ENO: The Winter’s Tale

London Coliseum, Monday 27 February 2017

When the RSC stages The Winter’s Tale it normally runs over three hours. Ryan Wigglesworth’s new opera based on the play runs for under two hours, so we are immediately aware that this is going to be a highly focused, not to say intense, adaptation of the play – and so it proves to be. Gone are the comic characters, all of the songs and incidental music, dancing is reduced to a brief aside. The focus is entirely on the impact of jealousy in both Leontes and Polixenes.

Vicki Mortimer’s high walled setting constantly encloses and cuts off the characters from each other, and placing both Sicilia and Bohemia under military rule gives little sense of contrast in the second act. If anything, the music underlines the unifying factors rather than the differences between the two countries.

The conclusion moves away from Shakespeare. Though Hermione returns to life there is little sense of resurrection or restoration here, and the final image is uncomfortably spectral, as the dead Mamillius wanders slowly off stage.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s score mirrors this intensity of approach with music that is frequently edgy and uncomfortable. There are few lyrical moments, even in Bohemia, and characters rarely reflect on their positions, though Iain Paterson’s finely drawn Leontes is allowed two more-extended introspective moments.

Sophie Bevan makes what she can of Hermione though the trial scene gives her nowhere near enough emotional scope for us to empathise more than at the most superficial level. Samantha Price makes more impact as Perdita though sixteen years living rurally is glossed over.

The concentration of the text makes Polixenes a more important protagonist, strongly sung by Leigh Melrose. His – spoken – assault on Florizel becomes one of the strongest moments of the evening, drawing parallels with the first act in an almost identical setting.

Smaller parts are well rounded but the most interesting musical innovation comes with the chorus. There is, of course, no chorus in Shakespeare. Verdi had to interpolate choruses into his settings and Wigglesworth does the same. They are very effective, particularly the protest for Hermione, which has no place in the original but here reflects current political unease very succinctly.

Rory Kinnear’s production is masterly in its understatement and naturalism. Even in moments of high tension he manages to maintain a convincing sense of normality taken to the edge. He brings all his experience of working in the theatre to ensure that even the most unlikely events convince and that emotions are always credible. It is a remarkable debut and he will surely be asked again – and soon!

ENO: The Pirates of Penzance

London Coliseum, 23 February 2017

Andrew Shore as the Major General in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

Fifty years ago every local operatic society relied on Gilbert & Sullivan for their daily bread. Today it is difficult to find individual performances which may account for the high levels of surprise and delight in the audience enjoying this first revival of Mike Leigh’s production.

By taking the work at face value – no knowing asides or updating – the comedy actually works far better, and, sung by operatic voices, the music holds its own with ease.

The casting was different enough to make for an interesting evening even for those of us who had greatly enjoyed the original outing in 2015. David Webb has a light lyric tenor which he uses intelligently as Frederic, and his slightly reserved presence is perfectly in character. Soraya Mafi by contrast is a highly excitable Mabel but one for whom the Bellinian coloratura holds no terrors. Their duet Ah leave me not to pine was genuinely moving. Ashley Riches is a wonderful cardboard cut-out as the Pirate King, all swagger and attitude, and is surrounded by a likeable group of cut-throats.

John Tomlinson as the Sergeant of the Police in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

To have the finest Wotan of his generation as the Sergeant of Police was a gem, and John Tomlinson did not disappoint. Totally in character, as one would expect, his nuances with the text were constantly alive and apt, and his voice, needless to say, better than one would dare to expect.

Lucy Schaufer returned as a sympathetic Ruth and Andrew Shore again relished the part of the Major General.

Gareth Jones moved things along swiftly in the pit and it was good yet again to enjoy Sullivan’s score from a full orchestra not a pit band.

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, Wednesday 22 February 2017

The UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Piano Concerto No2 may have accounted for the rather thin audience but those who stayed away missed one of the finest Bruckner performances I can recall in many years.

Rihm’s work fluctuates between tonal and atonal sentiments meaning that the ear is never quite at ease with the developmental line. There are many quasi-lyrical passages, and the gentler sections often come close to moving the listener but then the underlying tension works against this. The snare-drum towards the end brings a rare moment of consolidation to a work which can seem to be drifting away from us. The piano part is fiercely demanding with hardly a moment of respite for the soloist. In this capacity Nicolas Hodges was a tireless enthusiast and at times came close to convincing us that the work was greater than the sum of its parts. Lothar Koenigs brought sensitivity to many passages but could do little to enthuse us about the whole.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony after the interval was another matter altogether. There was superb dynamic range and consistent sensitivity towards the clarity of the score. The second movement had an Elgarian opacity which I can’t recall ever being aware of before. It was full of light and joy, with no sense of the ponderous weight that so many bring to Bruckner. The drive and enthusiasm in the Scherzo was matched by an almost playful approach to the finale.

Thankfully, being a BBC performance, it will be broadcast on Tuesday 28 February and I for one will be listening again.

Eat, Drink, Love!

Opera House, Wetherspoon, Tunbridge Wells, Sunday 19 February 2017

The annual Sunday on which Tunbridge Wells’s glorious Opera House reverts to its musical roots and sets aside its current pub incarnation is always a  festive event. All credit to Wetherspoon for facilitating it. This year Merry Opera Company’s new show is revue rather than opera. And an engaging melange of musical theatre, songs from various genres and – of course –  opera it turns out to be.

An accomplished and versatile quartet – Andrea Tweedale, Gemma Morsley, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter and Matthew Quirk – shift between genres so adeptly that it feels as if we’re moved from classical (Mozart’s Un’aura amorosa nicely sung by tenor Olsworth-Peter, to Horrible Histories at a stroke. A rousing rendering of The Roast Beef of Old England complete with mezzo-soprano Morsley, sporting a colander-crown  on her head as Elizabeth I, ends the first half. In between the extremes are numbers such as a pleasing account of Purcell’s If Music Be the Food of Love from soprano Tweedale, and bass-baritone Matthew Quirk, having fun with Ted Waite’s I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana.

Several things strike me about this show. First, it’s interesting to hear musical theatre numbers sung without radio mics by trained opera singers. I have long contended that there is no valid distinction between musical theatre and opera. It is all simply musical drama and any differences are often very blurred. Merry Opera’s take on the material in this show cheerfully reinforces that.

Second, it’s splendid to hear such a variety. Some of it is familiar. I have sung the surprisingly difficult The Banquet Fugue from John Rutter’s The Reluctant Dragon myself and it’s a pleasure to hear it done with such slickness and panache. What a stylistic contrast though with Harry Champion’s music hall number Oh! That Gorgonzola Cheese or Quirk and Morsley being  wittily outrageous in the well known Have Some Madeira M’Dear  by Flanders and Swann, or Quirk and Olsworth-Peter in a dead-pan take on I Gave My Love a Cherry. The four of them do as well with American-style 1930s close harmony as with Baroque and Bizet’s Omelette Quartet with which the show ends is entertaining.

Third, the choreography (by Carole Todd) provides quite a lot of clever grouping and movement so that the show works reasonably well visually as well as aurally.

There is a problem, though with the linking narrative with which John Ramster, director has tried far too hard. The show is themed on three inter-related human activities and some of the dialogue and flirting amongst characters between sung numbers is excruciatingly contrived and hammy, The show would be better with much less of that and an additional sung item in each half.

Moreover, the show takes a while to get going and some of the singing is wobbly in the first fifteen minutes – or at least it was at the performance I saw. The second half is both better structured and more assured.

Generally speaking though, Eat, Drink, Love! was a very pleasant way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

Susan Elkin

 

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, 5 February 2017

THOMAS-CARROLL

Thomas Carroll, looking as if he’s about to win a snooker tournament in a snazzy red waistcoat, has a knack of bending almost double to coax intricately nuanced pianissimo playing from his players. It’s effective too. Almost all the playing in this very pleasant concert was sensitive and well balanced.

After a momentarily ragged start Mozart’s K201, with all its sophisticated simplicity, soon settled into a suitably crisp, sparkling opening allegro with the following movements in careful contrast, For both this, and the Haydn which came next, the Brighton Philharmonic was reduced to just 36 players – strings with two horns and two oboes ensuring that the mood remained light, tight and classical.

The Haydn C major concerto (rediscovered as recently as 1961) is a resolutely cheerful work and multi-talented Carroll conducting from his cello appeared to smile from the sheer joy of the music almost continually. He achieved a fine rapport with the orchestra and his cello sound was lushly mellow especially in the beautiful Adagio and the well controlled Allegro Molto finale.

And so to the concluding Mendelssohn Italian Symphony for a happy ending to a sunny concert – and a few more players and instruments added to the mix. The opening was lively and incisive with some clearly articulated string work in the busy passages which typify much of Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing. One or two wobbly moments in the third movement were soon forgotten once we reached the Saltanella and the glorious conclusion which was played with panache.

Susan Elkin

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, 4 February 2017

J Lill

John Lill CBE has been president of the Maidstone Symphony Orchestra since 1980 and his association with it goes ten years further back when he played his first concert with them, shortly after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. To this day, he generously plays an occasional concert with MSO and unassuming as he is, his presence in the hall has a palpable effect on both players and audience. He seems to bring out an extra edge in a band which always delivers competently but on this occasion they surpassed even their own high standards.

Lill’s account of Beethoven’s third piano concerto was unshowy but intense, the concentration showing only in a slight working of his mouth. It’s a treat to hear the concerto played at a speed which allows us to hear every note of Beethoven’s glorious C minor detail – a refreshing contrast to the usual prestissimo gallop most conductors want to impose on it. The triplets just before the end came across in this performance as an intelligent question and answer dialogue between piano and orchestra. Other high spots included the long cadenza full of virtuosic tension at the end of the first movement, which had me (and most of the rest the audience) on the edge of our seats, and the exquisite lyricism in the largo.

The Beethoven was sandwiched between Weber’s chirpy Oberon overture and Brahms’s most magnificent symphony – the Fourth and last. The Weber presents a challenging opening with its horn solo and muted strings – all very exposed before it leaps away into the first dance tune. It isn’t the easiest way to start a concert but it came off adequately.

And by the time we reached the vibrant warmth of the Brahms, all nervousness had gone and the John Lill effect had worked its magic.  From the exuberant precision of the opening allegro through the delicacy (all that pizzicato!) in the middle movement to the initially ponderous, grandiloquent fourth movement, it was glorious. I once heard the late, great Antony Hopkins (the musicologist not the actor) give a talk for children about this last movement and he told them to remember “B-R-A-H-M-S Spells Brahms” and explained how to listen for the opening statement in various forms for the rest of the movement. If only there had been more children and young people in the audience at this concert to hear this enjoyable account of it.

For various reasons this was the first MSO concert I’ve managed to get to this season and I’m struck afresh by the quality and freshness. I think it is scaling new heights of achievement. Andrew Pearson is certainly the most charismatic leader the orchestra has had in a while and I’m sure he is part of the reason. The string sound is rich and rarely falters and – among other fine performers – Anna Binney, principal flautist – more than deserved the applause Brian Wright directed towards her at the end.

Susan Elkin

Pull Out All the Stops 2

R QuinneyRobert Quinney,
Royal Festival Hall, London  3rd February 2017

 

Robert Quinney’s highly anticipated all-Bach recital, the second in the 2016-17 Pull out all the Stops season at RFH, did not disappoint.  A large and appreciative audience reflected the reputation of this Oxford based organist who has recently released a number of excellent Bach programmes on CD including many of the works which made up this recital.

Beginning with such a popular and sometimes over-exposed piece as Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 could have been a mistake but on this occasion, delivered with flair and colour as well as a few of the performer’s own flourishes which did not detract, this was an inspired opening to an evening of music consisting mostly of works that are heard less often.

The chorale prelude Vater unser in Himmelreich was a lovely contrast to the opening piece, with softer voices and tremulant throughout. With a lightness of touch that was heard frequently throughout the programme, Robert Quinney demonstrated the beauty of this measured music played with attention to detail to create an intimacy sometimes missing from performances on this large scale instrument.

Four Duets provided much interest. These pieces for two equal voices played just on the manuals have a complexity beyond what might be expected from such a simple structure. Once again the carefully chosen registration maximised the impact of each line and allowed melody to emerge from often very busy and dense writing.

Other works in the recital were Prelude & Fugue in C (BWV 547), Prelude & Fugue in Eminor (BWV 548), Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her and Prelude & Fugue in G (BWV 541). A rousing and full-throttled encore rendition of Bach’s Sinfonia brought the evening to a close.

My criticism of some of the programmes in previous recitals at this venue has been that some performers have been tempted to overdo the “fast and loud”. In the hands and feet of a careful and well-planned organist this instrument is capable of so much variety – from the most raucous low pedals and full on grand choruses played with gusto to the delicate flutes and soft reeds, with so much in between. The combination of tonight’s well-chosen and varied programme with this organ and performer certainly brought something of JS Bach’s vision of God’s heaven to this listener’s earth. I hope we shall see a return to the RFH from Mr Quinney in the not too distant future.

Stephen Page

ENO: Rigoletto

'Rigoletto' Opera directed by Jonathan Miller performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UKLondon Coliseum, Thursday 2 February 2017

 

Jonathan Miller’s famous Mafia staging of Rigoletto has returned to ENO’s repertoire. Though thirty five years old now, it is more than worthy its return, as it makes sense of both the narrative and the music. The dark spaces in Patrick Robertson’s designs are a fitting reflection of the even darker emotions on stage. That the first night of this thirteenth revival did not have quite the frisson one might have hoped for came more from a combination of details rather than any one problem.

Sir Richard Armstrong in the pit took a cautious approach to the score, with few moments of real excitement or passion. Tempi were often on the slow side with little sense of excitement. By contrast the chorus was in exciting and attacking form.

The solo cast sang well but with the exception of Sydney Mancasola’s radiant Gilda, were all leaning on the side of caution. This was probably why Nicholas Folwell made such an impact as Monterone, spitting venom at all around him even as he is led off to summary execution, and smaller parts like Marullo and even the police officer, came across so strongly.

Unfortunately the two leading men made a limited impact. Joshua Guerrero has the secure top for the Duke and phrases well but his approach seemed over-comfortable with little sense of the menace or threat the part involves and which this production has in the past brought out very well.

This was also true of Nicholas Pallesen’s Rigoletto. While the voice is well focussed for the part his presence rarely moved us. Where the character calls for a wide range of emotions which will sweep us away, here everything was careful, often to the point where it lacked emotional impact. The great cry for vengeance in act two gave no sense of catharsis, so that we never felt the weight of the curse. Rigoletto takes it seriously and so should we.

I have no doubt this production will be revived again. It deserves it. If the present cast can throw off what may have been first night nerves and become a little more reckless, it might yet be worth a visit.

Tales & Traditions

Noteworthy Voices at St Simon & St Jude, East Dean, Saturday 21 January 2017

St Simon East Dean

A bitterly cold night but the warmth of the welcome at St Simon and St Jude more than made up for any concerns, and Noteworthy Voices provided us with another superbly balanced programme of a cappella music.

The first half was given over to sacred texts, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with three reflective works. Thomas Mudd’s Let Thy Merciful Ears, O Lord has a quiet dignity before the richer textures of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, and the wonderfully floated lines of Byrd’s Ave verum. The next section brought us to praise of God with Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum which seems to pile the musical lines onto each other in a dizzying attempt to raise us to heaven. The same composer’s Jesu Dolcis was more reflective before the high tessitura of Palestrina’s Jesu Rex Admirabilis and the bouncy rhythms of Exultate Deo.  Lotti’s Crucifixus is a miracle of condensed emotion, its harmonic palette so challenging it could have been written within the last century. By contrast the recent works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo seemed almost easy on the ear, particularly the slow unfolding of Northern Lights.

The second half brought us to secular settings, opening with three choral songs by Brahms. The six part settings gave the choir a chance to demonstrate different tonal colours, particularly in the final melancholic Darthulas Grabegesang. Saint-Saens’ charming settings of Calme des Nuits and Les Fleurs et les Arbres led us gently towards the lighter end of the evening with folk and popular numbers.

Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of Linden Lea and Just as the tide was turning are none the less welcome for being familiar, and it was a delight to hear James Tomlinson as the bass soloist in The Turtle Dove. He will be missed when he leaves to take us a choral scholarship and we wish him well.

A lovely gentle arrangement of O Waly, Waly led us into Over the rainbow and Tea For Two – and all too soon we were at the end.

Ansy Boothroyd introduced the programme and conducted with subtlety and skill throughout. The different approaches she takes to the end of a piece is particularly noteworthy, with some dying away to silence while other are softly rounded. It is all beautifully crafted and the choir react with exceptional musicality to her shaping of the sound.

We look forward to hearing them again soon.

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, 15 January 2017

A crowd pleasing programme meant that the Dome was as full as I’ve ever seen it for a BPO concert. And despite the chilly wet January weather outside there was a very upbeat sense of “Now sits expectation in the air”. The concert which followed met that expectation with aplomb.

First came the operatic colour of the Overture to the Barber of Seville played with lush full tone and plenty of breathless excitement, especially in the syncopated passages, and in all those wonderful woodwind solos with a particularly noteworthy bassoon contribution.

Joseph Moog

I suppose Grieg’s piano concerto is second only to Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninov 2 in popularity – and deservedly so. Joseph Moog is an engaging player to watch despite his sitting so far forward on his stool that he appeared to be in serious danger of sliding off the front and disappearing under the piano. The performance really came into its own during the adagio in which the orchestra achieved a gloriously sweet, immaculately fluid sound, before the magical moment when the piano creeps in. It was played with the sort of imaginative restraint that even some of the world’s top orchestras fail to bring off. Moog and Ben Gernon interpreted the movement as much more of a musical dialogue than as a showpiece for accompanied piano. There was thoughtful, wistful work in the allegro too before the dive into the showy, virtuosic conclusion.

Dvorak 8 is possibly my favourite symphony. I’ve played the second violin part several times in amateur performances and I’ve heard it done professionally dozens (and dozens) of times. The secret of making this delightful music shine lies in managing the contrasts – the soft lyrical passages, the irrepressible dance motifs, the brass fanfares and all the rest of it. Ben Gernon, baton-less and quietly charismatic, was on top of the symphony’s every mood. He found the work’s warmth, passion,fun and made it satisfyingly coherent – even down to resisting the temptation to exaggerate the rall just before the end as so many self-indulgent conductors do. Particular high spots included the tripping, trickling joyfulness in the second movement at the introduction of the second subject, the waltzing vibrancy of the adagio and the beautifully nuanced – so Bohemian! – rhythms of the minor key section in the last movement – and congratulations to principal flute, Margaret Campbell. There’s a great deal of exposed flute solo in this symphony and Ms Campbell ensured that we heard and enjoyed every note of it.

Susan Elkin