Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment
Mary Bevan, Christian Curnyn
Kings Place, 10 January 2018
Barbara Strozzi: L’amante modesto, Pace arrabbiata, Lagrime Mie, Canto di bella bocca,
E pazzo il mio core, Le tre Gratie a Venere, Silenzio nocivo
Claudio Monteverdi: Volgendo il ciel, Il ballo delle ingrate
For several years now, Kings Place has selected a specific theme for each year under the banner of ‘Unwrapped’. Past examples have included Time Unwrapped, Cello Unwrapped, Baroque Unwrapped, and Minimalism Unwrapped. Their offering for 2019 is the enticing named Venus Unwrapped. The year-long series of around 60 concerts aims to “unlock the secret history of music by women”. It opened with a focus on Barbara Strozzi, one of the best known of the very few female composers of the Baroque era – or, indeed, of any era if musical history is to be believed. The painting below (The Viola da Gamba Player) is believed to be off Barbara Strozzi.
The distinguished conductor Christian Curnyn directed a group of singers and instrumentalists from the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, with Mary Bevan as the main billed soloist, although several other singers had prominent roles.
he KingMonteverdi ‘The Return of Ulysses’
Royal Opera House, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
The Roundhouse. 10 January 2018
After the success of their 2015 production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (reviewed here), the Royal Opera House returned with an English language version of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, under the title of ‘The Return of Ulysses’. As its name suggests, the Roundhouse is a large circular building in Camden, North London, built in 1854 by a railway company as the Great Circular Engine House and used, albeit only for a few years, as a maintenance depot. It had a central turntable to switch engines into the surrounding maintenance bays. John Fulljames’s production for the Royal Opera House maintains the link with this central turntable with a doughnut-shaped staging with an outer raised ring for the singers with the orchestra in the central circle. Both rotated, the instrumentalists going very slowly clockwise (a bit slower than the hour hand of a watch) and the singers intermittently rotating anti-clockwise. on their circular stage.
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 26 October 2017
I avoid checking back on my past reviews before going to an opera revival, but will sometimes do so after the event to see if my views have changed. In the case of this revival of Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Rodelinda, they haven’t. A very popular production at the time, and gaining enthusiastic applause from the opening night of the revival, this left me less than inspired, with a few specific exceptions.
To start with the positive exceptions, I cannot praise the ENO orchestra high enough for their absorption of period style in recent years, despite remaining a modern instrument band. It has been a long road, aided by the influence of a series of inspirational conductors, the most recent being the excellent Christian Curnyn (who also conducted the first run in 2014). He is the current ENO go-to conductor for Handel, succeeding Laurence Cummings who did so much to start the ENO period performance revival. The orchestra played with stylistic conviction, and Christian Curnyn continued to confirm his reputation as a leading interpreter of Handel – his control of the pacing was exemplary. Continue reading
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 22 March 2017
Partenope is an entertaining, if over-long, venture into cross-dressing, disguise, sexual and political intrigue and, at least in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, intrigue, humour and sexual goings on.
Partenope is the Queen and mythological founder of Naples, who legend believes was also one of the Sirens who attempted to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. She has three admirers: Arsace, Armindo and Emilio. As the opera opens, her favourite, Arsace, is surprised to see his former lover (Rosmira) turn up disguised as a man (Eurimene). As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a women and only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for the dirty old men in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira.
This was the first revival of Christopher Alden’s 2008 production. It is set in 1920s Paris around the complex interconnected lives of surrealist artists and the exotically (and erotically) wealthy. Continue reading
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 November 2016
Serse was the first opera that the newly formed Early Opera Company performed, some 22 years ago. A well-received recording was released in 2013*, and they returned to it for their latest appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, an ideal space for baroque music. Serse is one of Handel’s more curious operas. Written in 1738 towards the end of his opera-writing career, its innovative compositional style was rather lost on the audience, as was the libretto, with Charles Burney referring to the latter as “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music”. He identified the issue as being that the work contained “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery”, which is exactly what Handel intended. Other commentators noted Handel’s use of many short arias, without the usual convention of the da capo, linking it to the musical style of the many ‘ballad-operas’ that had become the rage. It only managed five performances, but after its modern resurrection has become one of Handel’s best known operas.
The first of the short arias is the opening Ombra mai fù, which became one of Handel’s most famous pieces, albeit under the incorrect name of Handel’s Largo (it is marked Larghetto). I wonder how many people outside the opera-loving world realise that this aria is sung by a clearly dotty King to a tree that he has taken a fancy to? Serse’s dottiness continues throughout the opera, to the bemusement of the other characters. In this concert performance, the only prop Continue reading
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn, Sophie Bevan
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 March 2016
Handel: Concerto Grosso Op6/10, Silete Venti; Wassenaer: Concerto 5 from Concerti Armonici; Biber: Battalia a 10; Muffat: Concerto 5 from Armonico Tributo
The players of the Early Opera Company, directed by Christian Curnyn, stepped out of their more usual orchestra pit for an almost instrumental evening of music making at St John’s, Smith Square, with music generally representing the Concerto Grosso format.
Their final work was one of the first examples, albeit billed under the more innocent name of Sonata, with the fifth sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo. These pieces were rehearsed in Corelli’s house during Muffat’s trip to Rome, and were clearly influenced by Corelli’s music and the Italian style. Muffat later spent time with Lully in Paris, and developed a skill in writing music in the French style, before combining the two. But even before then, in this early Italian work, he concludes with a very French Passagaglia, with its distinctive repeated phrases and the use of the opening passage as a refrain, with its lovely little violin motif of rising triplets. In the opening Allemanda we hear a foretaste (or should I say, forehear) of a similar swirling violin motif. With frequent passages for a trio of two violins and cello, set against the full orchestra, this was a Concerto Grosso in all but name. Continue reading
Luigi Rossi: Orpheus
The Royal Opera, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn.
Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, 23 October 2015
Luigi Rossi is not a familiar name amongst opera goers but, on the strength of this performance of his opera Orpheus, he deserves to be. This is the last in the Royal Opera House series of five productions based on the Orpheus myth, starting with Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Roundhouse (review here) and reaching a climax with Gluck’s version, reduced to just three characters (review here)
Composed in 1647 (to a libretto by fellow Italian Francesco Buti), Rossi’s Orpheus is generally acknowledged to be the first opera specifically commissioned for France – one outcome of the appointment of an Italian Cardinal as the Prime Minister to Queen Anne of Austria, the Regent to the young Louis XIV, and his attempts to introduce Italian culture to the French Court. Buti’s libretto is a curious affair, adding a bewildering array of miscellaneous characters to the story together with extended Continue reading
One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.
The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.
The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.