Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Octavian on the go

I understand that Sarah Connolly was held up on a train for 2 hours on Saturday and arrived at the London Coliseum only 30 minutes before curtain up, though her performance showed no signs of this. She was also spotted on the train doing her stage makeup!

Review of Wagner Dream at the Barbican

At various times in his life Wagner talked of writing an opera based on a Buddhist story. Entitled Die Sieger it concerned a young woman (Prakriti) who fell in love with one of Buddha's disciples (Ananda) and ended up being the first woman to be admitted to the Buddhist order. Wagner got as far as producing a prose summary for the libretto, quite what sort of opera he would have made of it is one of the fascinating what-ifs of history.

Jonathan Harvey has used this Buddhist opera as the centrepiece for his opera Wagner Dream with a libretto by Jean-Claude Carriere. Carriere is a French screenwriter and actor who collaborated with film director Luis Bunel and also with Peter Brook on The Mahabharata.

The opera is structured on two levels. Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima are in a hotel in Venice; they argue about Wagner's relationship with the singer Carrie Pringle. Wagner has a heart attack. On the brink of  dying he is approached by Vairochana who informs him that something is left undone from his life. Wagner's Buddhist themed opera then unfolds before the dying man, though he is the only one who can see it, Cosima, the Doctor and the Maid can see nothing. The Wagners are played by actors, with their scenes as melodrama. The Buddhist opera is fully sung.

The piece received its first UK performance at the Barbican on Sunday as part of BBC Radio 3's Total Immersion event. It was semi-staged by Orpha Phelan (designed by Charlie Cridlan) with the Wagners and the Buddhist opera on separate stages behind the orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Harvey uses an orchestra of 22 players including substantial percussion; though all the players had microphones and the sound mixed with the electronics produced by Gilbert Nouno, the IRCAM computer music designer, with Franck Rossi as sound engineer. Seated in the orchestra were an additional 4 singers, also miked, who were heard but not seen, they provided additional comment. Their text was omitted from the surtitles; in fact with such a complex multi-layers event I would have felt it helpful to have the printed text.

Wagner was played by Nicholas Le Prevost and Cosima by Ruth Lass. But frankly the text they had to work with was poor. The effect of Carriere's dialogue for the Wagners was almost bathetic and completely nullified the effect of the subtleness of the music created by Harvey to surround the text. What might have been a mix of interesting textures, live music, electronics, spoken text, was blunted by the bad sitcom level of the dialogue.

Vairochana (singer Simon Bailey) is the only character to bridge both worlds, so that his dialogues with Wagner are a mixture of sung and spoken text. When the Buddhist opera starts this leaves the creators with a dramaturgical problem; what to do with the Wagners, the doctor and the maid (and eventually Carrie Pringle as well). Only Wagner can hear and react to the opera, the rest are required to act silent puzzlement for 90 minutes. Spoken interjections have a totally different effect to sung ones, if Wagner had been singing then the results would perhaps been different and rather atmospheric. As it was Le Prevost's interjections of comment and puzzlement were rather pointless and the other actors seemed redundant; add to this the inherent problem with speech, it inevitably pulls the focus from the music no matter how unimportant the spoken statement.

For the Buddhist opera, the story of Prakriti, we had 6 singers. Simon Bailey as Vairochana, who took no direct part in the Buddhist opera but interacted with Wagner, Claire Booth as Prakriti, Andrew Staples as Ananda (the man she falls in love with), with Hilary Summers as Prakriti's mother who supports her. Roderick Williams played Buddha and Richard Angas an Old Brahmin. As Ananda is part of Buddha's order  he is not allowed to have relations with women. Prakriti challenges Buddha and she is taunted by the Old Brahmin. But ultimately Buddha allows her to join the order, though her relationship with Ananda will be an entirely sexless friendship.

Finally, the Buddhist opera over, Buddha and Vairochana sing to Wagner as he dies.

I am quite sure that Harvey and Carriere were aiming for a subtlety and richness which is not apparent from my rather bald summary. Harvey's vocal lines were quite plain and chant based; eminently singable, the results were a little uninteresting though clearly intended to have an intensely meditative quality. The contemplative nature of Harvey's setting of the Buddhist opera meant that vocally it lacked drama and the interest was very much in the orchestra.

Most contemporary composers have a tendency to try and re-invent opera in their own image.. In Wagner Dream Harvey and Carrier have attempted something rich and complete which combines Wagner and Buddhism in a curiously fascinating manner. But though I appreciated aspects of the craftsmanship, the total effect of the opera (105 minutes with no interval) was to leave me unmoved.

It received a strong performance. The actors Nicholas Le Prevost (Wagner), Ruth Lass (Cosima), Julia Innocenti (Carrie Pringle), Richard Jackson (Dr. Keppler), Sally Brooks (the Maid) did their best with the material they were given and Le Prevsot almost convinced as the dying composer.

Claire Booth as Prakriti took the lions share of the singing, spinning out Harvey's lines with ease. In fact she sang the role in the opera's premiere with Netherlands Opera. Roderick Williams brought gravitas and convincing otherworldliness to the role of Buddha. Andrew Staples gave strong support in the under written role of Ananda and Hilary Summers was completely wasted in the tiny role of Prakriti's mother. Richard Angas contributed the small role of the old Brahmin.

The electronics were generally of the subtle kind, almost sound effects blending in with the music. They helped contribute to the unworldly atmosphere of the piece. I think that Harvey intended there to be an aural difference between the world of the Wagners and the Buddhist opera, but one just one hearing I could not detect it.

The whole was conducted by Martin Brabbins in an unflapably capable manner. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra played brilliantly, and the music for the orchestra was some of the best in the evening. This was an important premiere and was have to be thankful to the BBC for continuing to present such things. The Barbican Hall was by no means full, the stalls were to capacity but the other areas seemed nearly empty.

When the opera was staged at the Grand Theatre, Luxemberg, Andrew Clements was extremely positive about it in the Guardian. I only wish that I could feel the same.  It will be interesting to see what WNO makes of the opera when they perform it next year.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Review of Der Rosenkavalier at the London Coliseum

This was a welcome revival of David McVicar's attractive and intelligently traditional production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Originating with Scottish Opera, the production was first seen at the London Coliseum in 2008 and we saw the first night of the current revival (Saturday 28th Jan).

Returning to their roles were Sarah Connolly as Octavian,  John Tomlinson as Ochs and Andrew Shore as Faninal. In fact Connolly sang the role of Octavian when the production was created in Scotland.

Of great interest were the artists new to the production, both also making their role debuts, with Sophie Bevan singing her first Sophie Faninal and Amanda Roocroft giving her first Marschallin. I saw Roocroft's debut as Sophie with WNO (in the early 90's I think). So it was fascinating to see her returning to the opera in the role of the older woman. It helped emphasise the fact that in Sophie, the Marschallin sees her younger self, forced to marry a much older man; something which helps us understand the Marschallin's sympathy with Sophie's plight despite Sophie taking Octavian away from her.

Roocroft's triumphant return to form in recent years has been centred on the operas of Janacek (though not exclusively). Janacek is immensely responsive to speech rhythms and Roocroft brought something of this feeling to her Marschallin. (Off the top of my head the only other soprano who specialised in Janceck and Strauss was Elisabeth Soderstrom, not a bad role model to have).

It was very lightly sung, in fact there were moments when I thought that Edward Gardner could have been more sympathetic over balance with the orchestra. Only on a few occasions, notably when telling off Ochs in Act 3, did Roocroft use the full steely tones of her voice. For most of Act 1 she was quietly and intensely responsive to the nuances of the text. This was a very conversational performance Roocroft does not have an instrument capable of easy refulgence and soaring tone. She made a virtue of this, giving us a detailed  and profoundly moving portrait rather than falling into the trap of relying on the broad brush of gorgeous tone.

The Marschallin is one of the greatest secondary characters in opera history. She appears in under half the opera (Act 1 and the end of Act 3) but is capable of transforming the performance. The singer must tug the heart strings in the monologue in Act 1 and then bring this atmosphere back with her into Act 3. This Roocroft did in spades. Her's was one of the most vividly and intelligently touching Marschallins that I have seen in recent ears. In Act 1 there were no grand histrionics, just a woman coming to term with time and ageing. In Act 3 she was nicely aristocratic without ever feeling overly grand.

Roocroft's upper register is not the easiest of instruments and I was aware of the moments when she seemed to be carefully managing it. (Gwynneth Jones, a great Marschallin whom I heard in the '80s, was another singer of whom you were aware that a significant amount of voice management went on). The concluding trio was not the loveliest I had ever heard but it was well balanced in terms of tone and timbre and profoundly expressive.

Sophie Bevan made an immensely promising debut as Sophie Faninal. Bevan has a voice fuller and richer in the lower registers than many Sophies, but she was able to float the high notes with gorgeous ease and the duet with Connolly at the Presentation of the Rose had the requisite magical beauty. Bevan's Sophie was high spirited and emotional, you suspected that she and Octavian would have a very lively married life.

Connolly's Octavian is starting to feel a tad maturer than 17, but it is still a magnificent creation. She captures Octavian's egotism and surly volatility. Her relationship with Roocroft's Marschallin in the opening scenes was fun, funny and very sexy, the two artists had obviously developed a strong rapport. Connolly's relation to Bevan's Sophie was different, more solicitous but equally affecting. The closing scenes were nicely delineated by all 3 artists and consequently rather moving.

John Tomlinson's Ochs is still an amazing creation, though as the singer has now reached his mid 60's you do wonder how much longer he can perform at such a level. Strauss and Hoffmanstal intended Ochs to be only slightly older than the Marschallin and rather less of a boor than he is usually made out to be. But Tomlinson inhabited the role so entirely that this didn't matter. The upper lying passages are now somewhat laboured, but he takes care of individual details in a brilliant manner. Whilst Tomlinson's Ochs was larger than life he was part of a strong ensemble and Tomlinson did not pull focus the way he did as Pogner in the recent Meistersinger at Covent Garden.

Whilst it was a welcome treat to re-encounter Connolly and Tomlinson in this opera, I did think that it might have been a good opportunity for ENO to entirely re-cast the opera with a younger cast.

Andrew Shore repeated his nicely detailed Faninal  In the absence of Jaewoo Kim, due to illness, Gwynne Hughes Jones was luxury casting as the Italian singer. Jennifer Rhys-Davies made a lively and dramatic duenna. But she succeeded no better than others in this role in getting across the words of her narration, "Er kommt". Perhaps one day I will attend a performance where you can understand what the Duenna is describing.

The most touching Marschallin that I have heard at the London Coliseum was Valerie Masterson whose peerless diction succeeded in getting a remarkable amount of text over. The present cast were not quite peerless but all worked hard on diction and Bevan's was particularly notable.

Madeleine Shaw offered a rather better sung Annina than I have heard in a long time and she as well paired with Adrian Thompson, almost unrecognisable as Valzacchi.

Edward Gardner conducted a well paced and free flowing account of the opera, keeping things nicely conversational whilst never rushing the singers. He brought out the felicities of Strauss's orchestration and there were moments of great beauty.

I have to confess that this is an opera where I miss the original German and I hope before very long to encounter Roocroft's Marschallin in the original language. It would be nice to think that their success with this opera might encourage ENO to add more Strauss to its repertory. Surely one of the talented group of sopranos who ahve come to fore at the Coli in recent years would be ready for a role like Arabella?

Sunday, 29 January 2012

CD Review - Callas in La Traviata in London

There are few sopranos who can manage all three acts of Verdi's La Traviata with equal facility. Coloratura sopranos, for whom Act 1 comes easiest, can seem underpowered in the later acts; but sopranos for whom these acts are most suited, can often finish Act 1 with a feeling of  'thank God that's over'. Perhaps indeed Verdi intended some element of desperation here.

Maria Callas's famed success in the role stemmed for the way she applied her intelligence to every aspect of it. But the manner in which she could alter the scale of her voice is an important factor. In Act 1 she fines the tone down to provide pinpoint accuracy. I remember an old voice teacher of mine saying that the word coloratura comes from the Italian for coloured. It is this colouring which is important; not just technical facility but rising beyond it make individual notes work dramatically. And this is what Callas gives us. But the more dramatic set pieces are equally magnificent and profoundly moving.

Of course, all is not perfect. When she puts the voice under pressure in the upper register her vibrato develops into a wobble so pronounced it sounds like a slow trill. And of course, there is her (in)famous tone quality, which can sound as if she is singing with a plum stone in her mouth.

But then, you listen to the way she rises to the big dramatic moments in Act 2, or again the magical way she thins her voice to whiteness at the opening of Act 3, to create a Violetta who us truly at death's door. Peter Heyworth, quoted in John Steane's Singers of the Century 2 (Duckworth: 1999), said of this performance that, 'perhaps the most marvellous moment of the evening, the sustained note before "Dite alla giovine". By some miracle Callas makes that note hang suspended in mid-air; unadorned and unsupported she fills it with all the conflicting emotions that besiege her. As she descends to the solo, which opened with a sweet, distant mezzo voce of extraordinary poignancy, the die is cast.'

Her Alfredo is Cesare Valletti, a lyric tenor who was a pupil of Tito Schipa. He had appeared with Callas as early as 1950. He has a good open tone and a nice degree of elegance in the lighter moment. Though I found him perhaps a little heavy handed in the more dramatic situations, with the inevitable tendency to grandstand. But he provides Callas with a strong partner.

Mario Zanasi, who sang the role with Callas at the Met in February 1958, is an elegant Giorgio Germont. He was a lovely baritone voice which is slightly lighter than some singers in the role. It is a beautifully sung elegant performance, which might lack that last element of dramatic fire that a singer like Gobbi would have brought. But the advantage is that he really sings the role and doesn't bark.

The remaining cast are all anglophone, with Marie Collier strong casting as Flora, Lea Roberts as Anina, Dermot Troy as Gastone, Forbes Robinson as Barone Douphole, Ronald Lewis as the Marchese and David Kelly as the Doctor.

It has to be said that there are ensemble problems between pit and stage; some of the big ensembles are not the Covent Garden chorus's finest moments.

Conductor Nicola Rescigno provides fine support for the singers, giving a naturally paced performance which breathes.

The recording itself does have drawbacks. For much of the time it is remarkable for its clarity, but there is some distortion in the ensembles and at other times. It seems to be a private recording, not a BBC broadcast. The CD booklet by David Patmore suggests that it may have been made in one of the boxes adjacent to the proscenium

The CD booklet includes a detailed track listing and an article by David Patmore.

The recording has been available before but this is its first major release and it has been re-mastered by Paul Baily. Anyone interested in Callas's Violetta should listen to this set as it stand's up well against the others available, the live recordings from Lisbon and from La Scala. Callas always had the potential to be better recorded live and there is a lot to be said for the argument that this recording is aurally one of the most satisfactory and certainly deserves to be heard.

Verdi - La Traviata
Violetta - Maria Callas
Flora Bervoix - Marie Collier
Annina - Lea Roberts
Alfredo Germont - Cesare Valleti
Giorio Germont - Mario Zanasi
Gastone - Dermot Troy
Barone Douphol - Forbes Robinson
Marchese - Ronald Lewis
Doctor - David Kelly
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden
Nicola Rescigno (conductor)

Recorded live at Covent Garden 20 June 1958
ICA Classics ICAC 5006

COG Plans

The next Chelsea Opera Group concert is on Sunday 25th March at the QEH, when they are doing the first, St. Petersburg, version of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, with Gweneth Ann Jeffers as Leonora and Peter Auty as Alvaro, plus Donald Maxwell as Melitone and Brindley Sherratt as Padre Guardiano. A very strong cast indeed plus the chance to hear Verdi's first thoughts in the opera, where the final act is significantly different. (And no, the piece is no less rambling!).

Further ahead, on Sunday 27th May they are doing Donizetti's Maria Padilla with Nelly Miricioiu in the title role, conducted by Brad Cohen. They have also announced their 2012/13 season. There's still no Meyerbeer but we do have Massenet's Don Quichotte on 25th November plus Wagner's Die Feen on 17 March 2013 and Verdi's Alzira on 2nd June 2013 (all three at the QEH). I look forward to the Massenet immensely. It will be interesting to hear Wagner's early opera, its probably hardly worth staging but COG provide a valuable service in allowing us to hear it. Similarly the Verdi, which was based amazingly on a play by Voltaire, but did not have conspicuous success in Verdi's lifetime. It comes between Giovanna d'Arco and Attila but it seems that Verdi took his eye off the ball, at least that is the judgement of history, COG give us a chance to find out.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Salomon Orchestra on Valentines Day

The Salomon Orchestra are doing an attractively romantic programme for their concert on Valentines day, at St. Johns Smith Square.

Philip Ellis conducts them in Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Sibelius's 2nd Symphony. I must confess that I do rather find the Wagner a little too over done but the other two are both certainly worth making an effort to hear. The advantage of St.  Johns is that you can have a rather nice meal there before hand, just to compliment things nicely!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Lalo Schifrin interview

Last night I had the pleasure of interviewing film composer Lalo Schifrin for an article; as he's in Los Angeles it was a phone interview. Things didn't start well as I got the time zone wrong so that I expected the interview to take place 2 hours later than it did. Still, things went pretty well after that and the interview is now on the web.
You can find it here, at WeirdMusic.net

Kronos Quartet on In Tune


A YouTube video of the Kronos Quartet's appearance on In Tune, rather fun seeing a radio programme. Also, of the two pieces they play the Swedish one Triakel — Tusen Tankar (A Thousand Thoughts, from Sweden) sounds fascinatingly Scottish, reminiscent of Gaelic Psalmody.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Tosca at the London Coliseum

We hadn't intended to see this first revival of Catherine Malfitano's production of Tosca at the London Coliseum. But we missed Claire Rutter's Tosca at Grange Park in the summer and we wanted to take friends to their first opera and this intelligently traditional staging seemed just the ticket.

I'm not quite sure what, but something has changed since the production's premiere, whether it be my perceptions or production details; probably a bit of both. But, the close of Act 1 apart, I found the production flowed better, the details fitted nicely and neatly and it seemed more satisfying as a whole. Of course the change in principals will have had an effect as well.

Claire Rutter was a feminine Tosca, very much the vulnerable woman rather than the grand diva. It was finely sung without too many big dramatics, she made Tosca quite touching at times but still capable of imperiousness. I suspect that Rutter might have benefitted from the cut and thrust of a more traditional, powerful Scarpia. Anthony Michaels Moore repeated his sensualist Scarpia to notable effect. But there was the odd moment (such as at the end of Act 1) when you just wanted his voice to be bigger, more dominant. But in Act 2, the long scene between Rutter and Michaels Moore seemed to need a bit more push from the baritone, a bit more bark (and bite). Sparks didn't quite fly and you felt that both artists were capable of it.

Gwyn Hughes Jones sang Cavaradossi with beautiful open Italianate tone and a lovely sense of line. This was a glorious Cavaradossi to listen to. Dramatically, Hughes Jones seemed a bit stiff though given his relative bulk it might have been sensible that he deliberately did not overstress the physical element. There was a genuine feeling of a relationship between Hughes Jones and Rutter,  and Hughes Jones certainly made you aware that politics came first with Cavaradossi; if he and Tosca had survived, you felt certain that Cavaradossi would sooner or later move on.

There was a strong supporting cast with Matthew Hargreaves as Angelotti, Scott Davies as Spoletta, Graeme Danby as Sciarrone and Henry Waddington as a hilarious but touching Sacristan.

Stephen Lord conducted in a very singer friendly way; everything flowed nicely, it was beautifully paced but you never felt he was hurrying the singers.

And the close of Act 1. Well, as ever, the staging seems to make no liturgical sense, but then I have seen very few productions which get this scene right. (Anthony Besch's memorable and long lived production for Scottish opera is a notable exception).

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

La Traviata conundrum

Having recently reviewed a performance of La Traviata and now finding myself listening to a CD of it (the ica classics re-issue of the 1958 Callas performance from Covent Garden), I keep coming back to a couple of conundrums. Yes, I know that opera plots always need a bit of forgiveness, but some operas have lacunae in apparently well-put-together plots that make you wonder.

Take Giorgio Germont. At the end of Act 2, scene1, his son storms out and Giorgio works out where he is going by retrieving the invitation from Flora. The next time we see Giorgio it is at Flora's party. Now, what is he wearing?

Is he still wearing his street clothes? If he is, then he came straight to the party from Alfredo and Violetta's villa, so why did he get into the party which we have to assume is very smart. Would the door man have just let him in, without invitation and in a day suit? Did he have to kick up a fuss and what did he say? This is the option generally preferred by modern day directors and, after all, it means that you don't need a costume change for this character.

Otherwise, if he is in evening wear then does that mean he went back to his hotel room first? We have to assume that he'd taken a hotel in Paris, after all he's come up from the country to see Alfredo and Violetta. So, that means even though he came on a mission to convince his son's mistress to give him up, Giorgio brought his evening suit with him. Just in case; ever a man to be prepared for all occasions our Giorgio!

Now. Back to Act 2, scene and Alfredo this time. At the beginning of the scene Alfredo is shocked to learn from Anina that she is going into Paris to sell thing for Violetta so that they can keep going financially? Now, what do we learn from this.

That Alfredo is shocked that Violetta has been keeping him, in which case he must be thick and think that villas with staff grow on trees. Either that or he is so used to being kept on short reins by his father that he has no sense of money. Or Violetta has been deliberately hiding things, pretending that his allowance from his father is enough?

Or, he is shocked not that Violetta has been keeping him but that she is having to sell things. I.e. he is comfortable with being a kept man, but only if the woman is rich.

So what we come down to is that Alfredo is either thick or a cad and judging by his behaviour in the rest of the opera, I'm inclined to come down on the side of dim if not actually thick.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Adventurous WNO season

WNO have announced their new season, their first under David Pountney their newly appointed musical director, with plans announced for the 2012-2014 period

In 2011/12, Katie Mitchell's production of Handel's Jephtha will be returning with Robert Murray in the title role, Diana Montague as Storge and Fflur Wyn as Iphis.

There will be the UK stage premiere of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, which is being performed in concert this Sunday at the Barbican. And Peter Wedd will be singing the title role in a new production of Wagner's Lohengrin with Emma Bell as Elsa and Susan Bickley as Ortrud. Also David Pountney will direct a new production of Berg's Lulu.


Further ahead there will be a trio of Donizetti's Tudor operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) directed by Alessandro Talevi and Rudolph Frey with all 3 using the same set; a neat economy measure.

Also later on we have Henze's Boulevard Solitude as part of a 'fallen women' season, with Puccini's Manon Lescaut and La Traviata as companions. Summer 2014 will see Nabucco and Moses und Aron, a fascinating pairing.

Sounds in the Cloud

I have been uploading all sorts of archive recordings onto http://soundcloud.com/roberthugill, my profile page lists them all. The apps available mean that we can now have recordings playing on each of the Spherical Editions pages, also the full list here here

Midsummer Opera Wagner

Midsummer Opera are continuing their exploration of Wagner's Ring, having given us Act 1 of The Valkyrie, they are now performing acts 2 and 3. Zoe South will be Brunnhilde, with John Upperton and Deborah Stoddart reprising their roles as Siegmund and Sieglinde; Karen Foster and Stephen Holloway are Mr and Mrs Wotan. David Roblou conducts. The eagle eyed amongst you will have spotted the Zoe South, who plays Brunnhilde, sang the role of the Woman in the performances of my opera When a Man Knows last year.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Barbican new season

So the Barbican has announced its new season for 2011/12, which means that they will be encouraging us all to book up now; its depressing how everyone seems to expect punter to book up up to 18 months in advance. I can still remember when booking was always a month or two in advance of the event. The carrot, and quite a big one of course, is that if you book for enough items then you can get quite a bit of discount on the tickets - not to be sneezed at even if they are getting hundreds of pounds from you up front.

So that are they doing. Well Les Talens Lyriques are doing Lully's Phaeton, definitely high on the list as complete Lully operas are like hen's teeth in London; no soloists credited at the moment.

And of course Handel. Rebecca Bottone is appearing with the Academy of Ancient Music in Imeneo, his penultimate opera and the one where the hero (i.e. the castrato) does not get the girl, instead this goes to the baritone; perhaps explained by the fact that the baritone part was sung by a personable young (very young) man called William Savage who had first appeared as the boy Oberto in Alcina. A strong cast includes as well David Daniels and Lucy CroweLess arcane, we are being treated to Radamisto with David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, Patricia Bardon and Elizabeth Watts with the English Consort conducted by Harry Bicket. Definitely a very strong cast. There is no information about which version of Radamisto we are getting and as it is scheduled to start at 7.30pm expect lots of cuts (or having to sit numb-bumbed through two complete acts without an interval). Les Arts Florissants are doing Belshazzar with Rosemary Joshua (as Nitocris), Sarah Connolly, Iestyn Davies and Peter Purves - quite a delectable cast conducted by William Christie.

More exotically, Mark Minkowski is doing Grieg's Peer Gynt, no actors credited so presumably just the music.

Mark Elder and the BBC SO are doing Donizetti's Belisario (did they get the idea from COG?) Not his strongest opera, but some good music.

And the Britten Sinfonia are doing Where the Wild Things Are and Higgledy Piggledy Pop under the Ryan Wigglesworth. It will be a delight to see these again as I haven't come across them since the original run at Glyndebourne.

John Eliot Gardiner is celebrating his 70th birthday by conducting Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (with the LSO not his own band!).

Saturday, 21 January 2012

17 Days

On Feb 5th the Crouch End Festival Chorus are premiering a new work by James McCarthy at the Barbican. Entitled 17 Days, it tackles the tricky subject of the Chilean miners trapped following the mining accident. McCarthy has written a substantial piece (his blog refers to it being some 39 minutes long) for chorus, childrens choir, brass group and percussion. A tricky, but inherently dramatic, subject; it will be fascinating to see how McCarthy has transmuted it into a choral piece. You don't get much choral music based on contemporary news items, so all credit to CEFC for pushing the boundaries of new choral music.

The concert also celebrates Philip Glass's 75th birthday with performances of his Three Songs and The Grid. Further details from the CEFC website here,  and the concert flyer here.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Rachmaninov's The Bells

On Wednesday 29th February the Bach Choir, under their director David Hills, will be performing Rachmaninov's The Bells at the South Bank Centre, further details here.

After writing his cantata Spring, Rachmaninov looked around unsuccessfully for another choral subject. Finally someone sent him a translation of Edgar Allan Poe's poem. Rachmaninov sets the piece as mirroring the cycle from birth to death. The result is a choral symphony,which was premiered in 1913. The four movements are:-

  • Allegro ma non tanto ('The Silver Sleigh Bells')
  • Lento ('The Mellow Wedding Bells')
  • Presto ('The Loud Alarum Bells')
  • Lento lugubre ('The Mournful Iron Bells')
Its a work not too often performed in the UK and it will be fascinating to hear it. Interestingly, Joseph Holbrooke set the same poem, in the original language and his piece was premiered in Birmingham in 1906. Now that might be a fascinating thing to hear as well.

Rather enterprisingly, the Bach choir are teaming the choral symphony up with the very cantata, Spring, which Rachmaninov was writing just before. They add to this the ever popular 3rd piano concerto, played by Leon McCawley.

The orchestra is the Chetham's Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra made up of pupils of Chetham's School, the UK's largest music school; the Chetham's Chamber Choir will also be joining the Bach Choir. The orchestra has an enviable reputation and it will be a great opportunity to hear them. I remember the school from my own student days in Manchester (when I was at UMIST). The school itself has ancient origins, the oldest buildings date from the 1400's and the school was re-founded in 1653. It was originally simply a boys Grammar school but in the 1960's the remarkable decision was taken to change it into a mixed school specialising in music. The school currently has major development plans, with a new building being projected and the opening up of the historic buildings. All very exciting.

So an interesting concert AND an opportunity to hear an orchestra from a historic institution. What more could you want.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

This Week’s Classical Music Round up from The Arts Desk

Classical music on The Arts Desk this week is all about perfect pairings, whether it’s in the concert hall or on CD.

On Thursday, Alexandra Coghlan headed to the Wigmore Hall for a recital of two near contemporaries from opposite sides of the Channel. Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company successfully partnered two tragic classical myths told in miniature, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Charpentier’s Actéon, in an unusual, intimate and intelligent programme typical of the Wigmore Hall. The Charpentier felt the more lightweight of the two, though Ed Lyon made a dashing young Actaeon, and soprano Claire Booth was assured, if a little too emotional, as the implacable goddess Diana. For the Purcell, an unwell Anna Stephany was replaced at the 11thhour by Susan Bickley, whose Dido poignantly evolved from deceptively matter-of-fact to desperately stoical, while Marcus Farnsworth managed to bring depth and gravity to the thankless, half-baked role of Aeneas.
  
Thomas Ades, photo by Brian Voce
On Sunday Coghlan went to the Barbican to hear Thomas Adès and the London Symphony Orchestra playing music by the composer himself, plus work by his only composition student Francisco Coll and songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. She left, however, feeling rather short-changed. The LSO convincingly showcased Coll’s talent for textural layering in his unusual miniature tone poem Hidd’n Blue, and displayed controlled tonal progression in Adès’s In Seven Days. But the orchestra seemed to flounder as the evening went on, beginning in Adès’s unsure and unfocused Tevot and culminating in Mahler’s richly textured settings which felt strained and drowned Toby Spence’s underpowered vocals. Ultimately, it made for a muted evening’s music, overshadowed by a feeling of Sunday-night malaise.


Stephen Hough, photo by Grant Hiroshima
Meanwhile Graham Rickson found much to enjoy in the latest  classical CD releases. His first recommendation is Stephen Hough’s disc of Liszt and Grieg piano concertos, in which Hough brilliantly negotiates the swift transitions from romantic to melodramatic, witty to sincere, of the former, and does an excellent (though inevitably not groundbreaking) job of the over-recorded latter. The second pairing of the week is Schubert’s Symphony No 9 and Hans Gál’s Symphony No 2, courtesy of Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia. The Schubert proves to be an essential recording, full of vim, vigour and delirium, while the Gál is impressive and beautifully played, but ultimately missing some memorable tunes. Lastly, Rickson championed Pellarin and Levato’s French Music for Horn and Piano, which pairs the well known and the rarely heard to great effect. Pieces by Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and Damase showcase the horn’s tone and range, often difficult to capture well in recording but here sounding utterly beautiful.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I'm already jaded by the Olympics and they have barely started, but there again I am not a great sports fan and plan to be out of the country for a good part of the festival. But I must confess that I am finding it difficult to get enthusiastic about the Cultural Olympiad, the rather strange arts jamboree that will be happening this summer.

Granted, there are plenty of community based events and some exciting projects such as the Making Music Overture. But have you noticed that the British don't really do well at joined up thinking in these areas. The RSC and the BBC are both going to be giving us lots of Shakespeare in various forms, but there seems to be no attempt to link this to other art forms.

Surely someone could have come up with some key threads which could have run through the festival providing interesting links and cross pollinations. For instance, the Royal Opera House are doing Berlioz's The Trojans this summer, certainly a major event but not, I think, strictly part of the Olympiad. Wouldn't it have been fascinating, interesting and illuminating if other organisations had been encouraged to provide work around this theme. Just think, Greek drama in Greek, modern English versions of Greek drama, classical French drama (Racine, Corneille), other operatic responses to the Trojan War (Gluck, Strauss, Walton). Not to mention the possibility of modern dance, visual arts and all sorts of cross cultural activities.

I am sure that the events actually being promoted will cause buzz and excitement, and be of an interesting quality. But what we've missed is the possibility to create something a little bit greater than the sum of its parts. And the possibility that someone interested in one art form might find it illuminating and stimulating to see how the same theme is handled in other art forms.

But there again, if everybody is going to have their eyes glued to the actual sporting events, will there be room for interest in culture. Or am I just being cynical

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sloppy Miserere

Saturday's Early Music Show on Radio 3 consisted of highlights from a concert given by the Cardinal's Music (director Andrew Carwood) which explored the music heard by the young Mozart when he was on his travels. This included, of course, the Allegri Miserere, which Mozart famously heard and wrote down. I was amazed to hear the choir performing, not a scholarly version of the work, but what sounded like the standard 20th century performing edition which confects 2 different version together and has an entirely non-canonical (but very effective) top C. Perhaps more information was given at the concert, but on Radio 3 listeners were led to believe that we were hearing what Mozart had. Which wasn't true at all.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

OAE on the South Bank

On Friday we went to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Gabrieli concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The programme mixed some of his Canzonas and Sonatas with sacred music, sung by soprano Julia Doyle and tenor Daniel Auchinloss. The instrumental ensemble consisted of 14 players, 3 violins (one doubling viola), 3 cornetts, 6 sackbutts, and a dulcian, with organ and theorbo providing continuo.

Gabrieli's pieces were all large scale with 10 or 12 parts. In the sacred pieces the mixture of vocal and instrumental textures were pretty much as Gabrieli intended and helped towards textural clarity in the complex works. To provide contrast, there were smaller scale motets by Grandi and Monteverdi which used just voice and continuo with or or two obliggato instruments at most. Grandi was one of a group of contemporaries who worked at less well off churches and so their concentration of works with few instruments was partly economic necessity; not every church was like Venice, which could afford all the musicians needed for Gabrieli's or Monteverdi's large scale pieces.

There were also instrumental interruptions, with sonatas for 3 violins by Fontatna and by Gabrieli and Marini's La Zorzi (the name of which refers to one of the Venetian families).

The musicians sat at the back of the stage and when playing, stood in a large semi-circle with the two continuo players in the centre. This entailed a degree of rearrangement between each piece, but meant that we didn't really get the feel for the cor spezzati aspects of the pieces. This was a big shame. The Queen Elizabeth Hall lacks the right atmosphere for this style of piece and moving the musicians around a bit, giving us a real feel for the multiple choir aspects of Gabrieli's bigger pieces, would have helped enormously.

Instead there was something slightly low-key about the performances, they were competent and nicely played but didn't dazzle and didn't spark in the way that I feel this music should. This is puzzling because the musicians were all on good form. Granted, the cornett players took time to warm up and in the opening Canzon xiv a 10 were less than on top form, but settled down later. Doyle and Auchinloss were placed at the front and came over very much as soloists rather than first among equals. Both were impressive, with Auchinloss being particularly so as he seemed to be entirely unphased by the extremely high tessitura of the part.

This brings me to the issue of pitch. It wasn't mentioned at all in the programme. Pitch in baroque Venice was high, higher than the current A=440, but I'm not clear whether they were playing at this pitch or not. The cornetts sounded as if they were at the top of their range and if the Auchinloss's part had gone any higher then it would have turned into a counter-tenor part. You have to make all sorts of compromises when performing this style of music in concert, but it would have been interesting to know what pitch they were using.

The programme was entitled The Glory of Venice and somehow it didn't quite get there. It was a pleasant and enjoyable evening in the concert hall, but we just weren't transported.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Choruses from Passion

Choruses from Passion
Live recording by FifteenB from 2008

Recording - Annunciation

01 Annunciation
The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David;
A scena for Soprano and Alto setting the words from St. Luke's Gospel describing the annunciation, recorded live in 2009 with Victoria Hall (soprano), Katie Boot (tenor) and Malcolm Cottle(organ), music by Robert Hugill

Friday, 13 January 2012

I see from the January edition of Opera magazine that Amanda Echalaz is making her Met debut, in January 2014, as Madame Butterfly. We'll be re-visiting her Tosca when we see the new production in Santa Fe this summer. Still at the Met, Edward Gardiner is conducting Der Rosenkavalier there during 2013-14.

Over at Covent Garden, there's a new production of Les Vepres siciliennes planned for 2013, directed by Stefan Herheim who was responsible for the the 2008 Parisfal at Bayreuth. In many ways the plot of the opera is not satisfactory, though I have only seen it once when Rosalind Plowright sang Helene), but I wonder what the latest tyro of Regie-Theater will make of it. Also at Covent Garden in 2012-13 Leo Nucci will be singing the title role in a new Nabucco, conducted by Pappano. I've found the last two UK productions of this opera I've seen (at Covent Garden and at ENO) to be rather unsatisfying, so it will be interesting to see if this gets any better.

And Birmingham Opera Company are celebrating their 25th anniversary in March with Graham Vick directing Jonathan Dove's new opera Life is Dream, based on the Calderon play.

Recent CD review

My review of Handel's cantata Arresta il Passo from Brilliant Classics is here, on MusicWeb International.

The performances here might lack the gloss and sophistication of some others, but their directness has considerable charm.  

Monday, 9 January 2012

Constella Orchestra in Mozart, Delius and Stravinsky

St. Margaret's Church, Lee
The Constella Orchestra gave their first concert in 2011, they were founded by conductor/composer Leo Geyer and oboist/orchestral manager Henry Clay. Their debut concert was in September 2011and the group gave they new year concert on Friday 6th January at St. Margaret's Church, Brandram Road, Blackheath/Lee. The players (all unpaid) consist of mainly undergraduates from music colleges and universities, with some postgraduates and one or two from the Trinity College and Guildall Junior courses. Geyer and Clay are both on the RNCM  and University of Manchester joint course and Manchester is well represented in the orchestra, with other players from York Univerity, Trinity College, University of East Anglia, Guildhall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Oxford University and Cambridge University.

Fielding of group of some 39 players, conducted by Geyer, the orchestra gave an interesting programme in the fabulous High Victorian surroundings of St. Margaret's Church, Lee (a short distance from Blackheath station). The programme consisted of Mozart's Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, Two Pieces for Small Orchestra by Frederick Delius and the complete Pulcinella Ballet score by Stravinsky. An enterprising programme indeed, especially as the Stravinsky score is rarely heard complete.

Geyer's speeds for the Mozart were quite brisk and I got the feeling that his players might have been more comfortable with steadier ones, but they played with brilliant elan. Once of my principal thoughts about the sound of the group, in all the items, was bright, brilliant sound they made, vivid and highly coloured; accents and dynamic contrasts were very much in evidence. This is a lively, young orchestra and sounds it but the playing has a matching sophistication with some lovely wind playing in the Mozart.

For the Delius, Geyer had to attempt the difficult task of bringing of Delius's subtle rapture within the confines of a Victorian church with a rather lively acoustic. The results were not quite perfect, but the group caught the element of quite rapture which characterises both the piece On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Summer Night on the River. Again there were some lovely individual contributions with very fine and subtle playing from leader Frederick Taylor and cellist Auriol Evans.

Pulcinella spans the period when Stravinsky's style change from his first, Russian one, to his neo-Classical style. The piece was commissioned by Diaghilev as a follow up to Respighi's orchestrations of early music which the Ballets Russes had used in other ballets. But the First War intervened and by the time the complete ballet came to be performed, Stravinsky had changed his mind about the orchestration and slimmed it down to the brilliant, neo-Classical one that we hear today.

The Constella Orchestra managed to give the piece a nicely new-minted feel, giving us a sense that we were discovering the music for the first time. There was an occasional hint of instability of ensemble, but overall the playing was crisp and newly-minted. Fine solo contributions from all round, especially David Huntriss on trombone. The solo singers were three young graduates, Sarah Parkin (soprano), Timothy Langston (tenor) and Dmitry Yumashev (baritone). Singing from memory, each accomplished the tricky feat of managing to stay true to Stravinsky whilst not ignoring the underlying late Baroque nature of the vocal lines. All three were nicely crisp of delivery and Timothy Langston was particularly impressive in his tongue-twister solo. The programme gave us a summary of the plot, but omitted to provide the words or translations.

The Constella Orchestra aims to give undergraduates and graduates valuable experience playing in a chamber orchestra. They do so with elan and enviable confidence. Their next concert is on April 14th, again at St Margaret's Church, when Simon Standage will be the soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Recent CD review

My review of a performance of Donizetti's Marino Faliero from Naxos is here, on MusicWeb International.

A strong performance sufficient to warrant anyone buying it to fulfil their curiosity.  

Monday, 2 January 2012

Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden

My abiding memories of Graham Vick's production of Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden are of the towering performances of John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, two great singing actors, in the roles of Sachs and Beckmesser. Their absence in this revival (after some considerable time, it first appeared in 1993 and revived in 2002), seen Sunday 1st January 2012, seemed to throw the production itself into greater relief; it was revived by Elaine Kidd. Had the costumes (design by Richard Hudson), really been so outrageous with the prominent cod-pieces and amazing selection of hats (the ROH milliners must have had a field day). Evidently they had, but memory had played tricks. The production does not send the opera up, exactly, but Vick and Hudson seem to have been intent on creating some sort of cartoon/picture book Nuremberg (complete with models of the town's buildings which are polished by the apprentices). The apprentices themselves are presented as a cartoon-ishly loutish lot, with lots of hi-jinks forming the back-drop to Walter (Simon O'Neil) and Eva's (Emma Bell) encounter in the church.

Thankfully the principals were depicted with sensitivity and naturalism, no picture book behaviour here but a straightforward telling of the story. Die Meistersinger is so loaded with history that performing it straight is becoming difficult; to provide a setting whereby Sachs can sing his great paean to German Art without it seeming otiose. Perhaps that is what Vick and Hudson were about, ensuring that the setting was truly and memorably period.

The opera house had cast the piece strongly, with a roster of mastersingers which mixed experience with younger voices; Colin Judson as Vogelgesang, Nicholas Folwell as Nachtigall, Donald Maxwellas Kothner, Jihoon Kim as Ortel, Martyn Hill as Zorn, Pablo Bemsch as Moser, Andrew Reese as Eisslinger, Jeremy White as Foltz and Richard Wiegold as Schwarz. Pogner was played by John Tomlinson, the production's original Sachs; a welcome opportunity to hear this great stage performer but perhaps not the most tactful of casting to introduce Wolfgang Koch's first Sachs at Covent Garden. Koch is relatively young for the role (he's in his 40's) and looks quite young. In Act 1 his Sachs did not dominate the stage the way Tomlinson (and further in the past Norman Bailey) did, Koch's performance had a sort of collegiality about it; he sang as one of a group of equals. That the other mastersingers were portrayed by some fine characters actors meant that Koch was in danger of being out-shone, especially when it came to Tomlinson as Pogner.

Peter Coleman-Wright was a prissy, fussy Beckmesser. He did not make the character quite as sympathetic as Thomas Allen had, but Wright certainly did not guy the role; creating a man full of his own self-importance and creating real sadness in the resulting confusion.

Simon O'Neil was announced as being ill, suffering from a throat infection. He sang the role successfully and made it all the way to the end without apparent ill effects, but never having heard him live before I have no way of knowing how this affected his voice. In appearance he is quite burly and Richard Hudson's costumes did him no favours. On stage he looked awkward for much of the time, but then Walter does spend rather a lot of time being ill at ease and awkward.

Emma Bell's Eva was beautifully sung and nicely poised, but she sounded perhaps a little too mature, too self possessed. This became more apparent in the 2nd act, when the scene between Sachs and Eva took on slightly different resonances when the difference in the characters ages was less apparent; with Koch looking young and Bell sounding mature, there seemed less reason for them not to be together. Perhaps Koch was aware of this because I felt that there was less pull between Sachs and Eva; far less possibility in their relationship than in other performances I've seen.

Heather Shipp nicely played the relatively ungrateful role of Magdalene.

Koch was relatively understated in the 2nd act, he didn't overplay the comedy and made the drama work quite naturalistically. Again he was part of a group, rather than dominating. The Night Watchman who starts and ends the action was Robert Lloyd.

I have often found Act 3 of the opera rather too long for its own good, but here the performance came together beautifully. Koch's domestic scale Sachs came into his own with the 'Wahn' monologue, the scene with Walter and the quartet. The action and interaction flowed, nicely controlled by Antonio Pappano in the pit. The only slightly false note was the Bell's delivery 'Sachs mein Freund' where her uneven vocal delivery seemed to emphasise the feeling of coolness in the character.

For me, though the stand-out character is one I haven't mentioned yet; Toby Spence's David. Spence is one of a long line of middle-aged (he is well over 40) lyric tenors to have undertaken the role. His demeanour and voice remain lively and fresh, creating a vivid impression with no sense of the ridiculous of the age gap between character and singer. He sang with a fine sense of line and  nice way of slipping in and out of focus as the role demands, fluidly moving back into the ensemble of apprentices. There are not many roles in Wagner for Spence's type of voice but in time he might find that he could move into some of Wagner's other tenor roles, but not too soon I hope. A lyric tenor like Robert Tear (himself a fine David at the ROH) successfully made the transition and had a fine later career singing roles like Loge.

The shenanigins in the final scene went on a bit for my taste, I could have wished for some cuts in the various choruses before the real action started. O'Neil delivered a creditable performance of the Prize Song, with bright tones and commendable stamina; his is a Walter I would like to encounter again without illness. Koch delivered his hymn to German art with commendable restraint.

In the pit Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra delivered a knock-out performance. From the first notes of the overture it was clear that this was going to be a human comedy (not always apparent in performances of this opera). Pappano kept speeds brisk without feeling rushed, but more importantly there was a constant sense of life and liveliness.