Prom 65: Danae Kontora excels in Mozart and Strauss

An assemblage of instrumental items by Mozart, Richard Strauss and
Beethoven might have proved difficult to sequence and balance. To close
with Beethoven’s 40-minute Seventh Symphony threatened to overwhelm the
slighter Mozart amuse-bouches – a three-minute Cassation, some
short arias – heard previously. And, while both Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos see Strauss exploring the very nature of opera
itself, the opening sextet from Capriccio – elegant, wistful and
ardent by turn – might seem a strange bedfellow for Zerbinetta’s’
Grossm‰chtige Prinzessin!’ with its worldly advice on life and love.

In the event, it all made perfect sense. And, the charm and success of the
evening was due in no small part to the contribution of Greek soprano Danae
Kontora. Based at Oper Leipzig, Kontora has performed across Germany and
with Greek National Opera and Israel Opera. Next season will see her make
her debut at the Vienna State Opera. As far as I can tell this was not just
her Proms debut, but – other than performances at the Edinburgh
International Festival, as Woglinde in a concert-performance of Gˆtterd‰mmerung a couple of weeks earlier, and as a last-minute
stand-in Woodbird in Siegfried in 2018 – also, to date, a rare
appearance in the UK. I hope some of country’s casting agents were in the
Royal Albert Hall and have started making the calls and contacts that will
bring Kontora back to London soon.

How both Mozart and Strauss would surely have delighted to hear their music
performed with such effortless, silvery sweetness – the drama so fluently
expressive, the vocal peaks reached so pure and integrated within a
cohesive architecture. Both the concert arias by Mozart that we heard were
written for one of his singing students, Aloysia Weber Lange, with whose
voice Mozart became infatuated and for whom he composed at least eight
arias, all difficult and all exploiting her strong upper range. When she
was only sixteen years old, Mozart commented, in a letter to his father,
“she sings most admirably and has a lovely, pure voice”, and a little
later: “”As far as her singing is concerned, I would wager my life that she
will bring me renown. Even in a short time she has already greatly profited
by my instruction, and how much greater will the improvement be …”.

The text of ‘Popoli di Tessaglia … Io non chiedo, eterni dei’ is Alcestis’
entrance scene in Gluck’s Alceste, in which she beseeches the
gods, in a noble, dramatic and intensely personal lament, to spare the life
of her husband, Admetus, King of Thessaly. Kontora walked regally onto the
platform during the closing bars of the overture to Die Entf¸hrung aus dem Serail, and Carydis guided the mood from
spirited to sombre, the strings sighing achingly as oboe and bassoon
twisted in torment. Dignified and strong, in dramatic, grand recitative
Kontora presented Alceste’s pleas plaintively but proudly, as oboe and
bassoon obbligatos wove expressively around her entreaties. The orchestral
colour softened during the gentle syncopations of the subsequent major-key Andante sostenuto e cantabile, preparing for a fluent, warm prayer
in which the vocal decorations unfolded silkily, the coloratura
crystalline, and which was followed by a fired-up Allegro assai
all vigorous strings and punchy horns – in which Kontora demonstrated both
control and agility. If her first soaring ascent to a high G was a fraction
short of the target, then she nailed it absolutely the second time round,
the tone of her soprano remaining full and true however high she climbed.

When, in Vienna in 1783, Weber Lange was to appear in Pasquale Anfossi’s
opera Il curioso indiscreto, Mozart – who had by then married
Constanze, Aloysia’s sister – composed three arias for insertion in
Anfossi’s score, two of which were written for his favoured soprano. ‘No,
no, che non sei capace’ presents Clorinda’s indignant denials when accused
by her husband of infidelity. The haughty dismissals of the recitative were
all the more dramatic for having emerged from the stately grace of the
preceding Cassation, with Carydis emphasising dynamic contrasts and sforzandi, the strings dancing on tiptoe in the pianissimos and digging in brusquely in the fortes.
Kontora sailed brilliantly and tirelessly through the roulades and
fireworks, making light of the virtuosity and inserting some expressive
decorations of her own to shape the transitions between the various
sections and moods.

One might imagine that a string sextet would seem a little ‘lost’ in the
vastness of the Royal Albert Hall but, on the contrary, the six
instrumentalists of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen perfectly
captured that ‘distant but immediate’ quality of the sextet which opens
Strauss’s Capriccio – which is, after all, designed to evoke the
eighteenth-century world in which the opera is set and to inspire a strong
emotional and visceral response. As we listened ‘from afar’, the players
seemed immersed in their music-making, but their collection expression had
the power to reach out across the Hall. Once again, the vocal solo emerged
from the preceding instrumental music, a simple piano chord bringing to a
close the strings’ sentimental winding and the subsequent piano-based
sonority, with cheeky woodwind interjections, established a light-hearted,
even cabaret-esque, mood.

There was a beguiling directness about this Zerbinetta’s advice to the
despairing Ariadne: every word was crystal clear, the sentiments sincere,
the recollections of past romantic encounters and adventures carefree –
utterly untrammelled by shadows or regret. The insouciance – complemented
by capricious flute and oboe echoes – was balanced by sudden surges of
heartfelt fellow-feeling and musical intensity, as when Zerbinetta
impresses upon Ariadne that she is not alone in her anguish – where is the
woman who has not suffered it? Independence of spirit and exuberance
gradually infused her honest recollections of romance, flourishing in a
gloriously flowing declaration: ‘I deceive him in the end yet love him
truly.” The elaborate listing of past lovers was a delight of floating
flightiness, the accompanying musicians playing with chamber-like intimacy
combined with dramatic expressiveness, while Zerbinetta’s reliving of her
erotic transportation and surrender was by turns ecstatic and then pensive,
almost ethereal, enhanced by a beautiful cello solo, finally summitting in
fountains of roulades and trills, as clean as a whistle even on the highest
sustained Ds.

The first half of the concert had concluded with a lovely performance of
Mozart’s Haffner Symphony. On the podium, Carydis exudes energy and a
confident appreciation of the dramatic sweep of the whole, bending his
knees to lower his arms to the floor, seeming to dig deep into the air, and
then rising again, embracing all in his outstretched arms which wave, arc,
sculpt and dance. Clearly the detail has been done and dusted in rehearsal,
and players and conductor can confidently communicate their collective
understanding and feeling. Cardyis encourages quite a raw sound at times,
with little vibrato, but the Bremeners can sing softly and sweetly too.
Such contrasts were even more strongly felt in the final work of the Prom,
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

I’ve recently been reading Beethoven for a Later Age by Edward
Dusinberre, the leader of the Tak·cs Quartet, in which the violinist,
reflecting on the alternative endings of the Op.130 quartet and the
ambivalences and contradicts that dominate the composer’s late style,
remarks perceptively that the essence of the apparently irreconcilable
contrasts in Beethoven’s music, evident from the earliest works, is the
discomforting juxtaposition, even co-existence, of the ethereal and the
demonic. Dusinberre views this disconcerting conflict as evidence of
Beethoven’s ‘ambition to integrate lightness and weight, youthfulness and
experience, comedy and tragedy’. This performance of the Seventh Symphony
seemed to embody that quest for integration, and if such a quest must end
ultimately in failure, the pursuit will be unsettling and inspiring in
equal measure – and in this case, incredibly uplifting, as the Prommers’
roar of applause – and the affectionate embraces with which the musicians
showed their gratitude to each other, as they left the stage – confirmed.

Claire Seymour

Prom 65: Mozart – The Abduction from the Seraglio K384, Overture;
Aria: ‘Popoli di Tessaglia! – lo non chiedo, eterni dei’ K316; Cassation
No.1 in G major, Andante; Aria: No, no, che non sei capace’ K419;
Symphony No.35 in D major, ‘Haffner’ K385; Richard Strauss – Capriccio, Sextet; Ariadne auf Naxos, ‘Grossm‰chtige
Prinzessin!’; Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major

Danae Kontora (soprano), Constantinos Carydis (conductor), Deutsche
Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Royal Albert Hall, South Kensington, London; Saturday 7th
September 2019.

product_title=Prom 65: The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Constantinos Carydis play Mozart, Beethoven and Richard Strauss
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Danae Kontora (soprano)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou