Wednesday 30 July 2008

Prom 16

I did my degree in Manchester in the 1970's a few years after Barbirolli's death when his place at the helm of the Halle Orchestra had been taken by James Loughran. Whilst Loughran did a sterling job, it has taken until now for the orchestra to really recapture the form that had under Barbirolli. Since Sir Mark Elder took over in 2000 the orchestra has been in brilliant shape. Their Prom last night showed them to be delivering a remarkable consistency of tone throughout the whole orchestra. I'm not quite sure what exactly the 'new' Halle sound is like, but it is certainly impressive, musical and beautifully textured.

For their Proms visit Elder and the orchestra chose to perform the RVW Symphony (no. 8) which they had premièred under Barbirolli in 1958. But Elder started with a poised and finely textured account of Butterworth's rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. From the very first notes this was spine tingling stuff, only marred by the rather inept delivery of a selection of the poems before and after the rhapsody. It was a nice idea to include the poems but having them declaimed in poor demotic by a pair of young actors, whose main experience would seem to be in TV soaps, was not a good idea.

The RVW performance was similarly beautifully controlled, where necessary, so that the string Cavatina was finely shaped and very consistent whereas the wind and brass only scherzo displayed a fine appreciation of RVW's humour. In the outer movements the percussion section gave vent to RVW's lively percussion parts, making the tuned percussion elements more noticeable and more extravagant than I remember from Hickox and the Philharmonia's recent performance. Which is certainly a good thing, late RVW contains quite a few fascinating experiments with textures and timbres.

After the interval we had a performance of the 1st violin concerto by RVW's teacher, Bruch. Janine Jansen was the poised soloist, spinning out Bruch's long lines. This was a fine performance, but which have many of the RVW outings been coupled with serious 19th century Romantic beasts. The last concert we went to included Rachmaninov's 1st Piano concerto and next week RVW's Piano Concerto is coupled with Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherezade. I've no objections to these works, but couldn't we have had some RVW symphonic pieces coupled with something a little riskier and spikier.

The concert concluded with a lively and witty performance of Strauss's Til Eulenspiegel with Elder showing what a fine Strauss conductor he is.

Self referential

The blogosphere is endlessly self-referential, with links to other sites linking ultimately back to the one you first thought of. There's a link to my posting about Prom 10 on the MyChordSpace blog, an interesting music blog worth exploring.

Monday 28 July 2008

Half-way there

I am currently working on the motet Benedicat sit Sancta Trinitas, setting the words from the Introit for Trinity Sunday, when complete this will be the 35th motet which I have written in my sequence Tempus per Annum. When complete the sequence of motets contain some 70 motets setting the texts (in Latin and in English) of the introits for the Sundays and major Feasts of the church's year. Currently Volume 1 is complete (covering Advent and Christmastide). Volume 2 is nearing completion (just 3 to go) and covers Lent, Eastertide, Ascension and Pentecost. The final volume (with some 34 motets) will cover the 32 Sundays of Ordinary time plus a couple of major feasts.

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Carissimi motets performed by a remarkable high counter-tenor is here, on MusicWeb International.
Crowe gives strikingly committed performances ...

Saturday 26 July 2008

My review of Giordano's opera Marcella is here, on MusicWeb International.

A creditable account of an interesting rarity attractively and idiomatically performed ...

Friday 25 July 2008

Prom 10

To the Royal Albert Hall last night for Prom 10, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeny Sudbin (piano) and Yan Pascal Tortelier (conductor). The programme consisted of Bax's In memoriam, Rachmaninov's 1st Piano Concerto and Vaughan Williams's 4th Symphony.

The Bax has long been known in short score but it was assumed that Bax had never orchestrated it. It was written in memory of an Irish Patriot who died in the Easter Uprising. Not surprisingly there was no performance during Bax's lifetime. In 1998 a full score came to light in a publisher's basement! The piece has been recorded but never performed in public. It proved to be a highly atmospheric piece, to my ears very reminiscent of Hamilton Harty's Irish themed tone poems.

Sudbin gave a highly poetic account of the solo part in the Rachmaninov, proving himself well able to stay on top of the cascades of notes. The results were dazzling, though there were moments when Tortelier allowed the robust orchestration to dominate the piano. I would have liked a bit more robust rawness in Sudbin's playing, but his account erred on the positive side.

In the 2nd half we had RVW's corruscating symphony in a performance which took no prisoners. From the opening dissonant motto theme, it was obvious that Tortelier's account of the score was one which emphasised the European links of RVW's music and played down the pastoral English element which is still present even in this symphony. In the 2nd movement Tortelier conjured an eerie world which was extremely reminiscent of the bi-tonal scores of RVW's friend Holst. For the finale the orchestra finished the performance is towering form. Their and Tortelier's account seemed to play up the dissonant, hard edged side of the score which played up its links with European music. A terrific performance and a fabulous slant on a familiar work.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

This time next year

We have just booked some opera tickets for the Santa Fe Festival (Christine Brewer in Alceste and Natalie Dessay's first La Traviata plus Tom Ford’s opera designing debut). For 2009! This seems to be part of a growing trend, the stretching out of booking periods so that for popular events you can find yourself booking for a ridiculously long period in advance.

In the case of Santa Fe, this is understandable; it encourages this year’s festival goers to sign up for next year’s tickets whilst they are at this year’s festival. But organisations such as the Royal Opera House and English National Opera seem to be putting longer lead times on their advanced booking. And ENO seems to have reduced its number of booking periods, so that you find yourself booking for longer stretches of time.

Some of the other UK opera companies seem to have adopted the yearly booking strategy; we have just booked tickets for Scottish Opera for May 2009 (Massenet’s Manon with Anne Sophie Duprels and Paul Charles Clarke). This yearly booking cycle is one used by the Barbican’s Great Performer’s Season, so that in early Spring each year we find ourselves booking for the following season, which might run until June/July the following year.

Why book so early, you ask yourself?

Partly it’s because you can. If you don’t book early then you stand a chance on missing out on the better seats. As an example, we normally sit in the cheaper front seats in the stalls at the Barbican. We like the closeness. But if we don’t book soon after booking opens, then we either miss these seats or end up sitting further away or at the side.

This ends up becoming a self fulfilling cycle, companies open booking earlier so people book earlier; certainly a case of supply generating demand. The only benefit would seem to be in the companies’ bank accounts where they get their income earlier.

By contrast, a number of the continental opera companies still operate the old system whereby booking opens a fixed period before the first performance of the opera. This system though, I suspect, may gradually give way under pressure from the internet.

People want on-line internet booking so that they can choose their own seats; we certainly prefer this and are prepared to wait for it in some cases. But when companies move to this method of booking, you can find that their whole model of booking changes. The other area where the UK, well at least London, differs from many Continental houses is that on mainland Europe subscriptions are still a vital point.

The end result of all this is that I have already bought my 2009 diary and have a clear idea about my main holidays in 2009 (Scotland in May and Santa Fe in August). It also means that increasingly we have a very expensive cache of tickets sitting in our in-box. But the main casualty is that spontaneity can go out of the window.<

Monday 21 July 2008

Sex matters

Glyndebourne's new Hansel and Gretel has debuted, with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Witch, sung at tenor pitch. Now I have no problems with the witch being sung by a man, a counter-tenor friend of mine has performed it at soprano pitch albeit with just piano accompaniment; he created a rather scary, slightly androgynous figure, miles away from the pantomime dame. But I have severe problems with the issue of transposing it down an octave. The effect on the vocal line is to render something rather scary as an out and out caricature. You can observe similar effects when castrato roles are translated down in baroque opera, the results become cruder, more highly coloured owing to the way the lower voices cope with the faster notes.

But somehow it seems to be acceptable in some operas, notably lighter ones, to move roles about. If you think I'm being a bit prissy about this, then it helps to consider what people's reactions would be if instead of Humperdinck we considered Richard Strauss. What would the critical reaction be if we were to be presented with Octavian sung by a tenor or the Composer (in Arabella). Critics would be up in arms of course because the transposition would ruin the balance between voices (think of the presentation of the Rose scene or the final trio with Octavian an octave lower). That such considerations do no fly from critical pens when the Witch is done by a tenor is perhaps an indication that, despite some superbly thoughtful productions in this country (David Pountney, Richard Jones), we don't quite take Humperdinck's opera as seriously as Richard Strauss's.

Surely the issue is that if an opera is worth doing, then its worth doing properly according to the composer's intentions.

The same arguments apply to the other Strauss's Die Fledermaus, where Orlofsky can be sung by a tenor. This makes the role into something rather different, more roue than excitable youngster. It also makes nonsense of the vocal line for Orlofsky's couplets where many commentators argue that the distinctive vocal leap is meant to represent Orlofsky's voice breaking as he is a teenager.

But of course certain types of lighter opera and operetta have always been prone to directors knowing better and presenting them with substantial re-writes. Granted Humperdinck's opera is not really a light opera, but it is based on a fairy tale and involves children; though he uses Wagnerian techniques, Humperdinck does so in an open an accessible way.

Strangely, its not always light opera that comes in for these alterations, lesser known ones can as well. Witness Massenet's Cendrillon where the only studio recording is still one which uses a tenor for the Prince rather than a mezzo-soprano/Falcon soprano as Massenet specifies. Whereas the change in sex of the Witch is to add extra comedy to the work, the Massenet and Johan Strauss changes are done for different reasons notably the rather modern obsession with having young men sung by men on the operatic stage, particularly when they are in love.

The ultimate change in this style can be found at the very opposite end of the operatic canon, in Monteverdi where Nerone is not infrequently sung by a tenor.

So what should we do about this? Complain! I know that it goes against the grain. But if you've paid a small fortune for tickets you are, I think, entitled to a degree of come back.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Donizetti's Requiem performed by Czech forces is here.

A largely creditable performance played confidently and with not a little style ....

And my review of Jake Heggie's For a Look or a Touch is here.
Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Fine performances, much of interest but not the composers’ best work...

Wednesday 16 July 2008

The Proms

So we are about to embark on that peculiar phase in London life when the Proms begin. Concert and opera going life in London never closes, it merely metamorphoses and the Proms is perhaps the strangest metamorphosis of all. A festival which lasts some 2 months with a concert (at least) per night, rather then relaxing in the summer Londoners would seem to prefer to be exhausted. This was particularly true in past seasons, before the recent rebuilding of the Albert Hall, when the Hall could get overly hot during concerts.

Even now, frankly, the Albert Hall is hardly the ideal place to hear music; the best places are in the promenade area. It is the promenaders who give the festival its special buzz. Forget the Last Night, for the remaining evenings they provide a keenly interested, generally intelligent audience and all for a ridiculous amount of money per night (ridiculously small that is). Of course, to manage a day job and going each night to a Prom (or 2) means you need the constitution of a horse.

The festival is made viable by the sheer size of the Albert Hall, if a concert sells out the BBC can sell a remarkable number of tickets. Add to this their use of the BBC orchestras and their leveraging of the broadcasts from the Proms and you begin to understand how the economics might work.

It is also remarkable what Proms are popular. I remember a late night Prom last year when the Tallis Scholars gave the performance of Strigio’s mass which in places is in 60 parts. The hall seemed full and just about every singer I knew was in the audience.

This is another thing about the Proms, people make an effort to go to see them in a way that they might not during the ordinary Winter and Spring concert seasons. Generally the programmes are diverse enough and the Festival long enough so that there is usually something of interest to everyone. I must confess that this year, Roger Wright’s emphasis understandable emphasis on RVW has attracted me. But I prefer his ominium-gatherum approach which means that the Prom season is varied and diverse, rather than his predecessors’ emphasis on themes. Themed seasons work well if you enjoy the them, but if you don’t then you find large chunks of the season lacking.

In the 1980’s I sang at quite a few Proms as a member of the London Philharmonic Choir who augmented the BBC Symphony Chorus on a number of occasions when big choirs were needed. One memorable such occasion was Mark Elder conducting Verdi’s Requiem with a huge chorus in an attempt to emulate the work’s UK première when there had been a chorus of 1200 in the Albert Hall. For that performance we also had an Italian coach to ensure our Latin pronunciation was correct.

On another occasion, also under Mark Elder, we performed Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. This was one of the few times when I have heard the final apotheosis done with the correct number of harps, the effect was magical. Similarly, we did another Prom which included Berlioz’s Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale, which was originally written for military band and includes an incredible number of clarinets. We reckoned virtually every professional clarinettist in London was there. And the effect? Well it sounded like a huge fairground organ.

But the single occasion which stands out was doing Mahler’s 8th Symphony under Zubin Mehta, sitting at the back of the choir seemingly miles from Mehta and looking over a huge choir and orchestra. I had a promming season ticket that year so my mother was able to take my place, braving arthritis to stand throughout the symphony and loving it. This was one of those occasions, though, when you suspected that the Radio audience got rather a better deal than some of the listeners in the Albert Hall. The soloists were stationed behind the orchestra, just in front of the organ and I rather gather that balance left something to be desired in some parts of the hall, though it sounded good on the Radio.

Nowadays, if we go to the Proms we tend to sit downstairs. But concert going can still be something of a trial, with intervals spent circumnavigating the outer corridor in search of refreshments and toilets (the Albert Hall must be the only concert hall I’ve been to where there are queues for the Gents!).

Still I appreciate the re-Victorianising which has happened in recent years and look forward immensely to this year’s Prom’s season.

Monday 14 July 2008

Was it 25 years ago

On Saturday we went to the Pink Singers 25th Anniversary concert. The choir was founded in April 1983 and I ran it from July 1983 until 1988, during which time it grew from a simple idea to a self-governing choir and a member of the NFMS. We celebrated our 5th anniversary with a concert which mixed Eisler's cantata Die Mutter with other more popular music from 1936 (the year the cantata was premièred).

At Saturday's concert the 60 strong choir (far bigger than in my day) was conducted by their musical director, Mladen Stankovic. Surprisingly the group has 2 members who date back to my time in the 1980's. Their celebratory programme was suitably eclectic, mixing Bruckner, Karl Jenkins with popular numbers by Richard Rodgers, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Bernstein and concluding with an uplifting Mo-town medley.

Here's to the next 25 years!

Review of The Rake's Progress

To the Royal Opera House on Saturday for a performance of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Robert Lepage's new production (well, new to Covent Garden, it has already appeared at La Monnaie and in San Francisco). Like Robert Carsen's much travelled production of Bernstein's Candide, Lepage's Rake moves the action to mid 20th Century America and makes it an odyssey through American culture. In Lepage's case the main focus is on American films, so that the opening scenes of the opera are inspired by the open plains of Giant and the Rake's progress becomes a procession through significant American films. The scene in Mother Goose's brothel becomes a film with Nick Shadow as director, which surely loses some of the scenes significance as surely Shadow is meant to be inciting Tom Rakewell to sexual misdemeanours; having him film Rakewell simulating sex is hardly the same thing. Auden and Kalman's libretto is carefully structured so that Nick Shadow takes Tom through a series of increasingly serious misdemeanours, carefully structured; Lepage's resetting seemed to rub the edge off Auden and Kalman's point.

The problem with the opening scene is that Giant, with its background of oil-wells and oil money, is surely not the image of Eden which the countryside in Auden/Kalman's libretto is meant to represent. Throughout the libretto we have the sense that the move to the city is a move towards corruption and that Tom's life in the countryside is a lost Eden. We lack this sense in the Lapage production where the opening scene is not really idyllic and the subsequent ones lack a real sense of place.

Each scene is truly spectacular, as Lepage and his team make extensive use of projection onto a rear screen. There were some problematic apercus, such as Tom's location caravan being inflatable and blowing up before our eyes (why?). Nick's suggestion that Tom marry Baba seems to be more related to the film they are working on than any feeling of Nick further corrupting Tom.

The first half ends part of way through Act 2, with the scene with Tom, Baba and the crowd, represented as the first night of Tom and Baba's film. As Anne has arrived by car (a real one), D. was convinced that the interval was so placed so that they could get the car off. M., though, felt that it was more related to the pool which appears in Act 2, scene 3 (which opened part 2). The pool remains for the opening of Act 3 (the auction scene), mainly you suspect because they couldn't work out how to get rid of it!

As you can see from these comments, the scenery and the set were almost protagonists in their own right. Charles Castelnovo and Sally Matthews could hardly compete. They sang well, but you lacked any sense of character development. Frankly, Lepage just did not make us care who these people were.

The primary fault was probably in the character of Nick Shadow, he just did not seem to be corrupting Tom; Shadow was more like a more disreputable room mate. And John Relyea's performance was simply not sinister. Setting the card scene in a gambling hall seemed to remove another sinister element from the plot.

Conductor Thomas Ades obviously loves the score, but he seems to love it a little too much. His performance fatally lacked pace and punch, particularly in the last act. Too often in the final scenes Ades seemed to dwell lovingly on the details, when what we wanted was something spikier and pacier.

Recent CD Review

My review of Gluck's Alceste on Covent Garden's own label, with Janet Baker in the title role, is here.

Essential; no home should be without one ...

Sunday 13 July 2008

Review of London Concord Singers concert

Thursday's concert from the London Concord Singers was reviewed for the Seen and Heard web site. My motet, Deus in Adjutorium came in for the following comments from review Bob Briggs:-

'Robert Hugill’s Deus in adjutorium , one in a projected series of 70 motets - 35 of which have been completed so far - of settings of all the Introit texts for all the Sundays and major church festivals, used both the declamatory and the polyphonic. A solo tenor, well sung by Margaret Jackson-Roberts, one of two female tenors in the group, acting as a kind of narrator, leading the choir into a prayer to “Let my enemies be confounded…” with music that seems to be of the utmost simplicity, but is in fact well thought out and carefully designed to illuminate the words. How wonderful to hear a contemporary work where the composer actually cares about the text he is setting and writes music that is so grateful to sing. Hugill is himself a singer, and a member of this choir, so he knows how to write for the group's voices and this showed in every bar. This was my first hearing of Hugill’s music and it made me want to hear more.'

Full review here.

Friday 11 July 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of James Gilchrist and David Hill's latest Finzi disc on Naxos is here, on Music Web.

Beautifully expressive and fluid … entirely admirable ...

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Deus in adjutorium

My motet Deus in adjutorium will be performed tomorrow (Thursday 10th July) by London Concord Singers, conductor Malcolm Cottle, at their concert at St. Michael's Church, Chester Square, SW1W 1HH. The programme also includes music by Eric Whitacre, Charles Ives, Hubert Parry, Brahms, Alberto Ginastera, Sheppard and Parsons (further details here).

The motet will be also performed at the choir's concert on Saturday 2nd August at 9.00pm in the church at Bardolino, Italy (on Lake Garda near Verona). The choir will sing the motet as the Introit at Mass at St. Thomas's Church, Verona and Sunday 3rd August (when the text of the motet will be the text for the Introit of the day).

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Agree to differ

My recent review Handel's Hercules on Naxos wasn't the only review of the set on the Music Web site. Mark Sealy also reviewed the set here, and his view of the set couldn't be more different! Music Web often posts multiple reviews of CD's and its amazing how two people can have markedly differing views of the same performance.

Monday 7 July 2008

Review of The Marriage of Figaro.

It is some considerable time since I have seen a production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It was the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras, more than anything else, which attracted me to the current run of performances at Covent Garden. Add to this the generally positive reviews for David McVicar's production and a cast which included 3 native Italian speakers, which is always a blessing in Mozart's Italian operas.

Tanya McCallin's designs are realistic, setting the opera firmly in the early 19th century. The production shows the advantage of originating productions at the Royal Opera House, the set takes advantage of the theatre's facilities and the huge, realistic walls of Count Almaviva's palace move around to re-configure themselves for each scene.

The show starts as soon as the overture begins, as we see a large hall with scurrying servants busy preparing for the day. McVicar uses a group of actors to play servants who are ubiquitous; the production is realistic in the way the Count and Countess are rarely alone, surrounded as they are by a flurry of servants.

In the orchestra things are equally dramatic. Unlike some other elder statesman conductors, Mackerras does not seem to have relaxed into slower tempos and lusher textures. In the orchestra, the brass and french horns had replaced their usual instruments with narrow bore, valve-less instruments - something which Mackerras has done with other modern instruments orchestras. Woodwind and string tone was correspondingly lithe and Mackerras's speeds were pleasantly brisk without feeling rushed.

Figaro (Ildebrando D'Arcengelo) and Susanna's (Aleksandra Kurzak) room is a rather distressed back-room in the palace and McCallin's inventive set also displays the adjacent corridor, which enables the servants to eavesdrop and gossip, and Marcellina (Ann Murray) and Bartolo (Robert Lloyd) to have their meeting in the corridor outside the room. McVicar's direction is constantly thoughtful, displaying his usual deftness with logistics so that the complex comings and goings work in a natural and logical manner.

The scene change from Act 1 to Act 2 took place seamlessly with no break in the music, which was a big bonus. The Countess's (Barbara Frittoli) room is in direct contrast to that of the previous scene, which indicates the relative difference between servant and master - something which is important in this opera and which some productions rather blur. Throughout the opera McVicar makes you constantly aware of this difference; no matter how friendly Figaro and Susanna may be with the Count and Countess they are most definitely still servants.

Act 3 opens on a large room leading to an outdoor terrace. The Count (Peter Mattei) is very much a modern man and is experimenting with the latest scientific equipment. The presence of the terrace gives scope for all sorts of eavesdropping.

But when Act 3 gives way to Act 4, all this realism starts to evaporate. The rear backdrop becomes the outside of the house, with trees in front. But the cast, in slow motion, re-arrange the furniture so that it is all topsy turvy and in this strange surreal world the garden scene takes place. Once you are used to it, this works after a fashion, but I am not really sure what McVicar is trying to tell us. Perhaps that the confusions are of the mind and not real, or perhaps he simply ran out of money.

As for the performances which articulated this staging, they probably can hardly be bettered. Peter Mattei's Count was distinguished, finely sung, mixing charm with anger and a fine sense of line. The only thing he lacked was the ability to be angry and sexy at the same time, showing the appeal beneath the hard exterior - something that Dieskau could do just with his voice. Barbara Frittoli's Countess was young and charming. For her two big arias, Dove Sono and Porgi D'Amor Frittoli displayed rather more vibrato than I would have liked, but she combined this with a good sense of line so that you never lost sight of the shape of Mozart's music. Both Frittoli and Mattei had the great virtue that they sounded aristocratic whilst retaining their humanity.

As their servants, D'Arcangelo and Kurzak made an equally fine, sparky pair. Neither was as manic as in some performances, both were thoughtful with elements of sparkiness. Perhaps Kurzak lacked a little of the mercurial fire which some singers have brought to the part, but her Susanna was well crafted and had the necessary fire and strength when needed. The two singers played off each other so that they created a realistic relationship.

I have rarely seen a more convincing Cherubino than that of Anna Bonitatibus. She sang beautifully, but many mezzos have done that; she also looked and behaved like the teenage boy that Cherubino is. For large stretches of time you lost sight of the fact that Bonitatibus was a woman, too often in this role you are permanently conscious of the singer's sex. Bonitatibus is small of stature so she made a lively, sparky, impulsive Cherubino, one completely dominated by his topsy-turvy hormones.

The remaining characters were equally well drawn and performed. Ann Murray made Marcellina less the caricatured harridan and was casting of such quality that you regretted the omission of her aria. Equally Robert Lloyd was luxury casting as Bartolo. Robin Leggate made a fine, effect Don Basilio and his aria was regretted also. And Donald Maxwell had a great time as the drunken Antonio. Jette Parker Young Artist Kishani Jayasinghe made a sweet Barbarina, giving a lovely account of her aria.

Mackerras opted to have the continuo performed by harpsichord and cello, with the latter often playing the larger role. The recitative bowled along at a good rate, always comprehensible and flexible, it never felt rushed but seemed a realistic conversational pace. Similarly his fast-ish speeds in the arias made sense in the context of the whole production and this far into the run the singers seem to have become comfortable with Mackerras's speeds.

The production has choreographer Leah Hausman credited, presumably for the complex movement patterns of the servants, and it was Hausman who acted as revival director.

Recent CD Review

My review of Handel's Hercules on Naxos is here.

Better to save up and try and get one of the others ...

Sunday 6 July 2008

Friday 4 July 2008

Don Carlo(s)

To Covent Garden last night for the final performance of their new production of Verdi's Don Carlos in the 5-Act Modena Version done in Italian translation. A review follows, but here I'll let off steam a little again about the Opera House's obfuscation about language.

In their magazine, About the House some months ago there was an article about the forthcoming production of Don Carlos with interviews with Hyntner and Pappano. They said that they had chosen to perform the Italian version because it was more dramatic. What they actually meant was that they preferred to perform the Modena version because it was more dramatic. There is in fact no Italian version of Don Carlos, simply a translation of the French version. Whenever he made revisions to the opera Verdi worked in French. When he made the compact 4-act version for Milan he went to some trouble to get revisions (in French) to the French libretto and worked similarly when adding the original Act 1 (in compressed format) to this version for Modena. Also when working on the version for Milan he ensured that the Italian translation was updated.

In the programme notes, Christopher Wintle states that Verdi worked on the French version for Milan in 1884, but does not make it clear that the 1886 Modena version is an Italian translation of the French version.

In fact, in an interview in last month's opera Feruccio Furlanetto (who sings King Philip in the production), comments that whilst most singers prefer singing the opera in Italian, the academics and some critics prefer it in French.

Here is the nub, of course. Covent Garden are doing the 1886 version because it is the most dramatic version, Verdi's last thoughts. They are doing it in Italian not because this is correct, but because it is easier to cast; dramatic Verdi operas are difficult to cast at the best of times and to ensure a good, balanced cast you probably have to compromise on language. Another point is the parlous state of singing in French at the moment; last night's performance included 2 Italians, an American, 2 Englishmen, a Mexican and a Russian - what are the chances of getting good French out of such a polyglot cast whereas their Italian seemed most credible.

Opera managements seem to want to divide Don Carlo(s) into the 1867 French version and the 1884/6 Italian versions. This might be convenient, but its not true.

Evidently the 2009/10 revival will include Jonas Kauffman as Don Carlo, what chances of this being in French?

Wednesday 2 July 2008

From this month's Opera

Gleanings from this month's Opera Magazine.

An interesting interview with conductor Kazushi Oni. Oni seems an interesting throwback, he coaches singers from the piano and in 2005 he saved the French premiere of Henze's Die Bassariden after industrial action by re-scoring it (in 3 days and nights) for 3 pianos, 7 percussionists and other instruments. Henze was impressed.

A clutch of distinguished obituaries. Edmund Barham, the tenor whom many of us remember as being a stalwart of ENO, aged only 58. Leyla Gencer the Turkish bel-canto soprano. And John Noble, the first Pilgrim in RVW's opera and Wat Tyler in Alan Bush's opera of the same name. (Now when is someone going to revive that opera we ask ourselves?)

In his review of Siegfried from the new Ring at the Staatsoper in Vienna, Christopher Norton-Welsh comments that despite some good personenregie director Sven-Eric Bechtholf has come in for some criticism because he has not subtext. How refreshing!

Still with the Ring, Strasbourg has reached Die Walküe, in David McVicar's new production. Rodney Milnes seems impressed and it tempts me to go over there for next season's Siegfried. McVicar's production involves extras playing Rams (specified in Wagner's libretto, they pull Fricka's chariot!) and horses. The horses are folk in sculpted metal costumes, but this means that the actual libretto for the Ride of the Valkyrie could be followed. Grane also accompanies his mistress to the Todesverkundigung, as specified by Wagner, and accompanies her to sleep at the end. Which of course raises the important point that McVicar will include Grane during the closing scenes of the final opera. It sounds a fascinating and lovely so can't we see it in the UK please.

Another non-schocking Ring. This time Rhinegold in Hamburg directed by Claus Guth, conducted by Simone Young.

Unusual operas. Wolf Ferrari's Il Segreto di Susanna seems to have been a hit on Montreal and over in Prague they have been exploring Leoncavallo's La Boheme. Hartmann's Simplicius Simplicissimus in Hanover, now when are we going to hear the opera in the UK. In Rome, performances of Saul, no not Handel's oratorio but an opera by Flavio Testi setting Gide's drama of the same name - the reviewer describes the opera as involving and stimulating. So how about doing it in tandem with the Handel version.

Still in Rome, Zefferelli has just committed a new Tosca, consolation for the retirement of his productions in New York perhaps. Luigi Bellingardi described the spectacle grand and luxurious, just on the brink of kitsch.

Over in Ireland, Ariadne auf Naxos with the composer as a woman, having a Lesbian affair with Zerbinetta, sniffing coke etc. Hmmm.

At the gala for the opening of the new opera house in Oslo, Solveig Kringelborn sang a song from Waldemar Thrane's Mountain Adventure (of 1824, a Jenny Lind favourite) accompanied by a Norwegian species of Alpenhorn. Then there was a performance of Va pensiero sung by a choir of amateurs, 1 each from Norway's 430 muncipalities; what a wonderful idea.

A couple of whatever happened to her sort of appearances at Carnegie Hall; Kathleen Battle returned for a recital and Aprille Millo sang at a gala. Millo in particular is one of those names who seems to have dropped from the circuit.

A fit of campery (or more) seems to have come over Acis and Galatea at Wilton's Music Hall with Damon, Corydon and Cleon as sailors attempting to deduce Acis during Stay, shepherd stay. In his review of a DVD of Ariodante George Loomis comments that whilst no-one observes the entrance and exit rules for opera seria it would be interesting to see a director try.

That Icon of early 19th century opera, Pauline Viardot (younger sister to Malibran) survived rather longer than Malibran; Viardot died in Paris in 1904. She had a strong relationship with Turgenev and he spent much time living either with or nextdoor to Viardot and her husband. She wrote operettas with Turgenev as librettist. Michael Steen's new biography sounds interesting reading.

We hear that...; Christine Brewer is doing Gluck's Alceste at Santa Fe next year - sounds a good reason for going. Paul Groves also stars. Susan Bullock gets to sing Brunnhilde at Covent Garden in the 2012-13 Ring cycles (sounds worth waiting for). Catherine Malfitano is having a go at another new Tosca at ENO in 2010 (Keith Warner's production can't be that old can it?). Angela Gheorghiu will do Luisa Miller at Covent Garden in 2009-10 (perhaps???). Hope they get a new production, the previous new one was less than acute. Still at the Garden, Francesca Zamballo is doing Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki with Sergei Leiferkus, and John Tomlinson will be the Grand Inquisitor in the 2009 revival of Don Carlo.

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