Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review Kanneh-Mason Prom, St David’s Hall by James Ellis 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It was touch and go for the return of the Welsh Proms if maestro Owain Arwel Hughes would conduct after a Covid scare. Owain’s loyalty to the Welsh side of the Proms is extensive and helped bring in large, attentive audiences.

A Prom from the Kenneh-Mason brood would bring some new blood to the festival in fine music making form. I’ve seen a few of them here and there in more intimate recitals, yet here the siblings played together and then duet after duet would form. Little doubt being the most musical family in these lands, the talent on display is but hereditary brilliance. The combined forces of Isata, Braimah, Sheku, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata and Mariatu graced the stage and all proved to be no gimmick.

A broad programme of bite sized work (some miniatures some extracts of larger pieces) loomed heavy over the night but the long list was gracefully ticked off as each brother and sister had their time to shine. My views on Eric Whitacre are very mixed and the opening of his Seal Lullaby was pretty and gave everyone some moments of harmony. The work of Coleridge-Taylor is newer to me (a diverse composer with work still being discovered decades after completion) and has blues  charm and a gusto all of its own. Schubert on the piano was a highlight the quirky scales and stunning timbres of the composer always stood out and left me wanting more. Chopin I’ll take or leave, but still played very well indeed. The youngest sister doing Frank Bridge was impressive even with some understood nervous energy. 

A showy take on Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 is bonkers, made famous by Tom and Jerry and the real crowd pleaser of the night. Sheku got to pick a more quirky piece for his cello and that of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (Allegro). His take on Welsh hymns also are met with acclaim, the family having proud Welsh roots. They came into their own in the marvellous riffing on a medley of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. These classics are played with joy and are inflected with some marvellous colours thanks to the combination of duo piano and strings. Even a surreal encore of Bob Marley only added to the pot of an evening that wont be forgotten in a bit. Come back when you can! 

Welsh Proms continues at St David’s Hall till 16 July 2022.   

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s new album Song is released 9 September 2022. 

WNO’s Migrations, a review by Eva Marloes

WNO Migrations The Mayflower WNO Chorus photo credit Craig Fuller
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

The new opera Migrations, developed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO), brings together disparates histories and issues to send an anti-racist message. The opera consists of six interlocking tableaux protesting racism, slavery, and violence to the natural world. These issues deserve to be told and dramatised, yet drama requires tension, emotions, and characters, which are wholly absent in this production.

Migrations is a pot pourri of protest banners without a trace of life. None of the librettists took the trouble to write a character with real emotions, pain and joy, hope and disappointment. Singers explain disparate histories and issues to the audience rather than tell a story. The message is right and timely, but an opera is not a protest march.

Migrations was conceived as part of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower in 1620. This shows little understanding of the Pilgrims, who are here presented erroneously as oppressed people escaping persecutions. In reality, they were theocratic colonisers with little tolerance for each other never mind anybody else. The choir as Pilgrims singing ‘Freedom’ sits awkwardly with the overall anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-slavery message.

There are only two tableaux that stand out. One is Flight, Death or Fog, the story of Pero Jones, enslaved to the Pinney family in Bristol. Aubrey Allicock’s Pero has an impressive presence on stage which confers dignity and gravitas. The other is This is the Life! set in 1968 and depicting two Indian doctors coming to Britain to ‘fill the NHS skills gap,’ as they tell the audience. The Indian classical music and flamboyant Bollywood dance manage to lift the spirits.

WNO Migrations This is the Life Natasha Agarwal Neera Jamal Andreas Jai Bollywood Ensemble photo credit Craig Fuller

Treaty Six by Sarah Woods depicts the plight of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in today’s Canada trying to stop a pipeline going through their land. The English Lesson features a group of refugees reflecting on who they were at home and their status as refugees in a new country. Eric Ngalle Charles’s Birds sees children as birds migrating and endangered by humans destroying the natural world. The music and the children’s singing lack the necessary sombre tone to convey the message.

On the whole, this mishmash is kept together competently by the singers, the always excellent choir, and orchestra conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren. The music too often resembles a second-rate musical, with the exception of the chorale and Jasdeep Singh Degun’s Indian classical music.

Review Mainly Village Halls Tour, Sinfonia Cymru by Ann Davies

Air on a String Quintet

Thinking back to a musical interlude at school – an “Ensemble at Assembly” was something to be reckoned with in the “Big Hall” at that time. Ancient tunes and solemn characters with frameless glasses prised onto long noses frequently moving as the notes went higher; earphone bun styled hair (before Princes Leia of “Star Wars”) withering looks from the Head Mistress as we, as pupils, were a captive audience and could not move.

Sinfonia Cymru erased that memory, as the brilliant graduates began their tour of Village and Community Halls entertaining with their free music concerts, giving of their own time performing in Mid Wales (String Quartet), the Valleys and South Wales (Flute, Clarinet, Oboe, Bassoon and Horn),  West Wales (Four Cellos) ending with concerts in North West Wales (Harp Flute and Cello). Sinfonia Cymru are the UK’s leading professional under thirty orchestra. Their concerts are around 50 minutes with a mix of music with something for everyone

In the middle of May it was the turn of the Valleys area of South Wales and their first visit to the only remaining Miners Welfare and Institute in the Rhondda Fach, namely Tylorstown Welfare Hall. It was an informal musical intermission with Sinfonia Cymru, represented by five talented graduates namely

Epsie Thompson     (Flute)

Emily Wilson           (Clarinet)

Polly Bartlett           (Oboe)

Emma Westley       (Bassoon)

Alex Willett              (Horn)

A Wind Quintet of gifted flair accompanied by the richness of their musical instruments played with distinction.

The acoustics of the Welfare Hall enlivened the rumbling Sea Shanties which set feet tapping along to the rhythm of such as “What Shall we do with a Drunken Sailor?” Dedications to various composers including Malcolm Arnold. A musical “race” staged between each performer as they rushed to win the accolade of finishing all together. The classics were there with Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker” alongside “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” which had the audience humming along in unison, helping to produce a honey of a rendition. Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting inspired musicality with the finale being a mix of Latin American and Jazz originated from the composer Bizet’s opera “Carmen”

It was a musical journey on a tide of chilled relaxed memories.

Afterwards there was an opportunity to talk with the members of the String Quintet, and their Chief Executive Officer Peter Bellingham.

If you get the opportunity when Sinfonia Cymru are on tour – catch up with them and enjoy their creativity and versatility.

From their website enjoy

AR HYD Y NOS   All through the Night

As recorded/videoed at Rhosygilwen Cilgerran Pembrokeshire earlier this year.

On Thursday, 30 June Sinfonia Cymru will be performing at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff from 7.30 pm

On Friday, 1 July Sinfonia Cymru will be at Pontio in Bangor from 7.30 pm

Both performances are a collaboration with celebrated artist, poet, and singer Casi Wyn inspired by Welsh culture, history, people, and landscape.

(Water Land Air)

Dŵr     Tir       Aer

For further information

Review George Fu/MIIN-BODY TO BODY St Martin in the Fields/The Place by James Ellis

Photo credit: Kim Wolf 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) George Fu 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) MIIN-BODY TO BODY

In the ever brilliant concerts at St Martin in the Field, pianist George Fu gave a dizzying recital leaving a huge impact on the afternoon audience. His love for Chopin leaked over the entire programme, with Mazurkas, a Ballade and even an encore from the Polish composer. My thoughts on Chopin won’t appease conventional tastes, especially in the standard repertoire, Fu brought out some really insightful moments in these classics. Both familiar and friendly, Chopin does have a far reaching appeal, his canon forever having an influence on the piano. It’s curious to hear how simple the music sounds, yet Fu is constantly in flux, awash in a musical feat of reverence. 

Caroline Shaw and her piece Gustave le Gray, is inspired by the artist and has a lot of weight to it. A perfect companion to the Chopin. Revealing a lot of the trappings of romanticism, the piece utilised a liberal use of the dampener pedal and had a passionate use of fingering. It did outstay it’s welcome, though this held up as a fine discovery. My reason for attending was the finale of the late Frederic Rzewski and highlights from his North American Ballads. Down by the Riverside is an endlessly charming and touching plea for peace, an old spiritual. This holds up as a fine example of Rzewski’s skewered use of original pieces and transforms them to something spectacular. This reaches it’s zenith in the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, a devastating depiction of it’s location, the mechanised patterns of the machines executed as forearms bashing on the keys. The amount of tone clusters in this is eye watering and a revelation, the look on some of the shocked audience and school children present was highly amusing. Fu shines in this music which leaves no prisoners. Keep a close eye on this one.   

A Festival of Korean Dance has graced The Place for the past week. Some really enticing work has been done and I was lucky to see Collective A/Cha Jinyeob and their MIIN-BODY TO BODY. There was a lot to unpack in this show, how women are expected to be and behave in South Korea proves a conservatism we might not be able to grasp in the West. A male dancer dominates the space as beginners, slowly falls and writhed around in the circle of sand. The female dancers show a lot of vulnerability here, sharing more than expected, the amount of leg spreading in the show proved liberating, due to the demands of their culture expecting the opposite, as explained in the post show discussion. A monologue about cuckoos and the lack of interest in having a baby proved very telling. 

These slight bodies stack on top one another, they form and separate. Video work and lighting are a very nice touch, the sand proving powerfully versatile with lights cast upon it. They want to challenge gender roles, something which is under post-mortem in many cultures presently. Yet, the most moving part came with a beautiful duet between both male and female, with the former carrying off with great ease the latter at the conclusion. Some other movement would evoke a cat walk, dancing in a nightclub and the violent swishing of long hair. “Miin” refers to an attractive person in Korean and this remains the prominent element of the show. These are artists who are tired of objectification and sexism. The post show talk would ask how if the show is in fact about feminism, the dancers also being translated into English as the discussion grew. This was a strange hour but it did have some touching and intense highlights. 

MIIN-BODY TO BODY continues at The Place till 25 June 2022. 

Review Violet, Music Theatre Wales/Britten Pears Arts at the Sherman Theatre by Ellie Nichols

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

If the objective of art and performance is to encourage the observer to ask questions of both the piece and of themselves, then this production certainly does that. ‘Violet’ the new contemporary opera from Music Theatre Wales with music by composer Tom Coult and libretto by Alice Birch is both thought provoking and arresting.

Set largely in one room in a seemingly affluent household within a small village, the opera explores the concept of losing practical time daily and the impact this has on an individual and a society. The undeniable vocal talents of Anna Dennis as the main protagonist, Violet and her, at best fractious at worst toxic, relationship with husband Felix played by Richard Burkhard make for bitter exchanges fuelled by vitriol and spent passion. The libretto uses blunt truths and humour to articulate the harsh realities of a broken marriage, underscored by tones of misogyny and coercive control. The characters are not likeable and the musical score, performed brilliantly by the London Sinfonia orchestra echoes this jarring, uncomfortable feeling for the observer.

The vocal range of all the performers is incredible. Violet’s calm acceptance while those around her crumbled was portrayed by Anna Dennis with a serenity and almost childlike absence of concern that would have been welcomed by me as a viewer. The juxtaposition of Dennis’ piercing soprano and Richard Burkhard’s baritone was palpable and the shift in the balance of their relationship demonstrated to great effect through the peaks and troughs in tone and pace of the accompanying score. Frances Gregory as Laura the maid brings an understated yet powerful presence to the mix and Andrew MacKenzie Wicks as the clockeeper has an ominous presence throughout the performance, and acts as a reminder of the inevitability of time passing whether we want it to or not.  The music takes the audience on a journey through a range of sounds both familiar in the ticking of a clock and at times challenging and uncomfortable. What felt like a cacophony of sound at times, perhaps representing the confusion and uncertainty felt by the characters in their increasingly desperate situation, ultimately left me a little overwhelmed which may have been its intension.

Rose Elnile’s staging was minimal but effective and the mix of old and new meant that the action could have taken place years ago or yesterday, bringing the unnerving concept of the opera closer to home. The animated backdrop representing the outside world transforming from idyllic summer sky to a dystopian nuclear cloud with floating dandelion clocks was an interesting addition that prompts a conversation about climate change and taking notice of what is going on around us. The twist at the end of the performance, no spoilers, didn’t work for me as a viewer but it made for a discussion point that will divide opinion and interpretation.

Cécile Trémolières costume design was interestingly simple with Violet morphing from a ‘Baby Jane’ esque image at the beginning to something from the Famous Five at the end reflecting her development in confidence and independence. Violet’s costume was the only one with any real personality or individuality and this served to single her out as a dissenting voice among the masses.

Time as a construct and how we value or use it is subjective and divisive, I suspect this contemporary opera is likely to be the same. If you are new to the genre of opera as I am, this is certainly an interesting baptism. I’m still not sure if I liked it, but I was talking about it when I got home and that has to mean something. 

Review Violet, Music Theatre Wales, Sherman Theatre by Peter Gaskell

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Contemporary opera may be an unfamiliar genre to many, even fans of musical theatre, and this was not in the background of Tom Coult or Alice Birch before they collaborated to compose and write ‘Violet’. Opera traditionally is not sung in English and is set in specific times and places as the protagonists, often lovers, work out their fate, usually tragic, as they struggle against the prevailing social and political conventions. ‘Violet’ is not a story of love seeking to prevail in spite of contrary circumstances, like Tristan and Isolde, La Boheme, Tosca or Madame Butterfly but more Nabucco, of emancipation from constraints to freedom, and lovelessness.

Co-Produced by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears, the premise of ‘Violet’ is bold and imaginative in the same way as Nick Payne’s ‘Constellations’ was when it broke new ground at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, exploring questions about time, free will, choice and death. It is of time disappearing an hour per day over 24, disrupting the balance of nature and the orderly life. Set in an indeterminate historical period and place, the story relates the effect of famine, drought and human misery on the personal lives of the characters, the fourth of whom is the clock-keeper (Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks) whose chief function is to manage the display on the clock-tower stage-right showing the passage of time and the diminishing hours.

The dramatic narrative is set around the centre-stage dining table of a well-to-do couple, Violet (Anna Dennis) married to the controlling Felix (Richard Burkhard), supported by their maid Laura (Frances Gregory). Violet and Felix sit at opposite ends ( reminiscent of the distance Putin keeps from visiting world leaders) while Felix and the clock-keeper sit adjacent to each other for their conversation about stopping the disappearance of time, indicating Felix is more concerned with worldly affairs than any intimacy with his wife. The costumes designed by Cécile Trémolières support the narrative and character arcs, the static male characters remain in puritanical black while Violet’s attire changes to show more colour and variety as she comes to assert herself more, seeing hope and opportunity with the disappearance of the hours that she hadn’t before. To reinforce the lack of reference to specific time and place, Laura initially wears a maid’s bonnet suggesting this is provincial 17th century era but then the men don Elizabethan ruffs, and Violet kneads bread on the table between plastic milk cartons and supermarket cereal packets.

The backcloth shows a skyscape that changes as the hours disappear, from blue with white clouds to garish orange, purple and black intimating the arrival of catastrophe. As we hear how orderly life is breaking down, so too the props are thrown about, aided by Laura who finally smashes the table after a tree suspended above dropping lower every day is left fallen across the domestic wreckage. The staging by director Jude Christian and designer Rosie Elnile is riveting in its focus to assist the narrative, with visual text beneath the stage in Welsh and English as helpful assistance. A particularly effective piece of staging was the last occasion we saw the clock-keeper, up on his tower lamenting the end of time, lit from behind to show on the backdrop as if he was a hanged man. In view of Felix’ fate, this was a brilliant touch.

Moments in the Alice Birch’s libretto narrative I particularly liked were the conversation between Felix and the clock-keeper, when Felix wants an explanation and insists the clock-keeper should give him one, which he can’t. The clock’s mechanisms are working fine but still an hour gets lost every day. This refers me again the premise of ‘Constellations’ where contradictory happenings can coexist across multiverses. The most magical moment was when Violet pulls a length of flax seemingly from the hidden edge of the long table that was centrepiece just before like everything else it was wrecked by the entropy of time. Suggesting reference to Macbeth, she wraps it around her husband’s neck as she prepares him for a dreamless sleep before he is found hanging from the clock tower, “sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life”. Indeed this story resonates strongly with the violation of nature Shakespeare portrays in his Scottish play. Excellent allusion.

There was a hole or two in the plot though e.g. on Day 4, as the town clock jumps 7 hours from midnight, and we learn that the lost time is daylight hours. Then when light is extinguished finally and Violet has her boat ready to escape with Laura who is afraid of drowning, we understand there are no news reports from the wider world about what has happened yet Violet assures Laura that many boats have crossed the sea over the horizon without sinking.

This brings me to the disappointment I felt about the outcome. Seeing no more of Violet whom with Laura we assume has been liberated to find a new life at last, the bizarre denouement is relayed as an animated collage on the backdrop, including the announcement a baby was born in January. Is this to Violet, yet how and by whom? A series of numbers is flashed up which I took to refer to quiz teams as we watch a quiz show where a contestant has to give 10 answers about the side effects of sarin, else calamity will ensue as images of warfare increasingly dominate the screen. The final quiz question is shocking. Why would a man use a gun? Answer – to shoot his children in the face. This is a nihilistic message with no apparent redemption for anyone. Unlike Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, also desperate, terrifying and dark but which is ultimately triumphant in the face of impossible horrors, ‘Violet’ fails to leave us with optimism about surviving catastrophe.

The narrative tension is supported consistently throughout by Tom Coult’s score, uncomfortably atonal, performed by the singers who must be credited for the hours of work they must have done to mesh their voices with the dissonant orchestration of the London Sinfonietta conducted by Andrew Gourlay, woodwind and brass very much at the fore punctuating the vocal exposition of the story, though with chimes and the ticking of clocks providing atmosphere and variety with some electronics. Anna Dennis is especially impressive in the title role as she hits her notes with astonishing precision. But for those who dislike the artificiality of musical theatre where dialogue can seem forced and contrived, they may not be impressed by such torturous delivery. While giving credit to the singers for maintaining their difficult lines over 90 minutes of a story about the disappearance of time, it may seem ironic how slowly the pace of the drama passed. With little obvious harmonic contrast,‘Violet’ seemed dissonant from start to finish, with no let up of the strident tension as an orderly world disintegrates. Comparing dissonance to being pepper, Prokofiev said no one wants to listen to music that’s all pepper. While after 4 hours of dissonance, the groundbreaking score of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde finally resolves with consonance, ‘Violet’ does not.

In summary then, ‘Violet’ as concept with narrative potential is intriguingly bold even if the denouement is finally disappointing, its staging was marvellous, and its performances commendable. Its shrewd avoidance of specificity as to time or place lends it the opportunity for long-term appearance in the canon of opera.

Review Violet Music Theatre Wales, Sherman Theatre by Gwyneth Stroud.

All credits Marc Brenner

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

What happens when time runs out?  Panic, terror, fatalism?  Or resignation and even hope that a new beginning will bring better things?

After two years when many of us have felt the sorrow of lost time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and ironically why this production has been delayed until now, Violet is both a timely and poignant reflection on the meaning of time and the feelings that it engenders. 

The work centres around three main characters – Violet (Anna Dennis), a depressed wife who hates the predictability of life in their town.  People rise, make bread and open their doors at exactly the same time each day. Nothing even changes, and Violet feels stultified by it.  Her husband, Felix (Richard Burkhard) exerts control over Violet, and is disturbed by the changes that he observes in his wife.  Their anxious housekeeper Laura (Frances Gregory) carries out her daily routine with an increasing sense of dread and terror. 

The action takes place around a table set with incongruous items of food and drink, a still life depicting an unspecified time and place. The characters’ dress does little to ground us either – Felix in modern dress, Laura in period clothing and Violet in an Alice in Wonderland-type outfit, complete with pigtails and bows. Violet is the first to notice that time is – literally – running out. The town loses one hour a day, and this process does not stop until there is no time left.  There are no hours left in the day. Felix and Laura collapse into panic and terror, witnessing the destruction of life around them, but depressed Violet is enlivened by events, sensing that a new beginning might just be possible. And at least something different is happening.

Co-produced by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears and directed by Jude Christian, it’s a short piece, running to just 85 minutes,.  As such, every word and note must earn its place, there is no room for any superfluous material.  Alice Birch uses language to great effect here and, coupled with Tom Coult’s haunting and poignant score, the overall effect is of a precarious balancing act between fear and a tiny amount of hope.  The soprano of Anna Dennis perfectly captures single words (“Yes”, “No”, “Time”) with alarming disquiet. Richard Burkhard provides a few moments of levity through his well-placed dialogue and voice. Frances Gregory and Andrew MacKenzie Wicks give assured performances as the housekeeper and the clock keeper.

Mention must be made of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Andrew Gourlay. The 14 players execute the terse score beautifully, and the dexterity of the percussionist in particular, who handles an array of instruments with great aplomb, moving his score around with him, is to be admired.  Together with additional electronic sound effects, the sense of time running out is always palpable and very real.

What to make of the ending?  Is this a new world, with no humans left?  Whatever is happening in this place, time remains central.  But it is now marked by a digital clock, and the opera ends with the display ticking round to just after midnight.  So is there hope …. after all?

REVIEW Violet, Music Theatre Wales by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Time is one of humanity’s most enduring enigmas; it can be counted in eras and in seconds, it can seem endless or scarce, and however long you live, there’s never enough of it. These are some of the key tensions within Violet, a contemporary opera which is sung through in English and co-produced by Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears. Composed by Tom Coult and written by Alice Birch, the story takes place in a town where nothing changes until, one day, everything does: one hour disappears on day one, two on day two, and on and on – but while the world seems to be ending around her, Violet’s is just beginning.

Richard Burkhard, Frances Gregory and Anna Dennis in Violet (image credit: Marc Brenner)

Directed by Jude Christian, Violet is an exhibition of artistry, from Rosie Elnile’s gorgeous set, which looks like a minimalist Renaissance painting, to Cécile Trémolières’ lush costumes, which play with both austerity and freedom through fabric. The temporal distortion at the story’s heart bleeds through to everything on the stage, which anachronistically mixes period clothing with modern props, framed by an animated backdrop of dandelion seeds swirling like grains of sand in an hourglass.

Anna Dennis in Violet (image credit: Marc Brenner)

The operatic quartet at its heart are equally impressive. Anna Dennis viscerally captures Violet’s growing sense of self and power (her name even seems to anticipate ‘violent ends’) while Richard Burkhard and Frances Gregory (as Violet’s husband and maid, respectively) convey their characters’ descent into despair. At the start of each scene, Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks’ keeper goes to the clock tower, changing it to show the days left and the hours lost. The tower is built to mimic a guillotine; along with a branch and a bell, it is one of three ‘swords’ of Damocles which hang ominously above the characters, as if to fall at any moment.

Richard Burkhard and Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks in Violet (image credit: Marc Brenner)

Thematically and visually, then, it’s close to perfection – but, for some reason, I didn’t quite connect with it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never seen a ‘contemporary opera’ before, despite how exceptional the singers are, how authentic Coult’s score is or how vivid it sounds in the hands of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Andrew Gourlay. If you’re immersed in the worlds of opera or experimental theatre, you couldn’t ask for better – but, like the twenty-first century laptop on the sixteenth-century table, I felt emotionally ‘displaced’ by the show, unable to ever fully tune into its frequency.

Frances Gregory in Violet (image credit: Marc Brenner)

My reservations are encapsulated in its ending: an unsettling animated sequence which is sure to divide audiences. It’s certainly divided me: on the one hand, I can appreciate how it underscores the themes of time doubling in on itself, of repetition and stagnancy. On the other, it shatters the strange magic of the first eighty minutes, and any sense of ‘hope’ along with it.

Richard Burkhard in Violet (image credit: Marc Brenner)

Violet premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in Snape Maltings, Suffolk, earlier this month and it’s easy to see why it’s had such an impact on audiences. I was caught up in its artistry and intrigue, and it’s made me want to explore the world of opera, modern and otherwise, all the more. Dynamic and affecting, what Violet conveys most effectively is that the end of the world might not come in a planet-shattering catastrophe, but in a creeping sense of hopelessness and dread: not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with the ringing of a bell.

Violet is touring across the UK through July, with upcoming performances in London, Buxton and Mold

Review by
Barbara Hughes-Moore

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Review Violet, Music Theatre Wales, Sherman Theatre by Rhys Payne

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Traditionally, the genre of opera has been viewed as an art from for a high class of people. They are usually expressed as one of the classical languages with superfluous drama and extremely ornate vocal trills. The venues they are hosted in were at one time the most extravagant stages with ticket prices being a reflection of the expensive atmosphere and often would out price people from visiting more.

I have to admit that my own personal journey with this genre did get off to a fairly rocky start. When I was a lot younger, I attended a showcase in a local music and drama college where the students showed off their talents entirely in the language of Latin. Not being able to understand the lyrics and the extravagance wasn’t something, at the time, that young me personally enjoyed. It was only in later life when I was older that the true spectrum of this art form was realised for me and I could see that opera can in fact be accessible to the everyday person! In its most general definition opera is simply a production that contains no dialogue and so every moment of communication is expressed through music/song. While it’s important that we respect the heritage of this prestigious art form, we also need to make sure that the next generation are interested in opera otherwise it will quickly die out.

Violet is a brand new opera staged by Music Theatre Wales at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff it aims to destigmatise opera by making it truly relatable and accessible to the majority of people. The majority of this show is set within the confines of a standard village and specifically within a family’s kitchen. Within this home, we meet a four key characters who entertain, serve and communicate with one another as any normal network of people would do. Having the show set mostly in one single location not only makes the show easier to stage from a production standpoint but also means that people do not have to suspend their disbelief during the transitions to and from scenes which from experience can really take an audience out of the universe the team have worked so hard to create. I personally found myself being dragged into the narrative of the play with every passing moment creating tension, as if I too was coming closer and closer to the end of time.

The focus of an audience-friendly show, I believe, has to come directly from the creative team working on this project and on the night I was lucky enough to attend an interview with some of them prior to the show. Before the show, itself started audience members were treated to an intimate event with the composer of the show Tom Coult who talked about the concept of the show and the process involved in getting this production to the Sherman stage. Tom and Michael McCarthy , Director of Music Theatre Wales stood at the front of the seating area of the auditorium where the former was asked a series of questions to help the audience become more familiar with the show, which was not only very interesting to learn about but also helped reduce the period of confusion that occurs at the beginning of any new show.

The premise of Violet is the idea that at the end of every day, an hour is accumulatively removed from the day. On day one there are only twenty-three hours in a day, day five only has nineteen, day twelve only has twelve hours and so on. This idea is clearly displayed throughout the production with the inclusion of an almost doomsday style clock situated to the side of the scenes within the play. The first character we meet is aptly called Violet who is played in this production by the wonderfully talented Anna Dennis. Violet starts the show in a severe state of depression and is the only person to notice the disappearing hours in the day. It is only towards the latter part of the story when Violet discovers a passion for making every moment count and decides to live life to its fullest. The character is portrayed by Anna is a rather unique way in the sense that she is almost child-like, very eccentric and sporadic throughout despite the impending end of time. The moment when the other villages discover the doomsday countdown, Violet is distracted by the bread she made and yearns for jam followed by a walk outside. Going into the show this was not how I expected the titular character to react but the clear influence of mental health and the trauma she has experienced helps to justify this at times unusual behaviour. The vocal aspect of this character was absolutely incredible with Anna delivering numerous delightful tunes throughout and showcasing her musical range with some ridiculous impressive notes being vocalised flawlessly. Due to the vocal requirements of opera, this character was forced to contort her mouth in such ways to be in order to deliver to more complex sections of the music which actually made sense with the character herself which I personally thought was fantastic! What was also very clever about the actual writing of the sung parts was that it too was also very accessible to audience with language that was simultaneously simple to understand yet said everything you possibly needed to know. This is clearly a strength of the writer Alice Birch as she is able to say very little in her scripts but at the same time say everything which is not an easy idea to comprehend never mind create!

With the domestic setting, Violet is joined by her housemaid called Laura, played by the amazing Frances Gregory, who acts as an almost mother figure to young Violet. The early stages of the production she, Laura is visibly distraught by the impending end of the world as she tremors, stumbles and struggles to carry out common maid-based tasks which was performed excellently by France without these moments appearing forced or unauthentic. The inclusion of a maid-like character is a clever way for the production team to introduce an almost stage hand who is able to clear the scenes as they progress without the need for new faces to grace the stage which can again shatter the illusion the team are aiming to create. Violet is joined in her home by her husband Felix who is played by the incredible Richard Burkhard who also showcases his wonderful opera abilities. A personal highlight of this character was during a section between Felix and the clock keeper (played by Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks) where the former is begging the later to reset the time which is impossible. The character invites his friend over for tea but as the evening progress, the character becomes more and more desperate with his pleading will still maintaining his hosting persona. The two voices worked beautifully together while the careful choreography helped to balance the complexity of character reactions to the end of time.  The clockmaker also delivered a wonderfully intense performance towards the end of the production where he literally stood on top of the contraption he had been in control of (for what I assume is many, many years) as the final hour of time trickled away. This performance was wonderfully throughout with the earlier section being particular captivating as the character simply sang the words “time” repetitively but every time the audience could easily understand the emotions behind each different utterance. I do think this however at the end of this number needed a dramatic moment to help round of the show and stay inside this wickedly dark moment.

The ending of the show was intentionally very open, as Tom discussed his fondness of the audience interpreting the show in their own unique ways which explains why the narrative almost suddenly ended with no complete, definitive end from a creative standpoint. The actual end of the show was marked with a rather unusual cartoon that showed the audience a game show like tv show as another clock ticked away closer to twelve which was eventually skipped to one in the morning.

Overall, this production was a modern opera that aims to destigmatise the genre of opera and create a much more accessible medium that can only benefit the longevity of this genre. It must be the musical theatre child in my psyche that is infatuated any time I am in close proximity to a fully-fledged orchestra and the team from London Sinfonietta did not disappoint! The music was powerfully moving and atmospheric throughout to help add to the drama created by the actors on stage which is the main purpose of any orchestra! The story itself was extremely open leading to a multitude of multiple endings created by each audience member. I would rate this show 4 out of 5 stars!

Review Theo Bleckmann & Dan Tepfer Livestream Youtube by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It looks like livestreams have not entirely left us. Though when one is as good as this, I shouldn’t moan. Theo Bleckmann is familiar to me with his extensive collaboration with Meredith Monk, though a Grammy winner, his jazz career should also be recognised.

In this midweek livestream, Theo along with Dan Tepfer on piano gave a warm, welcoming recital of Weimar songs, later German work and his own creations. The names of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht need little introduction, their cabaret numbers some of the best in the canon. Theo, with his perfect German, offered up rowdy numbers, tinged with a sharp irony and camp sensuality. As a singer, he is light and bright, though has a rounded lower range, perfect for these songs. The Alabama Song from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany may be best known for The Doors’ cover, yet here it is brought back in a stripped down shot. You can feel the clamour of this drinking song, one that really gets in your head.

As accompanist, Dan Tepfer is everything a singer could want for. An deeply rooted understanding of the music, he displays an easy going, quiet persona, broody and subtle on screen. Unafraid to grapple with the score, his animation makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Dan was more than happy to answer questions from the livestream, pressing some of these onto Theo in an informal way to please this attentive audience at home. The highlight for me came in the middle with Hanns Eisler’s Friedenslied (also written by Brecht), an unashamedly melodic and sincere please for peace written in the composer’s time in East Germany. Well needed in this difficult year. A lovely moment came when they were both making sure they were in the right key before a song (turns out it was E flat), due to the jazz modulation changing that aspect of the song.

Theo’s own songs are a new discovery for me. You could easily compare his to Meredith’s work, though there is a telling sense of the lyric and the musical per se. Singing both Easy and Reason, they both demonstrated his talent in both approachable and experimental bands, one minute crooning, the next grunting and guttural. The amazing, free wheeling quality of Reason ended things with aplomb. Theo promised to do the classic Useless Landscape next time and his own Alphabet of Paints. Tantalising stuff!

Theo Bleckmann & Dan Tepfer perform at the Neue Galerie, New York on Thur 26 May 2022.