Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I went to the Summer Programme of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in the Royal Opera House on Sunday afternoon 9 July. I was expecting a recital of Operatic items, possibly with Papa Papano at the piano. But no, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra had come up for the day and the first half was fifteen staged scenes of Don Giovanni, and after the interval, three chunks of Massenet: the overture from the incidental music for Phèdre, the scene from Werther when the hero returns after Charlotte and Sophie have had their duet; this was followed by the Saint Sulpice scene where Charlotte re-seduces Werther.

These Young Artists are part of an educational programme, the singers being taught their craft and taking small parts in the Big House. The performance was extremely professional and well prepared. Thomas Guthrie was responsible for a minimalist but effective production with good costumes by Ilaria Martello. There were just a few props such as a harpsichord for Charlotte and some cute brolly-drill while the Don sang his champagne–less champagne aria.

Don Giovanni began not too well with ill-balanced chords, the overture played as though volume was a substitute for intensity. This malaise spread somewhat to the singers, possibly wary of projecting their young voices in the big space of the Opera House. A pity because when they did not force their tone, there was plenty of musical understanding, good phrasing, and first-rate acting. Pumeza Matshikiza (South Africa) was a convincing Elvira and sang some of her music very well. Anita Watson (Australia) was plumb accurate but overdid the volume, I found. Zerlina was Simona Minai (Romania), charming but with a voice more dramatic than lyric soprano. The Don, Kostas Smoriginas (Lithuania) was excellent, full voiced , a competent performer and singer, Leporello Vuyani Minde (South Africa) was also good. Rory Macdonald accompanied the singers expertly.

After the interval the orchestral playing went several notches higher as Dominic Grier conducted the fine overture to Phèdre, Massenet in seven minutes invoking fate at the beginning and the end, with three marvellous tunes in the allegro. Zerlina was now Sophie, and Monika – Evlin Leiv (Estonia) showed a good stylish mezzo voice and an excellent dramatic sense. Werther/Changan Lim was adequate but somewhat lacking in charm and style (I came home and played Tito Schipa’s classic tenore di grazia rendition of the Ossian aria, Pourquoi me réveiller.) Daniele Rustioni conducted the orchestra, rousing it to passion.

With the scene from Manor came the star of the afternoon: this was Eri Nakamura (Japan), lovely voice, no wobbles, lovely singer and actress. Good conducting from Rory Macdonald (Scotland – the artists whose nationality I have not mentioned were all home-grown).

So you see, Covent Garden is looking to the future in preparing these young artists and it certainly did these singers proud by giving them everything possible in the way of orchestra, staging and teaching. The large audience gave up its Sunday afternoon and was rewarded with young talent and a good programme well performed.

12 – 17 October there will be Meet the Young Artists Week in the smaller Linbury Studio theatre. There will be a staged production The Truth about Love, an Orchestral Concert, Recital, A Juke Box session and other events. Further information from the Box Office 020 7304 4000; Most of the events are free.

Friday, July 10, 2009


When Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new director of the Aldeburgh Festival was asked by a journalist what his reaction to the music of Benjamin Britten was, he answered “Neutral”. I ask you, does that bode good? Isn’t it rather like appointing as director of Bayreuth one who doesn’t much care for Wagner? Mind you, Aimard the pianist gave a superb performance of the Ravel Concerto for piano, left hand. And he did a fine interview with Elliott Carter.

Carter was present and warmly acclaimed – he is 101, the oldest composer around, a genial lovely guy. But his music is not very listener-friendly, not a melodic fragment within hearing distance, too cerebral ever since his excellent Cello Sonata and first String Quartet composed some sixty years ago. There was also an interesting film shown about him and his music; Boulez and Barenboim testified to his greatness; so I listened hard, but alas without even a soupçon of pleasure or comprehension. 15 works of his were played during the Festival (I was there June 12 – 23) and there was a similar number of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle which meant that listeners who like a melodic fragment or two were disappointed. I remember Sir Harry saying on the radio once: “I’m not in the entertainment business”. True, he aint. But the audience applauded and it was great to have him there. The only piece I enjoyed was his orchestral work An Imaginary Landscape (1971), wild, exciting, with a few scraps of melody and accompanied by a hefty storm raging outside. But note the date; a fairly old work.

Talking around confirmed my view that what Aldeburgh audiences like best is congenial chamber music, classics, string quartets; they were thin on the ground this year. We had 4 Haydn Quartets, 2 of old Ludwig, and the Schubert Quintet but not a note of Mozart.

New works; from Sir Harry a mini-opera The Corridor, yet another Orpheus piece given in this new revamped Hoffmann building. Two singers, Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore were the tragic lovers, a vivid portrayal of the moment when Orpheus takes that fatal backward glance. The six players sat in a line, representing the Shades; a new touch was that Eurydice talked/sang to them. As the first of a two part show Padmore sang 7 songs in Semper Dowland, semper dolens with six instrumentalists, slightly but lovingly tarted up by Sir Harry. The premieres of Elliott Carter were Fratribute, On Conversing with Paradise and Sistribute the latter a work for piano, played in an exciting recital by Croatian Tamara Stefanovich together with the Bartok Bagatelles, Haydn Sonata 46 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Really good playing. All Britten’s songs with piano were sung, the most brilliantly by tenor (Michelangelo) Allen Clayton who is surely going to be a big name.

18 works by Britten but no opera, no quartets, no concertos, no orchestral piece. Seems that Aldeburgh can spend millions on new buildings but not a few thousands on Britten. Shame!

Aimard directed a pleasantly whacky evening on June 13, called Collage –Montage. For the first time at Aldeburgh there were played single movements of larger works (remember the BBC’s Music in Miniature): Bartok and Beethoven quartets, Schubert and Stockhausen jumbled consecutively together, a Carter solo bassoon piece, a Bach violin fugue and bits of Kurtag’s Jatekok; Aimard, the Diotima String Quartet, and the Haffner Windquintet were on the stage all the time and gradually items overlapped, the evening ending with the whole lot playing together in an Ives-like mishmash of sound. Very entertaining.

Ravel shone in a memorable programme given by Anthony Marwood (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) and Thomas Adès (piano) whose new piece Lieux retrouvés proved to be a sort of trio in four movements, music that made more sense and pleasure than his usual. Janacek’s Violin Sonata, & Fauré’s G minor Cello Sonata were topped off by a idiomatic and grand performance of Ravel’s masterly Piano Trio.

Finally, let me mention an enjoyable evening played by the Pears-Britten Orchestra. It was stimulating to see a band of young players enjoying themselves and delighting an audience. Their conductor was Antonello Manacorda, founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, quite a show-off but he certainly made the boys and girls play within an inch of their lives. Bach-Webern, Haydn 90, Bartok Divertimto and Mother Goose. So there was quite a lot to enjoy at Aldeburgh; and quite a lot, not to.

Carter and Aimard, photo by Malcolm Watson

Friday, July 03, 2009


Bellini not all Dreamy

When thinking of Norma most of us remember dreamy music, as in the aria Casta Diva, the nocturne-like spell supposed to have given Chopin the impetus for his set of pieces bearing that title (though he was not the first in the FIELD) But Norma is actually full of sturdy stuff right from the splendid overture and that silly march – how frequently does Bellini sound like early Verdi!

The performance at the Grange (I was present July 1) gave a good account of the opera with the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit well conducted by Stephen Barlow. Martin Constantine’s production was pleasantly straightforward although he could not resist the current fad of up-dating: electric light, what looked like Kalishnikovs, but why did the high Priestess of the Druids hang out in a kitchen? There was an impressive set which turned and turned again on a revolve as often as the crescent moon shone and disappeared.

But a good Norma depends on the triangle of principal singers; Norma herself, Pollione, the Roman pro-consul who is the father of her two boys – the biggest wimp in Opera? – and Adalgisa, Norma’s side-kick, for whom he has ditched Norma. These three were all dependable, accurate and en place, Claire Rutter in particular in the title-role. What all three lacked was any sense of magic, the X-factor that catches the heart. Charm was absent. Pollione was wooden (John Hudson) and Adalgise (Sara Fulgoni) seemed to force her tone to greater volume than was pleasing.

I tried, but failed, to forget Rosa Ponselle’s best-selling 78 of Casta Diva and the Covent Garden production with Callas, the equally remarkable Ebe Stignani and Jon Vickers – the only non-wimp Pollione I’ve seen. And later Joan Sutherland was pretty good. They all had that charisma that was lacking at the Grange.

Excellent chorus of Druids. This was the middle of the heatwave but it was a joy in the dinner interval to munch and quaff in the airy marquee with gorgeous trees and wheat fields only yards away. Then more of Bellini’s masterpiece. (Near) bliss!