Monday, August 17, 2009


It is good that music is once more a social affair. Not perhaps to the extent of music-making in the home, as was once the custom. Nowadays it takes the form of concerts and operas in churches, halls, stately and not quite so stately homes, with picnics and glasses of wine.

Last month (August 1) I went to a fairly new venture in Hampshire not far from Basingstoke, in West Green House where a famous Australian Gardener (several books) lives. Her name is Marylyn Abbot and her love of music has led her to put on opera. Last year she invited a group from the famous Drottningholm Theatre (perfectly preserved small opera house just outside Stockholm) to perform; this year Opera Project are in residence for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and another weekend, a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (Yvonne Kenny as the forsaken Queen) and a mock Opera Pyramus and Thisbe, based on act five of Shakespeare’s magic comedy, composer John Frederick Lampa, a contemporary of Handel.

The gardens of West Green are sumptuously rich, well worth the special journey. There is quite a large lake, around which are several pavilions and a large marquee for gorging and swilling in the interval. A Theatre has been knocked up with seating for 230 and a pit for the band. Not a big pit but large enough for the ten players (single strings, single woodwind and a horn) that Jonathan Lyness, the excellent conductor, has produced a boiled down score for (very skillfull).

I don’t think you would know the names of any of the singers but they were all young, had been well taught to carry the action effectively and agreeably by Richard Studer. Only Mrs Almaviva was not quite up to her solos and the ensembles fairly fizzed along. Amanda Holden’s fine English version was used and a good time was had by all despite dismal weather.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Mark Twain once said that a Wagner opera started at six o’clock and when it had been going for two and a half hours your watch said twenty to seven. With Janacek it is quite different. After an act during which you are put through an emotional wringer your watch tells you that the act lasted just half an hour. Fanciful, of course but Janacek’s dramas are condensed to the bone. There is urgency but no hurry the characters are in depth, you know them well, you feel for them. Janacek’s material for one act would last two hours if the composer were Richard Strauss or Wagner. I always associate Janacek with Chekhov who similarly condenses and conveys much with minimal material.

Janacek hits you between the eyes (and sometimes below the belt) and so it was at Opera Holland Park on July 30 with Kat’a Kabanova the whole opera hardly exceeds ninety minutes yet by the end we feel that catharsis has happened. The orchestral role is as important as the heroine’s, perhaps more so; surely she is the most neurotic female in all opera: she dithers hopelessly on an emotional precipice, poor darling, before drowning herself, having crassly blurted out her adulterous guilt in front of the convention-ridden neighbours. In her last scene Janacek gives her a soaring phrase that is the ultimate in tear-provoking beauty.

The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels was thoroughly convincing in the title role, both vocally and dramatically. I had not encountered the conductor before now but I hope to do so again, for Stuart Stratford directed a memorable and satisfying performance, directing the City of London Sinfonia to heights of passion and virtuosity. The composer puts his fiddlers through many hoops, make them scream away up in the rosin and cope with keys that are difficult, and they have to play many diddle-diddle passages with ferocity.

The bitch of a mother-in-law was vividly played by Anne Mason and Tichon likewise by Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts. Usually this wimp of a husband is played by a small singer but here was a big burly wimp; all the more telling to see this giant of a man cringing before his ghastly mother. It was good to see that mother’s lover played by Richard Angus; he is by now a real veteran but still in good voice. And what a voice! It is like the thickest and darkest brown Windsor soup.

At first I thought the movements of the chorus exaggerated but as time went on I appreciated their stylisation as the most Victorian-style hostile mob. Olivia Fuchs direction had both respect for the score and a likely invention; costumes and designs by Jannis Thavoris very good.

What a master Janacek was and how amazing that in the last decade of his life he poured out so many works, operas, string quartets, big orchestral works and a whopping great mass!


Jolly Good Show

Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is usually described as a semi-opera in a Prologue and five acts, libretto by anon, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act one drags a bit; after a breezy overture there is no music for quite some time while actors speak a courtly, rather tedious, conservation piece. This is an expensive piece to put on since it requires actors, a bevy of dancers, many singers, a chorus and a band in the pit. At Glyndebourne (I was there July 10) the super skilled and lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was directed from the harpsichord by the great William Christie, a wonderful scholar who energised his forces superbly.

The latter four acts each contain a masque that reflects various stages of the Dream: Sleep, Seduction, the New Day/the Seasons and Marriage, the last an essay in chinoiserie, worth waiting for in a three-hour stint, because it has some of the best music. Most people will know the song of the D-d-drunken Poet, the comic duet of Corydon and Mopsa (enacted on a credible-looking haystack) and Hark, the Echoing Air, possibly The Plaint too. The orchestra has act tunes and the quaintly named Symphony While the Swans come Forward. There are nearly sixty numbers altogether, many solo numbers, ensembles and choruses. Glyndebourne fielded seventeen solo singers, among whom Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson shone particularly brightly. The singing was of a high standard, the chorus was first-rate and a good time is had by all.

Jonathan Kent’s direction (designer Paul Brown, brilliant invention throughout) is serious and rollicking by turn, never in bad taste, always serving the music and the composer. A favourite scene is one where the stage is awash with man-sized rabbits, all rutting away.

The first performance of the work was in London and cost £3000, a figure roughly equivalent to half a million of today’s money. At Glyndebourne no expense was spared: this was a bold choice and a thoroughly successful accomplishment. Sally Dexter was an imposing Titania and the Rustics did their comic stuff winningly, led by Desmond Barrit as a really funny Bottom – their words came over much clearer than the rest of the cast. Incidentally, six singers were recruited from Glyndebourne’s chorus, a feature which worked well.

Purcell’s music never fails in liveliness, tenderness and appositeness, the score is full of heart-easing melodies, catchy rhythms, metrical quirks and daring harmonies. The work is something of a hodge-podge but one fashioned by a genius.

21 July The Fairy Goes to Town

To the Royal Albert Hall, to pinpoint it, for a BBC Prom starting at 6.30 and over-running until 10.30. And the big question was; how would the very, visible Glyndebourne show transfer to the Albert? Answer, very well. Listeners at home missed a lot, of course, because the relay was radio, not telly. But the Radio audience would have heard the outstanding musical performance noted in the previous review and they would have heard 5000 people in the hall roaring with laughter at the jokes and the business; a stimulating thing to hear. In the hall Glyndebourne had done a marvellous, sumptuous, clever job. The site was a large platform covering most of the stage area which existed behind the small orchestra, strings, oboes, trumpets, two harpsichords (William Christie, the director at one of them) but no double basses. (Purcell didn’t use any).

No sets but all the costumes, lavish, eloquent, even down to the monkeys and the rampageous rabbits. Everything was danced, spoken and acted as at Glyndebourne. This was a Prom de luxe, thoroughly enjoyable (every hour of it!) One musical feature that I didn’t mention; Purcell’s clever, dramatic use of silence, gosh, that man was up to so many telling devices. And controlling everything carefully but yet with an air of spontaneity as was William Christie. We owe him much. He’s a master.