Sunday, 27 February 2011

Occasional: Live Music Blog

Verdi Requiem: Tewkesbury Abbey 4th June 2011

Bristol Concert Orchestra: Nigel Perrin

Four local choirs had joined together under energetic organisers to put on this piece, which no choir on its own would have had the resources to finance or perform. This is part of a wider push to open choral singing to all comers under the umbrella name of The South Cotswold Choral Group. Two of the choirs have run an A,B,C course to introduce singers with no experience. It is an excellent idea. At one point looking round the men I realised there was almost no one under the age of 50.

I joined a choir at 18 and although at that point I was the youngest bass in what was then the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus; there were plenty of singers in their 20s and 30s, providing a very lively social background to the singing. The demographic of this quite large Cotswold group took me aback. If it holds good, then these choirs are not going to be viable in 15 years time.

The inclusiveness has its drawbacks and there are clear trade offs between working with the abilities of singers who happen to wander through the doors and achieving a uniformly satisfying standard. Some singers were very much on the ball, whilst in front of me a small but stolid section of bases sang the Alto line in a section of the Libera me, not once, but each time we went through it. There are always many more women than men in this kind of set-up as the philosophy is to work with your people rather than trim people out to achieve a balance. But, there is a palpable sense of achievement when the singers rise to the occasion and provide much more than a respectable run through.

The choir masters are excellent musicians, patient and persistent and inspiring. On this occasion the conductor was Nigel Perrin. He is a famous vocal trainer and the very short run of rehearsals included a workshop day where he could size up what he had on his hands and get us into his way of thinking. Masses of laughing as well as the expected hard work. He has remarkable gifts in extracting good results in double quick time.

It is one thing to achieve detail and unity in a dry acoustic with only a piano to overcome and to support. Once we stand in the very reverberant acoustic of the abbey confronted by a full orchestra, the detail becomes very difficult to preserve. In this instance, the orchestra was basically too loud a lot of the time. This is a common issue. Players need to make it safe, part of that is often to play mezzo forte when piano is marked.

One trumpet can blot out an entire choir. Here with one orchestral rehearsal involving the choir, the singers clearly felt that they would not penetrate the orchestral textures. So, likewise, we increased volume and the conductor had to fight this joint tendency. It of course had its knock-on effect to the soloists who were having to ride a substantial wave of sound.

There is also always a time lag, mental and technical rather than caused by physics. The bases, at the rear of the block of performers do get behind the beat. They need to be constantly goaded to both watch and to stick with the point of the beat.

So, how did it all play out?

In the midst, it was impossible to tell what was getting through and what was not. Sometimes, as was once pointed out to me, the grunts in the trenches can't tell how the battle is going. There will be a private recording of the performance circulated and it will be interesting to see if my impressions are backed up.

I have sung this probably half a dozen times or so; Gibson, Abbado, Willcocks etc. But no one ever put the effort into expressing the words as Nigel Perrin. I think a lot of the quiet beseeching would have been highly effective. When I got home I listened to the opening by Barbirolli.....muttering and mumbling, the Libera me of Solti, the choir's words are not distinguishable in the ppp passages. In my own score I had masses of consonants scored out and had written in the likes of....NO WORDS....over specific passages. Imprecations from earlier performances that I had to rub out.

The choir provided solid sound and a good blend. Some complex passages were very successful, though I think the Libera me was rather tentative in places. Perrin took it steadily, though had a tendency to keep changing from two in the bar to four in the bar with no seeming reason.

There was genuine excitement and overwhelming sound when the choir and orchestra was going full tilt. The quiet passages where the orchestra were involved were never sufficiently hushed. But there was some beautiful woodwind playing.

I will omit the names of the Bass soloist who proved himself less than reliable and the soprano who was a substitute and who seemed to be substantially sight reading. She tended to adopt the soprano choral line and several times left us stranded without a vital cue. We picked up on that at the rehearsal, so we resorted to counting.

But there were two world beaters; the tenor Philip Holtam had it all, sweetness, strength, ringing top notes and breath control to take long lines in a single arc and there was a fantastic Mezzo, Kate Woolveridge, a true Amneris voice with a burnished chest register and massive top notes. She could fine her voice down to a whisper and she had the drama of the piece in her projection of the words. 

There are provisional plans to produce another such joint performance in two years time. I am rooting for the Berlioz Grande Messe, but it will need a larger venue. With even more performers the substantial Abbey will cramp the audience even more so than it did for the Verdi. Perhaps Gloucester Cathedral will be available. Though with a seven second echo, keeping it all together will be even more of a challenge.

  RIchard Strauss: Salome, live MET NY Broadcast Oct 08

I've been, I saw, I was not conquered. It so. Though I still enjoyed the experience and will go to more relays.

It is not remotely like going to the opera, despite which some in the cinema audience applauded; which made me think they were only allowed out for the day. Here the sound is in your lap, the visuals are down the larynx. I have no idea what the balance would have been in the theatre, but as broadcast it was up close at all times. Even when Kim Begley sang from the back of the stage, he was right in my ear. So the sound perspectives were completely flattened. This robs the feeling of space and the excitement of watching someone pit their voice against the wall of sound Strauss often devises.

The orchestra sounded generally loud, even during passages that are delicate. The pacing was not altogether to my taste. I felt the score came across as episodic, especially in the dance itself. Moreover, it wound down in the last 20 minutes, which were often just too slow. Nor was the conductor able to pull off that miracle at the end, once Salome has had her way with the head, the soundworld goes cold, when the moon silvers the score.

I was content with most of the production. A 1960s James Bond baddie's palace on the edge of a stylised desert with an incongruous miner's cage topped with scaffolding....of which more anon.

There seemed to be some marginal reference to modern conflicts, as Islamic black dressed angles gathered in numbers and stood stock still surveying the disintegration of the Court. Herodias was played as a lush declining into alcoholic disinterest. There were really no dynamics between Herod and Salome, they occupied a shared space, but we were told nothing beyond, him wanting her to dance, she manipulating him to get her way. I saw no subtext to this production, no exposure of the psychology of the characters. Salome was played as a spoilt bored teenager with morbid tastes and a good deal of determination.

The singing was first rate all round, the acting was another story.

Mattila is famous for this part, she was accorded a standing ovation. She sings up a storm and has all the notes. Just before Jochanaan is executed, she forced her voice and suddenly it was occluded; but her tone cleared for the final scene, which she played and sang to the hilt.

Here, I assume distance lent enchantment. The constant right up the nose camera angles exposed her mid forties age mercilessly and her coyness and teenage temper tantrums were almost as grisly as her dancing. She may be supple, but she is far from being an elegant mover and I felt inclined to watch her dance through my fingers. Squirmingly embarrassing, the woman galumphs. There was a woeful attempt at pole-dancing using the scaffolding. The clothes she was put into formed good grounds for suing the management, she could hardly have been less advantageously dressed. If her face was to convey ecstasy, then up close, it looked like a painful kind of eroticism.

All the bit-part women were like social X-Rays, which pointed up her spare pounds, absurd really, as she is not fat, just not slim. Up close her mother looked like her sister and frankly a good deal more appetising.

Kim Begley as the Tertrach sang well, no shouting, but as an actor, he was channelling a slightly testy Father Christmas. He was not in the least neurotic or lascivious, there was nothing decadent about his manner. When asked for the Head of the Baptist, he pursed his lips....a disconcerting administrative problem had come his way. Also, he bounces on the balls of his feet when singing....a jaunty Tertrach then.

The Jochanaan of Juha Uusitalo was a massive presence with a wonderful full, dark voice only slightly weak right at the bottom. There were titters around me when prone, taking up a fair acreage of the stage and looking like he had bee
n rolled in mud, Salome sings of his wasted body like an ivory pillar, but then finding such a singer would be like discovering hen's teeth.

I am sure this will read just like a long list of carps. But I was swept up in it all, there were genuinely thrilling moments and I think a lot of what I disliked revolved around the closeup style of the camera work.

One final carp....we were treated to some backstage moments where Deborah Voigt knocks on Mattila's door and tries to draw her out and get some comments from her; I hope that scene reaches YouTube, what a hoot; as was the subsequent camera tracking, preceding Matilla, a member of the management and her very own dead ringer for Ugly Betty all the way through the backstage and onto the set. What was all that about?

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust, live MET NY Broadcast Nov 08

It was a funny sort of day, the chaotic timing of things meant that I ended up sitting waiting for the start of Faust while gobbing a hot-dog. The oddness continued when the cinema broadcast started without sound; clearly someone somewhere tried frantically to sort things out. This involved a couple of quick glimpses of a black gospal choir in full flood. However, right as Levine entered the pit, the sound came through.

It is not the fault of Berlioz that people decide to stage music he designed for the concert hall. He wrote 'scenes' from Faust; these parachute you into moments along the way; most of the story lies in between these scenes. So, how do you stage Faust and Mephistopheles flying over the planes of Hungary, as the famous march is played? I doubt if the solution is to have soldiers march backwards slowly across the set. This I felt was the one jarring note in an imaginative, highly theatrical evening.  One that solved many of the problems of translating the concert to the opera house. One where it was clear the cinema audience became increasingly absorbed as the opera unfolded in front of us.

The set consisted of a four level walkway, gauze in front, perspex back walls to it. Then the surfaces were used to project behind and in front with the singers being the filling in the sandwich. Back to front the acting area would only have been about 15 feet, but the full width and height of the proscenium was busily used. Apart from those multilevel backward marching soldiers, the stage was filled with fantastic images. The set could be at once transformed from a church with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows, with living Christs on crosses, to a storm tossed woodland where, as Mephistopheles walked across the set, the branches above him writhed and shed their leaves leaving starkness and ruin.

The skills of members of the Cirque Du Soleil were deployed to provide soldiers who marched up the wall of the set at 90 degrees to it, then fell pieta like into the arms of their womenfolk below, to resurrect and go off to war again, then die again. It was an arresting imaging to go with the music. The same men ran up and down all over the surface of the set, dressed as devils to seduce the female Sylph dancers.

But what of the music? Levine paced it well, no gear changes, no odd speeds and he aided and abetted Berlioz who is the master of the passionate rush, when the lovers are almost discovered. Again, as with the Salome, I thought the orchestral sound picture was flattened. The blend again submerged the woodwind; especially annoying in Berlioz and echoing the same complaint I had with a much older Met recording by Levine of The Trojans. Also, here we have the large, lush international sound. There is not the French sound that for instance Elliott Gardiner achieves in his recording. But the pacing and sound was dramatic, passionate and in the delicate music, layered.

Graham was superb as Marguerite. She looks her age, again the camera close-ups do not permit you to suspend your disbelief, but she was the tragic heart of the evening. Marcello Giordani in the title role sounds too Italianate to me, he has most of the notes. But Berlioz writes cruelly high lines for the part and a French tenor of the kind that presently seems to be extinct would be preferable. Like most tenors, his acting is rough and ready, he is eager to please, but is fairly much a lump of wood. The third in the trio, John Relyea was at the other extreme in terms of agility and acting. It was a pantomime villain version and played superbly to the hilt. He has a beautiful dark voice, all the range and colouring there and he used it all. Dressed in a burnished red leather suit; he dominated the stage just as he needed to.

The chorus was superb, what a body of singers. A particular highlight musically and visually was the passage from the seductive 'Voici des roses' through to the end of the Ballet of the Sylphes. Here the chorus sang in a graduated tone with delicacy and they almost equaled the best version of this passage I know of, on the Gardiner discs. Visually, having punted across the first floor of the set, now a canal, the boat tipped Faust into the water, immediately the projections showed a spectacular underwater Faust swirling round and round, bubbles rising to the surface. A real visual coup.

The ride to the abyss was imaginatively handled on stage, though as so often, I wished the TV director would have allowed us more full-stage views, the stage production, by Robert Lepage surely will win prizes for being innovative and exciting. Perhaps in the theatre, it distracted from the music. But I went home happy and looking forward to Thais on the 20th December.

One thing I wish they would drop; the backstage comings and goings. It breaks the spell; especially with Ugly-Betty again tramping about after the diva, each handing the water bottle back and forth between them. With such magic on display, why do I have to watch the chorus walking off and chatting quietly to one another in between scenes?

  Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov Nov 08 ENO

Mussorgsky is not, I think, an apt candidate to have his operas translated into English. English National Opera is in the middle of a run of performances of Boris Godunov. Somehow the language sounded prissy when I want dark Russian vowel sounds. But then, I booked the tickets and ought to have known what I was in for.

This was the original seven scene version. Boris hardly appears in the first half of the opera and it ended with his death. The production was as fluid as could be, allowing the piece to be played seamlessly, without an interval. Two hours and 10 minutes; one long act from a Wagner opera. This version provides focus and concentration. The piece does remind me of Wagner in the feeling of epic scale, the blend of public and private events and the way in which the soloist vocal writing is laid out as a long series of monologues with next to no duetting or ensemble stretches.

We get the by now anticipated approaches to production: namely, one set throughout and updating of the timeframe. Here we seem to be in late pre-revolutionary Russia, it works perfectly well, the set seemed sometimes to be a barn, sometimes a courtyard or perhaps a chamber. The uncluttered stage allowed effective blocking of the large lustrous chorus who together with the orchestra provided the thrills of the evening. The production brought out the mordant humour of the peasants who complain in sly terms about their betters and become the embodiment of suffering, dictator-hungry Russia that I believe Mussorgsky intended.

Pimen held the stage in a way Boris could not. The stagecraft of Piman was evident even when he stood stock still, whilst Boris was diminished.Though the production did not help; where the feared, evil tyrant gave up his throne to accommodate the aged Pimen who had arrived to unsettle him even more than he unsettled himself. Boris was emollient towards the double dealing Prince Shuisky. More a domestic scale tyrant really. But the real problem was that the singer was unequal to the task; as though Dr Falke had strayed in from Fledermaus. The death scene was mainly in parlando, not because the singer had no voice, but seemed to think this was the appropriate approach! This was all a world away from such as Christoff who made a stupendous impression, with the majesty and pathos which were entirely missing from the singer confronting us.

But what a symphony, the orchestral writing is still startling. The memorable elements, the players and the massed chorus, the lighting, the fluid approach. But next time, I will make sure I see it in Russian.

Massenet: Thais live MET NY Broadcast  20th December.Over 20 years ago, I was in chorus for a short concert tour of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The Dido was Janet Baker, the Aeneas was a young man none of us knew. He had a healthy voice and sang very loudly indeed. In fact he overwhelmed the music; but it did not matter too much as Aeneas has not got a lot to sing in that opera. Last night I was forceably reminded of that singer again, it was Thomas Hampson on both occasions and, as years ago, I very much wanted to turn the volume down.

Of course, this was a telecast where a pin being dropped would sound like small arms fire, nevertheless, often I was wondering just what volume was marked into the score, was it really so relentlessly ff or fff?

The highlight of this opera is the entire second act, the music that sits either side of it is much less inspired. But that second act is worth the entry price on an occasional basis. There is also a duet in the first act between the two main characters, that fairly flew and I was grateful for the great skill of Lopez-Cobos who steered the piece terrifically well.

This is an strange opera, Thais and the priest Athanael never mutually fall in love; she taunts him in the first act, then has a convertion experience during the Meditation and thereafter is untouchable. The star crossed lover is the fundamentalist Athanael, who is tempted, holds himself in check, but eventually and impotently falls out of Agape and into Eros with the former courtesan. She dies in virtual sainthood, he lies stricken with his faith in tatters

I think the piece creaks and is only really worth reviving as a curiosity. I cannot think of any opera composer who has brought off this idea of apotheosis where the dying heroine sees angles, cherubim and all sounds limp, even overworking of the theme from the Meditation does not really contribute to a satisfactory denouement. Thais is supposedly ravaged by physical suffering and she simply dies because of the physical trials she has been through. Fleming was not permitted to look less than ravishing and brimming with health. Never has a potential nun worn such carefully applied lipstick. But really the whole thing sits beside pantomime, so realism is quite beside the point.

Fleming looked and sounded wonderful. Very slim, dressed by Lacroix and with her cascade of hair, she was captivating. I simply could not, would not, fault the singing; coloured carefully, high sustained notes at pp, plenty of juicy tone, great arching phrasing, she was terrific. Hampson also looked great, a real presence on stage, he sounded just fine when he was at less than full blast, some grit has entered the voice, but it is still a wonderful instrument.

The production is spectacular; sets that stick with the opera's ancient timescale with a slightly modern twist; the costumes were a mix of Egyptian and 19th cent evening wear. It fitted OK, no jarring, but neither did the update add anything at all by way of a concept.

Again, we hardly ever got a full view of the stage, normally just when the curtain came down. The warmest applause was for the Meditation and the violinist playing it. At the end although the crowd reacted warmly, they did not linger long. More perhaps being slightly underwhelmed by the music than a comment on those who served it up to us.

  Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice, MET NY Live Broadcast Jan 09

Stephanie Blythe and Danielle de Niese star in Mark Morris’s production; James Levine conducts.

The last time I saw this piece was at the Edinburgh Festival. I could have cried with boredom. I really wanted to escape at half time, and it is a short opera. I do love the music, but a poor production is difficult to survive. Nor musically was it satisfactory. Michael Chance was made to stand at the back of the stage and he could not project into the theatre over the HIP orchestra, which itself was sluggish and tired sounding. It was a dismal evening.

That Edinburgh production was also choreographed by Mark Morris. I cringed while watching Morris himself, tossing his long locks about, stomping round like a sweaty carthorse, in a very short chiton and holding hands in daisy chains of dancers weaving about seemingly aimlessly during all the ballet music. I was very much hoping he had now retired from the stage.

He surely must have, though his short interview prior to curtain-up found him in full-on theatrical mode. Arms akimbo, wearing a baggy cardigan and a hot pink pashmina; he explained that the chorus represented all the people in history, many identifiable, Lincoln, Henry the VIII etc. They were there as underworld companions, supporters almost for Orfeo in his trials.

The edition used was the original Italian one, so some favourite numbers, such as the Dance of the Blessed Spirits were missing. It was played in one act straight through. Levine was at the helm and set a cracking pace with well sprung rhythms. As is clearly the norm now, everything was terrifically loud in the sound mix; again, almost no glimpses of a full stage picture. The orchestra sounded healthy in all respects, but Orig. Instrument enthusiasts would have been hiding under the bed.

Morris had found a way to keep the singers out of the way of the dancers. The 100 strong chorus...that sheer scale tells much about the weight of textures, was piled up in three tiers looking like fancy dress party goers who strayed into a Victorian lecture theatre to watch the dissection of a corpse. They sounded resplendant, but apart from some hand gestures had no room for maneuver. This worked just fine I thought, it looked good and was a practical solution to, as I said, keep them out of the way.

The main event of course was Stephanie Blythe's Orfeo. She looked like Orson Wells gone to seed.
I remember Margaret Price appearing at a concert with a dress that had floating feathers round the neck; she was the dead spit of Miss Piggy; yet as soon as she opened her mouth, she transcended the look, she drew you in and what she looked like was irrelevant. Blythe managed the same chemistry. It is a remarkable voice; reminiscent of Marilyn Horne. She has not the top notes Horne had under her belt, but there is a similar weight and colour and a wonderful directness. The audience roared when she took her curtain call, I was not surprised. Her assumption was very strong. 'Che faro' yields to a lot of approaches, this was head-on direct, impassioned.

The Euridice was Danielle de Niese, she looked perfectly stunning. I wondered how her voice came across in the theatre, it is not a large instrument. Her reception was polite. On film she made a strong impression and her singing was expressive and sweet toned. Of course she has not a great deal to do; but I thought she deserved more warmth from the crowd.

The ballet music at the end was utterly joyful; but there were the Mark Morris dancers to watch. I know next to nothing about dance, but I can see he injected a number of his trademarks. He and the production as a whole were clearly much liked by the crowd. I know it has overall had excellent reviews; but I just find the whole deliberate clodhopping approach works against the elegance of the music.

The sets looked marvelous, the production solved some problems, though I did wonder whether Morris just took an easy way out by eliminating having to work with the chorus by removing it physically. He also provided a new problem for himself. If there need be any internal logic to such an entertainment, then the claim that the chorus were historical creatures of the underworld sat oddly in that final jubilant scene where they all seemed to be now inexplicably above ground in the pastoral ending.

Blythe is like a force of nature and would be worth queuing to hear in anything. Despite my carping, there was a lot to enjoy and the completely full cinema audience seemed to go home happy. For me Mark Morris goes onto my tick, done; indeed....overdone list.

  Bellini: La Sonambula, MET Live Broadcast Jan 2009
Several weeks ago, we went to the Butterfly broadcast; but there was vision and no sound. I resisted the temptation to stand up and ask whether there was a Butterfly in the house. We waited it out until the entrance of the soprano happened in silence; then literally started a stampede to get our money back. As a gesture of goodwill, as well as the refund, we were given tickets to tonight's Sonnambula broadcast.

Let's gloss over the fact that out tickets showed a 6pm start, when in fact it started at 5pm. We missed about the first 20 minutes. In future I will double check.

A pity we missed out, but we did nevertheless enjoy a terrific and musical performance. Here is the premise of the production.

Set in a contemporary rehearsal room where a traditional Swiss village style production is being prepared. The main duo happen to be played by a couple whose names are the same as those of the opera proper. The spurned fiance of Elvino is the stage manager of the production.....the events within the opera come to life in the lives of the characters playing them.....Oh Jees, give us a break.....what complete baloney. This conceit starts to fall apart when you consider the likes of the chorus opening Act 2. They speculate whether going to see the Count would help clear suspicion from Amina. Then off they go to find out, did she or did she not come across to the Count? Well, now are they genuinely concerned to avert the likely tragedy, or are they rehearsing the production?

How come the stage manager becomes a character in the opera? When she brings Amina back in from the window ledge, is she in character, or is she the stage manager anxious for her fellow artist?

Why set all this guff and layering up?

Anyway, let's sweep all that away, what the production did allow was for all the characters to interact very genuinely. The stage movement was fluid and focused on the story, emotions, the humour of the situation.

I don't think this cast could be bettered. Dessay still looks youthful, she is charming, humorous and heartbreaking. Her vocal technique is completely exceptional, as is her acting. The sleep walking scene was mostly played out from a plank of floorboarding that projected her far over the pit, she simply stood and delivered; but effectively and movingly.

Florez is her equal; glamour, a good actor, a really superb voice and good taste. Their duetting was a particular highlight. The pit was in the safe hands of Evelino Pido who ensured the verdant orchestration was brought out, often magically. But to me the real find here was the baritone, Michele Pertusi as the Count, a sympathetic and commanding stage presence was allied to a beautiful dark voice with useful bottom notes.

In the first act the sound was basically overpowering; this was sorted out for Act 2, there, the sound mix was comfortable. I enjoyed this at least as much as any of the earlier broadcasts. With its happy ending, wonderfully injected with humour and joy, we left the cinema on a high.

  Puccini: Turandot Nov 09  ENO
Anyway, moving need to know about that Turandot. Not in fact set in a fast food outlet as I had suspected, but in a large Chinese Restaurant. We might proceed with me answering a series of very obvious questions about the proceedings....

Were there by any chance three Elvis impersonators striking poses?
Well, funny you ask that but, yes!
How about golfers, any of them?
Spot on! Yes two swinging away, one in baby blue the other in pastel pink. Odd thing, they came back after act 1 and restrained the tenor whilst the servant girl was being tortured, they did a good job there.
How about nuns, I like an opera with nuns?
Amazing, right on the button, there were two and a Chelsea Pensioner, also an ancient wino-hippy who was press ganged into becoming the Emperor, despite having flicked the V sign at all and sundry in his journeys round the restaurant. There was a head on a plate served up to the diners and a Hassidic Jewish man with a very fetching handbag.

You get the feel for this I guess; the theme was 'Randomness'. The sets were great and there were also a lot of projected Chinese ideograms sliding over the walls and floor, they made a really beautiful effect.

However, if I was to pick out my personal highlight of 'Randomness', it has to be the supernumerary writer. He silently observed and took notes throughout; excepting during 'In questa reggia' when he upstaged the soprano by sitting at the front of the stage eating with chopsticks and ignoring the Ice Princess. During the eventual love duet, Turandot got her theatrical revenge. She disemboweled him with a sword and the lovers then managed to ignore his trails of blood and much extended death throws. Those two lovers displayed remarkable self absorbsion. It was an original touch.

Musically the performance was rather good, but the eye was provoked and distracted by all sorts of mysteries. One mystery I sense that I did solve was that Chinese writing: it read. 'You round-eyes will sit through any old shit.'

1 comment:

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