Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Meet the Three new Tenors

Here they are, fresh from today's Independent. They may not be The Three together as yet - but they are the best.

We had a little flurry about this here on JDCMB not long ago, and it was all good clean fun. Trouble is, when their individual discs hit my desk recently - each in a snazzily designed shiny folder with video material, huge pics (very nice too) and all the rest - it seemed just a little too much of a coincidence. What exactly was Universal thinking of? It's not hard to guess.

This started off as speculation, plus a little wistful thinking - I'd love to hear my three top chaps sing side by side. What opera fan wouldn't? They're some of the loveliest voices on earth, and Florez and Kaufmann especially have provided some of my best-ever musical memories.

But what worries me now, after speaking to some guys from Universal yesterday, is that it may even be true.

When Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras hit the trail, each of them was big enough and fulfilled enough artistically to withstand it. One critic I spoke to, who eventually didn't make it into the article, pointed out that certain singers (notably a soprano or two) don't care how long their voices last, but just want to do stadiums and make as much money as they can as quickly as possible. He felt that at least two of my three are much more serious artists than that and will want to be in the profession for the long haul.

But the long haul isn't the fashion. Squeeze 'em now and hang the consequences, that's the industry today. Instant gratification. And all that crap. We know this already, of course, and I think Florez and Kaufmann are strong enough, fine enough and sensible enough to plan otherwise; and hopefully it's not too late for Villazon.

I don't know about you, but I want to be at Covent Garden hearing Kaufmann sing Otello in 15 or 20 years' time. I want to watch Florez, as he gets middle-aged, grow into Rodolfo. I still want to be writing then, too, assuming I'm still alive. Long-term thinking should be what it's all about. Like a good marriage. Or sensible finance management that doesn't land the world in a credit crunch.

Today's hype-em-up, squeeze-em-dry, pay-em-trillions then chuck-em-out-into-landfill mentality totally misses the point of being on the planet. If it means we get rid faster of certain phony artists who shouldn't be there at all, then OK - but real beauty, real artistry, deep creativity, is a living entity that grows like a rose garden if you take care of it, and makes life worth living for everyone who comes into contact with it.

Blimey, guv. Time for a cold shower and a headache pill.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Muzsikas in the park

Here is Muzsikas, unplugged, at that party the other weekend! I tried to upload my own video but couldn't get it to work... fortunately another guest had the same idea.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Happy birthday!

It is Tom's birthday today, so here is a special gift from Richard Tauber. xxx

Friday, July 25, 2008

The ultimate in Hungarian dances

It was paperback publication day yesterday (follow that link for a 25% discount at Amazon...) and to celebrate here are some photos of the fabulous Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikas at my friend Simon Broughton's big birthday party in Regent's Park last weekend. Muzsikas, who have been working together since 1973, arrived fresh from performing at the Folk Prom...

Huge thanks meanwhile to the Sussex Hungarian Society for a wonderful evening yesterday in Lewes, complete with Eva's Vineyard wine and terrific goulash, and to the Cheltenham Festival for a roof-busting Saturday night, more of which soon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Beware of critics on a cold night

The first night of Hansel und Gretel at Glyndebourne was cold and damp, so broadly speaking, ignore the bad reviews. They only mean that certain people couldn't picnic on the lawn.

Laurent "La fille du regiment with Florez and Dessay" Pelly's junk-food-nightmare production is audience dynamite: pertinent, original, unsentimental, touching. Yes, the family live in a cardboard box; yes, the witch's house is a humungous structure made up of four supermarket aisles piled high with packets of cakes and crisps and fizzy drinks. As for the witch itself (word chosen with reason), the progress is from the humorous - the Witch's Ride is a shadowplay in which Witch tests recalcitrant broomsticks, progressively smaller, culminating in a mop - through the supermarket checkout lady from hell, to the truly loathsome: a hermaphrodite monstrosity with massive boobs and a bald pate, whom you can easily believe would cook and eat the kiddies. It's quite a relief when they get rid of her/him/it. An admirable performance by tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke,

Yes, H&G is a sensitive subject for Glyndebourne, land of privilege and Pimms, where the interval is usually spent overindulging in some style. But my dear colleagues have short memories: if you think this is overdoing the point for the Glyndebourne Guzzlers, please note that it isn't so long since Graham Vick's parting present to the place was Don Giovanni gorging on the innards of a dead horse.

The vision scene with the skittering kiddies in white is indeed slightly disappointing given the transcendental and inexplicably tear-provoking marvel of the music, but there are moments of real magic elsewhere. Gretel - the radiant Slovakian soprano Adriana Kucerova acting her ankle-socks off - peers through a coloured plastic bottle drawn from the litter strewn across the dead forest, and our world turns momentarily orange and purple. Later, she takes shelter and sings huddles up under a haphazard log, vulnerable as an abandoned kitten. Irmgard Vilsmaier as Mother nearly stole the whole show: powerful presence and more powerful voice, despite the pink slacks and house-coat.

As for the obese children clustering around at the end - well, what else could come out of Planet Junk alive? If there's pain in this production, there's a good reason for it: it gets under the fat, straight to the bones.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A fun activity for the weekend

Why not devise your own Fantasy Football Prom, or several, or season, and post to the Comments box, or email them to me, and we'll see if we can beat Messrs Kenyon & Wright at their own game here on JDCMB?

It's Friday, it's mid-July, it's tonight...

...and it's the First Night of the Proms. Less celebrated than the Last Night, but musically rather more rewarding.

Read my piece from today's Indy on Everything You Wanted To Know About The Proms But Were Afraid To Ask.

UPDATE, 11.20am. Oh dear, my friend Pliable at the Overgrown Path is upset, mainly because of a passing remark about Britten. As I've explained in my response to his post, he has taken this out of context. Of course there's more to Britten than 'chilly glumness', just as there is more to Walton than 'social climbing' and a hell of a lot more to Elgar than 'pomp and circumstance', but what we were doing at the time was plugging Vaughan Williams. And 'chilly glumness' is not why there's no Britten in the Proms this year, at least I hope it isn't. In fact, I don't know why there's no Britten as I don't make the decisions. Presumably it's for the same reason that there is no Korngold, no Rautavaara, no Barkauskas, no Shchedrin and no Indonesian Gamelan. Come to think of it, I didn't spot any Birtwistle either. Everyone always wants their 'thing' better represented at the Proms.

Even in 76 concerts, you can't do everything. It really is as simple as that. If it is any comfort, I have shouted loudly about the wonders of Stockhausen, Messiaen and Elliott Carter.

What's more, it is true about the high heels. Please don't remind me of the time I wore the wrong shoes to Des canyons aux etoiles. It doesn't bear thinking about. And Pliable would presumably suffer even more than I did were he to arrive in stilettos for Saint Francis.

Lighten up, folks. This piece was meant to be fun. Or is that forbidden within a 20-mile radius of opening Proms night?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The frog prince, aka JDF

Midway through the second half of his sell-out 'recital' at the Barbican on Saturday night, Juan Diego Florez vanished. A chap in a suit appeared and had a quiet word with maestro Carlo Rizzi, who trotted after him off the podium, then vanished too. Minutes ticked by (and the orchestra, bussed in from Welsh National Opera, was probably trying to calculate what time they'd get home to Cardiff if he left it any longer). Eventually they came back and Florez made a little speech.

"Global warming," he said, "seems to be affecting tenors too these days." He had a 'frog' in his throat. A little problem of phlegm, which he was sure would be better the minute he got under a hot shower, but meanwhile there were all kinds of fluids around and the audience members in the front row opposite him should beware! Before 'Amici miei' (Italian version of 'Ah, mes amis' - and it sounds better in French), he disappeared again. Long pause. Carlo Rizzi turned to the audience and raised one immensely expressive eyebrow...

Florez sang beautifully anyway, most of the time. When he was singing at all, that is (the programme, entirely bel canto to help launch JDF's new album, consisted of six short arias and five long overtures). That voice was still that voice; but what was missing was the sense of effortlessness, the flying honeypots of exquisite legato that we remember from La fille du regiment, the total technical security which makes his singing such a joy. When he wasn't turning on the charm and making the audience laugh, he looked uncomfortable, holding on to the chrome rail around Rizzi, his expression visibly anxious.

What happened? I have a little theory.

Saturday night wasn't especially warm - this summer has been c*)p, wet, miserable and chilly, and that evening was no exception. But the Barbican was heaving. The concert hall was sold out, with a queue for returns. So, too, was the theatre, which is staging the massive hit Black Watch, also with a queue for returns. The restaurants were busy, and the foyers and bars teeming. And, in the concrete bunker of the Barbican, there was no air.

I felt it pretty badly in the audience - rarely have I been so relieved to get out into the rain - and I can't imagine how the performers must have felt. Well, I can, as my companion for the evening had friends in the orchestra and we went backstage to say hi. "It's really hot out there..." they said, clustering around the water bottles.

The Barbican's artistic programme is one of the best in the entire world. But it's not my first choice of venue for a fun night out. Twenty-one years ago, I bottled out of the Barbican-based Guildhall School of Music and Drama after only three weeks - long enough to start thinking that the place might have a bad case of 'sick building syndrome'. The Guildhall - which I'm glad to say is now constructing a state-of-the-art new block over the road, due to open in 2011 - is directly above the Barbican's car park and we all suspected that the CO2 was wending its happy way up into the school and our lungs. What's certain is that there wasn't one day during those three weeks in which I didn't go home with a headache and nausea. The Barbican itself, meanwhile, seems to have a ventilation problem, not to mention a serious lack of natural light. There was no air in that hall on Saturday night. No wonder Florez was feeling froggy.

As a cheerful footnote, my companion assessed the frog prince and his gleaming smile, then remarked that he looked like one of those footballers who are brought on at the end of the match to do the penalty shoot-outs and win the game without having played it.

Here's JDF himself singing 'Ah, mes amis' in the Laurent Pelly production of La fille du regiment last year in Vienna.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Observer asks...

..."Is it curtains for critics?" This article asks whether bloggers are putting the pros out of business.

It ignores several big points:

1. A number of bloggers are also professionals in their field.

2. A lot of critics are amateurs. Total amateurs.

3. The issue is focusing attention on the role of the critic as never before. Until arts blogging came along to show that commentary is both wanted and needed, newspapers could shed critics and arts coverage with equanimity. Perhaps they need us more than they thought.

Present blogger/critic is happy to send own list of credentials to anyone who wants it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Carmen reviews

The Glyndebourne Carmen seems to have gone over better than I thought it would. Here are a few responses from the press:

The Independent: "This is an evening where Carmen improvises her castanet rhythms on Don José's body. If you don't believe me, start phoning for returns."

The Times: "Too often, these days, Carmens are pale, thin, complicated girls: more at home, one feels, in the Bodleian Library than a Seville fag factory. So it’s fun to find one with the hair of Shirley Bassey, the figure of Barbara Windsor, the strut of Tina Turner and the freneticism of a go-go dancer paid by the wiggle."

The Guardian: "This production, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2002 with Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role, still awaits principals who can make the most of what it has to offer."

Here's my £0.025p on the subject.

Tania Kroll as Carmen? A sizeable, jolly, smiley, girl-next-door type at first view - why do all these men go for her rather than most of the rest of the chorus? Well, she's a terrific actress - that helps. She has a good, musical, intelligent voice with fine diction - unremarkable and no way sensual enough, but she puts other aspects of the character first. She is fabulous - the best one yet in this third-time production - at putting across Carmen the Gypsy: the outsider, the free-thinker, keeping herself slightly to herself at the edge of the proceedings, going her own way no matter what. By the end, she was devastating.

Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose? Problem: the last one I saw was Kaufmann at Covent Garden. But Jovanovich is as hefty a fellow as this Carmen needs, and comes across as a jolly dangerous bloke with one mighty whopper of a big voice. I know it's dangerous to start talking about eating hats, but this guy should probably be Siegfried. We will certainly be hearing more of him. But could someone please give him some French coaching, PDQ?

Kate Royal as Micaela? That was the one really great performance I mentioned the other day. Some of my colleagues said they found her difficult to warm to - but that's the nature of Micaela, that's why Jose gets seduced by a sexpot, because Micaela is not one. There was a sense of true terror behind her aria in the mist, and she seemed to inhabit character and voice to perfection.

Oh, and Escamillo? Forgot about him. Perhaps they wanted him to come across as a D-list fading celebrity ripe for conscription to the worst of Big Brother or that thing in the jungle, but...

The biggest surprise in the write-ups is the universally positive response to the conducting. Yes, the orchestra sounds good - it always does these days. But Deneve (who looks uncannily like a cross between James Levine and Marge Simpson) takes tempi that are often on the leisurely side and compared to the fizz that Philippe Jourdain brought the original run with von Otter, this version definitely left the best bubbles for the interval champagne. Carmen is a long evening, but if it's well done it doesn't feel it. This one did. Very.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bravo Taraf

At The Spectator blogs, Clive Davis picks up on the Roby Lakatos video I posted the other day, but also quotes a piece about the Roma in Italy from The Times, which rather typifies the skewed light on minority communities that the media likes to use to gain sales. I was objecting to a lot more than fingerprinting, as the piece we quoted from The Independent made clear. Because the situation is a lot more dangerous than that.

As a follow-up, here is a powerful piece of writing by Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu.

And above, an extract from Tony Gatliff's film Latcho Drom about the Romanian Roma band Taraf de Haidouks (we saw them at the Barbican in June last year). World-music expert Ben Mandelson and I get to be their curtain-raiser at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Saturday week, 19 July, which is an honour.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Mamma Mia!

And if you think the cello story is good, just try this one, from Indy on Sunday - scandalissimo indeed! Puccini will never be the same again...

"It was Puccini's pursuit of women that created the great crisis in his life. This is a tale of infidelity, jealousy, vengeance and despair. It goes a long way towards explaining the composer's fallow period. Its repercussions are still being felt on the lakeside today."

The story of Mrs C...

This adorable story about Piatigorsky comes, rather unexpectedly, from the inimitable Robert Fisk, who devoted his Saturday column in the Indy to certain gems of information provided by his readers.

'...there arrives another letter from Ms Somervil-Ayrton, remembering how I once sat next to the late Mstislav Rostropovich en route to Beirut with what he called his "wife" – his sacred cello – on the seat beside him. Did I know, asks Ms S-A, the airline story about Piatigorsky, "who had the reputation Rostropovich has now"? I fumble for my massive, 2,239-page edition of the Norwegian K B Sandved's The World of Music, a weighty heart attack of a book wherein, on page 1622, I find "Gregor Piatigorsky, Russian-American cellist, born 1903". He began life by playing at his local cinema, but at 14 was engaged by the Imperial Opera in Moscow. At the revolution, smugglers got him out of Russia, leaving him stripped and penniless in Poland but he became first cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic and toured the US in 1929 where Samuel Chotzinoff wrote that in his hands "the cello loses its limitations, his playing is as light and brilliant as if he were playing a violin".

Now back to Ms S-A who writes how Piatigorsky "was shopping around for an airline that would carry his cello free of charge – as he was sick of all the hassle and expense ... he managed to find one – 'Of course, Mr. Piatigorsky – of course' – and went on the appointed day to pick up his tickets. To his surprise, they proudly presented one for himself and one in the name of Miss Cello Piatigorsky. I think he had to pay anyway...".'

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Here comes Carmen...

Carmen opens at Glyndebourne today, so here's a taster of the production, a David McVicar classic - gritty, powerful and very real. If you're going this year, you'll see a totally different cast from this, which dates from 2002 and features von Otter as Carmen. I couldn't find any Youtube video of the glorious costumes for the toreador procession in the last act, which were apparently sourced from the real McCoy in Seville, but the whole thing is available on DVD.

Having attended the dress rehearsal, I'm not yet at liberty to give detailed views (why-oh-why didn't I take a pseudonym while I could?!) but let's just say this: there's one really great performance plus a couple of surprises; the dramatic side is fabulous; and at times you may feel the need for caffeine. More about it soon...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Calling Townsville...

I should have been sunning myself on the beach or the Great Barrier Reef today, because tomorrow A Walk Through the End of Time has its English language premiere...on the other side of the world, at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland. The Tropic Sun Theatre Company is performing it in an atmospheric church, so I'm told, the Fibonacci Sequence will play the Messiaen Quartet and the event is apparently sold out. I'll look forward to a full report from down under afterwards...

A tender memory of my late sister, Claire, who once summed up her experience of holidaying in Queensland and the GBR as 'Watch 'em by day, eat 'em by night'. (Fish. The best.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

That dress was little?

After all the fuss about the Little Black Dress in Ariadne auf Naxos, I have to report that said dress is a long-sleeved, ankle-length, opaque and voluminous gown. Flatteringly cut for best cleavage effect, but still not precisely 'little'.

Apart from that, the opera, which we saw last night, was a marvel from start to finish. It was the last performance in the run - sorry, but it was the only one for which hubby was free (some of us get in trouble if we go to operas by his great-granddad's cards buddy without him). Deborah Voigt's natural radiance and beauty shone out; and when she lets rip on those top notes Covent Garden floats several hundred metres into the air; if she sounded a tad less secure in the lower registers, frankly I am not complaining. (She wasn't matched by her tenor, not remotely, and frankly I am complaining about that...see Tosca comments, back to front as it were).

The rest of the cast was a knockout. Gillian Keith as Zerbinetta, a cross between Twiggy and the Queen of the Night, cast a silvery legato that wouldn't have disgraced an ondes martenot; every last decoration proved an expression of her daffy and vulnerable character. Thomas Allen made the very most of the Music Master, suggesting unspoken hidden depths to the personality as well as out-tenoring the tenor; best of all, to my ears, was the mezzo Kristine Jepson as The Composer, her flights of fantasy a source of magic to the Act 1 ragbag of characters, but her voice a revelation to those of us out front, a soaring, creamy Straussian that we'll run back to hear anytime we can. Oktavian, please! Special applause to luscious solo violin Vassko Vassiliev and SIR Mark Elder down t'pit. (Yes, Mark Elder got a knighthood. No, Vernon Handley didn't...)

A couple of passing thoughts. First, Hoffmansthal's letter to Strauss that is quoted in the programme should cause some raised eyebrows today - all that stuff about 'high' and 'low' understanding and how the two performing troupes are so far apart in this respect that they'll never understand each other; reading it, one feels he holds Zerbinetta and co in some contempt. Yet the opera comes across with wit, sympathy and tenderness to all, each side's viewpoint beautifully balancing the other and sparking perfect ironies. Intriguing.

Secondly, when Korngold wrote the final duet of Heliane, it would seem he was actually trying to write the final duet of Ariadne. He must have identified with Act I of this opera like the blazes, and he'd have been an impressionable teenage prodigy when it first appeared. He threw the line about preferring to throw his work into the fire at Strauss himself once - it won his battle, whatever it was (there were many). There you go.

The Tomcat is justifiably proud of his great-granddad's pal. In this household, one can't help remembering the family legend about the time they all went out to dinner in Bavaria and Mrs Strauss threw a tantrum when her choice of main course was not available and the waiter offered her an alternative of char (in German, Saibling, a kind of trout): "I don't want that bloody fish!" she shouted.

Solved? Yeah?

The Indy today has one of those articles that pop up from time to time claiming to have solved the mystery of why Strads are the best.

Leaving aside the claims of Mr Guarneri del Gesu, one of the most gorgeous violin sounds I've encountered recently came from Christian Tetzlaff, whose tone in the Brahms concerto brought tears to the eyes simply by existing. Strad schmad, he plays a modern violin made by Peter Greiner in Germany.

It ain't what you've got, etc etc. Views, folks?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Summertime, and the blogging is easy...It's 1 July, the new manuscript has been delivered, the sky is blue, and here is Jascha Heifetz. Enjoy.