Candlelit Beauty / Bristol Old Vic / Dido and Aeneas – 2 August 2014

4 Aug

Dido and AeneasHaving read a few articles about the Bristol Proms and how it encourages a non traditional concert going etiquette. Their great innovation being the use of big screen projections, allowance to take photographs throughout, encouragement of spontaneous clapping and allowance of drinks in the auditorium.  A list of things that the absence of have never stopped me from enjoying any performance to date…being odd as we demand discipline and study from the performers why can’t demand the same from the audience?

The programme was prefaced with a foreword by Tom Morris and Max Hole (the frankly clueless boss of Universal Music) which dampened much of the enthusiasm of being in that beautiful and historic theatre. I don’t want lectures about inaccessibility and unfriendliness of concert venues and how we can improve the experience by adopting the tropes of pop concerts. It is a naive reaction to the failure of the recording industry to engage audiences and thus failing to make money in the process. While I applaud the wonderful atmosphere at the Old Vic I am growing very tired of this reverse snobbery. On an average concert can’t imagine more than 10% is a brand new audience who we seen to pander to with all these ideas about being “welcoming”. I’d rather the venues trying equally hard to please the remaining 90% of their audience. Most of us don’t need large screens and gimmicks to convince us that orchestral concerts and opera are both enjoyable and a treat for the mind and heart. As much as Mr Hole seems to be circumspect of current concert etiquette we can be harsh enough to mention that most of the performers at the Bristol Proms were artists signed to his label. The Old Vic may want to be seen to be accessible but it fails on the simple fact that this week of music is fuelled by Universal’s roster of artists…a pretty exclusive bunch. 

When Tom Morris (the director of the Old Vic) came on stage to explain the principles of their Promming concept it came through as a well-meaning idea and it was a relief to know that this performance was using technology from the mid 18th century for its visual trickery and lighting. It also meant that due to the candle light it would make it impossible to take photos with mobile phones, he did offer, conveniently, to email the official photos. Of course that didn’t stop an iPhone boob in front of me trying to film and in the process activated the very bright autofocus light and took her some time to figure out how to switch it off. And that is the problem with allowing people to use electronic devices during concerts…they don’t know how to use them, causing annoyance and discomfort to everyone nearby.  It was also a nice touch to be given a potted history of the theatre as a music venue…knowing that Paganini played there is rather fun.

The first half was occupied with an introduction by Robert Howarth on Purcell, taking us from his musical interludes for The Fairy Queen to his final piece of sacred music (Hear My Prayer) which was gorgeously sung by The Erebus Ensemble and his bawdy lute songs about melons and arses (Young Tom the Gardener) that spread a contagious giggle on stage and the audience. We also got a reading by John Retallack of excerpts from an 18th century translation of Virgil’s epic poem that was probably known to Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate. It was fun, it was informative and in the best possible taste. The choice to split the band across the proscenium in the manner used at the time when playing incidental music was a great idea. Having woodwind on the right and harpsichord and strings on the left worked in the detailed, warm and slightly reflective acoustic of the Old Vic. The quality of the sound was truly exceptional and was definitely aided by the intimate size of the auditorium. Within the first 15 minutes I was mentally booking tickets for next year’s ENO staging of Orfeo next April.

Dido and Aeneas listAfter the interval Dido commenced, the action taking place in a white  square central space backed with a cloth that was back projected by flames at pivotal moments of the action and the singers illuminated by two suspended candle holders either side and an array of candle footlights. It felt as intimate as it was low-tech. The directorial concept was light on “cleverness” but definitely attuned to the music and an eye for using the chorus in effective formations around and on the square performance area. The casting was well matched with smoky, full-voiced Pumeza Matshikiza who sang with great feeling and gave a shatteringly moving final scene in her lament as she nears death. David Stout made the best of the few show off opportunities for Aeneas, their duet before his departure was tender as it was electric, one of the finest moments of a great night. The Belinda of Clare Presland was delicate and compassionate and sung with great care.  Hilary Summers’ Sorceress was straight out of a pantomime which is not as bad as it sounds…she was full of character and even elicited some jokey hisses from the audience at every appearance. A comedy villain in Purcell’s masterpiece was a fun addition and her full contralto sound made an equally strong impression.

The playing by the English Concert was attentive and very lively. The nascent Erebus Ensemble made a spirited and notable fresh contribution throughout. Animating every scene with their virile and yet soft sound.  Howarth clearly inspired the band and the singers to create a special evening for everyone present. It was a night full of heart that presented Purcell’s score in a ravishing light literally and metaphorically. This was baroque opera presented with such simplicity, confidence and clarity of purpose that moves the heart and pleased the mind without any unwanted distractions. Intimate and direct.

Curtain call video

Some Tweets from the evening

 

Classic FM posted a picture gallery from this performance on their website

Can you hear the Germans laugh?

3 Jul

KJ GreatAll hail the queen of GREAT music

If you have a strong constitution you can watch her talking about the Proms (an event she has never performed for in the Royal Albert Hall) 

 

Visit to Morecambe’s Midland Hotel

24 Jun

Midland HotelThe Midland Hotel was one of those landmark buildings I’ve known for years from photographs and TV programmes but up until four days ago I had never seen in the flesh.  Such important and much written about buildings can frequently be a disappointment when viewed under the over-inflated expectation of the eager architectural tourist.  The Midland thankfully was even more spectacular and beautiful that I could have expected. Its ocean liner moderne look is a striking feature of the promenade. A striking symbol of ambition facing the heavy, high Victorian railway terminal. Its beautiful finishing in glass mixed plaster reflects a magical iridescence to the naked eye. No photographs can capture the not quite white colour of the render.

The entrance sequence is most spectacular despite the clean lines of the building giving away much of the layout of the interior. The round stairwell dominating the middle of the elevation provides a surprisingly small and dark threshold to the atmospheric lobby. The masterly staircase curves its way overhead with such utter grace and elegance, I’d challenge anyone not to gasp at the beauty. The colour scheme inside gets transformed from the white exterior to more friendly beiges punctuated with flashes of bright red.  Martha Dorn’s stylised waves round carpets create pools of patter on the floor,  add to the overall chic look. A particular brilliant touch is the individually carpeted steps that avoid the visual uniformity of using a runner and retain the fast moving rhythm of the staircase. Like the best Art Deco entrances it gives off an air of unashamed luxury and sophistication. But the Midland also invites both the eye (with the ceiling medallion) and the foot (with the red velvet steps) to climb to the top and admire this energetic, almost kinetic  interior.

Having Eric Gill contributing the signature sea horses on the facade, the staircase roof medallion, a relief behind the reception desk and a map of seaside towns in the function room was a stroke of genius. They all have a sense of purpose and the erotic flair of the best of his work…most appropriate for an indulgent, luxurious hotel by the sea. The Eric Ravilious mural in the rotunda bar was recreated in 2013 and looks as light and feathery in texture as any of his paintings and watercolours.

We have to be grateful to Urban Splash and the Friends of the Midland Hotel who resurrected this important building, saved it from near demolition and brought back the glamour for all of us and future generations to enjoy. No wonder Coco Chanel spend a weekend there when it first opened in 1933. It is a shame that the regeneration of the immediate area on the side the hotel has been shelved after three rejections of the planning application. Let’s hope the council can find a way to bring back life to the immediate area of the central promenade. Which used to house an enormous outdoor pool and entertainments. With their removal now it’s surrounded by acres of bland grass.

The hotel’s website: http://englishlakes.co.uk/hotels/lancashire-hotels/the-midland-hotel-morecambe/

My Flick photo set, as seen below can be viewed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/georgios1978/sets/72157645264110052/

The serious business of being Richard Jones / Der Rosenkavalier / Glyndebourne – 8 June 2014

11 Jun

Glyntz RosenkavalierThis production of Rosenkavalier became a media sensation a few weeks back on the back of a bunch of jaded bores that focused on why a woman who is dressed as man and pretends to be a woman didn’t look manly enough. A truly burning non problem. What they seem to have skirted around was the elephant in the room…the oversupply of stock Richard Jones and not nearly enough Richard Strauss.
All the clichés are there for the count…comedic furniture, ugly wallpaper, pointless zombie crowd scene, early 20th century update and list goes on and on. Jones treating the work as an opera buffa with a disregard for the central question on aging and loneliness. The Marshallin seen as a clothes horse that has little emotional depth and just likes to flaunt her beauty in empty gestures and exhibitionism. This central betrayal of the opera is an impossible fact to ignore. At least most of his well-drilled visual jokes fell fairly flat on Sunday with the only true laughs for a sofa in Act Three which proves how his slapstick doesn’t quite work in practice anymore. And renders many of the set pieces predictable and meaningless.

His only real engagement with a character’s deeper implications was the one of Sophie’s. Her presentation at the Faninal palace on top of an oversized board room table did spell out her status as a tradable good. As always with Strauss his women are multilayered human beings with interesting stories to tell. Sophie’s love at first time moment with Octavian was exaggerated with a side to side synchronised sway that one would expect on a Disney cartoon. It may have been endearing at first but eventually made the characters look incapable of true feelings. For all his directorial skill at stage pictures he seemed lost at sea at engaging with the emotional worlds that Hofmannsthal and Strauss worked so hard at. Taking a multilayered social drama of the souls and turning it into a parody.
The musical standards were equally patchy with Kate Royal being obviously cast for her gorgeous looks but not for her voice, who became barely audible at any orchestral surges and in duets with Tara Erraught. It is a role that has some of the most thoughtful and introspective music in Strauss’ output and yet Kate Royal preened and stared with little pathos and with a matching bland and underpowered vocal performance. Having seen both Soile Isokoski and Anne Schwanewilms in the last month sing the part I was disappointed. The magic of the score evaporated into a forced battle for survival. The effortless grandeur required turned into a whimper.

Tara Erraught’s Octavian may not have displayed the eloquence that comes with experience with the likes of Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote but she displayed a vivid engagement with the horny, red-headed side of the character and truly let her hair down as Mariandel layering the slapstick thickly, very much in style with the direction.  Her singing assured and her projection loud and clear.

The Baron Ochs of Lars Woldt was an extraordinary find, a role that in recent years had become the preserve of end of career baritones, using humour to hide huge vocal deficiencies, it became a star vehicle. He sang with great warmth and the attention to the language only a native German speaker can give. His take on the role less sarcastic than most, made me for the first time feel compassionate and maybe even protective of him.

Also very strong contributions by Michael Kraus as Faninal that countered Ochs with the superficial seriousness new money brings. The Marianne of Miranda Keys made a big impression in her description of the arrival of Baron Ochs’ entourage mixing her sweet toned voice with her over-excited persona.

The overall musical direction of Robin Ticciati was lithe and swift but quite frequently at the expense of the more lush string sound one would expect in this opera. It was a display of promise for the future seasons than the finished article of a performance. Maybe having heard the LSO and the CBSO play the score in the past weeks spoilt me.

For all the uproar and the body shaming, it is terribly ironic how very few people focused on the flip side of the coin. The casting of a wonderful singer that is totally inappropriate for the role. The final trio is one of the most sublime pieces written for female voices and yet on Sunday I could not wait for it to end. It had none of the magical, superlative beauty.

Glyntz Rosenkavalier List

The Curtain Call 

Some Tweets from the day

The usual disappointment

9 Jun

star facePoliticians…they are all too quick to jump in with leaks and playing to the populist newsmedia gallery.
This morning Harriet Harman was scheduled to give a speech on education and the arts at The Roundhouse. This morning her office, presumably fed soundbites to The Guardian with veiled accusations of inaccessibility directed at the Proms and the Royal Opera House.
You can read the piece here: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/08/harriet-harman-state-arts-public

It is desperately depressing that politicians once more prioritise their own promotion and offering click bait to a newspaper site that reflects inaccurately the actual content of their speech. 

The complete transcript can be read here: http://press.labour.org.uk/post/88265413304/speech-on-young-people-and-the-arts-by-harriet-harman

Slinging mud at premier artistic institutions is never a good tactic when you hope to become the next culture secretary. I would also like to know how she can tell by looking around her while in the audience of the ROH if any working class people where in the audience (I have asked her on Twitter, we may get an insight at the special skills required for such audience segmentation readings…see below). With ticket prices starting at £8 and many free events and exhibitions the ROH is trying to open up further. They run a busy programme of insight talks for both ballet and opera which are open to all.  The Proms, for all their overdrawn programming and unsuitable main venue still allow for day tickets at the princely cost of £5. And broadcast every single concert for free on Radio 3.

Blaming them for the lack of access is the most counter-productive move possible. The subsidy for the arts in the UK and in comparison to most of continental Europe is very small and most of the institutions give excellent value for money. What they need from politicians in return is a stable funding basis so they continue to develop and not having to dread more cuts. The NHS is seen as the sacred cow that no government want to be seen to be tampering with but they have no issues with cutting most national art institutions nearly 20% of their funding. All under the logic that the arts are some luxury we can’t afford in recessionary times.

As the speech itself points out the issue lies with access to arts education and not allowing those disciplines to be the great unknown to the school children of the post-Gove era. The posh and the good of Britain always have had plentiful access to ballet, opera and classical music. The only way for the wider populace to come into contact with the arts is via the media and education. Why can’t simply Labour promise to fund adequately the important artistic institutions of the country and to also reverse the cuts to educational resources and funds for training. If the arts are

fundamental to what it is to be human

then Harriet don’t waste time attacking the very flagship institutions that create the art forms that we aspire to partake in. Spread the love not the negativity.

Visit to Birmingham

28 May

Birmingham LibraryWent up to Birmingham for the CBSO’s excellent Rosenkavalier concert and made a long weekend out of it. A great time to explore the architecture and to spent time enjoying the city.

Took a series of photos of the new Library by Dutch firm Mecanoo which was much more impressive than it looks in shots I had seen previously.

The ample public areas and the book rotunda in the centre of the structure are welcoming. Thankfully the overtly fussy exterior detail (and gold paneling) doesn’t carry on inside too much. I am though skeptical of any new public buildings that are so heavily dependent on lifts and escalators to move visitors around. At least the two roof gardens are beautifully planted with herbs and perennials and allow great views of the city.

The big question mark when it comes to Birmingham is of course the fate of John Madin’s Central Library which is gradually being abandoned and being prepared for eventual demolition. The council spent £188 millions building then new library just a stone’s throw away from Madin’s revolutionary structure. If Birmingham wants to move into the future with statement structures of the likes of Future Systems’ Selfridges 2003 built store, they have to also acknowledge their built heritage already in existence. Not just protect Victorian structures but look back at the more recent past and protect what is important historically and what adds to the vibrancy and variety of the urban experience.

One of the 1970s survivors that  is protected, the beautifully proportioned Alpha Tower is under new ownership and it is newly painted and having investment order to make it a destination office block for design conscious tenants. I took a few shots from the base of the tower and also from my hotel room at the Hyatt hotel from the 21st floor, hoping this landmark tower by Richard Seifert and Partners, one of the great office builders of post war Britain.


My take on the coverage of Rosenkavaliergate

23 May

Rosenkavaliergate wig multiSince last Sunday when the reviews for the production of Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne came out a worrying pattern emerged, the major opera critics (FT, Guardian, The Times, Independent, Telegraph) chose to focus on the appearance of Tara Erraught, the bubbly fast rising Irish Mezzo who is cast as Octavian. Instead of getting into a critique of the production the critics felt that their own jaded pre-conceptions of what Octavian ought to look like cloud their judgement to such a degree that they didn’t see any further than the surface.

Their direct insults not aimed at the costume designer or the director (who, may actually required a less manly looking Octavian, after all) but a wonderful young singer who had just made her debut at one of the world’s most celebrated operatic stages. In the coming days all and sundry had an opinion about the attack but somehow had very little to say about the production. Richard Jones gets a wink and a carte blanche while Erraught gets thrown to the dogs.

Some tried to read feminist theories and male conspiracies in the story and wrote about grumpy old men berating a defenceless young female. It all got to an idiotic conclusion with a puff piece blog piece on the NPR website.

What we should be talking about is about the quality of coverage of opera in the mainstream media, the capability of the reviewers to see beneath the superficiality of appearances and manage to convey the overall picture of the production and the achievements within. Only Michael Volpe, the manager of Opera Holland Park was willing to look into the broader ecosystem of how opera houses attract audiences and what expectations they cultivate. It has been for a very long while less about the music and more about selling an entertainment package. The houses are complicit in this drop in standards of reviewing by encouraging superficial gut reactions on social media and by advertising productions with glossy advertorials, frequently featuring models (Raymond Gubbay and the Royal Opera House have done that so many times). When I worked at the Royal Albert Hall I remember an audience member being sorely disappointed that the model in the posters of Carmen had no resemblance to the singer singing the part.

It may seem silly but raising expectations beyond the reality of the artform is a sure way to create despondence and mis-selling the show concerned. The houses by not focusing on the productions and the artists are as disrespectful as those reviewing Neanderthals that have no connection with the world outside their own little clique.

Everyone has been far too eager to have a piece of the action over the last few days, including a rather flatulent piece by a fellow member of the cast that made its way to a rather boring corporate site. I am looking forward to seeing the production live on June 8th and you can all join me in cinemas around the world and online. Strauss gives so much to talk about in a rich work like Rosenkavalier. Not just Tara Erraught lost out on having a triumphant first appearance at Glyndebourne she deserved, Strauss also was let down by the short-sightedness of those present that should have known better and did not rise to the occasion.

The abhorrent reviews by
Rupert Christiansen: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalconcertreviews/10839018/Glyndebourne-2014-Der-Rosenkavalier-review.html
Michael Church: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/reviews/der-rosenkavalier-glyndebourne-opera-review-perversely-cast-9395750.html

The searching and even-handed piece by Michael Volpe can be read here: http://slippedisc.com/2014/05/opera-festival-director-it-is-inappropriate-to-mention-body-shape/
The thoughtful and personal response by Elisabeth Meister can be read here: http://elisabethmeister.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/big-boned-and-thick-skinned/

The non apology by Christiansen has amassed over 120 comments…that must hopefully be a good time for him to pause and think.

The review by Fiona Maddocks in today’s Observer (25 May) can be seen as the coda to this overdramatised saga that lasted too long and it was fuelled by self interest and loathing.


This post was first published in my weekly newsletter, you can read and subscribe to it here: http://operacreepnewsletter.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/operacreeps-week-no4/

Common sense the Swedish way

12 May

I don’t usually reproduce articles on here but reading Malena Ernman’s brave and unequivocal article in Sweden’s Aftonbladet I was compelled to share it here in all its machine translated glory. She makes some great points about Europe’s wealth and how it should be shared. Her abhorrence to the far right parties that spring up across the continent is well justified based on her experience as a nomadic opera singer.

A great idea to use the Eurovision Song Contest as an opportunity to celebrate what brings us together and to condemn the peddlers of hate and division.
malena-ernman-editorialThe original article can be read here: http://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/debattamnen/eu/article18848873.ab

The Violetta of Miss Pérez / Royal Opera – 6 May 2014

7 May

ROH TraviataGuilty as charged…I missed the last run of Traviata with Ailyn Pérez in 2011 and was reassured that greatness was achieved. Having seen her give her all in recitals, Turandot and Manon I didn’t hesitate to grab a ticket and be at her first night this time around. I didn’t intent to write a blog about it, but since I was totally bowled over with the central performance, here my brief account.

I can report a sensational performance built on great attention to the text taking place. She uttered every word with complete understanding of Violetta’s motives and fears. A deep sense of experience permeating every phrase. Her intense physical acting was perfectly married to some extraordinary vocal shading.

In Act Two her confrontation with Germont Père was dignified and had the requisite struggle with her self, her life choices and how polite society view her. Her Non Sapete hurled across the table at him as a protestation of defiance and hurt. She was aided by the fine acting of Simon Keenlyside who despite the fact he is missing the sheer heft of a true Verdi baritone avoided the clichés if portraying a monster and instead he was a family man blinded by his own small world to see Violetta’s raison d’être. Their confrontation was in keeping with the period aesthetic of Richard Eyre’s production but was imbued with personality and life experience. The trajectory of the character by Pérez was a complete life in 2 and a half hours. Her frivolous toasting of the ice sculpture in Act One with the resulting clinking noise causing a ripple of laughter was a great signifier of a Violetta that is playful and fun.

Her Act Two gambling scene progressing from false defiance to humiliation was beautifully acted. Her Alfredo, di questo core supported by a thin column of air the testament of a woman broken but despite it all filled with love and compassion. It was so brilliantly acted it left little doubt in our minds of her honesty. This great central performance was supported by the undeniable chemistry with Stephen Costello (it helps being married to Alfredo, obviously) his singing seemed at the start, nervous but as the night progressed kept improving. Unfortunately his acting was not as fluent and kept on seeming too stiff at times.

The Third Act was the tour de force one can hope. The logical conclusion of the trajectory of the character. The fall from grace, rejection of the church that provided succour and return to a love affair doomed by death. It was a gripping ride from her waking up in her bed to the death in Alfredo’s arms. So frequently this scene can be disappointing but her Addio del Passato was spine-tingling in its sadness, sung with huge emotional commitment and elegance. The attention to every word again to the fore. When reading Germont Père”s letter her excruciatingly dry cry emitted with her È tardi was a suitable flourish to this great performance. Worth mentioning the excellent contributions by the ROH’s young artists. Ashley Riches, Nadezhda Karyazina and David Butt Philip whose small character parts made a big impact.

As many others I have listened for years and years the incredibly exciting 1955 live recording with Maria Callas from La Scala. An archetypal example of what can be done with Verdi’s morality tale. Last night Ailyn Pérez touched the same level of greatness with a truly stunning performance.

The show on 20 May will be broadcast live online, DO NOT MISS IT! ROH Traviata List

Curtain call video

Some Tweets

Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry clips

2 May

A nine minute edited selection of clips to convey the electric atmosphere during the latest production by Birmingham Opera Company. Community opera at a grand scale.

Blog will follow on the experience.

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