Friday, 25 November 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 25 November 2016

SUNDAY night sees one of the peak events of the entire Hallé season in Manchester, when Sir Mark Elder conducts a concert performance of the complete Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The line-up of soloists – and there are a lot of them in Das Rheingold – is truly impressive. Bass-baritone Iain Paterson is Wotan, Susan Bickley is Fricka, and soprano Emma Bell is Freia. The giants, Fafner and Fasolt, are sung by Clive Bayley and Reinhard Hagen, and Susanne Resmark is Erda.

The three Rhinemaidens are to be Sarah Tynan, Jennifer Johnston and Leah-Marian Jones, while Samuel Youn will now be singing Alberich, and Nicky Spence takes over as Mime.

Will Hartmann as Loge, David Stour as Donner, and David Butt Philip as Froh, complete the list.

Sir Mark is planning that this performance will result in a Hallé recording, as the previous ones of Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre have done.

“This is music I’ve lived with since I was very young,” he says. “I prepared Die Walküre and Das Rheingold for Solti when I started out at Covent Garden. It’s like re-opening an old friendship and trying to make it richer. And this great, great music should sound incredible in our wonderful acoustic at the Bridgewater Hall.

“I think the orchestra are going to be very struck, though, by what a different experience is from the other parts of the drama,” he adds.

“The others are so complex by comparison. But it’s a piece of absolute brilliance in the nature of what he wanted it to be.

“The words were the last to be written: he had the whole scheme in front of him by then, but he wanted to introduce the drama in the characters we find here. It shows us that Wotan’s greed was no different from Alberich’s.

“Alberich’s rage, when he loses the ring, is for me the most moving part of the piece.”

He points out the range of characters depicted in Das Rheingold. “Loge, for instance, has to be a German tenor. We have got Will Hartmann – who played a crucial part in Szymanowski’s ‘King Roger’ with me when we did it at the Bregenz Festival. He’ll be a great person to introduce to the Manchester audience.

“And Susanne Resmark was my Mistress Quickly when I did Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ at Glyndebourne – she’s a great character.”

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Manchester Evening News article 18 November 2016

THIS is a milestone year for choral group St George’s Singers of Poynton. The choir was formed 60 years ago, with 23 members. Today it has over 100, drawn from Cheshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, and is recognised as one of the most innovative in the north, under musical director Neil Taylor.

It’s celebrating with major concerts in Manchester and Stockport, including (on April 22 next year at the Royal Northern College of Music) great choral works from the past 600 years, and (on June 25) Verdi’s Requiem with Stockport Symphony Orchestra and the Sheffield Chorale, at Gorton Monastery.

But first there’s the German Requiem by Brahms, on 26th November at the RNCM, when SGS are joined by the Northern Chamber Orchestra and international star soloists Elizabeth Watts – a former member of Norwich Cathedral Girls’ Choir, a group founded by Neil Taylor – and Marcus Farnsworth, their president.

I spoke to Marcus Farnsworth as he was appearing in opera in Boston, USA. His link with SGS began when he was at Manchester University and a choral singer at Manchester Cathedral alongside its then conductor, Stephen Williams. “He created the role of assistant musical director for me in 2004,” he says. “They’re an amazing bunch of people – always happy, incredibly enterprising and energetic. Now I’m an advocate for the choir, I can help with contacts for soloists, and it’s a feather in my cap, too, to be linked with them.”

Neil Taylor, recently organist at Sheffield Cathedral and now living in Macclesfield, became conductor 10 years ago. He says: “I think it’s the passion you can sense in the room when you work with them … and a determination to do everything as well as they possibly can. There’s an unimpeded lack of fear, and they’re willing to tackle anything.

“The thing that attracted me here was the variety in their repertoire that had been brought by my predecessor – they’re up for anything, and that’s really refreshing.

“They work with anyone from professional orchestras (as in the Brahms Requiem) to school groups. Two weeks after the Brahms we’re doing a Christmas concert (it’s on December 10 at Norbury Church, Hazel Grove) with Bradshaw Hall Primary School Choir and the Youth Brass Band for Stockport.”

If you’d like to join in with St George’s Singers, there’s a Singing Day for all comers on January 21 at St George’s Church, Poynton (see

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Review of Opera North's Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica

The best performance of the whole week from Opera North was that of Il Tabarro, one half of the Puccini double bill presented as their third programme. It was a revival (by Michael Barker-Caven) of David Pountney’s clearly told, dramatic, moving and dark production, first seen here five years ago as one of the ‘Eight Little Greats’.

Il Tabarro is about adultery, jealousy and murder – always great subjects for opera. Bargeman Michele finds his wife, Giorgetta, is having an affair with Luigi, one of his deckhands … and you can imagine what ensues.

The casting was on a level Opera North don’t always achieve. Giselle Allen is one of the best soprano voices they regularly call on, and her acting skills are second to none. David Butt Philip is that rare thing, a really beautiful young English tenor voice (RNCM and Samling in his training and already spotted by Sir Mark Elder among others) and sang and characterized his Luigi powerfully. Ivan Inverardi is the real thing when it comes to Italian baritones, made for the part and good to hear.

The lesser roles of La Frugola (Anne-Marie Owens), Tinca (Stuart Laing) and Talpa (Richard Mosley-Evans) were also very strong.

On top of that we had one of the most experienced and inspirational opera conductors around with Jac van Steen in the pit. His strengths outclassed those of his colleagues heard at The Lowry this week, with a warm string sound from the orchestra, sympathetic accompaniments and spine-tingling climaxes just right for Puccini.

The new production in this pairing – Suor Angelica, which is the third piece Puccini wrote, alongside Gianni Schicchi, to make up his ‘Triptych’ – was directed by Barker-Craven and had the same sure hand on the orchestra. It wisely took the same realistic, slightly updated approach to the setting and story-telling … yet the story itself gives enormous problems. There has to be some kind of staged ‘miracle’ at the end, as Angelica, the woman who was banished to a convent by her aristocratic family for having a baby outside wedlock, and then learns the child has died, finds divine forgiveness despite taking her own life by poisoning. This was done by filmic means, with somewhat incongruous imagery mixed together – as good a solution as any, but the deliberately sentimental intention of the authors is still hard to convey today.

The singing, though, was first-rate. Anne-Sophie Duprels’ rich tone suits Angelica well, and young, RNCM-trained soprano Soraya Mafi made a real impression as the cheerful and well-intentioned Sister Genoveva, her pure and lovely voice contrasting effectively. Patricia Bardon was a trifle too witch-like as The Princess (dressed in glaring 1960s yellow), but her vocal quality is, as ever, superb. The remainder of the roles demonstrated the excellent quality of the singers’ ensemble that Opera North is now able to field.

Review of Opera North's Der Rosenkavalier

Don’t say masterpieces from the past can’t find new relevance today. As we came out for the second interval of Der Rosenkavalier, after the scenes in which Baron Ochs, the overweight, uncouth, ill-mannered, women-abusing buffoon of the story, becomes the chief butt of amusement, you could hear it all around: ‘He’s Donald Trump, isn’t he?’

But there was more than that to Opera North’s revival of David McVicar’s production, which began life at Scottish Opera and was last seen here in 2002.

I liked the production a lot first time round. It’s realist, set in the period the story is meant to occupy (Maria Theresia’s imperial Vienna), and catches a sense of crumbling grandiosity in its design. It tells the story clearly, comedy and sentiment included, while keeping a clear focus on the pain of the mature woman (the Marshallin) who gives up her toy-boy lover, Octavian, for the greater good and to bring happiness to him and his true love, Sophie. Their youthful ardour wins.

There’s gentle satire in the behaviour of Faninal, the nouveau-riche who wants to marry his daughter into the aristocracy, and a host of comic bit-parts for minor characters.

Composer and author Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstal brought a conscious echo of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (and other Beaumarchais-based tales) to the piece by having Octavian – the ‘Knight of the Rose’ of the title – sung by a woman. He has to don women’s clothes, like Cherubino. (Opening with girl-on-girl action, as some might put it, in a bedroom scene may have incongruous resonances for us, but in 1911 was probably a safer way to represent sex than with a male and female. So you just have to get over that).

The major roles cast list here included several notable singers trained at the Royal Northern of Music, among whom Helen Sherman (Octavian) was the stand-out. Her voice was strong, secure and finely modulated, and her acting superb. Fflur Wyn (Sophie) also brought lovely tone to her role and a sense of stagecraft, though some of the delicacy she essayed did not meet quite sufficient gentleness from the orchestra pit.

Likewise Henry Waddington as Ochs, though looking and acting the part with magnificent presence, could not always summon the weightiness he wanted. William Dazeley was well cast in the other baritone role of Faninal, where his airiness seemed just right.

Ylva Kihlberg (previously star of Opera North’s The Makropulos Case and Jenůfa) was a very fine Marshallin. No one could write soaring melody for the female voice quite like Richard Strauss, and the final trio for the three girls was beautiful.

This is the first full show to be conducted by Opera North’s new music director, Aleksandar Marković, since he took over. He brought energy and precision to the score, and though he has not completely mastered stage-pit balance in the quirky Lyric Theatre acoustic yet, drew some moments of exquisite delicacy.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Review of Opera North's Billy Budd

(This review is based on the opening night at Leeds Grand Theatre)

Billy Budd is widely considered one if Britten’s greatest operas. Written in 1951, with a libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier based on Herman Melville, it had pretty well all the firepower of the British arts establishment behind it when it launched, as a follow-up to Peter Grimes, the sea-faring story that made Britten’s operatic reputation just after the war.

This time we’re on board a British warship in the Napoleonic era, guarding the seas against the French. Billy is a young able seaman who is ‘impressed’ – ie signed on against his will. His nemesis is the evil master-at-arms, John Claggart, and the captain caught in a desperate moral dilemma is Edward Vere.

Claggart falsely accuses Billy of fomenting mutinous talk, and when Billy (who has a recurring stammer) can’t speak but hits him in reply, his fate is sealed by court martial – hanging from the yardarm.

Vere’s decision to order Billy’s death, in accordance with King’s Regulations, though he is manifestly a good and noble lad, is at the heart of the opera. It’s about good and evil personified, and the place of law when they clash. Above all, it’s about Captain Vere, the original Peter Pears role, here played by the masterly Alan Oke. I thought he was really excellent, portraying a man genuinely (literally?) caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and singing with distinction throughout.

There has always been a focus on a sub-text of homosexuality perceived in this piece: it has an all-male cast, a title-protagonist who is meant to be physically as well as morally admirable, and of course Melville, Forster and Britten were all gay. Its date, however, ensured that such matters were left to a spectator’s imagination and could be disregarded altogether – and director Orpha Phelan seems to have followed that sensible principle.

(More to the point in today’s world might be the fact that the piece reflected an artistic environment where women played hardly any part anyway … how much do we want to endorse that?)

Roderick Williams (Billy) and Alastair Miles (Claggart) were both in excellent voice, but had the unenviable tasks of appearing totally noble and totally evil, respectively. The former was as good as anyone might hope: the latter even (on first night) picked up a few pantomime-style boos!

There is a magnificent augmented chorus, and one smaller role that stood out was Stephen Richardson as Dansker, the older, good-guy crew member.

What remains most clearly in the mind from this production is the skillfully contrived set, the realistic costuming (both by Leslie Travers) and the energy and clarity with which the story is told.

And there’s a great coup de theatre at the beginning of Act Two, where the ship prepares for action against a ‘Frenchie’. With the full cast on stage and eager for battle, a magnificent orchestral backdrop and two huge guns lowered over the stage and tilted to point at the audience before ‘firing’, the effect is genuinely scary.

Be prepared for loud bangs, we were warned as we entered the auditorium, and it was an accurate prediction: wisps of fire-cracker ash hung in the air for minutes afterwards.

Article published in Manchester Evening News 11 November 2016

ALICE SARA OTT is one of the glamour girls of the international concert stage. She’s German-Japanese by parentage and devoted to her career as a concert pianist. That career has been meteoric in recent years.

On November 22 she’s at the Bridgewater Hall in the last of a five-date UK tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra and its conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy – himself a near-legendary pianist – and she’s playing one of the favourite virtuoso concertos, Tchaikovsky’s no. 1.

To say she always wanted to be a pianist is almost an understatement. “My parents took me to a concert when I was three years old,” she remembers. “I think they just couldn’t find a baby-sitter!

“I was so fascinated by the fact that the person on the stage could hold the attention of an audience for two hours – and at that age I wanted to get attention and be understood. I said to my mother, ‘I want to be a pianist.’

“She said ‘Forget it’, and it took me a year to convince her.”

One strong-minded young lady, it seems. Alice says her next strong memory is of playing in public (she went to a teacher who encouraged it) at five years old.

“I played just a short piece, but there were about 1,000 people there and I remember their reaction. That was the first moment that people listened to me and understood me. I decided this was going to be my future.”

She says she still feels a stranger wherever she goes, because of being raised in two different cultures (her mother is Japanese, her father German). “But music gives me a voice and an identity.”

She has other strings to her bow, however, as she has made herself a name as a designer, too. “I just like to draw,” she says, “I can’t keep my fingers still. Recently I had the opportunity to design some bags, and it was fun, because I travel a lot – you become very particular about what you want as far as bags are concerned!”

She’s played the Tchaikovsky concerto about 80 times before, she says, but not recently, in fact. Now she’s returning to it: “A tour is an opportunity to grow with a piece. Every night is so different: you have to create the sound for each new acoustic.”

The Philharmonia Orchestra, with Alice Sara Ott, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bridgewater Hall, November 22, 7.30pm.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 4 November 2016

I WROTE last week about Billy Budd, one of Opera North’s upcoming programmes at The Lowry, alongside Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and a Puccini double bill of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.

Il Tabarro, a tragedy of infidelity and revenge, is an update of the award-winning production of 2004. Suor Angelica is new: it’s set in a nunnery, to which the heroine has fled to escape the shame of having an illegitimate child.

In its cast is Bury-born soprano Soraya Mafi, one of today’s rising opera stars. I chatted with her about making it in a highly competitive world.

“I always loved singing and dancing,” she said. “My mum loved singing, and I had a natural affinity for it, but I would probably have been a dancer if I hadn’t had problems with my back when I was a teenager.”

Then she won the National Junior English Song Award in 2004, aged 15.

“It gave me a bursary for singing lessons, and mum got in touch with the Royal Northern College of Music. Sandra Dugdale took me on – and I still see her regularly.

“I had a lot of problems: I completely lost my voice at one point, and she was a rock for me. I worked my way through college, doing corporate events, football matches, hotel gigs – then when I didn’t get any scholarships to go further I worked in Selfridge’s for two years.”

But she won her way to a postgraduate place at the Royal College of Music in London, where she was taught by Opera North favourite Janis Kelly – and she still studies with her and coach David Harper.

Recently Soraya has picked up several big awards, coming second in the Kathleen Ferrier competition in 2015 and first in the Susan Chilcott Award this year.  She also got some good roles in opera productions, and she’s a Harewood Young Artist with English National Opera.

But she still lives in Chorlton and keeps close to her family, now in Rossendale.

Her role in the Puccini opera is Suor Genoveva – a character she describes as ‘vivacious and youthful’ and very much the opposite of the guilt-ridden title role. “She’s down to earth and she gets on with it,” she says. I can see those traits in Soraya Mafi, too.

Soraya Mafi sings in Suor Angelica, The Lowry, Nov 11, and also in Mozart’s Requiem, Bridgewater Hall, Nov 13