Barefoot Opera: Ecco Monteverdi

St John, Pevensey Road, Hastings, 17 June 2017

A charming conceit to recreate the music that may have been heard at Monteverdi’s baptism four hundred and fifty years ago. This formed the first half of Barefoot Opera’s concert at St John’s last weekend, with Cantemus, under the direction of Christopher Arnold, singing liturgical settings by Josquin des Prez and Marc’Antonio Ingegneri.  Of these, Ingegneri’s mass setting was particularly impressive with its gently enfolding lines and reflective harmonies. Between these a cappella items Nigel Howard played three pieces by Andrea Gabrieli, with a bright Canzona Ariosa at the heart of the performance.

After the interval the soloists of Barefoot Opera, under the direction of Jenny Miller, brought us a narrative worked around six of Monteverdi’s Madrigals. The texts nearly all refer to the anguish of the lover, often coming close to death because of the pangs of love, but by the end the song of the Nightingale leaves us all on a happier note. The use of movement was very telling and often voices came across with more precision because of their place within the nave. This was especially true of the final moments when they were singing from the centre of the nave, with the voices gently ringing all around us. It was a bold undertaking which certainly paid off.

The evening closed with the two groups coming together to sing Monteverdi’s Adoramus Te, and leaving us wanting more.

Hastings Philharmonic: Don Giovanni

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, 3 & 4 June 2017

The 2017 Opera Academy brought us two different casts of young singers to St Mary in the Castle last weekend for a concise and well-focused presentation of Mozart’s masterpiece. The small orchestral ensemble provided excellent support throughout, even at the end of act one where Mozart assumes there will be three orchestras available! The musicians were placed behind the action, which made timing more complex but it was much to Marcio da Silva’s credit that there were very few slips in either performance.

Two singers appeared on both evenings, which may have eased their rehearsal time, and they certainly provided some of the most polished performances. Wagner Moreira was an exemplary Ottavio, not only in the lyricism he provided, but also in his naturalistic approach to his stage presence. It was a pity he was not allowed Dalla sua pace in Act 1 though he gave us a fine Il mio Tesoro in Act 2. Similarly Vedat Dalgiran’s Commendatore made a strong impact given the limited time he is on stage.

On the first evening Camilla Jeppeson and Timothy Patrick were well paired as Zerlina and Masetto, creating a very credible relationship which allowed us to experience their shifting emotional patterns with ease. Her Batti, batti was a highlight of Act 1. The next day, Gislene Ramos and Will O’Brian made an equally positive impact with Vedrai carino gently seductive on a slow burn. We could see why this Zerlina was no push-over.

Gheorghe Palcu gave us a personable, wide-boy Leporello though his diction was often lost in the acoustic of the building. Of the nobility, Rosemary Carlton-Willis’ Elvira raged impressively and there was a subtle integrity to Eleni Komni’s Anna. Her handling of Non mi dir brought clarity to the complex relationship she has with Ottavio.

On the first night Neylson Crepalde conducted, stepping in to play guitar for the serenade, and doing both jobs with admirable skill. Marcio da Silva’s own precise conducting style kept the ensembles tightly together and gave us a convincing tableau at the end.

The main focus of the event was to give these singers a platform and, as noted above, many took it with fine demonstrations of the operatic art. Hopefully their careers will blossom.

 

 

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.

Hastings Philharmonic at St Mary in the Castle

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 20 May 2017

When Marcio da Silva announced last year that Hastings Philharmonic was launching a fully professional symphony orchestra for the South East it seemed a risky undertaking, yet here we are, and the evidence of success was fully formed at St Mary in the Castle last Saturday. This had to be one of the finest orchestral performances in this building and potentially one which will herald a new era for symphonic music in our area. Where the performance last year of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony had been brave if not quite fully fledged, there was no problem here with either the Beethoven or the Brahms.

The evening opened with a passionate and fiery reading of Beethoven’s Egmont overture, with a crisp attack and real sense of drive and energy throughout. The sudden horn calls at the climax were electrifying and set a level of expectation for the rest of the evening.

Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is a glorious work unfortunately eclipsed by the finale of the Choral Symphony itself, but here given the sensitivity and delicacy it requires to make a full impact. Andre Dolabella was a limpid and persuasive piano soloist, apparently floated between the orchestra and the raised choral forces. Beethoven indulges himself in a wide range of solo writing, including a lovely passage for string quartet which was very effective before the entrance of the chorus. Here the top sopranos were particularly impressive and the small male force accurate and very well focused.

After the interval – and a group photo – we came to Brahms’ Second Symphony. The tonal palette here is quite different and relies far more heavily on the string textures which have been strengthened and developed into a far more dynamic force since last year. Brahms frequently leads with the lower strings who were more than up to the task with their warm tone and insightful phrasing. The fleetly moving string passages of the third movement were handled with great skill as we moved effortlessly into the finale with its blazing brass chorus and highly extrovert impact.

It was received with great enthusiasm – and rightly so. Marcio da Silva should be proud of what he has achieved so far and the programme now released for next year is both demanding and exciting. Let us hope that somebody of this level of professional skill it not head-hunted too soon!

 

Ellen Kent: La boheme

White Rock Theatre, Monday 8th May 2017

Although Hastings is reasonably close to London it is still something of an effort to attend professional opera in the capital; all the more reason then to welcome touring productions to the White Rock Theatre. Ellen Kent’s company has been touring familiar productions of even more familiar operas for a quarter of a century now and brought La boheme last week.

The presentation was something of a curate’s egg. The orchestral playing under Nicolae Dohotaru was excellent throughout, with the balance and impact always carefully handled and tempi strong enough to maintain the narrative flow. In the conversational sections of the work, which Puccini handles with great skill, the interplay of characters was often convincing but there was a problem with the more familiar arias. To take examples in the first act alone. Vitalii Liskovetskyi may not be an accomplished actor but conveyed the potential innocence of Rodolfo and his naivety towards women with some skill in the opening scene. However, when he came to Che gelida manina he turned up the volume and hurled the aria straight at the audience. The same was true of the final moments of the act. Where Puccini asks his lovers to leave the stage, floating their final notes into the closing night, here they remained centre stage and gave us the full force of their large voices without any subtlety.

Olga Perrier’s personable Musetta suffered in the same way. Her interaction with Iurie Gisca’s convincing Marcello was somewhat spoilt when she played Quando m’en vo straight to the audience as if the crowd on stage did not exist. While the chorus may have had little rehearsal their lack of interaction with the rest of the cast was very noticeable even though they sang convincingly.

The staging itself has certainly seen better days, and there was little sense of place in any of the acts. If it is still being set in the 1830s, why do we see the Eiffel Tower in the second act which was not built until 60 years later?

A little positive attention to detail and a better understanding of the size and acoustic in the White Rock would have resulted in a far more satisfying evening. If this was somebody’s first introduction to opera it may have simply confirmed all their fears.

 

Brighton Festival: Monteverdi – the other Vespers

I Fagiolini, Glyndebourne, Sunday 7 May 2017

Robert Hollingworth made some very interesting comments before the performance commenced. While these vespers are not as well-known as the regularly performed Vespers of 1610 they are, nevertheless, a complete liturgical recreation of Vespers of the period. As such he pointed out that we were involved in an act of worship just as much as if we were in a church or cathedral, and requested that we did not applaud until the end of each half.

His remarks raise a number of fascinating theological points which lay outside the remit of this review but reflect on the continuing, and wide scale, interest in religious music at a time when the believe systems which they support have been widely rejected. Few churches mounting these vespers liturgically would get anything like the response we saw at Glyndebourne yesterday. But then of course few churches can provide the sort of frisson which we got from I Fagiolini and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble.

The Vespers are built around five psalm settings, a hymn, the Magnificat and the final Salve Regina. The Antiphons before each psalm were chanted but their liturgically necessary repeats were replaced – as was conventional in the seventeenth century – by instrumental versions of the text. Consequently, while the majority of the vocal items were by Monteverdi, we heard a Canzon by Viadana, a Sonata for solo violin by Uccellini – which brought the only spontaneous applause of the evening – a Toccata by Frescobaldi and a final sonata by Usper for cornetts and organ. All immaculately played and highly sensuous. In fact it was this tactile quality which seemed to inform the whole event. There was a latent eroticism to many moments of Monteverdi’s settings and a richness to Gabrielli’s Magnificat of 1615 which seemed to surpass any simply liturgical need.

The final Salve Regina was spine-tingling in its impact. A solo tenor and lute, crystal clarity of text and line, melting into silence.

I Fagiolini will be performing the other vespers across the rest of the year – details on www.ifagiolini.com

 

Bexhill Choral Society

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Saturday 6 May 017

Messiah in May? We have become accustomed to Christmas and Easter outings for Handel’s masterpiece so it was refreshing to encounter it at the start of summer. Moreover, we were in the more opulent acoustic of the De La Warr Pavilion rather than the ecclesiastical surroundings of St Augustine’s. All of the early presentations of Messiah were in theatres as the operatic nature of the composition was deemed far too irreligious for church performance, and Kenneth Roberts brought a dramatic intensity to his reading which helped keep the narrative moving rapidly.

The loss of the first eight rows also helped the impact of the performance, placing singers and musicians in the same room as the audience, with the soloists effectively in the centre of the space rather than isolated at the far end. Having heard many concerts here where the chorus was almost inaudible at the back of the stage this was a real advantage.

It also allowed for a greater dynamic range, with orchestral pps in the repeat section of the Overture and the Pastoral Symphony particularly effective in the hushed string playing. The lack of rehearsal time which plagues all performances these days was evident at the opening of Surely where Kenneth Roberts had to stamp his authority to get the tempi he needed and it was to the credit of all that they responded so rapidly and professionally.

Choral singing was crisp and responsive throughout, with clear articulation of the text and very tight rhythms. And He shall purify, Behold the Lamb of God and All we like sheep were particularly clear in attack and clarity of part singing.

The soloists were very exposed but given the quality of the singing this was never a problem. Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks is a dramatic tenor who combines fluid coloratura with a rich tonal palette. The contrast between Comfort ye and Thou shalt break them was thrilling. Peter Grevatt found a Georgian sense of conviction for The trumpet shall sound with Andy Gill in splendid form on solo trumpet.

Fae Evelyn brought beauty of tone to the soprano arias though as yet she has difficulty breathing through Handel’s long lines. Phillipa Thomas was a lighter voiced mezzo than we often hear in Handel but it was good to encounter a female voice here in an age dominated by counter-tenors. Her sensitivity carried well.

We are used today to technology and take it for granted. When it goes wrong everything stops, as happened just before For behold, darkness when all the lights went out, and returned to flash like distant lightning. Handel’s candlelit hall in Dublin would never have had that problem!

Bexhill Choral Society return to St Augustine’s on 7 October with works by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Purcell and Albinoni.

 

 

 

Opera South East: The Magic Flute

White Rock Theatre, Hastings, Saturday 8th April 2017

The Magic Flute is a disarmingly complex work. A fairy-story with wicked queens, pure princesses and evil Moors is under-pinned by a rationalist attack on superstition which is itself uncomfortably allied to misogyny and racism. That Fraser Grant chose to highlight the fantastic elements made sense, even if it skated over the deeper moments rather too easily. His production is set in a school, where the students are surrounded by gigantic alphabet blocks. It is a well-focused approach, and his use of immaculately drilled school children to move the blocks around is very impressive.

Characterisation is kept simplistic, allowing the narrative to unfold without asking too many difficult questions. In this James Williams’ gentle bird catcher is particularly effective and his final duet with an equally appealing Papagena from Marina Ivanova, is one of the highlights of the evening.

Mark Bonney’ school boy Tamino sings the arias with aplomb but never quite convinces us he is the hero of the piece. Thankfully his future is obviously in safe hands given the forthright and beautifully sung Pamina from Lucy Ashton who will guide him in future – just one of the ironies when the work is so strongly anti-feminist.

Fae Evelyn has the coloratura for the Queen of the Night but is given little to do other than sweep on and off majestically. Jeremy Vinogradov’s incisive Monostatos is turned into a black rat which works well for much of the time even if it waters down the real sense of menace.

The most challenging change in presentation is that of Sarastro who is presented as a mad scientist. That he is a scientist fits with the Enlightenment approach to reason, but that he is verging on the insane seems to tip him over into the other camp. Toby Sims sings with conviction but it was difficult to fit the noble outpourings to O Isis und Osiris within a Rocky Horror laboratory.

The orchestra provided well balanced accompaniment throughout with some fine individual solo playing. Kenneth Roberts kept tempi brisk and light, in keeping with the production itself.

It was very pleasing to see the White Rock comfortably full, though we are all too aware that no opera performance today can rely solely on its income from the audience, which makes the roll of benefactors all the more important.

New Sussex Opera: A Village Romeo & Juliet

Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Sunday 2 April 2017

New Sussex Opera have done so much good work over the years, and given us so many splendid evenings of opera, it is a shame not to be more enthusiastic about this most recent production. The fault is not theirs – unless one blames them for choosing it in the first place – but Delius’ folk tale really does not carry enough dramatic weight to keep the audience engaged across the six scenes. That the final two scenes come slightly more alive, and include the finest music of the piece with the Walk to the Paradise Garden, does little to make up for the lack of musical variety or characterisation in the first four.

Thankfully there is some fine playing from the ensemble under Lee Reynolds and the chorus makes an impression in the little it has to do. Luke Sinclair sings Sali with a sense of style and frequent lyrical beauty, but his presence too often seemed detached from the reality around him. Kirsty Taylor-Stokes’ Vrenchen was equally positive vocally but her costume and demeanour too often made her look simplistic rather than naïve. This may have been an idea of the director Susannah Waters to play them like Hansel and Gretel rather than Pelleas and Melisande, but if so it did not really fit with the stark utilitarianism of the setting. The fathers were strongly cast with Robert Gildon and Geoffrey Moses bringing tension to the opening minutes but this is lost in the miasma Delius creates around them, draining the potential tension of the relationship.

Ian Beadle’s Dark Fiddler – here played like the Sandman and as such giving yet another echo of Hansel – was strongly sung and as credible as the score would allow.

There was an excellent programme – not always the case with smaller companies – from which I note that they will bring us Gluck’s Orfeo next year. Now that will be worth going to – no problem with that being a masterpiece.