Posted tagged ‘Berlioz Society’

Béatrice et Bénédict – Chelsea Opera Group; Elizabeth Connell and Barefoot Opera

November 28, 2011

A wonderful musical weekend.  On Saturday, to Cadogan Hall for Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Berlioz’s late opera, Béatrice et Bénédict.  (Thank you to the Berlioz Society for the discounted tickets!)  COG orchestra on sparkling form, conductor Nicholas Collon fantastic – precise, clear and engaged (grinning widely throughout the Overture!).  Chorus somewhat under strength but valiant.  Female soloists wonderful – Ana Maria Labin sang Héro with a lovely true soprano, Emma Carrington brought her luxuriously velvety mezzo to Ursule;  their duet at the end of Act I (delicious in matching dark blue dresses) was the musical highlight of the evening.  Liora Grodnikaite has come a long way since her days on the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House;  she sang Béatrice (without a score) with wit, fire and musicality, her looks and gestures conveying a huge range of emotions including amusement, scorn, uncertainty and confusion.  A terrific performance.

Her Bénédict, Ben Johnson, paled somewhat in comparison, not least because he remained resolutely score-bound.  He sang very nicely, but there was no chemistry between the pair (one recalls Ann Murray and Philip Langridge at ENO all those years ago…).  Simon Lobelson and Adrian Clarke were luxury casting in the minor male roles.  Everyone’s sung French was excellent – a rare achievement.

The wise decision had been taken to ‘stage’ the concert with three actors performing a reduced version of the dialogue in English.  So we had Shakespeare interspersed with (uncredited but very witty) translations of Berlioz’s own additions to the text.  Unlike their singing counterparts, there was plenty of chemistry and flying sparks between Helen Ramsorrun and Sion Davies – both final-year GSMD students  (he should guard against dropping his voice, though – I didn’t always catch the words.)  Donald Maxwell doubled Léonato and the Notary, as well as doing all that could humanly done with the awful role (spoken and sung) of Somarone, the joke music master who writes joke bad music… oh dear.

Because the three actors covered several roles each, it wasn’t always easy to tell who was who or what on earth was going on.  A brave try, though.  Perhaps some of the dialogue could have been cut still further…

Nice that the format followed that of COG’s previous performance in 1981, conducted by Stephen Barlow (can that really have been 30 years ago?).  My only misgivings concern the piece:  dear Berlioz, bless him, can’t get his dramatic pacing right, and in Act I he never knows when to stop.  Apart from Bénédict’s Rondo, every number outstays its welcome (even the glorious nocturnal duet) – especially Somarone’s cod Epithalamion which isn’t funny anyway and which Berlioz insists on inflicting on us TWICE.  Aarrgghh!  And then Act II flashes past with undignified haste – the final duet seems over before it has begun. But all in all, a fine achievement for COG and a fun evening.

Then, on Sunday, a local jaunt to St Mary in the Castle in Hastings – a wonderful venue we hadn’t sampled before (thank you Lesley and Alistair for the heads-up).  Billed as a Gala Concert, the first half consisted of performances by members of Barefoot Opera, a new back-to-basics ensemble directed by Jenny Miller (whom I remember as a fine mezzo Cenerentola a while ago).  But they didn’t just stand and sing:  soloists appeared in different parts of the (circular) auditorium, moved among the audience, sang to each other, and generally brought their roles imaginatively to life.  Kudos particularly to the charismatic Krysia Mansfield, who not only sang Tippett and Borodin but even managed to be riveting while playing a non-singing Vitellia to Aino Konkka’s Sesto in Mozart’s ‘Parto, parto’ from La Clemenza di Tito.  (Even clarinettist Andrew Sparling – playing from memory – directed some of his obligato towards her, presumably in an attempt to soften her heart.)  Talking of which, more kudos to Andrew Sparling for putting down his clarinet and singing a weird and powerful Ravel song, ‘Les grands vents’. 

Other stars included Carleen Ebbs’ sparkling and fearless ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – we reckoned we had heard it sung less well, to say the least, during the Cardiff Singer of the World week.  And Antoine Salmon, who may not possess the world’s most beautiful bass voice but was hilarious in Rossini’s ‘La calunnia’ and as Don Pasquale playing stooge to the Dr Malatesta of Nikos Penesis.  Not sure about the ensemble finale – a strange rewrite of Handel – but this seems to be part of a project they are working on.  All credit to Barefoot Opera – let’s hope we hear and see more of them.

Oh — and brava Nancy Cooley for her indefatigable accompanying!

For the second half, Elizabeth Connell took to the stage (is it ungallant to call her a ‘veteran soprano’?), accompanied by Stephen Rose.  She treated us to a hilarious résumé of her long and colourful life in opera, illustrated by knockout performances of Wagner (‘Dich teure Halle’), Mozart (‘Non più di fiori’ from La Clemenza di Tito), and Verdi (Lady Macbeth’s ‘La luce langue’.)  From low G to top B, her voice was big, true and thrilling.

She then gave us an outrageous ‘Diva Song’ written for her by Betty Roe and involving many changes of hats… I say no more,  You must try to see her for yourself.

Her encore was the immensely touching ‘When I have sung my songs to you’ by the American composer Ernest Chance. Not a dry eye in the house (even hers!).  A great lady and another great evening, rounding off a great weekend.

photo of Liza Connell (c) Clive Barda, borrowed from musicweb-international http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2008/Jul-Dec08/connell.htm

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Berlioz — Grande Messe des Morts

October 11, 2010

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Barbican Hall, Saturday 9 October 2010;  Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple 

I played the Grande Messe des Morts with Cambridge University Music Society (in Ely Cathedral, circa 1970), so have always loved this amazing work (and the 3rd bassoon part is engraved on my brain forever).  And Diana is a Berlioz scholar (PhD) and member of the Berlioz Society, so how could we miss it.

 Conductor David Temple — despite his alarming resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh — did a great job.  He didn’t really conduct anyone except the choir, but the performance held together and the effect was overwhelming.  The Crouch End Festival Chorus delivered brilliantly — intonation, attack, energy, keeping pitch, dynamic contrasts, getting the words across, even synchronised sits and stands — all absolutely fine.  (Special bravas to the two lady tenors…)  The orchestra was the London Orchestra da Camera, which was a bit of a mystery — supposedly ‘ the country’s most talented freelance professional musicians’, but apart from the leader, John Bradbury (very fine), I didn’t recognize any of the names or faces.  They played really well — sonorous and in tune — though they could have done with more cellos and basses (6 and 4 not enough for this piece) and occasionally felt as if they could have done with more rehearsal too.  But they gave a magnificent performance.

 Tenor Robert Murray (a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) was, well, quite divine in the Sanctus, his voice floating effortlessly over the assembled company (from his position behind the orchestra but in front of the choir — a good solution).

 Slightly taken aback by the dress code — gents of the orchestra in full white tie and tails, ladies in workaday all-black (mostly trousers), choir all in black.  Conductor in a black bin liner worn outside his trousers* (an unflattering fashion also affected by Tony Pappano at the ROH).

 And I haven’t even begun to enumerate all the things that are so extraordinary about the piece.  It has been described as ‘really an opera’, like the Verdi Requiem – but it’s also an experimental laboratory of orchestration (chords on three flutes accompanied by trombone pedal notes?  Two cors anglais?  Six pairs of timpani?  Not to mention those four brass bands up in the balcony — I defy anyone to hear it live and not have shivers up your spine, if not a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.  What an extraordinary composer.)  Well, just get hold of the Colin Davis recording and hear for yourself!

 (Once upon a time I was involved in a TV recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Leonard Bernstein at Les Invalides in Paris (Napoleon’s resting place), the venue for which the work was composed.  Just thought I’d drop that in.  Now THAT was absolutely amazing.)

 Many thanks to the Berlioz Society for our excellently placed seats.  Would be interesting to hear from anyone else who was there?  Didn’t spot many familiar faces among the (not full) audience.

 If your own orchestra or choir ever gets an invitation to perform this piece, don’t hesitate!  As I recall from a hundred years ago, it’s great fun to play as well as to listen to.  And Berlioz writes for four bassoons, so he has got to be a good thing.

* For elucidation:  David Temple actually wore an open-necked black shirt outside his trousers.  Tony Pappano sports an oversize collarless black shirt for which my boss coined the pejorative (but graphic) description ‘black bin liner’.  Comfortable, perhaps — but a disconcerting sight at recent concert performances of Les pecheurs de perles when the entire ROH chorus as well as the orchestra and soloists were in full evening dress.