Sunday 29 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Orpheus in suburbia, Paris in the 1920s, Britten and Clyne in Perth,

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice - Benjamin Williamson - INvision Opera
Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice - Benjamin Williamson - INvision Opera

A new film of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice made under lockdown becomes an intriguing premise when the couple in the opera, Orfeo and Eurydice are played by real-life couple Benjamin Williamson (counter-tenor) and Paula Sides (soprano), with the film being made in Williamson and Sides' own home (filmed by Jan Capinski) along with the couple's two children. The film was directed and conceived by Timothy Nelson and is available on the INvision website. Accompaniment is on piano, played by Simone Luti and the off-stage chorus is the Shenandoah Chorus, director Matthew Owen. The project's title is Orphée et Eurydice and though sung in Andrew Albin's new poetic translation, the French version of the names is being used so presumably we are talking the Berlioz edition here.

The perspicacious amongst you will have spotted a lack in the credits, Amour. Amour's role is taken by Paula Sides, with the end of Act One being a message to Orpheus in the present from Eurydice in the past, via a file on a laptop. Act Two sees Orpheus attempting suicide, with much of the remainder of Act Two and Act Three being either memory or imagination. Finally, the two children stop him and the opera ends with Orpheus in the present day coming to terms with his grief. I missed Gluck's orchestral accompaniment, but Luti's highly effective piano accompaniment provided an intimate backdrop for the sound-track and visuals which take place in a modern suburban house. I also missed some of the trimmed dance movements; I understand why they were removed, but they form important parts of the structure.

However, the result was very powerful and a remarkable re-invention of the opera as an intimate and personal journey. Unlike a lot of opera on the web at the moment, this was not inspired by stage performance and delivered something that would hardly be achievable on stage. [INvision]

We have a tendency to imagine the Roaring Twenties as one mad-cap gallop which ended in the Wall Street Crash and the Depression. The reality was, of course, more complex.

In its latest film presentation, recorded at the National Opera Centre, the London Song Festival presented Les Anées Folles, a portrait of Paris during the Twenties with soprano Francesca Chiejina, baritone Ashley Riches, pianist Nigel Foster, plus narrations from Nick Delvalle and video projections from James Symonds.

Nigel Foster cast his net widely for the songs, and we heard music by Les Six of course - Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, their 'godfather' Erik Satie, plus other contemporaries Charles Koechlin, Georges Hue, Albert Roussel, Vincent Scotto, Henri Sauget, and Reynaldo Hahn. This was a real picture of musical Paris in the 1920s and to counterpoint it a series of readings from Ernest Hemingway, Janet Flanner, George Orwell and others which provided a sometimes startling counterpoint to the songs, adding salacious moments, dark corners and simply eye-catching content. I really missed seeing this live, but Francesca Chiejina, Ashley Riches and Nigel Foster captured just the right element in the music, crazy yet serious, fun but with dark corners, surreal yet intensely serious [YouTube]

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's on-line season continued with the concert performed live at Perth Concert Hall. Pekka Kuusisto directed from the violin, and we heard Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms (Clyne is the SCO's associate composer), and Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Allan Clayton (tenor) and Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn). 

Clyne's piece was commissioned in 2009 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the work is dedicated to the memory of Clyne's mother who had died suddenly just before Clyne started to write the work. The result is a powerful evocation of love and loss. Despite Clyne's American links (she studied both in the UK and at the Manhattan School of Music and lives in the USA) the work fits clearly into the tradition of English string writing with Tippett in particular seeming a particular godfather to the work. Britten's Serenade needs no introduction, and Clayton and Frank-Gemmill gave a near ideal performance of the work. Clayton has the heft required for some of the work's powerful moments, yet he was able to rein his voice in finely and create hushed moments, along with a beautiful sense of line. And of course the words, they came over terrifically. He was partnered by Frank-Gemmill who not only demonstrated technical facility but a similar sympathy with the music. I was profoundly grateful for the live-stream so I could hear this performance, but again I really wanted to be there. [Scottish Chamber Orchestra]

Until I read the review in The Guardian of Philippe Sands' book The Ratline [The Guardian], I had never heard of the Ratline, the conduit through which escaping Nazi's passed to get to Argentina after the Second World War. The irony of the title is that the subject of Sands' book, SS Brigadeführer Otto Freiherr von Wächter never does get to Argentina and dies of poison. The biography of a Nazi war criminal, no matter how complex, does not sound the obvious source for a concert, but the Academy of St Martin in the Fields' Love, Lies and Justice programme as part of its re:connect season recorded at St Martin in the Fields did just that. And the result was profoundly thought-provoking.

Philippe Sands read passages from his book, sufficiently long and succinct so that we got the whole story, from von Wächter meeting and falling in love with his wife to his ultimate death in Rome whilst waiting to go down the Ratline and her own proud admission of being a Nazi when captured by American soldiers. Musically we heard pieces by Bruckner, Kreisler, Korngold, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Schulhoff, Beethoven, Mahler, Mascagni and Mahler. Sometimes the music was directly referenced in the text, sometimes implied and sometimes was simply a comment. But it made you aware quite how cultured and musical the Nazi culture was. And this chimed in with the excerpts from Sands' book which described how, in some ways, normal and ordinary von Wächter and his wife were, except that von Wächter did things during the war which made him a war criminal, and did them unashamedly. There were some vocal items, finely sung by baritone Simon Wallfisch (whose grandmother was herself a concentration camp survivor). Highly recommended. [Academy of St Martin in the Fields]

Nigel Short and Tenebrae have started a new series of filmed concerts, Tenebrae Unlocked and the first one, filmed at St Augustine's Church, Kilburn and entitled Musica dei donum featured a series of Renaissance choral works. We opened with Thomas Tallis' simple, yet profoundly effective If ye love me, followed by works by William Byrd, Orlande de Lassus and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Byrd's great Ne irascaris Domine needs little introduction with its lament for the state of Jerusalem being used by Byrd to refer to the state of English Catholicism at the time, but with its references to empty streets becoming a lament for our own times too. A lovely programme, beautifully sung; next to come in the series is a programme of Brahms and Bruckner motets. [Tenebrae]

Also during the week we were able to catch up on Pierre Audi's 2015 production of Handel's Alcina from La Monnaie in Brussels which is currently on Medici.Tv. Featuring Sandrine Piau as Alcina, with Maite Beaumont, Angélique Noldus, Sabina Puértolas, Chloé Briot, Daniel Behle, Giovanni Furlanetto and Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset, the production was musically strong with superb performances from all concerned. There were cuts but this was quite a long version of the opera, with some dazzling showpieces and a stupendous performance from Piau. Audi's production allowed the singers plenty of leeway to simply perform, though I sometimes found the stage rather busy and the dramatic lighting meant that the stage context was often unclear. But certainly worth catching. [Medici.Tv]

Ian Page and the Mozartists have released a number of films of past concerts on Exit[Live] so that you can re-visit their 2016 performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni (the Prague version with Jacques Imbrailo in the title role) and concerts with Ann Hallenberg and with Sophie Bevan along with a 2013 concert Tales from Ovid with music by Gluck, Mozart and Haydn. [Exit[Live]] The Kings Lynn Festival has gone on-line with a planned season of concerts, starting with pianist Dominic Degavino in Scarlatti, Beethoven and Gerswhin. [Kings Lynn Festival] Opera Live@Home is a terrific project providing live-streamed recitals from young performers, the most recent was New Zealand-born baritone Kieran Rayner with pianist Gamal Khamis in opera arias by Rossini, Mozart, Strauss, Handel, Tchaikovsky and Bizet. It went out on 24 November and is now available on demand. [Opera Live@Home]

In 2018, the National Opera Studio presented 12:40, 12 new arias by 12 composers and 12 librettists for 12 singers, to mark the Studio’s 40th anniversary year.  As a follow up, 12:42 was planned for 2020, but came to a halt with lockdown. The solution was not to abandon ship, but to go digital and so aach singer was partnered with a team of composer, librettist and pianist. Through Zoom, telephone, e-mail and WhatsApp the teams nurtured ideas drawn from the singer’s past life, future ambitions or dreams and, through collaboration, moulded these ideas into arias for operas in development. The results are now available on OperaVision, a terrific achievement which rises above the limitations of lockdown. [OperaVision]

Another group staying busy during lockdown is Bastard Assignments. Ever stimulating and creative, the group's response to lockdown has been to produce Lockdown Jams, vivid collaborations all undertaken over the internet and imbued with the group's strong sense of imagination and humour. They are currently releasing a new series of Lockdown Jams, so it is worth checking their website. The most recent is one made with Lea Anderson, intriguing, visually striking and not a little disturbing. [Bastard Assignments]. 

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