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.

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

Friday, 11 April 2014

More uncultured Culture Ministers ?

 A Minister for Culture doesn't have to know much about the arts, but his/her brief is not to destroy.  The newly appointed Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, apparently said in 2011 "Ticket resellers act like classic entrepreneurs, because they fill a gap in the market that they have identified." This is an extremely sensitive issue in the arts world. Any competent business person knows that you can't shoot off without knowing the terrain. You check out the ground first. I don't think Javid is stupid. Let's hope he's learned.

One of Alex Beard's earliest pronouncements since he took up his post as head of the Royal Opera House was to address the long standing problem of ticket touts. "Being complicit in ticket touting should be illegal, (he) has argued, as he admits it is “desperately unfair” on would-be audience members but so far “impossible” to prevent.... (nobody) “come up with a silver bullet” to solve the problem of touting.He has now argued for the “straightforward” method of making “it illegal to be complicit in the sale of invalid tickets”.(source here)

"The frustrating thing in our case is that it tends to be the cheaper seats and it tends to be an extraordinary mark-up, effectively misselling,” he said.“That damages two things. Firstly the quality of the poor people who have bought it, because the tickets themselves are not valid. And two, it means fewer people are able to get cheap seats to the Opera House.”He added it is “just at the moment impossible” to stop resellers from plying their trade.“The ones that are being touted tend to be the five and ten pound tickets, which are presented on these resale website as though they’re the top priced tickets,” he said.“It’s desperately unfair, both to the people who have bought these invalid tickets because they won’t be able to get entry into the opera house, and for the people who otherwise would have been able to purchase them.”“People have been wrestling with this issue now for decades, and nobody has come up with the perfect silver bullet, as it were, to take the touts out of business." 

It's not just the ROH. The BBC Proms have the same problem. These sales have nothing to do with promoting the arts, because they bring in punters with more money than taste or basic common sense. Sure, people miss out when tickets sell out quickly, but it's the touts who create the situation in the first place. Eliminate them, eliminate the problem. 

Government exists (in theory) to keep things in relative balance. If governments believe in unalloyed greed, what's the point ? Do MP's who think the system exists so they can fiddle expenses going to stand up to pressure from commercial inducements. Conflict of interest - and the "C" word that eats away at Parliamentary ethics like a cancer.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

ENO appoints Surprise Executive Director

Surprise new Executive Director at the ENO - or maybe not such a surprise, since candidates from within are few and far between. The post has been up for grabs since July last year, so presumably the news got round in the business long before the job was advertised in November. This is a critical assignment, at a time when the ENO is facing big challenges. So what might this mean ?

The new Executive Director is Henrietta Götz, who will start within a few weeks. Götz has twenty years experience since university, which would make her 40 something. She was most recently Executive Director of Vlaamse Opera, Belgium, which she joined in 2009 and left recently. .She also runs Arts & Consulting Int., an international consultancy providing finance, organisation, marketing and sponsoring advice and management services to arts and cultural institutions. You don't need to be a "creative" to run the business end of an arts organization as long as you care about the arts. Which is more than can be said for UK Ministers of Culture.

More unusually she has an interesting background, being connected to the Fidel Götz Foundation which supports charities in the Third World. Not, hopefully, someone who's in awe of money and power ?  Even charities should be run by good business minds. In a job like this, a person's inner personality counts.  (Alas, again a relevant observation on the probity of some UK Ministers for Culture)

This appointment happens exactly - to the very day - of Martyn Rose's appointment as Chairman of the Board at the ENO which heralded a change in management style. Götz will be responsible for leading organisational operations including finance, theatre management, marketing, sales and fundraising functions.Jeremiahs will always howl about the ENO, but in many ways it's in a better condition than it was ten years ago. It has exceeded its box office target for 2013/14 and "will definitely finish the financial year in a balanced position – with the possibility of a small surplus" says the press release.

In the US, opera companies and orchestras are going into meltdown.. Sure, European houses get subsidies, but the cultural demographics are completely different. No-one has yet figured out the best business model, but I think that, at the end of the day, it's how you build the audience. Thank goodness for the ENO's belief in artistic vision. That's the business of any arts organization. The executive side "executes",so the artistic product can sell. Not the other way round.(it's Loretta Tomasi's original job for those who didn't notice)

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

John Shirley-Quirk remembered

From Evan Dickerson : 

The death of eminent English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, 82, was announced on 7 April. He died in Bath, but the cause of death remains unknown. Born in Liverpool, John Shirley-Quirk sang in a church choir and played violin as a child. His university studies were in chemistry and physics, but singing was his abiding passion and he took singing lessons with Austen Carnegie. In 1957 he began studying with baritone Roy Henderson and from 1961–1962 performed with the Cathedral Choir at St. John's in London. He made his operatic debut in Pelléas et Mélisande in 1961 at the Glyndebourne Festival. In 1963 he was invited by Benjamin Britten to join his English Opera Group, with whom he performed until Britten’s death in 1976. His work included roles in the premieres of Britten's Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son, Death in Venice, and Owen Wingrave. Shirley-Quirk made his debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1974 with a performance of Death in Venice. In 1975 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

His recording career though featured a wider spread of English composers: he was the soloist in the first recording of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Vision of St. Augustine and in 1977 he created the role of Lev in Tippett’s The Ice Break at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He also performed and recorded A Child of Our Time under the composer in the 1980s. His dedication to Vaughan Williams’ vocal works is to be heard on many of Sir David Willcocks’ recordings for EMI, including the first complete version of the Songs of Travel. He sang in the premiere recording of Delius’s Requiem in 1968. In later years he continued to make important recordings, singing the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under Richard Hickox in 1991 and the cameo role of the Recorder of Norwich in the premiere recording of Gloriana under Sir Charles Mackerras in 1992. He was also a soloist in Solti’s recording of Mahler’s eighth symphony. Aside from his singing career, Shirley-Quirk taught at Bath Spa University and at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1992 until 2012. 

Vocally he was known for a warm and generous tone, which reflected the man, if my one encounter with him around 1993 was anything to go by. He had visited my singing teacher, the late Jean Austin Dobson, for afternoon tea and saw no reason to leave just because she had a few ‘evening students’. Their witty rapport was palpable, and he endured my baritonal efforts, singing some of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. This was music that I even then was conscious that he had a very deep connection with. He was patient and deferred to “dear Jean” when it came to matters relating to my technique, though he liked my tone. We discussed at some lengths the problems of singing in English and also its rewards when done well. The comment that has stuck with me though was, “don’t be afraid of the words – get stuck in!” It has shaped how I appreciate singers and listen to vocal performances ever since.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Luke Bedford Through His Teeth Linbury ROH - best British opera in years

Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go. This packs more into less than an hour than many works which might last five times as long. It's so concentrated that further hearings will only intensify the respect that it's due. Bedford, now resident in Berlin, has found astonishing maturity and depth. Through His Teeth is sophisticated, and perhaps a bit above the heads of some, but that's exactly why Bedford is a true original.

Through His Teeth fires on every cylinder. A, (Anna Devin)  a dowdy 30-something looks at fancy cars in a showroom. R (Owen Gilhooly) spots her and chats her up. "I'm not really a car salesman", he says.  The tiny orchestra, CHROMA, conducted by Sian Edwards, screams alarm.  The small Trumpet in C wails like a warning klaxon. The harp's shortest strings are plucked to suggest tight, tense hollowness. An accordion gasps as if its lungs are too constricted to breathe. A doesn't take heed. R picked her out even before she entered the showroom,  sensing, perhaps, the vulnerability even she doesn't comprehend. What really draws a sensible girl like A into R's crazy world? It's not simply that he's good in bed. Almost from the start she knows something's wrong.  R's paranoid and thinks he's under surveillance. A assumes he's MI5. So it's  OK for her to accept flowers from him he's taken from someone he's just killed ? Morally, she too is compromised.

Distorted values, distorted reality. The designs (Becs Andrews) capture the psychological dislocation implicit in David Harrower's deceptively simple text.  Walls slide across the stage, dividing it into tightly framed compartments.  Sam Meech's videos fragment, offering mutiple different perspectives, even, perhaps that of the sinister surveillance person watching him. R controls A because she lets herself get cut off from the world around her. Yet. the walls of her "prison" are pierced weith holes which she could look through if she wanted to. This is the Faustian pact she's made with R. Like Mephistopheles he can offer her the wildest dreams imaginable but she must sell her soul.

The clarinet in B flat sings a poisoned melody, like a snake charmer's instrument. The cello is played so its strings reverberate their whole length, like a snake, flexing its muscles sensuously, like a and falling, willingly, into hypnosis. The percussionist beats brushes, quietly replicating a failing heartbeat. Bedford creates sounds that are so intriguing that the listener is drawn into an invisible trap, almost against one's will.  With abstract music, Bedford recreates extreme psychological complexity. Through His Teeth isn't just about sex. Manipulative people create cults around themselves.

A sinks so deeply into R's psychosis that her sister (Victoria Simmonds, playing multiple roles)  who lives in the real world, finds a way to trap him. R is put into prison. Gilhooly  walks as if he';s in chains we cannot see. Brilliantly economic direction by Bijan Sheibani. Watch this director - he's very good. Chains we cannot see: perhaps that sums up the horrifying nature of these mind games. A meets another of R's women (also Simmonds), a bag lady who blames herself for not being good enough to join the MI5 of R's imagination.  Modern Mephistopheles prey on their victim's hidden weaknesses, sucking them into a web of their own making.

At the end, the TV interviewer (Simmonds again) asks A, who is now technically "free", what she would do if if she were to meet R again. The question is put gently.. A's response seems non-committal, but Bedford's music suggests that A knows, deep in her heart, that she'd do it all over again.  The ending is powerful , all the more because it's so chillingly understated.  Bedford's Through His Teeth is a major work, which needs to be carefully contemplated.

photos : Stephen Cummiskey, Courtesy Royal Opera House

Monday, 7 April 2014

Harrison Birtwistle 80 major Barbican retrospective

"The Barbican marks Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday with
Birtwistle at 80, celebrating one of the great iconoclasts of British
classical music with performances of his operatic, orchestral and chamber masterpieces" so states the publicity.

Birtwistle is easily the greatest British composer of his generation.He's a true original who doesn't follow safe, established paths or court populist favour. Like Benjamin Britten, he isn't "Establsihment" by a long shot. If he ever becomes Master of the Queen's Music, we'd be in for a shock. Knowing Birtwistle, he'd give a good-natured shrug and chuckle with a twinkle in his eye.

The Barbican series is thus extremely important.  "At the heart of the series are two of Birtwistle’s most contrasting operas, Gawain (1991) and Yan Tan Tethera (1984), presented in concert hall stagings directed by John Lloyd Davies......Rooted in the English tradition, whether chivalric or folk, these operas highlight Birtwistle’s deep interest in ancient myths and rituals." The director comments "Birtwistle is one of the most viscerally theatrical of composers. All his works embody his obsession for his characters “to have blood in their veins and sex in their loins”.The great Arthurian myth of Gawain and the raw, wind-scoured Wiltshire plains of Yan Tan Tethera share familiar Birtwistle devices of ritual and repetition, yet even in a concert-hall staging what overwhelms the listener is the theatrical power, inventiveness and energy of the composer’s musical imagination.
On Friday 16 May, the Barbican and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present the iconic opera Gawain, based on the late 14th-century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a libretto by David Harsent. Martyn Brabbins conducts a star cast including bass Sir John Tomlinson singing the Green Knight, a role that he created for the world premiere at Covent Garden in 1991, and baritone Leigh Melrose in the title role. On Tuesday 29 May, the Barbican and Britten Sinfonia join forces for a co-production of the chamber opera Yan Tan Tethera. With text provided by Tony Harrison, the piece is based on a supernatural folk tale of two shepherds counting their sheep and encountering the devil. Led by Baldur Brönnimann, the cast includes baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Alan and soprano Claire Booth as Hannah.

"The themes of myth, ritual and landscape are also evident in the other events that are part of the Barbican’s celebration. Oliver Knussen conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Birtwistle’s early breakthrough piece Tragoedia (1965), inspired by Greek theatre and mythology (Sunday 25 May – Milton Court).  The performance is part of a programme showcasing chamber works and songs from across the composer’s career, including Silbury Air (1977 – revisited in 2003), inspired by the prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and the recent Fantasia Upon All the Notes (2012). The monumental orchestral work Earth Dances is presented by the London Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding (Tuesday 20 May). At the core of the piece, which is based on Birtwistle’s fascination with nature and the shifts and changes affecting landscape, is a geological metaphor: the orchestra is divided into six “strata” with ever-changing relationships reflecting those of the earth’s layers."

"Closing the series on Friday 30 May, Britten Sinfonia and conductor Baldur Brönnimann focus on Birtwistle’s quintessential Britishness and his relation to the pastoral tradition, in the context of an evening of British music inspired by landscape and national identity. The programme features Birtwistle’s The Fields of Sorrow and Melencolia I, and works by Holst and Vaughan Williams (including the latter’s suite Flos Campi for viola, small orchestra and small chorus with soloist Maxim Rysanov and Britten Sinfonia Voices directed by Eamonn Dougan). As a pre-concert
event, the Arditti Quartet – who will also be presenting the world premiere of a new Birtwistle work during their 40th birthday celebration at the Barbican on 26 April – pay homage to the composer with a performance of String Quartet:The Tree of Strings. With its title taken from a poem in Gaelic by Sorly MacLean, String Quartet:The Tree of Strings is deeply rooted in a sense of place, powerfully evoking the desolate history of the Scottish island of Raasay where MacLean was born and where
the composer himself lived in the 1980s. "

For more details, please see here.    
Please also follow the label "Birtwistle" on this site  : I've covered more Birtwistle than most, and havce written about many of the works above.