Due to a temporary hiatus in posting reviews on Classical Source, I, Colin, as the site’s editor, am adding some of the so-far-unpublished edited copy here and in serendipitous fashion.
London Handel Festival & St Martin in the Fields Easter Festival – La Resurrezione
La Resurrezione di nostro Signor Gesú Cristo – Oratorio in two Parts to a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece [sung in Italian]
Angel – Rachel Redmond
Mary Magdalene – Nardus Williams
Mary Cleophas – Helen Charlston
John the Evangelist – Ed Lyon
Lucifer – Callum Thorpe
London Handel Orchestra
Monday, April 18, 2022
St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London
La Resurrezione (1708) is effectively Handel’s Easter Oratorio, composed in Rome during his Italian travels. Although he never gave up his Protestant faith, however, it is very different from the type of composition he would have written had he remained in Lutheran Germany, or that of his contemporary, J. S. Bach, would cultivate in his many cantatas and sacred works during the periods of his ecclesiastical employment.
In Papal-dominated Rome, where opera was essentially banned, the sacred and moral compositions which were approved were often really stage works under a different guise, following more or less exactly the form of the then prevalent opera seria. It did not matter, therefore, that Handel drew upon his experience of writing secular cantatas, the moral allegory Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, and the Italian opera he had composed for Florence, Rodrigo, when his patron Francesco Ruspoli commissioned an oratorio for the Easter festivities at his Roman palace in 1708. Elaborate scenery, a large orchestra (including Corelli leading the violins), highly vivid and contrasting music, and a deliberative libretto comprising dialogue among earthly Biblical characters on the one hand and the extra-terrestrial figures of an Angel and Lucifer on the other, created virtually all the drama that could be conveyed on any operatic stage.
The sizeable, early-eighteenth-century church of St Martin in the Fields was a venue perhaps not too dissimilar from that where the Oratorio would have first been heard. It certainly provided the reverberant space for Laurence Cummings’s vigorous interpretation with the London Handel Orchestra here, given on Easter Monday as part of both the London Handel Festival and the St Martin in the Fields Easter Festival. Although there were fewer than the twenty-one violins which were reportedly used at Handel’s first performance in Rome, there was still an emphatic body of sound from the ensemble – including a resplendent trio of a pair of trumpets and one trombone for some ceremonial numbers – acting as the springboard for some boldly declaimed performances from the singers. That suited the argumentative rhetoric for much of the work – especially the scenes between Rachel Redmond’s firmly projected, vibrato-laden Angel and Callum Thorpe’s unflustered but equally powerful Lucifer. Having Redmond first appear at the back of the orchestra, but in front of the brass, created a visibly and audibly awing sense of confrontation between the two.
The other singers maintained a firm grasp of their dialogue as Ed Lyon’s St John (the Evangelist) confidently awaited the return of Christ on the third day in the terms expounded in his Gospel; and Nardus Williams and Helen Charlston as the two Marys, first lamenting the dead Jesus before pursuing expectantly that hope which John has held out before them. Given the libretto’s expression of their awaiting the reappearance of Christ as like the return of a lover, however, there was some lack of tenderness in their performance at times which would have provided more engaging contrast.
But overall, enthusiasm and excitement were palpable in their account of this work which dramatises the central, world-changing event of the Christian faith but (perhaps oddly) does not actually give Christ a voice in the composition himself.
Vivaldi’s Griselda in Venice – Ann Hallenberg, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Michela Antenucci; directed by Gianluca Falaschi; conducted by Diego Fasolis
Griselda – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno adapted by Carlo Goldoni [sung in Italian with Italian surtitles]
Gualtiero – Jorge Navarro Colorado
Griselda – Ann Hallenberg
Costanza – Michela Antenucci
Roberto – Antonio Giovannini
Ottone – Kangmin Justin Kim
Corrado – Rosa Bove
La Fenice Orchestra
Gianluca Falaschi – Director, Set and Costume Designer
Alessandro Carletti & Fabio Barettin – Lighting Designer
April 29, 2022
Teatro Malibran, Campiello del Teatro, Cannaregio, Venice
The narrative of Vivaldi’s opera Griselda (1735) will be familiar to readers of classic literature since it appears as the story of patient Griselda in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and was used from that source by Chaucer as one of his Canterbury Tales. Although very little of Vivaldi’s operatic output is widely known today, this work contains one of his few famous arias ‘Agitata da due venti’ and, continuing the theme of prominent literary treatment, it is the only collaboration between the composer and his younger Venetian contemporary Carlo Goldoni, as they worked on an older libretto by Apostolo Zeno.
Despite the irony, perhaps, of Gianluca Falaschi’s controlling the direction, stage and costume design in this production, he brings out the implied feminist dimension of the opera and declines to collude exactly with the story’s overt moral of Griselda having tests imposed upon her by a snobbish, misogynistic court and populace, and passing them to be belatedly proved worthy to be the wife of the king of Thessaly, Gualtiero, despite her humble origins as a shepherdess. Falaschi notes that Goldoni went on to write La locandiera (‘The Mistress of the Inn’) as a ‘sort of proto-feminist manifesto’; and Vivaldi, as a long-standing music master at the largely female orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, must also have entertained a high degree of sympathy with the social and political position of women in relation to the male-dominated hierarchies of the time. Accordingly, Falaschi sees Griselda’s trial as the manifestation of ‘toxic masculinity’ in seeking to subject women to its ideals, and her triumph as breaking the vicious circle of that patriarchal exercise of power. Hence, she is already the victim of that at the start of the opera, as she appears to hold no authority or power as queen, but sits at her treadle sewing machine, like a meek housewife, with several other women doing likewise. Not only does that ironically evoke her background as a shepherdess whilst she spins wool, it also seemingly invokes another patient wife in literature, Penelope, weaving at home and chastely awaiting the return of Odysseus.
The wood into which she retreats, once exiled from the court, is not merely the Arcadian, rural idyll of her upbringing (as in the original scenario) but here something much more elemental and complex, like the setting of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, with all its psychological undertones and symbolisms. The boorish behaviour of the courtiers encroaches into that world – bringing their drunken, lascivious carousing, their paraphernalia, and also their rubbish – and when she is pronounced sufficiently virtuous at the end of the trials, she rejects the court in the final coro by returning to the woods, reunited with her son who was purportedly threatened with death as one of those tests. Given the generally simple, uncluttered staging throughout the performance, that conclusion speaks movingly and compellingly of this, her real – and active, not simply passive – act of heroism as she opts out of that chain of expectations, and presumably will influence the young Everardo to cultivate an entirely different set of social and personal relations when he succeeds Gualtiero.
Initially restrained musically, as befits the title role’s subservient character, Ann Hallenberg skilfully develops a deeper vein of expression as the performance progresses. It is not, vocally, the most difficult role in the opera, nor what is typically expected of a lead part, as Vivaldi wrote it for Anna Giro, a singer said to be of limited talent but whom he admired. Hallenberg vindicated the intentions of the composer and Goldoni in setting an opera around such a generally undramatic and passive role by drawing out nuance and a more impassioned expression instead. Vocal fireworks are reserved more for Costanza – revealed to be Griselda and Gualtiero’s daughter who had been taken away at birth but who now, years later, is brought back, ostensibly to become Gualtiero’s bride once Griselda is disowned as another test to the latter’s loyalty. Michela Antenucci generally rises to the occasion wonderfully. Although she has a tendency to swoop in her vocal lines at first, she comes to inhabit the role with coquettish vivacity as she creates a flighty persona, rather in pointed contrast with Griselda, as she seems happy to play on her lover, Roberto’s jealousy once she is espoused to Gualtiero, before they realise that this is just one of the trials. During ‘Agitata da due venti’ – executed fairly broadly – she is literally framed within an ornate, gilt border, as well as dressed up in some extravagant gear, presumably meant to satisfy the leering gaze of the male court.
Jorge Navarro Colorado sounds as suave as he looks in Falaschi’s sartorially dapper presentation of the tenor role of Gualtiero. Rather than forceful or imperious, Colorado lends the king a vocally persuasive lustre that subtly underscores the duplicity and hypocrisy of the virtues the court claims to espouse. Kangmin Justin Kim stands out for his supple virtuosity as he attains an evenness and power throughout his impressive range, which is really that of a male soprano than a typical countertenor, depicting Ottone’s opportunism and sly tricks in attempting to defeat Griselda’s constancy by making amorous overtures to her. Antonio Giovannini’s leaner but equally lithe voice well expresses Roberto’s wailing despair at Costanza’s apparent abandonment of him in favour of the king.
After a lively account of the Sinfonia with the select ensemble from La Fenice Orchestra, Diego Fasolis avoids plunging headlong into Vivaldi’s succession of often succinct arias but leads a thoughtful account of the opera. If the instrumental aspect tends to take second place to the vocal line (more so than in Handel’s, say) he still cultivates a considered, and often unhurried, character for each, though there is urgency and vitality where necessary. Horns are too raw and inaccurate on their first appearance, but they whoop splendidly in their second, providing thrilling counterpoint to Kim in ‘Dopo un’orrida tempesta’.
Vivaldi’s late opera is done proud, then, at the theatre which stands on the site of one formerly owned and managed by the powerful Grimani family, who had largely avoided working with the composer on his operatic endeavours in his own lifetime, until rivalries subsided such that he was permitted to mount Griselda at another theatre of theirs, the now vanished Teatro San Samuele.
London Handel Festival – Handel’s Acis and Galatea with Anthony Gregory & Madison Nonoa; directed by Andrew Staples; conducted by David Bates
Acis and Galatea – Masque in two Acts to a libretto by John Gay [sung in English]
Acis – Anthony Gregory
Galatea – Madison Nonoa
Polyphemus – Will Thomas
Damon – James Way
Coridon – David Webb
Patricia Langa & Sean Murray (dancers)
La Nuova Musica
Andrew Staples – Director
William Reynolds – Designer & Lighting
March 31, 2022
Stone Nest, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
A masque or pastoral opera, Handel’s Acis and Galatea would have been mounted with little or no staging or scenery when first performed at Cannons in 1718. No matter then that this year’s London Handel Festival opens, not with a full-scale Italian opera as usual, but with this work in the small space of Stone Nest, a former Nonconformist chapel from the nineteenth-century on Shaftesbury Avenue. Presumably uncertainty on account of possible Covid restrictions made it safer to plan for a more modest production after the previous two disrupted years.
How Andrew Staples’s staging actually translates into meaningful dramaturgy the generalised intention of his programme note (rehashing the mantra of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party along the way) is another matter: “our world is suffering thanks to our evolved practices [i.e. the principle of the survival of the fittest – implying ‘that the desires and wishes of the strong outweigh the innocence and ideals of the weak’] which on the face of it seem to be for the benefit of the many, but are in fact for the good of the few and carry with them the consequences of deep harm and ultimately death”.
For the front rows of the audience, the cavorting and twirling of the characters in the round – sometimes on all fours, sometimes carrying LED tubes – might indeed somehow suggest that programme. But for the rest of the audience (including me) mostly sat under the chapel’s surrounding galleries, behind a sea of heads, it is impossible to tell. I think a fire is ignited at one point. Ambient electronic sounds at the beginning and end of each Act, prevailing darkness and wafting smoke, and the bedraggled manages to evoke some sort of post-apocalyptic void.
‘Survival of the fittest’ seems to be a game the audience is also invited to play, crammed in cheek by jowl on small seats around the action, and taking on any degree of risk in contracting Covid whilst it continues to swirl around the population at large. Munching of hard-boiled sweets or something like Skittles, and regular sipping from a flask by my immediate neighbour also added to the pleasure of the overall experience.
David Bates and La Nuova Music – whose performances it has been a great pleasure to praise on many previous occasions – give a somewhat routine interpretation of Handel’s ravishing score on this occasion. Admittedly the one-to-a-part ensemble employed here offers limited scope for variety in timbre and texture, and not a great deal was attempted, though the drama becomes more invigorated with the appearance of the giant Polyphemus in Act Two. Violins and oboes were occasionally weak, and the very opening chorus of the work (comprised here solely by the vocal soloists alone) seems a slight struggle by the singers to keep together with the instrumentalists as they negotiate some choreography that is confusing and distracting (both to themselves and the audience). But most numbers are imbued with a certain degree of rhythmic acuity.
Anthony Gregory is a vociferous Acis, rather than exactly mellifluous, leaving the way for the shepherds Damon (James Way) and Coridon (David Webb) to offer more considered, musically refined advice in their respective appearances. Madison Nonoa gives an unaffected, eloquent characterisation of Galatea, except for the odd flourish or octave displacement in her Airs which spoil the seamless poise of her performance. Will Thomas makes a sympathetic impression as the murderously jealous Polyphemus with an interpretation which is gilded with persuasive passion rather than lumbering force or caricature, shifting the emotional focus of the composition somewhat towards his feelings for Galatea instead of those of Acis.
Musically, at least, Staples’s vision of the work bears some scrutiny, but otherwise it signifies very little. Hopefully the Festival will return to form next year with its principal staged production and fulfil its brief better by reviving one of the still too many little-known operas by the composer, in a suitable venue.
David M. Rice
Lang Lang plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Miami’s Arsht Center
Aria with 30 Variations, BWV988. ‘Goldberg Variations’
Lang Lang (piano)
10 March, 2022
Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami
Lang Lang’s followers turned out in numbers for this recital, clearly more enthused by the artist than by the music. As he has in other venues, Lang Lang prefaced the Goldbergs with Schumann’s Arabeske. In the opening bars, the grace notes were quite distinctly articulated, disrupting the flow of the recurring theme, and Schumann’s numerous ritardandos were consistently exaggerated. The first of the minor-key interludes had a dark character, the second was very much a march, and the coda was played slowly and delicately, the final note held and allowed to die away. This listener would have happily dispensed with this curtain-raiser altogether.
Lang Lang began the Bach auspiciously, with the Aria and the first few Variations striking an excellent balance between sweetly melodic and bouncy rhythmic passages and, as throughout the performance, adding embellishments during repeats, all of which he duly observed. There was much dazzling technique on display, particularly in Variations 5 & 8 early on, and later in Variation 20, in all of which the right-hand was in moto perpetuo mode with the left pronouncing the rhythmic bass line in fine balance with its counterpart.
But at times Lang Lang took virtuosity too far, as in Variation 6, which seemed to be racing. There was also considerable exaggeration in some slower, melodic Variations, most notably in the ‘Black Pearl’ Variation 25, disrupting continuity. Between these extremes, there was much to enjoy – the well-paced ‘Fughetta’ of Variation 10, the dramatic ‘Ouverture’ of Variation 16, and Variation 28, replete with constant thirty-second notes, among others.
Lang Lang was marvelous but flamboyant in Variation 29, all but bouncing off his seat at the finish. This had the unfortunate effect of inducing many in the audience to rise to their feet, applauding and cheering. When silence was restored, Lang Lang continued with the final Variation, giving the ‘Quodlibet’ a rather idiosyncratic reading that treated it more as a love-song than as a concatenation of popular and folk-tunes recognizable to Bach’s contemporaries. The reprise of the Aria, played without repeats, sang out even more sweetly than at the beginning.
Chopin’s Mazurka in D, Opus 33/2, was the encore.
Jakub Hrůša conducts the Philharmonia in Symphonies by Voříšek and Beethoven
Sunday, April 3 2022
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Symphony in D, Op.23
Symphony No.9 in D-minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Lyubov Petrova (soprano), Hanna Hipp (mezzo-soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor) & Soloman Howard (bass)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Apparently, Jan Václav Voříšek was very good company, and so is his Symphony in D, sadly the only one the Bohemian composer wrote during his short life. He was born in the year of Mozart’s death and died of tuberculosis in 1825, aged thirty-four. Voříšek worshipped Mozart, but it was Beethoven and Schubert – both of whom held Voříšek in high regard when he was living in Vienna and both of whom he predeceased – who came more to mind in this genial and stylish performance from the Philharmonia and its erstwhile Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. His biggest insight in the Voříšek was to assert Beethovenian structural points at the same time as softening them with Schubertian lyricism at its most benign; and, bearing in mind Voříšek composed primarily for piano, Hrůša found much to reveal in the classically conventional scoring of this trumpet-and-drums Symphony, including a Central European, wiry sound from the woodwind, and, in the lovely slow movement variations the sort of Bohemian longing that anticipates the Czech nationalism of Dvořák. The Scherzo and Finale gave Hrůša many opportunities to show off his mercurial rapport with the orchestra in some superb and playful ensemble playing. In short, this performance of Voříšek’s Symphony was full of character and was irresistible.
There’s no escaping Hrůša’s charisma and powers of communication, which dominated the performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. Apart from the addition of trombones, the orchestra stayed at the same size, with just four double basses, which, with the natural trumpets, tended towards a bright, focused sound. Indeed, it was a bit too bright for the famous opening, one that went on to haunt late-romantic symphonists. Here it filled the hall rather than its presence defining the void – this was the volcanic aspect of creation, bigger on energy than mystery. Hrůša’s overview was lean and elemental, combining period manners with modern tonal security, which shone out in the brilliantly played Scherzo where you could scarcely put a cigarette paper between Beethoven’s razor-blade counterpoint and Hrůša’s rhythmic drive, urged on by Antoine Siguré’s lethal timpani punctuations.
After a welcome retreat from Beethoven at his most defiant and public, Hrůša took the Philharmonia into a remarkably serene performance of the Adagio, in which mobility and some perfectly judged rubato floated on his steady sense of pace, with the sort of control and inwardness solo pianists strive for in the late Sonatas. Hrůša was just as inspirational in Beethoven’s recollections of the first three movements before he took up the reins of the Finale, a relatively brief episode that with his sure sense of drama expanded the Ninth’s scope immeasurably. And if you ever wanted confirmation of quite how electrifying the Finale is, the young American bass Soloman Howard’s eruption into ‘O Freunde’ delivered it. His voice is big and very physical, as is his imposing presence, and his singing coped easily with the mix of lyricism and muscular declamation Beethoven demands. Nicky Spence’s military-style solo was Heldentenor-victorious, the majestic Russian-American soprano Lyubov Petrova gleamed incisively, although she missed a climactic top B that was certainly within her range; and the German mezzo Hanna Hipp provided focus and balance in the ensembles. The Philharmonia Voices and Crouch End Festival Chorus responded magnificently to everything Beethoven and Hrůša required of them, capping this memorable, thoroughly prepared performance.
David M. Rice
The Metropolitan Opera – Richard Eyre’s production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro – Christian Van Horn, Ying Fang, Gerald Finley, Sasha Cooke, Federica Lombardi; conducted by James Gaffigan
Le nozze di Figaro, K492 – Opera buffa in four Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after the comedy La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais [sung in Italian, with Met titles by Sonya Friedman]
Figaro – Christian Van Horn
Susanna – Ying Fang
Doctor Bartolo – Maurizio Muraro
Marcellina – Elizabeth Bishop
Cherubino – Sasha Cooke
Count Almaviva – Gerald Finley
Don Basilio – Giuseppe Filianoti
Countess Almaviva – Federica Lombardi
Antonio – Paul Corona
Don Curzio – Tony Stevenson
Barbarina – Meigui Zhang
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera [continuo: Howard Watkins (fortepiano) & Julia Bruskin (cello)]
Sir Richard Eyre – Production
Rob Howell – Set & Costume Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting Designer
Sara Erde – Choreographer & Revival Stage Director
6 April, 2022
The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City
In this second cast of the Met Opera’s fourth revival of Richard Eyre’s 2014 production of Le nozze di Figaro, James Gaffigan and four of the five principals are making their role debuts. Although this was only the ensemble’s second performance together, it was well-coordinated and musically excellent.
During the lively Overture, as Rob Howell’s set rotates to reveal the various locales within the Almaviva mansion, the singers silently introduce their characters, suggesting the backstory that sets the plot in motion, beginning with Count Almaviva chasing Susanna. The plot really revolves around Susanna, who is loved by Figaro, pursued by the Count, faithfully serves the Countess, and is Cherubino’s confidante. Ying Fang brings winning charm and outstanding vocalization to the role, showering Figaro with affection and clearly enjoying plotting with him and the Countess to entrap the lecherous Count. She was terrific, often as her character remains concealed from the others, and her only full-scale aria, ‘Deh! Vieni, non tardar’ in the final Act, was marvelously rendered.
Christian Van Horn’s resonant bass in ‘Se vuol ballare’ ably expresses Figaro’s feisty willingness to take on his master — a politically explosive concept in Mozart and Da Ponte’s day, but less so in the 1930s, in which Eyre’s production is set. Van Horn projects humor when he mockingly sends Cherubino off to join the Count’s regiment in ‘Non più andrai’, and frustration when he soliloquizes in Act Four, shining a lantern into the audience, thereby piercing the ‘fourth wall’. He uses his tall stature to fine effect in many incidences of physical comedy.
As the Count and Countess, Gerald Finley and Federica Lombardi make sparks fly. Finley, always a highly intelligent artist, paints a convincing portrait of a scheming philanderer. He brilliantly combines musicality with contrasting emotions: the Count’s joy as he believes he has an assignation with Susanna in their duet, ‘Crudel! Perché finora’, and soon afterward his rage on learning that he has been tricked and his desire for vengeance in the showstopping ‘Hai già vinto la causa! . . . Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’. Finley’s comic timing is flawless at each surprising and maddening encounter with Cherubino. Lombardi was in fine voice in her introductory ‘Porgi, amor’ and her wistful ‘Dove sono’ in Act Three was quite touching. As the Countess and Susanna hatch their plot to expose the Count’s infidelity, Gaffigan set his baton aside to shape the phrases with his hands, one of the loveliest moments. Forgiveness is a constant theme, not only in the relationship of the Count and Countess, but also of the opera. When Cherubino steps out of the Countess’s closet in Act Two, Finley and Lombardi made a sudden role reversal, the Count now the one begging forgiveness, a magical moment. And it is his plea for forgiveness in the final scene that allows a happy ending — although we can be fairly certain that he will stray again before very long.
Sasha Cooke is quite entertaining as the hopelessly lustful page Cherubino, who seems to take delight every time he is in the presence of the Countess, especially when he finds himself on her bed, lying between her and Susanna! Cooke’s breathless ‘Non so più’ and lyrical ‘Voi che sapete’ are both sung beautifully, and she is adept at evoking laughter.
Maurizio Muraro and Elizabeth Bishop give fine performances as Doctor Bartolo and Marcellina, his ‘Vendetta’ aria powerfully delivered, and her sparring with Susanna highly amusing. This is Muraro’s sixty-fifth appearance in this role, and at the end of the current run he is slated to make his one-hundredth MET portrayal of Bartolo, including in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Gaffigan draws excellent playing from the orchestra, with particularly noteworthy contributions from the continuo duo. The wedding march is a highlight, and the fandango that follows is also delightful.
London Handel Festival – Fernando
Fernando, re di Castiglia – Opera in two Acts to an anonymous libretto adapted from Antonio Salvi’s Dionisio, Re di Portogallo [new critical edition by Michael Pacholke, published by Bärenreiter; sung in Italian]
Interspersed with Oboe Concerto in G-minor, HWV287
Fernando – Meili Li
Elvida – Susanna Fairbairn
Isabella – Ciara Hendrick
Altomaro – Frederick Long
Sancio – Jess Dandy
Dionisio – Nick Scott
Alfonso – Charlie Morris
Leo Duarte (oboe)
April 6, 2022
St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London
Fernando won’t be found in the official list of Handel’s operas as such, but neither is it anything so exciting as the discovery of a lost work. Rather it is the first version of what became Sosarme – itself, still now one of the more rarely encountered, but underrated, of Handel’s surviving 39 Italian operas. As he proceeded with its composition over the course of the winter of 1731-2, an ongoing dispute between Britain and Spain about Gibraltar made it untenable to mount an opera about a mediaeval historical episode in which a Spanish monarch came to the heroic rescue of a spat among the Portuguese royal family – and the fact that Portugal was Britain’s oldest ally made it doubly insensitive. So the action was moved to the Median empire of antiquity and the characters’ names changed, with the title role now becoming Sosarme.
Handelians will recall that Alan Curtis recorded Fernando fourteen years ago, but without the benefit of Bärenreiter’s new edition of the composer’s original score which restores what he originally intended (before deletions and alterations) in its entirety. Leo Duarte asserts in his programme note that ‘the commercially available recording’ (he doesn’t specify which, but presumably means Curtis’s – which otherwise remains effectively the best and most complete version of Sosarme on disc) restored less than five-percent of Handel’s original music. But all that Handel did, in order to create the score for Sosarme, was simply to restructure some arias and cut a fair amount of recitative (the latter, a strategy he increasingly adopted with his opera librettos in 1730s, in any case, before even composing the music, in order not to tax the patience of his non-Italian speaking audiences in London whose interest in opera was less enthusiastic than it had been in the previous decade). As such Handel simply cut or re-ordered certain bars of music within existing movements, rather than writing whole new ones afresh. All the recitatives, arias and other numbers are substantially the same as they appeared in the finished opera of Sosarme (I have checked them against the incipits given for the latter in the Händel-Handbuch, the authoritative catalogue of the composer’s works).
The notable differences are simply that the aria ‘Volo l’augello’ which concludes Act Two of Sosarme originally featured in the middle of the earlier Act One; and Fernando in fact does not contain the recitative and aria that came to conclude Act One of Sosarme. Lastly there is a fragmentary (sixteen-bar) version of an abandoned aria for Sancio that features the words of Altomaro’s ‘So ch’il Ciel’ but set to the music that would be used for the latter’s ‘Sento il cor’, and so was understandably not performed here. In Duarte’s otherwise laudable (but essentially academic) mission to present faithfully what there is of Fernando in this new edition, the practical result is an oddity in that it breaks off at what would be not quite the end of the second Act (of three) at a tantalising dramatic moment, and so there is only the torso of a full opera. The differences from Sosarme are really of interest only to the most committed (or far gone – yours truly included) of Handelians.
Those textual peculiarities aside, Duarte led Opera Settecento in a superbly galvanising account of the music, with an inspired cast. In the title role, countertenor Meili Li was the Spanish king, seeking to marry Elvida, the daughter of the Portuguese monarch, Dionisio.
More than the reclamation of Handel’s original score, his accomplished, arresting singing was the real discovery of the evening: a firm, resounding evenness of tone throughout his range, sometimes softened into a warm, creamy sonority. As his beloved, Susanna Fairbairn was an ideal complement, and also impressively versatile, with her vocal sparkle – bringing a Mozartian expressiveness to the sighing broken phrases of ‘Rendi ‘l sereno’, and then more supple vigour for ‘Vola l’augello’. Together she and Li were exquisite in the ravishing duet ‘Per le porte del tormento’ – the one number which remained famous long after Sosarme had fallen into obscurity. The beautiful elaborations of their vocal suspensions in the da capo made the duet sound like a more Italianate, erotic version of the third of Couperin’s Leçons de ténèbres.
Alfonso is the son of Dionisio who has fomented rebellion in Portugal against his father on discovering that he intended to allow his other, illegitimate son, Sancio, succeed to the throne instead of him. Charlie Morris’s rich but squally vibrato caused his recitatives to sound mumbled and formless, though the altercations with his mother, Isabella, in Act Two’s duet were lively (this the only proper music given to Alfonso – and even his counterpart, Argone, in Sosarme is not given an aria in Act Three). Nick Scott gave a nuanced and finely sustained account of Dionisio (like Bajazet in Tamerlano, an unusual instance of a significant tenor role in Italian Baroque opera). That was particularly in evidence as he probed the king’s thoughts in the long recitative ‘Cosi dunque’, turning them over in his mind, before passionately projecting his statement of intent in the succeeding aria without resorting to shouting. Jess Dandy provided a compelling interpretation of Sancio, the illegitimate but favourite son of Dionisio. She sang with both powerful directness and captivating colour – somewhat like a less volatile Cecilia Bartoli in quality – with her terse despatch of ornaments in ‘Sì, sì, minaccia’ persuasively making the rhetorical points of the text.
Altomaro – who, in promoting Sancio’s position to serve his own advantage, is described as an ‘ill-intentioned politician, you serve your evil nature’ (as if we don’t have enough of those already) – was played by Frederick Long, not quite so much as a villain, but rather as the comic, scheming servant figure of opera buffa (such as Leporello). But that did not detract from his virtuosic fervour either in ‘Sento il cor’, or in the wide leaps and long notes of ‘Fra l’ombre’ (better known as Polifemo’s aria in the Italian serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo). Ciara Hendrick was a dependable musical force as Dionisio’s queen, Isabella, who uses her emotional power over her son to try to quell his feud with his father. In the absence of any complete version of Fernando, it was her vivacious aria ‘Vado al campo’ (effectively a rage aria with a characteristically Neapolitan-style thudding bass line) which ended the work in this form, as she vows to go the camp where Altomaro has deviously declared that Alfonso and Dionisio are to duel.
To provide a more satisfactory musical conclusion, the final coro of Sosarme with its pair of horns was performed, with lilting warmth, by all seven singers and the ensemble. Also to make up for the missing third Act, Duarte played Handel’s Oboe Concerto in G-minor between the two extant ones, ‘as a peace offering’ in his words – the outer movements somewhat plangent but eloquent; the second spritely; and the third played gently and lyrically on the flute.
In around twelve years of attending the London Handel Festival this was easily one of the best performances I have heard within this forum, and the competition for that accolade would mainly come from Duarte’s previous performances with Opera Settecento. He managed to make each number at least as affecting as the last, driven on by the urgent connecting recitatives, but not harried or forced. The result was an irresistible escalation of dramatic contrast and tension that precisely recreated the thrilling, unsettling emotional effect that the Baroque aesthetic aims at.
If this were a more standard opera, these performers in a venue such as the Linbury Theatre or the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre would deservedly have drawn a full house for a run of several staged performances. As it was, the smaller audience for this rarity was privileged to have caught the evanescent beauty of a single rendition.
Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall
Piano Sonata in E-flat, Op.31/3
Suite for Piano, Op.25
Études: No.6 ‘Automne à Varsovie’&No.13 ‘L’escalier du diable’
Piano Sonata No.3 in F-sharp minor, Op.23
Lavapiés (Iberia, Book III/3)
Preludes, Op.53 – Nos.11 & 10
Yuja Wang (piano)
12 April, 2022
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Since 2007, when she got her first big break after Martha Argerich backed out of a concert in Boston, followers of Yuja Wang have come to her performances expecting to be both stunned and surprised. For this Carnegie Hall recital, she offered several surprises, the first being what pieces she would play. No program was publicized beforehand (but that did not prevent the 2,804-seat auditorium being sold out). On arrival, audience members found a list of eight works by six different composers in the program book, with a warning that they “may not be performed in the printed order.”Wang played them straight through, in the order listed.
The stunning element, apart from her sartorial choices (about which I will make no further comment), was her playing. She set the tone for the evening with her first selection: an animated, frequently supercharged reading of Beethoven’s E-flat Sonata. In her hands, the joyful, sometimes frolicsome piece sounded strikingly spontaneous, despite her reliance on the score displayed on the tablet perched on her piano rack, where it stayed for the whole evening. She was at her best in the high-powered Scherzo and vigorous Presto con fuoco Finale where tempo and texture shifts were vividly drawn, and she seemed to savor the shapeshifting.
After popping up from the piano bench for one of her trademark deep but speedy bows, she immediately dove into one of Schoenberg’s earliest twelve-tone works, his Opus 25 Suite for Piano, a six-part series of percussive miniatures with names reminiscent of Baroque dance forms. Wang’s volatile interpretation was impressive for its speed and gestural sweep, though her sometimes muddy playing failed to give each one a sufficiently recognizable character.
She brought the first half to a close with two of Ligeti’s eighteen masterly Etudes. She heightened the tragic quality of No.6, ‘Automne à Varsovie’ (Autumn in Warsaw) as she wove the descending motif through a plethora of notes to very lowest ranges on the piano. In No.13, ‘L’escalier du diable’ (The Devil’s Staircase) she produced thunderous sounds on the entire keyboard as her nimble fingers drove the hard-driving toccata from the lower to the upper end.
Following intermission came an explosive rendering of Scriabin’s passionate Sonata No.3. The opening Drammatico movement alternated between passages of extreme tenderness and more thunderous but muddily executed moments. A wide-ranging Allegretto was followed by a gently searching Andante, and a raging Presto con fuoco Finale.
The fireworks continued in an exuberant account of Albéniz’s ‘Lavapiés’. As she raced through the tumultuous stream of notes, she reveled in the dynamic extremes and changes of register, playing with great strengthbut less than the desired clarity.
Wang closed her official program on a bluesy note with energetic and zestful renditions of two Preludes from by Ukrainian Nikolai Kapustin’s 24 Preludes in Jazz Style. She gave a characterful touch to the off-beats in the slower, more doleful No.11 and infused the lively, more upbeat No.10 with Art Tatum-like energy.
The relatively brief second half allowed plenty of time for encores, and Wang offered six. They included one of Mendelssohn’s lilting Song Without Words, from which she segued directly into Earl Wild’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Dance of the Four Swans’ from Swan Lake; Kapustin’s inventive Concert Etude, Op.40/3, ‘Toccatina’; Arturo Marquez’s alluring Danzon No.2; an invigorating treatment of Philip Glass’s Etude No.6; and a fast and furious reading of the formidable final Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.
English National Opera: The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale [sung in English with surtitles]
Offred – Kate Lindsey
Aunt Lydia – Emma Bell
Serena Joy – Avery Amereau
The Commander – Robert Hayward
Ofglen – Elin Pritchard
New Ofglen Annabella – Vesela Ellis
Luke – John Finden
Offred’s mother – Susan Bickley
Moira – Pumeza Matshikiza
Janine/Ofwarren – Rhian Lois
Nick – Frederick Ballentine
Doctor – Alan Okie
Rita – Madeleine Shaw
Professor Pieixoto – Camille Cottin [acting role]
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Annilese Miskimmon – Director
Annemarie Woods – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting
Akhila Krishnan – Video
Yvonne Gilbert – Sound
Imogen Knight – Movement
8 April, 2022
The Coliseum, London
A birthing table, an insemination desk and a prayer machine are just three of the disquieting accessories making their appearance on the Coliseum stage. Then there’s the Wall, its sinister presence (albeit a memorial rather than a public hanging place) behind an imprisoning curtain a warning for those who transgress the repressive and futuristic Gilead of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of 1985. Set in twenty-first-century North America, The Handmaid’s Tale is brilliantly transformed by Poul Ruders, while Paul Bentley’s faithful libretto condenses the opera into two Acts with a Prologue.
Brutal totalitarianism and private tragedy form the core of this chillingly prophetic tale that has more than a few parallels today with extremist and misogynistic regimes. Framed by an academic conference in the year 2195 we encounter Professor Pieixoto (actress Camille Cottin) leading a study of the former Republic of Gilead established by Christian fundamentalists following an ecological disaster that caused tumbling birth-rates. In its Taliban-like regime women are denied education, property and rights, and those of suitable age are indoctrinated to become breeders for childless households. Once a month these Handmaids perform their productive function lying between husband and wife, recalling the handmaid in Genesis who fulfils this role for the barren Rachel.
The opera premiered in 2000 (in Copenhagen) before coming to ENO three years later. This new production, with a reorchestrated score and tweaked dramatic structure, is a first from the company’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon, and what a powerful directorial debut it is. Annemarie Woods’s designs and Paule Constable’s lighting effects also leave memorable impressions. At the work’s centre is Kate Lindsey as Offred whose husband and daughter (seen in videoed flashbacks) have been snatched from her prior to her confinement at the Red Centre as a handmaiden. Lindsey inhabits this role with astonishing conviction consistently holding the eye with her meek, sunken demeanour, yet singing with clarity and heart-easing tenderness with Elin Pritchard’s submissive Ofglen, and no more so than her poignant second-Act duet with her younger persona. But there’s defiance too and an emotional reawakening initiated by her trysts with chauffeur Nick (“You can’t cheat Nature”) admirably sung by Frederick Ballentine.
There’s a startling performance from Emma Bell as the obsessive Aunt Lydia, whose stratospheric contours shock with their fanatical intensity. Her coloratura is balanced by the rich contralto of Avery Amereau’s Serena Joy – the childless wife of Robert Hayward’s stiff-mannered Commander. Elsewhere, Alan Oke and John Finden give persuasive cameos as a lecherous doctor and an ardent Luke, while Rhian Lois as Ofwarren gives birth amidst the glare of other handmaidens who glide across the stage like a flotilla of Dutch sails. A glitzy brothel, Jezebel’s, adds striking colour, its resistance mirrored in the character of Pumeza Matshikiza’s rebellious Moira. Nothing is left to the imagination in the grotesque hanging scene, its terrifying reminder of state-sanctioned execution given searing intensity with a Bach chorale embedded into Ruders’s eclectic and highly communicative music, perfectly tailored to each dramatic situation. ENO’s Chorus and Orchestra are superbly conducted by Joana Carneiro.
LPO/Vladimir Jurowski with Mitsuko Uchida
9 April 2022
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Marche fatale [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.6 in A [Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs Urtext edition 2016]
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
This was Vladimir Jurowski’s second date with the LPO as Conductor Emeritus, together again to pursue their progress through the Bruckner Symphonies. The Sixth was preceded by a substantial first half, which, like Topsy, just grew. Jurowski delivered a heartfelt speech alluding to the war in Ukraine, with particular reference to the role of military music. He then went on to insert two short Marches by Maurizio Kagel (Nos 4 and 1 from his Ten Marches to miss the victory) before the advertised first work by Helmut Lachenmann. The two brief Kagel Marches are in the composer’s absurdist mode, the political satire of the unravelling of military brass-band assumptions lost on no-one.
Lachenmann, the octogenarian guru of German post-war modernism and a composer obsessed with the molecular details of sound, composed Marche fatale in 2018. It takes the deconstruction of brass-band music to extremes, leaving no musical cliché unexamined. As in the Kagel, it was amazing how much rhythmic distortion and dysfunction you can (just about) cram into 4/4 time. In the space of about eight minutes, circus oompah had got so out of control the conductor walked off, only to return to put a stop to the mayhem. The players in the briefly and luxuriously expanded LPO needed nerves of steel to keep the music going off the rails.
The games in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 were infinitely more refined, with Mitsuko Uchida almost getting a standing ovation even before she played a note. With the LPO reduced by about half (with three double basses), they and Uchida had no problem establishing this Concerto’s unique intimacy. Her perfectly placed and voiced opening G-major chord (not spread) said it all about a work that hovers between Mozartian grace and Beethoven’s plan of quasi-improvisation, poetic drama and high spirits. Uchida wears the Fourth Concerto like a favourite dress, and here her generous playing animated every flowing fold. Her peerless touch made details of phrasing and sonority taper then expand in her relationship with the orchestra, as Jurowski and the players seemed to huddle round her, not to miss a trick of ensemble and response, and she was wonderful as the soloist who knows when to back off and when to assert, how to move from jewel-like intricacy to unequivocal grandeur. It was lovely, as was the LPO’s vitality, with the woodwind giving a fine impression of an outdoors serenade in the bracing Finale. And, having played all the notes, Uchida received a standing ovation.
How can I count the ways I love Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony? And from the way Jurowski and the re-expanded LPO (including now nine basses providing a formidable wall of sound at the back of the platform) got the myriad points of what the composer considered his boldest Symphony, they love it too. It’s also Bruckner at his tautest, with Jurowski playing off the Majestoso opening theme against the undercurrent of restless triplets to give the first movement a slippery momentum. If the moment when Bruckner brings back his main theme – an event that flatters Beethoven at the same point in the ‘Eroica’ – was magnificent, then the heavenly coda was off the superlative scale. The slow movement was a masterpiece of beautifully shaped, deferred resolution, with Ian Hardwick’s opening oboe solo setting the tone for a notably tender, reflective performance, while the Scherzo was forensic in its clarity, especially those strange violin pizzicatos that often get buried. Jurowski took the direction for the Finale – With movement, but not too fast – with a pinch of salt, and it paid off enormously in the music’s pattern of advance and retreat, which here built to a very successful conclusion. Jurowski’s ear and the LPO’s playing completely debunked the notion that Bruckner’s scoring is organ-based. The whole work was saturated in light, separation and detail, and capped a beautifully prepared and enthralling performance.
Holst’s Sāvitri & Choral Hymns; Grace Williams & Britten – Britten Sinfonia conducted by Mark Elder
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Third Part)
Sāvitri – Opera in one Act to a libretto by the composer [sung in English]
Sāvitri – Kathryn Rudge
Satyavān – Anthony Gregory
Death – Ross Ramgobin
Britten Sinfonia Voices
Sir Mark Elder
Pagrav Dance Company
Urja Desai Thakore (choreographer)
[Choral Hymns – Sally Pryce (harp) & Eamonn Dougan (conductor)]
Pieces for violin, tabla & guitar
Jacqueline Shave (violin), Kuljit Bhamra (percussion) & John Parricelli (guitar)
May 4, 2022
Barbican Hall, London
The centrepiece of this tripartite concert was Holst’s chamber opera Sāvitri (1909) based on an episode from the Hindu scriptural text, the Mahabharata, about the eponymous character’s overcoming of Death as an illusion, achieved through steadfast love for her husband Satyavān. Mark Elder’s performance with a dozen musicians of the Britten Sinfonia gave the work a generally quiet, liturgical decorum, the ensemble’s passages discreetly interposed among the sections of dialogue – sung, or indeed often as though chanted, in Holst’s spare setting.
Amidst that gauze-like sound, Nicholas Daniel’s plaintive solo on the cor anglais registered as a potently dramatic musical event, at the point when Satyavān falls to the ground, apparently surrendering to Death. Although initially unseen, singing behind a black curtain at the back of the Barbican Hall’s stage, Ross Ramgobin declaimed Death’s music firmly and sonorously, and subsequently as he came forwards to confront Sāvitri. Kathryn Rudge started out in the latter role with a palpable, tremulous fear in her voice, but mustered strength and control as she asserted her love for Satyavān. Anthony Gregory made equally eloquent appeals to Sāvitri in turn, sounding as objective and authoritative as Ramgobin’s Death at first, evidently a deliberate ambiguity to make it uncertain as to which of the two were calling to Sāvitri in her reverie at that moment, but modulating into more passionate fervour as he then made the case to Sāvitri that Death is merely an illusion.
The wordless offstage chorus – recalling that at the end of the composer’s The Planets – could have been a touch more ethereal and less sonically present. Dramatic atmosphere, rather than directly mimetic action or representation, was provided by the three dancers of the Pagrav Dance Company, choreographed by Urja Desai Thakore in accordance with the principles of classical kathak dance. Presumably their number was meant to parallel the three characters of the opera, but here they presented a harmoniously ordered sequence of movements and gestures as though moving with one mind and intention, and their billowing black skirts as they rotated in some sequences resembled the Sufi practice of whirling dervishes, with which Western audiences are probably more familiar.
The opera was prefaced by the four Choral Hymns which make up the third part of Holst’s settings from the Rig Veda. Taking their texts from another Hindu scriptural source, their scoring for female chorus and harp set the composed, spiritual mood for Sāvitri. The BS Voices could have been more unanimous and focussed in the well-known Hymn to the Dawn, but they were even and steadier for the Hymn to Vena, whilst director Eamonn Dougan brought out more idiomatic animation for the Hymn to the Traveller. Sally Pryce’s gossamer cascades on harp for the Hymn to the Waters were evocative, and her contributions elsewhere also shimmeringly effective.
The theme of water had opened the concert’s first section, with the BS strings’ searing account of Welsh composer Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches (1944). Its five movements characterise the sea in different weather conditions or locations, but rather than harking back to Debussy’s La mer in style, or the large washes of string sonority in Elgar or Vaughan Williams’s works for similar ensembles (she studied with the latter), it is Mahler and the late-Romantic vein of Schoenberg that is invoked, especially Verklärte Nacht, also for strings (she had also studied in Vienna). Despite not having the same range of sonorities as a full symphony orchestra, Elder drew out an impressive variety of moods and textures, to fit each idiosyncratic movement, from the bracing, rumbling account of the opening ‘High Wind’, to the soaring Mahlerian intensity of the concluding ‘Calm Sea in Summer’. ‘Breakers’ was notable for its single-minded, strenuous drive, up to the point that its tension was almost comically dissipated near the end; but the pulsing inner notes, ghostly wisps of sound, and yearning viola melody of ‘Channel Sirens’ created a due sense of mystery (if any Debussy was recalled here, it was Sirènes).
Although Frank Bridge and Britten are both also celebrated for water-related compositions (The Sea, and the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes respectively) it was the latter’s prodigious Variations on a theme by his mentor (1937) that concluded the concert’s first third. It received a searching but also humorous and jaunty account, all the composer’s string effects duly observed, and ensemble remaining tight throughout.
The final third comprised a series of pieces for violin, tabla, and guitar, masterminded by Jacqueline Shave who was stepping down as the leader of the BS. Composed (by her or the tabla player here, Kuljit Bhamra) or improvised, and led by her from the violin, they had largely featured on her CD Postcards from Home and collate her and Bhamra’s impressions of Indian music. The violin’s melody was often drawn through its non-Western intervals with a mellow flexibility, given urgency by the hypnotic regularity of Bhamra’s performance on the tabla, and added piquancy by John Parricelli’s support on the guitar. The selection formed a calm, contemplative appendage to the overall concert.
David M. Rice
Florida Grand Opera – André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire – Elizabeth Caballero, Rebecca Krynski Cox, Hadleigh Adams & Nicholas Huff; directed by Jeffrey Buchman; conducted by Gregory Buchalter
A Streetcar Named Desire — Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Phillip Littel after the play by Tennessee Williams [sung in English with supertitles in English and Spanish]
Blanche DuBois – Elizabeth Caballero
Stella Kowalski – Rebecca Krynski Cox
Stanley Kowalski – Hadleigh Adams
Harold Mitchell (Mitch) – Nicholas Huff
Eunice Hubbell – Stephanie Doche
Mexican Woman – Amanda Olea
Steve Hubbell – David Margulis
Young Collector – Charles Callota
Doctor – Thomas Ball
Nurse – Katherine Holobinko
Florida Grand Opera Orchestra
Jeffrey Buchman – Director
Steven C. Kemp – Set Designer
Don Darnutzer – Lighting Designer
Howard Tsvi Kaplan – Costume Designer
Sue Sitko Schaefer – Wig & Make-up Designer
Kathleen Stakenas – Stage Manager
3 February, 2022
Au-Rene Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
In composing A Streetcar Named Desire, André Previn rose to the rather difficult challenge of creating an operatic adaptation of one of the most iconic of American plays. His score remains mostly within the bounds of twentieth-century late-romanticism, but is rife with allusions to New Orleans’ jazzy, bluesy musical idiom, with dissonant portrayals of its noisy urban life, including use of trombone glissandos (performed here by Salvador Saez) to represent the horn of the eponymous streetcar that has conveyed the central character, Blanche DuBois, to the home of her sister Stella as the opera begins. Orchestral interludes separating the scenes serve the same purpose as Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ in Peter Grimes. Phillip Little’s libretto, drawn almost entirely from Tennessee Williams’s original script (although omitting some of its most vituperative dialogue) retains the play’s powerful dramatic tensions and strong characterizations. Most of the dialogue is sung, more in the manner of Wagner than recitative, with just a few arias, primarily for Blanche – a role originally written for Renée Fleming.
Elizabeth Caballero is stunning in the demanding role of Blanche, effective in her portrayal of this complex character’s efforts to conceal her troubled past, and in her contentious sparring with brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Caballero shows off Blanche’s more tender side in her lyrical Act Two aria, ‘Soft people have got to shimmer and glow’, but the musical mood darkens later in that Act when she shares with Stanley’s friend and colleague Mitch her lasting feelings of guilt over having driven her young first husband to suicide by expressing her disgust at his homosexuality. In Act Three, Caballero depicts Blanche’s descent into madness with ‘I want magic’, as she conjures up a memory of a Mexican woman selling flowers for the Day of the Dead, and when she dreams of dying at sea in her touching, ‘I can smell the sea air’. Caballero’s vocal stamina never seemed to fade.
Hadleigh Adams is marvelous as Stanley, a performance remarkable because Adams had to learn the role in less than a week when Steven LaBrie withdrew from the production. Adams’s characterization bristles with sexuality and he uses his resonant baritone to take full advantage of ample opportunities to demonstrate Stanley’s menacing and violent nature. Although Previn does not provide an aria for Stanley, it is his persistent inquiries into Blanche’s past that drive the opera’s plot.
Rebecca Krynski Cox gives a sympathetic portrayal of Stella, torn by conflicting loyalties to her sister and her husband. In the beautifully performed ‘I can hardly stand it when he’s away for a night’, and in a duet with Stanley, Stella signals the unbreakable nature of her bond with her husband that will ultimately seal Blanche’s fate. Stella thus is quick to forgive Stanley for striking her, and is unwilling to believe Blanche when she accuses Stanley of rape. In the opera’s final moments, Stella stands by passively beside Stanley, holding her newborn child, as Blanche is escorted away to a mental asylum.
Nicholas Huff makes Mitch an appealing character, seeming to find much-needed peace in his relationship with Blanche that seems headed for matrimony, but is then quite convincing when he turns against her after hearing Stanley’s revelations about Blanche’s past.
Jeffrey Buchman’s straightforward direction makes effective use of a single set representing the Kowalskis’ small New Orleans flat. The decor is plain, as befits their straitened financial condition, with the couple’s bedroom separated only by a retractable curtain from the area that serves as kitchen and living room, in which a single bed has been provided for the visiting Blanche. A movable stairway is rolled onto the stage when needed to connect to the neighbors’ upstairs apartment. Exits and entrances are made through an unseen doorway, with performers using the front of the stage to represent the adjoining sidewalk.
Gregory Buchalter led an outstanding performance supported by the excellent Florida Grand Opera Orchestra.
Handel’s Serse at Carnegie Hall – Harry Bicket directs The English Concert with Emily D’Angelo, Lucy Crowe, Mary Bevan, Neal Davies, Daniela Mack, Paula Murrihy & William Dazely
Serse – Opera in three Acts to an anonymous libretto revised from Il Xerse by Silvio Stampaglia, after Il Xerse by Count Nicolò Minato [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]
Serse – Emily D’Angelo
Romilda – Lucy Crowe
Atlanta – Mary Bevan
Ariodate – Neal Davies
Amastre – Daniela Mack
Arsamene – Paula Murrihy
Elviro – William Dazely
The English Concert
Harry Bicket (harpsichord)
8 May 2022
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert performance of Serse was the latest in the English Concert’s annual Handel series at Carnegie Hall. Directed by Harry Bicket with splendid style and subtlety, and intense vigor when needed, the players were in splendid form, responding in kind and exhibiting extraordinary sensitivity to the story, a genre-/gender-bending tale which blends comedy and serious drama to recreate a semi-historical incident about love and power in ancient Persia. Notable instrumental moments were provided by the enchanting winds and strings in Act One’s introduction to the heroine; Joseph Crouch’s elegantly expressive cello obbligatos in the more reflective scenes; and Sergio Bucheli’s acutely responsive theorbo throughout.
The singing was a highly spirited affair, with the female-dominated cast uniformly magnificent in the vividness of their portrayals. In the flamboyant title role of the lovestruck “King of Kings” (more familiar to most of us as Xerxes), Emily D’Angelo was absolutely dazzling. Hers was a totally authoritative account of the part. She opened the opera with an exquisite rendition of ‘Ombra mai fù’, Serse’s love-song to a plane tree, well-known in instrumental arrangements as ‘Handel’s Largo’. Her powerful mezzo continued to blossom through the first two Acts, until finally exploding in the extravagant ‘Crude Furie degl’ orridi abissi’, which she unleashed with brilliantly focused cathartic fury, reaching from the bottom to the top of her enormous vocal range.
As Arsamene, Xerxes’s gentle brother and romantic rival for the love of Romilda, Paula Murrihy delivered an equally poised portrayal. Her warm and winsome mezzo sounded glorious in the extended Act Two lament, ‘Quell che tutta fe’, in which she voices her character’s feelings about what he believes to be his fiancée’s betrayal of their love. She was exceptionally well-paired with the astounding Lucy Crowe who, as Romilda, displayed a gloriously bright tone in their lover’s-spat duet, ‘Troppo oltraggi la mia fede’, as well as in ‘Caro voi’, the exquisite aria which ends the opera.
Mary Bevan, as Romilda’s skittish, love-stung sister Atalanta, was a brazen scene-stealer, except when William Dazely was present for his delightfully mischievous depiction of the servant Elvira. Daniela Mack offered a bravura characterization of Amastre, Serse’s betrothed (temporarily jilted and disguised as a man), using her flexible mezzo to dispatch her arias with surprisingly high-powered ornamentation. Neal Davies in the small role of Ariodate, father of Romilda and Atalanta, provided a note of gravitas.
Although the performance was not staged, and scores were sometimes poised on music stands, this did not limit the movement of the singers, all of whom seemed at their most expressive in this fast-paced, totally satisfying presentation of one of Handel’s most popular and free-flowing operas.
David M. Rice
Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, directed by Bartlett Sher, at the Kravis Center, West Palm Beach
My Fair Lady
Book & lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion; music by Frederick Loewe, performed in the original arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett & Philip J. Lang, with tour orchestrations by Josh Clayton, additional arrangements by Ted Sperling, and dance routines by Trude Rittmann
Eliza Doolittle – Shereen Ahmed
Henry Higgins – Laird Mackintosh
Colonel Pickering – Kevin Pariseau
Freddy Eynsford-Hill – Sam Simahk
Alfred P. Doolittle – Martin Fisher
Mrs. Pearce – Gayton Scott
Mrs. Higgins – Leslie Alexander
Prof. Zoltan Karpathy – Lee Zarrett
Ensemble: Rajeer Alford, Colin Anderson, Mark Banik, Michael Biren, Brandon Block, Mary Callanan, Elena Camp, Allyson Carr, Christopher Faison, Nicole Ferguson, Juliane Godfrey, Colleen Grate, Stuart Marland, William Michals, Aisha Mitchell, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Keven Quillon, JoAnna Rhinehart, Samantha Sturm, Gerard M. Williams & Minami Yusui.
Bartlett Sher – Director
Will Curry – Music Director
Christopher Gattelli – Choreographer
Michael Yeargan – Set Designer
Catherine Zuber – Costume Designer
Donald Holder – Lighting Designer
Marc Salzberg – Sound Designer
Tom Watson – Hair/Wig Designer
Aaron Heeter – Stage Manager
19 April, 2022
Dreyfoos Concert Hall, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, West Palm Beach, Florida
This outstanding production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady ran for more than five-hundred performances at New York’s Lincoln Center before beginning a North American tour in late-2019 that was interrupted by the pandemic. After the present run in West Palm Beach, the tour will visit about twenty-five other US cities through the Spring of 2023.
Bartlett Sher’s spectacular staging takes full advantage of Michael Yeargan’s magnificent set, the centerpiece of which is Henry Higgins’s two-story Wimpole Street house, situated on a platform that rotates to allow the audience to follow the actors as they move from one room to another. The house recedes when the action moves to other locales, including Covent Garden, Ascot, an embassy ballroom, and Alfred Doolittle’s local pub. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are gorgeous, with Eliza’s hat and gown at Ascot and her gown at the embassy ball particularly stunning. Christopher Gattelli’s entertaining choreography includes elegant waltzes and a show-stopping, high-stepping, number celebrating Doolittle’s farewell to bachelorhood.
Shereen Ahmed is brilliant in carrying off Eliza’s transformation from flower-girl to refined lady. Her vocalizations at first fall painfully on Higgins’s (and our) ears, and her awkward attempts at polite conversation at Ascot are hilarious, but the personality that emerges under the tutelage of Laird Mackintosh’s Higgins ultimately wins us over. Ahmed sings superbly, accompanied by a vocal quartet as Eliza dreams of creature comforts in ‘Wouldn’t It Be Luverly’, but later is more agitated in ‘Just You Wait’ and ‘Show Me’. The celebratory trio ‘The Rain in Spain’ with Mackintosh and Kevin Pariseau’s Colonel Pickering, and Ahmed’s ensuing solo, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, are the musical highlights.
Mackintosh is a terrific Higgins, projecting his outward insensitivity in ‘Why Can’t the English?’ and ‘A Hymn to Him’, while revealing a more sympathetic underlying personality in ‘I’m an Ordinary Man’ and ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’. The confrontations between Higgins and Eliza crackle with dramatic tension, especially when the two meet in Mrs Higgins’s conservatory, but in its final moments this production leaves that tension unresolved.
Pariseau’s Pickering generally serves as a check on Higgins’s often cruel treatment of Eliza, yet in ‘You Did It’ he is just as insensitive to her feelings. Sam Simahk is an engaging Freddy, beautifully voicing ‘On the Street Where You Live’. Martin Fisher gives an entertaining portrayal of Doolittle, first celebrating his carefree life in ‘With a Little Bit of Luck’, and later bidding farewell to that freedom in ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’, and Fisher shows off his dancing skills, including a delightful tap-dance on a tabletop. Gayton Scott, Leslie Alexander and Lee Zarrett give fine performances and everyone acts, sings and dances with great spirit, as Will Curry leads an orchestra performing Loewe’s superb score.
This production, with a different cast, is scheduled for a sixteen-week run at the London Coliseum under the auspices of English National Opera, from May 7 through August 27.
Gounod’s Faust at La Fenice, Venice – Ivan Ayon Rivas, Alex Esposito, Carmela Remigio; directed by Joan Anton Rechi; conducted by Frédéric Chaslin
Faust – Opera in five Acts to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré after Goethe’s play Faust, Part One [sung in French with Italian and English surtitles]
Doctor Faust – Ivan Ayon Rivas
Méphistophélès – Alex Esposito
Valentin – Armando Noguera
Marguerite – Carmela Remigio
Wagner – William Corrò
Siébel – Paola Gardina
Marthe Schwertlein – Julie Mellor
Chorus & Orchestra of La Fenice
Joan Anton Rechi – Director
Sebastian Ellric – Set Designer
Gabriela Salaverri – Costume Designer
Alberto Rodriguez Vega – Lighting
April 28, 2022
Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Seeing that Jules Barbier and Michel Carré’s adaptation of Faust, as the libretto for the opera set by Gounod, largely jettisons the metaphysics and philosophising of Goethe’s play, it is apt that Joan Anton Rechi’s production does so too, focusing on the personal dimension of Faust’s relationship with Marguerite and her death as the victim of the former’s pact with Méphistophélès. Rather than any communing with the supernatural, the inspiration for that ultimately illusory and destructive pact by Faust is a scene in Federico Fellini’s film Intervista where two actors look back on a scene they had played in La Dolce Vita and seek to reclaim their youth. The narrative of the opera unfolds, then, as a film directed by Méphistophélès, offering that chance to the elderly Faust to go back and live life afresh (the set for the re-enactment of his younger days is then dominated by a release poster for another Fellini film, Giuletta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits).
Méphistophélès is not depicted as Fellini as such, but the seductive power wielded by a film director over actors – and by extension, an audience – to enable them to create an imagined world is clear enough as Faust and Marguerite play out their doomed relationship under the unforgiving scrutiny of the cameras and the public. The overtly evil and exploitative power which a director can exert – as demonstrated by the career of Harvey Weinstein, for instance – also seems to be alluded to in Méphistophélès’s assault or rape of Marguerite, as well as in what appears to be Marthe’s pleasuring him (voluntarily) as she kneels before him with his back turned to the audience, making a sardonic counterpoint to Faust and Marguerite’s more decent expressions of romantic fervour at that point.
Despite the generally abstract and fairly minimalist set, the production evokes something of the sensational and lurid world of a Fellini film with semi-naked, circus women periodically swirling around the set as though about to perform a striptease (presumably in reference to La Dolce Vita) and a huge pair of red lips in Pop Art style as the sofa on which Faust and Marguerite make love – all seemingly making their own comment upon the artificiality and shallowness of the narrative those principal characters are enacting. But Rechi’s filmic reinterpretation also neatly weaves in the aura of the Italian neorealist movement of the late 1940s and 50s – in which Fellini came to prominence, and then developed away from in his more iconic films referenced in this production – grittily exploring the reality of social deprivation in that country after World War Two. That draws a good parallel between the backdrop of war and the appearance of soldiers in Gounod’s original, and the presence of combatants around the bedazzling world of the cinema in this production, first as the documenter of that reality and then offering a more fantastical vision to consumers as life returned to normal.
Overall the production rescues what otherwise comes across as the opera’s sentimental distortion of Goethe’s original. Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting underscores that, being purposeful, creating an often dark and complicated, rather than a merely mawkish, soundtrack. The brooding sequences of the Prelude could have been Wagner, for instance, whilst the passionate ardour of the music for Faust and Marguerite serves to deepen the tragedy of the latter’s death. That zeal is present in Ivan Ayon Rivas’s presentation as Faust, often urgent, even desperate, and Carmela Remigio is an impressively versatile Marguerite, alluring and playful one moment, expressing tenderness and vulnerability at another.
Alex Esposito skilfully navigates various personas during the course of the performance – at one point in drag – but all the while maintains a compelling, seductive charm and steadiness as he leads Faust through the snare of his fantasies. Julie Mellor brings a knowing edge to the part of Marguerite’s guardian, Marthe, as though entirely unphased by how her ward becomes caught up with Faust. By comparison, Armando Noguera’s Valentin demonstrates more paranoid anxiety in leaving his sister to the care of Paola Gardina’s amiable Siébel whilst he goes away to war.
Overall these are captivating performances which, in their conviction, bring the production that much closer to the bone as it sidesteps the somewhat abstract myth of the original but targets the universal folly of seeking with impunity something outside the reach of possibility.
Welsh National Opera – John Caird’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Duncan Rock, Joshua Bloom, Linda Richardson, Meeta Raval; conducted by Frederick Brown
Don Giovanni – Dramma giocoso in two Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Don Giovanni – Duncan Rock
Leporello – Joshua Bloom
Donna Anna – Linda Richardson
Don Ottavio – Kenneth Tarver
Donna Elvira – Meeta Raval
Il Commendatore – James Platt
Zerlina – Harriet Eyley
Masetto – James Atkinson
Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
John Caird – Director
Caroline Chaney – Revival director
John Napier & Yoon Bae – Costume designers
David Hersey – Lighting designer
Kate Flatt – Movement director
April 21, 2022
Birmingham Hippodrome, England
John Caird’s production and John Napier’s design for WNO’s Don Giovanni (first seen in 2011) draws a particularly direct connection between the title character and the fate he meets at the hands of the Commendatore in the form of a marble statue, explicitly made in the title of the play by Tirso de Molina, The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, which serves as the literary source for the Don Juan story. The set is dominated by a façade which incorporates Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, appropriately standing as the threshold towards and through which the libertine is edging ever closer during the course of the drama. In Caird and Napier’s vision of the opera Rodin’s sculpture – with its figures writhing and contorting as they merge into or out of the surrounding ossified structure – also serves as a potent comment on the status of its two central characters as Don Giovanni’s callous actions are dictated by his metaphorical heart of stone, whilst the statuesque form of the Commendatore is in some sense still alive, at least all the while his desire for vengeance remains unfulfilled. Any ambiguity or paradox as to their relations with earthly vitality are resolved once Don Giovanni is dragged away and becomes fully petrified in the moment of his agonising demise amidst the punishing flames within those foreboding gates.
The whole set comprises little more than that façade – complete with prominent copies of Rodin’s two other famous works, The Kiss and The Thinker as ironic visual counterpoints – but its reconfigurations over the course of the performance provide ample scope for slickly dynamic choreography. Above that the night sky continuously presides – and, in the first scene, with an ominously large, but flattened full moon, looking appropriately cold and stony. Rodin’s work also seems to be evoked in the cloaked shape of the Commendatore’s statue, which resembles the famously defiant figure in his Monument to Balzac, albeit that the former is hooded. That monkish form is seamlessly taken over into the dark, bronze-like beings, with hoods drawn more fully over their faces, who step out from the façade (but otherwise remain static) during the ball at the end of Act One, and again with the Commendatore’s arrival at dinner; one of them also plays the mandolin to accompany Don Giovanni’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid. Their hauntingly anonymous, crepuscular appearance not only conjures a deathly, supernatural world, but also calls to mind the paintings by Francisco Zurbarán depicting Francis of Assisi, such as those ‘in his tomb’ or ‘in meditation’ – those pictures both miraculously alive and dramatic, as well as also sinisterly and mortally gaunt. Although an Italian saint, the unmistakably Spanish character of those paintings, and therefore that visual analogy, provides an apt allusion to the setting of the drama in Seville, as do the particular forms of the characters’ late-eighteenth-century costumes, notably the dresses of Donna Elvira and Donna Anna.
The cast is more than merely excellent on the whole, but also audibly and idiomatically underline the concept of this production as realised. Where Duncan Rock maintains a generally unruffled, almost blasé account of the title role as he goes about his escapades, Linda Richardson and Meeta Raval lead the way like Furies in their forceful accounts of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira respectively, seeking to press home their grievances with him and mete out vengeance alongside the other characters, just as the gates of hell also draw closer around him. Richardson sounds the more conventionally stately of the two, but Raval brings to bear a colourful, and fiercely fulsome vibrato which lends her an air of menace like a Queen of the Night. Harriet Eyley is no soubrette as Zerlina, but also turns in a notably hefty account of the role.
Joshua Bloom’s Leporello conveys good humour and levity but is also vocally resilient and no pushover. Kenneth Tarver is an impressive Don Ottavio with powerful, sincere projection of his feelings for Donna Anna in his two arias, providing striking eloquence, rare points in the drama expressing sincere romantic ardour, as compared with Don Giovanni’s purely exploitative tendencies. James Atkinson and James Platt offer decent accounts of Masetto and the Commendatore respectively.
Frederick Brown conducts the WNO Orchestra in an urgent account of the music on modern instruments, but with vibrato-less strings, and raw (though not rasping) brass and woodwind sections emphasising some of the painful, agitated or surprising turns in the music. Sometimes that skims over the deeper-felt emotion of some numbers too casually, such as Donna Anna’s ‘Non mi dir’, or dispels some of the terrific tension that should accrue in the scene with the Commendatore in Act Two. Nevertheless there is still a warm aura of string sonority for ‘Dalla sua pace’, and the fortepiano accompaniment to Donna Elvira’s brief aria ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ percussively drives home its Baroque formality and sense of righteous outrage. Despite the prevailing sense of gloom and fatefulness, a submerged comic briskness tends to remain (as befits Mozart’s unceasingly spirited and responsive music) not least in the concluding dramaturgical frame in which the moral of the narrative is delivered by Don Giovanni’s victims en famille, as a ‘madrigal’ from their paper scores, providing a dramatic irony to the apparent gravity of what has gone before.
If, for some, such a throwaway coda rather undermines the overall effect, up to the point of Don Giovanni’s demise this production is undoubtedly compelling and tightly-worked as a visual and conceptual unity where, too often, operatic stagings overreach themselves by becoming too complicated and overburdened.