Garsington Opera: Le Nozze di Figaro

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 11 July 2017

When John Cox’ production of Figaro was first seen at the old Garsington House I reported then that it was the finest I had ever seen and this revival entirely endorses my original opinion. Every move, every entry is entirely justified and logical. Every passed note, every aside, is true to the narrative and in character. When this is wedded to Douglas Boyd’s enthusiastic and limpid conducting, and a sense of flow which carries all before it, it cannot fail.

Thankfully the singers are more than up to the challenge of the production. Joshua Bloom is a rough-diamond Figaro, vocally assertive, and it is easy to see him moving smoothly into a position as a leader of the revolutionary movements which underpin the story. His aprite un po quegli occhi is positively vicious and it is only the strength of Jennifer France’s Susanna that can match him to take on the nobility.

Duncan Rock is a dangerously smooth Count, the voice forthright and powerful, and the personality untrustworthy. He may be forgiven twice but we doubt it will be the end of his libertine ways. Kirsten MacKinnon is a young countess with hints of the younger self we know from the Barber of Seville. This works well and allows that she is naïve, even if she is learning all too quickly how to cope with Almaviva.

Janis Kelly is a superb Marcellina, alive to the nuances of the role and a fine foil to Stephen Richardson’s relaxed Bartolo. The third act recognition/reconciliation scene was magnificent and we see the forces of the bourgeoisie coming together against the wiles of the aristocracy.

There were no weaknesses across the rest of the cast and Marta Fontanals-Simmons proved to be the most convincing Cherubino I can recall.

The settings by Robert Perdziola transfer well to the new venue and there is a lovely conceit for the final act. In the old house this had used the terrace itself, with an entrance from the house stage right and the steps down into the garden on the left. This was reconstructed for Wormsley, with the familiar triple arches at the back and the garden pillars to one side. A lovely tough which worked well both sides of the foot-lights.

The chorus was as enthusiastic as it always is at Garsington, and the orchestra – particularly the fine continuo section – was at its best, despite one of the wettest evenings this summer.

Given the downpour when I visited for Pelleas and now again for Figaro there are concerns that I bring the rain with me! Hopefully the community opera at the end of the season will prove them wrong.


ENO: The Dream of Gerontius

Royal Festival Hall, 1 July 2017

In recent years we have encountered many stagings of oratorio – the Bach Passions, Handel’s Messiah, Verdi’s Requiem – but this was the first time I can recall a presentation of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. I say presentation advisedly as this was not a staged event so much as an ambient creation to heighten our involvement and understanding. In this it was remarkably successful. Rather than trying to create an alternative narrative or simply aping the text, Lucy Carter gave us a (literally) moving light scape which reflected the moods and places of the text without ever becoming too literal.

The photo describes the setting far more easily than I can, with the lines of strips of pin-point lights positioned high above us in sets of triangles. If this was a Trinitarian reflection it was very successful!

Together with a slight haze of smoke theses created an every shifting environment which moved us effortlessly from the solid realities of the earth to the heavenly realm without ever forcing the mind to accept the unacceptable.  If the changes sometime seemed too fast, look, next time you are in a cathedral, at the speed with which the light coming through the top windows changes the internal ambience of the building – it is remarkably rapid!

It reminded me of the directions Wagner gives for the transitions in Parsifal, where one scene simply becomes another without any apparent change taking place. I’d love to see Lucy Carter working on Wagner!

ENO understandably brought us operatic voices which were entirely appropriate for Simone Young’s approach to the score. Gwyn Hughes Jones is a muscular, and very obviously Welsh, Gerontius, who gave us many insightful moments. With a strong will I sever was just that, and there was a real heroism about In thine own agony.  Most telling was the radiant joy of Take me away – no pain here but exultation in salvation realised. A wonderful moment.

Patricia Bardon gave us a genuinely contralto Angel with the rich fullness Elgar certainly intended and a warmth for the Angel’s farewell which has become ever rarer today. Matthew Rose was in exemplary voice as the Priest and Angel of the Agony. After his King Marke it would be good to hear him in Parsifal soon.

The combined choruses of ENO and the BBC singers made a strong impact if limited in numbers. Elgar is writing for much larger choral forces and there were times when one could have wished for a larger body of sound, particularly in Praise to the Holiest. However the clarity of the text for most of the evening impressed.

The orchestra was dramatically alive throughout and Simon Young brought an emotional intensity to her reading of the score which some traditional forces lack or turn into sentimentality.

ENO is evolving in its approach to its repertoire. This was a most promising development which we hope will continue.


Garsington Opera: Pelleas et Melisande

Garsington Opera, Wormsley, 27 June 2017

A very wet evening seemed quite appropriate for Debussy’s only opera, the downpour reflecting the decaying splendour of the palace within which the action unfolds in Michael Boyd’s lucid presentation. More than anything else it was the clarity of the text which impressed and the refusal to try to explain what Maeterlinck wished to remain mysterious. We were constantly challenged to try to understand relationships which were elusive and shifting before our eyes.

In this Paul Gay’s Golaud was masterly. His gruff exterior seemed to hide an emotional core which never quite makes sense of his situation, to the point where even the death of Pelleas and Melisande lay outside of his understanding.

Andrea Carroll’s Melisande is probably the most enigmatic I can recall, the voice radiant yet the character always distant and reserved. Even at the end we have very little understanding of who or what she is. If Jonathan McGovern’s heroically sung Pelleas is more straightforward, his emotional understanding is complex and his relationship to Melisande always tentative, even in their final scene.

Brian Bannatyne-Scott brings dignity to Arkel and William Davies’ Yniold is given much more to do than normal. His finding of the crown in the second act is convincing if sinister, and his dragging off of Melisande’s soaking dress, impressive.

In the pit, the Philharmonia Orchestra more than justify their new relationship with the company. The sound is glorious and the interludes in particular had a lucidity and body to them which radiated throughout the house. Jac van Steen’s approach to the score was equally fluid, with attention to detail and phrasing always impressive.

Pelleas is not an easy work, either to stage or for the audience. It does not seem an obvious summer festival choice, yet it was more than vindicated here. Let us hope that this new approach from Garsington is the start of a long and fruitful collaboration.

Garsington Opera: Semele

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 15 June 2017


Charles Jennens dismissed Semele as a Bawdatorio and, despite the ravishing beauty of so much of the score, it has never quite entered the repertoire in the same way as Caesar or Ariondante. A surprise really when it so easily lends itself to a wide range of visual interpretations while the characters have an emotional depth which is equal to any of Handel’s other operas – but then of course the argument rises as to whether this is opera or oratorio. Opera may be allowed to be morally dubious, but oratorio is expected to be far more straight-laced. The key seems to lie with the organ. Oratorios are led from the organ; operas from the harpsichord. Semele has both and they were used with admirable tact under Jonathan Cohen’s light touch from the pit. This was Handel at his most entertaining. The relationships may be serious but Annilese Miskimmon’s production treads a fine line between fantasy and reality. The opening wedding scene could be any country house celebration, until the gods literally intervene and Semele is whisked off to a heavenly palace.

There are many telling details. Juno’s trail of small girls is a constant delight and never overused. The tiny golden Bacchus at the any is charming, all the more so as the children were clearly related to the adult cast. The chorus are a great strength throughout and their movement was tellingly choreographed by Sarah Fahie.

There were no weak points in the casting and Heidi Stober radiated as Semele, her rendition of Endless pleasure and Myself I shall adore becoming genuine showstoppers. Robert Murray gave us an old rue as Jupiter, pulling out all the stops for Where’er you walk and handling the many pyrotechnics with aplomb. Jurgita Adamonyte’s Ino was able to turn the humour on herself without any sense of humiliation, and David Soar’s Somnus had the gravely bass the part requires while hinting at the sort of lustful reserves Jennens found so objectionable.

Of all Handel’s stage works – and this surely demands to be staged – this can seem the most contemporary and certainly Garsington have highlighted its very many strengths.




Hackney Empire, 9 June 2017

If this was not quite ENO on the road again, it was good to see them working away from the Coliseum. A joint venture with Opera Philadelphia brought Daniel Schnyder’s recent work based on the life of Charlie Parker, Yardbird, to North London and an excellent choice of venue. The Hackney Empire is a Frank Matcham building and as such a more intimate version of the Coliseum itself – perfect acoustically and a more intimate size for an intimate opera.

Daniel Schnyder and his librettist, Bridgette A Wimberly present us with a series of scenes linked to individual musical structures, all in turn linked to the life of jazz composer and saxophonist, Charlie Parker.

The one act work starts and ends with the composer’s death, and is seen through the eyes of his ghost, who characters seem to accept without question, knowing he is dead but talking to him as if he is still alive.

The score is apparently based on Charlie Parker’s own compositions though I have to admit that for those of us with a background in classical music and opera there was little that was familiar. The scenes are essentially lyrical, some settling gently into song, while others have a Bergian edge to them which helps the dramatic impact. One of the largest problems with the work is the failure of the libretto to create characters with whom we can relate. Too often we are given generalised or two-dimensional situations which are then passed over as we move on. At one point Charlie – the excellent Lawrence Brownlee – begins to open up about this failing faith and the conflict between belief and his drug taking. The whole evening could easily have focussed on and expanded just this, but it vanished all too soon and we had moved to another situation. One of the few exceptions, beside Charlie himself, was Angela Brown, as his mother Addie, who grew in stature as the evening progressed.

Another on-going problem was the relentless dynamic level of the score. The late scene in the mental hospital came as a real relief, with its gentle, reflective setting and the quiet keening of Elena Perroni. This was followed by an introspective quintet which proved to be the most memorable music of the evening.

The small ensemble, under Clark Rundell, is effective within the closer acoustic, and Ron Daniels’ production moved smoothly within Riccardo Hernandez and Scott Zielinski’s designs.

As the first of a number of planned collaborations this may not have quite hit the heights hoped for but was more than positive enough to look forward to the next.



Opera Holland Park: Don Giovanni

I must have seen a dozen Don Giovannis since I last saw one traditionally set in the eighteenth century. And they get ever more ingenious and imaginative. I suppose it says something for the timelessness of this story of hedonistic amorality, revenge and justice. Oliver Platt’s version for OHP is set on a luxurious 1930s cruise ship which provides a certain plausibility as the Don seeks further seductions to add to his list. And Neil Irish’s set gives us a long narrow deck with lots of doors, some of which open to provide mini rooms and most of it slides away to create a communal area for strolling, deck chairs, dancing, quoits and so on.

Ashley Riches is the most imposing looking Don I’ve ever seen. Taller than anyone else on stage, he brings a charismatic loucheness to the role which – unusually – means you can actually see why so many women fall for him, at least initially. He also sings beautifully of course. The seduction aria addressed to Zerlina (Ellie Laugharne – good) and accompanied by James Ellis on mandolin is utterly delightful, not least because it’s so simple and contrasts well with the more complex work, in duet with Leporello (John Savournin) for example. Savournin finds all the right chagrin, loyalty, wonder, distaste and jealousy to the role and the list number is fun with the numbers chalked up on the quoits score board as he goes.

Victoria Simmonds’s impassioned Donna Elvira ensures that the audience feels real sympathy for this woman who has been “ruined” and cast aside. There’s nice work from Lauren Fagan as Donna Anna especially in that nasty rape scene, played partly on stage in this version, at the beginning. It must be quite a challenge to sing when you’re sideways on the floor with your cheek pressing down and a very large actor on top of you. This production doesn’t pull many punches or invite much sympathy for this serial seducer/rapist. The murder of Il Commendatore ( Graeme Broadbent) is pretty graphic too.

Don Giovanni stands or falls on the strength and staging of its ending. Full marks for this one in which Broadbent’s basso profundo avenger is like Stephen Berkoff playing Banquo’s ghost and pretty damn terrifying.

Warm praise too for the costumes. Themed in amber, yellow, beige and dark red the passengers’ clothes are a visual feast, particularly the Chanel- style trousers and Fagan’s pink silk dressing gown. This is a show which looks as good as it sounds. Dane Lam draws huge amounts of finely drawn detail from his orchestra and it’s fascinating to watch the meticulous way he supports singers by mouthing almost every word.

Puccini: La Rondine

Investec Opera Holland Park

The opening performance in OHP’s 2017 – and in its lavishly refurbed premises – is energetic, enjoyable and colourful. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans makes interesting use of the very long (almost traverse), split level playing space and there’s a vibrant sound coming out of the pit under Matthew Kofi Waldren. The occasional acoustic awkwardness and time lag caused by having, for example, the horns a very long way from the percussion is more than compensated for by delightful attention to the detail in Puccini’s richly orchestrated score.


Puccini’s 1917 opera tells the story of Magda, a classy girl whose comforts have mostly been earned on her back, attracting and falling in love with a decent man who doesn’t realise what she is – cue for much angst, eventually on both sides and no chance of a happy ending. The title – the swallow in Italian – presumably refers to her flitting from man to man and disappearing at the end.

Design by takis places us firmly in the 1950s with candy coloured full skirted frocks, a rather beautiful pastel green drawing room and lots of suits and smoking place us firmly in the 1950s. And when we move to a bar/nightclub/salon of doubtful repute in Act 2, the all cast waltz is choreographed (movement director: Steve Elias) as a big jiving sequence which is good fun and very effective.

The night belongs, though to Elizabeth Llewellyn as Magda and Matteo Lippi as Ruggero. Llewellyn has a voice like best dark chocolate in the lower register and crystal clear water in the upper. She achieves an impressive variation of tone and packs in huge amounts of immaculately acted emotion. Her reading aloud of the letter from Ruggero’s mother in the third act is a good example of impassioned excitement mixed with horror. It is a very fine performance indeed.

Lippi blends with her well, also conveying well sung passion and, in the end distress. This may not be Madame Butterfly, Turandot or La Boheme but there are still some very melodious passages and Lippi and Llewellyn treat us to some magnificent duets.

A good start to the season, then, and I was one of hundreds of women who were openly impressed by the new lavatories. Thanks, Opera Holland Park and your sponsor Investec.

Susan Elkin

Brighton Festival

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 28 May 2017

Clearly somebody decided to end this year’s Brighton Festival with a bang. The works chosen, by Copland and Adams, must be some of the loudest classical music available and were almost too loud within the relative limits of The Dome.

Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is very familiar but rarer live so that its raw edge and bombast strike somewhat uncomfortably, particularly when the brass is not fully coordinated at the start. The composer’s Lincoln Portrait followed. An equally crowd pleasing work, the orchestral sections from the Britten Sinfonia were well handled by conductor Diego Masson, but the text from Maryann Plunkett, despite being amplified, was often inaudible.

Thankfully the second half fared much better. John Adams Harmonium may be an early excursion into minimalism but it is highly effective. The opening setting of John Donne’s Negative Love is unexpectedly extrovert for so complex a text but full of shifting harmonies which were negotiated with aplomb by Brighton Festival Chorus. The following poems by Emily Dickinson seem more in keeping with Adam’s approach and Wild Nights is particularly successful. The intense sense of sexual tension building, like the storm, to a massive explosion is brilliantly captured and, on this occasion, as well executed. The rapid heart-beats continue in the double basses until the last seconds die away. A fine end, eventually,  to the festival.

Brighton Festival: Les Talens Lyriques

Dome, Brighton, 21 May 2017

With the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth it was understandable that there would be celebrations this summer, but Brighton has excelled itself. After I Fagiolinni’s magnificent Vespers at Glyndebourne come Les Talens Lyriques with secular works. Surprisingly, after the opulence of the liturgical settings, these vocal pieces – settings of  classical age stories – are far more sparse in their orchestration and harmony, with an intense attention to the text and emotional detail.

They opened with Ballo delle ingrate, a court scene which would originally have involved members of the audience in costume. Here we had to concentrate simply on the score, but what a wonderful piece of understatement it is. Valeria Girardello’s moving Venere pleads with Nathanael Tavernier’s hard-edged Pluto to allow the shades of arrogant women, doomed to eternity in the gloom of Hades, to be allowed out to warn their living relatives. It is a none-too subtle piece of social engineering but so masterfully sung it almost convinces us.

Magdalena Pluta’s Arianna is far more open in her emotional turmoil and genuinely moving. The constant gentle return to O Teseo makes us realise that she will never let go of her love for him. Given the simplicity of the orchestration this is a miracle of detail.

After the interval we heard Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Though more familiar, the setting still surprises with the intensity of its emotional changes and the ferocity of the writing. The narrative was succinctly handled by Nicolas Maraziotis’ powerful and precise diction. The final baptismal scene alone allows for gentler tones from the organ and strings.

There was a time when the Brighton Festival would have brought us fully staged versions of Monteverdi’s operas. Perhaps the costs are too high today – but if we had had to swap either of these events for one of the more familiar operas it would have been a great loss.

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 20 May 2017

There was a lot of B Minor in this concert and it’s a good key for plangency especially in the dying notes of Tchaikovsky’s valedictory masterpiece, the Sixth Symphony. Brian Wright held his orchestra and the audience in rapt tense suspension at the very end of the concert (and the MSO season) before finally dropping his baton to tumultuous applause. It was an appropriate end in another way too as this concert was dedicated to a much loved and much missed veteran, cellist Margaret Chapman who died last month, after 65 years of playing with MSO. She played her last concert with them in February.

At other points in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Brian Wright achieved a good balance between the manic energy (terrific work from brass and percussion) of the Allegro which forms the second half of the first movement and the delicacy of the unsettling five-in-a-bar con grazia second movement. The molto vivace movement packed all the resounding energy it requires – more or less together in the general pauses and exuberant enough to ensure that few people would have noticed the occasional wrong note.

Earlier in the evening Michael Petrov, a charismatic Bulgarian who smiles warmly at the orchestra when he is enjoying their playing, gave us a nicely judged account of the Dvorak cello concerto – more B minor. In the slow lyrical section of the first movement he had the cello itself almost weeping but because this is Dvorak that has to be offset against all those sparky cheerful melodies – and it was. The allegro finale was dramatic, lively and beautifully played. I shall long treasure Petrov’s sensitive duet with MSO leader Andrew Pearson in that movement.

It isn’t easy to start a programme with Night on the Bare Mountain which has a lot of exposed work and is hardly a “warm up” piece. On this occasion MSO really hit the ground running with a very assured, entertaining rendering. The string sound wove in well around the brass blasts and Anna Binney’s tender, warm flute solo at the end was outstanding.

Susan Elkin