The return of contralto duels

Haydn, right? The cheerful composer wrote vocal music among other things, and one of those pieces was the promisingly titled oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. The biblically challenged me immediately wanted to know where Tobia went in the first place (answer: to Persia, on a money (owed to his father) collecting errand; (post)Baroque-bargain moment: he also found a wife; on the way he ran into the Angel Raphael (as you do), who wisely advised him to pick up certain items that came in very handy later, such as when he needed to cure his father’s blindness and get married – though not at the same time.

Anyway, a weekend Bible lesson isn’t the reason for this post, but a brass-happy aria, Sudò il guerriero (tl;dr: your efforts aren’t always justly rewarded but keep fighting and eventually you will prevail) sung by many (not just contraltos) but new to me. Our duellers today are Ewa Podles and Marie-Nicole Lemieux:

I like the Classicism of it all, with its post-Baroque flashes of virtuosity and construction and the more modern (for its time) development of the phrase. It reminds me of both Mozart’s Mitridate and Entfuhrung, which is of course a good thing.


Schubert with Angelika Kirchschlager (Wigmore Hall, 31 January 2018)

Angelika Kirchschlager is someone I’ve been aware of for what counts as forever but her contemporaries always appeared more interesting especially at a time when I was exclusively interested in opera and saw recitals as second best. As a result this was the first time I properly listened to her. It was a very pleasant semi-surprise.

Final concert in Schubert: The Complete Songs series
Angelika Kirchschlager mezzo-soprano
Julius Drake piano

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Namenstagslied D695
Frühlingsglaube D686
Geheimes D719
Im Frühling D882
Bei dir allein D866 No. 2
Lambertine D301
Am Bach im Frühling D361
Ganymed D544
Wiegenlied D498
In der Mitternacht D464
Erlkönig D328


Gesang der Norna D831
Der liebliche Stern D861
Romanze zum Drama Rosamunde D797 No. 3b
Suleika I D720
Suleika II D717
An den Mond D193
Der Jüngling an der Quelle D300
Der Wanderer an den Mond D870
Der Unglückliche D713
Lied des Florio D857 No. 2
Abschied von der Erde D829



I went because I can be a bit of a completist and because I kept remembering her from that Mozart docu (that shows the gaudy pink wallpaper from his house in all its splendor – I think) where she made singing Mozart sound like the bees knees. She can’t be all bad if she likes Mozart that much, can she? Then again, she’s from his hometown so I guess it’s the law to love Wolfie.

Two first things first: 1. Hair. That’s some hair she’s (still) got going! It’s like Galou’s nose (which I managed not to mention all this time 😉 ); there is hair and then there is Kirchschlager hair. I’m sure it’s boring for her and other well-maned people to hear about it but wow. I’m saying that appreciatively, even though I’m not particularly into hair (or noses – still Galou’s: ❤ ). 2. Mezzo? I know these fachs are approximative and at this point in her career it probably doesn’t matter anymore, plus her tone is very pleasant. But: mezzo?

Whatever her exact voice bracket, she can spin a phrase and sing lieder non-operatically and still have enough dynamic variation to hear comfortably anywhere in the hall (her excellent diction helps as well). A very interesting experience – somewhat like Antonacci in the sense of filling the hall without any apparent effort and definitely without shouting. She’s very different from Antonacci, though, so don’t get the wrong impression. It’s a very gentle/congenial sound, even when she steps on the pedal in something like Erlkönig – it’s still not commanding. It’s so delicate it feels a bit old skool girlie, especially hearing her so soon after Boni, who has that quintessential boyish mezzo tone, with a bit of kick to it. I was thinking it would be interesting to hear them together, also I should give her Octavian another try. I’m more ready for a very girlie Octavian nowadays.

In any case, this was exquisitely sung lieder, a mix of well used experience and enough spontaneity and youthfulness. Sometimes something done in the simplest manner can have a strong effect.

Florid Gluck with Daniel Behle (Wigmore Hall, 4 February 2018)

Daniel Behle first came to my attention in Cosi fan tutte, with his Aur’amorosa, which was the best thing of that night. I was a bit surprised to see him bring a whole Gluck programme because I had this idea that tenors always sing stuff like Una furtiva lagrima in recital, regardless of their usual rep. Then again, as soon as he started I thought to myself  “he even looks like a bureaucratic Tito!”. So he sounds and looks like this rep, he might as well make the most of it.

Daniel Behle tenor
Armonia Atenea
Markellos Chryssicos director, harpsichord

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
La contesa de’ numi
Qual ira intempestiva … Oggi per me non sudi

Le cinesi
Son lungi e non mi brami

Suite of excerpts from Orphée, Don Juan and Iphigénie en Aulide

La Semiramide riconosciuta
Bel piacer saria d’un core

Non hai cor per un’impresa


Christoph Willibald Gluck
La Semiramide riconosciuta
Io veggo in lontananza

Quercia annosa sull’erte pendici

Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785)
Concerto a quattro No.1 in G minor a different concert was played but don’t ask me details

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Iphigénie en Aulide
Cruelle, non, jamais

Orphée et Eurydice
J’ai perdu mon Eurydice


Oggi per me non sudi

I’m always on the lookout for the next crop of Titi. He seems like a strong contender though I don’t know if he’ll ever get to the level of vocal agility + expressivity someone like Croft showed us is possible in this repertoire. I hope I’m wrong because I’d like to hear more high quality Titi and Idomenei in the years to come. Perhaps he had a slight cold as the very top proved rather stiff, though he navigated around that and everything else worked very well, with a good to very good command of dynamics. He’s convincing when he’s actively involved in music making, he’s not afraid of jumping head first into aggressive bounts of coloratura and his timing is ace (my favourite thing of the evening; his entrances were all spot on, even when the rhythm was akin to a ship tossed by tempestuous winds). I venture to say, though, that he needs to work a bit on his charisma in between numbers; that bureaucratic feel should be left with Tito.

It’s also unusual for me to hear so much stormy stuff from a tenor though of course I know composers occasionally give them such (Fuor del mar, Tu vivi etc.). There wasn’t that much bravura, just of very good quality, chief among them a strong oak aria – Quercia annosa sull’erte pendici – and the very first number, Oggi per me non sudi, which kicked things off in high gear. Pre-reform Gluck can be a lot of fun!

You all know my feelings about AA so I won’t reiterate (quick reminder = my Sabata writeup) but in their favour I quite appreciated Chryssicos’ cembalo skills. I welcomed the toning down of frenzy he brought along. I can see there is a schtick they go for regardless of who’s conducting (ie, fast’n’choppy) but here it was less mad with the rock’n’roll and more with the legato.

Masterclass fans: new ROH Masterclass with JDD

Just to make me happy, it starts off with Parto. I haven’t seen it yet but I hope it’s good (almost 2 new hours). If it’s not good we can laugh about it here 😉

After watching/listening to it:

For those who don’t know and would like to before applying yourselves to an 1hr and 46min, this batch is mezzo only and it containts work on three mezzo staples: Parto, Dido’s lament and Non piu mesta (which I always call Non piu messed up). They are all promising singers but the young woman working on Dido’s lament has a particularly beautiful tone (baby contralto? we should be so lucky 😀 ). She is also very cutely star-struck.

Oscara in maschera

Nobody1 quite knows why, but for Un ballo in maschera Verdi concocted a trouser role. It’s written for a high soprano (or at least that’s what I always heard it as – always meaning the 2-3 times I listened). Every one of those times I rolled my eyes at the perky soprano prancing around rather like a cheerleader (they were all way girly, too) than what I would normally imagine as the king’s secretary (someone like Annio, I guess?). But here comes Tim Albery with a slammed production for Opera North:

having the king’s secretary, Oscar (Tereza Gevorgyan) change from his suit into an evening dress for the final scene is hard to rationalise and rather undermines Verdi’s idea of making it a trousers role for a coloratura soprano in the first place. – Andrew Clements for The Guardian

That’s kind of interesting for a change. Maybe Albery felt like me. Maybe he just wanted to highlight the ambivalence of trouser roles. If the king’s secretary is going to be a chirping coloratura soprano, what does that mean? To me it means he’s quicksilver gender-wise, so why not go full circle? I mean trouser-role wise I rate Verdi very low (I’m still bitter he changed Ernani the bandit from trouser mezzo to tenor) but he did make an (ill-conceived?) effort here and must’ve wanted something with it.

  1. I learned today Ballo is supposed to be a bit comedic, so maybe that’s one of the reasons. I don’t really get Verdi humour, so it had to be spelled out to me. But it’s progress! 

Golda Schultz recital on BBC3’s Lunchtime Concert 5 February 2018

If you, like me, enjoyed Schultz’s turn as Vitellia in last Summer’s new Salzburg Tito production – I mean as much as one could, given the new and improved context – here’s a chance to tune in to BBC3 tomorrow at 1pm GMT for some song. I’m sure we’ll all miss the riveting choreography from Sellars’ team but we’ll still have the voice.

ROH Spring Season 2018

…I forgot all about General Sale kicking off. The good news is there are still decently priced tickets. This is your choice. I’m going to see From the House of the Dead (Warlikowski’s ROH debut I think) and Lessons in Love and Violence (if it sucks at least it’s short; but it might not), plus Hannigan’s Masterclass. But one could go for both Macbeths (Verdi and Shostakovich). I might try the Shosty one, not sure yet, this is all quite out of my usual rut. Then again, it’s a Richard Jones production.

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.

Are you afraid of me, Jokanaan? (Salome at ROH, 17 January 2018)

what sticks in the mind above all is McVicar’s conception of Salome as a petulant pseudo-teen. She’s a riot of overwrought pouting, wheedling, sulking and foot-stamping. The gap between her mundane histrionics and her extraordinary desires could hardly be larger. – Flora Wilson for The Guardian

A pseudo-teen? Why, she’s supposed to be a petulant teenager, n’est-ce pas? There is no gap between her histrionics and her desires! Going for the extreme version of anything is exactly what a petulant teen would do.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Salome. She finds Jokanaan interesting because her elders are so scared of him. And when she – literally – possesses him, she scores the supreme goal against her parents. That’s quintessentially adolescent 😀

Salome: Malin Byström
Jokanaan: Michael Volle
Herod: John Daszak
Herodias: Michaela Schuster
Narraboth: David Butt Philip
Page of Herodias: Christina Bock
cast +1
Conductor: Henrik Nánási | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: David McVicar

This 2008 Salome is one of those good McVicar productions, it makes its point and doesn’t overdo anything. The stage has two levels but focuses on the lower tier, which is the seedy area underneath the banquet hall above, aka the dungeon. I liked that – at least from my seat in the gods (£19!) – you could only see the legs of those attending the banquet.

Hells, yea, that’s exactly what a girl like Salome would like, and she says that much when she descends: I like it here, it’s so breezy. I bet it was really stuffy upstairs.

I admit I didn’t get the dance of the seven veils scene, which was all intellectualised with no nudity whatsoever. In fact the nudity present in the production did not involve Salome at all. I don’t mind that, perhaps on the contrary. But I also don’t quite know what to say about the dance. With its threshhold and/or mirror it seemed to me like something having to do more with Herod’s boundaries rather than having us all part of the male gaze. If that’s what it was then good but I’m not sure; all of this is stuff I rationalised since, not something that hit me at the time.

But, as we all know, Salome’s interaction with Herod isn’t what makes this opera. Here Byström makes the boredom mixed with apprehension and uneasiness with Herod very apparent and comes alive (as Salome should) in her exploratory interactions with Jokanaan. He, rather than Herod, stands in for the unwavering, demeaning authority of the patriarchy, with his decrying of her mother’s debauchery and basically calling Salome an abomination by virtue of existing. She seems amused (and emboldened) by all this – as a teen would. She goes on to tell him she wants his various body parts and when he turns her down in disgust she says she hates the above mentioned body parts 😀 I don’t know about others but I remember those petulant reactions so well (and so fondly, now that I have just turned into a “respectable” 40 year old).

Salome herself gets the ax in the end (from supreme local authority Herod’s order) but it feels perfunctory. The bourgeoisie/parents/male authority (both secular and religious) has been dully riled up and the opera is named after her.

I’m not necessary a Malin Byström fan (my last encounter with her was as the Countess in Nozze, where she sang very well but came off very cold) but I liked her better here. Her embodiment of a willful teenager wasn’t bad from my faraway seat and her singing was good, her commitment even better. I guess I have a bit of a hard time warming up to her. Everybody else was good, no complaints from me, though not earth shattering. As far as Jokanaan, I really liked Samuel Youn a couple of years ago at the Proms and Michael Volle didn’t make a more interesting impression.

I loved Michaela Schuster as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten and so I was thrilled to have her back here, though Herodias does not require much vocally beside shrillness. She still did a great job as a woman living her frustrations with the patriarchy through her rebellious daughter whilst realising she’s lost any grip on her. Points to Christina Bock who looked really cute and miserable as Herodias rather conflicted (and possibly bisexual) page. I also liked John Daszak’s Herod, especially his acting, as a very sophisticatedly depraved Herod.

I didn’t quite get Henrik Nánási’s take, which was, in my opinion, low on drama. Perhaps, volume-wise, he let the singers come forward? But still there was the matter of tempi, which were super relaxed, especially in the dance of the seven veils (and that added to my confusion regarding that scene). The libretto is so edgy, you want the music to have some bite.

It was a good night, just short of great. There is a 2008 DVD of this production (different cast), if anyone wants to check it out (this run has just finished).

  1. First Jew: Dietmar Kerschbaum
    Second Jew: Paul Curievici
    Third Jew: Hubert Francis
    Fourth Jew: Konu Kim
    Fifth Jew: Jeremy White
    First Soldier: Levente Páll
    Second Soldier: Alan Ewing
    First Nazarene: Kihwan Sim
    Second Nazarene: Dominic Sedgwick
    Cappadocian: John Cunningham 

Anna Bonitatibus and friends (Wigmore Hall, 25 January 2018)

This was part I of a two part event where Boni (with and without co.) introduced some of us to lirica italiana.

Anna Bonitatibus mezzo-soprano
Serena Farnocchia soprano
Paul Nilon tenor
Rocco Cavalluzzi bass
Margaret Campbell flute
Vincenzo Scalera piano

Girolamo Crescentini (1762-1846)
Il primo amore

Giovanni Battista Perucchini (1784-1870)
Taci, invan mia cara lole
Vieni, t’appressa all’urna
Se i sospiri degli amanti
Odi d’un uom che muore

Luigi Gordigiani (1806-1860)
Il Trovatore
La notte
La lacrima

Alberto Mazzucato (1813-1877)
Il lago
Il bacio
Il pensiero della sera
Il canto d’amore

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Notturno (Guarda che bianca luna)


Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870)
Virginia: Cantata for soprano and piano

Giuseppe Verdi
Cupo è il sepolcro e mutolo

Vincenzo Gabussi (1800-1846)
La luna

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
Il giuramento

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
L’ultimo ricordo

Sir Michael Costa (1808-1884)
Ecco quel fiero istante

Maria Malibran (1808-1836)
Nel cor più non mi sento

Gioachino Rossini
I gondolieri


The cat quartet (Rossini)

Though Wiggy has of recent been making a habit of getting together singers, orchestras and instrumental soloists, here is no doubt that managing any number of people larger than two is no easy feat. Originally the performance was supposed to include Jeremy Ovenden (last heard by me in that not quite Tamerlano from Brussels) and Riccardo Novarro (whom you might remember from last year’s Dario and Giulio Cesare) but they had to cancel.

Due to people changing into higher gears on their own time and also perhaps due to the choice of songs, the first part of the evening was rather mixed. As one would expect, our host Boni, in what I already called a pink gelato dress (with very nice pink floral embroidery), held her own from the getgo and had a heartwarmingly gentle moment with one of the songs (don’t ask me which, sorry, I’m really not versed in lirica italiana) ending in something I translated as “don’t worry, I’m right here”. And indeed, she let her friends take centre stage through the night, popping in and out to let us know just that.

The turning point for me was the Mercadante cantata, which I did not know, but had the easiest time following the voice-piano dialogue. I was quite stunned, in fact, given that usually when I hear a new piece I’m left with a soup of feelings and maybe the main tune, rather than being able to clearly “read” along with the people on stage. Great job Farnocchia and Scalera, for the mutual communication and ability to impart to us some vintage belcanto writing. We should hear more Mercadante, shouldn’t we? We should also hear more of Scalera, who I have heard before but I’ve started to rate very highly as accompanist since this concert, where he generally seemed to be having a ball.

The first best moment of the night was Boni and Farnocchia’s duet in Donizetti’s Il giuramento – their voices work so well together. You could tell they’ve sung together a lot, too, but their tones are wonderfully suited to each other. Farnocchia, though billed as a soprano and in possession of some piercing high notes, has a very fetching middle, quite related to Boni’s, though brighter. I would not say no to hearing her in some high mezzo roles.

The second high point was Boni’s rendition of Malibran’s Nel cor più non mi sento, which, for those who don’t know, is an excuse for the singer to show off their versatility, as each return of the main tune is done in a different style, from contained pathos to operetta silliness, through trills and octave jumps. Boni had no qualms about taking the piss out of herself as much as of the text, when attempting to reach the highest highs.

Cavalluzzi has a very opaque bass which sounded to me – at least at the beginning – like a Korean-type bass, very dark and rather large and not particularly subtle. I was then very surprised to hear how comfortable he sounded in I gondolieri.

Nilon has the smallest voice of the bunch and not particularly colourful but Italianate all right. He had the least effect on me (I napped through some of his efforts during the first part, having misjudged my energy levels the night before) but then I’m not the biggest tenor fan.

The night ended on an ensemble high with a really well balanced I gondolieri, where we got to hear some of Rossini’s strengths normally reserved for opera act finales done justice by Boni and Co. Lastly, they put decorum aside and regaled us with the Cat quartet.

The night took a bit of warming up and perhaps the selections presented during the first part could’ve been thought over a little but the second part was certainly well worth it. Boni proved a very gracious and generous host and with a hilarious knack for comedy. She can do the dramatic bits no problem, but I think zany comedy is her true calling.