Category Archives: Opera & classical

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. 

Review, Imogen Cooper, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

For an evening, Imogen Cooper brought a fascinating programme to the Southbank. Her serious, yet resounding presence rings out. Starting with Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles, Cooper demonstrated the bizarre nature of the selection. They are sarcastic and iconic, touches of Satie and Chopin linger. The odd finger work against the keys is also noteworthy, as the momentum goes. A short adventure with Liszt and his Bagatelle without tonality went straight on to Beethoven’s 15 Variations and Fugue on an original theme. Here things dragged a bit, the concert going into a slow show. Cooper makes Beethoven shine, and her effortless form is what really stands out.

The second half would prove much more interesting. Two Bach Chorale-preludes were a treat, brief and had a synergy with composer and pianist. Curious for the lights to dim as we hear John Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, a recording for voice and lute from Anne Sofie von Otter and Jakob Lindberg. Why this? As lovely as this departure was, it was justification for the next work: Darkness visible by Thomas Adès. I recall the wonderful performance Robin Green gave of his at last year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival. It’s key smacking and trills aside trills, still keep aspects of the Dowland. It’s still very pretty, even my plus one couldn’t believe her luck. It is a fascinating miniature. It never fails.

Another Beethoven, this time the Sonata in A flat ended thing, much more alluring than before. The drama of the whole piece was the bouts of anxiety, romance beyond romance and furious rebellions. Cooper became impassioned at the end, her hair rocking out. Aside from this vision, she appeared very calm and collected for the whole night. An encore of Bartók was given. With the genuine tiredness seen upon her face, we left it at that.

Review, Pavel Kolesnikov, Wigmore Hall, London by James Ellis

 Photo credit: Da Ping Luo, via Park Avenue Armory

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Wigmore Hall would be packed for the Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, as the bitter chill of London winter called round. I recall his time doing a dance version if Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Sadler’s Wells. I’m intrigued with him.

He is complex to watch when playing. This programme is also hand picked by him and it can’t shake away an eccentric air. Starting with Górecki’s late work: For Anna, the deceptively simple tissue of the piece could omly ever be this stunning Polish composer. The right hands leads the end of the lines with a two-note pattern, swaying softly then a more harsh terrain raids. It’s a piece which demands more listens. More on that later.

Pavel played with grace and fortitude. The following Beethoven Sonataa No. 17, is dubbed ‘Tempest’ and its easy to see why. The control he has over these piece is highly compelling, his Beethoven seemed to whip up a great frenzy and also time for retrospection. His white shirt and jacked gave a light sight in the hall, the lights dimmed and a lot of dark colours abound. La colombe or The Dove from Messiaen led after this, a buttery little prelude mimicking the flutter of the birds wings as apposed to the later bird song the composer would faithfully notate. Performed with a loving sweet and impressionistic scope.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A fittingly followed (this was Messiaen favourite composer). The marvellous hopscotch nature of the cheeky piece, Pavel brought insight and charm. He can’t help himself. Often mouthing along with the music, more mime and not Glenn Gould. Naturally, the famous Turkish March ended the sonata in rousing form leading to a well needed break for him, after over an hour of playing.

The Górecki piece was an apparition that did not want to leave the space, Pavel making the choice to have it played twice is daring. It was even more dark and sombre second time round, I think the audience listend even more attentively. The wrap up was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor. Moments of joy are messhed with terror in this off kilter composition. Pavel reaching even newer heights. His seroius style crossed with fun music making. Schubert’s often emotional weight was ever present, some rousing, searching psychology made Pavel perform beautfully.

This arrangement of a piano programme is odd. He might have just gotten away with it. 

Review Willard White & Eugene Asti Wigmore Hall, London by James Ellis

Photo credit: David Levene

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It was smiling all round with Sir William White at Wigmore Hall. Joined by the full-bodied force of Eugene Asti as accompanist, things went down very smoothly.

Sir Willard recounted, with the first song when he was in school and the promise of a young singer. Noticed by a teacher with a good ear, him singing Schubert’s and Silvia would catch anyone off guard, his wonderous bass-baritone voice is so satisfying. Roger Quilter and his Come Away Death followed keeping with a sombre tone. More thrills with Samuel Barber with a stellar Sure on this Shining Night and Promiscuity. The latter was so much of Charles Ives, brief, funny, weird and more. Some Vaughan Williams and his Songs of Travel highlights also stood out. The English air shining through, folk like charms ever present.

The Old American Songs from Aaron Copland, saw a selection of thrills. The Dodger sees a busker touting for cash, Simple Gifts (a Copland favourite) never fails in its loveliness. The infectious melody had weight, Copland recycling it for Appalachian Spring, one of his ballets. Being told the next song was “silly”, I bought me a cat is also a laugh and Willard never one to listen to nonsense, was glad to see we enjoyed this nursery-rhyme like ditty. Bernstein’s rare outing of his early musical Peter Pan saw two songs: Who am I? and My House. I’ve given less love to these songs in the past, though Willard’s ringing, warm voice makes them worthwhile.

Choices from South Pacific and Carousel continued the musical theatre theme. Some Enchanted Evening stood out for its beefy delivery and pleasing melodic structure. The festive side of things came with a selection of spirituals Deep River in an arrangement by Carl Davis as one fine example. Proud Jamaican and Brit, Willard must have sung these innumerable times, I saw teary eyes in one of them. They took away some of the stuffy nature of the concert hall and brought much cheer. An encore of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas has now official brought me into the holiday season. I best get shopping…

Review, Shoulder to Shoulder, Swansea City Opera, Lisvane Memorial Hall by James Ellis

Photo credit: Guy Harrop

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

On their last leg of their Welsh tour, Swansea City Opera have made a personal and sweet show about the older men in our country. Inspired by the Mens Shed craze, which started in Australia and now is world-wide, it has seen men in the community overcome barriers and have a go at wood work. Though the craft element is the pulling force to join, many friendships have been made and its looks like men are opening up about their traumas and hangups.

This collaboration with the opera company saw a piece inspired by these stories, of men coming out of their shell after grief and turmoil. It’s a slight story one which, might not have needed an intermission. Brendan Wheatley as director and librettist, also gave a pre-show talk breaking down his role and the opera itself. He likes puns and rhyming, aside many Welsh tics and mannerisms. Lenny Sayers score was accessible for those new to opera, holding up as a spritely, pseudo Jazzy and Blues fair. A surprise and a delight to see a vibraphone and a saxophone in with the musicians. The former I imagine eventful when touring around Wales. A Gnome aria held up as an absurd highlight, only ever a good time. The inclusion of both the Llysfaen Singers choral bouts and the Lisvane Mens Shed for bouts of wooden chorus slamming felt right, proving the true community side of things.

We follow times spent with Ioan, Dai, Rhys and Charlie. Gwen, daughter of Rhys, drags him along to the shed to get him out of the house and to find a vocation. Popping along, he is warmly welcomed and comes out of his shell. The rest of the opera is the other three guys at the shed and what they have gone through, their reasons to join. This did feel like one big advert for the sheds, though if it does get extra members I can only see that as a positive.

The quartet of male singers: Robyn Lyn Evans, Dyfed Wyn Evans, Aled Hall and Wyn Pencarreg have tuned the show after said tour and previous stagings. Their humour, light and hearty singing is the bulk of the show, their histories of anguish and pain bubbling up. BBC Cardiff Singer finalist Jessica Robinson was a fine Gwen, she address the audience through speech and sung with a firm clarity.

I’ll applaud the show for giving opera to those who never thought they would go and also for its support for a mightily important endeavour. You know…I might just pop over to my own shed after all.