Tuesday 29 November 2005

Mona's Law

In one of Armistead Maupin's Tales in the City books, Mona expounds Mona's Law, 'You can have a hot lover, a hot job and a hot apartment, but you can't have all three at the same time'. Well London has its own version of the law which states that the Royal Opera and English National Opera can't both be operating at an artistic peak at the same time.

For years it was ENO (particularly the powerhouse years under Pountney, Jonas and Elder) who rode the crest of the wave where the Royal Opera struggled to define what it was for in a poor enconomic climate. This culminated in the embarassing arguments over the years in exile whilst the Royal Opera House was being re-built.

But all this has changed and the Royal Opera is on something of a roll (though the Pappano regime is still having trouble coming up with an effective production style). But post-powerhouse ENO are continuing to have the same sort of troubles that the post-Thatcher Conservative party have.

Ironically the rebuilding of the London Coliseum does not seem to have had such a revitalising effect on ENO. So far we have had 3 artistic directors (Nicholas Payne, Denis Marks and Sean Doran), none of whom has really had long enough to make his mark. Now we have the news that Doran has resigned, effective immediately. So ENO must go looking again. I only hope that they find someone soon.

Work is progressing on my Rabindranath Tagore settings, now provisionally titled Crossing. I’ve reached the 4 minute mark and am still managing to stick to my original decision to use passacaglia as the form and stay in the same key. I have cheated a little and there is at least one interlude passage where the passacaglia is suspended and the choir sings over a held organ pedal. Regarding the key, I have used the fact that when repeating the passacaglia melody I have the option of modulating down a semi-tone at the repeat. Mind you, this caused some problems as we moved from A minor (with added G sharp) to G sharp minor (with added F double sharp). I decided that the F double sharp was a bit dodgy for extended choral singing, so engineered another key change double quick, so currently we’re in G minor (with added F sharp).

I am slightly worried about the general sound world of the piece and whether the vocal parts are easy enough and grateful enough to sing, I don’t want the piece to sound like a struggle. I can see I’m going to have to bash away on the piano for a bit to check that it lies right. I’ll keep you posted.

Recent CD reviews on MusicWeb

My review of Decca's fine re-issue of Emma Kirkby singing Handel cantatas is here, and the BBC Proms performance of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, with John Tomlinson in the title role, is here.

Monday 28 November 2005

Authentic Britten

Reviews have just hit the UK press for the new production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House. This is a production that I have Not seen, mainly due to lack of time. But reading the reviews made me think over the productions that I have seen in the past few years. I've noticed a tendency for opera companies to cast counter-tenors in the role on the basis that they are a counter-tenor tout court rather than looking at their tessitura.

The idea of the tessitura of a counter-tenor voice is something that would probably have puzzled Alfred Deller, the first Oberon. But counter-tenors nowadays sing higher roles; David Daniels started on the world operatic stage with Sesto in Handel's Julius Caesar and only more recently moved up (down?) to the title role. This is partly down to the way the voice has developed. All counter-tenors use a mixture of of head voice/falsetto and chest voice, the exact nature of the voice is down to the mix, what notes you sing in which voices. Deller had very much the type of English voice which has a strong cutting edge and the feel of a tenor voice with upward addition. Inevitably, because this is the sort voice needed by the English repertoire that Deller was singing. More recent counter-tenors, especially those in the American mould, seem to take their head voice/falsetto down further creating a softer edged, sometimes rather feminine sound. So I think we must come to accept that there are different types of counter-tenor with different suitabilities.

What I keep feeling is that the more modern high/feminine/American style of voice sounds so unsuitable for Oberon. One or two counter-tenors I have know have commented that Oberon is so Low for them; one pointed out that the part is written with C (and 8ve above middle C) treated as a High Note. So not only does this voice type sound wrong, but the role is low for them. The physical notes lie at different points in their voices. Notes which are effortless for Deller can be effortful, and notes in the strong part of Deller's voice often occur in trickier parts of more modern counter-tenor voices.

As Oberon is one of the major roles for counter-tenor, inevitably if someone is offered the role they accept and find a way to perform it. The result can be moving and creditable, but quite often the sound is such a long way from that of Alfred Deller on Britten's own recording. How long before we accept that this role is written for a certain type of voice and that not all counter-tenors have the right sound quality.

Friday 25 November 2005

Sightreading surprises

There's a nice story in The Times in the birthday interview with Sir Charles Mackerrass (link), in which he describes recently conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Elgar's Enigma Variations and the orchestra had never played it before, so they had to sight-read it and Mackerras had to tell them how the piece went.

I remember in the 1980's when I sang in the London Philharmonic Choir, we did a performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah. It was not a piece I'd sang, but I had heard quite a few performances as a student in Manchester, and subsequently in Scotland. I was surprised to find that not only had the choir not sung the piece in the life-time of any of the present members, but the majority of the singers had never heard it and had no idea how it went. They soon got the idea, but it was fascinating being at the first rehearsal with the choir struggling a little to find their feet when they were used to zapping through pieces.

Thursday 24 November 2005

Chelsea 2006

Well, plans are inching forward for our concert at next year's Chelsea Festival. The conductor, Paul Ayres, and I have agreed a programme and I have confirmed that our proposed venue, St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, is available. So it looks as though we might have a concert! I have also started confirming the willingness of people to sing, so we might have a choir! Both of which are a great relief. I have also started booking rehearsal venues; this is a potential nightmare as we tend to decide when conductor and singers can manage a rehearsal and then look for somewhere to rehearse.

I have also made concrete steps towards writing my new piece for the concert. I've provisionally called it Crossing after the collection from which the Tagore poems come, but this may change. I'm experimenting with a slightly more formal structure than usual. Its a Passacaglia which stays in one key, rather than wandering about as is my wont; mind you the key in question is A minor with an added G sharp which might cause problems with the singers, ho hum!

Monday 21 November 2005

Review of Xerxes at the London Coliseum

To the London Coliseum on Saturday for a performance of Handel’s Serse (or Xerxes, to give it the English title). Nicholas Hyntner’s production is 20 years old but it has been spruced up and David Fielding’s designs look as handsome as ever. The title role was taken by Katerina Karneus, singing her first Handel role in the UK. Karneus looked handsome and fully inhabited the role; her stage demeanour reminded me of Ann Murray in the original production, but that might be memory playing tricks. Karneus has a warm, attractive voice and was suitable expressive in Handel’s fioriture. She got the character’s changeability but I though that the dangerous edge was lacking; something that Anne Sofie von Otter caught well in the concert performance at the Barbican.

Serse’s brother, Arsamene was played by the counter-tenor du jour, Lawrence Zazzo; an American based in the UK he has a warm, attractive voice in the American mold (rather than the cool English one), thankfully he does not overdo the vibrato. His Arsamene was suitably virile and very much the attractive lover. You wanted him to get the girl (Romilda) so his jealous rage in Act 3 was all the more shocking, and believable. Zazzo is an expressive actor, though he came perilously close to breaking the musical line for expressive purposes.

As their love interest, Janice Kelly was in fine vocal health; despite singing a wide range of roles in recent years she showed no signs of finding Handel’s virtuoso vocal line a problem. She was her usual communicative self, finding much pathos and humour in the part. Her voice has a cool, silvery quality (shading to a more steely tone when under pressure high above the stave) which she uses intelligently to such great effect that I did not miss the sheer beauty of tone that other singers have brought to the part.

As her sister, Atalanta, Sarah Tynan contributed her third stunning performance this season. Having found her moving in Jephtha and sympathetic in Carmelites I was very impressed by her poised, selfish and self-confident Atalanta. If she keeps this up and does no try to go too far too quickly, then Tynan will go far.

Serse’s betrothed, Amastris, who spends virtually the whole opera disguised as a man, was played with aplomb by Lucy Schaufer (who previously appeared in On the Town, how's that for versatility). Schaufer has a lovely voice, aptly suited to this part but she has not yet got the knack of managing to fill the Coliseum with her voice.

Graeme Danby was the comic servant Elvino; Danby managed the character’s swift transitions from serious to comic rather well. Neal Davies played Atalanta and Romilda’s father, a role that seems to be rather underwritten given that it was designed for the great bass Montangnana.

Noel Davies conducted the much reduced orchestra, the result was sparkling and sprightly. The players capturing much period feel on their modern instruments. We were sitting in the Upper Circle and much of the dialogue was perfectly understandable. A fabulous evening, I only wish we had time to go back for the alternative cast (Robin Blaze as Arsemenes and Sarah-Jane Davies as Romilda).

Friday 18 November 2005

Recent CD Review

My review of Cantor Simon Spiro's disc in the Naxos Milken Archive series is on MusicWeb here

Wednesday 16 November 2005

Musical Falconry

19th century French operatic repertory is littered with female roles which require a voice of a particularly distinctive type, hovering between soprano and mezzo-soprano. French composers seem to have had a fascination for betwixt and between voice types in roles such as Melisande and Didon; this sort of role is particularly common in French Grand Opera (think Auber and Meyerbeer). Nowadays there is a particular type of pushed up mezzo-soprano voice described as a falcon-soprano; a voice capable of going above the stave, but with the depth of a mezzo. Roles which are in this fach can encompass grand opera written for Paris, Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, Valentine in Meyebeer’s Les Huguenots and Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. But singers nowadays also might sing Lady Macbeth, Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco plus 20th century roles such as Kostelnicka.

The name derives from Cornelie Falcon who sang at the Paris Opera where she specialised in a particular type of role. In the 1830’s the new operas, the first of the 5 Act French Grand Opera type, developed 2 types of soprano role. The first, associated with virtuous, maidenly simplicity sang with commensurate vocal simplicity in a style which was considered French; these roles were often humble people. In contrast to this, providing a degree of virtuosity, were the more aristocratic roles who sang with a more Italianate bravura; such roles provided the audience with the element of show which they could get from Italian opera. These latter, showy roles were often decadent and rather unsympathetic.

So we have demure heroines such as Fenella (La Muette de Portici, in fact a mute role), Alice (Robert le Diable), Valentine (Les Huguenots), Rachel (La Juive); and the ‘other women’ such as Elvire (La Muette de Portici), Isabelle (Robert le Diable), Eudoxie (La Juive) and Marguerite de Valois (Les Huguenots). 3 of these 4 latter ‘other women’ were created by singers with Italian names which must have associated this type of role in the public mind with foreign characters.

The singer Cornelie Falcon (1812 – 1897) created the roles of Valentine and Rachel. Though she did not create Alice, she became Meyerbeer’s favourite in the role. In fact she became the Paris Opera’s favourite ingénue; because, of course, that is exactly the type of role she was singing. Falcon carried this impression of virtue into her private life. Just as nowadays celebrities can find that the characters they play infect the public’s perception of their persona, so Falcon came to embody virtue and modesty in both her public and private personas. She sang for only 5 years, but such was her reputation that such roles were associated with her for ever, hence the name falcon-soprano.

She had a voice of some 2 octaves compass from b to d. Described as silvery with a brilliant timbre sufficient to dominate over the chorus, but never losing its charm or purity. She was described as having a voice ‘full of soul’. Examining the roles written for her suggests that though she could sing delicate high notes she had trouble with smooth transitions over the break.

Her decline was swift and immediate, her voice simply suddenly stopped working. The cause could have been one of a number of things; she made her Paris Opera debut at the age of 18, singing in a large opera house doing too much too quickly. But Meyerbeer’s music was extremely taxing and there is also the sheer stress caused by her life in the public arena.

Reading the description of the voice type and the subject of her vocal decline, it is interesting to see some remarkable parallels with Maria Callas. But what is more remarkable is the way that, with the decline of French Grand Opera, the falcon-soprano voice has lost its association with the virtuous ingénue. Readers wanting to explore her repertoire will have to do some digging. Whereas Opera Rara have mined the rich vein of early 19th century Italian Opera, nobody seems to be doing the same from French Grand Opera.

New Songs

Well, I've finally got to the end of my new song, setting Robert Duncan's poem The Lover. When I say that I've got to the end, I mean in the first draft; my pieces have a tendency to increase in length in the revision process. I revise by simply playing through, bashing away on the piano until I am satisfied. I also use the playback in Finale, but this is most use for checking what you've just typed in. There is nothing like trying a piece under your fingers for getting the feel of it.

The problem with the new piece is that I can't quite manage to play and sing it, so my play back is rather halting and probably does not sound nice. Since living with my partner, I have managed to cure myself of the embarassment of banging away at a song with him wandering about the house; I no longer worry about what it sounds like. But whilst we had lodgers it was a different matter, I was always horribly conscious that the sounds coming out of my piano and my vocal chords were not always a delight to hear. And of course, that embarassment made matters worse.

I've started jotting down ideas for my new piece for FifteenB to be sung at next year's Chelsea Festival. I can now get down to this properly, which is good.

We have recently got the music for a couple of Gavin Bryars's Laude, which I discovered when reviewing a disc of them. It looks as if we are going to be able to perform one, Oi me Lasso, at the Chelsea Concert which is good news. The texture of just 2 voices, soprano and tenor soli, will contrast well with the rest of the programme of choral and organ music. Though I also hope to repeat my 5-part Salve Regina with just 1 voice to a part.

I also have some long overdue corrections to do to my Elegy for Baritone and Orchestra, which David Greiner will be singing with the Salomon Orchestra next year. This, of course, means more banging away on the piano until I have the vocal line in a satisfactory state.

Recent CD Review

My review of Thomas Hampson's disc of Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven arias is here on MusicWeb. It is a highly recommendable outing from Hampson, with a group of undeservedly neglected arias.

Tuesday 15 November 2005

Review of Midsummer Marriage

We went to see Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage last week that the Royal Opera House. My review is now here, on Music & Vision.

Wednesday 9 November 2005

The Midsummer Marriage

The audience for last night's performance of The Midsummer Marriage at the Royal Opera House was not quite as good as might have been expected; it was respectable but certainly not full. The other curiosity was the rather mixed nature of audience, presumably these are what Tippett enthusiasts look like. We had the guilty thought that quite a few looked as it they might have been at the work's premiere in 1955.A review of the performance will appear in due time, I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday 8 November 2005

Tagore's Crossing

I've just come across this on the web, its the first of the 2 Tagore poems that I plan to set:-

"Traveller, where do you go?"
"I go to bathe in the sea in the redd'ning dawn, along the tree-
bordered path."
"Traveller, where is that sea?"
"There where this river ends its course, where the dawn opens into
morning, where the day droops to the dust."
"Traveller, how many are they who come with you?"
"I know not how to count them.
They are travelling all night with their lamps lit, they are
singing all day through land and water."
"Traveller, how far is the sea?"
"How far is it, we all ask.
The rolling roar of its water swells to the sky when we hush our
It ever seems near yet far."
"Traveller, the sun is waxing strong."
"Yes, our journey is long and grievous.
Sing who are weary in spirit, sing who are timid of heart."
"Traveller, what is the night overtakes you?"
"We shall lie down to sleep till the new morning dawns with its
songs, and the call of the sea floats in the air."

We're off to Covent Garden tonight to see Tippett's opera A Midsummer Marriage. I missed the production when it was new so look forward to seeing it with interest. My only previous stage experience of the work was David Pountney's luminous and overheated production at the Coliseum. I hope that the Royal Opera's efforts are an improvement; I'll keep you posted.

We've put together a draft programme for the Chelsea Festival concert in June 2006 and assembled a team of singers and a conductor (Paul Ayres). So it looks as though we may have a concert. I want to write a new piece for the choir (and organ) and have been looking at texts. I've completely failed to find something which appeals and fits in to the concert's theme of the Virgin Mary. So it looks as if I'll be going for something completely different. I turned to a couple of tried and trusted sources, the poems of Helen Waddell and of Rabindranath Tagore. The Waddell poems that appealed were all a little too gloomy so I've opted for Tagore, a pair of poems from Crossing on the theme of the Traveller. I find them beautifully evocative, but I worry that people will find them gloomy. We'll see!

Monday 7 November 2005

All Saints

Yesterday we went to High Mass at All Saints Church, Margaret Street; an Anglican Church with a tradition of elaborate, High Anglican worship. A friend sings in the church choir and we had been meaning to go for ages, but usually I sing at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea.

The service was long (nearly 2 hours) and elaborate, partly because it was the culmination of the celebrations for their annual patronal festival (Tuesday 1st November was the feast of All Saints). The choir sang Bruckner's Mass in E minor, it was rather strange to hear it with organ accompaniment rather than wind instruments, but it worked pretty well and the choir was in good form. It is quite a taxing piece, especially when singing with just 12 singers. The offertory motet was Harris's Faire is the Heaven; simply one of my favourite pieces and beautifully sung.

I stumbled somewhat trying to sing the Credo and Pater Noster to the plainchant with which I am familiar, but this time with English words rather than Latin. The sermon, by the Archdeacon of Durham, was excellent.

Friday 4 November 2005

La pudeur des icebergs

On Wednesday we went to The Place to see a dance piece, La pudeur des icebergs by French-Candian choreographer Daniel Leveille. No sets (just black curtains), no costumes (dancers were all naked), just lighting, movement and music. Quite stunning. Except....

The choreography was quite vigorous and so there was quite a lot of noise from the dancer's feet on the sprung floor. The music (Chopin Preludes) was played rather quietly so at times the noise of the dancers obscured it totally. The programme notes credited the sound treatment, but did not actually say who was playing the music. The sound treatment seemed to consist of eratic gaps between the movements, occasional movements breaking off in mid air and two thirds of the way through a sound treatment which sounded as if all the notes from the preludes were being played simultaneously.

I could not have helped thinking that how much more evocative and effective it could have been if we'd had someone playing live. But I sometimes think that the actual musical experience does not always seem important to choreographers

For those who are curious, there's a review with pictures here of a New York performance


Whilst listening to an Emma Kirkby disc, first issued in 1984, for one review I was looking at another by Licia Albanese for another review. Both artists have in common a remarkably longevity. Albanese appeared in the 1937 Coronation Season at Covent Garden when she appeared as Liu to Eva Turner's Turandot, conducted by John Barbirolli, extracts of which were recorded live. Albanese had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and went on to sing in the concert performance of Stephen Sondheim's Follies which was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1985 (when Albanese was over 70).

Thursday 3 November 2005

Recent CD Review

My review of the complete Vivaldi sacred music, all 11 discs of it from Robert King and the King's Consort on Hyperion, is here.

Wednesday 2 November 2005

Review of Salome at London Coliseum

My review of last Saturday's performance of Richard Strauss's Salome at the London Coliseum is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday 1 November 2005

Chelsea Plans

Having agreed to do a concert at next year's Chelsea Festival, I now have to come up with a suitable programme which will be interesting enough to sing and will attract Chelsea audiences. Current thinking is a programme constructed like our 2004 concert; only this time it will be themed around the Virgin Mary. With plainchant, Marian motets from various eras and a group of contemporary pieces. Already lined up are motets by Liszt, Faure, Saint-Saens, Byrd and Elgar; names which should look pretty well on the poster. Regarding my own contributions, we're going to repeat my one to a part Salve Regina which we did in the FifteenB Consort concerts earlier this year. But I don't have a substantial piece up my sleeve and I think that I'll write something specifically for the occasion. It won't be on the Marian theme (we need some variety) and leafing through my poetry books at home I came up with some poems by Rabindranath Tagore. I set his poetry in my cantata The Young Man and Death and have not set any since, so I think its about time. His poems often have a serious edge without being specifically religious (at least to my ears), which I think would work well in a predominantly sacred programme.

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