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I’ve moved the blog – I couldn’t quite settle on the title I originally gave it and it was focusing much more on opera than on other things – so please scoot over to here.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind of late.  To summarise:

  • Orpheus in the Underworld at Holland Park;
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia 13th July (Keenlyside long-since cancelled; JDF withdrew; DiDonato in a wheelchair);
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia live relay to Canary Wharf 15th July (JDF present; DiDonato still in wheelchair obviously; absolute downpour for duration of the overture…)
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia 18th July matinee (Colin Lee unwell, acted role, Toby Spence sang from wings; DiDonato still rolling around);
  • Tosca 18th July evening (Voigt withdrew, replaced by Nelly Miriciou to questionable effect).

This account of our opera-going doesn’t of course take account of the fact that Marcello Giordani had a night off from Tosca on 16th, and Georghiu, having had a crack at ‘heroine riding to the rescue’ found it all rather trying and had a night off to be replaced by Amanda Echalaz (great envy at missing that performance!).  It’s all been rather trying of late for the Covent Garden casting managers, I don’t doubt.

But starting with Orpheus in the Underworld… where to begin?  I think that, if you play Offenbach like G&S you’ll get something that owes more to G&S than Offenbach.  It was all posh D’Oyly Carte voices or over-acted mockney accents.  The only characterisations which really stood out for me were Juno (Jill Pert) and Public Opinion (Nuala Willis) who were marvellous, even though they had relatively little to sing and weren’t tremendously audible when they did.  The sparring leads I couldn’t quite get on with, Orpheus especially (Benjamin Segal), who was the main culprit for over-posh public-school-parody G&S style mannerisms.  Jenni Bern’s Eurydice had a pleasantly incisive voice that cut through the difficult acoustic and was not unattractive at all, delivering the more ‘sparkling’ moments effectively.  I couldn’t quite adjust, however, to the changes in accent between speaking (cockney) and singing (music college diction-and-vowels).  The stand-out singer-actor was Pluto/Aristaeus who was wonderfully sinuous as Pluto and Ben Fogle-ish posh-but-dim as Aristaeus, with strong voice to match.  There were some effective dance-sequences, and a realtively traditionally-staged can-can, all underskirts and whooping.

The production was reasonable, with a fairly interesting concept based around a Hollywood studio with a curious addition of a German director barking orders in ‘Allo ‘Allo style which failed really to catch light and overcome the discomfort that such displays are wont to induce.  The Paramount inspired tall set was effective, where a gold-suit clad Bacchus (which, alas, wasn’t quite as titillating as one might have hoped) emerged as the gong-striking centrepiece.  However, the question has to be asked: in a piece with as much going on as Orphée aux Enfers, do you really need a really strong overlaid narrative?  Frankly, I tend to think it rather speaks for itself in something simpler and has the potential to get just as much of a laugh – more so – and hang together more effectively.  Just see the Laurent Pelly DVD for that.

Orpheus was the first near-opera I ever saw:  in the Opera North production at the (then newly-restored) Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.  It bowled me over and probably started me on my operatic career.  I’m not sure that this one would have had the same effect…

So then to the Barbieres…  Oh, such utter delights married to such frustrations.  You will recall my irritation at the withdrawal of Florez because of the proximity of the 13th to the live relay on the 15th.  Colin Lee, as a number of Florez-ticketholding commenters have mentioned on various blogs, was indeed good, and particularly in the more lyrical moments, but the difference was noticeable in the rapid-fire passages where there was a very significant difference in the success with which they were negotiated.  He also appeared, dare I say, a little lumpen alongside a very sharp and detailed performance by many of the other cast members.  On the 18th, when he couldn’t sing, Toby Spence provided some of what was missing in the florid passages, and a generally ‘sharper’ delivery, but with him off to the side (out of sight for us in the left Upper Slips, and occasionally out of hearing as well), it added an alienation which was wearisome.  They omitted the last long passage for Almaviva, and I can’t say I missed it.

But the other performers were wonderful, utterly wonderful.  DiDonato is stunning, a rich voice, flexible and expressive, secure and beautiful, allied to detailed acting and tremendous intensity.  Worth each visit just for that.  And the wheelchair detracted next to nothing – a real tribute to her artistry, and those of colleagues on the whole.  Corbelli as Dr Bartolo was equally detailed, characterful and genuinely funny.  Furlanetto was luzury casting as Don Basilio, surely: he was fabulously creepy and comedic.  Spagnoli was a vibrant Figaro, with a voice that was a joy to listen to throughout, and fully into the role.  Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed (again) Elizabeth Gale’s Berta - and her trashing of the room in the storm scene to Rosina’s instructions was so effective, and they communicated between each other so effectively and movingly, that this should be left in if the production is revived.  And it should be:  I don’t hold with the scepticism about the basic sets and the comic book presentation, I think it is joyous throughout.  And the Act 1 close with the whole set on hydraulics, swaying about, is just a wonderful theatrical device.  I did keep having pangs of worry about how close Joyce DiDonato was to this massive tumbling contraption, but no further injuries were sustained, I’m pleased to announce!

JDF was indeed wonderful, even sitting in the rain on a plastic groundsheet filling with water (me, not him), watching him on a giant BP Big Screen with the orchestral crescendos reverberating off the glass towers around us at Canary Wharf and dying away into the night.  It stopped chucking it down with rain at the end of the overture and we survived from then on.  Quite magical, in a compromised typically London sort of way.

And then Tosca.  Oh blimey.  Well, this has to be the coarsest Tosca I have yet come across.  The production is perfectly serviceable, for all that it still looks to me like the old one has just been given a good dusting and a reshuffle.  The directing of the revival had added in a couple of touches here and there which brought some additional life to things.  But there was an issue with the principals and the conducting which made even the ‘shabby little shocker’ look like the proverbial nut cowering under the descending sledge-hammer.

Terfel was wonderful – amazing in power, sinister, constantly alert to all that was happening, totally in command of the stage.  He was vocally on his best form, from the lithe beauty of the sinister passages to the out-and-out power of, for example, the Te Deum.  Worth the ticket price alone.

Which is good, because Marcello Giordani and Nelly Miriciou were not easy listening.  In one way, though, I suppose Giordani was relatively easy-listening because he was simply so loud.  Everything seemed to be loud, and E Lucevan le Stelle lacked any dramatic tension as a result, or the necessary inwardness.  It got cheered to the rafters, but there you go.

And then there’s Miriciou.  I was so looking forward to hearing her in this role (or indeed, just hearing her, since I don’t think I ever have).  I was a few years too late, though, I fear.  She was undoubtedly committed and again engaged in many details of the production, but the vocal sound was quite simply unpleasant.  It was unwieldy in rapid dramatic passages with some very questionable pitching (to my ears, anyway) in the upper-mid-range.  Vissi d’Arte was delivered with some style, and some beautiful moments, but it was not moving because of what surrounded it.  It was very disappointing, and I found it difficult to keep attention on the third act.  I read the very real esteem in which she is held and trust that this was either an off-day or this Tosca was taken on as a chance to stay in touch with a role which has been so significant.  I wasn’t initially disappointed by Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal, feeling that her portrayal would have been rather glossy and unengaged, if beautiful, and I wasn’t unhappy not to be seeing Angela’s Tosca again.  However, I have learned to be careful what I wish for…

Add onto that Jacques Lacombe’s unrelentingly loud and unsubtle conducting and you have a rather dispiriting end to the season, and an evening that left me with very slight ringing in my ears on the train on the way home, and not very much by way of satisfaction.  I left Tosca humming tunes from the afternoon’s Barbiere

So what lies ahead in the summer…?  The Mariinski Ring; Glyndebourne for Rusalka and Tristan und Isolde; Forbidden Broadway at the Chocolate Factory; avoidance of the Royal Albert Hall.  Maybe not a season end after all, then…

Two treats

Two marvellous musical treats today: one live, one recorded. 

At Covent Garden, Renée Fleming was displaying her Violetta in the fast-becoming-a-warhorse Richard Eyre production of La Traviata.  With Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja alongside, and Pappano in the pit, it was probably the best revival of that production I’ve seen, having seen pretty much all of them.  Indeed, interestingly, it’s not far off 15 years since that Gheorghiu debut, and a matter of weeks from my 15th year anniversary of attending Covent Garden, so to see the production being so well inhabited and delivering its not inconsiderable goods so efficiently was a real treat.

Fleming was wonderful.  I’ve always had a bit of scepticism about her doing anything other than grand aristocratic ladies (Marschallins, Countesses, that sort of thing).  There’s something in both voice and demeanour which seems regal and somehow detached.  She misses that febrile intensity that you get with a Mattila or even the early Gheorghiu.  The voice is glorious, though, and there is something almost thrilling simply in the technical security of it.  However, in this Traviata, I think she won me over to something else.

The first act was not her strongest.  Somehow, she couldn’t get coquettish and flighty, either vocally or in acting terms, despite the most detailed and ‘active’ presentation of the work of any singer to inhabit the role.  Her performance was a wealth of detail and activity, but she still sounded just a little bit too glamorous and smooth.  The second act was amazing, however, and the pathos that she generated, coupled with a continued attention to all of the acting demands, was tremendous.  The best I’ve seen, I think, in this most wonderful of all operatic passages.  Her third act continued in this vein, with some heartbreaking declamatory moments at, for example, ‘e tardi!‘ and ‘Gran Dio, morir si giovine…‘.  I think act two, in particular, of Traviata is more verismo than Tosca or Butterfly could ever be.
Calleja has a remarkably strong voice which was effortless listening, with good shading even if the acting wasn’t quite as full-on as his co-star.  One blog noted that “he’s a little too easily flattened by Hurricane Renee“, but the security of his voice is thrilling.  Hampson is a little more the Germont père than when last I saw/heard him, and delivered Di Provenza il Mar in a way which belied its usual mild dullness.
I was also full of admiration for Pappano’s conducting and the orchestral playing:  a red-blooded account of the score that struck me as more exciting, more nuanced than I’ve heard since Solti conducted the premiere of this production.  We’ll miss him when he moves on…!
And we get to see it again next Friday.  So indulgent…
And the other treat?  Dame Felicity Lott in Fallen Women & Virtuous Wives on DVD.  An odd project, seemingly, involving some enthusiastic patrons who have invited the great lady to their country pad and video’d the show she did for the Wigmore Hall (and on tour).  It’s an odd setting, with no audience and each number fading out at the end, so it has a surreal stagey quality which is not entirely unsuited to the content.  There’s also a different frock for nearly every number, from simple empire lines to accompany Wapping Old Stairs and Haydn, through to dramatically art deco numbers for Coward and Weill.  It is recorded at a low volume, which is a bit frustrating, but this is a minor carp when the quality of the performances are considered.  I have to confess to being somewhat partisan when it comes to Lott, I think she’s utterly wonderful.  There is something of real pathos in her style and a really direct simplicity, which this DVD just enhances.  I love her doing Noël Coward – anyone who brings his work to greater attention is a star in my book – as well as her way of changing the mood at the appropriate moment in, for example, Was bekam die Soldaten Weib.  Thoroughly recommended.  Haven’t watched the accompanying documentary about Sussex yet but looking forward to it…

What great fun Opera Holland Park is.  I think it helped that we were seeing Hänsel und Gretel, so that the distant chirruping and squawking from the Park’s longer-established feathered residents was eerily appropriate.  It may also have helped that our little bunch knew the Director so got a sneaky glimpse backstage afterwards.

The performance was wonderful and I couldn’t but marvel at how Stephen Barlow managed to get something so coherent and engaging onto a rather ungrateful stage.  With the first two acts, and most of the third played in gently declining, but nonetheless insistent, daylight achieving atmospheric effects was rather difficult.  It was also a fixed set for the whole piece, presumably to facilitate the changing of operas each night on a relatively constricted stage, and of course there were no facilities to fly scenery or backdrops in and out, and no opportunity to blackout the stage for manual changes of bits of set.  And still it enthralled as much as this piece always should.

The basic production ‘tenor’ was of fun:  no children on meathooks, no intrusive inventions, just good dark fun.  There was a general 1940s wartime theme, with the Dew Fairy a military nurse (of the matron variety) and the Sandman a Shelter Warden come to see them to bed.  The whole set was a beech-forest wallpapered room corner, with giant door which opened and closed to let characters on and off, and to add threat to potential entrances.  The witch’s gingerbread house was a giant lurid pink and yellow box of Bahlsen cakes and pastries.  Simple, but effective.

Performances were universally strong.  Anne Mason as both Mother and Witch was stronger as the latter, really going for it, inhabiting the most wonderfully camp characterisation:  green sequinned waisted jacket/skirt combo with green wig and sparkly top hat perched at an angle, finished off with a mint green fur coat.  Like a particularly over-the-top drag queen on St Patrick’s Day.

Both lead characters were wonderfully strong and I became aware of the constant surprise I have at how singers can capture the spirit of these two children.  Utterly believable in their wonder, curiosity, naughtiness and fear.  It was a privilege to see Donald Maxwell as the Father – his voice carried over the odd acoustic of the tent theatre marvellously and all words were clear and direct.  I seem to remember him on many G&S recordings of my youth… must look them up to check I’m remembering correctly!

The conducting was better in Act 3 than the first two.  I was starting to worry by the end of the second act that we were losing some momentum, but everything was firmly on bright forward-thrusted form for the witch’s scene.  The music is absolutely amazing; I can’t get enough of it.  Wagner with a smile.  Wagner with innocence and charm.  Moreover, short Wagner.  Just sublime.  I had to close my eyes during the prayer and the dream sequence, which was played in a lively and interesting way, but nonetheless, there’s something in that music that just makes me want to hear it and be transported…

Pace the earlier post on concert behaviour, we had someone who practically stomped out (quite noticeable on a temporary scaffold seating rig), people talking behind (we all banded together to turn, glare and raise an eyebrow which more or less did it), and an imbecile that thought he could tap his feet (more glaring).

And was that Karita Mattila I saw a few rows forward?  95% sure, we were, and the other half made a beeline to accost her, but the crowd closed in and she was swept away.  But that would have been the mere cherry on the top of a fantastic evening.  Next Holland Park stop: Orpheus in the Underworld in July.  Can’t wait:  an absolute obsession of my teenage years, and I’ve never seen it on stage…

First off, before I get into what may well degenerate into a rant, I have to say that this was a spectacular concert.  The London Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch and Deborah Voigt peformed Wagner and Strauss (with a Beethoven interlude in the middle).  We had a nice comfortable seat in the front-ish left of the Circle, albeit that we were still surrounded by the Barbican, and all seemed set for a wonderful night of music making.  And then they let the kids in.

First to the concert:  there were a couple of orchestral pieces thrown into the mix alongside Voigt’s substantial vocal contribution.  There’s no disrespect intended to Voigt in saying that, in some ways, these were the best moments.  The Fidelio overture was spirited, incisive and energetic in the right measure, the Entry of the Guests from Tannhäuser launched the evening with due bombast.  However, the revelation was a wonderful detailed reading of Salome‘s Dance of the Seven Veils.  Some of the calmer moments were amazing in their detail and incident, whilst the over-ripe, decadent grand moments where given full rein.  There is a moment where (and forgive the attempt to explain) the section that ends with the ascending harp motives leads to a brief pause before the introduction of the main theme on rich low strings and woodwind:  spine-tingling.

Voigt’s contribution was remarkable.  She seems to these amateur ears to have a voice which is secure and exciting at moments, but somehow just stops short of that last notch of bright, incisive thrill that you can sometimes get.  But there she was, surrounded by a bloody noisy band (in the Strauss especially), and still came out as audible above it.  This particularly applied to the excerpt from Die Aegyptische Helena, which I could probably go to my grave without hearing again and it wouldn’t feature highly on my list of regrets.  It was like Strauss was trying to get his own back on Korngold.

Abscheulicher was delivered securely but not so flexibly – this felt like a bit of an odd choice, albeit a welcome one.  Du bist der Lenz from Die Walküre always seems a bit odd out of context; it sort of stops abruptly when you want it to run on into the drama that follows.  Chrysothemis’s big number from Elektra was well-delivered but with some slightly odd chopped phrasing in tha last wonderful, soaring “Ich bin ein’ Weib, und will ein’ Weibes Schicksal.” 

The star turn, though, was a tremendous, intense account of the Closing Scene of Salome that matched the wonders of the Dance that had gone before in every respect.  Fabulous nuance, some chilling quiet semi-spoken moments, and reserves of power left for the big moments.  Absolutely tremendous – one to remember for a very long time.

So let’s talk about the audience.  You could tell immediately, I’m sorry to say, those that were in ‘on a scheme’.  Apparently the Barbican is offering free tickets to under-25s.  Guess what?  You give someone something for nothing and they treat it like nothing.  I heard a couple of disputes being resolved by means of hisses and shushes and subsequent muttering around the auditorium.  A phone went off.  Sweet papers were rustled.  Seats were intrusively swapped.  And a number of conversations were held.  I had to ask the gayboys next to me to stop their conversation through most of the Entry of the Guests, and one of them in particular spent the performance flicking back and forth through his programme with the kind of insolent disregard for the disturbance that this might cause that is to be expected of any peasant forced to sit through something they resent.  As you can tell, this makes me rather hacked-off.

What is the problem with issuing an instructional note with these ‘scheme’ tickets to explain the etiquette:  talking, phones, jangling bangles
(a real bête noire).  Hell, it’s not even etiquette, it’s basic civility:  there are a hundred people slogging away to produce an artistic product that those around you are appreciating, enjoying, being moved by, reflecting upon.  If you are bored, then f**k off at the interval, or between pieces if you can get out without disturbing people. And it isn’t only people on these schemes, I know, but in this case I strongly suspect that cause…

And why should people have free tickets anyway?  You want to see a concert of top-notch international-standard music making?  Pay a tenner, or a fiver, or three quid at least.  Yes, these institutions are subsidised and should be focusing on developing new audiences; but giving seats away for free (as opposed to the nominal fees proposed) feels like taking that subsidy and pissing it away down the drain whilst, to add insult to injury, destroying the enjoyment and enrichment that those of us who are the CURRENT audience pay our ticket prices for.

Oooo, it makes me mad.  But I managed to enjoy the wonderful performance despite this audience’s best efforts.  Some people may not have realised it, but they were present for a performance that really was world-class.  I suppose you don’t expect to get world-class for free, do you?  So how would they know?

The last few days have been spent pottering around north Wales and Shropshire on a few days rest and relaxation away from the terrors of local government.  For the musical amongst you, it also included a sojourn in Bridgnorth at a performance of Haydn’s The Creation (more anon…).

With glorious weather, this truly was a wonderful few days.  We stayed at Harlech and drove around the area:  Portmeirion, Betys-y-Coed, Snowdon, Valle Crucis abbey.  In typically British style, the railway up Snowdon only went three-quarters of the way up because (and I quote the woman behind the counter) “the new visitor’s centre has been delayed for a month”.  The guide said ‘frequent intervals’, we arrived and next train was over an hour hence – oh well, Snowdon was nice to look at and drive around, who needs to go up it?!

Then to Shropshire: a day spent trundling through Ironbridge, Ludlow and thence to Bridgnorth.  All quite lovely.  We stayed with friends in Bridgnorth and I was left with that feeling (again) of why do I bother putting up with the rubbish quality of life that London offers?

The Haydn concert was in St Leonard’s church in the main town centre.  A lovely space, if a bit Victorian bland-gothic.  Bloody uncomfortable as well, despite taking along luxurious John Lewis cushions on which to sit, courtesy of our hostess.  The English Haydn Festival takes place in Bridgnorth each year – we spent ages trying to fathom the connection between Haydn and the town, and it eventually turned out that there isn’t one.  The founder of the festival, John Ried (who died last year), seemingly felt that the absence of an English Haydn Festival was remiss (and who could argue) and that Bridgnorth was the place that he designated to become the ‘Salzburg of Shropshire’ (doesn’t every English county have a Salzburg?!)  A fine endeavour and an enjoyable evening.

The English Haydn Orchestra (I am assuming a festival-specific creation made up of players either freelance or ordinarily of other, more ‘permanent’ orchestras) played very well, incisively, although with the slightly off intonation that, on occasion, comes with the territory of a period band.  The best bits were undoubtedly the orchestral and choral moments.  The chorus (the Birmingham Festival Chorus) were every bit a match for the orchestra, with finesse and lustiness in equal measure when they were demanded.  The penultimate choral number in particular was a marvel of restraint being slowly unleashed as it escalates to full-on awe-inspiring power.

I call it the ‘penultimate choral number’ because the programme was useless in its outline of such a programmatic piece as the Creation.  No information about the numbers at all!  In the words of Michael Flanders, ‘a dead waste of a shilling…’

The soloists – Catherine Bott (sop), Andrew Slater (bass) and Lynton Atkinson (tenor) – probably didn’t benefit from the harsh acoustic of the church, but only Slater really seemed to make his presence felt.  Bott started quite gently with a voice that seemed to be quite light and ‘breathy’, but gained some power in the second half, culminating in a wonderful duet with Slater as the young lovers.   I was looking forward to hearing Bott (other than on the radio, obviously) and initial disappointment was, ultimately, banished as the evening drew to its close.  Atkinson never seemed to quite hit his stride in the context and he seemed to ‘hoot’ occasionally when reaching for high notes.  Still the whole thing was a very worthwhile endeavour and throughout there were flashes of that Haydn touch, mostly emerging from the orchestra: the little figures that emerge in the bass lines of the orchestra in response to a word, the changes of mood coupled to the restless onward energy.  Patrick Larley as conductor kept things well-paced and buoyant.

I would be tempted to look out for the English Haydn Festival in the future.  A lovely setting for a festival, Bridgnorth has a minor jewel here and it was particularly heartwarming to see the active sponsorship of Bridgnorth Town Council and the now-defunct Bridgnorth District Council.  As an employee of an authority that seems to glorify the subsidised provision of low culture amongst its residents (who seem not to ask for anything more), I couldn’t help thinking that this was real civic leadership.  Sorry if that sounds reactionary, but good on you Bridgnorth!

Am currently in Wales, driving around and seeing interesting things in the sunshine.  Mountains, fabulous views, startlingly quiet landscapes…

I keep being brought up short by this BBC Poetry season.  People keep reading poems and I think ‘wow’, and then I try reading them for myself and it sort of doesn’t work.  It has all of the impact of me having a crack at Winterstürme on the strength of hearing Placidò Domingo.

The link between them is a sort of spirituality.  People writing things, expressing things, being connected to the world around them, stopping for long enough actually to notice…   I’m not very good at it.  I want to be, but somehow can’t quite manage it.  I glanced at the programmes for the Royal Opera on the shelf (which form a proud collection, unlike others, which are collected and then lost):  could I remember most of the performances?  Some, yes.  Many, no.  Could I conjur up my first visit in my mind’s eye:  Gwyneth Jones in La Fanciulla del West circa 1995, which, as any opera-goer will know, would have been memorable for one reason or another.  A very vague sense of the production, seen from afar in the mid-amphitheatre remains, but little else.  The rather dank stairs down from the gods to the street (it was a separate entrance in those days – oo, hark at me: “in those days”!)

There are people of my acquaintance that can remember details of our Oxford days that are completely a blank to me.  Many aspects of past experience I seemingly can’t recall (which gets uncomfortable when bumping into ex-’shags’ in supermarkets).  I’m not hopeless with recall, just that the sense – the essence – of some past experiences remain elusive.  Á la recherce de temps perdu, indeed… And no, I haven’t yet broken the spines of the volumes two-to-five…

Maybe some of this sense is behind the creation of this blog.  I know a few people have ‘dropped by’, but actually, is it here more for me than you?  (Sorry, but I do hope you find something interesting as you drop by!)  That sense of ‘staking stock’ of a couple of days and recording a significant moment here and there is important.  Which is telling, given that I have pitched it at opera and work, mostly.  No mention of friends, my partner, family, etc. that make for those really ‘rich’ experiences about which I am lamenting lack of recall.

Or maybe, just maybe, I should spend less time lamenting and more time noticing what’s going on around me.  Well, for the record, I’m sitting on my bed in a rather blowsy motel in north Wales, tapping away whilst my partner snores his head off in the adjacent bed (bless ‘im).  Richness?  Well, I am feeling quite content…

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