Friday 28 May 2010

Review of The Tales of Hoffmann (Paris Opera)

Robert Carsen's production of The Tales of Hoffmann for the Paris Opera dates from 2000 and has, so far, received 44 performances. We saw it on Wednesday 26th May, towards the end of the current run. The production seems to have been designed to show off the technical prowess of the Bastille theatre, something it does brilliantly without impeding the drama. The theatre uses the grand opera version of the piece, with sung recitative rather than spoken dialogue. Something to be expected in an international house, but a disappointment all the same, especially as so many of the cast were French.

The edition used was the basic Choudens one, with the addition of a number of extra pieces. The Venice act was correctly placed at the end. The role of the Muse/Niklausse was the one to benefit most, with a number of additions including numbers for the Muse at the opening and close.

In the programme book, dramaturg Alain Patrick Olivier was dismissive of the more recent attempts at reconstruction of the work. Certainly Tales of Hoffmann does need a firm editorial hand if the performance is not to sprawl. But in one respect the version used in Paris is no more successful than many others; the end of the Venice act remained dramatically unconvincing and musically weak, something of a damp squib. It is here that we might hope that the various sketches that have been discovered might shed light on a more musically satisfying conclusion.

Paris included both Scintille Diamant and the sextet in Act 3. Neither are by Offenbach but both are so well known that it is difficult to omit them.

Carsen and his designer, Michael Levine, opened the prologue on the wide open spaces of the empty stage. Hoffmann (Giuseppe Filianoti) slumped at the front of the stage, was addressed by his Muse (Ekaterina Gubanova). Carsen failed to address the twinning of Niklausse and the Muse, neither at the beginning nor at the end did we see the one transformed into the other.

Then came a coup de theatre, the entire set for an act of Don Giovanni passed before our eyes. Mozart's opera is the one being sung by Stella, Hoffmann's current love. And it is the entire context for Carsen's production, each act took place in and around the theatre playing the production. The remainder of the scene with Lindorf (Franck Ferrari) took place as if in the wings of the opera.

Then, for the entry of the chorus, another coup. A bar (of the drinking variety) rises from the stage, we are behind it with Luther (Alain Vernhes) and his waiters as they serve the chorus crowding to get a drink. A very neat solution to the problem of creating a degree of intimacy in this scene.

The chorus had one or two moments of bad ensemble, there was much stage movement and Jesus Lopez Cobos's conducting was perhaps more relaxed than it could have been.

Each of the subsequent acts was set in different parts of the theatre. For Act 1 we were backstage during a performance of Don Giovanni with the chorus dressed in the requisite Spanish costumes and some of the action played as if part of the opera with Spalanzani (Rudolphe Briand) as a demented back-stage technician.

For Act 2 were were in the orchestral pit with the stage, complete with curtains and set, towering above us. Dr Miracle (Franck Ferrari) was a demented conductor, Crespel (Alain Vernhes) an orchestral violinist and Inva Mula his daughter Antonia. her mother (Cornelia Oncion) appeared as Donna Anna on the upper stage.

For the Venice act we were on the stage looking out over the auditorium, whose seats swayed in time to the music of the barcarolle. Carsen solved the problem of the Barcarolle by having Niklausse and Giulietta (Beatrice Uria-Monzon) sing it as if Niklausse is hearing Giulietta's lines; at least Niklausse has a score and Giulietta does not. The Barcarolle is a problem because having Niklausse sing it is not dramatically coherent, he's trying to get Hoffmann away not hymning the delights of love (or lust). In fact, allocating the part to Niklausse happened simply because it had to go to the important singers!

Here Dapertutto (Franck Ferrari) was a demented director rehearsing his cast. Despite weak dramaturgy of this act, it made it work. Then finally for the epilogue we were back on an empty stage. There was no transformation, the Muse just appeared, which was quite a significant loss.

Franck Ferrari played the 4 villains and played them very creditably. He wasn't always comfortable in the higher passages but he coped well and certainly did not resort to barking. He was not quite mad enough for me in the guise of Dr. Miracle, but his performance had a certain cumulative power.

Leonard Pezzino gave sterling support in the 4 character tenor roles and showed a nice sense of comedy. Rodolphe Brian was the nicely batty professor Spalanzani. With Alain Vernhes doublng Luther (patron of the bar) and Crespel.

The soprano roles were split between 3 singers. Laura Aiken was Olympia, entering into the doll antics with a will (and a great sense of fun) but displaying some rather hard toned coloratura. Inva Mula made an attractive Antonia. This is rather a wet part and the singer needs all her skill to make us care about her. Mulva did, just, though her tone was occasionally less than ravishing. Finally Beatrice Uria-Monzon was a wonderfully glamorous Giulietta. The silent role of Stella was not credited.

Giuseppe Filianoti gave a towering performance as Hoffmann. Granted his tone did not always bloom at the solo moments and he did sound tired towards the end of Act 3. But he gave us a lively, attractive and highly personable Hoffmann, and entered into all the antics required with a will.

Perhaps he needs to learn a little from Alfredo Kraus, another lyric tenor who sang Hoffmann very successfully. Like Kraus, Filianoti should not try to push his voice towards the more fuller tones produced by Domingo. Kraus knew that in some roles, less is more.

Filianoti was charming and lively, but I have kept the best to last. Ekaterina Gubanova was just wonderful as Niklauss. She sang with flexibility and sense, moulding the line and she kept a knowing twinkle in her eye and voice when singing Niklausse. She is coming back to Covent Garden in The Tsar's Bride but on this showing I want to see her in more lyric roles.

Jesus Lopez Cobos's direction was neat and perhaps just a shade to undemonstrative. But he kept everything flowing and, in an opera where things can drag, made the work flow nicely.

Saturday 22 May 2010

When a Man knows

This week, I thought, was going be devoted just to tying up loose end for the first performance of my opera When a Man Knows on June 13th; sorting out the programme and that sort of thing. But there have been more exciting things going on. On Friday I was interviewed by Classical Music Magazine for their premiere of the Fortnight column. So watch out for the next issue due out in 2 weeks time.

Add to this we have been offered a spot at the Tete-a-Tete opera festival at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith in August. So we will be on the road again, performing the opera on August 21st. Watch this space!

Friday 21 May 2010

Recent CD Review

My review of Caroline Sampson's recital Not Just Dowland on Wigmore Hall Live, is here.
Riches to be found here …

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Rutland Boughton

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Rutland Boughton. Unlike 2008, which saw an immense resurgence in performances of music by RVW as a result of the 50th anniversary of his death, the response to the Boughton anniversary has been more muted.

The Rutland Boughton Music Trust are organising a number of events, mainly related to song, chamber music and orchestral pieces. But Boughton was a notable opera composer and it is his operas which seem to be missing from the schedules this year. Why no performance of The Immortal Hour at the Proms?

The good news is that there are tentative plans to produce a commercial recording of The Queen of Cornwall, based on a play by Thomas Hardy

Monday 17 May 2010

Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers

Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, with its libretto by Auden and Kalman, has not had much exposure recently. A rather puzzling lack which is perhaps explained by the work's slightly awkward hovering between comedy and tragedy. It was admirable of ENO to choose it for their most recent collaboration with the Young Vic (seen on Saturday May 8th, apologies for this late posting). Fiona Shaw's confident production ensured that the performance went far beyond the admirable and turned into something gripping.

The Young Vic is not an ideal space for opera and whilst Shaw's production (in designs by Tom Pye) ensured that best use was made of the space, it left the small orchestra (24 players) tucked away on a corner balcony. Balance and ensemble were adequate, but I came away longing to hear the score again in a more sympathetic acoustic, one which allowed the ravishing textures, warmth and clarity of Henze's score to come over.

The plot concerns a monstrous poet, Gregor Mittenhofer, (Steven Page) who makes an annual pilgrimage to an an alpine Inn where Hilda Mack, the widow of a climber, (Jennifer Rhys-Davies) has visions inspired by the death of her husband 40 years ago. Mittenhofer uses these visions as source material for his work.

All around Mittenhofer subjugate themselves to his genius; his friend, secretary and financial supporter Carolina (Lucy Schaufer), his physician Dr. Reischmann (William Robert Allenby) and his young mistress Elisabeth (Kate Valentine).

What we get is, for the first two acts, something of a comedy of manners as the satellites around Mittenhofer seek to placate him and keep him happy for the sake of his art.

Frau Mack's husband's body is found and, given closure, she comes out of her trance-like state and becomes sensible. Shorn of the source of his inspiration, Mittenhofer needs to find another means of completing his latest poem, Elegy for Young Lovers.

So he allows his mistress to think that he is complaisant about her love for Toni, the Doctor's son (Robert Murray). But a great solo explosion at the end of Act two makes clear to us the amount of pent-up anger and self regard that Mittenhofer has.

In Act three, with the onset of a storm, Mittenhofer lies to the mountain guide and allows Elisabeth and Toni to die on the mountain (where he has sent them to pick Edelweiss). He takes inspiration in their death for the completion of his poem.

Steven Page was terrific as the monstrous poet, successfully negotiating the transition from grotesque comedy to horror. In the final act Henze's lyrical genuis flourished as he allowed us to hear Elisabeth and Toni's final moments (eloquently sung by Murray and Valentine); a real elegy to contrast with Mittenhofer's posturing.

Schaufer gave an impressive performance as Caroline, aware of Mittenhofer's faults but prepared to accept them in the face of his genius. In the last act she is the only person aware of Mittenhofer's lie, that condemns Elisabeth and Toni to death. Shaw's production successfully conveyed the impression that this changed the balance of the relationship between Caroline and Mittenhofer, giving her the upper hand. I am not sure whether this is in the music, but it made a great deal of sense.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Frau Mack was allowed to combined her abilities with Donizettian fioriture with her feel for comedy. In the first act she communicated solely by Lucia-like burbling, but is transformed in Act two into the only sensible person in the plot.

Shaw's production used a central acting space, which gradually fissured as cracks appeared in the characters' relationships. Behind, on one wall, was a screen on which videos appeared and through which we caught glimpses of the body of Frau Mack's husband, entombed in the ice. The main access being via a walkway high up across the stage.

Henze was in the audience and receive a terrific (and deserved) ovation at the end.

The virtues of this performance were that the production involved you in the drama and allowed you to be carried away. I came away fascinated and curious and very desirous of hearing the work again.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Recent CD Review

My review of Martin Best's 1982 recording, The Dante Troubadours is here on MusicWeb International.
Best's performances are convincing, vividly communicative. Very seductive. ...

Saturday 15 May 2010

The Tallis Scholars at the Cadogan Hall

For the final of this season's Choral at Cadogan concerts The Tallis Scholars under their conductor Peter Philips made a welcome reappearance on May 11th. Their programme mixed a variety of Italian polychoral motets with Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. The group numbered just 10 singers, so that sopranos apart, singers were often performing one to a part. In the rather dry Cadogan Hall acoustic this brings admirable clarity to the texture, but at the expense of the lusciousness which a more resonant venue would give.

They opened with Palestrina's early double choir Surge Illuminare. The intention of the programme was to contrast the cori spezzati of the Venetian school with these more complex poly-choral motets from the Roman tradition. Surge Illuminare was followed by Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, which is written for 6-part choir, SATTBB. The rich underlay of the lower 4 parts was rather compromised by the brisk tempi. Though beautifully sung, the mass felt as if the singers were rather keen to get the piece over with, it had a briskness and peremptoriness which was at odds with the lovely textures of the music.

Things could not have been more different after the interval. The choir opened with Giovanni Croce's Laudajs Exsultet Gaudio. A brilliant Venetian double-choir work from the choirmaster at St. Marks. This was followed by two further Venetian works from Andrea Gabrieli, Jubilate Deo and Benedictus Dominus Deus. In these pieces the mood of the group matched the music in a far better manner and created a brilliant effect. The single voices per line and the acoustic brought clarity and the voices brought sparkle and subtlety.

Dominique Phinot was a Franco-Flemish composer whose poly-choral music is some of the earliest. His Lamentations were a revelation, given a beautifully controlled performance with the singers enjoying the different polychoral textures.

They finished with Festa's small but perfectly formed Quam Pulchra Est and Palestrina's Laudate Pueri. The Festa was the only 4-part piece in the programme, but it used 3 upper voices and a tenor rather than SATB.

Palestrina's Laudate Pueir is far from formulaic in its use of multiple voices, as Palestrina combines different voices to achieve a flexible series of textures.

As an encore we were treated to Lassus in poly-choral mode.

The hall was nearly full for what is fast becoming a popular series at the Cadogan Hall. Next year's choral programme has been announced and is well worth investigating. It includes a tribute to the late Tessa Bonner, the Monteverdi Vespers, I Fagiolini as well as music from the Baltic and Estonia.

Sunday 9 May 2010


I got a leaflet through the post advertising the Final auditions at the Wigmore Hall on May 21st for the Young Concert Artists Trust. 8 Young performers or performing groups will be performing. Interestingly there are two accordion players, so perhaps this instrument is making a come-back. Artists who pass through the auditions go onto the YCAT list for the year, getting showcase concerts and other performance opportunities. Do go along if you are free, to hear some of the names of the future.

Saturday 8 May 2010


Not being a keen devotee of 19th century symphonic music, I have not found this year's Prom's programme particularly enticing. Still, it is a prime festival if you want to hear Mahler's symphonies. Unfortunately, the only one of them that we really wanted to book for was the 8th, which had sold out before I could get onto the web-site.

Unfortunately, I could not spend Tuesday morning sitting at my computer waiting for my position in the queue to go down from 4000! It was only at lunchtime that I managed to log on.

The presence of WNO's Mastersingers of Nuremberg is notable and rather exciting, though we'll be out of London at the time. I don't find the prospect of Terfel's Hans Sachs that exciting, but the opera is a rare visitor to London at the moment.

Frankly I can't quite see how a programme of Sondheim will work in the Royal Albert Hall, but all credit to Roger Wright for including it.

Mark Anthony Turnage's new piece is being paired with the Barber violin concerto, which should prove for an interesting combination.

For the late night proms, we are looking forward to Pärt's Passion, and if you feel really committed you can hear his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten earlier in the evening. Also late night is Philippe Jaroussky's recital with contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieu and the Ensemble Malthus, singing Handel, Vivaldi and Porpora.

Proms Chamber music looks good. I Fagiolini and the Britten Sinfonia have a lovely programme mixing contemporary and ancient settings. And the BBC Singers do something similar, mixing Taverner with Ferneyhough and Gabriel Jackson.

Finally, the penultimate night is John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, guaranteed to be a larger scale performance than the recent one of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Friday 7 May 2010

Recent CD Review

A couple more reviews from the Nimbus back catalogue, both Christchurch Cathedral Choir under Stephen Darlington.

First off, Palestrina's Missa Dum complerentur is here.
A perfect example of the English Cathedral sound and beautifully performed. …

And a liturgical reconstruction using Taverner's Missa Mater Christi is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Excellent performance of Taverner's likeable mass … a disc that everyone should try ...

Saturday 1 May 2010

Monteverdi Vespers from the OAE

On Tuesday we went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment's performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin from 1610. OAE could probably attracted a pretty decent audience in the Festival Hall so it was heartening to find that they were performing in the smaller QEH.

Despite the apparent links with Venice, Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers were written whilst he was still at Mantua and would have been created with the smaller Mantuan court chapel in mind rather than St. Mark's in Venice. Conductor Robert Howarth's version of the Vespers was relatively austere, without going the full one singer per part route. He used a chamber choir of 20 (the choir of the Enlightenment) which used 4 women (sopranos and mezzos mixed) on top, then 4 men (altos and high tenors mixed) on the next line down. The soloists were drawn from the choir. The orchestra was also relatively small, 15 players.

The edition used included the plainchant antiphons, opened with an organ intonation and followed the Magnificatwith a violin sonata by Giovanni Fontana which has a thematic reference to the motet Pulchra es. Howarth eschewed any extra instrumental doubling so that the orchestra played mainly in the opening and closing numbers, the psalms being accompanied by the continuo group only.

The result was to make the vespers a more intimate, liturgical work rather than a grand statement - though both points of view are valid and can be supported by the music. After all John Eliot Gardiner's performance at this year's proms will surely be on a far bigger scale.

The soprano soloists, Grace Davidson and Kirsty Hopkins were creditable and involving without bringing that extra something to the music which the Emma Kirkby's of this world can do. The highlight of the evening was the beautiful, thrilling performance of Duo Seraphin from tenors Simon Wall, Nicholas Mulroy and Sam Boden.

The choir were on good form. They had one or two muddy moments early on; I wasn't sure that Howarth's directing from the keyboard was always as clear as it could be. But they rose to the challenge of the great moments.

This wasn't the most thrilling performance of the Vespers, but it was certainly a musical and a thoughtful one.

Stephen Oliver at 60

Amazingly Stephen Oliver would have been 60 this year. He was so prolific, so early, that even though he died young in 1992, he created a great deal and managed to fit so much in; so one feels that he was older.

The Norwich and Norfolk Festival are celebrating Oliver with an event at the Norwich Playhouse on May 9th, which will feature Oliver's music for the RSC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Also included will be Oliver's mini opera, A Man of Feeling.

I must confess that I was rather disappointed by Oliver's major opera, Timon of Athens when it was first done by ENO. But would welcome a further chance to hear it, perhaps one of our enterprising young opera companies could put together a performance as ENO seem to be ignoring it. Still, it is heartening that the Norwich and Norfolk festival are celebrating Oliver's work. Further details from the web-site here.

Quiet and Contemplative - Review of Testament of Dr. Cranmer

My cd The Testament of Dr Cranmer has cropped up in the May round-up on MusicWeb International.

MUSICWEB DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP MAY 2010: (Discovery of the Month)
I came across Robert Hugill’s music by accident. It had been brought to my attention that I hadn’t included any Divine Art recordings in my Roundups for a long time, so I was browsing the Naxos Music Library to see and hear what was available. Having listened to the first work on this CD, I was sold. John Quinn called the central work sincere and dramatic – and I’m happy to endorse both that description and his reference to the performances of everything here as expert and committed. JQ’s only reservation was that there was, perhaps, a little too much of the serious side of Hugill’s music. I think I might prefer to describe most of it as quiet and contemplative rather than serious – just the thing for the end of a bad-hair day. I shan’t be listening to this as often as to the Chandos Howells CD (below), but I already knew that I loved Howells’ music.

It was The Testament of Dr Cranmer that first caught my attention – in the event, not the most striking work on the CD. Though I’m from the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, Cranmer is as much a hero figure for me as he is for the composer, not least for the wonderful prose which he bequeathed us until the modern shopping-basket language displaced it. Do try this in one form or another – buy the CD if you are unhappy about downloading. Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can try it there.
Brian Wilson

Original can be found with several other Divine Art discs at

Recent CD Review

Another couple of reviews of the Nimbus back catalogue. Arias for soprano and trumpet from Helen Field and John Wallace is reviewed here.Interesting and imaginatively programmed ...

And Rachmaninov's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom from Kansas is reviewed here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Even if you like this account I would recommend getting another which responds more positively to the drama and vigour of Rachmaninov's setting ...

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