Tag Archives: opera

Opera gains a new fan 

[Opera is] more than entertainment. Opera offers an insight into the complexities of the human psyche – it is a metaphor for, or an exposition, even, of our own personal dreams and nightmares…

– Kevin Volans, composer

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Lise Lindstrom as Turandot at the Royal Opera House

Last week my best friend went to the opera for the very first time. And not just any old opera, she went to see the final dress rehearsal of Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ at the Royal Opera House (“the one with that aria they sing at the World Cup” as she put it). She texted during the interval to tell me about it – “It’s so beautiful!” and “OMG it’s incredible!“, and the next day, over lunch, she described the experience in detail to me – the venue, the music, the narrative. For someone who claims to “know nothing about classical music“, her descriptions of the music and the story-line were articulate, intelligent and heartfelt. She spoke of how the music swelled in passion, only to pull back from the brink, holding her in suspense; how the singers interacted on stage, the impressive tone of their voices, the incredible sound of the chorus; the magnificent setting, and many other details large and small which, for her (and many like her, myself included) make opera one of the most exciting and engaging art forms. She even expressed frustration at the intervals, which, for her, disrupted the flow of the performance. She admitted she had gone to the ROH with many preconceptions – that she would feel out of place in the audience (she didn’t), that the audience would be very highbrow (they weren’t), that she wouldn’t be able to understand the narrative (she did) and that she might find the experience boring (she didn’t). Instead, she found the experience immersive, emotional and exciting, echoing the quote at the beginning of this article, that “all human life is right there, in the opera!“.

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It is that magical combination of music, words, song, acting, setting, emotions that make opera so absorbing and exciting. Having returned to opera fairly recently myself, I fully identify with my friend’s comments: even the most far-fetched story-lines take on a sense of heightened realism and credibility in the special atmosphere of the opera house. In fact, far from being inaccessible, opera is full of memorable, hummable tunes. I bet most people could hum Bizet’s Toreador’s Song (from Carmen), or the magical duet from The Pearl Fishers, and of course my friend recognised ‘Nessun Dorma’ (from Turandot), because it has been elevated to the rank of a sporting anthem. We hear excerpts from opera in film and tv soundtracks, and in adverts, so embedded is this art form in our Western cultural landscape. And as my friend discovered, to her surprise, opera is rather more relaxed than the “sitting in the dark in hushed reverence” atmosphere of, say, the Wigmore Hall, and  the etiquette of opera-going is looser. For example, you can applaud after a particularly fine aria or chorus set-piece and no one glares at you as if you have committed some major musical faux pas, and there is a very tangible sense of shared experience.

Please can we go to an opera together?” my friend asked and I assured her that as soon as the ENO new season opens, we will go. It will be fun to go with opera’s newest fan!

English National Opera

Royal Opera House

Wit and warmth and a whole lot of fun: The Mikado at ENO

The operettas of W S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are much-loved national treasures, as English as strawberries and cream and tennis at Wimbledon. These light comic operas poked fun at Victorian mores, politics and society, and their sharp observations, dressed up in Gilbert’s “topsy-turvy world” where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion, would have been easily comprehensible to their audiences – and remain so today. The operettas have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their enduring popularity, many revivals, and performances around the English-speaking world, and their messages remain witty and topical. The operas have encouraged political debate, social discourse and much pastiche, and the innovations which Gilbert and Sullivan introduced to content and form directly influenced musical theatre in the 20th century.

The Mikado was the most successful of the ‘Savoy Operas’, works which were written to be produced at the Savoy Theatre, built in 1881 by Richard d’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together. Its story pokes fun at English bureaucracy and social standing, thinly disguised by a Japanese setting in the fantasy city of Titipu, a seaside resort. The narrative and the characters who populate it resonate today, in an era where career civil servants and political mandarins, sycophants and hangers-on appear to hold sway over those who govern us, and at a time where donations to political parties can lead to elevation to the House of Lords and other positions of privilege. All this commentary is delivered with catchy, memorable tunes (The Mikado contains some of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most well-loved songs, including ‘A Wand’ring Minstrel’, ‘Three Little Maids’ and ‘Tit Willow’), wit, warmth and humour. Add an attractive set, fine singing and a great chorus, and you have the recipe for a splendid night’s entertainment.

As a child growing up in Shrewsbury, we had members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company lodging with us while the company were on tour, and in Birmingham in the 1970s I saw Welsh National Opera productions of The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance and HMS Pinafore. I’ve always enjoyed the clever combination of words and music, the hummable tunes and colourful settings of these operettas, and so when Jonathan Miller’s production of The Mikado first burst onto the scene in 1986, I was keen to see his fresh take on this much-loved story. It’s taken me 30 years to achieve this, and the latest revival at English National Opera did not disappoint.

The curtain goes up on a light bright cream set, depicting a hotel in a 1930s English seaside resort. The setting may suggest faded gentility, but there is nothing cosy about satire, and the production shines an amusing but critical light on political bureaucracy and scheming and the English middle class and their obsession with status. It is Gilbert’s poking fun at our own status anxiety, and the satirist’s talent for highlighting the absurdities of bureaucracy, which makes Mikado so enjoyable for us today.

The costume colour palette is simple, black and cream with tiny flashes of red, and the chorus and dancers are dressed as bell-hops and maids. Richard Suart as Ko Ko (the tailor-turned-Lord High Executioner) steals the show. It’s a role he’s played many times, and it shows in his exquisite comic timing: obsequious bowing and scraping one minute, the next flirting and patting bottoms of maids. His “moment” comes in the great number ‘I’ve Got a Little List’, updated as is traditional to reflect the zeitgeist. Thus, Jeremy Clarkson, Sepp Blatter and FIFA, cheating Russian athletes, David Cameron (with a not-so-veiled reference to ‘Pigggate’) and Donald Trump get a mention.

Nanki-Poo, the young man and “second trombonist” (which provides much scope for comic asides) who is in love with Yum Yum (Ko Ko’s ward, and wife-to-be) was elegantly played by Anthony Gregory with a nice balance between pathos and comedy, while Yum Yum (Mary Bevan) was winsome and coquettish.

Youth and experience were celebrated too in this revival: young conductor Fergus Mcleod was making his house debut on this occasion, while and Robert Lloyd, who made his debut at ENO 46 years ago, reprised the role of the Mikado, tottering and portly in his over-sized cream linen suit.

The evening fizzed along, the singing and drama enhanced by some wonderfully quirky and surreal Busby Berkeley-style dance interludes, and it was lovely to see Jonathan Miller there, cheerfully greeting friends in the bar beforehand, and later taking a bow at the end of the show. The standing ovation was as much an appreciation of that evening’s performance as the enduring appeal of Miller’s sparkling production.

The Mikado continues in repertory at ENO until February 2016. Details here

 

Don Pasquale at Drayton Arms Theatre

It’s not unusual these days to find operas staged in unexpected locations; the plush velvet and gold of the traditional opera house exchanged for something more earthy and – to use a buzzword of the fringe opera movement – accessible. Here Alisdair Kitchen, director of Euphonia Opera, introduces his latest project – ‘Don Pasquale’ in a pub……

Mounting operas in such places has done much to popularise an often-misunderstood art form, and there is something thrillingly visceral about experiencing operatic voices up close. Certain trade-offs are inevitable; large casts must be slimmed-down, choruses cut, and very often the original language altered to a snappy vernacular translation. And of course, there is hardly room for a full orchestra in an intimate venue.

My company – Euphonia (www.euphoniaopera.com) – is venturing into this territory for the first time with Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ at the Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington. We have been honing our craft for the last five years with full-scale productions at the Rye Arts Festival, most recently presenting an ambitious staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set on a vintage train [http://www.ryenews.org.uk/culture/don-giovanni-goes-rails]. Donizetti’s sparkling domestic comedy is the first instalment in what will be a regular opera series at The Drayton, with future productions including ‘La Traviata’ and Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’. Legendary opera director John Copley, whom I am privileged to have as a mentor, is Patron of the season.
‘Don Pasquale’ is an absolute gem in the repertoire – a simple yet effective plot rendered in glorious bel canto. It’s intimacy lends itself well to the guiding principal of Euphonia’s work at this theatre, namely to produce chamber versions of operas which are distillations of the original. We hope to concentrate the essence of a work without distorting it. It’s a question of balance – if you take away the orchestra and grand stage resources that operas were conceived with, you have to ensure that the other side of the scale is well-stacked. For instance, there’s something special about the blend of music and words as the composer originally set them; for this reason, we perform in the opera’s original language.

But above all we aim to be entertaining! We have a splendid cast for ‘Don Pasquale’; the title role is something of a speciality for Graham Stone – it’s his tenth production! He is joined by the wonderful emerging vocal talents of Lauren Libaw, Joseph Doody and Christopher Jacklin, all accompanied by Euphonia’s excellent repetiteur Jonathan Musgrave.

‘Don Pasquale’ by Gaetano Donizetti

The Drayton Arms Theatre, 153 Old Brompton Road, London, SW5 0LJ

November 24th, 25th, 27th and 28th at 7.30pm

Autumn 2015 marks the start of a new venture for The Drayton Arms Theatre – an operatic season, presented by our Associate Director for Music and his vibrant young opera company Euphonia (President: Prof. Lord Robert Winston). These co-productions kick-off with Donizetti’s effervescent comedy, ‘Don Pasquale’, sung in Italian, with English surtitles.

After disinheriting his nephew Ernesto (Joseph Doody), wealthy old Don Pasquale (Graham Stone) seeks a wife to produce an heir for his estate. Dr. Malatesta (Christopher Jacklin) sympathizes with Ernesto and devises a crackpot plan to help him regain his inheritance and his true love, Norina (Lauren Libaw). Also featuring Edward Jowle (Notary) and accompanied on the piano by Jonathan Musgrave.

Music and Stage Direction: Alisdair Kitchen

Patron of Opera at The Drayton Arms Theatre: John Copley, CBE

Tickets (£15, £11 concessions) available at www.ticketsource.co.uk/euphonia

For further information about Euphonia and the opera season at the Drayton Arms Theatre, please visit www.euphoniaopera.com.

Delicious pre-theatre dining is available until 7pm Monday to Saturday, two courses for only £10! 
Call 020 7835 2301 to reserve your table.

Praise for Euphonia’s recent Don Giovanni at the Rye Arts Festival: “It was such a joy, and easily a match for anything seen on much grander stages. The superb professional young cast and orchestra assembled by Alisdair Kitchen, the director and conductor, and the driving force behind Euphonia, would grace any auditorium.” – Rye and Battle Observer

The Imperfect Pearl: A Baroque Fairytale

Part play, part opera ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ or ‘Perola Barroca’ (the derivation of the term baroque) explores the life and music of one of the Baroque periods most overlooked and forgotten about composers, Domenico Zipoli, whose his manuscripts lay undiscovered for 200 years in a box marked ‘toilet paper.’ The performance not only represents the return of Zipoli to the repertoire but also pianist Mark Latimer to the stage after pioneering treatment for Dupuytren’s contracture which was generously funded by Help Musicians UK and the Royal Society of Musicians.

For more than 200 years the enigma of Domenico Zipoli’s music and inspirational life lay forgotten in the dusty archives of the 18th century Roman Jesuits and the Missions they founded in the rainforests of South America, present day Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay.  His strange departure from Rome in 1716 where he was a revered composer, to an uncertain future in the lands across the ocean, is the sad and yet beautiful story told in ‘The Imperfect Pearl’.

Described by The Independent as “sumptuous and romantic”, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ features Baroque keyboard, chamber and vocal music from Italy and South America, and was ccreated in collaboration with writer William Towers, and opera director Emma Rivlin.

Full details of tour dates here

I caught up with Mark Latimer to ask him about the inspiration behind The Imperfect Pearl and to talk more generally about his musical life.

Tell us more about how you conceived ‘The Imperfect Pearl’, what was the inspiration behind this music-drama and what have been the main challenges and pleasures of creating this music-drama and working with the actors and musicians to bring the story to life? 

You know that old adage about a million monkeys strumming on a million typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, they would never come up with the life story of Domenico Zipoli! As bizarre a story as anyone could ever imagine. On the cusp of a successful career in Italy, he turns his back on the entire enterprise and goes to South America to become a Jesuit. He died there aged just 37 and his music remained largely undiscovered until, staggeringly, 1972 when it was discovered in a priest’s lavatory! You couldn’t make this stuff up. This extraordinary biography was the impetus and the inspiration for creating and conceiving the project. The challenges were and still are immense. So little was and is known about Zipoli, such of his music that’s extant is either implausibly difficult to source and get hold of, lots of it exists in hard to read manuscript, and our current rural touring scheme involves venues that are not really suited to this kind of theatrical presentation, even a comparatively small-scale production – we’re not talking exactly RSC proportions here – is prohibitively expensive to put on, and logistically it’s a nightmare trying to gather all the disparate elements together. Indeed had it not been for two very substantial Arts Council grants it would have been impossible. My wife, who is producer and my co-creator of the show, and I have been monumentally fortunate in securing a team that is in every respect world-class and I’ll never be able to thank them all adequately. But between us all, in the face of sometimes apparently insurmountable obstacles, we actually HAVE brought it to life. With regard to the difficulties with my hands, in some respect I consider myself fortunate that these things did occur, for had they not I may still be hacking my way through Alkan, Busoni, Reger et al.. I know for a fact, I would never therefore have ever discovered Zipoli at all. And my life would’ve been infinitely the poorer for that!

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music? 

Having unsuccessfully tried aged seven, to negotiate and navigate my way around the clarinet as a result of my poor late father’s immense collection of jazz 78s and realizing I was blowing through the wrong end, I jacked it in pronto! Some years subsequently, the Headmaster of my Junior School needed someone to play for assemblies and as I was the only kid who had even a rudimentary capacity to read music – albeit at that juncture only the treble clef – he nominated me to have a bash, pardon the pun, at it. It seems in retrospect that I must have had some kind of aptitude for it as I seemed to progress quite quickly and without too much impediment. As far as pursuit of a career, thinking back I had no real aptitude for or affinity with anything else…

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

One of my first and unquestionably most formative teachers was the great, great man Albert Ferber, to begin with his unique heritage – he was a student of both Rachmaninov and Gieseking – probably meant little or nothing at the time to a callow kid like me, but we became best of friends, his entire persona – charming, suave, genteel – alone was a massive, massive influence. And of course, there was the supernaturally towering figure of John Ogdon. We likewise became immensely good friends and in terms of sheer colossal intellect and ability he is and will always remain unsurpassed. And I still miss him. Then there was my teacher at the Royal College of Music, Angus Morrison who knew Ravel, Walton, the Sitwells inter alia, a truly ineffably wonderful musician and gentleman. Finally Jorge Bolet whom I knew quite well as for about three weeks in the early eighties we shared the same management. Had it not been for the first time I met him – a road to Damascus moment for all the WRONG reasons – I would never have started smoking! As a brief corollary to all this, I was once interviewed for the post of Head of Keyboard at a major UK institution and I was asked why everyone I ever knew and worked with was dead!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

Without question the ‘Take 2 – Unhinged’ album for Spotlite Jazz Records. We did a whole bunch of complicated stuff and half of the record is my own compositions. We did it in just six hours, the five of us had never all worked together previously and I had pleurisy at the time. I think that CD is my greatest achievement.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can only recall two with any modicum of vividity, and both for entirely the wrong reasons; I visited China loads of times but at one stadium concert in Hangzhou, I was towards the end of La Campanella – halfway through the long high D sharp trill – and the entire 25,000 audience suddenly burst into applause. Didn’t know how to react to such spontaneous appreciation, which is very common there – along with other such unusual concert activities as having telephone conversations, babies crying, the habitual spitting!  

The other was centuries ago. I did a concert at Wigmore Hall but the day before substituted an advertised piece for one by a composer friend who died the previous week. The ‘critic’ reviewed the ‘unplayed’ advertised programme. The fact that the review was damning was less important to me than the heretic act itself. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Everything’s a challenge; getting up in the morning, getting old, non-smoking long-haul flights etc.. Maybe dealing with the diagnosis of Dupuytrens Disease, a subject I’ve written much about lately owing to the interest in our production, ‘The Imperfect Pearl’ being on tour was one of the greatest challenges. The loss of the use of one’s hands and all that that implies, not wishing to sound melodramatic, really is akin to a death or bereavement.

https://youtu.be/6D_OdtInwCQ

A Safe Pair of Hands? – Mark Latimer describes his diagnosis and treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture and talks about his return to music

Sparely staged & emotionally powerful: La Traviata at ENO

Interviewed in the programme notes for Verdi’s La Traviata at ENO, director Peter Konwitschny explains that the subject matter of the plot remains daring and “socially explosive”, even in our more permissive times. For at the heart of Verdi’s narrative is Violetta, a tart, a prostitute, a whore (earlier productions from another time refer to her more delicately as “a courtesan”). It was Verdi’s apparent sympathy for this character which shocked his audiences. Violetta may not shock us now, coming at the opera with our 21st-century sensibilities, but the manner in which she is viewed and treated by those around her as the narrative unfolds still has the power to make us uneasy. Like Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, Violetta is the “tart with a heart” and the only true human being in the piece.

ENO’s La Traviata was first seen in this production in 2013 and many of the original cast remain, including tenor Ben Johnson, who plays Alfredo as a naive bookworm, complete with duffle coat and specs, suffering the teasing of the boozy chorus in the first scene as he proposes a toast to Violetta. His warmth and passion is convincing throughout the drama, and particularly poignant when he calls out to Violetta from the stalls (disturbing the front row to emphasise his desperation). Elizabeth Zharoff makes her debut in the role of Violetta, playing her a fiesty yet vulnerable mannequin in the opening scene, before she exchanges her stiff crimson party frock for comfy country clothes (a lumberjack shirt and Timberland boots) in Scene 2. Her coloratura singing at the end of Scene 1 is exquisitely precise, freighted with anguish. Anthony Michaels-Moore, who makes his appearance as Alfredo’s father in Scene 2, is a powerful presence, and like the other leading roles, that power is tinged with sensitivity.

Alongside these fine singers, the setting was, for me, crucial to the success of the production. The last time I saw La Traviata was in a film version, all crinolines, ringlets, chandeliers and breathless over-acting which disguised the true nature of the narrative. Here, the simple setting – bordello-red curtains cleverly painted with trompe l’oeil pleats and used to sensual and dramatic effect as the drama plays out (they are torn down in the final scene), and as single chair – allow us to focus on the psychology and raw emotion of La Traviata. And with few visual distractions, one can also appreciate Verdi’s music: the chilly opening bars are played as if heard in the next room, a musical signpost to what happens later, and there is also some wonderfully pared down playing by the wind section in particular, under the direction of Roland Böer.  This production has lost all the ballet music too and some aria repeats, and there is no interval, reducing the running time to a spare 110 minutes. The chorus are sloshed, voyeuristic party-goers, in DJ’s and LBD’s, revelling in schadenfreude at Violetta’s situation and Alfredo’s innocence. In the final scene, when the doctor is summoned to Violetta, he appears in his party hat, cocked at a drunken angle, with streamers instead of stethoscope. This is a production which really gets to the heart of what this opera is about: passionate love, premature death and the fundamental humanity of its tragic heroine.

My husband accompanied me, my regular opera companion being unwell, and I was pleased that he, who is, by his own confession, “opera allergic” (after I forced him to endure Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ at Glyndebourne some 26 years ago) enjoyed the production and was able to appreciate both the spectacle and emotional impact.

La Traviata continues in repertory at ENO at London’s Coliseum

‘La Fanciulla del West’ at ENO

Opera ingenu Nicholas Marlowe (my co-reviewer for CultureVulture.net) went to see ENO’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.

Often laughed off as the first Spaghetti Western,  La Fanciulla del West remains the least known of Puccini’s major works. Set during the California gold rush of 1849-50, it was first performed to universal acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910 (a far cry from the disastrous opening of Madame Butterfly at La Scala six years earlier). And yet Richard Jones’s new production is the first at the ENO for fifty years.

La Fanciulla tends to appeal to serious aficionados of Puccini’s score rather than the ordinary opera-goer, and it’s not hard to see why. The paucity of stand-alone arias – never mind a ‘Nessun Dorma’ – is a major stumbling block, the only real crowd-pleaser being ‘Quello che tacete’ in Act I, strongly reminiscent (I wonder why?) of ‘Song of the Night’ in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. It also has one of the most preposterous plots in all opera, and characterisation that veers dangerously close to cardboard: saloon-owner-with-a-heart-of-gold Minnie, miraculously-reformed bandit Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson and sleazy Sheriff Jack Rance. You might think that singing it in English would have smoothed things a little, but I rather missed the cries of “Howdy, ragazzi!” and “Whiskey per tutti!”

Peter Auty and Susan Bullock in The Girl of the Golden West. (Photograph: John Snelling/Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the entire ensemble did well in what was largely a production of firsts. Highly-regarded British soprano Susan Bullock ruled the roost in a feisty stage debut as Minnie (she previously sang the role in concert at the Edinburgh festival in 2010). It was tenor Peter Auty’s debut as Dick, and American bass baritone Craig Colclough’s as Rance. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, meanwhile, made her UK operatic debut in the pit. Sterling support came from an ENO chorus that shifted convincingly from bible class to lynch mob.
 
The opening act in the Polka saloon I thought suffered from a lack of clear definition in the male roles, although some were still very good indeed; I particularly liked Graham Clark as Nick the bartender. Act II, set in Minnie’s cabin, was somewhat knockabout, provoking a certain amount of tittering in the Colisseum audience, and at this stage I began to wonder if Jones and co were playing the whole thing for laughs. All came good in the final act, however, particularly in Auty’s poignant rendition of Dick’s final despairing aria, well matched by Bullock’s gutsy performance as she pulled out all the stops to save her fella from the noose. 
La Fanciulla del West continues at ENO at the Coliseum.

Xerxes at English National Opera

Xerxes (Alice Coote) sings to his beloved plane tree

In the opening scene of Handel’s Xerxes (or Serses) we witness the King of Persia (Xerxes) singing a love song to a plane tree (“Ombra Mai Fu”). As the narrative of this opera unfolds – a tale of love triangles, frustrated desire, disguise and general chicanery – we begin to wonder whether Xerxes should have stuck with loving the tree, rather than anyone else, for trees tend to be rather simpler to deal with.

In fact, the plot of Xerxes is fairly straightforward, and in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production, first seen in 1985 and now in its sixth revival, it becomes incidental to the charming setting, and witty and delightful progression of the narrative. An entertaining cast of characters inhabit a setting which recalls Vauxhall Pleasure Garden and Versailles (complete with modern-day red cordons), with a nod to Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode in the costumes of the servants/chorus and a glimpse of ancient Persia in the form of a giant statue of a winged lion (which one might view in the British Museum) and the tiny ancient city at the rear of the set.

Xerxes (Alice Coote), Romilda (Sarah Tynan) and Arsamenes (Andrew Watts). Picture credit Mike Hoban

The all-British cast gel brilliantly, all winks and nods and cheeky asides, and Xerxes, sung by Alice Coote (making her role debut) is thigh-slappingly wonderful, at once swaggering principal boy and deluded, love-lorn King, the full weight of emotion given rein in her rich enunciation of words like “Desire”. Romilda, beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan, is coquettish and proud, while Atalanta (Rhian Lois) is downright louche, particularly in Act 1. There are also some delightful comic cameos from Arsamenes (sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts) and his servant Elivro, whose disguise as a “mockney” flower seller (complete with floral frock) gets all the laughs in Act 2.

The production combines a cool rococo elegance with wit and genuine humour (the welcoming home of the old soldiers from battle, taking tea en plein air, and the hedge-trimming), while the music is energetically directed by Michael Hofstetter and crisply articulated by the orchestra. All in all, this was a rollicking evening, delightfully piquant, charming and above all entertaining. It’s a long night (three acts in three-and-a-half hours) but with the quality and pleasure of this production and the commitment and obvious enjoyment of the cast the narrative moves on apace. Highly recommended.

Xerxes continues at ENO, London Coliseum until 3 October

Meet the Artist……Oliver Rudland, composer

Oliver photoWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

Like a great many other composers, the initial impetus or inspiration to write came from a deep-seated desire to emulate (and often imitate!) the music I had encountered in childhood and adolescence, through performing and learning music – in my case, through brass bands, orchestras and youth opera (I was blessed by the fact that Leeds County Council has an amazing music service with many inspirational teachers). Over time, I discovered the great power of music to express ideas about the world and about oneself, and this awoke in me the desire to make composition my vocation.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your composing and your musical career to date? 

My initial passions were fired by the English pastoral school, perhaps best represented by Vaughan-Williams and Holst. After this, I went through a Steve Reich phase (pun intended!), which had a very substantial impact upon my development, since it led me to realise that tonality could still be used in original and meaningful ways. Subsequently, I underwent a somewhat obsessive infatuation with Wagner, whose protean use of a wide variety of musical influences to create dramatic works of enormous philosophical depth planted in me the ambition to write opera. At this point, I re-discovered Benjamin Britten, who I came to see as a composer who had achieved equal dramatic mastery and psychological understanding, but in a more English and down-to-earth manner.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Undoubtedly my first two operas. Through these, I have learnt how to synthesise all my musical influences and gradually, from naïve beginnings, to write music and libretti which not only work poetically and musically but which also function well dramatically on the stage. Organising the performances and staging productions was just as much a challenge as the actual composition. For my first opera, The Nightingale and the Rose (after Oscar Wilde), written while I was still an undergraduate, I combined an orchestra of RCM students with the hundred-strong Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir and professional opera singers. My children’s opera, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark (after Jill Tomlinson), then involved co-ordinating sixty primary-school children from around Cambridgeshire with professional musicians, as well as singers from Cambridge University, which was an even more formidable logistical challenge, since it meant one had to deal not only with some fairly mischievous young spirits, but also with their anxious parents!

What are the particular pleasures/challenges of working with individual artists, ensembles or orchestras? 

I always enjoy working with musicians and artists to bring a project into being. I would consider myself the entrepreneurial type, and tend to gather together a team of creative people to build a project around a dramatic conception. Collaboration involves a balance between allowing plenty of creative freedom to the individuals that you are working with, whilst striving to direct everybody’s energies towards a mutual goal. Maintaining this balance without creating too many frictions and tensions is always a challenge; the trick is to find people who share your ideals.

Please tell us more about your  opera Pincher Martin

Pincher Martin is an operatic adaptation of William Golding’s novel and poetic masterpiece. Recreating on the stage the existential plight of a marooned naval officer who struggles to survive first in the ocean, then on a lonely rocky islet in the middle of the Atlantic, has stretched my imagination to the limit, and has required the use of devices and technology which were previously unfamiliar to me. Throughout the course of the drama, we will be using a silver-screen movie-style cinematic backdrop, both to aid us in realising difficult scenarios such as a man drowning in the Atlantic, and to evoke the drama’s World War II setting.

Just one example of how this will work in practice is a scene in a moving motorcar, where the protagonist terrifies a woman with his dangerous and aggressive driving in a terrible attempt to make her acquiesce to his desires (yes, this is in the book…!). Musically, I have accompanied this scene with continuous unpitched and then pitched fluttertongues in four solo brass instruments, to evoke the sound of a car engine, first stationary and then in faster and faster motion. In terms of staging, this coordinates with the film, in that what is displayed on the screen is the view seen from the back seat of a car, first shaking very slightly as the car is parked in a layby with its engine idling, and then changing as the car moves off down the road. This is combined on-stage with the set, which in this case consists of a car bonnet behind which the protagonists will sit, with the backseat view behind them on the film. The bonnet itself is half-car, half-rock-like in substance, so that we can move expeditiously from a scene taking place on the rocky islet to this memory scene in the car, whilst also suggesting to the audience that the rock is actually an imaginary environment created by Pincher’s subconscious, and that we are dealing with scenes from his past life, which he is recalling during his purgatorial existence on the island.

Using this synthesis of music, film and staging to bring William Golding’s story to life has been an incredibly difficult challenge, but one which I am very glad to be undertaking, as it has expanded my creative world substantially.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers? 

To be yourself whilst learning from others.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To build a life where I can continue to realise my musical and dramatic ideas, whilst also starting a family with my wonderful and brilliant wife Helen (whose ambitions equal mine in her own field of scholarship), balancing both of these enormous challenges in harmony.

Oliver Rudland is an English composer based in Cambridge, UK, known for his accessible style of modern composition. His operas have received particular attention and critical acclaim.

His latest opera, ‘Pincher Martin’, based on the novel by William Golding, was staged at the RCM Britten Theatre in July 2014: ‘This is an eloquent, succinct opera… In music and design…, Pincher Martin pinched and gripped. This opera deserves to live.’ (The Times: ★★★★)

‘Rudland appears to have achieved that rare and valuable object: a contemporary work that is both challenging yet accessible. Despite its disturbing subject matter, Pincher Martin is lyrical, inventive, and above all a thoroughly engaging work.’ (Bachtrack: ★★★★)

His first opera, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, after the story by Oscar Wilde, was staged at the Carriageworks Theatre for four nights in 2008 by Leeds Youth Opera. ‘Exceptional talent…Oliver is going to be a big name in the future.’ (Yorkshire Evening Post)

In 2011, his children’s opera, ‘The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark’, based on the classic story by Jill Tomlinson, was staged at the Cambridge University Church, and received very positive reviews from critics and the local community alike: ‘This was children’s opera at its best; it was fun and accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.’ (GSM News)

‘Benjamin Britten, his Noah, and bad-tempered God must almost regret that a couple of owls made their way into the ark to reproduce themselves towards so effective a rival opera.’ (Music and Vision)

His chamber works have been performed at the Cheltenham International Music Festival, the Southbank Centre, and the DiMenna Center (NYC), as well as at other venues worldwide. His trombone sonata, ‘The Conquests of Zeus’, commissioned by Matthew Gee, principal trombonist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has been performed widely across Europe.

Oliver is currently Composer-in-Residence with the London Choral Sinfonia. He is also working towards a new large-scale, two-act opera due for completion in 2020.

Further information: www.oliverrudland.com

Review: The Pearl Fishers, London ENO

Penny Woolcock’s visually arresting “The Pearl Fishers” returns to the Coliseum in London in a revival of the 2010 English National Opera co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

The original production was praised for its stunning effects and staging, and this updated production proved mesmerizing, beginning with a beguiling underwater sequence in which pearl fishers, viewed through a gauzy screen, dive and swim, digitally-generated air bubbles trailing their lithe, fluid bodies (in fact, actors suspended on harnesses). When the curtain goes up, the scene is an exotic Ceylonese shanty town: rough wooden houses crowd higgledy-piggledy around the shoreline, tiny lights prick the early morning sky, telegraph cables sag between the buildings, and a cleverly conceived reflective surface across the entire stage creates the sense of water. The villagers gather around the ghats, dressed in sarongs, dhotis and saris in turmeric and paprika colors, and go about their business — hanging out washing, bathing, cooking at the water’s edge, gossiping. You can almost smell the masala dosas frying.

In later scenes, the houses have gone, leaving the glittering ocean across which a fishing boat glides. The illusion of waves is created through ingenious lighting effects and air-filled pillows, set low on the stage, which billow and swell like the sea. Longer scene changes are made behind the gauzy screen onto which are projected images of waves, including an impressive tsunami between Acts II and III.

Leila (Sophie Bevan) arrives (photo credit: ENO / Mike Hoban)

Bizet finished “The Pearl Fishers” in 1863, a year after Ingres painted “The Turkish Bath,” when Europe was gripped with a fervor for Orientalism, the term used by 19th-century Western scholars and artists in their study of Eastern cultures and peoples. At the time, the East was regarded as highly exotic — and erotic — and “The Pearl Fishers” resides in this tradition, with its recreation of an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant, superstitious people who engage in transgressive sexual practices. The narrative is the age-old love triangle, with the added frisson of friendship, loyalty and religious observance.

In fact, Bizet’s opera is rather thin, particularly in comparison to his much-loved, vibrant “Carmen.” The libretto borders on cringe-making, and in this production unfortunately more than highlighted by the fact that it is sung in English and the language doesn’t always sit comfortably with the phrasing and shape of the music, as it surely would if sung in French. Apart from the famous aria (of which more later), there is little to hold the attention, musically, and while others might highlight inventiveness and variety in Bizet’s writing, this reviewer found it wanting, with Act III verging on turgid. Added to this, the characters are wooden and the narrative hardly believable. But of course, “The Pearl Fishers” is saved by the glorious tenor-and-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” in Act I (with fragments and reprises in subsequent acts), whose sweepingly romantic melody stays with you throughout, and long after you have left the opera house, a pleasing earworm which will have you humming on your commute to work. On this occasion, what should have been a voluptuous celebration of friendship and unrequited love lacked conviction and depth: this was the first night and one hopes that as the singers (George von Bergen and John Tessier) settle into their roles, the richness of this great aria will come to the fore.

Soprano Sophie Bevan, making her role debut as Leïla, Priestess of Brahma, was a delight. Arriving by boat, veiled and submissive, her palms pressed together in obeisance, she proved a charmingly winsome and flirtatious Leïla, and full credit must go to Bevan for singing the role so arrestingly while recovering from a bug. By comparison, Zurga, sung by von Bergen, was underplayed, given his role (again one hopes his character will develop over forthcoming performances), but Nadir (Tessier) was more convincing, torn between his friendship with Zurga and his passion for Leïla. An attempt, via the setting, to comment on global warming and developing-world poverty seemed overly worthy and self-conscious, and an amused nod to the exigencies of Indian bureaucracy in the Act III scene in Zurga’s “office,” piled high with friable papers and bulging ledgers on rusting filing cabinets, felt unnecessary.

But if the music doesn’t always hold your attention (and all credit to the orchestra, whose muscular playing contributed much-needed vibrancy, together with some fine chorus singing), the visual effects will, along with the costumes: Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, could have stepped straight off a sculptural frieze on a South Indian temple, with his sadhu’s ash-smeared body, draperies, dreadlocks and top knot. Worth seeing if only for the arresting and finely wrought visual effects and staging.

The Pearl Fishers continues in repertory at ENO.

Date reviewed: Monday 16th June 2014.

Leïla, Sophie Bevan; Nadir, John Tessier; Zurga, George von Bergen; Nourabad, Barnaby Rea; Director, Penny Woolcock; Conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud; Set Designer, Dick Bird; Costume Designer, Kevin Pollard; Lighting Designer, Jen Schriever; Video Designer, 59 Productions Ltd; Choreographer, Andrew Dawson; Translator, Martin Fitzpatrick. English National Opera, London Coliseum 

(This review was first published on CultureVulture.net)

A grand night out – how I’m learning to love opera

Opera (English plural: operas; Italian plural: opere) is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble. (Wikipedia)

 

For most of my adult life I have been allergic to opera. It must also be said that for nearly half of my adult life (some 20 years) I hardly went near a classical music venue, nor played the piano. A chance conversation with a then colleague – now a very good friend – in the art publishing industry (where I worked before I had my son) revealed a mutual love of classical music and, in particular, live concerts and suddenly I was a regular at the Wigmore Hall, enjoying fine chamber music in one of London’s most perfect venues.

As a child in the late 1970s, I went to many operas with my parents, who were subscribers to the Welsh National Opera (WNO) on tour. We were living near Birmingham at this time, and from a young age (around 5) I was regularly taken to concerts by the CBSO at Birmingham Old Town Hall, where the orchestra was conducted by a vibrant young man with wild curly hair, who has gone on to enjoy a glittering and acclaimed career with some of the finest orchestras in the world. Going to the opera was something else we did, as well as listening to classical music LPs at home, and piano lessons, of course. I was lucky enough to see many fine performances, including the most exquisite production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with sets designed by David Hockney, and a Madame Butterfly which was all Japanese sliding screens and Zen gardens.

Later, as a teenager at school in Hertfordshire, I went to full dress rehearsals at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, enjoying an afternoon out of school to see some of the ‘greats’ of the operatic world – including Sir Thomas Allen (in Britten’s Peter Grimes) and Dame Janet Baker. These were memorable occasions, not only for the music, drama and spectacle, but also for the plush scarlet and gold opulence of the Royal Opera House.

A rather disastrous trip to Glyndebourne with my fiancé (reader, he married me) to see Britten’s Death in Venice put me (and my husband) off opera. By this time, I had also formed a very deep dislike of anything by Wagner and had decided (perhaps unfairly) that anything by him would be overblown, over-sung and over here.

Musical friends and colleagues have tried to tempt me back to the opera, assuring me that I will love it, pointing out that I absolutely MUST see anything by Wagner, and citing his important influence. (Some people have even tried to suggest that my dislike of Wagner is an obstinate form of philistinism: I just don’t like his music – get over it!)

Across my social networks, in particular on Twitter, I am connected with many people who absolutely adore opera, passionately and fervently, and who go not once but thrice to Covent Garden or the Coliseum (home to the English National Opera) and beyond to see repeat performances of operas featuring the singers, conductors, producers and directors whose work they admire and love. I began to wonder what I might be missing out on: these people were enjoying fine performances and an enviable social life at the opera at the same time.

When I started reviewing for CultureVulture.net at the beginning of the year, my co-reviewer, Nick, suggested we might cast our reviewing net a little wider than piano recitals and art exhibitions, assuring me that we would not be penetrating Wagner’s Ring, but could happily enjoy operas by Mozart, Bizet, Rossini, Puccini and Handel. And so on 3rd May 2014 we found ourselves in the dress circle at the Coliseum for the first night not of Così fan Tutte, but Thebans, a new opera by Julian Anderson based on the Theban trilogy by Sophocles.

Modern opera for the “opera newbies”? We were really jumping into opera at the deep end, but despite the grim narrative (family intrigue, incest, murder), I really enjoyed it – the music was arresting, with some exquisite chorus and wind writing, the brutalist setting was interesting, and the cast were convincing and committed. Within moments, I believed I was there, in Thebes. In addition to this, it proved a thoroughly good night out: the opera crowd are different to the (largely) superannuated Wigmore hall audience and the atmosphere in the foyer and bar was cheerful and noisy.

Opera is of course very different to chamber music or solo piano recitals. There is drama, there are costumes and sets, there are memorable arias and choruses, there is action and emotion, dance, theatre, “speaking to music” (recitative), comedy, tragedy, pathos and poignancy – the full sweep of human experience is here.

Of all the strands of classical music and the performing arts, opera seems to receive the best press – and the worst press. It continues to be regarded as elitist, snobby, inaccessible (eh?), expensive (ahem – opera tickets are often cheaper than West End theatre or pop concerts) and generally the exclusive preserve of toffs and poseurs.

This has not been my experience, so far. Thebans was an esoteric and admittedly quite “difficult” opera to enjoy, per se, but the audience didn’t strike me as especially high-brow. And at Opera Holland Park on Saturday evening (my first visit to this wonderful venture, now in its 25th year, which runs a busy and varied summer season in the grounds of Holland House in London’s Holland Park) the audience was positively garulous, hugely enjoying all the comedy and dramatic irony contained in Rossini’s ever popular Barber of Seville. (And not forgetting noisy interjections from the peacocks who live in Holland Park.)

If anything, opera seems to me to be rather more relaxed than the “sitting in the dark in hushed reverence” atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and based on my, albeit limited, recent experiences, the etiquette of opera going is much looser. For example, you can clap after a particularly fine aria or chorus set-piece and no one glares at you as if you have committed some major musical faux pas, and there is a very tangible sense of shared experience.

On another level there is of course the music. Far from being inaccessible, opera is full of memorable, hummable tunes (something my co-reviewer is very keen on!). I bet most people could hum Bizet’s Toreador’s Song (from Carmen) or Nessun Dorma (from Turandot), which has been elevated to the rank of a sporting anthem, or the magical duet from The Pearl Fishers. We hear excerpts from opera in film and tv soundtracks, and in adverts, so embedded is this art form in our Western cultural landscape.

This week my Twitter feed has been full of tweets about the new production of Dialogues des Carmelites at the Royal Opera House (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), Poulenc’s sublime opera set during the violent upheaval of the French Revolution (the set includes a working guillotine). It sounds fabulous – musically, dramatically, emotionally – and I really hope it may be available online or DVD, or in repertory at ROH at a future date, as I’d really like to see it.

Meanwhile, I am back at the “Coli” (as we opera buffs say!) for the first night of a new production of The Pearl Fishers by Bizet on 16th June. And in the autumn, new productions of Xerxes, The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme beckon….

And what of Wagner? Well, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for the ladies with horns on their heads just yet…..

Opera Holland Park

Royal Opera House

English National Opera