WNO: Rabble Rousers

Milton Keynes Theatre, 6-7 April 2018

Tosca always has been something of a rabble rouser and if Michael Blakemore’s production is almost two decades old it still works with remarkable clarity. Bringing the soloists close to the front of the stage for much of the time helps with the musical excitement as well as ensuring that nuances of acting make their point – where there are any. On this occasion Claire Rutter was an exciting and vibrant Tosca, her voice flooding the theatre easily but showing real sensitivity for Vissi d’arte. Mark S Doss was a creepily malevolent Scarpia, aware of his power to the point where he seemed continually relaxed until the final moment which came to him totally unexpectedly. Claire Rutter’s vicious attack – I can’t recall a Tosca stabbing so often – was dramatically justified and highly effective.

Unfortunately, though Hector Sandoval sings Cavaradossi with some sense of heroism, his acting is stilted and he clearly prefers to sing directly to the audience (to say nothing of the conductor) rather than to his partner.

It was a pleasure to find Donald Maxwell as the Sacristan and he turned up again the following evening in clerical garb as Fra Melitone in David Poutney’s new production of La Forza del Destino. Some slight tinkering with the score made it flow with ease though there is no getting away from the fact that the work – for all its magnificent music – is a flawed masterpiece. Happily the two principal singers, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro, were magnificent, with thrilling tone throughout the evening; a wonderful combination of musicality and dramatic impact. Both made much of the wide emotional range of the score, Mary Elizabeth Williams as convincing in her tortured moments as in the deeply reflective sections when she finds peace.

Justina Gringyte is given more to do than usual as Preziosilla as she turns up regularly throughout the evening in the guise of Fate, banging her staff in time to the music. He voice and acting are fine even if it is not always clear what she is trying to do. Miklos Sebestyen doubles up as Calatrava and Padre Guardiano, though surprisingly David Poutney does not draw on the obvious psychological impact of this casting. His singing brings a gravity to the monastic scenes which the staging often lacks.

Luis Cansino sings well as Don Carlo but his presence is as unconvincing as his acting.

While much of David Poutney’s production works smoothly, allowing the story line to unfold with ease and credibility, his approach to the chorus is a different matter. Where soloists appear naturalistic even if the narrative strains the imagination, the chorus are difficult to take seriously if only because of the poor costuming. Uniforms with masks are the order of the day and not until the final scene in the monastery are they allowed any sense of humanity. Verdi’s sublime writing for the central communion scene is overridden with the monks in heavily blood-stained robes and Leonora is forced into a walk of shame which is entirely out of keeping with the score.

That Verdi’s score can overcome the unevenness of the production is a tribute to its quality no matter how difficult it continues to be to stage effectively.

On both nights Carlo Rizzi was in the pit, producing seemingly effortless quality from the WNO orchestra. The Milton Keynes theatre is blessed with a large pit and a fine acoustic, able to work with the bombast of both scores as well as their reflective, intimate moments. This was the first of three new Verdi productions planned over three years. Let us hope Carlo Rizzi will be returning for all of them.


St Mary in the Castle, Thursday 5 April 2018

A very large audience was present at St Mary in the Castle for a short but nonetheless most unusual evening. Divertimento for Rope and Strings brought together violinist, cellist and two corde lisse specialists. While the musicians played, Carol Dawson and Joe Keeley climbed, swung and deftly wrapped themselves in the ropes suspended from a large frame which had been erected within the central space of the building. So unusual was the enterprise that it was often difficult to know quite what to focus on or how to take it.

The music chosen for the two soloists was equally demanding. Brief works by Kodaly, Bartok and Ravel would have been unfamiliar to most and not the easiest of works to take in on a first hearing. This is in no way to denigrate the quality of the musicianship from violinist Phillip Granell or cellist Midori Jeager, just that it was often disconcerting to pin-point the focus of attention.

Odd moments of humour also seemed to upset the balance – was this a light-hearted event or was the humour a deliberate choice to prick the potential to take the event more seriously than was intended?

There were moments of great beauty when suddenly movement in the air above reflected the music below, but these were rare compared with longer stretches which seemed baffling – the creation of a living musical stave at the rear of the area never quite made any real connection with the music being played.

The event had been staged free of charge by MSL Projects and Gisele Edwards in collaboration with Whirligig Arts, with a discussion session at the end to consider not only audience response to the piece but to the potential future of similar events. Where cultural events locally are expanding so rapidly, this was an exciting and positive venture, even if it did not necessarily prove to be more than a step in the right direction.

Host turns into guitarist

Tim Chick transmogrified from hosting interviewer to musical performer during the latest of Worthing’s International Interview Concerts. He pulled on a jersey, picked up an electric guitar and walked on stage to plug in and play with the two guest classical maestros in front of a full-house audience at St Paul’s on Easter Sunday.

Together they played a short piece he devised himself with violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Varvara Tarasova, improvising along with him.

Chick is taking guitar lessons and was playing in public for the first time. After his and the audience’s final questions, Bydlowska, from Poland, and Tarasova, from Russia, played a Brahms scherzo encore but then came this stunt – the last of several unnamed surprises promised to the audience in the billing.

His purpose, said Chick, was to impress that whatever the instruments used or the material made up on the spot, it is all music, free of outside-imposed categorisation.

The exuberant Bydlowska’s irrepressibly energetic personality and almost carefree versatility fuelled an extraordinary concert that filled almost every seat. Tarasova, celebrated in Sussex after she won its own International Piano Competition in 2015, played an unexpectedly full role in what was a new partnership intuitively brokered by Chick.

Entitled ‘The violin will take you’, the International Interview Concert astonished and entertained with its holiday-escape flavour of music from three continents and its disregard for conventional classical music concert formatting and seating layout.

After a Spanish serenade from de Falla, a full-blooded German romantic sonata from Schumann, a Polish nocturne and tarantella dance from Szymanovski, and a Russian love song from Rachmaninov – another surprise added to the programme on the day – Bydlowska’s penchant for tango leapt into its own.

As well as being a fully-fledged orchestral concerto soloist, and a key member the contemporary London Electronic Orchestra, and a separate classical string trio, the effervescent Bydlowska is in a working tango quartet, La Tango Terra.

Instead of the intended Fantasy on Porgy & Bess Themes by Igor Frolov, she played solo an authentic Argentine Tango piece by the legendary Piazzolla while walking around the enthralled audience. She then pulled up a bar stool to play three semi-improvised tangos with Tarasova, plus an off-the-cuff version of the evergreen Gershwin blues-jazz song, Summertime.

The audience, which included young children listening with their parents, some colouring and drawing, stumbled on a high-spot that dramatically brightened an almost perpetually dull Easter weekend.

Report by Richard Amey, co-devisor of The Interview Concerts