Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Daniel Taylor at the Wigmore Hall

The London Handel Festival decamped to the Wigmore Hall on Friday for a recital entitled Famous Castrati Arias for Sensino and his rivals, given by counter-tenor Daniel Taylor and the London Handel Orchestra directed by Adrian Butterfield.

They opened with a crisp account of Concerto Grosso opus 6 no. 5. With only 12 strings the sound was lithe and lively rather than luxuriant, but this fitted in well with the Wigmore Hall's chamber music ethos, and you could hardly have fitted many more people on stage. Afterwards they were joined by Rachel Brown for Telemann's Flute Concerto in D major, TWV51:D3. An attractive and charming piece that just lacked the memorability of Handel's best pieces.

Then Daniel Taylor sang two arias from Rodelinda. First the accompagnato Pompe vane di morte followed by the aria Dove Sei, then Unolfo's Act 3 aria, Un zeffiro spiro where they are also joined by Rachel Brown on recorder.

Taylor has an attractive bright voice with just a hint of glare at the top when under pressure. He has a naturally dramatic presence coupled with a lively and vivid way with the music. He sang from memory and was instantly communicative whilst still being musical. Despite the drama of his performance, there was still a fine sense of line and good detail.

The second half opened with the 8th concerto from the Opus 6 set, again in a lively and lithe performance. Taylor followed this with a brilliant performance of Cara Sposa from Rinaldo. Though written for Nicolini, Senesino sang the aria at a revival of Rinaldo in 1731. The printed programme concluded with a pair of Tolomeo's arias from Giulio Cesare. Taylor's Tolomeo was certainly not effete, but nasty and vicious. Both arias were vividly done and one could not have looked for more drama coupled with musicianship.

Taylor spoke between each group of arias, introducing them and relating anecdotes from his previous performances. He has a natural and winning manner and his spoken introductions helped make the concert something special. As an encore he did an aria from The Choice of Hercules, again joined by Rachel Taylor's recorder.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Edinburgh Festival 2009

Edinburgh Festival has announced its programme for 2009 which, predictably, includes a decent amount of Handel. More eyebrow raising is the fact that the opening concert, conducted by William Christie, will feature the oratorio Judas Maccabeus, which was written by Handel as part of the tub-thumping surrounding the Duke of Cumberland's post-1745 campaigns.

A sign of the times is the fact that Rinaldo and Acis und Galatea are being giving in concert form rather than staged. Rinaldo is being performed by the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suziki with a cast including Robin Blaze. Acis is being done by Nicholas McGeegan and Göttingen forces and features Mendelssohn's version of the work, which McGeegan his forces have recorded. Also featured are concert performances of Verdi's Macbeth with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Wagner's Flying Dutchman from Hamburg with Franz Grundheber and Eva Johansson. Plus The Sixteen doing Purcell's The Fairy Queen.

Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses is being staged with the puppet company Handspring, directed by artist William Kentridge. A fascinating idea, but I can't help feeling they should have chosen a more intractable work, e.g. The Fairy Queen, which would have responded well to such a staging.

The only Full opera staging is Handel's Admeto, which will come hot foot from the productions premiere at Göttingen. Nicholas McGeegan conducts and director Dorris Dorie is setting the work in a Japanese samurai world, so that when Alceste returns from Hades she acquires a spirit-ghost played by a Butoh dancer. Interesting? Perhaps? Still Tim Mead is singing Admeto.

Also being staged is a programme of Bach cantatas from Stuttgart under the general title of Actus Tragicus. The production sets the music against the background of an ordinary rooming house with a cross section of everyday tasks. (Another hmmm for this one I'm afraid).

The Royal Ballet of Flanders is also doing The Return of Ulysses, but in this case the ballet has no relationship to Monteverdi, music is by Purcell along with songs from the 1940's and 50's.


There are some notable concerts. A programme of early evening Bach programmes at Greyfriars. And a programme of Gaelic Psalm singing with singers from Lewis, certainly a programme which would come very high on my list of desired options.

Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Ghent are doing Mendelssohn's Elias, but as there only seem to be 4 soloists they get a black mark. Jordi Savall and the Concert des Nations are doing a programme of Handel and Marin Marais, but the Handel's the Water and Fire music I'm afraid.
Sir Charles Mackerras is doing Haydn's Seven Last Words in the oratorio version, with a work by Giorgio Battistelli in the same programme.

The RSNO under Stephane Deneve give us Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette complete.

Chamber music and vocal recitals include Jordi Savall's Hesperion XXI, Christopher Maltman, Bejun Mehta in a wide ranging vocal recital, Macmillan's Seven Last Words and much much more.

In terms of large scale staged opera, the festival is not quite as impressive as it used to be in the 70's but in terms of sheer breadth and variety it seems to have recovered something of its old poise.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the Laudantes Consort's disc of Bruckner and Durufle Requiems is here.
Creditable even if not ideal ...

And my review of Pietro Vinci's Ricercars played on an historic Sicilian organ is here.
More of a disc to dip into than to play in its entirety ...

An a disc of Strauss songs sung by Karita Mattila and Christine Schaefer is here. All three are on MusicWeb International.
Not ideal but comes moderately close and gives us some superb Strauss singing ...

Monday, 23 March 2009

Roayl Ballet double Bill

To the Royal Ballet on Friday to see the double bill of MacMillan's Isadora and Jerome Robbins Dances at a gathering.

I saw Isadora when it was new, when it was a 2 act ballet which used a dancer (Merle Park I believe) and an actress to play Isadora and mixed spoken and dance sections. It was interested, but never seemed to gel. Now MacMillan's widow has digested it down into a single act of just over an hour. The staging uses a lot of film, much of it archive, along with Nichola McAuliffe's recorded voice as Isadora. The result flows a little better, but it still seemed disjointed and the dance never seemed to get time to build. Each number followed by spoken dialogue and film, effectively meant that any emotional tension was dispersed.

The same is true of Richard Rodney Bennett's score, which never seemed to develop much of a life of its own. It was not helped by the fact that some of the big numbers needed pastiche music (which Bennett does very well). But the more serious moments never seemed to have the emotional pull that the best bits of his Edward II score, for David Bintley, did.

I'm afraid that Isadora seems to be an honourable failure. We have to admit that MacMillan, if he had lived, would undoubtedly cast the work into a rather different form.

The companion piece was Jerome Robbins Dances at a Gathering. Set to Chopin piano pieces, 5 couples dance solos, duets and ensembles. The language is classical with some wry touches of humour. But after 40 minutes, though the dancers exhibited poise, grace and wit, I wanted something more; I longed for the Revolutionary Prelude, something which stretched the emotions somewhat. The ballet was enormously popular with the audience. But at around an hour and a quarter, it had left me behind long before the end.

LFO Concert

My review of the London Festival Orchestra concert at the Cadogan Hall, with pianist Martyna Jatkauskaite is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Mendelssohn's charming adaptation of Handel's Acis and Galatea is here, on MusicWeb International.

A convincing and charming case for Mendelssohn’s delightful reworking ...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Review of "The Magic Flute"

My review of ETO's Magic Flute is here, along with a selection of pictures, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Wouldn't you know it.


My choir, London Concord Singers, are busy rehearsing for a concert at the Grosvenor Chapel on Thursday 26th March. The programme consists of a group of motets by birthday boy Mendelssohn, motets by Morales, Gesualdo, Victoria, Monteverdi and Cecilia McDowall, plus Bach's Jesu, meine Freude.

Ironically, it turns out that another group is performing the same Bach motet, in the same venue, 5 days earlier (on Saturday 21st March). Still the remainder of their programme could not be more different, as they are doing a programme of contemporary Polish music including Penderecki's Stabat Mater

Monday, 16 March 2009

On Saturday we caught the first chunk of the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Rusalka from the Met. Unfair, I know, to judge a performance from its first couple of scenes (we heard Rusalka and Jerzibaba but not the Prince).

I know that Renee Fleming gained plaudits for her recording of Rusalka with Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm. But her account of the song to the moon was pure diva. It was too slow and seemed to be milked for nearly every ounce of 'expression'. The result made Fleming sound far too old for the character, too mature. By contrast Stephanie Blythe sounded wonderful as the witch, beautifully focussed with a nice sense of line and definite malevolence. Her performance made me want to continue to listen!

Which I couldn't, of course, because we were en route to the Hackney Empire for The Magic Flute, part of English Touring Opera's Spring season. A review will appear in due course.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

From this month's Opera

Gleaning from the March issue of Opera magazine.

In the feature article, Michael Tanner considers something which I've long felt to be true, that concert performances of operas can be profoundly satisfying.

The interview is with Veronique Gens. Evidently her family hails from the Auvergne, where her grandmother had a house, so she is well placed to record the Canteloube; certainly makes me want to dash out and buy her recording on Naxos. Opera speculates that she must be one of the few international sopranos who can milk a cow!

Gens seems to prove the adage that the French don't like French singers, she has never sung at the Opera or the Chatelet in Paris. But in Brussels she'll be doing Iphigenie (en Aulide) where Pierre Audi is planning to do both Iphigenies in the same evening. Why? I remember when David Freeman did it, with Marie Angel. Both operas were cut and neither seemed to relate to the other.

Also, joy of joys, Gens is returning to Covent Garden to sing the title role in Agostino Steffani's Niobe. No, I've never heard of it either. Steffani was an older contemporary of Handel's, and may have helped him get his job in Hanover. Interesting Steffani wrote a Hamlet opera, now that would be interesting!

There is also an article celebrating ETO's 30th anniversary; in fact this week their Spring season starts at the Hackney empire and we're off to see The Magic Flute on Saturday. Their recent roster of operas has been impressively catholic, including quite a lot of Janacek and Handel, alongside early Italians like Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and a forthcoming series of concerts of Norma. Last tour they did Rusalka and the Peter Brook derangement of Carmen. In fact the Rusalka evidently sold better than the Carmen; nor surprising really because the Dvorak was the better production I think.

In Austria, Toby Spence was doing Tom Rakewell; now why couldn't we have heard him doing it in the new Covent Garden production. As I never want to see that production again, I do hope someone else in the UK casts him in the role. Still in Austria, it is 45 years since Strauss's Intermezzo has been done in Vienna. Still in Vienna, there was a staging of Oscar Straus's mDie lustige Nibelungen, now why can't UK opera companies put this on as a Satyr Play epilogue to their Ring cycles.

Over in Ghent, a new production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia cast mainly with Dutch or Flemish singers; good to see that such works are getting cast with non-anglophone singers.

And in Toulouse, Enescu's Oedipe, an opera that I have always wanted to hear and entirely failed to. But this performance was the first fully staged performance in France since the opera's creation, so I'm not going to hold my breath regarding seeing it. Couldn't some enterprising company borrow the production? (Too expensive probably).

And in Germany the Komischer Oper, Berlin, did La Traviata in German with a cast hailing from Ireland, Wales and Greece; not surprisingly not much of the German came over.

Another opera I've always missed in the theatre, Marschner's Der Vampyr cropped up in Bologna of all places, in a new production by Pier Luigi Pizzi. For these performances they included a cabaletta written by the 20-year old Wagner for the tenor's big Act 2 aria.

Over in Mexico they did enterprisingly did Acis and Galatea, but in Spanish.

And in New York, Opera in the Heights offered the very 19th century programme of Don Pasquale, preceded by the 1st act of Lucia di Lammermoor - what a combination. And at the Met, Stephanie Blythe sang Orfeo. Blythe was also Dalila in Pittsburgh. Wonderful to find that in some places, body fascism absent.

New York City Opera gave a concert performance of Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. Another opera that I've always missed. Unfortunately Martin Bernheimer's view of the work has rather put me off.

In the We hear that... column:-
Richard Jones will be doing a new Il Trittico at Covent Garden with Anja Harteros as Suor Angelica, in 2011.

Jonas Kaufman will sing Parsifal at the Met in 2013-13 in a new production shared with Lyon.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Recent CD reviews

My review of the re-issue of Gothic Voices The Voice in the Garden is here.
Listen again and re-tune your ears ...

And my review of a highlights disc from Hasse's Cleofide (which shares a libretto with Handel's Poro) is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
An attractive and finely sung disc ...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Nuclear Scientists view of 'Dr Atomic'

The Guardian has an interesting account of what a modern date Nuclear Physicist thinks of John Adams opera Dr Atomic, the Guardian article is here.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Our concert on Saturday had a good appreciative audience and we were very pleased with the performance. No recording I'm afraid, but the new setting of Lucis Creator Optime went very well; as anticipated the bitonal textures worked very well in the rich acoustic of St. Mary's Church.

It was interesting singing one to a part in such an acoustic, it seemed to lend a clarity to the textures which you don't get when using a bigger group.

The Aston Gaude, mater matris Christi and the Fayrfax Magnificat Regale were both large-scale, quite long complex numbers which proved somewhat tiring to perform. But achieving a conductorless performance with just 6 of us was, I think, a significant achievement.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

I Fagiolini at Cadogan Hall

On Thursday we were in the Cadogan Hall for the latest in their Choral at Cadogan series, this time I Fagiolini with a fascinating programme which spanned Carnival and Lent. For the first half, we were presented with a number of Venetian Carnival items then in the second half Tallis's Lamentations and Gesualdo's Responsories for Good Friday. This made it a tricky programme for the singers, going from the light-hearted foolery of Vecchi's L'Amfiparnaso to the controlled anguish of Gesualdo's late style. But Robert Hollingworth and his group managed it superbly.

All the first half items were staged, against a back drop of an Italian street and for the scenes from L'Amfiparnaso the actors used masks. I use the word actors advisedly as Vecchi's music was not designed to be sung on stage but used as an accompaniment, so the singers sat at the side whilst other singers mimed with Hollingworth himself as a Pantalone and William Purefoy as a hilarious whore. A couple of the comic works by Croce and Banchieri were sung in English versions by Timothy Knapmna. Knapman also wrote English rhyming introductions to the scenes from L'Amfiparnaso and these were delightfully spoken by Kit Hesketh-Hervey.

The 2nd half opened with a haunting account of Tallis's Lamentations. Given the slightly dry, un-church-like acoustic of the Cadogan Hall, the performance needed to be all the more controlled and gave us a hint of what the private, non-liturgical performances of this piece might have been like in the Elizabethan era. This was followed by Clemens non papa's Fremuit spiritus Iesu, in a terrific performance. Then finally the 5 Gesualdo responsories, the lights of the auditorium gradually dimming until the final Tenebrae.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of cantatas by Handel, Hasse and J.S.Bach, including Emma Kirkby singing Silete Venti is here, on Music Web International.
A delightful programme ...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Review of "Tosca"

Opera Holland Park rather enterprisingly presented their recent production of Puccini's Tosca at Richmond Theatre. We saw the last night of the run on Sunday 1st March.

The production, directed by Stephen Barlow and designed by Yannis Thavoris, was an object lesson in how to present an opera on a budget. The production's brilliance lay not so much in the decision to stage the piece in 1968 using a single set for all 3 acts, but in the way Barlow made the details of his production mesh with the updating. As ever, the devil is in the detail.

The best updating of Tosca for me remains the Scottish Opera production from the late 1970's which relocated the action to Fascist Italy. But Barlow's new production gives it a close run.

Barlow sets the piece in 1968 against the background of political turmoil, Angelotti (Paul Reeves) and Cavaradossi (Sean Ruane) become hippyish student protesters, reacting against the oppressive local regime of the Mafioso political boss, Scarpia (Nicholas Garrett). The location must be a small town, rather than Rome, but Scarpia is a political operative who has the town sewn up. The backdrop is the local election, which is regarded as a foregone conclusion (as was usually the case at the time in Southern Italy). This sort of detail evidently reflects the type of political control that actually did happen. It is the election, rather than a war, which causes the Te Deum and Cavaradossi's Vittoria outbreak in Act 2.

The set consists of the piazza outsite of the church and the Te Deum is half political rally, with a religious processing leading into the church. The result is theatrically far more satisfactory than the rather lame religious processions going nowhere which often constitute the end of Act 1 of the opera. Nicholas Garrett does not make an obvious Scarpia, he is slighter and far more attractive than most singers in the role. His voice does not easily dominate the stage, yet, but his interpretation grew in stature and you came to believe in his dangerously attractive Mafia boss. He was the type who hides real violence under a stylish exterior. Barlow built on this, making Amanda Echalaz's Tosca struggle with an obvious attraction to the man, despite his dangerous nature.

The area round the church was bestrewn political and other posters, many advertising Scarpia's party and others advertising the singing of Tosca. Sean Ruane's Cavaradossi is doing a huge chalk picture of the Magdalene on the pavement outside the church, a neat solution. Ruane has an attractive Italianate voice and managed to look the part of an artistic drop out.

For Act 2, Scarpia is having his dinner at the Trattoria next to the church, run by his henchman Sciarrone (Henry Grant Kerswell). Spoleta (Benjamin Segal) is a policement and the other men are dubious be-suited types. The Trattoria functions as some sort of unofficial HQ for Scarpia and Cavaradossi is taken into the kitchens to be tortured with a blow-touch. All very convincing and typical of the type of operative that Scarpia is. We overhear Tosca's performance on TV rather than through a window. The actors all made this work, neatly, beautifully and dramatically. You did not feel that you were seeing an awkward updating but a real version of Tosca.

The scene between Tosca and Scarpia was brilliant, really dangerous and sexy. Neither singer quite managed to make you believe this was real and not just acting (few can do that), but they came very close and achieved something striking.

For Act 3 we were still outside the church and, in lieu of an execution, Scarpia's men were planning to simply shoot Cavaradossi, put him into an abandoned car and torch it. At the opening of the act Sciarrone's son (Daniel Harraghy) sings the shepherd boy's song as he brings early morning supplies to the Trattoria. He finds Scarpia's body but panics, hides it again and runs away to fetch his father; it is of course Sciarrone who raises the hue and cry after Scarpia's death in the opera, an example of Barlow's neat way with detail.

In many ways this was a traditional staging of Tosca, Barlow did not try to do anything alarmingly different with the characters. He simply fitted them into his new scenario and allowed it to illuminate things. At the end Tosca immolates herself on the abandoned car using the petrol intended for Cavaradossi.

Amanda Echalaz will be doing Tosca and Liu at ENO in 2009/10. Her Tosca is still relatively light voiced, a young singer rather than a mature one; Echalaz makes the character impulsive, not inclined to the grand diva manner. This was reflected in her musical performance. Her account of Vissi d'arte was touching.

Sean Ruane has a lovely voice and sang Cavaradossi's arias with good open tone, a fine sense of line and musicality. He was a little bit solid, I could have done with more dramatic flexibility, more light and shade. This was reflected in his voice where he seemed to only be able to sing loud or soft. His singing sounded lovely, but I wanted a bit more subtlety.

As I have mentioned, Nicholas Garrett does not yet have the heft required for the really big moments, such as the end of Act 1. But he applied himself musically and dramatically, really making the role work on his term. His scene with Tosca in Act 2 was electric.

The remaining cast were all impressive and formed a cohesive ensemble. I could have wished that stage management had found some fake tan, they all made very pasty Southern Italians!

The City of London Sinfonia under Phillip Thomas gave a convincing and flexible performance of Tony Burke's orchestral reduction. The acoustic at the Richmond Theatre is not ideal, with the orchestra in the stalls, out in front of the stage, and there were moments when the orchestral sound was a bit underpowered. But the musicians generally made us hardly miss the fuller orchestral version.

I hope that Opera Holland Park revive this production again. It is not necessarily my perfect Tosca, but it is certainly a brilliant solution to a particular set of problem, brilliantly executed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009