Saturday, 22 July 2017

Review of Clonter Opera's The Marriage of Figaro

Clonter Opera has a remarkably good and large cast to offer in its 2017 summer production, and what’s more a very gifted and imaginative director in Stephen Medcalf, who’s come up with the idea of keeping the location as Spain (Figaro is the former Barber of Seville, remember?) but bringing the timing forward to that of the fascist 1930s.

It works remarkably well. You can believe that the Count (army uniformed and a pretty nasty piece of work in this production) might really want to have his way with Figaro’s young bride who’s in both his clutches and his employ. Figaro’s position – smartly dressed chauffeur and smart-brained with it – makes him an inferior and yet capable of standing up to the boss with some success. Designer Nate Gibson pays homage to Dali and Gaudi in a setting which is minimal (at Clonter it has to be) but evocative.

The music is in the highly capable hands of Clive Timms, with Liz Rossi leading the Clonter Sinfonia who play a reduced score in the tiny Clonter pit. The principals clearly know their business and they come together very well indeed in the ensembles.

Are there some stars of the future at Clonter this year, as there so often have been in the past? Margo Arsane (Susanna) and Henry Neill (Figaro) were impressive from the start. She’s a natural stage performer, acting and reacting to the story throughout, and her soprano is pure and clear, with power available but never over-used. He a gifted actor-singer with well developed tone in his voice and a lot of energy and charm. Josep-Ramon Olivé as Almaviva has confidence and stage presence, Andrew Irwin brings a fine tenor voice and a real comic gift as both Basilio and Curzio, while Angharad Lyddon as Cherubino sings delightfully and has mastered the art (and walk) of being a girl playing a boy who at times is pretending to be a girl.

Elizabeth Skinner (the Countess) brings a lovely mature sound to her role; Eugene Dillon-Hooper is a believable Dr Bartolo, with Jade Moffat (Guidhall) vocally strong as Marcellina. There were valuable contributions, too, from Edward Robinson as Antonio and Corinne Cowling as Barbarina.

Henry Neill as Figaro and Margo Arsane as Susanna in Clonter Opera's The Marriage of Figaro. Picture by Pauline Neild
Josep-Ramon Olivé as Count Almaviva in Clonter Opera's The Marriage of Figaro. Picture by Pauline Neild
Elizabeth Skinner as the Countess in Clonter Opera's The Marriage of Figaro. Picture by Pauline Neild

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Transports of delight

The Scott Brothers – Jonathan and Tom, organist, pianists, composers and creative animator between them, and much besides – are appearing in concert at Rochdale Parish Church on Saturday 22nd July, at 3pm.

The Scotts, Manchester born and educated and still resident in Failsworth, have played in major concert halls across the UK and venues in Europe, the Far East and South America.  

Their Rochdale concert will celebrate the arrival at St Chad’s of a magnificent and rarely-used grand piano gifted to the church by a secret generous donor.

Jonathan, 36, and Tom, 33, both studied at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, gaining major prizes. They have recorded CDs, played on network radio music

programmes, and performed background music for film and TV productions. Their diary of concert programmes covers piano duo, piano and organ, and harmonium and piano.

Their Rochdale programme includes Bach, Schubert, Liszt, Rossini, Tarrega and Albeniz . . . and Duet Sequence written by Tom himself. 

Tom, an artist and designer as well as a musician, is also the mastermind of a novel and original series of animated films bringing classical music to a new audience.

And it just happens that Tom’s talents have been employed in another fascinating direction recently. He’s been assisting five different local groups with the ‘Tram Tracks’ project, in which the Bridgewater Hall is celebrating its 21st birthday alongside the 25th anniversary of Metrolink by helping to create 93 new songs, performed and recorded by over 1,200 people from across Greater Manchester and now available free online – there’s one for each station on the present-day Metrolink.

Tom says: ‘I worked with five schools to create songs which represented Weaste (St Luke’s Primary), Monsall (St Augustine’s Primary), Navigation Road (Navigation Primary), Ashton West (The Heys Primary) and Radcliffe (Chapelfield Primary).
‘I had a really great time and journeyed on the tram to each of the schools (the schools were very close to their respective tram stops).

‘In the school workshops we discussed everything about the tram and what it meant to the local area. It was all very positive, and we had a chance to talk about all of the interesting elements about the places where the children lived, and some local history which might have otherwise been unknown.
‘Musically, we discussed pulse and rhythm in music and I taught the groups how to conduct and form ideas when constructing music or verse. We gathered all our ideas and wrote our songs, and after a few days I returned to rehearse and record the tracks.

‘All the children were brilliant and enthusiastic throughout, which really shines through on the recordings.’

The tracks are available to listen to online via the Bridgewater Hall website (
The piano at Rochdale Parish Church has also been used by the Scotts to create a video – see it on
And Tom has been commissioned by the Bridgewater Hall (as part of their 21st anniversary celebration) to create a new animated film (he’s done the story, the music and the animation) called The Composer and the Mouse. It tells the story of a talented yet hapless composer who finds his own musical style with the help of a mouse – it’s a fun introduction to classical music with live music and visuals aimed at a wide range of ages. The world première will be at the Bridgewater Hall on 2nd September at 1pm in a family-friendly concert. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s popular organ concert series at the Bridgewater Hall continues on August 30th at 1.10pm with a ‘Lunchtime at the Opera’ programme, and then ‘Fantastic Feet’ on 3rd October. There’s a video about the series on
And the brothers have been invited to perform organ and piano duos at some international venues over the next few months, including the National Concert Hall, Taipei, Taiwan, on 12th August and the Basilica of Santa Maria de Montserrat, Barcelona, Spain (in the Montserrat International Organ Festival) on 9th September at. Details of their globe-trotting and other performances are on - Transports de Joie indeed.

The Scott Brothers: Tom (left) and Jonathan

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Review of Y Tŵr at the Buxton Festival

Y Tŵr (The Tower) is a two-hander opera in Welsh by Guto Puw, with libretto by Gwyneth Glyn, based on a play of the same name by Gwenlyn Parry. It was brought to the Buxton Festival by Music Theatre Wales after premiering at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in May, having been commissioned and produced jointly by Music Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh-language national theatre of Wales.

It’s about a couple, whom we see in the first flush of young love, then in middle age, and finally when they’re old and facing death. Bit of a downer, that last act, and if there’s a positive message of any kind it’s that in the end they do find they’ve made a partnership of a kind that survives through thick and thin – including his frustration in his career and her infidelity. In each section of their lives the idea of a passing train is introduced (sandpaper sound effects and a 'ragtimey' theme in the orchestra) and she describes a dream about a butterfly – beautiful and quite powerful symbols which you can interpret as you wish … the Elusive Butterfly of Love was the song that came to mind for me.

So where does the Tower come into it? That’s also up to us to interpret, as it seems to stand for different things at different times (in the middle act, I think it represents his belief in ‘success’, and in the final one they speak of having been to the top and come down again). Gwyneth Glyn’s note explains that it’s a metaphor for their relationship and also for life’s challenges and expectations.

We don’t actually see a tower in Michael McCarthy’s production, however – just a ladder at the back of the stage. Nor of course do we see the train – though the sandpaper choo-choo effect tells you it’s a steam one, which jars a bit with the present-day costuming.

The score is subtle and at times beautiful, with some rather obvious ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ motifs, and touching on tonal language only when the melody of a Welsh lullaby is introduced towards the end of each act. That brings a halo of recognition each time it comes and makes an attractive contribution.

Everything depends on the acting and singing of the two protagonists, of course, and they are both good: not surprisingly, Gwion Thomas (as ‘Male’) is better at being the middle-aged and old characters than the young one, and Caryl Hughes (‘Female’) far better as the young thing in love than her later counterparts.

A thoughtful piece, and one with some notable aspects.

Gwion Thomas and Caryl Hughes in Y Tŵr

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Review of Buxton Festival's Albert Herring

Albert Herring is one of my favourites among Britten’s operas. It’s a gentle comedy of English village life, as it was just after the Second World War (even though it’s based on a French story originally), with a libretto brilliantly written by Eric Crozier and some priceless opportunities for characterization by the principal singers.
Basically the story is that the village committee of Loxford meet to choose a May queen, who must be a girl of unimpeachable morals and manners – and there aren’t any in the village. So they choose the dutiful and rather naïve Albert, who helps his mother in the greengrocer’s shop, and make him King of the May instead. At the fete his lemonade is spiced with rum by the young and lively couple, Sid and Nancy, and he disappears for a night of … well, we never find out, as he tells a good but unlikely tale when the village worthies, having convinced he must be dead, realize he’s OK after all. He asks Nancy afterwards ‘I didn't lay it on too thick, did I?’, so what really happened in his night of self-discovery remains a mystery.
Albert Herring can work in a large opera house and also in a small-scale setting. At Buxton, director Francis Matthews had the opportunity to present it in an ideal environment, and with designer Adrian Linford’s detailed and evocatively piecemeal sets – adapting quite neatly to the changing scenes – the visual presentation was delicious. We are reminded of the post-war time of the opera’s composition by little details of crumbling masonry and left-over hardware from the years of conflict, and part of the appeal of the piece is that it catches the note of liberation (especially of young people) that was just on its cusp at the time.
Musically the performance was of a very high standard: conductor Justin Doyle has done the piece before in one of Opera North’s interpretations and knows not only it but most of the cast extremely well, as a number of them are Opera North regulars. Yvonne Howard as the tweedy grande dame and moral crusader, Lady Billows, was magnificent, and Heather Shipp brought Mrs Glum to being Albert’s mum. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was the pompous ass of a mayor, Mr Upfold, and Mary Hegarty delightful as the schoolteacher, Miss Wordsworth.
Kathryn Rudge was a star in her own right as Nancy the red-lipsticked blonde bombshell, and Morgan Pearse (whose gifts are new to me) was a model of a singer in tone, diction and acting ability as Sid.
Lucy Schaufer, Nicholas Merryweather and John Molloy completed the ‘adult’ cast admirably, and Sophie Gallagher and Bonnie Callaghan as the girls Emmie and Cis were excellent (Nicholas Challier, as young Harry, walked his part the night I went while RNCM rising star Charlotte Trepess sang his role from the wings).
Best of all was Bradley Smith as Albert, a young singer of golden tone and impressive acting ability – never over the top but believably engaging as the hapless Albert.
However, there was one aspect of this production which I thought intrusive and pointless. Francis Matthews has invented a silent character he calls ‘The Stranger’ – in his trilby and double-breasted suit I’d call him The Spiv – who seems to shadow Albert a lot and in the long entracte between acts two and three interacts with him in a kind of slow pas de deux.
Symbolic of something? Maybe – it’s an idea that’s been used before and adds very little to the genius of the original.

Albert Herring - Bradley Smith as Albert. Credit Robert Workman

Albert Herring - Morgan Pearse as Sid and Kathryn Rudge as Nancy. Credit Robert Workman

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Review of Buxton Festival's Macbeth

This was a real achievement by Buxton Festival 2017. They chose the 1847, original, version of Verdi’s first operatic adaptation of a Shakespeare play (and he didn’t try any others until in his old age), which gave the performance something of a collectable cachet and made it part of a trilogy of ‘early Verdi’, with Giovanna d’Arco last year and Alzira coming next.

It also – fully justifiably – put the opera into the medium-size theatre ambience it would originally have had. Buxton has to beware of trying to do pieces that are too ‘grand’ for its stage, and it normally keeps its chorus to a total of 16. On this occasion that number was doubled by the inclusion of ‘Young Artists’, which was enormously worthwhile – but the work is so taut and economical in construction and style that it seems ideal for the intimacy of Matcham’s opera house.

In Elijah Moshinsky the festival had one of the world’s great Verdi directors, and in festival artistic director Stephen Barlow an equally gifted Verdi conductor. Moshinsky may not have had the kind of spending budget he would get at the Met in New York, but he made use of every device he could to make this the super-charged Romantic drama Verdi saw in it. There may only have been one three-sided-box of a set and few moveable props, mainly schoolroom benches (not much room for anything else when you have a big chorus on stage!), but it was designed with a yawning perspective to imply a world of mystery (Russell Craig the designer) and video projection and sound effects were there to eke out its imperfections – weather noises for the blasted heath, clanking and rumbling for the assembling army, and so on. The spooky goings-on of Macbetto’s last prophetic encounter with the witches, and the final battle, were both visually evoked by Stanley Orwin-Fraser with considerable elaboration, though some of his imagery seemed to stray from the descriptions in the text (which follows Shakespeare’s remarkably closely).

But the musical drama and the characterization of the central couple were both very powerful, and Barlow and his principals, Stephen Gadd and Kate Ladner, deserve much praise for those. Because of the nature of the story, the other roles are relatively subservient – Duncano (Ben Thapa) and Banco (Oleg Tsibulko) each get done in by half way through, and Macduff (Jung Soo Yun) and Malcolm (Luke Sinclair) only come into their own towards the end, but each role was well acted and strongly sung (as were the lesser ones and the children’s appearances).

But Gadd and Ladner were superb, not just individually but in the portrayal of their relationship. They seem to catch an almost sexual charge as they plot their horrible deeds together (Ora di morte e di vendetta), in a way you imagine notorious murderer couples of more recent history may perhaps have done. 
He has an incisive timbre and the ability to make even the hell-hound evoke some sympathy from us – she brought richly-layered psychology to the role Verdi called ‘Lady’: evil beyond words in the duet when she and her husband realize returning were as tedious as go o’er – and in the sleep-walking scene able to create the kind of out-of-body vocalization the composer wanted, while keeping well on top of his purely musical demands.

It’s a demanding work in every sense, and this was one of the best non-comedy operas the Buxton Festival has mounted for some time.
Stephen Gadd as Macbeth

Kate Ladner as Lady Macbeth

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Opera for all of us - Buxton, MIF and Clonter

Opera in this part of the world comes in concentrated bursts. Opera North often offer us an early week in the year and a late one, with three different shows each time, and right now we have the Buxton Festival with its three in-house productions and one from Music Theatre Wales, plus BambinO, the ‘opera for babies’ provided by Scottish Opera in the Manchester International Festival, and next week Clonter Opera in Cheshire swings into action with its main summer production, The Marriage of Figaro.
Buxton is presenting the rarely seen 1847 Florence version of Verdi’s Macbeth, Britten’s comedy Albert Herring, and (in co-production with The English Concert), Lucio Silla, an opera Mozart wrote at the age of 16.
The festival has secured a great Verdi director in Elijah Moshinsky for Macbeth, whose interest in early Verdi has already borne fruit in Giovanna d’Arco in 2015 and will continue with Alzira next year.
Stephen Barlow, now in his fifth year as artistic director of the festival, conducts Macbeth, with Stephen Gadd in the title role, Australian soprano Kate Ladner (a wonderful Giovanna in Giovanna d’Arco) as Lady Macbeth, Moldovan bass Oleg Tsibulkov in his UK debut as Banquo, and South Korean tenor Yun Soo Yun as Macduff. Remaining dates are 14, 18 and 21 July.
Justin Doyle is conductor for Albert Herring – after piloting the excellent, intimate production of the piece for Opera North four years ago, which never toured. This time it’s directed by Francis Matthews, and the cast includes Opera North favourites Yvonne Howard (Lady Billows), Heather Shipp (Mrs Herring), Mary Hegarty (Miss Wordsworth), Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts (Mr Upfold) and Kathryn Rudge (Nancy). Remaining dates are 12, 15, 19 and 22 July (the 19th is a matinee).
Laurence Cummings conducts Lucio Silla, and Harry Silverstein directs a team including Joshua Ellicott, Fflur Wyn and Rebecca Bottone, with the outstanding soprano Madeleine Pierard as Cecilio. Remaining dates are 13, 16 and 20 July (the 16th is a matinee).
Buxton is also hosting Music Theatre Wales’ new opera, Y Tŵr (The Tower) by Guto Puw –  the first time a work in the Welsh language has been toured outside Wales. That’s on 17 July.
Over to Clonter for The Marriage of Figaro. There’s a public preview performance on 20 July, and main ones on 22, 24 (matinee), 25, 27 and 29 July. It’s directed by Stephen Medcalf, who’s set it in 1930s Spain during the civil war, exploring class dynamics and a strong gender divide – plus, of course, the work’s wit and heartrending emotion. It’s going to be sung in Italian with English surtitles, and Clive Timms conducts the select Clonter orchestra.
So we have plenty of operatic choice, but for a limited period only. I’ve reviewed BambinO and Lucio Silla already, and Macbeth, Albert Herring and Y Tŵr are to follow – and also The Marriage of Figaro.

Macbeth - Jung Soo Yun as Macduff and Company (credit Robert Workman)

Albert Herring - the Company (credit Robert Workman)

Monday, 10 July 2017

Review of Buxton Festival's Lucio Silla

Mozart was 16 when he composed this opera, and capable of taking complete musical charge of the thing, supervising rehearsals and so on. He’d had two previous hit operas at the theatre in Milan (precursor of La Scala) already by 1772.

It’s getting quite trendy to explore his early theatre works these days, and inevitably we look for pre-echoes of the masterstrokes we know from the operas of his maturity. And some are there in Lucio Silla: the story itself, of how a nasty despot finds enlightenment and generosity of spirit in the end, has later parallels in Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito; the imaginative use of the orchestra to convey moods of tension, resignation, poignancy or passion as a background to the action; a scene in a graveyard that makes you think (a bit) of Don Giovanni; and several testing arias for the high voices, written as only Mozart could to bring out the best and most beautiful sounds in virtuoso singers.

For this Buxton Festival/The English Concert co-production, conducted by Laurence Cummings, the singers were well chosen and delivered excellent results – in one case, outstandingly so. Soprano Madeleine Pierard, in the hero’s role of Cecilio (two of the four men in this story sing with high voices, so they’re women in ‘trouser’) was a knock-out in her delivery of arias such as Il tenero momento and in the trio Quell' orgoglioso sdegno.

Rebecca Bottone was also on top form, as his faithful fiancée, Giunia, looking terrific and singing with beauty and sensitivity over a wide range (in, for instance, Frà I pensier più funesti di morte).

Joshua Ellicott makes the title role a study in the Roman ruler as inhuman monster … until his last-minute change of heart. He almost chewed the scenery, until a bit of it fell off prematurely … so he pulled all the flimsy stuff down anyway. Fflur Wyn (as Celia) and Karolina Plicková (as Lucio Cinna, the other trouser role) were both very fine, the former in Quando sugl'arsi campi especially, and the latter in De più superbi il core.

As a story, Lucio Silla certainly makes you wait for its best moments, as the happy ending only comes around two hours and 45 minutes in, and the first night audience found the final affirmations of sweetness and light quite amusing.

As a production (Harry Silverstein, design by Linda Buchanan), it bore the marks of shoestring budgeting, with one basic framework of a set, and costumes from the left-overs box. I was disappointed by the static, all-face-the-audience presentation of the graveyard scene and others employing the chorus.  But at least it was better than a concert performance.

Lucio Silla - Madeleine Pierard as Cecilio and Rebecca Bottone as Giunia. Credit Robert Workman

Lucio Silla - Joshua Ellicott. Credit Robert Workman

Lucio Silla - finale scene. Credit Robert Workman

Friday, 7 July 2017

Review of MIF's BambinO - the 'opera for babies'

I got into BambinO by special permission – strictly you shouldn’t be allowed to see it unless you have a baby in tow – but since even our Youth Panel wouldn’t qualify for a show designed for the six to 18-month age group, it might as well be a grandad who went to see it.

What I saw was pretty impressive. It’s an hour long, almost, with an Act One, interval and then Act Two, and it tells a complete story, about a little mummy bird who finds she has an egg, which hatches into a baby that then grows and eventually flies away to make its own life.

There are two solo singers (Charlotte Hoather and Timothy Connor) and two instrumentalists (cellist Laura Sergeant and percussionist Stuart Semple, although both also sing at the beginning and end, so there you have a complete vocal quartet, too).

The music, by Lliam Paterson, is very cleverly put together, although his skill with pastiche of baroque and classical opera is so great you begin to look for the parallels with well-known works – especially after a duet for two bird people with the words ‘Pu-Pu-Pu-Pu-Pulcino’ at its heart! Heard something similar to that before …

The opening, growing from a peaceful murmur with the added effect of bird calls, had us entranced from the start. Especially the babies (14 of them, by my count), who were the most attentive and responsive audience I’ve ever seen … most of the time.

The singing is mostly in Italian (a little English, too, I think) but that emphasizes the fact that at this stage in music appreciation the words don’t matter. It’s about slightly larger-than-life people in colourful costumes, acting a story and singing as they do it, and looking and sounding amazing. Which is what grown-up opera is about, too, really.