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Fresh year, fresh mezzo

Ney bad, eh?

I say countertenors can still fear competition.

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How quaint! or what others think

Our opera-buddy group can turn into an echo chamber at times, hence Why other people love opera. In the interest of balance I thought I’d point out a couple of recent reviews that present the exact opposite view to mine:

ENO’s Rodelinda

Glyndebourne’s Hamlet

Perception is a funny thing, innit?

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. 

Alcina of extensive musings (Paris, 22 May 2004)

Thadieu asked for my thoughts on this a loooooooooooong time ago and I worked on it (especially in 2016, so keep that in mind) but always felt like I had more (never less) to say. Since it’s got to almost 4000 words I think it’s ok to let it loose. It’s mostly my thoughts on the actual performance but also Alcina asides and whatnot. And it’s not finished yet 😉 but, hey, almost 4000 words. For your convenience I’ll put the text behind a cut. Read the rest of this entry

Roberta Invernizzi, the softer version (Wigmore Hall, 20 October 2017)

Invernizzi and Co. decided to run this show without an intermission which I thought would suit most, as we’d all make it home sooner rather than later (in my case I had an early shift to wake up to). But people are odd – even though we got to the end 20-30min sooner, people still got up to leave before the encores. Where are people rushing to?

Roberta Invernizzi soprano
Accademia Hermans
Fabio Ciofini conductor/harpsichord

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Scherza in mar la navicella Lotario HWV26
Ah, mio cor Alcina HWV34
Traditore, traditore Berenice HWV38
Trio Sonata No. 6 in G minor HWV391 Op. 2
Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV17:
Tu la mia stella sei
Piangerò la sorte mia
Sinfonia bellica
Da tempeste il legno infranto
Che sento? Oh dio! Morrà Cleopatra ancora
Se pietà di me non senti

Encore:

Lascia ch’io pianga Rinaldo
Da tempeste (reprise)

Invernizzi interestingly started with the light hearted aria about the boat, the one I discovered with Karina Gauvin earlier in the year. Considering they sang some of the same material, it was interesting to compare the results. There is a tendency to sacrifice the first aria whilst getting your voice in gear. I couldn’t say Invernizzi needed a lot of tuning in but I had more fun with Gauvin’s version, which came at the end of the first half.

Ah, mio cor, on the other hand, was less dramatic in Gauvin’s interpretation. With Invernizzi this was the moment I perked up and started to imagine her singing the whole role. Now, interestingly, if you listen to each of their ‘navicella (Invernizzi | Gauvin) you might get the opposite impression (that Gauvin, with her denser voice, would be better suited for Ah, mio cor). I did think Invernizzi’s voice was a bit light for Alcina but somehow she fleshed Ah, mio cor into the compelling moment it should be. These days she seems less interested in technical dazzling.

Baroque Bird commented that Accademia Hermans managed to pick the most boring Trio Sonata Handel had ever written 😉 Well, it wasn’t particularly interesting. We spent some time during the intermission (what? I mean after the show…) trying to remember if it had 3 or 4 parts. I thought there were four (slow/fast/slow/fast) with the third particularly boring, or perhaps it just came out unfocused, but the last fast one not too bad. I didn’t have too much issue with the band this time and will admit to using a bit of time conducting scientific research started at TADW a couple of days before (subject: cellists and toned upper arms).

Baroque Bird thought they didn’t feel very comfortable with Da tempeste. I, on the other hand, was very comfortable with it and I was quite pleased to hear it 1 1/2 times more in the past week. After much whinging, Cleopatra’s ship makes it into the port of Good Times and the audience (your truly) cracks a smile. What more can one want, indeed. Well, perhaps the whole aria encored 😉 It’s really too bad Cleo doesn’t have more arias along those lines (Da tempeste is a good conversation starter regarding Cesare. It’s normally the one that comes up as my favourite – right before I think “wait, how about Se in fiorito1? Svegliatevi nel core? Quel torrente? L’aure che spira?” – after which I remember it’s a pretty good set).

Now that I was forced to hear Piangerò la sorte mia twice as much as I normally would like in any given week, I have discovered I rather enjoy the play with harmony Handel does later in the piece.

The last time I saw Invernizzi was almost a year back in a joint concert with Prina. On paper it looked great, in the house I felt like Prina outshined her somehow or, for some reason, things came off very quiet instead of the fiery interaction I’d envisioned. This time it occurred to me that her manner of singing reminds me of Galou (the way I hear it, they’re both “abstract” singers) so perhaps pairing them would work better (for me).

My favourite Invernizzi “trick” is the way she can stop the sound short without giving you aural whiplash in the process. It’s like turning off the ignition when the car is starting to roll down the hill. Hallenberg and other light voiced Baroque specialists also do a variation of this but Invernizzi uses it very particularly and both for musical and dramatic purposes at the same time. It helps her “turn direction” unexpectedly.

So a tad less showy, more introspective Invernizzi? Why not…


  1. yes, I know, I’m a sucker for arias about coy little birds… especially when sung by contraltos. There is an English version too: Fleet o’er Flowery meadow glinding. How’s that for a tongue twister? 

Giulio Cesare with the contralto cacciator (Theater an der Wien, 18 October 2017)

Cleopatra in Egitto

You might be surprised to hear that I once again lucked out with the weather in Vienna, something that only a year ago seemed laughable. T-shirt weather in October in Central Europe!

I also lucked out with my hastily bought seat1 and had an all night direct view at Galoumisù  visually there’s precious little better than DG’s upper back/neck and with a profile view you get the best of both worlds… But, you know, the music!

2017 shall remain in dehggi history as the year of the contralto hunt, as all my opera trips were dedicated to the rarest spotted fach.

Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo
Cleopatra: Emöke Baráth
Tolomeo: Filippo Mineccia
Cornelia: Delphine Galou
Sesto: Julie Boulianne
Achilla: Riccardo Novaro
Conductor: Ottavio Dantone | Accademia Bizzantina

It may come as a surprise to some that, although I have by now quite a few experiences with, for instance, Ariodante, this is the first time I’ve seen Giulio Cesare in any house. So that is why, perhaps, I felt I liked the music a little less. To be sure, taken aria by aria we have a slew of strong ones, but also our ladies get some proper dirges. Also Tolomeo doesn’t get quite the snappy material Polinesso has. His horribleness usually amounts to old skool sexism:

Tolomeo: hey sexy mama, how about you and me in the desert-shed? Bow-chica-wow-wow!
Cornelia (lips twisted in disgust): how dare you, third world vermin, speak like that to a Roman Citizen?!

This exchange happens 3 or 4 times (as Cornelia is also popular with Achilla) and with both Galou and Mineccia very good actors, it was, dramatically, the highlight of my night. But I couldn’t help thinking we’ve got a sleazy man caricature and a racist cow… I mean, no shit, Cornelia, you’re the symbol of the colonialist establishment, you may not want to use that particular trait as the one we should remember you by.

However, Anik and I agreed nobody moves quite like Galou. She has the height (+ those heels that somehow haven’t broken her back yet) and enviable posture and she knows how to work them. This was the first time when I could see why these dudes are so hot and bothered by Cornelia, who usually is made to look like this mature and sorrowful widow, ready for the veil.

In that sense, Boulianne as Sesto appeared more like Cornelia’s younger sister (a vacillating Zdenka?). Though a singer I have appreciated in the past2, with a resonant voice and interesting darker tone, I’m not convinced Handel is her repertoire. Perhaps she was too focused on the surprisingly many, moody arias Sesto has, but on the heels of Galou and Mineccia, I was hurting for even a bit of nervous movement to go with that angst. I know I’m a fidget but how can you refrain from putting your body into this stuff?!

Hats off to Mineccia for his fantastic stage presence, with liberal (but very well directed) moving about. As I was saying earlier, his interactions with Galou (<- those snarls! haha) were priceless. I also liked the “sculpted” string sound during Empio, sleale, indegno – an underrated aria. He didn’t portray Tolomeo quite as a teenager but in the context of a very fiery Cornelia that rude young man thing was a logical foil.

However, back to Boulianne’s Sesto, I did enjoy her duet with Galou’s Cornelia. Their mix of very different voices (though I think tessitura-wise they’re rather similar) worked nicely for me. The dark colour brings them together for blending, but the weight and approach to singing makes each one pop out.

Going to see Cesare for Cornelia is a thankless task, though, being a sucker for the plight of damsels in distress, I obliged 😉 Ok, who am I kidding

I don’t quite care about Cornelia’s arias; in fact I was surprised to learn she has a chipper one towards the end. So far no matter how good the singer I thought it was just whinge, whinge, that third world bastard killed my husband, boohoo, my teenage son and I are all alone, omg, who’s going to save us now that Cesare is dead? Hello, Mr librettist: why the hell has Cornelia gone to Egypt with her teenage son in tow?

Cornelia: look, Sesto3, that scum there is your father’s murderer! Stab him!
Sesto: omg, I must be strong, but I’m only 12! What’s my mum been thinking?! Shit, now I’m seeing things…

You will say, wait, wait, dehggi, she didn’t know Pompey was dead. She thought he was just imprisoned by Tolomeo and Cesare (aka, Ancient World Police) would negotiate with (= force) said third world bastard and all will end well and her family would get a Sharm el-sheikh holiday out of it as entitled to by their first world status. It’s still kind of funny when, after liberally throwing imperialist/racist abuse at sleazebag she goes all omg! we’re lost. You’re in a war zone, lady.

That being said, I loved Galou’s timing and interactions with the orchestra – the way she got in and out of the phrase and how that blended with the sound around her – surprisingly especially when she was “duetting” with the flute, if I remember correctly. I also got a kick out of her big grins during and lots of clapping after Va tacito.

Zazzo, whom I remember as a very approachable chap from the masterclass I saw a few years back, seems to be a relaxed and courteous man all around, as he gamely shared the stage with Mr Hornplayer during this (Va tacito) most famous (?) or Cesare’s areas. Perhaps not as memorable a voice as others, his is very congenial live, when countertenors can sometimes come off abrasive.

He’s also a “stage mover”, though perhaps not quite as deliberate as Galou and Mineccia, but he brought out a surprisingly affable and luminous Cesare, who’d probably (very nicely) tell Cornelia to dial down the imperialistic angle. Along the same lines, his portrayal came off like Cleopatra was out of his league, but wow, what luck, she might actually like him (the kiss at the end of their end of opera duet was on-the-cheek shy). By the way, how catchy is that duet? Zazzo and Baráth somehow found the energy to play with it and sound playful whilst doing so. It got stuck in my head for the rest of the night and most of next day.

So now that we’ve established TADW decided to advertise this as Cleopatra in Egitto, how was Baráth? She was very fine, indeed. She has the Baroque-tone, the coloratura, the breath, the intelligence and the looks to pull it off but you know I thought Cornelia outshined her Cleopatra when it came to stage movement/charisma. She’s a bit too contained/cautious, but perhaps she’ll let go with time and experience.

Novaro as Achilla was very reliable and I really liked his red/black dragon jacket but, you know, Achilla. He was pretty respectful in his interest in Cornelia and took her rejection rather meekly.

During whingy less interesting arias I had time to listen to the hall and it is true it’s not absorbent (which is probably a good thing for this repertoire). Luckily our singers were in very good form. The band wasn’t bad, though I understand it was occasionally sluggish/unfocused. The public was as usual very discerning and I was pleased to see that all the people on my row were interested through the evening.

Anik and I met before the show for one of those chats that managed to mix the traditional opera snark, the chicken with four breasts and whether personal bunkers of hard liquor is the best answer to Europe’s current problems. At interval we were joined for impressions by another very enthusiastic WS, who has already put up a review which will hopefully answer the questions I skipped.

The good news is TADW continues to win at Baroque opera in concert.  Another good news is that TADW doesn’t object to taking your camera to your seat. The bad news is Quel torrente was cut again. And with Galoumisù so close at hand!


  1. too hastily, it seems, as “my” box remained empty. I thought about returning to it but then I wouldn’t have had Galoumisu eyes all night. 
  2. Don Giovanni in Paris last December. 
  3. why are Sestos always urged by strong women to stab someone? 

The Great Book of Big Composer Hair

It all started with hair and it veered into writing opera:

Clearly the red scarf was the essential accessory that season!

Israel in Egypt (The Plagues according to Handel) (BBC Proms, 1 August 2017)

I bet you the tenor just loves being the one to say that

In July 1984 Metallica released Ride the Lightning, which turned out to be an early Thrash classic. Crucially (for yours truly), it included this gem about that bit in the Old Testament that deals with the 10 Plagues:

But way (way) before that – over one month in late 1738 -, DJ Handel flipped the pages of his well thumbed Bible to the Book of Exodus and covered the same territory in his most chorus heavy oratorio, known as Israel in Egypt. I’d say both are on the same level of exciting, as is the story itself. I mean plagues on the enemy. Genius nationalistic PR there.

DJ Handel assembled Israel from a motley array of sources that did include his own work. Even so, the fickle London audience, on whose account he had stopped writing Italian language dramatic works on secular themes (= operas) and turned to English language dramatic works on Biblical themes (= oratorios), was too shocked by the sheer amount of chorus featured here, so Handel soon revised the work by removing the initial chorus only 30min lament and adding some arias instead. Chorus societies have of course never stopped loving it – and so will anyone with an appreciation for a finely spun tune on multiple voices -, though I bet the singers are hoarse by the end.

The cheerful Plague of hailstones (with fire) is catchy as hell yet the best bit is the immediately preceding Plague of flies and lice (He spake the word), where Handel has the strings positively buzzing:

Christie really went to town with the buzzing, it came off a lot more vivid with surround sound from the strings than in this otherwise very fine Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir recording from some 30-40 years ago (maybe they had similar but the technology of the time doesn’t do it justice).

Both are apparently clever rip-offs from adventure-loving Alessandro Stradella’s wedding serenata Qual prodigio é ch’io miri –  also known as the Plague of marriage 😉 – from the time of Handel’s audience’s grandparents (he clearly figured they wouldn’t know these tunes anyway).

On 31st July 2017 at 8:40pm, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment finished playing Tito at Glyndebourne and on 1st August 2017 at 7:30pm they started playing Israel at Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. Busy week, eh?

Handel Israel in Egypt (1739 version)

Zoë Brookshaw soprano
Rowan Pierce soprano
Christopher Lowrey countertenor
Jeremy Budd tenor
Dingle Yandell bass-baritone
Callum Thorpe bass
Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie conductor

I would urge you to listen to this fine oratoriccio but first you need to decide if you want to register with the BBC instead, as they now require.

I have to congratulate the 60 piece or so choir for a truly ace job. Their blending was optimal, as was their stamina and timing. A true pleasure to listen to, due in part to the clever arrangement of different voices among each other (sopranos, male altos, sopranos, tenors, bass etc.) but mostly clearly to their superior craft. The orchestra was equally big for Handel yet Christie got a very light and supple sound from them, clear and with tempi that didn’t let anyone flag. In fact I heard some people comment on the way out that “there were no dull moments”. Great interventions from the trumpets, timpanist and the winds. We’ve established already that DJ Handel knew what he was doing and we know Christie does too.

So thank you, once again, Baroque Bird, for this last minute ticket 🙂 (very good stalls seat! with excellent view of the orchestra, choir and singers; though it was on the side, I didn’t have trouble hearing the soloists. My favourites were Thorpe and Yandell in their duet). Royal Albert Hall looks even more daunting when you look up from the stalls – 7 level (ha!) all in all.

So now back to Tito. Remember, the livestream is tomorrow at 6pm GMT, up on the same page for one week 😀

Tu vivi, says the tenor (more Ariodante)

Or get over it, brov! Don’t let that unfaithful woman get you down.

Tenors get no(t enough) love around here 😉 Contrary to how it might appear, I like some of them quite a bit. Handel wrote some neat stuff for the voice in 1735:

I like how tight, clean and elastic this rendition is. (Honorary mezzo) Croft always has emotion in his voice, he doesn’t need to force the issue (the emotion bit is hinted at in the interview at the bottom). It helps that his tone is noble and has just the right amount of cojones so one doesn’t feel like his characters can be knocked down with a feather. Here’s a tenor I wish I’d seen live, because he’s doing well here too, at a tempo not many could cope with:

In this interview he says something rather interesting about how Minkowski helped him get back his confidence with (Baroque) coloratura and how you need to try it before you can figure out how you’re going to approach it; also about the challenge of composers who write “mathematically”:

It always surprises me when a naturally gifted singer comes from a not particularly musical family (in his case, it was both him and his brother, but apparently no one else).

Stomp of joy, coif of steel (4 June, Sonia Prina at Halle Handel Fest 2017)

look at that fine coif, after 2hrs of sweating!

All you’ve heard about the Halle Handel Fest atmosphere is true. Now I’m not your best witness, seeing as how I only had time/funds1 for one performance in one venue but the feel in and around Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche was relaxed and congenial, complete with “cheerleader” thumping.

Going to a not very large town at the weekend (long weekend at that) makes said town appear deader than perhaps it is. So you shouldn’t be surprised we saw Prina strolling again or that we ran into other “opera travellers” (this time Leander and Baroque Bird’s Twitter friends Meri from Barcelona and Jutta from… Germany) – it’s probably because the only people out and about were musicians and opera fans. After the show we joined them for some general opera chat (often from opposite sides of the argument! keeping it intellectually stimulating into the night 😉 ).

Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche is on Leipzigerstrasse across from shops and has a fountain and stone benches where you can wait (feverishly) for the doors to open. We were there super early because Agathe was convinced the show was starting at 7pm (eager 😉 ). It paid off!

I scouted the area (as it was on my path) before meeting Agathe and then we went there together. There was no movement that early on (3pm) and little at 6pm. Then a few old ladies dressed for church showed up and still the door stayed shut. Eventually Prina herself (+ fiance) skipped by (proper spring in her step) to the artists’ entrance. “Our” door = nada.

Finally we were allowed in at 7pm on the dot (I imagine) but not in-in, just in the boxoffice area and in the inner courtyard. Prina and team were doing warmups on the other side of the wall, as if our fire needed stoking 😉 As we were chatting, Meri from Barcelona showed up. We had met at Stutzmann’s 2 July show at the Wiggy last year, when she said “I know you from from Giulia on Twitter!” The Giulia she meant is the Giulia we know and love (so thank you, Giulia, for mentioning me, even though I’m not on Twitter 🙂 ). Small Baroque world, small Baroque fan world. To illustrate just how small, Meri and I met again the next day at Schönefeld Airport.

Finally we got in. We hoped the seat next to me would still be free and Agathe could upgrade but sadly no dice. I had two gents dressed in suits on each side; how they coped with the heat is a mystery to me but then they probably haven’t spent the last decade at an average temperature of 19C like yours truly.

Ombra cara (with Vivaldi instrumental greatest hits and the Hasse one from the Rokoko CD because everyone likes it)

mezzos and contralto FTW!

Sonia Prina contralto
George Petrou director | Armonia Atenea
Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche

i. Concert in A minor RV522 (Vivaldi)
Bella Asteria Tamerlano
Agitato da fiere tempeste Ricardo primo
i. La follia (Vivaldi)
Ombra cara Radamisto
Furibundo spira il vento Partenope

Intermission

i. Concert in G major for mandolin and orchestra Op.3 Nr.11 (JA Hasse)
Pena, tiranna Amadigi
Se fiera belva ha cinto Rodelinda (what is this one ripping off? I can’t figure out!)
i. Concert in E minor RV484 (Vivaldi)
Qual nave smarrita Radamisto
Venti, turbini Rinaldo

Encore:

Già l’ebro mio ciglio (? I’m pretty sure it was this one…) Orlando
Fammi combatere Orlando

Prina beamed through the evening and infected everyone on stage and most beyond with her liveliness. Even Meri’s friend Jutta, who’s hardly a Prina fan, noted with surprise that she’d never seen Petrou smile before.

She started with Bella Asteria which was all gentle lovey-doveness; a good easing into the mood. I’d heard it in that interview she did for the BBC last month and wasn’t quite convinced. Again, live everything sounds better; it’s probably easier to feed off a roomful of people than to sound exciting in a studio with an audience of technicians at work and a (good) accompanist on the harpsichord, especially when no one asks you how it is to play a man on stage 😉

It’s true she can make you swoon with her sudden drops to seductive ppps and her lightly smoked tone sounded as smooth as ever but I first and foremost love her for the stomp. I can’t think of anyone else on the Baroque opera stage today who’s more effective when it comes to the heroic stance. Certainly no one looks like they have more fun with it.

That fun goes a very long way. I might just be speaking for myself but forget about aced high notes and ringing chest ones, smooth coloratura and beautiful legato – if the performance is bland and detached you might just as well stay home and listen to a polished recording. The truth is I’m going through the trouble of organising a trip abroad because I want to be seduced. I want that electricity in the room (even the occasional palpitations that come with it) that can only be communicated directly by a very involved performer.

After a triple dose of Prina within the span of three weeks it’s perhaps hard to write anything new. She was happy and in great form. She “delivered” to the standards those who like her would appreciate. In fact, having seen her 6 times now I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t “on”. Quite the work rate.

the Handeltram

A recital is a different beast from an operatic performance, even a concert one. The performer mainly feeds off you, the audience, as opposed to other performers on stage. Baroque Bird was curious if there had been any costume changes. I was surprised to note that I hadn’t even thought about that and that I actually didn’t remember any in previous recitals. But apparently there had been (at Wiggy). So you see, perhaps it’s not that kind of venue, as Baroque Bird later mused. Perhaps a regular recital is different from a festival recital.

Though the atmosphere was relaxed, it was so in a different manner than at Wiggy. Generally, as you can tell, the setlist was very structured – now a slow and sexy aria, now a furious one, and this structure was not strayed from, for better or worse, even in the encores, where performers usually loosen up and may even sing an aria by a (gasp) different composer (what? we had so much Vivaldi already!). I wonder how much say the conductor has, since I saw some material overlap with the following day’s Cencic recital in Salzburg. I was happy with the choices, quite a few of which I had not heard her sing before. But you can see what I mean when it comes to the feel of the thing. If I were to compare the three recent performances I’ve seen, the TADW one was lively and free, the Barbican a bit toned down and the Halle one lively but a tad too neatly organised.

Of course that doesn’t mean the fury arias didn’t punch. I had already hinted at almost passing out from the sheer drama in Furibundo spira il vento (that knack for timing I keep mentioning when it comes to Prina) and the mad stomp that Venti, turbini turned out to be. I’ll forever be let down now if the next performances of it I see don’t include kicks and stomping 😀 The urgent way she phrases the words venti, turbini! in the repeats is unique, too. Some people go soft on turbini and rush with the command, but let me tell you: it’s wrong.

After her impressive stint earlier this Spring in Rodelinda it was good to hear her sing a Bertarido aria for a change (and the damn thing got properly stuck in my head for days!). Same with Agitato da fiere tempeste and Fammi combatere, which were interesting to hear with a thicker kick, as in my mind it’s always Ann Hallenberg singing them and although I love her too, I don’t quite see her as a mad (anti)hero.

…I think I have to leave the comments on the swoony-seductive arias to Agathe 🙂

Handel: Goodbye, Halle! I’m going to Italy!

The day started with downpours so I spent the morning in a heavy session of thumb twiddling at the temporary dehggi residence in Halle. The sun came out with a vengeance once Agathe and I met by Handel’s statue. We decided to stroll, which was very pleasant (let’s walk this way!) on a now warm and quiet summer afternoon. I’m a big fan of the winding street thing and I also appreciate the unassuming, such as Handel House; those two terms sum up the Old Town.

Our conversation extended from opera to the past 30 post-communist years, because it’s quite obvious Eastern Germany hasn’t yet shaken the spirit. Halle is an interesting mixture of said pretty winding medieval streets with goodlooking architecture in the Old Town and communist vestiges popping up elsewhere (like the train/bus station area, which gave me flashbacks to the ’80s; even the customer service did2). Leipzigerstrasse, the street linking the train/bus station area with the venue and Marktplatz in the Old Town, is a curious narrow, old building-lined shopping strip with a persistent ex-communist feel (the shops) which feel was not aided by the super deadness on a Sunday/church holiday.

I felt the venue a bit wonky from the getgo, as it’s very narrow for how tall it is, with barely two aisles of seats and some more tucked away on the left side. I do get it, continental Gothic churches and all, but hot on a Summer day3 with all windows closed. At the front it was even hotter due to stage lights. Jutta later joked there was ventilation at the back – at foot level 😉 The staff was indeed very nice – the coat checker even suggested Agathe and I leave our stuff on the same hanger. The toilets were likewise good. So though I’m being critical I don’t want it to come off as all around negativity.

Leipziger Turm

Baroque Bird informed me since that Jutta had slammed the band on Twitter and I will admit I too had some issues with the sound, though to me it wasn’t clear who or what was the biggest culprit. Either way, it’s not natural to have problems hearing properly from the second row. Namely at the beginning (Concert in A minor) I couldn’t make out the low strings. Later I did notice a significant improvement in balance but a sense of muddled sound persisted; after several times at St George’s Hanover Sq I know that sound in churches often gets lost vertically, so it might have well been the case. Jutta said later the band is usually very unbalanced but I had not heard them before live, and since I know even less about instruments than about voices, I’ll refrain from further comments. Suffice it to say I wasn’t convinced – though when I could hear the low strings I did rather enjoy them. It helped that Prina’s voice has a cello-like consistency.

As the lyrical waxing above may remind you, I’m a singer’s fan so as long as the singer sounds good to me the accompaniment comes second. But having heard some orchestras with enough personality to make me pay attention I’m not denying the experience is more pleasurable when the singer has a solid “cushion” to spring off. In conclusion:

Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche with a sign that invites wise cracks

ps: as usual, sorry about any typos etc., just finished a batch of nights but I know I’ve taken long enough with this post 🙂

  1. I actually did have time but it does get complicated when there are only so many days (budget) planes fly from London to Leipzig and back and you have to look at other options for departing the land of music. 
  2. lady selling me the flixbus ticket somehow understood my “Berlin” as “Hamburg”; I know my German doesn’t rate but seriously. 
  3. if that Salzburg thing works out I think I need to bring ice packs along.