WNO: La Traviata

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, Wednesday 21 November 2018

Tanya McCallin’s sepulchral design is a fitting visual complement to David McVicar’s often stark and unromantic approach to a work which can too easily be sentimentalised. We are aware of death from the start and never allowed to forget the inevitable outcome of events. When this is added to an early nineteenth century moral straight-jacket there can be little hope for any of the protagonists. No matter how sorry they may feel for past action there is no way they can escape and it seems that even faith in the mercy of God is no match for the failure of society to forgive. As such it is one of the finest approaches to La Traviata I can recall, and this WNO revival is remarkably strongly cast in all areas.

The chorus are as strong as one could ask for, and carefully individualised in the two party scenes. Smaller parts, particularly James Cleverton’s Baron and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’ Flora, are incisively characterised to create a naturalistic, if at times over indulgent, world within which events unfold.

Kang Wang’s Alfredo is very much the outsider here. His baritonal warmth, with no difficulty in the higher register, creates a deeply human if naïve young man. The fact that his costume never quite seems to fit was telling – he is growing in to his adulthood and making mistakes along the way. The fact that these mistakes become literally fatal is what turns the narrative into real tragedy. Roland Wood is finely sensitive as Giorgio Germont.  His changes of attitude are convincingly naturalistic and his relationship with Violetta is marked by his body-language as well as his voice.

Anush Hovhannisyan is magnificent as Violetta. Not a cough in sight but a body wracked with pain and a gradual, if inevitable, sense of collapse. The final act is deeply moving in her intense vulnerability, never able to do more than crawl and yet fighting all the time to live.

James Southall’s conducting allows the larger than life melodies to flow unhindered but concentrates on the moments of intimacy for internal detail.

This is a production that deserves to be revived frequently and hopefully seen more widely.

Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

20 November, St Michael’s Church, Highgate

This imaginatively programmed chamber concert opened and closed with substantial works (Beethoven String Trio in G Op 9 no 1 and Schubert Piano Quintet in A D.667 Op 114 ‘Trout’) and sandwiched other slighter – but interestingly varied – pieces in the middle. It meant that we heard seven talented musicians in a range of contexts including duets which showcased a great deal of pretty stunning virtuosity.

Kenneh-Mason, as we’re rapidly realising, can play anything and wow an audience with it. If he gave us a one octave G major scale he’d make it sing. His rendering, in this concert, of Bloch’s Prayer from Jewish Life (immaculately accompanied by Irina Botan) brought out all the mournfully, soulfully evocative minor key richness in the piece and I loved the way he leaned on that dramatic quarter tone moment just before the end.

He and Ashok Klouda had fun with the South American dance rhythms and that catchy refrain in Jose Elizondo’s Autumn in Buenos Aires for two cellos too – lots of smiling eye contact and evident pleasure both in music and in working together.

It’s also good, to hear a live performance of Mahler’s 1876  single movement A Minor piano quartet written while he was still a student. It’s an evocative piece, very familiar from radio but I don’t recall ever hearing it in concert before. It was played here with lots of youthful emotion exactly as the young Mahler probably intended.

The Beethoven trio, with which the concert opened  is, of course, a pretty little gem. I admired the handling of  incisive contrasts in dynamic and tempi, especially in the Allegro con Brio which were well supported by the acoustic in the cavernous Victorian space of St Michael’s Church. The concert was sold out and the church full to the rafters so all those bodies softened the echo rather well. Another high spot in the trio was the finely judged melodic weaving by the first violin (Alexander Sitkovetsky) in the Adagio Cantabile.

And so to the utter joy of the Trout quintet with Simon Callaghan on piano and the very charismatic Chi-chi Nwanoku reading her double bass part from an iPad and dancing her way communicatively though the music. I admired the apparently effortless, graceful work in the variations which comprise the  famous andantino – especially Alexander Sitovetsky on violin. This lovely performance was also graced by an exceptionally slick scherzo.

The gallery at St Michael’s is cursed by some of the most uncomfortable seating it has ever been my misfortune to spend time in. Fortunately the quality and exuberance of the music superseded it – mostly. How about some reserved ground floor seating for the press next time?

Susan Elkin


Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its 500th concert

Brighton’s only resident professional orchestra, the Philharmonic, presents its 500th concert on Sunday 2nd December. Founded 94 years ago as the Symphonic String Players, it has been presenting orchestral concerts without a break since 1927 in the historic Brighton Dome and officially became the Brighton Philharmonic in October 1958. The exciting young British conductor Ben Gernon will be conducting this very special event and will be joined by another young British musician, the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen.

Over the past 60 years the orchestra has performed almost 2,500 works and is proud that throughout this time there have been only three Musical Directors. Mozart has been the most frequently played composer and our concert on December 2nd celebrates this with two works by Mozart, his energetic Symphony No. 35 written for his childhood friend Sigmund Haffner, and his exotic 5th Violin Concerto, nicknamed “Turkish” after its Turkish–sounding final movement. The concert concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 which the composer himself considered to be “one of my best works”.

Tickets (from £12.50-£39.50 – 50% student/U18 discount, children just £1) are still available from Brighton Dome Ticket Office, (01273 709709) or online at www.brightondome.org