Tag Archives: Benjamin Appl

Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

Sometimes you see plays that are ‘reconstructions’ of radio studio recordings, where the cast stand behind microphones, holding scripts, and the action is limited, leaving it to the audience to imagine setting, costume and everything else.  This concert performance of the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Da Ponte reminds me of such plays, with the microphones replaced by music stands and the scripts by scores.  With this material, it works very well, thanks in no small part to a company of singers who can act their heads off.  With them facing out most of the time, we see the characters’ expressions to their best advantage.  And sometimes, they interact, where the limited space allows, bringing out the humour of the situation.

Richard Burkhard is a marvellous Don Alfonso, enjoying his masterminding of the plot’s central scam.  Tenor Matthew Swensen sings stirringly as Ferrando, but he could do with lightening up a bit, especially at the outset of proceedings.  Guglielmo is performed by possibly the most handsome man in classical music today, the mighty Benjamin Appl, who is wonderfully expressive facially and vocally.  His comic reactions and his musical phrasing are both sublime.

Ana Maria Labin, fighting a chest infection but you wouldn’t know it, shows remarkable range and poise as Fiordiligi.  Her ‘Per Pieta’ commands the stage – a virtuoso rendition.  Martha Jones, a late substitution as Dorabella, the giddier of the sisters, is delightfully funny, but the funniest performance of the night comes from Rebecca Bottone as Despina the sassy, savvy maid.  This is a Despina to savour, as Bottone wrings every shred of comedy from the role, distorting her soprano to depict the characters she assumes as part of Alfonso’s plan.  At one point, she dons a pair of steampunk goggles, and it’s the little touches like this that make this concert performance more engaging.

Ian Page conducts The Mozartists with a light touch, bouncing on the spot like Tigger in a black suit, almost teasing the music from this superlative orchestra.  And such music!  From the woodwinds chasing each other through the rousing overture, to the abundance of trios, quartets and quintets, this is playful yet passionate stuff.  Mozart is an exquisite dramatist, blending farcical humour with insightful glimpses into human psychology.  It’s a profound, sweet and silly piece of work, like receiving words of wisdom from a master chocolatier.

The material shines through this pared-down treatment and I enjoy it very much, but I still miss the knockabout comedy of the ‘Albanians’ pretending to poison themselves.  I still want to see their comedy moustaches!

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Apollo Mission Accomplished

APOLLO ET HYACINTHUS

Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017

 

A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.

appl

Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...


Take Me To Your Lieder

BENJAMIN APPL

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 18th April, 2016

 

German baritone and rising star, Benjamin Appl treats the musically discerning folk of Birmingham to a sublime evening of lieder (German art songs) that displays not only his range as a vocalist but also his impressive expressiveness as an interpreter.  Each song becomes a dramatic monologue; the programme runs the gamut of emotion and experience for a stirring, moving and astonishing performance.

Standing tall and slender in black suit, shirt and tie, Appl is an elegant figure and the voice that comes out of him is as rich as dark chocolate – but chocolate that comes in many flavours and sizes.  Appl uses dynamics, contrasting ff and pp to dramatic effect.

The first half is all Schumann, with words by the poet Heine.  And it’s in German, a language I haven’t studied since Year 9 (apart from what I’ve gleaned from The Magic Flute and Deutschland 83) – and yet I get the gist, thanks to Appl’s expressive interpretations.  Du bist wie eine Blume (which I think means ‘you are like a flower’) is just lovely.  Belsazar, though, is like a mini-opera in itself and really gives Appl the chance to strut and fret his hour upon the stage.  When he declaims “I am the King of Babylon” (or so I think he says) you believe it.

Then come sixteen Dichterliebe (I don’t dare attempt a translation of that one!) – All of them brilliantly presented but highlights for me include the fast tempo Die Rose, die Lille, die Taube, the stunning Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ and the striking Ich grolle nicht.  The aching melancholy of Hor’ ich das Liedchen klingen takes the prize though, in my ears.

The second half is given over to Schubert songs, and to The Last Letter, a piece by Nico Muhly especially commissioned for Appl.  This five-song cycle takes its text from letters sent by various people during WW1 – again, an opportunity for Appl to do some character work.  It’s a striking work (and in English!), encompassing yearning and loss, humour (a woman writes asking to have her husband back from the front for a conjugal visit!), selfishness and cruelty (a woman ditches her POW husband and bungs their kids in an orphanage so she can start a new life with a new man).  Through it all, Appl acts up a storm, wringing humanity from every angle.

But it’s not all sturm und drang.  The programme closes with some lighter Schubert pieces, including the jaunty Der Musensohn and the dramatic Der Wanderer.

Accompanying Appl on the piano is Gary Matthewman, providing sparkles and splashes, mood and colour, brio and thunder, where appropriate.  It makes for a great pairing – if the piano is like an orchestra in a single instrument, then Appl is like an opera company in one man.

So, if you’re looking for German art songs, impeccably performed and entertainingly delivered, remember there’s an Appl for that.

Wunderbar!

appl

The Appl of my ears