Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Barbican Centre by James Ellis 

Photo credits: Mark Allan/Barbican
 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

A rare visit from the Munich Opera orchestra would be a treat for London based audiences. I missed them the night prior, a selection of Victoria Poleva, Berg and Richard Strauss seemed promising.

In a very Germanic second evening, Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde is total romance. Many speculate it’s sex set to music, the passion of the Celtic story cannot be deined. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski swooned his way through, the buttery fluidity highly sensual. This is easy Wagner to access, the famously coined bleeding chunks. As an opener it was very fine.

For Schumann’s Piano Concerto, we saw Yefin Bronfman as soloists. I do find this piece apprachable and easy fair, Yefin had restraint in many ways. Wagner absolutely quoted at least one melody here for his Flying Dutchman. As a concerto the piano gets many flights and retrospection, Schumann’s lovely sence of dynamics are ever present. There is also the feeling of the promise what the piano concerto will become, there’s not really violence here nor harshness. Yefin faired well, but I wasnt wowed. An encore of Chopin pleased most.

I’m hearing Mahler’s 4th a few times this years, the LSO in Bath last. Here, in what is not my favourite of his lies a symphony filled with sleigh bells, sweet melodies, moments of pain and a soprano singing as a child in heaven. A bizarre brew, which does not always hold up for its hour demands. Yet when right, it sparked and transformed, Jurowski proving his fine maestro sway over the mass of players. The boyserious, Austrian air I think about in Mahler is in this, though is done better in past symphonic work. Louise Alder for the saccharin finale also added to proceedings. Her voice matched the tone well, the delight of the child in heaven playing and seeing the saints going about their jobs told through the vivid verse.

A final gift of Bach’s Air on a G String wrapped up well. 

Review, The Threepenny Opera, OVO, The Cockpit Theatre, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A rare treat from OVO in London with The Threepenny Opera. Most well know for the hit song Mack the Knife, the show’s titular anti-hero, this remained a delight. From the mostly young cast was brought new life to this peculiar show. High res jackets and made up mannequins are the home stay of the production, directed by Adam Nichols and Julia Mintzer.

Kurt Weil excelled as caberat songs, symphonies and film score. This is some of his best work here, the bouncing, acidic metres and remaining tunefulness are total highlights. Story wise, Bertold Brecht was never one to turn down a sort of fable lecture in most of his work. Mack the Knife is one of London’s most infamous criminals, falls in love with Polly and gets his commpuence…or does he?

My plus one was confused over the meaning and the ending’s choice. I always see it as Brecht’s cutting look at society and the systems we engage in as flawed, corrupted and horrible. This was Peaky Blinders for the Weimar period. Much respect to the springy, witty ensemble. This is such a Cockney piece and the accents felt genuine (this London after all) and the leads impressed. Peter Watss as Mack, bringing out all the stops for the scary, yet loveable thug. It was nicely performed and should see him in the role agian.

Polly was a delight from Emily Panes, musically well suited to caberat. The role does not have a lot to do, but when she engages with Mack and warding off his other lady friends things take flight. Mark Carlisle adds mad inventor vibes and Jonathan Peacham, engaged with money making schemes with homeless people. The delivery was telling and his timing well paced. Annette Yeo as as Celia Peccham in an amuzing costume and shrill theatrics is another enjoyable flutter.

The ensemble acted, sang and played the instruments and well done them. Czech conductor Lada Valešová added a serious, if still fun tone to proceedings. Her sometimes engaging with the action was dry, these little moments helped break down the show, being in the round, in English translation and by a group who didn’t focus on making a very showy show.

It runs till 7th Oct 2023. More information here

La Traviata – a review by Eva Marloes

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera

 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

In the past week, the documentary In Plain Sight, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Sunday Times, has alleged that comedian turned wellness guru Russell Brand is responsible for exploitative treatment of women, including rape and sexual assault. Just like when the #MeToo  movement emerged, many have questioned the women speaking out. Women are still exploited by powerful men and their sexuality is still policed.

La Traviata couldn’t be more topical. Verdi’s opera was shocking in depicting and taking the side of a ‘fallen woman’, what today might be an escort. Alas, the unimaginative direction, originally by Sir David McVicar, here by Sarah Crisp, makes it look preposterous and bizarre.

Violetta, a courtesan, meets Alfredo at a lavish party. She decides to leave that life and live with Alfredo supporting their life together financially. Unbeknown to Alfredo, his father asks Violetta to leave his son to protect his and his family’s reputation. 

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta and Mark S Ross as Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera

Violetta leaves Alfredo who feels spurned and acts his revenge by throwing money at her in public to repay her. Verdi thinks she has a dignity and should be respected.

It is none other than Alfredo’s father who defends her and condemns his own son for disrespecting her. Yet, only at the very end Alfredo learns that Violetta sacrificed their love and life together for his reputation. He comes back to see her dying. 

La Traviata could still be a powerful story if set in today’s times, just as James Macdonald’s clever production of Rigoletto did by setting it in Washington DC in the #MeToo era. 

The WNO’s traditional setting fails to convey Verdi’s intention. The choice of a very dark set design, presumably to symbolise impending doom, has a jarring effect on the opening scene whose frivolity and joviality are dampened. It weakens the unfolding of the tragedy and frustrates the solid performances of the artists. 

David Junghoon Kim shines as Alfredo, just as he did as the Duke in Rigoletto. He is at home with Verdi and gives a performance full of pathos. His beautiful tonality and powerful voice deliver longing and sorrow effectively. Stacey Alleaume as Violetta has a splendid coloratura. She’s at ease on high notes and bel canto. In the ‘croce e delizia’ duet with Alfredo in Act I, she seemed often overpowered by David Junghoon Kim when singing at a lower range. She is stronger in the second act with Mark S Ross, playing Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, and the final dying scene. Mark S Ross has a beautiful baritone voice. He gives an excellent performance.

The WNO’s chorus is strong as ever. The orchestra, under the baton of Alexander Joel, gives a solid, albeit uninspiring, performance.

David Junghoon Kim and Stacey Alleaume in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera.

Review, Chouchane Siranssian, Leonardo Garcia Alacón & Balás Máté, Wigmore Hall by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A return to London, making an effort to go and see something before even going to my host. In this marvellous afternoon concert we heard from JS Bach and other varying delights.

This was really an opportunity to show off Chouchane Siranssian on the violin. I loved the effort of a sensual Leonardo Garcia Alacón on harpsichord and Balás Máté giving patience and nice drone work as supporting cello. The Bach works: the Violin Sonata in G and Adagio from Violin Sonata in C minor had that had real compassion, Siranssian seems to soar in this repertoire. Amazing to think how much the repertoire has changed, yet Bach was such a game change in his own right. Complexity met beauty in what we should expect from Bach, the passion of these players was a highlight.

Though the Bach got the audience in, a delight from Carlo Farina and his Sonata quinta detta ‘La Farina’. Of note is it’s strange momentum, seemingly slow then without warning pushes forward with swift rhythms. I hadn’t heard anything like, certainly not from the era of the composer (1604-1639). More discoveries like this make you realise just how much innovation there was over the centuries.

A short fire trip followed with Johan Jakob Walther’s Passacaglia from Sonata No. 7, Krikor Naregatsi with his Improvisation on Havun Havun and Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Sonata in D minor. Siranssian shone once again here with one part of high pitched squeals from her violin, her accompanists also getting fine musical moments. Bleeding well into each other this choice of three works was fine, its was all very touching and highly sweeping. The broad steps of musical style and expression never waned.

Ending with Andrea’s Anton Schmelzer and his Violin Sonata ‘Victori derby Christen’ prove more brilliance from this trio, this hour with them a joy. Siranssian I assume read out the name of movements in German as the piece went on, its approachable nature made for easy listening. We’d love to have them back soon. 

WNO’s Ainadamar – a review by Eva Marloes

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Ainadamar is an homage to poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed by the fascist falangists during the Spanish civil war in 1936. It is told through a series of tableaux where actress Margarita Xirgu, Lorca’s muse, reminisces with her student Nuria of the time she met Lorca, her attempt at persuading him to leave Spain, and his execution.

Ainadamar, which in Arabic means fountain of tears, is one of the early works of eclectic composer Osvaldo Golijov, who excels at weaving together folk, pop, and classical music in harmonious balance. Here, Golijov brings together flamenco’s cante jondo (deep song), electronic sounds, mournful ballads, and classical opera references. His musical complexity is refined but overly dominated by longing and anguish.

The astounding performances of Jaquelina Livieri as Xirgu, Hanna Hipp as Lorca, and Julieth Lozano Rolong as Nuria, make for intense moments of longing, hope, and loss. The imaginative light design and direction keep the audience engaged countering a too simple narrative with no emotional arc.

Hanna Hipp as Federico Garcia Lorca, photo credit Johan Persson

Ainadamar opens with Margarita Xirgu (Jacquelina Livieri) preparing to go on stage as Mariana Pineda, the 19th century liberal martyr subject of Lorca’s play. She tells her student, Nuria (Julieth Lozano Rolong) of meeting Lorca in a bar in Madrid. The scene shifts from a light-hearted rumba to a nostalgic duet. Jaquelina Livieri’s agile and rich voice make Margarita spell-binding. Mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp, as Lorca, has power and stage-presence, yet tender in her duet with Livieri.

The memory of Havana is broken by the harsh radio broadcast of fascist Falangist Ruiz Alonso. Alfredo Tejada, as Alonso, conveys power and anguish as flamenco cantaor  counterbalancing Lorca’s flamenco cante jondo

Alfredo Tejada as Ruiz Alonso, photo credit Johan Persson

In another flashback, Margarita recounts her attempt at persuading Lorca to flee to Cuba. The nostalgic and dreamlike image of Havana, the route not taken, is a sensual and playful moment that gives way to grief. Lorca does not want to run away and chooses to be executed. 

The final tableau is in the diegetic present of 1969 when Margarita is dying in Uruguay recalling Pineda’s last words of freedom. She is joined by the ghost of Lorca. The scene fades out rather than reach a climax. The sense of loss and longing dominates Ainadamar from beginning to end. There is intensity but no drama. 

Photo credit Johan Persson

Review Royal Welsh College Symphony Orchestra, Rivers of Life, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan

An evening of water as the life blood of the city and the world from the Royal Welsh College, Sympony Orchestra in a lovely programme. First was Elizabeth Maconchy and her Coronation Overture: Proud Thames, with mood of Walton and other English composers was heard anew here. It had that easily percecbale sound you get from over the border, it was full of chest puffing brass and percussion. Quite lovely really.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris Suite is a delightful venture, evoking the imagery of Gene Kelly and the extravagant ballet sequence from the classic film. Jazzy and brilliant, we get tuned car horns, ear worm after ear worm and a never ending passion for this fusion of great music. Staggering how much of this would go on to impact upon later musicals. It’s the American thrill of the whole thing, conductor David Jones drinking it in, sharing the fun with the students.

Vltava by Smetana flowed through, another glorious and popular choice. It never loses its appeal, the fine orchestration and melody making brings smiles all round. The rhythmic whirling of the notes easily evokes water and the brass bring larger scenes to life. The wedding and other tableaux are also noteworthy, the strings shine here, not to mention the opening. Wrapping up with Respighi’s Pines of Rome remained a vivid panorama of the city through time. The horn solo, the enthralling opening, the recorded nightingale audio and the powerful Roman legion finale, appear unforgettable. More of Respighi should be known, though this piece gets a lot of love.

Review, Prom 50, Samsung, Academy of Ancient Music, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

Photo credit: Sisi Burn

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It would be my last pop at The Proms this year that might just be my highlight of the trip. The Academy of Ancient Music, Philharmonia Chorus with conductor Laurence Cummings wowed with this years take on Handel. The German composers times in London proved fruitful and even today the city appears to adore his work. Samson is an oratorio, quite static in nature, not an opera and most of the main events of this biblical story happen off stage. Of course, the joy with Handel comes with sincere and exquisite arias, music which has held up very well over the centuries to a very height standard.

A fine cast of singers stand out here. As the strongman lead, Allan Clayton is Samsong who waves in and out of the music, his rich timbre always on display and his operatic presence never waning. As Delila, the downfall of Samsung, Jacquelyn Stucker is seen very little for these two and a half hours. Though her subtle vocals might not have command the great hall there was joy in her aria or two, her actions changing the story forever. Joélle Harvey as the Israelite Woman was clear and refined, her famous ending piece Let the bright Seraphim (with galloping trumpet) the crowing achievement of this fairly drab and solemn story. 

Photo credit: Sisi Burn

Wagner stalwart Brindley Sherratt is Harapha, adding conflict and further drama, his voice smooth and a fine baritone to hear here. Jess Dandy in the fictions (a creation of John Milton, not from biblical sources) holds the piece up with a fine contralto, her time on stage extensive, her music affirmed. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu as Manoa, Samson’s father, added pathos to the final act as fate is settled. Lemalu suprisee with another golden voice, the varied male roles getting lots of opportunities to glow. Will Pate as a Messenger was brief, though in fine footing.

Some arias are highlight, the Dead March featuring the flutes and the choral numbers were touching. You’ve got to like your arias, otherwise you will struggle with a thing like this. Cummings both maestro and on one of two harpsichord had so much energy it was staggering. It all glided along smoothly, perhaps just the odd moments which left me unsure. I think the audience was taken with this work. We hope more Handel will follow. I imagine it will.

The BBC Proms are available to listen live on BBC 3 and after on BBC Sounds.

Review, Prom 49, LSO, Das Paradies und die Peri, Royal Albert Hall, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: Mark Allan

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

I’m still reeling after the Londin Sympony Orchestra and Simon Rattle doing Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie a few weeks back. As Rattle begins to leave the maestro role with them, it looked like The Proms might just be his last potential concert with them.

This is the first time the full work of Das Paradies und die Peri has been done at The Proms. Schumann’s not quite opera, not quite oratorio proved highly popular in its day, with tours around Europe and even going to New York. Based on Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, the Peri in question is semi immortal creature who strives to make it to heaven. Through three redemptive tries, a drop off blood, a sigh and a tear all fail her, expect the final attempt. Journey to India, Egypt and then Syria, this strange piece has surprisingly fallen off since the 20th century, its success something of the past.

This is an era of rampant orientalisation, Moore’s story a popular read at the time, mirroring Scheredzade in the story telling arch and locations. Its pacing is slow in all fairness, though the music is fairly touching, little is done to make the exotic stand out in the music, Schumann’s early German sound is rich and at times compelling. Each part is one of the Peri’s attempts to try and get into heaven for an three act structure. There appears an almost unifying scope where characters from both Islam and Christendom are referenced, as we venture through supernatural forces and the geography of the Orient. 

Photo credit: Mark Allan

There is decent music from Schumann here, though certainly, not his best. You get a flavour for his style, though nothing really stands out, the arias and chorus moments swells and sway throughout. Rattle loves this piece and you really feel this as his choice to make happen. His mastery over everyone on stage was noteworthy, his grey, curly mop proudly on display tonight. Lucy Crowe as the Peri offered stunning vocals for this strange role. The Angel was an equally strident Magdalena Kožená, the Narrator from Andrew Staples framed this odd story together, his tenor very firm and a lovely addition to the cast. In supporting roles, Jeanine De Bique, Floria Boesch and Linard Vrielink offered compelling and soaring vocals, their characters the defining aspect if the Peri goes to heaven or not.

LSO and its Chorus delivered well in what I imagine is a work they rarly take on. It proves how German music would progress, even if Peri is something we see much less of now. It’s a good piece, I just don’t think it needs constant revival.

The BBC Proms are available to listen live on BBC 3 and after on BBC Sounds

Review, BBC Proms, Les Siècles, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

Photo credit: Sisi Burn

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

There is much to be said about returning to how music used to be played. What is its purpose today? Should we look back at all? Will it keep getting audiences? In comes Les Siècles, best remembered for their Lully some ten years ago, now boasting a 20th birthday this year. The serious but playful maestro François-Xavier Roth keeps everyone in check, his little turn to acknowledge rampant coughers during a movement breaks was funny. He usually exudes confidence and gives lots to the players as well.

The genius of György Ligeti is front and centre for his centenary celebrations. The Proms have already honoured his usage in 2001: A Space Odyssey in concert, now parodied in this years billion dollar busting Barbie from Greta Gerwig. There could not be a better time to hear this most eccentric and outrageous of composers.

In its first ever Proms outing, his Concert Românesc from 1951, is a pristine find. Taking over from Bartók, this is the next level from Transylvania folk findings and new inventions along the way. It’s quite vanilla for most part in the first three movements, things seem to plod along nicely with flavourful songs and an all round infectous charm. Though the final movement, the peasants fiddle melody turns on its head as unusual tuning techniques have been applied here. The spooky last movement would have upset Soviet sensibilities and apparently had it banned for its rockstar quality. It still saw performances anyway, proving the pieces popularity.

Decades later, Ligeti wrote one of the more strange violin concertos imaginable. Isabelle Faust as our soloist really got into what feels like a highly difficult work. Broad new ways of playing meets overtones, ocarinas and swanee whistles in the woodwind and hushed cadenzas propel the Violin Concerto into a surreal realm of possibilities. Faust fiddles with a piercing, passionate flair, just trying to tackle this piece should be commended. The percussion was also note worthy with vibraphones, glockenspiel and little cymbals, some of the work being inspired by music from Papua New Guinea. Multiple listens would envelop the questions you find yourself asking. An encore of Kurtag’s Doloroso from Signs, games and messages was so painfully quiet, you could hardly take it in.

Photo credit: Sisi Burn

Now, we come to it. Sound levels. In keeping with said tradition of faithful music making, here is where the concert fell on its face. By using a forte piano for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, it was simply to quiet for his monumental hall. Fine playing from Alexander Melnikov, who seemed to relish this odd return to form. Yet it was as if his refined playing was not there at all, the crumbly, slight sound of the fortepiano giving him very little to work with. A man in front of me cricked his neck and cupped his ear to try and hear better (we were in the side stalls, not that far away). I’ve always seen the instrument as the stepping stone between the harpsichord and the piano we know today, it’s easy to see why it fell on the way side. The lack of dampener is also disheartening and just might be the major problem point. That aside, it was pleasant enough (its touching and has room to breath) and the orchestra revelled in this Mozart which proves to be popular at the Proms.

Luckily, the final piece, Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41 in C major) kept tuning and instruments of its day and still worked! I kept finding lovely moments in this famous piece, all the players shone throughout, defining how the symphony was changing and evoling in his day. I could feel the energy, the green and floral nature of it a real testament to Mozart’s genius. Motifs grow and rouse towards the gripping finale. This is how it’s done. Popping a bell jar on the past, without setbacks. No encore, though I think this audience was quite happy.

Listen to all Proms concerts on BBC Sounds

Review, Prom 46, Manchester Collective, Royal Albert Hall by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

After the recent Mahler from the BBC Symphony, a late night Prom would be on offer. I’ve been a bit of a groupie (respectfully), seeing these wonderful musicians in Cardiff, Bristol and London, this time getting got a second Prom. Amazing how laid back it was between both concerts.

Neon by Hannah Peel started off with music inspired by the dying art of the light feature. How lovely it was, taking minimalist touches and ethereal tape work to create a swell concert opener. SERENITY 2.0 by Ben Nobuto might have been the highlight of the night, a queasy mix of Messiaen, John Cage aside guided meditations and a broad audio refrence pallet. Talk before confirmed it might be the most complex piece they have done and you can really feel it. The momentum rarly wained and it had that “Gen Z energy” spoken off prior to playing. The quartet had rampant moments, the percussion with went off in the best way and the tape worked was head spinning in many respects. Top stuff.

Oliver Leith looked to the past with his A different ‘Fantasie from Suite No. 4 in G minor’, feeling mostly timeless though had contemporary inflections. It was of worth, though hearing how hushed the huge hall became for David Lang’s Glory from his Mystery Sonata No. 7 made an unforgettable sound. Quite simple in form, it held up as rather touching, Rakhi Singh needs to do little to show her talents, the solo violin never sounded sweeter and more warm. Grand stuff.

Straight into Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, here with a recording of themselves to mirror the duo aspect. Have grew tired of Reich a few years back, but it’s hard not to be lost in the energy and joy found here. The stamina is commendable , their musicality unbounded. I wished I could have stayed for applause, though my tube was calling for home.