Showing posts with label Opera North. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Opera North. Show all posts

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Opera North's treasurable Ring: a guest review by Timothy Fancourt QC

Regrettably I haven't been able to attend Opera North's much-lauded Ring cycle myself, but a great friend and passionate Wagnerian Timothy Fancourt QC has, and he's offered us a guest review. Below, delighted to run it. JD
            
Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes in Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Clive Barda


A RING TO TREASURE


 Following Ring cycles at the Proms (2014) and at Bayreuth (2015), this reviewer headed to Leeds Town Hall last week with no sense that anything inferior was about to be served up by Opera North. Indeed, after the egregious nonsense of the Bayreuth production, the simple, semi-staged and beautifully lit production of Peter Mumford was a revelation of how effective the drama in the Ring can be when the music is allowed to speak largely for itself. Wieland Wagner would have approved heartily.

The four operas have been built up by Opera North over the last four years and have received hugely commendatory reviews in the process. This year the Ring is presented as a full cycle, in the traditional format of a week with days off in between. It is of course a totally different experience: the musical language develops and mutates over three nights, so that by Götterdämmerung every note derives dramatic and musical resonance from the events in the 11 hours that have preceded it.  The same themes permeate the whole, but take on different colours and nuances as the story develops.  The demands made of the audience are considerable, but so are the rewards. 
            
The first word must go to the orchestra of Opera North and the conductor, Richard Farnes. The orchestral playing was of a very high quality, one or two minor lapses of concentration excepted. It is clear that the orchestra has benefited greatly from the incremental building up of the Ring over years, and the considerable technical demands of the music were met with aplomb throughout. What is also clear is that there is a huge commitment and level of enthusiasm about the project and the music. It is easy to see this when the orchestra is on stage, exposed to full view, but also in the corridors and on the steps of the Town Hall in the intervals, where cast, musicians and audience happily exchange thoughts and compliments. The majority of the orchestra was on stage 15 minutes before each opera started, and numerous players remained on stage after each lengthy act, practising for the one to follow.
            
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo: Clive Barda
Mr Farnes’ conducting is a revelation too (to those who have not enjoyed it previously). In London it is easy to forget that other parts of the country boast conductors who really do understand Wagner’s music and have it in their blood. His conducting style is calm and his beat clear: no histrionics; no heaving and subsiding with the musical flow. In Das Rheingold, which overall was the least convincing performance, the music was sometimes a bit one-paced, without time to breathe on occasions, and without bite and zip when needed to lend colour to the black comedy being enacted on stage. The ensemble went awry for a while at the start of Scene 4, where the vocal lines and the orchestral commentary are at their most complex. But the difficulty of conducting with one’s back to the actors/singers must be considerable, and overall Mr Farnes achieved a wonderful sound and cohesion. A special mention for Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose Loge was beautifully judged and acted, a personification of flickering fire, volatility, insecurity and cunning.

In Die Walküre, the orchestral sound blossomed fully and the effect was powerful and beautiful in equal measure. Some lovely moments in the woodwind in the middle section of Act 2 (and later in Act 2 of Siegfried) will stay long in the memory. Leeds had a Siegmund (Michael Weinius) and Sieglinde (Lee Bisset) to relish, and each acted with great delicacy of expression and movement and sang to a very high standard. Indeed, one had to pinch oneself to remember that all this was being presented in Leeds Town Hall and not in the Metropolitan Opera. Reginald Goodall used to say, with only a hint of irony, that he was not sure that he had really mastered the end of Act 3 of Die Walküre.  I have never heard it more perfectly judged and played than here: the beauty and colour of the music deliciously set off by the shocking personal tragedy happening on stage, for which equal credit is due to Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde) and Robert Hayward (Wotan). Ms Hogan sang wonderfully well: she is confident, technically secure, acts well, and produces a beautiful but well structured sound. 

Siegfried is sometimes regarded as the weak link in the cycle. Not here. The orchestral playing was nothing short of superb throughout, with Mr Farnes finding space and colour for all the subtleties of the music. A great deal depends on the eponymous hero, of course, and Leeds was very lucky to have a recently-engaged Lars Cleveman, who sang to a very high standard, with lovely bright tones, clear diction, faultless intonation and considerable reserves of energy. His voice was well contrasted by the character tenor of Richard Roberts (Mime), whose acting skills were deployed to memorable effect as the evil, scheming dwarf. The musical high at the start of Act 3, with Wotan, Erda and Siegfried, suffered something of a fall when a different Brünnhilde was kissed awake. Ms Broderick unfortunately fell short of the very high standards of the rest of the cast and the musical intensity was lost, which was a great shame. (Ms Hogan will sing throughout in London.)

Götterdämmerung is and was the pinnacle of the cycle. A different Siegfried was with us, Mati Turi, who, while not reaching that heights that Mr Cleveman reached, let no one down, despite some dryness and lack of colour at the top of his range. The show was once again stolen by the orchestral playing and by Ms Hogan, whose scene with Waltraute (Susan Bickley) in Act 1 was exquisitely performed, a telling portrayal of human characters who were once godlike and close but who now live in different worlds and no longer speak the same language. A very well sung Gunther (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Gutrune (Giselle Allen) contributed to the awful denouement, manipulated almost to the point of success by the Hagen of Mats Almgren. Mr Almgren, with resonant deep bass voice and German pronunciation that seems to emanate from some primordial middle earth, had been a fearsome Fafner and was no less fearsome in this opera, bringing off a superbly chilling Rhine watch scene in Act 1 and the Siegfried’s Ende trio with Gunther and Brünnhilde at the end of Act 2. No one doubted that Ms Hogan would steal the show at the end, which she did, unforgettably.

So palmes d’or for the orchestra, Mr Farnes and Ms Hogan, and one other character who I have not mentioned so far, but who appears throughout the cycle. The anti-hero Alberich, who is cruelly abused by the gods and then disdained and dismissed by his son, who for the merely human misjudgement of preferring wealth to love sets the whole disaster in motion and is condemned to misery. It is a wonderfully ambiguous part, and in Das Rheingold has some of the best musical lines; here it was sung to perfection by Jo Pohlheim, whose lovely bass-baritone easily captured the true character of the villain-victim.

For those who missed it in Leeds, it is touring Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead. London sold out its cycle in May last year, within days of going on sale, such is the renown of this Opera North production and the dearth of Ring productions in the capital. For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this really is a Ring to treasure. 
Timothy Fancourt

Friday, September 25, 2015

Opera company pushes up school results

Here's what Opera North has to say about the results of its schools programmes with In Harmony in Leeds and Hull. It's more proof that learning music helps with learning everything.

We all know this by now. Yet how many more times do we have to hear it before that powers-that-be take some notice of it and make sure that every schoolchild in the country can have access to music education? See info below from ON's press office.


An In Harmony masterclass


DRAMATIC SATS RESULTS INCREASE AT SCHOOLS WORKING WITH OPERA NORTH




Opera North, the national opera company in the North of England, is celebrating a dramatic increase in academic achievement with two primary schools in Yorkshire, where it delivers intensive music programmes as part of the Company’s extensive Education work.



Windmill Primary School in Belle Isle, Leeds (In Harmony Opera North), and Bude Park Primary School in Bransholme, Hull (Opera North Singing School) have both seen significant rises of up to 20% in their KS2 SATS results this year.



As part of the Opera North programmes, both primary schools allocate up to 3 hours of musical delivery within curriculum time every week for every child, with children taking part in up to 7.5 hours of musical delivery overall. Leaders at the two schools strongly believe that the music programmes enhance both personal and academic development.



At Windmill Primary School, 2015 results in Key Stage 2 SATS exams, taken by 10 and 11 year olds, have increased the percentage of children attaining a Level 4 in Reading from 78% in 2014 to 98.7% in 2015.



In Writing, 86.7% achieved Level 4 or above, up from 75.6%, while the results in Maths increased from 73.2% to 93.3% of children attaining Level 4 or above.



In Harmony Opera North, funded by Arts Council England and the Department for Education, began in Windmill Primary School in the Belle Isle area of South Leeds, in January 2013. Every child in the school participates in up to 3 hours musical activity per week during curriculum time and many children attend Opera North ‘After School’ music sessions three times a week. Most of the 362 pupils play a string instrument and enjoy weekly group instrumental lessons and orchestra sessions; everyone sings in an age banded choir.



All of the children enjoy giving regular performances to family and friends and they have all had the opportunity to perform at several events with the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North; initiatives which helped parental engagement with the school rise from 7%-39% in 2013.



Andy Gamble, Executive Headteacher at Windmill Primary School in Belle Isle, Leeds said:



I am delighted with these results, which prove that the In Harmony Opera North programme at Windmill Primary School continues to go from strength to strength. We have observed many significant effects on the pupils’ skills such as teamwork, co-operation, social skills and self-confidence. It is my belief that the cultural enrichment provided by In Harmony Opera North over the last three years has had a direct impact on the positive learning culture here at Windmill and subsequently contributed towards these improved results for our children.”




Helen Miller, Headteacher at Bude Park Primary School in Bransholme, Hull, said:

The benefits of a rich musical curriculum have been well-documented and these results are already speaking volumes about the value of the arts and music in the classroom.  In addition, by offering our children frequent performance opportunities with professional musicians from Opera North both within their local community and across Hull we have been able to increase the children’s levels of confidence and self-worth.

“Parents are also developing real pride in their children’s increased abilities, and they acknowledge that the opportunities that their children are being offered is broadening the horizons and expectations for what they can achieve. We anticipate that as our partnership with Opera North continues, this confidence will enable our children to become more resilient, creative, successful learners who are able to manage their feelings, have empathy for others, and develop their personal identity.”