Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review, William Thomas & Florent Mourier, Opera Rara, Lansdowne Club, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Opera Rara are on the prowl for the lesser heard, lesser staged in the operatic world. They have no council funding and have excelled with rarely seen delights. This saloon concert at the Lansdowne Club, a charming membership venue over looking Berkeley Square proved a thrill. I was taking the charm of the older gentlemen’s club, I was warmly welcomed and they were happy to allow me to sit and have a drink before. It was all rather fetching, it was seeing the club’s cat that really did it for me, Harry one of two who live there.

This was a fine opportunity to hear emerging bass singer William Thomas and on piano Florent Mourier. The chance to hear encounter lesser heard Verdi and Donizetti songs was a treat and in such a fine space. We heard many songs on the night, too many to mention. Thomas who is such a talented bass, felt quite special sitting and listening to him. The bass does not always get a lot of love and a fine, young singer like this could break down many barriers. Even in the Italian or the French repertoire (such was the influence of Parisain opera and all things francophile) from the two composers.

Starting with Donizetti’s Troppo é vezzoza la ninfa bella, we couldn’t have had a better start. Thomas plays the odd little characters well in these songs, humour aside great timing also important. My Italian plus one said the language was clear, though not all the time as is the way with words used in opera. Hearing Verdi, In solitaria stanza had a sweet Bellini reference, more influence from the past. Deh, pietoso, oh addolorata had the words of Gothic God Goethe. Mourier had a few rehearsals with Thomas prior, you would think they have played together for years. His piano skills meshed marvellously for these songs, he seems to get these hardly hear song like few do. Together, magic was made between Thomas and Mourier, both at the top of their game. An encore would preview his role in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra coming up in Manchester, wetting mouths. 

Seriousness met fun, romance and tension, in the club saloon setting you couldn’t ask for much more. 

Opera Rara perform the original Verdi Simon Boccanegra from 1857 at Manchester Bridgewater Hall 18 April 2024. 

Review, Emma Roberts, Charles Tam & Jo Ramadan, The Musicians’ Company Concert & Concordia Foundation Artists’ Fund, Wigmore Hall, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Many Prizes to be found here from a wonderful trio of musicians. Mezzo Emma Robert’s has real pulling power, making the most of this fine afternoon at Wigmore. Proving many talents with a selection of Fauré, Brahms and Debussy in the first half. Fleur jette was a lush opener from Fauré, the German from Brahms and his Der Tod, das ist die Kyle Nacht was another treasure, solemn and resplendent. Emma has a warm mezzo and at such a young age. Not always easy to get it right in the ladies lower register, but she pulls off so much with grace and poise. Debussy and his Chansons de Bilitis ended this set with warm heartedness and a vivid palette of colours and poetry.

Charles Tam arrive to wrap up the first half with two of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Le baiser dr l’enfant-Jésus started things off for anyone who had never heard this outstanding French composer…you’d be surprised. The main sort of Jesus melody is heard and transposed aside daring chromatic  investigations aside daring expressionistic key play. Leading into the most acclaimed from the two hour piece: Regard de l’Esprit de joie. This tenth movement dazzles with sizzling Indian music, frantic high and low register pounding and an unwavering mastery of melody. Tam leaving this audience impressed, it has such a demand on the player, we too were tired after hearing it. My plus one knew little of Messiaen and was teary eyed by the end. Tam made an excellent choice here and it was a fine way to show his sweeping musicianship.

More of Emma and her companion on piano Jo Ramadam, who played everything with fine fingering and brezze. Schumann’s Myrthen got back to basics, heady Germanic style and sense of romance evaded the space. A choice of Sibelius songs proved Emma multi language skills further, these were fun and wry. Sanglots from Banalités by Poulenc was even more cheer and thrills. Emma really getting into the patter of the song. I want to hear her do more and Wagner!

Tam returned with a final offering, Liszt’s Fantasia quasi Sonata from Aprés une le tur du Dante. Half misery and half hope, the whole piece had the clamour you expect from Liszt. Hell and its layers evade the score effectively thanks to the composer’s cleverness. It didn’t quite complete the concert as an end piece, but I was caught by its passion and Tam’s real vitality, no score needed and his swaying motions throughout noteworthy. 

Review, Juan Pérez Floristán, LSO St Luke’s, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The essence of Spain is alive and well at LSO ,St Luke’s in London. We got a real firestarter concert from Juan Pérez Floristán. Fantasiá bética from Manuel de Falla was the native and justified opener. It was terrific and terrifying in equal measure, flamenco used and keeps the kinetic spirit of the dance. Very contemporary, a commission by Rubinstein, de Falla really shows off here and so does Juan.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte is the most famous piece in the programme. Inspired by Spanish Baroque, this endearing if somewhat overdone piano miniatures remains a delight. Juan kept it sincere and totally pianissimo. Three Debussy works, two of which were from the Preludes, perhaps captured the essence of Spain out of the non-native composers. Maintaining the evocative perfume usually attributed to Debussy, aside the dance and heat of Espana really did excite her. Juan doing more Debussy would be an event in and of itself. A longing and lingering mood drifted into the space.

Joaquín Turina is a discovery for me and a real find. His Orgía from Danzas fantásticas was another extreme thrill. We don’t near enough from Spanish composers, a work like this proves why we should. Juan thrives in playing his own country’s canon. He is not afraid to dance and scribble around whilst playing. Captivating would be a nice descriptor.

Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody may lose a feel for the authentic, replaced with virtuosic playing. A delightful melody is heard throughout and is heart warming. Juan scrubs the keys and pounded this justified finale. We were smitten as an audience and an encore of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair was familiar fare and a nice way to end this fine afternoon.

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Review, ENO, The Barber of Seville, London Coliseum by James Ellis

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A strike action from the chorus and orchestra of English National Opera would halt my plans to see their amazing Handmaid’s Tale once more. I’m all for their fist raising and standing their ground. They have been through a wringer for some time and it is simply not fair.

In a revival of the marvelous Jonathan Miller, sharply done now thanks to Peter Relton, this classic, faithful Barber is a delight. It’s touching to see the company who have only ever given their all do a piece like this, which is one of the opera world’s most cherished jewels. Rossini takes the famous Figaro story and turns it into a marvelous encounter. The arias are fun, the humor still holds up and the story still grabs.

Conductor Roderick Cox makes the orchestra glisten. The bouncy nature and telling melodies are all brought out on display here. Count Almaviva is Innocent Masuku having fun and is vocally grounded, his past with ENO noteworthy. Charles Rice is a fine Figaro, not the best I’ve ever heard but he looks the part and his comic timing is race car swift as expected. Anna Devin as Rosina, the wealthy heiress is perfect and her arias are a treat of the evening. Her costumes from Tanya McCallin are finely crafted and could easily be seen in a Seville of the era. Curiously I expected to see a few fans in the show, or at least one on Rosina. Perhaps too expensive?

Simon Bailey is in turbo mode as Doctor Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian and foil to the Count in stopping him from courting the young lady. Some great inflections and slapstick made the role great and his voice is balletic for his absurdly quick aria. Don Basilio from Alastair Miles gives off something of the Child Catcher, with a ridiculously large hat to boot. His own aria, arguably the best out of the whole opera, is also a thrill and his presence added to the wit, especially when mucking around with Bailey. Berta, the maid, is from Lesley Garrtett. Though mostly in one half decent aria, Lesley lost some of the tune during the high bits. A minor blip in an otherwise fabulous offering. The hair raising end of act one was worth the trip alone…go and support ENO!!

The Barber of Seville runs at London Coliseum till 29th February 2024

Review, Connor Fogel, Tabernacle, Cardiff by James Ellis

It is a rare thing where I review a friend’s work. Though some opportunities shouldn’t be ignored. Connor Fogel is proving his chops as a music director, pianist and all round dandy. I remained quite touched by his playing on the piano. The choice of programme cleverly demonstrated his talents, Connor has also covered more experimental plains.

Connor knows my thoughts on Chopin, though his Boléro was rather charming. The novelty of Spain lingers, the composers eloquence always on show. Debussy’s Ballade was a special choice, I found the exotic mingling with France to be beguiling. Connor fluttering and depth in the chromatic plain made it sound a breeze, as if a trifle. Quite splendid.

A selection of Rachmaninoff miniatures: two of the Études-Tableaux, Barcarolle and one of the Preludes followed. You may not need massive hands when playing Rachmaninoff, but it certainly would help (the Russian composer had famously large hands). Connor finds many great things in these pieces: the post-Romantic sensibilities, daring tonal leaps all over the keys and maintaining the joy and a heady passion in the pages. Connor has reminded me of the greatness of Rachmaninoff, which I may have dismissed in the past. Though seeing him play the work he adores is proof of this.

The last billing was Liszt and his Andante finale und Marsch aus der Oper König Alfred von Joachim Raff. A lesser known charmer from the eccentric Hungarian composer, Liszt found his secretary and composer Joachim Raff wrote wonderful operas, which got little notoriety. Liszt cheeky and highly attractive work commands more attention, as with his other famous opera transcriptions. The stirring bel canto opening leads into the bouncy march, filled with glissandi, a new ideas at the era. Hats off to Connor for finding these curious rarities that remained a crowd pleaser.

A decent encore of King & I, was a testament to Connor’s stage musical work, the other half to his career in music. I’m glad I went to support a friend, one with oodles of talent.

Connor performs the same recital at Bristol Cathedral on Tue 16th April 2024. 

Review, Lucy Railton & Joseph Houston, Patterns in a Chromatic Field, Kings Place, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

A return to Venue 1 of Kings Place prior to lockdown is a thrill. In hearing one of Morton Feldman’s larger pieces, requires a lot of concentration. Its the sparseness which is easy to recall, some would declare it as creepy, squeeky door horror. Not so…

In this 80 minute work for cello and piano, Patterns in a Chromatic Field unfolds and has a lot of allure. The cello here does not weep, it moans, sighs and squeeks. The piano adds another depth, not quite accompliment, more the second sphere to this cocktail. Feldman’s sombre and sober visions makes for a wonderful aura in the concert space. The momentum gradually increases, the cello plays with a more free and expressive direction. So easy to get lost in a work like this.

The strange plateaus hoover around and leave as if a ghost. I found it become almost touching, the ending alone with the silence had a huge impact. It’s very easy to hear Webern and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Lucy Railton had such stamina throughout. All the odd, little techniques shone, each phases a new journey. Joseph Houston had fantastic moments on the keys. Total softness and brooding lower register come to mind. It took about two thirds in to fall into the piece for me, I still found it demanding. The audience around me were geared up with coffee or beer. A young girl chattered only a little during and a phone or two went off. They didn’t disrupt the atmosphere, as the music is so thick. Me being so tried only complimented the theme.

Review, Andrew Brownell & Benjamin Frith, Wigmore Hall, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

There’s something about two pianos that’s just so exciting. Andrew Brownell and Benjamin Frith at Wigmore gave a sweet coffee concert to swipe away the Sunday blues. Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser, in the arrangement by Léon Roques flourishes. Famously open and not as engulfing as late Wagner, the overture is packed with a perfect main melody, towering scales and an overflowing sense of drama. Both pianists captured the essence of this early Wagner opera and it was a fine concert opener. I love the kinetic energy between them. I want to hear them do Satie, Messiaen.

Saint-Saëns followed in a surprisingly dull twist with his Variations on the trio section of the Menuetto from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 31. No. 3. I was left so unmoved by this, it’s amazing how trite the French composer can be. Others after affirmed their dislike. The melody seems to be moved around neither cleverness, nor genius. I will listen again to try and find something of worth. Its a longshot…

Gershwin’s An American in Paris ended with a more jumpy thrill. The great musical is shrunk into these 20 odd minutes, the eternal melodies of the composer always there. The mania of Paris is depicted vividly, the sensational ballet sequence also getting its due here. Andrew and Benjamin looked like they had fun, Gershwin’s scatter bolts of notes are always fun. You should really let rip in this jazz work and they both did. Great stuff!

Review, The Turn of the Screw, Ustinov Studio, Bath by James Ellis 

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

It would be another train strike preventing me from getting to Bath for the press night of The Turn of the Screw. I’ve been thinking about their take on Machinal I saw on Halloween and through it all, I love coming back. In Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera, the Ustinov Stuido has it’s only second opera performed in it, after last year’s Dido and Aeneas.

It is staggering just how much of Britten’s operas are the abuse and lust of older men upon a younger male. Be it his masterpiece Peter Grimes, Billy Budd or Death in Venice (the latter we will see with Welsh National Opera in the spring), he latches on to these stories as if but an obsession. The composer’s own personal desires aside, he did have the genius to pick work so charged with depth and drama. This Henry James story was a suggestion of librettist Myfanwy Piper, who’s eloquent and piercing prose is a tremendous part of the opera. A  borrowed line for the opera from W. B. Yeats seems to sum it all perfectly: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

The Governess is assigned to be the main care giver for two orphans, in the country estate of Bly in east England. She meets Mrs. Grose with Miles and Flora, and settles in. Things are not what they seem as a sinister figure lurks the halls: Peter Quint. This man has abused young Miles and the prevoius governess Miss Jessel, who also appears in ghost form. Can the new Governess protect herself and the children away from this awful presence?

This stripped back arrangement sees two pianos, a celeste and a lone flute. I’d have loved to have heard the full ensemble, though the weight of the score lived in the duo pianos. Fascinating to listen to, I marvelled at the sour nursery rhymes, English folk like charms  the feverish moments of anxiety, along with the aurora of the other realm. Directed by Isabelle Kettle, I think even more could have been done to add to the atmosphere, two worlds collide in a fight to claim the innocents as their own. A long transparent shower curtain appears to be the veil between both worlds, designer Charlotte Hennery should be praised for her accurate costume design. Some props are present, the children use the pianos as another fun device in their house. Even a dead crow (quite possibly a raven) is used in one scene. All very unnerving…

Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Xavier Hetherington is both the Prologue speaker (this could be the children’s father or even Henry James) and Quint. I don’t think enough was done to make him a seriously intimidating figure’, with a grip of power. In voice, Xavier had some beguiling moments, like the children we are won over by his light song. Sarah Gilford owned her role as the Governess. Her gradual decent into despair over losing the children to supernatural forces is traumatic and depressing. Really ringing in voice, never an easy role to tackle. I was quite smitten. Emma Bell as Mrs. Grose give heaps of back story over the awful goings on. I dont think I’ve ever heard her in poor form, in the War Requiem nor Wagner. Her sublime moments of harmony with Sarah was worth the journey alone.

Two fairly challenging roles are for Miles and Flora, here from Arlo Murray and Catherine Mulroy. They channelled the roles well, acting not perfect, though I wouldn’t expect it from such young ages. Arlo’s take on ‘Malo…Malo’ as he learns his Latin was another highlight. Catherine’s glee and darker side are all here, her voice also pleasing. Miss Jessel is Elin Pritchard, a brief character, though with fairly sad moments. Elin offered up stirring sympathy and a clarity in her voice.

Double pianos from Aleksandra Myselk and Henry Websdale were amazing to watch. All the harsher moments, the trills and eerie lines all shone. The celeste also from Myselk came in for colour and sharpness. Flautist Carys Gittins had little to do, though wowed in the second act with weird registers and attacks.

The Turn of the Screw runs at the Ustinov Studio till 23 Dec 2023

Review, Angela Gheorghiu Operatic Gala, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: LPO

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The LPO gave a fairly resplendent rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Symphony. Dubbed the ‘Winter Daydreams’, the promise of an exceptional career in music is here. It’s easy to say it’s lovely, yet I found most of the work remained attractive. Not as bold as later work, the nickname easily evokes the imagery fitting for this festive concert. Maestro Gergely Madaras had shape and form, the heftier moments never feeling like a chore. Musically it remains rooted in it’s era of late romance. Typical, if still mostly charming.

In what was orignall billed as a night with Reneé Fleming, she had to bow out. We were given the absolute diva from Romania, Angela Gheorghiu, one of the opera world’s biggest stars. Finally a chance to hear her live! Things started off very ropey with Caro mio ben by Giordani, this being a Italian heavy set. She sang a select few arias, half of the second half must go to the players and Madaras for their wonderful Prokofiev Troika, Polonaise from Eugene Onegin and Polovtsian Dances. Though there were some major issues with her voice, her classic Puccini arias (Madama Butterfly and La bohème) had style, if a little rough around the edges.

Perhaps the most lovely was her take on L’altra notte in fondo al mare from Mefistofele. Boito’s superb aria was the middle of the choices and I think had the most resonance. She seemed to rise above previous issues in the set and excel here. Gheorghiu’s may be past her prime and I truly hate having to say that, yet what I did love was her big presence. Her laughter and lavish costumes wont be forgotten. It was quite camp really. I expected Ru Paul in the front row.

A highly memorable encounter, perhaps not for all the right reasons. 

Review, Patricia Kopatchinskaja & Friends: Pierrot Lunaire, Purcell Room, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: Euishin Kim / Det Norske Kammerorkester

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Another piece I’m finally getting the chance to hear live. Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a multi-talented singer and violinist who both held the reins and let loose in a furious hour of weird music making.

Whilst I’d think most in the audience wanted to near Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, we are treated to huge journeys with CPE Bach, Berio, Milhaud and more experiments. Personally, I like the piece to be played on their own and not during Lunaire. I was loving it all though, Patricia dressed as if the sad clown of Italian opera. Her Dada like happenings also added well to the broth. Her singing was furious and unwavering, more sing-talk as the composer intended. Her little improvisations on violin, were quirky, her comic timing also a thing of beauty. The stage is covered in newspapers, hanging coat tails, abstract paintings, and a metallic kettle.

Lunaire is a truly absurd piece. Even for early Schoenberg, the outrageous expression of each song bursts out, so many elements make it overwhelming. The verse by Albert Giraud paints surreal visions and appalling digressions. The band of musicians, with white make up (though more subtle on them then Patricia), also bought manic passions and a commanding presence. I imagine this is a nightmare to play and sing. I cannot begin to grasp it…

I love the extra elements of making this more accessible, also extra important today. Though I do wonder if this is the right piece for the job. The crazy, angular form of Lunaire and the floating, blasting words make it heavy load for most ears. Having said that, this was a fun hour which I will recall most fondly.