Saturday 28 April 2007

Ballet Triple Bill

Last night we went to the new triple bill at the Royal Ballet. The opening work was Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins with new choreography by Will Tuckett. The singing role of Anna was performed by Martha Wainwright; she was miked and sang the Auden/Kalman translation. Her diction was pretty good so we could follow things clearly (no surtitles!). The dancing Anna was Zenaida Yanowsky.

Tuckett and his designer Lez Brotherston set the piece in the sixties (beehive hair do's for the women). Tuckett presents the story quite straightforwardly, creating an involving narrative. There were moments when his use of standard ballet language seemed a little at odds with the music. There were some fine, sexy performances from some of the men.

The quartet of singers stood on a walkway above the stage, viewing the proceedings and adding their comments. The singers were Roderick Earle, Paul Goodwin-Groen, Philip O'Brien, Christopher Steele. They sounded good but their diction was a little occluded at times, perhaps because of their placing. Either Goodwin-Groen was chosen partly for his extreme height, or he was on stilts, but Mother was by far the tallest person on stage!

This was followed by Glen Tetley's Pierrot Lunaire, with Linda Hurst performing the solo vocal line. This was the first time I'd seen the ballet and heard the music live. I found Tetley's dance work entertaining and involving and rather poignant, with superb performances from Alexander Zaitsev (Pierrot), Mara Galeazzi (Columbine) and Edward Watson (Brighella). The costumes, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, included some superb ones for Columbine.

For some strange, but presumably logical reason, Martin Yates conducted the Seven Deadly Sins, and Richard Bernas conducted the remaining works. It cannot be easy doing concert works like the Schoenberg and the Ravel as ballet scores, but Bernas did very well.

Then finally, La Fin du Jour, MacMillan's ballet to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (with beteran Royal Ballet pianist Philip Gammon giving a superb account of the solo role). MacMillan's quirkly 30's inspired ballet has some difficult choreography and in the first 2 movements the dancers, particularly the soloists, were unable to make light of it. Thus instead of the piece being free, light and jazzy, it had moments which were too careful and studied. Let us hope that this performance heralds its return to the repertoire so that the dancers can bed it in properly. The final, Fred and Ginger type dance seemed to fit the dancers better and had the requisite fun and lightness.

The final

Review of Solomon

The closing concert of this year's London Handel Festival was a performance of Solomon. Written in 1748, Solomon is the first in the final sequence of great oratorios Solomon, Susanna, Theodora, Jephtha.

Solomon and Susanna were written almost simultaneously and probably had the same, unknown, librettist. Rather than any sort of dramatic plot, the oratorio presents a series of episodes from Solomon's reign. The work is quite expansive in the forces used, many of the choruses are for double choir, and the orchestra includes oboes and flutes at times playing simultaneously, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. This expansiveness is not just a result of some sort of economic ease, Susanna uses smaller forces; thus implying that Handel wanted the work to be expansive.

The festival performs in St. George's Church, Hanover Square which was Handel's parish church. But, of course, the oratorios were not written for church performance, but for Handel's theatre. And the playing space at St. Georges is highly restrictive. The performance used a choir of 18 hard-working singers and an orchestra with a mere 13 strings. The singers and musicians in the London Handel Chorus and Orchestra are both extremely hard-working and very talented. So, some moments of raw, exposed string tone apart, the results were extremely creditable. But there is no doubt that we were hearing a performance with slightly too few forces.

Space also meant that the soloists were rather crammed in. Though the decision to place Nathan Vale (singing the High Priest, Zadok) in the pulpit was an imaginative one.

Solomon was written for a female contralto. Though Handel had written a number of major tenor parts in his oratorios, he seems to have though of Solomon as a young, romantic hero in operatic terms and so wrote for him in the vocal range associated with this type of role in Italian opera.

The role seems to suit the counter-tenor voice, but this is one area where I have usually preferred female contraltos. The planned singer, Iestyn Davies, was ill so we were lucky to have Christopher Ainslie stand in for him. Ainslie sang the title role in Poro which was presented earlier in the festival at the Britten Theatre. He had also just gained second place in the Handel Singing Competition held in the church 3 days earlier.

Ainslie's Solomon was beautifully toned, well supported and nicely phrased. Ainslie is a very musical singer. I would have like more of a sense of drama and more of a feeling of letting go at the crucial moments, but given the last-minute nature of his substitution we must wait for a further opportunity to hear what he can do in this role. But there is no sense of short change, Ainslie's was a highly effective and affecting performance.

In Act 1, his Queen was Mona Julsrud. Julsrud is a stylish Handelian singer, but I did find that there were moments of hardness of tone in her voice. More worryingly, I did not find here contributions to the end of Act 1 either sexy or erotic. Solomon was a theatre piece and the close of the first act is about the joys of married love; the libretto makes it perfectly clear what Solomon and his Queen get up to. Unfortunately Ainslie and Julsrud sounded a little to chaste.

They were well supported by the choir who turned in a beautiful account of the nightingale chorus, complete with antiphonal flute players in the balcony.

In Act 2, Julsrud and soprano Elisabeth Atherton were the 2 Harlots. This seems to be the new orthodoxy with regard to casting this piece, using just 2 sopranos and having the 2nd soprano play the Queen of Sheba and the mezzo-soprano Harlot. Julsrud and Atherton were superb as the Harlots and here we got some real drama. Ainslie's understated performance worked well as Solomon's reserve when in judgement. Atherton was also a lovely Queen of Sheba in Act 3.

Nathan Vale was a fine Zadok, producing some lovely tone and very fine passage work. Zadok's contributions are not strictly dramatic, but they are very fine arias so it was lovely to hear them all.

The part of the Levite is rather less involving; Njal Sparbo did what he could and contributed some very imaginative and elaborate ornaments, but he did have a tendency to bluster.

The choir worked overtime and sang superbly. Inevitably there were moments when one would have liked more singers, but the results were always focussed and clear. The tone rarely felt pressed in the bigger choruses and the smaller numbers brought a fine sense of crisp ensemble.

The orchestra were similarly impressive. Director Lawrence Cummings balanced his forces well and the great orchestral moments came over as expected.

All in all, a highly involving performance that more than made up for the uncomfortable seats and bad sight-lines that St. George's provides.

Friday 27 April 2007

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine:

There is an interview with Ian Bostridge, centred on his Britten roles because he's doing Aschenbach with ENO. Its curious that interviews rarely mention, or skate round, the fact that Bostridge's distinctive physique (very tall and very thin) combined with his perceived physical fragility (a reputation for cancelling due to illness) mean that there is an otherworldliness about his persona which works well in some roles. I imagine Aschenbach will be one of them, but frankly I can't imagine him as Essex and Bostridge says in the interview that regarding Peter Grimes 'I go on and off that one'.

There's also an interesting interview with Harry Bickett, one of those big-house friendly Baroque conductors who crop up in all sorts of place - though of course there is a lot more to him than that. He evidently got his big break at Munich when Mackerras famously objected to the production, I think it was one of the wackier Richard Jones ones.

I'm going to skip over the review of Norman Lebrecht's obituary to the classical record industry. But don't miss the obituary to Julian Budden, even though it leaves you doing a lot of reading between the lines.

Meanwhile in Italy, they've been doing Candide in Naples, the production looks fabulous but I'm still suffering the aftershock of the Carsen version from Paris. And in Savona, Anna Caterina Antonacci was doing her first Charlotte, at the Teatro Chiabrera. An institution which gives young artists important opportunities and manages to retain them as they get more well known.

Erica Jeal was in Kazan (!) for a new production of Il Trovatore which is shortly going to be touring (the Netherlands). It definitely sounds something worth seeking out and may be a cut above the usual Eastern European touring production.

Barcelona saw the premiere of Peter Konwitschny's Don Carlos in French - now I definitely do wish I'd been there for that. Robert Carsen's Carmelites has made it to Chicago. We saw the production in Amsterdam, with Susan Chilcott; I found it shattering, particularly the ending though D. was less convinced.

Transferring David Fielding's distinctive view of Strauss Egyptian Helen from Garsington to the Met does not seem to have worked very well. Fielding's ironic whimsy does not seem to have transferred to the larger stage. Also in New York, the Basil Hood/Arthur Sullivan Rose of Persia made a very rare outing; Martin Yates was sufficiently impressed as to hope for a UK production some time - he suggested that the ENO's Kismet sets could perhaps do double duty. Now there's an idea.

Back in the UK, Hugh Canning found Francisco Negrin's production of Orlando at Covent Garden an essentially facetious, patronizing response to the magic of Handel's theatre. Amazing how different people can have such varied responses to the same piece of theatre, but than that's the magic of it I suppose. Still, we both agree on the amazing Sir Charles Mackerras.

The London Sinfonietta have been touring Benedict Mason's ChaplinOperas, amazing short theatre pieces which play as accompaniment to Chaplin Films. Annoyingly I managed to miss it. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have just done Donizetti's Imelda di Lambertazzi, which was recorded for Opera Rara - their first such collaboration. And the review of Opera Rara's latest offering, Donizetti's Dom Sebastian makes me want to dash out and buy it.

Thursday 26 April 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of the new disc of Stephen Goss's music is here, on Music Web International.
Contemporary music which manages to be approachable but does not talk down to its listeners. Supported by a fine group of performers. ...

What I've been listening to

My most recent reviewer's log has been posted on Music Web International, here.

Review of Ravel/Puccini double bill

My review of the Royal Opera's Ravel/Puccini double bill is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday 25 April 2007


I've spent the last 2 days at All Saints Church, East Finchley, doing recording sessions for a new disc of my music. In 4 sessions over 2 days we managed to record The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, a group of motets plus some works for tenor and string orchestra including by Blake setting What is Man?. So naturally, I've not had time to devote attention to many other things.

On Sunday we went to Sadlers Wells to see Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem's programme. I found much of it disappointing and not a little pretentious. I could have done without the pseudo ad-libs where Guillem and Khan talked to the audience. And some of the early choreography was a little un-inspiring. It was only towards the end, when Khan and Guillem did a series of duets that things took off. I enjoyed the music, but can't comment much on it as there was no actual music list so I have no idea what I was listening to at any one time. The programme lasted 75 minutes and was frankly quite long enough.

Tomorrow we are off to hear Solomon at the London Handel Festival and then on Friday its the new triple bill by the Royal Ballet with Will Tuckett's Seven Deadly Sins, with Martha Wainwright singing - can't wait.

Review of Ravel/Puccini double bill

My review of the Ravel/Puccini double bill at Covent Garden is here, on Music and Vision.

Recent CD Review

My review of Veronika Winter's disc of Handel cantatas is MusicWeb International.
In many ways an interesting disc, well programmed and performed with a soloist possessed of a lovely voice but rather understated and lacking the necessary bravura and drama. ...

Friday 20 April 2007


Tonight is the orchestral rehearsal for the Recording Session on Monday, the first time I get to hear my Blake settings - very scary. So, of course, I have a bag weighed down with string parts and other emergency supplies.

Then on Saturday we're off to Covent Garden to see the Ravel/Puccini double bill - the first time I've managed to see L'Heure Espagnole. And on Sunday its the Akhram Khan/Sylvie Guillem programme at Sadlers Wells.

Quite a busy weekend, all in all.

In case you were wondering..

The Houston Chronicle has recently posted a review of the Zandra Rhodes designed Aida, the review is here.

The Opera Critic has pictures, but you have to be a member to see them; worth it though!

Recent CD Review

My review of Lotti's Vesper Psalms is here, on MusicWeb International.

Not quite up to the sophistication of the top-flight early music groups but an attractive programme given with charm, poise and a lively immediacy. ...

Thursday 19 April 2007

ENO New Season

ENO's new season is remarkably accomplished considering the odium and bad press that the company has been garnering lately. The new artistic directors seem to have decided that the way forward, in the current economic climate, is collaboration so that the new season consists of 11 new productions and only 3 revivals. The new productions are all done in association with others, either as equal partners or simply being bought in.

That said, the season does seem to keep faith with some of the ideas in the previous season. British opera is represented by Britten's Turn of the Screw and Birtwistle's Punch and Judy. The season is also strongly cast, featuring some of the best singers from ENO's previous seasons. Amanda Roocroft returns as Hanna Glawari, perhaps a strange follow-up to Jenufa. Clare Rutter takes the title role in the new Aida, with John Hudson as Radames, Ann Murray is Mrs Grose in the new Turn of the Screw, Barry Banks is Edgardo in the new Lucia di Lammermoor, Alice Coote and Julian Gavin take the leads in the new Carmen; Janice Watson, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sarah Tynan take the leads in the new Rosenkavalier.

The notable feature of this casting is showing people in the repertoire that they do best. It is good to be able to see Barry Banks in the bel canto repertoire that he excels at, and both Hudson and Gavin are welcome returns in the standard repertoire.

David McVicar seems to be turning into the house producer, his Maryinsky production of Turn of the Screw and his Scottish Opera Rosenkavalier both make an appearance. I am very excited about the Rosenkavalier, especially as Sarah Connolly is doing Octavian as she did in Scotland.

I'm less excited about Sally Potter's Carmen, though can't wait to hear Alice Coote in the title role. But ENO will obviously be hoping that Potter will managed to work the same box-office magic as Antony Minghella. The director of Aida, Jo Davies, is rather overshadowed by her designer, Zandra Rhodes. Whether they can make this difficult opera work in the Coliseum remains to be seen. In an interview Rhodes commented that she had borrowed 4 DVD's of the work. In 3, the costumes were white night dresses and the 4th a riot of colour. She figured that she had not been engaged to design white nightdresses.

ChenShi-Zheng's Monteverdi cycle continues with The Coronation of Poppea with Christine Rice as Nero.

Bel canto is something of a rarity at the Coliseum and the management obviously felt that if they were going to do Lucia di Lamermoor they had to give it some street cred, so the producer is David Alden, with Paul Daniel conducting. The set will be designed by Charles Edwards who designed Jenufa so don't expect a gorgeous 17th century setting! The title role is being sung by Anna Christy, who sang Cunegonde in Robert Carsen's Candide when it was premiered at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris.

The new Merry Widow seems to have no director attached to it yet, rather an ominous sign. And they are definitely doing the Robert Carsen Candide which premiered at the Chatelet Theatre. I saw this on TV and it was frankly a mess. ENO's version is going to be re-worked but I think the main draw will be Toby Spence as Candide, no word on the Cunegonde yet.

The new chief conductor, Edward Gardner, is conducting Aida, Carmen, Der Rosenkavalier and Punch and Judy. It will be interesting to see, and hear, how he shapes up in this challenging mix of repertoire.

The full season PDF is here.

More surtitles

There's an interesting quote from Edward Gardner, the new Chief Conductor at ENO, in an interview in the Guardian about their 2007/08 season. He was asked about surtitles. His reply:

"I am pretty pro surtitles," he says. "I am pro people from non- operatic backgrounds coming to opera - as I did growing up - and knowing what's going on. The interesting thing about the surtitles argument is that it is always conducted by people who sit in row A of the dress circle, where things are basically fine. But I saw my first 30 operas here in row ZZ of the balcony, and, you sometimes just can't hear the words. For people up there, surtitles are great."

I rather agree with that. Like Gardner I started listening to opera in English at the back of the Gods (in Manchester) and found the words inaudible.

I'll be posting more on the ENO new season announcement later today.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Less than a week to go

It is now less than a week to go to my recording, so life has been full of last minute flurries and tasks. I still have to sit down and create a whole set of string parts for Friday's rehearsal - tomorrow evening is allocated to the task of printing and sticking together - a great delight!

Last week there was a flurry over the organ and we are now using a one that is being brought in, so there's the logistics of getting that in (and out) without disturbing the recording sessions. Then we've had a few personnel movements, so I've had to re-arrange some of the vocal pieces. I did this last night and we are now recording my motet Nunc Dimittis with the melody line set at its original Alto pitch which will be rather nice. I always associate the melody with the sound of Rupert Damerell's voice (he premièred the piece when it as just for alto and organ), even though it has spent the last few years as a motet for SATB and organ. In fact we are going to record it in its ATB+organ incarnation.

There have also been the usual flurry of emails trying to ensure that everyone knows where and when we are doing things. Given that these are recording sessions its useful to have choir, conductor, recording engineer and record producer in the same place at the same time. Oh, and perhaps the humble composer as well, to answer questions and make tea, if nothing else.

Church Latin

A fascinating post from Westminster Cathedral about vagaries of church Latin, Italianate Latin and Latin as she is spoke by Academics. Essential reading for those of us choristers whose latin is minimal.

Monday 16 April 2007

We have not been to see Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the London Coliseum. Not because of lack of interest, but lack of time. Both this and Koanga (at Sadlers Wells) have fallen foul of the fact that we simply have too much going on this month. (Notably, of course, my own recording, but much else besides).

Still, I have been following avidly the critical response to Satyagraha in the press, partly because I have a love/hate relationship to Glass's music; I must confess that the last full length work of his I heard live was Akhnaten at ENO many years ago.

Generally the critical response to the new production has been positive. But Rupert Christiansen writing in the Telegraph,most definitely did not like it: it contains some of the most mind-numbing, brain-rotting and soul-destroying noise that has ever passed for music, and I would sooner sit through 10 uncut performances of an obscure Handel epic than hear a note of it again.

Whereas for John Allison in The Sunday Telegraph, you should do anything (legal) to get a ticket. Take your pick on who to believe.


On Friday we went to seen Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Mayerling at the Royal Opera House. Its a work I've been fond of (if that's the right word, given the subject matter) since seeing it during its first run, with David Wall as Prince Rudolph. Since then I've seen artists as varied as Irek Mukhamedov and Adam Cooper in the role. On Friday it was the turn of Carlos Acosta, with Leanne Benjamin as his mistress with whom he commits suicide in a powerful final pas de deux.

Much was written in the press about how the role did not really suite Acosta's personality. And that neither he nor Benjamin were ideally cast. Perhaps so, but I think that we will not see their final pas de deux danced so supremely well. They way she flung herself at him in those amazing flying leaps was astounding. MacMillan's choreography can often seem overly contrived, if the participants do not have it in their bones (or muscles). Here it seemed perfectly aposite.

Now, I want to see Edward Watson in the role, having read the reviews of his debut last week.

Regarding the music to the ballet, John Lanchberry's assemblage of Liszt pieces is masterly, but there are times when I feel that Liszt just does not create the right decadent atmosphere for the Austro-Hungarian court. An Lanchberry seems to have been very sparing with the sweeping melodies, though perhaps that was what MacMillan wanted.

Saturday 14 April 2007

Boring or what

I've just been doing a new arrangement of a piece of string orchestra, based on one of my solo motets. I'm very happy with it, though I expect there will be a little tinkering over the next few days. The problem is that the viola part is truly boring; I have this weakness for static harmony in the middle with a vocal line on top and a moving (generally descending) bass. That's the way it is with this piece; the result is exactly what I want but leaves the violas with acres of the same note.

I've had this problem before and each time I come to the same conclusion, the music as written is exactly what I want. Sometimes I worry that its sheer laziness, that just sticking the same few chords under the melody is the easiest way out. But no amount of tinkering every really comes up with a replacement, too often the more interesting versions simply sound contrived.

So for the moment, my new string piece is sitting on the piano waiting for tinkering. In a few days I'll return to it and see whether I can tweak the viola part to be more fun. But I suspect that I will stay as it is.

Friday 13 April 2007

Recording news

Things are gearing up to our recording sessions in just over a week. I have produced a specimen set of string parts for the two pieces which use string orchestra and these are being marked up; we will then have to produce all the string parts ready for next Friday's orchestral rehearsal. This will be the first time that the Blake setting has been performed, always a nerve-wracking time. I am looking forward to hearing how the piece works with voice and strings, its a setting of a chunk of Blake's Jerusalem and is in the form of a sequence of recitatives and arias.

The choral music on the disc is less nerve-making as most of it has been performed before. This also meant that I had far less work to do generating the vocal scores, as these already existed for many of the pieces - thanks goodness.

A minor challenge has been the organ, we've discovered that building work has prevented the tuning of the organ at the recording venue so we are having to bring in an organ. One of those last minute hitches that you can never legislate for!

Thursday 12 April 2007

Recent Book review

My review of the Dorling Kindersly Eyewitness Guide to Opera is here, on Music and Visition.

Wednesday 11 April 2007

Too much Handel

A recent article in The Guardian has postulated that we are getting too much Handel at the moment. There have been productions of Handel operas at Covent Garden and ENO besides concert performances at the Barbican. But ENO has only 3 Handel operas and 1 oratorio in its repertoire and rarely gives us more than 1 per year and sometimes less. Covent Garden's production of Orlando is their first viable Handel staging in living memory.

Glyndebourne also have 3 stagings which come out periodically. The thing that all these operas have in common is that they all come from the magical 12 Handel operas that everyone does. It is left to people like the London Handel Festival, who staged Poro, to explore the remaining 24 Handel operas.

The concert performances of Handel operas at the Barbican (of which there are a few this year) also tend to explore the more well known operas. If you glance at the Web-Site for the Theatre du Champs Elysee you will see that they have quite a number of Handel operas in concert, all well known ones. Alan Curtiss and his group Il Complesso Barocco have been exploring lesser known operas (Faramondo and Sosarme/Fernando have both been issued on disc) but when the group came to the Barbican they brought Rodelinda.

So the issue is not that there is too much Handel but that there are too many performances of the same operas. This reluctance to explore means that we don't hear anything of his contemporaries; how nice it would have been to have heard a concert performance of Hasse's Cleofide to compliment Handel's Poro, after all they both use the same libretto.

As regards the French baroque and its complete absence from the opera house in the UK, this can be partly attributed to the lack of desire to explore they by-ways. But might also be attributable to a nervousness about how to treat the extensive dance episodes in the operas. Too often, I've found that UK productions react to significant dance episodes with simple embarassment.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

New photos

I've just had some new publicity photos taken by Johnny Bourchier. Here's one.

Friday 6 April 2007

Family commitments mean that, as usual, I will miss most of the Easter services at church but I sang in the Maundy Thursday service yesterday evening. Lots of plainchant, antiphons for the washing of the feet and the Pange Lingua for the end of the service when the host is translated from the high altar to a side altar. The setting was Lotti's Missa Brevis, but we also included Durufle's Ubi Caritas. As I was the alto, this meant that I got to enjoy the lovely alto line all on my own.

Recent CD Review

My review of the BBC Singers' disc of Tippett's choral music is here, on MusicWeb International.
The BBC Singers go far beyond mere technical competency, creating a series of varied but dazzlingly vibrant performances. If you love good choral music, then buy it. ...

Thursday 5 April 2007

Covent Garden new season

The Royal Opera Covent Garden have announced their new season. The big news is, of course, the Ring cycle; they are doing 3 complete cycles in October. Unusually, this is not the first opera of the season, that is Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride with a delectable cast that includes Susan Graham, Simon Keenlyside and Paul Groves. There must be something in the air, because this is a co-production with Chicago and San Francisco, and the Met is also doing a new production (with Placido Domingo in the baritone role). Quite a delectable start to the season.

Other highlights include a new L'Elisir d'Amore from Laurent Pelly, with Rolando Villazon as Nemorino. This ones not too near the top of my must see list, but anything Pelly does is interesting.

Parsifal is coming back with Haitink conducting. The cast includes John Tomlinson, Willard White and Gwynne Howell - a remarkably confluence of distinguished basses. Christopher Ventris is doing the title role. Also coming back is La Cenerentola with Mrs. Rattle (Magdalene Kozena) in the title role and Toby Spence as Don Ramiro. I'm very tempted if only to see Toby Spence. Regarding the title role, I prefer my voices a little heavier and darker than Kozena's. French baritone Stephane Degout is Dandini. Its his Royal Opera debut, couldn't they have found something French for him to sing?

Anna Netrebko is doing Violetta, at last we can get a chance to see what all the fuss is about, if we're bothered. But Jonas Kauffman, who made quite a stir in the new Carmen is Don Jose.

Olivia Fuchs's A Midsummer Nights Dream is returning to the Linbury with a good young cast (William Towers, Gillian Keith, Katie van Kooten, Matthew Rose). And David McVicar's Magic Flute comes back with a varied double cast.

McVicar is also in charge of the new production of Salome with Nadja Michael in the title role and Thomas Moser as Herod, Michaela Schuster as Herodias. Names that are mostly new to me, people I've read about and not heard. So it should be interesting, and with McVicar in charge its bound to be entertaining.

Another chance to see the late Steven Pimlott's Eugene Onegin, with Gerard Finley and Marin Poplavskaya - definitely worth crossing the road for, even if the production got mixed reviews on its first outing.

Carmen gets another outing, this time with a Spanish mezzo - Nancy Fabiola-Herrera (how about a French one?).

And now for the biggie. The premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, with John Tomlinson in the title role and a cast that includes Christine Rice, Christopher Ainslie, Tim Mead and Philip Langridge. Stephen Langridge directs.

Ian Judge's production of the 1857 Simon Boccanegra is back but this time using the better known 1881 version. The production travelled to Washington where they added the sets for the 1881 council scene. John Eliot Gardiner is conducting, which makes it rather interesting and the cast includes Lucio Gallo and Nina Stemme.

The big disappointment of the season is the new Don Carlo. Nicholas Hyntner is directing, but using the 5-act Italian version rather than the French one. Rolando Villazon is singing Don Carlo, rather a big step up for him in terms of the vocal heft required though he's already done the 4-act version evidently. Marina Poplavskaya is Elisabetta, Angela Georghiou having dropped out. Veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is Philip II and Simon Keenlyside is Posa. So, of course, we're going to be there even if we regret the passing of the French version.

Thomas Ades's Powder her face gets a full production in the Linbury and Ades crops up again, conducting Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress with Charles Castronovo, Sally Matthews (nice to see her in bigger roles) and John Relyea.

Deborah Voight finally gets to wear the little black dress in Ariadne auf Naxos. The composer is the Latvian mezzo, Elina Garanca and Gillian Keith is Zerbinetta. Le Nozze di Figaro comes back with the ever wonderful Charles Mackerras in charge. Notable performers include Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, Barbara Frittoli and Sophie Koch.

Over at the Royal Ballet its pretty much the mixture as before. We get new on-acters from Christopher Weeldon and Kim Brandstrup. New resident choreographer Wayne McGregor only does a shortie for a gala, but his Chroma comes back in a bill with Kenneth MacMillan's late, and rather weird, Distant Drummer - the one about Wozzeck.

The other new piece is a complete staging of Balanchine's Jewels. The Royal Ballet have not always got the Balanchine style, so it will be interesting to see how this goes.

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Schumann's secular choral music from Carus is here, on MusicWeb International.
A highly attractive introduction to Schumann’s choral music, including a fine performance of one of Schumann’s greatest choral pieces. ...

Tuesday 3 April 2007

From this month's Opera

Gleanings from the April edition of Opera magazine.

More on the European Opera Day’s conference in Paris. One of the centre pieces was Pierre Audi’s new production of Halevy’s La Juive at the Paris Opera Bastille. But its first night was blighted by a technician’s strike. Bizarrely, Audi only found out about the problems via a Dutch language newspaper and no announcement was made on the night; so the audience was left with a rather dim lighting plot and no explanation.

The conference itself sounds a little mixed. Erica Jeal comments that in the session on attracting young adults to opera, ‘half the talking was done by music professionals anxious to talk up their own initiatives’. There was also a young delegates only session which mulled over similar problems. In Europe there is a popular group, Juvenilia, which acts as a young opera goers social network. Oddly, it does not seem to be thriving in the UK.

Potentially, the most interesting session must have been The Future of Opera. It is heartening to read Jeal’s comment that the session "brought a few speakers into play who had done their homework but didn’t seem to be concerned above all with making the right impression".

And in another session Stefan Herheim, actually spoke up for the positive stimuli that an opera house’s inherent limitations brings to the director.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the interview is with veteran singer Robert Tear. In the late 1970’s I saw him in one or two roles with Scottish Opera in repertoire with which he is not always associated. I don’t think I saw his Alfredo but I definitely did see him as Belmonte and I think there were other roles, a Tamino I think. I must did out the programmes. I definitely did see him as Loge in the first Gotz Friedrich Ring at Covent Garden in the 1980’s, a production which made a very big impression.

Tear has always been one of those singers who I’ve admired for their versatility. The interview mentions his recording Handel’s Acis and Galatea whilst singing Matteo (Arabella) at Covent Garden as well as singing the Verdi Requiem for Bernstein at short notice. He’s going to be doing Monsieur Taupe (Capriccio) in Paris; he describes it as a lovely role. I remember hearing the very (very) aged Hugues Cuenod doing it at Glyndebourne (in the old theatre).

Some tit-bits:-

Many papers and mags have picked up on the fact that Gerard Mortier is going to New York City Opera. Despite much speculation about what might happen, all we can really do is say watch this space.

Fragments of recording of the Dream of Gerontius, made in 1936 with Heddle Nash in the title role, have surfaced on a CD which accompanies Alan Blyth’s new book on Nash – can’t wait!

A clutch of obituaries – Gian Carlo Menotti (aged 95) and Steven Pimlott (aged 55). I remember Pimlott’s memorable Boheme for ENO as well as his Sunday in the Park with George for the National Theatre.

Opera around the world:-

Australia’s Pinchgut Opera are a group that I know about from reading reviews and listening to their CD’s. Usually they do something baroque and supremely unusually interesting; this year’s Idomeneo does not seem to have quite hit the mark, judging by Deborah Jones’s review but in December this year they come back with Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans.

Lyons saw a concert performance of La Sonnambula, using a new critical edition; like many back-basics editions of traditional coloratura works, the keys have changed. There are arguments for doing Lucia in higher keys so that the role is more spinto (lowering the pitch enables more high notes from the soprano), but the new Sonnambula is doing the reverse and lowering some of the pitch. At least it makes the tenor’s job easier.

Handel’s Orlando has surfaced in Munich in a production by David Alden. Munich has had a wonderful succession of Handel operas in recent years, but I’ve usually been put off travelling to them by their rather challenging productions. For Orlando, Alden depicts Zoroastro as a mad nuclear scientist with Orlando as his love-lorn sidekick. But seems to leave the more bucolic characters, Dorinda and Medoro, rather out of place. David Daniels sang Orlando, which Hugh Canning thought lay a little low for him. I do wish casting directors would pay attention to the differing castrato and counter-tenor tessituras. Orlando was written for Senesino who had a pretty low register and is definitely not ideal for everyone – Alice Coote found it a bit low for her at Covent Garden. Evidently Daniels had to resort to using his natural baritone register.

Over in Ireland, Opera Ireland have been emulating the work of Pimlico Opera. They did not actually stage their new Boheme in a prison, but the inmates of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin collaborated with Maiano Prison, Spoleto, in designing and building the sets and making the costumes. The result was described by Ian Fox as ‘realistic and dramatically intelligent’.

Geneva’s new Meistersinger set the work in the 1930’s and ended with Pogner and his non-Aryan looking daughter leaving Nuremberg – an interesting take on a problematic ending.

In Los Angeles, tenors seem to be taking over. Kurt Streit played Nerone in Monteverdi’s Poppea – surely they could have found a soprano to do it. And Graham Clark played the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino was revived in Manhatten; when last played there, at the Met in 1932, it formed a double bill with Elektra – very bizarre. It reminds me of Andre Previn’s story about being taken to the theatre as a child and seeing a double bill of Salome and the ballet Coppelia, and for ever afterwards he tended to get the 2 works mixed up!

In the UK, Carl Rosa did a single performance of Patience in an original 1879 theatre. Its in Teddington and used to be part of a sanotorium and comes complete with the original painted backdrops and the original portraits used for Ruddigore. Sounds like a gem, hope their fund-raising campaign goes well. More information here -

In Leeds, Martin Dreyer’s review of Christopher Alden’s new Orfeo seems to miss out the essential point that Alden tried to set the work in Warhol's Factory. Mind you, why he should want to I don’t know.

Review of Can-Can

Cole Porter's musical Can-Can was written with a book by Abe Burrows (author of the books for Guys and Dolls and Silk Stockings). The original intention had been to write a piece about La Goulue, the can-can dancer who was one of Toulouse Lautrec's favourite subjects. But somewhere along the way, things changed. The setting remained 19th century France, but involved a young uptight judge, Aristide Forestier, getting involved with the owner of a can-can establishment, La Mome Pistache. On one level the plot is the expected frothy mix of can-can dancers and struggling artists. But the plot also involves the judge's crusade to get a fair trial for the dancers when prosecuted under obscenity laws. This takes on greater resonance when you learn that the piece was written in the USA at the height of McCarthyism.

La Mome Pistache is a financially savvy figure, who is not without hard edges – she is canny but still appealing. She makes an interesting contrast with the uptight, naïve Aristide. The show concludes with the proper trial which Aristide has been looking for, and the finale is Pistache's girls demonstrating the can-can to the judge. Despite the happy ending we are left wondering what the future holds for Aristide and Pistache.

The show was presented by Ian Marshal Fisher's Lost Musicals. The presentation involved the cast in evening dress, singing from scores, no set and a basic, but imaginative staging (directed by Ian Marshall Fisher).

There was just a piano accompaniment, but the singers are unamplified which is a great advantage. The 14 actors were very hard-working with some playing multiple roles and all participating in the chorus and ensemble scenes.

Aristide and Pistache get the majority of the songs. Pistache was played by Valerie Cutko, a tall elegant figure with a stylish dancer's carriage. She has a low-ish, husky singing voice, it did not always quite fill out Cole Porter's vocal lines but she was undoubtedly expressive and characterful. Her delivery of the show's best known number, “C'est magnifique” was masterly and she spun the vocal line out on a thread.

Christopher Dickens was impressive as the naïve young judge. His singing voice is attractive. The role sounded as if it might have not been in his ideal range, I would have like to have heard more of him. He gets just 2 solos, but one of those is “Its Alright with Me”.

The remaining cast were wonderful, creating a gallery of vivid characters. There was certainly no feeling of being short-changed because this was not fully staged. James Vaughan and Stewart Permutt (both Lost Musicals regulars) were hilarious as the Bulgarian artist, Bruno, and the French art critic, Hilaire. Their feud, leading to a hilarious duel, formed the principal sub-plot.

The score has 4 extremely strong, well-known songs in it (“C'est Magnifique”, “Its Alright with me”, “I love Paris” and “Can-can”) but the remaining ones were rather more variable and a couple of times you thought that Cole Porter might have been on auto-pilot. But the over-all effect was most enjoyable and a little thought-provoking, which is perhaps what was intended.

After listening to this superb performance we came out humming the tunes and longing to see a full staging, complete with can-can.

Recent CD Review

My review of the disc of Laurent Petitgirard's orchestral music is here, on MusicWeb International.

Lush music, attractively orchestrated and evoking the sound-worlds of Honegger or Koechlin ...

Monday 2 April 2007

Lost Musicals

On Sunday we went to see the ever wonderful Lost Musicals people, doing a performance of Cole Porter's Can Can at the Sadlers Wells Theatre. A full review will appear in due course, but this was a fabulous performance. They do them semi-staged, with piano accompaniment and the results are always entertaining and sometimes a revelation. Of course, for me, one of the advantages is that they use the studio theatre and don't have any amplification, so we get a chance to hear the actors voices properly, something that does not happen very often nowadays.


This weekend we finished seeing our clutch of films at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; we managed 6 films this year. All of them memorable in their own way and one The Bubble stayed in my mind for days afterwards.

From a musical point of view the most notable event was a film by Peter de Rome, who made classic, art-influenced Gay porn in the 70's. This was without dialogue but set to a Messiaen score - quite a combination

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