Swan Lake

The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, 6 June 2018

When I interviewed Emma Troubridge, ROH’s Head of Scenic Art, recently, she told me that this Swan Lake is the biggest show she has worked on in twenty years in the job. Having now seen it, I understand what she means. No wonder the audience of 2000 primary school children with whom I shared the experience gasped audibly and applauded spontaneously when they saw the massive, grandiloquent sets for Acts 2 and 3 (designed by John Macfarlane). The costumes – especially for the Spanish dance which is all swirly red, black and sequins – are stunning and choreographers Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov and Liam Scarlett use every inch of the vast playing space. Everything is on a grand scale.

Seated by the press officer in a stage right box (with slightly restricted stage view) I had an unusual overview of the orchestra in the pit below me along with its conductor Valery Ovsyanikov. With my accustomed technical interest I could even see which positions the leader was using in the violin solos. It is, of course, a great joy to see this famous, beloved ballet accompanied by a full orchestra – hurrah for ROH production values – complete with four trumpets, plenty of strings including five double basses. This is what Tchaikovsky’s wonderfully powerful score needs but, sadly, doesn’t always get. Here it sounds sumptuous – especially in the final few pages with the brass sounding fortissimo tragedy and despair.

On stage, meanwhile, there’s plenty to admire too. Yasmine Naghdi is a fine Odette/Odile with suitably sustained pirouettes and plenty of fluid swan-like “flying” – leaving the ground with apparent effortlessness when dancing with the men: Nehemiah Kish as Prince Siegfried and Gary Avis as Von Rothbart, for example, both of whom have high levels of stage presence and all the lithe strength their roles require. The dance of the little cygnets is neat and appealing and the set pieces in Act 3 are a joy – especially the Neapolitan dance for which they use Frederick Ashton’s choreography. And the big “numbers” when many are on stage, especially the corps de ballet swan sequences look terrific because they’re angled and grouped so imaginatively. As a piece of theatre it’s also highly emotional and pretty moving.

The essence of good ballet is, of course, interpreting the music in a way which drives the story forward and doing so holistically. The potentially disparate elements have to be tightly integrated. This one ticks all the boxes.

Susan Elkin

Investec Opera Holland Park: La Traviata

I first encountered La Traviata when I was about nine. My father, who wasn’t actually a great classical music man, saw it at Royal Opera House with my mother and fell in love with all those fabulous Verdi melodies. So he bought “new fangled” LPs of La Traviata to play on his recently acquired three speed record player. For a long time the house resounded to Verdi’s rich and lovely tunes – many of them in lilting triple time – and I soaked them up like blotting paper. A lifetime later, of course, I’ve learned to appreciate this take on Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias, in turn based on a true story about hedonism, passion and illness, rather more thoughtfully.

In Opera Holland Park’s new production Lauren Fagan gives a sensitive, intelligent account of Violetta. She took a little while to warm up on press night (nerves?) but once she got there it was a magnificent performance: passionate, convincing and thrilling with some stupendous top notes. Her Alfredo, Matteo Desole, an impressive tenor likewise rapidly got better after a lacklustre start. By the time they reach the deathbed scene in Act 4 their rendering of that supremely simple duet over pizzicato strings was beautiful.

There is strong support from bass Stephen Gadd and from  Laura Woods as Flora. The latter has a glorious wine dark voice, effectively an old fashioned contralto, which is a striking contrast to Fagan’s soaring soprano.

Sterling work from the orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton underpins the whole. This music is full of colour and Waldren allows us to see and hear it all – assisted by the clear acoustic in this venue which places the orchestra on the level in front of the stage. The work from the brass during the deathbed scene is especially noteworthy. It’s surprising how well the sound works here when you consider that the auditorium is open to the elements at the sides and you can hear the odd peacock, goose, aircraft or park reveller.

Director Rodula Gaitanou makes interesting dramatic use of a large chorus and ensures that the story telling is clear. I like Cordelia Chisholm’s ingenious set too. Built on a huge saucepan shaped quasi joist angled across the stage it offers an adaptable intimate space beneath the “pan” and more public area for parties and so on along the length of the “handle.”

It is altogether an enjoyable production which does the piece real justice. My father died in 1997. He would have been 96 this month. I think he would have approved.

Susan Elkin

Sussex Concert Orchestra

St Peter’s Church, Bexhill Sunday 3rd June 2018

Standing outside St Peter’s as Evensong drew to a close, one could hardly have wished for a more perfect Sussex summer evening. Happily the programme provided by Sussex Concert Orchestra mirrored this warmth and enjoyment.

The performance opened with Faure’s familiar but none the less welcome Pavane, whose warmth and light in the excellent acoustic of the church proved immediately appealing. This was followed by Bach’s Suite for Flute and Strings BWV 1067 with Daisy Noton the accomplished flute soloist. The opening section of the Overture and the later Sarabande were unexpectedly slow and grave – the latter coming close to the intensity of the St Matthew Passion. Elsewhere there was a strong attacking edge in the Rondeaux and very lively rhythms in the Bourees and concluding Badinerie.  One of the more complex results of the acoustic was that the soloist seemed to move in and out of the orchestral sound, at times shining brightly above them while at others almost being engulfed by the strings though never creating any sense of an unbalanced effect. It was very impressive and sensitive throughout.

After the interval we heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Kenneth Roberts approach to this was intense and often quite aggressive. Tempi and dynamics were frequently on the fast and loud side, particularly in what is normally the slow movement. There were times it felt as though we were tourists in the countryside rather than ramblers – an interesting and not unconvincing approach. The speed was maintained through the exhilaration of the storm – with the piccolo rasping its way above the onslaught – and the subsequent rejoicing, which was enthusiastic rather than romantic.

A fine evening with a full house – and rightly so.


Investec Opera Holland Park: Cosi fan tutte

What a strange piece Cosi fan tutte is. In a way it covers the same ground as A Midsummer Night’s Dream – sexual licence and the temporary (?) hots for the wrong person. Yet the ambiguity of the message makes it seem very different. It’s almost tragic rather than comic. Oliver Platt’s directorial emphases in this enjoyable production, for example, left me feeling deeply sorry for the duped women and I don’t always.


Despina, the knowing maid who assists in the duping, is undoubtedly the best female role and petite Sarah Tynan made a fine job of it – hitting all those soaring high notes with aplomb and adding lustrous warmth to numbers such as the glorious sextet which ends the first half. She’s also very funny disguised as both the doctor and the notary.

Peter Coleman-Wright’s Alfonso has plenty of scheming gravitas as he sets up his two friends to find their fiancées unfaithful – and his 6/8 patter song as he backs out of the door with Despina is pure Mozartian fun. Then the four young lovers: Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately, Nicholas Lester and Nick Pritchard all sing well both together and in groups with Dennis’s second half aria being a particular high spot. The farewell quintet before Lester and Pritchard’s characters pretend to go off to war is another gem delivered with tender warmth here.

Opera Holland Park’s playing space is almost traverse theatre and it’s vast so most designers find ways of confining it to a smaller area and Alyson Cummins is no exception. Her main, rather ingenious set is based on a huge hinged, five facet flat positioned centre stage, which represents walls with doors and windows. It’s decorated with pastel wall swags in relief which looks strikingly pretty.

Her costumes are good too – firmly in period with the men in gorgeously colourful velvet breeches and elaborate 18th century beehive wigs which make them look ridiculous even before they disguise themselves as lustful Albanians. It’s a pity that Kitty Whately’s dress is quite so frumpy but it’s a small point. She is so convincing as Dorabella that I soon stopped noticing it.

In many ways the real star of this show is Dane Lam who works musical miracles in the pit. A highly charismatic, left-handed, word-mouthing conductor, he ensures that not a nuance in the music is missed. We hear every bassoon and clarinet solo with clarity, for example. And I liked the work of both timpanist, Scott Bywater using hard sticks and of Stuart Wild who plays the harpsichord continuo with delightful responsiveness. The latter makes the recit passages sound as it they really are simply conversations.

Susan Elkin


Carly Paoli shortlisted for Classic BRIT Awards’ Sound of Classical poll

Rising classical singer and lyricist Carly Paoli has been shortlisted in the first ever Sound of Classical poll, with the winner to be revealed at the Classic BRIT Awards on June 13th.

The winner will collect the award in person during the Classic BRIT Awards ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall in London, to be broadcast on ITV.

Speaking about the news Carly saidI had to pinch myself when I found out that I was nominated for a Brit Award and I’ve been thanking the Lord ever since I received this incredible and completely joyous news. Since I was a little girl, I dreamt about singing and sharing my music with an audience. Now that my dreams have come true, I hope other young people can be inspired to follow theirs. I am so excited, so grateful and so thrilled by this prestigious nomination.”

Signed to the independent London-based record company ABIAH, Carly released her debut album Singing My Dreams in 2017.  The record charted at No. 2 on the UK’s Official Classical Albums chart, while earning 5 star reviews. Carly recently performed a headline concert at London’s Cadogan Hall leading Classic FM’s David Mellor to write a glowing 4 star review in the Mail on Sunday under the headline ‘Nobody does it better’.

From Mansfield, Carly studied at Tring Park and The Royal Northern College of Music and has worked with Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli and David Foster. She has performed alongside stars including Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler and Oscar-winning actress and Grammy-winning singer Jennifer Hudson and was invited to perform for the Prince of Wales and the Pope.

Carly recently signed a publishing deal with Sony ATV. Her songwriting credits on Singing My Dreams include co-writes with Ennio and Andrea Morricone and James Horner having written English lyrics for Se Tu Fossi (Cinema Paradiso) and the theme from Legends of the Fall which now bears the title Memory of You.