Archive for the ‘opera’ category

‘Tristan und Isolde’ at Covent Garden

October 3, 2009

Nina-Stemme-as-Isolde-and-Ben-Heppner-as-Tristan

Well!  The Royal Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has really set the cat among the pigeons.  I couldn’t possibly comment myself, being closely involved with it (I wrote and edited the surtitles).

The critics’ reaction has been generally more than favourable (four or five stars) – the audience’s markedly less so (one seasoned witness said ‘I’ve never heard booing like it in the Opera House’)…

If you really want to see the fur flying, check out Charlotte Higgins’ blog on the Guardian website, and (especially) all the follow-up comments.  Most interesting.

Were you there?  What did you think?  Let me know — add a comment below.

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DISCLAIMER
Please note — all views expressed on this site are my own (or those of other contributors or persons quoted) and do not represent the views or policy of The Royal Opera or any other employer or organisation mentioned.

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 photo (uncredited) stolen from Charlotte Higgins’s blog

Garden Opera: The Barber of Seville

September 16, 2009

GardenOpBarber

On Friday 11 September, to Garden Opera at Ravenscourt Park, London W6 – the very last performance of their summer-long season, and the only one we could get to!

The weather was kind – not too chilly, and it didn’t rain.  The setting was a lovely peaceful enclosed space, disturbed only by the occasional District Line train and the enthusiastic intervention of some local parakeets.  Handy tea-shop before the performance, loos rather a long dash in the interval…  The audience we presume were mostly local:  pretty much a full house, appreciative and animated.

The opera was Rossini’s BARBER OF SEVILLE, in a very simple, slick and extremely funny production by Katharina Wienecke.  The action was set in ‘Dr Bartolo’s Circus’, seemingly an odd idea but it worked very well, with Rosina ‘The Singing Bird’ (in a cage, of course) as the star attraction, her disgruntled guardian Dr Bartolo a retired animal-tamer, and Basilio an unlikely magician, forever producing scarves, flowers and magic wands from a variety of orifices.  Count Almaviva and Figaro the barber survived relatively unscathed from Rossini’s (or his librettist’s) original conception.  Occasional inconsistencies (Dr Bartolo was required to be a physician after all, to match the text of his patter-aria) either didn’t impinge or were turned into sources of comedy.  And, as in the best Barber performances, there were moments of (almost) genuine pathos.

The show took forever to get going, partly because of interminable if well-intentioned announcements from a distinguished local worthy (over incessant pre-recorded fairground organ music);  then the Overture started as another fairground organ piece, gradually morphing into the ‘live’ orchestra of Peter Bridges and his small but perfectly formed circus band (flute doubling clarinet, trumpet doubling flugelhorn – David Clewlow, no less – plus two violins, cello and the maestro himself on piano).  At long last the opera itself began;  the first scene (even without the chorus) does seem interminable, but that is Rossini’s fault. 

Once the show got up steam (more…)

Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ at Covent Garden

August 3, 2009

rheingoldnatasharaz_228381t[1]So… the circus came to town last week, and now it has departed in a cloud of dust and a hail of booing (some of it mine – never done that before!) amid the storms of applause.

Valery Gergiev, the Ossetian wizard, attempted the impossible – all four operas of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in four days, with his Mariinsky company from St Petersburg (formerly the Kirov) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

I can’t really comment on all four, since for two of them I was behind the glass, working.  But my friend Diana did come to all four and took me to the other two (thank you, D!) so I got the general idea.

Did Gergiev succeed?  No.  Over-hyped, over-conducted, mostly beautifully played;  under-cast and under-sung, with very few honourable exceptions (it does not bode well for a Götterdämmerung when the loudest applause is for the Alberich);  over-designed, over-lit, under-rehearsed;  and, above all, under-directed.

This is surely Gergiev’s fault:  my feeling is that he doesn’t think anything is important except what he thinks is important, namely his conducting and the fact that he has ‘achieved’ this impossible feat at all.  He is quoted in interviews as saying that he wants to get away from the tyranny of the opera director:  having evolved his overall concept with designer George Tsypin (master of the enormous stage-cluttering useless object:  remember the giant cracked glass bottles in his Theodora from Glyndebourne?), Gergiev proceeded to sack or alienate at least four directors along the way (including Johannes Schaaf – ‘too German’ – and Opera Factory’s brilliant David Freeman). 

Finally he has brought in a fifth director, Alexander Zeldin, who has a Russian name but is British and as far as I can tell speaks not much Russian;  worst of all, he is only 24.  With the best will in the world, nobody aged 24 can have more then the haziest notion of how to direct this Everest of the operatic repertoire, which countless directors, conductors, scholars and analysts have spent whole lifetimes trying to understand.

I fear he is not really a director, but a ‘crisis manager’ and director of traffic, brought in to salvage what is left of previous attempts to make the original concept work.  By the time we got to the end of Götterdämmerung, it was impossible to discern any attempt at understanding the piece or the drama, or even listening to the music, for heaven’s sake.  Of all composers, Wagner tells you in every bar precisely what is going on, dramatically and emotionally;  just open your ears and listen (and read his stage directions!).  And please, try sitting out front and reading the surtitles, and then you will understand why the audience sniggered at things that were clearly in the text but were not happening on stage.  Ho hum.

Gergiev’s original concept was a fascinating one:  finding parallels between the Nordic myths that Wagner drew on and his own native Ossetian Nart sagas, he gets Tsypin to fill the stage with 30-foot effigies of Nart gods, and tries to get away from conventional Teutonic readings of the cycle by finding links with other mythologies.  Well yes, fine.  But (as my boss, Judi Palmer, said) it might have been a nice concept if anyone had done anything with it.  There were interesting ideas, such as making the ‘gold’ and the ‘Rhine’ out of shimmering masses of actors’ bodies;  but these ideas were not thought through or related to Wagner’s text, so failed to take off. 

Moreover, (more…)

Cardiff Singer of the World 2009

June 10, 2009

competitors_01_446 Greetings from Wales, where I am ensconced with the BBC putting several thousand subtitles on the broadcast items for the CARDIFF SINGER OF THE WORLD Competition, 2009, coming from St David’s Hall in Cardiff.  Very exciting contest, some terrific singing and wonderful music.  A great privilege to be part of it.  

For me, the fruits of several weeks’ hard work (slotted in between all the other things I have been doing lately!) commissioning and preparing the subtitle translations and editing the titles. 

Halfway through the week at the moment, Round 4 (out of 5) this evening… The Rosenblatt Song Prize Final (a separate competition) is on Friday, the main Final on Sunday.  Day-to-day coverage on BBC4, BBC Wales and Radio 3;  Sunday’s Final is broadcast on BBC2 at 5.30 – don’t miss it!

Martinů’s Juliette, BBC SO/Belohlávek

March 31, 2009

julietta_webTo the Barbican on Friday 27 March for a concert performance of Martinů’s opera Julietta, or rather ‘Juliette’, as it was given in Martinů’s own French (re-) translation – a slightly odd decision given that the conductor and some of the cast were Czech. Still, the effect of the French vocal declamation was to make the music more than usually reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Comprehension was ensured thanks to my friend Paula Kennedy’s scrupulous surtitles – which she would have been just as happy to do from Czech!

Kenneth Richardson provided a slick and effective ‘semi-staging’; singers basically wore evening dress and sang from scores, but the action was spiced up with minimal costumes and props, carefully thought out entrances and exits, and subtle lighting. American tenor William Burden was the tireless protagonist, the hapless Michel, who finds himself adrift in a land where no one can remember anything.  Magdalena Kožená was the appropriately distant and mysterious Julietta, looking lovely and vaguely 1930s in a floral frock.

Great character roles from a large cast including Jean Rigby and Rosalind Plowright, Roderick Williams and (outstanding) Andreas Jäggi.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the BBC SO in coruscating form – amazing colours and atmosphere. What an extraordinary score! I remember it from ENO in the 1970s (and from my Supraphon LPs), and its hypnotic power remains undimmed. It struck me as an amazing achievement to have written a full-length opera which is uniquely in his own idiom and no one else’s: apart from the echoes of Pelléas and the fact that the spooky opening bars are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les noces, one almost never felt ‘Oh yes, that bit’s Puccini, or Verdi, or Richard Strauss…’ as one does with all too many 20th century operas (including Britten!).

Martinů wrote the opera in 1936-7, to a play by his friend the French surrealist Georges Neveux. Martinů is probably an acquired taste, but I love his music. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death, so we are fortunate in getting more of it this year than we usually do.

Great to see a packed hall and so many luminaries in the audience – including, I was happy to see, Chris Hogwood, hotfoot from conducting the dress rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas + Acis and Galatea at the Royal Opera House only a few hours earlier (yes it was a long day).  I reminded Chris that it was he who introduced me to Martinů all those years ago (39 actually) at Cambridge Tech

There’s a nice review here: http://thoroughlygood.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/juliette-bbcso-belohlavek-martinu/

picture: front cloth from a Czech production of the opera

Richard Van Allan CBE (1935-2008)

December 17, 2008

Richard Van Allan, (c) Zoe Dominic

Very sad to hear the news of the passing of Richard Van Allan.

 

A lovely man, witty, charming, generous, modest and totally committed to his art.

 

Who can forget the gallery of characters he played – his sparky Schaunard in La Bohème;  sinister black-voiced Sparafucile in Rigoletto;  oily Pooh-Bah in the Mikado;  hilarious Leporello to Tom Allen’s Don Giovanni;  the Water Sprite in Rusalka, infinitely sad;  wise and cynical Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte;  Claggart in Britten‘s Billy Budd, the personification of evil yet somehow vulnerable;  the terrifying Grand Inquisitor in Verdi‘s Don Carlos… and so many more.

 

To every role he brought his intelligence, profound musicianship, theatrical instincts, his unmistakable bass voice, and the force of his personality.

 

In later years as head of the National Opera Studio he was able to pass on his immense wisdom and experience.  He was unfailingly kind and generous to all who worked with him or learned from him.

 

He will be much missed.

 

Goodbye, Richard, and thanks for everything.

 

 

photo (c) Zoe Dominic

Sorry, chaps

November 1, 2008

So many wonderful things since I last wrote – pressure of work and other activities has prevented me blogging them, much as I wanted to.  So here is a list of what I should have written about, for your edification and delight…

Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra concert, Saturday 4 October – especially the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, magisterially played by Richard Lewis, Jo Towler, Duncan Gwyther and Liz Kadir.  Wow.

Haydn’s Creation at the Korean Full Gospel Church in Raynes Park, Sunday 12 October – lots of fun, the Koreans charming and lovely, my contra bottom B flat much appreciated!

The English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, Wednesday 15 October – Tippett, Britten (Les Illuminations with stunning young soprano Mary Bevan), plus some works by Arab composers including the brilliant and hilarious Saxophone Concerto by Waleed Howrani – a perfect Last Night of the Proms piece?

Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 19 October – Emma Johnson, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lill, surprisingly not a full house:  a treat of Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios, the Weber Grand Duo Concertant, Julian playing two of his father’s pieces (with Andrew in the audience), and John Lill scorching our eyebrows off with the Chopin C minor Nocturne and the amazing Prokofiev Toccata

Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at the Opera House, with Juan Diego Florez

Our very own Phoenix Orchestra concert (see previous post) on Thursday 23 October, especially the wonderful and inexhaustible Tom Poster in the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto

The Esbjerg Ensemble at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 26 October:  Nonet by Louise Farrenc, Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind (fantastic), the Schumann Piano Quintet (wonderful as ever).  Slightly dour Danish group, lifted to a higher plane by the tiny, sparky, beaming and incredibly accomplished pianist Marianna Shirinyan (who she??)

And the Brodsky Quartet at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 October – Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 (what a wonderful piece), Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1, and two little Stravinsky numbers (Concertino and Three Pieces) which were spellbinding.

Now I’m off to rehearse contra in Boléro (don’t ask)…

Normal service one of these days!

thanks for the picture, Diana…

Garden Opera: Don Pasquale

August 27, 2008

Another August Bank Holiday, another Garden Opera performance in the magical setting of the Observatory Garden in Greenwich… (so it must be a year since I started this blog!  Hey!  Happy birthday to me!)

Alas, no idyllic weather this time, but at least the rain held off.  The audience was enthusiastic but not a full ‘house’ – where were the Burghers of Blackheath?  Not all in Tuscany, surely?  Perhaps put off by the weather, or by the relatively unfamiliar opera on offer?

Donizetti is mostly known for his prolific output of bel canto operas on serious or historical subjects, but he was also a dab hand at comedy, managing to combine swift-flowing action with hilarious patter songs, gentle lyricism and (as my friend Diana noted) some eyebrow-raising sudden key-changes.

Ernesto, the tenor lead, has probably the hardest task in Don Pasquale, having to play the soulful romantic while all about him are embroiled in comedy.  Alexander Anderson-Hall rose bravely to the challenge, having to work hard at times but to fine effect.  He could also ‘do’ the comedy when required.

Catherine May, as Norina, was a treasure – huge expressive eyes conveying every nuance of surprise, horror, complicity, teasing, play-acting and genuine affection.  And she could do the high notes too!

James McOran-Campbell, charismatic as ever (and with a green corduroy three-piece suit to die for), made Dr Malatesta into an untypically youthful but convincing and very funny conspirator.  Last but not least, as the eponymous Don Pasquale Deryck Hamon was a hoot – all arms and legs in confusion, infuriatingly pompous, ridiculous when trying to be ‘with it’, yet winning our sympathy for his plight.  And he had the low notes…

Bernie Lafontaine provided deft orchestrations for his hard-working six-piece band, which once again sounded convincingly like a whole orchestra.

Stage direction was by Duncan Macfarland (of the Royal Opera House) who updated the action to the ‘late 1970s’, explaining that it was a time when 1960s counter-culture collided head-on with the bourgeois values of middle England, thus enabling him to retain the conflicts of the original while playing down the now-unacceptable social stereotypes of Donizetti’s day.  (This did mean losing the bite of the final ‘moral’, in which ‘When an old man wants to marry, he’ll only make a fool of himself’ became something harmless about ‘losing a guidebook’…)

Designers Neil Irish (sets) and Dulcie Best (costumes) rose to the challenge brilliantly.  (more…)

photos of Italy

August 10, 2008

Following my wonderful jaunt to play Rossini’s La Cenerentola in Umbria, here is a photo album for your edification and enjoyment.  Click on the link below:

http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/59739568

album by PhotoBox

Italy here we come!

July 26, 2008

Just off to the tiny Umbrian village of Castel di Fiori to play for Rossini’s Cenerentola, with Elizabeth Spencer as Cinderella and Hugo Tucker as the Prince, conductor Chris Davey, lots of chums in the band.  Should be fun!

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more info on Brian and Lynne Chatterton’s website — click here:  http://www.cottage-umbria.com/Opera2008.html

And I have a Prom season ticket for when I get back, so watch this space…