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Opera Twitter meets The Onion

As you all know, I have so far decided to stay away from Twitter, mostly on account of already spending enough time online (I’m falling by the wayside, I know, but -). Based on the accounts below, I don’t know that I dare put up with the mental anguish and aesthetic dilemas at stake:

Twitter discombobulated when bachtrack review does not praise everyone involved

(it’s bachtrack, but they do occasionally give 3 stars and less, don’t they? This describes a performance of Handel’s (virtue-praising borefest) Theodora)

We’re talking about students and young professionals so I’ll be wary about bandying names.

Heavy forshadowing… but starting with the good:

Here instead, in a nod to last weekend’s Glyndebourne Opera Cup and as a means of cutting to the chase, is my roll of honour.

First prize: Polly Leech (mezzo- soprano) a complete artist whose command of style, score, vocal technique and stagecraft was staggering. Her rendition of Irene’s “Bane of virtue” was the first moment at which a singer’s performance met the measure of the work.

[…]

Honourable mentions go to soprano Charlotte Bowden, tenor Patrick Kilbride and bass Jolyon Loy.

(Bane of virtue is a really badass title – \m/ at ya, DJ Handel)

So far so polite and appreciative. Now onto the scandalous part:

There were near-misses for a couple of countertenors too, but one shrieked at the top and faded at the bottom while the other, though more technically secure, buried his head so deeply in his score that poor old Didymus remained glued the page.

😀 Sorry, I don’t have the Twitter truth quotes, as this was pointed out to me by Baroque Bird, who likes countertenors a lot, so I have no reason to think her mezzo-biased or malicious. We had a convo over whether it was weird or not to lay it into ’em (whoever ’em happen to be). Well, you know me 😉 You’re on stage, wear your Gorgon shield.

Twitter magic wand fight between composer, critics, singers etc. over mild criticism

These are comments on the ROH production of Turnage’s opera for children, Coraline, apparently doomed to be his last (opera):

The Observer’s Fiona Maddocks felt it was overlong, but praised the cast and staging, writing. “With some text trims and … judicious use of surtitles, it could triumph.”

And

The Guardian’s Tim Ashley, in a four-star review, noted that the children in the audience enjoyed it but added: “Turnage has long divided opinion, and not everyone, I suspect, will like it.”

Like, OMG, no platform, the two of you!

Worst of all, the bad boy of English classical music criticism:

Indeed, the Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen did not pull his punches. “Turnage’s score is grey, sluggish and lacking in either charm or spookiness,” ran his review.

That’s almost as bad as they cuss up in Tottenham, fam. What what!

Hugh Canning, the Sunday Times’s opera writer – although this was not a production he was reviewing himself in a formal capacity – added in a tweet since deleted that he thought that Christiansen’s comments were “spot on”.

He hastens to add, he was not reviewing it himself. But he did post a thumbs up. What’s the (first) world coming to? Wait, he deleted it 😀 world crisis (almost) averted – you didn’t think this stopped here, did you?

The following day, ahead of his opera’s final performance of this current run, Turnage, who in 2015 was awarded the CBE for services to music, wrote a tweet to Canning and Christiansen which said: “Don’t worry Hugh. There will be no further operas by me that you will ever have to sit through again. I’m done with the genre. Going to leave it [sic] my more talented contemporaries and younger colleagues.”

I’m taking my CBE and I’m going home! You critics can write your own operas now! See if I care.

Canning replied: “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve been a big fan of your earlier pieces. Can I suggest a few cuts in Act 1 & a sprinkling of fairy-dust on the orchestration?”

lolz. It’s but a step from thumbs up, big dawg to a sprinkling of fairy dust. We all flirt with danger on occasion but soon return to the rivers and the lakes that we’re used to. Or to the bowl of potpurri.

The critic’s response was heavily criticised by opera singers including British tenor Paul Curievici, who was not involved with the production. He wrote: “The shared-space-ness of Twitter is tricky, and this is one incident among several in which the right tone has seemed hard to land on … Opera twitter prompting one of our most garlanded composers into abandoning the art form does not make me feel good about opera twitter.”

double lolz. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The tenor Ben Johnson tweeted: “Where does a critic get off directly (publicly) writing to a composer of this standing in such a way?”

Dunno, dude, I thought you had a really funny sense of humour. A composer of this standing – good thing it’s still ok to say what you have to say about lesser known composers.

All I can say is, a friend of a friend who’s into Neil Gaiman (as well as opera) went and enjoyed it.

Ok, there’s something else I wanted to say:

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.

Strongly introspective Semiramide (ROH, 25 November 2017)

major spoilers (credit: ROH)

ROH hasn’t seen Semiramide staged in over 100 years but it’s good they did it now, when they have a Rossini-appreciative conductor in the house and such an exceptional team of Rossinians to sing it. It’s the most expensive production of the season but it’s definitely worth it musically. Dramatically I guess I’m not an Alden fan but it’s not a stupid staging either. I just thought more (or prettier) could’ve been done to match the singers’ skills and commitment to the drama.

“let’s get the Rossini face on!” (credit: JDD’s website)

Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Assur: Michele Pertusi
Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee
Oroe: Bálint Szabó
Azema: Jacquelyn Stucker
Mitrane: Konu Kim
Nino’s Ghost: Simon Shibambu
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Royal Opera House Choir and Orchestra
co-production with Bayerische Staatsoper

This is “another modern staging” that places the action amidst a moment of acute power vacuum within a dictatorship – with good reason, Babylonia wasn’t a shining example of enlightened democracy (not that we should be talking).

The story is wonky enough: even though Nino, the former North Korean style dictator, here referenced by a giant statue and apparently Trump-like family portraits, has been dead for 15 years, it is only now that a new – read: male – leader is needed. It appears that so far Semiramide (his widow) and Assur’s (descendant of Baal, so Mr Macho) regency has been good enough. Or perhaps this is just heavy foreshadowing/convenient plot device.

Nino and Semiramide’s son Ninia has secretly survived his infancy and has gained a reputation for himself by rising to the position of commander of Semiramide’s army, under the (Scythian) name of Arsace. It seems like Assur has not been careful enough when sweeping his path to power.

It’s the ancient world so rituals and the mysterious (ie: vague, confusing) will of gods are par for the course. Alden indulges adequately. Knee crawling and extensive “praise the gods” genuflecting from the choir pepper the duration of the opera. Agathe observed that it’s even more exaggerated than in Munich, so perhaps it’s intentionally made to appear ridiculous. I for one did not, in any case, get a feeling that Alden has any spare affection for this world.

The best quip is Azema’s completely constricting (albeit technically very accomplished) golden dress. Her constant facial expression of defeat brings out the straitjacket feel induced by the hampering overlong sleeves. Usually carried to and fro (like a sack of potatoes) by a male attendant (she seems to be needed everywhere, although it is never clear why, as she barely has a voice, mostly to express dissatisfaction with her lot1; perhaps to make up the quota of women at the court), she is at some point placed on a cordoned off plinth, with Idreno agitating around like a blood hound. I liked Bachtrack reviewer‘s comment that she looks like an Grammy Oscar statuette, considering her suitors (Assur, Idreno and “lucky” winner Arsace) engage in what was in 1823 – and possibly still today, in certain circles – a singing contest.

Though, to be fair, the way Rossini is sung here is as far removed from showcasing fireworks as anything I’ve seen. Not that the singers don’t cover all that, because they all do with lots of skill and style, but because the focus is staunchly placed on conveying a believable drama to contemporary audiences. We have come a very long way from the ’80s. This a 3 1/2 hour opera and I didn’t flag once. A great accomplishment by all – less so by the choir, who had some issues keeping up with Pappano and Rossini, something both Agathe and I noticed, so it’s not just me always finding fault with them something 😉

I really enjoyed Pappano’s supple and lucid conducting and the precision with which the orchestra responded to him. It’s late, more through-composed Rossini, but Pappano didn’t make it unnecessary loud and kept the drama under control. It’s still Rossini and you can still smile at jaunty tunes at dramatic moments. I was also pleased to notice the germs of “angsty soliloquies” later developed by Bellini and mastered by Verdi – at moments when the main characters have scenes which combine tuneful lines with more recit-based passages – ariosos? I’m not sure they were still called that into the 19th century – and even include “distant sounds of the city”.

JDD did a tour de force with Semiramide. He interactions with both Pertusi’s Assur (he’s an old school bad guy but a convincing one) and Barcellona’s youthful, conflicted Arsace brought out a very well rounded, strong woman, who tries and fails to reconcile outward personal ambition with an inward sense of right and wrong and sort out different kinds of love/attraction. A busy day, indeed. Though a subject well explored in the 18th century, it is perhaps no surprise that this heroine found her strongest voice in the 19th century, the one where female leads aren’t supposed to win.

credit: Tristram Kenton via thestage.co.uk

I’m not saying that offing your husband should be given a pass if you beat yourself up for it for 15 years or if you then defend your child with your life but such is the scarcity of women with agency in opera that one finds it hard not to side with her – especially the unsentimental way JDD plays her. I felt from the getgo that Semiramide was ready to meet her fate whatever the costs but she was optimistic that things would turn out right in the end. Regardless of what she did that one time 15 years ago, she seems to want to right things now – get rid of dictator in waiting Assur and secure the throne for upright hero Arsace. Of course her motives are complex but that’s what we like in our fictional heroe(ine)s.

For his part, Arsace appears like a decent sort, law abiding to a fault and the opposite of a politician. He’s also, for someone who presumably grew up in the saddle and has seen a serious amount of combat, eyebrow-raisingly naive. At first Semiramide uses subtlety when pursuing him but he only gets it when she corners him cougar-style in her nightgown. Ok, battle experience does not prepare one for being chased by a woman that someone has a lot of respect for and sees as outranking him. But still, he seems young (Barcellona’s channeling Tancredi); no wonder Alden gives him a stuffed pony to remember his childhood by (he also has some unexplored issues regarding family).

The two most dramatically impressive moments for me were when Semiramide tells Assur that she would gladly renounce the throne for her child, were he to be found alive (after a conversation where Assur implies that she too has been power mad) and her desperate chase for an embarrassed Arsace. JDD portrays a moving mother-Semiramide which only makes the later scene that much more sad and tragic.

JDDs duets with Assur and Arsace were the most moving vocally. I loved the gentle way she delivered her lines in the duet where she and Assur are in bed (and he just provides long sustained vocal backing), and the very fine way she interacted/echoed the orchestra. Her second act duet with Arsace was lovely for the unassuming way JDD and Barcellona meshed their voices (mezzo-mezzo duets = ❤ ) and made the moment of mother and son reconciliation simple and moving. Agathe remarked that so late in the opera there is nothing for the singers to prove; I welcomed it as I enjoyed the consistent commitment to exploring the drama at the expense of needless showing off.

Brownlee’s Idreno and Pertusi’s Assur were less developed – and both were meant to come off as unpleasant but no less vocally accomplished. Brownlee got his shorter aria back (it was axed in Munich) and got deserved applause come curtain time (and before; most arias did). He doesn’t have JDF’s piercing wail at the very top but I don’t know that we’re poorer for that. His tone is very handsome and the voice has just the right flexibility for Rossini, no wonder he’s made his name in this repertoire. He comes off as a nice chap in interviews but here he managed to infuse Idreno with an amount of entitlement disguised as passion for Azema that reminded me of an annoying wasp.

I understand Pertusi was unwell during the premiere but everything was fine on Saturday. I hadn’t heard him before but I enjoyed his tone and elaborate skills, especially in Assur’s act II mini mad scene when Assur is hallucinating about Nino’s return. Agathe mentioned that in Munich, Esposito had acted this mad scene in such a strong manner that she hadn’t even realised just how beautiful the music was. I was quite impressed with the complexity of vocal emotion Pertusi used for this mad scene.

Out of the smaller roles I liked Szabó’s tone a lot – very easy on the ears and nicely solid singing. His dramatic skills were good, too.

There was a feeling of everyone on stage knowing that they are part of something special and behaving accordingly, with congenial help from Pappano and the orchestra. A highly enjoyable performance and a wonderful showcase of Rossini’s complex skills. During the evening I started thinking I’d like to see it again and I’m pleased to report I just managed to secure a reasonably priced second ticket this late in the game 😀 Everyone who likes great singing, try to go. The surprisingly good news is you can luck out on a return at any time (only two days ago the cheap available seat situation looked dire).

Agathe and I got tickets on the Stalls Circle left, because she knew from Munich that was the best position for the “important action” (Arsace and Semiramide singing directly at us; Barcellona’s dark, gently heroic tone caused Agathe to be on the verge of passing out 😉 several times during the evening). We were only a few feet away from the stage also with a good view of the orchestra/Pappano. There was a bit of muffle for the ppps but only in the sense of lack of ping across the board, which we supposed would not be the case from the auditorium (I’ll get back to you on that next week, especially re: Brownlee). Otherwise we heard it all in all its glory (though I had a blocked ear which caused me to strait during act I; it finally popped by the end of act I) and a badass evening it was 😀

We spent the – clear but very cold for London – day walking about central London and catching a truly beautiful sunset from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. Out of fangirl anxiety we arrived one hour early at ROH and spent time chatting in the very cosy amphitheatre lobby (ROH is in the midst of major refurbishing). I don’t shower ROH with enough praise but it’s got a lovely lobby area design – grand but not overly so; you’ll soon relax – and the ushers have once again been super accommodating. Agathe commented that the applause wasn’t quite as mad as in Munich but I thought by Stalls Circle standards it was warm indeed. In spite of the cold weather there was minimal coughing, too.


  1. Or, somewhat confusingly, how much Idreno’s first aria has moved her, and she’d think twice about his (very aggressive) attentions if only Arsace wasn’t the love of her life. This can be a very funny moment, though I’m not sure that’s how it’s played here, in spite of the fact that this is Rossini. By funny I mean if it’s played as a comment on the tenor’s singing skills and the relationship between star singers and their fanbase. But then it’s mixed with what today is glaringly read as a lack of agency (not one aria for her) when she’s at the centre of the entire sublot and things become funny har har. 

Mezzos are like shrimps…

Mezzo roles trajectory: from trouser roles to femmes fatales!

3 days of silly Christmas (Day 2: inspiring mezzos in funny hats)

stjoyce

You might remember I went to see JDD’s Masterclass at the Guildhall School (next door to the Barbican) last April. The Barbican has put it up in parts (student by student), so now you can see it for yourself – if you haven’t already. The student below had a very nice voice for Donna Elvira (and in general). JDD had a twisted ankle (again; it’s London).

Interestingly enough, this was my conclusion then:

You know JDD is a born educator (I would say she missed her calling as self-help guru but that’d be a bit cheeky at this point 😉 ), so you don’t have to be a singer to get something out of her masterclasses. I for one had a bit of a revelation that I could be having a lot more fun in my chosen profession if I challenged myself more.

… I did follow up on that so who knows in which ways she might end up inspiring you, too.

One for the Mezzo beard Hall of Fame

tvtropes

There’s also a coloratura mezzo who plays a trouser role, Edoardo. Not only does she wear pants, she also has a beard and a mustache that she shaves off with a sword in the second act. (Mathilde di Shabran)

Spectacular idea! 😀 Only ballsy mezzos need apply.

Now if you’re curious about Mathilde (or if you forgot how the hell that one goes – The Taming of the He-Shrew), here’s another funny reminder:

A group of unidentified woman (sic) appear and tell Corradino that he’s a wretch for having condemned Mathilde to death – Mandare a morte.

Clearly, the ghosts of scorned women past. Other than that, I think Mathilde is rather eh. Almost four (four?!) hours on a rather annoying and most certainly thin plot…

“The hottest opera mezzos”…?

Is there is a mezzo version of barihunks? A friend of mine asked… 😉 Actually, a couple of people reached my blog using that very specific query and it got me thinking. Hotness, although much appreciated by yours truly, isn’t the subject of this blog. But if there is such a blog, I’ll drop a link in my Mezzos page.