Adriano in Siria, Opera Settecento, 16 September 2015

Adriano in Siria
Pergolesi/Metastasio

Cadogan Hall

Adriano – Michael Taylor
Emirena – Maria Ostroukhova
Farnaspe – Erica Eloff
Sabina – Augusta Hebbert
Osroa – Gyula Rab
Aquilo – Cenk Karaferya

Oboe – Daniel Lanthier
Orchestra of Opera Settecento
Conductor – Leo Duarte

Adriano in Siria is one of several of Metastasio’s opera seria libretti which were used by more than 60 composers, in this case from the first setting in 1732 by Caldara, to the last by Mercadante in 1828; earlier this year, a recording of Veracini’s 1735 version was released, and J.C. Bach’s 1765 version was staged in London. Adriano ends with a gesture of imperial magnanimity; hence many of the new versions were composed for royal occasions across Europe, such as Pergolesi’s setting, performed in Naples in October 1734, which was dedicated to Charles Bourbon, Duke of Parma and future king of Spain, whose forces had captured the kingdom of Sicily and its capital Naples the previous May.

Compared to Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, et alia, Pergolesi hasn’t featured as prominently in the recent wave of opera seria revivals and aria recordings. There is however a complete edition of his operas on DVD, recorded at the 2010 Pergolesi tercentenary festival in his native Jesi, and from that set Adriano in Siria is also available as a stand-alone and on YouTube.

This performance was organised by Opera Settecento, a group dedicated to reviving under-performed opera seria and whose chairman Christopher Silvester is a particular fan of this opera. Their previous events were Vivaldi’s Griselda in 2014 and Handel’s Catone in Utica in 2015 at the London Handel Festival; plans for 2016 include a return to the Handel Festival in March and another September Cadogan Hall performance of an opera by Hasse.

The action of Adriano takes place in Antioch, where the future Roman emperor Hadrian as local governor has conquered and offered peace to the Parthians. He seeks an affair with Emirena, the daughter of the Parthian king Osroa. She is betrothed to Farnaspe, a Parthian prince. Hadrian’s friend Aquilo is in love with Hadrian’s betrothed, Sabina. The plot centres on Osroa’s attempts for revenge against Hadrian, who in turn is persuaded by Sabina to pardon everyone and marry her.

Despite its general appeal, the music is variable: Act 1 drags (no fault of the excellent young cast or the orchestra) until the final two arias, Act 2 is the best balanced musically and dramatically, and the final act wraps things up with rather too much action and too little music. The concert-format (chairs and music stands for the singers, in front of the orchestra) didn’t hinder the dramatic involvement of the cast, who stayed in role and responded subtly to the unfolding of events.

In the title role, Michael Taylor immediately established the authority and confidence of the victorious governor, with a full tone and legato maintained with careful use of limited vibrato. The high-lying coloratura was all managed with ease, and the voice balanced from top to bottom, only very occasionally thinning under pressure of the passagework. Russian mezzo Maria Ostroukhova (oddly identified as soprano in the programme booklet) produced a warm and rich sound, conveying the emotional torment of Emirena and unafraid to use the heavy voice to push fearlessly through the fast passages with mostly clear articulation. Her impassioned Act 1 aria Sola mi lasci a piangere was the first musical highlight of the evening.

Following on rapidly, Farnaspe’s aria Lieto così talvolta is the most performed and recorded extract from the whole opera. Pergolesi sensibly placed this aria at the end of the act – despite being less bravura than other arias for the character and in the opera, it’s the undoubted musical standout in the work. The obbligato oboe, representing a caged nightingale, was sensitively controlled and with some genuine quiet playing. The role was originally written for Caffarelli, and all the arias were handled impeccably by Erica Eloff who maintained a clear, bright tone across the huge range required, and showed first-rate technical control in runs over the break and back.

Augusta Hebbert showed similar control in the role of Sabina, including a perfectly floated held note in Chi soffre, senza pianto, though the emotion was a little generalised through all her arias. The incidental role of Aquilo was reduced further by the last-minute cut of the character’s Act 2 aria, leaving just the one Act 3 aria Contento forse vivere – with music familiar in Stravinsky’s borrowing for Pulcinella. Cenk Karaferya’s full vibrato did justice to the character’s frustrated passion for Sabina.

The most sensational singing of the evening came from the tenor Gyula Rab, who is only in the second year of his professional career. Urged on by the full orchestral sound in his bravura arias, he conveyed Osroa’s desire for revenge with an impassioned, slightly Italianate sound at the top, firm tone and precision in the fast detail.

Leo Duarte, busy these days as principle oboe with the English Baroque Soloists in Orphée et Eurydice, was making his operatic conducting debut this evening. The intention was clearly to keep the drama flowing, the next recitative typically pushing ahead immediately after the last beat of the preceding aria, though inevitably some clapping intruded as the audience wished to show genuine appreciation for the singers. The ensemble and tempi benefitted especially from Jonathan Rees’ excellent cello continuo. It’s a long evening for the violins, and although in a few places better attention to articulation and variety of tone would have kept the textures more interesting, the tuning and pace was secure throughout.

In passing, it should be mentioned that the programme booklets for the concert were delayed, only arriving during the first interval, and the £5 charge was generously waived as an apology – although, as both a thorough proofread and a pruning of self-indulgent biographies were still needed, paying would have rankled.

Orphée et Eurydice (1774), 14 September 2015

Orphée et Eurydice (1774 Paris version)
Gluck/Moline (after Calzabigi)

Royal Opera House

Orphée – Juan Diego Flórez
Amour – Amanda Forsythe
Eurydice – Lucy Crowe

Hofesh Shechter Company
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists

Conductor – John Eliot Gardiner
Directors – Hofesh Shechter and John Fulljames
Designer – Conor Murphy
Lighting designer – Lee Curran
Choreographer – Hofesh Shechter

Eyebrows have been raised at the “Royal Opera billing” of this production, given the ad hoc chorus, dancers and orchestra. The Royal Opera House, however, is still clearly a producing house, and if extending the company to include adjunct performing groups means that the repertory is broadened and the number of performances maintained or increased, that is surely for the good.

Of greater concern, is that the raison d’être of this production seems as much to be concordance both with Hofest (a month-long season of Hofesh Shechter’s work across several London venues) and with the Royal Opera’s Orpheus theme during 2015, rather than any serious attempt to rectify the lack of productions of a composer who was central to the historical development of opera as a genre from the late eighteenth century onwards. Gluck’s tercentenary in 2014 went uncelebrated by any major British company; Bampton, Buxton and the Royal Northern College of Music managed short runs of three operas out of the thirty-nine which survive complete.

Further, although Orfeo ed Euridice in its original Italian 1762 version (last seen at the Royal Opera in 1991) was the groundbreaking work of “reform opera” that first moved the dramatic possibilities of the genre out of the straitjacket of opera seria and the recitative/da capo aria conventions, and even though the 1774 revision presented here was in some ways a more fully worked version of Gluck and Calzabigi’s new approach, there are arguments that Alceste (only seen at the Royal Opera in 1981), Armide (never performed by the Royal Opera), and both Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride (just the latter seen at the Royal Opera, in 2007) are all musically superior. Dramatically too, in the case of those last three works, which were the examples used by Hoffmann, von Mosel and others as the models to be followed for the creation of German romantic opera. If Gluck’s operas are worth performing for their own sake, and quite obviously they are, it doesn’t seem much to ask that a major national company chooses more carefully which one to stage.

Perhaps this would all matter less if this production had been anything close to a success, rather than a collage of different aesthetics with very limited dramatic appeal. The orchestra was placed across the width of the mid-stage, on a platform that was raised and lowered at different points, other wide platforms behind and above them were raised, lowered and angled, the upper platform colander-like allowing beams of light to shine through decoratively – but all with no clear narrative consistency or dramatic effect. At least someone had found the oil can to stop the squeaking that has often been heard here from scenery. The dance company was on-stage almost constantly, mingling with the chorus and duplicating the action; for the final, long, 20 minutes of the evening they took over events with repetitious, enervating movement – yes it’s ballet music that in any case destabilises the drama considerably, but it was the clearest evidence that the dance choreography throughout wasn’t integral to the presentation of the dramatic logic, but a parallel response to surface detail in the narrative and the music.

The story, characters – and singers – were all rather lost in the melee, and the limited attention to their direction led in the worst case to laughter in the upper part of the theatre at Euridice’s perfunctory death. Juan Diego Flórez has recorded the role of Orphée in French and was clearly secure with the high writing and passagework as would be expected from his Italian bel canto background. The tone doesn’t appeal to all, and some of his phrasing sounded too deliberate. Lucy Crowe managed excellent ornamentation and some vocally dramatic involvement with the character, but was swamped by the staging. Amanda Forsythe made the best impression, not through the clichéd gold lamé suit she was given, but with strong line and purposeful phrasing. My French neighbour was dédaigneuse about the quality of diction from all the singers.

The playing also achieved mixed results. Ignoring the barrage of sforzandi that is Gardiner’s trademark, whilst at times there was depth of tone in full passages and sensitivity in quieter sections, too often the phrasing felt routine and the sound thinned alarmingly.

For once, this intellectually unchallenging mix of spectacle met with general approval from the Royal Opera audience, at least judging by the welcome absence of booing. But neither as a dramatic investigation of a profound myth, nor as a tribute to one of the few composers who changed music decisively, could it be considered a significant theatrical achievement.

BBC Prom 73, VPO/Bychkov, 10 September 2015

BBC Prom 73, 10 September 2015

Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F Major
Schmidt – Symphony No. 2 in E flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor – Semyon Bychkov

Clearly it would be ungrateful to wish that this concert had not taken place in the Royal Albert Hall, given the small number of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in London across the years and that many of the capacity audience would otherwise be denied a chance to hear their “favourite” orchestra. But for once, it was quite impossible to put aside any suspension of disbelief in the RAH acoustic, at least from my standing place in the gallery. The subtleties of Brahms’ most enigmatic symphonic work were often lost in the wallow of the huge space, and the over-active detail of Schmidt’s orchestration regularly became annoyingly bright and shiny. In the absence of a decent concert hall in London, the performance of both works (and I thought I’d never say this) would have been heard to better effect in the comparatively smaller and dryer Royal Festival Hall.

Other factors weighed against universal approval of the Brahms, the sole work in the first half of the concert. An early start, necessitated by another prom concert later in the evening, meant more latecomers than usual were admitted after the first movement, in all parts of the hall. Determined inter-movement clapping from the same two sources higher up in the hall also contributed to keeping the atmosphere disturbed. None of the music that Bychkov and the orchestra have in the repertoire for their current tour (through Salzburg, Grafeneg, Birmingham, London, Lucerne, Bucharest, Vienna and Linz, for 23 days) would have been ideal as an opening work before the Brahms – though Haydn’s 44th Symphony would have been a particular pleasure. Indeed, during their tour, the Brahms symphony is consistently placed on its own; though, significantly, always in the second half of a concert. I’m not intending to demean music as a useful crowd control device, but for once, anything that settled the audience, gave the clapping-addicts some early satisfaction, and prepared more people for listening to the Brahms sufficiently closely, would have been very welcome.

The first movement was taken briskly, with less neurotic questioning of each phrase than in many performances. Instead, some “classical” restraint through both thematic groups in the exposition meant the outbursts in the development and coda had a careful structural significance. The effect on the harmonic momentum caused by some unmarked slowing during transitions into the second subject group and the repeat of the exposition was negligible, and in contrast the continuation of pulse during the horn passage leading to the recapitulation was a welcome lack of indulgence, in keeping with the more objective approach to the movement as a whole.

That’s not to imply any absence of warmth or subtlety in the conducting or playing, shown especially in the sequences of the second movement, where mood and colour brightened and darkened imperceptibly, yet were kept in the same careful structure balance. Few orchestras can match the VPO for a sound that is so entirely appropriate to Brahms’ most echt-Viennese music in the third movement of this work. But here, one began to wonder if the objective approach was a deliberate response to the constraints of the hall or an attempt to keep excess passion in check. Either way, it wasn’t as entrancing as expected, even if in keeping with the restraint shown through the work as a whole.

No problems in the last movement, where the simplicity of phrasing in the chorale-like theme held its place in the excitable surrounding passages, and placed the emotional weight of the movement appropriately in the coda rather than any of the preceding climaxes.

Whatever Schmidt learned during his brief period of music theory study with Bruckner, it was obviously unlikely to be a sense of classical restraint. The first proms performance of Schmidt’s Second Symphony, doubtless also the first time many in the audience had heard it live or at all, was incessantly virtuosic and exuberant – but did nothing to dispel the sense that the work comprises a luxuriously rich sequence of near-random passages, held together more by repetition than symphonic necessity.

Unfamiliarity is not the issue. During the early decades of the 20th century, British critical reaction to similar outsize late-romantic symphonic music may have been bewildered and inadequate through lack of exposure to that idiom. These days the rapid assimilation of far more complex idioms is standard, and the problem instead is maintaining interest in this particular work as a symphony, despite its considerable superficial character and occasional grand (or loud) gestures.

Some instances of the musical imagery and ideas are appealing enough for a few bars, but the lack of substantial development and transition from one statement to its next repetition is ultimately frustrating. The middle movement “cleverly” appends the scherzo and trio as the last of a set of variations instead of a stand-alone movement on their own, but the lack of invention in most of the preceding eight variations numbs appreciation of that structural effect. Paragraphs and melodic fragments start, rich orchestration builds, all to tail off uncertainly towards another restatement of the same material, especially in the finale. Some passages – the eighth variation in the second movement, the polyphonic wind choir opening the last movement – reach expressive heights on their own. The military second theme in the scherzo sounds oddly like a prefigurement of Hindemith. But right up to the perfunctory conclusion, these passages remain isolated moments of clarity in a swirl of unstructured colour.

Bychkov clearly likes the work, having conducted it regularly, and it’s hard to imagine it played more sympathetically than in this performance. Even the most awkardly-written tutti passages had unquestionable coherence and momentum, and everywhere else the fluency in line and texture kept the attention, if not the interest. The problems with the piece are hardly atypical of its period, nor can every unknown work be expected to return to the repertory as a masterpiece. If you’re happy to put musical logic aside, and want 45 minutes of huge, unfamiliar late-romantic noise, then this symphony is, just, enjoyable enough.

Macbeth, Styles/Huffman, Glyndebourne/ROH, 9 September 2015

Macbeth

Luke Styles, Shakespeare (adapted by Ted Huffman)
Glyndebourne at Linbury Studio Theatre, 9 September 2015

Duncan/Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant/First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox/Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff/Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s son – Xavier Murtagh

Director – Ted Huffman
Designer – Kitty Callister
Lighting Designer – David Manion

members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Jeremy Bines

Lucky the opera composer of today, able to set classic drama (Shakespeare obviously, in this case) free from pressure to conform with musical conventions or expectations. Whilst Luke Styles and librettist Ted Huffman might have been limited in terms of duration and scale by the Glyndebourne chamber opera circumstances for which the opera was commissioned, there’s no obvious musical hinderance to their use of any form or mode of expression compared to many historic attempts.

The precedents, after all, are hardly enouraging: the C19th number-opera form comes close to destroying any musico-dramatic individuality in Verdi’s Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest both engendered settings as contrived and artificial as any C19th archetype; and, post-expressionist in the wrong way, Reimann’s Lear bores the audience by mistaking sonic violence for dramatic intensity.

For this new work, premiered in 2015 at the Glyndbourne Festival and receiving its London premiere with a single sold-out performance, Styles has taken the approach of a loose mix of accompanied recitative and arioso, arguably a better framework with its Monteverdian precedent than any other historic musico-formal approach.

The music has his typically sparse instrumental groupings and themes which are more fragmentary than aphoristic, all welded into a coherent, easy to grasp musical structure. Take for example the careful use of timbres and textures for dramatic exposition (flute and harp duet for Lady Macbeth, the a cappella wordless chorus under Macbeth’s soliloquies, a descending scale for an assassination motif). Throughout the 75 minute work, there is a contrast in moods that is not just a Pavlovian reaction to narrative events; the choice of a simple held chord deepens the emotional focus at key moments, better than any outpouring through predictable decoration.

Examples of Styles’ previous works such as Shades of Forward and Bellagio by Water will give some idea of the sounds of Macbeth, as does the extract from a previous Glyndebourne opera, Darkness – Waking Shadow.

The staging consisted of green grassy matting and a handful of furniture props; the orchestra was located at the rear of the stage, providing ideal balance; and subtitles, not always needed with the quality of diction many of the singers achieved, projected in large letters on the rear wall (similar to the excellent subtitles for Hindemith’s Ein Landarzt at the GSMD in June 2015. A gentle nod to alienation had singers sitting at the sides of the stage, even when not taking “crowd” roles. In keeping with some recent stagings of Shakespeare, the cast (young and and mostly recent members of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus) was all male; though with no attempt in the female roles at femininity other than in the external guise – quite different in approach from the “authentic” all-male cast for Twelth Night at the Globe and also from modern readings such as Propeller Theatre Company’s production of Henry V.

Huffman had shortened the play by excluding the witches, which placed a stark focus on human flaws and greed as explanations for the tragedy. More puzzlingly, and causing some confusion in the audience around me, Malcolm’s final words in the play after Macbeth’s death were reset for Macbeth to sing, being hailed as King of Scotland himself. The music here switched genre into an Adams-y set of major chord arpeggios, but given that the remainder of the play had been adapted “straight” there seemed no particular logic for this altered ending.

Ed Ballard was thoroughly secure through the vocal range of his large title role, conveying a brooding menace by careful shading of the voice rather than any histrionics. John Mackenzie-Lavansch set a mood of authority from the start as Duncan, making one wish that the librettist had kept him alive too. Aidan Coburn bravely eschewed the use of head voice for the high-lying role of Lady Macbeth; while the tone coarsened slightly, it was dramatically consistent with the staging. Jeremy Bines and the small group of players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were superlative in maintaing the pace and balance.

If there’s a slight lack of enthusiasm, it’s that even with the shortening of the play, too much felt crammed in to allow the music room to breath and develop. As such, the music often seemed held in check and yet stretched slightly thin. Both the composer and librettist have talked about this current work being an initial version for a full-length opera and maybe the extra length would do more justice to their creative talents.