Hurray for the BBC Proms! On July 23, Sarah Connolly and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek will be premiering a new (posthumous) work for mezzo-soprano and large ensemble by John Tavener, Gnosis. Looks like there will be live radio and online broadcasts of the concert.
A late night in the Proms office calls for plentiful supplies of pizza. …. Not long now!
The Proms team is one of us. Late nights fueled by pizza.
I love it.
Guess where I’m going to be at 9:00 a.m. Eastern US time tomorrow? Hint: the answer is not “in my office, doing work.”
Well that’s weird—I tested the audio link in my previous post (below) when I first posted it and it worked. Now it doesn’t seem to be working. I’ll see if I can do anything to debug it.
Tomorrow at Wigmore Hall Sarah Connolly and Henk Neven perform songs by Henri Duparc, with Malcom Martineau on the piano. Alas, there are no plans to broadcast the concert, at least not that I’ve caught wind of.
I was a little surprised that I couldn’t find any examples of Sarah Connolly singing Duparc on YouTube, so here’s a recording of her singing “Chanson Triste” accompanied by pianist Joseph Middleton at the Tetbury Music Festival in 2013. (And here’s a link to the lyrics and English translation.)
I know full well that Handel re-used lots of music from one piece to another, but it still catches me off guard. I just started listening La resurrezione and was surprised to hear Lucifer singing one of Claudio’s tunes from Agrippina.
Even more interestingly, Wikipedia informs me that one of Mary Magdalene’s arias from La resurrezione is loaned to Agrippina without a change of text.
BBC Radio 3 links for handy reference:
Presumably both programs will be available for listening on iPlayer for a week following broadcast.
Birdie, did you know that when your new icon shows up on my dash with the “liked” heart, it looks like a kiss from Alice?
Elgar’s The Apostles, at the Barbican.
Soloists: Jacques Imbrailo (Jesus), Nicole Cabell (The Angel Gabriel/Blessed Virgin), Sarah Connolly (Mary Magdelene/Narrator 2), Paul Grove (St. John/Narrator 1), Gerald Finley (St. Peter), Brindley Sherratt (Judas).
Orchestra: BBC Symphony Orchestra with the BBC Symphony Chorus, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
So i know i said i’d post my thoughts about last saturday’s The Apostles on sunday, but real life got in the way. Anyway, here it is now. Fair warning though: there are 6 soloists plus orchestra and chorus, so this is going to be a looooooonnnnggggg post.
My interest in going to see this particular concertised version of The Apostles was not, contrary to popular belief, motivated solely by the fact that a certain English mezzo was singing in it. No, i’d say that my main motivation for going to see this performance was because The Apostles holds a special place in my heart. You see, the first ever performance i went to see when i came to the UK was The Apostles in Manchester. The soloists included Jacques Imbrailo, Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves and Brindley Sherratt. Essentially 3 of the original 6 soloists (Sherratt, Imbrailo and Groves) i had seen in 2012 performed on saturday. Ergo, i wanted to compare the 2 experiences.
Anyhow, here are some general thoughts on the performance. The Apostles is by no means a small work; indeed, at the pre-performance talk i believe comparisons to Wagner were made. For me, this logically meant that the conductor should pay particular attention to balancing the dynamics between soloists and orchestra. Sir Andrew Davis did do a relatively good job of this in the first half of the oratario; unfortunately, after the intermission i found he rather got carried away with the swell of the music. I don’t know if it’s because of the format of this performance (i.e. the orchestra and chorus were behind the soloists, potentially making it harder for them to project over the sound, as opposed to if the orchestra was in a pit), but i must confess i couldn’t hear the soloists (especially the women, and especially Connolly) about 60% of the time. Which is not ideal. Still, as an overall orchestral experience it was moving. I remarked to tornamiadir, who was with me, that i felt that Elgar, particularly The Apostles, was something that had to be experienced live. Both of us agree that there comes a point in every good performance where an involuntary shiver goes through you. In the best performances such a shiver may occur frequently, and early in the evening’s proceedings. Not so much for this performance of The Apostles; personally i only got my shiver in the final choruses, after Jesus’ death. The chorus did a commendable job, especially since Elgar writes some lovely music for it. The chorus also serves as a major device in moving the plot forward, as does the orchestra; Elgar uses leitmotifs, much like Wagner, and it was interesting to see how both chorus and orchestra became characters of their own. This got slightly out of hand at times, however, and at the expense of the soloists. Whilst some may say that’s fine, given the sweeping, vast texture The Apostles can have, I’m not a fan, since i’m much more a fan of opera than the symphony. Some of the highlights of the evening were when the three apostles sang together; Sherratt, Finley and Groves’ voices blended beautifully and fit the transcendent nature of the music at that point.
Individually, the soloists were rather good. Brindley Sherratt, in particular, was spectacular. I’ve heard his Judas before, and just like before i felt that Sherratt characterised Judas with a kind of charisma that made the betrayal doubly treacherous. It’s the whole “suave villain” complex, i think. Doesn’t help that he cuts a rather fine figure; he is essentially opera’s answer to Sir Patrick Stewart. His bass is lovely, and adequately sized, with a decent amount of flexibility. I’ve seen him twice before, once in The Apostles and once as King Creon in Medea, and both times he did not disappoint. He’s one of those artists that appear to be able to stroll onstage and simply toss off the performance; he sings effortlessly, and i think that’s demonstrative of a really solid technique. His diction is equally precise, which is always a good thing.
Moving up the vocal fachs, we’ve got Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) as Jesus. He was also the Jesus in the first performance of The Apostles i saw. In the two years that have lapsed, i have to say that his voice has grown even richer and rounder than i last heard. My first impression of him in 2012 was “oh my goodness, we’ve got Josh Groban in the house”, mainly because a) he had Josh Groban’s floppy hair (he now better resembles one Jaime Lannister) and b) he really does sound like a much richer, better trained un-amplified version of Josh Groban. His timbre suits the character of Jesus well, simply because of the nobility it conveys. It is an adequately sized voice, and his diction is just as good as Sherratt’s. The music written for Jesus is at times ponderous, and somewhat slower, as befitting someone of such divine status, and Imbrailo’s voice suits the calm, meditative nature of Jesus’ music. All in all an excellent characterisation. I’d love to see where and what Imbrailo sings in the future; he’s still relatively young (and relatively good looking, which seems to be a requirement some companies have nowadays), and i’ll be keeping an eye out. He’d make a good Don Giovanni, i think.
The other baritone of the night was the brilliant Gerald Finley. Of the soloists, i’d say he’d tie with Brindley Sherratt as the highlight of my night. His voice was much larger than i had anticipated. Perhaps it’s because i’d only actually heard him sing Mozart in recordings, and because he’s not a singer i keep up with. But he’s been singing Wagner, and boy, does it show. He was one of the few soloists i could consistently hear above the orchestra and chorus, which is no mean feat. The voice is darkly rich, and smooth, and he seems technically sound in that every note came easily enough to him, high, low, loud or soft. His St. Peter was noble, and a powerfully pious character; there is a point in the oratario where Peter denies he is Jesus’ disciple, that he did not know who Jesus was - the undercurrent of anguish in Peter’s music was aptly conveyed, and you felt for Peter, how he loathed himself for denying his beliefs for the sake of survival. Finley, like Sherratt, is a fine vocal actor, and fit the role perfectly. It is by no means an overly heavy voice, but rather a medium voice intelligently used, and that’s the kind of singer i really appreciate.
One of the other repeat soloists is the adorable, earnest Paul Groves. His Narrator/ and St John are interestingly defined. I don’t know how he did it, but you felt the distinct differences in his characterisations of the two characters. I don’t feel his interpretation of the two characters has changed much in the two years. At some points you do feel as though he’s mentally checked out of the performance, though i can’t say i blame him; St John, to me, is kind of a mary sue in The Apostles. Nevertheless, Groves’ tenor is clear and has a good “ping” to it. (I don’t know how else to describe it, i’m a terrible person, i know). Less bright than, say, Alagna (i know y’all hate him but he’s a good reference point), but not dark like Kaufmann. A good medium colour that makes him so well suited to (sadly) beige roles like the Narrator and St John. And Don Ottavio, which the poor man seems to be plagued by. That being said though, he does make the most of the situation, and i must commend him on his characterisation of St John: it is a plaintive rendering; when he joins in the lament at the end, his earnestness makes it even more heartbreaking. He’ll always hold a special place in my heart, only because he was the a) in my introduction to opera (via the Met broadcast of Die Zauberflote, where he was Tamino) and oratario and b) because he was the first proper opera star i met (and got a picture with). He’s such a gracious, kind and benign persona and that comes across in his performances. There was a bit in the performance where i glanced at him and you could see the resignation in his face - he looked like he knew he wasn’t being heard, but he was trying his best anyway, and in my heart i just went “awwww, bless.”
Moving upwards on the fach scale once more, we come, at last, to Sarah Connolly. She sings the part of Mary Magdelene in this, and does a fine job of it. However, as she herself acknowledges, her voice is not the largest there is out there, and it became evident through the night; i could not hear her 70% of the time over the orchestra and chorus. Initially i thought this was because of where i was seated, but even when i moved to a better seat i could barely hear her. It’s a pity, because from experience i do know she is fantastic at characterising in concert, be it in oratario or in a song cycle. From what i could hear, though, i would say that her Mary Magdelene was interestingly characterised. One almost always thinks of Mary Magdelene as a sinner; she is popularly thought of as having been a prostitute. With that in mind, one would imagine that she might be characterised by a singer as being broken, humiliated by society around her, spurned because of her occupation. But not Connolly’s interpretation; perhaps it is because there is an innate nobility to Connolly’s voice (that makes her so good at playing imperious kings and tragic queens), but i felt that her Mary Magdelene was too noble, almost. There was a dignity about her Mary Magdelene that i didn’t expect. While that did make me think of the character in an entirely different way (which is a wonderful thing and i love Connolly precisely because of this ability of hers - intelligent characterisation) I surprised myself by much preferring Alice Coote’s interpretation of the role; Coote, unlike Connolly, seems to be able to tap into some reservoir of rawness that lends itself well to the character of Mary Magdelene, and to my mind that just fits better. Still. I felt that if Sir Andrew Davis paid just a little more attention to the soloists we would have gotten a much better measure of a role that may seem gratuitous to some. All in all, not one of Connolly’s better performances that i’ve seen; last sunday’s Dream of Gerontius was better. That might have been because as the Angel, Connolly had a larger role to play, and some exquisite music specifically written for the character, but still. She was, unexpectedly, not the highlight of my evening.
The final soloist was the soprano Nicole Cabell. I think the folks on Tumblr know her best as Giuletta to Joyce Didonato’s Romeo in San Francisco’s I Capuleti e Montecchi. I’d never heard her before saturday night, and i must say i was pleasantly surprised. Her voice is much darker than i anticipated, which lent itself to the Angel Gabriel in an interesting way. The closest analogy i can come up with right now is that of quite a dense chocolate cake, with a dusting of cocoa powder on the top. It’s dark in the same way Coote’s voice is, not Renee’s, if that makes any sense. There’s a sense of being “muted”, somehow, but her high notes gleam in the most dark, beautiful way. Its consistency would be somewhere between golden syrup/treacle and runny honey - quite a luxurious thickness. All in all not a voice i was expecting, though it did do well in this piece in that it had enough heft to be heard. Well. More than Connolly did, anyway. Not much in terms of characterisation, and of the 6 soloists her diction was the least comprehensible. Then again, the other singers (apart from Groves, but then again he’s a veteran that’s been in the trenches a bit) are British based, and perhaps that made a difference in how precise their diction was. Still, it does seem that sopranos have rather a harder time making themselves comprehensible, but she did a decent job of it. She did seem rather reticent, though i suspect that might have also been because of who she was singing with - of the soloists i think only Jacques Imbrailo may conceivably be called her peer - the rest are all old warhorses that have been around the block once or twice, and most certainly probably the main reasons people bought tickets in the first place. Her characterisation of the Angel Gabriel and Mother Mary was rather bland, in all, rather more just “parking and barking” than i would have liked, though to be fair both roles are rather like that of Mary Magdelene; all the female characters in this oratario seem rather mary sue-like. Funny, that.
All in all, whilst i enjoyed my evening, it wasn’t mind-blowing by any stretch of the imagination. I’d always thought Sir Andrew Davis was an excellent conductor, but he’s not as much a singers’ conductor as he could be (I think the best two singers’ conductors i’ve seen thus far are Sir Mark Elder and Yannick Nezet-Seguin). A great pity, because if the soloists had been allowed to shine, as they should, The Apostles has the potential to be an extremely transcendent, thoroughly moving and spiritual work; that certainly was my experience the first time i experienced it. Is it a case of hindsight and retrospect painting everything i experienced 2 years ago as rosy and perfect? Perhaps. It doesn’t change the fact that i was left slightly underwhelmed by the performance on saturday; a great pity, given the quality of the soloists. A great pity indeed.
P.S. Some shaky video of the bows to follow, keep an eye out.
Many thanks to phantomunmasked for the detailed review! I found this more informative and descriptive than a lot of professional music reviews.
It is too bad that the orchestra was allowed to overwhelm the soloists’ voices so much of the time. I am hoping that maybe the BBC sound engineers will correct the balance in the recording that was made for broadcast and we will be able to make out all the soloists’ lines.
I didn’t know what Brindley Sherratt looked like, so I had to google some pictures. Oh my—I see what you mean about him being the opera world’s answer to Patrick Stewart. Yes. Yes I do.