Category Archives: basses
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.
Yours truly’s purse has taken a heavy hit today as these two fine opera purveyors have decided to start their General Sale on the same day. Luckily Wigmore Hall’s is on 5 February (whew). Here’s what I got:
London Handel Fest
Ariodante – my demands are few: Dopo notte and a good Polinesso. Let’s hope so!
Maria Ostroukhova recital – anyone who includes La bocca vaga in their recital has my attention.
Berenice – “She (Berenice) has her sights on the Macedonian prince Demetrio. But he loves Berenice’s sister Selene,” – my hope is we’ll get a nice mezzo-countertenor duet out of this. In any case, looking forward to Michal Czerniawski.
Elpidia (pasticcio) – Opera Settecento returns with some of our local faves
Alexander Balus was so overpriced I had to let it go. The prices seemed high in general, but the festival offers discounts for booking 3+ events.
After discovering Dido and Aeneas thanks to thadieu’s recent Anna Caterina Antonacci obsession 😉 I thought I’d relax with a bit of funeral music by Purcell. At the tail end of the performance I found another1 great duet (from
Purcell Weldon’s The Tempest) that showcases the lower voice:
It’s not often that the lower voice springs out in a duet but here we have the wonderful opportunity to hear just that (without inconveniencing the soprano either). Great job all!
Back to contemporary opera, this time Rautavaara’s Rasputin. Title character’s entrance aria shoots for hypnotic and then there are the beautiful lyrics about the handsome wild lands of Siberia with which he “heals” the Tsarevich. I like Matti Salminen’s acting a lot and there’s something alluring about his singing. It’s rather pleasant; grand opera for the 21st century perhaps.