Category Archives: basses

Rinaldo: a story of love, battle and colonialism (Barbican, 13 March 2018)

Almost a year after Ariodante, the London public has returned to the Barbican for Handel’s first local smash hit, 1711’s Rinaldo. Set during the First Crusade, Rinaldo manages the feat to be both unapologetically silly and decidedly un-PC. Goffredo’s army has come very close to liberating Sion from the Saracens when Argante’s top scheming ally, the witch Armida, has nonchalantly plucked Rinaldo’s beloved from under his nose.

Armida: sorry, stud, I need your fiance for a moment. poof!
Rinaldo: … what just happened? … and where is Almirena? [aka, Cara sposa]

Goffredo: you can get my daughter back after we conquer Sion.
Rinaldo: no! Almirena first, battle next.

He might be young and relatively unexperienced but things fall into place the way he wants them to. Super bonus: the baddies, Argante and Armida, willingly (narrow miss) convert to Christianity! All in a day’s work.

The English Concert
Harry Bicket conductor
Iestyn Davies Rinaldo
Jane Archibald Armida
Sasha Cooke Goffredo
Joelle Harvey Almirena
Luca Pisaroni Argante
Jakub Józef Orliński Eustazio
Owen Willetts Mago

As far as concert performances go, this was a mixed bag. The English Concert was in its usual high form, very disciplined, at best in the muscular parts of the score, with just minimal desynchs in the wind section and some – I guess inevitable – trumpet clarity trouble in the trills of Or la tromba. To the trumpets’ credit, they absolutely rocked Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto, which was the highlight of the night for me (surprise, surprise). They did such a good job as far as I’m concerned that they very narrowly upstaged Pisaroni.

Everybody before him (and some after) started a bit cautiously but he took this massive entrance aria with the right aplomb and confidence (and sang without a score through the night). It didn’t hurt that his voice was 2 sizes larger than everyone else’s. However he didn’t show this off for the sake of muscle flexing and resized back for the rest of his interventions. Even here he played with volume dynamics in the coloratura – perhaps foreshadowing Argante’s weakness? Now if you have volume and you’re called to sing an aria such as this I’m all for you firing on all cylinders 😀 and if you can play with it, that’s even better.

Pisaroni was also the most committed acting-wise, showing softeness when Argante falls for Almirena, (almost comical) caution and passion with lover/ally Armida and a very smooth U-turn at the end, when the baddies admit deafeat. This on top of the right amount of boastfulness of a “feared enemy”. It’s a silly role but a more nuanced one that you’d immediately give credit.

As Armida, Archibald was her usual self, I guess. I’m not a fan (for me she’s a soprano who has a very ringing but rather unpleasant top and little of interest elsewhere) but I will allow that, dramatically, her interactions with Pisaroni were rather fun. Vocally she was one of the most cautious ones, so Furie terribili was a bust – at least for me. Let us not forget that Handel wrote for virtuosi, who cherished the challenge to make a grand entrance, whereas I felt that she was still guaging how far her voice could go. If you have a voice large and sonorous enough to sing Strauss I’d say you could blast through a 2min Handel bravura aria (ok, ok, different style and all – but still; also as far as style went I thought she did well). But aside from a not entirely style-appropriate reach to the top of her voice later on, you wouldn’t have known what volume she has at her disposal. The coloratura was correct, if rather robotic (as Baroque Bird noted) but the moments when she cruelly played with Rinaldo by manhandling Almirena weren’t bad dramatically.

She was also unfairly hampered by the harpischord in that aria that features the keyboard at length, I wouldn’t know what to tell you about her interpreation, thank you overbearing harpsi. Imagine your concert performance is going well, with the various instruments having their moments, when an aria comes where you detect more prominent than usual harsichord involvement. At first I thought “how cool! There harpsi comes to the forefront to loudly let us know what it thinks, not just to whisper as it normally does – it’s ok if all the others (including the soprano) have to stop, turn around and pay attention.” It was ok and interesting even the second time. Then the third time came. Ok, I thought, Tom Foster is a very skilled player, why not? Oh, and this is actually an aria and the soprano is trying to convey something or another. What was that again? Nevermind, the harpsi will return for a fourth time. So all in all in that aria, the harpsi had centre stage for about 15min and the sorpano for 3. Classic(al) drum solo moment if I’ve ever seen one!

It was only upon further researching that I realised that was Vo far guerra (Archibald’s Italian diction isn’t anything to write home about…) and the harpsichord part is nowhere near as verbose, though it’s there and it’s definitely fun [edit: well, I’m proven kinda wrong. In the sense you can improv the hell out of it – according to your taste. It’s better if it’s at the end, though]. You’ll ask yourself, “come on, dehggi, you didn’t know Vo far guerra?!” Dear reader, I thought I did (kinda; that being said I totally forgot about Or la tromba until it started). One of the problems with the Barbican’s open plan hall is that if you’re seated on the Balcony and have my eyesight you can’t read the surtitles (I used the opera glasses to keep up with the plot but you can’t do it all the time or chance a headache).

Now of course I know Baroque is all about excess and if the singers can do their shtick, why not the instruments? Right, but it’s still an opera and not a keyboard concerto with bonus singing. Nevermind, judged by the ovations, this was the crowd’s favourite moment of the night, so there you go.

Iestyn Davies has been our local Rinaldo for a while now but I have to say he wasn’t in top form the other night. He came off a bit pale, both vocally and dramatically (most alive as a lover in his interactions with Harvey’s Almirena) and, hate to say it, his Rinaldo was upstaged in both stage presence and vocal shine by Orliński’s Eustazio – who has already sung his own Rinaldo in Frankfurt and I could see why.

I noticed some physical struggle with Davies’ coloratura in the massive bravura arias, which took his attention away from the drama. Especially in Or la tromba one needs to look like a very hopeful hero, ready to take on the last challenge in battle, and all I got from him was careful singing. I know it comes very late in the game but, you know, tough luck. In defense of the trumpets, aside from some tonal blur in the trills, the rest was great, beautiful sound, very good synch. I feel like I need to reiterate this because the trumpets were a pleasure and I know this is very difficult (impossible?) to do spotless with those valveless Baroque instruments.

To illustrate what I missed here dramatically, I’ll leave you with this concert performance (don’t be deterred by the low quality audio):

Harvey continues to baffle me. Though a singer of pleasant tone, vocal commitment and good technical skills, her stage presence is nonexistant. Glyndebourne is mere months away, I wager she needs to do something, because at this point, dramatically I have very low expectations from her Cleopatra. That being said, Almirena’s second aria was beautiful singing, my favourite from hers so far. The Augelletti aria not so much, though the piccolo was the bigger culprit (I didn’t like the tone, though I won’t argue if you call me nitpicky).

Like I mentioned earlier, I liked Orliński a lot. He and Pisaroni had the best stage presence and enthusiasm by far and he showed a very beautiful tone and nuanced phrasing. I’m going to see him in concert soonish, so expect to read something more in depth here once I hear more from him.

Cooke as Goffredo wasn’t bad, perhaps one needs to hear more before making a definitive call (I hadn’t heard her before). I couldn’t make my mind up if she was a low mezzo or a contralto but that wasn’t a problem. She came off as a good Goffredo, who’s supposed to be older and wiser – with unhurried gestures and a fairly authoritative vocal presence. She is one of those singers whose chest register sounds very different from her top. The chest is pretty solid though not particularly resonant whilst she can get a very strong ring out of her top. It’s quite metallic but rather intriguing, so I’d like to hear more of it. As an aside, hairwise she sported the curl of joy 😉 so there is a little extra bonus there.

All in all, a good, if not great evening. I’m way less familiar with Rinaldo than with Ariodante and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music Handel produced before his 26th birthday (it premiered the day after). The number of arias that have become Handel classics is impressive and the lesser known ones ain’t bad either.

The conversations around me were way amusing (how many times have we seen Davies? Three? No, many! Even when Farinelli transfered to the West End! He was also in something else here, though in a secondary role [dehggi: he was Ottone in Poppea a couple almost 4 years back, which is known as not having lesser roles – actually his E pur io torno qui is very nice]), though Mr. Twitter with fascist hair’s constant leaning directly in my line of view, especially during Cara sposa, wasn’t. I know not everyone suffers as much as I do if I can’t see the singers but I hate the disconnect. I have to say this was the first time I had “restricted view” at the Barbican. Moral of the story: never get second row Balcony seats, try higher.

Anyway! the next Handel opera concert performance at the Barbican is Serse this coming October, with Pomo d’Oro and a starry cast, including a certain contralto referenced in this very post 😀 I coughed up £40 for a second row Stalls seat so let’s hope all is good by then.

(as usual, sorry for the possible typos)


ROH Semiramide Radio 3 broadcast alert (Sat, 6 January 2018)

Thanks to thadieu for signalling this for all interested parties:

Semiramide on Radio 3, Saturday, 6 January 2018, 6pm GMT

If that alone doesn’t fill your JDD fix, 6 January is your day, as BBC 3 is running one of her American Songbook recitals at 1pm GMT.

All about his mother (Semiramide take 2, ROH 4 December 2017)

…with the bust of Adelina Patti, who sang Semiramide in the 1890s.

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).

late November view of London from Alexandra Palace

  1. Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). 

Strongly introspective Semiramide (ROH, 25 November 2017)

major spoilers (credit: ROH)

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.

“let’s get the Rossini face on!” (credit: JDD’s website)

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.

credit: Tristram Kenton via

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.

  1. 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. 

Alcina of extensive musings (Paris, 22 May 2004)

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

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance 2017 (ROH, 16 July 2017)

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.

Handel’s Alceste with singing lobsters (Wigmore Hall, 29 March 2017)

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 HWV45

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:

a fine substitute for a singing lobster choir! (click for a funny blog post that has nothing whatsoever to do with opera)

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)

once you exit the tube at Oxford Circus, you can reach Wiggy walking up ahead Oxford Street or making a right on Regent Street and then first left.

I like to pass through Cavendish Sq going towards the red building in the background. Your destination is across the grand building on the left. I enjoy a pre-opera snack in front of that funky bath shop

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 

A paragon of wit (to do Rossini proud)


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.

Fluid Semiramide at the 2016 Proms

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.

Bluebeard’s Castle (Proms, 3 August 2016)

RAH pipe organ: hair raising sound

Prom 25

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.