Posted tagged ‘Wagner’

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

Philip Langridge CBE (1939-2010)

March 8, 2010

Another sad piece of news – the passing of Philip Langridge. A wonderful, intelligent English tenor, with a distinctive voice, great musicality and a huge range of repertoire (BBC Radio 3 marked his passing with ‘Comfort ye / Every valley’ from Handel’s Messiah – beautifully sung of course, and repertoire I had never associated with him before. How typical).

Probably my earliest memory of him is as Tom Rakewell in a student production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Cambridge, probably in 1969 or 70.  (The conductor was Antony Beaumont, director David Pountney, harpsichordist Mark Elder.)   Besides Philip’s voice, I remember his cream-and-brown ‘co-respondent’ shoes (it was a modern dress production).

All I ever want is to be true to the piece, the words and the character; to the whole thing, its meaning and so on. When we are true to what we do that is what makes great art. If you try and nudge it in a certain way to try and make it better for you or make you more famous then that’s boring. The public are not stupid and they may not have studied many hours what you are performing – some have, but many haven’t – but you can always tell when somebody means something and when they don’t.

Communication is also an important thing and if we do not communicate what we are doing – or what the music is doing – what is there left?
[from the interview referred to below]

Modest, unassuming, never a diva, always ready with a smile and a friendly word – Philip was one of music’s gentlemen.  I am proud to have worked with him at Glyndebourne, ENO and the Royal Opera. In the ground-breaking production of Janáček’s Osud at ENO he gave a harrowing performance as the composer Zivny, playing the tricky onstage piano part himself. With his wife Ann Murray he made a memorable double-act in Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict at ENO.

I treasure his recordings of Britten and Tippett and others, and memories of live performances including Schubert’s Winterreise at Blackheath Halls (with David Owen Norris). I also treasure the postcard he sent me from Aldeburgh (a watery watercolour scene with ‘Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes in a stave across the sky) in response to my congratulations on his CBE in 1994.

Energetic to the end, he could be seen leaping around the stage as Loge in Wagner’s Ring, or in more sedate (but vocally demanding) roles in Berg’s Lulu or Birtwistle’s The Minotaur.  Ever ready to learn new or unfamiliar music, at the age of 70 it seemed he would go on for ever.

Farewell, Philip.  And thank you for the music.

Deepest condolences to his wife Ann Murray, and his children including Anita and Stephen.

Obituary by Barry Millington here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/mar/07/philip-langridge-obituary

and a nice interview with Philip:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2009/jan-jun09/langridge_interview.htm

‘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

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…)

quick roundup

October 23, 2007

…in case you were wondering where I’ve been…

Thursday was the Phoenix Orchestra concert (that’s the London Phoenix Orchestra — I didn’t hop over to Arizona!) — brilliant and lots of fun.  The singers were super too — Mary Nelson lovely and full of character (and a sweet voice) (and a nice simple red dress), Amos Christie a smouldering tenor who gave the most heartbreaking rendition of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin.  And the bassoons had a good blast in the ‘Dragons d’Alcala’ interlude from Carmen…

Friday was (two hours in a traffic jam, then) rehearsal of the Phoenix Wind Quintet (no relation) prior to our gig in Bradford in a couple of weeks — ‘light’ music for a party.  Going well…

Saturday was (more traffic and one-ways and queuing for car parks and) a concert in Kingston (that’s Surrey, not Jamaica)…  Blowing the contra in Gershwin and Liadov and 3rd bassoon in a piece by Jonathan Dove… then sitting out the second half which was Tchaikovsky 4th Symph — never quite realised what a MAD piece that is.  Terrific.  Conductor of Kingston Philharmonia was our very own Lev Parikian (who does a different orchestra every night of the week, it seems… How does he get around them all?  He has a folding bike)… Thank you to Mark and his wife for very nice company and meal before the show…

Sunday was (more…)

Oh, Wagner! Wagner!

October 2, 2007

(…said in tones of exasperation, not reverence…) – how can you do this to me?  How dare you take over whole chunks of my life like this? 

I remember in the early 1970s sitting though a whole cycle of The Ring at Covent Garden, spread over a couple of weeks, and for all that time it was really impossible to listen to any other music or even to think about anything else.  ‘Real’ life faded into insignificance, and was put on hold for the duration.  Well, now that I am involved from the other direction, with rehearsals and performances of The Ring at Covent Garden, I find the same thing is still true – this time spread over a couple of months…

So – what is it about Wagner?  Was he a ‘great’ composer?  I don’t know.  Certainly there is tremendous and moving and impressive (and loud) music in his operas;  and Götterdämmerung (the fourth and last opera in the Ring cycle) has some of the most weirdly forward-looking, avant-garde music imaginable (more so, to my mind, than the ‘ground-breaking’ harmonies of Tristan und Isolde).  It also has some clunkily terrible, BAD music.  

Was he, as many claim, a great psychologist of human nature?  Hmmm.  I’d much rather have Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal:  show me anything in Wagner to match their heartbreaking, penetrating insight into the character of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger?  Wotan in The Ring??  I don’t think so).  Or in any case I’d rather have Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte – all the psychological insight, delivered with tenderness, humour and the lightest of touches.  Or any of Janáček’s operas…  surely there is more humanity, and sense of man’s place in the universe, in Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen than in the whole of The Ring (and you could fit Janacek’s opera, complete, about three times into just one act of Götterdämmerung). 

(And don’t even think about how many Haydn symphonies you could fit into that time!   (more…)