Thursday, 30 November 2006
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Monday, 13 November 2006
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
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.
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
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
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.
Saturday, 4 November 2006
Thursday, 2 November 2006
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
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.