Category Archives: basses
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. ↩
Thadieu asked for my thoughts on this a loooooooooooong time ago and I worked on it (especially in 2016, so keep that in mind) but always felt like I had more (never less) to say. Since it’s got to almost 4000 words I think it’s ok to let it loose. It’s mostly my thoughts on the actual performance but also Alcina asides and whatnot. And it’s not finished yet 😉 but, hey, almost 4000 words. For your convenience I’ll put the text behind a cut. Read the rest of this entry
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.
Whoever advertised this performance struck gold: this was one of the best attended shows I’ve ever witnessed at Wigmore Hall. Though the Colossus of Rhodes or the Pharos was planted firmly in the seat in front of me I couldn’t find a convenient seat to upgrade to without bothering someone. But the Pharos1 was very polite and self aware and leaned to the left (Tower of Pisa, then) – we were on the end seats – so I could actually see 2/3 of the stage, which included the singers and the bassoonist (yes, there was a tenor-bassoon duet!).
Mary Bevan soprano
Benjamin Hulett tenor
James Platt bass
Christian Curnyn director | Early Opera Company (Choir included)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Concerto Grosso in G major
William Boyce (1711-1779)
Excerpts from Solomon
George Frideric Handel
Alceste is incidental music with a lot of contribution from the choir and in my case it proved incidental to a good nap. For whatever reason, perhaps because it started with the concerto and because I wasn’t familiar with the Boyce piece, I was lulled into this cocooned state of semi consciouness.
When Hulett and Bevan duetted I had that thought one sometimes entertains of what would an alien make of this if s/he/it dropped in. A bunch of people intently watching two other people on stage make tuneful oooo, aaaa sounds with others coaxing a slightly different kind of sound from wooden boxes of various shapes and sizes. But to what end? the alien might soon zero in to the crux of the matter. And a good explaination, judging by the rapt faces, may be to lull the people in attendence. Nefarious or farious, that would remain to be determined after further investigation. Might the alien subject itself to this experiment?
I don’t necessary recommend pursuing this train of thought too diligently, as I ended up dozing and incorporating the stage action in said flights into delta state. Case in point, when Hulett recited along the lines of …and he rose from below! with the choir rising from below/behind the harpsichord2 to deliver a hearty Handel part, I also rose, and an image similar to this flashed through my mind:
I was convinced the action was taking place at the bottom of the sea. Of course. It must be The Enchanted Island effect. You might think I’m being unnecessary silly but shouldn’t we be truthful about the effects of music on us?
The singers were fine. I remember Hulett as the Oronte from that very fine Alcina from Moscow. His tone is good for Handel but as you well know by now, I like more colour in the voice. Bevan sounded to me particularly mezzo-ish here, perhaps due to the rather low lying parts of what she had to sing and also the way she attacked the acuti. Platt has been someone I look forward to hearing since his very entertaining stint as Caronte in the 2015 ROH Orfeo. Here he sang with gusto and that burnished bass tone as well, both as part of the choir (his biggest part) and as a soloist. The orchestra – Baroque bows aplenty, solid bassoon action and very fun trumpet interventions – sounded velvety.
A while ago a blogger who specialises in London trails liked my post about ‘giardiniera where I talk at some length about South Ken/how to get to RCM. I thought it might be a good idea to take some pictures for readers possibly unfamiliar with London, pictures illustrating how I get to Wiggy or St George’s etc. (you can click for biger views)
- It was only after I noticed the handy (or bummy?) cushion that I remembered the Pharos had sat in front of me before, but at a show where I upgraded to the right). Wiggy is the kind of place where you do end up seeing familiar faces after a while. ↩
- It’s always fun to see 20+ people crammed on the Wiggy stage. I see with pleasure that this trend continues to be joyfully pursued. ↩
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.
Again catching up with my links of interest. I didn’t intend to write about this (because it’s so long and I only had 2 1/2hrs set out for it), all I wanted was to casually listen to it whilst sewing a curtain for the kitchen (as you do).
But I was soon very impressed with how Mark Elder handled the score. He kept it light and clear and flowing though the tempi weren’t particularly speedy. His cast was very well chosen for Rossini, with – aside from the main ladies who were known quantities to me and of which Barcellona is a current staple in Rossini contralto roles – an excellent Assur in Mirko Palazzi and a pretty neat Idreno in Barry Banks.
I don’t reccommend the interval chat (more of an intro to Rossini’s Semiramide pre-recorded chat), because the two talkers say little of any importance. On top of that, one of them has the horrible old skool habit of calling everything enormous (the scale of the opera, the length of the acts, the difficulty of the title role etc.) and the other’s speech is riddled with irksome parasites such as “sort of” and “if you like”. I sort of didn’t like it.
I don’t yet know if they finished as well as they started but it seems a very good choice for anyone who wants a contemporary take on Semiramide. Opera Rara with Elder/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and this very cast (= the same team) have actually just finished recording it UNCUT so you’ll get to hear it in all its 4hrs+ glory as soon as they sort it out.
Edit 16/09/16: finally finished it! Very good stuff. I’m now curious how the recording will be, comparatively.
Dvořák, Cello Concerto
Cello: Alban Gerhardt
Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle
Bluebeard: John Relyea
Judit: Ildikó Komlósi
Conductor: Charles Dutoit | Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Radio 3 broadcasts all the Proms, so in case you’ve missed this event, you can listen to it here (opera starts at 1:19:00). The pre-opera talk (starting at 54:00) about Bluebeard‘s libretto and how Bartók got to writing an opera is also worth listening to, considering it’s both metaphorical and a keen psychological exploration of love and its consequences. In regards to the vocal style, two important things are discussed: Bartók was inspired by Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and adapted that very unoperatic way of writing to the prosody of Hungarian language, which is of course very different from French.
Alban Gerhardt did the solo cello honours on the Dvořák and then encored with Bach’s Prelude to the Cello Suite #6 in D major, which, though I didn’t know (and I didn’t hear what he said) I was able to recognise as Bach. So it’s not just Vivaldi 😉 You can tell I’m not the biggest cello fan and I was actually a bit alarmed when I saw him return for an encore (let’s get on with the main dish!), but I will say I appreciated the emotional complexity of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto as well as Gerhardt’s gentle/feathery style.
Having (for sentimental reasons) booked a seat dangerously close to the organ and… behind the singers, I missed a great deal of the vocals so I returned to the Radio 3 broadcast myself, for further edification. Either the singers didn’t want to shout (well, they shouldn’t, it’s not that kind of opera) or sitting behind a bass and a mezzo is another definition for snookered. Common sense would sway one against sitting behind singers… except the hall is so big (capacity: 5,272) that the prospect of sitting central but too far from everything didn’t appeal.
The moral: if you want to hear the singers you need to fork out for a central seat or stand in the pit. I don’t want to stand in the pit unless it’s a rock concert (and even then, if a lawn chair is on offer I’ll leave the young and restless the pleasure of early onset varicose veins).
The good news is the orchestra’s sound was crystal clear. Even the harps were perfectly audible. Let alone the pipe organ, which unsettled me with its interventions. The radio broadcast will give you clarity for singers but loses orchestra’s spaciousness. If nothing else, the huge Royal Albert Hall showcases the sound of the orchestra.
And this is a mesmerising score that has to be heard in a hall rather than on record. Since seeing it last year and due to its brevity, I’ve become quite familiar with it (I’ve probably listened to the Kertesz/Berry/Ludwig version for about 20 times). I was on the edge of my seat throughout, with my eyes glued to the orchestra, eager to see who makes all the wonderful sounds which build this musical mystery. The singers didn’t much interact but in this case it made sense. Bluebeard should stay a cypher to the end.
But as far as I could hear, Komlósi sounds a shade brighter in the house compared to the broadcast. Relyea keeps the solidity and darkness but on the radio you can actually understand what he’s saying 😉 Both of them did a very good job, with Komlósi downright outstanding in navigting this very interesting role; Judit’s initial enthusiasm, her subsequent forcefulness and her fears and horror were all there. Then again, she’s sung it once or twice, as well as recorded it.
I was curious if the spoken word intro would be skipped. It was kept, with Relyea reciting it in English, which was not a bad idea in itself, but I wish it wasn’t superimposed to the very evocative orchestral intro. It’s one of my favourite intros/overtures and I sometimes listen to it for its own sake.
There’s a strong jazz era atmosphere to it. In fact the music is so rich in texture and so vivid (with the xylophone and the celesta and all sorts of other percussion and the army of winds heavily featured and the harps and the pipe organ) it’s basically a film noire. It helps to know the jist of the libretto but you can survive very well without knowing every word; the music will show everything in a way that words can’t quite. This is, I think, one of Bartók’s great achievements: expressing the essence of the libretto, the beyond-words deep recesses of the human soul. Judit is the reasonable one who names the experiences behind each door.
The pre-opera talk panel members emphasise the extreme darkness of the libretto. I would say it’s rather just enough. Intimacy isn’t a walk in the park, is it? Usually there is a reason why hidden things aren’t being aired. And also: forcing someone to show things about themselves – things they are used to hiding – has an unsettling effect on that person.
As the opera starts, Bluebeard keeps urging Judit to enter. He sounds (to me) a bit uncertain, as if he doesn’t want to lose his nerve. Judit, of course, is all sunshine and good (she thinks) intentions. The panel touched on the role reversal, with Bluebeard beckoning and Judit being the active/penetrating force, the agent of change. Upon entering she discovers with amazement and some alarm that the castle has no windows/sunshine. But she plows on – and here Judit veteran Komlósi phrases the line with a wonderful mixture of apprehension and determination – to find the truth, because, as Judit says, she loves him.
With each demand for the key to the next door, the determination turns into the frenzy of realisation there is no way back and the admission of love gets smaller and more uncertain. It’s also interesting that Bluebeard, far from being menacing, keeps advising her to be cautious. He sounds like there is a struggle within him between being unable to resist her demands and a great reluctance to reveal himself. Anyone with a bit of Richard Strauss experience will recognise his influence in the piercing call of the flutes, heralding a new discovery.
The plinking of the celesta suggests the sparkling of the gold and jewels in the third room. I like how it keeps plinking whilst they’re talking. As I was saying, super cinematic. A solo horn then expresses the spaciousness of the garden (and its link to hunting, I suppose) behind the fourth door. The winds join it to add layers of foliage and then the flutes bring in the birds and butterflies. The broadcast really can’t translate the tremendousness of sound that came out that huge pipe organ when the 5th door opened. I knew what was coming and I was still like this :-O :-O :-O
All is thine forever, Judith.
Here both dawn and twilight flourish.
Here sun, moon, and stars have dwelling.
They shall be thy deathless playmates.
Can’t get more poetic than that in a libretto, eh? You can read the English translation here.
So Bluebeard has opened up to her but she, to the tune of a distant trumpet that acompanies the same grandious phrase now paler and sort of desintegrating, still focuses on the underlying bloodiness of his world. It’s hard, when you’ve opened up to someone, to see them underwhelmed and realise that they still have their own version of it all, which is a lot less grand than yours. Poor Bluebeard’s music gets downwright jazzy when he tries to entice her with his version of who he is. His style of seduction is cool and relaxed earlier on when he responds to her very energetic (dramatic soprano playground) demands and playful – even amorous – here. Yet she still wants to open the last two doors.
Finally Bluebeard has allowed the sunshine in, which was her goal (or so she thought) in the beginning, but now she‘s not happy. You can tell they both influenced each other. She made him share the burden, which, in turn, made him happy. He made her change her goal, from simply seeking happiness to looking for truth. Or maybe he just made her unhappy 😉
The lake of tears is illustrated with the help of the harps and the celesta and it feels (to me) like stale water in a cement basement. This is a pretty good metaphor for tears. Then, interestingly again, the same phrase is done on a lower key on the harps when she doesn’t answer his call to kiss him. This is the trouble with these cinematic scores: you end up dissecting every phrase to the best of your ability, because every phrase hits emotionally.
The moment before the seventh door is opened is another very loud one, now heavy, as opposed to the major key one for the 5th door. It’s a good time as any to say that Maestro did an excellent job with the work, which covers a very wide range, from delicate ppps to Strauss-loud’n’heavy. Like I was saying earlier, I was on the edge of the seat throughout (thank goodness it’s short), never losing focus of the ever changing moods. And even on second listen via the broadcast I can tell it wasn’t just my appreciation for the music speaking. He reined in the orchestra very well and he navigated the transitions with lots of care, so that the myriad of details wouldn’t be lost.
A last interesting detail in the libretto is how, when telling Judit the stories of his three silent wives, Bluebeard doesn’t finish at the third one, but goes on to talk about her in the third person. Judit reminds him she’s still there. The description of the wives and Bluebeard giving them each the rule over the time of day when they met has echoes of Hades and Persephone. I’ve always felt they weren’t so much dead as enslaved in some way.
Most traditional societies tend to have myths where some earth spirit takes a wife from the land of living. She has a lot of freedom within his realm, with the one rule that she can never leave. Perhaps a metaphor for traditonal marriage 😉 It’s interesting how, in what is essentially a pagan story, the truth does not set you free. People often stay together because of the convenience of familiarity.
An emotional – as well as intellectually challenging – evening and equally emotional re-listening to it on the radio. It’s one of those works that has wormed a special place in my heart, the kind I would always be happy to see live.
Thought I’d point out that I made some updates to that unusually scatterbrained entry 😉 This blog is testimony that I’m not quite as lacking in discipline as it sometimes feels like… [ / end navel gazing, though we could have some naval gazing to go with that post ].
Out of that long list of Autumn 2016 at Wigmore Hall I posted a while ago I managed to secure the following:
But before all that there’s a return to the Proms (deities help us with the acoustics) with a concert performance of that badass 20th century 1 act opera:
03/08 Bluebeard’s Castle (Ildikó Komlósi and John Relyea)
…and who knows how the shaky state of events will impinge on my concert going afterwards (I know, first world problems; the (not so U)K is still part of the first world… for now).
Even so, looking at the ROH shows coming up on General Sale in a fortnight, there is Cosi which I will have to wing somehow (though I have no idea about Corinne Winters ? I hope Bychkov can keep it light) and this curious Norma. I don’t know what to say. Isn’t Yoncheva a bit young for Norma? Fura del Baus, though, sounds like might do something with this very difficult to stage opera. Then there’s Hoffmann…
It’s out on the Wigmore Hall site (which is not supported by my Chrome browser; whatever it is missing I don’t know as I use it for most everything else; but I suppose we’ve established google-related stuff is a bit shit).
I’ve spent a couple of hours combing the online booklet for a wishlist but obviously there’s more (please excuse the caps but no way I am typing all that again; might be wise double checking the dates):
10 SOILE ISOKOSKI
22 FREIBURG BAROCK ORCH
1 BABS HANNIGAN
2 STUTZMANN / ORFEO 55
5 BONI! / SEMIRAMIDE
23 TOBY SPENCE 3PM
23 JAMIE BARTON 7:30PM
3 & 4 FASSBAENDER MASTERCLASS 1PM
10 I DAVIES
15 HAIM / MOZART
24 STU JACKSON
28 LA CALISTO 7:30PM
29 PRINA / INVERNIZZI (third time’s the charm?)
31 ENGLISH CONCERT 7PM
9 EGARR HARPSI RECITAL
16 MONTEVERDI MADRIGALS
29 ST. DEGOUT
15 MATT ROSE
18 UCHIDA /CLARINET
29 EARLY OPERA CO
9 TALENS LYRICQUES
12 COUPERIN CONCERT
17 LONDON HANDEL PLAYERS
1 ZAZZO / LUTE 1PM
8 GENS 1PM
10 BOSTRIDGE / 9 JULY
7 ENGLISH CONCERT
11 BEN JOHNSON
24 BARTOLI / JAROUSSKY
7 ANTONACCI 7PM
It is the first time ROH has produced the original (1869) version. This production was a mixed bag for me. The biggest problem was that I didn’t feel the inherent “Russian-ness”. This isn’t the kind of general feel opera which you can transpose anywhere, any time and it feels timeless. This is “exotic” in the sense thst it deals with a very specific part of the world and very specific reactions to circumstances. It is timeless that way.
Boris Godunov: Bryn Terfel
Prince Shuisky: John Graham-Hall
Andrey Shchelkalov: Kostas Smoriginas
Grigory Otrepiev: David Butt Philip
Pimen: Ain Anger
Varlaam: John Tomlinson
Missail: Harry Nicoll
Xenia: Vlada Borovko
Yurodivy (Holy Fool): Andrew Tortise
Xenia’s Nurse: Sarah Pring
Hostess of the inn: Rebecca de Pont Davies
Mityukha: Adrian Clarke
Frontier Guard: James Platt
Nikitich: Jeremy White
Fyodor: Ben Knight
Boyar: Nicholas Sales
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Richard Jones
You have to sell The Pretender somehow. Grown men “forged in the heat of battle” end up shitting their fine linen when some 20 year old (The Pretender) announces he’s the murdered crown prince as he had not died after all, the sole explaination being “weird dreams” (his own). This kind of thing flies in parts of the world where people still trample each other queueing to touch saintly relics. Here in the West, though, this kind of experience isn’t readily available to artists seeking to portray such a surrealist atmosphere.
As a result I felt once again that the necessary mysterious and unsettling non so che was missing. Ever seen the 1956 Hollywood version of War in Peace? Absolutely awful, awful, every actor miscast, the tone of the piece completely wrong. This is better, because the music is always there to save their arses. And, to be fair, the singers aren’t miscast. Just not nearly Russian enough.
Richard Jones’ staging was also only superficially Russian. The arched, golden “court area” above the stage was a good idea and gave it a bit of atmosphere. But then his team chose to have the boyars dressed as they would in Musorgsky’s time. Another hark-back (forward?) to the composer’s time. Sigh. I don’t know why directors love this idea. In this case it felt completely out of place, not adding anything useful but further ruining the meager atmosphere. The peasants/regular people wore peasant-y clothes, all in various shades of grey. Fair enough. Then, all of a sudden, for one of the big choruses, the choir returned dressed in bright, multipatterned attire. Some people (monks) wore robes but mixed with contemporary footwear. The Pretender (Otrepiev) wore a contemporary jacket and jumper bought in a second hand shop from a poor area. Him, of all people, was firmly placed nowadays.
I guess the fact that the crown prince is repeatedly shown being murdered in the arched, gold “court area” is meant to remind us that no, The Pretender is definitely not him – resurrected or not (the libretto is rather vague on how the crown prince might’ve escaped). Just in case we thought otherwise. Don’t flatter yourselves, the production has not an ounce of strangeness to it. We’re still firmly ensconced in a reality where you can’t even begin to consider such things.
Musically the most memorable bit was the peaceful part that almost reached a medieval feel where Pimen the chronicler monk is talking about how he wants to preserve history so that what has happened – in which he includes prophecies and rumours – is not lost to future generations. Wagnerian bass Ain Anger as Pimen was for me the most touchingly lyrical presence in the whole peace.
Not to say that Terfel in the title role wasn’t good. He sang with sesitivity and his voice feels good to the ear in this role but dramatically he was more Lear than Godunov. His interaction with Ben Knight as Godunov’s son Fyodor was excellent.
The rogue-ish monks Varlaam and Missail were very entertaining but – again – in a Western OTT way. Listen how Kuznecov sings the drinking song in a Gergiev-led version; there’s a certain impishness with a tinge of fairytale to it. When I heard this I was immediately transported to Gogol’s world. With Tomlinson it was a lot of fun but Viy didn’t come to mind even for a moment.
There is a debate as to where the best seats are for different types of opera but I think the first few rows in the gods are always a very good to decent bet. In this case I was sitting centrally and still the Coronation Scene could best be described as noisy: the chorus was loud, the bells were loud, the orchestra took it up 3-4 notches. I’m surprised we were spared sirens and airplanes taking off. I know it’s supposed to be loud, but I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason.
I dozed off through most of what happens once the Pretender escapes the border patrol to Lithuania but (likewise) came back to life for Godunov’s elaborate dying scene. I’ve since given it another listen at home and I think I’d’ve liked it better had I known it a bit more. Some other time, then – with a Russian cast/conductor.