What’s the connection between a barge on the River Siene and a convent in Tuscany? Puccini of course – Opera North/Jac van Steen Review

In actual fact there is little that connects a barge and a convent together. And yet, these are the 2 settings for 2 of his operas in Il Trittico (The Triptych). Il Trittico combines 3 very different mini operas of about an hour long each, performed together over one night. Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is a melodrama, Sour Angelica (Sister Angelica) an intense tragedy and finally, Gianni Schicchi (name of main character) is a raucous comedy. The 3 one act operas contrast sharply to one another, but come together to form a whole.

Opera North put on a production of the first 2 in the trio; Il Tabarro and Sour Angelica.

If you’re a fan of Puccini, like me, and have heard some of his greatest hits, like La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot, then you’re in for a surprise. Il Trittico is not full of great sweeping arias and choruses like La Boheme. The music is far for atmospheric, like it’s trying to bring to life the setting of the opera through sound. The reason for this is because Puccini was heavily influenced by Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisende (Pelleas and Mellisende) first performed in 1902, and Debussy’s style in general. Wagner and Verdi operas can get very loud and are full of great tunes and sweeping arias. The musical setting of Pelleas et Mellisende was very different, because it has very little of this. This forced Puccini to think in a different way, bringing us the music of Il Trittico.

That isn’t to say Il Trittico has none of the characteristic Puccini arias, it does. O Mio Babbino Caro, an audience favourite, comes from Gianni Schicchi. Il Tabarro has a few as well, like “I sacchi in groppa e giù la testa a terra”, a rather depressing aria about how men are required to bend their backs in work and that there is no joy in life. Shortly after this comes the central duet (“È ben altro il mio sogno” between the lovers Luigi and Giorgetta, singing about their home town. This is just pure Puccini, and when you get to it, a feeling of “finally!!!” will probably go through your head, as it did me. Credits to Giselle Allen, David Butt Philip and the orchestra who lathered the audience with pure Puccinian joy.

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Tristram Kenton

Sour Angelica is curiously devoid of any big arias, until the very end. Senza Mamma ends the opera, a gut wrenching aria where Sister Angelica pours out her heart upon hearing some devastating news. Anne Sophie Duprels gave the performance of the evening, delivering a heart breaking rendition of the aria. When walking out the theatre I noticed a few people wiping tears from their eyes. I also want to single out Patricia Bardon who was brilliant as the Princess.

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Tristram Kenton

The playing, singing and sets were all brilliant, making for a well polished and mesmerising performance. Brilliant stuff.

14/10/16

Dramatic Inaction – Royal Opera/Pappano Review

Want an opera filled with drama, but where nothing actually happens? Then looks no further.

I’m a huge Wagnerian. I love this opera and have done so since I first heard it. This was the first time, however, that I’d got to see it performed live. With an all-star cast and Pappano at the helm, who conducted one of the first Ring Cycle’s I ever heard, expectations were high.

The cast really lived up to their global reputations: absolutely amazing. I was taken aback by the power of Nina Stemme’s voice, right from the first note she filled the entire House with her rich tone. This was unfortunate for Sarah Connolly, who can’t match Stemme when it comes raw vocal power. Connolly is a brilliant singer, there is no doubt about that. But she couldn’t match the intensity of Stemme’s performance creating this disparity between them, and occasionally being overpowered by the orchestra is never good. But, to be quite honest, there aren’t many singers that can match Stemme and making the orchestra play quieter would compromise on the drama quite a bit. Nonetheless Connolly did a superb job of Brangane’s warning (“Einsam wachend in der nacht“), probably the character’s central ‘aria’ in the entire opera.

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ROH/Clive Barda

The role of Tristan is formidable, making huge demands of any tenor brave enough to take the role on. Stephen Gould’s task was made that much harder knowing his Isolde will be performed by Stemme, a tall order to fill, but he delivered. It was pure joy listening to them throughout the evening, especially in the dreaded Liebesnacht.

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ROH/Clive Barda

Soon after this came the next highlight of the evening, the great Sir John Tomlinson. Tomlinson’s Wotan, conducted by Barenboim at Bayreuth in the early 1990s, is my favourite. I was so excited to hear him sing. However, this once formidable Wagnerian is no longer in his prime and his singing was at times very shaky. Yet, despite this, the power of his voice remains and when he got it right, and there were a few of these moments, the effect was truly thrilling. He reminded me of how Stemme, right at the beginning of the opera, filled the entire house with her incredible voice, Tomlinson was no different. He has recorded CD’s a fair few times, but you really need to hear it live to appreciate it properly.

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ROH/Bill Cooper

Antonio Pappano was brilliant once again, creating magic with the orchestra of the Royal Opera. I’ve heard a few operas and concert pieces conducted by Pappano, and I think it’s probably safe to say this is a conductor at the height of his abilities. What the future holds, who knows. But we can certainly expect further greatness from him.

If there was one aspect that let the entire experience down, then it was the horrid staging. Bare, grey and uninspiring, the set was terribly depressing. I tried to work out why the staging was so minimalist and for the most part, a big grey wall. I couldn’t think of much. But even the dreadful set couldn’t detract from what was otherwise, a wonderfully magical evening. Bloody brilliant.
(11/12/14)

Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759)

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This great composer who wrote some of the most recognisable music for royal occasions in Britain, was actually born in Germany. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and instruments were banned in the house, but a duke convinced his father to give Handel a musical education. Handel composed in Halle, Hamburg and Italy, but his really famous stuff was composed in London. He was employed by the Elector of Hanover in 1710, but then Handel moved to London in 1712. Seeing the opportunities London provided, particularly in composing Italian opera, Handel didn’t want to return to Hanover. As it turned out, he didn’t have to. In 1714 Britain gained a new King, George I, who also just happened to be the Elector of Hanover. In 1727 Handel became a naturalised British citizen allowing him to compose for royal occasions. His music is now a key component in British musical culture.

The two greatest composers of the Baroque period are Bach and Handel. They were born 80 miles and about 4 weeks from one another, and yet they never met. I tend to wonder what they would have said to one another if they had. Both were brought up in the Lutheran tradition, but whereas Bach wrote for the church, Handel was an opera composer who wrote for audiences. That said, Handel went onto write oratorios, much like Bach, but again, these were written for paying audiences.

Handel was a celebrity composer in England, extremely famous and well celebrated during his lifetime in a way Bach never was. Like his contemporary, Handel was heavily influenced by the Italian compositional style which he took and made his own. In London Italian opera was the way to prosperity, so Handel churned out 42 of them. Soon enough, however, opera fell out of fashion and wasn’t making him money anymore. In the end, his opera company, into which he poured so much of his money, went bankrupt. So, forever the pragmatist, he turned his attention to oratorios, writing 29 of those.  Along with that are 120 cantatas, and various other orchestras suites, overtures, concerto grossi and concertos.

 

  1. Zadok the Priest

Don’t know who the performers are unfortunately.

If you’ve seen the UEFA Champions League, then you’ve heard this piece. Not originally written for UEFA – surprise surprise – it was actually written for King George II’s coronation in 1727, the year in which he got his citizenship. Zadok the Priest is one of four coronation anthems, which have been played at every coronation since. This is the first performance I remember YouTubing, and the one I still go back to. Loud, joyful, uplifting and endlessly exciting. Bloody wonderful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jI0YOPoj4t0

 

  1. Water Music

Cond: Herve Niquet. Orch: Le Concert Spirituel.

One of the fist royal commission Handel got was this. King George I wanted music to accompany the royal barge as it sailed down the Thames in 1717. Like Zadok the Priest, which was also performed outside, the Water Music is scored for a huge orchestra to makre sure the sound would carry. Though 50 doesn’t sound like a big number for an orchestra today, back in 1717, it was basically unheard of. 3 separate suites make up the Water Music, with the first one being the most famous. The King liked it so much, he had the musicians play the entire thing 3 times! Admittedly, I had never heard of the Water Music until I listened to the Proms concert linked below. It was the number of instruments, which I thought was really odd, because there’s so many of them, that got my attention. The period instruments they play on, which apart from making an incredible sound very different to modern orchestras, are quite a visual spectacle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q27aV-IiQWo

 

  1. Giulio Cesare

Cond: William Christie. Orch: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Chorus: Glyndebourne Chorus.

Handel was a major opera composer. That’s how he became rich and famous. Of the 42 he wrote, the most famous is this one, based on the story of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It had all the ingredients that made Italian opera so popular at the time; rousing arias, plots, counter plots, the inevitable triumph of the hero and a happy ending. It was a great success and remains one of today’s most performed baroque operas. Whilst there are recordings on YouTube, if you want a version to watch, then go for this one.

https://www.glyndebourneshop.com/handel-georg-frideric-giulio-cesare-2005/

If you just want to listen to it, then go for this one, conducted by Alan Curtis and performed by Il Complesso Barocco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUzP_liWx2g Period instruments are used in both.

 

  1. Minuet in G arr. Wilhelm Kempff

Pianist: Khatia Buniatishvili

I was going to include the Sarabande here, which is far more well known than the Minuet and one of those Handel pieces that everyone knows. But I thought to move away from orchestras and operas for a bit, and include some piano music instead. I’ll include a link to the Sarabande right at the end. This Minuet is the last movement from his Harpsichord Suite in B flat major HWV 434 published in 1733 and probably written before that. The version liked below is not the original, but an arrangement made by the pianist Wilhelm Kempff.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FWQ85cvcNU

For the original skip to 6:52: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FB1atm__LTY. Pianist: Andras Schiff.

 

  1. Handel: Messiah

Cond: Colin Davis. Orch: London Symphony Orchestra. Chorus: Tenebrae Choir. Soloists: Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Mark Padmore (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass).

The one that has the Hallelujah Chorus in it! Handel wrote 29 oratorios, and of them Messiah is the most famous and performed every Christmas across the country. But it wasn’t actually written for Christmas, but for Easter which is when it had its premiere in 1742. Handel’s opera stars often led lives as dramatic as the operas themselves. And with opera falling out of fashion, Handel attracted a lot of criticism. As he approached middle age, and put on weight, satirists and cartoonists depicted him as greedy, fat and selfish. Literally, a pig in a wig.

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The proceeds from the first performance of Messiah were donated to the Foundling Hospital, a charity that looked after orphaned children. Benefit concerts were held annually after that, with Messiah performed at everyone, a tradition that ended in the 1770s. Upon his death, Handel donated a considerable amount of his estate to his chosen charity, the Foundling Hospital. These actions paint a very different picture those pedalled by his critics. The rousing and uplifting Hallelujah Chorus is the part everyone knows, found right in the middle of the work. It may well be the most famous thing he ever wrote. If you don’t fancy listening to the whole thing, and at nearly three hours I don’t blame you, then take a look at these bits.

  • Overture: 3:45
  • Ev’ry valley shall be exalted (tenor): 10:42.
  • For unto us a child is born (chorus): 36:57
  • Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano): 47:54
  • Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried out sorrows (chorus): 1:15:05
  • Hallelujah (chorus) 1:54:38

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuGSOkYWfDQ

 

Sarabande: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44Mx3yg8hoM

Shakespeare and Shiller; Verdi and Beethoven – Halle/Elder Review

The last time I went to the Bridgewater Hall, I was in my first year of college, which was nearly 5 years ago. Coincidentally, Beethoven was on the programme as well. Rather strangely, now that I look back, I never went back to Bridgewater. Because Elder is on the telly every now and again, so when I first got into classical music, it was his face that I saw in documentaries. He’s also one of Britain’s most prominent conductors, who restored the Halle back to its former glory making it one of the UK’s best orchestras today. So I’m a bit surprised I didn’t go to Manchester. Missed opportunity there.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is not just my favourite symphony, but my favourite piece of classical music. But before that, opening the concert, were scenes from Verdi’s opera Macbeth, which happens to be one of my favourite Verdi operas. So, all in all, I was pretty psyched.

Elder started by conducting the prelude, and I was nearly in tears about 60 seconds. The orchestra was scaled back a little, with not as many players as you would have for an opera performance. And yet, I was really taken aback by the power they released in the opening. Macbeth’s soliloquy and duet with Lady Macbeth followed from Act 1 (“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”), sang by Scott Hendricks and Beatrice Uria-Monzon. This was followed by Macbeth’s last cantabile from Act 4 (“Pieta, rispetto, amore”) and finally, the famous sleepwalking scene by Lady Macbeth (“Yet, here’s a spot”). Both soloists were great, but it was Scott Hendricks that really impressed.

 

Then, the 9th.

 

I cried 3 times during this performance, twice in the first movement. The opening felt like a huge unrelenting thing that would not give up, a constant hammering of Beethoven. I don’t know if that’s what composer intended, but it was exhilarating nonetheless. I remember thinking, “this is why I love Beethoven”. The second and third movements were incredible also. It’s quite incredible how different all four movements are from one another. That realisation is one of the things that really stood out for me.

The choir’s entrance in the final movement was a bit underwhelming to be honest. A feeling of “oh dear” went through my head, but it was replaced with “holy crap I was wrong” just as soon as it appeared. The choir recovered almost immediately and the forceful power of their singing took the performance to the new level Beethoven intended. The soloists were great as well, but it’s the choir that deserves a great chunk of the praise. Hats off to their director Matthew Hamilton.

This wasn’t what you’d call a perfect performance. Bridgewater is really reverberant, which means sometimes the detail can be lost if a performance is too fast. This became a problem for the soloists who were at times just a little drowned out by the orchestra. But I do stress only a little because here I’m nitpicking. I was sitting on the right near the front of the hall, which makes me wonder what people sitting at the back or high up in the galleries thought. Reducing the tempo can lead to some of the drama being lost and everything feeling a bit sluggish.

But, in the end I really didn’t care. The performance was tear jerkingly great and a fabulous start to the Halle’s concert season.  Wonderful stuff and I look forward to coming back soon.

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