Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review of Halle series opening concert conducted by Edward Gardner

Edward Gardner was back amongst friends when he opened the Hallé’s Thursday series concerts. This was the place where he made his mark, as the Manchester orchestra’s first ever assistant conductor (and Youth Orchestra music director), and he’s been a welcome visitor ever since.

There’s an air of personal authority to him now, and a physical style a little less reminiscent of Sir Mark Elder – from whom he undoubtedly learnt a lot in those early days – and both the Hallé Orchestra members and the Hallé Choir gave him of their best.

Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra was characterized by explosive precision from the Hallé brass where their impact most mattered, and measured, eloquent, long-breathed phrasing in Gardner’s exposition of the score. Its huge orchestral resources were expertly controlled and blended, the sprawling structure of the tone poem given clarity and cohesion, and its progress accentuated by an extended progression of tension, speed and intensity towards the recall of its famous ‘Sunrise’ opening.

There was room, too, for a little indulgence in the gentler side of its character (though Gardner’s brisk treatment of the waltz theme was never sentimental), and just a little of the Hallé’s soupiest Viennese string sound to close the work.

Gardner’s recent recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass was Grammy-nominated, and for the performance of it that followed here he had two soloists from that occasion (part of his complete orchestral works series with his Bergen Philharmonic colleagues). Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Stuart Skelton, tenor, were therefore well aware of what he wanted to hear, and the quartet was very well completed by James Platt, bass, and Dame Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano.

Sara Jakubiak set the tone with her passionate, vehement cry for mercy in the Kyrie, and a glistering, suitably angelic declamation of the opening words of the Gloria. The work is as operatic a setting of church liturgy as Verdi’s Requiem, if not more so, and Stuart Skelton held his own in the dialogue-style writing that marks some of Janáček’s vision and dominated in the extraordinarily high tessitura of the Credo’s opening. The chorus, equally, has a vital dramatic role to play: the Hallé Choir, trained by Matthew Hamilton, were alive to that, producing a thrilling climax to the Credo that proclaimed a sense of struggle, not easy victory.

Janáček’s extended Sanctus grew in rhythmic life and energy to a point of high rejoicing, and contrasted powerfully with the mystery-laden and fervent music of the Agnus Dei.

The organ has a solo as well as accompanimental role in this Mass, making a completing statement of its own after the singing has ceased, which Darius Battiwalla delivered with resonant virtuosity before the jaunty, exuberant orchestral postlude, with its ringing fanfares (the Hallé  brass again brilliant in tone) recalling the liveliness of the work’s beginning.

Janáček was an organist himself and knew the feel of the liturgy. He was also a master of the theatre, and united his senses of drama and humanity in this music. Edward Gardner and his Manchester forces captured the same unique combination.

Edward Gardner

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review of Opera North's Tosca

Opera North’s new production on this visit is of Puccini’s Tosca – an opera they last performed 10 years ago. It comes to The Lowry on 14th and 16th November, and I went to size it up last week in Leeds.

Their last version was not a pretty sight. The director was making comparisons with the Italy of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, and the nasty, lustful police chief Baron Scarpia was as revolting as they get (which, let’s face it, he is meant to be).

This time we’re in the present day again, and, if you look at the programme book, it’s Donald Trump we’re supposed to see as his parallel, as director Edward Dick presents the story. You can understand where that’s coming from: the heroine, Floria Tosca, is an opera singer in love with a painter (Mario Cavaradossi) whose sympathy for an escaped political prisoner puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be – in particular of Scarpia, who tortures Cavaradossi physically and Tosca mentally until she cracks. She yields to his lustful will until she thinks she’s secured her lover’s freedom, then stabs the villain to death after he says there’ll be nothing but a mock execution for Cavaradossi the next morning. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away what happens next …

So it’s about a man whose lust for women is as big as his lust for power, both cloaked in a pose of religious piety. They didn’t give Scarpia a blond wig with a comb-over (alternatively, if they’d foreseen now-current events, they might have made him up to look like Brett Cavanaugh, and we could all think of other cases in point). He’s actually a villain right out of Victorian melodrama – and the play Tosca is based on was a Victorian melodrama to begin with anyway.

But it’s also about a brave and passionate woman: the operatic role for a great dramatic soprano, in many ways. Here Opera North, and Mr Dick, have struck gold this time. Giselle Allen is an amazing interpreter of the role. She acts it like a real opera singer, not flouncing around as a ‘diva’ but an extrovert and a performer, still insecure beneath it; so her jealousy is a weakness and part of her personality, not an exaggeration. I liked the way she treats Scarpia at the start of the second Act, beginning with cautious politeness though she’s repulsed by him, too.

Rafael Rojas is appealing and in excellent tenor voice as Cavaradossi. He doesn’t have to do much but act the noble hero and sing like one too, and he does precisely that.

Scarpia, though, is a challenge: too nasty and you have a pantomime villain, too realistic and we feel short-changed. Robert Hayward, I think, was looking to make him a man we might really encounter some time, not a monster. This rather goes against the crashing, doom-laden chords that accompany his first appearance, and I’m sure Puccini meant that to be the incarnation of a bogey-man – it isn’t quite that here. Later you wonder whether he’s motivated by power, lust or maybe even sexual impotence … interesting but possibly a bit too psycho-analytical.

There’s a nice touch when, in the middle of Tosca’s great solo aria, Vissi d’arte, he starts filming her passionate outburst on his phone. The piece does stop the entire action, quite unrealistically, after all – whether people decide to applaud after it or not (and it’s a good sign if they don’t – we’re not here for a recital of Maria Callas’s greatest hits).

The conductor is Antony Hermus, a young Dutch musician who I think is quite a find (he won’t be on the podium on 14th November, but he will on the 16th). He has an excellent rapport with Opera North’s orchestra and also some strikingly fresh ways of approaching the phrasing and sound qualities of what can be a hackneyed-sounding score. If Opera North are still looking for their next music director, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s high up on the score-sheet.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review of Opera North's The Merry Widow revival

Opera North’s production of The Merry Widow, by Léhar, comes to The Lowry on 15th and 17th November – the former the 40th anniversary, to the day, of the company’s inauguration.

It’s a revival of Giles Havergal’s brilliant production of the operetta, first seen eight years ago, and I went to Leeds to see it on the opening night of the new run. As then, it’s a guaranteed good night out.

The story’s perhaps not quite so topical as it was just after the credit crunch – based on the idea that a country could have spent so much bailing out its own bankers that it faces disaster if their money ever goes abroad – but they do say another financial crisis is just around the corner, so maybe history will repeat itself. It obviously does from time to time, if the story of the imaginary grand-dukedom of ‘Pontevedro’ is anything to go by.

The Merry Widow of the title is the young Hannah Glawari, who fell out with her true sweetheart, Danilo, and married money on the rebound. So much of it, in fact, that when her banker husband dies and she inherits, the fatherland is desperate she should find another Pontevedrian to share her loot with. But she’s living it up in Paris, and there is any number of suitors there …

So the whole show is set in Paris, and by amazing chance good old Danilo is there, too, frittering his life away with the good time girls of Maxim’s nightclub. The one thing he’s determined not to do is to marry Hannah just because it’s his patriotic duty.

Of course it all ends happily. But Opera North, this time, are reminding us of the show’s dark side. It was premiered in 1905, in what we now know was the slide into a horrific world war, and spread around the world in the next few years, and, when you listen for them, the lines are full of references to attacks, retreats and battles as if love and war were all the same. And the vainglorious posturing of minor aristocracy and empty elevation of ‘patriotism’ are very obviously part of the scenario.

Hitler, incidentally, loved it. Léhar, not Wagner, was his real favourite composer.

At the same time, Giles Havergal has not forgotten the real message of The Merry Widow, if there is one – that a damaged relationship can be reborn, once both money and patriotism are left out of the equation. Sentimental? Perhaps, but that’s what the story says, and not many popular love stories are about redemption.

The production, with Stuart Hopps’ ingeniously lively but simple choreography, is full of life, movement, colour and humour. It may not have had quite the pizazz on opening night in Leeds that I remember from last time around, but by the time it hits The Lowry no doubt all of that will be back again.

Katie Bird will be singing Hannah – she takes the role after Máire Flavin completes the Leeds run – and Quirijn de Lang is a suave but sympathetic Danilo. Amy Freston – who else? – returns to play the high-kicking, all-dancing, chorus-girl-turned-ambassador’s-wife, Valencienne. And the real chorus girls of Opera North have a high old time as Maxim’s ladies of the night.

Marie Flavin and admirers in The Merry Widow

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Review of Retrospect Opera's recording of 'Raymond and Agnes'

I’ve been listening to the first full recording of Raymond and Agnes, an opera that gives Manchester’s oldest theatre its place in musical history. It’s been achieved by Cheshire-based Retrospect Opera, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Richard Bonynge, CBE. Soprano Majella Cullagh is the heroine Agnes, tenor Mark Milhofer the hero Raymond, and baritone Andrew Greenan is the evil Baron.

The Theatre Royal in Peter Street – long closed for stage performances – was for many years the city’s home for top-class drama and opera. Built in 1845, it saw the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry Irving and George Cruickshank tread its boards, and in 1854 Charles Hallé collaborated with the composer and conductor Edward Loder on one of the most ambitious opera seasons the city has ever known, before or since.

Loder spent most of his career in London and had some notable successes there, but from 1851 to 1855 he was resident in Manchester, as the first purely baton-wielding conductor at the Theatre Royal – previously the orchestra, like many of the time, was directed by its violinist-leader, Charles Seymour.

He and the pianist-conductor Hallé (who had similarly taken over the Gentlemen’s Concerts orchestra directorship from Seymour a few years earlier but was yet to found the orchestra by which he’s mainly remembered today) gathered a company of top international operatic singers at the theatre through the autumn of 1854, and Loder brought to completion the opera that has since been described as his ‘masterpiece’ – Raymond and Agnes. It’s a Romantic work in ‘gothic’ style, based on part of the famous novel, The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (written in 1796).

But Loder never got it on the stage in 1854 – the Crimean War got in the way, blighting the entire opera season, according to Hallé in his memoirs written some time later – and its premiere the following year, with lesser stars, was hardly noticed. I’ve written about this, and Loder’s career in Manchester, in ‘Manchester Sounds’ and elsewhere (see ‘Opera in Manchester 1848-1899’ and ‘E J Loder, Charles Seymour and music at Manchester’s Theatre Royal 1845-1855’) at

It’s a sad story, because there’s every sign that Loder thought he was writing for soloists of exceptional gifts, and in the event he had to make do with the Manchester ‘regulars’ who were also billed for comic operas and suchlike. But Raymond and Agnes is still the only serious opera of real merit ever to have been composed, rehearsed and premiered in the North West of England, and Retrospect Opera have done us all a service with this recording – it’s of the three-act version later performed in London, whose score is the only one that survives, rather than Loder’s four-act original, but I doubt that much was lost in the adaptation.

I wouldn’t be the first to point out that the quality of Loder’s music was not matched by the quality of the libretto, which he got from one Edward Fitzball before he moved north. Fitzball was the go-to man for sensational popular ‘gothic’ drama scripts at the time, and tastes have changed a lot (Gilbert and Sullivan gave them a real send-up in Ruddigore).

One almost wishes that Fitzball’s convoluted lines had been written in another language – then a clear and natural-sounding English translation could have been made and we’d have been spared his tortured syntax. For all I know, some opera classics may sound just as artificial in their original languages, but most of us would never know it when we read today’s surtitles in the theatre or hear a modern translation.

But it’s the music that counts, and Loder – though the quality of his writing varies – at his best is a very good dramatic composer indeed. His chief model may have been Weber’s Der Freischütz, but I’m convinced he knew his Donizetti and some Verdi, too, and his work needs only committed interpreters and skilled performers to spring to life again.

You can get the CD set from Retrospect Opera here.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Review of Clonter Opera's La Bohème

Clonter Opera does an amazing job each year putting on a complete production of a mainstream repertoire opera, in its own theatre, with young singers who are at the threshold of their professional careers. Its track record bespeaks its skill at talent spotting and the value of its away-from-the-hothouse environment in building skills for future star performers.

This year’s La Bohème is no exception to its form. In many ways it’s one of the best productions it’s done. The set strikes you as soon as you sit down – Grace Venning’s design of a garrett for the starving artistic young men of the title may be largely a collection of junk, but it’s striking and evocative.

And there’s a concept behind the junk, too. Director Harry Fehr presents the story as Rodolfo, the main protagonist, returning after years to the attic in which those great formative experiences of his youth took place. So he enters the stage before the music starts, looking around and remembering. Everything seems to happen within his memories, and at the end the other characters slip away backwards through the doorways, like wraiths at the rising of the sun.

I could quibble about minor incongruities (Rodolfo has to be middle-aged throughout the story, as he can’t rejuvenate instantly to fit the imagined flip back in time; the attic is full of chairs which enable it to convert into the Café Momus for the middle acts, but you wonder at first whether, if the lads were so short of fuel for the winter, they didn’t just burn them), but it’s a cinematic way of telling the story, and you have to suspend disbelief as you see it on stage.

The stark and bare third and fourth acts work brilliantly: in fact the last was one of the best acted endings to La Bohème I’ve ever seen. Movement and placings are well worked out, and at the same time we see young people facing, all unprepared, the reality of death and its ending of their dreams.

There was perhaps a little nervousness in Act One which detracted from a sense of young love’s first joys as the richly famous music was sung (and very well sung), and in a setting with no extras and limited space there’s not much scope for the Christmassy merriment of Act Two, but no doubt later performances will allow for compensation here.

But with Clonter it’s always the voices that are the thing, and here they have struck gold again. Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak (Mimì) is surely a singing actress with a great future, and she effortlessly shone out over the biggest vocal ensembles and accompanimental textures. Russian Alexey Gusev (Marcello) is a natural actor as well as a very good baritone, and Lebanon-born Bechara Moufarrej (Rodolfo) has a refined, mature and flexible tenor. Connor Baiano (Colline) and Jolyon Loy (Schaunard) will have much to give in future, too, and Pedro Ometto (Benoit and Alcindoro) has a comic gift in the making. And Erika Baikoff gave us a Musetta with attitude, not so much a hardened cynic as a youngster blending aggression and naivety (very convincingly), and singing beautifully.

The Clonter Sinfonia, led by Liz Rossi, played the reduced orchestration with fire and affection, and Clive Timms conducted with his accustomed sure hand and dramatic skill. He has been music director for Clonter for the last several years and its achievements under his care have been exceptional.

Further performances on 22, 24, 26 and 28 July.

Clonter Opera's set for La Bohème

Friday, 13 July 2018

Review of Tisbe, from La Serenissima, Buxton International Festival

Just a concert performance of an obscure baroque opera, it seemed – but Tisbe turns out to be one of the serendipities of the 2018 Buxton Festival.

It’s by Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, and I hadn’t heard of him either. Worked in Munich, Stuttgart and Württemberg in the second decade of the 18th century, apparently, and charmed the Germans with his Italian styles. This is quite a big piece for its time, with an orchestra including horns, oboes and recorders, and a chorus as well as four protagonists – the indefatigable Adrian Chandler has created a performing edition from a score that looks slightly incomplete (judiciously filling the obvious instrumental gaps from Brescianello’s other works) and may never have even been performed originally.

The story, though, is definitely one we know: Pyramus and Thisbe, told by Ovid and Boccaccio and memorably rendered by the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s all there, though with Italian names: the lovers agree to rendezvous at Ninny’s tomb (Nino’s in this case), Tisbe is a bit late, Piramo finds her veil with blood on it and concludes a lion got her, stabs himself but takes his time a-dying and lasts long enough for them to be together for a final farewell.

The only thing you don’t get is a singing wall, but the other two characters are Licori, a shepherdess, and Alceste, a virile young man who fancies Tisbe at the start and whom Licori tries to persuade to fancy her.

Musically, it’s all high-quality as you would expect: Julia Doyle (Tisbe), Robert Murray (Piramo), Hilary Summers (Licori) and Morgan Pearse (Alceste) are first-class soloists and the chorus and band are excellent, too.

What gives it extra attractiveness is the acting ability of all the singers (including the chorus, who collectively become the lion for a lively showdown with bold Piramo), and the direction of Mark Burns. ‘Concert performance’ hardly does his work justice – it’s semi-staged (although the band takes about half the stage space) and full of inventiveness and humour. A most lamentable comedy … or should that be comical lament?

Either way it is a good evening out. Whether it qualifies as ‘the finest baroque opera ever’, as Adrian Chandler suggests in a programme note, is perhaps more debatable. I did find Brescianello’s endless sequential repetitions became a bit tedious in the end. But Licori’s ‘L’amare è follia’ was good fun and her ‘Cari orrori’ had a lovely affekt of wistful regret; Piramo’s ‘Pace, pace’ was a fine show-off aria, and Tisbe’s ‘Fiero leon’ likewise full of life.

Repeated on 17th July.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review of Alzira, Buxton International Festival

Alzira completes the trilogy of early Verdi operas performed at the Buxton Festival in recent years under Elijah Moshinsky’s direction. In Giovanna D’Arco in 2015, and last year Macbetto (the original 1847 version), he showed his awareness of human and relationship tensions in Verdi’s work and brought them clearly to the fore.

He also made use of video projection and sound effects to evoke the scenarios. With Russell Craig as designer and Stanley Orwin-Fraser as video designer again, we have impressive results this year, too.

The story (based on Voltaire) is about Incas rebelling against their Spanish conquerors several centuries ago. Moshinsky’s brought it up to date and made it show guerilla fighters harassing a present-day (or near present-day) Peruvian government. The heroine (title role) is in lover with the peasants’ leader, Zamoro, but is captured by government forces and mercilessly used by their leader Gusmano: he forces her to agree to marry him in order to save the life of Zamoro. In the end Gusmano gets his just deserts, and before he dies he has a (rather unconvincing) change of heart and forgives his enemies.

Moshinsky and his team see themes of nature and innocence versus power and cruelty in this, and the projections show the beauty of the jungle as a contrast to the stifled atmosphere of government: they also set a few scenes by using the small side-title screens and remind us of the human cost of political violence with what looks like authentic news footage.

The opera is Verdi’s shortest and least often performed: this is the first fully staged version in the UK. It does not have the depth of much other Verdi, but has a concision of construction and kaleidoscopic variety of mood almost akin to fast-cut movie direction, and these mean it has much to offer still.

The reason it doesn’t often get put on is probably to do with Cammarano’s plot. But there are some thundering good tunes (with several marches and a drinking song), and with retiring artistic director Stephen Barlow conducting again, plus a strong cast and well-resourced company (a bigger chorus than Buxton’s often managed historically), the musical results are first-class. It’s stirring stuff.

Kate Ladner (Alzira) has strength and stamina in her voice and expresses tenderness and courage rapidly alternating. Jung Soo Yun cuts the right dash as Zamoro and is a very fine tenor. James Cleverton makes Gusmano as believable as probably anyone could, while singing with distinction, while Graeme Danby brings maturity and experience to Gusmano’s father, Alvaro.

Jung Soo Yun and Kate Ladner in Verdi's Alzira