Tag Archives: Mark Elder

Munich via Paris and Vienna / Fantasio / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment + Mark Elder / RFH – 15 December 2013

17 Dec

OAE Fantasio

This was an important occasion to rediscover Jacques Offenbach’s much troubled Fantasio. Being the UK premiere of the reconstructed Parisian version of the score which was not that straightforward a task, worth reading the piece by Jean-Christophe Keck to get an idea of the complexities of putting this new critical edition together. The work had an indifferent reception when performed in 1872 and judging after having heard it live I can relate to the reactions of the Parisians. Offenbach is as always a master of creating moods and atmosphere, especially when the darkness of  the palace’s gardens in Act Two or the grieving crowd in a city square is called for but in Fantasio the amalgam of witty spoken dialogue and standalone ariosos and ballades can appear disjointed if in the wrong hands. The OAE and a very perky Mark Elder on the podium managed to bring the work to life  and the sheer dedication, enthusiasm and comic timing of the top rank cast made it an extremely funny evening. We even have to thank the French censorship office for saving the only extant copy of the spoken dialogue!

The soundworld of the piece is mainly a nocturnal romantic one and Offenbach’s skill at orchestrating delicious harmonies to carve vivid characters and situations is well and present. His skill at writing for voices made obvious in the numerous duets and the judicious use of the chorus, which frequently reacted to the main protagonists as the comical backdrop. Most deliciously at the finale of the Third Act when they are convinced by Fantasio that war is pointless and that wine, home and family is more important as pursuits. The quintet of Act Two exposing the motives of the characters and the piquant duet of Prince and Marinoni adds a typical flash of camp humour to the proceedings.

Sarah Connolly as the eponymous hero strutted her stuff across the stage en travesti in a maroon velvet smoking jacket, white dandyish shirt and high leather boots. His property has been impounded due to debts and arriving to court and falling in love with the about to be married princess. The court jester has just died and he gets the idea to impersonate him in order to be admitted to the Palace without being detected. He then approaches the dead jester’s taylor, here sang by Mark Elder looking every inch the harassed tailor when quizzed by Fantasio on the size of the hump he should adopt. It is not frequently when one wishes the conductor held a cameo in a production but this was absolutely spot on and made the whole auditorium laugh with abandon. Connolly donned a more decorated red jacket to infiltrate the court. Her ballad in Act One was as unassuming as it was dreamy. Her interpretation never showy or forced. And we have to be thankful for the near last minute casting of Brenda Rae as the replacement Princess who blended vocally with Connolly in marvellous and gorgeous ways, leaving very little doubt on how love stricken they both were.

The Princess of Brenda Rae was a character with all the arrogance of her privileged upbringing but also a woman living in a golden cage of responsibility that she cannot shake off. This tortured side of hers made it for a much more interesting dynamic with Fantasio, who in essence manages to free her from her empty marriage and shows her the joy of love. Very much in the mould used many times by Richard Strauss in his later career operas. Rae brought a glistening top and a very firm core to her voice, accompanied by a remarkably natural trill. Her ballad in Act One explaining her sadness for the loss of the much loved jester and her impending marriage was so rendition so sweet and soulful that we were as enamoured with her as much as Fantasio that overhears her and the abundant applause made it all too clear.

The persistent chorus of the three students that permeates all three acts is the mechanism that Offenbach uses to bring the audience in the story and to throw about cheap gags to lighten the atmosphere further. The three singers behaved as the drunken, ironic louts one would expect and infused the performance with a  lot of fun.

The gorgeously deep bass of Brindley Sherratt was a delicious match for the gravitas of the King and his acceptance of the chant by his subjects on his appearance in Act One one of the sly comic moments of the evening.

The Prince of Russell Braun was the sly and calculating type but with an all too clear sense of how he will never be loved for who he really is. His performance was vivid and comically attuned especially in his interactions with his aide Marinoni.

The courtiers were also acted with passion and dedication by Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray. The fiendishly camp and fioritura heavy part of Marinoni was a great achievement and a suitable contrast to the stolid nature of the part of the Prince of Mantua with whom he gets in a complicated impersonation game that makes both of them the laughing stock of this farce. Flamel on the other hand is the stoic support to the confused and tormented Princess.

The wonderful performance by all on stage made for a very funny evening that truly did honour the intentions of the composer and the recording will hopefully allow a new generation discover this beautiful and at times inspired work. A really funny staging would probably give it a chance at joining the operatic repertoire a century and a half after its troubled inception. This great cast and orchestra offered an insight into the innovative and ambitious nature of Offenbach’s score. The recording is released by Opera Rara in September 2014, watch out for it and take the chance to discover this neglected work.

OAE Fantasio list

Some tweets from the evening

The pre performance talk by Mark Elder

The holy conversion of George / Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ / Britten Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder / Brighton Dome – 10 December 2011

17 Dec

Dear reader, this has been a long time coming, but it has been a very busy week! I almost managed not to see this Enfance due to my stupidity at copying the wrong details in my cloud residing diary. So instead of the front row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall I daytripped down to Brighton for the third and last performance by this distinguished ensemble.

The singers were hand picked and Mark Elder has a unique gift and insight with Berlioz, I was expecting to be impressed but what I experienced was nearing to a cheesy holy conversion. No denying the fact this was one of the most glorious evenings of live music making of 2011.

Having Alan Clayton as the narrator was a brilliant move. He has such an extraordinary instrument (that truly shone in the recent Castor & Pollux at English National Opera) a beautiful sweet middle tone with a ringing Italian sounding bright top. A wonderful combination that elevates what he sings into another level. His narration was full of empathy and wonderfully subtle French, with true chemistry with the orchestra and the exemplary direction by Mark Elder.

Neal Davis, offered an impassioned Herod in the first half and a much more dramatically attuned Ishmaelite in the second. He surely had the power and expressive detailing right, but somehow his instrument does not possess the required darkness to add a more sinister tone to Herod’s outpouring of despair and resolve to order the death of the newborn Jesus. In Scene 4: Chaque nuit, Le même songe m’épouvante/Every night,The same dream terrifies me; where he retells his dream was beautifully realised but lacked the edge a darker timbre could bring. He is a wonderful singer but I can’t stop thinking he was miscast as Herod, his Ishmaelite was full of empathy and kindness.

Sarah Connolly was frankly a luxury in the small part of the Virgin Mary. She was excellent, as usual, giving a very simple but heartfelt portrayal and surely making a beautiful partner to Roderick Williams’ warm and softly sang Joseph.

Britten Sinfonia produced a very even, forward sound, with a rich tone, very appropriate to the piece. When it had to sound more saccharine in the end of part one for the Virgin Mary’s first appearance : Ô mon cher fils/O my dear son, they lived up to it, creating a velvety carpet for the sweet delivery by Sarah Connolly and the first duet with Roderick Williams. That was the first chance to hear the choir of angels which was off stage, sounding weightless and all round pure.

The recently founded Britten Sinfonia Voices first made a strong impression on the second intervention as the Soothsayers: La voix dit vrai, seigneur/The voice is right, Sire with their unwavering keeping up with Elder’s vivid tempo and alertness.

The opening of the second half was where the most rich demonstration of how amazing this ensemble was, came through. The opening Overture was a delight, a rich oriental clarinet infused eastern fantasy. Elder shaping the music into a voluptuous romantic essay in orientalism. The confident delivery by the male choristers representing the shepherds was a great intro to the most turbulent section of the piece, Allan Clayton’s narration of the flight from Egypt was full of colour and dramatic tension. Especially when he was quoting the Virgin Mary in the desert, against a rich carpet of violins underlying every word, he reached for his ringing upper register and then plunged to his chest voice for the finale, at that dramatic point a fly flew itself straight into the face of our tenor, which lightened ever so slightly the scene 😉 With the fly attack successfully averted the choir of angels exalted hallelujah!

With the fly still buzzing in the air, Clayton continued into part three, The arrival at Saïs. Where with great tenderness he described the hardships of the Holy Family in the desert and their arrival in Saïs. His tone was wonderfully soft and the emphasis on every word brought the story to life. The concluding:  Pleine de gens cruels, au visage hautain. Oyez combien dura la navrante agonie Des pélerins cherchant un asile et du pain! / Full of cruel, haughty-looking people.Hear how the distressing agony was to continue. For these pilgrims seeking shelter and bread! was possibly some of the most accomplished singing I’ve heard all year. The upcoming section by Connolly was equally dreamy, almost a mirage of a Virgin Mary at the edge of death. A desperate plea for Joseph to knock on a door was more dramatic than the text would suggest. Williams gave an impassioned good boy impression of Joseph that made the aggressive chorus sound even more hostile. The interwoven texture of the music with the two suffering characters and a forceful chorus, reminded me of a lot of French baroque opera with a begging scene where the hero and heroine ask for mercy. Here the balance between orchestra chorus and soloists was perfect, it was alive, dynamically propelled but unified. A great moment of the evening where the luxury casting bore unexpected fruit.

The next section was a triumph for Davies, who found a resonant bass sound for the Ishmaelite father showing compassion and understanding for the plight of the Holy Family. The culmination came with a brief trio, where Connolly gave a perfect example of a more introverted, classy dramatic power befitting the character. Plus d’alarmes/And my worries was sang out with conviction and true relief, a finale that is dramatic and a wonderful conclusion to the story.

The trio for two flutes and harp made Elder move to stage left to conduct at arms length the soloists, with a delicacy and luscious sound that brought to mind early music. Another great idea by Berlioz that was brought to life in the most captivating fashion. This part of L’Enfance is possibly where the dramatic arc can seriously sag but not under the baton of Sir Mark, this was truly lovely and got a very loud applause by the audience.

The Epilogue with its long string intro reminding me oddly of boats gliding in the night to port, created the perfect opening for an imposing closing section. Clayton clearly relishing every minute of it, singing in a light and reflective timbre, laced with soft vibrato. Even Neal Davies was enjoying the concluding moments, listening with his eyes shut, who can really blame him! The verve of the conducting and the attention to detail introduced once more the choir with breathtaking results, I can vouch at feeling my heart racing through the last ten minutes, reaching the culmination of such an extraordinary ride was both cathartic and truly glorious. Berlioz’s genius shone through. Britten Sinfonia put its heart into the music and the soloists added the splendid final flourish to an unforgettable evening. For me possibly one of the best live performances this year. As the gentleman in the front row (that disrupted Sir Mark’s long pause after the finale) with his enthusiastic applause and jump from his seat, felt too!

Some tweets from the night

The Tsar’s Bride, a largely forgettable Russian tale? / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 27 April 2011

2 May

The first ever production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride has had some interesting reviews.  And have to confess that the main reason for seeing it was to witness a live performance by Marina Poplavskaya, a singer that I have systematically avoided in the last five years, put off by her woolly Italian singing in televised and radio broadcast performances. If nothing else it was a great chance to see her sing in her native tongue!

Let me be clear from the outset, I found Rimsky-Korsakov’s music pretty much forgettable and really not sophisticated enough to grace the stage of a major Opera House. Mark Elder and his beautiful conducting, and the alert and responsive orchestra could not disguise the really thin and plodding music that Rimsky endowed them with.

This performance may have  not turned me into a fan of the composer but it made an interesting impact, I thought that the contemporary staging of the piece really benefited the action. Had they kept the 16th century setting it would have made for a very miserable night at the ROH. The addition of the Mafia and the salubrious settings gave the piece an interesting dark veneer that has a lot in common both with story itself and the world around us. Paul Curran was not exercising a self indulgent directorial streak by transferring the action, he was adding another layer of meaning that gave the work more relevance and interest.


The restaurant setting allowed for an intriguing meeting of bourgeoisie surroundings and criminality to co exist and cross fertilise. Remember reading tweets about the lack of smoking in this part that was deemed to detract from the apparent pursuit of realism. Well, interestingly there were at least two members of the chorus that were sporting cigarettes in addition to a drug transaction in the foreground. Johan Reuter was the early star of the act with convincing acting and a bright timbre that made him the centre of all the action. It was at this maelstrom of butch masculinity that Lyubasha, as portrayed by Ekaterina Gubanova was sucked into. Her melancholic peasant song shone with confidence and an obvious need for approval and male attention. She was needy and proud, a combination difficult to pull of but she did do it with gusto. Unfortunately the guy seating in front of me fell asleep and missed most of her part in this act…a great loss indeed.


Brought the first appearance of Marfa (portayed by Marina Poplavskaya) at the back of the restaurant, merrily dancing around and fooling about with her best friend Dunyasha (Jurgita Adamonyte). The acting side of the scene was beautifully conveyed and both singers sang with feeling and merry abandon. Luybasha’s entry and the gang circling created an end of an era feel, prefiguring the tragic finale. The scene between Bomelius (Vasily Gorshkov) and Luybasha was one of the highlights of the night as Gubanova was singing some of the best vocal writing by the composer, while acting her socks off against a mountain of a man. This transaction that was the stuff of folklore and myth (a poison to make Marfa ugly and thus undesirable to Gryaznoy, her lover) became much more real and sleazy. A mix of necessity, jealousy and malice. A mix of feelings that brought her character more into life and her rivalry with Marfa into sharp focus. She was the scorned lover wanting revenge against the almost virginal purity of the object of affection. A situation that quite a few members of the audience must have had to deal with at some stage of their live, hopefully minus the use of poison. It was truly disappointing the deafening silence after Gubanova’s scena. A bizarre reaction that will remain a mystery.


After the interval we were treated to a marvellous set depicting an oligarch’s penthouse apartment complete with pool and mega skyscrapers being built in the distance on the photographic backcloth. It was a decadent setting for a sharp turn to the plot. We begin with the declaration of the nuptials between Marfa and Likov. After some male bonding between Likov (vividly sang by Dmytro Popov) and Gryaznoy the arrival of  Marfa seemed awkward and she looked a bit lost till she had to sing her passionate lovers’ duet with Likov. In my view he stole the show by declaring his love on the diving board and a neat touch was presenting her the wedding ring in a trademark green Tiffany box. The announcement that she is selected to be the Tsar’s Bride comes as if the whole weight of the universe has fallen on our protagonists’ shoulders. The close of the act brings us to a full circle from extreme happiness to profound despair and helplessness.


The backdrop is a shiny photo reproduction of a gilt panelled room with a racked red velvet covered floor. And as if to help the singers project (especially Marfa in all her weakness) the stage is much more enclosed space (see detail of set in picture collage above). Reuter is heartbreaking admitting that he poured the potion in the Tsarina’s drink but is cut short by Lyubasha rushing in to admit that she swapped the love potion with her poison. Gubanova was extremely passionate, being every bit the desperate woman. A totally outstanding contribution, that infuriated me that it did not get applauded! The only staging anomaly came from Reuter stabbing her straight in her abdomen while the chorus was describing the knife going through her heart. A silly disconnect but easily understandable under the pressure of the passionate exchange between the two singers. Marfa’s portrayal was as a demented jilted bride. Poplavskaya’s demeanour and physical appearance was a good match, but dramatically something was missing. I had the nagging feeling that she was controlling the character too much, that her madness was over analysed. Especially against the emotional volcano of Gubanova’s portrayal she had to give her Tsarina a little bit more substance. Adding to this, the extremely thin orchestration, the finale lacked in satisfaction and catharsis. Curran allowing for Marfa to have her throat cut in the last seconds of the opera was a great spark of showmanship, but it was a shame we did not feel too much empathy for her trials.


I can happily report that Gubanova, Popov and Reuter got the loudest applause on the night. Poplavskaya appearing a bit sour and actually not getting such a loud applause, I just wanted to scream at her “you should be enjoying yourself more”. As her vocal performance and some of her acting were very convincing, I still think her voice is missing that all important bloom when she’s reaching for her higher register. But she is a promising force if she allows herself to develop more, dramatically.

In conclusion this was an interesting evening with some really stimulating action on stage. The great conducting by Mark Elder was ultimately betrayed by the sheer lack of stellar music. It may be one of the gems of Russian opera but in my view it really cannot stand next to any accomplished opera by Donizetti, Bellini or Verdi. It was lacking the characterful qualities of Italian bel canto and at the same time it failed to offer a distinctive alternative as a showcase of the Russian school, the establishment of which was Rimsky-Korsakov’s obsession. Finally I would like to see a lot more of Paul Curran in the directorial seat at the Royal Opera, his contribution was really wonderful.

Is it a yey or a ney?

27 Apr

A number of critics have written their reviews of The Tsar’s Bride that currently runs at the Royal Opera House.

Based on the common knowledge that I am no huge fan of  Poplavskaya here is how the reviews I’ve seen shape up:

  • The Daily Mail’s critic judges her performance as outstanding
  • Rupert in the Torigraph seems to think she was in shinningly beautiful voice
  • The Islington Gazette seems to ignore her.
  • The Stage gives and overall glowing review highlighting Marina’s sensitivity coming to the fore.
  • Over at The Guardian, Andrew Clements found her performance glacial and reading between the lines he allows as to assume trite. While his Observer colleague Fiona Maddocks gave points to her coolness matching to the heroine but points out to poor intonation and dryness.
  • Bachtrack’s David Karlin seemed rather impressed with her performance and called it memorable and lyrical.
  • What’s on Stage didn’t quite mentions anything particularly about her performance on the night.
  • The Independent’s Anna Picard was not that impressed by the opera itself but seemed to enjoy the singing +1 for Popsy, then.

To do it in scorecard stylee

So this time it seems Marina has won over the professionals…hope I will be able to confirm that with my piece that will come after tonight’s performance!

Links for reviews:

What’s on Stage

Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph

Islington Gazette

What’s on Stage

The Guardian

The Observer


The Independent

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