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Posts Tagged ‘Clive Bayley’

Donizetti alla Francese

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on November 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Review – Les Martyrs (Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 4 November 2014)

Polyeucte – Michael Spyres
Pauline – Joyce Al-Khoury
Sèvere – David Kempster
Félix – Brindley Sherratt
Callisthènes – Clive Bayley
Néarque – Wynne Evans
Une Femme – Rosalind Waters
Un Chrétien – Simon Preece

Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment

Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)

Les Martyrs – originally Poliuto and the result of over-zealous censors – is a curious hybrid. It’s a very Italian opera restrained by the corset of grand French opera.

A combination of some thrilling ensembles, dark orchestral hues and unique instrumentation – ophicleide anyone? – Les Martyrs takes a while to warm up. The first two acts canter along sedately, if not with any sense of true excitement, and it isn’t until the third act that a real sense of Donizettian drama unfolds. A duet followed by an impassioned tenor aria and a final sextet for all the major protagonists is the highlight of this opera. Indeed, that dramatic momentum eases off considerably in the final act, and even the closing scene, with lions getting ready to pounce, doesn’t thrill as much.

Indeed, ultimately for me Les Martyrs seems to lack any real sense of character or depth.

So, on paper it shouldn’t work – it is hardly one of Donizetti’s finer tragedies – but by dint of the commitment of everyone on stage, it does.

And towering over the entire performance, was the passion, conviction and – when required – delicate caress of Sir Mark Elder. From the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment he evoked with great skill the unique sound world that Donizetti wrote into the score, and from the singers, some incredible performances.

Michael Spyres was more than an adequate replacement for Bryan Hymel. His French – as with all the singers – was excellent and his tenor while light and supple didn’t blanch in the more ambitious and – in some ways – vocally tortuous moments. However I remain to be convinced by the – almost unnaturally sounding – note he hit in his confidently executed cabaletta.

As Pauline, Joyce Al-Khoury took a while to settle into the role. She has a unique vocal timbre that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but coupled with formidable technique including the ability to float high notes confidence, she made a compelling case for the estranged-cum-converted wife. Her vocal fireworks at the end of the First Act were rightly cheered, although I did think that in later ensembles her voice was too forced. But at no point were her interpretive skills in question.

It seemed unusual to me that there were no other female roles – reminding me of Dom Sébastian, also written for Paris towards the end of his career and also available on Opera Rara – but the remaining roles were well covered. Brindley Sherratt, David Kempster and Clive Bayley– as Félix, Sèvere and Callisthènes respectively were all vocally strong, each finding some fine moments of vocal nuance within their roles, although I did perceive moments of strain with David Kempster. Wynne Evans’ Néarque was perhaps the weakest link in the ensemble. Some troubling vibrato – particularly at the beginning – was coupled with some one-dimensional singing, made this Christian more cipher than heroic martyr.

And, drawn from the Opera Rara Chorus, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece both gave committed performances.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their usual verve and spirit – they are never anything less than a joy to hear and to watch.

Ultimately Les Martyrs, his first French grand opera, feels more like an interesting experiment than a fully formed work. Perhaps if Donizetti had had more time, or perhaps returned and revised it whenhe returned to Paris –alongside Dom Sébastian – it might have been something more substantial.

But Opera Rara are to be commended for reviving the work with Elder and the OAE and I look forward to Le duc D’Albe in 2015.

Minors Major By The Manchester Ship Canal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Review: Die Walküre, Opera North (Saturday 14 July 2012)

Siegmund – Erik Nelson Warner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalena Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Valkyries – Miriam Murphy, Katherine Broderick, Jennifer Johnston, Emma Carrington, Meeta Raval, Madeleine Shaw, Antonia Sotgiu & Catherine Hopper

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging, Lighting & Projection Designer – Peter Mumford

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Perhaps my expectations were too high after a near perfect Das Rheingold, but Opera North’s return for Die Walküre at The Lowry on the banks of the Manchester ship Canal was not as satisfying. In fact, if truth be told it was more than a little disappointing both in the casting department and the overall sweep – or lack of it – from Richard Farnes.

And at the end of the evening, the two strongest and most memorable performances were actually those that are traditionally seen as minor characters – Hunding and Fricka.

I have most recently seen Clive Bayley as Daland in the ENO production of The Flying Dutchman and as I said at the time, his was an impressive, strongly characterised performance. And it was the same here. His Hunding was vocally rich and resonant, smooth and consistent throughout his range. And his diction was perfect. The way he sneered “Wölfling” summed up not only the way he viewed Siegmund but his very approach to life – brutal and arrogant.

And every time I see Die Walküre I am forced to reassess Fricka as a character. Twice before – in New York with the incredible human performance by Stephanie Blythe, and in Hamburg with the formidable wife of Wotan played by Lilli Paasikivi – I have seen Fricka portrayed not as an incidental character as she is so often considered by directors (and conductors) but as a pivotal role in the unfolding story.

And at The Lowry Theatre, Katarina Karnéus delivered an excellent performance. Unlike the other characters, from her first appearance she inhabited the stage, striding around her husband and before she exited stage left, sneering at Brünnhilde. And as she left, having secured her hollow victory – for had she not succeeded who knows how the Ring would have unfolded – that simple wave of her wrist said it all – Fricka was a woman of significance. And vocally, bar a few minor problems of intonation – which I have commented on before – it was a strong, characterised performance. Karnéus revelled in Fricka’s words and they were delivered with steely conviction.

Alwyn Mellor was similarly a strong Sieglinde. Her voice rode above the orchestra with ease and what it lacked perhaps in colour it made up for in richness. Her singing in the First and Second Acts was incredibly strong but by the final act she was clearly tired and her O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! sounded a little tight. But I see from the programme that she is scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Paris in 2013 and, if she can resolve her pacing, that would be worth seeing.

Siegmund sounded like a role just ever so slightly outside the reach of Erik Nelson Warner. While he was a pleasant voice – although again without much sense of colour or dynamic inflection – it felt that even the First Act was just a little beyond his stamina. However he did recover admirably in the Second Act. As with Ms Mellor, it might just be a question of pacing himself correctly.

But it is a shame that the two major characters were such a disappointment overall.

The Brünnhilde of Annalena Persson was ultimately flawed. This is – pace Wotan – the principle role in The Ring cycle and it requires a soprano not only with heft, but one who has an iron grip on their technique. Persson’s voice can clearly cut through an orchestra and while she has a strong lower and middle range, as she moved above the stave her voice became uneven, shrill and suffered significant and uncomfortable intonation problems. And this was compounded as she forced her volume. It was a shame because literally in her closing moments I thought I caught a glimpse of potentially an amazing Brünnhilde. But I think it is a role she should in future approach carefully and perhaps with more study.

Wotan is certainly as big a casting challenge as his daughter and in my opinion it isn’t a role that Béla Perencz. While it was clear – as outlined in the programme’s biography – that he has had belcanto training – his voice was quite Italianate and there was no faulting his sense of legato or vocal colouring – he didn’t have the stamina. By the final scenes of the act he was vocally exhausted and as well as having quite significant intonation problems personally I found his verismo inflections – at Leb’ wohl for example – almost too distracting at times. If he does attempt this role in the future – and perhaps after some careful consideration – I hope he will be more Nordic god and less Pagliacci.

And for me the Valkyries were overly strident. The fact that they made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up wasn’t from an electrifying and compelling performance but rather that they seemed – almost to a part – to sing everything at the loudest volume all the time and with little vocal finesse.

After the loving and careful attention to detail from the cast of Das Rheingold I had to wonder if Dame Anne Evans was as involved as in this Die Walküre.

As for the staging, it was very basic even for a concert production. Unlike Das Rheingold, Peter Mumford didn’t seem to have developed anything other than the most basic ideas. The projections were for the most part uninspiring as was the lighting. And a small niggle, why ravens for the Valkyries? The ravens serve a different and unique role in Wagner’s Ring and they are definitely not designated as dead-warrior-carriers as far as I am aware.

So finally to Richard Farnes and the Orchestra of Opera North. As in Das Rheingold the playing of the orchestra was of an incredibly high standard. The strings were warm in that very European way, the woodwind were beautifully light and pointed and the brass suitably punchy.

Yet Farnes did not deliver a clear and cohesive performance and didn’t always pull out the orchestral colour and depth as he had in the first opera. The First Act was taken at quite a deliberate and measured pace. There is nothing wrong with that. Listen to Mark Elder’s recent recording for example. The Second Act was brisk enough with Farnes returning to a more measured tempo for the final Act. But personally it felt like Farnes was conducting a series of highlights with music in between. For example, in the First Act the closing section with all that wonderful music for Siegmund and Sieglinde seemed a little mechanical but more disappointingly, Wotan’s monologue in the Second Act seemed rushed and unarticulated with little attention to detail. Although I think for this Perencz must share some of the blame. And the closing scenes of the opera suffered too. Leb’Wohl was taken at what seemed an inordinate canter before Farnes slowed down the music to such an extent that the orchestra for the only time in the entire evening sounded messy at the cadences.

But when Farnes was in his stride the moments were glorious. The dialogue between Brünnhilde and Siegmund was both dramatic and otherworldly as it should be, and those moments with just Brünnhilde and the wind sections in the closing scenes were achingly poignant in terms of the colour and transparency he elicited from the orchestra. It was at those moments that you could glimpse Persson as Brünnhilde. Nowhere else.

After such a magnificent Das Rheingold perhaps it was inevitable that Die Walküre would disappoint. It’s a giant-sized leap from the opening opera of the quartet and I feel that this Die Walküre needs more work and attention to detail. I hope that this happens before Opera North perform the complete cycle – rumoured to be in 2015/2016 – but also earlier than that, before Farnes tackles Siegfried.

The Cinematic Contradictions of ENO

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner, Uncategorized on May 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Reviews – The Flying Dutchman & Madam Butterfly

ENO is currently an artistic contradiction. On the one hand, and bar the occasional directorial and artistic misjudgment, the music making has never been of a higher standard.

Take the current productions on stage. Without a doubt Madam Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella, is a masterpiece of music theatre. It is visually cinematic and opulent – opera interpreted through the lens of a tasteful Hollywood camera lens. And while the individual production elements – the shoji screens, the masked and black-robed stagehands and the puppetry – could have threatened to distract, in fact they enhance the unfolding drama and work in perfect sync with the Puccini’s music itself. In an original interview at the time of the production’s debut, Minghella said that he had more than a few recordings of the opera on his iPod. And it shows. The directing and the production underline the nuances of the opera perfectly.

And the cast too is incredibly strong. The original ENO Cio Cio San, Mary Plazas, returns in fantastic voice and is ably supported by Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki, John Fanning as Sharpless and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton. And in the pit Oleg Caetani, once Music Director Designate before the fall of Sean Doran. He drew wondrously warm and fluid playing from the orchestra and demonstrated that this is an opera he has a deep love for.

On the other hand there is The Flying Dutchman, a new production by Jonathan Kent. This production first and foremost is a triumph for Ed Gardner, the orchestra and the chorus. Never have they sounded so superb. The strings are warm with added bite, the wind are translucent and sonorous and the brass bright and clear. Gardner shows that at least in ‘Romantic’ Wagner he knows how to handle the ebb and flow of the music, picking out the orchestral detail and finely balancing the pit and the singers. I wonder how long he will remain at ENO? And the chorus too is as superb as ever. But the singers underline that there is still some way to go with casting sympathetic Wagner performers. The Dutchman of James Creswell may have the volume and heft for the role but there was a distinct lack of finesse throughout. His was a one dimensional Dutchman. Stuart Skelton’s Erik was finely sung and well acted but again – and because I think of the production and his last-minute appearance – a cipher. Of the male roles it was the Daland of Clive Bayley that drew the strongest performance and characterization.

But the greatest disappoint was the Senta of Orla Boylan. She does indeed have the notes and the heft but – and this may be isolated to this run of performances – her voice has a singularly unattractive edge to it which distracts from the music itself. Throughout the performance she was shrill to the point of discomfort.

Yet it was Jonathan Kent’s production that ultimately failed to knit everything together in a coherent manner. A series of clever ideas – like his ultimately flawed Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Marriinsky – Kent’s premise from what I could gather, that childhood influences were at the crux of this drama, didn’t quite gel. The First Act opened with Child Senta reading The Dutchman as fairytale while her father left her to go to sea. Clearly the love between the two was deeply founded and from the body language it was clear that Daland loved his daughter very much. This made his agreement to barter her for gold to The Dutchman more bewildering. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to portray Daland as cold and greedy from the start? That would have made Child Senta’s retreat into the land of make-believe more credible. Instead we are then suddenly presented with Adult Senta who, and one can’t fault Boylan’s acting ability, is clearly a woman on the edge and living within the confines of the book given to her by her father. There is no evolution from the child to the demented woman we are suddenly presented with.

And sadly it seems whenever the ENO is in production-drought in terms of ideas it falls back on the failsafe – a violent crowd scene complete with drunkenness, sex and rape. Granted sometimes these directorial motifs are relevant if overdone – I refer to Castor and Pollux – but at ENO they seem to happen rather a lot and for now apparent reason at all.

In this production, rather than blurring the lines between the reality of the factory floor and the crazed world in Senta’s mind we are instead provided with a scene replete with a square-dancing chicken, a cross-dressing sailor and – naturally – a muscled dancer who can’t wait to get his kit off after performing various sexual positions with members of the cast astride one of the conveyor belts. None of these motifs was ever suggested in previous scenes (I would loved to have seen Kent try and get in the comedy chicken suit) and therefore it was as visually and unnecessarily brutal as it was physically violent. But all credit to ENO’s wonderful chorus for making it as believable as it was.

And sadly for me, it dampened the denouement as Senta, realizing that in realty her life is stifled and ugly, kills herself with a broken bottle.

And this sense of confusion seems to me to be spilling off stage as well. Cue the curious remarks by Artistic Director John Berry a few weeks ago regarding opera at the cinema. In The Stage he commented that “this obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work … It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn’t create new audiences either.”

This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb.

And clearly Berry spends a great deal of time chasing down those directors who have cinematic or television experience – Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam to name two. Granted their productions left a great deal to be desired. And Sally Potter and Abbas Kiarostami who faired only slightly better.

Anyway which director envisions his opera as being “made for the screen” rather than for the stage? Well apart from LePage perhaps.

Clearly it is well nigh impossible to determine if people who shell out £25 for a cinema ticket will as readily fork out up to £200 for a ticket at an opera house. But even if it attracts a small number of people to dip their toe in the water then surely that’s a good thing? And also Berry fails to recognize – almost selfishly – that it isn’t only about footfall into his own theatre he should consider, but also the simple fact that it might help the industry as a whole? To raise awareness, interest and expose opera to a potentially new and sympathetic audience.

I wonder if his remarks have more to do with the recent appointment of the new Chairman at ENO, Peter Bazalgette. While some people have been more than a little sniffy at his appointment, I think it is a bold move. Yes this is the man who brought us Big Brother, but he has an innate understanding of audiences and having met him a couple of times myself he has an incredible excitement about opera as an art form. He might not be a dyed-in-the-ink opera fanatic but he does hold incredible respect for what is done on stage. I think ENO is safe from any threat of dumbing down at the London Coliseum, as directors seem more than capable of doing that themselves.

So perhaps Berry’s comments are more of an artistic warning shot across the bow of his own Board? ‘I won’t tell you how to raise money for the company as long as you do not interfere in what’s on stage’.

If so that is a shame. I think that English National Opera has more of a responsibility to promote new ways to reach the audience. Now that they finally have a Chairman who is more than a little skilled in the world of artistic and creative diplomacy they should explore their options.

Surely taking opera to the widest audience possible would be in the spirit of Lilian Baylis?

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