Friday 31 July 2009

Prom 17

On Tuesday we went to the Late Night Prom which featured Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir performing four of Bach's motets - Komm,Jesu, Komm, Fürchte dich nicht, Jesu, meine Freude and Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.

Now we know very little about the original forces for which these pieces were written. At least two of them seem to date from his Weimar years and current scholarship discounts some of the information that we once took for granted, such as the idea that Jesu, meine Freude was written for the funeral of the widow of the former post-master of Leipzig. One major problem is that few original manuscripts survive; though there is a limited amount of information that on at least one occasion Bach used instruments with the voices. Thus conductors are at liberty to make their own decisions, with even more freedom than usual.

On this occasion Gardiner used a choir of some 38 singers (with a mixture of men and women on the alto part). They were supported by a continuo department consisting of organ, 2 cellos, bassoon and double bass. The bassoon and one of the cellos sometimes alternated, but frankly in the depths of the Albert Hall I could not detect that much change in timbre. To counter the largeness of the ensemble, Gardiner encouraged his singers to sing lightly and fleetly. This was a performance notable for the wonderful lightness and flexibility of the vocal lines. The choir really belied its size and acted light a far smaller group.

This was coupled with a steadiness, almost slowness of speed. Having recently sung in Jesu, meine Freude I was surprised at how slow Gardiner took some of the fast movements. His speeds seemed to be aimed at clarity and expressiveness in the larger space, but what was removed from the performance the sense of virtuoso, bravura singing. The motets are tricky pieces and all have fast passagework sections which would seem to need bringing off with bravura - here they were more understated, as if subdued to the piece's spirituality.

These were wonderful performances of great pieces (in a sense you can never fail with the Bach motets). But my ideal performance would have used far fewer singers, with a far stronger sense of line and a feeling for the dazzling bravura of the pieces.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Susan Graham Prom

To the Cadogan Hall yesterday lunchtime for the second Proms Chamber Music event, a recital of French Song by Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau. The recital was a revision and distillation of the programme of French song which she presented at the Wigmore Hall in February last year (see my blog entry). Some items were the same, she finished with Poulenc's La Dame de Montecarlo, but given Graham's communicativeness the programme was still a delight.

In fact, at times it was less like a song recital and rather more like a series of mini-operas. Martineau and Graham presented us with a wide variety of perfectly crafted but highly coloured and strongly characterised bon bouches; in the intro on the Proms site it is described as a menu gourmand. And like such a menu in a restaurant, I often long for fewer courses, with more time to savour each one.

Graham's virtues are many, but there were moments when I wondered whether she was communicating by visual acting (facial and other physical gestures) rather then via the words. I could not always follow the songs via the words, her diction was not always quite crisp enough. Graham has a superbly lovely voice and sometimes we rather luxuriated in it.

In the middle, the announcer brought Graham and Martineau on stage to introduce the songs and their partnership (now over 10 years old). It made me think that Graham would be a natural for the lecture recital.

Having heard similar programmes, from the same performers, in the Wigmore Hall and the Cadogan Hall I have to confess that I rather prefer the Cadogan Hall's more open, broader atmosphere. Its shape means that the audience seems to be nearer than in the long shoe-box of the Wigmore Hall though this shoebox perhaps means that Wigmore Hall may have the more perfect acoustic.

Monday 27 July 2009

Handel returns to the Barber Institute

In the 1960's the Barber Institute in Birmingham created a series of staged performances of Handel's operas, under the Professor of Music Anthony Lewis. These stagings, using singers as distinguished as Janet Baker, were highly influential in the revival of Handelian opera seria in stagings which respected the music's form and the allocation of voice types.

Since 1986 opera performance has played a lesser role in the Barber programme but to celebrate Handel's anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Institute's founding in 1959, they are staging Handel's Agrippina on 23rd, 25th and 26th September. Clive Timms, the Professor of Music, conducts with Emily van Evera as Agrippina. They are adopting an interesting mixed approach to the language of the piece, singing the recitatives in English and the arias in Italian.

Friday 24 July 2009

Review of the Fairy Queen

My review of The Fairy Queen from the Proms is here, on Music and Vision,

Recent CD Review

My review of the Virgin Classics boxed set of six Handel operas from Alan Curtis is here, on MusicWeb International.
Never less than interesting, fine, creditable performances and incredible value ...

Thursday 23 July 2009

Review of The Woodward Scale

MusicWeb International has a review of last week's London Concord Singers concert, which included a repeat performance of my Woodward Scale. The review is here.

ETO Handelfest

My article on ETO's autumn Handel celebration, when they will be performing 5 of his operas, is here on Music and Vision.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

The nearly man of English opera

John Eccles is one of the great might-have-beens of English musical history. Born in a musical family, he worked with Henry Purcell on a number of his stage works at the Drury Lane and Dorset Garden theatres. When, in 1695, a group of actors broke away and formed their own company at the Lincolns Inn Theatre, Eccles went with them. This split caused a difference of musical style between the two groups. Drury Lane continued to use professional singers in their productions and stuck to the lavish semi-opera format. Whereas at Lincoln's Inn Fields the emphasis was more on plays with music and it was the actors themselves who sang. This means that Eccles music for them could be less elaborate, but he developed a notably flexible style which related to the rhythms of English speech.

In spring 1701 Eccles took part in a competition organised by Lord Halifax whereby four composers wrote through-composed settings of a libretto by Congreve, The Judgement of Paris. After a series of performances, the operas were judged. In the cast of Eccles opera was Ann Bracegirdle, one of the foremost singing actresses of the day. But John Weldon's setting came first, with Eccles second. Eccles opera has now been recorded by Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company and it is a notable success. In fact, it is difficult to understand why the opera has been ignored. In the late 1980's, Antony Rooley and the Consort of Music presented the 3 surviving settings of The Judgement of Paris at the Proms and then had their own competition. This time Eccles did win.

The 1701 competition didn't lead to very much, unfortunately. In 1704 Eccles provided music for The British Enchanters which was to prove the last real semi-opera. In 1707 Eccles did set Congreve's masterly libretto Semele (which was later adapted for Handel), with the intention of presenting Ann Bracegirdle in the title role. Congreve's libretto was probably produced with the intention of the opening of a new theatre at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1705, but as Eccles did not deliver until 1707 they seem to have missed the boat. The few other English operas given in London were noticeably weaker than Eccles opera and the first Italian singers started to be presented and Italian opera gained a firm footing.

If you are interested in hearing this earlier version of Semele then there is a recording on Regis Records from the University of Florida, directed by Antony Rooley. Their account of the work is entirely creditably and until one of our early music groups takes up the works, Florida's account enables us to find out a little more about this nearly ran

The period 1701 to 1707 is one of those fascinating crux points. Eccles seems to be one of the few composers with the dramatic talents to produce viable English operas and you can't help feeling that if he and Congreve had produced Semele just that bit earlier, there might have been an English opera tradition to run alongside the Italian.

Monday 20 July 2009

Prom 4

Last night (Sunday 19th July), the Danish Opera brought their production of Handel's Partenope. The cast were mainly Danish, spiced by two foreign counter-tenors (Andreas Scholl and Christoph Dumaux as Arsace and Armindo respectively), and accompanied by the period instrument group Concerto Copenhagen, conducted from the harpsichord by Lars Ulrik Mortensen. The only thing that they did not bring with them from Copenhagen was the production, this was a concert performance, albeit a rather lively one. As the original production was a modern dress one, it might be that we got the better deal.

Playing baroque music in the Albert Hall is tricky and requires special handling, playing baroque opera seria even more so. Many British conductors have had experienced the hall and most are able to make the necessary corrections so that the music sounds as good as it is able. But quite often, when listening to the Proms, you get the impression that the listeners to BBC Radio 3 rather get the better deal.

No-one seems to have explained to Lars Ulrik Mortensen that playing the Albert Hall is not like playing an ordinary venue. He launched into an account of the overture which went at a cracking pace. For the whole evening his tempi were on the brisk side and the whole opera finished some 20 minutes early. As far as the overture was concerned, all we could do was admire the brilliance of the playing of Concerto Cophenhagen. But when Inger Dam-Jensen launched into Partenope's first aria, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. Dam-Jensen duly sparkled and twinkled as Partenope and I think that she has a fine technique. But given at such a rapid speed, her fast passage-work barely registered.

This was a problem for the whole evening. As the opera progressed, the cast seemed to more of a hang of the tricky acoustic and by the end they had succeeded in involving us in the performance. But much went by the way-side, evaporating into the aether before it reached us. Only Andreas Scholl managed to make each of his arias tell, and that is mainly because Arsace is such a drip that Handel gives him a succession of slow-ish arias. In his really fast number, even Scholl could not make his passage-work really tell, the faster notes did not make it past the heads of the promenaders.

This was a shame, because there was much to enjoy in the production. As I have said, Dam-Jensen was a sparkling Partenope. She is more soubrette, than diva (in Ariodante she would make a better Dalinda than Ginevra) but summoned up sufficient diva-ishness for the role, though a slightly bigger more dramatic voice would have been equally welcome. She charmed as well and made you understand why the men in the cast all find her so fascinating - Partenope is seriously hampered if the leading lady is not seriously sexy.

Though not strictly a production and done on the book, the cast all emoted and reacted to each other. This was useful as it helped to bring out the comedy. In this work, the comedy is all in the situation. Handel's lighter pieces are difficult to bring off properly as it is all too easy to send things up good and proper. Here the cast made the most of the rather ludicrous plot, all engendered because Arsace has run off to pursue Partenope whilst still engaged to Rosmira (Tuva Semmingsen), who in turn pursues and torments him whilst disguised as a man. Arsace's problems occur because he is an honorable man, except when it comes to love. So he honours a promise to Rosmira not to give her away, even though this would get him out of his problems. So the engine of the comedy becomes the problems that occur.

The cast made the most of the dialogues of confusion, whilst making sure that we sympathised with the characters; we were never in doubt that the emotion was real.

For Handel's audience, there would have been other aspects to the comedy, the sex role thing. The heroine, a woman, becomes general of her own army. One leading man (Arsace) was played by a castrato, the other leading man (Armindo) was played by a woman with another woman playing a female character (Rosmira) who spends most of the opera dressed as a man! We lost some of this. Scholl is a counter-tenor rather than a sexually challenged castrato and Armindo was played by another counter-tenor rather than a woman, which was a shame.

Scholl was his usual wonderful self, perhaps sending up his generally po-faced persona a little as an Arsace who just can't make up his mind and wants to have his cake and eat it. It helps that he can spin the most wonderful line, and make it heard. Christoph Dumaux seems to have a higher, slightly sharper edged line, but is still supple and has a rather more feminine quality to his voice than Scholl. This helped with the character who is almost as much of a drip as Arsace, and it takes until the middle of Act 2 before he dares tell Partenope that he loves her!

Her third lover, the war-like Emilio, was tenor Bo Kristian Jensen. Jensen sang the role finely, though he rather underprojected the more war-like bits. I had a suspicion that the role lay a little low for Jensen's high lyric voice. At ENO, John Mark Ainsley gave us a slightly more dramatic account of the role.

Tuva Semmingsen was musical but rather light voiced as Rosmira. The role is almost as big as Partenope's and she has some strong, passionate arias. Merighi, the original Rosmira, was a fine actress who specialised in men. As Handel already had a woman specialising in trouser roles, he seems to have written the plum part of Rosmira as a consolation prize for Merighi, something for her to get her teeth into.

Semmingsen is a fine Handelian, but you never felt she was going to split blood. She was appealing rather than appalling, and Rosmira must appall at times. Only at the end, when Arsace says they must duel bare-chested, does she finally collapse.

Palle Knudsen made a strong Ormonte.

At the end, instead of giving us Partenope's final aria as written by Handel, we got a duet for Partenope and Armindo (from Sosarme I think). This was lovely, and beautifully performed, but wasn't what Handel wrote and the programme book didn't even tell us of the change.

Friday 17 July 2009

I have just started reading John Lucas's biography of Sir Thomas Beecham and it has set me off thinking about concert programmes.

When Sir Thomas Beecham made his debut conducting the Halle Orchestra, it was at a gala concert arranged to celebrate his father's elevation to Mayor of St. Helens. Beecham was a last minute stand-in and the orchestra played works which they had previously played at a concert with their conductor Hans Richter. The programme was as follows:-

Prelude and Introduction to Act 3 of Die Meistersinger
Overture to Tannhauser
Beethoven's 5th Symphony
3rd movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony
Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin
Berlioz's Hungarian March
Plus opera arias by Gounod, Delibes and Verdi.

I doubt that today Mark Elder and the Halle would ever consider assembling such programme, even for a one off gala. This sort of goodie bag assemblage was typical of the programming of the day. Beecham's debut as conductor, with his own orchestra in St. Helens - a largely amateur group. The programme contained Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas overture, Rossini's William Tell overture, Grieg's 1st Peer Gynt Suite, Elgar's Spanish Serenade, Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Four Characteristic Waltzes , a group of piano solos and Mendelssohn's 1st Piano concerto!

This sort of programming was not unusual, the Proms under Sir Henry Wood consisted of rather distinct halves, with a serious first half and a series of novelty items in the the second, the whole lasting some 3 hours.

What this leads me to wonder is, when did concert programmes become so serious? I'm not saying that we should entirely go back to cornet solos and novelty songs, but with commentators constantly wondering how to attract young people, perhaps concert promoters should look at how the basic concert programme is constructed. Nowadays we have an overture, a concerto and a symphony, and if not this, something like it. No-one would ever consider scheduling a single movement of a symphony and certainly would not mix things up in the way early programmes did.

We seem to have lost something, serious classical music has become a little too po-faced. Yes, you do still get concerts full of popular mixtures, such as the Victor Hochhauser spectaculars at the Albert Hall (do they still exist?). But whereas a conductor like Beecham or Wood would consider mixing such programming with serious works, including contemporary works, no-one nowadays would do so.

I'm not sure how Sir Harrison Birtwistle would feel if one of his works was programmed in a concert which finished with Leroy Anderson's Bugler's Holiday. But surely when the LSO and the LPO are assembling programmes they could be a little more varied and imaginative. Less worried at being seen as frivolous.

Something of this can happen in early music concerts, where the nature of the material means that conductors have to be imaginative in the way they mix items. I Fagiolini did a programme at the Cadogan Hall which was themed on music from the Carnival period, mixing joyful staged Carnival japes with the more serious Lenten music. Our fore-father would completely understood. Isn't it about time that we considered this in ordinary programming

Thursday 16 July 2009


We're going to Handel's Partenope at the Proms on Sunday (our first Prom of the year). The performance comes from Royal Danish Opera with Inger Dam-Jensen and Andreas Scholl. I can think of Handel operas I would rather see, especially as Partenope does crop up rather more than most. Not only has there been an ENO outing recently, but Opera Theatre Company did it at the Linbury not so long ago. And further in the past, there were productions by the Handel Society (with Paul Esswood) and Midsummer Opera. It crops up, I think, because whilst not quite a comedy it is a satirical look at the conventions of opera seria (something the ENO production seemed to miss rather). A big plus point of the Proms performance is that it is being done properly, with 2 intervals. Too often, we've found concert performances of Handel's 3 act operas and oratorios shoehorned into a single interval format, which inevitably makes for a long sit as well as not giving the work the structure that Handel intended.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Edward Downes

Edward Downes was a conductor whose presence on the podium at the Royal Opera House was always an impetus to attend, particularly in Verdi. His performances always seemed to engender a very special atmosphere in the orchestra and he was one of those conductors who never seemed to be trying to convert the composer's vision into something their own; Downes's Verdi was very much the real Verdi.

I had always understood that his lack of progress to the top at the Royal Opera House had been partly to do with his political views, but this has not surfaced in the recent obituaries so I must put it down to urban myth.

Woodward Scale tonight

This week has been busy with rehearsals for tonight's London Concord Singers concert, at St. Michael's Church, Chester Square, Victoria. We are giving the second performance of my piece The Woodward Scale along with music by Dallapiccola, Judith Bingham, Howard Helvey, Lassus, Peter Philips, Byrd and De Monte. This will be THe Woodward Scale's second outing, but its first performance in central London, as the premiere took place in Uxbridge.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Review of L'Amour de loin

Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour du loin received its UK premiere at a concert at the Barbican, and the ENO bravely decided to give the work its first UK staging. The work was directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, who has previously directed for Cirque du Soleil. We saw the final performance on Saturday 11th July.

The piece has only 3 solo roles, Clemence (Joan Rogers), Jaufre (Roderick Williams) and Faith Sherman (The Pilgrim). In the opera Clemence lives in Tripoli and Jaufre, a troubador, lives in France. The Pilgrim acts as a go between and the opera ends with Jaufre journeying to Tripoli, falls ill on the journey and dies in Clemence's arms. There is over 2 hours of music, so the opera is quite static and more like an oratorio.

The decision to use Pasca as director seems to have been motivated by a desire to bring in someone who could articulate this rather intractably static piece. Pasca brought magic and flair to the proceedings and gave us a series of ravishing stage pictures. He doubled each of the singers with 2 dancers and each scene was preceded by a shadow theatre performance whose performers almost became part of the main action, in a rather annoying way.

The Coliseum does not have the most sophisticated stage machinery, but using light, swathes of fabric and flying people Pasca created magic. A visual interpretation of the music. The problem with this was that it almost became a dance piece. Though all three singers are accomplished stage actors, Pasca rather under used them. The moments when they were integrated into the action, such as when Williams's Jaufre danced off the stage, made it clear what the staging could have been. But too often Williams and Rogers were danced around, surrounded by loveliness, but never quite participated. I began to wonder whether Pasca had ever directed singers before, whether he trusted them.

That said, the musical performance was impressive. Rogers floated her long lines beautifully and emoted stunningly. Williams was similarly impressive and engaging as Jaufre. Sherman, dressed in the strangest way almost like an alien. The programme referred to the role as being androgynous but in fact the result just looked wierd. Sherman was good in the role. She is a talented young singer based in Houston, but as often recently in ENO productions you do wonder whether they couldn't have cast the role closer to home.

The chorus was off stage for all but the end and I think the staging would have been stronger if they had been on stage, able to interact with the other performancers.

Saariaho's music has lovely textures and transparencies, which were well brought out by Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra. But I did not find the same interest in the vocal lines. Granted they are melodic and singable, but ultimately they seemed rather unmemorable. Taking the music and the staging separately, I am not sure whether they would have held my attention, but combined the result was a form a magic.

I have not heard Saariaho's work in the original French, but having heard it in English I would like to. I felt that I would like to do so, perhaps the vocal lines would seem more melodic, more liquid. Richard Stokes's translation was serviceable, but you could not help feeling that the French would work better.

The evening was a magical and impressive triumph for ENO. But I was still left with niggling doubts.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Review of Eliogabalo (2)

So how did David Fielding's production at Grange Park Opera do? We saw it on Sunday 5th July, which was its last night so it would certainly have been well run in.

Fielding (who both directed and designed) chose to update the opera to Italy in the 1980's giving it a Euro-trash sort of look. But then, the only other production of the opera that I read about, the one from Brussels, also updated the location to something near the present. Frankly, it would be an interesting novelty to see the opera done in a style approaching that of the 17th century.

The big virtue of Fielding's production was that, whatever was happening on stage, you always knew who everyone was. The three mistresses (or potential mistresses) Eritrea(Claire Booth), Gemmira (Sinead Campbell-Wallace) and Atilia (Yvette Bonner) wore blue, green and red dresses respectively. Giiuliano (James Laing) was always in his army fatigues, Alessandro (Julia Riley) was dressed as Eligabalo's head of security, with shades, a pony tail, dark jacket, white shirt, string tie and huge belt buckle. Riley was a revelation as not only did she look masculine, but she behaved so. She is tall with a slim physique, which of course helps. But she also neatly conveyed the body language; it never felt like a stunt, merely part of the character.

Of the more comic characters Lenia was dressed glamorously with a short white dress and high-heels like some porn fantasy nurse; the big surprise was how brilliantly sexy Tim Walker looked in the role (and he had good legs). I was unclear whether Walker's character was meant to be a transvestite or not, but it didn't matter. My only complaint was that Cavalli intended Lenia to be a comic older woman. Nerbulone (Joao Fernandes) came on wearing the full Village People leather-man gear, complete with a huge moustache. He certainly looked the part, though Fernandes body movements sometimes gave him away as when relaxed he tended to revert to rather too camp a manner. Nerbulone as gay leatherman did not make much sense of the plot, but it certainly made for a striking entrance as Nerbulone arrived on motorcycle (of which more later). Zotico (Ashley Catling) was your typical peroxided gay boy, though Catling did not quite have the figure for it so that he looked less than perfect in pink hot pants. The other drawback with this character was that the historical Eliogabalo was fond of real men, not boys. The Roman's had no problem with an emperor who liked younger men, but if he did so he had to take the active role; it was unseemly (and more) for the Emperor to take the passive role to an older man (bear in mind that Eliogabalo was only 18 when he died).

So far, so good. But Fielding seems to have let the setting rather go to his head. Eliogabalo and Eritrea made their first appearance in a sports car (which seemed to be a fully functioning electric one). This car made a second appearance at the end, draped with the dead bodies! And, as mentioned, Nerbulone made his first entrance on a motorcycle. Two different people commented to me that this was one of the most camp productions that they had seen in a long time. At one point selections of sex toys appear; Fielding seems to have been constantly trying to find new, startling things for Lenia and Zotico to do. These two act as co-conspirators and henchmen in the plotting so they get lots of comic scenes to do together.

Still, Fielding kept the capers well away from the serious characters. To his credit, you never felt that he was trying to find things to keep us amused when the serious plot was going on. He always took these characters seriously and allowed the singers to convey the real pain that was felt. There were lots of laughs in the production, but Fielding could keep things quiet when he needed to.

I think that the main miscalculation was in the staging of the female senate scene at the end of Act 1. The idea of this is as a cover to allow Eliogabalo to seduce Gemmira. Presumably on the basis that Gemmira was too high minded to fall for anything else. Fielding chose to stage it as some sort of Bunny Girl pole dancing competition. Though the scene was funny, it did not make complete dramatic sense and added to the feeling of unnecessary camp which Fielding brought to the production.

The other area where the updating did note help the logic of the drama was in the way Eritrea's plight came out. Eritrea loves Giuliano, but she is desperate for Eliogabalo to marry her because he has stained her reputation by kissing her in public. So even though Eliogabalo has dropped her, she spends the remainder of the opera chasing him, trying to get him to marry her despite loving Giuliano. This might have made sense to a 17th century audience, though I wonder. But moving the plot to the 20th century means that this made no sense to a modern audience.

That said, the set piece at the end of Act 2 (the meal at which Eliogabalo intends to poison Alessandro and seduce Gemmira) descends into complete farce apparently according to Cavalli's intentions. Nerbulone (who is acting as waiter) drinks all of the love potion and falls asleep thus failing to go and get Alessandro. And the meal is abandoned because owls appear (a bad omen evidently). Fielding's handling of this scene was adept, building the tension as the farce developed. Similarly the gladiator fight was well done, if a little over the top. But quite how you stage a gladiator fight without it being over the top, I am not sure. The set here though, added to this impact as it involved a huge statue of a woman with multiple breasts, a sort of anthropomorphic version of the she wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Logical though this may have been, it was one of those over the top touches which I think should have been toned down.

All this might have worked, if the title role had been filled with something like the charisma and terror which Eliogabalo needs to inspire. Renata Pokupic sang beautifully and captured something of Elogabalo's bad boy image. But she had nothing of Julia Riley's ability to convey Eliogabalo's masculinity and nothing of the real intensity which the character should have. In the opening scenes she was costumed in a way which was obviously intended to convey rock star glam, but really only came over as looking like Lulu on a bad day. The subsequent acts were better, but Pokupic's quasi masculine posturing too often seemed put on.

This would not have mattered if Pokupic could created a character that it was credible that others would be frightened of. This just didn't happen. Like that other despot of uncertain temperament, Tamerlano, Eliogabalo needs to have us believe that he can and will do anything, including cowing grown men. No matter how beautifully Pokupic sang we didn't believe this. And it was telling that Pokupic seemed far more comfortable in female guise at the end of Act 1.

Claire Booth was a moving Eritrea, desperately torn between Giuliano and Eliogabalo. And Sinead Campbell was profoundly moving as Gemmira, the woman who does not want to be loved by Eliogabalo. Similarly as their respective lovers, both James Laing and Julia Riley were admirable. Each pair of lovers was given the chance to be a little gut wrenching, and there were so admirably whilst staying within the confines of Cavalli's musical style. Yvette Bonner's Atilia did not, I think, quite manage the tricky divide of style that she has, hovering between serious and comic, it didn't help that she had a couple of lapses in tuning.

The bevy of comic parts were also well sung, though Fielding's direction meant we were more often laughing at antics rather than listening to the singing.

Christian Curnyn was in the pit conducting a period band. They accompanied well and filled Grange Park Opera's small theatre quite vividly. Along the way there was some fine solo playing.

At the end of the opera, Cavalli cops out and unlike Handel, who daringly has Bajazet commit suicide on stage at the end of Tamerlano, Cavalli dispatches Eliogabalo, Lenia and Zotica off stage. We learn of it just in a narration. But Fielding obviously felt that this was not enough, so that the narrations were accompanied by a great deal of gore and the dead bodies of the three, draped across the sports car (this time driven by Atilia). Quite a coup, but the music just did not seem to chime with the visual images.

This mismatch between visuals and audio was something that at least three different people mentioned to me about the production. Whilst I had no problem hearing an authentically performed and sung 17th century Venetian opera whilst looking at a modern farce/gore-fest, others seem to have found the discrepancy too much. There was more than one comment that they could look at the stage or listen to the music, but not both.

I am not convinced that Eliogabalo is one of Cavalli's finest operas. And despite the fact that David Fielding was keen to direct it at Grange Park, you get the feeling that he chose it more for the outrageous possibilities the plot gave him than for any intrinsic merit. To often Fielding seemed to be hurrying us along, making sure we didn't stop too long and get bored.

For me the best bit was at the end, where the two pair of surviving lovers have a glorious duet. Cavalli at his best.

Review of Cunning Little Vixen

My review of The Cunning Little Vixen at Grange Park Opera is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Review of Eliogabalo (1)

Handel had a penchant for basing his operas on librettos from Venice in the late 17th century, though of course these needed some tweaking to make them suitable. Handel's Serse is based on the libretto for Cavalli's opera of the same name. Handel's libretto, though, loses all but one of the comic characters and expands the arias for the principal characters.

Why, you may ask, begin a review of Cavalli's Eliogabalo with a discussion of Handel's Serse? Well, most people have heard at lease something from Serse and few have even heard of Eliogabalo.

Cavalli's (and Handel's) Serse deals with a rather imperious and slightly demented king interfering in the love life of his brother by commandeering his brother's fiancee. This fiancee has a sister who is desperate for a man. The actions are complicated by the actions of an array of comic servants. At the end, Serse sees reason and all ends happily.

In Eliogabalo an imperious and demented king interferes in the love life of two of his generals, commandeering their fiancees (one at a time). There is a third heroine who is desperate for a man. The actions are complicated by an array of comic servants. At the end Eliogabalo is killed by his soldiers whilst trying to rape his general's fiancee, but the good triumph.

Eliogabalo is rather like Serse on acid. It contains all the elements of a Cavalli plot from the period, but threaded round a lead character who is based on an historical character known to be mad and sexually voracious (and bisexual).

Much was made in the press of Eliogabalo's bisexuality but I am unclear of how much of this was actually in the libretto. At Grange Park Opera, director and designer David Fielding described the character Zotico as Eliogabalo's pimp and boy-friend. But in fact the character fits one of Cavalli's standard comic servant stereotypes (if you drop the gay sex).

It seems that Eliogabalo was meant to be decadent, but quite how much this would have been reflected on stage I am unclear. Simply portraying him as an extreme sexual predator would be more than enough to make people think.

If you get beyond the frou-frou and the tendency for modern directors to give the work some sort of outrageous contemporary slant, then what we have is typical Venetian opera. Half-sex comedy, half serious testing of relationships.

In the comic corner there is the usual elderly woman, Lenia (sung by a man) who is still desperate for sex. There are young page boy/valets (Zotico and Nerbulone) who are keen to help their betters in their intrigues, one of whom (Nerbulone) is quite prepared to pretend to like the old lady. They are generally comic, but have serious moments.

In the serious corner there are two couples, (Alessandro and Eritrea, Giuliano and Gemmira) desperately in love with each other, but whose love is seriously undermined, tested and generally interfered with by Eliogabalo, the imperious king who is impervious to reasonable behaviour. The two couples are always serious and never comic, Cavalli makes sure that we take their plight very seriously. There is also a third heroine (Atilia) who takes things far more lightly and is permanently on the look out for a man. Cavalli takes her seriously, but makes it clear that she takes love far lighter and where she can.

Sitting between these two groups is Eliogabalo. He is not strictly a comic character, but his actions are so outrageous and they are facilitated the comic characters Lenia and Zotico. But Eliogabalo can't be completely comic, we must believe that he is dangerous enough for both Giuliano and Alessandro to not dare to confront him about his stealing their loved ones.

The opera opens with Eliogabalo getting tired of Eritrea and looking round for another woman. He then makes three attempts to get Gemmira into his bed. At the end of Act 1 he disguises himself as woman and holds and all female senate. At the end of Act 2 he has Alessandro and Gemmira to dinner and tries to poison Alessandro and give Gemmira and love potion. In Act 3 he holds a gladiatorial games, attended by Alessandro and Giuliano, whilst he attempts Gemmira's virtue. In each case he fails, and fails in a way which is comic, almost farcical. Cavalli is playing with us, mixing comedy and tragedy, as did most of the Venetian operas of the period.

This is something which can be difficult to bring off. There is A LOT of plot, crammed into over two and a half hours of music. Also there are a lot of characters. Cavalli keeps things moving, recitative and arioso lead into short arias, always the music is flexibly on the move. A problem, for me, was that Cavalli's music was not always completely interesting. If you have ever been to a moderately uncut version of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea then you will get the idea of what the plot and the music is like, except that Monteverdi is a master at turning out wondrous little arias which ravish the soul. In Eliogabalo Cavalli only manages this once at the end.

In part 2 of this article I will consider how David Fielding's production at Grange Park Opera managed to get over all these hurdles.

Friday 3 July 2009

Buxton Festival

The Buxton Festival starts next week and is, as usual, full of goodies. Stephen Medcalf is directing Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia with Mary Plazas in the title role and a cast which includes Donal Maxwell and Jonathan Best. The production is conducted by Festival Director Andrew Greenwood. Plazas is one of those singers who successfully manages to combine singing in bel canto with a wider repertoire (future plans include a new opera by Eleanor Alberga)

And Giles Havergal is directing Messager's Veronique. Messager's stage works are still not often come across. Grange Park did Fortunio 9 or 10 years ago (and the Opera Comique is doing Fortunio next season); so it is all the more welcome that Buxton are giving this lovely comic opera an airing. Victoria Joyce sings the title role with a cast including Yvonne Howard , Mark Stone and Donald Maxwell, conducted by Wyn Davies.

There is a concert performance of Mendelssohn's comic opera Camacho's Wedding, with Donald Maxwell, Jonathan Best, Yvonne Howard and Victoria Joyce.

As well as the festival's own productions, there are a number of exciting visitors. The Classical Opera Company are bringing their production of Mozart's Mitridate Re di Ponto. The Opera Theatre Company are bringing Annilese Miskimmon's production of Handel's Orlando, with William Towers as Orlando and Jonathan Best as Zoroastro, conducted by Christian Curnyn. And Psappha perform Maxwell Davies The Lighthouse with James Oxley, Jonathan Best and Damian Thantrey (who created the title role in my opera Garrett).

Concerts include Voces8 in the newly reopened theatre at Chatsworth, the Sofia Orthodox Choir, the Academy of Ancient Music in an all Haydn Symphony programme, Mary Plazas and Ann Taylor in a programme of bel canto arias and a recital from Jonathan Lemalu.

The festival has grown considerably since its early days. There are now 6 operas on offer, over 40 concerts, a literary series and festival walks.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Review of "Carmen"

My review of Carmen from the Opera Comique in Paris is now on-line here, at Music and Vision.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Alternative views of Carmen - tales of cross dressing

Having seen a relatively small scale Carmen on Sunday has set me thinking. I began wonder whether the modern generation of counter-tenors could take on the role. There would be no point in having Carmen played by a man in drag in a traditional production. But what if Carmen became one of the transvestite hookers who worked the Bois de Boulogne in Paris (perhaps they still do). I think the story updating could make a lot of sense, with the smugglers being turned into a gang of thieves or perhaps drug dealers. This would give a chance for some extra tension between the man, the woman and the man/woman.

A few years ago Stephen Wallace gave us the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe (no, I know its not very close to Carmen) but the production seemed to make nothing of the fact that we had a man playing a woman, definitely a lost opportunity.

I have been listening to a boxed set of 6 Handel operas for a review and a few of them had roles for soprano castratos. Handel's use of this voice type was relatively rare, he tended to use altos. So that altos and mezzo-sopranos are used to playing men in the operas. But when sopranos do so, at least on record, the result is not always convincing. They still sound like women, do we need to start exploring how a soprano might sing a castrato role and at least give some indication that she is a man?

Badly behaved audiences

An interesting piece by Mark Shenton on his blog on TheStage.Com here. Its about straight theatre rather than opera, but much chimes in. I remember a story about Jon Vickers berating the audience in Act 3 of Tristan about their coughing! And a few years ago, having tret ourselves to seats in the stalls at Covent Garden for a performance of Der Rosenkavalier, someone's phone rang and they actually answered it.

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