Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Buxton Festival 2012 programme was launched with a soiree on Thursday. There was music from mezzo-soprano Belinda Williams and from tenor Richard Berkley-Steele accompanied by Festival Artistic Director, Stephen Barlow.  

Amazingly this year's festival has been put together on a budget of 1.4 million, which seems enormously good value. Though they have supportive local supporters, they are inevitably on the look out for major benefactors and sponsors.

Williams, who is covering Storge and singing in the ensemble at the festival, will be performing in Kassel during 2012/13 singing a number of roles including Dorabella and Kassel. On Thursday she sang one of Storge's arias from Jephtha and some Roger Quilter (whose songs I associate with Janet Baker, whom I heard sing them in the early 80's). Williams was followed by Richard Berkeley-Steele, who is singing roles in the both operas in the double bill at the festival. Rather surprisingly, for a helden-tenor, Berkeley-Steele sang a Noel Coward song, the one I know as 'A bar on the Piccola Marina'. Berkeley-Steele proved to have a delightfully natural way with Coward and some festival director should snap him up to do a Coward recital.

I have very happy memories of 'A bar on the Piccola Marina' as it was a sung regularly by one of the Pink Singers when I directed them in the '80s. It also has some delightful rhymes, of a type which nowadays I associated with Sondheim.

Just for fun, three young sailors from Messina
Bowed low to Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster
Said "Scusi", and abruptly goosed her

London Contemporary Church Music Festival

The London Contemporary Church Music Festival runs from 12 - 20 May at St. Pancras Church. The opening night concert features Sonos Chamber Choir in music by Paul Spicer and Paul Gant. Earlier on in the day there is a chance to hear Tavener's Collegium Regale canticles at Choral Evensong at Westminster Abbey.

The following days are all packed with incident, with the world premiere of Roxana Panufnik's Love Endureth at Westminster Cathedral, James MacMillan's Benedictus and Philip Moore's Te Deum at the Chapel Royal in St. James's Palace. More MacMillan at Windsor when St. George's Chapel will perform his St. Patrick's Magnificat at Evensong. Choral Evensong on Wednesday 16 May will be broadcast live from St. Pancras on Radio 3, the programme including two previous festival commissions from Gabriel Jackson and Joseph Phibbs.

Judith Bingham's Missa Brevis 'Awake my Soul' is sung by Southwark Cathedral whilst the Royal Holloway Chapel give us Cecilia McDowall's Canterbury Mass along with MacMillan's Data est mihi omnis potestas.

On Saturday 19 May, Exsultate Singer give a concert at St. Pancras with a programme including music by Roxanna Panufnik, Knut Nystedt, John Tavener and Francis Grier.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Westminster Cathedral Grand Organ festival

This year's Grand Organ Festival is now underway at Westminster Cathedral, a total of 8 free organ recitals on Wednesday evenings. The first one was last Wednesday, so if you wanted to hear Winfried Bönig from Cologne Cathedral in a programme mainly devoted to Bach, then you are too late. But there are delights to come.

On 23 May, Martin Baker (organist at Westminster Cathedral) plays Widor's 8th Symphony; we don't hear the complete symphonies enough, too often organist simply include single movements. Then on 20 June veteran organist Simon Preston pairs Messiaen's L'Ascenscion with Liszt's Fantasia and fugue Ad nos, ad salutarem undam (in fact based on a chorale from one of Meyerbeer's operas).  Paul Jacobs (from the Juilliard School has a fascinating programme with Elgar's first Sonata, Nadia Boulanger's Trois Pieces plus music by Wayne Oquin and Demessieux (both names new to me). Boulanger stopped composing after her sister died and it is good to be reminded what an interesting composer she was.

William Whitehead (Lincoln's Inn) finishes his recital on 29 August with his own transcription of Parry's 5th Symphony, which should be fascinating to hear. He starts with an arrangement of Elgar's Imperial March in between we have Judith Bingham's Everlasting Crown, and pieces from Whitehead's own Orgelbuchlein Project where he has been commissioning composers to fill in the missing pieces from Bach's Orgelbuchlein. Bach planned 164 pieces and wrote out the titles, but only actually completed 46. At Westminster Whitehead will be playing three of Bach's works alongside those of Dick Koomans and Jacques van Oortmerssen.

19 September sees Joseph Cullen (Leeds) giving us another complete symphony, this time Vierne's 2nd Symphony in E minor, along with music by McMillan, de Grigny and Puccini! (Cullen's own transcription of the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut). Peter Stevens (also from Westminster Cathedra) presents a well balanced recital on 17 October with music by Bach, Buxtehude, Franck, Fricker, Messiaen and Durufle.

The series completes on 5 December when Dame Gillian Weir gives her final pubic performance.

Recitals all take place at 7.30pm at Westminster Cathedral and last 75 minutes. They are free, with a retiring collection, so represent an inexpensive opportunity to hear high quality music making on one of the world's great organs.

Portrait of Love - on a screen near you

Soprano Anna Stephany and the Manchester Camerata under Gábor Takács-Nagy are giving a concert tonight at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. The programme includes an arrangement of Brahms's Liebeslieder Waltzer and David Matthew's arrangement of Dvorak's Love Songs, finishing with Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. If you can't make the concert then rather enterprisingly it is being broadcast live at the Gala Theatre and Cinema in Durham, repeat showings are happening at the Maltings Theatre and Cinema in Berwick (29/4) and Alnwick Playhouse (28/5). If, like me, you don't live in the North East then you'll be able to watch it on-line on BBC Music Magazine's website or on Medici.tv. How's that for making sure people don't miss out.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Buxton Festival

The 2012 Buxton Festival has now been published and quite a programme it is too. 2012 is a year of changes, it is Stephen Barlow's first year as Artistic Director and Glyn Foley's last as CEO, having been in post for 14 years.

There are 8 operas being performed. The Festival's own productions of Strauss's Intermezzo, Handel's Jephtha plus Sibelius's The Maiden in the Tower and Rimsky Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal in a double bill. The Armonico Consort are presenting their Handel based piece Too Hot to Handel, La Serenissima give us Vivaldi's L'Olympiade and Bampton Classical Opera perform The Marriage of Figaro, not Mozart's but the one by Marcos Portugal. Opera Northern Ireland finish off with The Turn of The Screw.

For some reason, Richard Strauss's comedy in two acts does not come to the British stage very often. I missed Scottish Opera's outing of Intermezzo, but prior to that I think the work was last performed at Glyndebourne. I saw the production there with Felicity Lott as Christine Storch. Now, at Buxton we have Janis Kelly as Christine with Stephen Gadd as Robert. A strong cast includes Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala and Robert Poulton. Stephen Barlow conducts and Stephen Unwin directs.Very sensibly the work is being performed in Andrew Porter's English translation.

If Intermezzo is an occasional visitor to UK opera houses, then the operas in Buxton's double bill are extreme rarities. Rimsky Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal is a terrific piece; perhaps the fact that is is only in one act prevents people from taking it up. The story is a fairytale one and the title role is the same character as the villain in Stravinsky's The FirebirdThe Maiden in the Tower was Sibelius's only completed opera and he didn't think too highly of it, but then composers are hardly ever the best judge of their work. Again it is fairy tale based and like the Rimsky Korsakov, it involves a young woman imprisoned by a baddie.

The two operas are being directed by Stephen Lawless, making a relatively rare appearance in this country. The cast of The Maiden in the Tower (Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steel and William Dazeley) all reappear in Kashchei the Immortal with the addition of Robert Poulton, so the two pieces should be interestingly coherent. Both are being sung in new translations by Rodney Blumer.

Katie Mitchell's production of Jephtha, which was performed by ENO and WNO, is still rather long in the memory, so Frederic Wake-Walker is something of a brave soul to essay a new production. He has a strong cast, James Gilchrist as Jephtha, Susan Bickley as Storge, Gillian Keith as Iphis, Jonathan Best as Zebul, William Purefuy as Hamor, with Harry Christophers conducting the orchestra and chorus of the Sixteen. Of course, Jephtha isn't an opera but a dramatic oratorio and producers have their work cut out to make the drama work when presented with one of Handel's substantial choruses. So I await the new production with interest.

The Armonico Consort are bringing a new production, Too Hot to Handel based on music from Serse, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo and Orlando. A modern day pasticcio, it is a good way to introduce Handel's operatic music to opera goers for whom the full Italian operas are a little to long and complex.  It stars Yvette Bonner and William Towers, is directed by Emma Rivlin who co-created the piece with Towers. Christopher Monks conducts. It should be a fascinating 2 hours, charting the highs and lows of a couple's relationship.

Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade is getting quite a few outings this year as are other settings of Metastasio's libretto. La Serenissima are performing the piece in a production by Richard Williams. The cast includes Stephen Gadd (taking time out from his Straussian duties), Louise Poole and Mhairi Lawson. Musical Director Adrian Chandler has prepared the edition used from Vivaldi's autograph. I have to confess that I have yet to see a full staged Vivaldi opera, so far having only had concert performances. So I am interested to find out if La Serenissima can convert me, having rather found Vivaldi very high on musical felicity and toe-tapping tunes but a bit low on real drama.

Marco Portugal's Marriage of Figaro was written eight years after Mozart's death; the libretto is based on Beaumarchais. At that period it was quite common for composers to reuse librettos written for earlier pieces, so it is perhaps more surprising that we don't have more Beaumarchais based operas. The production marks Portugal's 250th anniversary; Portugal was a Portuguese composer (there's a surprise) who studied in his native Lisbon but was sponsored to spend an extended period in Italy.
The Marriage of Figaro was written for Venice in 1799 and Bampton Classical Opera presented the UK premiere of the piece in 2010.

Oliver Mears directs a strong young cast in Opera Northern Ireland's The Turn of the Screw, with Fiona Murphy as the Governess, Andrew Tortise as Peter Quint, Giselle Allen as Miss Jessel and Yvonne Howard as Mrs Grose. The festival is also featuring a Community Musical, James and The Giant Peach with music and lyrics by Herbert Chappell. It will be performed by students from 3 local schools, the Mad Hatters Youth Choir and dancers from Deda.

But there is more to the festival than just opera. Each evening at 6.15 there is a free talk, with Stephen Barlow and guests introducing one of the operas. Then there is the Literary Series, with over 30 events ranging from Peter Conrad talking about his book Verdi and/Or Wagner to a debate about Orwell and Kipling, to John Guy on his new book about Thomas Becket.

Plus an admirable series of concerts involving artists such as Gillian Keith, Joan Rogers and Claire Rutter (each in recital), a programme about the relationship between Strauss and his wife with Janis Kelly and Michael Pennington, a recital by the two most recent Ferrier Award winners Njabulo Madlala (who sings in Intermezzo) and Kitty Whately (who recently had some success as Rosina for ETO). The Sacconi Quartet make two appearances and their programmes include Paul Patterson's 2nd Quartet and a one-movement quartet from Sibelius. The members of the Festival company, who understudy all the main roles in the Festival operas, get a chance to shine in the Opera Scenes. All in all, a musical programme that is rich enough to be a festival in its own right and full of interesting little side-lights on the main events.

Further information from Buxton Festival's website.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Proms 2012

So this year's Proms will soon be upon us. The Proms brochure is now available and booking opens on May 12th.  There are some interesting programmes and one or two OMG moments.

The first night opens the show with a 'relay' of 4 conductors in a programme which includes Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles and Elgar's Coronation Ode (the 1911 version). Along with Delius's Sea Drift and a new Mark-Anthony Turnage piece. All that plus Susan Gritton, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray, Gerald Finley and Bryn Terfel! The next night John Wilson conducts a performance of My Fair Lady with Anthony Andrews as Professor Higgins! They will be using Andre Previn's orchestrations done for the 1964 film. Later in the season the Halle under Mark Elder are doing an evening of Ivor Novello with Sophie Bevan and Toby Spence.

Herve Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have a late night, big baroque band (80 players) concert performing Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks. Then Laurence Cumming and OAE are doing Handel's Judas Maccabeus with John Mark Ainsley in the title role and a strong cast including Christopher Purves, Rosemary Joshua, Christine Rice and Tim Mead; definitely essential listening. The English Concert and Harry Bicket are doing Bach's Mass in B Minor, inevitably a big band version of this to fill the Albert Hall, I suppose. Bach's organ music features in two recitals on the RAH organ by Cameron Carpenter

In a late night Prom, Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini present 1612 Italian Vespers including the world premiere of Hugh Keyte's reconstruction of the 22 part version of Gabrieli's In ecclesiis.

More oratorio with Walton's Belshazzar's Feast with Jonathan Lemalu, Tadaaki Otaka and BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Tippett's Child of Our Time from the BBC Symphony Orchestra with a cast including Sarah Connolly, Paul Groves and Measha Brueggergosman Mark Elder and the Halle are performing Elgar's  Apostles with a strong cast including Rebecca Evans, Alice Coote, Paul Groves, Jacques Imbrailo, Iain Paterson and Clive Bayley.  Schoenberg's Gurrelieder from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiri Belohlavek, with Angela Denoke and Simon O'Neill.

Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer is one of the stand out events of the season and, alas, I'll miss it was we'll be out of the country!

As regards opera, most are companies bringing in work which has been seen elsewhere. John Eliot Gardiner is conducting Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande with a cast who have been performing the piece at the Opera Comique in Paris. The Royal Opera are doing Berlioz's Les Troyens with a cast including Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Caterina Anntonacci and Eva Maria Westbroek; a concert performance but the cast will have been singing in the Covent Garden staging of the work. And ENO are bringing their Peter Grimes with Edward Gardner conducting Stuart Skelton, Amanda Roocroft, Iain Paterson and a strong cast. Glyndebourne are bringing The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Robin Ticciati.

Two operatic performances are creations specially for the Proms. Jane Glover, no less, is conducting Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard in a staging by Martin Duncan with the BBC Concert Orchestra. A terrific cast includes Leih Melrose, Andrew Kennedy, Lisa Milne, Victoria Simmonds, Felicity Palmer, Tom Randle, Mark Stone and Toby Stafford-Allen. Essential listening I think and a welcome outing for an opera which has become something of a rarity. And John Adams will be conducting his own opera, Nixon in China, a cast including Kathleen Kim, Alan Oke and Gerald Finley will be directed by Paul Curran.

In the contemporary music vein John Adams will be conducting his own City Noir, in a programme which also includes Respighi and Ravel. Tenebrae are giving a programme which mixes Orlando Gibbons with ujlian Philips and Steve Martland; contrasting Gibbons's The Cryes of London with Martland's Street Songs. Joanna MacGregor is performing Hugh Wood's Piano Concerto (he is 80 this year amazingly), with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer. Langgaard's 11th Symphony receives its UK premiere (all 5 minutes of it) and Per Norgaard's 7th Symphony also gets is UK premiere. The National Youth Orchestra give us a new Nico Muly piece plus Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, under Vasily Petrenko, should be terrific.

The LPO under Vladimir Jurowksi give us Tchaikovsky's Manfred plus Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Alice Coote. Gergiev and the LSO give us Prokofiev's Cinderella. Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Howells Hymnus Paradisi and Elgar's 1st Symphony.

The National Youth Orchestra of Wales plus all sorts of other Welsh youth groups are performing Bernstein's Mass, not a work I feel attracted to but all those young people on stage should be infection in the enthusiasm. James MacMillan's Credo will get its premiere from the BBC Philharmonic; a bit work, it lasts around 25 minutes and is a BBC commission. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Exaudi under Ilan Volkov give us a nearly all John Cage programme to mark his centenary. Oliver Knussen conducts his own 3rd Symphony in a programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra which includes Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, being played complete for the first time at the Proms. Eric Whitacre conducts a late night Prom centred on his own choral music. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's 9th Symphony gets its London premiere from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

The Proms chamber music series has some terrific concerts. Alice Coote is giving a recital of French song,  Mahan Esfahani doing Bach's The Art of Fugue, L'Arpeggiata present us with a sequence of music based on the tarantella; the Escher Quartet are pairing Debussy with Hugh Wood.

And the last night? Tenor Joseph Calleja does the honours, mixing operatic arias with operetta.

Review of Where's my Bottom

My review of Christopher Gillett's new book Where's my Bottom is here, on MusicWeb International.

Chronicles the life of a jobbing tenor in a way which is charming, illuminating and bed-wettingly funny.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

More Peru

Whilst we are in a Peruvian mood, it is also worth noting that the other opera based on the same story as La Perichole is making its UK debut this summer. Dorset Opera are performing La Carosse du Saint Sacrement by Lord Berners, his only opera. They are giving the UK stage premiere of the opera in a double bill with Puccini's Suor Angelica. Performed in Paris in 1923, Berners' comic opera has never been staged in Britain. Performances take place on 26 and 28 July at Bryanston School. The group will also be staging Verdi's Il Trovatore.

From Peru to Skegness

I grew up in Cleethorpes on the NE Lincolnshire coast and we used to visit Skegness, another seaside place further down the coast. At the time, Skegness's advertisting campaign centred on the motto 'Its so bracing' with a slightly alarming dancing sailor. Now the town has its own arts festival, the SO Festival which takes place between 23 June and 1 July in and around Skegness.

This year they are broadcasting the Garsington production of La Perichole live on a large festival screen on the beach on Sunday 1 July. Early arrivals will be able to sit and watch on deck-chairs and of course everyone will be able to take advantage of the ice-cream and fish and chips for sale near by. There will be pre-show street theatre and post-show fireworks. Offenbach, fireworks and fish and chips, what more could you want! Further details from the SO Festival website.

Also in Skegness, the UK debut of the Helsinborg Symphony Orchestra, who will be appearing at the Embassy Theatre on 17 June as part of East Lindsey Live (a summer programme of events across the region).   Helsinborg Symphony Orchestra is one of Sweden's oldest orchestras, being founded in 1912. Their programme is an interesting mixture of English and Swedish, with Walton's Crown Imperial and Britten's Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes along with music by Stenhammer and Alfven. They will be conducted by their Artistic Director, Andrew Manze, a name familiar to many in the UK for his work with period performance groups.

And what has Peru got to do with it? Well, though the Garsington production of the opera sets La Perichole in Cuba the original story is set in Peru.

ENO new season

So ENO have announced their 2012/13 season. All in all it is an interesting programme and one which covers a few areas that other major companies do not. That said, there are a few gaps. No Wagner for a start. Evidently, at the press conference, John Berry talked about the expense of Wagner and the difficulty of getting singers to perform him in English. This probably chimes in with another gap in the programme, the absence of the some of the senior ranks of UK singers. There are quite a few names (Andrew Shore, Susan Bickley, Matthew Best, Anthony Michaels Moore, Sarah Connolly), but there are many more who are not here and quite a few of those are the ones who might have sung Wagner. It is a shame that some way of staging Phyllida Lloyd's complete Ring cycle. It wasn't one which I like very much, but having invested so much into it surely some way could have been found...

Another area lacking in this season is the presence of untried film directors in the hot seat. And for this, hurrah.

The highlight of the season is something, frankly, that I never expected to see - Vaughan Williams Pilgrims Progress. This is to receive its first fully professional UK staging since the 1950's. It was staged very successfully by the RNCM and there have been two semi-stagings of the work. ENO are entrusting the direction to the Japanese director Yoshi Oida, so don't expect a traditional production. A young cast includes Roland Wood in the title role, with Benedict Nelson as the Evangelist conducted by Martin Brabbins.

Another new production is Handel's Julius Caesar, directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, artistic director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre; the production will be a co-production with Fabulous Beast so expect something rich and strange. Lawrence Zazzo will be taking the title role with Anna Christy as Cleopatra, Patricia Barden as Cornelia and Tim Mead as Tolomeo. Christan Curnyn conducts.

Still in the baroque, Charpentier's Medea makes a welcome appearance with Sarah Connolly in the title role and Jeffrey Francis as Jason; David McVicar directs.

Rupert Goold returns with another new production, Berg's Wozzeck. Though I do hope that his Turandot makes a return as well sometime. Still in the earlier 20th century Richard Jones is doing a new production of Martinu's Julietta with Peter Hoare, Andrew Shore and Susan Bickley, conducted by Edward Gardner. It is an opera that I don't know well, so am curious.

Two new productions are being bought in. Cailixto Bieito's  Carmen which has already got something of a track record. At the Coliseum the title role will be taken by the Roumanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (couldn't a British singer be found?). The last Carmen does not seem to have lasted to this one is probably intended to be disposable as well. Peter Konwitschny will be working at the Coliseum for the first time, bringing his production of La Traviata. A rather radical re-working which strips the production down and plays without an interval. The last 2 Traviatas both made a poor showing, so here's hoping!

The final 2 new productions are contemporary. Michel Van der Aa makes a welcome appearance in the UK with a new opera call Sunken Garden a collaboration with author David Mitchell. This is an ENO co-commission and receives its premiere at the Barbican. And no, I'm not going to mention the 3-D glasses.

The final new production is the most forgettable, but its the one which has had everybody salivating. A new Philip Glass opera based on a sensational book about Walt Disney's final days. Christopher Purves takes the title role and the piece will be directed by Phelim McDermott and his company, Improbably, who were responsible for Satyagraha.

Of the revivals, one stands out. Deborah Warner's Death in Venice returns with John Graham-Hall finally getting a chance at the title role having garnered good reviews when the production went to Italy.

Of the other revivals we have what is promised to be the last of the Nicholas Hyntner Magic Flute, Jonathan Miller's Mikado, Jonathan Miller's Barber of Seville and Jonathan Miller's La Boheme. The Barber is notable for having Benedict Nelson as Figaro, Lucy Crowe as Rosina, Andrew Kennedy as Count Almaviva and Andrew Shore as Doctore Bartolo - a rather wonderful cast.

Evidently 80% of the cast are UK based and the inclusion of major works by Britten, Handel and RVW does give the season an English feel. But, the continued emphasis on non-UK composers for high profile commissions means that the whole season comes over as being not very English National. Certainly having Glass and Van der Aa gives us something of a buzz, but couldn't that have been achieved with more of a UK vein.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Asmik Grigorian

Last night we attended a private recital by the terrific soprano, Asmik Grigorian, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Grigorian was born in Lithuania of Armenian Lithuanian heritage and her experience so far has been in the Baltic states and in Eastern Europe. She made her stage debut in 2004 in Georgia and in 2010 performed all 3 main female roles in Puccini's Il Trittico with Latvian National Opera at the Riga Opera Festival. More recently she has performed Marie in Wozzeck at Opera Cologne,  Rusalka at the Komische Oper Berlin,  Donna Elvira in Riga (you can see her Donna Elivira on YouTube) and Lisa in Pique Dame in Graz

The first half of her recital was devoted to 12 songs by Rachmaninov. Of these, only 1 was familiar to me, Ne poj, krasavica, prim me (Do not sing to me again), setting Pushkin. Apart from Vessenije vody (Spring Waters) and Siren (Lilacs) the songs were all downbeat, generally meditating on failed or lost love; even when not strictly down-beat the material was always rather dramatic. Rachmaninov's voice was unmistakable, you could guess the composer after the first few notes and Grigorian seemed to respond to the songs. Looking and sounding wonderfully dramatic, singing from memory, she gave highly characterised performances which turned some of the songs into mini operatic arias and ensured that the audience was vividly aware of the subject.

Grigorian as a vivid, dramatic voice; I suspect that her operatic repertoire will gradually extend into more dramatic roles. Though Slavic in tone, with an attractive vibrato, she has a nicely focused tone with a solid core and uses the voice expressively.

In the second half we had 2 Tchaikovsky songs, Snova kak prezhede odin (Once again all alone) and the well known Sred shumnogo bala (In the midst of the ball). Both beautifully done, with the lightness of texture of the ball nicely captured. The final Tchaikovsky item was Lisa's Aria from The Queen of Spades,  impassioned and engrossingly dramatic; this is a role that I'd like to see Grigorian in on stage.

Finally we had a group of songs from her native countries. The Armenian Krunk (Crane), by Komitas Vardapet (1869 - 1935), a song which has great emotionally significance from the Armenian diaspora. Vardapet  is regarded as the founder of modern Armenian classical music. Then a pair of Lithuanian items; an aria from Dalia by Balys Dvarionas (1904 - 1972) and Mano sieloj siandien svente by Tollat-Kelpsa.  Dvarionas studied in Lithuania and in Leipzig, where his teachers included Karg-Elert. His opera Dalia was first performed in 1959.

I have to confess that none of these three were familiar to me, but given such committed and impassioned performances, I was interested to hear more.

Roger Vignoles accompanied with his usual discreet brilliance, showing immense sympathy for the songs and providing the singer with fine support.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Berlioz - Grande Messe des Morts

Hector Berlioz - Grande Messe des Morts (1837)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Chetham's School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Gabrieli Consirt
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Winged Lion Records

Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts is in many ways a rather austere work. That might seem an odd way of referring to a piece written for such extravagant forces. But Berlioz's intention was to work with large blocks of sound, suitable for filling a huge church building. So for much of the time, the musical material itself is austerely unfussy as Berlioz evokes a great building in sound. Berlioz the orchestrator understood that to make a piece work in such a large acoustic, the piece couldn't be too much busy and fussy; this ties in aptly with the piece being a requiem mass.

Berlioz was writing at a time when large scale performances, frequently outdoor, were rather popular. His Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale was written for such an occasion and has a similar extravagance in its use of forces.

By including his 4 extra brass bands and 16  timpani, Berlioz had a very definite end in mind, evoking the last trumpet. He was scathing about earlier settings of the Dies Irae which failed to render the Day of Judgement in a suitable terrible manner. But other parts of the mass are less explosive, more neo-classically severe and include some fine unaccompanied passages. And as a result they demand great control from the performers, particularly the singers. The opening Introit and Kyrie for instance needs the focus and precision associated with smaller forces, singers must exercise control.

On this disc from Paul McCreesh's Winged Lion label (recorded in 2010 and released late last year), McCreesh took the calculated risk of combining English forces from the Gabrieli Consort and Players with Polish ones from the Wroclaw Cantans festival. McCreesh is the director of the festival and this disc is the first of what one hopes will be many made in collaboration between the festival and the Gabrieli Consort.

Essentially the main orchestra is Polish, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst the extra brass and timpani are from the UK, comprising the Gabrieli Players and players from Cheetham's School of Music. The singers are a mixture of Polish, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, and the Gabrieli Consort. McCreesh, in his booklet notes, comments on the difficulties of combining singers from two very different traditions and how the fact that they had to sing the Latin text in accordance with 19th century French pronunciation gave the singers a joint goal to struggle towards (and no doubt something to grumble about together).

The instrumentalists are inevitably a mixture of period and modern with emphasis on use period brass and timpani where the sound has changed most. Without being to obsessive, it seemed to me that the strings were using relatively limited and the result is a very coherent and pleasing sound. One which recognises that Berlioz would not have intended his string parts to be coated in a luxuriant wash of vibrato. This means that some of Berlioz's effects are quite magical, particularly the quieter moments.

The effect of the multiple brass choirs coming in during the Dies Irae is simply stunning. It cleans our ears, the way that John Eliot Gardiner's performances of Les Troyens, using instruments of Berlioz's own day, did. Berlioz's vision of a shattering Tuba mirum is fully realised.

The choristers certainly do satisfy the requirements stated earlier. Whilst the big moments are full and overwhelming, moments like the Introit and Kyrie are performed with fine control and quiet intensity. McCreesh has total control of his forces and they are all focussed on his ends, so that whilst the big moments impress, the small gestures like the Quid sum miser are beautifully done, with gorgeously expressive instrumental playing complimenting the finely controlled singing. The performance the Offertory, with the fractured phrases in the orchestra and the monotone in the choir, brings echoes both of the Symphonie Fantastique and Romeo et Juliette; here the clarity of playing and the textures is really brought home.

Robert Murray is the fine tenor soloist is the Sanctus, a nicely controlled line contributing to Berlioz's ravishing textures, here finely captured.

This is a performance of the Requiem without the late 19th/early 20th century gloss which is typically brought to this music. Perhaps it will not quite be to everyone's taste, but it is an incredible achievement and I can't imagine anyone not responding to it.

The 2 CD set comes in a fold out book with a luridly pink cover. There is an extensive article detailing the background to the performance and the decisions taken about what forces to use, plus text and translations. Turn the book over and everything is repeated, in Polish in McCreesh's own translations. There are also pictures of the assembled forces recording in Mary Magdalene Church, Wroclaw.

I have to confess that I had the rather crazy thought that it might have been fun to hear the same forces performing the Requiem's 'companion piece', Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. (Walton included the extra brass bands in Belshazzar at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham who was conducting the Berlioz Requiem at the same Leeds Festival and so the extra brass players would be on hand).

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Un-Prom-ising

I haven't yet written anything about the recently announced Prom season, and won't be for a bit. The Proms web site is one I usually find frustrating, and it proves so this year. Whilst you can handily view the Proms by week and print the whole season, the details omit the performing groups and you have to go into each individual prom to find out more. So I'm waiting till I get my brochure and being as this is culture free south London, there weren't any Proms brochures for sale this afternoon, not even for ready money.

A Soldier and a Maker

Iain Burnside's play, A Soldier and a Maker, arose out of the idea of interleaving Ivor Gurney's songs with texts from his poems and letters. This developed into a full length play which combines Gurney's words and songs along with other material from family and friends, plus his medical records, all woven together into a dramatic structure by Burnside. Burnside has worked on the song repertoire at the Guildhall School of Music over the years. A Soldier and a Maker is in some ways a development of Lads in their Hundreds, Burnside's fully-staged anthology of songs about war and warfare which developed with singers at the the Guildhall School.

GSMD presented A Soldier and a Maker at the Pit, in the Barbican, rather than in the school itself. We saw the premiere on Friday 20th April. Richard Goulding, a former student at GSMD, played Ivor Gurney with students from GSMD playing all other roles and playing the piano; two students played roles in the play, sang and accompanied the songs.

The play, in 2 acts lasting around 1 hour each, was essentially a direct narrative taking Gurney from his native Gloucestershire, to the RCM, to the Western Front, back to the RCM and finally into a mental institution. But the structure was flexible, so that the piece opened with Gurney in the Dartford mental institution and events overlapped. Quite often there were soldiers present, as images from Gurney's mind.

Burnside directed with designs by Guiseppe and Emma Belli. The set was a simple and flexible structure using half a dozen panels each of which bore part of a stunning image in which the designers had interleaved the trees of Gurney's native Gloucestershire with the blasted heath of the Western Front; the complete image was repeated in the floor.

Songs were split between singers and sometimes sung by a group, according to the dramatic context. The songs were part of the narrative flow, sometimes being sung by characters in the drama, sometimes used to accompany the drama and sometimes an indication of what is going on in Gurney's head. It is always difficult to treat mental illness and the complexities of what happens in an artists head, but by interleaving text and songs, Burnside helped us to glimpse the problems and troubles of the Gloucestershire genius.

The action moved between Gloucester, the Royal College of Music, the Army and the hospitals. In Gloucester, Ciaran O'Leary and Holly Marie Bingham were profoundly unsympathetic as Gurney's brother and sister-in-law, giving a troubling counterpoint to Gurney's illness. Gurney's sister Winifred (Bethan Langford) cropped up periodically, out of time, with the text taken from Winifred's candid letters to one of Gurney's early biographers.

At the RCM the students were portrayed as being rather patronising to Gurney, with Herbert Howells (Nicholas Allen) forming something of an almost comic but unsympathetic figure. Jennie Witton was outstanding as Marion Scott, Gurney's long-time friend and supporter; one of the few people to continue visit Gurney when he was in the Dartford mental institution.

The soldiers in Gurney's troop were described to us via his letters, and the war scenes used Gurney's poetry, sometimes recited by the men as a group, a device which I did not feel quite worked; but these scenes brought out the way the war combined horror and humour and the unlikeliness of Gurney writing poetry and songs in the trenches.

Gurney's mental instability was portrayed as almost an extension of the way he felt the need to be connected to the Gloucester countryside. His suicide attempts and descent into some sort of madness, were portrayed in scenes that were profoundly moving and immensely troubling. Using the songs helped us get to know more of Gurney, whereas a simply spoken play would have been able to go less deeply.

The performances were all uniformly strong; perhaps not all the singers were quite up to top lieder standard, but in terms of dramatic delivery and commitment to the words, they could not be faulted. Diction was uniformly excellent and you never felt the need for any crib.

Richard Goulding gave a towering performance as Gurney, complete with Gloucestershire accent, a visceral physical presence who was on stage virtually all the time. A tremendous achievement.

The end, where Gurney alone in his room in the mental institution, is gradually surrounded by the rest of the cast, characters from his past, all singing his song 'By a Bierside', was profoundly moving. The piece will be performed at the Cheltenham Festival in July, but both the piece and these performances deserve a far wider audience.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Opera Review - Der Freischutz

Weber's operas form important pre-cursors to Wagner's works; Euryanthe being seen as an important forerunner to Lohengrin and Der Freischutz including the sort of folkloric German Romanticsm which would influence Wagner; the Wolf's Glen scene forming an interesting harbinger of The Flying Dutchman.

In the 20th and 21st centuries this view has meant that for singers, Weber's operas are seen either as a stepping stone to Wagner or as a nice sideline for Wagnerian singers. So that Rita Hunter recorded the Ortrud like role of Eglantine in Euryanthe (one of Hunter's few studio recordings) with Jessye Norman (herself a Sieglinde) in the title role. When Covent Garden revived Der Freischutz in 1982, Max was sung by Alberto Remedios and in 1989 Rene Kollo sang the role. Kubelik's classic recording of the opera include Hildegard Behrens and Rene Kollo.

But period performance has shown us that Weber's music responds to period instruments and practice. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in 1994 gave a highly successful concert performance of Euryanthe. John Eliot Gardiner has staged Oberon and more recently his account of the Berlioz arrangement of Der Freischutz was seen at the Opera Comique and at the Proms.

So it was with great interest that we went to the Barbican last night (19 April) to hear Colin Davis and the LSO perform Der Freischutz with a pair of leading Wagnerians (Christine Brewer and Simon O'Neill) in the roles of Agathe and Max.

Davis, predictably, used no concessions to period practice; the orchestra was huge (over 60 string players) along with the massed ranks of the LSO chorus, meaning the platform was overflowing. Davis's account was firmly in the camp of Weber seen through Wagner's lenses, string playing was plush and well upholstered, gorgeous in sound but lacking the bound, lift and air that period practice might bring to it.

The opera was sung in German with a spoken English narration written by Amanda Holden and delivered by Malcolm Sinclair. This was sober, well judged, informative and engaging with Sinclair never outstaying his welcome. If we have to have a narration, let it be like this.

There were some truly beautiful moments in the performance, but too often the arias came over as lovely artefacts rather than elements in a drama. Simon O'Neill did attempt some engagement with other singers and Lars Woldt (a last minute replacement as Kaspar) looked suitably grim when not singing, but Christine Brewer remained impassive when not actually singing.

When I interview Christine Brewer a few years ago she talked about how she still sang Mozart and Handel as exercise for her voice. Certainly it has preserved a degree of line and freshness remarkable in a singer who includes Isolde and the Dyers Wife in her repertoire and who has considered Brunnhilde.  Her act 3 cavatina was truly beautiful, with Brewer thinning her voice down finely. And the big act 2 solo, Leise, leise had some superb moments. But the upper part of her voice has a sort of critical mass which is hard to disguise and there was a robustness and inflexibleness to some of the delivery. Quite simply, this Agathe seemed too mature, too experienced, too developed to be pray to such nightmares as the character suffers.

I couldn't help feeling that Sally Matthews, who sang Ännchen, would have been ideally placed to sing Agathe. Ännchen is a soubrette role and Matthews isn't really a soubrette, she's a lyric who is developing a nice dramatic edge. That said she sang well bringing a neat liveliness and expressivity to the role. But without the perky smile to the voice that a singer like Lucia Popp had and which the role needs. Ännchen needs to be fun and Matthews was a little earnestly serious, but with an Agathe as impressively massive of voice as Brewer that's not a surprise.

Simon O'Neill sang Max with a nice sense of line and a bright ping to the voice. He was expressive and certainly didn't just belt his way through. Some of the passage-work was a bit smudgy, but with a voice the size of Neill's then this is inevitable. Whilst O'Neill would not be my ideal in the role (I prefer John Eliot Gardiner's Andrew Kennedy) O'Neill sang with thoughtful credibility and a sense of style. He'd make a very creditable Max on stage and let's hope someone from Covent Garden was listening.

Lars Woldt, though a last minute replacement, has sung Kaspar on stage and this showed. His performance was rooted in dramatic credibility and he had a nice line in snarling without ever going too far over the top. This Kaspar was more than just an evil caricature. It helped that Voldt was singing in his native German, and rather showing up the non-German singers in the cast.

Where Woldt was let down as little was in the Wolf's Glen scene. Despite a number of sound effects, plus the chorus attempting to give the choral parts some sort of extra atmosphere by singing through cardboard megaphones (I kid you not) the result was curiously undramatic and certainly not scary. Davis seemed content to savour the many incidental beauties along the way without ever working them into a dramatic whole. this Wolf's Glen scene was a lovingly crafted artefact which, for all its beauty, was curiously unmoving.

The remaining cast were strong, with Stephan Loges as Ottokar and an off-stage Zamiel; Martin Snell as a solid Kuno; Gidon Saks as a very commanding hermit and Marcus Farnsworth as an engaging Killian. Lucy Hall sang the bridesmaids solo lines as a single solo, so that her character in the programme was labelled Four Bridesmaids.

The chorus sang well for Davis and certainly brought and articulation and liveliness to the choral writing which belied their size. The orchestra, as ever, played wonderfully well for Davis and I have no doubt that the resulting live recording will sound lovely. The concert is repeated tomorrow (Saturday).

Master Quality Sixteen

The Sixteen are now making their new recordings available as master quality digital downloads. Their latest disc, the second volume in their Monteverdi Selva morale e spirituale series, is now available on-line. The disc features the 8-part Dixit Dominus, Messa a 4 da cappella and the bass solo Ab aeterno ordinato sum. Go to the Coro digital download site for more details.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Dream of Gerontius

The CBSO's performances of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Thursday and seen by us at the Barbican on Saturday) turned out to be rather different to those planned. The orchestra's Latvian musical director Andris Nelsons was meant to conduct, with Toby Spence singing the title role. Elgar's oratorio is such an iconic English work that it is always fascinating when foreign conductors engage with it.

In the event, Nelsons had to cancel because of his daughter's illness and Toby Spence himself was ill. So Edward Gardner and Robert Murray stepped in. Gardner has a long history of engagement with the work, having being a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral (one of the Three Choirs Festival cathedrals). Elgar's oratorio was premiered in Birmingham but after a troubled start, developed a long history at the Three Choirs Festivals. Robert Murray is a young tenor making name for himself on the operatic stage and currently rehearsing for the new ENO production of The Flying Dutchman with Gardner conducting.

So, in the event, we had a very English performance of the piece. Gardner did not opt to press the operatic vein and his interpretation was beautifully in the vein of Anglican spirituality (think Adrian Boult) developed during the work's performance history at the Three Choirs Festival. That something else is possible is demonstrated by John Barbirolli who brought out the Roman Catholic intensity in the piece. Gardner took a nicely flexible view of tempi, so that the pulse ebbed and flowed. His speeds were on the moderate side but he did bring chorus and orchestra to some shattering climaxes. It was a deeply felt, intensely moving performance, superbly sung and played by chorus and orchestra.

Murray made a lyrical, open Gerontius, very much in the vein of Stuart Burrows. Perhaps his performance lacked a certain inwardness, but he did step into the role at the last minute and musically he was very fine indeed. He had the necessary heft for the part whilst still being able to offer lyrical beauty, two things that do not always go together nowadays. Sanctus fortis was superbly moving, but Take me away though superbly sung, did not quite tug the heart strings as I would have liked. But that is being picky, this was a fine performance; one which has the potential do develop into a great one if Mr Murray does not sing too many Tristans.

Sarah Connolly was the Angel. Ms Connolly is in danger of becoming a bit ubiquitous in the capital, but if she continues to turn in performances as fine as this one, I can see why. I was profoundly unmoved by Ann Sophie von Otter when I heard her in the role, with the LSO at the Barbican. Ms Connolly restored my faith in modern performances; having seen some very fine interpreters in the past (Janet Baker, Helen Watts) I was beginning to doubt whether we could still do it. But Connolly proved me wrong. A nicely controlled, well modulated performance, dignified but expressive, she brought a warmth to the performance which suffused her tone and ensure that her Angel, though dignified, was moving. Her dialogues with Mr Murray were nicely balanced and just enough on the operatic side to give interest. The great solos were profound, particularly Softly and gently which had a nicely controlled vein of melancholy.

Bass-baritone James Rutherford was simply required to sound impressive and this he did with aplomb, a performance that was moving and committed.

The Dream of Gerontius was premiered in Birmingham in the CBSO's old home, the town hall. This is not an especially large venue so there is no reason why the Barbican should not suffice. Crammed on to the platform, CBSO chorus and orchestra ensured that the climaxes were suitably shattering, but equally produced a ravishing hushed reverence.

The price to pay for this was having the stage extended out to Row D in the stalls. From our seats in Row G at the side of the stalls our main view was of the backs of the first violins, so close we could have helped them out if necessary. Our view of the choir all but obscured by the orchestra, soloists seen just from the side; those further along in the row would have no view of the soloists at all. Now these are not cheap seats (something over £30 each), admittedly not full price but still expensive enough. This is certainly not a satisfactory state of affairs. It is a shame that a way cannot be found to expand the Barbican stage backwards - a costly but surely desirable thing. As it is, I will certainly be thinking twice about listening to any large scale choral works again without thinking very carefully about where to sit.

The other drawback is the hall's lack of an organ. The electric one used was decent enough but its presence at climaxes was a bit discreet and without the physicality of a real organ.


Alice in Wonderland

To Covent Garden on Friday for Christopher Weeldon's ballet, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with a score by Joby Talbot.

New full length ballets have always been scarce at the Royal Ballet and in the last few decades have become increasingly rare. Frederick Ashton did only three (Ondine, Sylvia and Cinderella) plus the 2 act La fille mal gardee; he also did Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Danish Ballet. Kenneth MacMillan did 6,  Romeo and Juliet, Mayerling, ManonAnastasia, The Prince of the Pagodas and Isadora. Twyla Tharp did a full length ballet for the in the 90's and David Bintley did his first version of Cyrano de Bergerac. And that, is I think, just about the total sum since the war.

Of these only Ondine,  Isadora and Cyrano de Bergerac had commissioned scores. Ashton used existing scores for his remaining ballets and MacMillan came to rely on scores assembled. Mayerling uses the music of Liszt,  Anastasia uses Tchaikvovsky symphonies (plus a commissioned score for the last act, which was written first as a one-act ballet), Manon uses a patchwork of Massenet. Ashton's relationship with the Henze score for Ondine was not completely trouble free, but the score is one of the few modern masterpieces of the genre and deservedly iconic in its own right.

MacMillan's one commissioned score, from Richard Rodney Bennett for Isadora, was hardly typical because of MacMillan's decision to use an actress as well as a dancer to play Isadora so that the final work is an amalgam of music, speech and dance which is remarkable, but doesn't quite work. Efforts to create a single act fully danced piece from it, subsequent to MacMillan's death, have not really succeeded.

It is David Bintley who has created a significant number of full length ballets and commissioned some very significant scores, especially since his move to the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Paul Reade's scores for Hobson's Choice and Far from the Madding Crowd are brilliantly realised in a populist vein, whilst Edward II uses a score by John McCabe which continues the Henze tradition of lyrical modernist brilliance. In fact Edward II was commissioned by the Stuttgart Ballet and only mounted in England in 1998, 3 years after its premiere, once Bintley was in charge BRB. (Stuttgart had commissioned a number of MacMillan's significant one-act ballets, such as Requiem and Song of the Earth and he had difficulty getting them mounted at the Royal Ballet.) Bintley has gone on to work with McCabe again on the two full length Arthur ballets.

And what of Alice? Well, it brilliantly does what it was set out to do, entertain. The set pieces such as the tap dancing Mad Hatter at the tea party, the Indian caterpillar, the Red Queen's croquet match and the delightfully scary Red Queen dancing a tango; all these work superbly well and are firmly in the English tradition of character dances. The waltz sequence for the Flowers is beautifully done and clearly in the Ashton/MacMillan vein.

Wheeldon and Talbot deliberately do not mine the vein of dark, sexuality in the story. There are no particular undercurrents such as MacMillan might have picked on. The Red Queen, for instance, is done as an essentially scary, comic version of the Red Queen from Ninette de Valois's Checkmate, but without that character's threatening sexual aura; Wheeldon and Talbot's ballet is curiously sexless.

They have introduced a relationship between Alice and the Jack who stole the tarts, and Alice's adventure becomes, to a certain extent, a pursuit of Jack and a discovery of her adult sexuality. So far, so Freud and MacMillan. But the scenes with Jack, a couple of extended pas de deux sequences do no engage properly. They neither tug at the heart strings the way Ashton was able to do, nor do they pursue troubled psycho-sexual depth the way MacMillan did. Bintley has shown himself as being able to skate between these two and produce works which have a significant depth. But here, Wheeldon and Talbot seem to be content to skate along the surface of the story.

Talbot's score is written for an orchestra with a huge amount of percussion, much of it tuned; I don't think I have ever seen quite such a big percussion department in a ballet. And the score is entertaining and effective and beautifully done. I suspect that if I sat down to listen to it as a concert piece I would enjoy it immensely.

The performance we saw had many of the original cast with Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice, Federico Bonelli as Jack, Edward Watson as the White Rabbit, Laura Morera as the Queen of Hearts, Steven McRae as the Mad Hatter and Fernando Montano as the Caterpillar. It was superbly dance, with bravura, commitment  and a strong vein of lyrical story telling. The audience, many of them young, loved it.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Alfredo Catalani book review

I have reviewed of a pair of books, edited and introduced by David Chandler, which deal with Catalani, the composer of La Wally. Catalani died young, of TB, and the books gather together early biographies and primary sources, putting them into English for the first time. The review is here, on OperaToday.com.

Assumptions about later Italian opera are dominated by Puccini, but Alfredo Catalani, (born in the same town and almost at the same time), was highly regarded by their contemporaries. Two new books on Catalani could change our perceptions.....

Friday, 13 April 2012

Lewes Chamber Music Festival

The first Lewes Chamber Music Festival gets underway on the 23rd and 24th June this year. It offers a delightful combination of concerts over the weekend, with the possibility to hear Haydn - Duo in D for violin and viola, Dvorak - 'Dumka' from Quartet, Barber - 'On Dover Beach', Dvorak - String Quintet in B flat 'American' op.97 and have a cream tea in Firle! Or Schubert's C major Quintet at dusk in Lewes. The festival finale is Mendelssohn, RVW Five Mystical Songs and the Schumann Piano Quintet. The artists for the weekend are:-

Violin - Katharine Gowers, Helene Marechaux, Beatrice Philips, Michael Gurevich
Viola - James Boyd, Oliver Wilson
Cello - Philip Higham, Hannah Sloane
Piano - Alasdair Beatson
Baritone - Jonathan McGovern

Sounds well worth a visit if you can.

Look online for available travel savings.

Recent CD reviews

My review of The Divine Mystery, a lovely disc of early polyphony from Schola Gothia with saxophone improvisations from Hanna Wiskari Griffiths is here.
A lovely disc. Beautifully and evenly sung, with nice unanimity.


And my review of Pax, Salam and Shalom, a recital of early music centred upon medieval Sephardic songs, performed by Canticum Novum is here.
Thoughtful and engaging. 

And my review of Telemann's 'lost' opera Germanicus, from his early Leipzig period, is here.
Not the last word in performances of this opera but lovers of Telemann’s music will want this set. 

Finally my review of Shared Ground, the latest disc of Alec Roth's music from Ex Cathedra is here. All 3 reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Music that is well put together and finely crafted. Choral textures of great beauty and melodic interest. 

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Caritas

The Kings Head Theatre in Islington, home to Opera Up Close, is giving a rare outing to Robert Saxton's opera Caritas based on the play by Arnold Wesker. It concerns a young woman who is immured up in a cell as an anchorite during the middle ages. A powerful piece, it is great to see this sort of work appearing amidst the standard repertoire. There are just 10 performances starting 20th May, further information here.

At the same time, the theatre are presenting Arnold Wesker's play Denial, starting 15th May, further information here.

Gay Don Giovanni

Well it had to happen I suppose, Mozart's Don Giovanni is turning gay; well at least in a new production (version?) of the opera to be presented in Heaven, the nightclub under Charing Cross Station. Dominic Gray is directing and Ranjit Bolt producing a new translation.

But, I'm hearing you ask, how do you make Mozart's Don gay? There have, in fact, been productions where the relationship between Don Giovanni and Leporello has been either homo-social, homo-erotic or down-right intimate; with various degrees of success. I seem to remember one production where the Don seemed to spend rather too much time an a dress. Please!

For this new production, all the characters bar Don Giovanni himself are swapping sex. So that Donna Anna, Donna Elvria and Zerlina become men whilst Leporello and Masetto become women. It makes dramatic sense. And there is a reassuring bit on the website, here, where David Crichton says that they have kept closely to the class-based delineation of the lovers. This is important, Mozart and Da Ponte's opera is about class as much as sex and modern day productions just don't work properly if they ignore the class element.

In this new version the Don becomes a nightclub owner, with Leporello turning into his female PA. Alan (Donna Anna) is from a wealthy, privileged background, Eddie (Donna Elvira) is middle class and Zac (Zerlina) a young working class lad. Also, rather creditably, they are using young singers with operatic/stage backgrounds for the main roles.

From the web-site, which is stylishly but rather annoyingly designed, I am unclear what the accompaniment is going to be. Also, given Heaven's dreadful acoustics, I don't know whether they are going to be using microphones or not. But all in all it sounds a fascinating proposition.

The show is at Heaven starting 15th April 2012. Further details here.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Auber's La Muette de Portici at the Opera Comique

Auber's La Muette de Portici  belongs to a genre of opera, French grand opera from the period 1820 - 1860 which is still under represented on opera stages. The archetypes of the genre, the operas by Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots, Le Prophete and L'Africaine) are rarely recorded or performed and those of his contemporaries, such as Halevy's La Juive, equally so.

In 5 acts, with substantial chorus and balles, grand opera plots tended to concern the conflict between public duty and private relations set against an historical period. The genre developed as the burgeoning French middle classes looked for an alternative to the plots based on classical mythology beloved of the aristocratic ancien regime.

La Muette de Portici was important for the way it set many of the ground rules. It was notable for the way the role of the chorus and the ballet were incorporated into the plot. La Monnaie in Brussels has successfully revived Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and now the Opera Comique in Paris in collaboration with La Monnaie has presented Auber's La Muette de Portici. The production debuted on 5th April 2012 and we saw it on 7th April 2012 performed at the Opera Comique by the Chorus and Orchestra of La Monnaie conducted by Patrick Davin in a production directed by the Sicilian director Emma Dante.

Set in Naples in the 17th century, the plot concerns Alphonse (Maxim Mironov), son of the viceroy of Naples (the city is ruled by the Spanish). He has seduced and abandoned Fenella (Elena Borgogni) the sister of a a fisherman. Fenella is a mute (who can hear but not speak) and communicates by mime. In the 19th century she was often played by a ballet dancer and would communicate via the sort of mime familiar from traditional versions of Tchaikovsky ballets. Here she was played by an actress with contemporary mime training.

Fenella has disappeared and Alphonse worries more about her than his forthcoming nuptials to the Spanish princess Elvire (Eglise Gutierrez). Fenella appears at the nuptials (having escaped prison) and Elivre takes Fenella under her protection, but act 1 concludes with the revelation that Fenella's seducer was Alphonse.

Fenella's brother, Masaniello (Michael Spyres) uses his people's disaffection with their Spanish rulers to encourage a revolt, though in fact his main concern is vengeance for his sister's fate.

Elvire and Alphonse are reconciled.
But in the market, Fenella is recognised by Spanish soldiers and the ensuing fracas triggers the revolution.

Act 4 opens with a long solo from Masaniello who is saddened and troubled by all the killing. When Alphonse and Elvire appear, fleeing retribution from the revolutionaries, Masaniello is persuaded by Fenella to aid them rather than killing them. This goes against the wishes of Pietro (Laurent Alvaro) and the other revolutionaries.

They poison Masaniello and he appears in Act 5 abstracted and troubled. He manages to rouse himself to  lead a final charge against the Spanish. The opera ends with the revolutionaries regretting their acts and being deluged by the erupting Vesuvius.

It might seem strange to perform a work written for the Paris Opera at the Opera Comique but at the time of La Muette de Portici's premiere the stage of the Opera was not significantly bigger than that of the present day Opera Comique.

Carmine Maringola's sets were simple. A set of doors in mobile frames formed the basic set, with additions of Hapsburg portraits, fishermen's nets etc. as needed. The result was flexible and effective, perhaps occasionally lacking in grandeur for some of the scenes at the viceroy's court. Costumes were slightly more problematical. The Spanish ones were loosely based on history, but skewed and stylised so that men looked effete with giant ruffs and the women's dresses were cut away to reveal the dress cages and legs in coloured tights.

Auber and his librettist Scribe do not give much time for establishing character, the historical background was supposed to do that. So I imagine the costumes were meant to look effete (men) and confined (women). But Maxim Mironov as Alphonse looked so effete it was difficult to imagine him having a relationship with 1 woman never mind 2!

Elivre's entrance scene requires the singer to express joy and anticipation in a series of elaborate roulades. Despite being advertised as unwell, Gutierrez did this stunningly, capturing the character's joy with admirable technical ease. Her four Spanish attendants were simply dolls on wheels, a rather curious touch. In lieu of a dance troupe the ensemble used 10 male actors with a variety of backgrounds (dance, acting, martial arts, circus) and Sandro Maria Campagno's inventive choreography had them dancing with the dolls. At the key dramatic moment in act 1 when Alphonse is revealed as Fenella's seducer, Auber gives us a very effective ensemble, a device he uses 2 or 3 times in the opera.

The bulk of act 2 was taken up with a series of attractive fishermen's choruses and a strophic aria for Masaniello, all done to some lively choreography based around fishing nets and ropes, from the actors with 1 or 2 showing off some spectacular circus skills.

The scene in act 3 where Elivre and Alphonse are reconciled is their last big scene together. Whilst the characters remain critical to articulate the plot, their personal relations are complete. Mironov was a fine Alphonse, the high tessitura seemingly holding not terrors. Mironov sang the role lyrically and beautifully, overcoming his unfortunate costume and forming a passionate relationship with Gutierrez's stunning Elvire.

For the market scene, choreographer Sandro Maria Compagno used Auber's ballet to give the actors (as Spanish soldiers) some really threatening choreography, brilliantly responded to by Borgogni's Fenella. The final attack by the revolutionaries was entirely stylised, with the soldiers massacre represented by them stripping naked as they died.  A rather striking image as they remained in place through Auber's stunning unaccompanied chorus and the lively finale sung to the ringing of the tocsin. Of course the image was helped by the fact that the actors were very personable looking young men.

It was as act 4 opened and we had a long meditative solo for Masaniello that I began to understand how the plot structure of Rossini's Guillaume Tell could be made to relate to the earlier, influential opera. Spyres was simply stunning in this long scene. Again the tessitura of the tenor part was very high and Spyres coped manfully, mixing full voice with quieter mixed voice in a very expressive way. He developed a fine rapport with Borgogni was his mute sister.

The final act was dramatically something of a disappointment. Much of the action is done as reportage, though Spyres made a strong impression as the dying and deranged Masaniello. Of course Auber and Scribe were gearing up to the scenic denoument, when Vesuvius eropted. But here, instead, we had Fenella enthroned as the Virgin, with Masaniello's corpse and a hymn form the chorus. Effective use of resources, but hardly a match for the original stage directions.

The Opera Comique fielded a very strong cast for the opera. Gutierrez was an attractive, seductive Elivre with Mironov as her impressive tenor lover. Spyres made a strong revolutionary leader but with a vein of thoughtful melancholy. None of the principals seemed at all phased by the technical demands of their roles and all sang quite brilliantly. Borgogni had an expressive stage presence as Fenella but in the absence of traditional mime, seemed rather too hyperactive for my taste.

Laurent Alvaro and Tomizlav Lavoie were equally strong as revolutionaries Pietro and Borella, with Jean Teitgen  a suitably forbidding Selva, the captain of the Spanish guards. Martial Defontaine was woefully underused and unfortunately costumed as Lorenzo.

The actors formed and integral part of the ensemble, providing well muscled spectacle, some neat dancing, acrobatics and all sorts of other things. Despite varied backgrounds they formed a unified dramatic ensemble.

Patrick Davin drew fine performances from chorus and orchestra though there were a few moments of poor ensemble, generally caused by communication difficulties between stage and pit during lively dramatic moments.

So what did it all sound like? Now that's tricky as most of these operas have dropped off our radar. But Auber was a contemporary of Rossini (and Rossini's operas were given just down the road at the Theatre Italien). And whilst his music is more (French) classically inspired he was clearly influenced by Rossini. Though his style felt distinctive and one I felt was natural, but then it helps that I admire and have a recording of Halevy's La Juive.

Though the opera was substantial it came in at 3 hours 20 mintues including 2 intervals; not excessive when compared to Rossini's Guillaume Tell or Halevy's La Juive.

I can't end without mentioning politics. Not the interesting politics founded on Scribe's libretto; it might be set in 17th century Sicily however the plot had great resonance for 19th century Restoration France.

But the politics of 1830 when a performance of the opera was the signal for the Belgian revolution against their Dutch masters. Masaniello's failed revolt inspiring a successful one.

Auber and Scribe have a reputation for churning out well constructed by passionless work, designed specifically for 'la grande boutique'  (as Verdi described the Paris Opera). But La Muette de Portici at least is a work with heard which works well on today's stage.


Sunday, 1 April 2012

People's Orchestra

A new orchestra is launching in Birmingham; the People's Orchestra is looking for talented amateur musicians / Their first gig is at the Adrian Boult Hall on November 4th and auditions take place at the Custard Factory on 22nd and 29th April. More details at their web-site, www.thepeoplesorchestra.com