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Posts Tagged ‘Bryn Terfel’

Opera

It’s baffling why Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera May Night is hardly ever staged, so a gold star to Royal Academy Opera for a production with musical standards that any professional opera company would be proud of. Their theatre is being rebuilt, so it took place in the former testing hall of the University of Westminster across the road, which was just as well as it would never have fitted on their own stage / in their own pit! A real treat.

The London Handel Festival’s annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre was Ariodante, one of his best, and it was another operatic treat, with gorgeous playing by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a set of very fine performances from RCM students. I even liked the grungy set, even though it wasn’t exactly evocative of Edinburgh, where the opera is set!

I wasn’t expecting to be as bowled over by George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Barbican Centre as I was. I can’t say I entirely understood the story, but I was mesmerised by the music, brilliantly played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin with three stunning lead soloists – Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever heard.

Popup Opera’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi in The Vaults at Waterloo was their first foray into tragedy and it was a huge success. Stripped down to five singers, an electric piano, a few props and some strip lights, the music shone through. Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett were terrific as the star-crossed lovers (Bellini wrote Romeo as a trouser role), though I wished they hadn’t done the final death scene standing up!

The original version of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House was 130 unbroken minutes but it kept me in its grip throughout. Richard Jones production was as masterly and fresh as his Meistersingers and the musical standards under Antonio Pappano were sky high. Bryn Terfel can act as well as he can sing and the rest of the leads were just as good. Terrific stuff.

Dance

The revival of Akram Khan’s Kaash at Sadler’s Wells was an exhausting hour, such was the physicality of the five dancers. There’s no narrative as such, but the combination of Anish Kapoor’s hypnotic design, Nitin Sawhney’s percussive music and the organic, acrobatic choreography of Kahn was rather mesmerising.

At the Staatsoper in Hannover, I caught a ballet of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Was Ihr Wollt (the play’s subtitle, What You Will), with a mash-up of music by Prokofiev Shostakovich and Dvorak, and it was a treat, particularly good at the comedy, with some lovely performances from an international cast. I do love catching opera and ballet on my travels, especially when it’s half the cost at Covent Garden, as it was here!

Film

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby was clever and often very funny, but also often gross and in the end more gross than funny.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but I was a bit underwhelmed by Hail Caesar! And I’m not sure why. It was a great idea, but it didn’t fully satisfy me.

Though Anomalisa didn’t live up to its five star reviews, it was a very original film, an animation using life-size puppets and the voice of only one actor for all parts expect the two leads, and a clever way of showing a man spiralling into depression.

High Rise was another film that didn’t live up to the hype. It’s a very odd affair that I didn’t really think went anywhere, though it held my attention and the performances were good.

Art

Nikolai Astrup is the best painter I’d never heard of, and Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply gorgeous. The vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes made you want to get on a plane there and then.

I caught the Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain in its last weekend. I liked about half of the pictures and was indifferent to the rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that about an artist’s work. Whilst there, I caught the Artist & Empire exhibition, examining Britain’s Imperial past through art, which seemed to me to be one of those exhibitions created to make some money, though it was very well curated. Between the two was Susan Philipsz clever sound installation featuring samples from The Last Post played on brass and woodwind instruments damaged during the Second World War; very moving.

I was rather chuffed with my photographs of my recent safaris to South Africa, Namibia and Kenya……until I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and that was just the under-18’s! They benefit, of course, from scale and back-lighting, but it was the compositions which I envied most. Lovely. Next door at the Science Museum, I very much enjoyed the American documentary photography of Alec Soth and the stunning mid-19th century portraits of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron and the juxtaposition of the two was in itself brilliant. Another diverse afternoon immersion in photography.

Strange & Familiar at the Barbican was a social history of 20th century Britain through an extraordinary collection of photographs by those who don’t live here. There was a bias towards the 50’s and 60’s (my first two decades!), probably the birth of such documentary photography, and many of them seemed attracted to my homeland – South Wales mining communities – so it may have been particularly moving for me.

Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Over one hundred paintings from the impressionist and post-impressionist period and a riot of colour. The three Monet-only rooms were a joy to behold. I’ll have to go back. Upstairs, In the Age of Giorgione was a superb collection of early sixteenth century Venetian art. Technically very accomplished, but not really my thing. The one-room collection of Ann Christopher’s ‘Lines of Time’ was a little treat on the way out.

At the Photographers Gallery, a trio of small exhibitions starting with a lovely varied retrospective of American photographer Saul Leiter, another master of documentary photography. On the floor below Rio-Montevideo was a brilliant exhibition of Uruguayan protest photographs which had been hidden during the prolonged period of military dictatorships and were now presented by a Rio photographer and projected by vintage machines picked up in flea markets and second-hand stores (a lot of which were out of order!). Finally, an exhibition commemorating the Easter Rising on its 100th anniversary, something I found it hard to engage with for some reason.

The 100th Anniversary of Vogue was celebrated at the NPG in huge style by an exhibition which took over almost the entire ground floor, containing pictures from each decade. A simply stunning collection which had me rushing to buy the catalogue (again!). Whilst there, I popped into Russia & the Arts, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, writers etc, but failed to get enthused after the wonders of the Vogue collection.

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I wasn’t going to blog this because I considered it a concert and I confine those to my monthly round-ups (life’s too short!). I changed my mind because it’s more than a concert, I’ve got a lot to say about it and I woke up with it going round in my head. I’ve seen this show more than any other, including Pimlico Opera, The Royal Opera and Opera North (with Welsh National Opera already booked for later this year), but mostly fully staged by theatre companies, latterly Chichester Festival Theatre, the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Harrington’s Pie Shop here in Tooting, now ‘up west’ and I will confess to being a touch biased, though still I think objective.

I was in the US when the original US ‘production’ was aired on PBS, but it was timed for the east coast and I was on the west coast and couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. It starts as a seemingly straightforward concert with the orchestra on stage and the singers mostly in DJ’s and gowns. In a superbly audacious move, they throw down the scores, overturn the music stands, tear off the formal clothes and generally rough the place up. What follows is semi-staged with a few props, some cleverly purloined from the orchestra, banners from the boxes announcing the location of the scenes and a graffiti backdrop. It works, but it isn’t staged.

One of the chief pleasures is hearing this score from a full orchestra on stage; it does sound brilliant. The chorus too is full throated (sorry!) and by moving around the stage and auditorium it animates the ‘staging’. I’m a huge fan of Bryn Terfel and I’ve seen him as Sweeney before, in another semi-staged production at the Royal Festival Hall. His booming baritone suits the role superbly, though he isn’t as scary as he was closer up at the RFH (or as Scarpia in Tosca) and his operatic style of singing sometimes loses words, as opera singers often do. Emma Thompson proves to be a terrific comic actress, relishing Mrs Lovett’s brilliant lines and lyrics, though I’ve seen better vocal Mrs Lovett’s. It’s great to see Philip Quast again and he’s wonderful as the Judge, as is John Owen-Jones as Pirelli and Katie Hall as Johanna, singing the role beautifully. I’m also a fan of Alex Gaumond, but I thought he was too young and not oily enough as The Beadle, and the Beggar Woman isn’t a role which does justice to Rosalie Craig’s extraordinary musical theatre talent. Matthew Seadon-Yoiung and Jack North were good rather than great as Anthony and Tobias respectively, the later with a very off-putting Rod Stewart wig whilst working for Pirelli!

It was a much-hyped show and the audience reaction was ecstatic, saving the biggest ovation, quite rightly, for Mr Sondheim himself. I’m very glad I went, though I don’t consider it the pinnacle for this show that some do. I wasn’t as scared and I didn’t laugh as much as I did down the road and that’s the one I would return to – and will, fully accepting accusations of bias.

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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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Well, the highlight of the month was undoubtedly my trip to the rehearsal of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. We didn’t get the whole lot (sadly not the winged bicyclists, but thankfully not the never-ending entrance of the teams!) but we got most of it and it was truly spectacular. My front row seat may not have been the best, but I was privileged to be there and it was an experience I will never forget. You know the rest, but here are some photos!

Another unexpected treat was getting tickets to one of Eddie Izzard‘s work-in-progess shows in the cabaret space at Soho Theatre. A late Monday night (after dinner and drinks) was a challenge, but it was fun. He really is a one-off.

Opera-wise, it was Cape Town Opera‘s visit with Porgy & Bess, which proved itself to be more of an opera than a musical in this excellent production. Moving it to a South African township worked, though the highlights were all vocal – the soloists and chorus were thrilling.

I’m not sure I know how to categorise Desdemona, a collaboration between poet Toni Morrison, director Peter Sellers and favourite Malian singer Rokia Traore, but given it was Rokia that largely drew me to it and was the best thing about it, I’ve decided it’s music. Her songs were lovely, but the narrative that accompanied it was never-ending and somewhat pretentious. It would have made a great concert!

I never made it to Bryn Terfel’s festival in his back yard in North Wales (though we had tickets for the last one, which was cancelled!) so well done Southbank Centre for bringing Bryn Fest to me! The evening of songs from the Golden Age of Broadway featured a quartet of favourites – Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams – as well as the man himself, and it was full of highlights. You rarely hear these songs with a full orchestra and that was a huge bonus. It was lovely to see Bryn & Clive’s take on Brush Up Your Shakespeare. I expected Clive to be word-perfect given he’s currently playing it in Chichester, but Bryn was too – no mean feat with all those Shakespeare references.

Though I had a ticket, I missed the opera evening because I had a better offer (a freebie return to the wonderful Sweeney Todd!) and I caught only half of pianist Huw Warren‘s free foyer concert, which featured a trumpeter and a jazz version of a Welsh hymn, but was glad I caught what I caught. The Wales Choir of the World event was another treat, featuring choirs from 11 countries on 5 continents. The highlights were the South African choir, the Cory Band and the massed choir & brass band rendition of the world premiere of a Karl Jenkins The Hero’s Journey. As I left the RFH, a large audience on the riverside were being taught to sing in Welsh for Bryn’s Big Sing which was a fitting end to this mini-festival.

Four Proms this month, starting with the much criticised populist opening night. Well, I enjoyed it; what’s wrong with a bit of populist patriotism?! More Bryn (the 5th time in 17 days!) in Delius’ lovely Sea Drift, a quartet of premiere league soloists for Elgar’s full Coronation Ode and orchestral pieces from Tippett and Elgar again – oh and a Mark Anthony Turnage world premiere, just in case you were feeling a bit too nostalgic! Six days later, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was given a rare but enjoyable outing by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment with another quartet of fine soloists. This was followed three days later by a concert version of Berlioz The Trojans – long but lovely! Again, some great solo turns from Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anna Caterina Antonacci, this time with the superb orchestra and chorus of the ROH under Antonio Pappano. So to the night of the opening of the Olympics where an early start for Beethoven’s 9th meant we (and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who later carried in the Olympic flag!) wouldn’t miss Danny Boyle’s spectacular on TV. Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was right for the occasion but also played brilliantly and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, also right for the occasion, were stunning. What a prologue for the evening that followed!

It was time to catch up with some art this month and I started at the De Morgan Centre where the work of ceramicist William and his painter wife Evelyn is showcased in a small but superb collection; eye-poppingly beautiful (if you’re into Arts & Crafts and / or the pre-Raphaelites) .  Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain was a brilliantly curated show putting Picasso alongside those he influenced, including Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland & David Hockney. I was less enamoured by Migrations – Journeys into British Art at the same place, more because of the quality of the work than the idea of the exhibition, which was a good one.

My annual trip to the Serpentine Gallery to see their Pavilion (an excellent, largely below ground, collaboration between Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & De Meuron, the team that did the Beijing birds nest Olympic stadium) was extended to see Yoko Ono‘s show which was more interesting, and a lot less pretentiously avant-garde, than I was expecting.

Finally, during a weekend in Bath, I popped into their newly renovated Holburne Art Museum for a lovely small portrait sculpture exhibition and stayed for What Are You Like (based on the Victorian parlour game, where people draw their favourite things) and their permanent collection. This is now one of the best regional art galleries; well worth a visit.

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Contemporary Music

I must have seen almost all of John Hiatt’s London concerts in the last 30 years or so – solo and with a lot of different bands, including the solo-duo show with Lyle Lovett and the short-lived ‘supergroup’ Little Village with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. His sound blends country, rock and blues in different combinations depending on the configuration of the band (if there is a band) and the style of the latest album. This incarnation is more rocky, but boy is it a great band. Three-quarters of the set was made up of material prior to the recent album, often re-worked to give a fresh spin. The intimate Under the Bridge (actually under Chelsea’s ground Stamford Bridge, but fortunately without any players or WAGS in sight!) proved an excellent venue (much like The Borderline some years ago and The Half Moon Putney way back when) and it was a cracking night. By the last encore, Riding With the King, they were on fire.

Opera

Our summer visit to WNO in Cardiff only involved one opera, La Boheme, but it was a brilliant production which we enjoyed so much we’ve booked to see again in September. Annabel Arden’s simple new staging, with an excellent design from Stephen Brimston Lewis featuring brilliant projections by Nina Dunn at Knifedge, was pitch perfect and Anita Hartig and Alex Vicens as Mimi and Rodolfo sang beautifully. The supporting cast were excellent and, as ever, Carlo Rizzi made the orchestra and chorus soar. Gorgeous.

Caligula at ENO won’t go down as a great new opera (the music isn’t good enough for that) but it was a brilliantly dramatic and inventive staging which got to the heart of its subject’s madness. This was mostly owing to a stunning performance in the title role from Peter Coleman-Wright and two great supporting performances from Yvonne Howard as his wife and Christopher Ainslie as his servant. Modern opera is often challenging; this one was no exception, but it was worth the ride.

Classical

St. Paul’s Cathedral has an acoustic which makes performing anything there a huge risk; I particularly recall a disastrous Britten’s War Requiem some years ago. The LSO made a better choice of Berlioz Requiem because it was big enough for the space and indeed the space added something to the music. When there were four trumpet sections in four spaces all around you, it sent shivers up your spine. Berlioz specialist Sir Colin Davies was in charge and the combination of orchestra and two choirs and crystal clear tenor Barry Banks – 385 singers and players – was as powerful as it gets.

The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has got a lot older whilst they’ve been evading me; they’re now all between 18 and 28. I’d seen (and been underwhelmed) by their conductor Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil, but had not seen him with his main band. It didn’t take long before I realised it wasn’t all hype. Sitting in the front row of the Royal Festival Hall, from the first notes of Argentinean Esteban Benzecry’s Rituales Amerindios the sound was exciting; by the time they had finished Strauss’ Alpine Symphony they were thrilling. As if we hadn’t had enough of a treat, they gave us an encore (not so common these days). An odd man came on wearing an animal skin, horn helmet and eye patch, carrying a spear. I thought he might have been one of Benzecry’s Latin American Indians and we were about to get one of that triptych again, but then the helmet came off and it was Bryn Terfel. Somewhat unbelievably, they chose the final part of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (this orchestra’s first stab at Wagner!) – it soared and I cried. The icing on a delicious cake.

Art

I popped into a mercifully quiet Tate Modern after an early dinner on the last Saturday of the month to check out Damien Hirst and Edward Munch and what a pair of horrors they turned out to be. I’d seen (and not liked) most of the Hirst works before but having them all in one place – spot paintings, preserved animals, flies and butterflies (dead and alive) – was a depressing experience. I still think he’s an innovative and clever man who’s made a lot of money, but not really an artist of much merit. The Munch proves he was a bit of a one trick pony, and that trick – The Scream – isn’t part of this exhibition! His early work showed great skill as a portrait painter, and some that followed was interesting (and colourful), but his compulsions and obsessions, coupled with the loss of ability to paint a face, meant the body of work is uninspiring.

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Given the difficulty I had getting a ticket, I suppose it was destined to disappoint. It was harder to get than Bryn Terfel (the world’s greatest bass-baritone) in WNO’s Die Meistersingers or the RO’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo (the world’s greatest tenor) at the Proms – but they both had a functioning and fair booking process (and cost about the same)!

This was my 5th Punchdrunk ‘immersive’ experience but the first to disappoint. They say the first time is always the best (Firebird Ball, and it was pretty terrific) but for me it was the last (It Felt Like A Kiss at last year’s Manchester International Festival, which benefited significantly from being ‘linear’). I’m also a lover / supporter of modern opera, not a member of the ‘opera as museum’ majority. The conclusion I’ve reached is that opera just doesn’t suit the form – and the audience didn’t help.

Apparently there are nine scenes to this opera on three floors of a disused office block / warehouse in Docklands, but I think I only saw four or five complete scenes totalling less than 44 minutes in the 2.75 hours I was in the building. There was one particular scene in the atrium which was never performed in the many occasions I wandered its way. What I did see was occasionally through a wall of people or ruined by audience members who seemed to think wandering amongst the players or up close with a singer was part of the experience rather than sabotaging the atmosphere, tension and drama that had hitherto existed. When a scene finished, some audience members ran after singers actors or musicians as if their life depended on it!

It was impossible to get any sense of narrative or story – in order or not – difficult to understand the sung words and hard to access the music on first hearing. Having mugged up on the story in advance, I couldn’t even work out which characters were which! All in all it was a rather frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

An experiment worth trying, but not one to attempt again. Leave the ‘immersive’ to tales best told that way – trying to make an opera fit it makes no sense at all.

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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