Thursday 31 August 2017

Ideas and creative energy: the final performances of Frank Castorf's Ring cycle at Bayreuth

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen; directed Frank Castorf, conducted Marek Janowski; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 23-28 2017 Star rating: 5.0
The last cycle of Frank Castorf's intelligent and interesting de-construction of the Ring

Berlin-based, avant-garde, theatre director, Frank Castorf, arrived on the Green Hill in 2013 and made his Bayreuth début with this Ring cycle in celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary. A renowned deconstructionist and a man for change, he poured plenty of new ideas and creative energy into his production which at first divided audiences but over the course of the production’s five-year life-cycle it seems to have won them over. Bob Dylan said the times are a-changin’ and Bayreuth’s right there! 2017 saw Castorf's cycle revived for the final time (seen 23-28 August 2017) at the Bayreuth Festival conducted by Marek Janowski with Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde, Stefan Vinke as Siegfried, Iain Paterson, John Lundgren & Thomas J Meyer as Wotan, Albert Dohmen as Alberich, Camilla Nylund as Sieglinde and Christopher Ventris as Siegmund.

Iain Paterson (Wotan), Nadine Weissman (Erda) - Wagner: Das Rheingold - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Iain Paterson (Wotan), Nadine Weissman (Erda) - Wagner: Das Rheingold
Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
But change, I feel, is necessary at Bayreuth to ensure a healthy future for the festival. Castorf has seen to that. Wieland Wagner, though, came before him. He ushered in a new dawn on the Green Hill when he dumped the elaborate naturalistic sets and grand productions common in his grandfather’s day replacing them by minimalist affairs. But he faced forceful opposition in doing so. For instance, his Brechtian-influenced Parsifal in 1951 - the first Bayreuth Festival after the Second World War - was booed to bits in company with Patrice Chéreau’s politically-motivated centenary Ring in 1976. Surprisingly, today, they’re now hailed as masterpieces. So ist das Leben!

Wieland was also derided for his 1956 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Stripped of its pageantry, Bayreuth audiences saw it as an outrage and the breaking up of a most ‘sacred German Wagner tradition’. His niece, Katharina Wagner, followed in his wake and received more or less the same treatment for her 2007 production of the same opera. Unfairly so, in my humble opinion.

As for Castorf he was derided, too, mainly for brazenly shifting the scenario of his Ring from its traditional romantic Rhineland setting to the rough-and-tumble world of oil prospecting with scenes set in the USA, Germany and the Soviet Union. Therefore, ‘black gold’ became the treasured Nibelung hoard. But it was just too much for the Bayreuth ‘traditionalists’ to bear and the Bayreuth booing mafia came out in droves. However, the music and libretto remained as Wagner ordered. Nothing changes in this respect. It’s holy ground!

Wagner: Die Walküre - Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Walküre (Act 3)- Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Castorf is artistically adventurous as they come and his productions often involve incessant screaming and garbage-littered stages. Therefore, a few discarded old tabloid pages (most probably those with bad reviews) found their way on to the sets of Die Walküre and Siegfried. However, I found Castorf’s Ring an invigorating and thrilling production not least by the colourful and detailed sets ingeniously designed by Serbian-born artist Aleksandar Denić and constructed on an extremely large revolving stage built on a variety of levels while Adriana Braga Peretzki’s costumes were strikingly colourful to say the least.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

La Clemenza di Tito at the BBC Proms

Robin Ticciati and the OAE - Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Glyndebourne Opera at the BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Robin Ticciati and the OAE - Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Glyndebourne Opera at the BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Mozart La Clemenza di Tito; Anna Stephany, Alice Coote, Richard Croft, Joelle Harvey, Michele Losier, Clive Bayley, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, cond: Robin Ticciati; Glyndebourne Opera at the BBC Proms
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Strong musical values, and intense performances in this semi-staging at the Proms

Anna Stephany - Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito - Glyndebourne Opera at the BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Anna Stephany (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
The advantage of Glyndebourne Opera’s performances at the BBC Proms is that they give us a chance to concentrate on the music making. And there was plenty of high-quality music-making on offer at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 28 August 2017 when Glyndebourne Opera performed Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Robin Ticciati conducted the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Richard Croft as Tito, Alice Coote as Vitellia, Anna Stephany as Sesto, Joelle Harvey as Servilia, Michele Losier as Annio and Clive Bayley as Publio. Iain Rutherford’s semi-staging was based on the production by Claus Guth, with designs by Christian Schmidt.

With the orchestra pushed well back on the platform, the opera was performed in two areas, the fore-stage and a raised area behind the orchestra. Rutherford’s blocking made very effective use o the Royal Albert Hall. The remains of Schmidt’s sets, modern arm-chairs, clumps of corn and rather plastic-looking rocks, puzzled somewhat. The costumes were stylish modern dress, though somewhat drab in colour except for that of the actor playing Berenice, Tito’s lost love.

This was very much a modern-day production with contemporary mores, there was little of the classical nobility often associated with the work. Richard Croft’s Tito was wracked throughout with extreme emotion and his clemency was hard won, with some violence done to the musical line of the recitative (granted, this is not by Mozart but he must have approved of it). Similarly Vitellia and Sesto’s relationship was very physical, we first encountered Alice Coote and Anna Stephany in a very compromising clinch.

Anna Stephany made a very lithe, youthful Sesto, convincing in masculinity and very much suggesting Sesto’s youth, and the gap in ages between him and Alice Coote’s maturer Vitellia. Stephany’s performance was similarly lithe, her slim mezzo-soprano voice offering us a combination of shapely line and vibrant passion. ‘Parto; ma tu ben mio’ was taken quite slowly in the opening section with great freedom in the phrasing, but Stephany and the clarinettist really conveyed the music’s intensity whilst Sesto’s final aria, the rondo ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ was beautifully shaped, rising to strong emotion at the end.

Vitellia is a role that Alice Coote seems to have been born to play, a complex character whom we don’t quite love but can understand.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Knitted into a seductive whole: Lully's Armide from Christoph Rousset & Les Talens Lyriques

Lully: Armide - Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset - Aparte
Lully Armide; Marie-Adeline Henry, Antonio Figueroa, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Aparte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 25 2017 Star rating: 5.0
Lully's final opera in an engagingly stylish and passionate performance

Lully's Armide has done very well on disc, with versions from William Christie, Philippe Herreweghe, Ryan Brown. This latest recording from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, on Aparte, was recorded live at the Philharmonie in Paris with Marie-Adeline Henry as Armide, Antonio Figueroa as Renaud plus Judith van Wanroij, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Marc Mauillon, Douglas Williams, Cyril Auvity, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Etienne Bazola, and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur.

Armide was Lully's last collaboration with Quinault. It premiered in 1686 the year before Lully's death in a rather cooler atmosphere than his previous operas. Under Marie de Maintenon's influence Louis XIV's court had turned to devotion rather than pleasure, and the fact that Lully managed to get caught in an affair with one of the King's music pages certainly did not help things, and Armide was not premiered at Versailles. But the opera remained popular with the opera going public with regular revivals during the 18th century.

Lully's musical style was hardly innovative, but combined with Quinault's finely structured librettos the results can charm and seduce particularly here when, to a modern audience, the plot seems rather less diffuse than in some of Lully's operas. The main elements of the piece concern the hero Renaud during the First Crusade. He alone seems to be able to resist the sorceress Armide's power, and she resorts to magic to seduce him but then finds herself troubled that Renaud's love is not of his own volition. Cue some striking scenes, the people of Damascus celebrating Armide's victory, demons transformed into flying zephyrs, Armide putting Renaud to sleep, her calling upon Hate (La Haine), the monsters which terrify the knights trying to rescue Renaud, and of course all the seductions of Armide's arts.

Lully's music is very dance-based in style and Christophe Rousset and the orchestra are on dazzling form, playing in a stylish, seductive manner. The sense of dance runs its way through the music, creating a real feeling of the style of the work, and Rousset has a real knack with phrasing Lully's music to bring out the best.

L'Elisir d'Amore in the woods

Music at Woodhouse - Donizetti: L'elisir d'amore
After a successful season performing Italian and French Baroque opera, Woodhouse Opera is rounding off the season with performances of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore at Woodhouse Copse, Hombury St Mary, RH5 6NL on 9 & 10 September 2017. Marcio da Silva conducts his Ensemble OrQuesta, and Da Silva shares directing honours with Monika Saunders who designs the set and costumes. The cast includes Emmanoel Velozo, Jenny Stafford, Diogo Oliveira and Alistair Olleranshaw.

The performances take place in Woodhouse Copse's woodland theatre, and they are offering a shuttle service from the station, simply hop on the 14:01 train from Victoria to Dorking (13:49 on Sunday) and our shuttle service will transport you to Woodhouse Copse. Tickets are £40 including the transportation to and from Dorking station. Full details from the Woodhouse Opera website.

Monday 28 August 2017

Quickening on iTunes and Amazon

Quickening: Songs by Robert Hugill to texts by English and Welsh poets
In advance of the disc's release on 8 September on Navona Records, Quickening has made it to iTunes, and both and (so far the download version, but the physical CD is coming). Slightly frustratingly my name has got missed off, but we are getting there!

Quickening: songs by Robert Hugill to texts by English and Welsh poets - settings of Rowan Williams, A.E.Housmann, Ivor Gurney and Christina Rosetti performed by Anna Huntley, Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris and William Vann on Navona Records.

Session report: Recording the music of Kenneth Fuchs for Naxos

Kenneth Fuchs
Kenneth Fuchs
On Tuesday (22 August 2017) I visited Abbey Road Studios to eavesdrop on one of the sessions where conductor JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) were recording the music of contemporary American composer, Kenneth Fuchs

The disc, to be released in 2018, is going to be the fifth of a series of Fuchs' music on the Naxos label, and will include recordings of Fuchs Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra ('Glacier') with soloist D.J.Sparr, Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra ('Rush') with soloist Timothy McCallister, Piano Concerto ('Spiritualist') with soloist Jeffrey Biegel and Poems of Life with counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.

Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956) is professor of music composition at the University of Connecticut (Storrs). Fuchs studied at the University of Miami and the Juilliard School, and his teachers included Milton Babbitt, David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti and David Del Tredici. One of his fellow student at the Juilliard was conductor JoAnn Falletta, and she has conducted the LSO in all five of the discs for Naxos' American Classics series.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (photo Faye Fox)
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
(photo Faye Fox)
I heard part of the recording session for Poems of Life a setting of poems by Judith G. Wolf, in fact it was JoAnn Falletta who introduced Fuchs to Wolf's poetry. The work was premiered in April 2017 with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, with counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and the principal cello of the orchestra, Michael Daniels playing the solo cello part. (read the review on BachTrack) In fact, Fuchs wrote the work for cellist Michael Daniels and his brother, counter-tenor David Daniels. But David Daniels was unable to take part in the premiere and Nussbaum-Cohen stepped in at the last minute fresh from his prizewinning performances at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Nussbaum Cohen learned the score in just 48 hours.

Fuchs' style is tonal and richly romantic, but highly individual and certainly well worth investigating. From what I hear, Poems of Life is a highly striking work, with the singer accompanied by an orchestra consisting of strings with a few wind instruments, piano and harp. The composer describes the solo cello as 'the instrumental doppelgänger of the protagonist’s spirit and emotions' and the significant cor anglais part represents the spirit of the lost beloved.

Saturday 26 August 2017

'Nowadays young people cannot understand how anyone could have taken Meyerbeer's influence seriously' - George Bernard Shaw

A look at the rise, fall and slow resurgence of the work of the most successful composer on the 19th century stage, Giacomo Meyerbeer, a story which takes in changes in style, personal spite and anti-Semitism.
Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Her Majoesty's Theatre, London in 1858
Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Her Majesty's Theatre, London in 1858
In the mid to late 19th century, one of the most performed opera composers (if not the most) was Meyerbeer. His French operas, Robert le Diable, Les Huguenots, Le Prophete and L'Africaine spread across the globe. In the mid-1850s the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden in London was performing Les Huguenots (in Italian as Gli Ugonotti, with Grisi as Valentine), and Le Prophete (in Italian with Viardot as Fides and Tamberlik as Jean), alongside operas by Donizetti including I Martiri (an Italian version of Les Martyrs), La Favorita and Lucrezia Borgia, plus the comedies, Rossini's Otello, Matilda di Shabran and Il Barbiere di Sivigla, Bellini's I Puritani and Beethoven's Fidelio, and Auber's Masaniello. This list is not exhaustive but it is worth noting that six of the operas were written for Paris.

Later in the century, in the 1880s, the great Polish tenor Jean de Reske would be performing Raoul in Les Huguenots and Jean in Le Prophete alongside Walther in Die Meistersinger, the title role in Lohengrin, Romeo in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and the title role in Gounod's Faust. But by the late 1890s, de Reske was performing the Gounod roles alongside Wagner (including The Ring), but no Meyerbeer.

A similar thing happened in France. In 1890, the year before the Paris premiere of Wagner's Lohengrin, there were no Wagner performances at the Paris Opéra, and 32 performances of Meyerbeer's four grand operas. In 1909, there were 60 Wagner performances, and only three of Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots being the sole work performed).

What happened?

Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in Karlsruhe (photo Matthias Baus)
Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in Karlsruhe (photo Matthias Baus)

Friday 25 August 2017

Debut recital: Luc Robert in Verdi arias

Luc Robert, Estonian National Opera, Risto Joost
Verdi excerpts from Luisa Miller, La traviata, Les vepres siciliennes, Macbeth, Un ballo in maschera, Nabucco, Rigoletto, Aida, Il trovatore; Luc Robert, Estonian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Risto Joost; ERP
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 25 2017 Star rating: 4.0
The French-Canadian tenor in arias spanning the lyric to the spinto

This intriguing disc features a French-Canadian tenor, Estonian forces, conductor and record company in Italian opera. Luc Robert sings arias by Verdi from Luisa Miller, La traviata, Macbeth, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, Aida, Il trovatore accompanied by the Estonian National Opera Orchestra, conductor Risto Joost whilst the orchestra and chorus perform items from Les vepres siciliennes, Nabucco, and Aida, on ERP (Estonian Record Productions)

Whilst Luc Robert's performances have includes ones in his native Canada (with Canadian Opera Company) and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where he debuted in Ernani in 2015), many of his key spinto roles have been with companies in Finland, Sweden and Germany along with Estonia. He is clearly moving into spinto roles, but keeping some lyric ones and on this disc he moves from roles like the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La traviata to Manrico in Il trovatore. Rather frustratingly, despite being French-Canadian, there are no samples of Verdi's French opera repertoire, so no arias from Don Carlos or Les vepres siciliennes.

Robert has an interesting voice, not conventionally Italianate but expressive and full of interesting dark tones.

Mozart vs Machine

Duncan Robertson - Mozart vs Machine - Mahoganny Opera Group
Duncan Robertson - Mozart vs Machine - Mahoganny Opera Group
Duncan Robertson - Mozart vs Machine - Mahoganny Opera Group
Duncan Robertson - Mozart vs Machine - Mahoganny Opera Group
Mozart vs Machine is a new opera by Dominic Robertson (also known as Ergo Phizmiz), a mad mix of Mozart, electronic sound and video which is being taken on tour by Mahoganny Opera Group. The tour opens in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall (17 September), followed by performances in Birmingham, Bristol, Norwich, London, and Exeter.

Directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, the piece features a cast including soprano Rebecca Bottone. Part surreal vaudeville, part philosophical debate, exploring creating music, random chance and the ownership of ideas, Mozart vs Machine brings together a wealth of historical figures including the father of electronic music, Raymond Scott. When a device Scott invents to create random musical patterns accidentally tears a hole in the universe, it begins a fantastical encounter that brings him face to face with Mozart. All with a little help from film-pioneer Georges Méliès, Lewis Carroll’s logic games, composers John Cage and J S Bach and a local chorus of senior citizen jurors.

The music features Robertson's re-mixes of Mozart, along with video projection and animation with live action breaking in. Expect an over the top spectacle.

Full details from the Mahoganny Opera Group website.

A riveting and exciting production: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner Die Meistersinger; Daniel Behle, Günter Groissböck, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Anne Schwanewilms, Klaus Florian Vogt, Michael Volle, dir: Barrie Kosky, cond: Philippe Jordan; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 19 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A new production of Wagner's comedy which imaginatively weaves in the work's history

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Bayreuth Festival - Daniel Behle (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Daniel Behle
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Barrie Kosky's production of Die Meistersinger at the Bayreuth Festival, new this year (seen 19 August 2017) featured Michael Volle as Hans Sachs, Anne Schwanewilms as Eva, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, Johannes Martin Kränzle, as Beckmesser, Daniel Behle as David, Günter Groissböck as Pogner and Wiebke Lehmkuhl, conducted by Philippe Jordan.

Barrie Kosky - artistic director of Komische Oper Berlin who depicts himself as a ‘gay Jewish kangaroo’, whom I find an innovative, flamboyant and at times a wonderfully-quirky director - was born in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Europe. A successful opera director, he will, no doubt, go down in history as the first Jewish director to hold court in Bayreuth Festival’s illustrious 141-year-old history and also the first person outside of the Wagner family to direct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth.

That’s quite an honour and I think, too, a significant step and a mighty big gesture by Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - of appointing Kosky as it backs up her viewpoint of bringing to the fore Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance and his family’s later association with Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. This vision is also reflected in the revamped exhibition focusing on the Bayreuth Festival housed in the newly-restored Villa Wahnfried (complete with a swishy new extension) where Wagner lived with his wife Cosima and their children from 1874 to 1882.

Although a museum since 1976 (it reopened to the public just before last year’s festival) this is the first time that the era of the Third Reich has found its place in the exhibition. Most certainly, the last piece of the jigsaw. You cannot erase history and neither should you. But at the same time the sins of the father cannot be brought upon the children.
And in Kosky’s riveting and exciting production of Die Meistersinger - a work that’s essentially a hymn to the supremacy of German art - Wahnfried features prominently in the first act replacing the traditional setting of St Catherine’s Church.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Gesualdo Six on tour

The Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
The Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
The Gesualdo Six is going on tour from 29 August 2017, the group's third Summer tour, taking in a variety of chapels and churches in the South of England (some with particular associations for the group) and performing programmes which mix of old and new, plus folk song arrangements and selection of light music alongside. The mix of favourite renaissance and modern works is intended to draw musical parallels despite the centuries that lie between the pieces. The tour kicks off in Trinity College Chapel (Cambridge, where the group gave its first concert just over three years ago) and then takes in the church of St John the Baptist (North Luffenham, Rutland), the church of All Saints (Northampton), the church of All Saints (Odiham), the church of St Mary Redcliffe (Bristol) and the church of St James the Great (Dursley, where one of the group's counter-tenors was a chorister from 2002-2006.

Vocal consort the Gesualdo Six, conducted by Owain Park, was formed in March 2014 for a performance of Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsorie for Maundy Thursday. Programmes focus mainly on early music, often alongside contemporary pieces. The group was in the finale of the 2015 London A Cappella Choir Competition and during 2015/16 the group was one St John's Smith Square's Young Artists, and their first CD comes out later this year.

Full details from the group's website and you can catch the group talking about the forthcoming tour on BBC Radio 3's In Tune on 28 August 2017.

A magnificent staging: Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - Ryan McKinny - (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - Ryan McKinny
(Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner Parsifal; Karl-Heinz Lehner, Ryan McKinny, Elena Pankratova, Andreas Schager, Derek Welton, Georg Zeppenfeld, dir: Uwe Eric Laufenberg, cond: Hartmut Haenchen; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 21 2017 Star rating: 5.0
In a thoughtful middle-eastern setting, the tenth production of Wagner's final opera at Bayreuth

Specifically written for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Parsifal became Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world completed in January 1882 and first seen in that year. This production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant des Hessischen Staatstheaters Wiesbaden) marks its tenth outing at the Bayreuth Festival since its première (seen on 21 August 2017). Hartmut Haenchen conducted, with a cast including Karl-Heinz Lehner, Ryan McKinny, Elena Pankratova, Andreas Schager, Derek Welton and Georg Zeppenfeld.

The philosophical ideas of the libretto fuse Christianity and Buddhism but the trappings of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem - focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his long quest for the Holy Grail - are essentially Christian based.

The composer actually described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the deeply-religious overtones the work harbours. Herr Laufenberg sensitively tackled this issue head on especially at the end of act one where one witnesses Amfortas, wearing a crown of thorns and covered only by a loin-cloth, re-enacting the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood (now seen as a community of Christian monks) gathered closely round him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Blood of Christ. It was a powerful and moving scene while the Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the gifted and talented American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny.

However, Herr Laufenberg, working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, turned the production upside down and inside out by dumping the traditional setting of Montsalvat - the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain - and switching it to Islamic State’s Middle Eastern-held territory of northern Iraq where Christianity (and so much more) is under threat as never before.
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival - (Photo © Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Therefore, a bomb-scarred and badly-damaged church provided the setting for the first act but its sanctuary lamp - commonly used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship - remained, surprisingly, intact. Here the monks go about their daily business of serving the needs of the homeless brought about by the ravages and misdeeds of war with families of mixed faiths sleeping on field hospital-type canvas beds as befitting a refugee camp and kept under tight surveillance by a small battalion of battle-dressed armed soldiers. Dominating their prison-type space was a huge circular basin used as a healing bath for Amfortas.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Viola and accordion: Duo van Vliet's Lachrymae Revisited

Lachrymae Revisited - Duo van Vliet - Orchid Classics
John Dowland, Benjamin Britten, Adam Porebski, Rory Boyle, Gavin Higgins, Toshio Hosokawa; Duo van Vliet; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Britten's viola classic re-invented, alongside contemporary works for this imaginative duo of viola and accordion

This disc from Duo van Vliet (Ian Anderson, viola, and Rafal Luc, accordion) on Orchid Classics gives an intriguing new take on Britten's Lachrymae (Reflections on a song of Dowland), re-casting in for viola and accordion. If that seems a rather unusual instrumental combination then try listening to the opening track on the album, John Dowland's If my complaints could passions move, in which the two instruments combine in a striking manner producing almost viol-like dark tones. There is more Dowland to finish the disc, but the main companions to the Britten are a sequence of contemporary pieces by Adam Porebski, Rory Boyle, Gavin Higgins and Toshio Hosokawa.

Rafal Luc (who is Polish) and Ian Anderson (who is Scottish) began playing together when studying at the Royal Academy of Music. The duo's name comes from Don van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart.

Philip Loubser Foundation inaugural Fellowship weekend

Gergely Madaras (Photo ©GARAS-Kálmán)
Gergely Madaras (Photo ©GARAS-Kálmán)
You may not have heard of the Philip Loubser Foundation (PLF) which was formed in the Netherlands in 1997, but it is responsible for helping to establish four major awards supporting young artists, the Royal Ballet School Nadia Nerina Scholarship, English National Opera Mackerras Conducting Fellowship, Royal College of Music Benjamin Britten Piano Fellowship and Toneelgroep Amsterdam International Ibsen Fellowship. 

For the weekend of 1 and 2 September 2017, the foundation is holding its inaugural Fellowship weekend when past and present holders of these fellowships will be able to come together. The foundation's founder Michael Loubser believes these opportunities for interaction between artists of different disciplines offer invaluable enhancement to their professional development.

Matthew Kofi Waldren
Matthew Kofi Waldren
So far the foundation has helped to launch the careers of 12 artists in 10 countries, and the intention is to create a family of fellows past and present, to allow younger artists to draw on the experience of their predecessors.

There are five current fellows, the ballet dancer Yu Hang; conductors Toby Purser and Matthew Kofi Waldren; pianist Alexander Ullman; and director Maren Bjørseth, and past recipients include the conductor Gergely Madaras, the first recipient of the ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship and now Music Director of Orchestre Dijon Bourgogne and Chief Conductor of Savaria Symphony Orchestra, Hungary.

Current recipients and alumni of Philip Loubser Foundation projects:

Toby Purser
Toby Purser
RBS Nadia Nerina Scholarship
Yu Hang - 2016-2018
Joonhyuk Jun - 2014-2017
Hannah Bettes - 2013-2015
Esteban Hernandez - 2010-2013

ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship

Toby Purser - 2016-2018
Matthew Kofi Waldren - 2016-2018
Fergus Macleod - 2014-2016
Gergely Madaras - 2012-2014

RCM Benjamin Britten Piano Fellowship
Alexander Ullman - 2016-2017
Pavel Kolesnikov - 2015-2016
Dinara Klinton - 2014-2015

TGA International Ibsen Fellowship
Maren Bjørseth - 2016-2019

A powerful, compelling and satisfying opera: Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Act 2) - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang
(Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
A powerful, compelling and satisfying opera: Tristan und Isolde; Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang, Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, René Pape, Iain Paterson, dir: Katharina Wagner, cond: Christian Thielemann; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 20 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A revival of Katharina Wagner's powerful production at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Stephen Gould, Petra Lang
(Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
This production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival first saw the light of day a couple of years ago immediately finding success with the cognoscenti of the Green Hill whilst also marking the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich. This revival, 20 August 2017, featured Stephen Gould as Tristan, Petra Lang as Isolde with Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, René Pape, Iain Paterson, and Christian Thielemann conducting.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest works ever written to pure erotic love echoing the legendary days of King Arthur, Tristan - which Wagner rated as one of his ‘favourites’ - is an emotional work to say the least. And Katharina Wagner - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - tapped into the opera’s emotional strength delivering a brilliant, powerful and compelling production that drifted at times from its traditional staging especially at the end. However, Wagner doesn’t seem to mind taking chances of finding new ideas in which to explore the works of her great-grandfather whom, I’m sure, would approve!

The first act is highly impressive not just musically speaking but visually, too. When we meet Tristan and Isolde they are already deeply in love and frantically searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne struggling to keep them apart but to no avail, of course. When they eventually meet it proved a powerful and emotive scene. They simply gazed longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepared for Isolde is immediately discarded by her. The couple’s love for each other was sealed right from the start.

But what makes this act so highly impressive and engaging is Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprising a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air an influence, perhaps, of Giovanni Piranesi or MC Escher. But it was Piranesi’s engraving Il ponte levatoio: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The drawbridge: the Imaginary Prison) cited in the programme.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Islington Music closes after 30 years

Islington Music, the music shop in Shillingford Street, Islington is closing in October after 30 years. They are having a grand clearance sale of music, from Tuesday (29 August). Head over to their website, so see the wide range of music available: 

An Eventful Morning in East London

An Eventful Morning In East London - Harriet Mackenzie
Paul Patterson, Deborah Pritchard, David Matthews, Robert Fokkens, Emily Doolittle; Harriet Mackenzie, Philippa Mo, English String Orchestra, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A striking disc of 21st century violin concertos

This disc from violinist Harriet Mackenzie, the English String Orchestra and the English Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods on Nimbus Alliance is an attractive mix of contemporary violin concertos under the intriguing title An Eventful Morning in East London, which is the title of one of the works on the disc. We hear concertos by Paul Patterson, Deborah Pritchard, David Matthews, Robert Fokkens and Emily Doolittle, and Harriet Mackenzie is joined by her colleague Philippa Mo from Retorica for Patterson's concerto.

Paul Patterson's Allusions for two solo violins and strings dates from 2007, it was commissioned by the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) to celebrate the composer's 60th birthday and OOTS premiered it conducted by David Curtis. Here Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo perform the work with the English String Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods. Now, the work is called Allusions for a particular reason, each movement is an allusion to a particular opera, Verdi's Falstaff in the first, Mozart's Don Giovanni in the second, and The Marriage of Figaro in the third. But, I have to admit that on first hearing, listening blind, I entirely missed the connections. What stood out for me, on first and subsequent listening was the way Patterson's writing was so much in the great line of English 20th century string music.

European premiere of Craig Hella Johnson's Considering Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard
I reviewed the premiere recording of Craig Hella Johnson's Considering Matthew Shepard in October last year (see my review), a work for choir and instrumental ensemble which places the tragic events of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard into the context of a Passion-type narrative. The work, which was written for Hella Johnson's choir Conspirare, is now receiving its European premiere on 21 October 2017 at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona, when Simon Halsey conducts Marta Mathéu, soprano, Gemma Coma-Alabert, mezzo, Manu Guix, tenor, Joan Martín-Royo, baritone, Orfeó Català, Cor Jove de l’Orfeó Català, Cor de Noies de l’Orfeó Català, with Craig Hella Johnson on piano and an instrumental ensemble.

I have to confess to having doubts about the work when I first reviewed the CD but there is no doubting that a work originally written for a professional choir will make an exciting and stimulating challenge for an amateur choir. Conspirare recorded the work with just 29 singers (who provided the soloists as well), and it will be interesting to see what perspective is brought by a performance with the far larger forces of Orfeo Catala with its youth choirs.

Craig Hella Johnson's Considering Matthew Shepard is performed by Orfeo Catala at the Palau de l Musica in Barcelona, further information from the Orfeo Catala web page.

Monday 21 August 2017

A relaxed end to the first season of Orchestras Live's Sound Around

Relaxed concerts seem to making something of presence in concert circles. Recently the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave a relaxed concert, as part of Orchestras Live's Sound Around, at Northampton's Royal and Derngate to a family audience of 300, including children with additional needs. Whilst the BBC Proms has given its first ever Relaxed Prom. The idea, of course, is not that those of us who are regular concert goers can listen to music with our shoes off and feet up, but that those who are not regular concert goers can learn to appreciate the classical music medium, without the regular constraints of a concert, something particularly appropriate for children with additional needs.

Sound Around is Orchestras Live's project creating opportunities for young people and those with special educational needs and disabilities to engage with live orchestral music. During the past year, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has participated in 24 octet concerts in special schools and nine full orchestra concerts, and the relaxed concert brought the season to a close. In the last few months, over 7000 children came to six concerts at three venues across England. And there were a total of three relaxed concerts with over 700 attendees. A special feature of Sound Around is the recruitment in each location of an inclusive team of Young Producers, who play a part in devising every aspect of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performances in these areas.

Sounds Around will be touring to Carlisle, Lowestoft and Reading during the project's second year. And last month Orchestras Live held a round-table discussion, Small Acts Are Radical, to explore how inclusive orchestral performances impact on developing new audiences in the long term.

Passion in context: Bach's St John Passion from the Dunedin Consort at the BBC Proms

The Dunedin Consort rehearsing Bach's St John Passion at the BBC Proms (Photo courtesy of the Dunedin Consort)
The Dunedin Consort rehearsing Bach's St John Passion at the BBC Proms
(Photo courtesy of the Dunedin Consort)
Bach's St John Passion performed within a reconstruction of the Leipzig liturgy for Good Friday Vespers; Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff, Dunedin Consort, John Butt; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Bach's passion performed in its original context

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's 2012 recording of Bach's St John Passion was ground-breaking for it putting the passion into the context of a reconstruction of the original Lutheran Vespers service. For the climax of the BBC Proms celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Butt and the Dunedin Consort performed Bach's St John Passion at the Royal Albert Hall in the context of Lutheran Vespers, with organist Stephen Farr performing chorale preludes by Bach and Buxtehude on the Royal Albert Hall Organ, and the audience being encouraged to join in the congregational chorales. The passion was performed by Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist), Matthew Brook (Jesus), with Sophie Bevan, Tim Mead, Andrew Tortise, Konstantin Wolff and Robert Davies.

But if we were expecting the same stripped down approach to the passion that John Butt uses on the recording, then we were in for a bit disappointment. Part of Butt's ethos when recording Bach is not only textual fidelity, but research into the original performance traditions. This meant that the CD re-created the Lutheran liturgy for Good Friday Vespers, and used a total of ten singers to perform all the solos and the choruses, with a similarly small instrumental ensemble. At the Royal Albert Hall, Butt had a professional choir of 36 and an orchestra with based around 33 strings.

Thankfully, the performance from Nicholas Mulroy as the Evangelist showed that you did not need large forces to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mulroy was riveting, easily communicating music and text, and singing largely from memory, this was spine-tingling narration. Mulroy is a highly involved and vivid performer, bringing out the extremes of the passion story, and imbuing the music with a remarkable range of colour. But, as with every good Evangelist, it was the text which really counted and Mulroy's level of involvement and projection made a gripping evening.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Large-scale beauties: Schoenberg's Gurrelieder at the BBC Proms

Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in rehearsal at the BBC Proms (photo courtesy of London Symphony Chorus)
Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in rehearsal at the BBC Proms (photo courtesy of London Symphony Chorus)
Schoenberg Gurrelieder; Simon O'Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill, Thomas Quasthoff, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 19 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Schoenberg's outrageous masterpiece in a performance which brought out the beauties of the work's orchestration

With its gargantuan forces and rather outrageous sense of heightened Romanticism, Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder seems an ideal work for the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. On Saturday 19 August 2017, Sir Simon Rattle brought the London Symphony Orchestra (whose artistic director he becomes next month) to the Proms to perform Schoenberg's late-Romantic masterpiece (a work that the orchestra would be unlikely to be able to perform in the confines of their regular home, the Barbican Hall). Rattle and the LSO were joined by three choirs, the London Symphony Chorus, the CBSO Chorus and Orfeo Catala (all three have Simon Halsey as director/chorus director/principal conductor) and soloists Simon O'Neill (Waldemar), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Tove), Karen Cargill (Wood-Dove), Peter Hoare (Klaus the Fool), Christopher Purves (Peasant) and Thomas Quasthoff (Speaker).

Schoenberg started the work in 1900, intending a song-cycle setting Jens Peter Jacobsen's verse sequence Gurresange in the recently published German translation. The work still has the feel of a song cycle, albeit in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde mode, even though Schoenberg decided to vastly expand the work and set the whole verse sequence (as well as adding an extra Jacobsen poem for the final section). Between 1900 and 1901 he drafted it all in short score, but it was not until 1910 that he completed the orchestration of the final part, and the work did not get its premiere until 1913. By the time he came to complete the orchestration, Schoenberg's style had changed radically, and the final section has a very different feel with greater fleetness and a far sparer use of the orchestra. These changes, owing to the work's long gestation, are akin to what happened to Stravinsky with Les Noces, which was conceived for large-scale Rite of Spring forces, but eventually orchestrated with a far smaller ensemble.

Not only does Schoenberg use large forces, but he is almost determinedly cavalier in their deployment. The women of the huge chorus only sing in the final number (the men's chorus has two numbers on their own), whilst many of the soloists have a single number (albeit a meaty one).

Though Rattle drew large scale sounds from his forces where necessary, with a resounding climax and some thrilling moments on the way, he was also determined to bring out the beauties of Schoenberg's orchestral writing, often paring the sound right down. It was beauty, transparency and elegance of the orchestral playing which really impressed. Given his huge orchestra, Schoenberg showed his mastery in the way he used the forces flexibly, and Rattle and his players brought this out.

Somewhere for the weekend: Gothenburg Opera

Gothenburg Opera
Gothenburg Opera
Gothenburg Opera's plans for 2017/18 include some items which make a weekend in this attractive city a tempting prospect, and there is also a Ring cycle being introduced from 2018 to 2021. Gothenburg Opera has a modern venue, designed by Jan Izikowitz of Lund and Valentin, which opened in October 1994. It seats 1,300 and boasts a state of the art acoustic enhanced by special egg-tempera acoustic paint.

But 2017/18 kicks off with an unusual double bill, Brecht/Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Perhaps a strange mix, it will be interesting to see what director David Radok (one of the house directors) does with it. Radok's father was a singer whose repertoire included the title role in the Puccini opera, and who had an exchange of letters with Brecht!

Mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus is going where a few mezzos have gone, and is taking up the title role in Bellini's Norma in a new production directed by Stephane Braunschweig which premiered at the Theatre de Champs Elysees in Paris. The production is conducted by Giancarlo Andretta. Rodula Gaitanou's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos is shared with Opera North, and is set in a 1950s Fellini-style film studio. Expect a combination of high-art, camp and slapstick.

In May 2018 the company is celebrating the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson in a gala which will include seven Swedish sopranos and one mezzo-soprano including Nina Stemme, Katarina Dalayman, Katarina Karnéus, Annlouice Lögdlund, Christina Nilsson, Annalena Persson, Elisabet Strid, Iréne Theorin, who will unite for the grand finale to sing together the Ride of the Valkyries.

Jonathan Dove's new piece for professional soloists, a professional actor, an adult community, youth and children choruses, The Monster in the Maze, receives its Scandinavian premiere in a new production which will be fully staged with 150 professionals and non-professionals on stage, directed by Mattias Ermedahl, conducted by Martin Nagashima Toft.

Further ahead, Stephen Langridge is directing Wagner's Ring Cycle for Gothenburg Opera, starting with Das Rheingold in 2018. Gothenburg Opera is a champion of ecological sustainability, and the whole cycle will be devised to be as ecologically sustainable as possible.

Full details from Gothenburg Opera website.

Saturday 19 August 2017

Singing Wagner: a continuation of our conversation with Claire Rutter and Dame Anne Evans

Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
We continue our conversation with Claire Rutter and Dame Anne Evans. Claire has recently sung her first major Wagner role, Sieglinde in Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera and was coached in the role by Dame Anne Evans whose Wagner experience included singing Brünnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival. I recently joined the two of them to talk about singing Wagner. This is the second part of the conversation, and you can read the first part here.

Claire admits that she will now put some of her lighter coloratura roles away, as she finds that she now enjoys singing other things more. Also, as singers get older the voice and the muscles change and the voice's centre of gravity can get lower. There are of course roles which can still be sung by a heavier voice, such as Elvira in Verdi's Ernani.

Dame Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at WNO in 1984 (Photo Clive Barda)
Dame Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre
at WNO in 1984 (Photo Clive Barda)
Claire's move into Wagnerian repertory is tricky, despite her experience, because frequently no-one is going to book you until they have heard you. So Claire feels that she was lucky that Wasfi Kani, of Grange Park Opera, had the vision to see Claire in the Wagner repertoire. Claire has sung quite a number of roles at Grange Park Opera (including Elvira in I Puritani, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and the title roles in Madama Butterfly and Tosca), and it was Wasfi who was the first person to book Claire to sing the title role in Bellini's Norma (another peak of the soprano repertoire) in 2009.

Claire has not sung much German repertoire in recent years, but whilst she was at the Guildhall School she sang at lot of lieder and sang Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder for her final recital. She had it in her mind that she would sing Wagner one day, but it just happened that she never had the opportunity. There is also the problem that opera companies get used to a singer in a particular repertory and cannot see them in anything else. In fact Claire sang her first major French role this season when she was Lia in Debussy's L'enfant prodigue with Scottish Opera.

Just as Claire came to study Sieglinde with Dame Anne, many other singers come to her as Dame Anne loves working with young singers on repertoire which she knows well and feels that it is important to pass things on. She adds that if distinguished older singers don't do this, then the younger ones will lose the style. Claire adds that she studied the role of Violetta with Ileana Cotrubas (herself a famous Violetta, Dame Anne describes Cotrubas' portrayal as so human). Cotrubas was famously a rather tricky person to be coached by, but Claire learned a lot about colour and passion, as well as not singing loudly. Claire also had coaching with Rita Hunter in the 1990s, and of course Hunter was singing Brünnhilde in The Ring at the London Coliseum when Dame Anne was singing smaller roles (and singing Violetta in La Traviata at the same time).

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