Monday, 16 September 2019

Omer Meir Wellber’s inaugural at the BBC Phil

‘I don’t think in history there’s been a music director who opened his tenure with a children’s concert.’

That’s not my comment, it’s the words of Omer Meir Wellber, the young new chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, on his first public appearance with the orchestra at its home in Salford since officially entering on his realm.

He’s proud of it. He conducted the Phil in two Proms concerts in London this summer, but as far as its North of England base is concerned, a children’s concert to launch the BBC’s ‘Bring the Noise’ school music streams and podcasts, and a studio concert live-streamed on iPlayer and the Philharmonic website and shown for passers-by on the BBC’s big screen outside its MediaCity studio (it will be broadcast on Radio 3 later), have been the only inaugural events for the new maestro. The Bridgewater Hall audience in Manchester will have to wait until December for his series concert appearance.

Of course it’s all to do with existing contractual commitments and scheduling – but he says he asked for these inaugural performances because he had one week available in the early autumn to be on-site with the North West band – and it’s also symbolic of the spirit of youthfulness and a zeal to communicate that comes with Omer Meir Wellber at the helm. The Phil are only just beginning to find out what hit them when he got the top job.

That studio concert, for instance. He conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (the latter from memory) in the second half – pretty much what you might expect from a new chief conductor with a strong track record in the Austro-German classics (he did Mozart’s ‘Linz’ symphony and Act 1 of Die Walküre in a Bridgewater Hall concert last October on the day his appointment was announced).

But the first half had not only the Summer movement from The Four Seasons with a mandolin solo instead of violin (Jacob Reuven, with whom he works in an educational project called ‘Strings of Change’ to help Bedouin children, based in Beer-Sheva, was the soloist), but also the most off-the-wall version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 (K414) I have ever heard. He was his own soloist for it, but instead of the variety of contemporary written cadenzas available for each of its movements (of which there are a number), Wellber produced a succession of improvised interpolations – based on the written ones, it is true, and one of them really just a transcription for three soloists in succession – for a jazz-klezmer group including trumpet, clarinet, solo violin, accordion, bass, drum kit and his piano, which took us stylistically a long, long way from 18th century Vienna. He’s at home in these idioms as much as any other, and soon had his audience tapping their feet and smiling at the wail of the clarinet and accelerating dance beat that finally adorned Mozart’s restrained Andante.

‘I’ve done this on a smaller scale before, when we asked the public to vote on what sort of cadenzas they would like – I think even Mozart would approve.’

There may be fun in it, but Wellber takes fun seriously. ‘If you have spontaneity in yourself, it’s wrong to cover it,’ he says. ‘My background is that of a gypsy. If there’s something in you, then this is what you bring. When I was younger I used to do magic shows with music – I would do the tricks and play my accordion. I’m now at a point in my life when I can bring out new things as a conductor.’

So who is this self-confessed gypsy with an accordion, preparing to do magic with one of the UK’s top broadcasting orchestras? It goes back to a childhood in the south of the state of Israel, a family with a remarkable range of talents and connections, and a musical training that gave him a rock-solid grounding and respect for gifted teachers.

His mother and family were both from ‘Eretz-Israel’ families – those who’d lived in the land for generations before the founding of the state in 1948, and answered the call of David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom, moving from Tel Aviv to Beer-Sheva, which was where Omer and his sisters grew up.

‘That was the biggest decision made in my life – the kind of thing that makes you a different person. My school wanted me to go to Tel Aviv as a kind of prodigy, but my parents wouldn’t have it. I grew up in a place where you have people from 20 different backgrounds and a basically poor economic environment. And my upbringing was in a free style: each of us did what they wanted to do, we were never pushed into anything. I was ambitious, but I have one sister who is not and one who is as much as me.’

‘Music was always there for me. But so was the theatre – in my family about 70 per cent were involved in teaching, including my parents, and the rest were in acting, so I was familiar with the backstage side of theatre life.’

His cousin, Eli Danker, is well known in Israeli theatrical life, and is set to visit the Philharmonic to perform in a future season: ‘He was the most important influence on me, in a way, as my father died when I was young.’

Omer learned to play piano – and accordion – from the age of five, and the violin and mandolin from the age of 12, because, he says, he was already a composer and wanted to find out how those instruments worked. He stayed in ‘normal’ schooling, with extra teaching at the music specialist school in Beer-sheva until the time came for national service in the army (as all Israeli youngsters do) – but his time in uniform was cut to a year and a half so that he could join the national Jerusalem Music Academy.

He studied with Michael Wolpe (himself taught by Alexander Goehr at Cambridge) because at that point he wanted to make composing his main interest (and he does have a string of compositions to his name), but gradually shifted to conducting.

From 2008 to 2010 he was assistant to Daniel Barenboim, both at the Staatsoper in Berlin and La Scala (he and his family now have their home in Milan), and he acknowledges the importance his mentors have had in his development: ‘Since the age of eight I’ve benefited from really big people as teachers – I don’t think an artist can ever be an auto-didact, and I still speak to my first teacher back in Beer-Sheva.

‘Oscar Wilde said “A fine artist imitates, but a brilliant artist steals”, and I took as much as I could from Barenboim, but now I imitate him less and less. I’ve been professionally conducting for 15 years, but in the past five I have found what is my priority and what “fits” for me.’

Those 15 years have included a remarkable range of experience and activity – music director at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, conducting Verdi operas in Vienna three years running, appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and frequently at the Semperoper in Dresden, where he is now principal guest conductor; and he’s been seen a number of times with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted at Glyndebourne (Madame Butterfly last year), in addition to orchestral concerts worldwide.

Oddly enough, he has memories of a brief previous stay in Manchester as a 12-year-old, when his father, a trade union leader and socialist politician in Israel, was offered a diplomatic job in the UK and came to the city. ‘He hated the job and went back to Israel after a year, and I was not here all that time anyway, but I attended King David School and got to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time!’

He says he also started making model railway sets as a hobby then – another unexpected characteristic of a man of many parts, so it’s almost no surprise to learn that he’s a published author, too. He’s written about Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan Tutte), in a book called ‘Fear, Risk and Love: Moments with Mozart’, and has a novel about to appear in German, Italian and English. The title in the German version translates as ‘The Four Times that Chaim Birckner Fainted’, which he describes as ‘an alternative story of Israel … about a tired, incompetent Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel: he’s a big liar and he lives a strange, passive, crazy life.’ The politically conscious aspect of his heritage is coming out here, he says, in the light of a new emigration from the country on the part of those of left-wing convictions.

And what will the BBC Philharmonic see in terms of future programmes and projects from Omer Meir Welber? It’s early days yet: his 14 December programme at the Bridgewater Hall includes the UK premiere of Sophia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan (a Russian kind of accordion), along with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and he’ll be back in March with a Beethoven programme and in April with Richard Strauss, Schnittke and Shostakovich (also toured to Nottingham): the rest of the autumn-winter-spring season was pretty well sorted when he was offered the top job earlier this year.

He says in the programme booklet for Manchester: ‘In every concert, I want to try to tell a story’ and refers to ‘political themes we’ll be exploring over the next few years’. As we spoke he was discussing plans for next year’s BBC Proms and the season to follow them with the orchestra’s general manager, Simon Webb, and his staff. But it’s probably safe to say, ‘Expect the unexpected’.

Philharmonic trumpeter Gary Farr was asked on camera about the experience of working with him on those improvised Mozart concerto cadenzas in the studio concert. He said: ‘Much of it was Omer’s imagination – and it took all of us to orchestrate it!’

Omer Meir Wellber rehearsing with the BBC Philharmonic. Picture: Mark McNulty

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Latham-Koenig's new boundary-breaking orchestra

The RNCM hosts a concert on 21st September that could be a real landmark. It’s not an event confined to Manchester – rather, one of a series that begins in Russia and then moves to the UK for performances at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, Leeds Town Hall, the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, The Anvil in Basingstoke and finally Cadogan Hall in London.

It’s the inaugural tour of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, a project pioneered by conductor Jan-Latham Koenig to bring young musicians from Russia and Britain  together to play and perform – a bit like Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which likewise is about young musicians coming together and creating links across cultural and political boundaries.

Behind it is a group of top musical training institutions, both in Russia and the UK, of which the RNCM is one, plus some high-placed well-wishers and sponsorship from BP and its Russian counterpart, Rosneft.

Latham-Koenig is well placed to make this idea happen, as he’s chief conductor and artistic director of Moscow’s Novaya Opera Theatre – the first and only British conductor appointed to lead a Russian cultural organisation. The orchestra’s name, obviously enough, derives from the friendship that developed in the 1960s between Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, bridging what were then the big divides of the Cold War. With help from their mutual friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, both Britten and Shostakovich were able to cross the ideological boundaries of the time.

Taking part are 87 young players, 52 from Russia and 35 from the UK, who will have been welded together for a week, in Sochi in Russia, by professionals from orchestras and opera houses. Their Russian dates include the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory and the Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg, before they all come to Britain.

The RNCM programme on the tour features Pavel Kolesnikov as piano soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, along with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra.

Among the orchestra members are the newly announced harpist to the Prince of Wales,  24-year-old Alis Huws, and violinist Elizabeth Lister, cellist Abigail Davies, bassist Thomas Betts, bassoonist Christian Bushnell and trumpeter Thomas Watts, all from the RNCM. 

Latham-Koenig believes Britten and Shostakovich were the two greatest composers of the 20th century in their respective countries, and adds: ‘Above all, they were friends, two geniuses who admired each other. They were different personalities, but you can see that in subtle ways they were both influenced by each other’s music.

‘I am thrilled that we are launching this first British-Russian orchestra in the spirit of a friendship under unlikely circumstances – the language barrier, which Britten and Shostakovich contended with, was their smallest obstacle.’

Jan Latham-Koenig and the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Review of National Children's Orchestra with Jess Gillam and Jonathan Bloxham, Bridgewater Hall

To tackle a programme including Mahler’s First Symphony after one week’s acquaintance together would be a tall order for any professional orchestra. That the National Children’s Orchestra under Jonathan Bloxham sounded so good doing it is little short of miraculous.

Of course they’re not to be compared with adult professionals, and don’t attain the near-professional standards of the National Youth Orchestra or conservatoire bodies. But if there’s one thing their concert at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday showed it is that these youngsters can produce amazing sounds with orchestral instruments, both individually and together.

They began with Korngold’s Schauspiel Ouvertüre – itself written by a 14-year-old – in which the most immediate feature of their sound was the sweetness of the string playing and the blending of their brass. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, when it came, tested every department of the orchestra but emerged as a real success, bringing their audience (favourably biased, admittedly, in many cases) to its feet in admiration. Jonathan Bloxham and his team of music staff had achieved something remarkable in their week’s course of training: the precision of much of the playing (from a very large body), the richness of tone in many areas, and the collective creation of great musical effects were thrilling.

Before that their star soloist, saxophonist, Last Night of the Proms darling, broadcaster, RNCM product and undoubtedly the most exciting thing to have come from Ulverston since Stan Laurel, Jess Gillam, made her own impact with a piece by John Williams called Escapades from Catch Me If You Can (a three-movement suite from Williams’ film score).

Characteristically, she made light of all its intricacies and sailed through its lively jazz-inflected text with an infectious sense of enjoyment. As long as the NCO keeps its emphasis on top-class music making being fun, it really can’t go wrong.

Jess Gillam c Kaupo Kikkas

Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of Don Giovanni at Clonter Opera

Clonter Opera is 45 years old – what began as a kind of summer party for enthusiasts sitting on bales of straw in a barn has become a north west artistic institution, with a purpose-built theatre and proven track record of providing real nurture for young singers as they begin to make their names in a demanding profession.

This year’s summer production of Don Giovanni is notable for the calibre of the production and music team behind it and the results they have achieved: Clive Timms is completing 10 years as music director and finally conducting his 75th performance here, with Robin Humphreys the long-time assistant music director and repetiteur, and Valeria Racco assistant conductor. Martin Lloyd-Evans has brought a fresh re-thinking of the story as director, and Nate Gibson has created an inspired design concept that neatly overcomes the problems of its varied settings (an issue that can easily defeat other designers).

We’re in the present day, or pretty near (mobile phones are much in use; one is the source Leporello consults for the ‘Catalogue’ aria of his boss’s sexual conquests in Act 1). Gibson and Lloyd-Evans have imagined the place as the USA, but it could easily be any other prosperous, soulless and fundamentally seedy Western society. The characters are nearly all genuinely young in years (that fits the Clonter casting), and what separates the powerful from the powerless is not so much aristocrat versus low-born as money and hypocrisy.

Don Giovanni would have a clear case to answer from the #MeToo movement these days: but how much are the victims of such a libertine complicit in moral failure themselves as they thirst for revenge, redemption or respectability, Lloyd-Evans asks. Perhaps his amorality carries more honesty than their conformity. In this view the homespun couple Zerlina and Masetto, in their attempt at a banal, Las Vegas-style wedding and enjoyment of simple, loving carnality, are the ones we should really admire …

The single set has two movable ‘walls’, with shutters that can each be closed or open to reveal a second view: evoking inside and outside, foreground and background, a bar, a club or a morgue with instant effect.

And the statue of the Commendatore, murdered at the outset and who finally answers Giovanni’s invitation to dine and then drags him down to Hell? In this case we see the man spookily re-appearing as silent Uber driver, barista or barman, and finally as a corpse that moves and a living head served up on a platter …  

The singers are all technically excellent – some much more than that. Eliza Boom (Donna Anna) and Alexandra Lowe (Donna Elvira) are familiar to RNCM opera attenders, and each impressed here, the former for her passionate delivery of ‘Or sai chi l’onore’, the latter for the power in her singing, her believable characterization and a glorious ‘Mi tradi’ aria.

New to me was Alexandra Oomens (Zerlina), who deserves a medal just for wearing the crazily high-heeled boots she was kitted out with but whose acting and voice had life and loveliness; ‘Vedrai, carino,’ especially.

Of the men, Fabian Langguth rightly dominated the show, as the Don himself. He got the idea of the louche seducer perfectly, and his light baritone, endearing in his amorous songs and almost a croon in ‘Deh vieni all finestra’, converted itself to a convincing imitation of Leporello’s bass tones moments afterwards: there’s a lot yet to be revealed there.

Simon Grange, who was Leporello, has enviable resonance and a great comic gift, his face never still, which should stand him in real stead in the future. Andrew Henly (Don Ottavio) brought golden tone to ‘Il mio tesoro’, and Stephen Fort was finally imperious as the doom-beckoning corpse-Commendatore.

Masetto can sometimes seem a one-dimensional idiot – but in this production he’s a more regular guy and even a bit of a hero in his own way. Jacobo Ochoa has a fine baritone voice and acts, and reacts, very well.

Fabian Langguth, Alexandra Oomens, Jacobo Ochoa, Alexandra Lowe, 
Andrew Henley and Eliza Boom in Clonter Opera's Don Giovanni. c Andrew Billington

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review of Georgiana at Buxton International Festival

While Manchester International Festival prides itself on its biennial ‘new work’ (sometimes less than complete, less than new or less than work), Buxton International Festival creates new productions every year. This time, in the 40th anniversary festival, it has created its own new work as well.

It’s a very interesting species, too. They’ve revived the genre of ‘pasticcio’ opera – once common practice all over Europe – which is made by taking musical numbers from existing sources and giving them new words to fit a new plotline. In England the words would be in English, even if the arias and ensembles were originally in foreign-language opera, and there would be spoken dialogue and probably melodrama (speech with background music) as well.

The story here is that of Georgiana, Duchess to the 5th Duke of Devonshire – portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film, The Duchess – and it could hardly be more fitting for Buxton. Almost every stone and blade of grass in the town is connected to the denizens of Chatsworth in some way, or bears the name of Cavendish or Devonshire. In the old days the 11th Duke, and Deborah the Duchess, used to be at every festival first night in Buxton Opera House.

Georgiana, though, was an unusual Duchess. Fabulously good-looking – just look at Gainsborough’s portrait – she was a daughter of the Spencer family, as was Diana Princess of Wales in a later era. Funny, that: there were three people in her marriage, too.

When at first she failed to provide her husband with a male heir, she was joined in his affections and home life by Lady Elizabeth Foster (‘Bess’) – herself the victim of a time when even the noblest married women were their husband’s chattels, and, intriguingly, very good friends with Georgiana, who introduced her to him.

She formed her own extra-marital liaison, too, with Charles Grey (later the Earl Grey of tea fame), who, fitting the style of the time, is played as a mezzo trouser-role here. Their daughter was not allowed to join the Cavendish home.

The film makes you feel Georgiana was a victim. She was in many ways, but she was also a reckless gambler, as well as socialite, political organizer and author. This scenario, by Buxton Festival CEO Michael Williams (who also penned the lyrics for the musical numbers) puts that side of her life in focus, fleshing out her many-sided character.

The music has been chosen by Mark Tatlow, who has achieved an extraordinary thing by making a pasticcio entirely of music Georgiana might or could have heard in her lifetime and adapting it to a tale that’s both comic and tragic.

They make a comedy duo of playwright Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox, and present the early part of Georgiana’s story with a broad, comic brush (though there are strongly dramatic entrance arias taken from Soler and Storace for Georgiana and her mother, and an appealing bit of Mozart to introduce the unhappy Duke).

We also get some popular songs of the period to suit the scenes of public life, one literally from The Beggars’ Opera, whose atmosphere percolates much of the first half of Georgiana.

But the impressive part of this compilation-piece comes later. As the story reaches its tragic culmination, Tatlow introduces his adaptation of Mozart’s wonderful concert aria, ‘Bella mia fiamma’, its chromaticisms bearing the weight of the Duchess’s feelings as she loses her daughter borne to Grey. And the ‘duettino’, adapted from Paisiello, for Georgiana and Bess as the friends (whom the scenario suggests had their own intimate relationship, too) prepare for the parting of death, is superbly chosen and was movingly sung by Samantha Clarke (Georgiana) and Susanna Fairbairn (Bess), under Tatlow’s tender direction.

There’s a touching detail, too, in the introduction to this one – it’s a tune, played on fortepiano by Mark Tatlow as maestro al cembalo, which apparently was the real Georgiana’s own composition.

This performance has been cast with very fine and experienced performers. Benjamin Hulett is powerful and particularly excellent in the florid runs of his Act 2 aria (taken from Linley’s The Duenna). Samantha Clarke and Susanna Fairbairn are wonderful singers and effective actors; Olivia Ray makes a very effective contribution as Lady Spencer (Georgiana’s mother); Katherine Aitken sings Grey beautifully and Rhys Alun Thomas makes a baleful Blackmailer; and Aled Hall and Geoffrey Dolton keep everything alive as Sheridan and Fox.

Matthew Richardson’s direction is sure-footed, clear and entertaining with a simple but effective set (design by Jon Morrell). It’s quite remarkable … and could even set an example for the future. Pasticcio lives again.

Samantha Clarke and Benjamin Hulett in Georgiana

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review of Orpheus in the Underworld at Buxton International Festival

Seen in Salford on tour in 2015, Jeff Clarke’s reinterpretation of Offenbach’s operetta for Opera della Luna has been revamped for the Buxton International Festival and is even more fun than before.
Jeff is still in charge as director; the choreography by Jenny Arnold enlivens the whole show again, with four ‘infernal dancers’ for the Cancan and much else besides; Maria Lancashire’s jolly costumes are back.
There is re-introduced ballet music rarely heard in other productions – I guess they knew they needed proper dancers for the infernal CanCan, and so they might as well use them thoroughly – so we have a pas des moutons in the opening pastoral and a flies’ polka later on.
And changing from a thrust stage arrangement without much of a set to the proscenium view at Buxton, with some very nice cloths and props by designer Elroy Ashmore, makes quite a difference.
There’s a little orchestra with single strings plus six others, playing an arrangement of the score by Thibault Perrine which works very well, and Luna performers from the previous version are Louise Crane (Juno), Katharine Taylor-Jones (the character of embodied Public Opinion – in this case transformed into an Arts Council of England assessor who knows even less about art than Sir Les Patterson) and Tristan Stocks as Orpheus, who has to sing tenor and play Che Faro on the violin while in character – ie badly, which he does rather well.
We also have some very good new actor-singers, in particular Daire Halpin as Eurydice, Anthony Flaum as Pluto, Matthew Siveter as Jupiter, Lynsey Docherty as Diana and Paul Featherstone as Mercury and John Styx.
The operetta, brought back to its historical roots by Jeff Clarke, shows the inhabitants of Olympus (all one dysfunctional family, rather like Downton Abbey at its worst) and an Orpheus and Eurydice who don’t actually like each other, with Pluto disguised as a shepherd carrying her off to the nether regions. Jupiter and the other gods descend to the underworld, Jupiter gets Eurydice out by disguising himself as a fly, and it all ends with a party and … see for yourself.
Jeff Clarke’s updated the text again with lots of topical allusions (MeToo, fake news, Wikileaks, etc., etc.), ‘When I was king of the Beotians’ this time becoming a soliloquy by one ‘Dave’ who was ‘king of Chipping Norton’ and ‘called that referendum … Donald Tusk has since confirmed it – I have a special place in hell’. Too true.

To the barricades! Scene from Orpheus in the Underworld credit Craig Fuller

Monday, 8 July 2019

Review of Eugene Onegin at Buxton International Festival

Shelley Jackson (Tatyana) and George Humphreys (Onegin) in Eugene Onegin 
at Buxton International Festival (picture: Genevieve Girling)

There’s freshness in the air at the Buxton Festival this year as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, and nowhere more so than in the first of the year’s opera productions, with new artistic director Adrian Kelly conducting for the first time, Jamie Manton making his Buxton debut as director of the production, and a young cast all of whom are making their house debuts.
That’s all to the good, and one continuing factor very much to the good is the quality of the 24-strong festival chorus. They were stalwarts of this interpretation, not just in their singing but in performing some simple but nicely executed choreography as well (by Jasmine Rickets, with dancers Lowri Mashburn and Katie Fairs incorporated into the ensemble), and moving stage props around – indeed, becoming stage props of a sort in some scenes.
Onegin has to have dancing in it, with the much-excerpted waltz and polonaise in the score, each essential to a scene of social dance as much rooted in the story as the ball scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Its typically Romantic saga could have been the outcome of that other plotline if you imagine Mr Darcy spurning Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings and going off for a few years’ Casanova-style adventures, only to return to find her married to someone else and himself wishing he’d taken his chance when he could have.
Of course Tatyana, the heroine here, begins as a much more innocent and lovestruck girl than Elizabeth (with her father to guide her) ever was. Onegin himself is pretty much a cad, killing his best friend in a duel occasioned by his flirting with Tatyana’s sister. So there’s a much more Byronic flavour to Pushkin’s story, which was originally told in sonnet-like verse, giving the whole thing an ironic tone akin to Childe Harold (reflected in this English translation).
All this gives the opera subtleties one hopes to find in its protagonists’ interpretations, as well as enjoying the soaring romance in the music. Jamie Manton leaves them with plenty to do, as the set is about as minimalist as they get: bare boards, autumn leaves, a few chairs and some chandeliers for the first part of the story, some snow for the middle, and better quality chairs for the posh ball in St Petersburg at the end. There is symbolism in the shape of a little girl in ballet shoes who appears beginning and end, and the climax of the duel scene, a sudden plunge into red light, is effective – intriguingly followed by the Polonaise dancers at first carrying death masks and dressed in black.
The principals’ singing is high-quality in every case, the men – George Humphreys as Onegin, David Webb as Lensky, Joseph Doody as M Triquet and Joshua Bloom as Gremin – to my mind filling their roles adequately without ever making you think they’d got real psychological depth in them.
The younger female ones, though – with whom Tchaikovsky perhaps felt the greatest empathy – were contrasted. Shelley Jackson, as Tatyana, has a darkly-shaded soprano tone of real potential and yet never quite made me think she was a youngster in the agony of desperate passion, even in the highspot of her role, the first act’s famous Letter Scene – though she never wrote a word, as far as I could tell.
Angharad Lyddon, as Olga, sang very well and acted the youthful, carefree soul I always imagined: you could see why Lensky fell for her. Gaynor Keeble and Ceri Williams, Madame Larina and Filipyevena, were excellent and inhabited the older women’s characters.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra were in the pit as usual and made a fine fist of the score.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Buxton Festival's revival of the opera pasticcio

Buxton Festival is 40 years old this year, and offering the mix of contrasting operatic experience it has so often in the past.

There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with the new festival director Adrian Kelly conducting and a gifted young cast. There’s a visit from topsy-turvy comedy specialists Opera della Luna, with their version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which I’ve seen before and want to again. There’s also a happy return to Buxton by Adrian Chandler’s baroque specialist ensemble La Serenissima, with the first production in the UK of Lucio Papirio Dittatore, by Caldara, 300 years after its Vienna premiere: Adrian will conduct and Mark Burns directs.

But most intriguing of all is a specially invented new work called Georgiana, about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire – that’s the same lady as played by Keira Knightly in the film, The Duchess. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember her as a fun-loving young innocent who was pretty badly treated by her Duke, having to live in a ménage-a-trois at Chatsworth with his mistress, Bess.

That’s but the half of it, apparently, and Buxton’s re-telling of the tale fills in much more about her life and times.

The thing that’s interesting about this piece is that it’s a revival of the tradition – standard procedure in Georgiana’s own time – of creating an opera pasticcio, in other words a theatre piece with its own story and characters, but borrowing and adapting music from other existing works.

In an age before copyright, it was frequent practice. Today we might call it a jukebox musical.

But Buxton’s pasticcio is itself to be an exercise in authenticity, with the musical numbers taken from composers of Duchess Georgiana’s time and all constructed in a way that could have been the case in the London she knew, with the text in English.

Its musical creator – and conductor for the performances here – is Mark Tatlow, scholar and former artistic director of the Drottningholm Court Theatre in Sweden.

Festival general manager Michael Williams first came up with the idea of creating a new version of an 18th century pasticcio, Mark Tatlow told me. ‘Michael created the basic shape of the piece and storyline, and he wrote the lyrics for the sung sections, while Janet Plater wrote the dialogue, with Matthew Richardson, the director, advising us,’ he said.

‘My role in bringing it about was to say that I thought it should reflect the music Georgiana herself would have – or could have – heard in the London of the 1780s and 1790s.

‘There are arias, duets, trios, some accompanied recitative, some stage music and some melodrama – and one street scene that’s more in the style of The Beggars’ Opera. The music comes from Thomas Linley the Younger, Stephen Storace (the composer who was the brother of Nancy Storace, Mozart’s first Susanna for The Marriage of Figaro), Martín y Soler, Paisiello – and also Mozart. That consists of three short pieces from La Finta Giardiniera and one major aria.’

Part of the piece’s faithfulness to 18th century practice is that the audience will not find attributions of the individual numbers’ music to their composers in the printed programme … but there will be an email address enabling us to find the details out after we’ve seen the show.

(The Mozart aria, though, is ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio’, originally written for Josepha Duschek and published as a concert aria but with a text that originally had a stage setting).

Soprano Samantha Clarke will create the enigmatic title role of Georgiana, with tenor Benjamin Hulett as the Duke of Devonshire and Susanna Fairbairn as Bess.

It’s a fascinating prospect – and not entirely without precedent in this part of the world. In 1850 the Manchester Theatre Royal put on a version of Cinderella in which much of the music was from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but others’ compositions were interpolated, too.

Newspaper accounts tell us that one of those was Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni – sung by Cinders herself with English words beginning ‘Thou, chid by them, lamb – ah, no!’.[1]

You wonder whether the similar sound to the original was to enable the knowledgeable members of the audience to compliment themselves for spotting it … or perhaps to ensure that even if the singer forgot the new lines she could revert to the ones she knew without anyone noticing the difference.

Georgiana in rehearsal - picture Genevieve Gurling

[1] See

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Review of Luke Jones, RNCM Symphony Orchestra, Elim Chan and Jack Sheen, Bridgewater Hall

The Royal Northern College of Music’s end-of-year symphony concert is a special occasion. This year we heard a solo pianist surely destined for great things, and some exceptionally good orchestral playing under a remarkable young guest conductor. And there was a world premiere to begin with.

Swell, by Fenton Hutson, does what it says on the tin. In under 10 minutes he offers us a whole variety of orchestral crescendos, most of them quite short, many overlapping and piggy-backing in effect, with a few clear motifs and themes to emerge, be heard again and provide shape.

His crescendos are made by increases of volume, intensity, complexity, and even (putting just a toe into the sea of mainstream classical expression) through polyphony, almost as if forever working towards a great climax that never quite comes. It’s tantalizing, rather than satisfying.

It was conducted by the very impressive Elim Chan, who was to appear again for Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

But first came Luke Jones, an RNCM Gold Medal winner this summer and clearly a pianist to watch. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand requires a formidable technique, and he was up for that, but even more appealing was the gentle and poetic quality he brought to its later solo sections. Jack Sheen conducted, and, in addition to a big, space-filling sound from the orchestra of just over 40 strings, brought things alive in the march episode (a crescendo of Bolero-like qualities figuring in it).

Luke Jones followed his concerto with another piece for left hand – Scriabin’s Prelude – and also (to prove his right hand can do the business, too), Chopin’s demanding Étude in C op.10, no.1.

The RNCM Symphony Orchestra has given some great performances over the years, and it’s often seemed to me that conducting it requires a special quality that could be summed up as ‘cool head, warm heart’. There’s no lack of energy or willingness to commit in these players – like young racehorses, they want to give everything, and harnessing them to a collective task needs rare skills.

But conductor Elim Chan has those skills. I’ve not seen her in action before, but would very much hope to again. The performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 was full of passion and intensity – it also kept bringing happy surprises as she exposed elements of melody and texture not always heard, such as the little viola figure that opens the Adagio and was articulated alongside the violins’ big tune in a movement that was gloriously poised throughout.

She has an instinct for those long, unfolding melodies that makes them breathe and sing, and sometimes they stole into the texture almost unnoticeably before blossoming into full flower. There was wonderful solo playing from the wind principals, and precision in abundance from the full body of strings, the 11 celli making for a lovely, dark Russian sound.

Elim Chan (c Willeke Machiels)

Monday, 17 June 2019

Review of BBC Philharmonic, Elizabeth Watts, Mark Simpson, Ben Gernon at Bridgewater Hall

Mark Simpson, BBC Philharmonic composer in association, wrote his clarinet concerto for himself to play, and was soloist in its world premiere at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday.

It’s only just over a year since we heard the premiere of his cello concerto, a piece that has all his brilliance of orchestral writing and sense of atmosphere, coupled with a clear and satisfying map, in it. This has those qualities, too, and the same extraordinary inventiveness.

There’s again a large orchestra, with comprehensive percussion and piano, and there are four movements – Vigoroso, Slow and Expressive, Lively and Gentle – each of the first three quite brief, so the piece as a whole is more like a three-section first unit balanced by an episodic second one.

The cello concerto ended with a kind of orchestral firework: this begins with one (and its ending is, despite his own programme note’s reference to ‘a final crescendo’, a few bars of slow, soft aural evaporation for soloist and then orchestra, following the said crescendo). But from the start it’s clear there’s a lot going on, particularly in the hands of the soloist. Simpson is a virtuoso and intends to remind us of it, and he gives himself plenty to play that’s alternately rapid and lyrical, completing this movement exposed in the high altitude zone.

The second, too, is expressive in the upper register – he calls it ‘quasi-improvisatory’ – and distinctive because of the orchestral chorale that forms its close: slow and relatively simple, harmonically warm and static in short, measured phrases, it makes an oasis in the welter of virtuosity.

The third movement soon makes up for that, with some wry duetting of the soloist with his orchestral counterparts, and a slow-down at the end bringing mystery-laden chords – a soundworld that’s continued as the finale begins, the piano tinkling in a fairyland of string harmonics. But conflict is to come, with dark harmonic clashes, busy percussion and a big point of climax. As it peters out, the solo relaxes in a lush accompaniment, and the chorale idea reappears in more positive, fanfare-like guise (before that brief evaporative epilogue).

As with the cello concerto, there’s satisfaction for the listener in the structural landmark of a memorable and recalled passage, and there’s much to be impressed by in the solo. I found I was wishing for more exploration of the deeper side of the clarinet’s character, in both senses of the word, but as a piece of showmanship for the composer-performer this has clearly done its job.

The concert began with the beguiling singing of Elizabeth Watts in three excerpts from Mozart’s opera, Idomeneo – from the emotionally-torn role of Idamante, including Se il padre perdei, where oboe, flute, horn and bassoon form a little Harmonie of their own to lovely effect, and ending with the wonderful Zeffirettio lusinghieri, where she began the reprise so softly as to be barely audible but with no less of her golden tone, and finished it in glorious voice. The orchestra, in addition to that wind serenade, played the Overture and the March entr’acte before the second act, and under Ben Gernon’s baton, sounded rich and rounded, even in reduced-strings format.

Gernon’s major task was Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 (with Elizabeth Watts present to sing in the fourth movement). The horn playing of guest principal Eirik Haaland was again a notable feature – indefatigable, he left his fifth horn assistant with hardly anything to play all evening, and sounded uniformly wonderful.

Ben Gernon called forth great surges of tone from the outset, even in Mahler’s more innocent-seeming melodies, and brought clear characterization to each of the opening movement’s many themes. That’s important, because the subtlety of the finale lies in its recalling of echoes from beforehand in new contexts and with new implications. The second movement was near-unctuous in its enforced innocence, and the third was in many ways the most impressive, as its peaceful tread remained slow and measured, and its last bars far more of a hymn than the shriek that’s sometimes made of it.

Elizabeth Watts

Mark Simpson

Ben Gernon

Friday, 3 May 2019

Review of Manchester Camerata, Takács-Nagy, Bavouzet, Stoller Hall, Chetham’s

There were three fascinating concerts on in Manchester on 2nd May: the BBC Philharmonic, under Martyn Brabbins, performing Tippett, Britten and James MacMillan in the Hallé series at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Camerata at the Stoller Hall, and contemporary music group Psappha, with music by David T Little, Nigel Osborne, Arnold Schoenberg, Tim Wright and Anthony Burgess, at St Michael’s Ancoats.

I’d have gone to all three if they’d been planned for different days – looks like the Clash Committee was asleep at the wheel …

I chose the Camerata because it was the last of Gábor Takács-Nagy’s conducting commitment in their 2018-19 series, and also marks a new stage in an ambitious recording project, featuring him, the Camerata and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, for Chandos. They’re planning to complete their tally of Mozart piano concertos – some of which have been captured already, based on notable concert performances in Manchester – along with all the opera overtures written by him at the equivalent periods.

I enjoyed the concerts in 2016 and 2017 which have already contributed to this. Bavouzet and Takács-Nagy share an approach to the concertos which is not hidebound by performance practice theory or the demands of authentic-instrument purists – with them it is sheer enjoyment, an almost childlike delight in the possibilities of the music written when Mozart himself was not far off childhood (all the music in this programme was written when he was between 15 and 20 years old, as Takács-Nagy informed us).

Gábor does quite a lot of informing in his concerts, in a way that some find charming, but I do sometimes wish he could make it briefer and better thought-out before he starts the chat-fest. The Camerata could learn from the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s style in this respect.

But the music is the main thing, and, with Caroline Pether leading the band, that was totally beguiling. He finds every chance for ‘echo’ effects – delightfully in the opening of the overture to Il Sogno di Scipione and again in that of Symphony no. 27 (K199) – evokes glorious suavity in his slow movements, finds opportunities for near-Rossinian crescendos sometimes – as in the overture to La Finta Giardiniera – and goes for a romp of a finale whenever he can – as in the Lucio Silla overture.

The symphony, a three-movement one of the kind that’s hardly distinguishable from a divertimento, had more to offer still. Its slow movement was a Romanza, with some mystery and the odd surprise, and its finale came bursting with energy.

And what of the concertos? They played no. 6 (B flat, K238) first, the opening movement and finale each given a downbeat, questioning ending, and Bavouzet contributing unalloyed joys in his melodic articulation, his virtuosity, his touches of whimsy and his stylish playing of the cadenzas to every movement. The rondo in particular was a cheerful canter through a bucolic landscape, with flashes of humour.

No. 5 (D major, K175) is much more extrovert in its outer movements, full of ‘sensibility’ in its decorative central one, and in this reading attractively playful, too. Bavouzet had very correct cadenzas for the first two movements, but for the last one gave us his own almost Lisztian in its bravura and extraordinary excursion into tremolando. He’s always a man of surprises.

Gábor Takács-Nagy, left, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (credit Paul Mitchell)

Saturday, 27 April 2019

CD review: Olivier Latry and the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris

I don’t usually review CDs except at Christmas, but one new release has really caught my imagination. It’s the sound of the grand organ of Notre-Dame de Paris, played by Olivier Latry, captured in January this year.

And its magic, and poignancy, arise from the fact that it’s a sound that probably won’t be available to hear ‘live’ for some time to come.
Reports say that the unique and extraordinary five-manual organ – incorporating pipes from hundreds of years ago but still essentially the greatest Aristide Cavaillé-Coll ever built – was not destroyed by the fire at Easter, but that a lot of dust, and some water, have got in.
It’s a cause for relief that things were no worse, but the two most damaging things for pipe organ mechanisms are, of course, dust and water. Cleaning will no doubt have to be extensive – and there is still the question of how, and for how long, the rebuilding of the cathedral roof will be in progress.
Latry made this CD as one of a series for the adventurous French label La Dolce Volta – it has a whole variety of very personal albums by great artists to offer, particularly pianists and chamber musicians – and called it ‘Bach to the Future’.
It’s his idea of how Bach’s organ music can be made to sound using the resources of the great Cavaillé-Coll instrument. Forget ‘authenticity’ – playing Bach this way is a tradition in itself – Louis Vierne recorded some on this organ back in 1929, and Latry says he thinks of Liszt’s way of transcribing him, too.
The big blockbuster pieces sound quite overwhelming here: listen to the opening of the great G minor Fantasia and Fugue, or the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, for instance. But there are others in which he exploits different aspects of the instrument: the gentle string sounds in the Herzlich tut mich verlangen (‘Passion chorale’) prelude, or the soulful prelude on Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott. The Notre-Dame organ even has a set of chimes that play on the pedals, and so he ding-dongs his way through In Dir ist Freude from the Orgelbüchlein.
For the three-movement G major Piece d’Orgue he finds a set of French plein-jeu and grands-jeux sounds (and makes no apologies for a long and huge crescendo in the middle section), and in the Ricercare a 6 from The Musical Offering he solos some of the lines on particular manuals. The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor is a tremendous essay in build-ups.
In a way he’s having fun – most of these pieces are ones that organists love to play and organ music fans love to hear, and they sound terrific played on almost anything, but even more so on the great music machine of M. Cavaillé-Coll. 
The presentation of the album is luxurious, with its own little box and a lavishly illustrated booklet. 
La Dolce Volta say they are planning to donate part of the profits from this CD to the reconstruction of the cathedral.

Bach to the Future: Olivier Latry, Grandes Orgues Cavaillé-Coll de Notre-Dame de Paris (La Dolce Volta LDV 69)


Olivier Latry at the organ of Notre-Dame de Paris

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Review of Hallé Orchestra concert to celebrate Charles Hallé’s 200th birthday, Bridgewater Hall

Jonathon Heyward expertly piloted the orchestra that bears Charles Hallé’s name through the first of its April ‘Opus one’ programmes last night (it’s repeated tonight and on Sunday in Manchester, and on Friday in Blackburn).

Hallé was born 200 years ago this week – we now know that his real birthday was 10th April 2019, though he celebrated it on the 11th, his baptismal day. (I was a bit miffed that someone changed my programme note in this respect to make it inaccurate, but the ‘Timeline’ supplied alongside it, provided on the basis of information I’ve previously compiled for the Hallé memorabilia exhibition now at Central Library here in Manchester, kept the correct date).

Hallé was never really rated as a composer in his own day (he was famous for so much else!), but he did publish a number of piano pieces of his own creation, and for this week’s concerts his orchestra is playing a compilation and orchestration based on two of them by Christoph Wagner, recently composer-in-residence at Hagen in Germany, Hallé’s birthplace.

This was a beautiful example of re-animation in its own right. Wagner has re-written the figuration in Hallé’s Souvenir to make it more orchestral in concept – and introduced some telling imitation and counter-melody, too – with the result that you feel you’re hearing an unknown piece of Mendelssohn for its brief duration. It begins in A minor but changes to major at the end, making a perfect lead-in to Hallé’s Scherzo in D, his one published piece of ‘heavyweight’ piano writing.

Here it is Beethoven we feel we’re hearing, and we should hardly be surprised, as Hallé championed Beethoven’s works – piano and orchestral – all his life. Again Christoph Wagner imaginatively and subtly creates something multi-coloured and varied from Hallé’s piano textures, with its own moments of suspense and drama. Jonathon Heyward caught the spirit of it immediately and very effectively.

Of course that was not all this concert had to offer. It began with real Beethoven, the Leonora no. 3 overture, played with the full body of strings (but old-style timps) and brassy and full of vivid contrast in its livelier moments.

Then the orchestra was pared severely down for Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 17 K453 – two sets of eight violinists, six violas, four celli and three bassi. That was an excellent decision, giving soloist Heejae Kim, winner of the 2015 Terence Judd Prize, the chance to deliver the solo with delicacy, style and charm. Jonathon Heyward found some interesting robustness in the ritornello at the start of the slow movement – and every bit of whimsy in what followed – and I loved the delightful clipped articulation in the orchestra in the finale, counterbalancing the equally dainty piano performance.

Heejae Kim returned with a brief encore – Sibelius’s Le Sapin (The Spruce) – providing a forward glimpse towards the end of the concert.

This was great Sibelius – Symphony no. 5. Heyward and the Hallé gave us in effect a two-movement work, the Andante segue-ing into the finale to balance the double introduction-scherzo structure of the first movement. There were brilliant colours (some guesting woodwind players doing their best to make an impact) and a great sense of momentum allied to finely controlled tempo transitions, with assured phrasing and tenderness in the slow movement and a sense of inescapable logic in the progression of pregnant dissonances to final resolution at the end.

Jonathon Heyward (credit Jeremy Ayres Fischer)

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Review of RNCM's The Pilgrim's Progress

The Royal Northern College has come up with a fine piece of theatre with this year’s spring opera. They last did Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress 27 years ago, and I saw it then, but it’s a great piece for a conservatoire to tackle, with multiple supporting roles as well as the main one of the title, and some excellent opportunities for gifted performers to shine in them.

This production has all that – particularly in the ‘Vanity Fair’ scene that opens the second act – but it has much, much more. The story has been re-interpreted as an allegory of a soldier’s life from the First World War – a soldier who is shell-shocked and has to battle with his memories of the horror as much as the hypocrisy and opprobrium of those back home, but triumphs in the end.

It works remarkably well, and Jonathan Cocker’s concept and direction are inspired. He’s helped by a haunting single-set design concept from Bob Bailey (the vivid period costumes are his as well) in which the foxhole in the trenches of the opening transforms to a field hospital, a town in Blighty or the long hard, road to Zion as required.

It could be Vaughan Williams’ own memories of the Great War brought to life: he served as a medic after volunteering in early middle age, and chose the story himself for what many consider his best full-length opera, working on it for years before its post-Second-World War premiere. In this production the angels are nurses and those who point the way to salvation are doctors and their aides; Pilgrim’s armour is a tweed suit as he seeks rehabilitation, Vanity Fair is a gathering of grotesques beneath the flags of patriotism, and Mr and Madam By-Ends are the callous wealthy.

The battle with Apollyon presents the dragon as a human phalanx but looking horribly like a huge artillery piece, and the dead emerge from the set to haunt the hero even while his soldier mates wander fearfully in the war-torn landscape.

It’s also excellently sung. The RNCM seems to have a glut of extremely good male singers at the moment, and there are many different chances for individuals to shine. I saw baritone Edward Robinson in the title role and have nothing but praise for his performance, and likewise with Liam Mcnally’s appearance as the writer in the prologue and epilogue.

William Kyle was powerful as the Herald (here a Mr Mayor back home); Kamil Bien impressed with a mature tenor timbre in his roles as Interpreter (in this case a medic) and Messenger in the wartime hospital scenes; Steffan Owen stood out for his singing and his characterization as Lord Hate-Good (now, with the text as cue, a be-wigged and merciless judge).

There were excellent performances, too, from Stephanie Poropat, Lucy Vallis and Rhiannon Doogan is the Shining Ones, Stephanie Maitland as Madam By-Ends (with Ryan Davies as Mr), and a whole variety of roles in Vanity Fair.

David Parry pilots it all with a sure hand in the pit, and the chorus singing – they’re trained by Kevin Thraves – is magnificent.

Edward Robinson as the Pilgrim - picture: Robert Workman

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's Elizabeth I

England’s woman leader is in power, but only just. Surrounded by plotters and schemers, with a female rival from Scotland attracting growing support, she sees her only way as being unbending – any sign of weakness will be an excuse to topple her. But that very rigidity is exploited by supposed friends, whose only real ambition is to take power for themselves. Deceiving and deceived, they profess loyalty while fomenting its opposite. Sounds familiar?
This is the England of Elizabeth I – Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, as Rossini and his librettist saw her. In this version of history, the Earl of Leicester is the good guy, refusing Elizabeth’s amorous advances because he’s already secretly married (and thus incurring her passionate wrath, as his wife is Mathilde, daughter of Mary Queen of Scots). The Duke of Norfolk is a lying toad, trying to manoeuvre Leicester to his death, then, once found out, seeking to encourage popular rebellion against Elizabeth – which Leicester nobly rejects.
So you have four main roles, one of which – Elizabeth – is easily the biggest. You also have – and this is such a surprise that the English surtitles reassure us we have come on the right night about three minutes in – the overture we know as that of The Barber of Seville.
How so? Well, Rossini thought it was so good he named it thrice, and this is the second show he stuck it on, Barber being the third. This one has a certain right to it, though, as a snatch of its final crescendo is worked into the Act One finale, which is another surprise.
It’s a good night in the theatre. Director James Conway presents it in period, with simple sets that evoke its time and place and provide a minimum of structure for scenes that include a throne room and a dungeon – but they’re enough. Rory Beaton’s lighting ekes out any imperfections. Designer Frankie Bradshaw clothes the chorus in black but recognisably Elizabethan garb. (I could see why they hung around in geometrical formats much of the time – court life in those days was a public business, after all. But in the dungeon scene…?)
Mary Plazas is the star. She’s a Buxton favourite already, having brilliantly sung major roles in the festival here in recent years, and again she gives both technical coloratura excellence and lovely tone over a wide tessitura, and also an intelligent and moving characterisation of her role.
Lucy Hall has an important secunda donna part as Mathilde, and she is outstandingly good to hear and well into character, too – the confrontation scene that opens Act Two was remarkably powerful. Luciano Botelho (Leicester) made a fine fist of his heroic role, and John-Colyn Gyeantey, after a rather rough start, warmed into being the nasty Norfolk in time for his best scene, a second confrontation duet.
The ETO chorus again sang magnificently, and John Andrews conducted the score with a sure and imaginative touch. There's a rawness and energy in this early Rossini – voices pitted against screaming piccolo and braying trombone in a way that Verdi was later criticised for – that is genuinely exciting.
Mary Plazas as Elizabeth I. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith