Monday, 31 March 2008
Then on Sunday it was off to the Barbican where the LSO, under their Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding performed Britten's Spring Symphony and Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto. Victoria Mullova was the soloist in the Prokofiev. She was a fiery and impassioned soloist, with a tougher and rather less upholstered tone than some performers, the result perhaps knocked some of the romantic corners off the work. Surprisingly she played from the music, but placed her stand sideways to the stage so that it did not impede the audience's view of her. Though she was turning the pages, she did not seem to be referring to them much.
In the 2nd half the orchestra were joined by Susan Gritton, Sarah Connolly and Mark Padmore, the LSO chorus and the Tiffin Boys Choir. The stage became very, very full, this was another one of those concerts which ideally would not take place in the Barbican at all but in a larger hall such as the Royal Festival Hall. The Tiffin Boys Choir were placed at one side of the stage, not a particularly advantageous position and this told, in the final movement of the Spring Symphony their singing of Summer is i'cumin in, did not carry as well as it ought. Vocal honours were relatively even but the palm must go to Sarah Connolly for a beautifully controlled rendition of Out on the Lawn. Mark Padmore was wonderfully impassioned and managed to not sound like Peter Pears, which is always an advantage. Susan Gritton was glorious, but I felt that the soprano soloist seems under used in this work. The chorus were on fine form and sang brilliantly, though in the louder moments their tone tended to get a little hard, perhaps the result of trying a little too much.
It was a long time since I have heard the work and this was possibly the first time that I have heard it live. I found it magical and engrossing, and I even got to hear a cow horn.
Thursday, 27 March 2008
Wednesday, 26 March 2008
The title role in the opera will be sung by Susan Bullock (Hurrah), Chrysothemis by Anne Schwanevilms and Jane Henschel is Klytemnestra, so that whilst I was not overly enamoured of the production I can see that we will be wanting to re-visit it.
Amongst the other revivals, some highlights of the casting; Diana Damrau will be singing Adina (L'Elisir d'Amore), Joyce di Donato and Simon Keenlyside will sing in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (definitely a pairing to look out for); Renee Fleming makes an appearance as Violetta and Tosca comes back with Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani and Bryn Terfel.
None of the above makes me sick with desire, but it does represent some interesting, and worthwhile casting.
Joyce di Donato is also singing Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) sharing the role with Emma Bell, and Ian Bostridge as Don Ottavio. With Sir Charles Mackerras and Antonio Pappano sharing the conducting, Simon Keenlyside and Kyle Ketelson sharing the title role and Rebecca Evans as Zerlina these revivals of Don Giovanni look promising indeed.
John Sclesinger's Les Contes d'Hoffmann is coming back, with Rolando Villazon in the title role. But the press release makes no mention of the edition being used, so I presume that we are going to get the old traditional version with sung recitative. I think I'll keep this on ice until we get a re-thought musical edition, perhaps they should let Sir Charles Mackerras take charge of a revival.
Anna Netrebko scheduled to sing Giulietta in I Capuletti e i Montecchi, lets hope she does appear.
Anne Schwanewilms crops up again as Elsa, with Johan Botha in the title role of Lohengrin and Petra Lang as Ortrud - another revival to keep an eye on. Semyon Bychkov conducts.
In the new productions, La Calisto will see Sally Matthews, Veronique Gens, Guy de Mey, Dominique Visse and Lawrence Zazzo performing, sounds like a production worth hearing for the cast alone, especially when galvanised by producer David Alden.
And Dido and Aeneas will feature Sarah Connolly, Sara Fulgoni and Lucy Crowe, quite a cast.
Tuesday, 25 March 2008
In the main house there are 8 new productions. Of these 4 have appeared elsewhere first - La Calisto (Munich 2005), Matilde de Shabran (Pesaro 2004), Die Tote Stadt (Salzburg 2004) and Dido and Aeneas (Milan 2006). As you can see from the dates, none of the productions is in the first flush of youth, but it is an interesting way of getting new repertoire into the system. La Calisto comes in a production by David Alden, his first at Covent Garden, which is something. Die tote Stadt is frankly one of those operas which it is interesting to encounter occasionally but I can't see it become a staple of the house's repertoire (now I'll be proved wrong). Similarly, Matilde de Shabran which needs the right singers, notably Juan Diego Florez in the lead male role.
Of the other productions, Christoph Loy's Lulu is a co-production with Madrid and the remainder are Covent Garden's Own. Wayne MacGregor gets to create Acis and Galatea to go with Dido (a neat pairing, killing 2 centenaries in one and getting Covent Garden out of the tedium of doing another boring Opera Seria). Leiser and Caurier are doing a new Hansel and Gretel, notable for having Ana Silja as the Witch, Alice Coote as Handel and Elizabeth Connell as Mother. Though being as it is double cast, I'm not quite sure who is singing with whom. Silja is sharing the role of the Witch with Ann Murray (her husband, Philip Langridge recently did the role in New York, not at the same pitch I hasten to add). There is also a new Flying Dutchman with Bryn Terfel in the title role, producer Tim Albury. In another interesting pairing veteran conductor Sir Colin Davis is being paired with Robin Ticciati, a dynamic young 20 year old. I can see I'll have to sample more than one performance.
Of this latter, I can't raise too much enthusiasm. I am rather keen to see the Korngold, but have a vague feeling that reviews of Decker's original production were not too positive. Similarly I am very keen to see the Rossini and welcome it even though I know we'll only get the one opportunity, it is unlikely to be revived.
Also new is a production of Benjamin Britten's Beggars Opera at the Linbury Theatre. This is definitely more of a curiosity than a thing to look forward to. Very much a notch on the bedpost, one of the Britten operas that I've not seen.
Even more tempting is the fact that The Opera Group and London Sinfonietta will be presenting the UK premiere of George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill - and about time too! It will be given as a double bill with Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood Side. Still in contemporary vein, the ROH and the Britten Sinfonia will give the first fully staged performances of James MacMillan's Parthenogenesis - Katie Mitchell will direct (hurrah).
So, a moderate amount to look forward to in the new productions. I'll come back to the revivals later this week.
WHY, WHY, WHY do bloggers think that anyone is particularly interested in YOUR life or YOUR opinions of whatever arts performances YOU have just seen?? Wow. YOU just fed the cat??? This insane burgeoning of Internet blogsite self-referencing importance is really annoying... and very frightening. It simply endorses egotism and narcissism run amok. Robert, really, you have apparently no end of self-related opinions concerning performing artists who have seemingly STOLEN something from you. You really need to let go of that garbage---and talk to someone.
Regarding the main complaint, my fundamental position is of course that no-one has to read this blog, you can simply ignore it. I have been writing reviews for web sites for quite a number of years. I started the blog as a means of gathering together the links to my various reviews. It expanded because I use it also to additionally review performances which are not covered in my other web-site reviews. Whilst, on the one hand, this can be seen as a form of self indulgence, on the other hand given the preponderance of performances in London it is difficult for any publication (whether print or web) to cover all of them. Take the recent performance of Bach's St. John Passion at the Barbican with Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist. I saw no print reviews or major web reviews of this concert. So web sites such as my own add a layer of critical cover which would otherwise be missing.
This site has, of course, an additional purpose. I am a composer and performer and use the site to record and publicise my compositions and performances. Such sites are useful as a means of promoting my work and also bringing together useful information for anyone seeking to learn more about my compositions. This isn't a personal blog, you won't learn much about my personal opinions, except when they impinge on musical ones; though I do occasionally allow myself the self indulgence of a rant about something in the musical world which annoys me.
If the above quote strikes a chord, please feel free to add a comment, I am always interested in people's opinions. But fundamentally, if this blog is not of interest (and I really hope that it is), you can always not read it!
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Monday, 17 March 2008
Though played on period instruments, the performance fielded far more performances than ever Bach might have been able to; some 28 choristers and a similar number of instrumentalists.
The performance's profoundly serious intentions were signalled from the start by the fact that the passion was being played without an interval and that audience was asked not to applaud until the end. Layton placed significant pauses after each chorale and a long pause at the point where Christ dies. There was also a long pause at the end before the audience could applaud.
Now, unlike Handel's oratorios, Bach's passions are religious works, written for a particular church service. But in giving them in a concert hall, performers surely have to accept that the audience members are there for a musical experience, each brings to the performance a differing set of religious (or non religious) views. Layton's pauses and reverence for the work seemed to be verging on forcing us to consider the concert as a religious experience. In essence, Layton seemed to be saying to us that the best and only way to appreciate the passion was as a religious work. But it is part of Bach's genius that his music transcends this. Layton was apparently supported by Bostridge who, when not singing, mostly seemed to have his eyes closed.
BOstridge was placed at the front, next to Layton, James Rutherford as Christus sat on a high platform to one side. The other soloists sat out of the audience's view and performed their arias on a platform in the centre of the orchestra. In many ways a sensible idea, but it did necessitate some distracting coming and going.
Both Layton and Bostridge are, by temperament, interventionist, so that though the music making was of a very high order, it had a very distinctive character. This was apparent form the opening bars, with Polyphony articulating the words superbly, pointing the music to a degree that was almost mannered with the Academy of Ancient Music playing in a similar manner. In fact this left the AAM sounding uncharacteristically muddy and the choir, though vivid and wonderfully committed, sounded over loud.
This such numbers there was inevitably no attempt to recreate a Lutheran style performance, I did find it worrying that when the choir were singing it was difficult to hear the woodwind.
I have nothing but praise for the choral singers who articulated all of Layton's wishes often at very brisk speeds. But the overall effect was extremely mannered, choruses and turbae were highly articulated, often fast and seemed to be either loud or very soft.
Bostridge seemed to worry at every single word or phrase. The result was often highly dramatic, but by the time we reached the tearing of the veil of the temple, Bach's dramatic writing went for little, as Bostridge's delivery had been over-wrought for most of the evening. Perhaps this style of Evangelist will appeal to some people but for me less is more in this role. Bostridge's delivery of the tenor arias was similarly dramatic, but these would have told more if set off against a less over-wrought Evangelist.
Into this highly charged atmosphere, Carolyn Sampson appeared like a wonderfully cool breeze. Her tone pure and limpid, her technical control superb, you only regretted that she was singing just 2 arias. It is here that you realise having the soloists involved in the choral numbers makes sense as otherwise the soprano and alto are grossly under used.
Sampson's dress was also something of a delight; black, but slit to the thigh, naked flesh covered with an over dress of black voile.
On the other hand Michael Chance, who was standing in for Iestyn Davies, seemed to push the performance closer to the religiose, giving his 2 arias almost with his eyes closed. Chance's voice is not as supple as it once was, but his musicianship is very fine.
Roderick Williams, singing Pilate and the bass arias, performed like Sampson, with aplomb, cool control and enviable technical ability. Williams has a lovely warm voice and brought drama to the role of Pilate without indulging in the over-dramatic interventionist approach.
The Academy of Ancient Music contributed some fine solo playing in the arias. Their overall sound, vivid and highly articulated, matched Layton's vision for the choir.
Overall this was an enthralling and engrossing performance, lasting just 2 hours. The style might not have been ideal for me but the standard of musicianship was very high. And it made me think about what I really want out of a performance of Bach's Johannes Passion
Saturday, 15 March 2008
Less well covered was the death of conductor Noel Davies. The English Touring Opera performance of Anna Bolena was dedicated to his memory, the conductor having worked with ETO a number of times.
Friday, 14 March 2008
Now you can probably make a very good argument for performing the Passion without an interval. But the Barbican seems to have something of a record for making audiences work hard. In Baroque Opera Seria performances it seems to be norm to have only 1 interval, running the other 2 acts together. This seems very unfair on audiences. I know that one issue is running time. A 3 act baroque opera can have up to 3 hours of music before you include intervals. And the management at the Barbican must feel obliged to have a weather eye on the finishing time. But if you've been at work all day, no matter how uplifting the music, 2 hours without a break can be a bit taxing.
So we will no doubt enjoy the concert, but I think we'd have enjoyed it more if there had been an interval to allow us to return to the second half relaxed and refreshed.
Thursday, 13 March 2008
Last night we had the first run through with the horn player for my new piece, Do not go gentle into that good night. London Concord Singers are premiering the piece on Saturday at Hampstead Town Hall in concert which features music by John Gardner, Philip Cranmer and Mary Jane Leach.
It is always slightly unnerving having the first run through of a piece. The choir, of course, had had the work in rehearsal since January but last night was might first chance to hear it with a real horn player. The result, I think, works very well and we are all looking forward to the premiere.
Anna Bolena was Donizetti's first major hit and his earliest opera to keep a hold in the repertoire. Mind you, in the UK if opera companies want a change from Lucia di Lammermoor, they always seem to choose Maria Stuarda. The Royal Opera produced Anna Bolena for Joan Sutherland in the late 1980's, but I don't think it has been seen in the UK since.
The Handel commemorative performances are important in the history of performance of Handel's music. The 1784 Birmingham performance used a choir of 100, the London centenary performances used a huge choir and this lead to the transformation of Handel's oratorios from relatively small scale works written for the theatre to large scale choral pieces. What's often forgotten about these early Handel commemorative performances is that the large choir was accompanied by an equally large orchestra.
Wednesday, 5 March 2008
Bostridge’s admirers will undoubtedly enjoy this but other listeners might be less convinced by his rather personal take ...
And my review of Rossini'sLa Donna del Lago is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
At Naxos prices you can afford to experiment and this is a good set with which to experiment ...
Tuesday, 4 March 2008
This seems to have become codified in the early part of the 19th century when grand opera based on classical myth gradually made way for the French Grand Opera of the type written by Auber, Meyerbeer and Halevy. Halevy’s La Juive has just 2 major female roles, Princess Eudoxie is the coloratura soprano, she is worldly, flirty and not particularly germane to the plot, Rachel is virginal, led astray, pure but misguided in her love and ultimately sacrifices herself. These roles would almost become codified. The first Rachel, Cornelie Falcon, whose soprano voice had a dark mezzo-soprano quality, would become known for her playing of such soiled virgins such as Rachel or Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.
One of the reasons that Bizet’s Carmen caused such a stir was the fact that Carmen failed to conform to the tart with a heart sort of role; Bizet and his soprano, Galli-Marie made Carmen a far more realistic, sympathetic and tragic figure.
Because of the stratified nature of the Paris Opera establishment, the French Grand Opera became almost codified, a librettist like Scribe could almost write librettos to a formula. In Italy there was less codification, but there is still a tendency for heroines to fit the virgin/whore mould.
A quick glance at the heroines of Bellini’s operas confirms this tendency. In La Sonnambula is only a comedy because the heroine is revealed to be sleepwalker and all stain removed, in I Puritani Elvira goes mad when she believes Arturo to be false. But frequently even falsely accused women usually end up in tragic circumstances, Beatrice di Tenda dies even though falsely accused, Romeo and Giulietta die, La Straniera does not die but has to abandon all hope of personal happiness.
A glance at Donizetti’s serious operas reveals a similar count. This is very much a 19th century development, one that seems to go hand in hand with the development of Romantic Opera. After all Rossini’s operas include strong women such as Semiramide, and even Elena (La Donna del Lago), Zelmira and Anna (Maometto II) are no pushover . And even Rosina is hardly a shrinking violet. Some of Rossini’s operatic heroines fit into the fainting violet role, but some don’t; considered as a whole Rossini’s operatic heroines are a pretty varied log.
In the later 19th century Massenet particularly seems to have bought into this view of women, perhaps it was endemic in men who worked in opera. After all, consider Degas images dancers, these seem to be completely realistic and give us a glimpse into the Parisian stage world, but behind these images consider that the many dancers would be expected to give favours to particular important men after the show. To be a woman on the stage in the 19th century was to be just one step from a whore.
Many Massenet’s best heroines seem to come into the tart with a heart category. Manon is considered by many to be his finest opera, but it only works if you are prepared to be charmed and teased by the heroine. If, like me, you find the heroine of the opera simply vapid and stupid then the charm is lost. What is fascinating is that in operas such as Manon, Thais and Sapho, the plot would not work in 19th century terms if the roles were reversed. It is here that we can see how much of 19th century opera is shaped by the attitudes to women of the male creators of the form. Imagine an opera where the plot is that of Manon or Thais but with the roles reversed. A male Manon figure, in love with pleasure, seducing a female Des Grieux figure; interestingly it is Massenet who comes closest to this. In Werther we have a plot where an upright female figure is tempted by the Romantic love of an impulsive man. Of course, Werther is an archetypal Romantic Young Man he is not a dissolute lover of pleasure. And Charlotte can still be seen as the transgressive virgin, she does love Werther but marries her boring husband because of her dying husband’s wishes.
It is only when we look at the operas of Verdi that these archetypes start to break down. There is nothing virginal or whore-ish about Abigaille and Odabella, Lady Macbeth is certainly transgressive but is neither virgin nor whore. These are strong roles, complex roles, in his treatment of women Verdi starts to hark back to the more rounded treatment of Mozart. Verdi does use the archetypes, after all Gilda and Leonora (La Forza del Destino) are examples of the transgressive virgin. Leonora shows enough strength of mind to go off on her own and try and expiate her ‘sin’. Violetta is a fascinating example of the tart with a heart, but Violetta is far stronger than we might expect her to be, she’s definitely stronger than Alfredo and the libretto has to make her ill in order for her to faint and expire in the requisite manner.
Of course, an opera us (usually) greater than the sum of its parts so that a piece like Manon can tell us a lot more than what Massenet’s attitude to women was. But this rather partial representation of women in 19th century opera helps you understand why modern directors such as David Alden have such extreme visions of these operas.
Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s new opera, The Adventure of Pinocchio, is in many ways a follow up to their previous Christmas piece The Enchanted Pig. Like its predecessor, Pinocchio is aimed at a family audience but in such a way as to provide a piece to which both adults and children can respond. The Enchanted Pig was written for a mixed cast of actors and opera singers, but the new piece is a fully fledged opera written for Opera North. The premiered it in Leeds in December last year and are currently touring it, fetching up in London last week (we saw the opera on Friday 29th Feb. at Sadlers Wells).
Dove and Middleton have gone back to Collodi’s original for the plot rather than the Disney re-working. This means that the piece has a great deal of plot to get through with a large number of characters. The only large role is Pinocchio himself (Victoria Simmonds) who is on stage virtually all the time. All the other characters are on stage a relatively short time. Pinnocchio’s father Geppetto (Jonathan Summers) and the Blue Fairy (Mary Plazas) have the largest supporting roles as their characters crop up in a number of scenes. The rest of the cast double and triple their appearances to cover the 25 named roles.
The opera has to be seen as Pinocchio’s gradual learning process; so that all the characters are really only seen in relation to him, they hardly develop a life of their own. But Dove’s music helps to flesh out the characters, dialogue blossoms out into small arias, so that by the end of the opera we feel we have come to know some of the smaller characters as well, such as Geppetto, the Blue Fair and Lampwick (Allan Clayton). This is also due to the strong playing from the singers, even when they’ve been away from the stage you don’t feel that they have been away, they bring some sort of emotional continuity.
But the whole structure, though it is true to Collodi’s book, is extremely dependent on the singer playing the title role, Victoria Simmonds. Here director Martin Duncan and his team have found a singer who brilliantly incarnates the wooden puppet whilst at the same time making us feel that he is a real person. In the same way that Massenet’s Manon only works if you find Manon charming, attractive and sexy, it is essential that the audience empathise with Pinocchio; the story depends on us finding him a loveable scamp rather than a tiresome child, we have to want him to become a real boy. I must confess that at first I found myself rather resistable to Pinocchio’s charms but well before the end of the opera I found that Simmonds had captured my emotional interest.
Dove’s music is tuneful, with one or two big tunes, though the economy of Middleton’s libretto means that there are not many occasions for Andrew Lloyd Webber moments. Dove has evidently gone to some trouble to produce musical characterisations for the different characters (the Blue Fairy has her own scale); whilst this may not be obvious to the general listener, it is something that their ears can pick up on and help them to differentiate the details of the plot.
For the more up tempo moments, Dove seems to have been channelling John Adams, with the dramatic impetus of his repeated chords and dynamically propelled melody lines. This meant that the big scenes were often exciting and had wonderful propulsion which helped keep the drama going.
Duncan’s production was based in a simple wooden box (designer Francis O’Connor) which was transformed for each of the short scenes (11 in act 1 and 9 in act 2). O’Connor came up with some simple but effective solutions to the transformations required of him. Pinocchio’s nose extending alarmingly when he tells lies to the Blue Fairy and the set was transformed simply but effectively from the sea to the belly of the whale.
One of the great strengths of the production and the opera was that the darker side of the story was not shirked, Pinocchio and his father) really do go through some difficult times. Though the violence and the villains are a little cartoonish, Dove takes the situations seriously and writes some dark music. All this helps make sense of Pinocchio’s final transformation and his becoming a helpful little boy is rendered all the more understandable.
The piece was slightly too long (each act lasted around 75 minutes) and I particularly felt that the ending could be pruned so that we reached the conclusion rather quicker. At a certain point it become obvious what the conclusion is going to be and I think Dove and Middleton do not really gain anything from delaying this.
Dove’s orchestration is, by and large, respecting of the singers and there was little sense of them having to strain over the orchestra. In this they were helped by David Parry, very much a singers conductor. That said, from where we were sitting in the front of the upper circle the diction was very unsatisfactory. The piece was rightly played without surtitles but I often had to strain to apprehend the words, perhaps it would have been different lower down in the theatre.
The Adventures of Pinocchio is a beautifully constructed opera, very much in the traditional mould which means that it fits very well into the schedule of a company like Opera North. The opera also seems to fulfil its roles as a family piece, the performance we went to was full of parents and children all of whom seemed to enjoy the piece and it kept their attention until the end.
If I came out, at the end, charmed rather than overwhelmed by a masterpiece, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Adventures of Pinocchio is very much a useful piece and I can forsee it having a long history of Christmas performances.
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