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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Oranges, lemons and La Calinda...

I'm counting the days until the Wexford Opera Festival. Ten at present. Very pleased to be going back this year to an event of which I've loved every minute the times before that I have been there, and this year they're doing Delius's Koanga, a blink-and-you-missed-it rarity (it was done once at Sadler's Wells in 2007 and I blinked and missed it - or may have been away in Bosnia at the time - a pity one can't be in several places all at once). Posted below is a short piece I wrote for yesterday's Independent about why it's so special. 

First, here's Sir Malcolm Sargent, with an introduction to 'La Calinda' that isn't terribly accurate about its setting. The opera is set in Louisiana. It was Delius himself who was on an orange plantation in Florida...of which more in a mo.

Delius’s Koanga is the opera I have waited all my life to see. Stagings are so rare that if you blink, you miss it. Yet the work contains one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, ‘La Calinda’, with its irresistible oboe solo that seems all mingled smiles and tears; my husband and I both love it so much that we walked out to it after our wedding ceremony. Now, at last, Koanga is being presented complete at the Wexford Festival, Ireland – the best friend anywhere of deserving, under-performed operas.

Delius, 1907
Unfortunately it is rare for a good reason: its distinctly tricky story, based partly on the novel The Gradissimes by George Washington Cable. Koanga is an African king and Voodoo priest who has been brought to Louisiana as a slave. He loves Palmyra, the mulatto daughter of a slave girl and a white plantation owner, and agrees to convert to Christianity to marry her. But the overseer wants Palmyra for himself; everything goes horribly wrong and the tale concludes in tragedy.

Just imagine the problems such a scenario presents for a creative team in 2015. Its director, Michael Gieleta, whose staging of Maria by Roman Statkowski took Wexford by storm in 2011, nevertheless points out that the issues Koanga raises are absolutely current: religion, sexual abuse, power and of course race.

Blacking up is not an option. “The characters are defined not by their skin colour, but by their body language and by their relationships,” Gieleta says. “This is about captors and captives.” Koanga and Palmyra are played by two exciting young singers, the American baritone Norman Garrett and the South African soprano Nozuko Teto; and Gieleta’s preparations for the production included holding dance workshops in South Africa.

Back in 1895, Koanga might have seemed an unlikely topic for a British composer – but Delius had his own reasons for choosing a tragic love story set amid the toxic race relations of the Deep South. Born to a German immigrant family in Bradford, he moved to Florida in 1884, aged 22, to run an orange plantation. Here he fell in love with an African-American girl, whose family would previously have been slaves – and she bore his child. Later he returned to the US to look for her and their son. They had vanished. She may have gone into hiding for fear he would take the boy away.

This startling episode was confirmed by Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, in a recorded phone conversation with the violinist Tasmin Little, who researched the topic in 1997. Fenby was well aware, too, of how close Koanga was to its composer’s heart. “Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane,” he wrote. “For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again...”

Clearly Fenby regarded Koanga as the work that was inspired by Delius’s lost love and the child he never knew. Its conductor at Wexford, Stephen Barlow, confirms the special nature of the work: “The libretto may be a bit clunky,” he says, “but some of the music has the great, sensual sweep of Delius at his finest.”

And if ‘La Calinda’ feels like smiles through tears, perhaps that was with good reason all along.  

Koanga, Wexford Festival Opera, Ireland, 21-30 October. Box office: +353 53 912 2144

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Welcome to Wexford

I've just been to Wexford to review the Opera Festival for The Independent and the piece is out now, here.

It was great to be back at the only festival where you walk through a row of terraced houses to find yourself in a state-of-the-art bijou opera house that you can't actually see until you're in it; where the first singing you hear is by the audience, who give their all in the Irish National Anthem; where the directorial team stands by the doors at the end to greet and thank everyone for being there; and where you can hear the stars before they become stars and appreciate forgotten delights of the repertoire reaching the limelight at last. Such is Wexford's reputation that the great and good of the opera world descend on it from all over. Chat with someone in the hotel lift and he'll probably turn out to be the chairman of an opera company from the other side of the globe. If you're the sort of music-lover who feels that an opera doesn't necessarily have to be as good as Don Giovanni in order to merit a hearing, Wexford is for you.

As usual, the festival conjured a trio of rare marvels out of the back catalogue of operatic history: works by Chabrier, Cilea and Delius, with the latter's A Village Romeo and Juliet calling for particular spotlight in our favourite Marmitey-composer's anniversary year and supported here by the Delius Trust. You know 'The Walk to the Paradise Garden', which is an orchestral interlude from this opera? The rest of the evening is equally gorgeous. Honest to goodness, guv: it's one of the most beautiful operas I have ever heard.

I'm in danger of turning into one of those people who rants on and on and on about Delius, but I was bowled over, partly by the poignancy of the work - it distils the tragic beauty of life into a potent brew indeed - but perhaps even more by the anguish that a piece so poetic, so delicate, so exquisite, has had to go unappreciated all these years. I hope that's going to change now, because it should. OK, it doesn't match operatic norms - it's slow, the libretto is weak, the protagonists are Swiss (is that the kiss of death?). But so what? Silk chiffon is not invalid just because it isn't cashmere.

Chabrier's Le roi malgre lui (King In Spite of Himself) proved to be a totally bananas concoction in which the French king is elected king of Poland against his will. For Chabrier, it provides an excuse for a dazzling array of cleverness, confusion and coloratura, poised somewhere between Gounod and Ravel. The second act in particular is a Laduree's-window of truly yummy set pieces - waltz, barcarolle, Gypsy song - any of which would make brilliant stand-alone concert pieces. Shame about the production, but the singing was great. Ditto for the Cilea L'Arlesiana - based on the same play for which Bizet wrote his very different incidental music. A very full-on Italian verismo job, this, much relished in the pit by David Angus and the enthusiastic orchestra, and on stage turning up several potential new stars, notably the Italian mezzo Annunziata Vestri and the Russian tenor Dmitry Golovnin. The latter's lunchtime recital was also a major highlight of my visit. I enjoyed his performance so much that I grabbed him for an impromptu interview, which I shall bring you at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile I'd have loved to see the face of the Chabrier's super lead soprano, Nathalie Paulin, on learning the identity of the gentleman she selected at random from the audience to dance with her in her cabaret show. He was Antony Craig, production editor of Gramophone. Read his blogpost about Wexford's Delius here.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Music writing masterclass: Bernard Levin and the Wexford lemon juice

You want to learn how to write beautifully, with erudition and elegance, about a performance you have attended? This little number by the great Bernard Levin has gone down in history as perhaps the best - and the funniest - ever to hit the page. Admittedly, he had an exceptional subject on this occasion. You can find it in the Levin collection Conducted Tour (1982, Sceptre) and I reproduce it here as a gratis advertisement, in the hope that you will buy the book if you like it (it's out of print, but still findable second-hand. Come on, Sceptre - reprint, please!)

Fasten your seatbelts.

On a memorable performance of Spontini's La Vestale, by Bernard Levin

1979 was The Year of the Missing Lemon Juice. The Theatre Royal in Wexford holds 440; it was completely full that night, so there are, allowing for a few who have already died (it is not true, though it might well have been, that some died of laughter at the time), hardly more than four hundred people who now share, to the end of their lives, an experience from which the rest of the world, now and for ever, is excluded. When the last of us dies, the experience will die with us, for although it is already enshrined in legend, no one who was not an eye witness will ever really understand what we felt. Certainly I am aware that these words cannot convey more than the facts, and the facts, as so often and most particularly in this case, are only part, and a small part, too, of the whole truth. But I must try...

The set for Act I of the opera consisted of a platform laid over the stage, raised about a foot at the back and sloping evenly to the footlights. This was meant to represent the interior of the Temple where burned the sacred flame, and had therefore to look like marble; the designer had achieved a convincing alternative by covering the raised stage in Formica. But the Formica was slippery; to avoid the risk of a performer taking a tumble, designer and stage manager had between them discovered that an ample sprinkling of lemon juice would make the surface sufficiently sticky to provide a secure foothold. The story now forks; down one road, there lies the belief that the member of the stage staff whose duty it was to sprinkle the lifesaving liquid, and who had done so without fail at rehearsal and at the earlier performances (this was the last one of the Festival), had simply forgotten. Down the other branch in the road is a much more attractive rumour: that the theatre charlady, inspecting the premises in the afternoon, had seen to her horror and indignation that the stage was covered in the remains of some spilt liquid, and, inspired by professional pride, had thereupon set to and given it a good scrub and polish all over. The roads now join again, for apart from the superior charm of the second version, it makes no difference what the explanation was. What matters is what happened.

What happened began to happen very early. The hero of the opera strides on to the stage immediately after the curtain has gone up. The hero strode; and instantly fell flat on his back. There was a murmur of sympathy and concern from the audience for his embarrassment and for the possibility that he might have been hurt; it was the last such sound that was to be heard that night, and it was very soon to be replaced by sounds of a very different nature.

The hero got to his feet, with considerable difficulty, and, having slid some way down the stage in falling, proceeded to stride up-stage to where he should have been in the first place; he had, of course, gone on singing throughout, for the music had not stopped. Striding up-stage, however, was plainly more difficult than he had reckoned on, for every time he took a step and tried to follow it with another, the foot with which he had taken the first proceeded to slide down-stage again, swiftly followed by its companion; he may not have known it, but he was giving a perfect demonstration of what is called marcher sur place, a graceful manoeuvre normally used in mime, and seen at its best in the work of Marcel Marceau.

Finding progress uphill difficult, indeed impossible, the hero wisely decided to abandon the attempt and stay where he was, singing bravely on, no doubt calculating that, since the stage was brightly lit, the next character to enter would notice him and adjust his own movements accordingly. So it proved, in a sense at least, for the next character to enter was the hero's trusted friend and confidant, who, seeing his hero further down-stage than he was supposed to be, loyally decided to join him there. Truth to tell, he had little choice, for from the moment he had stepped on to the stage he had begun to slide downhill, arms semaphoring, like Scrooge's clerk on the way home to his Christmas dinner. His downhill progress was arrested by his fetching up against his friend with a thud; this, as it happened, was not altogether inappropriate, as the opera called for them to embrace in friendly greeting at that point. It did not, however, call for them, locked in each other's arms and propelled by the impetus of the friend's descent, to careen helplessly further down-stage with the evident intention of going straight into the orchestra pit with vocal accompaniment - for the hero's aria had, on the arrival of his companion, been transformed into a duet.

On the brink of ultimate disaster they managed to arrest their joint progress to destruction and, working their way along the edge of the stage like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgeable crevasse, most gallantly began, with infinite pain and by a form of progress most aptly described in the title of Lenin's famous pamphlet, Four Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, to climb up the terrible hill. It speedily became clear that this hazardous ascent was not being made simply from a desire to retain dramatic credibility; it had a much more practical object. The only structure breaking the otherwise all too smooth surface of the stage was a marble pillar, a yard or so high, on which there burned the sacred flame of the rite. This pillar was embedded firmly in the stage, and it had obviously occurred to both mountaineers at once that if they could only reach it it would provide a secure base for their subsequent operations, since if they held on to it for dear life they would at any rate be safe from any further danger of sliding downhill and/or breaking their necks. It was soon borne in upon them that they had undertaken a labour of truly Sisyphean proportions, and would have been most heartily pardoned by the audience if they had abandoned the librettist's words at this point, and fitted to the music instead the old moral verse: The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight; But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upwards in the night.

By this time the audience - all 440 of us - were in a state of such abandon with laughter that several of us felt that if this were to continue a moment longer we would be in danger of doing ourselves a serious internal mischief, little did we know that the fun was just beginning, for shortly after Mallory and Irvine reached their longed-for goal, the chorus entered, and instantly flung themselves en masse into a very freely choreographed version of Les Patineurs, albeit to the wrong music. The heroine herself, the priestess Giulia, with a survival instinct strong enough to suggest that she would be the one to get close to should any reader of these lines happen to be shipwrecked along with the Wexford opera company, skated into the wings and kicked her shoes off and then, finding on her return that this had hardly improved matters, skated back to the wings and removed her tights as well.

Now, however, the singing never having stopped for a moment, the chorus had come to the same conclusion as had the hero and his friend, namely that holding on to the holy pillar was the only way to remain upright and more or less immobile. The trouble with this conclusion was that there was only one such pillar on the stage, and it was a small one; as the cast crowded round it, it seemed that there would be some very unseemly brawling among those seeking a hand-hold, a foothold, even a bare finger-hold, on this tiny island of security in the terrible sea of impermanence. By an instinctive understanding of the principles of co-operation, however, they decided the matter without bloodshed; those nearest the pillar clutched it, those next nearest clutched the clutchers, those farther away still clutched those, and so on until, in a kind of daisy- chain that snaked across the stage, everybody was accommodated.

The condition of the audience was now one of fully extended hysteria, which was having the most extraordinary effect - itself intensifying the audience's condition - on the orchestra. At Wexford, the orchestra pit runs under the stage; only a single row of players - those at the edge of the pit nearest the audience, together, of course, with the conductor -could see what was happening on the stage. The rest realized that something out of the ordinary was going on up there, and would have been singularly dull of wit if they had not, for many members of the audience were now slumped on the floor weeping helplessly in the agony of their mirth, and although the orchestra at Wexford cannot see the stage, it can certainly see the auditorium.

Theologians tell us that the delights of the next world are eternal. Perhaps; but what is certain is that all earthly ones, alas, are temporary, and duly, after giving us a glimpse of the more enduring joy of Heaven that must have strengthened the devout in their faith and caused instant conversion among many of the unbelievers, the entertainment came to an end when the first act of the opera did so, amid such cheering as I had never before heard in an opera house, and can never hope to hear again. In the interval before Act II, a member of the production staff walked back and forth across the stage, sprinkling it with the precious nectar, and we knew that our happiness was at an end. But he who, after such happiness, would have demanded more, would be greedy indeed, and most of us were content to know that, for one crowded half-hour, we on honeydew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.

Bernard Levin

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wonderful time in wet, wet Wexford

OK, so it rained a lot, but I finally made it to the Wexford Opera Festival. This Irish coastal town, with its soft and subtle colours under low-blowing clouds and sweet-scented, damp air, is famous for much more than its delectable strawberries (but do dip them in chocolate. Oh yes...). It's where such luminaries as Juan Diego Florez, Joseph Calleja and the fast-rising Eglise Gutierrez cut their teeth. I thought it'd be good, having been hearing about it more or less forever. But I didn't realise quite how good until I emerged from Maria by Roman Statkowski [who? ed] shaken to the core by Michael Gieleta's staging - so realistic that I'd sat there reminding myself "it's only an opera, it's only an opera..."

Statkowski, since you ask, was Szymanowski's teacher and his dates are 1859-1925. Maria is a political tale based on an epic poem by Mlynarski from 1825, set in an obscure province of what's now Ukraine in the 17th century. Waclaw, son of the powerful Count Palatine, is in love with Maria, daughter of a mere District Governor - and has run away and married her. Big daddy the despot is furious because his son is the apple of his eye, his sole heir and hope. He appoints his henchmen to bump off Maria so that Waclaw can be unencumbered by a wife from the wrong social class. Despot dispatches army to attack 'thugs' who are 'vandalising' his territories; during the mayhem Maria is abducted and thrown into the river to drown. Waclaw discovers that his father ordered his beloved wife's murder and goes to take revenge - but kills himself instead of his father. There's a grand ball complete with polonaise and mazurka, ravishing love music that seems to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, and folk elements that seem to have escaped from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.2 (though this tune was a Ukrainian folk song long before either composer got hold of it).

Structurally it could be an awkward opera - for instance, the eponymous heroine only stars fully in one scene, plus a brief moment in the next before she is murdered. But Gieleta has updated it to Poland of the early 1980s, to devastating effect. The 'thugs' represent the rise of Solidarnosc: Count Palatine becomes the general in charge of beating them down under martial rule.

I had a long, intense talk with Gieleta, who was a child in Poland at that time and saw it all with his own eyes. Nevertheless, he told me, he was keen to capture not only that specific reality, but the universal relevance of a narrative about totalitarian regimes. He described an incident in which a friend from Venezuela had come up to him with tears in his eyes after seeing the performance and declared that it was about his country.

The staging is violent, at times terrifying in its realism - for instance, the scene in which the women take refuge in the District Governor's yard trying to escape from the threatening troops with riot gear and batons, plus a sleazy priest seeking long-haired candidates to comfort; or the injured, blood-drenched Waclaw stumbling about the container yard, hunting for Maria, unaware that she is dead. The party scene captures the ghastly naffness of communist Poland trying to dress up and party, complete with a few manically grinning folk dancers and a desultory bunny girl emerging from a polar bear suit - Berlusconi bunga-bunga this ain't. Orchestral interludes are illustrated by huge black and white photos under falling snow - queues for food, a bus stuck in a blizzard, the grim shipyards of Gdansk - mirrored by tableaux on stage. Apparently on the first night the Polish Ambassador attended and spotted, in one picture of the demonstrations, an image of his younger self.

Daria Masiero was Maria - not the romantic beauty-queen we might expect, but instead a cuddly, down-to-earth girl in a cardigan, caring towards her father and thrilled when Waclaw gives her the gift of a small teddy bear. As Count Palatine, Krzysztof Szumanski's strong-centred bass-baritone packed a tremendous punch, a big voice with oodles of personality (though he didn't quite have the role's bottom notes); he's an alumnus of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at Covent Garden and we are likely to hear much more of him. In this trailer for the Deutsche Oper Berlin's Le nozze di Figaro, you can glimpse him as Figaro.

Quite a buzz, though, emanated around Waclaw: the Polish tenor Rafal Bartminski, who portrayed the tale's youthful hero as a peaceable, academic type caught up in forces that do their best to politicise him from either side, somewhat against his inner nature. It's a starry role, romantic and beautiful, and Bartminski carried it off to the manner born. (ENO please note, this would be a terrific role for Toby Spence.)

Listen to Rafal sing Schubert's 'Du bist die Ruhe':

Donizetti's Gianni di Parigi - "Johnny from Paris" - couldn't have been a better antidote: a pure bel canto comedy of dinners. The Dauphin of France arrives at an hotel disguised as a wealthy traveller named Gianni, and bribes the muddled hotelier so that he can take over the whole place although it's been booked out long ago by the Princess of Navarra. He's supposed to marry this princess, but hasn't met her and wants to check her out first, incognito. Unbeknownst to him, though, his dad has told her exactly what's going on, so she turns up fully briefed...and the pair try to outwit each other until they finally admit they're madly in love. Caught in the middle is the hotelier, his daughter, the prince's page boy Oliviero and the princess's snobby, self-important chief steward, who finds himself trapped between his sense of 'honour' and the temptation of a giant vol-au-vent. There are some irresistible arias, foot-tapping ensembles and plenty of those Italian crescendi that remind one of being tailgated more and more closely on the Autostrada.

The production, by Federico Grazzini, was costumed in 1950s style - it seems to be the default setting for Donizetti right now - and my only problem with it was that the chorus consisted of the hotel staff. If they'd had two royal entourages to cater for, they wouldn't have time to stand around singing, drinking and asking the princess for autographs.

More superb singing, though. Zuzana Markova, a Czech coloratura soprano, sang bel canto rings round everyone, saving some her vocal richesse for the glittering final scene; and she bore a rather startling resemblance to the Duchess of Cornwall. Edgardo Rocha, from Uruguy, was a cute, luxury-loving charmer as the Dauphin in disguise, with a high and affectionate tenor that suited the music to a tee. But the one who stole the show, as far as I was concerned, was the trouser-role mezzo of Oliviero the page boy: Lucia Cirillo from Italy, who showed absolute mastery and deep, innate, stylish musicality, as well as offering a lovely sense of fun. Not a huge amount of her to hear on Youtube as yet, but here is a spot of Italian baroque in which she's accompanied by the excellent Fabio Biondi and his orchestra.

Wexford has much more on offer than just the evening operas (and unfortunately I missed the third of those, Ambroise Thomas's La Cour de Celimene - you know what Saint-Saens said about Ambroise Thomas, but I'd still have liked to hear it...). There's an impressive fringe programme of morning lectures, lunchtime recitals and afternoon "shorts". I caught an afternoon performance under the umbrella title of Double Trouble: two one-acters about love, marriage and discord in the suburban states, Menotti's The Telephone (with Laurie Ashworth and Byron Jackson) and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti starring Toby Girling as Sam and Martha Bredin as Dinah.

Having always heard Trouble in Tahiti described with words like 'flawed', I loved every minute of it: Bernstein's high energy, his focus, his versatility, the way there's no emotion he won't have a go at grabbing in music, the way he can juxtapose irony and pastiche in the close-harmony trios with near desperation over the thin and fragile surface that holds our existence in place... Full marks to the lot of them, including director Michael Shell and music director Adam Burnette.

The Wexford audience? People with a true passion for opera, eager to dress up and hear whatever Wexford deems fit to serve them, in the certainty that it will be good, inspiring, fascinating. Many of those I encountered have been attending annually and faithfully for 15 or 20 years or more. Now I know why.