Friday, 29 April 2016

Between Traviata and Pinafore (Pleasure/Opera North)

Mark Simpson, Pleasure (Nicholas Kok cond. Psappha, Opera North)
What would anyone expect from an opera set in the loos of a gay nightclub? In many ways, Pleasure is a very conservative opera: love/death very far from; mistaken parenthood and a long-lost son. So somewhere between Traviata and HMS PinaforeThis won't stop the Telegraph getting worked up over it, of course.
Musically I was reminded of Nyman (think of the Pleasure-themed song-cycle ), bits of Death in Venice, and some of the sparseness of Glass. At times a deep rasping sound (not a million miles from the overture of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain. This was a warm score with many beautiful moments which fitted the words and did not demand too much of its audience. A range of instrumentation got a range of sounds and textures, and on all this Simpson is to be congratulated. Nicholas Kok conducted the Psappha ensemble.
The libretto by Melanie Challenger was very successful, despite having to fit so much in. So many had come for Lesley, who played a sort of Nanny Hawkins- although the opera was substantially less camp than Brideshead Revisited – who received many gifts in gratitude. Attention to detail – the small bottle of milk taken out the tote bag at the start, for example, made this a convincing character. This may not be Garrett’s most glamourous role, but she sparkled. A warm, powerful soprano voice which was perfectly judged to fill the modest space of the Howard Assembly Room without overwhelming the space.  
Lesley Garrett as Val; Photo Credit: Robert Workman / Opera North
Nathan, the estranged son was sung by Timothy Nelson with a rich satisfying voice. Love-struck Matthew was sung by Nick Pritchard. Both acted as much as they sang. Steven Page, I can honestly say, made for the most impressive alcoholic drag-queen I’ve seen in an opera. Anna Fewmore (geddit?) behoved all to have another drink, disrobed, dressed in balloons, burst the same balloons, and goaded Matthew and Val with insouciance. This was a pretty demanding voices.
Steven Page as Anna Fewmore; Photo Credit: Robert Workman/ Opera North
This was for me, coincidentally, the second opening of a Tim Albery opera production in the week set in a place dedicated to pleasure. The set was constructed of giant letters spelling PLEASURE designed by Leslie Travers. These were illuminated in different colour with matching spotlights by Malcolm Rippeth in an effective fashion without being tedious.  In to these were worked a bin, a sink, and the promised loos. They must have loos at Venusberg too, and this effectively created a liminal space. 
Timothy Nelson as Nathan and Nick Pritchard as Matthew; Photo Credit: Robert Workman / Opera North
The hedonism and the staging made this opera for a generation which grew up listening to The Libertines. Regrettably this wasn’t the audience that was there. On one hand, it was great to see that Opera North’s standard audience trust them sufficiently to try the new and unusual, and responded very warmly; on the other hand, it seems like something of a missed opportunity. I can only hope that future performances will draw in a more diverse constituency. It is also worth noting that Opera North have opened this new piece plus the Rheingold and Walküre within eight days.
Overall, this made for a surprisingly conventional night at the opera. Fine singing and decent music-making mean it will appeal to many.
In rep at Howard Assembly Rooms until Saturday 30th April; then at Aldeburgh, Liverpool nd Lyric Hammersmith. See here.

Behind the Proscenium Arch (ROH/Tannhäuser)

Wagner, Tannhäuser (Hartmut Haenchen cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)
A revival of Tim Albery’s production of Tannhäuser was occasion for some seriously good Wagnerian singing and music-making at Covent Garden on Tuesday night (26th April). This wasn’t the loveliest production of an opera you might ever see, but the premise worked and wasn’t too gimmicky. Venusberg was a replica of the ROH’s proscenium arch – such a perfect simulacrum that one challenged the verité of what the eyes reported. It began with an impressive dance sequence (choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon) representing the temptations of Venusberg’s delights. It progressively is broken down, and then presented as a pile of ashes. David Finn lights the set to gloomy without necessitating too much squinting.
Musically, Hartmut Haenchen produced a careful account of the text which gave maximum space to drama and singing.

Formidable competition: Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram in Tannhäuser, The Royal Opera

Much of the second act is concerned with singing, and so too is this production; most will come for some of the singers before anything else. If I ever, heaven forfend, found myself in a singing competition, the person whom I would least like to see as competition would be Christian Gerhaher; if there is anyone better, I’d like to know. The temptation is to throw superlatives around – sweeter, as Handel put it, than the honeydew. Rarely have I head singers command such attention from the audience; I wondered if people might not fall over the balcony-edge. This wasn’t loud singing but it carried. Given he was wearing eveningwear, it almost seemed as it was a recital. Gerhaher’s skilful careful shaping of each and every sound paid extraordinary dividends. It was undoubtedly worth the admission for the first half hour of the final act, when Elisabeth (Emma Bell), Gerhaher and the forces of the ROH orchestra at the hands of Haenchen produced a singularly sublime, perfect half-hour of lyrical Wagner. Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) himself wasn’t a very strong actor, but he could sing so well, nobody really minded. It is always a pleasure to hear Ed Lyon, who made a decent Walther von der Vogelweide.
Female voices were strong too. Sophie Koch made for a convincing temptress as Venus. Elisabeth was done very well by Emma Bell with a beautiful tone, good volume, and security in the high notes.
Production wise, this wasn’t perfect, but for music, it is hard to beat.

In rep. until 15th May; on radio 3 21st May at 6pm.

Director - Tim Albery
Set designer - Michael Levine
Costume designer - Jon Morrell
Lighting designer - David Finn
Choreography, Venusberg scene - Jasmin Vardimon
Movement director - Maxine Braham
Conductor - Hartmut Haenchen
Tannhäuser - Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth - Emma Bell
Venus - Sophie Koch
Wolfram von Eschinbach - Christian Gerhaher
Herrmann - Stephen Milling
Biterolf - Michael Kraus
Walther von der Vogelweide - Ed Lyon
Heinrich der Schreiber - Samuel Sakker
Reinmar von Zweter - Jeremy White
Royal Opera Chorus
Concert master Chorus - Ania Safonova
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Thursday, 28 April 2016

City of noise

What did C18th Paris sound like? One researcher has reconstructed the sounds using authentic equipment.

Read more here.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Now that’s what I call a mad scene (ROH/Lucia)

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (Daniel Oren cond. Orchestra Royal Opera House)
To Diana Damrau in this bel canto feast, all were supporting cast. Alisa (Rachael Lloyd) was a faithful servant. The love interests were Edgardo (Charles Castronovo) and Arturo (Taylor Stayton). Lucia’s beatly brother was Enrico (Ludovic Tézier). Raimondo (Kwangchul Youn) and Normanno (Peter Hoare) were finely-sung too. 

Visually, this production was a feast. Katie Mitchell had split stages with gorgeous sets designed to emphasize the gothic; the bathroom was a particular hit in our party.
Why on earth was there such a fuss? Anyone who walked away from declaring of anything under than the sublime abilities of Diana Damrau, supremely secure at the very top range, might themselves require medical attention. The boors were out earlier in the run to boo, and the press were only too happy to oblige and make a jolly great fuss about it.
Shock horror: opera about sex and violence contains sex and violence. The most powerful representation was Lucia’s miscarriage. Undoubtedly, this was very hard to watch; male servants bidden hither and away with looks of horror added to the realism of this. But it should be hard to watch, and was hardly sensational.
After the interval, it is a mad scene to end all mad scenes. In this imagining miscarriage and murder were required of Lucia (Diana Damrau). Damrau was more than up to the task of being driven mad by a glassharmonica and horrendous circumstances.  Orchestrally things were very secure at the hands of Daniel Oren. Vocally Lucia had to sing both words and screams in a  performance which was as effective as it was impressive.

Cast and Credits
Music - Gaetano Donizetti
Director - Katie Mitchell
Designer - Vicki Mortimer
Lighting designer - Jon Clark
Associate director - Joseph Alford
Fight directors - Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown
Conductor - Daniel Oren
Lucia - Diana Damrau
Edgardo - Charles Castronovo
Enrico - Ludovic Tézier
Arturo - Taylor Stayton
Raimondo - Kwangchul Youn
Normanno - Peter Hoare
Alisa - Rachael Lloyd
Royal Opera Chorus
Concert master - Ania Safonova
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Monday, 25 April 2016

Five minute call

Fancy having to sing Otello at the Met, live on radio around the world too, with only five minutes' notice and not even time to change. This happened to Francesco Anile (see New York Post article here), or even listen here on iplayer.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Rising Stars (Appl/Matthewman)

Schumann, Muhly and Schubert, Songs (Ben Appl accompanied by Gary Matthewman)
Benjamin Appl is an impressive young German baritone, brought on tour by two EU programmes: the ECHO (European Concert Hall Organization) and the Rising Stars programme which sets talented, promising stars on tour around Europe. 
Ben Appl. Credit Falk Kastell
For 6pm on a Monday night (18th April), the turnout was pretty good at Birmingham Town Hall. The first half was comprised of various Schumann songs; after the interval a short cycle by Muhly written especially for Appl as part of the programme and some Schubert. This wasn’t the work’s premiere, but on the other hand few will have heard it before. A series of letters from WWI designed to show the full gamut of the wartime experience: a wife begging her husband be sent home for conjugal leave; another wife leaving her husband, consigning the children at the orphanage to marry a new man to be kept in a life of luxury. It was a sophisticated representation of the complexities of the conflict, to which Appl did much justice.
Schubert songs showed off Appl’s voice to much effect; with growing confidence and a golden voice, the highlight was an utterly superb ‘Nachtstück’. Throughout all he was ably supported by Gary Matthewman on the piano, especially in the second half.
The range and diversity of the programme gave both an opportunity to show off their skill
Robert Schumann: ‘Mein Wagner rollet langsam’ (Heine) Op 124 no 4
‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (Heine) Op 25 no 24
‘Belsazar’ (Heine) Op 56
Dichterliebe (Heine) Op 48
Franz Schubert: Strohe aus 'Die Goetter Griechenanlands' D677
Nico Muhly: The Last Letter
Franz Schubert: ‘Seligkeit’ (Hölty) D433
‘Die Gebüsche’ (Schlegel) D646
‘Der Musensohn’ (Goethe) D764
‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (Seidl) D870
‘Abendstern’ (Mayrhofer) D806
‘Der Wanderer’ (Schmidt Von Lübeck) D489
‘Nachtstück’ (Mayrhofer) D672

Friday, 22 April 2016

The love problems of the Elizabethan 1% (Roberto Devereux/Met)

 Donizetti, Roberto Devereux (Maurizio Benini cond. Orchestra of the Met Opera).
The penultimate Met relay of the season was surely one of its finest. A superb Roberto Devereux, full of as much passion as there was bel canto. Four very strong singers sat at the heart of this production. Firstly, the Queen, Elisabetta, whom Sondra Radvanovsky made so human and so real in a sensitive portrait. This is an incredibly demanding role, but on the cinema relay the only niggle was that she might have been a little more secure in the top notes. This was an awe-inspiring performance, of the Virgin Queen (?) in robes of state and moments of heartbreak. This is essentially a quartet, and the Queen's love rival was Elīna Garanča as Sara was confident at every turn.
A scene from Roberto Devereux
Yet for all the well-earned bravas for the female voices, it was the two male voices which I found most impressive, especially Matthew Polenzani as the title lead, who was simply stunning. Nottingham was sung by Mariusz Kwiecien who is increasingly getting international attention.
David McVicar's production is simply gorgeous. So much so, it borders on a kind of glitzy pornography. Fabrics sumptuous and rich beyond belief. And in high definition, the astonishing attention to detail is shown off. All without even a hint of the real Elizabethan world. The set design was based on the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. All dark and gold. Only Paule Constable could really be relied upon to bot make this gloomy; so I wasn't in the least surprised to see it was at her hand the stage was lit.

Overall: serious bling and bel canto

Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Elisabetta: Sondra Radvanovsky
Sara: Elīna Garanča
Roberto Devereux: Matthew Polenzani
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Seriously satisfying Saul (O’Donnell/St James Baroque & BBC Singers)

Handel, Saul (James O’Donnell cond. St James Baroque and BBC Singers)
At the Milton Concert Hall on Friday night (15th April), a desert-island cast was assembled with the BBC singers and St James Baroque to do serious justice to Handel’s greatest oratorio: Saul. My dream cast would start with Iestyn Davies, to whom we will come last. Add to this Elizabeth Atherton (previously: Cure/Corridor) providing the most exquisitely painful, heartfelt Merab. David Soar had a truly formidable presence on stage: with almost rumbling in the lowest notes, goose bumps were guaranteed. Fflur Wyn as Michal was very fine (previously: Woodbird ON Ring, Ludus Baroque). Robert Murray as Jonathan brought depth and humanity to the role – this was a real revelation. The thing about Iestyn Davies, is that each time I am about to hear him sing I worry. I worry that he can’t possibly be as good as I remembered. Nobody can approach those high notes with such ease, surely; nobody can produce long honeyed lines. Yet his return as David (previously for Glyndebourne), was stunning.  
The King's Theatre in the Haymarket where Saul was originally performed. Handel played his new organ built at a cost of £500 of his own money. Image Wikipedia
The BBC Singers – very smartly suited by (presumably) the BBC costumes department – were produced sounds which were just as sharp and elegant. By the second act their voices glowed and they produced some extremely special sounds.
The period forces of St James’ Baroque were seriously satisfying, but I felt that the tempi were just a smidge on the fast side. This was telling in some of the deeply thrilling moments. For example the singularly breath-taking aria (David), ‘O lord whose mercies numberless’, and the death march, were just slightly too fast. Here James O’Donnell just moved things along a little too quickly. Solos from Frances Kelley (Harp) and Stephen Farr (Organ) were memorable.
Overall: if Handel’s music makes you glad to be alive, a cast like this makes it hard to believe that you really are.
On radio 3 Bank Holiday Monday 30th May.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

A virtuoso performance (Kozhukin/Ashkenazy/Philharmonia)

Rachmaninov, Isle of Dead and Symphonic Dances; Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No 2 (Vladimir Ashkenazy cond. Philharmonia) 

What difference does the guy (sometimes not a chap) at the front waving the stick make? The short answer is: lots. The longer answer would be made beautifully by listening to Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia. The concert opened with the Isle of the Dead, a Rachmaninov tone poem filled with equal amounts of dark and light. Too easy, I think, to focus on the dread and foreboding. This was judicious and balanced, and without a weak moment.

Isle of the Dead: Fourth Version, 1884 (black-and-white photograph) [Wikipedia]

The first half concluded with Prokofiev PC2, written on hearing of his friend's suicide. Denis Kozhukhin came to the rescue (not for the first time this season). So concentrated and powerful was his interpretation that it almost beggared belief; a musical frenzy entirely befitting the compositional history. The range and dynamism required was exhausting just to watch. Such was the intensity of Kozhukin's playing that all seemed to come from the piano. Nothing less than a virtuoso performance.

After the interval, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances made for a thrilling conclusion  to the evening. All parts of the orchestra shone at different times: the brass were even marshalled into perfect position.

So what difference does the guy at the front make? An enormous one is the answer. If only they could bottle it. Maazel was the other conductor who got something extra out of this orchestra. I am sad to see Ashkenazy isn't coming in the next season, as the conductors are all hot-shots. So not too bad, perhaps.

Vladimir Ashkenazy conductor
Denis Kozhukhin piano
Rachmaninov The Isle of the Dead
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances