Friday, 30 November 2007

ENO and bel canto

In the new issue of the ENO Friends magazine there is an interview with John Berry (ENO Artistic Director) about the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor. ENO are not renowned for doing bel canto repertoire, they have never had a significant amount of Bellini or Rossini in their catalogue and Donizetti has mainly been represented by his two comedies.

Rather oddly, Berry says that Lucia is not categorised as core repertoire. Which seems a strange comment as it is surely a piece that appears regularly (if not frequently) in most opera houses. Berry goes on to say comment that the reason why the bel canto repertoire has been neglected is the translation issue, that it is difficult to find good translations and the singers to sing them. This seems a fair point, but in other areas of the repertoire, ENO has had no trouble finding singers to learn new translations of the operas. Surely casting Donizetti is no harder than casting Handelian opera seria?

Berry's comments are interesting and relevant, up to a point. But I can't help feeling that there is an additional unspoken point which ought to have been made, that in the past there has perhaps been a lack of sympathy with the bel canto repertoire.

Gleanings from December's Opera magazine

Franz Welser-Möst comments about the health of an opera house; the best indicator being, not the spectacular first nights but the revivals, if you have great Three Ladies in the Magic Flute or good Flower Maidens. And Mike Ashman unearths one of the original Flower Maidens, Carrie Pringle by name, who may even have been Wagner's mistress. One of those people who flit into history and then disappear.

Richard van Allen is one of those singers who seems to have disappeared from our stages. It turns out that he is suffering from cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. But his interview in Opera is interesting and illuminating. He trained as a teacher at Worcester Teacher Training College. Amazingly, the music tutor there was Harold Watkins Shaw, the Handel scholar. In his early days he sang with Opera for All. They took the scenery around with them and erected it themselves. Van Allen drove the scenery van because he happened to have a driving licence. Puts the current problems touring operas into perspective rather doesn't it?

Van Allen must be one of the last of the generation of singers who learned their craft without ever being able to read music, (Rita Hunter and Charles Craig were similar). In the early days Van Allen used to rely on a tape recorder weighing 45 pounds, hardly portable.

In Australia, the State Opera of Adelaide presented Un Ballo in Maschera conducted by Baroque specialist Graham Abbott. Sounds as if it might have been a fascinating evening, with the intimate preferred to the bombastic. This also happened at the Caramoor Festival in the USA where Il Trovatore was given in a fascinating Bel Canto version. There Conductor Will Crutchfield gave a very full edition of the score.

And in Sydney, Venus in Tannhäuser looked like Cruella de Vil and was a stern mistress of discipline, whatever turns you on I suppose. Cheryl Barker sang all 3 soprano roles in Il Trittico, quite a feat if you think about it. If she is singing the more dramatic Janacek and Strauss roles, it will be interesting to see whether she can keep her voice lithe enough for Suor Angelica and Lauretta.

John Allison went to Belgium to see the new Hans Werner Henze opera. Someone has described him as the Meyerbeer of our times - discuss! Still, Allison said that the final ecstatic dance sounded like Mahler on Prozac. Judging from the photo, the production itself was very stylish.

And in Canada, the Canadian Opera Company staged their first ever French Don Carlos, amazing as it seems. Though the reviewer then confuses this by saying that the 5-Act Italian version had been given in French in the past. So I'm not really sure what he meant, perhaps he means the original Paris version. Anyhow, the cast seem to have been pretty polyglot.

Marseille have premiered a new opera, Marius et Fanny by Vladimi Cosma based on the Marcel Pagnol tales. I wonder how it compares to Harold Rome's musical based on the same source, which provided Ezio Pinza's first Broadway role after South Pacific.

We saw Yannis Kokkos's production of Cherubini's Medea (Italian version) at the Chatelet in Paris with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role. The production has made its way to Greece where it was performed in the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, quite a venue. The same opera also showed up in Utrecht, also in the Italian version.

And Peter Maxwell Davies's The Lighthouse has made its way to Italy (to Montepulciano) for only its 2nd production in Italy (the last one was 20 years ago). The performers all had Anglophone names, so this was hardly full cultural assimilation. Over in Spoleto they did Handel's Ariodante with a production inspired by Princess Margaret in the 1950's.

In Boston it was the turn of Lully's Psyche, the operas first American outing. Rather bizarrely, the piece has its origins in a fete belliqueuse for some 30,000 soliders on the nearly built fortifications of Dunkirk. The mind boggles.

At the Met, theatre director Mary Zimmerman directed a new Lucia di Lammermoor and seems to have shown the same distrust of the operatic genre as some of the recent non-opera specialists over here.

Still in New York, Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers made its American debut. Unfortunately they performed it in the traditional English version - Martin Bernheimer comments on the prim Victorian verse and the clumsy libretto. I must confess that I was surprised at this latter comment as I have never found Brewster's libretto clumsy. Granted the English translation is cumbersome, but Smyth always admitted this and it was done in a hurry by a hack. Smyth and Brewster wrote the opera in French, though I don't think it has ever been performed in this version. Duchy Opera commissioned a new translation from Amanda Holden and it is a shame that this was not used.

Back in the UK, veteran composer Stephen Dodgson has had a new opera, Nancy, premiered by St. Albans Chamber Opera. Dodgson is now in his 80's, so there is hope for us all yet.

We hear that... notes that Patricia Bardon will be singing in ENO's new Riders to the Sea in the Autumn. Great news to hear that the opera will be returning to London at last.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Recording news

There is a review of my new disc, "The Testament of Dr. Cranmer", on the Classical Source web site, here.

Recent CD Review

My review of a reconstruction of an 18th century mass from Peking is here, on MusicWeb International.
Mixes scholarship with charm and intelligence in a way which illuminates a forgotten corner of Sino-European musical cross-fertilization ...

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Recent CD Reviews

My review of a new organ recital is here, on MusicWeb International.
If you enjoy the sound of the American symphonic pipe organ from the 1940s and 1950s then buy this disc. Morris displays a superb technique and dazzling control of the tonal colour ...

And a recital by a promising new lute player here.
Sakamoto has a strong technique and much promise. I look forward to hearing more from him when he matures and develops ...

Friday, 23 November 2007

Maria Stuarda

In the early 19th century, England and Scotland were distant enough from operatic Italy to warrant them being seen as suitable locations for Romantic opera. Thanks to Scott's novels, historical Scotland was seen as a suitably exotic backdrop. Of course, these operas were no more historically accurate than any other location; Rossini's La Donna del Lago was no more Scottish than his Maometto secondo represents a real episode in Turkish/Venetian history.

The Romantic movement was very interested in the exotic other and this crops up in many ways in many operas. The other can be a foreigner in our land Il Turco in Italia or one of us visiting a foreign land L'Italiana in Algeri. Historical setting was, of course, de rigeur. But whereas in the 18th century Opera Seria, the historical setting was very much irrelevant, during the 19th century this came to reflect local colour. Rossini's La Donna del Lago is very important in this respect as it pre-figures in its Romantic view of Scotland, much that Rossini's succesors Bellini and Donizetti, would come to do. You only have to comapare La Donna del Lago to Semiramide. In the latter, Rossini pretty much ignores the historical background and location, his treatment of the story is in direct line to the earlier Opera Seria, whereas in La Donna del Lago Rossini goes to some trouble to evoke the lake-side setting. This is taken to the ultimate extreme in his
last opera Guillaume Tell with its stunning re-creation of the historical Switzerland, the Alps and the lake.

Historical England also came in for re-incarnation: Rossini's Elizabetta Regina d'Inghilterra bears very little resemblance to her historical counterpart, but is notable because her opening aria is the pre-cursor for Rosina's opening aria - a fascinating example of Rossini's re-use of material.

But it is in the operas of Donizetti that we come across a large number of English and Scottish settings. Whilst we have difficulty taking the exotic location of Emilia di Liverpool seriously, we can be more sympathetic to the historicism in Rosamunda d'Inghilterra which concerns the antics of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry's mistress the Fair Rosamund. But where Donizetti really seems to score is in his sequence of operas based on the Tudor dynasty.

These start with Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth and continue with Anna Bolena, Donizetti's first big hit, then Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda. English Opera companies seem to have a fascination with Maria Stuarda above all the rest. It is, of course, a superb opera but not significantly better than some of Donizetti's other ones. Perhaps our fascination with the historical Mary Stuart has something to do with it, and Schiller's invented scene between the 2 queens is quite superb. But the role of Elizabeth is rather short, the original Elisabetta complained about the paucity of this role. Usually in UK performances this role is given to a soprano strong on Character (Pauline Tinsley, Rosalind Plowright) who can make much of the character's appearances in the opera.

Though ENO has done very little early Italian opera in recent years they have done 2 productions of Maria Stuarda, one for Janet Baker and one for Anne Murray. The opera was performed at Grange Park in recent years with Majella Cullagh in the title role and English Touring Opera toured it last year. So it was with some surprise that I learned that Chelsea Opera Group were planning the opera. But on reflection, the last ENO production was some years ago and the promised revivals have never come so apart from ETO in Hackney last year, Maria Stuarda has been pretty absent from the capital.

Chelsea Opera Group have a strong cast, headed by Majella Cullagh. This will be COG's last appearance at Cadogan Hall, for their next appearance in March 2008 they are back in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when Nelly Miricioiu will be singing Lady Macbeth in the original version of Verdi's opera.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

English opera at Buxton Festival

Next season's Vaughan Williams centenary seems to be persuading a number of companies to explore English opera. The Buxton Festival, currently on a roll having had a very successful 2007 season, will be performing RVW's opera Riders to the Sea along with Holst's Savitri and The Wandering Scholar. Savitri is a slightly severe 3-hander based on Indian mythology, in which a woman argues with death for the life of her husband. I remember seeing Dame Janet Baker in it, in performances with Scottish Opera in the 1980's. The Wandering Scholar is a very late work, Holst died before he could hear it, or correct the manuscript. Holst's operas are often curious works and I will be very interested to hear this one. RVW's Riders to the Sea of course needs no introduction.

Continuing in English vein, Buxton will also be doing a stage version of Handel's oratorio Samson with Tom Randle in the title role. More information here.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Review of Maconchy double bill

My review of Independent Opera's double bill of Elizabeth Maconchy operas is here, on Music and Vision.

Last Night's LSO concert

To the Barbican last night for an LSO concert; Richard Hickox conducting Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Barber's Knoxvill 1915 and Orff's Carmina Burana.

For the Bernstein and the Orff Hickox used a very large orchestra (16 first violins and a total personnel roster of nearly 100 people). The Barbican stage can barely contain these numbers and I still remain unconvinced that it is the best place for such large scale works. From our seat in the front stalls, the orchestra seemed to dominate the choir in both works. In the Orff particularly I would have liked a greater number of choral singers than could be accommodated on the Barbican stage.

For the Bernstein the choral contribution was polished but I found the singing lacked the energy and incision needed in the piece. The most moving moment was the treble solo in the 2nd movement, beautifully sung by Jesus Duque from the Tiffin Boys Choir.

Barber's Knoxville 1915 is one of those pieces that I am sure I have never heard in concert before, but which is familiar all the same. The programme did not include the words so we had to hang on Laura Claycomb's every note. By and large she succeeded in getting all the words across and floated a beautiful sound in the lyrical passages.

I have always thought that Carl Orff had a lot in common with Gustav Holst. Both produced one very popular work and then showed no interest in following this up, but explored other less popular veins. Though the other 2 works in Orff's Trionfi trilogy explore some of the same areas as Carmina Buran, they do so without this works intoxicating melodic flair.

I first sang Carmina Burana as a student under a pupil of Orff's. He conducted the rehearsals with great emphasis on rhythm and articulation. We quite often practised without any pitch at all. He laid great stress on the words and they way we projected them, almost spitting them out. This is something which can create a strong effect in the piece, but is too often neglected by choirs. The LSO chorus sang beautifully but in the passages like the quiet sections of the first movement, O Fortuna, their delivery lacked energy and vividness. As in the Bernstein, they somehow could not get energy across the orchestra and there was rather an over emphasis on beautiful singing. In the louder passages the balance rather favoured the orchestra, but there was some beautiful singing from the semi-chorus in the quieter moments.

The soloists were probably about the best you could get in this work. The Swan was, correctly, sung by a tenor, Barry Banks, rather than a counter-tenor. His theatrical delivery was matched by an assured vocal performance, this was the Swan as it should be with the tenor at the top of, or beyond, his comfortable range. The baritone soloist is similarly taken to the very top (and bottom) of his vocal comfort zone. This seemed to hold no fears for Christopher Maltman who turned in a beautifully sung but very dramatic account of the baritone solos. Laura Claycomb did exactly what the soprano solo is asked to do, floated high notes beautifully.

In many ways this was a fine performance. The soloists were superb and the orchestra were on top form, if only the performance had taken place in a venue which would have allowed the chorus to expand to match them.

Friday, 16 November 2007

To Sadlers Wells last night to see Independent Opera's impressive double bill of operas by Elizabeth Maconchy. It turns out that the atmospheric lighting was by Matthew Haskins who lit my opera Garrett when we premiered it in 2001 at Hoxton Hall, small world.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of excerpts from Handel's Serse is here, on MusicWeb International.
We must be a little forgiving as it was recorded 20 years ago. Even so slightly disappointing. There is some fine musicianship on display but it does not add up to a satisfying disc ...

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Tomorrow night we are off to see Independent Opera's enterprising double bill of Elizabeth Maconchy's operas at Sadlers Wells. This young opera company have constantly surprised me with their choices of opera. Designed to give young professionals opportunities and support (there is now a foundation which gives grants and help) they could have happily jogged along mining the small scale end of the standard operatic repertoire. But last year they mounted a very creditably production of Handel's Orlando and now the Maconchy double bill.

One thing, though, is nagging in my brain. I can remember reading an interview with Elizabeth Maconchy and her librettist, Ursula Vaughan Williams, at the time of a previous outing for their one act opera, The Sofa. Both were pretty elderly but very sprightly and lively to interview. Unfortunately I can find no trace of the interview. Frustrating.

Review of Turandot

My review of Midsummer Opera's performance of Turandot (with the complete Alfano ending) is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

EPSS and more

Off to Bristol on Sunday to the English Poetry and Song Society recital at Bristol Music Rooms - an attractive mix of the well known and the lesser known with songs by Gurney, Parry and Stanford, plus the winners from their most recent competition (including one of my own). This meant that we got 3 different settings of Gurney's most well known poem, 'Severn Meadows', which was fascinating. Bryan Blyth Daubney's song, I felt, shone out as the clear winner amongst the competition songs.

On the way home we managed to catch the BBC broadcast of the John Foulds World Requiem from the Albert Hall. It was a fascinating work, even over the car radio, and I look forward to hearing the recording though we did wish that we could have been present in the Albert Hall. It was interesting to hear the various moments in the work which seemed to almost approach Messiaen. Soprano Jean-Michelle Charbonnet had a rather too vibrato laden voice for my taste, but otherwise the performance seemed to be exemplary. May we hope for a repeat next year?

Monday, 12 November 2007

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine

Jessica Duchen introduces Korngold's Wunder der Heliane which the LPO are doing on Nov 21st. This is one of these overblown symbolist laden plots where I sometimes think I'd be better off not knowing what's going on and just sit back and listen to the music.

And Nicola LeFanu introduces her mother, Elizabeth Maconchy's operatic output. Independent Opera are doing a double bill of Maconchy's works this week at Sadlers Wells. Rather poignantly, the libretto of The Sofa is by Ursula Vaughan Williams, who died recently.

Lilian Baylis always makes good copy:-
'Now then you bounders, I know you enjoy Faust and Torvatore, but you've jolly well got to like these other things we do for you or we shall have to shut up shop.'
In her article on Baylis, Elizabeth Schafer refers to Joan Cross's unpublished autobiography. From the bits quoted it sounds fascinating and I would hope we could have it published. Another source was the Old Vic/Sadlers Wells magazine; articles by Ethel Smyth on opera in England (was it a wash out), Edward Dent on Rossini and an introduction to the first English production of The Snow Maiden.

Rose Bampton has died. You might not know her name, but she was 99, a remarkably link with a bygone age. She sang alongside Ponselle and gave the New York premiere of Barber's Dover Beach.

In New York, Gerard Mortier has published news of his first season at NYCO (Rakes Progress, Francis of Assisi, Einstein on the Beach, Nixon in China and Death in Venice with Ian Bostridge. All very 20th century but nothing to really frighten the horses. Mortier has also said that he's not interested in taking NYCO into the Cinema (like the Met) but opera houses should be taking people out of the cinema and into the opera house. Quite So!

A 21st century opera, Margaret Garnier, made its way to New York. But Martin Bernheimer describes it as another let's pretend modern opera for people who hate modern opera.

In St. Louis, there was a gala for Colin Graham, including an old St. Louis discovery, Syliva McNair. She seems to be retired from opera which is a shame. One of those talented, where-did-they-go people. The new opera at St. Louis was another versio of Anna Karenina with a libretto by Graham. Graham emphasised less the social drama and more Levin's philosophical musings - probably not what people want when they think of Anna Karenina.

In Australia, Deborah Jones was less than convinced by Previn's A Street car Named Desire, commenting that it might have been better not to have set Blanche's famous phrase to music, leaving it spoken. Still, I'd have liked to have heard Yvonne Kenny in the role. Jones also felt that the word setting was 'uncongenial or the vocal line too high for comfortable apprehension'. Quite. Another plus seems to have been seeing Teddy Tahu Rhodes's washboard stomach!

In Vienna, a production of Le Nozze di Figaro centred round a football team, where do these ideas come from.

Over in Halle, the annual Handel Festival has finished. Again I've not been, though always mean to. The performances of Riccardo Primo with Lawrence Zazzo, Geraldine McGreevy and Nuria Rial sound as if they were well worth catching. Stephen Lawless's production of Ariodante was set on what seems to have been comic book Scotland. Still it did have Caitlin Hulcup in the title role and Gillian Keith as Ginevra. Bernd Hoppe and I seem to disagree over Christopher Robson in the old ENO production, so I'm not sure whether his approbation of Axel Köhler is good or bad.

Over in Potsdam they were enterprisingly doing Purcell's King Arthur and Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley. The productions sound as if they were promising, I think the Purcell was brought to England and played at the newly restored Theatre Royal in Bury St. Edmunds. The reviewer mentions another Lampe opera, Margery, or A Worse Plague than the Dragon, now I wonder what that's like?

Chris Merritt seems to have made a brief reappearance at Pesaro. The reviewer mentions his early career there in Rossini and then his later career in character roles. But the linking between this is, I think, a foray into bigger more dramatic tenor roles which may not have been entirely sound. Still the production of Otello, the Rossini one, did have Juan Diego Florez in it even if his wig was awful (and it doesn't look to bad in the photo.)

Max Loppert's review of the Robert Carsen Ring is interesting. Hugh Canning loved it when it was in Cologne, but Loppert disliked the Venice incarnation. Always a fascinating problem, do the 2 of them simply disagree or was there a fault in translation from Cologne to Venice. Sharing and borrowing productions can often be a tricky business and in a new atmosphere, things which previously worked no longer seem to.

Back in London, We Hear That... holds forth the promise of lots of Handel in London; David Daniels as Jonathan in ENO's new Saul, Rosemary Joshua in ENO's new Partenope directed by Christopher Alden and Graham Vick doin Tamerlano with Chrisianne Stotijn at Covent Garden. Quite wonderful. Also in London, Jonathan Miller is doing a new La Boheme in 2009 for ENO. It doesn't seem that long since the present one was new.

Susan Graham is going to be doing her first Marschalling, in Houston, and Renee Fleming will be doing Rossini's Armida at the Met.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Tomorrow we should have been going to hear John Foulds's A World Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. But instead we are winging our way to Bristol where one of my songs is being performed at a recital devoted to Ivor Gurney and his teachers at Bristol Music Club in Clifton. Its an afternoon recital and has a beautifully put together programme which mixes Gurney and his teachers with 5 contemporary Gurney settings from the most recent English Poetry and Song Society competition. So we'll have to hope we can catch the John Fould's on the Radio on the way home.

Something to look forward to

We've just booked tickets for Opera North's London visit in February 2008 when they are bringing Peter Grimes (with Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts in the title role) and Pinocchio, the new opera by Jonathan Dove and Alastair Middleton. Dove and Middleton were responsible for the wonderful not-quite-opera that was the Christmas show at the Young Vic last year and I look forward to Pinocchio enormously.

The performances take place at Sadlers Wells and also there in June are a pair of semi-staged performances of Vaughan Williams's opera The Pilgrims Progress. This is sad in some ways as the presence of the opera at Sadlers Wells in semi-staged version almost certainly means that no-one is doing a fully staged version in London for the anniversary year. I have not heard whether ENO are reviving their production of Sir John in Love, but it would seem criminal for them not to bring it back in the autumn.

For the June performances of The Pilgrims Progress, Richard Hickox will be conducting a very fine cast including Roderick Williams as the Pilgrim, Neal Davies as Bunyan with Sarah Tynan, Pamel Helen Stephen, Timothy Robinson, James Gilchrist, Robert Hayward and Graeme Danby in the cast.

Oh, that's of course another reason why people don't perform the opera, it requires a large cast plus a good chorus. In fact, the only time I have seen it staged was at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1992, directed by Joseph Ward (who sang Lord Lechery in the premiere. This performance had Stephen Wallace, in drag, as Madam Bubble (he went on to play the Fairy Queen, in drag, for Grange Park Opera); Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts in a number of tenor roles, Henry Waddington as Pontius Pilate and even Alice Coote as an Angel of the Lord.

Review of La Straniera

My review of last Saturday's concert performance of Bellini's La Straniera is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The news of my new CD continues to find its way into the press and I continue to be tickled each time I come across a reference to it; most recently in Choir and Organ magazine.

After much logistical heartache, we have now managed to fix a date for our concert celebrating the launch of the CD. So on Saturday 26th January at St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square, the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble, organist Paul Ayres, and conductor Paul Brough will be giving a concert to celebrate the CD launch.

The choir will be performing Mundy's Vox Patris Coelestis complete; they sang part of the work at their first concert in 2005. My Evening Service will be premiered, in its version for 4-part choir and organ; the Magnificat from the Evening Service was recorded on the CD in the 3-part choir and organ version. They will also be performing my motet Lucis Creator Optime. Paul Ayres will also be giving some organ solos. The concert will be followed by a reception. More details to follow.

This means that we are giving a short, 2-concert season at St. Peter's because on Saturday 23rd February, FifteenB with Paul Ayres, this time conducting, and Malcolm Cottle on organ, will be giving a concert as well. They will be performing Haydn's Little Organ Mass, plus my Tagore setting Crossing, for choir and organ, and premiering the new version of the choruses from my 1998 Passion setting.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Cesare Siepi's early recordings is here, on MusicWeb International.
An excellent introduction to the work of an outstanding Italian bass, heard in his impressively youthful prime. ...

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Review of Londinium City Voices concert

My review of Thursday's concert by Londinium City Voices, conductor Nicholas Jenkins, is here on Music and Vision. The concert included Richard Strauss's rarely performed Die Göttin im Putzzimmer.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Review of Teseo

My review of English Touring Opera's production of Handel's Teseo is here, on Music and Vision.