Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

We are not the masters of our own condition. Some things are already written & cannot be changed. Forces greater than ourselves dictate them. Bluebeard’s Castle is Béla Bartók’s only opera and it’s lack of immediate success probably contributed to his decision to abandon the form in favour of instrumental compositions. Written in 1911 it remained unperformed until 1918 when it was premiered at the Budapest Royal Opera as part of a double bill with his ballet ‘The Wooden Prince’. Both had libretti by Béla Balázs.

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Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs.

Bartók who during his lifetime was better known as a concert pianist is now one of Hungary’s must celebrated composers and indeed one of the most important modern composers internationally. Born in current day Romania, Bartók was something of a child prodigy who by the age of 25 was piano professor at the Hungarian Royal Academy. Among his students was the great Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti. The political turmoil in central Europe in the 1930’s caused him to emigrate to America in 1940 where he stayed for the rest of his life. Part of the reason for his departure was the rising anti-Semitism in his homeland under the premiership of Miklós Horthy. Bartók had many Jewish friends, not least Balázs, whose name he refused to remove from the credits of Bluebeard’s Castle thus incurring the displeasure of the authorities.

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Nadja Michael & Mikhail Petrenko as Judith & Bluebeard from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production.

Based on a folktale by Charles Perrault the opera tells of Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith as she enters his castle for the first time. The castle is very dark and gloomy and on seeing seven doors Judith asks Bluebeard for the keys to open them so that she can let light and love into the dark and claustrophobic interior. As she gradually opens the doors the duke’s torture chamber, armoury, treasury & gardens are revealed, all smeared with blood until eventually the fifth door opens onto the dukes vast and beautiful lands which also have blood-red clouds drifting across them. Up to this point the castle is gradually getting brighter and Bluebeard tells Judith that she has seen enough, she has got what she wanted, the last two doors must remain locked.

‘you begged for… prayed for sunlight. See how the sun hath filled my house… Child, beware, beware my castle. Careful, it will shine no longer.’

But Judith insists in demanding the keys for the last two rooms. From here the mood changes and darkens as a sense of doom and forboding descends. The sixth room! a lake of tears, tears from the sadness that lived in the castle and permeates from it’s very walls. Bluebeard warns her not to ask for the key to the seventh room but she believes it contains the bodies of his murdered previous wives.

“I have guessed your secret, Bluebeard. I can guess what you are hiding… all your former wives have suffered, suffered murder, brutal, bloody. Ah, those rumours, truthful rumours.”

The seventh room does indeed reveals Bluebeard’s previous wives. One is found in the morning, one at midday, another in the evening. All are alive and in a zombie-like state. Judith, to her horror, is added to their number in a dark mantle and a rich crown: his wife of the nighttime. She enters the seventh room, the door closes behind her and the castle is returned once again to darkness.

Bluebeard’s Castle was written a number of years after Bartók along with his friend and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály had developed an interest in Hungarian folk music in 1905. Together they travelled around the countryside recording and logging the various musical styles among small rural communities. These musical patterns made their way into this opera. Although written in 1911 the work is not particularly dissonant or ‘modernist’ in sound. Bartók in his early years was very heavily influenced by the Germanic music of Wagner and Strauss but by the time he was writing Bluebeard’s Castle his influences were more folk and archaic. Yes, there are passages that are driven by minor chords but they tend to be used to reflect the darkness and claustrophobia of the castle rather than an attempt to reflect then current musical fashions. The opening of the ‘pleasant’ doors like the treasury, the secret garden and the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom are accompanied by beautiful tonal passages that reflect the beauty being revealed. Up to the opening of the fifth door the castle gets continuously brighter. From then on a darkening creeps over it as the almost unstoppable and tragic conclusion gradually reveals itself.

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Two illustrations of Bluebeard, on the left by Gustave Doré & on the right by Irish artist Harry Clarke.

This is an opera I have grown to love. It takes a bit of listening to but as they say in musical circles ‘it’s a grower’. It brings to mind Benjamin Britten’s ‘Owen Wingrave’ in that it has the same dark supernatural theme in the background as the events between the characters are played out. It’s also quite a demanding opera for the performers as there are only two of them (not including the three non-singing wives) and aside from  it’s being a very emotionally intense work, for Judith anyway, they are continuously on stage and performing. There is no break from the gaze or the ears of the audience. Just as well it’s not more than an hour’s duration! The length of the piece and its minimal cast makes it a great choice for smaller opera companies even though Bartók originally scored it for an enormous orchestra which included an organ accompanying  the opening of the fifth door and one of the great stand alone high C’s of opera.

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There are a number of recordings which are sung in the original Hungarian which can sound a bit odd when one is used to hearing operas sung in Italian or German. The recording I have is an English language version from 2016 on the Chandos label featuring bass John Tomlinson and mezzo soprano Sally Burgess. If one wants to see the full opera with English subtitles there is a good ‘movie’ style version on YouTube with Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence from 1988. Irish National opera are also giving three performances of Bluebeard’s Castle this autumn in conjunction with the Dublin Theatre Festival. This will feature Joshua Bloom and Paula Murrihy. I’ll certainly be at one of those.

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Details about Opera Ireland’s production are here

The Robert Lloyd & Elizabeth Lawrence ‘movie’ version is here 

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Franco Leoni’s ‘L’Oracolo’

Three loud bangs and a cock crowing by way of an overture herald the opening of Franco Leoni’s opera L’Oracolo (The Oracle). There follows some pigeon Chinese shouts and cheers and we are straight into the action as our anti-hero Cim-Fen throws a client out of his opium den. Franco Leoni was an Italian composer whose works are rarely performed and largely forgotten today though he did compose a large body of work for the stage. A composer of ‘charming songs for the most famous voices’ a contemporary review read. Born in 1864 in Milan he spent many years in London composing for the theatre and died there in 1949.

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Antonio Scotti as Cim-Fen in 1915 and a printed libretto from a production at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Of all his operatic works L’Oracolo which was premiered in Covent Garden in 1905 is his best known mostly thanks to Italian baritone Antonio Scotti who heard the piece in London and used his influence at the Metropolitan Opera in New York to have it staged there with himself in the leading role of Cim-Fen. It’s a relatively short one-act opera but full of intensity and emotion & there is very little let up as the action surges forward from high drama to tragedy and back again. Scotti so liked the role of Cim-Fen where he could immerse himself in a deplorable character with no apparent redeeming characteristics that he chose it for his final performance at the Met in 1933. Leoni had studied with Amilcare Ponchielli who was also the teacher of Puccini and there are certainly similarities between the two composers work, both being very emotionally intense and delving into the darker and seamier side of life.

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Pauline Lightstone Donalda who sang the role of Ah-Yoe in the world premiere at Covent Garden in 1905 and Joan Sutherland who recorded it in 1973.

Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown it’s a pretty violent and lurid affair full of greed, evil, and revenge. The drama is laced with a kidnapping and two murders, one with an axe to the head, around the foggy docks of San Francisco. There’s no shortage of intensity in the action and indeed the singing moves quickly from one highly dramatic scene to the next with very little let up in intensity. In fact, one of the criticisms levelled at L’Oracolo is that it’s perhaps a bit too full on. In a nutshell, the evil Cim-Fen wishes to marry Ah-Yoe, niece of the rich merchant Hu-Tsin. Secretly Cim-Fen kidnaps Hu-Tsin’s young son and then offers to find the boy if he can have Ah-Yoe’s hand in marriage. There’s almost always a love triangle and L’Oracolo is no exception as Ah-Yoe is in love with San-Lui who also offers to find the boy for Ah-Yoe’s hand. Cim-Fen brutally murders San-Lui with an axe but his father Win-Chee discovers that Cim-Fen has kidnapped the boy and hid him under his opium den. He eventually rescues the boy and kills Cim-Fen. So there you have it. Evil fiend, innocent young maiden, tragic young lover… I know, but it’s opera and you’re not even guaranteed a happy ending.

If you like verismo opera you will love this one. Plenty of impassioned singing & although it is a bit different in that Ah-Yoe is not a great role for the leading lady and the spotlight is mostly on Cim-Fen a scheming and malignant baritone. Very odd indeed. Some pundits say this otherwise strong opera has fallen out of favour because it doesn’t have a strong female role that great sopranos were interested in performing and they are vital to putting bums on seats.

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The 1973 recording featuring Tito Gobbi as Cim-Fen and Joan Sutherland as Ah-Yoe.

I was only able to track down two recordings of L’Oracolo doing the rounds. One is a quite strong live recording by Oper Frankfurt from 2010 and the other, which is probably better known is a 1975 recording with Joan Sutherland and Tito Gobbi taking the lead roles and conducted by Richard Bonynge. This is the recording I have and Gobbi is amazing as our evil anti-hero. His voice is deep, intense and booming even though it was recorded only a couple of years before his retirement. Both these recordings are available on Spotify and Amazon so make your own assessment of their merits. Some wonderful singing, plenty of action and, if staged right, great costumes & atmosphere all in a one-hour performance. What’s not to like.

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Wexford Festival Opera are presenting L’Oracolo as part of their 2018 programme.

Continuing its well-established tradition of reviving forgotten or at least neglected works Wexford Festival Opera are presenting a production of L’Oracolo this year in a double bill with Mala Vita by Umberto Giordano. A nice doubleheader of little performed Italian verismo styled pieces which should provide a very emotionally intense and draining evening.

 

Some Mozart with The Royal Irish Academy of Music students

On hearing The Royal Irish Academy of Music were presenting La Finta Giardiniera (The Secret Gardener) as their student production this year I had no intention of turning down an opportunity to see Mozart performed in Dublin. The RIAM has been presenting student operas for over ten years now and they have developed into a terrific performance platform for emerging singers and musicians. Having seen their very impressive production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen last year I had an inkling this could be another treat. A lesser known work by Mozart and written when he was only eighteen years old La Finta Giardiniera displays astonishing maturity and complexity in both music and theme but like many operas, it suffers from a somewhat convoluted libretto.

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Vladimir Sima as Il Podestà (The Mayor) keeps the feuding Nardo and Serpetta apart played by Dylan Rooney and Ecaterina Tulgara. Photo by Colm Hogan

The set which was designed in collaboration with students from IADT Dun Laoghaire was quite sparse for the most part consisting of a garden space surrounded by a low hedge with various chairs and tables moved around as needed. This arrangement along with the rather subtle costumes worked well and tied in with the garden theme but also aided the regularly large number of performers on stage involved in a lot of activity and dancing in various scenes. Those who were not on stage for particular scenes sat on benches either side of the stage visible to the audience which I found an intriguing dramatic touch blurring the theatrical space as you saw the cast step into and out of character. Being quite a small theatre the placing of the RIAM Opera Orchestra which was conducted by Andrew Synnott from the harpsichord behind the stage brought the action closer to the audience and created a more theatrical experience.

What worked less well were the projections above the stage of graffiti-styled love hearts and slogans. The intention was to provide cues to the evolving drama but I found them distracting and their rather urban and neon quality jarred with the more bucolic escapades unfolding below. Above them again were the surtitles which required continual looking up quite far from the stage to follow the story although it was a credit to the acting skills of the cast that the plot wasn’t too difficult to decipher.

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Arminda played by Corina Ignat reminds Count Belfiore played by James McCreanor what their future marital bliss will be like. Photo by Colm Hogan

Essentially the tale of a succession of mismatched passions and disguised encounters this opera is brim full of delightful arias and uplifting ensembles which made it an ideal choice for a student production. The spotlight was quite democratic as the distribution of arias allowed each of the seven leading cast member numerous opportunities to shine. These arias, some comic and jovial others reflective and sorrowful demanded significant mood changes which the cast handled with confidence and professionalism. They were not found wanting in their acting skills either in what was quite an energetic production which required buffa vignettes to quickly change to more sombre and reflective musings. All of this colour was excellently choreographed, especially in Act III as a rather chaotic banquet scene unfolded.

In what promises to be a very exciting year for Irish opera this was an early taster of the depth of operatic talent we have in Ireland to encourage and celebrate.

Pics, cast and other details about this production are here

The Royal Irish Academy of Music is here

IADT Dun Laoghaire Design for Stage & Screen Course is here

Ardee Baroque Festival

The term Baroque can be new to many music lovers. When I told a friend I was going to this festival she quizzically asked ‘the Ardee rock festival’? An understandable mistake. As the predominant musical style of the 17th century Baroque music can have a flamboyant and often decorative style which reflects the aesthetics of the time. Think Handel’s Messiah or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and you’re on the canvas.

Now in it’s 14th year the Ardee Baroque Festival has garnered quite a local following in the North East becoming what the Irish Times called ‘a music festival that could hold it’s head up anywhere’. Although having a programme of events over a full weekend which included concerts, poetry, youth engagement & education the headline performance was at the historic St. Mary’s Abbey. We gathered in this beautifully maintained church to welcome the festival’s anchor ensemble and perennial favourites the Irish Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Claire Duff who were joined by soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace for a concert of instrumental and vocal pieces heavily weighted towards Handel although Corelli and Telemann did make guest appearances.

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The Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Opening appropriately enough with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, the slow introduction of the first movement quickly gave way to a full baroque soundscape of strings, harpsichord and the vigorous bass which underpins this seasonal masterpiece. The mood well and truly set, soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace then introduced us to the operatic genius of Handel with the slowly rhythmic and aching Ah, Mio Cor from Alcina and Son Contenta Di Morire, an aria which Sinéad is familiar with following her tour playing Zenubia in Opera Northern Ireland’s recent production of Radamisto. A pacey and wonderfully decorative piece of vocal acrobatics which she reprised with aplomb and which displayed the development of Sinéad’s voice to incorporate deeper mezzo roles.

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Soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace.

The evening continued with a Telemann Concerto which had the added treat of Miriam Kaczor, a graduate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music taking the lead on baroque flute. Not an instrument you immediately associate with the Baroque style, the delicacy of the flute was beautifully supported by the subtle playing of the string ensemble.

After a brief intermission it was Handle all the way with a selection from the ever popular Messiah. If God Be For Us lulled us with it’s lush harmonies before Sinéad gifted us another coloratura spectacular with Rejoice Greatly lifting our spirits on a very cold and damp evening. After another Concerto Grosso we returned again to the operatic stage for the urgent and rather intense Ma Quando Tourerai also from Alcina before finally being treated to Lascia Ch’io Pianga from Rinaldo, a beautiful and emotionally intense aria which enjoys huge popularity.

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The wonderfully atmospheric St. Mary’s Abbey, Ardee.

 

There is currently a lot of renewed interest in Baroque and indeed early music in general. You only need look at the success of smaller festivals like Ardee Baroque Festival and East Cork Early Music Festival right up to the large scale revivals of early operas. Of course there really is no substitute for the live experience of accomplished performers, often playing period instruments, to bring the enduring beauty of this music to life.

http://ardeebaroque.com/

http://www.irishbaroqueorchestra.com/

http://sineadcampbellwallace.com/

Howard Shore & the Mezzos

Better known for his movie soundtracks for directors like Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg, academy award winning composer Howard Shore it seems has a bit of a passion for vocal music as well. With a string of movie scores under his belt since the late 1970’s it is probably for his dense and richly orchestrated film scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films by Peter Jackson that he is best known though a personal favourite of mine is his hallucinogenic free jazz score to one of my favourite movies of all time, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, a dystopian semi biographical reworking of the infamous William Burroughs Novel.

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Howard Shore

He first work for the stage was an opera adaptation of another Cronenberg film, The Fly which was premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2008. The opera was in many ways an homage to the film for which Shore had also written the soundtrack back in 1986.
Less well known is that Shore has also written a number of vocal song cycles for the concert hall and like myself seems to be more attracted to the deeper female voice composing two song cycles for mezzo-soprano. The most recent called ‘L’Aube’, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was written as a tribute to Canadian mezzo Maureen Forrester and was premiered on November 20th 2017.

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The premiere of L’Aube, A Tribute To Maureen Forrester.

An earlier work also written for mezzo is ‘A Palace Upon the Ruins’. A song cycle which is strangely sung in German considering Shore is a Canadian composer and the libretto was written by his partner Elizabeth Cotnoir.
A Palace Upon the Ruins has none of the sweeping orchestration of the film scores that made his name and is very much in the style of German lieder by composers like Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert (which might explain the German text but this is still quite odd in my estimation anyway). The musical accompaniment at times is noticeably sparse and has, also like lieder, quite a dark and melancholic feel. This lack of density in the accompaniment does have the advantage of letting the vocal lines, which are at times quite delicate shine through quite beautifully and a good mezzo is always beautiful to listen to.

There are six songs in the cycle and each has the title of an element or weather condition, Fog, Ice, Water, Cloud, Rain and Sun. If You like Shore’s film scores this may not be for you but if German art song is your thing then you will probably find this work quite interesting.

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Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano.

A recording of the cycle was made with American mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and was released on a CD with various other musical selections by Shore as ‘A Palace Upon the Runes, Selected Works’. Some of the other pieces on the CD are quite interesting. ‘Peace‘ which is a setting of a text by Eleanor Roosevelt and ‘The Garden‘ both have an attractive traditional sacred music feel and these are followed by a selection called ‘Six Pieces‘ which seem to be quite ambient and unconnected pieces but interestingly four of them are performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, one of them ‘V‘ being an interesting vocal piece sung by Clara Sanabras (yes, another mezzo!). The final track ‘Catania‘ is a quite interesting short solo piano piece performed by Lang Lang.

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As I mentioned earlier, probably not for the Howard Shore soundtrack fan but interesting none the less and it shows another side of his compositional interests and talents.

Franco Alfano – Risurrezione

 

The curse of Turandot! No, not a plot twist in the famous Puccini opera which nobody has noticed yet but the legacy bequeath to Franco Alfano, the composer commissioned to completed the work Puccini left unfinished when he died in 1924. A number of composers were considered for the task of completing Turandot and Puccini even nominated his own candidate before he died, but the dubious honour fell to Alfano. Despite a very productive musical career that spanned over 50 years as composer and teacher which included 13 operas it is for completing Turandot that Alfano is best remembered today.

Born in Naples in 1875 and considered one of Italy’s ‘Giovane Scuola’ Alfano who was initially hoping to be a concert pianist left Italy to study in Leipzig before returning to Italy and taking up teaching posts in Bologna, Turin, Pesaro and eventually Rome. Not from a rich family and having no patron teaching was the only way Alfano could support himself as a composer.

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Leo Tolstoy and an Italian edition of his last great novel Risurrezione.

This years Wexford Festival Opera continuing its tradition of reviving rarely performed works will feature a performance of Alfano’s early opera Risurrezione. Written in 1904 it is based on the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy.

Prince Dmitri seduces Katiusha before leaving to join the army. Katiusha who is now pregnant with his child waits for Dmitri’s return but when he does and she sees him with a prostitute she is too afraid to approach him. She falls on hard times losing her home and her baby and turns herself to a life of prostitution. Being wrongly charged with the murder of one of her clients she is sent to prison in Siberia. Dimity who discovers her predicament and his hand in it is consumed with remorse for how he has treated her and follows her to Siberia. There he uses his influence to obtains a pardon for her but she refuses his repeated offers to marry her despite the deep love she still feels for him.

Franco Alfano and Magda Olivero who sang Katiusha in a 1971 recording in Turin.

 

Although coming slightly after the high watermark of the verismo operas Risurrezione is written very much in that style. Verismo (realism) operas tend to be based on the real lives of ordinary people and deal with the tragedies and passions of everyday life and tend not to be known for their happy endings. Risurrezione is very much in this genre and sticks fairly close to the often distressing material in the novel though it does feature a relatively happy ending. There are much better known works in the verismo canon not least the famous double act of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci and if you like the soaring passion filled Italian singing featured in these and many of Puccini’s operas then you will certainly enjoy this. The comparison to some of Puccini’s work is quite striking at times in my opinion.

In his later works Alfano turned away from the verismo style of his earlier years when he came under the influence of the French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel and his operas La Leggenda di Sakuntula of 1921 and Cirano de Bergerac of 1936 are in this later style.

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There are a number of recordings of Risurrezione available and the one I have is a wonderfully well played and sung live recording by the Orchestre National de Montpellier from 2001 with soprano Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni and tenor Antonio Nagore in the two main roles.

Details of the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera are here

Info on the Orchestre National de Montpellier recording is here

Owen Wingrave

Owen Wingrave had its premiere broadcast in May 1971. I say broadcast as this later work by Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the BBC as a work for TV, it didn’t get its stage premiere until 1973. The story is of a young man from a military background who refuses to continue the family tradition of service, is summoned back home to explain himself and ends up the victim of an unexplained and somewhat macabre and tragic death.

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Benjamin Britten & Henry James. Britten had previously adapted another story by James, The Turn of the Screw, for the stage.

The opera opens with Wingrave and his friend Lechmere receiving instruction in tactics from Mr. Coyle, a family friend and military instructor. Lechmere is very gung-ho and is looking forward to his career in the army, he can’t wait for the adventure and excitement of military life and combat. At one stage he sings a fragment of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in his excitement to get into action. All this grates on Wingrave and it’s during these lessons that he finally reveals his hatred and detestation of war and the military which sets in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to his death in the haunted room at his family home of Paramore (par amour?)

Back at Paramore his family and presumed fiancé Kate find the news Coyle has brought them about Owen hard to believe and when he himself arrives home their jokes about straightening himself out and having to grow up turn to charges of disloyalty and cowardice. When Owen is disinherited by Sir Philip Wingrave, Kate sees the future she has planned wit him crumble in front of her eyes and she taunts Owen about his stupidity, selfishness and cowardice. To disprove her charge of cowardice he takes up Kate’s challenge to sleep in the haunted room at Paramore. A room where a tragic death had befallen an ancestor. A father had killed his son and then mysteriously died himself in the room and none at paramore goes into it. Owen gets Kate to lock him in to prove he is not a coward but the house is woken during the night to screams and shouts and Owen is found mysteriously dead in the room.

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Peter Pears in the role of General Sir Philip Wingrave.

The opera is an adaptation of a story by Henry James which caught Britten’s eye because of its pacifist theme and he makes this the overriding message of the opera. Pacifism was an issue that was very close to Britten’s heart and informed a number of his other works, most famously the War Requiem. Britten himself was a prominent pacifist and was excused from military service during World War II as a conscientious objector. He fled to America with the tenor Peter Pears in 1939 as the tanks of totalitarianism rolled across Europe and after returning to Britain many considered this an unforgivable act of cowardice (rather like with Owen Wingrave himself?). (Not for Britten were concert tours to support the war effort like another operatic hero of mine, the amazing English contralto Kathleen Ferrier). Owen Wingrave was broadly a comment on the Vietnam War which was at its height in 1968 when Britten began to work on the opera and was becoming protracted and bogged down by the time of its broadcast in 1971. A conflict whose moral compass appeared to be much less clear cut than the one Britten has absented himself from in the early 1940’s.

Britten is not a composer I particularly enjoy in the main as I find a lot of his work quite challenging musically and a touch hard to digest. Sometimes sharp and jarring, sometimes percussive, disconcerting and un-melodic, and occasionally there is a moral undercurrent I find a touch unsettling in some of his work, not least his ability to quite happily return to a Britain saved from the evil of nazism by a military he so patently despise.

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Britten conducts Owen Wingrave for the BBC TV production.

The music in Owen Wingrave can be quite sparse and often merely forms a backdrop to the dialogue and action. One advantage from a singers point of view of this often withdrawn musical background is that it leaves a lot of space for voice to shine and can really show up a singers talents (or flaws). For me Britten is quite heavy handed in Owen Wingrave as he forces his political message a bit too stridently. An example of this is the continual and unabated verbal assault Owen comes under in Act II. He is attacked from all sides and Britten delineates his interpretation of right and wrong far too cleanly and then proceeds to hammer away at it continually. The situation can really only end in tragedy.

Opera Collective Ireland are currently touring Owen Wingrave in a co-production with the Académie de l’Opéra national de Paris.

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Details of Opera Collective Ireland’s production are Here

 

 

Acis & Galatea with Opera Theatre Company

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

German by birth and composer of no fewer than 46 operas and 30 oratorios (essentially an opera performed as a concert), George Frideric Handel traveled to Italy in 1706 where he was greatly influenced by Italian opera and singing styles before he returning to Germany in 1710. When his patron prince George, Elector of Hanover, was crowned King George I of Great Britain, Handel followed him to London and settled there in 1712. He had huge success with his Italian operas in London and went on to write his famous oratorios like the Messiah for which he is possibly best known today along with other famous works like the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Acis & Galatea was first performed in 1718 for the Earl of Carnarvon at his country estate at Cannons in Middlesex. The piece was written in the style of a ‘masque’ or a little opera. Originally an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aces & Galatea was written in English (as was much of Handel’s later work) and was originally performed by the Earl himself with his family and friends as a country house entertainment.

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Statue of Acis & Galatea in Acireale, Sicily where the ancient river Acis flowed from Mt. Etna.

In  the original story Acis & Galatea are lovers but the giant Polyphemus is also in love with Galatea and will not give her up. In a fit of rage at seeing Acis & Galatea so happy together he kills Acis with a giant rock. The gods, nature and Galatea mourn the death of Acis and she uses her supernatural powers to transform Acis into a river. (the now subterranean river Acis in eastern Sicily)

I attended the performance in An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk (who were very obliging and accommodating when they heard I was reviewing, thanks guys!). The smaller scale in both size and volume of the Irish Baroque Orchestra perfectly suited this smaller venue. After a fairly brisk Sinfonia by the orchestra playing period instruments and conducted by Peter Whelan from the harpsichord we were straight into the opening chorus of ‘Oh, the pleasure of the plains’, sung by Fearghal Curtis, Cormac Lawlor, Sinead O’Kelly & Peter O’Reilly. A joyously rousing and very well sung start to proceedings accompanied by a change into country & western costumes and a touch of  line dancing (I was worried about this initially!). A sort of opening showstopper if you will! The mood then darkens somewhat as Galatea played by Susanna Fairbairn enters and believes flowers left in the bar for her are from Acis but on realising they are in fact from Polyphemus, played by baritone Edward Grint, she throws them in the bin. She sings of her sadness at being parted from her beloved Acis and longs for his return which elicits sniggers and mocking looks from the chorus ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire’.

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Cormac Lawlor, Peter O’Reilly, Andrew Gavin & Ferghal Curtis show their dancing skills.

When Acis played by Eamonn Mulhall arrives excitedly looking for Galatea he is delayed outside the bar and prevented from entering by Damon played by Andrew Gavin. Mulhall’s bright and clear tenor voice is introduced as he enthusiastically sings ‘Where shall I seek the charming fair’ and Andrew Gavin’s ‘Stay, shepherd stay’ is delivered with skill and style. Knowing the nature of the bullying and drunken Polyphemus they try to waylay and distract Acis as they fear his return may end in tears.

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Eamonn Mulhall as Acis and Susanna Fairbairn as Galatea are reunited.

The lovers are eventually reunited as their friends stare through the bar windows with both joy and worry. Acis sings of his love for Galatea ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ while Galatea tells of the pain of being parted from him ‘Oh, didst thou know the pain’. The lovers are reunited, kisses and hugs are exchanged, the bubbly is opened to celebrate and joy abounds in the little bar. Act one ends with all singing and dancing merrily to the wonderfully uplifting ‘Happy we’.  Maybe things won’t end so badly after all… but as the merrymaking continues in the bar Polyphemus waits outside listening and seething.

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Andrew Gavin as Damon tries to calm down and console Edward Grint as Polyphemus.

Act two opens with the wonderful ensemble singing of ‘Wretched lovers’ by the chorus. What a contrast to the joyous mood of the opening of Act one as all see the clouds gathering and their worst fears are confirmed as Polyphemus enters, angry and drunk ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’. Edward Grint plays a very convincing drunk as he delivers the somewhat convoluted ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ to a very un-amused Galatea. Spotting his flowers thrown in the bin he breaks into a rage and proceeds to upend chairs and tables.

Damon talks Polyphemus down and softens his rage with ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ again beautiful sung by Andrew Gavin. Acis’ anger rises at the arrival into the bar of the drunken Polyphemus and in ‘Love sounds the alarm’ Mulhall wonderfully evokes his fear of confronting the stronger and more aggressive Polyphemus. Damon again tries to continue his thankless task of trying to defusing the situation and keep Acis and Polyphemus apart. Polyphemus returns to see Acis & Galatea happily together and in an explosion of rage he hits Acis with a brick on the head.  As the bloodied Acis falls and dies he sings ‘Help Galatea Help, ye parent gods’ as all watch on stunned. Love and happiness are destroyed as the dead Acis is carried off stage on a stretcher. (Yes, some operas do have sad endings!)

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The tragic triangle of Polyphemus (Edward Grint), Galatea (Susanna Fairbairn) & Acis (Eamonn Mulhall).

I have to confess I was a bit concerned about what I was hearing about rural Irish pubs and line dancing during this build up to this production but though in my opinion Opera Theatre Company have possibly over-pushed the envelope with some of their interpretations (Rigoletto in the boxing ring & Carmen with the Gardaí) I tend to be impressed with the balance they strike when trying to adapt and create an accessibility for opera while also respecting the essence and intention of the works.

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Director Tom Creed and Irish Baroque Orchestra conductor Peter Whelan.

Performing early opera in contemporary settings can sometimes create a jarring disconnect between the music and what can be rather archaic words and phrasing set against a contemporary scene but I feel this production hit the right balance as you were immediately drawn into the drama of the story and the setting became almost incidental and literally a believable backdrop against which the primacy of the story takes place. Aside from the quality of the singing and playing, therein lies the success of this production for me, original and creative with plenty of local colour yet respectful of the original work. The singing, both chorus and solo, was strong and impressive and the acting was natural and unforced. Director Tom Creed has done a wonderful job of localising this work and yet retaining the universality of this story of love, jealousy and murder.

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Acis & Galatea by Nicolas Poussin in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Opera Theatre Company‘s production of Acis and Galatea in streaming online here at theoperaplatform.eu until October 31st 2017.

Irish Baroque Orchestra are here

Info about Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Acis and Galatea’ at the National Gallery of Ireland is here

 

Oh Boy! it’s Marianne Crebassa

The debut album from French mezzo Marianne Crebassa has certainly brought a warm glow to my new year at any rate. A wonderful collection of arias from some of the great trouser roles in opera sung with a beauty, power and skill that is truly inspiring. Trouser or breeches roles in opera are male characters that are played by women. Called ‘travesty’ roles in Italian, many of these roles were originally sung by castrati but are now performed mostly by mezzos but increasingly by counertenors who have a similar vocal range. (Countertenors are the highest register in male voice and with changing musical training and styles are coming back into fashion. See Philippe Jaroussky for example).

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The album opens with an absolute show stopper ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’ from Orphée et Erudice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. A tour de force of shimmering singing from this seminal work which clearly announces that you are in for a real treat with this album. Mozart who wrote some great trouser roles has, at six, the greatest number of tracks on this collection. Two from the rarely performed early opera Lucio Silla from 1772. The restless and uplifting ‘Il tenero momento’ from Act I as Cecelia anticipates meeting his beloved Giunia and the heart wrenchingly beautiful ‘Pupille amate’ from Act 3 as he prepares for the last farewell to his beloved from his prison cell before being put to death. (he is pardoned eventually, and gets his girl… a happy ending, in opera!).

Marianne Crebassa as Cherubino sings ‘Voi che sapete’

On an album of great trouser roles the impish and lovestruck Cherubino from Le Nozze di Figaro has of course to make an appearance. Crebassa performed this role with aplomb for the Dutch National Opera last year and here we are treated to accomplished renditions of ‘Non so più’ where Cherubino tries to explain to a rather bemused Susanna his infatuation with women and later with ‘Voi che sapete’ he treats the distraught Countess Almaviva (our friend Rosina from ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’) to his inner romantic machinations and torments. The rather urgent and dramatic ‘Va’ pure ad altri in braccio’ from the early and rarely performed La finta giardiniera is also included while the suitably climatic ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’ from Mozart’s last opera La Clemenza di Tito closes the collection.

Mozart’s mark on this collection doesn’t end there as there is also a tune from Reynaldo Hahn’s Mozart, an homage to the great man written in 1925 where the young Mozart is played as a trouser role. Although of a different era and style to the other pieces in this collection ‘Alors, adieu donc, mon amour!’ sits quite comfortably amongst them.

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Jacques Offenbach, that most French of composers.

That most French of composers Jacques Offenbach (think, the Can-Can!) is represented by the beautiful ‘Vois sous l’archet frémissant’ with its weeping violins from his masterpiece Les Contes d’Hoffmann where Nicklausse tries to consoles the heartbroken Hoffmann by telling him that only in art can true love be found. ‘Poet, give your heart! It consoles your tears.’ We are also treated to ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, the beautiful ballad from Act I of the again rarely performed Fantasio where Crebassa hauntingly sings the title role of the young student.

Marianne Crebassa records Offenbach’s ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’

Continuing the roll call of great French composers Charles Gounod makes his presence felt with ‘Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme’ from Faust and the jaunty and uplifting ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’ from Roméo et Juliette where the loyal Stéphano taunts the Capulets that their beloved young Juliet will soon be amongst the Montagues with his master Roméo.

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Cécile Eyreams as Urbain in ‘Les Huguenots’ and the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Certainly one of the highlights here is the astonishing ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut’ from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots. It’s an enormous four-hour work which recounts events around the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 from a composer who was wildly popular in his day but broadly ignored today. Les Huguenots with over 1000 performances at the Paris Opéra by 1900 is possibly the most performed opera in the 19th Century (Surely a credit to the attention spans of earlier generations). Crebassa absolutely sparkles here with an incredibly agile and technically brilliant rendition. Stunning.

Another wonderfully romantic aria is ‘Ô petite étoile’ from Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera L’Étoile, an underperformed work which is returning to favour with The Royal Opera giving its Covent Garden debut last year (it was premiered in Paris in 1877). There is certainly a strong showing of lesser known works in this collection and the slow and aching  ‘Sommeil, ami des dieux’ from Psyché by Ambroise Thomas is no exception as indeed is ‘Cœur sans amour’ from the very rarely performed work Cendrillon by Jules Massenet.

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Emmanuel Chabrier, Jules Massenet and Ambroise Thomas.

From start to finish this album is technically stunning and a pleasure to listen to. Incredible singing and beautiful orchestration by the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under the baton of Marc Minkowski mean this album should be on your player with earphones at the ready for anytime you think the world isn’t romantic or beautiful enough. Without a doubt it is my first great recorded opera discovery of 2017.

Favourite tracks!

Orphée et Eurydice – ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’

Les Huguenots – ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’

Roméo et Juliette – ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’

La clemenza di Tito – ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’

Marianne Crebassa’s Website

‘Oh Boy!’ on Amazon

The Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

Opera Recital in Drogheda

As an opera lover I won’t pretend there isn’t something slightly odd about hearing songs that are meant to be part of a dramatic narrative acted out on stage being sung as a concert in formal evening wear. I want to get this personal observation out of the way before I go on to talk about this evenings performance as it relates to opera recitals in general and not this evenings concert particularly. There is of course an argument that the music is in and of itself inspiring and uplifting and that in a recital you get all the best bits without having to sit through a full opera. It is of course a wonderful treat to hear these show stoppers sung back to back like an operatic greatest hits and I know recitals are a vital part of the earning stream of many classically trained singers. Recitals also creates an opportunity for a wider audience to experience opera sung live which is certainly good so having said that I would earnestly encourage anyone who enjoys recitals to please go to full staged performances and hear these wonderful tunes sung in context alongside their brother and sister arias and choruses.

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Sopranos Aoife Gibney & Amy Ní Fhearraigh.

We were back in the historic St. Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda with its wonderful atmosphere and acoustics for this concert. In his introductory remarks the Reverend Iain Jamieson reminded the audience that this is primarily a place of worship but it has to be said that it is also a wonderful performance space. Our singers this evening were Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Aoife Gibney, Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring with accompaniment on piano by Aoife O’Sullivan. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Amy Ní Fhearraigh perform as Suzanna in a fully staged production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama (Aoife Gibney also performed Contessa Almaviva but not on the night I attended). For my review click here

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Tenor Owen Gilhooly & baritone Gavan Ring.

The recital itself was in a word wonderful and for me at least the programme very appropriately opened with the aria that first caught my ear and helped me realise there was this thing out there called opera. ‘Largo al factotum’ from Rossini’s masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Sung rather energetically by Gavan Ring, this classic bel-canto tongue twister set the tone for the quality of the evening to follow.

The first half of the concert featured some of the best known arias and duets in the operatic canon. After Rossini we moved to tunes by Puccini, Donizetti, Mozart and Bizet from their great operas. Aoife Gibney and Amy Ní Fhearraigh performed two fabulous duets, ‘Sull’aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro and an incredibly elegant and accomplished rendition of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé. A slightly surprising inclusion in the programme was ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ the tragically sad aria from Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) written when he was only 23 and many years before he moved to America in 1938 to write some of his most famous pieces for Hollywood movies. The first half of the programme closed with Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring treating us to the famous duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from George Bizets’ The Pearl Fishers. What a run into the intermission…

Gavan Ring sings ‘Largo al factotum’ from The Barber of Seville

During the intermission we all retired to the parish hall for a chat and a complimentary coffee or glass of wine, well done and thank you to the organisers! It was obvious from talking to some of the concert goers that they were very impressed with the concert and keen to retake their seats for part two.

To open the second half we returned to the Italian canon with more treasures from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi and Owen Gilhooly singing a beautiful yet powerful version of ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’  from Jules Massenet’s Werther. This half also had its little surprises as well in the form of ‘O Carlo ascolta’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos sung with resonance and presence by Gavan Ring. Gavan is certainly a Baritone to watch. We also had an English language contribution in the form of ‘Tiny’s Song’ from Benjamin Britten’s early operetta Paul Bunyan sung by Aoife Gibney and for a finale we were treated to a rousing all hands on deck rendition of the ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s La Traviata with all the singers dancing ’round the stage.

One observation I would make is that on an evening that was essential a greatest hits of opera, 14 of the songs were in Italian, 4 in French and 1 each in German and English. This rather clearly illustrates the grip Italy has on the public perception of opera or at least the type of opera that triumphs at wonderfully memorable tunes at any rate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the concert with its selection of operatic classics peppered with a few off kilter contributions that added a bit of variety to the programme and the standing ovation for the performers at the end of the evening was very well deserved.

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com/

http://www.gavanring.co.uk/

http://www.owengilhooly.com/