Maidstone Symphony Orchestra 21 May 2022 Mote Hall, Maidstone

Daniel Lebhardt – Askonas Holt Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter overture is a brave choice for an opener because it must be a challenge to get all those potentially disparate elements together. Brian Wright, however, ensured we heard incisive percussion and bold brass against threatening strings until the folksy Scots melodies break boozily through. And it was all pretty coherent.

Daniel Lebhardt is a calm but charismatic perfomer, well supported by Wright who is always good at musical collaboration with young soloisits. The second Rachmaninov concerto may have become a bit of a war horse but here it sounded fresh – and almost fragrant. The first movement (Moderato) was thoughtfully warm with a nicely judged balance between flute and piano while Lebhardt brought a lot of intensity to the second movement in which I particularly admired the clarity of the muted string work. The soloist’s insouciant musical charm helped to deliver a lively finale (Allegro scherzando) in which the orchestra did wonders with nicely punctuated syncopation and what fun that pianissimo cymbal rhythm is.

For his encore Lebhardt took us to a different sound world with a nod to his homeland and Schubert’s Hungarian Melody. It was a gentle but elegant contrast.

And so to Sibelius Symphony number 2, which Wright packed with all the brooding tension it needs, having observed soberly in his introduction that it was written in 1901 against a background of Finland trying to free itself from Russian rule – an alarmingly topical issue at present.

The orchestra found fluttery anxiety in the repeated crotchet motif which dominates the opening Allegretto and gave us a brooding, unsettling second movement in which the bassoons packed real menace and the silent pauses were eloquent. The Vivacissimo whipped along as it should but without blurring of sound and there was wistful warmth in the contrasting oboe-led melody.

It’s all too easy to over play the big dramatic shift into the final movement but Wright resisted that in this measured performance – just letting the music speak for itself as it worked towards the (very marked on this occasion) final melodic statement led by the cellos.

Thus we got a resounding end to MSO’s 111th season. Roll on the 112th.

Susan Elkin

Changes to 1066 news

Hastings Castle 2012-07-28.jpgLark Reviews will no longer be presenting news of events here. Instead local organisations have been asked to provide a few details including a website link and contact information which will be made available here as a point of reference. We hope this will become a useful resource in itself. Reviews of local events will still be posted as they are received from our correspondents.

Philharmonia Orchestra Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 10 May 2022

 

Ross Jamie Collins.webp

If you want your Sibelius served up with verve, passion and fresh richness then get a charismatic young Finn to conduct it. Ross Jamie Collins doesn’t look, to borrow a cliché, old enough to have left school, and actually that’s almost the case. He is 20.

Born in Nottingham in 2002 he has been living in Helsinki since 2008 and describes himself as Finnish-British. He is a Salonen scholar and studies with Esa-Pekka Salonen. And he’s a force to be reckoned with.

In this performance of Symphony No 2 I loved his management of the intersectional dialogue in the Allegretto and the beautiful pianissimo timpani work. In the andante he made the pizzicato section at the beginning sound more mysteriously dramatic than I’ve ever heard it and by the time he reached the trademark Sibelius grandiloquence at the end of the movement he was literally jumping for joy although in general he’s a self assured but not flamboyant conductor.

The Vivacissimo is one of those “good luck and see you at the end” movments played here with crisp dexterity before the beautiful oboe melody is gradually picked up and developed. And, my word, how Collins milked the rallentando transition into the Finale – and brought it off in spades. This is a young man who clearly loves Sibelius and inspires everyone around him because the Philharmonia played the whole symphony with panache.

At the end of the symphony at one point the orchestra – some of whose members are thirty or forty years older than Collins – refused to stand at his behest because they wanted him to take more credit from the audience which was giving huge amounts of enthusiastic applause. It was a moving moment.

Before the interval Randall Goosby played the Mendelssohn E minor violin concerto, standing very close to Collins with lots of eye contact so that we had a strong sense of two young men duetting. He brought effortless warmth to the first movement especially in the colourful cross string work and dramatically paused harmonics. I loved the gently graceful segue into the andante which he played with all the lyricism it needs before he brought delightful lightness to the third movement. He is a performer who smiles a lot – clearly relishing the sheer loveliness of what he’s doing.

I often reflect that the encore tradition in concerts is an odd one: a bit like playing the title role in King Lear and then being expected to drop in a bit of Alan Bennett at curtain call. On this occasion Goosby rose to the versatility challenge admirably and played Louisiana Blues Strut by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. With its slides, double stopping, and blues-y swing rhythms it was a perfect choice for a young, black American – and about as far from Mendelssohn as could be, in every sense.

The concert opened with Carl Nielsen’s very programmatic Overture Helios, a familiar piece from recordings but I’d never heard it live. Collins gave us immaculately pinpointed string work, starting small, his gestures growing larger as the sun and the piece reach their zenith. I admired the way he allowed the viola melody to sing as the sun finally sets.

I was forcibly struck that this reviewer is old enough to remember seeing Pierre Monteux. Adrian Boult, Antal Dorati and Otto Klemper conduct live. In front of me at the Marlowe Theatre was a boy of about eight watching Ross Jamie Collins. Decades hence, when Collins is a grand old man of music, that child will remember this concert and tell his grandchildren about it. I felt, in a strange way, as if my presence was a link between the music making of the 1960s with that of the 2060s.

Susan Elkin

CDs April 2022

BACH INSPIRED
THE BACH CHOIR
FAUST CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
DAVID HILL, conductor
STONE 5060192781182  33’57

This is a fascinating and very enjoyable release. The Bach Choir, obviously very at home with the original material here give fine performances of a musical response to the limitations of the lockdown. Six composers were asked to select a chorale from the St Matthew Passion and create a new work to sit alongside it. The juxtaposition of the new and the old works very well. It is to be hoped that this new sequence may gain a place in the regular repertoire. The composers are Charlotte Harding, Carmen Ho, Gavin Higgins, Des Oliver, Heloise Werner and James B Wilson.

PHILIP WILBY – AN ENGLISH PASSION ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW
BELFAST CATHEDRAL CHOIR & SOLOISTS
MATTHEW OWENS, CONDUCTOR
RESONUS RES10298 67’44

Recent times have seen Matthew Owens very actively building on the musical tradition of Belfast Cathedral. Alongside music in the liturgy there have been several recordings featuring the choir and organ. Here is a very interesting disc featuring fine recordings of recent repertoire from Philip Wilby. In his new Passion (written for the cathedral) the composer effectively sets English hymn tunes found in the English Hymnal of 1906 in the manner that Bach and others used the Lutheran chorale melodies, well known in their time and place. Also included on the CD are a setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, God’s Grandeur and The Knaresborough Setting of the evening canticles, written for St John the Baptist Church in that town.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – ON WENLOCK EDGE/FOUR HYMNS/THE HOUSE OF LIFE
NICKY SPENCE, tenor,  JULIUS DRAKE, piano, TIMOTHY RIDOUT, viola
PIATTI QUARTET
HYPERION CDA68378 69’50 

A lovely release to coincide with Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary. Each of the works here in their own way are representative of the pastoral-spiritual ‘English’ idiom with which we associate him. For contrast there are also three more secular offerings of folk song settings including The saucy bold robber.  Fine performances throughout of perhaps less familiar works.

XIAOGANG YE – SEVEN EPISODES FOR LIN’AN
VARIOUS SOLOISTS
DEUTSCHE STAATSPHILHARMONIE RHEINLAND-PFALZ
STEPHAN MALZEW & FRANK OLLU, conductors
NAXOS 8.579088  73’04

Another release of music from this prolific contemporary Chinese composer brings evocations of the people and places of that country. The main work here sets ancient Chinese texts and perhaps more so than the orchestral pieces shows more of a meeting of east and west. Twilight in Tibet and Tianjin Suite, both orchestral, paint vivid pictures of two very different locations. A lovely recording of world premieres.

GEORGIOS AXIOTIS – A LOVE TRILOGY – SYMPHONIC IMPRESSIONSNEW FESTIVAL OPERA-SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SOFIA,
BYRON FIDETZIS, conductor
NAXOS 8.574353  77’43

I haven’t heard music from this composer before. Part of Naxos’ Greek Classics series this is a very interesting release of mainly very lyrical music, mostly premiere recordings. The Love Trilogy is the longest work here. Axiotis wanted to preserve a distinctive national flavour to his music but writes in a variety of styles. Remembrance of a Ball for instance has a distinctly “light music” feel to it in comparison. Also included are Sunset, Prelude & Fugue, Lyrical Intermezzo and Like a Game.

MARGARET BROUWER – REACTIONS – SONGS & CHAMBER MUSIC
SARAH BEATY, mezzo-soprano, BRIAN SKOOG, tenor,
MARI SATO, narrator & violin
ELIESHA NELSON, viola, SHUAI WANG, piano
NAXOS 8.559904  56’00

This is a very interesting release, from another prolific composer, well known in their own country but perhaps less so further afield, this time in the American Classics strand. These are all recent works, written as a response to particular situations including the Covid-19 pandemic. As well as intensity and emotion there is also humour to be found, as in the work All lines are still busy – responding to being placed on hold during a telephone call. Rhapsodic Sonata, the longest work here, begins the CD. Declaration (2005) is the oldest work.

JENO TAKACS – PIANO CONCERTO – RHAPSODY FOR VIOLIN
NINA KARMON, violin, OLIVER TRIENDL, piano
GEORGIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA INGOLSTADT,
EVAN-ALEXIS CHRIST, conductor
CAPRICCIO C5438  65’59

Takacs lived from 1902 – 2005. During that time he witnessed many seismic changes in the world including the shifting of his place of birth from being in Hungary to Austria. He was widely influenced by different cultures as well as his own and took pride in being someone who developed and changed as he continued to write. Also included on this CD are Serenade after ancient Contredanses from Graz, Passacaglia for Strings and Three Pieces for Strings. A great introduction to this composer.

MASTER & PUPIL –
EXPLORING THE INFLUENCES & LEGACY OF CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI
SESTINA MUSIC, MARK CHAMBERS, conductor
INVENTA INV1007  71’18

This is a very interesting production highlighting the way that composers leave a legacy to be continued and developed by their students. Sestina Music have a similar approach to with more experienced musicians acting as mentors to the younger generation. Vocal music from Josquin and the two Gabrielis are placed here with Monteverdi alongside lesser known composers including Jaques de Wert and Giovanni Rigatti.

TWO CLASSIC POLITICAL FILM SCORES
REVUELTAS – REDES & COPLAND – THE CITY
POSTCLASSICAL ENSEMBLE, ANGEL GIL-ORDONEZ, conductor
NAXOS 8.574350  68’27

Although never intended to be listened to in this way these scores make for very enjoyable listening. World premiere recordings, these are fine reconstructions which have already featured on DVD releases. I am unfamiliar with Revueltas but The City has moments that chime with other music by Copland.

JOHANN LUDWIG KREBS – KEYBOARD WORKS VOL 2
STEVEN DEVINE, harpsichord
RESONUS RES10300  77’17

You know that with Steven Devine baroque keyboard music is in good hands. Here is volume 2 in the Resonus series. Here we have fine performances of three longer works: Overture ‘ nach dem Franzoischen Gout’, Partita in B flat major and Sonata in A minor.

SONGS OF ELIZABETH MACONCHY & RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
VOL 1
JAMES GEER, tenor, RONALD WOODLEY, piano
RESONUS RES10299  66’15

At first glance this may seem a strange pairing but Maconchy was a student of Vaughan Williams. Two very different styles sit together her, but both develop the British song tradition. I love the concept of this release and hope that, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of RVW’s birth those already drawn to his music may discover something of the beauty of Maconchy’s settings and that her music will become more widely known. What will volume 2 bring?

READY OR NOT
PALAVER STRINGS
AZICA ACD-71342 c55’

This is a very welcome release. Unusual repertoire, all written by women and assured performances from this ensemble. The title of the CD refers to the fact that women have been writing music for centuries, whether audiences, performers and compilers of the repertoire are prepared to acknowledge this. Ranging from the 16th Century to the present day the programme includes a range of styles and genres including jazz and folk influences alongside more traditional ‘classical’ forms. An arrangement of Barbara Strozzi’s  Lagrime mie sits alongside Fear the Lamb by Akenya Seymour reflecting on the life and tragic death of Emmett Till. Grazyna Bacewicz’ Concerto for String Orchestra makes a powerful opening statement. A set of three contemporary fiddle tunes by Liz Knowles and Elizabeth Mooreends the CD in lighter vein. Very enjoyable.

RAUTAVAARA – LOST LANDSCAPES: WORKS FOR VIOLIN & ORCHESTRA
SIMONE LAMSA, violin
MALMO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, ROBERT TREVINO, conductor
ONDINE  ODE 1405-2  57’32

There is a transcendent intensity to Rautavaara’s music which is heightened by this writing for strings.  All of the music here is relatively recent, the earliest from 2005, but here rearranged for these forces. Lost Landscapes, Fantasia, In the Beginning and Deux Serenades (completed by Kalevi Aho, after the composer’s death) are the four works here. Music to be immersed in and a fitting presentation of some of Rautavaara’s last work.

SANDRO FUGA – PIANO SONATAS 1-3
GIACOMO FUGA, CARLOTTA FUGA & CLAUDIO VOGHERA, piano
NAXOS 8.579110  71’54

Italian composer Sandro Fuga’s work draws on classical forms and influences and pushes forward, negotiating the more extreme paths of the 20th Century and remaining rooted in traditional harmony. The three works here are regarded as the high point of his writing for the piano. The CD has additional interest from the involvement of two of his children.

GERMAINE TAILLEFERRE – HER PIANO WORKS, REVIVED – 1
NICOLAS HORVATH, piano
GRAND PIANO GP891 83’21

This is the first of three volumes which seek to highlight the output of the only female member of Les Six. Many of the pieces here are short but no less interesting for that. Alongside many original works are some reworkings of older French classical music. The whole series promises to be very rewarding with Nicolas Horvath’s performances being highly praised by the composer’s granddaughter.

RECORDED RARITIES FROM MELODIYA
DAVID OISTRAKH, violin
ALEXANDER GOLDENWEISER & ZARA LEVINA, piano
BIDDULPH 85013-2

Here is another release of historic recordings, from the 1940s and 1950s. The unaccompanied Bach Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor begins the CD alongside two accompanied Sonatas by Medtner and Levina.

SATIE – PIANO MUSIC VOL 5 – ESOTERIK SATIE
NORIKO OGAWA, piano
BIS 2345 76’04

Satie was a fascinating figure, his music crossing several genres. This CD has collected some of the music, perhaps regarded as more obscure, which relates to his spiritual interests. Although perhaps a rather heavy listen in one sitting there is much of interest here and it is particularly good to have this curated selection. Committed performances from Noriko Ogawa on a historically appropriate instrument.

20TH CENTURY FOXTROTS – 4
GOTTLIEB WALLISCH, piano
GRAND PIANO GP855 75’21

I am continuing to really enjoy this series which highlights jazz-inspired piano music from the early 20thCentury. A number of world premiere recordings are included here in this disc which features music from France and Belgium. Wonderful music, beautifully played. I hope there will be more.

ALBERT SCHNELZER – A FREAK IN BURBANK
– CHAMBER & ORCHESTRAL WORKS
ILYA GRINGOLTS, violin, JAKOB KORANYI, cello
HENRIK MAWE & DAVID HUANG, piano
VASTERAS SINFONIETTA, SIMON CRAWFORD-PHILLIPS, conductor
BIS 2483 77’34

Released in his 50th year this CD is an excellent showcase for Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer. The sheer variety of music included here perhaps reflects his eclectic influences gained from experience in the classical and rock worlds. Throughout the disk there is a huge amount of vitality and diversity of colour. The title track, for orchestra, is one of the composer’s most performed pieces. Dance with the Devil, for solo piano, which follows, is an extremely extrovert piece – a fantastic performance from Henrik Mawe. Burn my letters is a more reflective chamber orchestra piece. All the music here was written in the last 22 years. Excellent!

SP

Janacek’s Jenufa Welsh National Opera April 5th 2022 Theatre Royal Plymouth

By any standards Janacek’s opera, Jenufa is an extraordinary piece of work, visceral and devastating but seeing and listening to it at this time, with Russia invading Ukraine, gave it an added poignancy. This was something Tomas Hanus, the Welsh National Opera’s Music Director, felt so strongly that he gave a short talk before the show began. He reminded us of our own humanity in such troubled times and assured us that, tragic as this opera is, the work ends in forgiveness. It is a work about a community in a secluded village in Moravia and a reminder that even to the most ordinary people extraordinary things can happen. Though written over a century ago, it is also very current in its themes, particularly in the composer’s exposure of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the women in the piece.

The Music Director, Tomas Hanus, lived as a child in the same village as Janacek which has given him a love for this composer and particularly for this opera. It showed. The range from lightness to tragedy was beautifully handled and wrung the heart. This is one opera that always moves me to tears and that is partly because Janacek has written a naturalistic opera about people we can all recognise.

The music is full of the folk tunes of the area which Janacek loved and grew up with. In the overture, skipping rhythms and the heavily accented music which sometimes remind us of the composer’s contemporary, Dvorak, lead us into the first scene set in the village mill where all the action takes place. It is a busy scene, full of the musical chatter of the villagers, where we meet all the main characters. Here the love triangle of the two men – half-brothers Laca and Steva – who want to marry Jenufa, Steva unworthy but whose baby son Jenufa is already carrying, Laca riven with jealousy which causes him to cut her face with his knife, a scar which she thereafter carries.
Janacek has an extraordinary ability to set everyday Czech language to music. The Chorus of gossipy villagers chatter and flow, twisting and turning and overlapping in a way that manages to be both realistic and musically pleasing. To have turned the libretto into English could not have worked. So fast-moving is this chatter, however, that it is hard during all the crowd scenes to follow the translation above the stage.
Contrast this scene with the next which is largely a musical dialogue between Jenufa and her stepmother Kostelnicka. Jenufa has given birth to her son and the soft tender words she sings manifest her love for the infant, though worthless Steva has no interest and is hoping for a socially better marriage to the Mayor’s daughter. Kostelnicka, who was herself ill-treated by Jenufa’s father, has kept Jenufa in hiding to conceal her shame, but now out of her concern for her and realising that she will always be a pariah as an unmarried mother, she drugs Jenufa and drowns the child in the frozen river. This is largely a solo, where we hear the to-and-fro of her terrible thoughts. Susan Bickley’s deep voice throbbed with passion and led the audience in horrified silence through her terrible plan. It was clear that for her this was a resolution that she felt would allow Jenufa to lead an ordinary life, a resolve led by affection for the girl but with a clear understanding of what it would mean if she were found out.

This scene was claustrophobic in its setting, a dark room with little light which allowed us to focus on the drama that was occurring between the two women. Eliska Weissova as Kostelnicka had adopted a forward thrusting movement which gave her eyes a piercing quality and lent her voice strength and colour as she swung between resolve and terror. Her role is well-known to be one of the most testing written for a contralto voice. Bickley conveyed it with power and feeling.

Then comes the finale, where the characters of Jenufa, played by Tanya Hurst, and Laca, played by Peter Auty, develop. Both transcend themselves and the theme of forgiveness coupled with a gentler kind of love than hitherto shown in the drama emerges. A neighbour has found a baby in the gradually melting waters of the river and the whole sad tale is revealed in a scene crowded with all the neighbours, the Mayor and his wife and the soon to be wed Steva and the Mayor’s daughter. Recognising her baby Jenufa’s whole demeanour softens as she grieves over the child and, without caring for her character or position in the village hierarchy, she owns what she has done. Her sung prayer for the soul of her child is moving enough to bring tears to the eyes. Kostelnicka confesses, knowing full well that her admission of infanticide could be the end of her life. Once again this is a masterly piece of acting and singing; she makes no apologies, despite the fact that her sacrifice – to clear the way for Jenufa to make a normal life for herself – has been undone by her stepdaughter’s public claiming of her child. The Mayor makes sure she is arrested but she leaves with head held high. It is as if Jenufa’s own transparency has created a transformation in herself too.

The ending of the opera might have been devastatingly sad but justice, through Kostelnicka’s confession, has been done. Steva is shamed; he will not now marry the Mayor’s daughter. Laca, however, shows his worth – despite having scarred Jenufa physically for life. Jenufa recognises that he is not ashamed of her as most men of that era would be, sees her true and loving soul and that together they will be a rock on which scandal-driven gossip will founder.

The ending is one of the touches put in by Katie Mitchell, who directed the original production. We are shown a scene where Kostelnicka is walking amongst white lilies accompanied by the orchestral music which asserts the theme of uplifting forgiveness and transformation with a sublime lightness of touch and soaring of the string section. Light shines on Kostelnicka’s peaceful face. Is she dead and in Heaven or has she been forgiven and set free? We are left to make our own decision, but here is the Music Director’s promise in his opening address that humanity in the end wins.
Welsh National Opera is nearing the end of its Spring tour. I thoroughly recommend this production if it is anywhere near you.

Jeni Whittaker

The Paradis Files Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre April 2022

Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), roughly contemporary with Beethoven, was an Austrian musician. Highly acclaimed in her day as a pianist and composer, almost all her music is now lost although most of us are familiar with her Sicilienne. She was blind and, at the behest of her parents, underwent several appalling surgical attempts to restore her sight. She may have had affairs with both Mozart and Salieri – there are hints in letters. This is the story told by Errollyn Wallen’s new opera with libretto by Nicola Werenowska.

But there’s much more to it than that. This is production from Graeae, the theatre company – now 41 years old – which cultivates and champions the best in deaf, disabled and neurodivergent talent on the UK and international stages. The Paradis Files is Graeae’s first opera and is the most inclusive show I’ve ever seen.

It starts with cast and band members introducing themselves orally and everything they say is signed integrally by someone on stage. They also wittily describe their clothes, size and the set. Each band member plays a flourish or a couple of bars on his or her instrument before disappearing upstage to the band area. Conductor, Andrea Brown says a few words too. Her podium is downstage right so that both band and cast can see her – or one of the on-stand monitor screens at the side of the stage. Once the show starts there’s an overstage screen for captions which are artistically presented in a timely font, getting larger to stress, for instance, incredulity.

The piece is scored for a cast of six who work with two performance interpreters whose presence brings another dimension. Max Marchewicz, for example, who identifies in the programme biographies as “a queer, disabled, chronically ill and disabled person” signs with moving, balletic sensitivity and I loved the blue hair. Meanwhile Chandrika Gopalakrishnan lithely makes every nuance clear, sometimes climbing inside upstage piano which is part of the set. Both are fine actors whose reactions to what is going on help to drive the narrative forward.

Every inch an opera – there is no spoken dialogue – The Paradis Files, which reference lots of other works and composers never settles to a single style but neither is it pastiche. In England Paradis was known as “The Blind Enchantress” and there’s a lovely Mozartian riff on those words. And we end in Rossini-esque mode because it’s an upbeat story

Bethan Langford, who cheerfully tells the audience at the beginning “I’m visually impaired” brings warmth and depth to Paradis. Other actors lead her unobtrusively round the rather busy set and she sits at the piano stool in several scenes. Langford has a rich mezzo voice with some beautiful navy blue notes in the lower register. It blends particularly well with Maureen Braithwaite’s soprano. Braithwaite plays Paradis’s difficult, determined, troubled mother – a complex character. Ella Taylor finds lots of saucy kindness in Gerda the maid and her soprano voice is attractive too – although this gritty maid – feisty, trans and kind – is no Susanah.

Wallen’s score makes a great play with the “gossips”. In any other art form we’d call them the “ensemble” with minor characters emerging from their ranks. Here they come somewhere between an operatic and a Greek chorus – commenting on the action and furthering the narrative. And, of course, although we’re in the 18th and early nineteenth centuries this is a 2022 piece so Wallen has a occasional fun with cross rhythms, jazz and rock borrowings so that sometimes the gossips dance incongruously as they sing. It’s great fun.

The Paradis Files is directed by Jenny Sealey, Graeae’s artistic director and she knows, really knows, how to create stunning theatre. This piece is stonkingly good: intelligent, funny, moving, beautifully sung and skilfully staged. If this website required me to provide a star rating this show would be a five.

Co-produced by Curve, Leicester and opened there before two performances at Southbank Centre, The Paradis Files now tours until 12 May to Milton Keynes, Colchester, Hull, Perth, Cardiff and Sheffield. All details at www.graeae.org.

Susan Elkin

Tamerlano – Cambridge Handel Opera Company, Great Hall at The Leys, Cambridge, 8 April 2022

The successor to the Cambridge Handel Opera Group, the Cambridge Handel Opera Company aims to perform Handel’s operas in productions in which both music and staging are informed by the practices of Handel’s own day. The casts field upcoming performers alongside established singers, and the orchestra blends leading professionals with senior students from conservatoires across Britain and elsewhere. Four years after their inaugural production of Rodelinda in 2018, they returned to the stage of the Leys School with perhaps the least-known of the three operas (Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda) which Handel produced in the space of one remarkable year from February 1724.

Any concerns that a “historically informed” production of Tamerlano would mean three hours of singers standing and delivering baroque arias while wearing togas were dispelled during the overture when a band of soldiers in military uniform of the early twentieth century burst onto the stage in search of the defeated Ottoman emperor Bajazet and his daughter. The setting suggested post-World War I Turkey, and James Laing’s Tamerlano, with fez and toothbrush moustache, a young Atatürk. It’s not the first Handel opera production I have seen set in this kind of milieu and I suspect it won’t be the last; the intrigues of baroque opera seem peculiarly suited to the world of King Zog, Admiral Horthy and the other régimes which succeeded the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in South-Eastern Europe.

Director Dionysios Kyropoulos had aimed to incorporate aspects of the acting technique of Handel’s time into his production, and it is perhaps testimony to the effectiveness of his approach that for much of the evening I was not aware of it, the performances seeming perfectly natural within the constraints of baroque convention. A single set piece depicting a fallen classical column suggested a defunct empire, and served as couch or throne as required. The band, bigger than we often get in Handel with a theorbo on continuo duties as well as two harpsichords, was arranged as it would have been in an eighteenth-century opera house. One departure from historic practice was that the opera was sung in English in an excellent translation founded on that by Handel Opera Group founder Andrew Jones. Clear diction by the cast ensured that there was no need for distracting surtitles, and there was a great gain in dramatic immediacy.

In the title role, James Laing presented an almost effete figure who was nonetheless capable of unpredictable fits of rage and cruelty. He despatched his furioso coloratura runs with impressive ease, though his relatively light voice was not always well-balanced with the large orchestra. His defeated rival Bajazet is a rare big role for a tenor in baroque opera, seized with both hands by Christopher Turner. He too had an impressive “rage” aria, in which the big band came into its own, the singer borne aloft on tossing seas of semiquavers. But he also brought out the complexities of a role which might seem tediously unbending, and his embodiment of the character’s physical as well as mental disintegration in the final death scene – one of Handel’s most astonishing passages – was what remained in the memory.

The evening had begun with an apology on behalf of Thalie Knights who had been suffering with vocal problems, but in the event it was hardly necessary. In the role of Andronico, Tamerlano’s war ally and love rival, she brought a welcome inward quality to her most deeply-felt arias, gradually increasing in power as the evening progressed. As Bajazet’s daughter Asteria, Caroline Taylor commanded attention from her first entrance. This is perhaps the character in the opera with most agency, making not one but two assassination attempts on the title character and generally holding her own in a male world. Taylor was fully equal to the challenge, and throughout brought a steely intensity and powerful presence to the role.

Modern productions of Handel tend to assume that audiences won’t stand for three hours of the seria mood, and the entrance of Tamerlano’s “other woman” Irene and her entourage, costumed as if they were visiting a country house in a Poirot mystery, brought a noticeable lightening of the mood. Leila Zanette’s limpid mezzo and Jolyon Loy’s rich bass in his one aria brought welcome contrast in an opera when high voices predominate, though it was in these scenes that I felt that the baroque gestures sometimes tipped over into mannerism.

Directing from the harpsichord, Julian Perkins pacing and dynamic control brought out all the tension and passion of Handel’s writing. The whole evening was a triumphant vindication of Handel the musical dramatist – I hope we will not have to wait another four years for the next production.

William Hale

The Mikado at the White Rock Theatre Hastings Opera South East 9th April 2022

PictureAt the present time Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado is a tricky one to perform in an entertaining way, without provoking cries of, racism, cultural appropriation and general bad taste. Opera South East managed to pull it off on April 9/10 at the White Rock Theatre.

The artistic director, Denis Delahunt, made sure that references to the Japanese, in any derogatory way, were removed, and that the costumes were suitably modern. The emphasis was on fun.

The soloists were all very individual characters. The ‘three little girls from school’, entertained with their schoolgirl mannerisms and penchant for taking group selfies. Yum-Yum, played by Louisa Alice-Rose, grew up somewhat in the second half and gave us the full beauty of her voice in solo arias

Ko-Ko played by Oscar Smith was outstanding thoughout, holding our attention expressing fun and warmth in tension with his dastardly plans. His modernised ‘little list’, was full of laughs.

The chorus supported well musically, but I must confess I found them too static. Even though the set included an outside café, I don’t think anyone sat down and no drinks were served.

William O’Brien as Pooh-Bah however, utilised stiffness to express his character, which was only softened by ‘the insult of a bribe’.

The production was a triumph over the adversity of Covid stops and starts since 2019, and should be congratulated on its fruition.

Sally Hick