Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Minotaur

For those of us who believe opera to be the greatest of all art forms, the premiere of a full scale new work is an important and exciting event. Before going to see "The Minotaur" I knew little of Harrison Birtwistle's music and had seen none of his previous seven operas.
The libretto is by David Harsent, a regular collaborator of Birtwistle's, and follows closely the mythical story of the Minotaur, the half-man-half-bull trapped in the labyrinth. The libretto was skillfully constructed and well written, although the first half was a bit too long with rather too much hand-wringing from Ariadne and not just one but two horrific encounters between the Minotaur and the 'Innocents'. The second half flashed by.
The music at times was very violent but there were also moments of repose and lyricism. The dramatic music was enormously effective. The vocal lines were less jagged than I had expected and there some good themes: the saxophone associated with Ariadne being the most obvious. The best way I could describe the music is as 'aggravated Benjamin Britten'; indeed there was more than a whiff of "Peter Grimes" about the whole piece, complete with orchestral interludes.
The title role was created for John Tomlinson and he gave a superb performance. When in public, goaded and encouraged to cruelty by the masked chorus, the Minotaur can only roar, but when alone he articulates his frustrations and feelings. Every word and feeling in Tomlinson's performance was clear and it was both impressive and moving.
High vocal honours were taken also by Christine Rice as Ariadne, the longest part in the opera. John Reuter was fine as Theseus and there was a great double act from Andrew Watts and Philip Langridge as the Snake Priestess and her assistant. The Keres, who sweep onto stage to remove the hearts of the Minotaur's victims made a terrific Valkyrie-like effect vocally and dramatically. There was an outstanding performance from Amanda Echalaz as the chief Ker . Birtwistle had provided her with a bravura line, which she executed with considerable vocal fire power. This was her debut with the Royal opera and I hope to see and hear more of her.
There was excellent singing from the chorus and a spell-binding performance of this huge and complex score from the orchestra. Antonio Pappano demonstrated yet again what a brilliant and eclectic operatic conductor he is. How lucky we are to have him at Covent Garden.
The production by Stephen Langridge was straight forward and served the opera well.
A work that was certainly worthy of the full resources of the Royal Opera House and one that I am sure should be able to hold its place in the modern repertoire.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Sixteen in Durham

Durham Cathedral was the glorious setting for this visit of The Sixteen on their Choral Pilgrimage 2008 with the title "Treasures of Tudor England". And the treasures were works by sixteenth century English polyphonists Robert Parsons, Christopher Tye and Robert White.
I especially enjoyed Parsons's "O bone Jesu" which opened the second half of the concert and White's setting of the Vespers hymn "Christe qui lux es et dies", with polyphonic verses alternating with the Chant.
Although the choir's numbers had been enhanced to 29, the Cathedral is a vast space to fill but their accuracy, precision and firmness of tone ensured an always impressive sound.
As so often with concerts of this type of music, non-stop polyphony can get rather wearing on the ear. The opening chant verse of the Compline hymn was like a breath of fresh air. And much as I admired and enjoyed the performance I think that music of this type does really cry out for some sort of context. I missed the smell of burning candle wax, the whiff of incense, the chink of the thurible and the rustle of fine vestments...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Weekend in Leeds

I had to be in Leeds for work on Friday so I thought I would stay over and take in a bit of Leeds culture.
Friday night was Phoenix Dance Theatre's "Cattle Call" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I have seen Phoenix before and been impressed by their work but this was dreadful. The cast consisted of two women in "Tosca" frocks and a few men and women in warm-up clothes. The action was them standing up , sitting down and moving chairs around the stage. Occasionally there were confrontations over a microphone and fights broke out. The music was dominated by the singing of the two Toscas (if it was indeed them we were hearing) who had harsh ugly voices. All the music was amplified to painful levels. "The Times" on Saturday rated this as the number one dance event for the week. I thought it was rubbish.
Leeds Town Hall is a very impressive building, which I last entered when it was used as a court many years ago. The building is in the classical/baroque style, rectangular in shape, with two storeys over a basement. Once you have ascended the grand flight of stone stairs at the front, the entrance opens into a vestibule, with a domed ceiling. The floor is inlaid with tiles said to be similar to the tiles used in the Senate House in Washington. At the centre of the ground floor is the Victoria Hall, 92 feet high, 161 feet long, and 72 feet wide and with concert seating for 1500 people. The sides of the Victoria hall are divided into five bays by Corinthian columns which were decorated in imitation of Rosso-Antico marble with capitals gilded in bronze and gold. The circular roof is divided into five sections supported by the columns. Behind the plasterwork the roof is supported by laminated wood beams arranged in pairs; the only other buildings in this country to have this design were the Crystal Palace and King's Cross Station. Both the walls and ceiling are decorated with elaborate plasterwork. At each end of the hall and around the walls are various inscriptions, some in Latin and some in English, picked out in gold.
This lavish hall is the venue for the Leeds International Orchestral Season and on Saturday evening the orchestra of Opera North took the stage, conducted by Frederic Chaslin. The concert opened with Shostakovich's Festive Overture. This gave me a chance to assess the hall's acoustic, which is full and resonant, although with a tendency to be a bit 'churchy'.
The main piece in the first half of the concert was Chopin's Piano Concerto. This is sometimes criticised for its slightly perfunctory orchestral parts but I think that Chopin did not view a concerto as a battle ground between soloist and orchestra but rather as a piece for piano supported by orchestra. And so it was on Saturday. The soloist was Evgenia Rubinova (a former silver medallist in the Leeds Piano Competition) and she was excellent, revelling in the wonderful elegance of this concerto.
The second half of the concert was Prokofiev's fifth symphony. This was the first time I had heard this but it completely justified the programme note that told us that Prokofiev thought it his finest work and that it is one of the greatest of 20th century symphonies. Particularly memorable were the scherzo and the lovely passage in the last movement for divided cellos. The orchestra attacked the piece with panache, completing an excellent concert in a splendid venue.

Monday, April 07, 2008

National Youth Orchestra

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first performance this year. It consist of players between the ages of 13 and 19 who must play their instruments at least at the level of grade 8 distinction standard. Something like 600 players audition each year for the 160 places. Their concerts are then given under the direction of some outstanding conductors: no less a figure than Antonio Pappano heads the list for this season.
It was in 1971 that I first heard this orchestra, playing Berg Webern and Debussy's "La Mer"at the Proms under Pierre Boulez.
Last week they came to the Sage under the exciting young Russian conductor Vassily Petrenko, Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert opened with the world premiere of a short piece by Mark Simpson, himself a former member of the Orchestra and a former winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. This was followed by Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales showing off a full and silky sound from the orchestra. The first half concluded with Strauss's Four Last Songs, sung by the Austrian Soprano Gabriele Fontana. She is a distinguished Strauss singer and was wonderfully supported by Petrenko and the orchestra. there was some beautifully controlled quiet playing and Petrenko spun out the quieter passages at very slow speeds.
The second half of the concert brought one of the greatest orchestral challenges and showpieces: Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". And it was thrilling! The discipline of the orchestra was superb and they threw themselves into the music with electrifying verve.
This was an excellent concert and a wonderful showcase for this extraordinary group.
A recording of the repeat of this concert at The Barbican can be heard on the BBC Radio 3 website until 14 April:-

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Freddy Kempf at The Sage

Two concerts over Easter from this British pianist who has been attracting much favourable critical comment.
The first, in Hall 2, was a BBC Sunday Morning Concert and will be broadcast on Radio 3 as a Lunchtime Concert towards the end of April. Kempf opened with Mussorgsky's "Pictures from an Exhibition". There was much to admire in this, particularly the dramatic depth of tone but there were a disconcerting number of mistakes. Runs were often smudged, fast passage work shed the odd note along the way, trills were consistently uneven and there was more than the occasional wrong note. The gentler Glinka pieces that followed fared rather better. The concert ended with Balakirev's fiendish "Islamey". This last piece produced some superb virtuosity but again rather too many 'lost' notes for a pianist of this standard.
Kempf returned on Monday evening, this time to Hall 1, to join the Northern Sinfonia in Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto number 2. His playing seemed much more assured in this evening concert although not perhaps quite big-boned enough for this late romantic music. He was not assisted by the Sinfonia's insensitive accompaniment. They were consistently too loud in the first movement leaving Kempf often struggling to make himself heard. Things settled down thereafter but this was not a vintage night.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Royal Opera 2008-9

The Royal Opera have announced their programme for the 2008-9 season.
They start in early September with a strongly cast "Don Giovanni": Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, Marina Poplavskaya as Donna Anna, Joyce Di Donato as Donna Elvira and Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio, with Tony Pappano conducting.
Pappano is also conducting the revival of "La Fanciulla del West". After seeing Gwyneth Jones's "Granny Get Your Gun" performance a few years back I swore off this opera but Pappano might tempt me back as might Eva Marie Westbroek as Minnie after her outstanding performances as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Sieglinde. Downsides are Jose Cura as Dick Johnson and Silvano Carroli as Jack Rance: Carroli was in the first run of this production 30 years ago...
I saw the David Alden production of Cavalli's "La Calisto" in Munich so you can read my thoughts about that as recorded in March 2007.
The first must-see of the season comes in October with Rossini's "Matilde di Shabran". I saw this production when it was new in Pesaro in 2004. It is a fascinating opera, with no arias for its leading characters. Nevertheless it proved a wonderful vehicle for Juan Diego Florez, who sings Corradino at Covent Garden, and I will welcome the chance to hear Aleksandra Kurzak as the eponymous heroine.
The presence of Susan Bullock in the cast as Elektra might tempt me to that opera in November. Bullock has not been given her due by London opera companies but she sang a superb Salome for Opera North a couple of years ago.
It is a few years since I have seen "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" but I recall that Rolando Villazon had a great triumph in his house debut in that opera. He returns as Hoffmann with Pappano conducting. Another attractive piece of casting is Gidon saks as the Four Villains. I first noticed him when he sang with Scottish Opera and am delighted to see how his career has progressed.
Not even the combined talents of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, Colin Davis, Alice Coote, Diana Damrau, Ann Murray, Elizabeth Connell, Thomas Allen and Anja Silja (how old must she be?) will persuade me to give Hansel and Gretel another try.
Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" is a bold piece of programming for the new year. A friend is already trying to persuade me that it is not to be missed. A little gentle cross-examination revealed that this is based on little more than one aria recorded by Richard Tauber. I shall keep an open mind but remian to be persuaded.
After last year's debacle with the Ring, I am surprised to see Bryn Terfel back in the lists. February brings a new production by Tim Albery of "Der Fligende Hollaender" with Terfel as the Dutchman. Let's just hope none of Terfel's children stub a toe in the new year.
Family issues may also affect the revival of Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" in March. Anna Netrebko is scheduled to sing Giulietta but she is also due to give birth later this year. Joan Sutherland was back rehearsing ten days after the birth of her child but that is not necessarily a pattern to be followed. I hope that La Netrebko is back treading the boards by next spring because I was very impressed with her Violetta recently and this is a lovely singers' opera.
Having just seen Magdalena Kozena in "Dido and Aeneas" at the Sage, I shall feel fully justified in giving this a miss.
I will be tempted, however, by the revival of "Il Trovatore" in April. I rather like Elijah Moshinsky's production, which I have seen in London and in Madrid and I would welcome the chance to hear Sondra Radvanovsky's Leonora and Roberto Alagna's Manrico. I very much like his recording with Pappano. Carlo Rizzi is the conductor of this revival and he should be pretty good too.
Another Moshinsky revival in May with Wagner's "Lohengrin" conducted by Semyon Bychkov and with John Botha and Simon O'Neill sharing the title role. The return of Falk Struckmann (who was outstanding in the recent "Parsifal") and the presence of Petra Lang as Ortrud increase the attractiveness of this.
A new production of Berg's "Lulu" is announced for June and with Pappano to conduct. But the all-important title role is 'to be announced at a later date'. Very strange.
Having fielded an all-star cast for "La Traviata" (Netrebko, Kaufmann, Hvorostovsky, cond. Benini) this season, the ROH are clearly set to match it next. Renee Fleming sings Violetta for the first time in London. I know La Fleming has her detractors but whenever I have seen her she has been absolutely glorious. Her Alfredo is Joseph Calleja and his father is Thomas Hampson. With Pappano conducting this looks a difficult one to miss.
But this is quite closely followed by the one totally unmissable event of the season.: "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" with Keenlyside as Figaro, Florez as Almaviva, Di Donato as Rosina, Corbelli as Bartolo and Pappano conducting. What more need I say? I remember Keenlyside singing Figaro with Scottish Opera some years ago when he juggled three balls as he sang the "Largo al factotum". And Almaviva is one of JDF's very best parts (and not just for the final aria).
After all that excitement the season ends with a good revival of "Tosca", conducted by Daniel Oren and with Deborah Voigt as Tosca, Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi and Bryn Terel as Scarpia. I saw this production when it was new and liked it a lot and Terfel was a superb Scarpia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Pilgrimage with Sr Jeannine (3)

The day we spent travelling from Naples to Rome proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. We first called at Monte Cassino, a Benedictine Monastery founded by St Benedict himself. It is set high in the mountains and was badly damaged during fighting towards the end of World War II. Happily it has been almost completely and very beautifully restored. We arrived to find the place shrouded in mist, which produced great atmosphere. We had our prayer service in the chapel of St Benedict and St Scholastica, which is decorated with stunning mosaics. I sang the Salve Regina to the solemn Benedictine chant. I was pleased to note that the High Altar in the main basilica is arranged for the celebration of Mass ad orientem, complete with big six and crucifix.
We then moved on to Subiaco and the "Sacra Speco" where St Benedict first tested his vocation to the monastic life. Here the notable art is the frescoes, many dating back to the 12th-15th centuries but some even earlier including one said to be 'from the life' of St Francis of Assisi. Again we were surrounded by misty and stormy weather but just as we were returning to the coach shafts of sunlight pierced through the clouds, as if heaven were opening up before us.
After a little talk from me about Allegri's Miserere, Palestrina and Puccini's "Tosca", we arrived in Rome and came down to earth with a bump. The hotel was terrible! It was stuck way out in the suburbs (near to the penultimate stop on the metro line) the bar opened and closed at random times, the food was never better than poor and the rooms were tiny. I was very close to decamping back to the Hassler. I stuck it out however and we were soon all laughing at our spartan conditions.
Our first full day in Rome included a public audience with the Pope. This took place in the Paul VI Hall. The build up is impressive and, however much one tries to resist it, the Pope's entrance as all the lights come on, is a thrilling moment. The rest of the audience was rather tedious as the Pope reads the same speech in six different languages and long lists of pilgrimage groups are read out. Georg was in close attention to His Holiness, sitting on his right and handing him his scripts. But who was the man on the Pope's left? I think we should be told.
After the audience a whistle-stop tour of St Peter's was disappointing, partly because it was so fast but also because the basilica was being prepared for Holy Week so large parts of it were inaccessible or filled with chairs.
The highlight of the day for me was a Mass for our group at St John Lateran. A friend of Sr Jeannine's Fr Bruce Williams OP celebrated (ad orientem) in a chapel to the north east of the High Altar with beautiful wood carvings of saints. It was wonderful to have our own Mass in this great basilica, the Pope's cathedral. During communion I sang the antiphon Tu es Petrus, which I chose considering the venue, considering that we had seen the Pope that morning and that it was the feast of St Gregory the Great.
In the evening I went to the Teatro dell'Opera for ballet. "Raymonda" is not in the forefront of the classical repertoire but it was well danced and I enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed visiting the theatre which is beautifully maintained. Another classical European opera house they dim the house lights by first of all turning off the main chandeliers, then the side lights but still leaving the boxes all lit - a wonderful effect. I was again let down by Rome's night time transport as the Metro was closed by 10.30 so again I had to hunt for a taxi.
The official itinerary for our final day was a visit to the catacombs but I have visited them twice before and wanted to see something I had not seen before. So I devised my own "Tosca Pilgrimage" for the day. I started at the Church of St Andrea della Valle. This includes the Barberini Chapel, which in the opera becomes the Attavanti Chapel around which much of the action of Act I takes place. A very special moment occurred as I was looking round the church and the midday Angelus rang - just as happens in the first act of Tosca! Apart from the opera connection, the church is notable for its brilliant frescoes of the crucifixion of St Andrew.
After a leisurely lunch (what a luxury that was!) of pasta carbonara and a couple of glasses of wine, I went to the Castel de St Angelo. There is much to see as you progress through the castle but the true glory is the stunning view from the top - a complete panorama of Rome. The visit also confirmed what I have long suspected, that productions of Tosca that set the last act right up beside the angel are not accurate. If Tosca had thrown herself from there she would have fallen only about twenty feet and, rather than meeting Scarpia before God, could well have ended up with nothing worse than a broken ankle.
I ended my afternoon with a visit to the extraordinary Pantheon, noting not only the altar set up ad orientem with big six but also with altar cards. What is going on in Rome? After a large chocolate ice cream (a tartuffo?) I returned to the metro via St Maria del Popolo with its two brilliant Caravaggios of the crucifixion of St Peter and the conversion of St Paul.
For our final evening there was a break with tradition. Rather than the customary 'awards' we had an ad hoc cabaret with all invited to perform their party piece. These ranged from singing ("We're a Couple of Swells" and "Che Serra Serra") via a one act play ("The Viper is Coming") to prayers, anecdotes, jokes and poems. One lady recited the alphabet backwards! I had composed a few limericks based around characters and events on the pilgrimage.
A barrister Brit Alnwickian
Sang the chant called Gregorian.
He drank gin in the bar
And talked opera
Till Americans shout 'shut up Ian!'
In the ear of Dionysus sang Jeannine
In Latin the Hail Holy Queen.
Mass facing east in addition;
Has Jeannine found tradition?
In a wimple very soon she'll be seen!
Final reflections? I found this pilgrimage really tough and felt we visited too many places and tried to do too much. Also the hotel in Rome was well below the standard I have come to enjoy on these trips. Having said that we did much that was remarkable and the highs very much out-weighed the lows. My fellow pilgrims kept their good humour through all adversities and were a model of Christian fellowship. It was a great privilege for me to be able to sing in places as special as Monte Cassino and St John Lateran. And it is always special to spend time in the company of the extraordinary spiritual force that is Jeannine Gramick. I leave the last word to someone who had been in the novitiate with Sr Jeannine: 'when I first got to know Sr Jeannine in the convent I thought her one of the most intelligent and most holy people I had ever met. I have known her now for forty years and nothing has changed that opinion.'

On Pilgrimage with Sr Jeannine (2)

I was apprehensive about our overnight trip on the ferry from Catania to Naples but it turned out to be fine. The cabins were comfortable with en suite showers and there was a reasonable bar and lounge area. We set off shortly after 11pm and I went up on deck to watch the coast of Sicily and the stars in a clear sky: magical moments. After a reasonable night's sleep our arrival in Naples was even more magical, travelling up the Amalfi coast between Capri and Vesuvius in the morning sunshine. A morning coach tour of Naples brought us to the view over the bay of Naples, surely one of the great sights of the world. Unfortunately the rest of our 'tour' consisted of sitting in Naples traffic jams.
After booking into our hotel I headed off to the opera house for a performance of Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle". The Teatro San Carlo is a magnificent theatre following the classic European layout of stalls surrounded by six layers of boxes. Like everything in Naples it is slightly shabby and run-down, so all the row and seat numbers in the stalls had disappeared. I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit this theatre where Bellini had his first great success and to see a fine performance with Laszlo Polgar as Bluebeard, Ildiko Kamlosi as Judith and Jeffrey Tate conducting.
The itinerary for the next day was a visit to Pompeii but I forewent that. I have been to Pompeii before and I needed a break from the relentless pace of this trip. So instead I had a leisurely breakfast and headed off to Naples's Archaeological Museum. This contains many artefacts taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum when they were first discovered. There are remarkable sculptures, frescoes and mosaics, perhaps the most memorable being the huge mosaic of Alexander and Darius in battle. On my way back to the hotel I visited the Cathedral of San Gennaro. I was interested to note that the cathedral bookshop had the Liber Usualis on sale.
In the evening we were scheduled for a trip to a Pizzeria for an authentic Neapolitan Pizza. Unfortunately there had been a huge Mediterranean downpour, drenching many of my fellow pilgrims. As a result few of them were willing to venture out again. As a result I led Sr Jeannine and Gerda Kennedy through the rain for a pizza takeaway. I stayed to eat mine in the restaurant for the authentic experience. With strip lights overhead and policemen in uniform (and with guns) on the next table, it was certainly an authentic Naples experience, I can't say the pizza was much better than Sainsbury's though.
Staying in Naples was an interesting, at times exciting, at times frightening experience. One of our party had her purse stolen on the bus. The traffic was mad, noisy and never-ceasing. Crossing the road involving just walking out into the traffic: 'they won't hit you' instructed Elke. At times it put me in mind of being in a north African City. I certainly found it difficult to believe that we were in the third largest city of a major European country.

Monday, March 17, 2008

On Pilgrimage with Sr Jeannine

My third pilgrimage with Sr Jeannine Gramick SL, this one bore the title of "Along Italian Roads, Ancient and New".
I met my fellow pilgrims (25 Americans) at Rome airport and from there we flew on to Palermo in Sicily. Met off the plane by our tour guide the irrepressible Elke Lehmann, we were straight onto a coach and the sight-seeing began! Our first destination was the Monreale Cathedral, just outside of Palermo. This was the creation of William II, the last Norman king of Sicily, in the late eleventh century. The Cathedral is notable for its splendid mosaics, including much gold. The designs include patterns and scenes from the old and new testaments, reflecting the fact that the work was carried out by workmen from the Islamic, Jewish, Catholic and Byzantine traditions. Outside the cathedral is the cloister of the old Benedictine Abbey remarkable for its surrounding of double columns, many topped by intricate sculptures of scenes from scripture and history.
We spent our first night in Palermo and I was able to pop over the road for a late drink to the Grande Hotel Palme, where Wagner stayed while writing significant parts of "Parsifal". Next morningwe set off driving through mountainous scenery with roads lined by citrous trees to the ancient city of Agrigento. Here we visited the Valley of the Temples, a series of remains or reconstructions of temples from the period when Sicily was occupied by the Greeks. Some of these temples were stunning. I was asked by Sr Jeannine to provide a 'spiritual moment' and so on the steps on the best preserved of all the temples the "Concordia" I sang the Kyrie eleison from the Mass Orbis Factor.
We then moved on to Siracusa, which was to be our home for two nights. We were booked into the Church of St Rita for a prayer service (no priest on this pilgrimage so no daily Mass, which was a big miss). The Church itself was disappointing, a large modern building where I had been hoping for some Sicilian baroque, but we were received very warmly by the Parish Priest. He produced an image of a Weeping Madonna, gave us each a pink rosary and then led us in singing Ave Maria.
The next day we went to the Archaeological park of Siracusa with its Greek remains, including an amphitheatre. We were also taken to the "Ear of Dionysus" a cleft cut into the rock which has produced a magical acoustic. I sang the opening of the solemn Salve Regina from one end and Sr Jeannine responded by singing the simple Salve from the other. We then moved on to the old town of Siracusa and held our prayer service in the Cathedral. This is based on an ancient temple whose columns are incorporated into the modern building. All very historical but still no sign of Sicilian baroque. Our prayer service was conducted amongst the loud babble of tour guides showing visitors around. In the afternoon I went to the actual shrine erected to Siracusa's Weeping Madonna. This is a large brutalist concrete structure - by now I was beginning to despair of ever finding any Sicilian baroque.
After a morning prayer service at St Rita's (no further appearance by the flamboyant priest) we set off for Mount Etna, Italy's tallest peak and the largest active volcano in Europe. The mountain was covered in snow, its top disappearing into the mist as we approached. We were able to drive up above the snowline and snow was actually falling as we left. We then moved on to the picturesque hill town of Taormina, which includes an impressive Greek theatre from the third century BC. I had said a few words on the coach about the composer Bellini who was born on Sicily and I took the opportunity to sit in this theatre looking out over the sea and listen to an aria from his opera "Il Pirata".
After dinner in Catania (Bellini's birthplace) we embarked on the overnight ferry to Naples.

A Stolen Night in Rome

I was due to start a pilgrimage, meeting the other pilgrims (who were flying in from the USA) at Rome Airport on Wednesday 5 March. The timings were a bit tight to get to Rome in time by flying out that morning so I thought I would treat myself to an extra night in Rome beforehand.
I consulted a colleague who recommended the Hassler Hotel, described in my guidebook as having a 'mood of timeless luxury': just what I was looking for. Set at the top of the Spanish Steps, next door to the Chiesa Trinita del Monti, the Hassler lived up to its reputation and provided me with a cocoon of luxury for 24 hours. I had lunch overlooking the Spanish Steps before retiring for a siesta.
In the evening I took the opportunity of visiting Rome's new concert hall, the Auditorium Parca della Musica. This building, opened about five years ago, houses three halls, and I went to a concert in the largest of them, the Sala Santa Cecilia. This is a large hall seating more than 2,500 and laid out in the terraced style favoured by many modern European halls. The acoustics are good without being outstanding, there are a lot of stairs and not many bars or 'arrangement rooms'.
The concert featured the hall's resident Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by the distinguished Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov. The first work was Beethoven's fourth piano concerto played by Nelson Goerner with just the right balance of delicacy and bravura. This was followed by Ravel's piano concerto played by veteran Martha Argerich. So warmly were both pianists received that we then had two piano duets as encores. The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. In this Termikanov really put the orchestra through their paces, taking the outer movements at thrilling speed. The players responded magnificently, with the leader at times up off his seat.
A slight downside came at the end of the concert, when the only taxis available were those that had already been booked, leaving me with a thirty minute walk to find a taxi rank. Then it was back to the Hassler for a late supper and a night in a luxurious bed before pilgrimage conditions started the next day...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Magdalena Kozena at the Sage (2)

Magdalena Kozena's ill-fortune at the Sage continues. Her recital scheduled for tomorrow evening has been cancelled due to illness.

Here is what she was due to sing:-

Chansons de Bilitis
Trois ballades de Villon

Kindertotenlieder (F. Rückert)

R. Strauss
Die heiligen drei Könige aus morgenland
Ruhe, meine Seele

Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Le tragique histoire de petit René from ‘Quatre chansons pour enfants’
Nous voulons une petite soeur from ‘Quatre chansons pour enfants’
Les chemins de l’amour

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Magdalena Kozena at The Sage

The Czech mezzo Magdalena Kozena generated considerable excitement two or three years ago. She had a very successful debut CD (lavished with praise by John Steane) and made a much lauded appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. She was also due to appear at The Sage at that time in a concert with the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment but had to cancel due to ill-health. In the time that has passed since then the excitement has died down a lot and her recent Cenerentola at Covent Garden gathered only modest reviews. She returned to the Sage last night as Dido in Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas".
Purcell's opera is a slight piece, lasting less than an hour and with not enough musical 'meat' in it for my taste: there are too many ha-ha-ha choruses and only one proper aria. Kozena started very edgily and although she did improve this was not an impressive performance. The final 'remember me' of her lament ran out of breath and tone and ended with an ugly gulp. I think I made out one word in the whole evening. She was not helped by a ludicrous dress, covered in pleats and figure-hugging in all the most unflattering places.
Roderick Williams sang strongly as Aeneas and Sue Bickley was a forceful sorceress. No words could be discerned in the performances of Gillian Keith (Belinda) Elizabeth Cragg and Amy Carson (witches).
The Northern Sinfonia, conducted by Nicholas Kraemer, played well, if rather unrelentingly loudly, and there was excellent choral singing from the Sinfonia Chorus. Unfortunately they, and the soloists, were undermined by a totally ludicrous semi-staging by a woman unnamed in the programme. This had everyone in bare feet and the chorus constantly walking or dancing around the stage. Even Dido's lament was accompanied by yogic contortions from some ladies of the chorus. The sight of the rather mature men of the Sinfonia Chorus skipping up and down the stage holding hands was just laughable.
A poor Sage debut for Kozena. I hope she can do better with Mahler, Strauss and Poulenc songs on Wednesday...

Monday, January 28, 2008

La Traviata with La Netrebko

One of the hottest tickets of the ROH season was always going to be this revival of Richard Eyres’s very successful production of “La Traviata”. Not only did it promise Anna Netbrebko’s debut in this production but also Jonas Kaufmann as Alfredo and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Germont.

The first night received sensational reviews: ‘a life changing experience’ wrote one overwhelmed hack. But then disaster struck and La Netrebko went down with a chest infection leaving the sold out houses to a lady from Albania. But by Saturday Anna was back, in time for my visit and the BBC recording (to be played on radio 3 on Saturday 9 February).

And sensational she was indeed. She looked fabulous in Bob Crowley’s beautiful frocks, she acted naturally and convincingly and her diction was excellent. This was the first time I had heard her and the first thing that I was struck by was the sheer size of the voice: this is a huge and luscious instrument. It is beautiful in tone and even right through its range up to a top D (no E flat). She could shade it for expressive subtlety and fine it down for a heart-stopping pianissimo, as she did for the start of the second verse (sic) of “Addio del passato”. The only thing that was lacking was an easy facility in the coloratura of Act I, which was all a bit approximate. How she has sung Amina in “La sonnambula” and Elvira in “I Puritani” leaves me puzzled: this is a Leontyne Price voice rather than a Beverley Sills, a Tebaldi rather than a Sutherland.

She was superbly partnered by Jonas Kaufmann. Is there nothing at which this tenor does not excel? I have seen him in Puccini and Wagner; he had a triumph as Don Jose in “Carmen” last season and he has won an award for singing Richard Strauss lieder!

Hvorostovsky was a fine Germont Pere, although I was again surprised at how small his voice is. How does he cope with roles like Rigoletto, especially in the wide open spaces of the Met? All the supporting cast were very good with a special mention for Ji-Min Park as Gastone.

Maurizio Benini conducted very well, at times perhaps rather too fast: the little scene in Act II, vital to the plot, when Violetta receives the invitation from Flora was rushed through. But the orchestra played well for him, the big dramatic scenes had real bite and he supported Netrebko excellently in her quieter singing. We lost the second verses of “Ah fors e lui”, Giorgio Germont’s cabaletta and “Ah mio rimorso” but there were no unconscionable cuts.

So was this a life changing evening for me? Alas, no, but that may be because I have already experienced my ‘life-changing’ Traviata at Covent Garden. That was over thirty years ago and it was the first time that I heard Joan Sutherland. Now that really did change my life.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lo Sposalizio - The King's Consort

The first appearance by the King's Consort at The Sage had been a thrilling performance of Monteverdi's Vespers. Could they match that on their return, particularly after their difficulties of last year? The answer is not quite, but this was still a highly enjoyable concert, conducted by their new musical director Matthew Halls.
Lo Sposalizio is an attempt to reconstruct highlights of the celebrations to mark Ascension Day as they might have occurred in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century. The events started outside with drums, fanfares and secular choral and instrumental music leading to the climax of the ceremony, the symbolic 'marriage' of Venice to the sea, the Doge casting a golden ring into the water and pronouncing the words 'Desponsamus te Mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii' (we espouse thee O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion). This was then followed by Solemn High Mass in the Church of San Nicolo.
The concert started with the lights dimmed and the single tolling bell of San Marco. The singers then entered in procession through the hall, led by four side drums. The music for the first half consisted of alternating vocal and instrumental pieces, interspersed with more drumming and fanfares, and climaxing with the gorgeous 16 part madrigal "Udite chiari et generosi figli" by Giovanni Gabrieli.
The second half started with the bell of San Nicolo and a fanfare to signal the arrival at the church of the Doge. The music from the liturgy was Giovanni Gabrieli's 12 part Kyrie and Sanctus and Andrea Gabrieli's 16 part Gloria. Other music included Monteverdi's 5 part motet "Christe adoramus te" and Tributio Massaino's remarkable "Canzon per otto tromboni" played on eight sackbuts. The Mass, and this concert, ended with the bells of Venice and more drumming.
The music of the whole concert flowed easily from one item into another. The singing and playing were of marvellous precision and verve. The instrumental ensemble included not only eleven sackbuts but also five trumpets and two Chitarrone. The voices were all men, the top lines being taken by six counter-tenors.
Three minor quibbles with the music for the Mass. I would liked to have heard some of the Mass Proper chanted, to place the elaborate polyphony in context and to provide a bit of contrast. The use of the chamber organ as a continuo in the Monteverdi motet was unnecessary and a distraction. There should have been a pause between the Sanctus and Benedictus, not only to mark that the Consecration would have taken place then, but also because the mood and style of the music show a distinct change.
But these are minor quibbles about what was a brilliant concept, superbly executed.

Blogger's Block

I am shocked to see that it is more than three months since I posted anything new on here. Part of the reason is my attendance at the Covent Garden Ring Cycle at the end of October. That was a fantastic, at times overwhelming, experience and I have not been able satisfactorily to put my thoughts about it together. Time to leave it it and return to less overwhelming fare.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti RIP

With the death of Luciano Pavarotti, the world of opera has lost probably its best known character and one of the great tenors of the second half of the twentieth century.

I first heard Pavarotti in 1976, singing Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at Covent Garden. It was an astounding performance: his charm and personality seemed to fill the stage as much as that glorious voice filled the auditorium. The voice was both individual and beautiful with a wonderful feel of Mediterranean sunshine to it. In his glory days it sailed easily up to a top C. While his interpretative gifts did not match those of a singer like Bergonzi, there was a freshness and honesty about Pavarotti’s singing, matched with clear words. Above all he always sounded as if he was loving every moment of what he was doing.

I was later to see him in more Puccini, in three Verdi roles and as Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, the last at the Verona Arena. His ventures into heavier Verdi roles were not generally great successes and his Radames in “Aida” at Covent Garden was less than wonderful but in parts that suited him he was simply awesome.

He first came to prominence in the early 1960s and some of his first big breaks came partnering Joan Sutherland, particularly as Tonio in Donizetti’s “Filled du Regiment”. Their partnership became one the great singing combinations and they made thirteen complete opera recordings together, each one of which would have a fair claim to be amongst the best recordings of the opera in question.

It was that combination with Sutherland, and the music of Puccini, in which Pavarotti excelled, that brought forth what I consider to be his greatest recording. “Turandot” not only contains his ‘signature tune’ “Nessun Dorma” but also a fantastic duet for him and Sutherland in the second act where they both roar up to a sustained top C. But the best is yet to come from Pavarotti. After he has solved the riddles and thus won the competition for Turandot’s hand he confronts her continuing reluctance with the words ‘Ti voglio tutta ardente d’amor’ (I would have you aflame with love). Other tenors throw this out as a shout of defiance but Pavarotti, while still taking all the optional higher notes, sings with such beauty and warmth of tone that he convinces you that he means exactly what he says. A truly magical moment from a magical singer.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Edinburgh Festival

When I first looked at the programme for this year's Festival, my first reaction was disappointment. No classical ballet, virtually no opera, lots of obscure early music: was this a huge sea-change in the ethos of the Edinburgh Festival? My experience of being there for the last three days was that the changes were not quite as damaging as at first appeared.

Let me start with a very welcome new addition: the programme of short early evening concerts of early vocal music at Greyfriars Kirk. I was able to catch the concert given by the Tallis Scholars with the title "Spanish Golden Age", which featured liturgical music by Guerrero, Lobo and Padilla. I thought the outstanding piece was Lobo's Missa Maria Magdalena, a Mass setting I had never heard before. The choir sang the music with vivid attack and at often seemingly reckless speeds but they carried it all off brilliantly. I especially liked the effect of halving the number of voices singing for the 'narrative' central section of the Credo. Only one moan: the ladies again sang with a rather harsh edge to their tone, presumably to avoid vibrato and a too womanly or (God forbid) operatic sound. This concert was packed and was enthusiastically received. I hope that this series will become a regular feature of the Festival.

Happily, a dear old friend remained intact: the morning concerts at the Queens Hall. These concerts, more than anything else, are the essence of the Edinburgh Festival to me. I was able to catch John Williams's guitar recital, a brilliant concert by a man who is not just a virtuoso but also a profound musician and communicator. My second concert was a recital of music for horn and piano by David Pyatt and Leon McCawley. This was an unexpected success. Did you know that Beethoven wrote a horn sonata? Neither did I until I heard it on Saturday!

The Usher Hall is undergoing extensive refurbishments but was still usable for the big orchestral concerts. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra gave a luscious performance of Mahler's seventh symphony. What a shame that they decided to drown out Deborah Voigt in the final scene from "Salome". Strauss accompaniment was rather better served by the Guerzenich orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz when accompanying Gabriele Fontana in three songs the following evening. I thought the highlight of that evening was Zimmerman's extraordinary "Photoptosis": I even enjoyed Stenz's little talk introducing it.

By the final week, what dance there had been had petered out completely. As for opera, only Strauss' "Capriccio" was available, staged by the Cologne Opera at the Festival Theatre. This was my first encounter with Strauss's last stage work and it may well be my last. It has virtually no plot and large parts of the music are accompanied conversation. There is a glorious final scene for the leading soprano (wonderfully staged in this production) but by then the opera had been going for nearly three hours with only one short interval and I had rather lost the will to live. Lovely singing from Gabriele Fontana in the title role and again excellent accompaniment from Markus Stenz and his orchestra.

In between all this music I was able to take in the large and impressive Andy Warhol Exhibition at the National Gallery and the rather higgledy-piggledy "Naked Portraits" exhibition at the Portrait Gallery.

I enjoyed my visit to Edinburgh this year rather more than I expected to. I thought the Greyfriars concerts a great idea, which I hope will return. But please, can we have some ballet and some proper opera back?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chess in Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s fascination with the greatest of all board games came alive in 1935 when Max Euwe (born on the outskirts of Amsterdam) became world champion, defeating Alexander Alekhine, undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time. An equivalent achievement would have been if Tim Henman had won Wimbledon beating Pete Sampras in the final.

To this day Max Euwe is commemorated in Amsterdam: a square (complete with giant chess board) is named after him, as is a chess museum. There is also the Association Max Euwe (based in Monaco), which exists to sponsor high quality chess events.

So it was that on a recent visit to Amsterdam I found a chess tournament sponsored by that Association taking place in my hotel. This was an unexpected bonus to the weekend but provided me with hours of pleasure watching the competition unfold.

The event was a match pitting “Experience” (players 40 and over) against “Rising Stars” (players 27 or younger). The youngest player in the event was the Indian Grand Master Parimarjan Negi, aged 14. The oldest player was Ljubomir Ljubojevic at 56. He had been a hugely successful and glamorous figure in the days when I was passionate about the game, reaching third place in the world rankings and knocking at the door of the world championship. He was noted then for his adventurous swash-buckling style over the board. These days he is semi-retired and sadly a lot of the fire has gone from his game.

The games were played in the modern tournament style using the "Fischer Clock" so that every game was completed within one session (no adjournments). This led to some exciting struggles and often rapid fire play as the time limits approached.

Here is a game I particularly enjoyed between the 53 year old Alexander Beliavsky playing white against the 20 year old Dutch player Daniel Stellwagen. At move 40 Beliavsky thought he had secured the draw, but it turned out on closer inspection that he had miscounted the repetitions. By the end he was running out of checks and Black’s pawn was bound to queen.
1. d4 d5; 2. c4 c6; 3. Nf3 Nf6; 4. Nc3 e6; 5. Bg5 dxc4; 6. e4 b5; 7. e5 h6; 8. Bh4 g5; 9. Nxg5 hxg5; 10. Bxg5 Nbd7; 11. exf6 Qa5; 12. g3 b4; 13. Ne4 Ba6; 14. Qf3 O-O-O; 15. Be3 c5; 16. Bg2 cxd4; 17. Bxd4 Ne5; 18. Bxe5 Qxe5; 19. O-O Rd3; 20. Qg4 Bh6; 21. Rad1 Rhd8; 22. Rxd3 cxd3; 23. f4 Qd4; 24. Rf2 Bf8; 25. Qf3 Bc5; 26. Nxc5 Qxc5; 27. Kh1 d2; 28. Rf1 Rd5; 29. Rd1 Qc1; 30. h4 Bd3; 31. Kh2 Bc2; 32. Qf1 Qxd1; 33. Qc4 Kd8; 34. Qxb4 Qe2; 35. Qb8 Kd7; 36. Qxa7 Kc8; 37. Qa8 Kc7; 38. Qa7 Kc6; 39. Qa8 Kc7; 40. Qa7 Kc6; 41. Qa8 Kb5; 42. Qb7 Ka5; 43. Qc7 Kb4; 44. Qb6 Qb5; 45. Qa7 Qc5; 46. Qb7 Kc4. 0-1

Full coverage of the match can be found at:-

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Massenet's Thais

A recent concert performance at the Royal opera House gave a chance to hear Massenet's rarely performed opera "Thais" This was the opera's first performance at Covent Garden since 1926 and the first by the Royal Opera.
Although the scenes of the opera, ranging from the banks of the Nile to Alexandria and an oasis in the desert, really call for extravagant sets and exotic costumes, I was quite happy that this was a concert performance. It prevented a director transferring its setting to a Glasgow tenement and a concert performance allows everyone, performers and audience, to concentrate exclusively on the music. Massenet's music is so rich and atmospheric, scenery and costumes were hardly missed.
The opera tells of the ascetic monk Athanael who cannot stop thinking of the beautiful courtesan Thais and sets off to Alexandria to convert her. So successful is he that she decides to give up her fleshly life and retire to a convent. Having left her at the convent Athanael realises that his interest her was not as spiritual as he thought it was. Rushing to be with her, he finds her dying and as he proclaims his worldly love for her she dies, wishing only to be with God.
The theme was very popular in the nineteenth century and indeed retains a fascination even in these more secular times. Remember the story of Father Brown and his topless housekeeper?
I was very pleased to encounter again Jospeh Calleja as Nicias the 'young sybarite'. This is a voice that has appreciable weight to it and a fine cutting edge that really takes it out into the house. This was a considerable performance that made me wonder if he is not becoming ripe for some rather heavier repertoire.
The monk Athanael was to have been sung by Thomas Hampson but he was ill. Simone Alberghini substituted. He looked good and sang competently but did not really carry the vocal firepower for such a leading role in this company.
In the title role there was a star performance from Renee Fleming. This is a part that matches her talents better than any other I have heard her sing. There were moments of the throaty delivery that I know troubles some but at other times the voice absolutely soared. Everything she sang was sung with conviction and her top notes were totally thrilling. She also wore two fabulous frocks: scarlet for her days as a courtesan and restrained cream as she moved towards the cloister and death.
Andrew Davis conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House with great elan.
This was an evening of huge enjoyment with an unforgettable performance form Fleming.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Brinkburn Festival

I really ought to love the Brinkburn Music Festival.
Brinkburn Priory is set on the banks of the River Coquet, in the midst of beautiful Northumberland countryside and is a place of intense peace and tranquillity.The priory church is the only complete surviving building of a monastery founded as a house for Augustinian canons in the twelfth century. Its original dedication was to St Peter, later modified to include St Paul. The house was never a large one and by the fourteenth century numbered only some twelve canons. In 1536 the monastery was dissolved and its buildings fell into ruin. Careful restoration work in the nineteenth century, instigated by Brinkburn's then owner Cadogan Hodgson Cadogan, restored the church building. Unlike some 'restorations' of the Victorian period the work at Brinkburn was carried out in a sensitive and restrained manner.
One of the many remarkable qualities of the building is its wonderful acoustic. This was noted by Paul McCreesh, Director of the Gabrieli Consort. He has used the priory for recording some of his liturgical reconstructions and in 1993 he founded the Brinkburn Music Festival which has brought musicians of international standing to Brinkburn. My own Schola Gregoriana of Northumbria sang at the first of those festivals in a concert with the Orlando Consort. Since 1995 Brinkburn has also been used for an annual Latin Mass celebrated using the Missal of Blessed John XXIII and the Schola has led the music at every one of those Masses.
This year the Gabrieli Consort presented a concert of music written in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was a surprising preponderance of modern music (more than half the pieces were written in the twentieth century) and no Gregorian Chant. I enjoyed Mouton's "Nesciens mater" and Josquin's "Ave Maria ... virgo serena" but I thought Palestrina poorly represented by his rather ordinary "Stabat mater". Of the modern music I was thrilled to hear Pablo Casals's "O vos omnes" a brilliant and moving piece.
At the end of the official programme Paul McCreesh announced that the Gabrieli Consort were to be joined by the Tees Valley Youth Choir for further two pieces. These, and an unexpected interval, extended the concert by 45 minutes beyond its promised finish time. The performance of Britten's "Hymn to the Virgin", with a small group singing the refrains from the back of the Priory was something special.
The Gabrieli Consort is an outstanding choir who showed eclectic virtuosity in music ranging over more than five centuries. Ensemble was occasionally a little shaky (a lack of rehearsal perhaps?). The ladies showed the fault of a lot of similar groups, singing with a rather sharp and harsh sound - a little more roundness of tone would be very welcome. And I am afraid I don't like Paul McCreesh's practice of having his choir singing a sustained final 'n' (Amen-n-n-n-n) - to me it sounds affected.
The organisation of the Festival gets better year by year. In addition to the marquee offering drinks and meals this year there was also a picnic service. Even the dreaded 'arrangements' were better this year - at least for the gentlemen.
But there is something about this Festival that always leaves me unsatisfied. Maybe it is the seating that is crammed into the Priory to the point of discomfort. Maybe it is the 'country show' atmosphere - except with McCreesh CDs rather than dressed sticks on sale. Maybe it is the 'school concert' organisation, with sudden additions to the programme and frequent self-congratulatory speeches. Maybe it is that I have come to associate Brinkburn with the performance of great church music within the liturgical context for which it was written.
I really ought to love the Brinkburn Music Festival. But I struggle with it...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


It is more years than I care to admit since I was last at Glyndebourne, so I was delighted when two friends from London asked me to join their party this year.

We assembled at Victoria Station, complete with picnic hamper and all the necessary food and drink. The train to Lewes took just over an hour and then we were met by a coach from the opera house itself. Despite dire weather warnings, by the time we arrived at Glyndebourne it was a perfect summer afternoon. We selected our spot in the garden and unloaded our picnic. There was then time for a walk around the lake, and a glass of champagne enjoying the afternoon sunshine and admiring the Sussex countryside before we made our way to the opera house.

Opera here started in the 1930s in a converted barn seating just over 300. In the early 1990s a completely new opera house was built. It seats about 1150, is in a traditional horseshoe design but cleverly keeps the twin Glyndebourne themes of ‘summer’ and ‘country’. Inside there are no velvet drapes but instead exposed wood. The outside steps are still in stone or concrete and the balconies around the house are all open: extensively used for opera-goers’ picnics when it is raining.

The opera was Verdi’s”Macbeth”. Glyndebourne have a very careful casting policy. You will not see big names here but you will often catch young singers on the verge of a major career: Sutherland, Pavarotti, Caballe and Alagna all sang here as youngsters. Alternatively you may catch little-known singers who have been carefully chosen because they fit a certain role in a theatre of this size. The latter was the case here.

The title role was sung by Andrzej Dobber, who fulfilled all the vocal and dramatic requirements of the role perfectly well. Even better was Sylvie Valayre as Lady Macbeth, her steely soprano voice just right for the part and well up to the “Cherie Blair” characterisation of Richard Jones’s production. I thought the outstanding vocal performance came from Stanislav Shvets’s sonorous Banquo and it was nice to see Opera North regular Peter Auty as Macduff. The resident orchestra is the London Philharmonic, who played superbly under Damien Iorio.

The production was by Richard Jones. Not always an easy director, I thought his style, often with large elements of back humour, worked well in this opera. There were lots of kilts for the men and the witches were three generations of Glasgow lassies: grannies, mums and short-skirted teenagers. They cooked their witches brew over an exploding gas cooker. After the murder of Banquo (chillingly portrayed), his head is brought to Macbeth in a cardboard box stained with blood – and it is this box that reappears to provoke Macbeth’s outburst during the banquet scene – and even followed him around the stage. Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene was also vividly done with her repeatedly putting on white gloves, only to immediately peel them off and throw them into a washing machine.

The biggest miscalculation of the evening was the decision to include the ballet music. There was no point to it, it held up the action and the tension and the music is not of any distinction. Otherwise this was a production that was never less than interesting and at times totally gripping.

It is easy to dismiss Glyndebourne as a ‘social’ event. There is an 85 minute dinner interval for the picnic (ours was gazpacho, poached salmon and strawberries and cream) or eating in one of the opera house's restaurants. And it is true that it does attract a largely mature and very smart audience: dinner jackets for the men; posh frocks for the ladies. But the standard of the opera is very high indeed and the whole thing continues to set the standard for country house opera. I found it a quite delightful experience.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Festival of St Isidore

Las Ventas is the bullfighting ring in Madrid and it is one of the largest and most famous in the world. The Festival of St Isidore runs from late May into early June and is the highlight of the Madrid bullfighting season. The survival of bullfighting in Spain, Portugal and South America is an extraordinary social and cultural phenomenon. On the final day of the St Isidore Festival (which I attended) the 25,000 seat Las Ventas was sold out.
A classic Corrida will see six bulls dispatched, two each by three toreros. Each individual bull fight is divided into four distinct phases. In the first the bull is released into the ring and the Torero's assistants will attract its attention to different parts of the ring by making passes with large fluorescent pink capes. The torero himself will then emerge and make some genuine close passes, using the same large pink cape: if he does well he might garner a few shouts of 'ole' from the crowd. At a signal from the trumpet the picadors then enter the ring. These men are on horseback and armed with long lances. It is then the job of the torero and his assistants to lead the bull to the picador so that the picador can spear the bull behind its head, causing blood to flow. Another blast from the trumpet is the signal for the picadors to leave and the third phase then starts. This is the work of the banderilleros who run at the bull and place pairs of brightly coloured rods with sharp hooks on their ends into the bull's neck. The banderilleros have to be nifty on their feet to get in close enough to do this and then run off before the bull catches them. The final phase is performed by the torero, working on his own. He is now equipped with the famous red cape, held stiff by a wooden rod and ornamental sword. His task is to work as close as he can to the bull, making it follow the red cape and thus pass and repass around him. For the final stages, the ornamental sword is changed for a sharp, slightly curved weapon. The torero uses the red cape to draw the bull's head down and then puts the sword in just behind the bull's head. Done properly, the sword plunges in to its hilt and the bull dies quickly and cleanly.
My visit to Las Ventas was something of a disappointment. I had hoped to see some really top toreros (who can be quite thrilling to watch for their skill and courage as they 'work' the bull) but it was not to be. The best of the three was Manuel Jesus "El Cid", who showed real skill in his work with the cape. He could not manage a clean kill in either of his fights however. He received the only 'curtain call' of the evening. Miguel Abellan showed a taste for the flamboyant by meeting his second bull in the centre of the ring on his knees. The weakest torero of the evening was Miguel Angel Perera. He repeatedly got his red cape tangled up in the bull's horns, but worse was to befall him. In trying to kill his first bull he missed the target badly and caused some terrible haemorrhage, so the bull starting vomiting blood. The crowd disliked this enormously and waves of booing and whistling resulted. He was even booed as he left the ring at the end of the Corrida.
A disappinting evening but not quite enough to put me off this extraordinary activity, objectively disgusting, yet also sometimes wonderfully thrilling.
Highlights of "El Cid"'s evening can be seen here:-

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Il Trovatore in Madrid

This was my first visit to the Teatro Real, which is celebrating ten years since its re-opening after refurbishment. A traditional ‘horseshoe’ house (still with tiers made up largely of boxes) is now fronted by elegant modern staircases and surrounded by some extravagantly decorated reception rooms. In all this space there did not seem many places to get a drink however.

I had planned this trip to catch Roberto Alagna as Manrico, his recording of this opera being one of my favourites. Sadly he cancelled just a few weeks before the performance.

His replacement was Francisco Casanova, a burly man and not a natural stage animal. His singing started off well enough but proved variable as the evening wore on. At times his voice lost tone and he had a tendency to shout at dramatic moments. His “Di quella pira” went for little and he was left stranded at the front of the stage as the applause quickly petered out. There were other times when he sounded very good. He reminded me of Salvatore Licitra: another ‘almost there’ tenor.

The star performance of the evening came from Dolora Zajick as Azucena. From her rasping chest tones to the top of the voice (with the occasional additional high note) this was a demonstration that old-fashioned grand Verdi singing still does exist – and how effective it is. She was acclaimed by the audience at the end of the performance.

Almost in the same class was Fiorenza Cedolins as Leonora. Not an intrinsically beautiful voice, it is even and well-controlled and used with great skill and taste. She was able to command the grander moments of Leonora’s music and also negotiate the intricate difficulties of the Miserere scene. I had never heard her before and was very impressed.

Anthony Michaels Moore was a reliable if not memorable Di Luna and there was a rich-voiced Ferrando from Raymondo Aceto.

The conductor was Nicola Luisotti. There were many things to admire in his conducting: the singers were always audible, there was real dramatic bite; a lot of orchestral detail was cleverly brought out. There was nothing of the routine and the orchestra were clearly enjoying playing for him. But there was a downside. Most numbers started at a fast speed only to be pulled back by huge rallentandos, sometimes literally halving the speed. He also had a tendency to insert long unwritten pauses, especially at cadential moments. It was all rather like being driven by a taxi driver who roars away from the lights only to stamp on the brake when approaching a slight bend in the road.

The production was directed by Elijah Moshinsky and was new at Covent Garden a couple of seasons ago. It looked handsome and was mostly an effective conventional staging. I was glad to see that the ridiculous camp sword swinging during the Soldiers’ Chorus has gone – to be replaced with some ‘proper’ sword fighting. Leonora goes to make her vows in what looks like a railway station and I still can’t work out what the giant furnaces are in the gypsy encampment. But this is a good mainstream Trovatore production that could be put on any stage without shame.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A Trip to Vienna (2)

Sunday morning was the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School. Seeing these fully mature stallions performing their intricate choreography and spectacular acrobatics was one of the special experiences of Vienna.
Visits to the beautiful Augustiner Kirche, the Stephansdom and the Peterskirche made up our Church visiting. I reckon that the last is now an Opus Dei Church and a priest friend reckons that the Karlskirche may be so as well. Our sight-seeing for the day was completed with a visit to the Punkhalle: the wonderful baroque library within the Hofburg Palace. The special display was of "Loyal Addresses" to the Emperor Franz Josef, many of them contained in rich and elaborate cases. It was interesting to note those coming from Muslim and Jewish groups: it would seem that multi-culturism was not an alien concept to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sunday evening was Mahler's seventh symphony, played by the Bayerische Rundfunks Orchestra conducted by Maris Janssons at the Muzikverein. This was a little disappointing. The 'front of house' at the concert hall is very poor. There are only bare stone steps up to the balcony level and bars and other 'facilities' were in very short supply.
The concert hall itself is very spectacular to look at and it has a very rich acoustic. But it also has the feeling that more people have been packed into it than really should be there. We were sitting on something like kitchen chairs, had no view of the conductor and could only see about one third of the orchestra. To listen to a difficult and long Mahler symphony in these conditions was quite a challenge.
Dinner after the concert was at the Korso restaurant in the Hotel Bristol - rated by the "Top 10" guide as the best restaurant in Vienna. Very traditional and formal, we felt at home there in our dinner jackets - and the food was excellent: lovely lamb and more terrific desserts.
Monday morning was a visit to the beautiful baroque Karlskirche. I was surprised to be charged an admission fee for this and even more surprised that, having been charged the full fee, half the church was under scaffolding and plastic tarpaulins while restoration work is carried out.
An attempt to get into the opera museum was unsuccessful - closed on Mondays. So we walked around the outside of the Hofburg Palace in the sunshine instead.
Our hotel - Das Triest - was generally very nice although our room was not big and inclined to be a bit stuffy. The weather was beautiful (shirt sleeves during the day).
This was an unforgettable weekend in one of Europe's most beautiful and cultured cities.