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.

Continue Reading

Poppea DVD from Glyndebourne: A Rome too dull to burn

Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea.  DVD, Decca.  Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen.  With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)

This DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits.  Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row.  Subtle it ain’t.  This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it’s yours.  Good evening, privileged assholes!

Eh, except not really.  Maybe director Robert Carsen didn’t want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way.  Never has Nero’s amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage.  They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW?  they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything).  But this isn’t an opera solely about love: it’s about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge.  Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be.  Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.

The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera.  Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?  Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone.  His death–the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell–is visually striking but emotionally empty.  Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress.   Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.

Non morir, Seneca… actually none of us really care if you die or not.

The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself.  Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision.  This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them.  Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives.  This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this.  Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs.  By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.

Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia

It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting.  It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub.  It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera.  Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.

I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla.  You’re too damn prim.

Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy.  The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good.  Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role.  While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma.  Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters.  Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign.  Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.

I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores.  The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful.  Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so.  The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small.  Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles–mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts–so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.

Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.

Trailer:

*This is often a key issue.  I generally don’t like countertenor Neros, it’s meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more “manly” than any actual man (now there’s some gender trouble!).

Continue Reading

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!)

Continue Reading