Showing posts with label OAE. Show all posts
Showing posts with label OAE. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas cracker? OAE strikes Offenbach

Here's a little piece I wrote for the Indy about Offenbach and his long-lost operatic extravaganza Fantasio, which the OAE is performing (its British premiere, btw) on Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall. I can't go because it is Alicia's Gift in Hampstead that night, but I'm pleased to say that the show is being recorded for Opera Rara. The one and only Sarah Connolly sings the title role. Looking forward to hearing it...

The fate of Jacques Offenbach’s Fantasio seems bizarre – if not quite as bizarre as the opera itself. Recently unearthed and published, having not been seen since 1927, it is about to enjoy its British premiere in a concert performance and recording for Opera Rara by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an all-star cast. The hope is that it may emerge as a neglected masterpiece that can shed new light on its composer. 

Admittedly this Offenbach is off-the-wall. Fantasio, an idealistic young student, loves a princess who is meant to marry a prince. To disrupt her wedding plans he disguises himself as the court jester, who has just died. It’s a peculiar premise, signalling a comic opera with a melancholy slant under the surface; but Offenbach could never escape his own bent for the quirky, the naughty and the magical.
Best known for having written the world’s most famous cancan, the composer is popular for his effervescent operettas – especially La belle Hélène and Orphée aux enfers – yet he dreamed of a career in serious music drama. Only one such work by him is in the repertoire today: Les contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann). For all its darkness it, too, remains as fantastical a piece as has ever graced a stage. 

The British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who takes the title role, describes Fantasio as “a convoluted, barmy farce. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz,” she adds. “It has that fantasy element to it, with cardboard cut-out characters – almost a Disneyesque feel. It is an ironic piece, though; it’s not to be taken at face value.” She affirms, too, that its nuttiness is worth it for the music: “It’s absolutely beautiful and the orchestration is very delicate. It feels like the sun coming out.” 

The story is based on an 1866 play by Alfred de Musset that had not been much of a success; and the odds were stacked even further against Offenbach’s adaptation when it was first aired at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1872. Offenbach – a German-born composer living and working in France – had been much attacked in the press during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and national sensitivities continued to run high after France’s defeat. If he hoped Fantasio would be a way to fight back, he was disappointed; the theatre curtailed the opening run after only ten performances. Saddened, Offenbach recycled some of its themes in Les contes d’Hoffmann

But if anyone wonders why Offenbach was so devoted to this opera, they would not have to look far. Fantasio is a “bitter clown”, the archetypal comedian weeping behind his pranks. It seems that Offenbach had found therein a character after his own heart.  

Fantasio, Royal Festival Hall, 15 December. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Friday, March 08, 2013

Seven - no, EIGHT - things to do on International Women's Day

1. Go to the eclectic Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. Among musically-oriented treats today are Jessye Norman (yes), speaking at 4.30pm this afternoon; and tonight, the OAE with Marin Alsop and soprano Emma Bell in a delicious programme of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, part of the Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series.

2. Go to the UK premiere of Written on Skin by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, at the Royal Opera House. It is a contemporary masterpiece and, although it's by two men, the story is very much about the sexual emancipation of a woman in the 13th century. I talked to its director, Katie Mitchell, about that, and the article should hopefully be out tomorrow. (Not going to see it until 18th, but I've heard the recording from Aix and found it absolutely amazing. My chat with George about the music for the ROH website is here.)

3. Spend a little time celebrating the music of women composers over the centuries whose work was discouraged, disguised or suppressed, unless it happened to be cute salon music for the home. And remember the ones who went right on ahead and did their own thing. 

4. Spend a little time remembering the great female performers of the past who knuckled down to work instead of knuckling under.

5. Listen to some music by the increasing raft of gifted, dedicated and proud women composers of today, whether on stage, screen, concert hall or multimedia. A reasonably random example, but one I've much enjoyed, is this mingling of space mission, dance, special effects and music by Errollyn Wallen in Falling.

6. Remember that today's greatest women performers simply cannot be bettered.

7. Reflect that it should not be necessary, in an ideal world, to add extra celebration to the achievements of women - in the classical music world as much as anywhere, and more than some - but with sexism so desperately ingrained in our culture, it is.

8. Remember that International Women's Day is all very well, but next we have to sort out the other 364 days of the year.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

An orchestra - plus dancers - for all four seasons

Hang on, the OAE was meant to do "authenticity", wasn't it? Powdered wigs, prithees and gut strings? So what's all this about choreography for The Four Seasons?...ah. Well, it is authentic. Apparently Vivaldi put stage directions in his manuscript. But however many "normal" performances of the piece we hear, however many historians check the tuning (Venice, btw, went for A=440 from the start), however minute the attention to articulation detail, nobody ever does that.

So the OAE has asked choreographer Henri Oguike and his dance company to provide an interpretation for the said Vivaldi - and the players are involved. Perhaps this is how to be historical and cutting-edge contemporary at the same time. All will be revealed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the OAE's Night Shift series on 7 February and "normal" concert on 8 February. I asked Henri Oguike and the OAE's lead violinist, Kati Debretzeni, how it's going so far...

JD: First, Henri Oguike, what is it like to make an orchestra part of your choreography? What are the special challenges it presents? 

HO: I have always tried to have musicians share the performance space, when funds allow, as this adds an additional texture to the whole theatre experience. Musicians and dancers produce sound and both move, so I believe a more nuanced dialogue exists when all are present to be seen and heard.

Some challenges include staging; not all musicians are happy to be arranged in unconventional ways relative to their fellow players. I completely understand this. But opportunities can be missed in terms of alternative aesthetic not to mention the fact that some musicians can suddenly look and behave differently in these conditions - others even move with the dancers!

Working with OAE, lead by Kati Debretzeni, has thus far been a breath of fresh air. Kati invited me to take journey through the Four Seasons with her in early 2012 and told me stories, played whilst simultaneously explaining structure... it was fascinating to watch her physically express her intentions and this planted some very charged images at the back of my mind, which was a great starting point.

Most recently, musicians and dancers have shared in the creative process (in the studio), and I can't say enough about how amazing that was to observe.

JD: How are you interpreting the Vivaldi, which is such a familiar piece? Do you think you can make us hear it afresh?

HO: I have aimed for a fresh modern emphasis in this interpretation which also includes references to baroque-like postures, poses and decorative details.

As the music is so well known and loved, I hope to enable people to access the music by using the dance as a visualizer for the mode/moods that reside within the architecture of the music - see the music; hear the dance ;-)

JD: Do you think this is a one-off project or might it inspire a new wave of performances along similar lines?

HO: I would love to believe that this opportunity (personally) is a next step towards going deeper and discovering where else the partnership/relationship between music and dance can go.
There is so much more emotionally and intellectually to unravel, but the challenges lie in how to prepare and embroider qualities we all crave subconsciously - don't we?

I pray this is not a one-off, but can't really guess what may follow.
JD: Kati Debretzeni, it's normally difficult enough to play the violin without having to be part of a choreography! How does it feel? 

KD: It feels brilliant - playing the instrument is not an end in itself. How liberating! It does require a different type of concentration, whilst there is the little detail of getting the notes right and trying not to loose contact between string and bow when walking/striding/running around - but multitasking is what women are supposed to be good at (famous last words...).  

JD: What do you feel the dance project adds to our enjoyment of the Vivaldi? Does it change the way you yourself see the music?

KD: My initial idea was to see another dimension, that of movement, added to a programmatic piece I know so well. I was very surprised by how much difference seeing the dancers makes to how I feel about it. Their movements respond very immediately to the sheer emotional ebb and flow of the music, and I did adjust the way I've always played it. Seeing the second movement of 'Spring' not as a shepherd asleep with his faithful dog by his side (as in Vivaldi's own stage directions that are printed in the music) but as an unrequited love-duet between two dancers makes quite a change. 

JD: Do you think there should be more of this kind of thing? Er, next stop, Swan Lake, perhaps?

KD: Some pieces, not all, invite or rather tolerate innovation by being part of a widely known canon of our cultural heritage. I hope the layers of the public's previous experiences with them benefit from a completely different aspect - in this case, movement added to sound. Should Vasko Vasilev be on stage with dancers around him while playing the big Swan Lake solo? Hopefully the next choreographer who thinks he should will not get acid thrown into his face...