Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO review ***

Orpheus and Eurydice

English National Opera, 14th November 2019

The second part of my engagement with the ENO O&E odyssey. (See how easy it easy to be a librettist). Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus first, simultaneously monumental and camp, Philip Glass’s homage to Cocteau’s Orphee to come in a couple of weeks, and there was no chance of me ever signing up for Emma Rice’s take on Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Going in this was probably the one on which the Tourist was most keen. Never heard or seen it before. Learned a lot in recent months about Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714 to 1787) and how he, and his circle, revolutionised opera by insisting on the primacy of drama. With Orfeo et Euridice, from 1762, the first, and prime example of the reform. Less repetition, melisma and showing off in arias, similarly less ritornello in the instrumental passages, intelligible text, less recitative and more accompanied than secco, and more flow in melodies and action.

With a cast of Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, Soraya Mafi as Love and the powerful voice of Alice Coote as Orpheus, the cast was top notch, and with Wayne MacGregor in the director’s chair, the dance passages were going to receive due care and attention. And all played straight through coming in at a tidy 90 minutes.

Or so I thought. Turned out the production did feature and unnecessary interval, (in my opinion though maybe not shared by the dance ensemble), and that the choreography took precedence over the drama. The sublime combination of Alice Coote’s powerful mezzo, Sarah Tynan’s lighter, brighter, and up and coming Soraya Mafi’s sharp, accurate, coloraturas, the modernist clarity of Lizzie Clachlan’s big box set, Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’s flashy (literally at times) video designs, the vivid colours, contrasting with simple monochromes, of Louise Gray’s costumes, and Mr MacGregor’s complex choreography, all worked individually. Together, I wasn’t so sure. And the story, and occasionally the three protagonists, sometimes looked lost in all of the look and feel.

What I hadn’t anticipated was just how good the score was going to be in the hands of Harry Bickett and the ENO Orchestra. Time and again the ENO orchestra has elevated a production, true of The Mask of Orpheus, though Sir Harry’s imagination may have had something to do with it, and this for someone who is a big fan of the ENO. This was Hector Berlioz’s 4 act 1859 version of O&E, with the libretto created by Pierre Louis Moline in French 12 years after the original Italian by one Ranieri de’Calzabigi, drawn from a couple of chaps called Virgil and Ovid who you might have heard of. With English translation by Christopher Cowell.

O&E is apparently an azione teatrale, (I swear there are as many genres of opera as there are operas), mythological subject, with dancing, no chorus, few actors, short in scale, “noble simplicity” is apparently what Gluck was after. The original will have had a castrato singing Orpheus: this morphed into a haute-contre, or high tenor, but as pitch inflated, and even after the French government legislated for pitch, the diapason normale, a female alto became the norm for Orpheus. Berlioz went back to the original key scheme of the Vienna score of 1762 whilst still incorporating much of the additional Paris score of 1774, (Gluck having moved there to further his career, though he returned to Austria when fashion moved on and his final and 47th opera, Echo et Narcisse got the public thumbs down). If you want more details head over to the exhaustive Wiki page where clearly knowledgeable people in love with his work have been beavering away, (remembering to donate please), or even better the encyclopaedic programme notes. All I can tell you is that, whenever it was scored, and whoever it was scored by, this is exquisite music. I see Gluck wrote a few trio sonatas and sinfonias which barely get a look in. Shame as I am not one for listening to recordings of opera, and I like the sound of them.

Mr McGregor is apparently not the first choreographer to take on O&E. The chorus is now off stage (and therefore muffled) and the various shepherds, shepherdesses, nymphs, demons, Furies, happy spirits, heroes and heroines are replaced by the 14 dancers, with two of them, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, apparently representing their inner selves (you could have fooled me). Now whisper it, whilst I can admire dance, it doesn’t really do too much for me, and, though their were some striking poses, it was all a bit aimless and showy.

Not to worry, Even if the visuals and the action didn’t persuade there was always, as I said, the clean, lithe and lively music from the HIP appropriate band. And the three lovely voices. I am not informed enough to have a roster of favourite women opera singers, but Alice Coote, would join the likes of Barbara Hannigan, Sophie Bevan, Louise Alder, Lucy Crowe and Sally Matthews in leaving a mark as well as Kitty Whateley, Rowan Pierce, Nazan Fikret and Elen Wilmer. Ms Coote debuted in the role when she was just 18 on this very stage, on the night of 9/11. Sobering.

Joanna MacGregor at the Wigmore Hall review ****

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 11th November 2019

Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) – Le rappel des oiseaux
  • François Couperin (1668-1733) – Les fauvétes plaintives
  • Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) – Le merle noir
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau – La poule
  • Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – On an Overgrown Path X. The barn owl has not flown away
  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934) – Oockooing Bird
  • Hossein Alizâdeh (b. 1951) – Call of the Birds
  • Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695) – Ground in C minor ZD221
  • Philip Glass (b. 1937) – Koyaanisqatsi Prophecies
  • William Byrd (c.1540-1623) – My Ladye Nevells Booke First Pavane
  • Philip Glass – Trilogy Sonata Knee Play No. 4 from Einstein on the Beach
  • Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) – Ciacona in F minor

I am guessing Johanna McGregor started out interrogating her extensive repertoire for an hour of solo piano pieces connected with birds, then thought, sod it, why doubt I chuck some Purcell, Byrd and Glass into the mix and end with Pachelbel. Good call. This genuinely was a delight from start to finish. Not a single wasted note, even from the composer, Hossein Alizadeh, whose work I had never heard.

Whilst Ms MacGregor dips into the Romantic repertoire, notably Chopin, it is the C20 and Baroque (especially Bach) for which she is most well known. Suits me. If pushed I would say I preferred the Couperin to the Rameau when it came to the battle, though both are so elegant there was no hint of aggression, between the French Baroque masters. The Rameau comes from a suite and is comprised of two related halves. Same structure in the Couperin, which represents warblers, and the second Rameau, hens pecking away in a courtyard that Respighi went on to pinch.

It was the Messaien that enthralled me. This is the second piece from Le Petite esquisses d’oiseaux, and represents the humble blackbird. Bright chords offset its calls and movement in four changing sections. I need a recording. Let’s see what Santa brings.

The cry of the owl is a warning in Czech and other folklore and here its scary screech here precedes a fading chorale, all beefed up with Janacek’s arpeggios and ostinatos.

The Birtwistle was written when he was just 15 and shows he was already heading off into his own world, albeit here still framed in jolly Satie-ism, and maybe, though he had never heard him, Messaien himself.

Iranian musician Hossein Alizâdeh wrote his Call of the Birds for a lute-like instrument, the shurangiz, and a duduk, similar to an oboe. Ms MacGregor has created her own arrangement of its rhythmic drive. I liked it, like a Middle Eastern jig.

Purcell’s C minor ground is an exemplar of the form, the rising arpeggio of the bass line, seven bars long, in the left hand with a “catch” tune suject to variation in the right, before the bass dies. All over in three minutes like a perfect pop song. The Byrd, a Pavane from the divine Lady Nevell’s Book, one of the first written keyboard collections, is a similar structure, a ground with harmony on top, but way more ornamented. He really was a clever fellow and with a surname to match the theme of the first half.

The first Glass is the typical cycle with in a cycle oscillation of PG’s piano work but was originally scored for chamber ensemble and chorus, coming at the end of the art film by Godfrey Reggio that was a big mainstream hit. The five knee plays connect sections of Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, at five hours long, it needs some breaks, and originally was performed by violin and voices, (where it works better).

The gentle Pachelbel chaconne, a stepwise structure subject to 21 variations, was followed with a more upbeat encore, a Handel Passacaglia, that fitted the bill.

One hour, one instrument. So much to enjoy.

London Sinfonietta and Tansy Davies at Kings Place review ****

London Sinfonietta, Richard Baker (conductor), Tansy Davies (electronics), Elaine Mitchener (mezzo soprano), Elizabeth Burley (piano), Sound Intermedia

Kings Place, 9th November 2019

  • Tansy Davies – Salt box (2005)
  • Tansy Davies – Loophole and Lynchpins (2002-3)
  • Naomi Pinnock – everything does change (2012)
  • Tansy Davies – The rule is love (2019)
  • Tansy Davies – grind show (electric) (2007)
  • Tansy Davies – Undertow (1999, revised 2018)
  • Clara Iannotta – Al di làdel bianco (2009)
  • Tansy Davies – Neon (2004)

The Tourist has become very taken with the music of Tansy Davies. I have really enjoyed performances of her two operas, the mythic eco-fable, Cave and the tribute to the victims of 9/11, Between Worlds, and her Concerto for Four Horns, Forest, commissioned by the Philharmonia, and I have added a couple of CD’s of her music, Troubairitz and Spine to my, admittedly still small, contemporary classical collection. This concert was subtitled Jolts and Pulses, which is a pretty accurate and pithy description of the character of her chamber works, showcased here alongside works by two other women composers whose work, in TD’s eyes who curated this concert and performed on electronics, resembles her own.

TD started making music in a rock band before studying classical composition (and horn) at Colchester, the Guildhall and Royal Holloway. She won the BBC Composers Competition in 1996, commissions following hot on its heels, and now teaches at the Royal Academy. It is pretty easy to see why she is so popular amongst performers, (she has spent the early part of this year in residence in the hallowed halls of the Concertgebouw), and audiences. When I say popular I mean in the context of the admittedly non-mainstream fans of contemporary classical music. Most of which is still shoehorned into more accessible fare, or confined to chamber works such as here, and rarely performed on a large scale. Her music reaches into the rock, funk and jazz worlds, her unorthodox score directions reflect thi,s and she is unafraid of rhythm and repetition (which is why it floats my boat), or of explicit references and inspirations, natural and human. And electronics are often present to augment and support the acoustic instruments.

I think I can hear the influence of Sir Harrison Birtwhistle in her music: the wide dynamics, the layering, the solo lines, the percussive, er, jolts and pulses, the shimmers, the binary contrasts. It is no where near as thick, with much sparser textures, but it is raw, “organic”, alive, poetic. I’ll stop there.

The members of the London Sinfonietta on duty tonight are, obviously, perfect promulgators of her music and all were on top form. Salt boxes were used on battleships to keep ammunition dry and the work was inspired by the seascapes of the North Kent coast. The two part piano inventions of Loopholes and Lynchpins pulls apart the rhythms of Scarlatti sonatas. The rule is love, a new work co-commissioned by the LS, takes two 1995 texts, from John Berger and Sylvia Wynter, and sets Elaine Mitchener’s extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics (she also collaborated with TD in Cave) against a percussive drop. Kylie Minogue was in there somewhere I swear. Grind Show, a particular favourite, and inspired by a Goya painting, sets a twisted tango against a sinister, dank night. Undertow again contrasts the sleek and the dirty and neon is a funky workout, though more jazz/post-punk than James Brown. I defy anyone not to like this.

The Mask of Orpheus at the ENO review ****

The Mask of Orpheus

English National Opera, 25th October 2019

No idea where we were in the story for much of the getting on for four hours with with the two intervals. Not helped by Peter Zinovieff’s impenetrable libretto, sung and spoken, the bloated rock star gets lost in early 80’s WAG Club setting courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan’s set and frock-maker Daniel Lismore’s preposterous spangly costumes, the tripartite two singer, one acrobat/dancer, Myth/Hero/Human, casting for our hero, heroine and baddie, and the wilful directing of Daniel Kramer, where spectacle trumps sense.

Who gives a fuck though when you have a score like this. With an ENO orchestra at the top of its game lovingly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, (who has history with this work), and James Henshaw, (yep it takes two). Up to now the Tourist’s exposure to Sir Harrison Birtwhistle has been fleeting. A few chamber pieces. None of the orchestral works bar the latest Donum Simoni MMXVIII, and certainly none of the operas. And, let’s face it, you are not going to sit down and listen to recordings. Nope the full on Sir Harry experience requires a live opera in performance.

Now I get it. As a contrast I don’t know where Xenakis’s music comes from, and I am conscious that I am probably just taking on board all the cultural baggage attached to its interpretation, but it definitely isn’t of this world, (though of course it is, it still being just notes on a page) . Whereas Sir HB’s tunes, for all that “elemental”, “earthy”, “massive”, “mythic”, “ritualistic”, “visceral”, and the like, that is applied to described most definitely does come from this planet, underneath our feet for sure, as many intuit, but also from within our selves. Which made its pairing with the Orpheus myth kind of inevitable. For all the racket that the brass, wind, percussion and electronica, entirely stringless, (well bar plucked like electric guitars and mandolin), that make up the score conjure up, this still very, well, human. The brass and wind is the flow, the percussion the accent.

Right poncey pseud-ery over. I could read the excellent ENO programme over and over, plough through the learned reviews, do the rounds on Wiki, but frankly it would get me no closer to the truth of what I heard and saw. Just impossible to take it all in. You know the story. O&E get it on, marry, snakebite, death, offer to O to go underground …. but don’t whatever you do Mr music man look ba….. oh shit, you did. Various endings depending on who you believe. All four are given a work-out here. In various other permutations and combinations of the whole story . 126 different elements in total. A prologue and epilogue. Act I – 3 scenes, 2 Passing Clouds and an Allegorical Flower. Act II – 17 Arches and the Second Flower. Act III – 8 Episodes and the Final Cloud.

Unstructured time. Flash-backs, flash-forwards, flash-arounds, flash-simultaneity. Contradiction and ambiguity. The antithesis of linear story-telling. With the aforementioned O&E, and the not so blessed cheesemaker randy Aristaeus, done three ways. So if the words don’t grab you, (and they very rarely will though the repetitions and exclamations will start to bite), you can turn to the songs, or the mime, or the dance, or the bath/barbecue/dentist chair/chrysalis/sexy time/funeral parlour/bobbly skin fellas/bee video effects (you can probably work out that I may not quite have fully grasped the messages), or the aerial silks, or the OTT costumes complete with, I forget, billions of Swarovski crystals.

And the cast and creatives really work hard. Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks as the very fit, in both senses, Hero O&E dancers. Tenor Daniel Norman and mezzo Clare Barnett-Jones as the Myth Orpheus/Hades and Myth Eurydice/Persephone respectively, who had the mother of all costume changes and the sweet mezzo tone of Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Woman Eurydice. James Cleverton, Simon Bailey and Leo Hedman as respectively The Man, The Myth/Charon and The Hero Aristaeus. And Claron McFadden as the Oracle, and Hecate, who marshals the crew who make up the three way judges, priests, women and furies.

But for balls out, (well not quite), on stage all night, haring round the stage, holding everything together whilst appearing, as the part demanded, pissed, the star of the show is Peter Hoare. I don’t know if he gets paid anymore for this role compared to his more normal C20 repertoire, but he should. Mind you I see he started off as a percussionist before taking up singing. Which I guess, deep down, makes him connected to the music in a way that maybe others aren’t. Even when said percussion, which Sir Harry explores in every conceivable combination, is drowning him out despite amplification. (Oh and do remember by the time we get to Act III some of the text isn’t even in English anyway).

When all else fails though, as it often did, I just closed by eyes and drowned in the sound. Three is the magic number. Orpheus remember makes sweet music. But when the going gets tough, arch after arch, the music gets bigger and louder with a literally earth shattering 40 minute climax at the end of Act II. The sampled harp chords which create the electronic interludes composed by Barry Anderson at IRCAM. The synthesised voice of Apollo. The scraps of, I hesitate to say, melody that are repeated again and again. Orpheus’s memories. Restless rhythms. The pulses, the marches, the clunks, the shimmers, the drones. The massive, monumental structures. The raw immediacy. Never heard anything like it and when surrendered to whatever it is, ignoring all the guff on or above the stage, I swear I have never felt anything like it.

I gather the original production, on this very stage in 1986, and only now revived, went for a more mythic, indeterminate Greek vibe, with singer, mime and puppet per the score and with masks. I think I might have got on better with this but frankly I can’t blame the much maligned and now departing Daniel Kramer for chucking the camp, surreal kitchen sink at this. If, budget-wise, you’ve got it, then you might as well flaunt it. Maybe it was all clear in his head but I doubt it. David Pountney, the director of the original, had the good grace to say he had no idea what it was all about.

Once in a lifetime experience. In which case I wouldn’t mind another life. Or many lives. For that is what it would take to wrap your ears around it. In the absence of that the memory will suffice and maybe I should relent and try the benchmark (only) recording from the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins and Andrew Davies. In fact YOLO and its Christmas so I will.

Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

spring-awakening-1197602_1920

LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).