[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

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

 

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

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

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

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.