Opera North, 16th February 2014, Geoffrey Mogridge
The statistics alone are mind boggling: five conductors, two directors, three pianists,thirty five vocal soloists, with the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North - over 150 artists. On reading through the programme book, bursting with pictures and loving messages of tribute to Richard Angas, the gentle giant of opera, it felt surreal to see his name listed amongst the artists scheduled to appear in this memorial concert to celebrate his life. But thanks to some precious video films we were able to again relish that unmistakable timbre and the awesome physical presence with his deeply carved expressive face. Angas was effectively with us in person, as much as his benevolent spirit seemed to be hovering somewhere above the stage and orchestra pit.
Wigmore Hall, 10th February 2014, Mark Pullinger
I wonder if Georgian mezzo-soprano Nino Surguladze is a secret fan of Top Gear? She certainly took Jeremy Clarkson’s maxim of ‘Power!’ to heart in the operatic opening half to her Rosenblatt Recital at Wigmore Hall. Her recital’s opening volley pinned the audience to the backs of their seats. The composer? Mozart. He’s usually a reliable recital opener, allowing a singer to gauge the size and acoustic of the hall with an audience present. Surguladze, however, offered a turbo-charged reading of Sesto’s ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio’ from La clemenza di Tito, immediately displaying her wares – a molasses-dark mezzo – at full throttle, regardless of its appropriateness in such repertoire. Her voice sounded far too big for the Hall at this volume and she was unable to negotiate the tricky runs at the end without serious lapses in intonation.
Barbican, 8th February 2014, Miranda Jackson
Handel’s penultimate (and his favourite) oratorio Theodora of 1750 is set in 4thcentury Antioch and tells of how the virtuous Theodora was threatened with “a fate worse than death”, enslavement as a prostitute by a cruel Roman prefect because she refused to renounce her devotion to the Christian God. She escaped from prison with the aid of a fellow Christian, Didymus who was himself captured and condemned to death. According to legend they were both executed, despite pleas for clemency by Septimius, who was sympathetic to their cause.
Barbican, 14th January 2014, Miranda Jackson
The last time I saw Sophie Bevan at the Barbican, she spent most of the time playing dead, draped ignominiously over a stable door or being a shrouded corpse on a mortuary slab. Back then she was Monteverdi’s Eurydice; this January she was Iphis, daughter of Jephtha. Although in the Bible, Iphis is pledged for sacrifice by her father, grateful to the Lord for enabling him to vanquish those pesky Ammonites in battle, in the Revd.Thomas Morell’s libretto for Handel’s version, an angel appears ex machina to rescue Iphis from her fate, provided she gets herself to the Gileadite equivalent of a nunnery. So this time Bevan really had a chance to show us what a lovely singer she has become.
Barbican Hall, 11th January 2014, Stephen Jay-Taylor
For a world-class, front-ranking diva, Magdalena Kozena has quite the most bizarre dress-sense of any of her contemporaries, appearing tonight in a terracotta-coloured thing, part Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and part Helena Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett (she of the people-filled pastry). Still, if the worst thing you can find to say about any given “evening with diva” type event concerns the frock, then clearly matters musical must have been pretty satisfactory. And so, most happily, they were. The programme seemed to me to have been specifically chosen to reaffirm what one might term Kozena core values: Mozart and Haydn, with none of those excursions into music either later or earlier with which she has been latterly, and some of it arguably not all that successfully, much involved.
Wigmore Hall, 9th January 2014, Sebastian Petit
The Rosenblatt Recital Series, now in its second year at the more congenial surroundings of Wigmore Hall, has an excellent and well-deserved reputation for introducing young singers to London as well as re-introducing a few much more senior figures (Leo Nucci was slated to appear last December before he cancelled due to illness and this year the evergreen Dennis O’Neill will also perform). Tonight’s recital introduced us to the young Italian soprano Rosa Feola. On the evidence of online biography this was her second London appearance, having been well reviewed as Servilia in La clemenza di Tito at the Barbican. Up until now her roles have mainly concentrated on the lighter soubrette type roles, but listening to the firm attack and impressive blade to her voice, I suspect that she will find her long term career as a lyric soprano.
Barbican Hall, 28th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If your principal exposure to live opera is here in London – or for that matter anywhere else in the UK – you could be forgiven for thinking Daniel Harding did not have all that much form in conducting any. Never seen at the Coliseum at all, his Covent Garden track record comprises just two operas – The Turn of the Screw and Wozzeck – in 2002 and 2006 respectively, and that’s it. But of course, if you’re a regular at either La Scala, Salzburg or Aix-en-Provence, you’d have encountered him practically non-stop over the past ten years or so. Moral: there is no honour for prophets in their own land. And the loss is ours, as tonight’s concert performance of what is basically a long love duet with prologue and coda most emphatically demonstrated.
GSMD at Milton Court, 23rd November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When this recital was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.
Royal Albert Hall, 10th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
This is the first occasion in a very long time that I can remember being in the Albert Hall outside of either a Proms season, or some theatrical fancy being given in the round. As a result, I was rather looking forward to encountering Britten’s masterpiece from the acoustically privileged position of the front half of the Arena, normally otherwise reserved for those of a standing disposition, but happily tonight liberally filled with seats. Alas, I was reckoning without the malign fate that invariably attends my increasingly reluctant excursions to SW7, which this time out ensured that I was instead stuck in Stalls Block J, which is to say at very nearly the furthest possible remove from the orchestral platform, and a black hole into which sound can vanish without trace, Kensington Gore’s very own acoustic Bermuda Triangle.
Barbican Hall, 6th November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
A boy could be forgiven for losing track. When the spoils of performance war for the 2013/14 season were divvied up amongst the powers-that-be at OpBrit Towers earlier this year, I wound up scheduled to review a brace of Damnation de Fausts, one at the RFH and the other at the Barbican, and no Berlioz Roméo et Juliette at all. In the event, the firstDamnation on 26th September went west, and was replaced - quite without my conscious realisation until the night - by “Roméo” (reviewed here). And, then, after attending the sole remaining Damnation that was my lot - given last Saturday by the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev (review here) - lo and behold I am summoned from my stupor for some last-minute subbing tonight, at yet another Roméo, meaning that I end up doing a pair of them instead. As Thatcher used to say, “It’s a funny old world”.
Barbican Hall, 3rd November 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If things had gone according to plan, this would have been the second outing for Berlioz’s trail-blazing “dramatic legend” given by a major London orchestra at the start of the 2013/14 concert season. For unspecified reasons, the Philharmonia’s performance, which was to have opened their South Bank season at the end of September, metamorphosed into Berlioz’sother genre-defying hybrid, Roméo et Juliette, thereby depriving us now of the opportunity to indulge in a little critical compare-and–contrast at close quarters (though the LSO undertakes the Shakespeare adaptation later this week, so all is not lost). That change at the RFH left the tenor, poor Paul Groves, severely underemployed: and it would be amusing, if scarcely polite, to point out after tonight’s performance the fact that if you need difficult French repertory to be sung these days, the last place on earth you’d bother to look for it would be France, instead turning your gaze over 3,000 miles away to America (or perhaps indeed the Americas: this is repertoire Flórez should surely be investigating one day soon).
Wigmore Hall, 21st October 2013, Llyr Carvana
After receiving warm reviews for her Musetta in La bohème at ENO and Lulu in American Lulu at the Edinburgh International Festival, this was the American soprano Angel Blue’s UK recital debut as part of the series of Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall, in a performance which I can best describe as something of a mixed bag. The programme she presented was decidedly ‘safe-playing’ and would not have been dissimilar to an entry for Cardiff Singer of the World. No bad thing in itself, but the results meant being neither blown away by witnessing the ‘birth’ of a new diva nor leaving thinking that an opportunity had been missed. This is not to do a disservice to Ms Blue; hers is an impressively powerful voice at times and there was much to enjoy.
Royal Festival Hall, 12th October 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
There’s a story - quite probably apocryphal, but se non è vero etc. - that tells of Wilhelm Furtwängler surreptitiously attending a rehearsal of Beethoven’s 9thunder Toscanini. The opening of the work conducted by the German was always an indistinct, ambiguous blur of sound, a kind of proto-Rheingold universe slowly willing itself into shape and substance: whereas the Italian invariably conducted it with typically precise, fierce and fast rhythmic articulation. Upon hearing this in the flesh, Furtwängler is reported to have got up, mere seconds into the performance, muttering “Bloody time beater!” before walking out. Funnily enough, I’m generally far more inclined to the Italian model than the German in the wider repertory: but I have to say the whole story came back to me with renewed force tonight listening to the unatmospheric literal letter of the notes Vladimir Jurowski served up at the very beginning of Britten’s War Requiem, with crisp, almost impatiently chugging rhythmic precision sedulously applied to what was surely intended by Britten to be deliberately lugubrious and inchoate.
Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Before this extremely well-attended concert got underway, the band’s MD, David Whelton, took to the platform to offer not just a welcome, but also impart the encouraging news that the orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, had just this afternoon signed an extension of his contract with them to the end of the 2016/17 season. At a time of very jittery musical chairs elsewhere in the world of top-ranking orchestras, it’s a relief to know that the Philharmonia, which most certainly belongs in this select grouping, will be safe and sound for the foreseeable future.
Wigmore Hall, 16th September 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
There are a number of singers who, to this pair of ears at least, very strongly resemble a predecessor in terms of their basic timbre and, often enough, means of vocal production. Kaufmann is a classic case in point, whole areas of the voice strongly reminding me of Jon Vickers: and Flórez is another, where I still half expect to look up and see not him but his teacher/mentor Ernesto Palacio. And then there is Celso Albelo, who bears no physical or personal resemblance at all, but whose sound is so similar to that of the late Alfredo Kraus that you wind up wondering whether, given that both were born and trained in the Canary Isles, there isn’t something in the waters around West Africa other than pirates to account for it.
Royal Albert Hall, 7th September 2013, Sebastian Petit
I have often felt that the Last Night of the Proms is best experienced through the medium of radio, which neatly removes the infuriating distractions of an audience infiltrated by large numbers of champagne-swilling louts who are only interested in the last fifteen minutes of music and who spend the intervening two and a half hours variously drinking, talking without the restraint of a volume dial, flicking idly through their programmes and indulging in inappropriate flag waving. This thought was brought home vividly while the house was being dazzled by Joyce DiDonato and Rossini but the only reaction of the gentleman (a term used in the loosest sense of the word) near me was to loudly turn the many, many pages of the programme devoted to upmarket schools and musical instrument emporia.
Prom 60: Glyndebourne/ Andrew Davis
Royal Albert Hall, 27th August 2013, Sebastian Petit
After the mixed blessings of the Proms Parsifal, followed by the irresistible pizzazz of John Wilson’s superb orchestra, it was back to the Royal Albert Hall for another of my favourite operas in a concert performance. But what a difference! Following a successful run at Glyndebourne, the cast and orchestral forces were fully bedded in and the result was one of the finest performances of this opera that I’ve seen and one that left me shattered and red eyed with emotion.
Prom 57: Hallé Orchestra/ Mark Elder
Royal Albert Hall, 25th August 2013, Sebastian Petit
I fear I may well make myself unpopular by writing this review but, in the final analysis, a critical notice is only one view and clearly many in the hall disagreed with my assessment. There is a popular true-ism in the theatre that by the time you have the acting maturity to play Juliet you are already twenty years too old to play her. This synthesis of abilities applies to singers in that as their interpretive powers deepen their vocal frailties tend to increase. For every singer, especially when tackling the great Wagner roles, there is a moment in the sun when both aspects fuse in happy equilibrium. After that the clouds return and audiences are forced to make ever greater allowances in respect of vocal estate while continuing to admire the ever deepening interpretive abilities.
Prom 46: Kristine Opolais; CBSO/ Andris Nelsons
Royal Albert Hall, 17th August 2013, Dominic Wells
Sometimes an artist comes onto the music scene and receives such unanimous praise from the critics that one scarcely dares say a bad word about him/her. Such is the reputation of Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who has been earning garlands galore since he took on the auspicious role as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Yesterday was the first time I’d actually seen him conduct, though I was familiar with his work from radio broadcasts and recordings. His performance of Britten’s War Requiem last year (held in Coventry Cathedral and commemorating the 50th anniversary of the premiere) left me feeling uneasy – and not in the right way: some very odd tempo decisions, as well as a number of ensemble issues. I was hoping these wouldn’t affect the attractive programme of yesterday’s matinee Prom 46.
Prom 45: BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Andrew Davis
Royal Albert Hall, 16th August 2013, Mark Pullinger
At first glance, The Midsummer Marriage, may seem a surprise choice in a Proms season where anniversary composers Wagner, Verdi and Britten compete for the operatic spoils (a season where Wagner scores a triumphant seven operas, Britten just the one and Verdi a resounding zero). The inclusion of Michael Tippett’s first opera, along with several of his other works, is apparently to put into context the Britten packed into the Proms programme this year. The Midsummer Marriage was premiered in 1955 at Covent Garden, four years after the first performance of Britten’s Billy Budd (disembarking at the Albert Hall later this month). Any Tippett is welcome, whether programmed for a particular reason or not, especially in the hands of such a superb advocate as Andrew Davis, so it’s sad to report how poorly attended this Prom was, with swathes of empty seats in both Circle and Stalls.
Prom 29: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/ Runnicles
Royal Albert Hall, 4th August 2013, Gavin Dixon
The most performed work in the history of the Proms this evening received its first complete outing there. Bleeding chunks from Tannhäuser have long been favourites, especially in the Henry Wood days, but the complete opera had to wait until the composer’s bicentenary year. As with every Wagner performance so far this season, Donald Runnicles’ reading was generally good with some outstanding contributions from individual singers. But it was a mix and match affair, lacking the musical and dramatic coherence that comes with a staged production by a company working together for an extended period. The result was a Tannhäuser to enjoy for its regular flashes of brilliance, but not one that cohered fully from beginning to end.
Prom 20: Staatskapelle Berlin
Royal Albert Hall, 28th July 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
The better part of half-an-hour’s applause, including a speech of multi-purpose thanks by the conductor from the podium two-thirds of the way through it, affords some idea of the reception accorded this, the crowning glory of the complete Ring Cycle given in the Albert Hall this week. As it happens, I’m still not persuaded by those who evidently regard the Berlin Staatskapelle as a nonpareil in this work given that there were just as many fluffs and squawks from the brass as at Tuesday’s Walküre, some a lot more exposed than others – the one in the horns at the very start of Act III was the wrong kind of wake-up call – and that in between times the nowhere-in-the-Wagnerian-pecking-order BBC SO had provided playing of truly world-beating quality and incandescence in yesterday’sTristan und Isolde.
Prom 19: BBC Symphony Orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, 27th July 2013, John de Wald
As much a psychological drama as one driven by plot, permeated with symbolic language and imagery and evocations of metaphysics, Tristan und Isolde seems the ideal choice for performance in concert. By the time Wagner began work on it in 1857, he had become fully immersed in the philosophy of Schopenhauer; though Tristan offers a revised viewpoint of this philosophy with a view of romantic love far more poetic than anything Schopenhauer would have conceived; the philosopher’s belief, later to be echoed by Pater, that music was thene plus ultra of the arts, could not but strike particular resonance for the composer. Unlike the earlier operas of theRing, Wagner allowed himself in Tristan to move beyond the harmonious balance between drama and music that he had set out in Oper und Drama and allow his orchestration free rein to soar. Simply put - in Tristan the music is the thing.
Prom 18: Staatskapelle Berlin
Royal Albert Hall, 26th July 2013, Gavin Dixon
Daniel Barenboim keeps the standards high for this, the third instalment of hisRing cycle at the 2013 Proms. Fine vocal performances are ensured by the luxury casting. There have been a few cast changes since the previous instalments, but enough key singers return to ensure continuity. The orchestra continues to present Wagner’s music more idiomatically than any British ensemble ever could. The semi-staged concept remains thin, and seems to get thinner with every opera, but it doesn’t matter because Barenboim ensures there is enough drama in the music to more than compensate. And Barenboim himself remains the centre of attention, balancing the competing demands of singers and ensemble, and of drama and structure.
Prom 15: Staatskapelle Berlin
Royal Albert Hall, 23th July 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
In the past decade or so, Daniel Barenboim seems to have crossed over into the wider public consciousness not, mercifully, as a result of his deciding to play duets with André Rieu, say, but in his capacity as a sort of senior statesman-cum-mentor-figure, based as much as anything on his (co)founding of, and work with, the West-East Divan Orchestra. The concept is beyond any sense of mere worthiness, and carries within it a genuine message of hope for humanity.
Prom 14: Staatskapelle Berlin
Royal Albert Hall, 22nd July 2013, Mark Pullinger
‘A sultry haze hangs in the air,’ remarks Donner towards the finale of Das Rheingold. He wasn’t wrong. In a Royal Albert Hall sweltering like Nibelheim’s furnaces, Daniel Barenboim launched the Prom season’s most feverishly anticipated event, a complete cycle of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, as a packed Arena heroically maintained both concentration and consciousness. A blow from Donner’s hammer to clear the air over Kensington would have been most welcome. It’s sobering to think that this was the first time that Barenboim had conducted a Wagner opera in this country, but he’s certainly making up for that this week – four operas with four largely different casts (although Nina Stemme is thrice-tackling Brünnhilde). The icing on the cake was in the conductor bringing the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra with a rich heritage, perfectly suited for Wagner, without any hint of surface gloss or artificial sheen.
Coro e Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma
Royal Albert Hall, 20th July 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
For me at least, the principal interest attaching to this Prom concert – shamefully, the only one entirely devoted to music by Verdi all season long, in this of all years – was not the opportunity it provided to hear Antonio Pappano in home repertory with his other orchestra, but the chance finally to encounter the voice of Maria Agresta live, in the flesh. Of course, the Albert Hall being what it is acoustically – a hell-hole graveyard, especially for singers - it’s a fairly attenuated encounter even as close to the platform as I managed to inveigle myself. But one thing was immediately apparent: this is an important voice, of immaculate technical control, womanly without blowsiness, of middling-light lyric weight and warmth, fine focus and a certain cool beauty.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 20th June 2013, Nicola Lischi
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda owes a lot to Florence. Its first modern revival took place in Bergamo in 1958, but it left no impression whatsoever, probably because the two duelling queens were sopranos of no particular distinction. The same happened for Anna Bolena; while its exhumation happened again in Bergamo, it was Maria Callas’ mythical performances at La Scala the following year that put the opera back on the map. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino decided to inaugurate its 1967 Festival with another prima donna and bel canto specialist, Leyla Gencer, paired with rising star Shirley Verrett. The two divas sparked and gave birth to a incandescent performance, as a widely available recording of that memorable evening can witness. Strangely enough, Leyla Gencer never took on the role again, and left to Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland and particularly Montserrat Caballé the task to disseminate and popularize this work, which is now one of the most performed in the entire Donizetti canon.
Consolidation of the new team
Last year we saw the appearance of the new broom at the annual Göttingen Handel festival, namely Artistic Director Laurence Cummings and Intendant Tobias Wolff; this year they consolidated last year’s successes, bolstering predictions of a bright future for the world’s oldest continuing Handel fest. Most notably, the Festspiel Orchester Göttingen has gone from strength to strength, clearly building a close rapport with Director Cummings. Also to be noted is that this year, for the first time, the centrepiece opera (Siroe) was conducted by Cummings, as well as the oratorioJoseph and His Brethren and the Gala Concert.
Early Verdi emerges from darkest Peru
Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2013, Mark Pullinger
It’s not just Paddington Bear and Juan Diego Flórez who hail from darkest Peru. Alzira, Verdi’s eighth opera, is set there, a tale of Inca tribes and their Spanish invaders, in a plot very loosely based on Voltaire’s Alzire, ou les Américains. It was composed for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and was Verdi’s first collaboration with the renowned librettist Salvatore Cammarano. It was not a success. Verdi was under no illusions and himself described it as “Quella è proprio brutta” (‘This one is really bad’). His great friend Andrei Maffei wrote that ‘No one likes the piece, and I too find it unworthy of such a capable composer’. The jury’s been out ever since.
Handel too reined in?
Barbican Hall, 29th May 2013, Llyr Carvana
Handel started writing Imeneo in 1738 but it did not receive its first performance until St Cecilia’s Day 1740 at the Lincoln’s Inn Field theatre. Sadly, St. Cecilia seems not to have attended to offer her support as the opera only managed two performances in London, followed by two more in a revised version in Dublin the next year. Imeneo was the composer’s penultimate opera and it seems rather unfortunate that it should open in the same theatre that premiered The Beggar’s Opera twelve years previously, the popularity of which led to the closing of Handel’s first Royal Academy of Music. That it took Handel two years to present this opera to the public in the first place is rather peculiar for an astute businessman like Handel who was capable of composing an opera on demand to meet audience expectation and fancy even if this was to cobble together a pasticcio. Following the lacklustre reception ofImeneo and Deidemia, though not solely due to this, Handel concentrated on oratorio, which led to over 150 years of English oratorio and up to the works of Elgar. Handel, may you be forgiven!
Barbican Hall, 22nd May 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When the booking originally opened for this concert back in January 2012 as part of the LSO’s 2012/13 season, no actual programme was offered for our edification, the rubric merely noting, styled as above, that it would be in celebration of the Maestro’s sexagennial anniversary (or Diamond Jubilee if, as many do, you regard him as an absolute monarch). I booked for it blind, like everybody else, vaguely imagining that it would play to his known strengths in the Russian repertoire, or else take the form of some extended musical knees-up with lots of guest stars. In the event it only relatively recently became known that whilst the latter expectation would be partially met, in the shape of concert items played by Alexander Toradze and Leonidas Kavakos, the main musical meat of the evening was to be operatic, comprising Act V of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, with soloists both local (in the largely supporting roles) and Russian (in the case of the two principal ones). Now, Valery Gergiev certainly has form in Berlioz, having conducted concert performances here of both Benvenuto Cellini and (on three separate occasions, no less) La damnation de Faust. And his handling of Les Troyens, staged at the Valencia opera house by the La fura dels Baus collective as some Kubrickian space oddity, has been preserved on DVD.
Barbican Hall, 8th May 2013, Sebastian Petit
Entering the Barbican Hall foyers I suspected I might have, in a senior moment, turned up on the wrong night. While not quite yet colonised by tumbleweed, the foyers were horribly unpopulated considering the centre was hosting a recital by a big name artist like Magdalena Kožená. The rich variety of musical life in our capital can often result in deserving events failing to attract the level of support they deserve. This was clearly the case last night with the lures of the all-star (minus 1) Don Carlo and the opening of Liam Scarlett’s latest excursion into the world of nightmare leading to a less than half-full hall at the Barbican.
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, 2nd May 2013, Nicola Lischi
The most amazing thing about this performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo is that it took place at all. The troubles that have been plaguing the Fondazione del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino are well known and this writer has already mentioned them in other recent reviews. The bottom line is that, without going into details, the Maggio ended up in such a sorry state that a few months ago the Italian government had no choice but to place an external commissioner, Francesco Bianchi, at its helm, so as to shed light on the actual extent of the deficit and try to save the sinking ship.
St John's Smith Square, 27th April 2013, Miranda Jackson
In December 2008 the great dramatic soprano, Elizabeth Connell, stepped into the breach and took on the role of Turandot in the Royal Opera House production when the leading lady was indisposed. At the time she was playing the role of Hansel and Gretel’s Mother. What a contrast: from impoverished wife of an alcoholic husband to indomitable princess. It was a stellar cast in the Humperdinck with Sir Tom Allen as her husband, but the role of Turandot has to be one of a handful of roles which an aspiring dramatic soprano yearns to tuck under her bejewelled belt.
LSO, Barbican Hall, 25th April 2013, Dominic Wells
For this, one of his numerous 70thBirthday concerts, Sir John Eliot Gardiner chose to deliver an all-Stravinsky programme with an ancient Greek theme: Apollon musagète, and Oedipus Rex. Joining him on stage were the London Symphony Orchestra and, for the second work, the gentlemen of the conductor’s own Monteverdi Choir – a vocal ensemble beyond superlatives. This combination of conductor and ensembles has worked well in the past in other Stravinskian repertoire, including one of the best versions of the Symphony of Psalms I have ever heard (originally on DG but re-released at budget price on Brilliant Classics: 9015) and arguably the greatest CD-recording of The Rake’s Progress (DG 459 648-2). For the most part, the high standard of those recordings was evident last night in London’s Barbican Hall.
Barbican Hall, 24th April 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If, like me, you attended Sunday’s “Flórez and Friends” concert at the Barbican – as opposed to sitting through oceans of orchestral filler in the RFH in order to dribble over the unfeasible length of Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Wälse’ – you may be forgiven for wondering how an audience already in a state of chronic, uncritical delight could possibly be pleasured any more. In which case, you needed to be at tonight’s solo recital, the latest tranche of Juan Diego Flórez’s Barbican residency, which comprehensively proved the time-honoured adage “it ain’t over until the sooty-lashed one sings at least four encores”. The nubile bounced around, whooping; the mature squirmed with satisfaction in their seats, emitting the odd low moan; I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the lame weren’t seen dancing in the aisles, and the dead – always a fair percentage of any opera audience – weren’t newly-risen. Indeed, anyone suffering with scrofula could well have been cured merely by touching his immaculately tailored trousers (though I’m still working out how to explain this to the police).
Barbican Hall, 21st April 2013, Sebastian Petit
There are times in every critic’s life when they enter a place of entertainment in a less than exalted frame of mind, wishing fervently that they were not required to sit in judgement on whatever artistic offering is being given that night. This was undoubtedly the case with me tonight as I entered the Barbican Hall. Despite the fact that I had been looking forward to this concert for nigh on six months, a combination of a rotten night’s sleep and an overlarge dinner had put me in a distinctly un-sunny mood. Had what followed been of poor or even average quality it would likely have received a fairly un-indulgent review. Fortunately the evening was so far up the scale of excellence it is in danger of receiving a rave.
Royal Festival Hall, 20th April 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Daniele Gatti was the Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for 13 years, from 1996 onwards: and the net result of his long and faithful devotion to them was to end up occupying a kind of twilight existence, seen somehow as not central to the city’s musical activities, having allied himself to the Cinderella of London orchestras. Happily for him, the rest of the world was rather more aware of his worth, and no sooner had he left than he was ensconced at Bayreuth, La Scala and the Met, as well as consolidating his position as a favoured guest with most of the great international orchestras. But after having conducted his way through most of the Verdi repertory at the ROH throughout the 1990s as the House’s Principal Guest Conductor year-in, year-out until the closure, he only reappeared there in 2001, promptly to vanish for the next eleven seasons. When he finally returned last year, to lead the new Falstaff, he was greeted with a homecoming hero’s sense of welcome. And something similar could be sensed tonight, at the Southbank-resident Philharmonia Orchestra’s major contribution to this year’s ongoing Verdi bicentenary celebrations.
Barbican Hall, 16th April 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
When this pair of concert performances of Britten’s most ingeniously crafted opera – literally, variations on a theme - was first announced early last year as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2012/13, the conductor was meant to be Sir Colin Davis, the band’s Principal Conductor from 1995 until 2006 (after which he became its tirelessly hands-on President). Alas, illness intervened, and the last performances he gave with the LSO in their home hall were the two Der Freischützen almost exactly a year ago - the first of which I reviewed here - followed by dual outings of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts in St. Paul’s Cathedral in July, his absolute public dernière (and a rather more fitting use of the building than that in which it presently finds itself embroiled, hired out for a has-been politico’s overblown obsequies). Sir Colin was too ill to conduct, or even attend, his own 85th birthday concert last September, and we had all long-since been advised that he would not be conducting these Turns of the Screw, entrusted instead to Richard Farnes, the Music Director of Opera North.
London Handel Festival, 6th April 2013, Miranda Jackson
There are in my opinion two compelling reasons to choose an Ensemble Serseperformance in preference to your 259thproduction of Traviata or Carmen. The first is that the South African male soprano Calvin Wells is secretly a musicologist, producing performing editions of operas by the unjustly neglected German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783.) A while ago, some of us thought Handel only wrote oratorios; but now his finest operas are firmly ensconced in the canon. Vivaldi too is being rediscovered as a composer of operas. But the consummate composer of Italianate opera seria throughout the 18th century is in fact Hasse.
Versailles, 3rd April 2013, Miranda Jackson
About five years ago I was walking alone in the shimmering May heat on the peaceful island of Torcello, when I was captivated by the liquid tones of a nightingale. Apparently lonely male nightingales sometimes sing in daylight, raising the ante to attract the attention of a mate. This week, as a guest of theChâteau de Versailles Spectacles, I once again found myself ‘at the still point of the turning world.’ This time it was not an avian larynx, but that of the American mezzo-soprano, Vivica Genaux, singing “Quell’usignolo che innamorato se canta solo” in Vivaldi’s Farnace.
Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican, 29th March 2013, John E de Wald
It is as yet a far cry from spring in Britain. The bitter winds of winter still hold court, snow looms as recent threat; yet Easter nonetheless approaches, heralded by the annual burgeoning of sacred music endemic to the season. Though none does better justice to it to my taste than the third act ofParsifal, not even the most committed Wagnerian could dispute the power of Bach’s choral writing in expressing the heart of this time of year. Though several displays of this are inevitably on offer with Good Friday to hand, a chance to hear the Academy of Ancient Music performing the St. John Passion with an ensemble of top soloists is surely hard to better.
St Paul's, Covent Garden, 23rd March 2013, Miranda Jackson
What is the link between Jacques Imbrailo, Erica Eloff and Calvin Wells, apart from the fact that they have each performed The Queen of the Night’s aria to considerable acclaim? The answer is they were all born in South Africa but have chosen to make the UK their home. In Miss Eloff’s case, she made her first professional appearances in the UK in 2008, appearing as Fiordiligi in Così at Garsington Opera, making her Wigmore Hall recital debut and winning the 2008 London Handel Festival Singing Competition. The following year she sang the eponymous role of Theodora in the London Handel Festival, in which she showed considerable artistic maturity as well as a superb vocal technique.
Classical Opera, London Handel Festival, 18th March 2013, Miranda Jackson
We all know the legend of Orpheus, but did you know Eurydice’s death was orchestrated by Queen Orasia in a fit of jealous rage and that Orpheus met his end being beaten to death by a horde of Bacchanalian nymphettes? Nor did I, but based on a tragédie written by Michel Du Boulay in 1690, this is the narrative of Die rachbegierige Liebe oder Orasia, verwittwete Königin in Thracien, first performed in Hamburg in 1726.
Wigmore Hall, 18th March 2013, John E de Wald
The Rosenblatt Recitals, now based at the Wigmore Hall, offer a rather unique opportunity to hear some of the world’s most impressive singers to best effect, performing their own chosen repertoire in an intimate concert setting. There is a welcome purity in hearing an artist sing a concentrated programme of music tailored to their voice and taste, and to hear it unembellished by full-scale orchestra, granted only the elegant simplicity of an accompanying piano.
Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 17th March 2013, Mark Pullinger
There are fairies at the bottom of der Garten. On the Wagner-Verdi bicentenary dual carriageway, the Chelsea Opera Group charabanc trundled into town for the first of its celebrations to offer up a rare slice of early Wagner (Verdi is served by Alzira later in the season). COG is an unpredictable vehicle at the best of times – it can run smoothly (a fine original version Simon Boccanegra, featuring a lovely soprano) and at times it can judder to an abrupt halt (a truly memorable Traviata for all the wrong reasons). This evening, whilst the cornering was occasionally treacherous and the wheels threatened to come off on more than one occasion, the resulting performance of Die Feen was still rather enjoyable, both for the opportunity to sample Wagner’s first opera and for some spirited vocal performances.
St James', Piccadilly, 7th March 2013, Dominic Wells
It must have been almost exactly two years ago that I was listening to Radio 3, eating my breakfast, when my porridge-laden spoon stopped half way to my mouth, and was slowly returned to the bowl. From the radio came a voice – a new voice – that seemed to possess a Bartoli-like technique. At the end of the aria, the presenter announced the name of Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, and I quickly got hold of a copy of the disc as soon as possible. The remainder of that CD – of Rossini arias (Naïve V5221) – proved to be just as impressive as the extract that I had heard on the radio, and I was surprised that, with the exception of Gramophone, it received a remarkably lukewarm critical response, with lots of three-star ratings dotted about.
Perth International Arts Festival, 2nd March 2013, Sandra Bowdler
Bartók’s only opera Bluebeard’s Castle is, like much early 20th century music, not for everyone. It is really a chamber opera with only two characters and is often performed (as it is here) in concert; a full-blown setting is hardly necessary. Some find it essentially monochromatic, with not much musical variation, not much action and not much plot. For others (including your critic), it is a fascinating psychological portrayal in music of the states of mind of the two characters - Duke Bluebeard and his latest wife Judith. Based on the fairytale in which Bluebeard’s wife opens a final door in his castle to find the remains of his previously murdered wives, in this version she opens the final door of his psyche to find his previous wives unfortunately alive.
The English Concert, Barbican Hall, 10th February 2013, Miranda Jackson
I vividly remember reviewing the English National Opera's production of Handel's Radamisto at the end of 2010. What struck me about that production was the consistent quality of the singing, with Lawrence Zazzo and Christine Rice worthy of special mention. ENO chose to perform the score on modern instruments, but conducted by redoubtable Handel expert, Laurence Cummings, who has been appointed artistic director of the Göttingen International Handel Festival.
Barbican Hall, 6th February 2013, Sebastian Petit
It is always good to welcome Joyce DiDonato back to London. This concert was based around her recent Drama Queens album which took baroque royalty in various moods, ranging from quiet contemplation to insane fury as its theme. DiDonato is an exceptional recitalist both vocally but also in that she has the ability to make even a large hall such as the Barbican feel like an intimate venue. For the tour, DiDonato had commissioned a truly spectacular red frock from Vivienne Westwood and there was a lovely touch with the male members of Il Complesso Barocco all wearing red socks to match the dress.
Wigmore Hall, 5th February 2013, Sebastian Petit
A glance at Alex Esposito’s website reveals a young bass with a formidably wide ranging repertoire encompassing no less than fifteen Rossini roles but also parts as diverse as Nick Shadow, the four Hoffmann villains and Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His recital under the Rosenblatt Song Series banner clearly aimed to provide a snapshot of a very varied portfolio. His repertoire in this country has been mainly confined to the Mozart bass roles but on the evidence of this recital he is a genuine basso cantante.
The Rest Is Noise: Inaugural Concert, RFH, 19th January 2013, Stephen Jay-Taylor
For card-carrying Strauss-fanciers like me, the next eighteen months or so are going to be glory days indeed, culminating in the celebrations – in June 2014 – commemorating, unbelievably, the 150thanniversary of his birth (I know someone who worked with him). The LPO has been staking its claim early. It’s less than two months since they gave performances of Ein Heldenleben and Don Quixote under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and they will be tackling Ariadne auf Naxos this summer at Glyndebourne (it’s odd, then, that most of the Strauss to be heard on the South Bank in the upcoming 2013/14 season will be played instead by the Philharmonia: five tone poems, orchesterlieder - including the Four Last Songs - and the closing scene of Salome).
Zurich Opera, Royal Festival Hall, 15th December 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
It’s nearly four years since Bryn Terfel sang the Dutchman for the first time, at Covent Garden, with Anja Kampe as Senta. In the interim, she, if not Terfel, returned to the role at the ROH last year. And now, here she is once again, singing the part in a concert performance given by the forces of Zurich Opera at the Festival Hall. On both previous occasions, though she was the object of much acclaim at the time, I personally found her singing squally and approximate, and quite without the necessary security above the stave, where anything much beyond A was more-or-less the product of sheer will-power alone rather than any evident vocal ability.
BBCSO, Barbican, 15th December 2012, Mark Pullinger
Hobbits may be the mythological flavour of the month with cinemagoers, but it was trolls that concentrated the mind at the Barbican this evening as Grieg’s complete incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was given in a concert performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Minkowski. The 26 musical items were set in context by Alain Perroux’s sequence of dialogue and narration, immediately recognisable to those of us who have Aeon’s recording (with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande) which features the same script. The young actors from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama even employed Irish accents for Peer, Ase and Solveig, as did Alex Jennings and Haydn Gwynne on disc, although the adoption of Scottish accents for the trolls may be more contentious for audience members hailing from north of the border.
Barbican, 9th December 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
I couldn’t offhand quantify how many recitals Renée Fleming has given in London since her debut here 23 years ago: it must run easily into double figures. Yet this, without doubt, was the finest of them all, both in terms of the programming and, more surprisingly at this near quarter-century remove, vocal execution. Of course, Fleming has always had her rabid fans (no less than her equally – if not more so – rabid detractors), but this is the first time I have ever witnessed her receive a standing ovation.
Carnegie Hall, 5th December 2012, Eli Jacobson
Beatrice di Tenda has always been something of a stepchild in the Bellini canon, born under difficult circumstances and subject to long periods of neglect. It only emerges when a bel canto diva such as a Sutherland, Gencer, Devia or Gruberova wishes to add another Bellini heroine to her collection. Beatrice di Tenda is Bellini’s penultimate opera composed after Norma and before I Puritani which was his last completed work when he died in 1835.
Royal Festival Hall, 27th November 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Though the printed programme made nothing of it that I could see, this concert effectively marked the 50th anniversary of the work’s premiere in the newly-rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (destroyed during WWII) in 1962. At this remove it’s hard to credit the overwhelming public interest the piece provoked: but it gives some idea of its popularity and sheer fame that the recording subsequently made by Decca and released in 1964 sold over 200,000 copies in its first year alone. (For comparison, Claudio Abbado’s 1990s Berlin Brahms cycle has sold well under 15,000 copies worldwide to date.) Those indeed were the days. And it’s odd in many ways, because the War Requiem is not a notably – in fact, even remotely – consolatory work, starting and ending as it does on a tritone (the Diabolus in musica of mediaeval horror), and makes few if any concessions to an audience’s expectations.
Chelsea Opera Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 25th November 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Massenet had just turned sixty-seven and was in large part crippled with arthritis when, in May 1909, he began composing what is the 23rd of his 26 surviving operas, and the last-but-one he lived long enough to see staged before his death from cancer in 1912. Like many of his late works, the libretto was written by Henri Cain (after a play by Jacques Le Lorrain rather than directly adapted from Cervantes) and commissioned by Raoul Gunsbourg, the suave shark who ran the Opéra de Monte Carlo (and the lucrative casino concession it embraced architecturally, courtesy of the same Charles Garnier responsible for the Opéra in Paris).
Barbican, 15th November 2012, Dominic Wells
For the past week or so, as I finish work and walk down Oxford Street each evening, I am greeted by the incandescent delights of premature Christmas lights. This year – and perhaps it’s been the case for several years and I’ve just missed it – the main focus of this annual celebration seems to have shifted from the birth of Christ to Marmite. Hanging high above the streets are various Marmite signs, glowing and flashing away, with the famous slogan, ‘You either love it, or hate it’, next to which an animated fluorescent child appears to be vomiting into a Christmas stocking (presumably a hater, rather than a lover, of the rich, brown spread).
Wigmore Hall, 12th November 2012, Mark Pullinger
Greek sopranos have been much on my mind of late. I’ve recently reviewed an Australian Eloquence reissue of Decca recordings by Elena Souliotis, herself proclaimed as the great successor to Maria Callas, who briefly blazed across the operatic firmament before fizzling out, the cost of countless Abigailles taking its inevitable toll. Or perhaps not so inevitable, for the Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, appearing in this latest Rosenblatt Recital, has made a very decent career in such dramatic repertory as Abigaille, Odabella and Lady Macbeth, without seeming to succumb to their voice-sapping demands. It’s been ten years now since her Covent Garden debut as an exciting Odabella in Attila, a booking strangely absent from her printed biography, and I was keen to see how her voice – notoriously unpredictable – held up in a demanding programme; no lieder or romanzas here, but a succession of operatic heroines.
The Warehouse, 25th & 26th October 2012, Miranda Jackson
Nadine Mortimer-Smith is a very British lyric soprano (of Jamaican heritage) but displays a New World, ‘can-do’ attitude which perhaps explains why she is recognised as the foremost British exponent of American song. As part of the biennial Lontano American Music Festival at The Warehouse, she gave a recital with her accompanist Tomasz Lis which comprised songs by William Bolcom, Peter Child, Samuel Barber and Gershwin.
BBCSO/ Opera Rara, Barbican, 28th October 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Belisario, (approximately) the 48th of Donizetti’s (roughly) 70 operas, was first given at La Fenice in Venice on 4thFebruary 1836, and scored a success so immediate that within a decade it had done the rounds of most of the major lyric houses not just in Italy, but throughout the world, including both Americas. Yet Donizetti himself rated it below Lucia di Lammermoor – its immediate predecessor bar one – in his oeuvre by reason of its “less thorough working-out”: and posterity has been even harsher in its judgement, long-since relegating it to the outer margins of repertoire respectability.
City Recital Hall, Sydney, 20th October 2012, Sandra Bowdler
Few would dispute that Richard Bonynge is adept at picking singers and, at 82, he is as sprightly on the podium as ever. Presented by the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation – whose aim is to “to nurture and support our next generation of emerging young Australian opera singers” – this concert performance of Rodelinda was an unmitigated treat for Handel lovers and aficionados of fine singing.
BBCSO, Barbican, 12th October 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
Kenneth Richardson has semi-staged any number of operas in concert in London, one of which – Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs. Kong, at the RFH – remains just about the greatest performance of any opera I’ve encountered live. His latter day work with the BBC SO at the Barbican has produced any number of exemplary accounts, not least The Adventures of Mr. Broucek and Julietta. So it’s just my (habitual) bad luck that the very first of his stagings about which I have some serious reservations should, of course, be the (only) one I’ve ever been called upon to review. The odd thing is that the flaw was both basically very simple and easily correctable, but alas exerted an exponentially damaging effect on the cumulative impact of the work as the evening progressed.
Barbican, 2nd October 2012, Mark Pullinger
Time flies. It’s three years to the day now since my first Opera Britannia review assignment at Covent Garden, a revival of Carmen starring Latvian mezzo soprano Elina Garanca. I’m hoping I didn’t put the mockers on her, as she hasn’t been back since – an abandoned Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and maternity duty in the intervening years a plea offered for the defence. It’s a situation one wishes remedied with some haste, for there are few lyric mezzos to come anywhere near her on the form exhibited in this concert, which took us from Joan of Arc to Carmen, via the exotic Orient courtesy of Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Gounod.
Royal Festival Hall, 30th September 2012, Sebastian Petit
This concert seemed something of a missed opportunity, as Anna Caterina Antonacci is a rare enough visitor to these shores. In the last few years she has given us an unmatched Carmen and Cassandre plus a few treasurable Wigmore Hall recitals (the most recent of which has just been released on the Hall’s own label). Having acquired her services for a concert promisingly centred around some of the most interesting classical heroines it seems folly to ask her to perform only three short pieces and then pad the programme with tenuously related items including, bizarrely, Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C.
LPO, Royal Festival Hall, 26th September 2012, Stephen Jay-Taylor
If he has achieved nothing else, Vladimir Jurowski deserves the undying gratitude of at least this member of the paying public for diversifying and enriching the repertory over the past three or so seasons at the helm of the London Philharmonic. At a time when the Philharmonia launches its season with Beethoven’s 9th under Salonen, and the LSO opens with a fancily tarted-up Brahms cycle under Gergiev (unremittingly bloated and leaden thus far), it isn’t so much a breath of fresh air as a blast of much-needed oxygen which Jurowski brings to proceedings.
Wigmore Hall, 24th September 2012, Miranda Jackson
The twelfth annual Rosenblatt Recitals are being held at the Wigmore Hall for the first time this season. The American tenor, Lawrence Brownlee gave the inaugural performance at ‘Europe’s leading venue for song,’ accompanied by Iain Burnside. As fond as many of us are of St John’s, Smith Square, the move to the Wigmore Hall feels like a step up for the Rosenblatt Recitals, asserting that this much-loved series is now very much at the heart of musical life in the capital. As a further coup, four of this year’s series, including Mr Brownlee’s recital, are being filmed for future broadcast by Sky Arts.