Juditha triumphans in Amsterdam

After Semiramide, we have been waiting anxiously for this opportunity to hear Iervolino swaggering on stage as smooth silky Holofernes. I confess when first seeing the cast yesterday of frowning upon seeing Gaëlle Arquez’s name as Juditha. I have heard her as Armide in Wien and did not having much impression.. Well, can we say we have found a Juditha for the next 10+ years?!

Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans
Dutch Nationale Opera
Juditha: Gaëlle Arquez
Holofernes: Teresa Iervolino
Vagaus: Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Abra: Polly Leech
Ozias: Francesca Ascioti
La Cetra Barockorchester
Andrea Marcon
Saturday 26/Jan/2019

So, this whole blog post might be about Juditha.. Let’s see how it goes.. With the militarish staging I was not sure which way it would go.. sometimes with modern staging suits and ties are more up my alley.. But, from the get go we were greeted with a very toxic Vagaus, the type singling out women to taunt and escalate the brutality.. it did set the stage quite well for Juditha’s desperation. Though the orchestra was SUPERB (and Marcon) I have to confess I think it was too “loud” for Holofernes first aria. That, combining with a staging that put Iervolino quite deep (in a huge stage) facing “IN” away from the audience at times, made it quite more difficult to hear her well rounded tone in “Nil arma, nil bella” . Even Vagaus’s first aria, to my ears, the orchestra was too loud.. though Dehggi and Agathe reported excellent hearing of Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s singing, I confess also not hearing her too well either… The mood changed with the arrival of Juditha, to this tune:

As I have written last year at Carnegie Hall, Juditha is a very difficult role. Her music is somber, dense, intense, all elements that require a lot of phrasing, color, dynamics, and the subtle ability to sustain the tension. Of the many things I have seen Gaëlle Arquez in, mostly on youtube, and once live as Armide, nothing prepared me for her intense and subtle stance to convey the vulnerability of Juditha. Just her presence on stage while the orchestra building up the suspense was worth re-watching. Then the phrasing started, w.o.w. … it’s quite a revelation to finally get someone who can reveal the gorgeous lines in Juditha’s music.. In particular, I love her timbre, it’s a mezzo voice with enough heft and solid tone to sustain a line distinctive from the orchestra such that it does not get covered as easily. The key thing is the subtle change in the music line that brings out vulnerability: She came to request help for her people, but was fully at the mercy of Holofernes and Vagaus. Things could have gone either way during the first meeting.. I think here we come back to the acting: for me it’s best when one achieves a stance and expresses music, with very subtle movements to convey the situation, without any need of overdoing.. in fact with Juditha’s music I find her approach of less moving but expressive yet subtle body angle and musical phrasing extremely effective. What can I say, after so many years of frustration1. I think we have found a Juditha who can do justice to the music (and acting chop to portray the character)! And she has many many arias solo with exotic instruments. Actually this is to Arquez’s great advantage as she can cover the full range (in notes) while being expressive and not at all being covered by large number of violins (which is unfortunately not the case for Vagaus and Holofernes).

Since Juditha’s acting and singing was so on point, everything seemed to work. Here we also comment highly Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s acting in making Vagaus (and Holofernes’s side) to be so unlikeable and violent such that Juditha saw no other way to escape. The staging has Holofernes to be quite more humane (as oppose to Vagaus) and at times opposed violence against women (which was the behavior of his troops throughout the two hours of the opera). The staging was also quite effective in bringing out the different mood in the music, for example during “Veni me seguere fida”, a very solemn aria when Juditha and Abra sat by the burial of their countrymen and communicated tender private lines about their past and fate. This came right after their conversation with Holofernes, with the stage turning to show the constant torment and why Juditha must (somewhat) follow through with a (not-fully) plan.

In the end, all of Juditha’s mood, conflict, and conviction were well portrayed both vocally and through acting, both through seduction and torment and in the end madness as triumphant music returned to glorify the beheading act.

Perhaps some mentions here of the rest of the characters 🙂 . Holofernes is sooooooooo smooth and silky in “Nox obscura tenebrosa” and “Noli, o cara”. Actually after the intermission Holofernes music were also more mellow and required less accompaniment, which allowed for Iervolino’s gooooorgeous voice to shine without needing to compete with the violins. And Iervolino’s acting (partnered with Arquez’s) was spot on and convincing. The beheading scene was very effective 🙂 . Abra was quite nicely portrayed as someone clearly following and loyal to Juditha but not as skillful and intelligent.. Vocally she was good. I also like her acting, especially in the first aria when they both have just arrived and met Vagaus and the brute troops, who quickly tossed Juditha around. Here Abra took over in a flirtatious way (a very courageous move it seems to protect Juditha) to distract the troops and gather their attention away from Juditha. As for Vagaus, I progressively heard her better as the evening grew, but might leave it to Dehggi (and Agathe) to write/comment more as I’m no expert in fast and furious arias, and especially when my ears are just not well tuned to hearing well her voice type (she has a on-the-softer side tone, something like Connoly’s tone, which simply didn’t make it well to my ears in general when there’s orchestra playing at the same time..)

Altogether, it was a very rewarding experience to see a staging that makes sense and strong singers (and actresses) to bring the storyline fully forward. We are still discussing it, with the trip back listening to the entire Juditha again (with Mingardo) to recall how the story evolved.. if you have a chance do come check out the goooooorgeous music and some very fine Vivaldi singers, excellent orchestra and chorus.. I hope the orchestra will not cover the singers as much in the rest of the run.. For the record we sat on the left side second balcony, where possibly the violins might have come up directly and too strong.. but it’s a huge stage, and with singers being put quite a bit deep in, I think the orchestra can be a bit less loud… And we hope to see this pair of Juditha-Holofernes (Arquez-Iervolino) for many years to come.



1. We all got into Juditha a little bit too late to catch the wave of S.Prina or S.Mingardo or A.Hallenberg touring alternately as Juditha.. Speaking for myself what I have heard up until this performance left me between uninspired to confused about the character, with occasional frustration..

switzerland 2013 recap

I still have plan to come back and write up about the last performance… perhaps by this weekend. But here is again the annual HD slideshow of the adventure to Anja Harteros’ Leonora aria. A large part on this trip, I spent either on the run or waiting on train/street, and this was the music that truly sticks. First the slideshow, then to finish out the aria, the last few pictures are repeats of the most lasting images. Lots of warm emotions, annual visiting to dear friends, meeting with new ones in Zürich with fantastic insider’s guide to river swimming + picnic _and_ promises of hosting on my next VK excursion 🙂 🙂 :-). Many discussions on VK, classical music, life, languages, sausages. I always love the establishment of human contact on the personal level because traveling can be such an isolation experience. As a complement I was spotted as an “obvious” Kasarova fan the moment i took my seat in the royal box; i told you, those video coordinators, they don’t always film what see ;-). A small regret couldn’t meet up with Cat and S, but many wishes all is moving foward well. life is long, we will resume. The Alps are sooooo beautiful, one can spend days and months just sitting / trekking / admiring. flowers: a batch for a certain singer but it didn’t quite survive the trek mountains to city. Somehow missing is a few photos of the trams, love love love it when the most prominent features on the streets are rail, trams, and pedestrians, and relatedly EVERYONE was in the lake swimming! For a visitor who loves small city, public transit, good bread, warm humid weather, no AC, warm human interactions, oh, and VK, it was a very memorable trip.

ps- cow picture: we don’t have cows in the city to test our mutual reactions… so excuse the ignorant question, do cows hit people? so on last day on mountains, I pushed forward hiking up on flimsy shoes, a very rewarding experience… except somehow i was the _only_ one on that side of the mountains with cliff to the left as the sun was setting… then niice bell sounds, cows grazing in distance heading perpendicularly to cut off the trail… Then i saw the horns and got worried coz if they decided to make a run surely i’d be off the cliff.. First i thought of waiting out but then if they just sat on trail (coz can’t go further to left) then i’d be miserably lost on mountains after dark… so it was a race to who got passed first.. with lots of slipping and sliding.. After i “ran” passed them, looked up, they were just amusingly watching my moves.. and more images of them _charging_ downhills, so off to the cable car to race all the way down :-).

dead man walking at somerville theater

A colleague and I, intrigued by the advertisement on the train of “Dead Man Walking” the “opera”, saw it today at Somerville theater. Colleague left at intermission citing splitting headache while I continued to the end. If I have to summarize it: I saw a wonderful “play” today, one with “lots of music, LOTS”, colleague added. We are unsure the difference between an opera and a musical, but in our limited experience, we concluded it was more a musical. The work was commissioned more than 10 years ago for San Francisco Opera House premiere (wow, Susan Graham was Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade the mother!!) and is based on a true story as written in the novel by Sister Helen Prejean and put to a hugely successful Hollywood movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in an all-star cast. I saw it in theater back then, crying my eyes out toward the end. The idea of it being put to music intrigued both of us. As announced at the beginning, the Boston Opera Collaborative has worked tirelessly for the last 2 years to bring this work to Boston this month.

There are many layers, let’s start first with the cast. The acting is top notch, highly convincing. This starts with the portrayal of Sister Helen (Courtney Miller) and ends with the portrayal of Joseph De Rocher the convicted rapist and killer on death row (Jonathan Stinson). The mother (portrayed and sung by Felicia Gavilanes) also had very strong scenes first to the appeal board begging them to spare her son’s death and second in her last conversation with her son just before execution. In term of voice, I quite like all three main characters’ voices. But this is where the question of musical versus opera comes in.

Actually there are two parts to it as we briefly post-analyzed: the singing and the music. There are countless places when sister Helen said “I’m in despair” or “I’m sorry” for example. I ask the question: if I don’t understand English, would I know that’s what she said? The answer is No. (a) Is she not shaping the words in such a way to portray this emotion? or (b) Is she trying hard but the music itself doesn’t give her much to express? Not sure, i always thought it’s the singer’s responsibility to bring it out, but never quite think of (b) until when colleague brought it up (he has strong musical background, i don’t). I have discussed this before, and to me this lack of emotional expression in the music is my (and colleague’s) rough dividing line between musical and opera: In musical, you “see” the emotion clearly in the spoken words and in the facial expression + acting, whereas in opera you should “hear” it. That is: the music should give you hint to the various state of mind, emotions, actions. Hearing it allowing you to “imagine” it. I tried hard to focus on passages where deep emotion were being expressed in words (libretto), but to my (musically untrained, though colleague’s is highly trained but to jazz) ears I couldn’t hear/feel it. To summarize, it was an evening of exceptional theater, but I’m not sure if I’d call it an opera.

But then again, let’s roll back a little bit. Last year I heard for the first time “Nixon in China” (on TV), and like my colleague today, i got a splitting headache after an hour of what i’d loosely call “sopranos’ screaming to ear-scratching music”. Bad terminology i know, but as recent as last month, in Britten’s “The turn of the screw”, I heard similar thing at times: sopranos singing quite loud pronouncing perfectly English words. Even in many attempts to block out the “English” part, hearing the underlying music they were singing is very difficult because the singing speech is ,by my definition, disruptive music (think lost musical signal, the mouth is constantly opening and closing rapidly to produce perfectly pronouncing words full of consonants “p”, “m”, “t” etc. while trying to be on the right “notes”, as opposed to shaping the notes (?)) This type of singing can be true for all voice types, but sopranos stick out the most to my ears in these kind of “modern” music. (modern = clashing in ears most of the times). Actually the orchestral music today at times sounded like soundtrack from a movie…

There were glimpses of sister Helen attempting to shape her (musical) emotion, and at these points I am even more unsure if the music allows her to. Unlike in Britten’s earlier mentioned work, let’s take the “haunted tune” as an example, the music leaves some sort of goosebumps on you, either when sung by the little boy or by the governess. In Dead Man walking, there’s a “similar” tune perhaps, “He will gather us around”, He being the lord. The piece started with sister Helen singing it to little children at the Nun’s house and ended with her singing it over Joseph’s dead body on the execution table. Let’s just say the final moment, i was hoping the tune would leave lingering thoughts, despair, something… along that vocal line, but instead, it was sort of a moment of a singer maneuvering some “ups and downs” in the score that prevents you from having any reflection on what had just happened… Many examples here are on Sister Helen’s role because she’s the center of the opera, but this singing speech seemed to apply to the whole cast..

Moving on, we also had an ongoing discussion about the libretto. Here again we both independently thought it was more a play. The one-line jokes (e.g., Sister Rose to Sister Helen: “Earth calling sister Helen”, small talks (e.g., cop telling Sister Helen he got audited the year he pulled over a tax official, etc.), these are very specific details, how would you put such “jokes” into music? If you just do so by having the singers saying exactly that, that’s theater to me. When thinking of putting something to music, i somehow imagine you’d simplify the words, cut it short, make it rhyme (?) and shape music around it. Perhaps that’s just one of the many possible ways. Explicitly saying things (e.g., “Fuck you” or describing it down to the letter “t”) spell everything out to a native-speaking audience and deprives one the imagination of the situation…

Altogether, I don’t mean to say much negative about the afternoon. It was superb theater, great efforts all around from the singers and producers to bring us the work, and lots of things to discuss between colleague and I. In an opera production, a slightly different take from the conductor, different emphasis on various orchestral solos, slightly different take from various singers, better house with quality sound (this was at a local theater), and sometimes things emerge as so obvious. Other times, one is left with lots of questions, but I think it’s great and gives one the opportunity to explore the work at depth.
When leaving the theater, i wasn’t sure if I want to listen to this again but oh, heyyyy, listen! that’s Susan Graham’s take of the last tune. I’m gonna get that whole cd, we have it at library here! quite like it actually 🙂

So, i might come back in the week follows with more thoughts…

happy (vveerry belated) valentines!

was it last wednesday or thursday? i lost a day last week somehow! woke up and was sooo sure it was thursday but nope, friday already! and today, i woke up thinking it’s monday and wondered where the hell sunday went??? but to much relief, it’s sunday after all. so, rolling back a few days then, to an accidental* love duet

oy, if love quarrels can be this beautiful, bring them on!

* when first heard, i was so sure it was a beautiful love duet, i mean who would even fathom disharmony within the wonderful VK/Gruberova tandem?


just putting this up for myself coz am having a very hard time keeping up with this schedule concept these days… some up-coming broadcasts/concerts i’d like to listen/attend:

Fri, 01-Mar-2013, 1700GMT (1200EST) Mozart piano concert 20, link
Tue, 05-Mar-2013, 1900GMT (1400EST) Patrizia Ciofi sings Verdi’s La Traviata, link
Wed, 06-Mar-2013, 1930GMT (1430EST) Academy of Ancient Music plays Bach, link
Thu, 07-Mar-2013, 1830GMT (1330EST) Beethoven Emperor concerto, link
Read more of this post


with loads of very nice full operas on YT, i’ve been keeping it busy… though mainly only as “background” music… for which reason, Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” with Antonacci didn’t quite cut it but Gounod’s “Faust” has been such a beautiful discovery! On the other hand, Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust” in English is realllllly hard for the ears… even though Marguerite was great. so, here’s music to start the weekend.

ps- while looking for VK’s facebook page to post up her recent exciting trip to sing in her home town, look what I accidentally ran into! What I wanted to link originally is of course this fabulous pix

concert in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, 20-Nov-2012, (c) unknown

along with

„Не знам дали ще ми повярвате, но такива мигове за незабравими за мен. Аз съм видяла абсолютно всичко на този свят. На 39 станах камеризингер на Мюнхенската опера, на 42 – във Виенската опера. Имам куп медали и награди, дискографията ми бе номинирана за Грами. Но уверявам ви, тези награди не струват нищо пред това, което преживях снощи на старозагорска сцена”, каза развълнуваната Веселина.

(Стандартнюз, 21 ноември 2012)

as copied from here. (interesting that her fan page on fb is not visible, but at same time one finds many others). When i find the proper credit for that fabulous photo above, will add credit accordingly… anyhow, thanks to Smorgy for alerting us to the buzzing news.)

Edit: many thanks to Al who first sent me the clip, then provided the translation. Here it is, her interview from Brussels. hit “cc” for english subtitles.

music into the night

note the absolute lack of content recently :-), i’ve been working very hard, cancelling all traveling plans for thanksgiving and xmas… not sure how yet to survive in the deserted town… but, finally there’s progress! loads of looking at Atlantic to finally realizing it was the Pacific that’s been troubles all along… so, i’ve missed a TON of local performances… but to my delight, the NEC has its own YT channel !! and they’ve uploaded some reallly nice concerts which i’ve heard live and have been re-listening many times this year…

so, here’re a couple of clips to start sunday (very late) evening:

duet mezzo to woodwinds:

duet violin + viola (looove the viola’s sound)

more links of that Orfeo ed Euridice can be seen at the NEC channel, including Amore & duet.  starting the week in style, yay.