I just don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps it’s the energy, to keep on top of jottings about things I’ve seen. So, one concert and one cinema screening…

Juan Diego Flórez and Friends: 21 April 2013

So, last week was Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez (along with Julia Novikova and Marco Caria) at the Barbican. Part of a ‘residency’ by the star tenor, it was a balanced programme of ‘old favourites’ (DiDonato in La Cenerentola, substantial chunks of Rigoletto, a couple of passages from L’elisir d’amore) along with a relative rarity or two, JDF singing Prendre le dessin from Delibes’ Lakmé (which I could take or leave) and Popoli dell’Egitto from Il Crociata in Egitto by Meyerbeer. In many respects that was his highlight, his voice seeming to acquire a bit more thrust for the lyrical French heroics than for the Italian bel canto repertoire. In fact, he was in fine voice throughout, with elegant shading and dynamics, inspiring great enthusiasm for his run of La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden next month. He was also generous in the sharing of the limelight with his friends.

DiDonato will be his partner in that Rossini spectacular, and was on similarly  fine form.  She consistently stole the gaze through my binoculars for her engaging and meaningful portrayals of the characters behind the bleeding chunks. Whilst I thought her Nacqui all’affano at the Wigmore last year was a little smudgy, it emerged here with crisp attack, thrillingly secure tone and real verve. She made for a very luxurious Maddalena in the Rigoletto excerpts (Bella figlia amongst them). Her whole performance was crowned by a performance of Se Romeo from I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Bellini that simply seemed to make time stand still: captivatingly delivered, sensitively controlled and shaped, and sung with gloriously luscious tone. (As an aside, at the time of writing, the website refers to this as Romeo & Juliette, ascribing Gounod’s French Je veux vivre to an opera called Romeo e Giulietta.)

Julia Novikova seems to be making a specialty of adding the light-ish soprano dimension to concerts and galas in these parts, having joined Domingo in his gala last year. I don’t find her physical presentation very appealling, being quite uniform and consisting of a rather generalised contorted anguish. Her voice didn’t quite register where we were in the upper reaches of the Barbican Hall: it certainly wasn’t an intrinsically bad performance, I guess it just didn’t engage me much. Baritone Marco Caria brought a thick tone to Belcore and Rigoletto, but threw himself into the characterisations, particularly when duetting with JDF.

I hadn’t previously heard of billed conductor Karel Mark Chichon, not that it was particularly relevant here as he was replaced by another conductor I hadn’t heard of, Guillermo García Calvo. I don’t know what was going on with the London Symphony Orchestra, but there appeared to be some evidence of dissent between orchestra and conductor. In fact, the leader of the orchestra, Roman Simovic, had a face like a smacked arse at the end, and there appeared to be much muttering and grumping which wasn’t entirely pleasant to notice. There had been the odd lapse, but alongside the accompaniment the orchestra had given vivid and grand-scale readings of pieces including the sinfonia from I Vespri Siciliani and the overture to I Barbiere di Siviglia (replacing an advertised Guillaume Tell). Encores were whole-company arrangements of O sole mio and the Brindisi from La Traviata, both of which I could take or leave, but wrapped up a warm and celebratory concert in festive fashion.

Giulio Cesare, Met Live, Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley

Having had a not-entirely-satisfactory experience at Parsifal, and being a little impatient with Handel generally, I wasn’t sure what I would make of the screening of Giulio Cesare: it felt a long afternoon ahead. In particular, having been an avid fan of Natalie Dessay for some time, but noting some recent ‘difficult’ performances, I approached her Cleopatra with a little trepidation.

In the event, it was a consistently engaging and satisfying afternoon. The production is well-known, being the Glyndebourne production created by David McVicar and available on DVD. I thought it came across well from the Met, and the HD presentation was crisp and bright, well-suited to the production’s clean lines and strong colours. The choreography seemed generally less rigorous than it had been at Glyndebourne and, albeit I haven’t watched it for quite a while, I don’t remember the comedy being quite so blunt and ‘knowing’: the biggest laugh in the cinema came from Cornelia’s fruitily-raised eyebrow at the sight of Tolomeo in his Cleopatra-drag harem gear.

For sheer beauty of singing, allied to an intense dramatic presentation, the honours go to Patricia Bardon as Cornelia. She brought remarkable depth and shading to the tortured soul, which relieved the character of some of her gloomy longeurs. Alice Coote partnered her as an awkward, troubled Sesto, although the character seems to lose focus as the evening goes on; it seems hard to sustain this frustrated, impotent rage across such a long span without it becoming slightly comedic in its repetitiveness.

Countertenors abounded, of course: heading the cast, David Daniels as Cesare struggled to efface memories of Sarah Connolly, and actually (despite his bearded appearance) she made the more patrician Roman. Daniels’ tone seemed soft-grained, some of his runs indistinct, but when introspection and turmoil were called for, his commitment and detail came to the fore, with the softer edge to his voice coming into its own. As Tolomeo, Christoph Dumaux reprised his athletic blend of camp and violence, with a voice more incisive and capable of spitting out the bitter reproaches towards his sister and practically everyone else around him. Rachid Ben Abdeslam made Nireno even more camp than in the Glyndebourne run: almost a bit too 1970s sitcom camp. The initially startling contrast between countertenors and baritone was brought about by Guido Loconsolo, looking ruggedly threatening (in a slightly glossy ‘Met’ sort of way, relative to a more gritty Maltman for Glyndebourne) and singing with a strong, full voice.

And so, what of that Cleopatra? Well, this is clearly not the coloratura marvel of the early Dessay, but we shouldn’t expect it to be. Runs may not have been so distinct, and there was the odd note that didn’t quite make it, particularly in some of the floated opening passages. There was a breathiness to the tone and a generally effortful impression that technique was being heavily relied upon to negotiate the music. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – the combination of dramatic display and vocal sensitivity, especially in some of the more intimate music, is still a winner. On the big screen, Dessay is a tireless, full-energy performer and her Cleopatra was consistently engaging and effective. She seemed to pull something extra out of the bag for her last number, perhaps helped by being brought right to the front of the stage, and the coloratura had an ounce of greater cleanliness, focus and ‘ping’. I’m pleased to say that, despite (indeed, perhaps because of) the herculean efforts that appeared to go into the performance, my trepidation was proved unnecessary.

Harry Bicket drew a convincingly lithe ‘period’ sound from the Met orchestra. The Phoenix Cinema presentation was an improvement on the Parsifal, perhaps because the sound world of Handel is less dense than that of Wagner, but there were still question marks over whether it did proper justice to the vibrancy of the Met’s aural presentation.

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