My local library is really good when it comes to buying opera dvds. I often go there and leaf through the selection and find stuff I never knew I craved – but then there it is. Many I just pass visit after visit and then perhaps one day I decide to pick it up. One such dvd was this:
I first saw it some months ago and left it because the cover is plain ugly and because concert performances on dvd are just one more nail to the coffin of opera as an art form. But then later that day it returned to me. Because – what would the barytone Thomas Hampson be doing in an opera with a tenor hero? And embracing the heroine on the cover?
So when I stumbled upon it again last week I decided to bring it home with me.
It turned out to be musically stunning and acting-wise not bad at all.
The conductor Michel Plasson and I are not the best of friends…not that he knows. But I once witnessed him furiously screaming the text at a poor mezzo-soprano who couldn’t remember her part but who had also just been flown in to rescue the performance from cancellation. Not nice Monsieur P.
But I have to admit that with this Werther he does a remarkable job.
And then what I really wanted to share with you: the best love scene I can think of just now. And here performed by two singers, Thomas Hampson and Susan Graham, who are everything but 20-year-olds but who manage to put all the pain, vulnerability, and love into this encounter and make it one of the most touching scenes I have seen.
Have a look and try to ignore the impossible filming:
If you want to see what it all ends with then look here for Werther’s death.
The cast also includes delectable singers as Stéphane Degout as Albert and Sandrine Piau as Sophie.
And the barytone thing? It turns out Massenet revised his opera and turned Werther into a barytone in order to make him more brooding. Not sure I think that is the right thing to do – but Thomas Hampson is always welcome to do any of my favourite opera heroes!
Monday Cecilia Bartoli visited Copenhagen and left a trail of happiness behind her.
She sang arias from her latest cd Opera Proibita which is a collection of beautifully silent pieces and brilliantly breathless virtuosity.
I have now witnessed three concerts with Cecilia Bartoli and I feel entitled to some conclusions about her performances. The thing about a Cecilia Bartoli concert is that it leaves you utterly exhilarated. Her joy in making music is so apparent that you are left with no choice but to follow her. Which means that being in a concert hall with her is a most wonderful experience. I recommend it to all!
This evening (as also the two other evenings I have spent with her) she delivered the pieces with energy and a complete control over her voice. It is like listening to the cd and then add her fantastic presence. That’s really all there is to say. Go here and listen to Disseratevi, o porte d’Averno. Then you will get a glimpse of what I’m talking about. We even got it twice!
The orchestra La Scintilla was brilliant too (heee – got it?) and worked very well both with and without La Bartoli.
Many thanks to Cecilia for sharing her passion so violently with the rest of us. Life-affirming!
Andreas Scholl visited Copenhagen Thursday to Saturday this week. I attended his two concerts with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul McCreesh.
The programme turned out to be both magnificent and problematic.
McCreesh and the orchestra framed Scholl’s performance with two symphonies by Haydn. First the so-called Philosopher (Symphony no. 22, 1764). The symphony opens with a very slow adagio movement with a repetitive pattern. After that follows the three movements of an (for the period) ordinary symphony. I loved the first movement to bits – it had a meditative quality which led me into a deep contemplation of the individual parts and voices of the composition.
Paul McCreesh, a delightful and humouristic musician.
Andreas Scholl opened his part of the concert with Bach’s cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170, 1726). The first aria is a soft treat for the ears while the last aria is a furious tour de force of anger and virtuosity. What lies in between is the in my view rather fragmented and not easily deliverable Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten which in this case confirmed what had already been looming in the first aria: that Scholl was not in his right spirits or perhaps even in his right element. When he intoned Vergnügte Ruh (the first aria) I felt my palms moisten slightly with a nervousness on his behalf. From where I sat I simply could not hear him! Ok, I was not on the first row, actually I was in the rear of the hall, but that rear is known for its good acoustics.
Of course Paul McCreesh should have reacted. It wasn’t that the orchestra was playing too loud, but given the circumstance they were. It didn’t help spotting Andreas Scholl’s extremely shaking hands. Poor fellow. I must add that I re-listened to the concert today on the radio – and he was there – and singing quite nicely! Just too bad that a technician has to control the balance between soloist and orchestra to let his voice reach us…
I left for intermission with a feeling of disappointment.
The second part of the concert opened with a reinvigorated Scholl. He gave us three perfectly delivered Händel arias that assured me of his on-going capacity in his field.
First O Lord, whose mercies numberless from the oratorio Saul (1738) which left me very moved. The aria is extremely beautiful and sweet and after the nerve wracking Bach it felt so good to hear Scholl’s voice flow freely and melodiously to my ready ears. *sniff*
The contemplative piece was followed by the vigourous Such haughty beauties rather move aversions also from Saul and the pantheist prayer What though I trace each herb and flow’r from Solomon (1748). This was the Andreas Scholl I know and love.
Even though the Radio Symphony Orchestra has been practising their baroque technique I still find them to be rather too sluggish in their dynamics. It’s not that they can’t play this repertoire, it’s just that I so missed the vivacity and springiness of a period orchestra. Paul McCreesh did his and so did the musicians, but it’s also a question of habits and dropping the vibrato and two thirds of the colleagues is not enough for a romantic orchestra to transform into a period orchestra.
Scholl spoiled us with an encore – the aria Ich will nicht Dich hören from Bach’s Hercules (better known as Bereite dich, Zion from the Christmas Oratorio). Again Scholl turned a bit, just a bit, uneven which leads me to a strange conclusion for a singer who must have been fed with Bach from his childhood – that he doesn’t feel completely relaxed with this composer’s oeuvre. Of course it’s rather daft to make such an extreme conclusion based on two identical concerts, but the difference between Händel and Bach was remarkable. I see from his schedule that he will be performing Vergnügte Ruh and other Bach pieces a lot in the near future. I do hope he will have more success – keep your chin up, Andreas!
The concert closed with another Haydn symphony, no. 101, also know as The Clock. In all this was a more interesting piece than the first Haydn symphony. Either because it just is or because the musicians were more into it. It made me consider how this type of music seems to be systematising silence. Of course the clock movement (the second) is very strict in ordering silence and music, and McCreesh underlined this by at one point letting the music, or the clock, stop, but I think actually that the whole piece and also other symphonies of Haydn are focusing on this foundation of music – the play and order of silence and sound. McCreesh did a wonderful job with this piece.
This was a strange concert, taking me from disappointment and sadness to joy and contentment. Next time Scholl is in Copenhagen I hope he will be singing with a more adequate orchestra and with less fear and trembling. He is after all one of my favourite musicians.
I have resisted since November. And I really did try and I thought I had succeeded. But then…how often is it Cecilia Bartoli comes to Copenhagen? Like – ever? And somehow the sneaky bastards of the Tivoli Concert Hall held back the cheap tickets until the expensive ones were sold. Hate that trick.
Well, the (reasonably) cheap ticket is now mine!! MWUAHAHAHAHA!
See you there Ceciliona!
by Guido Harari
Earlier today I talked about how I associate the month of March with a kind of lack of reliability when it comes to the weather. This is also the theme for my choice in the “musical year” category (I’m still thinking about re-naming that category. It makes me envision year-long renditions of Les Miserables and Cats. Ugh.), which is “Interlude IV – passacaglia” from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, an opera that I always imagine to be taking place in March, because March is such a stormy month, and there’s much talk of storms in this opera.
“Who can turn skies back/and begin again?” – storm as a force of nature plays an important part in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.
The main theme of Peter Grimes is the helplessness of man against Nature: The population of the borough is painfully aware, constantly, of the raging of the elements and their own insignificance in contrast. “Oh tide that waits for no man, spare our coasts!”, so goes one of the choruses in the opera, and each of the inhabitants of the town has his or her own way of dealing with the helplessness. Bob Boles turns to the fanatic religious (“Repent! Repent!” he shouts ad nauseam to his fellow men during storms), Mrs. Sedley takes to drug abuse, Ned Keene runs a drug-dealing business, and almost all the men seek comfort from time to time in the prostituted arms of Auntie’s euphemistic nieces. And when all these pass-times aren’t enough, they turn to the scapegoat, who just happens to be the fanciful loner Peter Grimes.
Interlude IV musically sums up these themes so movingly, I think: It starts off with a sense of loneliness and isolation depicted through a very quiet version of the conspiratorial chorus “Grimes is at his exercise!” (which marks the climax of the borough’s rising suspicion against Peter Grimes) with a single cello as the predominant instrument, backed up only by a contrabass, which sort of trails off and is overpowered by animated, forte brass players who imitate to perfection the merciless blows of a storm (I regret that I was unable to find a soundfile of this particular part of the interlude), which in turn slide into an almost manic-harking performance by high-strung strings and eventually intwines with the slandered Peter Grimes frustrated, tyrannic out-let at his young apprentice: “Go there!”. I think it’s a most beautiful piece of music, and it illustrates perfectly what I like so much about Benjamin Britten – his attentive depiction of atmospheres. Another example of this, from the same opera, may be seen here:
This is Jon Vickers, probably the most famous portrayer of Peter Grimes, in Peter Grimes “madness”-scene. The borough really is shouting “Grimes!” in the distance at this point in the opera, but as depicted through Britten’s music, in Peter Grimes’s plagued and deranged mind their angry shouts become ghostly moaning, creating a very powerful eerie atmosphere that is backed up by the shrill violins at the beginning of the scene. “Ghosts” is the keyword here, Peter Grimes’s life has become defined by the dead, by the corpses of the little boys that he is accused of murdering, and he dreams in vain of “[turning] the skies back/and begin again.” Absolutely unnerving, but brilliantly so. Peter Grimes remains one of my favourite operas.
We really have had a lot of storms in Denmark this March, and I hope we’re through with it by now. I agree with Benjamin Britten’s depiction of our mortality through the raging of the elements, but that doesn’t mean that I find it to be particularly pleasant. 😉
Yesterday Marie and I, not being in New York, went to the cinema to see the recent production from The Met of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin with Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Ramon Vargas. But since it’s Sunday night and I’m just not going to do anything serious the review will have to wait and instead I bring you this:
Sheep with accordeons? And what is it with American kids and their learning to count? Look here too.
Well, I think it’s hilarious and it just makes me adore Renée Fleming. Even more. She sang with the Muppets…what’s more to say?
I just saw three pieces of interesting news on the internet. At least they were new to me: Andreas Scholl has left Decca and signed with Harmonia Mundi; he has recorded a new album with Händel pieces; the Giulio Cesare of The Royal Danish Opera is to be released this spring.
The Händel album includes one of my favourite pieces: Il Duello Amoroso in which Andreas Scholl and the soprano Hélène Guilmette sing the lovesick shepherd Daliso and the proud and rejecting shepherdess Amarilli. I heard it a couple of years ago with Scholl and his ex Camilla Tilling. Wonderful even with Scholl having a slight cold. Even though conducted by the baroque specialist and harpsichord player Lars Ulrik Mortensen the (modern) ensemble pieced together by musicians from the Danish Radio Orchestra had a hard time sounding like an improvising bunch of baroque enthusiasts. So I’m glad that this recording is with exactly such an ensemble: Accademia Bizantina and Ottavio Dantone.
You can read more and listen to a couple of samples here. I especially recommend the second sample which is from the Duello Amoroso.
I can hardly wait to get my hands on it!
It has long been rumoured that Harmonia Mundi would release a dvd of Francisco Negrin’s production of Händel’s Giulio Cesare. And now it seems it is about to happen. I can’t find an exact date but spring…spring is here! This is one of the best stagings I have seen of any opera so it’s definitely worth releasing. Marie wrote a review of the performance which you can read here.
And here’s a little snatch of the opera. Cleopatra’s aria Piangerò la sorte mia performed by Inger Dam-Jensen who just happens to be one of my favourite singers and the Concerto Copenhagen conducted by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Cleopatra thinks all is lost – Giulio dead and kingdom taken by bad, bad brother who in this production seems to be ready to rape her on their next encounter – and he took her wig! The aria changes between complete sorrow and a furious vendetta feeling, between “I will weep for my fate” and “I will haunt him as a ghost”. It is one of those arias that pretty surely brings tears to my eyes.
I hope the dvd will be out soon – hereby recommended.
In the meantime I have been watching another production of Giulio Cesare: David McVicar’s staging from Glyndebourne 2005. I don’t think it is as marvellous as Negrin’s but it is still very good. I’m completely taken by Sarah Connolly who portrays Giulio with a manliness many men could learn from. I’m close on having a girl crush on her or…should that just be crush? I listened to a radio interview with her where she says you just have to keep your bum in in order to look like a man! You can listen to that here. Besides from the bum part she seems very nice and interesting.
Danielle De Niese as Cleopatra is wondrous both as singer and actor/performer. She doesn’t touch me so very much though and I think it’s because she misses one thing I love about the Cleopatra character: that she changes from thoughtless child to full grown woman during the opera. But hey – she is very good and very funny.
William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment work miracles in the pit.
Below is a clip from the end of the opera. Nice “in-love-interaction” between Cleo and Jules. And his costume is very Louis XIV…
The guys who enter towards the end are the dead Tolomeo and Achilla! Seems like they will be haunting poor Sesto.
Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach is one of my guilty pleasures and discovering that one of my favourite directors, Robert Carsen, had staged it made me run to the music library to pick up the dvd.
I say guilty pleasure since this opera is written by one of the big operetta composers and I as a rule dislike operetta. Or maybe I just HATE Johann Strauß!
The first time I saw Hoffmann was in Rome five years ago and I went solely to see one of my heroes, Ruggero Raimondi, in the four baddie parts. The staging and the other singers turned out to be pretty marvellous so it was one of those evenings you don’t forget easily. I own a dvd version with Raimondi. Not the same and not as good, but ok. I mean a staging putting the über hammershark Raimondi in this position has to have some advantages:
Heh…it just never gets old.
Robert Carsen lets the stories take place in a theatre during and after a performance of Don Giovanni (it is in the libretto that Stella is singing in that particular opera..). The Prologue takes place in the bar of the opera house, the story of Olympia is on stage just after curtain fall with all the singers as chorus, Antonia walks the orchestra pit (not the actual pit…) and her ghost mother appears up on stage, Giulietta is seated in the auditorium (not the actual auditorium…) on rows that move like old fashioned theatre waves from side to side. I think it works pretty well with this intricate system of chinese boxes and I like the ever changing reflections and view points. Hoffmann keeps talking about himself and the same love story from different angles and I agree that it is all so colourful and perverse that a theatre is no bad backdrop. Besides it allows Carsen and his stage designer Michael Levine do some wonderfully lavish interiors and costumes. But I’m actually more concerned with the acting which is superb. Neil Shicoff successfully portrays the tormented Hoffmann and manages to change from broken alcoholic into young fool, mature fiancé, depraved lover and back into alcoholic. I am quite amazed by his talent as an actor. As a singer his does very well too in this large part.
Here is a clip in which Shicoff shows he has a comical talent too. It is only part of the song about the dwarf Kleinzach just to let you get an idea. If you want to see the whole aria the Paris Opera has it on their home page with Rolando Villazón. Not bad either but very different.
I love his expression when he reaches for the cigarette with his mouth.
Bryn Terfel plays the villains. It is strange but even though I have been loving this singer for years I have never seen him on stage (not in real life nor on dvd). My only experience with his stage appearance is a concert with him and Cecilia Bartoli from Glyndebourne in which he is either sweet or humorous. So to see him as the bad guys the first time I see him in costume was if not surprising then at least interesting. Of course he does very well both music and acting wise. Oh, how I would love to see him do Mephisto in Gounod’s Faust!
Here is a clip from the beginning of the opera where Lindorf sings about his own ugly personality. I love what they did with the lighting. Just as he sings about his eyes the light penetrates one of his eyeballs from an oblique angle so that it lights up uncannily in the dark. Eyes and gazing are main themes of the opera so this is an extremely elegant feature. I think it is a bit hard to see it on this low quality clip – just another reason for getting the dvd. Then you can also enjoy the light catched by the smoke.
The other singers (most important: Susanne Mentzner, Nicklausse/La Muse; Desirée Rancatore, Olympia; Ruth Ann Swenson, Antonia; Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Giulietta) do fantastically too. The Muse/Nicklausse gets much more music than I’m used to, but this is an opera that comes in different versions as Offenbach died before he could finish it. I don’t think the extra music added much to the story since I prefer a firm focus on Hoffmann and the villains, but never mind, Susanne Mentzner did a great job.
This is one of the best stagings I have seen of the opera, but it loses some energy towards the end. The whole Giulietta act lacks force and the famous Barcarolle was actually quite dull. But watch it for Shicoff alone and then add Terfel and you’re more than all right. This is pie, and Carsen still stands very high in my favour.
It’s back! Praise the Lord! I found the following clip on youtube about six months ago, but then it was removed, and I have missed it terribly. But now it’s back! Take a look, everybody!
Absolutely sublime, isn’t it? Villazon is the best Werther I have ever seen or heard, and the clip has the ability to move me to tears every time I watch it. I love the way he starts off so tenderly, almost introspectively, and then builds up frustration and sorrow in both his acting and his vocals until the climax in each verse. His delivery of the desperate outcry “Helas!” in the second stanza is nothing short of brilliant. He seems almost violent in this instance, one can understand if Charlotte feels his presence as something menacing (as I believe she does), and to me it’s crucial that a portrayer of Werther manages to capture this side of the character, too, and not just his sensitive side. This is the man, after all, who is destructive enough to press a gun to his temple and kill himself. And at Christmas, at that!
I am, however, not here just to praise Villazon’s performance. I’m here to make a plea. You see, the last time the clip was removed from youtube, it said on the page that it was due to violations of rights. And I understand that. I really do. There is such a thing as copyright, and I fully respect that. But then would whoever produced the filming of this staging please arrange for the production to be released on DVD so that I may purchase it and watch it numerous times and cathartically sob my little eyes out? Please? I want so badly to see this Werther in its entirety. And I would tell all my friends to buy it, too. And I would review it here on this blog. And it would be a good review.