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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’

Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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Opera

I didn’t get off to a good start with the ENO’s Peter Grimes after a twitter spat over their withdrawal of standby concessions, despite a large number of empty seats. No production will probably ever match Grimes on the Beach, but musically this is top notch, mostly due to the fact that conductor Edward Gardiner, the orchestra and the chorus were as good as it gets.

Though I’ve seen Tippet’s King Priam before, I’d forgotten how challenging it is musically. This ETO production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was quality fare, but I found it hard to engage with the story and even harder to penetrate the music.

Death & the Powers is a SciFi opera by the Royal Academy of Music’s visiting professor of composition Tod Machover, so we (staff, students and Friends) were privileged to participate in its global simulcast from Dallas Opera. It’s more of a technological marvel than a musical one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including interaction through the specially created app on my iPhone!

I enjoyed the second ETO offering, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, a lot. I’ve only seen it once before, 15 years ago, but preferred this smaller scale more homespun folk opera treatment. It’s not really an opera, more a musical drama with a mythic quality and some lovely tunes. It was a bit cramped on the Linbury Studio stage, but better seen in such an intimate space.

I ventured to Godalming for the first time to see a friend in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas I’ve never seen, Princess Ida. Somehow, it seemed completely at home performed by an amateur company (of 43!) in the Borough Hall, even though they were almost falling over each other on the tiny stage! The second act is a bit long, but it’s the usual G & S fun, here with terrific costumes and a proper orchestra of 26.

The trio of operas in my latest visit to WNO in Cardiff were programmed as ‘Fallen Women‘. It started with Puccini’s early and rarely performed Manon Lescaut which had a striking modern production and was beautifully sung and played. Henze’s Boulevard Solitude takes the same source and story and gives in a mid-20th century spin with a surprisingly accessible score and a similar modern staging, again with sky high musical standards. I’d seen this La Traviata before, which is why I wanted to see it again and it didn’t disappoint. It’s elegant and moving, though two intervals and a twenty minute overrun did mar the dramatic flow this time. Three operas, two talks, a programme and a drink all for less than £70; opera at its most accessible.

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Theodora is quite possible the most perfect performance of a Handel oratorio I have ever heard. All five soloists were outstanding and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounded gorgeous. It’s not a particularly engaging story, but the music is consistently good and the 3h 45m flew by.

Contemporary Music

Kings Place was the perfect venue for Laura Cantrell, with just another guitarist rather than her band. It was a perfect 75 minute set culled from all of her records, plus some covers, but mostly her lovely new album. Her personality comes over so well on stage, too. Sturgill Simpson, supporting, sounded good when his singing wasn’t too nasal and I liked his songs (though too many covers for a man with an interesting new album) but I couldn’t understand a word of any of them, such was his heavily accented diction!

Dance

I wasn’t sure whether to categorise this dansical, Drunk, as a musical or dance, but the lack of a story as such made me plump for dance! Eight performers, solo, as an ensemble and in different combinations dance scenes about being the worse for wear. There’s terrific music from Grant Olding and the talent on show is extraordinary. It has bags of energy and its slick, sassy and sexy, but it’s also a bit relentless and a bit samey, without much shade to break up the light. Choreographer Drew McOnie’s ambitious and welcoming new company, though, is one to watch.

Film

My confidence in film critics took another dent when August: Osage County turned out to be way better than they led me to believe. It worked as well on film as it did on stage and there were a handful of superb performances, notably Meryl Streep as an absolute monster.

I loved Nebraska, a really heart-warming film – in black & white – with wonderful performances by a cast mostly made up of actors of a certain age. It fired me up for a road trip to that part of the US; watch this space!

Private Lives was the first play filmed live that I’ve ever seen (though not shown live in this case). The ability to see things in close-up added something (I saw the same production on stage) though you do sometimes miss the reactions of other characters and the lighting was occasionally poor. I like the fact that more people can see great productions at accessible prices, but I think I’ll stick to the live experience.

Dallas Buyers Club was a slow burn, but it eventually repaid its investment with a compelling David & Goliath story with a heart-warming ending. Unquestionably a career high for Matthew McConaughey, who must be in pole position for an Oscar.

Saving Mr Banks was a big surprise; it had much more depth than I was expecting, largely because of the switch between PL Travers childhood and her Disney experience. It was one of those occasions where staying for the titles paid off as you heard the original recordings she insisted on during the script meetings, which proved it was more than a work of fiction.

I enjoyed Her a lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s a bit overlong (and occasionally soporific!) but it feels very plausible, which makes it scary indeed. I’m going to switch off Siri before it’s too late!

Common People is an independent feature film shot entirely on Tooting Common, on my doorstep. It’s a bit slow to get going, but it builds into a charming, warm-hearted slice of life. It’s been showcased in US festivals and now gets a handful of local screenings which will hopefully lead to more because it very much deserves it.

I’m amazed that The Invisible Woman hasn’t had more BAFTA or Oscar nominations. It’s such a well-made film, full of fine performances. I don’t know how true the story of Charles Dickens personal life is, but I was captivated.

Art

The annual Landscape Photography competition exhibition at the NT continues to demoralize me as a photographer but captivate me as a viewer. Some are almost too good to be true, but hopefully the organizers have ways of ensuring there’s no funny business editing-wise!

Martin Creed‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, What’s the Point of it?, is huge fun. The man has an imagination the size of the planet and amongst the items on show was a giant revolving neon sign just inches above your head, a room full to the brim of white talcum-filled balloons you walk through and, on the outdoor terraces, a car which comes alive when all its doors open and wipers and radio start up and a video of a penis changing from erect to flaccid & back!

The NT‘s 50th celebrations included an exhibition of its history in cartoons, National Theatre Lampoon, but I only just discovered it before it closes; it’s both informative and funny and they should keep it longer.

I’m going to have to return to David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the NPG. It takes over the whole ground floor with over 250 photos and was a bit crowded on my first visit. What I did see was great, with many now iconic pictures from my lifetime.

A trip to Greenwich for a couple of exhibitions was a mixed affair. There were a lot of paintings not by Turner (23, only 5 less) for an exhibition called Turner & the Sea. I didn’t care for the early work in this exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but it was probably worth the trip for the watercolours, sketch books and late works. Up the hill at the Royal Observatory there was a small but breathtaking exhibition of astronomical photographs. You couldn’t tell the difference in composition or quality between the main prize entries and the young person’s entries, such was the quality of the work.

Spoken Word

I got in touch with my inner Welshman with a celebration of Dylan Thomas’ centenary at Kings Place. Readings by Guy Masterson were interspersed with a potted biography by Andrew Lycett and observations by other Welsh poets Gwyneth Jones and Owen Sheers. I’d have liked more voices for the readings, but that’s a little gripe. As Owen Sheers said, what other poet could pack out a venue 60 years after he died, requiring an overspill room with a video link!

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The Proms is unquestionably the world’s greatest and most accessible music festival; this year there are 74 concerts and promming is still £5. New life has been breathed into them in recent years with chamber proms, late night proms, children’s proms, proms in the park and the inclusion of jazz, folk, world music, film & TV music and comedy. My selection of 5 this year was particularly eclectic.

The first was Havergal Brian’s Symphony No.1 ‘The Gothic’, written in the 1920’s by an almost forgotten British composer. How can you resist something that requires c.1000 performers? – two orchestras, nine choirs, four soloists and the RAH organ! A third of the stalls was given over to the three children’s choirs, four timpanists and most of the brass. No wonder it’s very rarely performed (and therefore no wonder he’s almost forgotten). Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves a medal for having the balls to put it together. They made a terrific sound in unison, but even in the quieter moments it impressed. It’s not a great work, but I’m glad I took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear it.

I never saw the Human Planet TV series, but I like listening to music from around the world and this prom caught my imagination as something a little bit different. It combined five extracts from Nitin Sawhany‘s orchestral TV score with five visiting musicians / groups from Greenland, Russian Siberia, Zambia, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, with scenes from the programme projected onto screens around the auditorium. I liked the orchestral music and would like to hear more, but it was the visitors who caught my, and everyone else’s, imagination. The boys from Papua New Guinea and Enock Mbongwe from Zambia had never left their own countries and their excitement was infectious. Their innocence meant they didn’t leave the stage when they’d finished as they didn’t really know when to do that. At the curtain call, Enock was jumping up and down excitedly and the audience’s warmth was palpable. There was a bonus too, as the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazelwood gave us the world premiere of the 1812 overture played on specially made instruments made by professional instrument makers entirely from re-cycled material. It didn’t half sound bad, but it was the sheer fun of it that brought the audience to its feet for one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve ever seen at the Proms. What a surprising and thrilling evening.

Verdi’s Requiem and the Royal Albert Hall are made for each other. With a chorus of almost 400 and a large orchestra, it fills the space. This was one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard. The BBCSO & Chorus under Semyon Bychkov were joined by  the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir and four fine soloists – Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja (hugely impressive) and Ferruccio Furlanetteo (guess where he’s from?!). The choruses have never had so much power, yet more delicate moments were deeply moving.

The late night prom of Grainger songs included folk favourite June Tabor, so this one was always going to be a must. I’d had to miss the Kings Place Grainger songs concert earlier in the year, so that made it essential. Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell‘s clever programming included pairing contrasting orchestral / folk interpretations of four songs collected by Grainger. I loved both her band’s instrumentals and the Teeside Wilson Family unaccompanied vocals and June Tabor’s solo voice was hauntingly beautiful in the RAH. The orchestral contributions sat well alongside the folk, but I’m afraid the BBC Singer‘s jarred with me – they just didn’t suit the material. We ended with a clog dance, as if to prove the Proms goes where no-one else dares.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra have been on my ‘maybe’ list many times; the fact they had a late night prom promoted them to the ‘let’s go’ list. These five mad Aussies recreate the film scores of Ennio Morricone with both instruments and sound effects – from a variety of items including a tree branch and cornflake packets. On this occasion, they also get to use the RAH organ. The whole thing has every tongue in every cheek, but it’s an affectionate  homage rather than a comic spoof.  Even from good stalls seats, we couldn’t see exactly what was being played some of the time and I think screens would have helped in this vast hall. It was great fun, though something I think you can only do once – though many there seemed to be regulars.

As I said at the outset, a lovely eclectic cocktail at the world’s greatest music festival.

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MORE OPERA

Simon Boccanegra isn’t an obvious choice for an opera in concert (not enough arias), but as it’s running at Covent Garden with Domingo in his first baritone role, how could The Proms resist. When he walked on stage I thought we had a substitute – this was not a 69-year old man! When he opened his mouth this extraordinary sound emanated – a unique baritone-tenor hybrid. He was wonderful, but wasn’t the only reason for being there. The ROH orchestra and chorus made a glorious sound and the other soloists were great (I particularly liked Joseph Calleja’s Gabrielle and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Fiesco – what a wonderful name), but it was the Proms unique atmosphere (which had previously hit a peak at Domingo’s debut in Die Valkure) which made it so special; it was electrifying and the performers enthusiasm and excitement was palpable. At the end, the now dead Boccanegra (Domingo) failed to stand up and there were some expressions of panic on and off stage until he did – judging by the subsequent reaction, methinks he was playing a joke with his colleagues; delicious!

The Lion’s Face at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was a depressing treat – a chamber opera about dementia! Elena Langer’s lovely music was beautifully played by the 12-piece ensemble (you could hear every detail of the clever orchestration) and all four soloists were very good. I loved the way the patient was a spoken role whilst all around him sung, illustrating very well what it must feel like living with dementia.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Bernstein’s Mass is an extraordinary and original music theatre piece which I’ve wanted to see again since I first saw it at GSMD more than 25 years ago. It was the culmination of the 9-month long Bernstein Project at the Southbank Centre and there were more than 500, mostly amateur, performers. The Agnus Dei was particularly exhilarating and I was hugely impressed by the ‘street people’ many of whom were from the Guildford School of Acting. A very uplifting experience.

ART

Anthony Gormley’s exhibition at White Cube is half-and-half. The poor half is a bunch of geometric metal sculptures that appear to be rusting (and to me appeared to be pointless), then you go downstairs and in pitch darkness you walk around an extraordinary construction of interlocking metal frames painted fluorescent which seemed rather other-worldly.

The Sally Mann exhibition at The Photographers Gallery starts well with fascinating close ups of her children’s faces – then it gets rather uncomfortable with nude and semi-nude photos of her pre-teen children, then positively disturbing with pictures of decaying corpses. I’ll think twice before I follow a Time Out exhibition recommendation again!

The RA Summer Exhibition is the usual mixture of quality and tosh. The architecture room (bigger this year) was again my favourite – I just love those building maquettes – though I also liked David Mach’s 10 ft gorilla made from coat hangers, Bill Viola’s video of a naked woman being drenched in water and David Hockney’s landscape photos. Tracey Emin was top of the tosh…..again.

At the V&A they’ve asked a bunch of architects to design small buildings on the theme of retreat (1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces) and placed seven of them at various points around the museum. It seemed to me like a lot of money to spend for not a lot of return; it did absolutely nothing for me.

Lots of treats at the National Portrait Gallery with an exhibition of extraordinary photographs from the middle of the 19th century by London-based Frenchman Camille Silvy whose portrait business turned around a million copies a year, the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition (probably the best ever) and a small but greatpop art’ selection from Adam Katz

The annual Press Photographer exhibition is this year at the NT. Much of it is of course harrowing, but you have to admire the talent of these extraordinary people. I loved the photo of Prince William on his own in a large room looking sideways (longingly) at his grand-mother’s empty throne.

I’m not a big Henry Moore fan, but went to his Tate Britain exhibition with a visiting megafan. His early small scale work (from 1922 to 1930) is extraordinary, there’s another great period from 1937 to 1939 experimenting with thread and stone, and then there are some amazing war shelter and coal mining drawings from 1940-42…..but all that abstract stuff – two-thirds of the exhibition – leaves me cold I’m afraid. At the same venue Rude Britannia is a review of comic art from Hogarth to the present. It’s of course hit-and-miss, but there’s much to enjoy, most notably Hogarth, Gilray and more recently Spitting Image & Gerald Scarfe.

A visit with the Royal Academy Friends to the Garrick Club proved a real treat and one of their very best outings ever. Perhaps it was particularly ‘up-my-street’ because of the theatrical context, but it proved to be a treasure trove of 19th Century theatrical portraits brought alive by wonderful stories and anecdotes from the Club’s Francis (who should publish them – they were that good!). It’s a very ‘old school’ gentlemen’s club which has been beautifully restored on the proceeds of the sale of their 25% of the film rights to Winnie the Poo to Disney (which A. A. Milne bequeathed to them).

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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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