Archive for the Opera Category

Predictive Blogging

Posted in Covid-19, Cricket, Opera, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 27, 2020 by telescoper

News has emerged that on 14th April 2020 Dominic Cummings doctored an old blog post to make it look like he had predicted a coronavirus outbreak. Given the indisputable fact that Mr Cummings is a career liar this should not in itself come as a surprise. What might surprise a few people is that this episode reveals that this self-styled genius is must in reality be rather stupid if he thought he could get away with hiding such a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Still, the truth obviously no longer matters in post-Brexit Britain so he probably won’t face any serious consequences.

I, of course would, never add things to old blog posts to make myself look clever.

I would, however, like to point out just a few of the various uncannily accurate predictions I have made in the course of my almost twelve years of blogging.

For example, in this September 2009 review of a performance of La Traviata by Welsh National Opera I wrote:

My love of Italian opera makes me regret even more that the UK will be be leaving the European Union in 2020.

And in this account of the May 2015 England versus New Zealand Test Match at Lord’s you will find:

… it was still quite gloomy and dark. My mood was sombre, thinking about Donald Trump’s forthcoming victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections.

My prescience is not only limited to politics, however. In my 2013 post about the Queen’s Birthday Honours List you will read:

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected.

You see now that Niels Bohr wasn’t quite right when he said “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Sometimes it’s the past that’s hardest to predict.


Fidelio in Dublin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday evening found me once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a performance of Beethoven’s only Opera, Fidelio, performed by Lyric Opera Ireland together with the young musicians of Sinfonua conducted by Tony Purser. The event was, of course, part of the Beethoven 250 celebrations that will be taking place all this year in concert halls around the world. The National Concert Hall isn’t really designed for opera, so the orchestra had to squeeze into the space between the front row of the stalls and the stage. I was a few rows back, but I could still read the scores on the desks!

A synopsis of the Opera is as follows.

Leonore (Sínead Campbell-Wallace) has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaole, Rocco (Mikhail Svetlov), of the state prison in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan (Samuel Sakker). To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Rachel Croash), has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (Patrick Hyland) even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman. Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro (Gyula Nagy), learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death, having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals her true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando (Felix Kemp), arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, specifically with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. There are no less than four published versions of the overture. Last night we heard the standard one often called Leonore No. 3, but more often simply known as Fidelio.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken or declaimed rather than sung). In this performance the spoken dialogue was in English while the sung part was in the original German. There were surtitles too, so the plot was easy to follow. Given the constraints of the National Concert Hall the set was simple but nonetheless effective, and the a mixture of 19th century and modern dress. Part of the chorus performed from the choir stalls behind the stage. In the first act they were dressed as prisoners but during the interval they changed into ordinary everday clothes, a device I found very effective. A story of wrongful imprisonment is as relevant today as it was in Beethoven’s time. This point was emphasized near the end of Act I when the prisoners are briefly allowed out from their cells: children in modern dress mingled with them, holding photographs of people of all races and generations who have been unjustly taken away.

I thought the principals were outstanding. Sínead Campbell-Wallace (soprano) was a superb Leonore, both vocally and dramatically, Samuel Sakker (tenor) impressed, Mikhail Svetlov (bass) was in fine voice throughout, and (perhaps the pick of them all) Hungarian baritone Gyula Nagy was a wonderfully sinister Don Pizarro.

So far so good, but there were some less than ideal things about this production, chiefly the intonation. For many people the highlight of this Opera is the wonderful Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust….”) when the inmates of the gaol are temporally released to get some fresh air. They staggered onto the stage, eyes blinking at the light, but their incarceration had obviously robbed some of  them of a sense of pitch and the started horrifically out of tune. From time to time the orchestra – especially the brass – also struggled to find the correct pitch, producing some painfully jarring moments.

It’s hard to believe that it has been the best part of a decade since I first saw Fidelio, in a production by Welsh National Opera. Both that one and this one offered much to enjoy, but I still have to see a production that really does this work justice.

R.I.P. Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 10, 2020 by telescoper

I was deeply saddened last night to hear of the death at the age of 84 of legendary operatic soprano Mirella Freni who belonged to the generation of stars that included Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto and Maria Callas. Freni’s light and elegant voice was perfectly suited to lyric roles, especially Mozart and Puccini, although in the later years of her long career she did broaden her repertoire considerably. For me (and I guess many others) her signature role was as Mimi in La Bohème to which she brought not only lovely singing, but a wonderful tenderness and warmth to the character. As a small tribute here she is in that role with the great Luciano Pavarotti (who was born in the same town as Freni, Modena).

R.I.P. Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

Dinner with Wagner

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2019 by telescoper

Before dinner with the RAS Club on Friday evening I was looking through the display cabinets at the Athenaeum and saw this, the record of a dinner involving a member and guests on 23rd May 1877. The member was electrical engineer, businessman and Fellow of the Royal Society Carl Wilhelm Siemens and among is guests was Richard Wagner:

Dinner started early and was evidently a lengthy affair, much like Wagner’s operas!

That reminds me of a famous review of one of Wagner’s operas by a critic who clearly wasn’t a fan.

Parsifal is an Opera by Richard Wagner that starts at half past five. Three hours later, you look at your watch and it’s quarter to six.

P.S. There is a photograph taken of Wagner (whose 64th birthday was on 22nd May) during his visit to London in 1877:

Dido’s Lament – Jessye Norman

Posted in Opera with tags , , on October 1, 2019 by telescoper

I found out this morning that the wonderful Jessye Norman passed away yesterday at the age of 74. It’s impossible to post an adequate tribute in words to such a stellar artist so I’ll just post a clip of her, not in one of the big operatic number by Wagner or Strauss with which she was probably most strongly associated, but in a piece from a different era altogether:  Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell. It seems to be an apt choice at this sad time.

R.I.P. Jessye Norman (1945-2019).


The Magic Flute at the Gaiety Theatre

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 25, 2019 by telescoper

Last night went for the first time to the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by Irish National Opera in conjunction with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. It was my first INO performance and my first visit to the Gaiety Theatre (although I’m sure it won’t be the last of either of those). I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the Magic Flute but I hope this won’t be the last either!

The Gaiety Theatre is quite compact, which engenders a more intimate atmosphere than is often experienced at the Opera. The music being provided by a small-ish chamber orchestra also suited the venue, but more importantly gave a fresh and sprightly feeling to Mozart’s wonderful score. You would think it would be hard to make Mozart sound stodgy, but some orchestras seem to manage it. Not last night though.

The scenery is rather simple, as is needed for touring Opera playing in relatively small venues. The stage directions of the Magic Flute are in any case so outlandish that it’s virtually impossible to enact them precisely according to instructions.

For example, what is the set designer supposed to do with this?

The scene is transformed into two large mountains; one with a thundering waterfall, the other belching out fire; each mountain has an open grid, through which fire and water may be seen; where the fire burns the horizon is coloured brightly red, and where the water is there lies a black fog.

This production takes the sensible approach of leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience though that does mean, for example, that there is no dragon…

The costumes are a different matter. The hero Tamino begins in the drab clothes of a working man of the 19th century, as do the three ladies that he encounters early on in Act I. The enigmatic Sarastro and his followers are however dressed as the gentry of a similar period, and are accompanied by a chorus of domestic servants. As Tamino works his way into the Brotherhood he becomes progressively gentrified in manner and in clothing. A central idea of the Opera is that of enlightenment values prevailing over superstition, but under the surface oppression remains, both in the form imposed by property-owners on the working poor, but also in the misogynistic behaviour of Sarastro and others, and the racist stereotyping of the villainous and lustful `Moor’, Monastatos. This production is sung in the original German, and there were gasps from the audience when they saw some of the surtitles in English. Although Magic Flute is on one level a hugely enjoyable comic fantasy, it also holds up a mirror to attitudes of Mozart’s time – and what you see in it is not pleasant, especially when you realize that many of these are still with us.

Importantly, however, this undercurrent does not detract from the basic silliness which I believe is the real key to this Opera. It’s fundamentally daft, but it succeeds because it’s daft in exactly the same way that real life is.

In last night’s performance the two fine leads were Anna Devin was Pamina (soprano) and Nick Pritchard Tamino (tenor). The excellent Gavan Ring provided suitable comic relief and a fine baritone voice to boot. Kim Sheehan (soprano) as the Queen of the Night doesn’t have the biggest voice I’ve ever heard, but she sang her extraordinarily difficult coloratura arias (one of them including a top `F’) with great accuracy and agility and brought a considerable pathos to her role instead of making it the pantomime villain you sometimes find. Sarastro was Lukas Jakobski (bass), memorable not only for his superb singing way down in the register, but for his commanding physical presence. Well over 2 metres tall, he towered over the rest of the cast. I think he’s the scariest Sarastro I’ve ever seen!

And finally I should congratulate the three boys: Nicholas O’Neill, Seán Hughes and Oran Murphy. These roles are extremely demanding for young voices and the three who performed last night deserved their ovation at the end.

The last performances in this run are today (Saturday 25th May, matinée and evening) so this review is too late to make anyone decide to go and see it but last night’s was recorded for RTÉ Lyric Fm and will be broadcast at a future date.

The Week Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Opera, The Universe and Stuff on May 20, 2019 by telescoper

Well, my little jaunt back to Wales is almost over and I’ll soon be heading back to Maynooth for a very busy rest of the week.

The two examinations I’ve set this term are tomorrow (Engineering Maths) and Wednesday (Computational Physics). I’ll try to make a start on the marking as soon as I get my hands on the scripts, but on Thursday and Friday there is the annual Irish Quantum Foundations meeting, which this year is being hosted by Trinity College Dublin. I gave a talk at the same event last year, but this time I’m just in the audience.

Some time on Friday I have to cast my vote in the elections to the Local Council and European Parliament being held in Ireland. There is also a referendum to do with changing the law on divorce.

And after all that, on Friday evening, I’ll be paying my first ever visit to the famous Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for my first ever experience of Irish National Opera.


Posted in Opera with tags on May 16, 2019 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this hilarious introduction to the art of the Wagnerian dramatic soprano from the sublime Anna Russell.


Una Grande Vociaccia

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by telescoper

Had she still been alive, December 2nd 2018 would have been the 95th birthday of the most renowned opera singer of her time, Maria Callas.

She was born in 1923 in New York city of Greek parents who had moved there the previous year, and christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou. Her mother, disenchanted with her deteriorating marriage, abandoned her husband (Maria’s father) and took Maria and her sister back to Athens in 1937. Maria enrolled at the National Conservatoire of Greece the same year after winning a scholarship with the quality of her voice, which

was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations.

At this age, Maria was a rather plump young lady with a rather deep voice. Initially, she aspired to be a contralto but at the Conservatoire she was encouraged instead to become a dramatic soprano. Accordingly, she underwent special training to raise her natural pitch (or tessitura) and learned how to control her remarkable voice more accurately so she could sing in a sufficiently disciplined fashion that she could take on the dazzling coloratura passages that she would perform in later years with such success. She also worked on her chest tones to broaden the scope of her voice in the mezzo region. Although she became more technically refined as a singer during this period, there were some things that didn’t change. One was the sheer power of her voice, which is something that we tend to notice less in these days of microphones and studio recordings. People who heard her sing live confess to being shocked at the sheer scale of sound she could deliver without amplification. Perhaps more tellingly, she eschewed many of the devices sopranos tended to use to control the highest notes, usually involving some alteration of the throat to produce accuracy at the expense of a thinner and more constricted tone. When Callas went for a high note, she always did so in a full-throated manner. This often produced a piercing sound that could be intensely dramatic, even to the extent of almost knocking you out of your seat, but it was a very risky approach for a live performance. Audiences simply weren’t used to hearing a coloratura sing with such volume and in such a whole-hearted way. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was certainly remarkable and often very moving. It was this aspect of her voice that led her friend Tito Gobbi (who sang with her in Tosca) to call it una grande vociaccia, which I translate in my schoolboy Italian as meaning something like “a big ugly voice”. That isn’t meant to be as disparaging as it sounds (Gobbi was a great admirer of Callas’ singing).

Having listened to lots of recordings of Maria Callas I have to admit that they are certainly not all good. Sometimes the voice didn’t come off at all. Unkindly, one colleague said that she “sang with her ovaries”. When she talked about her own noice, Callas herself often referred to it as if it were some independent creature over which she had very little control. Anyway, whatever the reason, when she was bad she was definitely bad. But I adopt the philosophy that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst, and when Callas was good she was simply phenomenal, like a sublime and irresistible force of nature. That’s why they called her La Divina.

Although her talent was very raw in the beginning there was no question that she always had a voice of exceptional power and dramatic intensity. When she started singing professionally she immediately attracted lavish praise from the critics not just for her voice but also for her acting. As a young soprano she sang in an astonishing variety of operas, including Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, neither of which one would now associate with Callas.

It was in the late 194os that Callas began to take an interest in the type of opera that would really make her name. Bel canto opera was rather unfashionable at that time, probably because audiences preferred the grittier and more realistic verismo style. Virtually single-handed, Callas resurrected the bel canto canon by injecting a true sense of drama into works which had previously just been seen as vehicles for the singers to demonstrate their art. Callas brought an entirely new dimension to the great operas by Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La Somnambula…) and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena), although she was sufficiently versatile to also perform brilliantly in the verismo syle of Verdi and Puccini as well as lesser known composers such as Giordano (Andrea Chenier). Recordings of many of these performances are available, but it is sad that this glorious period of her singing career happened just a bit before high quality equipment was available so the true glory of her voice isn’t always evident.

In 1953, Callas decided that she wanted to change her appearance, perhaps so she would look more appropriate for the parts she was playing on stage. At the time she weighed almost 200lbs. In order to lose weight as quickly as possible, she followed the barbarous but highly effective expedient of swallowing a tapeworm. She lost 80lbs in a matter of months. The dramatic loss of weight changed her body and her face, emphasizing her high angular cheekbones and giving her a striking look very well suited to the opera stage. But it also affected her voice somewhat, especially at the upper end where she seems to have found it more difficult to avoid the dreaded “wobble” which was one of the alleged imperfections that critics tended to dwell upon.

Callas also had very poor eyesight which required her to wear very thick spectacles in order to see at all, a thing she refused to do onstage with the result that she was virtually blind during performances. In fact, during a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden she leant too far over a candle and her hair caught fire. Improvising magnificently, Tito Gobbi, as the loathsome Scarpia, extinguished the fire by throwing water at her before the audience had noticed. Although they weren’t much use for seeing with, her eyes were a great asset for her acting, in turns flashing like a demon then shining like an angel.

After her weight loss, Callas was suddenly no longer just a wonderful singer but also a strikingly beautiful woman. Her career took a back seat as she started to revel in the glamorous lifestyle that opened up in front of her. Her voice deteriorated and she performed rather less frequently. Eventually she embarked on a love affair with Aristotle Onassis, a notorious serial collector of trophy women. She hoped to marry him but he abandoned her to marry Jackie Kennedy, widow of John F. Kennedy.

She never really recovered from the failure of this affair, retired from singing and lived out the last years of her life as a virtual recluse in her apartment in Paris. She died in 1977.

I had heard a lot about Maria Callas when I was younger, but the recordings that I listened to (generally from the 1960s) were really not very good as her voice was undoubtedly much diminished by then. I just assumed that, as is the case with many artists, the legend of Callas was all mere hype. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was listening to BBC Radio 3 and they played the final scenes of the great 1954 recording of Norma with Callas in the title role, conducted by Tullio Serafin. I was completely overwhelmed by it and tears flowed freely from my eyes. I’ve always had a tendency to blub when I hear really beautiful music, but as I’ve got older I’ve learned not to be embarrassed by it. At least I don’t cry at football matches.

In England, Callas is probably best remembered for her performances in Tosca in Covent Garden. I have recordings of her in that role and they are really wonderful. But there are many fine recordings of Tosca by other singers, some of which are almost as good. In the case of Norma, though, there isn’t any other performance that comes within a mile of the Callas version. Or if there is, I’ve yet to hear it.

Now I know that there are some people, even opera lovers, who just don’t get Callas at all (just look at the comment boards on Youtube). I grant that she wasn’t always the most accurate singer, and I don’t think you could say her voice had a purely classical beauty. But even if you don’t like her voice you have to admit that she revitalized the opera stage and brought a new public into the theatres. I can’t imagine what the state of opera would be now, if there hadn’t been a Callas and you can’t argue that she is now an iconic figure. What I admire most about her is that, like it or loath it, her voice is instantly recognisable. In this sense, she always puts me in mind of a kind of operatic version of Billie Holliday. She’s a far cry from the many bland mediocrities that pass themselves off as opera singers nowadays.

I’m going to end with the obligatory clips from Youtube. There’s a lot of Callas on there, not all of it good. I’ve chosen a couple of items, although neither of them has a proper video. The first was performed live in 1955 in front of the notoriously difficult audience at La Scala in Milan and recorded from a radio broadcast so that the sound quality is quite poor. A studio recording of this aria, from Andrea Chenier, features most movingly in the film Philadelphia. This live version, however, is notable for a number of reasons. One is that you get some idea of the power of the Callas voice in the way she pushes aside the entire orchestra and is even able to cut through the distortions introduced by the rather primitive recording technology. The second thing is that she sings it so beautifully, with such feeling, lovely phrasing, and so much colour and vitality. Listen to the way the texture of her voice matches perfectly her changing emotions as she tells her story. The shattering, climactic high C that occurs near the end is a perfect example of what I was saying above. She stabs this note out like her life depended on it. It sends shivers down my spine and clearly had the same effect on the audience. The thunderous applause that follows the end of this aria is quite frightening in its intensity, but gives a good idea how much her public adored her. If you can put up with the lo-fi recording, this is certainly a better performance than the studio version.

The final piece has to be from Norma. I think Bellini is a wonderful composer of opera, but he doesn’t make life easy for the singers. There’s never any doubling of the vocal line by the orchestra so the singer is very exposed. This doesn’t bother Maria Callas. This is the famous aria Casta Diva, which has become a kind of signature tune for her and it’s one of the pieces that she always seemed to perform beautifully. It might be a bit hackneyed but I love it and, after all, it’s my blog. There’s also a nice compilation of pictures.

I’d be interested to hear what the general opinion of Callas is based on a sample of the two or three people who read my blog, so please feel free to add your comments!

R.I.P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 6, 2018 by telescoper

I woke today to the very sad news of the death, at the age of 85, of legendary Opera singer Montserrat Caballé.

By way of a small tribute to marking the passing of one of the true greats, here she is singing the beautiful aria Signore, ascolta! from the Opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. As the title suggests, you should listen to the whole thing because it’s lovely, but be prepared for something truly astonishing from about 2.16 onwards as the singer demonstrates unbelievable control by holding that final high note in a way that doesn’t seem humanly possible..

R. I. P. Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)