Category Archives: mezzos & contraltos
This is a youthfully angry, sharp and to the point aria, in which little Sesto fumes at the mouth against Tolomeo (he doesn’t deserve to breathe (the air)). Whilst re-reading a post of mine (I do that too 😉 ), I had a sudden need to re-listen. A few versions later I was bathed in the multitude of colours it allows.
Let’s start with Stutzmann, because I love her handeling of dynamics both in conducting and in singing. I feel this is a wonderful introduction to this aria, so typical of Handel’s writing of arias of fury (it’s not quite vengeance here; see Svegliatevi nel cuore for that). Also check out her moves at around 0:12:
(One of the iconic little Sesti of our time) Semmingsen with her bright(eyed) mezzo comes next for strong contrast. I’m not so sure about Mortensen’s conducting here; I feel the details are a bit muddled, though in the interest of characterisation – this is a very young Sesto – that might not be a bad idea:
Also a mezzo, but much darker, is Bonitatibus; always a strong Handelian (especially in troubled youth roles), it’s interesting to compare a dark mezzo voice with a true contralto:
And here we have another Jacobs take – a very speedy one – with Ernman at the forefront, unexpectedly catching my ear. This Sesto is a bit older or wilder than usual; if I were Tolomeo I’d keep my hand on the dagger:
I’m often not on board with critics but this time I found myself ditto-ing the entire Clements review for the Guardian back in December (which I read today, so as not to influence my opinion). If you haven’t done so, you can read it here as I’m not going to go over all that since I agree. I’m not sure I have seen a Carsen production live before but this re-tweaked Salzburg one certainly hasn’t made me a fan.
There isn’t – at least in this ROH incarnation – anything wrong with it; it rather reminds me of the current ROH Traviata (also associated with Fleming): goodlooking, lavish and little else. Also as here Act III happens in a brothel, the insistent hammering of “young love is so cute” in the coda (Sophie and Octavian’s duettino is reprised for our pleasure… and because they’re cute, innit) falls flat to me. Then again, maybe I’m a prude and brothels are really romantic. Maybe I just don’t get the deeper meaning but the way the production unfolded I didn’t feel intellectually stimulated to look for one.
On the very bright side I came away with a heightened appreciation for Andris Nelsons. His handling of the ROH forces – with special attention to details (the sprightly, buoyant brass in the overture, ideally evocative of the unencumbered cheerfulness of youth, the excellent interventions of the winds throughout) – and a much welcome Mozart filter through which he saw this Strauss score was close to a revelation for me. Light footed but with energy and body – I really liked hearing it this way! The ROH Orchestra felt fresher than ever. There were some moments, though, when I questioned the slowness/languidity of the tempi. But I was in a funny mood.
Die Marschallin: Renée Fleming
Octavian: Alice Coote
Sophie von Faninal: Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs: Matthew Rose
Faninal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Valzacchi: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina: Angela Simkin
Italian Singer: David Junghoon Kim
Marschallin’s Major Domo: Samuel Sakker
Faninal’s Major Domo: Thomas Atkins
Marianne/Noble Widow: Miranda Keys
Conductor: Andris Nelsons | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Robert Carsen
As ‘Rosenkavalier keen followers might remember, two years ago Coote spoke out for Tara Erraught when the Octavian media debacle happened around the Glyndebourne production. One thing is for sure: the costume department has learned the lesson taught by Glyndebourne. All Coote’s costumes, though not lavish, were studiously fitting. Good job ROH costume department! Keep up the excellent trouser role work!
That being established, through the evening I kept thinking about the 2014 Glyndebourne ‘Rosenkavalier production. For all its faults, that one had fizz and I feel it truly understood the spirit of farce so evident in the libretto. This one was overly lyrical and the comedy strangely demure. I wish we had that production with this conducting/orchestra work.
Though I like Strauss, the opera and Coote, the biggest attraction this time was Fleming in a Strauss role in which she has been very successful. I also considered that she isn’t so young anymore and we might not catch many chances to see her in full productions in the future.
My conclusion was manifold. As you know big diva sopranos aren’t my number one pull towards opera, thus I approached Fleming as someone rather exotic. There is indeed a diva air about her – the fur, the silk and, of course, she was bedazzling in jewellery for the grand finale (I genuinely can’t remember a time when I saw someone sparklier on a stage) – but it didn’t eclipse all around her.
The voice is quite obviously in decline – and frankly I don’t know if it’s a voice I would’ve liked at the best of times – with quite acidic edges at the top. Most would agree she has never been a natural on stage, though she certainly has learned to walk across it without fear and with enough classic elegance as to hold an audience’s attention – at least in a role like this. It seemed to me like a woman who has quantified her strengths very realistically and built a career on this realistic assessment.
She also proved her undeniable Strauss qualities to me. Where it counts – in Marschallin’s long Act I monologue – her musicality and vocal control (the famous Fleming portamento, various dynamics) was truly top notch and fleshed out the beautiful voice-orchestra (oboe, flute etc.) dialogue Strauss has written. I thought to myself I can see/hear why she has excelled in Strauss, the voice and her musical temper is made for it. If there is one thing I’m taking with me from having heard Fleming live is this.
The monologue, though, infused the mood of the night to such a degree – and I’m not entirely sure how much of this is it being a vehicle for Fleming, or just the production in itself, or Nelsons’ fault of judgment, or my mood because I’m closing in on a certain age these days and might subcosciously want to stop the clocks too – that it really put a damper of the comedy. Without the score being conducted in a too Wagnerian manner – far from it – maybe perhaps due to an occasionally overly lingering languidity I actually dozed off at the end of Act II and almost fell face first into the bald spot of the chap in the row below.
Sacrilege! Act II is both sweet and funny and Rose as Ochs was very interesting of voice and campy-buffoon rather than uncooth. But one expects Ochs to be boorish rather than just ridiculous. I couldn’t see the country cousin in Rose, as much as I enjoy(ed) his gorgeous bass tone. I’m trying not to be closed minded and as such I’m not saying this winky-campy take was wrong per se. In a sense, with the Marschallin lacking any hint of desperation (she’s just lyrically musing about the passage of time with Octavian as a cute accessory) and Octavian coming off as a completely benign young man, this polished Ochs made sense. The production, too, is clean enough to accomodate a good chap (albeit lecherous) type of cousin.
I still dozed off.
Coote, as a perfectly tame boytoy, drew the few laughs of the night – as she should’ve. I don’t think it was her fault as much as the general mood I mentioned above and what the production gave her to work with. Any Octavian to Fleming’s Marschallin is going to be less of the zany, fart joke type. You’re actually a bit surprised he would consider cross dressing – and in this case that – the fact he genuinely enjoys pulling this erotically charged prank, whilst his ex-lover is dining with the ancient uncle Greifenklau – springs out more than ever and makes you think he is right to move on. I thought Fleming and Coote’s chemistry was good enough, but it felt like Octavian came to life less in her company than when he was caught up in his schemes of deceiving Ochs. Now this might be just it but usually my focus is on wishing for him to return to Die Marschallin in a fictitious Act IV. Though I don’t buy the brothel-located young love, this time I was convinced that Octavian and Sophie had a future together.
Vocally I was surprised how well Coote projected. Her voice has always had good heft but I have only heard her in much lighter fare so far. Her top notes are solid and not bad at all. So though I think I may like a brighter tone (or possibly more colourful, but I always like extra colours) for Octavian I had no problems. Now we shall see how Vitellia comes off later this year.
Bevan was Sophie. She’s making quite a career here in London and I myself have seen her in a number of roles but, sort of like with Lucy Crowe, I don’t feel her very much, without being dead set against her. I normally enjoy a more “bell-like” tone in this role, with some semblance of innocence. Lacking that, she pulled off very well the bits where Sophie tells Octavian how she would stand her ground and bitchslap anybody who “dissed” her and also in Act III where she tells Ochs to stuff his marriage certificate where the sun don’t shine.
Supporting this production’s bent for elegance, the Italian Singer was (way) less awful than usual. David Junghoon Kim did a very smooth job in fact, possibly because he had the chance to step in for an indisposed Giorgio Berrugi. Well, good job, mister, in that case we can allow you to wow us with your chops for sacharine Italian tunes. He also lucked out when the Italian Singer was allowed to reprise his aria as a move on the director’s part – I imagine – to add even more pizazz to Marschallin’s morning audience, when the Italian Singer sees the Milliner’s beautiful models parading in front of Die Marschallin (really pretty dresses – the costume department did an ace job all around).
Much like Domingo, Fleming still pulls and this being a firm canon opera the hall was packed to the gills even this far into the run. The atmosphere was rather congenial, though in our tight quarters (aka, Upper Amphi) a fight almost broke out between over ’50s regarding knees touching shoulders once too often. I also had a revelation about the rather special self definition of class in this country whilst rushing (as ever) for my seat. What better opera to hammer home class distinctions?
Innkeeper: Alasdair Elliott
Police Inspector: Scott Conner
Notary: Jeremy White
Milliner: Kiera Lyness
Animal Seller: Luke Price
Doctor: Andrew H. Sinclair
Boots: Jonathan Fisher
Noble Orphans: Katy Batho / Deborah Peake-Jones / Andrea Hazell
Lackey/Waiters: Andrew H. Sinclair / Lee Hickenbottom / Dominic Barrand / Bryan Secombe
Mohammed: James Wintergrove
Leopold: Atli Gunnarsson ↩
This recital has a bit of back story. The dynamic duo was booked for 3 January 2015 in support of their Amore e morte dell’amore CD but apparently the both of them succumbed to the English weather. Its next proposed incarnation was to take place on 28 June 2016, as a threeway recital with Karina Gauvin. That didn’t quite work out either, though you could hardly say Prina’s Gluck programme was a letdown. Finally, here we are, in spite of very low (for London) temperatures due to freezing fog (mesmerisingly sparkly under streetlights).
Sonia Prina contralto
Roberta Invernizzi soprano
Luca Pianca director, lute
Vittorio Ghielmi viola da gamba
Margret Köll harp
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben, dov’è il mio core?
Giovanni Kapsberger (c.1580-1651)
Toccata seconda arpeggiata
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Aria detta la Frescobalda
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Sono liete, fortunate HWV194
Antonio Lotti (1666-1740)
Poss’io morir Op. 1 No. 7
Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Son io, barbara donna
Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745)
Le Carillon de Passy
George Frideric Handel
Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi HWV197
Wigmore Hall is still in Christmas garb, its foyer sporting a beautiful tree decorated in red and green and floral arrangements with red baubles and red pine cones and bows in the hall. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful.
Prina and Invernizzi were first joined on stage by Pianca on lute and Köll on harp and between them did a very lively rendition of Vorrei baciarti. The slender accompaniment was beneficial in that I focused almost completely on the ideal mix of voices which had me basking in the simple joy of sound.
Interestingly, I overheard someone comment at the intermission that she enjoyed the music a lot but was a bit unsure about the singing. I for one can tell you even less than usual about the orchestral side, which mostly kept to a supporting role. I do remember once thinking (during Sono liete, fortunate?) the viola da gamba had a nice organ feel to it. The orchestral pieces didn’t make much of an impression on me, in fact La Leclair had me on the verge of dozing off. But that might just be me, what with the lack of woodwinds.
Sono liete, fortunate was a tour de force, when I marvelled at “the noise” two singers could make, what with both of them constantly switching between singing harmony and melody. We’re talking about two very energetic singers, though they toned down their more flamboyant tendencies and focused on supporting each other towards a robust merged sound. It wasn’t just their tones matching, their exchanges were always spot on. Instead of her often belligerent top, Invernizzi made more use of her middle which is warm and pleasant, though not as memorable as Prina’s tone. The softer pieces saw some of those disarming slides to piano Prina uses when you least expect. I remember thinking about one such soft exchange that it felt like squirrel hair watercolour brushes against the skin. Tanti strali saw them once again weave sparkling lines of elaborate coloratura around each other.
The encore made for a natural ending to a show that mixed liveliness with breathless seduction. Now I really want to hear Prina as Nerone. On the other hand, we’re only a few months away from the Barbican Ariodante.
Things have a tendency of reoccurring – 30 December 2013 was the date I first visited Wigmore Hall for a Prina recital I booked at the last minute to wrap up a good opera year in style. This time it was quieter and smaller scale than usual even at Wigmore Hall; it infused me with contentment, which is quite unusual to find outside oneself these days.
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.
After a Mozart night at the compact and bijou Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, thadieu and I relocated to the humongous Opéra Bastille for some verismo and expressionism.
I started with the above picture in hope those who have never been to Opéra Bastille get a feel of how massive it is. Just consider the staircase on the left. Capacity-wise it’s not quite the Met but nowadays it can pack more than Wiener Staatsoper (only because WS has reduced its seating capacity). It beats ENO by some 200 seats and the drops and depth are breathtaking. It feels a bit like the O2 Arena of European opera venues. I know thadieu is going to remind me of the Hollywood Bowl (where Ann Hallenberg sang Pergolesi’s Stabat mater…) but, come on, that’s not a venue designed for opera.
We had tickets on the 2nd balcony, which means at the top. The seats were comfy and, as with modern venues, the views were excellent – except for the distance! I’m blind enough to have had trouble with the surtitles (cosmopolitanly provided both in both French and English), thank goodness for my opera glasses, though by the end I was sick and tired of squinting and straining. What can you do, with a piece such as Sancta Susanna and a performer such as ACA, who you want to see acting as much as hear singing. Especially in such a short piece (~20min), where you blink and miss her. I also wanted to ascertain if Garanča can act or not.
However, for its imposing size and heavy figure cut in Place de la Bastille, I was won over by the indoors design. There are many details that make for an architecture photography fan’s delight.
Now with some distance from the shock produced by the sheer size and boldness of Bastille (on first seeing it in real life I said it looked like a prison, which might have even been the point) and after questioning the idea of having an opera of intimate size performed therein, I think it’s not such a far-fetched idea.
Santuzza: Elīna Garanča
Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee
Lucia: Elena Zaremba
Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone
Though 40 years and different cultural attitudes separate Cavalleria rusticana and Sancta Susanna, the take on female sexuality (identity?) is very similar = repressive. That’s not surprising, as that view has come down through history and is still prevalent in certain traditional enclaves.
Thadieu expressed puzzlement as to the plot of Cavalleria rusticana, ie why the big drama? Well, desire and revenge are irrational, especially revenge borne by desire. As such, they are almost impossible to control – and certainly not by reason, rather – if at all – by outside contraints (ie, religion, local customs). So the answer to what is verismo is indeed people shouting at each other (because they can’t contain their emotions; or because they’re Southern Europeans 😉 ).
You could reduce the whole plot to Turiddu being on the rebound (still not over Lola) and Santuzza feeling horribly shafted, having fallen for him. Now we need to add to this local customs, which in traditional societies are very harsh on “fallen women”. There is a reason Turiddu makes it a point to ask his mother to look after Santuzza if he dies. It’s because he knows that according to custom he is supposed to either marry her or somehow provide for a(n unmarried) woman who “has given herself to him”. So sex isn’t fun and games, it’s bondage on both sides. A man needs to guard his own or risk derision. Alfio is being so serious about revenge because Turiddu has taken something of his.
I don’t know if Santuzza cares about this one way or another, aside from being shunned by the community bit. I think she’d be fine enough if Turiddu loved her. But since she’s lost both her honour and his love she decides to do something about it. In traditional societies women don’t have a lot of avenues for expression beside madness or evil. Santuzza pursues evil by disclosing to Alfio Turiddu’s affair with Alfio’s now wife. She knows just what is going to happen, which this production emphasises by having her walk off with determination after hearing of Turiddu’s demise.
Garanča, who, as thadieu would say, I got to see “accidentally”, having studiously avoided her up to now, managed the walk off very well. I would say that was her strongest acting of the night. My beef with her comes out of spite. The woman is in possession of an excellent intrument which I don’t think she uses interestingly. Earlier this Autumn I ended up watching her Cenerentola from the Met with my Mum, who found her completely boring, both vocally and dramatically. I swear I didn’t “groom” her for that opinion!
I thought her singing absolutely spot on (no note out of place, always making every entrance, flowing coloratura) but lacking in fire. So I didn’t have an easy time imagining her as Santuzza. When we were planning this trip I even asked thadieu if we should show up for “part 1”. Though in the end she suffered a lot more than I did, it was her “might as well” that convinced me I should give Garanča a chance.
Well, the report is similar to that on Cenerentola: the woman can surely sing – and the tone is less metallic in the house – the voice sounds as healthy as ever (she’s only 40 or so) and is loud enough to make herself heard in this repertoire in a big house (though the singing is only seldom accompanied by the entire orchestra). Let me tell you that not only is the house big, but the orchestra makes a proper racket that travels all the way up to the rafters. With my hair on end and my eyes popping out I wondered how loud Wagner must sound in there.
Similar to Cenerentola, I thought the fire was lacking. To be fair, they made use of the entire stage – which is likewise staggerinly big sideways and in depth – and often times you had Santuzza and Turiddu share an “intimate” chat 20m apart. It looks good from the rafters but you do wonder, especially as it’s verismo: do people in real life have a very intense conversation physically that far apart?
The personnenregie felt very much old school, with broad gestures and lots of space between protagonists. Bilyy as Alfio wasn’t so bad but Lee as Turiddu acted right out of the ’50s book of opera acting: feet always planted wide apart, pumped fists, head held high etc. Garanča herself never offended me gesture-wise but there’s this removed, ice-queen feel about her. Nervous energy drips from some singers’ tendons – not so in her case. She’s there, apparently focused within.
Santuzza is very much focused on Turiddu. I did not feel that at any point. I think she was at her most emotional in her interaction with Lucia during Voi lo sapete (well, duh, you will say, it’s her big aria), but still, come on, Santuzza’s mind is supposed to be clouded over with emotion for this chap. When playing a woman who asks a man/lover on her knees to return to her, well, that kind of passion needs you to radiate desire (and quite possibly a bit of self hatred) from all your being. I’d say that’s beyond Garanča’s dramatic capabilities. Yet she’s not completely lacking in charisma; just not Sicilian.
Though not impressed with his acting – or his chemistry (lack thereof?) with Garanča, I thought Lee was vocally a good Turiddu (my experience here is limited). The music asks him to provide loud and solid long held notes and he did that with ease and panache. It’s not an unpleasant tone by any means. However I think he could work on his Italian phrasing.
The (loud) choir wasn’t bad at all and the choral bits in the piece made for good contrast between the apparently peaceful rural environment and the festering desires in private.
Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia: Renée Morloc
Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone
This whole trip was concocted for the sole purpose of seeing Antonacci in a rarely performed opera (and what with going off the beaten track, I have yet to see her sing in Italian). Though I don’t, by any means, dislike Cavalleria rusticana, this type of sexual paroxysm is more up my alley. Can’t beat a nun chorus of Satana! Satana! Satana!, can you? 😉 There are two things Germans are ace at and those are Romanticism and Expressionism – the hidden depths of the mind.
For those of strong emotional constitution the mind is a fascinating realm. Nobody has quite figured out what the hell (and it is often hell) is going on there. I think this small opera is effective – seeing it in the environment of the huge Opéra Bastille auditorium adds to it – because the mind is an immense, volcanic world enclosed in a tiny place.
There is repression/violence by women on women in Cavalleria rusticana but here it’s a lot more obvious. If the nunnery represents the world of women, then it’s quite clear what nuns walling up one of their own stands for.
In my experience nobody thinks more about evil/the devil than the pious. That’s the kind of mind who has invented/defined it and that is the mind that has to live and fight with it. On the other hand it’s true that, pious or not, every once in a while something from the depths surfaces and rearranges one’s identity in ways hitherto unsuspected.
So what I take from this – on a literal level – is the question are the brides of Christ, if Christ is both of God and human, not supposed to engage with his human side in ways brides would? Of course the orthodox view is hell, no! but what harm is there, if they are utterly faithful to him? Poor nuns 😉 To quote thadieu again “why the drama?” Sister Susanna was letting off some steam after hearing her maid go at it with her (the maid’s) lover.
The journey from deep prayer to (literally) pure randiness is scandalous only to hypocrites but otherwise well documented in history. The body/mind seeks balance.
We had Antonacci, one of the singers who best mixes singing and acting into a coherent whole, put the fire of life/lust into our initially catatonic heroine. She doesn’t have much to sing and has to shout a few times (she’s louder than I thought for such a big hall, but she doesn’t have to do it constantly for an hour) so those unfamiliar with her singing might find this outing rather inconclusive.
Dramatically, though, she’s magnificent. She’s in her 50s now but she can act young and elusive and she can also act frantic with desire just by the way or the pace at which she moves. The most interesting part is the development between one state to the other, as well as “the whole being” at the end, when she stands and faces the looming nuns. Thadieu said in the premiere she didn’t leave the crucifix she had climbed onto, but I thought this stand was an excellent idea. She’s neither just angelic nor only frenzied by lust, but a strong presence that likely has integrated both.
There are some really cool things the production does within 20min. If you look closely at the above picture you can see the bottom part of the wall comes off at the crack. When it did, we could see underneath the cell. As lust started to creep into Susanna’s mind/body, a fallen crucifix appeared on our left and a young woman (perhaps the ghost of the previous walled in nun) started embracing it. Later on Susanna descends there, whilst a giant spider that looks like the human centipede crawls on the other side of the stage (remember, it’s vast) and deposits the said young woman on the ground. They wall Susanna in by pushing back the bottom of the wall.
Sign of the times, eh? Someone landed on opera, innit? using this search term. Most curious, as I am 100% I never used it anywhere in this blog up to now and upon doing a bit or research I didn’t quite get it. But because it’s such a curious thing when it comes to a niche blog, I’ll indulge the world at large.
If you’re now thinking hang on a minute, this has nothing whatsoever to do with trump…! –
you’re right 😀 fighting absurdity with absurdity is one of my mottos. So I thought I’d share a picture related to contemporary grooming and snacking habits of those now bitterly crying in their
cornflakes jam jar cocktails.
We live in a world where both lefties and traditonalists wear Father Xmas beards, where experts (especially foreign) are out and the take back our country/make America great again brigade is in and saving the world from the overly educated (the great plague of 2016). Also, far as I know, sharing pictures of food on blogs is still going strong. So as not to appear too snobbish/sneering (also out of style), I thought I’d use this filler post to toast all the great trends of 2016 (or thereabouts).
(as usual) I’ll leave you with this month’s contralto and a message that expresses my feelings regarding the spectacular mess we in the West currently see ourselves in:
Ferri, ceppi, sangue, morte
non paventa l’alma forte,
che vien meco il mio furor.
So ch’io sono invendicata,
e che fui meno spietata,
è mia pena, e mio dolor
Google translate illuminates us thus:
Irons, shackles, blood, death (irons = swords)
no serious concerns regarding the strong soul (don’t scare a courageous heart)
who cometh with me my fury. (when it’s pissed off)
I know that I am unavenged,
and that I was less ruthless, (I was too soft)
is my pain, and my pain (so that’s my punishment and pain)
Before I toot my own horn, I’ll direct you to this review of Juditha. Does some of it sound familiar? I’m game to to be told to pull my head out of my own arse if it doesn’t.
Re: Galou’s supposed lack of projection (check the above linked review): I have two words for you – Baroque contraltos. How many of them have you heard to shake the walls, this side of Podles (who’s more a contralto who also sang Baroque very well 20 years ago, rather than a Baroque contralto in the 21st century)? In recent times I have heard Prina, Mingardo, Stutzmann and Summers and let me tell you, none – aside from Prina at her most vicious – came anywhere near to even bothering my ears at Wigmore Hall and if you’ve read anything on this blog you know I have sensitive ears.
They have Baroque sized voices (few large voices can move fast/easily enough for the demands of Baroque coloratura), by their nature (and necessity, considering what they are asked to sing – usually second men and scorned women, often villains, written to contrast the bright sounds of the heroes), opaque in colour. Now imagine that at the Barbican, a venue not known to be friendly to any singers. That being said, let’s hear Galou in a high lying role and we might be talking differently. We should also revisit this after Ariodante comes to the Barbican next year and we hear Prina again (never heard her at the Barbican before).
You can’t fault a singer for sounding as the role asks (in this case, relaxed), even when some around them have bigger voices and/or employ pyrotechnics for the express reason of wowing the audience.
Now that I have immersed myself in 3-4 different Judithas, I’m going to return to the subject, as there are some interesting variations I heard that call for further commentary.
At long last! Marcon’s take on “Vivaldi’s triumphant celebration of sex, death and boundless glory”, as the Barbican site blurb advertises it, reaches London.
Upon telling my mum I was on my way to seeing a Vivaldi piece, she quipped “Oh, flowers and birds”. Excuse me?! I know he’s most famous for his musical descriptions of weather conditions (Weather at 6 with the Red Priest) but around here we already know Vivaldi is the most rock’n’roll Baroque composer. More rock’n’roll is only being struck down by an implacable cold, as yours truly was just yesterday, and valiantly plowing on because nothing says Sacred Military Oratorio more than an all female cast and all female choir.
Juditha: Magdalena Kožená
Holofernes: Delphine Galou
Vagaus: Ann Hallenberg
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Abra: Silke Gaeng
Andrea Marcon director | Venice Baroque Orchestra
Last night I wrote a 2000+ word report on this performance only for WP to eat it up like the flesh eating plant it can be. I suspect it was my digs at the ugly and pointlessly meandering Barbican that did it 😉 tough shit, Barbican, even the dismay at finding myself tired and sick as dog at 4am with my loquacious entry wiped out won’t stop me from bitching about the Brutalist monstrosity that you are.
But reports of a 2000+ words entry might give you an indication of how much I enjoyed myself. I urge you to see it for yourself if/when it comes in your neck of the woods, which is as follows:
- 8 November at Bozar in Brussels
- 4 February in Urbana, Illinois
- 7 February at Carnegie Hall in NYC
Whilst selling your first born might be slightly OTT, you have my blessing if you’re thinking of pawning off your mother-in-law 😉
My records show just how much I talk the talk instead of walking the walk: it’s my first time with a full Vivaldi operatorio since Griselda 2 years ago. But what a piece! As soon as the martial timpani start to roll, the trumpets blow their piercing trills and the girls’ choir launches its war cry you know you’re in for a ride. I understand the overture was lost so the original Juditha started differently. I can’t imagine how the overture could’ve topped this intro.
One good thing about the Barbican is that the auditorium, like most venues built since the ’70s, affords very good visibility from every seat. The seats themselves are comfy and legroom is plentiful. I myself had coincidentally picked a spot on the Barbarian Side (Holofernes and Vagaus) and needed just a bit of adjustment at the beginning (it’s a big venue for Baroque voices).
Let me begin by stating my appreciation of Marcon and his team, starting with his insistence (judging by other renditions of his) to keeping the all women’s choir. I initially liked the mixed choir favoured by Sardelli and Fasolis but now I’m sold on this.
Vivaldi gives solos to practically all the wind instruments, the mandolin and of course, the violin, and there are 4 theorbi for our enjoyment. A special word from me goes out to the timpanist, who looked like he had great fun in his interventions. Everything was very stylishly played and most pleasing to the ear, so those of you who enjoy the sounds of the Baroque orchestra in itself should try to make that extra sacrifice and catch this as I’m certain you’ll love it.
Next up is Kožená. As some of you know, the mezzo lover that I am, I have studiously been avoiding her so far. But since the night featured two of my favourite singers in this repertoire and since I genuinely like the oratorio, I had no choice but to take my chances.
I have to admit that my criticism of her has been unfair. She is actually a good singer, with a true mezzo tone (recently plumped up? sounded a lot rounder and more burnished than in (earlier) recordings). Her chief skills were a deft employment of dynamics (here mostly volume-wise) and a very reliable, vibrato-less trill (quite an interesting production, too; enough to have stayed with me so that I think I could pick it out of a line-up in the future).
Perhaps she and Marcon had made a pact whereby Juditha’s arias were slower than usual. Since she’s not exactly a stage animal, my mind occasionally wondered off. But when things got frantic I noticed she had to focus more and didn’t project quite as loudly as she did otherwise (unsurprisingly, her voice is bigger than her more Baroque oriented colleagues’). Nevertheless, she met the technical demands of the role. There were some trills and pyrotechnics I thought you don’t usually hear in a Baroque context but mostly she kept idiomatic.
I’d have liked a bit more abandon but I think that just isn’t her personality, nor is Juditha necessary the character to bring such things out. Still, sometimes, even when Juditha was fuming with outrage and hatred she just went for louder rather than more intense. Only once did she let things flourish a bit – oddly during the aria where Juditha muses on the impermanence of things. Somehow she got so much into it that her face changed to the point she looked 10 years younger. Quite an unusual thing to witness (I had my opera glasses and watched the singers closely during their arias).
But all in all, hearing her was a positive experience. I don’t know that I’d rush to her next recital but if she sings something I enjoy I might think about it. I most certainly won’t avoid her again.
Speaking of unsual things, the Barbarians, Juditha veterans that they are, brought a unique vibe to the Barbican, the sort I don’t think I have witnessed before and I have seen some exciting things there. They were both so relaxed and good humoured, the atmosphere was a curious combination of the chummy quality recitals can have and top quality professionalism. I have mentioned Hallenberg’s cheerfulness before but since this was my first time seeing Galou live I didn’t know she was also 5 by 5.
But let’s talk a bit about Juditha, because since it’s in Latin the finer points of the libretto have hitherto been foggy to me. Now with surtitles I could elucidate the gaps. It goes something like this:
Girl Power Choir/Virtuous Bethulian Women: War! Death! Vengeance on the enemy!
Holofernes: victory! My brothers, you have fought well but as conquerors we must show mercy to our defeated enemy, ’tis only gentlemanly.
Vagaus (Holofernes’ squire): hey, boss, I bring good tidings.
Holofernes: please speak.
Vagaus (winks): boss, there’s this hot local babe wants to speak to you.
Holofernes (lifts an eyebrow): do tell me more.
Vagaus: she’s top drawer, boss, I think you should see her pronto.
Holofernes: please bring her in. But tidy the tent a bit before you go.
Vagaus goes to where Juditha and her companion, Abra, are waiting.
Vagaus (friendly): fair local matrons, my lord is ready to receive you. Please don’t be frightened by his ferocious appearance, he isn’t only a glorious warrior but also a most just and kind master. Feel at home, you’re among good people here.
Juditha: (to Abra) what arrogance!
Juditha enters the tent.
Holofernes: (aside) wow! I knew Vagaus had good taste in women but WOW! (to Juditha) Gracious lady, excuse our coarse military manners. Please be my guest and take a seat.
Juditha (not wishing to appear too easy): I’m but a humble daughter of my unfortunately defeated Fatherland, I’m not worthy of sitting in the presence of such a great lord.
Holofernes (seductive): oh, but you are! Please sit.
Juditha (coldly): it’s against good manners…
Holofernes: Sit, sit, sit! Please, my fair matron, take a seat.
Yes, he has a jaunty mini tantrum (Sede, o cara) which he spends enticing Juditha to take a seat. Oh, for the good old days when Barbarian army commanders were raised well and sounded as smokey-seductive as Galou 😉
Juditha eventually decides it’s wiser to comply (or maybe she gives in a little to that velvety voice – because Holofernes doesn’t shout or really get angry (even less so the gallant way Galou is singing him), he’s confident and keeps it seductive throughout. Therefore, Galou regaled us with her easily and finely spun, impressively long lines of legato and slender, dark honey middle that should make many a Juditha forget her duties to god and country 😉
We’ll have to wait to experience her skills at portraying madmen and eccentrics via that surprisingly (for a contralto) clear and piercing top some other time. Can’t have it all – except in a recital (or two) at the trusty Wigmore Hall? One can hope! The good news is her voice is very well captured by recordings so you’re not missing that much at home beside that almost gregarious stage presence).
Holofernes (all smiles): so how can I honour a most lovely visitor?
Juditha (offers him a religious tract): have you heard the good news?
Holofernes (takes the tract but keeps his eyes on her): the best news is your presence in my tent.
Juditha (with dignity): I came to beg mercy for my Fatherland.
Holofernes: you ask much, fair matron. But you shall have it – and more. I was just saying to my boys that it’s time to put a stop to war and make peace with the good citizens of Bethulia. Would you like to have dinner with me? I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate peace between our people!
Juditha (coldly): I’m just doing my duty to my country and to my god.
Holofernes: but it would make me so happy if you accepted! I’ll order the best dishes in the land.
Juditha: (aside) the best dishes in my land, bastard. (aloud) Food? Pah! After much famine and hardship we have learned not to pay attention to such trifles. Besides, our god has placed a lot of restrictions on foodstuffs…
I understand Juditha is a Bethulia Liberation Front militant but, my god, does a storm cloud hang over her head or what? She’s such a wet towel to Holofernes’ (and Vagaus’, who’s obviously smitten as well) eager gallantry. I wish she was more dishy like Dalila, they’re both secret agents with similar missions, are they not? She doesn’t do much seduction, honestly. She’s dignified and honourable and loyal to her country and god.
Kožená and Galou played them like this – Juditha cold and severe and Holofernes so suavely solicitious at one point even Kožená couldn’t keep a straight face any longer and broke into an amused grin. But her favourite moment was obviously the recit where Juditha vividly describes her skills with a blade.
Warriors of the world – and Octavian – please keep your swords out of the bedroom. Remember most accidents happen at home. Also, try to exercise caution when a gorgeous stranger of the defeated enemy shows up at your door for sexy time. The moral for our times: risk assessment is essential.
Speaking of caution, Vagaus, this disaster is all your fault, mate. What in the world were you thinking pushing your boss in bed with the newly conquered?! We know what Vivaldi was thinking – Armatae face et anguibus, Vagaus’ show stealing vengeance aria at the end of the oratorio.
And stolen it was, Hallenberg soaring with her characteristic organic manner of singing – not so much a vocal soloist but voice as integral part of the orchestra. Armatae is a fiendish aria to begin with – what with the leaps, the dramatic inflections the text asks for and the fast and furious coloratura, yet she took it to another level by matching the other instruments’ in tone and dynamics at every step. It really doesn’t get better than this. To be fair, Vagaus is such a fun role. He even has an early aria about the joys of wining and dining (O servi, volate) to the accompaniment of all 4 theorbi and little else (cembalo?).
I don’t know what happened to Basso. If there was an announcement between April and now I missed it. Though I was sad to miss her, Ascioti (as Ozias) did a very good job (solid, sonorous tone and excellent diction as well as good acting). Gaeng (as Abra) also sang with aplomb and was appropriately vicious towards the Barbarians.
Some comments on outfits: Kožená wore a red dress with pockets. They seemed rather an accessory than efficent tools but pockets they were. Hallenberg had on her blue/purple frock and comfy gold pumps, whilst Galou wore a version of her pant and frock/trenchcoat with the spikiest heels. I couldn’t even begin to imagine walking on something like that but she might as well, as her posture is remarkable even by singer standards (she didn’t even use the backrest of her chair for most of the night). I also realised she’s not as tall as I initially thought. Being very thin with a big head will cause that perception. Ascioti had a wide leg pant and very long vest-y combo that some singers favour in recitals. I seem to remember a Vagaus with a wide leg pant somewhere on YT, so Juditha attracts these 😉 Gaeng won the most daring (in a way) and amusing outfit with her zebra dress. But Marcon himself thought a touch of style would keep the audience interested – his black shirt had a slit at the back which revealed a white inset.
Some comments on the audience and the Barbican (yes, I’m unrepenting): if the ROH public is the most formal in town, the Barbican audience favours the retired university lecturer attire (check shirt and wool vest, optional receeding yet wild hair and thick rimmed glasses). I had one on each side of me as well as one in the row below, who only lifted his head from the programme to shush a young professional couple (another feature at the Barbican) who, inexplicably, started to chat during the intro to one of Holofernes’ arias. Also naturally silver or white bobs seem to be all the rage with women aged 50+.
For being a fancy “cultural centre”, sporting spaces for music, theatre, film, fine art and photography exhibits, as well as a wide range of the now inevitable dining spaces (as if audiences can’t go for three hours without stuffing their pieholes), the Barbican could really up their game when it comes to the toilet experience. They’re all on one level which is reached by being forced to spin in pointless circles and there’s always a queue and the stalls are often out of order. Did I mention it’s ugly as sin and you have to be careful through which entrance you exit or you might lose your way in the depressing cement mess that it its outside balconies (or ramparts)?
But venue aside, this was a most pleasant performance experience, for which I once again thank Marcon and team plus the choir and the soloists. We need more Vivaldi and by extension, more mezzos and contraltos 😀 Yes, I really wish there was another performance I could’ve attended, even as broken and sick as I am today.
The other day I ran into a sensitive Vivaldi cantata that showcases another ace contralto voice and I stayed with it for several hours:
SM’s voice is really good at bitter-sweet, introverted sounding things and for me hit a homerun in this cantata. Them Venitians 😉
On 15 October, opera, innit? turned 3 years old. I actually forgot about it (this time of the year is always busy) until I read the WP congrats, by which time I was so tired, I was falling asleep in my cornflakes (it was way past the bedtime of a healthy 3 year old). It feels like I’ve been doing this since forever! When I started I didn’t have any plans beyond writing when I felt like, about what I felt like, for as long as I would feel like. 482 published posts later, I’d say the feeling has been rather intense 😉
The blog has brought about many fun unexpected adventures, so this year I thought I’d leave you all (who read, comment and have shared said adventures virtually or in real life) with Mozart’s little ode to friendship – which gives me the opportunity to combine Tito, mezzos and the memories of all those good times 😀