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Passion Wins Out

In Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach, Review on March 29, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Review – St. John Passion (Old Royal Naval College, Wednesday 27 March 2013)

Evangelist – James Preston
Simon Dyer – Christus
David Jones – Pilate

Sopranos – Alysha Paterson, Angela Hicks & Jilian Christie
Altos – Leah Blakelock & Gordon Waterson
Tenors -Thomas Drew, William Davies & Guy Elliott
Bass – James Newby, Ashley Mercer & Jonathan Smith

Old Royal Naval College Chapel Choir
Southern Sinfonia

Ralph Allwood (Conductor)

What I love most about concert going in London is the vast range available. I don’t only mean by genre but also in terms of the range of musicians – professional, semi-professional and amateur – who make the time and take the effort to perform.

And despite the meticulous planning that goes into booking concerts, opera and recitals at London’s major venues it’s also great to be able to walk past a venue, notice a poster and spontaneously book a ticket.

And that’s what happened when I was in Greenwich last week. I picked up a flyer for a performance of the St John Passion in Wren’s most beautiful Painted Chapel and bought a ticket.

For Easter wouldn’t be Easter without attending a performance of one of Bach’s Passions.

This particular performance was the Old Royal Naval College Chapel Choir and Southern Sinfonia, directed by Ralph Allwood.

And it was a valiant performance. It reminded me of my own participation in student performances many, many years ago. Indeed one of my first university performances was the St John Passion as principal oboist. Bach wrote beautifully for the oboe family. I still on occasion pull out my book of Bach studies and amble through the obbligato parts within.

And by valiant I mean that on the whole the quality of the music making was of a high standard if marred by a few flaws that could have been resolved in rehearsal.

Clearly with Allwood’s long career in choral music, the particularly memorable and impactful moments were the choruses – many dramatic interjections in the Evangelist’s narrative – within the Passion.

The two exceptions – sadly – were the first and penultimate choral movements. The opening chorus – so beautifully crafted by Bach to create an immediate impression of both tragedy and penitence – was taken at such a slow and laboured tempo that at times it threatened to unravel. Initially I thought it might be to compensate for the acoustic of the chapel but this was not the case. The Painted Chapel has a warm and immediate acoustic perfectly suited to Bach as subsequent choruses demonstrated. Clearly Allwood was seeking to create the necessary mood but it was a tempo-too-slow and simply dragged.

Indeed the opening bars fleetingly brought to mind the great Passion performances of the likes of Klemperer or Münchinger but also quickly the realisation that it lacked their finesse and innate ability to pick out the individual voices.

But more disappointing was what can only be described as a plodding Ruht Wohl. The programme referred to warnings made to Bach that he shouldn’t ‘secularise’ his religious music and that this movement – a minuet – was a subtle ‘cocking of his finger’. There was no sense of the lilt and lightness of touch – vocally and instrumentally – that Bach wrote into every line of this movement. A shame as it represents redemption and hope at the end of the Passion. It didn’t come close.

And similarly while the chorales were intelligently shaped, Allwood directed them with no real differentiation from each other.

The soloists were drawn from the Chapel choir. Made up of choral scholars as well as volunteers from the local community as an ensemble they made a wonderful sound. However the individual soloists were a mixed bunch. I think it’s a brave – and admirable – decision to draw soloists from the choir but I did wonder if perhaps a lack of rehearsal time or even bad casting resulted in a sliding scale in terms of the individual performances.

One thing that did strike me wasn’t so much a lack of interpretation and stylistic attention to detail but more that they all struggled with maintaining the vocal line, more often than not literally running out of breath. I wonder if this has more to do with the differences between singing as a member of the chorus and as a soloist.

Annoyingly the programme didn’t mention the soloists in any way that allowed clearer identification except by guess work but there were some stand-out singers.

For example the bass who sang the arioso Betrachte, meine Seel; Gordon Waterson who sang a most poignant Es Ist vollbracht! and the resonant bass of Simon Dyer’s’s Christus.

And my reference to a valiant performance is particularly relevant to James Preston’s Evangelist. This is a role that requires both supreme stamina and the ability to communicate with conviction the unfolding narrative. This role was a stretch too far for Preston, whose voice became increasingly stressed, at times sounding like he was even struggling to reach the cadences.

The Southern Sinfonia supported the choir admirably and particular praise should go to the continuo players Steve Colisson and Matthew Burgess and the obbligati in Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärter Räcken. Sadly the wonderful aria Zerfließe, meine Herzen, in flutender Zähren was marred by the soprano’s intonation problems and messy obbligato playing from the oboist.

And yet despite these flaws Bach’s music won out. Having not attended a live performance of the St John Passion for some years, the concert in Wren’s Painted Chapel reminded me of the mastery, magnificence and devotion he wrote into every note.

“Cross-Over” Pergolesi

In Baroque, Classical Music, Review on March 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Review – Stabat Mater (OAE The Works, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 26 March 2013)

Elin Manahan Thomas (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Hannah Conway (Host)
Steven Devine (Director/Conductor)

A great concert is made up great musicians and singers, a perfect, or as near as perfect performance, that vital ingredient – enthusiasm – and for me personally, learning something new, often about a piece of music I thought I knew well.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new series The Works and the most recent concert featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was that perfect combination.

Without a doubt Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of the finest pieces of church music. I first heard it – and sang it – as a choirboy in an organ loft and its sheer beauty has remained with me forever. It’s one of those pieces that I play when I am feeling like I need to turn the world off. And it always works.

Of course it is too easy to become wrapped up in the romanticism of his tragically short life and the fact that this piece was written in his final year.

Or you can take the OAE’s approach and cast a refreshing new light on this work.

Hosted, as it were, by Hannah Conway whose own enthusiasm was infectious, conductor Steven Devine not only simply but also clearly described the various devices and Baroque ‘affections’ that Pergolesi employed to such great effect. And he mentioned something that had simply not occurred to me in relation to Pergolesi before.

Pergolesi used operatic idioms in his Stabat Mater.

Now of course many of you may have already realized this. It wasn’t uncommon for composers from the baroque period onwards to ‘mix it up’. You hear it in Handel, Hasse, Mozart, Haydn and even JS Bach.

And yet it had never occurred to me that Pergolesi – who made his reputation mainly on the operatic stage – had done the same thing.

Pergolesi was as “cross-over” a composer as many of his contemporaries and those who followed them.

And this simple realization meant that I listened to the subsequent performance almost as it if was the first time.

And it was an excellent performance.

Both Elin Manahan Thomas and William Purefoy – himself somewhat of a joker who enlivened the proceedings even more with his observation about hormones and their effects on men and pregnant women – beautifully and sympathetically melded their voices in their duets and as soloists spun the vocal lines with both authority and sensitivity. Purefoy might not have the strongest lower register but the beauty of his tone and the way he coloured his voice was mesmerizing. And Manahan Thomas’s crystal clear and bright soprano was the perfect foil.

There is sometimes a tendency – perhaps to do with the romanticism more often associated with the piece – for tempos to be on the slower side but here Devine measured the pace and tempo of every movement brilliantly. Rhythms were sharp, phrasing was elegant and the music scoured for every effect which were intelligently done without being overplayed.

And in the same manner, in those movements with their newly revealed operatic bent, the singers didn’t shy away from emphasizing the more dramatic or lyrical aspects.

Each and every movement was beautifully performed but personally the standout moments were the sublime duets Quis est homo, qui non fleret and Quando corpus morietur as well as the dramatic brevity of the final Amen.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has created something really special with initiatives such as The Works and Night Shift. Of course they are mainly aimed at attracting new audiences but just as importantly I think they shed new light on music for those who think that they know them.

Whenever I now listen the Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the sacred will forever be tinged with more than a little humanity.

And for me that makes it just that little bit more special.

The next concert is on November 7 and features Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

Definitely one to book. And take a friend.

What Tony Hall Could Do Next

In BBC, Classical Music, Opera on March 27, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The BBC welcomes a new leader after Easter. Sooner than expected if the average term for a Director-General should be counted more normally in years rather than days, and foisted on the Corporation without interview or due process by that great panjandrum Lord Patten.

And what Lord Tony Hall of Birkenhead inherits is an organisation that often seems outdated, out of touch and out of its depth.

Like a gambler with a faulty or marked deck of cards, ‘Call Me Tony’ has already shuffled his management team. He’s shifted some errant executives around, followed Patten’s cue and appointed at will and symbolically renamed divisions as if the digital age had never happened.

Over the next few days, weeks and no doubt months the media will write about Hall’s intray, his first one hundred days – and let’s hope he surpasses that target unlike his predecessor ‘Incurious George’ – and dissect every word and action he undertakes.

His is an unenviable task. He is being heralded by the BBC’s inadequate spin doctors to anyone who will listen as the ‘great bright hope’, a man who will pull the BBC out of its creative mire and tackle the management malaise.

And if rumours are true Hall hopes to put right many wrongs with a war chest of £100 million which he is having skimmed off divisions like a layer of cream in advance of his arrival.

But money can only go so far. For years the BBC has singly failed to come up with a creative strategy and stuck to it. Granted, trying to come up with a single aim and purpose for an organisation that is splitting at the seams with television and radio channels, a morass of mindless entertainment fodder and a website with a voracious appetite is always going to be a problem.

But perhaps it should simply look to define itself by the original principles established by Lord Reith?

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

So on that basis then the BBC’s commitment to arts and culture should be at the centre and benefit from Hall’s chest of gold? Surely?

Currently the BBC’s commitment to culture is haphazard. History, art and literature seem to do pretty well but classical music seems to have hit an all time low in terms of love.

I think Christmas was the last time opera made it to one of the main channels, the Proms have been relegated bar the token appearance and attempts by the BBC to popularise classical music with such ideas as Maestro At The Opera aren’t so much misintentioned and misguided as simply offensive.

Even the recent and most excellent Written On Skin – possibly one of the most exciting and significant new operas for many years – has been recorded for transmission on BBC 4 at a later date. Why it wasn’t broadcast live escapes me.

So, given a blank cheque what could Tony Hall do?

What I am about to suggest isn’t a strategy or a manifesto but simply a few ideas. But none of them, I believe, are too far-fetched to achieve.

Naturally anything he does has to be seen as impartial – a great BBC word when it suits them – and therefore can’t be seen to favour his old friends on Bow Street. But nonetheless here is an opportunity for Hall to cure the dry rot at the heart of the BBC’s commitment to the arts.

And let’s be clear, this commitment isn’t about ratings. It’s about saying that quality – another BBC buzzword – isn’t only about the millions that watch, or about an increase in that other BBC marketing tool its appreciation score, but about standing by a set of principles set down decades ago.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

First. A simple reversal. If rumours I have heard are true, this year the Proms will not feature at all on either BBC 1 or BBC 2 but be tucked away on BBC 4. I hope my friends in the BBC have got that wrong. I mean no disrespect to Richard Klein. I’ve met him plenty of times. I’ve enjoyed talking with him and hearing both his views and ideas as well as his frustrations, and admired his passion in the face of ever more harrowing adversity and cuts to his budget. But putting everything on his channel doesn’t make it a destination but rather an apology.

So first of all, put the Proms back on the main channels. Again I hear that there are some stupendous proms planned – not least Barenboim and the Berliners performing the Ring cycle – therefore the Proms needs to be actively celebrated for everyone to watch as well as listen.

The BBC might be surprised by the results. Music is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. If done correctly, classical music on television can be just as gripping and entertaining – yes entertaining – as a night at Glastonbury and far more dramatic than that manufactured and mind-numbing pap The Voice which cost the BBC £22 million.

Secondly take a more active role in live broadcast. I hugely admired Bayerische Oper’s live broadcast of Kriegenberg’s Götterdämmerung last year. While that was commercially sponsored, it’s a crying shame that the BBC has retreated from taking any part in the screens that are set up in major cities. I can’t believe the outlay was that much compared to a single episode of Strictly Come Dancing but wouldn’t it be marvellous to revisit that decision and again perhaps use them for the Proms – and not just the Last Night – but also strike deals with other arts organisations and help share the financial burden in some way?

And with the Proms adequately provided for perhaps the BBC could make a bold decision regarding opera? I believe the TV term for them is output deals so could the BBC sign an output deal – possibly the first of its kind ever – with all the major UK opera companies – ROH, ENO, ETO, WNO, Scottish Opera, Glyndebourne etc – and commit to broadcast one or even two of their operas in every season? It’s a bold idea and would take some planning but why not? As well as signalling a very concrete commitment to classical music on a par with the Proms, I am sure the companies in question wouldn’t balk at this new revenue stream. And it needn’t conflict with their existing commercial deals with cinemas as there are plenty of operas to go around. Additionally I’m pretty sure Parliament would like it too and in a concession to those poor schedulers they could be broadcast on BBC 2 and we could have some respite from more ‘bake offs’.

And what about The Space? It’s a smart idea and is being brilliantly championed by the likes of Susannah Simons – the only BBC executive it seems that has a real passion for classical music – but it needs more and longer-term investment. Originally a hurried afterthought for the London Olympics when the BBC realised it’s own cultural contribution was almost zero, The Space could and should play a greater role in supporting the arts – big and small – across the UK. And at the same time be a way to get to young people, that ever elusive audience.

Perhaps a deal with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and their excellent Night Shift and The Works series?

And finally how about prime time programmes that don’t patronise and aren’t presented by idiots? Get rid of ideas such as Maestro At The Opera and follow real musicians – players, singers, conductors – as they try and make a real career based on talent and passion. I like Simon Russell Beale on stage but I don’t want to be subjected to him – or others – pontificating about classical music. If the BBC can secure the ever wonderful Mary Beard then why can’t it make programmes about classical music presented by experts in the field? People who actually know what they are talking about without resorting to a script potentially not even written by someone with specialist knowledge themselves?

I admit this is – as I have said – my wish list. I’d like to come home and switch on my TV and have the opportunity to watch something that isn’t either a half-starved idea created as tick-box television or tucked away in the television equivalent of a gulag for the culturally inclined.

It will be interesting to see what Tony Hall does upon arrival at Broadcasting House.

I’m hoping that his ten or so years outside the BBC – and at Covent Garden – have removed any old loyalties that might lie dormant in his grey suited breast.

I’m hoping he has some bold ideas about the BBC’s future creative purpose and direction.

And most of all I’m hoping he will put the arts – and in particular oft-neglected classical music – back at the heart of what the BBC does.

Inform. Educate. Entertain.

Seared On The Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 18, 2013 at 8:26 am

Review – Written on Skin (Royal Opera House, Saturday 16 March 2013)

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Bejun Mehta
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Allan Clayton

Director – Katie Mitchell
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Design – Jon Clark

Composer/Conductor – George Benjamin

It isn’t very often that a performance is so brilliant – the music, the singing and the production – that it feels like a privilege to have been present.

Written On Skin by George Benjamin at the Royal Opera House felt precisely like that.

A privilege.

I am often wary of going to see new opera, as often they are a miserable marriage of indistinct music and uninspired production. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole was as brash musically as it was directorially and didn’t leave any impression except of being pummeled in your seat. ENO’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was – and I probably think this is heresy to say so – the last new opera that I enjoyed. Barry has an interesting musical language and the production by Richard Jones and Ultz was both visually smart and emotionally intelligent.

Written on Skin, from the opening bars to the drop of the final curtain, was simply gripping and packed an emotional punch that has stayed with me and I would guess quite a few others who attended.

George Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen and his influence is keenly felt as the basis of the timbre and sound world that Benjamin creates. But at the same time, in the vocal writing is very much heard the influence of his other teacher, Alexander Goehr. At times there were distinct echoes of Arianna and Promised End, not only in the crafting of the vocal lines but also in the use of rhythm and the structure of the vocal lines.

But Benjamin’s musical language has taken these influences and melded them with his own style. Written on Skin represents a direct evolution from his chamber opera Into The Little Hill in the finesse of the vocal writing, the orchestration and the relationship between the two. And Benjamin is a skillful orchestrator, at times almost Dutilleaux-esque in his delicacy but capable being unleashed in a frenzy when required. Indeed those moments were all the more effective for the suddenness of their arrival and his ability to retreat from them as suddenly.

And the collage of sound created by Benjamin propels the music forward through every scene. From The Protector’s opening boastful scene, as lyrical as his wealth is bountiful to the acceleration from sensuality to sexual release in the music between Agnès and The Boy to the suffocating tension of the closing scene, Benjamin’s tight control of orchestral timbre and the mesh of rhythm is incredible.

And his sensitivity in terms of the vocal lines is brilliant. Each phrase is so carefully crafted to ensure that the words are clear with the alternation from almost Sprechstimme to lyricism seamlessly effective.

And if the music is remarkable then Benjamin was fortunate enough to be able to write for a highly distinguished cast of singers.

I cannot believe that this is Barbara Hannigan’s debut at Covent Garden. A leading interpreter of contemporary classical music – listen for example to her performance of De Vincent à Theo – it was a surprise to read that she had not performed on stage before. I hope that this is the start of a long and successful relationship with the company. As Agnès her bright soprano glided through the music effortlessly – not only rapt and ethereal but also dark and sonorous, capturing the wife’s need for freedom from a lifeless and loveless marriage. I don’t think it was love that she wanted – as witnessed by the brutal nature of her sexual clinch with The Boy – but rather escape. The scene with The Protector at the beginning of the Part Two when she attempted to seduce him demonstrated the wide range of colours that Hannigan could bring to her singing. From the almost ‘dead’ timbre as The Protector awakes to her increasing attempts to provoke a reaction from him was exhilarating. And her final scene was simply incredible.

And as The Protector, Christopher Purves was superb. I have already noted his vocal lyricism but it was also his ability to cast his voice from whisper to full-throated bellowing that was amazing and indeed it was with a whisper that he was most threatening. His diction was – as with the rest of the ensemble – crystal clear and again he was able to bend and colour his voice with great skill.

I haven’t seen Bejun Mehta sing live since Orlando at Covent Garden a good many years ago and I hope to rectify that when he tours shortly. Casting The Angel as a countertenor was inspired. The other-worldly, crystalline timbre of his voice was in sharp relief to the other main protagonists, creating a real sense of tension in the vocal colouring and timbre of the music.

And both Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton – the latter an excellent Castor in ENO’s production last year – were outstanding throughout.

The orchestra, conducted by George Benjamin himself, acquitted themselves with great distinction. Unusually for a new opera, there was no sense at any time that they were not completely and confidently immersed in the music written by Benjamin.

Martin Crimp’s libretto was eloquent with no word extraneous to plot or music. The language was taut yet had a musicality to it that rendered it perfectly to the music.

And if the standard of the music making was incredibly high, the direction and production itself was its match.

I admire Katie Mitchell’s work – her Jephtha is one of the strongest interpretations of any Handel that I have seen – but I was not convinced by her After Dido for ENO. That production was a distraction from the music and the twentieth century reinterpretation added a layer upon Purcell’s music that was not needed.

But for Written on Skin – again working with Vicki Mortimer – Mitchell developed the same idea but with greater clarity and narrative intent. The interaction between past and present was so fluidly done that it was never distracting except when it needed to be an intervention as part of the unfolding drama. The upper laboratory, for example – where the assistants unwrapped the items from the past for use in the story – was gracefully done and at no point was there any sense that something was being done for the sake of it. Considering the amount of activity and movement in the opera, there was an incredible sense of stillness and simplicity about the entire production. Again the closing scene’s use of slow motion – so often a miscalculation in stage productions – was achingly tense in its delivery.

It’s rare to leave a performance and not think of something that didn’t quite gel. But on this occasion, even sleeping on it, hasn’t changed my initial impression.

Benjamin’s Written on Skin and this production is one of the best productions – modern or otherwise – that I have seen in a long time. This production is part of Covent Garden’s ambitious plans to stage fifteen new works between now and 2020 and it bodes well for the future.

The music, the singing and the production came together like a veritable medieval (holy) trinity. Indeed I didn’t have the appetite to listen to anything upon leaving the performance. A rare occurrence for me.

It might now be sold out for the final two performances but BBC Four and Opus Arté were in on Saturday night to film it.

Written on Skin is not something to be missed.

An Inclement Clemenza

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on March 16, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Review – La Clemenza di Tito (Opera North at The Lowry, Thursday 14 March 2013)

Tito -
 Paul Nilon
Vitellia -
Annemarie Kremer
Servilia
 – Fflur Wyn
Sesto – 
Helen Lepalaan
Annio – 
Kathryn Rudge
Publio – 
Henry Waddington

Director 
- John Fulljames
Movement Director – 
Tim Claydon
Set and Costume Designer 
- Conor Murphy
Lighting Designer 
- Bruno Poet
Projection Designer 
- Finn Ross

Orchestra & Chorus Opera North
Conductor
 – Douglas Boyd

Almost but not quite.

Perhaps a motto that Opera North could adopt more often than not based on some of their most recent productions and sadly also true of their new production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

This is often Mozart’s most misjudged opera when in fact it contains music of great depth and emotional intensity and a dramatic sweep that blows cobwebs off what was by then a dying art form. As well as the arias it contains some beautifully crafted duets as well as – in my view – one of Mozart’s most dramatically written trios and act closers.

While Opera North’s production came close so many times, it never seemed to quite get into its stride either musically or dramatically.

The main surprises of the evening were the magnificent Annio of Kathryn Rudge and the promising Servilia of Fflur Wyn. Ms Rudge displayed a full-bodied, warm soprano and some impeccable singing even if at times she didn’t quite seem to have the breath for some of Mozart’s longer phrases. However her arias – and in particular her arias Torna a Tito a lato and Tu Fosti tradito – were beautifully and stylishly sung and the duet with the bright voiced Fflur Wyn was beautifully and sympathetically blended. And the poignancy of Ms Wyn’s S’altro che lagrime was touching. I see that Kathryn Rudge is soon to perform a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall and if there was any a reason to take a longer break – or to put a fictitious meeting in the diary – hearing her sing again is very tempting.

Henry Waddington’s Publio was also well executed. He sung with confidence and authority and was particularly fine in the ensembles.

Sadly the rest of the cast – the principles – fared less well. Paul Nilon was an incredible Tito in McVicar’s production for ENO but in this production the role always sounded slightly beyond his grasp. But what he lacked in terms of vocal flexibility and colour he made for in terms of dramatic delivery even if reaching for the higher notes seemed more of a physical effort than seemed comfortable.

However both the Vitellia of Annemarie Kremer and Helen Lepalaan’s Sesto were strangely underpowered both vocally and dramatically. Clearly they sung all the notes although Ms Kremer seemed to spend most of the evening either distractingly ahead of or behind the beat but having seen her as Norma and not being convinced I was not totally convinced by her Empress-in-Waiting. Vocally she seemed uncomfortable and stretched, her coloratura often laboured or messy and sometimes both. She also had a distracting dramatic tic of raising her hand to the side of her face almost as if she was attempting to block out the other singers. Non piu di fiori was the closest she came to realizing the dramatic nature of the role but this was marred by Fulljames suddenly decision to ratchet up – for no clear reason – the violence. Similarly Helen Lepalaan never really got into the meat of her character. Vocally bland throughout even the majesty of the closing scenes of the First act and the magnificence of Deh per queste istante solo failed to rouse her from her sleepy performance.

Douglas Boyd conducted the orchestra with confidence and spirit even if the somewhat hurried tempi at time made the players scramble and crash through the notes and the recitatives seemed incredibly leaden.

The production – John Fulljames’ first for Opera North – was focused around a rotating glass wall and computer-generated graphics that seemed to place the drama in and around a corporate boardroom or a future inspired by Kurt Wimmer’s film Equilibrium. Personally I found it an effective compromise between a more traditional approach and the war-zone-cum-bombed-out-building that more often than not seems to be standard fashion for modern productions. Granted it does need some tightening up and could do without the projection of Tito’s face on the back wall. The end of the First Act for example could perhaps do with less or no confetti and Vitellia’s sudden and bloody mental collapse seemed over dramatic. And it’s a shame – although perhaps this was simple a space issue with the Lowry stage – that the chorus were relegated to the pit.

So while the production was not the most disappointing I have seen from Opera North it could do with a rethink. With the right attention to casting and some – but not much – tightening of the narrative, this production could more justly do honour to Mozart’s opera seria swansong.

Bell-a Emma

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Review – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers – Curtain Raisers & High Drama. (Emma Bell, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 8 March 2013).

The Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers season by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is turning out to be a cracking series. If this particularly concert didn’t have the fizz and sizzle of the preceding concerts I think it had more to do with the programming than the music making.

I will never understand why we don’t see more of Emma Bell in the UK. I have her CDs of Handel and lieder by Strauss et al and they are both magnificent. I have seen her at ENO as Vitellia in McVicar’s Clemenza di Tito; Violetta in Connal Morrison’s La Traviata and in Katie Mitchell’s bland Idomeneo saved somewhat by her magnificent Elettra.

As the soloist in this concert Ms Bell was on excellent form. While at time her diction wasn’t complete crystal clear, vocally she was on brilliant form. Her voice is strong and even throughout and she has a pleasant – pardon the unintentional pun – bell-like bloom at the top of her register. And she handled the tessitura of the arias selected with confidence while at the same time displaying excellent dynamic and dramatic intelligence.

Her opening performance of the aria, O smania! O furie! O disperata Elettra! captured both the disintegration of Elettra and the dramatic substance of the music that the twenty-five year old Mozart wrote. Following a gripping rendition of the accompanied recitative Ms Bell effortlessly swung from the more declamatory sections to the most sweeping phrases and cleanly managed the sometimes tricky closing chromatic phrases.

A change from frock to trouser suit and Emma Bell returned to sing Beethoven’s Abscheulicher, wo eislt du hin … Komm, Hoffnung. This is a wonderful scena and in complete contrast to her Elettra, her Leonore was one of both tenderness and resolve. I noticed that she is due to sing the role at ENO and her performance at the Southbank Centre bodes well indeed.

Her final appearance was in in Ocean! Thou mighty Monster from Weber’s Oberon. I admit that this piece always reminds me of Victorian music hall music. Harsh I admit but I can’t get away from that impression. Possibly it has something to do with the fact I struggle with Weber’s music and a dreadful experience while studying Der Freischutz when I was in school. Emma Bell performed it convincingly – well sung and suitably wide-eyed dramatically – but it still failed to convince me to revisit either that particular opera or Weber in general.

The remainder of the concert was made up of the overture from Idomeneo, Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 and Schumann’s Symphony No.2 in C.

Marin Alsop is also someone we regrettably see very little of in the UK. And again it is something that needs to be remedied. She is a conductor of passion and warmth as well as great intelligence and intuition. And she has the rare ability of being able to talk to the audience and communicate her own enthusiasm and passion for music making.

In the first half I would have personally liked a slightly faster tempo and a bit more bite and moodiness in the overture to Idomeneo but by the time of Leonore No. 3 both Marin Alsop and the Orchestra had got into the groove of the music and delivered a crisp and rhythmically alert performance full of the orchestral colour that Beethoven wrote into the music. Often the menace of the opening bass line is glossed over in performance but not so here.

Before the Schumann, Alsop took to the microphone briefly to give some explanation to the piece. Clearly it is a symphony that is close to her heart judging not only from her conducting without a score but also from the eloquence with which she spoke and the intensity of the performance that she evoked from the players. And indeed the highlight of the entire symphony was the elegiac and lied-like third movement. The orchestra belied claims that period instrument orchestras cannot play with warmth and depth, producing a wonderful sound that did real justice to this movement. The scherzo was suitably light on its feet and the two outer movements were invested with a sense of weight without ever sacrificing the transparency required to do this symphony real justice.

Indeed throughout, whether it was accompanying Emma Bell, or relishing their own orchestral contributions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with their characteristic verve and spirit.

As I have said, this series has shaped up beautifully and while this particular concert didn’t quite raise the temperature as the preceding concerts or the promise of the future instalment, it was more a case of the programming that the performances.

Yet again the OAE excelled in their musicianship and note for note, temperament for temperament they were matched by Emma Bell and Maestro Alsop.

Parsing Parsifal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on March 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Review – Parsifal (HD Broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, Saturday 2 March 2013)

Gurnemanz – René Pape
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Amfortas – Peter Mattei
Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin

Production – François Girard
Set Designer – Michael Levine
Costume Designer – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting Designer – David Finn
Video Designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe

Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera

Conductor – Daniele Gatti

There is no denying the success of the Met’s HD Live broadcasts. While it might be bringing new people to the opera, I think that simply being able to make their productions available to the existing global opera audience is significant.

While it can’t replace being in the auditorium itself in terms of atmosphere – or for the simple fact that you only see what the director wants you to see through the lens of the camera and very rarely the stage in its entirety – it’s a decision that has played out successfully.

This weekend the Met’s new production of Parsifal was relayed across the world and Gelb and his team had assembled a starry-cast of eminent Wagnerians and chosen François Girard to direct.

Without a doubt – and despite some dodgy sound quality – the singers to a person, led by maestro Daniele Gatti, sang their roles with great authority and intelligent musicianship.

From the opening notes it was clear that Gatti had a real sense of the opera’s architecture, sweep and scale. He drove the music forward inexorably without letting any release from the tension fused to every note. And the Metropolitan Opera orchestra sounded magnificent throughout, the strings have rarely sounded so warm and sonorous (even through the speakers of the Picturehouse where I was sitting) with the brass and wind majestically riding above their colleagues cleanly and clearly.

Of course this was Kaufmann’s Parsifal and like his Siegmund in LePage’s Ring cycle, it was his Met debut. As I remarked while listening to his recent Wagner recital CD, he is an authoritative singer and clearly one of the – if not the – leading Wagnerian tenors on stage today. And there was no disputing his performance in this production. Well paced, musically it was an incredibly accomplished performance. While I would have perhaps preferred a greater breadth of vocal colour – and perhaps this was lost in transmission – there was no disputing the quality and emotion of his singing, especially in the second and third acts. However – and this is more likely due to the production than Kaufmann himself – I also wanted for stronger characterization of Parsifal as a character. In the interval Girard spoke of Parsifal’s spiritual journey, but that didn’t seem a consistent theme. While he was significantly short of simply being a cipher, his transition from naïve fool to world-weary knight seemed almost piecemeal. Hopefully in future when this production will undoubtedly return – with or without Kaufmann in the title role – more attention will be focused on Parsifal the character.

The Gurnemanz of René Pape seems to have elicited contrasting opinion. For some he was magnificent both in voice and character, for others while he sounded good he was one-dimensional. There is no doubting the strength and beauty of Pape’s singing and while he did sing with authority, I have to admit that his performance was somewhat colourless and at times almost bland. Again, this Gurnemanz seemed almost one-dimensional in terms of the development of the character.

For me one of the stand out performances was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry. Vocally she was superb. Her voice was rich and even throughout its register and she managed the range of emotions with great dexterity, colouring and bending her voice with ease to build possibly one of two of the strongest characterisations o the stage. Particularly moving and convincing was her performance alongside Kaufmann in the Second Act. Even her final redemption although Girard’s artistic licence in terms of the Grail’s reveal before her death was an emotional focal point.

I still remember Evgeny Nikitn’s Telramund in Munich and while his Klingsor was not as powerful, it was still a strong performance. His dark bass was ideally suited to the role and his overall portrayal – while sometime risking stepping over the boundary into caricature – was convincing.

However it was Peter Mattei’s pained Amfortas that delivered the most convincing performance – both musically and dramatically. It was an amazing debut performance in this role and was clearly a carefully thought out interpretation. And this was combined with some beautifully nuanced singing.

The single area of disappointment in the musical performance was the off stage chorus. However I put this down to a sound quality problem rather than the singing itself.

As this was part of the HD broadcast before curtain up in the intervals the Met employed a singer to interview the cast, director and conductor. In the past they have used with great success Joyce DiDonato and Deborah Voigt for example. Sadly, on this occasion they used Eric Owens who was either too inexperienced or badly prepared. As well as not always getting his lines right – which you could generously put down to nerves at speaking to a global audience – the questions that I heard him ask were nothing short of disastrous. For example, asking Gatti how he managed to conduct without a score was summarily dismissed by the maestro and his questioning of Peter Mattei did not elicit one answer that made any sense. Only a consummate spin-doctor like Gelb seemed to come off unscathed by Owen’s lack of interview prowess.

Clearly, in this role Owens is clearly more Mime than Alberich. A shame.

A great deal was made about how this production of Parsifal was definitely not set in the traditional era of knights and damsels. And of all Wagner’s operas Parsifal is the one that presents the greatest challenge to any director.

Parsifal represents the final – and not always happy or balanced – symbiosis of all Wagner’s beliefs on religion, mysticism and Buddhism and the various philosophers in one single moment. The opera is about a journey of discovery, suffering and redemption but all too often that journey is centred simply on Parsifal himself and not those around him. Here there seemed to be an even lesser focus on characterization than would be expected.

And an opera brimming with so much inbuilt symbolism requires someone with a clear sense of navigation otherwise not only the narrative but also the meaning can become hazy or even lost.

I enjoyed the excellent Herheim production – sadly only on DVD – and in terms of live performance I have seen both the ENO revival and Covent Garden’s production. The latter, directed by Grüber and made memorable for John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz was impressive for its spirit of understatement. More recently, Lehnhoff’s production at the Coliseum with its ‘after-God’ setting managed to convey the themes of redemption, love and hope stripped of their Christian overtones and packed an emotional punch although I personally think the director undermined his own narrative with his ending. Indeed it was interesting to read at the time that it had taken over a decade for some of the original ideas in Lehnhoff’s production to finally crystallise.

At times it seemed that Girard’s approach to Parsifal – the result of five years work – was a concept rather than an interpretation. His often hinted at something but ultimately his ideas didn’t seem to coalesce into anything truly substantial except a series of – at times – visually arresting tableaux.

This was a Parsifal set in no specific time. During the prelude, with its use of a slightly reflective screen, men slowly stripped off coats, shoes and watches as if suggesting that they inhabited a place that did not exist except in the audiences mind. Parsifal was not so subtly spot lit and this scene – as with the rest of the opera – was steeped in Carolyn Choa’s distinctive choreography.

As the first act opened we found ourselves in an anonymous landscape, the ground barren with a single rivulet of running water that symbolically turned red with blood. Clearly this was a not so subtle reference to the wound of Christ and for the entire opera the two groups – the men and the women – did not stray across it to their opposing sides.

All the men were in white shirts, the women in veils. The men were the focus of all activity – some of which is slightly trance-like and again indicative of Choa’s choreography, with the women more often than not in the background. It is only at the end that the women only lose their veils and mingle with the men.

The suggestion of a cult was strong and made stronger by the use of pseudo-Christian hand gestures throughout. And yet this vocabulary of gestures was never developed or indeed did not return in the final act.

Yet when we do return to this place in the final act, the post-apocalyptic landscape has become even bleaker. There is hint of frost on the ground with graves and overturned chairs and a vertical shaft of light initially marks the return of the Spear before Parsifal appears over the ridge.

Setting the first and final acts in such a barren landscape requires a clear narrative, sense of direction and management of the use of symbolism. None were much in evidence in Girard’s production. Even the principals – bar Mattei – seemed to lack anything more than a rudimentary sense of characterization through stock poses and gestures and had it not been for the intensity of the music making there would have been a real risk of dramatic inertia.

Even Girard’s Parsifal stood out simply because of his costume and there only seemed a basic attempt to portray any sense of either innocence or the fool. For example, peering over the shoulders of the men as Amfortas revealed the Grail seemed not only weak but also insignificant. And in the final act he returns a broken man who miraculously revives to become king. There was no sense of the fragility or even spirituality in this hero.

Klingsor’s kingdom in the second act was in stark contrast to the first. Set, it seemed, in some kind of hell complete with a sea of blood and white-smocked damsels, Nikitin’s Klingsor looked as if he had had a bad fall. The pincushion effect of numerous Spears seemed a contradiction to the idea of a single weapon and there was less a sense of sensuality and danger than inspiration drawn from Hammer Horror movies. The entire act was saved only by Dalayman’s and Kaufmann’s singing and indeed the mannered choreography of the denouement seemed like a missed opportunity and somewhat of an anti-climax.

Throughout the opera the backdrop was constantly moving with digital imagery. There were the ubiquitous clouds in various formations, images suggestive of a more ‘cosmic’ – clearly meant to infer ‘buddhist’ iconography in some way -and ultimately what I could only reason to be an orange planet. In many ways, the videography – whether intentional or not – reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Melancolia with its own use of Wagner’s music. The background images simply didn’t marry convincingly with the narrative that Girard was attempting to create in the foreground.

Therefore for me at least none of Girard’s ideas – visual or physical – created a cohesive whole or sense of direction. Even the ending, with the simplest symbolism of clouds separating to reveal sunlight on a blemished land failed to convince.

Indeed it seemed that the journey referred to by Girard and others in their interviews was at best more a physical – almost simply a cross-stage journey – than either a spiritual or temporal one.

I have to admit that perhaps the overall scale of Girard’s production might have been lost in the cinema where – as I have said – you only see ever really see part of the entire production. However you have to believe that Girard used the camera to focus on those elements that would bring sense to his interpretation. I never go that feeling I am afraid.

Yet I was left with a sense that somewhere inside that production was an idea worth developing and I can only hope that successive revivals will work to refine and distil what Girard was trying to say.

Yet strangely unsatisfying as the Met’s new production of Parsifal was to watch, there was no denying the overall impact musically of Gatti and his singers.

Wagner’s final work – his Bühnenweihfestspiel – is meant to be a challenge. However it is made harder to contemplate and reflect on if the substance of the direction is as diffused and unclear as the sky often was above it.

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