The hall of the Warsaw National Opera House was packed out with people from all over Europe coming to hear the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś perform a series of arias which showcased the wide-ranging scope of her repertoire. Accompanying her was conductor Michael Güttler, and the Teatru Wielkiego choir and orchestra.
To start the evening, we were treated to a lively performance of the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from Handel’s Solomon. The orchestra was in good form, and particular praise must go to the oboe soloists who did a spectacular job. Madame Podleś arrived onstage to a thunderous applause, dressed in a glamorous black trouser suit with sequins. Her first aria was “Dover, giustizia, amor” from Ariodante, which she took slightly slower than usual, but nevertheless dominated it in true Podleś style. The end of the aria saw her rise to a ringing A5, only to thunder down to a chesty D4 to finish.
We were treated to three pieces of Rossini during the program, two overtures and an aria/scena. The first overture was from William Tell, in which the cello soloists and the section in general were magnificent, playing with intensity and feeling. The ebullient overture from Il Signor Bruschino was the second orchestral offering from Rossini. Güttler’s conducting was full of zany energy, and the second violins very much enjoyed their bow-tapping on the stands. (The score of the bow tapping can be seen in the picture below).
Ewa Podleś gave a highly dramatic and aggressive performance of “Ciro infelice” from Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia. Pitch-perfect notes at the top of the voice were thrown out like javelins at the audience, while the true contralto chest register was unleashed on more than one occasion, with the slow descent to E3 a stunning example of the cavernous force of the lower end of the female voice. Podleś ended the aria with a truly primal D4, high in the chest register, which lasted right until the end of the orchestral accompaniment. It was a truly devastating piece of singing, which earned a huge round of applause from the audience.
Podleś again impressed with “Il sergreto per esser felici” from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Her perfect legato singing was matched with a very rich sound in the middle register. Her F5’s and G5’s were spot-on, and Podleś seemed to enjoy moving through the upper register in this aria. During the repetition of the phrase “si dan del futuro pensier” she once again plumbed the contralto profundo depths, hitting an E3 of such force and resonance that a couple of tenors in the choir were rather taken aback!
Returning to the stage, Podleś had changed into a wonderful orange dress with black lace embroidery to sing “Field of Death” from Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. The mesmerising timbre of the Podleś middle register was perfect for this piece, and the great contralto was forced to come back onstage at the end, such was the level of applause she received. Another emotionally charged aria was “Voce di donna o d’angelo” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Here Podleś was full of high drama, fiercely emotional and physically compelling. Again the audience erupted with applause.
The concert program concluded with a selection of music from two Verdi operas. The first piece was the overture to La forza del destino, the main motif of which was beautifully played by the wind section. The spectacular Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore gave the bass and contralto sections of the choir a chance to shine, as the main part of the chorus is written in unison high in the voice. The wall of sound from the right of the choir was startling to behold.
Finally, Madame Podleś returned to the stage as Azucena singing the menacing “Stride la Vampa” also from Il Trovatore. The Polish contralto’s acting ability came to the fore here, as she was totally in character from the moment she took position next to Güttler. Her high notes were extraordinarily resonant, a testament to her excellent technique.
We were treated to two encores. The first was a scene from Massenet’s Cendrillon, where Podleś takes on the character role of Madame de la Haltière, a role she performed at the Royal Opera House. Her comic timing was perfect, and her gestures and expressions intelligently executed. The final encore was “Cruda Sorte” from Rossini’s L'italiana in Algeri. Podleś alternated magnificently between the light head register for the coloratura passages, and the dark chest register used for the chromatic descent on the phrase “tutti la bramano”. She ended the concert in true Podleś style with a formidable F5 which rang out spectacularly.
It was an amazing concert, and I’m very glad I went to Warsaw to see her.
Yesterday evening, I attended a concert which I found very interesting, and which I would like share with you. The piece I’m writing is an overview which I hope gives you a flavour of what I experienced. It is not in the same style as my usual posts, which tend to be more analytical, as I am not familiar with Prokofiev’s music, having immersed myself in the Baroque and Classical periods for so many years.
As part of artistic director and conductor Vladimir Jurowski's Prokofiev: Man of the people? season, the Royal Festival Hall hosted two rarely heard pieces of music by the Russian composer. The first piece, Egyptian Nights, was originally a “theatrical experiment...that brought together scenes from Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and the 1828 poem Cleopatra by Alexander Pushkin.” The reason for the combination of the Shaw and Shakespeare plays was explained by Prokofiev himself: “Shaw depicted Cleopatra in the bloom of her youth; and Shakespeare, at the moment of her decline.”
The second piece was the world première of Levon Atovmyan’s oratorio arrangement of the music by Prokofiev to accompany Sergei Eizenshtein’s film Ivan the Terrible. Lost to the world for almost 50 years, the score of the oratorio came to light when Nelly Kravetz went to visit Atovmyan’s daughter, Svetlana Levonovna, in the House of Composers in Moscow. She gave the score to Kravetz, telling her to “Do something to prevent [my father’s] name from being forever confined to oblivion.” Atovmyan arrangement of the film music included changes to the order of the action from that in the film, minor changes to Prokofiev’s scoring, composition and libretto, and “significant alterations to the choral score”.
In the first piece, Egyptian Nights, the narrative passages were performed by two very gifted actors: Simon Callow CBE, and BAFTA award winning actress Miranda Richardson. Both actors had to play multiple roles, with Callow having to play both an aging Caesar and a virile Mark Anthony. His ability to move between contrasting characters with versatility and integrity made for an excellent performance. His heavily Irish-accented fig-seller, who was to sell the fatal asp to Cleopatra, was comic genius. Richardson’s Cleopatra was an excellent developmental exploration of the changes that occurred as the young queen grew into maturity. Her girlish innocence in her scenes with Caesar at the Sphinx contrasted with the warmer, more seductive tones displayed towards the end of the piece.
Musically, while slightly bitty, the score produced some wonderful moments. Prokofiev has a knack of writing beautiful music for the lower strings, particularly the viola and the double bass. It was lovely to hear one of the melodies start in the lower reaches of the cello section, only to find its culmination with the violas. In the scene with solo harp, harpist Rachel Masters produced a languid sound that was both captivating and mournful. Following this was the exquisite humming chorus, which had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. We also received our first hearing of Baritone Andrey Breus, who would hear again later on.
After the interval came the second piece, the oratorio Ivan the Terrible. The opening of the oratorio had the strings powering up and down a series of semi-quaver runs, while the brass came to the fore with Ivan’s theme. The first chorus, A Black Cloud, was well performed, and gave us an inkling of what was to come. Contralto Ewa Podles’ first outing came with the second piece, the Song of the Beaver. Here she portrayed boyarina Yevfrosinya Staritskaya, who is explaining to her son how she plans to depose Ivan, and place him on the throne instead. Podles’ dark contralto was superbly macabre, as she sang the low, chilling phrases. Her black and gold outfit was perfect for the role.
The third piece of the drama was the most brilliant. Here, baritone Andrey Breus took the role of Fyodor Basmanov in the song of the Oprichiniki, the mercenaries of the Tzar. Breus’ voice took the high phrases magnificently, every inch a warrior. His strong voice never became abrasive, and his interplay with the chorus was perfect. He was in a virgin-blue top with oriental trimmings, and knee-length boots. It was a rousing, engaging piece, and as Doundou Tchil of the blog Classical Iconoclast put it: “One should feel fear and revulsion. But the music is so infectious; you're almost drawn into it, which is rather worrying. But then, that's what mobs are like.” The next two pieces, Swan and Anastasia, relate to Anastasia’s marriage to Ivan, and to her poisoning respectively, and were masterfully performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Choir.
In the sixth piece, Ocean-Sea, Ewa Podles returns as Ivan’s elderly nursemaid, who recounts the murder of Ivan’s mother, the regent Elena Glinskaya. Podles’ voice ebbed and flowed like the waters in this most nebulous of arias. Her final dark utterance on the words “Russian Sea” was like hearing the voice of Neptune rise from the cavernous depths of the ocean. The final two pieces, The Capture of Kazanand Magnification, both had moments of fire and glory which filled the hall with fierce energy. The use of the double bass, tuba, contra-bassoon and other bass instruments to portray the cannon at the walls of Kazan was a magnificent piece of orchestration.
It was a fantastic evening, one which has opened my eyes to the music of Prokofiev, and which has inspired me to explore more of his work in the future.
As the poor person charged by the ROH to deliver bad news arrived onstage, we all knew something was wrong. “Joyce DiDonato has a cold” she announced. An audible gasp came from the audience. “But,” the announcer continued “she has agreed to sing tonight, and asks for your understanding if the effects of the cold become apparent”. The audience, visibly and audibly relieved, gave a burst of applause, before settling down to Massenet’s opera: Cendrillon.
Cendrillon premiered in Paris at the Opéra-Comique on 24 May 1899, and “was intended as one of the highlights of the season.” Massenet ingeniously uses different styles of music to illustrate the various characters and emotions: references to the court music of Lully and Rameau, for instance, in the ball scene, and for Madame de la Haltière; a nod to Wagner in the ethereal love scene at the magic oak; and a feeling of Strauss or Humperdinck in the music of La Fée. Cendrillon is, arguably, Massenet at his most musically intellectual.
Massenet’s intelligence was well matched by the interpretation given by the performers. Ewa Podleś, the legendary Polish contralto, and a favourite here at Show Me Something Interesting, was fabulous as the haughty and arrogant Madame de la Haltière. Her comic timing, facial expressions, gesticulations and magnificently upholstered derrière stole the show, and earned her a rousing applause and a number of cheers. She even added a wonderful Eb3 on her final “ce coir” at the end of act I scene III, while her exasperated cry at not being allowed her chance to try on the slipper was sheer perfection.
Alice Coote was very strong in the role of Prince Charming. Sitting on the floor, sulking at the prospect of a tedious ball filled with well marketed marriage material, she was fully in character. Her dark voice perfectly displayed the qualities of the Falcon, the intermediate soprano fach that the French so valued in Massenet’s time. The love duet with DiDonato in the enchanted forest scene was particularly moving, with Coote’s lush voice giving a very convincing portrayal of a young ardent male declaring his love.
When it comes to Joyce DiDonato’s Cendrillon, I shall quote a lady I spoke to during the interval: “If I could sing like that with a cold, I would be a very happy woman!” DiDonato’s grasp of the role was consummate, moving through the unfolding psychological development of her character with intelligence and an emotional involvement that can sometimes be found wanting in such demanding roles. Her high pianissimo, wielded on more than one occasion, was stable and clear, and the high tessitura of this soprano role was no problem for the American mezzo.
The magic and fairy dust was provided by Eglise Gutiérrez, the Cuban-American coloratura soprano. As La Fée (the Fairy Godmother), Gutiérrez was there to provide the magic stardust in vocal form. Trills and arpeggios abound in this most difficult role lying, like that of the Queen of the Night, very high in the voice. The full range required is from B3 to Eb6, and Gutiérrez was able to navigate this with ease. Her final high Db6 at the end of the third act was spectacular, especially as she turned on her heel, and walked towards the back of the stage, holding the note all the while without any loss of pitch or dynamic.
The music itself “never really gets there” as a friend of mine aptly put it. Massenet’s music is both beautiful and engaging, yet it never really reaches a climax. Instead, it ebbs and flows like a tide, ethereal like the moonlight. Perhaps this was Massenet’s intention: the dream-state of Cendrillon, and the fairy-magic of La Fée, is written indelibly into the music. So, while we listen, we too are in that dream-like state. It is only when the music finishes that we wake up, and that reality takes over. In real life, we have endings, grief, death and mortality. In Cendrillon, we live happily ever after.
Perhaps Massenet was allowing us to take our piece of “happy ever after” with us when the curtain goes down, the lights go up, and we go home; to our lives, our endings, and our new beginnings.