Category Archives: barbican

Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 (Barbican, 23 June 2017)

The Hipermestra post got really long-winded (out of necessity) and in the meanwhile I saw two other shows, one of which was Monteverdi’s Vespro alla beata vergine. I just got Harnoncourt’s book in which he also discusses the interpretation of this work and thought about reading it before writing this but I’m a slow reader (not just a slow writer) and it’s starting to annoy me that posts are piling up.

Academy of Ancient Music | Choir of the AAM
Robert Howarth director/harpsichord
Rowan Pierce soprano
Louise Alder soprano
Charles Daniels tenor
Thomas Hobbs tenor
Richard Latham bass

This is a work I first heard around the time I was getting better acquainted with Monteverdi in general, and usually return to Gardiner’s version with the wonderful Monteverdi Choir; I liked it immediately. The AAM Choir isn’t quite as accomplished (well, few are) but they did a very solid job. Chiefly they were excellently drilled and the interaction (balance, dynamics) between the female and male side came off beautifully. My main complaint is I would’ve liked a bit more personality.

Since Ariodante I have pretty much changed my mind on the Barbican. Yes, this year my outings there have been a lot more satisfying; perhaps my seat choices were wiser since the semi-disastrous St Matthew Passion. This time I sat on the left side of the second level and again had no issues with acoustics. Although I had to go into work very early and later make it into town, which is something I try to avoid because I’m inevitably tired, it was my seatmate who fell asleep within 10min.

Ok, there’s plainchant but still – this is very exciting musical writing, with some striking chord changes and the further contrast of plainchant and not so plain singing. Hipermestra also helped; I noticed every time I see something by Cavalli I get an urge to go through Monteverdi’s oeuvre for a few solid days (this time it was the ’93 Poppea from Bologna) so I was in the right mental place to absorb this stuff.

I thought Alder sounded a tad too operatic in the context (though she toned it down as the evening progressed) whilst Pierce was in even more need of a defined personality than the choir. The men seemed better positioned stylistically for this work. Daniels reminded me a lot of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in tone and delivery (but less emotionally nuanced), with a very good understanding of the style and some beautiful touches dynamic-wise, though quite alarmingly short of breath when it came to coloratura. His breath control seemed fine when single long notes were required. Latham was fine but didn’t have all that much to sing.

The vocal star of the evening for me was Hobbs, with a lovely high tenor, very good projection, easy coloratura, excellent style (the only one who got inside the chords in search of harmony and as such was a pleasure to listen to (the thing JDD explains here1; that’s the thing with this early music, as far as I understand it: you, the singer/soloist, have a lot of room to express your imagination or tremendous responsibility to make the whole thing live – when it works it’s revealed as particularly affecting music2). His duets with Daniels were some of the best things all evening, along with the work of the choir.

The true kult Early Music orchestra (complete with Baroque bassoon & trombones, cornetti and, of course, theorbo) is rather fine; Howarth kept them in a tight leash, to the point the choir overpowered them in several occasions. More power to the choir 😉 But I could follow some nice lines for the double bass and smooth cornetto work.

It was an interesting evening combining the peculiarly English type of relaxed atmosphere with a kind of music that manages to withstand the passing of centuries. Maybe it’s because Monteverdi allows you so much wiggle room that the music never feels dated.


  1. I recommend listening to the entire sequence, it’s one of my favourite JDD Masterclass moments, a total light bulb! moment. 
  2. I don’t know if it’s affecting in a spiritual sense, because I’m not particularly spiritual, though I do get the general sense of that from certain performances of certain things. Again I don’t quite think AAM is hitting that spot and perhaps Monteverdi’s music itself is rather worldlier than that. Nevertheless, it does have a very strong emotional impact, but a quieter sort, none of that I’m going to pass out deal, though I’m occasionally on the brink of tears – but that’s not the essence of it. It’s not about tears of sighing, rather more abstract yet still alive. 

Ariodante all star (Barbican, 16 May 2017)

once again, shots from the Carnegie Hall webcast

Ariodante: Alice Coote
Ginevra: Christiane Karg
Dalinda: Mary Bevan
Polinesso: Sonia Prina
Lurcanio: David Portillo
King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
Odoardo: Bradley Smith
Conductor: Harry Bicket | The English Concert

This time I will spare you my usual bitching about the Barbican, because there are some good things I have to report. I found out there is at least another set of toilets (this one for the balcony crowd), though, naturally, one was out of order. If you exit quickly they are very handy. At some point I realised there were 6 of us wearing glasses in the queue, one after the other. To better see your wicked moves, Polinesso 😉

The venue has announcers who tell you which show will begin when, because there are concurent events in different halls. It’s like a very posh airport lounge so the feeling of we’re all here for the same reason is nonexistent. Weirdly enough – or because I took the detective-like approach of canvassing the main lounge area – I actually found Giulia and her lively bunch of Twitter friends, which was a very nice touch before the show. Let’s hope the Baroque thing at Teatro Regio Torino continues so we can meet again 🙂

Up and down the stairs and nooks and crannies, bars and lounges, you see people and (I) try to guage what event they are here for. It’s hard to tell, especially as the crowd is so mixed even in the main hall (where the opera was held). On my right I had a lady perhaps in her early 60s (who dozed off in Act I but braved Act II and III), on my left a woman in her 30s; in front of us there were two young (straight-looking) couples (mid to late 20s), further to the left two very Baroque-knowledgeable ladies in their 60s, on the other side a gent over 50 who spent the majority of the show hunched forward, watching intently as if he were going to write a report later – and so on. Though the show was not sold out, it felt like the troops around me multiplied rather than depleted as the evening went on.

There was definitely a lot of interest but somewhat glib – lots of laughter in all the appropriate places and then some. Maybe I am overly invested and felt people were taking it all lighter than I did. But then there were the knowledgeable ladies who seemed to have a whale of a time, there was the hunched forward gent and somewhere in the stalls was Giulia and friends. I can’t vouch for the very quiet and polite lady in her 30s (at least I think so, Asian people are hard for me to guage age-wise) next to me, who was very quiet and polite but applauded a lot. The young couples stayed gamely but I sensed a certain detachment – maybe it’s just my reaction to the sudden existence of people younger than me at classical music shows 😉 (the cheek! down with that kind of thing).

Another plus I noticed this time: it appears that if you sit central and avoid the balcony overhang, the acoustics aren’t bad at all, lots of (if not all) pianissime made their way up to the last row of the Balcony. There was an interesting feeling as the sound bounced off the nearby ceiling; it was filtered but not unpleasant and surprisingly clear.

Karg’s was the slenderest voice and there were still no problems (which shows her projection is ace). You could tell Bicket was very mindful of the singers, especially in Con l’ali di costanza, where the tempo was “casual jog” and the orchestra toned nicely down, a lesson to all interested parties. We could hear everything yet it was light as a feather.

Thadieu will laugh, but I’m still hung up on the harpsichord is a teamplayer1 thing so I continue to admire Bicket’s approach. It was always there to drive things (I could observe his lightness and rhythmic precision better at TADW, where I had a perpendicular view to match the sound) but never overpowered. You have Giulia‘s word of how the low strings were muscular without unnecessary over-shredding – in the words of Statira, I concur. Another shoutout goes to the wonderfully wistful bassoon work in Scherza, infida. When the bassoon started its mournful call and Coote turned towards it with a lost look on Ariodante’s face, I immediately teared up. In fact, I almost did as I wrote this. It was just a gently sad whisper, mad props to the bassoonist ❤

The big venue seemed to have cut down on the possibility of constant interaction between those on stage, unless they were right next to each other, singing to or talking to each other. I felt like they sang their arias alone on stage more often than before – I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but an illusion given that the stage is very large and bare, even with the orchestra there as well. I didn’t notice any particular winking/eye rolling from Polinesso and Dalinda during Ginevra and Ariodante’s lovey dovey moments – a bit disappointing.

However, Ariodante’s accusatory remarks towards Dalinda during Cieca notte were still in place (even from quite a distance, as Dalinda was sat on “her” chair by the wall), as was Dalinda’s engulfing shame. All direct interaction between Dalinda and Polinesso was there in technicolour (“praise the lord”). As others have noticed, Prina once again adjusted her manhandling to the type of dress Bevan was wearing. This time, as you know by now, Bevan had on a dress that hinted at just how ready Dalinda was for Polinesso’s attention. Prina made a show of Polinesso’s boredom with Dalinda’s professions of love, which, combined with Bevan’s credible ardour gave their scenes a very natural feel.

It was obvious Karg and Coote had developed a neat chemistry as the tour went on. Each had polished their characterisation so they meshed into a mutually appreciative and tender couple. By the end of the opera it looked like they might be more realistically positioned to build a future together. I know that doesn’t gel with the libretto per se, but that’s the beauty of concert performances 😉 Once again, their duets were some of the highlights of the evening, with their very nicely balanced voices – Karg light and precise and Coote full and ardent (so ardent, in Bramo aver mille vite she started a touch too loud; Bicket restored balance by the second line).

Coote, on home turf in London, put the pedal to the metal in general. After a brave tackling of Con l’ali di costanza she relaxed into things more up her alley (ie, soulful), that benefited from the many colours in her voice and its warm, affecting fulness (she’s a mezzo-mezzo, who reminds you why you like that voice type in the first place). Even so, the biggest applause of the night (in general) turned out to be for Dopo notte where she let it rip with what I would call furious joy.

I would say Prina’s performance was a bit toned down, though I’m sure mellow wouldn’t be how most of the audience saw it. Polinesso’s every intervention was as complex as we’ve seen before, both vocally and dramatically. The contrasts in Spero per voi were brilliantly delivered and her timing impeccable (then again, I’ve always admired her uncanny sense of rhythm). It’s interesting, every time I check back to the Aix recording I think she’s singing it better this time around. Then again, recording vs live rendition where one is there (so many factors converge to make something an experience rather then mere entertainment; I think it matters that Marcon is going for a darker mood than Bicket is, to match the very dark concept of the production; this Polinesso is more gleeful whereas that one is very dangerous).

This time around, after Polinesso gets stabbed and is being carried away, I thought she was going to sit down in one of the chairs, as they stopped for a moment at the top of the stairs that led down to the side of the stage. At the same time, Ariodante sprung up from this hatch at the beck of the stage. That was a very good use of the stage. Sometimes you get this at the Barbican (one that comes to mind is L’Orfeo a few seasons back, which incorporated the openings at the back of the stage into the action).

David Portillo trumpeted all the way to the back of the auditorium; like I said in the comments previously, no complaints there, as one could hardly imagine a better suited voice as a 21st century John Beard. He also has the right approach as Ariodante’s loyal and justice-driven brother Lurcanio. Alas, he will always be second best for Dalinda, as Bevan portrayed her emotionally conflicted to the end.

Bevan has indeed an interesting voice that sounds, as Anik predicted, to be developing into something more dramatic than Karg’s likely would. Perhaps unsual but fitting for Dalinda, as that darker fulness hints at her penchant for the dangerous. Again, absolutely no issues hearing her from the rafters, and also again, I loved her mad chemistry with Prina.

Perhaps in this densely-voiced company Brook’s voice came off a bit light as the lowest anchor but there are always those easy runs (and pps) to admire and his very sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted father-king (there would be no Baroque opera without someone agonising between love and duty).

Poor Odoardo is just kinda there, so it must’ve been strange for Bradley Smith to travel around just so he could drop a few Italian sentences here and there. No complaints about his involvement, though.

For my good deeds, Ginevra’s shoulder-bearing red dress was back (made me grin widely as soon as the singers came on stage) and as a bonus, so was Dalinda’s choker. Due to negligence, my camera died on me so there isn’t even a bad picture from yours truly, not even of the Barbican (I’m sure you’re mourning that loss). It was a hot, muggy day; so hot, in fact, I went out for fresh air during the second intermission and even by the pond there was no breeze (we’re talking about London, where it’s windy on a daily basis).

I’m really glad I could catch two (very different) nights of this tour and feel very lucky that we also got the Carnegie Hall webcast as a memento of how it all went down. We’ll see how things develop, but, as in the case of The English Concert’s 2014 Alcina, I think this will live long in my memory 🙂 Thank you Handel and thank you all involved.


  1. you can tell how traumatised I was by what Bates did to Renard and in general. 

Late 2017, early 2018: Rodelinda at ENO and Rinaldo at the Barbican

photo credit: hdvdarts.com

Now that venues are posting their 2017-2018 offerings it turns out that ENO is bringing out their 2014 production of the beautiful Rodelinda in Oct/Nov, whilst the Barbican is airing Rinaldo on 13 March, with a few features from the Glyndebourne production – Iestyn Davies 1 in the title role and Pisaroni as Argante + the addition of Jane Archibald as Armida. I have to say my £15 was for Pisaroni’s Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto. I hope the trumpets live up to the hype all the way to the balcony. I’m not sure about Rodelinda (Io t’abraccio in English) just yet, I might pull a Partenope-move and book at the last minute if I can’t get it out of my mind long enough.


  1. He sang in the recent revival which I missed because he’s not Prina

You be the judge

ffwBefore 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.

Juditha triumphans or Sex, Death and Mezzos (Barbican, 2 November 2016)

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.

judithabarbican

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.

Tito and friends (Barbican, 22 February 2012)

As far as I know this early 2012 performance was the last time Tito was done in London and someone had the generosity to record it for all of us Titoheads. Because we’ve had it twice in 2014 in concert form but I don’t think bootlegs exist.

Tito, Vitellia and Sesto (via youtube)

Tito: Michael Schade
Vitelia: Malin Hartelius
Sesto: Alice Coote
Annio: Christina Daletska
Servillia: Rosa Feola
Publio: Brindley Sheratt
Conductor: Louis Langrée | Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and Deutscher Kammerchor

Alice Coote stepped in for Garanca (lucky me!). A bit of digging showed Coote has sung Sesto before. It makes sense since her voice fits this role very well. I also think her unique touch for tragedy is very interesting for Sesto. So why, oh why isn’t ROH bringing Tito back to the stage when we’ve got such an excellent Sesto locally? Answer: because Glyndebourne’s snagged her for Vitellia 😀

Hartelius has made good impressions in the past and I’m always game for a new Vitellia. Further, upon a (2 year old) convo with RnR, I thought I should expand my Vitellia taste. Schade is Mr. Tito. It’s always good to hear him in this role. He plays Tito pretty much the same way he did in the Salzburg DVD which is a-ok by me.

Overture: very muscular, mi piace, such nice contrast with the slow bit, which comes off very delicate. I also like that the bootlegger takes a deep breath just before the orchestra starts.

Act I

Ma che, sempre l’istesso…: Hartelius is annoyed although not OTT. Her “creamy” tone is very fetching. She and Coote make a more mature couple than usual. Interesting angle, maybe insidiously sinister? – in the sense that proper adults should know better.

Come ti piace imponi: these two match very well, they’ve got a similar kind of timbre, which makes them sound “couple-y”. It comes off very introverted (conspiratorial), rather unusual, with a unique allure. The descending lines in the orchestra were clearly emphasised.

Annio’s news: girly Annio here. Daletska sounds very serious, even annoyed at Vitellia’s sarcastic remark. Hartelius doesn’t sound that sarcastic, rather upset with Tito.

Deh, se piacer mi vuoi: mmmm, sexy lascia sospetti… tuooooooi. Hartelius has the right idea (and the right voice) even the second time when she revisits it a bit differently. It’s one of those slow and swinging ones, just right for big band orchestra treatment 😉

Little bro Annio reminds Sesto why he’s really here: he and Servilia are ready to settle down. Sesto sounds very honest.

Deh, prendi…: barcarolle ahoy. Nice job. They blended so well I didn’t know who was who. Someone in the audience really liked it and clapped with one hand.

March/Serbate dei custodi: grand but bouncy, as it should be. I like Langrée’s style. The choir is well drilled, they’re pleased with Tito. Neat harpsi arpeggio at the end seguing into Tito’s recit.

Let’s take a moment and see what the choir has to say in this opera:

  1. Yay, Tito is grand! (Serbate dei custodi)
  2. Oh, no, they killed Tito! (Act I finale)
  3. Whew, they didn’t kill Tito! (Ah grazie se rendano)
  4. OMG, Tito is so merciful! We’re not worthy. (Act II finale)

Nicely balanced structure, n’est-ce pas?

Tito & all on how the loot should be used: Schade Vespasiano is benevolent but clearly in charge. He sounds a bit older but the tone is still beautiful. Publio sounds manly. Sesto tries to breach the subject in halting tones. Tito covers well. Sesto is really stricken by the news. What a good friend, eh. But wait, Annio outdoes him. He jumps in front of Tito and praises Servilia. Tito is pleased. The day might end in happiness, he thinks.

Del piu sublime soglio: really nice segue by Schade from the recit to “del”. He was born to sing this, was he not? Buttah. Pretty support from the orchestra.

Annio is gutted. I like Daletska’s recit skills. She’s not OTT but you get Annio’s torment.

Ah, perdona al primo affetto: Annio and Servilia mesh as well, not bad at all. As a result, I think Annio, Servilia and Sesto should sing a trio. Why isn’t there one?

Tito and Publio: leave me alone with this treason crap, buddy, says Tito. He does it along the Salzburg lines, only now he sounds more congenial. Servilia shows up, Tito gets all giddy. Servilia soulfully confesses. OMG, you rock so hard! says Tito. Someone close to the taper chuckled at Schade’s antics, whatever they were.

Ah, se fosse intorno al trono: you know how it is when you’ve done something inside out. Schade’s playing with this favourite aria or mine. I couldn’t ask for anything more; I’m just sitting here with a big grin on my face, thinking, maaaaan, I need to see this man in the concert hall. Why haven’t I yet!? And I just realised the intorno al trono tongue twister.

Vitellia sounds dark and menacing, all contained hatred, every word is a barb. Interesting. Feola’s Servilia dispatches the retort dryly. Hartelius continues with the barely suppressed displeasure. Whoever was laughing earlier chuckles at Vitellia’s irrational anger at Sesto. I mean s/he’s having a ball. I know what you mean. Vitellia sort of explodes but not really:

Vitellia: Is the Campidoglio in ashes? Is Tito dead?
Sesto: I’ve done nothing yet.
Vitellia: NOTHING???

Sesto:
Vitellia: %&%(&(90898^&^%&$$%
Sesto: Didn’t you say…?
Vitellia: Revenge! NOW!

I love how Vitellia smoothly makes it sound like her earlier raving was perfectly logical. Hartelius does a great job at “shaking” Sesto. It’s not exactly a sexy seduction but a powerful one nonetheless. The way she says corri, mi vendica e son tua sounds like she definitely means it and it will be the kind that involves knee boots and a riding crop.

Parto: AC’s Sesto sounds in awe of his Vitellia. The partos are like “whoa! she really said she’d be mine if I did it!”. Maestro goes slow on it but I don’t mind at all. Partos should be slow-ish, it takes the man a while to settle his pros and cons. Unsually playful clarinet, like the wheels turning in Sesto’s mind but also like mocking him. Maybe not as elastic as others but I liked the feel of it. It had character and that’s harder to find than canary singing. Judging by the enthusiastic applause and the shouting, the Barbican public agreed with me.

Vedrai, Tito, vedrai…: Vitellia is darkly pleased. Publio and Annio seem to have been looking for her everywhere (clearly the sedition talk was being had in a dark corner somewhere). Tito has summoned you, says Annio. Vitellia’s all taken aback: Tito (of all people)???? The same one who thinks your sister’s the dog’s bollocks? Publio spells it out for her in a grand voice and Annio underlines it in plain (and very.clearly.enunciated) English Italian. The bootlegger or one of the neighbours chuckles loudly. People always laugh here but it is the one hilarious moment in the opera.

Vengo… Aspetatte… Sesto: the hilarity continues with this trio: (Vitellia) let’s go! No, wait! Where’s Sesto? Oh dear me, I just sent him to off my new fiance! (Publio and Annio) how cute, marital announcements always have a confusing effect on women! Maestro puts the pedal to the medal and the string section ends up sounding like the knife sharpening squad (in a good way). I love a very serious or plum sounding Vitellia like Hartelius at this moment, because she gets to sing ohime! and it sounds incongruous. The other two give her very good support at this high speed. If you notice, this trio mirrors the ending of the overture, which basically goes up/down/up/down/up/down. I guess if you speed it up too much it turns into the Benny Hill tune 😉

Act I finale:

Sesto is a basket case from the getgo (Maestro sets the scene extra anxious for him). I heard Coote chewed major scenery as Dejanira (this Spring? last Spring? I know it was some year recently in March). Her Sesto would probably set fire to all 7 hills plus the suburbs. I mean if he managed to strike the match; by the way he’s going, he’d have a hard time not dropping all the matches on the floor first 😉 Suffice to say, he’s all over the shop. But who wouldn’t be, if they had to choose between stabbing their BFF dead and never getting nookie ever again with the most high maintenance woman in Rome? No wonder Act II normally starts with Sesto considering the merits of retiring to a cottage in the countryside and raising goats (goats apparently are man’s other best friend beside dogs). Maybe the sequel sees him as a goatheard meet Tito, the farmer. Vezzoso pastorello, eh? 😉

But until then Sesto wrestles with the fact that not only he can’t be a good friend but he can’t quite bring himself to do what Vitellia has made him swear to do. Nonetheless, he plows through with the wretched plan. Someone needs to tell him to lighten up and abort plans that just ain’t working. That someone isn’t Annio. When Annio comes in and says I don’t quite get what Sesto’s trying to say you really believe him. Daletska sounds so earnest! He’s not one for metaphors, and certainly not a suspicious type, but even he feels some doubts raising.

There’s a screechy chord from the strings that just spells creepy… and then the orchestra gets together to as the hammer of doom, when Servilia reveals that something’s not quite right about this fire. I have to admit Mozart builds up the frenzy quite nicely, as the orchestra is doubled by piercing cries from the chorus (good idea just having them reduced to onomatopeia), with our heroes mincing about like puny humans. It’s also nice how everything just slows down as Sesto returns. He’s obviously so confused (and perhaps there’s smoke everywhere), that even as he says he’s trying to hide he’s run right back to his friends. Vitellia doesn’t lose her head: what’s up with Tito? OMG, says Sesto (he probably is happy to confess the horrid circumstance that has changed his life), I saw his soul departing his body… Everybody’s like …!!! Who could have possibly done this?! Clearly this lot have not been raised on Crime TV, where family and friends are always the prime suspects. A most despicable man, nature itself shudders to think of him, it was… – is what Sesto is happy to supply. Shh! Shh, enough with the details before we get you legal counsel, Vitellia wisely suggests. But it’s ok, our chorus has stopped listening after the bit about the soul leaving the body. Except Publio but we’re not supposed to know that yet.

Maestro has organised this one very well, it’s captivating and clear. It’s always interesting to hear the act dissipate amids the pulsating hammers of doom + cries of tradimento (it’s Rome, legal matters will come into dicsussion).

Act II

Annio : Sesto: in these case, these two are very young in spirit. Annio well intentioned, anxious and naive (but also resourceful) and Sesto, too impulsive not to fall for Vitellia’s calculated charms.

Torna di Tito a lato: perhaps a bit over-enunciated but Daletska knows which ones of her notes sound beautiful and uses them. This is an aria which benefits from being sung beautifully.

Partir deggio, o restar…?: Vitellia must’ve been hiding behind a pillar because Sesto doesn’t even have time for vacillation. She tells him in a matter of fact way that he has to make himself scarce. Sesto makes it a point – in a voice half sad, half outraged – that he would never betray her.

Publio must’ve hidden behind the other pillar, because he sneaks up on them and he and Sesto don’t have the back and forth about the sword. He just says give it up, I know you did it. Vitellia sounds tired in o, colpo fatale…! Perhaps she herself is relieved that she didn’t have to live with the fear of being discovered. Sesto’s focus remains on Vitellia and in this instance it sounds like he’s blaming her for talking too loudly.

Se al volto mai ti senti: the oboe seems a bit dry but it might’ve been the acoustics. This sets the tone for the least ethereal Se al volto… I can remember. All three have this earthy quality to their voices which makes Vitellia remorseful in a practical manner (as if saying ok, perhaps I could’ve used Sesto in a way that didn’t run the risk of his demise), Sesto seems determined to look fate squarely in the eyes and Publio is a by the books type. Hartelius gives us a crisp, vivid, almost touching first che crudelta! complete with “thoughtful” descending trill and expert ppp on -ta. Sheratt makes the most of his “head shake” lines. As the tempo speeds up for the conclusion, Hartelius reprises that beautiful ppp (Vitellia’s starting to get a glimpse of the larger picture) and Sesto gets more reproachful – especially on the last che crudelta, which Coote dominates.

Ah grazie se rendano: starts quite hesitantly. The choir ain’t bad at all, nice balance between the male and female voices. When Schade came in I got this image of his Tito dancing by himself at his own birthday party. Don’t ask. Just after Tito finishes his lines there is this long note on the flute/oboe that here comes off more dissonant than before and it really fits the not quite mood.

Publio : Tito: Tito of course can’t believe that his Sesto could betray him. Schade uses his most useful sound to make Tito extra trusting. Publio sounds close to the limit of his patience in non han tutti il cor di Tito.

Tardi s’avvede: very good, strong, good straight-up Publio. Sheratt uses a lot of colour, seemingly determined to leave an impression. He finds the right balance of colour/tone/chutzpah relative to the size of the aria and it works.

Tito : Annio : Publio: Tito sounds like he’s cheering himself up (remember him dancing with himself earlier?) that Sesto can’t possibly be that bad in spite of Publio’s sung insinuation of treason. Annio seems scared shitless but also appears to think that speaking the bitter truth in a chipper manner might actually make it less awful. Publio underlines in a thundering voice: WHAT DID I TELL YOU, BOSS? – SESTO IS GUILTY! Tito is like : – O Annio tries to get his attention, hoping for mediation. Schade’s Tito is on the brink of tears when he replies leave me alone, Annio! Then he gets all irate and throws something at Publio which makes Annio freeze. But he (Annio) recovers and goes on. What a good friend, can I have his number?

Tu fosti tradito: remember how I said (twice) Daletska makes the effort to enunciate? An almost lost skill nowadays. Maybe that’s why she sounds a bit OTT with it. But the way she says morrrrte is butter. Never has it sounded so allur(rrr)ing. Also it kinda works with the moment, as if to illustrate how much guts it takes to plead with Tito when in this irate state. In the end it’s kinda great. There’s dynamic variation, it’s not screechy and it is impassionate. Plus all the words are clear and even though they sound more like a Central European impression of Italian, there is beauty in those sounds.

Tito is conflicted: and Schade is very musical. It segues smoothly into

Quello di Tito e il volto: it’s not usually that Publio has the biggest voice but in this case Sheratt towers over the others volume-wise. Coote’s Sesto is suddenly apprehensive. Very wistful addio…! But she drives the trio well, muscularly rising over the other two’s né gli occhi ardisce alzar. Schade’s Tito, as usual, is annoyed. The trio is quite intense, finishes before you realise.

Tito : Sesto: friendly, understanding Tito, even though he is appalled by what appears to be the truth. Schade’s Tito traditionally has a short fuse. It’s now Sesto who sounds like a self-flagellating lover (it’s not you, it’s me). Tito seems to kinda like this (just tell me you love me and I’ll forgive it all – but of course Sesto can’t say yes). He (Sesto) begs for a last kiss as if the realisation dawns on him that this is truly the end (as in, he will die). Up until now he seemed more preoccupied with gathering his courage and holding his own in front of Tito.

Deh, per questo instante solo: Coote starts this in a very sombre mood. It’s driven more by the need to make a favourable impression on Tito than by a focus on the good old days. Generally her Sesto is built on a realistic sense of duty and here a pressing need to redeem his name. The way she says se vedessi questo cor suggests more stark admission of guilt than a desire to save his arse. This Sesto is thus characterised before everything by his sense of honourability. Coote’s final di dolor x2 hammers home his conviction that he is at fault and that he doesn’t think he deserves to be pardoned. It’s one of the most restrained and unsentimental versions.

Tito makes up his mind: Tito still seems hurt but greatly appreciative of his BFF’s courage to face up to his mistake. He knows the law would be merciless but the way he says Sesto is reo… Sesto mora! is very detached. It’s the nature of management to have to uphold rules that one does not believe in. But what of rules that go against one’s own sense of self? Sometimes I think that more than a generous ruler Tito is the symbol of a corrupt ruler – my friends above all! To be fair, Mestastasio has taken care to have him pardon random dissenters in Act I. Anyway, this is not the way Tito sees it: he’s all about another opportunity to parade his generosity and Schade is always good at expressing this abstract side of him.

Se all’impero: behold, my generosity! The sheer pomposity of that abstractness infuses Schade’s take. He launches into it all guns blazing, oozing earnest amazement in his own goodness. Then he uses his arsenal of dynamics to go from f to ppp with rubato on top to underline the most virtuous parts of his argument. The ardent, even nervous tackle on the coloratura mirrors that amazement.

Vitellia : Servilia : Annio: we jump over Vitellia’s trying to ferret info out of Publio and go straight to her recit with Sesto’s people. Vitellia sounds panicked, the others anxious to get her to intercede for Sesto. Hartelius sounds grand on Annio! Non son’ Augusta ancor…! The subtext is but I really, really hope I’m wrong so, please, for the love of all that is holy, tell me so. He indulges her. She is so sure of the inevitability of getting what’s rightfully hers that she isn’t even surprised. Once again the practical one, she muses that Sesto must’ve kept his promise to her. Somewhere in middle thought she finally sees him for the good guy he is, which up to now was only useful to her. Now it’s someobody actually cares about me enough to go against not only his own views and interest but against the love someone else has for him. That’s a pretty strong realisation for anyone to have (though, frankly, people in that position are usually selfish enough to never reach it).

A bit OT, the other day I was reading about limerence, something I’d never heard of before. If you don’t know what it is, here’s the jist: infatuation is bad for you. Reading about it invalidates love poetry and romcoms down the ages but avoiding it 1 makes practical sense. Also it makes me wonder that there are indeed people out there who have never felt the “ravages” love/infatuation can wreak on you. Though it is perfectly sensible to wish for infatuation never to visit you, it also seems like something is lost, like life would be less lively without its occasional tornadoes. Maybe we’re just conditioned that way.

In any case, Sesto seems an excellent example of the debilitating effect of extreme limerence. He’s in love and that takes him from ecstasy to the pits of hell in a manner that seems unhinged. His sobre moments suggest he’s indeed not lacking judgment in other areas of his life.

But back to Vitellia: her warming up to the realisation that Sesto loves her is a sign she’s not a complete narcissist, just a woman up her own arse. Now she seems mortified at having lost the one person who would do everything for her. The way Hartelius does it seems more genuine than usual.

S’altro che lagrime: not bad at all, in fact rather great. Can’t fault it at all.

Ecco il punto…/Non piu di fiori: Maestro drives an energetic, rather rigorous tempo that translates into an unsentimental feel for the recit. Hartelius’ Vitellia is strong enough to take stock of her own shortcomings. There’s sentiment when she pronounces Sesto’s name. His love for her is all encompassing but his (subconscious) goodness goes beyond it, hence his failure. She knows now that in essence he did do her bidding, even if practically he couldn’t carry it out. So how is she going to respond to that proof of love? She realises that she won’t be able to cast him aside as useless to her now that she’s got what she wanted. So on one hand Sesto couldn’t physically be a murder and on the other she herself can’t walk over his dead body and pretend it doesn’t mean anything to her. Her addio in speranze… addio! is said in a strangled way. It’s hard for her to give her hopes up but she does nonetheless. This Vitellia is not the same Vitellia of Come ti piace, imponi. She sees now that her initial sense of identity was unrealistic, most likely driven by outside pressures.

Hartelius sings the rondo proper in a way that suggests quiet realisation rather than impassioned repentance. Her voice has the noblesse suitable to Vitellia’s upbringing and suggests a level of self-awareness for our heroine that precludes self aggrandizing or cheap drama. Where Naglestad’s Vitellia has to tackle the consequences of her own cynical irrestibility and Roschmann’s is faced with the imperative necessity of dousing her firey self interest, this one’s meltdown is along the lines of admitting fair enough, I tried being smart and it didn’t work. Perhaps my whole approach to life was wrong. And the tragedy is, it’s now that I realise I was wrong when everybody is going to think I’m a bitch. The basset horn goes very gentle on her (sweet tone! sweet descrescendo!), because it agrees she’s a more congenial Vitellia after all. That creamy tone I mentioned in Come ti piace, imponi makes this a very alluring rendition. Hartelius also places the low G where she should.

Act II finale

Non piu di fiori segues right into the finale, which is done in the dome-like way, with quite a strong Baroque whiff. Tito tries to sound pissed off but we know he’s only doing this to set up the grand surprise of his generosity. You know he’s been choreographing this ever since he sent Publio to get Sesto to the arena. Vitellia sounds like she kinda likes confessing. I wouldn’t be surprised if she found it easier to do this with an audience than in private. More chuckling from the audience as Tito is wondering just how many self-confessed traitors would spring up today. But it’s working nicely for him. He pretty much flings freedom at all rather than offering it on a velvet cushion. Sesto sounds like he can’t quite believe his ears and swears he’ll repent forever. Maybe he’ll set up a charity. Tito strokes his scruff and says good boy.

But even more importantly we have a very good Eterni dei. The choir has done a sterling job throughout, but then one can trust a German choir to be solid and keep up with the orchestra and soloists. The male and female sides are very well balanced (yes, I said it before but it bears repeating, especially in the context of Eterni dei).

This is a very good example of teamwork in opera, so thank you Maestro for energising your people and keeping a very strong balance among the parts of the whole. Everybody worked hard to the best of their seizable abilities, which, for a concert version is fantastic (but then, in spite of its acoustics, the Barbican has seen some very strong concert versions over the years). I would recommend it to fans of the singers and of Tito, it’s a very solid modern-sounding addition to the Tito catalogue.


  1. it appears you can’t avoid it or wish for it if you’re not naturally predisposed to it. 

(Further) Sprinkles of Baroque love from Theater an der Wien

TadWahead

12 May 2017: it turns out that Theater an der Wien has the exact same Ariodante team that hits the Barbican on 16 May 2017. Warehouse in Brutalism Central vs. cosy little venue across from the Naschmarkt…

22 March 2017: Rene Jacobs conducts Ulisse (with Degout, Zorzi Giustiniani and Chappuis).

16 December 2016: before all that there’s Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria (with Fagioli and Mynenko) and a month to the day before that a bit of Rameau (Zoroastre) (with Piau and Emmanuelle de Negri).

Dear TadW, thanks for nothing! Way to spread the love around instead of condensing everything for my convenience. I keep singing your praises yet I get no respect >:-O whichever one of these will be my next time there I’m going to pack the venue up in my holdall and transplant it to London. For a bribe of poppyseed strudel I can send the Barbican over.

Behold the outdoors splendor:

And the halls:

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Barbican, 29 September 2015)

The music starts in the dark. A trembling light advances slowly from the left: it’s Penelope carrying a (red) candle for Ulisse.

ulissebench

Penelope’s bench and red candle (centre) and the wind machine behind the theorbo

Ulisse: Ian Bostridge
Penelope: Barbara Kozelj
Minerva/Amore: Elizabeth Watts
Telemaco: Andrew Tortise
Tempo/Nettuno/Antinoo: Lukas Jakobski
Melanto/Fortuna: Sophie Junker
l’Umana Fragilita: Daniela Lehner
Iro: Alexander Oliver
Eumete: Christopher Gillet
Giunone: Charmian Bedford
Pisandro/Coro di Feaci: John Lattimore
Anfinomo/Coro di Feaci: Richard Latham
Eurimaco/Giove: Gwilym Bowen
Director/harpsichord: Richard Egarr | Academy of Ancient Music

10 days fter the excellent performance in Bucharest I was curious in which ways – if any – it would be different. As usual, seeing it live is so different from hearing/seeing it recorded. I am delighted to report that Watts did not sound screechy in the least and Kozelj performance was much more affecting than I had previously thought. My outings at the Barbican have been either in the front stalls or front balcony and back balcony. I have a feeling it does matter a lot where you’re sitting, so I am now taking care to sit in the stalls.

I have come to enjoy these Barbican semi-stagings. For these early operas there’s probably no need for much more. This time we had a centre stage weathered bench for Penelope, which was also used by other characters for their own antics. Barbican’s stage inbuilt stairs solved a lot of problems of depth. Most of the characters looked like they were instructed to bring something black in which they felt comfy and which brought out their own personality. Sashes and bright coloured cloths added some pizzaz where needed. Ulisse (in disguise) and Eumete had gnarly staffs and Nettuno brandished a more elaborate one. Iro ate several things.

As before, the entire hall was used. Several characters made their entrances to scenes/sang from the stalls or from the balcony. Having singers harmonise behind you is surprisingly – or not – effective, as I came to realise when I heard Tito‘s Act I finale with the choir at the back of the venue. You do get the feeling of total immersion.

But a Monteverdi opera lives or dies on the singers’ (vocal) acting skills. Our bunch of singers are luckily very good actors so they were engaging throughout.

As before I really enjoyed Ian Bostridge’s performance. There are no objections whatsoever, everything was conducted brilliantly and with great emotion; the voice sounded in perfect health, plus he’s got the kind of tone I can easily associate with my idea of Ulisse (a clever hero).

At home, with many distractions, it’s perhaps too easy to fall back on the things one is used to. 1m away from the performer, a music lover falls under the spell of their artistry, I rediscovered last night. So instead of focusing on who she doesn’t sound like, I was won over by Kozelj’s nuanced singing. Lots of floated notes and delicate inflections – a rather internalised grief, very stylish. Pivotal moments, such as Penelope’s idea – implemented by Minerva – to challenge the suitors to stringing Ulisse’s bow or her meeting with Ulisse where she is obviously attracted to him but isn’t sure of his identity yet, came off very clearly. And this time both Penelope and Ulisse looked genuinely happy to meet again.

Once again Watts had a lot of fun, especially when Minerva disguised herself as an old hag/shepherd to surprise Ulisse and also during her “let rip” moment, when she complained about the offence against her that started the Trojan War. When I saw her in Don Giovanni I didn’t particularly like her voice but here my ears were very pleasantly tickled especially by her low register, which sounded surprisingly solid. Excellent performance all around.

Another singer who had a lot of fun with his characters was Jakobski as Tempo/Nettuno/Antinoo. In turn childishly mean (Time) to l’Umana Fragilita (the poor thing!), outraged at the lack of respect from humans (Nettuno) and cleverly materialistic (Antinoo), he snarled, foamed at the mouth and acted smooth around Penelope. His cheerfully warm and elastic bass stood out easily among the many high voices around him.

Sophie Junker (Melanto/Fortuna) had the opportunity for flirtatious lightheartedness to balance Penelope’s stubborn glum. In possession of a mobile face and lovely bell-like tone, she’s really good at this kind of thing. She also had very good chemistry with Gwilym Bowen’s Eurimaco.

For voice-focused opera lovers this sparsely orchestrated music offers almost complete focus on the voice(s). I thought John Lattimore (Pisandro/sailor) and Richard Latham (Anfinomo/sailor) mixed really well with Jakobski in their harmonies in the livestreaming and it was awesome to hear these harmonies in the flesh.

… I could go on but you get the gist of it (and if you need more, you can (re)visit the post about the Bucharest performance. Truly a gorgeous evening of music crowning the Monteverdi cycle. Do I need to tell you that the AAC sound sweet live? Maybe: the strings were plump in sound, the rhythm section drove the whole thing with enthusiasm and the melodic bits were a pleasure on the ear. I wonder what the AAC will bring in the next few years but any time they want to reprise any Monteverdi I’ll be there bar acts of god 😉

So this is how the Month of Tito ends, having suddenly turned into the Season of Monteverdi. Can we have too much of the green man? I’m starting to think not. I’ll let you on a “secret”: there’s more to come next month 😀

ulissecurtain

Giunone, Tempo, Eurimaco, Eumete, Minerva, Penelope, the stage director (?), Egarr, Ulisse, Telemaco, Melanto, Anfinomo and Pisandro

St. Matthew Passion (Barbican, 3 April 2015)

Popular wisdom has is classical music can bring out the best in you (calm you down, make you smarter). This Good Friday Bach brought out a spectacular amount of enthusiastic, highly engaged coughing from the audience.

Academy of Ancient Music | Choir of the AAM
Richard Egarr
director & harpsichord
James Gilchrist Evangelist
Matthew Rose Jesus
Elizabeth Watts soprano
Sarah Connolly alto
Andrew Kennedy Mark Le Brocq tenor
Christopher Purves bass(-baritone)

Before going I warmed up by reading a review of a different performance by a completely different team (as you do). The author made a point of saying how intimate it felt. Well, I didn’t feel any intimacy in this particular instance. I was waiting for some/any emotion to overtake me but in the end my mind wandered (to pleasant things, true).

I did enjoy it quite a bit on an intellectual level (oh, the mighty structure! the dialogue between the two choirs and the soloists etc.) but I didn’t feel religious fervour or abandon. In the end it felt too Lutheran and my Baroque wiring is mostly of Italian origin. Case in point: there was precision aplenty, impressively adhered to by Egarr and Co. with some perfectly timed interventions by the choir. There were moments of great energy that came off vividly and almost memorably, interspersed with introspective bits; all very logical. If anything it felt like a well done thing performed with care. But I was hardly moved. For that I fault Herr JS.

The Evangelist was (understandably) really into the story, very vivid voice acting. Though sounding like a massive worrywart rather than intimate storyteller, he was always engaging and my favourite part of the evening. It’s been a while since I was so eager for the next bit of recit. SC’s voice sounded lovely from the getgo and very at home within the (very disciplined “everybody in their place”) oratorio format. Pity the alto part seemed to call for a slew of pp sad and introspective arias and little else. I’d heard EW live before (as Zerlina) and wasn’t quite convinced. In this outing I caught a rather evocative, full middle, which I liked a lot better than the perhaps imprecise top.

As often with Baroque, there was a lot of wind instrument accompaniment for the solo arias. Come the second or third soprano aria, the oboe – whilst sounding rather nice – was so damn loud I could not focus on Watts’ voice for love or money. All I could hear was the oboe (west left side, the other orchestra was effectively blocked by a giant leaning head smack dab in front of me), going to town recital-mode. “Some of my best friends are oboists” – by which I mean I really like all the woodwinds, possibly better than I like sopranos. But if there are other things in the mix I’d like to hear those too (even the sopranos).

Later, in the middle of one of the alto arias where the main tune was carried by the flute, Mr Oboe, ever so mezzoforte and above even when playing the bass line, gave us an explanation of sorts. His part went along the lines of: tu. tu. tu. tu. tee. tu. tu. tu etc. – for about 15 minutes. I feel your pain, buddy. Still, curb your enthusiasm a little when you get that much coveted main tune. We can hear you below the soprano.

The perils of sold out shows. During every – and I mean every – break in the music/singing/recitative the audience greedily joined in via an impressive variety of coughs and sneezes with the increasing frequency and stridency of summer shower droplets against the window pane. In the midst of (yet another) elegiac aria towards the end, someone 2-3 rows ahead and 20 people to my right surprised us with their own wrapping paper accompaniment. It went on for so long, half the people in the row immediately ahead of me turned to marvel at the solid performance. I can assure you it was as incisive and memorable as Mr Oboe’s antics. To be fair, the main hall of the Barbican was rather dry yesterday. But not too dry for yours truly to zzzz off at the tail end of the Passion.

2015 Wigmore Hall and Barbican tickets on general sale now

Go get yours (Wigmore Hall and Barbican). I started with booking for ladies Roschmann+Uchida (twice!), Mingardo and Invernizzi, all at Wigmore Hall in May-July then St Matthew Passion (at Easter) and Il ritorno d’Ulisse (the end of September) at the Barbican.