Posted tagged ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’

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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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!

Erica Eloff at the Wigmore Hall

November 17, 2008

erica 

The South African soprano Erica Eloff first appeared on my radar as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte at Garsington Opera last summer:  tall, poised, magnetic;  a fabulous voice, big, smooth and even;  a commanding presence, and acting which covered the range from comedy to tragedy, always with intensity and controlled emotion.  (And one of her teachers – as with so many rising sopranos, especially at Garsington – was my old chum Lillian Watson.)

So when I had the chance to hear Erica in a Kirckman Concert Society recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday, I knew I was in for a treat.

With the young and very impressive James Baillieu – also from South Africa – as her accompanist, she gave us a varied programme in a wide variety of languages, all sung with perfect diction and idiomatic pronunciation.

She began with some Schubert rarities in Italian, Vier Canzonen (D688), and continued in French with Fauré’s Poème d’un jour (three songs), Après un rêve and Fleur jetée, beautifully delivered and very touching.

So far she seemed accomplished if somewhat restrained, perhaps a little nervous (and not flattered by the awful overhead lighting;  Wigmore, can’t you manage something better than this?).  But with her next cycle of songs she was transformed:  Alleenstryd (Outcast:  the Lone Struggle) is a set of six enormously powerful songs in Afrikaans with a strong political message, composed  by Hendrik Hofmeyr (born 1957).  The music was muscular, occasionally thorny, and full of character (James Baillieu told us that the composer was one of his teachers, so the work had a personal significance for him too).  Singing in her own language, Erica Eloff finally came totally alive, bewitching us with a range of moods from despair and cynicism to flirtatiousness, nostalgia, anger and pride.  A tremendous achievement.  CD, please!

After the interval, another country, another language – Edvard Grieg’s six songs in German, Op. 48.  Grieg is such a glorious composer (and hardly given sufficient coverage in 2007, the centenary of his death);  these songs are among his loveliest and best known, and show Grieg’s unerring talent for setting a scene with the simplest of means, not to mention his gift for a great tune.  Again Erica Eloff held us captivated with her flawless singing, her wit and charm, and her alertness to every change of mood.

Finally, Rachmaninov’s Six Songs, Op. 38, gave us yet another language (Russian) and an even bigger range of moods and colours.  An ambitious choice, but one to which she rose impressively, her voice seamlessly beautiful and powerful from top to bottom of a big range.  At the end of the final song, ‘A-oo’, she held her expression of despair, puzzlement and sadness (‘But where are you? … I sing, I search, “A-oo”, I cry’) even throughout the long instrumental postlude.

A lovely little Afrikaans encore sent us away in high spirits, aware that we were witnessing the start of a great career.  Certainly a soprano to watch.  I can’t wait for her next stage appearance, nor her first CD, nor (dare we hope) a place as Miss South Africa at Cardiff Singer of the World?  She deserves it.

Thanks to Matthew Brailsford and the Kirckman Society, and my brother Tony, for the train of circumstances that led me to be part of this event!  And to Erica for her friendly post-concert greetings and glass of bubbly.  And to Diana for the photograph.