Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween: spooky and ghostly operas

After the Lighthouse last Saturday, I started wondering on just how much supernatural there is in opera. So many plots hinge upon it, that narrowing down suitable listening or watching for Halloween  is rather difficult. Plenty of inspiration for fancy-dress costumes too.
Ghosts feature prominently in a number of pretty mainstream ones. Where would Don Giovanni or Macbeth be without there unwelcome dinner guests? The Dutchman too is probably best disguised as a ghost, but he may properly belong to some other category of the living-deprived community. There is a ghost too in The Turn of the Screw.  Damnation At the end of Don Giovanni, our protagonist is sent to hell – dragged down to hell by a ghost in fact; the same happens unsurprisingly in the Damnation de Faust.
Reanimation. With the magic of the stage, those who die don’t necessarily need to stay dead. The Orpheus is a staple of the operatic repertoire, and it would be exhausting to list them here. Birtwistle’s Cure is a good bet too on the coming-back-to-life side of things.
There is of course plenty of opportunity for gore using theatrics: that Met production of Parsifal is about as much blood as you might hope to see on stage; there is plenty of blood in Salome, and The Coronation of Poppea.
Potions frequently feature as a magical plot device. For sorrow Tristan wouldn’t work without potions, and neither would the Ring; in joy, neither would L’Elisir d’Amore, - it hardly seems quite right for Halloween.

How much music for £27,000?

The outcry that the BBC has spent £27,000 entertaining "celebrities" and "politicians" at the Proms is inevitable. The  Telegraph would be only to happy to follow this. Better than anything negative about HSBC. Presumably this is really a product of the setup with the Proms. How much would any major company spend thus if the full costing were calculated? Having to buy tickets and programmes enables this figure to be calculated. The outrage is surely that those tickets were kept from real concert-goers.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Great Scott

Jake Heggie's new opera Great Scott will open at Dallas Opera tomorrow night. I can't possibly get to it (I did contemplate logistics when it was first mooted), and am hoping a relay or DVD release. In any case, an interview with composer and star mezzo Joyce DiDonato on WFAA (the local TV channel) can be enjoyed here.
A bit more on the project on Heggie's site, and on the production on at

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A decent Barber (ENO/Barber)

Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville (Christopher Allen cond. English National Opera Orchestra)
Some Mediterranean sun was urgently needed after The Lighthouse, and what better than the Barber? Nobody romps in warm climes like Rossini.

An evening of the Barber in English is about as untaxing as it gets, and what's wrong with that? For the main part, this eons-old revival is deeply-charming much like the Boheme they chucked away. At the same time as ROH got rid of theirs too. There is now a gap in the market for the ultra-traditional Boheme in London. These crowd-pleasers are vital to filling seats. This is a problem the ENO has in a way the ROH just doesn't. Only a few hours before curtain up, I got a lovely seat on the third row of the dress circle, in the centre block, and there were many many more empty behind me. An early start on a Saturday night should sell out, shouldn't it? A fine use of the extra hour from the clock change which followed.
From the pit, an essentially very competent performance, but I wondered if at times there was an unwillingness to embrace the sheer joy of the piece. This is dramma giocoso after all. Not necessarily bombast, but the fun didn't quite flow from this as it can and should. I would have liked a more lyrical rending of the overture. It picked up steadily, even if at times it lacked a bit of oomph. A touch more pugnacity, please (Christopher Allen conducting).

On the stage, however, there was so much which really was funny; the audience were genuinely laughing regularly. The pleas for quiet in the opening scene, for example; or the comments about the stupidity of modern operas, got laughs courtesy of Donizetti. A herd of soldiers walking in to the Doctor's house; the Aria scene; Figaro hiding in the glazed cupboards which lined the room. The current cast can not only sing well, but act in a funny fashion too.

My concern was that opera in translation has two threats: inappropriate humour (not too much of an issue here) or can spoil famous arias (Largo Al Factotum for example). Actually the style of singing in the most famous arias here means it doesn't matter here. A translation by  Amanda and Anthony Holden (Amanda of Penguin Opera Guide fame), does a good job really. I think on balance that translation, whilst never my first choice, works quite well for comic opera. Translating will keep the most serious crowd away from the Coliseum - most would be delighted with top prices which are half those of round the corner. 
The current cast can not only sing well, but act in a funny fashion too. Rosina (Kathryn Rudge) offered the strongest vocals; Dr Bartolo (Andrew Shore) gave the strongest comic performance. He was just as funny as the Major-General in Pirates. Count Almaviva (Eleazar Rodriguez) and Fiorello (Matthew Durkan) were strong from the start. Don Basilio was funny and sounded well (Barnaby Rea). Berta (Katherine Broderick), Bartolo's housekeeper deserves credit and a bigger role; in Helmwige in ON's Walkure next year she will receive it.

Of what can be seen, there was essentially little to say. This was standard period costumes done for charm and wit. A whacking great white cloth hanging over the top of the set was lazy and odd. Why not light it up like the sky? Lighting (Tom Mannings) was rather weak: it didn't correlate to times of day, and was often curiously white and bright.

Overall: funny and well-sung; I'd happily see it agian this run.

Three performances remain until Weds 11 November.

Cast and creatives
Conductor   Christopher Allen
Director   Jonathan Miller
Revival Director Peter Relton
Designer   Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer   Tom Mannings
Translators  Amanda Holden and Anthony Holden
Figaro    Morgan Pearse
Rosina   Kathryn Rudge
Count Almaviva    Eleazar Rodriguez
Dr Bartolo    Andrew Shore
Don Basilio   Barnaby Rea
Berta    Katherine Broderick
Fiorello    Matthew Durkan

To the Lighthouse (ROH/Lighthouse)

Peter Maxwell-Davies, The Lighthouse (Royal Opera, Southbank Sinfonia cond. Jonathan Santagada)
It takes little imagination to understand why the Victorians were fascinated by the mystery of Eilean Mor Lighthouse Keepers. One of the Flanna isles in the outer Hebrides, a small outcrop. One December night in 1900, three light house keepers vanished from a remote lighthouse and nothing is ever seen again. What caused them to leave? Peter Maxwell-Davies’ 1979 opera was likely triggered by automation in 1979. A chamber ensemble from the Southbank Sinfonia provided the sound track.
Embedded image permalink
Image ROH

It is hard to believe the scope of the score in a mere 1h20. Instruments take solos, and low-key and explicit folk references make this Britten-esque (think Paul-Bunyan). The Southbank Sinfonia met the demands of the piece: tender skilful violins, surprising noises from what I think was possibly an electronic keyboard (to provide celesta and out-of-tune keyboard) by Colin Scott.
Through tenor, baritone and bass, Maxwell-Davies produces a remarkably richly-sung piece, and through
This was the highpoint of the “Meet the Young Artists Week” part of the Jette Parker programme. Alyson Cummin shad successfully produced a wooden-framed structure which effectively made claustrophobic the Linbury Studio – even if it missed the solidity of a lighthouse. Yet the shadows let Warren Letton’s atmospheric lighting and dry ice cast shadows The intimacy of the venue was perfect for the work too. 
So we have no idea what actually happened in Eilean Mor (a good summary here of what is actually known or see the Northern Lighthouse Board’s page). Contemporary society unsurprisingly is tempted by the psychological just as the Victorians looked to the supernatural. But PMD doesn’t really rule this out. One textual confusion (deliberate or accidental) is that when giving evidence, all three of the relief crew claim there was no fog horn; when playing the three keepers, they talk of starting up the fog horn and gratitude for the thick walls. This may be deliberate. Are they going mad? Is the horn the beast and all in their minds? THe gun-play ramped up the tensions - perhaps unsurprisingly. The three young voices were pretty powerful – especially Yuriy Yurchuk, even if not quite producing the sheer power they doubtless will further down their career. More than anythign there were real hints of good things to come.
Overall: This was a tense, atmospheric performance which met the varied needs of the piece. I look forward to more from all involved. 

Cast and credits
Samuel Sakker: Sandy, First officer
Yuriy Yurchuk: Blazes, Second officer
David Shipley: Arthur, Second officer
Southbank Sinfonietta
Conductor Jonathan Santagada
Director: Greg Eldridge
Designer: Alyson Cummins
Lighting designer:Warren Letton

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel

The first sensation of Morgen und Abend has been offered in a video with Graham Vick and David Lan talking about the opera which premieres soon. This doesn't look like an easy evening at the opera.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Smothering Otello (Otello/Met)

Verdi, Otello (Yannick Nézet-Séguin cond. Orchestra of the Met)
It might be churlish to sneer at Es Devlin’s production of Otello for the Met, relayed by satellite on Saturday. However there were three problems with it which impaired the emotional impact. Firstly, in its deconstructed classical architecture, it looked very much like her production of Don Giovanni which was revived at Covent Garden in the summer. Secondly, the seascapes, projected almost inevitability on to a gauze screen, were tacky and really did make one slightly sea-sick. Thirdly, the bright lights with which the transparent boxes were filled were generally distracting, at least in the first half. As the intensity of the drama picked up in Acts III and IV ,it became less distracting, probably because we were drawn in to things.

Otello is one of the very darkest operas, and its intensity – when done well-  is such that it can be deeply disturbing. The victorious general so quickly falls victim to his own jealousy and doubt with harrowing consequences. Yannick and co. offered a respectable account of the score, but it lacked the orchestral power necessary to uncover that real abyss (in contrast this is found in spades in the recording Chicago Symphony Orchestra released last year conducted by Riccardo Muti). The trio at the centre: Iago, Desdemona and Otello were fine indeed. Desdemona was more than a woman scorned, and Iago. However well Alesksandrs sang the part, somehow the acting didn’t quite come off. Aleksandrs certainly has the ability (having sung the part in the CSO recording), so I wonder if the production was at fault.
A huge problem was Es Devlin’s derivative, tacky and dull production. It served to neuter what might have been a horrifying evening. A really fine Otello leaps into the abyss before looking back at the audience. It is a deeply sobering experience. This didn't quite manage it.
 Overall: lacked killer instinct as a silly production smothered good singing and music.
Cast and creatives
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production: Bartlett Sher
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Projection designer: Luke Halls
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Montano: Jeff Mattsey
Cassio: Dimitri Pittas
Iago: Željko Lučić
Roderigo: Chad Shelton
Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko
Desdemona: Sonya Yoncheva
Emilia: Jennifer Johnson Cano
A herald: Tyler Duncan
Lodovico: Günther Groissböck

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Start of the pops (Philharmonia/Payare)

Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky (Rafael Payare cond. Philharmonia at the De Montfort Hall)

Rehearsal at the De Montfort Hall. Image: Philharmonia Orchestra

A programme of four short pieces opened the Philharomia’s residency at the De Montfort Hall for the 2015-16 season. It started with Tchaikovsky’s overture Romeo and Juliet, which was somewhat unevenly delivered. Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto gave Daniil Trifonov a chance to really shine. The intensity of the space around the keyboard, through which his hands were moving, was astonishing.
After the interval, things picked up considerably. More Rachmaninov first, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was much more even, driven by yet more intense playing from Trifonov. Finally, during Pictures at an Exhibition not only was the skill of the orchestra clear, but it was apparent too what enjoyment was being had by the players. And why not? Moreover, I am not sure I have heard the violins sound as good before; they were certainly on fine form with Maya Iwabuchi as a guest principal.
In short, Rafael Payare seemed to have quite a shallow rapport with the orchestra, and this resulted in an uneven performance. For Paganini, and Exhibition, it seemed more like the orchestra was on auto-pilot, and things were very decent.
Conservative has to be the watchword in programming here. It is quite easy to be sharply critical of this. Could they not, one wonders, throw in something unusual occasionally? Possibly not. They need bums on seats. One lady looking at forthcoming programmes wasn’t coming to one on the grounds that whilst she loved three of the pieces, she didn’t know another. And 22 minutes of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini was too much. In this light, the rest of the season makes a lot more sense. And there is much good stuff in store.
Overall: worth the admission for the Trifonov's intensity and the sheer joy of the orchestra.
Tchaikovsky, Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 4
Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition (arr. Ravel)