Paris' Salle Gaveau was packed to the rafters to greet German soprano Simone Kermes, as the "rock-chick" of the Baroque performed a selection of forgotten gems from her recently released album: Dramma.
Simone Kermes has a reputation for a sense of drama in her performances, so it was appropriate that she decided to perform several arias from her new album, Dramma. The album focused on works written for castrati such as Farinelli by composers such as Porpora, Hasse and Pergolesi. These arias were masterpieces of virtuosity in range, speed, dynamic control, or all three. Kermes, like Bartoli before her, has sought to bring these forgotten arias back into current musical awareness. Unlike Bartoli, however, Kermes has chosen arias where the tessitura is planted firmly in the soprano range.
Kermes’ first offering was the ebullient “Vedra turbato il mare” from Porpora’s Mitridate. As the orchestra, La Magnifica Comunità, started to play, a door mysteriously opened at the back of the hall, and Kermes, looking resplendent in one of her fantastic dresses, strode like a force of nature along the slips towards the stage, beguiling us from the onset with her magnificent stage-presence. Her ornamentation in the da capo was the same magnificent creation as heard on her album, leaping authoritatively into the stratosphere. Kermes followed this with a touching rendition of Porpora’s “Alto Giove,” where she demonstrated her superb high pianissimo. She followed the beautiful “Tace l’augello” almost immediately with the dynamic “Empi, se mai disciolgo” which she took so fast she seemed ready to take off! Her ability to blend in altissimo ornaments into the main vocal line will never fail to astound me.
Kermes’ began the second half of the concert with Leonardo Leo’s “Son qual nave in ria procella” which saw her leaping about in a set of dizzying vocal gymnastics, with a couple of delightful interpolated D6’s in the da capo. For Hasse’s “Consola il genitore”, Kermes was accompanied by Davide Pozzi on the harpsichord. She navigated the beautiful lines with exquisite tenderness, giving the lightest of touches to the demanding C6’s that make the piece so difficult to perform. The second Hasse piece of the evening was the fast and furious “Fra cento affanni e cento” which Kermes sailed through masterfully. The final aria came in the form of the tricky “Sul mio cor” from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria. Opening with a twice-repeated two octave descending line from A5 to A3, and containing some fiendishly fast coloratura, Kermes revelled in this firecracker of an aria. She even had us clapping in time with the beat during the introduction!
The accompaniment was provided by the wonderful La Magnifica Comunità, lead by Enrico Casazza.Opening the concert with the Overture from Porpora’s Agrippina, Casazza’s troupe played with vitality and a sense of exuberance matching that of Kermes. We were treated to two Vivaldi concertos, one in each half. The first was RV 277, Concerto in E min, which has an intense and atmospheric second movement for viola and three violins. The third movement was fierce, with some amazing form in the lower strings, particularly from Federico Bagnasco on the double bass. In RV 212, Concerto in D maj, Casazza himself astounded with his virtuosity on the violin, his fingers dancing across the board, moving almost up to the bridge in a series of broken chords: a truly stunning display.
Kermes gave five wonderful encores. The first was the A section of Broschi’s version of “Son qual nave” which she sped through magnificently. The second was a wonderful rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” which was very warmly received. Kermes went back to the race-track with the A section of Vivaldi’s “Agitata da due venti” which had her leaping between her high soprano and her dark chest register (down to Ab3 at one point). She followed this with a beautiful rendition of Lili Marleen, and finished with a magnificent version of Handel’s “Lascia ch'io pianga”. At the end of this final aria, the lights went down, and we were left in momentary darkness. When they came back on, the whole hall got to its feet for a well deserved standing ovation.
The Wigmore Hall patrons turned out in full force to hear the exquisite voice of Venetian contralto Sara Mingardo. Accompanied by the Accademia degli Astrusi, conducted from the ‘cello by Federico Ferri, Mingardo spun a tail that lead us on a journey through 18th century Italian language repertoire, via some well known (Handel, Pergolesi & Vivaldi) and some lesser known (Galuppi, Martini) composers.
Opening with a series of resolved dissonances, Pergolesi’s Salve Regina starts with a haunting movement that works only when both the ensemble and the artist are moving as one, dynamically and emotionally. Mingardo and the players of the Accademia degli Astrusi were perfectly attuned to each other and to the nuances of the piece, with Mingardo’s moves into the chest register particularly compelling. Her messa di vocein the second movement, “Ad te clamamus”, were a masterclass in the art, while the Accademia degli Astrusi made beautiful work of the syncopated orchestration of “Et Jesum, benedictum”.
Concerto a Quattro No.1 in G minor was the first offering from Baldassare Galuppi. Ferri and his team produced a very stately and intimate Grave e adagio, with fiery and vigorous entrances from the continuo in the Spiritoso. The Allegro was a lilting dance in minuet time, and credit must be given to Lorenzo Colitto on first violin for his handling of the more difficult passages. The cantata La Scusa was the second offering from Galuppi, organised into two recitative-aria couplings. Mingardo’s tender treatment of the first aria captivated from the onset, with beautiful phrasing and employing rich changes in dynamic and colour throughout the range.
We returned from the interval to the Concerto a 4 pieno in D by Padre Giovanni Battista Martini. Federico Ferri has been involved in a publishing project relating to Martini’s music, and his direction here is indicative of his understanding both of the score, and of the composer. The Accademia degli Astrusi treated the chromaticism of the central Adagio movement with due care, and we were rewarded with a truly great performance. Handel’s powerful aria “La crudele lontananza” followed, with Mingardo’s voice ringing powerfully in the upper part of the range. Her characterisation here was pure heroic-Handel: strong and passionate.
Rather than retiring from the stage, Mingardo sat at the back as the Accademia degli Astrusi performed Vivaldi’s Concerto madrigalesco in D minor. The opening conjured up and image of the Sun rising across the Venetian Lagoon. At the conclusion of the concerto, Mingardo rose and proceeded to sing the magnificent Nisi Dominus. In the sombre, dark and mysterious fourth movement, “Cum dederit”, Mingardo wove an enchantment that captivated the audience, particularly during the crescendo of the rising chromatic line “fructus ventris” and the sudden pianissimo on the sustained note at the end of the phrase.
The encore was “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse. This seems to be a favourite encore piece for Mingardo, and she performed it with style and elegance, displaying a beautiful legato and an intuitive understanding of the aria’s meaning. The concert was a delight, pure joy to listen to, and one which I would happily attend again. Each piece complimented the others perfectly, and it was nice to hear a piece of Handel I was not familiar with. Both Sara Mingardo and the Accademia degli Astrusi were on top form, and I look forward to their return to the Wigmore Hall.
The first Rosenblatt Recital of the new series saw American tenor Lawrence Brownlee performing songs and arias by Verdi, Poulenc, Moore, Mozart and Rossini. The new venue for the Rosenblatt Recital series, the Wigmore Hall, was packed, all looking forward to the big start to the new season. It was nice to see both the Wigmore Hall and the Rosenblatt regulars in attendance, with a few famous musicians in the audience as well (hello Elizabeth Llewellyn!).
The program began with four of Verdi’s Sei Romanze, the most buoyant of which, Lo spazzacamino, was a humourous tale about a chimney sweep. Brownlee’s spirited performance made this stand out from the rest of the Sei Romanze. After this Italian introduction, Brownlee treated us to some French songs by Poulenc. The beautiful melody of the song “C” sat nicely with Brownlee’s warm voice, while the touching and melancholic Bleuet created a palpable atmosphere in the hall.
Ben Moore’s four American art-songs were, for me, the highlight of the first half of the Recital. Brownlee really got under the skin of the songs, and his ability to bring in a "musical theatre" sound to his vocal production gave a sense of sincerity to the pieces which would have been lacking had they been given a wholly operatic treatment. Both “I would in that sweet bosom be” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” had Brownlee reaching into the audience, drawing us in with his emotional performance.
The second half of the recital was dominated by Rossini, with one stunning piece of Mozart. “Un aura amorosa” from Così fan tutte was a revelation. Brownlee’s voice was perfect for the aria, his performance a vibrant, sensual outpouring of emotion. The four Rossini arias provided the fireworks for the evening. The terrifyingly athletic “Ah, dov’è il cimento” from Semiramide saw Brownlee vaulting to C5 several times; perform manifold lines of hellish coloratura; and throw in a few plunges of a 10th down to C3. How do you top that? Well you sing Umberto’s Cavatina “O fiamma soave” from La donna del lago, of course! Brownlee gave us more cascading torrents of semi- and demi-semiquavers, perfect in pitch, solid and well supported in delivery.
For me, though, the highlight of the evening was the final aria, “Terra amica, ove respire” from Zelmira. Starting on G4, and reaching C5 in the first five bars, “Terra amica” is definitely not for the ill-prepared! And with 5 D5’s, well, Brownlee can now be crowned the “King of the High D’s”! Brownlee’s encore was a beautiful rendition of the traditional spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Again, the warmth of Brownlee’s voice, so unexpected in a leggiero tenor, and his story-telling ability, shone through.
In his pre-concert interview with the Rosenblatt Team, Brownlee said that he hopes “to sing more Mozart. (Ferrando, Belmonte, Tito - perhaps a bit later).” I for one would be very happy to see this! A plea: how about taking on Mitradite? “Vado incontro” would be a pleasure to hear in the hands of such a professional, vocally athletic and engaging singer.
The third and final instalment of my Versailles concert extravaganza came in the form of the marvellous Giulio Cesare (Jules César). Cesare is probably Handel's best known opera. He had, at his disposal, an awesome array of singers, including the star castrato Senesino, sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Margherita Durastanti, contralto Anastasia Robinson (who had once been a soprano before an illness caused her voice to drop significantly), and the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, who made a habit of playing villains. The calibre of the performers was mirrored in the excellence of the composition, with some of the most demanding writing, both technically and emotionally, of all Handel's operas.
The title role at Versailles was taken by the formidable contralto Sonia Prina. Her potent delivery of the rage aria "Empio, dirò, tu sei" at the beginning of the opera showed us exactly what to expect from her performance that evening: excellence! Taken at breakneck speed, Prina's control was astounding: the runs were note perfect, and the lower passaggio was negotiated with security. If any proof of her contralto credentials were required, her G3 at the end of the B section, and her cavernous F3 at the end of the aria were proofs enough. "Va tacito e nascosto" had Prina in her element: her dark tone adding the gravitas to the aria it requires. The military tenor of the aria was a perfect vehicle for Prina's strong dynamic style. All credit to the horn player, Ermes Pecchinini, for getting through the hellish horn part.
For me, the most spectacular aria of the whole performance was “Al lampo dell’armi,” which Prina sang at an unbelievable speed, and performed the coloratura with pin-point precision. As with most of her arias, Prina made some wonderful dives deep into the chest register, to G3 or below. It is wonderful to hear ornamentation which celebrates the strengths of the contralto voice. "Quel torrente" was pure joy to listen to, with Prina at her most imperial. The lines were faultless, and her presence on stage during the aria was all Caesar! One extra point to mention was the beautiful duet with Cleopatra (Maria Grazia Schiavo), "Caro, più amabile beltà." When Schiavo ornamented high into the head register, Prina responded with beautiful descending phases into the lower contralto zone. A fantastic performance, and one which will stay in my mind as the performance to live up to. I can't wait to see her at the Wigmore Hall in November.
Maria Grazia Schiavo's Cleopatra was a joy to listen to: finally we have someone who combines the youthful flirtations of Cleopatra the woman, with the machinations and strategic opportunism of the Cleopatra the stateswoman. Her characterisation was alive, vibrant and powerful, and the interplay with Prina was great to watch: the two of them very much ‘in character’ throughout the performance. The interpolated high note at the end of her first aria, “Priva son d’ogni conforto,” was stunning, and gave us an indication of what was to come. Her tone was a sparkly, yet full-bodied and luscious soprano, which was impressive in both the slower and the faster arias allocated to the Egyptian Queen.
Schiavo's “V’adoro pupille” was a masterclass in seduction from the moment she sauntered, tantalisingly to her stand. Her tender phrasing, generous sound, and refined movements were utterly captivating. Noelia Reverte's romantic playing on her beautiful, dark red viola da gamba added to the already bewitching atmosphere of the piece. By contrast, the dark “Se pietà di me non senti” was handled with such pathos that many of the audience who spoke to me after the concert mentioned how sublimely it had been performed. The opening lines of "Piangerò la sorte mia" were indefinably beautiful, and were contrasted by the vigorous singing and playing in the B section. In her final aria, “Da tempeste il legno infranto,” Schiavo erupted into joyous coloratura and ebullient ornamentation. She gave it her all, and won a huge round of applause in the process.
Originally written for the soprano Margherita Durastanti, the role of Sesto in this production was taken by sopranist Paolo Lopez. What a voice! Lopez has a fantastic beauty of tone at the upper extremity of the range, which has a more "soprano" sound than that of most counter-tenors I have heard. Lopez's "Cara speme" was utterly beautiful, while "Svegliatevi nel core" was delightful, with real rage coming through. His confidence above the stave was matched with a well integrated modal transition. "L'angue offeso mai riposa" was again performed with intensity and courage, with many exposed G5's negotiated expertly, and Lopez took the nasty 1.5 octave leap to G5 in his stride. I thought, not being very well acquainted with the sopranist fach, that there would be difficulties maintaining continuity of tone across the voice into the "soprano" register, while transitions into the modal voice would cause a destabilisation of the middle register. I was wrong. Lopez managed the transitions from modal to falsetto with immense skill, and retained both beauty and strength in the middle to lower falsetto registers. Lopez thus sounded more akin to a mezzo-soprano, with its three integrated registers, than a falsettist with a distinct modal transition. An exciting performance, which saw Lopez dominate his arias.
The role of Cornelia was performed by mezzo-soprano Anna Rita Gemmabella, whose mournful, dark voice complemented the sorrowful arias Handel composed for this role. The heart-breaking aria "Priva son d'ogni conforto" was a delight to listen to, with Gemmabella making full use of the emotional libretto to express the suffering of her character. Her singing during the recitatives and ariosos was very much full of pathos and sincere grief, and her performance in the third act was very powerful. The duet between her and Lopez, "Son nata a lagrimar/Son nato a sospirar" was enchanting. Their two voices worked marvellously together; the high male and low female contrasting and complementing each other. At one point, Gemmabella was singing an octave below Lopez! The unaccompanied parts were the most beautiful, where we could hear the two timbres of the singers as they wove together.
Sergio Foresti gave a very solid performance as Achilla. His first aria, "Tu sei il cor di questo core" was very confidently executed, with him negotiating the F4's very well, keeping the tone all the way down to the lower chest register: no bottoming out here! The fast coloratura of "Dal fulgor di questa spada" was very good, each note distinct, and no fudging or slurring. Benedetta Mazzucato's Nireno was well conceived, using the recitatives to bring out Nireno’s character. Giuseppe Esposito's large-voiced Curio was certainly present! His interactions with Prina during their recitatives were considered and relevant. It was a shame both he and Mazzucato didn't have more to do to display their vocal skills. I would like to hear more of them in the future. I would also like to add that Ottavio Dantone's direction of the orchestra, Accademia Bizantina, was superb, as was their performance. Simply put - a blistering performance of Cesare! I only hope the performance was recorded. How wonderful it would be if the same cast could be involved in a staged performance of Cesere!
As part of the "Triumph of Handel" festival at the Palace of Versailles, the world famous mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, gave two concerts in the Galerie des Glaces: Handel's Heroines and Sacrificium. Bartoli's involvement with the works of Handel is long-standing, as is her relationship with Baroque music in general. This year, she has taken the role of Artistic Director of the Easter Festival in Salzburg, which she is dedicating to Cleopatra, the heroine of Handel's Giulio Cesare, whose role she will play in the staged version. She returns to Versailles and the Galerie des Glaces after two excellent evenings devoted to Vivaldi last year. The excitement before the concert was palpable, with people flying over just for this concert.
Bartoli's opener was the ferocious "Furie terribili" from Rinaldo. Furious it was, with Bartoli unleashing the imps of Hell with this devastating rendition. Antonini's direction was flawless, with the players of Il Giardino Armonico tearing into the music. Bartoli incorporated the wind machine and thunder sheet she used to such great effect in her Barbican Concert in 2010, to even greater effect in the haunting acoustic of the Galerie des Glaces. Bartoli's ability to move between extremes of emotion with little or no time to prepare became apparent with the haunting "Dunque, i lacci d'un volto...Ah crudel!" again from Rinaldo: the A section slow and haunting, the B section fast and raging. One of the things Bartoli does so well is large jumps between the registers, and arpeggios/melismas which take her through the three registers: This she demonstrated wonderfully with the joyous "Scherza in mar la navicella" from Lotario.
The next segment of the concert came from Giulio Cesare. First, Il Giardino Armonico gave us a rousing rendition of the Overture: stately, regal and measured in the Introduction, and fast, vibrant and wild in the fugue. The second piece was one of the three highlights of the evening: Cleopatra's "Se Pietà di me non senti." As the first chords of that most mournful of arias floated through the Galerie des Glaces, the Sun, which was in the process of setting, metamorphosed into a baleful red/orange eye, bathing the Galerie in its sorrowful rays, and rendering the crystals of the chandeliers into tears of blood. It was in this atmosphere that Bartoli poured forth all the grief and despair of Cleopatra, believing as she does, she will never see her beloved Cesare again. The B section, with its phrases rising high in the voice, was particularly moving. By the end of the aria, the sun had set, along with Cleopatra's dreams.
The last segment before the interval was an interesting mix: two pieces from "Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno" and one from "Teseo." Il Giardino Armonico were quite frankly excellent during theOverture of "Il trionfo" and particulary praise must go to the dueting violinists for an inspired performance. If we didn't think we could feel any more sorrow than we did during "Se Pietà" we were wrong: Bartoli gave us "Lascia la spina." She took the aria slowly, giving each phrase time to breath, to grow and to draw us in. The high, gossamer-like pianissimo phrases in the B section were so filled with despair - we needed saving! So Bartoli ended the first half of the concert with the magnificent "M'adora l'idol mio" from Teseo. Her formidable runs and playful ornamentation were delightful, and the imitative melismas between Bartoli and the Oboe were delightful.
After the interval, we were treated to the idyllic, pastoral "Felicissima quest'alma" from Apollo e Dafne. Bartoli was at her most youthful and innocent in this charming aria, each phrase lightly delivered, with her trademark delicate pianissimos in evidence throughout the piece. The next aria could not have been more contrasting: "Si, vendetta... Pugneran con noi le stelle" from Rodrigo. Trills, runs and fast arpeggios abound in this military-sounding piece. The speed with which Bartoli fired off the coloratura passages was phenomenal, and all with such apparent ease. She even managed to tell someone off for filming during one of the most difficult sections using charade-style hand gestures! We were then treated to an Overture by Francesco Maria Veracini, his No. 6 in G Minor. Giovanni Anotnini drew out some fantastic sounds from Il Giardino Armonico, who played and moved like a flock of birds, completely together, like one organism.
The final section of the concert began with the third act symphony from Alcina, followed by the devastating "Ah! mio cor." The heartache of the spurned witch-queen was brought to life so vividly by Bartoli, that there were people crying in the audience. The high lying phrases were touched so tenderly, lightly, that they seem to have an ethereal quality not of this world. Bartoli attacked the B section with passion, providing an amazing contrast with the first part of the aria. It was an amazing performance. We were then treated to the third act march from Giulio Cesare, before Bartoli ended with "Desterò dall'empia Dite" from Amadigi. The duet between the Thibaud Robinne on the trumpet and Pier Luigi Fabretti on the oboe was fabulous, while Bartoli's tempestuous rendition of this very demanding aria was out of this world. The roar that came from the audience was well deserved.
We were treated to three encores, the first of which had Giovanni Antonini duetting with Bartoli on his recorder. The second encore was the da capo section of Cleopatra's aria "Da Tempeste" from Giulio Cesare. Her ornamentation was perfectly chosen, highlighting and complementing the original composition nicely. The speed at which she took the aria reminded me of just how frighteningly accurate her coloratura capacity actually is. What was lovely was that she really seems to enjoy singing this aria, and that came across in her delivery. As the time drew towards midnight, we wondered if we were going to have any further encores. Bartoli came out one last time, and serenaded us with the appropriately named "O sleep" from Semele. Accompanied by just the harpsichord and solo cello, the simplicity of the aria was sublime in Bartoli's expert hands. So beautiful were the languid phrases, that there was a slight pause after the aria before we started to applaud: it was as though the whole room were returning from some far off place.
The whole experience was absolutely amazing. Bartoli's artistry and the stunning Galerie des Glaces combined to produce an atmosphere I doubt I will experience again. Even the sun played its part, so befitting in the Palace of the Sun King. All images © James Edward Hughes 2012.
The Château de Versailles in France is currently hosting a festival titled "The Triumph of Handel". I spent four days there to experience some of the performances for myself, and to let you all know about the wonderful work they are doing to promote this excellent Baroque composer. The first performance I attended was a concert version of the opera Alcina. Alcina is an opera full of exciting music and powerful characterisation, charting the emotional and psychological breakdown of a once all-powerful sorceress, as she loses her control of her lover, her island, and ultimately her magical powers. As such, it is one of Handel’s most engaging works.
For more information about the opera, please see my previous review of Alcina from a performance at the Barbican in 2010.
The title role was taken by soprano Karina Gauvin. Her rich, generous voice, coupled with her strong, vibrant chest register, made her an exciting Alcina. Encompassing the full range of human emotion, the role of Alcina is one which requires complete submersion into the character by the artist. This is not easy to do in a normal production, let alone a concert performance, where the full drama of a staged performance is lacking. Gauvin was more than able to wring every last drop of feeling from her arias, and from the recitatives where she interacted with the other characters.
From her first aria, the love-struck “Di, cor mio,” to her final, calamitous cry of “O noi perdute!” Gauvin’s characterisation was sincere and intense. Her lightness of voice in “Si, son quella” was mesmerising, with some very touching pauses on the exposed notes above the stave, such as in the phrase “se amar tu non me vuoi”. Ophélie Gallard’s accompaniment on the ‘cello was beautiful, wonderfully played and very moving. “Ah! Mio cor” was truly chilling, with Christophe Rousset’s direction bringing out the stabbing rhythm mercilessly in the A section. Gauvin brought out the conflicting emotions of the “wronged” woman in the A section and the ruthless witch-queen in the B section with vivid intensity.
The long lines of coloratura in “Ombra pallide” were dispatched easily by Gauvin, taking the ebb and flow of the lines with security and well-conceived dynamics. Her excellent breath-control and phrasing helped build the tension of this dark aria, which showed the witch-queen at her most unstable and insecure. “Ma quando tornerai” was all bluster and vengeance in the A section, while the B section was so needy and desperate that one could hardly believe that once all powerful sorceress had ever existed. Her heart-breaking final aria, “Mi restanto le lagrime,” brought a sincere round of applause from us in the audience.
Ann Hallenberg’s Ruggiero was a revelation. Her playful lyricism was evident in the touching “La bocca vaga,” while her beauty of tone and intuitive phrasing made the simple yet gorgeous “Mi lusinga” all the more elegant. Hallenberg’s most moving aria was “Verdi prati.” I can honestly say I have never heard a better version. The warmth of Hallenberg’s voice, coupled with her fantastic use of dynamics, made this a pleasure to listen to. It takes a very good singer to make an aria this straightforward rhythmically, and with respect to range, stand out and hold its own compared to the more dynamic arias in the opera. Hallenberg is such a singer.
The big aria for Hallenberg, and of the opera, is “Sta nell'ircana.” Written for the star castrato Carestini, it is one of the most challenging arias in all of Handel’s operas. Ranging from B3 to G5, running across the three registers, and with many parts lying low in the middle register, it is often an aria which can cause registration problems, resulting in vocal barking or cracking, or a loss of breath control as a consequence of pushing too hard in the lower middle register to create volume. This was not a problem for Hallenberg, her flawless technique giving her the ability to negotiate the difficult passages with apparent ease. Her ornamentation in the da capo was stunning, resulting in a rapturous applause from us in the audience.
The show was stolen, for me, by the ferocious singing of contralto Delphine Galou, in the role of Bradamante. Galou has a beautiful, silky dark tone, which she uses to tremendous effect in slower arias, and a fabulous coloratura capability which invigorates faster ones. She received a huge round of applause for her dazzling rendition of “E’ gelosia,” her first aria of the evening. The fury with which she delivered her phrases, and the speed and agility showed on the coloratura lines, brought the aria to life magnificently. Galou’s characterisation was excellently done, continuing even while sitting on her chair, reacting in character to the other performers. But the best was yet to come.
The killer aria in the role of Bradamante is “Vorrei vendicarmi.” Handel wrote the aria for the great contralto Maria Caterina Negri (1), who sang in no less than 11 of Handel’s operas. As the orchestra started to play, Galou set her shoulders, took a deep breath, and launched in to the most vigorous and dynamic performance of this aria I have ever heard. The high-octane coloratura and the vehemence of the delivery combined to blow our socks off. In the da capo, Galou set off with a reckless abandon, running well below the stave at points. Praise should also go to Gautier Blondel, the sole Contrabassist, who managed to power out the rumbling bass line superbly. Galou’s final aria, “All’ alma fedel” was full of smooth legato singing – a pleasure to listen to.
Monica Piccinini's high, light soprano was well cast for the role of Morgana, Alcina's sister. In her major aria, "Tornami a vagheggiar," she floated above the stave easily, each staccato note lightly touched like a bell. I think there was also a D6 thrown in for good measure! The long held notes in "Ama, sospira" were solid and easily negotiated. Emiliano Gonzalez Toro has the light, sweet tenor which makes the role of Oronte such a pleasure to listen to. His lyricism was evident throughout the concert, and he produce a wonderful rendition of "Un momento di contento," which won him heart-felt applause.
Olivier Lallouette was a solid Melisso, dispatching "Pensa a chi geme d'amor piagata" very convincingly. Erika Escribá-Astaburuaga was excellent in the role of Oberto, the only shame being that "Barbara; io ben lo sò" was cut short. I would definitely like to her more of her in the future. Les Talens Lyriques, under the baton of Christophe Rousset, produced a performance which shone. Their cohesion as a group, and their vibrant delivery, gave the opera a vitality which it can sometimes lack with a less dynamic orchestra and conductor. The high standard of the performers and the stunning location made this, for me, one of the most memorable performances I have attended.
(1) Negri was famous for refusing to honour a one of her contracts, resisting even as grenadiers barricaded her home and threatened arrest!
In this Olympic year, it is perhaps appropriate that we should be presented with a few performances of possibly one of the most popular librettos of all time: Pietro Metastastio’s L’Olimpiade. More than 60 baroque and classical composers used the libretto as the text for their own operatic and instrumental creations, including Antonio Vivaldi. Last night, instead of the more famous Vivaldi opera, we were presented with a "pasticcio" of the works of 16 composers: Leo, Hasse, Galuppi, Sarti, Mysliveček, Paisiello, Pérez, Vivaldi, Gassmann, Caldara, Traetta, Jommelli, Cherubini, Pergolesi, Piccinni, Jommelli and Cimarosa.
The pasticcio is the brainchild of Joseph Fifer, manager of the Venice Baroque Orchestra (VBO) – the players at last night’s performance. In 2001, the VBO performed the modern day premiere of Cimarosa’s L’Olimpiade, followed in 2006 by the premiere of Galuppi’s version. It was “during research for the Galuppi staging,” Fifer says, that he became “aware that dozens of composers had set the same story.” This led to discussions between Fifer and director of the VBO, Andrea Marcon, “about creating a pasticcio performance and recording project.” After searching the archives of Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice, Paris, Lisbon, Berlin, New York, and Washington DC, and online music resources, the final tapestry of arias by 16 composers was woven together.
The result was a CD, released on the Naïve recording label (also responsible for the groundbreaking Vivaldi Edition project), and a series of concerts in Europe, starting in London. A preview of some of the arias on the recording can be seen in the video below.
The role of Megacle was taken by mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. We were treated to Basso’s excellent coloratura work in the first aria, Hasse’s “Superbo di me stesso.” Particularly nice was her dark tone on the low, descending phrase “come mi sta nel cor,” and her truly Olympian ornamentation in the da capo. The orchestra was a little loud, however, and slightly obscured her chest register in this aria. Not so in the fiery second act aria “L’amico dov’è?” by Cherubini, which Basso stormed through with passion, excellent diction and consummate phrasing. Her inspired modulation of the dynamics wound up the tension, earning her an extended applause. Her final aria, “Lo seguitai felice,” was a Basso tour-de-force, with exciting coloratura, fluid movement throughout the range, and breathtaking beauty of tone.
Two of the three arias for contralto Delphine Galou – taking the role of Licida – were composed by Baldassare Galuppi. His version of the opera premiered in Milan, and was regarded as his most successful opera seria. The first aria, “Quel destrier, che all’albergo è vicino,” showed off Galou’s rich, velvety timbre sound, while in her last aria, “Gemo in un punto, e fremo,” her forceful delivery and intuitive delivery of the text was striking: and what a strong low Ab at the end of the B section! The most astounding performance, however, was her beautifully tender, stripped-down version of Vivaldi’s “Mentre dormi” – a haunting and definitive rendition. I look forward to hearing her interpretation of the role of Bradamante in Handel’s Alcina at Versailles next month.
I was looking forward to hearing the aria by Josef Mysliveček “Del destin non vi lagnate,” performed be tenor Jeremy Ovenden. What I was not prepared for, however, was the ringing F#4 (G in Baroque pitch) at the start of the piece. In fact, I would say that Ovenden was the surprise of the evening. His pianissimo notes in the head register on the phrase “ma regnate”were delightful, and his phrasing and tone throughout the aria marked him as a rising star. Well done to him also for continuing un-phased as part of the ceiling fell down! He handled the difficult “So ch’è fanciullo Amore” by Jommelli expertly, and excelled in the final aria of the opera, “Non so donde viene” by Cimarosa, with its nearly two octave ascending leap.
Luanda Siqueira took on the role of Argene, originally performed by Karina Gauvin on the Naïve recording. She was composed throughout, and performed well, particularly in Pergolesi’s fiendish “No, la speranza,” displaying a solid and flexible range over two octaves. "Oh care selve, oh cara" by Sarti had some beautifully lyric moments, with Siqueria providing some very tasteful ornamentation. Her coloratura during Traetta's "Che non mi disse un dì!" was precice, though it was freer and more playful in her final aria, Perez's "Fiamma ignota nell’alma mi scende."
The love interest of both Licida and Megacle, the Princess Aristea, was sung by Ruth Rosique, who threw herself into her character with determination, reaping exciting results, particularly in the fierce offering from Leonardo Leo, “Tu me da me divide”. Her duet with Romina Basso, “Nei giorni tuoi felici,” was convincing, with Rosique and Basso interacting well. Caldara's "Grandi, e ver, son le tue pene" is vocally taxing, but Rosique managed to make it her own. Paisello's "Tu di saper procura" and Piccinni's "Caro, son tua cosi" allowed Rosique to showcase the softer side of her voice to great effect.
The role of Aminta was taken by counter-tenor Nicholas Spanos, who also doubled up as a bass in the choruses: the final two of which, both by Hasse, were superb. Bassoonist Stefano Meloni deserves special mention for his virtuosic playing during Spanos' first aria, “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” which was a furious tempest of an aria. Markellos Chryssicos at the Harpsichord was also worthy of note. Chryssicos had previously taken the role of conductor on the CD recording.
It was an enjoyable evening, particularly for those wishing to look deeper into the world of those Baroque composers. Indeed, Joseph Fifer stated objectives were: “to help introduce important work by several lesser-known composers, and to encourage others to continue exploring the enormous body of eighteenth-century Italian opera.”
This production shows that these objectives have been met, admirably.
Juan Diego Flόrez’s fifth Rosenblatt Recital took place at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall. His program included mainstream Tenor set pieces, such as “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” “Be My Love,” and “De' miei bollenti spiriti,” as well as a series of lesser known bel canto and 20th Century Spanish material.
The first two offerings came from Bellini’s Il Pirata. The Württembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn, under the baton of Alessandro Vitiello, set the tenor of the evening with their energetic rendition of the Overture of the opera. Flόrez then came to the stage, greeted with rapturous applause, and regaled us with “Nel furor delle tempeste.” His clear, diamond voice launched into the aria, which called for 7 A4’s, a B4 and a D5! All this in the first aria! When approaching the D5, Flόrez had that perfect alignment of body and voice which is essential when a Tenor rises above the High C’s! His phrasing on the line “io l’amo, e peno” was particularly beautiful.
To follow Bellini, we were served Rossini! The orchestra powered through the Overture to La Scala di Seta. Special praise must go to the double basses for their expert playing of the more thunderous parts of the piece. From the same opera, Flόrez gave us “Vedrò qual sommo incanto.” The warmth of the first verse was followed by the virtuosity of the second, where Flόrez had a magnificent coloratura run, starting at Bb4 and returning right back again, and a C5 as ornamentation, both of which were handled masterfully. Verdi was also on the menu, with the Sinfonia from Luisa Miller showing off the talents of the fabulous clarinettist, and Flόrez on top form with “De' miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata.
After the interval we were treated to three Spanish composers. The first was from his Amadeo Vives’ zarzuela, Doña Francisquita: the famous second act aria "Por el humo se sabe." Flόrez’s dramatic, desperate outburst on the phrase “Se me entra por los ojos y a veces sueño que ya la adoro” with its alternating Ab4/G4 scoring, was very powerful. The second piece was a playful ditty called “El mismo rey del moro” from José Serrano’s La algería del batallόn. Finally we heard the Intermezzofrom Gerόnima Giménez’s La boda de Luis Alonso. The vitality with which the orchestra executed the piece was palpable, with committed, aggressive violins, and a sensational performance by the brass section.
With Lehár’s “Dein is mein ganzes Herz” and Brodzsky’s “Be My Love” Flόrez reminded us why the tenor voice has such beautiful melodies composed for it. The emotional delivery of the Lehár was infectious, and much credit should be given to the orchestra for judging correctly the level of sentimentality required. His delivery of “Be My Love” brought a tear to the eyes of a few of the audience members sitting around me. A few people around me were singing it to themselves as we waited for the final aria on the program.
Flόrez introduced the next piece, “Allegro io son” from Donizetti’s Rita, telling us that it was about a man who had lost his wife. Though it was no great loss as he didn’t want her anyway! There were several octave leaps up to B4, plus an octave jump up to C5. The high notes were effortless, amazingly so given the arias he had performed thus far. Flόrez’s humour shone through as he sang his “Tra la la la la”lines. It earned him whistles from the arena. A wave of foot-stomping went through the crowd as we waited to see what encores we would be getting.
Flόrez’s signature piece, “Ah, mes amis” from La fille du regiment was the first encore. The nine C5’s penetrating the Hall like a laser, on pitch and cutting straight through the orchestra. Next up, we had “La donna è mobile,” from Rigoletto. Flόrez's tempo slower than usual, showing off his astounding breath control and beautiful legato singing. He crowned the aria with a magnificent C5. The last piece,Granada, was a perfect ending. Flόrez created a wonderful texture to the phrases, and the Morish triplets at the end sent shivers down my spine.
The concert was an overwhelming success for Flόrez, and for Ian Rosenblatt’s Recital Series.
Huw Smith, a regular reader of Show Me Something Interesting, went to see Gerald Barry's new opera, The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Barbican, and kindly penned a review for the blog. So, without further ado, here are his musings.
The Importance of Being Ernest - the opera by Gerald Barry
Of all the plays to choose! How do you make the dialogue count, convey the verbal sparring, and retain the sparkling wit…how? You DON’T!
This isn’t entirely true, but Barry shreds, and I mean shreds the text. How much is discarded…two thirds? Well that’s pretty standard for an adaptation and no bad thing if you’re writing an opera. And in the end isn’t it the music that counts? Isn’t it?
The text is ravaged, cut to pieces, and reduced to its brutal essentials. Barry puts the wild in Wilde or perhaps reveals the wild in Wilde and his well made play, that is if you could decipher the sung text. Yes, there were surtitles but having arrived at the hall without the correct glasses, I gave up attempting to read them and concluded it was far more fun without them. The words were there - (sung very fast, very slow, words dissected, phrases sung across the natural rhythms) - but once you surrendered to the sound and simply accepted what little meaning you could catch, you relaxed, sighed, and enjoyed the ride (and when was the last time you could say that of a contemporary opera?).
Fun? Did I say ‘fun’? A contemporary opera that’s ‘fun’? Well yes astounding though it may seem, it’s an absolute hoot both funny and exhilarating and without conceit though somehow lavished with it. So, what is it that makes Barry’s Importance… something to be revisited? Well for a start its sheer energy and exuberance and scatter-gun approach – there’s little time to grow bored with one thing as along comes the next and the next.
Did I say scatter-gun?
A highlight was the verbal exchange between Gwendolen and Cecily; an exchange conducted by megaphones, which intensified via scoring for how many smashed dinner plates?(48?), (in strict time), to scoring for jackboots and duel by pistols. Perhaps you had to be there.
I leant forward in my seat.
I rarely lean forward and only when the entertainment reaches out and sucks me in. I was sucked in and totally, completely, irrevocably, won over by Mr. Barry. I must admit that I’d admired his Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but this, this was altogether a far more even-flavoured soup; and nothing less than an avant-garde-ist soup at that of ‘twenties London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow …and probably of Buenos Aires too thrown in for good measure. Barry mentions the fake surrealism he uses at the start but frankly it’s a kitchen sink assemblage of every musical "ism"of the twentieth-century you’ve ever heard and probably some you haven’t with a little G. & S. pattering for good measure. I loved it.
Special mention to Thomas Ades who’s conducting was a masterclass in controlled intensity; it kept drawing me from the rest of the performance but then there were so many things to savour – the opera needs to be experienced more than once.
The different parts of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (three cheers for smaller orchestras) also seemed to revel in having something challenging to work with as did the singers who were to a man equally committed and I believe won over by the writing, fiendish though it must have been at times. In particular Peter Tantsits’ barely contained punk-ish mania and the stratospheric zapping by Barbara Hannigan.
Barry’s subversive cross-cutting decimation of the text became an added orchestral textural flourish - can I be championing this mashing syncopation? Oh yes I can. Barry’s Importance… simply uses Wilde’s sublime Importance… to create a reassuringly old fashioned musical revolution of an entertainment. There was nothing new here but how refreshing the result. I left with a smile on my face and not the fixed one I expected to be wearing as I exited the Barbican Hall.
Too late now to hear it in the concert hall. See if you can catch it on iPlayer, Radio 3, and write to ENO demanding that it be given a run sooner rather than later.
So, that was Huw's take on the opera. Take a look at the Barbican brochure, and have a listen to Stephen Fry, Fiona Shaw, Thomas Adès and Gerald Barry discussing the work in the video below (thank you to the Barbican for uploading it!) if his review has sparked your interest.
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.