One thing we've learned recently at Show Me Something Interesting is that the Barbican is really good at getting last minute replacements for indisposed Sopranos. First, the wonderful Susan Gritton stepped in for Anna Caterina Antonacci in the recent Handel/Vivaldi/Pergolesi concert, and more recently, Inga Kalna stepped in for an under-the-weather Anja Harteros in the concert performance of Handel's Alcina on Saturday. In both instances, a good solid performance from a technically gifted and an emotionally communicative artist ensured that the show most definitely continued. The performance was dedicated to one great lady who always gave her audiences a thrill (and more often than not, a trill): the late, great Dame Joan Sutherland, herself a famed Alcina. In fact, it was after her performance in the role at La Fenice, Venice in 1960, that she was dubbed "La Stupenda."
Alcina is an opera packed to the brim with great tunes. The libretto is derived from the same source as Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, and Vivaldi's Orlando furioso. The original text was penned by Ludovico Ariosto and had as its backdrop the war between Charlemagne and the Saracen army which was invading Europe. The plot for the opera is taken from the storyline in which the Saracen Ruggiero, betrothed to the Christian warrior woman Bradamante, is captured by the sorceress Alcina. Ruggiero and Bradamante are thought to be the ancestors of Ariosto's patrons, the powerful d'Este family of Ferrara. The libretto was first put to music by Riccardo Broschi, brother of Carlo Maria Broschi, otherwise known as Farinelli.
The original cast for Handel's opera had some star names as well as some relative unknowns. The title role was taken by Soprano Anna Maria Strada del Po, who had received personal coaching from Handel. She was not the most attractive of people, and was often called "the Pig". Handel's confidant, Mary Pendarves (nee Granville), said of del Po: "La Strada is the first woman; her voice is without exception fine, her manner perfection, but her person very bad, and she makes frightful mouths."
The part of Ruggiero was taken by the famed castrato Carestini, who had worked for composers such as Johann Adolf Hasse, Leonardo Vinci, Gluck and Porpora. He came to London in 1733 to perform with Handel's opera troupe. Known for having a high opinion of his own abilities, he is reported to have questioned the suitability of the aria Verdi prati, thinking it beneath him. Handel heard about this, and: "went, in a great rage, to [Carestini's] house, and in a way which few composers, except Handel, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, crie[d] out: "You toc! don't I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.""
Suffice it to say, Carestini sang the aria, which was encored throughout the original run of the opera.
Anyway, let's get back to the present. The role of Alcina is demanding not just vocally, but psychologically, as the opera charts the mental and emotional degeneration of an all-powerful sorceress, who subdues a whole island, and acquires various lovers, by preternatural means. Vocally, Inga Kalna was more than qualified for the job, which required several different vocal styles. She had previous experience in the role, and had performed it with Minowski before. The first of her arias, the high-lying "Di', cor mio", is the epitome of velvety mellifluousness, while her second aria, "Si, son quella", with its continuo accompaniment and solo cello, is more subtle, almost fragile. In "Ah! mio cor", another high tessitura aria, Kalna is at her best in the heart-rending A-section, where Alcina learns of Ruggiero's deception. The C minor key hints at a darkness beneath the grief as C minor is often associated with dark deeds. The moving bass and staccato chords in the strings feel almost like a relentless beating inflicted by her own broken heart, while Kalna's distraught cry of "O dio" towards the end of the A-section, moving between high G and Ab, could not be more moving. In the B-section, with violins reminiscent of "Un pensiero nemico di pace", Alcina threatens her lover with vengeance if he does not remain with her.
After attempting and failing to send the spirits of vengeance against her former lover and his entourage, and realising her powers have left her, she sings the moving "Ombra Pallide". The aria is filled with dissonance and suspensions, and swift changes between major and minor during the coloratura passages. These all denote the confusion and anxiety Alcina feels now the magic she relied upon has left her. Kalna became Alcina in this aria, giving a demoralised and unsettled, yet still regal interpretation of the troubled Queen. A couple of the high notes were slightly forced, but the melancholic beauty of Kalna's voice carried through the difficulties. Her penultimate aria, "Ma quando tornerai", reminds one of King Lear: powerless yet still attempting to retain the trappings of power. The A-section is all bluster, threatening Ruggiero with calamity when she captures him, while the B-section is all forgiveness and willingness to take him back. What Alcina does not realise, in a conscious manner, is that both her threats and her appeal rely on her sorcery: without it she is powerless. This is reflected in the scoring: wide leaps in the A-section denoting hysteria, bluster, an attempt to convince both Ruggiero and herself that she is still and invincible sorceress; and an unstable key in the B-sectionmirroring her own internal instability, and the breaking down of her external world. Her final aria, "Mi restanto le lagrime" is in F# minor, a key which Handel used to denote extreme emotion and tragedy, as in Cleopatra's aria "Se pieta de me non senti". Kalna excelled in this aria, which she imbued with such pathos and despair, the whole audience let out an audible sigh at it close. A wonderfully restrained, regal interpretation from Kalna that, while not explosive, was thoughtful, considered, and refreshing.
The fireworks, however, were oh-so-present in the form of Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo cast as Ruggiero. A veteran in the role, few singers spark such furious debate in Baroque, or even in general, operatic circles. If you take the three main arias for instance, you will see why. In "Verdi Prati" and "Mi lusinga", for instance, the beauty and purity of tone that one would find with Philippe Jaroussky, for example, is not there. The sound is harder, the register changes more marked, and there is more portamento than one would usually associate with the Baroque period. But, quite frankly, I don't care! The emotion in the voice, the acting, the pathos, the power of the delivery held me, and practically everybody in the hall, transfixed. "Mi lusinga" was especially heartbreaking, as the troubled mind of a man freed from one illusion, but now unable to tell what is true and what is not, was portrayed so accurately that one really felt the confusion and frustration of the re-awakened warrior.
And that brings me on to another point: Kasarova managed to portray a man, a warrior, from a man's perspective. Standing, legs apart, leading slightly backwards, gesturing aggressively towards the audience in her black jump-suit, Kasarova was the epitome of masculinity, without falling into caricature. For someone so able to play feminine roles (see her Rosina on YouTube), and with such a feminine speaking voice, it is remarkable how easily she fits into the trouser roles in Handel. The effect was only slightly marred by her kitten-heels, which she nonetheless managed to swagger in! The highpoint of her performance was the astounding "Sta nell' Ircana". Full of register crashes galore, chest voice punches, flashing eyes, and pointing fingers; this castrato tour de force was superbly managed by the Bulgarian. Maybe some purists can complain about the technique, such as the cleanness of the arpeggios or the slight hooting in the middle of the voice, but I just think back to Dame Clara Butt, Elena Suliotis, and Maria Callas, and the dramatic dives into the chest register which thrilled their audiences (in fact, Clara Butt did it more and more often after finding out her audiences expected it of her). Anyway, she got the biggest hand of the night, and rightly so. Even Romina Basso was clapping away like mad after "Sta nell' Ircana", hands above her head, and stamping her feet on the floor - she wasn't the only one!
Of the rest of the cast, Romina Basso, singing from the score, and the young treble Shintaro Nakajima, impressed the most. I have waited a long time to hear Basso live, as her recording of "Gaude Felix" from Vivaldi's "Juditha Triumphens" on YouTube showed a beautifully dark and rich mezzo-soprano, almost contralto-like tone, full-bodied and well rounded. She did not disappoint. Hearing her live was even better than hearing recordings for her. The voice is so plumy, so warm, and full of expression, that she could be singing about cleaning the toilet for all it would matter. Her first aria, "E gelosia", had Basso firing out her trademark coloratura, as did the second, "Vorrei vendicarmi", where she hit four low A's in the fast section, and serenaded us with gorgeous legato singing in the larghetto. "Vorrei vendicarmi" also benefited from the augmented bass section of the orchestra, with three double basses and three bassoons, as there are parts of the aria where the continuo rumbles away before a particularly difficult piece of coloratura. Her third aria, "All'alma fedel", was all sumptuous melodies and rich tones, which had me grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Playing the role of Oberto, Shintaro Nakajima almost upstaged the rest of the cast! Surety of tone, a confident stage presence, and the ability to act and interact with his colleagues, marked him out as one to watch once his voice matures. His last aria, "Barbara! Io ben lo so", is a coloratura tour de force which has long passages, difficult intervals, and two high A's. Nakajima pulled it off brilliantly, threatening the witch Aclina as he went, going well above the stave at the end, and displaying a formidable chest register on the initial "Barbara" of the A section. He was so good that he had to come back on stage after his last aria due to all the clapping and shouting from us in the audience.
All in all, it was an excellent performance, one I would thoroughly recommend to anyone, whether a Baroque aficionado or a first-time listener to Handel - there's something for everyone here. I think most of all the sense of enjoyment from the performers, both the cast and the orchestra, made it such an enjoyable evening. I will not forget Kasarova in her kitten-heels and jump-suit, nor will I forget Basso feverishly applauding her, along with this rest of us.
Having seen Sara Mingardo perform at the Wigmore Hall some time ago, I was relishing the chance to see her again. My chance came in the form of a wonderful concert at the barbican, promising not one, but two of my favourite pieces: "Cum dederit dilectus suis somnum" from Vivaldi's "Nisi Dominus", and "Fac ut Portem, Christi mortem" from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. The billing stated that Mingardo would be joined by the wonderful Anna Caterina Antonacci: unfortunately though, Antonacci was indisposed. So instead Susan Gritton, (who I had seen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall only a few days before in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail") gallantly stepped in to save the day.
Due to Antonacci's last minute unavailability, the first piece on the program was changed from Porpora's Salve Regina to Handel's Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op 6, No 7: not a problem, in my opinion! The performance was both intuitive and stylish, seamlessly moving from one tempo to another. The highlight must surely be the inspired performance by lead violinist Catherine Martin in the solo section.
Next to come was Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus. A beautiful yet melancholic piece, even the faster movements are tinged with sadness. The staccato rhythm of the opening movement, "Nisi Dominus", contrasts with and compliments the impossibly smooth, velvet quality of Mingardo's voice. The combination is repeated again in the penultimate section "Sicut Erat".
The highlight of the piece for many was the fourth movement: "Cum Dederit". The slow, lilting 12/8 time signature, and its crotchet/quaver pedal relentlessly drive the piece onwards. On top of this, interspersed by the occasional flourish by the higher strings, Mingardo's warm, rich tone rides like a slow yet unstoppable wave through the orchestra straight to the soul. The long, well controlled phrases hold one in their grip, while her excellent "mezza di voce" through the longest notes and phrases induced an atmosphere of melancholic pensiveness throughout audience. The lively "Sicut Sagittae" which followed provided perfect counterbalance to the sombre "Cum Dederit".
The light yet powerful "Gloria Patri" again enchanted those present, with the heavenly interplay between the solo violin and the voice on the phrase "et spiritui sancti". Mingardo showed a very intimate understanding of the text, vocally enunciating each and every nuance. The final movement, the "Amen" was well paced, and an exciting close to a fantastic piece. The video below is of Mingardo performing the "Cum Dederit". Please scroll down further for the last part of the concert.
At only 26 years of age, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died from tuberculosis in Pozzuoli, near Naples in Italy. Like Mozart after him, Pergolesi was a very talented composer who left the world far too young. The Catholic Encyclopaedia states that he was: "of frail constitution" and that "he shortened his career by irregular conduct" - whatever that may mean. He wrote many operatic works, mainly opera buffo (comedy), though many works claimed to be by Pergolesi have subsequently turned out to be by other composers. The work for which he is most remembered however is the "Stabat Mater", written shortly before he died. Composed for male soprano, male alto, and orchestra, it was commissioned by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo.
In this performance, both artists were female. As stated above, Anna Caterina Antonacci was originally to have taken the soprano role. A last minute cancellation left us with the more than able talents of Susan Gritton. Given that there could not have been much time for Gritton and Mingardo to build a rapport with respect to the piece, the interplay between the two was surprisingly well managed. Many of the movements were duets, requiring both emotional and technical collaboration.
The first movement, "Stabat Mater Dolorosa", was full of suspensions and dissonances from the onset: initially in close harmony, then later with Mingardo in the lower octave. The series of alternating dissonance/resolution fills the listener with expectation and satisfaction. Both singers performed the movement with a high level of vocal "purity", and with complementary volume.
It was towards the end of the piece, however, that the real jewel of the "Stabat Mater" was revealed. In the sublime "Fac ut Portem", Mingardo excelled herself. The long legato lines, with stark orchestral support, were performed with other-worldly purity, though always humble and true to the score. Yet it was the ornament at the end of the movement which excited most: Mingardo moved slowly down over a held chord in the orchestra to a low Db! And what resonance there was in the lower chest register. Mingardo sounded fuller in the extreme lower range than some Tenors! There was a palpable air of excitement, which was held until then end of the movement. Gritton and Mingardo performed the final duets beautifully, but as I left the auditorium, the hot topic on everyone's lips was that sensational low Db. A recorded version, complete with the finishing ornament, can be heard below.
It's been a busy week for concerts here at Show Me Something Interesting: a concert production of Mozart's opera "Die Entführung aus dem Serail" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and a performance of Vivaldi's "Nisi Dominus" and Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" at the Barbican - I'll be reviewing the Barbican concert later this week.
The production of "Die Entführung" at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was rather different to the other performances I have seen. Firstly, the speaking role of Pasha Selim was replaced with by "narrator", in the person of actor Simon Butteriss. His role was performed in English, much in the same way as a performance of "Cosi Fan Tutti" I had heard a couple of years previous St Paul's church in Covent Garden.
Having the narration in English made the production much more engaging and easier to understand, and for me worked better than the original "singspiel" format. The lack of understanding between the European and Ottoman worldviews put forward in the original libretto is brought up-to-date by a series of references to modern Euro-Turkic and Euro-Islamic points of tension, while the revelation of the Pasha's enlightened attitude and the subsequent fostering of goodwill from all characters (except Osmin!) is treated intelligently and avoids the danger of saccharin feyness.
The role of Konstanze is famously hard, requiring excellent support, full integration of the head and chest voices, the ability to sing both emotive lyric passages and dynamic coloratura, and a vocal range stretching from low B to high D. Susan Gritton has all of this. Her portrayal was thoughtful and honest, with a magnificent performance of "Marten Allen Arten" stunning the audience. Her navigation of the various structures of this show-stopping aria was at all times controlled, yet passionate, and she sang masterfully the most difficult passage, moving by step down from high D to low B, only to jump right back up to high C, followed by a pianissimo high C with crescendo to fortissimo! Not an aria for the faint of heart.
The French-Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun proved to be a fascinating discovery in the role of Belmonte, Konstanze's faithful lover and would-be rescuer. In possession of a beautiful lyric voice, Antoun's characterisation fitted perfectly the ardent yet innocent persona of a Mozartian lead tenor, such as Tamino from Die Zauberflote. Most exciting however was his power and added darkness in the more "dramatic" moments of the role - neither forced nor overplayed. The opening aria "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen" showed us that we were in for a treat, and the tender yet passionate "Konstanze! Dich Wiederzusehen...O Wie Ängstlich" was mesmerising. Definitely a tenor to watch, and one with an interesting career ahead.
The English woman who causes so much trouble and consternation for poor Osmin is Blonde, the servant of Konstanze. While written for a much lighter voice, the role is no easy earner. Requiring a range of low Ab to high E (!), any soubrette coloratura coming to the role needs complete command over her instrument and complete confidence in her abilities. Malin Christensson performed admirably in the role, with the difficult first aria "Durch Zärtlichkeit" admirably performed, though the first of the high E's was a little screeched. The duet with Osmin "Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir" following straight after "Durch Zärtlichkeit" drops down to the other extreme of the range with Christensson dropping to a low Ab mimicking Osmins low Eb. Her aria "Welche Wonne, welche Lust" was performed perfectly, and with exactly the right amount of oomph required.
The role of Pedrillo has one of my favourite arias for tenor: "Frisch zum Kampfe! Frisch zum Streite!" With two long, fortissimo high G's, a throw-away high B, and three punchy high A's at the end, it's not an aria for the weak and feeble. Tilman Lichdi was more than up for the challenge, powering out those tricky high notes, and adding a dramatic and humorous interpretation to the proceedings. Lichdi also excelled in his duet and trio with Osmin (and Belmonte), and in the ensembles, but the biggest suprise came with his serenade "In Mohrenland gefangen war” which was beautifully lyrical and tenderly performed, but still with classic the Lichdi sense of humour.
Alastair Miles was a last minute replacement in the role of Osmin, so it was completely understandable that he sang from the score during the concert. What was amazing though was the amount of contact and interaction with the audience and the other performers - much more than one would expect from a last minute replacement. His characterisation of Osmin was impeccable: comic, brutish, childish and lecherous. Miles is becoming a bit of a favourite here at Show Me Something Interesting: have a look at my review of Niobe, Regina di Tebe for a review of his performance as Poliferno.
His ability to soften the head voice in the aria "Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden" made the dives down to the low G all the more lascivious. His first duet, with Belmonte, Verwünscht seist du samt deinem Liede!" had Miles in true bass territory with a low Eb and a low E which were both audible and unstrained. His aria "Solche hergelaufne Laffen", his rant against Pedrillo, was suitably vicious, and the oriental ending to the aria was fast and punchy. His performance in the duets and trio with the tenors and with Blonde (where he again hit an Eb) had great comic timing and acting, again suprising given he was a last minute replacement.
The tour de force for any Osmin though is the final aria "O, wie will ich triumphieren", full of low F's, three low E's and two low D's, one lasting quite a long time, with some high parts, especially toward the end. Miles performed admirably, though the last low D was very quiet. Having performed this myself though for my GCSE exams, I give full credit to Miles for performing this at all at short notice.