Ariadne auf Naxos

Opera Holland Park

Antony McDonald, director of this production, puts a modern, mildly feminist spin on Richard Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera and it responds rather well. The thirty five minute prologue, which forms the first half, gives us a female composer (Julia Sporsen) in jeans falling in love with Zebinetta (Jennifer France) when the latter arrives with her Burlesque troupe and threatens the opera. Veteran actor, Eleanor Bron, meanwhile, makes a cameo appearance as the party planner.

The point, of course, is an examination of high art and its relationship with “popular” art. The incongruous Gilbertian compromise that the opera company and the burlesque troop will stage a show about Ariadne collaboratively is – in this production – suitably entertaining and witty. It also heightens the poignancy of the bereft Ariadne (Mardi Byers) whose lover, Theseus has abandoned her. I shall long treasure the silly dance with tricks by Zerbinetta and her troupe of four – to Strauss at his most tunefully spikey – as they try, and fail, to cheer up Ariadne.

Jennifer France is in her element as Zerbinetta and her show piece number – with Queen of the Night-like top notes and vocal acrobatics along with delicious comic timing, nippy dancing and lots of panache – gets her a well-deserved round of spontaneous applause. Mardi Byers delights as a velvety voiced, soulful and then joyful Ariadne and there’s lovely work from Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Bacchus who eventually sweeps her off her feet – their concluding duets are warmly balanced and theatrically satisfying.

It’s one of Strauss’s richest, and best orchestrated operatic scores and conductor Brad Cohen brings out the colour – even though from my seat I could hear more stage left percussion than I could horns who were on the other side.

Antony McDonald’s set is an ingenious device. It consists of three scruffy caravans – all with doors for exits and entrances and one which can be (and is) climbed on. These are the backstage areas for the visiting performers and they sit well against the elegant residual brick and stone work of the Holland Park house to suggest that a couple of troupes of performers have arrived at a stately home. In the second half, for the opera, the caravans are moved to the sides to make room for the dining table which forms the main set item for Ariadne but we never forget that this is a show within a show.

I’m less convinced by the rather clumsy device of doing the prologue in English and the opera in German. I suppose it stresses the idea that first these people are being themselves and then they’re acting but it felt very false and certainly confused several audience members who were seated near me.

Susan Elkin

Mascagni: Isabeau

Investec Opera Holland Park – July 2018

Isabeau is a strange, rather clunky piece and it was completely new to me. Think Spamalot meets The Merchant of Venice with a seasoning of The Emperor’s New Clothes which finally morphs into Lear or Oedipus. And with characters with names such as Ethelberto of Argyle and Randolf of Dublin it’s the sort of thing which provides ammunition for opera sceptics who want to ridicule the entire art form. It isn’t hard to see why Isabeau has more or less disappeared from the repertoire in the last 80 years or so although it enjoyed a fair amount of ongoing success following its 1911 Buenos Aires premiere.

Virginal Princess Isabeau i(Anne Sophie Duprels) is told by her tyrannical father (Mikhail Svetlov) the King that she must choose a husband from one of a series of competitors for her hand. She doesn’t fancy any of them, so her furious father says she must ride naked through the streets as a punishment. Citizens are forbidden, on pain of blinding, to look. Meanwhile a jolly falconer, Folco (David Butt Philip) has turned up – with lovely silver falcon puppet. He and Isabeau fall in love. He looks at her nakedness. He is blinded. They die. Yes the plot – or “book” as we would say if this were a musical – is utter tosh, however hard the production tries to find topical resonances relating to feminism, appearance and all the rest of it.

On the other hand Pietro Mascagni’s score is full of delightful orchestral colour every nuance of which is allowed to sing out under Francesco Cilluffo’s energetic baton. Isabeau gets a passionate aria in Act 1 in which she pleads with her father and each of her sustained notes is accompanied by shifting cadences beneath it. At one point the horns have a very dramatic and unusual repeated figure in which a very short note is followed by a stressed longer one. There’s interesting music for the harp and sometimes for percussion although the wood block for the horse’s hooves put me irreverently in mind of Monty Python.

There are some fine performances on stage here too. As a woman cheated of just about everything, Duprels uses her soaring top notes movingly to communicate passion and tragedy. Butt Philip’s tenor is warm and convincing especially when he is effectively in duet with the cellos. The piece finally becomes dramatically coherent in the last act when Isabeau visits Folco’s prison cell. Their duet work here is nicely balanced and judged in this production and you actually begin to believe in them.

Full marks to Opera Holland Park’s usual large, young chorus too. Chorus Master, David Todd, has done a fine job in making them sound really vibrant as they swarm over the set designed by takis.

There are problems with the set, however. It looks great with lots of steps, ledges and platforms on three moveable, interlocking “islands” presenting different configurations to connote a medieval castle. It’s visually a strong idea and it works especially well during Isabeau’s naked ride which takes place upstage behind the continuously shifting “castle” so that the audience gets the merest hint. The trouble is that these bits of castle are clearly very heavy and the cast and crew often struggle to start them rolling. And there’s a stage left chamber (a bit like a giant version of a disability lavatory on a modern train) whose big semi-circular door refused to budge on press night leaving cast members invisible to the audience who palpably resisted cheering when a stage hand, dressed as a churl, finally freed it, several minutes later. A case of a potentially good design whose practical problems have not been fully thought through? Let’s hope they sort it for the rest of the run.

Hastings Philharmonic Opera Gala

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, 7 July 2018

With the England team victory earlier tin the day there was much to celebrate that evening, and all the more encouraging then that Hastings Philharmonic was coming to the end of a wonderfully successful season.

If they were letting their hair down just a little it was rarely at the expense of the music, which came across with bold authority throughout.

Though billed as an Opera Gala the first sung items – after an intriguing overture from Francis Rayner – were three songs from Guestling Bradshaw School Choir under their Musical Director Nathan Cline. If there was more enthusiasm than clarity, they gave us an impressively complex rendition of Britten’s Old Abram Brown, and a heartfelt This is me.

Turning to opera, the extracts were essentially based on large choral numbers, though even Hastings Philharmonic Choir would have difficult matching Aida in Verona. In the event the balance proved to be very strong and the male voices cut through with aplomb in the three Verdi choruses. It was a pity not to have anvils for Il Trovatore – maybe this could have been delegated to the audience?

Marcio da Silva regularly manages to disarm us, and on this occasion it was in the Te Deum from Tosca. Expecting the bass to sing Scarpia, I am sure I was not alone to gasp when Marcio turned to us and sang at his most malevolent, the viciously corrupt lines from Scarpia before he turns to pray with the chorus. I suspect the chorus may have been as taken aback as we were, for they totally lost their entry, but Marcio was able to recover the timing with ease and the final bars radiated as they should.

The three soloists brought very different accomplishments. Turkish bass Vedat Dalgiran gave us an impressive Sorastro and Boris, and the only less familiar item in the programme, Il lacerato Spirito from Simone Boccanegra. Tenor Leonel Pinheiro has a strong beat to his voice but his heroic enthusiasm in Nessun Dorma coupled with a magnificent Vincero at the end, carried all before him. Of course the linking of Nessun Dorma to the world cup was not lost on this audience.

Soprano Lin Westcott seems to go from strength to strength, giving us a lyrical reading of the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana and a gently moving Vilja ­– for which we were all invited to join in the chorus.

Francis Rayner accompanied throughout from the piano, joined by Debbie Warren on keyboard. If this produced some interesting effects, it was particularly helpful in the many religious items.

It has been a splendid year and the plans for 2018-19 look equally encouraging, with the opening concert of the new season at St Mary in Castle on Friday 12 October.

Brighton Early Music Festival taps into topical theme with 2018 programme celebrating Europe


“If it’s Early Music you’re looking for, then get yourself down to Brighton”   Classic FM
Brighton Early Music Festival is bringing 700 years of music from 17 European countries to Brighton this autumn*.  Taking its inspiration from a somewhat topical theme, the 2018 Festival explores Britain’s long and often tempestuous relationship with the rest of the European continent from medieval times onwards.  Artistic Director Deborah Roberts says: “In this of all years it seems only right to celebrate and explore Britain’s relationship with Europe over the centuries, through programmes highlighting important events, collaborations and even conflicts of the past.  Some of these stories will have a striking familiarity, and we are hoping to spark stimulating discussion and a sense of exploration as well as presenting a glorious selection of music from around Europe.”
Festival highlights include music from the 13th-century Lewes Priory Breviary performed by Spanish ensemble Resonet and BREMF Community Choir (St Bartholomew’s Church, 28 October); music by Reformation Remainers Tallis and Byrd from BREMF Consort of Voices (St Bartholomew’s Church, 10 November); festive music for an 18th-century  Swedish royal wedding (St George’s Church, 2 November); and choral & orchestral music for peace by Charpentier, Handel, Purcell and Delalande to celebrate Armistice Day, with a stellar line-up of young soloists including Handel Singing Competition winnerHelen Charlston (St Martin’s Church, 11 November).  Royal Wedding soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny will perform songs reflecting Elizabeth I’s marriage prevarications in a ‘Game of Thrones’ (St Paul’s Church, 27 November).
Continuing the Festival’s track record of staging early operas (recently featured in BBC Four documentary Unsung Heroines presented by Danielle de Niese), the 2018 Festival includes a double bill of early Italian and English opera.  Monteverdi’s Ballo delle ingrate and Blow’s Venus and Adonis are directed by Thomas Guthrie, with a cast of some of the best young vocal talent emerging on the scene, and street dance choreographed by J P Omari(The Old Market, 6-8 November).
Strongly committed to developing and mentoring young artists, the Festival features a showcase of emerging ensembles who are part of the Festival’s Early Music Live! young artists’ scheme (St Paul’s Church, 3 November), as well as appearances by ensembles whose early careers were developed by the scheme (Fieri Consort, 9 November; Lux Musicae London, 4 November; Flauti d’echo, 10 November).
Tickets on sale from 10 September at or 01273 709709.  See full concert listing at or call 01273 833746 to join the mailing list.

Dulwich Opera Company: Cosi fan tutte

St Saviour’s Church, St Albans , 4 July 2018

This rather elegant, intelligent Cosi is a good example of what can be achieved with six singers, a pianist and minimal props and set. Sung in Italian with “side titles” on small screens at the two edges of the playing area, it’s an enjoyably accessible take on the opera too.

Honey Rouhani is a delightful Despina. She makes every note sound gloriously effortless and she talks, quips and jokes with eloquent, flashing eyes. Her cynical, rippling 6|8 number when she first tells Fiordiligi (Loretta Hopkins) and Dorabella (Phillipa Thomas) what she thinks about men is sung with terrific verve.

There’s a strong performance from James Williams as the scheming bass, Don Alfonso too. He makes the bottom notes ring out with resonance – and cheerful malice. After all it’s a cruel joke he’s playing on the two women who are famously each tricked into yielding to the other’s disguised fiancé – to prove that no woman can be trusted because “cosi fan tutte” which translates roughly as “they’re all the same”.

I especially admired the ensemble work in this production. Many of the trios, quartets, quintets and sextets are beautifully sung, well supported by the warm acoustic of St Saviour’s Church. The solo work is generally adequate but not, in most cases as noteworthy as the group numbers – with the exception of Robert Barbaro’s 3|4 aria as Ferrando which is exquisite.

Loretta Hopkins – whose Fiordiligi is really troubled by the events which overtake her and, for a long time passionately resistant to seduction –  is an outstanding, very convincing actor which more than compensates for the harshness in some of her top notes and thinness at the bottom. David Fletcher (as Gugliemo) is entertaining and a strong duettist. Thomas is a good foil to Hopkins and has an appealingly colourful voice.

And, on the night I saw Cosi, there was a terrific performance from Janet Haney on piano. She and Elspeth Wilkes have shared out the performance dates.  I am, however, doubtful of the wisdom of opening this show – which is already quite long – with the overture played on piano. It feels a bit odd as if we’re starting the evening with a piano recital. Moreover, at times, especially in the first scene the piano seems to be drowning out the singers. Perhaps it is mis-positioned and would be better behind the action, further away from the audience?

Susan Elkin

Eden Stell @ Kino Teatr

The Eden Stell is an amazing Guitar duo, utterly incredible playing and they are performing at the Kino on Saturday 14 July.

They are featured artists at the Early Music Festival in October 18 -21 playing the Vivadi double concerto.

Eden Stell Guitar Duo
Saturday July 14th
7.30pm Kino Teatr

£14/12 conc, £10 children
Tickets online or phone 01424 457830

Internationally renowned Guitar duo coming to St Leonards. They have performed extensively through Europe, USA, Canada, Mexico, South and Central America and Australia. They have been likened to ‘a miraculous single guitarist blessed with an impossibly wonderful technique and exceptionally delicate touch’. (The Observer).

Music by Mauro Giuliani, Scarlatti, Georgi Sarajyan, Poulenc, Mompou and Brahms.

Last Night of the Bexhill Proms

De La Warr Pavilion, Sunday 1 July 2018

An hour with Rodgers and Hammerstein is, on a glorious summer evening by the sea, a welcome reminder of just what a skilled melodist and sophisticated orchestrator Richard Rodgers was.  No wonder so many of his songs are right under our collective skin and deep in the loyal Bexhill audience members who enthusiastically filled the De La Warr Pavilion to the gunwhales for this concert.

The first half took us through well chosen extracts from Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, Carousel and South Pacific – in a whole range of moods and formats. Rene Bloice-Sanders, a fine operatic tenor whose resonance and intonation is spot on, sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “Some Enchanted Evening” with carefully controlled warmth and nicely managed dynamic. Lucy Ashton’s smiling personality comes through as strongly as her rich soprano voice and she seemed to be enjoying “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” as much as the audience and choir were.

The Bexhill Festival Choir, trained and led by Lorraine Barry, meanwhile did a sterling back-up job. Mostly they achieved a rich tone – with only occasional thinness in the more challenging bits – and it’s encouraging to see amateur singers working with such verve, heads and eyes up.

That confidence was at least in part due to Ken Roberts who is an assertively supportive conductor – giving the choir almost full attention when they’re singing. He also coaxed a pretty good sound out of the 40 musicians in the orchestra although there were signs that some of the music was under-rehearsed. The Carousel Waltz is a medley and every musician knows that these are some of the hardest things to bring off because the joins are so tricky – and in this performance the trickiness sometimes showed. Elsewhere in the concert some of the instrumental solo work would have benefited from a bit more work behind the scenes too.

Ken Roberts – whose link chat was arguably unnecessary anyway – really should cut the ageist jokes too. I’ve heard him before making unfunny comments about age and it does not go down well – probably the only moments in the whole evening when there was a momentary sour note.

The second half provided the party that most people in the audience had come for, having bought or brought their little union flags ready to wave. Now, to be honest, all that jingoistic stuff, however tongue-in-cheek, isn’t my cup of tea. I identify strongly with Elgar who loathed  Benson’s words to Pomp and Circumstance March No 1  (although it didn’t stop him enjoying the royalties). Nonetheless it was good to hear Coates’s nostalgically familiar Calling All Workers played with crisp affection. It’s fun too to hear Henry Wood’s Sea Songs played live because the orchestration is so colourful. And the audience was having a whale of a time.

Susan Elkin

Blato Zlato

Opus Theatre, Hastings, Saturday 30 June 2018

One could never complain that the Opus Theatre’s world series is not eclectic. On Saturday we heard Eastern European folk music from a Balkan group, Blato Zlato¸ who come from New Orleans and perform throughout the world.

Their style is certainly demanding from the first moment. While they draw on a wide range of musical styles the core of their work is Bulgarian folk music and the intensity and power that that implies. Vocal lines are frequently hurled into the theatre and the accompaniment, including a large drum, is never less than assertive.

Blato Zlato were formed in 2015 and their first album was entitled Swamp Gold – the English translation of the group’s name. The items they sang for us were loosely described but in the main we were left to simply enjoy the virtuosity of the musicians. The group is made up of four women and two men, with three of the women providing all the vocal lines as well as the crucial accordion accompaniment, while the fourth woman plays the drum and the two men the fiddle and electric bass.

Within this potentially limited palette they create a wide range of musical impact, with extended improvisations from the fiddle and splendid solos for slapped bass. There were a number of a cappella items for the solo female voices which highlighted not only their amazing accuracy of tone but also the subtle differences of texture in their voices. As bagpipes are often used in Bulgarian folk music the instrumentalists were able to produce an effective drone for some of the songs.

The first half included the internationally famous Izlel e Delyo Haidutin, which was recorded for and included in the NASA Voyager flight in 1977, and later we heard their own composition Doncho I Stenata which was recently released as the second side of a single with the earlier song.

In addition to the Bulgarian numbers we heard music from Serbia and Georgia. It is this latter country which effectively brought them to Hastings, as it was there they met Oliver Poole, who invited them to be part of the world series – and a great asset they have proved to be.