Archive for the Opera Category

Trustan with Usolde

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2020 by telescoper

It is, I think, fairly well known that physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired to pick the name quark for the name of a type of subatomic particle by a passage from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

— Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

What is perhaps less well known is the identity of “Muster Mark” in that quote. In fact it is King Mark of Cornwall, husband of Queen Iseult in the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The Iseult in that legend is Irish. She has has an affair with Tristan, nephew of King Mark, with tragic consequences. This legend appears in many literary forms including, most famously, Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. It also comes up frequently in Finnegans Wake including this passage on the same page (in the edition I have) as the Muster Mark quote above:

That song sang seaswans.
The winging ones. Seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel
and capercallzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold
when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

See how Joyce plays with the substitution of “u” for “i” here as in “Muster”. Either that or the “I” key on his typewriter didn’t work properly. Or he had fat fingers and kept hitting the wrong key; U and I are next door on the keyboard.

Incidentally there is a small village in Dublin called Chapelizod which is where a church was built dedicated to Queen Iseult. Whether there is any real connection between this place and the historical Iseult is very doubtful.

Now, where was I. Oh yes. Back to Opera.

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing.

Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless I do think Tristan and Isolde works very well on the radio – nothing very much happens on stage anyway (especially in Act II) so you can just let the music work it’s magic.

The reason for all this rambling is that there is a special broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on RTÉ Lyric FM. This performance, recorded in 2012, features as Isolde the celebrated dramatic soprano Miriam Murphy who very sadly passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Tonight’s programme is a tribute to her memory. I believe Miriam Murphy is the only Irish soprano to have sung the role of Isolde. I’ve heard a few clips from it and her voice sounds amazing.

The Opera is preceded on the radio by a documentary about the production, the first in Ireland for 50 years and the first by a brand new company based in Ireland. I think James Joyce would have approved.

So that’s my Saturday evening sorted out!

Update: I listened to the broadcast and it is an astonishingly wonderful performance by Miriam Murphy.

The people who do things and what they do

Posted in Art, Cricket, Football, Opera, Television with tags , on July 19, 2020 by telescoper

It’s a tough lesson to learn in life that the people you admire or idolize for their contribution in a particular arena (whether that be sport, art, science or something else) turn out to be people you can’t stand in terms of their character or political views.

You have to separate, for example, having a high regard for Ian Botham’s cricketing prowess from having a high regard for his personal character. In fact I can think of few sportspeople whose company I’d enjoy socially.

The same goes in many other spheres. Richard Feynman was a truly great physicist but I’ve never bought into the personality cult surrounding him. In fact I doubt I would have liked him very much at all if we’d ever met in person. They say you should never meet your heroes. They’re right.

Another example is Richard Wagner, a brilliant composer but really horrible man, who brings us to this clip from the end of Twilight of the Gods (the last episode of Series 7 of Inspector Morse, first broadcast in 1993).

I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen it but it involves a famous opera singer, Gladys Probert, who visits Oxford to perform and receive an honorary degree. On the way to the ceremony she is shot, but was she the intended victim?

Opera-loving Morse is a huge admirer of Gladys Probert but in the course of his investigation he uncovers some unpleasant truths about her private life. He solves the crime but the case leaves him dispirited.

Here is the ending. John Thaw is Inspector Morse and Kevin Whateley is Detective Sergeant Lewis.

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.