Mary’s Hand

Words by Di Sherlock & Music by Martin Bussey Mary’s Hand is a new music theatre project about the life and reign of Queen Mary I.

It’s a little-known fact that Queen Mary loved games of chance, such as dice and cards. In Mary’s Hand, the Queen shares a game of cards with the audience who get to choose the next card to be turned. Their choices prompt Mary’s reflection upon the influences and events in her life: her father Henry VIII, her mother Katherine of Aragon, her Catholic faith, her half-sister Elizabeth I, and her desperate desire for a child. Above all, Mary was driven by the wish to be a good monarch and her deep conviction that she needed to restore England to the Church of Rome. Her marriage to the Catholic Philip of Spain promised to resolve many of these issues at a stroke, but Mary had played her cards badly and paid a high public & personal price. With words by Di Sherlock and music by Martin Bussey, Mary’s Hand is a dramatic, involving retelling of Mary’s story, performed by solo mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin and chamber ensemble.

Mary’s Hand will be performed on

21 June 2018 (7.30pm) at St. Mary’s Creative Space, St Mary’s Hill, Chester CH1 2DW

1 & 2 August 2018 (8.30pm) at Holy Cross Church, 98 Cromer St, Kings Cross, London WC1H 8JU as part of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival (#TaTFest18)

27 April 2019 (7.30pm) in the Music in Pinner Series

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