Category Archives: mezzos & contraltos

Everything is better with contraltos

Yes, another contralto post this weekend. And it’s Lemieux again:

Isn’t her tone just perfect for this?!


The return of contralto duels

Haydn, right? The cheerful composer wrote vocal music among other things, and one of those pieces was the promisingly titled oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. The biblically challenged me immediately wanted to know where Tobia went in the first place (answer: to Persia, on a money (owed to his father) collecting errand; (post)Baroque-bargain moment: he also found a wife; on the way he ran into the Angel Raphael (as you do), who wisely advised him to pick up certain items that came in very handy later, such as when he needed to cure his father’s blindness and get married – though not at the same time.

Anyway, a weekend Bible lesson isn’t the reason for this post, but a brass-happy aria, Sudò il guerriero (tl;dr: your efforts aren’t always justly rewarded but keep fighting and eventually you will prevail) sung by many (not just contraltos) but new to me. Our duellers today are Ewa Podles and Marie-Nicole Lemieux:

I like the Classicism of it all, with its post-Baroque flashes of virtuosity and construction and the more modern (for its time) development of the phrase. It reminds me of both Mozart’s Mitridate and Entfuhrung, which is of course a good thing.

Schubert with Angelika Kirchschlager (Wigmore Hall, 31 January 2018)

Angelika Kirchschlager is someone I’ve been aware of for what counts as forever but her contemporaries always appeared more interesting especially at a time when I was exclusively interested in opera and saw recitals as second best. As a result this was the first time I properly listened to her. It was a very pleasant semi-surprise.

Final concert in Schubert: The Complete Songs series
Angelika Kirchschlager mezzo-soprano
Julius Drake piano

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Namenstagslied D695
Frühlingsglaube D686
Geheimes D719
Im Frühling D882
Bei dir allein D866 No. 2
Lambertine D301
Am Bach im Frühling D361
Ganymed D544
Wiegenlied D498
In der Mitternacht D464
Erlkönig D328


Gesang der Norna D831
Der liebliche Stern D861
Romanze zum Drama Rosamunde D797 No. 3b
Suleika I D720
Suleika II D717
An den Mond D193
Der Jüngling an der Quelle D300
Der Wanderer an den Mond D870
Der Unglückliche D713
Lied des Florio D857 No. 2
Abschied von der Erde D829



I went because I can be a bit of a completist and because I kept remembering her from that Mozart docu (that shows the gaudy pink wallpaper from his house in all its splendor – I think) where she made singing Mozart sound like the bees knees. She can’t be all bad if she likes Mozart that much, can she? Then again, she’s from his hometown so I guess it’s the law to love Wolfie.

Two first things first: 1. Hair. That’s some hair she’s (still) got going! It’s like Galou’s nose (which I managed not to mention all this time 😉 ); there is hair and then there is Kirchschlager hair. I’m sure it’s boring for her and other well-maned people to hear about it but wow. I’m saying that appreciatively, even though I’m not particularly into hair (or noses – still Galou’s: ❤ ). 2. Mezzo? I know these fachs are approximative and at this point in her career it probably doesn’t matter anymore, plus her tone is very pleasant. But: mezzo?

Whatever her exact voice bracket, she can spin a phrase and sing lieder non-operatically and still have enough dynamic variation to hear comfortably anywhere in the hall (her excellent diction helps as well). A very interesting experience – somewhat like Antonacci in the sense of filling the hall without any apparent effort and definitely without shouting. She’s very different from Antonacci, though, so don’t get the wrong impression. It’s a very gentle/congenial sound, even when she steps on the pedal in something like Erlkönig – it’s still not commanding. It’s so delicate it feels a bit old skool girlie, especially hearing her so soon after Boni, who has that quintessential boyish mezzo tone, with a bit of kick to it. I was thinking it would be interesting to hear them together, also I should give her Octavian another try. I’m more ready for a very girlie Octavian nowadays.

In any case, this was exquisitely sung lieder, a mix of well used experience and enough spontaneity and youthfulness. Sometimes something done in the simplest manner can have a strong effect.

Masterclass fans: new ROH Masterclass with JDD

Just to make me happy, it starts off with Parto. I haven’t seen it yet but I hope it’s good (almost 2 new hours). If it’s not good we can laugh about it here 😉

After watching/listening to it:

For those who don’t know and would like to before applying yourselves to an 1hr and 46min, this batch is mezzo only and it containts work on three mezzo staples: Parto, Dido’s lament and Non piu mesta (which I always call Non piu messed up). They are all promising singers but the young woman working on Dido’s lament has a particularly beautiful tone (baby contralto? we should be so lucky 😀 ). She is also very cutely star-struck.

The return of Ulysses to the English public (Roundhouse, 21 January 2018)

Ulysse: Roderick Williams
Penelope: Caitlin Hulcup
Telemachus: Samuel Boden
Melanto: Francesca Chiejina
Eurymachus: Andrew Tortise
Iros: Stuart Jackson
Minerva: Catherine Carby
Shepherd: Matthew Milhofer
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Early Opera Company and assorted chorus
Director: John Fulljames

In what has now become a very welcome dedication to the earlier repertoire, this January ROH has staged the second of the three Monteverdi operas, in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. I didn’t feel at all deprived of Italian. For a more historically informed writeup please check Leander‘s.

Interestingly and quite like Willy Decker’s, Fulljames’ production also featured a rotating stage, this time with the orchestra in the middle pit rotating one way and the singers on an external donut rotating the other way. I guess this concept only makes sense what with this story often portrayed on ancient vases and/or to show the passage of time etc.

Though the orchestra was trv kvlt early music, cornetto and all, the team decided to introduce a chorus (made up of selected ROH Orchestra members and Guilhall students, if I remember correctly). In the queue to the loo after the event I overheard some comments that it was unnecessary but I enjoyed it a lot in the party numbers where they were used (I didn’t even know there were party numbers in Ulisse, side from what the pretenders sing; perhaps this was made up but it did not bother me one bit). I thought there was enough informed stuff what with the orchestra and the singers largely adhering to style so a bit of something else along the same lines of Monteverdi’s writing was a-ok.

Williams as Ulisse was wonderful, very affecting and light at the same time (in regards to his movements as well – Mum commented his dancing skills were tops). Now having heard a few Ulisses I liked his take better than Streit’s. I’m still undecided between him and Bostridge because both are great. I’m quite sure Streit was shortchanged by the orchestral forces behind him and possibly by the direction. This time everything was as it should be, with no singers ever having the force their way through the harpsichord wall of sound or chance becoming unheard or simply powering through for no discernible reason.

I wasn’t convinced by Carby’s Minerva, whose voice sounded too large for the role for me. I understand the direction asked her to portray the boot and combat trouser, strong and scorned god but one still needs to vocally keep with the style of the piece presented. Unlike Leander, I enjoyed Chiejina’s Melanto a lot and did not hear her vibrato. I thought she did a wonderful job, the best I’ve heard from her so far, with attention to style, wit and youthfulness – and I really like her full (but not too full yet) tone and her tackling of trills. She was easily my favourite after Williams.

Hulcup, taking over the run at the last minute from Chistine Rice (who is on the DVD with Christie), has a genuine mezzo voice that’s not hard to enjoy. On the other hand, Penelope is a very difficult role – what with the constant lamenting – so one needs a lot of colour and to show an intrinsic knowledge of a wife’s tribulations. I didn’t feel either, though the moment she finally recognises Ulisse was well done and she and Williams blended in a lovely manner in the subsequent duet.

This was a very serious production with the comical side toned down considerably and the chorus standing in for stranded refugees. The rotating donut pulled Ulisse away from Penelope even as they sang the final, “happy-ending” duet, apparently in a thought provoking manner. It is perhaps my failing that my thoughts didn’t feel particularly challenged…

I loved it musically – especially concept-wise and in regards to Williams’ performance and liked most of others’ performances. Dramatically I’m not sure I got it all but you know I always enjoy a sparse design and am rather fond of rotating stages. The Roundhouse either has very good acoustics or something because, as with any round halls, the singers do turn around to sing to different sides and sometimes they have their back to you. There was sound muffling but minimally so. I also liked Minerva and Telemachus singing their duet whilst circling the stage on a tandem bike 😀 it provoke the thoughts of “look at what else opera singers have to do these days! Great cycling skills! Remember Rinaldo at Glyndebourne? And remember how Orfeo had to dangle from the ceiling in this very venue two years ago? What shall they have Poppea do in 2020?!”

ps: the ushers at the Roundhouse are ace! There was quite a bit of going out of one’s way observed by yours truly. Also the public was very congenial. Mum and I were in a lift with a bunch of ladies her age who all smiled at everybody. My Mum went what’s all that smiling about? All I could say was think first world thoughts, Mum.

Anna Bonitatibus and friends (Wigmore Hall, 25 January 2018)

This was part I of a two part event where Boni (with and without co.) introduced some of us to lirica italiana.

Anna Bonitatibus mezzo-soprano
Serena Farnocchia soprano
Paul Nilon tenor
Rocco Cavalluzzi bass
Margaret Campbell flute
Vincenzo Scalera piano

Girolamo Crescentini (1762-1846)
Il primo amore

Giovanni Battista Perucchini (1784-1870)
Taci, invan mia cara lole
Vieni, t’appressa all’urna
Se i sospiri degli amanti
Odi d’un uom che muore

Luigi Gordigiani (1806-1860)
Il Trovatore
La notte
La lacrima

Alberto Mazzucato (1813-1877)
Il lago
Il bacio
Il pensiero della sera
Il canto d’amore

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Notturno (Guarda che bianca luna)


Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870)
Virginia: Cantata for soprano and piano

Giuseppe Verdi
Cupo è il sepolcro e mutolo

Vincenzo Gabussi (1800-1846)
La luna

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
Il giuramento

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
L’ultimo ricordo

Sir Michael Costa (1808-1884)
Ecco quel fiero istante

Maria Malibran (1808-1836)
Nel cor più non mi sento

Gioachino Rossini
I gondolieri


The cat quartet (Rossini)

Though Wiggy has of recent been making a habit of getting together singers, orchestras and instrumental soloists, here is no doubt that managing any number of people larger than two is no easy feat. Originally the performance was supposed to include Jeremy Ovenden (last heard by me in that not quite Tamerlano from Brussels) and Riccardo Novarro (whom you might remember from last year’s Dario and Giulio Cesare) but they had to cancel.

Due to people changing into higher gears on their own time and also perhaps due to the choice of songs, the first part of the evening was rather mixed. As one would expect, our host Boni, in what I already called a pink gelato dress (with very nice pink floral embroidery), held her own from the getgo and had a heartwarmingly gentle moment with one of the songs (don’t ask me which, sorry, I’m really not versed in lirica italiana) ending in something I translated as “don’t worry, I’m right here”. And indeed, she let her friends take centre stage through the night, popping in and out to let us know just that.

The turning point for me was the Mercadante cantata, which I did not know, but had the easiest time following the voice-piano dialogue. I was quite stunned, in fact, given that usually when I hear a new piece I’m left with a soup of feelings and maybe the main tune, rather than being able to clearly “read” along with the people on stage. Great job Farnocchia and Scalera, for the mutual communication and ability to impart to us some vintage belcanto writing. We should hear more Mercadante, shouldn’t we? We should also hear more of Scalera, who I have heard before but I’ve started to rate very highly as accompanist since this concert, where he generally seemed to be having a ball.

The first best moment of the night was Boni and Farnocchia’s duet in Donizetti’s Il giuramento – their voices work so well together. You could tell they’ve sung together a lot, too, but their tones are wonderfully suited to each other. Farnocchia, though billed as a soprano and in possession of some piercing high notes, has a very fetching middle, quite related to Boni’s, though brighter. I would not say no to hearing her in some high mezzo roles.

The second high point was Boni’s rendition of Malibran’s Nel cor più non mi sento, which, for those who don’t know, is an excuse for the singer to show off their versatility, as each return of the main tune is done in a different style, from contained pathos to operetta silliness, through trills and octave jumps. Boni had no qualms about taking the piss out of herself as much as of the text, when attempting to reach the highest highs.

Cavalluzzi has a very opaque bass which sounded to me – at least at the beginning – like a Korean-type bass, very dark and rather large and not particularly subtle. I was then very surprised to hear how comfortable he sounded in I gondolieri.

Nilon has the smallest voice of the bunch and not particularly colourful but Italianate all right. He had the least effect on me (I napped through some of his efforts during the first part, having misjudged my energy levels the night before) but then I’m not the biggest tenor fan.

The night ended on an ensemble high with a really well balanced I gondolieri, where we got to hear some of Rossini’s strengths normally reserved for opera act finales done justice by Boni and Co. Lastly, they put decorum aside and regaled us with the Cat quartet.

The night took a bit of warming up and perhaps the selections presented during the first part could’ve been thought over a little but the second part was certainly well worth it. Boni proved a very gracious and generous host and with a hilarious knack for comedy. She can do the dramatic bits no problem, but I think zany comedy is her true calling.

Sonia Prina (Wigmore Hall, 11 January 2018)

Sonia Prina contralto
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Concerto Grosso in F major

Giovanni Ferrandini (1710-1791)
Cantata: Il pianto di Maria


This was a very well attended concert but in contrast to the JDD estravaganza, the mood was mostly relaxed. There was a certain buzz in the air, as if people had just started to catch on to Prina. Without a doubt her recent excursions in London have raised her status among Wiggy regulars.

A bit strangely, then, Prina showed up in a dress. I was caught unawares – she can dress however she wants but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen her dressed so formally. But, you may say, how appropriate is it to sing Mary’s lament other than formally dressed?

Perhaps to fit that mood and the fact that the show was broadcast live on BBC3, the Akademie sounded on the formal side of excellent. No doubt about their technical prowess and Baroque-ness.

Ferrandini’s Pianto di Maria seems popular among mezzos and contraltos but not so much with me. Prina decided on a very operatic take, with the dramatic turns energetically emphasised and the recit parts done with lots of fervour. I felt a bit of sameness of sound on the low end in spite of it all, so I think I prefer a higher or brighter tone if I have to listen to this piece at all.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Cantata: Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV54

Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764)
Concerto Grosso in E flat ‘Il Pianto d’Arianna’ Op. 7 No. 6

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Longe mala, umbrae, terrores RV629


But who may abide (Messiah)
Longe mala, umbrae, terrores RV629

After the interval we had the rather unusual chance to hear Prina sing in German. At least to my ears she did a very good job and I finally perked up.

Unsurprisingly my favourite moment of the night was Vivaldi’s Longe mala…, where I think Prina sounded most comfortable. Perhaps that was the reason why she also capped the night with it, much to my delight. The Akademie let their hair down a bit and matched her to perfection in the endless runs, which she of course took with much gusto. During the intermission I overheard a wry attendee do an uncanny and amusing impression of Prina’s very personal way with coloratura, so the above-mentioned runs brought a smile to my face in spite of the rough patch I went through the week before.

She returned to much applause with a “belated Christmas gift”, which turned out ot be But who may abide. It once again gave her the opportunity to shake the stage up during the energetic b-section. So a more sober encounter than usual but a Prina show is always warm and full of life and the public feels it and responds accordingly.

Sonia Prina on BBC 3 tonight (11 january 2018)

In contralto news, you can tune in tonight (and most likely listen to later on as well) for some Baroque from Prina and Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin at 19:30 GMT. This is, of course, from Wiggy.

Fresh year, fresh mezzo

Ney bad, eh?

I say countertenors can still fear competition.

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

Thanks to thadieu for signalling this for all interested parties:

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

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