Archive | June, 2012


26 Jun

I walked past the Rolyal Opera House yesterday.  There was a massive poster outside of Jonas Kaufmann with one of those strange adjectives above.  I forget what it was but, underneath it were words to the effect of “Jonas Kaufmann sings Aeneas in “The Trojans” this summer”.

Did nobody think that, as soon as he cancelled, this should have been taken down?  Doesn’t it just rub the disappointment in for those of us who’d booked?  It must be really irritating to Mr Hymel and I can’t believe that Mr Kaufmann would like it to remain up there.

Right hands and left hands spring to mind.


Die Walküre at Opera North

24 Jun

My mother is a Ring novice.  She had been with me to the Opera North Rheingold last year and loved it.  This year, before going to Wallküre, we watched the DVD of the Chéreau Rheingold to remind her of the plot.  I hadn’t seen this before, though obviously I knew it by reputation.

I enjoyed it but was interested how, in lots of ways, it seemed almost old hat.  In 1976 it was fairly revolutionary for gods to be explicitly human and for a link to political theory and 19th century history to be made.  Now we’re used to it.  We also expect the level of detailed acting and the sense of liberation that you get when the character shrug off the traditional sort of costumes that you don’t believe anybody ever wore.  The singing and acting is really fine.  Indeed, I suppose the one thing that still strikes me as controversial are Boulez’s tempi – fast and I can understand why people feel they undercut the magnifiicence of the music – but shouldn’t we be questioning that, given what’s going on in front of us?

I wanted to write a bit about that because of the contrast that it provided with the Walküre, that we saw at the Sage in Gateshead the following evening (23rd June).  For those who don’t know, the Opera North Ring is a “concert staging”.  The action takes place in front of the orchestra with the singers in evening dress.  Behind the orchestra there are various projections intended to give some sort of background, together with a bit of narrative and the translation of the text.

Crucially, the singers have learned their roles and have been strongly directed. And decisions have been taken about what they do.  They sing straight out to the audience.  It is very rare for them to address each other directly, but they do obviously listen and react.  And because there are no props and this is a concert, there is no need to have elaborately staged fights.  At the end of Act II, Wotan gestured to the audience and Hunding simply crossed his arms as if in death and stood stock still before walking slowly away.  The fact that it was not a full staging allowed a simple, very satisfactory approach to a scene that so often looks a mess on the stage – there is a lot of music to cover not very much action.

There were some things missing.that you would get from a full staging. You don’t have the opportunity for the incredible opening image of the hydro-electric dam of the Chéreau Rheingold or, thinking of the Warner Royal Opera House production, of Wotan at the begnning of Act III of Siegfried desperately struggling against the storm.  The projections, of forests, water, rock and fire, provide fairly neutral backgrounds and don’t provide particularly thought provoking images.  The emotions are internalised and so you miss the opportunities that a staging might provide for Siegmund and Sieglinde to demonstrate their attraction to each other.

It enables you to concentrate on the text: the translations are readily and easily readable and, because there is less happening between the performers you can engage with those more easily. This can be a mixed blessing.  I’ve never been able to follow the Wotan/Fricka dialogue so closely and ditto Wotan’s narration to Brünnhilde, but, equally, I didn’t find that this helped me resolve those nagging questions like: “what are these treaties that bind Wotan?” “Why will letting Siegmund live mean the end of the gods”, as Fricka argues, and “How exactly is this superhero going to save the gods from Alberich?”.  In fact, I found these questions were accentuated and the dissatisfaction that I always feel with this aspect of the Ringincreased.  And where in the past I have felt that this may just be a result of my own intellectual inadequacy, I’m now pretty sure that it’s Wagner’s fault.  I’m also not sure that it really matters.

Anyway, my mother came out feeling that what she had seen was as good as any staging could have been and loving the way it enabled her to concentrate on the music.  I saw what she meant and there was no question that, as a performance, this was infinitely preferable to the Mariinsky version at the ROH a few years ago and also confirmed my view that there is nothing wrong with the ROH’s own production which halving the design budget couldn’t have solved.

The performances demonstrated what a fine orcehstra Opera North has, how intelligent a conductor Richard Farnes is and that you didn’t have to make allowances.  Alwyn Mellor was a beautiful Sieglinde and made me wonder why she isn’t used much more often in glossier houses.  Annalena Persson has the looks and intellgence for Brünnhilde and a large steely voice that works well in the earlier parts.  Erik Nelson Werner sounded marvellous as Siegmund in the first act – a really beefy, free heldentenor – but sounded tired in the second.  Béla Perencz seemed a tad under-powered for Wotan in the second act but was clearly saving his power for the third act where he produced a stream of untiring sound where many Wotans tire.  If anything, he could have been a bit more subtle there.  His voice doesn’t have the nobiliy of, say, Bailey or Terfel, but if I were an opera house manager, I’d be signing him up for Pizarro and Telramund straight away.  Katerina Karnéus was determined, beautifully sung Fricka and Clive Bayley an ideally black Hunding.  The Valkyries were strong.

Above all, there was a sense of sitting in an audience that was hungry for Wagner, that was engaging with the singers and the story and who did not for a moment feel they were being short-changed by this concert staging.  I don’t think that they were and it confirmed my admiration for the way in which Opera North turns its limitations into strengths and can produce an intensely satisfying experience.

Our Town

17 Jun

I like going to the Guildhall. They have a habit of doing operas that I haven’t seen before and the performance standards are often pretty high and you can, now and then identify some talent.  I was there when Bryn Terfel sang Macrobio in Pietra del Paragone in the 1980s and, my recently, it’s been nice to see Nicky Spence – quite a star of a few performances there – getting his career going quite nicely.

The latest production was Our Town by Ned Rorem – a UK premiere. I saw the performance on 6th June. It’s rather a lovely piece. I don’t know the Wilder play but this struck me as a very charming, effective working of it. It presents a portrait of a group of people in a small US town – the doctor, the editor and their families. The opera, I think, differs from the play in that it majors on the central relationship between the doctor’s son, George, and the editor’s daughter, Emily. Their courtship and love is very nicely done and gives a centre to the opera.  The opera moves from a moderately light, comic opening to a very much darker, more surreal ending as the dead Emily tries to go back in time and then finds that this is too much for her.

The musical idiom is gentle US 20th century with echoes of Copland. In George’s music, I was reminded quite a lot of Albert Herring and Rorem has Britten’s skill at setting words.  The orchestra is small and kind to the voices – and there’s lots of fun for them. It was originally performed by students and it makes a good piece for them. I think it would be lost ina a large house, but it would be a perfect piece for the Linbury or Glyndebourne’s Jerwood studio.

It was given a really fine ensemble performance. It was very clearly directed by Stephen Medcalf and he got a set of really good characterisations from the cast.  Wilder didn’t want elaborate sets and props – the characters mimed, very successfully.  You didn’t need sets (nor, particularly, the quotes from the play projected onto the walls – the singers acted and concentrated well.  Their diction was clear and the audience was following: I love being part of an audience that’s listening and watching, rather than reading.

There wren’t many stars, but it isn’t that sort of opera.  However, I thought Stuart Laing showed masses of charm and authority as the Stage Manager, who acts as our guide to the town. Barnaby Rea showed a strong, very pleasing bass as Dr Gibbs, Luis Gomes had oodles of charm and a nice, young tenor voic e as George. It was a shame that Sky Ingram was ill.  She acted Emily, while Lucy Hall sang the role really well from the pit.

Clive Tims conducted with his usual authority:  just looking at the biographies reminded me that he and Medcalf have been responsible for some of my most memorable experiences at this address.

This was one of those performances where there was no need to make any allowances for the fact that we were watching students.  I was pleased to have seen it, and the opera.  It’s a shame that, because of it’s large-ish cast combined with a chamber approach, it’s not likely to be done that often. But it would be nice if one of the festivals or other companies gave it a go as fringe event.  It would be worth going to. It’s a really enjoyable, strong piece.

CD Shopping

4 Jun

One of the sadnesses of 21st century life is the paucity of specialist classical music CD shops.  In Central London, only Harold Moores seriously caters for the classical music lover.  I find it hard to believe that we are all really so addicted to internet shopping or downloading that a major capital city cannot support more than one shop to supply a population that must include at surely tens of thousands of classical music lovers.  One of my great pleasures used to be to wander into MDC or one of the specialist shops with no particular intention of buying  anything, but open to temptation, and leaving, with my wallet rather lighter and my shopping bag quite a lot heavier, simply because I’d seen all those CDs that I didn’t know I wanted at prices that, on balance, were too good to miss.

Internet shopping, for me at least, isn’t the same and, if my wallet is heavier and my shelves filling at a slower rate, life has lost a bit of its joy.  On the internet, somehow, the eye isn’t caught by that reissue of a CD you’d never have bought at full price, or that collection that contains two or three things you realise your own collection desperately needs, or the import or live performance that you didn’t know existed.  Maybe I just haven’t got the knack or found the sites that will do that for me.

I was reminded of this on a visit to Newcastle.  I get there pretty regularly because (a) I have family there and (b) Opera North visits.  There are two places there that I always look at.  First, there is JG Windows, not what it was, but still a decent source of the odd off-beat or unexpected recording or the special price – where you need at least half an hour to browse and weigh up the options.  The second is HMV which, unlike many of its other branches, still has a classical section in an area a bit removed from the general sound system and where, again, you can find the occasional keenly priced item.  My normal routine is to have good browse in HMV, then wander to Windows to compare and, if necessary, return.

This time my eye at HMV was caught by Decca’s reissue of La cenerentola with Bartoli and Chailly.  I’ve coveted it for a while but, with three others (Gui, Abbado and Ferro, since you ask), could never quite bring myself to pay full price for it.  At HMV, it was a tenner.  Windows charged slightly more, but then they had the Hampson recording of Thomas’s Hamlet, substantially cheaper….  What interested me, however – and this is the real, musing purpose of this blog – was that the alternatives, or lack of them, to the Bartoli Cenerentola.

In both shops the only alternative was the Glyndebourne version conducted by Gui from 1953.  And it was about £2 more expensive.

I looked online.  As you would expect, I could have got all of the recordings a bit cheaper (shaving off about £1.50, so barely a massive consideration) by going to itunes or Amazon or one of the specialist online dealers.  What interested me was that, unless you want the original Decca Bartoli recording (presumably because it has a libretto), it’s quite difficult to find a respectable Cenerentola for more than about £15.  And, apart from Amazon which had it quite sensibly priced at £7.50, the Gui was more expensive than all the more modern versions.

Now one of the things that has improved in my lifetime is the standard of Rossini performance.  With conductors like Ferro, Rizzi and Scimone, mezzos like Larmore, Valentini-Terrani and di Donato, tenors like Matteuzzi, Gimenez and Florez and buffo baritones like Corbelli, Dara, Alaimo and Pratico, it’s very hard to go wrong with any recording made after 1980. So what on earth is going on here?  There are lots of things I like about the Gui recording – not least Gui’s own conducting, Bruscantini’s stylish Dandini and a nice sense of ensemble.  It’s of historic interest as probably the earliest Rossini recording with a true sense of ensemble and style.  But the Angelina is ordinary, it’s not complete and Ian Wallace’s Magnifico sounds quite leaden compared with his successors.  Even in 1976, Harold Rosenthal didn’t think it was completely recommendable.  At the moment, even Glyndebourne aren’t stocking it in a season when they’re doing the opera.  That must tell you something.

It took me a while, but then I realised that the only reason that I could think of for the premium was the fact that EMI have included an extra CD with text, translation and synopsis.  They have done the same with the really pretty dreadful Giulini Italiana in Algieri, which no-one in their right minds will buy other than for masochistic reasons or to prove beyond doubt that we do Rossini better nowadays.  Most of the others don’t include a libretto or make you go online for one.

So there are two questions.  First, would anyone pay more for an older, inferior recording simply because it has a CD with libretto and synopsis?  Personally, I wouldn’t but then I have a libretto and know the piece pretty well and rarely follow CDs with libretto in hand.  But maybe I’m not the demographic EMI have in mind.

Secondly, is it any wonder that nobody goes to CD shops if you have a choice of only two recordings of quite a major opera?  It seems to me that there is a vicious circle going on there: shops aren’t making enough money from classical CDs to justify the space, so they stock fewer, which means that fewer people buy from them because there is less choice.  And so the random CD buyer like me, buys less.

Anyway, unless you’re allergic to Bartoli (and this is her in the 1990s  before she became more mannered), I do strongly recommend this Cenerentola – it’s fabulously good.

The Cunning Little Vixen

3 Jun

Glyndebourne again and this time for the new Cunning Little Vixen. Reflecting on this performance, I wondered whether a major problem with the opera could not be avoided by forgetting about the animal bit and concentrate on the fact that the animals are really human but freer or at least of a different class. So you could show the Vixen and her friends as street kids in some sort of urban community. Here the Forester could be a policeman and the Poacher the local drug dealer. You’d need a new translation or imaginative surtltles and, of course, you would miss the essentially woodland, natural setting of Janacek’s opera, but it might assist with what struck me as a major problem with Melly Still’s Glyndebourne production.

This was the huge problem of representing animals on the stage. Other recent directors – Pountney, Brydon and Arden –  have solved the problems to a greater or lesser extent and it was generally possible to work out what the animals were.  Here it was pretty difficult. There were obvious brushes for the Vixen and Fox but it took a while to sort out the frog, mosquito and the hens and I gave up when it came to the minor ones that haunted the forest.

The set was dominated by a vast tree in the centre of the stage and a path wending its way to the horizon with clouds and leaves in poster colours – this was a simple, child’s view of the forest and the world, neither naturalistic nor very challenging or interesting. Glyndebourne has made some fuss about people climbing down the path from the horizon but since you could see the harnesses, this didn’t strike me as particularly special.  Within that, Still direction created a human community – you saw Terynka and the Poacher getting married and there was nice drunkenness around the wedding – and directed the emotions successfully (the Fox and Vixen scenes were beautifully done).  The earlier scenes, particularly those with the hens and the Vixen’s return to the forest struck me as much less successful – they’re also the ones in the opera that need most help.  Similarly, the failure to really do anything successful with the animals meant that the last scene – one of the most moving and important of all Janacek’s operas – was messed up and didn’t have that sense of a world carrying on for ever that you need.

I think there were two other things which made this rather a more muted evening than I had hoped.  First, it was sung in Czech and, although the surtitles were suitably raunchy and explicit, this did mute an opera where a lot of the charm is in the immediate comprehension of the words.  Secondly, I think the decision to split the piece in the middle of the second act (pretty much exactly at the half way point, where the Forester tries to shoot the Vixen) was a mistake.  It’s a low key ending and one where the plot, such as it is, has barely got going.  Janacek knew what he was doing about breaking up the acts.  In fact, the opera is so short that you might as well do it all in one go and have, as Glyndebourne did when they revived the old Miller production, another piece with it – there must be quite a lot and it would avoid the problem of having the dinner interval after the piece has barely started or when it is almost finished.  Whether that would be possible with this set is another question.

Anyway, the music was pretty wonderful with Jurowski and the LPO doing wonderful things in the pit and a pretty good cast.  Sergei Leiferkus was sounding drier than usual but he made an authoritative Forester, Lucy Crowe was a really fine Vixen with just the right spirt and she sang it really well.  Emma Bell is a marvellous singer and is luxury casting as the Fox – her scenes with Crowe went really well.  William Dazeley was great as the Poacher and Adrian Thompson very good indeed as the Schoolmaster.  The other parts and children were well done.

You should come out of Vixen smiling, happy, feeling that you have seen one of the most glorious, happy, pantheistic pieces.  Musically, that was almost achieved; visually it wasn’t.

2 Jun

What interested me most about Sum (Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House – I saw it on 28th May) was that the composer, Max Richter, described it as a chamber opera and itt struck me how far we had come from the Boulez inspired days when composers would go miles to avoid using the O word even for pieces which obviously were – “music theatre” was a favourite. And yet here was a piece that was about as far away as you could get from a conventional opera, short of removing the orchestra and the words and replacing the singers with dancers.

There is no conventional plot.  It is a setting of various extracts from: Sum; forty tales from the afterlife by David Eagleman, a neuro-scientist.  These are a group of reflections/stories about the afterlife. There are no conventional characters. The three singers clearly have personalities, as you would expect, but I couldn’t discern any particular journey or thread that led them to be given one passage than another to narrate. Structurally, the piece reminded me of a Bach cantata or something like Carmina Burana or even Schwanengesang – a group of texts set to make a convincing musical meditation rather than a dramatic piece. The singers are miked.

The orchestra is sunk in the middle of the Linbury auditorium and we are sat around it. The singers come from among us and occasionally try to interact with individuals in the audience – often failing, largely through the embarrassment of the audience member they choose. They are directed by Wayne MacGregor and you can see the choreographer in the precise, graceful movements. You also get, urgent, intelligent responses to the text. Each of the 16 numbers is accompanied by projections, abstract or concrete – often distracting from the words.

Richter’s music is very beautiful, tending towards the minimalist. On a first hearing, it struck me that there were some interesting structures and very gorgeous textures, coming from the orchestra. It is a reflective piece, with the word admirably set – clear, comprehensible and with no points where you thought he had gone for a particular line over sense.  He struck me as a very talented composer for the voice.

The performance seemed to me to be about as good as it could be. And Massey had the performance well under control and the singers – Rupert Enticknap, Caroline MacPhie and Damian Thantrey were uniformly excellent.

The real problem for me was that I found it very difficult to relate to the texts, to see why they had any connection or anything particular to say. I can see that the texts were intended as a commentary on life, providing whimsical, slightly surrealistic, sometimes mildly thought-provoking ideas on other ways in which life might be and what might happen afterwards.  I found the reflection on how long you remain alive in the memory of others struck a chord.  I am, however, the sort of person who finds this sort of reflection pretty sterile and unhelpful and I found it difficult to see the point.

It doesn’t matter, particularly, how you categorise this piece. Operas don’t have to be full of love, blood, vendettas and car chases.  I think Richter is a major talent and it was good to encounter his music.  It’s good to see artists engaging with the form and seeing how far they can take.   Even if this wasn’t, for me, a massively impressive or unforgettable experience, I’m glad I was there and who knows what it may lead to.