Tag Archives: Royal Festival Hall

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

Lutosławski magic / Philharmonia Orchestra + Matthias Goerne + Jennifer Koh + Esa-Pekka Salonen / Royal Festival Hall – 21 March 2013

22 Mar

Philharmonia LutoslawskiTo call a concert an exhilarating, gripping experience with lots of unexpected contrasts twists and turns may seem an over the top description. But last night the Philharmonia’s smashing mix of Ravel and Lutosławski was a magical journey across 20th century repertoire without compromise and with a true visionary at the helm.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a conductor/composer that is both inspirational and a great front for contemporary music. His tireless promotion of less popular and neglected repertoire a particular streak that runs through his work with the Philharmonia. A short film that preceded the performance was a touching introduction to the composer with a particular emphasis on EPS’s sense of duty to spread Lutosławski’s music to a new generation of audiences. And based on the outcome of this concert I am very interested to hear more of his music. He seems to bridge the gap between Debussy, Ravel , Stravinsky and the 60’s electronic avant-garde. But all with a purely acoustic sound. Some of the spectral effects and unusual combination of instruments brings surprise and is a reflection on his compositional methods based on chance. The overall effect of his 4th Symphony has a similar impact and quality to Stockhausen’s Mittwoch. Using the orchestra as a box of tricks, unleashing unexpected pairings and lush (alternating with harsh) contrasting textures. Despite the echoes of other works all three pieces by Lutosławski were individual and distinctive. The melodic line being kept lean and piercing, articulating the material with unfolding gradations.

The opening Ravel was conducted with utmost delicacy by a batonless EPS controlling the orchestra with balletic precision and astounding refinement. The suite permeated by playful accents and ethereal textures. A fantastic opener to an action packed evening.

Symphony No4 opens with a fantastic, otherworldly, shimmering conversation between strings and two harps. As imposing and as grand an opening as Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and with an  equally unexpected development. He takes the formal arrangement of the instruments and cascades melodic sections from the timpani and horns down to the strings. Prominent roles for trumpet and the thundering piano add to some overwhelming tutti. There is a sense of fascination with the orchestra and its many possibilities. He keeps exploring and inventing throughout the body of the work. And concludes with a grandiose coda that brings clarity and resolution. The reception was thunderous and led to Salonen picking up the score and lifting it in the air in appreciation. Surely a work that means a lot to him personally as he was then starting his tenure with the LA Philharmonic who commissioned the work from the composer. And he conducted it with great skill and vibrancy.

Les espaces du sommeil was a wonderfully dreamy piece based on the surrealist poem by Robert Desnos. The composition of the constituent parts were inspired by the syllabic distribution of the piece. Written for  Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau it makes use of the hushed baritonal voice to create an atmosphere of dreamy lightness in the opening passages. Goerne adding his Germanic vocal heft was a good choice for this work that seems deceptively simple, but has quite a few high lying sustained passages toward the finale.

Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra has to be one of the most strikingly original and complex pieces ever written for violin. Jennifer Koh more than rose to the occasion, in the process sacrificing quite a few bow hairs. The intensity of the piece and the demands on the performer are phenomenal in terms of speed and agility. There is a great listening guide presented by the soloist on the Philharmonia’s website.

Ravel’s La valse was a great finale to this exquisite programme demonstrating the transparency of the orchestra’s string section and with EPS cutting through the distorted Viennese Waltz appearances with wit and fire. He managed to extract so much detail and force from the orchestra that the final burst was utterly glorious. In the concert’s context it almost felt as a farewell to the Austrian dream in the ashes of the Second World War instead of a ballet composition from 1920.  A wrap up of a truly memorable evening laced with lots of challenging repertoire performed to the highest standard.

All the contents of the season’s programme can be found here, do have a read if you want to know more about the composer and the performers.

Philharmonia Lutoslawski list

Dangerous sex appeal and OAP “dancing” / Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divas / Royal Festival Hall – 30 September 2012

2 Oct

What can anyone say about Anna Caterina Antonacci that hasn’t been written over and over again over the last twenty years. On Sunday night she proved to be one of the finest dramatic singers of our times. Dressed in a gorgeous silk crepe dress in darkest charcoal, resembling molten rubber in its movement and pearl jewellery she looked every inch the diva.

Ana Cata listAnyone starting a programme with Medea’s Act One aria is asking for trouble and indeed she did sound not fully warmed up and an aria of such emotional depth that makes demand from the widest extents of the singer’s range is a risk. Of course what makes Antonacci such a supreme artist is her sense of danger, her magnetic sex appeal and her consummate attention to the material at hand. Her ability to switch on to the character in seconds from the musical introduction is astonishing at close proximity, her eyes flaming with the rage of the abandoned woman who comes to claim Jason as hers. One is incapable to take their eyes off her, the fresh sounding OAE created the perfect conditions for Antonacci to weave her spell with this most favourite of arias. Her delivery may not have been as smooth as could have been but Cherubini’s intended vim and brilliance were there in abundance.

The biting command of the character and reality she brought to it continued in her other arias. Having portrayed two of  the characters on stage before must have been a great help for her.
O malheureuse Iphigénie was deeply moving with her singing caressing the delicate playing of the orchestra.  Once more her incisive singing, paying attention to every single word was simply wonderful. Many a singer can get on a concert platform and do a diva approximation, Antonacci embodied the grandeur of Gluck’s tragedy with such decorum and charisma. Proving what a rare commodity she really is.

After the interval she sang Didon’s last aria from Les Troyens Je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité and while she may not have the smooth plush sound that Eva-Maria  spoilt us with, in the recent staging at the Royal Opera, she brought an immaculate presence and sense of drama and precision to the text. What she did for Cassandre at Covent Garden she pretty much repeated on a concert platform for Didon. A perfect example why I am unhappy tolerate inadequate acting on the operatic stage, a pretty sounding voice and immaculate technique are never enough, especially when a theatrical dynamo like Antonacci is gracing stages worldwide.

Her encore was Chanson Bohème from Carmen (a great lead into the Bizet symphony that followed) and again her vibrant characterisation and passionate delivery was short of astounding. An instant reminder of her past as the seminal Carmen   of the last 15 years. And again the transition from distraught queen of Carthage to furious gypsy was instantaneous and complete. This was seriously an evening not to be forgotten.

Of course you will ask how was the Haydn and the Bizet and I will tell you very good as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is too professional to be dragged down by Roger Norrington’s barely there conducting. I am afraid the Haydn conducting consisted of the nation’s favourite conducting granddad in his nightgown dancing embarrassingly to every change of tempo and subtle nuance. It maybe would have been better to try to bring together the different parts of the symphony instead of giving us the Norrington show which was excruciating. Instead of maybe having the score for both pieces he was just reduced to a strange acrobatic act. Interestingly when a score was produced for the arias and the dances by Gluck the conducting was a bit more focused and the orchestra responded accordingly.

The orchestra acquitted itself with some deliciously French sounding playing with oboes creating the colourful backbone for Gluck and Cherubini, while Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute playing was a constant source of joy, particularly in the second movement of the Haydn.  They were also helped by the more resonant acoustic of the hall, since the organ loft was open (with half the pipes still away for restoration) adding much-needed reverberation.

I wonder if the acres of empty seats inside the Royal Festival Hall can be attributed to Norrington or just that on a Sunday night Londoners are not prepared to get out for one of the greatest singers of our times? Whatever the reason, it was a shame for her to have to look out at a half full auditorium.

Looking forward to the second instalment of the series next month with the beloved Sarah Connolly …thankfully this concert takes place at the smaller, nearby, Queen Elizabeth Hall.

And on a shamelessly commercial level…I would urge everyone to get a copy of this just released song recital from the Wigmore Hall.

Some tweets from the evening


Antonacci in action

The veteran diva conundrum / Jessye Norman Sings American Masters / Royal Festival Hall – 21 May 2012

24 May

When one refers to Jessye Norman in polite company her legendary diva demands seem to be only second to those of the justly maligned Kathleen Battle. Her history in the scene is illustrious and much storied. Even if her appearances are relatively infrequent nowadays, they still spark an excitement unlike most opera singers. I would go on to suggest that  the audience on Monday night was even more rumbustious than the one at JDF’s Royal Albert Hall recital…quite an achievement for a semi retired diva that sings jazz standards. But unlike JDF, this recital had the uncomfortable feel that the rapturous applause was in acknowledgement of her history and career and not a true reflection of what she gave us, overall, on the night.

Last time I heard her live was in 2003 at her one off performance collaboration with Steve McQueen at Tate Britain it was an amazing evening and one I will treasure for ever. Having the chance to see her in such a small venue and in such informal circumstances and the adrenaline boost it gave us all, it was unlike many an event I’ve been to since. Unfortunately in the intervening years her voice has lost some of its powerful beauty and cohesion, it seems her upper and lower register have become disconnected and when any of the three first songs demanded a gleaming, seamless pass through from messa to head voice she delivered an almost painfully dull approximation.

Starting this programme with Somewhere was clearly an over-optimistic gesture as she either lacks the ability to sing this show stopper in her current vocal state or that she was not well warmed up. Instead of Bernstein’s music sounding effervescent we got a very slow tempo that made the song droll on while she was trying too hard to live up to the requirements. It was not a pleasant sight and it was a shame to start the evening like that.

Most numbers that followed were again a battle with the voice but also a matter of suitability of the repertoire. I don’t think that she wanted to engage with the jazz standards in a truly meaningful way, all of those numbers where turned into self indulgent exercises in divadom…roll out long phrases, extent most vowels beyond the capacity of the English language and all with a voice that betrayed her a number of times.

The stand out highlights of the first half were a very slow but shimmering with colour version of But Not For Me which brought out a charm in her and also a bitterly humorous side which was a great fit. The magisterial My Man’s Gone Now which had all the gleam one would expect with scale progressions that were accurate and dreamy. Her Bess was the promise at the back of my head the second half could be much better.

For the second half she used a microphone to gently amplify her output, and a piano stool to sit on truly made a dramatic difference to both her levels of comfort on stage and to the depth of the interpretation. The upbeat and frivolous (and even updating the lyrics) dispatch of My Baby Just Cares for Me was fun and engaging. Her Stormy Weather was thoughtful and atmospheric and led to the exceptional highlight of the night. Her interpretation of Another Man Done Gone which was only accompanied by the drum like sound of Mark Markham’s right fist hitting the side of the piano. It was concentrated and beautiful, haunted and fully lived. She lifted this folk song to the realms of a spiritual, it was extraordinary and made everyone at the hall have a lump in their throat. She used her vocal range in all its expressive differentiations, reaching to the very lowest of her chest voice for a contralto like darkness. This was a flash of her past brilliance and her extraordinary ability to engage with the material and breathe life into it away from diva like posturing. One of those rare moments when time stands still and one can only hear the vocalist and their own heart beat…a moment of bliss.

The three Duke Ellington numbers closed the programme in an upbeat fashion seeing her deliver them in variable degrees of cheekiness. The fans went crazy and standing ovations followed. We were treated to two encores, first was a very straight version of A Foggy Day (in London Town) which again displayed the well known warmth of her voice to great effect. But the final number was again an amazing return to form, Summertime was sung with empathy, softness and warmth. A totally enrapturing combination of melody and lyrics. It was sublime and a great cumulative sign of artistry by one of the most magnetic stage performers of the last forty years. It surely made me lust after an all Gershwin programme. Despite the feel of a “Farewell Streisand” concert this evening had a few moments of glory that made it more than worthwhile. 

Some tweets from the evening

How much?

25 Jan

Having had a look through the new season listings by the major London-based orchestras. Somehow happened upon the amazingly high prices of visiting orchestras, (Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra / Staatskapelle Berlin) particularly at the Royal Festival Hall…top price seems to be a consistent £85, which seems very steep and even the back of the Stalls is priced at £70! At the same venue the Philharmonia’s top price is £35 with some premium seats at £45. The LPO charge £39, with premium seats at a considerable £65.

Compare that with the top price for many Barbican concerts by the LSO  of £35 and decent seats at Circle for £19.50 .  At the same venue the New York Phil is playing with a top price of £45!

The Wigmore Hall is charging an average top price of £30-35 with some very decent seats for £15-20.

Clearly the subsidy from the Corporation of London is helping to keep Barbican prices on the low-end, but am very surprised by the prices at the South Bank Centre. Paying £85-70 in order to listen to music at the very hollow acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall is not exactly the most tempting proposition. This season except for a rare London appearance by Jessye Norman I will stay away from the RFH due to their prices, regrettably as I do love the Philharmonia.

The SBC is pricing themselves out of my concert going budget and make themselves look terrible value even in comparison to the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Has anyone else noticed the climb in prices?

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