Archive for Wales Millennium Centre

A Good Day

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Football with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2018 by telescoper

It’s been a good day. First of all I was officially presented with the Beard of Winter 2018 Award by the inestimable Keith Flett (right):

The picture was taken (by Megan Davies) outside The Small Bar in Cardiff after a celebratory tipple.

After that it was down to Cardiff Bay, where the Wales Millennium Centre was resplendent in the winter sunshine for an excellent afternoon performance of Tosca (which I’ll review more fully tomorrow):

And if that wasn’t enough, I emerged from the Opera to find that Newcastle Utd had beaten Manchester Utd in the Premiership, a game I had expected them to lose…

So yes, it’s been a good day..

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Picture Postscript

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 10, 2013 by telescoper

I thought you might like to see the dedication written on the back of the seat in front of me at Roberto Devereux on Sunday..

Maria Stuarda & Roberto Devereux

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 10, 2013 by telescoper

I spent last weekend in Cardiff in order to catch the remaining two operas in the series of three bel canto Tudor operas by Gaetano Donizetti being staged by Welsh National Opera; my review of the first, Anna Bolena, which I saw a month ago, can be found here.

Saturday night (5th october) in Cardiff Bay saw me at the splendid Wales Millennium Centre for Maria Stuarda. Although inspired by the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the plot of this Opera is almost entirely imagined. In particular, the dramatic centrepiece of the story is a meeting between Maria Stuarda and Queen Elizabeth I an event that never actually happened. In the Opera it is this encounter – which, to put it mildly, doesn’t go very well – that leads to Elizabeth finally making the decision to have Mary Stewart executed.

The Opera begins with Elizbeth I under pressure from her Court to marry the Duke of Anjou and to show mercy towards Mary Queen of Scotland (who has ambitions for the throne of England) who has been under house arrest for the best part of twenty years. She sees the political advantage of an alliance with France through marriage, but is secretly in love with Roberto (aka Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) who is actually keen on Mary. When Elizabeth and Mary actually do meet – accidentally, when Elizabeth is out hunting – their hatred for each other is impossible to disguise. After some terse exchanges, Mary loses her temper and denounces Elizabeth. Doomed, she is taken back into captivity; Elizabeth finally signs her death warrant, and orders Roberto to witness the execution. Protesting her innocence Mary says her goodbyes and is led off to be beheaded. End of story.

The plot may not be historically accurate but it’s ideal material for an opera, with the Chorus of Welsh National Opera in good form and Donizetti’s beautiful score to counterpoint the seething emotions of love, jealousy and revenge. Lasting around 2 hours and 45 minutes (including the interval) it’s also sharper and more focussed than Anna Bolena. The highlight of the evening was Judith Howarth’s stunning performance as Maria Stuarda, whose huge voice invested her role with immense dramatic power; Alastair Miles was a sombre and sonorous Talbot and Adina Nitescu was pretty good as Elisabetta (Elizabeth). Costumes were dark, and scenery minimal, as in Anna Bolena. The one thing I didn’t like was Maria Stuarda’s tartan skirt, not exactly the most subtle way of marking out the Queen of Scotland, which stuck out like a sore thumb among the black dresses on stage.

And so to Roberto Devereux, which finds an older Queen Elizabeth trying to protect her lover Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex) against charges of treason emanating from his enemies at court until she discovers that he also loves another woman, although she doesn’t know who it is; in fact it is her friend Sarah Duchess of Nottingham. Meanwhile the Duke of Nottingham isn’t too happy about Roberto’s dalliances with his wife. Eventually the net closes on Roberto and he attempts to flee but is captured, foolishly carrying a gift given to him by Sarah. His fate is sealed and he is executed, but not before Sarah shows up and reveals herself to be Elizabeth’s rival. Elizabeth has a sudden change of mind and attempts to halt Roberto’s execution, but she’s too late. In remorse the Queen longs for her own death.

The star of this show was undoubtedly the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, who were on superb form, right from opening bars of the overture with its deliciously wry references to the National Anthem. Conductor Daniele Rustoni, who was great in Anna Bolena too, bouncing about in the pit, clearly enjoys Donizetti’s music enormously and got the very best out of the musicians.

The production was a bit strange though. Mostly sombre and minimal as the previous two Tudor operas, it nevertheless included some bizarre variations in costume and scenery. Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux was a leather-clad gigolo whose diminutive stature contrasted with the tall and elegant Alexandra Deshorties as a rather vampy Queen Elizabeth, even dressed in leather like a dominatrix for some of the time; although her attire was a bit incongruous I actually thought she was fabulous. Later on, even more strangely, a giant mechanical spider appeared on stage. I didn’t really get the point of this contratption, but thought the sudden injection of Steampunk imagery was a blast. After all, you don’t go to the opera expecting everything to make sense. The elderly blue-rinsed lady sitting next to me didn’t agree: “I don’t think so” she said in a loud voice when the aforementioned arachnid began its perambulation across the set…

Anyway, I enjoyed all three of these operas. Each has much to offer, though I think Maria Stuarda is the best overall. Some people seem to think that Bel Canto operas just consist of a series of vocal exercises with those not involved hanging around on stage clearing their throats ready for their turn. That’s entirely unfair. There’s real drama in these works and I commend Welsh National Opera for their courageous decision to stage all three of them in a single season.

Anna Bolena at WNO

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , , on September 9, 2013 by telescoper

It was the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, but I was otherwise engaged at the First Night of the new production by Welsh National Opera of Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. This is one of three famous Donizetti operas set in the Tudor period (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) which I was slightly surprised to learn are collectively often described as the “Three Donizetti Queens”; I’m not sure what this implies about the erstwhile Earl of Essex. Anyway, as a fan of Italian bel canto I decided I just had to go to see Anna Bolena in Cardiff, even though it meant a trek back to Brighton yesterday. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the other two Queens in due course.

Anna Bolena is Donizetti’s imagining of the last days of the life of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, so it’s basically the dark story of a young woman trapped in a web of intrigue and betrayal, a story made all the darker by the fact that it is based on real events. I wonder if such a plot would have ever have been considered plausible if it hadn’t actually happened?

The opera begins with Anna already having lost favour with her husband Enrico (Henry VIII), who is intent on ditching her in favour of  Jane (Giovanna) Seymour (who would shortly become Wife Number Three), but he first has to find a pretext to have her got rid of. Enrico lays a trap involving her brother, George Boleyn (the Lord Rocheford), the young musician Smeaton and Anna’s ex, Lord Percy, into which they and Anna duly fall. The hapless Smeaton confesses to having had an affair with Anna in the mistaken belief that she would be spared if he did so. Unfortunately, this amounts to an admission of treason. Despite Jane Seymour’s plea to Enrico to spare Anna’s life, she is condemned to die. The opera ends with all four people implicated in the plot walking off the stage to face execution, reconciled to their fate.

Of course the story is familiar from school history lessons, but what is especially compelling about it how it is told in this context is how the opera draws the audience into the character and innermost thoughs of the protagonists. For examples, Anna is more complex than you might imagine. It is true that she is naive, and out of her depth in a court so filled with plots and snares, but she is also at the same time ambitious and determined. Anna’s relationship with her rival Jane Seymour is also subtly nuanced, their deep fondness for each other demonstrated in a truly wonderful duet between soprano (Anna) and mezzo (Giovanna). The only real weak spot as far as characterization goes is Enrico, who comes across as little more than a pantomime villain (even to the extent that he received humorous boos on his curtain call). Of course Henry’s behaviour was tyrannical, but the drama would have worked more convincingly if there were at least something about him (other than his crown) that made Anna and Giovanna both adore him so much..

In typical bel canto style the voices of the singers are often extremely exposed, with the orchestra taking a back seat to a succession of dazzling coloratura passages with very little doubling of the vocal line to act as a safety net. At times, Donizetti’s music is little more than a basic backing track, but there is gorgeous orchestral writing in there too where the drama requires it. And that’s the point. Bel canto is not and never has been just about beautiful singing; the great operas in this genre also have great dramatic power and emotional intensity.

Serena Farnocchia’s Anna Bolena (soprano) was ably matched in beauty and clarity of voice by Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour (mezzo soprano). Faith Sherman (contralto) sang the part of the boy Smeaton with great sensitivity. Alastair Miles was also pretty good as Enrico, but I think the role suits someone with a more powerful bass voice. Robert McPherson as Lord Percy sang accurately enough but his lightish tenor voice has a rather nasal edge to it which took me quite a while to get used to.

The staging is stark and rather minimal, with just a few references to the Tudor period in items of furniture and in the style of the costumes (which are mainly black) but otherwise very little in terms of scenery. Very effective use was made of the revolving centre of the stage which provided movement without distracting from the most important aspect of the opera, namely the emotional turmoil of the characters on stage. The various elements of the staging and music came together in stunning fashion during Anna’s `Mad Scene’ near the end of Act II in which, delirious on the eve of her execution, she lapses into a trance-like state and relives happier moments while her friends gradually drift away into darkness. The lighting is sombre throughout the production, but in the Mad Scene Anna takes on a ghostly appearance. Musically speaking, this scene is quite famous – there’s an amazing version with Maria Callas as Anna here– but I found the cumulative effect of the elements of the life performance quite overwhelming. I’ll have to add this one to my list of pieces of music likely to make me fall to bits and thus to be avoided on trains…

A word too for the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under conductor Daniele Rusitioni who played the gorgeous music impeccably. And another word for the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were also excellent, not just in their singing but also in their wider contributions onstage.

All in all, a very fine night at the opera. The only real disappointment for me was that there were so many empty seats. It’s true that Anna Bolena isn’t one of the best known operas, but it is a gem. I hope this production gets the audience it deserves. And I also hope I can get to see the rest of the Tudors!

PS. I notice that the Guardian review has given it 4 stars. Bit stingy, possibly..

Lohengrin at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner‘s Opera Lohengrin, along with an old friend who’s almost certain to add a comment or two to this post. I had been looking forward to this performance for ages, but my sense of anticipation was enhanced even further by reading the excellent reviews this Opera has been getting in the national newspapers recently. I don’t often agree with the critics, actually, but in this case I wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely superb.

Lohengrin  is set in Germany in the 10th Century at a time of impending war with Hungarian tribes. In Act I Heinrich, the King, arrives in the province of Brabant in order to muster troops, but finds the place in turmoil because of the disappearance of  young Gottfried, the heir to the Dukedom of Brabant in mysterious circumstances. Telramund, who governs Brabant after the death of the Duke and is also guardian to Gottfried and his sister Elsa, accuses Elsa of having killed her younger brother Gottfried. The King eventually agrees to Elsa’s guilt being decided in a  trial by combat and Telramund prepares to fight Elsa’s champion. But who is her mysterious defender? You can tell that he’s no ordinary Joe because he arrives as if by magic in a boat pulled by a swan…

In this production the swan is represented by a handsome white-clad boy (played by Thomas Rowlands) who propels the boat on stage with sweeping gestures of his arm and the unfurling of a single wing, creating one of the most memorable entrances I’ve ever seen in an opera, but that turned out to be just one of many wonderful moments in this production:

Swan

The champion gets out of the boat and, pausing only to fall in love with Elsa and ask her to marry him, he defeats Telramund but spares his life. There’s only one condition to the marriage – Elsa must never ask the champion his name or where he comes from. She agrees.

In Act II, as preparations are being made for Elsa’s wedding, it is revealed that Telramund was duped into making his allegation about Elsa by his evil wife Ortrud. Unfortunately Elsa doesn’t understand the situation and takes pity on Ortrud, who then starts to sow the seeds of doubt about the identity of her champion, the mysterious knight, who has now been declared ruler of Brabant. Near the end of the Act, as Elsa is arriving at the church for her wedding, Ortrud intervenes again, and hatches a plot to reveal the identity of her husband.

Act III begins after the wedding, but instead of being filled with nuptial bliss, Elsa is wracked with doubt. Might there be something sinister about her husband, the knight? To make matters worse, Telramund breaks into the honeymoon suite, attacks the champion and gets himself killed in the process. At this point Our Hero has had enough. He tells Elsa that at dawn he will reveal his identity to the King and the assembled troops, who are preparing for battle expecting him to lead them to victory. However, when the appointed time comes, he explains that he can not after all lead them, but must return where he came from. In one of the most beautiful songs  in all opera, In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten (“In a far-off land, beyond the realm of mortals..”), Lohengrin (for it is he) explains all. He is one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, none other than the son of the legendary Parsifal, licensed to travel about undertaking acts of chivalry and valour, but obliged to return home, licence revoked, whenever his identity is known. The boat (and swanboy) return to take him away, Elsa collapses in despair, and Ortrud is triumphant, but only until it is revealed that the swan is in fact Elsa’s lost brother Gottfried, who is installed as Brabant’s new leader, at which points she collapses too.

It’s an epic tale of, course, unfolding over almost five hours, but at its core it’s really not about swords and sorcery but about the conflicts between love and duty and between trust and doubt; themes that are timeless. I wasn’t particularly surprised, therefore, to see that the design of this production places it somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, a setting that works well because that was also avtime of great turmoil across mainland Europe. It is also interesting that the first ever performance of Lohengrin was in 1850. The set is rather spare, and the garb of the soldiers rather drab blue and khaki, with peaked caps and greatcoats. The exceptions are Lohengrin and Gottfried whose pure white costumes pick them out as being not quite of this Earth.

As for the performances, I have to pick out Emma Bell as Elsa. I had read great things about her before this performance, but I still wasn’t prepared for the combination of such a lovely voice and fine acting. Susan Bickley was a splendidly feisty badass as Ortrud, and Matthew Best played Heinrich  with great gravitas. I have to admit, though, that I found Peter Wedd a little less impressive as Lohengrin. He sang well enough, although his voice on a couple of occasions got lost in the orchestra, but I just felt he lacked the imposing stage presence that a Wagnerian hero demands.

Lothar Koenigs is  a particularly fine conductor of romantic music and he had the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera on fine form – there were a couple of ragged moments, but there were enough sublime moments to compensate. I’d pick out: the Prelude to Act I – surely the most beautiful overture in all Opera? – which unfolded in suitably majestic fashion; the Prelude to Act III, a rip-roaring piece totally different in character to that of Act I; and the passage in Act III that leads to the entrance of the King. For that piece, trumpets took up positions at various points around the hall, two of them right next to where we were seated. The effect of the fanfares calling and answering across the theatre was spine-tingling.

Above all, though, I have to take my hat off to the Chorus of  Welsh National Opera. I’ve been to many performances at the Wales Millennium Centre over the last six years or so. Some have been better than others, but the Chorus has always been excellent. Last night was no exception. They got the mixture of passion and control just right, and at times the power they generated was breathtaking.

I’ve tried to explain very often to people who don’t like Opera why I love it so much. That always involves explaining how you can take a piece of drama seriously when everyone is singing all the time. I have to say that somehow the music just creates an alternative universe and you fall into it. Sometimes that takes a while, and sometimes it doesn’t really happen at all. Yesterday, it only took about two bars of the Prelude to Act I to get me hooked and I stayed hooked for the whole performance.

It’s a wonderful thing, Opera. If you haven’t tried it before, you should. If you don’t like, fair enough. But if you never try you might just miss something that will change your life for the better. You won’t find many better productions to start with than this one!

Rebranding Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on February 17, 2013 by telescoper

I went last night to Welsh National Opera’s new production of Lulu by Alban Berg; I’ll post a review in due course when I’ve got more time. Before I get the train back to Brighton I thought I’d post a quick comment on WNO’s recent “rebranding” exercise. This was described by Director David Pountney as follows:

WNO’s rebranding exercise is an integral part of its overall strategy to make itself as fit as possible to face the many challenges of the current environment. This includes a reinvigorated artistic programme, a rigorously tight management of our financial outgoings, and a positive search for alternative funding. The branding exercise is far more than creating a new logo. It has resulted from detailed consultations within and outside the company on its mission and its identity, and has resulted in a renewed image that will serve for the next decade. Central to this is of a re-designed website, together with a new style of programme book to reflect the company’s themed seasons. Together these form an integrated strategy to support the company’s prosperity and creative energy over the coming seasons.

One immediately obvious consequence of this rebranding is the demise of the very attractive and handy old programmes (such as the one for Tosca on the left), and their replacement by a much bigger season programme that covers in this case three different operas (Lulu, Madame Butterfly and The Cunning Little Vixen, bundled together incongruously under the theme of Free Spirits) . The new style programme is much heavier and larger so that it doesn’t fit in jacket pocket. It also means that if you just want to see one Opera in the season, and want to buy a programme for that one only, you can’t. Shades of the academic publishing industry. Any further visits of mine to WNO definitely won’t involve buying a programme..

Anyway, one thing the marketing types can’t bugger up with their rebranding nonsense is the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre, snapped here as I went to get a bite to eat after last night’s performance.

Dracula

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on May 28, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I went with some friends to the Wales Millennium Centre in sunny Cardiff Bay; not, this time, for an Opera but to see a movie. Well, not just to see a movie but to listen to the soundtrack performed live at the same time. It turned out to be a fascinating and memorable evening, enjoyed by a very large audience.

The film was the classic 1931 version of Bram Stoker’s Draculastarring the great Bela Lugosi as the Count. This version – the first of many variations on the theme – was based very closely on the 1927 Broadway play in which Lugosi also played the title role. The music we heard was specially composed to accompany Dracula by Philip Glass, and the man himself was there to perform it. Philip Glass, I mean, not Count Dracula. The musicians numbered six in total, actually, as Philip Glass was joined by the Kronos Quartet  and together they were directed by Michael Riesman, who sat with his back to the audience watching the film on the big screen.

Although the musicians started a bit ropily, they soon pulled themselves together and it became obvious that the music was going to bring a significant new dimension to this pioneering old horror movie. In fact, as a very early “talkie” the original film had no musical score at all and very few sound effects of any kind. The music composed by Philip Glass brings extra dramatic intensity to some of the movie’s iconic sequences, such as the battle of wills when Dracula tries to mesmerise Professor van Helsing. The insistent repetition which is characteristic of Glass’ minimalist approach adds urgency where needed, but there are also contrasting passages of relaxed beauty. The score is also beautifully understated where it needs to be, simple enough not to distract attention away from the screen.

The passing years have not been particularly kind to the film. The effects are often unconvincing (to say the least), especially the  bats-on-strings, some of the acting very hammy, and the audio quality was so poor that the dialogue was often so muffled as to be barely audible (and not helped by bad mixing with the music).

Once you look past these superficial aspects, however, it’s not difficult to understand why this film is regarded as such a classic, because it is a highly original piece of work. It’s a far cry from a modern gore-fest, of course. The horror is implied rather than made explicit; all the actual blood-sucking happens out of shot. But the unsettlingly disjointed narrative, full of unexpected changes of scene and unexplained goings-on, gives it a dream-like feel and conjures up a unique sense of atmosphere. Although it it is now extremely dated, it doesn’t take that much imagination to understand why it created a sensation way back in 1931, with people apparently fainting in shock in the cinema. It also made a huge amount of money at the box office.

Vampire movies  are replete with their own set of clichés – the crucifixes, the absent reflections, the bats, etc etc – but this is the daddy of them all. The one thing that surprised me was the lack of garlic; the favoured protection against this particular member of the Undead is Wolfsbane (a member of the Aconite family of attractive yet lethally poisonous flowering plants; I used to grow a variety called Monk’s-Hood in my garden when I lived in Nottingham).

In the end, however, Dracula owes it all to the mesmerising screen presence of Bela Lugosi. This film made his name, and he was to spend most of the rest of his career typecast as a horror villain. His later years represented a downward spiral. Trouble with sciatica led doctors to prescribe him with opiates, on which he became hooked.  His drug addiction made him notoriously unreliable and work dried up. His career dwindled away into obscure bit parts in poor quality B-movies.

Although Bela Lugosi had his limitations as an actor, he didn’t deserve his fate. I’ve said before on here that I think people should be judged by their best work rather than by their worst, and so it is with Bela Lugosi. He was, and remains, the  Count Dracula.