Saturday, 28 May 2011

Scottish Opera 2011/12

For their new season Scottish opera continued to be constrained by financial issues, so that there are only 4 major operas. But within these constraints the season is not without interest. The main operas are The Barber of Seville, Handel and Gretel, The Rakes Progress and Tosca.

The Rossini is a welcome revival of Thomas Allen's 2007 production. Hansel and Gretel will be directed by Bill Bankes-Jones, with Aiulih Tynan as Gretel and the Estonian Mezzo, Kai Ruutel as Hansel. David McVicar will be directing his first Rakes Progress, with Edgaras Montvidas as the Rake and Carolyn Sampson, better known for her Baroque repertoire, as Anne Truelove; Steven Page is Nick Shadow. Tosca is a revival of the wonderful 1980 Anthony Besch production, set in Fascist Rome. I have happy memories of seeing this when it was new, now it is being revived with Susannah Glanville as Tosca.

But in addition to there are a number of smaller operas, to enliven the season. Brecht and Weill's Seven Deadly Sins is being given as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe directed by choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones. Music Theatre Wales are bringing their production of Mark Anthony Turnage's Greek. And Orpheus in the Underworld goes on an extensive tour in a small scale production, with reduced orchestra (and piano accompaniment in some places), 17 venues in all.

Friday, 27 May 2011

St. John's Waterloo Festival

St. John's Church, Waterloo, a church that we have used many times both as a venue and as a rehearsal space, is having a Festival to mark the 60th anniversary of the church's re-building after the war. The theme of the festival is War and People and lasts from 7th to 12th July. The programme mixes concerts, art, walks and community events.

Tenor Simon Biazeck and pianist Paul Webster give a lunchtime recital on 8th July with a group of Tippett arrangements of Purcell, Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and Tippett's Songs for Ariel. A thoughtful and exciting programme. On Sunday 10th there is a festival service with a new commission from Richard Chew.

Another lunchtime concert, on 12th July, features some of Bridge's Tagore settings, lovely songs which deserve to be better known; these are partnered with songs by Henri Duparc and Ivor Novello and the Bridge Cello Sonata. All performed by Paul Turner (piano), Caroline Dearnley(cello), Vivien Munday (soprano).

The art exhibitions include a display of Hans Feibusch's preparatory drawing for his 1951 murals in the church

Feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury

Today is the Feast of St. Augustine of Canterburyjavascript:void(0) and to celebrate, Vespers at Westminster Cathedral will be sung jointly by the choirs of Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

Magnificat primi toni - Bevan
Surrexit a mortuis - Widor
Regina cæli a 5 - Victoria
Organ: Carillon de Westminster Vierne

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Review of Ariodante at the Barbican

Last night Alan Curtis and his ensemble, Il Complesso Barocco, on the 3rd leg of a short tour they are doing, performing Handel's Ariodante to link in with the release of the ensemble's recording of the opera. Thankfully all 6 main cast members were identical to those on the recording. And what a cast it was. The American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sang Ariodante with Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin as Ginevra. Fellow Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux was back in her baroque trousers as Polinesso (having sung Vivaldi's Orlando here recently) and Spanish soprano Sabina Puertolas was Dalinda. With Matthew Brook (Australian) as the King and Nicholas Phan (American) as Lurcanio. The scheduled Odoardo was ill and replaced by Sam Furness who is currently studying at the Royal Academy.

Curtis and his forces gave us a full version of the opera, complete with the ballet which closes Act 2. This meant for a long evening (6.30pm to 10.15pm with one 20 minute interval), but it was an entirely engrossing one. Though the cast used scores, they were not glued to them and DiDonato in particular hardly seemed to need hers. All reacted to each other, sang duets together and enlivened the drama with facial expressions and gestures. Not a semi-staging, but an extremely expressive concert performance, which helped the cast's creation of individual characters.

DiDonato's Ariodante was astonishing, traversing the character's arc from connubial bliss, through despair to brilliant joy. Not just her voice was expressive, but her whole body language. It is difficult to pick out high points because each aria stood out in its own way. Scherza infida, with its haunting bassoon, was certainly moving and engrossing, time seemed to stand still. But the bravura final aria was thrilling, with DiDonato's familiar expressive way with fioriture. A vividly dramatic portrayal, fully rounded and highly satisfying.

Ariodante was written for the soprano castrato Carestini, a singer who was highly adept at the busy, instrumental style of vocal writing which we find in many of Vivaldi's operas. Handel showed himself equally adept, providing Carestini with a string of challenging virtuoso pieces. DiDonato showed us how a truly gifted singer can move from simple virtuosity and find the real expressiveness in the music.

But the cast was finely balanced and DiDonato's performance was complemented and supported by equally fine ones from the other principals. Karina Gauvin has a richer voice with rather more depth than we are used to in Ginevra, but she doesn't compromise on technical ability. So her reading of Ginevra was suitably brilliant and bravura, but also extremely moving, mining depths of emotion. In particular her aria at the end of Act 2 was one of the stunning moments in a strong performance. She and DiDonato formed a strong double act with a genuine rapport, they were a believable couple.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux is a very physical performer and with a character like Polinesso this gave us a highly coloured and vivid interpretation. Sometimes I thought that she needed a strong producer to rein her in and focus her a little, but these were faults in the right direction and she ensured that there were as strong and noticeable contrast between the two mezzo-soprano voices singing the principal male roles. But Lemieux's Polinesso wasn't a caricature, there was some strong, expressive singing.

Sabina Puertolas was a charming Dalinda, suitably soubrette in voice and forming a nice contrast with Gauvin. There was an element of reticence in her performance which did charm, but she could have been a little showier. That said, her sense of Handelian style and technical finesse were both extremely fine and she too developed a strong rapport with her lover, Gauvin.

It is astonishing that John Beard was only 20 when he created the role of Lurcanio. Obviously Beard was something special as Handel gave him some stunning arias, despite the character's lack of real dramatic importance. Nicholas Phan made us forget any of these issues as he turned in a series of sparkling bravura performances.

Matthew Brook was a fine, noble King, truly torn when Ginevra is apparently guilty of being unchaste. He made the King's arias something special, something worth listening to rather than simply being way stations that you were eager to get past.

Sam Furness sang the small, but important part of Odoardo; a role with no aria, but one which requires the singer to expedite some of the drama in the recitative. Furness was a credit to his training and displayed an attractive, unforced lyric voice.

Il Complesso Barocco under Curtis's relaxed direction, provided some fine solo instrumental playing, good lively support in the arias and nicely expressive playing in the orchestral items.

This was indeed an evening to remember. An example of what good opera seria can be and surely will have sent out the whole audience to buy the group's recent recording!

Review of Clemency

My review of James MacMillan's Clemency is now up on the OperaToday web-site, here.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Poet wanted

Having got my most recent opera out, I've decided I need to start looking for the next one; hopefully it won't take 10 years this time. So I'm looking for a librettist or a poet with whom to collaborate. I've got ideas for a new work but really need someone to help with the words, particularly a poet.

Review of A Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

How to avoid Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream becoming simply cute; that is a problem all directors face. In the play, a director has the freedom of working with adults. Bill Bryden's National Theatre production created fascinating amoral creatures whose presence on stage was ubiquitous; and there is evidence that in Shakespeare's time the Mechanicals may have doubled as Fairies.

But in Britten's opera the director is constrained by the fact that the fairies are, of necessity, young boys. We have all seen productions of the opera where time constraints have meant the fairy chorus did little other than line up in serried ranks. For his new production at the London Coliseum (which I saw at the premiere on Thursday 19th May) Christopher Alden seems to have taken this as his starting point; if the fairies are played by school boys then lets make them school boys. After all Britten is known to have had a series of close, platonic relationships with school boys. And to a certain extent this is valid, the Britten's fairies are not cute and there is certainly a disturbing element underlying the opera.

Alden and his designers, Charles Edwards (sets) and Sue Wilmington (costumes), set the opera in a 1950's school. The single set is a profoundly grim, grey school yard bordered by a 2 storey building, classrooms glimpsed through the corridors. The prevailing look of the opera is grey, with little colour and only during Pyramus and Thisbe do we have any significant colour.

At the opening, in silence, a man wanders round the stage, apparently re-visiting his old school. He finally sits down on the ground and falls asleep. He is joined by a teenage boy (Puck, Jamie Manton) who sits down next to him and echoes his position. Puck seems to be the Stray Man's younger self. But throughout the next two acts the Stray Man remains a silent participant and observer of the action, watching his younger self.

The schoolboy fairies, all in neat school uniform, file into the class-rooms standing at the windows. Oberon appears at one window. Iestyn Davies was ill with a throat/chest infection so he acted the role and William Towers sang it from a side box. Given that much of Oberon's action was limited and he appeared mainly in the classroom at the rear of the set or down-stage left (Alden's favourite position for the teachers to lurk in the school yard), it was a shame some way of having Towers shadow Davies could not have been found. Oberon is in buttoned up 1950's dress and smokes a lot.

Tytania (Anna Christie) appears at another window, she seems to be the music mistress. We are in Alden land so all is severe and the singers actions are stiff and stylised. Tytania is profoundly severe and unsympathetic in looks and this rather spilled over into her vocal delivery. The Changeling Boy (Dominic Williams) is her favourite pupil, one whom Oberon desires. Puck isn't Oberon's henchman, but his previous favourite, sullenly still doing Oberon's bidding but jealous and surly. This Puck never goes anywhere, but lurks in the school yard, observing Oberon's pursuit of the Changeling Boy. Oberon's magic is an apparently never-ending supply of cigarettes laced with wacky-baccy.

The lovers are also school children. We first encounter Lysander (Allan Clayton) and Hermia (Tamara Gura) lurking behind the school dust-bins. They never flee either. Demetrius (Benedict Nelson) is a rugger bugger with co-horts who jeer at Helena's (Kate Valentine) pursuit of him.

Here we hit a problem. Britten saw the three groups (Fairies, Lovers, Mechanicals) as different, belonging to separate worlds and each affected differently by the magic wood. He used musical means to differentiate between them. Alden blurred this, making both the Fairies and the Lovers be school-kids. Further blurring occurs, though some of the Mechanicals are school handymen, some are teachers like Oberon and Tytania.

At the Mechanicals meeting in act 1, Bottom (Willard White) sits on a stool and sews costumes. Alden seems to have made a most determined effort to subvert the usual portrayal of Bottom, but the result is simply glum. In trying to avoid the standard hackneyed portrayal, Alden has produced the most unfunny and laboured mechanicals that I had ever seen. It wasn't helped that Leo Hussain's speeds sometimes seemed on the steady side, with some passages rather over deliberate.

Tytania's bower was simply her luring in the school yard smoking with Oberon. The production as a whole had rather a lot of lurking and over portentous stylised movement.

In Act 2 the waccy-backy starts to take over. After a whiff of it, Bottom starts stripping off. There is no asses head, the horrified reaction of the Mechanicals seems overdone and pointless, surely the sight of Willard White's bare torso isn't that bad. Tytania follows suit, to reveal a very sensible bra, and they start a highly sexual encounter watched by the schoolboys. These are now transformed, all ripped clothing, shades and drinking. Bad boys indeed, we seem to be channelling Lindsay Anderson's film If. Mustard Seed and co. spend rather a lot of time tying the Stray Man up to one of the rubbish bins, whilst Tytania and Bottom's encounter turns sado-masochistic.

When the four lovers appear for the final scenes of Act 2, Alden seems to be channelling Lindsay Kemp as the four flirt rather coyly with polymorphous sexuality; as with much else in the production, Alden produced something which was self-conscious in its daring and rather than edgy, surely he could have followed Lindsay Kemp completely and had the lovers exploring all possible couplings in a more committed fashion. Finally when Oberon sends Puck off to get the four lovers, Puck torches the school.

But these echoes of If chime badly with Britten's score and for the finale of Act 2 Alden is reduced to parading the boys in front of the burning school and having the Stray Man meet a Mystery Woman. All very portentous. But we've looked at the cast list and finally worked out that the Stray Man is in fact Theseus (Paul Whelan) reliving his school days.

Alden's operatic fantasy on If comes to a grinding halt in Act 3, Britten's opera just doesn't go there. The first 2 acts certainly have uncomfortable echoes of man-boy interaction, which deserve exploring. But in being so very literal, Alden leaves himself with a problem. He solves this by having the Lovers and the Mechanicals all lost in a maze on stage, with Oberon and Tytania lurking in their usual position, down-stage left. The reconciliations are done in a dream-like way with large chunks of the nothing happening on-stage. Oberon and Tytania do finally dance off, with the music being provided by the fairies now conducted by the Changeling Boy.

The Lovers re-appear now dressed as young adults and join Theseus and Hippolyta (Catherine Young) in one of the boxes to watch the entertainment.

Pyramus and Thisbe was simply vulgar and crude. Alden's determination to break the mould led him to drop the operatic send-up in the mini-opera and replace it by vulgar farce. Starveling (Simon Butteriss) constantly moons at the stage audience, Snout (Peter van Hulle) is drunk, loses his clothes, pees on stage, Snug (Graeme Danby) is a thug who rapes Flute as Thisbe (Michael Colvin), with Jonathan Veira's Quince trying to keep order. The Bergamasque Dance is done in front of the drop and has them pretending to be a 1950's skiffle band.

For the closing scenes we are back to the opening. As Theseus has stayed behind and lurks during the wondrous closing music. Oberon's final words are sung directly to Theseus, telling him to leave. The balance in the ensemble, Now until the break of day, was distinctly odd, perhaps because the boys, Oberon and Tytania were all so spread out. Having Oberon and Tytania deliver so much of their material up-stage from within the school was a mistake as it left them so far from the audience, and from the conductor.

Leo Hussain seem to encourage some slightly odd moments of balance within the orchestra, particularly with the percussion. But the orchestra played well for him.

I came out of the theatre feeling numb and depressed. Quite a few of the audience left at the interval and when Alden came on stage there was a good mixture of boos and bravos, Alden's smirk seemed to say it all. The production was a success if it stirred things up, no matter how distant from Britten's conception.

All might have been acceptable if Alden had got coruscating performances from the singers. I have seen plenty of productions which I have come to like because the director has achieve such strong performances, even though I disliked the concept. Here, the Lovers sang well enough but I never quite believed them as people, the sight and sound just didn't gell.

And in many ways Alden just didn't go far enough, the production needed real edge and daring. Once you got over the shock of the concept, there was little else; perhaps Alden found himself limited by what you can do if you are working with children on stage.

William Towers sang beautifully as Oberon. The role lies rather low for many modern counter-tenors and you often get to hear rather a lot of gear changes. Not with Towers, he produced beautifully even and seamless tone from top to bottom. I would love to hear him to the piece on stage, perhaps not here though. Things might improve dramatically when Iestyn Davies gets his voice back, so that there is more obvious interaction between him and Tytania and Puck. Anna Christe sang Tytania efficiently but without much charm in the voice. I have only profound admiration for Jamie Manton. He is an ex treble who has appeared on the operatic and theatrical stage. His Puck was finely declaimed, and he did everything that Alden required of him.

Ultimately I come back to my thoughts on Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust. In that production it seemed simplistically reductive to simply make Hell a Nazi fantasy. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, by making the school connection to realistically definite, Alden seems to have been similarly reductive. Surely there is a more effective way of exploring the disturbing undertones of this opera. I didn't find the production disturbing and, rather worryingly, it seemed in danger of becoming boring.

I am fast coming to the conclusion that A Midsummer Nights Dream does not really work in a theatre this size. Most of my most memorable encounters with the work have been in far smaller theatres (Toby Robertson's Scottish Opera production anyone?).

Thursday, 19 May 2011

ENO new season

ENO have announced their 2011/12 season and it is a mixture of delights and disappointments.

Headline news is that Tom Morris will be directing the first UK staging of John Adams The Death of Klinghoffer, thus filling an important and significant gap in UK opera life. Three other contemporary operas will be receiving their premieres and here lies the mixture of delight and an element of disappointment. Benedict Andrews makes a welcome return after his fine Return of Ulysses and will direct Detlev Glanert's Caligula. And Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz will be directed by Sam Brown at the new Hampstead Theatre. The final contemporary premiere is part of the 2012 Olympic celebration; Rufus Norris will direct Damon Albarn's Doctor Dee.

Now each of the above operas is interesting and in some ways important, it will be good to hear them. But somewhere along the line we seem to have lost the commitment to contemporary British opera. Damon Albarn is perfectly entitled to write an opera and it may well be a fine work, but for ENO's season to select a piece by someone from the pop world and ignore music by most of the toilers at the British operatic coal face seems vastly unfair.

There is one other significant premiere, a 20th century one this time. Miecyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger which makes a welcome appearance in David Poutney's Bregenz production.

The other new productions are, with one exception, renewals of the core repertoire. Fiona Shaw directs The Marriage of Figaro, hurrah! Deborah Warner is in charge of Eugene Onegin, an opera which ENO seems to have been particularly cavalier with new productions. But whose to complain when the cast consists of Amanda Echalaz, Toby Spence and Audun Iversen (who recently was boring Albert in Covent Garden's revival of Werther -I must add that Albert is supposed to be boring).

Richard Jones is having a go at The Tales of Hoffman, something of a grave-yard for directors as it is surprisingly difficult to get right. Jones has a strong cast, Barry Banks, Gerogia Jarman (as the heroines), Clive Bayley (as the villains), Christine Rice as Muse/Nikolauss and Simon Butteriss as the character tenor. There is no word on the ENO web-site about what editions they are using. ENO have a tradition of sticking to the spoken dialogue version and using innovative and up to date musical editions, so here's hoping. But Hoffman is an opera which needs editing, you can't just perform everything the composer wrote as he died before it was finished. The list is completed with David Alden doing Billy Budd and Jonathan Kent The Flying Dutchman. The last is perhaps the most interesting, Rameau's Castor et Pollux directed by Barry Kosky. This represents a rare London's serious staging of a Rameau opera.

There are just 4 revivals, Tosca, Der Rosenkavalier, The Elixir of Love and Madam Butterfly. Der Rosenkavalier is notable for Amanda Roocroft's first Marschallin, something to be certainly looked forward too. I think I would have liked a few more revivals, giving directors the chance to re-work productions. Surely a British dramatic soprano could have been found to take on Turandot? And how about an account of Lucia di Lammermoor which uses a voice as dramatic as Sutherland's rather than Anna Christy's accurate but rather little girl coloratura?

This is in many ways an ambitious season, but if any discernible direction can be detected it seems to represent ENO moving firmly towards a more European position, with it looking less and less like the English National opera. The management seem to be worryingly wedded to the idea of constantly renewing the core repertoire. Yes, The Passenger is a worthy addition but they had a perfectly serviceable Eugene Onegin in Julia Hollander's production so couldn't we have had one of Tchaikovsky's lesser know operas. Having had Lucrezia Borgia this season, then Italian bel canto is back to being restricted to Donizetti comedies. Isn't it about time someone offered Claire Rutter a Norma in a big house, to complement her successful assumption of the role at Grange Park. And in a house responsible for so much lively and innovative staging, isn't it about time that Meyerbeer's sacred monster's were addressed. Covent Garden tried to do it by importing John Dew's production of Les Huguenots in the '90s, with conspicuous lack of success, but someone needs to try again.

But for me, the biggest lack is British opera. Not dim Victoriana and English cow-pat. I'd love to see RVW's The Pilgrim's Progress but realise it is not sufficiently sexy. But how about all those post war operas which have had one outing and never been seen since. Instead of pursuing contemporary German opera, surely ENO would be better employed looking at opera's like Nicholas Maw's The Rising of the Moon, or anything by Maxwell Davies (Taverner, Therese). There are operas by Alexander Goehr which have still not had a UK performance.

So there is much to look forward to, and it is a relief that the roster of directors seems to have settled down to those with more of a track record in the genre.

Review of Werther

My review of Massenet's Werther from Covent Garden, with Rolando Villazon in the title role is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site)

Sunday, 15 May 2011

MacMillan Westminster Mass

Today is rather a James MacMillan day at Westminster Cathedral. at 10.30am Mass, MacMillan's wonderful Westminster Mass will be the setting with MacMillan's A New Song as the motet. Then at Solemn Vespers and Benediction at 15.30, we have MacMillan's Christus Vincit along with Lassus's Magnificat Octavi Toni, with MacMillan's Gaudeamus in loci pace as the concluding organ voluntary

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Camilla Nylund's disc of Strauss and Wagner, Transfiguration, is here.

A promising recital rather than a great one.

And my review of an assemblage of Bernstein's music is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.

A good reminder of what an interesting and varied composer Bernstein could be.

Friday, 13 May 2011

O Guiding Night

Tomorrow (14th June) at St. James's Church, Spanish Place, the Sixteen are giving a concert inspired by the Spanish Mystics. There will, of course, be music by Victoria marking the 400th anniversary of his death, but also new music by Ruth Byrchmore, Tarik O'Regan and Roderick Williams

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Review of Damnation of Faust

My review of Terry Gilliam's production fo The Damnation of Faust at ENO is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Sunday, 8 May 2011

EPSS

The latest English Poetry and Song Society Newsletter contains a copy of my song To His Love (words by Ivor Gurney) for baritone and piano, along with a complete list of my songs and song-cycles. A number of my songs have been placed in EPSS competitions, notably Gurney and Houseman settings.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Ringless

A note in this month's Opera magazine that the new Intendant at Strasbourg has cancelled the David McVicar Ring which has been garnering plaudits. They have performed each opera individually but there are no plans to perform the entire cycle. Let's hope someone else picks the production up. Strasbourg is a lovely place to visit and the theatre delightful, it would have been a fine place to take in what seems to have been an intelligent and theatrical production.

Recent CD Review

My review of the disc of music by Thomas Bloch on Naxos is here,

This disc appealed mainly for Bloch’s interesting use of unusual instruments.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Review of The Tsar's Bride

My review of last Wednesday's performance of Rimsky Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride at Covent Garden is here on Music and Vision (subscription site)