Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Elgar The Kingdom - for the Forward Thinking

After hearing Andrew Davis conduct Elgar The Apostles (op 49, 1902-3) at the Barbican (read my review here), I decided to revist its companion piece, The Kingdom op 51 (1901-6). The Kingdom is ideal material for the BBC Proms because it's spectacular and needs a space as grandiose as the Royal Albert Hall. Oddly enough it was last heard at the Proms in 1999, though it's been done 8 times since 1930. Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO  then - it would be interesting to hear him conduct it fifteen years later   Mark Elder conducted the most recent recording (2011) of the Kingdom and also of the Apostles (2012), both with the Hallé, already well revered in Elgar's time. All the more reason to be intrigued as to when it will be done again and by whom  HUGE GRIN !!!!!!!

Elgar's The Apostles will crown this year's Three Choirs Festival at Worcester, Elgar's home town.  The massive computer glitch that hit the box office has been fixed, so it's worth seeing what's left. Please read my summary of the 2014 Three Choirs Festival HERE. I'm a regular devotee.

Monday, 21 April 2014

End the Missionary Position in Classical Music

Time to end the Missionary position in classical music, where middle class western pundits pontificate on what's best for lesser beings. The motives may be noble but the underlying assumption isn't. When "civilised" folk bemoan the fact that non-white, non middle-class audiences don't flock to concerts and opera, they're implicitly replicating the values of imperial aggression. Just as Victorian missionaries took it upon themselves to force the "natives" to hide their nudity and ancient beliefs, modern cultural do-gooders take it upon themselves to wail that other people don't do as they do, and get paid hefty amounts of public money in the process.

Why shouldn't the "natives"  (of any colour or class) enjoy pop, rock, grime, hip hop or whatever? The western classical tradition is barely 300 years old. Chinese opera, for example,  pre-dates Monteverdi, and rose from a sophisticated literary tradition that goes back much further. Indeed, classical tradition isn't any more superior in the west than other western traditions like popular music, hymns and theatre.  Classical music proselytizers are far too full of themselves.

Yes, it would be good if classical music audiences reflected the demographics of the world outside the concert hall. But that's not going to happen because someone gets public funding to talk about it.  Fact is, people come to classical music when they are ready, and people are ready in different stages. This kind of hand wringing serves to entrench the idea that classical music is elitist It's short-sighted luvvie policy to con younger audiences into halls while effectively excluding loyal and well-informed audiences (who often see through the sham of trendy thinking). There will always be a mix of young (student) audiences and older folk - those in the middle have mortgages and young families to worry about. Respect that. Above all, it's a stupid idea to dumb down. Sure that raises sales statistics, but long term it does no good for the kind of quality and high standards that make good classical music so enthralling in the first place.

There was news this week that China might be the most Christian country in the world by mid century. Pay heed, for this is relevant to the future of classical music. In China, millions have been poor for millennia, but the idea of culture as something to strive for has kept people motivated. Parents would starve so their kid could go to school.  Non-western people are not primitive  If they can recognize the intrinsic value of something, they'll go for it. That's why thousands of Chinese kids play piano, listen and enjoy. Sure they have pushy parents and enroll in competitions, but so do kids in the west. Somewhere along the way, people enjoy themselves. It's not at all unusual to see kids at concerts in China. Even in London: I observed a Russian pre teen at Faust last week, intently involved with what was going on. A lesson to some badly behaved adults who think they know everything and sneer.

So the trendies can contemplate their navels all they like, it won't change a thing. Better, I think to respect classical music for what it is, and keep up the standards. Definitely music education in schools makes a difference. But these days there are so  many more choices and opportunities.  Western classical music is something very special and very precious, so it needs support.  But ramming it down people's throats doesn't help. Old style mssionaries got kicked out of  China 65 years ago, but Christianity has grown better than ever because the time is right. It sells because the product is worth buying. So, too, with music.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cantique de Pâques - Arthur Honegger

For Easter, the glorious Arthur Honegger: Cantique de Pâques  for  soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, female choir and chamber orchestra. It was written in 1918, when the composer was in his mid twenties but it's a surprisngly "modern" work. It isn't heard nearly as often as it should be, because the ensemble isn't the easiest to programme, and the piece runs 6 minutes.  Perhaps that's why Honegger transcribed it for soprano and piano in 1924. But the original version is so beautiful that it really needs to be better known

Bunnies and Bombs - Easter 1914

Why is this Easter bunny wearing an ammo belt and beating a marching drum ? And why are these soldiers arresting the bunny ? Perhaps the impact of war hadn't sunk in. Or maybe  escapist fantasy helped.  Why do Christians go to war ? Below, an image that deals better with the meaning of Easter. A soldier lies dying. A farmhouse burns in the background. Maybe at home, the soldier's farmhouse might be burning too. But the fallen soldier looks up at a wayside cross. Erschiene mir zum Schilde, zum Trost in meinem Tod Shine your shield on  me and comfort me at the moment of my death" 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

London's South Bank - cutting thru the coterie

Priority case for Sajid Javid.  The South Bank should be the nation's cultural flagship, if only because it's gobbled millions. Since the South Bank management, The Arts Council England and the Guardian, formerly a newspaper, are far too cosy together, it will take a strong-minded Culture Minister to cut through the coterie.

From Douglas Cooksey :

"Dr Johnson is famously remembered for his quote that when a man is tired of London he is tired of Life. Having now lived in London for almost 50 years, I can say with some confidence that I am emphatically not yet tired of Life. However, in common with - one suspects - a great many genuine music lovers, there is a sense of total frustration at what has been happening at what we must now apparently call 'London’s Southbank Centre'.

"Of course all things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  It would be completely unreasonable and stultifying to expect them to remain the same. However, despite a renovation costing in the region of £100 million, the Royal Festival Hall has declined from its original status as one of the World’s great concert halls, spoken of in the same breath as Vienna’s Musikverein, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and has sunk into a sort of pervasive self-inflicted squalor.

"What other major concert hall in the World permits unfettered access to all levels to members of the public, even during concerts? Previously at RFH one had to show a ticket for an event before proceeding to an upper level. Now, however these uppe- level areas are used as free Central London meeting space for all sorts of unrelated groups, even amazingly on occasion for groups of people dossing down to sleep.

"During one of Lorin Maazel’s recent Philharmonia concerts there was actually a children’s party in progress with children screaming and running riot at every level. Prior to this concert my partner and I were amazed to find couples with buggies picnicking on the upper levels, even directly outside the main entrance to the Stalls. A new low came when the public address system announced the start of the concert in 3 minutes time and the voraciously picnicking couple next to us swore loudly because the announcement had woken their child in his buggy.

"The opening up of the Royal Festival Hall to all-comers has also had discriminatory and Health & Safety consequences. In the first place, totally free access at all times has meant that older concertgoers now have little or no chance of a seat before, during the interval or after a performance because every seat in the public areas tends to be already occupied by people working on their laptops or by ad hoc group seminars, frequently being addressed by a speaker. When an older person may have made a long journey from, say, Bristol to attend a particular concert, only to be denied a seat by freeloaders, it clearly discriminates against the elderly and infirm, and is a strong disincentive for them to attend.

"More fundamentally, with several times as many people as originally planned now using the building at all times of day, there are genuine Health and Safety concerns; for instance, earlier this week I took two Czech and German friends to a concert, one of them a former member of a professional all-girl punk band (and therefore probably well used to touring insalubrious venues), and they were appalled to be confronted with three out of five toilets completely blocked. (Incidentally Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, which holds around 60,000 people, is an object lesson in the matter of hygiene and I was going to say that RFH would do well to take a leaf out of its book!) With the hall now in constant use throughout the day, mountains of garbage regularly accumulate in its waste bins and - leaving aside the stench - this should surely be investigated by Health & Safety as a matter of urgency.

"What is so depressing is that this is no slide into genteel poverty caused by lack of investment or by an ageing infrastructure – after all we’ve just spent more than £100 million renovating the hall - but largely the result of a series of conscious decisions by a perverse and unpleasant management operating to its own agenda which appears to seek to turn the hall into a “People’s Palace”, available to all people all the time. Regular concertgoers clearly now come a poor second. One has only to look at the Southbank’s monthly programme, where classical music is now relegated to the last 4 pages of a 28 page A4 booklet, to realise where the present regime (for that is what it is) sees its priorities. When just before Christmas the Philharmonia Orchestra wanted to announce its forthcoming season at roughly the same time as the LSO’s at the Barbican, I am given to understand that the orchestra was ‘instructed’ by the Southbank’s Management that it could not do this until some 5 weeks later, thus putting the Philharmonia at an unfair competitive disadvantage with their main rivals.

"Serious music lovers are now forgoing the Royal Festival Hall in increasing numbers, put off by the unpleasant surroundings. Who wants to emerge from a concert as that sublime final paragraph of Mahler’s 4th symphony 'Kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erden' ('No music like this is heard on Earth') fades into complete silence only to be confronted with pounding rock music from a party on the ground floor or by the raucous din of drink-fuelled hordes of revellers on the terrace.

"The Royal Festival Hall was erected as a temporary structure and has never been a wholly satisfactory venue for orchestral music but despite its faults we grew to love it, not least for the memories of all those great performances and great performers we heard there  – Klemperer, Karajan, Stokowski, Barbirolli, Boult, Celibidache, Giulini, Carlos Kleiber and even those two legendary Toscanini concerts – but perhaps it should now be turned over to GLC Parks & Leisure and a new ‘fit for purpose’ acoustically satisfactory concert hall like Birmingham’s built at a location with good transport connections such as Kings Cross. Above all it should be managed by a team in sympathy with its primary purpose as a place for music, not as a public space. In the wake of various Parliamentary scandals and an upcoming General Election we are almost certainly on the point of ridding ourselves of a swathe of career politicians who have existed wholly within the Westminster bubble, impervious, even contemptuous of public opinion. Perhaps now is also the moment to see the back of career arts administrators and to appoint some new blood."

See also :

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Puccini Manon Lescaut Rattle Westbroek Baden Baden

The very idea of the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Puccini operas  should raise a wry smile when one thinks of the orchestra's magnificent past.  But why not? Their artistry gives this Manon Lescaut a musical grandeur not often heard in an opera house. Sometimes, shifting the walls between sub-genres in music can be a good thing. Antonio Pappano plans to do much the same thing in reverse by getting the Royal Opera House orchestra to do more symphonic repertoire. Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker have been venturing to Baden Baden and into opera for some time, so their Puccini Manon Lescaut may or may not be interesting as a portent of things to come.

Thumbs up for Rattle and the orchestra, and most certainly for Eva-Maria Westbroek's singing.  In Massenet's Manon the heroine (or anti heroine) suffers for love in a dingy garret. Puccini's Manon indulges in physical and material excess. Her family may be packing her off to a convent for her own good. Westbroek's voice is lusty and her interpretation is well rounded in every sense. She creates a Manon who embraces pleasure with such feral enthusiasm that when she dies of thirst in the desert, Westbroek makes it feel like soul murder. Massenet's Manon sails off to an unspecified fate, but Puccini's Manon is destroyed to her very core. Westbroek's singing in the final act rises to heights of intellectual intensity one doesn't often encounter with "popular" Puccini. Westbroek may never sing a put-upon Cio Cio San, but her Manon is a creation of genuine originality.

Westbroek's lush blonde voluptuousness is nicely set off by Lester Lynch's Lescaut.  Thank goodness that we're now mature enough to face race without having to be coy, negative or embarrassed. Westebroek and Lynch are truly brother and sister, soul twins, so to say. They sing with similar physical intensity, so the dynamic between them works extremely well.  Puccini's Lescaut plays a much greater part in this opera than in Massenet's, so Lynch's portrayal adds a great deal to meaning. If only there were more roles which Lynch could do with Westbroek!

Nonetheless, the Romantic Hero in this opera is the Chevalier des Grieux.  Massimo Giordano sings the part effectively, though he doesn't quite have the quirky charisma of the Westbroek/Lynch combination, and is eclipsed by Bogdan Mihai's superb Edmondo and even Liang Li's Geronte de Ravoir. In the final act, though, Giordano lets loose. His singing becomes more impassioned, and he emphasizes words with greater force. In death, his Des Grieux seems to find himself.  Magdalena Kozena sings one of the musicians, not normally a huge part but she sings it with personality and flair.

The Baden Baden Festspielhaus is the biggest and most modern (1997) in Germany, and caters to a wide range of activities. It doesn't have the traditions of, say, the Vienna State Opera or Bayreuth, but every house fills a different niche.  Last year Baden Baden presented a very good Don Giovanni with Anna Netrebko, Erwin Schrott and Luca Pisaroni, which would have been welcome anywhere.  This Manon Lescaut was staged by Richard Eyre, whose greatest moment was the ROH La Traviata (1994) . Thirty years later, not much seems to have changed. This new production sports art deco angles but otherwise is rather provincial. Given the high standards Westbroek and Rattle achieve, it's a bit of a lost opportunity.  Admittedly the Lousiana scene is difficult to stage, especially as there aren't many deserts in New Orleans - so much for the myth of "historical accuracy".

Another interesting thing about Baden Baden is that it seems to be modelling itself on the Met. Alas,  they've copied the ludicrous interval interviews , though the interviewer herself is infinitely more articulate.  It's sad that an intelligent woman should have to mimic the Met's airhead gushing. If Baden Baden wants to make a name for itself it should do something more upmarket.
Watch this in full on the Berliner Philharmoniker website. 

Needless to say, this will be TOTALLY OUTCLASSED by OPOLAIS, KAUFMANN and Pappano at the Royal Opera House in  June

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Lucerne Abbado Memorial - COMPLETE FREE online

How often do you see the members of an orchestra weep openly? The Lucerne Festival Orchestra's memorial  for Claudio Abbado  on 7th April is now available complete and free on This is infinitely more than an ordinary concert.  What makes it unique - and compelling - isn't "just" the music. Every player here knew Claudio Abbado personally and worked with him. Everyone in the audience had memories, too. There are people who think music should be judged purely in musical terms. This concert proves that without the human spirit, notes alone are meaningless. Without vision, without endeavour, without feeling, we are nothing. Claudio Abbado taught us a lot technically about the music he conducted, but even more so, I think, about being human.

The programme: Franz Schubert (1797-1828) «Allegro moderato» de la Symphonie n° 7 en si mineur D 759 Inachevée, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) Elegie Brot und Wein (Pain et Vin), Alban Berg (1885-1935), Concerto pour violon et orchestre A la mémoire d’un ange, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Finale de la Symphonie n° 3 en ré mineur.  Each piece chosen because they were closely associated with the conductor, but also because each touches upon some aspect of the human condition.  They also reference the idea of artists being taken before their time. Not death so much as the loss of what might have been. Thank whatever power gave us Abbado's finest years, after his near fatal cancer. "Half the stomach, twice the soul" someone once quipped

Significantly, the concert formally ends with the Finale of Mahler's Symphony no 3, soaring ever upwards, higher and higher until the very sounds dissolve into infinity. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra might have picked the Finale of Mahler 6th or Mahler 9th but the Finale of Mahler's 3rd is perhaps right in context: the Alps around Lucerne, but even more what mountains symbolize. Mountains endure, when mortals pass on. Most of us never reach the pinnacle, but we're lost if we don't dream.

 Here  is the text of the Hölderlin Elegy. Again a brilliant choice. The poet famously lived in a tower, contemplating the moon.  His work became hugely influential on 20th century composers, long after his death.  Why poems in a concert, and horror of horrors not in English, as some would say.  To paraphrase Mahler, speaking of the young know-it-alls of his time, "Have they read Dostoevsky"
Listen to the concert - not just to the sounds the orchestra is playing, but also to what might be happening in your heart. That, I think, is the real gift of musicianship, and Claudio Abbado's enduring legacy. There are many different ways to show emotion. The members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are not afraid to hide their feelings. Even the concert master gives in to his. I've watched this several times over, thoroughly gutted.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Garsington Opera's Rossini Maometto Secondo commemorative CD

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Garsington Opera at Wormsley is releasing a CD. In the true Garsington Opera tradition this will be something special: the first commercially available recording of the new edition of  the rare Rossini opera Maometto secondo under the Avie label, The deluxe 3-CD set,  recorded live at Garsington Opera's universally acclaimed 2013 performances - the first-ever fully staged production of Maometto secondo in the UK -  is stylishly packaged in a 100-page hardbound book, complete with synopsis, essay and libretto in Italian with English translations. This is an important release which confirms Garsington Opera's status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain, having presented 12 Rossini operas, some in several productions, since 1995. This will be an essential for Rossini enthusiasts everywhere.

Maometto Secondo has the potential to become one of the great operas in the repertoire. Richard Osborne, the Rossini scholar, describes it as the grandest of Rossini's opera seria, "epic in scale and revolutionary in the seamlessness of its musical structuring".  Garsington Opera uses the new critical edition of Maometto Secondo compiled by Hans Schellevis."It´s scholarly and supported by men like Phillip Gossett" says David Parry, who has conducted most of Garsington Opera's Rossini over the years. "The physical presentation of the old edition was terrible, covered with amendments. It reinstates the original Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, in 1820. When the opera was performed in the Teatro La Fenice two years later, he had to revise it with a `happy ending´ to flatter the audience in Venice. Rossini created a third version, Le siège de Corinthe, which is effectively a
different opera. The mezzo part is taken by tenor, for example. The new edition we are using is definitely the strongest, musically and dramaturgically".

Maometto Secondo, or Mehmet II, Fatih Sultan of the Ottomans, captured Constantinople, and ended the Byzantine Empire. This Turk was no buffo. His next ambitious plan: to conquer Rome, thereby linking Europe and Asia under Islam. Mega geopolitics. Venice was the front line because Venetians traded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans posed a genuine threat to survival of the Italian region. Rossini's audiences knew that Negroponte fell and its occupants were massacred. Mehmet and the garrison commander, Paolo Erissso, existed, but the opera is not based on historical facts. The plot resembles La donna del lago, completed the year before. Both foreign kings in disguise are called Uberto, and both offer tokens of safety. Indeed, Rossini simply lifted the aria "Tanti affetti" from La donna del lago straight into the 1823 Venice revision of Maometto Secondo . So much for historical specificity.

It is pertinent that Rossini wrote Maometto Secondo while Naples was occupied by the Carbonari, a volatile, violent secret society dedicated to revolution. The opera bristles with danger. A confident melody suggests happy memories, but the garrison is under siege. Rossini's vocal lines tear up and down the scale, but the long, difficult runs aren't there for ornamental display. The singers are pushed to the edge, just as the characters they portray. Technically, the musicians are in control, but dotted rhythms and coloratura extremes can suggest palpitating heartbeats, or muscles on alert. Rossini doesn't let the tension subside. Erisso, Anna and Calbo sing a long terzetto which is interrupted by the sound of cannon. Suddenly, Maometto materializes, high above the melée. "Sorgete: in sì bel giorno" is cavatina as theatre.

Please read my review of the 2013 Garsington Opera at Wormsley premiere, on which this new recording of Rossini Maometto Secondo is based HERE in Opera Today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Elgar The Apostles Barbican Davis BBCSO Imbrailo Sherratt

Hearing Elgar'sThe Apostles (op 49, 1902-3) at the Barbican Hall, was a superb experience. The piece was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred choristers, a huge orchestra and  team of soloists (who can be augmented if needed). Any live performance is a major event to be cherished. The BBC has the forces to pull it off  on a grand scale, as with this performance conducted by Andrew Davis with the BBC SO, the BBC Singers Symphony Chorus and a star list of soloists.

But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius (op 38, 1900), performed by the same forces at the Barbican last week. Although Elgar never completed the ambitious trilogy he dreamed of, The Apostles and The Dream of the Gerontius  benefit from being heard together. The Dream of Gerontius tells of one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. (read more here). The Apostles deals with the very nature of that faith..  Hence the inherent contradiction that sometimes confuses The Apostles with overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.

The Apostles unfolds in a series of seven tableaux, held together by male and female narrators. This structure allows a surprising degree of intimacy, concentrating on the interaction between  Jesus and the people around him. Judas, Peter and John are gearing up for their mission to spread the gospels to the world. The chorus exults and the brass plays the glorious fanfare, which seems to stretch over vast distances. The huge kettledrums beat out a ceremonial march. Splendid! Yet it is the quiet voice of Jesus which rises above the tumult. "He who receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him who sent Me",  Jacques Imbrailo is the Jesus of choice these days. He is unique - confident in its baritonal quality, yet haloed by a tenor-like glow. His voice seems lit with inner light, giving an almost miraculous purity. When Jesus  reveals the Beatitudes in By the Wayside, Imbrailo makes the words ring with sincerity and conviction, not by forcing sound, but by simple, sincere conviction. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Meekness isn't weakness, though, for Jesus hints at persecutions to come. Imbrailo's timbre is natural and unforced,  but its centre is very strong.

The tension between grand forces and simplicity gives The Apostles much of its  appeal. Elgar describes the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Davis whips the orchestra into a turmoil. "It is I, Be not afraid!" sings Imbrailo, decorating the "I" with shimmering rubato so the very word seems to shine like a lighthouse.  Elgar's Jesus favours sinners, like Mary Magdalene (Sarah Connolly), Peter the Doubter, (Gerald Finley) and Judas Iscariot (Brindley Sherratt). Indeed, Elgar gives Judas more space than the others, suggesting his sympathy with those who question. Brindley Sherratt is as singularly exceptional in this part as Imbrailo is in his. Together they bring out a more unconventional element in the drama.  Sherratt's bass isn't brutal, but intelligently nuanced: he conveys genuine  concern where the other Apostles obey blindly. When Judas recognizes his mistake, Sherratt sings with anguish so intense that it takes on a strange, noble dignity. In the long passage that starts "Our life is short and tedious", Sherratt expresses such a range of emotions that he manages to make us feel compassion. This is a Judas with whom modern people can identify. We cannot judge, but remember the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful!".  As Sherratt was singing, I remembered how he had sung Judas  on this very subject earlier in the piece.  A singer who can shed such insights deserves huge respect.

It's also interesting how Elgar goes swiftly from Golgotha to the Ascencion, as if drawn forwards by the musical vision of Angels singing "Alleluia!". The string writing is pastoral, yet luminous,  another insight, connecting Jesus's "rebirth" with his Nativity. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang The Mystic Chorus with beautiful clarity. In The Apostles, Elgar writes for voice as if he were writing for different elements in an orchestra. He weaves together lines for the orchestra, choir and soloists to form an immaculate, shining wall of sound. Imbrailo doesn't sing but the memory lingers, imprinted on the listener. ""And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world".

Mark Elder conducted Elgar's The Apostles at the Proms in 2012, and his recording with the Hallé is so good it will stand as a benchmark, even taking into account Adrian Boult's recording from 1973. Elder gets much greater lucidity from the Hallé than Davis did with the BBCSO, though they were very good. It's just that the Hallé, one of  Elgar's favourite bands, have an unparalleled Elgar pedigree which no other orchestra can quite reach. Imbrailo, Sherratt and Paul Groves sing for Elder (with Alice Coote and Rebecca Evans). Davis has big names like Connolly and Gerald Finley, and lovely though consonant-lite Nicole Cabell. On balance, I prefer Elder, but any chance to hear The Apostles is welcome.

Gounod Faust 2014 Royal Opera House

Gounod's Faust makes a much welcomed return to the Royal Opera House. With each new cast, the dynamic changes as the balance between singers shifts and brings out new insights. In that sense, every revival is an opportunity to revisit from new perspectives. This time Bryn Terfel sang Méphistophélès, with Joseph Calleja as Faust – stars whose allure certainly helped fill the hall to capacity. And the audience enjoyed a very good show.

The opera starts in darkness: Faust knows all about the world from books, but hasn't lived.  Maurizio Benini's tempi were slow, suggesting that Faust is perhaps on the point of death when the pastoral theme bursts into the overture like a breath of Spring. When Calleja cried "Rein!", his anguish was heartfelt. As the youthful Faust, Calleja is much more in his element. His natural exuberance makes his Faust cocky rather than intellectual, but that's a perfectly valid interpretation. When Calleja sang  "Salut! demeure chaste et pur" he held the spectacular long note so fluidly, the audience went into rapture.  Calleja's Faust is a good-old-fashioned Italian (Maltese) wide boy, oozing charm. His rapport with the Margeurite of the evening, Alexia Voulgaridou, was good: they were singing together rather than at each other. There's a difference. 

Bryn Terfel created Méphistophélès for this production ten years ago, so it was big news when he substituted for another singer at short notice. Terfel is always a force to be reckoned with, even when forcefulness dominates his singing. Méphistophélès gets away with things because he's sly. The delicate background of pizzicato around the part suggest half-glimpsed flashes of hellfire. Rather more cunning on Terfel's part might have been more in character. Terfel's Méphistophélès and Calleja's Faust don't mesh together well, though both singers are masters at working an audience. Terfel's performance this time round was interesting because it showed just how "Gallic" Gounod's Méphistophélès is, in contrast to Goethe's original, and to Russian manifestations,  Think Chaliapin. When René Pape sang the part in 2011, the urbane sophistication he brought to the part made it truly sinister.

Alexia Voulgaridou has sung Marguerite many times. As soon as she began singing, her experience showed. She may not be as high profile as Sonya Yoncheva, who has appeared at the Met, with whom she shares the role, but she inhabits the role with great conviction. In her Jewel Song, her rich timbre evoked the sensuality underlying the purity in Marguerite's personality. Voulgaridou is physically very small, but energetic, suggesting the innate strength in the role. The revival director, Bruno Ravella, has dispensed with the silly blonde wig that made Angela Gheorghiu look wrong in 2011. It's the singing that counts, and most of the good ones these days have Latin complexions, perfectly right for a French heroine.

Simon Keenlyside is a perennial House favourite, but here his Valentin seemed underdeveloped. He has the notes but pushes them a little too hard, though his "death aria" was evenly paced an d well presented. Keenlyside's Valentin could have been the brother of Terfel's Méphistophélès. In 2011, Dmitri Hvorostovsky intimated that there's more to Valentin than the libretto alone might indicate. Renata Pokupić's Siebel was spirited. This is an unusual part wihich could be shaped well by someone with Pokupić's individuality: perhaps she'll make it a signature role. Jihoon Kim sang Wagner. Next season he will become a company principal, deservedly so, as he's very good.  Diana Montague sang Marthe.

The designs in this production, by Charles Edwards and his team, also reference the "Frenchness" of Gounod's idiom. In the cathedral scene, Marguerite prays before an ornate Baroque sculpture, from which Méphistophélès emerges. In modern, secular times the idea of sacrilege might not be as shocking as it was in 19th century France, so this staging is an excellent way into the deeper levels of meaning in the opera. The military choruses, for example, would have resonated with audiences for whom Napoleon III and the Crimean War were topical. Marguerite's predicament, too, highlights the hypocrisy of a world in which one unmarried mother s condemned while the image of another is revered. The Walpurgis Night ballet is staged in the context of the Paris Opéra,, where patrons lust for young dancers, just as Faust fancied Marguerite.  The choregraphy, originally by Michael Keegan-Dolan and revived by Daphne Strothmann, was brilliantly executed - the male principa,l Eric Underwood, was particularly expressive, his physical agility underlining the erotic undercurrent that runs through the whole opera.

This article appears in Opera Today. 

Photos c Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House