Wednesday 29 February 2012

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett's novel, Bel Canto, was given to me by my partner's mother, probably because of the musical interest. It concerns the incident in Lima, Peru in 1996/7 when a group of young revolutionaries held people hostage for 3 months in the Japanese ambassador's house. The novel uses a young operatic soprano as one of its focuses and music is a key element, partly because the soprano is defined in her relationships by people's reaction to her singing, also as some of the hostages are Japanese there is a language barrier and music become a key element in communication.

Not surprisingly, the book is being turned into an opera. The Lyric Opera of Chicago will be premiering the work in their 2015/16 season, with Danielle de Niese in the lead role of Roxanne Coss. The book seems to have been the starting point, with Renee Fleming, who is creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, selecting it as a good subject for an opera. The composer will be the Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez; Lopez studied in his native Peru as well as in Finland and in California and seems to be based in Finland.  It looks like it will be his first opera, there is an interesting post on his blog here.

Of course, with any new opera an important part of the process is the libretto, this is being written by the Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz. Cruz seems to have strong musical credentials having written the book to at least one musical and collaborated with Gabriela Lena Frank on several operas and a set of orchestral songs.

So the auguries look promising.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Wagner's Vision

Act II
A wild, craggy summit
In the background, a gorge slopes up from below to a high ridge of rocks, from which the ground again sinks to the front.
Scene 1
Wotan, armed for battle, carrying his spear: before him Brunnhilde, as a Valkyrie, likewise fully armed.

Brunnhilde, shouting as she leaps from rock to rock up to the heights on the right.

On a high peak she stops, looks into the gorge at the back and calls back to Wotan

Brunnhilde disappears behind the mountain height at the side. Fricka, in a chariot drawn by two rams, comes up from the gorge to the top of the rocky ridge, where she tops suddenly and alights. She strides impetuously towards Wotan in the foreground.

Scene 3
Arrived at the rocky pass, Brunnhilde, looking into the gorge, perceives Siegmund and Sieglinde: she watches their approach for a moment and then goes into the cave to her horse, disappearing from the audience.

The above are substantial extracts from the stage directions for Wagner's The Valkyrie (in Andrew Porter's translation). Having, on Friday, attended Midsummer Opera's terrific performance of Acts 2 and 3 of the opera, I had cause to read the stage directions as I listened to the singers. I was very struck by Wagner's quite detailed visual images, which would seem almost completely unrealisable on stage. I never saw the previous Ring Cycle at the New York Met, but did see it on TV and don't remember the settings, attractive though there were, being anything like as finely detailed as Wagner requests. I'm not really sure its quite possible on stage.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Why hasn't anyone ever tried it on film. A film version of The Valkyrie which corresponded quite exactly to Wagner's requirements would make rather a thrilling counterpoint to the music. If modern film techniques can manage The Lord of The Rings, then surely they can do the same for Wagner.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Review of La Clemenza di Tito

My review of Wednesday's performance of La Clemenza di Tito at the Barbican with Alice Coote as Sesto is here, on

The last opera seria — Mozart’s late, austere masterpiece, and vividly brought it to life.

Monday 20 February 2012

Romeo et Juliette at the RFH

That Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette is only occasionally performed is attributable not only to its distinctive form, but also Berlioz's rather extravagant use of his forces. He uses a large orchestra, one that includes 4 bassoons, 2 trumpets and 2 cornets and significant percussion, with 4 harps who are only deployed in the scherzo; a semi-chorus and a full chorus, plus  mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists who really only get 1 solo each in the first movement and a bass soloist who does not appear till the last movement.

Regarding form, I have always found Berlioz rather filmic. By that I don't mean that he wrote film-style music but that his attitude to dramaturgy implies the sort of flexibility you get from film. For instance in Act 4 of Les Troyens you feel the camera zooming in on individuals then panning out to take in the whole; Berlioz all the while unconcerned what the remaining cast are doing during the close-ups. Similarly in Romeo et Juliette he uses the sort of parallel technique beloved of film makers. In the choral opening movement we get a digested summary of the action, after moments of the ball we see Romeo leaping over the garden wall to meet Juliette.

Then Berlioz returns back to examine the scenes in detail, this time with orchestra only, effectively playing back the scenes from a different point of view, something that works well in film. In fact he does use voices, off stage to evoke the revellers in the distance at the beginning of the love scene, a magical touch. So we return to the Ball, Love Scene, the Queen Mab scherzo examining them deeper. Berlioz then leads us to the scene in the tomb, introducing the chorus full for the first time, though real musical interest is in the orchestra as the chorus simply intones on a monotone. But again he returns to the scene in purely orchestral form before the choral finale.

Of course, the structurally the work can be seen in terms of the impact of Beethoven's choral symphony on Berlioz. But as a dramatic work, Berlioz's non-linear narrative works in terms of film structure analogy - I can clearly imagine a film structured like Berlioz's dramatic symphony.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, BBC Symphony Chorus, Schola Cantorum of Oxford under conductor Sir Mark Elder performed the symphony to a packed Royal Festival Hall on Saturday (18th Feb 2012). Using period instruments brought many felicitous touches to the performance. Perhaps chief of these was the balance, the way the wind were simply more prominent and did not have to fight through a cushion of string sound; the result was far less luxurious but gave a more varied and expressive texture to the music. Certain moments stand out, the duet between flute and cor anglais in the love scene, the magical scoring with the four harps in the scherzo.

Sir Mark Elder isn't someone I automatically associate with the music of Berlioz, but we heard him conduct L'enfance du Christ in December. His account of Romeo et Juliette relished all the stronger textures the period instruments brought,  but he never lost sight of the structure and the pulse of Berlioz's dramatic work was nicely judged. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi and tenor John Mark Ainsley contributed nicely shaped solos in the first movement and Orlin Anastov was dramatically imposing during the choral finale. The Schola Cantorum of Oxford were the fine-grained semi chorus and the BBC Symphony Chorus were finally able to show their mettle in the finale.

In the present economic climate I doubt that we can expect the work to be recorded on disc, but the performance was recorded for broadcast on Radio 3 on February 26th, so I'd certainly put the date in your diary.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Elizabeth Connell

Its sad to read news of the death of dramatic soprano Elizabeth Connell. I heard her in many performances but the two which stick in my mind are her Lady Macbeth and her Medee. I saw her in concert as Medee with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment . It was only a concert performance but she made a highly memorable first entry from the back of the auditorium wrathfully declaiming Medee's lines. I don't think I've quite seen a performance to match it.

CD review - Handel in Ireland

A picture of Handel as a keyboard player is tantalisingly difficult to assemble. His published keyboard music was generally intended for the wider public and his own private performances were heavily based on improvisation. It is only occasionally that we can catch a glimpse of the keyboard virtuoso who dazzled his contemporaries, in surviving keyboard cadenzas and occasional movements in the suites (such as the Sarabande in the 7th Suite).

Harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham has taken a fascinatingly different  route to shedding light on Handel's keyboard skills. Her disc, Handel in Ireland, sets Handel's 7th Suite in G minor HWV 432, published in 1720, in the context of his contemporaries. Surrounding the suite with music particularly inspired by Handel's  visit to Dublin in 1741/42

Cunningham opens with William Babell's virtuosic transcription of the aria Vo far guerra from Handel's Rinaldo. No strictly Irish connection here, though Rinaldo may be the first Italian opera to be performed in Ireland. Babell was a contemporary of Handel's in London,  a pupil of Pepusch and possibly of Handel as well. He wrote numerous transcriptions of popular operas and his two transcriptions which Cunningham includes on her disc add a degree of display and virtuosic brio that is missing from Handel's suite. Handel used to improvise harpsichord cadenzas during Vo far guerra and it has been suggested that Babell's transcription reflects his memories of these. In fact the aria is related thematically to the organ sonata in Il Trionfo del Tempo which is one of the concrete glimpses of Handel's keyboard skills. Babell's transcription ofVo far guerra is a humongous piece, lasting over 12 minutes; though brilliantly played by Cunningham, I was getting a little tired of repeated arpeggios by the 10 minute mark.

Cunningham follows this with Handel's own impressive arrangement of the Overture to Esther. This comes from a manuscript written by Smith (Handel's assistant) between 1737 and 1739. In fact Handel performed Esther in Dublin in 1742. Cunningham gives a solidly dramatic performance that convinces as a keyboard work in its own right.

She follows this with a strong performance of Handel's 7th Suite, a work of delightful variation finishing with the brilliant Passacaille (a movement lasting over 4 minutes) and opening with an equally powerful Ouverture (lasting some 6 minutes). Handel's borrowings in the suite include the Overture to his cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno recast in keyboard form as the Ouverture (though there are suggestions that this piece may originally go back earlier than Clori, Tirsi e Fileno).

Cunningham's performance is confident and she uses a finely resonant harpsichord. For the Sarabande she gives us a remarkable damped stop which gives a striking texture to the movement.

She follows this we the other of the Babell arrangements, Laschia ch'io pianga from Rinaldo. Babell needs to make the textures busier than Handel's original in order to compensate for the harpsichord's inability to sustain long lines. But the results are convincingly bravura.

The 8th Suite of Lessons by Thomas Roseingrave follows; a relatively short but impressive 3 movement piece which owes something both to Handel's 7th Suite and to the music of Scarlatti. Roseingrave was the promising son of a Dublin organist; he studies in Italy, was befriended by Scarlatti and became the first organist of St. George's Church, Hanover Square (Handel's parish church). But all this came to nought as he was unlucky in love and became unstable. Thomas Carter was another Dublin born composer and he worked in Dublin before moving to London, making a name for himself as a composer of songs. His 2 movement Sonatina is a charming work which certainly does not outstay its welcome.

Cunningham finishes with a pair of Irish folk songs in her own delightful arrangements, the second one includes a part for baroque harp creating a magical effect.

She performs on two harpsichords. A double manual Blanchet fully painted green copy of Ruckers by Andrew Wooderson, 1996, and a double manual Blanchet navy/vermillion copy by Goble 1988. But the booklet does not specify which she plays on which track. That used for the opening pieces seems to have a wonderful resonant lower register of a richly chocolate colour. The other seems to be far fruitier in tone.  I would have liked to have known more.

Cunningham's own extensive and informative booklet article provides full background to the pieces alongside information about Handel's visit to Dublin and the musical life in the town at the time.

In all the pieces, Cunningham's playing is brilliantly authoritative, providing a strong case for buying the CD on the simple grounds of loving superb keyboard playing, But her thoughtful and imaginative programme mean that we are double tempted by the disc.

Handel in Ireland
William Babell (1689/1690 - 1723)  - Vo far guerra from Handel's Opera Rinaldo
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1739) - Overture to Esther
George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1739) - 7th Suite in G minor HWV 432
William Babell (1689/1690 - 1723) - Laschia ch'io pianga from Handel's Opera Rinaldo
Thomas Roseingrave (1690 - 1766) - 8th Suite of Lessons in G minor
Charles Thomas Carter (1735 - 1804) - Sonatina Op.6 No. 10
Anon - The Poor Irish Boy
Anon - Aileen Aroon

Recorded at the Royal College of Music
Rose Street Records RSR 002, 1CD [62.46]

Saturday 18 February 2012

When a Man Knows - (Grabbed from Behind) - Opera by Robert Hugill

An extract from the opening scene of my opera When a Man Knows, recorded live in 2011 with Dario Dugandzic as the man, instrumental ensemble conducted by David Roblou, production directed by Ian Caddy and lit by Matt Haskins.

The Man:I would have gone along with you if you’d asked.
We didn’t need all that rough stuff.

Grabbed from behind.
Bag over the head.
Thrown into the back of a van.
Bag over the head.
Realistic. I’ll hand you that.
Too bloody realistic by half.
I can guess what happened.
You got a bit carried away.
You forgot it was a charity stunt.
“Make him think it's for real”.
OK. You succeeded.
Change of underpants required when I get home.
Bloody realistic. Too bloody realistic.
Why don’t we lose the handcuffs, the chain lose the hood?
Which one of you thought of the hood?
Nice touch, handcuffs and chain and hood?
Next time someone in the news gets kidnapped
I’ll know exactly how they feel.

Chorus: A distant sound,
something disturbed, perhaps a metal can.
Man: I heard that.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Barbican new season

The Barbican's new season brochure popped through my letter box this morning and after perusing it I noticed that they have changed their pricing policy. Now, to get the multi-buy discounts you have to pick concerts from the same artists (BBC Symphony Orchestra, LSO, Academy of Ancient Music), there no longer seems to be a  Great Performers season which allowed one to pick and choose a variety of concerts and put them together into a discounted series. So that, for instance, the only way to see Les Arts Florissants is to pay full price.

Now, under the old regime we would buy tickets for 6 or 7 concerts over the year, choose a wide variety of ensembles and generate a substantial discount; kidding ourselves that we were saving money when in fact we bought more to get a greater discount. Not any more, and it leaves me thinking that one of the most attractive elements of the Barbican concert series has been lost.

This Week’s Classical Music Round Up From The Arts Desk

Two near-perfect piano recitals at the Royal Festival Hall steal the limelight in this week’s classical music coverage on The Arts Desk.

Richard Goode
(photo by Sascha Gusov)
The first was an unexpectedly nimble performance by Richard Goode. Though an unlikely acrobat, Goode amazed Igor Toronyi-Lalic with his musical gymnastics up and down the keyboard. The concert began gently with Schumann’s tender, intimate childhood portraits Kinderszenen, but it was soon woken up by the petulant, stormy, teenaged Kreisleriana. Goode’s playing was all agility and flexibility, and absolutely no showiness. And for the second half of Chopin nocturnes, waltzes and ballades, there was grace and beauty as well as lightning-fast fingers.  

Stephen Hough
(photo by Sim Canetty Clarke)

Earlier in the week Igor also saw Stephen Hough play Liszt with similar panache. After last year’s bicentenary, Hough showed no signs of Liszt fatigue – indeed, his complete familiarity with the first two piano concertos allowed him to sail over all technical hurdles and concentrate on expression. Each piece contains elements that are pure Liszt, and yet Hough managed to give them freshness, transforming cliché into something startling. Risks were taken - daring pauses and fearless changes of pace - which Marin Alsop’s London Philharmonic Orchestra did well to keep up with. And to round off this most satisfying of concerts, there were also finely played renditions of Martinů’s Sixth and Dvořák’s Eighth.

Meanwhile Graham Rickson selected his top three listens from this week’s classical CD releases. The BBC Proms 2011 performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is hugely impressive and brilliantly recorded, he says, even though the piece itself is flawed. A new disc of Shostakovich’s cello concertos played by Italian cellist Enrico Dindo is brave, brash and thrilling. And the 13th and final volume of Swedish series The Sibelius Edition gathers together a four-disc miscellany of odds and ends from the composer’s back catalogue, and is essential listening for fans of the Finn.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Giulietta finale

I have found these 2 clips on YouTube, which demonstrate Offenbach's original finale to the Giulietta act. I'm pretty sure  we didn't hear this music last night.

And in fact, in Michael Kaye's original edition, which came out before the Giulietta finale manuscript appeared, he did his own very creditable reconstruction. You can hear that here:-

Tales of Hoffmann at the London Coliseum

To the London Coliseum last night (Friday 10th February) to see the first night of Richard Jones's new production of The Tales of Hoffmann The production was first seen last year at the Staatsoper in Munich.

It is some years since ENO performed The Tales of Hoffmann. Graham Vick's production had a very short life and did not succeed in replacing the previous production (which I saw in the late 1980's). ENO have always shown greater interest in the textual problems in the opera, whereas Covent Garden's long running production (directed originally by John Schlesinger) has resolutely set its face against textual innovation and stuck quite firmly to the traditional score, with the odd bit of tinkering.

The programme book for Friday's performance told us that the edition was that of Michael Kaye and Jean-Chrisopher Keck, which is a good start; the Kaye/Keck edition is the most scholarly that we have so far. But decisions still need to be taken, the surviving material for the opera is more like a set of source material from which excisions and inclusions must be made. None of this was covered in the programme book, as used to be the case here; I like to know exactly what I am hearing and why. I understand that in Munich, Richard Jones had a strong hand in deciding what material should be performed, it is a pity that we could not have learned a bit about this.

Instead, all one could do was listen.

The good news is that a pretty full version of the opera was being used, which benefited Christine Rice's Niklausse, enabling Rice to present the fullest possible version of the character complete with the aria in the prologue and a lot else besides. The bad news is that the opera was performed with sung recitatives. No explanation given. That the cast were all English speaking would seem to have been a good opportunity to perform the work with spoken dialogue; in Munich the cast were polyglot and singing in French, so one can understand the desire to use the recitatives. My problem with the recitative version is that of pacing, it seems to inflate things (recitative is inherently slower than dialogue). Undoubtedly Offenbach WOULD have produced a fully sung version, but we have no way of knowing how he would have done this. What this does mean is that it is no longer possible to hear the opera comique version of The Tales of Hoffmann  in London; in fact, if you travel to Paris you the Bastille Opera perform a modified version of the traditional version, complete with sung recit as well!

In Act 1 (Olympia), for Coppelius (Clive Bayley) we had the trio rather than the non-canonic aria ('J'ai des yeux') used in the traditional version, all well and good. In Act 3 (Giulietta) we got quite a lot more than usual, with an extra aria for Giulietta (Georgia Jarman); which takes the role slightly away from the traditional rather dramatic Giulietta. We also got a duet for Giulietta and Hoffmann (Barry Banks) which I don't think I have heard before. We DID get 'Scintille Diamant', based on a melody by Offenbach but first included in the 1908 Monaco production; in fact it is this 1908 production which effectively created the traditional version of the opera. Thankfully we did not get the Sextet.

I am still waiting for some brave soul to take away the barcarolle from Niklausse; it never seems to make dramatic sense to me to have Niklausse singing the barcarolle with Giulietta. Did Offenbach actually intend this? Wouldn't it be better to have the singer playing Antonia's mother reappear and sing the duet with Giulietta?

Of course what we didn't get was a finale to Act 3, instead the end of the act seemed to simply evaporate. This is where I would have liked some discussion about exactly what we are hearing. The Keck/Kaye edition of the opera is now supposed to include all the material including the finale to Act 3. So was that what we heard? I have no idea, and that is very frustrating and a great omission on ENO's part.

And what of the production?

Well, Jones did not provide the radical re-invention of the opera that I'd imagined from reading the reviews of the Munich performances of this production. (Set design Giles Cadle, costume designer Buki Shiff)

The opera opened in Hoffmann's (Barry Banks) flat; a very grand bedsit, complete with wash basin and bed in the corner but with a piano and a very, very grand cabinet on one wall. It is out of this cabinet (which holds drinks) that Niklausse (Christine Rice) appears. The whole opera is set in Hoffmann's flat, but the decor changes with each act and for Giulietta the proportions are distorted. Effectively the whole thing takes place in Hoffmann's head and the characters are all his creations, so at the end in the Epilogue, all the characters from the opera appear and then disappear through the cabinet.

This worked very well and successfully linked the scenes. The most awkward moment dramaturgically was the moment in the prologue when Lindorf (Clive Bayley) appears. It wasn't at all clear quite who he was or what he was doing. But once the students appeared then we were off. The 'students' were all virtually identically dressed and seemed to be perhaps clones off Hoffmann, or simply older companions. Niklausse, by the way, was dressed as a schoolboy and stayed that way for the whole opera.

Regarding casting, all the roles were sung by the same singer; with Georgia Jarman as the soprano, Clive Bayley as the bass and Simon Butteriss in the comic tenor roles.

The Olympia act was set during Hoffmann's childhood (hence the doll) with Spalanzani (Iain Paton) and his female assistant, Cochennille (Simon Butteriss in amazing drag) giving a children's party. The chorus were all dressed in children's clothes and Barry Banks sported a pair of shorts for this act. The handling of the doll Olympia was done very well, with Jarman often swapping places with a real doll and for the Doll's song we saw Jarman's torso but the doll's legs. Olympia had a distinct look of a classic Disney cartoon heroine. Jarman sang the doll's song with a high degree of capability; inevitably she is a lyric soprano with an ability to sing coloratura rather than a specialist but her account of the role was accurate and a delight to listen to. Bayley made a beautifully oily and down at heel Coppelius.

For the Antonia act the flat turned dark and gothic, with Antonia all pale and wan with long dark hair. Bayley showed his merit by turning in a thrillingly creepy performance as Dr. Miracle. Butteriss was, thankfully, out of drag for the role of Frantz and was nicely hilarious in his solo number.

For Giulietta, all proportion had gone. The shaving mirror was now lifesize (and became the mirror used to take away men's souls). As the act opened we had a group of men (the chorus) waiting outside the flat as Giulietta's customers entering one by one and having their soul taken in the mirror (a neat bit of stagecraft her).

Then for the epilogue we were back in the flat as depicted in the prologue except that now the walls were covered in Hoffmann's drawings. There was no real apotheosis, no transformation, Rice simply sang her aria.

What lifted the opera wasn't so much the ideas behind Jones's staging but the stunning performances that he got from his cast. Clive Bayley gave a performance of a lifetime as the four villains, turning in a radically different character in each act; but also singing the role quite fabulously. If the higher lying passages were a strain for him, he didn't show it. I don't think I have heard this singer do anything better.

Georgia Jarman was a similar revelation as the soprano. She is new to me and was nicely capable in each act. If that sounds dismissive, it shouldn't. To sing the soprano heroines capably requires a singer of wide talents. Granted, Antonia wasn't quite a lusciously well upholstered as is sometimes the case when the role is divided between 3 singers. But in Act 1 Jarman revealed a pleasing and accurate coloratura and a nice sense of humour. In Act 2 she looked suitably wan, but her melodic phrasing was beautifully done; musically it was a nicely shaped performance. In Act 3 she contributed some fine singing, but with the extra material sending the role of Giulietta closer to Olympia and further away from the traditional dramatic mezzo account, Jarman seemed to not quite pull the role together; though as I said she sang very well. And being as we had a singer playing Stella she actually sang in the Epilogue, which is all to the good.

Christine Rice was a knockout as Niklausse, nicely knowing and confiding in the audience in a cheeky way. Believably boyish; it has always amazed me that Rice, a singer who can look delightfully voluptuous in female roles, can turn herself into such a convincing young man. This was an infectious and involving performance; in fact, if the others had not been so strong, Rice could easily have dominated the show. As it was, we had a very, very fine ensemble.

And in the title role, Barry Banks showing that his attractive, lyric tenor has developed hidden strengths. There was never any doubt that he would be capable of singing the role, but it is a long role and I was delighted to note that he came to the end without sounding noticeably tired. All in all a brilliant performance.

Wearing a long dark wig he cut a striking figure on stage. Having Niklausse as a boy meant that Banks's height seemed hardly to feature as noticeable. Having him sing the title role meant that we were reclaiming the role for the lighter lyric like Alfredo Kraus (whom I saw in the role at Covent Garden in the 90's), rather than the bigger dramatic voices like Domingo (who sang the role when the Covent Garden production was new). Bank's has quite a light, bright voice, not a big rich one; not that there were any balance problems, just that tonally it is full of higher, lighter elements. This gave a distinctive 'tinta' to his performance which worked well I think. This was another career defining role I would think, quite a stunning performance.

The smaller roles were all very well done; Iain Paton as Spalanzani, Graem Danby as Antonia's father, Luther (and also Giulietta's first client), Catherine Young as Antonia's mother.

3 of the students from the prologue followed Hoffmann round, watching (and participating) in each of the acts and each act started with Hoffmann and them in front of the act drop (depicting a pipe, which featured heavily in the student acts).

As usual with Jones there were little points there would seem to bear more examination. In acts 1 and 2 there was a small sculpture of a gorilla; in act 3 this became a man in a gorilla suit who crawled across the stage a few times.

The opening of act 3 was delayed by technical problems, but that did not seem to affect the performance.

The ENO orchestra, on stunning form, was conducted by Antony Walker (Australian born, now based in the USA), who had conducted the Lucia di Lammermoor here. He succeed in doing the near impossible and making the recitative version of the opera move with pace, keeping the drama and making the piece flow in a way which does not always happen.

All in all a great night in the theatre and a shame that the house was not sold out.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Rosenkavalier conundrum

Now Hugo von Hoffmanstahl's libretto for Der Rosenkavalier is one of the great libretti in operatic history and virtually a work of literature in its own right. It was carefully constructed by Hoffmanstahl and Strauss so must be exactly what was meant. Which leads me to the oddity of the opening of the 3rd Act. What is going on?

Now, we know that Octavian and the Italian intriguers are planning a trap for Ochs, the intention being to get Ochs to try and seduce Mariandel (Octavian in disguise), with a false message to Faninal ensuring that Ochs prospective father-in-law sees what a rogue his son-in-law really is. Annina (the female Italian intriguer) is pretending to be Ochs's wife and children have been hired (in many productions these are the 3 noble orphans from Act 1).

That it all goes horribly wrong because of the presence of the Watch, Sophie Faninal and the Marschallin is quite clear.

But why on earth are there a bunch of blokes who are hidden in trapdoors and other places around the room. What have they to do with Octavian's plot? Is his intention to scare Ochs so that he behaves irrationally? When I first read the libretto I had assumed that they were being hidden so they could spy on Ochs and Mariandel, but a careful reading of the text makes it clear that they are there to jump out on signal, something which is included in Strauss's orchestration. They feel redundant and seem to be present simply to add a bit of fun, so that the open of Act 3 can have the requisite busy-ness. I have often wondered what a cut Act 3, shorn of this business would be like. The opening section would be far shorter, just an orchestral prelude perhaps with a short scene between Octavian and the intriguers before Ochs comes in. Then the incursions of the hidden men later on would be removed. What would the effect be, better or worse?

Wednesday 8 February 2012


Thelma is frankly not a very promising title for an opera. Norma cuts the mustard, but the name Thelma has too many odd contemporary references to be taken seriously at first. Thelma is in fact the name of the heroine of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's first (and only) opera. The opera was rejected by Carl Rosa Opera and the composer consigned it to a draw to be forgotten. Now the piece is receiving its world premiere, tomorrow, at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, presented by Surrey Opera in a production directed by Christopher Cowell.

By all reports, Coleridge-Taylor's music for the opera is strikingly attractive but the libretto leaves a lot to be desired. The libretto is the reason why Carl Rosa Opera rejected the piece and Christopher Cowell has had a go at improving things for this performance. Cowell has stuck to Coleridge-Taylor's plot and to his rhyming scheme; I'm afraid that my heart sinks when I think of a libretto in rhyming English, but there you are.

We are promised a grand romantic opera, something that  English composers do not seem to have been good at creating. Plenty had a go, but few, very few, seem to actually work on the stage. (Sullivan's Ivanhoe anyone?). Coleridge-Taylor was coming rather late to the party, Thelma was written in 1907, and composers now had to deal with not only Wagner's influence but Debussy's. Coleridge-Taylor died far too early to give any indication whether he would have had another go at opera, but his best pieces such as Hiawatha have an infectious romanticism that would have seemed to make him perfect for opera.

The performances are part of a year long festival of events celebrating Samuel Taylor-Coleridge.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Norma conundrum

There are few dramatic conundrums in early 19th century Italian opera because the drama is essentially non-realistic so that you have to suspend disbelief for long periods of time. But in Bellini's Norma, the fact that Norma has been able to conceal a long-term affair with Pollione and the production of two children seems to stretch belief to beyond credulity. In fact most directors don't even try and simply present the events as fact and leave the audience to wonder, perhaps the the local populace are particularly credulous or stupid?

When Ian Judge's production of Norma was new in Scotland the title role was sung by Jane Eaglen. The doctor friend I was with commented that it was the only time that the pregnancy issue was believable as it would have been all to easy for some one of Eaglen's (very) substantial frame to have concealed the pregnancy. This might not have been Judge's idea, the casting was probably done on the basis of Eaglen's preeminent fitness for the role rather than her ability to believably hide two pregnancies.

But one idea of Judge's I did find particularly striking. During Casta Diva he was obviously concerned to ensure that Norma stood out amongst the assembled populace (and the stage at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow does not offer that much space). So the chorus prostrated themselves in front of their priestess and sang the chorus parts of the aria in this prone position. Very, very effective.

Sunday 5 February 2012

CD Review - Tosca

This disc is the record of a milestone in the history of the post-war Covent Garden opera company. When re-founded in 1946, the company had acted very much as an English repertory company, with occasional foreign visitors and guests (such as Kirsten Flagstad and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf). For the June 1955 revival of Puccini's Tosca all 3 principals and the conductor were Italian guests, the first time that all principals had been guests.It represented Tebaldi's first appearance a the Covent Garden theatre and gives us the chance to hear Tito Gobbi live in a role which he had recorded with Callas in 1953.

Tebaldi is a supremely aristocratic Tosca, beautifully sung with a gloriously fine line. Hers is a disciplined, well schooled voice which sounds glorious. Tebaldi sings in paragraphs, contributing beautifully moulded phrases, as compared to Callas who illuminates every single note. Recorded live, the performance comes with an added dramatic edge. The scene in Act 2, between Gobbi and Tebaldi is thrilling. But if you took the performance of Vissi d'arte out of context, I don't think that you would find it the most powerful on disc. Ultimately, though, this is a vividly dramatic performance but one that is also well schooled and, above all, well sung.

Ferruccio Tagliavini has the sort of tenor mannerisms that it is easy to deride; the opening phrase of Vittoria in Act 2 is horrendously extended and we get a sob in Act 3. But it is the sort of open throated, dramatic performance of the roale that has become a rarity nowadays. It is pointless castigating Tagliavini for being what he is, a stereotypical Italian tenor of his period. Instead we should enjoy the freedom of his voice, the good sense of line and the rapport with Tebaldi's Tosca.

Gobbi's Scarpia is above all an aristocrat, one corrupted and made vicious by power, but an aristocrat all the same. A commanding presence, he dominates the close of Act 1, just as Scarpia should (I write this with memories of a recent live performance where the baritone didn't). His recording with Callas is a complete performance, but recorded live this is a thrilling event.

Certainly that is what this feels like, we are eaves-dropping on a real event. But when I first put the disc on my heart sank as I listened to the boxy sound of the orchestra in the prelude. However my ears soon attuned, and the voices are captured with remarkable clarity; their diction coming over well. The recording comes from a BBC broadcast made on June 30th 1955 and generally has remarkable stability.

The rest of the Covent Garden regulars in the smaller roles provide good support, with Michael Langdon as Angelotti and Howell Glynne as a characterful Sacristan.

Conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli doesn't frighten the horses and though sympathetic to his singers foibles, generates a good dramatic performance.

Inevitably this is not a library recording. But there are many reaons for wanting it as an extra on the library shelves, with notable performances from all 3 principals.

Puccini - Tosca
ica classics ICAC 5022 2CD's [42.45, 67.00]

Tosca - Renata Tebaldi
Cavaradossi - Ferruccio Tagliavini
Scarpia - Tito Gobbi
Angelotti - Michael Langdon
Sacristan - Howell Glynne
Spoleta - David Tree
Sciarrone  - Ronald Lewis
Un carceriere - Rhydderch Davies
Shepherd boy - Noreen Berry

Chorus and Orchestra of Covent Garden
Francesco Molinari-Pradelli

Recorded live June 1955

Magid El-Bushra

On Wednesday we went to a private concert, raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust; at which counter-tenor Magid El-Bushra and lutenist Simon Linne played a selection of lute songs by Dowland and Purcell. It is a programme that they both recorded and played before, and this concert formed the beginning of a short tour that they are making. El-Bushra was born in the Sudan and studied at Magdalen College, Oxford and the RCM.

For all the apparent exoticism of his origin, El-Bushra speak and sings mellifluously beautiful English (he gave witty spoken introductions to the songs). Hearing this repertoire in a private surroundings was perfect, after all these are songs that were originally written for domestic consumption. El-Bushra has a beautiful voice and sang the lute songs as if he'd been doing so all his life. He and Linne opened with Dowland's Sorrow stay, and finished with Purcell's Evening Hymn, along the way taking in Dowland's Flow my tears and Come heavy sleep as well as Purcell's The fatal hour and Dear pretty youth. This latter, a theatre song for a female character, received an amusing performance from El-Bushra. In order to demonstrate that Dowland was not always gloomy, they performed his When Phoebus first did Daphne love. Simon Linne played two preludes by John Wilson as solos. For the Purcell pieces Linne played on a reconstruction of an English theorbo, slightly different to the Italian variety.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Andreas Scholl at the Barbican

Last night Andreas Scholl and the Kammerorchesterbasel arrived at the Barbican with their all Bach concert; the second leg of a tour which started on Wednesday in Birmingham. The tour is, of course, tied in to a CD of Bach cantatasThe orchestra were quite few in number; just 3 first violins, 3 second violins and 2 violas. They opened with the sinfonia from Bach's cantata BWV 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuss in Grab, which includes a substantial oboe part, in fact the sinfonia is related to one of Bach's lost oboe concertos.

This was followed by the cantata Ich habe genug BWV82, in the version for alto voice. The cantata was written for bass voice but Bach went on to produce versions for soprano and for alto. Scholl was joined by oboe player Kerstin Kramp. Almost the first thing I noticed was that the balance between Scholl and band seemed to favour the instruments. The group works without a conductor, which of course means there is no-one out front to adjust balance in different halls. It may be that they adjusted things after the interval, or perhaps my ears simply compensated, but the cantata after the interval seemed far better balance.

After the interval we got the keyboard concerto No. 5 in F minor, excellently played by Giorgio Paronuzzi, the group's keyboard player. Unfortunately the instrument he was playing on was hardly a match for the orchestral sound and the instruments easily dominated it, so some of Paronuzzi's sparkling keyboard work got lost. In a hall the size of the Barbican you need a pretty big harpsichord to use as a solo instrument.

The second cantata was Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169 where the band were joined by two oboes and an oboe da caccia. For the closing chorale the voice parts were sung by the string players (plus someone who seemed to be the orchestral manager), a rather neat and interesting solution/

Scholl was in good voice and turned in fine, disciplined performances. The alto parts (written probably for boy altos rather than counter-tenor), seem to lie in predominantly in his upper range and he sang quite lightly but very beautifully. This was a controlled and quite intense performance rather than being overtly demonstrative (despite Scholl's rather oddly swaying platform manner), beautifully poised and profoundly beautiful. Scholl first sang Bach's music as a boy treble and he seems to find a strong affinity with it.

The Barbican Hall was full and the audience was very, very enthusiastic. The concert was actually quite short (the advertised programme finished at 9.15pm having started at 7.30pm with a 20 minute interval) and we only got 1 encore, the aria Schlage doch gewunschte Stunde from a cantata once attributed to Bach but now accepted as being by Melchior Hoffmann. It includes the unusual instrument of a glockenspiel (presumably originally a carillon) playing the bells the text refers to.

A lovely concert which, for all the great beauties, felt a little slim.

Friday 3 February 2012

Opera Holland Park 2012 season

Opera Holland park have announced their new season. As usual it is an interesting mix of core repertoire with one or two less familiar items. Opera Holland Park has become known for its championing of lesser known works by the verismo school. This year they are doing Zanetto a 1-act opera by Mascagni, first performed in 1896. It is a relatively miniature piece, using just 2 singers and with a gentle score that is a long way from the world of Cavelleria Rustican, but then Mascagni had a habit of not writing the same thing twice. The singers are Patricia Orr (in the title role, a trouser role) and Janice Watson. It will be paired with Gianni Schicchi, which needs no introduction, but in fact this will be OHP's first production of the opera. Alan Opie will be taking the title role.

Another comedy closes the season, Verdi's Falstaff in a production by Annilese Miskimmon (always someone to watch) with OHP regular Olafur Sigurdson in the title role, conducted by Peter Robinson. The season opens with Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The director is Olivia Fuchs, which should guarantee some interesting slants on the opera; she has contributed quite a few interesting productions at OHP in the past. The title role is sung by Elvira Fatyakhova, a Russian lyric coloratura soprano who has worked a lot in Australia singing Lucia, Elvira and Gilda. Edgardo will be sung by Aldo di Toro.

Core repertoire is covered in productions of Cosi fan tutte and Eugene Onegin. In Cosi director Harry Fehr will have a very interesting young quartet of soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Julia Riley, Andrew Staples and Dawid Kimberg. Llewellyn caused quite a sensation when she appeared as the Countess in the recent ENO Le Nozze di Figaro.  I have followed Riley's career with interest since college, with Cendrillon; since then she has contributed some very striking male roles in Handel and Cavalli. Fehr himself is an ex-ROH Young Artist.

Eugene Onegin will have Mark Stone in the title role, with Tatyana sung by Anna Leese who was in last year's L'Amico Fritz at OHP. Daniel Slater will direct; conductor Alexander Polianichko, making his OHP debut, comes with a very impressive pedigree.

For children, Tobias Picker's opera Fantastic Mr. Fox makes a return.

Pricing remains keen (£12.50 to £65.50), which given the high levels of production and casting seems a bargain. All in all an interesting season with a nice mix of the well known and the unusual, plus some very striking young singers.

Thursday 2 February 2012

ClassicalRock - Interview with John Axelrod

Classical Rock is a project which aims to combine the best hits from classical music with the best of classic rock; the intention is to avoid the 'elevator music' tag of much orchestral rock arrangements. The project has been conceived of by John Axelrod (aka MaestroX) with arranger Christophe Patrix (aka CPRX). Axelrod is strikingly positioned to combine the two genres, not only is he the Music Director of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire but prior to this he was A&R director for BMG/RCA Records and Atlantic Records where he was involved with such artists as the Smashing Pumpkins, Marc Cohen and Tori Amos.

Axelrod first presented a Classical Rock type programme at the Lucerne Festival to 4000 people in a hockey arena with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the lead singer of Krokus, Marc Storace. The project has now released a CD. The content mixes both classical music and rock music in good arrangements, with an interesting follow through between the items. So that a very upbeat performance of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries leads into Black Sabbath's Iron Man. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (performed the the choir Accentus and baritone Nmon Ford) leads into a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. The exoticism of  Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherezade is paired with Led Zeplin's Kashmir. And, inevitably, there is Stairway to Heaven (a piece I once conceived of using as the basis for a mass setting!), sung by Patsy Blackstone and paired with the sunrise from Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. And eclectic and interesting mix, but it does work. What the performance of  Bohemian Rhapsody demonstrates is what remarkable vocal range and talent Freddie Mercury must have had.

I was lucky enough to be able to conduct an email interview with John Axelrod to find out more about the project.

Though Classical Rock may appeal more to audiences familiar with rock music than classical, Axelrod hopes that the audiences will hear the music in a new way and appreciate it enough to come to more orchestra concerts. He thinks that the real mission for both Classical Rock and many other musicians is in developing audiences for classical music. He points out that without developing audiences for the classical repertoire, we lose the raison d'etre for the orchestra, and much of classic rock would have lost its most inspired influence.

Axelrod agrees that some people will consider the project at best a novelty and at worst classical crossover. But for him the juxtaposition of the classical repertoire and classic rock hits programmatically connected would make a unique and exciting experience, taking the listener on a magical mystery tour. Axelrod affirms that there is no dumbing down, that they are not interested in muzak. The orchestral arrangements of the classic rock used are unique and musical and they keep the sonic and artistic levels consistent between the genres.

Axelrod has performed the Classical Rock programme in Lucerne, Switzerland and the USA and recorded it in Prague. And in each case the orchestra has found it a refreshing experience.  Where he used rock singers in the arrangements Axelrod has found that every time he has asked if they would like to sing Stairway to Heaven with an orchestra, the answer was an immediate yes. He points out that there is a strong tradition of rock singers using orchestra as backing, citing Sting, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, and of course artists like Frank Zappa wrote music for symphony orchestra.

With his knowledge of both classical music and rock, Axelrod is eloquent on the way the history of rock intertwines with that of  the symphonic repertoire, citing the way rock arrangements over the years have taken inspiration from classical music. This traffic is not all one way of course, because classical musicians can love rock music too.

When I asked about the possibility of culture shock between the two worlds, he said that there wasn't any. That a choir like Accentus had loved singing on Bohemian Rhapsody, as had the baritone Nmon Ford. Also, of course, many orchestra play a wide variety of genres; the orchestra in Prague which recorded Classical Rock performs film music, sound tracks and pop music as well as the standard classical and operatic repertoire.

But to Axelrod culture shock can be a good thing too, opening up horizons and changing perspectives. Though he admits that there will always be those who will find such new ways of doing things too much of a shock, the trick is to find a balance between traditiona and modernism.

For Axelrod an important point is that the repertoire of  Classical Rock keys into memory and nostalgia in a way which he believes will help build new audiences; after all, classic rock tracks are part of most people's upbringing.

Classical Rock is an interesting project which seems to rise above the generally cynical world of muzak and crossover. If it can generate a new audience all well and good, though personally I am something of a cynic. But if it doesn't, what the hell; I have to say that there are some damn good tunes on the disc, so we can just sit back and enjoy them.

This Week’s Classical Music Round Up by The Arts Desk

The Arts Desk’s classical music writers this week take a look at some sterling CD releases and a Prokofiev concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Graham Rickson’s first recommendation in his weekly classical CD round-up was a barnstorming recording of Handel’s early opera Agrippina, under the baton of René Jacobs. It’s an attempt to reconstruct the composer’s original intentions and the result is a roaring success. Despite the opera’s convoluted plot, this slightly trimmed-down version is thrillingly theatrical and energetically powered along by Jacobs. The entire cast give full-throttle yet believable performances, particularly Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Agrippina (whose acting chops outweigh the odd shrill note), Marcus Fink as Claudio and Neil Davies as Pallante, and the fun they are all having is both evident and infectious.

Next was Vasily Petrenko’s new Rachmaninov recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which is typically superb according to Rickson. Petrenko chooses the oft-overlooked Symphony No 3, and unveils it as an underrated classic, with its energy and memorable tunes reminiscent of the great Symphonic Dances and its action-packed cinematic feel. He also leavens the darkness of the piece by adding his own modern touches of wit, gloss and affirmation where necessary. The sweet but not sickly Vocalise and the Caprice bohémien make superb additions to finish.

Andy Findon, photo by StudioTime Photographers
And finally Rickson recommends flautist Andy Findon’s new CD, Density 21.5: Unaccompanied Works for Flute, a seemingly effortless disc comprising contemporary works by Edgard Varèse, Michael Nyman, David Cullens, Geoff Eales and Dave Heath, with a Bach partita thrown in as well. Findon can produce a wonderful range of sounds on the instrument, from winsome to percussive, and adds alto flute, piccolo and baritone sax to add depth and variety. The results are never monotonous or tiresome, and always enjoyable.

Meanwhile Alexandra Coghlan headed to the Royal Festival Hall to partake of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current season, “Prokofiev: Man of the People?” which aims to explore the humanity behind the music’s glossy façade. In this concert, Prokofiev’s ballet music was under scrutiny, particularly the lavish, lurid and knowingly grotesque Chout and the more constrained, mainstream Cinderella. A highly controlled Vladimir Jurowski conducted an exquisitely precise orchestra that itself had an abundance of humanity, though pianist Leon Fleisher attacked the problematic Fourth Piano Concerto with slightly more aggression than it could withstand. There was certainly plenty of impressive showmanship on display here, but Prokofiev’s soul remained somewhat elusive.

Concert Peace and Prosperity

The Peace and Prosperity Trust aims to raise funds to promote aspiring young Arab and Western artists and help them work with internationally renowned artists resulting in a greater understanding and fusion of Western and Middle Eastern music and culture. Their concerts also raise funds for other charitable organisations.

On 20th February they are presenting a concert, Eastern Voices - Western Echoes at the Cadogan Hall. Young artists from the trust, some of Middle Eastern origins, will be performing Western and Arabic repertoire with the Orion Orchestra conducted by Toby Pursuer, with guest start Dennis O'Neill. The concert will raise funds for the St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, which provides essential eyecare to the poorest inhabitants of the Middle East.

The singers in the concert include Samar Salame (soprano), Zeina Barhoum (soprano), Timothy Connor (baritone), Bassem Alkhouri (tenor), Mariam Tamari (soprano) and Tala Tutunji (piano), with original music for the concert has been written by composer Bushra El-Turk.

A worthy enterprise and a fascinating one. I don't have details of the programme but further details on the concert can be found on the Cadogan Hall website.

And here, from one of the Trust's previous concerts, is a performance of that unlikely but rather delightful Victorian song, The Holy City.

Conducted by Patrick Hawes and performed by the English Chamber Orchestra with Dima Bawab, Soprano and Ramzi Shomali, Pianist, in celebration of the work of the St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, produced by the volunteers of the Guild, ensuring all donations go directly to the Hospital, recorded 2009

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Rigoletto conundrum

Another interesting conundrum from Verdi, this time from Rigoletto. What is the significance of Sparafucile appearing just at that moment? Was he just touting for trade and generally in the habit of appearing on street corners asking people if they wanted the services of a friendly neighbourhood assassin. Or had he done some research and knew that Rigoletto might be needing his services. Are we to assume that the Duke, who seems to have been in the habit of frequenting Sparafucile's establishment, had dropped some sort of indication that the Duke was having an interesting liaison with Rigoletto's daughter.

Sparafucile's establishment is some sort of inn, so are we to assume that he is the sort of 'hail fellow well met' publican in whom people confide things? Is that why he is also a successful asssasin?

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