Category Archives: baroque

Fun at the opera in 2018

January

11 Sonia Prina | Wigmore Hall

17 Salome | ROH

21 Il ritorno d’Ulisse în patria | Roundhouse

Opera clasică Mozart | Wigmore Hall

25 Anna Bonitatibus and friends | Wigmore Hall

27 Anna Bonitatibus | Wigmore Hall

31 Angelika Kirchschlanger | Wigmore Hall

February

4 Adrian Behle | Wigmore Hall

Golda Schultz | Wigmore Hall

8 Concert englez Buxthude | Wigmore Hall

26 Les Talens Lyriques | Wigmore Hall

March

13 Rinaldo | Barbican

14 De la casa morților | ROH

20 Christine Rice Rebecca Evans | Wigmore Hall

22 Esther | Wigmore Hall

26 D’Odette | Wigmore Hall

April

5 Haim / Crebassa / Desandre / Devieilhe | Wigmore Hall

7 Dido and Aeneas | Wigmore Hall

19 Orlando furioso | Teatro Malibran, Venice

21 Orlando furioso | Teatro Malibran, Venice

24 Matthias Goerne | Wigmore Hall

May

1 Sonia Prina / Vivica Genaux | Wigmore Hall

3 Mauro Peter | Wigmore Hall

4 Lucy Crowe | Wigmore Hall

6 Academiei Regale | Wigmore Hall

16 Hannigan Masterclass | Linbury Studio

21 Sara Mingardo | Wigmore Hall

24 Lecții în dragoste și violență | ROH

27 Simon Keenlyside | Wigmore Hall

June

4 Franco Fagioli | Barbican

5 Stephane Degout | Wigmore Hall

9 Arianna în Creta | Ulrichskirche Halle

13 Jakub Jozef Orlinski | Wigmore Hall

15 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne

17 Ian Bostridge | Wigmore Hall

18 Christine Rice Julien Van Mallaerts | Wigmore Hall

19 Der Rosenkavalier | Glyndebourne

23 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne

July

2 Veronique Gens | Wigmore Hall

6 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall

9 Felicity Palmer | Wiggy

15 JPYA | ROH

18 L’ange de Nisida | ROH

20 Giulio Cesare | Glyndebourne

22 Pavol Breslik | Wigmore Hall

27 Saul | Glyndebourne

August

1 Pelleas et Melisande | Glyndebourne

12 L’incoronazione di Poppea | Salzburger Festspiele (Haus fur Mozart)

September

8 La Iole | Oldenburg

10 Dorothea Roschmann | Wigmore Hall

14 Marianne Crebassa/ Mass în B minor | Löningen

19 Masteratlass Sarah Connolly | Wigmore Hall

October

8 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall

17 Porgy și Bess | ENO

22 Karina Gauvin | Wigmore Hall

25 Semiramide | Teatro La Fenice

26 Serse | Barbican

November

2 Marie-Nicole Lemieux | Wigmore Hall

19 Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall

December

11 Lucy Crowe | Wigmore Hall

Agrippina or Handel’s Italian period greatest hits set to a great libretto (ROH, 4 October 2019)

Guess who’s back? (Early) Handel opera on the main stage of the ROH! What was it, only about 10 years since last we had one of longtime London resident’s operas grace the acoustics of the main hall?

Nevermind, ROH has not only poshed up to high heavens – if it ever needed such a thing1 – but has hit a big win with those who have long known that staging Handel doesn’t have to be tedious. One didn’t have to look farther than ENO, who’s been running brilliant Handel productions for years. All you need to know is that this Kosky riotous fun is giving that “mamazing” Richard Jones Rodelinda I always rave about a run for its money. Clearly these two are the best Baroque opera directors of the moment.

The Royal Opera © 2019 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Agrippina: Joyce DiDonato
Nerone: Franco Fagioli
Poppea: Lucy Crowe
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Claudio: Gianluca Buratto
Pallante: Andrea Mastroni
Narciso: Eric Jurenas (covered last night?)
Lesbo: José Coca Loza
Conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev | Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Director: Barrie Kosky

Drop what you’re doing and go see it. If/when your local cinema shows it, get your ticket now. For those who like their mezzo power amped up, the Met is going to stage it (run this production? See comments, it’s McVicar’s production from La Monnaie that is going to the Met. You should still see the Met broadcast, it’s a good team there as well) with the always suitable Kate Lindsey as Nerone2 and they’ll broadcast it. If there’s one Met broadcast you need to see, this is going to be it.

Kosky has already hit fabulous Handel heights with his Glyndebourne Saul, so this didn’t necessary come as a surprise. It was more what’s he going to do this time? Well, this is a very restrained production, both for him and for ROH. The focus is sharply on characterisation and character interaction, with a (current ROH favourite) rotating cube with various rooms as backdrop. Every character has their well defined personality and they interact like they’re supposed to, whilst at the same time use park and bark for our benefit (so that we can hear what they’re singing – big house, light voices = park and trill).

If you’ve seen Kosky comedies you know his humour ain’t subtle. Then again, neither were these particular Romans. But he’s good at what he does and even though it maybe cheap, it’s never stupid. The costumes range from really beautiful (for the women) to understandably blingy-ridiculous (Nerone) and midlife crisis-ridiculous (Claudio).

The Royal Opera © 2019 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

The singing is ROH level tops, with JDD and Crowe as big standouts and Davies in close pursuit. Fagioli’s diction is as garbled as ever (even from closer) but I think we’ve all agreed that this is what it is. Handel’s Nerone is definitely his role, though, and if you’re going to see him in a staged opera, I heartily suggest it’s this one. He can negotiate Come nube (aka, Come nembo from Il trionfo…) at proper pace and if you don’t mind super pressurised emission, you’re going to be happy with his rendition. Emelyanychev, of course, cradles him in a cocoon of sotto playing from Baroque-subtlety veterans Opera of the Age of Enlightenment.

JDD has always appealed to me in Baroque roles and Agrippina is no exception. She has the stage presence to carry the title role and her Pensieri and Ogni vento (with the fun improvs) were as good as anything. At this point in her career she’s mastered many styles and when you hear her in Baroque you don’t think Rossini, which is a very fine feat. So after a very stark Pensieri sung on a bare (and soul baring) stage, we had Ogni vento staged as the big moment of a consummate pop star (complete with sparkly microphone, poses, direct interaction with the public). It’s pretty trendy these days to give nods and/or poke fun at pop star moments but in the productions that I have seen it used it has worked. It fits here too, especially considering breaking the fourth wall is one of the pillars of this very self aware libretto. And it also makes sense Ogni vento (aka, whatever it takes) gets this treatment, because it’s Agrippina’s biggest moment of honesty for someone who’s genuinely dishonest.

After the Madrid Rodelinda, we know to expect good things from Lucy Crowe in Handel roles. And I’m pretty sure she loves this rep, because her enthusiasm at embracing Poppea’s many moods and scheming (complete with fabulous phrasing) was infectious.

The Royal Opera © 2019 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper

And, yes, T, S’agita in mezzo all’onde is called Vaghe perle here 😉 and is sung by the soprano. Let’s not forget Papa Handel was very young (24) and when he got this Venetian3 commission only a year after Aci, Galatea and Polifemo, so no wonder he immediately rushed to his stash of “greatest early hits” and plundered like there was no tomorrow (there probably wasn’t).

Incidentally, for those who may not know but read this blog, Aci & friends played at Wigmore Hall in very fine company the night of the ROH Agrippina premiere. Yours truly made the wise decision to attend that first (in very fine company, on, off stage and backstage). I also think that bit I really like from La resurezzione is also mixed in here. Though I may be wrong about this one… but it was written the previous year.

If you go to see one of the Nerone-related operas in the big UK houses, your chance at getting a Iestyn Davies Ottone are 99% or higher 😉 That being said, if we’re denied a contralto (as originally written for), he’s a very good alternative and was in top voice. Ottone, as ever, is parked in Lament City but he’s assigned that beautiful Crede l’uomo aria from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno.

So, like I was saying, Emelyanychev conducted, because this is ROH and if they’re going to have Baroque opera for their main course, they are wise enough to invite music people to match the poshness of their lobby. In other words ❤

He’s like the Currentzis for the discerning audience – all the subtlety of dynamics, none of the whiplash or boxing of singers in between two bouts of interpolated extraneous choruses. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is always wonderful to hear, lucky us here in ye olde (soon to be ye lost in the Atlantic), but I have to say that I have never heard (really, NEVER) better period trumpet interventions. Wow. Whoever you are, you have absolutely ruled last night. Not to say that the oboes, strings or double basses weren’t great. Or, indeed, the fine cembalo playing from Maestro and Steven Devine. The whole sing rocked, the house was full and the laughs were genuine. Can we have more Baroque at ROH now?

PS: Emelyanychev’s cembalo is truly beautiful 🙂 I sat on the horseshoe and looked at it all night.


  1. turns out it did. T, upon visiting ROH for the first time last week has declared the new and improved ROH the poshest opera house ever. Dehggi: but what about Munich? T: yes, but this is modern posh. So there you have it, the new posh. Not just the finest names in classical music, also the coolest opera lobby experience. 
  2. how she’s going to cope with Come nube I am very curious, after her “expanded horizons” stint as the other Nerone. Which is what I’m trying to get at: I hope exposure to this Nerone will bring more attention to her Monteverdi Nerone, her best role to date in my opinion. 
  3. for the theatre now called Malibran, which we mostly love, minus the humongous moon 😉 from last year’s Orlando

Agrippina stirs some sh…tuff up (Barbican, 31 May 2019)

As a very big fan of Poppea, the prequel causes lots of amusement.

Poppea: Ottone, my boo-boo teddybear!
Ottone: I do not wish for power, all I want it my lovely, sexy and very virtuous Poppea!
Nerone: Poppea, Poppea! Considering I am higher up the totem pole than him, can I have some?
Poppea: Go away, pimply teenager! Now, where is my boo-boo teddybear, whom I will love forever?

Famous. last. words.

Claudio: Nerone, leave alone (ie, to me) virginal patrician women!
Agrippina: Nerone, stick to the plan! Now is not the time to get horny!

And so on.

Joyce DiDonato Agrippina
Elsa Benoit Poppea
Xavier Sabata Ottone
Franco Fagioli Nerone
Luca Pisaroni Claudio
Andrea Mastroni Pallante
Carlo Vistoli Narciso
Biagio Pizzuti Lesbo
Maxim Emelyanychev harpsichord/director | Il Pomo d’Oro

There is an unwritten law that says operas about this imperial family must have really good libretti. This one is funny as hell, there are too many good things to mention. If the music was not as good you would almost want it to be a very silly play about lust for power. For those who do not know, everybody has their own game they pursue to various results.

At this point, Poppea is actually a paragon of virtue compared to her later self. She does not want Nerone at all, no matter how much closer to the throne he is, and she is actually repulsed by Claudio, the emperor:

Poppea: He is like… old.

Although I think Pisaroni is younger than Sabata? Heh, heh. And, well, for once the bass-baritone is less credible age-wise than the soprano.

Poppea sticks with her true love here and fends off the danger (Claudio and Nerone) but also shows us that she can perform her own machinations. Now said schemes are not particularly clever, as she manages to 1) confuse boo-boo teddybear Ottone and 2) her well thought out scheme works in such a way as to lose him his throne. Ooops. Was Arnalta on holiday?

As far as the singers I had two surprises – for once I liked Fagioli’s acting better than his singing and I actually heard Sabata live! Those of you who have read my Disarmonia estravaganza may remember that I have seen him live before. Less with the hearing. It tells you something if you can hear a singer better from the Barbican’s balcony than from Wigg’s 5th row. And that something is

the orchestra and the conductor

I want to put my vote for Emelyanychev as the most singer friendly conductor EVER. OK, ever as in modern times and in Baroque specifically. But, maaaan, can he support a singer or what! Also, his orchestra is butter. When I saw them for Serse last year I was too close to Gal… I mean, to the action, so I actually did not have the best spot for focusing on hearing the work of the instrumentalists. But from my perch in the front row balcony (upgrade! that was a sweet spot for my £15) I could hear it in its multichannel beauty.

Now butter (salted, full fat) is usually a top like from me, but I have to say that, here and there, I could have liked a hint of recklessness (couple of pebbles in that butter?). I know, I know, as that wise man Muddy Waters once said, I can never be satisfied. But I think with me, it is actually high praise if I say it was wonderful butIt means you are on a whole other level from the riff-raff who cannot do a pianissimo to save their life. As I was saying much later, when the conversation turned to whether one has or has not seen that 8 hour tunnel that is the Wagner light – I like my music performed with delicacy and attention to detail.

Now lets go back to Franco. Hey, this man was made for solo shows, dramatically leaving and returning to the stage comedy! First Serse, now this. I think he was even better here, with his Mummy, Mummy, I’m scared schtick. Singingwise, I have already mentioned last year that Im going off him. Even so, it was a bit strange that, of everything that went on last night, Come nube came off the least convincing. Mind you, that was just me – the public loved it. Now, of course they would love it, the music is just so good. I also applauded, because how can you not give this orchestra and its head honcho a bit of clap? Heh heh. PS: first violin, sweet tone all night.

Handel: Hello, all! You may remember me for that wonderfully sparkling work I presented a couple of years ago, Il trionfo del Tempo… No? OK, the subject was a bit finger wagging – but the music! I came up with some of my best ideas back in 1707. I think I shall cannibalise that work for the rest of my life (wistful sigh). Let me remind you.

And reminded we was. In my case, I was reminded of the breathtaking renditions Bonitatibus and Hallenberg, to name but two, do of this aria. I am not entirely sure who or what to fault, but considering maestro was so keen on supporting his singers I shall blame both him and Franco. Emelyanychev chose to support him, so perhaps the lack of clarity or focus came from that. Do not get me wrong, the string section’s sound was as good as ever and the winds were no slouch. The tempo was no problem. What I did not quite feel was the drive. Franco, for his part, made a completely abstract sparkle of coloratura out of it. Like words tossed by the wind, as it were. I know I am asking too much from him, but I love this aria to such a degree that I would like to actually catch a word here and there.

Sabata, on the other hand, when heard, sounds lovely. Stylish as anything plus his recit skills are quite legendary. And whilst we are at other badass 1707 arias I wanted the world to remember, at some point Ottone breaks into Crede l’uom, only about birds and bees or something equally as incongruous. Wait a minute, that’s a cautioning the soprano aria. And whoever sings it, actually gets the soprano (right? Disinganno gets Bellezza in the end? so to speak; it is a morality tale, after all), which is the case here. Short lived victory, Ottone, alas. But Ottone is the character that stays the same through both works.

Agrippina: Whew! Now that I’ve seen my son on throne, I can die happy.
Nerone: Happy to oblige! (ok, not just yet)

This Agrippina provided a unique moment when I actually liked all three countertenors on stage. Even though I am moving on from Franco and the contrast with the warmer tones of Sabata and Vistoli was not flattering as far as I’m concerned, this was still the best possible gaggle of CTs on one stage for me. And though I appreciated Orlinski before, I think we were indeed better off with Vistoli as Narciso, to contrast the bolder Pallante (really fun acting chops from Mastroni) towards Agrippina. He has that hopeless lover tone that would probably do a nice Ottone in the future.

Because I never want my writeups to sound like they are coming from a hopeless Betty (Mary?) Sue, I shall remind you that I have always been indifferent to JDD’s tone. But then comes the rest of the story. JDD is without a doubt one of the smartest singers out there. I have long admired the way she balances her belcanto and her Baroque. She understands style and she can be interesting within the required parameters, without having to borrow skills from another time period. And, as you may know, I have been obsessed with her Barcelona Ogni vento from earlier this month. You sing Baroque, you need to do that kind of precise and inventive coloratura, you have to be able to sing softly, change dynamic gears in an instant, you need to pay attention to details. With her, it is all there and it feels easy to boot.

Her Agrippina did not try to out-Poppea Poppea. She took the role of scheming older woman very seriously and that was a clever move, because it fits her much better. Dramatically, her chiding mother to Franco’s whingy son and the lying through their teeth oh so civil couple she and Pisaroni made were the best moments of the night.

What can I say about Pisaroni? It is always a pleasure to hear him spin Baroque coloratura and, yes, we got his trade mark mezzo-hair sniffing moment. Haha.

I really did not mind Benoit and thought her acting was fine, although the company rather came down on her and thought she was boring. Not the most memorable voice out there but see above.

The evening ended up a lot more animated than I thought it would be. First, Giulia found me in the Barbican shop wihtout us actually making any plans. Then a bunch of Twitter folk she knew joined in for lively conversation. At the intermission I was stuck in an unbelievable loo queue. Barbican… you have so much dead space and so little understanding of how women and loo breaks function. As I was saying to a queue companion, it should not be called intermission any longer, rather it should be women’s loo break.

On the other hand, this may be Barbican’s clever have Londoners mingle plan. I found out that the two most efficient ice breakers in London are 1) complaining about the weather, 2) complaining about the loo queue at a performance venue. The third is admiring pets on the public transport.

You know the joke is Londoners never speak to each other or make eye contact on the tube (not true, I hasten to add). I have met some very interesting people on this very queue and I was a bit sad we could not continue our conversation due to impending return of performers on stage (the gall!). But after the show I joined Giulia and her friends for a pint at the local and that was very fun. We shall do it again!

Agrippina in London, round one (next week)

*Please note that…

NOOO!

Am I the only one who has a sharp intake of breath whenever they have to *please note something regarding casting?

For the much awaited Barbican Agrippina concert performance currently touring I got my tickets last March, that is March 2018 – it was an accident, I am not quite as rabid an early Handel fan, though the amount of Ogni vento I listened to in the past couple of days could have had one fooled. But because of recent I have been known to forget shows I wanted to see (I also forgot to vote today…), I thought checking and rechecking that the show has not happened yet would be a good idea.

What I found out was that the show is still on 31 May BUT now we have to:

*Please note Kathryn Lewek is replaced by Elsa Benoit in the role of Poppea for this performance – well, ok, I guess?

**Please note Marie-Nicole Lemieux is replaced by Xavier Sabata in the role of Ottone for this performance – NOOOOO! …but it could be much worse

***Please note Jakub Jósef Orlinski is replaced by Carlo Vistoli in the role of Narciso for this performance – why, that one could be good!

In case you are wondering, I am not touring along. Round two should be in the Fall, when the Kosky production graces ROH. I guess we are lucky JDD is such a big name and that she likes her Baroque so she can use her influence with the big houses.

Handel for harpsichord and sorceress

You know how after you haven’t listened to music for a good while there’s that one thing you know you want to listen to? For some reason this was it.

Orgonasova was a very fine Handelian, was she not? Wish I caught her career.

Son rubini amorosi…

I may have fallen into the Poppea well again… but can you blame me? It’s the month of love and lust. For how tongue in cheek cynical the libretto is, Poppea has a high ratio of very romantic passages. Perhaps the most romantic of all is this bit Nerone sings whilst fantasising about Poppea’s beauty. I simply love it. I thought it was the best thing Lindsey sang all night that night (and I already thought she was at her best in this role) but now it’s Mameli that has stolen my heart. Try not to be seduced (close you eyes, the visuals alone might do the trick):

Vivaldi, not to be outdone:

Staying with Basso, how exquisite is this?! I’m not even a fan of laments but the sophistication on display here is something else:

Someone in the comments says it’s organic – very apt. It’s got it all – style, technique, emotion, imagination. Just ❤

ps: it’s recorded with my favourite Baroque outfit in the world 😀

From the great book of Handel duets

This just came to my attention and I’m a bit in love with how good Karg and Basso sound together:

A good week to all 🙂

Sonia Prina and friends: deluxe Vivaldi (Wigmore Hall, 7 February 2019)

Vivaldi? The guy who wrote The Seasons and then renamed it different things over his long career? This was one of those performances that gives the listener a glimpse at Vivaldi’s varied range of skills, from virtuosic instrumental writing to vocal music.

I know we’ve barely finished a long conversation around Vivaldi’s Juditha, so everyone around here is way past a need for an introduction to Vivaldi’s badass music but this isn’t just that. It works on different levels. If you know your Vivaldi even a little bit, this team of musicians pulls you into his exciting world and by the end of the evening things feel better than before.

Super annoying corporatist type behind me to his junior female companion: I once was at a Vivaldi concert in Venice, in Vivaldi’s church!1

I couldn’t take it anymore so I upgraded to row M.

click picture to enlarge

Sonia Prina contralto

Alina Pogostkina violin

Dorothee Oberlinger recorder

Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Concerto in G minor for strings RV156

Là, sull’eterna sponda from Motezuma RV723

Ho il cor già lacero from Griselda RV718

Concerto in C for flute RV443

Sol da te mio dolce amore from Orlando Furioso RV728

INTERVAL

Concerto in E minor for violin RV277 ‘Il favorito’

Concerto in D for violin RV234 ‘L’inquietudine’

Sovente il sole from Andromeda Liberata

Anderò, volerò, griderò from Orlando finto pazzo RV727

Encore (aka, let no Vivaldi recital be without a Juditha section)

Veni, me sequere fida ❤ ❤ ❤

Agitata infinido flatu (all star)

When I heard both encores would be from Juditha I just about passed out 😀 It’s like she was there with us recently and thought “speaking of Juditha…”. But how will I ever be able to enjoy these arias in recital without a woodwind on hand, let alone an all star Agitata?! Yes, First Operaworld Problems strike again.

If you’re wondering if Prina has sung Juditha, the answer is yes, and in very good company (at your fingertips, too). I think I speak for all of us when I say we hope to hear her sing the whole thing live at a reachable venue 😀

It was a dark start, which augmented my rather unsettled state (let’s just say this week has been indirectly a bit too intense). ‘eterna sponda was done with that seductive wistfulness Prina can convey so well, yet with the usual spontaneity (the orchestra needed a moment to catch up but were solid throughout afterwards). Ho il cor gia lacero turned out fabulously febrile. This stuff fits her tone and temper like a glove. There is a bit of an arc between it and the other “fast and furious” aria of the night – Anderò, volerò, griderò, one of her staples – which she did faster than I’ve heard her before, to the point that I couldn’t follow the words – but she somehow could sing them! Hehe. T pointed out in the Juditha report (or was it in conversation?) that with Vivaldi there are many words to be sung and that can, sometimes, trip singers. Not in Prina’s case.

The wistful/slow and seductive arias benefited from her other skill – that of singing with gentleness and care. That also came through in her interaction with the other musicians on stage, especially her “duet” partners. As you know, Prina always interacts. She’s not the kind of singer lost in their own world, oblivious to the proceedings around them. Here she watched and “conversed” with her partners in crime as she does with her singing partners in a concert performance or in a staged production.

I don’t know what kind of violin Pogostkina plays but, whatever it is, it has a sweeeeet tone. I’m not the biggest solo violin fan but, wow, I loved that one and could imagine myself listening to it for the rest of the night – plump and warm, never strident. Whilst listening, it occurred to me that sometimes when I complain about the strings, it may also be that I don’t enjoy certain violin tones and not just the lacking skills of the players. Not to take away from Pogostkina’s skills, which I thought were excellent (really nice legato, light touch on the endings; she can “shred”2 without sounding uncouth and has very good rhythm).

Oberlinger looked just like my idea of the Pied Piper – are all recorder/flute/other mad winds players a bit whimsical? That’s a good thing, btw – as is the Pied Piper, one of my favourite characters, as I have mentioned around here before. At first I thought she was a bit flashy, the first piece sure went at lightning speed, but perhaps virtuosity was the whole idea. However, she won me over with the very lovey-dovey obligato in Sol da te and then the… whimsical one in Veni, me sequere fida. I think T called it a serious aria, but is it really? I think Juditha is allowing herself to be a bit playful/encouraging here, although they are sad. Oberlinger’s interaction with Prina, the way they played with the sounds, was simply a joy to listen to/watch. I really needed that 🙂

Though Agitata3 isn’t my favourite Juditha aria, to hear it with these virtuosic forces (again!) was a badass ending to an evening of comprehensive exploration of non-Seasons/Folia Vivaldi. Most of the audience realised the evening was top quality as the reception was very warm and enthusiastic. Somehow Prina and Co. lucked out on a really bright winter day here in London and in turn left us the gift of joy (indeed).


  1. that was just the best of the absolute nonsense that moron spouted liberally. 
  2. remember Basso’s famous words, Vivaldi is rock’n’roll – shredding skills required. 
  3. I like Agitata da due venti a lot better; probably the aria that made me think “I love Baroque opera!” 

Juditha triumphans (De Nationale Opera Amsterdam, 26 January 2019)

Did y’all know Juditha‘s outro is the actual anthem of Venice?! I didn’t, to my shame, but I do now. (There are certain themes running through this blog). Good on them, it’s such a great little choir bit, very typical Baroque loose-end tying but so effective. I simply love Vivaldi’s writing and with good reason – if you listen closely, you will hear how his chord progressions have come down all the way to pop music.

*

The operatic year 2019 started wonderfully for yours truly with this out of my usual season opera trip to Amsterdam, in the always enthusiastic company of thadieu and Agathe (who organised this one – thank you, thank you!).

After having been tipped off by thadieu a few years ago as to what a gem Vivaldi’s military oratorio, celebrating Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire, was, I have (quickly) grown to love it myself. These days it’s got a well deserved spot among my top 3 favourites, yet it’s not often you get to see it staged.

As you know, the concert performance Marcon toured in 2016/2017 was one of my highlights of that season, so when this was announced – and with Iervolino to boot, to whom I was introduced via Nox obscura, anyway – it was a no brainer.

However, that concert performance, as wonderful as it had been (Galou and Hallenberg, hello! Marcon and the Venice Baroque Orchestra + the all female choir), did not prepare me for several things. For some reason, the difference in feel from concert to staged production was the most radical I have seen yet.

Juditha: Gaëlle Arquez
Holofernes: Teresa Iervolino
Vagaus: Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Abra: Polly Leech
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
Conductor: Andrea Marcon | La Cetra Barockorchester Basel, Choir of the DNO

triumph over rubble?

You have probably gleaned from thadieu’s report (and if you have not, you should read it; whilst you’re at it, read Giulia’s account as well) that this staging is not ambiguous at all as to good and bad. Juditha and her people are the good ones, of course, and Holofernes and them are very horrible indeed, more so than a concert can ever convey.

It’s wartime and we are never left to forget just how that brings out the worst in its perpetrators in particular. I say this because war does not spare the oppressed from stretching the limits of what during peacetime we would call morally sound. In the end we are left with a Juditha unsettled by her own actions and resentful of her heroic status.

So not a happy ending; this Juditha is humanised, not merely a symbol of victory for those who write history. Much is made of the famous painting during the opera, most curiously with Holofernes presenting it to Juditha during their “date”, as part of the looted artwork he has decorated his quarters with. A strange element of foreshadowing, perhaps pointing out Holofernes’ and them’s utter arrogance.

Spoilers? (ps: I hope TI won’t hate me for posting this. Visit her FB for wholesome pictures by clicking on the severed head…)

Yet Holofernes goes to some lengths to appear magnanimous even from the get go: as soon as he comes on stage, he starts by shooting one of his officers who is in the process of raping a Bethulian woman. He goes on to stage a photo shoot of him giving candy to local children (apparently unaware it can also be read as majority creepy). Of course, the libretto (and his very laid back music) does paint him as willing to compromise to a certain extent with the locals. But there is not compromise for Bethulians, it’s freedom or nothing1.

I can see why it was another production featuring the Nazi as the bad guys, given the story and that this was Amsterdam. I still think there is room for this oratorio to be set even more contemporary, though there is always the trap of falling into sensationalism with that, especially when beheadings are involved. Speaking of which, you’ve probably seen Iervolino’s selfie with Holofernes’ chopped head. Armed with that knowledge ahead of the show, it turned out all some of us were eagerly awaiting to see how effectively they would stage the beheading. Though the very relaxed Amsterdam audience giggled a little when the chopped head emerged from under the sheets, it was rather effective. Holofernes was passed out drunk, she put a sheet on his head and did the deed.

With a very unpleasant “upstart” Vagaus, this turn of events looked even more his fault than usual. You remember it is him that encourages Holofernes to grant Juditha an audience. Here, Holofernes appeared particularly uninterested at the beginning and Vagaus had to work hard (and bourishly) to convince him. Then he does a piss poor job at keeping vigilant, given that he found both Juditha and Abra armed upon entering his superior’s quarters.

Relax, it’s just the premiere!

As I mentioned before, none of us were prepared for Gaelle Arquez, whose Amsterdam debut was this very performance. Juditha’s arias are mostly dirges2, because she’s understandably upset with the situation and she’s trying to keep her dignity. It’s a sign of virtuosity to make them stand out and not drag (she somehow even managed to make Transit aetas jaunty). Arquez more than managed that, via deft vocal characterisation and her dense tone that fit Juditha to a t (or a th). Also, her Vivaldi style was impeccable, nothing was overdone or flashy for the sake of it and nothing betrayed how acquainted she is with other repertoire. I really need to hear more from her (more Juditha and more Baroque in general) to talk in further detail, but suffice to say that I like her tone a lot and this first live impression will stay with me for a good while.

I consider myself super lucky to have seen live my two favourite Holoferni. I have said it before, Iervolino is by quite some margin my favourite of the new generation of voices, and in this role in particular. Though more boyish/less sophisticated than Galou’s, her Holofernes does have his own strong hypnotic charm. Her softly resplendent tone lends itself particularly well to the sexy arias sung by the drunken Holofernes during the second part. This Holofernes needed all the help he could get, given the masculine toxicity all around him. But we all know Vivaldi does not portray him in a repulsive manner, so the Juditha/Holofernes scenes are always rather curious. She always seems to have the upper hand, as much as she is literally at his mercy, yet he keeps laying on an irresistible (to us) charm. I don’t know that I can say anything else that I haven’t said before about Iervolino: go see her and you will weep for joy that this wonderful music gets sung by such a voice.

Perhaps to go with the production, Marcon used the “made up” overture this time, which is the first time I’ve seen him do it. You probably know the original overture has been lost – at least partially – so the chorus we are used to is merely the bit that would normally come next. The overture heard here is good enough, in the way Vagaus’ alternative first aria is – but no cigar. Appending it before the chorus feels to me like dampening the powerful effect of the rumbling timpani and piercing (female) chorus.

The fabulous La Cetra Barockorchester Basel… and some rubble

The good news is Marcon and his orchestra are able to make you feel this is thrilling music. All the soloists were marvelous! They played with virtuosity and feeling. The mixed choir – again, I suppose for the purposes of the production, because usually Marcon uses the female-only choir – worked generally very well, with only some minor dragging. When you have the mixed choir you sacrifice that piercing quality for dialogue, which I like as well (I started by prefering Sardelli’s very martial mixed choir and was only won over by the all female version upon hearing Marcon’s take live).

This was my introduction to De Nationale Opera. I want to congratulate the Amsterdam public for being amazing – supremely relaxed yet engaged and well bahaved (no rustling/phone ringing/phone flashing and minimal coughing in the middle of a miserable season). No fussiness about this being a premiere, yet generous with the applause.

The house looks modern inside, along the lines of Opera Bastille. The hall isn’t that large but the stage is – especially deep. The sightlines are excellent and the acoustic very good. It also houses the local City Hall. As you do! Gotta love Dutch Style. We started imaging what if it wasn’t just operahouse/city hall, but also airport3 😉 that would anger the hotel industry, as people would fly in, watch a show and fly out – but isn’t that the Dutchest thing ever? Haha.

Your Juditha needs in one spot

There’s more: the Dutch business sense showed itself at the souvenir counter. Not only did they have Juditha magnets, but also Juditha posters4. Yes, they had opera specific paraphernalia, at decent prices. And a very cute – woman cut option, though no Juditha-option – t-shirt. That’s how it should be done! My only complaint is I didn’t like the poster (ha).

So although I agree with thadieu that Marcon should’ve reined in the orchestra at times (his only fault), and in spite of the minor quibles above, I have gained a very high level of respect for De Nationale Opera. It may not be as famous as others but they do some great stuff here and they are not afraid to feature young talent in top roles – and lesser known operas, for that matter. Lesser known operas that should be MUCH better known. It wasn’t just us, but Agathe’s friends who joined us to the opera also reported liking it a lot.

Even the inclement weather (rain followed by heavier rain) did not dampen the mood. Thadieu saved the day via uber, which showed up in 5min, which meant we didn’t miss the overture (I was particularly worried we would miss the choir, of course).

It’s all Vagaus’ fault

I just realised I said nothing about Vagaus other than he was unpleasant here. Berzhanskaya did a very good job with him. If you remember, he has the flourish arias in this piece – and they are quite a few. You may think he’s merely a sidekick but does he work hard or what?! So there was a bit of disconnect between his general unpleasantness (thanks, direction) and that sweet aria (Umbrae carae – remind yourself how lovely it is) where he puts a blanket over his sleeping buddy Holofernes and cleans up the dinner date leftovers. Just when you thought this one would follow the out of the leftfield evil dudes and rub his hands at the first chance his superior is incapacitated, he gets all soft and lyrical. A bit of bromance there, eh? You know the adage: he may have done evil things, but he was nice to his family.

Anyway, this is a role where coloratura is the first and foremost requirement. If you can get gentle on Umbrae carae = bonus. Berzhanskaya worked as hard as you’d expect in this role and aced her angsty coloratura, though she had to climb over rubble at the same time, occasionally at the expense of projection. I wouldn’t mind hearing her again in other angsty/perky roles of this repertoire that are best served by youthful, slender voices.

… and what with this mesmerising oratorio, I managed to bungle up my local opera going. But I have a feeling in the long run this will be a very small price in comparison to the exceptional memories. Seriously, go if you can. There are still a few performances.


  1. According to the booklet, the Assyrians had not won the fight yet. It was merely the eve of the battle when Juditha wormed her way into their camp. 
  2. Aside from Transit aetas, where she’s very playfully reminding a very drunk Holofernes about the perishability of beauty. 
  3. Although I have some annoying memories from my second time at Schipol in 2012, I love how easy to navigate it is, considering it’s one of the busiest in the world and it’s set over canals and the motorway. I don’t know how, but it takes you about twice as long to get from the plane to Arrivals at Luton. Only then you take a bus to the train station, whereas here you’re on the train within 5min. And the train is 5.50 euros, tax included. 
  4. Which they wrap for you in their own poster-box. They have thought of everything.