REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton

German soprano Nikola Hillebrand: British recital debut

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Nikola Hillebrand & Joseph Middleton, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, May 1

LEEDS Lieder Festival’s closing recital offered an unexpected surprise. In the absence of the advertised singer, we enjoyed the British recital debut of German soprano Nikola Hillebrand.

It was an occasion that none present will forget, enhanced by the presence of pianist Joseph Middleton on top form.

Hillebrand offered a heady mix of Schubert, Brahms and Strauss. She is the complete package, a lovely well-focused sound allied to charming presence and the ability to penetrate right to the heart of a song within a few bars, helped by a wide range of facial
expressions.

Conversely, she remains rooted to the spot and makes sparing use of hand gestures. Any
young singer considering a career in lieder would do well to emulate her technique in all these areas.

At the centre of her recital, right after the interval, she gave Strauss’s Mädchenblumen, Op 22, four settings of poetry by Felix Dahn, products of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) which liken young ladies to a variety of flowers.

Although dedicated to a tenor, Hans Giessen, who was a member of Weimar Court Theatre with Strauss in the late 1880s, they work equally well with soprano. They are little heard because of their taxingly high tessitura, but in Hillebrand’s hands they were pure magic, seemingly posing no difficulties; she negotiated them so smoothly that the vocal lines carried a marvellous inevitability. Cornflowers, poppies, ivy, waterlily, she caressed them all playfully.

She had begun with a mixed bag of Schubert, warming up sensibly with ‘Der Vollmond Strahlt’ (The Full Moon Shines), the relatively low-lying Romanze from the incidental music to Rosamunde.

Two songs setting poets used only by once by Schubert made a nice contrast. Karoline Klenke’s ‘Heimliches Lieben’ (Secret Love) found her sharing a confidence, whereas in Anton Platner’s ‘Die Blumensprache’ (The Language Of Flowers), which is also about a type of secrecy, she twinkled with excitement.

The nostalgia of Goethe’s ‘Erster Verlust’ (First Loss) prepared the ground for his ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ (Gretchen At The Spinning Wheel). Chestnut it may be, but it sounded anything but here, imbued with an anxious urgency and reaching two peaks of desperation, the second stronger than the first.

The refrain “Die männer sind méchant” (Men are rogues) – whose motto phrase is repeated at the end of each verse – ended this group wittily.

Love was a major feature of her Brahms songs, beginning very quietly with the last of Tieck’s 15 poems in the cycle Die Schöne Magelone, ‘Treue Liebe Dauert Lange’ (True Love Abides).

There was an even more enchanting pianissimo in the second verse of ‘Wiegenlied’ (Lullaby), another chestnut she polished anew. In between, she made a little drama from ‘Von Ewiger Liebe’ (Eternal Love) and was a forceful witch in ‘Salome’.

After the flower songs mentioned earlier, the remainder of her Strauss group steered a middle course through several favourites. By now we needed no reminder of her powers, but there were still some lovely moments from both performers. They kept ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) extremely light, generating real ecstasy; after a broader second half, its climactic moment was their finest of the evening.

Following a moving ‘Allerseelen’ (All Souls’ Day), there was girlish glee in the pitter-patter of beating hearts (‘Schlagende Herzen’) and a beautifully controlled lullaby in Eichendorff’s ‘Meinem Kinde’ (To My Child).

They finished with John Henry Mackay’s ‘Morgen!’ (Tomorrow!), its pin-drop ending
conjured by immaculate control in Middleton’s pianissimo. A Britten arrangement of a Scottish folksong made the ideal encore, with Hillebrand standing to Middleton’s left to read the score; no-one minded in the least.

This was a highly auspicious debut, which must surely lead to many invitations to return to this country, including Leeds again, please.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Leeds Lieder

Ian Bostridge: “His stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric,” says reviewer Martin Dreyer. Picture: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Leeds Lieder Festival 2022, Ian Bostridge & Imogen Cooper, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, April 30

SONG recitals nowadays are generally considered to be duos, with voice and piano on an equal footing. Long gone are the times when the singer had star billing and Joe Bloggs, in much smaller letters, was “at the piano”.

For this Schubert recital, however, despite the confluence of two stars in the Schubertian firmament, who deservedly drew the biggest house of the festival so far, the occasion was really only about one person.

Ian Bostridge is an extremely talented tenor, not to say a highly intelligent one. But his stage persona is becoming ever more eccentric, to the point where he is becoming hard to watch. It is not just that he cannot stay still: he roams the bend in the piano, sometimes even leans into it with his back to the audience, then darts out to front-stage and back again, all the while contorting his slim figure into angular postures.

Furthermore, he is off on his own tangent, rarely engaging the audience directly. He often starts a phrase looking into the auditorium, but his chin soon descends into his chest and he stares at his feet. His expression is generally pained – no-one does angst better – but he finds it hard to lighten up. There was only one detectable smile in this whole recital.

All of this puts his pianist at a disadvantage. There is practically no eye contact possible between them: the pianist never knows where on the platform he may have got to.

These things are important because a lieder recital is so much more than mere vocal display. It is an unveiling, at the most intimate level, of the composer’s reaction to a piece of poetry and it requires the closest co-operation between singer and pianist, with the former’s every hand gesture or facial expression tailored to assist the message.

When there is as much physical activity as Bostridge generated here, it ceases to be meaningful and becomes merely a distraction, even an annoyance.

Imogen Cooper is one of our great Schubertians, but she was up against it from the start. She took the line of least resistance and played with never-failing style, but she rarely strayed beyond safe territory when it came to asserting herself. Too often she had to allow Bostridge to hold onto the spotlight, when he should have deferred to her and let her illuminate Schubert’s intentions.

The menu was alluring enough: the 14 songs of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (not a song-cycle but a posthumous title imposed by his publisher) separated by four more settings by Johann Seidl (whose Die Taubenpost ends Schwanengesang).

Without the visuals, there was actually some excellent singing. Bostridge minimises the vibrato in his voice, reserving it for special, often warmer, moments. That is fine, particularly when a fortepiano is in use (it wasn’t here). But it is counterbalanced by the extreme tension in his sound, doubtless brought on by his stressful stage persona.

The first seven songs of Schwanengesang are settings of Ludwig Rellstab. Their lyricism was amply conveyed by Cooper, beautifully liquid for the brooklet running through Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message) and light as a feather in Frühlingssehnsucht (Spring Longing).

Bostridge, in contrast, was apt to home in on the moments of anguish, although his dead slow “goodnight” at the close of Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s Foreboding) was effective indeed.

Similarly, the piano delivered a melting postlude to Ständchen (Serenade) and was wonderfully staccato throughout the galloping in Abschied (Farewell), while our tenor was happier in the cutting pain of Aufenthalt (Resting Place) and the utter isolation of In Der Ferne (Far Away).

Where the Rellstab songs seemed cousins of Die Schöne Mullerin in their yearning for the distant beloved (with echoes of Beethoven), we were much closer to darker Winterreise territory for the reminder of the evening: the Seidl interlude and the Heine songs that make up most of the rest of Schwanengesang, all of them from the last three years of Schubert’s life. The sombre tone was struck at once in Seidl’s Sehnsucht (Longing). Bostridge’s restlessness was certainly in tune with much of the poetry, although more of his purely physical activity might have been channelled into the voice.

During the last two Heine songs, Bostridge really began to show respect for the texts and kept his body much stiller. Am Meer (By The Sea) was almost a daydream and the sheer horror of Der Doppelganger (The Ghostly Double) was notably eerie. Der Taubenpost (The Pigeon Post) came as welcome relief at the close, given by both performers with rhythmic zest.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Carmen, Leeds Grand Theatre

Chrystal E. Williams in the title role in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

OPERA North was riding high coming into this new Edward Dick production.

Buoyant through lockdown with multiple streamed events via its own digital platform ON Demand, its backstage efforts were centred on a huge Music Works development.

The outcome of this is the new Howard Opera Centre, named after its principal benefactor Dr Keith Howard, who contributed some 60 per cent of the £18.5 million cost. It will house management and rehearsal studios for the company itself, while providing educational spaces for youngsters to explore their potential.

Within months, a new bar and restaurant with public access will open next to the Howard Assembly Room (now freed exclusively for smaller-scale events), the result of imaginative enclosure of a former Victorian street.

Camila Titinger as Micaëla and Erin Caves as Don José in Opera North’s Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Sadly, all this excitement did not generate a Carmen to do it justice. It is a besetting sin of Carmen producers that they feel the need to re-interpret Bizet, not to say Mérimée, in tune with modern attitudes.

This runs a serious risk of dumbing down, even presumption: this show’s Carmen, Chrystal E. Williams, was quoted in the programme as declaring that “it would be easy just to do a conventional Carmen”, as if convention were a dirty word – or easy.

It is hard to portray an incorrigible man-eater as a saint, albeit one who is the figment of solely male imaginations. Indeed, after Opera North’s last attempt at the work, Daniel Kramer’s brutalist affair ten years ago, no-one would have been surprised if the company had played this one straight down the middle.

Instead, what we have is a good night out, but with little relevance to the original. Time and place are not identified in Colin Richmond’s sets, but we can tell that this is a border town. Since the smugglers are dealing in drugs, we have every reason to assume that we are on the United States-Mexico border.

Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo with members of the Chorus of Opera North. Picture: Tristram Kenton

The action opens in a bordello masquerading as a night-club, whose clientele is mainly in uniform, doubtless drawn by the illuminated ‘GIRLS’ on scaffolding dominating the scenario. Not exactly an advertisement for women’s lib, especially given female staff sashaying around in flimsy underwear, to the designs of Laura Hopkins.

If these girls are smoking anything, it is coke, not cigarettes. Still, it has to be said, the ladies of the chorus bravely put their best foot forward; if they feel uncomfortable, it certainly does not show.

Immediately noticeable is the sparkling form of the orchestra, with Garry Walker at the helm for the first time as music director, a year later than planned. Theirs is much the most positive contribution to the evening.

Walker keeps rhythms consistently crisp but is equally alive to atmosphere: nerve-jangling chromatics in the card scene, for example, and velvet horns in Micaela’s song a little later. His tenure is off to a cracking start.

Nando Messias as Lillas Pastia: “Makes several androgynous incursions during the second half”. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Neither of the principal pair is vocally quick out of the blocks and he has to gentle them into the fray. Williams is lowered on a swing onto the night-club stage, to be embroiled at once in a fan-dance: it is an eye-catching entrance, in keeping with her charm.

When the stage swivels and we see the ‘real’ Carmen – at her make-up table, wig removed, cuddling what we assume is her daughter – her mezzo, although still light, begins to bite. But it is not until Act 3 that we hear what might have been: genuine passion.

The same applies to Don José. Erin Caves only joined the cast five days ahead of curtain-up, Covid having effectively removed two previous candidates. His safely surly opening is understandable, but does little to convince of his interest in Carmen or offer any reason for her pursuit of him.

If there is any electricity at their first encounter, it is low-voltage, like Caves’ tenor. It is only when his bile is up, much later, that he finds real resonance. His eventual throttling of Carmen prolongs her agony unjustifiably.

Erin Caves as Don José and Chrystal E. Williams as Carmen. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Phillip Rhodes’ Escamillo arrives on an electrically-powered bucking bronco, a cowboy not a toreador; there is no hint of the bull-ring. The swagger of his ‘Toreador’ song certainly raises the vocal temperature but thereafter gradually dissipates, lessening the likelihood that he would offer José any real threat. So when José chases him across the scaffolding that now stands in for a mountain fortress, we are entitled to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Camila Titinger gives an engaging Micaela, whose aria is a touch short on warmth; she is mistakenly encouraged to make much of her pregnancy. Amy Freston’s Frasquita and Helen Évora’s Mercedes are tirelessly flighty, raising everyone’s spirits, while the spivvy smugglers of Dean Robinson and Stuart Laing bring an element of light relief. Matthew Stiff is a firm if stolid Zuniga.

With the Lillas Pastia of Nando Messias making several androgynous incursions during the second half, there is no end to the mixed messages of this ill-focused production. Thank heaven we have five children who know exactly what they have to do, working with a chorus that does its level best to sound persuasive. But the saving grace is the orchestra – focused on unvarnished Bizet.

Martin Dreyer

Further performances on October 26 and 28, then on tour until November 19, returning to Leeds in February 2022.