Friday, 31 July 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 31 July 2015

SADLY, the days of Buxton as the capital of the topsy-turvy world every August have now gone, as the headquarters of the 22-year-old International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival has moved to Harrogate.

But something of its past glories is coming back to the High Peak, as the professional performance troupe formed for the festival – the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company – is on tour again, and from August 4 to 8 takes to the boards of its old stamping ground, Buxton Opera House.

Productions of The Mikado, The Gondoliers and HMS Pinafore are on offer, and they’re all directed by Sheffield-born John Savournin, a performer-director who has made a considerable niche for himself in the G&S hall of fame – both as singer and through his razor-sharp, but traditional-in-spirit productions, mainly with Charles Court Opera, a touring company he founded and has run for the past 10 years.

Principals this time include John himself and G&S luminaries such as Donald Maxwell, Richard Gauntlett, Bruce Graham, Oliver White and Nichola Jolley.

I asked John about his own journey to this point.

“I have always been involved in music and theatre,” he said. “Starting as a field mouse in a production of The Wind In The Willows.  I decided to attend music college in London (Trinity College), as I felt I could best serve both my passions through opera.

“I’m not the first person to say that I’ve ended up where I am now by lots of luck, and in some ways by accident – but also through a lot of hard work.”

He loves the G&S shows (though Charles Court Opera does much more than those). “Not only are the plots accessible today, but they combine that with the unique blend of G & S: entertaining musical theatre with intelligent, biting humour.”

As director, he goes to the text and music of each show and looks at them with fresh eyes. “Often they’re quite convoluted – especially in the songs – but it really pays off to get inside the text afresh. I try to find energy and a lightness of touch, most of all. 

“But they have to be truthful and, as with any good comedy, to be taken seriously. 

“Get the comedy right, and the pathos will shine through, too.”

John’s performing in the north west again later this year, in Opera North’s new production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Review for Manchester Evening News 27 July 2015


Clonter Opera


CLONTER Opera, the ‘Glyndebourne of Cheshire’, rarely fails to offer some of the brightest rising stars of the moment among its singers. Mozart’s comedy, Così Fan Tutte (‘So Like A Woman’ in this English language version), is the ideal piece for them, needing six of the best and no more.

This time, however, there was a lot more, in the production by director Harry Fehr. His lively ideas brought an early Mozart opera to life at the Buxton Festival two years ago, and his inspiration for Così Fan Tutte was derived from its sub-title: The School For Lovers.

So he set the whole thing inside a secondary school (motto: Schola Amantium), with the two girls and two young men who at the heart of it wearing their school uniforms, sitting at their school desks, eating their school dinners and (hilariously, in the case of the girls) opening up their school lockers to reveal their secrets.

Alfonso, the elder statesman of the original, became a prefect, and Despina, the maid, was the school orderly (and dinner lady). Eleanor Wdowski’s ingenious but compact set was all part of the ingenious picture (as was Alexandra Stafford’s lighting).

Sung in Jeremy Sams’ English translation, and with spoken dialogue for much of the conversational sections, it was very funny. Not just because of the concept, which did break down eventually, as you can hardly imagine schoolgirls today suddenly donning bridal veils and signing marriage contracts – but mainly because of the characterizations shown by the cast.

This is where the originality of the direction was met by the stagecraft and vocal skills of the singers. I have little doubt that we shall be hearing a lot more of the performers who were on Clonter’s stage in this production (as has been the case with many of their predecessors for over 40 years now).

Elizabeth Skinner (Fiordiligi) has a truly remarkable voice, secure in pitch and powerful throughout a wide range – shown, as needful, in her two big showpiece arias. Kamilla Dunstan (Dorabella) matched her for tone, strength and accuracy, and their duets were a joy to hear.

Dominic Walsh (Ferrando) is a seriously impressive young tenor, and the experienced Andrew McTaggart (Guglielmo) again made a strong impression, both acting as cleverly as the archetypical teenager girls.

Nick Dwyer (Alfonso) has a finely developing baritone, and Joana Gil brought sparky sweetness to Despina – and had to transform into complementary healer, all bangles and crystals, and smart-suited female lawyer, as well.

The exceptional musical quality of the show was again in the capable hands of conductor Clive Timms, and the little Clonter Sinfonia, led by Liz Rossi, played delightfully.



Robert Beale

Friday, 24 July 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24 July 2015

THE Last Night of the Hallé Proms is as much a Manchester institution as the later equivalent at the Royal Albert Hall in London – and just as full of atmosphere – and this year the guest singer is a star of the operatic stage: baritone William Dazeley. It’s on August 1 at the Bridgewater Hall.

He’s been a favourite with Opera North audiences for many years, and among outstanding performances which come to mind for me are his Count in The Marriage Of Figaro, his Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlos, and his title role in Don Giovanni – a knowing take on the role of the great lover, because he’s got the knack of portraying self-awareness as well as character.

He’s capable of turning on the charm in lighter music, too – witness his smoothie Danilo in The Merry Widow, also for Opera North.

This Last Night for the Hallé gives him the chance to sing two real operatic favourites – Rossini’s Largo Al Factotum from The Barber Of Seville, and the Prologue from Pagliacci by Leoncavallo – as well as Some Enchanted Evening by Richard Rodgers, and, in the patriotic celebrations, Stanford’s stirring setting of Drake’s Drum (a special for Spanish Armada year).

There’ll be all the usual favourites including Rule, Britannia!, Jerusalem and Pomp And Circumstance March no. 1 by Elgar, with singalong Land Of Hope And Glory. Stephen Bell conducts.

The Hallé are also appearing at Tatton Park, Knutsford, on August 2, for a picnic and fireworks concert with singers Louise Dearman and Gardar Thor Cortes, also conducted by Stephen Bell.

But the focus of music in the north west now shifts to Cumbria, where the combination of festival and summer school that is Lake District Summer Music is beginning.

Baroque music specialists Armonico Consort have a major part in the opening weekend, and are bringing their singers and orchestra for a concert of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas at the Coronation Hall, Ulverston, on August 1 (8pm), and following that with a focus on the lighter side of British music under the title of ‘Greensleeves’ at Carver Church, Windermere, on August 2 (3pm). Virtuoso counter-tenor William Towers sings in the first and is presenter in the second.

There’s also an evening piano recital on August 2, at Ambleside Parish Church (8pm), by Vadim Kholodenko, winner of the gold medal at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Manchester Evening News review 24 July 2015


Buxton Opera House


I CAN see why Buxton Festival decided to go for a concert version of Louise, the opera by Gustave Charpentier, rather than produce it as drama.

Nothing happens – well, hardly anything. It’s really a series of tableaux – a particularly spectacular one called for in the third act’s celebration of the ‘bohemian’ life of fin-de-siècle Paris (where everything takes place, anyway).

To do that justice, you would need a huge cast and lavish staging – rather like a really good Act Two of La Bohème, but without the story interest. Superficially, it is La Bohème – penniless would-be poet in love with naive but lovely girl – but the rest of the piece is a bit reminiscent of Pelléas Et Mélisande, as inter-generational issues get in the way. Her stuffy, lower middle-class parents don’t want her to join the free-love world of Montmartre. That’s about it: first she goes, then she comes back, then she leaves them again.

It seems a bit odd to see all the characters in dicky bows and posh frocks, regardless of their social roles, and they are almost totally motionless, even when the orchestra is roaring into a waltz theme that gives Ravel’s La Valse a run for its money (maybe it’s where he got the idea from).

But the music is the thing. It’s a vivid and imaginative score (early on, almost reminiscent of Debussy, though it gets more conventional later) and gives top-quality singers some lovely opportunities.

Conductor Stephen Barlow had the right singers. Madeleine Pierard (Louise) has a rich, warm soprano and power where it’s needed. Adrian Dwyer (a recent Opera North find) is a very good French romantic tenor indeed. Michael Druiett (Opera North’s Wotan) and Susan Bickley (one of our best dramatic singers, heard in the north west and over the world) are excellent as Louise’s parents. And Adrian Thompson makes a lot of his two rather surreal symbolic roles.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra belies its size producing a sumptuous string sound, and the Festival Chorus (augmented for one scene as there are several minor roles to play as well!) sounds wonderful.

But it’s a piece with many longueurs as well – probably one of the worst opera texts ever written and sheer nonsense in places. A curiosity, but not a discovery.



Robert Beale

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Manchester Evening News review 23 July 2015


Buxton Opera House


BUXTON Festival has seen some great productions of classical comedy operas in past years, but this time there are not a lot of laughs. Lucia Di Lammermoor is about as tragic as they get, with the heroine knifing her husband on their wedding night and appearing completely bonkers in the famous ‘mad scene’ afterwards.

Like Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco, the other fully-staged in-house production in the festival, it’s all about one woman and her downfall.

It’s perhaps unusual for Buxton in that it’s thought by many to be Donizetti’s masterpiece and pretty frequently performed: in the mid-19th century, the story, based on Walter Scott, was one of the most popular shows on the stage.

So, rather than rescuing a gem from unjust neglect by sheer imagination and verve despite a tight budget, here the festival is inviting comparisons.

In one sense, all you need for Lucia is a cast of excellent singers as your principals, and the music will do the rest. And here they had them: Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard puts her all into Lucia, with unflagging power; Adriano Graziani is a very good young tenor and well cast as her true love, Edgardo; Stephen Gadd is magnificently godfatherlike as her brother, Enrico; and Bonaventura Bottone a class act, as ever, as the unfortunate Arturo whom she marries.

Duets for Lucia and Enrico, and Enrico and Edgardo, sounded superb, and the act two sextet and finale were on a very high level.

But at the same time I found Stephen Unwin’s production and Jonathan Fensom’s design puzzling. The opera is set in Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite risings. There could have been resonances with the present day, as the plot is about forced marriage (Lucia’s brother makes her marry for the sake of the clan) and the clash between Scottish nationalism and unionism.

But the costumes and props remove it clearly to the mid-20th century, probably in Mafioso Italy, while there are painted cloths (drawn aside … I suppose, symbolically) which could have come from the original Romantic castles, swords, kilts and heather novel. I didn’t find that very enlightening, or convincing. The ‘fountain’ of the text, in which another girl’s body is supposed to have been dumped by her murderer, is a very Buxton-like horse trough.

Musically I had no complaints. Stephen Barlow conducts with urgency and fluency, and the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus respond well to him. Those eery motifs which foreshadow Lucia’s lunacy are cleverly brought out, and the singers are skilfully supported.


Further performance Saturday July 25.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News review 22 July 2015


Buxton Opera House


IT could be said that this year’s operas at the Buxton Festival are all about girl power. All three of the in-house productions have a woman’s name as their title, and the visiting Dido And Aeneas from The English Concert was built around one of the greatest tragic female roles.

Watching soprano Kate Ladner punch the air as she took her curtain call in Giovanna D’Arco – Joan Of Arc, by Verdi – I wondered whether she saw it as a kind of victory, too. It certainly was a triumph for her as a performer.

The title role is the sole female lead in this version of the story (written by Verdi’s collaborator, Solera, following Schiller’s play The Maid Of Orleans). She’s on stage most of the time and has vocal mountains to climb. She surmounted them brilliantly, with ringing top notes that shone like beacons over the full ensemble, chorus and orchestra.

The intriguing thing about this work – not often performed now, though it’s later than some of Verdi’s better-known pieces – is that it digs pretty deep into the psychology of its heroine. She hears voices, but they are alternately those of demons and angels (yes – real ones, on stage!), and she is torn between their conflicting demands.

She tries to suppress her unspoken love for Carlo (the Dauphin/King of France), but he’s pretty hot for her, and they have some superb duets of passion and duty. Tenor Ben Johnson makes a very good fist of him.

And there’s her interfering (to put it mildly) father, who betrays her to the English – sung by Devid Cecconi: another layer in this interpretation is the Traviata-like triangle of young lovers and well-meaning but out-of-touch father figure.

Director Elijah Moshinsky is well aware of these human and relationship tensions and brings them clearly to the fore. The set (Russell Craig) is a simple but effective one-piece that reflects, literally and acoustically, the action and the music, while also providing a vantage point for the demons and angels to sing from. Lighting (Malcolm Rippeth) and sound (Seb Frost) effects are used to evoke the thunderbolts and battles, and it all works very well.

Verdi was a master of stirring marching tunes and he got into the groove for both the French and English in this opera. With Stuart Stratford (recently announced as the new music director of Scottish Opera) conducting the Northern Chamber Orchestra and Festival Chorus, the big tunes and scenes romped along as much as the tender ones were beautiful. Buxton Festival has its limitations – small stage, small chorus, moderate budget – but within those realities this is one of the best efforts I’ve seen there.



Monday, 20 July 2015

Manchester Evening News Article 17 July 2015

THINGS may have quietened down after Manchester’s International Festival, but in Buxton they’re still going strong.

The festival there has more than a week still to run, with opera performances every day and a kaleidoscope of classical attractions as well.

One of those has a distinct Manchester branding – the Hallé Soloists (July 20, St John’s church, Buxton, 12 noon). Formed and led by Hallé Orchestra leader Lyn Fletcher, it’s made up of principal players from the orchestra, and is to perform one of the great creations to come out of the Second World War – Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet For The End Of Time.

The piece was composed (mainly) while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Stalag VIII-A and written for piano (which he played himself), clarinet violin and cello, professional players of which were in the camp at the same time. Its premiere was to an audience of prisoners and guards, and Messiaen said afterwards: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

Among other performers in the week are soprano Rosalind Coad (July 20, St John’s church, 3pm), The English Concert directed by Robert Howarth (July 21, St John’s church, 12 noon), the Elias String Quartet (July 21, St John’s church, 3.30pm), and Vivaldi specialists La Serenissima, who include the version of The Four Seasons known as the Manchester Manuscript from its preservation in the Henry Watson Music Library here (July 22, Buxton Opera House, 7.30pm).

Soprano Gillian Keith, who’s been a favourite of festival opera productions in recent years, appears with pianist Simon Lepper and directed by Nina Brazier, in a special presentation she has written herself, about Debussy And His Muse – the French singer Marie-Blanche Vasnier: that’s on July 23, at the Pavilion Arts Centre, from 12 noon.

The Frith Piano Quartet are in the same venue at 3.30pm.

Stephen Hough, the north west born and Manchester trained piano virtuoso (also composer, writer, painter and more), who’s been returning to our part of the country increasingly often, appears at the Pavilion Arts Centre on July 24 (12 noon) in a programme of Schubert, Franck, Debussy (Estampes) and Liszt – the 10th and 11th Transcendental Studies.

And Manchester contemporary music specialists Psappha are at St John’s church on July 25, with a programme including John Adams (John’s Book Of Alleged Dances), Brahms (String Sextet no. 1) and Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Manchester Evening News review 10 July 2015


Whitworth Art Gallery


GETTING German artist Gerhard Richter and Estonia-born composer Arvo Pärt together for a joint artwork wasn’t quite unique to the Manchester International Festival, but what’s on offer at the Whitworth for 11 continuous days is still a unique creation – and a remarkable one.

It’s both an art exhibition and a performance event. It’s also something derived from the possibilities of a space – one of the new galleries at the Whitworth which has the live acoustic properties of a tall ‘shoebox’ shape, and the visual ones of a room with a full-length window to the park beyond.

That makes particular sense of one side of the exhibition display, Richter’s Double Grey, four divided rectangles of enamelled grey on glass – different shades of grey. They reflect the rest of the room in subtly varying ways.

The other side is the ‘B’ version of Richter’s Birkenau, photo-versions of four large abstract paintings inspired by photographs taken by a prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

Both these works are dedicated to Arvo Pärt, and he has repaid the compliment in the composition of Drei Hirtenkinder Aus Fátima, a miniature a-capella piece for choir which is being sung at selected times throughout the exhibition, in the gallery itself, by the Estonian vocal group Vox Clamantis.

It’s a striking juxtaposition, with the reference of the music’s title being to the peasant children of Fátima who, in 1917, heard a message from the Virgin Mary that included prophecy of the Second World War.

Pärt’s chant-like setting of the words from Psalm 8, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast ordained strength’, encompasses an intense insistence on the miracle of innocence triumphant, with exultant alleluias.

The artist-composer collaboration was brought about by MIF’s boss, Alex Poots, and its artistic adviser, Hans Ulrich Obrist, who introduced the two 1930s-born creative geniuses to each other. Richter’s work often relates to music … he admires Pärt’s compositions … and the two hit it off. At the formal opening both were there, along with Poots, Obrist, Whitworth director Maria Balshaw, and other luminaries including theatre and opera director Peter Sellars – himself a contributor to MIF last time round.

The singing by Vox Clamantis, conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve, was impeccably pure and beautiful – and subtly different each time. They enter the gallery incognito, looking just like other members of the viewing public (the staging is by Royal Exchange chief Sarah Frankom) … then suddenly the singing starts. Some of them change position each time, and the music works in different tempos and textures.

The extra aspect to all this is that after Vox Clamantis have done their duty singing Drei Hirtenkinder Aus Fátima over three days, some of our own north west vocal groups take over – Rochdale Youth Choir, Oldham Youth Choir, Manchester Chamber Choir, Ordsall A Capella Singers, the Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, the King Edward Musical Society, Manchester Singers, Wigan Youth Choir, Siemens Choir & Friends, and the William Byrd Singers.

The piece is less than a minute long, but if the others emulate the Estonians’ work rate and perform it around five times in a 15-minute set in each half-hour, I reckon it will have been done over 670 times by the end of next week.



Until July 19.


Robert Beale

Article published in Manchester Evening News 10 July 2015

‘PUTTNAM plays Puttnam’ is one description for the fourth in the Hallé Proms concert series at the Bridgewater Hall, on July 18.

It’s a collaboration between father and son: David Puttnam the film producer, and his son Sacha, a concert pianist, composer (including film scores) and conductor. Music will include classic film themes from Lord Puttnam’s movies such as Chariots Of Fire, The Killing Fields, The Mission, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone, Local Hero and Memphis Belle, which he’s to introduce, and Sacha features as solo pianist. Conductor is the Hallé’s own Pops maestro, Stephen Bell.

“It’s a show dad and I have done together in Ireland and elsewhere already,” Sacha Puttnam told me. “But this will be a British premiere for us. It’s lovely that we’re doing that in Manchester.

“Audiences have told us afterwards that for them it’s like re-living the movies themselves: we use dissolving stills from the films and we have a mobile camera on-stage, too.

“Dad’s got some great stories from his movie career. He lifts the veil on film production and what it’s really like. It’s all a kind of traveller’s tale in film music.”

Sacha himself trained in conducting and composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, followed by four years at the Moscow Conservatory. He composes and arranges for movies, advertising, television, theatre and radio as well as several groups and ensembles.

As the son of one of the world’s great film directors, one of his earliest musical experiences was watching Paul Williams playing the original score for Bugsy Malone on the piano which he was receiving his own first lessons. He was also present when Vangelis created the theme music for Chariots Of Fire and Mark Knopfler was working on Local Hero and Cal.

He learned his skills in the dubbing theatres of Soho and Pinewood, on Howard Blake’s The Duelists, Mike Oldfield’s The Killing Fields and Ennio Morricone’s The Mission.

For BBC Radio Four he wrote the music for award-winning adaptations of Bleak House, Q&A and A Suitable Boy, and in 2005 his first classical album, Remasterpiece, was released by EMI.

His father says: “Movies and music have always been inseparable for me – probably because so many that entranced me as a child were Hollywood musicals … so when I became a film producer, finding the right music was, for me, every bit as important as having the right director or cinematographer.”


Friday, 3 July 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 3 July 2015

MANCHESTER International Festival isn’t the only one in the coming week – not for lovers of opera, books and classical music, anyway.

There’s also Buxton Festival, which begins its three-week, event-packed programme on July 10 with a gala concert. 

Artistic director Stephen Barlow, a major opera and orchestral conductor, and brings his wide range of sympathies to Buxton – and his extensive network of top classical musicians.

“What we aim to do is to provide, day after day, from 9am to sometimes nearly midnight, a variety of what are called ‘the high arts’,” he says.

“The real point about what we do is that everything is new, all the time.

“You’ll see some works you’ve only heard about, and some you may know reasonably well, but everything is fresh minted for the event.”

His opera programme this year includes an early work by Verdi, Giovanna d’Arco (with Kate Ladner, who scored a big success in last year’s Otello by Rossini, in the title role), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Both are staged by the festival itself, and there’s a concert version of Louise, by Charpentier. Stephen Barlow conducts the last two, and Stuart Stratford, recently appointed music director of Scottish Opera, the first. Giovanna d’Arco (opening July 11) is directed by Covent Garden favourite Elijah Moshinsky – ‘the most experienced Verdi director alive today’, as Barlow describes him. “He’s chosen to come to Buxton for the same reason I love conducting here,” he says. “The theatre acoustic is wonderful, and it’s a perfect stage for opera as drama.”

The tenor lead is sung by young Briton Ben Johnson, who Barlow predicts will make this the springboard to a very big career.

Donizetti’s version of Sir Walter Scott’s highland story, Lucia di Lammermoor, opens on July 12 and is, Barlow says, ‘perfect for this theatre’. Soprano Elin Pritchard makes her debut in the title role, and tenor Adriano Graziani is debuting as Edgardo. Familiar names Stephen Gadd, Bonaventura Bottone and Andrew Greenan are also in the cast.

And Louise (opening July 16) is ‘a to-die-for French romantic opera’, says Barlow. “It’s about Paris in the era of the ‘bohemians’ – full of tragedy, romance and the most beautiful music.”

That’s not all there is to Buxton en fête, of course – the English Consort present their staging of Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas (opens July 13), alongside a huge variety of concerts and recitals. Check it out.