Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra

Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (Photo © Kaupo Kikkas)
Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (Photo © Kaupo Kikkas)
Pärt, Grieg, Sibelius; Estonian Festival Orchestra, Khatia Buniatishvili, Paavo Järvi; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 August 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
For its first appearance at the Proms, the Estonian Festival Orchestra gave us a striking mix of Nordic and Baltic composers, ending with a gripping account of Sibelius Symphony No. 5

2018 is the centenary of Estonian independence and contributing to the celebrations Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra made their first appearance at the BBC Proms (the first appearance of an Estonian orchestra at the Proms). On Monday 13 August 2018 at the Royal Albert Hall, they performed music from three Nordic & Baltic countries, Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 3 (from Estonia), Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto (from Norway) and Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 (from Finland). The pianist in the Grieg was the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.

Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 3 was written in 1971, a period of transition for the composer when he was re-considering his technique and would eventually create the tintinabuli style for which he is best known. This symphony has moved away from the modernist style of his earlier works whilst it has not yet reached the tintinabuli style. Written in a single movement with three sections playing continuously, the work is based around a series of motifs which evoke plainsong, and it is this medieval style of musical discourse which dominates the symphony.

The piece started with a single clarinet line, evocative and rather mysterious in its neo-medieval shaping. Pärt shapes his material in blocks, sometimes a single line, sometimes a few instruments and sometimes the whole orchestra, and silence is important. This is one of the pointers to his later style. Pärt's writing for single instruments, or a single musical line drew a strongly spiritual sense out of the piece. Conductor Paavo Järvi did not give a lot away, but he drew focussed, concentrated playing from his orchestra. The composer Arvo Pärt (now 82) was present for the performance, receiving huge applause at the end.

The Estonian Festival Orchestra is very much Paavo Järvi's orchestra. Founded in 2011 it is the orchestra in residence at Järvi's Pärnu Festival in Estonia, and the orchestra brings together Estonian musicians with musicians from all around the world, with players from many of the major orchestras.

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival - Photo Enrico Nawrath
Richard Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg;Daniel Behle, Günther Groissböck, Johannes Martin Krenzler, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Emily Magee, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Philippe Jordan; Bayreuth Festival, Germany
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 August 2018
Star rating: (★★★★★) 5.0

Bayreuth Festival’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg offered a strong message on anti-Semitism

An innovative, flamboyant and at times a wonderfully-quirky director, Barrie Kosky (artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin) delivered a brilliant and entertaining production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg first seen at last year’s Bayreuth Festival [see Tony's review from the 2017]. This year (seen on 14 August 2018) conducted by Philippe Jordan with Michael Volle, Klaus Florian Vogt, Daniel Behle and Emily Magee.

Born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe, his name in now indelibly linked to Bayreuth’s glorious history as he has become the first Jewish director to hold court at Bayreuth over its illustrious 142-year-old history. He’s also the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Meistersinger at Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus built specifically to stage Wagner’s mighty canon of Teutonic works especially Der Ring des Nibelungen.

That’s quite an honour and I think, too, an important and significant step by Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival and daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - of appointing Kosky as it supports her strong viewpoint of bringing to the fore Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance and his family’s later association with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

This vision is also reflected in the revamped exhibition focusing on the Bayreuth Festival housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried (complete with a swishy new extension) where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882.

Although a museum since 1976 (it reopened to the public just over three years ago) this is the first time that the era of the Third Reich has found its place in the exhibition. Most certainly, the last piece of the jigsaw. You cannot erase history and neither should you but at the same time the sins of the father cannot be brought upon the children.

Therefore, in Mr Kosky’s riveting and exciting production of Die Meistersinger - a work that’s essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art - Wahnfried takes centre stage and features prominently in the first act replacing the traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church. Here we meet Herr Wagner and his wife Cosima entertaining friends in the book-lined drawing-room engaged in a ‘read-through’ of Meistersinger in which the Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi - who conducted the first performance of Wagner’s Christian-based and final work, Parsifal, in July 1882 - is portrayed (and humiliated) as Sixtus Beckmesser.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Somewhere for the weekend: Suoni dal Golfo

Lerici in Ligura
Conductor Gianluca Marcianò's festival Suoni dal Golfo returns to Lerici in Ligura, Italy from 16 to 31 August 2018. Marcianò and co-artistic director Maxim Novikov are presenting a programme of music and poetry inspired by the sea and by the poets who were drawn to this emerald coastline.

Liszt's recently re-discovered Italianate opera Sardanapolo will receive its Italian premiere. Liszt worked on the opera intermittently until 1852 when he abandoned it. The libretto is based on Lord Byron's tragedy of 1821, and Liszt completed a substantial part of Act One, but having conducted Wagner's Lohengrin and Tannhauser he stopped work on it. Marcianò will conduct a cast including Anush Hovhannisyan, Sam Sakker and Vazgen Ghazaryan. The orchestra will be Orchestra Excellence, Marcianò and Novikov's new initiative for emerging musicians.

Performing at the festival for the first time is the Polyphony Quartet, which has evolved out of Polyphony Foundation, established by Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar. The mixed group of Arab students from Polyphony Education and Jewish students from the Jerusalem Music Center perform at Castello di Lerici on 22 and 23 August. Polyphony Foundation is an organisation that bridges the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel by uniting young people to perform classical music.

There will also be a programme of talks on Music, Diplomacy and Peace.

Gianluca Marciano's appearances in the UK have included Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera [see my review], Verdi's Nabucco with the Chelsea Opera Group [see Anthony's review on this blog] and Verdi's Don Carlo at Grange Park Opera [see my review]

Set on the famous coastline of the Golfo dei Poeti, the seaside town of Lerici has been a magnet for poets and composers alike, from Shelley, Byron and DH Lawrence to Wagner. Further details of the festival from its website.

Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera

Edward Lambert: Cloak and Dagger - Fleur de Bray, Andrew Greenan - Music Troupe, Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert: Cloak and Dagger - Fleur de Bray, Andrew Greenan
Music Troupe, Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Edward Lambert Cloak and Dagger Affair; The Music Troupe; Tête à Tête at RADA Studios Reviewed by Jill Barlow on 8 August 2018 Star rating: 2.5 (★★½)
Edward Lambert's latest opera, based on Frederico Garcia Lorca

The erudite and accomplished composer Edward Lambert has once more given us a new 'bite sized' Music Troupe chamber opera, Cloak and Dagger Affair (based on Federico Garcia Lorca) but 40mins long, apt for these dimensions, this time staged at the highly prestigious RADA Studios as part of Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival on 8 August 2018, directed by Jaered Glavin, conducted by Thomas Payne

However, I felt that in some respects the actual realisation of this production on the day, fell short of other works of his I’ve reviewed previously.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Alexa Mason - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Alexa Mason
Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills Dear Marie Stopes; Alexa Mason, Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams, Liam Byrne, Lucy Railton, Tom Oldham, dir: Nina Brazier; Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at the Wellcome Collection Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 August 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Personal letters arising from the publication of Marie Stopes Married Love give rise to a thought-provoking and imaginative opera

The Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection is a wonderful 1930s interior, a galleried space with a striking staircase originally part of the Wellcome Trust's headquarters and now open to the public. This formed the setting for Alex Mills' opera Dear Marie Stopes with a libretto by Jennifer Thorp (with gender and sexology expert Dr Lesley Hall providing advice), based on the Marie Stopes Archive held by the Wellcome Collection. [You can read Alex Mills' article about the creation of the opera on this blog]. The opera was performed as part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, directed by Nina Brazier the performance featured soprano Alexa Mason, contralto Jess Dandy, counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams, viola da gamba Liam Byrne, cello Lucy Railton and percussion Tom Oldam.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution

Keith Burstein
Keith Burstein
Keith Burstein is an intriguing person, softly spoken yet with strong opinions about politics and about music, notably tonality, opinions which are strongly held and which have been seen as contentious. Keith's opera The Prometheus Revolution premiered at the Arcola Theatre by Fulham Opera as part of the Grimeborn Festival on Tuesday 7 August 2018 [see my review]. The opera deals with politics and the idea of revolution in Britain, so another contentious topic. We met for coffee to find out more.

The opera combines the idea of a revolution in Britain with the Prometheus myth. The idea for the work began when Keith became interested in the Occupy Movement. Music and politics seem to go hand in hand for Keith, his previous opera Manifest Destiny was about a suicide bomber who renounced violence. An opera which has resulted in an ongoing court-battle with Associated Newspapers [see Keith's website for more details]

For Keith, the way the Occupy Movement pitted the 99% against the 1% meant that there were quite a few middle class people in the tents and he talks about the way it effectively created a movement whereby the poor and the affluent middle class (the 99%) were pitted against the ultra rich (the 1%). Keith was intrigued that, compared to the ultra rich, the affluent middle classes seemed poor and that their children were radicalised and going to demonstrations. Keith sees this as leading directly to the rise of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn. So Keith decided to try and write a music drama which took these processes as the starting point. Keith uses the myth, Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to everyone, as a metaphor to ask what if the 99% did wrest power from the 1%

Such fascinating conversations are not ones that I usually have when talking about opera, and perhaps that is half the problem with contemporary opera. Intriguingly, Keith combines these contemporary politics with a musical style that is still radical for its embrace of tonality.

Stephen Langridge to move from Göteborg Opera to Glyndebourne

Stephen Langridge
Stephen Langridge
Glyndebourne Opera has announced that Stephen Langridge, currently artistic director of opera & drama at Göteborg Opera, will be its next artistic director. Stephen Langridge, who is the son of the late tenor Philip Langridge, will return to the UK as artistic director Glyndebourne in 2019. Langridge has been at Göteborg for five years, and is creating a new Ring cycle with them, beginning with Wagner's Das Rheingold in November 2018. He will continue with the Ring Cycle, returning each year to direct it.

For the Göteborg Opera Ring Cycle, Langridge has devised an ecologically-sustainable production to explore Wagner's theme of the exploitation of the earth's natural resources. The Göteborg Opera is a champion of ecological sustainability and a leader among opera houses. Each department within the House has had to consider the environmental impact in every aspect of its planning.

Langridge's work in the UK has include Parsifal for the Royal Opera n 2013, and the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur in 2008 with John Tomlinson and Philip Langridge [see my review of the first run, and my review of the 2013 revival], as well as Bellini's I Puritani at Grange Park Opera in 2013 [see my review].

Friday, 10 August 2018

Small scale challenge: a studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera

Fulham Opera - Lucia di Lammermoor
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor; Nicola Said, Alberto Sousa, Ashley Mercer, dir: Sarah Hutchinson, Fulham Opera, cond: Michael Thrift; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 August 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A chamber version of Donizetti's dramatic opera, rescued by fine performances from the lead singers

For its second contribution to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, Fulham Opera brought a revival of their production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which was originally presented at St John's Church, Fulham in November 2017. Sarah Hutchinson directed, based on Jim Manganello's original production, but this must have been very much a re-invention as the smaller studio at the Arcola Theatre is a very different space to Fulham Opera's home in Fulham. Nicola Said sang Lucia, with Ashley Mercer as Enrico, Alberto Sousa as Edgardo, John Wood as Arturo, Simon Grange as Raimondo, Rebekah Jones Alisa and James Bowers as Normanno. Michael Thrift was the conductor and Ben Woodward, artistic director of Fulham Opera, accompanied on the piano.

Doing Donizetti on a chamber scale is a great challenge, on a number of levels. For a start, Donizetti's accompaniments do not lend themselves to simple piano accompaniment and though Ben Woodward is a fine pianist, the piano reduction from the Ricordi vocal score left a lot to be desired in terms of supporting the voices and in the variety of colour and texture. In such a small space, performing is a challenge for the singers too, not only is the audience alarmingly close but singing Italian bel canto music requires the voice to sound fully so you cannot hold back. The result was, at times, very loud and the ensembles extremely so.

Also, stylistically Donizetti does not leave much room to manoeuvre and being so close to the singers we could hear every detail. The young cast came from a variety of stylistic backgrounds and it was clear that not all had a secure knowledge of bel canto technique, there were plenty of moments when the shape of the vocal line was pushed towards Verdi or even Verismo, though admittedly this problem is not confined to smaller fringe companies. But thanks to strong and wonderfully engaged performances from the principals, there was much to enjoy.

Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland

Calen-O - Carolyn Dobbin - Delphian
Joan Trimble, Hamilton Harty, Howard Ferguson, Charles Wood; Carolyn Dobbin, Iain Burnside; DELPHIAN Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 July 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin in an attractive recital of songs by composers from her native Northern Ireland

Listening to this on Delphian disc blind, it would be fatally easy to simply classify the music as English song, but by bringing this particular group of 20th century composers (some born pre-1900) together, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin highlights the particularity of music by composers coming from Northern Ireland. Many were English trained, the Royal College of Music crops up in their CVs, but they use Irish words and, sometimes, Irish tunes, to create a very particular feel. So here, accompanied by pianist Iain Burnside, Carolyn Dobbin sings songs by Joan Trimble, Hamilton Harty, Howard Ferguson and Charles Wood. 

Some of the composers are not well known, and others are better known for other things (Hamilton Harty was the conductor of the Halle, and CHarles Wood is known for his Anglican Church music), but all have something to contribute in the song repertoire. Evidently, collecting songs by composers from the North of Ireland is a passion of Dobbin's, and she has plenty more for us to look forward to.

We start with Joan Trimble, from Enniskillen she studied at the Royal College of Music and taught at the Royal Academy of Music. Here we have Green Rain, Girl's Song and My grief on the sea, this latter her first published song, it sets and English translation of an Irish poem. These are elegant, lyrical songs, folk-influenced and very much in the tradition of RVW's songs except with an Irish melancholy lilt to them  As with most of the songs on the disc, the accompaniments are rather more than just simple support for the vocal line and we are very much in art-song territory.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking

Juanjo Mena & BBC Philharmonic (© BBC | Chris Christodoulou)
Juanjo Mena & BBC Philharmonic (© BBC | Chris Christodoulou)
Walton, Copland, Britten, Barber; Sally Matthews, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 August 2018
Star rating: 4.0

Rare Copland and Barber alongside Britten in Juanjo Mena's final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic

For his final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Juanjo Mena chose an interesting mix of British and American 20th century music at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 8 August 2018. Mena and the orchestra were joined by soprano Sally Matthews for performances of Benjamin Britten's Les Illuminations and Samuel Barber's Two scenes from 'Antony and Cleopatra', and the programme was completed with William Walton's overture Portsmouth Point, Aaron Copland's Connotations and Britten's Four Sea Interludes from 'Peter Grimes'. 

The programme included two relative rarities, both the Copland and the Barber receiving their first Proms performance, and the Barber coming hot on the heels of Glyndebourne's new production of his opera Vanessa [see my review] raises interest in his operas even further. But there were other fascinating links in what might at first seem a diverse programme. Both the Barber and Britten's Four Sea Interludes presented music extracted from larger operas, whilst the Barber and the Copland were written for openings at the newly built Lincoln Centre in New York.

Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête

Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown -
Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smaill Blue Electric; Mimi Doulton, Jonathan Brown, dir Hugh Hudston; Tête à Tête at RADA Studios Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 7 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Work in progress: Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor translated into opera

This is the 11th year of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival and this Tuesday, 7 August 2018, was the opportunity to see, what was described as a "work in progress", Blue Electric composed by Tom Smail with words by Alba Arikha

Economically directed by film director Hugh Hudson and atmospherically staged by Laura Albeck and Sara Stanton, the protagonist Alba was sung by Mimi Doulton, Vigo, her father, by Jonathan Brown, with Helen Charlston, Camilla Seale and Jennifer Coleman as Anne, her Mother, Barbara and Noga.

Blue Electric began life as Alba Arikha’s memoir Major/Minor which is a poetic retelling of her teenage years. The haunting book is a coming of age story. The wilful teenage girl in Paris coping with adolescence. The feelings of alienation and bewilderment at the world. The struggles to find her own voice and to shake off the labels already applied to her by the adults. This could be our life but for the fact that her father is the artist Avigdor Arikha and her godfather Samuel Beckett. Re-reading the book in 2017, her husband, Tom Smail realised he could hear “music in the words” and began to explore what more there was to say. So, Blue Electric was born.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera

The Prometheus Revolution
Keith Burstein The Prometheus Revolution; Fulham Opera, dir: Sophie Gilpin, m.dir: Ben Woodward; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A new opera which combines politics, new-age spirituality and an unashamedly tonal score.

A three-act opera with twelve named roles, a plot which mixes contemporary politics with new-age spirituality and a lyrical, tonal score, this new contemporary opera The Prometheus Revolution by Keith Burstein was the first of two contributions by Fulham Opera, artistic director Ben Woodward, to this year's Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on Tuesday 7 August 2018. (The company's second opera of the festival is more traditional, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor).

Burstein's opera was performed in the smaller, more intimate of the Arcola's studios with a production directed by Sophie Gilpin with designs by Sunny Smith and a cast which included Alex Haigh, Lucie Louvrier, Caroline Carragher, Robert Garland, Luci Briginshaw, James Schouten, James Bowers, Gerard Delrez, Olivia Barry, Nick Dwyer, Ian Wilson-Pope and Christie Cook. Musical director Ben Woodward accompanied on the piano.

Burstein's plot (the libretto was by the composer) took a grass roots political movement like the Occupy Movement, here called the Prometheus Revolution, and asked the question what if it succeeded. Support from billionaire Peter Rowlands (Alex Haigh) allows the movement to succeed, but comes at a price. Rowlands has history with the movement's founders and all is not well. On the political front, the success of the movement leads to the suicide of the Prime Minister, James Hanson (Ian Wilson-Pope) and the eventual dictatorship of his deputy, Paul Zapruder (Nick Dwyer), though the intervention of the head of the army (Gerard Delrez) allows the movement to succeed.

Woven into this is Rowlands' ex-girlfriend, Iris (Luci Briginshaw), now mute who only sings and has attracted a spiritual following, when she speaks again it will be to fortell the future. This happens in dramatic circumstances and ultimately ushers in a new age of peace.

This mix of politics and spirituality rather reminded me, in a distant way, of Michael Tippett's The Ice Break, but as a librettist Keith Burstein lacks Tippett's gift for concision and for aphorism.

Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival

Wagner: Parsifal - Jonas Kaufmann - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Wagner: Parsifal - Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) & the flower maidens
Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Richard Wagner Parsifal; Christian Gerhaher, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Nina Stemme, Bálint Szabó, dir: Pierre Audi, cond: Kirill Petrenko; Bayerischen Staatsoper, München Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 31 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Pierre Audi delivered an intriguing production of Parsifal at Bayerischen Staatsoper, München, closing this year’s Munich Opera Festival

In Pierre Audi’s somewhat strange, unusual but compelling production of Parsifal, the Great Hall of Montsalvat Castle - the home of the Knights of the Holy Grail - drifted miles away from its original setting inasmuch as it turned out to be a strongly-built, wooden-constructed, wigwam-type building located in the Holy Forest of the Knights of the Grail with members of the Brotherhood attired in dark monastic-style robes as opposed to being clad in tough leather or chain-mail shirt and embroidered tunic favoured by medieval knights.

Presented at the Bayerischen Staatsoper as part of the Munich Opera Festival on 31 July 2018, Pierre Audi's production of Parsifal was conducted by Kirill Petrenko and featured Christian Gerhaher, Jonas Kaufmann, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Nina Stemme and Bálint Szabó.

At the opera’s première at Bayreuth in 1882, the set presented was, perhaps, more conservative, based on a traditional German wooden-beamed roof supported by four heavy-duty stone columns. But with Audi (the incoming general director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival) you can expect his productions to be challenging - and he duly obliged.

A marvellous, intriguing and dark production, nonetheless, Parsifal closed the Munich Opera Festival on a high and was conducted by Kirill Petrenko, artistic director of Bayerischen Staatsoper and, of course, the new chief conductor of the Berlin Phiharmoniker. His reading of Wagner’s score was brilliant.

Wagner: Parsifal - Nina Stemme - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
Wagner: Parsifal - Nina Stemme - Munich Opera Festival (Photo Ruth Waltz)
And, brilliant, too, was the legendary German artist, Georg Baselitz, who came up with a host of rather dark and gloomy sets produced in pen-and-ink drawings (they caused a bit of a hoo-ha in some quarters, though) complementing well Mr Audi’s realisation of the opera and, indeed, the opera’s traditional setting, The Middle Ages, a dark and war-torn period for Europe after the upheaval and fall of the Western Roman Empire therefore the darkness and unsettling nature surrounding this production fitted this historic scenario extremely well.

Piecing together the new opera “Dear Marie Stopes”

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - rehearsal photograph with Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams and Alexa Mason - (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - rehearsal photograph with Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams and Alexa Mason - (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills' opera Dear Marie Stopes premieres on Thursday 9 August 2018 at the Wellcome Collection, as part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in a production directed by Nina Brazier and featuring Alexa Mason (Soprano), Jess Dandy (Contralto), Feargal Mostyn-Williams (Countertenor), Liam Byrne (Viola da gamba) and Lucy Railton (Cello). In this special Guest Post for Planet Hugill, Alex writes about creating the opera, which is based on letters written to Marie Stopes.

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Alex Mills - (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills - (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The first time I encountered the letters in the Marie Stopes archive, housed in the Wellcome Collection Library, I was immediately struck by their powerful emotional content. I felt it would be the perfect kind of material to explore musically and dramatically. The question was how to do it as sensitively and effectively as possible.

The archive itself contains thousands of private, intimate letters written to Marie Stopes from members of the public in response to her landmark publications on sex, birth control and parenting in and around the 1920s. The first of these publications, Married Love, was a sex manual Stopes published in 1918 to educate men and women on the most intimate details of sex, sexual desire and contraception while firmly advocating sexual equality between men and women. It became a global sensation, revolutionising attitudes to sex around the world. It was controversial not only for its contents, but because it was written by a woman. It inspired people to write to Stopes in their thousands sharing their most personal experiences about sexual relationships and to ask for advice on a variety of sexual health problems.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections

Huw Wiggin - Reflections - Orchid Classics
Alessandro Marcello, Franz Schubert, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla, Paule Maruice, Astor Piazzolla, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, Takashi Yoshimatsu; Huw Wiggin, John Lenehan, Oliver Wass; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 July 2018 

Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The delight of the classical saxophone in music ranging from Baroque to contemporary

It was the recordings of saxophonist John Harle that introduced me to the classical saxophone via a range of borrowed melodies [discs like John Harle's Saxophone Songbook]. On this disc from Orchid Classics, entitled Reflections, the young saxophone player Huw Wiggin, accompanied by John Lenehan (piano) and by Oliver Wass (harp), presents an eclectic programme of music by Alessandro Marcello, Franz Schubert, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saens, Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla, Paule Maurice, Astor Piazzolla, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov and the contemporay Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu.

Invented by Adolphe Sax in the mid-19th century the saxophone was intended as a classical instrument, it never really caught on in orchestras but its ability to play fast passages like a woodwind instrument yet to project like a brass one led it to be popular in military bands. It does crop up occasionally in 19th-century French opera, such as Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet and Giacomo Meyerbeer's Le Prophete, and Debussy wrote for it. But it would be in jazz that the instrument found a real home in the 20th century. Techniques are different, and it requires a real leap to move from the smokey vibrato-led sleaze of the jazz saxophone to the more straight-toned classical style.

Huw Wiggin's great virtue on this disc is that he makes it sound so natural and obvious.

New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre

Shakespeare: Othello - Shakespeare's Globe (Photo: Simon Annand)
Shakespeare: Othello; Mark Rylance, Andre Holland, Jessica Warbeck, Sheila Atim, Stephan Donnelly, Aaron Pierre, dir: Claire van Kampen; Shakespeare's Globe
Reviewed by Jill Barlow on 1 August 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)

"Rylance used to run the Globe and he still owns the SPACE
(Sarah Crompton-'What's On Stage ?' Aug 1st 2018 )

Shakespeare: Othello - Mark Rylance - Shakespeare's Globe (Photo: Simon Annand)
Shakespeare: Othello - Mark Rylance
(Photo: Simon Annand)
Our guest reviewer, Jill Barlow, sees the new production of Shakespeare's Othello at Shakespeare's Globe, directed by Claire van Kampen (who also wrote the music), designed by Jonathan Fensom. Mark Rylance stars as the treacherous Iago, with Andre Holland as Othello and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona.

I first had the privilege to meet Rylance (Globe’s Artistic Director) face to face in August 2000 when interviewing his wife Claire van Kampen, Director of Theatre Music, behind the scenes at the Globe myself as Theatre music critic. When I asked him what was the role of music in the plays his considered reply was :- ‘The music is replacing lights and sets’.

This classical austerity of approach lasted through to circa 2012 with his much acclaimed Twelfth Night and Richard III, but with his subsequent sideways move into the illustrious tv drama ‘Wolf Hall’etc.

In his absence, things became more relaxed in Globe productions, I understand. However with Othello this season he has happily returned to ‘treading the boards' with his talented wife, Claire van Kampen as Globe director (and composer) and so have I returned as well to help celebrate the occasion and what seems a return to former classical austerity of approach on stage here.

However as Claire explains in the programme notes:-‘normally as composer I’d be making all sorts of suggestions to the director (now herself !) devising all sorts of interesting music cues, but with this production we’re barely having music other than that which Shakespeare has called for in the play; when Cassio gets drunk, the ‘Willow song’. We don’t have inter scenic music because the scenes are going to move extremely quickly –‘Righto say I, so over to husband Mark Rylance and his antics non-stop as Iago, much more fun'.

They say ‘everyone loves a villain’, but didn’t Shakespeare write overtones of treachery and skulduggery in Iago, not Chaplinesque jumping about clad in red beret and ill-fitting cloth trousers too short, which is what we got? The audience gleefully lapped it all up, with roars of laughter as Rylance threw asides galore to the groundlings at his elbow on all sides of the stage where indeed he ‘owns the space’.

Monday, 6 August 2018

You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole

Opera Alegria - Donizetti & Ravel - Grimeborn Festival
Donizetti Rita & L’Heure Espagnole; Opera Alegria; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 3 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Strong female characters in opera buffa double bill of lively domestic comedies

Opera Alegria made a return to the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre this Friday, August 3 with a double bill of ‘domestic comedies’ Donizetti’s Rita or The Beaten Husband and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, both performed in English. In Donizetti's Rita soprano Naomi Kilby sang Rita. Richard Belshaw played Beppe, her current husband, whilst her former husband, in this translation, Graham Ramsbottom was sung by Christopher Faulkner. In Ravel's L’Heure Espagnole Alicia Gurney was Concepción, Ian Massa Harris her husband, Stuart McDermott was Gonsalve, Matthew Duncan was Don Inigo Gomez and Thorvald Blough was Ramiro. Benjamin Newhouse-Smith was the artistic director and musical director Lindsay Bramley provided the piano accompaniment.

The action of Rita is transferred from northern Italy to a bar on the Costa del Sol where Rita rules her roost and husband Beppe with an iron rod. Their worlds are turned upside down with the arrival of Rita’s first husband who was presumed dead. They eventually get the love that they’re due, via a broad selection of sea-side postcard comedy, some improbable scheming and a smidge of familial abuse. Benjamin Newhouse-Smith, the director, decided to qualify the original casual xenophobia and the joys of domestic violence to make the journey more acceptable to our modern sensibilities.

Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne

Barber: Vanessa - Virginie Verrez, Emma Bell - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Barber: Vanessa - Virginie Verrez, Emma Bell - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Samuel Barber Vanessa; Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, dir: Keith Warner, London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond: Jakub Hrůša; Glyndeburne Festival Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 Aug 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Passionate performances and a complex, multi-layered staging in the first major UK production of Barber's romantic opera

Barber: Vanessa - Virginie Verrez, Rosalind Plowright - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Virginie Verrez, Rosalind Plowright - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Having been performed in concert, by students and on the fringe, Samuel Barber's 1958 opera Vanessa (with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti) finally made it to the main-stage of a UK opera house with Glyndebourne's stylish new production which opened on Sunday 5 August 2018. Directed by Keith Warner in designs by Ashley Martin-Davis with lighting by Mark Jonathan, movement by Michael Barry and projections by Alex Uragallo, the production featured Emma Bell as Vanessa, Virginie Verrez as Erika, Edgaras Montvidas as Anatol, Rosalind Plowright as the Old Baroness, Donnie Ray Albert as the Old Doctor, William Thomas as Nicholas, the Major-Domo, and Romanas Kudriasovas as the Footman. Jakub Hrůša conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master Nicholas Jenkins).

Vanessa seems to be having something of a moment, in 2016 there were productions at Santa Fe Opera (directed by James Robinson, conducted by Leonard Slatkin with Erin Wall, see my review) and at the Wexford Festival (directed  by Rodula Gaitanou, conducted by Timothy Myers with Claire Rutter, see the review on Bachtrack) and now Glyndebourne. Menotti's libretto leaves a great deal unsaid, and each production took a different view. At Santa Fe, staged handsomely as Hollywood noir, the production did not dig very deep, whereas at Wexford the production brought out the Chekov-like overtones of the plot.

Barber: Vanessa - Emma Bell, Edgaras Montvidas - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Emma Bell, Edgaras Montvidas - Glyndebourne (Photo Tristram Kenton)
At Glyndebourne, director Keith Warner has been doing a close reading of the libretto and teasing out hints of facts left unsaid, bringing a more concrete element to the darkness surrounding the characters and hinting at explanatory back stories. Visually, there was more than a hint of Alfred Hitchcock in the production (Vanessa debuted the same year as Hitchcock's Vertigo), but the protagonists of Vanessa are far more active, far more self-aware than many of Hitchcock's heroines.

Mirrors are something a theme of the libretto, and Ashley Martin-Davis' set used these as the main theme, with huge frames which sometimes reflected and sometimes were transparent. Through these mirrors we could see action in other parts of the house, but also we could see the past as people remembered. The result was to create fascinating multi-layered visual imagery, so it was possible for Anatol and Erika to duet, yet still have Vanessa as a ghostly presence on stage.

The period was loosely the 1950s (the period of composition rather than the original setting of 1905), but Martin-Davis' costumes were relatively non-specific with stylistic of the 1930s too as if the household really was preserved in aspic.

By suggesting that Anatol is Vanessa's son, that the younger Vanessa and the Doctor had a flirtation separated by anti-miscegenation, and that Erika has an abortion, Warner provides a concrete backdrop to the torrent of emotions in the opera. It does not quite solve the opera's problems, the title role is still something of a mystery and everything remains somewhat overheated, but these suggested back stories give a remarkable complexity and depth to the resulting drama.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria)

Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold - Michiko Watanabe, Yukiko Aragaki, Misaki Ono as Rhinemaidens - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold - Michiko Watanabe, Yukiko Aragaki, Misaki Ono as Rhinemaidens - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen; Frederik Baldus, Joo-Anne Bitter, Ferdinand von Bothmer, Johannes Chum, Thomas Gazheli, Hermine Haselböck, Franz Hawlata, Michael Kupfer-Radecky, Alena Sautier, Andrea Silvestrelli, Giorgio Valenta. Orchester und Chorakademie der Tiroler Festspiele Erl, cond Gustav Kuhn; Passionsspielhaus, Erl (Austria) Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 24 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Ring in the Tyrol proved a wonderful and rewarding experience

Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold - Michael Kupfer as Wotan - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold
Michael Kupfer as Wotan - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Our roving correspondent Tony Cooper experiences Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Tiroler Festspiele Erl in the Austrian Tyrol directed by Dr Gustav Kuhn with Susanne Geb, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, George Vincent Humphrey, Rena Kleifeld, Svetlana Kotina, Valentin Lewisch, Werner van Mechelen, Raphael Sigling, Andrew Sritheran, Nancy Weissbach, Wolfram Wittekind, and Gianluca Zampieri.

That well-known English proverb ‘From Little Acorns Do Mighty Oaks Grow’ well describes the Erl Festival which was founded in a humble and unassuming way by director/conductor Dr Gustav Kuhn and dramaturg Andreas Schett in the small, idyllic and pretty Austrian Tyrolean village in 1997.

An eager, energetic and charismatic conductor, Dr Kuhn has turned Erl (with a population of around 1400) into what could readily be described as an ‘Austrian Bayreuth’ and, like Bayreuth, it is set in its own Green Hill but here surrounded by a glorious mountainous landscape that simply takes your breath away particularly as you exit the theatre following an evening’s performance with the mountains, silhouetted against the vanishing night sky, acting as a realistic backdrop to Mother Nature.

Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold - Thomas Gazheli as Alberich - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Wagner: The Ring - Das Rheingold
Thomas Gazheli as Alberich - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
A Salzburger and an enfant terrible of the contemporary-music scene, Dr Kuhn made Wagnerian history in Erl when he presided over the world’s first 24-hour Ring in 2014. The following year the production found favour in Shanghai.

Now aged 73, Kuhn - who studied music from the tender age of five - was destined to succeed in his chosen profession. He won the International Conducting Competition of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation in 1969 and a year later completed a PhD in philosophy, psychopathology and psychology. Just the right credentials for Wagner! And to forge his career as a conductor, he studied under the Italian composer/conductor Bruno Maderna as well as Herbert von Karajan, another Salzburger. As his international conducting career blossomed, particularly in Italy, he decided to turn his hand to stage direction and producing in 1986.

Therefore, he’s just the right man for the job at theErl Festival which, incidentally, opened in a blaze of glory with a performance of Das Rheingold in 1998. Over the past 20 years, the festival has matured and blossomed into a major international event not just for Wagnerians but for classical-music lovers, too.

Wagner: The Ring - Die Walküre - Susanne Geb as Brünnhilde, Vladimir Baykov as Wotan - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
Wagner: The Ring - Die Walküre - Susanne Geb as Brünnhilde,
Vladimir Baykov as Wotan - Erl Festival (Photo Xiomara Bender)
For instance, there’s a big focus this year on English composers with the programme featuring the Cheshire-born composer, author and poet, Cyril Scott, a man ahead of his time both in his music, thought and ideas. He’s widely recognised as one of the most remarkable men of his generation. Other English composers featured this season, too, include Britten and Walton while those two giant names of Italian music, Rossini and Verdi, also find their way on to the bill.

The programme at Erl, however, covers about 30 events over the summer period ranging from operas and concerts to chamber-music gatherings which are attended by more than 20,000 people each year. An annual winter festival runs, too, from St Stephen’s Day (26th December) through to the Feast of the Epiphany - Three King’s Day (6th January).

But the seemingly-remote village of Erl - universally renowned for its ‘Passion Play’ - is not that remote, really, as it’s roughly an hour’s drive from Munich, Innsbruck (the capital of the Tyrol) and Salzburg. In fact, performances of the Ring actually takes place in the 1959-built Passionspielhaus and only used in the summer months because it has no heating capacity.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival

Nina Sveistrup Clausen (soprano) and Janus Araghipour (piano) at last year's London Bel Canto Festival
Nina Sveistrup Clausen (soprano) and Janus Araghipour (piano) at last year's London Bel Canto Festival
The London Bel Canto Festival returns to London for the second year (6-22 August 2018) providing a programme of masterclasses and concerts celebrating the art of bel canto. But what exactly is bel canto, and what does the festival hope to achieve? I met up with the festival's founder and artistic director, Kenneth Querns Langley, to find out more about the fesitval, as well as discovering some of Kenneth's own researches into the early 19th century tenor voice.

Kenneth explained the aims of the festival are three-fold, an academy for young singers, performances and encouraging new music

During the festival, the academy works with young singers to educate them in historical approaches to bel canto technique. Not necessarily bel canto repertoire, but how bel canto technique can be used in other repertoire too.  

The festival also includes performances, from both the young singers from the academy and distinguished older singers, to entertain and educate the public. The aim is to show how bel canto influences performance practice, and how this can be different to contemporary vocal techniques. Moving forward, there are plans to include a complete opera in next year's festival. 

The final thread is the encouragement of new music written for bel canto singers using bel canto techniques. The aim is to encourage composers to understand the capabilities of bel canto singers. This year's festival includes a new piece by Clara Fiedler for piano, trumpet, horn and soprano, taking advantage of the soloist's big voice and three-octave range.


So what exactly is bel canto?

Manuel Garcia, aged 100 by John Singer Sargent
Manuel Garcia, aged 100 by John Singer Sargent

Kenneth admits that it can be a contentious word, meaning different things to different people. Whilst strictly a vocal technique, it has come to be applied to the music written for the singers using that technique, so we refer to the music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti as bel canto. But Kenneth is keen to emphasise that the term is broader than that, and when he refers to bel canto he is also referring to an historical pedagogical vocal technique (the way singers were taught in the early and middle 19th century). This does rather lead to a problem with branding, which Kenneth admits, and part of the festival's educational aims is to make the public understand exactly what bel canto is.

Kenneth also wants to raise the public's awareness of the importance of the British links in bel canto. So many of the major bel canto composers and singers performed here, both Manuel Garcia [1805-1906] (a singing teacher and author of an important pedagogical treatise) and Mathilde Marchesi [1821-1913] (a singer and teacher) both lived in London. So Kenneth wants to both raise the awareness of bel canto in the UK and raise the awareness of the importance of the UK in the history of bel canto.

Events at this year's festival include public masterclasses from distinguished performers, Bruce Ford, Nelly Miricioiu and Aprile Millo, and Aprile Millo is also giving a recital at Cadogan Hall, as well as working privately with the students at the academy. The young artists from this year's academy will also be giving concerts, with the repertoire taken from the works that they will be studying during the academy, including Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda and La Sonnambula.

His teacher was a grand-student of Mathilde Marchesi and Manuel Garcia

Friday, 3 August 2018

Prom 26: Late night Baroque queens at the Royal Albert Hall

BBC Prom 26 - Anna Prohaska, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Prom 26 - Anna Prohaska, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini
(Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Purcell, Graupner, Sartorio, Cavalli, Hasse, Handel; Anna Prohaska, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 August 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Dido and Cleopatra take centre stage in a recital which mixed both well known and lesser known to vivid effect.

For the late-night BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 2 August 2018, soprano Anna Prohaska and Il Giardino Armonico, conductor Giovanni Antonini, took us on a tour of Baroque queens. Moving from Purcell's Dido to Handel's Cleopatra, the programme included a number of lesser known depictions of these two queens by Christoph Graupner, Antonion Sartorio, Francesco Cavalli and Johann Adolf Hasse, plus instrumental music by Matthew Locke and Dario Castello.

The Royal Albert Hall is not always an ideal venue for Baroque music, but both Anna Prohaska and Il Giardino Armonico took a highly characterful view of the music, giving strong performances which carried across the spaces.

Prohaska has a strikingly plangent voice and a strong technique, which she combined with an engaging physicality in performance. She also made the most of the words in a recital which encompassed English, German and Italian. In each language she clearly relished the words, giving text a priority and colouring, shaping and projecting it. Whilst her English was not completely idiomatic, it was fully comprehensible and highly expressive in a very personal way.

Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico proved apt partners, as Antonini took a highly interventionist view of the music, highlighting contrasts so that louds were loud, soft passages were hushed, phrases were highly shaped and pointedly accented. This was a very particular view of the music, but the rich sound and strong phrasing ensured that we heard highly characterful performances.

BBC Prom 26 - Anna Prohaska, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
BBC Prom 26 - Anna Prohaska, Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)


Cast of Michael Betteridge & Ingunn Lára Kristjánsdóttir's #echochamber (Image courtesy of Gay Iceland)
Cast of Michael Betteridge & Ingunn Lára Kristjánsdóttir's #echochamber (Image courtesy of Gay Iceland)
During August 2018 there is the chance to hear a new Anglo-Icelandic opera in London, as part of the Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, and in Hull and Manchester. With music by Michael Betteridge and lyrics by Ingunn Lára Kristjánsdóttir who is also the director, #echochamber was premiered in Iceland in May 2018 by Alþýðuóperan (Folk Opera Iceland), and is a collaboration between Icelandic and British artists, The Aequitas Collective. #echochamber will be performed at Middleton Hall, Hull University (10 August 2018), 53Two, 8 Albion Street, Manchester (14 & 15 August), and The Place, 17 Duke's Rd, Kings Cross (17 August).

It was in fact the first Icelandic opera to have queer protagonists, and it examines to tricky topic of public shaming on social media. To start, the team behind the opera looked at disgusting tweets and improvised around them. One of the performers Ísabella Leifsdóttir explains. “It’s a brand new opera and very contemporary as it deals with public shaming in social media, especially regarding women. Sexual orientation is not an issue, per se, and it is not a main theme in the piece, except for the fact that the woman who is bisexual has a hard time coming out with the fact that she is in a relationship with a woman.

Further information about the opera from the Gay Iceland website, and performance details from the Tête à Tête website, and from The Aequitas Collective Facebook page.

Popular Posts this month