Friday, 26 October 2018

Review of Halle concert conducted by Sir Mark Elder 25 October

Sir Mark Elder’s first concert in the Hallé Thursday series for 2018-19 was on clearly mapped Hallé territory – Richard Strauss and Elgar. They have a reputation, and a tradition, of playing these composers’ music very well.

They’ve already recorded the second Elgar symphony, and, judging by the microphones around the platform, they’re doing the same right now with Strauss’s Don Quixote.

The soloists were their own principals, Nicholas Trygstad, cello, and Timothy Pooley, viola, and (though it won’t be discernible in any purely audio document of the occasion) they and their colleagues sharing the characterization of the doleful knight and his squire wore colour-coded shirts for easy identification by the audience. There was a surtitle screen, too, to help us keep abreast of events in the story as depicted in Strauss’s introduction and variations.

That was good music education, but in many ways the pictorial and dramatic power coming over in purely musical terms was enough to lead us through. Sir Mark Elder revels in the orchestral sound effects supplied generously in this score (sheep bleating via flutter-tongued wind instruments, pizzicato water droplets, a wind machine and so on), and even more so in the delicacy of the hero’s lucid interludes and the sweetness of his romantic dreams.

From the beginning, as Stéphane Rancourt’s oboe solo was heard against the purest whispered tone from back-desk violins, the fantasy world of Cervantes’ tale was subtly created, and the textures accompanying the protagonists’ musical representatives were gloriously clear. There was a brief moment of slight intonational uncertainty, but the orchestral brass were in magnificent fettle.

Variations three and five were also outstanding for richness of tone in all departments, mellow brass included, with lovely string playing under soloist-leader Lyn Fletcher and perfectly blended woodwind chords, and the battle scene was virtuosically played.

Nicholas Trygstad and Timothy Pooley shone in their solo roles, showing both technical mastery and expressive power.

Elgar’s Symphony no. 2, in Sir Mark’s hands, begins where his first symphony left off, with the tread of a thousand marching feet. The vigour and strength of its opening, with the pace of the main theme slightly broadening at its return, was deeply impressive, and there was gloriously ethereal string playing in the middle of the movement and a loving caress at the beginning of the music’s reprise.

In many ways the Larghetto second movement was the emotional core of the performance, its rapt feeling casting a spell over the hall, its structure building to a peak of intensity, and its final fade-out mesmerizing.

The third movement – a Rondo in form but a scherzo in function – revealed a multi-faceted quality: nostalgic and doom-laden, exuberant and grim. There’s a real window into Elgar’s complex psychology here, and Elder does not miss a whit of it. And the intoxicating main theme of the finale had just enough of a swing to make it beguiling as well as noble and positive. Its rhythmic qualities were emphasized as the movement continued, to build to a climax of surging waves of melody propelled by stirrings of volcanic emotion, with a benediction in the final, long-sustained chord.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review of Halle series opening concert conducted by Edward Gardner

Edward Gardner was back amongst friends when he opened the Hallé’s Thursday series concerts. This was the place where he made his mark, as the Manchester orchestra’s first ever assistant conductor (and Youth Orchestra music director), and he’s been a welcome visitor ever since.

There’s an air of personal authority to him now, and a physical style a little less reminiscent of Sir Mark Elder – from whom he undoubtedly learnt a lot in those early days – and both the Hallé Orchestra members and the Hallé Choir gave him of their best.

Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra was characterized by explosive precision from the Hallé brass where their impact most mattered, and measured, eloquent, long-breathed phrasing in Gardner’s exposition of the score. Its huge orchestral resources were expertly controlled and blended, the sprawling structure of the tone poem given clarity and cohesion, and its progress accentuated by an extended progression of tension, speed and intensity towards the recall of its famous ‘Sunrise’ opening.

There was room, too, for a little indulgence in the gentler side of its character (though Gardner’s brisk treatment of the waltz theme was never sentimental), and just a little of the Hallé’s soupiest Viennese string sound to close the work.

Gardner’s recent recording of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass was Grammy-nominated, and for the performance of it that followed here he had two soloists from that occasion (part of his complete orchestral works series with his Bergen Philharmonic colleagues). Sara Jakubiak, soprano, and Stuart Skelton, tenor, were therefore well aware of what he wanted to hear, and the quartet was very well completed by James Platt, bass, and Dame Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano.

Sara Jakubiak set the tone with her passionate, vehement cry for mercy in the Kyrie, and a glistering, suitably angelic declamation of the opening words of the Gloria. The work is as operatic a setting of church liturgy as Verdi’s Requiem, if not more so, and Stuart Skelton held his own in the dialogue-style writing that marks some of Janáček’s vision and dominated in the extraordinarily high tessitura of the Credo’s opening. The chorus, equally, has a vital dramatic role to play: the Hallé Choir, trained by Matthew Hamilton, were alive to that, producing a thrilling climax to the Credo that proclaimed a sense of struggle, not easy victory.

Janáček’s extended Sanctus grew in rhythmic life and energy to a point of high rejoicing, and contrasted powerfully with the mystery-laden and fervent music of the Agnus Dei.

The organ has a solo as well as accompanimental role in this Mass, making a completing statement of its own after the singing has ceased, which Darius Battiwalla delivered with resonant virtuosity before the jaunty, exuberant orchestral postlude, with its ringing fanfares (the Hallé  brass again brilliant in tone) recalling the liveliness of the work’s beginning.

Janáček was an organist himself and knew the feel of the liturgy. He was also a master of the theatre, and united his senses of drama and humanity in this music. Edward Gardner and his Manchester forces captured the same unique combination.

Edward Gardner

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review of Opera North's Tosca

Opera North’s new production on this visit is of Puccini’s Tosca – an opera they last performed 10 years ago. It comes to The Lowry on 14th and 16th November, and I went to size it up last week in Leeds.

Their last version was not a pretty sight. The director was making comparisons with the Italy of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, and the nasty, lustful police chief Baron Scarpia was as revolting as they get (which, let’s face it, he is meant to be).

This time we’re in the present day again, and, if you look at the programme book, it’s Donald Trump we’re supposed to see as his parallel, as director Edward Dick presents the story. You can understand where that’s coming from: the heroine, Floria Tosca, is an opera singer in love with a painter (Mario Cavaradossi) whose sympathy for an escaped political prisoner puts him on the wrong side of the powers that be – in particular of Scarpia, who tortures Cavaradossi physically and Tosca mentally until she cracks. She yields to his lustful will until she thinks she’s secured her lover’s freedom, then stabs the villain to death after he says there’ll be nothing but a mock execution for Cavaradossi the next morning. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away what happens next …

So it’s about a man whose lust for women is as big as his lust for power, both cloaked in a pose of religious piety. They didn’t give Scarpia a blond wig with a comb-over (alternatively, if they’d foreseen now-current events, they might have made him up to look like Brett Cavanaugh, and we could all think of other cases in point). He’s actually a villain right out of Victorian melodrama – and the play Tosca is based on was a Victorian melodrama to begin with anyway.

But it’s also about a brave and passionate woman: the operatic role for a great dramatic soprano, in many ways. Here Opera North, and Mr Dick, have struck gold this time. Giselle Allen is an amazing interpreter of the role. She acts it like a real opera singer, not flouncing around as a ‘diva’ but an extrovert and a performer, still insecure beneath it; so her jealousy is a weakness and part of her personality, not an exaggeration. I liked the way she treats Scarpia at the start of the second Act, beginning with cautious politeness though she’s repulsed by him, too.

Rafael Rojas is appealing and in excellent tenor voice as Cavaradossi. He doesn’t have to do much but act the noble hero and sing like one too, and he does precisely that.

Scarpia, though, is a challenge: too nasty and you have a pantomime villain, too realistic and we feel short-changed. Robert Hayward, I think, was looking to make him a man we might really encounter some time, not a monster. This rather goes against the crashing, doom-laden chords that accompany his first appearance, and I’m sure Puccini meant that to be the incarnation of a bogey-man – it isn’t quite that here. Later you wonder whether he’s motivated by power, lust or maybe even sexual impotence … interesting but possibly a bit too psycho-analytical.

There’s a nice touch when, in the middle of Tosca’s great solo aria, Vissi d’arte, he starts filming her passionate outburst on his phone. The piece does stop the entire action, quite unrealistically, after all – whether people decide to applaud after it or not (and it’s a good sign if they don’t – we’re not here for a recital of Maria Callas’s greatest hits).

The conductor is Antony Hermus, a young Dutch musician who I think is quite a find (he won’t be on the podium on 14th November, but he will on the 16th). He has an excellent rapport with Opera North’s orchestra and also some strikingly fresh ways of approaching the phrasing and sound qualities of what can be a hackneyed-sounding score. If Opera North are still looking for their next music director, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s high up on the score-sheet.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review of Opera North's The Merry Widow revival

Opera North’s production of The Merry Widow, by Léhar, comes to The Lowry on 15th and 17th November – the former the 40th anniversary, to the day, of the company’s inauguration.

It’s a revival of Giles Havergal’s brilliant production of the operetta, first seen eight years ago, and I went to Leeds to see it on the opening night of the new run. As then, it’s a guaranteed good night out.

The story’s perhaps not quite so topical as it was just after the credit crunch – based on the idea that a country could have spent so much bailing out its own bankers that it faces disaster if their money ever goes abroad – but they do say another financial crisis is just around the corner, so maybe history will repeat itself. It obviously does from time to time, if the story of the imaginary grand-dukedom of ‘Pontevedro’ is anything to go by.

The Merry Widow of the title is the young Hannah Glawari, who fell out with her true sweetheart, Danilo, and married money on the rebound. So much of it, in fact, that when her banker husband dies and she inherits, the fatherland is desperate she should find another Pontevedrian to share her loot with. But she’s living it up in Paris, and there is any number of suitors there …

So the whole show is set in Paris, and by amazing chance good old Danilo is there, too, frittering his life away with the good time girls of Maxim’s nightclub. The one thing he’s determined not to do is to marry Hannah just because it’s his patriotic duty.

Of course it all ends happily. But Opera North, this time, are reminding us of the show’s dark side. It was premiered in 1905, in what we now know was the slide into a horrific world war, and spread around the world in the next few years, and, when you listen for them, the lines are full of references to attacks, retreats and battles as if love and war were all the same. And the vainglorious posturing of minor aristocracy and empty elevation of ‘patriotism’ are very obviously part of the scenario.

Hitler, incidentally, loved it. Léhar, not Wagner, was his real favourite composer.

At the same time, Giles Havergal has not forgotten the real message of The Merry Widow, if there is one – that a damaged relationship can be reborn, once both money and patriotism are left out of the equation. Sentimental? Perhaps, but that’s what the story says, and not many popular love stories are about redemption.

The production, with Stuart Hopps’ ingeniously lively but simple choreography, is full of life, movement, colour and humour. It may not have had quite the pizazz on opening night in Leeds that I remember from last time around, but by the time it hits The Lowry no doubt all of that will be back again.

Katie Bird will be singing Hannah – she takes the role after Máire Flavin completes the Leeds run – and Quirijn de Lang is a suave but sympathetic Danilo. Amy Freston – who else? – returns to play the high-kicking, all-dancing, chorus-girl-turned-ambassador’s-wife, Valencienne. And the real chorus girls of Opera North have a high old time as Maxim’s ladies of the night.

Marie Flavin and admirers in The Merry Widow