Sunday 14 February 2021

A Life On-Line: New beginnings at the Academy of Ancient Music, the dying embers of Romanticism, fairytales in Scotland and a children's jukebox

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Nadine Benjamin - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Nadine Benjamin - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop)

This week there were a number of threads running through our watching and listening, there were beginnings and endings, with the Academy of Ancient Music looking forward to the start of Laurence Cummings' term as artistic director whilst the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement were looking at the end of Romanticism and the composers who emerged from under Wagner's shadow. This carried over into Scottish Opera's film of another late Romantic masterpiece by Wagner's pupil Humperdinck. Dance was another theme, whether Baroque with the AAM or more modern with the lively young people of W11 Opera whose lockdown creation of Jukebox was full of verve.

W11 Opera's Jukebox was an imaginative solution to the problem of creating opera with young people during lockdown. By mining the company's back catalogue (it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year), artistic director Susan Moore [see my interview with Susan 'Children can do so much more than you think'] threaded together scenes from past shows, all written specially for the company, and linked them with a lively script. Rehearsals were via Zoom, and the 30 young performers all filmed themselves in their living rooms, their gardens and elsewhere, each in an imaginative costume. There was dialogue too, and here was the film's neatest trick, for each patch of dialogue we would briefly see the individual performers then their voices would continue and Chris Glyn's lovely hand-drawn animations would replace them.

The result was impressive and an entertaining delight. There were some strong individual performances and impressively coordinated ensembles. Some performers were clearly very aware of the camera, but others seemed to be naturals. It was refreshing and imaginative, definitely not a film of a stage performance but something that could only have been created on video. Whilst the young performers may have not got to perform together this year, they certainly created something distinctive. [W11 Opera]

On 19 December 2020, Scottish Opera was able to film a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. David Parry conducted the orchestra of Scottish Opera in a reduced orchestration by Derek Clark with the orchestra spread out on the stage, and Daisy Evans' production taking place on the fore-stage over the pit. Rhian Lois and Kitty Whately were the children, with Nadine Benjamin and Philip Rhodes as their parents, with Benjamin doubling as the Witch. Charlie Drummond was the Sandman and Dew Fairy. The production used a chorus of four women who took an active part in the whole production, with Evans using them imaginatively to create dynamic settings, particularly for the forest.

There is something innately silly about watching two grown women, both with children of their own, pretending to be children but Lois and Whately brought it off.

Being child-like without too much embarassment or gurning, and managing to make the dynamic work when they were stationed well away from each other. With minimal staging they held our attention, sang the great moments touchingly and had us rooting for them. Benjamin was a wonderfully downtrodden Mother, you immediately felt the weight of her burden, with Rhodes as a carfree Father. As the Witch, Benjamin was wonderfully seductive and glamorous. Little was made of the fact that the role was doubled, and I thought that she could perhaps have brought a little more danger to the character, but this was a dazzling performance. Charlie Drummond gave to consumate performances for Sandman and Dew Fairy as a sort of fairy cleaning lady. Parry and the orchestra brought a lithe energy to the reduced orchestration and the whole worked well. It engaged me, and I do hope that it drew plenty of those unaccustomed to opera in. [Scottish Opera]

Engelbert Humperdinck was one of the few composers who managed the difficult balancing act of writing in the shadow of Richard Wagner (he was the great man's pupil and assistant on Parsifal), producing music that was his own yet also owed a debt to Wagner. Wagner cast a long shadow, and most German and Austrian composers escaped the shadow by being different. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's The Embers of Romanticism concert took Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus as its inspiration for a concert which looked at music after Wagner. We had the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, the prelude to Act Three of Die Meistersinger alongside Webern's Passacaglia, the prelude to Act Two of Pfitzner's Palestrina and a fragment from Richard Strauss' Salome

The ensemble used was just 22 players (single strings plus woodwind, brass, harp, percussion and piano) with Roger Montgomery's orchestrations paying a nod to Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performance. The result, with appropriate period instruments, lacked the rich throb of a large orchestra but still gave us vividness of texture. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson took a steady view of Tristan und Isolde, the erotic climax reached only after a slow build, whereas the fragment from Strauss' Salome was a wondrous orgiastic shock. It was surprising how Straussian Pfitztner's prelude sounded, who knew Palestrina could have been so lively, and again the orgy was not far away. We had begun with the complex balancing act of Webern's Passacaglia, looking forward intently but still looking back as well, and we ended with the prelude to the final act of Wagner's comedy, flowing yet poetic with a lovely use of portamento from the strings. [OAE]

Laurence Cummings and Academy of Ancient Music (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)
Laurence Cummings and Academy of Ancient Music (Photo Academy of Ancient Music)

Laurence Cummings will be taking over as artistic director of the Academy of Ancient Music later this year, and he joined them in his first concert with them since the announcement. Entitled Suonare e danzare, the concert saw Laurence Cummings (on harpsichord) with a string sextet led by Bojan Cicic plus William Carter on theorbo for a programme which examined the way dance music threaded its way through the works of major Baroque composers. 

We began with Georg Muffat's Armonico Tributo Sonata No. 5; richly scored, this was a work full of dance forms including a lively measure with guitar and a very danceable passacaglia in conclusion. Then came JS Bach's Sonata in E Minor BWV1023, for violin and continuo, perhaps less well known than the solo violin works but no less wonderful. This one, performed here by solo violin (Cicic), harpsichord (Cummings) and cello (Sarah McMahon) began with a stunning prelude where the freedom of the violin was counterpointed by long drones on the other instruments. And as the sonata progressed, we could again feel the players dancing. Then came works by two of Bach's contemporaries, first Telemann's Concerto Polonaise in B flat major one of a number of works influenced by the composers travels through Poland, the dance forms here being more rustic. Played with a lovely vigour, there were real rough edges to this music, and a sense that the dance forms were very different. Finally the elegance of Telemann's friend Handel, with the Sonata in G major, Opus 5 No. 4 which included 'favourite moments' from various of Handel's major works, Athalia, Alcina and Tersichore. [AAM]

Over at the Brighton Early Music Festival, violinist Oliver Webber and harpsichordist Steven Devine were taking a different approach. Their lovely concert Con Arte e Maestria featured Webber's explorations of ornamentation in early violin playing. Webber introduced the music and explained what we were hearing, with a series of solo violin ricercars as palate cleansers. What we actually heard was the result of the coming together of multiple composers. There would be the composer of the underlying music and then the composer/performer responsible for creating the elaborate ornamentation which overlay the original. Webber gave us music which focused on four composer violinists Riccardo Rognoni (1550-1620), Girolamo dalla Casa (died 1601), Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (late 16th century),  and Francesco Rognoni (early 17th century, died after 1626), sometimes playing music that they had ornamented directly and sometimes in the style of, using their writings to create modern versions. Fascinating and full of information, luckily there is going to be recording. [BREMF@Home]

Over at Opera North there was the delighful Great Opera North Challenge, an entertaining and at times challenging University Challenge type quiz on opera and musicals with two teams, Amy J Payne, Opera North chorus member, David Greed, leader of the orchestra of Opera North, and David Cowan, head of music, against Fflur Wyn, soprano, Antony Hermus, conductor and Alessandro Talevi, director

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