Category Archives: operatic damsels in distress

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.


Bad night for Roschmann?

(it’s one of those old news chez dehggi moments)

From Serenade‘s account of a 2017 performance of Le Nozze at Wiener Staatsoper (the other opera house in Vienna 😉 ):

The Countess was played by Dorothea Roschmann herself an erstwhile Susanna. In my opinion she has not quite graduated yet to the bigger role and she would do well to limit her appearances as the Countess. Her Porgi amor at the beginning of Act Two was sung with beauty of tone and a quick vibrato. But her Act Three Aria Dove sono was disappointing as it lacked breath control and a sense of line. She was unable to take any of the long phrases in a single breath and there were times when the voice just did not carry forward.

She has not quite graduated?! Ehehehe. I think I’d still like to see her as the Countess even on a so-so day. Then again, I’d rather see my fave singers on their good days.

Your execution is my retribution or Rodelinda, queen of hilarious choreography (ENO, 9 November 2017)

The challenge for ENO was not only in rendering a Handel libretto palatable to 21st century audiences but in making an obscure 7th century AD political situation entertaining when you understand every word of it. Enter Richard Jones and team, officially my favourite Baroque opera director/team. If you liked his Aix Ariodante you will like (potentially love) this. Check out what he has to say about it:

For whatever reason the pertinent commentary from Jones has no visuals from Rodelinda, so here’s the trailer, but ignore the comments, which are heartfelt but tell you nothing:

Rodelinda: Rebecca Evans
Bertarido: Tim Mead (with a cold)
Grimoaldo: Juan Sancho
Eduige: Susan Bickley
Garibaldo: Neal Davies
Unulfo: Christopher Lowrey
Flavio: Matt Casey
Conductor: Christian Curnyn | Choir and Orchestra of the ENO
Director: Richard Jones/Donna Stirrup (revival director)
Choreographer: Sarah Fahie

The Longobards/Lombards, right? There are few foggier historical periods than those significantly lumped under the term The Dark Ages (of Europe). The constant waves of migrations criss-crossing Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire never quite got big in popular culture. One can rightly assume this period was the theatre of political musical chairs, with tribal hopefuls stealing thrones from each other only to be swallowed by the black hole of historical oblivion. Jones sort of updates this to fascist Italy, says the Guardian, but to me it looked like the mob in the ’20s. Strangely, though, for all the update it still feels like way back when. In a good way.

Purely on a “let’s not do another story from the Big Book of Greek Myths” basis I welcome the librettist’s decision. I also welcome the presence of leading damsels who stand up to their oppressors. I mentioned before that a Baroque opera named after a woman means said woman is no shrinking violet. Rodelinda is possibly the most kick ass Baroque heroine (the line quoted in this post’s title is hers).

The Guardian review mentions “a dark vision of Handel” but I think it’s rather a dark subject matter, treated in an unexpectedly funny manner. I don’t know if my sense of humour is particularly bleak, but, omg, I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard during a Baroque opera production before, even during comedies. Surprise was a major factor. I attended this performance because I recently fell in love with the music but I found out there were so many hilarious moments and they were so cleverly placed as the night progressed, it was hard to keep track and generally not to snort.

As I was saying, I’ve only discovered this musically wonderful opera this year, with the livestreamed Madrid performance, featuring Crowe, Mehta, Zazzo and Prina, in Guth’s thougthful and sensitive production. Let me tell you, Jones’ 2014 production is not thoughtless by any means, but sensitive it is not. I liked Guth’s as well, but I would say this is more in keeping with the ethos of the Dark Ages.

As someone whose first language isn’t an operatic one and who has been introduced to the art form via operas in their supposed languages, it is always striking to hear an opera in a language that you instantly understand 100%. There is also the issue of translation. When you have a couple of lines that get repeated over 5min you/I really want a poetic translation. I quite struggled during Partenope on that account. Here the translation was also mostly to the point (except for a couple of arias) but the choreography was so clever it turned something potentially bland into the height of hilarity.

My favourite moment was Rodelinda’s aria where she tells Garibaldo just what she’s going to do to him after she is forced (by him) to marry her reprehensible stalker Grimoaldo. Whilst she’s singing, she and son Flavio are mimic-ing just what she has in mind and let me tell you, that was some imaginative(ly amusing) choreography to fill 3 to 5min.

Then we have metrosexual double agent Unulfo coming up with a plan to free Bertarido, in which he selects a gigantic meat cleaver from Garibaldo’s serial killer shed, whilst Eduige is busy unscrewing a window frame for easy transfer. Said meat cleaver returns to “haunt” Unulfo later, when Bertarido accidentally stabs him (repeatedly) with it, only to apologise profusely.

Unulfo (caughing blood): my lord, is that you? How handy with a sword you have become!
Bertarido (aghast): omg, I’m so sorry, Unulfo! How could I do this to you?! Let me press my jacket to your fatal wounds.
Unulfo (leaking entrails all over the floor): there is no time, my lord! You must save yourself and your loved ones!
Bertarido: but me must get you to the A and E!
Unulfo (crawling heroically, hands him the fatal meat cleaver): I’ll… be… fine!… Save… yourself!

But we’ve all figured out that Unulfo is devoted to the literal last breath, and although he’s more chopped liver than human by this point, he makes sure there is a happy ending – just not for him, sadly, as, forgotten by all, he collapses in the last scene. Dark Ages, eh? I know this sounds gruesome but it isn’t visually offensive.

Like I said, there is more, not the least the happy ending chorus, during which Rodelinda and Bertarido lock up Grimoaldo and Eduige, with Grimoaldo getting the meat cleaver treatment from Bertarido’s traumatised son Flavio (that one is going to need a lifetime of therapy; failing that, the serial killer shed is already set up).

So that’s 800 words on the production alone.

Musically I was surprised the Guardian reviewer felt Curnyn’s conducting occasionally lacked definition and impetus. I thought it was some of the best Baroque conducting I’ve heard in London. The orchestra, too, played beautifully and idiomatically, with the harpsichord (just right, volume-wise), oboe and strings particularly in good form; really nice interplay between the sections and with the singers (never overpowered).

Though a notch below the Madrid team (except for Davies = vastly superior to aging Chiummo), the singers were strong throughout and they also had a lot of stuff to do physically, more often than not requiring perfect timing with each other.

Bertarido’s entrance aria (Dove sei, amato bene) was rather uneven but Mead’s performance grew in strength over the evening (much better in his lament at having lost it all) and he still had enough energy to power through Vivi, tiranno (I saved you), or at least power it as much as possible given his countertenor-of-the-lyrical-kind voice. You really need a contralto for Eduige; a mezzo, no matter how experienced, is not the same. Above mentioned Davies rocked Garibaldo’s late aria in praise of gung-ho tyranny.

Io t’abbraccio (Ah, my beloved) wasn’t bad, Mead and Evans mixed well; all it needed was that extra bit of something. Lowrey did a very good job as general butt of jokes Unulfo (I didn’t even know this one had so many arias!), gamely coping with it all and showing top comedic skills (best moment: when he sings whilst holding the meat clever of doom, on which Eduige is writing a VERY long message to Bertarido – who subsequently reads it all in recit, much to everyone’s amusement). Imagine a metrosexual holding propping up a giant, rusty meat cleaver like it’s dipped in poo.

Somewhat like Lowrey, Juan Sancho had to put up with a thankless role, in his case deconstructing evil into pathetic – his singing had something wistful to go with that. In fact, beyond the cheapish laughs, Jones has once again given us a production that deals with (toxic) masculinity and which, interestingly, includes Eduige (and possibly Rodelinda herself) as a culprit. I was pleasantly surprised to see this dealt with here, after our discussion during and after the Madrid livestream. Here the big sign of the macho is getting a tattoo. Bertarido has one of Rodelinda on his arm (foreshadowing), Eduige has one of Grimoaldo on her back and Grimoaldo gets one of Rodelinda (whilst singing! I’m telling you, they get up to some stuff in this production). Rodelinda needs no tattoos to assert herself when she makes Grimoaldo an offer he can’t bring himself to accept.

Rodelinda: I’m ready to marry you…
Grimoaldo: A-ha!
Rodelinda: … on one condition.
Gariblado: she’s going to ask for my head!
Grimoaldo: … anything, except his head.
Rodelinda: pffft, who cares about that moron?
Grimoaldo: very good! What, then? Name it and you shall have it.
Rodelinda: in order to get the throne, you must kill my son, the rightful heir!
Grimoaldo: 😼

She even draws a big X in lipstick on her son’s chest whilst singing the taunting aria! Rodelinda is right out of Orange is the new Black, yo. So the “happy” ending comes less as a surprise.

I had a seat up in the gods (you can always get a row all to yourself up there, so you can move around as needed1, and it’s above the angle where you get the Balcony railing to block half of your view). London venues offer very good sound from their amphitheatre seats. Given this is the biggest of them all, I had time during the evening to re-think my usual position on big venues vs. Baroque. I now think it’s mostly down to acoustics and a thoughtful conductor. So there you go, big halls of the world, update your acoustics, hire a good conductor and bring on the Baroque, gruesome or not.

PS: ENO, I ❀ you. Please don’t screw yourself up any time soon. We need “people” like you.

  1. If, say, you get a tallish woman with a brazen bun in front of you. 

Il ritorno di Willy Decker to Hamburg (Hamburg Opera, 29 October 2017)

…according to the poster in the house 😉

Ulisse: Kurt Streit
Penelope: Sara Mingardo
…and others who I will add later (also read below)
Conductor: Vaclav Luks | Collegium 1704
Director: Willy Decker

This production originates from Zurich and is very effective. We saw its Hamburg premiere and it received lots of applause and no abuse. It’s simple – everything happens in the same space (as thadieu put it, a sloping white, round dish) and the differences/advances in the story are told via changing costume rather than props. It’s one step up from a concert performance, which means you’re never left scratching your head. My minor qualm, after seeing a bunch of Monteverdi productions where the gods are made a big deal out of, is that we could do with one production where gods don’t physically appear at all (of course we still get to hear them). Then again, thadieu pointed out that it might not be clear to all who are the gods and who are not.

There were some curious decisions on the part of the local advertising team that might make sense locally but baffled the tourists – such as using the director’s picture for the poster in the house (there were no outdoors posters, just banners) and uploading the trailer after the actual premiere <- they apparently filmed a new one, so kinda cool in the end (see the trailer at thadieu‘s – and read her report(s) as well 🙂 ).

The performance in itself was mostly very fine vocally, aside from both Melanto and Eurimaco, who did not live up to their fine music. Tassou has a colourless voice and you know that is the kiss of death for yours truly. She did get better as time went on but there is a lot of nice harmony in Melanto’s music that, for me, never came through. Now that I’m listening to the broadcast, wow, she had some trouble staying on breath and the line got away from her a few times… As she started it seemed like the music took her by surprise (wait, what? It’s my turn?!!! Shiii… where am I?). Palchykov sang in an overly operatic manner not suited for Monteverdi. Also his voice is rather bigger than the others’, ready to break into La donna e mobile 😉 and he too had a bit of an issue with the Monteverdi ornamentation… early music skills, eh. Though I think for a different rep he’s not bad and can get quite seductive.

I did, however, have a welcome revelation with local ensemble mezzo (surprise, surprise) Dorottya Lang, who sang Minerva and showed very fine potential. I don’t know that her future is necessary in this repertoire, but I liked her attention to style and a rather striking dark tone.

All three of us also agreed Pieweck as Ericlea (Penelope’s nurse), could have had more to sing. She knows her Monteverdi and has solid chops.

This is not something you usually hear from me but whilst listening to Dumaux’ Human Fragility I thought here is a role that decidedly belongs to the countertenor voice. We all know he is good both as a singer and as an actor and he did not disappoint. I am actually quite looking forward to see him in his perhaps trademark role in the summer, as so far it has been more self effacing circumstances, which he can do as well, no doubt. He regaled us with what I think is the most spectacular falling technique I’ve ever witnessed on stage, when he “dropped dead” from touching Ulisse’s bow (as suitor Amfinomo).

I was quite surprised how much I liked Trost as Eumete the kind beggar, since my most memorable encounter with him was as Tito in that overly soft Mackerras recording – where he was alarmingly bleaty. Here he showed impressive Monteverdi skills and a fine voice. His acting/interaction with others, especially Streit’s Ulisse, was not bad at all.

Nurgeldiyev as Telemaco is probably another singer that will make his name in later repertoire, but he evidently paid attention to style and ended up doing a good job, with some sensitive acting, too.

Streit in the title role was somewhat of a mixed bag. I quite like his tone and have generally enjoyed him before. He is always committed, if, in this case, I would agree with thadieu that he veered off into overreacting, both dramatically and vocally. Ulisse’s entrance aria where he’s not sure if he’s awake or sleeping was taken a bit strongly. As a result, for the rest of the night his Ulisse came off rather angstier than I normally imagine him. Now you may remember I saw the very finely subtle Ian Bostridge in this role before and he created a lasting impression. Generally I thought Streit’s performance was stronger whenever he had someone to interact with. The ending duet with Penelope was sensitively done, though, and made me think what an unusual opera this is, to tackle the trials and tribulations of mature love and to make said love appear fresh at that.

Mingardo has sung Penelope before in this very production, so of course she was at ease and with her love and care for Monteverdi she shaped the music with her subtle, introspective touch. Her Penelope was perfectly loyal, though she did not fall into the trap of making her unfeeling to the suitors’ plight. We did see Penelope’s struggle to keep her wits about herself during the 20 year party, especially when they suitors wooed her with their posh I ❀ Penelope t-shirts 😉 <- it is true, we spent quite some time thinking about ways to produce said shirts and we came up with a couple of more “P” possibilities, heh. I have to say, I ❀ P sounds like a pretty good title for a Mingardo fan site 😀

Uncharacteristically, we heard less piano singing from her because we had a super loud harpsichord. Now at intermission the three of us pondered harpsichord’s applicability or lack thereof in Monteverdi. Not only did I find it superfluous but I thought the harpsichordist used it as if he was playing Handel. It was the worst offender of the otherwise very enjoyable night, worse even that the singers I went merciless on above.

Whenever we only had violins, winds and theorbo things improved drastically. Perhaps I am turning into a HIP fanatic, which I don’t necessary want to do, but I really don’t like harpsichords in Monteverdi. I would like to hear whatever anyone else has to say on the matter.

I’ll point you thadieu‘s way for more comments on Luks’ orchestra, because she’s better than me at pointing out all the intricacies of different baroque orchestras, whereas I am more apt to zero in on faults 😉 all you need to know from me is that, harpsichord decisions aside, I had no issues with the orchestra, which was the largest I have seen for early opera.

…there is more, of course, and I will be back here to add more text and pictures (but no more bitching I should never promise this…), because it was actually rather sunny in Hamburg and the Echo Awards were being given at the Elbphilarmonie 😉

As thadieu mentioned, this was a lovely opportunity for her, Agathe and I to get together for a hard-core contralto adventure which even the skies favoured with good weather, if some chilly blasts from the sea. We visited the main sites within the centre of Hamburg and a bit of the harbour before it was time for the 20 year party. I liked this side of Hamburg a lot, especially the canals, which reminded me of Lonodon’s. Expect some dramatic cloud pictures. I’m not quite sold on the Elbphilarmonie design, but the “jam smudge” sails can be endearing on a good day.

On the contrary, the opera house is a very low key affair, with particularly narrow lobbies. I was a bit intimidated by the insistence of pretty much everyone present to dress up, and strangely coordinated in black and white at that. At ROH you do get the overdressed crowd, especially for premieres, but it seems there is more of a variation in regards to colour usage and even necessity of dressing up (in the amphi most people don’t go further than “business casual”). Here I had a cheap ticket and I was surrounded by gents in tuxes! Agathe seemed baffled too, saying that’s noit been her experience in the past. Who knows! I wonder if this had anything to do with the concurrent presentation of the Echo Klassic Awards next door (for that matter, the house was full, so clearly the public is a bit different, though apparently the Hamburg Opera management is not known to chance on up and coming singers).

In any case, I hope to return to Hamburg for more opera, at the opera house or the Elbphilarmonie, if possible in similarly good company 🙂 and with fingers crossed for another lucky break with the weather.

nice Venetian feel, eh?

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance 2017 (ROH, 16 July 2017)

July is the time when the ROH audience checks on the house’s young artists to see how they’ve grown. I found this year’s programme rather ambitious and the results mixed.

Verdi: I due Foscari, Act II (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Lucrezia Contarini: Vlada Borovko
Jacopo Foscari: David Junghoon Kim

This is the kind of opera that kept yours truly aloof from the art form for so long. I couldn’t wait for the overwrought scene/duet to be over. If you can’t pinpoint it in your mind, imagine the typical belcanto duet between important/main characters who are about to be parted by fate. It’s mainly Italian angst, with moments of gloomy recit, ominous shredding from the string section for the moments when ghosts are mentioned (one of the characters is ever on the brink of a breakdown, the other one tries more or less feebly to be their rock but it’s obvious they are also suffering) then a cheerful tune gets shoehorned in (so that the audience can draw a breath) and is explained in the dialogue by “outdoors sounds” such as the gondolier, good moment for the whinger to draw attention back to their plight, so that the hand wringing can start anew and continue for another 15min. Kim is on the right track for this kind of thing and has a beautiful tone but he’s obviously too young for the finer details this 19th century brand of Italian neuroticism needs.

Nowadays they simply have women either dressed in an updated version of ’80s powersuits or as lalala bohemians. Borovko looked utterly in charge in her suit which I dare say was curious for Amelia Lucrezia. Then again, I despise this opera so much that I might have missed something essential. I doubt it, Romantic opera womenfolk were utterly decorative.

Upon return home I realised this was not Simon Boccanegra.

Massenet: Cendrillon, Act II (duet)
Conductor: Matthew Scott Rogers
Cendrillon: Kate Howden
Prince: Angela Simkin

Massenet, eh? Poor mezzos, he wrote for them but alas, I don’t like his saccharine stuff. For once I would’ve like the mezzo singing the trouser role to wear sensible shoes but it was not to be. Aside from that, Howden and Simkin’s interaction was not bad at all. Sometimes when I see mezzos and sopranos singing to each other of love I feel the interaction is actually helped by them both being (straight) women. It’s almost like they think whew, it’s just her, I won’t get distracted by wayward hormones, I can focus on the notes I’m supposed to sing and when I have some free time I can glance at her in a chummy manner – which masquerades surprisingly well as young love. Howden covered for an indisposed Emily Edmonds and I can’t complain about anything, but then again, Massenet. Simkin had more of a moment here than as Isolier later on, obviously since this is a duet, and though I again have no complaints, I also didn’t feel particularly wowed by her tone.

Mascagni: L’amico Fritz, Act I (duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Suzel: Francesca Chiejina
Fritz: Thomas Atkins

I find it a bit odd that I enjoy Mascagni quite as much as I do (Cavalleria) but there you go, I liked this duet as well. You might ask wait, how is this any less fluff than Massenet above? It’s not but it’s much more enjoyable music to my ears. Atkins and Chiejina had rather nice chemistry going and were well suited vocally. Plus, there was a really big bucket of cherries on stage and a hot summer day outside. Chiejina’s cutely colourful maid outfit exemplified what I said above about the lalala bohemian vs powersuit.

Strauss: Arabella, Act III (final duet)
Conductor: David Syrus
Arabella: Jennifer Davis
Mandryka: Gyula Nagy

Jennifer Davis has a surprisingly large voice for her age, definitely able to cope with a Strauss orchestra as conducted by Syrus, and has a rather fearless attitude about attacking the highs and a good technique to back that. I could see from the Don Giovanni bit after the interval that Syrus was unusually careful in helping his singers do their best, so I suppose he was here as well. As far as the finer parts, well I guess that’s where both nature and experience come in. I remember the fairly recent (sometime last year) Bayerische livestream of Arabella with Harteros in the title role, which I loved, so I think that’s a good goal to keep in mind for aspiring Strauss singers.

Nagy sounded a bit stiff to me in what I imagine is a very tricky role. Aside from the livestream, my experience with Arabella is rather limited so I don’t as yet have a good idea about who Mandryka is supposed to be, aside from a vaguely wild force, personification of sexual desire as experienced by virginal women? Anyway, one needs a bit of stage and life experience to make that work.

Rossini: Le Comte Ory, Act II (final scene)
Conductor: James Hendry
Countess AdĂšle de Formoutiers: Francesca Chiejina
Isolier: Angela Simkin
Count Ory: David Junghoon Kim

This hilarious trio/scene elicited a lot of mirth, as it usually does, even though I dare say none of them are natural Rossinians, and thus the finer details did not shine. Hendry must’ve got a bit too much into it and, perhaps skewed by Strauss volume levels, let the orchestra rip which often covered the singers. But they were mostly funny, especially Kim who got into the nun act. The bed cover looking like something from Pylones added to the silliness.


Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II (from Zerlina finding Masetto to end)
Conductor: David Syrus
Fortepiano continuo: Nick Fletcher
Donna Anna: Vlada Borovko
Donna Elvira: Jennifer Davis
Zerlina: Haegee Lee
Don Ottavio: Thomas Atkins
Don Giovanni: Gyula Nagy
Leporello: David Shipley
Masetto/Commendatore: Simon Shibambu

As I was saying earlier, Syrus did a really good job with the volume here, definitely one of the better ways to approach DG that I have heard at ROH, where conductors seem to think this is early Verdi. The singers were properly cradled and it showed once again how good Mozart is for young singers regardless of what voice type their future has in store. It was easily the best moment of the evening.

Thomas Atkins as Don Ottavio got the most applause. It’s true he has a very fine tenor that works with many things and he coped pretty well with Il mio tesoro, a bold choice to be sure. Let’s say I’d rank my ROH Don Ottavios like so: Antonio Poli, Atkins, Villazon. Nagy was much more at ease with the Don than with Mandryka and I think he makes quite a dashing figure; I see this role in his future, he has it all going for him. ROH says he is a baritone but I felt he was rather a bass-baritone or he will be one soon.

Generally I was impressed with the density of the basses and the baritone voices on display – proper stuff. To that end, Shibambu divested himself well of the lugubrious DON GIOVANNI! cry one expects from the statue. He needs a bit more projection for the big stage but otherwise smooth sailing. Btw, I noticed he constantly gets to wear a military uniform but then I guess that’s the lot of basses, what with their authority figure repertoire. Shipley as Leporello was pretty good, too, not overly funny but his interaction with Nagy’s Don was on the money.

Borovko returned as Donna Anna. Now that I’ve seen her recently in a big role I can say this: her top is very good and her coloratura ace but the cloudiness from the middle down seems constant. I don’t know what others hear but if this is simply how her voice sounds I can’t see myself getting excited in the future. Or perhaps she needs to find herself very high roles and stick with those? How about contemporary opera, then. Davis as Donna Elvira wasn’t bad at all, coping very dutifully with all required, though I still think Strauss is where she needs to aim. This Donna Elvira was abjectly in love with the Don but I think Davis got her – tricky for the contemporary mind – preoccupation with saving DG’s soul from eternal damnation.

Sopranos: Vlada Borovko, Francesca Chiejina, Jennifer Davis
Mezzo-sopranos: Angela Simkin, Kate Howden
Tenors: Thomas Atkins, David Junghoon Kim
Baritone: Gyula Nagy
Basses: Simon Shibambu, David Shipley

If you think I was a bit hard on the young singers, bear in mind that I somehow managed to get there two hours before the start of the show (I thought it started at 16:30 instead of 6:30. I know, getting old…), after which I decided to wander around and (re)discovered what a consumerist Mecca Covent Garden is. Let’s start with the hapless straw hat “boy with guitar”, whom I was this close to pay a fiver to shut up for a few minutes. Worse even than a Verdi dirge is a wounded bohemian pop tune. You know the kind, something from the late seasons of Dr House. Try stepping into a shop, they all play music – your choice is now bubblegum pop with nondescript teen voices. Then there was the obligatory curly haired musician setting up his amp to blast what sounded very much like gentle Shoreditch downtempo cca 2003. I guess these moves are savvy, it’s touristy as all getout around there and all of the above are now part of the pop psyche.

I couldn’t take it anymore so I scurried into a book shop (where I knew they don’t play any music) to read Andrew Eames’ account of getting morbidly bored on a barge on the lower Danube. What was he thinking, right? Muddy water, catfish, poplars and weeping willows, engine fuel, moody sailors – a proper circuit party.

But the Comte Ory trio got stuck in my head for days, so things righted themselves to an extent.

Mitridate, re di Ponto and Ismene the wise (ROH, 1 July 2017)

This is, I think, the first production of Mitridate I watched on yt, early on in my opera days. Because it’s so old (1993) I didn’t think I would get to see it in the house but here we are! Thanks a lot to whoever had the idea this fun production of a very early Mozart opera should be unearthed 🙂

As we all know, this is one of Mozart’s first (the first?) important commissions and he got to conduct it in Milan, one month shy of his 15th birthday. They really did things differently back in ye olde 1700s. I mean 14 olds were surely more mature then, perhaps more like 17-18 year olds nowadays, but still.

Last night’s performance was recorded by BBC3 and you can listen to it here on 8 July.

Mitridate:  Michael Spyres
Aspasia: Albina Shagimuratova Vlada Borovko
Sifare: Salome Jicia
Farnace: Bejun Mehta
Ismene: Lucy Crowe
Marzio: Rupert Charlesworth
Arbate: Jennifer Davis Francesca Chiejina
Conductor: Christophe Rousset | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH
Director: Graham Vick

As you can glean from my scratches, we had some cast changes. The two above were last minute ones. But there were actually more. You may remember Anett Fritsch was first scheduled to sing Sifare, but she pulled out with time to spare. Marzio was initially meant to be sung by Andrew Tortise.

We ended up with a bunch of young singers. The lady next to me lamented aloud at the announcement about Shagimuratova. I, not being Shagi’s biggest fan (though she has plenty technical skills, as I saw with her Donna Anna here and heard with her Semiramide at last year’s Proms), was happy for the youngsters to get breaks. Borovko is a Jette Parker Artist here at ROH and has already had smaller roles on the main stage but this is surely a big break for her. You may remember Chiejina from the Guildhall Masterclass with JDD where she sang Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi mi dice mai (a dehggi favourite). I think she’s on the way to great things, lovely full voice and very amiable presence – she fit right in and her diction in Arbate’s recits was not bad at all. “We” know Charlesworth from many Baroque outings in town and elsewhere and were likewise happy for him.

Borovko had a steep night ahead of her, especially as Aspasia has the first aria. She showed strong nerves indeed, as she navigated it with poise and sang without a hitch. The public was very happy for her, lots of applause. As the night progressed her voice clouded but it’s unsurprising, given the tough task at hand. I was wondering if she covered or pushed a bit – she has a very plum voice so young – or if it was the nerves seeping through – but I really liked her pluck. A commendable effort. It’s very unusual to see such a young singer as Aspasia, as young Mozart was ruthless and in no way makes it easy for the singer. Rousset, on the other hand, went very gently on his singers, much more so than Minkowski did with Idomeneo.

Speaking of possible nerves and something that sounded like covering, I heard that in Charlesworth’s case too. No need, really. He has a beautiful, ringing tenor that projects well. His Marzio had a bit of Mighty Boosh going on, which was rather amusing. I can’t remember if this was the case in the previous runs.

Mitridate and his guards (all images except for the last one belong to ROH)

Aside from some rambunctiousness from the brass side, the orchestra “behaved” in its supporting role, as much as a non-HIP orchestra will with this type of music (they really have a come a long way from that 1963 night with Karajan).

Another reason the singers were lucky with this production is its very stylised nature, spilling into stage movement, which doesn’t give one much room for spontaneous acting. Normally you’d think it a block but when you’re busy focusing on your very difficult arias it’s surely a blessing.

Nonetheless, Mehta and Crowe, matched again as a couple shortly after the gorgeous Rodelinda in Madrid, found ways to sneak spontaneity into their acting, to the delight of the packed auditorium. Yes, even an early Mozart sells ROH out, such is the Salzburg runt’s legacy.

This is one of my favourite ROH productions, matching two qualities dear to my heart: simplicity and imagination. At no time there is anything on stage that has no function, symbolic or otherwise. Vick had the good sense to make the red velvet side panels movable so when singers had a particularly important aria the walls moved closer and the sound was not lost backstage. You probably can’t make this out in the video but it was both practical and effective regarding stage action. The rectangle shape of the walls fit the abstract design too.

The costumes, though taking their cue from crinolines, were a lively take on the design, with striking bright colours in pleasing hues, adorned with intricate patters. I bet they were a fun challenge for the costume department!

The choreography added another positive accent. There are times when you – especially me, who don’t quite feel dance – aren’t sure why choreography is there but put up with it anyway. In this case the dancing fell to the attendants of this and that character – though in arias the singers sometimes were called to join in – who also acted like a silent chorus, marveling at or approving whatever else was happening on stage. This has the potential to be too much but not in this case, as it was done in a playful manner, which took a bit off the very earnest atmosphere of the libretto.

I like the plot quite a bit but it’s solidly post-Baroque what with a large amount of lamenting one’s harsh fate – I was happy for any levity. How can anyone not like Mitridate’s personal guards who look scary to the point of parody? But the OTT-ness felt to me in perfect keeping with the Baroque-Classical idea of entertainment (it’s opera, not a history lesson).

Ismene and Farnace

The quintessential stars of the evening were Lucy Crowe as Ismene and Bejun Mehta as Farnace, both of whom showed simply wonderful artistry and style. Still, for the “kick” arias in a large venue I feel the edge of a mezzo’s voice would add an extra oomph and evilness, yet I greatly enjoyed his sense of style (gorgeous dialogue with the orchestra) and the little, presumably spontaneous (once or twice just tossed off) trills he added on occasion.

It’s always great to see a role veteran at work, from the moment Farnace walzes in with feigned carelessness and asks Aspasia to stop rejecting him (or else), through Va, l’errore mio palesa, when he comically bumps Ismene out of the way, to his U-turn in Gia dagli occhi, which was taken super slow and the audience broke into applause before the last repeat of the A section – and I actually joined them! though I’m very well acquainted with this aria in its extended version. To quote the Emperor, too many notes, Wolfie. Seriously, when I overheard my very young seatmate sigh before the third repeat I couldn’t fault her for it. It goes on and on. Ffwd to 1791 and Mozart’s super brief take on opera seria – worlds away. Then again, not fair comparing a 14 year old with a seasoned 35.

But the audience was right to applaud, Mehta’s soft singing is buttah. His interaction with Crowe was some of the best stuff of the evening, you could feel the connection the characters are supposed to have beyond the momentary rough patch.

The first time Crowe genuinely impressed me was the above mentioned Rodelinda, where she sung the title role. I am very happy to report she continues to rock. She had the best night vocally (and likely otherwise), with all the (many) trills flowing effortlessly and her sense of Mozart style was fabulous. On top of this, she, as I said above, managed to act through the stylised choreography, making it a springboard for a dialogue with the public. This works for Ismene, who, as the second woman, is the wise character, always acting in diplomatic ways that ultimately restore order. We know Mitridate, his sons and Aspasia have to reconcile their differences; she is the one character who shares our knowledge that things can’t be as bad as everyone else laments they are.

I can’t say I was convinced by Jicia as Sifare. Her performance was patchy as far as I can tell – sometimes the voice was really on, flowing beautifully in difficult passages, at other times it seemed blighted by… something I can’t quite put into words. Almost as an old AM radio going in and out of proper reception. Her acting was pretty much what the stylised production required, nothing more, nothing less. I obviously don’t know about her interaction with Shagi but with Borovko it was rather cold – possibly understandably so. Still, as this is the main romantic relationship of the opera it felt underwhelming.

Michael Spyres in the title role was solid. He’s already sinking his claws into this role but to me he’s no Bruce Ford (the veteran of the ROH production). I’ve even sampled Richard Croft’s take on the role and I still think Bruce Ford is Mitridate. Even though both Croft and Spyres have more elasticity, that typical resonance and the spcific type of characterisation in Ford’s voice wins it for me1.

Out of the three, Spyres’ is the least recognisable voice, with a bit of Rossinian fervour seeping through. He was also struck by a bad case of nerves in his first aria but carried on without batting an eyelash and things got much better. He has the stage presence and the capacity to navigate the runs, yes, and his work with dynamics isn’t bad at all, but I didn’t feel the same level of musicality and Mozart-feeling as with Crowe and Mehta.

Genderwise, it’s interesting how they cast this opera nowadays, with a soprano as the good son and a countertenor as the sexually forceful villain. Make of that what you will.

look at that outfit! (this one is from The Guardian)

The night was, objectively speaking, a mixed bag. But as far as I was concerned I had a swell time, because of the top drawer job Crowe and Mehta did and because this production is, to me, a thing of beauty2. It makes me smile, it suits my sense of design and I am really happy to have seen it in the house, especially in the company of these musicians.

It’s so OTT that it can still deliver even though times have changed so much since 1993 and only last year we’ve had those two game changing productions of Mitridate. It’s also probably lucked out – at least with me – that it returned to the stage in 2017 rather than last year, to compete with the very topical productions from Paris and Brussels. Post Brexit the focus has shifted yet again.

  1. You may also remember how much I like his Tito. He has just the right kind of magnanimous ruler feel in his voice. 
  2. And I’m a bit annoyed the 1993 video was obviously VHS, so the yt clips don’t allow for quality screencaps. 

ROH wifi at Mitridate

I may have finally stepped into the current decade as I found out today that ROH also provides wifi (duh, I know; please be patient with me 😉 ) and it’s very strong to boot. Expect a long entry about Mitridate, which is a lot of things – good (I really like this old but very stylish, Ponnellesque production and it’s official Lucy Crowe is enjoying a splendid season) and occasionally less so (stricken with a large number of cast changes – two just for today, which include our original Aspasia).

Hello from Glyndebourne 2017!

There is WiFi! So as a first from yours truly, I’m waving at you from the Glyndebourne main lawn 🙂 it’s a gorgeous sunny day out here – very windy! My hair is messier than usual (a fright, as one says here), which is a good thing, as it would be too hot otherwise and I’m not wearing shorts today 😉

Tonight’s entertainment is Cavalli’s Hipermestra, or fifty brides for 49 soon to be dead dead husbands. There is a Saudi Prince waving in and out with his bride, so I’m guessing he’s the lucky one 😉

There will be pics!

Interval edit: ah, good acoustics, how I missed you! I think Glyndebourne hall is also on the dry side but, damn, that crispness is nice on these ears. The two theorbists really worked for their money! So do the rams in the distance, they’re making a racket 😀

Damsel in distress the woods (ok, the desert), petrol pumps – deja vu?

Just after the show edit: gotta give it to Vick, that was some effective inserting of the band!

ps: Emoke Barath is sitting one seat up from me on the bus back to Lewes. Yes, I know, it’s that kind of summer.

Ariodante all star (Barbican, 16 May 2017)

once again, shots from the Carnegie Hall webcast

Ariodante: Alice Coote
Ginevra: Christiane Karg
Dalinda: Mary Bevan
Polinesso: Sonia Prina
Lurcanio: David Portillo
King of Scotland: Matthew Brook
Odoardo: Bradley Smith
Conductor: Harry Bicket | The English Concert

This time I will spare you my usual bitching about the Barbican, because there are some good things I have to report. I found out there is at least another set of toilets (this one for the balcony crowd), though, naturally, one was out of order. If you exit quickly they are very handy. At some point I realised there were 6 of us wearing glasses in the queue, one after the other. To better see your wicked moves, Polinesso 😉

The venue has announcers who tell you which show will begin when, because there are concurent events in different halls. It’s like a very posh airport lounge so the feeling of we’re all here for the same reason is nonexistent. Weirdly enough – or because I took the detective-like approach of canvassing the main lounge area – I actually found Giulia and her lively bunch of Twitter friends, which was a very nice touch before the show. Let’s hope the Baroque thing at Teatro Regio Torino continues so we can meet again 🙂

Up and down the stairs and nooks and crannies, bars and lounges, you see people and (I) try to guage what event they are here for. It’s hard to tell, especially as the crowd is so mixed even in the main hall (where the opera was held). On my right I had a lady perhaps in her early 60s (who dozed off in Act I but braved Act II and III), on my left a woman in her 30s; in front of us there were two young (straight-looking) couples (mid to late 20s), further to the left two very Baroque-knowledgeable ladies in their 60s, on the other side a gent over 50 who spent the majority of the show hunched forward, watching intently as if he were going to write a report later – and so on. Though the show was not sold out, it felt like the troops around me multiplied rather than depleted as the evening went on.

There was definitely a lot of interest but somewhat glib – lots of laughter in all the appropriate places and then some. Maybe I am overly invested and felt people were taking it all lighter than I did. But then there were the knowledgeable ladies who seemed to have a whale of a time, there was the hunched forward gent and somewhere in the stalls was Giulia and friends. I can’t vouch for the very quiet and polite lady in her 30s (at least I think so, Asian people are hard for me to guage age-wise) next to me, who was very quiet and polite but applauded a lot. The young couples stayed gamely but I sensed a certain detachment – maybe it’s just my reaction to the sudden existence of people younger than me at classical music shows 😉 (the cheek! down with that kind of thing).

Another plus I noticed this time: it appears that if you sit central and avoid the balcony overhang, the acoustics aren’t bad at all, lots of (if not all) pianissime made their way up to the last row of the Balcony. There was an interesting feeling as the sound bounced off the nearby ceiling; it was filtered but not unpleasant and surprisingly clear.

Karg’s was the slenderest voice and there were still no problems (which shows her projection is ace). You could tell Bicket was very mindful of the singers, especially in Con l’ali di costanza, where the tempo was “casual jog” and the orchestra toned nicely down, a lesson to all interested parties. We could hear everything yet it was light as a feather.

Thadieu will laugh, but I’m still hung up on the harpsichord is a teamplayer1 thing so I continue to admire Bicket’s approach. It was always there to drive things (I could observe his lightness and rhythmic precision better at TADW, where I had a perpendicular view to match the sound) but never overpowered. You have Giulia‘s word of how the low strings were muscular without unnecessary over-shredding – in the words of Statira, I concur. Another shoutout goes to the wonderfully wistful bassoon work in Scherza, infida. When the bassoon started its mournful call and Coote turned towards it with a lost look on Ariodante’s face, I immediately teared up. In fact, I almost did as I wrote this. It was just a gently sad whisper, mad props to the bassoonist ❀

The big venue seemed to have cut down on the possibility of constant interaction between those on stage, unless they were right next to each other, singing to or talking to each other. I felt like they sang their arias alone on stage more often than before – I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but an illusion given that the stage is very large and bare, even with the orchestra there as well. I didn’t notice any particular winking/eye rolling from Polinesso and Dalinda during Ginevra and Ariodante’s lovey dovey moments – a bit disappointing.

However, Ariodante’s accusatory remarks towards Dalinda during Cieca notte were still in place (even from quite a distance, as Dalinda was sat on “her” chair by the wall), as was Dalinda’s engulfing shame. All direct interaction between Dalinda and Polinesso was there in technicolour (“praise the lord”). As others have noticed, Prina once again adjusted her manhandling to the type of dress Bevan was wearing. This time, as you know by now, Bevan had on a dress that hinted at just how ready Dalinda was for Polinesso’s attention. Prina made a show of Polinesso’s boredom with Dalinda’s professions of love, which, combined with Bevan’s credible ardour gave their scenes a very natural feel.

It was obvious Karg and Coote had developed a neat chemistry as the tour went on. Each had polished their characterisation so they meshed into a mutually appreciative and tender couple. By the end of the opera it looked like they might be more realistically positioned to build a future together. I know that doesn’t gel with the libretto per se, but that’s the beauty of concert performances 😉 Once again, their duets were some of the highlights of the evening, with their very nicely balanced voices – Karg light and precise and Coote full and ardent (so ardent, in Bramo aver mille vite she started a touch too loud; Bicket restored balance by the second line).

Coote, on home turf in London, put the pedal to the metal in general. After a brave tackling of Con l’ali di costanza she relaxed into things more up her alley (ie, soulful), that benefited from the many colours in her voice and its warm, affecting fulness (she’s a mezzo-mezzo, who reminds you why you like that voice type in the first place). Even so, the biggest applause of the night (in general) turned out to be for Dopo notte where she let it rip with what I would call furious joy.

I would say Prina’s performance was a bit toned down, though I’m sure mellow wouldn’t be how most of the audience saw it. Polinesso’s every intervention was as complex as we’ve seen before, both vocally and dramatically. The contrasts in Spero per voi were brilliantly delivered and her timing impeccable (then again, I’ve always admired her uncanny sense of rhythm). It’s interesting, every time I check back to the Aix recording I think she’s singing it better this time around. Then again, recording vs live rendition where one is there (so many factors converge to make something an experience rather then mere entertainment; I think it matters that Marcon is going for a darker mood than Bicket is, to match the very dark concept of the production; this Polinesso is more gleeful whereas that one is very dangerous).

This time around, after Polinesso gets stabbed and is being carried away, I thought she was going to sit down in one of the chairs, as they stopped for a moment at the top of the stairs that led down to the side of the stage. At the same time, Ariodante sprung up from this hatch at the beck of the stage. That was a very good use of the stage. Sometimes you get this at the Barbican (one that comes to mind is L’Orfeo a few seasons back, which incorporated the openings at the back of the stage into the action).

David Portillo trumpeted all the way to the back of the auditorium; like I said in the comments previously, no complaints there, as one could hardly imagine a better suited voice as a 21st century John Beard. He also has the right approach as Ariodante’s loyal and justice-driven brother Lurcanio. Alas, he will always be second best for Dalinda, as Bevan portrayed her emotionally conflicted to the end.

Bevan has indeed an interesting voice that sounds, as Anik predicted, to be developing into something more dramatic than Karg’s likely would. Perhaps unsual but fitting for Dalinda, as that darker fulness hints at her penchant for the dangerous. Again, absolutely no issues hearing her from the rafters, and also again, I loved her mad chemistry with Prina.

Perhaps in this densely-voiced company Brook’s voice came off a bit light as the lowest anchor but there are always those easy runs (and pps) to admire and his very sympathetic portrayal of a conflicted father-king (there would be no Baroque opera without someone agonising between love and duty).

Poor Odoardo is just kinda there, so it must’ve been strange for Bradley Smith to travel around just so he could drop a few Italian sentences here and there. No complaints about his involvement, though.

For my good deeds, Ginevra’s shoulder-bearing red dress was back (made me grin widely as soon as the singers came on stage) and as a bonus, so was Dalinda’s choker. Due to negligence, my camera died on me so there isn’t even a bad picture from yours truly, not even of the Barbican (I’m sure you’re mourning that loss). It was a hot, muggy day; so hot, in fact, I went out for fresh air during the second intermission and even by the pond there was no breeze (we’re talking about London, where it’s windy on a daily basis).

I’m really glad I could catch two (very different) nights of this tour and feel very lucky that we also got the Carnegie Hall webcast as a memento of how it all went down. We’ll see how things develop, but, as in the case of The English Concert’s 2014 Alcina, I think this will live long in my memory 🙂 Thank you Handel and thank you all involved.

  1. you can tell how traumatised I was by what Bates did to Renard and in general. 

Polinesso sexmagic (aka Ariodante, Theater an der Wien, 12 May 2017)

Ariodante has been a slow burner with me. It’s precisely because it’s centred on the dopey dude, instead of the villain. I don’t mind heroes on white horses, it’s dopeyness that makes my eyes roll.

Ariodante: lalala, I’m in love!
Ginevra: me too! with you!
Ariodante: oh? Really? Whoa. Like, we should get married.
Ginevra: yes! But, oh, my dad is coming!
Ariodante: crap, what if he doesn’t like me for a son-in-law? [doubt already present; heavy foreshadowing]
The King: fear not, Ariodante, I want nothing more than the two of you to get married.
Ariodante: you mean you already knew we were in love?
The King: duh! Take her hand, you have my blessing.
Ariodante (~6min coloratura fest): like, wow.

Meanwhile, Polinesso:

Most directors insist on making Ariodante the centre of the action to unsurprisingly mild dramatic results. Luckily Richard Jones thought otherwise when he saw through the unidimensional sketch that is Polinesso on paper. This was the moment when, in spite of fine Polinessi of the past, things got turned on their head and the reign of evil wreaked havoc with the hearts of contralto lovers the world over 😉

Sorry dear Ariodanti, us damned love both of your arias with notte in the title and even the lalala and like, wow ones, but when one has the chance to see Prina as the villain it’s game over.

Ok, I’m trying to be objective here and talk about everybody because I genuinely thought the cast was strong from side to side. On the other heand I was genuinely giddy through the night so my objectivity may be called into question.

Judging by my previous comments, you wouldn’t know I noticed there are also 2 tenors and 1 bass in it and they were excellent too. I was very glad to sit where I did and be able to hear all the ppps employed (how often does that happen?! <- but that was the reoccurring theme of the night) by Matthew Brook. His is a very well developed (human) King, but I understand he’s been singing the role on stage concurently with the tour. You can tell from his fatherly glances that he loves his daughter and it’s only duty that makes him cast her away; a duty he perhaps doesn’t quite believe in but what’s a King to do, eh?

Portillo was also ideal for Lurcanio, both vocally (slender but not whingy, great command of coloratura) and dramatically (he’s the clueless one in shiny shoes; they were so shiny I was wondering if they weren’t rock solid; he thinks looking the part is what Dalinda is after. It’s interesting they have that duet in the end, when, even after Polinesso is dead, he still asks Dalinda if he loves (present tense) Polinesso. He may not be that clueless; then again, this is an opera centred on doubt and male weakness so he might actually not be aware he’s clueless). You probably remember Portillo from the seminal Aix production or the Carnegie Hall webcast (still on medici tv for your pleasure).

If you’d like further comments on his performance – and in general – check Anik‘s review of this performance, she knows what she’s talking about and she’s thorough enough to think about the tenor as well as the gender angle. I never spend too much time analysing secondary characters in Ariodante this side of Dalinda, who, with her split loyalties, is a genuinely interesting person. You know she’s good but she has some serious intimacy issues to work out, preferably not in Polinesso’s company. I think we can all, more or less, recognise ourselves in her, every time we make the same mistake again because there’s that personal weakness (whichever it is) that compels us in spite of knowing better. Though Bevan doesn’t get to such levels of inner darkness as Piau does in the Aix production – no that anyone would expect her to, in a concert performance – she brings out Dalinda’s wide eyed fascination with Polinesso vividly.

all these shots are from the Carnegie Hall webcast and I saved them for this specific purpose

Their interaction, built on Bevan and Prina’s obvious ease with each other, drives the drama: visceral, freely given and forcefully taken, in stark contrast to Ariodante and Ginevra’s formal courtship. It’s telling that Ariodante doesn’t appear aware of it. How could anything like that enter his line of vision, before Scherza, infida? He’s not yet living, just imagining his life.

Though my love affair with Theater an der Wien continues unabated, you may be surprised to hear that TADW wasn’t my first choice of venue after the Barbican. That was easy, though the thought was tedious (not the wonderful environment of Brutalism again!).

When I realised this show was also going on tour1 the notion of taking myself abroad as well blossomed. My first choice was Theatre des Champs Elysees for another excuse of returning to Paris. But I found out that, in spite of its easy going atmosphere, the online booking was rather mysterious. Briefly put, I couldn’t tell if there were any tickets left.

not Linke Wienzeile but sunny and hot on Mariahilfer Str. on 12 May

Then came Hamburg, because hello new, muchly hyped venue. But that was completely sold out! Back in January, before all the other venues! Anik quipped that people go there for the novelty of the venue rather than for the music. I consoled myself with the thought that it’s too big and the reason I wanted to sample something else beside the Barbican was specifically its size. So what would be the point, wonderful acoustics or not? It’s either intimate or it’s not.

And we know which one of all those venues is the most intimate. Wouldn’t you know, there were still tickets left.

But I still wasn’t totally sold on Ariodante as a work. The thought niggled that perhaps investing in two performances, one of which involved travel abroad, was overkill. That notion was finally blasted away by the Carnegie Hall webcast. Yep, I definitely needed two performances, one of them preferably in a smaller venue. The webcast might famously have sound compressing problems but they could not take away from the wickedly fine performance of orchestra and cast under Bicket.

So after all that, on Friday I was back on the now familiar grounds of Linke Wienzeile, now with hot sun and not a hint of rain in those fluffy clouds. First Anik and I had a very enjoyable pre-opera chat (though I was a bit of a lame-o to begin with and waited outside whilst she was waiting inside). We both ate the desert she posted on her blog. I have to admit I too was so focused on our chat, on being there, on it being a gorgeous day that I’m not quite sure how it tasted either. I think it was suitably fluffy. This chat did contain snark 😉 on the usual topics you would imagine, but it turned out the cutoff time for snark was 7pm, with the cast stepping on stage.

We went to the venue, each to our own box, which happened to be on different sides of the hall (we waved to one another). My seat, bought cheap, was the third row in the very first box on the left as you look at the stage, right above the parterre box I sat in for Cavalli’s Xerse. The box was great, within 2-3m of the singers and with a perfect view of the orchestra. The seat was abysmal, especially for a short person like yours truly. I could see neither the orchestra, nor the singers and I had a feeling the sound would be muffled.

left arrow = my box; right arrow = Anik’s box; the stage doesn’t extend behind the initial curtain for concert performances (you can click to enlarge pic)

Luckily – remember, it was my lucky day! -, the TADW audience are polite people, who actually sit in their designated seats (mwahahaha!). To begin with we were 4 in our box, with chairs to spare: a couple at the front row (centre and right corner), a very stiff gent in the second row (left corner) and me, of variable positions. I sat in the second row centre until two ladies came, saying (again, super politely and also friendly) all they wanted was to sit together and I of course obliged.

When the lights went down I made a show of asking them if they minded me taking one of the unoccupied seats at the front (right under the surtitle screen, I learn from the picture on the right) and they said they were absolutely fine.

I was more than fine; I was thrilled: orchestra to the right, the singers (shoulders, tattoos, funky shoes) a couple of yards below. I was thinking “I’m here!!! (TADW but also in the middle of things)”. It really doesn’t get better than this. So because there was nobody in front of me and, if I squeezed against the wall, nobody behind me either, I, as Anik says, ended up hanging out of the box every time something particularly exciting was going on. Which was all the time. If you want to get from liking an opera to loving it this is the way to do it. At TADW if possible2.

I think it was the stiff gent who had shied away from taking the empty seat at the front who “shopped” me out to the usher, as how would the usher have otherwise known to come in and ask me to take my proper seat, “just in case those people at the front came”? I said sure, I will take my proper seat if (and only if) those people do come. I’s a seasoned warrior, yo. There was no point to start opera fights, especially not when I was having so much fun and we were so close to the action (I might occasionally be unfriendly to seatmates but I wouldn’t deliberately disrupt a performance. Ever). So after the intermission I demurely took my third row seat, up until the time the kind ladies who only wanted to sit together (oh? 😉 ) were ready to close the box door. I obliged and then moved to my claimed seat at the front. The gent went on seething whilst I was thinking whatcha gonna do? Sue me? 

As we know, the low mood Act II is the killer of casual Baroque fans. In the case of our box we lost the ladies and – yay! – the seething gent. As my mum commented, why make a big deal out of it and then leave? So I took the opportunity to rearrange the seats a bit (there were too many at the front for just three of us and some plugs were poking into my thigh) and spent Act III in style (more hanging, more grinning, leading the applause on several occasions, major grinning, following the rhythm, watching Bicket play and interact with the singers etc. (nice detail: his emerald cufflinks)).

and now for a short 18th century-style clouds break

I’ve seen The English Concert a few times now in London (that amazing 2014 Alcina they did at the blasted Barbican (which also travelled to various places) among them) and they have that tight, phat sound that makes baroque strings bounce/menace most alluringly, especially in pieces like Cieca notte. That’s one aria (arioso-like in scope) that once you start liking it becomes the central moment of the night. Poor Ariodante, it’s his bitter revelation moment. The world isn’t always your cocoon, buddy.

As much as I like JDD’s supple sound and attention to detail, you really want a denser voice in this to match the somber mood of the low strings. A rock solid chest register just kills. Coote has both of those qualities, plus a special knack for tragedy. But as Anik says, in spite of Coote’s relatively recent move into much heavier repertoire, she also knows this is Baroque and doesn’t overdo it, neither does she lose sight of dynamic variation. Her voice has not trouble filling a venue this size but she let it drop to breathtaking ppps when needed (again, Anik, who takes notes tirelessly, pinpoints just where those were). It was because I have liked her so much in Baroque that I had not heard Coote live since that Alcina (also from a great, 2nd or 3rd seat row) <- actually I have! This year, even. As Octavian. Oops. It was then a pleasure to hear how good and idiomatic she still sounds almost 3 years (and many Mahler dirges (Anik again)) later from a few yards away. Hers is a direct approach, based on an often disarming combination of technique and emotional vulnerability.

You feel JDD’s Ariodante is a more complex character than usual, someone who’s on the verge of deserving the throne the King promises him, whereas Coote keeps him wide eyed and palpably youthful. He loves!!!, he is hurt as only one very young can be and he gets angry when he finds out it was all a lie. Then he gets breathlessly happy when all is fine again.

Speaking of a dense sound, every time Prina opened her mouth I wondered how can anyone imagine Polinesso otherwise than sung by a contralto (edit: perhaps because the role was created by Maria Caterina Negri?). It’s just right. I refer you again to Se l’inganno above, even if you know it well; listen again as you’re reading. Just like how Cieca notte is a defining moment for Ariodante (who has had some growing up to do over the course of the opera), this is Polinesso’s self actualistion.

I don’t know that great is the right word when it comes to Pina’s Polinesso. It’s more like Connolly’s Cesare and VK’s Sesto. It’s just how it should be and once you see it you wonder how else they ever did it before. Not only is there conviction in her acting, at no moment when she’s on stage – at the centre of attention, reacting to others’ lines/behaviour or simply sitting – do you forget that this is Polinesso and he’s the villain. Also Prina’s really good at improvising little things (her reaction to Ginevra’s entrance was a bit different than at Carnegie Hall) that probably energise those around her. Definitely she brought out the best in Karg when Polinesso shows himself as Ginevra’s defender with just the right touch of mocking flourish, and Karg let it rip (no fucking way!!!) in such a spontaneous manner I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.

Polinesso: she’s even hotter when she gets mad!

Anik senses him as a misfit but I see him as a chap who does not accept failure or second best. He knows he has to fight for what he wants (Ariodante doesn’t know that initially and possibly even at the end) and he is ready to do anything to further his ambition. The way Prina acted right before Polinesso’s duel with Lurcanio makes me think he’s bluffing, that he knows he will lose but goes through with it anyway. Maybe this is just my way of making sense of his anticlimatic defeat. But I like the angle; if I think about it, I might have got that from Nesi’s Polinesso as well.

Related to what Anik was saying about how interesting Polinesso and Ariodante’s interactions are, it occurs to me that Polinesso, though without a doubt a strong character and a master manipulator, is never trying to solve his predicaments via force. He doesn’t stab Ariodante, he makes him kill himself. I suppose 18th century audiences would see that as cowardly but to me it seems more like orchestrating the perfect crime.

It was interesting to hear Prina’s trademark way with coloratura from up close. In the past it took me a while to get used to it but now I think it’s part of her take no prisoners approach. Others might lose their way if they did it like that but she’s on top of it. She’s another singer whose singing is closely related to her acting, to the point it’s not worth talking about them separately. All her moves are reflected in the sound and she’s not afraid to incorporate (evil) laughter or breaths (of indignation), gnashing of teeth etc. if the lines call for that kind of thing. It all comes off as strong but not over the top. She’s also not afraid to show us exactly how Polinesso seduces Dalinda but even that doesn’t appear overdone. Seduction is an around the clock job, you can’t punch out after 8 hours and hope the next shift will take care of it – because the next shift might just take care of it for good, haha, and all your toil will be for naught.

Karg as Ginevra had already made a strong impression on me in the webcast. Previously I had often wondered why she’s been constantly singing at Wiggy; I guess I should’ve trusted them. It was also lucky I had seen the webcast, because on Friday she was wearing a red dress with her (freckly) upper back exposed right under my very appreciative eyes. Here are some ……. for you to ponder that.

But the sound, right? I love it. You don’t hear me say I love a soprano’s voice so often, though I like quite a few sopranos. I usually like their personality or their vocal intelligence rather than the sound per se. But in Karg’s case, I just love the fullness of her tone, just right to avoid ping and just enough to accomodate excellent coloratura chops, just enough volume to carry well. It incorporates a bit of introspection, which is always very alluring to me.

She was quite reserved dramatically at Carnegie Hall – though I thought that suitable for Ginevra, who’s the bashful/upright kind – but I do agree she seemed more at ease at TADW, perhaps with a less complicated Ariodante. Like I mentioned in the comments over at Anik’s, I really enjoyed their duets, where you got a very appealing contrast between their voices, deftly emphasised by the way Handel entertwines their lines, especially in Bramo aver mille vite, which is easily one of the cutest awwww moments in Baroque.

Ariodante: do you still love me after all I put you through by believing you were a slut?
Ginevra: I adore you! Please take my heart! If I had more I’d give them all to you!
Ariodante: omg, me too! Let’s move in together and give each other many hearts!
Ginevra: let’s!
Ariodante: let’s!
Ginevra and Ariodante: let’s move in together and exchange hearts! Let’s! Let’s!
Statira (peeking in from another opera): wait, what? What’s this talk of heart exchange I hear? Stop the metaphorical talk, I’m having a panic attack!

Dear reader, it was wonderful. At the end I lingered in the box, just basking in the atmosphere. Perhaps it’s good I can’t go there all the time and see it lose its special charm. I still remember the “sardines” in the box across from mine, 10 people who stuck it out to the end, shoulder to shoulder, for the love of Handel. Or the chap in the first row centre, who was trying to keep track of the action via his programme. In the first row centre. Or the people in the standing room box just under the ceiling. I wonder how you see/hear from there (but not too hard; I like “my” box). Or sneaking amused glances at Anik scribbling away in her box whenever someone did something breathtaking, knowing she’s thinking along the same lines as I do. Or the lady in the box next to hers, who fanned herself vigorously through the entire show (TADW is on the hot side but not quite that bad, I’d say; maybe she was building arm muscle…). Or trying to figure out if Odoardo really has multicolour pastel socks on. Or wondering how they all decided which outfits to use for each venue (this one is more bare shoulder-friendly, that one wants patterns, does Carnegie Hall need more dramatic collapsing on the floor so the people up in the rafters get the point I’m a distraught father? (Brook scaled it way back down at TADW) etc.). Good geeky fun 😉

Polinesso fanmagic

to give you an idea of the location of our gushing and eventual weak knee moment

The previous times we met for shows at TADW, Anik and I spent the intermissions in a lively exchange of impressions but this time it was rather a goofy exchange of grins and gushing. After the performance I think we started to put together some coherent ideas as we lingered in front of the poster at the front.

Eventually the time came to hightail each to our own home (opera fans = regular party animals 😉 ) when Anik all of a sudden started tugging on my sleeve and speaking in a strangled tone: look! look! I was thinking whatever happened to her, she’s normally so eloquent? when who would be casually strolling by (from behind me, the general direction of the stage door) with spiky hair and spiky backpack (remember them, rubber spikes)? I’m sure you know who by now.

I was indeed speechless for once. Then that funny thing happened (a first!), where my knees went literally (not just “literally”) soft, so I had to actually grab onto the white wall you see in the picture above. Since I was still lalalala with excitement I found this hysterically funny even though it was happening to me. But as you can see from Anik’s distillation of our moment, I wasn’t the only one on the verge of pulling a damsel in distress. I mean, come on, do people actually go weak in the knees? Given the right contralto it turns out they do.

me (fronting by way of joke): be still my beating heart! …wait, I think it had actually gone still for a moment.

So after we came to, we had one of those whoa! moments you remember from your teen years. We spent the next few minutes coming to grips with what had just happened (I know, you’re like wait, she just walked past you, why all the fluster?! to that I say you had to be there), when who would just as casually be strolling back from wherever she and her friend went? (one of the shops a couple of doors down from TADW). How nice of Prina to give us a few moments to catch our breath! 😉

That’s when I knew we had to do something. Anik was all prim and proper (there is such a thing as too polite and apparently you don’t even have to be English) but all I could see in my mind was all the moments a chance presented itself and I didn’t grab it with both hands. I learned the hard way that you almost never get the same chance twice, so when you do…!!! Let me tell you I hate regret as much as Polinesso hates virtue.

I plastered the biggest grin on my face and made a beeline for Prina (I’m sure I barged into their conversation but what would Polinesso do, right?) and just went – without any intro – WE LOVE YOUR POLINESSO! WE LOVED THE SHOW! BUT MOSTLY WE LOVE YOU! She was a bit confused at the beginning (who the hell is this person, should I know her from somewhere? is she mad? is she asking me for change?) but let me assure you flattery will get you anywhere 😉 I grabbed her hand, shook it and went on blabbering about how great she was and I was seeing her on Tuesday in London as well and btw, she was also singing something a bit weird in London in September – how come? and here’s my friend too (that was Anik, in front of whom we had arrived in the meanwhile).

This was Prina’s cue to actually get a word in edgewise and she introduced herself to Anik (in my mind I was like WE SO KNOW WHO YOU ARE! WE LOVE YOU!) and then she introduced her friend to us, who – surprise, surprise – was also a contralto (two for one!). I told her friend WE LOVE CONTRALTOS! because duh! and it’s always exciting to meet another one, since everyone (around here) knows there should be more of them.

❀ is all I’m saying (photo credit: Prina’s friend with Anik’s mobile)

Not to lose momentum I asked Prina if she would be so nice as to take a picture with us and she chivalrously obliged. Her friend immediately took the initiative of snapping the picture (Anik is actually in it as well but she’s pulling a Zoro and her identity must remain hidden).

Gotta love contraltos, so laid back and friendly ❀ I wonder if they wouldn’t have accepted, had we invited them to a drink. But in spite of how it might sound, I was taking care not to be too intrusive and we let them go soon after. Not before laying some smooth moves on Prina, as you might know from the comment section in the Aaaahriodante post. One chance only and all that. But since it’s my claim to fame I shall reiterate. After we disengaged from the picture pose, Prina turned to me (you can see she was very close).

Prina: so you’re a singer too?
dehggi: yes! [I would’ve said yes to anything, haha] I mean no! (a beat, then winky eyes) Do I have to be a singer to like you?

She smiled like heh, good one! and I thought yes, she liked that and I felt even more buoyant than before. Then we said goodbye and good luck and they, just as casually, strolled back to where they came from, though they looked a bit undecided as to what to do next (have a drink with us!).

Given the daze of the moment I actually have no clue what Anik said or didn’t say so she’ll have to tell you that herself. But I hope she told Prina she was the one who wrote the post Prina had gushed about on FB.

Not 5 minutes pass (we’re back to gushing) and Anik tugs on my sleeve again – Karg with her mum or older relative and another woman passes by, in plimsols, leggins, backpack but still with the same hair, munching carrots 😀 Opera singers are so low key ❀ You really have to look, because they are so unflashy off stage you could easily miss them. Off the heels she’s almost tiny (I’m saying almost because I also thought Prina was short and… well, you can see above which one of us is the tall chief). However! as someone quite obviously not tall, I of course am very heartened when I see we are so well represented on stage 😀

Moral of the story: do linger after the show, a beloved singer might just walk by slow enough to make you get over your starstruck state. Or it might just be fun chatting with an equally enthusiastic opera lover. Did I mention I love TADW3?

  1. I really like this idea. Gives people from further afield the opportunity to see a high quality show as well as gives those who would like to travel the advantage of checking out different venues. 
  2. Because I’m a bit uncultured, I just found out TADW is where Die Zauberflote premiered. Also Die Fledermaus. I like it even better now (if possible). 
  3.  They aren’t paying me to say this. Though if they want to, I’ll be very happy with that box seat for whenever I come over ;-)