Thursday, 19 December 2019

My favourite CDs of 2019

Here are a few CD recordings that came my way this year – a totally personal selection but all really well worth a listen:

Ethel Smyth: Fête Galante; Liza Lehmann: The Happy Prince. Soloists, Lontano Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, and Felicity Lott with Valerie Langfield (Retrospect Opera RO007)

Retrospect Opera are doing remarkable things in recording neglected British works. Here they offer a quality performance of Smyth’s ‘Dance-Dream’, Fête Galante, which is really a one-act opera designed to be performed with dancing. But it works well in sound only: it’s an evocation of the world of commedia dell’arte, with its unhappy Pierrot a loser in love, but telling a story where (like Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) real jealousy and passion take over from simulation, with fatal effects. The sleeve notes and packaging are exemplary, telling us everything needful about the work and its background in 1923. Smyth’s talent for musical pastiche is richly evident in the opening numbers, where she revives the ‘galant’ style of the early classical period with a small vocal and orchestral ensemble, but the genius of the piece is in the way her harmonic palette changes as her story moves to real deception, betrayal and tragedy, becoming near-Wagnerian, albeit still in miniature: the ending brings a return to pastiche and artificiality, but this time with tragic irony. Among the gifted solo singers, Felix Kemp and Alessandro Fisher are well contrasted, fine tenors, and the whole is thoughtfully directed by Odaline de la Martinez. To fill the disc, there’s a lovely reading by Dame Felicity Lott of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince in the version set as melodrama by Liza Lehmann, with Valerie Langfield playing the piano accompaniment beautifully. You can get the recording by going to

Mozart: Piano concerto no. 20 K466, piano concerto no. 21 K467, Overture to Don Giovanni. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Manchester Camerata, conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy (Chandos CHAN 20083)

The project to record all Mozart’s piano concertos in Manchester, with Bavouzet, the Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy, has been fascinating to watch unfold. It began with some recordings pairing concerti with Mozart’s Divertimenti, but now, with the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s as the regular venue, is turning to his opera overtures as foils to the maturer piano masterpieces. It’s been a wonderful experience to witness succesive concerts as two amazingly gifted artists collaborate, and I’ve reviewed a number as they’ve happened. As the recordings come out on Chandos, this happens to be one that I didn’t get to hear live, and it’s something to treasure. The Yamaha piano, big toned enough in the hall, is balanced down here to remind us that Mozart’s pianos were not all-conquering thunder-beasts, and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s playing of these two highly-popular works is a joy. Concerto no. 20, one of just two he wrote in a minor key, features Beethoven’s cadenzas for it – you can see why he valued it – and no. 21, with the much loved ‘Elvira Madigan’ slow movement, is here played by Bavouzet in conscious tribute to Friedrich Gulda’s interpretation (subtly varying rubato in the melody over a perfectly regular triplet background) and with Gulda’s own elegant cadenzas.

Arnold Cooke: Piano trio, piano quartet, piano quintet. The Pleyel Ensemble (Mike Purton Recording Services MPR105)

Arnold Cooke was a Yorkshireman born in 1906, living almost to the age of 99, and a prolific composer through seven decades. Though much of his teaching was done at Trinity College of Music in London, he initially taught at the Royal Manchester College and the RNCM is where his archive lies. In these world premiere recordings, the Pleyel Ensemble (Harvey Davies, Benedict Holland, Sarah Ewins, Susie Mészáros and Heather Bills) continue the task of recording some of its highlight works. And they offer an interesting sidelight on the oeuvre of 20th-century music, as Cooke absorbed a variety of styles including those of Brahms and Hindemith and, to some extent, Shostakovich, and was renowned as a craftsman composer of the highest order. Where his music takes flight and sings is in his slow movements, each of which in the works on this disc is harmonically warm and gloriously melodic. The names of the Pleyel Ensemble’s members will be familiar to many who follow music in Manchester and elsewhere, and the playing is superb. The CD has been produced by Harvey Davies as part-contribution to a PhD: the sleeve notes unfortunately contain an apparent reprint of a biographical note on Cooke written for a previous recording, referring to ‘the present two violin and piano sonatas’, plus a mis-spelling of John Ogdon’s surname.

Christoph Maria Wagner: remiX. Ruth Weber, soprano, E-MEX Ensemble, Christoph Maria Wagner, piano and conductor, Carter Williams, electronics (Coviello Classics COV91728)

Christoph Wagner – no relation to the Richard dynasty – is the charming and talented German composer who provided lovely orchestral versions of two piano works by Charles Hallé for the concert by the Hallé Orchestra here celebrating its founder’s 200th birthday in April this year. He wrote them originally for the orchestra in Hallé’s birthplace, Hagen, where he was composer-in-residence a few years ago. Their elegant reminiscences of the soundworlds of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, however, were very different from the kind of writing Christoph normally likes to do, though the common factor is his skill in pastiche and re-styling from both past and present. The major pieces here are a set of Deutsche Volkslieder for soprano and large ensemble – idiosyncratic treatments of original folk rhymes – and his remiX V of Scriabin, done in techno style for piano, live electronics and prerecorded loops. He also gives the treatment to Beethoven’s fifth symphony first movement and other archetypal pieces, including Mozart’s Sonata facile ma non troppo done in the style of John Cage: I liked that a lot, as it’s really just having fun with others’ seriousness.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Review of Opera North's The Greek Passion

Opera North have put a huge amount of resource into this new production of Martinů’s last opera (in the original, 1957-written, version).

It needs a long cast list – there are 19 named roles in the programme, and none is overwhelmingly more important than the others – and the chorus members have a vital role to play, because it’s essentially about two communities and they represent both.

The villagers of Lycovrissi are to present a Passion play (the imagery of the opening tableau, in Christopher Alden’s production here, is reminiscent of the Oberammergau play, now only a few months away from its next round of performances).

Roles are allocated, almost too precisely true to life: Yannakos the postman will be Peter; young Michelis will be John; Katerina, a widow, and Panait, her drunken lover, will be the Magdalen and Judas respectively. And the shepherd Manolios will be Christ.

Manolios takes his role seriously – he studies the Bible with the other ‘apostles’, and prepares to turn his back, at least for the time being, on marriage to his fiancée, Lenio.

Then village life is disrupted by the arrival of a crowd of refugees – they are not foreigners, but an entire uprooted community of fellow-Greeks, with their own village priest, who have been forced from their homes by the Turks. They need food and they need a place to live.

But the priest of Lycovrissi, Grigoris, rejects them and persuades his flock to do the same. Only Manolios and his fellow-disciples see them with compassion. The rest of the story works itself out as a real-life parallel to the rejection and killing of Jesus in the Passion story: in the end Manolios, having begun to persuade the villagers of the need to help those in need, is excommunicated and finally murdered.

It's a good tale – based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, who also wrote Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. If you look for them, there are echoes of the Gospel all the way through: Ladas, the miser, tries to lead Yannakos astray like Satan tempting Christ; the schoolmaster Ivan Sharpe becomes a Caiaphas, pronouncing of Manolios ‘He’s dangerous, because no fault can be found in him’; before the final denouement, Manolios shares a parable with his ‘flock’ like Jesus’ Last Supper, and we hear that he is ‘… there, and in their midst’. The chorus even quotes from the Song of Songs in the introduction to the wedding scene (Lenio now having rejected Manolios and hitched herself with someone else), including the ominous line that ‘ … summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

Martinů, who wrote the libretto himself, saw opera more as a theatre of ideas than an unveiling of psychological truth. He didn’t write long arias to reveal his characters’ innermost selves. What he wanted was drama, and story-telling. He uses a narrator to introduce each act except the last (but twice within that one), and a kaleidoscopic variety of styles of music to accompany each scene, many of which melt into one another.

So this piece demands a lot from a director, and Alden, with designer Charles Edwards, has given Opera North a vivid, in-yer-face production with a message. Perhaps almost too much of a message … displaying ‘Give us what you have too much of’ in huge letters over the heads of the chorus as they represent the refugees certainly applies the moral of the story, but it should have sunk in, for anyone with ears to hear, anyway. The company’s Manchester Evening News Theatre Award-winning production of Martinů’s Julietta, staged over 20 years ago with Paul Nilon in the leading role, made us think, rather than battering us with its lessons.

It remains to say that the cast of The Greek Passion are all excellent, and not surprisingly, as they include many of the best experienced male singers Opera North works with – Stephen Gadd, Jonathan Best, Steven Page (as The Captain, a character who is the narrator but also morphs into such forms as the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, the better to relate to us today), Paul Nilon, Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts, John Savournin. Young tenor Nicky Spence is also outstanding as Manolios, as is Magdalena Molendowska as the Magdalen character, Katerina: two magnificent voices used with great artistry.

Garry Walker, now music-director-designate of the company, conducts with a sure hand and there are some ravishly beautiful sounds from the orchestra along the way.

Nicky Spence as Jesus and the chorus of Opera North in The Greek Passion c Tristram Kenton

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Review of Opera North's Giulio Cesare

Back after seven years, one of Opera North’s best productions of baroque opera returns, and with a cast that’s almost as universally strong as it was in 2012.
One of them – counter-tenor James Laing, as Tolomeo, the narcissistic, psychopathic, moody and lecherous baddie of the story (aka Ptolomy, to ancient historians) – indeed returns to his role, just as horrifyingly antipathetic as before.
The story is of Julius Caesar in Egypt. It opens when his erstwhile Roman rival, Pompey, has already been murdered by Ptolomy – the overture is accompanied by a helpful dumb-show in which we see him knifed by Tolomeo and his general, Achilla.
Ptolomy’s sister and incestuous queen, Cleopatra, however, not only is competing with her brother/husband for supreme rule in Egypt but also sets out to seduce Caesar. Pompey’s widow, Cornelia, and son, Sesto, are out for revenge, though Cornelia is desperately vulnerable to advances from both Achilla and Ptolomy.
It’s a long piece: Handel’s operas usually are. Most of the scenes are confrontations, and the emotions are strong but unvaried and strictly sequenced (that’s the concept of Affekt).
Given those constraints, any director has to use resources skilfully, and the production by Tim Albery does that. The set is a movable one in two pieces, but they come together and apart and work from different angles, so it can evoke inside and outside, battles and bedrooms (including Cleopatra’s famous bath, in an interior that, if not a burnished throne, looks like a highly burnished boudoir).
And the design concept gives the warring nations (Romans and Egyptians) colour-coding and vivid symbolic accessories, such as the Scissorhands-style nail extensions worn by Tolomeo. Credit Leslie Travers for those effects.
The singing, which is for virtuosic performers on all sides, is what counts. Maria Sanner as Cesare (one of two trouser roles for female singers here) is at her best in the more mellow numbers, and though she can hold her own for power when placed front-of-stage, isn’t always given that advantage. James Laing is icily nasty and sustains his energy even when his voice occasionally tires.
But the star of the show in many ways is Lucie Chartin, as Cleopatra. She turns on the sex appeal so much in the first part of the story that she’s in danger of making the character a saucy little tart, but she finds real dignity and pathos later on, turning Piangeró la sorte mia, sung from floor level, into a baroque equivalent of Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, and displaying technical brilliance in her trills and leaps in Da tempeste il legno infranto, as well as a warm mezza voce elsewhere.
And matching her for subtlety is Heather Lowe, one of the Royal Northern College of Music’s best products of recent years, as Sesto. She makes as remarkable a success of it as did Kathryn Rudge, another lovely RNCM high mezzo, in the original production.
And Amy J Payne, who took the role of Cornelia on Wednesday, gave a superb performance as Cornelia, full of emotion and vivid acting ability, and with sustained quality from beginning to end. Handel’s slow, lamenting arias, with the guiding hand of conductor Christian Curnyn, have never sounded better than this.

Lucie Chartin as Cleopatra and Maria Sanner as Giulio Cesare in 
Opera North's production of Handel's opera. c Alastair Muir

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert 2nd November 2019

Ever wondered what swarming bees, murmurations of starlings, a plague of locusts and night-time insect sounds are like when expressed in music?

Philip Grange has the answers. His Violin Concerto, given its world premiere by Carolin Widmann and the BBC Philharmonic under Ben Gernon, is explicitly about all those. The programme note spells it out: the world of swarms, flocks and plagues is mainly expressed by the orchestra through the single-movement work’s fast sections, and the night insects come into it in the context of the slower ones, where the violin has extended solos.

But there’s more. The point of these evocations of the natural world (which Philip Grange links with mammalian herds, as well) is to say something about the individual and the group – how we can think as rational individuals and at the same time find the ‘whim of the group’ counts for more. He even refers to ‘the current political landscape and the events that have led us to where we are’. I wonder if that was written on the assumption that something politically significant would have happened on 31st October last?

But back to the music. One of the more intriguing aspects of the Violin Concerto’s concept is that the solo has to struggle to emerge from the group – at times it’s quite submerged beneath the orchestral sounds, and the work ends with something very like a cadenza (briefly, but only briefly, accompanied), so that the solo finally triumphs by being completely on its own. That’s a new approach to the concerto tradition, and an effective one.

Prior to it, there are passages more akin to the old idea of ‘dialogue’ (for instance when the solo violin tries to dance, but the rest of the orchestra are too busy to join her), and the music offering soloistic display has some quite spooky noises for its accompaniment (Hallowe’en raising its baleful face again?). The sheer complication of the score makes it almost as much a concerto for orchestra as for the soloist, which may have been the intention all along.

Ben Gernon piloted the BBC Philharmonic through its complications with a sure hand, as he had for the opening piece of Stravinsky – the proto-opera/ballet/tone poem Song of the Nightingale, whose music was begun before The Firebird, completed after Petrushka, and finally launched shortly before The Rite of Spring.

No wonder it disappeared from view to some extent, and no wonder you keep hearing things that seem reminiscent of the other, more familiar, pieces. The story’s set in old China, and the musical chinoiserie (jingling percussion, pentatonic unison melodies – the usual stuff) does get a bit annoying. But it was played with considerable class, with distinctive solos from guest leader Igor Yuzefovich, principal flute Alex Jakeman and guest principal trumpet Aaron Akugbo.

(Incidentally, for observant programme readers who might have been alarmed: Peter Dixon has not retired as principal cello: Bozidar Vukotic was guesting in his place but got the wrong symbol attached to his name).

The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1 (‘Winter Daydreams’). Gernon brought bold, emphatic style to the build-up of its opening movement, with eloquent pauses and springy rhythms, and there were surprises later on as well: a fierce and exciting development section of that Allegro, and a great island of sound in the unison horns’ theme in the Andante cantabile. The scherzo had something of the sort of delicacy a Mendelssohn scherzo should have; and the finale, setting a frenetic pace for Allegro moderato but gaining considerable weight by the end, was hugely enjoyable if a bit scrambly. I always enjoy Ben Gernon’s fresh takes on the warhorses, and this was no exception.

Carolin Widmann (left) and Ben Gernon with the BBC Philharmonic

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's The Silver Lake at Buxton Opera House

Premiered in 1933, The Silver Lake was the last theatre work Kurt Weill completed before being forced out of Germany by the Nazis. His collaborator was Georg Kaiser, a gifted playwright who was very successful in the Weimar Republic era, and it’s altogether a more poetic and fanciful creation than most of his work with Berthold Brecht.

The fast-moving succession of scenes (with a narrator to make sure you don’t miss anything) nonetheless convey a clear social message. It begins with the poor and hungry queuing for inadequate handouts because they can’t afford the food shops’ prices, and quickly points out that this is because capitalism dictates that prices must remain high, even if the food itself is getting thrown away to ensure that demand outstrips supply.

A crowd bursts into a shop and loots it, but the character on whom we focus, Severin, takes just one rare thing: a pineapple. He’s shot in the leg by policeman Olim, who’s racked by guilt but tells himself he can’t afford to help him – until he wins the lottery and becomes a rich man.

He takes Severin into the castle he has now acquired and seeks to make amends, but the two of them, once reconciled, are cheated out of their property by their housekeeper, a survivor of the old nobility (with help from her baronial friend). They are dispossessed and head for the land where justice reigns, across the Silver Lake which miraculously freezes over to grant them passage.

This was enough to ensure the Nazis got the show closed after two weeks, and Weill was soon on his way out of the country.

The piece is subtitled ‘A Winter’s Tale’, and in some ways is a fairy story. With spoken dialogue and narration, it’s in the ‘Singspiel’ tradition (the German equivalent of a musical), like The Magic Flute – and Weill’s rich and multi-coloured score, requiring an  opera-quality chorus and using some of Mozart’s devices, too (such as a chorale with a walking bass, for the final journey) is a many-splendoured thing.

English Touring Opera’s artistic boss, James Conway, is the director, and Kurt Weill expert James Holmes (well known to Opera North devotees) conducts. Such resources as ETO has to throw at a project are visible here, with quite an elaborate set by James Wiltshire, including screen projection, and the stage is peopled, in addition to its 14 credited singers, with members of Streetwise Opera’s groups involving homeless people.

The narration and spoken dialogue are in English, and Conway and Holmes have put the choral numbers into English, too, but the solo ones are in the original German … a bit odd, that seems; but with English surtitles for both on display, both electronically and in placards held up by the cast from time to time, we don’t miss a thing.

ETO have done a great job with this rarity and should be congratulated. There’s a quality line-up of principals, with Ronald Samm as Olim, David Webb as Severin, Clarissa Meek as the nasty housekeeper Frau von Luber and Luci Briginshaw as her poor relation Fennimore, and Bernadatte Iglich takes credit as both choreographer (yes, there’s dancing in it, too) and narrator.

Ronald Samm as Olim in English Touring Opera's The Silver Lake c Richard Hubert Smith

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's The Seraglio at Buxton Opera House

This is the piece of which Emperor Josef II reportedly said there were ‘too many notes’ – at least as represented in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

What he actually said should probably be translated as ‘an awful lot of notes’, or ‘a vast amount of music’, which is pretty accurate. It’s a story where very little happens but there are wonderful things in the score.

Josef might have been disappointed in the lack of action. He was much more keen on ‘Singspiel’ (a play with music, the 18th century equivalent of light opera or musicals, which is what this is) than all-sung opera, with its elaborate ensemble numbers and reflective arias.

The story is almost a cliché of its time: hero seeks and must set free a beautiful girl held captive by a big, bad villain. Except here there are two heroes and two pretty girls – the noble Belmonte and his sidekick Pedrillo, seeking lost loves Konstanze and Blonde, respectively, both held in the harem of Pasha Selim (who rather fancies adding Konstanze to his collection of wives) and guarded by Osmin (with similar designs on Blonde).

The ‘abduction’, or escape attempt, comes unstuck, but it turns out that the Muslim Selim has a bigger concept of honour and mercy than the European and therefore ‘Christian’ would-be escapees, and he finally sets them free anyway.

There’s room for fun along the way in presenting the story, which director Stephen Medcalf and his cast do in near-pantomimic style, and which the audience (witnessing it in English and with English surtitles on screen just in case they’re hard of hearing) much enjoy.

And in that multitude of notes, Mozart supplies plenty of lovely music and not a few operatic ensemble pieces. In fact, the major part of the second Act (broken here with the interval at the point where Pedrillo is about to get Osmin drunk) consists simply of two arias by Blonde framing a central section made up of two by Konstanze.

It’s at this point we realize that one of the concepts brought to the piece by Medcalf and designer Adam Wiltshire is that the harem is a collection of caged songbirds: it’s represented by two metal frameworks, closed at the top, and with mirrors to make the modest number of human resources available to English Touring Opera (just two additional girls and two guys) represent a crowd.

That’s one side of a two-part set placed on a central revolve, which does its job very well. The need to get eight voices on stage for choruses brings the occasional incongruity (near the beginning Pedrillo, having said he’ll ‘quickly hide’, comes right back on to sing in one of them), but it’s a price you pay for opera on this scale.

The principals do a fine job: Richard Pinkstone (Pedrillo) is a strong singer with a good comic gift, and John-Colyn Gyeantey brings tenderness to his tenor role; Matthew Stiff (Osmin) reaches for the low notes effectively. The girls (Lucy Hall as Konstanze and Nazan Fikret as Blonde) are very good, especially once warmed up for that feast of vocal art in the second Act. Alex Andreou delivers the spoken role of Pasha Selim with studied gravity.

And John Andrews’ conducting gives us pleasant variety of tempo and generous helpings of ‘Turkish’ colour from the pit.

English Touring Opera's The Seraglio c Jane Hobson

Monday, 7 October 2019

Review: the Hallé in Berlioz' Roméo et Juliette, Bridgewater Hall

Without Sir Mark Elder, and without Alice Coote and Paul Nilon, the originally advertised mezzo and tenor soloists, the Hallé performance of Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette was still a magnificent undertaking and magnificently accomplished.

Julie Boulianne, the French-Canadian mezzo who sang Marguerite for Glyndebourne’s The Damnation of Faust and Mary for the Hallé’s Proms performance of The Childhood of Christ in the summer, became Juliette and the widely experienced tenor Yann Beuron her Roméo: Laurent Naouri took the bass-baritone role of Friar Lawrence as advertised.

And Ludovic Morlot stepped in as maestro. It’s a strange and sprawling work, almost proto-Wagnerian in its combination of programme-symphony and quasi-opera (Berlioz called it a ‘dramatic symphony’), and the dramatic element in it is the key to its successful realization.

What came across most impressively in this performance was the quality of the preparation done by the ‘home’ teams of Hallé Choir, Royal Northern College of Music Chamber Choir and orchestra, as much as that of the invited soloists.

Berlioz chose the human resources for this creation just as he wanted – no more and no less. Four harps, four bassoons, a prominent role for the cor anglais, multiple percussion and an ophicleide distinguish the colours of the orchestra; the choral music is sung by a three-voice semi-chorus (alto, tenor, bass) in which the women are distinctly a minority – giving many of the sounds a darkened hue appropriate to the tragedy unfolded.

Yet as the music begins the strings are in spirited mood, lending the representation of internecine strife on the streets of Verona a near-jolly aspect. The opening narrative introduction to the story (told by semi-chorus and soloists in a completely original recitative style) has a kind of bardic accompaniment for the harps and six harmonious cellos, which lends the flavour of times long ago. And the Capulets’ ball gets going at considerable length, with distant-sounding percussion, as if we’re eavesdropping on events playing out off-stage, almost in real time.

The large chorus take no part in proceedings until Juliette is unconscious, and seem to represent members of the two warring factions – for this performance the Hallé Choir entered colour-coded in red and green sashes, to underline the point. Ultimately, despite trying to argue with Friar Lawrence’s plea for reconciliation, they agree he’s got a point and, joined by the other singers, finally hail the virtue of forgiveness and vow to be ‘Amis!’ in future.

The weakness of its presentation of the story lies in the words of the verbal sections, which are nothing like Shakespeare’s and at time effusive to a degree, and musically Berlioz’ attempt at a programme-symphony is a compromise between formal structures (an expositional opening, a slow-movement love scene, the often-extracted ‘Queen Mab Scherzo, based on a single phrase from the play), and the need to be theatrical.

To his enormous credit, Ludovic Morlot moved it all along smartly, obtained some gorgeous playing from the orchestra and pumped up the tension in the Finale, when it could so easily have seriously sagged.

Congratulations to all on a considerable achievement, one of those that have been the highlights of Hallé seasons in Manchester for many years past, and hopefully will be for many years to come.

Ludovic Morlot c Chris Lee

Sunday, 22 September 2019

BBC Philharmonic with John Wilson and Alexander Gavrylyuk at the Bridgewater Hall

The BBC Philharmonic’s Bridgewater Hall season got off to a charming and challenging start with John Wilson on the podium and Alexander Gavrylyuk playing Prokoviev’s third piano concerto.

John Wilson’s been visiting Manchester for a number of years, and his trademark championing of ‘light orchestral’ music of the mid-20th century, sometimes considered infra dig by high-minded programmers, made itself apparent in the last piece we heard – Eric Coates’ Dancing Nights. It’s in the series brochure as an item in the concert, but the programme booklet on the night omitted it, leaving Wilson to add it as an encore and explain to the audience that he’s recording Coates with the Phil at the moment and hopes we’ll all buy the CD when it’s out in December.

He had something much weightier to offer before that in the shape of Walton’s first symphony. British music is one of his other big interests, and his reading, weighty and emotionally committed as you might expect from the BBC Philharmonic, took flight particularly in the third movement – the ‘Andante, con malincolia’ which was characterized by not just melancholy but a sense of near-despair, with a depth of pathos and passion growing as the movement progressed and a finely shaped climax.

The coda of the first movement had been powerful and gripping, and the real problem (as ever with this work) was how to make the finale – which sounds at first like a dummy run for the Crown Imperial march which was soon to follow it, for the 1937 Coronation – carry enough weight to balance all that’s gone before. But under Wilson’s baton its concluding apostrophising was well paced and carried a sense of inevitability and pride.

The first part of the programme was all-Russian. Alexander Gavrylyuk brought breathtaking virtuosity to Prokoviev’s Piano concerto no. 3, a piece which sounds like what it was meant to be, namely a vehicle for solo display, with its own big tune in the last movement to prove that its composer could match Rachmaninov for soaring melody, too.

It was preceded by Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon overture – a curious blend of late-1930s hyperactivity for orchestral strings with a self-consciously spicy burst of jazzy Western-style syncopation – an excellent starter for any concert and brilliantly executed for this one.

And it was followed by Gavrylyuk’s own solo encore – a relaxing and lovable contrast with the frenzy of Prokoviev in the shape of Schumann’s opening of Kinderszenen: ‘Von fremden Länder und Menschen’.

John Wilson c Chris Christodoulou

Monday, 16 September 2019

Omer Meir Wellber’s inaugural at the BBC Phil

‘I don’t think in history there’s been a music director who opened his tenure with a children’s concert.’

That’s not my comment, it’s the words of Omer Meir Wellber, the young new chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, on his first public appearance with the orchestra at its home in Salford since officially entering on his realm.

He’s proud of it. He conducted the Phil in two Proms concerts in London this summer, but as far as its North of England base is concerned, a children’s concert to launch the BBC’s ‘Bring the Noise’ school music streams and podcasts, and a studio concert live-streamed on iPlayer and the Philharmonic website and shown for passers-by on the BBC’s big screen outside its MediaCity studio (it will be broadcast on Radio 3 later), have been the only inaugural events for the new maestro. The Bridgewater Hall audience in Manchester will have to wait until December for his series concert appearance.

Of course it’s all to do with existing contractual commitments and scheduling – but he says he asked for these inaugural performances because he had one week available in the early autumn to be on-site with the North West band – and it’s also symbolic of the spirit of youthfulness and a zeal to communicate that comes with Omer Meir Wellber at the helm. The Phil are only just beginning to find out what hit them when he got the top job.

That studio concert, for instance. He conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (the latter from memory) in the second half – pretty much what you might expect from a new chief conductor with a strong track record in the Austro-German classics (he did Mozart’s ‘Linz’ symphony and Act 1 of Die Walküre in a Bridgewater Hall concert last October on the day his appointment was announced).

But the first half had not only the Summer movement from The Four Seasons with a mandolin solo instead of violin (Jacob Reuven, with whom he works in an educational project called ‘Strings of Change’ to help Bedouin children, based in Beer-Sheva, was the soloist), but also the most off-the-wall version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 (K414) I have ever heard. He was his own soloist for it, but instead of the variety of contemporary written cadenzas available for each of its movements (of which there are a number), Wellber produced a succession of improvised interpolations – based on the written ones, it is true, and one of them really just a transcription for three soloists in succession – for a jazz-klezmer group including trumpet, clarinet, solo violin, accordion, bass, drum kit and his piano, which took us stylistically a long, long way from 18th century Vienna. He’s at home in these idioms as much as any other, and soon had his audience tapping their feet and smiling at the wail of the clarinet and accelerating dance beat that finally adorned Mozart’s restrained Andante.

‘I’ve done this on a smaller scale before, when we asked the public to vote on what sort of cadenzas they would like – I think even Mozart would approve.’

There may be fun in it, but Wellber takes fun seriously. ‘If you have spontaneity in yourself, it’s wrong to cover it,’ he says. ‘My background is that of a gypsy. If there’s something in you, then this is what you bring. When I was younger I used to do magic shows with music – I would do the tricks and play my accordion. I’m now at a point in my life when I can bring out new things as a conductor.’

So who is this self-confessed gypsy with an accordion, preparing to do magic with one of the UK’s top broadcasting orchestras? It goes back to a childhood in the south of the state of Israel, a family with a remarkable range of talents and connections, and a musical training that gave him a rock-solid grounding and respect for gifted teachers.

His mother and family were both from ‘Eretz-Israel’ families – those who’d lived in the land for generations before the founding of the state in 1948, and answered the call of David Ben-Gurion to make the desert bloom, moving from Tel Aviv to Beer-Sheva, which was where Omer and his sisters grew up.

‘That was the biggest decision made in my life – the kind of thing that makes you a different person. My school wanted me to go to Tel Aviv as a kind of prodigy, but my parents wouldn’t have it. I grew up in a place where you have people from 20 different backgrounds and a basically poor economic environment. And my upbringing was in a free style: each of us did what they wanted to do, we were never pushed into anything. I was ambitious, but I have one sister who is not and one who is as much as me.’

‘Music was always there for me. But so was the theatre – in my family about 70 per cent were involved in teaching, including my parents, and the rest were in acting, so I was familiar with the backstage side of theatre life.’

His cousin, Eli Danker, is well known in Israeli theatrical life, and is set to visit the Philharmonic to perform in a future season: ‘He was the most important influence on me, in a way, as my father died when I was young.’

Omer learned to play piano – and accordion – from the age of five, and the violin and mandolin from the age of 12, because, he says, he was already a composer and wanted to find out how those instruments worked. He stayed in ‘normal’ schooling, with extra teaching at the music specialist school in Beer-sheva until the time came for national service in the army (as all Israeli youngsters do) – but his time in uniform was cut to a year and a half so that he could join the national Jerusalem Music Academy.

He studied with Michael Wolpe (himself taught by Alexander Goehr at Cambridge) because at that point he wanted to make composing his main interest (and he does have a string of compositions to his name), but gradually shifted to conducting.

From 2008 to 2010 he was assistant to Daniel Barenboim, both at the Staatsoper in Berlin and La Scala (he and his family now have their home in Milan), and he acknowledges the importance his mentors have had in his development: ‘Since the age of eight I’ve benefited from really big people as teachers – I don’t think an artist can ever be an auto-didact, and I still speak to my first teacher back in Beer-Sheva.

‘Oscar Wilde said “A fine artist imitates, but a brilliant artist steals”, and I took as much as I could from Barenboim, but now I imitate him less and less. I’ve been professionally conducting for 15 years, but in the past five I have found what is my priority and what “fits” for me.’

Those 15 years have included a remarkable range of experience and activity – music director at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, conducting Verdi operas in Vienna three years running, appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and frequently at the Semperoper in Dresden, where he is now principal guest conductor; and he’s been seen a number of times with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conducted at Glyndebourne (Madame Butterfly last year), in addition to orchestral concerts worldwide.

Oddly enough, he has memories of a brief previous stay in Manchester as a 12-year-old, when his father, a trade union leader and socialist politician in Israel, was offered a diplomatic job in the UK and came to the city. ‘He hated the job and went back to Israel after a year, and I was not here all that time anyway, but I attended King David School and got to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time!’

He says he also started making model railway sets as a hobby then – another unexpected characteristic of a man of many parts, so it’s almost no surprise to learn that he’s a published author, too. He’s written about Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan Tutte), in a book called ‘Fear, Risk and Love: Moments with Mozart’, and has a novel about to appear in German, Italian and English. The title in the German version translates as ‘The Four Times that Chaim Birckner Fainted’, which he describes as ‘an alternative story of Israel … about a tired, incompetent Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel: he’s a big liar and he lives a strange, passive, crazy life.’ The politically conscious aspect of his heritage is coming out here, he says, in the light of a new emigration from the country on the part of those of left-wing convictions.

And what will the BBC Philharmonic see in terms of future programmes and projects from Omer Meir Welber? It’s early days yet: his 14 December programme at the Bridgewater Hall includes the UK premiere of Sophia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan (a Russian kind of accordion), along with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, and he’ll be back in March with a Beethoven programme and in April with Richard Strauss, Schnittke and Shostakovich (also toured to Nottingham): the rest of the autumn-winter-spring season was pretty well sorted when he was offered the top job earlier this year.

He says in the programme booklet for Manchester: ‘In every concert, I want to try to tell a story’ and refers to ‘political themes we’ll be exploring over the next few years’. As we spoke he was discussing plans for next year’s BBC Proms and the season to follow them with the orchestra’s general manager, Simon Webb, and his staff. But it’s probably safe to say, ‘Expect the unexpected’.

Philharmonic trumpeter Gary Farr was asked on camera about the experience of working with him on those improvised Mozart concerto cadenzas in the studio concert. He said: ‘Much of it was Omer’s imagination – and it took all of us to orchestrate it!’

Omer Meir Wellber rehearsing with the BBC Philharmonic. Picture: Mark McNulty

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Latham-Koenig's new boundary-breaking orchestra

The RNCM hosts a concert on 21st September that could be a real landmark. It’s not an event confined to Manchester – rather, one of a series that begins in Russia and then moves to the UK for performances at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, Leeds Town Hall, the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, The Anvil in Basingstoke and finally Cadogan Hall in London.

It’s the inaugural tour of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, a project pioneered by conductor Jan-Latham Koenig to bring young musicians from Russia and Britain  together to play and perform – a bit like Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which likewise is about young musicians coming together and creating links across cultural and political boundaries.

Behind it is a group of top musical training institutions, both in Russia and the UK, of which the RNCM is one, plus some high-placed well-wishers and sponsorship from BP and its Russian counterpart, Rosneft.

Latham-Koenig is well placed to make this idea happen, as he’s chief conductor and artistic director of Moscow’s Novaya Opera Theatre – the first and only British conductor appointed to lead a Russian cultural organisation. The orchestra’s name, obviously enough, derives from the friendship that developed in the 1960s between Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, bridging what were then the big divides of the Cold War. With help from their mutual friend, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, both Britten and Shostakovich were able to cross the ideological boundaries of the time.

Taking part are 87 young players, 52 from Russia and 35 from the UK, who will have been welded together for a week, in Sochi in Russia, by professionals from orchestras and opera houses. Their Russian dates include the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory and the Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg, before they all come to Britain.

The RNCM programme on the tour features Pavel Kolesnikov as piano soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, along with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra.

Among the orchestra members are the newly announced harpist to the Prince of Wales,  24-year-old Alis Huws, and violinist Elizabeth Lister, cellist Abigail Davies, bassist Thomas Betts, bassoonist Christian Bushnell and trumpeter Thomas Watts, all from the RNCM. 

Latham-Koenig believes Britten and Shostakovich were the two greatest composers of the 20th century in their respective countries, and adds: ‘Above all, they were friends, two geniuses who admired each other. They were different personalities, but you can see that in subtle ways they were both influenced by each other’s music.

‘I am thrilled that we are launching this first British-Russian orchestra in the spirit of a friendship under unlikely circumstances – the language barrier, which Britten and Shostakovich contended with, was their smallest obstacle.’

Jan Latham-Koenig and the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Review of National Children's Orchestra with Jess Gillam and Jonathan Bloxham, Bridgewater Hall

To tackle a programme including Mahler’s First Symphony after one week’s acquaintance together would be a tall order for any professional orchestra. That the National Children’s Orchestra under Jonathan Bloxham sounded so good doing it is little short of miraculous.

Of course they’re not to be compared with adult professionals, and don’t attain the near-professional standards of the National Youth Orchestra or conservatoire bodies. But if there’s one thing their concert at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday showed it is that these youngsters can produce amazing sounds with orchestral instruments, both individually and together.

They began with Korngold’s Schauspiel Ouvertüre – itself written by a 14-year-old – in which the most immediate feature of their sound was the sweetness of the string playing and the blending of their brass. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1, when it came, tested every department of the orchestra but emerged as a real success, bringing their audience (favourably biased, admittedly, in many cases) to its feet in admiration. Jonathan Bloxham and his team of music staff had achieved something remarkable in their week’s course of training: the precision of much of the playing (from a very large body), the richness of tone in many areas, and the collective creation of great musical effects were thrilling.

Before that their star soloist, saxophonist, Last Night of the Proms darling, broadcaster, RNCM product and undoubtedly the most exciting thing to have come from Ulverston since Stan Laurel, Jess Gillam, made her own impact with a piece by John Williams called Escapades from Catch Me If You Can (a three-movement suite from Williams’ film score).

Characteristically, she made light of all its intricacies and sailed through its lively jazz-inflected text with an infectious sense of enjoyment. As long as the NCO keeps its emphasis on top-class music making being fun, it really can’t go wrong.

Jess Gillam c Kaupo Kikkas

Monday, 29 July 2019

Review of Don Giovanni at Clonter Opera

Clonter Opera is 45 years old – what began as a kind of summer party for enthusiasts sitting on bales of straw in a barn has become a north west artistic institution, with a purpose-built theatre and proven track record of providing real nurture for young singers as they begin to make their names in a demanding profession.

This year’s summer production of Don Giovanni is notable for the calibre of the production and music team behind it and the results they have achieved: Clive Timms is completing 10 years as music director and finally conducting his 75th performance here, with Robin Humphreys the long-time assistant music director and repetiteur, and Valeria Racco assistant conductor. Martin Lloyd-Evans has brought a fresh re-thinking of the story as director, and Nate Gibson has created an inspired design concept that neatly overcomes the problems of its varied settings (an issue that can easily defeat other designers).

We’re in the present day, or pretty near (mobile phones are much in use; one is the source Leporello consults for the ‘Catalogue’ aria of his boss’s sexual conquests in Act 1). Gibson and Lloyd-Evans have imagined the place as the USA, but it could easily be any other prosperous, soulless and fundamentally seedy Western society. The characters are nearly all genuinely young in years (that fits the Clonter casting), and what separates the powerful from the powerless is not so much aristocrat versus low-born as money and hypocrisy.

Don Giovanni would have a clear case to answer from the #MeToo movement these days: but how much are the victims of such a libertine complicit in moral failure themselves as they thirst for revenge, redemption or respectability, Lloyd-Evans asks. Perhaps his amorality carries more honesty than their conformity. In this view the homespun couple Zerlina and Masetto, in their attempt at a banal, Las Vegas-style wedding and enjoyment of simple, loving carnality, are the ones we should really admire …

The single set has two movable ‘walls’, with shutters that can each be closed or open to reveal a second view: evoking inside and outside, foreground and background, a bar, a club or a morgue with instant effect.

And the statue of the Commendatore, murdered at the outset and who finally answers Giovanni’s invitation to dine and then drags him down to Hell? In this case we see the man spookily re-appearing as silent Uber driver, barista or barman, and finally as a corpse that moves and a living head served up on a platter …  

The singers are all technically excellent – some much more than that. Eliza Boom (Donna Anna) and Alexandra Lowe (Donna Elvira) are familiar to RNCM opera attenders, and each impressed here, the former for her passionate delivery of ‘Or sai chi l’onore’, the latter for the power in her singing, her believable characterization and a glorious ‘Mi tradi’ aria.

New to me was Alexandra Oomens (Zerlina), who deserves a medal just for wearing the crazily high-heeled boots she was kitted out with but whose acting and voice had life and loveliness; ‘Vedrai, carino,’ especially.

Of the men, Fabian Langguth rightly dominated the show, as the Don himself. He got the idea of the louche seducer perfectly, and his light baritone, endearing in his amorous songs and almost a croon in ‘Deh vieni all finestra’, converted itself to a convincing imitation of Leporello’s bass tones moments afterwards: there’s a lot yet to be revealed there.

Simon Grange, who was Leporello, has enviable resonance and a great comic gift, his face never still, which should stand him in real stead in the future. Andrew Henly (Don Ottavio) brought golden tone to ‘Il mio tesoro’, and Stephen Fort was finally imperious as the doom-beckoning corpse-Commendatore.

Masetto can sometimes seem a one-dimensional idiot – but in this production he’s a more regular guy and even a bit of a hero in his own way. Jacobo Ochoa has a fine baritone voice and acts, and reacts, very well.

Fabian Langguth, Alexandra Oomens, Jacobo Ochoa, Alexandra Lowe, 
Andrew Henley and Eliza Boom in Clonter Opera's Don Giovanni. c Andrew Billington

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Review of Georgiana at Buxton International Festival

While Manchester International Festival prides itself on its biennial ‘new work’ (sometimes less than complete, less than new or less than work), Buxton International Festival creates new productions every year. This time, in the 40th anniversary festival, it has created its own new work as well.

It’s a very interesting species, too. They’ve revived the genre of ‘pasticcio’ opera – once common practice all over Europe – which is made by taking musical numbers from existing sources and giving them new words to fit a new plotline. In England the words would be in English, even if the arias and ensembles were originally in foreign-language opera, and there would be spoken dialogue and probably melodrama (speech with background music) as well.

The story here is that of Georgiana, Duchess to the 5th Duke of Devonshire – portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film, The Duchess – and it could hardly be more fitting for Buxton. Almost every stone and blade of grass in the town is connected to the denizens of Chatsworth in some way, or bears the name of Cavendish or Devonshire. In the old days the 11th Duke, and Deborah the Duchess, used to be at every festival first night in Buxton Opera House.

Georgiana, though, was an unusual Duchess. Fabulously good-looking – just look at Gainsborough’s portrait – she was a daughter of the Spencer family, as was Diana Princess of Wales in a later era. Funny, that: there were three people in her marriage, too.

When at first she failed to provide her husband with a male heir, she was joined in his affections and home life by Lady Elizabeth Foster (‘Bess’) – herself the victim of a time when even the noblest married women were their husband’s chattels, and, intriguingly, very good friends with Georgiana, who introduced her to him.

She formed her own extra-marital liaison, too, with Charles Grey (later the Earl Grey of tea fame), who, fitting the style of the time, is played as a mezzo trouser-role here. Their daughter was not allowed to join the Cavendish home.

The film makes you feel Georgiana was a victim. She was in many ways, but she was also a reckless gambler, as well as socialite, political organizer and author. This scenario, by Buxton Festival CEO Michael Williams (who also penned the lyrics for the musical numbers) puts that side of her life in focus, fleshing out her many-sided character.

The music has been chosen by Mark Tatlow, who has achieved an extraordinary thing by making a pasticcio entirely of music Georgiana might or could have heard in her lifetime and adapting it to a tale that’s both comic and tragic.

They make a comedy duo of playwright Sheridan and politician Charles James Fox, and present the early part of Georgiana’s story with a broad, comic brush (though there are strongly dramatic entrance arias taken from Soler and Storace for Georgiana and her mother, and an appealing bit of Mozart to introduce the unhappy Duke).

We also get some popular songs of the period to suit the scenes of public life, one literally from The Beggars’ Opera, whose atmosphere percolates much of the first half of Georgiana.

But the impressive part of this compilation-piece comes later. As the story reaches its tragic culmination, Tatlow introduces his adaptation of Mozart’s wonderful concert aria, ‘Bella mia fiamma’, its chromaticisms bearing the weight of the Duchess’s feelings as she loses her daughter borne to Grey. And the ‘duettino’, adapted from Paisiello, for Georgiana and Bess as the friends (whom the scenario suggests had their own intimate relationship, too) prepare for the parting of death, is superbly chosen and was movingly sung by Samantha Clarke (Georgiana) and Susanna Fairbairn (Bess), under Tatlow’s tender direction.

There’s a touching detail, too, in the introduction to this one – it’s a tune, played on fortepiano by Mark Tatlow as maestro al cembalo, which apparently was the real Georgiana’s own composition.

This performance has been cast with very fine and experienced performers. Benjamin Hulett is powerful and particularly excellent in the florid runs of his Act 2 aria (taken from Linley’s The Duenna). Samantha Clarke and Susanna Fairbairn are wonderful singers and effective actors; Olivia Ray makes a very effective contribution as Lady Spencer (Georgiana’s mother); Katherine Aitken sings Grey beautifully and Rhys Alun Thomas makes a baleful Blackmailer; and Aled Hall and Geoffrey Dolton keep everything alive as Sheridan and Fox.

Matthew Richardson’s direction is sure-footed, clear and entertaining with a simple but effective set (design by Jon Morrell). It’s quite remarkable … and could even set an example for the future. Pasticcio lives again.

Samantha Clarke and Benjamin Hulett in Georgiana

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review of Orpheus in the Underworld at Buxton International Festival

Seen in Salford on tour in 2015, Jeff Clarke’s reinterpretation of Offenbach’s operetta for Opera della Luna has been revamped for the Buxton International Festival and is even more fun than before.
Jeff is still in charge as director; the choreography by Jenny Arnold enlivens the whole show again, with four ‘infernal dancers’ for the Cancan and much else besides; Maria Lancashire’s jolly costumes are back.
There is re-introduced ballet music rarely heard in other productions – I guess they knew they needed proper dancers for the infernal CanCan, and so they might as well use them thoroughly – so we have a pas des moutons in the opening pastoral and a flies’ polka later on.
And changing from a thrust stage arrangement without much of a set to the proscenium view at Buxton, with some very nice cloths and props by designer Elroy Ashmore, makes quite a difference.
There’s a little orchestra with single strings plus six others, playing an arrangement of the score by Thibault Perrine which works very well, and Luna performers from the previous version are Louise Crane (Juno), Katharine Taylor-Jones (the character of embodied Public Opinion – in this case transformed into an Arts Council of England assessor who knows even less about art than Sir Les Patterson) and Tristan Stocks as Orpheus, who has to sing tenor and play Che Faro on the violin while in character – ie badly, which he does rather well.
We also have some very good new actor-singers, in particular Daire Halpin as Eurydice, Anthony Flaum as Pluto, Matthew Siveter as Jupiter, Lynsey Docherty as Diana and Paul Featherstone as Mercury and John Styx.
The operetta, brought back to its historical roots by Jeff Clarke, shows the inhabitants of Olympus (all one dysfunctional family, rather like Downton Abbey at its worst) and an Orpheus and Eurydice who don’t actually like each other, with Pluto disguised as a shepherd carrying her off to the nether regions. Jupiter and the other gods descend to the underworld, Jupiter gets Eurydice out by disguising himself as a fly, and it all ends with a party and … see for yourself.
Jeff Clarke’s updated the text again with lots of topical allusions (MeToo, fake news, Wikileaks, etc., etc.), ‘When I was king of the Beotians’ this time becoming a soliloquy by one ‘Dave’ who was ‘king of Chipping Norton’ and ‘called that referendum … Donald Tusk has since confirmed it – I have a special place in hell’. Too true.

To the barricades! Scene from Orpheus in the Underworld credit Craig Fuller

Monday, 8 July 2019

Review of Eugene Onegin at Buxton International Festival

Shelley Jackson (Tatyana) and George Humphreys (Onegin) in Eugene Onegin 
at Buxton International Festival (picture: Genevieve Girling)

There’s freshness in the air at the Buxton Festival this year as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, and nowhere more so than in the first of the year’s opera productions, with new artistic director Adrian Kelly conducting for the first time, Jamie Manton making his Buxton debut as director of the production, and a young cast all of whom are making their house debuts.
That’s all to the good, and one continuing factor very much to the good is the quality of the 24-strong festival chorus. They were stalwarts of this interpretation, not just in their singing but in performing some simple but nicely executed choreography as well (by Jasmine Rickets, with dancers Lowri Mashburn and Katie Fairs incorporated into the ensemble), and moving stage props around – indeed, becoming stage props of a sort in some scenes.
Onegin has to have dancing in it, with the much-excerpted waltz and polonaise in the score, each essential to a scene of social dance as much rooted in the story as the ball scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Its typically Romantic saga could have been the outcome of that other plotline if you imagine Mr Darcy spurning Elizabeth Bennet’s feelings and going off for a few years’ Casanova-style adventures, only to return to find her married to someone else and himself wishing he’d taken his chance when he could have.
Of course Tatyana, the heroine here, begins as a much more innocent and lovestruck girl than Elizabeth (with her father to guide her) ever was. Onegin himself is pretty much a cad, killing his best friend in a duel occasioned by his flirting with Tatyana’s sister. So there’s a much more Byronic flavour to Pushkin’s story, which was originally told in sonnet-like verse, giving the whole thing an ironic tone akin to Childe Harold (reflected in this English translation).
All this gives the opera subtleties one hopes to find in its protagonists’ interpretations, as well as enjoying the soaring romance in the music. Jamie Manton leaves them with plenty to do, as the set is about as minimalist as they get: bare boards, autumn leaves, a few chairs and some chandeliers for the first part of the story, some snow for the middle, and better quality chairs for the posh ball in St Petersburg at the end. There is symbolism in the shape of a little girl in ballet shoes who appears beginning and end, and the climax of the duel scene, a sudden plunge into red light, is effective – intriguingly followed by the Polonaise dancers at first carrying death masks and dressed in black.
The principals’ singing is high-quality in every case, the men – George Humphreys as Onegin, David Webb as Lensky, Joseph Doody as M Triquet and Joshua Bloom as Gremin – to my mind filling their roles adequately without ever making you think they’d got real psychological depth in them.
The younger female ones, though – with whom Tchaikovsky perhaps felt the greatest empathy – were contrasted. Shelley Jackson, as Tatyana, has a darkly-shaded soprano tone of real potential and yet never quite made me think she was a youngster in the agony of desperate passion, even in the highspot of her role, the first act’s famous Letter Scene – though she never wrote a word, as far as I could tell.
Angharad Lyddon, as Olga, sang very well and acted the youthful, carefree soul I always imagined: you could see why Lensky fell for her. Gaynor Keeble and Ceri Williams, Madame Larina and Filipyevena, were excellent and inhabited the older women’s characters.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra were in the pit as usual and made a fine fist of the score.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Buxton Festival's revival of the opera pasticcio

Buxton Festival is 40 years old this year, and offering the mix of contrasting operatic experience it has so often in the past.

There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with the new festival director Adrian Kelly conducting and a gifted young cast. There’s a visit from topsy-turvy comedy specialists Opera della Luna, with their version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which I’ve seen before and want to again. There’s also a happy return to Buxton by Adrian Chandler’s baroque specialist ensemble La Serenissima, with the first production in the UK of Lucio Papirio Dittatore, by Caldara, 300 years after its Vienna premiere: Adrian will conduct and Mark Burns directs.

But most intriguing of all is a specially invented new work called Georgiana, about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire – that’s the same lady as played by Keira Knightly in the film, The Duchess. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember her as a fun-loving young innocent who was pretty badly treated by her Duke, having to live in a ménage-a-trois at Chatsworth with his mistress, Bess.

That’s but the half of it, apparently, and Buxton’s re-telling of the tale fills in much more about her life and times.

The thing that’s interesting about this piece is that it’s a revival of the tradition – standard procedure in Georgiana’s own time – of creating an opera pasticcio, in other words a theatre piece with its own story and characters, but borrowing and adapting music from other existing works.

In an age before copyright, it was frequent practice. Today we might call it a jukebox musical.

But Buxton’s pasticcio is itself to be an exercise in authenticity, with the musical numbers taken from composers of Duchess Georgiana’s time and all constructed in a way that could have been the case in the London she knew, with the text in English.

Its musical creator – and conductor for the performances here – is Mark Tatlow, scholar and former artistic director of the Drottningholm Court Theatre in Sweden.

Festival general manager Michael Williams first came up with the idea of creating a new version of an 18th century pasticcio, Mark Tatlow told me. ‘Michael created the basic shape of the piece and storyline, and he wrote the lyrics for the sung sections, while Janet Plater wrote the dialogue, with Matthew Richardson, the director, advising us,’ he said.

‘My role in bringing it about was to say that I thought it should reflect the music Georgiana herself would have – or could have – heard in the London of the 1780s and 1790s.

‘There are arias, duets, trios, some accompanied recitative, some stage music and some melodrama – and one street scene that’s more in the style of The Beggars’ Opera. The music comes from Thomas Linley the Younger, Stephen Storace (the composer who was the brother of Nancy Storace, Mozart’s first Susanna for The Marriage of Figaro), Martín y Soler, Paisiello – and also Mozart. That consists of three short pieces from La Finta Giardiniera and one major aria.’

Part of the piece’s faithfulness to 18th century practice is that the audience will not find attributions of the individual numbers’ music to their composers in the printed programme … but there will be an email address enabling us to find the details out after we’ve seen the show.

(The Mozart aria, though, is ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio’, originally written for Josepha Duschek and published as a concert aria but with a text that originally had a stage setting).

Soprano Samantha Clarke will create the enigmatic title role of Georgiana, with tenor Benjamin Hulett as the Duke of Devonshire and Susanna Fairbairn as Bess.

It’s a fascinating prospect – and not entirely without precedent in this part of the world. In 1850 the Manchester Theatre Royal put on a version of Cinderella in which much of the music was from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, but others’ compositions were interpolated, too.

Newspaper accounts tell us that one of those was Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni – sung by Cinders herself with English words beginning ‘Thou, chid by them, lamb – ah, no!’.[1]

You wonder whether the similar sound to the original was to enable the knowledgeable members of the audience to compliment themselves for spotting it … or perhaps to ensure that even if the singer forgot the new lines she could revert to the ones she knew without anyone noticing the difference.

Georgiana in rehearsal - picture Genevieve Gurling

[1] See