Sunday, 31 December 2006

Plans

Of course, now that Christmas is passing and New Year will soon be a memory, I have to get cracking on all the plans for next year. This has been noticeable over the past week as the dining room table has gradually been overcome with piles of music by Tomkins, Weelkes, Pelham Humfreys and Orlando Gibbons. We are doing a programme of Verse Anthems at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London on 18th March as part of their fund raising campaign for the church's restoration. So I have been busy acquiring music, thanks to the ever wonderful Stainer and Bell, much of it has been bought in the form of PDF's from the publisher's web site. Much of our repertoire is embedded in learned tomes such as Musica Britannica and Early English Church Music and Stainer and Bell have a scheme whereby you can buy PDF's of the lesser known pieces, copied directly from the relevant volume. A wonderful, economic way to enable people like our little group of 6 to be able to perform this music.

Christmas Presents

The combination of a Roberto Alagna recital disc to be reviewed and a concert performance of Halevy's La Juive, both of which included the well known aria Rachel, quand au Seigneur, meant that I went scurrying off to try to get a complete performance of the opera for D.'s Christmas present. Not surprisingly, the best recording, with June Anderson, Jose Carreras and Julia Varady, did not seem to be available. This sent me scurrying toThe Clasical CD Exchange, one of the sites which sell second hand CD's. There, by virtue of the vagaries of search engines, I managed to acquire not only the relevant recording of La Juive but also Ben Heppner's recital of French opera arias (which includes Rachel, quand au Seigneur). Both are wonderful; the complete opera is notable for the fact that Carreras over-dubbed his part after the recording, because of his problems with Leukemia, but you would never notice.

The Heppner is a marvel because so few tenors nowadays can sing the French parts with such a feeling of focus in the voice and a fine sense of line. Heppner is, perhaps, not the most interesting singer in the world, but his tone and line are incomparable when compared to many contemporaries. He is not Georges Thill, but in this barren modern age, he comes decently close.

Friday, 22 December 2006

Recent CD Review

My review of Palestrina's Missa Tu Es Petrus is here on Music Web International.
Unusual though the repertoire is the disc is not one that I will be returning to. ...
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Thursday, 21 December 2006

Christmas Revels

Tonight is the London Concord Singers' Christmas Concert at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. The programme includes the Poulenc Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noel, 2 Advent motets by Brahms, Bruckner's Christus Factus Est and Virga Jesse, Naylor's Vox Clama, Dicentes and Britten's early Hymn to the Virgin, plus various carols. Not exactly my beau ideal of a concert, but there is sufficient I think to keep everyone interested.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Too little time, too many operas

Having booked a couple of operas in the ENO's short summer season, submitted a booking for Grange Park Opera's June 2007 programme and having already booked for the LSO's performances of Benvenuto Cellini in June 2007, I opened the new booking info. from the Royal Opera with some trepidation.

Quite rightly, as it seems. Everything is happening in June, so we won't be able to go to see the concert performance of Thais with Renee Fleming, it clashes with Benvenuto Cellini. Well, the Royal Opera are doing 2 performances but the first is on the Wednesday and following Benvenuto Cellini we have a heavy weekend (Chelsea Opera Group on Saturday and Semele at Grange Park on Sunday), so I'm afraid that we have reached our going out limit that week. This also means that we'll miss out on the ROH Katya Kabanova which is on at the same time. Also, ROH are staging Sondheim's Into the Woods, one of my favourite musicals, directed by choreographer William Trevitt. The only way we'll manage to see this is to go to a preview.

What is it about theatrical/musical scheduling that leaves you will wall to wall La Boheme or Carmen (no, we're not seeing the latest Francesca Zamballo extravaganza at Covent Garden) one moment, and then lots of exciting things all at once.

Other things we are going to miss out on includes Delius's Koanga, at Sadlers Wells, it clashes with again. And also at Sadlers Wells, we'll have to do without their choreographed staging of Dido and Aeneas its the same time as my FifteenB Consort are going back on the road. In March 20027 we're doing a programme of 16th/17th century verse anthems (Tomkins, Weelkes, Pelham Humfrey and Gibbons) as part of the fund raising Campaign at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London. Guess what, its the same week as Dido and Aeneas, wouldn't you know it.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Review of Christmas Oratorio

On Friday we went to hear Bach’s Christmas Oratorio performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican. Christie worked with an ensemble about 2/3 that used by Colin Davis for his Messiah with the LSO; which was still quite large for a Bach oratorio. Given what we know about Bach’s performance practices, using a choir of 24 was probably on the large size for a period performance. Of course, Christie makes no particular claims about his performance, you simply go along for the Arts Florissants experience.

Christie’s Bach, like his Handel, is very French influenced. Throughout the whole piece, all the movements with dance based rhythmical formats had an underlying bounce and lilt, this was a very dancing sort of performance. Speeds were generally geared to the dance-like file, so that the opening chorus was rather too fast for my liking. Though Christie obviously relished the array of instrumental colour that Bach uses in the work, Christie never quite solved the problem of the flutes in this movement. I have always found that on period instruments the flute interjections sound far too underpowered compared to the oboes and brass, as if something was missing.

Still, the performance got off to a lively and attractive start, with fine contributions from chorus and orchestra. The chorus provided a well modulated, rather blended sound; they seemed to go for blend and overall timbre rather than line. This in contrast to Tenebrae who sang Messiah for Colin Davis with a great attention to the line of the music.

As Christie’s speeds were on the fast side, this meant that he was able to bring the first 3 cantatas in at 1 hour 20 minutes. Despite music making of a high order, I rather felt that things had skipped past at a little too fast a rate. Christie’s light, dancing touch could have done with a bit of the German angst that a previous generation brought to these works. That said, Christie’s soloists responded magnificently.

Top of the list must be counter-tenor Tim Mead, displaying a lovely, smooth tone and wonderful breath control he impressed in all his numbers. Perhaps his stage demeanour needs a little work, he came over as a trifle smug, but such was his musicality that you forgave him. Similarly impressive, albeit in a more dramatic way, was bass Markus Werba. It helped, of course, that Werba was singing in his native German. He seems to be a naturally dramatic performer and brought a welcome whiff of the opera house to the performance.

Nicholas Watts sang the Evangelist; always an expressive performer, Watts made you wish that the part was meatier. The tenor arias were allocated to Marcel Beekman who threw off the tricky passage-work with ease; passage work made trickier by Christie’s lively speeds. In the first half, soprano Marie Arnet was under used but she came into her expressive own in the final 3 cantatas.

As I have said, orchestra and choir performed brilliantly but there were moments, particularly in the final movement when I felt sorry for the trumpet players and wished that Christie had eased up on the speeds to make their lives a little easier.

Whilst this performance dazzled with its musicality I did not feel that it plumbed the emotional heart of the piece. Christie’s approach seemed to present us with a series of attractive moments rather than an emotional narrative of the nativity.

Friday, 15 December 2006

New folksongs

I've just been writing the programme notes for London Concord Singers concert on Thursday Dec 21st (at the Grosvenor Chapel). Besides the real music we are doing a selection of Christmas carols so I had to find something to say about them.

It was easy for Silent Night because the carol's history is so fascinating. Existing just on the cusp of awareness of intellectual copyright it was spread widely in manuscript owing to the carol's popularity and when first published was simply credited as a Tirol song. But an early copyright investigation in the 1850's enabled the composer's son to write a deposition which established his father as the writer of the music.

This sort of modern, created folk-song came to mind again last night when we singing carols at a hotel in central London as part of the entertainment for arriving guests. Naturally we used Carols for Choirs, books 1 and 2, the books that virtually every amateur choral singer possesses. We'd not rehearsed, because everyone knew the arrangements of the well known pieces, as they'd sung them so many times before. In fact, if you gather choral singers together to sing from carol word sheets most of them can sing the arrangements from memory. And David Willcocks's descants to Hark the Herald and other carols have effectively passed from being composed music into folk memory. Virtually every choral soprano knows them and can sing them from memory.

This is one of the few modern occasions where the symbiosis between oral and written musical culture is still in existence. We know understand that the old folk music culture did not exist in vacuo but had a symbiotic relationship with the printed examples produced on broad sheets etc. This only broke down with the change in society in the late 19th century. But its nice to feel that aspects of this relationship continue in the use of those humble books Carols for Choirs.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Have I missed it?

I have just booked tickets for operas in the ENO's short 2nd season. We're going to see the new production of Death in Venice with Ian Bostridge and the repeat of La Clemenza di Tito with Alice Coote (and Emma Bell). We can't manage Satyagraha, its on over the Easter period when we are away, which is profoundly annoying.


One rather curious thing is that, despite being existing subscribers we don't seem to have had a mailing about the season. Instead we happened to see a leaflet sent to our house but addressed to some friends who were camping out here last year. Anyway, I consulted the ENO web-site about subscriptions (the leaflet said that to get a subscription discount you must book before January 10th). The subscriptions page (here, still refers to the old booking period so how do you buy a subscription for the new season?

It all seems rather irrelevant as the operas are open for single booking as well, so you can bet that buying a subscription means that you won't get first chance at the good seats.

This raises 2 issues. What is happening to ENO marketing? Surely, as existing subscribers who have not renewed we should be being bombarded with information. Perhaps they are doing by email, but I usually discount such emails, I'm still a print boy at heart.

The second issue is, why can't ENO introduce subscription buying on line like Sadlers Wells do. The Sadlers Wells site allows you to select the shows you want and adds the relevant discounts. The Barbican's great performer scheme also allows you to do this.

So the total sum of this post seems to be, wake up ENO!

Recent CD Review

My review of the disc of Romanus Weichlein masses is here on MusicWeb International.
Attractive, vibrant performances, recorded live with considerable immediacy ...

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Recent CD reviews

A batch of recent CD reviews seem to have slipped through my net, so here they are.

First of all 3 reviews of Handel oratorios recorded live at Maulbron Monastery in Germany.

My review of Jephtha is here on MusicWeb International.
f you are an admirer of Emma Kirkby’s, then you might care to have this on your shelves.


And my review of Saul is here.
Creditable enough, but unless you are interested in these particular performers, the lack of drama means that the essential core of the work is missing. ...

An Belshazzar is here
Perhaps an interesting record of a live occasion using Handel’s 1751 version, but not recommendable for the library.


My review of Mhairi Lawson and La Serenissima's Vivaldi disc is here, also on MusicWeb.
An appealing selection of rarely performed Vivaldi works, given in lively and vivid performances that bring out the works’ appeal...


A chamber version of the Brahms Requiem is here.

There are other versions of this arrangement and you might be well advised to try listening to some of them before deciding which you should buy. ...

Recent book review

My review of Roz Southey's book about music in the North-East of England in the 18th century is here

Adds enormously to our picture of music-making; more importantly it examines what was happening in ordinary places away from the glare of celebrity ...

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Review of Messiah

My review of Sunday's performance of Messiah given by Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra is here on Music and Vision.

Monday, 11 December 2006

A friend was singing in a performance of Handel's Messiah on Saturday. A small amateur choir with a group of young professional soloists with the soloists singing in the choruses as well. Quite sensible and very much as Handel would have expected.

This set me to thinking about performances of Handel in his own day; we know so little about them. But most commentators agree that his soloists sang in the choruses with his choir. This is a little curious as the soloists, particularly the women, were beasts of the opera house and his choir was made up of boy trebles and male choristers. Just what sort of choral sound did he get when Galli or La Francesina sang along with the boys and men. Its an issue that we'll just never really know about. Unless someone comes up with a contemporary diary which goes into some detail. Or better yet, a memorandum from Handel on the subject!

Then on Sunday night it was our turn to do Messiah; Sir Colin Davis and the LSO. But one one aspect of this performance I was wrong. They did not use the London Symphony Chorus but the professional choir, Tenebrae; so there were just 34 choristers which was far closer to the thing. A full review follows.

Friday, 8 December 2006

New directions at the Royal Ballet

A couple of days ago the London Evening Standard had a leading article in the Arts section by Norman Lebrecht on how Monica Mason has appointed Wayne Macgregor (of Random Dance Company) as the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer. This is remarkable news as the company has not had a principal choreographer since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. And Macgregor will only be the 3rd such in the company's 75 year history (the first was founder Ninette de Valois, the second Frederick Ashton and MacMillan was the 3rd). David Bintley also had a post at the Royal Ballet but I'm not sure what that was.

But Macgregor is an experimental choreographer who works on abstract pieces and does not create the narrative ballets which have been a significant part of the Royal Ballet's life. Lebrecht's article was balanced and illuminating and you can read it here.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Hywel Williams writes about Benjamin Britten in an Article in The Guardian today. All well and good; part of the commemorations of the 30th anniversary of Britten's death.

But in discussing his years at the Royal College of Music, Williams says that 'Ralph Vaughan Williams, a professor at the Royal College of Music when Britten was a student there, was at the height of his influence during Britten's youth. The dead weight of Williams's ill-disciplined meanderings meant that a provincialising Victorian taste was having an artificially prolonged existence in English music.'

Anyone who has heard RVW's music from the 30's and 40's would hardly call it ill-disciplined meanderings. RVW hid himself behind a protective carapace of amateurism. His technique was anything but amateurish, but too many commentators take him at fact value rather than really looking at the music.

And as a teacher, RVW was pretty open. His pupils cover quite a wide range of the musical spectrum; he encouraged them to be themselves. Granted neither RVW nor the English establishment were as open to the wider Viennese school as they should have been. But Williams article is simply the usual lazy thinking which neither helps RVW nor Britten

Monday, 4 December 2006

The Goose is getting fat

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent which means that we start the liturgical run up to Christmas. (Technically it is the first Sunday in the church's year). At St. Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, musically this means that we lose the organ until Midnight mass (except for the 3rd Sunday in Advent) and change to a different version of the plainchant for the Credo. This latter has a couple of tricky traps for the unwary, which are apt to trip you up the first time you sing it after a significant break.

Of course, these musical changes are simply meant to reflect the nature of Advent as the church prepares for Christmas and reflects on the past year. Advent is not strictly a penitential season, but it certainly isn't a laugh a minute. Which of course, is all the more annoying when you consider how in secular life, the fripperies of Christmas are constantly advancing.

Our concert going life is starting to reflect the coming of Christmas as well. On Sunday we're going to see Messiah at the Barbican, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. A bit of a risk, the cast has impeccable credentials (Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo, Mark Padmore, Alistair Miles) but they are accompanied by the London Symphony Choir and Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davies. I have no problem with large scale Handel performances. In the past, Davies has proved himself a moving interpreter of baroque music. But balance is always an issue and modern conductors seem disinclined to increase the number of wind instruments to balance strings and choir in the way that a contemporary of Handel would.

Just to complete things, we're off to see Bach's Christmas Oratorio as well next week. This time its William Christie, to the performance style will be very different to that of Sir Colin Davies. Well, that's the snap judgement. It will be interesting to see how the 2 performances compare in reality.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

New Directions

I was talking with friends about the premiere of my choral piece Ursi Carmina and it was generally agreed to have been a success, but what people commented on was the light-hearted nature of the text and the fact that they liked my response to it.

Typically I have difficulty writing non-trivial music to light-hearted English words (hence the use of Latin in Ursi Carmina) but think that this is something I should work on. So I've been down loading poems (not all light hearted) by people like Philip Larkin (that poem, the one with the f word), Dylan Thomas and Spike Milligan (!) with a view to trying settings. Not all will see the light of day, but you never know.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Onwards and upwards

We had a kick-off meeting last night for the next FifteenB Consort concert. The Consort is a small sub-group of my choir Fifteen. We work without a conductor and sing 1 or 2 to a part. We're doing a concert in March 2007 which is themed around Verse Anthems. Last night we met to sing through a variety of works by Gibbons, Tomkins, Weelkes and Pelham Humphrey and have the makings of a programme. The concert will also include the premiere of a new piece of mine, for voices and organ; its a piece which uses elements of the Verse anthem style. We'll also be reviving one of my solo motets for soprano and organ.

Besides works intended for the concert we also tried out others. We were rather taken with Casciolini's Requiem and that is definitely pencilled in for performance in another concert.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Review of Cosi van Tutte

On Saturday night we went to see Glyndebourne on Tour at Norwich Theatre Royal performing Cosi van Tutte in Samantha Potter's revival of Nicholas Hyntner's production from the summmer festival.


From the very first notes of the overture, conductor Rory Macdonald and the Glyndebourne on Tour Orchestra indicated that this would be a fleet, period inspired performance. Not that it was so fleet as to be trivial or so period inspired as to be mannered, but Macdonald and the orchestra brought a welcome lightness and crispness to the accompaniment.

Hyntner's production brought a similar modern take on the traditional. It was an essentially period production, but Hyntner takes the drama seriously and gave us real people with real problems. The 4 lovers all reacted with wonderful realism to the various alarums and excursion through which the plot puts them, leaving them at the end wiser and more unsettled.

It helped that the singing was of a universally high order. The palm must go to Aga Mikolay as Fiordiligi but she was simply the first amongst equals with Jenny Carlstedt (Dorabella), Jonas Gumundsson (Ferrando), Dodion Pogossov (Guglielmo) all singing to a high level. You ceased to worry about the technical aspects of the music (quite a compliment as this opera is not an easy sing) and simply enjoyed the way the singers put over their characters and interacted with each other. The interaction was of a high order of naturalism.

The two schemers, Don Alfonso ( Henry Waddington) and Despina (Claire Ormshaw) were of a similarly high level. Both created appealing characters and Waddington's Don Alfonso was not as forbiddingly off-putting as he can be. Ormshaw's Despina was charmingly earthy.

Vicki Mortimer's set was attractively flexible, depicting a neo-classical room with a terrace, but with flexible shutters and screens. This meant that the scenes were easily able to flow into each other.

Andrew Kennedy was billed as singing Ferrando but he was ill. Jonas Gumundsson was also ill, but bravely sang and did wonders with what was obviously not 100% of his voice. I look forward to hearing him again when he is fit.

Hyntner's view of the Albanian disguises was that the 2 men provide the women with something of a dangerous, over the top, slightly rough edge. Pogossov made the most of this and created a most dangerously attractive character. You could really see why the men both appealed to the women and appalled them. Gumondsson was a little understated, but as he was not 100% fit and had come on at the last minute, it is unfair to be too judgemental.

Cosi van Tutte is a long opera, but Hytner, Potter and their cast created a wonderfully involving show which mixed musicality of a high order with involving drama. What more could you want?

The audience at the Coliseum on Friday was numerous but the piece certainly was not a sell out. Also, the average age seemed to be pretty high, the production did not seem to be attracting a young crowd. And judging by the audience behaviour, there were a lot of people who did not come to the theatre regularly, which is to be encouraged. Though I did have the suspicion that they came for the G&S and this visit would not necessarily encourage them to explore other bits of the ENO canon - but you never know.

Review of The Gondoliers at the London Coliseum

On Friday we went to see Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers in Martin Duncan's new production at the London Coliseum. Designed by Ashley Martin-Davis in picture-book colours (in fact the set itself was a picture-book) it looked handsome in a 1950's kitsch sort of way. Moving the time to the 1950's worked well enough, but I'm not sure why it was necessary.


More problematical was the piece itself. The Gondoliers was the final major piece that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote before their serious argument over the Savoy Theatre carpet. But even in The Gondoliers their collaboration was a little rocky, with Sullivan pressing for a more serious plot.


He got it, in a way, because the first 20 minutes of the opera are set to continuous music - the longest such span in the full length Savoy Operas. And Gilbert's topsy-turveydom (which was one of his principle strenghts), is rather watered down. Many commentators coo excitedly over the opening section, but though Sullivan's music is undeniably attractive it does not really go anywhere dramatically. I have yet to see a production which convinced me, I'm always so relieved when the Plaza Toros and the Grand Inquisitor come onto the scene!


Of course another problem is that there are too many leads, so no-one ever really gets a chance to develop their character. This is one of the respects in which, Gondoliers prefigures Utopia Limited. Utopia requires a serious number of comic leads and its main joke is a country being run as a limited company. Similarly Gondoliers requires rather a lot of leads and there is a minor, undeveloped plot strand which involves the Duke of Plaza-Toro becoming a Limited company; also the opening of Act 2, where we see the Gondoliers republican principals in action when running their new country, pre-figures Utopia.

Unfortunately in The Gondoliers Gilbert never really carrys any of this through. There is an enormous amount of good music, but the producer must work hard to make us care for it. This, Martin Duncan did not do. In the opening scenes of Act1, the chorus seemed to be having a good time but neither diction nor production were sharp enough. The small chorus solos needed a lot more work in putting over the words, drama and music.

David Curry and Toby Stafford-Allen worked very well as the 2 Gondolier leads, they made an attractive double act and put things across nicely. It is no fault of theirs that Gilbert's book lacks bit, he is not really satirising anything at all here. They were well partnered by Sarah Tynan and Stephanie Marshall, but none of them really made us care, or sit up and take notice.

This only happened when the Plaza Toros appeared (Geoffrey Dolton, Duke, Anne Murray, Duchess, Rebecca Bottone, their Daughter). It scarely mattered that the Duchess's part hardly suits the lower registers of Anne Murray's voice (the part was written for one of those forbidding contraltos that are an essential part of the G&S canon). She put the part over so well that it was an object lesson. Dolton made a wonderfully put-upon duke. Bottone and Robert Murray, as Luiz, had a wonderful time with their love scene. Here Gilbert and Sullivan approached the more sophisticated european operetta/opera comique and made one long for more in this vein.

But the person who dominated the stage was Donald Maxwell as the Grand Inquisitor. Got up in an amazingly stylishly outrageous costume (complete with silver heels) he put over the words effortlessly and dominated the stage without ever quite taking all the limelight from his fellows.

Act 2 worked far better, perhaps because there were a greater number of comic numbers, but of course, Act 2 isn't really about anything. Gilbert does nothing to develop either of his main ideas (the limited company or the Gondoliers republican principles) so we are left with a series of bravura comic pieces.

Richard Balcombe conducted a small-ish ENO orchestra. The results were attractive and flexible but perhaps could have been sharper. Though this was an enjoyable evening in the theatre, there were too many moments when both Balcombe and Duncan seemed to be content for things to jog along.

Perhaps I'd have been more sympathetic in a smaller theatre - seeing G&S in the Savoy Theatre made me realise how well it works in a more intimate venue. But I think that all the show really needs is a bit of polishing. I hope that ENO are not content to leave it as it is, but work at what they've got.

Friday, 24 November 2006

Musical Chairs

In an age when many establishments are cutting down on their financial committment to classical music, it is heartening to read about expansions. Merton College, Oxford, are setting up a new choral foundation with Peter Phillips, of Tallis Scholars fame, as the musical director. From 2008/09 the college will be offering up to 16 choral scholarships. Initially the choir (mixed) will sing 2 services per week. At the moment services are sung by volunteer choristers directed by an organ scholar.

David Hill, currently musical director of St. Johns College, Cambridge, is stepping down next summer to take over the BBC Singers. Currently the singers are directed by Stephen Cleobury (of Kings College, Cambridge) who becomes conductor Laureate. Though Cleobury managed to direct the singers in addition to his existing commitments, Hill evidently does not feel that the can balance everything; he is also musical director of the Bach Choir.

And Andrew Manze is stepping down from the English Concert and his place being taken by Harry Bicket; Bicket joined the orchestra in 1984 as harpsichordist. This is his first directorship of an orchestra, in recent years he has made his name as a conductor of operas, mainly baroque, at such venues as the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera. It was Munich who gave him his first big leg up when he took over from Charles Mackerras when Mackerras objected to the rather avant garde nature of the Richard Jones production in a Handel opera. Since then, Bicket has conducted a number of Handel's operas both there and in other venues.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Yet more G & S

One of the reviews of the new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers at the London Coliseum commented that to be really successful, a production had to have an angle; implying that you could no longer present the operas straight.

This let me to wondering about what makes a successful G&S production in the modern world. Inevitably, size matters and doing the Savoy Operas in a theatre the size of the London Coliseum is not ideal. But it can work.

When I first came to London in the mid 1980's, I saw one of the last revivals of the old ENO production of Patience, a production that had started out life in the Sadlers Wells Theatre before their move to the Coliseum. It was attractively Pre-Raphaelite and thanks to strong performances from a cast that included the incomparable Derrick Hammond Stroud as Bunthorne, it worked pretty well.

But this type of production was disposed of during the Powerhouse era. To be replaced by Jonathan Miller's 1920's dance extravaganza production of The Mikado. The success of this production was based on the sheer entertainment value of the staging. Miller's theatrical brilliance disguised the fact that it was hardly a production of The Mikado at all.

This style of production was a dead-end, it was not the way forward for staging G&S in the Coliseum. This was shown by Ken Russell's appallingly interventionist version of Princess Ida. But the problem wasn't just G&S, this was the period when the Coliseum management seemed to lack confidence in operetta. Their proposed production of La Belle Helene for Leslie Garrett was turned into a radical re-write, which did not really work. That having confidence in the product was the way forward was shown by Scottish Opera who mounted La Belle Helene around the same time, with Anne Howells. The production played the text straight, no messing about and was extremely well received.

This finally seems to have filtered down to the current management at ENO as Martin Duncan's new production seems to play things relatively straight. And hurrah for that. We're going to see it on Friday (tomorrow) so I'll be able to report back. But I rather gather that the old hands (Donald Maxwell, Anne Murray et al) rather show up the youngsters when it comes to putting the show over.

This is the area where time and effort need spending; not on fancy productions but on training in the basics of performing operetta. (But that's another moan)

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

From this month's Opera Magazine

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine:-

Gerald Martin Moore has a fascinating article on Beverley Sills, looking back at her different teachers. One comment stuck out, he notes how he found her cadenza in the Mad Scene from Lucia different to anyone elses but does not say why. Instead he segues into an explanation that the traditional cadenza owes a lot to Mathilde Marchesi and that Sills's teacher, Estelle Liebling was one of Marchesi's last pupils. A fascinating chain in itself, but is Martin Moore implying that the cadenza Sills uses owes something to the chain leading back to Marchesi?


A notable clutch of obituaries - Malcolm Arnold, Armin Jordan and Thomas Stewart.


In a review of Opera Australia's revival of Francisco Negrin's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, Deborah Jones comments that Christopher Field's Tolomeo was more psychopath than drag queen, but a bit of both. Well, the camp, drag queen element is certainly a modern gloss on the character and not something Handel intended. The role was written for a woman and would have been no camper than any of the other many travesti roles that Handel wrote. The camp, effeminate aspect of Tolomeo seems to have crept in with the usurpation of the role by counter-tenors.

George Petrou and his Patras Orchestra have just performed Handel's Tamerlano in Athens. Interestingly, they cast a high-baritone as Bajazet, on the basis that the role lies low for a modern tenor. John Svolos seemed to concur and I will be interested to hear the recording.

The Opera Theatre Company in Ireland have just done Fidelio in a jail. Mind you, unlike Pimlico Opera's productions this jail was a museum (it stopped being a jail in 1920). I suppose doing Fidelio with real prisoners might be a little too near the bone.

I see that there has been a falling out in Pesaro. The scholar, Philip Gossett, who was in charge of the new edition of Rossini's works, was critical of the festival's artistic decisions and seems to have been fired. He is off to Barenreiter, so we can look forward to 2 competing editions of Rossini's works - ho hum.

The premiere of Stephen Hartke's The Greater Good at Glimmerglass seems to indicate that Hartke and his original librettist fell out. The libretto is described as being adapted from an original libretto by Philip Littell. Oops, such an event must be rather like having a divorce, and just as divorce is not good for the children, having composer and librettist disagree can't be good for the health of the opera.

Still in America, the New York City Opera did a new production of Handel's Semele and just as the current ENO production (by Robert Carsen) updates it to the 21st century and uses the British Royal family as a model, so the NYCO production (by Stephen Lawless) updates it to the Kennedy White House - very neat indeed.

Finally the We Hear that... column includes some rather tantalising glimpses of future productions. Theres a new Tim Albery Les Troyens in Chicago with Susan Graham and Anna Caterina Antonacci - now, we've never visited Chicago....
Plus, Opera North are doing Keiser's Croeusus, definitely a must see I think. Keiser ran the Hamburg Opera House when Handel first joined the staff, before he left for Italy. Then Laurent Pelly is doing L'Elisir d'Amore at Covent Garden and Nicholas Hyntner is doing Don Carlos there as well. This latter no longer with Angela Georghiu as Elisabeth, oh well, can't win them all but any new Don Carlos is fabulous really.

Then further in the future Birtwistle's Minotaur is being done at the ROH in 2008 with John Tomlinson in the title role and Christine Rice as Ariadne, produced by Stephen Langridge. Something really to look forward to.

Sense, Surtitles and Sullivan

We're off to see ENO's new production of The Gondoliers on Friday, which set me to thinking about issues of surtitles and G&S. Generally I'm a great believer in surtitles.

They have transformed my opera going when the opera is in a foreign language. Partly that's because I never quite do my home-work and benefit immensely from a prompt telling me what the characters are saying. This is particularly true of the longer operas such as Wagner. My first Wagner experiences were very mixed, due to the sheer length and the inability to hear the singers - very definitely Rossini's Good moment s and bad quarters of an hour.

And of course, these early Wagner experiences were in English, sung by ENO. And it was generally impossible to hear the words. So I am sympathetic to using surtitles in some English language productions.

But surely G&S is about communication. Sullivan, sometimes prompted by Gilbert, went to great lengths to ensure that the words were audible. And several generations of G&S specialists have ensured that they are, even in a barn like the London Coliseum. Some of these specialists, like Valerie Masterson, went on to sing in serious opera. But the training stuck, I can still remember Masterson's Marschillin at the Coliseum where you heard nearly every word - in a role that typically sopranos get over 1 in 3 if you are lucky.

So on Friday I am going to do my best to ignore the surtitles and concentrate on the singers. If they can't project the words then, frankly, they shouldn't be singing Gilbert and Sullivan

Monday, 20 November 2006

Ancestor Watch

Some years ago I had some research done into my Hugill ancestors. It turns out that they were based for many centuries in North Yorkshire, in an around Stokesly. We even managed to find a church-yard full of 17th and early 18th century ancestors in a little church-yard at Whorlton, where the family farm was at that time. But my ancestors were prolific (one had 13 children) and my branch were junior and rather itinerant, one was baptised in Whitby and my father's family settled in Stokesly and Stockton.


I have been reading Roz Southey's fascinating book Music-Making in North-East England during the Eighteenth Century and in the chapter on churches and organists came across William Howgill who was the organist at Whitehaven and his daughter Ann, who was organist at Staindrop in the late 18th century. Howgill is one of the early forms of the name Hugill so I must now go scurrying back to my family tree to see if there are any William's on it.

Saturday's concert went off very well. A substantial number of ex-members of London Concord Singers joined the choir and orchestra for the concert at St. Giles Cripplegate on Saturday. Contrary to gloomy expectations, when the ex-members joined the current members of the choir to perform Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne we were left with a very, very substantial audience. So substantial in fact, that we had run out of programmes and ran out of wine at the interval; still, if there were going to be problems, they were good problems to have.


Quite a number of former members came along to listen to the concert and it was lovely catching up with everyone. In the first half we gave the premiere of Ursi Carmina my new piece setting poems by Alexander Lenard from his Pooh translation (well worth exploring if you are a Pooh loving Latinist!). The performance went very well and was well received. Friends in the audience were extremely complimentary about the work.


After the concert some 80 of us went to TAS Restaurant in Farringdon for a celebratory meal.


Then on Sunday morning it was business as usual, Lassus Missa Quinti Toni and Palestrina's De Profundis at 11.30am Latin Mass at St. Mary's Church, Cadogan St., Chelsea. Then tonight we start rehearsing for our Christmas concert on Dec 21st - no rest for the wicked!

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

And off we go

Well, last night was the final rehearsal before the London Concord Singers anniversary bash on Saturday. Saturday morning we are joining up with some 2 dozen former members of the choir to rehearse Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. Then at 6.00pm we have our anniversary concert at St. Giles Cripplegate in the Barbican.


The current choir will be singing Harris's Faire is the Heaven and Naylor's Vox dicentis:Clama and premiering my new piece Ursi Carmina (Bear Songs) written specially for the occasion. Then we'll be joined by the former members and an orchestra (specially recruited for the occasion) to sing the Handel and Mozart's Sancta Maria, Mater Dei. Besides the former members who are singing there are more who will be in the audience. It should be a great occasion. The reason for the early start of the concert, is that afterwards we all go off for a celebratory bash.

Recent CD Review

My review of Vivica Genaux's Handel and Hasse recital is here on MusicWeb International.

Brilliant singing from a superb singer. What more could one ask for. ...

Monday, 13 November 2006

Sunday, being Remberance Sunday we did a requiem mass at St. Mary's Cadogan Street. This time we did the Palestrina Requiem, a lovely piece with 2 tenor parts. For the first time we actually included Palestrina's setting of the Offertorium, thus doing the mass setting complete. Its a wonderful mass and I can't understand why it is not better known.
On Saturday we went to see Handel's Orlando at Sadlers Well Theatre. Independent Opera produced it in the theatre's Bayliss Studio. It was one of the most satisfying Handel opera productions that I have seen in a long time, a review will occur in due course.


But as usual with programmes of this length we had some oddities regarding intervals and start times. The opera started at 6.30pm and there was about 2 hours 45 minutes of music in 3 acts. So we could reasonably have expected there to be 2 intervals and the performance would have finished around 10pm, not too bad at all. Instead, there was 1 interval (after Act 1), leaving Acts 2 and 3 to be performed together, albeit with an extended pause between them. With a finish time of around 9.35pm. Most unsatisfactory, why do theatres shy away so much from 2 intervals in long 3 act operas.

Friday, 10 November 2006

More on Pelleas and Melisande

Faure's incidental music to Maeterlinck's play was written for an 1898 production in London, starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She went on to play the role again in 1904 opposite Sarah Bernhardt (in fact they alternated roles). The 2 actresses evidently kept playing practical jokes on each other, there are stories about Frogs (Bernhardt had a horror of them) and raw eggs. Goodness knows what the actual performances were like.

Virtuoso Piano Series

Last night we were at the Cadogan Hall for a concert in the S.W. Mitchell Capital Virtuoso Piano Series. This is a series of concerts being given by the London Festival Orchestra. Each of the concerts in their 2006/7 series begins with one of Rossini's String Sonatas and then the orchestra accompany a distinguished soloist in piano concerto. After the interval the soloist plays a solo piano work and then an orchestral piece completes the evening.


Last night, French virtuoso Emmanuel Despax played Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the LFO conducted by their artistic director Ross Pople. The concerto benefited from the orchestra's chamber orchestra size (6 first violins, 6 2nd violins) so that they never came close to overwhelming the piano, which can happen. Despax is only 23 and studied at the Yehudi Menuhin school. His playing was strong, yet wonderfully poetic; he is a fine, expressive pianist and is obviously at home in this repertoire. His playing had a maturity which belied his age. After the interval he gave a fine performance of Liszt's Ballade No. 2. Then the orchestra gave a highly accomplished and poetic account of Faure's Suite from Pelleas et Melisande; the incidental music that he wrote for the London performancjavascript:void(0)
Publishes of Maeterlinck's play.


The series continues with some other attractive programmes: Pascal Roger playing Ravel's G minor Piano Concerto with Debussy's Estampes and Dvorak's Czech Suite; Michael Roll playing Schumann's Piano Concerto with Beethoven's Six Bagatelles and Mussorgsky's A Night on the Bare Mountain.


Part of the attraction is the chamber nature of the orchestra, which alters both the balance between soloist and orchestra and between strings and wind. The new Cadogan Hall is an ideal venue for music of this size.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the Naxos/Milken disc of Judith Zaimont's music is here on MusicWeb International.

Zaimont is obviously a composer whose work ought to be more available on CD


My review of the chamber version of the Brahms Requiem (with piano accompaniment) is here also on MusicWeb International

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Stanford's Communion Service

Stanford's settings of the Evensong Canticles are so ubiquitous that I was surprised to find references to his Communion settings. These are less frequently performed and at first, I had assumed that he never wrote any. I finally got around to acquiring a copy of his Communion Service in C and it makes fascinating reading.


It is perfectly aligned to the traditional Anglican communion service from the Book of Common Prayer. There is no Kyrie as such, just the responses Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law. to the 10 commandments. The Credo and Sanctus are pretty much as might be expected, but there is no Agnus Dei and the Gloria comes at the end.


As anyone who knows the Book of Common Prayer will understand, this is very much the structure of the standard Anglican service period. The institution of a Eucharistic service on the lines of the modern Mass is very much a modern thing.

Monday, 6 November 2006

Tonight's London Concord Singers rehearsal means that its under 2 weeks to go to our Anniversary concert at St. Giles Cripplegate on 18th November, including the premiere of my piece written for the occasion Ursi Carmina (Bear Songs).


A piece of good news, we have a new venue for our recording next year. After much searching around the recording Engineer has come up with a church in North London which he has used before and likes - great. All I have to do now is finalise details of performers etc.

Recent CD Review

My review of Christmas Vespers from Westminster Cathedral is here on Music and Vision

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Thursday, 2 November 2006

I wish...

When listening to contemporary music it is not infrequent for me to come across pieces that I admire or that I like; the two are not incompatible and some piece I admire AND like. But there is another, much smaller group of pieces; these are the ones which I wish that I could have written.


Most pieces that I like and admire, such as Thomas Ades's opera The Tempest are so far from my compositional obsessions (and technical ability) that not only could I never imagine composing them, but I can find no reason to. For me, they don't scratch the compositional itch, that piece of the unconscious where ideas for pieces are created. It is hard to describe this process. Of course, it is different in all people; for some, composition is a very technical process. But for me, a piece begins with an idea or a shape; I have often thought of composition as being like archeology, where you are excavating, trying to discover a piece's natural and essential form. When it works you create something that feels right, as if it had always existed and just needed to be discovered. I once saw a film which included a scene of someone scraping away at a bank of sand, to gradually discover a statue. For me, discovering a new piece of music is like this. Sometimes the process is complex, and the first go does not work.


Just occasionally I come across a piece of contemporary music which appeals to this part of me, which scratches this particular itch. Not only do I like and admire it, but it feels right; I wish I'd written it. There is a wonderful motet by James MacMillan called Tremunt videntes angeli which fits into this category. I first heard it on a disc by the choir of St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh and was bowled over. I heard it live at the BBC Singers concert in St. Giles Cripplegate as part of the BBC James MacMillan weekend. I was bowled over again. It's not a piece I could reasonably expect to have written but Oh Boy, do I wish I had.


I was similarly affected this summer at the Edington Festival when the Nave Choir sang 3 movements from James Macmillan's Mass. As we overheard the rehearsals for this, over a span of a few days, we came to know the music well before the performance; at the service, its effect was overwhelming. Now I have finally bought the CD of the work recorded by Westminster Cathedral Choir, for whom it was written. Listening on disc, I am similarly affected by this wonderful work. What I want to do next is hear it live in Westminster Cathedral.


I imagine that part of the explanation for the effect of music on me is MacMillan's use of plainchant and his own sense of the sacred. But there is an indefinable something more. Something which, when you try to put it into words sounds a bit ridiculous.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

New Season at Grange Park Opera

Next season will be Grange Park Opera's 10th season at Northington Grange, in Hampshire and to celebrate they have announced a programme of 3 operas and 2 concerts. They have sent subscribers a taster CD which not only includes extracts from the 5 programmes (taken from commercial CD's) but also has a spoken introduction to Grange Park itself.


The CD starts with an intro to the Grange and a description of the house and its surroundings by Wasfi Kani, Grange Park Opera's artistic director. There are then a series of interviews with various people involved with the opera, singers, back-stage crew etc. These interviews are edited together in a form that gives you an aural picture of backstage at the opera house. Those interviewed include Lord Ashburton (who owns the house) and Michael Morley (who founded the festival with Wasfi Kani) and there is even an interview with the man who does the roses! Finally Alan Titchmarsh (a long time festival supporter) describes the surrounding landscape. This section finishes with each person saying what the festival means to them.


Then Wasfi introduces excerpts from each of next season's operas. I Capuletti e i Montecchi, which is to be performed at Neville Holt, is represented by Marilyn Horne singing one of Romeo's arias. The Magic Flute is represented by In diesen Heilgen Hallen from the Colin Davis recording and Prokofiev's The Gambler by excerpts from Act IV from Valery Gergiev's Mariinsky recording. Finally Falstaff is introduced by a snippet from Sir George Solti's recording, with Alfredo Kraus and Mirella Freni as the young lovers.


At Grange Park The Magic Flute will be directed by Stephen Medcalf and conducted by Richard Balcolmbe. Jeremy White (long standing regular at Covent Garden) is Sarastro and Elizabeth Atherton Pamina. David Stout, recently seen to great effect in ETO's Baroque season (he was Pluto in Orfeo and Aeneas in Dido and Aeneas) will be Papageno.


The Gambler will be designed and directed by David Fielding (whose production here of Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress was very memorable) and conducted by Andre de Ridder. The fine cast includes Andrew Shore as the General and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts as Alexei, very different to his role as Nicias in Thais this year.


Falstaff is being conducted by Stephen Barlow and directed by Daniel Slater with Robert Poulton in the title role, William Dazely as Ford and Anne Marie Owens as Mistress Quickly.
As next year is a celebration year, there is also a concert with the LSO; represented by excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, both the Tchaikovsky and the Prokofiev. Besides these 2 works the concert will include Stravinsky's Rite of Spring


Finally the disc concludes with Andreas Scholl singing Where'er you walk from Handel's Semele, as the Grange is also putting on a concert performance of the oratorio with Rosemary Joshua in the title role, Hilary Summers as Juno and Ino, Stephen Wallace as Athmas and conducted by Christian Curnyn. And before you comment, yes I know that Where'er you walk is a tenor aria, but Scholl sings it so brilliantly that you can hardly complain.

Monday, 30 October 2006

I've started writing music again! If you wondered about the lack of posts in the last couple of weeks relating to composing activities, that's because there weren't many. I've being doing a batch of publicity geared to the forthcoming premiere of Ursi Carmina by London Concord Singers on 18th November (at St. Giles Cripplegate). This means that the dining room table has been covered with piles of papers and I've spent much time collating and mailing. But its done now (till next time). So it was with great pleasure that this morning I spent some time working on the new Nunc Dimittis to go with my Magnificat.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

BRB Romeo and Juliet

Last night we are at Sadler's Wells for the Birmingham Royal Ballet performance of Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Amazingly this new production was first seen in 1992, but this was the first time I had seen it. Part of the interest was to see production of the ballet in designs other than those of Giordiadis. Paul Andrews's sets were suprisingly elaborate. They were very renaissance Florence, perhaps filtered through English 19th century eyes. In a way I would have liked the permanent set of steps and arches at the back of the stage to have have been less realistic, but the various drop curtains for the other scenes were quite, quite lovely.


The crowd scenes in Acts 1 and 2 were efficient and lively without ever quite reaching the level of gripping theatre that the Royal Ballet does; BRB at times seemed merely artful. Though of course, this is the nth revival of a touring production, so it must be difficult to keep up the level all the time. Still, the dancing itself was always technically good.


Ambra Vallo was a wonderful, truly girlish Juliet; one that matured throughout the ballet. For me, hers was the stand out performance. Chi Cao was neat and efficient as Romeo, his dancing was never off centre. But he lacked the sheer swagger and exuberance that is needed to bring this role off. (In fact, I think it was swagger and exuberance that this whole production lacked.) His partnership with Vallo seemed a little careful; there were the odd moments of apparent calculation on their part before Vallo undertook some of the more complex movements. After all, there is quite a lot of MacMillan's trademark throwing around in this ballet.


James Grundy as Mercutio was slightly more sombre than usual, his sparkle less incessant than I'm used to; Grundy was technically OK, and very popular but it must be said that he is the podgiest ballet dancer that I have ever seen!


The remainder of the cast were excellent. Tyrone Singleton lowred wonderfully as Benvolio and Samara Downs did a brilliant impression of Morticia Adams for her Lady Capulet.


The Royal Ballet Sinfonia seemed at times a little stretched, but under Paul Murphy they gave a strong performance.


All in all a good evening and with some involving performances. The ending was truly moving and all over again I came to admire the ballet. We'll have to see it at Covent Garden again now!

Friday, 27 October 2006

Plans

We're off to see Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet tonight, performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet, at Sadler's Wells. The main reason for going is to see a performance not designed by Nicholas Giordiadis, who designed the main production used by the Royal Ballet. I first saw this when I was in my teens; it was my first full length ballet at Covent Garden - with Natalia Makarova and David Blair, from the period when every performance seemed to have the young Waynes (Sleep and Eagling) in it.


Tomorrow we are finally going to catch up with the new ENO Jenufa. I'm honestly not sure about the new Alden production but can't wait to see Amanda Roocroft in the title role. I first saw the opera, in Scotland in the late 70's with Josephine Barstow and Pauline Tinsley (as Kostelnicka, a truly scary portrayal), in the David Pountney production complete with water wheel.

Characters in search of ....

I am in the process of arranging some recording sessions next year, something I've been meaning to do for ages but have been put off partly by the logistical night-mare that it entails.


Yesterday morning, it seemed as if we had reached Nirvana - all the singers, conductor, record producer and recording engineer available at the same time on the same pair of dates. Then disaster struck, there is a problem with the proposed venue. So now we are 6 characters (well more than 6 actually) in search of a recording venue. Ho hum, I knew it couldn't be nirvana!

Pulling Together

Yesterday I was at a conference at the Royal Opera House, entitled Pulling Together. Organised by the Opera and Music Theatre Forum, it brought together people from various small to medium sized UK opera companies to discuss the fruitfulness (or otherwise) of partnerships in mounting opera, with an emphasis on new work.


There were some fascinating presentations:-

  • ROH2 and OperaGenesis, who sponsor workshops for helping create new work. OperaGenesis is the successor to the Genesis opera prize.
  • English Touring Opera, who have instituted a partner programme with 5 of their core venues. Both sides are reaping immense benefits from this and it is interesting in being a partnership between a funded and commercial organisations.
  • Yo! Opera Festival, a Dutch festival based in Utrecht who produce youth opera. They are a tiny organisation and have produced a dynamic series of festivals and workshops in partnership with numerous organisations.
  • Philharmonia and BT collaborate on the Philharmonia's web-site which has become an impressive entity in its own right. Not only do the provide concerts but the players record short films about their instruments etc.
  • Opera North and Picture This came together to produce an installation based on KinderTotenLieder.

The afternoon was spent in a panel discussing how partnerships can help generate new opera. Mel Cooper, Deputy Director of the Genesis Foundation, explained how they had moved away from the competition model towards using workshops as it was felt that the competitions were rather artificial and that their most successful opera so far was one which did not reach the final of the competition. The event had been organised by Bill Bankes-Jones of Tete a Tete and he gave an informative and entertaining summary of how this company came into being and how partnership was at the core of their way of presenting new opera.

It was a fascinating day and whilst directly, it may not have helped FifteenB to produce my new opera (as and when its ready), you never really know.

Review of Orfeo

My review of English Touring Opera's Orfeo at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is here on Music and Vision.

Recent CD Review

My review of Music in the Age of Rubens is here on MusicWeb International.

It would be possible to imagine a more sophisticated performance, it does conjure up an attractive picture of people dancing and enjoying themselves in Rubens's Antwerp ...

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

In this month's Opera magazine

Correspondance in the Letters page of Opera is continuing on the subject of surtitles at ENO. Frankly its a subject about which I find it difficult to get worked up, but perhaps I've been numbed into acceptance by the sheer weight of bad diction over the years. Mind you, the last few operas I've seen there have had some excellent communicators in the cast, which makes me wonder whether the dreaded surtitles have spurred people on somewhat.


Alan Blyth writes a lovely appreciation of Joan Sutherland on her 80th birthday. I first saw her as a student in Manchester in the 1970's when she did a recital at the Free Trade Hall dressed in what can only be described as a vast lime green dressing gown. Still, once she reached the lighter items such as arias from La Perichole she was wonderfully on form.n Blyth says that she sang Massenet's Esclarmonde at Covent Garden in 1974, but I'm sure I saw her there in that role in 1984 and I don't think the production was a revival, it had just been bought in. The performance we saw was marred by a bomb scare, but they did complete the performance though the heat had rather gone out of it.


Dennis Marks raises some interesting points about the management of the Gadaffi project at ENO, which makes you wonder about the health of any other new works that they might produce. That said, new opera has been thin on the ground there recently. Marks points out that they have commissioned virtually nothing in the last 9 years, with the exception of the recent Gerald Barry opera (which sort of existed anyway). Was David Sawyer's opera really commissioned over 9 years ago? My, how time flies.


An interesting brace of obituaries, John Drummond and Astrid Varnay - to which we must now add Anna Russell.


A review from Salzburg of Mozart's Idomeneo with Ramon Vargas in the title role. Its always heartening to find tenors moving out of their obvious Italianate fach and risking German opera. I equally admired Domingo's recording of the Emperor in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, which was not universally admired. Also at Salzburg, a rare outing for the Strauss re-working of Idomeneo, part of the Strauss canon that I am probably fated never to see.


Toronto has a new opera house, christened with Canadian Opera's new Ring cycle. Interestingly John Allison refers to the new theatre as intimate by North American standards - it seats a whopping 2043. But I suppose that's small when compared to the met.


A new production of Le nozze di Figaro in Finland has the plot re-written with the Count lusting after Figaro rather than Susanna - an interesting take on things but the music hardly supports it. Perhaps we should write a new opera on the subject.


Martin Bernheimer's helden-crooner Klaus Florian Vogt, crops up in Wagner again. This time Hugh Canning comments that he's never heard such a soft grained sound in a leading Wagner role - this time Lohengrin in Baden-Baden. Still, Vogt seems to have the stamina and technique to get through the evening OK. I suppose, with the dearth of helden-tenors, this is something we have to get used to.


A Max von Schillings opera Der Pfeifertag has cropped up in Zwickau. I reviewed a recording of Mona Lisa recently and was amazed at how few recordings of his work there were.


Hugh Canning again reporting from Turin on the jaw droppingly extravagant new Don Carlos (4 Act version). He was impressed, but I'm not convinced. he describes it as a sort of operatic Disneyland (though in better taste) with not very penetrating Personenregie. I think I'd rather go for Personenregie, but then I stand no chance of ever seeing the Turin production!


Thais has cropped up again, this time in Boston. Evidently the production, arising from St. Louis, has come in for criticism but George Loomis points out that you'd hardly want a naturalistic Thais.


The new production of Thomas Ades The Tempest from Santa Fe sounds very promising. John Allison feels that it fits the opera better than the ROH one. Again, I'm not likely to get the chance to compare them! Allison comments on Ades's vocal lines, which are actually vocal rather than the continuous parlando which is so beloved of so many contemporary composers.


Also at Santa Fe, Natalie Dessay playing Pamina (having done lots of stints elsewhere as the Queen of the Night). Hugh Canning (he's been getting around hasn't he!) points out how unnerving is must have been for Heather Buck to sing the Queen of the Night whilst one of the greatest current exponents of the role was playing her daughter. Also in this production, our very own Toby Spence.


The Santa Fe Salome had Ragnar Ulfung as Herod. He sang the role on the 1974 Caballe recording so I hesitate to think what he sounds like now. Canning comments on Anne Marie Owens as Herodiade surveying everything around her with imperious (and deserved) contempt.


Andrew Clark bemoans the fact that Scottish Opera's tour of Die Fledermaus contains no young Scottish singers (still it did contain Damian Thantrey!). Whereas, WNO's revival of La Boheme was cast with Welsh singers. I remember a friend talking about seeing an Aida given by WNO many, many years ago with a Welsh cast that included Gwynedd Jones and Stuart Burrowes (if I've got the anecdote right).


WNO's 'new' Il ritorno d'Ulisse is a co-production already seen in Copenhagen and Munich. It sounds as if David Alden's modish ideas have not travelled well. Rian Evans comments on Paul Nilon's wheelchair bound Ulysses needing to focus a large part of his energy on ensuring he didn't roll down into the orchestra pit. Sounds fun. Still, the wonderful Sarah Tynan was singing Melanto and even got to tap dance.


George Hall enjoyed La Juive, its always interesting to read opinions of operas that you have reviewed your self.


Rodney Milnes is positive about the new recording of The Carmelites in English, based on the ENO production. Other reviewers have been less than thrilled by Josephine Barstow's Mother Marie which makes me a bit worried; I was less than impressed in the theatre. But the text is so important in the opera, it would be lovely to have it in English.


There is an advert for my Christmas present (I hope Father Christmas is reading this). Winton Dean's second volume on Handel's operas, covering 1726 to 1741 has been announced for November by Boydell and Brewer (www.boydell.co.uk). An in a review of a book about Wagner operas in Finland, Mike Ashman points out Riga's first performance of Der fliegende Hollander, 5 months after the premiere, had an orchestra of 20, a ghost crew of 6 and a Norwegian crew of 13.


And finally We hear that.. Susan Bullock is recording Salome in English with Sir Charles Mackerras - I can't wait.


The back page is about Richard Lewis and even I can claim a participation in one footnote event. His final London appearance (at the age of seventy something, after a hip replacement) was in The Dream of Gerontius with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. I was in the chorus and it remains one of my most treasured experiences, hearing Lewis; he was truly magical.

Last seen in...

Its always interesting to read about people that you have worked with, seeing how their careers progressed. This is particularly true when it comes to working with young people at the start of their careers. This week, read notices about 2 people who were involved in the first performance of my opera Garrett at Hoxton Hall in 2001.

First off, baritone Damian Thantrey who sang the title role, has beentouring Scotland with Scottish Opera, performing in Die Fledermaus and received complimentary notices in the review in this month's Opera magazine.


Secondly, whilst writing a review of English Touring Opera's Orfeo I looked up the lighting designer, having been impressed with atmospheric lighting plot. And lo and behold it was Matt Haskins who did the lighting for Garrett, on virtually 0 budget.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Also in the Guardian

Whilst still on the subject of the Ring and the Guardian (isn't that an opera by Balfe?), there's an interesting article about Keith Warner taking time out from Covent Garden and Bayreuth to produced a new opera by Will Todd in Gateshead with a cast of locals. StreetWise Opera go from strength to strength. Alas, we won't be seeing the production in London, but they are doing something at the Almeida Opera Festival next year.

Anna Russell

Anna Russell has died, at the amazing age of 94. It was her recording of her introduction to the Ring that helped me learn the piece when I was first discovering it as a student. What was amazing about Russell's Ring lecture was that it was so amusing and so accurate, that bits of it stayed with you for ever, illuminated numerous productions of the Ring. Here Guardian obituary is here.

Monday, 23 October 2006

Review dissemination

My Review of La Traviata, is not posted on MyCulturalLife.co.uk, (here), a useful website of things cultural happening in London.

Friday, 20 October 2006

Watch the Music

This year's London Film Festival has a new publicity film, the amusing short which they play at the beginning of each showing. There have been some striking ones in the past, this new one re-interprets key moments from significant films in terms of everyday life in London - the film scenes being indicated by their background music. It is surprising how many scenes we can easily identify just from a few bars of their music. The result is strikingly amusing as the visuals contrast with our memory of the original films.

The only problem is that no-one seems to have listened to the final sound track - the succession of musical excerpts jar continually as they are intercut with each other. I wish that a way could have been found to have made the music flow a little better.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Review of Theodora

My review of Tuesday's performance of Handel's Theodora at the Barbican is here on Music and Vision.

Recent CD Review

May review of the Alliage Saxophone quartet's transcriptions of the Schumann piano quintet and Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream are here, on Music Web International.

Ultimately the Schumann transcription failed to convince. Interested in transcription as a modern art or fascinated by the saxophone, then this is
the disc for you. ...

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Monday, 16 October 2006

That time of year

During October the text of the De Profundis crops up more than once in the propers of the mass. It did so on Sunday, so that at St. Mary's Cadogan Street we performed my setting of De Profundis as the offertory motet. We were missing a couple of choir members, but the performance came out pretty well - one of our better ones I think.

Hackney Bound..

On Saturday we ventured North to Hackney, to see English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire (review will be posted in due course). Once we arrived in Hackney we attempted to park near the theatre, only to discover that all of the parking bays were controlled until 11pm, so that we had to pay (£2 per hour) - we managed to scrape together enough change, luckily the Carissimi/Purcell double bill is not long. Only when entering the theatre did I read the back of the tickets and learn that you can request a parking voucher from the box office and then park free in Tesco's car park.

I know that the theatre has be restored fabulously and that they are trying to attract personnel to performances, but the hassle of negotiating the parking in Hackney means that we will think twice before going again. Perhaps the box office could be persuaded to issue parking vouchers automatically with tickets. As it is, not being able to just turn up and park means that people will think twice.

Review of La Traviata

ENO’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata is traditional, in the sense that it is set in a 19th century milieu, but for reasons best known to the ENO management the new production is set in 19th century Dublin. Conall Morrison’s production overlays Verdi’s story with an added gloss; Violetta is a Roman Catholic, the Germonts are Protestants. But before we get too worked up over this rather unnecessary addition to the plot, we had better see whether the production actually works. We saw the opera on Friday 13th October, the 6th performance in the run.

Francis O’Connor’s designs and Joan O’Clery’s costumes are undoubtedly handsome. The entire production takes place in a flexible fixed set which successfully transforms itself into the 4 locations need by the plot. Act 1 opens with the dying Violetta wandering round her empty drawing room as the Baron supervises furniture being brought in and the party starts. Violetta’s salon has huge windows which overlook an attractive skyline of Dublin.

The party itself is not a little raffish, but the costumes, with the bustles for women, make the effect rather blowsy and not a little bourgeious; it does not help that there is much swigging from bottles brought in crates (presumably Guinness). Morrison’s handling of the singers, particularly in the busy ensemble moments, is very confident and hardly betrays that this is his first opera production.

Emma Bell cut an attractive, if robust figure as Violetta. Bell’s stage demeanour meant that Violetta came across with a strong, no-nonsense streak. Bell did not look particularly ill, but then I have seen plenty of Violetta’s who did not look ill; the trick is to convey what is happening underneath. Unfortunately this robust, confidence imbued much of Bell’s musical performance, so that she failed to create the neurasthenic, nervous centre that is so necessary in this character. In Act 1, Violetta is not a little hysterical and but hysteria was a long way from Bell’s performance. I could not help comparing her to such singers as Ileana Cotrubas and Valerie Masterson, singers who were as musically capable as Bell but who created a creature of nerves under a steel exterior.

That said, Bell’s performance was a joy to listen to, she has the technique for the role. Perhaps her background in Handel and Mozart rather showed, but she is still growing into Italian opera and I look forward to hearing her develop in this role. Perhaps if Bell had had a less stolid Alfredo, sparks might have flown.

Though Dwayne Jones displayed a lovely lyric voice, he was the embodiment of a solid country boy and it was hard to believe the ardency of the sentiments that he was articulating. As with Bell, Jones did not manage to convey the strong feelings bubbling under the sensible exterior.

The smaller roles were well cast; for once Donald Maxwell did not over act and his Baron was not the pantomime villain that is often the case and Andrew Rees was an attractive Gaston.

Act 2 scene 1 took place in the conservatory of a dilapidated country house. James Westman’s Germont Pere sounded lovely, but Westman is a relatively young singer for such a role. Not only did he not really sound old enough, but also more importantly he failed to convey much of the depth that should come with age. As a result, his important scene with Bell sounded lovely and was well crafted but simply did not wring the heart.

The performance had 1 interval, which Morrison placed after Act 2, scene 1. A placing which worked well in terms of the balancing the length of the 2 halves of the performance, but there is a sense that Verdi’s drama is well served when the 2 scenes in Act 2 are played back to back, playing up the dramatic contrasts.

Flora’s party was as well staged as Violetta’s; 4 dancers mixed with the chorus to provide the visual stimulus of the entertainment. Morrison’s handling of the show down between the protagonists worked well and for once in this production I felt myself being carried away with the drama.

Morrison showed a nice sense of logical consistency when working out details. At the end of Act 1 Violetta responds formally to the Baron’s farewell greeting, giving a clear indication that they will not be sleeping together that evening (after all he is her protector). When Germont Pere arrives at Flora’s party he is properly dressed, whereas in other productions I have seen he arrives in his street clothes – something that the very correct M. Germont would never do.

But there was an area where Morrison failed in his dramatic consistency, the issue of Violetta’s Catholicism. This was hardly in evidence. Apart from one exclamation that she was a Catholic, religion was strangely absent. Even in Act 3, when the dying Violetta could reasonably be expected to have had a statue of the Virgin or a picture of the Sacred Heart by her bed, there was nothing to indicate her religion. This applied to the text as well, Stephen Clark’s new English version was heavily larded with references to God but never the Virgin, surely something a 19th century English speaking Catholic would be expected to do.

Clark’s new translation was unsatisfactory in other ways. It did not always lie easily with the music, leaving the singers with some odd underlays, and it was rather flowery at times. Also, where I knew the Italian and previous English translations, Clark did not always match them in meaning. Valerie Masterson and John Brecknock sang ‘cruel but blissful’ for ‘croce delizia’ whereas Clark gave Bell and Jones ‘Sadness and beauty’, which rather reduces the intensity of the expression.

The singers projected the translation admirably, we hardly needed the surtitles. So it was unfortunate that Clark’s text rather added to the under-boiled nature of the whole performance.

For Act 3, the set was got up as a tenement, complete with other inhabitants. But Bell died convincingly and movingly, this final scene went a long way to mollifying my concerns over the performance. It was not as searing as I would have liked, but I certainly wasn’t bored as can happen sometimes in this act when the performance goes awry.

Jonathan Darlington helped the ENO orchestra to accompany the action well, but perhaps he was a little to polite, a little too understanding and a bit more drive and passion in the pit would not have come a miss.

This was a beautifully musical performance, all the singers were a joy to listen to. I just wish they had captured more of the underlying passion and heart-wringing beauty of the opera; perhaps that will come with experience.

As for the Irish setting, well having had the ideal Morrison just did not follow it through. I am convinced that the production will become stronger in revivals if a staff producer can be persuaded to remove the Protestant/Catholic divide and stick to the basics in what is a very attractive production. It did not help that the programme book was full of information about the Irish relgious divide and life in Dublin, do we need to know this in a production of Traviata?

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Stray CD Review

This CD review of Trinity College Choir's disc of Mendelssohn choral works seems to have slipped through the net! javascript:void(0)
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Thursday, 12 October 2006

Plans

Yet more opera this weekend. Tomorrow we're off to see the new La Traviata at ENO, yes the one set in Ireland during the 19th century troubles. Quite frankly, we'd probably have given it a miss as the basic premise sounds a bit contrived, but its got the fabulous Emma Bell in the title role.


Then on Saturday we're off to the Hackney Empire to see English Touring Opera doing Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Carissimi's Jephtha. The venue is probably a little too big for the operas, but we enjoy seeing ETO and its a good excuse to go the restored Hackney Empire, we've not managed a visit yet. We see more of ETO the next weekend when we're catching their Orfeo in Cambridge at the Arts Theatre.

What's in a name

My motet Nunc Dimittis isn't strictly a Nunc Dimittis at all. It uses the words of the Nunc Dimittis alongside a text from Job. In fact in its original version (and its been through a few) it was called Job and Simeon and is a sort of dialogue between the 2, Job's depression ("My day's are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope") contrasted will Simeon's Godly acceptance.


The motet is known as Nunc Dimittis and in that form it has been performed (twice at the Chelsea Festival by FifteenB).


The problem is, now I'm writing a real Nunc Dimittis to complement my recently penned Magnificat. I'm hoping to include the original Nunc Dimittis and the new Magnificat on the planned new recording pencilled in for next spring. Are you now beginning to see the problem? Perhaps I should rename the original motet Nunc Dimittis - Job and Simeon but that's hardly a catchy title is it?


I've also discovered a bug in my classification system. My electronic music archive at home and the publishing website Spherical Editions> have sections for Latin Masses, English Masses, Latin Motets, English Motets; in the latter category I include anthems (I've never been sure of the difference). Of course, now I'm writing canticles for Evensong and have no idea where to file them. Calls for a revision to the classifications I think.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Plans

My current activities are rather revolving round plans to produce a recording next year. Various impetuses (sponsorship etc.) have come together and we are exploring the possibility of recording some of my choral music next year for commercial release on an independent label. I am hoping that the main piece to be recorded will be The Testament of Dr. Cranmer. More news when plans are firmer.


I have started work on a Nunc Dimittis to go with the new Magnificat, perhaps this will stretch to an entire set of canticles! We'll see.


Tonight I'm meeting up with a librettist as a result of my operatic Speed Dating activities last month. It will be our first chance to have a long-ish conversation about libretti, music etc.

Monday, 9 October 2006

Weekend Diary

We spent the weekend holidaying in Northern France. It was not predominantly a musical weekend, but the in-car CD player meant that we had ample chance to catch up on CD's which we had not listened to for ages (Wallace's Maritana, various Purcell Odes and Welcome Songs, Arvo Part's Passio, Rossini's Armida, Stanford's Piano Concerto) plus a new set, John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer in the original recording.

We were familiar with the film of the opera, but have never listened to this recording before. What struck me was its toughness. At other times, the choruses have seemed the dominant element, but on first listening in the car (admittedly not ideal circumstances), it was the toughness of the more operatic bits which made an impact.

On Sunday we attended Mass at the Roman Catholic Church opposite our hotel. It was, of course, in the vernacular and the congregational singing was led and conducted from the chancel steps by an animateur. What struck me was how different the service was from the sort of service you might get in a provincial English town.

In England the major prayers are usually said, in fact it is perfectly possible for the entire service to be said, but the service is then punctuated by hymns. The standard English hymnals provide a wide variety of hymns suitable for all times of the church's year, paraphrases of psalms, office hymns etc.

The French model seems to have discounted hymns per se and instead set large chunks of the service itself to music, with the relevant Psalms replaced by responsorial psalms (in fact much of the music was responsorial). The result is a fascinating study in how singing was incorporated into a vernacular service in a tradition which did not include the strong hymn singing common in English services

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Recent CD Review

My review of the Consort of Musick's disc of John Jenkins Fantasias and Fantasies is here on MusicWeb International.

This is seriously satisfying music. Fine musical performances in a recording which hardly shows its age. Recommended for those wanting to explore this fascinating composer ...

Monday, 2 October 2006

This month's Opera magazine

Some gleanings for the October issue of Opera magazine.


An interesting preview of Julian Grant's new opera Odysseus Unwound which manages to combine the Odysseus story with Shetland knitting (done live in the theatre!). Tete a tete are taking the opera on on tour.


An amazing array of obituaries; besides appreciations of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf by Christa Ludwig and Alan Blyth, there were obituaries of Charles Farncombe (beloved from Handel Opera Society) and Leopold Simoneau (the Canadian tenor whose recording of the tenor Gluck Orfeus has hardly been beaten).


Richard Fairman, in his review of Die Zauberflote from Salzburg notes that 15 minutes before the end of the performance the curtain came down for a scene change, prompting the doors to open and people to leave, as if they did not know the opera that well!


The Royal Danish Opera have just performed their new Ring in Copenhagen in the new opera house (I can't wait to see it). Evidently Queen Margarethe has attended the whole of the 2nd Ring cycle and parts of the first.


Strasbourg have done Verdi's Don Carlos in the original French (using the Modena version) with at least 2 French speaking principals, Rodney Milnes was impressed.


A production of Barber's Vanessa in the Teatro Massimo in Palermo; strange how many other countries can perform the work be it never gets staged in the UK by a major company.


Huhg Canning reviews the Glyndebourne revival of Giulio Cesare. Musically it sounds to have been superb with David Daniels in the title role. But I think that Canning is far too forgiving of the production. He describes it as essentially tongue in cheek. Would any of the major critics be happy to praise a tongue in cheek production of Mozart's Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. Because opera seria is still perceived as possibly long and boring, critics seem to wink at productions which cheer things up, where they would be up in arms if such things were done on other composers. The problem with David MacVicar's way with Handel (this goes for the ENO Alcina as well) is that he chooses a group of characters to send up, but when these characters suffer we have no empathy with them as we don't see them as real people. This applies to Cleopatra and and to Morgana (in Alcina). I'll continue going to see MacVicar productions (ENO have Agrippina coming up), but only because it seems the only way to hear major companies do Handel. Would someone had the courage to do one of Handel's early opera seria properly seriously.


Opera Rara have just done a concert performance of Rossini's La Donna del Lago at the Edinburgh Festival. Andrew Clark liked it and I can't wait to get the CD, it includes the UK debut of a striking Neapolitan Soprano Carmn Giannattasio.


Everyone seems to agree that Stuart MacRae's new opera, The Assasin Tree was a promising, but not ideal debut. Worryingly, Andrew Clark suggests the work might be better heard as a voiceless symphony, implying that MacRae has yet to get to grips with operatic voices. This is, in fact, a common problem with contemporary operas. Clark describes MacRae's vocal lines as uninteresting, which is rather a fault in an opera.


A fabulous concert performance of Die Meistersinger from Edinburgh, with John Mitchinson (WNO Tristan in the Goodall Tristan), Jeffrey Lawton (Siegfried in WNO Ring), Phillip Joll (WNO Goodall Tristan) and John Shirley Quirk (too many memories to mention!) amongst the Meistersingers (an amazing line up). Plus Toby Spence as David.


Rodney Milnes reviews the Opera Rara Don Carlos a re-issue of the BBC performance of the original Paris version with all cuts opened up. He likes it, but talks about the choices to be made by anyone devising a sensible text. This implies the sort of mix and match attitude that I hate; when doing the opera producer s tend to choose bits from each opera. Surely, if you are doing it you should choose on of Verdi's versions. The 5-Act Modena version, done in French should surely be the prime versio and you should not then introduce bits of Paris into this. The only excuse for using any of the Paris material is if you want to hear the original Paris version. The only decisions that need to be made about Paris are the cuts (surely necessary in an ordinary opera house production). I certainly don't want to hear ensembles from Paris which were subsequently cut by Verdi, re-appearing in the later Modena version.


Rant over! On a lighter note, producer Otto Schenk in addition to producing 30 operatic stagings in Vienna, appeared in the role of Frosch (Die Fledermaus) some 54 times!

New Look

Blogger have upgraded their front-end and a number of new features will appear. Probably the most obvious one at the moment are the labels on the posts, with a list of labes to the right, enabling you to drill down through my opera reviews, cd reviews etc. I am gradually working my way through the back posts to get a decent number of them labelled as well.

Recent CD Review

My review of Durufle's Requiem from St. Ignatius Loyola Church is here.

A disappointing recording, far better to go for a recording of Duruflé's
original version with orchestra and organ. ...

Saturday, 30 September 2006

Recent CD Review

My review of Boccherini's Stabat Mater is here on MusicWeb International.

If the performances don’t completely plumb the depths of the works, they
display a fine musicality and balance, which can’t be bad. ...

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

On Sunday we bid farewell to Canon Vincent Berry as incumbent of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. At Latin Mass we sang my motet Exaudi. The motet was written in 2002 and I don't think we've done it since. It was strange to re-visit something which was no longer current in my brain; you look at things and think how they could have been done differently (I appear to have had a down on altos when writing it!).

Ursi Carmina, the new piece written for London Concord Singers 40th Anniversary is now bedding down quite well in rehearsal. The programme has been finalised and will include Harris's Faire is the Heaven, Naylor's Vox dicentes: Clama besides the 2 pieces with orchestra - Handel's Birthday Ode for Queen Anne and Mozart's Sancta Maria Mater Dei.

We are singing the Handel in a German edition and it includes a German version of the words. They are hardly a translation as Queen Anne is not mentionned at all and her name repeatedly crops up in the English text.

Review of Handel's Rinaldo

My review of a chamber version of excerpts from Handel's Rinaldo is here on MusicWeb International.

Monday, 25 September 2006

La Juive - Opera Review

La Juive is a long opera and much of the music was written to accompany spectacular stage ceremonial. Recent productions of the opera have shown that it has the potential to work in a simpler setting. As performed in the Royal Opera House’s concert at the Barbican on Friday the work was substantially trimmed and revealed as quite a powerful drama.

The libretto is by Eugene Scribe, who wrote the librettos for many of the major French grand operas of the period. It uses his standard formula of contrasting major public spectacle with private torment. In this case the council of Konstanz forms the back drop for the more private dramas of the Jew Eleazar and his daughter Rachel. As in most Scribe librettos, a certain degree of unlikely co-incidence is included; Eleazar finds Cardinal Brogni’s daughter as an infant and adopts her. Years later Eleazar and Brogni clash and only after Rachel’s execution does Eleazar tell Brogni that she was his daughter. The opera pits the church’s persecution of Jews against Rachel’s illicit love for Christian Leopold. Eleazar is by no means a stereotypical character. He is by no means likeable and is bad tempered and rather grasping, but this is off-set by his love for his daughter.

The opera’s hit number is Eleazar’s Rachel, Quand O seigneur in which Eleazar sings of his love for his daughter whilst in prison. Eleazar was written for the Paris Opera’s star tenor, Nourrit. At the Barbican the role was taken by Dennis O’Neill; whilst O’Neill’s voice shows some signs of age his art is still impressive and in Rachel, Quand O seigneur he encompassed some fine mezza-voce singing. O’Neill’s Eleazar was a fully rounded character and O’Neill made his final moments profoundly moving.

As his daughter, Rachel, Marina Poplavskaya was stunning. She looks dramatic with her long hair and is able to spin a lovely fine line. The role of Rachel was created by Cornelie Falcon and it is modern in the way that the music eschew’s elaborate ornament and relies on the expressive line of the music. Poplavskaya gave no indication that she was singing a rarely performed role, her performance was dramatically fully rounded and not at all inhibited by the concert surroundings.

As Eleazar’s nemesis, Cardinal Brogni, Alastair Miles gave a thundering performance. But even here, the character is not all one-sided and Miles was able to display warmth and concern in the opening Act.

Dario Schmuck was Prince Leopold, Rachel’s love interest. Leopold is pretending to Rachel that he is a Jew called Samuel and it is Rachel’s unmasking of Leopold that leads her and Eleazar’s imprisonment. Schmuck made what he could of Leopold’s rather frivolous love interest and made a fine contribution to the dramatic ensemble with Rachel and Eleazar when Eleazar discovers the lovers trying to flee. Unfortunately, Leopold disappears entirely after Act 3 and has no involvement in the opera’s denouement.

His wife, Princess Eudoxie, has a small role to play dramatically but her musical role is to supply the elaborate roulades which are missing from Rachel’s music. Nicole Cabell tossed of Eudoxie’s elaborate arias with enviable charm and ability.

Halevy and Scribe alternate public and private acts and it is in the 2 private acts, Act2 and Act 4, that the nub of the drama occurs. Act 4 is set in prison and concludes with the aforementioned Rachel, Quand O seigneur. Act 2, set in Eleazar’s house, opens with a moving setting of the Passover meal, this is followed by the dramatic confrontation between Eleazar, Rachel and Leopold. All contributed to create strong, moving drama here.

The drama was a little slow to start, much of Act 1 seemed to be concerned with scene setting. But once Act 2 started, the drama took wing. Daniel Oren kept the proceedings moving and though the opera has quite a slow fuse there were few longeurs.

All of the singers were admirable in the way they presented the opera dramatically and their performances were most definitely not welded to their scores as can happen in this type of presentation.

It was admirable of the Royal Opera to present this piece and the concert performance was surprisingly involving. But I would still love to see it staged.

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