Category Archives: countertenors
How fitting for the Handel season – I found myself in the right place at the right time for this webcast (we used the medici.tv channel) and ended up having a very enjoyable watching party “with” thadieu and Agathe, based on Giulia’s report from the house (which you can read here if you haven’t yet; it’ll help make sense of what I’m only mentioning in passing). I’m not going into the whole thing because I don’t know Rodelinda enough but I wanted to share a few impressions:
- what a (musically) wonderful opera! The perils of being exposed to the wrong singers/etc. come to mind when I think I’ve deprived myself of it for so long; lovely work from Bolton et all balancing the sweet mournfulness with the action
- yes to the 5 countertenors but can Bejun Mehta spin a dulcet line or what? I was floored by Bertarido’s entrance aria. Looking forward to Gia dagli occhi… in 3 months’ time!
- Eduige: more reasons to love Prina; seriously, the role works so well for her. Wish she had more to sing. She had some really fun things to do here, quite surprisingly considering it was a Guth production
- speaking of Guth, I agree he doesn’t quite get the Baroque ethos, but I did enjoy the whole kid + nightmares part and the unexpected humour; the Personnenregie is always paid attention to in his work and it was here as well
- I was further surprised how much I liked Lucy Crowe considering I’m not usually a fan. This was easily the best performance I’ve seen/heard from her.
When Wiggy posted their upcoming season we (Team London) looked curiously at this date. He’s singing what? I wanted to see DD because I really like his
Furibondo spira il vento tone so if he was singing Beethoven so be it.
It all started with Daniels apologising for obliterating his bowtie due to stage jitters. Perhaps if he waltzed in without mentioning it no one would’ve been the wiser (though what do I know, I’m all for casual chic and for moving swiftly on) but after that I’m sure we all focused on his collar. It was kinda cute.
David Daniels countertenor
Martin Katz piano
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Adelaide Op. 46
Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695)
Music for a while Z583
A Fool’s Preferment Z571
– I’ll sail upon the dog star
– Sweeter than roses Z585
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Op. 51
The first part was dominated by the Britten canticle, for which DD benefitted from help from tenor buddy David Webb. Their voices matched very well and they got into character enough to give the piece expressivity so that anyone could tell who was Abraham and who was Isaac. I liked it -> I should listen to more Britten.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
– Pompe vane di morte!… Dove sei, amato bene?
– Si, l’infida consorte… Confusa si miri
Ten Thousand Miles Away (arr. Steven Mark Kohn)
On the other shore (arr. Marita Kohler)
Wanderin’ (arr. Marita Kohler)
The Farmer’s Curst Wife (arr. Marita Kohler)
After the interval we were on familiar territory, with DD giving us a bit of his well known Bertarido. DD is the type of coutertenor with a very smooth voice and a youthful, sensitive tone (by which I mean plaintive but not schmalzy), which fits soulful arias better than vicious ones.
But we (Baroque Bird and I) agreed that the most memorable part was the traditional bit, with The Farmer’s Curst Wife coming off a riot. So yes (from me) to coutertenors singing art song and, in this case, traditional song. I’m quite fond of traditional in general and I wish more opera singers included it in their song recitals.
Maybe you’re wondering what I mean by the sponge metaphor. Whilst listening I kept imagining a gently squeezed sponge, which refers to elasticity and to smoothness across the range as well as softness of tone. It’s true that he’s the old school kind of countertenor – neither as fast nor as interested in proving chest note prowess (I don’t think he ventured that way) as the current crop – but the kind of elegant wistful emotion he can produce is still endearing and unique, to my ears at least. Even in the Baroque repertoire it’s not all about athleticism.
And, yes, it’s the end of the month hence the pedal to the metal with a flurry of posts after days of languidity.
According to WP stats, 2016 was the year where I achieved the most with the least effort (119 posts published before this one, though we might get to 125 by the end of the year; by contrast, there were 140 posts in 2015 and 211 in 2013), which is a fine motto by me 😉
So let’s see what people liked to read on opera, innit? this year:
- “revival adriana lecouvreur roh 2016-17”
- Akhnaten at ENO (take 2)
- Ann Hallenberg (Gluck and Mozart)
- Juditha triumphans
- Akhnaten at ENO (take 1)
- Stutzmann and Orfeo 55 (Vivaldi)
- ROH 2016-2017 confirmed
- Maria Ostroukhova recital
- ROH Spring Season/London Handel Fest General Sale
- Ariodante at RCM (take 1)
The most read Tito was Röschmann’s Tito (how very surprising, I know).
Translation: Baroque, something unsual with countertenor, something properly old school with diva and what’s coming next at ROH. I am obviously not surprised about all the Baroque, or even about Akhnaten – because we haven’t had it in 30 years and ENO can do spectacular when it wants (or still) and in this case it definitely did, but I didn’t expect La Lecouvreur to get so much attention. We’ll all have to wait until February 7 to see if the bated breath was worth it (aka, if La Gheorghiu still has it). But yes, Akhnaten (I really hope they filmed it) and all the Baroque was the dog’s bollocks, fully deserving to be shared with all.
There are no doubts around these parts about Baroque but I’m very glad people have read about Akhnaten; it’s a wonderful “mood piece” about which I have very little to bitch (and that only when I’m especially mardy; my chief complaint is the title role should be sung by a mezzo or contralto 😉 you could see that one coming, I know) and I think more people should listen to it and definitely see it if it comes anywhere near them. I consider myself wildly lucky to have seen it performed “in my backyard” so soon after becoming acquainted with it.
- spelled like that, is a new search engine term via which someone found my blog.
- the reason I’m writing about this is because I’m quite adamant about privacy in general. I can see why someone would be interested in the whereabouts of a beloved celeb (ie, in which country they live, especially if they are originally from a place not at the centre of the opera world). Sometimes they are open and they talk about it themselves. Fair enough. But I still feel it’s less our business. Leave them be.
- you might think differently and that’s ok. There is a reason people chat with singers after the show. I’m ambivalent about that (as you may have noticed). Chatting might be very pleasant but you shouldn’t forget that the person on stage is somene else.
- I don’t know where he lives. I also don’t know whom he’s dating (if he is dating anyone) – this related to another search engine term. Please don’t illuminate me about either. Or about any other opera singer I like (but you can tell me about who those I don’t like have broken up with! this is a schadenfreude happy zone, not a nunnery – after all).
Very high countertenors (sopranistas? is there a difference?) are not usually my thing, but this one won me over with his tenderly beautiful lyric tone. I ran into him only because I wanted to hear some more Jommelli and I randomly clicked on this:
The screechy leggiero soprano has the kind of voice that makes me stuff cottonballs in my ears and run for the hills (I guess it was hard to find a soprano with a higher and lighter voice than his) but the contrast between the two made a perfect showcase for his voice, so I clicked on the solo aria, for clarification. He convinced me.
The comment below the video of Cara, deh serbami brought on the interesting subject of timing and/or luck. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this: how many great singers that never were are there somewhere? This one at least has had a career but surely not a super bright one, or I’d have heard of him by now? Maybe it’s just me, but judging by the comment it seems that indeed he was born too early. These days he’d be singing in every important Baroque venue.
The rumours aren’t true, the great Viennese beast has not gulped me 😉 I’ve just been tired and/or otherwise engaged but luckily today is an absolutely lovely Mayday, super slow and lazy at work = perfect blog updating conditions.
So whilst being distracted by life I missed the fact TadW was going to and did livestream this. Anyway, my main reason for going was to hear the Arnold Schoenberg Choir in the flesh. This is hardly the most choir-friendly opera (they had exactly 3 things to sing, though they were on stage for much longer than that) but having sorely missed them (and Rene Jacobs) in Idomeneo earlier this year I took my chances this time, because seeing them in the same place where I “found” them is extra special.
Also though Bayerische Staatsoper is my temple of music, Theater an der Wien is currently the place where I’ve had the best all around memories – each of the three times I’ve been there was memorable in its own way. This reminds me of a short chat I had with thadieu yesterday where she made me pause for a moment and put things in perspective. Namely, what a great venue Wigmore Hall is. But the heart is easily seduced by greener pastures, isn’t it? 😉 Now’s a good moment to take a deep breath and ponder on the luxury of having been able to attend performances at all of them.
Lucio Silla: Alessandro Liberatore
Giunia: Olga Pudova
Cecilio: Franco Fagioli
Cinna: Chiara Skerath
Celia: Ilse Eerens
Conductor: Laurence Equilbey | Insula Orchestra | Arnold Schoenberg Choir
It’s no mystery that I’m fond of Mozart’s opera seria of which the chunkiest ones are Mitridate, Silla, Idomeneo and Tito. Mitridate and Idomeneo have in common the parent-child relationship whereas Silla and Tito are two takes on the benevolent ruler faced with a difficult personal choice cliche. Out of the last two, Silla has the severely inferior libretto, the type where historical fact is but a background for soap opera twists and turns. Which is annoying, as real life Silla was a rather interesting character.
In our case he’s (fictionally) fixated on Cecilio’s wife Giunia, reason for which he banishes Cecilio from Rome, hoping Giunia – incidentally, the daughter of the man he has deposed (Gaius Marius, the great reformer of the Roman army) – will eventually warm up to his insistence. She’s a constant 18th century heroine, so of course she doesn’t, however she has the opportunity to verbally abuse him (with great vocal florish) at every turn. Mozart has written some of his most gleefully difficult music for her and rare is the soprano who can do it proper justice.
Our Giunia was rather good (keeping in mind that I’m sold on Gruberova in this role). She did an especially satifying job with Ah se il crudel periglio which means her coloratura and breath control are exemplary. Basically Giunia’s breath is catching because she’s scared shitless. I’ve heard established sopranos struggle to make its seemingly endless grupetti sound natural instead of backfiring machine gun set to a metronome 😉 She wasn’t quite as emotionally elaborate as the above towering example but I was pleasantly impressed with her fearless approach and technical skill. So if I find it a bit difficult to be objective, let me go further the other way and admit that I found Pudova way cute and I had a hard time looking elsewhere when she was on stage.
Her interactions – both vocal and dramatic – with Fagioli’s Cecilio were excellent and believable, expecially in their D’elisio in sen m’attendi, another one of those swoony Mozart sexy love duets. Who can resist the heart flutter-like twin coloratura? D’elisio… can sit any day next to S’io non moro a questi accenti and Ah perdona il primo affetto. We need two singers to do an entire Mozart sexy duets recital together 😀 My only complaint is that she felt a bit underprojected before intermission. Maybe she needed some time to warm up.
Cecilio was Franco Fagioli whom I was eager to see again in Mozart, now in a smaller house than the ROH. The smaller, more intimate venue certainly works in his favour, especially when it came to understanding what he was saying. His diction is not his strongest point in general but in this case it wasn’t usually a challenge. The trademark warmth of his delivery was also much better supported by TadW’s acoustics.
Though I think he needs more “body”1 for Il tenero momento for the voice to bloom in the beautifully expansive manner that Mozart seems to ask for, he provided a really lovely diminuendo in the da capo and sounded (here and elsewhere) gorgeous and seductive when sentiment was called for. Reminiscent of his usual Baroque repertoire, his take on the bravura aria was satisfying. He got a bit buried in the duets with Pudova’s Giunia but their voice mix was good – they sound the same at the top which works for a lovers’ duet.
Liberatore in the title role (who’s already sung Lucio in that rather meh Liceu production from a couple years back) would make (has made?) a good Idomeneo, given that his bravura aria, Il desìo di vendetta, e di morte, is pretty much a proto Fuor del mar. His bigger voice provided good contrast with the others, especially effective in the trio with Cecilio and Giunia. He makes a pretty good villain.
Ilse Eerens’ (Celia) voice was particularly well projected with a bright top but not excessive ping, good take on top notes (good differentiation) and consistently good acting as everybody’s go-between. She’s Lucio’s sister in love with dissenter Cinna (Cecilio’s best buddy) and on friendly terms with Giunia. Her job is mostly to help Lucio calm (the hell) down and hide her interest in enemies of the state.
Celia’s boyfriend Cinna was sung with pluck by soprano Chiara Skerath. She did a pretty good job in this somewhat thankless trouser role. I think she actually has a solid middle, which is not bad at all for a young soprano 😉 Her coloratura is reliable for early Mozart, though perhaps more vocal oomph was needed to bring across Cinna as the outlaw Annio that he is. Her stage movement was good enough but I think she needs work on facial expressions, especially when she’s not singing.
Now onto the Arnold Schoenberg Choir = not enough singing!!!! Otherwise OMG2, we got a little glimpse at what it can do – very well drilled, lovely tone across the voices, great interplay between the sopranos and the tenors, real expressivity from the get-go, personality – once you heard it, you will recognise it – and, as Anik said, they brought a “Gluck-ish” feel to the proceedings that really worked in this intimate setting by giving it a sort of introverted gravitas.
The moment they got up and started to sing in the scene where Giunia is visiting her father’s grave is still vivid in my mind. A good choir can have a similar effect on you to hearing a favourite singer. But then they also featured on my favourite Silla recording, the Harnoncourt/Gruberova/Bartoli one from 1989 which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in getting (better) acquainted with this opera. Forget about the plot and just listen.
The performance was semi-staged, which meant the singers were in (contemporary) costume and fussed around with some boards but also the Personnenregie was paid more attention to than you’d normally get in a concert performance. I’d say TadW is getting quite good at recycling its surplus stage equipment 😉 Cecilio and Cinna play around with
graffiti red and white chalk, which made me think next time they might give the young chaps a sandbox.
At some point we have Giunia visit Cecilio in prison. That was represented by them talking to each other through mesh fixed to the frame that was normally holding up the boards the boys (yes, not men) were practicing their graffiti skills on. At the end Giunia tears it down and walks through it (ok, around it) to amusing effect (at least for some of us).
Though I wasn’t quite as underwhelmed by Equilbey/Insula Orchestra as thadieu was, I can’t say that I got a very vivid picture about the working of the whole either. The overture – one of my favourites – was taken at a more languid pace than I’m used to from Harnoncourt’s recording. It felt a bit disconcerting but that’s what happens when you have very clear favourites. I liked the very disciplined and prominent though not intrusive harpsichord throughout and I noticed the strings in bulk come in very handsomely at the more anguished moments.
Musically, it wasn’t the best evening but, as they say, the sum of the evening was greater than its parts: Mozart, the choir, the venue and the very good company of thadieu and Anik made for another great Viennese memory.
In spite of the (reoccurring) fickle weather (Tuesday was in the mid teens and sunny, Wednesday around 7C and rainy) Vienna continues to exert its subtle lure on me. Mozart and lazy chummy chats will do that to you.
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
The brown and gold sands of time dissipate to uncover the shadows of Egyptian dieties slowly twisting into 3D from their customary flat positions. Plastic screen-doors on the bottom tier of the stage half conceal the shrouded body of the late pharao. I like that, plastic + mummy. It is traditional but not completely. People in white coats fuss with the body. It feels like a lost X-Files episode.
Last night was my second time seeing Akhnaten live. I liked it more than the first time. The fact that I’ve been obsessively listening to it for the past week might have something to do with it. But perhaps that’s how this one works, it slowly insinuates itself into your awareness (like this).
The 15 March performance will be recorded for BBC3. One hopes there will be a DVD as well? It’s not like the market is crawling with Akhnaten productions.
My interest in the last installment of Glass’s trilogy can be traced back via this blog, the biggest success to date of my Thursday’s Something Else series (on first hearing it I called it “soothing classical music” 😉 ). It’s been a slow burner indeed but constantly at the back of my mind. No wonder people use terms like “mesmerising”. The more you dig, the more there is to discover. As usual, nothing focuses your attention more than a live performance (or two). Perhaps it’s because I’m very visual, but I focus better if I actually see what’s happening. Even watching the bow pulsate over strings makes it all more enjoyable. The cello features heavily and it was a pleasure to watch and listen, as was the brass section, the winds (especially the prominent flute(s) and bass clarinet (ftw!)) and the various percussion – epecially this one.
For this special event I chanced on the £20 “secret seat” twice. I’m so satisfied with my luck that I highly recommend the secret seat scheme. Both seats were in the Dress Circle, the first in row D and the second in row A (no heads in front! and awesome view of the orchestra – did you know Maestra sings along with the chorus?).
Also because it was so special (ENO had last mounted it in 1985) I bought a programme and from it I learned that Hymn to the Sun is a chaconne, Glass making a point of referencing Baroque style writing. The cello obligato part is indeed a thing of beauty. I’m still not sold on the vocal part. It wasn’t helped by the fact that ARC was – here and there – inaudible. Not quite sure what was going on but I don’t remember it from last time. Who knows, memory is very selective. To be fair to him, he soared when called for in his duets/trios with his ladies.
Friday, though, I was under the Balcony overhang which I more or less blamed for whatever was inaudible (mainly bass Clive Bayley as Aye, Nefertiti’s father; barely heard again, kind of annoying, as his part is rather interesting judging by this). Funny thing: this time around the jugglers dropped some of their balls/candles – something else I didn’t remember happening on Friday.
Choreography. The subject matter asks for the opposite kind of acting than what you normally hope for in opera. Namely, not naturalistic. It really feels more like dance than “acting” – underwater dancing, at that. But it works and it adds immensely to the hypnotic nature of the music. I thought Rebecca Bottone as Queen (Mum) Tye had the best knack for this. She looked right at home and (emotionally) moving to boot. She also gets points for great pitch (and ping and stamina) in the insane vocalise during The Temple, when Akhnaten and Tye banish the cult of Amon. In another hark back to Baroque tropes we get ha-ha-ha-has that are actual hahahahas (it feels like they are laughing at the High Priest). Gotta love ’em. Here they came off a lot more comical than in the Stuttgart recording – and what with the jugglers, even playful – so great job all.
Contrasts. It is, I think, unusual in the DVD age to discover an opera via an audio recording. But since this is not a frequently staged opera, I, like most other people, am mainly acquainted with the 1984 Stuttgart version. I enjoyed the Stuttgart Scribe better in the opening recit (Open are the double doors of the horizon, unlocked are its bolts1) because I felt the mythical mood needed a remote, monotonous presentation. But I liked the ENO Scribe (bass Zachary James) better in the recit preceeding The City, the scene that depicts the building of Akhnaten’s new capital, where his lively, theatrical rendition fits the buzz and excitment of the new.
This brings me back to the acting in Hymn to the Sun. I said last time that ARC did not possess the kind of charisma needed to carry this pivotal moment. Well, on seeing it again I think the fault isn’t entirely his (plus he did very well in the comical/violent Temple2 scene). It is true that he has a very ethereal presence – which fits the rest of the performance – but the personnenregie did not help him out here. Along with the two different ways I feel the Scribe should act, I am now convinced that we need both approaches for Akhnaten as well. There are plenty moments of contrast in this opera so I’m sure a production will one day successfully incorporate both.
Jugglers. We had jugglers, who very subtly introduced and carried to the end the ball motif. They started innocuous enough from the getgo, as if humbly providing a bit of pizzazz during the ceremonies. Only later – when they juggle them around the newly crowned Akhnaten – it turns out that their balls are foreshadowing the greatest ball (of fire). Astute detail, as I understand Amenhotep III had already planted the seeds of a revolt against a too powerful clergy. Another neat trick is how they intentionally drop the balls when Akhnaten is attacked and killed. It’s all very simple but it looks great. In the Epilogue, where we have the ghosts of the past the jugglers return pushing the balls on the ground, recalling dung beetles (and tumbleweed). But speaking of the Epilogue, I wonder why Akhnaten and the ladies appear in the afterlife dressed as their pre-Aton-loving selves3?
I had an epilogue of my own: from the side of the Dress Circle there is an exit that spits you out right into the street in 2min flat. I don’t remember ever getting out of a theatre so quickly before. You walk into a sort of loading bay which doubles as homeless shelter by night.
Go and see it if you can, perhaps in Los Angeles, since it’s done in colaboration with LA Opera.
- What a great line! ↩
- I especially enjoyed how he crept from the top tier, where the Horuses were flapping their giant wings. His nimble moves reminded me a bit of Dumaux’s scene stealing Tolomeo in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. ↩
- Even stranger is that Akhnaten’s cermonial robe, as well as Nefertiti’s, has many mini skulls sewn into it. By contrast, their (identical) robes from The Family scene are of beautiful white gauze, my favourite of the bunch. ↩
When I first heard about this new ENO production I hoped it wouldn’t be traditional. Well, it is but I can’t fault it much. It’s got its inner logic and the key moments are done with enough imagination. Visually it’s very close to stunning. I’m not sure why the costumes (all beautiful) mix Victorian style with the more or less abstract Ancient Egyptian. There seems to be an unwritten rule that productions must nod in some way to the country where the opera is being given. The very literal Egyptian “heads” are on the kitsch side but I don’t mind if anyone disagrees. On the other hand the lyrical scene of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s act II duet was done in a fittingly abstract manner, with just them two on stage entertwining matching red robes.
Akhnaten: Anthony Roth Costanzo
Nefertiti: Emma Carrington
Tye: Rebecca Bottone
Horemhab: James Cleverton
Aye: Clive Bayley
High Priest of Amon: Colin Judson
Scribe: Zachary James
the 6 daughters of Akhnaten and Nefertiti: Clare Eggington/ Alexa Mason/ Rosie Lomas/ Anna Huntley/ Katie Bray/ Victoria Gray
young Tutankhamun: Joshua Simpson
Conductor: Karen Kamensek | ENO Orchestra and Chorus
The libretto has a basic plot (Akhnaten’s rise and fall from power) but there’s plenty abstract stuff, especially in act II which is about Akhnaten’s implementation of his new cultural/political vision. Because it’s “out there” for his time it’s of course rich in symbols. On the other hand Amenhotep III’s funeral (which starts the proceedings) is a high tech version of “as literal as it gets”. Interesting for those curious about Ancient Egyptian royal funerary rituals, probably very informative for some people on my row who wondered aloud why did (the new and improved) Akhnaten have breasts. Nobody seemed to wonder why Akhnaten was written as a countertenor but that would’ve partly answered their question.
Glass, Minimalism – this is not the kind of opera you want to sit through if you can’t take repetition. It certainly needs subtlety in handling the transitions from one musical phrase to the next and in conveying the lyricism of act II, as I wouldn’t say Glass is a titan at writing vocal music. Maestra did a pretty good job with all this. The chorus added a lot of pizzazz with its very engaging interventions. It baffles the mind that the powers that be want to trim it down when everybody agrees it’s one of the main assets of the ENO.
Regardless of what one thinks of repetition, the endless arpeggios do fit the subject matter and the direction was centred on slowness of movement which added to the hypnotic nature of the thing. You settle into something as close to a trance-like state as possible without chemical help (though it would be interesting to experience it with the help of “street meds”) and just let music and visuals do their work, whatever that may be. It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that needs overthinking on our part.
It being the first night I suppose some things need some tweaking – such as the orchestra covering the vocals during Amenhotep III’s funeral, which is drum/brass heavy. The three mains – Akhnaten, Nefertiti (his wife) and Tye (his mum) needed a bit of time to adjust to each other during their trio in the Window of Appearances but worked well afterwards.
Naturally Akhnaten has the chunkiest bit to sing. I found ARC rather on the bleaty side and really wondered how Sabadus would’ve sounded in this role, as it’s very high and his beautiful tone would work with the otherworldliness that Akhnaten needs to project throughout and especially during his act II hymn. Dramatically that is a pivotal moment in the opera, calling for a singer of considerable charisma. I wasn’t convinced ARC posses that level of charisma or the versatility needed to switch from the highly stylised to the engagingly realistic.
During the first and third acts Akhnaten acts in a hieratic manner but act II (especially the hymn) is the moment where we get a glimpse of the real him. So to say “real him”, as I personally don’t see Akhnaten so much as a person, rather as something. That something being autocracy, personal independence – a proto-Romantic ideal. The hymn is a moment of realness amidst pose and ritual.
The interesting thing that art history teaches us about Akhnaten is that his cultural revolution included an overhaul of the way pharaos were depicted visually, namely more realistic than before or after. But not too realistic, as he indeed was pictured with some feminine features, hence the breasts in this production. In that sense I think it was telling that he first appears on stage in the nude which thus leaves no doubt about his gender, only to have his appearence stylised after his reinvention as Akhnaten. I don’t think this curious change in image was explained by art historians but this production offers some ideas. Aside from the beginning when he ascends to the throne, Akhnaten is seen almost always in the company of women, which he seems to identify with. It is implied he has no interest in war and spends all his time with his family, which includes 6 daughters and wants the same for his kingdom.
The ending had a rather neat twist: the Scribe (the ancient narrator who keeps us abreast of plot development during the opera, now a history lecturer) talks to a class of not very interested students about how Akhnaten’s image and name was erased from history and his city has survived only in very poor condition to the point there’s not much to visit. Pretty piss poor job at erasing his name and image if 3600 years later we’re attending an opera based on his life… so the “ghosts” of Akhnaten and his ladies are lurking.
There’s more to say – of course – but I’ll leave that for next week, when I’m seeing it again.
Arias for Caffarelli (and a bit of Carestini)
After last year’s much gushed about debut, Franco returned to Wigmore Hall, a place where he was once again warmly received.
You might wonder why I always call him by his first name (as if we were cousins) when I call everybody else predominantly by their initials (the more the better – JDD, JDF, ACA!). Just as other singers exude this or that feeling, Franco appears to me particularly warm and sweet. If he really is not, he’s doing a damn good job at fronting! He’s the kind of singer who is constantly looking at the members of the orchestra with appreciation and excitement, as if to say “we’re doing great stuff together!” He’s more like a singer in a band than a soloist.
It’s this warmth that struck me again during last week’s performance. I felt it whilst he was singing too, especially in the very lyrical passages. I even asked myself is he currently in love or something? He’s just so sweet! (in a good way; he’s not schmaltzy). Now if that sounds suspiciously effusive, do not worry, I’m not developing a countertenor crush 😉 it’s just a very pleasant, affectionate feeling, like towards my cats… I’m saying all this despite my not so hot feelings about his Sesto. I still think his personality would work with Sesto. It’s the rest that needs some work…
But this was a Baroque recital and this is his home turf, where everything goes the way he wants. The thing with seeing someone again in the same repertoire is that you already know what wows you. Franco seems to (really) like and excel at bravura arias, the faster the better, where he can sway to the beat and make melty faces. I think I tended to take them for granted (the melty faces, too; I brought my opera glasses along). Of course he would rock them.The lyrical stuff made a very vivid impression by contrast. His voice is not quintessentially beautiful like Sabadus’. It’s the tender and gentle feeling he puts into his delivery that makes his singing so affecting. Last year I wrote:
Very, very tender; maybe the gentlest-yet-not-whingy I’ve heard live?
Check and check. He sounds genuinely “loving” in a way none of the singers I like a lot does.
Franco Fagioli countertenor
Riccardo Minasi director, violin
Stefano Rossi violin
Esther Crazzolara violin
Giulio d’Alessio viola
Ludovico Minasi cello
Riccardo Coelati double bass
Federica Bianchi harpsichord
Angelo Ragazzi (c.1680-1750)
Sonata for strings in G major Op. 1 No. 8 Sonata for strings in… Op. 4
Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)
Passaggier che sulla sponda (Semiramide riconosciuta)
Johann Hasse (1699-1783)
Ebbi da te la vita (Siroe re di Persia)
Nicola Fiorenza (c.1700-1764)
Concerto in A major for 3 violins and continuo
Leonardo Leo (1694-1744)
Misero pargoletto (Demofoonte)
Fra l’orror della tempesta (Siroe re di Persia)
There seems to be a theme between Minasi and Franco where Minasi gets to clown around whilst Franco leaves the fans waiting for a bit. At the very beginning I was disconcerted as – though I may not show it – I worry about singers cancelling at the very last minute, such as right before they’re due to step on stage. Eventually I got it, Minasi is a funny character who reminds me of (even looks like) an equally funny ex-work colleague. He explained they would play another sonata and I hope it was this one they swapped and not the one after the interval. I know nothing about Ragazzi so I could be easily fooled. I also don’t buy programmes…
The first aria sounded good, enough to signal that Franco was in very good voice. I could even make out the words (woohoo). That was a short lived joy, though. The diction issue returned to stay for the rest of the performance. I amused myself guessing words.
Minasi and Franco recorded these arias for the Cafarelli CD, so cool to hear them without studio interference (f I had my way, all music would be recorded live). They fit his voice but to me they are a bit run-of-the-mill Baroque arias. Ok, Misero pargoletto warmed my heart due to Franco’s commitment to the tender emotions I was going on and on about above.
Pasquale Cafaro (c.1716-1787)
Rendimi più sereno (Ipermestra)
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna (Serse HWV40)
Sonata for strings in F minor Op. 1 No. 4
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Lieto così talvolta (Adriano in Siria)
Giuseppe Avitrano (c.1670-1756)
Sonata in D major for 3 violins and continuo Op. 3 No. 2 ‘L’Aragona’
George Frideric Handel
Crude furie degl’orridi abissi (Serse HWV40)
The tender feeling returned with Rendimi più sereno. The mood was switched to passive-aggressive tantrum for Se bramate… Easy win, it got stuck in my head for the rest of the evening. I wouldn’t mind seeing him as Serse, I think he can pull off bratty and his voice works very well with it.
He was properly warmed up by now for the lyrical tour de force that is Lieto così talvolta. Sadly there was no dueting oboe; for this woodwind lover = a big letdown. Still heartmelting. If you remember, it’s the real hero Farnace (in love) who sings it in Adriano in Siria. He’s such a dreamboat, isn’t he? Loyal to his king, to his love, respectful of all around him, risking his freedom to save his damsel even though he thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. In short, oboe. Before the show, Leander was eager to see who – Franco or Erica – would win the Lieto battle. Well, hm. I perhaps liked Franco’s voice better but enjoyed Erica’s details more. I demand a re-listen. Which reminds me, Opera Settecento needs to promote its work on youtube etc.
This brings us to Crude furie, which were properly furious and melty-faced a la Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy video 😉 or a gentle version of that. I was very pleased with the outcome, though less venomous than Mynenko’s version on The 5 Countertenors CD. Franco likes these arias but he sounds like he’s moved on from Barking. What is cool with Franco is his ample range (of colours t00) and the ease with which he can manipulate his voice.
Dopo notte (Ariodante)
Fra cento affanni… (Artaserse)
The Dopo notte test
Dopo notte was my introduction to Franco. It’s an aria I often use as a test for singers. It’s long, difficult to sing, very joyful in a soulful way, so it requires a bit of emotional finesse on top of mad skill. When I first heard about him as one of the most exciting countertenors around today, I immediately looked to see if youtube was equiped with his version of Dopo notte. We are here because I was very impressed with that I heard that day.
So when he announced he would sing something from Ariodante, I mentally crossed my fingers, chanting Dopo notte, Dopo notte! very loudly inside. My records say this was the first time I heard this favourite aria live (a bit surprising). I’ve always thought Ariodante was a gentle chap and this time he went for this quality.
Here’s his Dopo notte from this September past at the Festival d’Ambronay. You can compare it to my benchmark youtube clip from 2012 and see how much more soulful he does it these days. In fact the change – starting with the much more relaxed tempo – is striking and significant:
I really like the energy of the first one – we’re here because I do! – but his 2015 take on it is indeed more appropriate for Ariodante. So he’s changing. I’d miss the energy from the old days if this new tenderness wasn’t so attractive. He also received exciting support from the harpsichord, who did an excellent job matching his trills.
During the intermission, the Operatunist, Leander and HM launched into a conversation about Franco sounding better than before and tried to figure out why. HM suggested his registers sound more blended. You be the judge, my ears aren’t very sensitive when it comes to registers. For my part he sounded lovely (and I possibly agreed he sang a bit higher or brighter than how I remembered him) and that was that.
The last item was a bit funny, as Leander let us know ahead of time she was hoping for Vo solcando. When he asked the audience if we knew Artaserse I thought she’s getting her tune! Oops. Fra cento affanni is a fun one nonetheless, if way shorter and less complex than Vo solcando. It was a snappy rendition, an approapriate closer that left you wanting more.
And there was more, as Franco was signing autographs once again in the foyer. Every time I go to Wigmore Hall I feel compelled to sing its praises. What a pleasant hall! How welcoming and simple and what good acoustics! What a cosy foyer! Once you queued up for a signing there you will find all other signing locations a too drafty and anonymous. But this year we all agreed to leave others the pleasure of 2min of Franco’s attention.
It was of course lovely to see Leander and HM again – we started talking because of Franco! – and meet the Operatunist himself (we also started “talking” because of Franco), whose blog I recommend to those who don’t know it, because it’s well written and witty. Sorry if I sounded all over the shop, I had no idea you were coming to the show 😀 Sometimes I do succumb to surprise.