Category Archives: live performances

seen and heard live

Whimsical Partenope returns to kick off the Handel season (ENO, 17 March 2017)

You know what we/I haven’t had in a while? (A bit of semi-obscure) Handel! Since Gauvin’s recital at the end of January, to be precise. ENO has programmed their revival of the Award Winning 2008 production of Partenope to coincide with the usual time of the year when we celebrate the Grandmaster of the Baroque Formula.

I bought this ticket the day before the show, just before leaving for the Radvanovsky recital. Because 1) I bungled it when the tickets went on sale, 2) there was no way for me to attend this week’s performances no matter how I tried to cut it (and these days the situation at work is the sort where one should try to cut it as little as possible) and last but most importantly 3) this is a badass production, which kept niggling at the back of my mind (you’re not going to see that? Seriously? You’re not? And you call yourself an admirer of clever stylish silly ideas? It’s Handel, ffs! A Handel comedy!).

Oh, who am I kidding?! It all comes down to:

Like Radvanovsky was saying: I just like I was lucky to have quite a grand introduction to it, on my very first outing at Wigmore Hall. You should see my badass moves 😉 If I were a singer with a half decent coloratura this would be one of my audition/recital staples. By the end of it the audience would be bawling on each other’s shoulders. Or perhaps chuckling. But moved they would be. After about 30min on repeat (various versions) my musically inclined cat joined in with the coloratura 😀 that’s how much we love this aria at casa dehggi.

Partenope: Sarah Tynan
Emilio: Rupert Charlesworth (taking the entire season over from Robert Murray (indisposed))
Arsace: Patricia Bardon
Armindo: James Laing
Rosmira “Eurimene”: Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Ormonte: Matthew Durkhan
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Orchestra of the ENO
Director: Christopher Alden
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Jon Morell

In this production, the laddish Arsace, who sings the aria after being roasted by his jilted lover, brandishes about a bottle of something stiff but somehow does not smash it by the end. Dude! I’d like several (the entire stash) to smash to the coloratura.

“But what if Man Ray isn’t what turns you on? If your fancy isn’t taken by the erotic charge of a strategically positioned black triangle, or a prominent nipple in an expanse of flesh smoothed flat by the lens and viewpoint, or if the sight of a 1920s siren smoking through a long cigarette holder fails to excite? In that case, this production has little for you.” (Davin Karlin for Bachtrack on this revival of ENO/Opera Australia’s 2008 production of Partenope).

That’s the case with every production built on a schtick. Luckily, I get down with all of that, especially the siren bit, which Tynan rocks (is there anything more stylish than 1920s fashions? Nah.) It’s a sort of “flat” production, in the sense it’s all about posing rather than following a plot logically1 but then we’re talking Surrealist photography, Bauhaus and whatnot. Visual arts during Modernism made a point out of removing (or at least disrupting) the narrative.

How does this relate to Handel? Singers do silly things whilst singing but we’re reminded that singers in Handel’s time used to make the most of their limelight moments as well and the public was often engaged otherwise. People do silly things at moments of heightened emotion – and sometimes at regular times, too. Sometimes overthinking gets in the way of good fun.

Partenope the character is flirty but constant. She likes to be admired and friendzones men by the boatload. Arsace (her lover at the beginning of the opera) isn’t particularly flirty but as soon as “Eurimene” shows up he suddenly knows remembers he’s actually Rosmira, his hitherto fogotten ex. It’s a bit Alcina without the magic – or “for adults”. Case in point: we have the bonus of a mezzo making out with both the title soprano and another mezzo.

In the end Partenope rebounds with the shy guy and Rosmira gets her pretty man back after a satisfying bout of emotional torture (no hard feelings from Partenope, who is reasonable/together enough to know it’s all Arsace’s fault). Emilio – the enemy, who, in a short duet suavely sings he’d like to make Partenope his chattel – is added to the friendzone menagerie. So far so contemporary feminist.

The singing was constantly fine across the board though I can’t say it ever rose to stratospheric levels of emotion. Bardon has a very recognisable dark mezzo and here somehow outcountertenored Laing. She also showed what a bitch of an aria Furibondo… is. I remember someone on youtube commenting on a live recording of Scholl singing it how he for once prefers Daniels. Not fair comparing live to studio!

The reason why I love it is because Handel packs so much. You start on coloratura, then you have to vary projection, sometimes mid-phrase (= shouts of agitation), more coloratura, then you get to the B section, where I gather you add rubato to taste (I really liked what Horne did there on an almost melancholic agitata and the contrast with the very dark dol), because the rhythm is pretty much the same throughout – relentless and staccato.

Back to Bardon’s: it was good but not fabulous. I suppose there are many factors that go into this. People have criticised Curnyn’s approach as too fast in general, not giving singers breathers. I remember thinking during one of the slow Arsace arias that it could’ve been a tad faster. He did manage some very pretty interventions from the winds and assorted brass during Eurimene’s warlike aria2. Also the rhythm section deserves praise for keeping it tight throughout. It made me grin, thinking, ah, there’s nothing (in classical music) quite like Baroque to rock a solid rhythm.

But yes, perhaps Furibondo… was too fast. There were times (the shouty moments) when Bardon didn’t project as strongly as I would’ve expected – for whatever reason. I thought the role suited her otherwise, even though, like I said, I don’t remember her sounding quite so countertenorish before. Special mention: really nice job from Bardon on the movement-whilst-singing-a-male-character department.

photo from The Stage (click for review)

Tynan has the right voice and style for the role. All is needed is a bit of extra something to make it outstanding. Her interaction with her suitors and her Partenope persona were on the money throughout. I must commend the Personnenregie in general, very convincing in its details.

But in spite of the mezzo-soprano-mezzo estravaganza, Charlesworth’s Emilio stole the show this time. He took proper advantage of the silliness surrounding his character – the baddie, here a privacy stealing Man Ray – and seemed to have so much fun every time he was on stage that he drew the most attention and applause. It didn’t hurt that his diction was the best of the bunch and his pojection grand.

It was rather good fun – literally and figuratively – and really easy on the eyes. I’m glad I went last week, not after the Petibon concert (though I wish I’d’ve posted this before that concert, it would’ve read a lot more lively). Sitting in those tiny bum seats in the Balcony (economy) section between a Spanish couple and two Polish women I thought to myself how the ENO audience often seems like the most relaxed. ENO has the biggest opera-presenting hall in London yet it somehow feels very cosy (must be the tiny bum seats) and up there it feels almost as chummy as TEC.


  1. There is a plot and there is logic but that’s not central to this production. 
  2. That was the only time the music and the production didn’t flow together for me. The Bloomsbury atmosphere is so strong, the thought of actual war is jarring. 

The miraculously uplifting world of Patricia Petibon (Wigmore Hall, 18 March 2017)

If you ever got a chuckle reading this blog I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and book a ticket to a Petibon recital. There’s nothing quite like it. You might come out of it and find the world brutal and monochrome but you will also have something surprisingly sturdy to hang on to when things do indeed get ugly.

I normally put up the setlist1 after the first couple of paragraphs but this time I can say what she sang was secondary. Not that I didn’t like the programme – on the contrary, I liked everything, because this was a Petibon takes over your senses kind of recital. Yes, everything, props (lots of them) and dresses included (her dress style is superb). This is a recital about which I would not change a thing – also because I don’t think my creativity is extensive enough for that task 😉

You should know that I’ve long harboured the opinion that she is the most beautiful woman in opera the world. It’s not about some fantastically perfect features (delicate bones + a large mouth can be hard to pull off), it’s the way everything is lit from within, and of course, the mischievous smile.

Part of the reason I insisted on booking a ticket to the recital was because I wanted to verify via those unsuspecting senses that there are indeed women who look like that in the 21st century. To me she doesn’t look like someone who uses Facebook and Uber (though burping and taking a poo are well within the realm of possibility). She looks like The Lady of the Lake or the French version of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Now that I have seen her rock a deep green cape I am convinced she should star as the seductive queen in the opera version of Guingamor (my secret opera project 😉 though perhaps it should only be a lyrical scene, because part II is roughly similar to Alcina).

You may think enough with this puppy eyed worshipfest of her looks, tell us about the singing, but what someone who hasn’t seen her live may need to know is that her body is integral to her singing. Since I’m still in the realm of web art, her stage persona reminds me of this classic gif:

  • it moves graciously (she never stops), it’s happy and zany and nobody can quite say what it is (it’s supposed to be a unicorn llama (of course) but to me it looks like the most cheerful progeny of a dinosaur and a giraffe). Also, it’s green.

This recital is the perfect example of what I was saying earlier about how European opera singers do it vs the American ones. Does Petibon have a good tecknique? Yes, she does, but we learn that within the space of the first few songs, after which she – nonverbally – said now that we’ve established that, let’s have some fun.

She also has a sizeable voice for her gossamer floated notes2 to project all the way to the back without ever dissipating en route, even when she sings piano (usually). This ability to float is my favourite technical trick of hers, also because it fits her onstage persona so well. When you see her so delicate and pink you do expect her to sing like that. But of course she doesn’t just do the angelic thing – if it is indeed angelic. I would say she’s far too sophisticated for that. It’s medieval lore rather (mists and distant battles) than Disney in spirit.

buddy looks suspiciously like my old boss…

Not that her persona cannot incorporate Disney 😀 and how! – irreverent Disney. We were treated to a complete scene of Snow White choking on the apple and then making out with her Prince garden gnome. For Busy Line she unwrapped a (very long) phone cord/washing line and proceeded to hang some clothes on it and had the audience help hold it.

I think what holds everything together is her palpable sense of line. It’s the fine art kind – if you’ve ever spent some time drawing you’ll immediately feel it. Some singers sing like instrumentalists and some singers paint with words. She draws with sound3, sometimes she even sculpts the music, with sharp curves and contrasts of weight and tint. It’s more 3D/physical than usual from a singer. Yet it’s almost always very soft and light, like an ink drawing or a cottonwool sculpture – at least in this programme. There were certain chord progressions and moods (the Iberian medieval and the kitsch parody) that reoccurred through the night, so one can imagine they are things she feels close to, at least at the moment.

She encored with a song (I didn’t know and she’s soft spoken) from the perspective of someone getting their life energy from a tree. I thought to myself how else could you finish whilst wearing a green corset? Then she thanked us for being alive with her tonight which promptly made me cry, though I’m not sure quite why other than it just fit the whole evening so well.

Points to Susan Manoff (piano) for being the buffer to that unique persona, she really held her own both musically (softness and contrast and general liveliness) and in personality (the sensible one).

Go see her/them, the world will appear a better place afterwards.


  1.  Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Sure on this Shining Night Op. 13 No. 3 | Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Greensleeves | Nicolas Bacri (b.1961) “Melodías de la melancolía Op. 119b” A la mar | Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) “7 canciones populares españolas” El paño moruno | Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) Canción del grumete | Fernando J Obradors (1897-1945) “El vito” Chiquitita la novia | Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) Nesta Rua | Frank Bridge (1879-1941)  Winter Pastoral H168 | Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) “Banalités” Sanglots | Henri Collet (1885-1951)  Seguidilla Op. 75 No. 2 | Murray Semos/Frank Stanton Busy Line | Francisco Paulo Mignone (1897-1986) Dona Janaina Interval Henri Collet “Los Amantes de Galicia” Camiña don Sancho | Enrique Granados (1867-1916) “12 Tonadillas en un estilo antiguo” El mirar de la maja | Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) “Poema en forma de canciones Op. 19” Cantares | Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000) La rosa y el sauce |  Agustín Lara (1897-1970)  Granada | Frank Churchill (1901-1942) Someday my prince will come (arr. Didier Lockwood) | Francis Poulenc Novelette sur un thème de Manuel de Falla | Norbert Glanzberg (1910-2001) Padam Padam (arr. Dimitri Naïditch) 
  2. Is this a French thing? Piau does her version of it as well. It’s gorgeous. 
  3. I think she has a fine art background? Maybe that’s where this comes from. 

Sondra Radvanovsky recital or the triple queen of diminuendo takes London by giggle (Cadogan Hall, 16 March 2017)

It’s hard to believe this was Radvanovsky’s debut as recitalist in London, but I think there are two types of American singers: some who become household names there but rarely visit these shores/Europe and some who seem comfortable on both sides (those are the ones with Mozart/Strauss/Baroque in their rep and Radvanovsky seems to miss this).

Sondra Radvanovsky soprano
Anthony Manoli piano

VivaldiSposa son disprezzata from BajazetBelliniPer pietà, bell’idol mio; La Ricordanza; Ma rendi pur contento – she actually quizzed us about which one of his own arias Bellini ripped off in La Ricordanza 😉 do you know?StraussAllerseelen; Befreit; Morgen!; Heimliche Aufforderung

I don’t even know how well the event was advertised because I only learned about it via the Barbican newsletter last week, right around the time one of my shifts was moved from Thursday to Sunday. A time comes in an opera lover’s life when one doesn’t go to a show just because they worship a performer. Sometimes one goes because someone considered an important contemporary voice should be experienced live.

I’ve not been a fan and this performance did not make me one. But there’s no denying Radvanovsky’s qualities, regardless of what one wants in a performer. For fans though, this must’ve been one of those nights memory would return to often.

To begin with, she appeared very excited to be here. Enthusiasm always helps. Then there was the curiosity of American singers. There is something specific about their modus operandi, different from how the Europeans do it. The Europeans would mostly just toss together a bunch of songs/arias that show off their qualities, mix in their personal pizzaz – which quite often means throwing caution to the wind – and call it a day.

The Americans curate their shows – carefully. Everything has an explaination and is in place with the specific intent of winning the audience over. Hell, she even plugged her upcoming Met Norma! – though considering her encores, Casta diva was conspicuously absent. I can’t say it bothered me (it’s her space to entertain, and she was entertaining1) but this is not something I’ve ever heard from European singers. We also learned she will be debuting Andrea Chenier in Barcelona, so the places between songs functioned like chirpy tweeter moments.

This chattiness is another American thing. When speaking and walking about she constantly reminded me of Joyce DiDonato. I don’t know if they are friends, but I could easily imagine them have long convos over coffee (“… that time in Prague when-“, “Oh, but let me tell you what happened in Madrid! It was the weirdest thing!” etc.).

It is one of those weird things. Radvanovsky is one of those singers who is built, looks and sounds like a tragedian when singing but speaks like a soubrette (in content as well). After the dark or very covered sound (it’s one of her peculiarities so she probably doesn’t do it on purpose) during the songs/arias she just chimes in with a giggle.

When presenting the Vivaldi aria she made a face best represented by this ascii art:

¯_(ツ)_/¯

(she said: I just like it! which could be a candid moment of pure music joy or hey Baroque fans, don’t judge! – because the way she and Manoli attacked it was with a Liszt-type feel; possibly both – but it was not the gesture of a tragedian). Again, I didn’t mind it, but it was quite different than most of my previous recital experiences.

As I mentioned in the title, diminuendo – the woman knows how to tackle this (as well as crescendo, but one could argue that’s easier). Her technique seemed simply fabulous to me. From that angle this was a performance to take voice students to: watch and learn, this is the kind of solidity you need to aim for and you’re going to have a long and fruitful career. Her control of dynamics and projection was wonderful through the night and her flights to the top of her voice illuminating (metaphorically and literally). The voice has a very alluring opacity at the bottom – let’s say indigo, like her second dress of the night – and an interesting rock solid brightness without ping at the top but the middle (I’d guess right around the area where mezzos tend to have the passaggio) was occasionally marred by cloud.

On the other hand, I can’t tell you that I connected much on an emotional level, this side of the Barber set and Vissi d’arte. It might be due to a difference in personality or just that I constantly sensed her position herself for best technical results rather than letting go enough for my liking. Even when she let rip (often, especially after the interval) – something the size of her voice easily allows for – it seemed strangely contained.

The audience responded very warmly to her coaxing, though, even when I thought she was going a bit far with the please like me attitude. American singers are not shy about their ambitions. But, come on, you’re Radvanovsky, not a beginner, of course people will like you if you drop by. Now, like she said she would like to, she could start with some Strauss – perhaps Ariadne? – and call again.

INTERVAL

LisztS’il est un charmant gazon; Enfant, si j‘étais roi; Oh! Quand je dorsBarberHermit Songs – At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; St Ita’s Vision; The Crucifixion; The Monk and His Cat; The Desire for HermitageGiordanoLa mamma morta from Andrea Chénier

The surprise of the night was the Barber set. I felt it was the best suited to her voice, like she had reached her true home – and made me love it in the process.

Seeing as Barber wrote it for Leontyne Price (check them both out here), she talked a bit about fangirling Price. Apparently she decided to pursue an opera career after listening to Price sing Verdi. I can’t blame her, I think Price does the phattest maledizione there is (but the whole thing is worth it):

Yes. That last note was held exactly as long as it should’ve been. Even if it’s an old recording, you can tell how well her voice holds against the orchestra.

So whilst Radvanovky isn’t the second coming of Price, she does inhabit a similar vocal space.

ENCORE:

Song to the Moon Rusalka
I could’ve danced all night My Fair Lady – and she could’ve!
Io son l’umile ancella… Adriana Lecouvreur
Vissi d’arte Tosca

4 encores after all that – Americans and their work ethic 😉 There’s never enough Adriana Lecouvreur in the recitals I attend, so I was right happy, but to be fair Vissi d’arte turned out to be surprisingly moving2. Perhaps because it was the last piece she dropped a bit of that control – and it was a good thing. What we learned tonight? Going out of your comfort zone can be surprisingly rewarding.


  1. I’d just finished a set of night shifts the morning before the performance and was afraid I’d doze off but I was far from it. Good job, SR! 
  2. Nice combo, two arias about living for art – prefaced by her comment that the world right now needs more music and less… all that stupid crap (she didn’t put it like that). 

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.

The night Karina Gauvin sang just for me (Wigmore Hall, 28 January 2017)

Kidding 😉 but she looked so often in my direction I could’ve been fooled. I rather enjoyed the thought – who wouldn’t want Tornami a vagheggiar directed at them?!

Have you ever noticed how cheerful these Baroque-leaning singers are? Gauvin came out with the “crew” and sat down quietly for most of the first half. Well, aside from the times when she was singing, when the wink was on almost from the getgo.

All Handel programme

Karina Gauvin soprano

Le Concert de la Loge, director: Julien Chauvin violin

Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV17
Overture
Da tempeste il legno infranto
Suite in F major ‘Water Music’ HWV348 (excerpts)
Rodelinda HWV19
Ombre, piante, urne funeste
Organ Concerto in B flat major Op. 4 No. 2 HWV290 (excerpts) something heavy on dueting oboes ❤ lots of fun, Mr and Ms Oboe and team
Solomon HWV67
Will the sun forget to streak
Lotario HWV26
Scherza in mar la navicella

The melisma fest that is Da tempeste is an excellent intro by my standards (more is more where coloratura is concerned) but although it fits Gauvin’s strongest bit of the range very well, I noticed some nerves and a bit of caution with volume (I actually though her voice was tiny but eventually she filled in). Also, whilst I’m noting the minuses, her voice is rather cloudy at the bottom end and support fails her on occasion. There’s also that bit about diction, what diction? However, her playful stage presence and the way she handles her strengths make for a very entertaining evening in her company. There are certain (not very high) notes at the top that are simply gorgeous and full.

I didn’t know Scherza in mar la navicella but it was the right choice to end the first half. By the end Gauvin was positively beaming with joy that I couldn’t supress a chuckle. The first time of the night where I made sure to lead the applause.

Never heard Le Concert de la Loge before (well, they just got together in 2015) but they was tight! Very nice job working together, though on occasion the string section had to catch up with Gauvin.

Interval

Alcina HWV34
Tornami a vagegghiar <- as misspelled by Wiggy 😉
Ah, mio cor, schernito sei
Suite in G major ‘Water Music’ HWV350 (excerpts) (not sure about the order of these bits as I wasn’t quite paying attention when the announcer said there had been some changes in the order and placement of the instrumentals (them instrumental bits!))
Concerto Grosso in G major
Rinaldo HWV7
Ah, crudel!
Furie terribili

Encore:
Mio caro bene Rodelinda
Lascia ch’io pianga Giulio Cesare

I hereby nominate this second half start of a recital as the best ever! You might remember I wrote a post in praise of Gauvin’s Tornami a while ago and last night I had the chance to hear it live 😀 This take was somewhat faster and less lyrical – a good tempo as far as I’m concerned.

As already shown in ‘navicella, Gauvin has a strong flirty side to her personality and rocked this favourite of mine (and of many) to levels where I wasn’t so unhappy when it ended as my pulse was racing. I wouldn’t mind keeling over to something like Tornami but not just yet 😉 give me another 2-3 decades and we’ll talk. It was my pleasure to lead the applause – I have now worked it out just when it’s ok to start clapping as soon as an aced aria ends (the cheerful ones, not the dirges where it’s respectful to give a few moments before the surge).

But that wasn’t all! The oboes, especially lead oboe, were fantastic (through the night) in this. I lucked out by sitting on the side of the winds1 so I heard the details even better than usual. The duet voice-oboe was buttah, playful, really on the beat, lovely communication, directly at fault for my palpitations. And what a sweet tone for those true cult oboes! Just superbe.

I can’t end before mentioning the smooth cellist with the funky crushed velvet trousers, slender hands and sexy dark curls (and Baroque bow). Ahem. You can see why I was hyperventilating between Gauvin’s kittenish charm, Mr Oboe and her. I’m sort of glad I couldn’t upgrade even closer to the stage. I was there for the music! (I swear).

Ah, mio cor was intense enough but I’ve already established that I think Gauvin is at her best when things are more lighthearted or downright foaming at the mouth. That would be Furie terribili! which she once again rocked. That’s another fine piece of Handel-writing. Some people would complain that he writes within a very cliched frame but, come on, how spot on is that fuming piece? You get the gist of it even if your Italian is 0. I saw a bit of that overly dramatic (to self parody heights) Vitellia of a couple of years ago in this. She turned around in her electric blue dress and pointed at the crowd. We were all shaking in our boots 😉 or giggling. Speaking of the dress, nice choice of colour for her and also shoulders. And that just fucked hairstyle suits her.

When she returned for the encores she jauntily said she wouldn’t want to leave us on quite that note (people laughed and I shouted that note was very fine, thank you very much. You shouted?! you might ask, but yes, the atmosphere was the relaxed one Baroque singers usually exude and that loosens yours truly’s tongue to alarming levels). We got the soft and playful (there are soft moments in Rodelinda?! Who knew!) and Lascio, which isn’t a favourite but I already got a good chunk of those and she did it lovely.

All in all, an excellent evening in all kinds of ways. I almost went backstage to tell Gauvin and the cellist that I was accepting marriage proposals 😉


  1. shoutout to Baroque Bird who hooked me up with a ticket at the right edge of row W from where I shot up to row I (right aisle) when the lights dimmed 😀 Edge of the row tickets are obviously the way to go when you want the option of upgrading. I thought about upgrading to centre aisle but the best thing about aisle edge seats is direct line of view (no heads! The singer can look into your eyes 😉 ). 

Reality and fiction or Written on Skin (ROH, 23 January 2017)

(photo from theupcoming.co.uk)

Written on Skin had its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 and ran at ROH in 2013 under the baton of the composer (so we can settle what the composer really wanted in this case). This month it had its first ROH revival, also conducted by Benjamin.

Though I’m not a contemporary opera afficionado I do enjoy keeping abreast at least partially with what’s being written these days. When I first heard it I didn’t like it; not because I found it unlistenable (it’s not); I just didn’t like the vibe. The lack of visuals didn’t help. I wasn’t going to see it this time around either although I really wanted to see Barbara Hannigan live in anything modern and when her date at Wiggy went MIA last Autumn I was at a loss. John suggested this was a good opportunity for just that so I booked a ticket. At £19 what’s one got to lose?

The Protector: Christopher Purves
Agnès: Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1 / The Boy: Iestyn Davies
Angel 2 / Marie: Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3 / John: Mark Padmore
Conductor: George Benjamin | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
A co-commission and co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Netherlands Opera Amsterdam and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse

I know by now that there are operas you like just by listening to the music, others where you need visuals to spur you on and some yet that you might only appreciate if you get your arse into the designated space for this type of entertainment. This is one of them (for me). I liked the performance/production a lot; I was not bored for a moment but I don’t know that I’d rush to just listen to it again. I would go see it again but not tomorrow.

However I can see why some have really got into it – it’s got a lot going for it – especially the libretto, with its very compact/concise style, which somehow mixes a lot of poetry in and because of this interesting combo it’s actually rather difficult to discuss. Characters speak as themselves as well as the narrator, modernity and old skool attitudes alternate when you least expect it, as if past and present are running at the same time whilst people live and watch themselves do the act of living.

It is good to see women taking control of their lives in opera, even when the only control they can have is over their own death. Or maybe I’m a miser here, Agnes did have her fun before that. I also liked that she didn’t want to live a lie.

The production, with its interesting mix of modern and ancient, which in this case is as according to the libretto, fits the mood of the work perfectly. (When I was at uni I used to work in the library, where I got to see how books are mended/made. As a result I developed a slight fascination with the process so I was very pleased to see it play an important role in this production.)

I like stage designs that compartimentalise the space because those compartments speak for themselves. Here we had the house where the couple lives (ancient) and the space where the book about them is being written (modern), plus “the woods”, which in some ways is the space where wild things brew.

This is an opera that heavily relies on acting – voice (in many ways it’s an ode to the written/spoken word) and movement alike. The high quality of the production relied on the choice of performers, some of whom have created the roles1. Right off the bat Benjamin’s writing for the voice reminded me of lieder. I bet you this cast is worth hearing in recital as well. It was gripping word drama. Hannigan had the most intense role – a woman awakening to herself – and her highly charismatic stage presence was captivating even in this half-ethereal role but the men + Simmonds (reprising her 2013 ROH role) were all in high form as well.

With a libretto so strongly focused on words, you notice things like diction and pitch and Hannigan’s were both impressive. Agnes, who is quiet and meek (and illiterate) to begin with but very soon blossoms, emboldened by desire – desire to know the world both physically and intellectually – is a refreshing female role.

Davies as The Boy was in very fine voice and he had no problems making himself heard in the amphitheatre over the slender accompaniment, which makes me think ROH can accomodate Baroque/voice all right. The Boy is another interesting role, as he entirely supportive of Agnes on her journey to personhood, as opposed to The Protector (the husband), who’s basically a backwoods bigot, the type who wants his woman barefoot in the kitchen.

He does commission the book The Boy writes/draws about their righteous life (bigots are usually righteous), which I guess means he’s interested in leaving a very good (albeit hypocritical) impression about himself to the rest of the world. So The Boy is somewhere between personal PR and investigative journalist, as he ends up digging the truth about the so-called righteous couple as is promptly assassinated. Purves as the villainous husband had just the right edge and the appealing lied-narration style fit his voice as well as his temper real well.

The performance ran for ~135min without an interval, save for a couple of breaks for scenery change, which the audience used to expel all the pentup coughing (an impressive amount, considering there were no extraneous noises during the performance; in fact the domino effect of dumping air via the mouth likely caused hilarity among the public). I often praise other houses for their atmosphere, but these breaks gave me the opportunity to remember just how enjoyable the ROH auditorium is as well. I do take it for granted and with good reason: it felt like an extension of my personal space.


  1. Purves and Hannigan. 

Der Rosenkavalier at its most lyrical and tame (ROH, 11 January 2017)

Die Marschallin’s boudoir (click for more ROH ‘kavalier images)

I’m often not on board with critics but this time I found myself ditto-ing the entire Clements review for the Guardian back in December (which I read today, so as not to influence my opinion). If you haven’t done so, you can read it here as I’m not going to go over all that since I agree. I’m not sure I have seen a Carsen production live before but this re-tweaked Salzburg one certainly hasn’t made me a fan.

There isn’t – at least in this ROH incarnation – anything wrong with it; it rather reminds me of the current ROH Traviata (also associated with Fleming): goodlooking, lavish and little else. Also as here Act III happens in a brothel, the insistent hammering of “young love is so cute” in the coda (Sophie and Octavian’s duettino is reprised for our pleasure… and because they’re cute, innit) falls flat to me. Then again, maybe I’m a prude and brothels are really romantic. Maybe I just don’t get the deeper meaning but the way the production unfolded I didn’t feel intellectually stimulated to look for one.

On the very bright side I came away with a heightened appreciation for Andris Nelsons. His handling of the ROH forces – with special attention to details (the sprightly, buoyant brass in the overture, ideally evocative of the unencumbered cheerfulness of youth, the excellent interventions of the winds throughout) – and a much welcome Mozart filter through which he saw this Strauss score was close to a revelation for me. Light footed but with energy and body – I really liked hearing it this way! The ROH Orchestra felt fresher than ever. There were some moments, though, when I questioned the slowness/languidity of the tempi. But I was in a funny mood.

Die Marschallin: Renée Fleming
Octavian: Alice Coote
Sophie von Faninal: Sophie Bevan
Baron Ochs: Matthew Rose
Faninal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Valzacchi: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina: Angela Simkin
Italian Singer: David Junghoon Kim
Marschallin’s Major Domo: Samuel Sakker
Faninal’s Major Domo: Thomas Atkins
Marianne/Noble Widow: Miranda Keys
everyone else1
Conductor: Andris Nelsons | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: Robert Carsen

As ‘Rosenkavalier keen followers might remember, two years ago Coote spoke out for Tara Erraught when the Octavian media debacle happened around the Glyndebourne production. One thing is for sure: the costume department has learned the lesson taught by Glyndebourne. All Coote’s costumes, though not lavish, were studiously fitting. Good job ROH costume department! Keep up the excellent trouser role work!

That being established, through the evening I kept thinking about the 2014 Glyndebourne ‘Rosenkavalier production. For all its faults, that one had fizz and I feel it truly understood the spirit of farce so evident in the libretto. This one was overly lyrical and the comedy strangely demure. I wish we had that production with this conducting/orchestra work.

Though I like Strauss, the opera and Coote, the biggest attraction this time was Fleming in a Strauss role in which she has been very successful. I also considered that she isn’t so young anymore and we might not catch many chances to see her in full productions in the future.

My conclusion was manifold. As you know big diva sopranos aren’t my number one pull towards opera, thus I approached Fleming as someone rather exotic. There is indeed a diva air about her – the fur, the silk and, of course, she was bedazzling in jewellery for the grand finale (I genuinely can’t remember a time when I saw someone sparklier on a stage) – but it didn’t eclipse all around her.

The voice is quite obviously in decline – and frankly I don’t know if it’s a voice I would’ve liked at the best of times – with quite acidic edges at the top. Most would agree she has never been a natural on stage, though she certainly has learned to walk across it without fear and with enough classic elegance as to hold an audience’s attention – at least in a role like this. It seemed to me like a woman who has quantified her strengths very realistically and built a career on this realistic assessment.

She also proved her undeniable Strauss qualities to me. Where it counts – in Marschallin’s long Act I monologue – her musicality and vocal control (the famous Fleming portamento, various dynamics) was truly top notch and fleshed out the beautiful voice-orchestra (oboe, flute etc.) dialogue Strauss has written. I thought to myself I can see/hear why she has excelled in Strauss, the voice and her musical temper is made for it. If there is one thing I’m taking with me from having heard Fleming live is this.

The monologue, though, infused the mood of the night to such a degree – and I’m not entirely sure how much of this is it being a vehicle for Fleming, or just the production in itself, or Nelsons’ fault of judgment, or my mood because I’m closing in on a certain age these days and might subcosciously want to stop the clocks too – that it really put a damper of the comedy. Without the score being conducted in a too Wagnerian manner – far from it – maybe perhaps due to an occasionally overly lingering languidity I actually dozed off at the end of Act II and almost fell face first into the bald spot of the chap in the row below.

Faninal's drawing room

Faninal’s drawing room

Sacrilege! Act II is both sweet and funny and Rose as Ochs was very interesting of voice and campy-buffoon rather than uncooth. But one expects Ochs to be boorish rather than just ridiculous. I couldn’t see the country cousin in Rose, as much as I enjoy(ed) his gorgeous bass tone. I’m trying not to be closed minded and as such I’m not saying this winky-campy take was wrong per se. In a sense, with the Marschallin lacking any hint of desperation (she’s just lyrically musing about the passage of time with Octavian as a cute accessory) and Octavian coming off as a completely benign young man, this polished Ochs made sense. The production, too, is clean enough to accomodate a good chap (albeit lecherous) type of cousin.

I still dozed off.

Coote, as a perfectly tame boytoy, drew the few laughs of the night – as she should’ve. I don’t think it was her fault as much as the general mood I mentioned above and what the production gave her to work with. Any Octavian to Fleming’s Marschallin is going to be less of the zany, fart joke type. You’re actually a bit surprised he would consider cross dressing – and in this case that – the fact he genuinely enjoys pulling this erotically charged prank, whilst his ex-lover is dining with the ancient uncle Greifenklau – springs out more than ever and makes you think he is right to move on. I thought Fleming and Coote’s chemistry was good enough, but it felt like Octavian came to life less in her company than when he was caught up in his schemes of deceiving Ochs. Now this might be just it but usually my focus is on wishing for him to return to Die Marschallin in a fictitious Act IV. Though I don’t buy the brothel-located young love, this time I was convinced that Octavian and Sophie had a future together.

Vocally I was surprised how well Coote projected. Her voice has always had good heft but I have only heard her in much lighter fare so far. Her top notes are solid and not bad at all. So though I think I may like a brighter tone (or possibly more colourful, but I always like extra colours) for Octavian I had no problems. Now we shall see how Vitellia comes off later this year.

Bevan was Sophie. She’s making quite a career here in London and I myself have seen her in a number of roles but, sort of like with Lucy Crowe, I don’t feel her very much, without being dead set against her. I normally enjoy a more “bell-like” tone in this role, with some semblance of innocence. Lacking that, she pulled off very well the bits where Sophie tells Octavian how she would stand her ground and bitchslap anybody who “dissed” her and also in Act III where she tells Ochs to stuff his marriage certificate where the sun don’t shine.

Act III's brothel d'amour

Act III’s brothel d’amour

Supporting this production’s bent for elegance, the Italian Singer was (way) less awful than usual. David Junghoon Kim did a very smooth job in fact, possibly because he had the chance to step in for an indisposed Giorgio Berrugi. Well, good job, mister, in that case we can allow you to wow us with your chops for sacharine Italian tunes. He also lucked out when the Italian Singer was allowed to reprise his aria as a move on the director’s part – I imagine – to add even more pizazz to Marschallin’s morning audience, when the Italian Singer sees the Milliner’s beautiful models parading in front of Die Marschallin (really pretty dresses – the costume department did an ace job all around).

Much like Domingo, Fleming still pulls and this being a firm canon opera the hall was packed to the gills even this far into the run. The atmosphere was rather congenial, though in our tight quarters (aka, Upper Amphi) a fight almost broke out between over ’50s regarding knees touching shoulders once too often. I also had a revelation about the rather special self definition of class in this country whilst rushing (as ever) for my seat. What better opera to hammer home class distinctions?


  1. Innkeeper: Alasdair Elliott
    Police Inspector: Scott Conner
    Notary: Jeremy White
    Milliner: Kiera Lyness
    Animal Seller: Luke Price
    Doctor: Andrew H. Sinclair
    Boots: Jonathan Fisher
    Noble Orphans: Katy Batho / Deborah Peake-Jones / Andrea Hazell
    Lackey/Waiters: Andrew H. Sinclair / Lee Hickenbottom / Dominic Barrand / Bryan Secombe
    Mohammed: James Wintergrove
    Leopold: Atli Gunnarsson 

Good times at the opera in 2016

Cotroversial in everyday life and politics, 2016 was a good opera year for yours truly. I went to Vienna again and returned to Paris after two decades, lots of fun! London wasn’t too shabby either, with its mezzo/contralto traffic jams and my love affair with Wigmore Hall only intensified this year ❤ Last but not least, looking over the many shows that sign posted this year I had another opportunity to think about the fine people I shared some of these good times with. Thank you all and a much happier 2017!

January

11 Benjamin Appl | Wigmore Hall: a Schubert start to the year

February

20 L’Etoile | ROH: a bit of a weird romp, but a romp nonetheless (le romp francais). I hope whoever succeeds Holten at ROH sprinkles the seasons with wackiness of this sort.

March

4, 8 Akhnaten | ENO: X-Files meets Aida = most spectacular show of the year! Let’s keep ENO in business for more of the same.

12, 14 Ariodante | RCM Britten Hall: students go hardcore Highlands

14 Maria Ostroukhova | St George’s Hanover Sq: Cecca notte!

16 Ekaterina Siurina/Luis Gomes | Wigmore Hall: there is still Belcanto, lest we forgot about it

17 Berenice | St George’s Hanover Sq: hit and miss Handel

21 Boris Godunov | ROH: Terfel, the Welsh Boris(h)

23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: Il pianto di Maria

31 Elpidia | St George’s Hanover Sq: very good singing, so-so pasticcio

April

14 Lucia di Lammermoor | ROH: Damrau is no damsel in distress

27 Lucio Silla | Theater an der Wien: the Arnold Schoenberg Choir! with not that much to sing 😉

28 Il Vologeso | Cadogan Hall: proof that Jommelli rocks

30 Sandrine Piau | Wigmore Hall: super stylish Boroque with La Piau

May

08 Tannhauser | ROH: an opportunity to see Christian Gerhaher sing Wagner lyrically.

23 Ann Hallenberg | Wigmore Hall: 😀

26 Oedipe | ROH: almost as spectacular as Akhnaten

June

24 Werther | ROH: Pappano gets it

29 Sonia Prina | Wigmore Hall: the first of two shows this year; this is the feisty one.

July

02 Nathalie Stutzmann | Wigmore Hall: the smoothest contralto takes on Vivaldi

07 Il trovatore | ROH: Bosch brings his caravan to Verdi

17 JPYA | ROH: ROH students return

August

03 Bluebeard’s Castle | Proms/Royal Albert Hall: there are a few things I will always attend and this is one of them.

September

21 Demetrio (Hasse) | Cadogan Hall: musically not the most exciting

22 Cosi fan tutte | ROH: this one was a bit of a miss…

October

02 Nathalie Stutzmann/Orfeo 55 | Wigmore Hall: oh yea!

05 Anna Bonitatibus | Wigmore Hall: …and yea to Semiramide, too.

21 The Nose | ROH: between this and L’Etoile we covered Eastern and Western wackiness.

November

02 Juditha triumphans | Barbican: the mezzo/contralto fest of the year

05 Dorothea Roschmann | Wigmore Hall: dramatic Roschmann is here

07 Les contes d’Hoffmann | ROH: traditional tales of sexism (with mezzos)

13 Oreste (Handel) | Wilton’s Music Hall: the Atrides in Jack the Ripper’s neighbourhood

20 Luca Pisaroni | Wigmore Hall: Luca sings the Schubert

24 Stuart Jackson/Marcus Farnsworth | Wigmore Hall: more Schubert!

28 La Calisto | Wigmore Hall: Wigmore Hall goes kookoo-funny

30 La finta giardiniera | RCM Britten Hall: students being successfully silly

December

05 Don Giovanni | Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Don Leporello muses in the beautiful surroundings of TCE.

06 Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana | Opera Bastille: Sancta Susanna = the runner up in the badass production contest of the year

29 Sonia Prina/Roberta Invernizzi | Wigmore Hall: oh so quiet and gentle

Intensely intimate Prina and Invernizzi (Wigmore Hall, 29 December 2016)

This recital has a bit of back story. The dynamic duo was booked for 3 January 2015 in support of their Amore e morte dell’amore CD but apparently the both of them succumbed to the English weather. Its next proposed incarnation was to take place on 28 June 2016, as a threeway recital with Karina Gauvin. That didn’t quite work out either, though you could hardly say Prina’s Gluck programme was a letdown. Finally, here we are, in spite of very low (for London) temperatures due to freezing fog (mesmerisingly sparkly under streetlights).

Sonia Prina contralto
Roberta Invernizzi soprano
Luca Pianca director, lute
Vittorio Ghielmi viola da gamba
Margret Köll harp

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
Vorrei baciarti
Ohimè, dov’è il mio ben, dov’è il mio core?

Giovanni Kapsberger (c.1580-1651)
Toccata seconda arpeggiata

Claudio Monteverdi
Interrotte speranze

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Aria detta la Frescobalda

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Sono liete, fortunate HWV194

Interval

Antonio Lotti (1666-1740)
Poss’io morir Op. 1 No. 7

Francesco Durante (1684-1755)
Son io, barbara donna

Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745)
La Girouette
Le Carillon de Passy
La Leclair

George Frideric Handel
Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi HWV197

Encore:

Wigmore Hall is still in Christmas garb, its foyer sporting a beautiful tree decorated in red and green and floral arrangements with red baubles and red pine cones and bows in the hall. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful.

Prina and Invernizzi were first joined on stage by Pianca on lute and Köll on harp and between them did a very lively rendition of Vorrei baciarti. The slender accompaniment was beneficial in that I focused almost completely on the ideal mix of voices which had me basking in the simple joy of sound.

Interestingly, I overheard someone comment at the intermission that she enjoyed the music a lot but was a bit unsure about the singing. I for one can tell you even less than usual about the orchestral side, which mostly kept to a supporting role. I do remember once thinking (during Sono liete, fortunate?) the viola da gamba had a nice organ feel to it. The orchestral pieces didn’t make much of an impression on me, in fact La Leclair had me on the verge of dozing off. But that might just be me, what with the lack of woodwinds.

Sono liete, fortunate was a tour de force, when I marvelled at “the noise” two singers could make, what with both of them constantly switching between singing harmony and melody. We’re talking about two very energetic singers, though they toned down their more flamboyant tendencies and focused on supporting each other towards a robust merged sound. It wasn’t just their tones matching, their exchanges were always spot on. Instead of her often belligerent top, Invernizzi made more use of her middle which is warm and pleasant, though not as memorable as Prina’s tone. The softer pieces saw some of those disarming slides to piano Prina uses when you least expect. I remember thinking about one such soft exchange that it felt like squirrel hair watercolour brushes against the skin. Tanti strali saw them once again weave sparkling lines of elaborate coloratura around each other.

The encore made for a natural ending to a show that mixed liveliness with breathless seduction. Now I really want to hear Prina as Nerone. On the other hand, we’re only a few months away from the Barbican Ariodante.

Things have a tendency of reoccurring – 30 December 2013 was the date I first visited Wigmore Hall for a Prina recital I booked at the last minute to wrap up a good opera year in style. This time it was quieter and smaller scale than usual even at Wigmore Hall; it infused me with contentment, which is quite unusual to find outside oneself these days.

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 😉 ).

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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.

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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.

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