Friday, August 26, 2011


Which composer would be more insulted by the suggestion that Donizetti was the Lloyd Webber of his day? For in 1840s the Italian composer had no less than four operas running simultaneously in Paris. Berlioz was not the only French composer to complain bitterly.

In 1843 the success of the Don was the crowning success of Donizetti's career, his sixty-eighth opera. There were only two more to come, for his mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly; he died in '48 at the early age of fifty. He must have been a workaholic because for long periods he composed an average of five operas a year.

His reputation has suffered somewhat by comparison with Rossini and Verdi, some think undeservedly, for he was a master of both the comic and tragic genres; of form, dramatic pace and melody. Your Hundred Best Tunes surely contains a plethora and melody, at least a dozen, in Don Pasquale.

So it was good that Opera Holland Park opened its 2011 season with the Don, a season that will continue with chestnuts Figaro and Rigoletto but, as usual for this house, also some out of the way works: Puccini's La Rondine, Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz and, wow!, Catalani's La Wally. Enterprising indeed.

Don Pasquale was in good hands; in the pit Richard Bonynge, lively and well-paced in the pit with the City of London Sinfonia; and on the stage in the title-role Donald Maxwell, ever the consummate professional, master of comic timing, character portrayal and fine singing. This is the familiar plot of an old duffer who marries a placid young girl who turns harridan as soon as the marriage contract is signed. In this opera Norina is by no means the demure nun she seems but a schemer who wants to marry the duffer's nephew – a tenor, wouldn't you know it? That fine soprano from Cork, Majella Cullagh, showed a lovely voice, a burly chassis, a sure handling of vocal pyrotechnics and she fizzed like a dose of Eno's.

South African tenor Colin Lee, was in fine form as lover Ernesto and Richard Burkhard shone likewise as the Don's pal Dr. Malatesta, a party to the fake nun plot.

In spite of being sung in Italian, the general atmosphere of Stephen Barlow's bright production was that of an old-fashioned pantomime but a good time was had by all.

Holland Park's stage is wide but shallow and there is no pit, the band is on the flat; and there are no side walls in the auditorium so if the evening is chilly, take a rug.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


The scene is a big, high, bricked, L-shaped space. The printed programme doesn't give the venue a name it but it is in the middle of Shoreditch and it could once have been part of the Underground. Word of mouth brought a packed audience for Vignette Productions La Boheme. Each of the first three acts will take place in a different position (turn your seat around).

The garette is exceedingly scruffy: filing cabinets, naked light bulbs, a bike, a tin bath, radio sets.. a sofa, lots of wiring. The text is written on the walls and contains words like wanker that Giacosa and Illica didn't, the orchestra of just over a dozen plays Jonathan Dove's clever and adequate boiled-down version lovingly and meaningfully conducted by Stephen Moore. Rould and tumble rules, the opera comes across forcefully, directed by Andrew Staples (whose day job is as a tenor - highly praised in these columns for a recital last year in Provence and for the lead in a Barbican performance of Candide earlier this year). Acting convincing, singing, fresh, bright, clear, youthful; particularly good were the Petersburg Mimi, Ilona Domnich, and the Glasgow Rodolfo, Alastair Digges.

This was in your face opera. I sat within inches of the harp and within spitting distance of the horns; an interesting take on Puccini's harmonies and his telling use of the angelic instrument. This was Puccini almost in the raw and it got across in a fresh and vivid way. 1896 music drama, still giving pleasure and provoking, tears in a 2011 setting.


Yes, as you probably heard by now, the owners of Garsington wanted their house back, so the opera had to move and is now operating on the Getty estate near Stokenchurch at Wormsley. Anthony Whitworth-Jones and the whole shooting match are now installed in a new, comfortable opera house (like Holland Park with fresh air at the sides). But the terrain is beautiful and lush, more so than any other country opera place in the U.K. that I know. Take a rug and a scarf. The food is first-class.

And the music/opera performance was up to the best Garsington standard. The work was Rossini's Turco in Italia on June 28, the other operas this year The Magic Flute and Vivaldi's La verita in cimento which does not mean Truth in Cement but Truth put to the Test (a British first performance).

Rossini was all of twenty-two when Turco was performed at La Scala in 1814 but the Milanese down-thumbed it, causing the composer to signify the fact to his mother on a postcard on which he had drawn a fiasco. But it soon turned into a success (a magnum?)

True, Turco does not contain as many hummable tunes as the Barber but it is an opera that works well on the stage, has a good plot (thanks to Romani) and fine music. It is an ensemble piece, therefore there are not many extended solos – but those there are are very effective, especially the heroine Fiorilla's big outburst where comedy turns serious (Rossini was influenced by seeing Cosi fan tutte in Naples) But irony is the name of Rossini's game as often as not. A link with Cosi is also forged by the presence in the cast of the Poet, an Alfonso near relation, who stirs the pudding, almost pointing the way to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author a century later. Here in Turco we have a doting old husband, a flirtatious wife (Fiorilla) and a pair of exotic lovers: the eponymous Turk and the wife's youthful servant. The cast was consistently commendable, especially Fiorilla – Rebecca Nelson (UK début of a soprano from Texas) and her aged husband Geronino - the wonderful comic, supple-bodied baritone Geoffrey Dalton. The fluent production was by Martin Duncan and the witty sets were by Francis O'Connor. David Parry is a dab hand at anything he conducts. Here with the Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra he set the seal on an evening's entertainment that would merit a magnum any day of the week. Bravo, Garsington and congratulations on a successful move!


Massenet's Fairy Story

Jules Massenet held sway in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Cendrillion, saw the light of day in Paris in 1899 (its composer had just had his 57th birthday) and before the century was out it was produced in Geneva. Massenet was a good business man and a crowd pleaser, keeping a watchful eye on the fortunes of his operas, even turning up at the Paris Opéra after performances to check the takings.

He would have been chuffed to find that the Royal Opera House was almost sold out for the second performances (July 7) there of his fairy tale opera based on the Perrault story of Cinderella, a co-production with Santa Fe, Barcelona, Brussels and Lille. Cendrillon, as she is called in France, is a four act piece and at Covent Garden the writing is on the wall, not only on the set periphery but also on various little walls trundled onto the middle of the stage. If I had brought my opera-glasses with me I might have been able to read what the texts were about.

The two principal characters are, naturallement, Cendrillon and le prince Charmant, beautifully sung by Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, both mezzo-sopranos capable of moving to higher regions. This was exquisite singing, no wobbles, lovely line, and two voices blending perfectly. Both good actors. There was also fine singing from the Fairy Godmother, a sort of Queen of the Night mark two in range but without malevolence, the singer rejoicing in the name of Eglise Gutierrez. Jean-Philippe Lafont made rather heavy weather of Pandolfe, Cinders' father but the mother was a super fruity contralto, Ewa Podles. Chorus good and the orchestra directed with surety and style by Bertrand de Billy, a former pianist. The sets were fussy, the costumes rather tediously ranged from scarlet to red. Production was o.k., Laurent Pelly.

The music? Well, not one of Massenet's best. Jog-trot, no particular charm or attraction. Well written, everything in its place, thoroughly professional but nothing to savour. And Massenet doesn't do humour, there were long stretches of boredom.


The programmes at the Aldeburgh Festival this year (June 10 – 26) were noticeably better and more interesting than the previous two. However the planners do not include many of the works of Benjamin Britten. Surely Britten is the raison d'être of the festival – or should be. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, excellent pianist though he is, does not promote Britten's music as he surely should. His three years as director are up this June but t'is said that he may stay on further. Why?

True, we had The Rape of Lucretia (concert performance only) this year, the string quartets and the cello suites plus the Donne Sonnets but is that enough? Many of us think not. And what of 2013, the centenary of Britten's birth?

Aimard's chief performance this year were as pianist in three evenings of Schubert songs with Matthias Goerne at the voice: Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and the Schwanegesang topped up by the first song cycle ever, An die ferne Geliebte by Beethoven. Aimard was impeccable but Goerne was not; every forte came near to a bellow; he knows the music, can sing tenderly and quietly but stampedes into the ring too often. Pity, although it was good to hear the music.

One boon these days is that good string quartets are thicker on the ground than they used to be fifty years ago in spite of the medium being so labour intensive and its performers usually underpaid. At Aldeburgh we had three good ones: the Arcanto, Barbirolli and Elias, repertoire ranged from late Haydn to Berg's Lyric Suite and several new works, programmed in the Festival's (successful) effort to get press coverage.

Also new was a commissioned piece from the centenarian Elliott Carter: Conservations, a seven minute orchestral piece with prominent parts for piano (Aimard lui-même) and Colin Currie (rushing madly from xylophone to two marimbas). In the same programme Oliver Knussen – ever reliable and passionately comitted, directed a programme with Birmingham forces (Orchestra and Contemporary Music Group) which began, middled and ended with Stravinsky: Scherzo a la Russe, the Huxley Variations and Petrushka. The Huxley piece and Carter's new piece were, encored, by Knussen rather than the audience, and came into the category of old men's brain games. Also new were Helen Grime's Everyone Sang (brush up your Sassoon) and Charlotte Bray's Violin Concerto Caught in Treetops (brush up your D.G. Rossetti), both composed in contemporary lingua france style (i.e. more intellectual than emotionally significant).

There were interesting side-show: a feature on and in Sizewell, a Caledonia evening – all modes and minor key tunes, very entertaining –and films about or with Mahler, Rostropovich, Steinway pianos and a talk about the brain and music. And there was one superb piano recital: Elizabeth Leonskaya, Russian born, emigrated to Vienna, played the Wanderer Fantasy, two A major sonatas and an Allegretto. In the minor key by Schubert for encore she played the G flat Impromptu; Opus 90. Is there a more ravishingly beautiful piano piece in the world? No wonder Neville Cardus wanted to hear it as he lay dying.