Category Archives: italian opera

Let’s look at ROH rumours 2017-2019

tl;dr: barely any Mozart, no Baroque (though some might trickle through nearer to the time) but some tempting things nonetheless. Here‘s your source.

New productions 2017-18

La Vestale (Spontini) La Gheorghiu continues her work to keep the rep traditional
Julia: Angela Gheorghiu

La Boheme (Puccini)
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Production: Richard Jones
Mimi: ? keeping the suspense
Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano
Marcello: Mariusz Kwiecien

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) – Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera   
Production: Stefan Herheim I like it, I’ll go

Der Freischutz (Weber) I don’t quite like it but I might go because how often does it come around?
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Production: Kasper Holten
Max: Jonas Kaufmann / Stuart Skelton

Semiramide (Rossini) bring it on! I might go twice
Production: David Alden
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Assur: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona

Katya Kabanova (Janacek) tempting
Production: Ivo van Hove
Kabanicha: Rosalind Plowright
Katya: Amanda Majeski

Lessons in Love and Violence (George Benjamin, World Premiere)
Director: Katie Mitchell
Stephane Degout
Barbara Hannigan ❤ I’ll take the chance with her
Peter Hoare

Revivals 2017-18

Les Vepres Siciliennes (Verdi) October – November 2017
Rachele Stanisci (Helene), two performances who’s she? I missed the Vepres the last time around, might go this time

Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) / Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) Dec 2017
Nedda: Carmen Giannattasio
Silvio: Artur Rucinski
Santuzza: Elina Garanca I’d go for comparison purposes but it’s a bit soon

Tosca (Puccini) January 2018
Caravadossi: Vittorio Grigolo yes, but who is Tosca?

Lucia di Lammermor (Donizetti) November 2017? So soon?!
Lucia: Olga Peretyatko
Raimondo: Michele Pertusi
Edgardo: Juan Diego Flórez he doesn’t want to!

Don Giovanni (Mozart) July 2018
Donna Anna: Chen Reiss
Don Ottavio: Pavol Breslik

Andrea Chenier (Giordano) ?2018 never too soon 😉
Andrea Chenier: Jonas Kaufmann

Salome (Strauss) Yay! Hope it’s good.

Peter Grimes (Britten)
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Emma Bell

New Productions 2018-19

Königskinder (Humperdinck) 13, 17, 21, 27, December 2018, 1 January 2019
Production: David Bosch
Der Königssohn: Daniel Behle ❤

Fedora (Giordano)
Fedora: Angela Gheorghiu

From the House of the Dead (Janacek) I’ll go
Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski

Through the Looking Glass (Unsuk Chin) World Premiere (?)

Don Pasquale (Donizetti) I really don’t see the appeal of this one
Production: Damiano Michieletto

La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) – 2019 not unless we get Harteros
Conductor: Antonio Pappano

Death in Venice (Britten) I like the story, I might go
Conductor: Mark Elder
Production: David McVicar

Revivals 2018-19

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)
Brunnhilde: Nina Stemme should yours truly make an effort?
Siegfried: Stefan Vinke
Siegmund: Stuart Skelton

Carmen November- December 2018
Micaela: Eleonora Buratto

Faust (Gounod) should go this time

The last classic diva – Adriana Lecouvreur (ROH, 7 February 2017)

If you’re like me and spend most of your opera time with modernised productions of operas written in the 18th century, a traditional (with capital T) performance of an opera like Adriana Lecouvreur always feels like a trip to a very old relative’s house. You might enjoy spending time with said relative, you might even like their quaint taste in the inevitable knick-knacks but it’s still miles away from your life and views.

Though written in 1902, I was hard pressed to see anything 20th century about it. It’s simply old school and it needs singers who have a feel for that kind of thing.

Adriana Lecouvreur: Angela Gheorghiu
Maurizio: Brian Jagde
Abbé de Chazeuil: Krystian Adam
Princesse de Bouillon: Ksenia Dudnikova
Prince de Bouillon: Bálint Szabó
Michonnet: Gerald Finley
Mademoiselle Jouvenot: Vlada Borovko
Mademoiselle Dangeville: Angela Simkin
Poisson: Thomas Atkins
Quinault: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Daniel Oren | Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Coproduction with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera and Opéra National de Paris

Luckily for us, Angela Gheorghiu is one of those singers. The only properly old school singers I had seen live were Domingo and Nucci and even they are merely a few years older than my parents. Watching Gheorghiu at work was the closest I came to witnessing a classic diva. Though Fleming is older, she’s got that American knack for updating her image, getting on with times etc. and just blending grand with business casual whereas Gheorghiu seems to have made a conscious effort of sticking with the legendary image of a European diva. You’re never going to pull off shouting – in recit voice – I am Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy! if you haven’t embraced that.

I was fully expecting her to overdo it but she didn’t. She stayed within the schmalzy limits of the libretto/music. In this sense her death scene was the most telling. She couldn’ve snatched a last cry but she went gently. She also didn’t seem intent on outshining her co-stars, more power to her (because she really didn’t need to; Adriana has it all).

(Schmalz: you might think there isn’t anything OTT about Adriana and perhaps you’re right; I just have a very low tolerance for sentimentality; doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have fun trying something like that on stage).

This being the first time I heard La Gheorghiu live (her repertoire isn’t normally up my alley), I was very impressed with her vocally. She’s just this side of 50 and the voice shows no signs of wear and tear. Then again, I guess nobody could accuse her of oversinging. Her attacks are always smooth and measured without feeling emotionless, she can pull a breathtaking pianissimo when she wants, and that part of her range that has made her famous still boasts gorgeously rounded notes, whilst the lower part has matured. Like her stage persona, the voice also has an old school feel to it, like she’s grown up on a steady diet of Tebaldi and never found the need to fix what ain’t broken.

I’m glad she hasn’t. We need all kinds of personalities out there. Sometimes you feel like everybody rushes to be cool and modern. Evenings like this make you stop and consider that it’s not absolutely necessary to do that. Especially if we want to keep operas like this in the repertoire. Having developed a soft spot for Adriana, I would love it if singers could keep the link to this tradition alive, musty as it may feel on occassion. Not everything is about Handel and Mozart (in shorts).

In spite of the traditonal this, traditional that talk, I do think the libretto is one of the better ones out there (subject and character-wise; there were moments when I wasn’t sure who sends whom which letter). Adriana, Michonnet and the Evil Princess are all well done characters. There are worse tenor characters than Maurizio. I like the social angle, as well, though of course if I could sing one role it would be Princess de Bouillon, leftist values be damned. What a villain! But it’s good that Adriana tries, at least, to stand up for herself in the face of unyielding power and privilege.

This is a revival of the 2010 ROH production, the first in 100 years, originally designed for Gheorghiu. There are many things that could be said about La Gheorghiu (that she keeps to a narrow repertoire, for instance) but there’s no doubt that she is very good at what she does. It’s quite obvious she feels at home in this production.

The role is not for the faint of heart or beginners (though Michonnet alludes to Adriana’s young age), as Adriana gets right into the meat of things within a couple of minutes of stepping – appearing, more likely – on stage, with Io son l’umile ancella, which is a less catchy Vissi d’arte but still quite the aria. There is so much to recite as well as sing here that one needs to be well into their career to carry this – for indeed the opera’s success rests on the shoulders of the soprano.

If you also have solid singers in the other roles that’s a bonus, of course. We did. I’m quite the Finley fan and here (as Michonnet) he was not only in very fine vocal form but also touching dramatically. Michonnet is a sweetie but most likely the type of chap destined for the friendzone as most women of Adriana’s temper – the ones he is interested in – crave adventure and danger instead of reliability and quiet loyalty.

Jagde as the heroic dreamboat Maurizio was suitably dashing (though perhaps moreso for those who missed Kaufmann in 2010) and his Italianate tenor cries carried to the rafters without any issue. His voice is very good for that kind of thing and there’s a good deal of artistry there as well, which manifested itself in an ability to alternate dynamics and colour. The chemistry between him and Gheorghiu was believable.

There can’t be a satisfying Adriana Lecouvreur for a mezzo fan without a rumbling Acerba volutta. Yours truly awaited the start of act II with a bated breath and opera glasses at the ready. In good opera tradition, her shadow preceeds the Evil Princess, as her theme (also the opera’s theme) surges ominuously and then drops mysteriously into apparent bubbliness. Then she pulls her veil and we can see who will stand between our kind hearted to a fault (if self absorbed) Melpomene and her happiness.

Cilea really doesn’t do half measures here, the villain has to hold her own against Adriana. I didn’t know Dudnikova but she held my attention all right through the evening. The voice isn’t as metallic as one would expect from a Slavic singer. There is a good deal of velvet along with the dark chest notes and very clear top notes, at least as far as the role requires, and the voice carries very well. She’s also got the looks to rival Gheorghiu’s – Ice Princess vs. Southern European temper.

Their dialogue in the dark and the act III showdown at Bouillon’s party were without a doubt the best parts of the evening, pitting two strong personalities, barbed words and icy glances but also real emotions and hurt. Too bad the reason was so mundane.

As someone with at least some interest in the history of theatre/opera, I can’t say I didn’t appreciate the effort this production put into recreating an 18th century theatre experience within the opera per se (operas about opera/theatre usually rank high with me). We were shown everything – actors’ lives backstage, actors on stage, actors interacting with their public, actors as human beings, dealing with their personal emotions and in the end theatre and life getting jumbled.

As I was saying earlier, my favourite bit of the libretto is the dialogue Adriana and the Evil Princess have in the dark (where neither knows who the other one is) and their showdown in act III, because we can see different aspects of public and private personas. Adriana gets another kind of adulation and respect than the Princess, but it is real adulation and respect nonetheless and it does, even though briefly, win the day.

In conclusion, everybody was very good and La Gheorghiu has still got it. Go watch her in one of her strong pieces, especially if you’re at the younger end of the opera fans’ spectrum and don’t quite know how they did it back then.

I was so taken with the business on stage I can’t say much about the conducting/orchestra other that they didn’t hurt the stage action and there were a few instances with various singers where the interaction between the stage and the pit stood out clearly and in a good way. A standout night in a packed house, all the arias got hearty applause and there was much cheering at curtain call.

Vivaldi, Darius and the Shroud of Turin

It’s official, thadieu and I have our tickets for the very silly L’incoronazione di Dario at Torino’s Teatro Regio, where we’ll see this badarse cast under Dantone’s (who else? He loves this one) baton:

Dario, che viene incoronato re dei persiani tenore Carlo Allemano
Statira, principessa semplice, primogenita
di Ciro contralto

Sara Mingardo
Argene, sorella minore di Statira contralto Delphine Galou
Niceno, filosofo baritono Riccardo Novaro
Alinda, principessa di Media, amante
di Oronte soprano

Roberta Mameli
Oronte, nobile perfetto, pretendente
di Statira mezzosoprano

Lucia Cirillo
Arpago, pretendente di Statira soprano Veronica Cangemi
Flora, damigella di corte, confidente delle due
principesse contralto

Romina Tomasoni
Ombra di Ciro tenore Cullen Gandy

So we know the contraltos but what of the baritone? He was also in the original recording as well as at Festival de Beaune:

And here’s Sr Novaro singing not Vivaldi but spinning rather well on that horse statue:

Whilst scratching my no so cosmopolitan head regarding things to do in Torino other than watching contraltos and friends, a buddy reminded me of the famous shroud.

Jesus in the shroud, posing suspiciously like a medieval knight would

Why of course! Who wouldn’t want to see that? Except, upon investigation, it turns out that it’s not that often on display. 9/10 times you’re likely to see a copy. Which means you see a copy of a… fantasy. About right for the post truth era 😉 Though we hope all the above musicians show up in old skool real fashion.

2017 ROH Spring Season now on General Sale

roh tunnel

(Accidents happen or don’t buy opera tickets when very tired/distracted)

I set my alarm for 8am this morning then when the intro to ‘giardiniera started I kicked it and went back to sleep which tells you this ROH Spring brings slim pickings for me.

But when I returned from work I decided to scavenge for anything cheap for The Exterminating Angel (I don’t like didn’t like Bunuel when I was 19, but based on my very positive experience with Written on Skin I thought I’d try another comtemporary opera) and L’elisir d’amore because of secret soprano crush Kurzak (here with hubby Alagna)… and then I accidentally ended up with Yende and Villazon (they were team A but perhaps unsurprisingly team B sold faster). Now I was curious about Yende anyway but oh dear god, Villazon. Come on, Sr V, prove me wrong 😛

Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana (Opéra Bastille, 6 December 2016)

After a Mozart night at the compact and bijou Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, thadieu and I relocated to the humongous Opéra Bastille for some verismo and expressionism.

I started with the above picture in hope those who have never been to Opéra Bastille get a feel of how massive it is. Just consider the staircase on the left. Capacity-wise it’s not quite the Met but nowadays it can pack more than Wiener Staatsoper (only because WS has reduced its seating capacity). It beats ENO by some 200 seats and the drops and depth are breathtaking. It feels a bit like the O2 Arena of European opera venues. I know thadieu is going to remind me of the Hollywood Bowl (where Ann Hallenberg sang Pergolesi’s Stabat mater…) but, come on, that’s not a venue designed for opera.

operabastillehall

click to enlarge

We had tickets on the 2nd balcony, which means at the top. The seats were comfy and, as with modern venues, the views were excellent – except for the distance! I’m blind enough to have had trouble with the surtitles (cosmopolitanly provided both in both French and English), thank goodness for my opera glasses, though by the end I was sick and tired of squinting and straining. What can you do, with a piece such as Sancta Susanna and a performer such as ACA, who you want to see acting as much as hear singing. Especially in such a short piece (~20min), where you blink and miss her. I also wanted to ascertain if Garanča can act or not.

However, for its imposing size and heavy figure cut in Place de la Bastille, I was won over by the indoors design. There are many details that make for an architecture photography fan’s delight.

Now with some distance from the shock produced by the sheer size and boldness of Bastille (on first seeing it in real life I said it looked like a prison, which might have even been the point) and after questioning the idea of having an opera of intimate size performed therein, I think it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

 

Cavalleria rusticana

Santuzza: Elīna Garanča
Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee
Lucia: Elena Zaremba
Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

Though 40 years and different cultural attitudes separate Cavalleria rusticana and Sancta Susanna, the take on female sexuality (identity?) is very similar = repressive. That’s not surprising, as that view has come down through history and is still prevalent in certain traditional enclaves.

Thadieu expressed puzzlement as to the plot of Cavalleria rusticana, ie why the big drama? Well, desire and revenge are irrational, especially revenge borne by desire. As such, they are almost impossible to control – and certainly not by reason, rather – if at all – by outside contraints (ie, religion, local customs). So the answer to what is verismo is indeed people shouting at each other (because they can’t contain their emotions; or because they’re Southern Europeans 😉 ).

operabastillefoyer

click for details of the foyer

You could reduce the whole plot to Turiddu being on the rebound (still not over Lola) and Santuzza feeling horribly shafted, having fallen for him. Now we need to add to this local customs, which in traditional societies are very harsh on “fallen women”. There is a reason Turiddu makes it a point to ask his mother to look after Santuzza if he dies. It’s because he knows that according to custom he is supposed to either marry her or somehow provide for a(n unmarried) woman who “has given herself to him”. So sex isn’t fun and games, it’s bondage on both sides. A man needs to guard his own or risk derision. Alfio is being so serious about revenge because Turiddu has taken something of his.

I don’t know if Santuzza cares about this one way or another, aside from being shunned by the community bit. I think she’d be fine enough if Turiddu loved her. But since she’s lost both her honour and his love she decides to do something about it. In traditional societies women don’t have a lot of avenues for expression beside madness or evil. Santuzza pursues evil by disclosing to Alfio Turiddu’s affair with Alfio’s now wife. She knows just what is going to happen, which this production emphasises by having her walk off with determination after hearing of Turiddu’s demise.

Garanča, who, as thadieu would say, I got to see “accidentally”, having studiously avoided her up to now, managed the walk off very well. I would say that was her strongest acting of the night. My beef with her comes out of spite. The woman is in possession of an excellent intrument which I don’t think she uses interestingly. Earlier this Autumn I ended up watching her Cenerentola from the Met with my Mum, who found her completely boring, both vocally and dramatically. I swear I didn’t “groom” her for that opinion!

I thought her singing absolutely spot on (no note out of place, always making every entrance, flowing coloratura) but lacking in fire. So I didn’t have an easy time imagining her as Santuzza. When we were planning this trip I even asked thadieu if we should show up for “part 1”. Though in the end she suffered a lot more than I did, it was her “might as well” that convinced me I should give Garanča a chance.

Well, the report is similar to that on Cenerentola: the woman can surely sing – and the tone is less metallic in the house – the voice sounds as healthy as ever (she’s only 40 or so) and is loud enough to make herself heard in this repertoire in a big house (though the singing is only seldom accompanied by the entire orchestra). Let me tell you that not only is the house big, but the orchestra makes a proper racket that travels all the way up to the rafters. With my hair on end and my eyes popping out I wondered how loud Wagner must sound in there.

operabastilledrop

click for a better feeling of “the drop”

Similar to Cenerentola, I thought the fire was lacking. To be fair, they made use of the entire stage – which is likewise staggerinly big sideways and in depth – and often times you had Santuzza and Turiddu share an “intimate” chat 20m apart. It looks good from the rafters but you do wonder, especially as it’s verismo: do people in real life have a very intense conversation physically that far apart?

The personnenregie felt very much old school, with broad gestures and lots of space between protagonists. Bilyy as Alfio wasn’t so bad but Lee as Turiddu acted right out of the ’50s book of opera acting: feet always planted wide apart, pumped fists, head held high etc. Garanča herself never offended me gesture-wise but there’s this removed, ice-queen feel about her. Nervous energy drips from some singers’ tendons – not so in her case. She’s there, apparently focused within.

Santuzza is very much focused on Turiddu. I did not feel that at any point. I think she was at her most emotional in her interaction with Lucia during Voi lo sapete (well, duh, you will say, it’s her big aria), but still, come on, Santuzza’s mind is supposed to be clouded over with emotion for this chap. When playing a woman who asks a man/lover on her knees to return to her, well, that kind of passion needs you to radiate desire (and quite possibly a bit of self hatred) from all your being. I’d say that’s beyond Garanča’s dramatic capabilities. Yet she’s not completely lacking in charisma; just not Sicilian.

Though not impressed with his acting – or his chemistry (lack thereof?) with Garanča, I thought Lee was vocally a good Turiddu (my experience here is limited). The music asks him to provide loud and solid long held notes and he did that with ease and panache. It’s not an unpleasant tone by any means. However I think he could work on his Italian phrasing.

The (loud) choir wasn’t bad at all and the choral bits in the piece made for good contrast between the apparently peaceful rural environment and the festering desires in private.

Sancta Susanna

Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia: Renée Morloc
Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

This whole trip was concocted for the sole purpose of seeing Antonacci in a rarely performed opera (and what with going off the beaten track, I have yet to see her sing in Italian). Though I don’t, by any means, dislike Cavalleria rusticana, this type of sexual paroxysm is more up my alley. Can’t beat a nun chorus of Satana! Satana! Satana!, can you? 😉 There are two things Germans are ace at and those are Romanticism and Expressionism – the hidden depths of the mind.

For those of strong emotional constitution the mind is a fascinating realm. Nobody has quite figured out what the hell (and it is often hell) is going on there. I think this small opera is effective – seeing it in the environment of the huge Opéra Bastille auditorium adds to it – because the mind is an immense, volcanic world enclosed in a tiny place.

There is repression/violence by women on women in Cavalleria rusticana but here it’s a lot more obvious. If the nunnery represents the world of women, then it’s quite clear what nuns walling up one of their own stands for.

In my experience nobody thinks more about evil/the devil than the pious. That’s the kind of mind who has invented/defined it and that is the mind that has to live and fight with it. On the other hand it’s true that, pious or not, every once in a while something from the depths surfaces and rearranges one’s identity in ways hitherto unsuspected.

So what I take from this – on a literal level – is the question are the brides of Christ, if Christ is both of God and human, not supposed to engage with his human side in ways brides would? Of course the orthodox view is hell, no! but what harm is there, if they are utterly faithful to him? Poor nuns 😉 To quote thadieu again “why the drama?” Sister Susanna was letting off some steam after hearing her maid go at it with her (the maid’s) lover.

The journey from deep prayer to (literally) pure randiness is scandalous only to hypocrites but otherwise well documented in history. The body/mind seeks balance.

We had Antonacci, one of the singers who best mixes singing and acting into a coherent whole, put the fire of life/lust into our initially catatonic heroine. She doesn’t have much to sing and has to shout a few times (she’s louder than I thought for such a big hall, but she doesn’t have to do it constantly for an hour) so those unfamiliar with her singing might find this outing rather inconclusive.

Dramatically, though, she’s magnificent. She’s in her 50s now but she can act young and elusive and she can also act frantic with desire just by the way or the pace at which she moves. The most interesting part is the development between one state to the other, as well as “the whole being” at the end, when she stands and faces the looming nuns. Thadieu said in the premiere she didn’t leave the crucifix she had climbed onto, but I thought this stand was an excellent idea. She’s neither just angelic nor only frenzied by lust, but a strong presence that likely has integrated both.

There are some really cool things the production does within 20min. If you look closely at the above picture you can see the bottom part of the wall comes off at the crack. When it did, we could see underneath the cell. As lust started to creep into Susanna’s mind/body, a fallen crucifix appeared on our left and a young woman (perhaps the ghost of the previous walled in nun) started embracing it. Later on Susanna descends there, whilst a giant spider that looks like the human centipede crawls on the other side of the stage (remember, it’s vast) and deposits the said young woman on the ground. They wall Susanna in by pushing back the bottom of the wall.

operbastilletop

top foyer

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.

ROH’s 2016/17 Winter Season now on General Sale

roh tunnelThe Winter Season at the ROH usually eludes me but this year I wanted to specifically catch two productions: the first revival of McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur and a new Der Rosenkavalier. Though I had work training today at the very time the tickets went on sale, I managed to sneak out for a 10min break and book tickets to said shows 😀

Some of you might know I have a soft spot for Adriana (and have never seen La Gheorghiu yet). As for Der Rosenkavalier, if it’s in town I’ll go. Probably still the most sensible thing to experience Renee Fleming in.

…and that’s my old skool diva loot for the year 😉 Now let’s hope no one catches a cold at that time of the year (me included).

I also thought about getting tickets to Written on Skin to hear Babs Hannigan. I’ve been vacillating because 1) I didn’t like the music the one time I listened to it and 2) is seeing Hannigan in an opera the best way to get her complex personality? As in, is this not too stifling and boxed-in?

edit 19/10: based on John’s recommendation below, I booked a ticket to Written on Skin as well.

Orfeo jinxes his own happiness

I was watching the recent Lausanne Orfeo and started feeling critical as things went on. By Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi I stopped for a quick break of “that performance you keep returning to”. If the YT comment section teaches us one thing it’s there’s no accounting for taste. I’m not saying my preference is law but it seems it’s strong enough for me to reserve a post for it. Here are a few different takes (there are plenty out there!):

Though I’m not a diction nazi, I think for Monteverdi a strong command of it is more important than in other cases. Just like how Gerhaher makes a wonderful case for the German language, so does ACA for Italian. I just love the sound of the sound of the words coming out of her mouth! (phrasing included, not just beauty) Which is a reason I gave you this black screen instead of this where you can also see her but the sound isn’t as good.

Next we have said Gerhaher, because I had never heard him sing in Italian before. I would say he’s not an ideal Orfeo and this production1 itself is a bit too German/neurotic but he is quite obviously fully committed and musical enough (plus the honey tone) to get my attention. The percussion also gets a thumbs up from me. If you wait, this video includes Boni singing Messagera’s lament.

Here we have a singer who has so far left me cold. I know he has a lot of fans but I just never quite got him (and speaking of Gerhaher, he came on top where Papageno is concerned, though Keenlyside was equipped with a duck hat). However, to my surprise, here he does a very commending (and commanding) job. It’s perhaps the most positive Orfeo I have seen and also the most magnetic (of the male ones); most Orfei seem rather self-effacing. Also, his athleticism gets him an extra cookie. I still feel his singing a bit too polished2 but susprisingly I have no other qualms about it.

Just goes to show you never quite know when you’re going to like a singer.


  1. When I saw the VW van my first thought was “hey, they stole it from Manrico’s over at ROH!” And it turns out that, yes, just like Kusej brings his boys in tighty withies everywhere and Guth his angels, so does Bösch travel in a beat-up VW van around his various stagings :-D 
  2. Though it fits the stylised choreography. 

And the best aria title goes to:

That type of cane shaking goes back to the 1600s? Haha. Probably beyond. But upon further investigation it’s just another Early Baroque nurse being cheeky (I have it on good authority that nurses are still cheeky, foul mouthed and) poking fun at young people nowadays:

Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.
I lor vezzi sono scherni, che fan l’alme sospirar.
Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.
Paion tanti Endimioni le zitelle in lusingar.
Ma se v’è, ch’il cor li doni, è una luna a vaneggiar.
Questi giovani moderni giocan sempre ad ingannar.

I think this silliness is a good end to a week of solid contralto/mezzo worship 😀 I should mention that today I put aside 3hrs of my time for L’incoronazione di Dario so you know I’ve been most serious about mezzo/contralto rituals. If there was a god and that god was a low tessitura female singer1, I’d’have payed for a lot of sins this week…

PS: how good does this stuff fit DG’s voice? I’d fall in love with it… if I weren’t besotted already…

  1. The thought alone is making me feel pious…