Sunday 24 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Mad King in the Netherlands, Mozart & Boulogne in Perth, Allegri in Sistine Chapel

The Mad King - Charles Johnston - Opera2Day
The Mad King - Charles Johnston - Opera2Day

The Dutch company Opera2Day (whose staging of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet I saw in The Hague in 2018) solved the problem of what to perform during the restrictions of lockdown by turning to a one-man opera. But with a difference. Opera2Day's latest production, The Mad King, recently live-streamed, was based around Peter Maxwell Davies' music theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King, but re-conceived by composer Brendan Faegre. Faegre had composed new music and re-orchestrated music by Handel and interwove these new elements around the eight Maxwell Davies movements to create a new music theatre work lasting around an hour. 

We were still in the mad universe of the poor King (baritone Charles Johnston) with his birds (the instrumentalists of the New European Ensemble, musical director Hernán Schvartzman, plus the mime artist Bodine Sutorius) and his music boxes (including a self-playing organ from the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht), but in an extended and continuous music theatre piece where we seemed to experience an entire imaginative universe. 

Directed by Stefano Simone Pintor, the whole was gorgeously designed by Herbert Janse, and whatever was happening on stage the visuals were superb. By extending Peter Maxwell Davies work, interleaving new work around the eight songs, the production somewhat blunted Mawell Davies' sting. The new version lacked the shocking punch of the original, even making the ending somewhat low key, and instead seemed to replace it with an extended exploration of madness. Charles Johnston gave a superb account of the title role, Maxwell Davies' original is challenging enough but Faegre's additions meant that Johnston was also singing various extracts of Handel, in various voices and registers. The result was a bravura performance, and rather disturbing. [Opera2Day]

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were joined by conductor Peter Whelan and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray for its latest on-line concert coming from Perth Concert Hall. The programme was centred around Mozart but extended its reach rather imaginatively further.

We started with the overture to Joseph Boulogne's opera L'Amant Anonyme. Boulogne (also known as the Chevalier de Saint Georges) is the first known composer of the classical period of African ancestry (his father was a white planter, his mother a slave). Highly successful in his lifetime (and he knew Mozart), of his six operas only one, L'Amant Anonyme, has survived complete and Boulogne's music still needs investivating. Certainly the imaginative overture made me wonder what the rest of the work is like. Whelan and the orchestra followed this with Mozart's re-orchestration of the overture to Handel's Acis and Galatea, perhaps less well known than his re-working of Messiah, yet made for similar performances. Mozart's re-orchestration was undertaken from a practical point of view, to make the work playable by a classical orchestra but it was nonetheless startling to hear two clarinets trilling away through the overture!

Katie Bray then sang Sesto's aria, 'Parto, parto' from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito, again with clarinet featuring heavily. Bray made a lovely Sesto, stylish and vibrant, singing with a great sense of line yet intensity too and I am now keen to hear her in the full opera! She followed this with the 'Laudamus Te' from Mozart's Mass in C minor, coping with the music's virtuoso challenges with admirable freedom and elan. A lovely performance all round, complete by a stylish and lively account of Mozart's Symphony No 36, ‘Linz’, written in four days for a concert at a stopover in Linz when the Mozarts were travelling from Salzburg to Vienna. [Scottish Chamber Orchestra]

The Marian Consort's on-line series debuted a concert of music from the Sistine Chapel, Recorded at St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, Rory McCleery conducted the ensemble in Palestrina's Missa Brevis, Anerio's Sicut Cervus, Allegri's Incipit Lamentatio and Allegri's Miserere. The group is a real vocal ensemble, with a strong sense of individual voices working together and the performances here were compelling, and beautifully filmed too. The version of the Allegri Miserere used was the traditional modern one with the top C which would never have featured in any of the Sistine Chapel performances. Perhaps more interesting for me was the short accompanying documentary in which Ben Byram Wigfield explained about the complex history of the work, and McCleery and the consort performed verses from Allegri's unornamented original, the version as performed in the Sistine Chapel in the 18th century, and the modern version which includes the 'wrong' plainchant and that Top C. Fascinating. [Marian Consort]

Another smaller period ensemble debuted an on-line concert this week. Eboracum Baroque, artistic director Chris Parsons, gave us Fairest Isle. Recorded in King's Ely's recital hall in October 2020, the recital featured soprano Elen Lloyd Roberts, recorder Mirima Monaghan, trumpet Chris Parsons, cello Miri Nohl and harpsichord Laurence Lyndon Jones in a lovely programme of theatre music by Purcell, Blow and William Croft, interweaved with instrumental works by Sammartini and Vivaldi. [Eboracum Baroque]

We also managed to catch up on Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's December concert which is still available on-line. Petrenko and the orchestra gave us two, very different, 20th century orchestral showpieces, Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes and Rhodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite, and in between was Respighi's luscious Shelly setting, Il tramonto with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson. Ginastera's 1953 work incorporates Argentinian folk elements but sublimated into Ginastera's style and the result is full of lovely moments for different parts of the orchestra, giving everyone a chance to shine and they certainly did here. The Respighi proved a lovely lush contrast, complex but without the occasional sharp edges of Ginastera. Finally Shchedrin's re-working of Bizet; originally made for a ballet for Shchedrin's dancer wife, the work has become something of an orchestral showpiece, with Bizet's filtered through the Russian composer's startling re-orchestrations [RLPO]

On my peregrinations around the web this week, I came across a lovely performance of 'Senza mamma' from Puccini's Suor Angelica performed by soprano Ella Taylor and pianist Bradley Wood. Winner of Second Prize at the 2020 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Ella Taylor, we first came across Ella at a National Opera Studio event. [YouTube]

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