BYO’s Don Giovanni

Photo: Robert Workman via The Stage

Having only become a singer relatively late in life, I didn’t work with organisations such as British Youth Opera, but I am always pleased to support colleagues who can still qualify as young(!). To this end I was at a recent performance of BYO’s Don Giovanni, applauding a friend’s immaculate (electronic) mandolin in the Serenade and his classy continuo playing. I only recognised one of the cast but it struck me that there is a lot of musical talent out there and I hope our industry can provide for them all.

The Peacock Theatre is a good location in many ways for such a night – spacious, centrally-located with a decent bar and big enough pit for an opera orchestra. It’s less good because it can feel like a bit of a bunker. I’ve never been on-stage there so I don’t know how much wing-space there is, but the time it took to change the scenes in this show suggests that there may not be very much. We’re so used to seeing shows move uninterrupted from one scene to another that it felt slightly old-fashioned to have the curtain repeatedly come in and stop the action dead. At the other end of the spectrum is Richard Jones’ new Bohème for the Royal Opera, where the front-cloth is out for the whole show and the scenery for each Act is hauled into place in full view of the audience by an army of stage-crew, all the while snow gently falling on them.

It’s also interesting to observe how an interesting idea can sometimes become a bit of a handicap; quite literally if your character gets shot in the leg a good half hour before the end of the show and still has a lot of stage business to execute.

 

 

Follies at the National Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson via TheUpcoming.co.uk

I’m a fan of Sondheim. He writes in Finishing The Hat that his favourite of his own lyrics are those that are simplest and most direct; but, like many of his fans, I just can’t resist his virtuosic linguistic twists and turns, when he’s at his most showy. Even A Little Priest, the mountain of a duet at the end of Act I of Sweeney Todd, turns out to be less of a learning challenge than I feared because Sondheim is having so much fun testing the song’s idea to destruction that his enjoyment is infectious.

Follies is a show I didn’t know until last week and it presses all my Sondheim buttons as well as satisfying my love of sequins. The composer is writing on one of his favourite themes, unfulfillment, and how we may deal with our disappointment. If we have made a poor choice we can try to change it but we may have to live with it and it needn’t be all bad – we will survive. I enjoyed the typically complex Sondheim structure involving characters doubled with their younger selves, but the revelation for me in Follies was in discovering the intended context of songs that I have known for years as stand-alone numbers (In Buddy’s Eyes, Losing My Mind, I’m Still Here). If a song is great it will bear separation from its environment but it’s always exciting to discover a whole other world of meaning when it’s heard within the show.

Of course the same goes for opera – Nessun Dorma is less about football and more about hoping to avoid execution when heard in the context of Turandot – and it’s a great reminder of why we should always take the time to go back to the source and not just be seduced by the best tunes in isolation.

A new Bohème

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Dispensing with one of the best-loved and longest-lived productions in the history of the Royal Opera is a high-risk decision. Leaving it to your successor to deal with the fall-out could seem like extreme management cunning, but of course it’s basically a question of unfortunate timing. Given how far ahead plans have to be laid, the decision to replace John Copley’s La Bohème with a new one by Richard Jones was probably made way before Kasper Holten decided to move on from running Covent Garden. 

Happily for us, the new Bohème seems to be getting a good reception, with reviewers and opera-lovers finding many things to like. From within the show it’s difficult to get a sense of it as a whole: I have been able to watch bits of it on the show’s TV relay, but there’s no standing in the wings, as the show is totally open to the back wall and sides. Within the bleak and snowy void of the empty stage appear boxes of contained space in which the action takes place – the garret, shopping galleries and Café Momus (top). The busyness and colour of the consumerist world in Act 2 highlights the protagonists’ exclusion from it in the rest of the story and the garret space looks even bleaker the second time around.

Having been on stew-eating duties for the last five revivals of the previous production, I have been promoted to rubber-necking at the window in this one, which means that I have been captured for posterity by the Guardian photographer (left). It’s not often that an opera is deemed worthy of the centre spread in a national broadsheet, and that’s definitely worth drinking a toast to.

 

Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Hofesh Shechter is a choreographer whose work I have been meaning to see for years, but just not quite managing it. Last night I finally made it to a performance of Grand Finale, and I wish that I had seen his other shows in London, because I loved what I saw and want to have something to compare last night’s show with. 

Shechter’s choreography was highly distinctive, full of seething groups of figures punctuated by virtuosic changes of tempo and direction, and wonderful physicalised cross-rhythms. I realise that I have seen and even performed echoes of his style in various opera productions; not least my favourite-ever dance-break in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which covers a scene-change with 45 seconds of explosive flailing by a select group of choristers. Conscious homage or not, this moment is pure Shechter.

In Grand Finale, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was the image of a group of people whose mouths remain open as they move, as if unable to make a sound. I couldn’t not hear a scream or intake of breath seeing this, and when the dancers were finally able to vocalise I found it a huge relief.

It also made my jaw ache in sympathy. Not only were the dancers’ artistry and athleticism remarkable, but so was their stamina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Khovanschina at the Proms

Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Like his Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is based on a narrative from Russian history. It’s another story involving scheming boyars, monks, the Tsar and a love triangle sub-plot that borders on the ridiculous. At least the composer had Puskin’s text to work with for Boris, but he decided to write his own libretto for Khovanshchina, which does the opera no favours dramatically. As the Guardian review of this year’s performance at the BBC Proms (in which I was involved as a BBC Singer) puts it: “coherent narrative is not its strong point”. 

But it’s possible to forgive the longeurs because the music is, at many moments, extraordinary and transporting. The a cappella men’s music feels truly ancient, as if it grew out of the earth and has been sung forever; and the final chorus as the Old Believers commit suicide builds inexorably towards a huge percussion crash that seems to suggest the final collapse of the pyre in a cloud of sparks and heat. It’s the sort of ending that is ideal for the Albert Hall and the Proms, even if a production with real fire in a real theatre would also be pretty thrilling.

Andre Tchaikovsky’s The Merchant of Venice

Karl Forster/Bregenzer Festspiele

I first blogged about Polish composer André Tchaikovsky in 2013, when I was involved in a symposium in Leeds, dedicated to his life and work. At the time, André’s operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – nearly complete at the time of his death aged 46 – was getting its first performances at the Bregenz Festival. You can read the FT’s review here.

In my previous post I didn’t mention that André was a friend of my family and that he stayed with us whenever he was performing in the area. His Merchant of Venice had occupied him for most of his adult life and I had heard all about it, not least his disappointment that it had not in the end received its planned premiere at ENO. He wanted to be remembered as a composer as well as a piano virtuoso.

The Merchant of Venice has been made as a co-production between Bregenz, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Teatr Wielki and WNO, so was reasonable to hope that such an important twentieth-century opera would eventually get performances in London. 

Last week I finally got to see the opera and it was worth the wait. I was pretty young when I knew André and can’t pretend to remember him in every detail but I have spent time with him since in his songs, via the Rebel of the Keys documentary and in conversation with others who also knew him. He felt so present in every bar of The Merchant of Venice, with the courtroom confrontation between Shylock and Antonio packing the biggest punch for me because it focussed the themes of the opera which were of greatest significance to André personally. Wonderful performances and a lovely clean production (designed originally for the pontoon stage of Bregenz Festival) made for a great evening.

André’s wish for his skull to appear as Yorick has been fulfilled, so the staging of The Merchant of Venice was the last piece of unfinished business for him. I think he would be pleased.

Schumann and Shakespeare: 16 July

Ophelia by Arthur Hughes

Ophelia by Arthur Hughes

Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.

Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 17th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.

Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval. 

Over My Shoulder

over my shoulder: elisabeth schumann and jessie matthewsSeptember 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rogers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.

It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.

This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charitable organisation with which St Martin’s church has a long association.

Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.

Daughters of the Elements at the Crick

Last night I sang at the Francis Crick Institute as part of an event to mark the second birthday of the Knowledge Quarter. This is an organisation that exists to focus and enable collaboration between the many knowledge-based organisations clustered in the geographical area around Kings Cross-St Pancras, including the British Library, the Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute. As The Crick is the home of world-class biomedical research and it was appropriate to be singing two scenes from Stephen McNeff‘s work Daughters of the Elements, about Marie Curie and her daughters Ève and Irène.

 Daughters of the Elements was originally premiered at Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival, an important event on the London opera calendar where I first presented two other works by Stephen McNeff, A Voice of One Delight and Vivienne.

Our team last night consisted of Tim Burke conducting members of the CHROMA ensemble (above), with Mary Plazas as Irène and Caroline Kennedy as Ève (pictured right, with me as Marie Curie).

McCaldin Arts announces projects for 2017

Two new projects for 2017 are in development with McCaldin Arts:

Mary is a monodrama for mezzo, trumpet, oboe and cello, by Martin Bussey with libretto by Andy Rashleigh (Vivienne). Queen Mary I is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary but her personal story is more subtle and interesting than many of us realise, and her contribution to British history more significant.

Elizabeth and Jessie is a narrated recital along the lines of the very successful Haydn’s London Ladies, and tells of the curious link between international opera diva Elizabeth Schumann and darling of 1930s musicals Jessie Matthews.

For more information, click on the links above.

Working titles are provisional and performance dates to be announced.