Category Archives: italian opera
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 😀
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- Aside from Transit aetas, where she’s very playfully reminding a very drunk Holofernes about the perishability of beauty. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Which they wrap for you in their own poster-box. They have thought of everything. ↩
A Vivaldi-heavy performance is only fitting to cap a very exciting concert-going year, that has brought me to Vivaldi’s homebase twice. In furore iustissimae irae is one of those badass motets that can only come from the Red Priest (lest we forget he was an ordained priest; I usually do, his music sounds so wordly most of the time) and it was this that convinced me to attend, even though they livestreamed it. Somehow I have not noticed anyone else bringing it to Wiggy in my time of patronising the venue. I hope more do in the future.
I’ve seen La Nuova Musica in action enough to know what to expect. I have to commend Lucy Crowe for the highest professionalism with which she adapted to the breakneck speeds that are so dear to Bates. Her tone is too sweet (not a criticism) to call what she used “machinegun coloratura” but it’s definitely one of the fastest and most accurate I’ve heard so far. Her top has enough piercing power to break through the volume levels Bates likes to employ.
Gent from Manchester who took 3 trains for this event: she’s more like a mezzo.
Because she sang Gelido in ogni vena, which I’ve only heard contraltos (and countertenors) sing so far? An interesting choice, I agree, proving she has a middle, but something that benefits from a conductor more focused on emotional detail than energy and forward momentum.
She sounded in top form from the getgo, though I still think that, overall, I prefer her in Mozart (I loved her Ismene in Mitridate! She sounded like she was having so much fun, even though the production is somewhat restrictive in allowing you to put your personal touch on the character; then again, I wasn’t so keen on her Susanna and my interest in her was sparked by her Rodelinda… so you see how it goes). I would say from a techincal point of view she absolutely rocked and this was what Bates wanted from her. I suppose had he wanted her to add personality as well, she would’ve.
For its part, La Nuova Musica is perhaps more suited to Handel, as – at least to me – the sound was too heavy for Vivaldi/Italian Baroque, and occasionally the top strings produced a smudgy sound. The harpsichord was, of course, loud. So heavy-ish, loud and furious, though not ponderous but also not souple and bright.
Lucy Crowe soprano
La Nuova Musica | David Bates director
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Overture from Il Farnace RV711
Siam navi all’onde algenti from L’Olimpiade RV725
Gelido in ogni vena from Il Farnace RV711
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Concerto grosso in G minor Op. 6 No. 8 ‘For a Christmas Night’
Nico Muhly (b.1981)
Land in an Isle (Part One: Translation of the Body) (London première)
Motet: In furore iustissimae irae RV626
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Gloria HWV deest
Sonata a5 HWV288
Land in an Isle (Part Two: Land in an Isle) (London première)
George Frideric Handel
Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno HWV46a
Tu del ciel ministro eletto
Un pensiero nemico di pace
Lascia la spina from Il trionfo…
The Il trionfo bits were also of much interest to me, as I have never seen it/heard any of them live yet. I admit that when Bates said they’d have another trionfo aria for the encore, this time from Piacere, my heart skipped a bit in hopes of Come nembo. After that coloratura fest, can you blame me? Failing that, at least Un pensiero was as lively as one can hope, though that one could hope for more lightness 😉
Not sure I’d heard any Muhly before. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I had no particular reaction to the piece. The biggest effect was showcasing Crowe’s diction in English vs Italian. It could have been the high speeds, but her Italian was mostly vowels.
I was first introduced to In furore… by Roschmann, of all people. Unless you’re familiar with this wonderful motet, you may not know that Roschamann used to sing this kind of stuff when she was very young (1994). It’s quite the rarity for me but you can feel her distinctive personality already, albeit in a much lighter presentation than we know and love.
Then I went on to listen to Piau’s definitive version and so on. It’s a piece that benefits from a more introverted approach rather than an operatic one, dealing as it is with one’s relationship with sin, divine forgiveness and human rejoicing.
The event was suprisingly well attended, perhaps it’s the time of year when people feel a particular pull towards live culture – and thus people were very happy with the performance. I was somewhat amused to have a May-December couple plop next to me. This is not an unusual occurence at Wiggy, where we have the following types of public: old money mature populace who goes to these things as a matter of fact, music students, other musicians, regular music loving people/fans of the singer/band/conductor and academics and their much younger partners (ex (one hopes)-students). The May part of the couple behaved exactly like the young woman from Carol.
When an opera is based – more or less – on “real events”, I want to get slightly better acquainted with the facts as they have come down to us. I’m not a historian and you shouldn’t expect this to be a history lesson. It’s pretty much the fun facts a quick read on Wiki will reveal. I’m doing this because I like a bit of a backstory myself but I don’t always want to research things right then and there, so I’m grateful if someone’s written a brief synopsis.
First off, these folks are not Babylonians (they originate from the town of Babylon) but Assyrians (they originate from the town of Assur). They do fight (and win against) Baylonians, to whom they are related (ie, they are all Semitic tribes). They have the coolest BCE names ever.
Sammurāmat / Sammuramāt (811-808 BC) – Regent of Assyria, empire named after its capital city, 𐎠𐎰𐎢𐎼 (Aššur), during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-608 BC). At the time, the Empire was the largest of its kind and the most technically advanced nation of the Ancient World (hence the Hanging Gardens1; but apparently not savvy enough regarding basement lighting 😉 ). Women weren’t held in such high regard back then for it to be a common thing to rule as Regents, but the Wiki source speculates she was possibly accepted due to “politically uncertain times”. It appears she was a real person who ruled the empire – or at least was very politically influential – until her son’s coming of age (I could not quickly find what that age was). It isn’t clear how the legend developed, or, even better, how it spread further afield.
If you’re wondering where’s her picture – of course there is no picture, she’s a woman. But there is a large rock, known as her stele. Better that than nothing.
Shamshi-Adad V aka, Nino (824-811 BC) – King of Assyria, named after the rain/storm god of the region (Adad). He is the dude who campaigned against Babylonians and defeated them.
Assur-danin-pal aka, Assur – brother of Shamshi-Adad V, with whom he engaged in a serious power struggle when it came to succeeding their father, Shalmanasser III2. After some early victories which brought to his side 27 cities (including the famous Nineveh (𒌷𒉌𒉡𒀀 – I just love cuneiforms!) which will later become capital and end in fire and brimstone), he was eventually defeated and disappeared from chronicles.
Adad-nirari III aka, Ninia/Arsace (811-783 BC) – King of Assyria, was busy rebuilding the strength of the empire by campainging left and right, building a lot of things and allowing a breathing period for Israel, as long as they paid tribute to him. Sadly, the empire returned to a few decades of weakness after his death.
So, it’s pretty accurate, after all. Assur = bad guy, Nino = struggling with pretenders, Semiramide = ambitious queen, Ninia = recovered well.
- some say the Gardens were built in Babylon but others believe they were in Nineveh. So you see how it is, even historians don’t agree on their Assyria/Babylon. Of course it does not help that the Assyrians destroyed and then rebuilt Babylon and made it the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (609-539 BC). ↩
- named after Shulmanu, god of the underworld, fertility and war. ↩
A propos of nothing, except I wanted to re-listen to this somewhat curious scene. Observe how back then it was done of peep show-style and now it’s all fluid sexuality. Let’s do a then and now – sorry for the bad quality video (then and now):
PS: just in case you thought the “blubber of love” in the background was something sprung out of Lauwers’ mind (also sorry for the tenor not staying in tune):
Just when you thought the Semiramide season was over 😉
With this very famous and very difficult aria let’s do something I don’t normally do: let’s go way back, at least 25 years.
It’s hard to imagine something more technically competent but at the same time quite as lacking in charm, in spite of the chandelier-sparkly top.
Well, we can feel it’s sung by a human being. But do you feel the “gioia”? To me it seems like Callas is Medea regardless of the aria she’s singing. Also this aria is showing off how unpretty her voice was.
Hey, thadieu, wanna hear some kitschy ornaments up at the very top? Saying that, it’s the first time I can hear “gioia”. If she sounded a bit less… girl next door in tone and ornaments we’d be talking.
Hm, what’s up with these very unjoyous Semiramides? I like some of the things Devia does here dynamics-wise but she sounds downright pissed off Arsace is returning. Too much Donizetti? The Fenice choir sounds equally as grimly determined to put up with Arsace’s presence if it has to.
Finally, some proper joy even on the finale! I don’t know that I like everything she does here (I may be wrong, but, as far as style, I think Mozart suits her better) but I can definitely get down with the ethos.
On thadieu’s advice, let’s finish on an Antonacci note, to link the past and present:
Oh, after only 10 months we’re back with a post featuring a few (!) tenors. But Rossini, though not made for tenors per se, is known for his earworms. You listen to it once and you must re-listen – about 20 times, or until neighbours start slamming their windows shut in frustration. Having shot down Scala at La Fenice 😉 and now feeling I was a bit (just a wee bit) unfair, I felt like I needed to re-listen for other opinions:
I know Blake was very popular in this rep in the ’80s and ’90s but his voice/way of singing rubs me the wrong way. The goat is randy even below the summit! Ok, this is very late in his career but he sounds like this in other videos. He can and dares do lots of things but none of them are pleasant to my ears. He seems to forget this is a seduction aria not a moment to throw notes like knives at a petrified damsel in distress.
The tone is rather nice but talk about lack of mementum for this “Indian Nemorino”.
JDF is a Capricorn. Coincidence? Nah-uh.
I like Brownlee’s tone best of the bunch. There’s no strangled goat bleating in the stratospheric heights but he covers the tessitura without issues, and he can sound really beautiful in the tender moments. BTW: are there any non-virtuoso Rossini arias?
But Kunde is also surprisingly pleasant to listen to, though I can hear some insecurity. I didn’t even know he used to sing in this rep.
…until the end of October 2019 😀 Get your fill of UNCUT late Rossini, all 4 hours of it.
You can’t go to a theatre like La Fenice and not think about its history. Staying true to the name, it resurfaced after three fires (1774, 1836 and 1996). What we see today is the house re-opened in 2004. So it’s both old and new. You may think it’s big because it has that compact design, but although the horseshoe is packed with seats, the stalls don’t go far back. The capacity is a mere 1126, according to Wiki. And yet, some of the operas now played with big orchestras in massive houses have premiered here1. Top belcanto WS favourites were first mounted here: Tancredi, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, as well as Semiramide itself.
Before we arrived for the very late 7pm2 start time, thadieu and I roamed the streets without much planning aside from 1) must have dinner some time before the opera and 2) must have gelato sooner rather than later. That eventually turned into an obsession for yours truly: find the 2 Euro 2 scoop gelato or else! You see, gelato gets more expensive the closer you get to the TripAdvisor sanctioned areas (all of sestiere San Marco, Ponte Rialto etc.). Tip: get your gelato early on (ie, closer to the bus station). I think I drove thadieu a bit mad with my stubbornness but cheap gelato was eventually found, eagerly consumed and then all was serene again 😉
We had a leisurely dinner of seafood at a Mom and Pops restaurant in a very quiet neighbourhood somewhere near the Arsenal. After that we strolled back with enough time to do some touristy shopping at the Fenice shop. It’s rather well stocked! They do La Fenice bags for 12 Euros and La Fenice t-shirts (off white, navy, black and red) for 19.99 Euros or thereabouts. There are magnets, cards, pencils, lots of books and CD/DVDs as well. We got the t-shirt – thadieu in navy and yours truly in red. You know I also got one of the magnets.
After getting our La Fenice fan fill, it was already time for the opera. As we were walking up the very cosy stairs I kept thinking “this is our floor” but thadieu just knew we had a long climb to our loggione seats. As with Teatro Malibran, the trick is to get first row in your area, no matter how high or low you’re sitting. We had seats in the central block of the top loggione and aside from an unfortunate pole (old school design…) – which could, in the end, be negotiated – we had excellent views. Ok, you had to lean forward a bit due to lights and railing, but nobody actually sat behind us3, so we didn’t have to worry about blocking someone’s view and we even stood for the most interesting duets/ensembles. The party in the loggione is very friendly, as is the Upper Amphi at ROH, the very top in Munich or at Theatre des Champs Elysees. It’s also mostly locals (of which there were plenty on the bus back to Mestre as well).
The orchestra were already busy tuning up. We noticed our main timpanist was a lady and she did a very good job during the night.
Semiramide: Jessica Pratt
Arsace: Teresa Iervolino
Assur: Alex Esposito
Idreno: Enea Scala
Oroe: Simon Lim
Azema: Marta Mari
Mitrane: Enrico Iviglia
L’ombra di Nino: Francesco Milanese
Conductor: Ricardo Frizza | Choir and Orchestra of La Fenice
Director: Cecilia Ligorio
The production looked to me “modernised Pizzi”, which turned out to be fine. It’s “generic period opera” costumes, with some black vs white business for the dancers/Semiramide or Assur’s attendants. As the opera progressed, Assur’s outfit morphed into “generic Bond bad guy” (ie, black and pretty tight). Arsace, who has been brought up to believe he’s Scythian, wears “generic BC foreign dude” wear, in other words “stuff put together to confuse sophisticated Babylonians” (a cow patch cape, two-tone wide leg trousers, platform shoes4 and a beret). None of this motley stuff detracts from Iervolino’s cuteness in this role ❤ or from her vocal awesomeness. THIS is Arsace.
Semiramide agrees, because in this production it’s pretty clear that these two are getting it on, though initially cute and disciplined Arsace stops Semiramide’s wandering hand before her touch becomes too distracting.
Arsace: I’d die for you [my Queen]!
Semiramide: oh, no, gorgeous, I’d rather you live for me (winks and lounges seductively). Come closer and tell me what you’d do to… I mean for me.
Arsace: like I was saying, I’d die for you! I’m a warrior…
Semiramide: oh, a warrior is exactly what I – by which I mean this empire – need(s). (strokes his thigh) You’re so strong…
Arsace: err, my Queen, I must tell you something…
Semiramide: I know what you’re going to say and the answer is yes! As long as you’re as faithful to me as you’ve been so far you can ask me anything – and I mean anything.
This goes on for a while, wine5 is involved and, well… what’s a young man to do when a beautiful and powerful woman his mother’s age offers him the world (literally and metaphorically)? Azema would have to hold down the fort against Idreno’s wooing by herself for a while. Though after his Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento? (also known as dude, where’s the cement?!) she too is getting a bit frisky. Lesser known historical titbit: conversations about construction materials were pillow talk back in ye olde Babylonia. I mean did you think the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens built themselves?!
Speaking of which, why is Idreno expecting Semiramide to just give him the keys to the empire? He’s just some dude from India, pretty much on Arsace’s level, except he looks like he’s commanding an army of blingy tailors rather than burly warriors. Semiramide wears her “belcanto diva” dress but we all know belcanto heroines like their men heroic (except for Violetta). I would also say this Arsace is most definitely a man, any ambiguity present is not of the gender kind.
So even though they got pretty well acquainted the day before, Arsace is still stunned when Semiramide makes the big announcement (that she’s passing on the throne to him as well as wants to marry him).
Arsace: shit! How am I going to explain this to Azema?!
Luckily, the spectre of his father gets involved (after all a father should attend his son’s wedding even if he had to bribe Cerberus to get there) and the conversation suddenly turns horror-film style. Trope #1: being mesmerised by weird stuff:
Arsace (to the spectre): I feel compelled to touch you! Can I?
I mean the spectre looks pretty damn well preserved for having been dead for 15 years, except in dire need of a shower – like he’d come down a chimney rather that up a drainage ditch from the world below (come to think of it, this decision is for the best; the production had hinted at it earlier when the sacred fire went out and ashes poured out from the sacred ash plates. Later the temple virgins did a surprisingly poor job at cleaning the floor (what amateurs don’t soak the towels first?!) but let’s not get lost in details like Scala did in his cement).
Oroe is a very congenial high priest but I have a feeling he’s rigged this game from the getgo, namely he made sure the basement’s (is, burial chamber’s) electrical instalation wasn’t working. The last act boasts that famous trio that goes something like this:
Semiramide: it’s very dark in here, I can’t see my hand. I hope I don’t soil my finery before this ordeal is over.
Arsace: wow, it’s so dark in this basement! Even as a fearless warrior I feel my bowels loosen…
Assur: was it always so dark here? With my luck that stupid spectre will come back and scare me shitless.
All: it’s so dark in here, we’re pooping our pants!
thadieu: someone hand them flashlights already!
We’re lucky this is in flowery, 19th century Italian, thank you very much.
But flashlights do eventually appear, because somehow Oroe’s attendants are able to locate Semiramide and realise she’s been stabbed to death.
Oroe: arrest Assur!
Arsace: …OMG! Who did I stab, then?!
Like, dude…! What kind of army commander of the Babylonian Empire are you, stabbing randomly in the dark?! This production does not give Arsace a stuffed unicorn to hold.
So, after much noodling that didn’t even mention the eyeliner wearing male harem that gets Semiramide hot and bothered whilst she’s singing about how happy she is that sexy stud Arsace is back in town, how was the singing, the conducting and the house band?
Let’s start with the conducting: compared with Pappano, Maestro seemed more interested in keeping the forward movement – which he did. Occasionally (the overture, for instance) he turned the corners a bit too abrasively for my taste, where I would’ve preferred more detail/more legato. But 4 hours went fast. The singers were not hampered by the orchestra. The house band sounded good to me, all the solos went without hitch and the instrumental tones were pleasant to the ear.
The singing went like this, from best to not so good: Iervolino, Pratt, Esposito, Lim, with Scala sort of around the corner. Dude started a bit shaky, with some intonation problems and wobble at the very top, which made the cement aria appear unfocused both vocally and dramatically. I loved it when Brownlee sang it but here it seemed to just go on and on. To Scala’s credit, he got it mostly together as the night went on. But he’s not someone I’m in any hurry to hear again. The public loved him.
Both thadieu and I agreed Lim as Oroe has a very warm, secure, rounded bass but he doesn’t have that much to sing. That warmth and rondness made him feel wise and kind dramatically, which fit. Would listen to him again.
Esposito was the night’s revelation to me, as I have been mostly cold toward him until now. This is the smallest house I’ve seen him in, which I’m sure has something to do with it. In this absorbent6 environment and at this size his voice travelled very well and dramatically he was ideal. Maybe I just need to see him in bad dude roles 😉 The only unintentionally amusing moment came when Assur sang about the spectre’s pulling his (Assur’s) hair 😀
Pratt has the belcanto diva down pat, without coming off too cold. I wonder why ROH doesn’t hire her. As I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve enjoyed her excellent technique, ease with coloratura, beautiful, completely unforced – “blooming” (as per thadieu) – top and stylish touches of unfussy softer singing. Thadieu thought she applied too many ornaments but I disagreed. This is Rossini, there is no such thing as too many ornaments7; furthermore, even if you – which is me, quite often, lately – think Rossini did write too many notes, I didn’t feel like that in her case.
I guess thadieu liked JDD’s more psychologically exploratory approach – and certainly her lower notes, which, true, Pratt does not have – but this production is different and this Semiramide is a less conflicted heroine (until the end, where her conflict is more of the “omg, this is my child!” kind) and rather someone who is always trying to do what she has to do without overthinking it (that kind of thinking might’ve got her in this mess in the first place, but she’s a woman in charge of an empire, she can’t vacillate too much).
Even thadieu agreed that once she started interacting with Iervolino’s Arsace she “humanised”. Indeed, their interaction was excellent. I also thought her and Esposito’s Assur worked – something akin to a mutually destructive relationship. I mean, she still has the broader gestures of belcanto acting but within that frame she’s very effective.
That leaves us with Iervolino’s Arsace. Right after the entrance aria, thadieu and I were in agreement:
thadieu: I’m in love!
dehggi: this is perfect!
What can I say? She’s got everything: the whole range, the ease with coloratura, the wonderful warm contralto tone, the eveness from top to bottom and she can act. A pleasure to listen to/watch. Do yourself a favour and book a ticket to see her NOW. We’re lucky to have caught the Iervolino train this early 😀
After the opera finished, staff was eager to go home and pretty much rushed us out, hehe, somewhere in a narrow street at the back or side of the house.
thadieu: should we get the phone out?
dehggi: yes, because who the hell can navigate Venezia in the middle of the night?!
In the end we followed the crowd, comprised of orchestra members and audience, which took us back to Piazzale Roma more or less in no time. I have to say that nighttime walks through Venezia are the most romantic thing ever, even when you’re rushing to get the last bus. I was tempted to risk having to walk back to Mestre on the side of the motorway 😉 I mean, secluded little bridges, with not a soul in sight, Canal Grande in the darkness, the temptation to try and steal a gondola and glide into the night – you get the picture. With full moon to boot.
We passed a bunch of young people being loud with pizza (and beer?) in a piazza and that seemed the most incongruous thing ever to do in Venice.
thadieu: they’re missing a really great performance.
Youth is really lost on the young (I wouldn’t have cared about opera or, indeed, Venezia, when I was that age, either). But there’s a time for everything and right now I can’t wait for another reason to return ❤
ps: more pictures later, I wanted to get the post out.
- Ernani, Rigoletto, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra. ↩
- I don’t know what the deal is with the union in Venice, but Italians in general don’t seem to mind a show going well into the night (see Torino and Napoli). Semiramide is a long opera even with cuts, so our performance finished well after 11pm. ↩
- though people did shuffle around to get better views. ↩
- the Disco era alive and kicking up in the Caucasus! ↩
- and perhaps a bit of GHB… ↩
- kinda like in Munich, this is not a dry acoustics house. ↩
- whether you like it or not. ↩