Better Call “Saul”

handel blingee
I don’t remember when or why I made this to illustrate Handel’s English oratorio period but it is a thing I did. At some point. For some reason. ?

Yesterday I finally checked out Boston’s famed early music scene by going to the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of Handel’s Saul in Symphony Hall. I sat behind a gentleman with a score and in front of another gentleman who beforehand mansplained the oratorio by invoking Malcolm Gladwell and then during proceeded to sing along at various points in Act 1.* So I guess I don’t know quite what to make of Boston early music audiences yet.

Anyway. Proper historically informed orchestras are as rare as hen’s teeth in the US and I was happy to hear a very credible one. The Handel and Haydn orchestra has a rather glassy, close to vibrato-free sound (which you might think is a given but among current groups really is not). The winds are quite accurate and, despite there being quite a few of them in this piece, not too loud. Most importantly, it’s a real orchestra that doesn’t sound like a pickup group. Nor did the smallish but substantial-sounding chorus, whose sound blended very nicely.

Conductor and music director Harry Christophers’s priority seemed to be sheer tonal beauty. Sometimes he would draw out a phrase to luxuriate, ridiculous length (most obviously the sigh motive on “virtue” in Jonathan’s first air). Tempos tended toward the slower side side. Choruses were beautifully layered and seemed to stop time. While Saul has a lot of beautifully mournful music, particularly around the last half hour (from the famous “Dead March” on), it’s also a very dramatic piece with madness, love, etc., and frequently receives full staging, for example in this Glyndebourne production last summer.

But operatic oratorio wasn’t on the menu here. I must admit that I found Christophers’s placid approach rather bland and at times even boring. There wasn’t much dynamic variation or even differentiation of articulation. Despite a ton of energetic gestures from the concertmaster rhythmic life was often lacking, and I missed the kinds of accents and momentum you can get in this music. There are rage arias here (Saul in particular), a brief appearance by a witch in Act 3, and heroic stuff too, but everything bubbled along at a medium temperature. OK, I’m one of those people who likes René Jacobs, which means I’m a glutton for sforzandos, weird tempo changes, and talkative continuos, and in comparison this Saul was very plain.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is Christophers conducting “Let the bright Seraphim” from Handel’s Samson (I believe the soprano is Lynne Dawson).

In comparison, here is another recording of the same piece, this one sung by Karina Gauvin and conducted by Alexander Weimann.

Christophers and Dawson are very pretty and tidy, but to me, Gauvin and Weimann are sparkier, more alive, and way more interesting. Christophers’s school of Handel certainly has a long tradition, most particularly in the UK (from which almost the entire cast of this performance hailed), but as an opera person I gravitate towards a more operatic approach.

Based on audience response, Iestyn Davies as David stole the show. His countertenor is of the ethereal, angelic type (like the orchestra, very little vibrato), and while David is a heroic character Handel gives him a lot of lyrical music. Davies’s voice has wonderful presence in Symphony Hall: light and clear but absolutely filling the space like none of the rest of the cast.  This puts him in tune with Christophers, but he also has a sense of character and drama that supplied some of what was otherwise lacking–perhaps he got it from being in that Glyndebourne staging I mentioned above.

I also liked Joélle Harvey’s Michal, sung with a very beautiful, limpid tone. She’s a very communicative, earnest singer, though her diction doesn’t always quite back her up. She and Davies blended excellently in their duets. Elizabeth Atherton’s Merab was certainly a contrast to Harvey, but her lean soprano often sounded thin and tight. She improved over the course of the performance, though. As Saul, Jonathan Best sounded appropriately senior and authoritative, but didn’t seem to have the charisma befitting a title character nor the facility to carry off all the coloratura. Finally, Robert Murray was a pleasant Jonathan.

This was a totally respectable, sometimes even excellent performance that rarely was fully absorbing. Maybe this is what happens when you go to see Handel after a lot of Elektra but I could have used a little more blood.

*I never found out if he sang for the rest because I moved during intermission.

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He came, he saw, he sang a da capo aria: Giulio Cesare at the Met

Put on your dancing shoes and/or take off your shirt, there’s a new David McVicar production in town. I use “new” advisedly, since this Giulio Cesare was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2005. But it’s still a clever and often delightful piece of work, and as Met Handel goes it’s pretty convincing. The cast is a little patchy, but it’s still a good time.

Handel, Giulio Cesare. Met Opera, 4/12/2013. Sort of new production directed by David McVicar, conducted by Harry Bicket with Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra), David Daniels (Cesare), Alice Coote (Sesto), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Patricia Baron (Cornelia)

It seems tiresome to recount the details of this production, since it has already been out on DVD for so long and been seen in multiple opera houses, so I’ll be brief: it casts Caesar’s Romans as late-nineteenth century British imperialists and the Egyptians as Indians. The set shows traces of eighteenth-century design (including an old school wave machine) and also the more recent phenomenon of Bollywood. It sets up the characters well–Sesto and Cornelia are identified by their very British looks as Romans, something that some productions don’t make very clear–and it’s pretty entertaining, though rarely asks to be taken seriously or complicate this political construction any further than I’ve already explained it. You can take a more serious approach and have it work (for example I like this Francisco Negrin production), but the comic tone is fine with me too, it fits the artifice of the genre.

You do have to have some tolerance for cutesiness, though. There are vaguely Mountie-looking British soldiers periodically bopping on the beat, some groaners (Cleo puts out her cigarette in Pompey’s urn), and a lot of dancing. If you’ve seen McVicar in goofy mode before (we haven’t at the Met, really–his Trovatore and Bolena and Maria Stuarda are all dully earnest) you know what I mean. I think he’s at his best at this kind of self-conscious genre stuff–his Faust is the only production of that opera I’ve seen that I think really works as theater–and when he tries to be Important he tends to be respectable but boring. This production succeeds in making Baroque opera fun and accessible to a far greater degree than last year’s Enchanted Island. The story moves along, there is enough visual splendor (notably colorful drapery and a very sparkly outfit for Cleo’s “V’adoro pupille”), and the da capos are mostly staged through, giving them a continuous narrative flow. (They are, also, there! Text-wise, I have no objections at all, and the ornamentation is fine.)


That being said, I think it probably worked better at Glyndebourne. The Met stage is far, far bigger, and the set is plopped in a small portion of the middle of it. The space narrower than the Met’s full width, but appears to be using most of its depth, meaning the wave machine is around as far away as the Hudson and the whole thing looks like a hallway. The setting is also obviously more personal for a British audience (particularly aristocratic Glyndebourne) than an American one, though I hope most everyone at the Met understood what was going on. (Some of them had never heard a countertenor before, though. Ahem.)

Natalie Dessay was in far better voice for this performance than she was at last year’s Traviata, but I still don’t think this is quite her role or her production. Her voice sounds flimsy, with very little core or bite, and while she can act cutesy in a gamine sort of way, this production was intended for a Cleopatra far brasher and brassier and, well, Danielle DeNiese isn’t a great singer but she sold this production on the DVD. Dessay does it all OK but doesn’t own it in the same way. When Cleo became down on her luck partway through Act 2, however, Dessay seemed to come to life, suddenly becoming a much more interesting actress and singing a spectacular “Se pièta” that was actually very moving.

I’m sorry to say that David Daniels also is sounding rather worse than he did in earlier years, though he is an excellent musician and sometimes things clicked. His Cesare was effectively acted if not particularly charismatic or insightful, and sang unevenly. “Presto omai” was kind of hollow and hooting, as was some of “Va tacito” “Se in fiorito ameno prato” (in which David Chan was an absolutely superb violin soloist). The fast arias like “Quel torrente” went very, very fast, where Daniels’s coloratura still works well but he lost some volume and sometimes needs extra breaths. He also has a way of swaying back and forth when singing coloratura that made me want Peter Sellars to swoop in and give him a finicky prop to manipulate while singing.

The vocal star of the evening, as far as I’m concerned, was Alice Coote as Sesto, whose viola-toned mezzo sounded firm and solid throughout, including a beautifully spun-out, quite slow “Cara speme.” Sesto might not be a character who gets a lot of theatrical variety, but she did the shell-shocked thing well. As Sesto’s mother Cornelia, Patricia Bardon had a unique, vinegary sort of tone that doesn’t appeal to me very much, but it is unique. As Tolomeo, countertenor Christophe Dumaux had a more beautiful tone and more variety than Daniels, including some impressive high notes in “L’empio, sleale.” He also managed some impressive feats of athleticism that vaguely made me wonder if countertenors at French music schools need to often defend their machismo.

Harry Bicket seems to be the Met’s Handel conductor of choice, and you can see why: he makes it still sound like Handel, but also manages to fill up the house to a reasonable degree. It’s not terribly inventive leadership but he does a very tricky job smoothly. It’s also great to hear the theorbo/lute/guitar in the pit (Dan Swenberg, who also played Eliogabalo). The supporting characters I can’t be too enthusiastic about: Rachid Ben Abdeslam sounded almost voiceless and mugged as Nireno in a fey characterization that McVicar and he should have thrown out long before 2005. Guido Loconsolo was a unagile and growly Achilla, but may just have been miscast.

It’s a shame that the Met couldn’t put on a fresher production, but it’s nice to finally see some more spirited work from McVicar here, vintage or not. Baroque lovers should be relatively satisfied (probably close to as much as we can expect of Handel performed by a company unsuited to it in many ways), and this production is fun enough that it might even make some new ones. Who will hopefully write the Met demanding new productions of Ariodante or something. Well, maybe not, and if they did I doubt anyone would listen, but a girl can dream.

 Further dates here.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.






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Serse: Stefan Herheim goes for baroque

Like every utterance of “Frau Blücher!” in Young Frankenstein makes a distant horse neigh, the pastoral piping of recorders in Stefan Herheim’s Serse has the power to summon animals, in this case a small and jolly herd of dancing sheep. Elsewhere we get slightly creaky stage machinery, big shiny costumes, and some jokes that can only be described as corny (or, um, German). It’s good fun, and for what you expect out of this director and this opera house, mild-mannered madness indeed.

Handel, Serse. Komische Oper Berlin, 6/15/2012. German translation by Eberhard Schmidt adapted by Stefan Herheim. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Vollm, lights by Franck Even. Conducted by Konrad Junghaenel with Stella Doufexis (Serse/Xerxes), Karolina Gumos (Arsamenes), Brigitte Geller (Romilda), Julia Giebel (Atalanta), Dimitry Ivanshchenko (Ariodates), Hagen Matzeit (Elviro).

See more photos at the end of this post.
Maybe Stefan Herheim is the opposite of Robert Lepage.
Lepage limits himself to literal representation; Herheim dissolves the work as
we know it into a sea of symbolism, references and shifting time frames and
perspectives. While this dreaminess comes naturally to Parsifal and Rusalka,
Herheim obviously recognizes that Handelian opera rests on the firmer ground of
dramatic formula. The fantasies of our collective unconscious are replaced by
the more readily explained magic of stage illusion.
This is yet another metatheatrical, theater-in-a-theater
production, a device that has been done to death over the past few years. The
setting is an eighteenth-century theater populated by a troupe of opera singers
very like those of Handel’s premiere. As in David McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the miniature
theater onstage rotates to reveal itself in profile and the backstage action in
the rear. Some of the opera’s action takes place onstage and some off.  The stage features the expected
period-appropriate flat scenery of trees and columns, stormy painted waves,
drops, and a beautiful perspective view of a London street. The libretto never
puts us in London, of course, but here the boundaries between life and art are porous.
Herheim wisely does not attempt to establish two separate sets of
characters, and the drama flits on and offstage freely. Serse is a divo,
Romilda the diva, Atalanta her jealous rival attempting to usurp her position,
and so on. (Romilda and Atalanta appear as doubles and for a shorter period
Arsamene and Serse, which is quite confusing. The point is that in the plot’s love triangles they want to take each others’
places.) That the singers’ onstage personae are the same as their offstage ones
is the entire point: the hoary mechanics and outsized passions of the plot find
their analogue in the machinery and colorful personalities of the world of the
theater. The opera is determined by the social environment that produced it. (This is what Herheim meant by describing the opera as a Muppet show–everyone has their particular role to fulfill onstage and off.)
It’s a great point.
What annoys me about these lampshade-hanging stagings (most egregiously Mary
Zimmerman’s Met Sonnambula ) is their pointed
winking that indicates the drama is so ridiculous it can only be portrayed as
something self-consciously fake, that the revelation of the illusion is an
apology for its implausibility. Herheim instead shows why we love opera: it’s
our life, only with fancy costumes and music. Dressing up is awesome (also sometimes tacky, ridiculous, and immobilizing, but don’t we love the shiny crap anyway), but the
emotional situations are real, and our own.
Handel never tries to create a “Persian” (the opera’s
nominal setting) tone, and for all his exploitation of ornate
eighteenth-century gesture and image (also switching between German and Italian–Italian taking place only “onstage” in the loftiest of the music) Herheim is also decidedly
twenty-first-century. Just as the characters never leave their
eighteenth-century selves, the singers never leave their present-day ones either,
as Herheim somewhat heavy-handedly reveals at the production’s conclusion by
revealing the chorus in contemporary dress.
There are some spectacular aria stagings that are both
inventive and revealing of eighteenth-century culture: I particularly liked the
succession of weaponry brought by Atalanta to Serse as he proclaims his hatred
of Romilda (a knife, a gun, a poisonous snake, a teeny tiny cannon that hilariously breaks the backdrop, and finally
a crossbow that even more hilariously downs a small plaster cherub from the rafters). In one of the big “I want it” arias, Serse’s name gets
spelled out in lights and then reversed into, yes, the German is Xerxes so figure out what that is backwards for yourself. Only at one point does the production hint at a darker
side, when Atalanta’s adoring fans begin to get a bit too close for comfort. It’s
not quite historical—the more spectacular visuals are far more Versailles than
London—but I think the homework has been done. Amastre may be the least
convincing cross-dresser ever, but even if Herheim doesn’t actually have any
castrati the gender bending of this era is never far from his mind (Elviro’s
flower-seller getup is apparently a My
Fair Lady
tribute). The fourth wall is broken and the orchestra gets to
join in on the action. Sometimes the singers address the audience with a disarmingly
self-conscious directness. Winton Dean would entreat us to remember that Serse is a sophisticated comedy and not
a low farce, but I laughed at Serse humping his favorite tree and Dean can stuff
it, opera has far too much good taste going around as it is. (If you whine that
present-day opera is as a rule not classy enough, I suggest you take up
collecting stamps.)
But switching between offstage and on requires some
compromises. The drama feels episodic from one big set piece aria to the next, the
stakes are never high and the dramatic arc is, well, lacking. The main plot
line is shifted into the background, so how valuable is that which displaces
it? Herheim has something to say about baroque opera, but he doesn’t have much
particular to Serse, and this staging
with small alterations could be applied to basically any moderately comic
eighteenth-century opera. I know that’s kind of the point but I have to wonder
if it’s one that lasts for three and a quarter hours of performance. (Herheim not dense enough? I cannot believe I am typing this. Really, this was very uncharacteristic work.)
If Herheim is always asking us to take another step back and
question our perspectives and motivations, that’s what I’m going to do with his
production. I like his message, but the performance of eighteenth-century
formulas in quotation marks has become a cliché in itself. As Herheim insists,
these conventions might work again and again, but I’m not sure if their modern unmasking
via self-conscious imitation maintains the same novelty value when repeated ad
infinitum. If you have any familiarity with the playbook of, say, the early
work of Peter Sellars, Nicholas Hytner’s Serse,
David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare (and Adriana, I suppose, whose setting is baroque)
and even the dread Enchanted Island, you’ve
seen a lot of this before. The rhythmic shaking on the coloratura, the chorus
of sea creatures, the cutout ships, the self-conscious gesture, none of this is
new. For all Herheim’s spirit and joy—for execution  I would rank this production at the very highest
level, it’s only that Herheim sets very high standards with regard to Konzept— and always exceptional musicality,
I have to say I would prefer Herheim to go nuts and expected something a little more fresh. Can we stop
the theater in theater thing now, please?
As usual with Herheim, the cast is dynamic and fully present
at every moment. Stella Doufexis’s Serse is hilarious, toothily and awkwardly
grinning at every opportunity and, for all the bluster not in command of
anything impressive. Her clarinet-toned mezzo sounded a little windy in “Ombra
mai fu” (way to open with the opera’s greatest hit), but warmed up to sound
clear and precise on each note, though she was drowned out a few times during “Crude
furie.” Karolina Gumos as Arsamenes commanded a warmer, rounder sound, probably
my favorite of the cast, and her “Si, la voglio” (sorry, not sure what the
German incipit was) showed excellent coloratura. Brigitte Geller was sweet and
lyric as Romilda though a little brittle at the top of her range. Julia Giebel
was the first Atalanta I didn’t find insufferably annoying, which is something,
and sounded good too. Katarina Bradic as Amastre couldn’t really boom at the
bottom of her range, but she has a lovely mahogany tone and musicality. Hagen
Matzeit as Elviro was announced as ill, which is why I suppose we were deprived
of his Bacchus aria, a pity, otherwise Sprechstimme was fine for this comic role.
Dimitry Ivashchenko was an exemplary Ariodates.
The orchestra was modern but the continuo period and
conductor Konrad Junghaenel had clearly coaxed some period practice into the
modern players. The playing was crisp and precise but light and didn’t use too
much vibrato. Ensemble was excellent both within the orchestra and through the
playful interchange between orchestra and players, and the continuo included a
theorbo and a baroque harp. Eberhard Schmidt’s German translation had been
given an “Einrichtung” by Herheim and was so clear and straightforward that
even I could understand almost all of it, though sometimes it put a few too
many syllables in where the Italian had required far fewer.
It’s a totally fun evening out, but maybe not quite what you
expect from Herheim, perhaps bearing a hint of baroque dilettantism (it is, in
fact, his first second? baroque opera). But if more baroque productions, and more of
these metathetrical things, had this kind of loving spirit, I’d be happy. (I
might be even happier if there weren’t so many metatheatrical things, though?)
Photos copyright Komische Oper.

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Enchanted Island: No man or woman is a…

 Contrary to anything you may have read, the Met’s The Enchanted Island pasticcio does not feature a cameo by a wisecracking René Pape as the Skipper.* But it’s got just about everything else. Everything, that is, except a reason for us to care. An all-star cast belts out top Baroque tunes in a beautifully designed production, but thanks to Jeremy Sams’s insipid, self-indulgent libretto, most of it ends up being much ado about nothing. Why can’t we have actual Baroque opera instead?

Various, The Enchanted Island. World premiere pasticcio, Met Opera, 12/31/2011. Assembled by Jeremy Sams, conducted by William Christie, directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, sets by Crouch, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Brian MacDevitt. With David Daniels (Prospero), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), Danielle De Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), Elliot Madore (Lysander), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand).

The Enchanted Island has hitched itself to the eighteenth century pasticcio tradition, a conglomeration of old music set to a new story. But it’s a 21st-century creation through and through, as I think its creators would readily acknowledge.** Jeremy Sams is responsible for the libretto. In a rewrite of The Tempest, Prospero is situated on the titular island (which makes whooshing noises identical to the one on Lost) and must confront the challenges of age, Ariel, and his lady-rival Sycorax (who is already dead in the Shakespeare). But rather than the intended Ferdinand, the honeymooning four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wash up instead. While Prospero’s responsibilities to the island and Ariel seem to be the central plot problem, most of the work’s time is spent with these four, who along with Miranda and Caliban go about doing what Shakespearean lovers do best: fall in love with the wrong people.

The music selection (here is a list) has some nice pieces and the sung texts are relatively smooth, but the shifts between the eight different composers selected can be rocky. Handel dominates, but the bits of French stuff harmonize poorly, and some of the Vivaldi sticks out as well. Many da capo arias’ B and A’ sections have been lost at sea, and some (presumably newly-composed) recit is pretty stylistically wonky (and I’m not sure where all the chamber-scored bits and accompagnato came from). More severe is the feeling that much of the music was chosen largely at random and shoehorned into the plot just as forcibly as the Midsummer lovers were. Some transpositions of duets and arias up and down octaves are quite peculiar (most strangely Vivaldi’s coloraturific “Dopo un’orrida procella” given to a baritone Lysander and “Arise ye subterranean winds” given to a soprano Ariel), and the expression doesn’t always line up either. Baroque music often was retexted back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that any sentiment goes.

Old story, old music–it’s less a story than a simulacrum of a story, the pale imitation of something we’ve all seen done before, and better. It unfolds bumpily and shapelessly, aided by the magical character’s spells in the service of a librettist who seems to think himself exceptionally clever. Yet there’s little genuine wit on display, and even less adult emotion, and sincerity, nor a clear emotional trajectory. These are all things you can find Baroque opera, but in the pastiche-ing they’ve been misplaced.

This was all the more dispiriting because the production is simply gorgeous, with lush costumes and projection scenery on a screen behind an elaborate second proscenium. (There are many more photos at the bottom of this post.) The visual style is original and whimsical and poetic and unfortunately rarely tries to upstage the action. Only a few Disney-ish moments of sparkle seem cheesy. The other effects are lovely, though I wish the rest of the audience hadn’t started applauding over the music when the ship sank.

But the island is disenchanted. We’re told that the superficiality proudly espoused by this work constitutes “fun.” We don’t have to wonder why Prospero is obsessed with making everyone move piles of wood because they’ve left that weird bit out! But, three-quarters of the way through Act 1 I found myself, probably aided by a certain degree of sleep deprivation, in the throes of an existential crisis that had been building up all season. If Enchanted Island was a failure, an attempt at a fun romp that ended up sort of tangled, then too bad, maybe the next one will work. But what if it was, on its terms, a success? What if this is our fun now? What if now all we desire of opera is this exquisitely crafted nothing, smug and regressed to childhood and utterly irrelevant to anything that makes us human? Why are we creating “art” that in many ways isn’t art at all? Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn’t be asking all these damn rhetorical questions.

Two things happened that while not up to salvaging the evening at least made me stop contemplating das Ende. The first was the biggest coup de theatre of the production, the entrance of Placido Domingo as Neptune. He arrives on a seashell flanked by ranks of mermaids to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” robed and wearing a gigantic beard. It’s an image of sufficient outrageousness and novelty as to overpower the fact that his subsequent scene does not advance the plot and our tenor appeared to have not looked at his music ahead of time, kept getting behind Christie, and didn’t know the words (compounded by the juxtaposition of Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi in close quarters, one of the evening’s least felicitous moments of pastichery). The staging had finally upstaged the far inferior text with sheer audacity.

The second moment was in the second act and can be described as Caliban’s coming of age, when Helena leaves him for her recovered Demetrius. With his mother Sycorax’s revival, Caliban’s status in the plot is kind of unclear. Also he’s a monster in KISS tribute makeup. But the sting of his rejection is the most comprehensible emotion we’ve seen yet and Luca Pisaroni played him with such sweetness and honesty that I found myself, for the first time, in a real story. Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax, to this point a scenery-chewing caricature, turns human and three-dimensional. The following masque-style dream sequence, set to French music, has a plot that seems to be misplaced from the Great Courtesans of History ballet excised from November’s Faust and features some strangely aerobic choreography from Graciela Daniele, but the change of pace is welcome–more dance would have been great. Unfortunately Caliban is more or less dropped as a character after this.

Such is one’s fate in a work whose cast is the operatic equivalent of Love, Actually so prepare for a list discussing the singers. We’ve already covered Placido, and Pisaroni, who sings as well and expressively as he acts, and DiDonato, whose coloratura is great and stage presence significant but whose singing has this kind of constant tension that keeps her sound edgy and tightly wound, including in some places where that isn’t ideal. Danielle De Niese managed to make the very annoying Ariel not that irritating, though he (Ariel) bears the brunt of the plot mechanics. She (De Niese) engaged in some approximatura at inadvisably fast tempos in Act 1 but carried off the popular Vivaldi showpiece “Agitata da due venti” surprisingly well–though, it must be said, the aria is cut down to only its first section.

The most beautiful tones of the evening were from the lyric sopranos Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Layla Claire as Helena, both of whom I hope I will be hearing lots more of in roles where they can develop characters. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was great in “Where shall I fly” from Hercules, I mean here she was Hermia. David Daniels was in the nominally central role of Prospero but did not make a strong impression and sounded thin and effortful, though his singing is musical. Stronger was the powerful countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the Fortinbras-like role of Ferdinand, who made the most of his one aria and duet. As Demetrius and Lysander, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore were fine but made less of an impression than the women.

William Christie must, for better or worse, must bear much responsibility for this affair as well. As for his conducting, it was good. It was, as one would expect, very fast. This had a much less percussive and crisp effect with the Met’s modern orchestra than it would have with a historical practice one, and sometimes the singers were challenged. Still, he knows the style and got the orchestra sounding more Baroque than I would have expected. The instrumentation was small but not so small as to sound dinky.

But the entire thing left a bitter taste, a dumbed- and watered-down evening that is for the most part not actually that fun. I suspect this was a one-off experiment, and it’s not one I would be eager to repeat. Can we give a real Baroque opera a shot next time, please?

*It also lacks a cameo by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt crying “Ze plane! Ze plane!”
**See also Text and Smacked, I mean, Text and Act.

More photos:



Photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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Rodelinda: Another jailbreak

Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought in a crew he presumably could trust for his new Theater an der Wien Rodelinda. That would be his son Philipp, who did the directional honors with a slightly amateurish but mostly compelling modernized production of this dark opera. Harnoncourt the elder and his orchestra supplied most of the glamor of the evening, though with resident Baroque sex symbols Malena Ernman and Danielle De Niese in the cast there was plenty of undressing onstage as well, this being modern and all. It all turns out somewhat better than it may deserve to.

Handel, Rodelinda. Theater an der Wien, 3/22/2011. New production by Philipp Harnoncourt, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concentus Musicus Wien and Danielle De Niese (Rodelinda), Bejun Mehta (Bertarido), Kurt Streit (Grimoaldo), Konstantin Wolff (Garibaldo), Malena Ernman (Eduige), Matthias Rexroth (Unulfo).

This post marks a new way of writing for me, which I hope y’all will like. For this performance I’ve gone official! If you go here, you can read my more-concise-than-usual review on the excellent classical music website Bachtrack. It says this, among other things:

Philipp Harnoncourt eschews the jokey post-modern antics of many Handel productions in favor of a realistic, deadly serious approach. The entire production takes place around a grim cement apartment block whose exact geographic location is never clear. The multi-level set revolves to reveal different locations and personalities, from the thugs’ hangout to teenagers and children, showing more than one group at once… But Harnoncourt’s creativity can get the best of him, and sometimes the multiple mini-dramas unfolding at once obscure the narrative thrust and emotional arc of the plot…Yet in a broad sense the production is successful, and the drama gripping.

Go read the rest! (And look around this interesting website!) But here I shall elaborate on a few points. I think this format may free me from my unfortunate compulsion to be comprehensive.

This production gave off a slightly unfinished air at times, in need of a good editor who would cut the extraneous bits. There’s so much going on that has only tangential relation to the plot. You suspect the director fears a vacuum and doesn’t trust himself or the material. And some of the staging itself wasn’t convincingly done, occasionally slipping into unintentional comedy, most notably when Grimoaldo ambushes Rodelinda and Bertarido by popping out of a wardrobe. You maybe could play Rodelinda as a black comedy, but that’s not what this production did. In fact, its unending bleakness was rather exhausting, visually monotonous and just kind of drab, though ultimately fitting for the opera. It’s a gloomy piece.

This was maybe the inverse of the Staatsoper’s Alcina from last November. There, I thought the big picture was severely lacking but the aria-level Personenregie was pretty good. Here, the big picture was right, but on the detailed level things were amiss. Some arias were good: I particularly liked the staging of Rodelinda’s “Se’l mio duol non è si forte,” in which she torturously walks up and down a staircase. The last act was definitely the strongest. This is the point when many productions go downhill, so that suggests that the basic concept is good. Both productions were, on the whole, more or less successful, but neither quite ideal.

I have to say I don’t quite get the immense buzz around Malena Ernman. I know it probably has to do with looks and her spectacularly Europop Eurovision song (DeNiese definitely has her looks to thank as well), but while she’s perfectly fine I just don’t hear her as anything particularly special. She can sing low notes, but the tone is dull and lacks resonance. De Niese, for her part, is really compelling in person and knows how to give a smart performance, but her coloratura was surprisingly sloppy and I found her pop-influenced phrasing just infuriating. The cut of most of one of her arias (“Morra, si”) was musically awkward, and while I don’t know why it was cut I have to wonder if her singing had something to do with it–it’s not an easy aria, with a lot of long exposed runs. And in “Spietati, io vi giurai,” she copied Dorothea Röschmann’s ornamentations–only an octave lower!

But the orchestra is really great and you should go see it for them. And Bejun Mehta, who is spectacular (as I say in the full review above).

I’ll still be blogging here in the regular manner as well, but am going to be working with this two-part format more as well, we’ll see how it all works out.

Photos copyright Werner Kmetitisch

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Berenice: Handel’s other Egyptian queen

Actually, make that Handel’s other other Egyptian queen, because while Cleo is definitely No. 1, I think sort-of queen Seleuce in Tolomeo is more popular than Berenice. Alan Curtis recorded this obscure lady in 2010 on Virgin Classics, and brought his Il complesso barocco and most of the same singers to the Theater an der Wien for a concert performance last night. It’s not quite top-drawer Handel, but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly with a performance this good.

My Week of Living 18th Century continues.

Handel, Berenice. Concert performance in the Theater an der Wien, 1/27/2011. Il complesso barocco conducted by Alan Curtis with Klara Ek (Berenice), Ingela Bohlin (Alessandro), Milena Storti (Selene), Franco Fabioli (Demetrio), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arsace), Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani (Fabio), Johannes Weisser (Aristobolo)

I didn’t do my homework and picked up a last-minute ticket 15 minutes before the show, sliding into my seat with only a few minutes to spare. Meaning, no time to read the plot summary. I think this may be the first time I have not even attempted to follow the plot of an opera, but to be honest it seemed complicated and not that compelling, so I just decided it was going to be Aria Night. With concert Handel, that works. And while none of the singers quite reached the lofty heights of Karina Gauvin and Iestyn Davies in last October’s Curtis Tolomeo, also at the Theater an der Wien (didn’t blog about it, sorry), they were first-rate.

Berenice dates from 1737, prime time for Handel creatively speaking (though personally not such a great year for him, with financial and health problems), but it was a flop and only ran for four performances. It’s quality stuff, but has an unusual number of smaller arias (also an unusual number of very nice duets). There are some pleasant and unusual numbers, but not many show-stoppers, and the seven roles of close to equal importance mean that star opportunities are sparse. The title character is indeed the lead, but it’s not the most thankful of Handel diva roles. She seems to be a “Da tempeste” and an “Ah! mio cor” short. However, Swedish soprano Klara Ek made the most of what there was, singing with technical accomplishment and bright, brilliant, sometimes hard-edged tone. Her biggest aria, “Chi’ t’intende” is certainly unusual in form, with many tempo changes and a complex oboe obligato part (wonderfully played by Vinciane Baudhuin), but it’s still not “Scherza infida” in psychological depth. Ek also brought a vivid characterization of a proud queen, and her animated facial expressions and occasionally extravagant gestures show her potential to develop into a Cult Early Music Diva. Kermes of the Future?

Fellow Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin was an excellent contrast as Alessandro. She has a very light and girly voice for a castrato role, but her warm, liquid, sweet singing was some of the prettiest of the evening. What is it with the preponderance of fantastic Swedish early music singers? (I am also including Ann Hallenberg from Sunday’s Ariosti extravaganza, and Anne Sofie von Otter from the Rameau of last week.) I already wanted to move to Sweden, but now I want to even more.

Countertenor Franco Fagioli doesn’t have a very even or rich voice, sometimes sounding thin, but makes up for it with extraordinary range and agility. His “Guerra e pace, Egizia terra” was the showpiece of the evening. As Fabio, magnificiently named tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani was accurate and pleasant, and the only snappy dresser in a somewhat disheveled cast. Mary-Ellen Nesi showed a powerful and beautiful low mezzo as Arsace, and Johannes Weisser, a holdover from last Sunday’s Ariosti, again sounded unfocused, though he acted well.

Mezzo Milena Storti was a very late replacement for the ill Romina Bassi in the role of Selene, and according to the preshow announcement received the score at three in the morning that day, learning it overnight. She has a round, dark voice and sang with impressive confidence, including great use of the text in recits and some playful moments in the arias, and was deservedly warmly received by the audience.

The baddest mustache in Baroque conducting, Alan Curtis, and his orchestra Il complesso barocco were the real highlight of the evening. They know this style inside and out, and play with easy, unexaggerated grace and energy, and perfect balance and textual transparency. I’ve never understood those who find Handel boring, but with playing with this kind of nuance and variety in character, well, I understand less.

Here’s this group’s CD of this opera again. If you’re in the market for any Handel opera recordings, I highly recommend Curtis’s recordings as a general policy for their excellent musicianship, stylistic accuracy, and animated drama.

Also, about that student Gluck performance of the other night, Il Parnaso confuso, at Schloss Schönbrunn: I went, I didn’t like, and I have no desire to beat up students, so that’s it. Except I wish to note that electronic composition and Gluck really don’t mix that well, in my opinion.

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Alcina: Bewitched but unbothered

ANJA HARTEROS.  She’s the reason why you should see this Alcina.  The Wiener Staatsoper’s Baroque experiment is good enough, but only the resplendent Harteros and the fab Les Musiciens de Louvre in the pit elevate it above the blandly pretty.  Adrian Noble’s production is incoherent, but all told not really that bad.  The whole of this one is surprisingly better than most of its parts.  I think we can mostly credit Handel and Harteros for that.

Handel, Alcina.  Wiener Staatsoper, 14/11/10.  New production premiere directed by Adrian Noble with sets and costumes by Anthony Ward, lights by Jean Kalman, choreography by Sue Lefton.  Les Musiciens de Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski  with Anja Harteros (Alcina), Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggiero), Veronica Cangemi (Morgana), Kristina Hammarström (Bradamante), Shintaro Nakajima (Oberto), Benjamin Bruns (Oronte), Adam Plachetka (Melisso).

Based on Adrian Noble’s pre-premiere ramblings, I expected his production to be rather convoluted.  It is not.  It has a frame narrative: the drama of Alcina is being performed by 18th-century British aristocrats for their, heh, peers.   But the 18th-century characters do not have identities separate from their characters in Alcina, so it never gets very complicated.  (Or interesting.  However, considering how tricky these theater-in-theater productions are to pull off, maybe it’s best left half-baked.)  All the concept means is that we are in an 18th-century salon with some 18th-century audience members wandering in and out (you can’t see them in any of the pictures I could find, sorry).  They tend to leave for the most intimate moments, so they don’t get in the way, which doesn’t make much logical sense.  It indicates how seriously Noble takes this frame–not very.

The set is a stately, luxuriously appointed room whose back wall opens up to reveal a green field.  It’s such a direct rip-off of Robert Carsen’s Garnier/La Scala Alcina that it’s not even funny.  (I couldn’t find a good picture of the whole Staatsoper set, unfortunately, but trust me here.  Here is the Carsen.  I will add a photo comparison if I can come up with one.)  But it’s very pretty, the design is elaborate and eye-catching with many bright and shiny colors.  The breaking of Alcina’s enchantments is equated with a dark, star-filled sky, absent her male admirers.  Bradamante and Melisso cutely arrive on the island via hot air balloon.  We get touches of Eastern exoticism in Ruggiero’s silk vest and Alcina’s fringed umbrellas.  The dance interludes, diverting enough, feature Alcina’s spirits, her “ombre pallide,” generically Eastern (yet pale) men.  Oberto’s father in the form of a lion is a charmingly homespun effect.

But mostly the costumes reveal that we are in that well-known theatrical era familiar from many productions of Mozart, Molière, and Bartlett Sher’s Met Barbiere di Siviglia: the Slutty 18th Century.  This mythic era, most often explored by straight male directors, is just like the regular 18th century except with more corsets and cleavage.  Women habitually wear only their underclothes in public.  Dresses mysteriously fall off mid-aria, never to be recovered.  This afflicts soubrettes most frequently, but any woman is vulnerable.  See also Slutty Early 19th Century, AKA Anna Netrebko in the Met’s Don Pasquale.  This setting has been brought to you by the Male Gaze.

I don’t think that Noble has a single thing to say about Alcina, about the lady’s magic or her society.  His much-vaunted Duchess of Devonshire (see his notes linked above) is alluded to in (YES!) a giant hat at the very beginning of the opera, but otherwise the 18th-century elements are purely aesthetic.  The frame merely adds an alienation effect, which makes me suspect that Noble doesn’t really trust the libretto to work when taken seriously on its own terms.  I think this is a shame, and it helps make this a rather emotionally shallow production.  We end with a collective dance that is reminiscent of Twelfth Night.  (Or any chaconne ending of an earlier Baroque opera.)  Just another evening’s entertainment, it raineth every day, etc.

But while it never gets below the surface of the work, this is actually a nice evening.  It rarely drags through its four hour running time, which is no small achievement.  The Personenregie of each individual number is mostly good, the plot is dealt with clearly and straightforwardly.  The blocking is naturalistic with no coloratura choreography or other Sellers/McVicars/etc. whimsy.  There are moments of stillness when it’s needed, such as Alcina’s “Ah mio cor,” and more elaborate stagings when needed, such as Ruggiero’s “Sta nell’ircana pietrosa tana.”  It doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch and is very generic, but it works.

The inclusion of Les Musiciens de Louvre in the pit was the production’s big experiment.  Media accounts before the premiere fretted about whether a Baroque opera would work in the Staatsoper acoustic.  While it’s not ideal, it is more than satisfactory.  The orchestra here is very large for Handel, around 50 people.  I wonder if they could have gotten away with less without sounding skimpy, this group fills the theater nicely but sounds a little too big for the music.  The contrast between continuo and full orchestra ritornello was jarring.  But the orchestra sounds great, crisp and precise and nimble.  They use vibrato tastefully, particularly the soloists.  I liked the inclusion of the obligato instrumental soloists onstage, which gives the sound a wonderful intimate quality and liveness.  Marc Minkowski conducted with quick but never excessive tempos, lovely phrasing in the dance movements, and good coordination.  Vocal ornamentation was similarly middle-of-the-road, tasteful and idiomatic.  Overall, it’s a good compromise between big opera house music and period practice.

Anja Harteros is a magnificent singer, with an incredibly rich and complicated sound that she perfectly colors to each phrase.  I haven’t heard her in a few years and had forgotten how good she is.  Everything in her performances just fits together vocally and theatrically in a way few singers manage.  Her voice is large for Handel, but while I’m sure there are more virtuosic singers of “Ombra pallide,” she can, well, handle all the role’s demands in a gratifyingly large-scale way.  She is a strong presence as Alcina, both powerful and privately vulnerable.  (And her tallness helps her, made even more notable by an extremely tall wig.)  Her “Ah! mio cor” was a tour de force of both voice and acting, going from despair to violence to resignation.  I think she could be devastating given a better production, but the fineness of her singing is a considerable reward in itself.

Vesselina Kasarova confuses me, though she’s very popular here.  Her sound is certainly unique, but it’s very uneven.  She sounds like different singers in different registers, from hollow, throaty lower notes to an iffy middle register to more powerful and focused higher notes, and her phrases are inevitably broken up into segments.  Her coloratura is fast but more aspiration than note.  Her Ruggiero was suitably impetuous and heroic, and she had a few moments, notably a very expressive “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto.”

The standout in the smaller roles was Kristina Hammerstörm’s impeccably sung Bradamante, with all the vocal evenness Kasarova lacked.  Veronica Cangemi (center in picture, right) does not have the vocal freshness that would be ideal for Morgana, and got off to a rough start in “O s’apre al riso,” scooping towards the high notes and mostly missing, but her richer soprano voice was rewarding in “Ama, sospira,” and her “Tornami al vagheggiar” accomplished.  Vienna Boys’ Choir member Shintaro Nakajima was a small wonder as Oberto.  I usually can’t stand little kids singing, but this boy was amazing, singing all three (!) difficult arias with confidence, accuracy, and lovely clear tone.  Benjamin Bruns was fine as Oronte, Adam Platcheka very good as Melisso (both are ensemble members).

Intendant Dominique Meyer can continue to breathe easy, there were enthusiastic cheers at the end for the singers and orchestra, and moderate ones for the production team.  No booing.  His real test will come next month with a new Don Giovanni, a considerably riskier endeavor.

Another note: the orchestra was rehearsing in the hall up until the last second, delaying the standing room admittance considerably.  We could hear them as we waited, eventually Meyer emerged from the theater (and said hello).  We were let in shortly afterwards with only 20 minutes before the starting time.  I tied my scarf in the front of Parterre standing room and then got out of the theater, to the Würstelstand, ate a Wurst, ran back to the opera house, through the coat check, through the WC line, bought a program, and back to my scarf.  All in under 15 minutes, with five minutes to spare before the start of the opera.  I impressed myself, at least.  My stomach wasn’t so happy about it, but four hours of Handel opera while hungry would have been worse.

Next: I wandered around during intermission in the hopes of running into Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  I failed, but I’ll be seeing him in Rigoletto on Tuesday.

I’m sorry the photos I have here are so non-illustrative, I will try to find some better ones.  I was strangely lucky with the bows photos this time, here are a few:

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A preview of the Staatsoper’s Alcina

The Wiener Staatsoper’s second new production of the season, Alcina, premieres on Sunday.  The production’s biggest news is the inclusion of a visiting orchestra in the pit (Les Musiciens de Louvre).  But let’s look at Adrian Noble’s production for a minute.  There’s an article about it in this month’s Wiener Staatsoper magazine.  It’s only in German, but I’ve taken the liberty of translating parts of it.   This lady with the impressive headgear is centrally involved.

The basics: Adrian Noble is principally a theater director and led the Royal Shakespeare Company for over a decade.  His previous opera productions include a very good Ritorno d’Ulisse and a not so good Macbeth available on DVD. As far as I can tell this will be his first Handel opera; it is also his Wiener Staatsoper debut.  Alcina, based on an episode from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso,  premiered in London in 1735 and is also one of his most popular operas today.  It is not in fact their first Baroque opera (Dido and Aeneas, 1927; Giulio Cesare, 1957?; L’incoronazione di Poppea, 1969) but it is the first since the HIP movement got going.  The cast will include Anja Harteros as Alcina, Vesselina Kasarova as Ruggiero, Veronica Cangemi as Morgana and Kristina Hammerström as Bradamante.

You can watch a very short rehearsal video here.  Here is what the article in the Staatsoper magazine says about Noble’s production.  You can read an excerpt of the article in German here (including this passage), but it seems like the full November magazine hasn’t made it onto the Staatsoper’s website yet.

This is the most informative part:
Noble’s Alcina takes place in a frame narrative that starts in the luxurious ballroom of the Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London.  The legendary Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, is directing a theater festival in which she and her friends will themselves star… director Adrian Noble is drawing on historical accounts that describe such festivals as conventional in 18th-century society. “In large houses, Noble said, lavishly produced entertainments took place, in which the politicians and aristocracy themselves participated.  So I came to the idea of telling the story of Alcina through the prism of the 18th century.  I chose a real person for the center, the Duchess of Devonshire, an unbelievably fascinating historical figure.  She was at the center of the era’s politics, was phenomenally rich, and was always entangled in complicated emotional relationships…”

That’s the most concrete thing he says.  The Duchess of Devonshire was indeed a fascinating figure and there are other reasons to believe she would be a good candidate for Alcina other than the ones he mentions.  She followed the conventional role for women of the time in some ways (she was a socialite, she was known for her beauty) but not others (she was far too directly involved with politics, she had lots of affairs).  Incidentally, she was also the subject of a recent mediocre–is there any other kind?–Keira Knightly movie, The Duchess.  The portrait of her at the top of this post is by Gainsborough, she made the giant hat a fad.

While imagining aristocrats performing a whole Handel opera is pure fantasy (Handel was truly the stuff for vocal freaks of nature, according to 18th-century London), there is a loooong historic tradition of the idle rich performing music for their own amusement and political maneuvering.  In the 18th century, these giant spectacles were more common in France than Britain, but England isn’t that far from France and, unsurprisingly, women in Britain were in the middle of it.  Whether this will work onstage is a totally different question, though.  It reminds me frighteningly of Mary Zimmerman’s Met Sonnambula, and we all know how that turned out (badly).

So I must make a few bitchy comments:

  • The Duchess of Devonshire lived from 1757 to 1806, which puts this setting at least 40 years after Alcina’s premiere.  There were serious aesthetic developments in this period.  So if we’re going to be so specific about the setting let’s not pretend it’s contemporaneous!  It isn’t!  Not that that’s a problem, this isn’t a research project, but let’s be honest about it.  But it makes me worry that anyone who assumes that 1775 is the same as 1735 might not appreciate the finer issues of the Baroque.
  • That’s a lot of concept before you get to anything directly relating to Alcina.  “Has a strong woman in the center who is entangled in complicated emotional relationships” could describe, well, most operas.
  • And how are you going to put all that stuff on stage?  It’s a lot to get in while still telling the original story, and you can’t do shorthand with this duchess, she’s not someone like the Kaiserin Elisabeth who is in the Austrian popular imagination.  (Wait.  Has anyone done a Sisi Alcina?  No, sorry, that’s a horrible idea.  And they probably have.)
  • I am sure that the Keira Knightly film is 100% historical truth, and it didn’t make me think of Alcina once.

Despite these less than auspicious signs, I will be there on Sunday and hope for the best!  Also, for an appearance of something resembling that hat.

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Partenope: It’s raining (counter)tenors, part one

Handel, Partenope.  New York City Opera, 4/3/2010.  Conducted by Christian Curnyn with Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio).  Production by Francisco Negrin, directed by Andrew Chown.

Now that we have finished our Shakespeare unit we are starting the reverse-Blumenmädchen part, that is some ladies who have entranced–either by their natural charms or their magical charms–a large number of hapless high-voiced men.  Most of these ladies are named Armida, and we will soon encounter the Met’s example of this, but today we will be discussing the all-natural, no magic required Partenope, in Handel’s opera of the same title.*

This is a somewhat obscure opera, though this isn’t its first time at City Opera, and this production is a revival.  NPR World of Opera has a nice plot summary and introduction here.   Partenope is a comedy, more or less, which means that the constant comedy applied by directors to most Handel opera actually is appropriate this time.  Francisco Negrin’s production, revived by Andrew Chown, however, doesn’t push the outrageous button very many times, and manages to impart a good deal of humanity to the characters.

The orchestra was modern, and since I mostly listen to Handel as performed by period orchestras, this was a bit different (not in a good way in my opinion, I love my HIP). The result is fleet rather than springy, and in the first act I felt like conductor Christian Curnyn’s tempos were far too fast to allow the music to breathe or have any shape.  But either he calmed down or I got used to it because the second two acts seemed much better.

Francisco Negrin’s setting is modern abstract, and like L’Étoile, the characters kind of color-coded.  The single set is a set of moving white and turquoise walls that resemble a less run-down version of wherever the Met’s Hamlet was set, and appear to be built for a smaller stage than the one on which they currently reside.  However in Personenregie it is mostly naturalistic, no choreography for the arias, the fanciful elements are limited to the costumes and occasional ambiguously symbolic objects appearing onstage.

Sometimes Negrin (Chown?) stages a da capo aria as a single continuous narrative, sometimes the da capo (the A’ of the ABA’ structure) as a variation of the first A, echoing the musical structure.  Particularly considering the realistic staging of most of the other action, I thought the first strategy considerably more effective. The lighting design also acknowledges the structure of the music, mostly very effectively–a shame there was so much ugly pink light.

Most of the singers had no trouble with the quick tempos.  Cyndia Sieden as Partenope zips through everything at warp speed with her laser-bright soprano, and also float nicely on the slow stuff.  She may lack a certain degree of charisma or glamor or something, she seemed a bit too nice, but was always a pleasure to hear.

As Rosmira, a woman disguised as a man who sings in the same range of the countertenors (oh, Handel, you trickster!), Stephanie Houtzeel was very good, with a rich and warm sound and excellent high notes, and was fun onstage.  Her coloratura is excellent but her low notes didn’t seem that big, I see in her bio she’s headed to Strauss repertoire, where she’ll probably sound great.

The two countertenors were both excellent and a study in contrasts, which is good when you have two major characters in the same fach.  Iestyn Davies has a clear, bell-like sound with a lot of pure beauty, but also of considerable virtuosity, particularly in the ridiculous “Furibondo spira il vento” (see video below).  Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo is more nasal and heavier on the vibrato (also sounded best on his high notes, I wonder if this role is low for him?).  Nicholas Coppolo as lesser suitor Emilio (tenors not enjoying the starry status of castrati in Handel’s day) sang just as much coloratura with a pleasant Mozart-tenor ish sound.

The production ended up being a nice break from the madcap and the wacky, there was none of the sensory overload that some Handel stagings can produce, the plot was easy to follow, it was funny when it should be funny, and we got to concentrate on the virtuosity of the singing.  Could it have been a little sexier?  Yeah, probably, but sometimes moderation is a good thing.

City Opera has declined to provide any photos of the current cast, so I attempt to evoke the glory of Handel’s London period below:

Cool Handel

Next:  I may drag myself to the Armida prima if I can find companionship, because I hear there are going to be GIANT SPIDERS and as someone who has read and watched Lord of the Rings an unseemly number of times I do love a giant spider.  Can’t wait for Tosca because OMG Patricia Racette and Fabio Luisi!  This ticket’s value seems to be increasing rather than decreasing with the substitutions.  Just don’t mess with my tenor and we’re good.

*Yes, this is one of the many things in opera that pisses off a feminist.  These lady-learns-a-lesson operas always grate.  Lady is always so much more boring after she is reformed and married off.  But I can usually ignore it and deal.  (My gender politics are always up for a good Fidelio, though.  ALWAYS.)

“Furibondo spira il vento,” Philippe Jaroussky (sorry, Iestyn, you aren’t on the YouTube!)

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