Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review: Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole” by Mid-Wales Opera at RWCMD by Roger Barrington

 

(4.5 / 5)

 

Mid-Wales’s bold production of “L’heure espagnole” strikes home on every note.

Musical director Jonathan Lyness, who also plays piano, has arranged the score for a reduced orchestra, of only four musicians, including himself. The objective is to be able to take the production to smaller venues, that wouldn’t be able to house a larger orchestra. It works a treat as the four musicians, all of a high standard, provide a superb balance to the singing, wondering why Ravel didn’t write it in this way.  Mind you, I wouldn’t like to take on a composer, renowned for his orchestration ability.

“L’heure espagnole” is a one-act comédie musicale first performed at the magnificent    Opéra-Comique  in Paris on 19th May 1911,  and is based upon a play presented seven years earlier.

Libretto is by Franc-Nohain after his play.

Considered to be highly improper at the time, the story is based in 18th-century Toledo, Spain,  where bored Concepcion wife of clockmaker Torquemada, entertains her lovers every Thursday for an hour, whilst her husband leaves home to regulate the town’s clocks.  The resultant chaos after mule-driver Ramiro arrives at the shop to have a watch repaired just at the wrong time, is typical of high-farce.

Ravel’s Spanish score with its mechanical cuckoo clock and ticking metronomes in the prelude, in part disguises the fact that Ravel intended the opera to be more Italian buffa than French operette. 

The singing is uniformly excellent and all the actors display impressive comedic acting skills. All young singers, they represent a wealth of emerging talent and are building up impressive cv’s.

The costumes add to the visual comedy. Concepcion (Catherine Backhouse – mezzo soprano) scarlet woman as she is, dons a costume of that colour.

 

 

Nicholas Morton, (baritone) as Ramiro has carrots draped around him, representing his occupation as a muleteer conveying vegetables. I particularly liked his hat with two carrots protruding upwards like ears, thereby resembling the features of the animal he is working.

 

 

Anthony Flaum, (tenor)  as Gonzalve, Concepcion’s poet lover, dressed in a white suit, indicating the purity of his love in poetry.

 

 

Then there is stout banker Don Inigo Gomez, (Matthew Buswell – Bass-baritone) daubed in his jacket with banknotes attached.

 

 

Finally, we have the unfortunate husband Torquemada, (Peter Van Hulle – tenor) with his cloak of many clock faces.

 

 

Director/Designer has put together  truly marvellous set, that you can see from some of the mages on display here. The enlarged clock face, big enough to represent the concealment of the lovers, (in the plot hiding in grandfather clocks), are a revelation. It is a rich warm looking design and it embellishes the plot to perfection.

It is impossible to fault this production. It dazzles and pleases  and its English translation is funny and witty. I can thoroughly recommend this and urge anyone interested in opera, (and even those who are merely curious) to pay the modest admission price to see such a high standard production.

The performance that I attended was BSL supported.

Unknown to me, when I made my travel arrangements. if this wasn’t sufficient entertainment, there is a second half that consists of Spanish flavoured arias and showpieces. Sadly, I was unable to watch this, but if it is half as good as “L’heure espagnole” it will be well worth seeing.

 

 

 

Roger Barrington Continue reading Review: Ravel’s “L’heure espagnole” by Mid-Wales Opera at RWCMD by Roger Barrington

Review of The Brodsky Quartet at Theatr Brycheiniog by Roger Barrington

 

 

 

(4.5 / 5)

 

When I noticed that The Brodsky Quartet were coming to Theatr Brycheiniog, I have to say that I gasped with disbelief. What a coup! Did they live up to expectation – they certainly did!

The Brodskys are a British String Quartet who were formed way back in 1972. Only half of the original foursome remain. JacquelineThomas (cello) and second left Ian Belton, (violin). More recent members are Paul Cassidy (viola) next to Jacqueline and Daniel Rowland, (violin) on the extreme left. Paul having joined in 1982 and Daniel in 2007. References to position refer to the photograph above.

Traditionally, the quartet played standing up, and the three guys did so on this occasion.

The quartet not only play classical composers such as Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and particularly Shostakovich – all the usual classical string quartet suspects, but also dabble in the avant-garde and the eccentric, and this as represented in the programme they put together in Brecon.

They began with Mexican composer Javier Alvarez’s ” Metro Chabacano” (1991). This is a minimalist piece, a genre of music I particularly enjoy; it reminded me more of John Adams than Philip Glass or Steve Reich. The quick pulse that resonates through its seven minute length conjures up imagery of the Mexico City subway network.

The second piece, “Reflejos de la noche” by another Mexican composer, Mario Lavista is even more unusual. Lavista is renowned for his experimentation and in this piece he really goes to town. Without using the fingerboard of their instruments the Brodskys relying on harmonising , recreate the noises of wild animals at night. I have seen it referred to as a Soundscape rather than a melody and is quite an extraordinary experience watching it being performed. A neighbour of mine in the audience commented that it is great to see it  performed live, but I wouldn’t buy the cd! I tend to agree with that. If you do want the CD it can be found on The Brodsky Quartet’s “Rhythm and Texture”, just one of the 60+ output of this enduring group’s work.

Resorting to a more traditional piece, the quartet then played Edward Elgar’s “String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83”. This celebrated piece was written exactly 100 years ago, just before the celebrated “Cello Concerto”. Both pieces reflect Elgar’s melancholic state of mind and the pathos and English nature of this work was brought out in a powerful rendition.

After the break, the quartet play Shostakovich’s “Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op.73”.  The Brodsky Quartet have a well-earned reputation for performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet output and they didn’t disappoint. Written in 1946, this approximately 33-minute string quartet is in 5 movements, which the composer, allegedly renamed in the manner of a war story:-

Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
Forces of war unleashed
In memory of the dead
The eternal question: Why? And for what?

After very recently being reminded of the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, who can argue with these sentiments?

For their encore, the quartet played a charming Shostakovich number, “Polka” in an amusing manner with sideways glances at what their colleagues were playing.

This concluded a memorable concert that displayed The Brodsky Quartet’s great musicianship, unity of purpose and sheer exuberance of playing technically demanding music.

If you consider the venues this celebrated quartet play at, then Theatr Brycheiniog sdhould take a bow themselves for bringing The Brodskys to Brecon. The eclectic nature of this community theatre’s programme, knows no bounds!

Roger Barrington

Continue reading Review of The Brodsky Quartet at Theatr Brycheiniog by Roger Barrington

Review of WNO International Concert at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

(4.5 / 5)

 

The Welsh National Opera Orchestra under the baton of its Musical Director Tomas Hanus entertained an enthusiastic audience royally at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff.

The programme was divided into two parts with the second being devoted to Czech composer Leos Janacek.

Opening the concert, the WNO orchestra took on Rossini’s perennial favourite, “The William Tell Overture”. This piece never fails to conjure up two contrasting memories. Firstly, sitting in front of  the family black and white television on a Saturday afternoon after Grandstand, anticipating my hero The Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto saving the day yet again. My second image is very different, harking back to Malcolm McDowell’s adventures in the bedroom with a couple of girls our anti-hero has picked up, to a greatly speeded up version of the melody in Stanley Kubrick’s, “A Clockwork Orange”. In my declining years, that is the memory, I wistfully try to conjure up the most.

My impression of the playing was that the opening was played a little too languidly. Mind you, that made the contrast to the trumpet announcing the more famous melody to be more striking.

Next we were treated to a soulful rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concert, with soloist, the young Armenian cellist Narek Haknazaryan.

 

 

Anybody who takes on this beautiful cello concerto will be compared to the legendary Jacqueline du Pre. She almost single -handedly brought to notice a piece that became regarded as one of the great cello concertos of any century.

Narek did an excellent job of getting somewhere near the benchmark, really getting into his performance exuding great emotional depth and understanding.  What the audience would have been unprepared for was an unaccompanied encore, whereby Narek sang, (presumably in Armenian), whilst playing his instrument in such a way I hadn’t seen before. It was an exhibition of total mastery of the cello and had the audience in awe chatting about it during the interval that followed it. Narek’s pedigree is worth consideration. Born into a family of Armenian musicians, his father being a violinist and his mother, a pianist, in 2011, at the age of 22, he won the prestigious Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIVth International Tchaikovsky Competition. He is currently, one of the Vienna Konzerthaus’s Great Talent and is in huge demand to perform, not only in the Austrian capital, but all around the world.

The second half opened with Janacek’s charming finale to his opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen”. The Forester, in a monologue returns to the forest after his pet vixen had been shot dead by a poacher, and reflects on the meaning of life. Slovak baritone Gustav Belacek, sang the part of the forester.

 

 

His rich baritone voice resounded around the hall. Gustav is a well travelled and accomplished singer having performed in many of the greatest opera houses and concert halls of the world. He is also a regular soloist with both the Czech and Slovak Philharmonic orchestras.

A thoroughly charming interlude towards the end had young Efan Arthur Williams resplendent in a frog costume hopping on to the stage and singing a few treble lines in a pure clear voice, and this captivated the audience.

 

 

The concert concluded with an accomplished rendition of Janacek’s famous Sinfonietta – a great concert favourite, largely due to its dynamic use of an elongated brass section that heralds in and closes the four movement sinfonietta. The well-loved third movement with its imposing melody which the programme describes as a  “manic trombone solo”was the highlight of the piece.

Conductor Tomas Hanus was born in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic.

 

 

Brno is where composer Leos Janacek grew up and provided the inspiration for much of his creative output. Therefore, you can imagine that Tomos has a natural affinity to this composer’s work, the proof of which is patently obvious whereby he gets the best out of the talented collective body, that is the Welsh National Opera orchestra.

 

 

Throughout, the orchestra played with great skill and unity in what was a very varied programme. Their reputation as one of Britain’s finest orchestras is clearly apparent and well merited.

What I particularly liked about the concert was the way that maestro Tomas introduced each piece providing an interesting insight into the work about to be played with warmth and wit. He explained to the audience that the theme of war as exemplified in the selected pieces is highly appropriate as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. William Tell’s martial theme, Elgar’s Cello Concerto composed shortly after the end of the Conflict, and written at a time when the composer’s mental state was under great stress largely brought on by the horrors of war that preceded it. Janacek’s work is highly nationalistic and the Sinfonietta in particular reflects the new found nationalism that the country found after the end of WW1.

This WNO concert was a highly enjoyable experience and Tomas Hanus managed to convey a meaning to the audience that the orchestra and themselves are part of a family. The playing of the orchestra and the calibre of the international soloists make you anticipate later concerts next year in this series with great interest.

Continue reading Review of WNO International Concert at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

Review Passion, NDCWales/Music Theatre Wales by Judi Hughes

 

 

Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL;

Wales Millennium Centre, 23 October 2018

Review by Judi Hughes

(4 / 5)

 

Passion is a work for voice and body, dance and opera, written by French composer Pascal Dusapin. Written in 2008 it is based on the Orpheus legend. This production was created in collaboration by NDC Wales and Music Theatre Wales.

Directors: Michael McCarthy & Caroline Finn

Conductor: Geoffrey Paterson

Him: Johnny Herford (Baritone)

Her: Jennifer France (Soprano)

Design: Simon Banham

Lighting design: Joe Fletcher

Sound: Sound Intermedia

Dancers: Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Nikita Goile, Ed Myhill, Julia Rieder, Malik Williams, Queenie Maidment-Otlet

Vocal Ensemble: EXAUDI

Ensemble: London Sinfonietta

To give some context to this review, I decided to see Passion for several reasons: I like the work of NDC Wales, I have seen some of Caroline Finn’s choreography and feel I like and appreciate the way her mind works; I have seen several pieces by Music Theatre Wales and like the alternative aspect that they bring to their work; I have seen some great dance with live music and more recently I have begun to appreciate opera. A contemporary performance that puts all these things together seemed to be something I shouldn’t miss.

Grateful to the programme for some useful advance information, I was armed with the basis of the story based on the Orpheus legend and the roles that the characters played. I was a bit disappointed with the publicity for the show, which gave no indication of the splendidly staged production that I was about to see.

I sat in the audience waiting for this opera dance to begin and when it began I thought, ‘how is this going to work then?’ Slowly and step by step all the elements grew together and what seemed to be impossible came together to make the whole.

The lighting & design were amazing and essential parts of this production. All the elements of dance, opera, live music, vocals and soundscape worked together and were enveloped by it. The blue ladder was so engaging that it was almost another character and watching the production scene by scene became like seeing a series of beautiful paintings over and over again.

At first the ‘others’ seemed surplus but gradually they were woven into this complex collage, responding to the music and soundscape, giving rhythm and life to the work. The sounds of an intake of breath were haunting, nightmare-like and helped to create the atmosphere of the imagined underworld.

The quality of choreographer and skill of the dancers worked seamlessly alongside the male and female opera singers. Both had strong voices and whilst I couldn’t always make out the words, their interpretation and vocal agility was wonderful to hear. Together they told this tale of lost and dying love, dramatic and ethereal in their presentation.

The stunning imagery created by the set and lighting designers, especially commissioned for this project are absolutely central to the work. Production images by Clive Barda are available on the Music Theatre Wales website: http://musictheatre.wales/productions/passion

‘Lighting always plays a big part in the emotional dramaturgical path…the set is absolutely beautiful. Simon’s work is such a joy to light because it has this wonderful contrast in texture and colour…’ Joe Fletcher, Lighting Designer on Simon Banham’s design.

All credit must go to what must have been an incredible amount of hard work from all of the performers, creators and collaborators. I was unexpectedly riveted to the story they told and absorbed in the whole aspect of the show.

The production is currently touring and can next be seen at

LOWRY, SALFORD

Tuesday 6 November

THEATR CLWYD, MOLD

Saturday 10 November

La Cenerentola, WNO Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff  by Barbara Michaels

 

(4 / 5)

 

The Cinderella story with a twist, Rossini’s Cenerentola has all the magic of the fairy-tale –and more. The composer’s sparkling score, with the lightness of touch that characterisesso much of Rossini’s work, lifts it up even further. This revival by the WelshNational Opera , first performed back in 2007, cleverly uses a clutch of talented Italian singers performing the central male characters, giving extra appeal when touring to European cities.

This is comic opera at its best. Cenerentola keeps most of the ingredients of the fairytale with which we are familiar, with one notable exception. There is no glass slipper.

Instead we have a sparkling bracelet – two, to be exact. – the reason being that when the opera was conceived, in Rome back in 1817, it would have been considered bad form to show a lady’s ankles on stage.

Act I opens with the Cinderella of the story, here named as Angelina, slogging away at the housework, in the crumbling castle overun by mice where she slaves away trying to cope with the demands of her two ugly sisters Clorinda and Tisbe and trying in vain to get some sign of affection from her self-important stepfather Don Magnifico – portrayed with gusto by Fabio Capitanucci. His evident enjoyment of the role, coupled with a sonorous bass, makes this singer a perfect choice for the part.

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught has a voice of exceptional depth and clarity which calls forth our sympathy as she is vilified and hassled by Clorinda (Aoife Miskelly) and Tisbe                                                                                                                                         (Heather Lowe), both of whom give great performances as the two throughly nasty stepsisters who make Angelina’s life a misery. The arrival of Alidoro (Wojtek Gierlach),officially the Prince’s tutor and mentor but actually a kind of wizard in place of the traditional fairygodmother, disguised as a beggar, hints at the chnages to come. Angelina’s kindness convinces him that she is the bride for his Prince Don Ramiro (Matteo Macchioni). Macchioni’s pleasant tenor blends well with Erraught in their duets, but with the change of identity – his valet Dandini (Giorgio Caoduro) masquerading as the Prince andvice versa – it is the latter whose performance in Act II is of particular note.

Set against a minimalist backdrop presided over by a giant fireplace centre stage, WNO’s revival is notable for its attention to detail – watch closely in order not to miss any of this.

The stepped stage could be hazardous but at Sunday’s performance any possible pifalls were dexterously avoided, not least by the team of dancers that make up the pose of mice that is a feature of this production, swishing their tails and gesturing on stage throughout. So enchanting are the make-believe rodents and so expert their delivery of revival director and choreographer Xevi Dorca’s great choreography that they are at times in danger of diverting our attention from the main action as the story unfolds.There is a cleverly portrayed storm, an overturned coach, and much more to excite as Dandini and the Prince change back to their true persona and Anglina/Cinders dream comes true.

A happy-ever-after ending – although it is rather a shame that Rossini’s Cinders is still in her kitchen dress when she marries her Prince. She does wear a sparkling tiara, but a bridal gown would have been nice. Other costumes – among them those worn by WNO’s legendary chorus – are colourful yet traditional in some respects, so why not keep this one?

There are underlying themes – good triumphs over evil, etc etc – but this pantomimic take on Rossini’s popular comedy is fun and overall should not be taken too seriously.

Now touring

Music: Gioachino Rossini

Libretto; Giacopo Ferretti

Director: Joan Font

Revivial Director/Choreographer: Xevi Dorca

Barbara Michaels 

“Gramophone Artist of the Year” Rachel Podger in conversation ahead of Brecon Baroque Festival 2018

 

Ahead of the 2018 Brecon Baroque Festival, I had the chance to chat to it’s Artistic Director, Rachel Podger about what to expect this year and also about her own flourishing career as one of the world’s leading violinists.

 

Continue reading “Gramophone Artist of the Year” Rachel Podger in conversation ahead of Brecon Baroque Festival 2018

Review of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Opening Season Concert by Roger Barrington

 

(4.5 / 5)

There are moments in my life when I can pinpoint the occasion when I became enchanted by a composer.

Many years ago, back in the days of the LP records, I happened to buy a compilation of tracks, one of which was “Finlandia” by Sibelius. He has since been my favourite composer.

Then, around 1971, I watched Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and Mahler’s breathtakingly beautiful Adagietto from his 5th Symphony as Dirk Bogarde is transported on a gondola across the Venice Lagoon resulted in that composer becoming a favourite.

But Ralph Vaughan Williams, a contemporary of both, has never really done it for me. Until last night!

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in existence for over 90 years, kicked off it’s new season at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, with a first half devoted to RVW.

Beginning with “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”, a piece that, of course I am aware of, (it has repeatedly been placed at 3rd place in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame Poll), by the time it had concluded – around 17 minutes later, I could happily have left the concert, thinking I had had my money’s worth. Except that I hadn’t paid any money because I was reviewing!

Within the first minute, I was emotionally drained by the sheer beauty of the piece, immaculately played by the String section of the orchestra. The mellowness and intensity that the players brought to this composition was superb. Written in 1910, and revised in 1913 and 1919, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself back pre- WW1 on a summer’s day in the countryside – only four years before the world went mad

And if that wasn’t enough, it was followed by another RVW composition, “Songs of Travel”. Nine songs that again conjured up strong images of rural England sung by the world renowned baritone Sir Thomas Allen.

 

 

Sir Thomas, now aged 74, still has the vocal ability to render justice to the nine songs. In addition, his considerable acting talents allowed him to deliver the songs perfectly, stamping his own individual style of delivery – a talent that has him recognised as one of the great baritones of the world.

Upon arriving home, I just had to listen to the Fantasia again and followed it up with RVW’s “Pastoral Symphony” – I’m hooked!

After the interval, the crowd-pleasing, “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky with amazing orchestration by Maurice Ravel, was the sole piece played. This composition for full orchestra, needs tight control and at times restraint, all leading up to the thunderous climax of “The Great Gates of Kiev”. I’m certain that many of us left the auditorium with Mussorgsky’s masterpiece ringing in our ears. Upon its conclusion, the rapturous reception of the audience matched the orchestra’s panache.

All of this under the baton of Japanese conductor Tadaaki Otaka.

Otaka San was principal conductor of BBC NOW from 1987 to 1995 and is now Conductor Laureate of the orchestra. He has a fondness for British music, and this is clearly apparent on the evidence of the orchestra’s performance last evening.

A truly memorable event, and a fitting concert to commence the BBC NOW season.

In December the orchestra tours China and visits my former home in Wuhan, Hubei. I will be urging my ex-students to turn out.

 

Roger Barrington

 

Review of “The Magic Flute” performed by RWCMD at The Sherman Theatre by Roger Barrington

 

 

(4 / 5)

 

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” which recently finished its short run at The Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, is an accomplished and often very funny interpretation presented by The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Prince Tamino, (tenor Huw Ynyr) is rescued from a serpent by Three Ladies, attendants on the Queen of the Night, (soprano Bernice Chitiul). She promises Tamino the hand of her daughter Pamina, (soprano – Lucy Mellors), if he can rescue her from the hands of the evil Sarastro, (bass – Blaise Malaba), who has kidnapped her. Together with the Royal Birdcatcher Papageno, (baritone – Dragos Ionel), they go off on search of the unfortunate Pamina. They have been granted two magical instruments to accompany them on their dangerous journey. Tamino is given a flute, personified onstage by Andrew Martin, and Papageno bells in the shape of xylophonist James Harris.

The remainder of the action depicts the rescue attempt and the trials and tribulations forced upon Tamino and Papageno to effect the rescue.

Mozart was a Freemason, and symbolism and ritual are shown in this opera in a thinly veiled allegoric way. Masonic themes such as good vs. evil, enlightenment vs. ignorance, and the virtues of knowledge, justice, wisdom and truth are all here. The mysterious worship of Isis and Osiris,  Egyptian Gods concerned with the Afterlife, and a libretto by  Emanuel Schikaneder is full of symbols and rituals associated with Freemasonry. The number three which has a strong association with Freemasonry features strongly as well. Witness the Three Lady attendants of the Queen of the Night, the Three Boys in their flying machines that guide our two heroes in the rescue attempt and the serpent that is cut into three pieces are just some of the references to this number in the opera.

Director Martin  Constandine has an impressive c.v. having previously worked with The Royal Opera House, RSC, English National Opera, WNO and a host of other influential companies. On the basis of what is on display in this production, you can clearly see why this is the case.

In his version, Sarastro is the leader of a totalitarian cult, (suitably named The Brotherhood), whose subjects are brainwashed on a daily basis to render them zombie-like in their passivity.

Masonic symbols abound although chevrons are, I believe, more associated with The Illuminati.

In one highly comic scene, the clones are transformed from their usual catatonic state into a dance troupe doing the twist upon reacting to the magical effects of the bells.

Chad Healy’s busy set design works well. At the opening to Act 2, the curtain opens to a number of girls in a typing pool and then in the upper back section a scene of a clone receiving their daily dose of “medication” contrasts brilliantly.

Huw Ynyr has a very pleasant tenor voice. He also sings with great clarity. This version is in English written by Jeremy Sams.

 

Likewise Lucy Mellors has a very fine soprano voice.  Her aria after Tamino refuses to speak to her, (one of the trials he must pass in order to gain admission to The Brotherhood), Tamino, see, these tears flow for you alone, beloved is sung with great sincerity and intensity.

 

 

Dragos Ionel’s Papageno, has a resonable baritone voice, but he excels in his comedic  acting.

 

 

Blaise Malaba as Sarasto looked the part as the arch-baddie commanding an ominous presence on stage. His bass singing may  lack a little power in the deepest range, but in other respects he is excellent.

 

Bernice Chitiul as Queen of the Night rendered a performance of the highest order. It didn’t surprise me when reading the programme notes that she has performed at London’s  Wigmore Hall. Her two arias, both technically difficult showed her ability as being able to master the coloratura skill required.

 

 

 

The Three Boys and The Three Lady Attendant offer admirable support.

The orchestra of the RWCMD under the baton of Gareth Jones, play Mozart’s score with the lightness and fluency required and complement the singing perfectly.

There are many future stars in the world of opera on view in this production, and one hopes that it will tour in the future so that audiences can enjoy to-notch opera at a very reasonable price.

 

Roger Barrington