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19th-century Polish opera in rare London staging

6 August 2014

A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold
A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold

Stanislaw Moniuzko’s opera Halka gets a rare London performance on 4 and 5 October at POSK, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith, commissioned as part of the centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Hailed by critics of its day as one of the greatest Polish operas, Halka was premiered in a two act version in 1848, then revised in four acts for its premiere at the Warsaw State Opera in 1857. Despite its success, and lushly romantic score, it is hardly ever performed outside Poland.

The London production brings together a cast of very talented young Polish singers. Monika Swiostek, who has sung the role in Poland, appears as Halka, Marcin Janusz as her fickle aristocratic lover Janusz. Rafal Bartminski sings the role of the faithful Jontek, while Piotr Lempa and Marcin Gesla alternate the roles of Stolnik and Dziemba. Violetta Gawara sings Zosia and the opera is being sung in Polish with English surtitles.

Halka is being directed by Opera Now correspondent Richard Fawkes and conducted by Stephen Ellery, who is also arranging the score for a chamber group. The set is designed by Mike Leopold, a recent graduate from Wimbledon College of Art.

50,000 items of opera memorabilia to go under the hammer

6 August 2014, Gloucestershire, UK

The first tranche of one of the largest and finest private opera memorabilia collections ever known will go under the hammer at Dominic Winter Auctioneers in Gloucestershire, UK, on Wednesday 17 September.

The collection of 50,000 items was assembled over 60 years by Anthony Gasson, an optometrist from Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, who died in 2012. A lifelong opera lover, Gasson’s collecting centred on the operatic greats of the 19th century, though his collecting zeal ran the full gamut of operatic history from printed music by Handel, Purcell and Mozart to signed photographs and pictures of Maria Callas and other stars of modern times.

A small number of autograph letters and other material has already headed towards the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum, but the heart and substance of Gasson’s collection remains intact, including books, paintings, bronzes, prints, photographs, autograph letters, visiting cards, stage and costume designs, programmes, conductors’ batons and more.

The auction on 17 September will offer The Anthony Gasson Opera Collection, Part One: Printed Books and Selected Memorabilia, with further Parts scheduled for auction in October and on into 2015.

Highlights of the first auction include a fine lifetime oil portrait of Rossini, a bronze bust of the child prodigy Mozart, drawings of Richard Strauss and Enrico Caruso, a first edition of an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute published a month before he died, photographs of operatic celebrities by the great portraitist Nadar, and autograph letters by Wagner, Puccini, Rossini and Britten.

Legendary Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi dies aged 90

28 July 2014

Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)
Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)(Photo: Decca/Mike Evans)

Obituary by Ashutosh Khandekar

Carlo Bergonzi’s extraordinary affinity with the music of Verdi was almost inevitable. The great tenor, who died on 25 July aged 90, was born in the northern Italian region of Polesine Parmenese, just a stone’s throw from Verdi’s birthplace near Busseto.

As a child, Bergonzi sang in the local children’s chorus in Busseto, but in his teenage years he trained to be a cheese-maker at his father’s Parmesan factory. Steeped in the music and culture of his local surroundings, he trained first as a pianist, then as a baritone at the Parma Conservatoire.

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bergonzi. He was interned in Austria for his anti-Nazi campaigning, returning to Italy after the war both physically and mentally exhausted. He took to his musical studies again as a way of regaining his confidence and he made his operatic debut in the baritone role of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948.

He continued to sing as a baritone until 1950, when he stepped into the shoes of an indisposed young Tito Gobbi in the title role in Rigoletto: during that performance, Bergonzi recalled that he began to understand that he was no baritone: ‘I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands. Still, I saw the performance through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.’

In making the change to tenor, Bergonzi was self-taught, emulating the very best on offer by listening to the recordings of Caruso, ‘for the inimitable purity of the sound’; Gigli, for sheer control ‘from piano to forte’; Schipa, for ‘extraordinary technique’; and Pertile, for his powers of interpretation.

In just three months, Bergonzi launched himself on his career as a tenor. In 1954, he made his La Scala debut in a new opera, Masaniello, by Jacopo Napoli. It was, however, in the operas of Donizetti, Puccini and above all Verdi that Bergonzi really made his mark. The voice never had the beauty of Corelli or Pavarotti, nor the visceral power and drama of Vickers or Domingo. What Bergonzi brought to the operatic stage, in a career that spanned half a century, was natural elegance, technical assuredness and an open-hearted musicality that gave his performances a beguiling and often moving honesty.

The great connoisseur of voices John Steane pointed out that ‘impeccable’ was the adjective most associated with Bergonzi. You can hear his attention to detail and the care that he takes with dynamics and phrasing in so many of the classic opera recordings that he made at the height of his career, recently re-released in a timely 90th-anniversary box set by Decca, under the title Carlo Bergonzi: The Verdi Tenor. Especially notable in this 17-CD set are a miraculously vivid Aida (1959) with Karajan conducting and Renata Tebaldi in the title role. As Radamès, Bergonzi is peerless in his finely judged yet utterly unaffected phrasing. His Alfredo opposite Joan Sutherland’s virtuosic Violetta proves to be the ideal pairing in a 1962 La traviata, full of tenderness and youthful ardour. His Duke in Rigoletto (1964, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role) has a suave nobility that makes the character’s wicked actions seem all the more appalling.

The longevity of Bergonzi’s career means that opera lovers today might still recall his frequent appearances at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. By then, his voice had started to show some wear and tear, and his semaphoric acting looked quaintly archaic. Indeed, Bergonzi’s physical presence on stage was never his strongpoint. He once admitted his shortcomings in an interview to The Times: ‘I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.’

The voice, indeed, said it all: few tenors could match Bergonzi’s vocal eloquence, freshness and mastery of phrasing. Even at his disastrous farewell appearance in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello at Carnegie Hall in 2000, the voice still had moments where the pure, steady timbre of the tenor’s glory years shone through. (In the end, however, the effort of singing one of the most challenging tenor roles at the age of 76 took its toll, and Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after Act II.)

It is in the Decca and Philips recordings of Verdi, mostly dating from the late 1950s and 1960s, that Bergonzi shows himself to be the model tenor, a beacon of superb technique, taste and faultless musicality. It’s hardly surprising that Pavarotti referred to him as ‘The Boss’. In his latter years, he mentored a new generation of tenors by way of the Accademia Verdiana, the singing school that he ran from his hotel, I Due Foscari, in Busseto. Through his teaching, he provided a seamless link to the ‘Grand Tradition’ of great tenors which stretched back through the 20th century to the lifetime of Verdi himself.

  • Carlo Bergonzi, operatic tenor, born 13 July 1924; died 25 July 2014

Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap Opera

30 June 2014, Virginia, US

Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare
Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare(Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

It is common today for opera companies and festivals, especially the smaller ones, to update Baroque opera both for financial reasons (it is cheaper to buy contemporary clothes than to make the elaborate costumes dictated by the story) and for relevance to today’s audiences (it is easier to relate to the characters’ continuously changing circumstances and emotional states, when they look, behave, and dress like we do). With themes of power, ambition, treachery, lust, love, cruelty and murder Giulio Cesare can be just as relevant today and when Handel composed it in 1724.

Unfolding against the background of an endless sandy desert punctuated by a few pyramids and sphinxes, with various props -couch, liquor bar, bed, huge silver and gold globes - appearing and disappearing for location changes, the opera possessed a veneer of ancient Egyptian symbolism that coloured the modern set and activities.

As I wrote in my review of Galileo, Galilei (Opera Now, October 2013), the most amazing voice (again) belonged to countertenor John Holiday, whose high sweet sound is probably as close to a pure 'castrati' voice as one can hear today. Assaying the title role, and outfitted in a shimmering white Navy uniform, he was not only victorious at the Battle of Pharsalia but also conquered the Wolf Trap stage. Kim Witman, the company's young artist programme director, told me that some vocal lines were bumped up to accommodate his high range and crisp, spotless coloratura. The voice of countertenor Eric Jurenas, who looked like he just stepped off a cruise ship in a white linen suit and tropical-print shirt as the sleazy, tyrant Tolomeo, paled in comparison, although his execution was certainly satisfactory. The other standout was Ying Fang, who dazzled both with her voice, and allure as Cleopatra.

Although the opera was cut from four to a bit more than three hours, it still seemed long, despite the clever and amusing touches director Chas Rader-Shieber sprinkled throughout the work. And the small pit, which required instruments to be placed in the auditorium, appeared to somewhat dampen the spirited conducting of Antony Walker.

Handel's Faramondo in Göttingen, Germany

16 June 2014, Göttingen, Germany

Bold and quirky: Christopher Lowrey and Emily Fons in 'Faramondo'
Bold and quirky: Christopher Lowrey and Emily Fons in 'Faramondo'(Photo: Alciro Theodoro Da Silva)

Music *****
Production ****

Review by Adrian Horsewood

There’s no shortage of confusion in Handel’s operas, but Faramondo has a strong claim to being the most complex; indeed, the plot makes so little sense that the programme helpfully included a diagram of the relationships between the characters.

Faramondo has killed the supposed son of Gustavo but loves Gustavo’s daughter Rosimonda; Gustavo’s son Adolfo is betrothed to Faramondo’s sister Clotilde but Gustavo has designs on her himself. Finally, Teobaldo (who swapped his infant son for Gustavo’s, thus holding the key to the opera’s eventual happy ending) connives with Gernando to try to win for the latter both Gustavo’s kingdom and the hand of Rosimonda.

That this chaos quickly receded into the background in Göttingen was due both to the unwavering ambitions of each character and to director Paul Curran’s bold production: the members of Gustavo’s clan became glitzy casino denizens, while the two other families were portrayed as sparring gangs. The ingenious use of a small number of pieces of set (the work of Gary McCann) gave each faction its own strong look and ‘home’ environment. However, employing such broad brush-strokes meant that the characters’ quirky traits – Clotilde munching on takeaway pizza, or Gernando’s fetishistic sniffing of stolen pairs of Rosimonda’s underwear – mostly seemed unconvincing directorial attempts to inject colour into Handel’s fairly one-dimensional characters.

The music was wholly impressive, with stand-out performances from mezzo-soprano Emily Fons in the title role and from soprano Anna Devin as Clotilde: the former not only dominated the stage with every movement and gesture (not easy when weighed down by bullet-proof armour), but also movingly delivered the role’s tender and heroic moments; Devin’s coloratura and vocal heft were nothing short of spectacular throughout, the role giving her much to get her teeth into (beside the aforementioned pizza). The two very different countertenor roles were sung with dazzling skill by Maarten Engeltjes (Adolfo) and Christopher Lowrey (Gernando), while mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych showed both the outward affection and the inner steel that combine in the character of Rosimonda. Bass Njål Sparbo was the only vocal disappointment as he rasped and snarled his way through the evening, indicating perhaps the constant frustrations and disappointments that Gustavo has to endure, but depriving us of any extended singing.

The FestspielOrchester Göttingen and conductor Laurence Cummings handled the fireworks of the score with aplomb while also creating numerous moments of crystalline beauty; any drama, however complex, would become completely comprehensible if afforded the dedication of such ardent advocates as in Göttingen.

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