Friday, May 27, 2022

German opera (1)

The baroque opera scene is now almost entirely dominated by Italian and French operas. In comparison, there are very few performances and recordings of German operas. This can partly be explained by the fact that most of the repertoire that was performed at the two public operas - Leipzig and Hamburg - has either disappeared completely or survived only in fragments. It is telling that of the four operas that George Frideric Handel composed for the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt - before his trip to Italy - only one came to us complete (although this work can only be performed after some reconstruction). As far as I know, this opera, entitled Almira, has only been recorded once on CD. This recording, conducted by Andrew Lawrence-King, was also released by CPO in 1996. A new recording was released a few years ago after being performed on stage at the Boston Early Music Festival. The booklet includes some pictures of this performance.

Almira [1] has some typical features of the Hamburg opera of the time. It is linguistically mixed: the recitatives are all in German and the arias are in either German or Italian. In other Hamburg operas - for example by Telemann - there are also arias in French. Those are missing here, but the French influence is noticeable in the ballets. The arias are mostly relatively short, but Almira in particular has some longer arias to sing, the character of which already points to the future. There are also other things here that we encounter later in Handel's works: now and then one recognizes melodies or motifs that he later reused. Almira is not yet what was later known as opera seria: during the 18th century comic elements, which in the 17th century were often part of an opera, were removed from it; these then found a place in intermezzi. But there are definitely humorous elements here, embodied by Tabarco, who is the servant of Fernando, who marries Almira at the end of the opera and ascends the throne next to her. When Tabarco delivers the message to Fernando that Almira has decided that he should die, and he reacts: "How, should Fernando die?", Tabarco replies: "Yes, of course! Sir, where is your money? I would like to inherit after your farewell." This short dialogue has a relaxing effect. While there is no shortage of conflicts, they are less dramatized.

The character of the work is well captured. I have to give Jan Kobow a special mention here, as he portrays the role of Tabarco in an intoxicating manner and with a great deal of humour, without making a caricature of him. Emöke Baráth is convincing as Almira, not only in the soulful arias, but also in some violent outbursts of anger. Colin Balzer provides a differentiated portrayal of the role of Fernando. Consalvo, who later recognizes Fernando as his long-lost son, also plays a central role. Christian Immler embodies him with the right dignity and authority. The other roles are also well cast. From a stylistic point of view, there are some debatable performances, and that concerns Emöke Baráth and Zachary Wilder in particular. On the other hand, Jan Kobow, Jesse Blumberg and Christian Immler make a good impression. What I haven't mentioned yet is the role of the orchestra, in a colourful line-up with recorders, oboes, bassoons and trumpets. It shows its colours in particular in the ballets, but there are also nice obbligato parts in the arias. The basso continuo group is a strong foundation and with its rhythmic precision it really drives the singers on. This is a studio production; nevertheless, there are some sound effects (like the knocking on the door) that make sense and help to convey to the listener what is happening. The interaction of the actors is also optimal. Conclusion: this is a generally pretty good and entertaining performance.

Christoph Graupner is doing well these days. CD recordings of his music are released every year, and his name often appears in concert programmes and radio broadcasts. It is always instrumental works and sacred cantatas that are performed. It could almost be overlooked that he began his career as an opera composer and that he composed five operas between 1707 and 1709 for the Oper am Gänsemarkt in Hamburg. It was also his work as an opera composer that prompted Ernst-Ludwig von Hessen-Darmstadt to bring him to his court as Kapellmeister. He was supposed to be responsible for the opera, but his employer soon realized that he could not afford opera performances financially. And so Graupner had to confine himself to the composition cantatas for Sundays and feastdays and instrumental music. This has resulted in a large repertoire of high quality, which is rightly given a lot of attention today. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs have excavated several dramatic works at the Boston Early Music Festival, which were later released in studio recordings by CPO. Among them are several works that were written for the opera in Hamburg, such as Antiochus and Stratonica [2], one of the two surviving operas by Graupner. The title characters represent one of the two love stories in this opera. Antiochus (Christian Immler) is the son of Seleucus (Harry van der Kamp) and has fallen madly in love with his stepmother Stratonica (Hana Blazíková) until he almost literally dies. There is also Demetrius, the royal treasurer (Aaron Sheehan), who is married to Ellenia (Sherezade Panthaki), but is being courted and charmed by the Persian sorceress Mirtenia (Sunhae Im). And as in Handel's Almira, there is also a buffoon here: Negrodorus (Jan Kobow) is always there to accompany the events with his comments. A special feature is that in some places he addresses the audience directly, which was unusual at the time. He even proclaims that without a character like his, an opera could not be performed. The story is relatively simple, in comparison with other librettos. It helps a great deal that none of the characters disguises as someone else. In addition, the two storylines are largely separate. Only towards the end do they come together. Incidentally, the ending is quite implausible, but that doesn't seem to have bothered anyone at the time. Anyone who is acquainted with Graupner's instrumental music knows that he was a sound magician who liked to use unusual instruments and unconventional combinations of instruments. This is also the case here. It is hardly a surprise then that he repeatedly gives the viola an obbligato part and in one aria uses three recorders alongside strings playing pizzicato. We also know from Graupner's sacred cantatas that he composed very well for the voice, and that is obvious here from beginning to end. That he is also able to convince in a dramatic sense, which is clearly demonstrated here, is something we were not familiar with, since his surviving operas have never been performed or recorded to date.

The performance and recording of L'amore ammalato, oder Antiochus and Stratonica as the full title reads, is a sheer delight. All roles are very well cast. Maybe I would have preferred slightly less powerful voices for Antiochus (Christian Immler) and Demetrius (Aaron Sheehan), because they are basically wimps. Be that as it may, the two gentlemen have settled perfectly into their respective characters. Sunhae Im portrays Mirtenia's insidiousness very convincingly, and Sherezade Panthaki is her perfect antagonist, her opposite in everything. Harry van der Kamp is a human king, and Hana Blazíková embodies the somewhat shaky feelings for Antiochus well. As in Handel, Jan Kobow is the perfect buffoon; this role seems to suit him. In terms of style, too, there is hardly anything to criticize here. The orchestral playing is colourful and differentiated. There are several ballets in this opera, but these are not included in the score; they may have been inserted later, shortly before the performance. The performers decided to use movements from Graupner's overtures, and that works very well. There is just one small point of criticism: some sentences in the score are between brackets, indicating an aside. This is supposed not to be heard by the other characters, but here they are mostly too loud, which makes them lose their effect. However, in the light of the performance as a whole this doesn't really matter. Given that this is an opera production, the interaction between the protagonists is excellent. As one may understand by now, this is a top-class productio, first thanks to the great music by Graupner, but then also thanks to the performers. This opera makes abundantly clear why the loss of most operas by Graupner is such a big shame.

[1] George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Almira (HWV 1)
Emöke Barath (Almira), Amanda Forsythe (Edilia), Teresa Wakim (Bellante), soprano; Colin Balzer (Fernando), Jan Kobow (Tabarco), Zachary Wilder (Osman), tenor; Jesse Blumberg (Raymondo), Christian Immler (Consalvo), baritone; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
CPO 555 205-2 (© 2019) details

[2] Christoph Graupner (1683-1760): Antiochus und Stratonica
Hana Blažíková (Stratonica), Karlina Hogrefe (Flavia), Sunhae Im (Mirtenia), Kim Kavanagh Medor), Sherezade Panthaki (Ellenia), soprano; Jan Kobow (Negrodorus), Aaron Sheehan (Demetrius), tenor; Jesse Blumberg (Hesychius, Ober-Priester), Christian Immler (Antiochus), baritone; Harry van der Kamp (Seleucus), bass; Capella Ansgarii; Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra/Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs
CPO 555 369-2 (© 2020) details

Friday, April 29, 2022

Handel: Opera arias

Discs with arias from operas (and sometimes oratorios) appear regularly. Every year a number of them land on my desk. I find it not easy to review them, for several reasons. First, I am not a great lover of opera, and that is the reason that I don't review opera recordings on a regular basis. Second, the isolation of arias from their dramatic context is unsatisfactory, even thoug the texts are mostly of such a general nature that they can be inserted in almost any opera. Third, I am not very happy with the modern trends in singing baroque music, as to often they have little to do with what we know about the aesthetic ideals of the time in which the music was written and performed.

Among singers who focus on baroque opera, Handel is one of the favourite composers. No wonder then that recitals which include (almost) only arias from his operas are very common. Four of them are the subject of this review. The first is by Sandrine Piau [1], who can be called a veteran in baroque opera and who has a special liking of Handel. Her recital has not avoided the danger of many such recitals: the inclusion of some 'evergreens'. We find here such frequently-performed arias as 'Piangerò la sorte mia' from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' from Amadigi di Gaula and the inevitable 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Rinaldo. A surprising choice is the aria 'Alla salma infedel porga la pena' from Lucrezia, not an opera but a cantata. The title is also the complete text, and it is an example of a piece which loses its meaning without its context: "And may it inflict its punishment on my faithless body". What is 'it'? The listener who does not know this cantata is left in the dark about the meaning of this aria. Piau is one of the stars of baroque opera, and that is understandable if one listens to this recital. Her ability in expressing the emotions of a character is brilliantly exposed in 'Piangerò la sorte mia' with its strongly contrasting A and B sections. One of the highlights is 'Ah! mio cor! from Alcina. This aria is a good specimen of a piece in which the use of the dacapo form doesn't make any sense. One understands why later some composers wanted to get rid of it. Piau is a singer I have to get used to; recently I admired her performances in a recording of Handel's Brockes Passion, but on other occasions I have had problems with her style of singing. That is the case her as well. She often uses more vibrato than is justifiable, but - unlike many of her colleages - she does not use it indiscriminately. The ornamentation and the cadenzas are also often overdone. In 'Desterò dell'empia Dite' her cadenza in the dacapo seems at odds with the tenor of the text. On balance, though, I have enjoyed this recital more than I expected, especially as Piau is more than most other singers able to explore the dramatic features of an aria. It helps that Les Paladins is not a chamber ensemble but a full-blooded orchestra and that the recording was made in a theatre.

The next disc is from a singer I had never heard before and even did not know by name. For her recital - which seems to be the soundtrack for a videostory of her own making (which I have not seen) - Héloïse Mas [2] selected arias of various characters, mostly female, but also some male, such as that of Orpheus from Parnasso in festa and that of Dardanus from Amadigi di Gaula. When I started listening I noted that she has dramatic talent, but little understanding of baroque singing. In the course of time I changed my views a little. In fact, her performances are less dramatic than I had expected. From that angle the cantata La Lucrezia is rather disappointing. Ms Mas is able to sing pretty loud, but that as such has little to do with a dramatic interpretation. I did not like her pretty wide vibrato, but my fear that she would use it indiscriminately, did not entirely come true, even though she uses it too often. She softens it in 'Ho perso il caro ben', the aria of Orpheus in Parnasso in festa. Scherza infida from Ariodante is also one of the better items in this recital. However, her performances are pretty far away from real baroque singing, but that is something that unfortunately is accepted these days, even by those who should know better. The orchestral contributions are not very colourful. I find the playing of the London Handel Orchestra rather bland. All in all, I can't see how this recital brings us closer to understanding and appreciating Handel's art in the department of dramatic music.

Eva Zaïcik [3] is a singer I first heard in a recording of Bach's Magnificat, under the direction of Valentin Tournet. I appreciated her singing, and that is the reason I was curious to hear her in very different repertoire. Listening to her voice, one does probably not expect her to perform opera, but the Alpha disc with the title "Royal Handel" reveals that she knows her way here too. The programme "is intended as a musical portrait of the first Royal Academy of Music", according to the liner-notes. This explains why arias by two other composers are also included: Attilio Ariosti and Giovanni Bononcini. However, it is Handel who is the main composer here. Eva Zaïcik has made a fine selection of arias which suit her voice well. I particularly liked 'Stille amare' from Tolomeo, 'Ah! tu non sai' from Ottone and 'Ombra cara' from Radamisto. These are pieces of a rather intimate character, and there Eva Zaïcik's qualities come to the fore most clearly. She has a lovely voice, flexible and warm, and it has a kind of intimacy of itself. The short aria 'Strazio, scempio, furia e morte' from Bononcini's Crispo is very different, and there are also more extroverted arias by Handel. She deals with them rather well, but avoids the yelling and screaming that some singers think are necessary to depict the feelings of the protagonist. It is also nice that Eva Zaïcik pays attention to the text; it is mostly clearly intelligible, not destroyed by a wide vibrato that is applied indiscriminately, as is so often the case. The orchestra is much smaller than what Handel had at his disposal, and that compromises the dramatic impact of these performances, but probably suits Zaïcik better than a larger ensemble. Another factor is here the recording venue: a church, with its reverberation, is not the ideal venue for an opera recital. That said, I have really enjoyed this disc, much more than most recordings of this kind.

'Handelian Pyrotechnics' is the title of the fourth and last recital disc to be reviewed here. The singer is the male alto William Towers [4]. He is probably not the best-known representative of his voice type who participates in opera performances. I at least can't remember having heard them in opera. His modesty, as he shows in his liner-notes, is refreshing. Rather than recording a recital as "self-promotion and general career-advancement" he preferred to record arias from roles he had actually sung on stage. The result is this disc, which certainly does not include only arias with pyrotechnics, but also more introverted items. Unfortunately there are quite a number which one has to reckon among the 'evergreens', such as 'Ombra mai fu' which opens the disc. However, there is enough variety, and Towers also selected some lesser-known pieces. I like his voice, which is strong but can also be sensible. Overall I like his interpretations, and his ornamentation is tasteful. What I don't like is that in some arias he exceeds the range of his part, and goes to extreme heights. The pyrotechnics don't always come off that comfortably. The Armonico Consort plays with one instrument per part, which is not in line with what Handel would have used in the theatre, but in a recital like this that is probably acceptable. However, the Armonico Consort is not the most engaging ensemble I have heard in this kind of repertoire. In comparison, Le Consort in Eva Zaïcik's recital is doing a better job.

[1] "Enchantresses"
Sandrine Piau, soprano; Les Paladins/Jérôme Corréas
Alpha 765 (© 2020) details

[2] "Anachronistic Hearts / Les coeurs anachroniques - Haendel arias"
Héloïse Mas, mezzo-soprano; London Handel Orchestra/Laurence Cummings
muso mu-045 (© 2020) details

[3] "Royal Handel"
Eva Zaïcik, mezzo-soprano; Le Consort
Alpha 662 (© 2020) details

[4] "Handelian Pyrotechnics"
William Towers, alto; Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Signum Classics SIGCD658 (© 2019) details