Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review The Makropulos Affair, Leos Janacek-Welsh National Opera WMC 16 09 22 by Gwyneth Stroud

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Having seen the various production of Janacek’s operas by Welsh National Opera (WNO) over many years, it is particularly thrilling to have the opportunity to see one unfamiliar to me – The Makropulos Affair.  On reading background about the plot and theme of the opera, it sounds remarkable, so it’s somewhat surprising that it doesn’t seem to be performed very often.  Olivia Fuchs’ new production for WNO rectifies this.

What does it feel like to have already been alive for over 300 years?  Clearly, none of us can know, but this is the premise of The Makropulos Affair.  Emilia Marty was born in 1585, and, by virtue of a potion devised by her father, has achieved immortality.  The recipe for the concoction was given to a Baron Joseph Ferdinand Prus in order that it be incorporated into his will.  But Emilia – true identity Elina Makropulos – now needs this formula if she wishes to live for a further 300.  It’s decision time.  Will she take the potion or accept her mortality?  But first a century-old battle over a will must be settled in order to secure the elusive recipe.

Act 1 opens in a solicitor’s office.  The paper-heavy nature of the business is deftly portrayed, with huge mountains of files everywhere, the feeling of depth created through the use of suspended paperwork as columns.  A sense of time and place comes via a video projection onto the back of the stage (credit to Sam Sharples), placing the action firmly in the 1920s and providing a reminder of the role of time via clock mechanisms and a metronome. Lighting is skilfully employed throughout, the muted hues ever changing to match the mood. Credit to Robbie Butler here. 

Backstage at the opera house, Act II brings movement and colour, flamboyant red dominating throughout in the pile of roses left for Emilia Marty and her top-to-toe (including hair and necklace) outfit – it’s all or nothing with her.  Ice-cold Act III beautifully captures Emilia steely demeanour – combing her hair is of more interest than learning of Janek’s death.  The all-white set – outfit, bed, dressing table, suitcases – is in stark contract to the opulence of Act II and a fitting backdrop to the heightened drama and tension of the final scene. Designer Nicola Turner has done a fantastic job.

 Keeping up with the various family relationships is challenging and the projection of the family tree onto the back of the stage at various points feels heavy handed, particularly in conjunction with reading the surtitles.  Better is the use of a comedic interlude between the first two Acts, in which the doctor seeks to explain matters (aided by a blackboard and easel).  I could almost hear a collective “at least it’s not just me” from the audience.

Angelas Blancas Gulin shines as Emilia Marty.  She manages to capture her guile, passion, torment, cruelty and coldness at various points throughout, and her soaring finale is captivating.  Nicky Spence as Albert Gregor is perfectly cast, frustrated throughout and, against his better judgment, falling for Emilia.  Dr Kolenaty’s role is taken by Gustav Belacek, his clipped tones ideal for conveying lawyerly detail and precision. Baron Jaroslav Prus is played by David Stout, tragic in the face of his son Janek’s suicide.   Credit must also go to Harriet Eyley (Krista) and Alexander Sprangue (Janek) who performed their small but not insignificant roles well.  Alan Oke takes the role of poor Count Hauk-Sendorf, played empathetically and with feeling.  Mark Le Brocq’s clear scene-setting at the beginning of the opera is welcome, given its (relative) complexity. Other roles were Julia Daramy-Williams (Chambermaid) and Monika Sawa (Cleaning Lady).

Conductor Tomas Hanus is at home here, veering from the terrifying to the beautifully melodic to the  tragic, and always providing a masterful lead.  The orchestra of WNO is as flawless as ever.  Long may this opera company’s warm relationship with the operas of Janacek continue.

You can find out more about this production and book tickets here

Review Stay As Long As You Like, The Sunday Boys & Meraki, Stoller Hall, Manchester by James Ellis 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

More local artists and a chance to support for LGBT Manchester based work was my goal. The Sunday Boys are the city’s low voiced gay choir and female choir Meraki collaborated on a rather telling piece. The ladies and gay men who are friends, who share mutual love and respect of each other is a less trodden ground in queer circles. 

In this cantata, Michael Betteridge uses flashes of John Adams and Benjamin Britten, the words here by Rebecca Hurst being very casual and sometimes touching. I was thinking about the female friends in my own life, the mutual understandings we have about life and love. Betteridge tries out some challenging bits for both choirs, in some instances rich harmonised sonorities poured out with loveliness. I wouldn’t say I was as nourished by the whole as I should have been, a lot of the vocal line remained a bit dull, though the instrumentalist had some tricks and sweet moments for piano, percussion, strings and more. 

Betteridge shared conducting duties with Michelle Robinson, a fitting thing within the context of the words. Meraki did sometimes have the little wobble in the vocal line, though things usually got back to basics and they followed through. Dare I say it, I’d love to see Betteridge take things to a higher, experimental plain. Both these choir have made waves and more impassioned work will get the word out. This Stoller Hall audience seemed to have enjoyed themselves, the acoustic of this newish venue is a pearl in the Manchester cultural scene.  

I was unaware there was a second half to the evening where both choirs would perform their own repertoire. I had to love them and leave them as I transgressed over to the Carole Nash Hall within the same venue for Will Pound and Jenn Butterworth. Drinking in as much as possible before I shoot off back to Wales.

Review BBC Symphony Orchestra, Besty Jolas’ bTunes BBC Proms 22, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis  

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

For my finale Prom this season, an appearance from the BBC Symphony was offered for the last Monday concert. Mighty Conductor Karina Canellakis excited with an array of varied delights in a concert that had a lot going for it. 

Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus overture thrills in its few minutes, a tantalising taste of the full ballet score. This makes a great concert opener with it’s charm on it’s sleeve, Karina getting off to a fabulous start here. Of note was the world premiere and BBC commission from Besty Jolas of bTunes. Here in the Albert Hall with us at the age of 96, this added a special weight to proceedings. Her odd piece used theatrical elements that could have been utilised more. We saw the lead violinist conduct for the first few bars, as the pianist and conductor arrive late flustered. 

This funny little moment lead into a harsh and insightful sound world, Betsy creating some intriguing compositions. Pianist Nicolas Hodges got busy with lid slamming, string plucking and smashing tone clusters, also notated into the score for him. The whole things was barmy, trying to pass off as a playlist of music, it seems to have gone down well and with her presence on the night proved a success. 

The 1st Symphony makes for gateway Mahler and here it was executed with a fiery focus. All the hallmarks Arte here in what would be heard later in his music. This graduation piece shows a vast array of musical brilliance, the meshing of popular songs, the waltzes, Alpine bliss and mirky underwater stand out as check points. With a pristine beauty, this held up as a highlight of my Proms live this year. There is a promise in this first symphony, perhaps one of the finest firsts ever written. The panache of it’s delivery, the mighty mood swings and the composer himself having conducted this more than any other of his works proves its importance. Highlight include the Frère Jacques variation, a evocative double bass solo and all round impassioned occupation that sells it and more. Would to hear Karina conduct the following on two symphonies by Mahler now. 

You can listen to the event on BBC Sounds here

Review Berlin Philharmonic, Schnittke Violin Concerto, BBC Proms 22, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

A second wind from the Berlin Phil after the rowdy Mahler 7, would proved mixed. The Violin concert from Alfred Schnittke proved a rare discovery and a really strange piece with a lot going for it. Soloist Tabea Zimmermann proved a jaw-dropping display in pretty harsh passages along more fund bits. Some of her cadenza might not have been as stimulating as the rest, though the orchestra alas proved quite brilliant in the whole endeavour. Razor sharp pastiche mingles with serious experimentation in all its brow raising brilliance. The touch of a harp, piano, celeste and harpsichord could only be Schnittke, in this most memorable of violin concertos. Should do a good job in haunting me over the next few days.

Daniel Harding replaced Kirill Petrenko from the night prior, therefore replacing the Shostakovich 10th Symphony with Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. Whilst I’ll admit the performance was a grand affair, the definition of professional…I have to say this was one of the dullest symphonies I’ve ever heard. Bruckner seems to loiter is past German romanticism that leaves little room for new horizons nor any real depth to the style. A lot of this just felt like a load of frivolity with no real sense of it’s influences. I still can’t make out if it’s “German sounding’ either. The finale almost won me over with broad, bold outburst where things started to take off, quieter moments having some genuine appeal. Though I’ve heard the Shostakovich originally planned many times, I dare say I would have much gathered heard that again.

Review András Schiff, Beethoven Late Piano Sonatas, BBC Proms 22, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

Photo credit; BBC/Chris Christodoulou
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Sir András Schiff relaxed a Sunday morning Proms audience in a intimate affair in the grandeur of the Albert Hall. You see another side to Beethoven in his late piano sonatas. Still filled with innovations, their refections and anguish still pound through and the electricity still lies within them.

Schiff is extremely no thrills, at least the view of his back and part of the keys would prove this where I was sitting. Playing all this from memory proves his chops, his previous Bach whistle stop concerts also proof of his sheer talent. His writing out of the pieces makes it look so easy when it might be a nightmare to play. The dexterity and energy require cant be underestimated, Schiff tackling all these, though his reserved manner might shut fool people.

A debate about having small, more intimate Proms prevails. All I know is the sounds ring out from the piano, though I was in the stalls and may very much be a different story in the high up gallery. This massive audience all came to hear him play and that is enough to justify the recital in the space. Whilst the first two buttery sonatas performed are firsts for the Proms, it was the Sonata No. 32 in C minor which stood out, as if a big beast on the war path. The violence and the weird imagery made it stick out, a fine choice to wrap things up.

You can listen to the event on BBC Sounds here

Photo credit; BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Review Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler’s 7th Symphony, BBC Proms 22, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Itching for more Proms, the Berlin Philharmonic began a two ninth fest featuring the huge 7th Symphony from Gustave Mahler. It’s been a while for me where I’ve seen a instrumental blend this fine and musicianship this stellar. One can never picture taken on his big works on a whim, the lesser favoured piece is finally getting the love it deserves. It’s funnier than usual as well, with merry tunes and drinking songs which as ever, are met with black doubts and lingering uncertainties. Here the woodwind shines, the brass enthral and the percussion (when used) add that extra bite to proceedings.

The large set of strings delivers jabs, swoons and haunts us all. This feat of musicianship was made crystalline by conductor Kirill Petrenko, who’s flamboyant flair and care for the orchestra is very telling of his persona. These five movements remain quite strange in their form, moments for guitar and mandolin or the cowbells evoking the Austrian Alps are another quirky touch. I found the near 90 minutes whizzed by, some Mahler can drag and this being so fresh and alive it was never a test. The composer wouldn’t have believed a performance like this could be done of this work, so tight and polished. Great work indeed.

BBC Proms continues till 10 September 2022. Listen live to all concert on BBC Radio 3 or listen back to all concerts on BBC Sounds.

Review James Bonas with Anthony Roth Costanzo, Glass Handel, ENO/BBC Proms 22,The Printworks by James Ellis 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In a return to the BBC Proms in London, a new venue for the festival would call. Whilst I’ll confess  the Printworks in Canada Water is a bit out of the way for this travelling reviewer, it was a fleeting chance to see another side of London. In a more laid-back, approachable look on classical music, the venue itself on first appearance looked cluttered, very busy.

 As things went on, I found the whole thing to be truly wonderful, the direction of James Bonas with a metaphorical butterfly net keeping everything grounded, yet delightful.

The head turning array of soloist, orchestra, dance, art, beat-boxing and sound design filled the venue with the ambition of a classic happening. The star of the show was very much American counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who has dazzled audiences across the pond and over the world. It is his clear sex appeal and queer ideals that dust the show with beautiful goings on. In both the bejewelled Handel and Phillip Glass repertoire (extracts from both their operas, some never heard at the Proms along with a world premier from Glass) he proves his broad taste and mighty passions, his voice sharp and touching. 

All the other goings on segway well into each aria, the dancers never quite getting the limelight (with emotive choreography by Justin Peck). The live painting of Glenn Brown was only truly visible to one side of the vast elongated factory. Players from English National Opera and conductor Karen Kamensek never wained is this apparent gamble that paid off all round. Costumes by Raf Simons are billowy, colourfull fun creations, slight and web like for the dancers, exaggerated for Costanzo.

Jason Singh would beatbox and add whispy vocal tricks to make space between the notes of the arias. What almost attempted to steal the show was the finely crafted surreal video work which graced the brick walls. The likes of James Ivory with Pix Talarico, Tilda Swinton and Daniel Askill and more had unsettling, vivid and witty films that got away with a lot of it’s demands. 

A fine event I won’t forget yet.

You can listen to the event on BBC Sounds here

Review Cardiff Opera in Concert, St Augustine’s Church, Penarth by James Ellis

A heatwave joined for the latest excursion to Penarth for Cardiff Opera for their latest concert. Having seen their Julius Cesare by Handel, this unassuming collection of young singers and instrumentalists offering up to the Welsh capital events both popular and rare. 

The Siegfried Idyll from Richard Wagner is perhaps one of the finest depictions of a forrest. It’s a much more gentle side to the arrogant and racist composer, presenting the piece to his wife Cosmina on Christmas morning. Later recycled into the opera of the same titular hero, this is gateway Wagner for people not to sure of the five hour epics which follow. It was the strings here which let down the side on a few occasions, some problems might have been with the vibrato. Though it all, the sweetness and charm of the work still shone through, conductor William Stevens with a no thrills command of the score.

In a hefty follow up, Mahler’s The Song of the Earth sees ancient Chinese poetry mixed with the composer’s angsty, Austrian existentialism in a heady brew. This is Mahler’s good bye to the world, at least for me much more then the 9th and 10th symphonies (the latter incomplete at his death). The woodwind was fairly tight here, the players reduced to a very small size for such a work got away with it, though it may not have captured that universal metal the composer demands. 

Fine footed tenor Robert Felstead get some lush moments of nature and drinking, the rowdiness of the role a bolstering, unshaven thrill. For me the real joy came with soprano Rebecca Chellappah who sings the majority of this song cycle with grace, has an affirmed sense of drama and musicality. The Farewell takes up half the piece and is a devastating departure, Rebecca  awash in this grand movement of the passing of time, as nature thrives. All that was missing was the celeste for the final flurry in the last few bars.

Review National Youth Orchestra of Wales, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Every summer, we would mostly be graced by our very own Youth Orchestra on tour. Wales should be proud that we in fact have the oldest youth orchestra in the worlds having been founded back in 1945. Conductor Kwamé Ryan from Trinidad and Tobago, leads all with a spirited energy and his commitment to the future of music lives in moments like these. Though quite formal in his maestro, he wrings out of these students a fine musicality.

Argentum by Dani Howard held up as a good choice of a concert opener. Quite happy and had the feel of a giddy, John Adams sort of mood. Her take on celebrations would mark the work with a dedication for the marriage of some close friends. She speaks of pride and happiness in a union of this manner and you could hear this at the Last Night of the Proms, such is its appeal.

In the Violin Concerto of Korngold, Jennifer Pike shone, the gleam of a Hollywood veneer never far away. The composer had the privilege to be able to recycle film scores he had already written after fleeing Austria and making it to California. Pike soaks up the loving atmosphere of the three movements, the finale clearly from Robin Hood as it rolls along with a rompy air. Pike made the piece appear as child’s play, though I’m sure it has it’s technical moments of bravado. We don’t tend to hear enough Korngold, the delight of an encore was another work: the finale of his score to Captain Blood with Errol Flynn, a pirate party if ever there was one.  

Whilst Russian music might not be a frequent hitter at this present time, the Youth Orchestra gave a decent take of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Each night the title character regales her husband the Sultan with tales in an effort to save her life, as he longs for more conquets. The sumptuous violin motive (with harp) pin points Scheherazade as safe, each of the movements the stories she tells. Leader Esme Lewis fared well in this central role, along with her efforts throughout the programme. There are wild moments of the sea storms, princesses and even a festival in Bagdad, all taken from the Arabian Nights collection of stories. It’s the vividness of the orchestration and clever melodies that have made this work a crowd-pleaser for over one hundred years. It may be fairly overdone by today’s standard, but it does give this youth orchestra a piece to cut their teeth with.     

Granted, I was able to detect the odd fluff in the brass and woodwind. All things which can be ironed out with further practice and commitment. Fine work from all involved!

Review, Peppa Pig: My First Concert, London Coliseum by Hannah Goslin

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

I cannot help but think how lucky some children are to experience theatre like the work that is put on currently across the UK. While independent and fringe theatre is also fantastical and amazing, something about changing a well loved children’s classic and adapting into something new just adds to the wonderful experiences that children can undertake today. And set in the London Coliseum, surrounded by gold and beautifully carved architecture, this was the perfect setting for this show.

Peppa Pig: My First Concert is a little what it says on the tin. With the character’s of Peppa, George, Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig in a combination of puppetry and costume, Peppa and family experience the ranges of classical music but with a child’s input. Supported by a small but well equipped orchestra, children and adults a like are introduced to instruments in a simple and effective way.

We are introduced to well known classics such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart but to gain the interest of children, audience participation is involved with hand gestures, dancing, singing and basic description of what the music tries to convey. It not only makes something seen as potentially old fashioned into something youthful and exciting but also brings such beautiful music in a beautiful setting to the modern age, influencing children from young and changing the ideals of classical music as originally something for the old and middle class.

It also is an easy way for adults and families to get into classical music. We may have heard these songs, minimally on adverts or tv shows, in the background of productions, some of us perhaps knowing a little of the narrative but this was a great introduction to why composers wrote certain songs and what they try to convey.

Peppa Pig: My First Concert is a must see for all the family and especially a fantastic way to engage children in culture that is rich in our society and history.