Showing posts with label Longborough Festival Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Longborough Festival Opera. Show all posts

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Excuse me, but why isn't this man conducting Wagner at Covent Garden and Bayreuth?

Here's my review for The Independent of Tristan und Isolde at Longborough Festival Opera the other day. GO. NOW. Only two more performances, one of which is today.

I'm seeing Tristan again at Bayreuth in August, incidentally, and I challenge their very, very, very celebrated Wagner conductor to do anything with it that is even slightly more powerful, devastating, thrilling, detailed, loving, intelligent, wise and glorious - more downright Wagnery in the very best sense - than Anthony Negus (left)  did the other night. So there. Why isn't this man conducting there, and at the ROH and at ENO and all the rest? Their loss is Longborough's gain - but they are missing out.

Here is his article about his life with Wagner, from Longborough.


Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, Gloucestershire
16 June 2015

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s vast paen to love and loss, has reached the intimate setting of Longborough Festival Opera in a thoughtful new staging. But its ultimate marvel is on the podium.

One weird conundrum in the world of classical music is that some conductors who wield enormous power are not especially inspiring musicians, while a few masters of their art, equipped with peerless understanding, remain tucked away working in unlikely corners such as the Cotswolds. Longborough’s music director, Anthony Negus – a disciple of the now legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall – is a Wagnerian maestro of a calibre that should rightfully be heard and lauded at the likes of Covent Garden and Bayreuth. Meanwhile, it is Longborough’s wisdom and good fortune to have him.

Presiding over a reduced-scale orchestra, Negus offers exceptional, profound knowledge of and empathy for this music, letting it fly by building the aerodynamics of its structure – whether streamlining to perfection the lengthy build-ups of tension in Act I, sustaining the hushed ecstasy of the love scene or bringing to life the raw agony of the wounded Tristan in Act III. His placement of details – for instance, homing in on a light-shaft of harp here or a deep-set heartbeat rhythm there – bring continual insights. And he inspires everybody, from Isolde to the bass clarinet, to excel themselves. The musical results are deeply human and emotionally shattering.

Carmen Jakobi directs a staging based in suitable strength and simplicity, set within clean-edged designs by Kimie Nakano and pleasing, rich-coloured lighting by Ben Ormerod. Two dancers – Katie Lusby and Mbulelo Ndabeni – portray Tristan and Isolde’s inner emotions at key moments. This device is overused in opera productions today, yet here they contribute just enough, without interfering – and they are superb dancers. Isolde’s hapless husband, King Marke, is shadowed on stage by the bass clarinet in his monologue. The opera would not suffer without such tricks, but they are judiciously managed.

Rachel Nicholls, singing her first run as Isolde following her triumph as Brünnhilde in the Ring, offers a calm, centred, imperious interpretation; vocally she embraces all of the role’s challenges, from volume and precision through tonal colour to unflagging stamina. With time her performance is bound to deepen, but she sets her own bar high from the start.

As her Tristan, the dark, steely-centred and extrovert tenor tone of Peter Wedd proves an ideal match – indeed, he offers far more convincing acting and more beautiful singing than some one encounters in higher-profile venues. Presenting the anguish of Act III with such devastating intensity is no small feat.

The Norwegian bass Frode Olsen as King Marke is a further highlight; his artistry (including perhaps the evening’s finest diction) as Tristan’s betrayal cuts him deep makes this scene just as heart-breaking as Tristan and Isolde’s own.

Catherine Carby as Brangäne is a warm-toned foil to Nicholls’ bright Isolde; Stuart Pendred is a sympathetic Kurwenal; and the chorus of sailors pulls its weight. Some ragged edges around the actual playing of the orchestra and its off-stage horns are audible, but forgivable.

Two performances remain. Go.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Isolde rising

I just interviewed Rachel Nicholls, who's about to sing her first Isolde at the wonderful Longborough Festival Opera. Piece is in the Independent today. Director's cut below. She tells me how her local comprehensive school helped her rise to the top; why sheer persistence was the key to embracing the Wagner that's now her home territory after she started out in Baroque; and that she's actually married to Kurwenal.

The shining sonic arc of a soprano voice in full flight cuts through the air in a Tower Hamlets backstreet. The Cotswold-based Longborough Festival Opera team has come here to rehearse its new production of Tristan und Isolde, which opens on 12 June. Anthony Negus, Longborough’s expert Wagnerian music director, is conducting, ratcheting up the intensity; and in a sunny studio with seated cast and piano accompaniment, the sound is overwhelming as Isolde – Rachel Nicholls – lets rip. 

The British dramatic soprano is performing this marathon role for the first time, and it’s fitting that it should be at Longborough, where her rise to fame in Wagnerian spheres began. The country house opera, its theatre a converted former chicken shed, offered a complete, staged Ring cycle during the composer’s bicentenary year, 2013; Nicholls starred as Brünnhilde. Turning 40 this year, she is blessed with a bright-edged, flexible and voluminous voice that has an uplifting sense of release and freedom, combined with precision and control – a near-ideal mix. 

But Isolde, as Nicholls points out, is a huge challenge, with more music to sing than Brünnhilde has in all of her Ring operas put together. Isolde – the Irish princess who comes to Cornwall to marry King Marke, only to fall in love en route with his emissary, Tristan – experiences deep inner conflicts, which are often expressed intimately. “While bits of the role are as muscular as Brünnhilde, there’s more quiet singing, more passages of light and shade, which makes it more interesting to sing,” Nicholls says. “Probably there’s nothing in it that’s quite so much fun as the Ring, charging about with a spear – as Brünnhilde I got very good at swords, spears and battles. But Isolde’s language is subtler; it is all about feelings, rather than action.” 

Nicholls, a down-to-earth personality with ready sense of humour, cropped hair and sensible shoes, hails originally from Bedford. She attended a local comprehensive school whose excellent music department, together with the county’s free music provision, offered her ample opportunities to test her wings. “My school happened to be fabulous for music,” she says. “Quite a few of us have made fantastic careers in the music world thanks to our teacher there.” On Saturdays she attended Trinity College of Music’s junior department, learning the piano and the violin: “The county paid for me to go there and paid for my travel too.” Bedfordshire offered not only a county youth choir, in which she sang, but also a youth opera group for the 15-25s: “Every year it would put on a fully staged opera with orchestra. I joined it when I was 15 – and I knew straight away that that’s what I wanted to do.” 

But after taking a degree in languages, plus postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music, it was in baroque music that she began her singing career. Changing from its light, somewhat constrained purity of tone to the full-blooded dramatic soprano repertoire did follow the needs of her voice, she says, but it also required immense determination.

It all began at Longborough. She first arrived there to sing Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. “I loved it,” she says, “but at that point Wagner wasn’t really on my radar.” Longborough was planning its Ring cycle at the time, and Nicholls’s agent persuaded her to audition for a small role in Die Walküre. 

“I was totally seduced by the music,” says Nicholls. “My friend Lee Bisset was singing Sieglinde. I listened to her and thought: I want to be able to sing like that. And I listened to the role of Brünnhilde and realised that that was what I wanted to sing. I knew I had the necessary weight in the middle range of my voice, and that the soprano Alwyn Mellor wasn’t available for the role at that time, so I volunteered to do Götterdämmerung.” It was a huge leap – both of repertoire and of faith – but she would not be dissuaded. “People told me not to do it, but I persisted and nagged until eventually they gave in and let me.”

“I did wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew,” she admits, “but I prepared it thoroughly – and I had the chance to study with Anne Evans. That’s the thing that’s made the biggest difference to my life.” Evans was one of the preeminent sopranos of her day, especially celebrated for Wagner: “She can take me through every note and word and suggest different ways to think about it and the emotion behind it.” 

Taking the time to retrain her voice, Nicholls says, was a big risk – “My income went down by about 50 per cent” – and she needed both inner strength and moral support. Fortunately she had them. She and her husband, the baritone Andrew Slater – who sings Tristan’s friend Kurwenal at Longborough – live in the Peak District and, she says, help one another maintain a healthy perspective. “As a baritone, Andrew usually has to play a king, a murderer, or somebody’s dad – often mine!” she remarks. 

“Singing’s very important to us both, but it’s not the whole story. If you put all of yourself into whether or not people like you and your singing on stage – which is entirely subjective – it’s a recipe for disaster. Sometimes you’ll get horrible reviews, or maybe someone’s going to decide you look fat in your costume and they’ll say something mean. And if everything about you is poured into that little public space, you could end up a very unhappy person. 

“I’m lucky to live in Derbyshire,” she adds. “The job is stressful, the travelling is too, and the pressure is immense. My release is getting out for a run or a hike in the hills. Being outside keeps me sane.”

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, from 12 June. Box office: 01451 830 292

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Longborough Festival Opera: TOSCA

This is my review of lovely Longborough's terrific Tosca for the Independent. Four stars.  

Among the UK’s country house opera destinations, Longborough stands out as possibly the most audacious, unlikely and lovable. Near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds (beware: sat-nav black holes), it was founded as Banks Fee Opera in 1991 by its owners Martin and Lizzie Graham, Wagner devotees who have converted a barn into a Palladian-fronted theatre; last year it became the first privately-funded opera house in the country to stage Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, a magnificent effort duly recognised with a nomination for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award.

This year’s festival got off to a flying start with Puccini’s Tosca. As with the Ring, the production proves that wacky concepts and costly sets are not necessary to create compelling drama. Take a row of pillars that can suggest church, palazzo and fortress, some steep slopes to be fallen down or jumped off, and a billow of dry ice; add a few very fine singers; and we have lift-off.

Richard Studer’s direction and designs hint at the Mussolini era without labouring the point. Rather than relying on spectacle, the entire drama is focused on the opera’s toxic love triangle of diva, artist activist and malign dictator, portrayed respectively by the soprano Lee Bisset, the tenor Adriano Graziani and the baritone Simon Thorpe; the characters emerge as very believable people caught up in events for which none of them are cut out.
Bisset’s Tosca – as she reflects in her aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ – really has lived for art and love; she is naïve enough not to suspect at first that her lover Cavaradossi is being tortured. She wants a quiet life with the man she loves; instead, faced with blackmail and rape, she first considers suicide, then turns murderer. She finds her weapon embedded in a loaf of bread – and afterwards wipes off the blood and puts it back.

Musically there are thrills aplenty. Bisset’s soaring soprano inhabits the full gamut of the role’s expressive possibilities: she has fabulous power at the top of her considerable range and her beauty of tone carries her from flirtation to fury, desire to despair. Graziani’s tenor is a fine match for her voice; his performance warmed as the evening went by, glorying in roof-raising high notes and culminating in a no-holds-barred account of ‘E lucevan le stelle’.

Thorpe’s Scarpia does not quite echo them in terms of vocal power, but his character is convincing: physically imposing, but psychologically weak, this dictator is a pathetic bully boy who does his dirty work by proxy. In the pit, the conductor Jonathan Lyness keeps the pace gripping and the score’s drama paramount. 

The set’s rather cumbersome mix of steps and rakes, the cut-down orchestration and chorus, and some slightly ropey amplification – notably for Act III’s offstage shepherd boy and the Act I finale’s pre-recorded canon effects – are a tad problematic. Otherwise, it is a thoroughly enjoyable occasion.

The 2014 festival continues with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Handel’s Rinaldo. Next year: Tristan und Isolde.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Die Walkure at Longborough

Feel as if I am being flown like a kite by Wagner today, after a glorious performance of Die Walkure last night at Longborough.

Here is my review for The Independent.

Please take immediate note of this man. He is a Wagner marvel.

And these two sopranos are absolutely world class:

Rachel Nicholls - Brunnhilde
Lee Bisset - Sieglinde

Nor is it a bad place to hear music, or to enjoy a quiet interval picnic overlooking the Cotswold countryside...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Götterdammerung at Longborough

Wagner in the Cotswolds? Well, whyever not? Can-do attitudes aren't all that widespread at present anywhere else, so I trotted off to Longborough Festival Opera to see their latest Ring Cycle installment - and found myself moved to tears, something that doesn't often happen to me in Götterdammerung. At various other performances in the past I've longed for das Ende... At this one, I could have listened to the whole thing all over again right away. Because Longborough has a conductor whom I suspect may be the best-kept secret in the Wagnerian world, a lead soprano who can hold her own with the world's finest and an expert supporting cast - a cut-down scale doesn't mean compromising on quality. Here's my full review from the Independent.