Sunday 21 March 2021

A Life On-Line: Horror for in Belfast, Suor Angelica in California, Piazzolla from Peckham

Conor Mitchell: The Musician - The Belfast Ensemble (Photo Neil Harrison)
Conor Mitchell: The Musician - The Belfast Ensemble (Photo Neil Harrison)

This week our life on-line was a lovely mixture, with a staging of a new horror opera for children from Belfast, a digital Suor Angelica from California, Astor Piazzolla from Peckham, Young Artists in Holland Park and a saxophone in the Great Hall at Barts, but life on-line has also been extensively non-musical this week as we have been enjoying a series of new films from the BFI Flare festival.

As part of Young at Art, the Belfast Children's Festival the Belfast Ensemble presented The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children by the ensemble's artistic director Conor Mitchell. Neither in its staging nor in its music did the piece pull any punches despite being socially distanced and being a 'children's opera'. It told a fascinating story in a gripping and creepy way, with music which was part of the drama. From the first notes of the opening prelude it was clear that this wasn't going to be a theatre piece with jolly sing-along songs. Mitchell was writer, composer and director, whilst Tom Brady conducted and there was a cast of four. Rebecca Murphy and Sarah Richmond as two young children, a boy and a girl, Paul Carey Jones as a strange musician and Matthew Cavan as narrator. The story developed gradually, character was well drawn and we were engaged. Essentially this was a prequel to The Pied Piper of Hamlin, but until a good way through we had little idea about the way the plot would develop, and there certainly wasn't a simple, happy end. Cleverly, as the plot developed and the young boy grew up, the role was taken by Cavan thus adding an extra layer to the narration.

The piece had all the grisliness of the original Grimm's Fairytales which is often sanitised out, along with a moral about the fact the people are not necessarily nice (the boy, mistreated when young, does not respond with kindnesss when he acquires power). This was a terrific piece, in terrific performances. The Musician is the sort of 'children's opera' which transcends its boundaries. That the Belfast Ensemble created this during pandemic restrictions is amazing, and I certainly hope there is a chance to see it live. This is the sort of piece that needs to tour widely. [Young at Art]

Celebrating Piazzolla: London Concertante (taken from live-stream)
Celebrating Piazzolla: London Concertante (taken from live-stream)

The chamber ensemble London Concertante has started an on-line series of films, Tune In, presenting them weekly (and then available on demand). The series started with Celebrating Piazzolla, a beautifully filmed concert of music by Astor Piazzolla, with a string ensemble plus piano and accordion in the ruined splendour of the chapel as the Asylum in Peckham. What always amazes me about Piazzolla is the adaptability of his music, the way it can be transformed for any instrumental line-up and still be Piazzolla. This was an engaging and imaginative programme with a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, with nicely idiomatic arrangements (uncredited in the programme). Perhaps the performances were not always as down-and-dirty as they have might been but the musicians did pretty well at taking us away from polite London. It is worthwhile remembering that much of this music was music of exile, written when Piazzolla was not living in Argentina and evoking a country of the imagination. This was a lovely exploration of a composer whose work has meant a lot to the ensemble over the years. The series has continued with a programme of romantic cello sonatas and next week is Bach Brandenburg Concertos [Tune In]

Valley Opera and Performing Arts (VOPA) in California has taken an imaginative leap when it comes to presenting opera. Faced with the inability to create live performances, they have recorded an entirely digital performance of Puccini's Suor Angelica. Each member of the cast and each instrumentalist learned and recorded their part separately, having been provided with a video of Brian Asher Alhadeff (Opera San Luis Obispo's General and Artistic Director) conducting a piano reduction. It was costumed (thanks to Mission Opera) and the audio engineeer then put the 28 individual parts together. Soprano Shira Renee Thomas was Suor Angelica and Cindy Sadler was La Zia Principessa, with a strong cast of supporting roles including plenty of young singers. Suor Angelica is a strange piece, which requires most people to take a suspension of disbelief regarding the climax. Here, we concentrated simply on the performers, with the visuals concentrating on individual soloists then letting them retreat. Thomas made a quietly intense Angelica, clearly deeply felt and my only reservation was that the audio was not always kind to her upper register and I would have love to have heard it live. Sadler was a very traditional La Zia Principessa, fierce and unbending and not at all glamorous, a terrific performance. This isn't a replacement for live opera, but was an intelligent and engaging response to the current problems [VOPA]

Saxophonist Alastair Penman was a CMF Artist in 2013, and on Wednesday he returned to the City Music Founation for a live recital from The Great Hall, St Bartholomew's Hospital with pianist Jonathan Pease. It was a lively programme of mainly 20th century music with Paule Maurice's iconic Tableaux de Provence, and Richard Rodney Bennett's Four Country Dances plus music by Pedro Itturalde, Robert Planel and Jules Demersseman, as well as Penman's own Soar. A lovely programme which made us forget that the saxophone was something of a cinderella instrument in the 20th century. [CMF]

Around this time of year, there has always been an event to introduce the latest Opera Holland Park Young Artists to supporters, and event which has typically mixed spoken introductions with music. This year, the event went online and we were introduced to the young cast, conductor and director of the Young Artist performances (Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro). There was live music from Siân Dicker (Countess) and Charlotte Bowden (Susanna) accompanied by repetiteur Thomas Ang, and there were introductions to Lada Valešová (conductor), Rebecca Meltzer (director), Jacob Phillips (Count), Jolyon Loy (Figaro), Charlotte Badham (Cherubino), Hannah Bennett (Marcellina), Alex Jones (Bartolo), Isabelle Peters (Barbarina), Guy Withers (Basilio/Don Curzio) [Opera Holland Park]

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