Category Archives: operatic damsels in distress

Proms 2018 (slim pickin’s for yours truly)

I parsed the programme and, as far as I’m concerned, there are two Proms I would be interested in:

Prom 71

John Eliot Gardiner conductor | Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
JDD mezzo

Hector Berlioz
Overture ‘Le corsaire’ (8 mins)
La mort de Cléopâtre (21 mins)
The Trojans – Royal Hunt and Storm (10 mins)
The Trojans – Dido’s death scene (7 mins)

INTERVAL

Hector Berlioz
Harold in Italy (42 mins)

Prom 74

Handel’s Theodora. I know I said it was boring but Ann Hallenberg is Irene. It will be worth listening to it on the radio 🙂

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Dido and Aeneas’ Wiggy lunch date (Wigmore Hall, 7 April 2018)

La Nuova Musica and their Director of Micromanagement (Bates) was back at Wiggy midday Saturday with a rather Purcefalian Dido and a very lively array of mezzos.

La Nuova Musica
David Bates director
Rachel Kelly mezzo-soprano (as Dido)
George Humphreys baritone (as Aeneas)
Anna Dennis soprano (as Belinda)
Emilie Renard soprano (as Sorceress) soprano…?
Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano (as First Witch)
Martha McLorinan mezzo-sporano (as Second Witch)
Louise Kemény soprano (as Second Woman)
Nick Pritchard tenor (as Sailor)
Richard Bannan baritone (as Spirit)

You don’t realise why some bang on about diction in singing until you hear an opera in a language you can instantly understand. The people on stage start to produce sound and all of a sudden you panic because the salvation of surtitles is missing and all you can make out is oeaiueaooo biscuit oooieueeeaa missed it. I was starting to question my recently checked ears when I remembered I’d just seen Le Concert d’Astrée there two days before, from exactly the same distance. It was a very different auditory experience.

Now though La Nuova Musica copes a lot better than AA, the ethos is similarly noise (ba)rock. Bates can’t be faulted for enthusiasm but the whole business comes out unecessary noisy – for my ears at least. Whereas with Le Concert d’Astrée I followed an interesting approach to sounding energetic without attempts at breaking the sound barrier, yesterday (as on other occasions) Nuova Musica’s efforts seemed to me cluttered, though this time the Wiggy legendary acoustics meant the singers could be heard (at least from row G). Add to that most of the singers’ problematic diction and there were few precious moments where I could follow the emotion at the heart of the piece.

The story, as I suppose most are aware, is stupid. Trojan stud warrior Aeneas has a pitstop in the port of Carthage on his way to sealing his place in mythology by founding Rome. He has a one night stand with the local queen and then sails merrily on his way, whilst she kills herself on account of her freshly broken heart. Ze end.

Because this is a 17th century opera we thankfully have comic relief, in the shape of the Sorceress and witches, who are jumping at the opportunity of bringing Carthage down (why do you hate Carthage, dehggi? – rather, their evil glee was infectious). Lucky for us, our Sorceress was dehggi favourite Emilie Renard, who pulled off another one of her hilarious performances as the meanly gleeful Boss Witch. I’ve always enjoyed her involvement in the drama and willingness to go for expression without fear of not sounding pretty enough. Her summoning of evil forces came off epic, from the grand way she “entered” (from the soloists’ chair to the side) to the actual interaction with the choir, classic diva moves and wicked glances.

She had spirited help from (and very good communication with) fellow mezzos Helen Charlston and Martha McLorinan as the Junior Witches, itchy at the prospect at wreaking havoc with poor Dido. Renard clarified my confusion when I could actually understand what she was saying, proving the problem wasn’t on my side.

The witch action and the choir’s interventions were the best moments of the early afternoon. The choir in general was very good, with smooth blending, high levels of energy and engagement and, as mentioned, good solo/duo moments. One of the felicitous moments from a member of the choir was Nick Pritchard’s (Sailor) short forshadowing aria about how sailors are players. He sang stylishly I could once again understand what was being said.

Humphreys as top man Aeneas was also rather good in the diction department. His projection helped his well handled baritone sail (ha.ha) over the general noise and his first interaction with Rachel Kelly’s disconcertingly demure Dido was very apt (his Aeneas looked like he was thinking “nice bit of distraction”). During their quarrel the morning after he even appeared ready to appease Dido when protesting that he would stay.

Dido is a role that I suppose needs a bit of life experience? I obviously don’t know Kelly’s experience with being dumped by a man who’s in a hurry to fulfill his destiny of founding a great imperial nation but I wager (and hope) she hasn’t so far had reasons to dwell on that time when they will lay her in earth. I personally got no rhyme or reason out of her interpretation of that very famous lament. Sure, her mezzo is a beautiful instrument and there is quite a bit of attention to musical detail in her interpretation, so what I specifically missed was the purpose (and the diction) behind all her efforts.

I don’t know what age Dido is supposed to be but as one of the tragic heroines of opera I can’t shake the feeling that she needs quite a bit of gravitas. Either Kelly’s reading was of a very young, naive woman – which I wouldn’t say is wrong per se – or she simply can’t do gravitas. Young and naive is fine but then there’s the music. Maybe you are very green but I guess when death is the only option as presented here you quickly sober up – and perhaps even wisen up (momentarily). It’s that destiny thing at work – and destiny is very serious business indeed.

A mention needs to go to Anna Dennis’ Belinda, rocking an ’80s reminiscent outfit (bangles, strappy sandals, boldly cut outfit), complete with closely cropped hair. Her poor Belinda does what she can to support Dido but to no avail. Beautiful voice, solid singing, strong stage presence, though she too needs to work on her diction.

This is an early opera (composed between 1683 and 1688), so I figure it benefits from being sung in that “Monteverdi manner” (for want of a better term – please inform me what the proper one is for future ref) where the sounds produced don’t come off as very operatic. For whatever reason that was not always the case – let’s just say the singers who I could best understand were the ones who adhered to this.

So although I as usual had some quibbles, I was still left with a smile on my face for the rest of the day, which might not be the overall emotion intended by the opera, but, as ROH says, any emotion is better than no emotion and a positive one is best.

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 Adèle 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.

Interval

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.