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Monday 30 April 2012

Barbara Bonney Masterclass at the Royal Academy


First of all, Barbara Bonney is completely badass. Not just one of the greatest singers of her generation, but also one of the funniest and most charming. She's one of my all time favourite lyric voices, so fresh, so powerful, so effortless, and always with such care for the text and above all the composer.

Her care for young singers was very evident here as she approached all with warmth and total encouragement. She's a complete natural in front of an audience, whilst never appearing self regarding or a show off. Just a joy to watch and spend time in the presence of.

First Alison Rose sang Pamina's Aria Ach, ich fuhl's, a Bonney staple. Rose's voice is youthful, lyric, beautiful, but with a pleasingly tart edge that makes it affectingly direct - never disposed to vocal tricks, this is a very well trained voice, with a beautiful tone, and most importantly with a very conscientious musician behind it, who I am sure will grow into a very considerable artist. Bonney said she should be singing this role now at Covent Garden, at the Met, in Vienna and in Munich, and that the timbre of her voice "got her deep". I am inclined to agree. First class stuff. A few of Bonney's criticisms were common to more than one singer - first posture. All tended to be slightly slumped forward, with the head position not quite raised enough. The difference in sound in Rose's voice when Bonney held her hand behind Rose's head as a guide was subtle but decisive, and the lines seemed to flow more beautifully, and with less effort.

Another thing Bonney consistently remarked on was proper placement of vowels. The schwar sound is to feel as wide as possible, and she told lots of anecdotes from various great singers about them saying the sensation was as though they were singing through their ears. Of course this is, as with almost all singing pedagogy, metaphor, but it's not fanciful at all - teachers and students of singing need to build some kind of language of metaphors together to communicate in, because virtually all of the machanics of singing is hidden inside the body, and controlled by involuntary muscle movements. It's no wonder that it's so hard. One of the reasons why masterclasses are so often unhelpful, and indeed confusing for young singers (and audiences), is that this metaphoric language is so different for each singer, so the simplest ideas can be expressed in the most disparate terms. Every single one of the students seemed to benefit enormously from Bonney's guidance however (all had worked with her a few times in the previous few days) and the difference in sound in all of them was immediate and always for the better. Quite amazing, and so satisfying to witness. She made everything seem so simple!

Like this (but not this student.) 

The advantages of this wide placement of these "horizontal" vowels, were not just in tone and timbre, but also in stopping the voice from tiring - relaxing between the more vertically placed "closed" vowels, or rather using completely different muscle groups ensures that a singer will be able to sing for much longer and with less effort.

The other singers were all very good, accomplished, all doing lovely things. Meghan Taylor (potentially very interesting voice, with a very attractive timbre), Harriet Burns (very light soubrette sound who makes singing high and quietly seem easy), Jenny Stafford (again an attractive lyric voice though is Anna Bolena really appropriate vocally at this age?) and Jane Monari (generally sang so loud that all inhales and quiet notes sounded hoarse, but actually quite colourful once Bonney convinced her to sing at a normal volume!) all received very specific and useful advice from Bonney, and as I say, the difference in sound and quality was immediate and very noticeable in all of them.

But in the middle of these, we heard Sarah-Jane Lewis sing Porgi amor from Mozart's Figaro. Bonney had not a single criticism of it. Her voice is simply astounding. In terms of tone, one of the most beautiful voice I have ever heard in live performance. The sound reminds me of Jessye Norman spliced with Te Kanawa - glowingly warm, gorgeously full, bursting with overtones. As soon as you hear it, you know it's going to be an important voice. Very good legato also. She's not yet the finished article as she has been trained as a mezzo for a long time so the top doesn't come that easily yet, but when it does, she's going straight to the top of the profession. It's also a rather large sound, so I worry that she'll be pushed into heavier repertoire too early (something to be very strongly guarded against), but she should be singing in all the major opera houses within five years, and hopefully first as the countess in Figaro. Ariadne also sprung instantly to mind (though later in the career). Come Scoglio was less secure with it's ridiculously long coloratura phrases, but still very very good, the opening truly thrilling in both the high notes and low notes.

I have to be *slightly* measured in my judgements - it is very difficult to be sure in this room (which is extremely small) about how singers will sound in the theatre. Aioefe Miskelly for instance sounded tight and not particularly interesting in a Schubert lieder abend in there, but in the theatre the voice bloomed and shone as Pamina in the recent Academy Zauberflote. But Lewis just knocked me over, and if she sounds even better on stage, then so much the better!

And why on earth wasn't she singing the role of the composer in the lunchtime semi-staged Prologue of Ariadne auf Naxos? That performance revealed messy playing from the orchestra (I presume due to lack of adequate rehearsal: it's very hard) and lack of strong direction from conductor Elgar Howarth. Bass Adam Marsden again impressed me as the Music master (just as he had in Zauberflote), and Jennifer France might make a very charming Zerbinetta if the coloratura is in place (the prologue hardly requires it).

Tuesday 24 April 2012

ENO's 2012-2013 Season

Here's what I'm most excited about.

Julietta by Martinu is an absolutely glorious score. It's maybe his best work - fizzing with nervous energy, it's a febrile, shifting mental landscape, with stretches of music that are extraordinarily beautiful too. It's not as lush as many of the concertos and smaller pieces, but it is a fascinating work.

Yoshi Oida stages Pilgrim's Progress for the first time since 1951. It's Vaughan William's most ambitious score, and perhaps (perhaps) his greatest. It's certainly very beautiful - much of it was recycled into the 5th symphony, his most personal.

The Traviata is the ultra stripped down and ultra detailed Konwitschny production. The entire set is one chair. Sounds very interesting to me.

Bieito's Carmen - he's always controversial (often to the point of tedium) and occasionally very interesting. Ruxandra Donose as Carmen too.

Charpentier's Medea is new to me, so I'll have to check it out. It's the older Charpentier - from the 17th century. Sarah Connolly as Medea. And it's being directed by David McVIcar. Cool.

Wozzeck. It's Wozzeck. Hasn't been done in London for a while. A must.

Sunken Garden actually sounds quite intriguing from the clips of the composer's I've heard - London hasn't exactly had a great record with contemporary opera in the last couple of years, so lets hope!

And Death in Venice. This is an extraordinary opera, Britten's last. One of my favourites, so pared down, so personal, so strange. So glad it's being done.

A few other notes:

-Queen of the night not yet cast for The Magic Flute.

-In that production, gay Don G Duncan Rock will be singing Papageno. He's also Morales in Carmen.

-Emilie Renard who is one of my young singers to look out for is playing three small roles in Julietta.

-Lucy Crowe is in Barber of Seville, and I've never yet seen her. Very intrigued.

Here's the new season in full.

The Magic Flute, Mozart, opens 13 September 2012

Julietta, Martinů, opens 17 September 2012

Julius Caesar, Handel, opens 1 October 2012

Don Giovanni, Mozart, opens 17 October 2012

The Pilgrim’s Progress, Vaughan Williams, opens 5 November 2012

Carmen, Bizet, opens 21 November 2012

The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan, opens 1 December 2012

La traviata, Verdi, opens 2 February 2013

Medea, Charpentier, opens 15 February 2013

The Barber of Seville, Rossini, opens 25 February 2013

Sunken Garden, Van der Aa, opens 12 April 2013

La bohème, Puccini, opens 29 April 2013

Wozzeck, Berg, opens 11 May 2013

The Perfect American, Glass, opens 1 June 2013

Death in Venice, Britten, opens 14 June 2013

Monday 23 April 2012

BBCSO with John Storgårds and Truls Mørk


Very interesting programme, and I'm a fan of Truls Mørk so I couldn't resist. I now cannot wait for the Delius opera that they played an excerpt from, which is being done in concert at the Royal Festival Hall in September apparently.

I reviewed it for Bachtrack. Read it here:

Here's a preview:
Finnish cellist Truls Mørk then joined the stage for the UK premiere of Rautavaara's second Cello Concerto "Towards the Horizon". Like the broadly neo-romantic first cello concerto of 1968 the new concerto open with the cello intoning dramatic double stops, though here the orchestra is involved from the beginning and the tone is darker, more intense, more angst ridden. It's a very lyrical work, with dense string clusters adding a hazy romance to its darkly brooding melodies, but overall it cant quite sustain its duration, with faster episodes particularly flagging in inspiration. There is however a very arresting cantilena for the cello in its highest register which comes back repeatedly, perhaps the works' strongest idea, clearly influenced by Tavener's The Protecting Veil but without that piece's extraordinary individuality of tone.

Margaret Price memorial concert at the Wigmore Hall

Price in 1985 as Fiordiligi. Source: Telegraph

Margaret Price (1941-2011) is an oddly overlooked singer in the recent history of singing. Odd because she possessed one of the most ravishingly beautiful lyric voices of the last half century, and one of the finest techniques too. To my ears the sound is somewhere between Janowitz's purity and Te Kanawa's warmth; I often prefer her to either of her contemporaries, especially in song repertoire. Not that she didn't have a major career - she sang at all the opera houses that these two artists did, but just with less frequency, and her recordings aren't as ubiquitous or wide ranging.

The reasons are probably two fold. First because she was never a particularly physically glamorous singer, and nor was she disposed to showy vocalisms - it's an extraordinarily pure and even sound which borders almost on the bland if the repertoire doesn't suit. The repertoire that did suit was Mozart, lighter Verdi, and Strauss though she didn't sing any operas of the latter on stage, and with Verdi she often strayed larger than she could reasonably handle. So the second reason is because she limited her repertoire so much - she wouldn't sing anything that didn't have a long line, which meant 9 Mozart roles were essayed, a few bel canto ones, and as mentioned some Verdi too. Just before she retired she did record Ariadne in its original 1912 incarnation, and one realises quite what an opportunity missed it was that she didn't sing more of these roles. Famously she sung Isolde on recording only with Kleiber, and it remains the most radiantly beautiful account of the role on disc. She turned down Rosenkavalier after looking at the score for Kleiber because there was "nothing to sing" - too much parlando for her. Her favourite thing was always song, and there is quite a bit of recorded material in this category, some excellent, some not so good, all of it with an exquisitly beautiful sound allied to a superlative technique.

The Wigmore Hall produced an excellent tribute concert here with the expected career overview (lamenting her lack of Covent Garden appearances, but not mentioning why this was: Solti proclaimed after an audition that she "had no charm"), and lots of anecdotes from a very visibly moved William Lyn (ex Wigmore Hall director) and Sir John Tooley (ex ROH director) who both extolled her virtues at length concluding that she was one of the greatest singers and artists of the last fifty years.

We also heard from several youngish singers all singing repertoire that was closely associated with Price during her career. Sally Matthews sang Dove Sono (she'll be singing the Countess at Glyndebourne this summer) and Morgen and Cacilie by Strauss. She's a very impressive vocalist, with an excellent technique, but I found the voice far too dark in all of these (over covering? Or is it just the natural tone of the voice?), and the passagio was not completely ideally navigated in Dove Sono, the aria which is the ultimate test of this. Dare one say it, it's not a very feminine sound, but it is very full and rounded and shiny. The top is almost shockingly intense and powerful. It all just didn't seem quite limpid or delicate enough for Morgen. I love her as Fiordiligi here, which is the best I've seen her: I want so desperately to like her, due to these amazing youtube videos (though it was 5 years ago), but I haven't yet seen quite the same beauty in live performances. Still greatly looking forward to her Countess in the summer.

Mezzo Leigh Woolf sang a perfectly decent but slightly dull Voi, che sapete also from Figaro, but followed it up with 3 very beautifully sung songs from Schumann's Frauenliebe und leben. The voice is light, very sweet, with a slightly husky edge which gives it a nicely distinctive character. Very unshowy singing, but intelligent and completely secure.

Jonathan McGovern actually is "a young singer" unlike many who are described like this and already is a very interesting and individual talent. His technique sound strange to me, and up close with a mic as the clips on youtube show, the vibrato sounds like it's "added onto" the sound rather than being an integral part of it - very often there's almost no vibrato whatsoever and it seems like he's not singing "on the breath". But he is extremely communicative (despite some OTT facial expressions) and really draws you in, the hall completely silent during his four songs from Schumann's wonderful Eichendorf Liederkreis op.39. I can't see how he could sing opera the same way opera, but he was so full of surprises that I'm sure he will, and dazzle everyone.

Stephan Loges has a very appealingly masculine baritone voice that is beautiful and even, if not particularly distinctive, and he sung Schubert's Der Winterabend with more maturity than McGovern could muster, though less interestingly. Gerard Collett seemed very nervous as his lips trembled on every note and the voice sounded unvibrant and slightly unsettled in his two Britten folk songs. Nervewracking to do the largely unaccompanied I wonder as I wander though! The last rose of summer was better.

The diminuative Dennis O'Neill was the last singer on stage and basically stole the show with Ah fede negar potessi ...Quando le sere al pacido from Verdi's Luisa Miller. He's 64, but the voice is still huge, superbly produced, with a truly ringing, truly Italianate sound and great legato. There's a touch of wobble up high (only a touch), but it was such a treat to hear him, aged 64, basically outclassing everyone else and showing them how it is done - not that it felt mean or self aggrandising. Just pure class. The audience exploded into applause.

The concert opened and closed with two gorgeous pieces of singing from Price from two key recordings. To start, Gretchen am Spinnrade from her first ever Wigmore Hall recital, and to finish, Beim Schlafengehen from the Four Last Songs, which just soared out over us, particularly moving after William Lyn's emotional tribute. A truly superb singer, and a beautiful tribute concert.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Rigoletto and La Fille du Regiment at the ROH

I am so behind with my reviews and have so little time at the moment, that I thought I'd just combine these. Both of these productions have been revived several times so I'll dispense with a long discussion of either. In any case I'm not a huge fan of either work so will keep it brief.

Last time I saw David McVicar's "brothel" Rigoletto (with Hvorostovsky and Ciofi) I quite enjoyed it, but this time the whole thing felt like a rather drab affair. Without McVicar to rehearse the cast, many scenes seemed to lack energy, and the orgy almost seems by wrote.

Dimitri Platanias was vocally completely up to the role of Rigoletto, but he completely failed to interract with anyone else on stage delivering all his lines facing the audience, sometimes not even inclined towards the person he was meant to be addressing. Not a terribly engaged performance then. He also didn't seem to get the point of the sticks at all - he was just walking around and moving the sticks, rather than using the sticks as a vital crutch and dragging his loping form around behind them. I only mention it because Hvorostovsky managed it so superbly last time, and its key to McVicar's conception. As I say, vocally Platanias was more than capable, but equally I was never drawn in.

Desirée Rancatore had apparently flown in that morning to replace a sick Ekaterina Siurina, and managed OK, though the top is over covered, and not always fully in gear. Yes, yes, it's hard to step in at such short notice, so let's not be too hard on her, I know, I know. Amazing that she managed to act as well as she did given that she almost certainly was just walked through the staging once in half an hour.

And onto Grigolo... What to say? The voice is certainly exciting, the top notes unstrained and ringing, and he certainly has a decent technique. But he has absolutely no taste or any hint of what might be appropriate, mangling rhythms, constantly flipping between pianissimo and fortissimo and always pushing the voice to past the point where it is beautiful. Acting wise too, he'll never make one gesture where five will do, and always the most clichéed hand sweeps and dancing lunges. In Act I it was almost laughable, but in Act II he did produce some wonderful singing at key moments, though of course lapsing into the ridiculous immediately afterwards.

Christine Rice and Matthew Rose were my favourite voices as Maddalena and Sparafucile. Rice doesn't have a particularly beautiful voice it seems, but she sounded very good - firm, flexible and she's very likeable on stage. I await her O Don Fatale next season... Rose I'm convinced will turn out to be a major force in a few years time, especially when the voice matures into the larger Wagner roles. He's being very sensible and biding his time, and though he's not always very natural on stage, this is a voice with enormous potential I think.

Gardiner in the pit I liked quite a lot, though he didn't make me like the work any more. The Act II quartet to the end is where most of the interest is for me musically, and it was very beautifully played here.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du Régiment has been done a lot at the ROH, the Met and elsewhere and it's a charmer, about as good a production I can imagine of this work. So much beautiful detail lavished on this piece of flim flam! Thing is, it is still a star vehicle, and though the soloists that the ROH have hired are both good, neither are box office draws, and given that they've done it quite recently with Dessay and Florez it's no wonder that it's not selling well. Do they not imagine these things ahead of time?

Anyway, Patrizia Ciofi as Marie is a real surprise - who knew that she could do comedy? She's great in the part. Again it's not a beautiful voice, sounding quite metallic above the stave and disappearing completely below it, but to me it's no less beautiful than Dessay's these days. She's not a virtuoso like Dessay though, so the coloratura isn't all that impressive, though she definitely sings every note.

I don't know if I'm the only one, but the famous 9 high Cs of Ah! Mes Amis... do very little for me. Colin Lee dispatched them with ease, and he's a more charming stage presence perhaps than Florez, but again, he doesn't have the same star quality vocally. I have to say that I'm not the biggest Florez fan (to me this is quite ugly singing), but obviously I recognize his immense talent.

All the other roles were charmingly taken. Ann Murray as La Marquise de Berkenfield is superb, cutting a dashingly elegant figure. Alan Opie is equally good as Sulpice.

Ann Widdecombe however... oh dear. On previous outings we've had Dawn French who was predictably hilarious. As La Duchesse de Crackentorp, Widdecombe is not a car crash, but she's far from great. They could have chosen anyone. Why her? She's not even an actress. Rumour has it that originally we were meant to get Dame Edna Everage this time, but she pulled out. What a shame.

Right. Onto the next review!

Der Freischutz at the Barbican

Colin Davis, LSO

Seriously enjoyed myself at this one. As I say at the end, I just watched the thing ufold with childish glee and any slight problems with ensemble or vocal quality just fell away. Such a joy. Basically it's not as serious a work as it wants to be, and there certainly are perfunctory patches (the ending for instance), but overall the good patches more than outweigh the bad. It's obvious what Wagner took from Weber when we hear Lohengrin and Tannhauser next to Weber's works, and obvious too that Wagner is a much greater musical and dramatic mind - the symbolism resonates, the characters possess far greater depth, the drama unfolds with far greater surety. That said, Weber is often the more beautiful aurally, certainly if we compare it to these early works of Wagner, and there are times when I might very well say I prefer the music of the lesser talent.

I reviewed it here:

Here's a preview:
While Weber is widely acknowledged as being of historic importance as the link in the German operatic tradition between Beethoven and Wagner, his operas are still rarely staged in England, and even in concert remain a relative novelty. Curious because this is music of the utmost vitality and beauty and at times he surely borders on genius. Not the same level of genius as those two masters that flank him, but an extraordinary ear for sonority, a very pleasing classical sense of form, and an unquestionable gift for vocal writing make him a very interesting and likeable composer.

A gay Don. Yep.

Don Giovanni
Heaven Nightclub

For those who haven't already heard of this production, I should probably provide some details first.  This is a gay version of Don Giovanni updated to the 1980's, with the Don a philandering night club owner instead of a nobleman Casanova. How is it made gay? All the roles apart from the eponymous Don's switch gender, so the Don gets involved with Alan, Eddie and Zac, rather than Anna, Elvira and Zerlina. Leporello becomes Leo, his female PA; Masetto becomes Marina, Zac's fiance; Ottavio becomes Olivia who in love with Alan, but he not with her... an interesting interpretation of the original relationship.

Jack Cullen at the Gay Times sums up the risks of such a production beautifully:
Gay revamps of very traditional material often go catastrophically wrong to the point where you find yourself recoiling on your knees afterwards, screaming expletives in short painful coughs of hairspray and glitter.The Gay Don has all the staples of a potential train wreck production too: a gender-inversed cast, sexual innuendos to the max, topical character names like Zac and of course contrived inclusions of current affairs. 
Surprisingly then, it's not at all a disaster, mostly very enjoyable, and musically it's actually rather good too. The show is reduced to two hours long including so anything requiring the chorus is cut, and inevitably some dramatic situations are also telescoped and altered. This didn't grate because the dramatic conception is so different from its source material that it seems absurd to complain. Ranjit Bolt, the translator of the libretto includes lots of contemporary references and sexual gags but because he is not fighting the piece the result doesn't seem debased, or disrespectful to the original - it's just a quite silly (though occasionally serious) reaction to an old masterpiece.

Don Giovanni's punishment when it comes seems to be old age - a touchy subject in the gay community which is often accused of being very ageist. The setting makes it curious that there are no AIDS references - understandable perhaps and perhaps a blessing but overall I thought not enough gay issues were touched on. Considering this is meant to be the gay Don, apart from the bisexual interest in Zac/Zerlina, there's actually not much new light thrown on the work by the gender reversals. The aesthetic isn't particularly camp or gay either and there's not much chemistry between the Don and the other characters, none of whom seem believably gay, but maybe I'm asking for too much. Overall it was very enjoyable for both the opera buffs and the non opera peeps in my group.

The action occurs on a few raised stages and also around the club floor, so the singers always very close to the audience and virtually everything can be heard. By far the best singer is Duncan Rock as the Don, whose wonderfully controlled dramatic baritone, and hugely muscled frame just dominates throughout. He's the only cast member who is likely to reprise their role, and I can imagine that he'll be hired quite soon for this role elsewhere based on the strength of this showing. The rest of the cast though are also largely very good, each with their very nice moments, and I was particularly impressed by the thundering mezzo of Tamsin Dalley as the Commendatora in the final scene.

Best of all were the ensembles, which I was worried about previously in that potentially the melody lines might have become the bass lines and bass lines the melody lines. But sensibly in these portions, the arrangement kept the sopranos on the original soprano lines, the basses on their lines, and redistributed the other parts accordingly. Collin Pettet lead a chamber orchestra of ten accoustic instruments from the keyboard, and though the playing was a bit scrappy, what do you expect when it's performed in a club! Hugely to be preferred to the ultra reduced versions usually found in pub opera, and we usually heard something very close to what Mozart originally imagined.

If the idea appeals in any way, I can only recommend that you go! The remaining dates are 22nd, 23rd, 29th, 30th April.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Matthew Passion at London Handel Festival


I reviewed it for Bachtrack. Read it here. A little disappointing overall, mainly due to dull direction from Laurence Cummings and dull playing of the London Handel Orchestra. Singing mostly lovely, with Anna Devin again impressing (it turns out she was the first nymph that I liked so much in the recent ROH Rusalka). Emilie Renard who I've seen before as a wonderful Sesto was not quite so impressive here, and I think it's just a tessitura issue - the "alto" arias require a real solidity down low.

Here's a preview:

Probably no other work in the repertoire has such mystical status as Bach's Matthew Passion. Phrases like "The Greatest Work in the Western Canon", trip glibly off the tongue while failing to illuminate its greatness or acknowledge its strangeness. It is the sacred cow of sacred cows. It is of course an extraordinary piece: the beauty of the arias, with their endlessly inventive Arietta-recit introductions laden with effects and affekt not to mention the amazing musical characterisation of Jesus, the feeling that we are constantly dipping into real life scenes between the Evangelist's explanations, the choral interjections, and everywhere the harmony surprising no matter how many times one has heard it. One could go on.