Sunday, 31 May 2015

Love-death business again (Poliuto/Glyndebourne)

Donizetti, Poliuto (Mazzola cond. LPO, Glyndebourne Festival)
J.L. Gérome, Last prayers of the Christina martyrs (1875-85) (Public domain)
On the way to Lewes, a sub-tropical storm did not bode well for picnicking. Was this biblical weather? Was Apollo irked that we were going to see martyrdom as entertainment? But the rain stopped, the sun shone and it became a lovely early summer’s afternoon. Sitting in the gardens at the end it was almost balmy. At the back of my mind was the worry that the story might be rather too thinly-spread over the music as it had been with Il Furioso (ETO - review).
The production was driven by the music: the LPO under Enrique Mazzola showed off what long rehearsal periods for a great orchestra can do, bringing the music to life in a way it wasn’t in the scratchy Callas recording or the Jan Latham-Loenig/Rome recoding from the 1980s. Or indeed to the DVD from the Donizetti festival in the 1990s. The score, unfamiliar to most, is wonderful. Three fine overtures and wonderful arias make this an important contribution to the bel canto canon. The playing was at its most wonderful at the beginning of the final act, with some wonderful descending solos. 
The plot revolves around a love triangle. Paolina (Ana María Martínez) was married to Severo (Igor Golovatenko) but fell in love with Poliuto (Michael Fabiano) after she believed Severo had died in battle. As a convert to the proscribed Christianity, Poliuto is at risk of prison. Poliuto refuses to renounce his faith; Paolina follows him to his fate (death) out of love. Much like the end of Andrea Chenier, they walk off to die (ROH -review). Instead of seeing lions, Severo, Poliuto and Paolina walk to the rear of the stage: Severo disappears into the shadow of one block, and the two martyrs appear in a blaze of heavenly light. It is that love-death thing again.
Glyndebourne has assembled a first-rate cast for this, and the triangle is superb. Fabiano, so thrilling in La Traviata last summer has returned with a power which is scarcely imaginable (review). All this gives an urgency and suffering to his tone. Martínez is wonderful too – her careful tender notes show her torment against Golovatenko’s rumbling, roaring bass. This is really superb singing, and the chorus is on great form again this year.
Mariame Clément’s production has taken a lot of stick. The critics didn’t like the grey plinths or the period. It was that sometime-twentieth-century-authoritarian-regime look which left so many cold. Whilst this is not the most charming production you will see at Glyndebourne – not that it is a cheerful story – it worked effectively. The only moment of levity was when two Christians found themselves amongst a crowd of flag wavers, and picked up awkwardly flags and pretended to be cheering Severo. There were moments when the sheer terror of such a regime pointed to historical antecedents in the antiquity in which the opera was set. Moreover, it serves to highlight that the fear of believing something different in an intolerant society.  A period production would have been extremely wearisome, and actual lions would have been as comic as Parsifal’s swan always lands up being. The projections onto the moving grey plinths were effective generally, and in presenting light coming through the windows of prison cell, really quite impressive.  
Poliuto isn’t long- less than two hours in total.  I worried that Act III on its own would seem somewhat orphaned and unable to sustain things. It didn’t. With singing of this quality, the emotions and drama shot back up to full strength immediately. Whatever they did during the interval kept things going. No mean feat- the interval was almost as long as the opera. The fine playing and a series of great numbers - a duets and a very fine trio brought drama and emotions back to the fore and the thrilling climax with great music holding it together.
Overall: the mind boggles as to how this isn’t part of the standard repertoire. This won’t sound better anytime soon, so catch it if at all possible.
Full cast
Conductor: Enrique Mazzola
Poliuto: Michael Fabiano
Paolina: Ana María Martínez
Severo: Igor Golovatenko
Callistene: Matthew Rose
Felice: Timothy Robinson
Nearco: Emanuele D’Aguanno
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Mariame Clément
Designer: Julia Hansen
Lighting Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Video: fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs and Torge Möller)
Continues at the festival until 15th July; to be broadcast on Radio Three 22nd June at 7:30.

Voices of angels (Christophers/Sixteen)

Harry Christopers cond. The Sixteen – Flight of Angels: Lobo and Guerrero
On Thursday, The Sixteen made their annual pilgrimage to Leicester. They sing in St James the Greater, which is a copy (apparently not very accurate) of an Early Christian one in Venice. 
View of temporary stage (Own photograph)
The programme returned to the Renaissance polyphony which is their real strength. The eighteen voices now (that’s inflation) filled the church’s space beautifully, rich and full. The acoustics in this modest parish church Towards the end of each half, the music came to its cumulative high. Especial kudos is due surely to Julie Cooper who had her arm in some kind of cast or support, but carried on with a music stand to hold her score. The mixed programme was Guerrero and Lobo – Guerrero was Lobo’s teacher, so perhaps the coherence was unsurprising in that sense. Programmatically considerable care had been taken so that the two finest pieces – both by Guerrero, Maria Magdalene and Agnus Dei were placed at the end of each section.
The strange thing about the performance in a church like that is that people will applaud by not shout, cheer, or stand to ovate. In a concert hall you would have expected quite a roar. If I thought the Sixteen were less perfect than they had been last year, this represented a real return to form.
 Short film by the Sixteen introducing this year's programme
Continues on national tour until end of the year; details here. Also released on Coro, the Sixteen's own label.
Concert programme
Guerrero Duo seraphim
Lobo Kyrie from Missa Maria Magdalene
Lobo Libera me
Guerrero Gloria from Missa Surge propera   
Guerrero Laudate Dominum
Guerrero Maria Magdalene   
Guerrero Credo from Missa de la batalla escoutez
Guerrero Vexilla regis  
Lobo Ave Regina coelorum 
Lobo Ave Maria
Lobo Versa est in luctum  
Guerrero Agnus Dei I and II from Missa Congratulamini mihi
Cast: 18 of the 32, but details of this not provided (a handbill would be nice). 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Great wisdom in satire

Some times, there is greater wisdom in satire than in every philosophy lecture. Ever sat next to a noisy but slow sweet unwrapper at a concert? or a programme flicker? This piece on the gentler but no-less-irritating hazards of the concert hall. Read here.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Hope for the Proms

David Pickard has been poached from Glyndebourne by the BBC Proms. This seems like good news for the Proms. Could a retun to heartier fayre be on the Proms menu? Here's hoping. A bit less pop, a bit more fizz?
Starting suggestion: could Pickard persuade his old festival to send six productions the the proms? Satisfying, democratic, and popular with opera fans in one fell swoop.
Full story: Guardian.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Opera on a beach and then on TV (Opera for free)

Conductor Steuart Bedford. Image Paul Mitchell/ Harrison Parrott
Grimes on the Beach was shown on BBC4 last night. Filmed at the Aldeburgh festival in 2013, it includes Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford and Alan Oke as Peter Grimes.You can catch up on-demand here. Highly recommended, for Allen alone. A brave move to do this on the beach - but it pays real dividends. Conducted by Steuart Bedford. I saw this in the cinema before, and actually have the CD recording, which is definatley a fine supplement to the Britten/Pears recording.
In the film, Allen shows depth and emotion, and Oke shows his unparallelled versatility - it is hard to think of a singer or actor with greater range. Shortly after this Allen performed the part with Opera North and it was powerful and devastating - deeply upsetting.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Something for the (Bank Holiday) weekend? Carmen (Opera for Free)

Telegraph is offering a recording of Carmen from Glyndebourne, to stream gratis. Click here, for one week from 24/5.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Sibelius, Kullervo (Opera for free)

The Opera Platform's third stream will be this Saturday, 23rd May. Sibelius' Kullervo from Finnish National Opera. Click here to view.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Tobacco hospitality scandal

Apparent JTI's patronage of the arts isn't limited to the curiously off-key LPO tour (review). It has generously showered tickets and hospitality on peers and MPs, claims the Telegraph today. Lord Trimble got to see La Traviata last year at Glyndebourne, and Baroness Wheatcroft got two tickets to the same performance - which was superb (review). Read the Telegraph story in full here.
The bit missing from the Telegraph article (without checking the band), is that the tickets might have cost as much as £250 each. And it seems unlikely they weren't best seats. It doesn't say if food or travel was included. The peers might easily salve their consciences by imagining Violetta doesn't have TB but rather one of the many diseases caused by smoking: it could be research then.
If the charm offensive continues, Carmen would be a good bet this year, or is that a little too on the nose?

Great art, party clothes and a country picnic

As Glyndebourne opens this weekend, it seems the ideal moment to share this lovely clip from
British Pathé news. Great art, party clothes and a country picnic - apparently it caught on - despite a new opera

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Georg Baselitz's magic rugs

Georg Baselitz in the Guardian:
'"They tell me [Glyndebourne is] rather conservative and more than just a bit elitist,” he says, wondering how at home he will feel there when he visits later this month. “I don’t even like classical music that much – it bores me. Except for Bach. But he didn’t write opera so that’s not much good.'

Despite the orthographic challenge it presents the editorial team, the paper never likes to miss getting in a dig at Glyndebourne. So I'd guess "They" is a hack who has seen nothing on stage there. Baselitz clearly means business: he is flogging picnic rugs to festival-goers - conservatism, elitism and boredom notwithstanding. Rather generous of him? Hardly, given they are £400 each and limited to 50. Read the article here.

Sung Pantomime (ENO/Pirates)

Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance (ENO cond. David Parry)

Whatever might follow the emotional ecstasy of Parsifal? After the grail and redemption, what is one supposed to seek? Unless Nelsons had been offering a repeat, it would have to be something radically different. Pirates relay from the ENO fits the bill perfectly. Literally, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I could say that it is another name trick: pure-fool / pirate-pilot. But the similarity ends there.

Image ENO
There are still a dozen performances to go -as late as July. The ENO is probably trying to make some money here, hoping cinema audiences will beat a path to the Coliseum. The cinema was crammed full. Maybe the temptation of Mike Leigh. Maybe the return of G&S. Whatever, it worked.
The production was essentially quite simple: large single-colour shapes. Against this reductionist view the costumes were almost a pastiche of Victoriana - over the top, and it all worked very well.

Musically, Parry dallied too much in the put. If you listen to the D'Oyly recordings, these thunder along at a hundred miles an hour. Why? They are fun, but the music isn't good enough to pull off a ponderous The whole thing needed more pace. This isn't a great work, so a professional opera company must take care that the cracks don't show. Speed is the trick here as it was with Chenier back in January.

It isn't opera of course. Much as early opera is a sung play, this is a sung pantomime. In this view, the humour fits.  Yet it is an odd form of entertainment. From outer-space, it must seem insane. It is. When the large picture of Queen Vic comes down as the Pirates and the police professed loved for her; armed to the teeth the Pirates became puppies when told they would be arrested in her name, it got an awful lot of belly-laughs.
There was little to fault vocally. The Major-General (Andrew Shore) delivered great comic acting and perfectly good singing (even if it is not a part which calls for singing as much as acting). Throwing himself on the tomb in the newly-bought estate church - but they are somebody's ancestors raised a lot of laughs. Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King  gave the hearty bass needed for such a scoundrel. Robert Murray's Frederic was incredibly well-mannered for a pirate, so we knew he really didn't want to be one. The stand out singing came from Mabel, brought to the heights of bel canto by Claudia Boyle. Well Frederic would fall in love with her, wouldn't he? 

Overall: if the ENO revives its finances using this quality of G&S, it sounds like everyone will win.
Cast and team
Conductor - David Parry
Director - Mike Leigh
Designer - Alison Chitty
Lighting Designer - Paul Pyant
Choreographer - Francesca Jaynes
Major - General Stanley - Andrew Shore
The Pirate King - Joshua Bloom
Frederic - Robert Murray
Sergeant of Police - Jonathan Lemalu
Mabel - Claudia Boyle
Ruth - Rebecca de Pont Davies
Samuel - Alexander Robin Baker
Edith - Soraya Mafi
Kate - Angharad Lyddon

Monday, 18 May 2015

Parsifal Wept (Nelsons/Parsifal)

Wagner, Parsifal (Andris Neslons cond. CBSO, Symphony Hall)
A British Audience gets to its feet. Own photograph.
It is hard to imagine that a better Parsifal than Nelson’s today is possible. The CBSO took the stage as a world-class orchestra; the singers were first-rate; at Simon Halsey’s hands, the chorus ascended astonishing heights – literally in the case of those posted high up in Symphony Hall, angelic voices cascading down. In this profoundly moving moment, tears were brought to my eyes – and those of many others too. It is a measure of the emotion, however, that Fritz (Parsifal) , sitting on the stage, one felt possibly more than required, in ecstasy, wiped away tears too. I can’t recall a professional musician yielding like this. It was that beautiful.
Parsifal is not my favourite Wagner. It was my least favourite. After this performance, it has finally had the emotional power for me, which it does for many. Nelsons extracted every drop out of it, in a performance of terrifying power. On several occasions, I felt utterly overwhelmed. At the end, Nelsons held the audience silent in a way so few conductors can. I am sure I was not the only one at this point so close to losing it. What makes this different, however, from other moving operas is that it is only the music which does it: the actual story leaves me pretty cold. The utter sublime force of the music was brought to bear fully.
Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal) not only sung but acted every inch the Pure Fool, in a warm and human fashion.
Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz was a stand-out bass with depth and range and perfect diction. You could learn German from this.
Mihoko Gujimura as Kundry produced astonishing volume and range. In her moderate frame was the voice of a lioness. She went from standing still to top speed and the halted dead again with ease.
James Rutherford as Amfortas (who sang the in the Dutchman with CBSO previously was a reliable and fine voice. There were absolutely no weak links. At times all shone: Woflgang Bani (Klingsor); Paul Whelan (Titurel); Alexander Sprauge (First Knight, 3rd Esquire); Andrew Greenan (2nd Knight); Ed Harrison (4th Esquire). The Flowermaidens sprung up and seemed very close to succeeding in wooing Parsifal (Erica Eloff, Katharina Persicke, Deborah Humble, Alexander Steiner, Bele Kumberger, Ingeborg Gillebo).
 But for all the great voices on show, which each thrilled at times, this was an ensemble piece to its core. The orchestra was on fire, it didn’t put a foot wrong, as it brought each and every bar of this huge work to life. It takes a really big orchestra, a lot of singers and then huge choruses. Together, this shone and thrilled in ways scarcely imaginable. It converted me to Parsifal. I get why people are so bothered by it now – I hadn’t before. Nelsons is in the first-rank of those interpreting Wagner's music. This was a single performance. If it were being repeated anywhere, I'd look for tickets. Even Boston perhaps. You just couldn't ask for more.

Overall: a rare privilege to witness such an object-lesson in the sublime.

Andris Nelsons – Conductor
Burkhard Fritz – Tenor (Parsifal)
Georg Zeppenfeld – Bass-baritone (Gurnemanz)
James Rutherford – Baritone (Amfortas)
Mihoko Fujimura – Mezzo-soprano (Kundry)
Wolfgang Bankl – Bass (Klingsor)
Paul Whelan – Bass (Titurel)
Alexander Sprague – Tenor (First Knight / 3rd Esquire)
Andrew Greenan – Bass-baritone (Second Knight)
Edward Harrisson – Tenor (4th Esquire)
Erica Eloff – Soprano (1st Flowermaiden, Group 1)
Katharina Persicke – Soprano (2nd Flowermaiden, Group 1)
Deborah Humble – Mezzo-soprano (3rd Flowermaiden, Group 1)
Alexandra Steiner – Soprano (1st Esquire / 1st Flowermaiden, Group 2)
Bele Kumberger – Soprano (2nd Flowermaiden, Group 2)
Ingeborg Gillebo – Mezzo Soprano (3rd Flowermaiden, Group 2 / 2nd Esquire / Voice from Above)
CBSO Chorus