Sunday, 24 March 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's Elizabeth I

England’s woman leader is in power, but only just. Surrounded by plotters and schemers, with a female rival from Scotland attracting growing support, she sees her only way as being unbending – any sign of weakness will be an excuse to topple her. But that very rigidity is exploited by supposed friends, whose only real ambition is to take power for themselves. Deceiving and deceived, they profess loyalty while fomenting its opposite. Sounds familiar?
This is the England of Elizabeth I – Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, as Rossini and his librettist saw her. In this version of history, the Earl of Leicester is the good guy, refusing Elizabeth’s amorous advances because he’s already secretly married (and thus incurring her passionate wrath, as his wife is Mathilde, daughter of Mary Queen of Scots). The Duke of Norfolk is a lying toad, trying to manoeuvre Leicester to his death, then, once found out, seeking to encourage popular rebellion against Elizabeth – which Leicester nobly rejects.
So you have four main roles, one of which – Elizabeth – is easily the biggest. You also have – and this is such a surprise that the English surtitles reassure us we have come on the right night about three minutes in – the overture we know as that of The Barber of Seville.
How so? Well, Rossini thought it was so good he named it thrice, and this is the second show he stuck it on, Barber being the third. This one has a certain right to it, though, as a snatch of its final crescendo is worked into the Act One finale, which is another surprise.
It’s a good night in the theatre. Director James Conway presents it in period, with simple sets that evoke its time and place and provide a minimum of structure for scenes that include a throne room and a dungeon – but they’re enough. Rory Beaton’s lighting ekes out any imperfections. Designer Frankie Bradshaw clothes the chorus in black but recognisably Elizabethan garb. (I could see why they hung around in geometrical formats much of the time – court life in those days was a public business, after all. But in the dungeon scene…?)
Mary Plazas is the star. She’s a Buxton favourite already, having brilliantly sung major roles in the festival here in recent years, and again she gives both technical coloratura excellence and lovely tone over a wide tessitura, and also an intelligent and moving characterisation of her role.
Lucy Hall has an important secunda donna part as Mathilde, and she is outstandingly good to hear and well into character, too – the confrontation scene that opens Act Two was remarkably powerful. Luciano Botelho (Leicester) made a fine fist of his heroic role, and John-Colyn Gyeantey, after a rather rough start, warmed into being the nasty Norfolk in time for his best scene, a second confrontation duet.
The ETO chorus again sang magnificently, and John Andrews conducted the score with a sure and imaginative touch. There's a rawness and energy in this early Rossini – voices pitted against screaming piccolo and braying trombone in a way that Verdi was later criticised for – that is genuinely exciting.
Mary Plazas as Elizabeth I. Picture: Richard Hubert Smith

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Review of English Touring Opera's Macbeth

The English text of Verdi’s Macbeth would be a gift to any exam-swotter looking for a pass-notes style summary of the plot. It leaves out all subsidiary stuff, focusses on Macbeth and (even more) Lady Macbeth, tells you what they’re each thinking even when Shakespeare doesn’t, and throws in a chorus or two to express the background concepts of a benighted Scotland under Macbeth’s rule and the patriotic spirit of those who finally defeated him.

And some of the best quotes are still there, sounding at least something like the original.

We have translator Andrew Porter to thank for that. Occasionally he lapses into cod-Jacobean language (addressing the dagger in Macbeth’s vision as ‘thou’, for instance), but generally you have the feeling of what a 19th-century Italian operatic writing team made of this, as they would have of any other, source.

English Touring Opera are being quite brave in using English for foreign-language opera these days, when translated surtitles can supply the meaning of any libretto, whatever its original tongue. They even display the English text as it’s sung, which affords us the pleasant game of spotting when the singers make tiny departures from the official version. But I have no problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the modern-dress staging chosen by director James Dacre and designer Frankie Bradshaw for their interpretation. No doubt lounge suits, and trousers with military-ish seam stripes, are relatively cheap to hire from theatrical costumiers, but it all gets a bit incongruous when Macbeth clearly calls for ‘my buckler, sword and dagger’, only to be given a pistol and nothing else.

The single set itself is a kind of concrete bunker, but we never find out why any part of the action is going on there. As it happens, it’s built very much like a Jacobean theatre, with an ‘inner chamber’ behind the main stage area and a gallery above for special moments – which may have been intentional … or may not.

The witches are important in Verdi’s version – they’re a female chorus and should be just as spookily evil as Shakespeare made them. Here they first appear as nuns in nursing aprons rifling the wounded for their possessions – not the kind of conduct you associate with nuns, and the animal entrails they apparently find are not what you would expect either. Was it just the word ‘sisters’ that provoked that? And the military fatigues sported by the chorus at other times would be fair enough, if they didn’t keep waving their AK-47s around as if auditioning for Dad’s Army.

Having said all that, the musical qualities of this ETO production are very high: the chorus sound terrific in Buxton’s Opera House, the words are almost always crystal clear, and the two main characters are well cast. Conductor Gerry Cornelius gets the maximum from a smallish orchestra and realizes many of Verdi’s textures beautifully.

Grant Doyle, as Macbeth, has a very big voice and uses it powerfully. Does his characterization develop in the course of the story (it should)? Perhaps not much, but Madeleine Pierard (Lady Macbeth) is not just the dominant personality from the start, but the dominant voice in every way. Verdi wrote some great histrionic stuff for her role, and she goes to town on it.

Grant Doyle as Macbeth: picture Richard Hubert Smith

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Review of Northern Chamber Orchestra and Martin Roscoe

The Northern Chamber Orchestra welcomed Martin Roscoe as piano soloist for its concerts at the weekend, in the Stoller Hall at Chetham’s on Friday night, and the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield on Saturday. I heard the second of those.

It was a kind of celebration of International Women’s Day, as one of the four items on the programme was written by a woman, and another was inspired and popularized by one. That lady was Clara Schumann, muse, sweetheart, wife and eventually widow of Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday is this year – and the work was his Piano Concerto in A minor.

Before it we heard Gounod’s delicious Petite Symphonie for wind instruments, a delicious bit of Mendelssohniana well chosen to put the NCO’s wind players in the spotlight. They were expertly led by flautist Conrad Marshall, but much of the music’s magic and eloquence comes from the first oboe part, beautifully played by Kenny Sturgeon. In fact the third and fourth movements need soloistic virtues and warmly integrated textures from everyone, and it was a great example of choral-style teamwork all round.

The Schumann concerto is an evergreen, and it was good to hear it in acoustic close-up, as you do in the Heritage Centre’s auditorium. Martin Roscoe never lets his sense of momentum falter, and the Romantic qualities of the first movement were kept under proper restraint, while the ‘grazioso’ of the second was felt from the outset. The finale was a rumbustious (and mainly accurate) romp.

The 20th century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz wrote her Concerto for String Orchestra in 1948, and its three movements give its players plenty of energetic writing to dig into (‘We love it,’ said NCO leader Nicholas Ward in his introduction). To me it’s reminiscent of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra more than anything, but there are some scrunchy multi-voice harmonies which at times seemed to demand a bigger body of players than the NCO is able to provide. The final movement brought quality solos from Nicholas Ward and others.

Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ symphony (no. 35) closed the evening in high spirits. It was a bright and breezy way to say farewell to the orchestra’s general manager of the last few years, Tom Elliott, who’s moving on to pastures new, and its energy, virtuosity, precision and fun epitomized much of what the NCO has always embodied in its playing.

Martin Roscoe and the Northern Chamber Orchestra 
led by Nicholas Ward

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Review of Opera North's The Magic Flute

This is the one completely new production Opera North are offering in their winter-spring season, and pulls in the crowds as it ever does. It’s the fifth version of The Magic Flute I’ve seen Opera North do, and though my favourite is still one of those older ones, this runs it a close second.

It’s good they’ve gone for an update after a decade or so. Technology has changed, and a show that always relies essentially on some kind of stage effects has to benefit from imaginative image projection (and a few light sabers). How else do you show ordeals by fire and water – and even the monster at the start (though that was reassuringly physical, too)?

Director James Brining’s update goes much further than that, though. He sees the whole thing through a child’s eyes – a little girl being put to bed, in a silent prologue acted out during the overture, and then (presumably) dreaming the rest. In the room behind are her father’s grown-up friends, gathered around the dinner table, and a number of them are reincarnated as characters in the story. That’s not a new idea (it’s been used a few times for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, for instance), but it’s a good one for a fantasy tale such as this.

Ah, but there’s more to it than a happy family gathering – because this dad is estranged from her mum, who arrives unexpectedly and demands access rights. Who is the daughter to side with: the mother who bore her or the father who has power over her? That becomes the underlying interpretation of the story … as her nanny morphs into Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, who’s held captive by Sarastro and his seemingly impregnable company of high-minded disciples. Will her Prince (Tamino) come to find her, and will love conquer all?

I have to say that Sarastro and his mates do not come out of things very well in this version. Virtue and stedfastness (not to mention feistiness, as exemplified by the blood-spattered Three Ladies) are qualities of the female characters, not the men, and the masonic values mouthed by the Brotherhood emerge as sheer hypocrisy. When John Savournin (as Sarastro) commends Tamino’s worth because he is a prince … and then also because ‘he is a man!’ a pause before he says the line upends it, and every woman in the audience chuckles to herself.

John Savournin was suffering from a cold on opening night in Salford and asked for our understanding (he sang very effectively all the same) but his casting as Sarastro, and Dean Robinson’s as the Speaker of the community, was a move away from the tradition of heavy, authoritative voices for these roles and made them fallible human beings. Gavan Ring, as an Irish-sounding Parageno, though, was a lovable and attractive male figure (phew!) and one of the stars of the evening. The other was Samantha Hay, whose Queen of the Night was imperious and vocally stunning, as she should be.

Vuvu Mpofu (Pamina) and Kang Wang (Tamino) both have lovely voices – the latter known to RNCM operagoers already, of course – and were never less than a pleasure to hear.

It’s a strong company effort all round, with notable singing in every role, and the children’s contributions (including the assured voices of the Three Boys) were excellent.

Robert Howarth conducted with lively tempi and some very detached articulations to give the score plenty of punch, so no complaints in that area.

The Brining version of the story, though, refreshingly of the moment as it is, does leave a few questions hanging. Does Monostatos have to be re-interpreted as quite so repulsively libidinous? And did there need to be such clear visual hints in Colin Richmond’s costume design that the Brotherhood are precursors of the Nazis, with a company of nuns thrown in? Conformism has many faces, and those are not the only ones we know.

Gavan Ring as Papageno in Opera North's The Magic Flute. Credit Alasdair Muir

Review of Opera North's double bill of The Rite of Spring and Gianni Schicchi

One thing’s for certain about this double bill – you get value for your money. It’s unusual for an opera company to include a dance show on the same night as an opera, even more so when the dance show is Stravinsky’s ground-breaking, monster-orchestra-requiring The Rite of Spring, and the opera is Puccini’s glorious, 16-role, comedy-with-a-hit-aria-thrown-in, Gianni Schicchi.

Opera North get together with Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre to deliver the goods, and how they deliver.

The first big reward is the quality of the orchestral playing in The Rite. It’s become a concert hall staple more than a ballet company favourite, and I’ve heard a few concert versions in my time, but never with quite the rawness and electric energy that the Opera North orchestra delivered under Garry Walker’s baton. It would have been wonderful just to listen with my eyes shut.

But I didn’t, because the second reward was Jeanguy Saintus’ choreography and the Phoenix dancers’ performance. They are a contemporary company, and this was a reinterpretation of the score, because that’s what contemporary dance companies do. They don’t have the traditional principals and corps de ballet of the classicalists – just eight dancers in all, and despite the fact that The Rite has its ‘numbers’, with titles that imply a narrative (of a pagan sacrificial ceremony to placate the gods of spring in primitive Russia), Saintus takes his cues from the music and gives us movement that springs from the sounds themselves.

There are images of savage, brutal frenzy, and a victim singled out (more than one in different settings), but that’s about as near to a narrative as you get. But it’s exciting stuff, often presenting the eight in a phalanx or divided in even numbers, and, considering the fact that there’s no set at all, remarkably colourful by virtue of the costume design alone (Yann Seabra).

And then there was Gianni. Puccini wrote it as a one-act comedy to finish an evening, and in Christopher Alden’s directorial hands it does that brilliantly. This is a revival of his production of 2015, and he goes for laughs from the start, with a dead mule suspended above the stage (we find out what that’s about later in the story) and a little mime sequence in which Dante, the original creator of the story, pops up and then morphs into the about-to-be deceased Buoso Donati, tugging his own deathbed around the stage.

The tale is about the greedy and venal relatives of the late Buoso, how they scheme to get their hands on his assets when he’s left them all to a monastery, and the man of the title role who comes up with the idea of impersonating the dead man and dictating a fake will before anyone finds out. He does what they want, but makes himself wealthy in the process, too – and what can they do, as they’re all accomplices?

It’s exceptionally well acted by Richard Burkhard as Gianni (as well as sung) and the other principals and characters, and with Alden’s help they differentiate each one to much comic effect, and the music comes over richly in Walker’s care.

And there’s the show-stopping aria, O mio babbino caro, delightfully sung by Tereza Gevorgyan as Gianni’s daughter Lauretta, the young inamorata of penniless Rinuccio, to both of whom he grants the fulfilment of their dreams in the course of his subterfuge. It’s a plea to her dad to help them out of the black hole of Buoso’s meanness to his family, when the other interested parties don’t trust him anyway.

Usually it’s sung in the death chamber with everyone listening, which brings a dramatic problem because you wonder how her words to him can make any difference to anything – or else you have to conclude that it’s all simulated emotion because the two of them have plotted the whole thing in advance.

Alden clears the stage and presents it just as a moment of pure beauty in the midst of a naughty world, almost unrelated to the rest. And everyone always applauds it, so that’s fine.

Phoenix Dance Theatre in The Rite of Spring. Credit Tristram Kenton

Review of Opera North's Katya Kabanova

No one could call it a bundle of laughs – Janáček’s story of domestic abuse, guilt and suicide is not meant to be chuckled at. And yet there was a knowing giggle from the audience as the curtain falls on act two, scene one, on the night I saw it, as the obnoxious, rich and bullying Dikoy stuck his hand up Katya’s prim and proper mother-in-law’s skirt.

That move didn’t really fit with the rest of Tim Albery and designer Hildegard Bechtler’s telling of the story – first seen here 20 years ago and revised in 2007.

Costumes are universally drab-grey, the better to emphasise the stifling and loveless respectability of the society poor, passionate Katya lives in, and the set shows glimpses of a more colourful world beyond, as if to point towards the dreams she might have had of a fulfilled existence.

Katya is married to a weak man, Tichon, who has turned to drink; they have no children, and her mother-in-law makes both of their lives miserable through her merciless and demanding self-pity, despite an appearance of churchgoing piety.

When she sends Tichon off on a business trip, Dikoy’s young nephew Boris, who’s dependent on his uncle’s goodwill to get anything from his inheritance but has fallen for Katya in a big way, takes his chance of an illicit liaison with her in the shrubbery, not without enthusiastic help from Varvara, her foster-sister, who’s herself having a good time with Boris’s mate Kudryash.

Katya is plagued by guilt, and when Tichon returns unexpectedly early she collapses mentally – it only takes Boris’s acceptance of Dikoy’s decision to send him away to tip her over the edge (of the river bank).

The whole three-act opera is concisely written (Opera North do it without interval inside one hour 40 minutes) and tautly dramatic, and Janáček packs all the passion into his orchestral score, while his characters follow his principle of singing with the intonations of ordinary speech (in Czech, originally).

It’s a great achievement, musically, as Opera North have the orchestra to do that score wonderful justice, and in Sian Edwards’ hands it comes gloriously alive, while their principals are outstanding singers also. For me, the women had more to offer than the men in the acting department, with Stephanie Corley (their former Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Kristina in The Makropulos Case) outstandingly affecting as Katya. Heather Shipp, who’s been a Carmen for them only a few years ago, turned herself into the operatic equivalent of Ena Sharples with equal success, while Katie Bray made Varvara a flesh-and-blood, liberated youngster.

Andrew Kennedy was a bit too much Mr Nice Guy for Tichon (he sang like a dream), and Stephen Richardson’s Dikoy was vocally refined but perhaps not quite repulsive enough. Harold Meers sang Boris nobly but with only a little evidence of the unrestrained obsession that lights the fuse of Katya’s downfall.

Katya Kabanova - Katie Bray as Varvara and Stephanie Corley as Katya. Credit Jane Hobson

Friday, 1 March 2019

Review of Hallé concert with Casken world premiere

A new trumpet concerto in the BBC Philharmonic’s programme last Saturday, and now a new trombone concerto (though composer John Casken calls it ‘a drama for trombone and orchestra’) at the Hallé – solo brass players are doing well in Manchester.

There are similarities. Robin Holloway’s trumpet work was about as explicitly programmatic as you could get, with a detailed narrative turned into musical symbols at every point in its sequence. Casken’s trombone piece sets out to be a drama, though it’s equally explicitly based on a picture – but every picture tells a story.

Madonna of Silence, given its world premiere by Hallé principal Katy Jones with the Hallé conducted by Jamie Phillips last night, is about the drawing of the same name by Michelangelo, where we see the Holy Family a few years on from the birth of Jesus, with Mary a mature woman, her young son already seeming to have some characteristics of adulthood, and both parents mystified as they contemplate the words of a book. In the background is a strange figure urging silence.

The drama lies in the mystery. Mary has to keep silent, it seems, though she knows things she cannot even tell her son. So Casken’s music is about her thoughts, and they tumble out one after another. The orchestral palette is wide (though flute-less as well as trombone-less), particularly in the percussion, with its repeated ‘Shhh…’ sounds, and the rhythms are complex.

Needless to say, the solo was played flawlessly. I don’t know whether the composer was forcing the trombone into notes beyond its ‘official’ range, as Holloway seemed to do with the trumpet, but if so they were no problem for Katy Jones. The orchestra has much to attend to, and Jamie Phillips had them well prepared.

With rather fewer of them, he had the same in store for Mozart’s three-movement Symphony no. 31 (the ‘Paris’), which opened proceedings. The opening movement was neat and deft – the strings full of impact as Paul Barritt led – the slow one elegant in its ‘sensibility’ style, and the finale lively fun.

After the interval came Prokoviev’s Symphony no. 5, resplendent with 60 strings, its triple woodwind, full brass and cohort of percussion. It dates from the end of the Second World War and the language is clearly that of the composer of the Romeo and Juliet ballet. In fact the second movement material was apparently designed for that work. It passed the test of morale-boosting uplift at the time, with its hymn-like phrases in the opening movement, a relatively brisk lament (in Phillips’ hands) which becomes a triumphant one for the third, and plenty of tub-thumping in the last.

It was loud and positive and no doubt meant to be. If that finale had been by Shostakovich it would have sounded ironic, but Prokoviev repeats his jolly tune so much it seems he must have meant it. 


Jamie Phillips (left) and John Casken (right)