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.

Haydn’s doctor’s diagnosis confirmed

Fascinating news today about John Hunter, husband of Haydn’s collaborator Anne Hunter, who worked with him on his two books of Canzonettas.

John Hunter, physician to King George III, was a pioneering surgeon and his 200-year old diagnosis of osteosarcoma in a patient has recently been confirmed by modern technology.

Happy birthday to the Haffner


L to R: Julian Cann, CMcC, Justin Doyle

My family lived in Lancaster when I was growing up: my father was Head of Music at Lancaster University, running a department which has alas since been closed. There was a lot of good music-making in the area, including by the Haffner Orchestra, which my father even conducted for a time.

It therefore felt rather special to be invited to return to Lancaster to sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the orchestra as part of its fortieth anniversary celebrations. Conductor Justin Doyle – a fellow Lancastrian with whom I have done a lot of music-making in London – was giving his final concert with the Haffner, having recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin, and Julian Cann, with whom I was briefly at school in Lancaster is the orchestra’s Leader.

img_4430Edward Cowie, who was appointed by my father as Composer in Residence at Lancaster many years ago, was commissioned to write a new work, Tide in Knots, to mark the Haffner’s birthday. Edward is a visual artist as well as a musical one and an exhibition of his works on paper was on show in the University gallery.

It was an exceptionally happy concert, and my parents (who have long since moved East) were warmly welcomed back by local friends and colleagues. A packed house duly cheered the orchestra’s fine achievement not just on the night, but over the last forty years.