Category Archives: italian opera

Just when I thought Gritsy wasn’t so bad after all…

…I ran into this (for your convenience, I’ve linked the ending – you need to stay for the “flea market” chorus – everybody in for themselves!1):

What in the world was that? And how did anyone – especially the conductor – think this was a good idea?2 Works well for the final stretto 50m dash in the Operalympics or as an advert to stop kids from playing with electricity, otherwise…

ps: from another Opera Ball – this time in Dresden. Coincidence? I think not.
ps2: in her defence, she is not afraid of taking chances (and watching her moves is half the fun), unlike a certain mezzo we know and (I) love 😉 One hopes that these chances were less misguided…
ps3: even more in her defence, as a redeemer for Rossini, this trailer of Adelaide di Borgogna, where Ottone seems to be a woman. So maybe she just needs to ditch the Opera Balls and stick with trouser (wearing) roles?

  1. thanks to T for the wise words ;-) 
  2. someone please remind them all it’s not Les Contes D’Hoffmann
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Orlando fabuloso (Teatro Malibran, Venice, 19 April 2018)

Remember this post? Let’s see if Canaletto’s account of 18th century Venice stands for truth in April 2018.

That’s a closer picture of what Canaletto has in the background of his: the East side of Piazza San Marco with the Doge’s palace and the tower and the San Marco Cathedral in the back – but crucially, I’m glad I got St Mark’s lion’s bum in the picture 😉 Below we have the very calm waters of the lagoon (a proper puddle!), from the opposite side to Canaletto’s, because we didn’t have the time to boat around it like he did:

Looks just a bit less festive than the Marriage of the Sea, though if you peek closely you see there are plenty of boats going to and fro. Cielo e mar are pretty much a spitting image of their 18th century selves.

Sorge l’irato nembo
e la fatal tempesta
col sussurrar dell’onde,
ed agita e confonde,
e cielo e mar.

Ma fugge in un baleno
l’orrida nube infesta
e il placido sereno
in cielo appar.

Pretty much! Coming from London where you get 5 types of weather in one day, I basked in the eveness of Venice. Every day sunny, breezy and roughly the same temperature. Serenissima and all that. Today’s weather in my neighbourhood: Max 7C, min 4C. Raining steadily. Winds strong enough for the cornices to howl. Tomorrow is Mayday.

I mentioned earlier that Venice is all about history. The fact that it’s not built to include cars and other such vehicles beyond Piazzale Roma (where the buses etc. drop you if you’re arriving from inland), goes a very long way to removing that sense of living today that you don’t even realise until car engines are turned off (comercialism is alive and kicking – perhaps a trading city like Venice was always meant to incorporate – even welcome – that). I felt like stepping into the past – and though I sometimes enjoy fantasising about medieval times etc., I’m not exactly a la-la-la, I’m a princess! type 😉 but in Venice it felt almost wrong to place yourself in 2018. Funny enough, Prina hints to that in her Orlando interview with Mezzo TV.

a quiet backyard. People do live in Venice.

Another thing about Venice that I don’t think I felt so strongly anywhere else (yet?) is how happy everybody is to be here (Agathe pointed this out when we encountered a group of middle aged women whose collective jaw dropped – loudly! and amusingly – upon coming face to face with a carnival item shop). It’s absolutely mobbed with tourists but the general attitude is of wow! and so cool! as well as how cool am I for being here? though, of course, I’ve seen some bemused faces (or perhaps they were tired of seeing so much in one go?).

But as a lover of Vivaldi’s work there’s an extra something about making your way through the narrow streets which sometimes don’t accomodate two people at once and most certainly are winding confusingly in the beginning. He lived here and wrote here (and Orlando premiered here – I swear we accidentally stopped there on our way to finding a bridge to cross back from the San Marco side; whilst we’re on Vivaldi spots, Ospedale della pieta used to be here and yes, we (unknowingly) did pass by it because hello, Tourist Central – told you, it’s the kind of place where you accidentally step into another piece of history).

Back to Teatro Malibran, which is La Fenice’s studio theatre (aka, where the cool stuff happens). The back (the Artists’ Entrance) is apparently located in what used to be Marco Polo’s house. How cool is that?! Or maybe it’s the next building over or across the tiny canal. Even so, how cool!

Teatro Malibran’s artists’ entrance. That’s where Mezzo TV filmed the Orlando interviews 🙂

Look at the below picture and learn as we did: the loggia is nice and airy and gets all the music. The more expensive balcony space below and back of the stalls are all covered. The further back you are, the more you get 1) sound muffle, 2) no view of the surtitles and of the top of the stage (when Orlando climbed the moon, everyone around us was ducking left and right to see what he was doing up there). But the seats are almost twice the price! On the upside, you get a rather eye level view of the stage. Hm. Choose wisely. And, yes, that metal bar holding up the lights all around the venue was as annoying irl as is in this picture.

So just how fabulous was Orlando? By now you’ve probably seen the livestreaming footage, as it’s up online, I’ve jogged your memory with a few pictures of the environment, which I know aren’t everything, because you really have to feel the gentle air in Venice, but, still, the sights can go a long way – I doubt it could’ve been anything but fabulous even before it started.

From up on our perch (second row in the loggia) we had that badass loud sound and we could see much better than on Saturday. The railing occasionally interfered but not to a great extent. The stage was small enough to feel super cosy and the very 18th century informed special effects (the ripples of the sheet-sea, the papier mache hippogriff, the very obviously not real “ruins”) are tongue-in-cheek but also charming and more effective than one would immediately think.

like every theatre in Venice, Teatro Malibran has its own hotel, restaurant and courtyard!

The house is very unpretentious, what you see in that indoors picture is most of the decoration. The staircases are narrow (of course) but bright and simple and the ushers a bit stiff but mostly very friendly. One of them remembered us on the second night! T thought we “looked very specific” and I agree we were more dressed down than most but the rest of the audience (lots of locals) weren’t particularly sporting crown jewels. They were friendly and chatty (even occasionally during singing) and did not boo anyone, on the contrary, were free with their applause (I believe only a couple of arias did not get a response).

It is a bit weird to have the opera called after Orlando but see all this other action taking most of the space, with Orlando himself only having two (very badass) arias and some havoc wreaking at the end. Though, to be fair, that havoc and its respective recits were way worth it. And, again, sort of unusual, because it’s almost regular theatre with these bits and pieces of music to highlight the most important emotions Orlando is experiencing. Prina mentioned Fasolis stripped it even further so you do start to get into the “play” – or I did, at least. It had a stronger emotional impact than usual, because sometimes music can lift a bit of the tension – you get into the pretty sounds, you admire the musical skills…

I really like Orlando the character. He’s in a unique position, of someone who’s physically stronger/more skilled than everyone around him, and everyone fears him and gives him a wide bearth, which impinges on the possibility of developing any sort of real relationships. For her part, I think Angelica does not fear him (for herself) as much as is fed up and wants him gone, because she knows he can crush Medoro, who’s not macho at all.

Though in this production it is brought into question just how much she wants him gone… We have some very explicitly non repellant interaction between her and Orlando in that balloon aria where she bewitches him. There are ways to get rid of someone via wiles that don’t have to involve so much participation from the supposedly unwilling partner.

Then again, this is an opera where women are very 3D, as opposed to men (except for Orlando). And, true, if you can’t match someone for strength you should try to outwit them. We see the damage Orlando causes once he realises he’s been had.

What I also find interesting is Angelica and Medoro’s position at the end, once Alcina is defeated. Up to that point they were quite obviously on her side, what with Alcina concocting the plan to get them happily hitched and away from Orlando and providing the very sophisticated nuptial entertainment. But in the end Angelica’s like “oh, btw, what Alcina did to Orlando is totally uncool (it’s pure coincidence that it worked for us). And let’s not start on the poor hippogriff! Not cool! Prosecco, anyone?” Medoro: “What she said! I love my cutie-coo gf! Teehee!”

Oh, yea, the 19th was apparently Fasolis’ 60th birthday, so the orchestra and the choir did a very nice Baroque improv on Happy Birthday and everyone clapped and congratulated him on a job well done reaching 60 in the pit 😉

We ended up not getting lost and made our way back via the same winding but well signed streets at dusk and then took the commuter bus back into Mestre. You really don’t need the vaporetto, unless you specifically want to (go to the islands). Basically you’re fine with the 3Euro/day roundtrip from Mestre and back. And unless you must dine on the shores of Canal Grande, prices are reasonable even within Venice.

Venice, Orlando – first in house impressions

Pictures later… but here are some thoughts:

Early yesterday I joined T in Venice for major contralto action – and gelato and balmy weather (as the heatwave had just hit London the day before, “balmy” might be putting it mildly. My head is still trying to adjust, but I do appreciate the concept of “breeze”, which is not something London does).

Venice… It is a but weird seeing in the flesh something you’ve heard of enough to consider yourself familiar with (heh) for your entire life. Just how many historical sights have they crammed per square mile?! The mind boggles. Every other city I’ve seen so far has a point where it starts to take it easy with history; Venice just keeps on going. It’s somewhat peculiar location probably helps. Canals, canals, canals… though apparently not quite as lengthy as Birmingham’s. The trick is, of course, how crammed it all is.

If you’ve never been, it’s more tightly together than you can imagine. There is no need to fear distances, you will be able to cover them without major effort. You could probably even walk from the Mestre train station to Ponte Rialto and not feel particularly tired – as they actually have pavements on the side of the motorway (which is more like a larger road).

Apparently, the season is not yet in full swing, but the amount of tourists, especially lining up for overpriced meals and endless selfies by the Grand Canal, is exhausting. Luckily they tend to stay within typical areas. Walk a bit off the beaten path – as Teatro Malibran is – and you can have a gorgeously relaxing time by a tiny canal, where gondoliers do a great job and not ramming their boats into each other.

Moving on towards contralto action, I was astounded by the acoustics at Teatro Malibran! If you want to see something there, DO IT! Don’t think twice. It’s crystal clear. We were quite far up and I could understand every word, hear every inflection. Even the countertenors seem loud here 🙂

As soon as the orchestra started I could tell this was going to be a feast for the ears. Fasolis does a great job with the modern orchestra, only on occasion getting a bit too loud. That being said, and considering what I mentioned about the acoustics, this is one of the loudest Baroque performances I’ve heard so far. For better or worse – you lose some warmth but Fasolis uses the volume dynamics to optimal results – especially in Orlando’s hell raising Sorge l’irato nembo, where going from soft to loud gives a wonderful depth.

Now that the live stream happened and will be out for our pleasure on culturebox for a whole year, I’ll focus on things that are different when heard in the house. Cirillo as Alcina was excellent – I liked her a lot more here than in Torino. Plus the role is so much fun in Vivaldi (it’s still awesome in Handel but fun wouldn’t be the right term)! I liked Vistoli’s Ruggiero better in the live stream, interestingly, but, as t mentioned, it could also be from night to night. He is still very secure sounding in the very long lines, and plumbs some tenoral depths – for better or worse, depending on how you feel about these forays. I’m not quite sure.

Prina was wonderful but then this seems like a perfect role for her particular skills and talents. There is a lot of emotional ground to cover – from seasoned warrior to hopelessly in (unreqitted) love. I want to talk more in depth about Vivaldi’s take on Ariosto vs Handel’s, as they are very different, but I’m going to do this in a longer post, likely after the Saturday performance. Suffice it to say that men are by and large taken the piss out of in the original text and this production follows that. Yet Orlando is not entirely unsympathetic, as uncouth as he comes off. He’s madly in love, the poor thing, and he really has no clue how to tackle this issue, though he definitely tries. If you’ve familiar with Prina you can probably tell how much this suits her. She has that kind of physical authority to always anchor one’s attention, regardless on who else is on stage and/or how well armed the other person is. From vicious Polinesso to poor hapless Orlando…

T and I were a bit worried when Prina climbed the moon during Nel profondo cieco mondo, but luckily she did not slip… Also you could tell the sets worked well to project the voice back to the public, especially when she got close to the back of the top curtain and it came off a bit soft.

So that’s it for first impressions, more later about the rest of the impressions 😉

Ps: I really liked Alcina, but her treatment of the cute and soulful hippogriff was not cool at all! I could hardly focus on things after she carved his heart out… I know she was desperate but COME ON!

Blasts from the past: Nabucco (ROH, 1 April 2013)

If you ever wondered how things were before this blog started, the answer is I still occasionally jotted down thoughts about shows. I thought I should bring these mini writeups here for the sake of completism. This one marks my very first time at the ROH – the rep may make stray smile 😉

Monday evening I went to see Nabucco here in freezing London (seriously, it’s April! whatever happened to the weather?! – exactly what could be said of 1 April 2018). Now I have mentioned before that I started liking Verdi only about 2 months ago and so far Nabucco is my favourite (unsurprisingly, as one of the most straight-up belcanto operas from the green one). I didn’t want to spoil my fun so I didn’t read anything about the production before going. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but apparently the production has mixed reviews. True enough, it is as static as they come – minimal acting, lots of singing to the public. But gorgeous singing for my balcony seat money! I also enjoyed the Berlin Holocaust Museum/monolith sets – intelligently making the link across time – as well as the wire sculptures of Baal and heads (Nabucco & daughters, as I read them). Add a sand pit and that’s it as far as sets go. Teensy bit more than the Noah’s Ark from Verona.

Singing: I’ve a fondness for badass, tough-as-nails, tough to sing roles and, good lord, how about that Abigaille? Whew! What a range on all levels and how wonderful to witness live when the singer can pull it off. Monastyrska did a hell of a job: yea, she projected, she dominated, in short, she chewed scenery but my favourite part was the way she managed the lyrical bits with that hefty voice (I found her top notes surprisingly pretty). Some control! Nucci also rocked the lyrical side, although I thought he didn’t let loose quite as much. But gorgeous voice acting, brought tears to my eyes. Everybody else (including Pizzolato (Fenena), whom I’ve enjoyed in other belcanto roles) sounded excellent.

Since my babbling was way shorter back then, you can read R. Christiansen’s take on the production (he, of course, saw one of the Domingo performances).

How to be cheerful about love and death in Venice (Wigmore Hall, 26 February 2018)

This was the first performance I attended in 3 weeks and that musical starvation added quite a bit to my enjoyment. If you look at the programme you can see it’s very attractive and interesting, though my favourite bit was, predictibly, the Poppea part. As we reached the interval I thought to myself “I could listen to the Poppea duets for hours!”

Love and death in Venice
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset director, harpsichord
Gilone Gaubert-Jacques violin
Gabriel Grosbard violin
Emmanuel Jacques cello

Jodie Devos soprano
Judith van Wanroij soprano

This is the pared down team Rousset usually brings along to recitals and, also as usual, it did a great job. The violins stepped in and out, showing virtousity when taking centre stage, with Rousset himself and Jacques carrying most of the voice-supporting work. Rousset can, on occasion, come off a bit lacklustre in opera, but his very laid-back, rhythmically solid but non-intrusive keyboard style is always strong in recitals. His singers have room to shine and they did here, too.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Madrigals, Book 7
Chiome d’oro
O come sei gentile
Ahi sciocco mondo e cieco

Dario Castello (c.1600)
Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno, Libro I
Seconda Sonata

Claudio Monteverdi
L’incoronazione di Poppea
Prologue and Sinfonia
Signor, deh, non partire
Signor oggi rinasco
Pur ti miro, pur ti godo

Interval

Luigi Rossi (c.1597-1653)
Orfeo
A che tanto spavento
Che può far Citherea
Vi renda Amor mercè
Lasciate, Averno

Johann Rosenmüller (c.1619-1684)
Sonata Sesta a3

Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676)
Didone
Lamento di Cassandra
Lamento di Didone

The singers took a bit to achieve optimal blend, what with Devos’ very bright top occasionally covering Wanroij more middle placed voice but as far as aural mix they worked very well and they looked like they were having fun singing together. Seeing two women in dresses (pink and bright red) sing the Poppea-Nerone duets also brought on a smile for yours truly.

As you know, I’m not exactly a fan of laments, and I learned Leander shares this feeling. Baroque Bird pointed out that Cassandra’s lament was rather interesting (quite chromatic, I guess? my vocabulary is a bit iffy – angular and “stabby” is what I felt) and while I agree it was memorable writing it was still a lament… Anyway, they did encore with another duet, and although Rousset mentioned its title/composer, they now completely escape me (but Leander got it, as well as Damigella and Valletto’s duet which I, uh, didn’t know was there 😉 d’oh!).

The performance was very well attended and the laidback feel permeated the hall, though London has been going through a most peculiar weather moment (dark clouds and snow/clear sky and bright sun chasing each other several times a day). Leander and Baroque Bird mentioned mezzo Emilie Renard was in attendence but sadly I spotted her at the opposite end of the hall so no hello from me though I would have liked to chat a bit. Hope to see her on stage at some point in the near future 🙂

The return of Ulysses to the English public (Roundhouse, 21 January 2018)

Ulysse: Roderick Williams
Penelope: Caitlin Hulcup
Telemachus: Samuel Boden
Melanto: Francesca Chiejina
Eurymachus: Andrew Tortise
Iros: Stuart Jackson
Minerva: Catherine Carby
Shepherd: Matthew Milhofer
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Early Opera Company and assorted chorus
Director: John Fulljames

In what has now become a very welcome dedication to the earlier repertoire, this January ROH has staged the second of the three Monteverdi operas, in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. I didn’t feel at all deprived of Italian. For a more historically informed writeup please check Leander‘s.

Interestingly and quite like Willy Decker’s, Fulljames’ production also featured a rotating stage, this time with the orchestra in the middle pit rotating one way and the singers on an external donut rotating the other way. I guess this concept only makes sense what with this story often portrayed on ancient vases and/or to show the passage of time etc.

Though the orchestra was trv kvlt early music, cornetto and all, the team decided to introduce a chorus (made up of selected ROH Orchestra members and Guilhall students, if I remember correctly). In the queue to the loo after the event I overheard some comments that it was unnecessary but I enjoyed it a lot in the party numbers where they were used (I didn’t even know there were party numbers in Ulisse, side from what the pretenders sing; perhaps this was made up but it did not bother me one bit). I thought there was enough informed stuff what with the orchestra and the singers largely adhering to style so a bit of something else along the same lines of Monteverdi’s writing was a-ok.

Williams as Ulisse was wonderful, very affecting and light at the same time (in regards to his movements as well – Mum commented his dancing skills were tops). Now having heard a few Ulisses I liked his take better than Streit’s. I’m still undecided between him and Bostridge because both are great. I’m quite sure Streit was shortchanged by the orchestral forces behind him and possibly by the direction. This time everything was as it should be, with no singers ever having the force their way through the harpsichord wall of sound or chance becoming unheard or simply powering through for no discernible reason.

I wasn’t convinced by Carby’s Minerva, whose voice sounded too large for the role for me. I understand the direction asked her to portray the boot and combat trouser, strong and scorned god but one still needs to vocally keep with the style of the piece presented. Unlike Leander, I enjoyed Chiejina’s Melanto a lot and did not hear her vibrato. I thought she did a wonderful job, the best I’ve heard from her so far, with attention to style, wit and youthfulness – and I really like her full (but not too full yet) tone and her tackling of trills. She was easily my favourite after Williams.

Hulcup, taking over the run at the last minute from Chistine Rice (who is on the DVD with Christie), has a genuine mezzo voice that’s not hard to enjoy. On the other hand, Penelope is a very difficult role – what with the constant lamenting – so one needs a lot of colour and to show an intrinsic knowledge of a wife’s tribulations. I didn’t feel either, though the moment she finally recognises Ulisse was well done and she and Williams blended in a lovely manner in the subsequent duet.

This was a very serious production with the comical side toned down considerably and the chorus standing in for stranded refugees. The rotating donut pulled Ulisse away from Penelope even as they sang the final, “happy-ending” duet, apparently in a thought provoking manner. It is perhaps my failing that my thoughts didn’t feel particularly challenged…

I loved it musically – especially concept-wise and in regards to Williams’ performance and liked most of others’ performances. Dramatically I’m not sure I got it all but you know I always enjoy a sparse design and am rather fond of rotating stages. The Roundhouse either has very good acoustics or something because, as with any round halls, the singers do turn around to sing to different sides and sometimes they have their back to you. There was sound muffling but minimally so. I also liked Minerva and Telemachus singing their duet whilst circling the stage on a tandem bike 😀 it provoke the thoughts of “look at what else opera singers have to do these days! Great cycling skills! Remember Rinaldo at Glyndebourne? And remember how Orfeo had to dangle from the ceiling in this very venue two years ago? What shall they have Poppea do in 2020?!”

ps: the ushers at the Roundhouse are ace! There was quite a bit of going out of one’s way observed by yours truly. Also the public was very congenial. Mum and I were in a lift with a bunch of ladies her age who all smiled at everybody. My Mum went what’s all that smiling about? All I could say was think first world thoughts, Mum.

ROH Semiramide Radio 3 broadcast alert (Sat, 6 January 2018)

Thanks to thadieu for signalling this for all interested parties:

Semiramide on Radio 3, Saturday, 6 January 2018, 6pm GMT

If that alone doesn’t fill your JDD fix, 6 January is your day, as BBC 3 is running one of her American Songbook recitals at 1pm GMT.

All about his mother (Semiramide take 2, ROH 4 December 2017)

…with the bust of Adelina Patti, who sang Semiramide in the 1890s.

A woosh of dread went through the packed hall when an announcer came out, so strong I thought it would push her back to where she’d come from.

Announcer: No, no, no, everything is fine. All I wanted to say is that JDD had a respiratory infection last week but she is much better tonight. Enjoy the evening!

Frenetic applause and a general sigh of relief. More applause when Pappano came out (there normally are, but these were extra jaunty).

Let’s start with the conclusion: thank you Pappano and all. You convinced me this is truly a great opera and I wish it made its way back into the repertoire so we can hear/see it more often. Rossini outdid himself here. It’s got it all somehow melded into a whole: his playfulness, his expertise with the opera seria formula, lots of innovation and the great tunes never stop.

One of the great things about it is that Rossini knows how to write for the voice and won’t let the orchestra intrude but he has also written excellent instrumental parts. Also peppering the score with ensembles and keeping the choir active really makes a difference in regards to pacing (always fresh).

However, it most likely needs a great team – top singers and a very intelligent conductor. An insightful production doesn’t hurt. It really is shortchanged when the focus is on noodling runs of coloratura or if the conductor thinks the drama needs too much push. Pappano trusts Rossini and focused on bringing out all the inventive details, which are a pleasure to hear. His voice-orchestra balance was optimal.

Compared to the 25th it was like this: Arsace and Semiramide’s act II duet = best moment of the night (and not just in my opinion either. My seatmate dubbed it “fantastic!”, lots of applause and shouts etc. and some teary eyes from me). I just wanted it to go on and on (and luckily Rossini knows a good thing, so, as most duets here, it’s quite long). I still think Ah, come mai quell’anima is the more beautiful duet but this is wonderful, especially with Barcellona and JDD who work together so well. Have a listen to how they sounded in Munich earlier this year (imo, not nearly as good. I actually don’t like that recording and I’m glad I didn’t listen to it before going. I had to agree with the commenter who heard JDD off pitch a lot of the time. Esposito came off majorly bland of tone (to me, who am not his greatest fan to begin with). The duet is beautiful, though).

Brownlee (still no ping, from the lower slips in the auditorium) had some of the most amazing floated notes I’ve ever heard in Ah dov’è il cimento? Seriously, that stuff was staggering, to the point I had to remember where my loyalties lay 😉 cue in severe shaking from Azema1 and that quip about how if she didn’t think Arsace was the biggest hero in the world she’d totally go for Idreno. Don’t listen to his 2013 rendition found on ‘tube as it’s vastly inferior. Sadly it seems to be his only rendition on youtube.

His interaction with JDD in the act I finale, where everybody was trying to come to terms with the appearance of Nino’s ghost was acoustically interesting: his lines were louder than hers but this appeared deliberate, giving a very welcome depth to the sound. However his act II aria saw surprising ups and downs in concentration, which makes this performance one of the most curious I’ve witnessed.

Pertusi’s pre-mad aria recit was again his strongest moment – he’s really good at that kind of thing, vivid and credible. Also he had many very Verdian flashes through the night (and I mean that in a good way. Philip II was calling?). JDD did sound (even) more cautious with the very highs and I think I remember a moment where the sound came out a bit unfocused but other than that she was as strong and committed as usual.

Now that I could focus more on things other than the immediate impact, I thought Arsace spends a lot of time in the lower recesses of the mezzo voice, so perhaps this is a reason VK never sang it (as her voice is darker rather than low, where Barcellona’s is both dark and solidly low). I’m now compelled to hear Hallenberg’s take again. I also had time to realise I’ve been spending so much time listening to Baroque specialists that even a little – understandable – vibrato throws me a bit (Barcellona and Pertusi). I won’t fault them, of course, but it was interesting to see how little JDD uses in comparison. Come to think of it, Brownlee did the same. Unless he has the type I don’t catch. Might be an issue of American vs Italian style?

The choir was (I think) better this time, thought the beginning of the opera still posed challenges.

She may be wicked but she is my mother

Arsace as a character is a bit underdeveloped for contemporary sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, he’s given a pony 😉 I’ve noticed this thing in pre mid-19th century opera (though, come to think of it, heroes continue to be rather intellectually fluffy (see all Wagner)), where we have supposedly accomplished warriors/strategists act very naively in private matters. They are also way too young for those military accolades. Something’s got to give, eh, and that is usually intelligence.

As per libretto Arsace is characterised by being brave (commander of the Babylonian army at the tender age of… about 25, I’d say), dutiful (rushes back to headquarters when Semiramide calls and is unwaveringly on her side even before he learns she’s his mother) and very much in love (his entrance aria reminisces about how he saved Azema from marauders and then their eyes met = opera love).

All of a sudden he’s hit with major existential questions, which he is ill equipped to answer. Then again, who of us would have an easy time with a mother who wants to marry us and who has also, incidentally, offed our father? Plus the realisation that we’re next in line as the country’s top honcho? All of these revelations in one day, the same day we were merely supposed to announce our wedding (to someone else than the mum)! Barcellona is very good at portraying the youthful hero with all his youthful imaturity mixed with the earnest desire to do the right thing by everyone. I have cats to hug when things get weird, why shouldn’t Arsace have a pony? I also see that moment as his return to his childhood room, with the pictures and the toys one’s parents keep in the attic (or spare room).

The ending is rather poignant, with the hacked to death Semiramide reaching wordlessly (a victory for realism! thank you, Rossini) towards her son and Arsace’s duty tragically winning over love in grand opera seria style, as he ascends the stairs to the throne and glory. For his unexpected ascension to top honours he looks shattered so who knows che mai sarà.

Singing-wise, Barcellona was the picture of understated poise, with excellent stamina and that beautiful lyric tone needed for best results in belcanto trouser roles.

So now that this first ever ROH run is over I can’t wait until they revive it 😉 hopefully with a similarly strong cast and Pappano (or someone else who can do Rossini justice on this level).

late November view of London from Alexandra Palace


  1. Agathe, you were right, that seems to be D. Alden’s shorthand for severe emotion (“moved” indeed). 

Vivaldi’s L’incoronazione di Dario (Torino) out on DVD/BluRay

Flora: The beauty of love, two hearts becoming one! Statira: Literally? (gif by gifmaster thadieu)

I have to praise Teatro Regio/Dynamic once more for the speed with which they released this DVD, recorded in April 2017. It definitely does the job of presenting the stage environment and the sound appears very good. A bunch of us have watched it the other day and nobody seemed to have any complaints on sound quality. This is the kind of opera where piano singing is integral to its success and here it does come through.

You might have reservations regarding the staging (oil pipes everywhere to represent the Middle East) but it’s far from annoying. Anyway, most of the action is carried by the dramatic capabilities of the singers, all of which have superior comedy chops. I’ve talked about it before (twice), as has thadieu and Giulia, so there’s really not much more to add, beside the fact that I liked some of the singers (especially Cirillo) better here than in the house and that, even after seeing it twice already, it’s still (very) funny.

I encourage you to get the DVD/BluRay or have someone gift it to you for the holidays 😉 A few years back Dantone recorded it on CD with most of the same cast but it’s just not the same. Here’s your chance to laugh at the dialogue as well as hum along to the endlessly catchy tunes.

thanks again to thadieu 😀

Strongly introspective Semiramide (ROH, 25 November 2017)

major spoilers (credit: ROH)

ROH hasn’t seen Semiramide staged in over 100 years but it’s good they did it now, when they have a Rossini-appreciative conductor in the house and such an exceptional team of Rossinians to sing it. It’s the most expensive production of the season but it’s definitely worth it musically. Dramatically I guess I’m not an Alden fan but it’s not a stupid staging either. I just thought more (or prettier) could’ve been done to match the singers’ skills and commitment to the drama.

“let’s get the Rossini face on!” (credit: JDD’s website)

Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Assur: Michele Pertusi
Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee
Oroe: Bálint Szabó
Azema: Jacquelyn Stucker
Mitrane: Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Royal Opera House Choir and Orchestra
co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper

This is “another modern staging” that places the action amidst a moment of acute power vacuum within a dictatorship – with good reason, Babylonia wasn’t a shining example of enlightened democracy (not that we should be talking).

The story is wonky enough: even though Nino, the former North Korean style dictator, here referenced by a giant statue and apparently Trump-like family portraits, has been dead for 15 years, it is only now that a new – read: male – leader is needed. It appears that so far Semiramide (his widow) and Assur’s (descendant of Baal, so Mr Macho) regency has been good enough. Or perhaps this is just heavy foreshadowing/convenient plot device.

Nino and Semiramide’s son Ninia has secretly survived his infancy and has gained a reputation for himself by rising to the position of commander of Semiramide’s army, under the (Scythian) name of Arsace. It seems like Assur has not been careful enough when sweeping his path to power.

It’s the ancient world so rituals and the mysterious (ie: vague, confusing) will of gods are par for the course. Alden indulges adequately. Knee crawling and extensive “praise the gods” genuflecting from the choir pepper the duration of the opera. Agathe observed that it’s even more exaggerated than in Munich, so perhaps it’s intentionally made to appear ridiculous. I for one did not, in any case, get a feeling that Alden has any spare affection for this world.

The best quip is Azema’s completely constricting (albeit technically very accomplished) golden dress. Her constant facial expression of defeat brings out the straitjacket feel induced by the hampering overlong sleeves. Usually carried to and fro (like a sack of potatoes) by a male attendant (she seems to be needed everywhere, although it is never clear why, as she barely has a voice, mostly to express dissatisfaction with her lot1; perhaps to make up the quota of women at the court), she is at some point placed on a cordoned off plinth, with Idreno agitating around like a blood hound. I liked Bachtrack reviewer‘s comment that she looks like an Grammy Oscar statuette, considering her suitors (Assur, Idreno and “lucky” winner Arsace) engage in what was in 1823 – and possibly still today, in certain circles – a singing contest.

Though, to be fair, the way Rossini is sung here is as far removed from showcasing fireworks as anything I’ve seen. Not that the singers don’t cover all that, because they all do with lots of skill and style, but because the focus is staunchly placed on conveying a believable drama to contemporary audiences. We have come a very long way from the ’80s. This a 3 1/2 hour opera and I didn’t flag once. A great accomplishment by all – less so by the choir, who had some issues keeping up with Pappano and Rossini, something both Agathe and I noticed, so it’s not just me always finding fault with them something 😉

I really enjoyed Pappano’s supple and lucid conducting and the precision with which the orchestra responded to him. It’s late, more through-composed Rossini, but Pappano didn’t make it unnecessary loud and kept the drama under control. It’s still Rossini and you can still smile at jaunty tunes at dramatic moments. I was also pleased to notice the germs of “angsty soliloquies” later developed by Bellini and mastered by Verdi – at moments when the main characters have scenes which combine tuneful lines with more recit-based passages – ariosos? I’m not sure they were still called that into the 19th century – and even include “distant sounds of the city”.

JDD did a tour de force with Semiramide. He interactions with both Pertusi’s Assur (he’s an old school bad guy but a convincing one) and Barcellona’s youthful, conflicted Arsace brought out a very well rounded, strong woman, who tries and fails to reconcile outward personal ambition with an inward sense of right and wrong and sort out different kinds of love/attraction. A busy day, indeed. Though a subject well explored in the 18th century, it is perhaps no surprise that this heroine found her strongest voice in the 19th century, the one where female leads aren’t supposed to win.

credit: Tristram Kenton via thestage.co.uk

I’m not saying that offing your husband should be given a pass if you beat yourself up for it for 15 years or if you then defend your child with your life but such is the scarcity of women with agency in opera that one finds it hard not to side with her – especially the unsentimental way JDD plays her. I felt from the getgo that Semiramide was ready to meet her fate whatever the costs but she was optimistic that things would turn out right in the end. Regardless of what she did that one time 15 years ago, she seems to want to right things now – get rid of dictator in waiting Assur and secure the throne for upright hero Arsace. Of course her motives are complex but that’s what we like in our fictional heroe(ine)s.

For his part, Arsace appears like a decent sort, law abiding to a fault and the opposite of a politician. He’s also, for someone who presumably grew up in the saddle and has seen a serious amount of combat, eyebrow-raisingly naive. At first Semiramide uses subtlety when pursuing him but he only gets it when she corners him cougar-style in her nightgown. Ok, battle experience does not prepare one for being chased by a woman that someone has a lot of respect for and sees as outranking him. But still, he seems young (Barcellona’s channeling Tancredi); no wonder Alden gives him a stuffed pony to remember his childhood by (he also has some unexplored issues regarding family).

The two most dramatically impressive moments for me were when Semiramide tells Assur that she would gladly renounce the throne for her child, were he to be found alive (after a conversation where Assur implies that she too has been power mad) and her desperate chase for an embarrassed Arsace. JDD portrays a moving mother-Semiramide which only makes the later scene that much more sad and tragic.

JDDs duets with Assur and Arsace were the most moving vocally. I loved the gentle way she delivered her lines in the duet where she and Assur are in bed (and he just provides long sustained vocal backing), and the very fine way she interacted/echoed the orchestra. Her second act duet with Arsace was lovely for the unassuming way JDD and Barcellona meshed their voices (mezzo-mezzo duets = ❤ ) and made the moment of mother and son reconciliation simple and moving. Agathe remarked that so late in the opera there is nothing for the singers to prove; I welcomed it as I enjoyed the consistent commitment to exploring the drama at the expense of needless showing off.

Brownlee’s Idreno and Pertusi’s Assur were less developed – and both were meant to come off as unpleasant but no less vocally accomplished. Brownlee got his shorter aria back (it was axed in Munich) and got deserved applause come curtain time (and before; most arias did). He doesn’t have JDF’s piercing wail at the very top but I don’t know that we’re poorer for that. His tone is very handsome and the voice has just the right flexibility for Rossini, no wonder he’s made his name in this repertoire. He comes off as a nice chap in interviews but here he managed to infuse Idreno with an amount of entitlement disguised as passion for Azema that reminded me of an annoying wasp.

I understand Pertusi was unwell during the premiere but everything was fine on Saturday. I hadn’t heard him before but I enjoyed his tone and elaborate skills, especially in Assur’s act II mini mad scene when Assur is hallucinating about Nino’s return. Agathe mentioned that in Munich, Esposito had acted this mad scene in such a strong manner that she hadn’t even realised just how beautiful the music was. I was quite impressed with the complexity of vocal emotion Pertusi used for this mad scene.

Out of the smaller roles I liked Szabó’s tone a lot – very easy on the ears and nicely solid singing. His dramatic skills were good, too.

There was a feeling of everyone on stage knowing that they are part of something special and behaving accordingly, with congenial help from Pappano and the orchestra. A highly enjoyable performance and a wonderful showcase of Rossini’s complex skills. During the evening I started thinking I’d like to see it again and I’m pleased to report I just managed to secure a reasonably priced second ticket this late in the game 😀 Everyone who likes great singing, try to go. The surprisingly good news is you can luck out on a return at any time (only two days ago the cheap available seat situation looked dire).

Agathe and I got tickets on the Stalls Circle left, because she knew from Munich that was the best position for the “important action” (Arsace and Semiramide singing directly at us; Barcellona’s dark, gently heroic tone caused Agathe to be on the verge of passing out 😉 several times during the evening). We were only a few feet away from the stage also with a good view of the orchestra/Pappano. There was a bit of muffle for the ppps but only in the sense of lack of ping across the board, which we supposed would not be the case from the auditorium (I’ll get back to you on that next week, especially re: Brownlee). Otherwise we heard it all in all its glory (though I had a blocked ear which caused me to strait during act I; it finally popped by the end of act I) and a badass evening it was 😀

We spent the – clear but very cold for London – day walking about central London and catching a truly beautiful sunset from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Out of fangirl anxiety we arrived one hour early at ROH and spent time chatting in the very cosy amphitheatre lobby (ROH is in the midst of major refurbishing). I don’t shower ROH with enough praise but it’s got a lovely lobby area design – grand but not overly so; you’ll soon relax – and the ushers have once again been super accommodating. Agathe commented that the applause wasn’t quite as mad as in Munich but I thought by Stalls Circle standards it was warm indeed. In spite of the cold weather there was minimal coughing, too.


  1. Or, somewhat confusingly, how much Idreno’s first aria has moved her, and she’d think twice about his (very aggressive) attentions if only Arsace wasn’t the love of her life. This can be a very funny moment, though I’m not sure that’s how it’s played here, in spite of the fact that this is Rossini. By funny I mean if it’s played as a comment on the tenor’s singing skills and the relationship between star singers and their fanbase. But then it’s mixed with what today is glaringly read as a lack of agency (not one aria for her) when she’s at the centre of the entire sublot and things become funny har har.