Wednesday 31 December 2008

La Cage aux Folles

On Monday we went to see La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre. Terry Johnson's production originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory, but most critics seemed to think that it had benefited from being moved to the bigger theatre, not that the Playhouse is huge.

I had never seen the musical live, but was familiar with the previous West End production where it was produced at the Palladium in 1986. This was a highly glamorous creation and I had always felt that this style was unsuitable for the musical, which could benefit from a slightly grittier edge.

The Menier production, being essentially small scale, has followed this line. The nightclub is a rather dowdy place and the dancers, though technically superb, definitely carry with them a whiff of drag troupes like Bloolips.

The night we went, everyone was ill, so that both Georges and Albin were played by covers and Robert Maskell, playing Albin, was announced as being ill. In fact Maskell was superb and the only sign of illness was that his voice sounded a little tired by the end.

Maskell's Albin was, of necessity, camp but not grotesquely so and Maskell generated an enormous amount of sympathy for the character. His delivery of I am what I am at the close of Act 1 was definitely no torch song and profoundly moving. Albin was presented as a drag entertainer like the old style drag artists such as the Trollettes. Maskell's Albin was javascript:void(0)certainly no Danny La Rue, but a more believable rather rumpled figure.

The musical has the profound virtue of putting two middle aged men at the centre of the show, and this production did not try to over glamorise them. Instead their relationship was rendered believable, touching and ultimately very moving.

The chorus, some 8 strong, were wonderful. All men, they danced, sang and managed to look funny, sexy and threatening.

We went to the show expecting a bit of frilly Christmas entertainment but found the show was much more than this. Highly recommended.

Sunday 28 December 2008

Christmas Music

We spent Christmas in Canterbury and managed to attend a couple of services at the Cathedral. The cathedral choir does amazing work at this period, in the 25 hours from 3pm on Dec 24th to 4pm on Christmas day they sang a carol service, evensong, matins, sung eucharist and finally evensong again. An amazing tally.

For Christmas eve Evensong they did the Lloyd Responses (second set), the Nunc Dimittis from Wood in B flat and Praetorius's Omnis mundus jucundetur. The Magnificat was sung plainchant, preceded and followed by the Antiphon O Virgo virginum, the previous 10 days having been devoted to all the great O anthems. Wood in B flat was unfamiliar to me but proved to be sung in Latin and richly romantic.

On Christmas day we were treated to a crisp performance of Poulenc's Hodie Christus natus est, a wonderful account of RVW's Te Deum and Walton's Jubilate. This latter was striking and also unknown to me. The anthem was Britten's Sycamore Tree. All were given in strong performances which made due allowance for the cathedral's acoustic and formed a moving start to Christmas day.

We did not wait for Sung Eucharist (and hence missed the Archbishop's sermon). The setting for the service was Mozart's Spaurmesse.

Monday 22 December 2008

La Chapelle du Roi at St. Johns Smith Square

On Saturday Chapelle du Roi, conductor Alistair Dixon, gave their programme The Marriage of England and Spain as part of the St. Johns Smith Square Christmas Festival. The centre-piece of the programme was the pair of motets by Philippe de Monte and William Byrd. De Monte set 4 verses from Psalm 137 (By the Rivers of Babylon) and sent the motet to Byrd. It was de Monte's way of commiserating with the suppression of Catholics in England. Byrd responded with his motet Quomodo cantabimus which set other verses from the same psalm. A wonderfully powerful pairing.

On the English side we also got Sheppard's lovely respond, Reges Tharsis and Tallis's Beati immaculati. On the Spanish side there was Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium, Guerrero's Alma Redemptoris and O Domine Jesu. The concert finished with Victoria's lovely 8-part Alam redemptoris mater.

The choir numbered only 8 singers, but managed to make a lovely rich sound, especially in the Spanish pieces.

But of course, there was one other item in the programme. My own Puer natus est nobis, the motet for the 3rd Mass on Christmas Day from Tempus per Annum. The work's style fitted in well with the programme (which also included medieval carols), and showed that the motets from the collection work beautifully when sung by singers used to polyphony and plainchant. Dixon's speeds in my motet were not what I had quite envisaged, but he managed to find something hauntingly beautiful in the piece.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Review of Hansel and Gretel

If it's Christmas it must be Hansel and Gretel, except that David Pountney's ENO production seems to have fallen out of use and Covent Garden, amazingly, have not performed the work since before the war. That has now changed and they have a new production directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It has been double cast but we saw the first cast on Thursday (18th December).

Set Designer Christian Fenouillat has provided a neat single set. Basically a sloping sided box, so that the rear of the stage is a square raised above floor level. For act 1 the front space is taken by Hansel (Angelika Kirchschlager) and Gretel's (Diana Damrau) bedroom; we never see the kitchen where this act of the opera usually takes place. Then for act 2 this disappears and we learn that the box is covered with images of the wood. The rear 'wall' is in fact used to display a variety of effects, initially an non-threatening image of the wood which gradually changes to a threatening one. Then the Sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) appears, using the raised level of the rear opening to make her body appear smaller than it is. Finally, the angels appear from the same opening, creating a fantasy fireside along with Mother (Elizabeth Connell) and Father (Thomas Allen).

Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy (Anita Watson) appearing from the rear along with her cleaning trolley and she proceeds to clean up after the shenanigans at the end of Act 2. When the Witch's hut appears it is a small scale, edible cake in the shape of the hut. We glimpse the witch (Anja Silja) who, when not seen by the children, has exposed (false) breasts like a fertility image.

When Silja does appear she is the embodiment of a frightening old woman, albeit a slightly glamorous one. When the children try to flee the rear of the stage changes and their exit is cut of with a huge deep freeze containing the suspended bodies of dead children. Then the forest turns into the witch's kitchen, where she cooks the bodies of young children into gingerbread. The result is freaky rather than scary but the transformation is eminently theatrical.

Damrau and Kirschlager formed a wonderful team as the two kids and their hi-jinks seemed to make more sense in the context of them lazing in their bedroom. Connell and Allen also managed to develop a credible relationship in what is quite a short time. Once in the wood, Damrau and Kirschlager continued to entrance and develop distinctly separate personalities.

As the witch, Silja was scary without ever being hackneyed and her scream and laugh were wonderful. She is still a wonderful singing actor, but her voice now how so much vibrato that you are uncertain what note she is singing. This did matter, but given the strength of her characterisation, this mattered less than it might have.

The children from Tiffin were a little disappointing, but it seemed that Colin Davis did not allow them very much leeway both in terms of the volume of the orchestra and the amount of stage business they had been given.

Davis and the orchestra gave a lovingly rich account of the score. This is very much an orchestrally driven account of the piece. Davis's speeds were on the moderate side but it never felt slow, simply a gently rich interpretation.

The production had a number of quirky points and was most enjoyable. It does not say as much as Pountney did, but Leiser and Caurier have certainly provided a very revivable account of the opera.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Gleanings from this month's Opera Magazine

In the interview with Jonas Kaufman he is described as one of the world's leading lyric tenors, which seems strange for a man who has Florestan and Aeneas (Les Troyens) in his repertoire. It is interesting that Hugh Canning suggests that Wunderlich is a sing whose career Kaufman's resembles, so certainly a space to watch. And he's doing Don Carlos at Covent Garden next year; if only it was in French life would be complete!

A survey of lesser known tenors makes the interesting point that in the era of the 78, most singers with a certain degree of celebrity could be asked to make a few records. But nowadays this becomes increasingly unlikely and there are all sorts of people who have fallen through the cracks.

In Montpelier they have been digging up hidden gems again. First off Pizzetti's Fedra. Pizzetti is definitely a name rare on the London operatic stage; surely we ought to get a fresh look at his operatic version of Murder in the Cathedral?

The second Montpelier opera was La Esmeralda by Louise Bertin. Until Montpelier revived it the opera had last been performed in 1836, but Liszt had prepared the vocal score and Berlioz took the rehearsals. Sounds like another one for the lists of possibles.

Still in the neglected opera corner, over in Karlsruhe they have been trying out Alfanos' Cyrano de Bergerac.

In Dublin, Balfe's Falstaff has received a rare outing (and there is going to be a recording). If we can get decent new editions of the operas, let us hope that this is a promise of more Balfe operas to come. Perhaps singing them in Italian might get over the slight neo-G&S aura which hangs over his work.

And in Macerata they've presented Marco Tutino's opera The Servant based on the Robin Maugham short story (and Joseph Losey film). Sounds the sort of thing it would be interesting to present in the UK.

Drottningholm revived FLorian Gassman's 1769 opera buffa Opera Seria, which turns out to have a libretto by Calzabigi, librettist of Gluck's Reform operas.

And in Martina Franca they heard Mercadante's final opera, Pelagio. Mercadante's music has been heard at Wexford, but even they do not appear to have managed to conjure the composer out of Verdi's shadow, and performances of his operas are still rare.

In Munich they've just presented Robert Carsen's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos, not a rareity I grant you, but it was performed in the small(ish) but perfectly formed PrinzRegenten Theater, which has an auditorium shaped like Bayreuth's. Still in Munich, Agnes Baltsa appeared as Klytemnestra in Elektra. Baltsa is a singer who seemed something of a fixture at Covent Garden for a period before disappearing with remarkable rapidity.

Weimar's Ring has reached it's conclusion, but seems to provide no element of final redemption, which seems to negate Wagner's point. But trying to judge an opera performance based on what someone has written is always tricky, even though I end up doing it rather a lot. Over in Lisbon, Susan Bullock has been doing her duty as Brunnhilde in Graham Vick's Siegfried. We, of course, have to wait a few years yet to hear her in the role.

In the UK age is catching up on me and I marvel that ENO's Jonathan Miller Barber of Seville is currently 21 year's old and WNO's Giles Havergal Barber is 22 years old. In the former John Tessier sounds as if he was terrific, but its too much to hope that he got his final aria (the one Rossini re-used in La Cenerentola).

Opera North's Tosca starred Takesha Meshe Kizart who, it turns out, is the great-niece of Blues legend Muddy Waters.

Finally, in We hear that... It seems that Richard Bonynge is conducting Roberto Devereux at Holland Park next year. Rosemary Joshua is doing Despina at Covent Garden in 2011, I'd like to say that I wish it was something more exciting, but that would let me down by showing how low Cosi comes in my reckoning.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Recent book review

My review of Thomas E. Muir's Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791 - 1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy is here, on MusicWeb International.

Essential reading for anyone with interest in music in the RC Church in England ...

Sunday 14 December 2008


If you are not doing anything this evening and are in London, then my motet Gaudete is being performed at Evensong at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, W1, the choir of All Saints being conducted by Paul Brough

Friday 12 December 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Red Byrd's Elizabethan Christmas Album is here, on MusicWeb International.
Shows its age but a charming Christmas present ...

Thursday 11 December 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Lully's Armide on Naxos is here.
A creditable and approachable Armide ...
And my review of Puccini's Il Tabarro with Tito Gobbi is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.
For dramatic truth this can hardly be bettered ...

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Review of "Parisina d'Este"

My review of Opera Rara's performance of Donizetti's Parisina d'Este is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 5 December 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Thomas Linley's The Song of Moses on Hyperion Helios, is here.
Music which deserves to be better known ...

And my review of Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day from I Barocchisti is here. Both reviews are on Music and Vision.
Crisp and lively but does not quite live up to opening promise ...

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Review of Sancta Civitas

My review of the Bach choir's recent London concert, performing RVW's Sancta Civitas and Howells's Sir Patrick Spens is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Review of Rusalka

My review of ETO's final performance of Rusalka at the Cambridge Arts Theatre is here, on Music and Vision.

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