Category Archives: countertenors

The Catalan German Piano ™ jams with the lo-fi czardas caballeros (Xavier Sabata, Wigmore Hall, 9 October 2017)

Wiggy usher (opens a window): oh, hello darling!
Woman: hello! I’ve never heard this band before, are they any good?

Xavi Sabata countertenor
(dis)Armonia Atenea, George Petrou director

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto for Strings in G minor RV157
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
Ciò che donò la frode … Alza al ciel pianta orgogliosa Adelaide
Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (c.1682-1732)
In te, sposa Griselda, mi uccido … Cara sposa Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Trio Sonata in D minor Op. 1 No. 12 RV63 ‘La follia’
Pietro Torri (c.1650-1737)
Vorresti col tuo pianto Griselda
Antonio Vivaldi
Gelido in ogni vena Farnace RV711

Interval

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Admeto, re di Tessaglia HWV22
Introduzione
Orride larve!
Chiudetevi miei lumi
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
Viver vogl’io sempre per te mio dio … Or mi pento La conversione di Sant’Agostino
Antonio Vivaldi
Mandolin Concerto in C major RV425
Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729)
Spirate, o iniqui marmi … Voi d’un figlio tanto misero Caio Marzio Coriolano
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini
O del mio caro ben … Già mi sembra al carro avvinto Adelaide

Encore:

Lorca poem in Greek
Delizie e contenti Cavalli

Yes, the “…” are supposed to be not particularly subtle pregnant pauses liberally placed.

And, no, the moniker “German piano” isn’t my invention, because I know nothing about pianos, German or otherwise. I nicked it from Baroque Bird, who actually owns a piano (German?).

I do however know a bit about the – trv kvlt – black metal sound, which I occasionally reference around here, most famously in relation to Roschmann’s “facial” during Non piu di fiori 😉

In this case, it’s what the band’s sound at “shredding time” reminded me of. Those of you not familiar with (the second wave of) black metal should note vintage bm is the most trv kvlt-sounding of all extreme metal genres1. Forget death metal growls, forget industrial’s… industrial sounds; bm’s vision2 is:

  1. get beat up instruments from a decrepit second hand shop
  2. drag them through thickening mud
  3. plug them in (bonus if you get electric shocks on occasion)
  4. shred in unison only
  5. place boombox from 1981 (previously run over by a lorry) about 50m away from the instruments
  6. hit record (hit it like you mean it)
  7. rip out the tape’s ribbon
  8. shred it to pieces
  9. piece it together randomly with used sellotape
  10. shake well until you achieve complete homogenisation of sound
  11. save on your laptop using the lowest sound quality possible
  12. play loudly on said 1981 boombox
  13. = masterpiece!
  14. bonus: take yourself very seriously
  15. ps: don’t believe me?

I (being the kind hearted optimist you know and love) prefer to think this was Petrou’s mission statement, rather than a showcase for the band’s actual skills.

Or I did back in Halle this past June, when I blamed it all on boogie the acoustically challenged venue.

They did come up with a new twist here – perhaps they did it in Halle too, and the acoustics were indeed so echo-y the whole thing bounced off my skull and got lost. This new(?) twist was the czardas-turned last ritornello in La follia, that unfailing old Vivaldi chestnut. Or was it a sirtaki? Now I seem to remember it’s customary to make sure your violin keeps in tune for a czardas

but I’m not a musician, so I can go stick my opinion in a blog or something, right?… all I’m saying is I’ve actually (or literally) had my ears checked recently and they have passed the MOT.

This Summer I listened to more Currentzis than I cared to and to be fair, that

pregnant pause thing

has its merits. But this time I really hurt for some legato with that pregnancy. It should still flow, shouldn’t it? I don’t know if you, dear reader, are familiar with Tracey Emin’s hand drawings, but suffice it to say that drawing skills aren’t prerequisite for becoming a contemporary fine art superstar. Still Tracy Emin surprised us with her humble side a few years back when she suddenly put some effort into honing her inner Picasso. The night’s orchestral accompaniment was the aural equivalent of that when it came to negotiating dynamics (and, often, tune).

dehggi (during the Cavalli encore): ah, so exquisite! Even the violins are more in tu… nevermind, I spoke too soon. But Sabata should sing more of this stuff.

After all, we were all there to hear him. I for one wanted to see him live specifically for his dramatic talents. At one point (right after the intermission?) he walked out with the band. The aria had a very long intro so he stood quietly to the side. All of a sudden he walked decisively towards the centre of the room, but not “hi all, listen to my next aria”, which is how it often feels like in recitals. Or how Antonio Poli walked off stage after a really good rendition of Il mio tesoro in the staged Don Giovanni at ROH :-p 3 No, this was thoroughly in character well before he started singing. And then things got even better because he has a very good technique that serves him up and down the range. And, you know, he‘s in tune.

At first I didn’t quite know what was happening because I barely heard him during the first aria and I lay some heavy blame on his projection or lack thereof. You should be heard from the 11th row at Wiggy. But things improved dramatically during the evening, which caused me to place the blame back on the Tracey Emins. Good on him for not forcing himself to sing over the racket. The second aria was already much better, when he employed some very stylish forays down the middle of his voice and all of a sudden someone on stage had personality. Fancy that.

He’s not the kind of singer who dazzles with endless coloratura (I understand this is the basis of the German Piano metaphor) but he can phrase with the best of them and has an imagination (and skills) to shape the sound, as thadieu would say. Which is why he should sing more of that Early Baroque, I think he has the right feel for it and for making it exciting.

In spite of all this, there were a couple of things from the others that I enjoyed – the metallic wrist-slashing chords from the viola da gamba during Gelido in ogni vena, the jazzy show starter from the double bass4 and the “wave” sound (during the Lorca song) that came out from the gut of the harpsi when Petrou stroked it. Wish the Vivaldijazz was further explored/incorporated and not in that L’aperggiata smooth jazz manner.

… it made for very lively conversation with Baroque Bird, Leander and friends at the interval and afterwards, though we didn’t all agree about everything.

as usual, sorry for any typos/errors, it’s been almost a week and I want to put it out there and my brain is a bit hazy edit-wise today.

  1. and it thus attracts tryhards by the boatload. BM fans tend to be even more humourless than those belcanto fans who think opera died when Callas lost her voice the first time. 
  2. “Just crank the gain, turn up the treble, scoop the mids, and bury the bass. “Metal” distortion pedals can also work well. The old bands did not give a f@ck about good tone.” (from here). 
  3. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that! He just walked away, like ok, aria done, let me get back to my crossword puzzle. 
  4. Yes to jazzy Vivaldi in general, though perhaps not so much to a syncopated tune in particular… but that’s personal taste for you. 
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Gorgeous Rodelinda (Teatro Real Madrid webcast, 31 March 2017)

duelling cembali!

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.

no messing with the contralto 😉

David Daniels the sponge (Wigmore Hall, 20 March 2017)

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.

INTERVAL

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Rodelinda HWV19
– Pompe vane di morte!… Dove sei, amato bene?
– Si, l’infida consorte… Confusa si miri

Traditional
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.

2016 in WP stats

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:

  1. “revival adriana lecouvreur roh 2016-17”
  2. Akhnaten at ENO (take 2)
  3. Ann Hallenberg (Gluck and Mozart)
  4. Juditha triumphans
  5. Akhnaten at ENO (take 1)
  6. Stutzmann and Orfeo 55 (Vivaldi)
  7. ROH 2016-2017 confirmed
  8. Maria Ostroukhova recital
  9. ROH Spring Season/London Handel Fest General Sale
  10. 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.

“where does franco fagioli lives?”

  • 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).

Singers and bad timing

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.

Lucio Silla, the Roman-themed soap opera (Theater an der Wien, 27 April 2016)

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.

Stop! In the name of OSKHJ.

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.


  1. Anik explains why really well in her own take on this performance. 
  2. thadieu has her orchestra!!! moments, I sometimes have my choir!!! moments ;-) 

Wigmore Hall Season 2016/17

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):

SEPTEMBER

9 CONNOLLY

10 SOILE ISOKOSKI

22 FREIBURG BAROCK ORCH

OCTOBER

1 BABS HANNIGAN

2 STUTZMANN / ORFEO 55

5 BONI! / SEMIRAMIDE

12 GERHAHER

23 TOBY SPENCE 3PM

23 JAMIE BARTON 7:30PM

NOVEMBER

3 & 4 FASSBAENDER MASTERCLASS 1PM

5 ROSCHMANN

10 I DAVIES

15 HAIM / MOZART

18 PIECZONKA

20 PISARONI

24 STU JACKSON

28 LA CALISTO 7:30PM

DECEMBER

11 TOMLINSON

12 ARGERICH

29 PRINA / INVERNIZZI (third time’s the charm?)

31 ENGLISH CONCERT 7PM

2017

JANUARY

9 EGARR HARPSI RECITAL

16 MONTEVERDI MADRIGALS

28 GAUVIN

29 ST. DEGOUT

FEBRUARY

2 WATTS

15 MATT ROSE

18 UCHIDA /CLARINET

MARCH

18 PETIBON

29 EARLY OPERA CO

APRIL

8 SPENCE

9 TALENS LYRICQUES

10 CONNOLLY

12 COUPERIN CONCERT

17 LONDON HANDEL PLAYERS

MAY

1 ZAZZO / LUTE 1PM

6 MATTILA

8 GENS 1PM

10 BOSTRIDGE / 9 JULY

JUNE

7 ENGLISH CONCERT

11 BEN JOHNSON

24 BARTOLI / JAROUSSKY

JULY

7 ANTONACCI 7PM

Akhnaten take 2 – the subtle takeover (ENO, 8 March 2016)

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.

akhnaten8march

curtain call with Conductor Karen Kamensek

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.


  1. What a great line! 
  2. 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
  3. 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. 

Akhnaten keeps the mystery (ENO, 4 March 2016)

click to see rehearsal pictures

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.