Monday, 30 October 2006
Saturday, 28 October 2006
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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
Monday, 23 October 2006
Friday, 20 October 2006
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
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
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.
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
Thursday, 12 October 2006
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.
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
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
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
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
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!