June 14, 2021

Barbara Hannigan takes the baton | Culture

Barbara Hannigan takes the baton | Culture


There are no instrumentalists or eternal singers. Youth virtuosity fades and fades little by little, the voice ages and irremediably fades away and, except for portentous natures (like those recently commented here recently Menahem Pressler or Montserrat Torrent), the passing of the years imposes a limit on musical careers, and this usually arrives sooner rather than later. The greatest number of exceptions is concentrated in orchestral conducting, since those who practice it do not live with the permanent fear of tune, or to set a note, or to set a scale, an arpeggio or a treble. His risks and responsibilities are different and, interestingly, time is in his favor. His is a long-distance race, in which experience and maturity prevail, and much, on physical skills or technical skills. Singers and instrumentalists die in their homes; the directors do it on the podium.

Barbara Hannigan has been singing at the highest level all over the world for almost a quarter of a century, and her specialty is not just the conventional repertoire, but contemporary creations, many of which were designed specifically for her and her chameleonic voice. The Canadian has frequented during all his career the inclement tessituras, the diabolic difficulties, the characters that shun the sopranos that long for a long artistic career (Lulu, the Marie of Die Soldaten or the chief of the secret police, Gepopo, of Le Grand Macabre) and feels comfortable in his role as muse of composers like George Benjamin, Michael Jarrell or Hans Abrahamsen. Of the first two, he has released new operas this year (Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera House in London Y Berenice at the Paris Opera) and has turned the song cycle let me tell you of the third in one of the most interpreted contemporary vocal works of recent years. Hannigan will also star next year in Copenhagen the premiere of the Danish composer's first opera, The queen of the snow, based on the homonymous short story by Hans Christian Andersen.

The Rake's Progress

Igor Stravinski music. With Aphrodite Patoulidou, William Morgan, John Taylor Ward and Kate Howden, among others. Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Musical direction: Barbara Hannigan. Stage direction: Linus Fellbom. Konserthus, December 12.

But this rhythm of premieres and technical challenges is inconceivable in the not too distant future, which is why Hannigan has been training and taking steps to become a conductor, something that is increasingly common among her instrumentalist colleagues. Let us remember, for example, the cases of two violinists: Jaap van Zweden, who will occupy next year the ownership of the New York Philharmonic, no less, and Nikolaj Znaider, who has just been appointed musical director of the National Orchestra from Lyon starting in 2020. Among the women, Han-na Chang has also taken the leap from the cello to the podium and has begun to build his career here in Scandinavia. Egregios singers have also sometimes made compatible both tasks (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or Plácido Domingo), although they have never managed to equal, baton in hand, their own excellence in the new role. Hannigan has a major challenge before him, but, unlike many colleagues, he has been preparing for this metamorphosis for years, studying with one of the most recognized professors, the Finnish Jorma Panula, and putting himself to the test in territories he knows very well, as when he has sung and directed simultaneously Mysteries of the Macabre, three arias of coloratura of the opera of Ligeti arranged by Elgar Howarth. He has done it with different groups, dressed in black miniskirt and wig and high boots with long heels, among them with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, which has named her the main guest conductor from her next season and with which she has now decided to make a significant qualitative leap in conducting the opera The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinski.

But Hannigan has also taken on the responsibility of personally choosing all the singers, selected in auditions held in various European cities and of which she has become a mentor in a program of support for young artists baptized with the name of Equilibrium. After this premiere in Gothenburg, The Rake's Progress can be heard in the coming months in Brussels, Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, Dortmund, Dresden, Hamburg, Aldeburgh and at the Ojai Festival in California, with different orchestras and with the singers of their newly created multinational squad distributing the papers throughout of this extensive tour.

The place chosen for the kick-off was not the Gothenburg opera house, but its concert hall, the Konserthus, an extraordinary building designed by Nils Einar Eriksson and inaugurated in 1935. With an interior completely covered in wood, it is of a room, if not exactly resonant, yes with an acoustic of an unusual vividness, that seems almost to amplify the sounds, even those produced by a single instrument. And here the first problems arose, since the orchestra and Hannigan are placed on the stage behind the singers, without direct visual contact between those and these, who have the only reference of two distant television monitors located far from They, in the middle of the stalls, to see the gestures of Hannigan. One can not really talk about lack of coordination, since everything seems arch-aniseed, but it is an absence of real interaction and, above all, of many moments in which the orchestra barely lets the voices heard. An even smaller section of string would have perhaps alleviated this problem, but the best thing would have been to put the orchestra ahead and let the singers act behind it, on a platform, which would result in a fairer and better sound perception control of dynamic planes by Hannigan.

The direction of the Canadian was technically very solvent, although more tendent to the rhythmic control, the precise articulation and the short stroke that to accompany and clothe the singers and to let the music flow with freedom and spontaneity. It was, in that sense, an orchestral performance not very flexible, not very flexible, too attached to the lyrics and devoid of the essential theatricality. Scenically, in a conventional concert hall, Linus Fellbom did not have great resources other than playing with lighting (his real specialty) and using simple props. Before starting the opera, Hannigan herself appears on the scene operating a smoke machine around a large wooden container whose identifying letters refer to the title of the opera. As soon as the music begins, the four walls of the box fall suddenly and we find inside the metallic structure Tom Rakewell, the future libertine, in his pajamas. Three hours later, at the end of the work, with lost reason, the box closes again, and with it the opera and its plot, with the unfortunate Tom trapped inside. There are great theatrical moments, like when Nick Shadow (the tall and sharp John Taylor Ward) seems to be a clock, pushing back time with his outstretched arms turned into hands, while he sings the superb verses of Auden and Kallman: "Look. The time is yours. / To your pleasure serve the hours of reojo. / Do not worry. Enjoy Repent you can at your whim. " With very few means, promptly converting the singers into props, Fellbom also took a great part of the scenes of the brothel and the cemetery, very effectively illuminated, and of the auction, with the choir perfectly integrated into the crazy action.

William Morgan (Tom Rakewell) and John Taylor Ward (Nick Shadow).
William Morgan (Tom Rakewell) and John Taylor Ward (Nick Shadow).

William Morgan was a surrendered and hyperactive Rakewell, but his singing did not always live up to his good intentions. His voice does not have too many records and, although he made the two major transformations of his character credible, he did not manage to convey the emotion that must flow almost spontaneously from his sad fate. Aphrodite Patoulidou is a singer of great personality and who is not afraid of anything: her fearsome final scene of the first act (the poisoned gift of Stravinski to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the soprano who premiered the role in Venice) was sung with courage and security, much better than his nana of the third act, in which Anne Trulove lacked lyricism and commiseration, although at this moment in particular Hannigan, who has sung very well this same character, did not help much from the podium. The Greek soprano, who would do well to improve her English diction, will sing in a few weeks the character of Belinda (Dido and Aeneas) at the Teatro Real and it will be a good opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a singer with an undoubted projection. The most complete performances of the evening – musically and stage – were those of John Taylor Ward as Nick Shadow and Kate Howden as Babá la Turca. The first one did show an impeccable diction and did not carry the inks of his diabolical character, more artful than sinister, while the second one probably has the highest quality voice of the whole cast and knew how to fill important and great musical details to the bearded woman.

Erik Rosenius was a simply correct Trulove and a Mother Goose (singing in an ugly falsetto) very unfortunate. Posts to introduce transvestism not foreseen by Stravinski, it makes much more sense to trust the role of Babá la Turca to a countertenor, as he did Simon McBurney in his hilarious production of Aix-en-Provence, but a Rosenius misplaced with his low cut black dress and his mustache was the main blur of the representation. Excellent, on the other hand, Ziad Nehme in his brief role as Sellem, and magnificent all the choral interventions, which were decisive for the interpretation to rise noticeably throughout the third act.

Hannigan has laid the first stone of what she herself knows will be a long road, very different from the one she has traveled until now, and this The Rake's Progress almost experimental for all those involved has also all the signs of being, in some way, a work in progress. The "project", as the soprano calls it, will evolve a little bit surely with the changes of singers, orchestra, acoustics and with the natural shooting of the show. As important as the final result in each case is the whole process of selection and training of young singers by Hannigan in her dual role of mentor and musical director, which will be the subject of a documentary, Taking Risks (To take risks), which will be premiered here in Gothenburg on May 26, as part of the first edition of the Festival Point, that looks for to make a hole in the great musical announcements previous to the summer frenzy, that usually has a special virulence in Scandinavia. Something is moving in Gothenburg and we will have to keep an eye on what is going on here.

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