Sunday 22 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Janacek in London, Ravel in virtual reality, the London Handel in Italy and Germany, Weill in Paris

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose, Marcus Farnsworth - VOpera
Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose as La bergere, Marcus Farnsworth as Le fauteuil - VOpera

This has been a week when we have experienced on-line events that we were expecting to go to live, from Nicky Spence at Jess Dandy at Wigmore Hall to Handel's Ariodante at Covent Garden, and whilst we would have missed Opera North's performances of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, that too went on-line.

The week began with Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy and Julius Drake in Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared, a work which Spence and Drake recorded last year. Sung in Czech from memory, Spence was a vivid and physical performer, bringing the young man's obsession to life and thanks to Spence's engaging dramatic presence we hardly needed translations for the words. Jess Dandy, barefoot with a skirt trimmed with flowers and entering through the auditorium, was a suitably tantalising and seductive love interest. The backing chorus, not off-stage but in the hall's balcony, was Ellie Neate, Leila Alexander, and Catherine Backhouse. This was one of those performances which made you realise that the work does not need staging as such, just highly engaged performers. The programme was completed with a delightful group of Janacek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, works which seem to be woefully unknown. And for the encore, 'Muzikanti' the three chorus members came down from the balcony and joined in, singing a verse each. Complete delight. [Wigmore Hall]

I first met Rachael Hewer in 2019 at an Opera Holland Park evening to introduce that year's Young Artists as Hewer was the associate director responsible for the 2019 Young Artists performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera [see my review]. We discovered that we both hail from the same town, Grimsby, not a place that well-known for its musical sons and daughters.

During lockdown, Hewer has been responsible for creating VOpera: The Virtual Opera Project, a company dedicated to making the most of necessity and creating opera performances especially for the virtual world, with the support of the Concordia Foundation.

So, using a huge cast (21 solo singers with no doubling, plus chorus) and a reduced orchestration by Lee Reynolds, the company debuted its version of Ravel's opera L’enfant et les sortilèges. Directed by Hewer, and designed by Leanne Vandenbussche. Whilst the orchestra, conducted by Reynolds, recorded together (in a socially distanced manner), each singer recorded in their own home and then green-screen technology to bring the opera to life with singers' faces projected onto the delightful hand-drawn animations. L'enfant was sung by Emily Edmonds in a simply brilliant manner, with Karen Cargill as a wonderful Maman, and each of the solo singers was a delight (with an element of 'who was that' each time). You can find the full cast list on the LPO website. On screen, the child was played by Amelie Turnage, a real butter-wouldn't-melt-in-mouth turn! 

The story had been updated, so that the fantasy references were all about today (the princesse was a nurse in a COVID hospital ward) and Hewer's subtitles were similarly discreetly altered. The result was to remain disturbing, and to add an element of modern nightmare to Colette's sophisticated story. The end with its images of empty auditoriums was profoundly poignant. [YouTube]

History books tell us that Handel had two goes at the story of Acis and Galatea, first as an Italian serenata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, written for an aristocratic wedding in Naples during his Italian sojurn, and then as an English pastoral, Acis and Galatea, written for the Duke of Chandos at Canons early in his London stay. Musically, the two pieces are completely separate with no borrowing from one to the other, but both works had a fascinating later history forming a sort continuum. Thanks to Handel's desire to subvert performances of Acis and Galatea with which he was not involved (in an age of poor copyright laws), he created a later version, polyglot, which incorporated elements of the Italian serenata in the English masque and performed by an international cast. Less well known is another version, marked in the manuscript 'per Senesino' (who was the great Italian castrato who created a remarkable number of roles of Handel). This is Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with elements from Acis and Galatea added with a new Italian text!

This version received its first performance in modern times on 15 November 2020 at the Teatro Municipale, Piacenza and streamed live on the OperaStreaming website. The counter-tenor Raffaele Pe sang Aci, with his own ensemble La Lira di Orfeo, conducted by Luca Guglielmi, with Giuseppina Bridelli as Galatea, and Andrea Mastroni as Polifemo. The new edition of the work was created by Fabrizio Longo, Pe and Guglielmi. Director Gianmaria Aliverta's imaginative production made strong use of video by Tokio Studio. In a fine performance with three strong principals, the result was fascinating and intriguing, hearing the Italian Polifemo suddenly launching into 'O ruddier than the cherry' with new Italian words! This characterisation does not quite work, the English Polyphemus being more of a comic character than his Italian counterpart, but Mastroni also had the range for Polifemo's notorious aria with its amazing leaps. It would be good to find out more about the history of this version, but this terrific performance is a good place to start. [Opera Streaming]

Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo - Raffaele Pe - La Lira di Orfeo
Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo - Raffaele Pe - La Lira di Orfeo

There was more rare Handel in Il Gusto Barocco's on-line performance of Cleofida, Telemann's version of Handel's Poro adapted to the taste of the theatre in Hamburg, with German dialogue (newly composed by Telemann) and Italian arias. On-line, Jorg Halubek conducted Il Gusto Barocco in a concert of excerpts with Suzanne Jerosme as Cleofida, Florian Gotz as Poro, Jorge Navarro Colorado as Alexander, Johanna Pommranz, Leandro Marziotte, and Josep-Ramon Olivé, with the excerpts making sure that each got an aria. A fine cast and a fascinating piece, I look forward to being able to experience it live at some point. The performance was available for a limited time on the ensemble's website.

There is one final Handelian moment, this week also saw the return of Handel's opera Ariodante to Covent Garden after a gap of over 280 years, see my full review

Opera North was planning a production of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins as part of its live season at Leeds Playhouse. Fate had other ideas, and the performance became a live stream. The work was directed and choreographed by the British choreographer Gary Clarke, with Wallis Giunta and Shelley Eva Haden as Anna I and Anna II, Stuart Laing and Nicholas Butterfield as the Brothers, Campbell Russell as the Father and Dean Robinson as the Mother. James Holmes conducted members of the orchestra of Opera North in HK Gruber and Christian Muthspiel’s new arrangement for 15 players. The work was sung in Michael Feingold’s English translation.

Clarke’s production emphasised this darkness and referenced the work’s origins in the events of 1933. The family are themselves exiles, and are homeless at the beginning of the opera, whilst the various scenes for the two Annas referenced a wide variety of 1930s films and cabaret. Clarke’s choreography for Shelley Eva Haden was almost constant, not just in the dance sequences but as a counterpoint to Wallis Giunta’s solos. By the end of the opera, we have come to understand that Shelley Eva Haden’s Anna has worked herself into a total breakdown, and the whole performance was a bravura one from Haden. Wallis Giunta sang the role of Anna at the original pitch, rather than the one a fourth lower created for Lotte Lenya after the war. Giunta brilliantly captured Anna’s smart manner and steely underside. As intended, she was hardly a sympathetic character yet Giunta imbued her with a finely musical performance. Stuart Laing, Nicholas Butterfield, Campbell Russell and Dean Robinson provided strong support as the family, altering the musical textures with their strong four-part male, neo-Barbershop singing and a serious, pointed edge to their performance. James Holmes conducted with some point, the bouncy dance numbers all had an edge to them, so that the whole piece felt the right mix of fun and danger. Dancing on the edge of the volcano indeed! [Opera North] You can read a longer version of my review at OperaToday.

The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam gave us a delightful version of a Hungarian tune, Santa Ördög, a tune originally first performed by Balogh Kálmán and the Gipsy Cimbalom Band, and the quartet play it on gut strings! [YouTube]. The Leicester International Music Festival, artistic Nicholas Daniel, has been giving a series of on-line lunchtime concerts, I caught soprano Anna Cavaliero and pianist Sholto Kynoch recital which moved from the brilliance of Britten's On This Island (two songs), the touching Les Chemins de l'Amour by Poulenc alongside the brilliance, of a different type, of his Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon. Cavaliero is part-Hungarian so it was lovely to have a pair of Bartok's folk-song arrangements in the programme, one from 1911 and one from 1929. We don't hear anything like enough of these, the language is still probably a barrier. Following some Walton there was more unusual repertoire in songs by Undine Smith Moore and Florence Price. A terrific programme that would have been lovely to hear live, and made you wish that they had done the complete Britten song cycle, still they finished with his disturbing arrangement of The Last Rose of Summer. [YouTube]

The Kent-based festival Music at Malling went on-line this year, with a weekend of events which are still available on-line from Beethoven, Elias and Turnage from pianist Daniel Grimwood to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time performed by the festival's resident ensemble, Chamber Domaine, and other events focus on the music of Elias and Turnage, alongside Bach, jazz and more. Family events conclude with Eleanor Alberga's version of Roald Dahl's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Great fun. [Music at Malling]

Conductor Daniel Parkinson and friends have been fundraising for Help Musicians, with a recording of a new version of Copland's Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments. There is still time to support [Daniel Parkinson]


And finally another lighthearted look at contemporary politics from Steven Devine and Kate Semmens, the U-Turn Rag. [YouTube]

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