Sunday, 28 June 2020

A Life on-Line: Otello in Birmingham, Wagner's villa at Grange Park Opera, and an immersive, genderswapping Midsummer Night's Dream

Verdi: Otello - Keel Watson (Iago) and Ronald Samm (Othello) in Birmingham Opera Company's 2009 production
Verdi: Otello - Keel Watson (Iago) and Ronald Samm (Othello)
Birmingham Opera Company, 2009

On Monday, thanks to BBC iPlayer we were able to catch up on an opera production that I always regretted not seeing, Graham Vick's 2009 production of Verdi's Otello for Birmingham Opera Company with Ronald Samm as Otello (the first time a Black tenor had sung the role in the UK), Keel Watson as Iago and Stephanie Corley as Desdemona, conducted by Stephen Barlow. Set in a huge, bare industrial space Vick's production was deliberately immersive with the locally recruited chorus, team of actors and dancers all mingling with the audience. Inevitably you missed something of the visceral, immersive nature of the production.

With no decorative period setting, this was a bleak and direct production with intense performances from the principals, raising disturbing questions as to why we do not see more of Samm and Watson in major roles with the larger opera companies (both were in Fulham Opera's 2019 production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger).

On Thursday, it was Iain Burnside's latest musical play, The view from the villa. This had been intended to debut this year, and was presented in a work-shop production as part of Grange Park Opera's Found Season. Burnside accompanied at the piano and Susan Bickley was Mathilde Wesendonck, Matthew Brook as Otto Wesendonck and Victoria Newlyn as Minna Wagner. The piece dramatised the events of the Summer when the Wagner's stayed in a villa provided by Otto Wesendonck, and Wagner had some sort of affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and they wrote the Wesendonck Lieder. The music included, of course, the Wesendonck Lieder sung by Bickley, but we also got part of Hunding and Sieglinde's dialogue from Die Walkure, King Mark's monologue from Tristan und Isolde and a setting of Goethe's poem about the rat.

The form of the piece was as three interlinking monologues, and what made it for me was the way Burnside and Newlyn gave personality to Minna Wagner, who too often suffers from first-wife-syndrome, and is brushed off as mad. Here she was clear eyed and provided a wry commentary, 'Richard never could resist posh totty', 'A five-hour opera about not getting your jollies ', 'I never saw Bayreuth, I was long dead, but then I never saw the pink knickers. Swings and roundabouts'. I look forward to seeing it staged.

I have probably seen more performances of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream than Shakespeare's play (in the 1970s and 1980s I saw Toby Robertson's delightful production for Scottish Opera around half a dozen times). When I see the play it is almost filtered through the opera, and I cannot help but marvel at the way Britten and Pears re-shaped the text, not just cutting it but taking elements from one place and moving them to another.

We caught up with the Bridge Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play, on the National Theatre at Home streaming season. Nicholas Hytner's production was also an immersive promenade one, again this means that the cameras do not quite capture the full effect. It was in many ways modern and modish, with upbeat, uptempo music and something of a carnival atmosphere. There were elements to annoy, but also to intrigue;  Hytner had adjusted the text so that no only did Gwendolyn Christie and Oliver Chris double Oberon, Tytania, Theseus and Hippolyta, but in terms of Shakespeare's text, Christie played Hippolyta and Oberon, whilst Chris played Theseus and Tytania. It was Christie who was the strong, active partner whilst Chris was the one who fell in love with Bottom (a wonderfully wide-eyed Hammed Animashaun). It was worth it for Chris' expression when he woke up to realise that his beloved wasn't just a 'monster' but was a man!

Hytner attempted something similar with the lovers, but Shakespeare's text does not give much leeway here and this felt a little artificial. Still, an intriguing take on what is an enchanting yet problematic story. And the gender swapping continued with the mechanicals to rather thoughtful and striking effect.

Saturday was the final of the Live from Covent Garden events, this time a striking mixture of opera and oratorio, chamber music and dance, with a focus on Covent Garden's young artists. We opened with Bach's Concerto for two violins with Vasko Vassilev and Sergey Levitin as soloists, Antonio Pappano conducting a small ensemble. Then mezzo-soprano Stephanie Wake-Edwards gave a terrific account of Dejanira's 'Whither shall I fly' from Handel's Hercules. Operatic excerpts included Mustafa and Lindoro's duet 'Ah! mi perdo mi confondo’ from Rossini's L’Italiana in Algeri sung by Blaise Malaba and Filipe Manu [in fact we saw the pair in Rossini last year, West Green Opera's production of La Cenerentola directed by Victoria Newlyn - Minna Wagner from The view from the villa -  see my review], Manu singing 'Una furtiva lagrima' from Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore, and Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha giving a terrific account of Wally's 'Ebben? Ne andrò lontana' from Catalani's La Wally.    

More unusual repertoire was represented by Musetta and Marcello's duet from the other La Boheme, that of Leoncavallo, delightfully sung by Malaba and Wake-Edwards, whilst tenor Andrés Presno sang an aria from Sorazabal's zarzuela, La tabernera del puerto. We ended with two items from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess sung by Malaba and Rangwanasha. Conducting and accompanist honours were shared between Antonio Pappano, Patrick Milne and Edmund Whitehead.

For dance we had the moving simplicity of a duet from Kenneth Macmillan's Concerto with Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clarke, to the slow movement of Shostakovich's Piano Concerto with piano soloist Kate Shipway, and a duet from Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour with Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball, dancing to music by Ezio Bosso.

And we also heard the second movement of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio in D minor, op.49, with Vasko Vassilev (violin), Christopher Vanderspar (cello), Antonio Pappano (piano).

Still at the Royal Opera House, but more out and about, musicians from the orchestra recorded Ravel's Bolero, to dance from the dancers in home and found locations to create a lovely video. [Instagram]. I remember one of the dancers who took part in the stage premiere of Bolero talking about the stunning effect that Ida Rubinstein had in this piece; choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska it featured Rubinstein dancing on a table surrounded by young men beating their hands on the table.

Elsewhere on the web, small scale concert giving activities have been flourishing. Home Concert Club, set up by a group of friends in Crouch End, has a regular programme of concerts and family concerts, whilst Full Stream Ahead gave us Frauenliebe und -leben from Dylan Perez and Frances Gregory; the familiar poetry but in Carl Loewe's setting [YouTube]. The Musicians Company is streaming regular lunchtime concerts #MiddayMusic supporting performers from its Young Artists programme, most recently cellist Ben Tarlton in Bach [YouTube], but there are plenty more.

The City Music Foundation's weekly series continued with a lovely piano recital from Mihai Ritivioiu, in Schumann, Scarlatti, Debussy and Falla.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Bach, the Universe and Everything returned on-line, with a performance of Bach's cantata BWV 39 recorded at Kings Place, without an audience. The OAE was directed by Steven Devine. Music also included a Lassus motet, a Pachelbel voluntary and a Telemann concerto. The logistics of making such performances work are complex, but it is lovely to have music making back at Kings Place albeit in modified form. And there was a talk from Dr Dickon Bevington of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families about how our lack of human contact during the lockdown has affected our sense of ‘self’ and allowed our imaginations to ponder the unspoken. [YouTube]

And of course the BBC Radio 3 and Wigmore Hall lunchtime series has been continuing. As a former violist I enjoyed Benjamin Baker and Timothy Ridout's concert on Tuesday, without lockdown we probably would not have had this intriguing programme of duets for violin and viola, though I well remember playing the Mozart ones with my teacher. The Martinu was a complete surprise, and well worth investigating. Cellist Guy Johnston was also at the Wigmore Hall this week, with pianist Melvyn Tam, but Johnston has also been giving regular recitals outside in Cerne Abbas, and this week was joined by two cousins, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott with her harp for some Saint-Saens [Instagram]

Outside London, smaller festivals have been trying to keep the flag flying with on-line events and concerts. Ulverston International Music Festival has been particularly busy, and contralto Jess Dandy and pianist Anthony Hewitt gave a lovely live from home recital, with a sea-themed programme of Ireland's Sea Fever, Rebecca Clarke's The Seal Man, Elgar's Sea Pictures and Engel's Sea Shell [Facebook]

Nevill Holt Opera gave us the second of its recitals recorded last month in the empty theatre. Nicholas Chalmers accompanied tenor Laurence Kilsby in a lovely programme of 'Dalla sua pace' from Mozart's Don Giovanni (a new production of which should have been opening at the theatre in June), 'Vainement, ma bien aimée' from Lalo's Le Roi d’Ys (not an opera we might expect to be staged anytime soon, alas), Frank Bridge's Come to me in my dreams, Michael Head's Beloved and Freddie's song 'On the street where you live' from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady [YouTube]

Benjamin Fitzgerald is a young composer from the North-East whose Ode to John was released earlier this year with the support of the BBC New Creatives scheme. It now as a fine video, which was released this week. [YouTube]



Ben Woodward, artistic director of Fulham Opera, conducted a lockdown version of The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walkure, and yes the complete scene with nine Valkyries (including Catherine Woodward as Brunnhilde) and some delightfully imaginative staging and costumes. Great fun [YouTube]

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