Monday 31 December 2012

Finzi Nocturne "New Year's Music"

On New Year's Eve, 1925, Gerald Finzi went to a party in a cottage on Chosen Hill, above the hamlet of Churchdown in Gloucestershire. The cottage still stands, half-hidden in a hollow. At midnight, Finzi and his friends came outside, into sharp frost, the night sky filled with stars, and "heard bells ringing across Gloucestershire from beside the Severn to the hill villages of the Cotswolds". Stephen Banfield, Finzi's biographer, calls this the "hilltop epiphany", for it released in Finzi a surge of original music. This was the inspiration for Nocturne op 7, whose sub-title is in fact New Year's Music, and later for In Terra Pax, filled with bells and joy. Finzi needed an impetus to find himself and something happened that night under the stars. "I love New Year's Eve," he told a friend later, "Though it's the saddest time of the year..... a time of silence and quiet". And soon after asked himself "must knowledge come to me, iit f comes at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by the familiar process (of reading other's work)?" ie Finzi was learning to trust his own artistic instincts.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Worst Choir Ever ?

Not the choir, so much, who seem to have a realistic view of the proceedings, but the choirmaster !

Friday 28 December 2012

Facade - Rattle sings, Hannigan conducts

Simon Rattle sings William Walton. Luckily, it's Facade, which wasn't written for coloratura but recited by the author Edith Sitwell. whom we can assume didn't sing much better than Rattle can. Catch this performance on the Berliner Philharmoniker website, because Facade is rarely performed. The Berliners catch the racy 1920's loucheness rather well and we hear a wicked new side to Rattle. He makes no attempt to fake an upper crust English accent. Facade works fine when it's delivered with Rattle's droll understatement. Rattle does the funny voices too!

Rattle has chosen extracts from the 1922 original for small ensemble and two voices, so when he sings, Barbara Hannigan conducts and vice versa. Neither are swapping jobs anytime soon, but this is pleasant enough.  We get En famille, A Man from a Far Country and my favourite When Sir Beelzebub where Hannigan shows what a real singer can do with recited speech, while Rattle makes his interjections with the right impact.  Walton/Sitwell's Facade is part of a short late night programme that includes Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik no 1 and Hans Werner Henze's Being Beauteous. Hannigan is divine. If she records this, she could be better than Edda Moser. Interestingly, while listening I thought of Benjamin Britten and Les Illuminations. Britten would have been young to have moved in Sitwell/Walton circles at that time, but he would have known about Facade and its impact. "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage".

Thursday 27 December 2012

Opera singing Rickshaw Puller

San Ma Tse Tsang (新馬師曾 1916-1997) was one of thr greatest Cantonese opera stars of his time. In The Rickshaw Puller and the Orphan (拉車行大運, 1961) he plays a rickshaw puller who shows kindness to others and is rewarded. The  opening credits are shot over Hong Kong scenes familiar to westerners, Sun Ma Tse Tsang's song tells about ordinary local people who wouldn't have gone to the Peak or to fancy nightclubs.  Rickshaw pullers were poor, but their jobs took them to all parts of town. They saw Hong Kong from different perspectives. Although this film is fiction, it's also keen social observation. The relationships between Ah Cheung and his neighbours are central to the plot. Lots of cameos for character actors of the time, like Sai Gwa pau with his buck teeth and Lau Hak Suen with his "villain" eyebrows.

Sun Ma Tse Tsang plays Ah Cheung, a rickshaw puller. Rickshaw work was tough. The men were out, often barefoot, in all weathers, and many became drug addicts. Sun Ma tseTsang's wiry physique is perfect. He looks tubercular but he's tough. In real life he was a powerful character and used to make jokes about his looks. Ah Cheung lives in a bed space. It's not a room but a space rented out for  a few hours before the next "session". He's way behind in his rent. The landlady Sam Koo (陶三姑 1895-1983) acts tough and mercenary but her droll face is inherently funny. Brilliant character actress.  One day Ah Cheung picks up a woman who is in childbirth. They start to negotiate a fare but he realizes she's about to pop, so he runs for help. When he gets back the woman is gone, but she's left the baby behind. So Ah Cheung picks up the baby and tries to cope. There's a wonderful scene where he climbs over his sleeping neighbours and steals milk and a thermos of hot water to feed the baby. The landlady charges more because babies cry and create diapers. Nonetheless Ah Cheung raises the baby, carrying in in the umbrella section of his rickshaw while he works. 

A famous opera singer Miss Chan (Fu Tsair) (Tang Bik Wan 鄧碧雲 1926-91)  also in real life a very famous actress and opera singer)  is propositioned by a sleazy rich man, Mr Lau ( Lau Hak Suen) who smokes cigars, wears a bow tie and is chauffeured around in a fancy car.  Rickshaws are called "cars" too, so there's a pun on the words "pulled car" and "petrol car". Miss Chan jumps into Ah Cheung's rickshaw to fend off Mr Lau. "Petrol cars are faster than rickshaws" says Mr Law who goes to Miss Chan's house to lie in wait. But Miss Chan gets Ah Cheung to ride around all night instead of going home. She asks about the little girl, who's name is "Thirty Cents", the fee Ah Cheung and her mother were negotiating before the baby was born. "You deserve to be loved" says Miss Chan, who admires how the toddler follows the rickshaw and helps out night and day.

Miss Chan gives Ah Cheung $20. "Too much!" says Ah Cheung. "We're behind in rent!" squeaks the kid. Rich Mr Lau is angry that  Miss Chan got out of his clutches so sends his thugs to beat Ah Cheung up and smash his rickshaw. "It's only money" says the rich man. Significantly Sun Ma Tse Tsang describes the mugging in a opera aria.  Miss Chan goes to see Ah Cheung in the "Pigeon Roost" which he calls his home, because everyone there is stuffed together like pigeons. "He lives on the thjrd tier" says the landlady, meaning the third layer of bunk beds. "He can't work" she adds, he's beaten "red, silver and yellow". 

Miss Chan gives Ah Cheung money, and he shares his good fortune with the whole household and pays for a feast. The scene where the householders eat chicken is poignant. They're too poor to nomally eat meat, so they gnaw on the bones to get every last scrap of goodness.  Details like this are lost on moderrn people who don't know what poverty was like then. For example, street kids were sometimes covred in black slime. "Don't pick her up" says Ah Cheung, worried that the dirt on the child might mess Miss Cheung's beautiful cheoung sam.  That night the householders dream of food, licking their lips and rubbing their tummies in their sleep. "They've eaten the equivalent of a month's rent" says the landlady, who dreams that her round clay piggy bank has broken.

Since Ah Cheung can't do rickshaws any more, Miss Chan hires him as her assistant in the opera house.  He mimics a snippet from a famous aria, "I am 18 years old, I've never thought of men" (is this from the Purple Hairpin?)   Mr Lau's thugs beat up one of the other opera singers, so Ah Cheung is called on to sing the role of a cheeky maid. In real life, Sun Ma Tse Tsang was a great singer, so he can do the part with great humour.  Hilarious falsetto! The Prince in the opera is I think sung by Tang Bik Wan herself. Cross dressing is no big deal in Cantonese opera.

Ah Cheung is now in western clothes and his little girl has a white fur coat and doll. They are staying with Miss Chan in a mansion.  Mr Lau wants to trap Miss Chan into marrying him, but Ah Cheung discovers a stash of white powder..So he warns Miss Chan that .Mr Lau is a crook. They sing an extended duet in traditional opera style as they decide what to do.  When the crooks discover the stash has been found, they try to stop Ah Cheung and Miss Chan from calling the police and leaving. Ah Cheung is bundled into the boot of the car, and Miss Chan is tied up in the passenger seat. But little Thirty Cents runs to tell her dad's fellow rickshaw drivers what's happening, and they all rush to help, blocking the getaway. Confronation between rickshaws and fancy foreign car, morally upright poor folks and sleazy crooks. Ah Cheung's hawker friend joins in, unleashing the pole he uses to carry his goods, and uses it as a weapon. What a clash of cultures! It turns out that Miss Chan was the lady Ah Cheung helped a few years before. Thirty Cents is her natural daughter. In the last scene, Ah Cheung is back in the Pigeon Roost with three tiers of bunks, reading about Mr Lau's arrest in the newspaper. Miss Chan enters, in simple black sam foo, (symbol of Chinese virtues) and coyly says "I want to talk to you about something". 

Prophetic fish dream ?

Last night I had a nightmare in which I was visiting an aquarium as big as a room. The keeper insisted that the fish were all violently poisonous. Since I grew up with exotic fish and aquariums, my thought was "that can't be possible". The keeper grew enraged because I dared to doubt and started hurling poisonous fish at me. I left the room but other people were catching the fish in their mouths and swallowing them whole, like seals do. I returned  but by then the keeper had drained the tank in revenge, and dead fish were lying around. Then what was in the news this morning? "Shark tank bursts over shoppers in China" (link here) . "Surveillance video shown today on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV captured the moment a 33-tonne aquarium housing sharks, turtles and fish suddenly shattered at Shanghai's Orient shopping centre, injuring 16 people. The giant tank burst with no warning on December 18, sending glass and fish flying into the crowd..... Three lemon sharks and dozens of turtles and small fish were killed in the incident".  Telepathy?

Mines of Sulphur - Richard Rodney Bennett

 Richard Rodney Bennett died Xmas Eve in New York. A cherished friend wrote "His Mines of Sulphur was special to me".  He saw it at Sadler's Wells in 1965, at the ENO and again at Wexford in 2008. Here's a quote from Andrew Clark in the FT. "As Wexford convincingly illustrates, The Mines of Sulphur a minor  masterpiece.
Bennett shows that, when harnessed to operatic conventions (greed, murder, retribution, guilt), musical modernism can make accessible,
riveting  theatre. The beauty of his score is its deftness, subtlety, fluency and, yes,  its tunefulness in a post-Bergian mould: he makes the vocal lines sound natural  and often tonal, in a way even Henze failed to achieve. "
 photo : Rob Lavinksy, i-Rocks,com

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Drei Könige wandern aus Morgenland

As an alternative to the English language version " Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar". My favourite, though, remains the version for boy alto.

Drei Könige wandern aus Morgenland; Ein Sternlein führt sie zum Jordanstrand. In Juda fragen und forschen die drei, Wo der neugeborene König sei? Sie wollen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold Dem Kinde spenden zum Opfersold.

Und hell erglänzet des Sternes Schein: Zum Stalle gehen die Kön'ge ein; Das Knäblein schaun sie wonniglich, Anbetend neigen die Könige sich; Sie bringen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold Zum Opfer dar dem Knäblein hold.

O Menschenkind! halte treulich Schritt! Die Kön'ge wandern, o wandre mit! Der Stern der Liebe, der Gnade Stern Erhelle dein Ziel, so du suchst den Herrn, Und fehlen Weihrauch, Myrrhen und Gold, Schenke dein Herz dem Knäblein hold!

Rossini La Cenerentola Andermann Xmas

Andrea Andermann's Rossini La Cenerentola (BBC TV2, Xmas Day and now available on the BBC iPlayer)  is interesting because it's a departure from his usual fixation with  exact location and time frame. One of the weaknesses of Andermann's Rigoletto lay in over-reliance on scenery as opposed to drama.  This time, he uses visuals more freely. That's a good thing, because La Cenerentola isn't realism, but fantasy. This time, Andermann dispenses with ultra-realism and frames the story with animations to illustrate the orchestral parts of the opera. Even if they can't read, children look at pictures, and their imaginations are inspired. What child hasn't dreamed?

La Cenerentola is Cinderella, a universal archetype who appears in many forms and many cultures.  As Bruno Betelheim and many others have shown, fairy tales appeal to something deep in the psyche, allowing children to work out their fears in a safe environment. Cinderella's been usurped by her sisters, and is banished to the kitchen. Hence the "cinders", the dirt from the kitchen, and possibly a reference to the death of her mother. These cinders are a theme that runs through the story, whether Cinderella appears as Cendrillon, La cenerentola or Aschenputtel.  Other details change but these are the basics. Rossini would have known the simler Italian version of the story rather than the Walt Disney version we're used to these days. Millions of children have felt badly done by, and dream of being rescued by a handsome prince or some other such magical solution.  In that sense, Elsa in Lohengrin is a distant cousin of Cinderella.

Thus visuals are important in La Cenerentola because they intensify the impact of the story.  In her stepfather's house, La Cenerentola is dressed in ashen rags, like the lowliest menial. But when her sisters taunt her, we see that their dresses are hollow frames. Perhaps Don Magnifico is magnificent, but Rossini sends him up in the "donkey aria" where he dreams he has become an ass. He has, by mistreating his daughter.  When La Cenerentola arrives at the palace, she's overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. Don  Ramiro's overwhelmed by her transformation. Andermann's cameramen pan from the singers to the glorious surroundings, so we feel that sense of wonder and beauty, too. Later, La cenerentola is seen winding a ball of wool. As the six principals sing of their dilemma, the wool is passed from person to person until an elaborate cat's cradle is produced. It's a beautiful image, reflecting the way the voices interweave and intertwine. 

Rossini creates his opera with warm-hearted goodwill. The sister are reunited, everyone lives happily ever after, and the music flows with elegance and charm.  But he doesn't change the basic premise of the story, which isn't cheery. Rossini's resolution is rather like the concluding ensemble in Don Giovanni where Don Giovanni's death is serenely glossed over with a delightful set piece that distances us from the trauma that went before. Nothing is quite so easy in real life, but in art we don't need, sometimes, to look too close.  Because Rossini is so good natured, La cenerentola works even if the singers are not Bartoli-class.  Apart from Regazzo and Lepore, this cast is young and relatively unsophisticated. But then their characters are like that too. A good-natured response to the production is in keeping with Rossini's own good-natured approach to the story..

Monday 24 December 2012

Santa Claus versus the Devil

After the soppy first ten minutes it gets really good.

Jesus Pequinino - Macau dialect

JESUS PEQUININO (Adeste Fideles)

Jesus pequinino
Justo ja nace
De frio tremido
Na nga cham di Belem
Filo Divino Di Virgem Maria
Vem-ca nos vai azinha
Vem-ca nos vai azinha
Vem-ca vai azinha adora nosso Rei

NOTE FELIZ (Silent Night)

 Feliz Note di amor
Ja ande Sa Maria-sa
Filo qui vem ilo Santo di
Ceu ja nace
C 'unga mundo di amor
Co-unga mundo di paz
Co-unga mundo di paz!

SINO TA TOCA (Jingle Bells)
Ding, dong, deng, Ding, dong, deng,
Sino ta toca Voz di Ceu ta canta
Tanto gente vem.
Festa di Natal sa pa nos senti
Tanto alegria paz co devosam
Rico, pobre, iqual: tudo logo ouvi
Voz qui vem di Ceu sa voz di corasam.
 Ding, dong, deng, Ding, dong, deng,
Nos quere chapa Nosso voz pa canta
Alegra tamem! Feliz Natal! Alegra!

Poems in the Macanese dialect by Jose de Santos Ferreira

Saturday 22 December 2012

Ken Russell A House in Bayswater

Ken Russell's A House in Baywater is currently viewable on BBCTV2 iPlayer in a very high quality print. For me it's seminal, a film that encapsulates so much of who Ken was, what he did and what he'd achieved in film thereafter. It also shows how sensitively Ken observed British society around him. A House in Baywater (1960) is a window on a Britain that was fast disappearing. Soon after the cameras stopped filming this house was pulled down  to make way for an anonymous office block.

A House in Baywater isn't true documentary although it's fact-based. in that Ken lived in the house himself and knew. Already, we see the germ of Ken Russell's style where he finds greater truths through art. A House in Bayswater is a precursor to the scene in the Elgar film where Elgar rides a horse through the countryside, true to the spirit of the man even if it's not documented. Thus in A House in Bayswater, we see an eccenrtic housekeeper describe the tenants she watches over from the basement of the huge Victorian house. She climbs 100 steps a day, delivering milk bottles. "And sometimes they want more, and I have to do it again". She doesn't complain, but you realize how self absorbed the tenants are, though the old lady doesn't complain. We see her shopping at the market.  Already, London is changing . There's a Sikh in a turban. The old lady likes looking at antiques in a flea market. "You can find anything here. Maybe I'll even find a husband". Maybe she's an antique herself, a throwback to another era.
She's a tough old soul, but her tenants are even stranger. There's a painter who talks about the joy of solitude. Very posh accent. They all seem to have ultra upper class accents in this film which sets them apart from the rest of society. Maybe that's why they can afford to live bohemian lifestyles beyond the ken of the working class (deliberate pun). For all his pretensions, the painter can't paint, as the camera quietly shows us. Another tenant is a photographer who takes arty nude shots on the roof to make enough money to finance a month of doing other things. It's only 1960, but Ken has picked up the Swinging Sixties vibe, and does so with critical insight. Although much of his later work is Swinging Sixties to a fault, he was not only a man of his time but saw it in ironic context.

Another tenant is a lady who used to be a lady's maid in America. Class-hopping, another Ken Russell theme. Although she's not an artist like the other tenants, she's an artist too, in the sense that she created a life that took her out of the dull and commonplace. There's a former dancer, who used to know famous people. Now she teaches a young girl. in her seedy, overcrowded room.  A scene is shot where the old dancer does her routine once more for the camera. Faded glory, delusion but brave optimism and passionate committment : hallmarks of the Ken Russell style.

Tucked away elsewhere in the house lives a "normal" man and his wife. He's some kind of working class salaryman who works in a "wine cellar". There's no hot water in the morning, he observes, as he shaves before heading off into the world. That's him in the photo above. He's laughing, despite his thankless existence. But look at his unreconstructed teeth! Perhaps this man's descendants live in Essex, long priced out of London. Shabby bedsits in grand old houses: Baywater is still full of them, even now, occupied by people with no money and grim prospects.  Ken Russell had a social conscience and was far more down to earth than he's given credit for. 

Ken Russell was an eccentric outsider, but that's precisely why he was a genius. He wasn't afraid to make mistakes or shock people. He could make painfully sensitive films like the Delius movie and horrors like the Strauss movie so controversial that even now, it's hard to get a handle on.  That's quintessential Ken,  a true artist who could madden, but never bore. Many people still don't understand.  Please look at other things I've written about Ken in the past, some photos not available anywhere else =- do NOT copy, please because I got them from source.

Friday 21 December 2012

Thursday 20 December 2012

Unusual English Christmas Music Finzi In terra pax

David Hill conducted a concert of English Christmas music at the chapel of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. It was an imaginative programme, very far removed from the usual fare we get this time of the year.

What an ambitious garland!  Tavener, Ireland, Bax, Howells, Warlock, Frank Bridge, and Vaughan Williams, with a centrepiece of Gerald Finzi. Finzi's  Dies Natalis op 8 and  In terra pax op 39 aren't often heard together as they're both demanding, but David Hill is so assured in this repertoire that he was able to conduct them so convincingly that we were left wondering why we shouldn't be hearing programmes like this more often. This is what the BBC does best and should be doing more of. Listen to the programme again soon through this link .

John Tavener's God is with us : A Christmas Proclamation was a good starting point, for the piece is modern, though rooted in the Greek Orthodox tradition, which long predates the Church of England. . The soloist (Nicky Spence) intones the lines in quasi-plain chant. "The people who walk in Darkness have seen a Great Light" : the contrast between the soloist's firm declamation and the reverential murmur in the chorus reflects the imagery in the text. Arnold Bax Mater ora filium created a gentler mood. Then, a surprise, a setting of John Ireland's The Holy Boy for strings, rather than voice and piano, from which the Intrada to Finzi's Dies Natalis evolved, quite effectively.

Although there are references in Finzi's Dies Natalis to a new born, the piece is far too esoteric for simplistic interpretation.  Dies Natalis isn't necessarily about the Infant Jesus, nor even about a new-born child. Fundamental to this cycle is the sense of wonder, of seeing the world anew through absolutely pure, unbiased eyes.  It's not oratorio. Finzi's approach to Traherne's Being is transcendentalist in spirit, completely unjudgemental, transfixed by the sheer miracle of existence. "A Stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange Glory see......Strange all and new to me, but that they MINE should be ...who Nothing was... yet brought to pass".For a more detailed analysis of Dies Natalis, please read THIS.

Nicky Spence understood the strange mysticism in the piece. He sang the Rapture beautifully, respecting Finzi's strange, unworldly syntax, using just enough vibrato to accentuate key words. "The corn was orient", he sang, making the vowel shimmer. You could visualize wind blowing over a field of ripe corn, making it move. He put so much effort into the rapture that his voice became slightly strained towards the end, but it didn't matter. He's young and will mature. It's far more important that he has the musical nous to understand how the piece expresses meaning.

Finzi's In terra pax is more conventionally religious, to a point. Finzi uses a text that mixes two poems by Robert Bridges that refer specifically to Christmas Eve, 1913, and a "water'd valley" from which the sounds of church bells can be heard. For Finzi, the bells are all-important, for he found his artistic Epiphany in 1925 on Chosen Hill.  At midnight, he came out into sharp frost, the night sky filled with stars, and "heard bells ringing across Gloucestershire from beside the Severn to the hill villages of the Cotswolds". Read more about the background to In terra pax HERE, because it's relevant to interpretation.

In this chamber version, low strings suggest wide vistas and pealing bells, while the harp creates atmospheric "snowfall". The poet describes a 20th century world, but this goes back to "that first Christmas of all"  where shepherds, who knew nothing of Christ, heard angels "si-i-i-ng-ing", as Finzi decorates the word.  In terra pax works on multiple levels. Past and present co-exist. Bridges' poem blends into the Bible, and Finzi mixes Bethlehem with Britain. A soloist sings "Fear not!", set so high it sounds like an angel. This isn't "straight" Nativity though it's inspired by the first Christmas. For Finzi it reflected his own creative birth, and thus his career as composer and all-round Renaissance man.  In terra pax was also written under the shadow of cancer,and was the last piece Finzi conducted.  David Hill conducted the BBC CO and singers beautifully.  The passage where the chorus is divided to suggest the pealing of bells was particularly well done. Hill's  recording is as good as the one conducted years ago by Vernon Handley. Stephen Charlesworth, a BBC Singers veteran, sang the baritone part this time, nicely modulated, high and clear. The timbre of the final phrase "th'eternal silence" is tricky, but reminds us that the poet is human, not angel. 

In comparison to the sublime In terra pax, Herbert Howells' early Three Carol Anthems are more mainstream. The second song, A Spotless Rose, is by far the most distinctive. Although there's a stanza for baritone, the loveliest moment comes when the BBC Singers elide the final line "cold winter's night".  Frank Bridge's Christmas Dance (Sir Roger de Coverley) was brisky witty, almost jazzy. Folk dance for the early 20th century, briskly played by members of the BBC CO. David Hill's arrangement of Peter Warlock's  On Bethlehem Down gives the BBC Singers a chance to show how well their voices blend. It's odd to think of a man like Warlock writing Xmas carols but composers have to make a living.

Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols still sounds fresh though it was written exactly 100 years ago. Edward Price sang the baritone part, the BBC Singers joining in merrily. Nice dark cello introduction to a cheerfully blended punch bowl of famous tunes.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Spectacular Christmas Opera Broadcast

On Christmas Day, BBCTV2 will be broadcasting Rossini La Cenerentola. This could be big news. This is another of Andreas Andermann's spectacular on-location extravaganas.  It won't be bog standard Xmas panto Cinderella.

Remember Andermann's Rigoletto broadcast live from Mantua (Mantova)? That was an amazing experience, the ultimate "realistic" production. Read this article Unique Rigoletto Mantua to see why it worked  Andermann's La Cenerentola could be a major event, if it's anything like that Rigoletto, broadcast live to millions. It's a RAI production, and RAI has the resources to do things on a grand scale. It's odd that the BBC is giving hardly any background information, such as whether it's live or a premiere. ADDENDUM :  I've just been sent this link. This film was first broadcast in June 2012.

Andermann's Rigoletto was filmed inside the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova. No three dimensional theatre set could hope to replicate the possibilities filming in real space can offer. Real Renaissance staircases and hallways, real marble parquets. Frescoes painted by 15th and 16th century masters. Real antique tapestries and furniture. No opera house workshop would even dream of competing with Mantegna or Corregio. Design doesn’t get more perfect than this. Andermann also created the 1992 Verdi Tosca, filmed in Rome. In its time, that Tosca made opera a prime time TV hit.  Anything that Andermann does is going to be interesting, because it predicates on the idea that an opera is location and time specific.

Grand panoramas and works of art certainly do thrill, because they lift us right out of our normal lives. What better way to digest your Xmas dinner ? What better excuse to avoid the in-laws?  Tosca and Rigoletto worked because a sense of place was relevant to the operas as drama. The palace at Mantova is a maze of different buildings connected by alleyways and courtyards. A metaphor for the complex relationships within the Court, where nothing is quite as simple as might seem. But La Cenerentola is a fantasy. Any palace will do. (the photo about is Queluz, near Lisbon).  Remember Massenet's Cendrillon at the Royal Opera House last year ? (review here)

In Rossini, glamour scenery certianly adds to the experience, but whart counts are the arias. No Placido Domingo or Vittorio Grigolo this time. Most of this cast are reasonably well known, some bel canto regulars like Lorenzo Regazzo (Alidoro), and Carlo Lepore (Don Magnifico). The leads are relative newcomers, though, Lena Belkina (La cenerentola) and Edgardo Rocha (Don Ramiro).  Youth and energy could go a long way in an opera like this. 

Monday 17 December 2012

Florian Boesch Schubert Winterreise Wigmore Hall

Wintery weather for Florian Boesch's  Schubert Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall. But what bliss to hear an austere interpretation that challenged  assumptions! This wasn't "easy listening", for Boesch doesn't do superficial charm. True Lieder  devotees know their Schubert so well that they can  appreciate new perspectives.  Boesch and Roger Vignoles took an original, courageous approach which proved just how much there is yet to find in this well-known cycle.

Boesch made his point from the very first word, "Fremd", projecting it forcefully so there was no mistaking that what was to come would be comfortable. Schubert sets the word twice for emphasis. Boesch and Vignoles separate it from the rest of the phrase with the tiniest pause, so subtle you might miss it, but the chill lingers through the following images of May, love and flowers. "Nun", Boesch continues. But is this just a journey through landscape? "Nicht wählen mit der Zeit, Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen In dieser Dunkelheit". By emphasizing key words, like "Fremd" and "Was", Boesch establishes a thrust that intensifies the chilling, cutting edge in the music, often muffled by the impressionistic "snow"  imagery in the piano part.

Later on the journey, the protagonist addresses crows, trees and metereological phenomena.  In some interpretations, this is a sign of madness. Perhaps even the old beggar is a hallucination.  Boesch, however, is more humanistic, drawing his ideas from psychological theory. Wilhelm Müller, the poet, saw battle in the wars against Napoleon. He'd also overcome an unhappy love affair. A sensitive reading of his texts shows how purposeful this journey might be. "Die Liebe liebt das Wandern, Gott hat sie so gemacht".  It's not an aberration, but natural development.  Boesch's almost conversational style is understated and direct.  Lieder singing turns the listener inward, identifying with the performer rather than observing from outside. For Boesch, there are no histrionics, no exaggerated operatic mad scenes. If the protagonist is indeed insane, then so are we.

Boesch's direct, conversational style suggests a rational, though very intense  man who is working things out  from different angles.  When Boesch sings of the girl he's leaving, the tenderness in his voice suggests that she was a real person with whom he's had a genuine relationship. His anger is quite appropriate.  In "Estarrung" , the numbness the poet feeels is suggested by the quiet desperation in Boesch's voice. He listens to Vignoles play the prelude to  "Der Lindenbaum", and the mood changes. In this performance, Boesch took longer pauses than he does in his recording of Winterreise last year with Malcolm Martineau.  This creates a more contemplative effect, as if the protagonist is actively assessing the world around him and considering his options. Although the music flows between songs, Schubert purposefully changes the mood in each song. The poet cannot wallow but must keep moving forwards, pulled ahead by the piano part.  "Es war zu kalt zum Stehen".

In true Romantic fashion, Boesch's protagonist responds to Nature. "Irrlicht" was taken with such a sense of wonder that you could imagine the unearthly halo that illuminates the marsh spirits. The "Blumen in Winter" shone with deftly defined lyricism.  Because Boesch listens carefully and enunciates his words with deliberation, we too listen to how the images in this text recur, in different guises as the journey progresses. The friendly will o' the wisp reveals itself as delusion, Village dogs bark no less than three times in this text,  but eventually the Leiermann shows that they can be ignored.

Often it's assumed that Winterreise ends in death. But is death the only alternative to the values of the village? The Romantic spirit focussed on the individual, and on personal enlightenment. The protagonist in Winterreise is setting out on a road "die noch Keiner ging zurück" but that could mean that he's not the man he was before he set forth. In "Das Wirthaus" the piano part suggests a tolling death knell, but the wreaths here are for other travellers. This protagonist cannot rest. Boesch sings "Mut" defiantly. Already we hear Vignoles's playing evoke the folksy sound of a hurdy-gurdy, as the poet resolves to mock the wind and weather. The phrase "Will kein Gott auf Erden sein, sind wir selber Götter", was enunciated with deliberation.

The whole winter's journey has been leading to the final song, Der Leiermann. How carefully Boesch describes the old man, barefoot in the snow, "mit starren Fingern dreht er was er kann". Perhaps the Leiermann is an apparition, since few people might survive is such conditions. But the very fact that the Leiermann continues playing against all odds is what makes him a "Wunderlicher Alte".  Boesch intones the words as if they were strange prophecy.  In summer the Leiermann might play at village dances, but in winter he somehow continues to play, as if driven. The instrument itself is simple, droning as its handle is moved in a circular motion. It's music in a very basic form, but music nonetheless.

The protagonist wonders if he should follow. "Willst du meinen Liederen deine Leier drehn?". Boesch articulates so you clearly hear the connection between "Lieder" and "Leier". Perhaps in some circles, outsiders like the Leiermann might seem "mad" because they don't conform to convention.  Romantic period sensibilities would, however, have identified the Leiermann with the image of an artist who persists with what he believes in,  however isolated he is from society.  Boesch and Vignoles gave us at the Wigmore Hall much to contemplate. We cannot dismiss this Leiermann as mad or irrelevant any more than we can dismiss the role of Art itself.
Please also see this interview, where Boesch speaks about his unorthodox approach to Die Schöne Müllerin. Read what he says carefully, because he's extremely perceptive.  His performance at the Oxford Lieder Festival was a great artistic experience.  Boesch's ideas apply even more to Winterreise, and were, at the Wigmore Hall, expressed with great emotional conviction.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Terfel steals show - Zurich Der Fliegende Holländer London

There are some who believe that opera is "only" about singing, and nothing else. They would have loved this production of Wagner Der Fliegende Holländer at The Royal Festival Hall, a concert performance of the current production at Opernhaus Zürich. Bryn Terfel, Matti Salminen and Anja Kampe, all of them veterans.

This is only Bryn Terfel's third Dutchman, but the part comes so naturally to him that we can already imagine him as one of its great interpreters  "Die Frist ist um", sang Terfel, instantly transforming the atmosphere. Terfel isn't predictable. When he's inspired, his performances are electrifying. When he's unenthusiastic, he coasts. On this occasion, we heard Terfel justify the whole performance.

Terfel knows the Royal Festival Hall, its acoustic and its audience. He gauged his performance to suit. This Dutchman was intimate, even personal, far more complex than the brutish Dutchman he sang in the 2009 Royal Opera House production. The quieter passages were created with delicate balanced mezza voce."Mein Schiff ist fest", he sings, but shapes the second phrase more tellingly.  "... es leidet keinen Schaden". The ship is strong, but its captain is a damaged soul. This Dutchman doesn't bluster. Terfel shapes  phrases with sensitive nuance, sometimes singing with extreme pianissimo. Opera house dynamnics don't often favour this fine gradation, so Terfel uses the auditorium to his advantage. Sometimes it felt like having a one to one connection with the Hollander. Terfel makes us hear the human being behind the demonic persona, and that's where the real drama lies. This is the Dutchman Senta intuits behind the gloomy portrait, whom no-one else can perceive.

The evening started fitfully, the overture interrupted by the arrival of latecomers. Perhaps the conductor,  Alain Altinoglu, was aiming for a vaguely period sound, for this is very early Wagner, premiered twelve years after Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, and seven years before Robert Schumann's Genoveva. We're so used to hearing full bodied mid 20th century approaches to Wagner that we can lose context. This wasn't a period performance, however, and in any case period performances can be vividly gutsy. At one point I tried to count the number of musicians in the orchestra, to account for the thin textures and lack of overall thrust. There were almost as many singers in the choirs as musicans in the orchestra.  Perhaps the spareness reflected the stark minimalism of Andreas Homoki's staging (see production photos here)  though that staging could support a much more savage interpretation. Orchestrally, things picked up in the second half, but by that stage my ears were tracking little but the singing.

Anja Kampe sang Senta in both the Royal Opera House productions (more here). Then, she was an excellent foil to Terfel's taciturn Dutchman. When Terfel creates an utterly more revealing Dutchman, the balance shifts. Kampe's Senta now has striking big notes, the energy transferred from creating character to creating grand singing.  It's perfectly acceptable, but for me there's always more to opera than voice alone.  More intriguing was Liliana Nitikieanu, whose lusciously warm timbre suggested a Mary with a lot more personality than Senta, possibly even more sensual, but less given to Senta's anguish.

Matti Salminen is a force of nature, always fascinating even when his voice shows strain. He didn't seem well, clinging to the podium, but he still created a convincing Daland. I'd been looking forward to hearing Marco Jentsch's Erik, because he was a very promising Walter in Glyndebourne's 2011 Meistersinger (more here), but he pulled out, replaced in London by Martin Homrich. Homrich was adequate, if dry, suited to more conventional performances than this one, dominated as it was by Terfel's unusually fine characterization. Fabio Trümpy as the Steuermann, was a discovery. He's a Zürich local boy, and sings in the Ensemble there. His clear, bright voice was another revelation of the evening - we must hear more of him.

photo : Nick Step

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Full Peer Gynt Grieg, Barbican

As soon as the Barbican announced its 2012-13 season I rejoiced. (Full review here)  Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt op 23 is rarely heard in full: usually we hear the Suites thereon and popular extracts like Morgenstimmung,  the Hall of the Mountain King, and Solveig's Song The version tonight will be based on an edition prepared in the 1990's  which frames the music with pieces of spoken dialogue from Henrik Ibsen's original play. Music with incidental speech, this time, not play with incidental music !

The "full" Grieg Peer Gynt was premiered in UK at the 2001 BBC Proms.  Bo Skovhus, dressed in green and red Norwegian costume, sang Peer Gynt. Until that point I'd never appreciated why Skovhus had such a following. After hearing his superlative performance, I too was hooked. Barbara Bonney sang Solveig. In those days, she was the pre-eminent Scandinavian song specialist. Manfred Honeck conducted the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Three speakers, including Simon Callow.

The performers tonight at the Barbican will be Miah Persson (usually divine), Johannes Weisser, Anita Hallenberg and the BBCSO under Marc Minkowski.Tonight's concert is being reviewed in Opera Today. Part of the charm of this version is that we get to hear the big choral sections. In The Hall of the Mountain King is great fun when you hear the wild Troll chorus! When Peer Gynt meets the Bøyg (a monster) the orchestra recoils in horrror. The chorus screams in alarm, but is calmed by a hymn tune,  complete with organ.

There's an interesting version of Solveig's song by Chinese coloratura Zhou Xiao yuan HERE, which you won't find elsewhere easily. This song is one of Miah Persson's signatures, so  it should be a great experience.  Below an extract from Grieg "full" Peer Gynt op 23. Don 't recognize? that's why it is needed.


Friday 14 December 2012

La Diva delivers, Renée Fleming Barbican

Renée Fleming's recital at the Barbican London focused on composers active in Vienna in the decades spanning the 19th and 20th centuries - that "golden" epoch . And to her credit, she sang Schoenberg, Wolf, Mahler, Korngold and Zemlinsky with Strauss for encores. . Read the full review in Opera Today, it's the kind of musical analysis that's so good to read. But let's face it, many in the audience went for La Diva, who delivered.

"she deserved the adulation and the rapturous standing ovation: it was clear that she could ask her voice to do whatever she willed, confident that the result would be technically masterful yet seem effortlessly articulated. Just one tiny, humble, suggestion: if your feet can’t be seen beneath the taffeta fanfares, there’s no point crippling yourself in tottering, un-walkable Louboutins — when you sing this gloriously, flat pumps will do!"

Terfel speaks : Der fliegende Hollander

On Saturday 15/12, Bryn Terfel sings Der Fliegende Holländer at The Royal Festival Hall, in a non-staged version from Zurich Opera. HERE IS MY REVIEW.  Here is a link to an interview Terfel gave to a Swiss reporter.   "It's young Wagner" says Bryn, "He was like a scientist, finding out new things himself. There are bits of Fidelio in here and Italianate qualities.". Terfel says coyly that  he hopes that in time he'll be considered a great Wagner singer, "a lyric Wagner-based bass baritone but with intensity". But what's even more interesting is to watch Terfel's body language and listen to the way he plays with the interviewer,. He's telling us much more about himself  than his words do.  HERE is another link to a photo gallery on the Zurich Opera site.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Kaufmann Lohengrin La Scala Barenboim

Gala nights at Teatro alla Scala Milan are big occasions. There's often a political dimension becaue Italians take opera seriously. In 2010, there were demonstrations and Daniel Bareboim made a passionate speech from the podium .This year the fact that Wagner was chosen instead of Verdi was an issue, and some politicians didn't attend. This year, the performance wasn't screened live in cinemas outside Italy. Perhaps they wanted to preserve the exclusive cachet.  But seat sales aren't the way the market works anymore. Thwarted of the usual cinemas screenings, audiences outside Italy watched the broadcast via

The cast list was stellar: Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin, René Pape, Annette Dasch, Evelyn Herlitzius, Tómas Tómasson. Even the Heerfufer (Herald) was tops :Zeljko Lucic. Since Barenboim has been associated with Wagner most of his adult life, the performance was never in any danger of being a disappointment. Surprisingly, though, some of the singing wasn't quite as good as might have been expected. Tómasson's Telramund suffered vocal roughness, particularly in the first act, though he picked up later. Even Kaufmann wasn't quite his usual, luminous, lyrical self.  But it was plenty good enough, we can't expect extreme perfection all the time.

Annette Dasch pretty much stole the show. She sang Elsa at Bayreuth in the Hans Neuenfels production (more here). She was so good that I for one wasn't heartbroken when Anja Harteros pulled out at the last moment. Dasch doesn't fit the cliché of Elsa as passive victim waiting for a handsome prince : she's too strong a personality, and too vivid. A voice with that luscious richness couldn't sound wan. Besides, Elsa is a Wagner heroine. Like Brünnhilde, Isolde and Senta, she finds solutions. Brabant is in chaos because Elsa's brother Gottfried, the rightful heir, has disappeared. Telramund accuses Elsa. If she's eliminated, Ortrud can rule and restore her ancient gods. This isn't merely a struggle for succession but a struggle between cosmic forces

If Ortrud can use magic, Elsa can call on supernatural forces. The libretto refers to her as in ruhiger Verklärung vor sich hinblickend (quietly transfixed, staring ahead of her, as if unaware of the crowds around her). Elsa may not even know it, but she can call on some deep subconscious force to help her survive. The Grail community isn't real, and indeed, goes against Christian theology. Is Lohengrin a kind of instinctive wish fulfillment?

Claus Guth's staging addresses Lohengrin on a psychological level. This Brabant isn't historic. When the real Heinrich der Vogler lived, Ortrud's gods had long been replaced by Christianity. In Wagner's time, though, Germany existed as a collection of small states. If Guth sets this Brabant firmly in the mid 19th century, he's closer to the deeper spirit of the opera than the kitsch pageantry of Moshinksy, where decor replaces drama. The darkness in Guth's production throws focus on the characters.  Telramund and Elsa are buttoned-up power figures. Gottfried is seen with a "young" version of Elsa, reminding us how strongly Elsa and Gottfried were bonded.

In the libretto, Wagner makes a point of referring to Lohengrin's horn, a detail often overlooked by stagings which emphasize the mein lieber Schwan image.  Guth shows that this detail is no accident. What other Wagner hero carries a horn? Siegfried, who saves Brünnhilde from her prison.  Later, when Kaufmann's Lohengrin contemplates the dilemma Elsa puts him in, he cradles it like a child seeks help from a comfort object. In the First Act, there's a piano on stage as Ortrud and Teltramund accuse Elsa. At the end, when Lohengrin departs, the piano appears again among the reeds by the lake. Is it Elsa's equivalent of a horn? Music has the power to lift us out of dilemmas. Imagination is a positive form of magic, with which Ortrud's repressive spells cannot compete.

Heinrich and Telramund are officers, but the Brabanters are decamisados. Lohengrin doesn't need a shining swan suit: he's a Romantic hero, in an open collar shirt, like a poet. When  Kaufmann first materializes, he's curled in a foetal position, twitching like a bird breaking out of its shell.  Later, as he's about to return to Monsalvat, he's barefoot again, splashing in the water around him.  Elsa remains in her finery, albeit dishevelled. She and Lohengrin inhabit different worlds. Essentially, he's a creature of Nature, and she the type he needs to frame him with a name. Lohengrin teeters on a narrow pier above the lake, torn dangerously between earth and water. Later, when Gottfried reappears, he stands on the pier. Elsa reaches out but falls.

Musically, this La Scala Lohengrin is satisying though not quite as great as it could be. Guth's staging may not please the glam and glitter crowd but it's a whole lot more perceptive.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

12/12/12 Jurowski LPO Grisey Quatre Chants Mahler 5

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO in Mahler's Symphony no 5  on 12/12/12. We'll never see dates like that again. Some could deduce  Portents of Doom but maybe we're safe, as the concert doesn't start at 12 past 12.

Even though music is abstract, listening is a subjective experience.  Music itself is neutral, but we would not be human if we did not respond emotionally and carry unconscious connotations into the process. We might read Portents of Doom into this symphony since Mahler nearly died while writing it. However, the thought of haemorrhoids should stop excess sentimentality.

Jurowski is no fool. He's programmed Mahler with Gérard Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil.  As Mahler said,"music is more than just the notes". When we listen, can we think how our responses are being channeled?  For me this is one of the truly great song cycles of the last 50 years. In the last 6 years,  it's been heard live in London at least 4 times, twice I think with Barbara Hannigan. Jurowski's soloist is Alison Bell. The classic recording is Catherine Dubosc, with Cambreling.

Grisey was interested in "psychoacoustics", which sounds terrible, but what that means is intense awareness of how what we hear affects how the brain rocesses what comes through our ears, and vice versa. A lot of his music seems attuned to natural body rhythms, so you hear tiny nuances. It's surprisingly therapeutic without actually being designed to be that way. This is not waffly New Age stuff.   It's mentally challenging because it needs careful attention, but somehow it connects to your pulse, as natural as breathing. Often I play this music on continuous loop, so it "evolves" like it's alive.

 Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. refers to the idea of "crossing the threshold", between life and death, between struggle and sublimation, a flux between levels of consciousness. It works like deep meditation, releasing the soul so it can be free. Shortly after it was completed Grisey died suddenly but that's pure coincidence. There's nothing spooky about that at all, even though Grisey's  title comes from a line in Claude Vivier's Glaubst du, an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? That earlier piece refers to being stabbed and crossing over into the unknown. Shortly after, Vivier (ironic name) was murdered by a casual stranger in almost exactly the same circumstances. (Lots about Vivier elsewhere on this site.)

Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil.starts with long semi-silence then suddenly waving chords enter, not discordant, but disjointed, This isn't firm ground but exploratory. "" sings the soprano, vertical sounds over the hazy horizontals around her. Gradually the patterns merge, the Voice part disintegrates and reforms in abstract, transcended form, soaring like an arc, stretching outwards into space. Then the incantation, based on sacred Egyptian texts instructing the soul on its journey from death to immortality. The texts are fragmented, and the music hovers as if intuiting the gaps in the transmission. Each stage in the ritual is numbered and intoned, for what's even more important than the detail is the sense of inexorable forward movement. "Laisse moi passer, laisse moi passer"....then "formule pour être un dieu"'.

More wonderfully shaped moving sound, deep timbred instruments like contrabass clarinet, muted tubas and trumpet, contrasted with the high voice. "Le voix s'épand dans l'ombre". Only the rumble of drums like distant thunder and barely perceptible rustling, hurrying sounds like wind. We're crossing something..... Circular arching trumpet sounds, more rustling, speeding up, punctuated by sharp thwacks on percussion and harp. Then waddling tuba and screeching (but harmonic! ) saxophones and clarinets. We enter a new place, vivid with clear light. The soprano's singing text from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is the "death of civilization". Human bodies have turned into a vast sea of clay, but to the prophet, it's a terrace open onto an endless horizon. The violin part is painfully beautiful, and there's a steady hum vibrating in the background. Of the final Berceuse, Grisey said it's not a lullaby but "music to the dawning of humanity finally liberated of its nightmare".

Monday 10 December 2012

Open Day at the Royal Opera House

On 7th January The Royal Opera House is live streaming for 10 hours. It's  a kind of visual live blog of what's hapening all day behind the scenes as well as front of house. Obviously you pick and choose what you want to watch !

Most interesting from a technical point of view, they'll be showing Act III from Die Walküre (pre-recorded from September) and showing how the filming was done from several different perspectives, and you will see some of the preparations, like watching Bryn Terfel getting ready. Filming opera is an art in itself, so this should be fun for those wanting an idea of how it's done.

Thank goodness the ROH keeps art and technical stuff well apart.  Background is important but it's not foreground. The way the Met crams gimmicky chitchat into its intervals distracts from performances. It's cute to see backstage once but ultimately it degrades the magic of performances.  Maybe it appeals to audiences who aren't really interested in opera as drama and just want an "experience". But god forbid ROH should stoop to such crassness.  Better to keep the technicals as technicals. Once at the Met Bryn Terfel brushed Renée Fleming away as she pounced on him, "Sorry, I have another Act to sing", he said, showing where his real priorities lay. As a singer herself she ought to know better.

Other highlights include glimpses into stage rehearsals of Nabucco and rehearsals for Kasper Holten’s new production of Eugene Onegin his first production for ROH.  John Fulljames will present a model showing of his new production of  La donna del lago. Also, Antonio Pappano will do a masterclass with a singer currently on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, while  Rolando Villazón lets us in on his preparations before going on that evening as Rodolfo in La bohème. Sort of an extended Insight Evening in the comfort of your own PC. 

Details will be in the Guardian and on The Space. It's a good thing that The Space still exists because Britain needs an all arts online channel, like the French and Germans. But The Space is badly managed. They don't have details about the ROH day even though it's less than a month ahead. Why do a project like that, with so much potential, and do it so incompetently? It isn't easy to organize strong links with venues and negotiate rights, but really......  

 photo : Elliott Brown from Birmingham

Saturday 8 December 2012

Triomphe! Meyerbeer Robert le diable, review, Royal Opera House

Why was Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable an overwhelming success in its time ? The Royal Opera House production suggests why: it's a cracking good show! Extreme singing, testing the limits of vocal endurance,  and extreme drama. Robert le Diable is Faust, after all, not history, and here its spirit is captured by audacious but well-informed staging. Listen with an open mind and heart and imagine how audiences in Meyerbeer's time might have imagined the madness and magic that is Robert le diable.

Bryan Hymel is outstanding, singing the difficult, unusual part with exceptionally fluid, lyrical singing, the cruel tessitura negotiated with such strong technique that we hear the part, not the effort. He isn't simply displaying vocal skill, but infusing the part with greater psychological depth than  the text itself suggests. That is true artistry. Opera is not singing alone, it is drama with music at its heart.  The extremes Meyerbeer writes into the vocal line express Robert's tortured soul: Hymel makes them ring with emotional conviction. In the duet "Mon coeur s'élance et palpite",  he almost steals the show though Isabelle has the killer high notes. Many other exquisite moments, like the Act Four "du magique rameau". Hymel, still only 33, is a voice to cherish.

The parts of Alice and Isabella are tours de force. Alice is a maid from Normandy, as the orchestra tells us with  vaguely folk melodies. Although she carries a letter from Robert's mother she is not Micaëla whose love for Don José is tainted with possessiveness.  Meyerbeer's audiences would have no trouble identifying Alice with Joan of Arc, another girl from Normandy who fought against all odds.  Marina Poplavskaya's Alice is no bimbette, but a heroine worthy of Jeanne d'Arc herself.

Poplavskaya's voice soars clear over the orchestra in the tricky early parts of the opera. But it's in her confrontation with Bertram that she shows the intelligence she brings to the characterization.  Poplavskaya reaches the horrendously high notes with clarity. Alice is direct, she doesn't make a fuss, so this intense portrayal is psychologically true. Yet it also refects the recurrent staccato in the music, and the thrusting, stabbing passages in the orchestra. The mock medieval battle in the text is outclassed  by the cosmic battle for Robert's soul. Poplavskaya's Alice is lithe and energetic, for she's a swordsman duelling against death.

Isabella's two biggest arias, "Idole de ma vie" and "Robert, toi que je t'aime" define the word "show stopper". Done well, the audience is stunned and the action stops until applause subsides. That alone can make good theatre.  In  the Cavatina, the word "Grâce" is repeated in elaborate variations. Then the orchestra chimes in, provoking even greater feats of vocal gymnastics.  You're left gasping. Patrizia Ciofi received much applause for standing in at the last moment. She's very experienced, having first taken the role more than ten years ago.  Perhaps she'll  slip back into gear as the run continues.  She's excellent, but this is a role that needs heart shatteringly astonishing singing.

John Relyea sings Bertram's set piece arias at the end of Act Four impressively but he is no pantomime villain.  Tellingly, he sings details like the recurrent "mon fils, mon fils" with gruff tenderness. He wants Robert because Robert is his son.  Relyea's subtlety suggests why Bertram was once loved by the saintly Rosalie, Robert's mother. While Meyerbeer milked the plot for melodrama, there's room in the music for the depth Relyea brings to it.

Since many people know nothing of Meyerbeer other than Wagner's slander, our modern approach to Meyerbeer is distorted.  Wagner was such a complex person that it's nonsense to take a simplistic view of the Wagner/Meyerbeer relationship.  Alberich-like, Wagner had to attack Meyerbeer to  hide how much he owed him.  It's a classic troll tactic. No wonder Wagner understood the Niebelung mind. If Meyerbeer's use of the orchestra seems over the top to us, it's because we are thinking in Wagnerian terms. Meyerbeer extends his characterizations with motives that run through the opera like a thread - drinking songs, marches, Norman folk songs. Develop these further and call them Leitmotivs.  He also uses the orchestra sparingly - harps around Isabella's angelic singing, brooding winds and brass around Bertram.  The large orchestral flourishes are deftly done, and move the action forward, without overpowering - you want to hear those clear high notes shine.
If we free ourselves of Wagner snobbery, we can appreciate Robert le Diable's true place in music history. Its obvious antecedent is Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz and its direct descendant Berlioz The Damnation of Faust.  All derive form the High Romantic fascination with Gothic fantasy and the occult.  Meyerbeer may not be "modern" taste but that reflects on our awareness of period opera. Even Bach was largely forgotten until Mendelssohn championed his music.  Perhaps the shadow of Wagner is so strong that we don't let ourselves enjoy Meyerbeer because we're too worried about what others might think.

We should bear this background in mind when assessing this Royal Opera House production, directed by Laurent Pelly with designs by Chantal Thomas. This would go a long way towards a reasessment of Meyerbeer because it is very well researched and erudite. The ballet, where the ghosts of dead nuns are seem rising from their graves, is based almost exactly on the original Paris designs. The etchings we see are also based on authentic period imagery.  The huge revolving mountain that dominates the stage could come straight out of a Gothic painting or novel. To 19th century people, wild landscapes represented fear and superhuman forces. Think the Wolf's Glen in Der Freischütz.

Robert le Diable is melodrama, by no means po-faced. This staging is colourful because the music is colourful.  How Meyerbeer's audiences must have thrilled to the sight of semi-naked nuns dancing lustfully. They would have enjoyed mock medieval pgeantry without worrying too much whether it was authentic.  Our modern obssession with period-specific staging meant nothing to audiences who were used to seeing zany mixtures of period and style. Ironically, this is a much more authentic staging than many realise. In many ways, we are less open to the art of imagination now than our forebears were once. Why shouldn't we have as much fun as they did?  Pelly and Thomas are giving us a chance to see the opera in period context. We should value the chance to see this opera done in this way because chances are we won't get many opportunities since it's not at all an easy work to stage.
This ROH production is being recorded and filmed. BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting an audio version on Saturday 15th December (link here).

Longer version of this review with full cast list in Opera Today Go to Opera Today for a full download of the 1985 production and libretto

photos :  Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House, details embedded

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Summer Coup for Garsington Opera

Cheery news on a dark December day! Garsington Opera's 2013 summer season is now officially announced.  Last year the weather was unnaturally cold and wet - blankets and wellies  - but let's hope that next year we'll have proper summer weather, and long, bright evenings to enjoy the park at Wormsley as well as the opera offerings.

The new season starts on 7th June with Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The cast includes Norman Reinhardt, Rebecca Nelsen, Mark Wilde, Susanna Andersson and Matthew Rose. Conductor is William Lacey and director Daniel Slater. who directed Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream, the glorious finale to Garsington Oera's years at the home of Leonard Ingram, before the company moved to Mark Getty's home at Wormsley.  Read more about that here. If this Entführung is nearly as good, we're in for a treat. 

Garsington Opera scores a coup with the first British staging of Rossini's Maometto Secondo (Maometto Segundo). Garsington has always been famous for reviving lesser known baroque work, and Maometto Secondo is a jewel.  Mehmet II, Sultan of the Ottomans, conquered Constantinople, ending the Byzantine Empire. 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. For Venetians, Turks posed a genuine threat to survival. This Turk was no buffo.  Rossini with political depth? Surprisingly, yes, for he treats his characters as individuals rather than cardboard stereotypes. Maometto is a villain who has beseiged a Venetian outpost, but he's in love with the commander's daughter Anna. The plot's convoluted but the Venetians escape (it's an Italian opera, of course). For 19th century audiences the idea of a lustful exotic foreigner must have created a frsson. (read more about the opera here) David Parry is conducting, so frisson will be guaranteed. Singers include Darren Jeffery, Paul Nilon, Siân Davies, Christopher Diffey, Richard Dowling and Caitlin Hulcup.  Maometto II was a hit at the Santa Fe Opera festival in 2012 so it's going to be fun !

Olivia Fuchs's Britten A Midsummers Night's Deam at the Linbury Theatre, ROH was one of the finest productions I've seen. (more here). She's a Garsington Opera regular, too, and has directed opera throughout the UK and Europe.  So when she directs Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel at Garsington Opera in late June/early July, we should be in for something interesting.  This is the cast :
Claudia Huckle, William Dazeley, Anna Devin, Yvonne Howard, Sophie Junker, Ruth Jenkins, Susan Bickley.and Sophie Junker  Martin André conducts.

For more information, please see the Garsington Opera at Wormsley site HERE.

Robert le Diable - full download libretto

The Dancing Nuns scene from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable starting Thursday at the Royal Opera House. Robert le Diable is taken to the haunted convent by Bertram who is the Devil and Robert's father, though Robert doresn't know it yet. Bertram is also Alice's father, but she and Isabella save Robert, and Bertram is despatched to hell. Audiences in the 19th century didn't have delusions that opera was "historic". They heard past the fake medievalism and enjoyed the drama for what it was. Indeed, Heinrich Heine wrote a poem about  the social context of Robert le Diable.

 "Es ist ein großes Zauberstück
Voll Teufelslust und Liebe;
Von Meyerbeer ist die Musik,
Der schlechte Text von Scribe."

Heine understood the social context of opera in his time and why audences enjoyed Robert le Diable despite the audacious plot.  Read what I wrote about Heine's Meyerbeer poem earlier this year. Since Heine doesn't actually mention the title of the opera, not many  people make the connection.  You saw it here first! But it's pretty obvious as it is ein großes Zauberstück, Voll Teufelslust und Liebe;

Trysts or not, we can at last enjoy Robert le Diable We can enjoy it too at the Royal Opera House, where the cast are experienced and the director knows the genre. Read my comments on the ROH cast here - they could be as good as we can get.

HERE is a link to a full download of Robert le Diable from Paris in 1985 with Alain Vanzo, Sam Ramey, June Anderson and Michele Lagrange.  Even then, they werer bedevilled by cast changes. Nothing new - these things happen. Vanzo is a much more idiomatic Robert than Rockwell Blake who took the part when they made the film of the same production.  Stick to the audio download above. It's lively and the audience keeps erupting with applause. Usually I can't stand applause because it breaks drama but in this case, it's part of the fun.  There's a link to the full libretto as well.

Tomoorow I'll write a survey of some recordings. Please read other pieces I['ve written about Meyerbeer by following the labels

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Meyerbeer Robert le Diable - who's behind it

Much has been made of the cast changes at the Royal Opera House Meyerbeer Robert le diable that starts Thursday. It's easy to make a fuss if you don't actually know what's involved.  But listen to the music - it's fiendishly difficult, created to shock and awe. The tessitura in most parts lies so high that few singers are conmfortable in the range or have the stamina to stick it out for hours, That's another reason why ballet features - it takes the pressure off the singers and gives them time to rest.  Some of these arias are tour de force killers, easier to pull off in concert performance than in full staging.

When we hear it at the ROH, we should bear in mind how rare it is to hear music of this type. We are fortunate. Bryan Hymel will be singing the title role. He was specially chosen because he's a high lyric tenor, with a clear, refined top and elegant ping.  Hymel sang Enée in Berlioz Les Troyens  with great subtlety. Although Enée is a hero, he's not butch but filled with human conflict. Hymel's interpretation was right for the part, a truly refreshing approach.  Please see my review of Les Troyens live  and my analysis of the broadcast ). Hymel also impressed greatly as the Prince in the ROH Rusalka, another of his signature roles, with which he shot to fame. Read about that Rusalka here and why Dvořák may have chosen that voice type here, and read my interview with Hymel in February 2012. It's vital to understand the voice type and its relationship to the genre. We're used to heavier Italianate tenors in the Verdi manner, and to German Heldentenors, but the French style is different and more refined. It has to be heard on its own terms. Since there's a revival in 19th century French opera, we need to accustom our ears to voice styles like this.

John Relyea is singing Bertram. Several years ago Relyea told me “I find villains in general to be great fun to do. I suppose you can say that they are much more direct in the sense that they don’t have the same sort of inner conflicts that you get with “normal” characters and heroes. A lot of the bass repertoire is of course the “patriach” type, kings, priests, sympathetic charismatic roles whose inner worlds are developed from humanity and compassion. Villains' aims and goals are unwavering, most of the time and on a certain level that’s easy, but I like the clarity of a villain’s mind and the way they focus so firmly on objectives. It gives you a line to follow."

Patrizia Ciofi has been singing Isabelle since the 1990's, so she's a wise choice for the Royal Opera House. Hear her in the first four performances and in the video below (Paris 2000).  Marina Poplavskaya is singing Alice and Jean-François Borras is singing Raimbout. It's a strong cast, better than we might deserve, I sometimes think. .The director is Laurent Pelly, who specializes in French  repertoire.   Pelly's very sharp, passionately intense about what he does. Read here what he's said about Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges for Glyndebourne. HERE is a link to a clip where he talks about the production. Get a glimpse of the production - quite amazing. "C'est un ouvrage très particulaire, très difficile, très longue, très mystérieux ....un blockbuster".

Tomorrow a survey of Robert le Diables of the past and a download.