Thursday, 31 March 2016

Manchester Evening News review 31 March 2016

SIR THOMAS ALLEN  Bridgewater Hall

WHEN a singer is in their 70s, the voice is naturally not the same as it was in younger years.

I remember hearing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf give one of her last recitals in Manchester, in the 1970s (she was in her 60s then), and the legendary silvery tone was not what once it had been. But what remained – intensified, if anything – was the artistry.

Sir Thomas Allen is probably on the cusp of that period in his career. There is power, and there is glorious tone, in his lovely baritone voice. But what you appreciate more is the skill and subtlety with which he uses it.

His recital on Wednesday night was part of the Bridgewater Hall’s series of events on open air and landscape themes, Echoes Of A Mountain Song. But Sir Thomas (and accompanist Joseph Middleton) had clearly been thinking of the time we’re in, as well as the place we’re from, in their choice of English song, and several of them bore distinct echoes of the centenary of the First World War’s tragic Battle of the Somme.

Vaughan Williams’ Songs Of Travel began the programme. We heard five of them, ending with Youth And Love and In Dreams, giving a valedictory tone to the selection.

Sir Thomas’s resources are used to the full and most effectively in the lyrical and gentle Let Beauty Awake and The Roadside Fire, and there was real poetry in the understatement of the final songs.

John Ireland (local composer!) was represented by two Masefield settings, and the theme of Sea Fever continued in Michael Head’s The Estuary – a wonderful piece whose big impressionistic passage showed Joseph Middleton’s skills to evocative effect.

Sir Thomas is good at the combination of vigour and nostalgia we meet in Quilter’s Elizabethan and Shakespeare songs, and moving in the Housman settings of Somervell and Butterworth, which straddled the interval. We heard The Lads In Their Hundreds in both composers’ versions (with a gentle, loving postlude from Joseph Middleton to the Butterworth one), and Is My Team Ploughing – vividly characterized – was moving even though we knew the end that was coming.

After that there were lighter ditties – Northumbrian songs including a very entertaining Dance Ti Thy Daddy, and sentimental lyrics by Purcell, Penn and Coates. The trilling piano in Bird Songs At Eventide sounded almost like Schubert.

Finally two encores: VW’s Linden Lea (which, let it not be forgotten, was first heard in its original choral form at Hooton Roberts near Rotherham), and Limehouse Reach, by Michael Head, which showed Sir Thomas ending the evening with as much strength and finesse as he began it.


Robert Beale

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24 March 2016

BARITONE Sir Thomas Allen is a northerner and proud of it. The Geordie lad from County Durham has been the darling of international opera stages and a renowned recital soloist for many years.

And on March 30, at the Bridgewater Hall, his appearance will be one of the highlights of the ‘Echoes of a Mountain Song’ series – a festival of the countryside and open air, in music and poetry.

“There’s a ruggedness about us Northerners,” he told me. “I grew up in a pretty harsh environment, where the majority of people made their living in a tough way. And I’m glad of that – rather than having started life in a privileged position.”
He likes the open-air life, too. “I enjoyed walking a lot when I was young. I used to put on my rucksack and go youth hostelling. Now I love nature and bird watching.

“And I play golf – less regularly than I used to, but I still enjoy it. It takes you into some lovely landscapes …”

His programme, with pianist Joseph Middleton, includes Vaughan Williams’ Songs Of Travel and the ever-popular Linden Lea.

He’ll be singing items from George Butterworth’s settings of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems – Butterworth was killed in the First World War, and those poems were often treasured by the Tommies in the trenches.

He’s also bringing some of his favourite lighter items, the kind included on his two CDs of Songs My Father Taught Me.

“They have a sentimental charm,” he says, “and were well known in past generations. And we tend to cling on to songs like this – about the lost generation in the war, and the generation left behind.

“They can be simply stated, but still very truthful and telling.”

Now in his 70s, he’s still concerned about helping a new generation of singers to take on the tradition he’s been part of. He’s patron of The Samling Trust, an organization based in the North now celebrating 20 years of helping young singers on the road to professional careers. It’s recently enlarged its remit to start The Samling Academy, for promising performers still at school.

“It’s come as a surprise to some people that those at school have a liking for classical songs,” he says. “But we need to stand up for them: my concern is to see that this kind of singing and music-making is not swamped or overlooked.”


Monday, 21 March 2016

Manchester Evening News review 20 March 2016

ANDREA CHENIER  Opera North, The Lowry

THERE may have been only one performance of this rarely-heard work from the heyday of late 19th-century Italian opera, but it was undoubtedly the highlight of the week at the Lowry.

Annabel Arden is the director and she has made Andrea Chénier both an historical document and a gripping story of love, betrayal and heroism. It’s set just before and after the French Revolution of 1789, showing the last days of the pitiless aristocrats’ lives and the fate of the poet Chénier – a real person in point of fact – in the period of terror that followed afterwards. He is a man who declares truth to power – a model of integrity with lessons that seem completely up-to-date.

Maddalena, a young woman he encounters in the posh parties before the Revolution, risks herself to seek him out and in the end, after a revolutionary kangaroo court condemns them, both go to their deaths.

We hear some of Chénier’s poetry, in English, before the first and final acts; slogans from the time are presented in the screen projections; there are sound backdrops like documentary footage of revolt and guillotining.

The design – Joanna Parker, with lighting by Peter Mumford and projection by Dick Straker – is compelling, telling a story of hoped-for liberty, whose bright colours contrast with the dead, grey coldness of the pitiless aristocrats’ ‘casa dorada’ … and ultimate dark and viciousness amid which only faithfulness and heroism shine.

By the end there’s almost an echo of Les Misérables, another tale from later times but with some parallels to this one.

The musical team here are among the best Opera North has ever presented. Rafael Rojas (RNCM-trained) needs no introduction now as a tenor in the Caruso tradition with power and nobility. From the famous opening ‘Un dì, all’ azzurro spazio’, and through to the final act’s ‘Come un bel dì di Maggio’, he was firing on all cyclinders.

Robert Hayward, as Gérard, the other good guy of the story who refuses (finally) to testify against him, is a wonderful baritone in the heroic mould (a great soliloquy in act 2).

Annemarie Kremer sings Maddalena, the love interest, with richness and passion throughout the story (a highspot in act 3’s ‘La mamma morta’). In the act 2 duet she controlled and blended her voice with Rojas with consummate skill, and the final duet, ‘Vicino a te’, was wonderful stuff.

Anna Dennis, Paul Gibson, Fiona Kimm, Dean Robinson, Tim Claydon, Daniel Norman and others also give outstanding performances – the last-named particularly for a Goebbels-like, repellent spymaster.

And the sound from the orchestra and chorus under the baton of Oliver von Dohnányi is stunning – how fortunate we are to see this man in the pit for Opera North shows still. I really loved the way he handled the spooky moment when the toffs’ gavotte is drowned out by the voices of the starving peasants.


Robert Beale

Friday, 18 March 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 18 March 2016

GOOD FRIDAY is the most solemn day in the year for Christians, a day for meditation on the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ – and in the classical music tradition no work on that theme is greater than the St Matthew Passion, by J S Bach.

This year, in Manchester, there’s a different take on that tradition, as choral group The Sixteen, working with Streetwise Opera and people who have experienced homelessness, present The Passion in Campfield Market, off Deansgate.

It’s an adaptation of Bach’s masterpiece, presented in conjunction with HOME theatre and arts centre, and directed in site-specific, operatic style by Penny Woolcock, in the Victorian iron and glass edifice. A second performance follows on Holy Saturday (March 26).

This version will also have an extra final piece of music, I Awoke Today, by Sir James MacMillan, with a text by the community performers involved in the project through Streetwise Opera. The company specializes in working with people facing big challenges, including the homeless.

In this Manchester project they’ve piloted a year-long project with participants and facilitators from groups such as The Booth Centre and The Mustard Tree. There have been regular workshops with professional singers, and those taking part have already sung at the Whitworth art gallery and visited the Bridgewater Hall, the Royal Northern College of Music and seen an Opera North performance at The Lowry, getting an experience of classical music at the top level.

Artistic director of The Sixteen Harry Christophers, who will conduct the performances, told me: “It all started with a series of workshops in Manchester, with four of our singers helping. What was incredible for them was the way the personalities of the people came out.

“The idea is that it’s like a promenade performance, with the action in different parts of the building. We’re having two groups, and the role of Christus is shared between about 11 people from the homeless group.

“The workshop members will be involved in four or five of the arias and a couple of chorales, and integrating with The Sixteen in two choruses – one of them is the ‘Lord, is it I?’

“James MacMillan’s final chorus has words created by the Manchester group. We’re calling it the ‘Resurrection Chorus’, because what the St Matthew Passion is fundamentally about is a sense of hope – and these people’s stories are true stories of hope.”


Manchester Evening News review 18 March 2016

L’ELISIR D’AMORE  Opera North, The Lowry

DANIEL SLATER’S production of The Elixir Of Love for Opera North must be one of the most perfect shows in their back repertory.

It’s the Rom Com tale of a poor boy (Nemorino) who thinks he’s going to lose his beloved (Adina) to an army captain (Belcore) and turns to the quack doctor (Dulcamara) for a ‘love potion’ in hope of winning her back.

The potion is really just cheap red wine, but its effect is amazing, as Nemorino – apart from finding Dutch courage – also comes into money … and then all the girls love him, just as promised.

Adina, meanwhile, realizes she’s in love with him after all, and all ends happily. Donizetti’s opera has been a favourite since 1832, and this production, first seen here in 2001, is welcome back again.

This time it’s sung in Italian with English surtitles, which (as Opera North boss Richard Mantle points out) enables them to engage artists from foreign parts without expecting them to learn an English text just for the purpose.

That decision is triumphantly vindicated, above all, in the performance of Gabriela Iştoc as Adina. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed it done better.

The Slater production is set in 1950s Italy, with golden sunshine, blue skies, stylish clothes and the cool guys in uniform arriving on Vespas. She fits this like a glove, with a sassy style, flirtatious smile and – most importantly – wonderful soprano voice. She’s got all the resources the role needs, ringing top notes among them, but never uses her technique just for show but always for musical and character reasons.

The leading tenor and baritone singers were (for me) up against some competition, as in 2001 our Dulcamara was Christopher Purves and our Nemorino was Paul Nylon, superb performers both.

Richard Burkhard, as Dulcamara, is a gifted singer and comedian, and though his style was different from Purves’s, made the snake oil salesman … who arrives by hot-air balloon in this version … a thoroughgoing success.

Jung Soo Yun (a former Clonter Opera performer), as Nemorino, has a strong tenor and warmed it up quite quickly in the first act. His acting is straightforward, but effective: hangdog look at the start, comic drunkenness, and innocent delight when he finally gets the girl. There was a temptation to show off on his high notes, but maybe that fitted, too.

Duncan Rock (Belcore) acted the macho man effectively and sang with security throughout, while Fflur Wyn, as Giannetta, made an effective foil to Adina and had her own moments, too.

Tobias Ringborg conducted with pace and distinction – and thanks, again, to the continuo artist for a gently smuggled ‘Tristan’ chord in the bit about the love draught. The old jokes are the best.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News review 17 March 2016

COSÌ FAN TUTTE  Opera North, The Lowry

OPERA NORTH are offering two of their vintage productions at The Lowry this week, with one new production (Giordano’s Andrea Chenier) which doesn’t come until Saturday.

Their Così Fan Tutte is 12 years old (last seen here six-and-a-half years ago), and still excellent value. Director Tim Albery sets it in its own period, with 18th-century wigs and costumes, and in an anonymous place with no backdrop. But one set dominates all – a huge camera obscura in which all truth is to be revealed by an unblinking lens (set and costume design by Tobias Hoheisel).

The story – of two sisters and their lovers, who discover all too easily that affections can be first simulated and then transferred to each other’s sweethearts (in a single day, thus winning a bet for philosopher Don Alfonso, aided and abetted by the amoral ladies’ maid, Despina) – is thus presented as a kind of early scientific experiment, with chosen materials and a controlled environment.

It works really well. Sung in English, the opera must depend on audibility to make its full effect, and, oddly enough, is less easy to understand than in the format we’re more used to these days, of original language with projected English surtitles.

William Dazeley (Don Alfonso) is well used to opera in English and has no trouble in that department, delivering the role with the practised expertise and burnished tone we’ve seen and heard before. And he’s funny.

The young couples (Máire Flavin as Fiordiligi, Gavan Ring as Guglielmo, Helen Sherman as Dorabella, Nicholas Watts as Ferrando) are all top-drawer young opera singers, and well known to Opera North audiences. Máire Flavin was thoroughly tested and came through with flying colours in her two showpieces, Like A Fortress (Come Scoglio) and Dearest Lover (Per Pietà), and Nicholas Watts shone in Our Love Is A Flower (Un’ Aura Amoroso) and elsewhere.

Ellie Laugharne (Despina) is likewise a lively actress-singer whom we know well from Buxton Festival and Opera North previously: she communicated more by face and demeanour than total clarity but is always a joy to see and hear.

Anthony Kraus in the pit, with the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, kept all lively and precise – only the final scene made a little less than its full impact, and that’s mainly down to the audibility issue when everything’s in English.

Repeated March 18.


Robert Beale

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Manchester Evening News review 13 March 2016

MANCHESTER CAMERATA  Royal Northern College of Music

AN all-Mozart programme, with the mega-talented Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist in two piano concertos, was always going to be a highlight of Manchester Camerata’s winter season.

It was also the final appearance in the Manchester series by music director Gábor Takács-Nagy, whose personal inspiration always seems to lift the Camerata musicians to outstanding playing and imaginative insight. And the presence of microphones in the Royal Northern College concert hall suggested that here we might have the makings of another CD to match the five-star-earning one of Haydn concertos by the same personnel.

You might have expected the little string works that served as foils to the two concertos to be approached with slightly less care and devotion. But from the first notes of Mozart’s Symphony no. 1 (written by an eight-year-old, for goodness sake!) it was clear that was not the case.

With everyone bar cellos and basses standing, rather than sitting down, the music was lovingly presented, with spritely energy and a huge variety of tone and articulation. The central movement was a magical – and, briefly, passionate – nocturne, and the finale amazed with vigour and life.

The same qualities were there in the Divertimento in B flat K137. Gábor Takács-Nagy goes a long way beyond the authenticists’ concepts of ‘rhetoric’ in classical style, and even if it’s not the way Mozart might have heard it, his approach makes fascinating listening now.

What of the concertos? The wind players were placed centre-stage, with the strings, still mainly standing, enfolding them around.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, by now a favourite with Manchester audiences through his appearances at the Bridgewater Hall with both the Philharmonia and BBC Philharmonic, needed no introduction – his playing was fluent, illuminating and perfectly judged (he melts into the background when others have the spotlight).

For me the greatest fascination came in Piano Concerto no. 17 K453, where there were lovely oboe and bassoon solos in the slow movement to match the piano’s eloquent melodies, and piano cadenzas where Bavouzet did his own near-jazzy, almost-Ravelian thing, to take Mozart’s boldness a few stages further. The finale was like a Magic Flute scene in instrumental terms.

Piano Concerto no. 18 K456 was equally expertly done, and Bavouzet and Takács-Nagy between them made its variations turn into a dialogue of wrath and plaintiveness to compare with the slow movement in Beethoven’s fourth. Cadenzas this time were pretty strictly from the book, but none the less appealing. And he gave us two minutes of Massenet as an encore, to prove he could get a big sound out of that Yamaha piano, too.


Robert Beale

Friday, 11 March 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 11 March 2016

THEATRE director Annabel Arden has given Opera North, over the years, some of the best and most memorable productions I can remember in its illustrious record.

Her version of The Magic Flute was both deeply thoughtful and marvellously fantastical; her Return Of Ulysses and La Traviata were hugely effective dramatically, and her The Cunning Little Vixen created a wonderful make-believe world.

Now she’s tackling one of the big pieces of the late 19th-century Italian ‘verismo’ style – Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, a tale of passion and heroism at the time of the French Revolution – beloved of tenors who can hit the high notes and audiences who long to hear them do it.

It comes to The Lowry on March 19, in a week which also sees Opera North revive their popular productions of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Donizetti’s comedy, L’Elisir D’Amore.

Royal Northern College of Music trained tenor Rafael Rojas has the title role (he was the gunslinger hero in Puccini’s The Girl Of The Golden West for Opera North in 2014 – a character first created by Caruso), and Dutch soprano Annemarie Kremer is his love interest, Maddalena (she was outstanding as Norma for the company in 2012).

“The music is incredibly exciting,” Annabel Arden told me. “Andrea Chenier was a real person, a poet executed for being anti-revolutionary, but in the opera there is woven in a love story – he meets an aristocratic young woman and they’re united by patriotism and passion.

“You could play it as a conventionally operatic story, but I looked at Chenier as an historical person and read his poetry in the original French. I and the designer, Joanna Parker, were fascinated by the idea of writing itself as what it’s about.

“The French Revolution was a time when everybody was a writer, a journalist or a pamphleteer. The whole idea of graffiti in public places was born then, and the tradition of ‘re-writing history’ came out of it, too.”

She says they’re challenging the common view of the revolution, and, as artists have always done, offering an interpretation of the history.

“Illica, the writer, was also the author for Puccini’s La Bohème, which is in ‘verismo’ style, too. You would think they were writing for film! It’s like a shooting script, where they’re using rapid cutting, and it’s come to be seen as old-fashioned.

“I’ve tried to make a style which is much more contemporary.”

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Manchester Evening News review 10 March 2016

COSÌ FAN TUTTE  Royal Northern College of Music

THE Royal Northern College has chosen Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte for this year’s spring opera production – a piece with only six characters and a limited role for the chorus.

But director Thomas Guthrie has used his human resources to maximum effect by inventing a variety of silent acting roles and, with designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, created a kind of updated 18th century staging which keeps plenty of people busy scene and prop shifting, too.

And the musical realization, under conductor Roger Hamilton, is also strictly in period, and beautiful to listen to.

‘Girls are all like that’ you might translate the title. The story is about two young men and their sweethearts and whether being in love really means being faithful. An older, wiser friend, Don Alfonso, and a servant, Despina, help the four of them test their loyalties.

There are two complete casts, giving alternate performances, and judging from the one I heard on opening night, the RNCM has a very high-quality line-up for this piece.

Alexandra Lowe (a star of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Street Scene last year) and Isabelle Peters (the amazing Rapunzel in the Royal Exchange’s recent Into The Woods) were perfectly matched as Fiordiligi and Dorabella. The former sustained her tone quality and power throughout the piece, with a show-stopping Per pieta in the second act, and the latter sang with immense distinction and used her acting ability so well you could never ignore her, even when someone else was singing.

Charlotte Trepess – who has already appeared with Opera North as Emmie in their superb Albert Herring in Leeds three years ago – was a crystal-clear and skilfully animated Despina, always clearing up someone’s mess (it seems) as well as singing delightfully from In uomini in soldati onwards.

The men were also very impressive. We’ve seen Alexander Grainger (Ferrando) develop at the RNCM over recent years as tenor and actor, and his voice is sounding really golden now; Stuart Orme (Guglielmo) is a very personable and warm-toned baritone; and Neil Balfour had presence and maturity as Don Alfonso.

Further performances on March 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19.


Robert Beale

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Manchester Evening News review 8 March 2016


SIMON Trpčeski, the piano soloist from Skopje in Macedonia, made a welcome return to the Bridgewater Hall on Monday night, playing Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with the Oslo Philharmonic.

His playing was exemplary – no surprise, as we heard him play the first Rachmaninov here with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in 2010, and he was a ‘one to watch’ visitor to the Hallé shortly afterwards – but his most beautiful gesture came after the concerto had finished.

Instead of a conventional show-off solo encore, he played accompanist to the orchestra’s peerless principal cellist, Louisa Tuck, in Rachmaninov’s lovely Vocalise (an In Memoriam, for him, to a close relative). There are few international pianists who would do that.

The concerto’s realization was, I think, a joint product of his ability and the Russian instincts and training of the Oslo Philharmonic’s chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko (also the man in charge of a certain orchestra down the road in Liverpool).

It came up fresh and bright, with warm and velvety string tone and seriously impressive brass playing. The famous second movement (forever linked with Carnforth railway station for those who’ve seen the film, Brief Encounter) was eloquent in its melancholy, with song-like contributions from the wind and string players and articulation that was disciplined and expressive at the same time.

I guess that’s one of Vasily Petrenko’s greatest strengths – the slow tempo movements in this concert were among the most exquisitely phrased and well sustained of any I’ve heard. He likes to go for broke in some fast sections, too – witness the fugal part of the concerto’s third movement – but the last time round on the big tune was a noble finale.

This was the opener of a short UK tour for the Oslo Philharmonic, and they began with a tiny piece by Grieg – I suppose they had to. Gangar, one item from the Lyric Suite, was also notable for the weighty, centrally-placed brass.

But the music they’d really come to show us was Mahler’s fifth symphony. It held attention from beginning to end, particularly thrilling in the very stormy second movement, and with a skilfully moulded scherzo – Petrenko was kind to his trumpet player, who has the unenviable task of playing a high solo at minimal volume level.

He also brought out plaintive eloquence and soaring beauty from the strings in the ‘Death In Venice’ Adagietto, and gave us a good old-fashioned acceleration towards the end of the last movement, making its final paean one of triumph indeed.


Robert Beale

Friday, 4 March 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 4 March 2016

OPERA director Thomas Guthrie returns to his old training ground, the Royal Northern College of Music, this month. He appeared here as a fledgling singer in the 1990s, made a career out of it, has now switched to directing – and he’s back to take charge of the college’s big spring show: Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.

‘Girls are all like that’ you might translate the title. The story is about two young men and their sweethearts and whether being in love really means being faithful. An older, wiser friend, Don Alfonso, and a servant, Despina, help the four of them test their loyalties.

I remember Thomas Guthrie as a performer in two RNCM productions – one a specially commissioned opera by Robin Grant about the English poet, John Clare (he played the central character in old age), the other Benjamin Britten’s evergreen comedy of English village life, Albert Herring (he was Mr Gedge, the vicar).

“I’ve never forgotten that time,” he says. “It was very formative for me. I was lucky to work with Stefan Janski (the RNCM’s director of opera, soon to retire after 30 years at the college) and others who taught me then.

“I would love the students I’m working with now to receive the kind of stagecraft and theatre discipline that we were taught then. Students, even when they’re very capable and work very hard, need to receive a lot.

“But I can talk to them as one who knows what it feels like –  and I’m glad to be here and able to give something back.”

He’s coming to Così Fan Tutte with a clean sheet, he says – he’s sung in Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro and Don Giovanni, but not in this one.

“I find it’s really modern, and valid as theatre,” he says. “My approach is actually very simple. There’s always pressure to ‘do something different’ with a piece like this, but I think that’s potentially dangerous and damaging to its inherent value.

“And I’m at the stage in my career as a director when I’m not a beginner any more: I want to do serious work. I’ve no intention of this being viewed as a ‘student piece’.”

“It’s about long-term relationships, but with people who are getting married when they’re very young. That’s why it’s such a modern opera: in the end what they learn is that you need a sense of humour and forgiveness.”