Tuesday 30 June 2009

We are just back from Paris where we went to see Adrian Noble's new production of Carmen at the Opera Comique, where the work was premiered in 1875 (though the present theatre dates from 1898). It was very much a British production, Adrian Noble directed, Mark Thompson designed, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted and they used Richard Langham Smith's new edition. Carmen was Anna Caterina Antonacci. A full review will appear in due course.

Whilst in Paris we went to the Church of St. Eugene et Ste. Cecile, near the Conservatoire, where they offer sung Tridentine Mass every Sunday morning at 11.00am. The mass is sung by the Schole Ste Cecile, and they provided beautifully sung plainchant for the propers and the ordinary along with a couple of motets. As someone who sings at Latin Mass and in the occasional Tridentine Mass, it was interesting to hear some of the plainchant using women as cantors rather than men. And the occasional use of organum and drones was lovely. The service lasted nearly two hours and was extremely full.

Friday 26 June 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Rameau's Anacreon is here, on MusicWeb International.

A strong and affordable place from which to start your Rameau quest ...

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Gerald Finley at Wigmore Hall

To the Wigmore Hall on Monday to see Gerald Finley and Julius Drake doing a recital of English song, finishing with RVW's Songs of Travel. They opened with seven songs from Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad, followed by Finzi's Earth and Air and Rain. The Butterworth group contained songs that I knew, but I had never heard them sung as a group before. Despite the beauty of Loveliest of Trees, I still found the last 2 in the set the most moving; The Lads in their Hundreds because of its evocation of the casual losses of war and the remarkable pre-echo of the losses of WW1, and Is my team ploughing, for similar reasons plus, of course, the rather unconscious homo-erotic elements in the last verses.

Finley has one of the most beautiful baritone voices around, but his performances were never about sheer beauty. His diction was such that you didn't need the words, even sitting at the back of the hall. And he was responsive to word and mood, sometimes his performance veered towards the over dramatic but he was never fully operatic, which was right for the mood.

The Finzi cycle sets Hardy poems, all rather understated and slightly gloomy in mood. Written between the wars, these were the most sophisticated songs of the evening, particularly in the accompaniments (finely played by Julius Drake). I can't say that Hardy is my favourite poet, but Finley made a wonderful case for these songs.

The second half contained RVW's four Fredegond Shove poems and The Songs of Travel. The Shove songs were beautifully done, but the words seem slight and to verge on sentimental. Finley worked hard but I don't think that the Watermill suits the baritone voice as much as a higher one. On the other hand the Songs of Travel were superbly done. I only wish that we had such a cycle from much later in RVW's career, after all a baritone would probably not do the four last songs. He encored one of the Finzi songs, and manage to hilariously get the words wrong. Then finally did Silent Noon. Julius Drake, in a spoken intro to this, mentioned that Finley had learned most of the programme especially for the recital - though you couldn't tell. They did not seem to be recording it for a Wigmore Hall Live CD, which is a shame.

Monday 22 June 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of the BIS boxed set of Emma Kirkby recordings is here, on MusicWeb International.
Essential listening for all lovers of vocal music ...

Saturday 20 June 2009

Edington Festival 2009

The programme for the 2009 Edington Festival has appeared in my in-tray, and though we won't be at the festival, it looks as though we will be missing some interesting items.

The more Romantic side of contemporary music is represented by Morten Lauridsen's O Nata Lux and Pierre Villette's Salve Regina. The festival commission is an anthem from Francis Jackson.

Kenneth Leighton makes a welcome appearance with his Second Service and the motet Drop, drop slow tears plus there are motets from Graham Ross, Francis Poulenc and Deodat de Severac.

Purcell, of course, features in three services, with Hear my prayer, Remember no, Lord, our offences and the Evening Service in G minor. And of the other birthday boys, Mendelssohn, is remembered with his motets Frohlocket ihr Volker and Jauchzet dem Herrn; Haydn with his motet Insanae et vanae curae. Handel is represented by his distant cousin (!) Jacob Handl.

Howells is heavily featured, including his Requiem performed as part of a Solemn Requiem Mass, with the remaining music being plainchant.

The festival runs from Sunday 23rd August to Sunday 30th August at the Priory Church in Edington, Wiltshire

The Woodward Scale rides again

My setting of Anthony Woodward's re-write of The Beaufort Scale (originally used for measuring wind speed) is being performed by London Concord Singers, conductor Malcolm Cottle, at St. Michael's Church, Chester Square, London, SW1W 9HH. Woodward's amusing text originally appeared in Country Life in 2002. The choir are performing the work alongside Aulis Sallinen's setting of the original Beaufort Scale text. Also in the concert is music by Judith Bingham, Luigi Dallapiccola, De Monte, Byrd, Lassus and Peter Philips. Further details, and on-line ticket sales, are available via oclassical.com.

Friday 19 June 2009


James MacMillan's Parthenogenesis has an interesting background. It came into being after MacMillan, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) worked together on a Theology through the Arts programme. This led to the creation of Parthenogenesis in 2000. It was premiered at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge that year. I am unclear as to what Rowan Williams's involvement was as he does not appear in the work's credits; the libretto is by Michael Symmons Roberts.

Boosey and Hawkes website describes Parthenogenesis as a scena for soprano, baritone, actress and chamber ensemble. In an interview on the same web-site, Macmillan says that he can imagine the work being given in concert form, in a simple stylised staging or in a more fully staged context.

For their staging at the Linbury Theatre, the Royal Opera House opted for the latter option with a full staging by Katie Mitchell, with designs by Vicki Mortimer.

In the original piece, we hear the voice of Anna (spoken by an actress) as the child-to be. The work opens with an electronic heart beat. The summary on Boosey's web site suggests that we are hearing the voice of the unborn child. This has all changed in Mitchell's staging, where Anna is now an old dying woman. We simultaneously see her dying (centre stage) whilst either side of her we see her mother and Bruno, the fallen angel, in their meeting.

Mitchell's staging is extremely realistic and detailed. Anna (Charlotte Roach) is in the last throes of ovarian cancer and tended by a nurse (Sian Clifford). Either side of her bed is the flat of her mother, Kristel (Amy Freston). As Kristel dresses for an engagement, Bruno (Stephan Loges) appears and they proceed to have their awkward, embarrassed but passionate and necessary encounter.

I have nothing but praise for the passion and realism of Mitchell's staging and the performances of the singers and actresses. Unfortunately it all seemed a little redundant, unnecessary. Parthenogenesis is not a realistic piece and much of the drama is in the music, a detailed staging seemed to add nothing. I longed for a simpler, more stylised, expressionist version.

MacMillan's music is stunning and was beautifully performed with the composer conducting the Britten Sinfonia. There was little trace of the ensemble covering the voices as had been reported in the early reviews of the piece and balance seemed idea. Roberts libretto contains some complex ideas and whilst the singers diction was admirable I would love to have been able to look at a printed libretto or even perhaps, perish the though, have some surtitles.

Both Loges and Freston completely minimised the difficulty of Macmillan's music and created moments of extreme beauty. The piece has the admirable virtue of brevity, it lasts only 50 minutes - would that more composers could be as brief. Roberts and Macmillan manage to compress a great deal into the piece.

Afterwards the audience seemed disinclined to go home and the bar of the Linbury Theatre was buzzing with people (including the composer), all hopefully discussing what they had just seen.

Thursday 18 June 2009

To Jacques Samuel Pianos last night for a lecture recital on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition. It was given by pianist Bobby Chen and artist Geraldine van Heemstra. Geraldine van Heemstra traced the history of the work and illustrated the story with reproductions of surviving Victor Hartman drawing. As remarkably few of these survive (there were some 400 in the commemorative exhibition which inspired Mussorgsky's piano piece), Geraldine van Heemstra used illustrations from other artists including some talented young ones. Finally she and Bobby Chen took the piece apart demonstrated its structure. Before Bobby Chen gave us an exciting performance of the complete work. As the recital room was quite small, this meant that the sound was very vivid and exciting.

As Pictures at an Exhibition is a work I've always known mainly from the orchestral incarnation, it was illuminating to learn more of its background and hear the original piano version.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Review of "Threepenny Opera"

My review of Saturday's performance of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera, with a cast including Ian Bostridge, is here on Music and Vision.

Monday 15 June 2009

Guirne Creith

I must confess that until I got the notice about the performance of her violin concerto on July 4th, I'd never heard of Guirne Creith. She was a composer born in 1907, the same year as Elizabeth Maconchy and Imogen Holst. Talented and moderately prolific between the wars, her career as a pianist stopped in 1952 with a bad accident to her hand. She seems to have become indifferent to the fate of her works and did not keep scores. The manuscript of the violin concerto only came to light after her death in 1996. It has been recorded on the Dutton Label and is being performed on July 4th at St. James's Church, Wilton Place, London SW1X 8SH by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen with the West London Sinfonia conducted by Philip Hesketh. The concert also includes music by Berlioz and Vaughan Williams.

Friday 12 June 2009

Recent CD review

My review of Frances Bourne's The Truth about Love is here.

Stylish and enjoyable ...

Thursday 11 June 2009

Review of "Simon Boccanegra"

My review of the Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Verdi's original version of Simon Boccanegra is here.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

What to programme with Beethoven's 9th Symphony!

Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) is performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony on Saturday 13th June, in King's College Chapel, conducted by Stephen Cleobury.

Regarding the vexed question of what you programme with the work, CUMS have commissioned a new piece The Sorceror's Mirror from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The commission celebrates the university's 800th anniversary. The libretto for the new work is written by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate and Maxwell Davies has written a piece for chorus and orchestra.

Cosi van Tutte at ENO

I must confess that I rather have a love/hate relationship with Cosi van Tutte. On a bad day, in an indifferent production, I rather find the plot annoying and a little pointless; even more so when producers try to correct the ending. But on a good day, in a production which makes you really feel the character's pain, it can be profoundly moving.

Prior to seeing the opera on Saturday at the London Coliseum, the last time we'd seen it was Glyndebourne on Tour in Norwich, when they performed the Nicholas Hynter production. This production had a lot in common with ENO's new production which was directed at Aix en Provence by Abbas Kiarostami and revived at the Coliseum by Elaine Tyler Hall. Both Kiarostami and Hytner used traditional sets and costumes, allowing the plot to proceed unencumbered by overmuch directorial baggage. But whereas Hyntner's production laid bare the pain, emotional distress and conflict within Kiarostami seems to have been content to let things just flow along.

Now, in neither case can I comment on the original production. I was not at Glyndebourne when Hyntner's production was new, we saw the Touring version as revived with a different cast by a staff producer. And the same thing happened at the London Coliseum, mainly because of Kiarostami's visa process.

I think that the prime weakness of the production at the Coliseum was in the casting. The two male lovers, Liam Bonner and Thomas Glenn, were young and promising but neither yet seems to have the ability to dig deeply into a role. They simply sang the notes nicely and went through the actions; too much of it seemed play acting rather than real life. Maybe in a smaller theatre they would have made more of an effect, the tenor particularly seem rather taxed by the size of the Coliseum.
Mezzo Fiona Murphy was a little stronger as Dorabella, but she was rather monochrome and far too equable for my taste, this Dorabella was neither headstrong nor giddy, she seemed to take everything in her stride. It was left to Susan Gritton to make the emotional effect and you got the feeling that Gritton had to do most of the work herself. Neither of her arias were technically flawless but they were both profoundly moving.

Whether you like a producers ideas or not, it is always a sign of a good production if the producer gets a strong performance from the cast. This was true of the recent ENO Peter Grimes where I did not really like David Alden's concept but cannot deny the corrosive performances he achieved with his cast. A similar thing applied to the famous Richard Jones Ring at Covent Garden where Jones's ideas rather grated, but his singers were sometimes transformed.

Nothing like that happened here and I'm afraid that part of the way through Act 2, annoyance with the plot and boredom crept in. Luckily conductor Stefan Kilingele kept things moving and, using a relatively small orchestra, gave us a fast and incisive account of the score with the ENO orchestra playing well for him. The other highlights were the performances from Stphen Page as Don Alfonso and Sophie Bevan as Despina. Page was fatally likeable and believable as Don Alfonso, rather more pleasant than in some productions, but this meant that we got a much needed blast of warmth whenever he came on stage. And Bevan came close to stealing the show. Usually I prefer older singers as Despina, but Bevan convinced me that having a young Despina was equally viable.

I rather suspect that the casting for this opera was fatally flawed by a search for youth. Both the young male lovers were slim and personable and visually the 4 lovers made a handsome group. But opera is about more than figure, a singer needs a voice and an ability to use it properly. Maybe this cast would have worked if they had had a long rehearsal period with an experienced opera producer. But this didn't happen hear.

Kiarostami is a film director so not surprisingly his production made use of film. For the opening we had a backdrop of a cafe with the inhabitants unashamedly gawping at the three men. Then for the rest of the opera we had a glorious view of the bay of Naples, filmed real time, so that we saw the boat leaving with the men going off to war, boats coming and going with the singers for the fete champetre etc. All very charming, but though the weather varied a little I would have liked darker storm clouds assembling as the mood got darker. For the finale we had a film of the orchestra (not done real time). This was a good joke, but the quality of the film was a little too fuzzy and it really said nothing about the action on stage. You could not help feeling that this was another lost opportunity and that a more experienced director might have been a little more daring.

All is not lost with the production. What it needs is for ENO to re-cast it with a strong, well balanced cast and lose their obsession with youth and beautiful bodies; then they could show us what this opera is really made of.

Monday 8 June 2009

On Sunday we went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of the 1857 version of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a review of which will appear in due course.

The programme book had, on its back page, an advert for the group's 2009/10 season - Gluck's Alceste at Cadogan Hall on 28/11/2009, Verdi's La Traviata at QEH on 21/2/2010 and Rossini's Guillaume Tell at QEH on 23/5/2010. At the bottom of the advert there was a note that tickets for all these concerts were now on sale. Now this isn't COG's fault, generally booking periods are controlled by the venues. But increasingly we find ourselves booking at extremely long range in order to get the seats we want. That is what we've done here, but it rather grates having to buy tickets a year in advance. And I wonder who benefits? Do the Chelsea Opera Group get ticket proceeds early from the South Bank Centre, or does SBC hang on to our money until the concert date!

Saturday 6 June 2009

Die Rheinnixen

New Sussex Opera under conductor Nicholas Jenkins are planning to give us a serious treat in October, they are reviving Offenbach's grand opera Die Rheinnixen. They translate the title as The Rhine Fairies but I rather feel that The Rhine Nixies is far more fun, even if no-one nowadays probably knows what Nixies are!

The opera was first performed 10 years before The Tales of Hoffmann at the Vienna Opera but does not seem to have been a success and Offenbach withdrew it. A new critical edition was produced recently and the opera was given its first complete performance at Montpellier in 2002. Offenbach went on to re-use some of the material in The Tales of Hoffmann. It is Offenbach's only other Grand Opera and though the libretto is somewhat creaky, seems to be something of a revelation.

New Sussex Opera have assembled a strong cast including Kate Valentine, Anne-Marie Owens, David Curry, Quentin Hayes and Ganiel Grice. Performances are at Lewes Town Hall (21 October), Winter Gardens Eastbourne (25th October) and Cadogan Hall, London (27th October). Put the date in your diaries now!

Review of "Norma"

My review of Norma from Grange Park Opera is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 5 June 2009

Grange Park Opera 2010

Grange Park Opera have announced their programme for 2010. Claire Rutter (their current Norma) is returning as Tosca with Robert Poulton as Scarpia. They continue their exploration of the Russian repertoire with Prokofiev's Love of Three Oranges with Jeffery Lloyd Roberts at the Prince. And Susan Gritton is playing Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss's Capriccio, with Roderick Williams and Andrew Kennedy as her love interest and Sara Fulgoni as Clairon. Can hardly wait!

Thursday 4 June 2009

To Grange Park Opera yesterday for the premiere of their new production of Norma, with Claire Rutter making her debut in the title role.

Norma is one of those operas which is much beloved of opera lovers, but which does not crop up that regularly on our operatic stages. Partly it is a result of the difficulties of the title role, but also the rather awkward setting (Druids, Gauls and Romans) contribute. It is nowadays difficult to convincingly present groups of Druids doing rituals on the operatic stage and even harder perhaps to persuade audiences that this is drama.

The first Norma that I ever saw was on television, from La Scala with Montserrat Caballe in the title role. My abiding memory is of Caballe, swathed in yards of blue (or was it purple) material, emoting away in what looked like a 1970's brutalist concrete multistory car-park.

Not long afterwards I saw the opera at Covent Garden in a revival of an old production. I was supposed to see Caballe but in fact saw Grace Bumbry in the title role with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa. The production was stylised historical, but no-one seemed to be taking it very seriously and it was difficult to take as drama. It didn't help that Bumbry seemed to think that she was singing Abigaille rather than Norma.

The second time I saw the production at Covent Garden it was John Cox's new production for Margaret Price. In theory this was a decent production, but it's stylised historicism did not quite gell. Price's costumes were a mistake and obviously designed for a far slimmer personage. Completely unsatisfactory, but curiously compelling for all the wrong reasons, were the leather costumes for the male druids in the chorus, these had a bondage type theme with much flesh revealed (as I said, compelling for all the wrong reasons).

Covent Garden's third attempt was a concert performance with Nelly Miriocioiou in the title role. Some attempt at drama was made by projecting designs from a past production onto a screen at the back of the stage. But this was effectively scuppered by Nelly's decision to perform in a huge ice-cream pink frock confection.

I missed Holland Park's notable attempt on the opera, again with Nelly, which was pretty traditional in style but did not really garner critical praise.

The only production that I remember with real warmth is Ian Judge's one for Scottish Opera which had Jane Eaglen in the title role. This was a real dramatic triumph, with the young Eaglen showing wonderful metal as Norma. And Judge's staging, as I remember it, created drama and used the chorus v. effectively. One notable moment was Casta Diva where the chorus prostrate themselves in front of the priestess. This was both a credible dramatic reaction and also a neat solution as to how to give Eaglen (who is not tall) dramatic prominence on a busy stage.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Recent CD review

My review of a CD of Vivaldi's http://www.mvdaily.com/articles/2009/06/seasons.htmFour Seasons and Piazolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, recorded by Lara St. John and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is here, on Music and Vision.

Monday 1 June 2009

Norma at Grange Park

We're off to Grange Park Opera on Wednesday for the first night of Norma with Claire Rutter in the title role.

Bellini wrote the opera for two sopranos, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi. Grisi sang Adalgisa, but went on to sing Norma herself. Because Norma and Adalgisa sing quite a few duets, a tradition sprang up of casting Adalgisa as a mezzo-soprano, something which Grange Park is doing (the role will be sung by Sara Fulgoni). But one interesting musical feature of Claire Rutter's performance will be Casta Diva. Bellini wrote the aria in G, but seems to have transposed it down a tone to F at Pasta's request. Nowadays it is usually sung in F or even E.

We look forward to the performance with interest.

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