Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A thrilling Chénier (ON/Chénier)

Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier (Orchestra Opera North, cond. Oliver von Dohnányi). 

The final opera of the week, Andrea Chénier (11th March) was a real tour de force. I had been concerned after seeing the lavish production last year at Covent Garden with dream cast of Jonas Kaufmann and Eva Maria-Westbroek (note), this would compare very unfavourably. Absolutely not, and in many ways surpassed it. By removing the literal trappings of the late C18th, the harshess and terror of the age was brought out. 
Rafael Rojas as Andrea Chénier and Annemarie Kremer as Maddelena. Photo Credit: Robert Workman/Opera North
The staging saw echoes of the period but cast as almost early gothic. The three back walls were constructed by chainmail hanging the full height of the stage (the weight almost incalculable). Through these the sans culottes thrust their hands twice: when they interrupt the salon at the start, and again at the end as the mob satisfied its lust for blood. This was – not in that sense alone – a deeper reading of the terror in psychological terms of a nation traumatised by its revolution and bloody excesses. The staging was, on the whole, less important, and the music – from the pit and the stage – placed centre-stage. It is easy to decry Giordano’s score as something of a pot-boiler or second-rate, but it packs many good tunes and carries the drama apace. Volume and thrust were applied not dissimilarly to Pappano’s version. There were, in contrast to the Friday evening, no problems of audibility. This was a deeply moving evening. Rojas as poet seemed to know no vocal bounds, and his lover Maddalena de Coigny Annemarie Kremer’s singing was strikingly beautiful too. Fiona Kimm strode the stage as Contessa di Coigny with the presence her aristocratic status commanded, and provided some impressive acting as well as signing over the evening. Carlo Gérard Robert Hayward.
Fiona Kimm as Contessa di Coigny. Photo Credit: Robert Workman/Opera North
Overall: first water. This company is surely ready for its ambitious Ring project in the summer.

Programme prices: the £5 programmes are out of control with Opera North – they need to sort this. £15 over the week for three small programmes.

Cast and creative team
Andrea Chénier Rafael Rojas
Carlo Gérard Robert Hayward
Maddalena de Coigny Annemarie Kremer
Bersi Anna Dennis
Contessa di Coigny/ Madelon Fiona Kimm
Roucher Phillip Rhodes
L’Abate/ an ‘Incroyable’ Daniel Norman
Mathieu Jeremy Peaker
Schmidt Ross McInroy
Dumas Garrick Forbes
Pietro Fléville / Fouquier-Tinville Dean Robinson
Conductor Oliver von Dohnányi
Director Annabel Arden
Set and Costume Designer Joanna Parker
Lighting Designer Peter Mumford
Video Designer Dick Straker
Sound Designer Pete Malkin
Movement Director Tim Claydon

Thank god they aren’t all the same (ON/Cosi)

Mozart, Così fan tutte (Orchestra Opera North cond. Jac van Steen)
After the sheer joy of L’elisir, it was with sorrow that Così fan tutte the following night (10th March), a revival of Tim Albery’s 1982 production, was a rare miss from Opera North. Containing some perfect music and a silly plot, it should make for a fine evening. It did not. 
Máire Flavin as Fiordiligi, Gavan Ring as Guglielmo, William Dazeley as Don Alfonso, Nicholas Watts as Ferrando and Helen Sherman as Dorabella. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/Opera North
This was presented in English. On this issue of translation I am conflicted, as I do believe it really can work for comic operas, and in the case of Le nozze last year from this company it was a success. Yet for Cosi, the change in sounds caused by the translation made this sound very odd, particularly in the first two acts. And more crucially, even from the front row of the dress circle much of what was sung was inaubidle. So why bother? The orchestral account (cond. Jac van Steen) was rather pedestrian, and not worthy of an opera which of all of Mozart’s surely contains some of the most beautiful, heavenly pieces. Steen has produced some extraordinary music with this orchestra in the past, so perhaps just an 'off' night.
Setting it in a camera obscura might work for some, but not for me. This was made a literal camera. The stage was gloomy. Quite to what end was unclear, but I was rather disappointed by the whole thing, frankly.

Fiordiligi Máire Flavin
Dorabella Helen Sherman
Ferrando Nicholas Watts
Guglielmo Gavan Ring
Despina Ellie Laugharne
Don Alfonso William Dazeley
Creative Team
Conductor Jac van Steen
Director Tim Albery
Set & Costume Designer Tobias Hoheisel
Lighting Designer David Finn

Just what the doctor ordered! (ON/Elisir)

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore (Orchestra Opera North cond. Tobias Ringborg, Theatre Royal Nottingham)
On 9th March,  L’elisir was an absolute thrill. A strong Nemorino (Jung Soo Yun), a very funny Dulcamara (Richard Burkhard) with amusing small child assisting, no say nothing of an impressive Adina (Gabriela Iştoc), meant musically this was a delight. Set at a sun-soaked Hotel Adina, this was an absolute delight from start to finish. Every bit which could be funny was. Dulcamara’s arrival by balloon, for example, reminiscent of L’étoile at Covent Garden through it was, was a highlight. Jung Soo Yun was a very convincing comic actor, just as every hint of swagger made Duncan Rock Belcore. The arrival of Belcore et al on a couple of motorcycles was likewise jovially done (an austerity version of that car to be seen in Le nozze). Under Ringborg a pacy but tempered account of the score made for a very happy, sunny evening.

Freddie Butterfield as Dulcamara’s Boy, Richard Burkhard as Dulcamara and the Chorus of Opera North. Photo credit: Robert Workman/ Opera North

Overall: spot on

Cast and creative team:
Adina Gabriela Iştoc
Nemorino Jung Soo Yun
Belcore Duncan Rock
Dr. Dulcamara Richard Burkhard
Giannetta Fflur Wyn
Conductor Tobias Ringborg
Director Daniel Slater
Set & Costume Designer Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer Simon Mills
Choreographer & Associate Director Tim Claydon

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Serious Shostakovich (Brentano Quartet/Town Hall)

Bach, Shostakovich and Dvořák (Brentano Quartet, Birmingham Town Hall)

A little behind here, but the Brentano Quartet at the Town Hall in Birmingham (Tuesday 8th March), which was only about one third full. Having shared a stage with Joyce DiDonato last April (any greater honour?). The tone of each half was set by Bach fugues, the second portions being Shostakovich and Dvorak. It was the Shostakovich which shone most sensationally. The bleakness and hopelessness of early moments made this the most impressive piece. One of the thrilling things to witness is a conversation between four people who have almost no visible interaction.
Serema Canin Violin
Mark Steinberg Violin
Misha Amory Viola
Nina Lee Cello

Bach: Fugues (selection)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No 14 in F- Sharp major
Bach: Fugues (selection)
Dvořák: String Quartet in C major, Op 61

Sunday, 6 March 2016

A splash of wine and a touch of sun (Rose/Arias for Benucci)

Arias for Benucci (Jonathan Cohen cond. Arcangelo, Hyperion). 
Anyone wondering what is in store at Le nozze in the summer could do worse than get hold of  Arias for Benucci. It features Matthew Rose with Johnathan Cohen conducting Arcangelo his own period band. Rose (singing Bottom, but I am not sure this disc helps too much in that regard) is magnificent. A sweet, round baritone, with a touch of depth. It is the counterpart to Arias for Guadagni with Iestyn Davies and the same orchestral forces. It looks likely to be as much of a keeper.
The disc is Mozart-dominated: from Cosi, Le nozze and DG. But his great rival Salieri is present as is Martin Y Soler and Paisiello. This strikes a decent balance between the familiar and new things. It might be that some of these operas appear slightly tedious to a modern audience, or are unfashionable for some other reason. In any case a scene from Sarti’s opera Contrattempi is a real delight, and I am tempted to seek the whole thing (no recording available). Of course what is achieved is to see Mozart in context – including those who have not echoed down the centuries with such volume. This is a generous recording (1h17m) and the inclusion of recitative makes it feel less like bleeding chunks (a cheap, quick and easy way to bring up some of those discs which tend towards brevity with only arias in succession). In musical as well as historical context to a reasonable degree.
Indeed, whilst I am no fan of highlights, perhaps with music as familiar as the Da Ponte trio it works well enough. Cohen delivers something close to the pace of Currentzis without the edge and a more balanced effect overall. (The two Currentzis Da Ponte offerings released so far are amongst my favourite recordings. Not everyone has liked them but they are fresh and thrilling and say something new. I wouldn’t much fancy trying to keep staged drama apace with them.) This is joyful music and it whets my appetite for the summer. I think this will be a terrific match for that lovely 1960s Figaro. Just for an hour or so, one has maybe had a drop too much to drink, nodding off in warm summer sunshine.