Thursday, October 22, 2009


Brahms and Tchaikovsky agreed only on one thing: they both adored Carmen. The new production of Bizet’s evergreen masterpiece at Covent Garden is the best of a score of them that I have seen. It is also the best work I have seen by Franscesca Zambello; the designer is Tanya McCallin.

Orange is the colour of the snow (not videophone!). The dark red plush curtains of the Royal Opera House are replaced before the curtain rises by orange ones. The scenery is likewise orange. A vivid orchestral prelude tells us that the French pianist Bertrand de Billy is no goat but a capable conductor. Welcome is the use of the original dialogue and a few bits of linking material that will be new to some.

The production is commendably straight, respects the composer and has imagination. The melodrama comes across, pleases your mind and hits you where it should do. Act One was memorable for the singing and disposition of (I guess) some thirty-five children, singing delightfully/raucously. The set includes a watergutter with real H20 and there is a live horse on stage and a donkey which behaves as it should (and not as it shouldn’t). In Act Two brigands scud up and down walls and in the last act there is a splendid procession that includes a wonderfully kitchy catholic becandled cart complete with a mouthing priest fore and a Madonna aft. When I mention that the cast includes Liping Zhang/Micaela, Changan Lim/Morales and Eri Nakamura/Frasquita you can tell that the Management has scoured the Orient and Africa for singers. (Nice to see Eri again, she was the star of a young artists scheme, performed here who we praised her Manon.)

Alas, Micaela was not quite up to it, whilst Ildebrando d’Argangelo reminded me of the story if a Beecham audition when he asked the aspiring Escmilo of he was auditioning for the part of the Toreador or the bull. Elina Garanca as Carmen was a presence of fiery nature, a real mankiller and a formidable performer if not quite the singer of one’s dreams, often mistaking volume for intensity, of which fault Roberto Alagna was also guilty. His Flower Song was lusty but charmless. But when Don Jose has to turn from being lyric to a dramatic tenor in the last act he came into his own. Despite being a half-head snorter than Carmen she was dispatched as to manner born! The grown-up chorus matched the kids.

Any quibbles ? a few details missed: those bumping/string pizzacati in the quintet, the G string turns on the violins could not be heard but Bizet’s masterly use of percussion came out well, the tambourine in Act Three and the clacking castanets (it seems that no Carmen to-day can be bothered to learn to play them and has to be helped out in the pit).

The production glowed, fired and exploded as it should, on this occasion, the 523rd performance in this house, a performance worthy of its composer. What a masterpiece it is every egg a bird! Every detail showing a master and wonderful counterpoint, deftness, charm and passion in number after number.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Richard Adeney
Brimstone Press
(PO Box 114, Shaftsbury SP7 8XN)
£12.50, p.222

If the performance is routine, perhaps with a duff conductor, sometimes a solo by one of the players will lift things onto another plane, the orchestra suddenly slips from the routine to the sublime, the spirits soar, life climbs up a notch.

In World War 2 I worked in a humble capacity for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and went to many of their concerts in and around London. There were two players in the LPO at that time who regularly were able to lift the orchestra up by its boot straps and lodge us in heaven, maybe for the rest of the evening. One was the first trumpeter, Malcolm Arnold, before he became known as a composer; the other was the first flute, Richard Adeney. They were both in their twenties, replacing older men who had gone off to fight.

Richard was handsome, an introvert, unlike Malcolm who was quite good to look at, but as extrovert as it is possible to be. But the sound Adeney made, the nuances he effected, the quality of his musicianship was magical; he could put a spell on us all in the audience.

Richard played a decade with the LPO, became freelance for a decade, playing often with the Melos Ensamble. His recording with that group of the Debussy Sonata for harp, flute and viola is still deeply satisfying – with two great players: Cecil Aronowitz and the harpist Osian Ellis. Then came the years with the English Chamber Orchestra, complete Mozart Piano Concerto, first with Daniel Barenboim and later with Murray Perania. In between came years directed by Benjamin Britten; operas, concerts and without a conductor, the three church parables where the players dressed as monks. Came his sixties and Richard packed up his flutes and sold them, exchanging them for photography; he had exhibitions and some of his work is seen in this book. Coming up to 80 he disposed of his cameras. He looks now in very good shape so at dinner the other day asked him to what he attributed his good health. Over the soup he answered “Sex four times a week” but over the coffee he said “John, I exaggerated – twice a week”.

In the book Richard recalls that in his teens he decided that “I wanted three things from life:

first: that I would become the best flute player in the world.
second: to have a huge amount of sex.
third: to make some sense of the mysterious and confusing world.”

Well, his book shows that he has done well on all counts. Certainly as a chamber music and orchestral player he was the tops. And he hasn’t done too badly in the other categories. He writes well and entertainingly, never hesitating to call a spade a bloody shovel. But better than his spicy stories and cuss words, he gives a better idea than I’ve come across anywhere else of what it feels like to play in an orchestra. He doesn’t quite tell us what it is like to be a homosexual but he gets near. The insight and stories about the orchestra and its conductors are enthralling. Strong likes and dislikes, some expected (Sargent), some unexpected (Abbado).

Nobody who has lived thought the musical scene of today and yesterday should miss this fascinating book. R.A. the man is quiet, even a little shut in, self-effacing. But his book comes at you boldly colourful and thought provoking.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


A musical opinion on the latest production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (October 5) would have to register: Tolerable singing, passion in the pit but Sterility in the staging. The villain is the producer/director Christof Loy, whose lack-lustre and lack-lust Lulu, his previous Garden production, should have caused the management of the Royal Opera House, and it’s music director in particular, to cancel Loy’s participation in the present new Tristan. His policy eliminates gesture (which might be thought to be essential in presenting any drama or opera on the stage) and imposes Loy on Wagner’s great work. The concept includes no ship, a posse of actors in evening dress not minding a ship, modern clothes, no daylight, no bed, one chair in act one, two chairs and a table in act two, Isolde removing Brangane’s dress, and a damned great wall that doesn’t fit the stage on one side of it.

The back of the stage is curtained on and off, the foreground is bare. This concept staging was greeted on opening night with booing. Now booing is something surely not to be approved of, but it does indicate that all is not well. This is particularly regrettable because otherwise there is much to be enjoyed. The orchestral playing is very fine indeed under Antonio Pappano. The singing is not perfect, except for an outstanding Kurwenal from Michael Volle. Alas, his is the only voice free from wobble or a beat that prevents the sound from being true. Of course this is a fault common to many singers today, in Wagner in particular. If you were to hear this cast on the radio or a CD it would be more tiresome than in the flesh. The awful thing is that listeners have got used to this. Listening to recordings of singers like Flagstad, Maggie Teyte, Birgit Nilsson or Fischer-Dieskau would point out the difference. So would listening to Michael Volle, fine actor and a bang in the middle of the note singer.

Nina Stemme acts a fine Isolde, and her top and piano notes were beautiful.

Was it chance or by design that the voice of Sophie Koch (Brangane) is so similar to that of Stemme that from a distance it was difficult to tell which was which? Ben Heppner’s voice has not much sap left but he put up a good show. But he is no hero, no lover, no captain of a ship (more likely a tugmaster). I heard somebody say he looked like a hundredweight of condemned meat. Stretched out on the floor Tristan looked like a beached whale (Loy seemed to have no concern for his ageing tenor). Sir John Tomlinson had stepped in for an ailing Matti Salminen. As always he gave a credible performance and we all love him, although his voice is now showing signs of wear and tear, fraying at the extremes (as King Marke).

So, this was a Tristan not only wounded in act two, but throughout by the stage director. Fortunately, Wagner’s music lived to tell the tale and grip a large and appreciative audience.



The last thing we see in this new production of Ligeti’s opera by English National Opera in the London Coliseum, first night September 17, is a hand pulling a lavatory chain. If this suggests that the whole evening has been a load of crap, so be it. This is not so much the theatre of the absurd as the opera of the cloacal.

In Alan Bennett’s play the Schoolmaster observes: When humour has to descend into the lavatory, the writing is on the wall. The writing in the programme book is full of intellectual flim-flam but Ligeti’s theatre piece, premiere 1978 in Stockholm, intends to shock, to stick its finger in your eye. In the following thirty-one years it has had twenty-five different productions in Europe and America staged by thirty-three opera companies. Of modernish operas, only Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes seem to be the ones to have enjoyed such a spate of productions. And, curiously enough, all three of these operas have an orchestral passacaglia at the heart of their scores.

So, although I might prefer, as it were, to pull the chain on Ligeti I must describe a few details. This new production is based on one by the Catalan collective La Fura Dels Baus and has already been seen at La Monnaie, Brussels and the Teatro dell’ Opera in Rome. After six performances in London it will be seen in Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceu and later at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.

The text is partly by the composer himself, after Michel Ghelderode’s play La Balade du Grand Macabre. The décor mainly consists of a 20 feet high fibre-glass figure of a naked woman (with a face somewhat resembling the cricketer Mike Atherton). This monster’s eyes light up, various parts of its body open up and are detachable (foot, backside, nipples) it revolves frequently. Members of the cast go in and out of her (she is called Claudia) and sometimes climb and walk around her – Alfons Flores designed her. The whole production is fascinating, even awe-inspiring, and a miracle of ingenuity. Décor and action hark back to the paintings by Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights) and Breughel (The Triumph of Death). Those medieval painters invented surrealism and all kinds of obscenity. But seen moving on a stage they can still produce a frisson of shock, a giggle and eventually, a yawn.

Scene three, for example, begins with Claudia’s bum (excuse me ... and there is worse to come) facing us and in a moment a face appears in the crack of it. It opens up and we see Claudia’s tripes which soon tumble out. No holds are barred and many of them are ingenious. It often appears that the theatrical avant-garde is to be seen in our age in the opera rather than the play house. Musicals sometimes show advanced stagings but they don’t set out to shock quite like Grand Macabre.

But, hey, this is supposed to be an opera! What of the music? Well, there isn’t much. And it doesn’t compare with many other works by Ligeti. The score is not as offensive as the action. There are melodic fragments occasionally, lots of bangs from the percussion, squeaks from the woodwind and so on. The vocal writing does not beguile. The only real music comes late in the proceedings, the afore-mentioned passacaglia, the opening of the fourth and last scene, and towards the end, the orchestra has some interesting material. The work seems to have come to a close (consumetum est is sung) but then there is another fifteen or more minutes which do not add anything dramatically or musically. There are in the score various allusions and parodies but unless you know where they come, you might miss them.

This show contains no musical catharsis, does not grip your deeper emotions, as Grimes or Lady Macbeth; it comes over as a rather childish, unsophisticated, out-of-date exercise in let-it-all-hang-out, a vastly expensive waste of time for those in front of and behind the curtain.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (that tenor who specializes in the bizarre) plays Piet the Pot, Susan Bickley is Messalina, and Susanna Andersson is Venus doubling as Gepopo, Chief of Police. To all of them, my thanks …. and condolences. Baldur Brönimann steers chorus and orchestra efficiently.

I met Ligeti several times and found him charming, highly intelligent, warm, funny and serious. Not a sign of the emotional chips that might have been expected on his shoulder – he suffered under fascism and Stalin, his family all killed. He was also uninhibited; it wasn’t safe for a woman to be alone with him.

What would he have composed if he lived longer? A song-cycle Pee, pot, belly, ho, bum, drawers, a cantata Tourette’s Syndrome or the opera Sodom and Gomorrah? Or perhaps another fine Violin Concerto, more masterly Atmosphères, more interesting piano pieces or further witty Aventures?

Friday, October 02, 2009


Traditionally the Devil has all the best tunes, but in Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust the tenor has some good ones and Marguérite has some of the best, haunting, tender, fey. Not that the Devil lacks tunes. Berlioz doesn’t please everyone but the Barbican was full of the faithful on September 22 and they were rewarded with a fine performance in the hands of Valery Gergiev with the chorus and orchestra of the London Symphony in cracking form.

This was part of a series concerts with the baritone Thomas Quasthoff at the centre. Unfortunately he was taken ill at the last moment. Phones rang and Sir Willard White flew from Copenhagen to the rescue. These days Willard looks grizzled as if he might break any moment into Ol’Man River. His bottom notes are sounding a bit thinner now but his top Fs rang out clearly and sonorously. He showed his mettle and his compelling presence. A great performance.

Joyce diDonato proved once again what a great artist she is but I think she was miscast as Marguérite. She is a mezzo with a dramatic soprano top register where surely what is called for is a gentler, more atmospheric sound (Victoria de los Angeles was ideal). The voice of Michael Schade, Canadian tenor, is fluent, French sounding and he was every inch but one a good Faust. But the voice is not ideally lyrical or mellifluous.

What incredible imagination Berlioz shows here, perhaps the greatest Romantic of all! Damnation has often been staged but Berlioz conceived it as a concert cantana with the listener free to follow in his head the dream like sequences. Recall the lady who said she preferred drama on the radio rather than television because the scenery was better. Berlioz kindles fire in the imagination and stimulates the mind, the music dissolving from one venue to another in a way that anticipates the cinema, digging deep into the sub-conscious in this old story using new ways with melodies, shapes, harmonies and orchestrations that appeal (to the faithful).

Always amazing, for example, is the sound of a flute and two piccolos that squirm and wriggle like small fish (actually portraying the will-o-the-wisp).

Of course it is not all imagination; with Berlioz there is an extraordinary organising mind and technical know-how, almost know-all.

Does his inspiration falter a little at the end with the ride to the abyss? Maybe, but Gergiev came near to bringing the finale off, recalling those great Berlioz conductors, Beecham and Hamilton Harty. I remember how Harty got the Berlioz sounds by exhorting the orchestra: “Come on boys, DEVIL!”.