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Power, Passion and Precision: German Opera

4 July 2017

German Opera

Opera Foundry at Ormond Road, Richmond, 1st July

Review by Mark Aspen

Way back in 1641 the German polyglot Georg Philipp Harsdörfer was sharing his wide-ranging ideas and expressing them in the sixteen languages he spoke. (As a self-described Arcadian poet, he had a way with words.)   These wide ranging skills included how to fold napkins into models of partridge nests, one of the many useful knacks described in Frauenzimmer Gesprechspiele (conversational plays for women’s chambers), that were a sort of Teach Yourself book for women, in eight easy lessons, on how to become a useful member of society.   However, at the same time, he was also writing a book whose subject might go down somewhat better in 2017.  His Pegnesisches Schäfergedicht (Pastoral of Pegnitz) was extolling the virtues of an integrated theatrical work that would involve poetry, music, singing, dance, painting, and set design, a work called opera.

Exactly that year, 1641, Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (See Improvisation of Genius: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria) premiered in Venice, where the world’s first opera house had been built four years earlier, but for Harsdörfer Italian opera was “künstlich, gekünstelt” (artificial and affected).  He was proposing a German language version of opera that would present heroic acts and moral edification.

Opera Foundry had oodles of the former and a sprinkling of the latter as it took a Saturday evening romp through the genre that Harsdörfer dreamt of: German Opera.  Its showcase of German language opera by-passed Handel, Gluck and Haydn to start the dream 140 years after Harsdörfer, with a real biggy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

RC at German Opera

Opera Foundry’s musical director, Richard Cartmale has curated his showcase to represent the “biggy” period of German opera, which roughly encompasses nineteenth century with two decades either side. In fact we got two chronological romps, Mozart to Humperdinck, then start again and Mozart to Richard Strauss.  And what a great evening it was, sharp and fresh emerging opera singers delivering a programme that had power, passion and precision.

Whilst not staged, the pieces were acted and the audience was engaged, an audience that encouragingly include quite few children.

We start with the late eighteenth century with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, rooted strongly in the Singspiel tradition and first mounted in Schikaneder’s rough Viennese music hall: robust stuff for the masses.  Papageno has just found a much better option than hanging, his soulmate Papagena.  A playful duet interacting Barnaby Beer’s baritone and Camilla Jeppeson’s soprano sense of joy as they contemplated lots of “Kindchen” made a light-hearted opening to the evening.

Still with Mozart in early Singspiel mode, Die Entführung aus dem Serail continued the serio-comic style.  At the beginning of Act II, Blondchen, Constanza’s maid, makes it clear that girls appreciate gentle treatment, in her aria Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln (through tenderness and flattery).  Moving from the lyrical towards a more dramatic soprano, which seems to suit her better, Jeppeson took up the role of Blondchen, accurately hitting the three high E’s in a row with which Blondchen underlines her point.  Enter Osmin, sung by wide ranging bass David Banbury, who acted the harem’s overseer as suitably sinister and well put-down in their duet Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir (I’m going, but I warn you!) for which he suffers a nice line in sneers.   But soon Blondchen’s sweetheart Pedrillo, Belmonte’s manservant, who has inveigled his way into the palace, comes to the rescue by getting Osmin drunk.  In their duet, Vivat Bachus!, Pedrillo, sung by rounded tenor Richard Johnson, soon converts Osmin from Allah to Bacchus.  We are back in the harem in the second half with the quartet that forms the Act III finale, Ach Belmonte, Ach mein Leben!  (Oh, Belmonte, love of my life.)  Blondchen, Pedrillo and Belmonte are joined by the now released Constanza, who sing of the graciousness of the Pasha and rejoice in their freedom.  Camilla Foster-Mitchell brought a clarity to the soprano role, which she played with great dignity.

We were first introduced to Foster-Mitchell as part of the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (It is wonderful to me) from Beethoven’s Fidelio.  As Marcelline her misplaced infatuation with Fidelio (“he” is Leonora in disguise) was beautifully conveyed, not only with delightful coloratura but sensitive expression.  Pizarro, the prison governor, has a hidden agenda, namely to starve to death Floristan, Leonora’s husband.  Brazilian baritone André Andrade was definitely the Spanish don in this role, relishing the thought of Floristan’s demise in his aria, Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick (Ah! What a moment), very much a showpiece aria.  Then he plots to bring the moment forward, with the aid of a somewhat reluctant Rocco, in their duet Jetzt, Alter, hat es Eile!  (Now, old man, it is urgent!).    Bass David Banbury returned to play the very worried looking Rocco, the old gaoler, who doesn’t immediately grasp what is required of him.  Andrade very forcefully rams home Pizaro’s intention, “Morden” (murder).  Rocco gasps “Oh Herr” but then reflect that Floristan is already “wie ein Schatten” (like a shadow).   Another remarkable performance in this quartet was that of Louise Herrington as the hapless Leonora, who has overheard this plot, horrified she cries Abscheulicher!  Wo eilst du hin?  (Abominable man!  Where are you rushing off?).  Herrington’s beautiful soprano aria was sung with heart-wrenching passion.

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Weber’s opera Oberon has the distinction of being originally written in English, as it was commissioned by Charles Kemble, the actor-impresario for Convent Garden, just before Weber died in 1826.  It has since been back-translated to German several times, by Theodor Hell, a close friend of Weber, and in the twentieth century by the versatile Anthony Burgess (perhaps best known for A Clockwork Orange).  The German version used by Opera Foundry is by Gustav Mahler.   Tenor, Matthew Connolly sang Huon’s aria, Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild (From youth onto the field of battle) with great strength in the daring-do, and a long held “Sieg!” (victory!), but somewhat less convincing in the delights of “Lieb” (love).  South African mezzo, Liezel Brink-McCulloch gave a reflective aria as Fatime in Arabien, mein Heimatland (Arabia, my native country) and was joined in her reminiscences by baritone Barnaby Beer as Scherasmin, but in their duet their thoughts still remain heavy, “bleib schwer”.

With Oberon, Weber was in the vanguard of German romantic opera, but Der Freischütz, premiering in 1821, is regarded as his masterpiece.  Panamanian bass-baritone Derek S Henderson treated us to a gripping rendition of Caspar’s aria, Schweig! Schweig! Damit dich niemand warnt.  (Silence, silence! Let nobody warn you.)  He is about to offload a pact he made with the devil, so this is pretty formidable stuff.  But we had already seen Henderson at the end of the first half and knew what he could do.  The aria was Leb’ wohl (farewell), Wotan’s Farewell, the culmination of Die Walküre, the second opera in The Ring.  Wotan enfolds Brünnhilde his daughter into an enchanted sleep, kisses her and lays her on a rock.  Then summoning the god of fire to encircle her with flame to protect her, then slowly departs.  Henderson’s imperious voice was outstanding for this moving piece, wide and rich in range, powerful, the scale epic.  The Magic Fire Music was enhanced by video images on the surtitle screen, a magic moment to conclude the scene.

To be continued

Mark Aspen

July 2017

Photographs by Robert Piwko Photgraphy

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From → Opera, Reviews

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