Thursday, November 20, 2008


Rossini’s Runt?

The background to this opera is readworthy: Rossini composed most of Matilde di Shabran (where dat ? probably Iraq) in 1822 when he was 28 but already famous for his Tancredi, L’Italiana in Algieri, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and over a couple of dozen others. The libretto arrived late and Rossini had to call in his mate Pacini to help him finish the score ready in time for the Naples premiere – which was a flop, not helped by the conductor having an apoplectic fit on the day of the dress rehearsal. Rossini could not face going to the second performance but somehow the opera survived and was given eleven productions in Europe and beyond within ten years. So it was not an absolute fiasco (Rossini drew one on a card he sent his mother). Paganini liked it so much he offered to conduct some performances of it, which he did; and he even played in one of them. The horn player did not turn up play his all-important obbligato part in act so Paganini played the notes on his viola. He and Rossinni larked about one evening in carnival time dressing in drag and going a-begging in the streets, quite successfully, not surprisingly since Rossini was quite clever on guitar and Paganini was not a bad fiddler. The composer was presumably glad to receive a few pence since the impresario had refused to pay him for an opera that was not completed. Mind you Rossini did later write in the Pacini bits and they are played at Covent Garden. But somehow as the twentieth century loomed Matilde became neglected.

Francis Toye in his splendid biography of 1935 is dismissive of the opera writing that we need not spend much time on it, although there are some good bits in it, particularly the lighter moments. But there are heavier bits in it. The plot is one of the sillier ones ever hodge-podged together. It concerns Corradino a powerful nobleman who is a misogynist of the direst order who has to take care of Matilde; he nearly kills her but ends up bamboozled and seduced by her, little bossyboots that she is.

The score has a curious feature; a number may start off as a solo but then one character, maybe two, three, four or five, will start chipping in. In other words it is mainly an ensemble piece and as Toye remarked, the lighter moments are the best. Most of it is not first-class Rossini, to stand together with Ory, Centerentola or the Barber but second-class Rossini is surely worth hearing any evening of the week. And here at Covent Garden (I saw it on Armistice night) it holds the attention and delights, enthusiastically conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Juan Diego Florez is a famous tenor these days; he has made several highly acclaimed CDs and he sang wonderfully fluently, articulating every coloratura device that Rossini hurls at him. But on this evening these was not much bloom in the voice; mostly it was a dry sound, papery, not warm or ingratiating. I am told by a musician friend who loves the music of the otto cento that he was seeing M di S for the fourth time in the present run, that Florez played it straight on the first night but that by now he was sending it up, so that the misogynist was ever more ridiculous – but funny, very funny, physically as well as vocally agile.

The singer of the title-role was also wonderfully articulate, able to accept the trump cards Rossini dealt her and to play them with brio. Matilda is not the most sympatric of parts; she reminds me of John Donne’s phrase “self-tickling proud” but Aleksandra Kurzak fitted the bill with spot-on singing and great charm. Sub-plots included a travesty-role prisoner Vessilina Kasarova who sang lustily and a comic poet Isidoro who may, for all I could tell have delivered most of his part in Neapolatan dialect – good voice, Alfonso Antoniozzi. Sergio Tramonti’s single set included two Escher – like staircases which looked beautiful and waltzed about on several turntables. Male chorus at the beginning, women admitted at half time. Thoroughly good, entertaining show. Its sub-title is Bellezza, é cour di ferro – Beauty and (Corradino) Ironheart.

By John Amis
17 November 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Glory be! Wexford has a fine new opera house, sprung Phoenix-like on the site of the old Georgian house, standing tucked away in a little street in this funny old town (pop. circa 120,000) in the bottom right hand corner of the Irish Republic. They didn’t manage to get it up and going as quickly as Glyndebourne; last year they temporized in another building but this year they have a handsome new auditorium with good acoustics lined in black American walnut with comfy blue seats. As previously the foyer is a squash, not enough room for the gentry in bow ties, the furry ladies, the horse-dealers, farmers, gossoons …. and tourists come from far and wide. If it is Halloween then it is festival time in Wexford.

This is an amazing achievement. After all the house exists for opera only for these three weeks in the year and Wexford is only a small town, two and half hours driving (through the rain as likely as not) from Dublin. But its grand fun. So how did they raise the spondulicks – 33 mill. according to one paper, 26 in another? Is it all Eireish money – or did some of it sprout from Brussels?

It all began in 1951 when a certain Dr Walsh decided to wake up the town for a month, whilst in the other eleven months of the year he was the city hospital’s anaesthetist. He started with local produce, The Rose of Castile by Balfe; for some years the chorus and staffing was also local, Irish ladies and fellers on stage, and helping backstage, some with muscles pushing the scenery about, the girls busy with needle and thread in the workshop. Over the years Walsh formulated the policy of putting on operas that were rarely if ever heard in the big opera houses, three in rotation daily so that you could see them all in a weekend with side-shows elsewhere, concerts and the odd lecture. (I myself gave an odd lecture in one of my seventeen visits to Wexford.)

So in the festival there have been operas by composers like Wolf-Ferrari, Spontini, Hérold, Thomas, Mercadante, Zandonai, Goldmark, Fauré, Floyd, Rubinstein, occasionally spliced with early Wagner or rare Rossini, Gluck or Mozart, wonderful and important side-dishes to the staple fare we get at Covent Garden, Coliseum, Glynders or elsewhere.

This year many of us found that the most enjoyable show was at one of the side shows, given in a makeshift local hall seats as first come, first served (like Easy Jet), no orchestra but a good pianist. The opera was a one-acter by Rossini, Senior Bruschino. This is a farce which moves swiftly along with the occasional coloratura aria, hectic choruses and lashings of patter songs. The performance was brilliant, the stars being Marco Filippo Romano in the title-role and Andrea Zaupa as Gaudenzio, both baritones. Alberto Triola’s direction ensured that the action fairly zipped along with a heady flavour like pasta al dente with sparkling Lambrusco. Intoxicating. Another day we had a tolerable Suor Angelica, the weepy runt of Il Trittico by Puccini; but piano accompaniment did the music no favours since it emphasized the constant plonking chordal accompaniments when we needed legato strings.

So, to the big three and hands up, any reader who has even heard of Carlo Pedrotti 1817 – 93, famous conductor in his time, a Verona man who spent much of his time conducting and admining in Turin? Apart from Sibelius and his Symphony No. 8, Pedrotti is the only composer known to have discouraged performances of his own works: ”Ropa vecchia” he called them, “old stuff, old hat”. He was wrong; true his 1856 Tutti in Maschera harks back to the style of Rossini more than it harks forward (!) to Verdi whose Masked Ball was unmasked three years later but it is a conservative sounding piece of great charm and fluency with good if unmemorable tunes, the whole thing beautifully written for voices and orchestra. The plot is farcical, involving singers, an impresario, a sponsoring Turk and two pairs of lovers (Cosi fan) and the whole climaxes gracefully at a Ballo in Maschera. Brad Cooper is an Australian tenore di grazia to watch and admire, Sarah Coburn American, was an excellent prima donna impersonating a prima donna and Marco Filippo Romano was the star of the show (as he had been in Senior Bruschino) as the wily impresario. Sets, costumes, conducting all first-rate.

I saw Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur at its Sadler’s Wells premiere in 1965 and later when superbly directed by Giorgio Strehler, in the Piccolo Scala in Milan. The Mines, title from a quote from Othello, not very germane to Beverley Cross’s fluent libretto, a horror story set on the Cornish moors 200 years ago concerning a ruffian’s breaking in and murder, followed by the arrival of a troupe of actors who are made to perform for their shelter, the drama culminating in a threat of plague. A Wexford programme note, counselling for the defence, calls it an opera of sinister charms and lyrical conceit. Acting more for the prosecution, I would say that Mines is a superbly professional job but a child of its time, a time when composers felt they had to compose serially or bust. In other words there is little charm and no lyricism; and that from Bennett who before going atonal and Alban Bergian wrote charming Brittenish songs, piano works, and who later wrote clever tonal film music, Orient Express type. John Bellemer was the commanding raffian holding the action together in the sulphuric moors.

The third Wexford offering was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden, stuffed as full of Russian folk material (real and invented) in its time 1882 as his pupil Stravinsky’s Petrushka was in its time thirty years later. Snow Maiden takes a long time to get going, just as it takes a long time, too long, finishing. In between there are considerable delights, arias, choruses and the famous Dance of the Tumblers. The tumblers were spot-on, which is more than could be said of the chorus (tumbling if not bouncing Czechs, by the way, although the pick-up Festival Orchestra was mostly Irish). The singing was consistently good and wobble-free. Outstanding was the high lyric tenor, Bryan Hywel as the Czar, American but sounding like a real Russian, descendant of the great Leonid Smirnov. Five star performance but then the rest of the cast was good too: Katerina Jalvocova, travesty role of Lel, a bespectacled poetical shepherd; Natela Nicoli as Mother Spring, Lina Telruashvili (has to be Georgian with a name like that) as the sexy Kupava and Irina Samoylova in white tutus and the title role. (not many Western names but no doubt the East Europeans are glad of a job and not too expensive to hire).

Conductor Dmitri o.k. (surname Jurowski, brother of the LPO/Glyndebourne director). Pipes for trees otherwise good sets by Dick Bird with an ominous ship hulk in some scenes. Snow Maiden (she melts in the end) could do with an hour’s cut but the time passed pleasantly with tunes galore.

So, the festival always takes place at Hallowe’en; when it comes round next year, why not pop over for a good time, several glasses of Guinness, Irish hospitality and the next three operas which will be:

Maria Padilla by Gaetano Donizetti

The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano

Il Cappello di Paglia di Firenze (The Florentine Straw Hat) by Nino Rota

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


October 11, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Puccini’s Bohème is revived for the 22nd time in the production by John Copley. That surely is a record of some kind. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s time sets were first seen in 1974, John was then forty-one. He still looks like a rather scruffy, mischievous urchin, full of naughtiness, adored by singers, indeed everyone he meets or works with. I mean no disrespect when I say I don’t think he has ever done a production that was epoch-making or absolutely brilliant. But then he has never done one that was less than adequate in the best sense of the word. You can rely on Copley to serve the composer and the librettist; never does he give the impression that he thinks he is more important than they are, he is not trying to make one aware of John Copley rather than the opera he is directing. He would never bring Brünnhilde on with a paper-bag over her head or Canio singing his big aria with his pants down. Seeing La Bohème in his production again brought back memories of Bohème over the years at, and even beyond Covent Garden.

Beecham; “Your Majesty, can you tell me, which is your favourite opera?”
King Edward: “Bohème”.
Beecham: “May I ask you Majesty, why”?
King Edward:”It’s the shortest.”

Maybe it is, but after two quite long intervals, the main, big curtains did not descend until twenty-past ten by which time the audience was well satisfied, even anybody seeing the opera for the first time would have a good idea of Puccini’s best-loved and most-performed work. I often say to myself that I shall give up going to opera if the day ever dawns when act four of Bohème does not make me gulp with emotion, possibly shedding a tear. And why did Puccini choose to end it with the coda of Colline’s coat arietta? But how right he was, how potent!

Marian Nowakowski (as Colline): Psst! How does it go?
Ian Wallace (as Marcello) sings Collines opening phrase which is all on one note.

Christopher Maltman seemed to sing slightly louder than anybody else and he somewhat dominated the cast with his Marcello.

But Wookyung Kim, from Seoul, showed a pleasing toner, musically and vocally satisfying (we are getting used to the continental drift where opera singers are concerned: recently in Australia Verdi’s penultimate opera was performed with a black Desdemona and a white Otello).

We wondered why Bjørling could not be bothered to pick up the key, but when his heart packed up and he died a few weeks later we realised why. At least he got through the performance in London that time. What a voice! The perfect mixture of head and chest voice with that god-given and alcohol-soaked timbre.

Hei-Kyung Hong having returned to her native land, Mimi was sung by the Greek soprano Alexis Voulgaridou (no English substitute?) and her voice and personality were more than adequate if less than memorable.

Dame Nellie was heartbroken when her favourite Rodolfo Jean de Reszke retired and she found at first that the stocky, cocky Caruso could be tiresome when he quacked a rubber duck in her face when she was a Mimi a-dying. Nor did his Schaunard appreciate it when he went to put on his hat and found that Caruso had filled it with water. But she came to like his voice!

Roderick Williams is one of my favourite artists. Whether he has a main part or, as here, Schaunard, he always gives a superb performance as regards voice, music and histrionics (he is a good composer too).

New Zealand Anna Leese was Mimi’s friend Musetta, good voice, pleasant personality without setting the Fleet River on fire.

Usually kind and generous, Dame Nellie could be bitchy occasionally as when she was standing in the wings and sang –along with Musetta, above all trying to blot out Musetta’s final top note. Yet Mary Garden, the first Melisande and not given much to praising other singers wrote that she never heard a more beautiful sound in her life than Melba’s off-stage top C at the end of act one. And Lyuba Welitsch was sensational as Musetta, the best waltz song ever, at the end of which she hurled herself like a torpedo into Paolo Silveri’s arms.

The production was straightforward, content to let the singers and the music work out Puccini’s unerring stage sense and his inexhaustible flow of stunning tunes and enchanting orchestration. Despite the pleasure of the first two acts it is the third which grips the emotions deeply, the purely operatic couldn’t-do-it-in-a-play-quarrel of Musetta and Marcello simultaneously played out with the despondent Mimi and the on-off loving care of Rodolfo. Infinitely touching. The conductor here must take credit; Christian Badea steered well, faithfully observed Puccini’s carefully designed pauses and made the death scene work.

Sir Thomas: “Mimi (Lisa Perli, the Purley queen) please don’t sit up for your dying phrases but stay lying down.”
Lisa Perli: “But Sir Thomas, I cannot give a good performance lying down.”
Sir Thomas: “On the contrary, Miss Perli, I hear you’ve given some of the best performance of your life in that position.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Which opera tugs most persistently at your heart-strings? Surely is must be Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. He hits your emotions roughly every four bars, compared perhaps with Carmen and Porgy and Bess every eight bars, Puccini every twelve, Mozart sixteen, Verdi likewise. Richard Strauss every fifty and Wagner every hundred or so – perhaps this could be a new parlour-game. Mascagni’s misfortune was that he peaked with Cav. at the age of twenty-six, never hitting the jack-pot again. One opera of his had seven simultaneous premieres around Italy and notched up seven flops, poor chap, cocky little strutter that he was.

English National Opera on September 20 let loose new productions by Richard Jones of that remarkable double-bill Cav and Pagliacci. Now Richard Jones is a hot number amongst opera directors these days. There is no one better than him (or Zefirelli) at staging crowd scenes, as we saw but his other feature is that he likes to shock, even if shock comes form Richard Jones and has little or nothing to do with the composer or the librettist. He is the director that had Brünnhilde come on with a paper-bag over her head. But his production of Cav (translated in the programme as Sicilian Revenge which is another title for what we usually call Country Chivalry was mild, why even the first snog of the evening was discreetly staged behind a row of chairs). There seemed no harm in the décor (by the ingenious Ultz) keeping us confined in a sort of shopping mall, no open air, no church, think when we speak of (Alfio’s) horses there are none, and Turiddu the no-good-boyo is killed on stage. Maybe, we thought, Jones is biding his time, leading us up the garden path for mayhem in Pag. (too right, he was). True, Turiddu pours a glass of wine into Alfio’s pocket before the customary eat-biting which in Sicily preludes a duel.

The best singing, the only first class singing of the evening, came from Peter Auty as Turiddu, his first major role I think, but surely not his last. Otherwise we had tidy singing but nothing to fill the house (one has sympathy for the singers, the Coliseum is a great barn of a place) Jane Dutton, pregnant by no-good-boyo did not compare with the great ones of the past; and her and Jones’ idea of indicating anguish was frequently to clutch at her skirt, hoiking it up. Chorus fine, orchestra roused itself but Edward Gardner would seem not to be the man for verismo. He did not stir the heart, the head or the loins. Even more thin-blooded was I Pagliacci (The clowns but the programme insisted on comedians which is way off English)

The prologue went off half-cock. The singer was bespectacled so that he looked like Arthur Askey. He sang tidily and discreetly whereas the voice here needs to be full-blooded, even fruity.

In Pag Jones let rip, showing his utter disrespect for Leoncavallo’s score; the domestic drama was turned into crude farce with doors, cupboards, and Canio actually losing his trousers for goodness sake! The combination of that and a less than good tenor resulted in his big aria, Laugh, clown, laugh being received in frosty silence instead of the usual roar of acclamation.

The result of this larking about meant that the passion and tragedy of the drama disappeared with Canio’s trousers. This was an artistic betrayal. Shame, ENO shame Richard Jones, and shame the musical director Edward Gardner for allowing this travesty to happen!

A cut-price Falstaff

Verdi’s Falstaff on the cheap must be the verdict on Pimlico Opera’s production 21 September at the Grange Opera House (near Alton, Hampshire) before embarking on a tour of seventeen towns ‘where you are) although rather daftly the programme did not mention which they are. The orchestra was small, single players of wind and brass, no mention in the programme of who boiled down the score, and only ten string players. This robbed Verdi’s last opera of its unique iridescence and its kaleidoscopic charm. Nor did the conductor Alice Fordham do much more than keep the playing tidy. Verdi’s full-blooded score sounded anaemic. There was no chorus and there were cuts, Falstaff’s lute song for instance.

So what remained? Quite a lot. Firstly there was a finely rounded title role performance from the Falstaff, David Alexander Borloz and a fruity Mistress Quickly from Emma Carrington. Verity Parker had the notes for Nanette (her last top A was a treat, but a bit of wobble lower down – a pity she was given such dowdy clothes). Alice, Ford, Meg and Fenton all sang tidily but that tidiness excluded much in the way of vocal purity, elegance or character. Tidiness is not high art.

A brick arch cunningly did for all scenes with suitable different decorations, including a rather improbable swimming pool (yes, it was modern dress) and, for some reason, different clocks for each venue, not forgetting a lift chez Ford, where the lovers hid and lights indicated that at one point it was at five floors at the same time.

Although performing at the Grange Pimlico Opera is not to be confused with its sister company, Grange Opera, which plays for a whole summer (this year superior productions of Dvorak’s Rusalka and Puccini’s Fanciulla del West). Pimlico Opera began as the brain child of Wasfi Kani who conducted (rather well) before becoming a fund-raiser and administrator of Grange Opera. I remember their Sweeney Todd in Wormwood Scrubs which was performed by a cast combining Pimlico singers and prisoners. I taped some interviews with the inmates and foolishly asked a non-musical question: ‘what’s the worst thing about prison?’ ‘No visitors.’ ‘What, no nice girl-friend comes to visit?’ ‘Well, I murdered ‘er, din’ I?’.

The Calisto Show

Submarines in the pit of the Royal Opera House? No, what at first glance looked like periscopes were in fact theorbos in triplicate, the long-necked bass instruments used in the seventeenth century. Enlightenment dawned on me, as if I didn’t know that I was going to see a matinee performance on Saturday September 27 of what must surely be the oldest opera ever to be seen in Covent Garden, La Calisto, by Francesco Cavalli (1602 – 1676, a man of Venice, possibly a pupil of Monteverdi), described by him as a Dramma per musica. It was the ninth show by the composer and his librettist Faustini; it premiered in 1651 in Venice and, unlike its predecessors, it was a flop. It was revived in 1970 at Glyndebourne in a version conducted and orchestrated rather lushly by Raymond Lappard. Since then it has had many stagings.

Compared with Monteverdi, Cavalli’s is a much plainer style, no stabbing harmonies of voices clashing semitonally. But the score leaves much to the imagination of ‘realizors’, much of the accompaniments are anybody’s guess and were, indeed, partly improvised here as directed by Ivor Bolton with the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble and members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Much of the prologue and two acts lasting just short of three hours is recitative, merging sometimes into arioso, sometimes merging into arias, with an occasional tutti, merging into dance music. The music is pleasant but not as vital or ‘operatic’ as ? master Monteverdi’s.

Therefore, staging, singing and playing are all important. The noises from the pit were always lively and meaningful, easy on the ear. The singing reached a high standard, led by Sally Matthews, a true soprano sounding nothing but true notes, powerful and stylish. And she looked attractive, her curves actually increased by her pregnancy. For all this, she plays a virgin determined to remain so, until at the end she is transformed, by Jove (and by Jove!) into a bear, and set in a constellation. The whole plot is mightily concerned with kissing, smooching and so on, with two pairs of lovers and a cast including one handsome shepherd and so many god and classical references that you need a Who’s Who and a What’s What in Antiquity to unravel all the complexities of the plot. Alternatively you could just look and listen.

David Alden has devoted his life to putting on this kind of show and he has worked wonders in the production with sets and costumes that positively ravish the senses. Beautiful shapes and wondrous colours assail the eyes. Paul Steinberg uses several stagehands to move his large shaped pieces around whilst Buki Shiff’s costumes are among the finest, most gorgeous and imaginative I have seen on any stage, one damn thing after another, all of them pleasing and beguiling the eye.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


You may have seen advertisements in this journal for a summer course for singers August 1 to 9 and I went to see what goes on. To start with SMAULL is not a misprint, it is a Gaelic name for a farm in a place about as remote as you can get although as the Crow Flies (or British Airways) only some three score miles due west of Glasgow. It is on the Isle of Islay where the Lords of the Isles held sway a few centuries ago. From the airport you get in your car, take an A road, then several B roads and finally some roads further down the alphabet, ending up unlocking a padlock, opening a few more gates, till you get to the farm house where live the organisers of the course, Philip Maxwell, and his wife Briony. Adjacent to the house are barns, one of which is the home of several hundred choughs, the other of which has been turned into two music rooms. Here may be found the dozen participants in the course, the teachers and one or two hangers on, like myself, a non-participating listener.

The singers are mixed pros, students and amateurs, living in the house or nearby, a happy band of congenial muzos. Each of the singers has prepared three songs (the first two had worked up Britten, Brahms and Poulenc; Roussel, Wolf and Schumann). In addition certain numbers or scenes from operas were on the agenda; and the singers also sang as a chamber choir. The standard varied.

Mary Hill not only coached but also took SATB ensemble. She was one of the teachers but the main master classes were given by Richard Jackson, sometimes baritone in the Song Makers Almanac. He knew every song by heart and its background. He had the gift of improving the singing of each participant by at least a third within twenty minutes, always encouraging, wonderfully inventive in his direction and never falling into the trap of turning teaching into an ego trip.

Richard was illuminating, inspiring – and entertaining. The accompanist, young Australian Claire Howard, also deserves a mention, expert, sympathetic and supportive (pretty too!).

There were two moments that stood out during my brief visit, both relating to Debussy: Marjorie Ouvry, inspired by Jackson, turned Noël des enfants –Debussy’s last song – into a wartime/mini drama; and Jan Wiener caught perfectly the fleeting poetic moods and emotions of La flûte de Pan. This was a singer in, what should one say?, the second flush of youth, using her voice in a way that had me remembering the great Maggie Teyte, who sixty years ago opened British ears to the marvels of French song.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dog Bites Soprano

New Glyndebourne Opera

August 10

The premiere at Glyndebourne of a new, commissioned opera by Peter Eötvöșa, a Hungarian composer previously known as a fine conductor mainly of contemporary works. Love and Other Demons is based on the novel of that name by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The action takes place in a colonial sea port in Columbia in the 18th century and it begins with an eclipse of the sun, during which Sierva is bitten by a dog (non-singing role) which gives her rabies and causes her to scream for most of the opera in stratospherically high notes way above the staves. The Bishop orders Delaura, his librarian, to exoricize her but before that happens she is sent to a convent and there are encounters with the Abbess, and a former nun who has gone mad. Whilst Sierva is possessed of demons Delaura is possessed with love for Sierva. Eventual exorcism and death of Sierva.

The production is elaborate and brilliant, by the Romanian director, Silviu Purcararete, even though at times it is difficult to make out what is going on. And the programme book does not help as the synopsis is inept. The libretto, by Kornel Hamvai, is in English although certain passages are written in a foreign tongue. Fortunately, there are subtitles which reveal often that English is not a language that the composer knows well. Some of the wording veers between naiveté and pretension. There is not much choral or ensemble music. The score is wispy and gestural, curiously neutral textures and orchestration for a composer who is a conductor. Musical content is in short supply. Most people I spoke to agreed that one observed and listened but emotions were not engaged.

Allison Bell took over the part of the Sierva from the indisposed advertised soprano and achieved wonders with her high lying vocal utterings. Nathan Gunn, Felicity Palmer, Jean Rigby and Mats Almgren were excellent respectively as Delaura, the Abbess, the Insane Nun and the Bishop, all serving the composer right. There was nothing in the music to frighten the horses and the duration was short.

It will be interesting to see if this opera survives or sinks without a trace. Last performance this season 30 August, I don’t think it will be difficult to get a ticket.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Aldeburgh Festival

No.61, June 13 – 29 began with a stinker and ended with a bang. Things here are changing; some of the almost derelict buildings adjacent to the concert hall at Snape are being developed into space for dressing rooms, a 340-seater concert room and rehearsal rooms - £15 million has already been raised. Also Thomas Adès ‘Die Frist ist um’ (ref. Flying Dutchman ‘the time is up’) after ten years. He has been performing less and less and has relied on the help of an assistant director, the composer John Woolrich, two of whose composition were performed this June, one of them the premiere of a Violin Concerto. Adès’ advertised new work was not ready in time but he piano-partnered Steven Isserlis in a good programme; Sonatas by Debussy, Poulenc, and Schumann’s A minor Violin Sonata No.3 in a transcription by Isserlis; this is the late work that Clara forbad performances of, on the grounds that its composer was of unsound mind at the time, which he was, it is a relentlessly striving, nerve-wracking sonata that only relaxes at the very end. Fine playing. Adès also directed the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in his own Living Toys and works by Ligeti, Gerald Barry and Kurtag.

Gyorgy Kurtag was the featured composer this year and we suffered (in both senses of the word) a dozen of his wispy works. Some managed to derive some satisfaction for these but most of us failed to find them attractive, inventive, inspired or even worthwhile. Kurtag was born 82 years ago and it was a sight to see him and his equally venerable wife Marta, like some Derby and Joan, at an upright (amplified) piano playing away at the wisps, interspersed with some much appreciated Bach transcriptions.

I was congratulated three times on having missed the opening festival salvo, a stage piece An Ocean of Rain by Yanis Kiriakides, Greek, born 1969, which the Sunday Times critic said was unspeakably awful and drove my Telegraph colleague almost to apoplexy. Just one performance.

Director-delegate of the festival is the justly renowned French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who (June 14) also conducted the Britten Sinfonia in thoroughly acceptable performances of Haydn’s delightful Symphony No. 22, Ives The Unanswered Question with Kurtag’s answer to it entitled Ligatura, the rare Three Piece for Chamber Orchestral by Schoenberg (1910) and Webern’s early string orchestral Five Pieces; after the interval came an excellent Coronation Concerto with Aimard as soloist-director. He also gave a piano recital playing rather too emphatically most of The Art of Fugue interspersed with (yes, you’ve guessed it) Kurtag, nine more wisps.

Before accepting the Directorship Aimard sent for all the festival programmes – which is good. But when asked by a journalist what his attitude to Britten was he (allegedly) replied; “Neutral” – which doesn’t sound so good. In fact, many of us regulars consider that not enough music of the Master is heard at the festivals. The tally this June was ten works, four of them almost as wispy as Kurtag.

Highlights? A masterly Diabelli Variations, Beethoven as to the manner successfully acquired, by Stephen Kovacevich. The pianist had a stroke not long ago but his art seems only to have deepened still further. There were enjoyable string quartet programmes given by the (French) Modigliani, the Badke and the Belcea, the latter with Imogen Cooper for an invigorating Trout. Northern Sinfonia played a noble Schumann 3 (the Rhenish) directed by Thomas Zehetmair with some Schubert songs orchestrated by Webern and one with Britten tickling the Trout.

One enjoyable trip to the flicks was to see two Barry Gavin films featuring A.L. (Bert) Lloyd 1908-82, a remarkable man who was a whaler, broadcaster, scholar, singer, journalist, folk-song collector (collaborator with Vaughan Williams, no less.) His programme on The Origins of Polyphony is such a seminal and enjoyable item that the BBC has not revived it! One film showed Lloyd retracing Bartok’s steps in Eastern Europe collecting songs (wonderful peasant wedding scene); the other was a personal memoir.

The festival ended with a concert by the hard-working and virtuosic City of Birmingham Symphony that consisted, after the obligatory Kurtag wisp, of two British masterpieces; Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Symphony No.1. Edward Gardner earned his spurs directing, with suitable expertise and tension, exemplary performances. Yes, the Britten is gritty, quite hard work for the ears and the brain but rewarding. Both works were written at a time of great personal turmoil. Walton has said that the symphony relates to his tempestuous liaison with the Baroness Irma Doernberg but what was worrying Britten in 1960? Shall we ever know?

I stayed two weeks in Aldeburgh and went to three-quarters of the events (and was one of them; I gave a talk about Britten and Tippett), skipping some that I knew I would not enjoy. Curious, but I find that some of my colleagues seem to employ double standards. When I started writing reviews there were some ageing Canute-like critics who seemed to want to stem the tide of ‘modernism’, senior writers such as Frank Howes of the Times, and Richard Cappell of the Telegraph. I don’t want to stem the tide but I don’t necessarily want to swim in it. Whereas nowadays many critics coo at every new work that comes along, I demand a minimum of melody, something that I can relate to and recognise if it should happen to recur. Music is the art I love best and I hate not enjoying most of the new music. Such a lot of it recalls the Emperor’s New Clothes and is the result of a lack of professionalism.

I suppose it was ever thus. But there are exceptions: Weir, Turnage, Adams and (if the piece lasts less than ten minutes) Taverner. Above all music must have passion and imagination, not just confirm to fashion. And Stravinsky once said “Sincerity is a sine qua non, which however in itself guarantees nothing.”

Typical of music today is a story about the composer Sciarino. He was heard to say: “Pollini talked about my music recently on the radio He said my music has passion – I’ll kill him.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Rake Without Progress

Neither Stravinsky, Hogarth nor W.H Auden were best served by the new production at Covent Garden of The Rake’s Progress, first night of five shows on July 7. Robert Lépage seems to be one of those directors determined to stamp a production with his own personality rather than project that of the composer or librettist. So, here we have yet another of these ‘concept’ productions. In this case Lépage’s stated idea is to angle the opera from the point of view of the period/time during which the composer was writing; so we are in a world of 1950, of tv (flickering sets all over the stage), oil (there’s a nodding donkey in the Trulove garden – which turns into a film camera in the brothel scene – Hollywood for the moment, it’ll be Las Vegas by and by) oh! The unnecessary expense of all the gadgetry! Tom Rakewell is dressed initially as a cowboy; in the scene of Baba’s first appearance, Anne arrives in a red sports car, Baba in a sedan outside on Oscar evening-cinema exterior. In Tom’s town house there is a bubble which turns into an indoors caravan. Baba is not submerged by the usual tea cosy but in a swimming pool, later the scene of the Auction. There are some better ideas: the explosions of light when Tom shakes hands with Nick Shadow; and the way in which the coupling Tom and Mother Goose literally disappear through a hole in the bed.

But the director, for all the gimmicks, floors that up and down neon lights etc., does not add anything to the story nor bring the characters to life.

So, what of the music? Thomas Adés conducts but fails to point up the sharpness, the pathos or the tenderness in the score. The orchestra plays well, the chorus sings well but the result is dull, lacklustre. And of the voices, only John Relyea’s Nick Shadow seems truly worthy to stand and deliver on our number one operatic stage where so many great voices have been heard in the past. Sally Matthews sings her lullaby in the looney-bin beautifully softly but her louder notes do not charm, move one, or seem in focus.

Charles Castronovo’s voice for the Rake on this occasion dealt with the notes but lacked sap and projection. Patricia Bradon sang well as Baba and showed an almost totally hirsute body above a good pair of legs. Sellem, the auctioneer was badly cast, neither well sung, funny or interesting.

Stravinsky seemed pleased with the libretto but most of act two sounds as if he didn’t quite understand all the intellectual quirks and implications of the text which surely tries too hard to establish its literary credentials, too often trying to show an eighteenth century style but giving the composer some pretty unsolvable problems.


Leonard Bernstein was the all-American Mr. Music. He adored applause, he courted it, he got it and he deserved it. On form he was the top conductor, a brilliant communicator, a compelling lecturer/educator/tv talker; his ‘serious’ compositions could be heavy, over intellectual, constipated but his work in popular music fizzed and was first-class: On The Town, Wonderful Town were hits and West Side Story (1957) is one of the great works of the 20th century. His film score for On The Waterfront is a classic.

But Candide, just now having a run of fifteen performance (last one July 12) at the London Coliseum by the English National Opera, that is another matter. It has been a problem child since the start and has been subject to endless revision. The music begins stunningly with a comedy overture in the Rossini class; piquant, tuneful, irrepressible, dashing, cleverly changing tempi to pile up a climax that whets the appetite for the operetta or musical comedy to follow. And then comes a brilliant opening number with unusual tricky rhythms that Max Adrian negotiated so magically in the first London run in the fifties at the Cambridge Theatre put on by Laurence Olivier.

But from then on it’s all downhill. The score turns clever, parodies that don’t click, tunes that sag, the whole thing becomes rather boring. The book is credited to six writers, including the starry names of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim. Even Mrs Bernstein wrote one number. And the current producer, Robert Carsen, has freely adapted the mélange in a joint production with La Scala, Milan and the Châtelet, Paris. Maybe something has got lost in transit; maybe the coliseum is too darn big. But the result is stale and too cutely American for words. The rot sets in early as the ear is distracted from hearing the overture because a movie runs right through it and destorys it. The plot, derived from Voltaire’s novella, becomes tedious and the production heaps flashy Pelion on Hollywood Ossa: armies, ship decks, elaborate dance routines (Busby Berkeley, thou shouldst be living at this hour). It is no fault of the performers that the characters are cardboard caperers and do not engage our sympathy or interest. Toby Spence sings pleasantly in the title role. Anna Christy looks a treat in a pink Marilyn Monroe gown; she can hit the high C’s but lower down the staves her voice lacks focus. Alex Jennings plays Pangloss and Voltaire but lacks the spicy individuality of the beloved Max Adrian of fifty years back. Beverley Klein does her best with the crashingly tiresome Old Lady (through pleasantly reminding me of the late Caryl Brahms). Everything happens cutely on cue and I have to say the audience responded (July 4) as if it were enjoying itself.

Since there were so many revisions the writers, including Bernstein himself, he must have known that they were working on a cardboard turkey. ENO keeps on trying to earn money by putting on musicals; bums on seats maybe, but no marks for artistic excellence.

Fanciulla and Rusalka

Grange Park Opera Triumphs

Grange Park Opera in Hampshire near Basingstoke has come of age in the current season with its production of Puccini’s Fanciulla del West and Dvorak’s Rusalka. In the past good work has been done but the house style could sometimes be a bit flighty (neon lights in Thais) but not consistent in standard, but this year these performances of two operas on the verge of being in the big league are worthy of the highest praise. True, the singing in the Puccini is not of the best but the Dvorak is strongly cast. The staging is blessedly free from ‘concept’ and is played in a straight way so that, rare these days, I think the composer and librettist would still recognize their work.

Fanciulla had a propitious send-off in New York in 1910 with the two most famous singers of the day in the leading roles: Emmy Destinn as Minnie, pub-keeper in gold rush California, and Caruso, bandit in disguise, with Toscanini conducting. Yet although the opera brought in the crowds it has remained a little sister to Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly and Turandot. Why? Only one big hit of an aria, no pathetic ‘little woman’ and no tragedy could be the answer. Yet the Puccini musical thumbprints are there, sumptuous orchestration, rich harmonies and idiomatic writing for the voices (including the chorus, all male of course). Perhaps the vocal writing breaks into lyricism not enough, proceeding too often in a kind of arioso, not enough of those winning moments that touch and provoke tears.

Yet a good performance is very satisfying, as at Grange Park (I was there July 4). Rory McDonald conducted a performance that sang full of passion, colour and pace (English Chamber Orchestra).

Another ‘yet’, there were no first-class singing performances. Cynthia Makris (Finnish) the soprano looked fine, was 100% sympathetic and held the stage very well. Her top notes were clean but lower down the tone was not pure or in the middle of the note. The tenor, John Hudson, sang his notes ok but looked more like an ageing bank clerk than a bandit. I warmed more to the Icelandic baritone, Olafur Sigurdason, but Puccini didn’t give Jack Rance, the sheriff in love with Minnie, more than an arietta to sing (Ravelish), little gem though it is.

Realistic sets by Francis O’Connor and sturdy chorus singing completed the evening’s pleasure factor. The director was Stephen Metcalf.

Rusalka was even better, with a strong cast and more starry singing. The title role was consummately performed by the French soprano, Anne-Marie Duprels, the mermaid who turns into a mute human in pursuit of a Prince. Alas, he grows tired of her silence (rare to find a voiceless soprano in opera) jilts her for a Foreign Princess, changes his mind and is given the kiss of death by his fishy bride. Duprels sang, mimed and acted in positively star fashion. Her merman father, Clive Bayley, matched her excellence. Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts was a portly Prince with a sympathetic face and a fine voice (they all sang in Hampshire Czech). Anne-Marie Owens was good, too, doling out her magic potion as a perfect bitch of a witch whilst Janis Kelly was fine and every inch the other Woman/Foreign Princess.

Stephen Barlow conducted the ECO in a reading instinct with power, passion and poetry. Dvorak was just coming up to 60 when he composed this opera in 1900. The music is supremely competent, rich in sound (bass clarinet and double bassoon help with that) even if it does not plumb the depths of feeling like Dvorak’s orchestral master-pieces. The production and design by Anthony McDonald was imaginative, could scarcely be bettered.

Grange Park Opera takes place in an opera house next to a partly derelict Palladian villa set in rolling country-side. It is the creation of Wasfi Kani a conductor turned wizard fund raiser. She will have a job keeping up this standard (but I bet she will succeed). In 2009, she promises Norma, Senta, Eliogabalo (that’s a difficult one!) and a Cunning Vixen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Opera At Its Best

Don Carlos at Covent Garden 12.10.58

From ’The Scotsman’ (

“To mark the centenary of the opening of the present Royal Opera House in Covent Garden a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlos was given on Friday night.

A magnificent cast has been assembled to give the work in Italian, with Luchino Visconti and Carla-Maria Giulini , the most renowned producer and conductor in Italy today. No expense has been spared to make this new offering a celebration worthy of the occasion.

On many similar occasions when such an effort is made, with all the stops pulled out, the result falls short of expectation. But this presentation of Don Carlos exceeds hope, and is nothing short of magnificent. There have been, since the Opera House reopened after the last war, comparable musical experience – notably Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier, Wozzeck, and Elektra, Beecham’s Meistersinger, Kubelik’s Jenufa and Kempe’s Ring, but of no opera has there been any complete performance as good as this Don Carlos.

Here everything combines to give the work in all its glory: singing, orchestral playing, musical direction, acting, décor – this is opera at its best. ‘Integration’ is the word that comes to mind to describe the rare harmony between first-rate talents that have combined to give here the most complicated of art-forms a near perfect representation.

Never have I seen such good use made of the big Covent Garden stage; each of the seven sets is a beautiful sight in itself and completely right in the context. Visconti has not only produced the opera, but also designed, with the help of two assistants, these sets and the fine costumes. He is perhaps better known as one of the foremost Italian film directors, but he shows himself now as a masterly operatic producer.

The opera – written in 1866, preceding Aida – is a long one, for Verdi sets himself the task of working out the many conflicts in Schiller’s drama of the court of Philip II of Spain: Catholic Spain opposed to Protestant Flanders, the liberal Rodrigo to autocratic State, King to Grand Inquisitor, and also the frustrated love between Don Carlos and the Queen, his intended bride who becomes his stepmother instead, owing to a change of State plans.

Verdi succeeds in his task and creates six substantial parts for singers: six genuine operatic characters of considerable depths. The score has many fine things in it, but the quality is not even; individual numbers do not always sustain otherwise excellent scenes and the promise of the opening scene in the forest of Fontainebleau is not made good until after the big auto-da-fé scene in the third act. In the opening scene of Act IV occurs the extraordinary scene between King and Grand Inquisitor, two basses, followed by several numbers, including a quartet, that are amongst Verdi’s very finest creations.

The singing reached a high level; Boris Christoff, as the King, gave a performance that combined dramatic power with musical refinement; Gre Brouwenstijn, as the Queen, sang with more warmth and beauty of tone than hitherto; Tito Gobbi was in excellent voice and made a convincing Rodrigo; Jon Vickers both sang and acted with more subtly than would have been suspected from his past performance; and Marco Stefanoni was suitably dark-voiced for the Inquisitor. Fedora Barbieri had the misfortune to catch a frog in her throat in ‘Don Fatale’, impeding a performance that was anyhow not in the same class as her colleagues.

But the performance was dominated by the conducting of Giulini. Here was the complete realisation of the score in what was easily the finest Verdi that London has heard for many a long year.”

Hindsight: Even forty years later I still think that this Don Carlos was the best thing I ever saw on the operatic stage, the most completely integrated performance including all aspects; conducting, singing, acting, production, sets. Part of the secret of its success was, I believe, due to the fact that the designer/producer Visconti and conductor Giulini attended every stage rehearsal. Giulini at this stage of his career was at his most dedicated and passionate.

However, I have modified my view of the work in as much as I can now appreciate that the three duets at the end of act two are a marvellous dramatic feat even if the Posa-Philip one, despite endless revisions by Verdi, does not contain the beauty and depth of the act four wonders.

After Giulini, nothing can eclipse his total realisation of its strength, emotional pull and mastery. Pappano gets near but lacks the ultimate, quite how I find it difficult to say. Chorus and orchestra gave their worthy best. And Nicholas Hytner’s production is spot on.

Roland Villazon’s tenor rings out superbly, he is as neurotic as hell and taking vocal risks all the time – can he keep it up at this intensity? Marina Poplavskaya was truly adequate as the Queen without revealing any strong character in the voice. Simon Keenlyside was pure gold, bold, sympathetic and papering over the cracks in the role of Posa, political ardour and impulses not being the best weapons in Verdi’s armoury, sincere and motivated though he was. The Tebaldo of Pumeza Matshika was the best Tebaldo the page that I have seen, Sonia Ganassi was not, though it must be said that this role has seen many an Eboli stumble, the role is a Beecher’s brook. Ferruccio Furlanetta’s voice is not the most beautiful but his artistry is very fine (wonderful legs too!) He was the only Italian to appear (as the King) in this Italian sung version.

All in all it was a pleasurable, powerful evening (11 June) devoted to Verdi’s sprawling masterpiece, when the performance was obviously more trouble- free than the first night.

Monday, June 02, 2008

An English Rosenkavalier

"Too many notes", the Emperor famously rebuked Mozart; and maybe an Emperor could have said "too many words" after the 1911 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier. Hofmannsthal's libretto is wordy, positively garrulous at times but Richard Strauss was so enamoured of it that he not only set every word of it, he even set some of the stage directions as well. After Salome and Elektra he realized that he could not go any further down the road of modernity, for the two earlier works had subjects that horrified his audiences, with music that shocked the ears of the world by pushing the frontiers of harmony over the top into atonality.
As animals are said to sense an impending catastrophe, some musicians in the years before World War I seemed to sense that the world was hurtling towards disaster and produced compositions that reflected this: Sibelius with his fourth Symphony, Stravinsky with The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg with his twelve-tone works and Strauss with his twin shockers. So the German poet and composer did an about-turn with a comedy, a massive Viennese-type comedy set in the eighteenth century, containing not only anachronistic, if enchanting waltzes, but also some quite shocking situations. The opening scene sees a girl dressed as a boy with a woman twice his age, making love after an orchestral prelude whose whooping horns fed everything to the imagination.

The score is a fascinating mixture: plenty of anarchic harmony but often the dissonances are tempered with celesta, harp and glockenspiel sounds that parallel the taste of crystallised fruit. There are touching moments, like the orchestral outburst when the boy mistakenly judges that his mistress's post-coital melancholy is a sign of dismissal, like the ravishing moment when the young Sophie (his new love to be) is presented with the silver rose and, above all, the final trio whose mounting climax is not only sexual but is one of the great moments of emotional power in all music, a scene in which the older woman realizes now ecstatically happy the young ones are and relinquishes her hold on her toy-boy. Hofmannstahl may have over-egged the verbals but he also provided situations rich in emotional, even philosophical subtleties. Strauss produced a masterpiece, immediately successful but enduring. Mind you, there are a few longueurs, including the first twenty minutes of Act Three when Strauss seems to be driving his music along on auto-pilot.

There were many moments of satisfaction in the performance on Saturday, May 24, the second of a new production by the English National Opera in the London Coliseum. John Tomlinson's portrayal of the lecherous, seedy aristocrat, Baron Ochs was fine, almost like a latter-day Falstaff, his acting telling, his voice in good shape, dispelling any thoughts that age was dimming its prowess - there were some beautiful notes at the top, even though the famous final bottom E at the close of Act Two was a bit anaemic.

But older opera-goers could not but notice that, as usual in this whopping great house, the female singers were often forcing their notes except when they were singing pure tones in head-voice. Above all the stave Janice Watson (Marschallin), Sarah Connolly (Octavian) and Sarah Tynan (Sopnhe) sang well; and all three acted convincingly. Andrew Shore deserves a special mention for he made the role of the nouveau-riche Faninal, a cameo, seem like a principal one.
There was a good deal of hammy horseplay in the ensembles just as there were over-the-top elements in the decor of Michael Vale and Tania McCullin: bloated curtains half-a-dozen chandeliers and naff silver armour for Octavian. Alogether this was a rather English Rosenkavalier, more boiled beef and carrots than Sachertorte. Mind you, the audience was enthusiastic.

The orchestral playing and direction under their young music director, Edward Gardner, settled down well after the opening half-hour when the balance seemed faulty, both in the pit, and with the stage. As a footnote: the custom of a young cavalier formalizing an engagement with the presentation of a silver rose had a sequel in the later opera Arabella which ends with another quaint form of proposal. Only here is a Slovakian custom, apparently, in which the girl presents her intend with ... a glass of water!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Eugene Onegin, Glyndebourne, May 21

Eugene Onegin is notably superior to Tchaikovsky's other half dozen odd operas. Why? Probably because it was nearer to his private life than the others which deal with gambling (Pique Dame), Mazeppa - Cossack chetman, The Maid of Orleans, The Sorceress - medieval blind princess, Oprichnik - crude melodrama, Undine, jilted water-nymph, Voyevoda, medieval woman stealer. All of these operas contain some, but not enough, fine music but the plots were not anywhere near to Tchaikovsky's life or person. But Onegin was: he himself had received a letter from a girl throwing herself at the feet of someone she barely knew. As we know, Onegin coldly rebuffed Tatiana. Tchiakovsky was touched by the situation and set to work immediately on his famous letter scene. And, although he wrote Onegin some fine music,, the composer hated Onegin so that when he received in real life a similar letter, he determined that he would not behave heartlessly. So Tchaikovsky married the letter writer - with predictably disastrous results; homosexual marries the letter-writer (at a time of course when he needed to fend off accusations of 'un-natural practices')

On May 21 Onegin was the second opera to be performed in the current season at Glyndebourne - mairaculously in halcyon weather. Six operas form the repertoire Albert Herring, Carmen, Hansel and Gretel, a new opera by Peter Eötvös called Love and Other Demons and the season began with Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, a performance whose music side under Emmanuel Haim was lauded by the critics but whose production was loudly dislauded.
Onegin has no hero onstage but here in Sussex it had one, conducting in the pit. Vladimir Jurowski, the young Moscow-born music director at Glyndebourne, was the star of the evening. It was a curious performance in as much as none of the singers was able to project their characters enough and yet the evening was vastly enjoyable because of the orchestra's playing and Graham Vick's production.

I have heard the Letter Scene in concert hundreds of times and seen it on stage three score or more times, but I have never been so moved by it since I first heard it, as on this occasion. The young Latvian soprano Maija Kovaloeska looked good and sang nicely without completely getting to grips with either the character or her music. But the London Philharmonic under Jurowksi really touched the spot. The soft playing of the first horn was exceptionally beautiful. We had the Slovakian baritone Ales Jenis as the cad Onegin, an Italian tenor, Massimo Giordano as the fated poet Lensky and a Russian bass, Mikhail Schelomianski as Tatiana's second choice, the Prince Gremin: all adequate, none entirely satisfactory. Chorus excellent.

The production, on the other hand, was not only satisfactory but superb. Graham Vick's productions these days are usually rather wilful and over the top, trying too hard, not content to leave the music speak for itself. But this Onegin was first seen here in 1994. Sometimes the scene is spare (just two chairs for the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatiana) but other scenes are truly memorable: the scene of the duel was hauntingly lit and set, and , best of all, the dance at the Laras in act one, one of the best operatic scenes I have encountered, a real country hop with chidren larking about and all.

The evening began coldly, but soon warmed up, thanks to Jurowski's passionate yet elegant, life-enhancing realisation of Tchaikovsky's evergreen masterpiece. Mrs Tchaikovsky may have been repellent in the composer's eyes, but she inspired one of the greatest and most lovable of operas.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review

Listening to the Twentieth Century
Alex Ross
Pp 624
Fourth Estate £20

This book is well worth the money – the best survey I’ve come across, a worthy successor to Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! Which came out in 1834, wildly witty, entertainingly opinionated but wise at times. Alex Ross’s survey is more inclusive, also wise, not many jokes but entertaining, informative and eminently sane; and inducing compulsive page turning.

Both books preface with Shakespeare: Lambert has “The Music Ho! Let’s to billiards”; Ross has “…the rest is silence…. why does the drum come hither?” Ross does not scintillate like Lambert but the writing is good, reading more like a historical novel than a textbook.

Ross begins, interestingly not with Schoenberg or The Rite of Spring but with the premiere in 1906 in Graz of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (dedicated to an English banker!) Apparently Mahler was there and Berg, Puccini and possibly Adolf Hitler and, in imagination, Adrian Leverkühn. Ross’s range is almost incredibly wide, he seems to have researched everything there is to know or has been written about the music, the composers and the times they lived in. Like Lambert, Ross thinks that Sibelius was a good way forward, even though many took the atonal path, perhaps for the general bad. Ross is good on jazz (as befits a writer many of us know and admire for his/her articles in the New Yorker), overpraises Copland, and sums up well Berlin in the twenties and the Soviet scene. There are very good sections on Kurt Weill, Peter Grimes and Wozzeck. Messiaen, minimalist and the latest trends, ways forward and dead ends all receive lively comment.

Quibbles; apart from Britten, our British worthies get short shrift, Tippett just mentioned, Adès considered over-rated; and Ross seems to point an accusing finger by smearing Strauss: “On the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews are killed in Romania, 1500 in Latvia” and more in the same vein. Not nice, surely not germane.

Did you notice that I referred to Alex Ross as he/she? That’s because the jacket blurb refers to the author as he, whilst in the preface Ross thanks her husband. Never mind, which way Tiresias/ Ross dresses, he/she has written a mighty fine important book.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Viva la Diva

Did you know that Darcey Bussell could speak lines? Or that Kathleen Jenkins could dance? Pop along to your local arena then, and find out for yourself. I popped along to mine (May 10), which happens to be The Dome (remember The Dome?), which seats - eight thousand? During some boring moments of a rehash of The Red Shoes I started doing some sums: 8000 seats, average ticket price £50, crikey that’s a lot of moolah. Mind you, there were quite a lot of artists, technicians and managerial staff to pay, plus the hire of the Dome and shepherds to make sure us sheep got through the car parks and approach walks plus restaurants and shops to our seats.

So what kind of a show did the divas cook up? At least the programme book (price £10 – wow!) told us that the living divas (Bussell and Jenkins) had devised and written the entertainment themselves. Unhelpfully the programme book did not tell us what the items were, or give any credits to composers. The performing area consisted of a stage and a small upstairs space. The central part of the arena, stalls, are on the flat. Never mind, the audience can either look at that stage (performers look rather small) or at either of two large screens on which television cameras project the dancers and singers. Lots of dancers, about a couple of dozen, very good, hard working in a three-hour show (too long but you feel you are getting your money’s worth).

There are about twenty items, based on the work and songs of famous stars and shows of yesterday, stars of screen and records, Callas, Astaire, Charisse, Kelly, Garland, Day, Bassey, Piaf, Monroe, plus Chorus Line, Busby Berkeley, Bob Fosse and the Red Shoes numbers and a flamenco dance and chunks of Carmen and the Barber of Seville.

There is a lot of crossover and Darcey gets to do some snippets of ballet and they are brilliant, especially part of Elite Syncopations (Scott Joplin) and Red Shoes; her showbiz routines do not come off so well but she surprises us at the end with some spirited and efficient tap dancing.

Has Kathleen Jenkins swum into your ken yet? Did you know that she is the only singer in musical history simultaneously to hold the number 1,2,3 and 4 positions in the classical album charts, only last year? Her Piaf is not very good but her Rossini Una voce poco fa was, despite the fact that on certain notes she displays a king sized disfiguring judder.

What both Darcey and Kathleen have is charming personalities, beautiful faces and good figures. But they are short of sex appeal. Their costumes are gorgeous and they both can take the stage (and the screen). The show sometimes falls between the stools of televisions and theatre but on the whole it is efficiently done, imaginatively staged and the supporting dancers and band are first rate.

The audience? Well, the arena was absolutely packed. Where did they all come from and who were they? Middle class, those around me came from Purley, Streatham, Chelsea and Notting Hill Gate. Mostly middle aged, no foreigners, all white. They applauded dutifully but not over enthusiastically, not surprisingly since they were watching screens rather than the distant performers. I had the feeling somewhat that I was a prole in some 1984 entertainment, sitting in a vast arena, watching distant figures on a screen. But there was not Big Brother, only two talented likeable Big Sisters.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Rawsthorne for old

March 30 in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, had the first performance of Edward Harper’s re-orchestration of Alan Rawsthorne’s cantata Kubla Khan and first concert performance of the work. The poem is, of course, one of the best known in the language, frequently anthologised and full of familiar lines. It has an exotic flavour that one might think unlikely material for Rawsthorne, a composer more urban than one for the countryside or the orient, but it brings him to Coleridge’s dreamland with a hint of spice. Harper helps to invoke the atmosphere with some subtle but simple flavouring, mostly flute and xylophone.

If the man from Porlock interrupted Coleridge, it was a bomb from Germany that interrupted Rawsthorne. On the night that the work was given a studio performance at BBC Bristol, Rawsthorne’s flat together with the score and parts from Kubla Khan were destroyed. Despite friends who thought the work one of Alan’s best, he never got around to rewriting the score, All that remained was a vocal score which formed the basis for Harper’s reorchestration. The work lasts sixteen minutes and all but the spicy bits are typical Rawsthorne, from the very opening chords (C major triad anchored by an A flat in the bass). The words ‘a stately pleasure dome’ brings on another fingerprint, a seven-note phrase lifted from the Mathis der Maler symphony by Hindemith that Rawsthorne used again and again as the chief tune of the Street Corner overture.

I once asked Alan why he had set so few poems and he said ‘because I love poetry so much. Music so often drowns it’. Well it doesn’t here in this short cantata: ‘the tumult…prophesying war’ brings the middle section to a climax which dies down into the ‘caves of ice’. ‘Fast thick pants’ avoids bathos and the work ends shortly after ‘the Abyssinian maid’ singing her ‘symphony and song’

The work is a delight, well written for the chorus, with a few pages for solo alto and tenor (sung in Manchester by members of the chamber choir). Harper’s orchestration has style and imagination. But a short choral piece is not easy to programme. Perhaps it might be paired with his friend Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande to make a first half?

Incidentally Lambert was staying with Rawsthorne and his first wife Jessie Hinchcliffe at the time of the Bristol bombings and was seen helping to quell the flames… with small watering can. It was also in a review of Rawsthorne’s enchanting Theme and Variations for two unaccompanied violins that he write “If one wondered at the many passages of double-stopping in this work one had to remember that, as well as studying music the composer had taken a course in dentistry.
After the cantata and the interval came the huge Resurrection Second Symphony of Mahler. Who but Mahler would have dared take on such a subject? And make it work? Positively cosmic. Doom and gloom, then breathtaking beauty, renewal and love.

The Amadeus Orchestra is, I understand, a training organisation But it was equal to Mahler’s demands and spirit. Philip Mackenzie was thoroughly in control conducting a convincing performance with several local choirs and two excellent soloists in Elizabeth Atherton and Jeanette Ager. The performance did not do justice to the pianissimo choral section but after some sagging about ¾ way through, the tension returned for the final climax.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Colin Davis celebrates with New Passion

Sir Colin Davis has been celebrating his 80th birthday in style, conducting Berlioz with the French National Orchestra, Gerontius in Boston, the Fauré Requiem in Dresden, Messiaen in London plus Cosi Fan Tutte at Covent Garden, recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (with Kissin), Creation and the Mozart Requiem, a Matthew Passion in Amsterdam and concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Quite a year for him. He was born in September 1927.

The culmination of this anniversary year was the world premiere in the London Barbican of a St. John Passion by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. Sir Colin has played quite a few works by this composer and asked him to write something for this occasion, the work to be repeated in Amsterdam, Boston and Berlin; quite a send-off for MacMillan, born 1959, the more so because the Passion was recorded last Sunday, 27 March.

MacMillan is a committed Catholic and that faith shines in the musicthat he has composed whose performance forms part of the LSO Belief series. This John passion lasts about 100 minutes, has a baritone soloistwho sings words from the gospel and other sources, presumably by the com-poser. The text is sung by a chamber choir for narration, a large chorusfor comment and some portions in Latin of a more reflective and objectivenature. The composer writes, "The instrumental approach was to make a sparse and lean texture (so there is limited percussion, no harps or the usual keyboards)"

This statement is baffling because the orchestral part is anything but sparse and I think it must be the loudest oratorio ever written. The brass and percussion, the big guns, are brought into prominence for 80% of the piece. Overkill. The trombones snarl continually, drummers whack away ear-splittingly and the big tam-tam gong sounds altogether too much. For contrast three solo violins provide a sort of overhanging filigree. There are quieter moments for the chorus (beautiful writing) towards the end of part one and similar moments in the second part, which contains a setting of the Stabat Mater poem. There are ten separate sections, the final one Sanctus immortalies, miserere nobis, being for the orchestra alone, mainly for strings, putting one in mind of the third act prelude to Parsifal. Curiously enough, in this movement the cellos quote the first four notes, unaccompanied, of the prelude to Tristan (but without the chord).

Each time Christus sings - a masterly performance by Christopher Maltman - the first vowel has many notes, rather like the incipit in an illuminated manuscript. The choral writing is fine and at times a wailing portamenti is used. Whenever Pilate speaks wood blocks sound, for all the world like popping corks. The texture is usually very dense; behind a layer of sound, an almost alien other instrument is heard, as if in another room. Despite the extreme loudness the music is basically geared to tonality, give or take an occasional Charles Ives-like use of two keys at once. One section that puzzled me and sent me to check with my Bible to see if it appeared there (no, it doesn’t) was entitled The Reproaches: Christ bitterly asking "My people, what have I done to you?" and listing all the wrongs done to Him. This struck me as alien, un-Christ like.
This music has a soul, sincerity fairly batters the senses. But it impresses, rather than moving the emotions. No doubt it is useless these days to expect melodies that stick in the memory or even melodic fragments that are memorable; MacMillan doesn’t beguile the listener or strike the heart as, say, Britten's War Requiem does. Sir Colin did a marvellous job: chorus, soloist, orchestra; all sounded totally prepared and absolutely committed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Arabella hits Australia

Which opera by Richard Strauss has a text by Hoffmannsthal, a big soprano monologue to end act one, an important transvestite role and waltzes galore? Trick question, but the answer is not Der Rosenkavalier but Arabella, 16 years younger, premiere in 1955 in troubled times. The Nazis interfered with the production and Strauss's choice of conductor. The crits were mostly anti, pointing out the obvious similarities. However, there are many choice moments even though Act Two is not a bad time to have dinner. You would then miss the pallid waltzes that lack the charm and memorability of the earlier opera. Though it would be a pity to miss the duet at the beginng of the act, between Arabella and Mandryka, der richtige mann (Mr Right). But the first and third acts contain the best music: the fortune teller's at the very beginning where the orchestra fizzes about and Mandryka's aria where the Croatian country-man talks about his life and forests in the backwoods.. .and his wealth, offering his wallet to Arabella's father, Count Waldemer, who is a bad gambler and has come to Vienna to try to restore his fortune by a good marriage for his elder daughter, Arabella (to save money ? her sister has to pretend to be a man); Mandryka memorably says to the Count: "Teschek, bedien dich" - help yourself, mate. The best music, as so in often with Strauss, comes in the closing scene when Arabella descends the staircase of the hotel (where the family is lodging) holding out a glass of water to Mandryka (an old Croatian betrothal custom).
Admittedly there are many passages where the composer scores too busily and the tunes are mostly not vintage Strauss, Hoffmansthal (the poor man died before the premiere) was taking a risk with a second Viennese comedy. It needs a really good production to paper over the cracks. And this it had in the Sydney Opera where I was present at the first night, March 7. In charge of the stage was John Cox, veteran master-Strauss director with many successful productions at Glyndebourne. This Arabella was as near perfect a production as you will ever see. Overall and in detail it was the tops.
And sharing the honours was Robert Perdziola, once again aiding by creating wonderful costumes and settings. How Richard Hickox manages to produce such wonderful sounds and playing from his orchestra is a bit of a wonder when his technique seems to be what orchestral players term 'a box of down beats'. One cannot help thinking that a more fluid and linear style might produce even better results. Still, he has just celebrated his 60th birthday and signed up for another five years with Opera Australia, so let's just say "Bravo and Happy Birthday" and leave it at that. The casting was good if not 100% ideal. Best was Peter Coleman-Wright, a natural for Mandryka. He has the range, a fine voice, acts superbly and copes with any extremes that Strauss chucks at him. His real-life wife Cheryl Barker makes a pleasing Arabella, looks fine , sings well and only lacks a little cream in the voice (that cream that Lisa della Casa had a'plenty, the Arabella one could dream about when she sang the role in 1953 in Covent Garden).
Emma Matthews made a fetching Zdenka , the sister in drag, although she is deficient in the rich middle voice that the part calls for, but she has musicality in spades. (Isn't it curious that the chorus, prominent in the ballroom scene Act Two, keeps mum. Might not singing improve the shining hour?). All in all it was an enjoyable evening and made one remember Neville Cardus writing that the 1955 revival at Covent Garden "proved that Strauss was the best person to write a Strauss opera".
The rumour is that the Sydney Opera House is going to close for the whole of 2010 to re-jig the interior according to the architect's original plans. For years now opera has been staged in the smaller of the two halls, the disadvantage being that the acoustic which is bad is not improved by the pit being open, with the result that the orchestra sounds too loud, forcing the singers to bellow to make themselves neard. If the rumour is true, roll on, 2010!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The wizard in Oz

Enter a scruffy maestro, Nigel Kennedy himself, him wiv the bovver left boots, tassels a-dangling. He carries his violin in the left hand, the right hand making footie stadium gestures, punching the air and knuckle-greeting members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, all very with it (and slightly bogus?). He picks up a mike and does some stand-up comic, complete with some naughty Billy Connolly words. At last he relinquishes his mike for his bow and...hey presto, all is forgiven as he launches into the Prelude from Bach's E major Partita. The playing is faultless, likewise the musicianship. A Nigel Kennedy evening has begun. The date is mid-March (15th), the place is the Hamer Hall Melbourne's concert hail, seating over 2500 but with a perfect accoustic, every note clearly heard, good overall balance.
Bach over more chat leading up to Nige announcing "Mozart's Concerto in D, K.218, for violin, orchestra and harpsichord." Ello, ello, did he say harpsichord ? Well, that's not in the score, but don't let's fuss, because it can't be heard. Nige occupies quite a large space in the middle of the strings so that he can direct the concert without the use of a conductor (he doesn't think much of the breed as we have heard). The opening tutti is virile and sinewy, no 18th century lace-making. Not too tough but good style. Nige moves around, now encouraging, almost daring them to play their best and beyond. The orchestra obliges, entering into the spirit of the fifty-one year old Maestro's direction, the concert is more of a show than the usual programme. The advertised items are just the Mozart and the Beethoven, just 75 minutes music but the evening lasts very nearly 3 hours.
One unusual feature of the Mozart is that the strings play during parts of the cadenza, sustained chords over which the violin hovers, now in virtuoso style, now rhapsodizing beguilingly in almost Romany style. It was a shock that soon became a pleasure, a fine performance.
To find anything like an equal one, my memory went back a long way; to hearing Szigeti with Sir Thomas Beecham. Mozart over, Nigel chats up the leader of the orchestra, Wilma Smith and they join forces for three enchanting duets of the 44 composed by Bartok. Interval and straight into the Beethoven, fastish tempi, drum taps underplayed. The slow movement was ecstatic, a truly rapt experience - is it not Beethoven's most dreamy piece ? A dithyramb.
Much applause, the audience is enthusiastic and it seems that an encore is in the offing and when it comes it seems the most unlikely of numbers; Monti's Czardas. Stone the crows, mate!Sacrilege ? As much as on the occasion of the Concerto's premiere when between the first and second movements a double-bass did a turn with the instrument played upside down.
I went afterwards backstage and asked some of the orchestra if they enjoyed the evening, had Nige gone too far with his fooling around interludes ? No, they all said, it was great fun and they respected Kennedy because they knew that he played his instrument better than any player in the band. And they were amused when I told them that I knew Nigel before he acquired his cockney accent. Mind you, he was only three months old.
So...good on you, Nige!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Goon Show of Lammermoor (English National Opera, 16 February)

It was probably Donizetti's librettist who made Lord Henry Ashton the villain who wrongs Lucia di Lammermoor, instead of Walter Scott's villainess in the novel who was Lucy's mother, thus depriving us of what might have been a great mezzo or contralto role. But in Donizetti's otto cento in Italy one female major role was usually considered the norm. However, we must not complain, because ever since the overwhelmingly successful premiere in Naples in 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor has been hailed as the Italian Romantic Opera par excellence with Lucia's Dotty Scene as the perfect hurdle for coloratura sopranos to jump to fame with, like our Dame Joanie di Sutherland back in 1959 at Covent Garden.

English National Opera premiered a new production of Lucia on Saturday 16 February. Musically it is ten out of ten. every note in place, with quite a few on an instrument rarely heard. Mozart, wrote a Rondo for it, K.617. Old Willi Gluck gave concerts on it and, of all people, Benjamin Franklin became a virtuoso and perfected it, the glass harmonica, a set of glasses tuned so that you produce the notes by running your hand around the rim (a modern parallel would be if George Bush were to play the ondes martenot) - it makes a noise as if the notes were wrapped in tinsel but with upper partials so strong that the sound actually hurts some ears (mine. for one; and, indeed, at one time as a result,the instrument was banned in certain towns in Germany.

So, musically the performance of Donizetti's opera was a treat. But what did we see on stage? Scene one gave a clue to what was going to happen; a Scottish castle with walls that sprouted radiators; now who has ever heard of a Scottish castle with radiators - or one that even nowadays has any heat ? The walls moved and the male chorus entered through the windows; period photographs littered the stage, as they did in most scenes. Lucia soon appears, perched four feet above stage level, so that she has to jump if she wants to move, which she does, wearing a little girl outfit with pantaloons that are on show as she picks herself up after her jump, is this Alice in Lammermoor? The tenor appears and as if to emphasise the fact that he is vertically challenged, he appears on his knees.

The villainous brother is seen on a short bed that features in many scenes; he gropes his sister, Lucia, and ties her wrists to the bedposts. Ah, ha. not only villainy but incest too (Incest - the game the whole family can play). And so it goes on, until you wonder whether Donald Alden, the producer of all this madness, should himself be sectioned. Myself, I know Lucia quite well so that soon I began to tolerate, even enjoy, the mad things that happened. But my companion was seeing the opera for the first time and she was very confused by all the goings on. Oh, yes, and there was also an extra going-on that the producer had not arranged. Bidebent the parson came on and opened his mouth; but he was kidding us, poor chap; he had lost his voice and another bloke stood at the side of the stage and sang his notes. Now there is usually a confidante in operas of this period (early nineteenth century, the otto cento, as the Italians call it). She makes her entry, one hand first round the door and then flitting across the stage to a tilting sofa, for all the world like a Hammer Horror.
Now comes the famous sextet (in the old 78 days, it was the only gramophone record, single-sided of' course, to have a white label and sell for sixteen shillings, the costliest of all - Caruso was the tenor, he made a huge success in the part of Edgardo. poor Lucia's intended but thwarted). Barry Banks was the Coliseum's tenor, English, wonderfully fluent, even if the voice is not ideally beautiful. Anna Christy, American, house debut, was a very fine Lucia, every note histrionically convincing.

When it came to the Mad Scene where was the flute obligato? Banished in favour of the musical glasses, apparently Donizetti's original idea to add spookiness to the wildly careering colaratura. Chorus and orchestra were both excellent under the splendidly driving Paul Daniels, back in the pit where for years he was ENO's musical director. So, if you can bear to see a goonish version of Lucia, go to the ENO show at the Coliseum and join the cheering crowds; they are in the majority, critics of this mayhem in the minority.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A trip to the ballet

WHY do we call afternoon shows matinees ? Probably too late to change it now; but wouldn't apres-midiens be more accurate? Anyway I went on Saturday 6 February to the Royal Ballet performance in Covent Garden which began at 12.30 pm and it was absolutely packed, lots of children. What the little dears made of a tough programme I would like to know; they probably found it easier to take than some of the older ones.

The first item was only the sixth performance of the sensation of 2006: Chroma, choreography by Wayne McGregor, sets by the architect John Pawson, lighting by Lucy Carter - all three need to be mentioned as highly commended. The set was described as "in a sense, charged limbo", a rectangle with another one, raised, towards the back, excitingly lit and frequently metamorphosed.
The choreography, ah!, difficult to describe. It is classical dancing thrust forward in language, legs, arms, neck, head and trunk move in wave not seen before; fluid, rippling, bending, curving, twining, but you really have to see it and I sincerely hope you do, for this is something new and exciting, an extension of the ballet language. What that language is saying is not quite clear but perhaps that is not so important as the sensation of seeing it.
There are ten dancers involved, dancers but here also super athletes too. Twenty minutes is the duration, most of it quick and strenuous almost to the point of violence at times. But there are two brief pas de deux, the first of which I found as unutterably beautiful and rivetting as anything I ever saw on a stage, limbs twined, ravishingly lovely human bodies in motion.
Joby Talbot's music, with some extra settings by Jack White, is up to date, stretched tonality, with hints of minimalism, orientalism and other isms, snappy, strident, plenty to assault the ears but not 'frighten the horses'; not great music but strikingly effective.

Different Drummer is one of MacMillan's troubled pieces, telling the story inside-out fashion of Berg's opera Wozzeck but, weirdly, using not Berg's music but early, stretched, tonal music by Berg's colleagues, Webern (Passacaglia, opus 1) and Schoenberg (the gorgeous string sextet Verklaerte Nacht, an aural counterpart of Klimt?). We see all Buchner's characters as in the opera and the choreography gives ample roles for Marie (Leanne Benjamin) and Wozzeck (Edward Watson) - fine performances both.

The last ballet was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I know the generally accepted cliche is that the music is just too powerful for any choreographer to match. But MacMillan gives Stravinsky almost as good as it deserves. The rounds and tribal dances do go on perhaps a bit too long but MacMillan's half-a-hundred corps de ballet (the most numerous in any ballet ?) do wonders and at the end are quite terrifying. And the Sidney Nolan sets and costumes are mightily impressive to look at. Tamara Rojo had recovered sufficiently from her efforts in Chroma to be a vibrant and pulsating sacrificial Chosen One.

Barry Wordsworth celebrated his return to the post of the Royal Ballet's Music Director to conduct thoroughly lively and convincing performances with a responsive Covent Garden Orchestra.

Mikado times two

Political correctness forced Robertsons to remove from their jams the charming gollywog logo. But The Mikado, the most successful of all the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas has survived and is even to be seen in London currently in two productions: by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in Jonathan Miller's by now quite ancient version, black and white, hardhitting and not at all traditional, and by the Carl Rosa Company in the Gielgud Theatre where it is in repertory until 1 March, in tandem (tricycle?) with Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance in something like the traditional style of the D'Oyly Carte productions which adhered to the first prompt book ("two steps down stage, wait for the pause" - and so on)? At the Coli, everything is writ as large as the theatre itself. In the intimate Gielgud. the twenty or so chorus members have to watch they don't bump into one another.
In the good Doctor's writ-large-production the singers are mostly members of the company whereas the Carl Rosa have sought to be sure of bums on seats by bringing in TV favourites who are probably singing for money for the first time in their lives. Thus Jo Brand is Sergeant of Police in Pirates, whilst Alistair McGowan sings (somewhat in parlando fashion but very effectively) the title role in The Mikado, whilst Nichola McAuliffe sings extremely well in a more human portrayal of Katisha than usual.
The Carl Rosa Mikado is quite soft-centred (as opposed to hard-core Doctor Miller) and quite toothsomely kitschy. Since we all know that hypocrisy and lying are the order of the day the production by Peter Molloy has no sting (though however it has a pleasant bite: several anachronistic gags as is usual these days).
I didn't see any Japanese in the audience the night I went (February 4, a Monday traditionally the worst night of the week; and although the audience was most enthusiastic and knowledgable it was sparse - can the impresario Raymond Gubbay keep going, one wonders ?) and I wonder if the Japanese shun it because of its political incorrectness, although in fact ' topsy-turviness' being Gilbert's genre the success of The Mikado is because the entire is not aimed at the Japs but at us British.

So, at the Gielgud we had a small but spirited orchestra (conductor Martin Handley), and excellent chorus and a first-class cast and it is a pleasure to name them: Andrew Rees/Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko/Fenton Gray, Pooh-Bah Bruce Graham. Charlotte Page/Yum-Yum was pretty but a bit under-parted. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

What a joy this work is ! Sullivan's score is a masterpiece of the genre, so incredibly felicitous. If the words have barbs the music cancels them out, practically every melody is a winner, its presentation perfect. Maybe the cadences can veer towards cliche but otherwise charm, grace and a heaven-sent imagination rule the staves.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book review

Sandor Vegh in Cornwall: the Hungarian Virtuoso Violinist and the founding of the International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove.

By Hilary Tunstall-Behrens
49 (large)pp £15
IMS 52 Grafton Square, London SW4 ODB Tel. 0207 720 9020

Sandor Vegh's claim to fame, a large fame, was as a violinist, leader of a celebrated string quartet bearing his name, a teacher of international renown and a conductor. He was a pupil of the great Hubay, of Kodaly, he led the Budapest National Orchestra, premiered Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 and with his quartet made recordings of the complete set of Beethovens that are still considered one of the best half a century later.

His postwar association with this country was his nine visits to the Summer School of Music at Bryanston, later Darlington, over a period from 1950 to 1979, concerts with the quartet in the fifties, recitals and master classes in the seventies. Students came from far and wide to study with him, for his work with Bartok, Kodaly and, later, Casals somehow led to his playing and teaching embodying the best of the traditions of the nineteenth century. What he taught was imagination and colour, with the bow especially, to make music sound fresh, spontaneous and inspired, so that performances were not manacled to the printed notes or the bar line but took off into the air. And that spontaneity had to be based on proper study, hard work and tradition/experience. His master-classes were inspiring, combining intensity with the basic truths of music that could often bring tears to the eye.

His playing of the late Beethoven quartets almost matched the profundity and spiritual qualities of those works, not forgetting the prodigious skill required to negotiate the abnormally high flying first violin parts of those works. As a soloist he illuminated Bach's solo sonatas and one never-to-be-forgotten evening at Darlington, it felt as if he almost changed our lives with his playing of all three of the Brahms Sonatas.

But at Dartington his classes were part of a large programme of teaching and a visit to Cornwall led to the formation of the seminars at Prussia Cove; master-classes for strings and piano in the spring, chamber music with teachers playing together with students in the autumn, Sandor Vegh in charge. The author of this handsomely produced little book organised the sessions. The Cove is based on a fascinating house with art-decorations, a stone's plop from the sea, not far from Penzance. Here the students and professors live, eat together, work together, play together and, who knows, sometimes sleep together. Now that Vegh is gone (he died in 1997 at the age of 86 according to Behrens, although Groves says 95), Stephen Isserlis is music director.

He was a vast man and his looks led many Americans to ask for what Vegh called his 'autogram', only to be disappointed when they found he was not Charles Laughton. Strong accent: Hungarian mixed with German. From observations over several years in the green room it seemed to me that the other three members of the quartet did not relish his company. It seemed as if they avoided contact as much as possible and that they argued all the time; but that might have something to do with the Hungarian language. The desire of the various members to get away from each other was also apparent. For years Vegh lived in Zurich, the violist and cellist in Geneva and Basle, whilst the second violinist was domiciled in Paris. This meant that the question "Where shall we rehearse ? Your place or mine ?" was fairly important.

Another feature was their reluctance to give balance tests. "We always play the same - so what's the point?" they said. In old age arthritis brought his playing to an end, so he took to conducting: string orchestra versions of quartets and sextets (the Brahms larger chamber works were a speciality) and then recordings with Andras Schiff of all the Mozart Piano concertos, the rehearsals were like master-classes, fine CDs they were.

His wife survives to this day. A stunningly beautiful actress before their marriage, she was bright and witty, protective and trying - sometimes vainly - to curb his appetite for a fattening dish or a pretty girl. He had a good life and he was good for musical life, he brought music to a better life and students nearer the goal.

Hilary tells it like it was and it is a heartening story, including good quotes (particularly from Susan Tomes who played many times for his classes and writes of them perceptively). Some of Vegh's sayings are included and they tell something of his wisdom: "to be a soloist one must also be a chamber musician; if I engender a tension be it physical or mental, its corollary must be a relaxation of that tension; there is never an authentic interpretation; never be a slave to your violin. First be a musician and then a violinist; make music with love and joy". Vegh lived all these sayings, especially the last.