Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Trouble in Tahiti on-line

Opera North’s production of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, Autumn 2017 Wallis Giunta as Dinah with Nicholas Butterfield, Fflur Wyn and Joseph Shovelton as the Trio (Photo Alastair Muir)
Opera North’s production of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, Autumn 2017
Wallis Giunta as Dinah with Nicholas Butterfield, Fflur Wyn and Joseph Shovelton as the Trio (Photo Alastair Muir)
Opera North's 2017 production of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti (performed as part of the Little Greats season, see my review) is now available on-line as part of the celebrations for the centenary of Bernstein's birth.

Commissioned by The Space, the production was filmed live at Leeds Grand Theatre last year and directed by Ross MacGibbon. Starring as disaffected couple Dinah and Sam are Wallis Giunta, Canadian mezzo-soprano and winner of the Young Singer Award at the 2018 International Opera Awards, and Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang who most recently took the lead role of Fred Graham/ Petruchio in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (see my review).

Trouble in Tahiti is available on YouTube and there are additional accessible versions on the Opera North website.

Alissa Firsova - Fantasy

Alissa Firsova - Fantasy - VIVAT
Alissa Firsova - songs and chamber music; Tippett Quartet, Alissa Firsova, Simon Mulligan, Mark van de Wiel, Ellie Laugharne, Nicholas Crawley, Tim Hugh; VIVAT Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An excellent introduction to the lyrically evocative music of this talented young composer

This new disc from Vivat is something of a portrait of composer Alissa Firsova. Under the title Fantasy, the disc presents us with music in a variety of forms, both chamber music and song, Tennyson Fantasy, Op.36 for string quartet, Bride of the Wind, Op.34 for piano duet, Expressions, Op.9 for clarinet and piano, Loss, Op.10 for clarinet quintet, Paradise poems, Op.22 &26 and Fantasy, for cello and piano, Op.29. The performers are the Tippett Quartet, Firsova herself as pianist, joined by Simon Mulligan for the piano duet, Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Tim Hugh (cello), Ellie Laugharne (soprano) and Nicholas Crawley (baritone).

The disc opens with Firsova's Tennyson Fantasy, written for the Tippett Quartet in 2016. Like most of the music on the disc, it takes poetry as its inspiration, here four poems by Tennyson. The opening movement arises out of 'Come down, O maid' from The Princess, a romance with a shepherd singing to a princess which Firsova creates as a lyrical pastoral with bittersweet harmonies, and moments of great intensity. The second movement scherzo is based on 'Ring out, wild bells' from In memoriam, opening all strong attack, firm rhythm and anger, with a trio section using the 'Choric Song' from The Lotos-Eaters, a cello solo of pizzicato which gets rather eerie. For the final movement, we return to In memoriam, a passacaglia in response to 'If Sleep & Death be truly one', to which Firsova gives a sustained, evocative, transparent texture with moments of intensity, which evaporates at the end.

John Blow's Venus and Adonis in the North-East.

Samling Academy Opera - Venus and Adonis
John Blow's Venus and Adonis is considered as the first English language opera, written for performance at the court of King Charles II in 1683 when the role of Venus was played by the actress (and Charles II's former mistress) Moll Davies, and Cupid was probably played by Lady Mary Tudor (Charles' daughter by Moll Davies). The text, which has something of a feminist slant to it and uses Cupid's comic scenes to critique behaviour at court, is probably by the poet Anne Kingsmill (who became Countess of Winchilsea) or the poet and playwright Aphra Behn.

The work is an important pre-cursor to Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. But it has plenty of delights in its own right, and audiences in the North-East will get chance to sample them when Samling Academy Opera presents a double bill of Blow's Venus and Adonis and Purcell's Come ye sons of art, alongside the Dunedin Consort, conductor John Butt. Performances are at The Witham, Barnard Castle (20/7/2018) and at Sage Gateshead (26 & 277/2018).

The show will be directed by Samling Artist Miranda Wright, with choreography by Mandy Demetriou and lighting by Alex Edwards, and we are promised sumptuous period costumes.

Founded in 2012 in partnership with Newcastle and Durham universities and Sage Gateshead, Samling Academy is developing the next generation of classical singers in the North East of England. Young people growing up in the area as well as those who have chosen to study in the region benefit from training and performance opportunities, and the Academy aims to reach young singers who might otherwise never have their potential recognised and nurtured.

Full details from the Samling website.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Contemporary works in all-women gala for SWAP'ra at Opera Holland Park.

Extracts from operas by five contemporary composers will feature alongside music from well-established classics in SWAP'ra's gala at Opera Holland Park on 31 July 2018. A series of semi-staged scenes will be presented by a remarkable all-women ensemble, with 40 soloists from rising stars to long-accomplished artists, four women conductors conducting an all-women orchestra and eight women directors.

The contemporary music featured will include the UK premiere of an extract from American composer Mark Adamo's Little Women, plus music from Roxanna Panufnik's Silver Birch (premiered at Garsington Opera last year), Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips it Up! (premiered by Welsh National Opera earlier this year, see my review), Josephine Stephenson's Les Constellations - Une Théorie, and Lucy Pankhurst's The Pankhurst Anthem (commissioned by the BBC in celebration of the centenary of the first UK Women's Suffrage bill in 1918).

The gala will also feature music from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Britten's Peter Grimes and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. There will be a remarkable line-up of performers including Giselle Allen, Jenni Bern, Mary Bevan, Lee Bisset, Rebecca Bottone, Katherine Broderick, Rebecca Caine, Anna Devin, Anne Sophie Duprels, Yvonne Howard, Jennifer Johnston, Fiona Kimm, Gillian Keith, Janis Kelly, Diana Montague, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierard, Meeta Raval, Amanda Roocroft, Lucy Schaufer, Helen Sherman, Angela Simkin, Sarah Tynan, Kitty Whately, and Catherine Wyn Rogers, with conductors Jessica Cottis, Alice Farnham, Sonia Ben Santamaria, Susannah Wapshot.

The event is a fund-raising gala for SWAP'ra, the new organisation founded by five women working in opera and the money will go towards the organisations aims to support women and parents working in opera [see my interview with co-founders Madeleine Pierard and Sophie Gilpin].

Full details of the gala from the SWAP'ra website.

The cabaret tradition: Melinda Hughes, Jeremy Limb & friends in Weimar and Back

Weimar & Back - Melinda Hughes & Jeremy Limb - Nimbus Alliance
Weill, Hollaender, Spoliansky, Heyman, Hughes & Limb; Melinda Hughes, Jeremy Limb; Nimbus Alliance Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Operatic soprano in satirical cabaret mode, Melinda Hughes explores modern mores and contrasts them with Berlin in the Weimar Republic era

Melinda Hughes is an operatic soprano who has built an alternative career as a cabaret artist. In opera her appearances have included the title role in Verdi's Aida with Dorset Opoera. In cabaret she has mined a strong vein of Weimar Republic songs, including a disc devoted mainly to songs by Mischa Spoliansky, combined with her own material written in collaboration with her regular pianist Jeremy Limb.

On this new disc, Weimar and Back from Nimbus Alliance, Melinda Hughes and Jeremy Limb (who also did the arrangements) are joined by Paul Cavaciuti & Jamie Fisher (percussion), Robert Rickenberg (double bass), Martin White (Accordion), Eloise Prouse, Rachel Steadman, Charlie Cross, Jess Cox (string quartet) to perform repertoire which mixes Hughes & Limb's songs, on subjects as various as Berlin, Janacek's Emilia Marty, all the best guys being gay, and a city girl's lament on vising country estates, with songs by Kurt Weill, Werner R Heyman, Friedrich Hollaender and Mischa Spoliansky, not all dating from the Weimar Republic but with a similar cabaret tradition.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

A new, yet familiar piece: Benjamin Zander on his interpretation of Beethoven's Choral Symphony

Benjamin Zander (Photo Paul Marotta)
Benjamin Zander (Photo Paul Marotta)
Benjamin Zander's new recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (available on Brattle Media) is the result of a lifetime's study of Beethoven's score. But spend any time with Benjamin Zander and you come to realise both how absorbed by the music he is, and how his study of it was not intended to perfect his own interpretation but to divine Beethoven's intentions. I recently met up with Benjamin to talk about the new recording and the ideas which lie behind it, particularly with regard to his interpretation of Beethoven's metronome marks. Yet during our extensive conversation to talk about the new recording, Benjamin repeatedly emphasised that the new recording was not about Benjamin Zander but was about the music and Beethoven's original intentions.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Benjamn Zander - Battle Media
So does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Benjamin feels that it does, and feels very strongly. He is passionate about the work he has being doing, investigating Beethoven's original score and feels that the new recording is the first time that all the musicological points have been made in the same recording.

He has worked on the symphony for over 40 years and given many performances of it. One of the focuses of his new recording is Benjamin's interpretation of Beethoven's metronome marks. Every since he was a small boy, Benjamin has been fascinated both with Beethoven and with the tempi of his symphonies. But his approach is about more than just tempi, and metronome marks, and during our interview as well go through the score of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, it is clear that Benjamin takes a very pragmatic yet holistic view of the work.

Back in 1967 he conducted his first performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in Boston and it caused a sensation because of his approach to the tempi and to the music. No-one had heard Beethoven that way, and everyone was talking about it. And this was the period before Historically Informed Performance reached Beethoven. So, in a sense Benjamin has spent a lifetime as a pioneer and is proud of it. His recording of Symphony No. 5 changed a lot of minds.

He points out that now, news travels fast and new interpretations are heard and shared rapidly, but back in the pre-internet days things happened slower. He readily admits that there were other pioneers before him, who experimented with Beethoven's tempi, but none of these made a global impact. He cites the work of Rudolf Kolisch from the New England Conservatory (where Benjamin taught from 1967 to 2012). Benjamin calls Kolisch a great musical mind, and his work on Beethoven's string quartets was influential. Rene Leibowitz did an important set of recordings of the Beethoven's symphonies but though he followed Beethoven's metronome markings, he was rather wayward.

Having performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony a lot in Boston with his Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin took them to New York's Carnegie Hall in 1992 and Andrew Porter wrote a long review of the concert, discussing Beethoven and the metronome and saying 'Mr Zander is right, we've been listening to the music of the greatest composer in misrepresentative performances'.

Friday, 13 July 2018

New Hardy settings open Thomas Hardy Society conference.

The Wessex Consort at Hardy's Grave
The Wessex Consort at Hardy's Grave
Tomorrow (14 July 2018), the 23 biennial International Thomas Hardy Conference and Festival will open at Kingston Maurward College with a public concert by the Wessex Consort, conductor Andrew King, performing settings of Hardy's poems by the late Graham Stansfield (1940-2018). The festival, organised by the Thomas Hardy Society in its 50 year, will celebrate the life and work of the great author in a series of special events, talks and study sessions.

The Wessex Consort, a professional vocal ensemble, was founded by Graham Stansfield and Andrew King in 2015, and the consort gave the premiere of Stansfield's Hardy settings earlier this year in the composer's presence, a short time before his death. Composer Graham Stansfield had a fascinating career, classically trained first as a chorister in Westminster Abbey Choir and then as a student with composer Herbert Howells at London University, Stansfield would go on to found the prog-rock band Rare Bird (under the name Graham Field), but would eventually return to classical music.

More than just Vox patris coelestis: a new William Mundy disc from Edinburgh

William Mundy: Sacred Choral Music - Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh - DELPHIAn
William Munday sacred choral music; Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, Duncan Ferguson; DELPHIAN Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A valuable addition to the William Mundy discography in dynamic & vibrant performances from Edinburgh

William Mundy came to maturity at an interesting time. He was a chorister at Westminster Abbey in the 1540s when religious change under Henry VIII was already underway. Though his career spanned the reigns of four monarchs, he lacked the adult experience of  the musical traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, and worked during a time when it was not clear what English Church Music should be. Our view of his music is complicated by the fact that few of his pieces have dates but his talent seems to have flowered under Queen Mary I when there was a return to pre-Reformation elaboration in church music.

This new disc on Delphian from Duncan Ferguson and the choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, features William Mundy's Latin church music. The programme has at its centre, three large scale pieces, each 15 minutes or more in length (though I have known performances of Vox patris coelestis take rather longer than this); the Marian votive antiphon Vox patris coelestis, perhaps Mundy's best known work, and its companion piece Maria virgo sanctissima, plus the Easter procession In exitu Israel written in collaboration with William Byrd and John Sheppard. Maria virgo sanctissima is performed in a new reconstruction by Magnus Williamson which completes the missing tenor part (its lack contributing to the work's relative unfamiliarity). To these are added smaller works. Beatus et sanctus, Allelua: Per te Dei gentrix (I & II) and Adolescentus sum ego.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

UK premiere of Ola Gjeilo's Dreamweaver

Invicta Voices
Ola Gjeilo's Dreamweaver, for choir and string orchestra, will receive its UK premiere on Saturday 14 July 2018 at the Church of St George the Martyr, Borough High Street, when Invicta Voices, musical director Matt Bamford, joins forces with players from Reading Youth Orchestra and Henley Music Centre.

Ola Gjeilo describes Dreamweaver as very close to his heart. It is based on a Norwegian medieval poem, Draumkvedet which has been adapted into English by Charles Anthony Silvestri. The poem tells a story similar to Dante's Divine Comedy with a protagonist, Olav Åsteson, who falls asleep for 13 days and subsequently describes his dreams about his brave, beautiful, terrifying, and ultimately redeeming journey through the afterlife.

For the performance Invicta Voices will be joined by players and tutors from Reading Youth Orchestra and Henley Music Centre, conducted by Matt Bamford

Further information from the BrownPaperTickets website.


75th birthday celebrations: Robin Holloway's chamber music on Sheva Contemporary

Robin Holloway - chamber music - Sheva Contemporary
Robin Holloway chamber music Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An exploration of Robin Holloway's idiomatic writing and striking ear for timbre and texture

Robin Holloway is 75 this year, this new disc from Sheva Contemporary helps the celebrations with recordings of Holloway's Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, Op. 79, Trio for oboe, violin and piano, Op. 115 and Sonata for viola Op.87 performed by members of the Rest Ensemble, Rees Webster (oboe), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Rebecca Raimondi (violin), Henrietta Hill (viola) and Alessandro Viale (piano).

Robin Holloway studied at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as studying privately with Alexander Goehr, eventually becoming professor of composition at Cambridge where his pupils included Judith Weir, Huw Watkins, Thomas Ades, and George Benjamin.

The  works on this disc span near 20 years in Holloway's compositional life with the Trio for clarinet, viola and piano dating from 1994, the Sonata for viola from 1999 and the Trio for oboe, violin and piano from 2012.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Didn't manage to get a ticket, fear not - Don Giovanni on the Big Screen

Mozart: Don Giovanni - Mariusz Kwiecien, Hrachuhi Bassenz - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
Mozart: Don Giovanni - Mariusz Kwiecien, Hrachuhi Bassenz - Royal Opera - (C) ROH. Photo by Bill Cooper
If you didn't manage to bag a ticket for Covent Garden's latest revival of Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni [see my review], or you simply live too far away, then fear not. Tomorrow, 12 July 2018, the performance is being live-streamed to screens around the country as part of the Royal Opera House BP Big Screens, and you can catch it on Operavision and YouTube too. 

The performance features Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Donna Anna, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Donna Elvira, Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Chen Reiss as Zerlina [read my interview with Chen about her Covent Garden debut], conducted by Marc Minkowski.


Don Giovanni, Thursday 12 July at 7pm (pre-screening starts at 6.30pm)

Lyric Square in Hammersmith, Canada Square in Canary Wharf, Trafalgar Square, Television Square at White City, General Gordon Square in Woolwich (all London), Tattershall Lakes Country Park (Lincolnshire), Latitude Festival (Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk), Old Eldon Square (Newcastle), Brighton Marina (Brighton), Bristol Millennium Square (Bristol), Sandy Balls Holiday Village (New Forest, Hampshire), Portsmouth Guildhall Square (Portsmouth), The Forum (Southend-on-Sea), Queens Drive (Exmouth), Swansea Castle Square (Swansea, Wales) and The Piazza, University of Warwick (Warwick).

Further information from the Royal Opera House website.

Striking a chord: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as a musical at the Young Vic

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Kaisa Hammarlund - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Kaisa Hammarlund - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, Alison Bechdel Fun Home; Kaisa Hammarlund, Eleanor Kane, Jenna Russell, Zubin Varla, dir: Sam Gold; Young Vic Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel exploring her complex relationship with her father

Tesori, Kron & Bechdel: Fun Home - Eleanor Kane, Cherelle Keete - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
Eleanor Kane, Cherelle Keete - Young VIc (Photo Marc Brenner)
I was a great devotee of Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to watch out for, and so eagerly read her graphic novel Fun Home, which  she describes as a family tragiccomic. I was intrigued, to say the least, by the idea of turning Fun Home into a musical. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical Fun Home debuted in 2013 in a production by Sam Gold. And Gold's production has now come to the UK, at the Young Vic where we caught in on Friday 6 July 2018. Kaisa Hammarlund played Alison, with Eleanor Kane as Medium Alison, Harriet Turnbull (alternating with Brooke Haynes) as Small Alison, Jenna Russell as Helen, Cherrelle Skeete as Joan, Zubin Varla as Bruce, plus Ashley Samuels, Archie Smith and Eddie Martin. Design was by David Zinn with choreography by Danny Mefford and lighting by Ben Stanton. The instrumental ensemble was conducted by Nigel Lilley, and the orchestrations were by John Clancy.

Alison Bechdel's graphic novel explores her complex relationship with her father, with the Alison of the present looking back on the past with a distinct authorial voice. It is a story in which there were no easy answers, as Alison came to terms with her own sexuality and came out to her parents she learned that her father has had affairs with men throughout his marriage. Not long after Alison's coming out to her parents her father died, apparently committing suicide and the book is an exploration of Alison's relationship with her father in an attempt to make sense of all this.

A taster of things to come - Victoria's Vidi speciosam from The Chamber Choir of London

The Chamber Choir of London - Vidi Speciosum
The Chamber Choir of London, artistic director and chief conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham, is a new choir which launched last month, made up of 18 of London's finest young consort singers and intending to perform a wide repertoire. Plans in the pipeline include a disc of Alexander Campkin's choral music, but there is a chance to hear the choir on disc before then as they are releasing a series of singles every other month. 

Victoria's Vidi speciosam is out now, released 8 June 2018, and available from iTunes. In August the release will be Alexander Campkin's Sent from God as a taster for the new album, and then in October the 'Kyrie' from Sir James MacMillan's Missa Brevis with Kim Arnesen's Even when he is silent to come.

Vidi speciosam sets the text of the Responsory at Matins on the Feast of the Assumption (15th August), and the text itself derives from the Song of Songs, the elaborate imagery of the text being used to refer to the Virgin Mary rather than the beloved. The motet first appeared in Victoria's 1572 book of motets.

Listening to the new recording of Victoria's Vidi speciosam I was struck by the clarity of the performance. Ellis-Peckham takes quite a spacious view of the tempos, giving the piece a very architectural feel, and the singers perform with a very vibrant, focused sense of line. It is a very balanced, considered performance which brings out the clarity of Victoria's ideas. The recording itself is very present, and certainly makes me look forward to further releases.

Further information from the choir's website.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The City Choir of Washington makes its London debut

The City Choir of Washington
The City Choir of Washington
The City Choir of Washington and their conductor Robert Shafer are currently touring the UK for the first time. Having performed in Gloucester and Ely Cathedrals, and Keble College, Oxford, the choir will be giving a concert in Temple Church on Wednesday 11 July 2018.  

The choir's programme combines Gabriel Faure's Requiem with four contemporary pieces, Eric Whitacre's The Chelsea Carol, John Tavener's The Lamb and Tolstoy's Creed, and I will lift up mine eyes by the choir's conductor, Robert Shafer. John Tavener's Tolstoy's Creed was commissioned by The City Choir of Washington in 2012.

Robert Shafer celebrates 50 years as a choral conductor this year, and he has been artistic director of The City Choir of Washington since its inception in 2007.

Full details from the EventBrite website.




Romantic exploration: Rheinberger and Scholz piano concertos from Simon Callaghan

Rheinberger & Scholz piano concertos - Simon Callaghan - Hyperion
Josef Rheinberger, Bernhard Scholz Piano Concertos; Simon Callaghan, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ben Gernon; Hyperion Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two lesser known piano-concertos in the Austro-German tradition provide much of interest

The Austro-German symphonic canon goes something like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssoh, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler. Yet if we consider the piano concerto we run out after Brahms, the later history of the piano concerto is with composers born outside this tradition and other Austro-German composers writing in the same tradition are virtually non-existent - at least that is what is implied by the repertoire performed in most concert halls.

This new disc from Hyperion's The Romantic Piano Concerto series (volume 76!) gives us a chance to move away from the canon and explore. It pairs late-Romantic piano concertos by two lesser known composers from the Austro-German tradition, Joseph Rheinberger and Bernhard Scholz, performed by pianist Simon Callaghan with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Ben Gernon

Josef Rheinberger was something of a prodigy who went on to train in Munich and spent most of his life teaching there. Whilst he wrote music in a wide variety of genres, he is best known for his organ sonatas, though lovers of choral music hold his masses in some regard.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Inner demons - Mozart's Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival

Mozart Idomeneo - Paul Nilon, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart Idomeneo - Paul Nilon, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Mozart Idomeneo; Paul Nilon, Rebecca Bottone, Heather Lowe, Madeleine Pierard, Ben Thapa, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: Nicholas Kok, Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton International Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 July 2018 Star rating: 3.5
An Idomeneo riven by his own demons in this striking new production

Mozart Idomeneo - Rebecca Bottone - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Rebecca Bottone - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Having explored early Mozart with last year's production of Lucio Silla, this year Buxton International Festival moved to the composer's first mature opera, Idomeneo. Opening at Buxton Opera House on Sunday 8 Juy 2018, the production was directed by Stephen Medcalf with designs by Isabella Bywater, and featured Paul Nilon as Idomeneo, Rebecca Bottone as Ilia, Heather Lowe as Idamante, Madeleine Pierard as Elettra and Ben Thapa as Arbace. Nicholas Kok conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Mozart's opera was premiered in Munich in 1781, though there were only three performances, and the only other performance in his lifetime was a concert performance given in Vienna in 1786 with an amateur cast. The work has a complex textual history, the composition process was somewhat fraught and Mozart had to make significant cuts before the premiere owing to the work's length. He never made planned revisions to the work (tenor Idamante, bass Idomeneo), though he did make some changes for the 1786 performance which had a tenor Idomeneo. For these performances Buxton used the 1781 version, but trimmed to bring the running time to three hours (a single interval in the middle of Act Two after 'Fuor del mar'), and Arbace lost all of his arias.

Mozart Idomeneo - Madeleine Pierard - Buxton International Festival 2018 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Madeleine Pierard - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Isabella Bywater's striking set seems to have been partly inspired by Romain Veillon's photographs of the ghost town, Kolmanskop, in the Namibian desert which has been taken over by sand. So we had an austere classical structure with views of the sea, yet half taken over by sand. This formed the permanent set, and gave a series of striking locations for the action.

A key to understanding Stephen Medcalf's approach to the opera [see my interview with him] was perhaps that the men's costumes were all military of the World War One era. He suggests that Idomeneo's struggles are due to PTSD, and that the monster is within. Thus the work becomes about Idomeneo's struggle with the guilt he feels arising from the war, rather than an external struggle. This has the advantage that it does not require the depiction of a monster (something with which most directors and designers fail), but does place a lot of focus on Idomeneo.

Paul Nilon was superb at suggesting, from the first moment, a man wracked by guilt and each of his arias had a strong, inner intensity. This was a man struggling with demons from the first moment. That said, I am not sure the scene with the monster (depicted with Idomeneo ravening) quite worked and it left the dramaturgy of the last Act (with Idamante going off to fight the monster) a bit skew. But when Nilon was on stage he held us with the sheer power of his performance, and 'Fuor del mar' was rightly the centre-piece with a bravura yet vivid account of the aria.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival

Verdi Alzira  - Luke Sinclair, Jung Soo Yun - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira  - Luke Sinclair, Jung Soo Yun - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Verdi Alzira; Kate Ladner, Jung Soo Yun, James Cleverton, Graeme Danby, dir: Elijah Moshinsky, cond: Stephen Barlow, Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton International Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Verdi's Alzira reveals itself as full of vigour, with some striking music and fine singing

Verdi Alzira  - Kate Ladner - Buxton International Festival 2018 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Kate Ladner - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Alzira is the third of the early Verdi operas to be performed at the Buxton International Festival directed by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Stephen Barlow [see my interview with Stephen], following on from Giovanna d'Arco (2015) and the original version of Macbeth (2017). Alzira is seriously rare, one of the most neglected operas in the Verdi canon and the Buxton production, which debuted on Saturday 7 July 2018 at the Buxton Opera House, was the UK's first full staging of the work.

Kate Ladner sang the title role, with Jung Soo Yun as Zamoro, James Cleverton as Gusmano, and Graeme Danby as Alvaro. Designs were by Russell Craig, lighting by Mark Jonathan, sound design by Mic Pool, video by Stanley Orwin Fraser, and movement by Terry John Bates. Stephen Barlow conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Written for Naples in 1845, Alzira was based on a play by Voltaire set in Spanish colonial Latin America, with Voltaire using the setting to examine philosophical questions regarding the colonisers behaving like savages yet calling the indigenous peoples savages. Librettist Salvatore Cammarano stripped out all the philosophy and left a piece which is highly compact (the Buxton production lasted two hours including the interval). We have little time for development, the characters are introduced and the plot hurtles towards its conclusion with remarkable vitality and dynamism.

The plot is a relatively straight-forward love triangle: Gusmano (James Cleverton) is Spanish governor of Peru, taking over from his father, Alvaro (Graeme Danby). Gusmano is hated by the Incas Peruvians, but he declares an amnesty and plans to seal it with marriage to Alzira (Kate Ladner), daughter of an Inca tribe leader, Atalba (Phl Wilcox). But Alzira is in love with an Inca, Zamoro (Jung Soo Yun), who died in an uprising. Complications arise, Alvaro is taken prisoner by the Incas yet freed on the orders of Zamoro (who is in fact not dead) to show the Spanish that the Incas are not savages. Zamoro's return to Alvira gives them a moment of joy, then sends Gusmano over the edge with jealousy and Act One ends with Zamoro's Inca troops fighting with the Spanish. In Act Two Gusmano forces Alzira to marry him by making it a condition for sparing Zamoro's life. In true tenor fashion, Zamoro leaps to the wrong conclusion and there is a violent denoument when he kills Gusmano at the wedding. On his deathbed, Gusmano has a remarkable conversion and wishes everyone to live in peace.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra

The five founders of SWAP'ra - Kitty Whately, Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierara
The five founders of SWAP'ra - Kitty Whately, Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierara
SWAP'ra is a relatively new organisation, formed by five women working in opera to both help encourage change and to provide a supportive platform in the face of a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry. Since its formation in March 2018, SWAP'ra has garnered a fair amount of press coverage, but inevitably this has rather focused on one issue, that of parenting and the problems those working in opera have when balancing work and children. 

Swap'ra logo
Though the organisation's title, SWAP'ra, is in full 'Supporting Women and Parents in Opera', it is by no means a single-issue group and later this month it is presenting a gala performance at Opera Holland Park to help raise money to enable the organisation to move forward with a whole variety of plans for supporting women in opera as well as supporting parents. I met up with two of the founders, soprano Madeleine Pierard and director Sophie Gilpin, to find out more.

Whilst parenting is the most obviously problematic issue that the group seeks to address, its over-riding goal is to celebrate women in the opera industry. When you consider conductors, composers and librettists, women are poorly represented, and whilst there are more women working as directors many feel that they are not able to break out from the assistant director roles. SWAP'ra wants to create role models for women in the industry, and performance opportunities too; to create a platform for women to present themselves and their work, providing a supportive and mentoring role as well.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Opera Rara and Warner Classics

Aurelie Baujean (Opera Rara), Markus Petersen (Warner Classics), Sir Mark Elder, Henry Little (Opera Rara), Susanne McBurney (Warner Classics), Patrick Lemanski (Warner Classics) (Photo Russell Scott/Opera Rara)
Aurelie Baujean (Opera Rara), Markus Petersen (Warner Classics),
Sir Mark Elder, Henry Little (Opera Rara), Susanne McBurney (Warner Classics),
Patrick Lemanski (Warner Classics) (Photo Russell Scott/Opera Rara)
Opera Rara and Warner Classics held a press conference yesterday (5 July 2018) to celebrate a number of things. Firstly, perhaps, the announcement of a new partnership between Opera Rara and Warner Classics, with Warner Classics assuming worldwide distribution for Opera Rara recordings. Further cause for celebration is the release of Sir Mark Elder's new recording of Rossini's Semiramide which will be issued on 7 September 2018. Sir Mark also introduced Opera Rara's plans for the forthcoming season, as well as noting that that afternoon he would be commencing orchestral rehearsals for Donizetti's L'Ange de Nisida which is the company's next project.

The agreement between Opera Rara and Warner Classics. includes all future recordings (starting with the forthcoming recording of Rossini's Semiramide), together with Opera Rara's most recent releases: International Opera Award-winning recordings of Offenbach’s Fantasio and Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, and selected recordings of the extensive back catalogue of more than 85 recordings.

Sir Mark Elder explained the he tried to make the music of early 19th century opera live anew; needing to be done with style, the music was vulnerable and easy to perform in a mediocre manner. When taking over as artistic director of Opera Rara, one of his dreams was to take a title which was very familiar, yet the piece was not, and make people listen to it anew. This became Semiramide, a work that existed for most people only as a title (or an overture), and Sir Mark pointed out that Dame Joan Sutherland's recording of the work was made 50 years ago, and lives in a very different sound world.

Rossini: Semiramide - Opera Rara
The forthcoming recording of Rossini's Semiramide features Albina Shagimuratova in the title role and Daniela Barcellona as Arsace with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The work was recorded complete (with the first age lasting longer than the last act of Wagner's Die Meistersinger).

Sir Mark was just about to go into his first orchestral rehearsal for Donizetti's L'ange di Nisida which he conducts for two concert performances at Covent Garden later this month, with Joyce El-Khoury, David Junghoon Kim, Vito Priante , Laurent Naouri, and Evgeny Stavinsky. The work was written by Donizetti for Paris, but it was never performed and has been re-constructed for Opera Rara. 96% of the result is by Donizetti, with only a small amount of patching needed. Sir Mark emphasised that this was not a dusty work taken off the shelf, but a vivid and interesting piece whose quality is undeniable. Though the final act is tragic, there is also a comic element to the work.

Looking further ahead, in December 2018 Opera Rara will present the original version of Puccini’s first stage work, Le Villi, in concert at the Royal Festival Hall which will also be recorded. Le Villi stars Ermonela Jaho with Brian Mulligan, and Arsen Soghomonyan with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Then in Spring 2019 the company is returning to Donizetti for one of his earlier operas, one which Sir Mark described as a work no one knows but which is important. Il Paria, will be recorded in June 2019 with Albina Shagimuratova, and a new modern edition of the work is currently being prepared.

DONIZETTI: L'ANGE DE NISIDA
Royal Opera House, 18 & 21 July 2018
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder
Joyce El-Khoury ● David Junghoon Kim
Vito Priante ● Laurent Naouri ● Evgeny Stavinsky

Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink

David Sawer: The Skating Rink - Alice Poggio, Grant Doyle - Garsington Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
David Sawer: The Skating Rink - Alice Poggio, Grant Doyle - Garsington Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey The Skating Rink; Ben Edquist, Sam Furness, Grant Doyle, Susan Bickley, Claire Wild, Alan Oke, Lauren Zolezzi, Louise Winter, Alice Poggio, dir: Stewart Laing, cond: Garry Walker Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Strong performance of a new opera with a very striking voice, inspired by Roberto Bolano's novel

David Sawer: The Skating Rink - Ben Edquist, Lauren Zolezzi - Garsington Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Ben Edquist, Lauren Zolezzi (Photo Johan Persson)
Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik's opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera's 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's opera The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera on Thursday 5 July 2018; based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey

The production was directed and designed by Stewart Laing, with costumes by Hyemi Shin, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth and movement by Sarah Fahie. The cast included Ben Edquist as Remo, Sam Furness as Gaspar, Susan Bickley as Carmen, Claire Wild as Caridad, Alan Oke as Rookie, Grant Doyle as Enric, Lauren Zolezzi as Nuria, Louise Winter as Pilar and skater Alice Poggio as the skating Nuria. Garry Walker conducted the Garsington Opera Orchestra.

This is Sawer's third opera. His first, From Morning Till Midnight, to his own libretto based on a Georg Kaiser play, was premiered with some success by English National Opera in 2001, though his second opera, in fact an operetta, Skin Deep with a libretto by Amando Iannucci, perhaps failed to quite find its mark when premiered by Opera North in 2009.  This new piece, The Skating Rink, seems something of a return to the darker, expressionist world of From Morning Till Midnight, though not without lighter moments.

Bolano's novel tells the same events from the points of view of three narrators, each of whom is involved in a different way in the events in a 1990s Spanish town on the Costa Brava, where love leads Enric (Grant Doyle) to build an illicit ice skating rink so that Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi and Alice Poggio) can train, but the murder of a former opera singer Carmen (Susan Bickley), now living on the streets, clouds issues.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Hear Her Voice: A millennium of music by female composers to celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage

For their Summer concert in the church of St Bartholomew the less, Giltspur St, London EC1A 7BE on Thursday 12 July 2018 at 7.30pm, London Concord Singers & conductor Jessica Norton are presenting a programme of music by female composers,  sacred music by Hildegard of Bingen from the 11th century, part-songs by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel from the 19th century, and three works by significant British women composers of the 20th century, Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy and Thea Musgrave, and contemporary pieces by Cecilia McDowall and Lucy Pankhurst's The Pankhurst Anthem commissioned by the BBC to celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage. Tickets are price £12.50 (including a glass of wine) with £5 for under 25s, and are available from EventBrite,

The centre piece of the programme will be the trio of 20th century works, with Grace Williams' Ave Maris Stella, a late and significant work from 1973 by this Welsh composer, Thea Musgrave's Four Madrigals, settings of Sir Thomas Wyatt and some of her earliest works, and Elizabeth Machonchy's delightful Creatures, an imaginative setting of animal poems written in 1979. Also in the programme is Cecilia McDowall's Regina Coeli, a work extremely popular with the choir.

The concert is being repeated on Saturday 14 July 2018, at 2.30pm, in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral.

Further information from the London Concord Singers website:

New music for viola and cello

840 - New music for viola and cello
840 is a London-based concert series, curated by the composers Alex Nikiporenko and James Luff to provide a platform for new experimental and minimal music. Each concert focuses on a particular chamber instrumentation, showcasing works by living composers. For the concert on 7 July 2018 at the St James' Church, Islington, the focus is on duos for viola and cello, a surprisingly intimate and intriguing combination of instruments. The performers are Jennifer Ames Alexander and Colin Alexander.

The concert will feature new works from Colin Alexander, James Luff, Alex Nikiporenko and Garrett Sholdice, alongside music by Eva-Maria Houben, Marc Sabat, and Amanda Feery.

Full details from the 840 website.

Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen

Richard Blackford: Niobe - Tamsin Waley Cohen - Signum Classics
Richard Blackford Niobe; Tamsin Waley-Cohen, The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Ben Gernon; Signum Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Inspired by the Greek legend, this richly romantic yet tough work showcases the superb musical talents of all concerned

Niobe is a work for solo violin and orchestra by Richard Blackford which was written for the violinist Tamsin Waley Cohen, who performs it on this new disc from Signum Classics with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon. The work is a single 23-minute span of symphonic music, which is here issued on disc on its own.

Blackford is inspired by the story of Niobe, who boasts that she is greater than the goddess of virtue, Leto, because Niobe has seven sons and seven daughters whereas Leto only has two. Leto sends Apollo and Artemis to kill all Niobe's children, Niobe's husband kills himself devastated, and Niobe is turned to stone and weeps ceaselessly.

The work was very much planned with Tamsin Waley-Cohen in mind and Blackford's discussions with her also touched on the way the story of Niobe relates to the plight of women unfairly treated in our own time, both those suffering under extreme religious laws and the double standard applied to Western women.

Described as a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, the work is not strictly a violin concerto in the 19th century sense.

Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance & workshops at Kings Place

Noh Reimagined - Kings Place - mu:arts
Noh Reimagined - Kings Place - mu:arts
Noh Reimagined; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on 29-30 June 2018
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

A weekend of performance & workshops exploring Noh theatre, focussing on the Mugen Noh play "Izutsu (The Well Curb)"

Izutsu Yoshimasa Kanze (Photo Shinji Aoki)
Izutsu Yoshimasa Kanze (Photo Shinji Aoki)
As part of their world music programme, Kings Place hosted a weekend of Noh theatre, No Reimagined, 29-30 June 2018 with concerts, talks, neuroscience and workshops. As a Noh novice I threw myself in to the experience. It became apparent that the audience was wide ranging, from those connecting with their cultural heritage (identifiable from their tabi socks in the workshop and kimonos at the concerts) to the curious but uninformed.

Like any classical art form, Noh is steeped in incomprehensibility for the uninformed. Imagine, if you have only listened to pop music, going to a foreign language opera for the first time without reading the synopsis and without surtitles. Only, at this opera there is no acting as you know it, instead there is a very minimal ballet going on, where the hand gestures have significance, but you do not know what they are. The main actor wears a mask and gorgeous oversized costume, which prevents ordinary body language from seeping through. On top of this add 650 years of refinement and stylisation to the music and you are there.

However, what this weekend did so well, with its gently enthusiastic explanations and the recurring common thread of the Mugen Noh play "Izutsu (The Well Curb)", was to bring the audience together - regardless of experience. Carrying everyone along to the splendid finale on Saturday night.

The weekend opened with a welcome from the Managing Director of Kings Place, Robert Reed who introduced the collaborators in the project curated by Akiko Yanagisawa (mu:arts). This was followed by a brief history of Noh by Professors Semir Zeki and Atsushi Iriki, and their interest in Noh from the perspective of neuroscience.

They explained that Noh theatre was developed by Kan'ami and his son Zeami in the 14th century, and that most of the 240 plays still performed have been preserved in their entirety. Noh encompasses ideas, such as beauty being half perceived, but totally felt; an altered perception of time; events happening out of sequence; the audience becoming the music; and ambiguity allowing for multiple/ individual interpretation. Overall this means that the audience is required to do some work and be engaged with the play rather than passively observing. The two professors touched on how a specific part of the brain is involved in understanding abstract ideas and how this is essential in Noh for perceiving yūgen, the invisible beauty that is felt not seen.

Consequently Noh is not simple to learn - children begin at the age of three and may become professionals by the age of thirty. It was also explained that new Noh tend to take on the form and spirit of classical Noh rather than be faithful reproductions.

Gemma Summerfield receives final Chilcott Award

Gemma Summerfield (photo Arno Photography)
Gemma Summerfield (photo Arno Photography)
Soprano Gemma Summerfield has been awarded the Chilcott Award for British Singers, the biennial prize given by the Susan Chilcott Scholarship, an independent charity set up in 2005 in memory of Susan Chilcott, one of the outstanding singers of her generation, who died from cancer in 2003 aged 40. This year's award is the final one to be awarded by the charity.

The biennial Chilcott Award is made to an opera singer who, like Susan Chilcott herself, has the potential to make an international impact within the world of opera. Previous winners have included Duncan Rock (2012), Clare Presland (2014) and Soraya Mafi (2016). The Award is specifically designed to enable advanced training or career development, from ongoing vocal tuition and accompanists, to practical help with some of the ‘hidden’ costs of the craft, including travel to auditions, purchasing scores and creating recordings and promotional material. This year's award to Gemma Summerfield was £10,000.

Gemma Summerfield was winner of the First Prize and the Song Prize at the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Awards as well as the Jean Meikle Prize for a Duo at the 2017 Wigmore Hall International Song Competition. This autumn, she will make her house debut at Wexford Festival Opera as Paula Johnson in the European première of William Bolcom’s opera, Dinner at Eight (20 October – 4 November) and her debut with Scottish Opera as Pamina in The Magic Flute in Spring 2019.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Australian visitors: the choir of Trinity College, Melbourne on tour in the UK

Christopher Watson and the choir of Trinity College, Melbourne
Christopher Watson and the choir of Trinity College, Melbourne
The choir of Trinity College, Melbourne (Australia) is currently on a European tour and is visiting the UK. We were lucky enough to be able to catch the choir, conducted by its musical director Christopher Watson, at a short concert on Tuesday 3 July 2018 at the church of St Mary-le-Bow, when they performed music by Robert White, Ross Edwards, Percy Grainger and Eriks Essenwalds.


The choir, which numbers around 30, comprises of students studying a wide range of subjects, many of whom are residents at Trinity College, but with others drawn from Monash University, Swinburne University, the Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT University, and they sing two services per week. During the tour, Christopher Watson and the choir will also be doing a recording, the centrepiece of which is a mass by the contemporary Australian composer Ross Edwards (born 1943).

At St Mary-le-Bow, they opened with Robert White's Christe qui lux es IV, followed by the 'Kyrie' from Ross Edwards Mass of the Dreaming. The group made a lovely focussed, vibrant sound, very much its own. Edwards' mass, written in 2009 for a choir in Brisbane, makes interesting use of indigenous Australian elements (such as the low basses evoking the didgeridoo) within the context of modern polyphony.

Music by another Australian of an earlier generation followed, we heard Percy Grainger's Irish tune from County Derry, and Ye banks and ye braes. In fact, Grainger's museum is just 50 yards from the choir's historic chapel in Melbourne. Grainger's arrangements were wonderfully rich textured, and I was impressed that they added the whistling line in Ye banks and ye braes.

More contemporary music came next, Eriks Esenvalds' Only in sleep, a setting of the American poet Sara Teasdale. The event ended with the 'Gloria' from Ross Edwards' mass, a challenging but uplifting piece.

The name of the choir's musical director, Christopher Watson, may be familiar to readers of this blog. He was a tenor with the Tallis Scholars for a number of years, director of music at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and in fact was the tenor soloist on my CD, The Testament of Dr Cranmer.

The choir has already sung Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral and giving a concert at St Clement Danes, as well as performing in Montpelier Cathedral, France. To come are services at St George's Chapel, Windsor, Great St Mary's, Cambridge, St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. See below for the full schedule.

Dates for the remainder of Trinity College's tour:

Wednesday 4 July – 5.15pm Evensong at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle
Friday 6 July – 12pm lunchtime concert in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
Sunday 8 July – 5.30pm Evensong at Great St Mary's, Cambridge
Tuesday 10 July – 8pm concert at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
Wednesday 11 – Friday 13 July – 5.30pm services St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Saturday 14 – Sunday 15 July – Services in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – Saturday 6pm, Sunday 11am + 6pm

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