Sunday, 24 June 2018

Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up!

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer Rhondda Rips It Up!; Madeleine Shaw, Lesley Garrett, Welsh National Opera, dir: Caroline Clegg, cond: Nicola Rose; WNO at the Hackney Empire Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A vaudeville style celebration of the life and achievments of the Welsh suffragette entertains and uplifts

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera
(Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer's follow-up to her 2016 opera for Welsh National Opera, Figaro gets a divorce couldn't be more different. Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! is most definitely not an opera, it is an entertaining mix of cabaret, vaudeville and music hall, all celebrating the life of the Welsh suffragette, Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda. Using an all female ensemble (singers, musicians, production team) with music by Elena Langer [read my interview with Elena] and words by Emma Jenkins, Welsh National Opera debuted the work on 7 June 2018 in Newport and is taking it on tour. We caught the performance on 22 June 2018 at the Hackney Empire.

Madeleine Shaw played Lady Rhondda with Lesley Garrett as Emcee and an ensemble of women from the WNO Chorus who played all the other roles (male and female). Nicola Rose conducted the instrumental ensemble, the director was Caroline Clegg and designer was Lara Booth.

Whilst the work is described as a cabaret opera, the references are as much to music hall and vaudeville. Emma Jenkins libretto uses individual numbers linked by dialogue whilst Elena Langer's score combines very definite point numbers, pastiche and musical references with an acute ear for timbre and colour which links everything together. Langer's instrumental ensemble consisted of ten players, piano, violin, cello, double bass/bass guitar, accordion, clarinet/saxophone, trumpet/cornet, trombone, tuba, and drumkit/percussion. With these she achieved a remarkable variety of colours, and influences ranged from the brass bands of South Wales to salon dance music, yet the whole was shot through with Langer's voice and the instrumental underscoring of the dialogue ensured a continuity. Langer's scoring was often spare, her use of strong instrumental colours acute.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut

Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
The Israeli soprano Chen Reiss is making her Covent Garden debut on 29 June 2018 as Zerlina in the latest revival of Kasper Holten's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and incidentally, Chen is also making her stage debut in the role having only sung Zerlina in concert before. Having worked extensively in Vienna, Chen is excited to be making her UK stage debut and as a young singer, it was always her dream to sing at Covent Garden. I met up with Chen during rehearsals to find out more.
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)

Chen first sang Zerlina in concert with Zubin Mehta conducting and the Covent Garden performance will be her first staging of the opera. She has seen a lot of productions, and this one is one of her favourites. She first saw the production as a member of the audience in 2014, though it has evolved since then. Apart from Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni, all the cast this time are new to the production ( Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Leporello, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira, Anatoli Sivko as Masetto and Willard W. White as the Commendatore, conducted by Marc Minkowski).


She first came to London with her mother (also an opera singer) when she was 20 and loved the Covent Garden theatre and is enjoying working there now. Not just the theatre, she comments on the vibrant atmosphere of the surrounding area, and in fact, our meeting takes place in a Covent Garden cafe with the sound of street artists performing outside.

She feels that the Covent Garden production doesn't have a boring moment and she contrasts this with some productions where the opera feels very long. In Holten's production, there is always something interesting and intelligent going on, and she likes the idea that it is all happening in the Don's mind. And of course the ending is very strong, the other characters, having fallen into the Don's trap are still living whereas he is left with his madness. Visually she finds the production very beautiful, and the way it uses a single set is very smart, you feel that the characters are lost/trapped in the Don's world.

Chen loves the role of Zerlina and finds the character's music beautiful but she also has half an eye on the role of Donna Anna and hopes to sing it in the future. In fact, Chen loves singing Mozart and has already sung Pamina (The Magic Flute), Illia (Idomeneo) and Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), this latter role is one she has done in concert but will be making her stage debut in the role at the Vienna State Opera this Autumn.

Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera (Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera
(Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
She has quite a wide repertoire from Handel, through Mozart, to Donizetti and Richard Strauss, not to mention Puccini (she recently started singing Liu in Turandot).

Friday, 22 June 2018

Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort

John Butt & Dunedin Consort (Photo David Barbour)
John Butt & Dunedin Consort (Photo David Barbour)
Bach Mass in B minor; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bach's mass with just ten singers in a vibrant yet moving performance full of dramatic contrast

We don't know why or for whom Bach wrote his Mass in B minor, even the title is a later addition. A very, very late work, it is clear that he lavished a lot of care on it and essentially it is something of a summation of his art as he re-used carefully selected material from his back catalogue. That the piece works so well in its own right says a lot for Bach's sheer genius.

Not knowing the possible performance history leaves groups able to apply their own style to the piece, I have even sung it with a chorus of over 150 in Leeds Town Hall with the Victorian organ being used as continuo for the choruses! One concern that I always have in any performance is that of balance, you want moments like the fugue of the opening Kyrie to work with voices and instruments in equal balance so that when the voices come in the results are a continuation rather than the instruments accompanying the voices.


For the performance of Bach's Mass in B minor at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 21 June 2018, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort used an ensemble of ten solo singers to perform the mass, along with an instrumental ensemble based on seven strings. Where some small-scale performances use all consort singers, Butt's line-up consisted of solo voices, Anna Dennis, Claire Evans, Ciara Hendrick, Emily Mitchell, Jess Dandy, Rory McCleery, Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs, Matthias Helm and Jon Stainsby. The ensemble sound in the Coro was thrilling and vibrant, and this was a real vocal ensemble sound rather than a blended choral one. The results brought the piece alive in a way that purely choral ones rarely do, and the seamless transitions from 10-voiced ensembles, through one to a part ensemble to solos and duets, meant that the whole piece had a lovely consistency of tone.

The logistics were complex on a very full platform and I was impressed with the way both singers and orchestral players navigated the stage to get to the right places with the minimum of disruption, enabling the piece to flow naturally without the embarrassing waits for the correct ensemble to be in place.

Singing for Our Lives

Singing for Our Lives, 2017 (Photo Jolade Olusanya )
Singing for Our Lives, 2017 (Photo Jolade Olusanya )
Singing for Our Lives at Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday 1 July marks the final event of the 20th Anniversary of Refugee Week (18-24 June 2018). The concert brings together over 200 performers combining opera, classical, popular and electronic genres with music from around the globe, uniting choirs of refugees, migrants and local communities.

Singing Our Lives reunites the Mixed Up Chorus, the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, the Sing for Freedom Choir and the Guildhall School as well as featuring refugee and asylum-seeker choir Woven Gold and professional vocal ensemble Stile Antico. Over six months, the five choirs came together in a series of workshops facilitated by composer Mike Roberts (Head of Electronic Music & Music Technology, Guildhall School), librettist Sarah Grange and director Phelim McDermott (Improbable), and delivered with the aid of Guildhall School Electronic Music musicians. With music as the common language the singers and musicians learned about each other’s experience and worked with the creative team to compose new music to be premiered as part of an ensemble performance on 1st July.

Further information from the Together Productions website.

Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate; Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley, Zoë Rainey, Alan Burkitt, John Savournin, Joseph Shovelton; dir: Jo Davies/Edward Goggin, cond: James Holmes; Opera North at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 June 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strong ensemble performance in this uplifting revival of Jo Davies' 2015 production

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Not every musical is suitable for an opera company to produce, but Cole Porter's 1948 musical Kiss me Kate (with book by Bella and Samuel Spewack)  seems tailor made. The re-working of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew combines the play with back-stage fighting by the cast, with the result that Porter's score alternates between standard musical numbers and something approaching operetta, in fact the original two principals were drawn from the operatic world. The original orchestrations were done by that great Broadway musician Robert Russell Bennett (in collaboration with Don Walker), and one of the advantages of an opera company revival is the chance to hear the original orchestrations in their full orchestral splendour.

Opera North has revived Jo Davies' 2015 production of Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate and is touring it. Having opened in Leeds and travelled to Ravenna, Italy, the show opened at the London Coliseum on 20 June 2018 (and is there until 30 June 2018). The production was revived by Edward Goggin and conducted by James Holmes with a cast which spanned both opera and musical theatre, including Quirijn de Lang as Fred/Petruchio, Stephanie Corley as Lilli/Kate, Zoë Rainey as Lois/Bianca and Alan Burkitt as Bill/Lucentio, plus Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as the Shakespeare-loving gangsters. The cast was completed by the inestimable Opera North Chorus (which provided three of the smaller roles), plus a group of dancers, whilst James Holmes conducted the Opera North orchestra in the pit.

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Zoe Rainey, Alan Burkitt - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Zoe Rainey, Alan Burkitt - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Davies' inventive production, based around mobile flats (designs by Colin Richmond), moved easily and fluidly from the backstage scenes to on-stage presentation of the play. The whole production was very crisp and tight, with superb participation from the Opera North chorus which moved alongside the dancers in an admirable manner with none of the separation between singing chorus and dancers which can happen.

I have to confess that I have always found the cod Shakespeare bits of the musical have their longeurs, but Davies and Goggins brought a lively imagination to the bad Shakespeare staging and of course, Bella and Samuel Spewack's book makes the backstage fighting between Fred and Lilli spill over into the scenes between Petruchio and Kate, giving a superb sense of uncertainty as to whether we were experiencing Kate in the play or Lilli in real life, something which gave the climactic scene at the end of Act One real zest in this performance.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Supersize polyphony - 40 part Tallis and 60-part Striggio

Nonsuch Palace
Nonsuch Palace, possible venue for the premiere of Tallis's Spem in alium
The Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony tour opens tomorrow (22 June 2018) at the Thaxted Festival, and continues until the 17 July 2018. The choir will be performing two of the largest polyphonic works in the repertoire, Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium and Alessandro Striggio’s 60-part Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno in complete ‘surround sound’ – with the audience encircled by the choir. Directed by Christopher Monks, the Armonico Consort will be joined by the Choir of Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge and, for the Striggio, they will also be collaborating with local chamber and youth choirs.

Thomas Tallis's motet Spem in alium was written arount 1570 though the earliest surviving manuscripts date from 1610, when the motet was re-used (with English words) for the investiture of Henry, Prince of Wales. According to an anecdote written in a letter at the time (in 1611), the motet was the result of the challenge from the Duke of Norfolk as a result of Alessandro Striggio's visit to England in 1567, when he brought either his 40 part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 60-part mass. And Tallis's motet, written in challenge and emulation, may well have been conceived to be performed in the octagon of Nonsuch Palace; the work uses eight five-part choirs and Tallis moves the music around the choirs in a very spatial manner.

After their appearance at the Thaxted Festival, the Armonico Consort's  eight-date UK tour includes a flagship concert in the spectacular Coventry Cathedral (Friday 6 July), an open-air performance at Petworth House Stable Yard to open the 40th Petworth Festival (17 July) and visits to Poole, Crawley, Malvern, Basingstoke, and Cambridge.

There is also a series of associated events for children and local communities. Armonico Consort’s singing education programme, AC Academy, will give schools workshops in partnership with local music education hubs, introducing children to the Striggio Mass through three short new pieces written by composer-in-residence, Toby Young. They will be taught in schools and then sung together with the professional singers in immersive, in-the-round concert workshops.

There are also come-and-sing open rehearsals at several venues where the public can learn Tallis’ Spem in Alium singing alongside the professional singers during open rehearsals. Pop-up performances are also planned and a recording to be made in Cambridge will be released on the Signum label.


Full details from the Armonico Consort website.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican

Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Bach, Gabrieli, Sartorius; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner; Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 16 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner & his ensembles in Bach cantatas for Easter & Ascension

The evening concert on Saturday 16 June 2018 as part of the Barbican Centre's Bach Weekend celebrating Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 75th birthday was the antithesis of Solomon’s Knot in the afternoon [see Ruth's review]. A maestro, a dress code, a certain reverential demeanour from all on stage and in the audience, and a general sense that this was An Event.
 
The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists performed large-scale cantatas by JS Bach interspersed with a cappella motets in Latin by Giovanni Gabrieli and the German-born but Italian-educated Paul Sartorius (born Schneider). These were in great contrast to the Lutheran sound world of the rest of the concert, and yet there were elements – notably Gabrieli’s chromaticism and Sartorius’ punchiness – that we would hear in the Bach, reminding us that his influences were eclectic. To my ear there was something of Rameau in some of the chorales too.

The programme booklet drew attention to Bach’s letter to the church authorities at Mühlhausen stating his artistic aim to preside over ‘eine regulierte Kirchenmusik zu Gottes Ehren’ (‘a well-regulated church music to the honour of God’).

Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot
Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christoph Bach; Solomon's Knot; St Gile's Church, Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 16 June 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Motets by JS Bach and his cousin JC Bach from this conductorless ensemble

The Barbican Centre has been celebrating Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 75th birthday with seven concert over three days, with events in the Barbican Hall, St Giles’ Cripplegate, Milton Court and LSO St Luke’s. Gardiner used some of his players and singers from the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in combination with some newcomers. The Bach takeover weekend also provided ample opportunity to hang out in the Centre, drinking coffee, catching up with old friends and fighting off the ubiquitous pigeons.

The Saturday afternoon concert (16 June 2018) was given by Solomon's Knot in a packed-out St Giles’ Church. It contrasted motets by Johann Sebastian Bach with those written by his father’s cousin Johann Christoph. The older Bach worked at Eisenach and was described by his younger cousin as ‘the profound composer’ – ‘as good at inventing beautiful thoughts as he was at expressing words’.

Ades, Henson, Berkeley & Bernstein: Britten Sinfonia's Summer season

Britten Sinfonia (Photo Thomas Skovsende)
Britten Sinfonia (Photo Thomas Skovsende)
The Britten Sinfonia's Summer season starts on Friday 22 June 2018 with a concert in Rye as part of the Peasmarsh Festival, and the season continues with performances of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face at Nevill Holt Opera, premieres of works by Keaton Henson and Michael Berkeley and an appearance at the Proms.

On Friday 22 June, at St Mary's Church, Rye, Douglas Boyd (artistic director of Garsington Opera) conducts the Britten Sinfonia in Bernstein's Serenade (with soloist Anthony Marwood) plus music by Haydn and Boccherini.

Antony McDonald's production of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face was first performed at Northern Ireland Opera. Ian Ryan conducts the revival at Nevill Holt Opera with Mary Plazas as the Duchess and the Britten Sinfonia in the pit. The production runs from 28 June to 1 July.

The Britten Sinfonia at Lunch concerts continue in Norwich and Cambridge with performances from the Britten Sinfonia Academy performing Schumann orchestrated by Tom Coult, Bach orchestrated by Webern and Ravel's orchestration of his own piano pieces, and the concert will be repeated at the Latitude Festival on 14 July.

At the Barbican, the orchestra premieres Keaton Henson's Six Lethargies, composed around, and from within, issues of mental illness and human emotion, the piece aims to express and explain feelings of anxiety and depression through six connected movements for string orchestra. Whilst at the Wigmore Hall the ensemble is helping celebrate Michael Berkeley's 70th birthday with the world premiere of a new work by Berkeley for solo oboe and a performance of Into the Ravine, plus music by Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

And the orchestra will be at the BBC Proms on 4 September in a programme based around the tango, with pianist Pablo Ziegler.

Full details from the Britten Sinfonia website.

Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo

Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo; The Brook Street Band; AVIE
Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo; The Brook Street Band; AVIE
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Spanning virtually the whole of Handel's composing life, these sonatas are brought to life in engaging performances

Having recorded all of Handel's trio sonatas, The Brook Street Band has returned to the composer's chamber music for a disc of his Sonatas for violin and basso continuo on Avie Records. Violinist Rachel Harris, cellist Tatty Theo and harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley perform all nine sonatas which are attributed to Handel.

The history of Handel's violin sonatas is somewhat problematic. We only have autograph manuscripts for five of them, whilst four appear in publications from John Walsh, published during Handel's lifetime. There are good arguments for assuming that these four have their origins in manuscripts by Handel, but we have no way of knowing for certain and Walsh was notorious for his piracy.

The sonatas cover a remarkably wide range of Handel's career. Sonata in G major HWV 358 dates from Handel's Italian period, 1707-1710, whilst the sonatas in D minor HWV 359a, in A major HWV 361 and in G minor HWV 364a probably date from 1724-26. The four sonatas lacking autographs were published by Walsh in 1730 and 1732/33, whilst the last sonata dates from 1749-50, a period when Handel wrote virtually no chamber music, which leaves open the question as to why he wrote it and for whom.

Choral Scholarship - St Mary's Church, Chelsea

St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea
St Mary’s Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, London SW3 is seeking to appoint a SOPRANO CHORAL SCHOLAR from September 2018 to support the current voluntary choir, director of music Jack Thompson, which sings each Sunday at the 11.30am Solemn Mass.

The parish of St Mary’s Cadogan Street is one of the oldest Roman Catholic parishes in Central London. Priests and people have met and offered Mass in various buildings around the parish since 1794. The current church was built between 1877 and 1879 by John Francis Bentley, the architect of Westminster Cathedral. The church is a four minute walk from Sloane Square (District/Circle line) and a 20 minute walk from London Victoria .

The current choir of volunteers is made up a number of singers, drawn from all over London, who have made St Mary’s their place of worship (I have sung in the choir for over 20 years). Repertoire consists of music from a variety of styles including eight-part polyphonic motets by Palestrina and Victoria, accompanied masses by Mozart and Haydn, and contemporary works by Philip Stopford and Ola Gjeilo.

The Soprano Choral Scholarship was introduced at St Mary’s in January 2017. It has proved to be a highly successful initiative that has helped to enhance the choir and support its members. The scholarship also provides opportunities for solo work – in addition to weddings and funerals, there are a number of services throughout the year that require a soloist or cantor.

Full details from the St Mary's Latin Mass Choir website (PDF).

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

UK Classical Music Blogs Planet Hugill has been named as one of Feedspot's Top 10 UK Classical Music Blogs

We are third in their Top 10 list, many thanks to everyone who has made this possible.

Psalm to Windrush: for the Brave and Ingenious

Passengers disembarking from the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, June 1948
Passengers disembarking from the
Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, June 1948
The world premiere of a new piece for solo voices and organ, Psalm to Windrush: for the Brave and the Ingenious, by the British/Jamaican composer Shirley J. Thompson, will feature as part of the service being held at Westminster Abbey on 22 June 2018 to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948 at Tilbury Docks.

The thanksgiving service Spirit of Windrush -Contributions to Multicultural Britain will feature Thomson's new piece performed by Nadine Benjamin and Gweneth-Ann Rand (sopranos), Ronald Samm (tenor), Bryon Jackson (baritone), Peter Holder (organ), conducted by Thompson.

Other participants in the service will include a 70th Anniversary Windrush Choir, directed by Karen Gibson, Gospel soloist Carla Jane and the Shernall Street Methodist Steel Band. The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr John Hall, will officiate at the service in the Windrush Cope, a liturgical vestment that has been specifically created to mark the 70th anniversary year. The service will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship (0810-0848) on Sunday, 24th June 2018.

Between 1948 and 1973, some 524,000 people from the Commonwealth became residents in the UK. Caribbean people currently comprise 3% of Britain's population.

Further information from the Westminster Abbey website.

Engaging rarity: Verdi's Un giorno di Regno from Heidenheim

Un giorno di regno - Heidenheim Opera Festival - Coviello Classics
Verdi Un giorno di regno; Heidenheim Opera Festival, cond: Marcus Bosch; Coviello Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Full of vivacity, a live recording of Verdi's second opera from the Heidenheim Opera Festival

Early Verdi is undergoing something of a rediscovery, this Summer the Buxton Festival mounts its third early Verdi production with Alzira this year, with the original Macbeth last year and Giovanna d'Arco in 2015 [see my interview with Buxton's artistic director Stephen Barlow]. Whilst this Summer in Heidenheim, Germany the Heidenheim Opera Festival reaches Verdi's I Lombardi in their chronological survey of Verdi's early operas. The linking factor between these two festivals is the willingness to take Verdi's early operas on their own terms, performing in smaller theatres with more chamber-sized forces. In other words, not projecting late, larger-scale Verdi back onto the early works and accepting them for what they are.

Heidenheim's 2016 performance of Verdi's Oberto has already been issued on disc [see my review], and now the 2017 performance of Verdi's Un giorno di regno [see my review of the original performance] has been issued on disc on the Coviello Classics label. Marcus Bosch conducts the Cappella Aquileia and Czech Philharmonic Choir, with Gocha Abuladze as Cavaliere Belfiore, Davide Fersini as Barone Kelbar, Valda Wilson as Giulietta Di Kelbar, Elisabeth Jansson as Marchesa Del Poggio, Giuseppe Talamo as Edoardo Di Sanval, David Steffens as La Rocca, Leon De La Guardia as Conte Ivrea and Daniel Dropulja as Delmonte.

It has to be emphasised that Un giorno di regno was only Verdi's second opera, created under difficult circumstances. The libretto he was offered was the best of a bad job and his wife died during the composition process. Verdi did not take the libretto lock, stock and barrel, it was adjusted to suit more modern tastes, so the recitative is cut back to a minimum and there are substantial arias which owe more to opera seria than to opera buffa. Inexperience shows in the piece, but you can sense Verdi wanting to explore character more than say Rossini in his early comedies. But it is Rossini whose influence can be felt throughout this opera, both the comedies and the more serious operas in the large-scale set pieces, there is even a double aria for the Marchesa.  Whereas in his serious opera, the young Verdi was clearly influenced by Donizetti, for comedy it was clearly Rossini (after all Donizetti's Don Pasquale was still two years away).

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Sirens' Voice: Magnificent Women

The Sirens' Voice
The third of the London Oriana Choir and conductor Dominic Peckham's five15 concerts takes place at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich on Thursday 21 June 2018. Entitled The Sirens' Voice: Magnificent Women, the concert continues the five15's exploration of music by women composers with a programme spanning the centuries from the 11th to the 21st, starting with an arrangement of a Hildegard von Bingen plainsong by Felicia Sandler to Vespertilians by the American composer Jocelyn Hagen, and the award-winning The Angel by the young Swedish composer Tina Andersson. British composers include Imogen Holst, Kerry Andrew and Sally Beamish.

The name of the choir's third five15 composer-in-residence will also be announced at the concert. The 2017/18 holder of this role Rebecca Dale, has just been signed to Decca Publishing and Decca Classics, the first woman to achieve this distinction.

Further details from the London Oriana Choir website.

Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at The Grange Festival

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Charles Rice - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Charles Rice & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia; John Irvin, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, Charles Rice, Riccardo Novaro, dir: Stephen Barlow, cond: David Parry; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A busily engaging and highly theatrical account of Rossini's comedy

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia - Jose Maria Lo Monaco - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)
Jose Maria Lo Monaco
The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)   
On a rather grim, cold evening The Grange Festival's lively new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia certainly brought a welcome feeling of brightness and warmth. Directed by Stephen Barlow, designed by Andrew D Edwards with lighting by Howard Hudson, cast featured the American tenor John Irvin as Count Almaviva, the Italian mezzo-soprano Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Rosina, the Anglo-French baritone Charles Rice as Figaro and the Italian baritone Riccardo Novaro as Dr. Bartolo, with David Soar as Don Basilio, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Berta and Toby Girling as Fiorillo. David Parry conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

David Parry and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave us an engaging account of the overture, with lyricism contrasted with finely pointed detail. Parry's speeds were steady at first, concentrating on character yet keeping the excitement building to the rush at the very end. The overture was played with the curtain down, but at the end Toby Girling's Fiorillo appeared through the curtain, dressed in 18th century style, to urge Parry and the orchestra to rush to the end. Fiorillo's friends were all musicians, come to accompany Almaviva and they disappeared into the orchestra pit.  John Irvin's Count appeared at first in 18th century dress, but for his opening serenade (played initially with the curtain down) he dressed in modern guise.

This scene encapsulated elements of Barlow's approach to the piece. There was a sense of performance in the theatre, with the characters sometimes seemingly knowing they were in a performance with an audience, and with much interaction with David Parry. This was combined with a deliberately anachronistic approach to the setting, so that modern and period references combined. Almaviva's disguises were all modern dress and the chorus was modern dress, yet the other characters were mainly period, but we had modern references with the presence of mobile phones, vacuum cleaners etc. There was also a playfully entertaining approach to the staging, keeping things moving and with the larger numbers busily stage, as well as an admixture of the absurd.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Seriously unusual: Stephen Barlow introduces Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's Alzira

Eugenia Tadolini's costume as Alzira for the 1845 premiere of Verdi's Alzira
Eugenia Tadolini's costume as Alzira for the 1845
premiere of Verdi's Alzira
This year the Buxton Festival is performing the third of its trilogy of early Verdi opera, directed by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Stephen Barlow. Whilst the previous two operas in the trilogy, Giovanna d'Arco (performed in Buxton in 2015, see my review) and the original 1847 Macbeth (performed in Buxton in 2017, see my review) are relatively rare, this year's opera Alzira is seriously unusually having been rarely performed in the UK. I recently met up with Stephen to talk about Alzira and, as it was recently announced that he is stepping down as Buxton's artistic director, we also looked back over his time in Buxton.

Stephen calls Alzira an anomaly, it was preceded by I due Foscari and Giovanna d'Arco and followed by Attila and Macbeth, yet it has been neglected. He points out that it is rather too easy to take Verdi's remarks about the opera out of context (at one point Verdi seems to have referred to it as 'ugly') and say that Verdi did not like the work. But Stephen feels that you only have to open the score to realise how unusual Alzira is.

A short opera, in its treatment of text, emotion and drama it is a very terse work, more terse than the 1847 Macbeth (which is hardly a long work). A short synopsis of the drama gives no idea of the detail filled into the libretto. In rehearsal, Stephen has been finding that they can spend so much time on three or four pages of recitative. The dynamics, text and sheer terseness give you so much to read between the lines. This means that the old sort of stand and deliver performances rather missed so much of the detail in the work.

Ben Johnson (Carlo), Kate Ladner (Giovanna) and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco 2015. (Photo Jonathan Keenan)
Ben Johnson, Kate Ladner and Chorus in Buxton Festival's Giovanna d'Arco 2015. (Photo Jonathan Keenan)
Verdi wrote the work quickly but Stephen finds his choices of tempo and dynamics very clear and very interesting, especially if you actually observe them in performance (something that they did with the performances of Macbeth in Buxton last year). The work is hard because it is compact, but Stephen feels that anyone who lover Verdi and loves bel canto will get it.

Second view: Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park conducted by George Jackson

Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Nick Pritchard, Eleanor Dennis - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Nick Pritchard, Eleanor Dennis
Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart Cosi fan tutte; Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Nick Pritchard, Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, Peter Coleman Wright, cond: George Jackson, dir: Oliver Platt; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A return to Opera Holland Park's Cosi fan tutte, with a new conductor

It is always fascinating returning to productions for a second view. Second time around, your perceptions of the piece have changed somewhat, but also the performance has bedded in and the cast has further developed their relationships. We returned to see Oliver Platt's production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park on 14 June 2018 [see my review of the production's premiere]. Whilst the cast was the same, with Eleanor Dennis and Kitty Whately as the sisters, Nicholas Lester and Nick Pritchard as the young men wooing them, and Sarah Tynan and Peter Coleman Wright as Despina and Don Alfonso, there was a new conductor, George Jackson, who is associate conductor for the production, with the City of London Sinfonia.

What came over particularly with this performance was how cast had developed as an ensemble. Whilst the production does not neglect the more serious issues, it was clear that the singers were having great fun and this enjoyment communicated itself to us in the audience. As the sisters, Eleanor Dennis and Kitty Whately were two complementary characters, with the Eleanor Dennis as the somewhat sharper, more serious of the two whilst Kitty Whately displayed a nice liveliness of character. Yet there were similarlities too, and the two characters were closer than in some productions. Dennis displayed some lovely evenness of tone in the passagework of 'Come scoglio' whilst Whately's appealing yet luxuriant tone combined with a nice sense of style.

Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Kitty Whately, Nicholas Lester - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Kitty Whately, Nicholas Lester - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Disguise was a key element of the production, after all we start in a tailor's shop and the young men, Nicholas Lester and Nick Pritchard, start off in 18th century outfits with white faces and huge wigs that are as much a disguise as the Albanian costume.

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Musgrave Portrait concert celebrates her 90th birthday

Thea Musgrave (Photo Bryan Sheffield)
Thea Musgrave (Photo Bryan Sheffield)
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has a long association with the work of Thea Musgrave, it performed a number of her early compositions in the 1950s including her ballet suite A Tale for Thieves in 1957. Tonight (15 June 2018) the orchestra will be celebrating the composer's 90th birthday with a concert in her presence at Glasgow City Halls. [see my 90th birthday interview with Thea Musgrave].

Conducted by Jac van Steen the orchestra will be performing Musgrave's Song of the Enchanter, Two's Company, Memento Vitae: Concerto in Homage to Beethoven, and Phoenix Rising. For Two's Company the orchestra will be joined by percussionist Evelyn Glennie and oboist Nicholas Daniel; the work was written for them in 2005 and commissioned by the BBC.

Also in the programme will be Short Symphony (Symphony No.2) by Aaron Copland, with whom Musgrave studied at Tanglewood in the 1950s, and Celebration by Richard Rodney Bennett who was a lifelong friend of Thea Musgrave's.

Further details from the BBC website. The concert is being recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Hope for Grenfell Memorial Gala

Opera Holland Park - Hope for Grenfell Memorial Gala -  (Photo Ali Wright for Opera Holland Park)
Opera Holland Park - Hope for Grenfell Memorial Gala -  (Photo Ali Wright for Opera Holland Park)
The anniversay of the tragic Grenfell fire has been marked in a number of ways, but for Opera Holland Park (OHP) the disaster was personal, not only were those lost neighbours but Debbie Lamprell, a much-loved member of OHP’s staff, was also one the victims. In Debbie's memory and in memory of all those lost in the fire, Opera Holland Park held the Hope for Grenfell Memorial Gala on Wednesday, 13 June 2018.

Performers included a nearly 200-strong community choir, made up of local school children and residents, directed by Gareth Malone in a new work by Will Todd and Gareth Malone, Help Me Believe, created from workshops with members of the Grenfell community and OHP’s Inspire Project. A new arrangement of Will Todd's Amazing Grace was also performed, see video below.

Children affected by the Grenfell tragedy offered moving reflections, with introductions and support from the actors Jim Carter, Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and Dame Penelope Wilton, with Sir Trevor McDonald introducing the evening and Penny Smith interviewing performers on stage. Tobi-King Bakare and Reda Elazouar, two teenagers from the Grenfell community, performed their own spoken word piece Someone Please Explain, written especially for the concert.

The concert also featured scenes from OHP’s current season productions of La traviata and Così fan tutte, performed by their full casts, as well as popular arias from a wide range of other operas. Guests from across the operatic world included Peter Auty, Stephen Aviss, Cheryl Barker, Nadine Benjamin, Lee Bisset, Michael Bradley, Susan Bullock, David Butt Philip, Peter Coleman-Wright, Eleanor Dennis, Anne Sophie Duprels, Lauren Fagan, Stephen Gadd, Ben Johnson, Henry Grant Kerswell, Nicholas Lester, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Anna Patalong, Hannah Pedley, Nick Pritchard, Gweneth-Ann Rand, Natalya Romaniw, Nicky Spence, David Stephenson, Sarah Tynan, Kitty Whately, Laura Woods and Fflur Wyn. Matthew Kofi Waldren, Dane Lam and Peter Robinson conducted OHP’s resident orchestra the City of London Sinfonia and the OHP chorus.



All proceeds will be donated to the Rugby Portobello Trust (RPT) and the final total is still being calculated, but it is hoped to exceed £100k.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Sei Solo: Bach's six sonatas and partitas for violin alone

Sei Solo - Thomas Bowes: Violin - Bach - Navona Records
Bach Complete Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin; Thomas Bowes; Navona Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 June 2018 Star rating: 3.5(★★★½)
A powerful and serious journey through Bach's six unaccompanied violin works

During 202/13 violinst Tom Bowes undertook a Bach Pilgrimmage, giving 50 concerts of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas and this Bach Pilgrimmage has become a growing feature of Bowes live performances since then. Arising out of the pilgrimmage is this recording on the Navona Records label of Bach's complete sonatas and partitas, recorded over a three year period. These are studio recordings, but the aim is to capture something of the live performances associated with them.

Chamber music has always been a feature Tom Bowes musical life, he was the founding leader of the Maggini Quartet from 2003 to 2015, and has a duo partnership Double Exposure with his wife, composer and pianist Eleanor Alberga.

In his booklet note Bowes talks about the personal background to the sonatas and partitas. Written in 1720 whilst Bach worked at the court of Cothen, the year was also the one where Bach's wife Maria died suddenly. Bowes sees the violin works as a spiritual journey, informed by such moments as the opening Adagio of the C major sonata where the fugue subject is based on the Lutheran hymn Komm heilige Geist.

12:40

12 new arias, 40 creative artists, 1 production, 3 performances

National Opera Studio - 12:40
The National Opera Studio has commissioned 12 new arias from contemporary composers and librettists and these are being presented in a showcase production at Hoxton Hall for three performances from 14 to 15 June 2018, directed by David Sulkin with costumes showcasing the work of fashion designer Margaret Howell, who has generously donated all the clothes worn by the singers and repetiteurs. 

Each aria was written for a particular singer currently at the National Opera Studio, with the singer being involved in the creative process and the results intended to demonstrate their individual talents. Composers involved include Tom Randle, Bushra El Turk, Philip Venables, and Sally Beamish.

Further details from the National Opera Studio website.

Programme

'I lace my boots' from SCRUM: A method for restarting Play by Na'ama Zisser and Samantha Newton

'The Undeniable Loneliness of Whale Evolution' from Indus by Cameron Dodds and Ruth Mariner
'Sole nell' ombra' from Black Sun by Tom Randle and Bechara Moufarrej
'Rosina' from Fallout by Bushra El Turk and Cordelia Lynn
'Alice' from an opera as yet untitled by Philip Venables and Ted Huffman
'Howell's Decision' from Keeping the Light by Lewis Murphy and Laura Attridge
'Hiraeth' from Hiraeth by Hannah Kendall and Tessa McWatt
'Nobody Cries' from Salvage by Benjamin Tassie and Jacqueline Saphra
'The Handbag Aria' from Loitadora ("Fighter") by Samantha Fernando and Rebecca Hurst
'The Frog Prince' from Alchemy by Sally Beamish and Peter Thomson
'Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Mengirimkan Pesan Kepada Raja Muda' ("The People’s Council Sends a Message to the Viceroy") from Bagaimana Sang Insinyur Agung Minus Teh Bersama Sultan, Dan Apa Yang Terdengar Oleh Bayangan Mereka Yang Memanjang ("How The Great Engineer Took Tea With The Sultan, And What Their Lengthening Shadows Heard") by Christian Mason and Oge Nwosu
'Where No Bell Tolls' from The Barefoot Dancer & The Demon of the Belfry by Rosabella Gregory and Dina Soraya Gregory

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Looking ahead: St Marylebone Festival

Lord Byron, one of the local connections celebrated in the St Marylebone Festival
Lord Byron, one of the local connections celebrated
in the St Marylebone Festival
Celebrating both the community and the rich heritage of the area, the St Marylebone Festival runs from 21 to 27 July 2018. Based around St Marylebone Church, the festival's programme has been devised by Festival Artistic Director & Director of Music at St Marylebone Parish Church, Gavin Roberts and The Revd Canon Stephen Evans, Rector of St Marylebone. The festival kicks off on Saturday 22 July with a come and sing event with distinguished composer and choral conductor John Rutter, and on Sunday 22 July there is a festal Eucharist showcasing music by women composers.

Other highlights of the festival include a focus on Marylebone-born Ethel Smyth with contralto Lucy Stevens with pianist Gavin Roberts Grasp the Nettle which tells Smyth's story and showcases her music. There will also be a talk on the composer by Lewis Orchard of the Surrey History Society. James Robinson (tenor), Adam Sullivan (tenor), David Jones (baritone) and Gavin Roberts (piano) will be celebrating the life of Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music. Mewton-Wood enjoyed an illustrious performing career and was friends with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, but tragically he was to take his own life following the death of his lover William Fredrick.

Another Marylebone connection is Lord Byron, who was baptised in the parish church, and Amanda Pitt (soprano) and Gavin Roberts (piano) will celebrate his legacy with a programme of song and readings. Another resident was RVW, and there is a free screening of the film Scott of the Antarctic for which RVW wrote the music, and Scott features also on James Way (tenor) and Gavin Roberts (piano) Scott and Schubert – A Winter Journey which combines Schubert's Winterreise with readings from Scott's diary.

Jill Kemp, recorders and Claire Williams, harpsichord, present a colourful programme containing many musical delights that may have been heard in the original Pleasure Gardens of Old Marylebone.

Full details from the festival website.

Showcasing the chorus: Opera North's Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill

From Berlin to Broadway
For the last few years, as part of its Summer season, Opera North has presented a show which showcases the talents of the company's chorus. This year, in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, they are presenting Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill at the City Varieties, Leeds from 15 to 21 June 2018. 

An ensemble of singers from the chorus of Opera North will be performing a range of Kurt Weill's songs stretching from his Weimar Republic collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, through his Broadway shows to his Broadway opera Street Scene and his final work, Lost in the Stars based on Alan Paton's book Cry the beloved country.

Members of the chorus of Opera North rehearsing for 'Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill'
Members of the chorus of Opera North rehearsing for 'Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill' (Photo Opera North)
The show is directed by Giles Havergal with Martin Pickard as musical director, designer is Catherine Morgan and the choreographer is Darren Royston. You can read more about the performers thoughts on Kurt Weill and his music in a blog at the Opera North website.

Further details from the Opera North website.

Io la Musica son: Francesca Aspromonte in Prologue

Prologue - Francesca Aspromonte - Pentatone
Prologues - Monteverdi, Caccini, Cavalli, Landi, Rossi, Cesti, Stradella, Scarlatti; Francesca Aspromonte, Il pomo d'oro, Enrico Onofri; Pentatone
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 Mar 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A wonderfully engaging exploration of the prologue in 17th-century opera, full of vivid detail and vibrant performances

The prologue in the earliest 17th century Italian operas was a way to introduce and explain the opera, rather than plunging straight in. So that in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, the figure of La Musica explains that she has come down from Parnassus to tell the story of Orfeo. In these early operas, there was also the need to glorify, compliment and otherwise flatter the patrons and commissioners of the operas. Whilst opera in Italy changed quite a bit during the 17th century, the prologue remained something of a fixture. On this lovely new disc from Pentatone, soprano Francesca Aspromonte joins Il pomo d'oro, director Enrico Onofri, for a programme of prologues starting with Monteverdi, working its way through Cavalli, Landi, Rossi, Cesti and Stradella to Alessandro Scarlatti.

Monteverdi's prologue to L'Orfeo is the classic of the genre, and rightly Aspromonte opens with this, preceded by the Toccata. She has a focused, forward soprano which has an expressive directness to it. She and Onofri perform with great fluidity and flexibility, words are paramount with Aspromonte really shaping the lines to the words.

The earliest operas were highly fluid in their attitude to text and music and this really shows in this performance. In all the pieces Aspromonte combines a vibrancy of attitude with a vividness of detail which really engages, and she brings a fine range of colour to the voice. As a result, it is quite surprising how engaging and engrossing this programme is.

We hear two of the earliest operas, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) and Giulio Caccini's L'Euridice (1602), where the prologues serve to introduce and explain, very necessary with such a brand new and unusual art-form.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Britten and Bernstein side by side (without Sondheim) in Suffolk

Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstine
Aaron Copland & Leonard Bernstine
Bernstein & Britten: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson; Aldeburgh Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 8 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Britten, Bernstein and America surveyed in three concerts from John Wilson and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The ongoing theme in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival (the 71st edition) focuses on Britten and America reflecting the year of 1948 when the festival laid down its roots not only enriching the cultural life of Suffolk and its environs but the country as a whole. Three concerts from John Wilson, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the John Wilson Orchestra in Snape Maltings Concert Hall gave us a wide variety of music by both composers, including Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Seven sonnets of Michaelangelo (with Robert Murray) and Diversions for piano Left Hand and Orchestra (with Pavel Kolesnikov), and Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 - 'The Age of Anxiety' (with Cédric Tiberghien) and music from his musicals.

Britten in the mid-1960s, by Hans Wild
Britten in the mid-1960s, by Hans Wild
Without a shadow of doubt, Britten and Bernstein (the centenary of whose birth falls this year) were both towering figures in the world of music working not just as composers, pianists and conductors but also as educators at a time when education was in its infancy in the creative world.

Both men were celebrated and revered like no other and here their music can be heard side by side. Many connections resonate across this festival including the likes of Peter Grimes, W H Auden, the Revd Walter Hussey and their bosom friend, Aaron Copland, whom, incidentally, Britten met for the first time at the 1938 ISCM Festival in London where Copland's El Salón México and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge were played at the same concert.

And in the opening concert at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Copland was on the bill with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Wilson on top form delivering a sensitive, atmospheric and compelling reading of Quiet City, a work heavily featuring soloists from the orchestra, Mark O’Keeffe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais). A mellow and inviting work offering an ode to New York, Quiet City was composed for Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name which, unfortunately, never made it above preview performances.

Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ - the title emanating from W H Auden’s poem of the same name - regally followed. Completed in March 1949 in New York City, the work was dedicated to and commissioned by the Russian-born conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who was preparing to end his 25-year career conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949.

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