Vagaus triumphans

Amanda Forsythe made a triumphant return to Jordan Hall last night, delivering a world-class level “Armatae Face, Et Anguibus” that brought the house down. It was impressive. I sat there grinning at the luxury of having experienced *that* live while my friend rave about the amazing momentum she built and interaction with the orchestra to strengthen the ramping up of tension. (So this is the right place to mention she will be here again with a baroque band for a recital that i would miss (GRRRRRR), but i was very sure to pass on the information to my friend who is very enthusiastic to learn more, if she can get a ticket.)

But before “Armatae Face..”, she was already hogging the stage with her recitative phrasing and “communicative” skill. This is a very short write-up of my experience hearing Vivaldi “Juditha Triumphans” live for the first time.
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agrippina at jordan hall

Boston baroque presented a semi-staged Händel’s “Agrippina” at Jordan Hall yesterday (and today) with a strong cast:
Susanna Phillips — Agrippina
Kevin Deas — Claudius
David Hansen — Nerone
Amanda Forsythe — Poppea
Marie Lenormand — Ottone
Douglas Williams — Pallas
Krista River — Narcissus
Boston Baroque orchestra
Martin Pearlman — conductor

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middle seat courtesy of Stray’s generous cousin

First a foreword: i *reallllly* like Agrippina! it’s a greaaat opera to attend live, so many plots + character layers, and can be an absolute blast when given the right staging + singers. And “historically” this opera brings back nothing but my deeep down wishes to have seen (1) the Zürich version, (2) the Paris/Brussels version, and (3) the Ghent version. Additionally, it was one of the best operas I’ve seen live here in Boston, back in 2011 with Boston Lyric Opera and also a very strong cast + orchestra (and overdose of CT). So even when trying hard to not compare, it’s inevitable :-).

First, the singers: S.Phillips is GREAT!! a very strong and descriptive voice, one which lets her play a lot with phrasing to bring out the manipulative side of Agrippina. Particularly in the slow arias where she sustained the notes and shaped them, such as in “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (A.Hallenberg, please note the orchestra here!! i’ll come back later to it). In fact most of the time when she sang i skipped glancing at the translation so as to not get distracted from the musical phrasing. She also has a large stage presence, almost giving us the impression Jordan Hall was too small for her to reveal all her facets! For this reason actually, i thought she wasn’t fully committed 100% to evilness :-), could be *much* more convincing! Oh, and for a moment i thought i finally understood the aria “Se vuoi pace”, how it fits in, but particularly the message of it as hinted in the musical phrasing.. but can’t seem to find a clip, so perhaps i’ll upload A.Hallenberg later to see if it makes sense..

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Lesbos,Pallas,Narcissus,Agrippina,maestro,Nerone,Poppea,Ottone,Claudio

Follow in parallel in strong voice + character is A.Forsythe as Poppea. I really hope Boston Baroque will release a photo of her holding the scissors at the end of her Act I aria (which I’m told by Stray is the same aria as in Almira, yet more on this later!) Actually watching both of them making me wishing we could see a full staging as they could really develop more. What i greatly enjoyed also is her phrasing during recitative. Händel is a bit hard to follow if one doesn’t phrase/shape both arias + recit, in fact a lot will eventually sound “the same” when you have everyone sighing/pouting/crying/simply-singing over recit. Thus it’s always rewarding to hear descriptive music :-). Here’s a clip of Poppea’s entrance aria while i continue to type, check out clip at the end for recycled music.

Speaking of descriptive music, K.Deas’s phrasing, i LLLLLOOOOOVVVEEE. He appeared initially with a few quite well-timed “over-the-top” comical gestures, paused, then sent out absolutely seductive phases, never has “vieni” sounded soo full of lush + irresistibility! Impressive! Same throughout the night, well timed comical gesture, gorgeous phrasing. And his tone is very warm and sustained (I hope this is the right word, some singers just have non-sustained tone such that you hear 1/2 of their voice as it oscillates in/out of audible range ??, such as the case for Pallas + Narcissus).

Another important character is M.Lenormand’s Ottone. She has very warm and pleasant tone. BUT, her musical phrasing / expression, in my opinion, is 100% mirror-imaged of the orchestra. That is one wishes to hear something more distinct, something that brings out the character.. but i couldn’t feel it. So it was pleasant singing, but much more can be done with these sad arias. I sat there feeling a bit frustrated how under-expressive the phrasing was at times, and kept thinking in head: i’d like to hear how VK does this 🙂 . So, how about a link, i mentioned before, i quite like L.Zazzo’s warm voice, he makes a very credible Ottone here without making the audience wondering why Poppea didn’t just jump ship… Equally important is how the orchestra interacts with / supports him.

While on the subject of “credibility”, it’s true these guys know how to play male characters :-), but a “girly” + “shy” + “timid” Ottone, as can be the case with a mezzo, can make it quite less convincing. So yes, do you need *this* Ottone, for example!

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Marijana Mijanovic as Ottone in Zürich

Lastly, CT’s D.Hansen as Nerone. We have already covered his voice a few posts back.. but here in several occasions I quite like his phrasing, in particular the aria when he was left alone by Poppea and crawling on the floor singing about love. Very pleasant tone + phrasing, *very* nice. The “B” section of Come Nube (link to A.Bonitatibus scorching eyebrows in Zürich) was also quite nicely shaped. Apology for the “A” sections in this same aria because the viola da gamba player caught my attention and i spent the rest of that as well as Ottone’s aria (just before) staring at her 😉 .

Now, to the orchestra! To those who have read my blog posts and seen my love confession for Boston Baroque, I must say I was puzzled for half the night thinking what is “wrong” with the orchestra. It sounded.. uniformly un-inspiring. Then by the beginning of Act II, I have my own conclusion: Please bring in a different conductor! Rene Jacobs for example! 🙂 . Or as I put it more to Stray by the end of the evening: IF the BEMF orchestra was on stage, we would have heard a *very* different version tonight! and as I have gushed non-stop about the players (and maestro Pearlman) before in other works, I believe his take on Händel is underwhelmed. The orchestra, in my opinion, should play an active part in phrasing + supporting singers + building the story. Note Rene Jakobs’ orchestra in various links on this post for example, how he varied the tempo just a bit plus calling for various dynamics between string + harpsichord. Also noticeable there is how bright the strings can be at time.

The semi-staging idea is great, 2 sets of rotating frames where various “beds” + “sofas” + “desk-with-mirrors” + “podiums” are placed for singers to lounge around. Also great was S.Phillips’ engagement with the audience, first announcing to “us” Claudio’s death (and how thrilled she was), then telling us to join in for clap as Claudio arrived back.

A note on Händel’s habit of re-cycling his music, this one has complete recycled arias from (a) Aci, Galatea e Polifermo, (b) Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, (c) Almira. Funny how when first seen this live back in 2011 I was so new to Händel to not even know any of these. Good thing he didn’t borrow any from Alcina / Ariodante; it would have been too obvious. Here you really have to be a Händel’s “geek” to recognize :-).

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Kasarova as Agrippina in Zürich


So, to summarize, a highly highly enjoyable evening, and as always, in the lovely company of Stray. She was shocked to hear my confusion between “Aci, Galatae e Polifermo” and “Acis and Galatea”, especially my thought of the 2nd one performed by BEMF as “generic” 😀 . Unrelatedly, *if* i have an option to put a cast together from my 2 live experiences in boston it would be to pluck S.Phillips from this one into Boston Lyric Opera’s staging. The (my) jury is still out between Kathleen Kim and A.Forsythe. It’s difficult to say because I did not get to see Forsythe in the fully staged version with different dynamics, except to say Ms. Kim absolutely brought the haus down with her riveting singing; i was super impressed as a newbie (so there’s also that, newbie’s ears vs supposedly more refined ears now 🙂 ), perhaps we can have dual cast with 1 night Ms. Kim and following Ms. Forsythe, how’s that for luxury. Lastly, Stray claimed to have *not* seen the famous photo of Agrippina with VK in the meat freezer! I’d really like to share this photo album which I uploaded to her fb page, but very frustrating that i can’t seem to share. Just in case it somehow miraculously works, here’s the link. Else how about this photo, which I made as my screen for the phone last year, but then decided to change because it looked a bit too bloody and scary for late night walk home.
(Edit: so i finally put the album up here because i really love it, staging, costume, singers ;-> …)

amanda forsythe at sanders theater

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This was billed as a duet show with soprano Amanda Forsythe and counter-tenor (CT) David Hansen, accompanied by a small group of superb baroque violin + gamba (4), theorbos + variations (2), and harpsichord players, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) concert series leading up to their full summer festival this June. With that in mind, as Stray explained to me from the pre-concert talk, most of what presented tonight was pre-cursor to what we will see, specifically one of Monterverdi’s 3 operas L’incoronazione di Poppea . The first half included 4 main duets between Poppea and Nerone with the last one’s intro music remarkably resembling the opening phrase of “Un momento di contento” in Händel’s Alcina. After intermission we got two very nice Händel’s arias sung by Amanda Forsythe and two by David Hansen.
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Orchestra: I very much like the strings! Here the theorbo + other plucking instruments were not really featured but rather only accompanying. Thanks to Händel’s re-cycling habit one gets to hear some very nice “excerpts” from his operas in one of the Sonatas, specifically this “Menuet” which of course brought my mind _directly_ back to Wien (if you own the dvd and can’t remember where this ends and what follows *immediately* after, go check now 😉 ). It sounded equally gorgeous with 1 primary violin playing the main tune and 2 violas + plucking instruments + harpsichord setting the stage.

That said, for “Dopo notte” the beginning was a bit too “flow-y”, too “romantic-y” rather than joyful. Perhaps this simply is a result of my listening the last 3 nights to Ariodante from Barcelona.. But to be not so single-minded, let’s have a listen to Franco Fagioli’s version? Actually it does sound flowy here (I’m talking only of the opening with strings, more on singing and why this particular clip below)

Ok, with all caveats regarding my subjective ears for CT, as the evening progressed I felt this was an Amanda Forsythe’s show. What she wants, she can express, both with the “ease” in voice and effort, as well as shades and colors. The contrast between what I view as a natural voice (hers) versus a “restricted high voice” (his) couldn’t be clearer to me when they sing in duet. Her tone has warmth, character, and expression. His, I “felt” was more restricted to a narrow range which already “appears” uncomfortably high, and when going lower you can hardly hear and when higher quite harsh, borderline screaming/shrieking at times (to my ears). Even within the middle, when looked away so as not to be distracted by visual effect, i couldn’t quite feel the shaping.
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So, as the show went on, one could sense she was in her element doing it with her flexible voice, and he with his look and “acting” more than vocal expression. Stray remarked that if he could tone down a bit the “acting” perhaps the focus might be more on vocal expression. Anyhow, I had several options for Dopo Notte sample (note my resistance 😉 ), but have decided to put Franco Fagioli’s here because, as I explained to Stray there’s a CT thing and then there’s this CT thing, namely you can hear FF’s range + expressiveness quite well, and FF actually used his chest notes in “nottÈ**” and “terrÀ” and has quite a strong base and more “pleasant” (for the ears) high in contrast to DH. My point is not to compare one CT to another, but rather a discussion on a range which is 1-sided, similar to sopranos singing *only* within her head-voice range and how flexible + less strained + expressive she can be in there.
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To wrap up, many many thanks again to Stray’s cousin :-), whose ticket i inherited (very niiiice seat), and to Stray for the lovely company. Of course I’m not educated in music and perhaps have no clue what I “hear” when it comes to musicality *and* CT, but I sat there debating further if I want to attend BEMF’s L’incoronazione di Poppea this June given this is exactly what I’ll hear (identical casting as we saw today for the 2 main characters, and how much they dominate the entire opera; not to mention 2 more CT’s in other various roles, grrr). Essentially the question boils down to whether I should come to hear Amanda Forsythe sing Poppea, and yes, i should! There was some talk last year from bloggers in London ( 🙂 ) as to who should “fit” to sing this character and we have one here no doubt.

Oh, note I didn’t discuss a lot the Monteverdi’s singing part.. This is mainly because, though i had thought am familiar with this piece, it turned out i exclusively have been listening to the version with a tenor-Nerone and mostly fast-forwarded to Ottone’s parts :D, so was totally clueless on the bits sung during the concert. Here, Stray, in case you stop by, this is the only one i have listened to, not from 1950’s, rather 2006!
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** the accent thing on È and À is a vietnamese thing, when placed there, you go deep DOWN :-).

bemf with pergolesi @ Jordan Hall

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cool stray made a *four*-hr trek to town *with* a spare ticket! actually without spare i would have come all the same. a self-claimed early music lover, without Stray, i would have still missed all these goodies, can you believe.. There seems to be a local cult devoted fan-base following the boston early music festival performances here because the competition is pretty strong with H&H and Händel’s messiah same time right next door at symphony hall..

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spare ticket seat courtesy of Stray’s cousin

So, on the program: double-bill Pergolesi’s comedic works of “La serva padrona” and “Livietta e Tracollo”. Think the last time i attended such a double-bill it was a split piece1-intermission-piece2 and the music was a bit more confusing for newbies like me to understand.  This time it’s much easier to follow as well as a different sort of split, which i quite liked: piece(1+2)-intermission-more_piece(1+2) . Essentially it’s two somewhat unrelated stories developing in parallel and one can plot it such that eventually the characters cross path (or not) but it helps to have all personnels for use at all time.

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The orchestra: bemf chamber orchestra – a must hear event, i don’t care what they play. As they sat there playing super-energetically to the (silly) comedic storylines, you can’t help but giggling at the luxurious quality and realizing behind the “comedy” there is such precision and professionalism from the musicians. And that tiny plucking instrument: what fun! (see if you can spot on first picture, on top of harpsichord)

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The cast: La serva padrona: Amanda Forsythe(soprano)=the servant,Douglas Willams(bass-baritone)=master, Livietta e Tracollo: Erica Schuller(soprano)=Livietta, Jesse Blumberg (bass)=Tracollo. I first knew of Amanda Forsythe at the bemf festival last year. She could have a very nice career in europe if she chose to but instead opts to stick around and remains a main staple in the bemf ensemble, which is truly a luxury for us sitting in Jordan Hall a short distance away enjoying her fantastic phrasing, comic timing, and wonderful warm soprano voice. Pairing with her was Douglas Williams, not sure if i’ve heard him before, but i very much like his voice, comic timing, acting, and musical phrasing as well. Together, they made 1 part of the double-bill outstanding. The other pair, i enjoyed their singing as well, but am not sure if it’s the storyline or the musical phrasing (i think it’s the latter) that somehow makes the first pair more standout. i know, perhaps it’s not making any sense to compare, but they were singing in parallel one after another! and you can really feel the contrast :-). Altogether, a very nice show though. I’d like a bit less “obvious” comedy, less … what do you call those guys… hmm, the english word escapes me.. CLOWN! yes, no need for clowns to keep audience laughing all the time, it takes the audience’s attention away from the GORGEOUS orchestra and singers’ ability to carry their own singing/phrasing. But that’s only minor, coz i know where to look, given the SUPERB seat Stray’s generous cousin gave me!!

Lastly, to all early music lovers, they’re staging all Monteverdi’s operas at the next festival in Jun 2015. I WILL BE HERE! That, and a whole bunch of concerts of madrigals i believe. very much looking forward! here’s their website, in case you need exact dates to sort out your traveling schedule :-). Oh, Stray, i found the program i attended 2 weeks ago at NEC w/ boston baroque: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. And a couple of clips of Ms. Forsythe’s singing: above from the last time i heard her live at the festival last year (from hand camera, with the same bemf orchestra), and below audio clip of her singing Dalinda in Ariodante from a live performance (btw, if you’d like to listen more let me know, it’s a nice cast of diDonato=Ariodante, Petibon=Genevra, Marie-Nicole Lemieux=Polinesso, Forsythe=Dalinda, and some bass :D)