Saturday, 29 June 2019

Young Artists Performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Opera Holland Park

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Georgia Mae Bishop - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)*
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Georgia Mae Bishop - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)*
Verdi Un ballo in maschera Young Artists performance; Nadine Benjamin, Adriano Graziani, Jack Holton, Georgia Mae Bishop, dir: Rodola Gaitanou/Rachael Hewer, City of London Sinfonia; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 June 2019
The annual Young Artists Performance at Opera Holland Park

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Adriano Grazini, Claire Lees - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Adriano Grazini, Claire Lees
Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019
(Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
The annual Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance took place on Friday 28 June 2019. Rodula Gaitanou's production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera [see my review] featured young artists Jack Holton as Anckarstrom, Claire Lees as Oscar, Georgia Mae Bishop as Madame Arvidson, Blaise Malaba as Ribbing, Tom Mole as Horn and Samuel Oram as Cristiano, and they were joined by Nadine Benjamin as Amelia and Adriano Graziani as Gustavo. Rachael Hewer was the associate director and the performance was conducted by associate conductor Sonia Ben-Santamaria, with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.

This was in fact the second performance by this cast, as on 26 June they gave the schools matinee [you can see a video of the terrific reaction they received on Opera Holland Park's Facebook page]. Nadine Benjamin had also gone on as Amelia with the main cast as cover for Anne Sophie Duprels earlier in the week, whilst Adriano Graziani performed two scheduled performances with the main cast.

Nadine Benjamin (making her debut performances in the role) made a poignant and expressive Amelia, her voice showing an obvious sympathy and affinity with Verdi's vocal lines. She shaped Amelia's music expressively and brought out the underlying seriousness and melancholy of the character, even in the rapturous Act Two duet this Amelia never quite got carried away.  I do hope that we get to hear Benjamin in further Verdi roles soon.

Adriano Graziani was a lithe and bright-toned Riccardo, finely delineating the character's emotional journey from the devil-may-care attitude in the opening scene to his Act Three realisation that he must give up Amelia. In the earlier part of Act Three he seemed to tire somewhat, but rallied to give a powerfully moving death scene.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Jack Holton, Blaise Malaba, Tom Mole - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Jack Holton, Blaise Malaba, Tom Mole - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Clare Lees was a wonderfully sparky Oscar, really emphasising the mixed gender characteristics which are a feature of Oscar in this production. Lees was beautifully effortless in her coloratura whilst combining this with an impressive physicality, and the lightness of her performance emphasised the Offenbachian qualities of Verdi's writing for this role.

Jack Holton was an impressive Anckarstrom. The role is quite stretch for a young baritone, and there were moments in Act Three when the lower reaches seemed not quite in focus yet, but he will certainly grow into it. Emotionally the performance was fully developed, the intense seriousness of Act One exploding into the furiously obsessive jealousy of Act Three. Rather impressively, 'Eri tu' was finely integrated into the performance rather than standing out as sometimes happens.

Georgia Mae Bishop made Madame Arvidson into a striking creation, bringing a very different physicality to it than Rosalind Plowright in the main cast, yet equally vivid. Bishop [who sang the role of the Mother in the premiere of my opera The Gardeners last week], mined a thrilling lower register to striking effect.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Nadine Benjamin - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Nadine Benjamin - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019
(Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Blaise Malaba and Tom Horn brought an impressive stage presence to the conspirators, Ribbing and Horn, joining with Holton's Anckarstrom for a finely tense account of their Act Three scene. Samuel Oram impressed in the small but important role of Cristiano the sailor in the scene with Madame Arvidson.

In the pit, Sonia Ben Santamaria drew a finely fluid and flowing account of the opera from the City of London Sinfonia.

With a different cast, other aspects of the production were thrown into relief, but I have to admit that I found the concept of Act Two no more successful than I did at the premiere. Associate director Rachael Hewer and the cast had worked hard to integrate with Rodula Gaitanou's production, keeping to the concept yet giving highly personal performances.The result was a performance of the complex opera which had a surprising depth and maturity.


Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Lees, Sonia Ben Santamaria - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Claire Lees, Sonia Ben Santamaria - Opera Holland Park young artists performance 2019 (Photo Frances Marshall / Marshall Light Studio)
The Opera Holland Park Young Artists scheme is rather unique; participants have a full rehearsal period and take part in a ticketed main-stage performance. They are individually mentored by the Head of Music, language coaches, and professional directors, conductors and répétiteurs. Many past young artists have gone on to become part of the Opera Holland Park family, and all of this year's productions have former young artists involved.

The scheme relies on your support and you can find out more from the Opera Holland Park website.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation: I chat to Christopher Monks of Armonico Conso - interview
  • Musically Satisfying: Hansel & Gretel at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible (★★★½) - I Fagiolini - CD review
  • Distinctive, uncompromising, theatrical: the music of Erika Fox revealed on the Goldfield Ensemble's Paths from NMC (★★★½) - CD review
  • Pacey, intimate & youthful: Mozart's comedy Le nozze di Figaro at the Grange Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • The Rake's Progress: Barbara Hannigan conducts a young cast at the Aldeburgh Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Cycle of history: Daniel Slater's imaginative staging of Handel's Belshazzar at Grange Festival (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Chineke! Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens, Wallen & Coleridge-Taylor at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★) concert review
  • Focus, concentration, engagement and enthusiasm: Gabrieli Roar in An English Coronation (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Displaying their charms: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris receives its first recording (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Gender bending Baroque: Lawrence Zazzo and Vivica Genaux swap genders and roles in this brilliant Baroque opera recital  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Garsington Opera: the UK stage debut of Offenbach's late opera comique Fantasio intrigues and engages - (★★★★½)  opera review
  • A sense of architecture: Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's Mass in B minor (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Aldeburgh Festival: Knussen Chamber Orchestra's concert debut in Knussen, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Britten, Schubert (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Home


From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation: I chat to Christopher Monks of Armonico Consort

Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral
(Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Supersize Polyphony was the Armonico Consort's celebration of large-scale 16th century polyphony including Alessandro Striggio's 40 voiced motet and mass, Ecce Beatam Lucem and Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, and Thomas Tallis' 40-part Spem in Alium, and now the ensemble, with the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge have recorded the programme for Signum Classics. Christopher Monks founded the Armonico Consort nearly 20 years ago and we chatted recently about the recording, the consort's wide range of educational activities such as the successful choir creation scheme, as well as the remarkably amount of musical talent in the UK's young people, often without a proper pathway for release.

The idea behind the recording was to re-create the Supersize Polyphony concertis, with the Striggio mass and Tallis motet. But Monks was wary of presenting the listeners with a wall of sound, how to sustain the audience's concentration and attention. Originally, the movements of the mass would have been interspersed with plainchant and the other elements of the liturgy. But we are not even sure that the mass was performed live and certainly do not know what the plainchant was, so Monks has felt released from academic constraint at liberty to use chant by Hildegard of Bingen as the connecting tissue, providing a contrast between the timeless beauty of the Hildegard and the large scale works. With the disc, Monks toyed with the idea of doing the mass in one block, but decided to re-create the concert. Also on the disc is Tallis' four-part O nata lux, with the intention of showing where Tallis' large-scale motet came from.

The concerts provided a series a series of logistical challenges, for a start they involved travelling with fourty-four singers. The issues varied from venue to venue; the music was sung in the round to immerse the audience in sound. So there was always the question of where to place the singers so that they would be surrounding the audience, how to light the singers. Cathedrals were challenges because of the pillars, issues with sight-lines and of course the echo. And the results needed to look good too.

Christopher regards how the concert looks as very important, the expectations of contemporary audiences are very high, and he feels it is the consort's duty to bring stuff to life in as authentic a way as possible. And performing the works in the round is part of that authenticity, though it is also a rod for their own backs.

Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral
(Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Another challenge was distance, in some venues such as Canterbury Cathedral there was a few hundred feet between performers. It does work, but it it requires the performers to stay faithful to the beat and the conductor, not doing it by ear but by sight. And of course, it can all collapse around you in a bar, so performing the music live in such a manner means you put your neck on the line, such is the excitement of live performance.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Somewhere for the Weekend: Dartington Summer School & Festival

Dartington Summer School & Festival
Dartington Summer School & Festival
This year's Dartington Summer School and Festival will be Joanna Macgregor's fifth and final year as artistic director. Open to the Summer School's course participants and the general public, the concerts range from opera, orchestral music and chamber music recitals to jazz, folk, gospel and more. This year Macgregor has included music and composers that she has found influential, including Moondog (paired with Bach's Art of Fugue), Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, Britten's Turn of the Screw and Saint Nicholas, John Cage's Musicircus and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring as well as 85th birthday celebrations for Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

Visiting performers including conductors Stephen Barlow, Laurence Cummings and Graeme Jenkins, performance poet Caroline Bergvall, tenor Tom Randle, Alfred Brendel, Stile Antico, and Škampa Quartet. Emma Kirkby will be celebrating her 70th birthday in a concert given with counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton, lutenist David Miller and students from vocal and lute masterclasses.

Opera this year includes Handel's Agrippina with Robert Howarth as musical director, and Graeme Jenkins conducts Britten's The Turn of the Screw with tenor Tom Randle. Laurence Cummings directs Handel's Saul with Dartington Choir and Dartington Baroque Orchestra. Tom Randle and Joanna Macgregor will perform Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared with singers from the Advanced Opera Course. Students from the musical theatre course will be presenting scenes from Annie Get Your Gun and Calamity Jane.

Steuart Bedford will be conducting Britten's Saint Nicholas with Tom Randle alongside Adriano Adewale's Percussion Concerto conducted by Steve Drummer.

The Summer School and Festival runs from 27  July to 24 August 2019, full details from the Dartington web site.


Musically satisfying: Hansel & Gretel at Grange Park Opera

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 2) - Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup - Grange Park Opera 2019
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel; Soraya Mafi, Caitlin Hulcup, Susan Bullock, William Dazeley, dir: Stephen Medcalf, orchestra of English National Opera, cond: George Jackson; Grange Park Opera Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A musically literate and satisfying performance illuminates a picture-book production

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Susan Bullock as the Witch
Grange Park Opera 2019 - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
When Engelbert Humperdinck's sister, Adelheid Wette, wrote the libretto to Hansel and Gretel the idea of a poor family living in a hut near the woods, on the bread-line, would have had an element of realism to it despite the sentimental layers which Wette adds to the tale. But from our contemporary perspective it is difficult to make such a setting seem anything but picturesque, so opera directors have mined the psychological elements underlying the story. Two iconic 20th century productions, that of David Pountney for English National Opera [see Duncan Hadfield's 1998 review in the Independent] and by Richard Jones for Welsh National Opera [see Stephen Walsh's 1999 review in the Independent] set the piece in urban 1950s with the wood and the witch representing a psychological nightmare based on reality.

Stephen Medcalf's production of Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was shared between the Royal Northern College of Music (where it debuted last year, see review in The Arts Desk) and Grange Park Opera, where we saw the second performance on Thursday 27 June 2019. Caitlin Hulcup was Hansel and Soraya Mafi was Gretel with Susan Bullock as Mother and the Witch, William Dazeley as Father, Lizzie Holmes as the Dew Fairy and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash as the Sandman. George Jackson conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Medcalf and his designer Yannis Thavoris set the piece in the 1890s with the family as urban poor, whilst the 'forest' is simply the outside city (Thavoris provided a striking forest of street lights) and foraging for the children consists of scrounging and stealing Oliver Twist-style. The witch's house was in fact a magic sweet shop, but its interior was a magically larger version of the children's home. All this would seem to provide some interesting psychological layers to explore, particularly as the production had Susan Bullock doubling as the Mother and the Witch.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Susan Bullock, William Dazeley - Grange Park Opera 2019 - Richard Hubert Smith
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 1) - Susan Bullock, William Dazeley - Grange Park Opera 2019
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
In fact the urban forest entirely lacked a sense of danger and, populated during the Witches ride by a cast of Dickensian-type characters, seemed simply picturesque with the children remarkably in charge of their own destiny. Whilst the third act's setting in a version of the children's home had interesting resonances, none of this was explored as Susan Bullock's Witch was a magnificently comic creation which had little link, physical or metaphorical, to her performance in Act One as Mother.

The intention, as with the Royal Opera's disappointing recent new production of the opera [see my review] seemed to be to provide an evening of unthreatening entertainment, and within these constraints Medcalf's production was surprisingly imaginative, and coupled to one of the finest musical performances of the opera that I have heard in a long time.

The musical delights started with the first notes of the overture as the horn melody rose out of the pit, rich in texture and beautifully shaped.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Opera for £5!

Opera for £5! Tête à Tête logo
Opera for £5! You have until 3 July to get bargain tickets for Tête à Tête's summer shows. Cutting edge experiments, comedy, fairy-tales, satire, and science - give it a go and #ItMightBeOK! #TATFest19

Leonardo - Shaping the Invisible

I Fagiolini (Photo Mattew Brodie)
I Fagiolini (Photo Mattew Brodie)
Leonardo: Shaping the invisible; I Fagiolini; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 June 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An eclectic recital evoking not so much the music of Leonardo's world but the emotional response to his work

Leonardo Shaping the Invisible - I Fagiolini - Coro
How to celebrate Leonardo Da Vinci in music? Leonardo was known to be musical, yet nothing survives and any reconstruction of the 'music of his time' would be largely speculative and still say very little about his painting, engineering and scientific studies.

So Martin Kemp (Emeritus Professor in the History ofArt at Trinity College, Oxford) and Robert Hollingworth, artistic director of I Fagiolini have put together a recital on Coro which pairs Leonardo's works of art with music. The musical selection is eclectic, and avoids concentrating on Leonardo's time with performances from I Fagiolini of music from the 1500s to the present day.

So what we have is Salvator Mundi paired with Thomas Tallis' and Herbert Howells settings of Salvator Mundi (1575 and 1936 respectively),  the Mon Lisa paired with Monteverdi's madrical Era l'anima mia (1605), St John the Baptist with Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur's Le jardin clos from Le cantique des cantiques (1952), The Last Supper with Victoria's Unus ex discipulis smeis from the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday (1583), and Edmund Rubbra's Amicus Meus from Tenebrae - Second Nocturn (1962), The Musician, Portrait of a Man with a Sheet of Music with Monteverdi's Tempro la cetra (1619), the drawing of five grotesques with Orazio Vecchi's Daspuo che stabilao from L'amfiparnaso (1597), the 'Vitruvian Man' drawing with Bach's first Contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue (c1740-50), Ruben's copy of Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari with Janequin's La guerre (1528), a knot design with Josquin's Agnus Dei from Missa L'Homme Arme sexti toni, The Annunciation with Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater, the drawing La Scapigliata with Cipriano de Rore's Or che'l ciel e la terra, and finally a new commission Adrian Williams' Shaping the invisible which examines his obsession with flight.

The forces used are diverse from a consort of four singers to full choir. For Monteverdi's Tempro la cetra tenor Matthew Long sings solo with an instrumental ensemble, and for the Bach fugue the four singers go into real Swingle Singers mode. Some of the choices are left-field, Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur's setting of a passage from the Song of Songs for Leonardo's St John the Baptist, the combination of the erotic with the religious in the Song of Songs intended to echo the same odd mixture in the rather knowing and sexy figure in the painting.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Distinctive, uncompromising, theatrical: the music of Erika Fox revealed on the Goldfield Ensemble's Paths from NMC

Erika Fox - Goldfield Ensemble - NMC
Erika Fox chamber works; Goldfield Ensemble; NMC
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A forgotten but not negligible voice, Erika Fox is receiving her first major recording at the age of 80. This is a strong, striking and vividly theatrical voice

You probably will not recognise the name of the composer Erika Fox on this NMC portrait disc, Paths, and may, understandably, think that NMC is giving an opportunity, to a young, unrecorded composer. Yet Erika Fox is over 80, with a long and distinguished career but somehow the modern recording and publishing industry has passed her by.

Kate Romano, artistic director of the Goldfield Ensemble which recorded this new disc, writes of being recommended Erika Fox's music by composer Nicola Lefanu. Romano did some research and found nothing. To hear Erika Fox's music you had to go to her house. [Read Romano's interview about Erika Fox and her music on Composers Edition]

Erika Fox
Erika Fox
Erika Fox was born in 1936 in Vienna, coming to London in 1939 as a refugee. She grew up in a Hasidic rabinical family where music, dancing, rituals and belief in miracles were part of daily life. Her childhood musical world included Hasidic chant and much music of Eastern European origins. She studied with Harrison Birtwistle and Jeremy Dale Roberts. In the 1970s she was involved with the Fires of London, the Nash Ensemble and Darlington with major performances right through to the mid-1990s.

And then nothing. To a certain extent family intervened, but to fall off the map entirely is striking and puzzling.

The disc includes a wide range of music from 1980 through to 2005, and what you notice at first listen is it distinctiveness, its striking sound world and its uncompromising nature. This is music which owes little to Western classical music, there is no harmonic development. Fox describes it as 'single melodic lines, often in hereophony, held together by dint of varied repetition, and moulded, sometimes by use of percussion, to provide a ritualistic and perhaps theatrical whole'. Indeed, much of the music could be imagined in some sort of theatrical use, and many of the works feel as if they have a dramatic narrative.

It is music which would have taken a strong place in the 1970s world of the Fires of London, but unlike some composers of the period Fox's style does not seem to have relaxed into writing symphonies and concertos. The two most recent works on the disc, Malinconia Militare (2003) and Cafe Warsaw 1944 (2005), are as uncompromising and as theatrical as the earlier ones.

Despite the numerous influences that Erika Fox attributes to her music, in neither sounds specifically Eastern European nor Jewish, it is very much itself, uncompromising, strong, richly coloured. Melodic material is highly anglular and her mode of composition gives the music an incredible restlessness but also a sense of integrity.

Garry Walker named as next musical director of Opera North

Garry Walker conducts the Orchestra of Opera North in concert (Photo Justin Slee)
Garry Walker conducts the Orchestra of Opera North in concert (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North has named the Scottish conductor Garry Walker as its next musical director, filling the hole left by the departure of Aleksandar Markovic in 2017. Walker is currently the Chief Conductor of the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie in Koblenz and will not be taking up his post at Opera North until Autumn 2020. But fear not, there is a chance to hear him in action later this year when he will be conducting Opera North's forthcoming production of Martinu's The Greek Passion which opens in Leeds on 14 September 2019.

Garry Walker was the winner of the 1999 Leeds Conducting Competition, having studied cello (with Ralph Kirshbaum) and conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. He conducted the world premiere of David Sawyer's The Skating Rink at Garsington Opera in 2018 [see my review]. His recent work at Opera North has included Britten's Billy Budd and most recently the double bill of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi & Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Once in post at Opera North he will conduct two operas per season as well as a number of concerts.

In a parallel announcement, Antony Hermus has been named as the company's Principal Guest Conductor. Hermus is Principal Guest Conductor of the North Netherlands Orchestra, a position he will retain. Once in place Hermus will conduct one production per season, as well as concerts. Hermus conducted Puccini's Tosca with the company in 2018 and returns for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in Spring 2020. He also makes his English National Opera next year, conducting a new production of Dvorak's Rusalka.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

The Gardeners - Images and reviews

Joanna Wyld and Robert Hugill (Photo Robert Piwko)
Joanna Wyld and Robert Hugill (Photo Robert Piwko)
Well the reviews are out and we have reviews of Joanna Wyld and my new chamber opera The Gardeners in Classical Source, Opera Today and Seen and Heard International.

  • 'Quite a feat! ... It lingers in the memory' - Classical Source
  • 'Hugill's music has a moving serenity and stillness' - Opera Today
  • 'A beautiful piece, beautifully performed' - Seen and Heard International
Read the reviews at The Gardeners website.

Robert Hugill & Joanna Wyld: The Gardeners - Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst, Joanna Patrick, William Vann, Sophie Haynes, Oliver Wass, Julian Debreuill, Peter Brathwaite, Magid El-Bushra, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop (Photo Robert Piwko)
Robert Hugill & Joanna Wyld: The Gardeners - Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst, Joanna Patrick, William Vann, Sophie Haynes, Oliver Wass, Julian Debreuill, Peter Brathwaite, Magid El-Bushra, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop
(Photo Robert Piwko)
Gallery of images from the premiere

Robert Hugill & Joanna Wyld: The Gardeners - Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst, Joanna Patrick, Sophie Haynes, Oliver Wass, William Vann, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsal (Photo Robert Piwko)
Robert Hugill & Joanna Wyld: The Gardeners - Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst, Joanna Patrick, Sophie Haynes, Oliver Wass, William Vann, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsal (Photo Robert Piwko)

Garsington's Youth Opera Company to premiere Paul Fincham's debut opera The Happy Princess at Wormsley in August

Garsington Opera - Silver Birch rehearsals Sam Furness with the community chorus in 2017 (Photo John Snelling)
Garsington Opera - Silver Birch rehearsals, Sam Furness
with the community chorus in 2017 (Photo John Snelling)
In 2017, Garsington Opera staged Roxanna Panufnik and Jessica Duchen's Silver Birch, an opera whose performers combined professionals with a significant number of members of the local communities, from children to adults. This event was part of Garsington Opera's significant Learning and Participation programme which now extends to a Youth Opera Company which covers both Primary Schools and Secondary Schools, plus the Adult Community Company. This is in addition to the Opera First programme, where a team goes into a school to do workshops on and introduce an opera, and the participants are invited to a performance at Wormsley given by Garsington Opera's Alvarez Young Artists.

This year, a new opera has been commissioned for the Youth Company (80 young people aged 8 to 21), The Happy Princess by composer Paul Fincham. Based on Oscar Wilde's story The Happy Prince, the opera updates the action to the present and transforms the prince into a princess. It will be premiered on 2 August 2019 on Garsington Opera's main stage at Wormsley when the Youth Opera Company will be joined by soprano soprano Lara Marie Müller who won the Garsington Opera 2017 Simon Sandbach Award, and a professional chamber ensemble. It will be conducted by Jonathon Swinard, Head of Music at Garsington Opera, with Karen Gillingham (director), Suzi Zumpe (vocal director) and Ruth Paton (designer). The libretto for the opera is by Jessica Duchen, librettist of Silver Birch.

Fincham studied music at Cambridge where he was musical director of the Cambridge Footlights (where a fellow students included Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Nicholas Hyntner). But he did first career completely unrelated to music. After a 30 year career he took the plunge and became a full time composer. He wrote the music for the film Reason to Leave, starring Claire King, going on to win the best original score award at the London International Filmmakers’ Festival in 2017. The Happy Princess is his first opera.

Further details from the Garsington website.

Pacey, intimate & youthful: Mozart's comedy Le nozze di Figaro at the Grange Festival

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Wallis Giunta, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Wallis Giunta, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Simona Mihai, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne, Roberto Lorenzi, Wallis Giunta, Rowan Pierce, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, Academy of Ancient Music, cond: Richard Egarr; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A pacey and engaging period performance with youth to the fore

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Simone Mihai, Roberto Lorenzi - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
Simone Mihai, Roberto Lorenzi
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
We can easily forget, in our quest for Mozartian perfection, that many of the main characters in his comedy Le nozze di Figaro are young people. It works having the Countess sung by a distinguished older soprano, but we can perhaps lose sight of the fast that Rosina is quite young, relatively newly married.

For its production of Le nozze di Figaro (seen Sunday 23 June 2019), The Grange Festival assembled a striking group of young singers to embody the young characters in Mozart and Da Ponte's opera, with Toby Girling as the Count, Simona Mihai as the Countess, Ellie Laugharne as Susanna, Roberto Lorenzi as Figaro, Wallis Giunta as Cherubino and Rowan Pierce as Barbarina, with Louise Winter as Marcellina, Ben Johnson as Don Basilio, Jonathan Best as Dr. Bartolo and Richard Suart as Antonio. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans with designs by Tim Reed and lighting by Peter Mumford. Richard Egarr conducted the Academy of Ancient Music.

Whilst the genre of the master/servant comedy in 18th century opera was well establish (comoser Baldassare Galuppi and playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote a number of dramma giocoso in the 1740s which had servants running rings about masters), what Mozart and Da Ponte did was introduce a new humanity, so that these characters are living breathing beings with whom we empathise. But the opera is still a comedy, and Martin Lloyd-Evans period production respected this.

Designer Tim Reed provided a series of flexible spaces based on movable screens, with a variety of doors (respecting the hierarchies of the castle) and period costumes, and Lloyd-Evans created a fast paced and enjoyable comedy which never took the music for granted and allowed the cast to create some vivid characters. The fluid pacing was matched in the pit with Richard Egarr directing the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music, and providing imaginative forte piano accompaniments in the recitatives. This latter kept moving at a lively pace, something that the comedy needs and it perhaps helped that in Roberto Lorenzo's Figaro the cast had a native Italian speaker. Arias were allowed to blossom and mature, whilst never getting overly grand for this intimate theatrical space.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Barbara Hannigan returns to Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress, an opera she knows so well as a performer but now coming to it as a director

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress
Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings
Stravinsky The Rake's Progress; Aphrodite Patoulidou, Yannis François, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Fleur Barron, Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel, James Way, cond: Barbara Hannigan, dir: Linus Fellbom, Ludwig Orchestra; Aldeburgh Festival at the Snape Maltings
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 20 June 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A moral tale of significance, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress was the culmination of the composer’s neoclassical period in which he inhabited and reinvented the musical styles of the past

Featuring a young and enthusiastic cast recruited from Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists’ programme, this production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Snape Maltings on 20 June 2019 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival featured Aphrodite Patoulidou, Yannis François, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Fleur Barron, Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel and James Way with Barbara Hannigan conducting the Ludwig Orchestra, in residence at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival their residency generously supported by Performing Arts Fund NL, one of the most important grant-making organisations for music, dance and theatre in the Netherlands.

An English-language opera in three acts with an epilogue, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, set to a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, is loosely based on a series of engravings of the same name by the formidable 18th-century London-born artist and pictorial satirist, William Hogarth.
Stravinsky, in fact, viewed the engravings at a loan exhibition in Chicago in May 1947 but, closer to home, you can see them at the Sir John Soane Museum (formerly the home of the neoclassical architect, John Soane) at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London WC2A 3BP. Therefore, the 18th-century English setting provided the perfect vehicle for the composer’s fullest immersion into the opera tradition with Stravinsky writing The Rake’s Progress at the culmination of his neoclassical period thereby inhabiting and reinventing musical styles of the past.

A moral tale of significance, the scenario surrounds Tom Rakewell, a respectable young English gentleman who refuses the offer of a good job promising him a dutiful life of conventional respectability. Foolishly, he dumps Anne Trulove to live by his wits alone and, not surprisingly, with the Devil on hand to help, he appears to strike gold at first attempt. However, as the story unfolds one watches him descend into dissolution and madness as the evil presence of Nick Shadow (the Devil in disguise) takes a stranglehold on him. After several misadventures, poor old Tom ends up in Bedlam in the city of London.

Receiving its première at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in September 1951, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf created the role of Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville that of Tom Rakewell. The opera arrived in Paris in June of the following year at the Opéra-Comique under the baton of André Cluytens while the American première fell to the New York Met in February 1953 conducted by Fritz Reiner.

But the noteworthy Glyndebourne Festival Opera production dating from 1975 directed by John Cox with fabulous sets and costumes conceived by David Hockney is the one that slumbers, I should imagine, in the thoughts and minds of most opera aficionados in the UK. The cast was admirably led by Leo Goeke as Tom Rakewell and Jill Gomez (Anne Trulove).

And, by sheer coincidence, Glyndebourne is reviving this iconic production next year offering one the chance of seeing it in over a decade. Czech conductor, Jakub Hrůša, will be in the pit with the London Philharmonic Orchestra while the excellent cast includes American tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell, British bass Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow and British soprano Louise Alder as Anne Trulove. Now Barbara Hannigan - one of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival artists-in-residence in league with Austrian-born composer Thomas Larcher and British-born tenor Mark Padmore - returns to the Rake (in which she sung one of her earliest major roles) as a conductor, her first foray into opera. She also acted as mentor to the cast of young singers hand-picked from her Equilibrium Young Artists’ programme which majors on gifted performers who have completed their formal training and now find themselves in the first substantial phase of their professional careers.

Cycle of history: Daniel Slater's imaginative staging of Handel's Belshazzar at Grange Festival

Handel: Belshazzar - Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel Belshazzar; Robert Murray, Claire Booth, Christopher Ainslie, James Laing, Henry Waddington, The Sixteen, dir: Daniel Slater, cond: Harry Christophers; The Grange Festival Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A vividly theatrical staging, with some coruscating performances, which solved a lot of the problems of putting oratorio on the stage

It is over 30 years since I last saw a staging of Handel's oratorio Belshazzar, when Charles Farncombe and the London Handel Society staged it at Sadler's Wells Theatre. It seems that the staging of Handel's Belshazzar at The Grange Festival (seen 22 June 2019) was the first fully professional one in the UK. Directed by Daniel Slater with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Peter Mumford, the performance formed part of The Sixteen's 40th anniversary celebrations and featured The Sixteen's choir (along with members of the festival's chorus) and orchestra conducted by Harry Christophers. Robert Murray was Belshazzar with Claire Booth as Nitocris, Christopher Ainslie as Cyrus, Henry Waddington as Gobrias and James Laing as Daniel.

Handel did not intend Belshazzar to be staged though the libretto by Charles Jennens was one of the most satisfyingly dramatic that Handel set. But this means that the dramaturgy takes not account of theatrical logistics (either from the Georgian theatre or contemporary theatre) so there are long complex choruses, and a moment when the chorus has to quickly change from being Persians to being Jews. Daniel Slater's solutions to these challenges were highly imaginative and, with Tim Claydon's movement, made the staging satisfyingly dramatic yet did not neglect musical values.

Robert Innes Hopkins' set started out with a fearsome wall with the hint of a tower behind, which was clearly inspired by Breughel's Tower of Babel but gave suggestions both of Broadcasting House and a mid-Century New York skyscraper. When the wall opened, the tower stood in an amphitheatre space (very sympathetic for the voices), and the tower rotated to reveal a gilded alcove with neo-Crace decoration which formed the location of Belshazzar's court.

Handel: Belshazzar - Claire Booth, Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Handel: Belshazzar - Claire Booth, Robert Murray - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Simon Annand)
Costumes were roughly mid-20th century, the Jews in Black with prayer shawls, the Babylonians in lurid Hawaiian shirts with much naked flesh. Slater's dramaturgy took its hints from Nitocris' remarkable opening scena (which Handel probably never heard in full) where she contemplates the cyclical fate of empires. So at the opening we saw Nitocris (Claire Booth) mourning her recently deceased husband and at the end, as the Jews leave Babylon for their homeland, Nitocris is back in mourning for her son, Belshazzar (Robert Murray) and Cyrus (Christopher Ainslie) has replaced Belshazzar as the decadent sovereign. To make this work Slater adjusted the dramaturgy so that the final rapturous duet was between Claire Booth's Nitocris and James Laing's Daniel (rather than Cyrus). Which made dramatic sense with the way Slater developed Daniel and Nitocris' relationship, hinting at a romantic liaison.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens, Wallen & Coleridge-Taylor at Wigmore Hall

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Saint-Saens, Errollyn Wallen, Coleridge-Taylor; Chineke! Chamber Ensemble; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Three contrasting large-scale chamber pieces from the chamber ensemble of Chineke! in an evening notable for the players sense of energy and engagement

Having made its Wigmore Hall debut in 2018, the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble returned for a Friday Late on 21 June 2019 when it performed an engaging programme of large-scale chamber music with Camille Saint-Saens' Septet, the London premiere of Errollyn Wallen's Nnenna and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet.

The ensemble consists of principal players from the Chineke! Orchestra which was founded in 2015 by the double bass player, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe, and the chamber ensemble debuted in 2017. My sense of the novelty of seeing an entirely BME ensemble playing at the Wigmore Hall made me realise quite how accustomed (and de-sensitised) we become to the generally white focus of much classical music making. Yet once the musicians started playing, all these issues fell away as we enjoyed an evening of vibrant music making, with the 11 players (variously combined in the works) giving a real sense of chamber music ensemble yet also conveying their delight and enjoyment of the music.

Philip Venables' new opera 'Denis & Katya' debuts in Philadelphia before travelling to Wales, England and France.

Cast members of Philip Venables 'Denis & Katya' Johnny Herford and Siena Licht Miller (photo: Dominic M. Mercier)
Cast members of Philip Venables Denis & Katya
Johnny Herford and Siena Licht Miller (photo: Dominic M. Mercier)
O19, Opera Philadelphia’s annual season-opening festival, launches on 18 September 2019 with the world premiere of Denis & Katya by composer Philip Venables and librettist-director Ted Huffman. The work is an immersive multimedia chamber opera, Venables describes it as 'pseudo-documentary music theatre'. 

It is a nominee for the Fedora Generali Prize for Opera [it has now been announced that Denis & Katya has won the 2019 Fedora Prize for Opera]

Venables recent work has included the award-winning Royal Opera House commission 4.48 Psychosis, also with a libretto by Huffmann [see my review], a production which also travelled to New York in January 2019.

Commissioned and produced in collaboration with Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier, Denis & Katya is based on the true story of two 15-year-old runaways who became social media sensations when they livestreamed an armed stand-off with Russian Special Forces that culminated in their own deaths. [the story is covered on the BBC News website]. The new opera interweaves verbatim text, original video footage, social media messaging, and stylized dramatization, breaking the fourth wall in order to examine the vast public response to their story and what this response says about us as a society.

Talking about the new opera, composer Philip Venables commented 'The making of this piece is another form of the kind of ‘watching’ and the kind of exhibitionism or voyeurism that the piece itself is talking about. The piece is going to be a really good mix of theatre and opera, a really good mix of drama and reality, of fact and fiction.'

Denis & Katya will be the UK in February/March 2020 performed by Music Theatre Wales, including the London performances at the Southbank Centre on 13 & 14 March 2019 [see Southbank Centre website], and the piece will make its French premiere in Montpellier.

Further details from Opera Philadelphia's website and from Philip Venables' website.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Focus, concentration, engagement and enthusiasm: Gabrieli Roar in An English Coronation

Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Consort & Players - St Andrew's Church, Holborn
Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Consort & Players
St Andrew's Church, Holborn
An English Coronation 1902-1953; Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh; St Andrew's Church, Holborn Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The young people of Gabrieli Roar join with Gabrieli Consort & Players for an evening that was both thrilling and inspiring

Earlier this year Gabrieli released its An English Coronation: 1902-1953 recording [see my review], the latest Gabrieli Roar project in which hundreds of young people joined professional singers and instrumentalists from the Gabrieli Consort and Players to perform music from the four 20th century coronations. By way of a slightly belated CD launch, Gabrieli performed music from the disc last night with reduced forces.

At St Andrew's Church, Holborn (which re-opened in May this year after a year-long restoration programme) on Thursday 20 June 2019, singers, brass players and percussionists from Gabrieli, and organist Robert Quinney were joined by nearly 70 young singers from Gabrieli Roar, comprising the Tiffin Boys' Choir, director James Day, and the David Ross Education Trust Youth Choir, director Simon Toyne, conducted by Paul McCreesh, to perform music from the four 20th century coronations, with works by Parry, Elgar, RVW, Handel, Parratt, S.S.Wesley, Merbecke, Stanford, Gibbons, Walton and Britten.

The Tiffin Boys' Choir, founded in 1957, is based at the Tiffin School in Kingston, whilst the David Ross Education Trust Youth Choir was formed in 2018 and is made up of children from secondary academies from the David Ross Education Trust with children from across the East Midlands (Grimsby, Skegness, Spilsby, Tattershall, Boston, Loughborough, Corby, Northampton).

The programme was structured like a coronation, with the Entrance into the Abbey, the Recognition, the Communion, the Anointing, the homage, the Te Deum and the Recessional, and between each part Paul McCreesh engagingly explained what was going on, as well as introducing Gabrieli Roar and its work. The music was split between the professional singers and the young people, with some works like Elgar's O Hearken Thou and the Creed from RVW's Mass in G minor being performed just be the professionals. But the young people were certainly challenged, not only singing large scale items like Parry's I was glad, Handel's Zadok the Priest, and Walton's Coronation Te Deum but also quieter items such as Merbecke's Lord's Prayer and S.S. Wesley's Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace.

Snappy Operas Festival: contemporary opera in bite-sized chunks

Over the last two years Mahogany Opera has created ten new ten-minute Snappy Operas, intended for young people aged 7 to 11, and composed by some of the UK's most exciting composers and writers. Now the company is launching its Snappy Opera Festival, from 28 June 2019 schools across the country will be coming together to perform Snappy operas involving children from Nortthampstonshire, West Cumbria, Suffolk, Nottingham, North Tyneside and Leicestershire.

Snappy Operas are intended to demystify all the essential elements of opera - singing, acting and making - in fun, bit-sized chunks. Each piece is fully staged and costumed, and can be performed by a class sized group of children divided into two sub-groups and accompanied by professional musicians. The 10 Snappy Operas have been created by some impressive names, Jamie Man and Stephen Plaice, Kerry Andrew, Nathan Williamson and Zanib Mian, Stephen Deazley and Matthew Harvey, Emily Hall and Toby Litt, Philip Venables and Ted Huffmann, Ed Hughes and Peter Cant (who were nominated for a British Composer Award in 2017), Luke Carver Goss and Ian McMillan, Gwyneth Herbert, Errollyn Wallen.

Luke Carver Goss with young people from Place Farm Primary Academy.
Luke Carver Goss with young people from Place Farm Primary Academy.
For the Snappy Opera Festival, Mahogany Opera is placing dedicated creative teams within each school, a director, music director, repetiteur and stage manager, who will deliver four two-hour sessions spread over a half term. The Snappy Opera Festival is culminating in performances where three to five schools will come together, each school performing one snappy opera.

The festival kicks off on 28 June at Nevill Holt Opera House in partnership with the David Ross Education Trust, then there are performances at Southwold Arts Festival in partnership with Southwold Music Trust (29 June), at Nottingham Playhouse in partnership with Nottingham Playhouse (1 July), in Whitley Bay in partnership with North Tyneside Music Education Hub (3 July), at Robert Smythe School, Market Harborough in partnership with Leicestershire Music Education Hub (4 July), and Rosehill Theatre, Whitehaven in partnership with Rosehill Theatre (2 August).

With the intention of leaving a lasting legacy in schools, Mahoganny Opera has run a series of training days as part of the festival.

Frederic Wake-Walker, artistic director of Mahogany Opera, comments 'As I travel across the UK visiting primary schools I am bowled over by the enthusiasm and excitement that opera generates among children, teachers and parents but I’m also shocked and frustrated by the lack of resources, time and confidence to deliver it. What we’ve learned since launching the project in 2017 is that Snappy Operas delivers in a most holistic, compact and engaging way.'

Further information from the Mahogany Opera website.

Figaro for Free: Royal Opera House live screening

Royal Opera House BP Big Screen - Trafalgar Square- Photo by Ruairi Watson
Royal Opera House BP Big Screen - Trafalgar Square- Photo by Ruairi Watson
There is a chance to enjoy David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House free on 9 July 2019, when the performance will be broadcast live to sites all over the UK from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight. This is final of the Royal Opera House BP Big Screen broadcasts for this season. The performance will also be live-streamed on Facebook, YouTube and OperaVision

This revival of McVicar's production is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and features Christian Gerhaher as Figaro, Joelle Harvey as Susanna, Simon Keenlyside as the Count, and Julia Kleiter as the Countess.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Royal OPera 201 ( Photo Mark Douet)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Royal OPera 201 ( Photo Mark Douet)
The BP Big Screens showing the Marriage of Figaro are: Granary Square (London), Trafalgar Square (London), IQL Summer Lawn (Stratford), Lyric Square (Hammersmith, London), Millennium Square (Leeds), Old Eldon Square (Newcastle), Television Centre (White City, London), The Forum (Southend-on-Sea), Arena Square (Wembley Park, London), Whitecliff Bay Holiday Park (Bembridge, Isle of Wight), Castle Square (Swansea), Big Screen Bristol (Millennium Square), Guildhall Square (Portsmouth), Queen’s Drive Space (Exmouth), University of Warwick (Coventry), The Oast House, Spinningfields (Manchester), see the Royal Opera House website for details.

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