Saturday, December 14, 2013

Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, or: A curse in disguise

Until recently there were two ways to enjoy an opera: going to the theatre to watch a live performance or listening to an opera on disc. With the introduction of the DVD - originally meant for movies - a whole new dimension opened for opera and its lovers. For the first time one could actually see and hear an opera at home as it was - or could have been - performed at the theatre. However, opera productions on DVD turn out to be a mixed blessing, and sometimes even a curse in disguise. As I have written before I am not a great opera lover. As a reviewer I sometimes have to sit through a whole performance on DVD. That isn't always a pleasant experience, and some performances don't exactly help me to overcome my rather negative attitude towards opera.

That is the case, for instance, with a recent release of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea by Virgin Classics, under the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm. It is the recording of a live performance in the Opera in Lille. It has always been a mystery to me why conductors insist on using period instruments while at the same time completely ignoring everything that is known about the way operas were performed in the baroque era. The staging, the acting, the costumes, the stage-properties - it was all very different from what is common use nowadays. Research into these matters has resulted in some very interesting and convincing staged performances, for instance by Benjamin Lazar and Sigrid T'Hooft. Ms Haïm seems not to be interested in these matters; her stage-director Jean-François Sivadier ignores everything that has been achieved in this department. This is a performance for a present-day audience which is not that interested in historical performance practice.

It is rather odd that this production was released by Virgin Classics, as only three years ago they released the same opera on DVD in a staged performance under the musical direction of William Christie. He and his stage director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, didn't opt for a historical approach either. However, their performance is at least decent and tasteful. The stage is not that large which gives the whole performance a kind of intimacy which is well reflected by the performance itself. The subject of this opera and the way is has been worked out probably gives little opportunity for real subtlety. After all, there is hardly a truly decent character around. The main protagonists are pretty repulsive, and the famous closing duet is only hiding the immorality and the emptiness of the two main characters, Nero and Poppea. Even so, Christie's performance is a marvel of good taste in comparison with Haïm's production. She and the stage director apparently thought it necessary to blow up everything that is disgusting in the development of the story. The scene in which Nero celebrates the death of Seneca is one of the worst examples.

Interestingly these two productions have something in common. Max Emanuel Cencic who took the role of Ottone in Christie's performance, plays Nero in the production by Haïm. He portrays both characters pretty convincingly. His voice isn't that strong, and that suits the role of Ottone rather well. In the role of Nero his rudeness comes off well; vocally he seems to be miscast, tough. His tessitura seems to be too limited; in the upper range he forces himself and he starts to shout. Stylistically he is more at home in 18th century opera, although his incessant vibrato isn't appropriate there either. In comparison Philippe Jaroussky does better, although he also has some trouble with the top notes. Stylistically he is clearly ahead of Cencic: his ornamentation is very natural and his singing more flexible and just nicer to the ear. Danielle de Niese portrays Poppea better than Sonya Yoncheva who makes little impression, but De Niese's singing shows that she isn't really acquainted with the style of Monteverdi's time. That goes, by the way, for most singers in both productions. It is often the smaller roles which are stylistically most feasible. In Haïm's production there is at least one other miscast: Paul Whelan sings the role of Seneca. I am not that impressed by his singing and the way he portrays his role, but he is also far too young to give this role any credibility. The fact that Haïm adds percussion to the ensemble - Christie does not - only underlines her intention to present Monteverdi's opera for a modern audience which is not really interested in the composer's intentions and the conventions of his time.

On balance Christie's performance is much to be preferred over Haïm's. Even so, it is quite depressing that both conductors chose to ignore the result of research in regard to the way operas were performed in the baroque era. Equally depressing is that they obviously didn't strictly select the singers on the basis of their commandment of the style of singing in Monteverdi's time.

Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea), Max Emanuel Cencic (Nerone), Ann Hallenberg (Ottavia), Tim Mead (Ottone), Paul Whelan (Seneca), Amel Brahim-Djelloul (Drusilla), Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arnalta), Anna Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), Khatouna Gadelia (Virtù, Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), Aimery Lefèvre (Mercurio, Console), Patrick Schramm (Un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), Mathias Vidal (Soldato, Un famigliare di Seneca, Lucano), Nicholas Mulroy (Tribuno) Le Concert d'Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm; stage director: Jean-François Sivadier
Recorded March 2012, Lille, Opéra
Virgin Classics 928991 9 (2 DVDs; 2.58')

Danielle de Niese (Poppea), Philippe Jaroussky (Nerone), Anna Bonitatibus (Ottavia), Max Emanuel Cencic (Ottone), Antonio Abete (Seneca), Ana Quintans (Drusilla), Claire Debono (Fortuna, Pallade, Venere), Katherine Watson (Virtù, Damigella), Hanna Bayodi-Hirt (Amore), Suzana Ograjensek (Valletto), José Lemos (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Robert Burt (Arnalta), Mathias Vidal (Lucano), Andreas Wolf (Mercurio, Littore Tribuno, Un famigliare di Seneca), Damian Whiteley (Un famigliare di Seneca), Juan Sancho (Tribuno, Console, Un famigliare di Seneca), David Webb (Tribuno, Console)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; stage director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Recorded May 2010, Madrid, Teatro Real
Virgin Classics 07095191 (2 DVDs; 3.00')

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zanaida, or How an interesting recording project goes astray

Some record companies release very interesting recordings on a regular basis. As far as early music is concerned the French label ZigZag Territoires is one of them. They often present little-known repertoire, and many performances are very good. Unfortunately the production is not always of the same standard. The recent release of a recording of the opera Zanaida by Johann Christian Bach is a good example.

Let me start with the merits of this recording. Johann Christian Bach was an important composer in his time and widely admired, not the least by Mozart. He was especially active as a composer of operas, first in Italy and then in England. However, today his music is still underestimated, and that certainly is true for his operas. Some of them have been recorded, but they don't belong to the standard repertoire of today's opera houses and even arias from his operas are seldom included in recital discs. That makes the release of a recording of Zanaide, his second opera performed in London, most welcome. It is a live recording, but fortunately one doesn't get applause after every aria which is a great relief. One can only make compliments to the audience which attended these performances. The orchestra plays period instruments. However, that hardly needs to be noticed, as that seems to be the standard these days. Three cheers for that.

That is where I have to stop singing the praise of this production, I'm afraid. This release has a number of features which are greatly annoying. Nearly all the soloists are affected by the vibrato virus. That makes listening to this performance not exactly an unqualified enjoyment. Otherwise it is almost impossible to assess the performances of individual soloists.

First of all, the libretto in the booklet is hard to read. The letters are in bleak grey on a white background. The indications of the characters is such that it strains the eyes if one wants to know exactly who sings when and what. Secondly, the record company has done those who don't understand Italian a particularly bad service. The booklet includes two translations of the libretto, in French and English respectively. However, these are printed separately which makes it impossible to follow the original and the translation simultaneously. One has to leaf back and forth constantly, and that simply doesn't work. One could decide to concentrate on the translation, at least for the recitatives. However, that is not unproblematic either. I used the English translation, and I didn't recognize much from what I heard, not even names. I soon found out that the original recitatives were severely cut. That is mentioned nowhere in the liner-notes or anywhere else.

This is a pretty bad habit in live performances, although for some reasons it never happens in, say, Mozart or romantic operas. As there is not much chance of hearing an opera by Johann Christian Bach anyway, we probably shouldn't complain too much. The problem is that the English translation doesn't indicate the cuts. In fact, we get the complete libretto instead, and that makes it virtually impossible to follow what happens as the original and the translation are consistently out of sync. As if that is not bad enough, the translation of the arias is very imprecise. It seems more a kind of paraphrase than a translation. Moreover, we seem to get here the translation of the performances in Bach's time, and these are rather hard to understand.

I simply don't get this. One can have different opinions on matters of interpretation, and some music lovers don't care about the vibrato of singers in an opera production like this. There can be little difference of opinion about the sloppiness of this production, though. It is sad that an important project like this goes astray because some people in the production department didn't care enough to make sure that the music can be fully appreciated.

Johann Christian Bach, Zanaida
Sara Hershkowitz (Zanaida), Chantal Santon (Roselane), Vannina Santoni (Osira), Julie Fioretti (Silvera), soprano; Mirina De Liso (Tamasse), Majdouline Zeran (Aglatida), mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey Thompson (Gianguir), tenor; Pierrick Boisseau (Mustafa), baritone
Opera Fuoco Orchestra/David Stern
Recorded Feb 10 & 11, 2012 at the Theatre of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
ZigZag Territoires ZZT312

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Opera (2)

Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen (Ottavio Dantone)

Henry Purcell's semi-opera The Fairy Queen was first performed in May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre. It was based on Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. The original play was strongly adapted: it was abridged, scenes were arranged in a different order and some characters were omitted. On the other hand, the librettist added verses which Purcell was to set to music. The work is divided into five acts; the characters differ from one act to the other; no character appears in more than one act. This indicates that the story of the play is not directly linked to the music. Without the spoken text it is impossible to follow the story, unless one is familiar with Shakespeare's play.

The version which is mostly performed and recorded is the second of 1693, and that also goes for the present recording. In the first version there was no music in Act 1; in 1693 three pieces were performed during this act, a duet, the 'Scene of the Drunken Poet' and a 'first act tune', a jig. In Act 3 a solo was included, the song 'Ye gentle spirits of the air', and in Act 5 'The Plaint' which has become one of Purcell's most famous vocal compositions.

This performance - originally released by the Italian label Arts - was recorded live at the Teatro Rossini in Ravenna. The audience is surprisingly quiet. That should be considered a virtue - it is quite annoying when every aria is greeted with loud applause in a live opera recording. However, here it is different: this semi-opera is entertainment, and one may expect the audience to show its appreciation. The fact that nothing of this kind happens - apart from the applause at the end - is probably due to the audience being Italian and following the text only through super-titles in the theatre where this performance took place. It is also likely that they were not quite familiar with the original play.

However, there could be another explanation. This performance may have taken place in a theatre - the booklet doesn't tell us whether it was scenic or not - but it isn't very theatrical. I never had the feeling of being actually there. It is a sequence of pieces sung and played, but that is it. Too little has been made of some of those moments which were definitely written to make audiences laugh, such as the scene of the drunken poet in Act 1 (Bundy) and the dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa in Act 3 (Bundy and Towers). In my collection I have the recording under the direction of William Christie (Harmonia mundi), and there the performers make much more of these episodes. Under Dantone's direction they are rather stiff and unimaginative. The more serious parts come off much better, such as the end of Act 2, with the entrance of the Night, and also the solos of the four seasons in Act 4.

The solo parts are different in quality. Andrew Carwood makes a bit of a slow start: 'Come, all ye songsters' is hesitant and his voice is too weak, but 'One charming night' and 'Thus the gloomy world' are much better. Rebecca Outram is fine, and I enjoyed her singing more than that of Gillian Keith. Carolyn Sampson is largely disappointing. 'The Plaint' is really spoilt by her wide and incessant vibrato. 'See, even Night herself is here' (Act 2) is a little better, but that is about the only one of her contributions which I could appreciate. Michael Bundy may be disappointing in the two scenes mentioned before, but there is nothing wrong with his singing from a technical and stylistic point of view.

On balance I am not very impressed, despite the good things which this disc has to offer. I most admired the orchestral playing. Dantone and his players are Italians, but they don't make the mistake to force this music into an Italian straigtjacket. Strong contrasts as one may expect in music by Italian composers would be completely inappropriate in Purcell's music. However, if you look for a recording of The Fairy Queen, this seems not to be first choice.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695): The Fairy Queen
Gillian Keith, Rebecca Outram, Carolyn Sampson (soprano), William Towers (alto), Andrew Carwood, Robert Murray (tenor), Michael Bundy (bass), New English Voices, Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Recorded 10 July 2001 (live) at the Teatro Rossini, Lugo di Romagna, Ravenna
Brilliant Classics 94221 (© 2012) (2 CDs: 65'19" - 67'07")

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Bach Cantatas from St Gallen

The Bach lover of the 21st century is spoilt for choice as far as the number of recordings of his cantatas is concerned. No less than five complete recordings - if we confine ourselves to performances with period instruments - are available: Harnoncourt/Leonhardt, Leusink, Koopman, Suzuki and Gardiner. The latter two only recently finished their respective projects. To those one can add a large number of recordings of individual cantatas. Two conductors need special mention: Philippe Herreweghe and Sigiswald Kuijken. Their purpose is not the recording the whole cantata output, but a considerable number of cantatas are available on disc under their direction. We should not forget to mention the many recordings of solo cantatas by individual singers.

Even so, there is not that much chance to hear Bach's cantatas in public concerts. If such concerts take place it is mostly as part of a Bach festival, but in regular concert series taking place during the course of a year one won't see cantatas by Bach programmed that often. That was the main incentive for a project which takes place in Switzerland under the responsibility of the Bach Stiftung St. Gallen. I had read about this undertaking, but not heard any recording. Recently I received five CDs and three DVDs with recordings from this project. Rather than writing a review of these discs - many more are available right now - I decided to give my impressions on the basis of these recordings.

Let me start with quoting from the booklets of these discs what this project is all about. "Despite the wealth of Bach recordings available, the concert experience remains vital to musical appreciation. In the interest of sustaining this tradition, musician Rudolf Lutz and private banker Konrad Hummler resolved in 1999 to re-interpret Bach's complete vocal works - first and foremost his over 200 cantatas - in a new concert cycle. The project, which will span approximately 25 years, is privately funded by the J.S Bach Foundation of St. Gallen".

From these words we may gather that its main purpose is not so much adding another complete cycle to what is already available. It is the live performance of a cantata which is the core of the project. Every month one cantata is performed. This explains that the project will take much time until its completion.

The concerts take place in the Evangelische Kirche in Trogen, a village near St Gallen. Every concert begins with an introduction of the cantata. Rudolf Lutz, the musical director, explains the peculiarities of the music from the keyboard, and the theologian Karl Graf explains the theological and biblical aspects. Then the cantata is performed twice; the two performances are separated by a lecture, called "Reflections". The speakers are people with various backgrounds, artists, scientists, economists or politicians. One could compare these lectures with the sermons in St Thomas' in Bach's time. There is quite a strong difference between them, though. The speakers - at least those I have heard - take distance from the spiritual world in which Bach's cantatas were written. It seems unlikely that these lectures are helpful in bringing the world of Bach's cantatas closer to a modern audience.

When I received the CDs and DVDs I was surprised to see that each DVD includes only one cantata, even if it is very short, like Cantata 54 which lasts less than 13 minutes. However, this is not all: the DVDs also include the introduction and the lecture. Only one of the performances is included. The introduction is very interesting, but unfortunately the DVDs omit any subtitles. As a result they won't appeal to those who don't understand German. I can't imagine Bach lovers purchasing a DVD with 12 minutes of music just to see how the singers and players perform it. They will be more interested in the CDs which contain three cantatas each.

I have the impression that they are more or less put together at random. I can't see any direct connection between the cantatas on a single disc, neither in regard to subject nor scoring nor the time of composing. It also seems that Lutz has avoided to take a position in regard to the subject of the number of singers which should be involved. "The ensemble varies according to the work in question: some cantatas require a choir of up to 20 voices while others are complemented only by soloists (...)". The choice seems to be based on Rudolf Lutz's personal views regarding a specific cantata rather than on historical sources. I can't imagine any source indicating the need of 20 voices.

There is a tendency of late to perform and record Bach's cantatas with a large organ instead of a small chamber organ. That is, for instance, the case in the project of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam and Musica Amphion. That practice has not been applied here, which can be explained from the fact that every performance takes place in the same church. Its organ is a late 19th-century instrument and obviously not suitable for performances of baroque music.

These issues justify my conclusion that this project doesn't and will not provide any new insights in regard to performance practice. That is not meant as criticism; it is just not the purpose of this project. However, it could be an important factor for those who may consider purchasing the discs which document the performances in this project. It seems that these are especially worthwhile for those who have attended the concerts. That goes even more for the DVDs.

However, for many that will not be decisive. They would like to have more than just one interpretation, and I can imagine that more than average Bach lovers who have more than one complete recording in their collection - maybe even all of them - will seriously consider collecting these discs as well. In their interest I will give my impressions of the performances on the basis of the discs and DVDs which I have heard.

Let me first say that I was almost never completely disappointed about any cantata. One of the strengths is the choir which is very good. The singing is lively and the performances show a good understanding of the idiom. The voices blend well, but sometimes I noted a lack of transparency, especially in those choruses in which the polyphony is rather dense. That could well be partly due to the acoustic, which isn't bad but probably less than ideal. Moreover, a choir of 20 singers is too large.

The orchestra is also good; the instrumental solo parts are always played very well. However, in some cases the performances don't quite bring what one would expect. The aria 'Die schäumenden Wellen' from Cantata 81, for instance, is too feeble. It also happens now and then that specific features which are mentioned in the introduction are hardly noticeable in the actual performance.

As only one cantata is performed every month it is almost inevitable that the soloists differ from one performance to the other. Whether the involvement of soloists is just a matter of coincidence or the result of deliberate decisions is something I can't tell. Some of the soloists belong to the elite of early music singers, like María-Cristina Kiehr, Makoto Sakurada - who also participated in the recordings by the Bach Collegium Japan - and Wolf Matthias Friedrich. Others were unknown to me. Again, I am generally pleased about the way the solo parts are performed. There are some weak spots, and I don't appreciate every single voice that much, but that is also a matter of taste. Some arias come off better than others, but the far majority is at least alright.

It is no surprise that the best-known singers deliver the best performances. María-Cristina Kiehr participates in the performance of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180). She gives a fine account of the recitative and ensuing chorale; the aria 'Lebenssonne, Licht der Sinnen' is one of the best I have heard. The German soprano Ulrike Hofbauer is equally impressive: she sings the demanding aria 'Gelobet sei der Herr' (BWV 129) admirably and sings beautifully in the duet from Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (BWV 42). Her partner is the tenor Bernhard Berchtold, a singer who was new to me, but who made a generally good impression, for instance in 'Jesu, laß durch Wohl und Weh' (BWV 182). I have already mentioned Makoto Sakurada; he gives a fine performance of 'Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten' from Cantata BWV 1, but considering his experience in Bach I was a bit surprised that his pronunciation was less than perfect.

Another seasoned performer is the bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich who is a specialist in German vocal music. His contributions confirm his skills, for instance in 'Wer bist du' (BWV 132). He effectively explores the sharp edges of the aria 'Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer' in Cantata BWV 81. Another new name was Markus Volpert, a singer who deserves to keep an eye on. He makes a very good impression in these recordings. A good example is the recitative and ensuing aria 'Jesus ist ein Schild der Seinen' (BWV 42).

The altos are a rather mixed package. The male alto Markus Forster sings his aria in Cantata BWV 22 well, but I am disappointed by his performance of Cantata BWV 54 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) which is short on expression. That is also due to the instrumental contribution; the liner-notes refer to "penetrating bow strokes" but I didn't really notice them. Forster's colleague Jan Börner - also someone I didn't know before - has a nice voice as he proves in Cantata BWV 63. The contralto Roswitha Müller gives a good interpretation of her aria in Cantata BWV 81. I don't understand, though, why she sings with much vibrato, whereas she doesn't use any at all at long notes on the words "schläft" and "hoffen". If she can avoid it, why doesn't she do so? Her colleague Claude Eichenberger (whose name is several times given as "Eichberger") has a voice I don't find particularly attractive. There is nothing wrong with her singing in Cantata BWV 35 (Geist und Seele wird verwirret), but there is also nothing in her interpretation which really struck me. I am more impressed with Margot Oitzinger who gives a very good speech-like interpretation of the aria in Cantata BWV 34; both her diction and the amount of expression are excellent. The duet 'Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten' (BWV 78) is one of the highlights of these discs; here Oitzinger is joined by Julia Neumann. Their voices blend perfectly; the tempo is well-chosen and the rhythmic pulse comes off very well. Lastly I would like to mention another singer I didn't know, the soprano Eva Oltiványi. I am not impressed by her singing in Cantata BWV 132, but in Cantata BWV 1 she delivers a very beautiful rendition of the aria 'Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen, göttlichen Flammen', in excellent partnership with the oboe da caccia. The difference could well be explained by the difference in time: the former cantata was recorded in 2006, the latter 1 in 2010.

A couple of observations to conclude. The recitatives don't always come off that well. It is a problem I often notice in recordings of baroque vocal music: they are not speech-like enough and the singers don't take enough rhythmical freedom. In some chorales the organ plays short interludes between the phrases, probably suggesting the participation of the congregation. There seems to be no evidence, though, that this was indeed practised in Leipzig. In Cantata BWV 54 Rudolf Lutz felt that a chorale was missing, so he delivered a chorale setting of his own making. I can't see any reason for that, and the change in style between the cantata and his chorale damages the overall result.

One can only greatly appreciate the efforts of the performers and the people who make this project financially possible. There are much worse ways to spend your money. The artistic standards are highly respectible: on every disc which came my way I have heard at least a couple of things which I greatly enjoyed. Bach lovers are well advised to investigate this project. For more information take a look at the site of the J.S. Bach Foundation St. Gallen.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni" - Vivica Genaux

Faustina Bordoni is one of the most famous opera singers in history. She was born in Venice and was educated as a singer by Michelangelo Gasparini. She also had close ties with the Marcello brothers Alessandro and Benedetto. As an opera singer she made her debut in Venice in 1716 and sang here until 1725. She also performed in other cities, such as Milan, Florence, Bologna and Naples and made her German debut in Munich in 1723. In the second half of the 1720s she worked in London, where she participated in performances of operas by Handel. Here she was involved in a fiery rivalry with one of Handel's prime donne Francesca Cuzzoni. In 1730 she married the German-born Johann Adolf Hasse, who was one of the most famous composers in Italy and soon also made a name for himself in Germany, and especially at the court in Dresden. Since their marriage Bordoni sang many roles in Hasse's operas. They kept travelling, though, and were sought-after across Europe. Hasse soon was the most fashionable opera composer of Europe.

Bordoni was described as a dramatic singer, whose voice was powerful and flexible. According to the Spanish opera historian Esteban de Arteaga she had "a matchless facility and rapidity in her execution … exquisite shake [and] new and brilliant passages of embellishment". The arias which have been selected for this "Tribute to Faustina Bordoni" are suited to prove those qualities. It is a bit of a shame that the pieces in the programme have not been ordered chronologically. On the other hand, there is a good mix of arias of a different character, although the more virtuosic pieces dominate. That is just as well, because those pieces suit Vivica Genaux best. She certainly has a very agile voice, and has no problems with the coloraturas.

The expressive aspects of these arias are far less well conveyed. Take for instance the last piece on the programme, an independent aria which Hasse composed as a tribute to his wife after she had deceased, Ah! Che mancar mi sento: "Ah! I feel my strength fails me as I leave you, beloved." The emotion which is expressed in the text doesn't really come off. The performances by Vivica Genaux are not very differentiated, and that is partly due to one of the most disappointing features of this recording: her incessant vibrato. She applies it on nearly every single note. I find this unbearable, and it makes this disc rather unlistenable, as good as the music is and as impressive Ms Genaux's performances may be from a technical point of view. It is also completely at odds with what we know about the way vibrato was used in the baroque era.

It is all the more disappointing because Hasse's operas are still largely unknown and he has the unjust reputation because of his flow production of operas. However, Hasse was an excellent writer for the voice and knew perfectly how to explore the specific qualities of a singer. His orchestral scores are also often brilliant such as in the A part of the aria 'Va tra le selve Ircane' from Artaserse. Another example is the obbligato part for the oboe in 'Piange quel fronte' from Numa Pompilio.

As sympethetic this project is, the result is largely disappointing because of the neglicence of the vocal aesthetics of Faustina Bordoni's time.

"A Tribute to Faustina Bordoni"
Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano; Cappella Gabetta/Andrés Gabetta
Recorded 3 - 5 September 2011, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
deutsche harmonia mundi 88691944592 (67'08")

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Opera (1)

Claudio Monteverdi, L'Orfeo (Sergio Vartolo)

It has been almost a year since I have written in this weblog. The reasons are a lack of material which was interesting enough to write about, and - more importantly - a lack of time, as the writing of reviews for my own site, Musicweb International and the German magazine Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell have kept me busy. I am trying to make a new start and revive this weblog.

I do so by writing about an opera recording. I don't often review opera. It is a genre which I am not that interested in, and I find it hard to assess the way the various characters are portrayed. However, I regularly receive opera recordings from the editors of Toccata/Alte Musik Aktuell, and I review them - albeit in a rather concise form - for their magazine. I have decided to extend these reviews a little and publish them in this weblog from time to time.

It seems appropriate to start with a recording of one of the earliest operas in history, L'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi. There is certainly no lack of recordings in the catalogue, and one wonders why Brilliant Classics decided to include it in its Opera Collection. It comprises many famous operas, and I doubt whether these releases are up to the competition. The recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo certainly is not.

I can't find much which would make it recommendable. It seems that Sergio Vartolo has opted for an intimate performance, considering the small instrumental ensemble he has brought together. It includes just two violins and the brass is also reduced: two cornetts, one trumpet, one quinta and four sackbuts. That makes it especially surprising that the toccata which opens the opera is preceded by a drum roll. It completely takes away the magical effect of the sudden entrance of the cornett and the trumpets; moreover, there is no indication in the score whatsoever that percussion should be involved here. Equally surprising is the rough and rather vulgar outcry of the first shepherd (Ahi caso acerbo), when the messenger has finished his report of the circumstances of Euridice's death.

William Matteuzzi is not a specialist in early music. If we take this into account his interpretation of the role of Orfeo isn't that bad. He doesn't add much ornaments, which is - although stylistically untenable - probably just as well, because in 'Possente spirto' he shows that this aspect of baroque performance practice doesn't come natural to him. This episode is just too pathetic in a romantic sort of way. On the words "può ch'io viva' we even get a little sob. It goes from bad to worse and takes the character of a real tear-jerker at the end (Ah che niega il conforto a le mie pene?) and - shortly before the chorus which closes the third act - on "rendetemi il mio ben".

The various other roles are not an unqualified success either. Sara Mingardo's interpretation of the roles of the messenger and of Proserpina is one of the better aspects, from an expressive point of view, but stylistically her contribution is less convincing. She doesn't seem to feel totally at home in this kind of music. Disappointing is also Gianpaolo Dal Dosso in the role of Caronte. His voice lacks the power and penetration which is required here. Loris Bertolo has a more powerful voice and that makes him suitable for the role of Pluto. Unfortunately he doesn't know how to deal with a text in a stylistically convincing way. Gianpaolo Fagotto, on the other hand, knows what recitar cantando means, and that is more than can be said about most of the other singers. It results in a good performance of the roles of Apollo and one of the shepherds. Whether one likes his singing is a matter of taste, I assume.

There are many little things in this performance which are rather annoying. In the end, its main weakness - and decisive for the ultimate assessment - is that it isn't very dramatic. One of the reasons is its slowness: this performance is the slowest I have ever heard. Because of that it just drags on, and I found it hard to listen from start to finish, which otherwise never happens in this masterpiece. Even the ritornelli don't sparkle; some tempi are simply caricatural.

Having listened to this recording I wonder even more what Brilliant Classics may have made release it. Apparently it has been on the shelve for five years. It better had stayed there.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): L'Orfeo
Sylvia Pozzer (Musica, Euridice), William Matteuzzi (Orfeo), Sara Mingardo (Messaggera, Proserpina), Angela Bucci (Speranza, Ninfa II), Gianpaolo Dal Dosso (Caronte), Gianpaolo Fagotto (Apollo, Pastore II), Loris Bertolo (Plutone, Pastore III), Ilaria Zanetti (Ninfa I), Gabriella Martellacci (Ninfa III), Michele Andalò (Pastore I); Gabriela Marcellacci, Francesco De Poli, Gianpaolo Fagotto, Loris Bertolo, Gianpaolo Dal Dosso (Spiriti); Instrumental ensemble/Sergio Vartolo
Recorded Oct 2006, Auditorium of Pigna, Corsica
Brilliant Classics 94373 (© 2012) (2 CDs: 62'31" - 76'49")

Sunday, May 6, 2012

John Calvin and Music

The French reformer John Calvin - or Jean Calvin as he is called in French - doesn't have a particular good reputation. This is partly due to aspects of his theology, which are often misrepresented. In musical circles he is generally considered as an enemy of music, or of arts in general. This has to be considered a misrepresentation as well, which is largely based on a lack of knowledge of his influence in musical matters and on a comparison with the German reformer Martin Luther whose great interest in music is well documented.

Luther was musically knowledgeable and even wrote some music himself. Nothing of this sort is known about Calvin, but one has to assume that he had at least a basic knowledge of music as this was part of the education of the higher echelons of society. In regard to the role of music in the liturgy the difference between Luther and Calvin isn't as big as one may think. Both wanted the congregation to sing. Whereas Martin Luther encouraged poets to write hymns which could be easily memorized and composers to set them to music, John Calvin took the initiative to create a rhymed version of the Book of Psalms. And just like Luther wrote some hymns himself, Calvin also rhymed several psalms. The result of his efforts was the so-called Genevan Psalter, with rhymed versions of the Book of Psalms by Clément Marot and Theodore de Bèze. The melodies were written by various composers. Not all of them are known, but one of them was Louis Bourgeois.

Calvin was more radical in his rejection of the Roman-Catholic religion and practices, and this had its effect on liturgy. Whereas Luther maintained the use of Latin and adopted parts of the old liturgical repertoire, sometimes translated into German, Calvin did away with all remains of the old religion. The singing of the congregation was the only kind of music which he considered appropriate, and this was confined to singing Psalms in monodic fashion. That doesn't mean the rhymed Psalms escaped the attention of composers. Several reputable composers, like Clément Janequin, Claude Goudimel and Claude Le Jeune, wrote arrangements and polyphonic settings of the melodies from the Genevan Psalter. These were written to be sung in private, in the homes of Protestant families or in their social gatherings. This practice was followed in the Netherlands which developed into the European stronghold of Calvinism.

It was here that the Genevan Psalter was widely used and is still used until the present day. The French melodies were adopted and set to new versifications in Dutch. Like in France before composers used the melodies for arrangements and polyphonic settings. The very fact that a famous composer like Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck created polyphonic settings of the complete Psalter bears witness to the quality of these melodies which are not as simple and unsophisticated as some seem to think. In addition they were used for instrumental arrangements, for organ (Sweelinck and Anthoni van Noordt), for recorder (Jacob van Eyck) or lute. The latter were from the pen of Nicolas Vallet, a French-born lutenist who sought refuge in Amsterdam for religious reasons. He was one of many French Protestants (Huguenots) who emigrated to the Netherlands.

The fact that music based on the Genevan Psalter is less well-known has largely to do with the character of the music-scene in the Netherlands. It was a decentralised state, and a middle-class society without a powerful aristocracy maintaining their own courts and chapels and ruling parts of the country. This is one of the explanations that no large-scale compositions were written on the basis of the melodies of the Genevan Psalter, unlike Lutheran hymns which found their way into motets, sacred concertos and cantatas from the late 16th century onwards. The towns were the heart of the Republic, and music making at home or in the collegia musica was at the centre of music life in the Dutch Golden Age, the first half of the 17th century. Here the psalm settings by Sweelinck were sung as well as other religious music reflecting the spirit of the Reformation.

The whole vocal oeuvre of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck has been recorded in recent years by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam. I hope to review the various recordings of this project in the near future. Last April another Dutch ensemble, the Camerata Trajectina, performed a programme under the title "Calvin and Music" which included some of Sweelinck's settings of the Genevan Psalter, but also French settings by Goudimel and Le Jeune. In the second half of the programme various sacred songs were performed, on free poetic texts by some of the best poets from the Dutch Golden Age, like Jacob Cats. Although originally Calvinism resisted the singing of anything that was not directly based on the Bible, the practice of making music at home encouraged poets to write texts which could be used by the faithful. These were often set to existing melodies. For a modern audience it is quite odd to hear Dowland's Can she excuse my wrongs on a text about the Last Judgement, but this was common practice at the time, and one has to assume that most people who sang such songs didn't know the original texts.

The concert gave a very interesting survey of the sacred repertoire which was sung in the Netherlands. It wasn't only musically revealing - showing which music was popular and used for new texts - but also offered an insight into the religious life of Dutch Calvinists of the 17th century. Camerata Trajectina gave fine performances, fortunately showing the sensitivity not to ridicule the 17th-century texts. There is certainly much more to find, and it would be worthwhile to further explore this kind of repertoire.