SALLY BEAMISH & JAMES CRABB – MUSICAL TALK PEASMARSH CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL 26TH JUNE 2022

Much like the extras on a Blu-ray box set there is often much to entertain and inform in the smaller ‘side’ events at a festival. Two artists involved in this year’s festival gave this intimate presentation through informal conversation and the chance for audience questions interspersed with some delightful performances.

Sally Beamish, composer and viola player and her friend concert accordionist James Crabb seemed completely at ease as they talked together about their musical beginnings, experiences and influences. The music featured was a lovely lilting Scottish folk tune arrangement, variations on an old English tune and an arrangement of a piece by Sally Beamish originally written for a small jazz ensemble. The unlikely but beautiful pairing of viola and concert accordion worked so well, due I am sure in no small part, to the rapport between the two players as well as the sensitive approach to their respective instruments. The small but appreciative audience seemed very pleased with what they had witnessed in the tranquil environment that is St Peter & Paul church, Peasmarsh. I think we would have all liked it to go on much longer.

Stephen Page

Eugene Onegin Opera Holland Park Young Artists Performance June 2022

This production, like this season’s Carmen, makes imaginative use of takis’s annular set which puts the orchestra in the middle of the action. It’s a treat to see and hear some of the action only a few feet from the front rows of the audience.

At the performance, I saw, which showcased the talents of singers in Opera Holland Park Young Artists Scheme Samuel Dale Johnson – who plays the role in the main cast show – stood in as Onegin for indisposed Rory Musgrave. Johnson, tall and charismatic brings all the brash insouciance the character needs in the early scenes followed by wonderfully sung anguish and remorse at his final rejection – which is played on the very front of the ring.

Has anyone ever done passion quite like Tchaikovsky with his plaintive, plangent brass interjections? In this performance Lucy Anderson as Tatyana delivers every note and nuance in the challengingly long letter scene which she sustains with admirable control. And the repeated descending horn motif – hinting that this love letter is not going to bring happiness – hits the spot every time under Hannah von Wiehler’s clear, incisive baton. It’s a good directorial idea (Julia Burbach) to have Onegin physically on stage in mime at this point to connote what Tatyana is imagining. We see something similar in the second act when Onegin and Tatyana meet five years later and we are shown on stage what is going on in Tatyana’s head as her husband Prince Gemin (Henry Grant Kerswell – good) sings of married happiness.

Anne Elizabeth Cooper is suitably ebullient and excitable as the other sister Olga. She has the beginnings of a rich traditional contralto voice (think Ferrier or Baker) with some velvety bottom notes. She is a nice foil to the more intense Tatyana. Similarly Jack Roberts as Lenksy contrasts with Onegin especially as they quarrel at the end of the first act. He sings Lensky’s aria with both passion and precision while von Wiehler ensures we hear the woodwind shining through the texture.

The chorus sound is strong and only very occasionally, and briefly swamped by the orchestra. And every performer on stage is directed to make maximum use of the huge playing space.

In the first act the women wear simple white dresses which reminded me, off-puttingly, of nighties. I think these are meant to suggest youthful innocence because everyone is in heavy, grown up black after the interval. As a device it feels a bit clumsy – but this is a very minor gripe about a fine production and performance.

Susan Elkin

Carmen Opera Holland Park June 2022

The world’s most popular opera feels fresh and vibrant, but free from gimmickry, under Cecilia Stinton’s direction with Lee Reynolds doing excellent work with City of London Sinfonia in the pit.

Staging anything coherently is a challenge on Opera Holland Park’s enormous, very wide stage. You have to allow extra bars to get people on and off because they have to travel so far. For this production the playing space is almost doubled (design by takis) with a sloping semi-circular thrust stage so that the orchestra is effectively encircled by the action. It adds still further to the logistic challenge but it works well and makes some of the action – especially the final scene – feel intimately immersive.

Kezia Bienek is terrific as Carmen. She sings with effortless panache and finds all the right assertive, sassy, flirtatiousness while always remaining her own woman. It’s a warmly convincing performance with, among many other fine moments, a deliciously sexy Habenera (lovely balance with the cello at the beginning).

Oliver Johnston more than matches her as the hapless, love-smitten, ultimately abusive Don José, His tenor voice is magnificent and the love aria he sings to Carmen in the tavern is beautifully, mellifluously lyrical. And yet he brings coarse, fierce passion to the final scene.

Alison Langer’s troubled frumpy Micaela is a fine foil to Carmen and her claret-rich voice delights especially in the resonant bottom notes. And Thomas Mole gets – and makes real drama out of – what is, I gather, the most widely recognised music theatre tune in the world. So somehow he has to make the Toreador song feel newly minted and he does – as his flamboyant, exhibitionist character shows off and captivates Carmen.

Lee Reynolds has slightly reduced the score but the omissions don’t show. He is a very clear conductor – mouthing every word with the singers, beaming in delight at the end of the glorious accelerando number with castanets and pizzicato strings. He allows a lot of detail to shine through. Like most people, I’ve known this music all my life but there’s a sparky horn line in the Toreador song I’d never noticed before. Once or twice he lost control of the male chorus which slipped out of synch for a few bars at the performance I saw but the juggernaut soon got back on track so it didn’t matter much.

The children’s chorus – arranged through Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School – fizzes with energy and sings with conviction. It’s good to see community involvement at this level.

Susan Elkin

IMS PRUSSIA COVE CONCERT Saturday 29th May 2022

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Last night in the Tolmen Centre, Constantine, we were given a treat. A quartet of musicians attending the International Musicians Seminar [IMS] at Prussia Cove in West Cornwall came and played at the Centre as part of a short tour of West Cornwall venues.
Founded by the Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh, this is a big year for IMS as it is their fiftieth Anniversary. Twice a year, in Spring and in Autumn, the seminars are run, offering master classes for students of music and recent graduates all over the world, as well as a chance for experienced world-class performers to work together with different musicians and to refresh and push the boundaries of their own musicality.

The quartet comprised Lesley Hatfield [violin], who is leader of the National Orchestra of Wales and a member of the Gaudier Ensemble and much more; Emily Nebel [violin] who has appeared with a large number of orchestras and Chamber groups all over Europe; David Adams [viola] who has played with a string of Chamber groups, including the Nash Ensemble, Endellion String Quartet, the Raphael Ensemble and many more; Alice Neary [cello] has been principal cellist for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and has performed with groups all over Europe and the USA. She is also a renowned pianist and has 25 CDs to her name.

The concert began with Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.18, No 3 in D major. The work is in four movements and was the first quartet Beethoven wrote.
The first movement began quietly and was full of joyous little ripples, like laughter, as if Beethoven had enjoyed exploring and playing with the potential of each instrument. The second movement started with the quiet grace of a dance in which each instrument appeared to invite the next to join and in the third movement the dance quickened and sped to a close. Huge contrasts between light dabs and strong bowing occurred in the fourth movement. Again there was a joyous feel to the piece where Beethoven had the four instruments racing up and down and overlapping as if trying to catch each other out. The whole piece was a revelation and a joy to be part of as listeners.

Next came Dvorak’s Cypresses, Nos. 9 and 11, pieces I was familiar with for the piano but not as a trio for one violin, viola and cello. In Cypresses No 9, the viola’s lovely warm tones held the opening tune which was joined gradually by the other two instruments in turn. The piece ended quietly with the viola again, this time plucking the strings. Cypresses 11 had a hurrying rhythm alternating with stiller moments. It had me imagining a busy person rushing along only to be surprised into wonder and reflection at the beauty of the view.

After the interval we were treated to another string trio by the composer from Budapest, Zoltan Kodaly. Intermezzo for String Trio demonstrated Kodaly’s love of his country’s rustic people and their folk tunes. The skipping rhythms of the peasant tunes which also inspired Kodaly’s friend, Bela Bartok, were offset by a quieter passage, full of reverence and led first by the viola before the piece picked up into the rhythms of a country dance, underpinned by the cello, softly plucking.

Next came a short piece by Bohuslav Martinu – Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola [No. 2] wittily introduced by Adams who described how Martinu’s family lived in the belfry of their local church through his childhood. No bells in this piece but instead an exploration of the colour and scope of the two instruments. A difficult piece full of sliding chromatics, arpeggios that scampered up and down and discordancies that resolved blissfully into harmony and ended peacefully, moving from deliberately being out of sync to a coming together with a series of sublime long notes.

The concert ended with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 20, No 2 in C major. Haydn was to all intents and purposes the inventor of the string quartet. We, who are used to chamber music, often forget what a debt we owe to Haydn for the playfulness and humour of his chamber catalogue. Lesley Hatfield, who introduced this part of the programme, also told us that it was Haydn who liberated the cello from just being the bass continuo to an exploration of its range and beauty.

Indeed, the first movement, marked Moderato, starts with the voice of the cello, which then gives way to the violins. The master of surprise, the movement is full of sudden fast runs from all the instruments. The second and third movements, Cappricio, followed by the short Minuet, starts with a strong series of notes in unison. The cello introduces the quieter section through which cuts the first violin in a lament. Cello answers sympathetically but the first violin has a song to sing, through which the other three instruments render a background of sympathy and support, emphasised by repetition of those strong unison passages. Finally was the Fugue in Four Parts. After a soft, light opening was a sudden strong and loud explosion of sound as the instruments wove in and out of each other. The piece ended with a very exciting gallop to a unison finish.

There is of course nothing like seeing and hearing live music. The obvious enjoyment of the performers enhanced this experience. Whatever combination they were working in, these wonderful musicians treated us to rich contrasts of light and shade, giving life in every case to these long-dead composers, as if unearthing them and bringing them literally from darkness into light. Watching them I was struck by the physicality of the performers; their bodies danced with and curled lovingly round their instruments; each became one creature.

They were all adept at bringing out the humour of the pieces and the rapid changes of pace and volume and, in the companionable space of the Tolmen Centre, surrounded by the warmth of that wooden interior which enhances the music, they took turns introducing each piece with learning but also with a delightful informality.
Thank you IMS for a wonderful evening.

Jeni Whittaker

The Pirates of Penzance Ferrier Opera Society May 2022

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It’s a real pleasure to find a non-professional company still staging an annual show mostly G&S (twelve out of twenty this century) as they have been doing since 1973 – and doing it pleasingly.

Director Leon Berger takes us to the land of make-believe with this production. Frederick is, after all, reckoning by his “natal day” just a “little boy of five”. So with 21st birthday balloons aloft, we’re in a colourful nursery classroom in which pirates with scarves round their waists play with wooden swords and there are lots of wind-up dolls and policemen. But it’s a gentle conceit. Beyond that it’s a pretty straight account of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 piece.

Someone at Ferrier Opera Company understands that the important thing about making G&S work in the 21st century is to respect the music and have faith in it. And Gilbert’s words are as funny and clever as ever. For the most part they don’t need tinkering with.

I was thrilled, therefore, to hear Hail Poetry – the lovely four line anthem which Sullivan pokes in apropos of nothing in particular – beautifully sung by a totally still cast, lights dimmed and an illuminated photograph of Sir Arthur at the back. Later I was also delighted to hear another anthem To Queen Victoria’s Name sung with the same respect and precision in the second half – this is an unusual inclusion because there are three versions of the Pirates of Penzance owing to “cock-ups” relating to first performances, copyright issues and the first production in New York.

Of course some cast members are a lot stronger than others but Andy Lee excels as Frederick. His tenor voice is delightfully resonant (nothing as crass as radio mics in this production) and he convinces completely as the dutiful young man who falls passionately in love with Mabel (Rebecca Foster). She matches him perfectly with her piercing soprano voice. Yes, she has great fun with her show piece top notes but also duets very sensitively with Lee. Every note and every word is placed with accurate warmth. Both are accomplished actors too.

Other cast members doing a fine job include Jackie Mitchell as Ruth the “piratical maid of all work” whom Frederick loves as his nursemaid but rejects as his bride. She has some good low contralto notes. Nice 2022 touch to have her team up with another woman at the finale so she gets a happy ending like everyone else.

Andy Noakes is a pretty competent Major General – making his first entrance in 19th century striped bathers, flippers and bearing an inflatable unicorn because he’s come straight from swimming in the sea. Much is made of pretending he can’t manage the rhymes and needing cast help in his famous song. He’s also a strong lyrical baritone as well as a watchable actor. I also enjoyed Nathan Killen’s deliciously Irish Samuel – he sings well too.

Musical Director, David Stephens gets a nice sound from his bijoux 12 piece band – working from the proper, if cramped, pit offered by the Bob Hope Theatre. He brings out one or two textual details that are often lost in larger scale renderings. And three cheers for the decision to play the overture and let us listen to it without stagey distraction. The enthusiastic chorus escaped from him several times during the performance I saw but each time he managed to get them back on track after a few bars. I suspect some cast members are not very good at keeping a discreet eye on the conductor.

It’s a decent show, though, and I’m really thrilled that Ferrier Opera Society is doing this sort of thing. Princess Ida next year!

Susan Elkin

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

Philharmonia Orchestra Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 10 May 2022

 

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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

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