came off majorly bland of tone (to me, who am not his greatest fan to begin with). The duet is beautiful, though).
Brownlee (still no ping, from the lower slips in the auditorium) had some of the most amazing floated notes I’ve ever heard in Ah dov’è il cimento? Seriously, that stuff was staggering, to the point I had to remember where my loyalties lay 😉 cue in severe shaking from Azema1 and that quip about how if she didn’t think Arsace was the biggest hero in the world she’d totally go for Idreno. Don’t listen to his 2013 rendition found on ‘tube as it’s vastly inferior. Sadly it seems to be his only rendition on youtube.
His interaction with JDD in the act I finale, where everybody was trying to come to terms with the appearance of Nino’s ghost was acoustically interesting: his lines were louder than hers but this appeared deliberate, giving a very welcome depth to the sound. However his act II aria saw surprising ups and downs in concentration, which makes this performance one of the most curious I’ve witnessed.
Pertusi’s pre-mad aria recit was again his strongest moment – he’s really good at that kind of thing, vivid and credible. Also he had many very Verdian flashes through the night (and I mean that in a good way. Philip II was calling?). JDD did sound (even) more cautious with the very highs and I think I remember a moment where the sound came out a bit unfocused but other than that she was as strong and committed as usual.
Now that I could focus more on things other than the immediate impact, I thought Arsace spends a lot of time in the lower recesses of the mezzo voice, so perhaps this is a reason VK never sang it (as her voice is darker rather than low, where Barcellona’s is both dark and solidly low). I’m now compelled to hear Hallenberg’s take again. I also had time to realise I’ve been spending so much time listening to Baroque specialists that even a little – understandable – vibrato throws me a bit (Barcellona and Pertusi). I won’t fault them, of course, but it was interesting to see how little JDD uses in comparison. Come to think of it, Brownlee did the same. Unless he has the type I don’t catch. Might be an issue of American vs Italian style?
The choir was (I think) better this time, thought the beginning of the opera still posed challenges.
She may be wicked but she is my mother
Arsace as a character is a bit underdeveloped for contemporary sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, he’s given a pony 😉 I’ve noticed this thing in pre mid-19th century opera (though, come to think of it, heroes continue to be rather intellectually fluffy (see all Wagner)), where we have supposedly accomplished warriors/strategists act very naively in private matters. They are also way too young for those military accolades. Something’s got to give, eh, and that is usually intelligence.
As per libretto Arsace is characterised by being brave (commander of the Babylonian army at the tender age of… about 25, I’d say), dutiful (rushes back to headquarters when Semiramide calls and is unwaveringly on her side even before he learns she’s his mother) and very much in love (his entrance aria reminisces about how he saved Azema from marauders and then their eyes met = opera love).
All of a sudden he’s hit with major existential questions, which he is ill equipped to answer. Then again, who of us would have an easy time with a mother who wants to marry us and who has also, incidentally, offed our father? Plus the realisation that we’re next in line as the country’s top honcho? All of these revelations in one day, the same day we were merely supposed to announce our wedding (to someone else than the mum)! Barcellona is very good at portraying the youthful hero with all his youthful imaturity mixed with the earnest desire to do the right thing by everyone. I have cats to hug when things get weird, why shouldn’t Arsace have a pony? I also see that moment as his return to his childhood room, with the pictures and the toys one’s parents keep in the attic (or spare room).
The ending is rather poignant, with the hacked to death Semiramide reaching wordlessly (a victory for realism! thank you, Rossini) towards her son and Arsace’s duty tragically winning over love in grand opera seria style, as he ascends the stairs to the throne and glory. For his unexpected ascension to top honours he looks shattered so who knows che mai sarà.
Singing-wise, Barcellona was the picture of understated poise, with excellent stamina and that beautiful lyric tone needed for best results in belcanto trouser roles.
So now that this first ever ROH run is over I can’t wait until they revive it 😉 hopefully with a similarly strong cast and Pappano (or someone else who can do Rossini justice on this level).
- Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). ↩
ROH hasn’t seen Semiramide staged in over 100 years but it’s good they did it now, when they have a Rossini-appreciative conductor in the house and such an exceptional team of Rossinians to sing it. It’s the most expensive production of the season but it’s definitely worth it musically. Dramatically I guess I’m not an Alden fan but it’s not a stupid staging either. I just thought more (or prettier) could’ve been done to match the singers’ skills and commitment to the drama.
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Assur: Michele Pertusi
Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee
Oroe: Bálint Szabó
Azema: Jacquelyn Stucker
Mitrane: Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Royal Opera House Choir and Orchestra
co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper
This is “another modern staging” that places the action amidst a moment of acute power vacuum within a dictatorship – with good reason, Babylonia wasn’t a shining example of enlightened democracy (not that we should be talking).
The story is wonky enough: even though Nino, the former North Korean style dictator, here referenced by a giant statue and apparently Trump-like family portraits, has been dead for 15 years, it is only now that a new – read: male – leader is needed. It appears that so far Semiramide (his widow) and Assur’s (descendant of Baal, so Mr Macho) regency has been good enough. Or perhaps this is just heavy foreshadowing/convenient plot device.
Nino and Semiramide’s son Ninia has secretly survived his infancy and has gained a reputation for himself by rising to the position of commander of Semiramide’s army, under the (Scythian) name of Arsace. It seems like Assur has not been careful enough when sweeping his path to power.
It’s the ancient world so rituals and the mysterious (ie: vague, confusing) will of gods are par for the course. Alden indulges adequately. Knee crawling and extensive “praise the gods” genuflecting from the choir pepper the duration of the opera. Agathe observed that it’s even more exaggerated than in Munich, so perhaps it’s intentionally made to appear ridiculous. I for one did not, in any case, get a feeling that Alden has any spare affection for this world.
The best quip is Azema’s completely constricting (albeit technically very accomplished) golden dress. Her constant facial expression of defeat brings out the straitjacket feel induced by the hampering overlong sleeves. Usually carried to and fro (like a sack of potatoes) by a male attendant (she seems to be needed everywhere, although it is never clear why, as she barely has a voice, mostly to express dissatisfaction with her lot1; perhaps to make up the quota of women at the court), she is at some point placed on a cordoned off plinth, with Idreno agitating around like a blood hound. I liked Bachtrack reviewer‘s comment that she looks like an
Grammy Oscar statuette, considering her suitors (Assur, Idreno and “lucky” winner Arsace) engage in what was in 1823 – and possibly still today, in certain circles – a singing contest.
Though, to be fair, the way Rossini is sung here is as far removed from showcasing fireworks as anything I’ve seen. Not that the singers don’t cover all that, because they all do with lots of skill and style, but because the focus is staunchly placed on conveying a believable drama to contemporary audiences. We have come a very long way from the ’80s. This a 3 1/2 hour opera and I didn’t flag once. A great accomplishment by all – less so by the choir, who had some issues keeping up with Pappano and Rossini, something both Agathe and I noticed, so it’s not just me always finding fault with
them something 😉
I really enjoyed Pappano’s supple and lucid conducting and the precision with which the orchestra responded to him. It’s late, more through-composed Rossini, but Pappano didn’t make it unnecessary loud and kept the drama under control. It’s still Rossini and you can still smile at jaunty tunes at dramatic moments. I was also pleased to notice the germs of “angsty soliloquies” later developed by Bellini and mastered by Verdi – at moments when the main characters have scenes which combine tuneful lines with more recit-based passages – ariosos? I’m not sure they were still called that into the 19th century – and even include “distant sounds of the city”.
JDD did a tour de force with Semiramide. He interactions with both Pertusi’s Assur (he’s an old school bad guy but a convincing one) and Barcellona’s youthful, conflicted Arsace brought out a very well rounded, strong woman, who tries and fails to reconcile outward personal ambition with an inward sense of right and wrong and sort out different kinds of love/attraction. A busy day, indeed. Though a subject well explored in the 18th century, it is perhaps no surprise that this heroine found her strongest voice in the 19th century, the one where female leads aren’t supposed to win.
I’m not saying that offing your husband should be given a pass if you beat yourself up for it for 15 years or if you then defend your child with your life but such is the scarcity of women with agency in opera that one finds it hard not to side with her – especially the unsentimental way JDD plays her. I felt from the getgo that Semiramide was ready to meet her fate whatever the costs but she was optimistic that things would turn out right in the end. Regardless of what she did that one time 15 years ago, she seems to want to right things now – get rid of dictator in waiting Assur and secure the throne for upright hero Arsace. Of course her motives are complex but that’s what we like in our fictional heroe(ine)s.
For his part, Arsace appears like a decent sort, law abiding to a fault and the opposite of a politician. He’s also, for someone who presumably grew up in the saddle and has seen a serious amount of combat, eyebrow-raisingly naive. At first Semiramide uses subtlety when pursuing him but he only gets it when she corners him cougar-style in her nightgown. Ok, battle experience does not prepare one for being chased by a woman that someone has a lot of respect for and sees as outranking him. But still, he seems young (Barcellona’s channeling Tancredi); no wonder Alden gives him a stuffed pony to remember his childhood by (he also has some unexplored issues regarding family).
The two most dramatically impressive moments for me were when Semiramide tells Assur that she would gladly renounce the throne for her child, were he to be found alive (after a conversation where Assur implies that she too has been power mad) and her desperate chase for an embarrassed Arsace. JDD portrays a moving mother-Semiramide which only makes the later scene that much more sad and tragic.
JDDs duets with Assur and Arsace were the most moving vocally. I loved the gentle way she delivered her lines in the duet where she and Assur are in bed (and he just provides long sustained vocal backing), and the very fine way she interacted/echoed the orchestra. Her second act duet with Arsace was lovely for the unassuming way JDD and Barcellona meshed their voices (mezzo-mezzo duets = ❤ ) and made the moment of mother and son reconciliation simple and moving. Agathe remarked that so late in the opera there is nothing for the singers to prove; I welcomed it as I enjoyed the consistent commitment to exploring the drama at the expense of needless showing off.
Brownlee’s Idreno and Pertusi’s Assur were less developed – and both were meant to come off as unpleasant but no less vocally accomplished. Brownlee got his shorter aria back (it was axed in Munich) and got deserved applause come curtain time (and before; most arias did). He doesn’t have JDF’s piercing wail at the very top but I don’t know that we’re poorer for that. His tone is very handsome and the voice has just the right flexibility for Rossini, no wonder he’s made his name in this repertoire. He comes off as a nice chap in interviews but here he managed to infuse Idreno with an amount of entitlement disguised as passion for Azema that reminded me of an annoying wasp.
I understand Pertusi was unwell during the premiere but everything was fine on Saturday. I hadn’t heard him before but I enjoyed his tone and elaborate skills, especially in Assur’s act II mini mad scene when Assur is hallucinating about Nino’s return. Agathe mentioned that in Munich, Esposito had acted this mad scene in such a strong manner that she hadn’t even realised just how beautiful the music was. I was quite impressed with the complexity of vocal emotion Pertusi used for this mad scene.
Out of the smaller roles I liked Szabó’s tone a lot – very easy on the ears and nicely solid singing. His dramatic skills were good, too.
There was a feeling of everyone on stage knowing that they are part of something special and behaving accordingly, with congenial help from Pappano and the orchestra. A highly enjoyable performance and a wonderful showcase of Rossini’s complex skills. During the evening I started thinking I’d like to see it again and I’m pleased to report I just managed to secure a reasonably priced second ticket this late in the game 😀 Everyone who likes great singing, try to go. The surprisingly good news is you can luck out on a return at any time (only two days ago the cheap available seat situation looked dire).
Agathe and I got tickets on the Stalls Circle left, because she knew from Munich that was the best position for the “important action” (Arsace and Semiramide singing directly at us; Barcellona’s dark, gently heroic tone caused Agathe to be on the verge of passing out 😉 several times during the evening). We were only a few feet away from the stage also with a good view of the orchestra/Pappano. There was a bit of muffle for the ppps but only in the sense of lack of ping across the board, which we supposed would not be the case from the auditorium (I’ll get back to you on that next week, especially re: Brownlee). Otherwise we heard it all in all its glory (though I had a blocked ear which caused me to strait during act I; it finally popped by the end of act I) and a badass evening it was 😀
We spent the – clear but very cold for London – day walking about central London and catching a truly beautiful sunset from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Out of fangirl anxiety we arrived one hour early at ROH and spent time chatting in the very cosy amphitheatre lobby (ROH is in the midst of major refurbishing). I don’t shower ROH with enough praise but it’s got a lovely lobby area design – grand but not overly so; you’ll soon relax – and the ushers have once again been super accommodating. Agathe commented that the applause wasn’t quite as mad as in Munich but I thought by Stalls Circle standards it was warm indeed. In spite of the cold weather there was minimal coughing, too.
- Or, somewhat confusingly, how much Idreno’s first aria has moved her, and she’d think twice about his (very aggressive) attentions if only Arsace wasn’t the love of her life. This can be a very funny moment, though I’m not sure that’s how it’s played here, in spite of the fact that this is Rossini. By funny I mean if it’s played as a comment on the tenor’s singing skills and the relationship between star singers and their fanbase. But then it’s mixed with what today is glaringly read as a lack of agency (not one aria for her) when she’s at the centre of the entire sublot and things become funny har har. ↩
I haven’t done an audio only writeup in… a long time (my laptop’s disc drive went bust about 2 years ago). This one is from the vault, of course, started in November 2013 and last updated in August 2014. There’s nothing wrong with it, aside from being relatively short, which I think was the reason I never ended up posting it. These days I don’t think it’s necessary to cross all the ts. I trust you, gentle reader, to get the gist of how I feel about this or that.
History of lovers refers to the Calexico with Iron and Wine tune.
Tancredi: Vesselina Kasarova
Amenaide: Eva Mei
Argirio: Ramon Vargas
Orbazzano: Harry Peeters
Isaura: Melinda Paulsen
Roggiero: Veronica Cangemi
Conductor: Roberto Abbado | Munchner Rundfunkorchester (17-25/08/95)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Back in the ’90s Kasarova had that distinctive yet youthful tone backed by high energy which made her so appealing in rash and broody youngster roles1. I remember hearing a Voi che sapete she sang way back when and thinking “this Cherubino would punch the Count in the face”. Her young men never sounded innocent2 yet they were all very immature. For her part, Mei is the girliest Amenaide I’ve heard so far, which is just as well; Amenaide is – or should be – a virginal babe3.
Tancredi doesn’t suffer when the lovers’ young age isn’t strictly adhered to. But now that it is expressed, it gives the whole thing a brighter, more hopeful feel from the getgo. This Amenaide would scream piercingly if Tancredi died and she’d collapse from grief on the spot4. The emphasis is on love-faced-with-terrible-obstacles rather than honour, duty and bitter revenge5.
Vargas’ Argirio can project enough leadership and he’s convincing as a concerned if strict father as well. Vargas always works as the good guy as he sounds like he means well.
Orbazzano is satisfyingly low but sounds a tad too old, like’s he’s from Argirio’s generation, which is workable. He’s never supposed to be a romantic rival to Tancredi. Peeters could sound more menacing.
Fiero incontro/Ah, come mai quell’anima: Here’s where the virginal/sensual thing really works. Even their fioriture match, good job Maestro for taking care of this detail. In the cantabile neither lover sounds particularly bitter, in fact they sound glad for a reason to sing together. They’re momentarily overcome with love for each other in spite of crossed wires. That’s not exactly what the text says but it goes with the hopeful tone of the recording. They get more angsty in the cabaletta, although never too dark. This one rocks; Mei and Kasarova’s voices are perfectly suited for each other6.
Perche turbar la calma: I said in the Valentini-Terrani Tancredi that this is a mofo of an aria but I didn’t explain myself. It’s tricky because there’s quite a bit going on:
self-pity: he’s barely regained his composure by walking away from his traitorous lover and here she is back, threatening to ruin his mood by lying to his face once again (so he thinks).
tantrum (at Amenaide): Tancredi renews his accusations of infidelity. But immediately her tears move him to almost believing her. He is indecisive for a few moments. The choir’s war cries distract him and, spurred by them, he decides on the spot to solve his dilemma by going into battle to die so that Amenaide can blame herself for his demise.
30 year old Kasarova’s Tancredi sounds a lot younger than Valentini-Terrani’s and Horne’s. Aside from whatever their own personalities imparted to the role, the level of life experience between 30 and 39 (V-T) or 43 (Horne) is pretty significant. Kasarova’s reading is unsurprisingly the less focused7 of the three. After hearing Valentini-Terrani’s Perche turbar la calma I can only expect a sharper contrast between the different moods I outlined above when discussing the aria. In hers, Kasarova uses the fff/ppp contrast where Valentini-Terrani goes for colour, more effective when it comes to expressing moods. Even though I love Kasarova’s tone, Valentini-Terrani’s characterisation is simply mindboggling.
- Like Tancredi and Romeo. ↩
- In a sensual way, I mean. They lack life experience all right. In fact, they sound hot headed and on the fast track to disaster. ↩
- I said before that my hunch is that she and Tancredi knocked the boots in ye olde Constantinopole. Here we’ve got an extremely virginal sounding Amenaide and a more sensual than usual Tancredi. Where Valentini-Terrani’s was morose and overwhelmed by dejection and Horne’s too authoritarian (more of a man’s man), Kasarova’s sounds hot blooded and annoyed rather than angsty. He must’ve been a hit with the Greek ladies back in Byzantium. I can see this girly and sensitive Amenaide getting head over hills with him and throwing caution to the wind. ↩
- The same team brought us Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi just a couple of years later, so you know what I mean. ↩
- 11th century Sicily is obviously struggling with multiculturalism. ↩
- So how did that Zurich Clemenza di Tito go so wrong? ↩
- Things worked such that Kasarova sang Tancredi in the early part of her career, which is rather unusual. I really – really – wish she sang it these days, with this more darker tone she’s got now and with the wealth of experience she’s gained since. ↩
recently at the time of my rant hit on a subject that still (STILL) gets my goat. Naturally I ran to my 6 many months old ranty draft and stroked it a few times. Then I thought I should vent my anger (for it makes me foamy (oh, so foamy…)).
Eagerly awaited by yours truly, the 2011/2012 Munich I Capuleti e i Montecchi turned out to be a spectacularly inept production1. There are only two good things about it: Bellini’s music and Romeo. The rest is like a wisdom tooth ache: dull, painful and the mere thought of it almost as uncomfortable as the thing itself. Shame on you, Bayerische Staatstoper!
To those few who don’t know, in 2012 this production had VK as Romeo, Anna Netrebko as Giulietta and some guys in the other roles, plus Maestro Yves Abel running the shoddy ship into every rock on the way. To add insult to injury, midway through the run AN decided she’d had enough of her sink and unceremoniously boarded the nearest lifeboat. Bayerische shipped the 2011 Giulietta (Nakamura) back and refunded 1/2 of the (ridiculously high) ticket price to the angry Netrebkites.
Back in 2012 I watched the livestream (on mum’s ancient desktop) and then I re-watched it on youtube on a brand new laptop, which mum thoughtfully bought the day after. I read others’ comments on it, some of which made for very good reading though they appeared to be about something else than what I had seen. I didn’t make an effort to snap it before the cerbers at Bayerische mauled it off youtube. I eventually acquired it in hopes that time brings perspective. I’ve watched it a couple more times and my disappointment has turned to anger. There are just too many things that irk me:
Giulietta – NO. NO. NO. NO. Also: no.
fussy/inept costumes – epitome of fashion hype: unflattering and completely impractical
harsh lighting that made them all look like zombies – it’s set in a morgue, then
all-over-the-shop choir – perhaps coached by some fashion hanger-on
- overly precious ending – just look behind you already, Romeo!
- saddles – obviously!
- sink – the sink is to regie what stairs are to trad productions = a bold statement of lack of imagination; this is a
- wedding party on bleachers – fashion shoot on stairs, duh
- reflective and uneven walls – the stage designer and the light designer meet after a successful double lobotomy
To be fair to the end, VK too seemed a day or two past the sell-by date. Major meh. It’s beyond annoying that posterity will be left with this video version of her Romeo, when she’s done such an exceptional job with this role over the years. At the time I was very upset that I couldn’t see it live but in the very long run it looks like I saved myself further frustration not to mention money and fuss.
- I don’t truly like any Capuleti production I’ve seen so far. Very frustrating. ↩
Here’s another fluff post from the vault, after which I promise to take a break from snide remarks regarding a certain mezzo 😉 at least in this case they were not mine!
I spent the last week+ of August 2016 on holiday at my mum’s doing very little. The last couple of days mum and I hit Mezzo TV with rather unexpected results. First we watched Met’s Romeo et Juliette (Gounod), with Netrebko and Alagna, which I had never seen in its entirety before so I was quite surprised by the large amount of sexxiness (TM). Wish Bellini’s had half as much! Mum decreed AN’s voice was too heavy for Juliette and Alagna didn’t look romantic enough for Romeo. Then we – disingenuously, I admit – speculated on the amount of distress this production could’ve caused Angela Gheorghiu.
Today we watched the last act of La cenerentola (also from the Met) with Garanca and Brownlee. It turned out to be very amusing for the both of us. First off, on seeing that the mezzo was a blonde, mum wanted to know if she was “the mezzo with the D”. Good start, mum! Alas, as soon as the blonde opened her mouth it was clear the voice was very different. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve sat down to listen to Garanca. She didn’t miss any note. But throughout mum thought she carried the exact same expression, which was mild discomfort. The most exciting thing she did on stage was to give out the coffee cups before Non piu mesta. Mum thought she was rather cold but not very cold: ice cube rather than iceberg. I told her the coloratura in Non piu mesta suggests Cenerentola’s great joy and relief. Mum thought she looked preoccupied not to drop her tiara.
I don’t know if it’s TV’s lack of audio capacity (which I’d suspected before, especially when it comes to how voices come through) or something else but my first – non-malicious – thought was that the voices were rather flat (as if they were not singing on the breath) and lacking in Italianate style.
It just (by which I mean in September last year, but blog-time can be stretched according to needs) occurred to me that L’italiana is funnier and has the better arias (especially for the title role) but it seems to me – maybe it is just me – that La cenerentola gets more attention. Anyone have a theory one way or another?
It’s bright1 and early here for dehggi, as the loot was worth it:
Semiramide with JDD/Barcellona/Brownlee/D’Arcangelo
Salome being Salome (even with McVicar’s vision); next year I’m spoiled rotten: two cool operas to choose from for an outing on my birthday! I predictably went with:
Il ritorno d’Ulisse because when Monteverdi calls one must answer, especially after the great success with L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse two years ago. Let’s hope they’ll livestream this one as well.
There was 0 pain getting in/booking this time. Good job ROH!
- actually, it’s rather foggy (but warm). ↩
July is the time when the ROH audience checks on the house’s young artists to see how they’ve grown. I found this year’s programme rather ambitious and the results mixed.
Verdi: I due Foscari, Act II (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Lucrezia Contarini: Vlada Borovko
Jacopo Foscari: David Junghoon Kim
This is the kind of opera that kept yours truly aloof from the art form for so long. I couldn’t wait for the overwrought scene/duet to be over. If you can’t pinpoint it in your mind, imagine the typical belcanto duet between important/main characters who are about to be parted by fate. It’s mainly Italian angst, with moments of gloomy recit, ominous shredding from the string section for the moments when ghosts are mentioned (one of the characters is ever on the brink of a breakdown, the other one tries more or less feebly to be their rock but it’s obvious they are also suffering) then a cheerful tune gets shoehorned in (so that the audience can draw a breath) and is explained in the dialogue by “outdoors sounds” such as the gondolier, good moment for the whinger to draw attention back to their plight, so that the hand wringing can start anew and continue for another 15min. Kim is on the right track for this kind of thing and has a beautiful tone but he’s obviously too young for the finer details this 19th century brand of Italian neuroticism needs.
Nowadays they simply have women either dressed in an updated version of ’80s powersuits or as lalala bohemians. Borovko looked utterly in charge in her suit which I dare say was curious for
Amelia Lucrezia. Then again, I despise this opera so much that I might have missed something essential. I doubt it, Romantic opera womenfolk were utterly decorative.
Upon return home I realised this was not Simon Boccanegra.
Massenet: Cendrillon, Act II (duet)
Conductor: Matthew Scott Rogers
Cendrillon: Kate Howden
Prince: Angela Simkin
Massenet, eh? Poor mezzos, he wrote for them but alas, I don’t like his saccharine stuff. For once I would’ve like the mezzo singing the trouser role to wear sensible shoes but it was not to be. Aside from that, Howden and Simkin’s interaction was not bad at all. Sometimes when I see mezzos and sopranos singing to each other of love I feel the interaction is actually helped by them both being (straight) women. It’s almost like they think whew, it’s just her, I won’t get distracted by wayward hormones, I can focus on the notes I’m supposed to sing and when I have some free time I can glance at her in a chummy manner – which masquerades surprisingly well as young love. Howden covered for an indisposed Emily Edmonds and I can’t complain about anything, but then again, Massenet. Simkin had more of a moment here than as Isolier later on, obviously since this is a duet, and though I again have no complaints, I also didn’t feel particularly wowed by her tone.
Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act I (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Suzel: Francesca Chiejina
Fritz: Thomas Atkins
I find it a bit odd that I enjoy Mascagni quite as much as I do (Cavalleria) but there you go, I liked this duet as well. You might ask wait, how is this any less fluff than Massenet above? It’s not but it’s much more enjoyable music to my ears. Atkins and Chiejina had rather nice chemistry going and were well suited vocally. Plus, there was a really big bucket of cherries on stage and a hot summer day outside. Chiejina’s cutely colourful maid outfit exemplified what I said above about the lalala bohemian vs powersuit.
Strauss: Arabella, Act III (final duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Arabella: Jennifer Davis
Mandryka: Gyula Nagy
Jennifer Davis has a surprisingly large voice for her age, definitely able to cope with a Strauss orchestra as conducted by Syrus, and has a rather fearless attitude about attacking the highs and a good technique to back that. I could see from the Don Giovanni bit after the interval that Syrus was unusually careful in helping his singers do their best, so I suppose he was here as well. As far as the finer parts, well I guess that’s where both nature and experience come in. I remember the fairly recent (sometime last year) Bayerische livestream of Arabella with Harteros in the title role, which I loved, so I think that’s a good goal to keep in mind for aspiring Strauss singers.
Nagy sounded a bit stiff to me in what I imagine is a very tricky role. Aside from the livestream, my experience with Arabella is rather limited so I don’t as yet have a good idea about who Mandryka is supposed to be, aside from a vaguely wild force, personification of sexual desire as experienced by virginal women? Anyway, one needs a bit of stage and life experience to make that work.
Rossini: Le Comte Ory, Act II (final scene)
Conductor: James Hendry
Countess Adèle de Formoutiers: Francesca Chiejina
Isolier: Angela Simkin
Count Ory: David Junghoon Kim
This hilarious trio/scene elicited a lot of mirth, as it usually does, even though I dare say none of them are natural Rossinians, and thus the finer details did not shine. Hendry must’ve got a bit too much into it and, perhaps skewed by Strauss volume levels, let the orchestra rip which often covered the singers. But they were mostly funny, especially Kim who got into the nun act. The bed cover looking like something from Pylones added to the silliness.
Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II (from Zerlina finding Masetto to end)
Conductor: David Syrus
Fortepiano continuo: Nick Fletcher
Donna Anna: Vlada Borovko
Donna Elvira: Jennifer Davis
Zerlina: Haegee Lee
Don Ottavio: Thomas Atkins
Don Giovanni: Gyula Nagy
Leporello: David Shipley
Masetto/Commendatore: Simon Shibambu
As I was saying earlier, Syrus did a really good job with the volume here, definitely one of the better ways to approach DG that I have heard at ROH, where conductors seem to think this is early Verdi. The singers were properly cradled and it showed once again how good Mozart is for young singers regardless of what voice type their future has in store. It was easily the best moment of the evening.
Thomas Atkins as Don Ottavio got the most applause. It’s true he has a very fine tenor that works with many things and he coped pretty well with Il mio tesoro, a bold choice to be sure. Let’s say I’d rank my ROH Don Ottavios like so: Antonio Poli, Atkins, Villazon. Nagy was much more at ease with the Don than with Mandryka and I think he makes quite a dashing figure; I see this role in his future, he has it all going for him. ROH says he is a baritone but I felt he was rather a bass-baritone or he will be one soon.
Generally I was impressed with the density of the basses and the baritone voices on display – proper stuff. To that end, Shibambu divested himself well of the lugubrious DON GIOVANNI! cry one expects from the statue. He needs a bit more projection for the big stage but otherwise smooth sailing. Btw, I noticed he constantly gets to wear a military uniform but then I guess that’s the lot of basses, what with their authority figure repertoire. Shipley as Leporello was pretty good, too, not overly funny but his interaction with Nagy’s Don was on the money.
Borovko returned as Donna Anna. Now that I’ve seen her recently in a big role I can say this: her top is very good and her coloratura ace but the cloudiness from the middle down seems constant. I don’t know what others hear but if this is simply how her voice sounds I can’t see myself getting excited in the future. Or perhaps she needs to find herself very high roles and stick with those? How about contemporary opera, then. Davis as Donna Elvira wasn’t bad at all, coping very dutifully with all required, though I still think Strauss is where she needs to aim. This Donna Elvira was abjectly in love with the Don but I think Davis got her – tricky for the contemporary mind – preoccupation with saving DG’s soul from eternal damnation.
Sopranos: Vlada Borovko, Francesca Chiejina, Jennifer Davis
Mezzo-sopranos: Angela Simkin, Kate Howden
Tenors: Thomas Atkins, David Junghoon Kim
Baritone: Gyula Nagy
Basses: Simon Shibambu, David Shipley
If you think I was a bit hard on the young singers, bear in mind that I somehow managed to get there two hours before the start of the show (I thought it started at 16:30 instead of 6:30. I know, getting old…), after which I decided to wander around and (re)discovered what a consumerist Mecca Covent Garden is. Let’s start with the hapless straw hat “boy with guitar”, whom I was this close to pay a fiver to shut up for a few minutes. Worse even than a Verdi dirge is a wounded bohemian pop tune. You know the kind, something from the late seasons of Dr House. Try stepping into a shop, they all play music – your choice is now bubblegum pop with nondescript teen voices. Then there was the obligatory curly haired musician setting up his amp to blast what sounded very much like gentle Shoreditch downtempo cca 2003. I guess these moves are savvy, it’s touristy as all getout around there and all of the above are now part of the pop psyche.
I couldn’t take it anymore so I scurried into a book shop (where I knew they don’t play any music) to read Andrew Eames’ account of getting morbidly bored on a barge on the lower Danube. What was he thinking, right? Muddy water, catfish, poplars and weeping willows, engine fuel, moody sailors – a proper circuit party.
But the Comte Ory trio got stuck in my head for days, so things righted themselves to an extent.
You ever imagine Tristan and Isolde with a happy ending? No? The French did (of course they did!) and so did the Italians, even more successfully. It was 1832 and women in opera had a few more years left to be intelligent, poke fun at hackneyed stories and crucially not die by the end.
I bought this ticket wrongly and long before I knew how contralto-mad times would get. So let me make a belcanto pitstop before I get back to my German adventures.
Adina: Pretty Yende
Nemorino: Liparit Avetisyan
Dulcamara: Alex Esposito
Belcore: Paolo Bordogna
Giannetta: Vlada Borovko
Conductor: Bertrand de Billy | Chorus and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Laurent Pelly
(Co-production with Opéra National de Paris)
I missed this “much loved” production the last time it was aired but I caught it on the radio and kicked myself for missing it. This time I was determined to see it – but as cheap as possible. It was only after booking that I realised I got the second cast, at the time including Rolando Villazon. Though you might remember I got a bit googly eyed for Alexandra Kurzak during Il turco in Italia and was rather annoyed to miss her this year, I decided to see the glass half full and check rising star Pretty Yende out.
At the weekend I (half enthusiastically) mentioned to Agathe that I would be seeing Villazon on Tuesday. Well, what with not being a Villazon aficionado I don’t know when the change happened but today I noticed his name was not part of the cast.
I had no idea who Avetisyan was but he turned out to be a very welcome surprise. He’s a good singer, really looks the (dorky) part and has excellent comedic timing. In spite of the dorkiness, the man has serious stage presence. For my money he was the best actor tonight in a cast that was by no means shabby, continuously drawing laughs and not just because he had obviously learned his part (and stunts) very well. The man has a feel for the stage and is lucky to have caught our attention in such a carefully detailed production. His diction ain’t bad either. He does have to work on making his vocal performance more detailed, more personal, but I suppose that is the kind of thing that comes with experience. If he’s intelligent and has a good team to support him I think he will do very well in the future.
Yende has more of a Netrebko-type voice than what I’d expect in an ideal belcantist. Though she can pull off the trills and the top seems to come easy at her age, I imagine she will soon grow into heavier roles. It’s always interesting “getting to know” a voice for the first time live. I’d heard some stuff on zetube and couldn’t quite make up my mind. Live I liked her soft singing best, which is genuinely warm with just enough roundness. A congenial voice.
Her stage presence, in fact, is very girl-next-door (and she and Avetisyan made a very cute village couple). She sort of reminded me of Veronique Gens as Dona Elvira – a bit (or perhaps way) too nice for the role. At the beginning we need to be unsure of Adina’s feelings or to laugh with her at Nemorino. She’s the local landowner so she can’t be too chummy with Nemorino from the getgo. It might be part of the production but I felt Yende’s Adina was just another girl in the village, gently teasing Nemorino and getting girlishly sulky when he’s pretending not to care for her.
Though her soft singing has quite a bit of character (the emotion came through), she tended to be more abstract in the coloratura and when deploying the very top – neither of which were unpleasant on the ear, mind. Maybe next time she convinces me that coloratura isn’t just there to wow the audience with pure technical skill.
This is the kind of production where even the baddies are lovable. Bordogna was quite the bufoon as the self satisfied Sargent Belcore. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Esposito and by far the most pleasant. He must enjoy singing in an undershirt, as I think this is probably the third time I see him in one. It’s neither an opera nor a production interested in commenting on consumerism and public gullibility, so his Dulcamara is simply amusing, the way he keeps popping up and tying his magic potion to everything that works well.
Dulcamara: hello everybody, I’m Dr Dulcamara and I came up with that magic potion that works on everything from bedbugs to constipation, you may have heard of it1.
Villagers: ooooooooooh! Hello Dr Dulcamara, can we have some of that?
Dulcamara: of course! It’s cheap too. And it can make you great in bed and rich at the same time, like Nemorino here!
Villagers: OMG, how did we live without it all this time?!
Pelly productions always have extra little somethings, and here the curtain at intermission was a giant Dulcamara advert (in Italian, which made it even funnier), with pictures and text describing various ailments cured by the miraculous drug (you can see pictures here).
De Billy and Co. did a reasonably good job. Maybe it’s my seat (horseshoe left), maybe it’s my ears, but I felt like the sound from the orchestra was particularly uniform. The flute, oboe, bassoon and harp did their job when called for solos and/or lead, with the flute faring best, though nothing to write home about. I can’t say maestro made any efforts to pick out interesting sounds from his team. Likewise the chorus, who had quite a bit to do on stage – the villagers are very present in the opera. They sounded solid and on time but aside from one instance when the male side of the chorus sprung up quite nicely they seemed satisfied with merely keeping to the rhythm. The whole thing (orchestra included) could’ve benefited from more rubato. Belcanto comedy is built on simple, hummable tunes which can sound very mechanical without a bit of imagination.
The audience loved it, laughed a lot, clapped a lot and gave the team a very warm reception. It’s a likable production, I can’t complain. The atmosphere was congenial, with my seatmates on the left jolly and relaxed as well as knowledgeable, and my seatmate on the other side not particularly knowledgeable but certainly friendly and enjoying herself. It’s great to see Londoners letting their hair down at times like these.
- The good old days when quacks prescribed placebo! Imagine if all the pill-poppers around us merely drank weak wine. ↩