Tag Archives: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Munich via Paris and Vienna / Fantasio / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment + Mark Elder / RFH – 15 December 2013

17 Dec

OAE Fantasio

This was an important occasion to rediscover Jacques Offenbach’s much troubled Fantasio. Being the UK premiere of the reconstructed Parisian version of the score which was not that straightforward a task, worth reading the piece by Jean-Christophe Keck to get an idea of the complexities of putting this new critical edition together. The work had an indifferent reception when performed in 1872 and judging after having heard it live I can relate to the reactions of the Parisians. Offenbach is as always a master of creating moods and atmosphere, especially when the darkness of  the palace’s gardens in Act Two or the grieving crowd in a city square is called for but in Fantasio the amalgam of witty spoken dialogue and standalone ariosos and ballades can appear disjointed if in the wrong hands. The OAE and a very perky Mark Elder on the podium managed to bring the work to life  and the sheer dedication, enthusiasm and comic timing of the top rank cast made it an extremely funny evening. We even have to thank the French censorship office for saving the only extant copy of the spoken dialogue!

The soundworld of the piece is mainly a nocturnal romantic one and Offenbach’s skill at orchestrating delicious harmonies to carve vivid characters and situations is well and present. His skill at writing for voices made obvious in the numerous duets and the judicious use of the chorus, which frequently reacted to the main protagonists as the comical backdrop. Most deliciously at the finale of the Third Act when they are convinced by Fantasio that war is pointless and that wine, home and family is more important as pursuits. The quintet of Act Two exposing the motives of the characters and the piquant duet of Prince and Marinoni adds a typical flash of camp humour to the proceedings.

Sarah Connolly as the eponymous hero strutted her stuff across the stage en travesti in a maroon velvet smoking jacket, white dandyish shirt and high leather boots. His property has been impounded due to debts and arriving to court and falling in love with the about to be married princess. The court jester has just died and he gets the idea to impersonate him in order to be admitted to the Palace without being detected. He then approaches the dead jester’s taylor, here sang by Mark Elder looking every inch the harassed tailor when quizzed by Fantasio on the size of the hump he should adopt. It is not frequently when one wishes the conductor held a cameo in a production but this was absolutely spot on and made the whole auditorium laugh with abandon. Connolly donned a more decorated red jacket to infiltrate the court. Her ballad in Act One was as unassuming as it was dreamy. Her interpretation never showy or forced. And we have to be thankful for the near last minute casting of Brenda Rae as the replacement Princess who blended vocally with Connolly in marvellous and gorgeous ways, leaving very little doubt on how love stricken they both were.

The Princess of Brenda Rae was a character with all the arrogance of her privileged upbringing but also a woman living in a golden cage of responsibility that she cannot shake off. This tortured side of hers made it for a much more interesting dynamic with Fantasio, who in essence manages to free her from her empty marriage and shows her the joy of love. Very much in the mould used many times by Richard Strauss in his later career operas. Rae brought a glistening top and a very firm core to her voice, accompanied by a remarkably natural trill. Her ballad in Act One explaining her sadness for the loss of the much loved jester and her impending marriage was so rendition so sweet and soulful that we were as enamoured with her as much as Fantasio that overhears her and the abundant applause made it all too clear.

The persistent chorus of the three students that permeates all three acts is the mechanism that Offenbach uses to bring the audience in the story and to throw about cheap gags to lighten the atmosphere further. The three singers behaved as the drunken, ironic louts one would expect and infused the performance with a  lot of fun.

The gorgeously deep bass of Brindley Sherratt was a delicious match for the gravitas of the King and his acceptance of the chant by his subjects on his appearance in Act One one of the sly comic moments of the evening.

The Prince of Russell Braun was the sly and calculating type but with an all too clear sense of how he will never be loved for who he really is. His performance was vivid and comically attuned especially in his interactions with his aide Marinoni.

The courtiers were also acted with passion and dedication by Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray. The fiendishly camp and fioritura heavy part of Marinoni was a great achievement and a suitable contrast to the stolid nature of the part of the Prince of Mantua with whom he gets in a complicated impersonation game that makes both of them the laughing stock of this farce. Flamel on the other hand is the stoic support to the confused and tormented Princess.

The wonderful performance by all on stage made for a very funny evening that truly did honour the intentions of the composer and the recording will hopefully allow a new generation discover this beautiful and at times inspired work. A really funny staging would probably give it a chance at joining the operatic repertoire a century and a half after its troubled inception. This great cast and orchestra offered an insight into the innovative and ambitious nature of Offenbach’s score. The recording is released by Opera Rara in September 2014, watch out for it and take the chance to discover this neglected work.

OAE Fantasio list

Some tweets from the evening

The pre performance talk by Mark Elder

Queenly Connolly / Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: French Exchange / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Queen Elizabeth Hall – 8 November 2012

11 Nov

The programme read as the most mouthwatering baroque vehicle for a mezzo, and a condensation of Sarah Connolly’s 2013 engagements at ENO and Glyndebourne. She is surely at the top of her game and when she walked on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall almost lost in a trance, we were all pinned back to our seats by the magisterial presence and her elaborate weaving of the complex persona of Medea. Her Quel prix de mon amour was concentrated and sharp with a great sense of dramatic finality. The change of mood half way was definite and chilling setting the stage for a terrifying Noires filles du Styx which was again incredibly vivid and communicated with the utter simplicity only a great artist can deliver. Connolly has a very rare quality, of being a vivid stage actress but not one to give in to pedestrian sentimentality. Instead opting for a more concentrated, sophisticated approach. In this repertoire that pulling back from paroxysms and overacting has to be treasured. It was unfortunate that the orchestral playing under Jonathan Cohen was not as tightly controlled and shaped as one would like to hear but it was not too distracting.

The short dances by Lalande were utterly charming and totally worth listening to this splendid late 17th century lift muzak. Can obviously picture dignitaries tucking into their roast dinner while this playful jollity envelops the ether.

The arrival of the excerpts from Purcell’s Dioclesian and Dido & Aeneas found the orchestra in a much more vivid mood and it also paved the way for the arrival of our tenor, Fernando Guimarães (since the programme was changed and he did not sing the advertised duet from Médée) his voice showed an exceptional clarity in its upper register an attribute much cherished in Baroque music making. I found his stage presence lacking in comparison but his delivery of the aria from Dioclesian was warm and convincing. His timbre and its exceptional brightness may not be to everyone’s taste but surely it’s a very distinctive sound that demands attention.
Connolly’s delivery of Dido’s lament was as haunting as anyone can expect, with the tortured last Remember me, remember me ringing hushed to the very back of the auditorium. Again a triumph of restraint and taste. It was musical and deeply emotional. The reaction of the audience was extraordinary and echoed in our ears for a few good minutes into the interval.

The second half was an all Rameau affair. The orchestra played with great propulsion and gusto the stirring, almost galloping overture of Hippolyte et Aricie. Being at the second row of the stalls we could observe the extraordinary add ons to the valveless brass in order to make the grandiose grande marche sounds that Rameau had in mind for both instrumental pieces. One of the perennially strange aspects of watching a period instrument orchestra play is seeing the amount of “plumbing” taking place in order to alter the sound of the horns.
Her Phèdre was a creature full of life and tragic power. Clearly her recent stage experience at the Paris Opera and their lavish production gave her even more confidence to fully inhabit the character. She hints at fragility in the first two arias under the surface of steel. Cruelle mère des amours has to be one of the most beautiful and emotionally complex arias in the whole of baroque opera. Her heart wrenching sincerity and vibrating pathos was stunning.
And still she held back her most vibrant interaction of the evening with how she at first recoils at the sight of Hippolyte to then turn and hiss her words at him full of venom and disdain. That was such a fantastic acted through performance, far and beyond what one could expect from a concert. The last words she uttered (immoler ma rivale!) were scrunched up and tossed across the concert platform at such close proximity to the tenor it seemed akin to physical abuse. Guimarães acquitted himself admirably well opposite this fiery Phèdre and contributed his own bitter-sweet monologue delivered with great delicacy and poise.

The suite from Les Paladins was played with exuberance and humour, concluding with a virtuoso coloratura display by Guimarães in Lance, Lance amour he displayed incredible breath control and a flawless upper register, bringing a sense of excitement that made this evening feel like it was closing with a firework display.

It was an extraordinary evening celebrating one of the greatest singers to grace operatic stages across the globe. And it was deeply joyous to see the Hall sold out and making some noise for such a wonderful artist. I can barely wait for her Medea at ENO in early 2013…my favourite seats are already booked.

Dangerous sex appeal and OAP “dancing” / Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divas / Royal Festival Hall – 30 September 2012

2 Oct

What can anyone say about Anna Caterina Antonacci that hasn’t been written over and over again over the last twenty years. On Sunday night she proved to be one of the finest dramatic singers of our times. Dressed in a gorgeous silk crepe dress in darkest charcoal, resembling molten rubber in its movement and pearl jewellery she looked every inch the diva.

Ana Cata listAnyone starting a programme with Medea’s Act One aria is asking for trouble and indeed she did sound not fully warmed up and an aria of such emotional depth that makes demand from the widest extents of the singer’s range is a risk. Of course what makes Antonacci such a supreme artist is her sense of danger, her magnetic sex appeal and her consummate attention to the material at hand. Her ability to switch on to the character in seconds from the musical introduction is astonishing at close proximity, her eyes flaming with the rage of the abandoned woman who comes to claim Jason as hers. One is incapable to take their eyes off her, the fresh sounding OAE created the perfect conditions for Antonacci to weave her spell with this most favourite of arias. Her delivery may not have been as smooth as could have been but Cherubini’s intended vim and brilliance were there in abundance.

The biting command of the character and reality she brought to it continued in her other arias. Having portrayed two of  the characters on stage before must have been a great help for her.
O malheureuse Iphigénie was deeply moving with her singing caressing the delicate playing of the orchestra.  Once more her incisive singing, paying attention to every single word was simply wonderful. Many a singer can get on a concert platform and do a diva approximation, Antonacci embodied the grandeur of Gluck’s tragedy with such decorum and charisma. Proving what a rare commodity she really is.

After the interval she sang Didon’s last aria from Les Troyens Je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité and while she may not have the smooth plush sound that Eva-Maria  spoilt us with, in the recent staging at the Royal Opera, she brought an immaculate presence and sense of drama and precision to the text. What she did for Cassandre at Covent Garden she pretty much repeated on a concert platform for Didon. A perfect example why I am unhappy tolerate inadequate acting on the operatic stage, a pretty sounding voice and immaculate technique are never enough, especially when a theatrical dynamo like Antonacci is gracing stages worldwide.

Her encore was Chanson Bohème from Carmen (a great lead into the Bizet symphony that followed) and again her vibrant characterisation and passionate delivery was short of astounding. An instant reminder of her past as the seminal Carmen   of the last 15 years. And again the transition from distraught queen of Carthage to furious gypsy was instantaneous and complete. This was seriously an evening not to be forgotten.

Of course you will ask how was the Haydn and the Bizet and I will tell you very good as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is too professional to be dragged down by Roger Norrington’s barely there conducting. I am afraid the Haydn conducting consisted of the nation’s favourite conducting granddad in his nightgown dancing embarrassingly to every change of tempo and subtle nuance. It maybe would have been better to try to bring together the different parts of the symphony instead of giving us the Norrington show which was excruciating. Instead of maybe having the score for both pieces he was just reduced to a strange acrobatic act. Interestingly when a score was produced for the arias and the dances by Gluck the conducting was a bit more focused and the orchestra responded accordingly.

The orchestra acquitted itself with some deliciously French sounding playing with oboes creating the colourful backbone for Gluck and Cherubini, while Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute playing was a constant source of joy, particularly in the second movement of the Haydn.  They were also helped by the more resonant acoustic of the hall, since the organ loft was open (with half the pipes still away for restoration) adding much-needed reverberation.

I wonder if the acres of empty seats inside the Royal Festival Hall can be attributed to Norrington or just that on a Sunday night Londoners are not prepared to get out for one of the greatest singers of our times? Whatever the reason, it was a shame for her to have to look out at a half full auditorium.

Looking forward to the second instalment of the series next month with the beloved Sarah Connolly …thankfully this concert takes place at the smaller, nearby, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

And on a shamelessly commercial level…I would urge everyone to get a copy of this just released song recital from the Wigmore Hall.

Some tweets from the evening

Antonacci in action

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