Thursday, 24 September 2015

An afternoon treat - a little Poulenc

Something for Thursday afternoon: Andreas Ottensamer (Clarinet) and Christoph Traxler (Piano) with a little bit of Poulenc.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

All that glitters (Handa Opera/Aida)

Verdi, Aida (Castles-Onion, cond.  Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra).
A friend tells a favourite story about waiting in the Sydney Opera box office queue, and hearing the response to an enquiry about dress code, to be told that 'well, we prefer shoes'. If the audience can come very much dressed down, it is hard to conceive of a more dressed-up performance that that from Handa Opera last night recorded for cinemas. Opera Australia broadcast Aida from Sydney Harbour to cinemas last night, and I  have to scratch my head as to why they thought it was a good idea to expose their singers thus. The short version of it is this: the spectacle of staging on the Harbour is clearly leading the whole thing. I can’t communicate to you just how much gold and glitter there was. So camp was it, that even Liberace would have found it de trop. The most moving moment in the first half was the carrying of a few dozen black coffins (shiny, natch), as part of the Triumphal March. Almost every male chorus member, actor, was dressed in some kind of cod-piece, and often either breast plate or rubberised costume; in some cases both. The start was promising with warmongers dressed as blinged-up sort-of-Nazis. In contradistinction to the blandness of the authoritarian baddies in Poliuto at Glyndebourne, pirated-typed skull-and-crossbones badge dodged the bullet. Overall it had a graphic effect of Behind the Candelabra  meets Indiana Jones, with more than a smidge of Carry On. The big head revolved to show a blue and gold throne with King sitting in the middle of it– all very King Tut, but just too, too much. And it was glam for its own sake. So much sparkle I feared my eyes might bleed.
So much glitter, but no explanation of the oil drums was every apparent.
Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Aida.
Photo credit: Hamilton Lund
After the interval, things calmed down: presumably no more sequins could be had in Sydney – not even for ready money. In pale blue light (Matt Scott) the intensity was built up somewhat. Yet the tomb in which the lovers are buried alive, gave out so much bright lights shining up in to the harbour, the audience had to wonder if they were they bound for death or Broadway. Cinematography was often naïve – fading over more than one image of the same thing – close up and panned out at once, blurred the lines and added yet more gold and spangle. At other times, however, the tendency to pan out just a bit meant less inspection of dental work, and a better sense of things, which was to be commended.
Gale Edwards, responsible for the madness which had just been shown (alongside Mark Thompson (design)), in the interval announced it was all for modern resonances; but this was a strangely ahistorical reading of the opera. In 1871 comment on nationhood in Italian opera, especially if anything to do with VERDI in Italy was a given.
This fiasco was scheduled for 26 performances, yet this felt under rehearsed: movement was rarely tight or in unison, and if you are going for spectacle, that is a serious problem.
The singing was mediocre; this was not designed for HD relay but belting out in the harbour for something different to do in Sydney. Best was Latonia Moore (Aida) yet by the end her technique seemed less than classical – was this Pop Idol or something? Amonasro (Michel Honeyman) was also worthy of some mention – alas his part was not that major.
The best of the bunch.
Latonia Moore as Aida in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour — Aida.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton.
The orchestra – hidden away in the bowels of the floating stage like rowers in some Greek boat gave an account of the score which seemed to lack power, oomph or bass, to the extent I wondered if the technical side was suffering either in the filming or reproduction. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was under Brian Castles-Onion’s baton to do such an underwhelming job of one ofVerdi’s most wonderful operas, tender and thundering by turns. 
Overall: come for spectacle if you must, but not for opera. 
AIDA - Latonia Moore
RADAMÈS- Walter Fraccaro
AMNERIS - Milijana Nikolic
AMONASRO     Michael Honeyman
RAMFIS     David Parkin
THE KING     Gennadi Dubinsky
MESSENGER     Benjamin Rasheed
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus
CONDUCTOR - Brian Castles-Onion
DIRECTOR - Gale Edwards
SOUND DESIGNER - Tony David Cray
CHOREOGRAPHER     Lucas Jervies
SITE DESIGNER     Eamon D'Arcy
ASSISTANT DIRECTORS Andy Morton and Kate Gaul

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Flashy Flórez and the wicker wife (ROH/ Orpheé)

Gluck, Orpheé et Eurydice (Gardiner cond. English Baroque Soloists at the Royal Opera House)
Anyone would be forgiven for getting confused amongst the Orpheus-themed operas. This summer I saw one by Birtwistle (The Corridor) and Monteverdi (Orfeo); there are five at Covent Garden this year. Last night the Royal Opera’s season was opened by the first performance of the French version of Gluck’s opera with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, in a new production by Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames. 
Juan Diego Flórez as Orphée and Lucy Crowe as Eurydice with the Monteverdi Choir in Orphée et Eurydice. ©2015 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper
The production was largely pared back. The (fifty-odd piece period) orchestra was taken out of the pit and placed on a platform on the stage – at the hands of the Soloists, the beautiful score was given wonderful treatment as wonderful sounds came by turns from each section. An especially beautiful Harp solo (Gwyneth Wentink) was characteristic of how well the music was done. Colours of gold and blue and brown and dark orange are used to evoke hell. Eurydice is immolated twice: she dies twice after all, by setting fire to a metal cage in the shape of a person. Over the stage large dirty pieces of what appears like copper appear, bearing holes like punch cards containing music; round apertures recall stringed instruments. Through the holes lights shone: inverting in a way all the candles from Saul and emphasizing the subterranean. With the exception of the odd lamp, this is about as much as there is. What all this added up to was less clear. There seemed a lack of coherence, even if it was all fairly inoffensive.
Much space is kept clear on stage for dancing. Dance is not something which is discussed particularly on these pages, but Shechter’s company had produced pretty tight routines requiring terrifying stamina and dexterity. The exertion required was apparent from the raised orchestra pit (one could hardly turn down the chance to stand almost exactly where Pappano does), as the dance company glistened with sweat. I was tired watching them. Set to Gluck’s music it was a sublime experience.The Dance of the Blessd Spirits can never have been more charming, or the Dance of the Furies more malicious and threatening in sound or movement.
But let’s get to the singing. Juan Diego Flórez was brooding, melancholy, pitiful but an immense stage presence. When he sang he filled every inch of the auditorium with long, bold lines. The part suited him perfectly and to have been in such proximity was an especial privilege: I can’t imagine he wasn’t immaculately clear on the very back row of the amphitheatre. Amada Forsythe made for a very sexy, powerful amour, showing the part so well in an astonishing gold suit (and possibly a silver one too, or that may have been a trick of the lighting). Lucy Crowe was on fine form again as Eurydice.And all supported ably by the Monteverdi Choir.
Overall: some perhaps unthrilling staging didn’t hamper a sensation Flórez, ably supported by Forsythe and Crowe. The dancing was superb and undoubtedly not to be missed.
Performances until 3rd October; broadcast of a recording on 24 October 2015.
Cast and credits
Conductor - John Eliot Gardiner
Orphée - Juan Diego Flórez
Eurydice - Lucy Crowe
Amour - Amanda Forsythe
Dancers - Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Music - Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto - Pierre Louis Moline
Directors - Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames
Choreography - Hofesh Shechter
Designer - Conor Murphy
Lighting designer - Lee Curran

Two desperate housewives (Poulenc/Wigmore)

Antonacci and Sulzen, La dame de Monte Carlo and La Voix Humaine
Yesterday’s lunchtime concert from the Wigmore Hall was Anna Caterina Antonacci sang two pieces by Poulenc: La Dame de Monte Carlo and La Voix Humaine accompanied by Donald Sulzen on the piano.
What connects these pieces written towards the end of Poulenc's life in 1961 and 1958 is that they are two unhappy or frustrated female narrators with a deeply uneasy relationship with modernity: in a sense the lady on the telephone hates it, its dislocation and disembodiment, but is glad to speak to her lover, technical problems notwithstanding. In La Dame, the postwar liberation offered in Monte Carlo’s casino has been pretty hollow given her financial losses. An orange telephone and a pile of letters made uneasy table-fellows for this semi-staging of La Voix. I had worried that this might be gimmicky and awkward when wheeled out, but it worked wonderfully to draw out the frustrations in the piece.

Vocally and musically, this was a hand-and-glove situation: Antonacci was superb, clear and powerful with stresses all in the right places; Donald Sulzen provided perfect accompaniment and just as both fitted the piece, the pieces fitted the acoustics of the Wigmore Hall.

The Concert was broadcast on R3 and is on iplayer.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Rheingold with white plastic chairs

I can add to the list of things to which I wish I had bought tickets the Rheingold with which Currentzis is making his foray into Wagner. His Da Ponte trilogy on Sony has hitherto been electric.

Some more information in German here; and in English on the Ruhrtriiiennale website here. It would be great to hear and see this- fingers crossed for a stream or broadcast. I have no doubt this will sound nothing like Wagner has before. And the post-industrial setting must suit Nibelheim perfectly.

"Rheingold" dress rehearsal - Premier tomorrow - image Ксения Гамарис


Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A double home-coming (Gerontius/Rattle VPO)

Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius (Simon Rattle cond. Vienna Philharmonic, BBC Proms Youth Chorus)
Last night a big crowd was guaranteed at Symphony Hall: two of Birmingham’s adopted sons – Simon Rattle and Cardinal Newman. Gerontius as an oratorio might be seen similarly, as it was in Birmingham in 1900 that it was first performed. Rattle brought with him quite a band. The combined forces of the Vienna Philharmonic and BBC Proms Youth Choir I’d estimate numbered nearly four hundred. A certain volume was surely imminent. In the way perhaps only Rattle can, the music had the most astonishing freshness, as if he gazed on the score for the first time; I am quite sure this will hold at the Proms on Friday. The Vienna Philharmonic were on fine form. This was a chance to hear them in the best acoustics rather than those of the Royal Albert Hall – I was surrounded by several people visiting from London. 
Singing was more of a mixed bag. I’ve read elsewhere of grumblings that whatever opera Rattle’s Berlin band does has to offer a gig to his wife mezzo Magdalene Kožená. Alas, Kožená seemed at times to be at the upper limit of her vocal range – were some notes slightly strained, I wondered. Toby Spence offered an ethereal if somewhat unemotional account. Roderick Williams was sans raproche and fitted in well. Moreover, he had no difficulty in rising above all those instruments and all those singers. The real problem was that neither Spence nor Kožená really filled their parts. Halsey and three additional chorus masters had obviously worked wonders with the Chorus but the price of all those young voices was that at times they were not as perfectly-martialled as they might have been, leading to a little harshness at times. The trade-off was almost certainly worth it.
The real limitation of the evening lies with Elgar. Dare I say that he is essentially second-rate? I am aware he has an army of those holding him aloft as the great English symphonic composer. As oratorios go, this is the most limited sense given how little happens. It is hard to imagine staging it as with Handel’s (e.g. Saul at Glyndebourne most recently). 

Overall, to go with the Austrian theme: this was splendid TBA – full, rich and intense, of remarkable texture, but made from the wrong grape.

Repeated, and brodcast from, the Royal Albert Hall on Friday evening. Details here.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Magdalena Kožená mezzo-soprano
Toby Spence tenor
Roderick Williams baritone
BBC Proms Youth Choir

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Hvorostovsky recovering

I was especially thrilled to hear that  Hvorostovsky has recovered sufficiently to sing at the Met later this month. Not least, tickets for Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden arrived earlier this week and I had wondered if he would be well enough.Trovatore will be on the cinema relay in early October too. The resumption of relays means autumn beckons.
 The Royal Opera have announced this; also see Slipped Disc.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

All of Joyce

Joyce DiDonato's latest recording is a live one of a performance at the Wigmore Hall and is exactly the sort of thing with the pure acoustic which makes it a leading chamber venue. The intimacy of the event is conveyed effectively without muffling the sound - something quite similar to the purity of the hall itself.
This recital had everything you want from Joyce: seemingly endless vocal lines, as if spun from honey; unparallelled coloratura; the warmth of humanity and personality which somehow bubbles through. Laughter and cheering seemed to be present in equal measures.
The programming was broad. Serious if obscure opera (in same line as 'Stella di Napoli' the rightly-feted selection of bel canto arias) starts proceedings. The first is a Haydn Ariadne scene (20m) but even the individual arias seem fleshed-out in a way they so rarely are on these occasions.

Pappano offers the Rolls-Royce of accompaniment. And why not when the results are this good? He might even be a better repetitieur than conductor. Or at least as good.
After the interval: American show tunes. It demonstrates the benefits of the classical voice as well as nearly anything in Pappano's classical voices on the BBC recently.
Humour isn't lacking (Life upon the Wicked Stage) in both choice of repertoire and occasional humorous interludes - dates at the Wigmore Hall are confirmed despite lyrics claiming Joyce has had enough of life on stage. Less is said about "Stage Door Johnnies"-  but I'll guess there is a fair few of those hanging around afterwards.
The final track is 'Somewhere over the rainbow'. Only Joyce could finish off with this having started with unfamiliar Haydn scenes and it seem right. Tender, luscious, honeyed but unsickly tones. With others it would be too much, but not Joyce. On his programme, Pappano's called Mezzos earth goddesses. Seems about right. 

Erato double-disc set, very reasonably priced.