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Archive for September, 2021

I have been following the Bach Cantata series with St. Gallen’s J.S. Bach-Stiftung since the beginning of the project, not only on their praiseworthy YouTube channel, but also with their DVD series, and was curious about hearing them live. I knew from YouTube that their concerts are preceded by musical and theological walk-throughs offered by conductor Rudolf Lutz and a guest preacher, but I was unaware of the structure of the concert itself.

We first heard the complete Cantata BWV 77 (Du sollst Gott, deinen Herren, lieben), which is a short item anyway. Then Swiss journalist Iren Meier took the floor to share her thoughts about the theme of the cantata – Matthew 22:37-39, i.e., Jesus’s answer to the question of which is the most important commandment (“love god first and then love your neighbor as much as you love yourself”). The guest speaker started by saying that once the cantata was over, the music should resonate within everyone in the audience. This was a rare opportunity to understand the power of Bach’s music in the context of its intent of communication with the congregation. 

Ms. Meier first discussed the idea of love being the absence of separation, the confirmation of one’s own existence through the communion with all other beings. And this is a central concept in the musical structure of the opening chorus. Then she quoted the text of the tenor recitative “give me, my God, a heart like that of the good Samaritan”.  As the cantata hints at, one tends to justify one’s inability to help others because one is not “good enough”. Ms. Meier stressed that the text of BWV 77 particularly addresses the issue; in her view, one is never too incapable of offering help, for the simple fact of not being indifferent means a lot to those who are suffering. And that is an important concept to understand the expressive features of both arias in the cantata. 


As it is, the opening chorus of the BWV 77 is one of the most complex polyphonic numbers in any cantata written by Bach. As much as Jesus himself develops the concept of the Ten Commandments in that passage of the Bible, Bach develops the concept of one of Martin Luther’s hymns, Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot (“These are the holy Ten Commandments”) and created here one of his hallmark mathematically sophisticated structures. While the chorus sing in fugal style a subject developed from material traceable to Luther’s hymn, we have the hymn itself quoted in canon between the slide trumpet and the double bass (in longer note values). The trumpet offers, predictably, 10 quotations from the hymn, first parts if it and then the whole melody. In other words, we’re hearing basically the musical representation of identity established by unity. Every element in this chorus is a part of one single entity, and you only understand their singleness (i.e., of the derivations) if you refer back to the hymn’s melody (their source).The two arias in the cantata explore the fact that imperfection is not an impediment to express the love of God (and your neighbor, of course). In the first cantata, a pair of oboes offer wavering lines around a vocal part that may sound simple at first hearing, but has the soprano work hard for her money in the less congenial parts of her range in impossibly long lines. So you’ll basically hear her get hard to hear or red in her face before she is forced to stop for quick stolen breathing pauses. The second aria is even more challenging, you have the slide trumpet fighting with an ornamented part completely unfit for a natural trumpet and an alto (male or female) in a difficult negotiation with their passaggio. And – in spite of all that – it all sounds exquisite. 

I have a routine before I go to a Bach cantata concert: I listen to John Eliot Gardiner and then to Ton Koopman, because these conductors tend to offer opposite visions of how one performs Bach in the context of historically informed recordings. While Gardiner seems to be trying to prove that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are a Dreieinigkeit, Koopman is entirely circumscribed in Bach’s own musical universe, as church music from the 18th century. There is no right answer here, of course. One could almost guess how Gardiner conducts the opening chorus – with large brushstrokes of phrasing, rich orchestral sound and a sense of grandiosity. You feel as if you were witnessing Moses receive the Ten Commandments on the Mount Sinai. I’ll repeat myself here when I talk about Koopman’s performance. The congregation at St. Thomas’s was hardly philosophical and the Dutch conductor always seem to have that in mind, by choosing a very immediate and direct way of advertising the advantages of the Christian faith. He takes almost virtually half the time of Gardiner’s recording and the sensation is that of an explosion of fraternal love, with extra clear polyphony but the text spat in high velocity by the chorus. Mr. Lutz tends to see this number rather in Gardiner’s way, but in a zero calorie version. His tempo is slow but not super slow, the orchestra is rich but not super rich and the overall impression is less of “sei umschlungen, Millionen” but rather of warmth and affection. In acoustics that were almost too bass-friendly, we could definitely hear the double bass respond to the trumpet, which could have been placed a little bit more to the fore. As it was, sometimes it seemed in equal league with the oboes. Because of the pandemic, the Bach-Stiftung decided not choose its usual church for this concert, but rather a larger space in an exhibition hall. Although it proved to be less problematic in terms of acoustics than I imagined, it still tended to the overwarm. As a result, the double bass boomed in an almost unrealistic way – and the choral singing lacked definition. In other words, in a faster tempo, the texture would have probably sounded tangled.

Another side effect of the hall’s acoustics could be noticed in the way both female soloists’ voices failed to project in the auditorium. Both tenor and bass did not seem to have particularly larger voices, but the difference in audibility was evident. In any case, Miriam Feuersinger offered a truly musicianly account of the soprano aria, tackling the serpentine lines with the right lilt that prevents them from sounding mechanic. Her pellucid soprano has just the necessary amount of brightness, what makes her pleasantly pearly in tonal quality. It is hardly her fault that she was really hard to hear in the lower end of the tessitura. In that sense, Koopman has an unusually well chosen soloist in Dorothea Röschmann, whose rich lower register places her ahead of the competition. I am not sure if Michaela Selinger is the right choice for the alto aria. She is clearly a mezzo soprano lost in contraltoland. In the circumstances of that concert she was the aural image of trying to make the best of what you have (which is what the aria is about anyway). She worked really hard to focus her low notes while keeping homogeneity – and she deserves praise for that. But if you listen to Nathalie Stutzmann with Gardiner, you’ll see what I am talking about.

Tenor Raphael Höhn’s tone has more than a splash of nasality, but he is comfortable with Bachian style and delivers the text knowingly. Also bass Jonathan Sells offered a particularly sensitive account of his important recitative. Probably because the video is made on one single concert, after Ms. Meier’s speech, I was positively surprised to discover that the whole cantata would be performed again, probably to patch any mishap in the first performance. That said, I am not sure if the second performance could be considered – in the big picture – an improvement of the first one. In the opening chorus, yes, the double bass seemed more integrated in the texture. But the trumpet became more and more hazardous. I feel bad for writing that – natural trumpets are extremely difficult and famously unruly and one cannot have people like good old Crispian Steele-Perkins for every period instrument performance all over the world, but, well, things went really awry in the second performance, especially in the alto aria. On the other hand, my first impression of the oboes was a bit bumpy, while in the repeat the results were clearly more polished. To make the editor’s life harder, Ms. Feuersinger actually sang more precisely in the first performance. For that matter, Ms. Seelinger too sounded more comfortable with her low notes in the second time. I have no doubt about choosing Mr Sell’s first recitative. For some reason, the second time lacked the Innigkeit of his first appearance.

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I Capuleti e i Montecchi is rarely included among Bellini’s must-see works, and the interest of the more curious opera-goers is probably due to Richard Wagner’s impressions of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s interpretation in the role of Romeo. Even the discography is less generous than those of operas like Norma or I Puritani, and I guess that the reason is: there is no big coloratura role in it and you won’t find either Callas or Sutherland in it. I myself have only seen it once in concert in Berlin. It should not be a surprise that I finally see it staged in the Opernhaus Zürich, a theatre with an unusually high record of Bellini operas in their seasons (probably due to the long-lasting association with Edita Gruberová). It is no coincidence that I have indeed seen another Bellini rarity there (La Straniera, with the Slovakian diva), not to mention the Bob Wilson Norma.

La Straniera had the same stage director as in this 2015 production: Christof Loy, a director whose stagings I tend to like primarily for visual reasons – they are always beautiful to look at. This C&I is no exception – in its mafia movie setting, it exudes a certain old-Hollywood glamour. More than that, the director’s angle of showing Juliet as victim of child abuse (yes, it’s becoming a cliché with stage directors) pays off in a plot where everybody is involved in some sort of violent act. However, if I had to single out one strong point in Mr. Loy’s work here is the fact that he makes space for the emotional content in Bellini’s music. There is a big difference between making singers move about and gesticulate to illustrate what the music is supposed to express and allowing them to be on stage and experience and share the expressive power of a score. In order to freshen up my memory of it, I have listened to Riccardo Muti’s EMI recording, an orchestral tour de force in a work not usually remembered for orchestral writing, and yet I would say that in comparison to this evening’s performance it came across as rather blunt.

Conductor Fabio Biondi (whom I have primarily seen as performer and conductor of Antonio Vivaldi’s music) has become a specialist in Bellini, a fellow Sicilian. He does share with Muti a sense that the orchestra plays an important part in the performance of a Bellini opera. With the help of a bright, light, Italianate sound, which the house orchestra adopted with gusto, he was able to make it sing together with his cast without drowning it. As much as Muti in the EMI recording, the ensembles sparkled like fireworks and bubbled like champagne in vital tempi and clear articulation (even if one might miss the volume or orchestral sound in the Neapolitan conductor’s recording in both act’s finali).

I have always had a good opinion of Jana Kurucová, a singer I often saw in secondary roles in Berlin. I actually wished to hear her in a major assignment – and here I find her in the difficult part of Romeo, which was taken back in 2015 by Joyce DiDonato. The way Bellini wrote it, it alternately sounds too low and too high for the mezzo soprano voice. To be honest, Ms. Kurucová’s mezzo is a tad light for it, and one particularly noticed that when the line was too central in tessitura. In these moments, her voice tended to sound a bit colorless. She mostly wowed the audience with very forceful acuti (she was often the loudest singer on stage whenever she sang in her high register), but she mostly knew how to shift into her chest registers for the testing low notes. Her control of the passaggio is indeed impressive. At moments, the most outspoken passages brought an edge to her tone, but somehow that fits the personality of this libretto’s Romeo, who rarely is the lovebird as seen in Shakespeare’s play. At any rate, she is – and I’ll repeat a word I once used to describe her – an efficient singer. You might find someone else whose voice might be darker, more flexible, more beautiful – but I’m not sure it would be easy to find someone who responds to every little challenge in the vocal part as effectively as she does in such a consistent way.

Her Giulietta was Italian soprano Rosa Feola, a singer highly praised everywhere whom I saw only once in Salzburg in Cherubini’s Medée as Dircé. I wasn’t particularly impressed then – and I understand why now. When we look at the discography of C&I, we generally find high coloratura sopranos in the part of Giulietta – Sills, Gruberová, Mei. Ms. Feola’s glory is not her high notes, although they are all right big and firm and round. I would call her rather a lyric soprano, with a warm, positive middle register and even, well-focused low notes. Hearing a singer with such creaminess of tone as Giulietta actually made me like the part more. With her Cotrubas-like shimmer, phrasing of Mozartian pose and a natural feeling for tonal colouring on the text (the true quality of a bel canto singer), Ms. Feola couldn’t help but touching every heart in the auditorium – also in terms of acting. It was a sensitive, beautiful performance.

At first, Omer Kobiljak’s tenor seemed a bit too robust for the role of Tebaldo. His high register, however, is made to sound darkened and, therefore, fails to project with the same intensity of the rest of his voice. On the plus side, he had no problem in scaling down for mezza voce and showed the necessary flexibility. Brent Michael Smith’s basic tonal color is noble as the role of Lorenzo requires, but he could have been even more convincing without the occasional woolliness. As Capellio, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev showed a more imposing voice, a bit grainy in the low reaches. All these singers are debuting in a way or another in this run of performances: everyone is singing their roles for the first time, but for Ms. Kurucová, who is singing for the first time in Zurich.

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My first impression of Andreas Homoki’s new production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Opernhaus Zürich was that there was nothing new about it. It looks basically like his other productions: to start with, the neon tonal palette, the block set sceneries. This impression wouldn’t last long – the fact that I did not like any of this production’s novelties, however, doesn’t make them less new. First, yes, everybody probably since the première of Oscar Wilde’s play has noticed that Jochanaan is not entirely above the possibility of temptation. It is in the text – there is a reason why he refuses to look at Salome. The fact that he chose not to be tempted – just like when we go to the supermarket and say “better not buy chocolate” – proves his fortitude of character rather than if he was incapable of being seduced. Then there would be no merit in his behaviour, right? That is precisely why Salome is so upset with that – she knew he would be hers if only he allowed himself. That is why watching him having sex (or something like that) with Salome on stage did nothing but spoil the beauty of Wilde’s suggestion. In the closing scene, we hear Salome saying “only if” for ten minutes and, considering what we’ve seen, she seems just amnesiac. Another strong element of the play’s structure is that we are allowed to see Jochanaan in only one scene. The next time we encounter him, there’s only the head. And that’s, at least to me, essential for the understanding of the story. Salome is incapable of comprehending the whole scope of Jochanaan’s existence; so she breaks him into an object that fits her capacity of understanding. Wilde had experienced something similar in his own life and knew what he was talking about. That is why the fact that Jochanaan is let loose and is free to stroll through Herod’s palace as he pleases was almost unintentionally funny. Even after he was beheaded, there he was, walking to and fro (and the fact that the singer in the part did not have a magnetic stage presence made it even more frustrating). And call me conservative, but the fact that this evening Salome did not kiss the severed head but the omnipresent Jochanaan was a totally turn off for me. It’s like ordering carbonara and hear the waiter explain that they thought it better not to use eggs.

The sense of frustration was only enhanced by Simone Young’s musical direction. We could hear that she had to make many practical decisions here – helping singers in music that comes close to unsingable, helping an orchestra not truly comfortable with the writing – and, well, good for them. But the élan, the thrill, the overwhelmingness were not there. There are orchestras that are capable of keeping tonal color in reduced dynamics – their strings usually have a bright sound still present above the kaleidoscopic interaction of woodwind and brass. That is not the cast of the house band, the sonorities of which could be indeed described this evening as “band like” in the context of a pale string section. Also, articulation left more than something to be desired, what made the word “blur” come to mind more than once. Of course, we can’t have the Vienna Philharmonic on duty for every performance of Salome, and we could have adapted our expectation if some sense of drama had been produced. Strauss is a composer of effect – there are successive theatrical little tricks that keep the excitement on. Not this evening, I’m afraid.

I leave the best for last. At any rate, this evening’s was a solid cast. Elena Stikhina’s Salome was object of discussion in the pandemic season in the context of the videocast from La Scala. At the time, it was noted that hers was a refreshingly unproblematic take on a role that is essentially problematic, but there was an almost obtrusive problem of pronunciation of the German language. Ms. Stikhina deserves praise for her hard work – this was not an issue at all this evening. More than that, she showed a deepened understanding of the text, her word-pointing apt and some choices untraceable to the example of famous exponents of the role. Ms. Stikhina evidently understands that the nature of her voice demands an approach that puts girlishness in the first place. Hers is not a dramatic soprano, but her radiant high notes just flash in the auditorium. It is most clever of her not trying to beef up or darken the tone – she knows that her superpower is the brightness. This means lower-lying passages might sound close to spoken voice, but I’m ok with that. I’m also ok with her occasional pecking at notes and a rather “Mozartian” approach whenever the phrase is more immediately melodic. It works for her voice, it works for the role – and an important part of Ms. Stikhina’s performance is the sensation that she is in control of it. At no moment, I had the impression she would not make it (as it often happens). Yes, when the writing comes close to dramatic, her voice may lack some color, but that’s a very small price for hearing the part sound as music. Her Jochanaan, Kostas Smoriginas, does not fall in the Wotan/Alberich kind of singer we hear in the part, and yet his voice is at once focused and dark enough and pierces well the orchestral sound – at least in Zurich. He could have made a little bit more the text, though. In a part like Herodias, a charismatic singer like Michaela Schuster is always an advantage. Even if her voice is a bit past its prime, she still commands big high notes. I am less convinced by Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Herod. This was Karl Burian’s (i.e., the Czech Caruso) part in the première, and I always find it better when the tenor really sings it rather than go for the Spieltenor spiel. I was actually curious to see what Mauro Peter would do with the part of Narraboth – in Mozart, his unfocused high notes pass as “elegance”, but here there is a big orchestra to sing against. His high register might still lack overtones, but he muscled up all right for his high notes and, yes, sang with his customary good taste.

A final note – there are far more singers than you would expect for the “disputation fugue”. According to the stage director, Strauss himself had considered the possibility for one performance. So why not try? Musically, it is not a bad idea, I would say. Often the imbalance between solo voices make it less clear. There is also a dramatic point in having more singers on stage, especially in the closing scene – probably the single new idea that worked for me. I won’t even describe it not to spoil the fun of those who still intend to see it in the theatre.

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Although L’Incoronazione di Poppea was premiered in 1643, director Calixto Bieito believes it speaks more directly to audiences today than many a more famous title in the repertoire. Together with conductor Ottavio Dantone, he could boast he proved his theory; his production for the Opernhaus Zürich is thoroughly entertaining – I overheard members of the audience thanking friends for having brought them for the opera and saying that it was far more interesting than they could have imagined. Mr. Bieito’s premise for his staging is that the level of egocentrism, confusion of private and public interest and evasion of privacy of the likes of Nero and Poppea are only comparable to the 21st century’s everyman. As it is, the auditorium of the Opernhaus was transformed in the set of a TV show. The action takes place in a circular catwalk around the orchestra and video displays around it show us either images captured live or stylized version of scenes performed by the cast. Not unlike a stage adaptation by Mr. Bieito of the 15th century’s chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc I happened to see in Barcelona a couple of years ago, the catwalk involves a lot of interaction with the audience, which is very much part of the action as the audience in the TV show. Here, the gender ambiguities are explored with a splash of Almodóvar – especially in the scenes around the attempted murder of Poppea by Ottone. It is not unusual to see tenors in the role of Arnalta and the Ottavia’s nurse, but here they are shown as men and the drinking scene with Nero and Lucano becomes a sex/domination/death game between the two guys. As the Personenregie is accurate, these singers can really act and the concept is coherent and efficient as theatre, the action doesn’t have a feeling of ancient history at all.

As the score of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is famously sketchy – there are basically the vocal parts and the continuo – Mr. Dantone too had enough leeway to concoct his own concept for this performance. As he explains in the performance booklet, he chose the Venice score and borrowed some pages of the Naples “edition” when he thought it would add flavor. His instrumentation was guided by tone colouring rather than strict historical acuity. He admits that he had the full La Scintilla orchestra at his disposal, so he felt free to shift from various forms of continuo to a more string-centered orchestra whenever he felt that the theatrical action required. The everchanging sonorities from the orchestra added an extra dimension to the performance and, yes, it made it sound curiously more “modern” compared to what someone new to opera would expect (i.e., a more homogeneously violin-led orchestral sound). There were moments when, in the middle of a number, an extra layer of feeling was highlighted by a change of the sound – and the effect was often thrilling.

I’ve already mentioned that the singers who performed this evening were all of them good actors, but they also proved to be effective in purely musical terms. French soprano Julie Fuchs charmed the audience in an all-round immaculate account of the title role. She sang in creamy, golden tone, masters the art of tonal colouring in her delivery of the text, had no problem with the part’s relatively low tessitura and radiated real sex appeal. I am always curious by what Ms. Fuchs is doing – she is one of the most interesting lyric sopranos these days. I have heard her sing Mozart, Rossini and Handel, always with excellence. Now I am glad to add her Monteverdi credentials to her accomplishments. This is the first time I hear Emily D’Angelo live. She has been very active in videocasts during the pandemic “season” and, although her talent is evident, her Cherubino and Dorabella sounded wrong to my ears – her mezzo as recorded had a metallic edge and a lack of roundness in her high notes that jars a bit with the instrumental poise one expects in a Mozart singer. Her Ottavia this evening, however, offered me the complete spectrum of her possibilities. It is a voice with undeniable presence, distinctive and colourful in every register (her low notes are particularly solid). It has indeed too exotic a color for Mozart, but it encompassed all aspects of the role of Ottavia. She displayed the regal, the tragic, the heartbroken and the underlying fragile aspects of her role. She also has very clear diction. I wonder if Ms. D’Angelo has considered singing Gluck, for instance. Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén, a name knew to me, offered an extremely convincing account of the part of Seneca. His is a beautiful voice above all, double chocolate and extra cream to the extreme low notes. And he learned a thing or two with his teacher Lászlo Polgár about legato, phrasing and colouring. I can only imagine he must be a good Lieder singer. An exquisite performance.

The part of Nero is infamously hard to cast – few sopranos (or mezzos) feel comfortable with the passaggio and is too high for a countertenor. But David Hansen begs to differ. Apparently, it is the Australian countertenor’s signature role. Indeed, he produces some big, forceful acuti and seems to have unending stamina (and vocal folds of steel). Yet one could hear how difficult the whole thing was. As often with countertenors like him, the lower end of his range can sound puffy and hollow. In the context of a stage performance, his performance deserves praise, but in the end of the day I’d rather hear a female singer in the part. Both tenors technically in drag had the measure of their roles: Manuel Nuñez Comelino’s brighter and edgier sound matched his angular acting as Ottavia’s Nurse, while Emiliano Gonzales Toro’s more dulcet sound worked wonders in Arnalta’s lullaby to Poppea. I am less enthusiastic about Delphine Galou as Ottone – the voice lacks color and volume, even if one must concede that she is unfazed by the difficult tessitura. All minor roles were taken by singers with interesting voices – South African tenor Thomas Erlank (Lucano, first soldier etc) has a particularly promising voice with some heroic potential.

In the first bars of the score, the Orchestra La Scintilla sounded a bit rough in the edges, but one soon realized it was a good approach for this score – it is not a story for “flattering” sonorities. During the evening, under the conductor’s guidance, these musicians’ willingness to explore different possibilities was praiseworthy.

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Partenope is never placed among Handel’s absolute masterpieces – such as Giulio Cesare, Alcina or Orlando – and rightly so, but it has many charms and deserves a pole position on the second-best level in the Caro Sassone’s operatic production. There is no lack of melodic invention – it is just short in drama and variety. Maybe the libretto is to blame – it’s a story not to be taken really seriously (what is a good thing) but this made the composer’s job even harder. Handel’s response was providing charming music throughout, yet there is not one truly gripping number such as Cleopatra’s Se pietà or Alcina’s Ah, mio cor.

In the context of his Jardin des Voix 2021, William Christie decided to offer a semi-staged performance with young singers, all of them promising. Yet I wonder if this is the kind of work that reaches truly expressive potential without a starry cast. For instance, Portuguese soprano Ana Vieira Leite is musicianly, bell-toned, really nimble in fioriture and has the necessary sexiness. Yet is she ideally cast in a role written for Anna Maria Strada del Pò, whose voice was described by contemporary reviewers as penetrating and very rich in its lower reaches, i.e., prima donna material? Ms. Vieira Leite’s silvery soprano makes me think rather of seconda donna roles, such as Dalinda in Ariodante and Poppea in Agrippina. That said, she sang very well this evening, especially when she let herself go a little bit more instead of taking refuge in an instrumental “baroque specialist” sound that did not always run into the auditorium. Her Arsace was British countertenor Hugh Cutting, whose voice is a bit on the high side for the part. Yet he offered beautiful legato and sang expressively throughout. He is not truly cut for heroic roles – and the part’s many arie d’affetto fit his talents. That said, he made far more than a fair stab at the score’s showpiece Furibondo, spira li vento, receiving deserved applause for his bravura. His rival for the love of Partenope, Armindo, was sung by Spanish countertenor Alberto Miguélez Rouco. Handel wrote it for contralto Francesca Bertolli, and it sits a bit low for male altos. Mr. Miguélez took a while to warm and sounded raspy in his first aria. There is a splash of René Jacobs in his singing, and I had to get used to his tonal quality in a part such as the in-love-with-love Armindo. That said, he delivered a seductive Non chiedo, o luci vaghi that hit home and made the audience understand why Partenope started to see some mojo in him.

British mezzo Helen Charlston had a tough incursion in contralto-land as Rosmira/Eurimene. She is technically adept and could handle the passaggio without difficulties, but the part needs more resonance in its lower reaches. Other than that, Ms. Charlston has clear coloratura and an ideal physique for trouser roles. Australian tenor Jacob Lawrence too has impressive divisions and tacked the florid writing in the part of Emilio with astonishing clarity, especially if one has in mind that the conductor adopted very fast tempi. Mr. Lawrence’s upper register lacks focus, though, and barely projected in the hall. I am not sure if casting a baritone as Ormonte is a good idea and, as fluently as Matthieu Wolendzik sang, he lacked color in his low notes.

William Christie seems to believe that Partenope is the kind of work that needs a little help from the conductor – and he is right. Yet this involved making everything bright and fast and exhilarating, what is not always the right answer in a work that may lack drama, more so when you don’t have a Bartoli/Fagioli/Dumaux cast. Even if one doesn’t share his point of view, one must concede that the Arts Florissants is an ideal orchestra for baroque opera. Each number seemed to have its own color (sometimes by way of Mr. Christie’s “creative” reading of Handel’s score) and the strings section proved to be really protean. Natural horns and trumpets, as usual, may be wayward. Unfortunately, this compromised the important battle scene, which sounded frankly awkward this evening. Of course, the edition involved the deletion of some numbers (most notably Partenope’s Voglio amare), the excision of the B section in some arias and simplification of recitatives.

Soprano Sophie Daneman (whom I saw as a lovely Galathea in Handel’s A & G with William Christie many years ago) here showed her skills as a stage director. Semi-staged performances are by definition something half-effective and sometimes painfully so. Not this evening. Ms. Daneman conceived an unobtrusive Personenregie that offered enough context for the audience to understand dramatic situations without interfering with the actual circumstances of a concert with conductor and orchestra on stage. All singers acted convincingly, and the audience seemed to be having fun, especially in the battle scene, when the director observed that having Ormonte (1), Arsace (2), Armindo (3), Eurimene (4) and Partenope (5) herself leading one army against Emilio alone (i.e., and his soldiers) is something that deserves an explanation.

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