Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik 2018
Innsbruck, 23-25 August 2017
The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music runs annually for about three weeks during August. It was founded in 1976 and has traditionally focussed on Baroque opera. In recent years it has included three each season, including the Barockoper:Jung. This uses singers chosen from the finalists of the previous year’s International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera Pietro Antonio Cesti, named after Antonio Cesti, a 17th-century Italian singer and composer who served at the Innsbruck court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend for three days but those included two of the operas and the Cesti final.
Francesco Cavalli: Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne
Accademia La Chimera Orchestra, Massimiliano Toni
Innsbruck University auditorium, 23 August 2018
The annual Barockoper:Jung performance usually takes place in the courtyard of the University Theology Faculty, despite the inevitable touch-and-go nature of Innsbruck’s weather with its early evening threat of thunderstorms. The first of this year’s three performances was there, but the following day the storm threat was sufficient for them to decant into the nearby University auditorium, from whence the logistics of moving back again for the third show proved too much. In fact, I much preferred the indoor venue, not least because sight lines from the tiered seats were much better than in the courtyard setting, and the acoustics of an enclosed space was also preferable, as was the lack of the low flying aircraft directly overhead.
Cavalli’s Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne is an early piece, his second opera. It was first performed during the 1640 Venice Carnival season. It is not his finest work, not least because it is caught in a transitional stage in the development of early opera where the balance between recitative and aria is not yet fully formed. For Barockoper:Jung, in what was described as a ‘scenic performance’, the complex tale of naughty goings-on between the gods and nymphs (in this case Apollo and Dafne) was acted out against a simple backdrop of gauze cloth, through which shadow play from the Schattentheater Altretracce was observed, the three actors also taking on other fantastical roles, generally in masks, as befits a carnival opera. The setting was in and around a hospital ward, with Dafne stretched out on a bed in the company of a gum-chewing nurse, a cleaner and a doctor. In the Prologue, it is dawn, but Sonno the god of sleep, encourages continuing dreams, the fantastical results being the basis for director Alessandra Premoli’s imaginative interpretation of the rest of the opera.
Although for many years I was able to review the Cesti final as well as the Barockoper:Jung, in recent years that has unfortunately not been possible. So all of the performers in this year’s production were new to me. Last year’s first and audience prize winners were not available, but most of the other singers were drawn from the 2017 Cesti competition. The large array of characters was divided out amongst ten singers, all of whom were impressive, with a much better understanding of period performance style than has been demonstrated in some earlier Cesti competitions and Barockoper:Jung performances. Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo and Sara-Maria Saalmann were particularly impressive in the title roles of Apollo and Dafne, Sara-Maria Saalman (pictured) being a particular delight, vocally, in terms of her lively acting, and being a rare example of a singer who can execute a proper vocal trill without relying on vibrato.
The other singers included the impressive Giulia Bolcato (Amore) along with Isaiah Bell (Morfeo, Cirilla, Pastore), Deborah Cachet (Procris, Ninfa, Musa), Juho Punkeri (Titonio, Cefalo, Pan), Jasin Rammal-Rykała (Panto, Alfesebio, Pastore), Isabelle Rejall (Itaton, Venere, Filena, Musa), and Andrea Pellegrini (Sonno, Giove, Peneo). Eleonore Pancrazi, last year’s 2nd prize winner, was unable to sing her role of Aurora, but acted while Giulia Bolcato and Deborah Cachet sang her part, very effectively, from the side aisle.
Massimiliano Toni conducted the Accademia La Chimera Orchestra in a well-conceived musical realisation of the sparse original musical text, occasionally venturing into more recent styles with, for example, some jazz-like riffs. Surprisingly, the names of the orchestral players were not in the programme, but a little bird tells me that the ones that made the most contributions were Angelo Calvo and Pier Francesco Pela, violin, Gustavo Gargiulo and Ludmila Krivich cornett/recorder, Alessandro Nasello, bassoon, Giulia Gillo Giannetta, cello, and Carolina Egüez, gamba.
The production, costume and lighting were all excellent, making for one of the best Barockoper:Jung performance that I have seen over the years.
International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera Pietro Antonio Cesti,
Barockenensemble:Jung, Fabrizio Ventura
Tiroler Landeskonservatorium, 23 August 2018
The 9th Cesti singing competition (detailed information here) attracted 74 applicants from 26 countries, with Germany and Poland providing the highest number, followed by Austria, France, Switzerland and the UK. The competition is open to women born on or after 1987 and men on or after 1985. It is a big investment for the young singers, as they have to fund their own travel and accommodation during the competition as well as registration and participation fees of €120. Monetary prizes only go to up to five of them. As well as the prizes (1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes of €4,000, €3,000 & €2,000, together with a Young Artist prize of €1500 and an audience prize of €1,000), finalists are given the opportunity for engagements at various venues, generally those of the panel of nine judges (only one of whom was a professional singer, and only one female), most of whom are based in an opera venue (Bordeaux, Halle, Vienna, Innsbruck, Karlsruhe, Zurich, Göttingen) or are artist managers. The competition is open to women born on or after 1987 and men on or after 1985, although I am not sure why there should be a distinction between genders in favour of male singers.
From two earlier rounds, twelve singers were chosen for the final: five sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, one contralto, a male soprano, three countertenors, and a tenor. As usual, competitors had to sing arias from a selection of Baroque composers, compulsory Handel arias and, for the final, an aria from the opera that is to be staged at the following year’s Barockoper:Jung production, in this case, the 2019 production of Handel’s Ottone, re di Germania. The orchestra was not a regular ensemble, as has been the case in some past years, but gathered under the generic name of Barockensemble:Jung. Particular mention goes to Sara Meloni, orchestral leader and violin (pictured, who coped magnificently with a broken string), Aviad Gershoni, oboe, Thomas Chigioni, cello, and Elisa La Marca, theorbo. Conductor Fabrizio Ventura had clearly built a good relationship with the finalists during rehearsals, and proved to be a helpful and sensitive director of the orchestra and singers.
Each finalist sang twice. I mention them below in the order of their appearance during the first half of the final.
Swiss soprano Marie Lys opened with Teofane’s aria, False immagine from Handel’s Ottone, later singing Scherza in mar from Handel’s Lotario, a popular pairing of arias. She has an impressive stage presence and sang with a fine sense of expression. I found her vibrato rather excessive for this repertoire, although she was able to control it on occasions. That said, she was one of the few singers who could execute a proper trill, rather than relying on vibrato.
Kathrin Hottiger, another Swiss soprano, followed with Alcina’s plaintive aria Mi restano le lagrime, demonstrating excellent expressive ability as well as appropriate da capo elaborations. She used subtle hand gestures as an indication of her acting ability. Her gentle vibrato didn’t distract from her excellent intonation, although her occasional lifting onto notes was a little unstylistic. Her second aria was False immagine.
Mariamelle Lamagat, from France, was another soprano who chose Scherzo in mar and False immagine. She was one of the few finalists who showed any real acting ability through her facial expressions, gestures and movements. She was also one of the few that sang directly to all the audience.
Cameron Shahbazi, a Canadian countertenor followed with Dove sei, dolce mia vita. I was put off from the start by his rather pretentious stage entry, acknowledging applause in a manner that is better kept for the conclusion of a full-scale opera. His strong and uncontrolled vibrato wreaked havoc with any sense of intonation or ornamentation, although it proved useful in place of a proper trill. His later, second aria was Se fiera belva ha cinto from Rodelinda.
Tenor Remus Burens, another singer from Switzerland, opened with Stragi, morti, a popular competition choice. He has an attractive voice, but some of his runs could have been more articulate. He was one of a number of singers who focussed their eyes just above the heads of the audience, which I always find slightly disturbing.
Polish countertenor, Rafal Tomkiewicz‘s first aria was Torna sol per un momento. He has a most attractive voice, with a mild vibrato that didn’t interfere with intonation or ornamentation. He added appropriate ornaments, and dealt well with the complex runs in his later Dell’onda a fieri moti.
Czech soprano, Marketa Bohmova sang directly to the audience, although her performance was altogether rather static. She sang Gode l’alma consolata and Scherza in mar.
The Venezualian male soprano Samuel Marino sang Leggi almeno, tiranna inference and L’aime a goder prepara. His gentle voice suited the first aria better than the more agile second one. He was rather static during the first aria, but showed some acting ability in the second, although he did seem to sing above our heads most of the time. The conductor helped him very professionally through a memory lapse in Leggi almeno.
French countertenor William Howard Shelton was very impressive in Hasse’s Generoso risvegliati (from Cleofide) and Handel’s Torna sol per un momento. His clear and focused voice coped well with the most agile as well as the most expressive moments. He directly engaged the audience with subtle hand gestures.
Contralto Angelica Monje Torrez, from Bolivia, started with Ah, tu non sai from Ottone. She has a nice tone, but little real projection or variety in her voice. She coped well with the runs in VIvaldi’s Grida quell sangue
Theresa Pilsl, a German soprano, was excellent in her opening Scherza in mar combining virtuosity with a nice sense of expression and delicacy. She was another soprano who chose the popular combination of Scherza with False immagine. She had a compelling stage presence.
And, finally, German soprano Sofia Vinnik (at 21, the youngest finalist) opened with Qual tigre e qul Megera from Teseo, not quite getting the accuracy needed in the virtuoso runs. With more experience, she will be able to express herself more.
Unusually for me, all but one of the singers that I gave my highest marks to were amongst the five prizewinners. However, that was balanced by the fact that the singer with my lowest marks was also among them.
The 1st Prize went to the Swiss soprano Marie Lys a graduate of London’s Royal College of Music International Opera School.
The 2nd Prize to Canadian countertenor Cameron Shahbazi
Unusually, the 3rd Prize was shared, between Mariamielle Lamagat and Kathrin Hottiger (pictured below), from France and Switzerland.
Plus a second photo of Kathrin Hottiger to compensate for catching her with her eyes closed in the photo above.
The audience award went to Theresa Pilsl, who was also offered an engagement at the Resonanzen festival in Vienna. William Howard Shelton won the Young Artist prize, providing funding to assist in his career. All five prize winners are pictured at the top of this review. Other special prizes of engagements at various venues at the behest of the jury members are announced separately. As Ottone, next year’s Barockoper:Jung, has a limited vocal cast of just two sopranos, two ‘alto castrati’, a contralto and a bass, other performance offers will hopefully be made to those prizewinners who do not fit within those categories.
As with previous years, there were a few singers who singing style seemed rather more suited to a later period of opera singing, rather than Baroque, excessive vibrato being one of the principal issues. Very few showed any specific acting ability (despite opera directors’ penchant for getting singers to do silly things while singing) although most used appropriate hand gestures. That said, I thought that the vocal and performance standard was generally higher than in previous years – it is rare for so many prizewinners to be from my own top choices.
As ever, overheating was an issue in the hall, despite occasional window opening during breaks, making for tricky tuning for the orchestra and unpleasant conditions for singers and audience alike. For some reason, all the commentary was in German, with none of the English translations I had been used to in the past. Only one of the judges translated his words into English, on the entirely appropriate grounds that many of the finalists were not German speakers. That was balanced by the same judge giving rather gushing and over-fullsome praise to the second prize winner, commenting on his unsuccessful attempt last year and praising his talents. I thought a little unfair to the other prize winner, who received no such eulogy.
It was interesting to compare the CVs of the singers in the detailed competition folder. It was clear that most competitors had already built pretty solid careers, with several being finalists or prizewinners in other competitions. A number of singers (from all the competitors, not just the finalists) included rather overdone and unattributed descriptions of their abilities, seemingly not drawn from professional reviews, but presumably based on self-assessment. Examples include references to a “unique, agile and sparkling voice”, “emerging as one of the most promising artists of his generation”, “known for her uniquely clear and bright colour of voice”, “praised for his wide vocal range, velvety timbre and spotless diction”, and “praised for his clear, flexible, and voluptuous voice”. I am not sure if these sort of anonymous comments are really appropriate, rather than using credited quotes from professional reviewers. I also wondered whether a music CV was the right place for one finalist to note his advocacy for a specific sexual/gender identity.
You can watch a recording of the final on the festival’s Facebook page here.
Johann Adolf Hasse: La Semele o sia La richiesta fatale
Le Musiche Nove, Claudio Osele
Tiroler Landestheater, 24 August 2018
The third of the festival’s three operas (Hasse’s La Semele o sia La richiesta fatale – Semele or The Fatal Request) was a curious affair, not least because it wasn’t an opera, but a serenata – a very different beast. Usually intended for private, aristocratic performance, either outdoors or in a small space, with little or no scenery or props, small casts, simple, usually mythological themes, and limited musical resources, serenatas were a relatively short-lived musical genre. Rather than using one of the many suitable venues in Innsbruck for such a small-scale production, this was staged in the expansive Tiroler Landestheater which, for some reason, smelt strongly of fried fish. This was not an Innsbrucker Festwochen production, but one that seems to be touring. The conductor, musicologist Claudio Osele, has edited a copy of Hasse’s score currently in the Vienna Musikfreunde archive. He was conducting his own string orchestra, Le Musiche Nove. The director was Georg Quander, and the three singers were sopranos Francesca Aspromonte (pictured) and Roberta Invernizzi as Semele and Giunone, and mezzo Sonia Prina as Giove.
La Semele was first performed in a Naples palazzo in 1726. The plot is similar to that used by Handel in his later oratorio, albeit with a different ending. Hasse uses only three characters, Giove/Zeus, Giunone/Juno (Mrs Zeus), and Semele (Zeus’s earthly lover). He gives them 14 arias, three duets, and two trios. Despite the range of musical forms, Hasse’s music rarely raises itself above the merely competent, with its palette of predictable Baroque motifs sequences and lack of harmonic interest. The string orchestra lacked variations and colour or any instrumental solo moments. That said, there were some good musical moments, including Semele’s pastorale Dulcespirail venticello (here sung while some very silly looking cardboard birds fluttered around her), a lament, a vengeance aria, and some dramatic recitativos and accompagnatos.
The setting and costumes were curiously confused, the world of the gods seemingly an aristocratic 18th-century affair, while the earthlings (or gods pretending to be such) were in vaguely 1920/30s attire. Semele’s over-tight and over-short dress required continual readjustment to conserve her modesty, until she was eventually clad in more godly garb. The motley collection of earthly furniture ranged from a chaises-longe to a Bauhaus chair. The location setting was indicated by a rather blurred projected backdrop of the 1535 Sala dei Giganti in Mantua’s Palazzo Te, initially showing a view of a sumptuous Renaissance domed ceiling projected as a wall. Rather unnervingly, this then started to revolve in a way that would have made anybody who had overdone the pre-performance sekt feel distinctly queasy. It then slid upwards to reveal the wall paintings of the Sala dei Giganti, depicting Zeus’s destruction of the Giants – all rather at odds with the theme of Semele, although it did at least include Zeus.
After the brisk Overture, the piece opened with Semele rather suggestively bent over a chair while Juno ranted about her errant husband. Jove’s first appearance was down the central aisle and a chat with the conductor. My main problem with all three singers was excessive vibrato, wreaking havoc with intonation, musical line, and Baroque ornaments – of which, there were few. That said, all three showed an ability to control their vibrato in occasional messa di voce moments. Jove and Juno both over-acted their parts to a distracting degree, with Jove adding ungainly facial contortions, both aspects that I would have thought was discouraged in a serenata performance. Francesca Aspromonte showed considerable promise as Semele, both vocally and in her more natural acting style.
The second part was centred around a bed, diagonally-positioned with the pillows in one corner, rather than at one end – not the most practical arrangement for Semele’s planned seduction of the godly version of Zeus. Another of the many directorial oddities was the sight of Juno tidying up the bed of her love-rival Semele, and then promptly untidying her earlier tidying. The conductor’s very audible upbeat breaths were a distraction, even from some way back in the stalls. I don’t know why conductors do this, when they have the ability to signal upbeats and rest with their hands.
A phrase I sometimes use for works like this is that they have been “plucked from well-deserved obscurity”. But I do wonder if a more sensitive performance, with more appropriate singing, and in a far more appropriate space, might have helped me to appreciate it a bit more.