Archive for Welsh National Opera

From the House of the Dead in Southampton

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

Advertisements

WNO Eugene Onegin

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick review of my second opera of the new season at Welsh National Opera, Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which I saw on Friday evening. This Opera, based on a famous novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin continues this Autumn’s Russian theme, though it is very different in style from Khovanshchina which I saw last week.

The plot revolves around the eponynmous character Eugene Onegin who is dashing and handsome but also arrogant and self-centred. Young Tatyana becomes infatuated with Onegin, and writes him an an impassioned love letter but he haughtily dismissed her advances, not least because she is a simple country girl. Onegin then decides to flirt with Olga, girlfriend of his best friend Lensky who, infuriated, challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky in the duel then, in remorse, Onegin travels abroad for many years (during which he grows his hair long but apparently doesn’t change his suit). He returns to St Petersburg and attends a posh shindig only to find Tatyana all grown up and the belle of the ball. Now that she has some social standing he now finds her desirable, but it turns out that she’s married (to a Prince no less). Though she still fancies him – Heaven knows why, as Onegin is not at all a likeable character – she puts loyalty before passion, and Onegin is left alone with his regrets.

Tchaikovsky’s music is very beautiful, with memorable arias and passages for the chorus. The most famous piece is, of course, the Polonaise that opens Act III. I have to admit that although I’ve heard this piece dozens of times I never knew how to dance the Polonaise before seeing this production. Here’s what it looks like (from a rather more opulent production):

This production has a conventional design and overall look, and is none the worse for that. It’s very much a piece about a particular time and place. Classic countryside settings are contrasted with beautiful ballroom scenes using a simple but effective staging involving a wall across the entire stage with a large rectangular gap in the centre. This aperture is used as a window, or a grand door for the interior scenes but also as a clever way to suggest outdoor settings. The only problem with this device is that it does restrict the stage area quite a bit, so the ballroom scenes look a bit cramped. Costumes are in period style, their rich colours complementing the rather simple staging. Onegin makes his first appearance in black, complete with a top hat, looking rather like an undertaker.

The Opera is in Three Acts, adding up to seven scenes in all. That makes for quite a few changes of scenery and two intervals or, as I call them, wine breaks. The kind of opera I like best of all is the kind with two intervals…

Nicholas Lester (baritone) was a fine Onegin in a role that’s challenging mainly because the character is so unsympathetic; he does get to sing some lovely music. Natalya Romaniw (soprano) sang and acted beautifully, her transformation from country girl to high society lady was very convincing. Miklós Sebestyén (bass-baritone) took the singing honours, though, with a stunning vocal performance that was very warmly received by the audience. It almost goes without saying that the WNO chorus were excellent, but I’ll say it anyway.

P.S. The house was pretty much full, by the way, which is good news. I just wish more people would turn up for the less familiar works!

WNO Khovanshchina

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 24, 2017 by telescoper

So, as promised, yesterday evening I took a stroll down to Cardiff Bay for the opening night of this run of Welsh National Opera’s production of Kovasnshchina. The walk proved a bit more eventful than anticipated because I blundered into the middle of some sort of police operation involving the pursuit of a suspect but I made it to the Wales Millennium Centre on time and relatively unruffled.

Khovanshchina (which roughly translates as `The Khovansky Affair’ or `The Khovansky Episode’) is based on historical events that took place in Moscow in the 1682. Prince Khovansky, at the head of his private army (the Strelsty) leads a rebellion against the government represented by Sofia, who is regent on behalf of her young brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (destined to become Peter the Great) who has, with assistance from her lover Prince Golitsyn, restricted the power of the the Boyars (aristocracy). These rebels form an uneasy alliance with The Old Believers, who are opposed to religious reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon. The rebellion is crushed by Peter’s army. Khovansky is murdered, but the Streltsy, having been lined up to be executed, are spared by the young Tsar. Golitsyn is forced into exile. The Old Believers, on the other hand, convinced that the failure of the uprising means that the devil is taking over the world, opt for mass suicide.

Mussorgsky was inspired to write this Opera by the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great (who was born in 1672). He worked on it, off and on, composing the music and writing the libretto, from 1872 until his death in 1881 and which point it still wasn’t finished. His friend Nikllai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently completed the work, and it is his version that is most frequently performed. This production, however, uses a different version, completed in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the addition of the final scene – the immolation of the Old Believers – the music for which was composed by Igor Stravinsky. The compositional history of this piece is almost as complex as the historical events it depicts.

At a very basic level the message of Khovanshchina is “look how terrible everything was before Peter the Great”. None of the protagonists is a remotely sympathetic character, especially Khovansky himself who is an extremely unpleasant individual, as is his son, whom we first meet trying to force his attentions on a young German girl. Khovansky Senior arrives on the scene to stop him assaulting the girl, but only because he wants her for himself. They’re all charm, these Khovanskys.

Golitsyn seems at first like a good guy, but when a fortune teller forecasts doom and gloom he casually orders her to be murdered. The Old Believers just seem to be a group of religious maniacs. Peter the Great never actually appears on stage and neither does Sofia, a deliberate ploy to focus our attention on the undesirables in front of us. The story that unfolds is one full of horror and brutality, while hope waits in the wings, perhaps never to arrive.

This particular episode also serves to highlight the themes that recur elsewhere in Russian history, and indeed the history of any country that has a history, namely the conflicts between reason and superstition, between rich and poor, between East and West and, well, between War and Peace…

David Pountney’s design for  this production isn’t specific to the 17th century. The striking set, with its curious juxtaposition of abstract geometrical forms, owes much to the constructivist art that informed the iconography of the early Soviet era. Other elements of the design, such as the costumes of the serfs (grey) and the Old Believers (white), are more traditional. The Streltsy wear uniforms that look 20th century, but are a bright pink. This colour-coding is helpful, actually, given the complexities of the plot, and the fact that the stage is frequently crowded. The final apocalyptic suicide scene is not an immolation, but death by poison gas, administered by a steampunk contraption that descends from above the stage. These, and other devices, shift attention away from the specifics and emphasize the thematic universality of the piece.

Spread over five acts, and lasting about 3½ hours (including one interval), Khovanshchina is quite a long Opera but it doesn’t get bogged down because so much is happening musically, dramatically and visually.  It may not be the most comfortable viewing, but it’s a gripping story compelling realised. I certainly never felt bored, though I do wish I’d read a little more about the story beforehand as I got a bit confused in places.

With the exception of a few iffy moments by the French horns, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus played excceedingly well, adding a sense of danger to the opening prelude that set the tone wonderfully. A special mention must be made of the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were absolutely magnificent, showing off some of the sublime choral writing in this opera as well as provide lots of energy and colour to the crowd scenes.  It isn’t really fair to single out any of the principals, as this is really an ensemble piece, but I thought Robert Hayward was absolutely compelling.

There are two more performances in Cardiff but this piece goes on tour. Do go and see it if you can. It’s an enthralling experience.

 

Dawn over the Moscow River

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 22, 2017 by telescoper

If the world doesn’t come to an end tomorrow, around 7pm I hope to be in my seat at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay for the start of Khovanschina performed by Welsh National Opera, it being the first night of their new season.

Khovanschina, composed by Modest Mussorgsky, is not a particular well-known opera but the lovely Prelude to Act I is performed fairly often as a concert piece with the title Dawn Over the Moscow River. Here it is, played in 1991 by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev:

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!

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!