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

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review of The Daughter of the Regiment, Buxton International Festival

The Buxton Festival has often been at its best when it has balanced high drama with comedy in its operatic offerings. This year, with two heavyweight pieces as its in-house productions, it has wisely turned to Jeff Clarke and his Opera della Luna to make up the fun quotient.

They do it splendidly. Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment is a classic light opera, but needs singers of real quality to do it justice. The famous tenor aria with the nine high Cs (‘Ah! mes amis’) is in it, for one thing, and there are some superb soprano showpieces, too, and a clever trio.

But for Opera della Luna adaptation is the name of the game. Clarke has not only got John Longstaff to reduce the score – the chorus is all-male here, and three of the six of them double in other roles – but he’s re-written the book completely.

‘The Regiment’ is no longer a section of the French army operating in the rural Tyrols, but a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA, and Sulpice is their president. The Marquise is now Los Angeles based social climber Marsha Berkenfield (she lives in West Hollywood, of course), and the Duchess of Crakentorp is heiress Dulcie Crackenthorpe. Marie, the daughter of the title, is still a lovely girl brought up by the good-hearted guys of The Regiment, and it’s all about her falling for Tonio – now an Hispanic immigrant, rather than a peasant – and then turning out, finally, to be the long unacknowledged daughter of Marsha.

It’s all great fun and very cleverly matches the essence of the original. The dialogue is all-American (and they’ve had dialect coach Matthew Bloxham to help them get it right), and the set (Graham Wynne) looks like an Old El Paso chili chips packet, plus cactuses.

This is a second incarnation for Opera della Luna’s interpretation of the piece, as they did it four years ago for the Iford Festival, but I fancy (from the stills of that version) that this is a fuller staging. And it is a hugely entertaining gem of a show.

What makes it most satisfying is the quality of the singing. Jesús Álvarez has got the top Cs – he doesn’t belt them out like a circus act, rather weaves them into the aria’s melody line, but they’re all there.

And his Marie is Elin Pritchard, both a great comedy actress and a wonderful soprano, who both Opera North’s and Buxton Festival’s audiences know well. Her finale aria to the first act (‘Yes, we must part’) was lovely, and she made a delight of the ‘singing lesson’ in act two (which Clarke transforms to include some neat bowdlerizations beginning ‘I dreamt I dwelt …’ and ‘My tiny hand is …’).

The roles of Sulpice (Charles Johnston) and Marsha (Katharine Taylor-Jones) are character studies above all, but very finely done (and sung) here, and Robert Gildon made Hortensius the butler into a comedy cameo in his own right.  Toby Purser conducts the company, and a great little band, with skill.

The Daughter of the Regiment - Jesús Álvarez, Elin Pritchard and Charles Johnston

Monday, 9 July 2018

Review of Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Idomeneo is an opera that reveals its secrets only to the patient. Generally considered Mozart’s supreme creation in the ‘opera seria’ genre (in the formal Italian tradition), it is a long piece.

But there is a wonderful final act, when not only do we get the appearance of a sea monster but also the disembodied voice of Neptune and a near-mad scene – and then a final denouement, reconciliation and the triumph of humane and enlightened values over ignorance and fear.

The story is from the Trojan Wars, with King Priam’s daughter, Ilia, captive on Crete, loved by Idamante, son of king Idomeneo, whose army captured her … and Idamante is also loved by Elettra, Agamemnon’s daughter, who wants revenge.

Pretty straightforward as classical plotlines go, and of course it gives Mozart lots of scope for arias of passion and dramatic switches of tension.

But what about the sea monster (a judgment from Neptune, who is angry with Idomeneo and his whole nation for his failure to carry out his earlier vow to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on being delivered from a storm at sea – in fact his son)? And the disembodied voice?

Director Stephen Medcalf has come up with great practical solutions for staging these within the constraints of Buxton Festival opera production budget. The monster is seen in Idomeneo himself, in a kind of wild transformation on the lines of The Incredible Hulk (‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry …’). And the voice of Neptune comes as an oracular declaration, seen from Idomeneo’s lips but sung with echo effect off-stage.

There are other neat touches that give the outlandish story a kind of reality and bring it into the realms of psycho-drama. With a useful single set by Isabella Bywater (a two-sided building half submerged by sand … presumably the effect of a terrible sea-storm and maybe even global warming) and non-period military gear for the king, his son and other combatants, it takes on a timeless quality.

But this is also Buxton, where the music comes first. Nicholas Kok was in charge in the pit, the music was stylish and energy-filled, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus were both magnificent. 

Buxton did a concert performance of Idomeneo eight years ago, in Richard Strauss’s somewhat eccentric version (he wrote some syrupy music of his own into the Mozart score), but this is the first time we’ve had the original. That time the wonderful Paul Nilon took the title role, and this time he embodied it again. Almost everything depended on him, and he did not fail. Quite apart from the Hulk impression, he portrayed nobility and passion, and his ‘Fuor del mar’ aria captured a sense of survivor guilt as I think few others could. He never lost his ability to sing, and stay, in character.

Heather Lowe was an excellent Idamante, ardent and at times (rightly) piercing and powerful, and Rebecca Bottone sang with lovely tone and intonational precision – a little bit studied and static by comparison with her co-stars, perhaps, but always a joy to hear. Madeleine Pierard almost stole the show with her Elettra, particularly in her great Act two aria.

And the final act, with its ensembles and climactic sense, was, as I said, worth the wait.

Idomeneo, Buxton International Festival

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review of Buxton Festival gala concert

It’s the 39th Buxton International Festival, and they like to get off to a flying start with a gala concert. With Lesley Garrett as both hostess and performer, plus the Northern Chamber Orchestra (led by Nicholas Ward and conducted by Nicholas Kok) in the pit, it could hardly fail to do that.

The music was a mix of favourite tunes from opera and operetta with generous scoops from musicals – ending with the fabulous Ice Cream Sextet from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (this time licked by 11 soloists) which was right on the button for a sweltering evening in the Peak District … normally a rare enough experience.

The NCO sounded great as a Broadway pit orchestra from the off with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band overture, and morphed into a precise and stylish opera ensemble for the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. One of the festival’s greatest assets in recent years has been this orchestra’s superb contribution to its music-making, and long may it continue.

But what I enjoyed most in the evening’s programme was the varied array of talent on offer from 11 soloist members of the Opera North Chorus. The company prides itself nowadays on engaging top performers in its chorus who can bring something distinctive to any role they’re asked to undertake, and boy did they shine in this programme of lively vignettes.

I’m glad to say I first heard Amy Freston sing when she was still training to be a dancer – and today she brings both skills to the stage brilliantly. ‘I could have danced all night’ (My Fair Lady) was made for her, and she led the troupe in many ways in ensemble numbers such as ‘That’s him’ (One Touch of Venus) and the Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld.

Nicholas Watts proved himself a charmer – and an accomplished siffleur – in ‘Johnny’s Song’ (Johnny Johnson), and Alexander Banfield was excellent in ‘Lonely House’ (Street Scene), as was Dean Robinson with ‘Some enchanted evening’ (South Pacific), but the real showstopper from the men came in ‘Wouldn’t you like to be on Broadway’ (Street Scene).

But for sheer stage presence and delivery, with virtuoso singing, precise in rhythm and pitch, as well as acting, the stand-out was Lorna James – another singer who I’m glad to say I saw early in her musical journey, at the RNCM, and rated very highly – with Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be gay’ (Candide).

The singers worked tirelessly, even contributing rarely heard vocal lines to the orchestra (and Nicholas Ward’s) Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, and Opera North’s Martin Pickard was a supreme piano accompanist.

Changing the atmosphere near the close with the sweetly soulful ‘My Ship’ (Lady in the dark), sung by Kathryn Walker, was a lovely stroke, and Lesley Garrett followed that with ‘If love were all’ (Bitter Sweet), Noel Coward’s sentimental number about the ‘talent to amuse’. Everyone on stage certainly had that, and the ability to inspire, too, with a final ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (Carousel).

BELOW: Lesley Garrett, and Nicholas Ward leading the Northern Chamber Orchestra


Sunday, 13 May 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Ben Gernon with soloist Stefan Dohr

Another BBC Phil concert, another new concerto: this time the UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Horn concerto – written for its soloist, Stefan Dohr, who is, among other things, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The piece is four years old, which makes it a surprise that it’s taken so long to make its way over here. Maybe that’s because hardly anyone else can play it (it includes both bottom and top notes which are officially beyond the range of the instrument), but Rihm is certainly an advocate who could hardly be bettered.

Twenty minutes in length, it has some lovely, long Romantic-style melodic solo passages, and some harmonies so reminiscent of the 19th century they almost sound like pastiche. It’s not all like that, but there’s a tonal undertow to it, which may be slightly ironic – especially given the little burp of a ‘tonic’ note with which the soloist ends proceedings.

Structurally it’s discursive: varied and episodic, with the only really traditional signpost being a kind of solo cadenza … but it’s one that opts out of the standard display formula and has the soloist become less and less assertive. Rihm is very taken by the way the horn can make a ‘distant’ echo of its own sound, and sometimes (including that passage) it seems to be duetting with itself (at others with the oboe, muted trumpets, or other eloquent melodists).

So its very much an essay in tone qualities, with a little disruption of traditional expectations built in. A great vehicle for a great virtuoso, of course. But the horn is very hard to play and there just aren’t that many of them around.

Conductor of the concert was the BBC Philharmonic’s principal guest, Ben Gernon – characteristically in cool control, letting the musicians play to their strengths. With guest leader George Tudorache and a few guest principals, they made light work of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi, which opened the concert: warm G and D-string playing, respectively, from violins and cellos on the big ‘prayer’ tune, and a lot of fun in the rum-ti-tum marching music. It’s portentousness writ large, and probably best just carried off with swagger.

Gernon was also in his element with Berlioz’s arrangement of Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz (or Dance if you prefer). His less-is-more approach was fruitful and there was a great rhythmic bounce in it (he even hoodwinked the audience into clapping before it had finished).

Then it was Beethoven’s Symphony no 7. Ben Gernon is right on the trend for crisp and lively speeds for Beethoven (and had 41 string players – one more bass than you might expect – and modern timpani), and in the second, third and fourth movements everything paid off really well. In the opening, ensemble was slightly ragged, but once into the Vivace (and the transition was smooth) there was little to complain of … except that in this particular acoustic and with these particular rhythms you really have to abbreviate everything to get the clarity you need. But every movement got applause, which Beethoven would no doubt have fully expected.

Ben Gernon

Monday, 23 April 2018

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert conducted by Clemens Schuldt with soloist Leonard Elschenbroich

The world premiere of a cello concerto is a pretty rare event, and interesting, for one thing, just because there aren’t many of them around. New violin concertos seem to come along quite often – but a good new cello concerto must have a chance of digging out a real niche in the repertoire.

I think Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, his first piece written to commission by the BBC Philharmonic since he was made its Composer in Association, could be that good. It’s traditional in form: three movements, of which the middle one is slow (a lament, in the composer’s description). There’s also a slow and thoughtful unaccompanied cadenza in the final movement which, while it may not be as substantial as the solo movement in Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, has the role of recalling the mood of the slow movement and thus giving depth, as well as intimacy, to the whole piece.

It’s also a melodically led piece of writing, with a lot of ‘traditional’ harmony, and its structures are clear. Mark Simpson is an expert at writing huge and complicated textures for orchestra, and those are there, too – but usually with the role of making a contrast to the eloquent solo song of the cello. The orchestra includes a piano, which plays its own prominent part in some of the tutti episodes, and there’s percussion, too (an outburst near the beginning which doesn’t lead to anything in particular but is there perhaps to offer some alternative ways of expressing intensity which are to be rejected.

The harmonic stasis of the ‘lament’ movement – strings alone, in almost a high ‘pedal’ effect, coupled with slowly changing overtones – and the keening sound of the cello solo itself, in the higher regions of its range, made that the most impressive section for me. It contains a very big climax, too – a marker you can hardly fail to spot – and Simpson gives his soloist some technically demanding multi-stopping for good measure.

Mark Simpson says the third movement has a ‘dancing momentum’, and there are certainly pulsing sounds in the orchestra, though whether dancing was quite the effect that came over in this performance I’m not sure. But the cadenza brings back the mood of meditation, before a final gesture akin to a small rocket taking off – an effective finish and no mistake.

Leonard Elschenbroich was the skilful and passionate soloist in this first outing, and the piece was written for him and so bears something of his personal stamp – all very much to the good, in my view. The conductor was Clemens Schuldt, a young man whose command of the score and sympathy with it was never in doubt.

The rest of his programme was Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration – richly rendered, with bold contrasts of mood, by the BBC Philharmonic under the leadership of Yuri Torchinsky – and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1. That also boasted vivid contrasts and high-energy playing of the composer’s characteristic ‘Keystone Cops’ style music – but the sustained intensity of feeling in the slow movement was if anything more rewarding, and the finale included another lovely cello solo, this time from the orchestra’s own principal, Peter Dixon.


Leonard Elschenbroich

Friday, 13 April 2018

Review of Halle concert with Nicholas Collon, conductor, and Boris Giltburg, soloist

The combined talents of Nicholas Collon as conductor and Boris Giltburg as soloist made their shared concert one of the outstanding events of the Hallé season.

Giltburg is a pianist whose reputation goes before him, especially in Rachmaninov, and you could hear why. From the very opening there was a tenderness and thoughtfulness in his playing, both wistful and limpid, modest and heartfelt, which pervaded much of the opening movement of the composer’s Piano concerto no. 3.

But that wasn’t all. In the first solo episode we heard flashes of the drama that was later to come, and there was no shortage of steel in Giltburg’s playing either. Nicholas Collon was an excellent partner for him, drawing a big, Romantic sound from the orchestra – beautifully rich in the strings at the beginning of the second movement and gorgeously blending in the wind at its end.

Boris Giltburg played that Intermezzo in a swaying, lullaby-like style; but when it came to the finale he was transformed again: mercurial, exciting and still forming his phrases and melodies with elegance. The orchestral solos were nicely characterized, too, to match him.

Collon’s programme continued with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. It’s a strange series of wisps and flashes, with vigour and dreaminess – proof of the remarkable ability of this conductor to obtain the best from an orchestra. His visits are becoming ‘don’t miss’ events (and he’s conducting the Opus One set of concerts this time, too).

He finished by putting the Hallé Choir in the spotlight in John Adams’ Harmonium. Written in 1980, it’s an essay in writing (to use Adams’ own words) for ‘human voices – many of them – riding upon waves of rippling sound’. So the Hallé Choir were very much the team to tackle it, along with the orchestra. The piece sets words by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, but you would hardly know it had they not been printed in the programme booklet.

That’s not the singers’ fault, as far as I can see, as it’s more about waves of sound and multi-layered textures than anything else, with the voices sustaining high and demanding lines over a myriad of orchestral figures and complicated rhythms. The Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) achieved that, and it was quite an achievement.

Nicholas Collon

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Review of Halle concert with Jonathon Heyward, conductor, and Benjamin Grosvenor, soloist

This week’s Hallé ‘Opus One’ set of concerts is notable not just on account of the soloists (Benjamin Grosvenor for Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 3, Jonathan Scott for Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony) but because it’s the first full-length main series programme in the Bridgewater hall conducted by Jonathon Heyward since his appointment as Assistant Conductor.

He’s a very gifted exponent of the art of the baton, and if his style with the Hallé reminds you a bit of Sir Mark Elder’s, that’s no bad thing at all, as it means that he’s gained a lot from his mentor and that he appreciates exactly what works with the Hallé Orchestra.

I noticed he had the traditional strings layout, with cellos on the front stage right and all the violins together on the left, for his programme of Weber, Beethoven and Saint-Saëns: their sound was well focused and precise.

From the start it was clear that he can bring a sense of quiet tension to the opening of a piece such as the overture to Oberon, where a horn call from out of the silence, and shimmering strings, is a magical effect. By contrast, the allegro had poise and brilliance, the strings precise (led by Lyn Fletcher) and the woodwind crisp and pointed.

The same touch was there in the Beethoven concerto (especially the final orchestra ritornello of the first movement), and Benjamin Grosvenor’s solo playing was deeply satisfying – touches of poetic longing mixed in with a strict sense of flow and balance of question-and-answer in the phrasing.

The slow movement struck a note of rapture (orchestra and soloist) and the finale was elegant and fleet-footed, and finally exuberant. For a solo encore we were treated to one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – Erotik, I believe, in name and a cool, Norwegian sort of erotica but very beautiful.

The Organ Symphony, Saint-Saëns’ no. 3, is a bit of a war-horse but extremely popular for the noise it makes. Jonathon Heyward, however, again found subtlety in it, and he brings a narrative quality to the music he expounds, along with a clear sense of the counterpoint that’s there to be found in the orchestral writing (as well as the big, blockbusting chords).

There was no empty grandiosity in either his approach or that of Jonathan Scott, with momentum in the rhythms and clean, vigorous orchestral playing. Jonathan Scott knows the Bridgewater Hall organ probably better than most, and made its firm but mellow pedal sound tell in the slow movement and its ‘beating’ tones blend well into the texture.

Gemma Beeson and Peter Durrant were on form with the piano’s contributions, and there was a nice sense of stasis in the subdued moments before the final colossal outburst of C major.

Jonathon Heyward

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Review of Halle Valentine's Day concert

The Hallé’s Pop concerts master-minded and conducted by Stephen Bell are well established, and none more so than the Valentine’s Day special: last night was an ‘opera lovers’ programme, with an attractive selection of excerpts – some really well known, some a little off the beaten track – plus Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story thrown in for good measure.

What gave the concert distinction was the quality of the tenor and soprano soloists. Noah Stewart has endeared himself to audiences here in Manchester since Opera North picked him as an outstanding Pinkerton for their Madama Butterfly a few years ago, and he’s appeared on big stages in London, too, as well as BBC’s Songs of Praise.

His refined, pitch-perfect voice is a real pleasure to hear, and he’s got stage presence and acting ability, too. He was well complemented by Sarah Fox, a Yorkshire girl and Kathleen Ferrier Award winner who can impress in many styles, including the most technically demanding, and in both cases they give a concert audience a taste of what real opera singers sound like – rather than the ersatz ‘opera singers’ who always need a microphone to make themselves heard.

Stephen Bell’s way with the orchestra is laid back, to say the least, and they jogged their way through Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture and the Wedding March, too. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana had a bit more class (the harp bass notes attractively in tune, which you don’t always get when you’re well into a full theatre performance), and they let rip with the Grand March from Aida to open the concert’s second half. Leader Paul Barritt played the Thaïs Méditation solo with sweetness and affection, too.

Noah Stewart began with Recondita Armonia from Tosca, by Puccini, sung in fine style, and ‘Una furtiva lacrima’ from L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) had a well-projected ending – this guy is the real deal when it comes to Romantic tenors, and the audience loved his Nessun Dorma.

Sarah Fox’s first solo was ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontano’ from Catalani’s La Wally, one of those excerpts that are almost the only part of a once-successful opera to survive. It showed off her excellent control of a long melodic line, while Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt was a charmer, and the Song to the Moon from Rusalka equaled it.

Together they sailed through duets from Gounod’s Faust, Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz and ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Bohème (delicately ending with two top Cs, floated from off-stage), and rewarded their hearers’ enthusiastic acclaim with the Brindisi from La Traviata.

Real opera lovers go to see operas, rather than listening to excerpts in a concert hall, but it was a relaxing night for tune lovers – and we’re all those at heart.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Review of Halle concert with Ryan Wigglesworth

There’s nothing like a concert mainly on the theme of death to brighten a cold, wet February evening in Manchester.

But principal guest conductor Ryan Wigglesworth’s programme with the Hallé was worth braving the elements for – and the musical reflections on departure and its obsequies proved rewarding, too. Perhaps I’m being overly lugubrious to characterize Stravinsky’s Petrushka ballet score as being about death, but the eponymous sad little puppet in the fairground show does end as a victim of murder by another puppet, and (as you’ll know if you’ve seen the ballet performed) the ending – included in most concert performances now – shows a very corporeal appearance of his cheeky spirit ascending to find its heavenly reward.

It’s a gloriously colourful piece of writing, and Ryan Wigglesworth expounded the score from the outset with meticulous care and vivid and exhilarating sounds. It wasn’t a romp through a standard repertoire piece with no subtlety, either – Katherine Baker’s solo flute playing was quite magical, and the solo trumpet of Gareth Small later on was quite enchanting. Some of the melody lines occasionally were hidden in the richness of the instrumentation we were urged to enjoy, but that was only on a few occasions.

Another kind of after-death experience was described in the piece before, Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder – about a heaven for animals as described in the opera it’s taken from. It was notable mainly for the virtuosity of the percussion used to set its various celestial scenes.

The highspot of the concert came after the interval, when bass singer Brindley Sherratt was soloist for Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, in Shostakovich’s orchestral version. Brindley Sherratt has a wonderfully rich timbre for Russian music, varying from the finely-judged morendo at the close of the first song (Lullaby) to the shock of death’s final greedy clutch of a poor girl in the second (Serenade), and with much more in imaginative presentation besides. Ryan Wigglesworth realized the vivid scoring and swinging rhythms here and in Trepak and The Field Marshal with great skill.

And they followed that with Mahler’s Totenfeier – or the first draft of his ‘Resurrection’ symphony’s first movement, if you prefer to think of it that way. This is the funeral march, though. No heaven-storming paean of choral confidence in an after-life is heard … though the gently rising major theme that way well signify at least a hope of consolation is repeatedly present, and all the more significant for being the only positive expression to pierce the grimness. The full 50-strings Hallé sound was particularly opulent by this time and proved a benediction in itself.