Showing posts with label Glyndebourne. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Glyndebourne. Show all posts

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Meet Jonathan Kent

I interviewed the director Jonathan Kent for The Independent, trailing the opening tonight of his celebrated production of The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Do catch it if you can. Interview is in today's Radar section, but somewhat chopped, so here's the director's cut.



Search online for “Jonathan Kent” and you might discover he is the adoptive father of Superman. As it happens, the real Jonathan Kent, 68, the versatile theatre director, has nurtured many super stagings across an eclectic variety of styles and genres. I catch him during a break from rehearsals for his new Gypsy at Chichester Festival Theatre, starring Imelda Staunton; simultaneously, Glyndebourne is reviving for its autumn tour his production of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. 

A former actor himself, born in South Africa and resident in Britain since the late 1960s, Kent was joint director of the Almeida Theatre with Ian McDiarmid between 1990 and 2002; but since testing his operatic wings at Santa Fe in 2003, he has soared in this field. 

Kent describes himself as “a theatre director who does opera”, rather than a specialist. “I was occasionally asked to direct an opera while I was running the Almeida,” he says, “but opera books you three or four years ahead and it was always impossible because theatre operates on a much shorter timescale. One of the glories of being freelance is that I can now take on more opera and I’ve had a very happy and fulfilling time.”

He insists that working with singers is not so different from working with actors: “It’s rather a canard to think that singers don’t want to act,” he says. “They absolutely do – they are interested in the psychology of their roles – and they want to be recognised for it, especially now that so much is being filmed.” 

Psychology is more than central to The Turn of the Screw. Britten’s opera is based on Henry James’s novella in which a governess tries to save two children from what she suspects are malevolent spirits bent on their destruction. “It’s about the nature of being haunted” says Kent, “and the exploration of what evil is – whether there is such a thing, and how we generate our own evil.” 

This production, first created for Glyndebourne On Tour in 2006, has travelled well – it been taken up by Los Angeles Opera, among others – and Kent says he is “thrilled” by its longevity. It makes use of contemporary devices such as filmed projections, while nevertheless placing the action firmly in the 1950s, in which era Britten composed it; the mix gives it a timeless feel. “That was a decade when social hierarchies were in place, however shakily – governesses and housekeepers ‘knew their place’ and also had credibility,” says Kent, “but it also marked the end of a sort of age of innocence.” The two ghosts sing a terrifying line from WB Yeats: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” 

“The opera is different from the novella because the ghosts inevitably are corporeal: they sing, they exist and there’s no question about it,” Kent continues. “The ‘thin skin’ of a window separates reality from imagination and keeps feared things at bay, but of course it’s completely translucent and permeable.” 

The projections, which Kent says he wanted to resemble the wobbly old home movies he remembers from his childhood, were mostly filmed at Glyndebourne itself, apparently more out of necessity than design. “Still,” he adds, “one could almost do a production of this opera that travels around Glyndebourne as an installation. It has a lake, an old house – everything is there.” 

Unlike certain other directors, Kent’s stagings do not have recurrent hallmarks; he brings each an individual approach on its own terms. For Glyndebourne he has created visions as distinctive as what he terms “a firework” of celebration in Purcell’s The Fairie Queen for the composer’s 350th anniversary in 2009, last year’s venture into Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, and a powerful Don Giovanni in the style of Fellini’s La dolce vita.

At the Royal Opera he has tackled Puccini: his Tosca is a detailed period-piece that has been filmed with the all-star cast of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel. But earlier this year, his Manon Lescaut – again with Kaufmann, singing opposite the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais – transferred the action squarely to the present, drawing out the squalid nature of its tragedy. Perhaps inevitably, some critics took against it. 

Tosca demanded to be done in period,” Kent says. “There’s so much historical reference; it’s absolutely specific. But Manon Lescaut explores many of our current preoccupations – the exploitation of women, the cult of celebrity and the collateral damage of all that – so I am unrepentant about not having done that opera in powdered wigs.” 

Does he ever feel that critics just don’t get it? “If one’s waiting for critics to ‘get it’, one could be waiting a long time,” he laughs. “You can only do what you do and hope people will like it.”


The Turn of the Screw launches at Glyndebourne on Saturday 18 October before touring to five venues across the country. To book tickets go to: Glyndebourne.com  


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Meet...Tara Erraught

Rising star alert: Irish mezzo Tara Erraught is giving her London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday afternoon. She is then singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. I've been following her career for a good few years as she's worked her way up, not least via the Bavarian State Opera's young artist programme, and her enthusiastic advocates include pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who introduced and accompanied her in a big outdoor concert in Amsterdam a few years back. I asked her for an e-interview... First, an extract from La Clemenza di Tito in Munich...




JD: Tara, tell us about you. You’re from a big family in Ireland? How did you start to sing?  

TE: I am one of three children, but we grew up on my grandfather’s farm on the east coast, with all of my mother’s family.
        I began to play the violin aged five, as we had a wonderful orchestra in the primary school, and all of my family had learned before me. However, when I was ten I was taken for my first singing lesson with the wonderful Geraldine Magee in Dundalk, with whom I studied until the age of 17. I was a huge fan of singing and I knew every word to the cassette tapes of Neil Diamond and the hits from the 60s that my parents had, so it was a good time to learn an appropriate song for a young girl! I loved it from the very beginning - there was never any question of which I preferred.

JD: What have been your big career breaks so far? Which roles/concerts have you enjoyed most up til now?

TE: I have been so lucky! Really blessed to have such opportunities. Firstly, I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, without whom one could not tackle wonderful opportunities when they arise. Before we mention professional success, I should mention how important it was to my career becoming a member of the opera studio of the Bavarian State Opera. That was already a "big break". Directly after the third year of my undergraduate degree, they offered me a position in Munich, which of course I jumped at! Two immensely important years that helped form my performance abilities, stage technique, understanding of the industry and audition practices. Without these things I would not be where I am today. 
            Since then, I think most everybody would say my big break was jumping in at five days notice to sing Romeo in the first night of Vincent Boussard's production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. It was an amazing evening, one that I will never forget for the rest of my life, so I hold that opera very close. I sang the title role in a first night of Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Vienna State Opera in 2013, another wonderful time, with a composer I LOVE! Of course I must also mention my last role debut as Sesto in a premiere production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito at the Bayerische Staatsoper this past March. Another production I will never forget, a stunning role, surrounded by my best friends on the stage, this was a very special experience! 
JD: What has it been like to be on contract to the Bavarian State Opera? What does their young artist programme offer that is special? In what ways has it been good for you?
TE: It is wonderful to be a principal Soloist at the Staatsoper, not only as a performer but also because many other incredible performances and artists surround us on a daily basis. I loved my time in the opera studio. There were only eight members and not only did we have singing lessons, repertoire coaching, drama class, language classes, but also one full production a year, as well as small roles on the big stage, the ability to watch performances, and more importantly, to watch other artists rehearse. What I learned there about my own voice, my performance abilities, was incredible, but it was so very important to watch older singers, to learn the tricks of the trade through observation.
JD: You’re about to sing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne. How do you like Glyndebourne? And how do you like Octavian? What are your thoughts about his character?

TE: Glyndebourne is the most stunningly beautiful place! You can’t imagine what it is like to take a break from rehearsal, and enjoy some air while walking through the gardens or around the lake! I mean, it’s something from a dream. I am loving our rehearsals, the cast and collective colleagues are a great team, and although we laugh a lot, we get a lot done! 
Without giving away much about my character, I will say that I don't play him, I try to inhabit him, and in turn I think there is quite a depth to this young man. He is not in an easy situation from any angle, and he goes from being a young lover, to being a man... it’s an amazing growth to experience. However, to say any more would be giving things away... I must say, I LOVE this music, it enraptures you! This is my first Strauss main role, and I tell you, it pulls at your heart strings! At our first musical rehearsal I didn't even make it to the end of the first act without shedding a few tears of total awe.

5. Tell us about your programme for the Wigmore recital - how did you choose it? (It is an unusual line-up of Brahms, Britten, Wolf and Haydn.) Are you excited about singing at the Wigmore?

TE: I cannot tell you how excited I am to make my British recital debut in the stunning surroundings of the Wigmore Hall. I have just finished my second recital tour in the USA and I loved every minute, so I am so looking forward to doing a recital here! A recital is a wonderful way to get close to the audience, to feel them, what they like, and to discover new levels in your own performance.
            The programme: I wanted to do some of my favourite repertoire, which reflects where my path has taken me thus far. The Wolf and Brahms, both German, are so so much fun to sing, goodness me, I mean, talk about a belly full of fire! I desperately wanted to do some Britten as I have not yet had the pleasure to sing any of his operas, but I have always been a big fan of his music, and to take his folks songs out and present them seemed like the perfect idea! Finishing with the Haydn, I began singing in Italian as I learned my vocal technique, so to come back to this language is always a pleasure, and I just LOVE this piece! 
JD: What are your dream roles for the future? 

TE: There are so many - it all depends on where the voice decides to go. I would love to sing a Donna del LagoItaliana in Algeri andOtello from Rossini as well as Mozart’s Susanna from Figaro - those four are right up there on my list. Some day, I want to revisit Romeo, I will also look at Der Componist from Ariadne auf Naxos, Adalgisa from Norma, Orsini from Lucrezia Borgia and Sarah from Roberto Deveraux. But right now, I am happy with the roles I am singing! 

JD: Any more highlights for the rest of the summer or the 2014-15 season that you’d like to flag up?
TE: I am very much looking forward to taking a supporting role this autumn in a new production of the Makropulos Case in Munich, a holiday performance of Hansel with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, singing Barbiere and La Cenerentola in Hamburg next winter, making my US operatic debut in Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, and returning home to Dublin for my first solo gala with the RTE next June.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Um, in case you were wondering where I was...


...I've been in New York and - in between shopping, museum-hopping and seeing all my oldest and dearest friends - spent a rather pleasant hour in a press room at the Met with the gentleman above, who recovered from his bout of flu in time for a good chinwag. I've been trying to make this happen for years rather than months...and it was worth the wait.

JFK - Jonas Fluey Kaufmann, natch - is in NY preparing for a new production of Werther, which opens on 18 Feb, directed by Richard Eyre and also starring the glorious Sophie Koch as Charlotte (see the new issue of Opera News, just out, for my cover feature about her). HD cinecast is on 15 March. Be there. You'll like it.

It was also wonderful to see Glyndebourne's production of Billy Budd - imported wholesale, orchestra, chorus, Marks Elder and Padmore and all - receive a massive ovation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the other night. New Yorkers, you have two more chances to see it this week. Here's a rave review from the New York Times.

Just flew home from...JFK. Incredibly, only 5 hrs 40 mins.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...




Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.





Sunday, August 25, 2013

Watch 'Don Pasquale' from Glyndebourne






It's a wet Sunday and - while not denigrating what I'm sure will be a fabulous Prom tonight - some of us have already seen Parsifal three times this year. So it's time for something cheery. The visually gorgeous, emotionally sophisticated production from Glyndebourne of Donizetti's Don Pasquale is just the ticket. Directed by Mariame Clément with designs by Julia Hansen, it plumps this masterpiece of bel canto tragicomedy into the heart of a world none too far from Dangerous Liaisons.

It does so by asking one vital question about the drama's essence: why is Dr Malatesta doing this? What's in it for him? Answer: he has a thing going with la bella Norina. Could it be that he's out to trick poor old Pasquale so that Norina can marry the sweet, wimpy Ernesto, be comfortably off and assure her future on the side with Malatesta, an arrangement which appears to suit both of them rather well?

Danielle de Niese stars as an irrepressible and satisfyingly complex Norina, kind-hearted yet determined, caring about Ernesto yet in sexual thrall to Malatesta. Vocally she is strong and colourful, infusing each whirl of coloratura with expressive purpose. Here, in the Independent the other week, she told me about why the bathroom scene presented a few challenges for the cinema relay...

Alessandro Corbelli is perfect as the duped Pasquale - and it is nice that he isn't left wholly in the lurch at the bittersweet conclusion. In the theatre,w hen I went there last week, Alek Schrader's Ernesto seemed beautiful in tone but a tad lacking in amplitude, while Nikolay Borchev as Malatesta proved a baritone full of suitable smoulder and streetwise assurance. Ernesto Mazzola - a glory of a bel canto conductor - creates an atmosphere satisfactorily replete with bubbles. And listen out for Kristine Blaumane's gorgeous cello solo.

It takes a lot to make a Glyndebourne audience clap a tableau upon curtain up; the all-white 18th-century chorus costumes did the trick last week. But - thought for the day here - wouldn't it be wonderful if productions that were not set in the distant past could sometimes produce the same effect? Intriguingly, I have just met and interviewed a cutting-edge opera director - more of whom very soon - who admitted to having a blind spot about bel canto. Chacun a son gout...

The opera is available to watch on the Guardian website, from which I have borrowed it, until 31 August.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Historical: Some amazing tales from Glyndebourne


Here's my piece from yesterday's Independent about what happened to Glyndebourne during World War II. It was transformed into a centre for children evacuated from London's east end - and that history has now inspired a new staging of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which opens tomorrow. I talked to its young director, Katharina Thoma, whose first UK production this is.

Meanwhile, we hear that the cats are back in Falstaff...there are calls for the cat manipulator to take a bow, but naturally the truth is that the ginger one is Solti, who sneaks to Sussex and back by private cat-jet when we aren't looking.

Full info on Glyndebourne here.

And to make this a real Friday Historical, here is footage of Figaro from Glyndebourne 1956, with Sena Jurinac as the Countess and Sesto Bruscantini as the Count.





Friday, April 19, 2013

Proms 2013: Hear 7 Wagner Operas for £5 Each

You'll need sandiwches, water, strong shoes and even stronger legs - those operas are loooong - but where else in the world can you go to the complete Ring cycle conducted by Daniel Barenboim and starring Nina Stemme, plus Tristan und Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal, each with major Wagnerian superstars at the helm, and stand just a few metres from the performers, and pay only £5 a time? Yes, the Proms are back and this is one great whopper of a Wagner anniversary season.

There's some Verdi - though no complete operas (apparently this is down to it's-just-how-things-turned-out, rather than any Wagner-is-best conspiracy, before you ask). And a more than fair pop at Britten, including Billy Budd from Glyndebourne. Fans of Granville Bantock, Walton, Rubbra, George Lloyd and Tippett could also be quite happy with this year's line-up.

The glass ceiling is shattering nicely as Marin Alsop takes the helm for the Last Night, becoming the first woman ever to conduct it. Better late than never, and she is a brilliant choice for the task.

Guest artists on the Last Night include Joyce DiDonato and Nigel Kennedy. Nige will be appearing earlier in the season too, playing the good old Four Seasons with his own Orchestra of Life plus the Palestine Strings, which consists of young players from the Edward Said National Conservatories of Music. Lots of piano treats as well - soloists to hear include Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the terrific duo of Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott, Daniil Trifonov in the rarely-heard Glazunov Piano Concerto No.2 and Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis playing Schubert's Grand Duo for piano duet in a late-night Prom.

There's one thing, though, that sent me into meltdown. Leafing through the listings, one turns to 6 August and out leap the words KORNGOLD: SYMPHONY IN F SHARP. I've waited 30 years for this. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's one and only full-blown symphony is coming to the Proms at long, long last. It is being performed by the BBC Philharmonic under John Stogårds. And guess what? I'm supposed to be away on holiday on 6 August. If that isn't the Law of Sod, then what is?

Meanwhile we're promised more TV coverage of the Proms than ever before, and plenty of stuff online, and the invaluable iPlayer to help with catching up. But really, there's no substitute for being there. If you've never been, get a taste of it in the launch film above. Book your tickets now.

Full listings here.








Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Le nozze di Chico?


Supposing the Marx Brothers had got hold of The Marriage of Figaro? It would have been perfect for them: Groucho as the Count, Chico as Figaro and Harpo as Cherubino, aided and abetted by Margaret Dumont as Marcellina and Kitty Carlisle as Susanna. Of course, they didn't. Yet...just look at this poster for A Night at the Opera. There's Susanna on the left, the Count behind her, Figaro taking her hand, Cherubino dreaming alongside...

It's no coincidence. The Marx Brothers, Fawlty Towers and The Marriage of Figaro all share the same root: Commedia dell'Arte. The Count, Basil and Groucho could be seen as derivatives of Pantalone, Chico and Figaro as Harlequin or Pulcinella, Susanna and Polly as Columbine, Harpo and Cherubino as Pierrot, while Fawlty Towers's Manuel is straight from the 'Zanni' character - the immigrant worker - and Sybil is, in certain ways, not all that far from Mozart's Countess...


It's perhaps one of the strengths of Glyndebourne's much-vaunted new production of Le nozze di Figaro, directed by Michael Grandage, that through a series of apparently zany juxtapositions it makes clear the archetypal, timeless nature of its drama - and the connections it leaves in the brain keep clicking into place for days afterwards.

It's a tad startling at first. The scene outside the mansion that accompanies the overture is relatively timeless - hustle, bustle, cleaning and gardening - and it's only when the Count and Countess swing into view inside a magnificent red vintage sportscar that we twig we're in the sixties or early seventies. The sets throughout are so Sevillian that they could be the Alcazar itself (pictured, left - almost certainly the model for the final scene in the garden...)

A medieval Moorish palace; 18th-century music on period instruments; action in an era in which menswear was seriously naff. Yet Grandage focuses intensely on the relationships and their nuances - which could have been taking place five centuries ago or last week. We live, we die, but the nature of love doesn't change. Strange how such an apparently post-modern approach with supposedly clashing eras delivers this indication so much better than the old Glyndebourne production by Graham Vick, apparently set in a rehearsal studio and now often referred to as "the one with the radiators". The stumbling block is, of course, the 'droit du seigneur' - all we can do about that is suspend disbelief.

The highlight of a fine cast was in many ways Sally Matthews's Countess. Her voice and her artistry just keep on growing. Now, equipped with considerable amplitude, a wider vibrato and terrific emotional intensity, she sounds almost Violetta-eque (though there's no actual sign of her singing Traviata any time soon). Lydia Teuscher's ideal Susanna ran her a close second, becoming better and better as the evening went by. Luxury casting, too, for Marcellina - Anne Murray, no less; and Don Basilio - Alan Oke, who despite popping up to fabulous effect in everything from Mozart to Anna Nicole, remains a bizarrely well-kept secret on the British opera scene. He should be better recognised as the consummate star he is, for his warm tenor tones, his magnificent acting and the best diction on stage.

Plaudits all round to the remaining cast, and if the Count appeared unconvincing from time to time, that was not the fault of the excellent Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, but more that his costuming made it difficult to take him seriously. (Pictured: 1) you see what I mean? 2) Basil Fawlty & Manuel...)



At the helm was Robin Ticciati, crown prince of Glyndebourne - he takes over in two years' time when Vladimir Jurowski moves on to pastures new. Young he may be, but this was a thoroughly personal statement. The tempi are characterful and not too fast; there's enough space around the rhythms to hear everything fully; and from time to time the whole ensemble combined to produce a few moments of quiet and radiant tenderness: true Mozart magic.

The OAE did everyone proud, though I can't help wondering whether the decision to play at a pitch of A=430 is all that useful. It may have been the nature of the wind instruments of the correct time and place, but it isn't necessarily the nature of singers of today. During the recitatives, several of them were starting to drift up the teeniest notch, during the unaccompanied passages, towards the level to which they are presumably more accustomed, especially in the early part of the opera (it settled as the work progressed). Perhaps there are now apps to help singers to prepare with tweaked tuning, but you can't practise your recits with a bog-standard piano if everything has to be a quarter-tone flat. If the woodwind sounded truly revelatory, that would be another matter. But they don't.

On balance, then, a beautiful and fascinating evening in which the marriage of Figaro to this legendary tradition adds an enriching dimension. I'm going to clock off now, because otherwise we are going to end up matching the Ring Cycle characters with Fawlty and Harpo and co, and then goodness knows what will happen.





Saturday, May 12, 2012

Singing for their supper picnic...

May? It'll soon be Glyndebourne.

I had a nose about the new season that left me wondering - given the nature of their poster - who the black sheep of the Glynditz family could possibly be. Well, blow me down - it's Ravel? Seems that people don't want to eat something that they can't pronounce. I asked general manager David Pickard how it's all going in these hard times, and also had a chat with Melly Still about her new production of The Cunning Little Vixen - you remember, she was the director of Glyndebourne's utterly magical Rusalka a couple of years ago. Read all about it in my piece for today's Independent.

Meanwhile, Glyndebourne is currently offering a free streaming on its website of On Such a Night. It's a wonderfully 1950s film directed by Anthony Asquith, designed to introduce audiences, and Americans in particular, to the delights of English country house opera. Catch it here.

And if you're heading to Trafalgar Square this evening to hear the LSO, guess what? The sun is out. Is there nothing that Valery Gergiev can't fix?




Sunday, March 18, 2012

No word from Tom...

No word from Tom... he has been sent to perdition by the devil in disguise.



"Love hears, Love knows, Love answers him across the silent miles and goes..."

But as Scottish Opera stages The Rake's Progress for the first time in 40 years (opening night was yesterday), I had a bit of a ponder about why operatic rakes are so damned irresistible. Short version in The Independent the other day. Full-length director's cut below.



Things do not look good for Anne Truelove. “No word from Tom,” she sings, while her beloved vanishes to London, led astray by the sinister Nick Shadow. That is just the start of her problems. Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece, The Rake’s Progress, concludes with a heartbreaking scene in which Anne sings her Tom a lullaby as he dies by inches in the lunatic asylum of Bedlam.

What does Anne see in this wastrel anyway? David McVicar’s new production for Scottish Opera – the company’s first staging of the work for 40 years – will no doubt offer insights of its own. But in general, women in operas do love their rakes too much. And so do we. From Monteverdi’s Renaissance glories onwards, through centuries of operatic drama, it’s not the devil who gets the best tunes: it’s the cads, the bounders, the nogoodniks. 

They cause heartbreak at best, multiple deaths at worst. Some redeem themselves musically, like Monteverdi’s Nero in L’incoronazione di Poppea. Having murdered and executed in order to secure a throne for his mistress, he finally sings with her such a heavenly duet that we forgive them everything.

Others get their come-uppance. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is dragged away to hell by a ghost, and good riddance to him. Puccini’s Lieutenant Pinkerton has to witness the suicide of his former beloved, Madame Butterfly. Perhaps we enjoy their punishments vicariously, for in real life there is usually no such satisfaction, unless it lies in watching news reports of the fall of Silvio Berlusconi. 

But even in opera it doesn’t always happen. The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto is awarded one of Verdi’s most memorable melodies – and he gets away with everything, blithely unaware that the heroine has given her life to save his, while he sashays on towards his next victim. Typical tenor, some would say.

Yes, the good guys are left standing while the rakes loop the loop around our hearts. Don Ottavio, the kind, upstanding fiancé of Donna Anna and possessor of a pair of fine arias, is a wimp of the first order beside Don Giovanni and his sidekick Leporello; he is way too nice to be interesting.

Tom Rakewell manages to remain hero rather than villain, since his fate is not really his fault: Nick Shadow – the devil in disguise – has planned it all. Tom’s decline and fall is not punishment, but tragedy. His secret is nevertheless quite clear. He is that great operatic rarity, a well-rounded character.
That may explain the appeal of those stage rakes: we see more sides of them, especially their human frailties, and perhaps that inspires their composers to greater heights than a bland, single-facet ‘hero’ could. 

Wotan of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the ultimate example. If it were not for his philandering and the punishment meted out for it in Die Walküre by his wife, the rest of the saga would not happen at all.
Wotan is the most fascinating figure of the Ring, his tortured self-questioning making him more human than superhuman. His anguished farewell to his daughter as he puts her to sleep in a circle of fire is, IMHO, the most beautiful passage in all four operas. Meanwhile, Siegfried, touted as a great hero, is a brawny dolt whom it is hard to empathise with, let alone like.

But in the end, this is all about human nature. Many are the women who have fallen for the irresistible rogue rather than his sensible brother with a faithful heart and a proper job. It’s always been that way and probably always will; and if opera reflects this, that makes it all the more true to life. 

Bring on the Rake, then – and the great music that goes with him.

The Rake’s Progress, Scottish Opera, opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 17 March.  Box office: 0844 871 7677

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A good cause at Glyndebourne

If you fancy going to Glyndebourne, getting a look at their new wind turbine (aim: green electric opera?) and supporting a truly excellent cause while you're about it, now's your chance. The mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby has organised a stellar line-up for a special gala on 29 April in aid of Young Epilepsy, Britain's only national charity devoted to children and young people living with epilepsy and other neurological conditions. The evening is being hosted by the actress Joanna Lumley (right), the woman we'd probably elect president if given half a chance. Money raised will go towards the support of the charity's information service, special school, college, residential homes, medical centre and a new school mini-bus.


Among those appearing are Ian Bostridge, Jason Carr, Sarah Connolly, Danielle de Niese, Gerald Finley, Dame Felicity Lott, Diana Montague, Paul Nilon, Brindley Sherratt, Timothy West and of course Jean Rigby herself. Glyndebourne's general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski will also be on hand.




Jean Rigby said: “Our son Ollie has severe epilepsy and is a residential student at Young Epilepsy. He is now in his fifth year and is very well looked after, contented and happy: learning to cope with the challenges he faces now and in the future. I feel so indebted for all Young Epilepsy has done for him and this concert is my way of giving something back.”

Concert and booking information:
The Young Epilepsy Gala Concert will run from 3pm to 5.30pm, including an interval. Guests will be able to wander the famous Glyndebourne gardens in the interval and experience the history and majesty of Glyndebourne.  Glyndebourne’s gardens will be open to visitors from 1pm. Ticket prices start at as little as £15, with prices going up to £85. BOOK NOW online at the Glyndebourne box office at www.glyndebourne.com
 There are a limited number of exclusive Premier Seat Packages available at £175, which includes a souvenir programme, interval champagne and a post-performance reception with the cast.  Or Premier Seats with Dinner at £250 include an additional three course dinner with wine, previewing Albert Roux’s new menu for the 2012 Glyndebourne Festival season.  To book Premier tickets or for more details call Young Epilepsy on 01342 831261 or email: fundraising@youngepilepsy.org.uk 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Glyndebourne powerhouse passes on

Brian Dickie of the Chicago Opera Theater has reported on his blog the death of the pianist Martin Isepp, who for some 40 years was an absolute stalwart of the Glyndebourne music staff. He was head of music at the National Opera Studio from 1978 to 1995. And much, much more besides. I well remember meeting him at Glyndebourne some 10-12 years ago. His jolly, unaffected, unassuming character with an unmistakeable twinkle and a ready smile was a front for a powerhouse of operatic understanding and pianistic knowhow. He died on Christmas Day.




Above, Martin coaching tenor Ryan MacPherson in 2001.

Here is his biography from the National Opera Studio's website:



Martin Isepp ARCM, was born in Vienna and came to England in 1938. He studied piano mainly with Professor Leonie Gombrich, pupil and assistant of Leschetitsky, before reading Music at Oxford University and studying further at the Royal College of Music, London. He began his career in the vocal studio of his mother Helene Isepp, and went on to partner such singers as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Söderström, Dame Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, Hughes Cuenod and John Shirley-Quirk in recitals throughout Europe and the USA. In 1965 he was awarded the Carroll Donner Stuchell Medal for Accompanying by the Harriet Cohen International Musical Foundation.
At the same time he has pursued a parallel career in the operatic field, first with Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group (where he created the piano part in The Turn of the Screw), and then at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which he joined as a member of the Music Staff in 1957, where he was Head of Music Staff from 1978-93, and for which he is a visiting Guest Chief Coach. From 1973-77 he was Head of Opera Training at the Juilliard School, New York before returning to London to become Head of Music at the newly-formed National Opera Studio from 1978-1995.
He travels widely to give Master Classes in Lieder and Opera and to conduct young singers in performance. He has been invited to the Central Opera and Conservatory in Beijing to work on Mozart roles and to the Pacific Music Festival in Japan. He has been Head of the Academy of Singing at the School of the Arts at the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada for many years and has given many master classes at the Britten-Pears School, Aldeburgh. He visits the Metropolitan Opera annually, often as Assistant Conductor. Five years ago, he took over two performances of Così from the indisposed James Levine to critical acclaim. He has conducted productions for the Canadian Opera Company, Washington Opera, and Glyndebourne Touring Opera, and has featured as Continuo Harpsichordist on a number of recordings. He has also adjudicated for such competitions as the Met Final Auditions, the Naumburg Awards and the Kathleen Ferrier Competition in London.
Martin Isepp recently conducted the Orchestre de Picardie, France in Performances ofAriadne auf Naxos and the students of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Baltimore in a production of Così fan tutte, as well as giving Master Classes at l’Atelier Lyrique de l’Opera de Montreal, the Ensemble of the Canadian Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Northwestern University School of Music, RAM, The Paris Conservatoire, and the Merola Program of San Francisco Opera. He is the first recipient of the Stratton Distinguished Visitor Medal given by the University of Toronto Music Department. He was recently awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Music by Wake Forest University, North Carolina.







Saturday, December 24, 2011

5 Top Things to Do/See/Hear Over Christmas

1. Tosca is on BBC2 this afternoon, recorded in July at the Royal Opera House with Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. Previously cinecast, now coming to a TV near you...


Tony Pappano conducts, and he will introduce the work in a documentary an hour before, at 1.35pm. Details here.

2. Medici TV is offering a free day of viewing for all on Boxing Day. Don't miss the chance to sample the startling array of wonderful performances on this digital online channel, devoted to music, opera and ballet, which normally requires a subscription (which can be rather good value). If you need a last-minute gift for a music-lover, btw, they have special gift subscription packages. Start here.

3. Go to see The Nutcracker, if you haven't already. On 27 December the classic Birmingham Royal Ballet production is coming to the O2, which is the proud possessor of a five-figure number of seats and an array of affordable tickets. Building on the smash-hit of the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet last summer, which was the O2's first venture into such territory, this Nutcracker promises much and the cast is led by the BRB's top principal dancers, including Nao Sakuma, Cesar Morales and Robert Parker.

4. Pop over to The Guardian for a week from Boxing Day to see a free streaming of Glyndebourne's production of Hansel und Gretel - a slightly close-to-the-bone staging by Laurent Pelly of the Humperdinck classic. It's energetic, painfully funny, gloriously sung and at times jolly scary too. Jennifer Holloway and Adriana Kucerova are in the title roles. And the witch's house set is one of the cleverest, and most sinister, that you could hope for. Tom Service introduces the opera here: "Fatten kid. Cook. Then eat..."  

5. Make a resolution about music for the new year and start on it right now. Here's mine: practise more.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Farewell, Russell Hoban (1925-2011)

Very sad today to hear of the death of one of my favourite novelists. Russell Hoban may have been best-known for his children's books, but his adult fiction retained their sense of playfulness and fantasy - something most of us lose with the passing years. His Turtle Diary was the first that I read - about two lonely Londoners who set out to rescue the turtles from the zoo, but don't quite release themselves while they're about it. The Medusa Frequency is a virtuoso take on the Orpheus myth - again featuring a compassionate portrait of contemporary London, but with twists of fantasy that are by turns chilling and glorious in their audacity. Here is a full obituary from The Guardian.

But musicians might know Hoban best for his libretto for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's astonishing opera The Second Mrs Kong, written for Glyndebourne and premiered in 1994. Details of the plot and structure are here along with some excerpts; and the libretto was published by Universal Edition. Hoban plays with concepts, reality and imagery the way a circus performer might perform on the high wire. The only safety net is the term 'magical realism', except that there isn't much realism in there - it's slanted entirely to the magic. In the opera, The Idea of Kong falls in love with Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring, aka Pearl. I still remember well the wild, high, shimmering voice of the singing mirror; and the deep-bronze, luminous tone of Philip Langridge, who sang The Idea of Kong in a gorilla suit...

I once went to Oxford to see the Glyndebourne Touring Opera's Kong with a writer friend who was also a big Hoban fan. That day there was a problem in the theatre and they couldn't get the set of the previous night's opera off the stage, so the cast delivered a semi-staged version in costume in front of the curtain. It was still fabulous. And we spotted Hoban in the bar so went up to him (my pal was braver than I was) to express our enthusiasm. We found him a charming, generous man, with the same twinkle in his eye that you can find in his glittery writing.
MIRROR: It is not love that moves the world from night to morning, it is not love that makes the new day dawn. 
PEARL: Not love?
MIRROR: No. It is the longing for what cannot be...
PEARL: The longing for what cannot be?
MIRROR: The longing for what cannot be. The world needs the power of your yearning, the world needs the power of your love that cannot be fulfilled.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Watch Glyndebourne's The Turn of the Screw right here on JDCMB

Missed the webcast? Missed the show? I can't blog you a slice of Miles's birthday cake, but here is the complete performance of Britten's The Turn of the Screw as performed last Sunday at Glyndebourne. It will be online until 12 September. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. More resources, videoed interviews et al at the Glyndeboune website here.









Monday, August 08, 2011

Happy Monday



"When 5000 people pay to listen to Bach on a solo violin, there's hope for Western civilisation," says The Times. My colleague Ed Seckerson at the Indy says it was 6000 people, so the news is perhaps even better. Either way, bravo Nigel Kennedy. The markets are in turmoil, people have been looting in Tottenham, Enfield and Brixton, but over at the RAH, or in front of our own radios, we're listening to the Proms and feeling lucky to be alive.

Honest to goodness, guv, I really believe the world would be a better place if we could all spend more time making or listening to great music and less time on greed, envy, accumulation, materialism and...oh well. It's worth saying now and then, even if only one person takes it on board.

How anybody could have failed to take the lessons of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra on board with that Mahler 2 on Friday is beyond me (pictured left: the queue at 1pm). Music for all. Music as the resurrection of hope (to quote Gustavo's words to me). I went to the rehearsal and sat mesmerised by them - these guys give everything. So, too, did the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, so you don't have to be Venezuelan... The churlish have been out in force, predictably, carping on about tempi being too slow, edges being too rough, and so on. There's still an element in British life that loathes anything too successful. Most of us saw past that to the essence of the event, and took it all to our hearts, where it belongs. The point of this Prom was not to offer benchmark Mahler to compete against the recordings of Tennstedt, Bernstein et al. What had to be definitive was the honesty and passionate nature of the music-making, the symbol, the life-affirming pulling-together of it all. Yes, it was the event that came first, and there is nothing wrong with that - not when it's an event you'll remember until your last breath. If every concert could be an event on such a scale, nobody would ever have talked of classical music 'dying', because it couldn't be clearer that that is not true, never was and certainly won't be as long as these guys are around.

Hope resurrected? You bet. Besides, give Gustavo another ten or 15 years and he could potentially grow to be a figure comparable to Bernstein. I can't think of another conductor working today who has quite that type of energy. It's easy to forget that he's only 30 as he is so much a part of the musical landscape at present. Watch that space. (Right: The Dude in rehearsal, flanked by Miah Persson and Anna Larsson, and in discussion with assistant.)

It's been one thing after another at the Proms, and yesterday I caught up not only with the Mahler but also with the National Youth Orchestra with Benjamin Grosvenor and Vlad, plus Nigel's very late-night Bach. Benjamin played the Britten Concerto - a terrific piece and much underrated. It's very much of its 1930s day, a British cousin to Bartok and Prokofiev, and Benjamin's coolly ironic eye and deft, light-sprung touch suited it to a T. Vlad wrought dynamic stuff from the orchestra, too - they're not the Bolivars, but they're the creme-de-la-creme of what young British musicians can be. And full marks to everyone for bringing Gabriel Prokofiev mainstream, putting his Concerto for Orchestra and Turntables centre stage in the Royal Albert Hall. Sergey's grandson may have 'Nonclassical' as his brand-name, but the piece, even with all its 21st-century irony, humour and imagination, still reminded us at times of The Rite of Spring. Character, precision and charm were everywhere; and the Radio 3 announcer's apparent bemusement about the whole spectacle had a type of charm all its own. He even considered DJ Switch's light-blue tee-shirt worth remarking upon.

I missed Saturday evening in London because I went to work with Tomcat. Which means I cried my eyes out over Rusalka. Watch out for the marvellous Dina Kuznetsova (left), a big Russian voice with a great heart to match, her every phrase serving Rusalka's searing emotional journey. Melly Still's production is magical - a timeless fairy-tale taken on its own terms, mildly modernised and exquisitely imagined. We know the Freudian ins and outs of the story's psychological implications well enough these days to add our own interpretation, if desired - it's refreshing that directors need no longer bash us over the head with it, and we can enjoy Dvorak's folksy joys and quasi-Wagnerian ventures with a view to match.

And Nigel? He's still working his own brand of magic; and it's as irresistible as ever because beneath the famous image is a passionate and phenomenally accomplished musician. He has not only magic, but the staying power that comes from true underlying solidity. Others may try, but there's still only one Nigel.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

And in the news today...

* Glyndebourne is filming Die Meistersinger this afternoon and it will be webcast live and free on The Guardian's website. It's also to be shown in the Science Museum in South Kensington. Stephen Moss will be doing a live Meisterblog and tweets are invited, as on the first night, with the hashtag #diemeistertweeter. There's a treasure-trove of supporting articles and webcasts on the site. Details of the streaming, interview with Vlad (right) etc, here.

* In similar vein, Norman Lebrecht makes the point in today's Telegraph that all of a sudden the issue of access, access, access is no longer relevant. We have access, thanks to webcasts, cinecasts and the Big Screens, and apparently this, our very own wet and soggy island, is where the future of opera is being carved. (Discuss...)


He also had a high old time at the ENO's new Nico Muhly opera Two Boys, which I had not initially planned to attend. Had it been sold as a "Susan Bickley is Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect" opera (as every man and his cat has been saying that it is since the premiere on Friday), I'd have booked in at once. But from the marketing it sounded like a niche thing that was fashioned for young gay blokes who live online; therefore it mightn't be interesting for married, female, 40-something technotwits... There shouldn't be a problem getting in, though. When I checked the website on Thursday to see if there were seats left for Monday, the place was less than half full. If all is well up north (we have difficult family issues at present), I may go. Alternatively I might catch up with DVDs of another wonderful woman detective: Brenda Blethyn as Vera (pictured left) in the ITV series based on the absolutely brilliant Geordie detective novels by Ann Cleeves, if said DVDs are yet available.

* This morning @MalteseTenor Joseph Calleja was on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, singing 'E lucevan le stelle'. Michael Gove, our education minister - currently trying to avert a strike by teachers this week - was listening from the sofa, where he'd been trying to say he wasn't really intending to exhort parents to strike-break. He applauded enthusiastically... Feel the power, Micks. Let the people hear the music. Let the people learn music, too, at school. Music for all, please: right here, right now.

Speaking of opera and the internet, Calleja shared my blog on his Facebook fan page the other day. Aw shuks. Can you imagine a world in which Richard Tauber had internet access?