Tag Archives: Robert Murray

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

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An English journey / Frank Bridge songs recital / Wigmore Hall – 26 September 2012

27 Sep

This recital was my baptism of fire as far as the work of Frank Bridge is concerned. Iain Burnside has been championing him in the last few years and somehow had managed to miss attending any of them.

This recital with songs hand-picked by Burnside was a true indulgence and showed the two soloists in the best light. Their passion for the material was evident and it displayed a unique emotional arc from a frivolous and happy lost world before the first world war to the immense sadness soon after. Genteel romantic poetry contrasted with bleak, muscular prose relating to loss and warfare. This recital also included a song by his teacher (Stanford) and two by his most famous pupil (Britten). This historical revision of Bridge’s output is timely with the Britten centenary in 2013 and also because it brings a large swathe of English art songs to a much wider audience. The Wigmore Hall has to be congratulated for its current Bridge series which is both an education for all of us and great nights out.

The two hurt, ghoulish songs by Britten were the most poignant and heart stopping performances of the evening. Tynan offered her voluptuous voice unconditionally to the composer’s trademark biting setting of the text. For the a capella beginning of The trees they grow so high she shared the piano stool with Burnside. It was serene and eased us all in a world of loss and inevitability. The disarming confidence the song was delivered with was absolutely stunning. Despite Tynan’s sparkling stage presence she can deliver pain and suffering with as much ease as she can radiate happiness and bounce. The final lines of this Somerset folk song concludes  in a repetitive woven together growing, growing which was spellbinding. ‘Tis the last rose of summer was equally gorgeous and she delivered some very high lying passages in the second and third verse with stunning clarity.

Her delivery of  Stanford’s La belle dame sans merci was beautifully evocative with lively narration setting the woodland scene. It culminated in an intense nightmarish vision that she expressed in a paroxysm, fitting a romantic poem by Keats. Bridge it seems was not a stranger to high campery as So early in the morning proves, peppered with chromatic bird and water effects concluding what was a mini operetta based on a poem that tellingly came from a collection titled ‘Adventures of Seumas Beg and the rocky road to Dublin’ published in 1915.

One of the most gorgeously simple pieces by Bridge was The violets blue that Tynan sang with a melancholic resignation that was beautifully touching.

Robert Murray’s voice is a text book English tenor sound with a very sophisticated edge (I admired his contribution at a recent Gerontius when he stepped in for an indisposed singer). His I hear the dear song sounding was like a miniature Winterreise, pain and longing encapsulated in four minutes with youthful ardour . He managed a very soft and sensitive middle voice  for Where she lies asleep which was dreamy and beguiling. When singing the more bravado laden songs in the second half he displayed a much more dark temperament and sense of gravitas. The dead/Blow out you bugles was proclamatory and sang against a heavy piano accompaniment creating battle sounds and noble military sacrifice.

As you can tell it was a wonderful evening that makes me looking forward to another Bridge evening next month. Who said art song has to be German to be moving, deep and entertaining?

Some tweets from the evening

Almost all change / The Dream of Gerontius / CBSO Orchestra / Barbican Hall – 14 April 2012

21 Apr

It’s an unusual situation when both the conductor and the tenor have pulled out of a performance of The Dream of Gerontius but when one trades Andris Nelsons for Edward Gardner and Toby Spence for Robert Murray the issue can be overcome.

Haven’t heard the CBSO for some time and was impressed with the dark sound of their playing. For anyone used to the luminous string playing of the LSO or the New York Philharmonic, this orchestra is a different beast. It has almost a Germanic depth but with a much more earthy feel. A sound very appropriate for what is for English music the equivalent to an oratorio.

The orchestra played with vibrancy and concentration under a very energetic Gardner. All three soloists gave a convincing portrayal and I must single out Sarah Connolly who despite the onset of bronchitis she did not cancel. Seemingly we are always happy to bash artists for not showing but very rarely we applaud the majority of hard working musicians that show up for work despite health problems. She had a bit of a raw edge to her delivery to start off with, but soon settled to the creamy full throated sound we know too well. Her Alleluia rang across the auditorium, the Angel that Elgar wanted had arrived. Robert Murray offered some very sensitive singing that was very touching. His dying Gerontius was a terrified mortal awaiting judgement, the liberated soul turned into a different beast altogether a much lighter, searching personage showed through. His final descent into the purgatory was portrayed as a devastating blow. James Rutherford added the much needed gravitas and darkness and offered solid grounding to the ethereal music. The choir was exceptional in their tonal variety from the heavenly sounds of the opening to the terrifying chorus of the demons flanking the descriptions of the Angel guiding the soul of Gerontius.

The slightly bizarre god fearing tendencies of the text are not maybe the greatest poetry to set to music, but Elgar’s treatment is an interesting solution to a very old problem. The vitality of the some of the music is unlike a lot of his more routine work and when performed with as much panache as from the forces of the CBSO it becomes much easier to ignore any textual failings.

PS Sarah Connolly is scheduled to perform in another Gerontius on 26  January 2013 with the London Philharmonic, conducted by  Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

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