Saturday 30 June 2018

A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo

Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - the festival chorus (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - the festival chorus (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
With his production of Mozart's Idomeneo for the 2018 Buxton Festival (Idomeneo opens on 8 July 2018), director Stephen Medcalf is coming full circle in a number of ways. Whilst he has never directed the opera before he worked on it very early in his career, on Trevor Nunn's production of the opera at Glyndebourne in the 1980s (Nunn's first opera production) where Medcalf was a young assistant director. And Medcalf's first job as an assistant director was at Buxton, where he worked with director Malcolm Fraser (who co-founded the festival) on Kodaly's Hary Janos (with a cast which included Alan Opie, Cynthia Buchan and Linda Ormiston) and would go on to work on Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto the next year with Lesley Garrett

During rehearsal for Idomeneo, I recently met up with Stephen to learn more about this thoughts on directing Idomeneo.

Mozart: Idomeneo - rehearsals for Buxton Festival - Stephen Medcalf (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart: Idomeneo - Stephen Medcalf in rehearsal for Buxton Festival
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
After his early period at Buxton, Stephen returned to Buxton in the 2000s to direct a sequence of Donizetti operas with Andrew Greenwood conducting, and then for Stephen Barlow (artistic director of the festival since 2011) he has directed Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Beethoven's Leonore [see my review] and now Idomeneo.

Idomeneo is an opera that Stephen has always wanted to direct, it is the only major Mozart opera which has so far escaped him. He is thrilled to be doing it at Buxton where the Opera House is a perfect size for performing Mozart. He calls Idomeneo opera seria but not as we know it. Despite the opera seria form, Mozart uses a lot of devices to make it flow, thus advancing the form and transforming opera seria considerably. Stephen sees the work as very forward-looking, anticipating Mozart's later operas, and he cites the way the storm in Elettra's heart becomes the storm of the shipwreck.

Having directed the Mozart/Da Ponte opera and The Magic Flute three or four times each, Stephen finds the seeds of all the later operas in Idomeneo, you keep hearing echoes of phrases from these later pieces in the opera. And Stephen finds it extraordinary that Idomeneo was written by one so young, given the endless links to the later operas and the real insight into the characters.

Friday 29 June 2018

Truffles, fantasy and more: Alissa Firsova performances and recording

The composer Alissa Firsova has a lively diary over the coming months. In August, VIVAT will release a new CD of Firsova's music Fantasy - Music of Alissa Firsova, featuring the Tippett Quartet, clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, pianist Simon Mulligan, bass-baritone Nicholas Crawley, soprano Ellie Laugharne and herself on the piano. The programme includes her substantial 2016 string quartet, Tennyson Fantasy, commissioned by the Tippett Quartet, two works for clarinet and piano (both dedicated to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel), the clarinet quintet Loss, two vocal works on the theme of 'Paradise on Earth' and cellist Tim Hugh performing Fantasy of 2014.

There is also a chance to hear Firsova's Stabat Mater tomorrow (30 June 2018) when it is being performed by The Oriel Singers, the St Cecilia Singers, and the Gloucester Symphony Orchestra at Tewkesbury Abbey in a programme which also includes Jonathan Dove's For an Unknown Soldier, (further information).

Further ahead, the Arditti Quartet plays Firsova's String Quartet Paradiso in the Megève Savoy Truffle Festival on 24 August, and Firsova gives a solo piano recital for the Amsterdam Piano Series at the Concertgebouw on 27 October.

Update: I gather that Alissa will also playing with violinist, Ludmila Pavlová in Jičín castle on 21 July and with soprano, Alessia Schumacher and cellist Anatole Liebermann in the Luberon on 21 Aug and also writing a string quartet piece for Daniel Rowland’s Stift Festival at the end of August.

100 years on from the bill that brought votes for women - how far do we still have to go?

The Reckoning
The Reckoning is a new show which has been created for The Art of Change, a new company which wants to bring life to the art song. The Reckoning mixes new drama (from writer Lila Palmer) with art songs from Beethoven to Bolcom and new songs by Ella Jarman-Pinto and Eve Harrison.

The show debuts tonight, 29 June 2018, at St James Church, Sussex Gardens, London, W2 3UD as part of the Voices of London Festival before touring to Liverpool, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, London and beyond later in the year.

The piece tells the story of four women across the ages who have fought for equality - from the petitions of Elizabeth Lilburne and the Levellers during the English Civil War to Emily Wilding Davison and the Suffragettes to the work of two fictional contemporary female MPs. It asks on the subject of equality: 100 years on from the bill that brought votes for women - how far do we still have to go?

The singers are Rhonda Browne, Christine Cunnold, Oliver Hunt, Grace Nyandoro and Louise Wayman, accompanied by pianist Maya Solton, with Fiona Williams as director.

Further information from the Art of Change website, and tickets from the Voices of London website.

Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo

Christopher Purves, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen - Handel's finest arias for base voice II - Hyperion
Handel arias from Siroe, Esther, Athalia, Belshazzar, Tolomeo, Joshua, Rinaldo; Christopher Purves, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Hyperion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Christopher Purves and Arcangelo in a vivid follow-up to their disc of Handel arias

The baritone Christopher Purves has returned to Handel's music for a second disc of arias with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo on Hyperion Records. For the new disc we get an eclectic mix of opera and oratorio arias from Siroe, Esther, Athalia, Belshazzar, Tolomeo, Joshua, and Rinaldo plus the cantata Nell'africane selve and an aria from the pasticcio Catone which is actually by Porpora.

This disc is a follow up to Purves and Arcangelo's 2013 disc Handel's finest arias for base voice [see my review], we also caught them performing repertoire from both discs at the Barbican [see my review].

Handel wrote for particular singers and where he had a talented bass the result could often be a striking aria. So on this disc we encounter the unknown bass soloist, with a range from bottom C sharp to top A, for whom Handel wrote the cantata Nell'africane selve in Naples in 1708, and the bass Carlo Maria Broschi who featured in Handel's opera seasons in the 1720s and who specialised in tyrants so Handel wrote him such roles in Siroe and Tolomeo (1728). In the the 1730s Handel's line-up featured Antonio Montagnana, another bass with a wide range (for whom Handel would write the role of Zoroastro in Orlando) and who sang in the pasticcio Catone. In Handel's later oratorio period his bass soloists was often Henry Theodore Reinhold for whom Handel wrote roles in Belshazzar and Joshua (Reinhold also achieved success in the title role of Lampe's comedy The Dragon of Wantley).

Thursday 28 June 2018

Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Claire Rutter, Vincenzo Costanzo, Roland Wood, Elisabetta Fiorillo, Tereza Gevorgyan, dir: Stephen Medcalf, orchestra of English National Opera, cond: Gianluca Marciano; Grange Park Opera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Verdi's complex opera in its American setting with some strong individual performances

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Elisabetta Fiorillo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Elisabetta Fiorillo - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
With it's complex political background, Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera provides the director with a variety of choices. Antonio Somma's libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustavo III of Sweden, was just too much for the King of Naples' censors, particularly in the light of assassination attempts on Napoleon III, so the opera was ultimately premiered in a version set in colonial-era Boston, well away from any Western European monarchy. It has become common in recent times for productions to revert to the original Swedish setting.

For his new production of Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera, Stephen Medcalf opted for the American setting, with Jamie Vartan's sets and costumes firmly placing it in the mid-19th century (seen 27 June 2018). Vincenzo Costanzo was Riccardo, now a very presidential figure, with Claire Rutter as Amelia, Roland Wood as Renato, Elisabetta Fiorillo as Ulrica, Tereza Gevorgyan as Oscar, Matthew Buswell as Sam and Matthew Stiff as Tom. Gianluca Marciano conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Historical accuracy in Un ballo in maschera is an impossible thing as Verdi and Somma played so fast and loose with history. The real King Gustavo III certainly did not have an affair with his best friends wife, in fact he was probably homosexual, had trouble consummating his marriage and may well have not been the father of the royal princes. Also, the real fortune teller, Madame Arvidson (Ulrica), used coffee grounds for the purpose rather than communing with Satan.

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Septura brings musical Kleptomania to life

Brass septet Septura's Kleptomania - Song Swag
The brass ensemble is a relatively modern concept and so the brass septet Septura has to be imaginative in their approach to repertoire. Their current concert series, Kleptomania, explores a variety of different borrowings, transferring repertoire from one place to another whether it be baroque music or classic songs.

The ensemble is performing its Borrowed Baroque programme at St Jude’s Proms on 27 June, at St Jude's, Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb. Here, the 18th-century orchestra of Handel’s Rinaldo and Rameau’s Dardanus is brought to life in borrowings for brass, whilst Septura’s Pergolesi, by contrast, is third-hand: Stravinsky got there first, and his neoclassical Pulcinella is re-imagined for brass, alongside some early neoclassical piano works by Prokofiev.

Their Song Swag programme is being presented at West Road Concert Hall (9 July) and St John's Smith Square (10 July). This programme moves from transcriptions of Fauré’s mélodies and Ravel’s Mother Goose, to Gershwin’s Songbook and iconic An American in Paris, especially arranged for brass and solo car-horns.

Septura's players hold principal positions in the London Symphony, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony, Basel Symphony and Aurora orchestras. Between them, the players teach at the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music, in London, and the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Full details from the Septura website.

Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies

Arvo Pärt The Symphonies - ECM New series
Arvo Pärt The Symphonies; NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic, Tonu Kaljuste; ECM New Series
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Spanning over 40 years, Arvo Pärt's symphonies enable us to explore the contexts of his better known music

The symphony is a not a form which one immediately associates with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Yet on this disc from Tonu Kaljuste and the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic on ECM New Series we have Arvo Pärt's four symphonies which stretch across his entire output, Symphony No. 1 'Polyphonic' (1966), Symphony No. 2 (1966), Symphony No. 3 (1971) and Symphony No. 4 'Los Angeles' (2008). Wolfgang Sandner's booklet essay about the symphonies includes an illuminating post-script, 'Arvo Pärt maintains that each of his symphonies is a world unto itself and points in a different direction. A compass is necessary to determine that direction'.

Pärt's first symphony was written in 1963 and came at the end of his studies with Heino Eiler (to whom the symphony is dedicated) at the State Conservatory in Tallinn. It is a complex 12-tone work, in two movement which use forms which hark back, Canon, Prelude & Fugue. It is a striking and rather dense work which hints at roads not taken, full of influences on the young composer.  The second symphony came three years later, this time three short, concise movements. Here 12-tone techniques are combined with improvisation and aleatoric passages, to create a remarkably different sound world.

The third symphony comes at a fascinating period in Pärt's development.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Current gripes and current joys - Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival returns

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival returns in 2018 to present another lively programme of opera from the cutting edge, reflecting current affairs, current gripes, and current joys. The festival runs from 26 July to 18 August 2018 in a variety of locations in the King's Cross area, from outdoors in Lewis Cubitt Square to RADA Studios, Kings Place and the Wellcome Collection.

Returning alumni of the festival include Errollyn Wallen, Juice Vocal Ensemble, Edward Lambert, and Tom Randle, and there are new collaborations with the Wellcome Collection and Mid Wales Music Trust with Sinfonia Cymru. The festival is welcoming its first artist in residence, with Li-E Chen's Proposition for a Silent Opera at an Invisible Museum – I am a museum that encompasses an art exhibition in the foyer of The Place from 16 to 18 August, plus performances throughout the week.

Free opera is served in the Cubitt Sessions in Lewis Cubitt Square, with work by BISHI, Errollyn Wallen, Juice Vocal Ensemble, and Aubergine from Muziektheater Transparent, and Tête à Tête’s very own operatic disaster, TOSCATASTROPHE.

McCaldin Arts are bringing Martin Bussey's Mary's Hand about Queen Mary I, Ergo Phizmiz returns with NIBIRU!, the Music Troupe bring Edward Lambert's The Cloak and Dagger Affair based on Lorca, Metta Theatre explore what it is to be aged two with Oliver Brignall's I Do Need Me, and Tom Randle's Love Me To Death features Gillian Keith as Ruth Ellis.

Early Bird tickets are on-sale until 10 July. Full details from the festival website.

Tchaikovsky, Spontini, Georgiana and a new artistic director - Buxton announces plans for 2019

Adrian Kelly
Adrian Kelly
Earlier this year it was announced that the conductor Stephen Barlow was stepping down as artistic director of the Buxton Festival after this year's festival. The festival has wasted no time in appointing his successor, and conductor Adrian Kelly will take up the role of artistic director after the 2018 festival and will be responsible for the programming for the 2019 festival which will celebrate the  40th anniversary of the founding of the Buxton Festival. Already announced are the three main operas for next year, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Spontini's La vestale and a new pasticcio celebrating the life & times of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Adrian Kelly is something of an unknown quantity in the UK, despite his training as a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge and the RNCM, and his participation in the Young Artists Programme at Covent Garden. He has worked at the Salzburg State Theatre since 2010 and has been music director there since 2017, and next season will be conducting Massenet's Manon and the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas in Salzburg. His work in Salzburg has included the Austrian premiere of Charles Wuorinen's opera Brokeback Mountain (based on the Annie Proulx novella which gave rise to the film).

Kelly's choice of festival operas for 2019 are an interesting mix. Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin has not been done at the festival since 1998, and the opera is an ideal size for the Buxton Opera House. Spontini's La vestale is more admired than performed, and has rarely been done in the UK. English National Opera's production in the 1990s with Jane Eaglen failed to ignite, and I look forward to hearing the work in the more intimate confines of the Buxton theatre. The third choice, the pasticcio, is an innovative way to celebrate the 40th anniversary by concentrating on the local area, and the success of the work will depend on the quality of the book and the appositeness of the selection of musical material. Also planned for 2019 is a New Voices Gala with young artists from the Royal Northern College of Music and from Cape Town Opera.

Further informatiion from the Buxton Festival website.

Re-creating the sights and sounds of Versailles - OAE's Dangerous Liaisons

The pasticcio was a standard form in Baroque opera, creating a new opera from elements of previous ones and allowing performers to re-visit their greatest hits. The same was true of French baroque opera, where the Paris Opera and the Versailles of Louis XIV re-worked existing pieces to create 'fragments', new operas with new plots based on existing material.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is giving us a taste of these French Baroque mash-ups tonight, 26 June 2018, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when John Butt will be conducting them in a programme entitled Dangerious Liaisons, with music by Lully, Rameau, Charpentier, Campra and forgotten composers Mouret, Corrette and Marais, Dangerous Liaisons provides a rare chance to experience the best of French baroque music and dance, spanning 70 years. Some of the nearly 50 pieces have had no known performances since the 17th and 18th centuries, or been seen in their proper context – as dances.

Co-curated by flautist Lisa Beznosiuk and choreographer Hubert Hazebrouq, the programme will feature an essential element of French Baroque opera, dancers. The dances have been researched and choreographed by Hubert Hazebroucq and his troupe Les Corps Eloquents using original dance plates from the period.

Full details from the OAE website.

Intimate, candid and completely fascinating: The Tchaikovsky Papers - unlocking the family archive

The Tchaikovsky Papers; edited by Marina Kostalevsky; Yale University Press
The Tchaikovsky Papers; edited by Marina Kostalevsky; Yale University Press 

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Family letters from the Tchaikovsky archive, never published in English before and revealing illuminating intimate details about the composer's life

This volume, The Tchaikovsky Papers - unlocking the family archive from Yale University Press (edited by Marina Kostalevsky and translated by Stephen Pearl) contains a selection of letters which are published complete for the first time in English and which only appeared in Russian in 2009. It is strange to think that such a cache of letters could be sat in the archives at the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky State House-Museum in Klin without being well known. But since Tchaikovsky's death, biographers have often taken a somewhat selective view of the composer, both Modest Tchaikovsky and Soviet biographers, in their different ways, were keen to promote their own image of the composer.  So, as Marina Kostalevsky explains in her introduction, various topics touched on in the letters have made biographers uncomfortable, such matters as Tchaikovsky's monarchism, his adherence to the Russian Orthodox tradition and most notably his homosexuality have caused the letters either to be ignored or to be published in distorted form. This new volume enables us to glimpse different aspects of the composer's intimate life.

There are three groups of letters published in the volume, correspondence between Tchaikovsky's parents from 1833 to 1851 (16 letters in all), letters from Tchaikovsky's former governess Fanny Durbach written after the two had got back into contact in 1892 (12 letters in all) and Tchaikovsky's letters mainly to his brothers Modest and Anatoly from 1869 to 1892, plus a single letter from 1851 (58 letters in all). There a selection of Tchaikovsky's musical jokes and souvenirs, plus key documents from Tchaikovsky's official record, from his birth certificate to his will and documents relating to his death. There is a wide variety of information in the letters, but what makes the volume the most intriguing is the freedom with which Tchaikovsky refers to his homosexuality, and his amorous adventures.

'I've always wanted to fart higher than my arse. I wanted to be the number one composer not only in Russia, but in the whole world'

Monday 25 June 2018

Death Speaks

Barts Pathology Museum
death speaks is a song cycle by the American composer David Lang which was premiered alongside Lang's well-known Little Match Girl Passion. death speaks will be performed as part of a City Music Foundation concert at the Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew's Hospital on Thursday 28 June 2018.  In death speaks Lang gives Death a human voice, using words drawn entirely from Schubert songs.

Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Andrey Lebedev (guitar), Iona Allan (violin) and Joe Havlat (piano) will perform a programme which places death speaks alongside songs and instrumental numbers by Dowland, Schubert, Ravel, JS Bach, Kurtág and Jonny Greenwood. The event is part of a day of music at St Bart’s Hospital presented by City Music Foundation, which includes a lunchtime recital at the Church of St Bartholomew the Less by Abner Jairo Ortiz Garcia (cello) and Mihai Ritivoiu (piano), and free jazz in St Bart's Hospital Square in the afternoon.

The Pathology Museum, part of Queen Mary University of London, is a Grade II Listed Medical Museum situated at the top of St Bartholomew’s Hospital; it houses over 5000 medical specimens displayed over 3 mezzanine level.

Full details from the City Music Foundation website.

Notable debuts & a veteran director: Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the Grange Festival

Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio - Alexander Andreou - The Grange Festival 2018 (Photo Simon Annand)
Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio - Alexander Andreou -
The Grange Festival 2018 (Photo Simon Annand)
Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio); Kiandra Howarth, Ed Lyon, Daisy Brown, Paul Curievici, Jonathan Lemalu, dir: John Copley, cond: Jean-Luc Tingaud, Bournemout Symphony Orchestra; The Grange Festival Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Engaging and visually ravishing account of Mozart's first Singspiel

Mozart: The Abduction from the Seraglio - Kiandra Howarth, Ed Lyon - The Grange Festival 2018 (Photo Simon Annand)
Kiandra Howarth, Ed Lyon
The Grange Festival 2018 (Photo Simon Annand)
For its final production this year, The Grange Festival invited veteran director John Copley to return [Copley directed last year's Albert Herring, see my review] for a production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) in a new English translation by David Parry. The cast, all of whom were making their role debuts, featured Kiandra Howarth as Konstanze, Ed Lyon as Belmonte, Daisy Brown as Blonde, Paul Curievici as Pedrillo, Jonathan Lemalu as Osmin and Alexander Andreou as Pasha Selim. The designs were by Tim Reed with lighting by Kevin Treacy, and Jean-Luc Tingaud conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Tim Reed's picturesque set, based around a series of moving screens, provided attractive and varied settings for this traditional 18th century setting of the story. Within this Reed provided much visual interest with the costumes, particular the highly theatrical ones for the Pasha Selim's court. Copley's production told the story simply and directly without any modern glosses, which placed a lot of responsibility on the singers to fully inhabit their roles.

Diction was excellent and performing the work in English enabled a high degree of communication with the audience, the subtitles were hardly needed. David Parry's translation, with rhyming texts for the arias, was lively and engaging and avoided many of the politically incorrect attitudes of the original libretto.

Though the plot involves a number of Enlightenment pre-occupations, the libretto's lack of character development and the fact that crucial information about the back-story is held back until the final scene makes the piece quite light in texture despite some serious intensity in arias like 'Marten aller Arten'. Copley's production did not try to disguise this, but concentrated on telling a story in an engaging manner as possible, with some stunning visual moments.

Vivid drama: Handel's Agrippina at The Grange Festival

Handel: Agrippina - Raffaele Pe, James Hall, Alex Otterburn, Anna Bonitatibus - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Agrippina - Raffaele Pe, James Hall, Alex Otterburn, Anna Bonitatibus
The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel Agrippina; Anna Bonitatibus, Raffaele Pe, Ashley Riches, Christopher Ainslie, Stefanie True, dir: Walter Sutcliffe, cond: Robert Howarth; The Grange Festival  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Strong personen regie heightens an intimate account of Handel's Venetian opera

Handel: Agrippina - Stefanie True, Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Stefanie True, Raffaele Pe - The Grange Festival (photo Robert Workman)
Handel's Agrippina is one of his few operas not to be performed in England during his lifetime. Premiered in Venice in 1709, it has a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani which is one of the best librettos that Handel set. Fast paced and far more explicitly comic than any of Handel's operas written for London, it is an idea choice for audiences for whom Handel's later large-scale serious operas might be a bit forbidding. So the work was just right for The Grange Festival, especially as the intimate theatre capitalises on the opera's lively plotting.

Directed by Walter Sutcliffe and designed by Jon Bausor with lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel, the production featured Ashley Riches as Claudio, Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina, Raffaele Pe as Nerone, Stefanie True as Poppea, Christopher Ainslie as Ottone, Alex Otterburn as Pallante, James Hall as Narciso, and Jonathan Best as Lesbo. Robert Howarth conducted the Academy of Ancient Music leader Bojan Cicic, with Michael Chance responsible for the musical preparation.

Walter Sutcliffe's production set the piece in a theatre when the curtain rose we saw Anna Bonitatibus's Agrippina sitting in a mirror image of the Grange theatre's auditorium. Set in modern dress, Sutcliffe used the theatre as a metaphor for the dynastic struggles of the plot, with Claudio (Ashley Riches) as the ageing director with the plotting to succeed him. The first half (Act One and the opening scenes of Act Two), Agrippina's confidence in her plotting were indicated by the way that she re-worked the theatre's physical presence. Jon Bausor's set had two dramatic coups, first the seating area rotated in a spectacular manner, so that Claudio et al met Poppea (Stefanie True) in the space underneath the raked seating, and then at the opening of the second half, with the seats gone, we had a plainer more classical space with a door at the back open to reveal a vista of the Northington Grange gardens (in fact a large scale photo strategically placed outside the theatre building).

Sunday 24 June 2018

Rip-roaring fun: Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up!

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - WNO Ladies Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer Rhondda Rips It Up!; Madeleine Shaw, Lesley Garrett, Welsh National Opera, dir: Caroline Clegg, cond: Nicola Rose; WNO at the Hackney Empire Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A vaudeville style celebration of the life and achievments of the Welsh suffragette entertains and uplifts

Elena Langer: Rhondda Rips It Up! - Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera (Photo © Jane Hobson)
Madeleine Shaw - Welsh National Opera
(Photo © Jane Hobson)
Elena Langer's follow-up to her 2016 opera for Welsh National Opera, Figaro gets a divorce couldn't be more different. Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! is most definitely not an opera, it is an entertaining mix of cabaret, vaudeville and music hall, all celebrating the life of the Welsh suffragette, Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda. Using an all female ensemble (singers, musicians, production team) with music by Elena Langer [read my interview with Elena] and words by Emma Jenkins, Welsh National Opera debuted the work on 7 June 2018 in Newport and is taking it on tour. We caught the performance on 22 June 2018 at the Hackney Empire.

Madeleine Shaw played Lady Rhondda with Lesley Garrett as Emcee and an ensemble of women from the WNO Chorus who played all the other roles (male and female). Nicola Rose conducted the instrumental ensemble, the director was Caroline Clegg and designer was Lara Booth.

Whilst the work is described as a cabaret opera, the references are as much to music hall and vaudeville. Emma Jenkins libretto uses individual numbers linked by dialogue whilst Elena Langer's score combines very definite point numbers, pastiche and musical references with an acute ear for timbre and colour which links everything together. Langer's instrumental ensemble consisted of ten players, piano, violin, cello, double bass/bass guitar, accordion, clarinet/saxophone, trumpet/cornet, trombone, tuba, and drumkit/percussion. With these she achieved a remarkable variety of colours, and influences ranged from the brass bands of South Wales to salon dance music, yet the whole was shot through with Langer's voice and the instrumental underscoring of the dialogue ensured a continuity. Langer's scoring was often spare, her use of strong instrumental colours acute.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Debut: Soprano Chen Reiss sings her first staged Zerlina for her Covent Garden debut

Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
Handel: Ariodante - Christophe Dumaux, Chen Reiss - Vienna State Opera
The Israeli soprano Chen Reiss is making her Covent Garden debut on 29 June 2018 as Zerlina in the latest revival of Kasper Holten's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and incidentally, Chen is also making her stage debut in the role having only sung Zerlina in concert before [see my review of the production]. Having worked extensively in Vienna, Chen is excited to be making her UK stage debut and as a young singer, it was always her dream to sing at Covent Garden. I met up with Chen during rehearsals to find out more.
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)
Chen Reiss (Photo Paul Marc Mitchell)

Chen first sang Zerlina in concert with Zubin Mehta conducting and the Covent Garden performance will be her first staging of the opera. She has seen a lot of productions, and this one is one of her favourites. She first saw the production as a member of the audience in 2014, though it has evolved since then. Apart from Mariusz Kwiecień as Don Giovanni, all the cast this time are new to the production ( Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Leporello, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira, Anatoli Sivko as Masetto and Willard W. White as the Commendatore, conducted by Marc Minkowski).

She first came to London with her mother (also an opera singer) when she was 20 and loved the Covent Garden theatre and is enjoying working there now. Not just the theatre, she comments on the vibrant atmosphere of the surrounding area, and in fact, our meeting takes place in a Covent Garden cafe with the sound of street artists performing outside.

She feels that the Covent Garden production doesn't have a boring moment and she contrasts this with some productions where the opera feels very long. In Holten's production, there is always something interesting and intelligent going on, and she likes the idea that it is all happening in the Don's mind. And of course the ending is very strong, the other characters, having fallen into the Don's trap are still living whereas he is left with his madness. Visually she finds the production very beautiful, and the way it uses a single set is very smart, you feel that the characters are lost/trapped in the Don's world.

Chen loves the role of Zerlina and finds the character's music beautiful but she also has half an eye on the role of Donna Anna and hopes to sing it in the future. In fact, Chen loves singing Mozart and has already sung Pamina (The Magic Flute), Illia (Idomeneo) and Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), this latter role is one she has done in concert but will be making her stage debut in the role at the Vienna State Opera this Autumn.

Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera (Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
Richard Strauss: Arabella - Chen Reiss (Zdenka), Benjamin Bruns (Matteo) - Vienna State Opera
(Photo Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn)
She has quite a wide repertoire from Handel, through Mozart, to Donizetti and Richard Strauss, not to mention Puccini (she recently started singing Liu in Turandot).

Friday 22 June 2018

Powerfully uplifting: Bach's Mass in B minor from the Dunedin Consort

John Butt & Dunedin Consort (Photo David Barbour)
John Butt & Dunedin Consort (Photo David Barbour)
Bach Mass in B minor; Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bach's mass with just ten singers in a vibrant yet moving performance full of dramatic contrast

We don't know why or for whom Bach wrote his Mass in B minor, even the title is a later addition. A very, very late work, it is clear that he lavished a lot of care on it and essentially it is something of a summation of his art as he re-used carefully selected material from his back catalogue. That the piece works so well in its own right says a lot for Bach's sheer genius.

Not knowing the possible performance history leaves groups able to apply their own style to the piece, I have even sung it with a chorus of over 150 in Leeds Town Hall with the Victorian organ being used as continuo for the choruses! One concern that I always have in any performance is that of balance, you want moments like the fugue of the opening Kyrie to work with voices and instruments in equal balance so that when the voices come in the results are a continuation rather than the instruments accompanying the voices.

For the performance of Bach's Mass in B minor at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 21 June 2018, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort used an ensemble of ten solo singers to perform the mass, along with an instrumental ensemble based on seven strings. Where some small-scale performances use all consort singers, Butt's line-up consisted of solo voices, Anna Dennis, Claire Evans, Ciara Hendrick, Emily Mitchell, Jess Dandy, Rory McCleery, Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs, Matthias Helm and Jon Stainsby. The ensemble sound in the Coro was thrilling and vibrant, and this was a real vocal ensemble sound rather than a blended choral one. The results brought the piece alive in a way that purely choral ones rarely do, and the seamless transitions from 10-voiced ensembles, through one to a part ensemble to solos and duets, meant that the whole piece had a lovely consistency of tone.

The logistics were complex on a very full platform and I was impressed with the way both singers and orchestral players navigated the stage to get to the right places with the minimum of disruption, enabling the piece to flow naturally without the embarrassing waits for the correct ensemble to be in place.

Singing for Our Lives

Singing for Our Lives, 2017 (Photo Jolade Olusanya )
Singing for Our Lives, 2017 (Photo Jolade Olusanya )
Singing for Our Lives at Milton Court Concert Hall on Sunday 1 July marks the final event of the 20th Anniversary of Refugee Week (18-24 June 2018). The concert brings together over 200 performers combining opera, classical, popular and electronic genres with music from around the globe, uniting choirs of refugees, migrants and local communities.

Singing Our Lives reunites the Mixed Up Chorus, the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus, the Sing for Freedom Choir and the Guildhall School as well as featuring refugee and asylum-seeker choir Woven Gold and professional vocal ensemble Stile Antico. Over six months, the five choirs came together in a series of workshops facilitated by composer Mike Roberts (Head of Electronic Music & Music Technology, Guildhall School), librettist Sarah Grange and director Phelim McDermott (Improbable), and delivered with the aid of Guildhall School Electronic Music musicians. With music as the common language the singers and musicians learned about each other’s experience and worked with the creative team to compose new music to be premiered as part of an ensemble performance on 1st July.

Further information from the Together Productions website.

Brilliant ensemble: Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate from Opera North

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate; Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley, Zoë Rainey, Alan Burkitt, John Savournin, Joseph Shovelton; dir: Jo Davies/Edward Goggin, cond: James Holmes; Opera North at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 June 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strong ensemble performance in this uplifting revival of Jo Davies' 2015 production

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Not every musical is suitable for an opera company to produce, but Cole Porter's 1948 musical Kiss me Kate (with book by Bella and Samuel Spewack)  seems tailor made. The re-working of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew combines the play with back-stage fighting by the cast, with the result that Porter's score alternates between standard musical numbers and something approaching operetta, in fact the original two principals were drawn from the operatic world. The original orchestrations were done by that great Broadway musician Robert Russell Bennett (in collaboration with Don Walker), and one of the advantages of an opera company revival is the chance to hear the original orchestrations in their full orchestral splendour.

Opera North has revived Jo Davies' 2015 production of Cole Porter's Kiss me Kate and is touring it. Having opened in Leeds and travelled to Ravenna, Italy, the show opened at the London Coliseum on 20 June 2018 (and is there until 30 June 2018). The production was revived by Edward Goggin and conducted by James Holmes with a cast which spanned both opera and musical theatre, including Quirijn de Lang as Fred/Petruchio, Stephanie Corley as Lilli/Kate, Zoë Rainey as Lois/Bianca and Alan Burkitt as Bill/Lucentio, plus Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin as the Shakespeare-loving gangsters. The cast was completed by the inestimable Opera North Chorus (which provided three of the smaller roles), plus a group of dancers, whilst James Holmes conducted the Opera North orchestra in the pit.

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - Zoe Rainey, Alan Burkitt - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Zoe Rainey, Alan Burkitt - Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Davies' inventive production, based around mobile flats (designs by Colin Richmond), moved easily and fluidly from the backstage scenes to on-stage presentation of the play. The whole production was very crisp and tight, with superb participation from the Opera North chorus which moved alongside the dancers in an admirable manner with none of the separation between singing chorus and dancers which can happen.

I have to confess that I have always found the cod Shakespeare bits of the musical have their longeurs, but Davies and Goggins brought a lively imagination to the bad Shakespeare staging and of course, Bella and Samuel Spewack's book makes the backstage fighting between Fred and Lilli spill over into the scenes between Petruchio and Kate, giving a superb sense of uncertainty as to whether we were experiencing Kate in the play or Lilli in real life, something which gave the climactic scene at the end of Act One real zest in this performance.

Thursday 21 June 2018

Supersize polyphony - 40 part Tallis and 60-part Striggio

Nonsuch Palace
Nonsuch Palace, possible venue for the premiere of Tallis's Spem in alium
The Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony tour opens tomorrow (22 June 2018) at the Thaxted Festival, and continues until the 17 July 2018. The choir will be performing two of the largest polyphonic works in the repertoire, Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium and Alessandro Striggio’s 60-part Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno in complete ‘surround sound’ – with the audience encircled by the choir. Directed by Christopher Monks, the Armonico Consort will be joined by the Choir of Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge and, for the Striggio, they will also be collaborating with local chamber and youth choirs.

Thomas Tallis's motet Spem in alium was written arount 1570 though the earliest surviving manuscripts date from 1610, when the motet was re-used (with English words) for the investiture of Henry, Prince of Wales. According to an anecdote written in a letter at the time (in 1611), the motet was the result of the challenge from the Duke of Norfolk as a result of Alessandro Striggio's visit to England in 1567, when he brought either his 40 part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 60-part mass. And Tallis's motet, written in challenge and emulation, may well have been conceived to be performed in the octagon of Nonsuch Palace; the work uses eight five-part choirs and Tallis moves the music around the choirs in a very spatial manner.

After their appearance at the Thaxted Festival, the Armonico Consort's  eight-date UK tour includes a flagship concert in the spectacular Coventry Cathedral (Friday 6 July), an open-air performance at Petworth House Stable Yard to open the 40th Petworth Festival (17 July) and visits to Poole, Crawley, Malvern, Basingstoke, and Cambridge.

There is also a series of associated events for children and local communities. Armonico Consort’s singing education programme, AC Academy, will give schools workshops in partnership with local music education hubs, introducing children to the Striggio Mass through three short new pieces written by composer-in-residence, Toby Young. They will be taught in schools and then sung together with the professional singers in immersive, in-the-round concert workshops.

There are also come-and-sing open rehearsals at several venues where the public can learn Tallis’ Spem in Alium singing alongside the professional singers during open rehearsals. Pop-up performances are also planned and a recording to be made in Cambridge will be released on the Signum label.

Full details from the Armonico Consort website.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

‘A well-regulated church music’ - John Eliot Gardiner at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican

Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Bach, Gabrieli, Sartorius; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner; Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 16 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner & his ensembles in Bach cantatas for Easter & Ascension

The evening concert on Saturday 16 June 2018 as part of the Barbican Centre's Bach Weekend celebrating Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 75th birthday was the antithesis of Solomon’s Knot in the afternoon [see Ruth's review]. A maestro, a dress code, a certain reverential demeanour from all on stage and in the audience, and a general sense that this was An Event.
The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists performed large-scale cantatas by JS Bach interspersed with a cappella motets in Latin by Giovanni Gabrieli and the German-born but Italian-educated Paul Sartorius (born Schneider). These were in great contrast to the Lutheran sound world of the rest of the concert, and yet there were elements – notably Gabrieli’s chromaticism and Sartorius’ punchiness – that we would hear in the Bach, reminding us that his influences were eclectic. To my ear there was something of Rameau in some of the chorales too.

The programme booklet drew attention to Bach’s letter to the church authorities at Mühlhausen stating his artistic aim to preside over ‘eine regulierte Kirchenmusik zu Gottes Ehren’ (‘a well-regulated church music to the honour of God’).

Humanity & warmth - Solomon's Knot at the Bach Weekend at the Barbican

Solomon's Knot
Solomon's Knot
Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christoph Bach; Solomon's Knot; St Gile's Church, Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 16 June 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Motets by JS Bach and his cousin JC Bach from this conductorless ensemble

The Barbican Centre has been celebrating Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 75th birthday with seven concert over three days, with events in the Barbican Hall, St Giles’ Cripplegate, Milton Court and LSO St Luke’s. Gardiner used some of his players and singers from the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in combination with some newcomers. The Bach takeover weekend also provided ample opportunity to hang out in the Centre, drinking coffee, catching up with old friends and fighting off the ubiquitous pigeons.

The Saturday afternoon concert (16 June 2018) was given by Solomon's Knot in a packed-out St Giles’ Church. It contrasted motets by Johann Sebastian Bach with those written by his father’s cousin Johann Christoph. The older Bach worked at Eisenach and was described by his younger cousin as ‘the profound composer’ – ‘as good at inventing beautiful thoughts as he was at expressing words’.

Ades, Henson, Berkeley & Bernstein: Britten Sinfonia's Summer season

Britten Sinfonia (Photo Thomas Skovsende)
Britten Sinfonia (Photo Thomas Skovsende)
The Britten Sinfonia's Summer season starts on Friday 22 June 2018 with a concert in Rye as part of the Peasmarsh Festival, and the season continues with performances of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face at Nevill Holt Opera, premieres of works by Keaton Henson and Michael Berkeley and an appearance at the Proms.

On Friday 22 June, at St Mary's Church, Rye, Douglas Boyd (artistic director of Garsington Opera) conducts the Britten Sinfonia in Bernstein's Serenade (with soloist Anthony Marwood) plus music by Haydn and Boccherini.

Antony McDonald's production of Thomas Ades' Powder her Face was first performed at Northern Ireland Opera. Ian Ryan conducts the revival at Nevill Holt Opera with Mary Plazas as the Duchess and the Britten Sinfonia in the pit. The production runs from 28 June to 1 July.

The Britten Sinfonia at Lunch concerts continue in Norwich and Cambridge with performances from the Britten Sinfonia Academy performing Schumann orchestrated by Tom Coult, Bach orchestrated by Webern and Ravel's orchestration of his own piano pieces, and the concert will be repeated at the Latitude Festival on 14 July.

At the Barbican, the orchestra premieres Keaton Henson's Six Lethargies, composed around, and from within, issues of mental illness and human emotion, the piece aims to express and explain feelings of anxiety and depression through six connected movements for string orchestra. Whilst at the Wigmore Hall the ensemble is helping celebrate Michael Berkeley's 70th birthday with the world premiere of a new work by Berkeley for solo oboe and a performance of Into the Ravine, plus music by Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert.

And the orchestra will be at the BBC Proms on 4 September in a programme based around the tango, with pianist Pablo Ziegler.

Full details from the Britten Sinfonia website.

Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo

Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo; The Brook Street Band; AVIE
Handel Sonatas for violin and basso continuo; The Brook Street Band; AVIE
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Spanning virtually the whole of Handel's composing life, these sonatas are brought to life in engaging performances

Having recorded all of Handel's trio sonatas, The Brook Street Band has returned to the composer's chamber music for a disc of his Sonatas for violin and basso continuo on Avie Records. Violinist Rachel Harris, cellist Tatty Theo and harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley perform all nine sonatas which are attributed to Handel.

The history of Handel's violin sonatas is somewhat problematic. We only have autograph manuscripts for five of them, whilst four appear in publications from John Walsh, published during Handel's lifetime. There are good arguments for assuming that these four have their origins in manuscripts by Handel, but we have no way of knowing for certain and Walsh was notorious for his piracy.

The sonatas cover a remarkably wide range of Handel's career. Sonata in G major HWV 358 dates from Handel's Italian period, 1707-1710, whilst the sonatas in D minor HWV 359a, in A major HWV 361 and in G minor HWV 364a probably date from 1724-26. The four sonatas lacking autographs were published by Walsh in 1730 and 1732/33, whilst the last sonata dates from 1749-50, a period when Handel wrote virtually no chamber music, which leaves open the question as to why he wrote it and for whom.

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