Archive for Welsh National Opera

Summer’s Ending

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Cricket with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2017 by telescoper

There’s no escaping the signs that summer is drawing to a close. The weather took a decidedly autumnal turn  at the end of last week, and though I resisted the temptation to turn the central heating on at Chateau Coles I fear it won’t be long before I have to face reality and take that step. I hope I can hold out at least until the conventional end of summer, the autumnal equinox, which this year happens at 21.02 BST on Friday, 22 September.

Saturday saw the Last Night of the BBC Proms season. I’ve enjoyed a great many of the concerts but I only listened to a bit of the first half of the Last Night as I find the jingoism of the second half rather hard to stomach. I did catch Nina Stemme on the wireless giving it some welly in the Liebestod from Tristan und Insolde, though.  Pretty good, but difficult to compare with my favourite version by Kirsten Flagstad.

One of the highlights of the season, just a few days ago, was Sir András Schiff’s late-night performance of Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier which had me captivated for two hours, until well past my usual bedtime…

However, as the Proms season ends in London the music-making continues in Cardiff with a new series of international concerts at St David’s Hall and Welsh National Opera’s new season at the Wales Millennium Centre (which starts on 23rd September). I notice also that, having finished his complete Beethoven cycle,  Llŷr Williams is embarking on a series of recitals of music by Schubert, starting on November 9th at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Another sign that summer is over is that the last Test Match of the summer has ended. Excellent bowling by Jimmy Anderson (and, in the first innings, by Ben Stokes) meant that England had only a small total to chase, which they managed comfortably. Victory at Lord’s gives England a 2-1 win for the series over West Indies. That outcome is welcome for England fans, but it doesn’t do much to build confidence for the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia. England’s pace bowlers have shown they can prosper in English conditions, when the Duke ball can be made to swing, but in Australia with the Kookaburra they may find success much harder to come by. More importantly, however, only two of England’s five top-order batsmen are of proven international class, making their batting lineup extremely fragile. So much depends on Cook and Root, as I don’t think it is at all obvious who should take the other three positions, despite a whole summer of experimentation.

There are a few one-day internationals and Twenty20 matches coming up as well as three full weeks of County Championship fixtures. In particular, there are two home games for Glamorgan in the next two weeks (one against Northants, starting tomorrow, and one next week against Gloucestershire). Their last match (away against Derbyshire) was drawn because three of the four days were lost to rain, but weather permitting there should still be a few opportunities to see cricket at Sophia Gardens this year.

And of course it will soon be time to for the start of the new academic year, welcoming new students (including the first intake on our MSc courses in Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics and new PhD students in Data-Intensive Science who form the first intake of our new Centre for Doctoral Training). All that happens just a couple of weeks from today, and we’re having a big launch event on 25th-26th September to welcome the new intake and introduce them to our industrial and academic partners.

Anyway, that reminds me that I have quite a lot to do before term starts so I’d better get on with it, especially if I’m going to make time to watch a few days of cricket between now and the end of the month!

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The Shrinking Seasons at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by telescoper

I was excited to receive the brochure shown above for the 2017/18 season at Welsh National Opera, but although it contains some very exciting things there are also many signs that times are getting very tough at WNO.

This October sees the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution so it’s no surprise that the Autumn season has a distinctive Russian flavour. There’s Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mussorgky’s Khovanschina and Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Yes, I know Janáček wasn’t Russian – but `From the House of the Dead’ is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was…

That looks like an interesting season, but there are only two performances of From the House of the Dead in Cardiff (both of which I think I’ll have to miss) and only three each of Eugene Onegin and Khovanschina. There’s also an additional performance of Johan Strauss’s light operetta Die Fledermaus, which is one of this year’s productions.

Spring 2018 sees performances of Puccini’s Tosca, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and Mozart’s Don Giovanni which again looks like a nice season. I’ve seen the productions of Tosca and Don Giovanni before, but won’t mind seeing them again.

But the real disappointment is that there’s no Summer season at all. Austerity has clearly bitten very hard. For year’s I’ve been celebrating my birthday (which falls in June) by going to a WNO performance in Cardiff but I guess next year I’ll just have to do something else….

Der Rosenkavalier at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by telescoper

I’m in London attending a cosmology meeting (of which more, perhaps, anon) but I couldn’t resist posting a quick review of yesterday’s birthday treat: the first performance of a new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. It wasn’t exactly a first night as such because it was a 3pm start. In fact it was still daylight when I got home..

Der Rosenkavalier is superficially a comic opera but it also moments of great depth and poignancy, dealing with the passage of time and the nature of love. The libretto contains some lovely passages, such as this:

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
Aber dann auf einmal, da spürt man nichts als sie.
Sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie,
im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
in meinen Schläfen fliesst sie.
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder,
lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.

Most of the comedy is supplied by an intrigue involving the boorish Baron Ochs, played brilliantly by bass Brindley Sherrat, who wishes to marry the innocent Sophie (largely to acquire the property of Sophie’s father). The Baron engages dashing young Octavian to deliver a ceremonial silver rose to Sophie as a wedding gift. Octavian arrives with the gift but falls in love at first sight with Sophie and his feelings are reciprocated. When the Baron turns out to be the horrible git that he is, Octavian engineers a plot to discredit him, rescue Sophie from a potentially disastrous marriage and claim her for himself. The cunning plan, which proves successful, involves Octavian dressing as a maid in order to catch the Baron in flagrante.

It’s worth mentioning that the part of 17-year old Octavian is played by a female singer – in this production the excellent Lucia Cervoni – who at one point has to be a girl playing a boy playing a girl, rather like Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. Sounds silly? Well, it is but it was beautifully done and gloriously funny.

Octavian (right) presents Sophie with the silver rose..

Octavian is a `trouser role’ but in this production the character begins with trousers off, having a bit of rumpy-pumpy with the Marschallin (played by the wonderful Rebecca Evans), who is much older than Octavian. At the start of the Opera they are in a passionate relationship, but the Marschallin is conscious of the passage of time and that her relationship with Octavian can’t last. At the end of Act I, she points out to Octavian that their relationship can’t go on and he storms out, shortly to meet young Sophie (in Act II).

In this production the Marschallin is often accompanied on stage by the silent and solitary figure of an old lady, who it turns out is a representation of herself in later life. It’s a clever device and would have been even more effective had the old lady not reminded me so much of Madge Allsop

The staging is in period, and for the most part pleasantly straightforward but there is a rather gimmicky element of steadily encroaching sand, presumably ‘the sands of time’ referred to in the last line of the excerpt quoted above. I felt this was neither necessary nor convincing. The theme of time’s inexorable progress is clear enough. There’s no need to labour it.

Near the end of Act III, after much coming and going, and the odious Baron’s entrapment and humiliation, the Marschallin  is left alone with her former lover Octavian and his intended bride Sophie, we arrive at the Opera’s emotional high point, and indeed one of the most sublime moments in the entire operatic repertoire, the sumptuous trio Hab Mir’s Gelobt,  in which the Marschallin comes to terms with the loss of Octavian and blesses the relationship between him and Sophie. This is one of the pieces of music that really affects me very powerfully, and I am not too proud to admit that I did let go a tear or two. Maybe more. Not because it is especially sad, but because it’s so very beautiful the way the three voice blend together and with the orchestra.

I don’t give star ratings but from a vocal point of view this is definitely one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on the Opera stage. All four principals: Rebecca Evans, Lucia Cervoni, Brindley Sherratt and Louise Alder (Sophie) rose to the challenges of their roles in great style. All were superb so it would be wrong to single out one, but I will say that I was surprised to discover that this was Rebecca Evan’s debut as the Marschallin – she was just about perfect in the role.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera directed by Tomas Hanus played Strauss’s lush score with great precision and passion,  holding together a wonderful afternoon at the Wales Millennium Centre. An altogether excellent way to spend a birthday afternoon!

Le Vin herbé

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 17, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff for the opening night of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Le Vin herbé  by Swiss-born composer Frank Martin. This isn’t a work with which I was previously familiar so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but then that’s why I usually particularly hard to get to see departures from the standard repertoire. It’s not that I’m at all bored with Mozart, Puccini et al but that it’s always good to keep an ear open for new things.  In fact there is only one performance of this piece in Cardiff this year before it goes on tour. Fortunately I was able to make it.

Le Vin herbé is based on the story of Tristan and Iseult ; the title refers to the potion that the two lead characters accidentally drink which makes them fall in love and thus betray King Mark of Cornwall, who is Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband-to-be. Naturally tt all ends in disaster, with the two lovers both dying. But if the story makes you think of Wagner’s epic operatic telling of this legend, Tristan und Isolde then you need to think again, as this is a very different piece. Le Vin herbé is a much more intimate work, with a relatively small case and a band of just eight musicians (a piano and seven string players) who, in this production, were at centre stage throughout the performance rather than in the pit. The main characters are played by tenor Tom Randle (Tristan) and soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Iseult) – both of whom were brilliant – and some of their lines are also sung by the chorus and there are also solo storytellers to provide bits of the narrative. The set and staging is very minimal. In fact it’s more of a chamber oratorio than an Opera. Also the entire performances lasts under two hours, with no interval. Quite a lot shorter than Wagner’s version!

I think the instrumental music by Frank Martin is very fine indeed, and very well played by the musicians directed by James Southall, and the principals and chorus were in good voice. Having said that I think Martin’s writing for voices is less successful. The vocal lines consciously evokes mediaeval plainsong, which works quite well for the chorus but makes it difficult for the soloists to generate any melodic drive. It’s not helped by the libretto either, which is rather dry and undramatic. On the way home from the performance I couldn’t help wondering what it might have been like had the text been in mediaeval Latin! The staging was at times effective: some of the scenes between Tristan and Iseult were very moving, but the stage was too busy and confusing when the whole chorus got involved.

This probably sounds very critical, but I don’t mean it to be. There’s much to enjoy in this production, so I’d encourage you to go and form their own opinion. It’s on tour in Bristol, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Plymouth and Southampton. Last night’s performance got a very warm reception from a pretty full house which, for an unusual work like this, is a very good sign.

La Bohème at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on January 30, 2017 by telescoper

So, to get away from the world for a short while I went on Saturday to the opening night of the new season by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff – a tale of poverty and doomed love, ending in a tragic death. Well, what did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?

I suppose the story of La Bohème will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Opera, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway.  It’s a boy-meets-girl love story, of course. The boy in this case is the poet Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and the girl, actually named Lucia but known  as Mimi (Marina Costa-Jackson).  The setting is Paris around 1830, and the poet and his painter friend Marcello (Gary Griffiths) are starving and freezing, as it is winter and they have no money.  Act I is set on Christmas Eve, but the two friends have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. Fortunately, their musician friend Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) turns up with money and provisions. After various comings and goings – including the arrival of philosopher Colline (Jihoon Kim) and an untimely visit from the landlord (Howard Kirk) everyone but Rodolfo leaves to spend Christmas Eve out on the town; Rodolfo has to finish a piece for a journal, and promises to join them when he is done. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mimi, who lives nearby and whose candle has gone out. It’s love at first sight…

The later stages of Act I are built around Rodolfo’s aria Che Gelida Manina (“your tiny hand is frozen”) and Mimi’s Mi Chiamano Mimi. These beautiful songs follow one another in quick succession, and are then rounded off with a wonderful duet O Soave Fanciulla  in a manner guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. And, before you ask, yes I did cry again. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone noticed.

But it’s not just the ravishing music that makes this passage so special, it’s also Puccini’s gift as a story-teller: after the two arias by Rodolfo and Mimi, the audience knows everything they need to know about these characters. It’s a great example of why I think Puccini is a far greater writer of Opera than, say, Wagner. Puccini understood much better than Wagner how to vary  pace and colour  without allowing the story to bogged down, and he knew exactly how to use his big tunes to maximum dramatic effect (i.e. without excessive repetition). In fact, La Bohème is in four acts, but its running time is just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, packed full of gorgeous music and compelling drama. It’s a supreme example of Puccini’s artistry as a composer of Opera.

Anyway, back to the plot. Act II finds Rodolfo and Mimi joining in the party started by Marcello and his buddies. There’s a huge contrast here between the dingy garret in which Act I is set, as this is set in the Latin Quarter of gay Paris (with a few drag queens in this production thrown in to make the point). Marcello gets off with the object of his desire, the coquettish Musetta (Lauren Fagan), and all seems well with the world as we go into the interval.

In Act III we find things have changed. Rodolfo’s love for Mimi has soured and, overcome by jealousy and suspicion, he has left her. Clearly unwell, Mimi wanders around looking for Rodolfo and he hears her coughing. They clearly still love each other, but find it difficult to live with each other. If Opera were Facebook they would both have “It’s complicated” on their status.

The last act finds us back in the garret, Rodolfo and Mimi having separated. But Mimi has been wandering the streets in the freezing cold and turns up, clearly gravely ill. Rodolfo’s friends quickly pawn some meagre possessions and Marcello and Musetta rush out to buy medicine and summon a doctor. They return with the medicine but, before the doctor arrives, Mimi dies.

People say that this is a romantic opera but it’s a pretty bleak story when you think about it. The lovers’ happiness is brief and it all ends in despair and death in surroundings of poverty and squalor. That’s what Opera Verismo is all about. In this production Mimi really does looks ill at the end, making the ending all the more heartbreaking.

All the principals were very good. I thought the voice of Dominick Chenes sounded a little thin at the start and was worried that he might have to force it during the big arias, but he warmed up magnificently. Lauren Fagan was a very sassy as the “tart-with-a heart” Musetta. The other person who deserves a particular mention was the bass Jihoon Kim as Colline, who has a superb voice.

And a word for the production. This revival of Annabel Arden’s design – slightly different from the last time I saw it, with a different case, five years ago – managed to bring fresh elements to what is basically a straightforward interpretation of the Opera. The visual effects, such as the animated snow,  were clever but not intrusive. There was no attempt to translate the action into a different period or location nor was there an attempt to preach about disease as a metaphor for moral failings. In this respect it’s very faithful to what I think Puccini’s intentions were, i.e. to let the audience make their own mind up about what message they want to take away. The only slight departure I spotted was that in Act I Mimi actually blows her own candle out deliberately in order to get Rodolfo to light it again. Methinks she’s a bit more forward than usual in this production.

This was the first performance of this run of La Bohème. If you love Opera and can get to Cardiff, then do go and see it. It’s very special.

P.S. I was a little amused by the image of the skyline of 19th Century Paris projected in front of the curtains before the show started. It did much to set the atmosphere, but I really don’t think those TV aerials should have been there…

 

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

The Merchant of Venice at Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by telescoper

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Last Friday (30th September 2016) I got another fix of opera in the form of a new Welsh National Opera production of The Merchant of Venice by André Tchaikowsky at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay (above; the people in the bottom left of the picture were having an important discussion about the location of the nearest Fish & Chip shop).

The Opera sticks very closely to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, even to the extent that the libretto uses some of the original text verbatim. That creates the opposite problem to that which I mentioned in my review of Verdi’s Macbeth. In Verdi’s case the text was excessively abridged with many memorable passages omitted entirely, but in this case the Opera struggles to under the weight of so many words. It’#s not just that the Opera has to be rather long in order to accommodate so much of the original play,  more that Shakespeare’s verse has a compelling rhythm to it that echoes but also amplifies the cadences of natural English speech. Unless it is done exceptionally well, setting the words to music actually detracts from the poetry rather than adding anything to it. Take for example, Portia’s wonderful speech in the courtroom scene (Act IV of the play; Act III of the opera):

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

These words have music to them in their own right, a music that, frankly, I preferred to what Tchaikowsky added which seemed to distort their proper metre.

I’m not saying that I didn’t like the music; the score is often highly effective. Rigorously atonal – in fact somewhat reminiscent of Alban Berg – it generates great psychological tension and carries considerable emotional force. I just think it was a mistake to take such a literal approach to Shakespeare’s text.

That said, there is a great deal to savour in this production. The staging is extremely well done, with each scene having a completely different look and feel, and the principals sang their roles extremely well. Lester Lynch was a particularly fine Shylock, managing to transcend the stereotypical aspects of his character with a performance of great nobility. The antisemitism of Shakespeare’s play is certainly present in the Opera,  but casting Shylock as a black actor turns it into a more general statement about the evil of prejudice. The play only hints that the relationship between the two men Antonio and Bassanio is more than just a friendship, but the Opera clearly suggests that there is a sexual element to it. Antonio is left alone and distraught at the end, as Bassanio abandons him for Portia, but sympathy for him is limited by his awful behaviour towards Shylock. That suggests (at least to me) that the abuse Antonio directs at Shylock is born of his own internal conflict. At any rate he ends the Opera as he starts it, on a psychiatrist’s couch.

A word must be said about Antonio. The role (for a counter-tenor) was supposed to be sung by Martin Wölfel but he was indisposed by laryngitis. In stepped Feargal Mostyn-Williams at very short notice in what must be an immensely demanding role. I thought he was very good indeed. He held the stage well and though he struggled to project over the orchestra at the start (presumably due to nerves) he grew into the role very well.

This is a production that’s well worth seeing, and I enjoyed it a lot despite the difficulties I tried to explain above. Sadly there were only two performances in Cardiff, so if you want to see it you’ll have to catch it on tour or next summer when it is to be staged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.