Out of the Shadows

Friday, 31 December 2010

Tempus per Annum - Domine in tua misericordia


I am currently working on volume 3 of my collection of motets Tempus per Annum, my collection of motets for the Church's year. This volume covers the half of the Sundays in Ordinary Time. I have just finished number 7, Domine, in tua misericordia, the Introit for the 7th Sunday in ordinary time, set for 5 -part choir (SATBB).

CD Review

My review of Orff's Carmina Burana from Richard Cooke and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is here. It came out earlier last year but somehow got missed.

At Brilliant's prices, you could easily buy this if you are curious or if the excellent cast appeals. But if you really want a good recording of Orff's
Carmina Burana then go for Gundula Janowitz and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau conducted by Eugen Jochum.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Recent CD Review

My review of Kaddish by Lawrence Siegel is here, on MusicWeb International.

A great deal of love and thought has gone into this disc.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Review of Chapelle du Roi

My review of The Absolution of England, the concert by the Chapelle du Roi as part of the Christmas Festival at St. Johns Smith Square, is here on Music and Vision (Subscription Site).

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Recent CD reviews

My review of the disc of choral music by contemporary American composer Daniel Asia performed by the BBC Singers is here.

Exemplary performances. This collection shows Asia to have a nice ear and it is well worth investigating.

And my review of the disc, Praise to the Holiest, from Cantores Missae is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.

Not aimed at the average listener, rather for those interested in music to be performed, at their church services. And as such it is beautifully executed and should, I hope, win many people over.

Friday, 24 December 2010

And Further Ahead

Opera Magazine's We hear that... column this month, mentions that Barry Banks will be taking the title role in a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann at ENO in Spring 2012. It will be directed by Richard Jones, conducted by Anthony Walker and will feature Clive Bayley as the villains. The big question, for me, is around the edition that will be used. ENO have a tradition of using up to date editions of the opera, whereas the Royal Opera tends to stick to the traditional version which takes no account of the discoveries made recently. So I hope that this continues.

And still on the subject of Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Natalie Dessay will be singing the heroines in Laurent Pelly's new production at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2012/13.

Music Theatre Wales will be premiering Philip Glass's new Kafka inspired opera, The Trial, in 2013.

Jonas Kaufmann is scheduled to sing the title role in David McVicar's new production of Andrea Chenier in 2015 (!) Perhaps Kaufmann will be able to convince me that the opera is actually worth hearing!

Rare Opera

A couple of sightings of rare opera coming up in the new year. On February 5th East London Metropolitan Opera and the Haydn Chamber Orchestra will be presenting a concert performance of Rossini's Armida at St. John's Smith Square. This will feature Emma Dogliani in the title role and will be conducted by Robin Newton. The opera is perhaps best known for the trio for 3 tenors, the only time that Rossini seems to have written for this combination. The opera was written for Naples where the opera house had 3 major tenors, and most of his operas for Naples feature significant numbers of tenor parts. The title role was written for then muse, Isabella Colbran.

Then between 22nd and 26th February you can sett a production of Albert Lortzing's Zar und Zimmerman at Haslemere Hall in Haslemere. This will be presented by Opera South, directed by Ian Gledhill and conducted by Tom Higgins, with the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra. The opera will be sung in English and is being presented as Peter the Great or Tsar and Carpenter. The opera was written in 1837 and remains Lortzing's best known work, it features a disguised Peter the Great getting involved in shennanigins in a Dutch shipyard. The opera is still performed in Germany but is quite a rarity in the UK.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Opera Now

The new production of When a Man Knows gets a mention in the latest News Roundup on the Opera Now website.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Mamelles


I know its a bit far to go, especially if the weather is like it is now in London (i.e. Snowing heavily), but during January the Opera Comique in Paris is presenting Poulenc's opera Les Mamelles de Tiresias in a programme with Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit and Shostakovitch's The programme is a co-production with Opera de Lyon and appeared there in November. Events surrounding the performances include Poulenc's Histoire de Babar, a programme on Sacha Guitry, and Poulenc songs sung by Karina Gauvin and by Karen Vourc'h.

Promised End

If you missed Alexander Goehr's new King Lear opera Promised End then it is being broadcast tonight at 10.30pm on BBC's Radio 3; a chance to re-assess the work again.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Hasse's Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra from Ars Lyrica Houston is here.
Well worth encountering in this engaging performance.

And my review of Monsigny's Le Deserteur is here, both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
This isn’t a master-work, but it is a fascinating and charming.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Magi

Tonight, my cantata the Magi will be receiving its premiere at London Concord Singers concert at the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, Mayfair, London at 7.30pm. The remainder of the programme includes music by Cecilia McDowell, Hieronymous Praetorius, Mendelssohn, Gesualdo, Nicholas Maw and Peter Philips. The new piece has proved popular with the singers so I can only hope that it is equally popular with the audience. The writing, for 8 part choir, uses quite a lot of bi-tonality which makes it tricky to sing but is proving very effective (well, at least I think so).

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Review of Tannhauser

My review of the new production of Tannhäser at Covent Garden is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Monday, 13 December 2010

Bach's Christmas Oratorio

On Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of John Butt, performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio, complete. Butt directed from the harpsichord with a second keyboard player at the organ, though I must confess that at times I found the harpsichord sound a little difficult to hear amidst everything else.

Butt has recently recorded the St. Matthew Passion with his own Dunedin Consort, and on that recording he was firmly 1 voice to a part. But at Sunday's concert we had 4 soloists plus the choir of the Enlightenment. Now, granted, the choir numbered only 13 so the differential was not huge. But, if you read Andrew Parrott's book about performing Bach, he quotes various treatises related to Lutheran performance which suggest that if you use more than 1 voice to a part, you should group the additional voices separately, i.e. you would have 3 group of 4 (SATB). It would have been interesting to try this rather than having the choir in a block at the side of the stage. The whole stage arrangement was odd, because the main body of strings were drawn very far forward, so the soloists sat at the side and walked on for their solos. But, this is not simple in the Christmas Oratorio so we were conscious of a great deal of very careful coming and going.

The other problem with doing soli and choir is that, like in the St. Matthew, is blurs things. If you have the same voices doing the chorals as the solo sections which mix choral and recitative, then you get a better balanced feel. This was the revelation when I first heard the St. Matthew in 1 voice to a part.

Now, having got my gripes out the way, I can safely say that the performance was magical. Nicholas Mulroy was incredible as the Evangelist, sweet voiced, mellifluous but with a fine attention to words. (I need to get Butt's recent St. Matthew recording to hear Mulroy as the Evangelist their. ) Not only that, but he coped brilliantly with Butt's speeds and gave the most amazingly fleet performances of Bach's passage work in his first 2 arias. The other three soloists, Julia Doyle, Meg Bragle and Matthew Brook, were in the same class and produced a wonderfully balance solo line up. The choir was equally good and equally technically adept in the faster passages. (Another gripe, if you are going to put the choir at the side of the stage rather than the back, you should ask the men to shine their shoes as they can be seen!).

As ever the OAE played superbly with some lovely solo playing and of course, the delectable oboe quartet in the 2nd cantata (this must be my favourite moment). Only the solo horns seem a little out of sorts.
Well, a busy weekend indeed. On Saturday we went to see the first night of the Royal Opera's new production of Tannhäuser, in Tim Albery's stripped down production. (A full review will follow) Was it my imagination or did Act 3 bring back vague memories of Elijah Moshinsky's stripped down Peter Grimes.

Then on Sunday morning we were singing Gounod's Messe dite de Clovis at St. Mary's Cadogan Street. Another one of those works which makes me wonder where on earth Faust came from. Plenty of ink has been spilled over who wrote Shakespeare's plays, but did Gounod have a tame composer in the closet to write his operatic masterpiece for him? Anyways, the genius (?) found in Faust doesn't seem to find its way into Gounod's masses, useful and pleasant though they are.

Finally off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's superb performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, complete. With John Butt's fleet tempi, the evening did not last much more than 3 hours including interval. Bliss.

Tonight we are having our dress rehearsal at the Grosvenor Chapel ready for Thursday's concert, From Advent to Epiphany, when London Concord Singers will be premiering my cantata The Magi, further details here.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Is Cleopatra funny?

Re-reading the programme notes for Cecilia Bartoli's concert on Wednesday, I did rather find myself disagreeing with the writer (Christopher Cook) on the subject of Handel's Giulio Cesare. He refers to the way that 'Handel and his librettist blend the serious with the comic', going on to refer to Cleopatra as 'playful, funny, teasing and an unscrupulous operator'. I would certainly agree with the second comment, as that is what makes Cleopatra so charming, but I would have to disagree with the first comment, I don't think there is actually anything specifically funny in the libretto. Handel certainly didn't do funny, his lighter operas can have a rather satirical bent, but never outright comedy. Giulio Cesare belongs to the first Academy period, when Handel was doing operas of high seriousness; mainly, it seems likely, because that is what his aristocratic backers on the Academy board wanted. Nowadays, producers rather add a comic element to these operas, both the Glyndebourne Rodelinda and the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare had crowd pleasing comic elements which have no place in the music. So no, I don't think the opera blends serious with comic.

The article then goes on to describe the scene when Cleopatra sings V'adoro, pupille as 'perhaps owes as much to a Soho burlesque at The Windmill as it does to ancient Parnassus'. Really? Obviously I have a far more serious view of the opera than Christopher Cook, but that raises the question of who is right. Because I put Handel's music on something of a pedestal, am I right in attributing motives of high seriousness to the opera productions. Was the original Parnassus scene viewed as being a little risqué? Surely the care which Handel lavished on the orchestration, with the on-stage orchestra of muses specified as having 9 instruments, mitigates against the idea that the scene had a burlesque element.

Review of Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican

My review of Cecilia Bartoli's concert on Wednesday at the Barbican is here; the programme of Handel arias was presented with the conductorless Basel Chamber Orchestra. The review is on OperaToday.com.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Stile Antico concert report

I was at the Barbican on Wednesday, reviewing Cecilia Bartoli's recital, so unfortunately missed Stile Antico's concert at the Cadogan Hall. Luckily friends were there to report back. Stile Antico are a group of young British singers, on Wednesday they numbered some 13 people, who perform conductorless. An impressive feat in any repertoire, but particularly true in their chosen field of renaissance polyphony. They have recently been touring, supporting Sting in his Dowland lute-song project!

Wednesday's recital centred round Tallis's Missa Puer Natus Est, opening with the plainchant Veni Emmanuel and Tallis's Videte Miraculum, finishing gloriously with John Shepherd's Verbum Caro. The opening to the second half, Taverner's Audivi vocem de caelo was sung rather effectively from the balcony.

A well disciplined group, with brilliant tuning and a sound; the women (sopranos and altos, no counter-tenors) with clear bright voices. The group seem to be genuinely conductorless, rather than one of the singers discreetly taking the lead. This seems to lead to a different type of rapport with the audience, as the singers are concentrating so much more on each other. Their programme provided lots of extended solo passages for different combinations of voices, but the results were admirably homogeneous.

The programme concluded with an encore, a rumbustious account of Byrd's Vigilate.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Recent CD Review

My review of the reissue of Scarlatti's La Santissima Trinita is here, on MusicWeb International.

One of my discoveries of the year. Very fine singing and playing, combined with a work which seems to have an abundance of variety, displaying Scarlatti’s genius at its best.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky

Last night (Tuesday 7th December) was one of the much anticipated concerts in the Barbican's Great Performers season, two of the world's star counter-tenors, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, in concert together with Jaroussky's Ensemble Artaserse.

Following their rather skittish interview in the Guardian I did rather wonder what to expect. In the event, we had an attractive sequence of airs, songs and duets by Purcell, with only 1 duet which had any hint of gender bending. The programme was enthusiastically received by the capacity audience and we were treated to 3 encores. But I was left a little unsatisfied and after the concert was puzzling over quite what was lacking.

Ensemble Artaserse is a small group and their line up last night was heavily continuo based (harpsichord/organ, viola da gamba, basse de viol, theorbo and guitar) with just 2 violins, viola, 2 recorders and 2 oboes. In all of the dance based pieces they gave the music significant rhythmic impulse which was exciting, but wearing after a time. The group are conductorless and I did wonder whether that was the problem.

Turning to the singers I realised that, far more than in Handel, it is the words which are important, not just their declamation but the way that they link with Purcell's music. His English word setting is some of the greatest ever written, but it is also pretty idiosyncratic. Scholl's English diction, whilst not faultless, was amazingly good. But even he seemed to struggle. In the shorter numbers like Sweeter than Roses or Music for a while he was elegantly beautiful, but didn't quite touch the heart strings the way Deller did (or more recently Iestyn Davies at this year's Proms in Cadogan Hall). In a longer number like O Solitude Scholl seemed to lose his way a bit. It might have been the frog in his throat, or possibly the way the piece sat in his voice, going a bit low, but though there were lovely phrases, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

Jaroussky's diction was impressive, considering his franco-phone background, but it still has some way to go. Part of the problem seemed to be that his pronunciation was a little wayward; it was inconsistent, sometimes a word was produced fine and sometimes not. With his high, focussed voice, Jaroussky was loveliest in the long lyrical items like Fairest Isle and The Evening Hymn.

On balance, the evening seemed to be slightly less than the sum of its parts. Purcell's distinctive qualities seemed to not be quite captured. I think that what we lacked was the strong guiding presence of someone like William Christie, someone who could bring stylistic discipline and coherency.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Review of Alcina

My review of the concert performance of Alcina at the Barbican on Saturday is here, the review is on the OperaToday website (http://www.operatoday.com)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Rossini continuo

When Rossini wrote his comic operas, what did he actually hear in his head for the continuo. We know that a number of Italian theatres continued to use harpsichords, though the last new instrument was made around 1800. And other theatres used a combination of cello and double bass, with the cello spreading the chords; this can be heard on the Naxos CD of The Barber of Seville. I've never understood why this isn't used more often.

But, the question that has always puzzled me is what Rossini expected; did he really want a piano. Would an early piano be what was expected, or would that be too exotic. After all, in the later 19th century one of the divas used to have a piano wheeled onto the stage during the lesson scene in the Barber and sing to her own accompaniment. So, if there was a piano on-stage, what was used in the orchestra?

When a Man Knows

I managed to finish the revised score of my opera When a Man Knows in early November and have got the score to the principals, director and conductor. Now we are working on the publicity. I've been rash enough to book some display advertising, and the first of these has already gone out. Now its the main publicity leaflet. Just A6 in size, it is proving interesting trying to fit in all the information needed, including a map of the venue, along with some tempting quotes and a design which doesn't look like War and Peace crammed into a small space.

We are nearing a final design and I'm hoping that we can get something tempting. I'll post it when its finished.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

To the Barbican last night for Mark Minkowski's wonderful performance of Handel's Alcina with Inga Kalna in the title role (replacing Anja Harteros). The only complaint was my usual one about the placing of intervals. The opera started at 6.30pm and finished at 10.20pm, and Minkowski performed the opera complete with the dances at the end of Acts 2 and 3. The only trouble, there was just 1 interval. This was advertised as being at the end of Act 1, giving us the prospect of a second half lasting well over 2 hours. In the event, the interval was placed after Alcina's first aria which gave us roughly a first half of 2 hours and 2nd half of 90 minutes. But, given the timings, couldn't we please have two intervals. Handel constructed his operas very carefully, and they respond far better to having the intervals in the correct places. Not to speak of having to sit in the auditorium for 2 hours continuously!

Whilst we are in querelous mood...

We used the Barbican's new Red Room, which is designed for their new membership category. It is a pleasant bar with views overlooking the foyers, serving food and drink. Only, it seems to have been designed for young people in mind. Like the re-design of the waterside cafe, the designers would seem to have designed the interior for a young audience. Whereas that at the Great Performers concerts would seem to be older, one not inclined to sit on bar stools and one preferring to sit in independently and not compressed into groups.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Orpheus in the Underworld

My review of Liam Steel's production of Orpheus in the Underworld at the Royal College of Music is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site)

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Opera Rara benefit

Last night we attended a fund-raising recital for Opera Rara, when soprano Carmen Giannattasio, tenor Colin Lee and baritone Mark Stone, with pianist Jeff Cohen, presented an attractive programme of rarities and better known pieces. The recital was to publicise their fund-raising for their recording of Donizetti's Caterina Cornaro, the last of his operas to be premiered in his lifetime. The recording will feature Carmen Giannattasio, Graeme Broadbent, Colin Lee and Troy Cook.

At the recital Giannattasio gave us a preview by singing Caterina's Romanza and Cabaletta from the opera. She also gave us a thrilling account of Tacea la notte placida from Il Trovatore, an aria where Verdi works his own magic on a musical form and genre familiar to Rossini and Donizetti. Colin Lee opened proceedings with Rodrigo's Cavatina from Rossini's La donna del Lago, a work which has just been issued on disc by Opera Rara. Lee also sang the barcarolle from Offenbach's Vert-vert, another recent Opera Rara recording. Mark Stone sang Sois immobile, from Guillaume Tell, a role which he has just performed for the first time. Then Stone and Lee came together in the duet from The Pearl Fishers before Lee and Giannattasio gave us a thrilling finale in the shape of the duetto finale from Rossini's Ermione (another recent Opera Rara recording).

Opera Rara have recently lost their funding from the Peter Moores Foundation; after 30 years supporting rare recordings, the Foundation is now concentrating resources on their Art Gallery at Compton Verney. So Opera Rara are looking for alternative methods. For Caterina Cornaro they are offering 800 shares in the recording at £250, a fascinating and innovative method of raising money.

Monday, 29 November 2010

We are back at the Barbican next Saturday for their concert performance of Alcina. As usual with their operas in concert, the cast seems to be going through some changes. But what is highly interesting is that we seem to be getting the role of Oberto sung by a boy soprano. It was written for a talented boy soprano, William Savage, who went on to sing a number of roles for Handel including (as a baritone) the title role in Imenio. But casting Oberto as a boy is not the sort of authenticity opera houses usually give us.

Last Saturday we used the Barbican's Waterside Cafe for the first time since its re-vamp, it is now called the Food Hall. They seem to have improved the flow round, somewhat. But the new seating is still cramped and is laid out in such a way that the audience on Saturday, generally older than us, seemed to find confusing. Somehow the old layout did the same thing. Perhaps the designers don't consider older people when they design such places?

Pergolesi Stabat Mater at the Barbican

Harry Bicket and The English Concert had put together a fascinating programme for their concert at the Barbican on Saturday. Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, preceded by Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and the Salve Regina by Porpora. There were a number of cross links, both Porpora and Pergolesi were Neapolitan, both the Porpora and the Vivaldi pieces were written for Venetian ospedale. But the best laid plans ....

Anna Caterina Antonacci, who interestingly now bills herself as a soprano, was ill and replaced in the Pergolesi by Susan Gritton. This entailed dropping the Porpora and replacing it with a Handel concerto grosso (Opus 6, no. 6).

The group opened with the Handel, a beautifully restrained, intimate performance. Continuo consisted of William Carter's theorbo will just occasional support from Bicket on the chamber organ (no harpsichord of course, because the original programme of sacred music would not have needed one). Bicket shapes this music a lot, perhaps too much at times; beautiful thought it was there were occasions when I just wanted him to let go and let the musicians get on with it.

Sara Mingardo was the soloist in the Vivaldi. She turned in a finely tuned, beautifully relaxed performance, making the most of the dramatic moments but keeping the filigree vocal work for such movements as Cum dederit. It wasn't a self-consciously showy performance, just one that was highly musical and from a consummate artist.

Gritton and Mingardo's performance in the Pergolesi gave no hint that the pairing was a last minute affair. Inevitably there were changes, it would have interesting to have heart the piece with two dark Mediterranean voices. But Gritton provided a poised contrast to Mingardo and the two joined beautifully in the duets. This wasn't a performance that tried to milk the piece for all it was worth, thank goodness, instead Bicket and his performers allowed Pergolesi's chromatic harmonies to do their work.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I see from this month's Opera Magazine that performances of Handel operas continue to crop up with pleasing regularity, if one is prepared to travel. The Opéra Royal at Versailles is presenting both Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare. Though neither production was actually created for the baroque theatre itself. Rinaldo comes from the National Theatre in Prague and is directed by Louise Monty. Giulio Cesare is directed by Christian Schiaretti and is a co-production between the Théâtre Lyrique de Tourcoing and Grand Théâtre de Reims. Still, just to see such opera in baroque surroundings would be great (in fact we are going to attend on of the Giulio Cesare performances). Versailles are also presenting Purcell's King Arthur (production from Opera de Montpelier) and Dido and Aeneas, Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, plus Gounod's opera based on Moliere's Le Medecin Malgre Lui, as well as Racine's play Berenice.

Further ahead, David Alden is doing a new production of Handel's Deidamia for Netherlands Opera in 2012 (conducted by Ivor Bolton), and Buxton are staging Handel's Saul next year, with Jonathan Best in the title role. The director will be Olivia Fuchs and the conductor Harry Christophers.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Review of Die Entführung aus dem Serail

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for a concert performance of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail given by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Bernard Labadie, who is the conductor on Ian Bostridge's recent Three Baroque Tenors disc.

Like Cherubini's Médée (which I have recently learned needs to be spelt with two acute accents), Die Entführung aus dem Serail has lots of spoken dialogue. And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement (like Chelsea Opera Group at Saturday's performance of Médée) decided to use a narrator. In this case, Simon Butteris, who also wrote the narration and has in fact translated the opera (the singers sang in German but Butteriss's translation was broadcast as surtitles). Mozart's opera gives the poor narrator an added complication in that it is semi-serious.

18th century comic operas (both Italian and German) often mixed the comic and the serious; it was typical to have aristocratic characters who were always serious and provided the love interest, but surrounded by comic servants etc. (This was a style of comedy pioneered by Galuppi and Goldoni). This is true of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, where Konstanze and Belmonte are entirely serious, as is the spoken role of the Pasha, but their servants Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin are comic.

So any narration had to take account of this. Butteriss opted for simple and direct, using verbal puns and such to provide comic relief. When the moment demanded it he shaded into seriousness in an entirely apposite way. The main draw backs of having a narration were that we lost the rather interesting juxtaposition of music and speech in the opening when Belmonte's spoken questions are ignored by a singing Osmin. More importantly, we lost an entire character as the Pasha never sings so his doings were only ever reported by Butteriss. But, if we had to have a narration (and I understand why concert promoters feel it would be better) then let it be one like Butteriss's, simple, direct and amusing, rather than that used during Médée on Saturday.

OAE had assembled a terrific cast who performed, by and large, without scores. Only Alistair Miles as Osmin used a score all the time and he was a last minute substitution, so it was understandable. Susan Gritton, who sang Konstanze, carried a score but used it more like a comfort blanket than for reference. All the others sang without. The result was a performance which had a surprising amount dramatic vitality.

Susan Gritton made a moving and dignified Konstanze, there were moments when she seemed to push the vocal line about a little, but Marten aller arten had all the power and firmness that could be required. Frederic Antoun as Belmonte was a name new to me. Antoun is a Canadian tenor whose lyric voice brought just the right combination of ardour and firmness to the role.

Malin Christensen was a delight as Blonde, combining focussed accuracy with a delightful pertness, only a badly placed high note in her opening aria marred things. Tilman Lichdi was a charming Pedrillo. Perhaps he mugged slightly too much, but its a tricky role when deprived of the dialogue, but musically he was entirely on form.

Alistair Miles made a slightly serious Osmin, but the part was so finely sung that you barely noticed.

All in all this was a beautifully balanced cast, one that would have done a great deal of credit to a full staging of the opera.

Under Bernard Labadie, OAE gave a lively performance, turning in some lovely instrumental solo moments. The overture seemed to scurry rather too much and seemed in danger of upsetting itself, but things settled down and the danger was averted.

Such a fine performance of the opera made me wonder why we don't seem to have a production of this lovely opera. I can't remember when we last saw Covent Garden's 1987 production, which was notable for having heart-throb Oliver Tobias as Pasha Selim. Lets hope we get a production soon.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Review of Medee

My review of Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance of Cherubini's Medee is here, on MVDaily.com (Subscription site).

Monday, 22 November 2010

Cherubini anniversary

On Saturday we went to see Cherubini's Medee given by Chelsea Opera Group. This year is the 250th anniversary of Cherubini's birth but people do not seem to be beating a path to his door. It is disappointing that no opera companies seem to be planning a full staging of this opera. The last time we saw it in London was, I think, the 1989 production at Covent Garden with Rosalind Plowright on good form but in a very poorly conceived production. Having heard Yvonne Howard's assumption of the title role for COG, we are just crying out for someone to snap her up and stage the work, Grange Park, Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera, anyone?

Having been taken with the opera all over again I went looking for a recording. There only seems to be one solitary recording of the piece in French, on Newport Classics with Phyllis Treigle in the title role, released in 1997. And this does not seem to have made it into The Gramophone so I have no idea what it is like. There is also a live recording with Iano Tamar which evidently has rather poor sound.

So not only do we want a production, but we need a decent recording from a period band as well!

This neglect is perhaps not so surprising. Carmen apart, opera companies seem nervous of doing operas which require lots of French dialogue, even in France! Adrian Noble's new production of Carmen at the Opera Comique trimmed the dialogue down to the bone. And when we saw Medee at the Chatelet a few years ago, in a production from Toulouse, it was performed in Italian with the recitatives!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tess interrupted

I have always been fascinated by the idea Baron Frederic d'Erlanger's opera based on Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, though I've never heard a note of it. The libretto was written by Luigi Illica, who wrote librettos for Puccini. Now I find out from the latest British Music Society Newsletter that the opera was premiered in Naples in 1906, at the San Carlo, and the premiere was interrupted by volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius - surely a reason in itself for someone digging out the opera.

In fact Hyperion are recording d'Erlanger's Violin Concerto as a coupling to that of Frederick Cliffe. D'Erlanger's concerto was championed by Kreisler; Hyperion's disc will be issued in February so we'll be able to judge for ourselves then.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Review of Adriana Lecouvreur

I first saw Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur in the 1980's at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, with Maria Chiara in the title role. It wasn't an opera that I knew, we'd gone because Puccini's La Boheme was promised, with Caballe (who in the event cancelled). As it turned out, we were entranced by Cilea's opera. People from English National Opera were seen in the audience, which led to gossip and rumour that ENO were considering a production of the opera with Valerie Masterson in the title role - which would have been extremely interesting had it come off.

As it happened, it was not until Opera Holland Park performed Adriana Lecouvreur in 2002, with Christine Bunning as Adriana and Rosalind Plowright as the Princess that I saw the work again. Whereas Plowright was wonderfully dramatic, Bunning was restrainedly elegant in the title role. This made me realise that, for the opera to work, it needed a real diva in the title role. Then in 2009, Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance with Nelly Miriocioiu and Rosalind Plowright. Here we had a nicely balanced casting, with Miriocioiu's performance restoring my faith in the work.

So now Covent Garden have presented a new production of Adriana Lecouvreur, their first since 1906! We saw it on Thursday 18th November, the first night.

David McVicar's production was entirely traditional, set firmly in the 17th century. Charles Edwards set was an entire delight. In Act 1, which is set back-stage at the Opera Comique, we see what seems to be the rear of the theatre, with the detritus of the back-stage dressing rooms in front. It gradually becomes apparent that what Edwards has created is a very large scale model of an 17th century theatre, one which almost entirely filled the Covent Garden stage. During Act 1 this model gradually rotated so that by the time Michonnet comes to describe Arianna's performance, we can actually see through the wings to the 'real' performance on the 18th century stage.

This model theatre stays central to the whole opera. In Act 2, the Prince de Bouillon's villa seems to be build out of the proscenium and fore-stage of the theatre. Then in Act 3, the ballet is performed on the model stage with the 18th century audience sat in front, their backs to us. Then finally in Act 4, Adriana's lodgings are in front of the theatre model, now stripped back to its basic wood. But it is at Adriana's death that McVicar presents his greatest coup; the main stage lights dim, leaving just the lights on the model stage and the member's of Adriana's acting troupe come forward on the model stage for one last time, the doff their caps and bow to Adriana. A truly magical moment, and one which makes sense of the dying fall of Cilea's opera.

But of course, all this would be for naught if we didn't have a diva in the title role. And Covent Garden have mounted the production around the diva de nos jours, Angela Gheorghiu. Gheorghiu's Adriana was a sensitive creature, not a temperamental monster, but one who could credibly hold the stage and fascinate all around, she looked fabulous, truly a cynosure for all eyes.

Musically the part revolves around the two big arias (her entrance aria in Act 1, Poveri fiori in Act 4). Here Gheorghiu did not disappoint, quite, but she sang Adriana with a quavery fragility, which was aided and abetted by Mark Elder's transparent accompaniment with the Royal Opera House orchestra. At her entrance she is supposed to appear, at the top of a staircase, rehearsing her part apparently unconscious of her audience back stage, this sets up a lovely dynamic for her opening aria. Of course, Edwards set meant that we were unable to have a grand staircase, so instead Gheorghiu was discovered in her dressing room, as supers moved away a screen; not quite the same thing, but effective and rather intimate.

The moment when Gheorghiu's performance disappointed most was in her big duet (duel?) in Act 2 with Michaela Schuster's Princesse de Bouillon. Schuster sang the Princess with a big, gleaming voice and you wanted Gheorghiu to match this, but she didn't.

By the end of the opera, I had started to warm to Gheorghiu's approach, but I did rather tire of her conscious emoting and the fragile quaveriness of her delivery. For me, Adriana is a spinto role and I would have liked more firmness and steel at times. In fact, having heard Rosalind Plowright twice as the Princess and heard her in the title role of La Gioconda, I just can't help wishing that someone would have asked her to sing Adriana when she was still singing soprano parts; her gleaming, passionate voice would have been perfect.

Adriana's love interest, Maurizio, was played by Jonas Kaufman. Now, I'd never heard Kaufman live before and his baritonal delivery took a little getting used to. On first hearing, you were surprised that he could deliver the top notes. But he did far more than deliver, Kaufman has a highly intelligent control of his idiosyncratic voice.

Somewhere in my archives I have a recording of the Act 1 love duet from Verdi's Otello, sung by Tiana Lemnitz and Torsten Ralf. The Swedish tenor shows himself willing and able to fine his upper voice down in ways that few Italianate tenors dare, so that the love duet for once is sung to a ravishing pianissimo. I was that that Kaufman did, supplying a series of gloriously shaded and finely performed moments.

Of course, he looked wonderful, every inch the soldier; glorious for once to have a tenor who is neither tubby nor tiny. And he rose effortlessly to the big moments, but it was his way with the quieter ones that counted, especially his duetting with Gheorghiu. I will still want to go back to Domingo's account of the role, with is glorious Italianate gleam, but Kaufman's intelligence in using his instrument won the day.

The other important role is Michonnet, the theatre manager; Adriana's friend who is in love with her, but never dare tell her. Alessandro Corbelli is adept at mixing comedy and pathos in comic roles, here the balance was adjusted slightly and we had a serious role with comic elements. Corelli can steal a scene without appearing to do anything and he brought comic timing and real pathos to the scene. In a way, he was the heart of the opera, without a central performance from Michonnet the piece will fail.

Michaela Schuster sang the Princesse with real relish, she ate the scenery but kept her voice within control so that it was never forced or over the top. It is a relatively short role, she only appears in 2 acts. But Schuster ensured that we remembered her for both musical and dramatic reasons.

The remaining cast were equally strong in the supporting roles. Janis Kelly, Sarah Castle, Iain Paton and David Soar as the four actors who animate the back-stage antics in Act 1 and re-appear in Act 4 to persuade Adriana to return to the stage. The four made a strong, vibrant ensemble. Maurizio Muraro was suitably authoritative as the Prince of Bouillon with Bonaventura Bottone as a delightfully camp Abbe.

The Act 3 ballet, The Judgement of Paris, was performed in Edwards' model 17th century theatre, with authentic, functioning 17th century scenery. The dancers had, by and large, authentic 17th century costumes (except for that of Paris which was closer to the 19th century). But Andrew George's choreography seemed to oscillate between camp send up, and 19th century period manners, which seemed to be a shame. Cilea wrote evocative 17th century style music for the ballet and we should at least take it seriously.

Cilea's score is beautifully melodic, as he makes full use of the melodies from his two hit numbers for Adriana. Mark Elder and the orchestra gave a sensitive and beautifully modulated account of the score, discovering in it far more than simple melodic bombast. Elder seemed concerned to bring out the fine textures of Cilea's orchestration; perhaps over concerned, there were moments when the performance could have taken a dose of something closer to high-voltage verismo.

Adriana Lecouvreur is quite a long opera, there's a lot of plot to get through and Cilea does it in 4 acts, lasting around 150 minutes. For some reason (probably to do with the logistics of the set), the Royal Opera chose to perform Acts 1 and 2 together, with a 5 minute pause between. There was a 25 minute interval after Act 2. Act 3 lasted just 30 minutes, then there was another 20 minute interval. This made a long-ish opera into something closer to a marathon. Thanks goodness the production was worth it.

I don't think the opera will ever be quite mainstream, but David McVicar and Charles Edwards have created a magical production and I do hope that the Royal Opera will bring it back and give other diva's the opportunity to sing Adriana's glorious arias in their proper context.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of volume four of Brilliant's Complete Schütz Edition is here.
At Brilliant’s prices it is easy enough to buy the set and dip in. The performances may sometimes be ordinary, but the music never fails to astonish.

And my review of a reissue of Pro Cantione Antiqua's recordings of Victoria motets is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.

Do try this. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Jean de Reske



Having read in the programme for Saturday's performance of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette that Jean de Reske had sung the role of Romeo, with Melba as Juliette, at Covent Garden in 1889, I became curious because Reske was renowned for his Wagner singing.

Jean de Reszke was a Polish tenor, born in 1850 who became one of the most celebrated tenors of his day. Training initially as a baritone, he re-trained as a tenor and became one of the most notable performers of his day performing in Paris, London and New York. His repertoire covered the heavier roles and he sang significant numbers of Wagnerian roles, but also the French repertoire of his day (Meyerbeer, Gounod and Bizet). He sang his Wagner roles in both Italian and German.

We don't have many recordings of De Reske, there are a few live cylinder recordings of operatic performances, but no studio recordings seem to have survived. It is illuminating an instructive to look at how his repertoire changed over the years, the following is a list of his roles at Covent Garden (his Met roles were almost identical); it should be borne in mind that up to 1892, operas at Covent Garden were usually presented in Italian. I've not heard of Bemberg's Elaine, but the composer seems to have been South American, trained in Paris, De Reszke also sang the role of Lancelot at the work's American premiere at the Met in 1894. Esmeralda is by Arthur Goring Thomas and dates from 1883, it is based on the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame; it was performed at Covent Garden in French.

1888: Vasco da Gama( L'Africaine - Meyerbeer), Raoul( Les Huguenots - Meyerbeer), Faust, Radames (Aida), Riccardo (Ballo in maschera), Lohengrin.
1889: Radames, Raoul( Les Huguenots), Lohengrin, Walter (Die Meistersinger), Romeo Roméo et Juliette - Gounod)
1890: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Romeo, Faust, Don Josè (Carmen), Lohengrin, Walther, Phoebus (Esmeralda - Goring Thomas).
1891: Raoul ( Les Huguenots), Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète - Meyerbeer), Faust, Romeo, Don Josè, Otello, Lohengrin, Walter.
1892: Jean de Leyden (Le Prophète), Romeo, Don Jose, Lohengrin, Lancelot (Elaine - Bemberg)
1893: Raul ( Les Huguenots), Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter.
1894: Faust, Romeo, Werther, Radames, Lohengrin, Walter, Lancelot (Elaine)
1896: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1897: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried)
1898: Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan, Siegfried (Siegfried and Gotterdammerung)
1899: Faust, Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter, Tristan
1900: Romeo, Lohengrin, Walter

As with any helden-tenor, it is noticeable how the non-Wagner roles are reduced as the Wagner roles increase. But quite what defines a helden-tenor seems to have changed. Nowadays we would not really expect such a voice to sing Meyerbeer. But more remarkable is the way that the Gounod roles seem to persist in his repertoire. The idea of a tenor nowadays singing Siegfried, Faust and Romeo. De Reske was a re-trained baritone, which is often a help when it comes to singing Siegfried, but this is not a voice type that we would expect to hear in Faust or Romeo. As an example, think of the mature Domingo and then try to imagine him singing Faust or Romeo!

It was De Reske who suggested that Melba might sing Brunnhilde to his Siegfried in New York. Which she did with notable lack of success. But that she should attempt it at all is remarkable.

All this leaves me wishing that we had more record of De Reske's voice and technique. If fascinates me that he combined roles in ways that are not done nowadays, perhaps indicating that his approach to Wagner was far more bel canto than is done nowadays.

The picture at the head of this post is De Reszke as Romeo. There are many more pictures, plus information about his brother Edouard, here.

Review of Don Carlo from Midsummer Opera

My review of Midsummer Opera's concert performance of Verdi's Don Carlo in the 4-Act 1884 version, is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Review of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette

On Saturday we attended Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at Covent Garden. My review is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Buxton Festival

This year's Buxton Festival looks as tempting as ever with Mary Plazas taking the title role in Donizetti's Maria di Rohan in a production by Stephen Medcalf and Jonathan Best as Handel's Saul in a staged performance directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Harry Christophers. Staging Handel's oratorios is always tricky, but Saul is one of the more dramatic ones and it can be made to work. Annilise Miskimmon is staging Ambroise Thomas Mignon, definitely a rarity on these shores nowadays though it used to be extremely popular. The Wexford Festival staged the piece many years ago in a production by Richard Jones, but this does not seem to have started a revival.

Buxton have also announced their new artistic Director, Stephen Barlow, who takes over from Andrew Greenwood in 2011. We have seen Barlow conduct quite a number of times at Grange Park Opera, and his own opera based on Thomas Beckett and Henry II was premiered at Canterbury Cathedral. It will be interesting to see what mark he makes on Buxton

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Critical (re)evaluation

This month's Opera Magazine has a review of ETO's premiere performance of Alexander Goehr's new opera Promised End by Andrew Porter. Porter gives the piece a long and thoughtful review which is very positive, quite a lot more positive than some of the reviews in the daily newspapers. I also found the work a little disappointing but Porter's valuable review has made me want to re-assess the work and hear it again. This is particularly true as ETO's performance will undoubtedly develop as their tour progresses.

Also in this month's Opera Magazine is a review of the CD of Michael Berkeley's latest opera, For You. For this opera Berkeley worked with Ian McEwen rather than David Malouf who had done the librettos for his previous operas. I have to confess that I have not seen For Your but have admired Berkeley's previous work. George Hall, in his review, seems unconvinced, describing the 'grey and anonymous ariosos', referring to the work as 'tiresome' and saying that Berkeley's two previous operas were more engaging.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Recent CD reviews

My review of Ockeghem's Missa de plus en plus from the Orlando Consort on Brilliant Classics is here.

A superb recording of the mass and if you can live with the chansons, then I would go for it.

And my review of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Bergamo on Naxos is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Too much of a danger that you will listen to it and wonder what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Recent CD Review


My review of Hummel's opera Mathilde de Guise, released on Brilliant Classics, is here, on MusicWeb International.

At Brilliant’s budget price, highly recommendable for anyone interested in what was happening to German opera in the period between Beethoven and Wagner.

Friday, 5 November 2010

New Mailing List

I am trying out new mailing list software, this comes with a web-form sign-up, so if you are not already on my mailing list then here you are:-








Saturday, 30 October 2010

Winner of the 2010 Ferrier Awards

On Thursday night we were privileged to attend a private recital by Njabulo Madlala, the winner of the 2010 Ferrier Awards. Incidentally the awards will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kathleen Ferrier's birth in 2012.

Madlala, with accompanist James Baillieu, started with a group of Duparc songs. I must admit that I prefer these songs in the female voice, but Madlala's lovely baritone and nuanced way with the music had me convinced. He followed with a Schumann group which included a thrilling account of Belsazzar and a wonderfully narrative Die Beiden Grenadier. A group of Spirituals closed the first half.

The second half opened with a Strauss group. If a male voice singing Duparc is tricky, then male voices singing Richard Strauss is well nigh impossible. I heard Dieskau do en entire Strauss recital, and that never convinced me. Madlala's sheer passion and commitment brought off the first three songs, Zueignung, Allerseelen, Heimliche Aufforderung in a stunning manner. Morgen was less successful, Strauss gives the male voice an impossible task having to come in an octave lower than the long instrumental solo in the songs opening. But I have to admit that my companion felt that song worked well and that I was being too picky.

These were followed by an English group. A pair of Vaughan Williams songs and a pair of Butterworth, given evocative performances. Madlala has a lovely open personality which infused all the songs that he sang. But this really came to the fore in the final group of songs, all traditional songs from his native South Africa. An entrancing end to a lovely recital. Madlala is definitely a name to look out for.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Alice Coote and the English Concert

Alice Coote's recital the the Wigmore Hall, on Wednesday 27th, with the English Concert directed by Harry Bicket, was a slightly uneasy mixture of vocal items. It was one of those programmes which seemed to have been constructed on the basis of 'things I'd like to sing' rather than a coherent narrative. So that Coote started with Monteverdi's Lamento di Arianna and then went on to sing a pair of Dowland songs before finishing with Handel's cantata La Lucrezia. In between these items the English Concert offered us Vivaldi's Sonata La Folia, Vivaldi's violin Concerts Il Grosso Mogul and a Vivaldi Cello concerto.

Now Coote is one of those singers who has managed to hang on to her period performance strand whilst still running an impressive career singing Strauss, Elgar and co. And when she performs it is never less than interesting, never. Her way with Monteverdi's Lament was mesmerising, detailed and large scale. She was accompanied by a substantial continuo group which included two fretted instruments, a harp, cello, double bass plus keyboard. The result was thrilling and vivid, but perhaps a little big boned.

Coote's way with the music was in fact so vivid, that you can't imagine her sustaining such a level of detail throughout an entire opera. And there is a case her for 'less is more'. This was definitely the case with the Dowland, where Coote seemed in danger of overshadowing her accompanist, William Carter. But it was in Handel's cantata that her approach brought immense dividends, actually using the music to drive the drama you almost felt that Coote was in danger of committing suicide herself. This was a coruscating performance. Can't someone persuade a record company to record this singer in Handel cantata's before her voice gets too big for the repertoire.

Before the concert started Coote was announced as having only recently recovered from 'flu but there seemed happily no sign of this in her singing.

The English Concert opened with the Vivaldi sonata in a thrilling performance led by Rachel Podger. And Podger shone even more in the cascades of notes which Vivaldi provides in his violin concerto, her performed with the surviving cadenzas so that we had an even closer idea of what it might be like to hear Vivaldi himself playing.
Jonathan Manson was the elegant soloist in the Vivaldi cello concerto.

After all the tumult of Handel's cantata had died down, the English Concert sent us home, toes tapping, with a delightful account of Pachelbel's Canon

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Piazolla

Last night we attended a wonderful private recital by the Amor Quintet who play music by Astor Piazolla. They gave us a preview of their programme for their concert at St. James's Piccadilly, London on Thursday 28th October and they return to St. James's on 22nd December.

The quintet consists of Nikolai Ryskov - accordion, Anne-Marie Curran - violin, Gabriele Faja - piano, Milton Mermikides - guitar and Sam Ryan - double bass. The group plays Piazolla's original music rather than arrangements. They give wonderfully vivid and infectious performances, underlying which goes a great deal of artistry and virtuosity.

Their web-site has a sample of their playing and if you go to one of their concerts you'll be able to buy their first CD.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

When a Man Knows he needs Friends


As part of the run up to the performances next year of my opera When a Man Knows we have launched our friends scheme, When a Man knows he needs Friends, to encourage those interested to help support the performances of the opera.

There is more information here in an attractive pdf

Rare Rossini

As a complete contrast to the Lachenmann weekend at London's South Bank Centre, you can also visit the same venue this evening to hear a concert performance of Rossini's opera Aureliano in Palmira. Conducted by Maurizio Benini, a strong cast includes Catriona Smith, Kenneth Tarver, Silvia Trio Santafe and Andrew Foster Williams. The opera dates from 1813 and was premiered at La Scala, Milan. It comes between Tancredi, L'Italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia. The role of Arsace was written for the castrato Velluti, the last of the great castrati. He also created the role of Armando in Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto. In 1826 he took over the management of the Kings Theatre in London and appeared there in Aureliano. But after this the opera seems to have fallen into obscurity until the first modern revival in 1980.
The concert is at 7.00pm at the Royal Festival Hall.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann at the South Bank Centre

Having devoted weekends to modernist composers such as Stockhausen, Messiaen, Nono, Xenakis, Berio, and Varèse the South Bank Centre are now turning their attention to Helmut Lachenmann. Now I must confess that Lachenmann's name is relatively unknown to me but his music is described as musique concrète instrumentale which is a term I've come across. In his music he uses instrumental sounds to emulate electronic music and has invented a wealth of techniques for instruments to use; naturally his music places strong demands on the players.

The South Bank Centre are devoting 2 days to Lachenmann. On Saturday 23rd October there are two concerts of his chamber music, along with a discussion between Lachenmann (now 75) and Ivan Hewett. Then on Sunday 24th October, the London Sinfonietta, under Brad Lubman give a concert of Lachenmann's orchestral music with pianist Rolf Hind.

The weekend presents a rare opportunity to get to know some of Lachenmann's music and enter the 'uncharted sonic realms free of habits of typical concert music' which it promises.

Saturday 23 October 2010: Queen Elizabeth Hall
Lachenmann Chamber Music Day
Tickets: £9–15

3PM – Arditti String Quartet
Lachenmann String Quartet No. 1, Gran Torso
Lachenmann String Quartet No. 3, Grido

4.15PM – Helmut Lachenmann discusses his music with journalist Ivan Hewett

5.30PM – Sarah Leonard (soprano), Rolf Hind (piano), Oliver Coates (cello)
Lachenmann Got Lost for soprano & piano
Lachenmann Pression for solo cello
Lachenmann Dal Niente for solo clarinet

Sunday 24 October 2010: Royal Festival Hall,
7.30PM - London Sinfonietta, Brad Lubman (conductor), Rolf Hind (piano)
Lachenmann Ausklang for piano & orchestra
Lachenmann Schreiben


If you are curious about Lachenmann's music then you can find some examples on his spotify playlist http://open.spotify.com/user/southbankcentre/playlist/4al6RuLlCOHngSAkPut8vo

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the re-issue of the 1989 Kings College, Cambridge recording of Spem in alium is here.

An admirable re-issue and if you don’t already have a copy, go out and buy it at once.

And my review of a disc of sonatas by Giovanni Vitali is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Full of liveliness and charm.

Monday, 18 October 2010

CD Review

William Grant Still:Danzas de Panama for String Quartet
Antonin Dvorak: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 (American)
Samuel Barber: String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11
George Gerswhin: Lullaby for String Quartet
Serafin String Quartet
Centaur CRC 3050

The Serafin Quartet are a young American group who made their debut in 2004. The group's name comes from the 18th century violin maker, Sanctus Serfin, who made violinist Kate Ransom's violin. The group's line up is democratic, with both Kate Ransom and Timothy Schwarz taking turns as first violin. The remaining line up consists of Ana Tsinadze, viola, and Lawrence Stomberg, cello.

They have just released their first commercial CD on the Centaur label. This consists of an interesting programme which explores might make an American quartet, with works by William Grant Still, Dvorak, Samuel Barber and George Gershwin. This programme formed the core of the quartet's visit to London in September when they gave a recital at St. John's Smith Square.

The group open with William Grant Still's Danzas de Panama, a 4 movement suite for string quartet based on traditional melodies collected by Elisabeth Waldo. The cultural influences range from music of African Slaves to Spanish-Indian. Though Grant Still calls for some imaginative drum type beats, where the instrumentalist beats on the body of the instrument, the work is by and large quite traditional. Whereas in El Salon Mexico Aaron Copland (2 years younger than Grant Still) takes you physically into the Mexican dance hall, Grant Still is very much based in the salon or drawing room. His well-made arrangements are attractive and light, but they feel rather conventional and sanitised compared to Copland. But Grant Still's music is a relative rareity in the catalogue and the Serafin Quartet give his suite a lively and infectious performance.

They follow this with Dvorak's American Quartet, written in 1893 in response to meeting up with Czech immigrants in Iowa. Though the work does hint at Dvorak's inspirations in the New World, much of the piece is still based in Dvorak's old Czech world. The Serafin Quartet play with a pleasing melodiousness and a lightness of touch, but there were times when I would have liked more of an element of darkness to creep in. Theirs is a fine, slim tone, with a good emphasis on musical line. The Lento movement comes over particularly well, with some lovely singing lines. In the final Vivace, the group provide some nice perky rhythms, but you would not mistake them for a Czech group.

It is difficult to listen to Barber's Quartet (his only essay in the medium) without your listening being distorted by the subsequent fame the second movement found, independent of the Quartet, as the Adagio for Strings. In fact all three movements seems to struggle with the quartet medium and I did wonder what the quartet would sound like played by string orchestra. The entire work is a consciously retro piece, seeming to exist in an entirely different 1936 to reality. The opening movement is a big, old fashioned Romantic statement. Here the group's technical control remains admirable, but their sound just needs to be fatter. Barber's big, bold, passionate music calls for more experience of life than these youngsters seem to be able to give just yet. But the adagio is giving a poignant and sensitive reading, Barber's long, elegant lines shining beautifully. The final Molto Allegro, is a short almost perfunctory movement. It is fascinating to hear the Adagio in its original context; but as a complete work I wasn't quite so sure.

Finally, we get a delightful bon bouche, Gershwin's Lullaby for String Quartet, dating from 1919 and giving a fresh and charming reading by the Serafin Quartet.

This is a fascinating disc, showing 3 American composers all trying to come to terms, in their different ways, with the very European medium of the quartet. And a European showing how the New World could cross fertilise with the old. This is a highly impressive debut from the Serafin Quartet.

Joan Sutherland

My history with Joan Sutherland is one of more missed opportunities than stunning performances.

I first saw her perform live at a recital, with Richard Bonynge at the piano, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in the 1970's. She looked very memorable, wearing what appeared to be a wrap-around, lime green dressing gown. And there was certainly no question over her technique, nor the ability to fill the Free Trade Hall with personality. The problem was that what we really wanted to hear was her operatic repertoire and the selection of Italian songs seemed to be very definitely second choice. In my memory, the only time that the evening really came alive was when she sang a selection from Offenbach's La Perichole.

Until 1981 I lived out of London (in Manchester and then in Scotland) and failed to get tickets for the Sutherland performances (such as her Maria Stuarda) that I tried to attend, though truth to tell, I probably didn't try too hard. So this means that the first time I heard La Stupenda in an opera was in 1983 when she sang the title role in Massenet's Esclarmonde. By 1983 Sutherland was in her late 50's, and not really in her prime. The performance was compromised by a security alert, when we all had to troop out of the opera house, mid-act. So if the performance was less than inspiring, there were mitigating circumsances. And, of course, Esclarmonde is hardly one of Massenet's strongest operas.

The final time I saw her was in Anna Bolena, also at Covent Garden in 1988. This was far stronger, both the role and the music seemed far more aligned to Sutherland's strengths at the period. Though we had to put up with a rather strange interval disposition, possibly to help the ageing diva.

Perhaps I should have gone to see one of her late Lucias at Covent Garden, which all got good reviews. But I was wary of hearing a soprano in the latter end of her career in such a role, preferring the Sutherland recorded in her prime to the live version in later years. Now, of course, I regret the decision greatly. That said, I still find it difficult to tie up some of the glowing reviews from her late career, with the actual sound I heard both live (in 1988) and from broadcasts.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Celebrating Grainger

20th February 2011 will be the 50th anniversary of Percy Grainger's death and there are going to be a number of celebrations. There is a seminar on 20th February at the British Library, with the launch of a new Grainger Companion edited by Penelope Thwaites.

Plus a concert series at Kings Place, running from 17th February 2011 to 19th February. The concerts explore the full range of Grainger's work, ranging from folk song arrangements and pioneering editions of renaissance choral music, to The Warriors, an amazing piece which is described as music for an imaginary ballet. This will be performed at the concert on Saturday 19th February, in a fascinating programme which includes Grainger's arrangements of Javanese and Indian music, along with his versions of Mexican folk-songs collected by Natalie Curtis-Burlin

THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY
6.00pm BAND BLAST-OFF Wind and Brass Ensembles, Guildhall saxophones & recorders
7.30pm THE HARMONIOUS SONGSMITH Addison Singers, cond. David Wordsworth, Stephen Varcoe, Penelope Thwaites, & Special Guest, Yvonne Kenny

FRIDAY 18 FEBRUARY
6.00pm PERCY GRAINGER AND THE PIANOLA Michael Broadway incl. Grainger himself playing
7.30pm WIND BAND SPECTACULAR The Royal Artillery Band, conductor, Maj. Neil Morgan

SATURDAY 19 FEBRUARY
1.30pm ROOM-MUSIC GEMS The Fitzwilliam String Quartet & friends
2.30pm SING GRAINGER Choral workshop for audience and choirs
4.45pm Experimenting with Grainger The “Electric Eye Tone Tool” & the Theremin
7.30pm EAST MEETS WEST Grainger Elastic Band, cond Roger Montgomery, Fitzwilliam Quartet, multi-pianos, Penelope Thwaites, John Lavender, Grainger Singers.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Promised End

Alexander Goehr's new opera Promised End was much anticipated. Based on Shakespeare's King Lear and announced by Goehr to be his last opera (he is 78), the work received its first performance on Saturday 9th October at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio by English Touring Opera.

The libretto for Goehr's opera was taken directly from Shakespeare. Sir Frank Kermode, who died in August, had assembled a digest of the play which they reduced to some 24 scenes. Unlike Ades's The Tempest, Goehr decided to use Shakespeare's words directly and had evidently spent a lot of time declaiming the words before setting them.

The result was compact (two acts of just 45 minutes each) and direct, with the vocal line concentrating on a declamatory sense of the words. The problem seemed to be that the music scarcely had time to take hold. The scenes were all short and the opera seemed to be less than King Lear and more a sort of commentary on it. You probably needed to know the play to make sense of the opera. There didn't seem to be much space for the music to register or for the singers to develop character.

It didn't help that the diction was patchy so that not all the words came over. Roderick Earle's Lear was fine in the slower passages but some of the swifter (and important) dialogue got lost. But Julia Sporsen and Jacqueline Varsey as Regan and Goneril seemed to be unable to get much in the way of words across at all. A contributory factor may have been that the orchestra (the Aurora Orchestra) was placed at the back of the stage, with the singers in front, rather than being in a pit. Goehr's orchestration was lively and imaginative, but included 2 tubas, 2 trumpets and 2 horns.

The action in James Conway's production all took place in a relatively narrow strip at the front of the stage, with a setting consisting of some flexible screens and a podium which started off as Lear's throne and went on to double as the blasted heath and Olt Tom's hovel. In fact the acting area seemed rather cramped, especially as the entire cast remained on stage at all times and formed a sort of chorus, commenting on the action.

The cast all turned in strong performances and gave Conway's rather Noh-inspired production their full committment. Despite the generalised western european medieval costumes (designer Adam Wiltshire), the cast had white makeup, bare-feet and used a sand-box when walking onto the acting area.

But strong as the performances were, everything seemed to be over in a flash. No sooner had you struggled to comprehend what the singers were saying (no surtitles), than the scene was over. I felt that some of the strongest and most memorable moments were in the orchestral interludes. Only fleetingly did the sung music manage to achieve any sort of telling memorability, notably in Lina Markeby's accounts of the Fools songs (the roles of the Fool and Cordelia were doubled). The biggest failing seemed to be the lack of any strong emotional pull in the role of Lear, despite Earle's sterling work.

Nigel Robson was a noble Gloucester with Adrian Dwyer and Nicholas Garrett as his sons. Their plotting came off best, perhaps because Garrett was adept at conveying much by simple body language and Dwyer was the most incisive in getting the words over.

The Aurora Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth made a strong orchestral contribution.

I had been looking forward to this opera for some time and was profoundly disappointed that it did not have a stronger effect on me. The Brechtian cast of the work meant that I admired it rather than loved it; the piece was a voyage around Lear rather than being Lear.

Review of Radamisto

My review of the new production of Radamisto at the London Coliseum, is here on Music and Vision(subscription site).

Monday, 11 October 2010

Barber and Elgar


Tomorrow night (Tuesday October 12th), the Salomon Orchestra under conductor Dominic Grier give a programme devoted to Elgar and to Barber at St. Johns Smith Square in London. In addition to Barber's Adagio the orchestra are performing his Essay No. 2 for Orchestra ; concise single movement work lasting just 11 minutes which received its first performance in 1942. The concert concludes with Elgar's First Symphony and opens with his arrangement of a Bach Prelude and Fugue.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

On Thursday we attended the first night of Radamisto at the London Coliseum, a review will follow shortly. But the production did set me wondering about the effects of production sharing on the production styles. Radamisto was created for Santa Fe, a festival in the USA which has the reputation for interesting choices of repertoire. But, as we learned when we visited there, the audience still needs introducing carefully to rarities. And, of course, in many places Handel is still quite a rarity. You felt that director David Alden was at some pains to create an attractive stage product, that he only touched the work lightly. That if he'd been working only for ENO then the production would have been rather darker and less fun as Alden could rely more on carrying the audience with him, as ENO audiences have become accustomed both to his style and to Handelian opera seria. The production of the opera at Opera North,in 1999/2000 with Emma Bell, Alice Coote and David Walker, directed by Tim Hopkins, seemed to more successfully present the work's essential seriousness and darkness.

We have not seen the new ENO Faust yet (we see it next week), but at least 1 review has said that the production seems marooned mid-Atlantic, not dramatic and daring enough for the Coliseum and not elaborate enough for the Met (with whom it is shared). But I suppose that, in this economic climate, we'll have to put up with these compromises.
Last night we attended a private recital given by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist Simon Crawford-Philips. In a wide-ranging programme they gave us Handel's Sonata in D, Beethoven's Sonata Op. 30 no. 2, Delius's Sonata in B and Debussy's Sonata. One of the fascinating things that the recital pointed up was the difference and relationship between the violin and accompanying instrument over the period. Handel was born 85 years before Beethoven, Delius and Debussy were both born 92 years after Beethoven, a strikingly neat spacing of material. Perhaps the Debussy and Delius sonatas need to be rather more lived-in than these performances were, Waley-Cohen has the technique and style but not quite discovered the essence of these pieces, something that comes only gradually.

Earlier this year, at the same venue, we heard a performance of a Vivaldi violin concerto called Il Gran Mogul, so I rather did wonder about the relationship between this concerto and the recently discovered Flute concerto by Vivaldi of the same name.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Eton College Choir's disc of French sacred music, including the Messe Solonnelle by Jean Langlais, is here.

Well worth investigating

And my review of Handel's Berenice from Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco is here. Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Plenty of interest here. An intelligently balanced performance which certainly does the piece justice.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Thou, O Christ

The choir of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate (London EC2M), conductor Timothy Storey, will be giving a performance of my anthem Thou, O Christ during the service at 1.10pm today. The anthem is a setting of words by St. Symeon the new Theologian whose feast occurs around this time.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Review of Madam Butterfly

My review of Grange Park Opera's performance of Madam Butterfly at London's Cadogan Hall is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Monday, 4 October 2010

Papal visit

It was heartening that the Papal visit included a number of pieces by James Macmillan. His Mass of John Henry Newman was commissioned for the visit and was heard at the open-air masses in Glasgow and in Birmingham; the mass is a congregational one, being scored for cantor, congregation and organ with optional SATB Choir, brass and timpani.

You can see the Papal mass at Westminster Cathedral here, it opens with a wonderfully loud Introit by James MacMillan.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Festival Hall

I must confess that we originally booked tickets for the Philharmonia Orchestra's performance on Sunday of Tristan und Isolde, purely on the basis that Christine Brewer was to sing Isolde. In the event Brewer withdrew and was replaced by Violeta Urmana and the concert performance gained the added attraction of the Bill Viola videos designed for Peter Sellers production of the opera seen in LA and Paris.

As it happened, we were sitting at the side of the stalls so we did not have an optimal view, we could either see the soloists or the videos, but not both at the same time. Those sitting in the centre of the stalls would have seen the soloists with the video looming behind.

Though this was a concert performance, the singers were off the book and some attempts were made at entrances and exits and character interaction. Additionally much use was made of the RFH itself with many of the smaller solos coming from different parts of the hall. Some of this worked well such as having Tristan (Gary Lehman) and Kurwenal (Jukka Rasilainen) standing on the balcony above the stage during Act 1. But at other times this felt contrived, as in Act 2 for Tristan's entrance when Lehman and Urmana had to greet each other across the full width of the RFH stalls.

This was a very vivid urgent performance, thanks to the superb playing from the Philharmonia Orchestra with conductor Esa-Peka Salonen keeping the music moving. This Tristan und Isolde never felt fast, but it flowed along, a far cry from the magical stasis that some conductors aim for. Under Salonen's baton the Prelude wasn't quite in a slow 2, but was definitely in a defined tempo.

When I last heard Urmana, the top of her voice seemed a little unstable under pressure as if the move to soprano repertoire had still not settled. There were no such problems here. She sang Isolde with a wonderfully clear bright tone. She was clearly managing her voice, but this paid off as she seemed tireless, giving the closing Liebestod the same vividness she brought to the opening.

That said, I found Urmana a rather placid artist; one perhaps who needs a fully staged production with an enlivening producer, to give her most. She seemed at her best in Act 1, when her account of Isolde's curse was terrific (memories of Gwyneth Jones) and her dialogues with Lehman's Tristan fairly crackled.

But in the love duet her leisurely sensuality seemed to whip itself into erotic frenzy rather too late. And I have rarely heard the Liebestod so beautifully sung, but it didn't wring the withers the way it should.

Gary Lehman was quite a find as Tristan. Granted, we were sitting quite close to him in the RFH, so it is difficult to judge how his voice would sound if you were sitting in the gods of the Royal Opera House. But he seemed tireless and you never felt that he was obviously husbanding resources; like Urmana he managed to start just as he finished.

Lehman seems to be vivid artist and with the help of a producer could create a striking Tristan. Even in this semi-staged version he was eminently watchable, obviously thinking about his character. His closing scene was notable for the way he conveyed Tristan's delirium. That said, I did wish he had taken a few more risks at this point, his singing lacked danger.

Jukka Rasilainen was an ideal Kurwenal, a bluff soldierly presence who conveyed his car for his master. I'd like to encounter him on stage as he conveyed much even with the minimal resources available to him.

Anne Sofie von Otter was effective as Brangäne. If that sounds grudging it is because I have always thought it a pig of a part. Von Otter did what was needed of her, sang with warm tones and dramatic impetus.

I think that Matthew Best was a good King Marke. But I find the role to be a prosy bore and Best didn't quite convince me otherwise. The remaining cast, Stephen Gadd as Melot, Joshua Ellicott as the Shepherd and the Sailor, Darren Jeffrey as the helmsman were all well cast.

As for the accompanying video, it was at best a fascinating commentary and at worst a distraction. For me, it failed to achieve the status of parallel work of art to which it seemed to aspire. The generalised images, the sea at the opening of Act 1, the later images of forest, sunset etc., were evocative. The closing images of the dead Tristan were astonishing, the watery images of Tristan and Isolde were evocative but verging on the disquieting when the young couple (in Act 2) appeared to drown themselves.

But a major miscalculation was the sequence during Isolde's curse in Act 1. Viola had set this as purification, with the couple disrobing and being anointed with water, certainly not what the act is about. More serious, during Isolde's curse, when Urmana was at her most vivid, she was juxtaposed with images of the man and woman removing the last vestiges of clothing and standing naked - a profound and unnecessary distraction which did nothing to enhance the music.

The Philharmonia Orchestra filled the stage and played with gusto, quite a challenge for the singers. In face there were few balance problems. And the close of Act 1, with the extra trumpets at the back of the stalls and the chorus in the balcony was the most exciting I have ever heard.

This was one of the most beautifully sung and played accounts of Tristan und Isolde that I have heard in a long time. I do hope that Salonen and the orchestra manage to get one of the live performances to CD as it deserves to be heard again.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Oliver's Euridice

My review of British Youth Opera's performance of Stephen Oliver's Euridice is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of music for the Feast of St. Peter from Westminster Abbey is here on MusicWeb International.

Not showy; instead you really feel that you are eavesdropping on a genuine liturgical event.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Singapore Symphony Orchestra



The Singapore Symphony Orchestra are making their first visit to the UK since 1991. Their concert feature's Debussy's La Mer, Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead and a piece by Zhou Long. But the main reason for featuring it here is that the orchestra are releasing their recording of Mahler 10 on DVD so we get to play a preview of it.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Steffani's Niobe at Covent Garden

Agostino Steffani was born some 30 years before Handel. A native of Italy but with a career based in Germany, he wrote a body of operas for the courts of Munich and Hanover before devoting his life to diplomacy and the church. Handel knew him and admired his music; Steffani may have helped get Handel his first job in Hanover.

Steffani's operas mix Italian and French styles. His training took him to Italy but he spent time in France absorbing the local musical mores; so that many of his arias utilise French dance forms. Covent Garden's production of Steffani's Niobe (written 1688) was designed by Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, directed by Lukas Hemleb; it was originally seen at the Schwetzingen Festival and is being seen in a revised version at Covent Garden and Luxembourg. Thomas Hengelbrock directed his own period instrument ensemble the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in the pit.

The problem with Niobe was simply its length. Act 1 lasted 85 minutes. Acts 2 and 3 had been cut so that combined they lasted 95 minutes. But, as far as I could tell, the cuts almost rendered the drama incoherent and reminded me of some of the drastic, drama inhibiting pruning that happened to some of Handel's later librettos. In the event, the evening started at 6.30pm, and finished at 9.4pm, so Covent Garden should have had the courage of their convictions and given us a 2nd interval and 20 minutes more music.

Steffani's arias are generally short and frequent (around 60 in a typical opera). His orchestration is lively and interesting, keeping the textures varied and moving. His operas need display, but his music matches this in inspiration so I was constantly being surprised and charmed.

A contributing factor to the opera's length was the sheer number of characters. They divided into three distinct groups, whose interactions fluctuated during the evening.

First there was Anfione, King of Thebes (Jacek Lazsczkowski) and his wife Niobe (Veronique Gens). Anfione has decided to retire from ruling and brings in Clearte (Tim Mead) to help Niobe rule. Clearte has been hiding in the wilds trying to forget his love for Niobe. Niobe's nurse Nerea (Delphine Galou) was the only comic character, injecting wry comments into the proceedings.

Then there was Tiberino (Lothar Odinius), son of the King of Alba and general he-man and warrior, who intends to attack Thebes. He kills a monster thus saving the life of Manto (Amanda Forsythe), priestess of Latona and daughter of Tiresia (Bruna Taddia), blind seer and high priest of Latona.

Finally there is the magician Poliferno (Alastair Miles), whose sister and brother-in-law were the previous King and Queen of Thebes and were killed by Anfione. Poliferno wants to be revenged on Anfione so he uses his black arts on Creonte, Prince of Thessaly (Iestyn Davies) so that Creonte desires Niobe and will do anything to get her.

Tiberino and Manto spent the entire opera havering before declaring their love. After Niobe and Anfione, Tiberino and Manto got the other significant share of air time and, frankly, we rather got tired of them and longed for them to get on with it. Similarly Clearte never does tell Niobe of his love for her.

In one astonishing scene, Anfione in retreat in the Palace of Harmony sings hauntingly of the music of the spheres, here Lazsczkowski's high counter-tenor, Steffani's gorgeous music and Bauer's designs combined into something special. Then, when Tiberino attacks Thebes, Anfione's singing raises Thebes walls.

In Act 2 Poliferno's arts create an artificial heaven (more stage spectacular) and he disguises Creonte as Mars so he can seduce Niobe - cue for more lovely music combining with spectacular stage pictures.

When order is restored, Tiberino and Manto give thanks to the goddess Latone (no, given that Tiberino was attacking Thebes, I've no idea how he comes to be celebrating his marriage in Thebes). In a fit of amazing hubris, Niobe declares that Latone's shrine should be pulled down and that people should revere her and Anfione as gods on earth. In retribution the Gods bring down fire and kill Niobe's children, Anfione commits suicide as a result. Niobe's tears flow and she turns to stone. Cleonte banishes Poliferno and becomes king of Thebes.

So, are you still with me?

Veronique Gens was a wonderful Niobe, definitely worth the visit just for her. Initially she seemed the heroine, in love with her husband and children. But we gradually detect other aspects to the character including her hubris and pride. Furious as being duped by Poliferno's magic, Gens conveyed the myriad facets of the character, though never made her likeable.

As her husband, Anfione, Lazsczkowski sang with a voice which went up beyond the stave. A remarkable voice, the very upper register was clear, pure and rather alarming, but the middle was cloudy and rather hollow and badly integrated to his chesty lower voice. In the high, lyrical passages you could be entrance, but in the lower lying dialogues and the faster bravura sections, he was less than impressive. Typically such high lying flasetto voices are not large and it was to Lazsczkowski's credit that, at his best, he filled the hall with such beauty.

Tim Mead's Clearte was a semi-comic role, as his character had to spend the opera never quite daring to tell Niobe that he loved her. Odinius's Tiberino was presented as a simple strong man (and he seemed to have no visible army). He and Amanda Forsythe were charming and lovely at first, but frankly I got a bit fed up with them. Taddia's playing of the blind Tiresia was impressive, combining a fine passionately focussed voice with an impressive ability to walk into furniture.

I did wonder whether Nerea should have been played by a man; if this had been a Venetian opera then she would have been. Anyway Delphine Galou was suitably acerbic and amusingly pert in the role, puncturing posturing nicely.

Alistair Miles and Iestyn Davies seemed to suffer rather in the costume department and Poliverno's magic seemed to consist of a giant amorphous blob which followed him about. Still, Davies got to sing a beautiful scene with Gens and he came out on top at the end.

Steffani's operas call for lots of stage effects. Hemleb and Bauer created some brilliant ones in a modern idiom. Good use was made of a mirrored back-drop which created some beautiful effects. This was a staging which was a feast for the eyes but you never felt that Hemleb was struggling to find another trick in order to keep us entertained. The production flowed nicely and Hemleb wasn't afraid of doing nothing. Moments like Anfione's moving scene when he thinks he has lost Niobe were played on a bare open stage.

After the unimpressive Tamerlano earlier this year, it was good to see and hear a baroque opera done well at Covent Garden. Crucially Hemleb kept his singers well forward at all important moments, there was not question here of the set swallowing sound. My only real complaint about the production (cutting apart) was that Hemleb seemed to have ignored the French influence in the piece. There were many moments when Steffani's music seemed to call for dance, real formal dancing, and this was not provided. Instead we had a couple of quasi-comic dance interludes which seemed entirely wrong in tone.

I can't say I found Niobe a forgotten masterpiece. But it was certainly a fascinating and important work, one I would love to encounter again.

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