Saturday, 11 July 2020

Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert

Chris Parsons conducting Eboracum Baroque in Handel's Messiah at the Senate House, Cambridge
Chris Parsons conducting Eboracum Baroque in Handel's Messiah at the Senate House, Cambridge
Much of the music making that has been happening during lockdown has, inevitably, been quite small scale. But Eboracum Baroque has decided to create something on a bigger scale, and on Saturday 18 July 2020 will be presenting their Heroic Handel concert on-line, comprising a mixture of opera, coronation anthems and more. I caught up with Eboracum Baroque's artistic director, Chris Parsons, to find out about the ensemble's plans under lockdown.

Eboracum Baroque is a flexible period ensemble, comprising singers and instrumentalists, founded in York in 2012, as its name suggests (Eboracum is the name of the Roman fort on the site of present-day York), whilst artistic director Chris Parsons was at York University. The ensemble does perform in London, but it has also generated quite a presence for itself outside the metropolis, with regular concerts in York and in Cambridge, as well as performing at National Trust properties in programmes which reflect the musical history of each property, and the group's 2015 disc of the music of 18th century composer Thomas Tudway was recorded at Wimpole Hall where Tudway worked from 1714 to 1726.

Since Lockdown, the group has been active on-line, giving a regular series of coffee concerts of solo repertoire on Zoom. But, as Chris Parsons explained when we chatted recently over Zoom, the group has been 'chomping at the bit' to do something larger scale. They had a live concert planned for July 2020, so as this was cancelled the group decided to do something similar, on-line. Thus, Eboracum Baroque's Heroic Handel concert was born, to be streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Saturday 18 July 2020 at 7pm.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play

Beethoven Die Ruinen von Athen; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; cpo
Beethoven Die Ruinen von Athen; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch; cpo

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Prime Beethoven yet a rarity, the complete incidental music to The Ruins of Athens

Beethoven wrote the incidental music for August von Kotzebue's play The Ruins of Athens (Die Ruinen von Athen) in 1811, a period when he was working on his Symphony No. 7, Archduke Trio and String Quartet No. 11 'Serioso' Opus 95. So it is prime-period Beethoven, but the music, apart from the overture and a march, is rarely performed as without the play the result is a somewhat disparate series of movements.

For this new recording of Beethoven's complete incidental music to The Ruins of Athens on the cpo label, Marcus Bosch conducts the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and Cappella Aquileia, with soloists Valda Wilson, Simon Bailey and Sidonie von Korsigk; and Kotzebue's play has been replaced by a new text from Kai Wessler. The disc also includes Beethoven's choral cantata Calm sea and prosperous voyage and the Opferlied, Op 121b.

Beethoven wrote an overture and ten items for Kotzebue's play, ranging from the well known Turkish March to choruses, a duet and an aria. The problem for any performers is how to link these together without the play, and in the case of Kotzebue's The Ruins of Athens, the very specificity of the piece rather prevents us from reviving it in the form that Beethoven knew it.

August von Kotzebue wrote The Ruins of Athens for the grand opening of the newly-built theatre in Pest, Hungary (in what is now Budapest). Emperor Franz had commissioned the theatre in 1808, to alleviate nationalist feelings in Hungary and to celebrate the loyalty of Hungary to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The opening was planned for the name day of the Emperor (who as Emperor Franz II was the last Holy Roman Emperor, before dissolving the Empire and creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire as Emperor Franz I), but delays pushed the date back to 1812. Kotzebue's play is a funny mix of classical antiquity, Hungarian national pride and contemporary politics, as the goddess Athena awakens, find Athens in ruins and overrun by the Turks and seeks a new home in Hungary, which historically was a bastion against the Turks.

In fact, Beethoven wrote incidental music to two of August von Kotzebue's plays in 1811, both commissioned for the opening of the theatre in Pest, King Stephen (about the founder of the Kingdom of Hungary), and The Ruins of Athens. Kotzebue was one of the most popular German writers of the day, and Beethoven approached him with the idea of writing an opera on the subject of Attila, though nothing came of this.

Remarkable double: after 20 years performing it, Lang Lang takes Bach's Goldberg Variations into the studio

The pianist Lang Lang first performed Bach's Goldberg Variations when he was 17, performing from memory for conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach. Lang Lang is now 38, and has decided that finally the time is right to take Goldberg Variations into the studio, after over 20 years of living with the work, and talking about it to specialists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Andreas Steier.

In March this year, Lang Lang performed the work in concert in the Thomaskirche (where Bach worked) and then went into the studio. The result is a remarkable double album, a live recording of Goldberg Variations from the Thomaskirche, recorded in a single take, and a studio recording of the work created shortly after the live performance.

Unusually, Bach's Goldberg Variations were published during his lifetime as Clavier Ubung, the fourth such volume given that name. The work is one of a number of large-scale summation works that Bach produced late in life, and sits alongside his Mass in B Minor and The Art of Fugue as a contemplative summation of his art.

Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations is out on Deutsche Grammophon in September.

Dan Brown's Wild Symphony

Dan Brown's Wild Symphony
Dan Brown, the author of the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, has a new book out later this year. Not, perhaps, a project that might be mentioned on a classical music blog, but Brown's new book is slightly different, Wild Symphony is a picture-book for children (produced with illustrator Susan Batori) and it comes complete with music which has been written by Brown himself. And when people buy the book they get an app, so that they can listen to the music as well.

The music for the project was recorded in Zagreb, and the concert premiere of Brown's Wild Symphony is planned for 10 October 2020, with the American premiere planned for November in Portsmouth, Connecticut with the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, though given the current situation the record company, Parma Recordings, is not certain what form these will take. Stay tuned.

Inspired by classics such as Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, Brown's Wild Symphony, his first work for orchestra, features twenty-one musical portraits drawn from the animal kingdom.

On a personal note, Dan Brown's younger brother Gregory W. Brown is composer based in New England, and I took part in the UK premiere of his Missa Charles Darwin, which uses the structure of the mass but with texts taken from Charles Darwin; it was also the European premiere of a new version of the work for mixed chorus it having originally been written for the all-male group New York Polyphony.

Further details from the Wild Symphony website, where there will be a list of live performances of the new work.

Dan Brown's Wild Symphony! from Peter Vandall on Vimeo.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

AMAZON - a first digital commission from Alex Ho and Elayce Ismail

Amazon - Alex Ho and Elayce Ismail
is a new digital piece commissioned by Music Theatre Wales and the London Sinfonietta. It is created by composer Alex Ho and theatre maker Elayce Ismail, and their theme is a trip to the Amazon that takes an unexpected turn. They have created a short piece of music theatre that combines music, text and visuals in a poetic reflection on the world we live in.

The work has been released as part of Homemakers, a series of commissions inviting artists to create new works at home, for an audience who are also at home. Homemakers is produced by HOME, Manchester’s centre for international contemporary culture. AMAZON is available HOME website, with tickets available on a ‘Pay What You Can’ basis with a suggested price of £10; all the money raised from ticket sales will be split evenly with 50% going directly to the artist and 50% to Music Theatre Wales and London Sinfonietta’s response fund to allow them to continue to support future artists and commissions.

Ho and Ismail were joining forces for the first time, and had never met in person; neither had used Zoom before. Out of these virtual meetings arose a piece which mirrors their experiences of lockdown: what started as a meditation on the suspension of time and collapse of space became a quest for connection to the world beyond their screens and outside their windows. The result was a surprising and joyful creative collaboration that took them on a journey to the other side of the world.

AMAZON is available from the HOME website

Bastille Day: Institut français celebrates on-line with live-streamed recital from Anne Lovett

Anne Lovett
Anne Lovett
The Institut français du Royaume-Uni in South Kensington will be celebrating the 14 July 2020 digitally this year. The French pianist and composer Anne Lovett will be live-streaming a concert which will include Toix3 by the Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas (born 1926), a selection of works by Eric Satie (1866-1925) and three of Lovett's own pieces, For Now, L’Albatros, and On The Run.

Stephen Pritchard, writing in The Guardian described Lovett's music as reflecting on 'on our current febrile political landscape', going on to say that her 'quietly plaintive tonal music echoes the European tradition, from Bach to Satie and beyond, and feels like a soulful elegy for a Britain that has lost its bearings'.

Born in Normandie, Lovett studied in Caen and at the Paris Conservatoire (with a pupil of Artur Rubenstein, and a pupil of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli). She also studied jazz and improvised music with Samy Abenaim of the Bill Evans Piano Academy in Paris, and later free improvisation with Keith Tippett. She then studied in London at the Royal Academy of Music with pianist Hamish Milne and with composer Ruth Byrchmore.

Anne Lovett's recital will be streamed on the Institut français' Facebook page and YouTube channel

Update: Anne Lovett will be on In Tune on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 13 July from 6pm

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware

Schubert's Four Seasons - Viola, Klage der Ceres and other songs; Sharon Carty, Jonathan Ware; GENUIN
Schubert's Four Seasons
- Viola, Klage der Ceres and other songs; Sharon Carty, Jonathan Ware; GENUIN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An exploration of the seasons through Schubert's song, with two of his larger scale pieces, from the young Irish mezzo-soprano

The Irish mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty is someone who has come into the orbit of Planet Hugill a number of times, she was in Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's opera The Second Violinist which Ruth reviewed in 2018, and more recently Carty was in the first recording of Gilbert and Cellier's The Mountebanks conducted by John Andrews on Dutton [see my review].

Now we have the chance to hear Sharon Carty in proper focus with the release of her recital Schubert's Four Seasons on the Genuin label. Accompanied by pianist Jonathan Ware, Carty sings a selection of Schubert's songs themed around the seasons, with two larger scale piece Viola D786 and Klage der Ceres D323.

The inclusion of these two large scale pieces (Viola is 13 minutes and Klage der Ceres over 15 minutes) brings a welcome sense of structure to the recital, and avoids that feeling of a number of disparate items gathered together in a way which only seems to make sense to the performers. Not that the result is without challenges of course, and whilst Klage der Ceres has quite a standard form as a dramatic cantata, Viola is much more modern in its outlook and its length offers both opportunities and difficulties.

Written in 1823 and setting a verse by Franz von Schober (the Swedish-born Austrian poet with whom Schubert would live for some time), Viola is a strange piece. Schubert sets it continuously, rather than as a cantata with recitative, using a refrain to link things together. The story is of the little violet joyfully preparing for the arrival of her bridegroom, Spring, yet blissfully unaware of her solitude and ending in cold, isolation and death. This can, of course, have a number of straightforward resonances.

But what we know of Schubert's sexuality and that of the circle of his friends can give extra resonances to the song.

JAM on the Marsh: Virtual

JAM on the Marsh has developed into a lively annual music and arts festival in and around the historic churches of Romney Marsh, and always with a focus on new music. This year will be no different, from 7 to 15 August 2020 there will be nine concerts performed in St Leonard's Church, Hythe, Kent and there will be three exhibitions. But without a live audience.

This year the festival is JAM on the Marsh: Virtual and all nine concerts will be live-streamed and the three exhibitions will be featured on-line.

Highlights of the festival include the premiere of Paul Mealor's Piano Concerto with soloist John Frederick Hudson and the London Mozart Players, conducted by Michael Bawtree [read my interview with Paul from March 2020 where he talks about the writing of this concerto], Gabriel Faure's Requiem in an intimate performance with the Gesualdo Six and the London Mozart Players conducted by Owain Park, interspersed with new poetry by Grahame Davies, and a programme of music by contemporary British jazz composers written for Onyx Brass including music by Jason Rebello, Kenny Wheeler, Laurence Cottle, Colin Skinner, Trish Clowes, Mark Nightingale.

Other concerts include the Gesualdo Six in music by Alison Willis, Roxanna Panufnik, Richard Rodney Bennett and a premiere by Joanna Ward alongside Byrd, Tallis and Gesualdo, soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and pianist Anna Tilbrook in Jonathan Dove's Nights not spent alone and music by Madeleine Dring, Elgar and Britten, an organ recital from Daniel Cook, pianist Rachel Fryer in Bach's Goldberg Variations alongside music by Samuel Becker, Julian Broughton, Nicola Lefanu, Michael Finnissy, Alison Kay, and Fillu a musical exploration of the relationship between Eugenie Schumann (daughter of Robert and Clara) and the singer Marie Fillunger.

Performers will make the annual pilgrimage to the mediaeval churches of Kent’s Romney Marsh, to present the concerts adhering to strict and rigorous social distancing guidelines and safety measures. Each concert will be recorded ‘as live’ behind closed doors.

There are also three exhibitions on-line, Tristan Fewings, Carsten Birkebaek and Susan Pilcher.

The festival is being presented entirely free of charge, and your support is invited to help cover the costs, visit JAM's donate page.

Full details from the festival website.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

They that in ships unto the sea go down - Music for the Mayflower from Passamezzo on Resonus Classics

They that in ships unto the sea go down: Music for the Mayflower; Passamezzo; Resonus Classics
They that in ships unto the sea go down: Music for the Mayflower
; Passamezzo; Resonus Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An imaginative recreation of the sometimes surprising music that might have been heard on The Mayflower

Thanks to Oliver Cromwell and his cohorts we tend to think of the Puritans as being completely down on music, but dissenters were just as varied as the rest of humanity. Research on the libraries of the early settlers in America has revealed that the passengers of the Mayflower, which left England in 1620 to take a varied group of separatists, merchants, their families, their servants and their apprentices to seek a fresh start in the New World, carried with them at least four books of music.

A disc from the early music group Passamezzo, They that in ships unto the sea go down: Music for the Mayflower, on Resonus Classics, explores the music that might have been performed on board ship, including works by Richard Allison, John Dowland and Thomas Campion.

Unsurprisingly, there were at least two copies of the 1612 edition of Henry Ainsworth's Book of Psalmes Englished both in Prose and Metre. Ainsworth was a dissenter, like those on board the Mayflower, and he had moved to the Low Countries to escape persecution. As well as the English texts, Ainsworth's book included unharmonised melodies and his book would be used for worship in Early Modern America.  For tunes, Ainsworth uses rather grave melodies culled from France, Geneva and Strasbourg. This disc includes a number of these, sober pieces performed with one voice and a group of instruments, though in the 17th century they were probably just as likely to be heard sung in a robust unison by a group of voices.

A cautious return to live music making: the London Philharmonic Orchestra's Summer Sessions

Members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Henry Wood Hall
Members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Henry Wood Hall
The musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra are returning to live performing (albeit without an audience) with Summer Sessions, four weekly chamber concerts which will be live-streamed for free from Henry Wood Hall (the orchestra's rehearsal venue) on the orchestra's YouTube channel, beginning on Wednesday 15 July 2020 at 7.30pm. These concerts will be the first time that the musicians of the orchestra have been able to perform together since March. The four concerts feature musicians from all the sections of the orchestra, with strict social distancing rules in place to ensure the health and safety of the players and staff.

Each concert focuses on a different section of the orchestra; on 15 July the strings begin things with a programme of music by Corelli, Elgar and Grieg, and then on 29 July the woodwind perform a programme of Rossini, Mozart and Janacek's Mladi. It is the turn of the brass and percussion on 12 August with a mixed programme featuring music by Richard Bissill, Stanley Woods, Leonard Salzedo, Simon Carrington and Malcolm Arnold. The series concludes on 26 August with an all-Beethoven programme including the Quintet for piano and wind instruments in E flat major and the Septet in E flat.

Historical temperaments, Handel's Harpsichord Suites and Vauxhall Gardens: London Early Opera

Handel series - London Early Opera - Signum Classics
On Wednesday 8 July 2020, Bridget Cunningham of London Early Opera will be giving a live on-line recital from her own salon at home as part of the Living Room Live series. Cunningham will be performing Bach and Handel, including a taster from her forthcoming album Handel's Eight Great Harpsichord Suites. Cunningham will be playing her double manual Blanchet copy of a Rucker’s harpsichord built by Andrew Wooderson. Playing solo has meant that she has enjoyed experimenting with Neidhardts historical temperaments as usually the harpsichord has to be tuned to match the orchestral instruments. Living Room Live is on Facebook at 6pm on Wednesday.

During lockdown, London Early Opera have been focusing on editing music, researching and making new parts and scores for future recordings and concerts whilst members of its chamber ensemble and educational scheme, The Handelians have been sending out individual videos by emails to friends and supporters in need of hearing great music. The Handelians focus on the development and education of exceptional singers and musicians inspiring the future generations – one of Handel’s passions.

London Early Opera a UK registered charity are raising money to support their musicians with fees for performing both from home and also those giving live performances and are hoping to resume their concert series again in the East Cork Early Music Festival in Ireland in October with their Farinelli and Senesino programme. To support them, please look at their website

On Saturday 11 July 2020, Bridget Cunningham will be discussing Handel and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in an illustrated on-line lecture for Richard Vendome's Saturday at Noon lecture series [Cunningham and London Early Opera recorded two discs of Handel in Vauxhall for Signum Classics, see my review]. Do get in touch with London Early Opera if you want to listen in at as you will need a code to listen in by Zoom!

Monday, 6 July 2020

Youth has it: 24-year-old Patrick Hahn appointed as General Music Director in Wuppertal

Patrick Hahn (Photo Gerhard Donauer)
Patrick Hahn
(Photo Gerhard Donauer)
The Austrian conductor Patrick Hahn has been appointed as the new General Music Director of Wuppertaler Bühnen und Sinfonieorchester (Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra), making him at 24 the youngest General Music Director in Germany. Hahn will succeed Julia Jones from the beginning of the 2021/22 season.

Hahn studied piano and conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, as well as being invited to the Aspen Music Festival and the Tanglewood Music Center as Conducting Fellow. As well as working in classical music, Hahn is involved in both cabaret Austrian satirist and composer Georg Kreisler, and jazz. As a composer, his opera Die Frittatensuppe was premiered in 2008, and in 2013 he was awarded second prize for Ameraustrica in the 2013 Penfield Music Commission Project Contest in New York.

Around 100 conductors from Germany and abroad applied for the position with the roughly 90-member orchestra, and Hahn was selected after a three-stage process with the unanimous decision of the 11-member selection committee.

Wuppertal in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, East of Düsseldorf, is the home not only of the orchestra but of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. The orchestra was founded in 1882, and distinguished conductors such as Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer began their careers in Wuppertal. The orchestra's home is the historic town hall (Stadthalle) in Wuppertal, one of Europe's finest concert halls (the hall opened in 1900 with a festival, one of whose conductors was the young Richard Strauss).

Further details from the orchestra's website.

Waterperry Opera Festival offers a socially-distanced mini-festival in Waterperry Gardens this August

Waterperry Gardens
Waterperry Gardens
This Summer, it seems that live music in gardens is going to be the way forward through the present restrictions. Both Glyndebourne and West Green are offering garden openings with live music, and Waterperry Opera Festival has just announced a mini-festival in Waterperry Gardens on 15 and 16 August 2020.

Founded in 2018, both previous Waterperry Opera Festivals have been sell-outs, with lively performances featuring young artists in Waterperry Gardens. This year, music director Bertie Baigent will conduct a costumed, semi-staged performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, directed by artistic director Guy Withers, featuring many of the singers who would have been singing in the festival's planned 2020 programme (now postponed until 2021). Audiences will be invited to attend the performances in socially-distanced pods on the front lawn of Waterperry House.

Associate artistic director Rebecca Meltzer will direct Jonathan Dove's song-cycle Ariel, based on Shakespeare's character from The Tempest. A film of the production will be streamed for those at home following the festival.

Waterperry Opera's 2021 programme will feature a new production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore conducted by Bertie Baigent and directed by Jamie Manton, and a new chamber version of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, plus a dramatised version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Jonathan Dove's Greed.

Full details from the Waterperry Opera Festival website.

Six commissions announced for a future Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival as part of the Riot Ensemble's Zeitgeist commissioning project

Six commissions announced for a future Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival as part of the Riot Ensemble's Zeitgeist commissioning project
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Riot Ensemble have announced six commissions as part of the ensemble's ongoing Zeitgeist commissioning project, intended as a response to lockdown, and intended to keep music flowing. The Riot Ensemble has joined forces with contemporary on-line gallery, Zeitgeist, and the six commissions will be presented on-line through Zeitgeist, and through the ensemble's YouTube channel. And the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has committed to presenting the new works at a future edition of hcmf// Shorts.

Each composer will write a solo work for one of the Riot Ensemble's musicians:
  • Matthew Grouse for percussionist Sam Wilson
  • Anna Appleby for saxophonist Amy Green
  • Tanya Auclair for bass clarinetist Ausiàs Garrigós Morant
  • Hannah Kendall for cellist Louise McMonagle
  • Tonia Ko for violist Stephen Upshaw
  • Heloise Tunstall-Behrens for pianist Adam Swayne
"As the pandemic continues to bring about major complications for working musicians, we’re proud to join forces with the Riot Ensemble in finding practical solutions for artists, bringing about new paid opportunities for musicians, as well as unique showcases of their work"   - Graham McKenzie, Artistic Director of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Further details from the festival website.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

A Life On-Line: Dreaming of the Silver Screen in Montpellier, Weber's Euryanthe in Vienna, Tippett's The Ice Break in Birmingham,

Weber: Euryanthe Theresa Kronthaler (Eglantine), Andrew Foster-Williams (Lysiart) - Theater an der Wien (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Weber: Euryanthe - Theresa Kronthaler (Eglantine), Andrew Foster-Williams (Lysiart)
Theater an der Wien (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Opera this week included two rather different rarely performed operas, Weber's grand romantic opera Euryanthe from Vienna, and Tippett's final opera The Ice Break from Birmingham. And we also caught up with Ted Huffman's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream which debuted in Montpellier last year.

First off we caught up with Christof Loy's production of Weber's Euryanthe which was originally given at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, with Jacquelyn Wagner, Norman Rehinhardt, Theresa Kornthaler, Andrew Foster-Williams and Stefan Cerny, and Constantin Trinks conducting the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Weber's opera is notoriously regarded as unstageable thanks to what is seen as a clunky libretto. I have only seen the opera on stage twice, in Richard Jones' striking production at Glyndebourne, and at the Semper Oper in Dresden in a production by Peter Konwitschny which radically altered the ending.

The big virtue of Christof Loy's production is that the opera was given virtually complete, and without any major adjustments to the plot. But instead of going for naturalism, Loy went for the psychological approach so that the Act III scene with the serpent becomes a reflection of the mental states of Euryanthe and Adolar. It helped that he got visceral performances from his cast and it makes thrilling theatre, and is musically top form as well. The performance is on DVD from Naxos, highly recommended, and my only regret is that the orchestra is modern instrument not period.

One of the more amusing aspects of the DVD is the camera work, the way the framing and tracking aimed to avoid, as much as possible, the fact that Andrew Foster-Williams was bravely and entirely naked for one crucial scene in Act Two. This theme of naked singers popped up on our next opera too, a very different rarity, Michael Tippett's The Ice Break.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

French seasons and a Belgian violinist: I chat to Anna Ovsyanikova about her explorations of violin repertoire and her new disc

Julian Sinani and Anna Ovsyanikova (Photo Anton Phatianov)
Julian Sinani and Anna Ovsyanikova (Photo Anton Phatianov)
Violinist Anna Ovsyanikova and pianist Julia Sinani have a disc out on Stone Records this week, Les Saisons Françaises, of French music for violin and piano, exploring not just well known repertoire but more unusual items. I spoke to Anna recently, via Zoom, about the disc and Anna's love of late 19th and early 20th century music, most notably her researches into the Belgian violinist Mathieu Crickboom (1871-1947).

Les Saisons Françaises is Anna's debut recital disc, and alongside the Violin Sonata by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), there is music by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and the lesser-known early sonata by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), whilst the performance of the Violin Sonata by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) features the composer's rather different first version of the final movement.

Anna Ovsyanikova
Anna Ovsyanikova
Anna and Julia have collaborated for over 10 years, performing a wide range of repertoire, so this debut CD was rather overdue. Anna and Julia knew that for their first disc, they wanted to record French repertoire, it works well for them, and they connect with the music. The disc's title Les Saisons Françaises suggested contrasting works by four composers and the programme developed organically. Anna and Julia play the Debussy and the Lili Boulanger a lot, and they were keen to perform the Poulenc sonata (it is a work which Anna had performed, but not with Julia).

Ravel's sonata, which dates from 1897, is less frequently performed, but Anna thrives on performing music which is not played that often. It is the only 19th century work on the disc and there is something completely different about it. Ravel abandoned the work after just one movement, so we do not know what he originally intended and it now stands as a single-movement work.

Whilst it is common courtesy to composers to perform their final versions of pieces, Anna was interested in Poulenc's original finale for his Violin Sonata.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Lyrical English pastoralism and more: the choral music of Owain Park showcased by The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian

When love speaks - choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN
When love speaks
- choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A finely-crafted portrait disc, showcasing the lyrical music of the young composer Owain Park

You are as likely to come across Owain Park as conductor (he directs his own ensemble the Gesualdo Six), singer or conductor, and this disc, When Love Speaks, from Tim Reader and The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian focuses on Owain Park the composer, presenting six of Park's choral compositions, both sacred and secular.

The words of Shakespeare are a big focus, with Park's Shakespeare Love Songs and Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time, and clearly texts known for existing settings hold no terrors for Park as his Sing to me, windchimes includes two well-known A.E. Housman poems.

Prior to this disc I had only come across Park's sacred compositions, and it was a pleasure to be able to explore Park's secular music. A singer himself, Park's experience includes being a chorister at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and whilst at Cambridge he studied with John Rutter. This pedigree is reflected in his music, which is beautifully crafted for singers, so that Wind to me, windchimes features vocal writing designed to tax yet fall within the capabilities of amateurs, with a solo piano part to introduce edgier elements into the rhythm and harmonies.

Park's music here is firmly tonal, if he goes exploring then he always returns securely home and you can hear influences of his forbears, including Rutter and RVW, yet always with that sense of the younger composer questioning and asking what if....

Armonico Consort launches weekly series of performances recorded at the Court House, Warwick

Christopher Monks & Armonico Consort at the Court House, Warwick
Christopher Monks & Armonico Consort at the Court House, Warwick
The Armonico Consort has launched a weekly series of performances recorded live and broadcast on the group's Facebook page. These socially distanced performances are recorded in the Court House, Warwick. The first, on 1 July 2020, featured Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with singers Elizabeth Adams, Eloise Irving, Robert Davies, William Towers and Graham Neal, directed by Christopher Monks [YouTube]. Further concerts take place at 6pm on Wednesdays during July, with performances of Byrd's Mass for four voices directed by Geoffrey Webber, and Oz & Armonico, the group's programme with wine expert Oz Clarke.

Bringing the term to a close, the group is holding an on-line 3-day festival (15-17 July 2020) with live recorded performances including A Crafty Beer with the Kings Singers. A new on-line feature, Unlocking Baroque Memories, broadcast at 1pm on Mondays, features Armonico Consort’s musicians delivering music therapy sessions for those living with dementia, working with the Alzheimer’s Society. Ahead of the launch, musicians have been creating short recordings and sharing recollections of a chosen piece, ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Marcello’s Oboe Concerto and extracts from Bach’s St John Passion will feature in coming weeks.

The group has also been continuing its community work on-line, with Sing ‘n’ Shine sessions for children with choir leader Patrick Stockbridge and Sing With Simon workshops for isolated older people, led by Simon Lole. A cancelled Royal Albert Hall gala concert was transformed into a week-long Virtual Royal Albert Hall festival which saw over 120,000 audience members engage with the organisation’s work via social media.

Read my 2019 interview with Armonico Consort's artistic director, Christopher Monks - From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation.

Wednesday performances are broadcast live on Armonico Consort's Facebook page, and existing sessions are free to view on their YouTube page. Full details from the Armonico Consort's website.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice - baritone Holger Falk evokes the musical world of the 18th century gondolier in this imaginative disc

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero
Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice
; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A delightful exploration of 18th century Venetian gondoliers' song, mixing the songs with sound-scape to take the listener on a journey through the city

Not another disc about Venice you might think, picking up Il Gondoliere Veneziano from the Swiss label Prospero and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne. Baritone Holger Falk's project is far more interesting and imaginative than a lazy trawl through existing repertoire. Under the title Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice, Falk has recorded with the ensemble Nuovo Aspetto and the sound artists Merzouga, and the subject of the whole disc is Venetian gondoliers' song from the 18th century.

The Venetian canzoni da battello (literally, 'songs sung on a Boat') were everywhere in Venice, and were spread across Europe in music and in literature - the image of the singing gondolier crops up regularly. And whilst most were in Venetian dialect, some were in literary Italian, and Goethe talks about being able to request songs of Tasso or Ariosto! The singing gondolier is still around in Venice, of course, but the 20th and 21st centuries have wrought significant change to his repertoire, and nowadays he is most likely to singing a Neapolitan song or Just one cornetto.

Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
But in the 18th century, canzoni da battello were a distinct repertoire, and not only quoted by composers but pulished in collections and in London the ubiquitous John Walsh (most famous for his pirate editions of Handel), brought out a collection. On this disc, Holger Falk and Nuovo Aspetto have combed these archives, and put together a selection of 12 anonymous canzoni da battello and they perform them alongside songs and arias by Domenico Cerutti, Pierto Auletta, Johann Simon Mayr, and Andre Campra inspired by canzoni da battello.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

A blast from the archives: I Vespri di Santa Cecilia - for 30-part chorus, written for London Concord Singers' 30th anniversary

Robert Hugill - I Vespri di Santa Cecilia
After managing to lose sight of the score, I have recently rediscovered this, I Vespri di Santa Cecilia. It was written to celebrate London Concord Singers' 30th Anniversary in 1995, and naturally is for 30-part unaccompanied chorus. We never performed it alas, though the choir did premiere my 'cut down' version in a mere 14 parts.

Pegasus Opera launches Opera Mentoring Programme for next generation of opera singers from BAME backgrounds.

Pegasus Opera launches Opera Mentoring Programme for next generation of opera singers from BAME backgrounds.
Despite a degree of progress, BAME classical singers remain under-represented on the opera stage. In response to this Pegasus Opera, a BAME-led organisation, is launching a digital mentoring programme giving 15 aspiring classical singers from BAME backgrounds the opportunity to receive one to one coaching on repertoire, vocal technique and career advice from seasoned professionals and an experienced vocal agent.

The programme will be led by the professionals at the forefront of diversity in opera featuring Sir Willard White, Alison Buchanan, Maureen Brathwaite, Ronald Samm, Keel Watson and opera manager, Sam Krum from Robert Gilder & Co. Pegasus will support artists who have incredible talent but lack opportunity and this programme offers a high quality mentoring experience from the safety, accessibility and convenience of their own home during this difficult period for performers.

The programme will run during September and October 2020, and applications are invited by 3 August 2020.

Full details from the Pegasus Opera website.

Seductively original, neither completely new nor completely old: The Red Book of Ossory from Anakronos on Heresy Records

The Red Book of Ossory; Anakronos; Heresy Records
The Red Book of Ossory
; Anakronos; Heresy Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Neither new nor old, contemporary re-interpretations of the medieva, setting lyrics from a 14th century Irish manuscript

The Red Book of Ossory is a Fourteenth Century manuscript from St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny (now housed in the RCB Library; a digitised version is available). It contains, mainly, copies of documents important in the administration of the diocese and is associated with Richard de Ledrede who was Bishop of Ossory (1317-1361). The diocese corresponds to the medieval Irish kingdom of Osraige, now County Kilkenny and western County Laois, with a cathedral based at Kilkenny. The book's name comes from the original colour of the binding.

Most notably, the manuscript also contains the texts of sixty Latin verses composed by Ledrede to be sung by the priests, clerks and choristers of St Canice's 'so that their mouths be not defiled with theatrical, foul and secular songs'. Ledrede did not put music to the hymns, instead he instructed the singers to provide suitable hymns.

Now, a new project has re-interpreted Ledrede's verses for a modern day audience. Heresy Records has released The Red Book of Ossory by a new ensemble, Anakronos, which blends medieval music, jazz and contemporary classical. Anakronos features Catriona O'Leary, voice, Deirdre O'Leary, clarinets, Nick Roth, saxophones and Francesco Turrisi, keyboards and percussion [The disc is released on 10 July].

Singer Catriona O'Leary has worked in both Early Music and traditional Irish song and these genres intersect with jazz and contemporary in these performances, as O'Leary has taken music from a variety of medieval sources to create the settings for Ledrede's texts, and around them Anakronos has woven a striking blend of Medieval, jazz and contemporary. (O'Leary did something similar on her 2014 disc, The Wexford Carols, see my review)

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Festivals from Massachusetts to Yorkshire are going on-line, enabling us to visit virtually

The Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood (Photo John Phelan, Wikipedia)
The Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood (Photo John Phelan, Wikipedia)
Festival season is upon us, and with the cancellation of live performances many festivals are going on-line. Whilst this means that we miss out on the experience of live music making, it does mean that we can eavesdrop on festivals that we would not otherwise be able to visit, so that we can virtually eavesdrop on performances at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Summer home of Tanglewood in New England, or at iconic historic venues such as Castle Howard for the Ryedale Festival's live-streamed concerts, whilst the Live from London festival has been crafted specially for lockdown with the aim of giving the artists valuable support.

Over in New England, the Tanglewood Online Festival opens this week so that we can virtually visit western Massachusetts for a variety of content. The online festival is featuring both specially recorded content from artists such as violinist Gil Shaham and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including Jacques Lacombe conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait and pianist Kirill Gerstein in Gershwin's Piano Concerto. Full details from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's website.

Castle Howard (Photo Pwojdacz, Wikipedia)
Castle Howard (Photo Pwojdacz, Wikipedia)
And in Yorkshire, the Ryedale Festival will be live-streaming eight concerts, free-to-view, from 19 July to 26 July 2020, opening on 19 July with Isata Kanneh-Mason. Many of the concerts will be filmed in iconic Yorkshire venues, so there will be violinist Rachel Podger in Biber at Castle Howard, organist Anna Lapwood at St Michael's Church, Coxwold, cellist Abel Selaocoe at All Saints' Church, Helmsley, clarinettist Matthew Hunt and pianist Tim Horton in Schubert, Jorg Widmann and Ireland from the Long Gallery at Castle Howard, and the Albion Quartet in Schubert in the great hall of Castle Howard. Soprano Rowan Pierce will join festival director Christopher Glynn for songs by Purcell, Schumann, Schubert & Grieg, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen will join Glynn for music by Elgar. Members of Streetwise Opera will join Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn, the Brodsky Quartet and Genesis Sixteen for a virtual performance directed by Freya Wynn-Jones inspired by The Linden Tree from Schubert's Winterreise. Full details from the Ryestream website.

By contrast, the Live from London on-line has been designed specifically for lockdown. Filmed at the VOCES8 Centre in London, the festival will feature performances every Saturday for ten weeks from 1 August 2020, with ensembles such as VOCES8, I Fagiolini, Stile Antico, the Swingles, The Sixteen and Chanticleer. The concerts will be pay-per-view (with season tickets available) and are intended to raise money for artists, venues and promoters. The concerts start on 1 August with VOCES8 in a programme inspired by the group's recent CD After Silence with music from Orlando Gibbons and Monteverdi to the premiere of Marten Janssens' Elemental Elegy, followed by I Fagiolini in an all-Monteverdi programme on 8 August, followed by a guest appearance of the Academy of Ancient Music on 15 August.. Full details from the Live from London website.

Live from London festival

Making Waves: London Oriana Choir's on-line premiere of new work by Anna Disley-Simpson

London Oriana Choir - Making Waves -  4 July 2020
The London Oriana Choir, conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham, is planning a virtual concert on Saturday 4 July 2020, as part of its five15 project supporting and exploring the work of women composers.

Saturday's concert will feature performances of works by Cecilia McDowall, Kerry Andrew, Eleanor Daley, Mia Makaroff, Vittoria Aleotti (1575-1620) and Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), arr Felicia Sandler, recorded at concerts at the Cutty Sark and the Stationers Hall. And there will be the premiere of a new lockdown commission, Waves from the choir's composer in residence, Anna Disley-Simpson.

The event will also feature introductions from Cecilia McDowall and Felicia Sandler, and Dominic Peckham will be talking to Anna Disley-Simpson.

Full details from the London Oriana Choir's website.

The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem: Fretwork & the Magdalena Consort continue their exploration of these intimate works for voices and viols on Signum Classics

In Chains of Gold, volume 2 - Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt
In Chains of Gold, volume 2
- Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt; Signum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A further exploration of English verse anthems, with intimate, finely crafted performances which aim to recapture the spirit of the originals

This disc, In Chains of Gold, represents volume two of Signum Classics valuable survey of the English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem, featuring the Magdalena Consort (director Peter Harvey), Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, artistic director William Hunt. Having devoted volume one to the complete consort anthems of Orlando Gibbons, this new volume looks at his great contemporary William Byrd, along with music by John Bull, Benjamin Cosyn, Edmund Hooper and John Mundy.

The sound-world that the performances aim to create is as close as possible to what we know about Elizabethan performance of these intimate works for voices and viols. The works are performed in the original keys at a pitch of A466 (a semi-tone higher than modern pitch), with a set of small English viols re-strung to the high pitch especially for the project, a strikingly characterful reconstructed Tudor organ (which can be heard in solo pieces) and a vocal consort which uses high tenors rather than falsettists. Perhaps, as important, as any of these, is the way that the performances keep the required intimacy; viols are not excessively loud instruments and these works were often intended for domestic use, though we know them now from their re-purposing by church choirs. The survival of this music is patchy, and for some pieces the original instrumental accompaniments have had to be re-constructed.

Monday, 29 June 2020

From Couch to Chorus: Opera North's education team launches a new project aimed at getting us all singing in our living rooms

Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
For anyone who simply catches a performance by Opera North, in Leeds or on tour, it can be easy to miss the fact that the company's extends well beyond opera to busy education and outreach departments with projects with school children, adults and refugees. This Summer the company is launching a new virtual choir, From Couch to Chorus, aimed at getting people singing. One of the choral directors involved is Jennifer Sterling who explained to me more about the project.

Jennifer works in the education department on projects such as In Harmony Opera North (part of a national programme that aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities) where school children are taught instruments and sing in choirs, or Sing ON, the company's weekly music and singing activity for over 55s.

But moving from these active participation events to the necessity of using Zoom in lockdown can surely be tricky when working with amateurs? Jennifer explained that they have already been working on-line with these existing groups. This was very much trial and error, but they have received some good feedback, such as one singer who commented that they didn't expect to enjoy singing in front of a computer so much!

Jennifer points out that there is a lot you can do on-line, you can talk about details, though you have to guess the areas that might go wrong, so they can be looked at in greater depth. One thing they have learned is that not having too many parts in a rehearsal helps. So for From Couch to Chorus there will be four weeks of sectional rehearsals (separating soprano, alto, tenor and bass), before everyone comes together.

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
For From Couch to Chorus, the singers will be learning the opening chorus from Smetana's The Bartered Bride, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi's Nabucco and the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. At the end there will be an ensemble sing through with a recording made by the chorus of Opera North.

The members of the SingON choirs have found their on-line sessions to be quite freeing in some ways. But one area that will be a challenge for some in From Couch to Chorus is being on your own in front of a computer, you have to learn how to hold your part without the support of the rest of your voice part. Jennifer hopes that the project will enable singers to gain confidence and perhaps decide to join a choir once things return to normal.

A huge variety of people could participate, and it will be important to give singers a variety of things to think about, so some will be concentrate on simply learning the notes whilst other more experienced singers will be encouraged to think about how they sing.

When things return to normal there will be the challenge of incorporating elements of what the team has learned from the on-line sessions into regular rehearsals. For Opera North's existing projects, there could well be an interim period when a mixture of live rehearsals and on-line sessions is used. For any new projects, the team will have to think about how many more people can be reached by technology. Within a day or so of the launch of From Couch to Chorus over 300 singers had signed up. Running a live project with such numbers could be tricky, so Jennifer could imagine a project which moved from on-line sessions to a final physical get together.

The team's school projects have also been using on-line sessions. However, with the school children, rehearsing together in an important factor in building confidence and team work, but teaching tends to be in groups. Working on-line has meant an emphasis on learning musicianship, a process which has been positive, but had its frustrations too. Jennifer points out that when you sing in a choir, you developed a personal connection with everyone even though you might not know them individually. And this can be important in projects like In Harmony Opera North, and singing on-line just does not give you this.

From Couch to Chorus runs from 20 July to 12 August 2020, full details from the Opera North website.

Fidelio Unbound: bringing live recitals back to London

The Fidelio Orchestra, an ensemble based at a cafe in Clerkenwell which presents events in a variety of locations often combined with food, as come up with a concert series to re-start concert going in London, Fidelio Unbound.

This will be a series of concerts at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe in Clerkenwell, starting on 7 July, with some major classical artists in recital. In order to keep the events safe, a maximum of 25 tickets will be sold per event, but the artists will be repeating the events to ensure that programmes are accessible to more people. Each concert will be followed by a meal, created by the chef Alan Rosenthal.

The series opens with cellist Stephen Isserlis in Bach (7-11 July), and he is followed by Alina Ibragimova (violin) and Samson Tsoy (cello) in Janacek and Beethoven (14-18 July), pianist Pavel Kolesnikov in Chopin (21-25 July), Louis Schwizgebel (piano) in Debussy and Mussorgsky (29-31 July), Simon Callow reading Shakespeare (4-8 August) and Charles Owen (piano) in Chopin, Liszt and Schumann (11-13 August 2020).

Full details from the Fidelio Orchestra website.

Politics, Poetry & Personal Interest: Lully, King Louis XIV and the invention of French opera

Apollo performed by Louis XIV, Ballet de la nuit 1653
Apollo performed by Louis XIV,
Ballet de la nuit 1653
In 1653, fourteen-year-old King Louis XIV of France took part in the Ballet Royal de la nuit, a ballet de cour which was highly elaborate and took 13 hours to perform. A twenty-one-year old Italian musician and dancer, Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli) danced with Louis in the ballet. The two got on and this relationship would have an important influence on opera in France. A strange mixture of politics and personal interest would ensure that, almost uniquely in Europe, the French rejected Italian opera and developed a style of opera very particular to France and the French language. And central to this process would by Lully.

But in 1653, opera hardly existed in France and the important genre was the ballet de cour, the name given to the 16th and 17th century ballets performed at the royal court, a distinctive French dance genre which mixed formalised and social dancing. Its influence was huge and French opera would combine elements of the ballet de cour, including the spectacular settings and large-scale portions for dancers.

And it would be Lully who codified the form of French opera, in his 13 tragédies lyriques or tragédies en musique. Of course, Italian courts in the 17th century had a love of spectacle too, but usually with less dance element to it. And opera in the two countries would be intriguingly linked, via a series of French royal marriages to members of the Medici family which ruled Florence.

Ballets de cour

Ballet de cour was a secular, not religious happening; it was a carefully crafted mixture of art, socialising, and politics, with its primary objective being to exalt the State (in the person of the ruler). Early French court ballet’s choreography was constructed as a series of patterns and geometric shapes that were intended to be viewed from overhead. Once the performance was through, the audience was encouraged to join the dancers on the floor to participate in a, "ball" which was designed to bring everyone in the hall into unanimity with the ideas expressed by the piece. As they developed through time, court ballets began to introduce comedy, went through a phase where they poked fun at manners and affectations of the time, and they moved into a phase where they became enamoured with pantomime.

A 1592 engraving by Orazio Scarabelli depicting the mock sea battle, or naumachia, at the Palazzo Pitti
A 1592 engraving by Orazio Scarabelli depicting the mock sea battle, or naumachia, at the Palazzo Pitti
At the time of the court ballet’s birth, a similar art form appeared in Italy called opera, arising out of the Italian court’s love of spectacle; the difference between the two crafts, is that the developing phenomenon in Italy focused on the singing aspect of performance, whereas in France, movement was front and centre.

Ballets de cour in France

When Catherine de’ Medici, the daughter of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, married the French King Henri II in 1533, French and Italian culture enmeshed as Catherine brought from her native Italy her penchant for theatrical and ceremonial events, including elegant social dances.

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.

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