Wednesday 29 June 2011

Monday 27 June 2011

Review of Nico Muhly'sTwo Boys

Nico Muhly's first opera Two Boys has received a great deal of advance publicity and interest, partly because the young composer (he's 29) has made such a stir with his instrumental and vocal music. But the path from instrumental and vocal composer to opera composer is not necessarily straightforward. In advance of the premiere I had a couple of reservations. Firstly, why was English National Opera supporting new work by an American composer, no matter how talented, instead of a British one; surely ENO should be nurturing British talent in this area. Secondly, having one's first opera premiered in a joint production between English National Opera and the Met in New York seems entirely too high profile an event, no matter how much of a whiz kid you are. First operas should be produced in an arena where it is OK to fail, to experiment, to not make things work.

Muhly's new work, written to a libretto by playwright Craig Lucas, is an enormously creditable, capable and engaging work. It shows much promise and some flashes of brilliance which hopefully should encourage Muhly to work further in the genre. It is not a masterpiece and Muhly may feel he needs to revisit the work before allowing to have greater circulation following the initial performances in London and New York.

The plot is written in a slightly complex form of flashback, whereby Brian (Nicky Spence) is telling DI Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley) how Jake (Jonathan McGovern) came to be murdered. Brian's narration is played out before us, thus allowing Lucas and Muhly to freely mix narration, flashback and Strawson's interventions in a fluid way. The case involves the internet and depends for its interest on the fact that Strawson is not internet savvy, so must have things explained to her. Muhly punctuates the narrative with choral interludes which depict the myriad chatter of internet chat-rooms.

It is these interludes which form the highlight (musically and dramatically) of the operas. Here Muhly's music manages to achieve the excitement which is missing in the narrative and approaches best the example of John Adams who is patently such an influence on Muhly.

For the main narrative Muhly contrasts the expressionistly lyrical outbursts for Bickley with the plainer narratives for Spence and the other characters. His vocal writing is lyrical, evidently singer friendly and expressive but not yet completely memorable. His passionate arias for Bickley are intended to be some of the highlights of the opera, but these do not quite achieve memorableness. But thanks to Bickley's tireless and generous performance, her arias were profoundly moving. For the rest of the narrative, things were more mundane, despite the rather highly coloured nature of what was unfolding.

It turns out that the real Jake is a 13 year old (treble Joseph Beesley) and he has invented a whole raft of internet characters with whom Brian interacts in the belief that these are real people. The characters are incarnated for us by singers (Mary Bevan as Rebecca, Jonathan McGovern as Jake, Heather Ship as Fiona and Robert Gleadow as Peter). It is only part of the way through the second act that Strawson (and we) realise that these characters are not real, but created by Jake. The actual transition to the realisation is handled well as Beesley initial doubles and duets with the characters before singing their roles in his treble voice alone. But for the first act and more, we seem to have no clues that these are not real characters.

It may be that Muhly has given musical clues to the fact the Rebecca et al are all constructs, but these are not apparent. Brian reacts to the characters as if they are real, but I feel that for the drama to work we need to experience more than just Brian's genuine belief. As it is, despite a cracking plot, the actually narrative bits feel too deliberate. Muhly's musical lines feel a bit pedestrian (perhaps deliberately so) and the main music interest appears to be in the orchestra. In fact, at times, the balance was such that the orchestra seemed to threaten to take over.

Bartlett Sher's production was nicely fluent, though a little too reliant on the constant shifting of furniture on and off stage. Michael Yeargan's set was relatively plain, simply flexible panels which moved and onto which the projections and animations from 59 Productions could be projected, thus meaning that the stage setting could change at an instant. For the narrative bits, things were realistic, but for the choral interludes the stage came alive with letters and numbers, matching the excitement of the music and giving a hint at what the production could have been.

The performances from all concerned were impressive and confident, with Bickley and Spence standing out. There were quite a lot of small roles which barely made a presence and during the choral interludes where were people playing named roles which did not really register at all.

Rumon Gamba conducted with enthusiasm, though he could have kept the orchestra a little more under control given the balance problems. Muhly has written for quite a big ensemble and the ENO Orchestra did him proud.

My gripes notwithstanding, this was a powerful evening of drama. Even if Muhly's music only showed us glimpses of what he is capable of, he and Lucas have created an enormously fluent piece which certainly deserves revisiting. The piece seemed to have attracted an audience slightly different to ENO's regular crowd, with younger people far more in evidence. I certainly hope that this encourages them to repeat the production, especially if Muhly can be tempted into revising it.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Tempus per Annum - Suscepimus, Deus

The next Tempus per Annum motet, for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, set for 5 part choir, SATTB. This means that there are only 2 further motets to complete before Volume 3 is finished. Volume 4, the final volume, will contain the remaining motets for Ordinary Time plus the Feast of All Saints.

Suscepimus, Deus, misericordiam tuam

We have received Thy mercy, O God, in the midst of Thy temple, according to Thy Name, O God, so also is Thy praise unto the ends of the earth; Thy right hand is full of justice.
Great is the Lord, and exceedingly to be praised, in the city of God, in His holy mountain.
Psalm 47

Saturday 25 June 2011

Review of Mozart's Last Aria

Former Middle-Eastern correspondent Matt Rees is best known for his Palestinian based crime novels featuring the detective Omar Yussef. But for his latest book he has turned to an altogether more different milieu. Mozart’s Last Aria (published in hardback by Corvus), is a detective fantasy woven around the very real events surrounding Mozart’s death in 1791. Rees has taken many of the known facts, added some twists of his own and created a very absorbing thriller about the great composer’s sudden death.

Rees has taken the slightly risky strategy of having the book narrated by Nannerl, Mozart’s beloved sister; it is Nannerl herself who travels to Vienna to investigate the mystery surrounding Mozart’s death. That Nannerl had been estranged from Mozart and had not visited Vienna for some time means that she can explore events, persons and surroundings as a new comer and Rees is thus able to provide descriptions and explanatory details without having to overburden the narrative too much. Rees has a nice ear for dialogue and a neat way with scene setting, so that Nannerl’s Vienna becomes, quite believably, the Vienna of 1791.

The drawback is that this device requires the various characters, many of whom are aristocratic men, to open up to Nannerl in a way that might not have happened in the real Vienna of 1791, as Nannerl was neither aristocratic nor a man. But Rees creates a believable fantasy and providing we accept that we are reading fiction, not history, then all is well. After all Nannerl did not visit Vienna just after Mozart’s death and, so far as we know, never doubted that his death was from natural causes.

There is one other slight drawback in having Nannerl as the narrative voice; she is inclined to bring a vein of sentimentality into the proceedings. But this is entirely apt, after all women’s voices during that period could incline to the sentimental. But Rees also imbues his heroine with a degree of feistiness which is rather appealing as she wanders round Vienna, quizzing aristocrats, playing Mozart’s music, having numerous assignations in dubious places, learning a great deal about her brother’s final weeks.

Rees’s plot is full of delightful twists and turns and though it all turns out satisfactorily, it does so in a way which this reader could not have predicted. Inevitably there is quite a bit of Freemasonry in the book, but it is to Rees’s credit that his Masons are not automatically villains and that he has quite a nuanced view of the craft and the way it was practised in 18th century Austria.

Music plays a big role in various ways; Rees has written in the Epilogue how he based the structure of the book on a Mozart piano sonata. This type of recapitulatory structure works admirably well for such a work as a detective novel as we expect the closing sections to echo and re-work themes raised in the beginning section. But you can enjoy the novel whether or not you follow the work’s structure. Mozart’s own music forms another thread running through the book, with Nannerl constantly thinking of or playing her brother’s music. Rees uses the different pieces to cunningly suggest mood and you could imagine the book playing out to a live sound track. In fact it struck me that the publishers had missed a trick in not issuing the book with a companion CD.

There is a final musical element, one which takes the book away from straight detective fiction. Rees uses Mozart’s music and Nannerl’s memories to help explore what it was like for Mozart’s contemporaries to suddenly lose such a genius from their midst. Rees does this gently, without mawkishness and without ever endangering the book’s strong roots in classic detective fiction.
This is a most enjoyable novel, one which develops into a real page turner; so much so that, having read it once quickly to see how the plot develops, you feel you want to go back and read it again slowly so that you can savour the way Rees invokes Mozart’s Vienna.

Monday 20 June 2011

When a Man knows - DVD

Yesterday we had our first look at the DVD recording of When a Man Knows, made live at the 2nd performance on Friday 1st April, filming and post-production was done by post-graduate students from Greenwich University, with sound by Maproom Recordings. Despite problems on the night, notably the lighting desk crashing 2 or 3 times necessitating parts of the lighting plot being done by hand and requiring the opera to be re-started 3 times, the results are highly effective and atmospheric, capturing the production and the performance well.

Tempus per Annum - Omnes Gentes

Recently completed - number 13 from volume 3 of Tempus per Annum, the introit for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, set for 5 part choir (SAATB)

Omnes gentes, plaudite manibus:

Clap you hands, all ye nations: should unto God with the voice of joy.
For the Lord is most high, He is terrible; He is a great King over all the earth
Psalm 46

Thursday 16 June 2011

Review of Rigoletto at Grange Park Opera

Sunday 12th June saw the picnic-ers at Grange Park Opera deluged with rain, but inside the opera house there was a nicely warming perfomance of Verdi's Rigoletto. Daniel Slater's production was first seen at Grange Park Opera's other home at Nevill Holt.

Slater and his designer Angela Davies set the opera in 1950's Los Angeles with the Duke as a corrupt Police chief. Inevitably the production owes a lot to Jonathan Miller's Mafioso production of the opera for ENO. And like Miller's production, Slater does not really find a convincing role for Rigoletto though Damiano Salerno's performance did much to help. Salerno is a young Italian baritone with a nicely focussed, quite light but with a lovely top. His Rigoletto was well worth the entrance fee on its own. Perhaps he had a tendency to sing over loudly at the top, but he gave Rigoletto a darkness and intensity which was compelling. I suspect that his voice still needs time to fully grow into itself, but in a small-ish house like Grange Park it was perfect.

His Gilda was Laura Mitchell, tall and attractive she sang Gilda's fioriture with apparent ease and confidence, ensuring that the role was more than a canary. She and Salerno manage to make something touching of their duets and their relationship gave the performance some impetous.

The Duke was Marco Panuccio, a suitably swaggering character, clearly with a nice line in chatting up girls. His voice had a bit of a tendency to spread at the top which gave him character and intensity, but wouldn't be to everyone's taste. He made a highly personable Duke, and brought clarity and differentiation between his roles as the Duke and the Duke as student.

The smaller roles were well taken with Andrew Greenan's Monterone impressing with both force and intensity. I am not sure whether it made sense to have Monterone as an orthodox Jew, with Rigoletto's home displaying a prominent menorah. It didn't seem to be developed enough, though no damage was done to the drama either.

Under Toby Purser's lively direction the orchestra were on good form.

The production was attractive and serviceable. Whilst Slater didn't quite convince me that it made sense setting the opera in the milieu of a 1950's Los Angeles police station. That said, Slater drew some strong performances from his cast with Damiano Salerno standing out in the title role.


Some days extraneous events conspire to run interference with your appreciation. Last night we were due to go to the concert as part of Spitalfields Music, where I Fagiolini and the English Concert were performing Purcell's King Arthur. We arrived at Christ Church Spitalfields to find the church closed up. A small huddle of puzzled people stood in front of the railings wondering where the concert was. After a little research we found it was at Shoreditch Church. Rather frustratingly, the tickets gave no venue information, which is a lesson to us all.

We managed to find a cab, and arrived at St. Leonard's Church, Shoreditch in plenty of time. The seating was pre-numbered and we were sitting in the centre of the nave. There was quite a bit of confusion, it looked as if someone was sitting in our seats and of course, in the confusion I managed to spill a glass of wine! It turned out that the seats had been allocated rather ambitiously regarding spacing, which meant that the audience had to sit alarmingly, uncomfortably close.

So what of the performance. Well, its a bit difficult to be certain as even when the performance started the lively and vocal enjoyment of one of my neighbours rather inhibited my own. So I felt rather grumpy and found it difficult to concentrate on the rather fine Purcell. Though it didn't help that the spoken drama had been replaced by a humorous narration by Kit Hesketh Harvey; Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur isn't a comic piece, but inevitably the audience found Hesketh Harvey rather funny and this spilled over into the performance. Exit one rather grumpy critic!

Review of Tristan from Grange Park Opera

My review of Tristan und Isolde from Grange Park Opera is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site)

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Review of Simon Boccanegra

The plot of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is convoluted enough to be worthy of an opera seria and like composers of opera seria, Verdi seems to have been more concerned with the dramatic situations that the plot provided rather than the internal logic and clarity. When Verdi and Boito re-worked the opera in 1881 (14 years after the work's premiere), they were concerned with the piece's musical values rather than simplifying the plot.

ENO's new production of the opera (seen on Friday 10th June) was the much anticipated debut of Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov working with a UK company. His production of Eugene Onegin for the Marinsky was the first Tcherniakov production to be seen in the UK and garnered significant praise for its insight (and a number of brickbats as well). So I was curious to find out how he would bring Simon Boccanegra to the stage.

The prologue opened in an attractive and highly realistic Italian square in the 1950's with a glass fronted bar stage left, very reminiscent of the famous Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto. Bruno Caproni's Boccanegra was a leather jacketed, jeans wearing lout, hardly charismatic; in contrast to the trench-coat and trilby wearing plebeans. But the general atmosphere was suitably dark, shifty and dramatic with Brindley Sherratt's Fiesco providing a darkly lowring presence.

Between the Prologue and Act 1 a drop curtain showed a painted representation of this scene, onto which a plot summary was projected; plot summaries shown between each scene, almost as if Tcherniakov did not quite trust his own stage-craft to tell the story. Then, in a stunning piece of video realisation, a full scale projection of this image of the square condensed down to a picture on a wall with Roland Wood's Paolo giving Maisie Turpie's Amela a history lesson.

This apart, the opening scene of Act 1 was a disappointment. The action played out in front of a plain grey scrim using only the front stage. There was no sight of the sea, just a frosted window. The time was the near present. Everything was grey. Paolo and all the other men wore anonymous grey suits.

Turpie's Amelia was spunkier and sparkier than in some productions; definitely a girl with her own mind. Peter Auty's Gabriele arrived in motorcycle gear and stayed in it for the whole opera except for the very final scene (when he and Turpie appeared in wedding finery). The scene between Amelia and Gabriele was well managed and charmingly suggested their playful relationship.

But the recognition scene between Boccanegra and Amelia was another disappointment. Caproni was wearing a suit and overcoat and looked like a cross between Timothy Spall and George Brown. Tcherniakov's production seemed to emphasise the contrast between the official and boring present and the highly coloured past, with the bucaneering Boccanegra settled down into a conventional figure.

More importantly Tcherniakov's personen regie failed to suggest Boccanegra's magnetism and offered no reason why Amelia opened up to him.

One curiosity seemed to be that in the scene between Gabriele and Fiesco, Fiesco was hypnotising Gabriele into assasinating Boccanegra. Though one could easily have missed the sign of this and little was made of it later in the opera.

The council chamber, when it appeared, was an anonymous grey modern interior, characterless and almost featureless. The scene's impact was limited by the combination of this disappointing setting and Caproni's failure to maximise the dramatic impact of his role. Caproni sang the role well enough, but he lacked the charisma to dominate the stage and Tcherniakov's handling of the scene almost played against Verdi's dramatic handling of the music.

The final two acts took place in the same setting thus placing the most important part of the opera in a grey featureless landscape. The reason for this became apparent when, at a couple of key moments, the image of the prologue was projected onto the set, thus transforming the grey present into the multicoloured past. But not enough was made of this, certainly not enough to justify the disappointingly featurless set.

The personen regie in the final two acts was creditably efficient without ever matching Verdi's drama. The most strongly characterised performed was Sherratt's Fiesco, and one wished that Verdi had allowed him to be on stage more. Caproni's Boccanegra was promising but fatally lacking in convincing charisma. And his relationship with Turpie's Amelia just never quite gelled. Turpie's voice was rather more dramatic in quality and her top grew a little too steely.

Peter Auty managed to rise above his unfattering costume and presented an impassioned Gabriele with some lovely lyrical singing. Roland Wood made a strongly dramatic Paolo, rising above the productions limitations, though inclined to overacting at times. Mark Richardson was a suitably cadaverous Pietro.

Under Edward Gardner's committed direction, the ENO orchestra gave a strong performance. Musically this production rose to Verdi's dramatic values and the orchestra were on strong form. The opera was sung in James Fenton's translation, nicely poetic in character it seemed to match the musical values in a way that many modern translations fail to do.

Despite being much anticipated, this production was a disappointment. Tcherniakov's over careful handling of the drama seemed to leave some scenes verging on the boring, though this might have been rescued by a more charismatic performance in the title role.

I still have strong memories of ENO's previous mounting of the opera; David Alden's production during the power house era was highly expressionist, capturing the work's essential drama and lowring intensity. This new production never seemed to catch the work's dark brown feel and the opera never quite caught fire.

Friday 10 June 2011

Recent CD Reviews

My review of a disc of arias for soprano, trumpet and organ is here

Trio Barocco do not quite convince.

Review of Manon Lescaut

My review of Sunday's performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut by Chelsea Opera Group, with Claire Rutter in the title role, is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Thursday 9 June 2011

Menhuin and Grappelli

For those who have fond memories of the duetting between Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin, then Christian Garrick and Peter Fisher will be re-creating the sound, using some of the original arrangements by Nelson Riddle and Max Harris, at the V&A tomorrow night as part of their Friday Late. And its free!

Guest Posting - Making Music in my Mozart Crime Novel

Making Music in my Mozart Crime Novel

By Matt Rees

A few years ago, I was at a small dinner in Tel Aviv with Zubin Mehta after one of his performances with the Israel Philharmonic. I happened to ask him which composer he considered most indispensible. “I’d find it very hard to live without Mozart,” he told me.

I had been pondering a crime novel about Mozart – more precisely about the composer’s sister Nannerl, whose story had spoken to me very strongly when I visited the tiny village in the Salzkammergut where she spent her married life. So Maestro Mehta’s comment started me thinking.

What had it been like for Wolfgang’s contemporaries to lose him? For those who had lived with Mozart and would’ve had to come to terms with life without him? What would that have been like, particularly if one considers that the great man told his wife and friends he had been poisoned? I knew that though I would draw on new historical research into the period and Mozart’s life I’d have to put his music at the centre of the mystery. I’d have to write convincingly about the great composer’s music. About its structure. Its performance. And the intellect behind it.

I’ve played music all my life, but I’m no musician. After my initial childhood music lessons I parted ways with the playing of classical music. I’ve been a guitarist and bassist in various rock ensembles in New York and elsewhere. Less sexily, I played glockenspiel in my high school band.

So for the book, first, I learnt to play piano. This demonstrated that I’m not much good on the piano. But it gave me a way to see inside Wolfgang’s music, because the piano study made me think more deeply about musical theory than my experience as a rock guitarist. (Surely THAT doesn’t surprise anyone, but it was worth demonstrating anyhow.)

Then I turned to some great musicians, to quiz them about Mozart and the way they perform him.

My main guide in this was my dear friend Orit Wolf, a fabulous concert pianist who has taught at the Royal College of Music. (You can see her dressed up as Nannerl and hear her version of Mozart’s Fantasia in D on this video . The Fantasia was incomplete on Mozart’s death, but it’s perhaps even more freighted with intimations of doom than the Requiem). Orit’s best-known for her heartfelt interpretations of romantic composers. But her insights into Mozart were startling.

Our discussion of Wolfgang’s piano sonata in A-minor gave me the idea of building the entire novel around the mood and structure of that piece, so that the novel should seem somehow musical even when the characters aren’t making music.

The A-minor sonata was written when Wolfgang was in Paris, mourning his mother who had died while chaperoning him on tour, so it’s as much about death as is my crime novel. It begins with an Allegro maestoso that is disturbing, almost discordant. I thought of this as the introductory theme of Act I of my novel, in which the calm world around Nannerl collapses with news of her brother’s death and she resolves to find out what happened to him.

The thoughtful second movement (Andante cantabile con espressione) is Act II of the book, the central section in which Nannerl explores the Vienna Wolfgang left behind. Act III is the final Presto movement, in which the disturbing themes of the first movement are resolved, just as Nannerl uncovers the truth over the last chapters of the book.

My friend Orit also introduced me to some of the techniques great musicians use when they prepare for a performance. For example, she told me that when she first looks at a piece for a performance she decides what colour the music makes her think of. Before each performance, she’ll visualize that colour and it will create a mood in her. In turn that mood will be reflected in the music as she plays it. It isn’t just about hitting the right keys.

So I did the same thing. Before I wrote about Nannerl Mozart performing a piece of music, I listened to it for a long time. I’d identify a colour and a season brought to mind by the piece. I’d hold those in my head as I wrote.

I still have the colour-codings noted on the index cards I used to plot the book. It’s a technique I’m intending to use for future books, even if they aren’t about music. A writer needs to keep himself very close to the emotion of his narrator and it isn’t always easy to concentrate on, say, sadness for the extended period it takes to write a chapter.

So from now on, thanks to my experience with the music of Mozart, my novels will be colour-coded.

Tuesday 7 June 2011


A recording of my motet, Exaudi, by London Concord Singers, conductor Malcolm Cottle, is now on my web-site here.

Exaudi, quaesumus Domine, supplicum preces,
et devoto tibi pectore famulantes, perpetua defensione custodi:
ut, nullus pertubationibus impediti, liberam servitutem tuis semper exhibeamus officiis.

Hear our lowly prayer, Lord, we beseech Thee,
and safeguard for ever Thy devoted servants:
that no trouble may hinder them from carrying out Thy ministry with willing service.
(Collect from the Mass for conferring of Holy Orders)

Monday 6 June 2011

OAE at the South Bank

A rather late posting I'm afraid.

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday 4th for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's glorious concert of Handel. They were directed by leader Alison Bury, and performed 3 of Handel's Concerti Grossi and joined by soprano Elin Manahan Thomas for arias from Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo and Alcina, finishing with the motet Silete Venti.

We heard two of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi, numbers 1 and 7. Despite the presence of wind instruments in other items, these were performed in Handel's published versions without wind parts. OAE fielded quite a small band (4 first violins, 4 seconds, 3 violas, 2 cellos and 1 bass) and the performances were crisp, lively and lithe - slimline and quite dazzling, but I have to confess that despite the high level of musicality I had the odd hankering for larger scaled performances. The Opus 6 Concerti Grossi seem to have so much in them that being played by larger groups, in a slightly more stately manner, feels natural.

The final Concerto Grosso was the glorious Opus 3, number 2, one of the loveliest of Handel's Opus 3. These were assembled by Walsh, during a period when Handel's relationship with the publisher is unclear. Handel seems to have had no direct involvement, but Walsh had access to Handel's manuscripts. Number 2 is one of the few genuine concerti grossi in the group. The hauntingly beautiful slow movement, with its two intertwining cello parts was perfectly judged.

Elin Manahan Thomas has quite a slim-line voice and certainly has a way with Handelian fioriture, the speeds of the arias were impressive, at times. As such, she was perfect for Morgana's role in Alcina, and brought bright brilliance to Tornami a vagheggiar. Lascia chi'io pianga from Rinaldo was nicely done and moving, without quite plumbing the depths. Da tempesta, from Giulio Cesare was suitably bright and cheerful.

Silete Venti is unusual in being a substantial motet written in London. Technically it is a motet, being sacred, but in construction it owes much to Handel's Italian cantatas. Handel re-used material from his German Arias, Chandos Anthems and earlier motets in the new motet, and went on to re-use portions of Silete Venti in Esther. Silete Venti was written in 1724, but its origins are uncertain.

However it is a brilliant piece of writing, the opening busy string introduction being interrupted by the sopranos cry of Silete venti (Be silent you winds). It was a glorious conclusion to a fine concert.
Except, of course, it wasn't a conclusion at all and Manahan Thomas gave us Ombra mai fu as an encore!

The concert was advertised as being introduced from the stage by Clemency Burton-Hill. I must confess I was curious. In fact, it was being recorded by Radio 3 (it is to be broad cast on Sunday 19th June) and Burton-Hill was doing the Radio 3 intros from the platform. We were spared the linkages, which she did from a table behind the stage and only came across as a strange muttering as if she was doing an incantation. But we had to suffer interviews with Alison Bury and Elin Manahan-Thomas, luckily both came over as natural and informative. But I would have preferred to be left with my own thoughts.

Friday 3 June 2011

Royal Ballet Triple Bill

Last night we went to the Royal Opera House to see the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill, Frederick Ashton's Scenes de Ballet, Glen Tetley's Voluntaries and Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring. An interesting programme spanning the late 40's, 60's and 70's in choreographic terms, with each ballet being seen in its original Royal Ballet production.

Now here's a thing. If the English Opera Group was around today (and its successor did just about last into my opera going life-time), would they still be doing Britten's operas in their original productions? I think not. But somehow, this approach is acceptable in ballet, so that for the Ashton we got the very stylised 1940's look with a set which seemed to come from the background of a De Chirico painting. The choreography is a little to pointy-pointe for my taste, Ashton going too far in the direction of Balanchine. But more to the point is the fact that the Royal Ballet seem to be losing the ability to dance Ashton. Not so much technique, though there was plenty that was not quite right, but the sheer style. When I first started coming to the ballet the ballerinas were nearly all the generation trained by Ashton himself, now this is become more distant and the style is being lost. You can't help feeling that Monica Mason ought to arrange a 2 week intensive work-shop and have the whole company practising Ashton style before it is too late.

The difference with the Tetley and the Macmillan was very marked, though they might not have been technically perfect, the dancers were far more confident of the style. Both the two later works were, in their different ways, very stylishly done.

Glen Tetley's Voluntaries was created for Stuttgart Ballet with Richard Cragun and Marcia Haydee taking the lead roles, the same team who created MacMillan's Requiem and Song of the Earth. For me the 3 works all seem to live in the same universe, though of course Tetley's language and emotional world is different. But it is a terrific work, starting from silence with the lead couple (here Mariela Nunez and Rupert Pennefather) and concluding in the same way.

For me, the major problem with the work is the sound of the organ used in the opera house. An electric beast, it just does not sound like the real thing and has a blandly occluded sound, so much unlike the sound-world of Cavaille-Coll which Poulenc would have known. Also, it lacks a degree of power, part of the joy of Poulenc's piece is the way the organ can overwhelm the senses, and it doesn't here.

That said, Thomas Trotter played magnificently. I just had to keep telling myself that this was not Poulenc's Organ Concerto but Glen Tetley's Voluntaries and to stop worrying about the organ sound.

Though The Rite of Spring is more commonly come across in the concert hall, I always feel that it makes more sense danced, you can get a good feel for the structure of the piece. I first saw Kenneth Macmillan's version when Monica Mason danced her final performances as the Chosen Maiden (probably some 20 or 25 years ago). She was the original Chosen Maiden and it was amazing to see her performing the role 20 or more years after the first production. Here the role (the Chosen One) was danced by a man, Edward Watson, and he certainly danced up a storm. Macmillan's steps can sometimes seem contrived, but this performance took on an emotional power all of its own so that the movement seemed a natural outcome of the music. Sidney Nolan's designs remain stunning and some of Macmillan's stage pictures stay with me whenever I hear the music.

The playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth was exemplary, with The Rite of Spring receiving a tough, dramatic performance with lots of wonderful accents weighted down to earth.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Perpetual Light

If, like me, you've been curious as to whether performances in the tunnels under the Old Vic can work, and what it would be like to do a musical performance there, then here is your chance. On Saturday 4th June, the choir Londinium is performing a new piece by Jessica Curry, Perpetual Light, which involves a film and installation by Jo Fairfax. The work remembers those who lost their lives in nuclear conflicts. Curry's website describes her as a composer for games, virtual-worlds and unusual real-world spaces!

Giulio Cesare in Versailles

My review of Handel's Giulio Cesare, given in the Royal Theatre at Versailles with Christophe Dumaux in the title role, is here, on Music and Vision (Subscription site).

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