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Tallis By Triptych

In Classical Music, Review on July 31, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Review: Thomas Tallis (Wanamaker Theatre, Sunday 27 July 2014)

Thomas Tallis/Dr Dee – Brendan O’Hea
Henry VIII/Priest – Simon Harrison
Elizabeth I/Queen Catherine/Mrs Prest – Susie Trayling

Kirsty Hopkins (Soprano)
Alexandra Kidgell (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Jeremy Budd (Tenor)
Tom Raskin (Tenor)
Ben Davies (Bass)

Director – Adele Thomas
Designer – Hannah Clark

Jessica Swale (Playwright)

The Wanamaker Theatre is making a name for itself in terms of some original productions.

Earlier this year I enjoyed their production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and I will be returning to listen to Trevor Pinnock celebrate the life of JS and CPE Bach in a few weeks and next year a dramatization of the life of Farinelli.

On this occasion, playwright Jessica Swale teamed up with members of The Sixteen to recount the life of Thomas Tallis. Almost like a triptych, Swale recounted his life under four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I. For each he wrote music that underlined their own beliefs in the role of music in religion and court.

But incredibly little is known of the man himself and Swale’s play combined – at times fanciful – theatre and Tallis’ music. Although economically done, there were moments of real magic. The realization of Edward VI’s single melody religious music was smartly done using the theatre’s own corridors for example. The end, with its evocation of the crucifixation, was also atmospheric and only slightly ruined – for me at least – by the appearance of someone more suited to Aladdin that Elizabethan England. The strange juxtaposition of period costume and anonymous soldiers in modern garb jarred slightly and I can only imagine was due to limited budget and the fact that halberds are slightly too dangerous to carry in such an enclosed space.

As we know so little about Tallis, Brendan O’Hea’s portrayal was both confident and assured but it was Simon Harrison who held the stage more brightly, bringing a tense and sensual allure to Henry VII and an almost righteous anger to the Priest of Waltham Abbey.

Sadly, the handling of the music was, ultimately, less than effective. A shaky start exposed how difficult Tallis’ music is to perform with both fluidity and grace, and in the very dry acoustic of this theatre the music suffered. Also I think too much emphasis was placed on fully integrating the music into the drama, using the stage and spaces of the theatre simply because they were. Perhaps it would be been more effective to have increased the number of singers and positioned them in the gallery space above the stage? From there they could still have provided the much-needed commentary to stich the play together but also more importantly provided much needed vocal opulence and depth. Additionally, more attention was needed with regards to dynamics and shaping Tallis’ lines and while the selections were varied, they never felt truly representative of Tallis’ prodigious talent.

And also interestingly, no mention of Tallis’ seminal relationship with Wiliam Byrd.

By the end, Swales’ Thomas Tallis felt unfinished. Despite occasional moments, this felt more like a canter through Tudor history than the exposition of one of the period’s greatest composers.

Welsh Exodus

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on July 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Review – Moses und Aron (Welsh National Opera, Covent Garden, Saturday 26 July 2014)

Moses – John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost

Chorus & Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Directors – Jossi Wieler & Sergio Morabito
Revival Director – Jörg Behr
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell

Lothar Koenigs (Conductor)

I never get to Cardiff enough to see Welsh National Opera – lamentably I didn’t see their Tudors productions – so it was good news that they have struck a deal to bring one of their productions to Covent Garden.

I hope that the partnership with the Royal Opera House continues and it was a bold choice to bring Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron to London.

Incomplete and originally conceived as an oratorio, Moses und Aron was composed in twelve-tone technique, a system invented by Schoenberg as a personal resolution to the move towards atonality. However while some people are put off by the mere thought of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg’s opera is a remarkable work.

Schoenberg was not an instinctive opera composer and many think that dodecaphony lends itself more to music of intellectual vigour than an emotional response.

This performance of Moses und Aron helped disperse this belief slightly.

The Second Act – and particularly the opening with its contrapuntal intricacy – is both dramatic and musically impressive. Personally – and I don’t only mean in this production – the infamous “orgy” scene could have done with a bit of a trim in the original score, but the desolation of the ending holds a tantalizing promise of what Schoenberg might have had in his head for the final act.

However it isn’t Moses who has the most exciting music. It’s Aron. And Rainer Trost found a lyricism in the vocal line, and at times it seemed drew an almost deliberate parallel with the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions. Despite a slight strain at the top of his range – and I believe this has more to do with Schoenberg’s ‘unsympathetic ear’ when it comes to vocal writing – there was a purity of tone and an eloquence and clear sense of diction in Trost’s performance that was mesmerizing.

As Moses, John Tomlinson inhabited the role, creating a real sense of Moses as a person. Even when not singing, he dominated the stage – from before the music started in fact. On occasion slipping more into speech than the vocal line required, there was no denying the power of Tomlinson’s performance. And the pathos he brought to the closing scene was incredibly powerful.

Of the multitude of smaller roles, Elizabeth Atherton stood out with a clear bright soprano both as the Young Maiden, and in the Second Act as one of the quartet of Naked Virgins.

In the pit, Lothar Koenigs shone a light not only of the lyricism but also the sensuousness of much of the music. Where some conductors might have labored the twelve-note row in an attempt to being a sense of inner architecture to the music, Koenigs’ interpretation focused on the entire sweep of the two acts. And the WNO Orchestra responded with some very fine playing. Under his baton, a real sense of transparency was maintained throughout, and the players drew out the wide-range of colours and details within Schoenberg’s score.

But as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, performing with a confidence and clarity that was incredible.

The production was a mixed experience. I struggle with the concept of any production starting with an open set. Here – with John Tomlinson standing at a window – it seemed far too long. So great was the time between his appearance and the music starting that any dramatic impact was lost.

The one-set-fits-all approach can work – and it almost did here. However, with current events in Gaza, the idea that the opera opened in a room more destined for peace negotiations was slightly unsettling.

But it was in the Second Act that the production came undone. Clearly it’s always difficult to realize something like an orgy on stage – although McVicar manages it quite well in Rigoletto – but here any sense of the destruction of law and order, of licentiousness, was lost with Wieler and Morabito’s idea of having the chorus watch an imaginary film. It wasn’t so much the idea but rather it was too static for too long – again like Tomlinson’s appearance at the beginning of the opera. However, what made matters worse was having the chorus – and I wonder how it was sold to them in rehearsals – indulge in acts of sexual depravity which – quite frankly – was more akin to walking in on your parents having sex. And potentially with the neighbours. Excruciating.

At the precise moment I wished Schoenberg has kept to his original intention of making it an oratorio.

However despite the weakness of the production itself, the daring of bringing this opera to the stage, and the level of music making both in the pit, among the soloists and in the chorus was a triumph.

Sadly I think it is too much to ask for Moses und Aron to remain in WNO’s repertory except perhaps if they revive it with the complete Third Act as composed by Zoltán Kocsis?

Well worth a personal exodus to Cardiff for that.

When the Rose is Faded …

In BBC Proms, Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on July 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

Review – Der Rosenkavalier (Prom 6, Tuesday 22 July 2014)

Der Marschallin – Kate Royal
Octavian – Tara Erraught
Baron Ochs – Franz Hawlata
Sophie – Louise Alder

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Robin Ticciati (Conductor)

Memory may still dwell on – to quote Walter de la Mer.

Perhaps it was too much to expect three near perfect performances of Der Rosenkavalier in a row. If Germany can score seven goals in a game, why can’t we score a hat-trick with Strauss’ most perfect opera?

But after incredibly memorable performances in London and Birmingham it was seemingly too much to ask for a perfect – or at least passable – Rosenkavalier at the Proms.

Perhaps something got lost in translation on the road from East Sussex, but despite the well-fuelled controversy of the first night reviews, Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier is a pale shadow of this opera’s true glory.

I am not sure the semi staging – raised above the orchestra – helped matters but then again Richard Jones over-used vocabulary – fussy and at times crowded and distracting – didn’t either. Staging operas at the Proms – as witnessed last year by Barenboim’s Ring – need not be trial by error as was the case here. Perhaps Glyndeborne should have settled for a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier or perhaps chosen Rinaldo, more suited to the ambition they tried to deliver.

And personally I think that on the whole, this was a miscast Rosenkavalier.

Of the three women – and I am sure no one will agree with me – Kate Royal’s Marschallin was the weakest musically. To debut as the Marschallin is daunting enough but I am not sure that this is a role suited to her voice. That is not to say that Ms Royal is not an accomplished soprano – just not in possession of the temperament, insight or specific technique required for this incredibly challenging role.

It requires not only incredible technique but also the ability to find the nuances of light and shade in the music that Strauss wrote for the greatest of his heroines. The Albert Hall might be an unforgiving acoustic but there was – to my ear – a discernable and distracting ‘beat’ in Royal’s voice and a harshness where there should have been warmth and depth of tone. Often as the vocal line soared above the stave, she snatched at the highest notes and she delivered rather than interpreted the words she was singing.

Tara Erraught as Octavian was bright – almost brittle – in her singing. No amount of thigh slapping could hide the fact that again this was more about singing the right notes over interpreting the role. With a tendency to too much vibrato in the higher reaches of her voice, again there as a lack of – dare I say it – meat on her vocal bones.

Both Sophie and Baron Ochs were replaced for this performance. Franz Hawlata – a magnificent Baron in Birmingham – made the greatest impression in the leading roles although he also seemed somewhat lost on the stage and sometimes stuggled to be heard above the orchestra.

Louise Adler replaced Teodora Gheoghiu and clearly has a promising career ahead of her. Seemingly a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music International Opera School and the inaugural Kir Te Kanawa Scholar, if this was her debut it was a promising one as she demonstrated a natural affinity with the role of Sophie. She capably negotiated the soaring lines – despite a slight hint of strain and steeliness – with confidence. The Presentation Scene was particularly affecting but also threw up in contrast that Erraught’s voice lacked much needed warmth.

The remaining members of the ensemble performed their roles with confidence if not – with the exception of strong performances by Andrej Dunaev as the Italian Singer and the Valzacchi of Christopher Gillett’s – clarity.

Yet if the singing was below par then Robin Ticciati’s direction ‘below stage’ was also disappointing. The London Philharmonic Orchestra produced some wonderful but inflexible and colourless playing under his baton. There were no braying horns or transparency in the woodwind and the strings didn’t play with the much needed Straussian sheen. But most noticeably, there was a lack of two things. First, ebb and flow – most noticeably in the Marschallin’s First Act monologue and subsequent closing duet with Octavian as well as in the Presentation Scene. In the latter scene, it’s not enough to rallentando simply into the forte before the Presentation. Indeed, Ticciati’s conducting didn’t allow the conversational nature of Strauss’ music – so critical in this opera – to come through. And the second missing element, just as critical, was swagger. This opera needs swagger. And it was missing.

Again perhaps the transitions to a stage at the Royal Albert Hall had a marked effect on the overall production, but singer-for-singer, this was a pallid Rosenkavalier.

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