Showing posts with label Stephen Barlow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Barlow. Show all posts

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dvorák's The Jacobin in Buxton, aka When Viktor Laszlo Went Home....


In a gloriously sunny Buxton for our Alicia's Gift concert the other day, I took the opportunity to catch The Jacobin, a little-known opera by Dvorák that the doughty festival director Stephen Barlow, the conductor, had somehow, somewhere, found and resuscitated. Here he is, with director Stephen Unwin, talking about it and how it all happened:



Result? An absolute joy - indeed with a great, warm heart. This is Dvorák in Slavonic Dances mode, glittery and foot-tappy and soulful, with a touching family twist and a subplot that was almost surreal in its clash of two worlds.

The opera ostensibly takes place in the wake of the French Revolution. Bohus and his wife Julie have come home to his Czech village, where his father is the Count. But the Count has heard, on the grapevine, that Bohus has joined up with Paris's revolutionaries and become a Jacobin, and that he intends to stir up revolution at home. Hence he's disowned him and is about to make his nephew, the evil Adolf (yes, really), heir to the title instead. He blames Julie for leading Bohus astray. Of course, he has got everything wrong: Bohus is a seriously good bloke who wants to save the people from oppression.

Cue Bohus's former music master, Mr Benda (yes, really - though no relation), who is trying to marry his daughter, Terinka, off to the corrupt, pompous but "important" Filip, steward to Adolf and the Count - but she's in love with Jiri, the only guy in the village who has a decent tenor voice. The Bendas take in Bohus and Julie, convinced that they are authentic Czechs when they sing a gorgeous duet about the wonderful music of their homeland. Meanwhile Mr Benda has written a cantata for the Count, who is about to hand over power to Adolf. The choir is rehearsing - and along come two nasty policemen to press-gang Jiri into the army, ordered by Filip to get him out of the way. "You can't do that," says Mr Benda. "He's my lead tenor! Don't you know how rare good tenors are?" And no way is he going to let them take Jiri. (This is priceless.)

The final act features a poignant scene where the two elderly men, the Count and Mr Benda, recall their long association, the days when Bohus was a small boy and Mr Benda taught him piano every day, and the Count still loved Mr Benda's music. Now the Count's beloved harp-playing wife has died, Bohus has gone and all is lost. Mr Benda is trying to pave the way for Bohus and Julie's return, but the Count will not listen. Julie must win him over herself. She plays the harp and sings the lullaby with which Bohus's mother used to sing him to sleep. The Count melts, Adolf's plot is revealed just in time, the Count finds himself surrounded by long-lost family and adoring grandchildren, and they all live happily ever after.

The production by Stephen Unwin was beautifully done, simple and sweet, with some very special qualities - the choir rehearsal with the kids mucking about, or the moment when Mr Benda reaches out to the Count and very, very slowly dares to touch his shoulder. As a whole it reminded me of something...First of all, the Count is a dead ringer for Dvorák himself. But beyond that, the costumes, the stances, the story, updated to the 1930s, seemed closer to home. Just a minute....

It's Casablanca, the sequel! 'Everybody comes to Dvorák's', perhaps....

Imagine that Viktor Laszlo and Ilse have gone home to his Czech village. Julie is blonde and elegantly dressed, with hat à la Ingrid Bergman. Filip is the spitting image of Louis - the corrupt policeman played by Claude Rains - and Adolf is just like Major Strasser. Music as consolation, support and evocation is constantly present - and it is Julie who plays it again, her song evoking the long-lost happy days that the Count - an odd and older version, perhaps, of Rick - has left far behind. So similar were they that I kept expecting the excellent Nicholas Folwell, as Filip, to say 'Round up the usual suspects' and Bohus, baritone Nicholas Lester, to stir up a Czech equivalent of the Marseillaise. There is even an Yvonne and her barman, of sorts, in Terinka and Jiri.

Terinka was a superb Anna Patalong, Anne Sophie Duprels a fulsome-toned Julie, and as Mr Benda we were delighted to see and hear Bonaventura Bottone, whom I used to see in everything at ENO but hadn't heard for years. The Count was a larger-than-life Andrew Greenan - on the grapevine I heard a story that he had stepped in at the last moment and learned the role in three days, which, assuming it's true, we would never have guessed. Stephen Barlow conducted with huge flair and energy (can't we have him at ENO sometime soon, please? He'd have got my vote to be their new music director, had I had such a vote.)

And full marks to the Buxton Opera House (see above), a Matcham theatre that feels like a miniature version of our own Coliseum, even sporting a turquoise curtain, which is what the Coli had before they refurbished it and it all went red. The opera was sung in English, too. A reasonable enough decision, under the circumstances - though Czech is a particularly awkward language for which to reset the rhythms and I would very much have liked to get my own hands on the translation to give it some finer tweaks. That is a very small caveat indeed. Basically: it's wonderful.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Hungarian Dances goes to Buxton


Blazing sunshine, teeming crowds in the Pavilion Gardens, a brass band whiling away the afternoon, cupcakes galore and a crowd of delighted festival-goers - Buxton in its festive spirit, a rare and wonderful Buxton, and a very welcoming one. Above, the Hungarian Dances Concert team outside the Pavilion: pianist Margaret Fingerhut, JD and Bradley Creswick, the violin's answer to Bradley Wiggins. Enormous thanks to Stephen Barlow, Glyn Foley, Jeff and all the festival team, the AA for rescuing Bradley from a glitch on the A1, and whoever it was who sorted out the weather - it was truly a day to remember.

If you were there and you need some info or you want a CD or a book (I regret to say I underestimated demand and didn't bring enough), here are the vitalstatistics:

You can order Hungarian Dances on Amazon.co.uk in paperback, hardback, Kindle e-book or large print. You can also get it in Dutch or Hungarian, and I'm promised that the Romanian edition (!) should be out soon.

A CD to accompany the book was specially recorded a few years ago by the brilliant French violin and piano team Philippe Graffin and Claire Desert. It's available on Onyx Classics, on disc or download. Get it here. The music for the book is all credit to Philippe, who not only dreamed up the idea, but found the perfect piece to represent the fictional concerto in the novel (it's the Dohnanyi that opens the programme).

There's much more info on all of this, plus some nice reviews and a few yummy Hungarian recipes at our designated HUNGARIAN DANCES website, here.

And last, but not least, if you want to book us for a Hungarian Dances concert, drop us a line. Yesterday's programme is 75 mins of music and reading with no interval, and there's also a full evening version in two halves. Apart from anything else, it is great fun. Featured works include Dohnanyi's Andante rubato alla zingaresca, Ravel's Tzigane, Vecsey's Valse Triste, Bartok's Romanian Dances, Hubay's Hejre Kati and Monti's Csardas, among others.



Saturday, June 30, 2012

An operatic top ten...

What makes a really good opera production? I saw one the other day. It was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the bijou Grange Park, an hour or so down the M3 in the Hampshire woods and fields. World-class quality in a place about the same size, seating-wise, as the Wigmore Hall; an absolute powerhouse of a Herman from the American tenor Carl Tanner and a Lisa to match from the radiant French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. The roller-coaster score, in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow - who knows precisely how to pace and shape the drama - swept us all along, Pushkin incarnate in music. This is an opera I've seen a number of times, yet often under slight duress of the "I really prefer Eugene Onegin" type. But this time, I fell for it wholesale and stayed under the spell throughout.

That's thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Antony McDonald. A former co-director and co-designer with Richard Jones, McDonald has become a Grange Park stalwart, and his insights into this work leave me eager to sample more from him. The production does everything that a truly excellent opera production should. It takes a problematic work and convinces you that it's a masterpiece; it takes a problematic tale and makes it almost too real; and it stays with you for days afterwards, teasing out the deeper currents of the story and pointing up the connections that undoubtedly are there, but that could easily be forgotten, neglected or lost.

Here's my Top Ten of what makes a really good opera production - illustrated by this one.

1. It pulls everything together. It makes sense; it's rounded and satisfyingly deep.

2. The majority of operas are familiar to the majority of opera-goers (sad, perhaps, but true). A good production makes you feel you're seeing it for the first time, in the best possible way.

3. Psychology is acute; action matches script, plus some. Prince Yeletsky's aria - beautifully sung by the young Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang - is delivered to a Lisa who is slipping away from her unfortunate fiance's grasp by the minute. And he - attending the fancy-dress ball - is clad in a Pierrot ruff [pictured left] that makes him seem pitiable, even though the rest of the time he's an arrogant, entitled, sod-off aristo - and doesn't neglect to collect his winnings from the dead Herman's pile at the conclusion.


4. It's alive to semi-visible dramatic truths and draws them out, without thumping everyone over the head. For instance, Herman is totally bonkers. He's known by his friends to be obsessive; but we soon see that he's also a fantasist who has lost touch with reality. If he brandished his revolver at the Countess (a superb Anne Marie Owens, pictured right), it wasn't noticeable. Instead, she starts to succumb early in that devastating scene to clear symptoms of a heart attack. Herman is so bound up in himself that he doesn't notice. "Do you even have a heart?" he demands, failing to observe that that heart is busy killing her. When he states, later, that he brandished his gun at her and she keeled over, this is his own grandiose fantasy - it's not what actually happened, and that tells us more about him than this moment would have were it the truth. Later, we notice that the final gambling scene takes place without him knowing that his one-time pretext for undertaking it - winning money so he can "deserve" Lisa - is defunct, because Lisa has shot herself and is lying dead at the side of the stage where we can see her but he can't. He never thinks to ask where she is or what will happen to her.

5. The society in which the action takes place is all-important and enhances the action even when it is not the original. McDonald has updated the action to just-pre-Revolution Russia. As the Empress appears (in the auditorium) and the chorus pay her homage, red leaflets flutter down from above, and we don't need to pick one up to know what it's all about. The aristocrats - principally the Countess and Yeletsky - are of another era, stuck in the past; contrast the Countess's crinoline ballgown with Lisa's schoolmarmish outfit. And they behave with considerable vileness towards their underlings; it's clear why they would be hated and rejected, but they are rounded enough for us not to hate them altogether. This is a portrait of a society that has gone to pot and will soon implode: and with that goes the obsession with gambling, the drunkenness, the venality...

6. ...therefore it tells us a lot about our own time too.

7. It draws out darker psychological suggestions in the story, but lets us figure out the rest. Herman has the key to the Countess's room because it's a short cut to Lisa's room and her bed. He, though, is keener to wrest the secret of the Three Cards from the Countess, who long ago gave up her virginity for the sake of that secret. He unveils a giant nude painting of the Countess in her youth, when she was known as The Venus of Moscow. There's some correlation within Herman of the Countess and Lisa, and of the Three Cards and something sexual - and we don't learn exactly what it might be, but it's there, and it nudges our perception towards some deep-seated trigger for his madness.

8. The design (also by McDonald) and lighting (Paul Keogan) mesh together and match the music and the concept. And this is a concept production, but it's so good that you don't realise it at the time.

9. Attention to detail is magnificent. That matters more than ever at Grange Park, because the audience is so close to the stage that everyone can see everything. Tomsky's narrative in act I (sung by the excellent Roman Ialcic) is a case in point: he brings his storytelling to life by casting himself and one of his several pals in its roles, and becomes quite carried away when proferring an illustrative kiss. The pal's astonished exchange of looks with the other pal is priceless.

10. None of this would work were the performers not up to it. The casting is superb. Set-piece moments - like Polina and Lisa's duet (brava to the fulsome Polina of Sara Fulgoni) - are able to shine, with stagecrafted images that match their emotional content.

And now for something completely different. This is the beginning of another version altogether of The Queen of Spades - starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, with music by Georges Auric. Spot one motif that pays tribute to Tchaikovsky's leitmotif for the three cards...