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Sunday, 28 August 2016

From Bohemia to Portugal: baritone Ricardo Panela in recital

Ben San Lau, Ricardo Panela at St James's Church, Piccadilly
Ben San Lau, Ricardo Panela at St James's Church, Piccadilly
Duparc, Dvorak, Tosti, Piazzolla, Jorge Croner de Vasconcellos, Francisco de Lacerda, Ben San Lau, Ricardo Panela; St James's Church, Piccadilly
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 26 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Lunchtime recital from young Portuguese baritone, with a group of 20th century art songs from his native company

The young Portuguese baritone Ricardo Panela gave a lunch time recital at St James's Church, Piccadilly as part of the Concordia Foundation series, on Friday 26 August 2016. Accompanied by pianist Ben San Lau, Panela gave a programme which traced the art song from France, through the Czech Republic (or perhaps more correctly Bohemia) and Italy to Portugal, with a trip to Argentina too. He sang Dvorak's Ziegeunermelodien, along with songs by Duparc, Tosti and Piazzolla, plus songs by two Portuguese composers Jorge Croner de Vasconcellos and Francisco de Lacerda.

They started with a pair of songs by Henri Duparc, Phydile and La vague et la cloche. Phydile is perhaps harder to bring off sung in a lower octave, but Panela displayed a nice sense of line, controlled and rather inward with a nice focussed town in the more animated moments. He took some time to relax and this first song seemed a little too understated, but his connection with the audience grew throughout the first few songs. I had never heard La vague et la cloche live before, and Panela brought a lovely virile tone to the piece, singing with an admirable evenness of tone across the whole range.

The Genesis of Frankenstein on Vimeo at last

Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein The Helios Collective with Mimi Jaeger, Anuschka Socher, Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosley at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015
Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein
The Helios Collective with Lindsey Fraser, Ughetta Pratesi, Anuschka Socher,
Isolde Roxby, Tom Asher, Noah Mosley
at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015
My opera, The Genesis of Frankenstein, which was premiered by the Helios Collective at the CLF Arts Cafe on 28/29 October 2015, is now available for viewing on Vimeo. The video was recorded live at the premiere performances, director Ella Marchment, conductor (and tenor soloist) Noah Mosely, choreographer Louise Kristiansen, with soprano Isolde Roxby and baritone Tom Asher, dancers Anuschka Sochr, Ughetta Pratesi, and Lindsey Fraser, musicians Helen Favre-Bulle (piano), Mimi Jaeger (cello), David Mear (clarinet), and Lyri Milgram (violin).

The Genesis Frankenstein is a one-act chamber opera lasting just over 20 minutes, setting texts taken from Mary Shelley’s novel. The piece arose from another longer piece, Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum for three soloists and ensemble. But the setting of Shelley’s Frankenstein seem to have a strength which lifted it from its surroundings. Eventually I decided to try re-casting it as a short operatic piece using only Mary Shelley’s words.

In the novel, Frankenstein narrates the whole so that all the events are presented in report rather than real time. Transferring this to an opera means that the drama flows faster than might happen if the events were depicted and in a sense the piece is Frankenstein recalling events as they tumble through his brain. I have emphasised this by having three singers playing different aspects of the same character. The soprano is the most excitable one, what I think of as Frankenstein’s questing soul, the tenor is Frankenstein the man whilst the baritone is natural philosophy. The baritone part is generally regular and when the tenor joins him, the tenor part reflects this quality. Similarly the soprano part is the most excitable and this quality transfers to the tenor when he sings with her. To these the director, Ella Marchment, decided to add three dancers (choreography by Sarah Louise Kristiansen) to quite stunning theatrical effect.

There are moments (at the opening and closing) when the singers sing in strict homophony, effectively creating a new voice. The result is more a meditation on the story than a dramatic presentation. As such, it is an extension of my interest in the non-representational aspects of operatic drama, which manifested in my previous opera When a Man Knows by having a chorus singing the stage directions and by creating an opening sequence which was almost abstract.

The Genesis of Frankenstein from Robert Hugill on Vimeo.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

From Handel to Gounod: my encounter with Harry Bicket, chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera & artistic director of the English Concert

Harry Bicket - photo credit Richard Haughton
Harry Bicket - photo credit Richard Haughton
In the UK, conductor Harry Bicket is best known as the artistic director of the English Concert, with a repertoire which has baroque music at its centre. And it is in the baroque and classical repertoire that he has developed a reputation at opera houses such as the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Since 2013 he has also been chief conductor at Santa Fe Opera, where this year he conducted a new production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (see my review), a choice of repertoire which might seem surprising until you learn that before his big break conducting the premiere of Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne, Harry spent five years on the music staff of English National Opera (ENO). I met up with Harry whilst I was in Santa Fe to chat about his work at Santa Fe Opera, and the varied trajectory his career has taken.

Harry explained that his career path was guided very much by the work he was offered, rather than a grand plan. And thought principally known now for the baroque and classical repertoire, he did much of the standard repertoire at ENO. He was on the music staff in the 1980's, towards the end of the 'Powerhouse' period when the company was run by Mark Elder, David Pountney and Peter Jonas. Harry conducted the last couple of performances in the opening run of David Alden's production of Handel's Ariodante with Ann  Murray in the title role. Harry refers to the wonderful cast and a fabulous piece. On the strength of these performances he was offered Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne and out if this developed relationships with the Metropolitan Opera and Bavarian State Opera.

At the time, having just left ENO, Harry saw the Glyndebourne performance as interesting work, rather than an opportunity to specialise in the baroque repertoire. There was no career plan, but Harry both knew the repertoire and had experience of working on baroque music with modern orchestra, understanding what information players needed to know to play the baroque repertoire on modern instruments, instruments which were designed for a very different repertoire.

'not looking to conquer the world but to make occasional forays conducting works which interest him'

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Stephen Costello (Roméo) in 'Roméo et Juliette' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Ailyn Pérez, Stephen Costello in Roméo et Juliette
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
More recently he has been returning to the 19th century classical and romantic repertoire that he loves. As he puts it, 'not looking to conquer the world but to make occasional forays conducting works which interest him'. Performances have included Dvorak's Rusalka and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with Houston Grand Opera, Rossini's Maometto II with Canadian Opera Company and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette with Santa Fe Opera (see my review), as well as the recent semi-staged performances of Handel's Orlando with the English Concert.

Regarding the choice of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette Harry admits that he rather prefers the opera to Gounod's most famous opera Faust. Though with Roméo et Juliette there are problems with the libretto, he finds Gounod's music incredible, and the work brilliantly adapts Shakespeare's play. For Harry, Gounod's opera is deeply felt, highly personal music indicating Gounod has taken great care with the piece. He admits that the Santa Fe orchestra members sighed when the work was announced, but they have come to love it.

Bruce Sledge, Leah Crocetto, Elizabeth DeShong in Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company 2016, photo: Michael Cooper
Bruce Sledge, Leah Crocetto, Elizabeth DeShong in Maometto II,
Canadian Opera Company 2016, photo: Michael Cooper
Just has his career has an element of serendipity to it (or perhaps being in a particular place at a particular time), so there is no clear line between the operas he has performed recently. Rossini's Maometto II was not on his wish list, but he is certainly glad he did it. Whilst he had conducted Rossini's La Cenerentola and Il barbiere di Sivigla in Munich, Harry found Rossini's opera seria Maometto II something else entirely. The performances in Canada (using the production from Santa Fe) used Philip Gossett's recent critical edition of the piece. Harry refers to the monstrous scale of the work, commenting 'what do you do with a trio lasting 35 minutes?' (the Act One Terzettone). Yet he finds the music resembles early Verdi and it was a huge hit in Canada, attracting amazing audiences. In the past this style of opera has been seen as just 'stand and deliver' but Harry finds audiences have a thirst for it, particularly if cast well and sung with virtuosity.

Harry points out that in more recent opera, time is sped up so that Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme is singing a duet with Mimi within six minutes of meeting her. In opera seria (both baroque opera and Rossini), there is more of a sense of real time thinking about a subject. In a Da Capo aria a character might spend five minutes singing about love, five minutes about betrayal in the middle section before returning to the subject of love but this time coloured by the thoughts of betrayal. Harry sees this as being more like the way we really think, though he admits that it needs the right singers to bring it off in the opera house.

The entire orchestra drives across the states to spend the summer every year in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera - photo
Santa Fe Opera - photo
I was interested to find out how different working at Santa Fe opera was to European Opera houses. Harry's immediate reaction is to say that things are done faster, in far less time. A revival at Opera North will have four, five or even six weeks rehearsal. But Santa Fe Opera mounts five operas in the space of three or four weeks. Everything, sets, props and costumes, is made on site, so with all this and the young artists Apprentice scheme, the pressure on the company is intense. There is the need to work much quicker, and singers turn up on the the first day ready and fully coached.

Harry points out also that the company is different because people work there because they want to. The entire orchestra drives across the states with partners, families, children and dogs to spend the summer every year in Santa Fe. Jobs in the orchestra are prized, for the recent principal bassoon vacancy they had 100 applicants. It is also a huge feat, getting the audience to come each year, yet in the last year more people came to the opera than the population of New Mexico - an amazing statistic. The management under general director Charles MacKay operates a tightly run ship and it is one of the few companies in the USA operating in the black.

Harry is in Santa Fe from the second week of June to the end of August. When first offered the job of chief conductor he was doubtful, being 5000 miles away from his wife and family for such a long time. But they have made it work. His wife is a scientist and whilst Harry is in Santa Fe she works at the Santa Fe Institute so that the whole family is able to spend the summer in Santa Fe.

Absolutely no intention of becoming a conductor

Harry Bicket  & The English Concert at the Drapers Hall, 2015
Harry Bicket  & The English Concert at the Drapers Hall, 2015
Harry had absolutely no intention of becoming a conductor and he studied as a pianist at the Royal College of Music in the late 1970's. He wanted to be a concert pianist but came to the realisation that he might not be good enough and was not keen on the rather lonely life it entailed. He had been an organ scholar at Oxford under Simon Preston, and when Preston moved to Westminster Abbey he offered Harry the job of assistant organist. Harry had no specific plan, but it seemed a good idea and he had an enjoyable four years. Ye he was thinking about giving it up and 'getting a proper job'  when he was offered the position on the music staff at ENO by Mark Elder. Harry admitted that he didn't know anything about opera, but passed the audition and spent an incredible five years there, from 1988 to 19993, working with directors such as Richard Jones, David Freeman, Graham Vick and the Alden brothers.

These were the ENO's golden years, there was a buzz about the place and the auditorium was packed every night. Yet, Harry knew that he did not want to stay on the music staff for ever. A former ENO colleague, Paul Daniel, moved to Opera North as music director and offered Harry a revival of Annabel Arden's production of The Magic Flute. To do the production Harry needed to leave his job at ENO. He decided to take a chance, and if things did not work out he could return to being a repetiteur. He was indeed offered more work, but it was Handel's Theodora at Glyndebourne which was his big break. He was originally down to do the tour, following the premiere of the production in the main house with William Christie conducting. But Christie fell ill and Harry was invited to take over the main stage performances. Normally Glyndebourne would have brought in a replacement conductor, but at this time there were few people who knew Theodora. Both Munich and the Met heard him, and relationships developed with both companies. The Met asked him to assist James Levine for a year, so he worked with Levine on four or five shows and this has also developed into a relationship with the company.

Whilst he had no particular ambitions, he found himself doing it full time and loved it. He enjoys the social aspects of his job, working with people, and he learned a lot playing for singers, and he admits he would have found it lonely as a soloist.

Every gesture, including the melody, is rhetorical 

He leads the English Concert from the harpsichord but rarely plays solo nowadays. He recently did a programme in Santa Fe with the Desert Chorale, and found it something of a shock playing a solo piece. Without playing every day, he feels that you cannot just sit down and perform a solo well. At the Met, when he performs baroque opera he uses two harpsichords, accompanying the recitative himself on one but conducting the arias and ensembles because of the size of the theatre. In Munich, the pit is built up for this repertoire which facilitates communication, so he directs from the harpsichord. When he performs Handel's Alcina with Santa Fe Opera in 2017 he hopes to be able to direct from the harpsichord.

When directing baroque opera with modern instruments, it is the whole idea of rhetoric which he is concerned to convey. That every gesture, including the melody, is rhetorical and it is no good just playing a sostenuto line. He explains that modern instruments are designed to play even, strong lines, but in the 18th century evenness was anathema, music was made more like speech than song. So unless the players make the music speak as the singers do, there is a danger of it being boring. String players speak with the bow, and with a baroque instrument using gut strings and a baroque bow, this is far easier because the baroque bow is naturally uneven in the pressure it applies to the strings.

So musicians who play regularly on baroque instruments are far more used to the rhetorical style, Harry cites as an example a bass line of repeated notes, two pages of quavers which a modern player would see as boring. But a baroque player would give each note a different length, articulation and volume, so a player needs to use fantasy and imagination to bring the music alive.

Harry explains that as children we learn music to express our individuality, but this is not what is required of players in a modern orchestra. When he conducts, Harry wants his players to be individuals, certainly they need to listen to each other but they need to bring something of themselves to the performance as well. This is not strictly a technical issue, though he can help players technically as well. In order to characterise the sound-world of a movement he normally gives the orchestra two or three adjectives. Modern musicians are far better at assimilating these ideas than in the past. When Harry conducted David Freeman's production of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo at ENO (the first new production he conducted), the concert master's response to Harry's comments to the orchestra was 'that is not the way I was taught to play the violin'.

Younger players now are more flexible, they have heard a baroque orchestra and may have held a baroque bow. Orchestras nowadays expect to change their sound according to the repertory. When Simon Rattle performs Mozart with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra it sounds different to their Mahler, but this was not always the case.

The English Concert is doing more theatrical events at the moment.

Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano - Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Paul Nilon, Simeon John-Wake - Handel Tamerlano
Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
The English Concert is doing more theatrical events at the moment. The series of baroque operas at Carnegie Hall (which have been touring to Europe including the Barbican, see my review of Handel's Orlando) continues with Handel's Ariodante with Joyce DiDonato and Christiane Karg, and Harry is pleased that the series seems to be continuing into the foreseeable future.

This Summer, the English Concert performed Handel's Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival conducted by Laurence Cummings, in  production directed by Francis Matthews (see my review). This collaboration with the festival is continuing and Harry thinks it is good for the orchestra to be performing in events which give them profile whilst he is away in Santa Fe. He and the English Concert will also be performing in the revival of Tom Morris's staging of Handel's Messiah at the Bristol Old Vic. And the ensemble will of course be touring Europe and the UK. The Arts Council's withdrawal of the English Concert's National Portfolio Organisation has led to a reduction in income. The amount is not huge in terms of the annual turnover, but it contributed to core funding and it is a headache nowadays to raise money for core funding. The admin team is tiny, but they have to raise money for three staff in order for the company to function. All the orchestra's activities lose money though some EU tours do bring in a little money. Travel and accommodation costs have gone up, so the amount of touring they do in the UK depends on the amount of money raised. But Harry thinks that it is important that an ensemble called the English Concert doesn't just perform in Spain and Germany, even though this would make economic sense.

When I ask Harry what his desert island opera might be, he says he would love to conduct Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, but that this is perceived as box office death, and companies often only put it on because the musical director wants to conduct it!

He is conducting Bizet's Carmen in January in a new production in Chicago with the Lyric Opera. He has worked a lot with the company but on earlier repertoire and is looking forward to seeing what they can do with Carmen.

Selected Recordings:

Elsewhere on this blog:

Friday, 26 August 2016

Drama to the fore - English Concert 2016/17

Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina  with Harry Bicket and the English Concert photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce Di Donato in Act 1 of Handel's Alcina  in 2014
with Harry Bicket and the English Concert. photo credit Mark Allan/Barbican
The English Concert's 2016/17 season has an interesting selection of Handel alongside, music for Don Quixote, Shakespeare and much else besides.

Harry Bicket will direct the orchestra in Handel's Messiah in April 2017, for Tom Morris's staging of the work at the Bristol Old Vic, with soloists including Anna Devin, Catherine Wyn Rogers and Joshua Ellicot. And later the same month, the Harry Bicket and the orchestra will be taking a semi-staged version of Handel's Ariodante on tour, with Joyce DiDonato in the title role, Christiane Karg as Ginevra, Joelle Harvey as Dalinda, and Sonia Prina as Polinesso. Ariodante will tour to the Barbican, Paris, Hamburg, Austria and the USA (Michigan, Kansas, Washington DC and Carnegie Hall in New York).

Purcell and Telemann's music for stage adaptations of Cervantes' Don Quixote gives us a chance to compare and contrast, when Harry Bicket directs the orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, with soprano Anna Devin and bass Matthew Brook in a concert which opens the orchestra's season. and marks the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes. Returning to Wigmore Hall on 31 December, The English Concert will ring in the New Year with a celebratory concert, performing a selection of baroque masterpieces by Purcell, Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel and more.

As ever, the orchestra is touring both in the UK and further afield. A Baroque Masters programme directed by Harry Bicket, with music by Purcell, Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, will tour to Stamford, Taunton, Great Malvern and Birmingham in collaboration with Orchestras Live. A Shakespeare in Love programme, which combines music by Purcell and by Handel with soprano Mary Bevan and counter-tenor Tim Mead, will be performed in Great Malvern and London as well as the Far East. Violinist Rachel Podger directs a programme of music by Bach, CPE Bach, and Telemann in Saffron Walden, Taunton, Antwerp and the Wigmore Hall.

Full details from the English Concert's website.

A glimpse of 17th century aristocratic music making - Come all ye songsters

Come all ye songsters - Carolyn Sampson - Wigmore Hall Live
Come all ye songsters - Purcell, Draghi, Corbetta, Simpson; Carolyn Sampson, Elizabeth Kenny, Jonathan Manson, Laurence Cummings; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Music from the Gresham Manuscript and Princess Ans Lutebook allow us a glimpse of aristocratic music making in the 1690s, performed with delight and charm in this live recital

This delightful programme was originally presented on 17 March 2015 at the Wigmore Hall, and is now released on the Wigmore Hall Live label. Soprano Carolyn Sampson joins Elizabeth Kenny on lute, Jonathan Manson bass viol and Laurence Cummings on harpsichord for a programme of Purcell's songs. This is no random selection of choice gems, instead the musicians explore two very particular manuscripts, the Gresham Manuscript and 'Princess Ans Lutebook'. Both of these are ultimately associated with Princess Anne, younger sister of Queen Mary (of William and Mary) who maintained her own establishment and seems to have been highly musical. So the disc, which includes a mixture of Purcell's theatre songs as well as music from the odes and other pieces, gives us a taste of the sort of music making that might have gone on in Princess Anne's chambers, including as well Purcell's C major Harpsichord Suite, originally written as teaching material for aristocratic patrons.

The Gresham Manuscript (named after Gresham College, the manuscript's 19th century owner) is in Purcell's own hand and seems to have been assembled for Purcell's pupil Lady Arabella Howard. Before her marriage she was a lady in waiting to Princess Anne and both women were musical. Anne played the harpsichord and guitar (her teachers included Francisco Corbetta and Giovanni Battista Draghi), and Arabella sang and played the harpsichord. And the manuscript seems to have been compiled by Purcell for their use, with the songs being copied in shortly after being composed. Whilst 'Princess Ans Lutebook' is in fact a book of guitar tablatures and is similar in nature, in that it is a compilation (of Purcell and others) of music to be played on guitar.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Les délices Français: the Palazetto Bru Zane's 2016/17 season

Camille Saint-Saens
Camille Saint-Saens
The Palazetto Bru Zane's 2016/17 season continues the organisation's exploration of the byways of 19th century French opera, with some potential delights unearthed including a season devoted to that well-known unknown Camille Saint-Saens, as well as the less known Fernand la Tombelle, and Etienne-Nicolas Mehul, plus a chance to explore a forgotten grand opera by Fromental Halévy (Bizet's father-in-law).

It might seem crazy to have a season devoted to Camille Saint-Saens when his works are so well known. Except we know only a few of them, apart from Samson et Dalila, his operas barely get a look in. Bru Zane's programme includes a season in Venice when there is a chance to explore the composer's music for solo piano and piano duet, mélodies, the early Piano Quartet, and pieces for strings and piano. His 1887 opera Proserpine is receiving performances in Munich and in Versailles, with Ulf Schirmer conducting a cast including Veronique Gens in the title role. And 1877 opera Le timbre d'argent is being staged at the Opera Comique in Paris. Recordings to be released include Tassis Christoyannis and Jeff Cohen in the composer's complete songs.

More completely unknown is Fernand la Tombelle (1854-1928). Despite the lack of recognition his name gets, he wrote around 600 works, was a poet, photographer and painter. Yet in music he espoused neither Wagner nor the modernism of Debussy and so is regarded as academic. There will be a festival of his chamber music in Venice, as well as study days and various publications, to enable us to get to know his music more. Better known, yet still not known, is Etienne-Nicolas Mehul (1763-1817) whose pre-Romantic works were an important influence on early 19th century French composers. There will be a gala in London (at St John's Smith Square) when Jonathan Cohen conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and tenor Michael Spyres in a programme which includes samples of Mehul's operatic music. There will also be the first modern performance of Mehul's mass for the coronation of Napoleon. It wasn't performed (Napoleon preferred something else) and has never been given since, this is now remedied when Francois-Xavier Roth conducts Les Siecles in Laon, Bonn, Grenoble, Nimes and Versailles.

In Paris in 2017, the exploration continues with Fromental Halevy's five-act grand opera La Reine de Chypre which is being given in concert at the Theatre des Champs Elysees with Veronique Gens in the title role, and Herve Niquet conducting the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. The work has not been performed for some 150 years, yet Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro re-cycled the plot.

Full details from the Palazetto Bru-Zane's website.

Not lost in translation

Andrei Valenty as Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival 2016 - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Andrei Valenty as Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
Boilshoi Belarus Opera & Ballet at Birgitta Festival 2016
photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Attending the recent performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin by National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn (see my review), during Prince Gremin's aria (finely sung by Andrey Valenty) I was struck how the words which came into my mind were those of David Lloyd-Jones's translation. It led me to think how certain translations create felicitous combinations of words and music which lodge in the memory.

Perhaps classic examples are the Puccini arias which I still think of as Thy tiny hand is frozen ('Che gelida manina' from La Boheme) and One fine day ('Un bel di' from Madama Butterfly). I have not heard either used in performance recently, but I first came across these when listening to my mother's record collection, and Thy tiny hand is frozen still comes to my ear in Heddle Nash's voice. The recordings of these two operas in Chandos's Opera in English series reflected the classic status of these English translations and both La Boheme and Madama Butterfly use modern revisions of classic translations, thus giving us 'Your tiny hand is frozen' and 'One fine day'.

Rita Hunter, Norman Bailey - Wagner The Valkyrie - ENO 1970
Rita Hunter, Norman Bailey
Wagner The Valkyrie - ENO 1970
Many translations nowadays favour demotic immediacy, and even those used on some of Chandos's Opera in English recordings rather favour plainness over poetry. But as David Lloyd-Jones's translation shows, not all modern translations are unmemorable. I first heard the translation used for performances of Eugene Onegin by Scottish Opera in 1979, directed by David Poutney. I have heard it a number of times since, and still admire the poetically memorable nature of the English text.

Another translation (or set of translations) which I admired are those which Andrew Porter did for The Ring of the Nibelungen, and for Tristan and Isolde. Those of The Ring were created for ENO's Ring cycle in the 1970's conducted by Reginald Goodall, and here I have to admit that I came to know the translations off record. When I heard the operas, when ENO was on tour in Manchester in the 1970s the English text did not come over very well in the theatre, but then we were sitting in the cheapest seats in the Gods. More recent performances at ENO have favoured a more contemporary less classical style, but I enjoy the poetry of Porter's translations, and it was heartening to hear his translation in use for the recent performances at ENO of Tristan and Isolde.

Of course translations can often impede the style of production too. I have lost count of the number of operettas whose subtlety has been marred by translations which seem to take Gilbert's word for Sullivan as a model. It would be interesting to return to the translations created for Wendy Toye's Offenbach productions for Sadlers' Wells Opera in the 1960s and see how they have weathered.

Perhaps too many modern directors are wary of the text having a poetic memorability which might distract the audience from the message of the production.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A very Anglican fervour: Rachmaninov's Vesper's from John Scott and the choir of St Thomas, New York.

Rachmaninov - Vespers - John Scott, St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys - Resonus Classics
Sergei Rachmaninov All Night Vigil (Vespers); Orly Brown, David Vanderwal, Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, John Scott; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 4.5

First of a series of recordings by the late John Scott with his New York choir, this one a very special Rachmaninov Vespers

This is a first of a series of recordings made during John Scott's tenure as director of music at St Thomas's Church, New York, and being released commercially for the first time on the Resonus Classics label. This first disc is a 2008 recording of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op.37 on which Scott conducted the St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, with Ory Brown (mezzo-soprano), and David Vanderwal (tenor).

There has only been one other account of the Rachmaninov Vespers issued on disc with a choir of men and boys, that of Stephen Cleobury and the choir of King's College, Cambridge. The trebles of St Thomas's Church have a clearer brighter sound that the King's ones, and the style of the two conductors is markedly different.

The sound of the choir is quite light, with a very forward placement of the vowels so that the choir retains its distinctive Anglican sound, do not buy this disc if you want dark Russian vowels and swallowed consonants. Scott uses this sound to really shape the music, he takes quite an interventionist view of the music, you notice this from the opening chorus where he has the choir giving us some very pronounced and intense phrasing, shaping the music strongly.

Cue the new: London Sinfonietta's 2016/17 season full of 21st century highlights

Cue the New - London Sinfonietta 2016/17 season
The London Sinfonietta's 2016/17 season includes its regular residency at the South Bank Centre, as well as international touring. Highlights include performances of Beat Furrer’s FAMA, Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days and Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain, as well as world premieres of music by Salvatore Sciarrino, Simon Holt and Morgan Hayes. As part of the ensemble's Mix series, it will be collaborating with with Norwegian jazz virtuoso Marius Neset. And as part of the Blue Touch Paper strand of cross art form projects there will be performances of Mica Levi’s BAFTA nominated score Under the Skin live with the film, and Phil Venables’ Illusions made with performance artist David Hoyle.

The season opens with UK premieres of music by Salvatore Sciarrino and younger Italian composers Daniela Terranova and Francesco Filidei. After performing the concert at the Venice Biennale the ensemble will perform it at St John's Smith Square as part of the South Bank in exile season (whilst the Queen Elizabeth Hall is closed). Other highlights of the St John's season include Beat Furrer’s 2005 music theatre masterpiece FAMA performed by actress Isabelle Menke, Eva Furrer (contrabass flute) and conducted by Beat Furrer, which will also be performed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Hans Abrahamsen’s 2008 masterwork Schnee uses interlocking canons to create an aural image of snow, and will be performed at St John's alongside premieres of new works by Morgan Hayes and Simon Holt conducted by Thierry Fischer.

At the Royal Festival Hall London Sinfonietta performs In Seven Days by Thomas Adès, side-by-side with the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, and also at the RFH there is a film screening of Under the Skin which will be accompanied by the London Sinfonietta performing Mica Levi’s BAFTA- nominated soundtrack, as part of Southbank Centre’s Film Scores Live festival, then on tour around the UK, including to Hull University. Also at the Royal Festival Hall, it performs Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain, a work from 2000 which includes the extraordinary performance instruction that 20 minutes be performed in the pitch dark.

At Kings Place there will be Stockhausen’s Altered Sound in an immersive evening including pre and post-concert participation in Mikrophonie I, a main stage performance of Gesang der Junglinge and Kontakte presented by Jonathan Cross, and post-concert drinks with the players. The ensemble returns to Kings Place for Ligeti: Altered Time including pre-concert participation in Pòeme Symphonique (for 100 metronomes), followed by a main stage performance of Artikulation, 10 Pieces for Wind Quintet and Melodien presented by Jonathan Cross, as well as post-concert drinks with players.

Full details from the London Sinfonietta website.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In case you missed it: July on Planet Hugill - the first Leonore, a brace of Rossinis and the last Tristan

Welcome to July on Planet Hugill, rather later than usual because we have been busy visiting Santa Fe, Iceland and Tallinn (of which more in next month's newsletter). If you would like to receive this newsletter in your inbox each month then sign up to our mailing list:

July saw the opera festival season continue in earnest and we opened with Glyndebourne, where we were at home with the beautiful people with Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and we heard two role debuts with Joyce DiDonata and Vittorio Grigolo in Werther at Covent Garden. There was a remarkable swansong, with Tristan und Isolde, the last performance of Grange Park Opera at Northington Grange.
At Opera Holland Park there was sparkle and discipline in Strauss's Die Fledermaus with husband and wife team Ben Johnson and Susannah Hurrell, and there were sylvan delights in Gounod's La Colombe at West Green Opera.

At the Buxton Festival

Not just Fidelio-lite, we heard Beethoven's original Leonore, whilst Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi was classic yet modern, and there was a visual and aural feast in Handel's Tamerlano, plus Gemma Lois Summerfield in recital.

A brace of Rossinis

La Cenerentola was seriously comic at Opera Holland Park, whilst Rossini's Barber saw Glyndebourne at the BBC Proms.

Various Venues

Bringing music-making to Dartmoor and Exmoor: Two Moors Festival

St George's Church, Dunster
St George's Church, Dunster
Founded in 2001 out of the devastation caused by Foot and Mouth, the Two Moors Festival brings music making to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks. This year the 16th festival runs from 22 to 26 October 2016. Peter Donohoe  and the Carducci Quartet open the festival and there are chamber music concerts and recitals from Alison Balsom, Mahan Esfahani, Lucy Crowe, John Mark Ainsley, Joseph Middleton, Anna Tilbrook, Tom Poster, Christoph Berner and Matthew Barley.

For 24 and 25 October there are are ‘Mix and Match’ events, here the Gildas Quartet, Harvey Davies (piano), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Matthew Barley (cello), Caroline MacPhie (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo soprano), and Jâms Coleman (piano) form various chamber combinations over two days of concerts and open rehearsals.

The festival culminates in a concert in Exeter Cathedral on 29 October which launches an appeal in the memory of the late John Adie (co-founder of the festival with his wife Penny who remains artistic director). The concert will be given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis, with music by Sibelius plus Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Brahms Violin Concerto with young artists Jordan Black (clarinet) and Michael Barenboim (violin). For the Sibelius works the orchestra will be joined by young school-age performers.

In the run up to the festival on Fridays starting on 9 September, concerts at Tiverton Parkway ticket office, have a very specific remit to young artists to perform 29 minutes of music between the 11.38 and 12.09 trains.

Full information from the Two Moors Festival website.

Olympic Committee history as Estonia appoint first non-sport ambassador, Kristjan Jarvi

Kristjan Järvi - photo Peter Rigaud
Kristjan Järvi - photo Peter Rigaud
The Estonian Olympic Committee has appointed the conductor Kristjan Järvi to become a standing member of the national committee. This remarkable move makes history; Järvi is the first non-sporting person to be appointed to the committee.

Kristjan Järvi was born in Estonia but emigrated to the USA as a child. He is already highly involved in projects in Estonia and the Baltic region. He created the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic in 2008, and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra, in 2015. Both groups draw on players from all 10 Baltic countries. Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic Orchestra will be touring the Baltic countries in September this year with violinist Gidon Kremer.

Järvi now is looking at ways to bring all types of music from classical to hip hop together in order to help the young especially get involved in sport and hopefully bring Olympic success to Estonia not just in the winter Olympics but the summer ones as well.

Cookery a la carte

Cookery a la Carte
Cookery a la carte; David Steadman, Melvyn Tarran; The Choir Press
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Anecdotes, pictures and recipes from members of the D'Oyly Carte opera

This delightful new book Cookery a la Carte, issued in a limited edition by the Choir Press, is a collection of recipes provided by members of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company over the years. Based on a collection started by a former chorus member, the selection of recipes has been expanded and edited by David Steadman and Melvyn Tarran too over 100 entries.

But the book is much more than a recipe book. Presented very much as a scrap book with a page or two devoted to each person, there are biographical sketches, anecdotes and pictures (many of them historic) in addition to the recipes. You are warned that many of the older recipes have not been tested, and many are provided in facsimile of the original hand-written ones, which can make something of a challenge when trying to read them.

The book started out as a collection presented to D'Oyly Carte chorus member Joy Garland when she left to get married, a collection which she continued expand and this has been further expanded by the editors David Steadman and Melvyn Tarran into the present volume.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Help BREMF crowd-fund 'Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet'

Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet,
Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has an exciting programme planned for this Autumn (see my preview). One of the highlights promises to be Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet, inspired by the festival's staging of the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 a few years ago, Gaia (devised and directed by Deborah Roberts) is very much a modern take on the 16th century intermedi and will be combining professional performers such as the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Onde Sonore, and the Lacock Scholars with involves local singers from the BREMF Consort of Voices and the BREMF Community Choir. The Community Choir is a vibrant, non-auditioned choir in the best traditional of community music-making. 

To help fund this ambitious production, which uses film, projections, lighting effects, mime, yoga and dance to tell the story of our Earth and how humans have perceived it through the ages, the festival has launched a Crowd-funding page. Pledges range from £10 to £500 with all sorts of tempting rewards so there is plenty of scope to help.

Ades, Barry, Beethoven and more: Britten Sinfonia in 2016/17

Ades, Barry, Beethoven - Britten Sinfonia
The Britten Sinfonia's 2016/17 season includes regular concerts in Cambridge, Saffron Hall (where the ensemble has a residency), Norwich and the Barbican (where it is an associate ensemble). Highlights include Thomas Ades conducting Beethoven, Barry and Ades, the European premiere of Gerald Barry's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Mark Padmore in Bach's St John Passion and the premiere James MacMillan's Stabat Mater.

Over three years, Thomas Ades will be conducting all of Beethoven's symphonies pairing them with music by Gerald Barry and by Ades himself. There was a fore-taste of this on August 15 when Ades and the orchestra performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 at the BBC Proms. As part of the orchestra's Barbican season it will give the European premiere of Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, co-commissioned by the Britten Sinfonia, the Barbican and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Other Barbican events include participation in the celebrations of Steve Reich's 80th birthday and John Adams' 70th.

The ensemble will join with Harry Christophers and the Sixteen to premiere James MacMillan's Stabat Mater, and it will be joined by Mark Padmore for performances of Bach's St John Passion at Easter 2017. Mahan Esfahani will be returning to perform a programme of keyboard works by Scarlatti and Falla, plus a new work by Francisco Coll.

The orchestra’s At Lunch concerts include new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Elena Langer, Brian Elias and the winner (from over 500 applicants) of Britten Sinfonia’s OPUS competition for unpublished composers, Sohrab Uduman.

From October 2016 the ensemble is resident at Saffron Hall where it will perform a series of concerts as well as developing with Saffron Hall a new model. Britten Sinfonia is throwing open the doors to rehearsals to the pupils of Saffron Hall County High School (home to Saffron Hall) and the Saffron Walden Centre for Young Musicians and providing opportunities for young musicians to work side-by-side with the orchestra, with further musical encounters planned throughout the season.

Full details from the Britten Sinfonia's website,  which has an all-new look.

Much that was superb musically: Eugene Onegin from Belarus at Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin, Act 1 - National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus at Birgitta Festival
photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin; Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova, Vladimir Petrov, Yuri Gorodetsky, Andrei Valenty, dir: Valery Shishov/Alexander Prokhorenko, cond: Andrey Galanov
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fine singing transforms a rather staid production from Belarus at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Vladimir Petrov - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Vladimir Petrov - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
For my second visit to the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn, Estonia on 20 August 2016, I heard the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus (based in Minsk) perform Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The production, originally from 1986, was revised and refurbished in 2012. Valery Shishov directed the original production, with Alexander Prokhorenko being responsible for the 2012 revision, with designs by Dmitry Mokhov and choreography by Alexandra Tikhomirova. Andrey Galanov conducted, and the cast included Vladimir Petrov as Onegin, Anastasia Moskvina as Tatyana, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky, and Andrey Valenty as Prince Gremin.

Overnight, since the ending of Requiem... and before the previous night (see my review), the temporary theatre within the ruined church of the Pirita Convent had been re-cast as a traditional proscenium theatre with pit. The production was relatively traditional even to using a painted back-drop and suspended flats in a style which has rather gone out of fashion in the UK. But the results had an effective charm, especially when combined with the traditional but well thought out costumes, with the ensembles in each act forming attractive stage pictures.

Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
There was an economy to the design, so the white drapes from the Act Two dance at Madam Larina's re-appeared for the Gremin's ball, and the duel was performed on a re-dressed set of the previous scene. The whole production was firmly set in Pushkin's era, and was a traditional narrative telling of the tale, without any major directorial interventions. The plot was very much taken at face value so any depth or interpretation depended on the individual singers.

That mounting the production in such a short time was a challenge was indicated by some haphazard moments in the lighting plot. And the depth of the stage was clearly less than that in Minsk, as there was some awkwardness in fitting the choreography of the polonaise in Act Three to the new layout.

The overall production style was traditional too, not to say rather staid and old-fashioned with none of the detailed naturalism and personen-regie that we have come to expect in the West. Anastasia Moskvina's impassiveness as Tatyana in the first two acts rather made the character seem dim, and only Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky created a sense of visual character; with his long hair (his own) and slight frame he looked every inch the fragile poet.

This was a performance which was all about the voices and musically there was very much that was superb.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Mozartian music theatre: 'Requiem... and life before' in Tallinn

Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mireille Mosse, Uku Uusberg - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
 photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Mozart, Joel Lauwers Requiem... and life before; Uku Uusberg, Yuka Yanagihara, Helen Lokuta, Thomas Volle, Simon Robinson, Latvian State Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, dir: Joel Lauwers, cond: Mihhail Gerts; Birgitta Festival, Tallinn
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 19 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Music theatre piece based on Mozart's music and letters, performed in the ruins of an Estonian convent

Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn -  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Uku Uusberg and soloists
Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  photo Heiti Kruusmaa
The Birgitta Festival takes place annually in the ruins of the Pirita Convent in Tallinn. A temporary roof is placed over the ruins of the church and a theatre created, with bars and facilities in marquees dotted about the remaining ruins. The festival's artistic programme combines visiting companies with their own productions. The programme this year has included a flamenco version of Carmen, and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte performed by the UK-based Black Cat Opera Company with new designs by an Estonian designer.

For the first of my two visits to this year's festival on Friday 19 August 2016 I saw Requiem... and life before a music theatre piece by Joel Lauwers based on Mozart's Requiem and texts from his letters. Joel Lauwers designed and directed, Mihhail Gerts conducted the Latvian State Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Actor Uku Uusberg played the protagonist Eugene Trazom, soprano Yuka Yanagihara played Aileen, Trazom's wife, mezzo-soprano Helen Lokuta played Marianne, Trazom's sister, tenor Thomas Volle played Emanuel, Trazom's friend and bass Simon Robinson played Trazom's father, with actors Andri Luup, Tiia als, Kaja Plovits, Elisabeth Peterson, and Kaido Kelder. The French actress Mireille Mosse played Mrs Death.

Latvian State Choir - Requiem... and life before - Birgitta Festival, Tallinn  - photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
Latvian State Choir photo  Heiti Kruusmaa
The first half consisted of spoken text, taken from Mozart's letters and given to the actor Uku Uusberg who played not a composer but a contemporary photographer. The rest of the cast were mute, acting around him. The drama played out the usual round of births, marriages and deaths, with Uusberg producing a veritable torrent of words speaking so fast that at times it was difficult to read the surtitles.

The set had a large lozenge shaped pit in the middle (for the orchestra), with the fore-stage thus divided into two main acting areas, stage left was the Trazom's home, and stage right was the domain of Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Here was an open grave, and here she summoned people to die. At the rear of the stage was a screen on which projections changed, varying from the Pirita ruins themselves to city scenes. The screen could open to reveal a tableau often involving the chorus, these were not always silent and would sometimes invade the stage making random noises.

The result was striking and intriguing, though we gained only a little sense of the protagonist's inner life. At the moment of his unexpected death, the Requiem started with his wife (soprano Yuka Yanagihara) singing the soprano solo in the opening movement at the funeral obsequies. The movements of the Requiem proceeded through the various mourning rituals for the protagonist, but in fact he had refused to die and formed a spectator at these with a constant, silent duel being fought between Uku Uusberg's Trazom and Mireille Mosse's Mrs Death. Much was made of their physicality, Mosse is diminutive (Wikipedia states that she is only 120cm tall and Uusberg is more than twice that). Finally, at the end of the Requiem, Trazom descended.

It was an intriguing prospect, and formed a striking dramatic complement to the sung Requiem.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Funny, lively and vivid: Le nozze di Figaro at Grimeborn

Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Heather Caddick, Cheyney Kent and ensemble - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick, Dario Dugandzic, Sofia Troncoso, Katie Slater, dir: Lewis Reynolds, cond: John Jansson; Grimeborn Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 16 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Lively small-scale production of Mozart's opera which brings out the funny side

Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick - Mozart The Marriage of Figaro - Grimeborn Festival - photo Nick Rutter
Sofia Troncoso, Cheyney Kent, Heather Caddick
photo Nick Rutter
The Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre has developed a reputation for presenting innovative small-scale productions of established classics. This year's festival included Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Cav and Pag and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. We caught Mozart's opera on 16 August 2016 in a production by Opera 24 and Darker Purpose. John Jansson conducted his own orchestration for an ensemble of eight, and Lewis Reynolds directed a cast which included Cheyney Kent as the Count, Heather Caddick as the Countess, Dario Dugandzic as Figaro, Sofia Troncoso as Susanna, Katie Slater as Cherubino, Esther Mallett as Barbarina, Elizabeth Graham as Marcellina, Simon Masterton-Smith as Bartolo and Antonio, Edward Saklatvala as Basilio and Don Curzio. Designs were by Alexander McPherson and lighting by Davy Cunningham.

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro is a big ask of any company, the opera's very perfection demands similar perfection from its performers, even before thinking about staging and dramaturgy. The production at Grimeborn was played in the round, in a studio theatre which put an even bigger onus on the singers. Lewis Reynolds' production used a simple square of parquet flooring as playing area, with lighting to delineate areas and rooms. This was particularly effective in creating multiple playing areas, such as corridors next to rooms, and for Act Two we were able to see both the Countess's room and inside the closet next door. There were a minimum of props and just two chairs, the result was admirably unfussy and focussed in terms of visuals.

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