Sunday 29 November 2009

Review of "Alceste"

My review of Gluck's Alceste from the Chelsea Opera Group is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

OAE's Dream of Gerontius

The problem with period performance is that we do not always have period voices to go with the period instrumental performances. In early music this can be fudged, to a certain extent, because we don't actually know what the singers sounded like. But in Baroque opera there is no getting away from the fact that Handel, Hasse, Vivaldi et al wrote for some of the greatest voices of the day. And if the greatest voices of our day sing this repertoire then compromises have to be made, often in terms of vibrato etc.

When it comes to Elgar things are both more and less complicated. We have recordings to supplement the writings and musical manuals, so that we know a great deal about the types of sound produced and techniques used. But the singers of the day used rather different techniques, with generally a narrower focus in the voice and a tighter control of vibrato.

As a sample of what this means, consider RVW's Serenade to Music. It was recorded by the original singers, most of whom were quite mature when the recording was made. But nowadays the work is performed with younger singers, partly because when opera singers mature their voices often develop far more significant vibrato than their forebears; that this is not a hard and fast rule is indicated by the fact that one of the basses on the original recording has a very, very intrusive vibrato.

But it is not just vibrato and width focus which are a concern, there is also the issue of the use of portamento as ornament, a technique which is generally anathema to modern singing techniques, partly I think because combined with a profound vibrato it can sound rather as if the singer has no idea where the destination note is and is simply sliding up to it.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened to the magical opening of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall last night (24/11/2009) in a performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Jeremy Skidmore, with the Ex Cathedra XL Anniversary Choir and Susan Bickley, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams as soloists. Skidmore and the OAE gave us a truly magical account of the prelude, with a tone quality which took me back to those early Elgar recordings. The strings used vibrato sparingly, and the balance was more in favour of the wind; the wind and brass played on period instruments which had differences in timbre to their modern counterparts. The whole orchestral sound felt far less uniformly homogeneous than a modern group, perhaps because it was not founded on the base a warm, all-encompassing vibrato-led string tone.

When Adrian Thompson came in, it became apparent that whilst he was a willing participant in the experiment, his voice and technique was slightly at odds to the prevailing style. Thompson is mainly known in the UK as a character tenor, but his repertoire stretches to Loge and bigger roles. When singing quietly he gave is beautifully intense tone, but in the bigger moments, when his voice opened up, his vibrato became very pronounced. If he had been singing with the London Symphony Orchestra this would not have been too disturbing (when I heard David Rendall in the role with the LSO his notable vibrato was quite acceptable in the context). But it WAS noticeable given that the orchestra were using it sparingly. Hence my thoughts about period voices. But the volume that the orchestra produced was noticeably less than a modern orchestra and without the extensive vibrato, the string tone died quicker. So this meant that Thompson was able to sing much more of the piece in his lighter, more concentrated tones. And he did give us some discreet use of portamento.

At the big moments,I could not rid myself of the thought that Thompson's expression was applied to his voice, rather than done via the voice. So that moments like Sanctus fortis did not count for as much as when done by, say, Richard Lewis.

Roderick Williams was a notable presence as the bass soloist, singing in his familiar warm, rich tones, though you felt his performance would have been pretty much the same had he sung the role with the LSO. Though given his musicality, this was no bad thing.

As the Angel, Susan Bickley had to step in at the very last moment as the planned singer (Anna Stephany) was ill. Inevitably Bickley's performance was a little more understated and more careful than it might have been in regular circumstances. It was noticeable how the singer used the transparency of the orchestra to sing passages in far quieter manner than she otherwise might have done; the moments when she did let go were made all the more climactic. Bickley's performance was beautifully musical and concentrated.

Skidmore used a choir of just 100 singers; small for a regular Gerontius, but they made a good impression here. Using a slightly smaller group, with a preponderance of young voices, meant that we got a cleaner, more disciplined sound which was focussed and tidy in a way which is harder with a larger group. That said, there was no loss of power at the climaxes, notably in Praise to the Holiest. But the climaxes were not simply about noise, you noticed far more Elgar's attention to orchestration and timbres. The performance seem somehow far more subtle than a modern one, with blazing climaxes.

In the programme book, there were a series of interviews with orchestra personnel describing the instruments that they were playing on; instruments which are both similar too and different from those of modern orchestras. Notably amongst the instruments used were Denis Brain's horn and Elgar's own Trombone!

I must confess to not being as moved as I have been in some performances of Gerontius. There again, the most moving performance of the title role that I have heard was when Richard Lewis sang it with the LPO with Bernard Haitink conducting. Lewis was in his 70's and had just had both his hips replaced, his tone quality was what it was, but you felt that he lived and breathed the part. When He sang Sanctus fortis the expression was all in the voice, not applied. And when he opened Act 2 (I went to sleep and now I am refreshed) you felt he meant it. Also notable about that performance, the harpist was Sidonie Goosens who had actually played under Elgar!

The Dream of Gerontius is a difficult work to get right, and, given the fact that period performances of the work are extremely rare, we should regard this as a work in progress. Skidmore and his forces got so many things right, particularly the magical timbres and flexibility of the orchestra, and the beauty of the choral tone. So I hope that we can look forward to further experiments and a recording at some point.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Towards a new Opera (4)

Having worked through the score of the new opera two or three times, I am currently in the process of creating the piano reduction which is always a good discipline. Even though the work is currently written for only 5 accompanying instruments (piano, violin, clarinet and cello), creating a single piano part out of them is sometimes a bit challenging, requiring some deft jigsaw work. It also provides me with a different view of the accompaniment and helps to shape it.

Once I have something approaching the vocal score I will then play it through a few times. Given that my piano playing is rather limited, this means that the neighbours have to put up with me bashing away rather slowly. It might sound primitive and limiting, but I find it enormously helpful to see how the work feels under my fingers.

I am thinking of expanding the orchestration, but will probably wait until after I am able to organise a performance of the work next year. So that we can see how it works in its current form. I rather fancy adding some percussion, but have not yet come up with any concrete ideas.

Review of The Tsarina's Slippers

My review of the new production of Tchaikovsky's The Tsarina's Slippers at Covent Garden is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 20 November 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of Bach's St. John Passion from Il Fondamento and Paul Dombrecht is here, on MusicWeb International.

Little to set it apart from its rivals ...

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Review of Turandot

On Friday we went to see the new production of Puccini’s Turandot at the London Coliseum. ENO’s first ever production of Puccini’s final opera has been coming in for rather mixed reviews, especially as Rupert Goold’s production is distinctly untraditional.

First we have to understand that Puccini’s Turandot is no more Chinese than Sullivan’s Mikado is Japanese. The libretto for Puccini’s opera was based on a play by the Venetian playwright Gozzi, who in turn based his play on a Persian legend. So setting the opera in naturalistic China makes no particular sense and usually directors feel free to pick and choose the sort of exoticism that they use. But the main concern is to create a dramatically coherent production, not with ultra-naturalism; Turandot set in medieval China only makes sense if the drama works.

Of course, Puccini’s music is so infused with exoticism that it would be difficult to set the opera in, say, a spa town in the Italian Alps.

So we should not get too worked up if Rupert Goold has chosen to set his production of Turandot in a completely demented Chinese restaurant. In fact he and designers Miriam Buether and Katrina Lindsay have delivered up a vividly theatrical event. The first act takes place inside a Chinese restaurant, with the guards replaced by dominatrix waitresses. In the centre is the door to the kitchen, from which all sorts of nastiness appears. Ping, Pang and Pong are re-cast as chefs.

The first scene of Act 2 takes place on the fire escape stairs at the back of the restaurant, where Ping, Pang and Pong are taking a quick cigarette break, then the second half of Act 2 returns to the restaurant. Act 3 takes place in the kitchens, with the central cooking range being used for the torture of lieu.

So far so good and generally the dramaturgy works. But I had three main problems with the production. Firstly, the chorus are dressed as archetypes, from Elvis impersonators to nuns, as if they are intended to represent humanity, a detail which I thought meant that Goold was preaching a little too much. This was, however, a relatively minor point. More importantly, Goold has invented a character, the Writer, who is entirely silent but seems to direct the action, sometimes actually manipulating the singers and arranging the events. This is Goold’s take on the incompleteness of the opera. Because in Act 3, the Wreiter leaves the stage with Liu’s body, only to find he has been locked out and that the characters have taken over. Finally, Turandot kills him and during the final apotheosis the Emperor does not appear on stage, instead the singers stare out at us intently as if he is in the audience. Instead the slowly dying author takes centre stage. This was a mistake, too often Scott Handy’s Writer took attention away from the important cast members. If the production could be re-worked to avoid this unnecessary character then I think it would be a satisfying and vividly theatrical experience.

And the third problem? Well Goold is inexperienced in opera and in terms of generating good performances out of his singers, he seems to have had rather mixed success. Amanda Echalaz was outstanding as Liu and in her scenes in Act 3 turned in some of the finest singing and acting of the evening, her death scene was shattering. And there were good performances from James Creswell as Timur, Benedict Nelson as Ping, Richard Roberts as Pang and Christopher Turner as Pong. Here ENO had reaped strong rewards by casting a group of young singers in the roles. Nelson, Roberts and Turner were particularly lively and strong as the masks and made a good ensemble.

But with his two principals, Goold rather failed. Gwyn Hughes Jones sang Calaf strongly and impressively, but costumed in a black frock coat he failed to convey much of the Prince’s passion by any bodily movement. He was entirely too stiff and in Nessun Dorma Goold seems to have been unable to stop Jones signally emotion with stock telegraphic gestures. Still, Jones’s singing was such that you forgave him. And perhaps Goold intended the character to be stiff and impassive.

With Kirsten Blanck, Goold had a soprano who has all the notes for Turandot, which is a good start. Blanck does not seem to have the sort of laser sharp voice which I like in this role; her account of In questa regia was richly modulated with a strong vibrato. She has quite a warm voice and seemed to come over as impassive rather than icy. Vocal preferences apart her account of the role simply lacked the intensity which was needed. After all Gwyneth Jones did not have an ideal Turandot voice but her performance was so intense, so coruscating, that you couldn’t help but capitulate. Goold used the traditional version of the ending (Alfano with Toscanini’s cuts) so that we go briskly from Liu’s death to the end. This does not give the singer much time to thaw. Blanck was obviously trying to thaw, but this change did not quite reach her voice and visually she was limited by the rather over the top bride costume, with wacky make-up. It would have helped if some way could have been found for her appearance to reflect the change by jettisoning the head-dress or removing the make-up to make her seem more a real person. But on the plus side, this was Blanck’s first Turandot and she had learned it in English (not her native language, she is German).

If this new Turandot had had a performance of the title role delivered with the necessary coruscating intensity, then I think that this production would have come together. Goold and his designers have nearly got things right, and with a bit of tweaking and a more defined central performance, this could be a winner. It was certainly popular, as the auditorium was full.

In the pit Edward Gardner produced a dramatic, if rather brash, account of the score, but he engendered some terrific playing from his orchestra.

Friday 13 November 2009

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Guerrero's Battle Mass from Westminster Cathedral is here.
Performances which are of a very high calibre and extremely seductive ...

And my review of Thomas Hampson's 2nd American song recital Wondrous Free is here, both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
All lovers of good singing will want to hear this ...

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Review of Maria di Rohan

My review of the Opera Rara/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert performance of Donizetti's Maria di Rohan in the Vienna version is here on Music and Vision

Monday 9 November 2009

Les Arts Florissants at the Union Chapel

As part of their 30th anniversary celebrations, Les Arts Florissants presented a concert of Monteverdi's 6th Book of Madrigals. Instead of their usual home of the Barbican Hall, they de-camped to the rather more Gothic surroundings of the Union Chapel in Islington. This huge octagonal chapel is hardly a space that you would immediately associated with Monteverdi's rather intimate madrigals, but in fact the lively but not over resonant acoustics seemed to work rather well. Also, given that 7 sides of the chapel have balconies, sight lines were pretty good.

An ensemble of 6 singers and 4 instrumentalists was nominally directed by Paul Agnew, with William Christie being unusually absent. In fact Agnew sang tenor (he was one of the 6 singers) and his direction was so discreet as to be almost invisible, surely the best sort, as the singers and instrumentalists seemed to interact quite naturally - though I am quite sure that this was the result of a great deal of rehearsal.

The singers, Miriam Allen, Hanna Morrison, Maud Gnidzaz, Anne Magard, Sean Clayton, Paul Agnew and Lisandro Abadie, come from a variety of backgrounds and countries, so one of the groups most impressive feats was the way that the blended and interacted so beautifully. Throughout the evening, you were aware of the individual singers listening to each other and reacting. As Monteverdi divides his soloists into ensembles, duets and trios, so the singers reacted accordingly. The voices were blended into a rather Consort of Musicke type English sound, with perhaps just a little added vibrancy. Whilst not as cool in performance as the Consort of Musicke, they were not quite a richly vibrant as some of the Italian groups singing this repertoire.

The continuo instruments (harp, archlute, theorbo and harpsichord) were generally discreet and in the centrepiece of the programme, the sestina Lagrime d'Amante al Sepolcro dell'Amata, the singers performed unaccompanied in a profoundly intimate manner.

In these rather unlikely surroundings Les Arts Florissants managed to communicate brilliantly with their audience, conveying the intense nuances of Monteverdi's music.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Review of Arne's Artaxerxes

I have long been familiar with the aria A soldier tired from Thomas Arne's opera Artxerxes because I, like many people I suspect, listened to it regularly as part of Joan Sutherland's wonderful boxed set, The Art of the Prima Donna. I was always curious as to why the rest of the opera was never performed. Now it has been.

Ian Page's Classical Opera Company are currently performing Martin Duncan's colourful new production of Arne's Artaxerxes at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre. And the explanation for its lack of performance before lies in the problem of the parts. The opera's score and parts were burned when the theatre (Covent Garden's predecessor) burned in 1808. The opera's full score had been published, but without the recitative and the opera's finale.

We also have the original libretto, so now Ian Page has written replacement recitatives and Duncan Druce has crafted a new finale. It is lucky that Arne's full score was published because no-one would quite have expected him to use such a full orchestra. Once of the joys of the piece is the richness of the orchestration, Arne uses horns, oboes and bassoons with regularity, has a few numbers with flutes and with clarinets and even has trumpets and timpani in the overture and the finales. And, of course, that famous aria, which I referred to above, uses a trumpet solo as well.

Arne made his own English translation of Metastasio's Artaserse, a libretto also set by Gluck, J.C. Bach and Hasse. Arne's version was premiered in 1762 at the Theatre Royal (the predecessor to the current Covent Garden). The cast included two castratos (as Artaxerxes and Arbaces), plus Arne's pupil and ex-mistress, Charlotte Brent, as Mandane (who gets some of the best music of course). It was incredibly popular and went on being performed into the 19th century as Bishop produced his own version after the original parts burned. But the programme for last nights performance (5th November) was frustratingly vague as to when the last performance of the opera was.

Martin Duncan and his designer Johan Engels set the piece in a spare, vivid blue box which filled all the stage and expanded into the auditorium. Engels created a walkway round the pit, which became a white box set into the stage area. This looked good, but meant that the front rows of the stalls had to be removed to fit it in. Also, the extra instrumentalists (trumpets, clarinets, timpani) had to play from the side of the stage as the only way into the pit was across the stage and down a set of impressive steps, so there was no slipping in and out easily. I felt sorriest for the two flute players who were rarely used, but had to sit quietly in the pit for the whole of the performance (around 2 hours 20 minutes of music, plus 2 intervals).

Above the stage, Engels had suspended blue twinkly lights and there were aubergine coloured screens which raised and lowered for entrances. The only extravagance was the royal throne which was part throne, part costume and the wearer had to be strapped in. The money went on the costumes which were all gorgeously coloured, in exaggerated Georgian style, with wigs, but long hair and expansively wide hips on the coats and dresses. There was also an oriental hint. The fabrics of the clothes seemed to be made from Kimono fabric (Artaxerxes had a wonderful orange fabric with cranes on it). And the 4 actors who doubled as supers, servants and furniture movers, looked a bit like samurai. In fact, the costumes reminded me in spirit of those for Covent Garden's production of Mitridate re di Ponto (which was designed, I think, by Paul Brown).

The shoes were to die for, high-heeled and gorgeously coloured; even Andrew Staples had shiny black heeled numbers, with Laboutin style red insteps on the soles.

There are 28 arias in the piece, and Arne seems to deliberately keep things moving. Very few of the arias are Da Capo, and the recitative moved swiftly as well. The outer acts came in at just under an hour each and the middle act was only 35 minutes.

The title role, Artaxerxes, is not the biggest role. Christopher Ainslie was announced has having a viral infection, but apart from his voice lacking all its colours, I didn't detect that much to apologise for. The biggest male role is Arbaces, sung by Caitlin Hulcup. Basically Arbaces' father, Artabanes (Andrew Staples) has killed Xerxes (Artaxerxes father) and is plotting against Artaxerxes so that Arbaces can be put on the throne. Artabanes unwittingly implicates Arbaces in his plot and has to condemn him as a traitor. This causes confusion with Arbaces sister Semira (Rebecca Bottone), who is in love with Artaxerxes, and Artaxerxes sister Mandane (Elizabeth Watts), who is in love with Arbaces. The only other cast member is Rimenes (Steven Ebel), who is a supporter of Artabanes and in love with Semira.

Arne writes in the galant style which predominated between Handel and Mozart (very much in the J.C.Bach mould). The arias are lyrically attractive, often with some pretty tricky singing, though virtuoso singing for its own sake seems to have not been the point. I think the opera was popular because of its melodic attractiveness and lack of deep complexity. It is attractive and fun. The characters are barely more than puppets and you don't feel deeply for any of them. Andrew Staples was rather too nice as the villain. And though both women had plaintive arias, you never quite felt sorry for them; Arne did not pull the heart strings the way Handel did.

I felt that Duncan's very stylised production rather put the audience at one remove, at times, he had the 4 attendants manipulating the singers. And the large, stylised costumes meant that the show had an abstract, unreal effect. You wanted to find out what the piece would be like in a more naturalistic setting. That said, Caitlin Hulcup impressed as Arbaces, with some very moving arias, though you wanted to kick him (the character, not the singer) for so pig-headedly refusing to explain that it was his father 'what done it'. Rebecca Bottone brought a nice edge to Semira's character and Elizabeth Watt's neatly caught Mandane's dilemma at being trapped between love for Arbaces and anger at her father's death and desire for retribution.

Frankly it is not Metastasio's nicest plot. But Duncan, Engels and the cast gave a terrific performance.

Ian Page and his band accompanied in fine style, contributing some lovely instrumental solos, though there were times when I would have liked a larger body of strings.

Friday 6 November 2009

Recent CD Review

My review of the Tallis Scholars disc of Flemish Polyphony (including the amazing 12-part Brumel Battle Mass) is here, on MusicWeb International.
Fabulous music, beautifully and intelligently sung ...

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Towards a new opera (4)

Having got to the end of my new opera/music theatre piece in draft form, and managed to do a fair amount of tidying up on it, I have sent copies of the score to a couple of people that I hope will be involved in the first performance. I'm hoping to do a low key concert performance next year in order to road-test the piece. So I'm now at the rather scary stage (well I find it scary) of having people looking at the score with me hoping that they don't dislike it, don't find it unsingable etc. Length is still an issue, it comes in at about 75 minutes which will make it a big sing for 2 principals, particularly the Man who is on stage the whole time. So here's hoping.


A friend brought to my attention a rather odd site, purportedly about how to make money, which seems to have a series of posts from my Blog in the Music column. The posts are uncredited, without a link back to this blog. But what is even odder is that the posts seem to have been run through some sort of Automated translator, perhaps twice, and the results are so bizarre as to be funny. Below is a sample from my review of the Salomon Orchestra concert.

On Tuesday we went to St . John’s Smith Square for the Salomon Orchestra’s unison . Conducted by Philip Ellis, they gave the initial open opening of John McCabe’s Symphony ‘Edward II’ and Ellis’s own unison unfolding taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

I contingency declare which I when I saw the full ballet, I had doubts about McCabe’s measure for David Bintley’s ballet Edward II, anticipating the song as well formidable and sonorous for the dance generally as Bintley was formulating a grand chronological ballet in the normal demeanour . In 1999, before long after the initial opening, McCabe re-worked the song in to his harmony, yet in actuality the name sonorous apartment would be improved . The outcome is 45 mins of intensely absolute song and it is obscure because the work had to wait for compartment right away for the initial open opening . Salomon’s comment of the work was constrained and thespian . Granted there was the peculiar severe dilemma, but these counted for small opposite a excellent opening of such a frozen work.

I particularly like the 'unison unfolding' bit.

I don't seem to be the only one, there are plenty of other posts on the site presumably culled from other blogs. I just don't know what the point is?

Monday 2 November 2009

Salad Days the contemporary opera version

Tete-a-tete is an amazing opera company who, since their founding in 1997, have been mid-wife to a remarkably number of contemporary operas. Their evenings of short 1-act operas have expanded into their remarkable opera festival at Riverside Studios in August when a wide variety of groups are able to show-case their works.

So it is with not a little puzzlement that I received a flyer through the post for the group's latest production - Julian Slade's musical Salad Days. Now, don't get me wrong, Salad Days is entirely charming but it is hardly contemporary opera. Its not opera at all and you can't really kid yourself that enticing people in to see it will persuade people to try out the group's more contemporary operatic offerings. Perhaps it is just that director Bill Bankes-Jones has a burning desire to stage Salad Days, let us hope so.

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