Wednesday 30 October 2019

Gothic indeed: new opera company launches with production of Marschner's Der Vampyr

Gothic Opera - Marschner: Der Vampyr
The German Romantic composer Heinrich Marschner is still rather under appreciated, his operas rarely performed in the UK. Marschner's best known opera, Der Vampyr, is receiving a rare outing this week, rather suitably coinciding with Halloween. A new company, Gothic Opera, is presenting Der Vampyr at the Old Church, Stoke Newington (31/10/2019, 1/11/2019, both evidently sold out) and at the Asylum Chapel, Peckham (3/11/2019).

Gothic Opera's production will be directed by Julia Mintzer and conducted by Kelly Lovelady, with Ian Beadle as Lord Ruthven, the Vampire of the title, half Count-Dracula and half Don Giovanni. The opera will be sung in German with new English dialogue created by Julia Mintzer.

Marschner is a somewhat forgotten composer, overshadowed by Weber and by Wagner, his operas are an important link between the two and you can see all sorts of pre-echoes of Wagner's opera in Marschner's [see my review of Marschner's Heinrich Heiling from Essen], though in fact Marschner became depressed and felt that his career had failed. Der Vampyr was written in 1828, and based on a play which was in turn based on John William Polidori's short story The Vampyre, which had initially been sketched by Byron himself!

Gothic Opera is a new company, Béatrice de Larragoïti, Charlotte Osborn and Alice Usher, three sopranos who met at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, who have assembled an exciting team of soloists and instrumentalists to perform alongside themselves.

Full details from the Gothic Opera website.

A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD

Massenet: Manon - Metropolitan Opea (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Massenet: Manon - Metropolitan Opea (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Massenet Manon; Lisette Oropesa, Michael Fabiano, Artur Ruciński, dir: Laurent Pelly, cond: Maurizio Benini; Metropolitan Opera Live in HD at Barbican
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 26 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Massenet's tragedy done on thrilling style at the Met

I don’t know about Manon, but after last week’s offering from the Met., it was my turn to be completely dazed by the difference a week can make. Saturday 26 October 2019 Metropolitan Opera Live in HD transmission (seen at Barbican Screen 1) of Massenet’s Manon was une autre paire de manches. Massenet’s straightforward and to the point retelling of this quintessentially French tale of a beautiful young woman who succumbs to the bright lights of the beau monde with tragic results was done in thrilling style in Laurent Pelly’s striking production set, in this iteration, during the Belle Époque. Lisette Oropesa was the childish innocent avec charme, with Michael Fabiano as the impetuous and tortured Chevalier des Grieux. A particularly oleaginous Carlo Bosi was Guillot de Morfontaine, while Artur Ruciński charmed (although I’m not sure he should have) as Manon’s roguish cousin Lescaut. Kwangchul Youn was Comte des Grieux. Maurizio Benini conducted.

From the moment you saw the grey austerity of Chantal Thomas’ designs the tone was set. You could be in no doubt about the thrust of Laurent Pelly’s view. Acts 1 to 4 were grim voyeuristic pits dominated by men. The stench of misogyny and hypocrisy was palpable, scenes were filled with hostility and poison. Everyone, including the women, seemed complicit in our heroine’s demise.

Massenet: Manon - Metropolitan Opea (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Massenet: Manon - Metropolitan Opea (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Maurizio Benini’s reading got off to a cracking start with a vibrant full voiced opening taking full advantage of the orchestra’s lush string sound and some very fine woodwind playing. There were times though when I would have wished for a lighter hand at the helm. He could have ceded to the singers more often, and we did end up losing some of the opera’s simple melodic charm.

A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders

Verdi: Don Carlos - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - the Auto-da-fe scene - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi Don Carlos (1886 Modena version, sung in French); Leonardo Capalbo, Mary Elizabeth Williams, Andreas Bauer Kanabas, Kartal Karagedik, Raehann Bryce-Davis, dir: Johan Simons, cond: Alejo Perez; Opera Vlaanderen at Opera Ghen
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 Oct 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Verdi's final thoughts on his Grand Opera, given in a strikingly modern psychological interpretation

Having given us French Grand Opera at its height, with Peter Konwitschny's striking production of Fromental Halevy's La Juive earlier this year [see my review], Opera Vlaanderen has returned to the form with Verdi's Don Carlos, the Italian composer's final, remarkable engagement with French Grand Opera. But the new production of Don Carlos was also an indication of the possible directions for the company, as one of the dramaturges was Jan Vandenhouwe who is the company's new Artistic Director of Opera, whilst the conductor was Alejo Perez, the company's new Music Director.

Don Carlos was Verdi's third opera written for the Paris Opera, the third time he attempted to create his own version of French Grand Opera. Don Carlos is a masterpiece, yet undoubtedly when it premiered in 1867 French Grand Opera was going out of fashion. In five acts, it was also very long, from the outset Italian opera companies tended to cut it. Finally, in the 1880s Verdi produced a more compact, revised four-act version. Not just cut, but substantially revised, tightening the musical material and moving the work closer to Italian opera. This version had the virtue of cyclical form, it omitted the original first act (set in Fontainebleau) and so started and finished in the monastery of San Yuste, by the tomb of Emperor Charles V. This has, however, the disadvantage of omitting the scene where we see Carlos and Elisabeth in love and untroubled, before she learns she has been betrothed not to Carlos but to his father Philippe. So Verdi sanctioned a final version, adding a truncated version of the Fontainebleau act to the revised version to create a five-act opera, what is known as the 1886 Modena version.

That the revised versions were made for Italian opera companies has given Italian a strange primacy in the work, but Verdi worked at all times with a French libretto and French librettists, though a new Italian translation was commissioned for the 1880s revised version.  Frankly, Don Carlos works better in French, the music suits the shape of the French language, but Verdi was relatively pragmatic about language. He was happy for his operas to be sung by Italian opera companies in Paris and in London, but rather expected the Paris Opera, the French national company to perform in French and was horrified to learn that the company planned to perform Otello in Italian.

Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
Verdi: Don Carlos - Leonardo Capalbo - Opera Vlaanderen (Photo Annemie Augustijns)
We caught Opera Vlaanderen's new production of Verdi's Don Carlos (sung in French, in the 1886 Modena version) at Opera Ghent on Sunday 27 October 2019. The production was directed by Johan Simons, with designs and video by Hans Op de Beeck, costumes by Greta Goiris, lighting by Dennis Diels, and Jeroen Versteele and Jan Vandenhouwe as dramaturgs. Leonardo Capalbo was Don Carlos [we saw him in the role at Grange Park this Summer, in the four-act version, see my review], with Mary Elizabeth Williams as Elisabeth [last seen as Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at WNO, see my review], Andreas Bauer Kanabas as Philippe, Kartal Karagedik as Rodrigue, Raehann Bryce-Davis as Eboli, Werner Van Mechelen as the Grand Inquisitor, Annelies Van Gramberen as Thibault and a voice from above. It was a remarkably international ensemble, with a Dutch director, Argentinian conductor, Italian-American Don Carlos, American Elizabeth and Eboli, Turkish Rodrigue, German Philippe, and Belgian Grand Inquisitor and Thibault.

Whatever version of Don Carlos you do, it remains a challenge, a complex, large-scale piece with demanding principle roles and some substantial ensemble numbers.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse

Violet Gordon-Woodhouse in the drawing room of Nether Lypiatt Manor, playing her Dolmetsch harpsichord
Violet Gordon-Woodhouse in the drawing room of Nether Lypiatt Manor, playing her Dolmetsch harpsichord
If you read biographies of Virginia Woolf, Ethel Smyth or the Sitwell sibling then the name of Violet Gordon Woodhouse might not be unfamiliar to you. She flits across the pages of many a 20th century biography, often as a somewhat eccentric figure, living in some splendour in the Cotswolds, passionate to the point of oddness about the harpsichord and clavichord. But one fact about her seems to trump all the others. That she lived in a ménage à cinq!

Gordon Woodhouse, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, Bill Barrington shortly after creating a menage a trois
Gordon Woodhouse, Violet Gordon-Woodhouse,
Bill Barrington shortly after creating a ménage à trois
History has been somewhat unkind to Violet. Her musical reputation has dimmed somewhat behind the cloud of eccentricity and the fact that she lived with four men. Yet she was a major musical figure. Talented young and born into the Gwynne family, whose fortune was in manufacturing but who moved into politics and who lived in some grandeur on the South Downs.  Her brother, Rupert Gwynne became an MP, her mother was a great friend of Adelina Patti, and her niece became the great cookery writer Elizabeth David. There was also a touch of exoticism in her background too, one of her ancestors was an Indonesian princess thanks to a Dutch forbear who was a colonial administrator in Padang and married a local.

Violet was something of a prodigy, encouraged and indulged by her family. She started out a pianist, and devoted herself entirely to the keyboard; throughout her life she kept to a rigorous practice schedule. She ultimately studied with Agustin Rubio, the Spanish cellist who was the great Pablo Casals' teacher (an evidently discovered him), and she developed into a major musical talent. Violet was not entirely devoted to early music, and her early career as a pianist involved quite a wide range of composers including Isaac Albeniz and other Spanish contemporaries who were friends of hers. Delius even wrote her a piece for harpsichord!

In addition to the list of artistic luminaries I mention at the top of this article, she was admired by others such as Siegfried Sassoon and George Bernard Shaw, whilst Radcliffe Hall dedicated a volume of (erotic) poetry to her! She pops up in Osbert Sitwell's autobiography, but the Sitwell to whom she was closest was Sacheverell, the most musical of the siblings, with whom Violet spent a lot of time discovering the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (then very much under appreciated).

Saturday 26 October 2019

An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
The Sexual Outsider: Walt Whitman bicentenary; Julien Van Mellaerts, Nigel Foster, Robert Morgan; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An exploration of Walt Whitman’s distinctive voice through his words and musical settings of his poetry

The annual pleasure that is The London Song Festival is once more upon us. If you love the voice, then the art of song refreshes the parts that other music can’t reach. At Hinde Street Methodist Church in particular you’re up close and personal – the musical equivalent of the Donmar if you will. You can see the whites of their eyes.

This year’s theme is Outsiders. It mines the songs, poetry and compositions of those who have historically attracted the epithet of outsider. The 24 October 2019 concert, The Sexual Outsider, saw the combined talents of baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, pianist and festival founder Nigel Foster and the actor Robert Morgan as they explored Walt Whitman’s distinctive voice through his words and musical settings of his poetry. [2019 is the bicentenary of Whitman's birth]. The man who ‘hymned’ America has been set by many composers and Thursday evenings concert included settings by Ned Rorem, Weill, Bridge, Vaughan-Williams, Ives, Villiers Stanford and Hindemith.

Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it

Handel - Samson - Dunedin Consort, John Butt - Linn
Handel Samson; Joshua Ellicott, Jess Dandy, Matthew Brook, Vitali Rozynko, Sophie Bevan, Dunedin Consort, John Brook; Linn Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Showcasing the latest research into the performing forces Handel used, this new recording is a thoughtful response to Handel's music

Despite his popularity, and the excellent survival of his manuscripts, there is much we do not know about Handel and his music. The mechanical details of exactly who performed what, and with what forces, are often rather lacking. Researches are continuing, and new discoveries being made. Recently a new scholarly edition of Handel's Brockes Passion was created and recorded by the Academy of Ancient Music with forces similar in size to those used in Hamburg for the work's premiere [see my review].

Now John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have turned their attention to Handel's Samson, his great 1743 oratorio based on Milton's Samson Agonistes. Butt has concentrated his attentions on two areas. First, they record the very full original version of oratorio, a work which Handel revived a number of times and which he routinely cut in later performances [it is a long work, Butt's recording lasts some three hours 24 minutes]. Secondly there is the issue of the forces used. Handel's choirs are badly documented, except for that used for the Foundling Hospital performances of Messiah. There is some indication that for large scale performances, Handel's soloists sang along with the choir of men and boys, to create a mixed ensemble of a type not commonly encountered in modern life. But there are also suggestions that at some later performances, perhaps for reasons of economy or logistics (the men and boys being not available), a choir of only soloists was used.  And bear in mind that the premiere of Samson had eight soloists, a rather handy three sopranos, one contralto, two tenors and two basses.

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort's recording of Handel's Samson is on Linn Records, with Joshua Ellicott as Samson, Jess Dandy as Micah, Matthew Brook as Manoa, Vitali Rozynko as Harapha, Sophie Bevan as Dalila, Hugo Hymas, Mary Bevan and Fflur Wyn, with the Tiffin Boys' Choir.

Handel wrote Samson in 1743, after his return from Dublin where he premiered Messiah in 1742 (which was coolly received in London in 1743). The success of the Milton-based oratorio L'Allegro in 1740 led Newburgh Hamilton (who wrote the libretto to Alexander's Feast in 1736) to try to match Handel's music with Milton's words again, and it was Hamilton's idea to turn to Milton's Samson Agonistes. Though the story is based on the Book of Judges, Hamilton's libretto sticks closely to Milton (only taking the idea of the initial Philistine festival from the Bible), but changes Milton too, most notably in softening the role of Dalila (Winton Dean suggests that this may be at Handel's insistence). And it was Hamilton who introduced the Philistine choruses (the chorus in Milton is Israelite throughout), thus giving Handel the sort of contrast he liked, which comes out most notably in the double chorus of Philistines and Israelites. The structure of the work owes something to Saul, in that work is framed by an opening festival and a closing elegy.

It is perhaps worth noting, that Handel frames the music in a way which makes the Philistines as approachable as the Israelites, something lacking in Milton, who evidently hated the Philistines. Nor does Handel follow Milton's moral tone with his hatred of sin. So, to quote Winton Dean, Dalila 'is highly spiced, but deceitful only in the coaxing game of love'. Evidently Mendelssohn was rather shocked by her music, as detailed in a somewhat priggish letter to Sterndale Bennett in 1839!

After the first run of eight performances of Samson in 1743 (a total rarely achieved by Handel in oratorios), Handel revived the work in nine subsequent seasons, and always there were changes. Winton Dean details the complex sequence of cut and restoration in his book Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques, and more recent scores of the oratorio edited by Donald Burrows for Novello (2005), and by Hans Dieter Clausen for Barenreiter (2011) have established the constituent parts of various versions. There is perhaps no ideal version of Samson; it can be argued that the first act is rather slow, and it is also significant that Handel never cut anything after the Dalila scene. But it is good to have every note of the oratorio as Handel first performed it, even though it is perhaps too long for every day performance. But that, surely, is what recording is for.

Recording Handel's Samson - John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (Photo Dunedin Consort)
Recording Handel's Samson - John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (Photo Dunedin Consort)

Friday 25 October 2019

Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place

Frieda Belinfante & Henriëtte Bosmans
Frieda Belinfante & Henriëtte Bosmans
Les Étoiles - Robert Schumann, Henriëtte Bosmans, Hector Berlioz, Pauline Viardot, Claude Debussy, Judith Weir, Johannes Brahms; Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 Otober 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From the evocative orientalism of Berlioz, to the classicism of Debussy and the fascinating elliptical music of Judith Weir, music for voice, cello and piano

As part of Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped season, Les Étoiles on Thursday 24 October 2019, brought together soprano Ruby Hughes, cellist Natalie Clein and pianists Julius Drake and Matan Porat in a programme which centred on four works for voice, cello and piano, the premiere of Judith Weir's On the Palmy Beach, Pauline Viardot's Les Étoiles, Hector Berlioz' La Captive and Johannes Brahms' Zwei Gesänge für eine Altstimme mit Bratsche und Klavier in a version for soprano, cello and piano. To this mix was added the cello sonata by the Dutch composer Henriëtte Bosmans, Claude Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and Cello Sonata, and four late songs by Robert Schumann. An interesting mix which took the basic premise of Viardot, Brahms, Berlioz and Weir and created a fascinating mix of relations and influences, with as the wild card the sonata by Henriëtte Bosmans.

Pauline Viardot as Gluck's Orpheus in 1860
Pauline Viardot as Gluck's Orpheus in 1860
We opened with the group of late Schumann songs, performed by Ruby Hughes and Julius Drake. Though perhaps the first thing that we noticed was Hughes stunning dress which made her look as if she had stepped out of a Mughal miniature!

We have come to appreciate late Schumann, and his late style is no longer compared depreciatingly to the songs written in his great lieder-jahr of 1840. The later ones are often more pared down, less melodically grateful and with complexities in the piano accompaniment (and as I found at the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2016, a great debt to J.S.Bach). Hughes and Drake gave us Röselein, Röselein! Op.89 No.6, Die Blume der Ergebung Op.83 No.2, Mädchen-Schwermut Op.142 No.3, Die Sennin Op.90, and Requiem Op.90, with flowers being very much a linking motif through the group. Hughes sang with a fragile expressiveness, bringing clarity and poignancy to her silvery tones, and a vocal line which was strongly expressive for all the fragility. She was wonderfully partnered by Drake who found a similar precision and delicacy in the piano accompaniments, complementing Hughes voice. Frankly, there were moments when I longed for Hughes to let go a bit more and to be more openly expressive and explicitly romantic. This was a very particular view of Schumann, yet one which was profoundly beautiful in its way.

Next came the Cello Sonata by Henriëtte Bosmans, played by Natalie Clein and Matan Porat. Bosmans is a strangely unknown figure, born in 1895 and died in 1952, she had a major career as a concert pianist as well as a composer, and was evidently friendly with Benjamin Britten. And her personal life seems to have been quite colourful, for a period living a bohemian life with cellist Frieda Belinfante. Musically, Bosmans was at first more traditional, influenced by the Germanic musical tradition learned from her musical Dutch family where the violinist Joseph Joachim was a visitor. It was only later, after lessons with the Dutch composer Willem Pijper, that her style became more advanced.

Thursday 24 October 2019

National Opera Studio - 2019/20 young artists showcase

National Opera Studio - 2019/20 young artists
Last night (23 October 2019) we heard a private recital showcasing the latest cohort of singers and repetiteurs at the National Opera Studio (NOS). Each year, a different intake of young artists do an intensive nine-month course at the studio, and this year's cohort have been in place for just five weeks. We heard eleven singers (out of 13) and four repetiteurs in a programme which took in arias and duets by Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Handel, Cilea, Puccini, Donizetti, Verdi, Leoncavallo, Bizet, Offenbach and Mozart. A diverse group of singers and pianists all with wonderfully vibrant voices and personalities, from New Zealand, Spain, Mexico, China, South Korea, South Africa, Canada, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

We heard sopranos Eliza Boom, Alexandra Lowe (who we heard in Janacek's Jenufa at Grange Park Opera, and Britten's Owen Wingrave at British Youth Opera), and Ella Taylor (who we heard in Alex Mills' A Father looking for his Daughter at Second Movement's Rough for Opera), mezzo-sopranos Elizabeth Lynch (who we heard in Handel's Giulio Cesare at Bury Court Opera) and Samantha Oxborough, tenors Luis Aguilar, Frederick Jones (who we heard in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with British Youth Opera), and Shengzhi Ren, baritones Kyo Choi and Benson Wilson (who won this year's Kathleen Ferrier Award), and bass Msimelelo Mbali. They were accompanied by Juliane Gallant, Mairi Grewar, Fernando Loura and Bradley Wood.

Besides the operatic programme, we had two delightful non-operatic items. Shengzhi Ren sang a lovely traditional Chinese song, and then Elizabeth Lynch gave a hilarious rendition of Tom Lehrer's Poisoning Pigeons in the Park!. For the ensemble finale, there was the Brindisi from Verdi's La Traviata with the audience providing the chorus (adroitly warmed up and rehearsed before hand by the NOS's music director Mark Shanahan).

The NOS presents regular free Wednesday lunchtime recitals, and on Tuesday 26 November there is a chance to catch The Fatal Gaze, scenes and extracts from opera directed by Tim Albery at Conway Hall. Full details from the NOS website.

Bringing the legend of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to life

Juwon Ogungbe
Juwon Ogungbe
Ethiopian legend tells of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem, and as a result of the time they spent together, the Queen gave birth to Menelik I – the first Ethiopian Emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty. Haile Selassie was the last reigning Emperor to come from this lineage, and this story is also of significance to the Rastafari Movement, because of Haile Selassie’s divine status within the faith.

Now singer and composer Juwon Ogungbe has written a new music-theatre piece exploring the legend, with music influenced by African musical genres and Western classical opera.

To co-incide with Black History Month, Ogungbe's King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be performed at Theatre Peckham with an ensemble of classical singers from diverse heritages, and a youth chorus from Theatre Peckham, in a semi-staged presentation. There will also be a Q&A after the show.

Juwon Ogungbe has composed for the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Southbank Centre amongst many others. In 2018, his operatic works have been in various stages of development at Opera North, the Grimeborn Festival and at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, Zanzibar.

Further detail and tickets from BandsInTown.

The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital

The North Wind Was a Woman - David Bruce - Signum Classics
David Bruce Cymbeline, The North Wind was a Woman, The Consolation of Rain; Avi Avital, Dover Quartet, Nora Fischer, The North Wind Ensemble, Camerata Pacifica; SIGNUM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Three intriguing chamber works by David Bruce are full of striking textures and interesting influences

I first came across the music of David Bruce when his opera The Firework-Maker's Daughter was performed at Covent Garden in 2013 [see my review]. And his work, Gumboots, for clarinet and popped up on a disc from Julian Bliss and the Carducci Quartet [see my review]. On this new disc from Signum Classics we hear two chamber works and a song-cycle for soprano and ensemble. Central to the disc are the talents of mandolin player Avi Avital, he and the Dover Quartet perform Bruce's Cymbeline, whilst Avital is part of The North Wind Ensemble which accompanies soprano Nora Fischer in the song cycle The North Wind was a Woman which sets poems by Bruce himself and Alasdair Middleton. The final work on the disc is the instrumental suite The Consolation of Rain performed by the Camerata Pacifica.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Wild Rumpus in Alexandra Palace

Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are - Shadwell Opera (Photo Shadwell Opera)
Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are - Shadwell Opera (Photo Shadwell Opera)
I have happy memories of seeing Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are at Glyndebourne in the 1980s in a double bill with Knussen's Higglety Pigglety Pop! (The latter so knew that it was unfinished and one passage was done just with piano accompaniment). Now Jack Furness and Shadwell Opera are doing a new concert staging of Where the Wild Things Are on Saturday 26 October 2019 at Alexandra Palace Theatre.

Exploring themes of imagination, childhood and wildness the opera is based on a story by Maurice Sendak, and is appealing to children whilst addressing issues complex enough for adults. Knussen's score has plenty to enjoy in it (not to mention the take off of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godounov) and children love it too.

The Shadwell Opera performance features a fine cast of up and coming young singers including Rhian Lois (as Max) with Kate Howden, Robin Bailey, Benedict Nelson, Nicholas Morris and Tom Bennett, directed by Jack Furness with costumes by Hannah Wolfe and Movement Direction by Rebecca Meltzer. Finn Downie-Dear conducts the 48-piece orchestra, which will be on stage rather than hidden in the pit.

Shadwell opera is using the opera and its story as a starting point for a number of workshops for 180 schoolchildren in two local schools in Haringey, focussing on the themes of fantasy, childhood and wildness. Workshop participants and their siblings will be offered free tickets to the performance at Alexandra Palace.

Children and adults will be encouraged to dress up as Wild Things - You have been warned!

Full details from Shadwell Opera's website

A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum

A Night at the Museum - Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum - Benjamin Appl,
Graham Johnson (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum; Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson, Michael Scott, Rowan Pierce, Nathaniel Mander; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An amazing evening at the museum combining three different events, songs inspired by Greek texts amidst Ancient Greek statues, Purcell amidst 17th century painting and a lecture in the roof-top restaurant

The complex evening at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Sunday 20 October 2019 was A Night At The Museum, which combined three events at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. A recital by Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson, performing songs by Schubert, George Butterworth, Peter Warlock, Lennox Berkeley and Benjamin Britten setting poetry inspired by the Ancient Greeks in the museum's Greek and Roman sculpture gallery, a recital of Henry Purcell songs by Rowan Pierce and Nathaniel Mander in one of the fine art galleries containing 17th century painting (many English), sculpture (mainly bad-tempered cardinals) and furniture, and a lecture on the influence of myth today by Michael Scott, professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick.

A Night at the Museum - Rowan Pierce  (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
A Night at the Museum - Rowan Pierce 
(Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
Each of these three events took place more than once, with different groups of people making their way round the museum at different times. A complex feat of organisation which worked brilliantly, though swan-like, I am sure that underneath there was a great deal of hard work that we did not see.

It was very evocative and rather moving to hear Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson perform surrounded by the museum's fine Classical sculptures. They opened with a set of Schubert songs. Die Götter Griechenlands (The Gods of Greece, setting Schiller) was slow and intense, with fine phrasing and full of melancholy longing. In such a close context, an intimate yet resonant acoustic, we could appreciate every detail of Appl's vocal gestures. Der entsühente Orest (Orestes purified, setting Mayrhofer) had a strong vocal line over a rolling piano accompanied, very classical in outlines but with strong character underneath. An die Leier (To my lyre, setting Bruchmann) was constructed almost as a sequence of aria and recitative, strong declamation alternating with lyrical aria-like moments. Finally, in this group the thrilling and terrifying Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Group from Hades, setting Schiller). Starting dark and intense, then ratcheting tension up until the thrilling ending. It was almost operatic in scale, with a fearsome piano accompaniment.

George Butterworth's A.E. Housman setting Look not in my eyes used one of the poems mentioned by Jennifer Ingleheart in her afternoon lecture [see my article], so we were well-prepared for the Classical allusions. Appl's English is good, highly expressive but with a slight tang to it which adds piquancy. Peter Warlock's Heraclitus, setting William Cory's English translation of Heraclitus, was surprisingly complex with a striking, wayward vocal line. Lennox Berkeley's two song from Three Greek Songs both set English versions of Ancient Greek texts. To Aster was expressively neo-classical with a piano part constantly moving on. Spring Song was fast and perky, with a dashing piano accompaniment. Benjamin Britten's Sokrates und Alcibiades (from his Sechs Hölderlin Fragmente, his only German settings) was rather austere and chromatic, becoming more lyrical towards the end.

Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival

A.E. Housman  by William Rothenstein sanguine and black chalk, 1906 NPG 3873 © National Portrait Gallery, London
A.E. Housman by William Rothenstein
sanguine and black chalk, 1906 NPG 3873
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Housman's Myth Making, RVW: On Wenlock Edge, Music of Ancient Greece; Jennifer Ingleheart, Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet, Sholto Kynoch, Armand D'Angour; Oxford Lieder Festival at St John's College, Oxford
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new film to accompany live performance of RVW's Housman song-cycle, along with talks on Housman and on music in Ancient Greece

The afternoon events at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Sunday 20 October 2019 centred around A.E. Housman and the Ancient Greeks. At St John's College, Oxford, Housman's old college, we heard Jennifer Ingleheart, professor of Latin at Durham University, talking about Housman's Myth Making. Then tenor Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet and pianist Sholto Kynoch performed Ralph Vaughan Williams' A.E. Housman setting On Wenlock Edge, with a new film by Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood. Then Armand D'Angour, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Jesus College, Oxford, talked about Music in Ancient Greece.

Jennifer Ingleheart's talk centred on the use of Classical myth in Housman's poetry. Central to this was the relationship between Housman the Professor of Latin at Cambridge and Housman the poet, two personas that Housman sought to persuade people were separate, but which Ingleheart argued overlapped. She presented examples of what she termed Housman's self-mythologising in trying to convince people that the poet and the professor did not overlap. She then proceeded to provide fascinating examples of Housman's use of myth in his poetry, often subtle and very specific references.

Prior to the performance of RVW's On Wenlock Edge, Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet and Sholto Kynoch performed a number of pieces to lead into it. The first group illustrated RVW's influential forbears with a poignant account of William Cornysh's Ah Robin, performed by Norman with just viola and cello accompaniment, a string quartet version of Thomas Tallis' Third Tune for Archbishop Parker's Psalter (the tune on which RVW's Tallis Fantasia is based) and Orlando Gibbons' madrigal The Silver Swan in a very effective ersion for Daniel Norman's high tenor and quartet.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20

Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz; Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, Chiara Skerath, Vladimir Baykov, Cie 14:20, Insula orchestra, Laurence Equilbey; Theatre de Champs Elysees, Paris
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
La magie nouvelle fails to say anything new dramatically, in a musically strong account of Weber's masterpiece

I think that the last time I saw a full staging of Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz was in 1989, with the final revival of Covent Garden's 1977 production originally directed by Götz Friedrich. Since then the opera has been a relative rarity in London, John Eliot Gardiner conducted a semi-staging of Berlioz' arrangement of the work at the Proms, Sir Colin Davis (who conducted both the 1982 and the 1989 revivals of the Covent Garden production) conducted it at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra, and David Roblou and Midsummer Opera have performed it. I am not sure whether it has received a fully professional staging in the UK since that 1989 Covent Garden version.

In concert, companies tend to replace the spoken dialogue with narration. And that perhaps provides the hint for the work being relatively ignored in the UK. Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind's Der Freischütz, which premiered in Berlin in 1821, is a singspiel in the tradition of those by Mozart. It is not a comic piece, and examines themes which were common in German Romanticism of the 1820s, folk traditions, the supernatural, the Gothic and the gruesome. Themes that would be mined and transformed by Richard Wagner in his operas.

So it was something of a surprise to find a new production of Weber's Der Freischütz at Paris' Theatre des Champs Elysees, as a collaboration between two French organisations, conductor Laurence Equilbey's Insula orchestra and the theatre company Compagnie 14:20. The cast featured Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max [last seen in Ivo van Hove's new Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera's Palais Garnier in July 2019, see my review], Johanni van Oostrum as Agathe, Chiara Skerath as Ännchen [see my interview with Chiara], and Vladimir Baykov as Kaspar. The choir was Accentus. From the Compagnie 14:20, Raphael Navarro and Clément Debailleul were responsible for direction and for the magic conception, and Valentine Losseau for the dramaturgy. Debailleul also designed the set and was responsible for the videos. The choreography was by Siegrid Petit-Imbert. It was a co-production with Theatre de Caen (where it has already appeared), Theatre des Champs Elysees Les Theatres de la Ville de Luxembourg, opera de Rouen Normandie and Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele.

Richard Wagner's influence on German music has meant that we have tended to see Weber's operas through the lens of Wagner's. In the role of Max, I have seen great Wagnerians Rene Kollo and Alberto Remedios, and in the role of Agathe, Christine Brewer. Using period instruments has meant that Laurence Equilbey and Insula provided lighter, more transparent sound, yet still vibrant and characterful, and this enabled the casting of lyric voices. Stanislas de Barbeyrac, who sang Max in Paris, is a notable Tamino.

Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
Weber: Der Freischütz - Theatre de Champs Elysees - Photo Julien Benhamou
The version used was credited to the dramaturgy of Valentine Losseau of Compagnie 14:20, and I have no doubt that the dialogue was edited, but at least there was dialogue and it was important to the drama. The delivery was highly creditable, and was a notable plus for this international cast (a French Max, a South African Agathe, A Swiss-Belgian Ännchen, a Russian Kasper). So musically and textually this was an evening of high quality and fidelity to Weber and Kind's intentions.

Visually and dramaturgically, the evening owed everything to the ethos of Compaganie 14:20. Consisting of Clemen Debauilleu, Raphael Navarro and Valentine Losseau the company specialises in magie nouvelle - the new magic [see the interview with the three in Circus News]. A movement which places the disequilibrium of the senses on the overturning of reality at the centre of its artistic endeavours.

Monday 21 October 2019

A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta

Richard Blackford - Pieta
Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, two movements from Five Mystical Songs, Richard Blackford Canticle of Winter, Pieta; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Huw Montague Rendall, Amy Dickson, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Gavin Carr; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
London premiere (and deuxieme) for Richard Blackford's powerful new version of the Stabat Mater combining the Latin text with poems by Anna Akhmatova

Richard Blackford's Pieta, a large scale setting of the Stabat Mater, interspersed with pomes by Anna Akhmatova, for soloists, choirs and string orchestra was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in June 2019 in Dorset. At the Cadogan Hall on Saturday 19 October 2019, Richard Blackford's Pieta received its London premiere when Gavin Carr conducted mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, baritone Huw Montague-Rendall, saxophonist Amy Dickson, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, the Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, and the strings of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The programme also included the premiere of Blackford's Canticle of Winter, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and two movements from RVW's Five Mystical Songs.

We started with RVW's Tallis Fantasia, the second time that I have heard this work at the Cadogan Hall in a month [see my review of the Britten Shostakovich Festival Orchestra's London debut]. The piece really needs the spacious acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral, but the relaxed, fine-grained tone of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra strings made the piece seem remarkably spacious even in this rather dry acoustic.

Saturday 19 October 2019

Learning about Czech music: talks and lectures from U3A, and Divas and Scholars

Composer Leos Janacek collecting folk songs in 1906
Composer Leos Janacek collecting folk songs in 1906
You are never far from some Czech music, the Royal Opera has a new production of Janacek's Jenufa next year with Asmik Grigorian and Karita Mattila, and Garsington Opera is presenting Dvorak's Rusalka next summer with Natalya Romaniw in the title role. There is a chance to learn about and explore Czech music at two events in the coming weeks.

I will be giving my talk Another kind of Nationalism: the development of the Czech string quartet at the U3A London Region's Music Day at Kings Place on 9 November 2019. I will be talking about how the development of the Czech string quartet is paralleled by the development of a sense of Czech national identity. Other talks during the day will talk about Smetana, Dvorak, and much more - programme [PDF], booking form.

Before then, Divas and Scholars is presenting The Women in Czech Opera at the The Club at the Ivy on 21 October 2019, when soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lada Valesova perform arias and talk about the fascinating female roles in Czech opera. Full information from the Divas and Scholars website.

He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle

Christophe Rousset
Christophe Rousset
The recent recording of Gounod's Faust on Palazzetto Bru Zane represents something of a new departure for Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, who are known for their performances of French Baroque repertoire. 

Whilst Christophe was in London recently, I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with him again to chat about Gounod and exploration of the 19th century repertoire, but also, of course, the French Baroque as Christophe's cycle of recordings of Lully's opera reaches Isis, as well his explorations of rarities such as operas by Salieri and Legrenzi. 

The idea of a recording of Gounod's Faust and exploring the earlier surviving versions of the opera (it had quite a complex genesis, see my review of Christophe's recent recording) came from Palazzetto Bru Zane. But Christophe and Les Talens Lyrique had already explored some of the 19th century repertoire thanks their Tragediennes series with Veronique Gens, discs which explore music written for great women French singers from Rameau to Lully to Gluck to Berlioz to Meyerbeer to Saint-Saens.

So Christophe had already experimented with 19th century aesthetics, but when he was asked about the Faust project, there was the question 'should he do it?'. He opened the score and found his own way through a work he regards as a masterpiece, he did have something to say. So he accepted the challenge, and admits that he enjoyed the experience a lot.

He feels that this enjoyment is apparent in the recording, which is full of enthusiasm and not at all routine. Because they performed so much new music, it was effectively a re-discovery of a new piece. The recent researches on Gounod's opera had found a lot of earlier material, which whilst not essential to the work was still new music by Gounod. Also, they reverted to the use of spoken dialogue rather than the recitative which was introduced after the works first performances. All this meant that the recording presents a different view of the piece, including the comic aspects which are absent from the grand opera version which is familiar,  giving a very different flavour to the work.

This idea of re-creation is something that he likes to do with Les Talens Lyrique, to explore something which is new for the ensemble and the audience. And that is true here, the Faust they recorded is not the opera that everyone knows. In fact, Christophe had expected that theirs would be shorter than the well known version, but so much music has been discovered that their recording presents a longer Faust!

Friday 18 October 2019

Celebrating 100 years: the Oslo Philharmonic's centenary tour concludes at the Barbican

The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Oslo University's Aula in the 1950s
The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra performing in Oslo University's Aula in the 1950s
The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra is 70 this year, and the orchestra's concert at the Barbican on Tuesday 22 October 2019 with its chief conductor Vasily Petrenko is the final one of a celebratory eight-concert six-country European tour. The programme celebrates with one of the most famous of all Norwegian classical works, Grieg's Piano Concerto in which they are joined by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. The orchestra also looks back to its first subscription concert in 1919 with Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, and completes the programme with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10.

In fact, the orchestras roots go all the way back to 1879 when composers Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen founded the Christiania Musikerforening (Christiania Musical Association) - Oslo was then known as Christiania and the country was ruled by the Kings of Sweden. When the National Theatre opened in 1899, the orchestra provided music for the new theatre, and symphony concerts for the Music Society. A dispute between the orchestra and the theatre led to the collapse of the concert series. In 1919, the orchestra was reformed as the Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester (Orchestra of the Philharmonic Company). Since 1977 the orchestra has given its concerts in Oslo Concert Hall. Vasily Petrenko has been the orchestra's music director since 2013, and in 2020 the role is taken over by Klaus Mäkelä.

Full details from the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra's website and the Barbican website.

Music and Maths explored in the Oxford Philharmonic's innovative concert with Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy
Marcus du Sautoy
Music & Maths - Debussy Prélude de l’après-midi d’une faune, Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114; Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Marios Papadopoulos; Saffron Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke and Carl Dowthwaite on 16 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music and Maths, an exploration of the mathematics behind the music, a lecture with live music or a concert with extended introductions.

Under the title Music and Maths, Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra presented a programme of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók at Saffron Hall on 16 October 2019 at which they were joined by Marcus du Sautoy who discussed each work in the programme from a mathematical point of view. This review is a joint one by a music reviewer, our regular contributor Colin Clarke, and a mathematician, Carl Dowthwaite.

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. He also (rather reassuringly) holds the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. Linked to the latter is his first non-academic book, The Music of the Primes, which was followed by Finding Moonshine (the latter an exploration of symmetry in our lives), The Num8er Mysteries, What we cannot know and How to Count to Infinity, amongst others.

In this collaboration with the Oxford Philharmonic, Professor du Sautoy discussed each work from a number of perspectives, at the heart of which was the idea of the “secret garden” of maths. “Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without it being aware that it is counting” was the starting point, a quote from the Enlightenment polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716). As du Sautoy rightly pointed out, while mathematics is the science of patterns, music is the art of patterns. A scale is a pattern, and with his opening descent of his Prélude de l’après-midi d’une faune, Debussy issues a challenge to composers to think again about how we conceptualise musical language.

The basis of Western musical language is the overtone series (beautifully illustrated via a volunteer from the audience and a skipping rope plus instruments of the orchestra). How we divide the scales in the way we do was du Sautoy’s starting point. This journey that took us from Pythagoras all the way to the Modes of Limited Transposition: Number One, the whole-tone scale, is very much part of Debussy’s language (think the opening four bars of “Voiles” from the first book of Préludes, for example); the octatonic scale, the second Mode of Limited Transposition, has huge importance in Stravinsky, including in the piece we heard, the Symphony in Three Movements. And with this, the importance of patterns was brought to our attention.

The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots

Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots
The Stonewall Inn,
site of the 1969 Stonewall riots
The Outsiders Fight Back - Margaret Bonds, Leslie Adams, Christopher Berg, Ben Moore, Mischa Spoliansky, William Bolcom, Chris DeBlasio, Lee Hoiby, Jerry Herman; Lotte Betts-Dean, Felix Kemp, Nigel Foster, Michael Harper, Peter Tatchell; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A brilliant evocation, in words and music, of the Stonewall Riots and gay life in New York in 1969

2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which happened in New York in 1969 and are regarded as the most important event leading to the gay liberation movement. To open London Song Festival's 2019 Outsiders season at Hinde Street Methodist Church on 17 October 2019, artistic director Nigel Foster commemorated the anniversary with a programme entitled The Outsiders Fight Back. Foster was joined by Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Felix Kemp (baritone) [who took part in the festival's 2018 Leonard Bernstein celebration, see my review], Michael Harper (narrator) and Peter Tatchell (speaker), with visuals by video artist James Symonds. There was song by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Leslie Adams (born 1932), Christopher Berg (born 1949), Mischa Spoliansky (1891-1985), William Bolcom (born 1938), Chris DeBlasio (1959-1993), Lee Hoiby (1926-2011) and Jerry Herman (born 1931), plus the world premiere of a new song cycle by Ben Moore (born 1960), And Another Song Comes On, with words by Mark Campbell (librettist of Iain Bell's opera Stonewall), commisioned by the London Song Festival, along with a spoken narration from Michael Harper taken from eye witness accounts of the period, plus a short address from Peter Tatchell whose involvement with the gay liberation movement goes back to London Gay Liberation Front in 1971.

Lotte Betts-Dean and Felix Kemp
Lotte Betts-Dean and Felix Kemp
As we found when I was musical director of the Pink Singers (London's first Lesbian and Gay choir) in the 1980s, there is little contemporary classical music and art song dealing with the gay themes prevalent of this period, and to provide a musical counterpart to the narrative requires a little creativity. Nigel Foster's imaginative programme used largely American composers of the 20th century, providing a sound-track which paralleled the narrative and dealt with similar themes of oppression, lost love, and outsiders. Ben Moore and Mark Campbell's new song cycle was based on the juke box playlist of the Stonewall Inn at that period, giving us an evocation not of the politics but of the people. The evening ended with a song from Jerry Herrman's musical La Cage aux Folles, the first Broadway musical to have two gay men as the central romantic leads.

Essential to the evening were Michael Harper's narrations, these were taken from the memoirs and writings of people who had actually been there, from transgender activist Marsha P Johnson and gay liberation and transgender rights activist Sylvia Rivera to Ray Castor, one of the first people arrested during the riots, to an anonymous writer in the East Village Rambler, 12 November 1969.

The first half was an evocation of gay life, such as it was, in New York in the 1960s prior to the riots, with narration and song interleaved into a single striking whole. Michael Harper's delivery was vivid, and some of his material priceless (sometimes shocking, often very funny), but the musical performances from Lotte Betts-Dean and Felix Kemp were equally strong, helping the music to stand out. For much of the evening, the shadow of American musical theatre stood behind the music in a way that it does not do in 20th century English music. Both Kemp and Betts-Dean are clearly comfortable in this style, never losing the vibrancy of voice and keeping a strong sense of line but giving primacy to the words. The two are quite different performers in style, complementary indeed, but both drew strong effects from the music. Betts-Dean seemed to have a real knack with bluesy torch songs, whilst Kemp was superbly moving in lyrical ballads.

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