Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

The (for)tunes of Michael Maniaci

Crumbs, but today was busy. Two lectures, two seminars, barely time to sit down and remind myself what I was actually supposed to be teaching in the next session before it hit me, and I spent the last seminar being systematically and relentlessly coughed all over by a student no more than a metre away from me. After the fun and games last week, I do not want another cold, thank you!

Anyway, thankfully now it is all over, and I only have a Latin class to teach tomorrow. So I can get on with blogging my extremely exciting and splendiferous weekend...

The pivotal hinge of the whole 48-hour period was Opera North's production of Reinhard Keiser's The Fortunes of Kings Croesus, which I'd been busy organising an outing to since May. It was lucky I'd successfully bought a three-bedroomed house in the intervening period, as I had four house-guests for the weekend (a fifth, redkitty23, sadly couldn't make it in the end due to illness) - my Mum, rosamicula, the artist formerly known as kharin and megamole. And it was just so fabulous to see everyone anyway! To think that the added bonus was not only baroque opera, but a composer I'd never heard performed before and a chance to hear Michael Maniaci sing live at last was more than enough to have me in a state of fizzing excitement by early Saturday evening.

You can see as much from the grin on my face:

And so off we set in our finery through a crisp, autumnal-smelling evening, to rendezvous with big_daz and take our seats in the auditorium. I have a recording of the opera directed by René Jacobs in 2000, but had only listened to it in a fairly haphazard and perfunctory manner, so I knew some of the tunes beforehand, but had absolutely no clue as to the plot (apart from a vague awareness that it must be about Croesus, obviously). It turned out to be a fairly free treatment of the stories about his encounter with Solon and subsequent conquest by Cyrus from Herodotus' Histories book 1, but with extra elements of mistaken identity, villainous treachery, chained captives and not so much a love triangle as a veritable love zig-zag thrown in for good dramatic measure. Maniaci's character, Atis, is a sort of combined version of the two sons Herodotus attributes to Croesus - one unnamed one who was deaf and dumb, and another one actually called Atis, who was killed hunting a boar.

I'll admit I'd never heard of Keiser before this performance sprang to my attention, and his style is very different from the Handelian operas I'm more used to (although they were direct contemporaries). Singers in Germany must have been rather less divaesque than the ones Handel was used to dealing with, as there were lots of duets and choruses - both rare in Handel (and the Italian tradition he was working in), as Italian singers of that era didn't much like sharing the limelight. It was also rather faster-paced, with snappy recitative and short arias passing by in quick succession. In fact, the director (Tim Albery) explained on In Tune last week that they had deliberately da capoed (if I may make that into an English verb for a moment) several of the arias in order to give them a bit more room to breathe, as they would have been over so quickly in Keiser's original setting. It was all excellent stuff, though, and I particularly approved of the duets and choruses, as those are almost always my favourite bits in Handel, and I do feel the lack of them.

Opera North's setting opened with lavish bling, as Croesus' court enjoyed a riotous fancy-dress party with the king himself resplendently gold-clad in the centre of it all. I chuckled slightly to myself as I surveyed the sea of princesses, devils, bishops and similar at the thought of how much the costume budget must have been eased by raiding the wardrobes of other productions, but it was fair dos, really - it established the superficiality of Croesus and his court rather nicely, and made an effective contrast with the dark and sombre colours which were then used after his defeat in the second half. The very sensible decision had also been made to present the opera in English translation - and not just any translation, but one which managed to be both riotously funny and touchingly simple in all the right places, while still working perfectly with the music. The roars of laughter all around proved that it was a real hit with the audience, and again it made for quite a different experience from the usual Handelian Italian, fraught with its "traditore!"s, its "son' scoperto!"s and its "t'amo tanto!"s. In fact, between the witty libretto and rapid action, in many ways this opera came across as more Mozartian that baroque, despite its obviously baroque melodies. Which isn't to say that I'm about to go through some epiphanic conversion away from formalised opera seria, 'cos I'm not. I love that stuff! But just that this was fun, too.

Anyway, first and foremost, we were there to see Michael Maniaci. So what was the verdict? In short - YES! He is indeed everything the dodgy bootleg mp3s I had promised he would be. His voice is rich yet pure, powerful yet flexible, soaringly high yet resolutely male - basically everything I could possibly ask for from a singer. My only disappointment was that the score didn't offer as many opportunities as I'd have liked to hear much of his lower register - or at least not to dawdle over it and get a proper appreciation of it. The tessitura of most of his arias seemed pretty high, and I came away feeling I hadn't really had the chance to get the measure of his chest voice. Does it have the rounded, belting richness I like so much in Alessandro Moreschi's? I just don't know. On the plus side, though, he got a beautiful duet with his love-interest (Elmira, a female soprano), and best of all a slow lament with nothing but basso continuo accompaniment (which I think looking through the track-listing on the René Jacobs CD must have been 'Elmir! wo bleibest du?' from Act 3, scene 5). There, he really got the chance to show his musicality and emotional power, and it was good.

And his character! Sweet, shy, honest Atis, overflowing with passionate love for Elmira, but unable to tell her with anything more than gestures. He and Gillian Keith (Elmira) painted the emotional tension between them so beautifully that you just wanted to give them both a big hug and tell them it was all going to be all right. It was inspired casting, and of course all the more so since Atis begins the opera as a mute, and only finds his voice an hour into the action, in a moment of peril. Anyone would think someone on the production team knew that this was a voice us Brits had been collectively dying to hear for months, and was deliberately teasing us.

There were some other singers in the opera, too. ;-) Gillian Keith, already mentioned, was exquisite, especially in her duets with Fflur Wyn (Clerida, soprano); Mark le Brocq (Eliates, tenor) was a nice discovery, and so was Stephen Wallace (Halimacus, countertenor). As for Paul Nilon as Croesus - well, I've given my opinion of him before, and it hasn't changed.

All too soon, it was over, and afterwards, we were hanging around at the front of the theatre, chatting to my colleague and his wife who'd come along, enthusing wildly about it all and wondering whether to perhaps go on to the Wrens for a few drinks, when out of the corner of my eye I suddenly saw megamole heading off down the street, only to look round and realise that he had spotted Maniaci and a friend coming out of the stage door. I grabbed my programme, flew in the same direction, and there we were, congratulating the man himself.

And what a nice guy! I'm never sure whether to do the whole fannish squeeing thing, as it can be so excruciating for both parties. But he seemed not merely tolerant, but actively quite keen to talk to us and hear what we'd thought of the performance. So it just felt like a perfectly natural conversation, and I was really glad I'd gone over to say hi - especially given that we had enjoyed it so much, so it was lovely to have the opportunity to say thank you. He kindly signed our programmes, and told us that the CD he'd recorded would be out in June, and then for some reason I can't even remember now it seemed appropriate to mention the post I'd made which he commented on - and all of a sudden he was shaking my hand, thanking me effusively for blogging him. And I was thinking "Wait a minute, this is all wrong! We're the ones who should be shaking your hand, and telling you how wonderful you are!" But it was nice though. :-)

We did do the Wrens, too, and then home again under a bloated half-moon. And the next day was all communal breakfasts, and chatting, and guests slipping away one by one, until I was left alone once again. Except that I didn't have time to get sad or mopey about it, because it was off for my own humble brand of singing at choir practice, followed by chat and dinner with glitzfrau to round off the weekend.

There are two more performances of Croesus in Leeds, on the 7th and 10th of November, and you know what? I think I might go again. Because I can, and because I still bitterly regret not going to see David Cordier sing Bertarido in Rodelinda for a second time in Oxford when I felt much the same about his performance and I could have done. It doesn't even have to be that expensive, either - judging from the Grand Opera House website, there are some quite cheap last-minute tickets available, and neither performance is likely to sell out completely. June, after all, is an awfully long time to wait for that CD...

Tags: cds, friends, keiser, leeds, michael maniaci, mum, music, opera, opera north, photos, pictures, reviews, singers

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