Kathleen Ferrier

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The contralto is the lowest in register and the rarest of all female voices. It would generally have a similar vocal range to the male countertenor and unfortunately with the rise in popularity of the soprano in the late 19th Century there were less and less roles being written for contraltos. Contraltos tend to be type cast mostly as evil or villainous characters but they have also picked up a lot of business from the roles that were originally written for castrati in the 17th and 18th Century and additionally there are a number of prominent breeches roles (male characters performed by females) sung by contraltos.

In any generation there are only a handful of great operatic contraltos, currently many would consider the Polish singer Ewa Podleś to be the greatest living contralto with the younger Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux quickly becoming a star in her own right, but perhaps the greatest contralto ever has been the English singer Kathleen Ferrier.

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Ferrier was from Blackburn in Lancashire and was a proficient piano player as a child and only started taking occasional singing lessons at 19. Married in 1935, her husband made a bet with her that she wouldn’t enter the singing competition of the Carlisle Festival in 1937. She was already playing in the piano competition, which she won, so she took up her husbands bet and entered the singing competition as well, which she also won. During the war years she toured England a lot singing recitals and in 1942 moved to London to pursue a professional career as a singer. By the end of the war in 1945 her engagements book was full.

She performed a lot of recitals around the concert halls of Europe and America in the post war years but ironically, for possibly the greatest operatic contralto, she only performed in two stage roles. Firstly Lucretia in Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ (which incidentally Irish Youth Opera toured a wonderful production of in 2014). Britten had written the role for Ferrier after seeing her singing in Westminster Cathedral and she had her stage role debut as Lucretia at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. Her second role and one which she will be forever associated with was as Orfeo in Christoph Willibald Von Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ which she also made her debut performance of at Glyndebourne in 1947.

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Kathleen Ferrier as Orfeo

She toured heavily for a number of years extending her repertoire to include Lieder and she had a particular fondness for the songs of Brahms and Mahler, who’s post war revival was in no small part assisted by her concerts and recitals. She made a number of concert tours of Holland in these years, a country where she received a great reception and one she had a great personal fondness for.

In January 1951 at age 39 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went under prolonged radiation treatment. Despite the treatment and a mastectomy the cancer returned and her periods of hospitalisation and treatment continued. Even in this weakened state she returned to The Royal Opera House to again perform the role of Orfeo in 1953 under the baton of her good friend Sir John Barbirolli. (a production that also featured the great Irish soprano Veronica Dunne)

The opening night was a triumph and she was elated to be back singing but on the second performance tragedy struck. The radiation treatment had badly weakened her bones and during the performance her leg broke. The audience didn’t notice but immediately her fellow cast members knew something was wrong. Unable to move and in great pain Ferrier continued to the end of the performance, took her curtain calls and only after the final curtain came down was she taken to hospital.

While in hospital she kept a diary of her plans when she was discharged and noted her upcoming singing engagements. Kathleen Ferrier never left University College Hospital and died on 8th October 1953 aged 41.

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L’Amour de Loin

L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar) is the first opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with a libretto by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. It is a wonderfully evocative and impressionistic work that conjures up the romantic seascapes of the imagination. A seductive opera that reels you into its magical dream world and envelops you in its fantastical story.

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho

A lot of modern opera can be quite dissonant and percussive and while L’Amour de Loin doesn’t totally eschew the dissonant tendency in a lot of contemporary stage composition it’s real inspiration is the beautifully flowing and mesmerising polyphony of medieval choral music.

It tells the story of Jaufré, Prince of Blaye, who becomes infatuated with a woman of the East who only exists in his imagination. A pilgrim returning from the Levant tells Jaufré that such woman actually exists, Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. On retuning to the East, the Pilgrim then tells Clémence about Jaufré, a French troubadour and how he, having only imagined her, has fallen madly in love with her.
Jaufré decides he must meet Clémence and sets sail for the East and although Clémence had been quite annoyed by the thoughts of this distant admirer, as Jaufré’s ship draws ever closer she starts longing to meet her mysterious distant lover.


Unknown to Clémence, Jaufré is getting ever more ill during his voyage, he is consumed by regrets that maybe he has done the wrong thing and this is folly. Upon his ships arrival in Tripoli he is dying. When the ship docks, Clémence rushes to meet this man who adored her from afar and who she now is totally in love with also.
Dying in her arms Jaufré and Clémence declare their love for each other. Clémence curses Heaven and with remorse and loss enters a convent. The Opera ends with Clémence on her knees deep in prayer, but who is she praying to…

Daniella Kurz c Ursula Kaufmann

Daniella Kurz as Clémence © Ursula Kaufmann

This is a stunningly beautiful piece of contemporary musical theatre that is firmly in the tradition of a classical operatic style and the production staged by English National Opera strongly reminds me of the work of the wonderful English film director Peter Greenaway, particularly his ‘Prosperos Books’. A vivid yet dreamlike world that magically blends movement with dialogue.

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from the English National Opera production

For the Bergen International Festival in 2008 Michael Elmgreen and Ignar Dragset created an animated version of the opera which can bring a work like this to a whole new audience and is strangely captivating despite its very limited colour palate.

Music for the Masses

Though a regular visitor to Dundalk over many years I had never been to St. Nicolas’ Church before, but knew well that imposing building that cut through the lanes of traffic at the north end of Clanbrassil Street as the prow of a ship cuts through ocean waves.

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St. Nicolas’ Church, Bridge St., Dundalk.

 

Being fashionably late I arrived to find the entire choral ensemble in full throat on the alter and unfortunately missed the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn’s Missa Brevis (I mistook the starting time basically, apologies to all) but quietly slipped into my seat to the Jubilate from Mozart’s Benedictus sit Deus. Despite my tardy timekeeping I was rewarded by a return to Haydn’s Little Mass with a beautiful rendition of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The full compliment of singers was quite large, 60 or 70 I would guess, all turned out in black with red part books and they were certainly a credit to the Music Department of DkIT!

The program was essentially in two parts, historic and contemporary. Along with the Haydn and Mozart pieces mentioned earlier the ‘historic’ section included the Ave Maria by the Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, a very popular choral choice from the Renaissance period, beautifully delivered with restraint and solemnity befitting these earlier works. We then moved on to a selection from a composer I was delighted to hear performed, William Byrd, one of England’s greatest Renaissance composers. The program included the Gloria and Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a work that has a certain amount of intrigue surrounding it in that it was written in the 1590’s after Byrd had converted to Catholicism which was not a great career move in post Reformation England. Initially the work was undated, unsigned and even the printer didn’t put his name on the autograph.

William Byrd

William Byrd (1543-1623)

This section ended with a piece by Jacobus Handl Gallus, a Renaissance composer from present day Slovenia. His Ecco quomodo moritur justus  (See how the just die) is a fittingly solemn and reverential setting of the death of Christ.

The second part of the program featured a selection of more contemporary works and opened with Bob Chilcott’s A Little Jazz Mass. Chilcott is something of a hero in modern choral circles having been a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge and then Singer and Conductor with the King’s Singers. A man with a lot of experience in the world of choral music and no doubt.

I will be honest and say that though being a big jazz fan (well bebop at least), the more spiritualist end of the jazz spectrum has never really been to my taste. Maybe being brought up in a north European Christian tradition I feel a certain jarring quality with ‘jazzy’ church music, a sort of mismatch maybe. But that would be just my own opinion and thankfully musical tastes are like the Late Late Show, there’s one for everyone in the audience!

We followed Chilcott with a little treat, Moses Hogan’s arrangement of I am his child beautifully sung and ended with a rendition of Old Time Religion, a tune whose origins have been lost in the mists of time but always rises to a round of good clapping… well done!

Bob Chilcott by John Bellars

The multi-talented Bob Chilcott

It can be problematic when singing in a foreign language (let alone Latin!) to create an emotional link with the lyrics and respond accordingly, hence glorious and joyous passages can tend to be sung in a rather restrained and academic fashion which can drain the piece of some of its emotional impact. Overall the singing was beautiful, lyrical and sweet with wonderful harmonies and melodies but a bit restrained. Of course the context of some of the material is solemn and reverential but that should not inhibit the vocal projecting the glories and beauty of this music and there were certainly enough voices to have St. Nicolas’ ringing. Conductor of the first part of the program David Connolly did seem quite regularly to be encouraging the singers to make the most of their voices and asking for more volume… more volume. The bass lines were also a touch weak and tended not to ground the music which occasionally flew off with the altos and sopranos without the earthy balance of the basses to lend form and structure.

The string and keyboard accompaniment was restrained with a number of pieces like those of Byrd and Gallus sung a cappella which is always wonderful to hear so there was plenty of room for wide vocal range and volume to show through.

Finally it would have been helpful for the conductors to give a brief introduction to the pieces we were listening to. This was quite an impressive performance of material from very different genres which I’m sure required a lot of practice and planning and the audience were left a bit lost as to what they were listening to. All told an evening of wonderful vocal works, many of which are becoming pieces of historical interest rather than the magnificent and inspiring works they are. Well done to all!

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https://www.dkit.ie/creative-arts-media-music

Le Roi Danse

I have been studying Baroque music over the last couple of weeks under the excellent online tutelage of Prof. Craig Wright at Yale University and most of the course has understandably centred on the music of Purcell, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Handel. One composer we didn’t touch on among the many gems from this period was Jean Baptiste Lully.

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Jean Baptiste Lully

Lully was Italian but went to France aged 14 and through various intrigues and connections caught the ear of the young Louis XIV and went on to be his court composer. Lully was a prolific and talented composer of sacred and secular music, ballet and opera and he collaborated quite often with Molière, the great French dramatist, on many pieces. Such was his influence on Louis that in 1672 he was given sole permission to produce French opera. Quite an achievement for an Italian! This was the start of the genre of French opera called ‘Tragédie Lyrique’ where performance included ballet sections, probably to accommodate Louis’ love of dancing (now thats my kind of monarch).

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Le Roi Danse is a wonderful film about Lully and his relationship with Louis XIV and Molière by Belgian filmmaker Gérard Corbiau. The portrayals of the atmosphere, intrigues and characters in the court of ‘The Sun King’ are wonderful and the costumes and sets are amazing, this is a big period drama! But as you would expect the star is the music of Lully, and there is plenty of that.

The film is in French with English subtitles but is not really dialogue heavy so is pretty easy going if subtitles aren’t your thing. Its more an atmospheric and musical film which is befitting for the subject and a stunning soundtrack is available. Spectacular, fascinating and entertaining.

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The Sun King

‘Figaro’ at the DIT Conservatory

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DIT Opera Students

Muireann Mulrooney (Contessa Almaviva) and Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna). Picture Jason Clarke.

The Irish connection to ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ goes right back to its premiere at the Burgtheatre in Vienna on 1st May 1786. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who was on friendly terms with the Mozart family performed not one but two roles on that famous night. Don Basilio, a music teacher and Count Almaviva’s confidant and fixer and Don Curzio, a judge also entrusted by the Count to enforce Marcellina’s lawsuit against Figaro.

Famously the great opera challenged contemporary social moeurs around class and sex by presenting them in the guise of humorous satire. Pierre Beaumarchais’ original play had been banned by Louis XVI of France. Napoleon Bonaperte apparently called it’s attacks on the aristocracy ‘the Revolution already put into action’. Beaumarchais revised the text and transferred the action from France to Spain and this version was reluctantly given permission for public performance and is the one Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte based their opera on.

I was surprised to see that the DIT Conservatory were preforming ‘Figaro’ as the opera doesn’t come without its difficulties. Famously convoluted cross plots, disguises & swapping of costumes and a large cast of characters can lead to an audience without some grounding in the plot lines getting completely lost. ‘Figaro’ is also a long opera of four acts taking about three hours to perform (and this is the ‘trimmed’ version performed today!) and of course it is sung in Italian. However the program did come with a extensive synopsis and gave the unwary attendee an idea of the shenanigans to follow.

The music for the performance was performed wonderfully by the DIT Symphony Orchestra, an extensive body of players of obvious talent conducted by Killian Farrell. After a very accomplished rendition of the overture and then the opening bars of ‘Cinque, dieci, venti’, I got the distinct impression that this might not be a run of the mill student production.

The set was a rather simple one of rotating backdrops, light one side with projected motifs for the indoor daytime scenes, dark the other for nighttime. I find over fussy stage sets not to my taste so this rather minimalist approach was appealing and of course gives the performers a cleaner canvas on which to paint their characters and hold the attention of the audience. The costumes were turn of the century and quite a bit of work seemed to have gone into their authenticity. They certainly added a lot to the characterisation and in conjunction with the rather sparse set created a strong visual focal point on the performers.

DIT Opera Students

Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna), Kevin Neville (Figaro) and Niamh St. John (Cherubino). Picture Jason Clarke.

Kevin Neville was a convincing Figaro, his black valets uniform drawing a contrast with other rather rakishly attired Figaros. His tenor voice was clear and bright and Amy Ni Fhearraigh was a suitably reserved yet somewhat pert Susanna again with a clear ringing tone. The entrance of Daiga Berzina and Rory Dunne as Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo respectively was quite intriguing, one could immediately sense the chemistry and comfort between these two excellent singers and actors. Their lion-taming vignette after Dunne delivers a rousing ‘La Vendetta, oh, la vendetta’ as he plots against Figaro was excellent.

DIT Opera Students

Niamh St. John (Cherubino). Picture Jason Clarke.

Also starting in Act one and indeed throughout the performance Niamh St John as Cherubino had a very strong stage presence and is a wonderful character actor. Expressive and animated she portrayed the mischievous and love struck Churebino with aplomb. As Figaro taunts Cherubino about ‘his’ imminent dispatch to the army with the stirring aria ‘Non piu andrai’, St John’s acting the part of the rather naive young soldier marching around the stage and saluting to the taunts and jokes was a comic highpoint of the performance, Wonderful.

Early in the performance an off stage problem revealed itself through the rather blurred and somewhat sketchy surtitles. The legibility of the surtitles seemed to improve considerably after the intermission although there were still passages without titling and their positioning off to the right of the stage was visually inconvenient especially for those who may not have been familiar with the opera.

Conleth Stanley accounted for himself well as Count Almaviva. He has a strong voice and a good stage presence and his interpretation of the Count had just the right mix of aloofness, vengefulness, and a touch of cruelty, while as the Contessa, Muireann Mulroney, was wonderfully reserved and melancholic delivering her anguished cavatina and aria ‘Porgi Amor’ and ‘Dove Sono’ beautifully.

DIT Opera Students

Members of the Chorus. Picture Jason Clarke.

The chorus were a joy to listen to and looked very natural on stage, not at all giving the impression of being ushered on and off when required. Of course ‘Figaro’ features some amazing choruses and these were delivered excellently.   

Act four is the one where confusion reigns onstage and possibly confusing for the uninformed viewer as at various stages the Countess, Suzanna and Cherubino are all in disguise and hiding their identity. The crossing plot lines in Act four are infamously convoluted.

Overall this was an excellently staged and thoroughly enjoyable performance notwithstanding its complexity. This was achieved with excellent musicianship, singing and acting. For opera lovers who are all too often dismayed by stories of companies closing, falling attendances and an ageing fanbase, DIT Conservatory’s production was joyous, uplifting, entertaining and very professional.

DIT Opera Students

Kevin Neville (Figaro) and Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna). Picture Jason Clarke.

http://www.dit.ie/conservatory/

Dance of the Little Swans

One of the highlights of Swan Lake, if indeed highlights can be plucked from such a Masterpiece, has to be the Dance of the Little Swans from Act II.

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Prince Siegfried has arrived at an enchanted lake deep in the forest where he sees Odette and the other swans in the moonlight but cannot bring himself to raise his bow to slay any of them. As he watches he sees some young swans swim out onto the lake, surrounded and protected by the older ones.

The young swans want to appear as beautiful and elegant as the older ones who swim so protectively around them but they still need to huddle together for support and comfort as they perform their half elegant half awkward dance before trying to take flight from the lake. But alas they can’t spread their wings as they are too young and like all the other swans they are under the spell of the sorcerer Von Rothbart which keeps them confined to their earthly avian beauty.

The dance of the Little Swans was added to the 1895 revision of Swan Lake which is the version mostly performed today and is for obvious reasons a ballet school favourite. It is also the source of some rather humorous….interpretations!

The Royal Moscow Ballet tour Swan Lake in Ireland in March with five dates.

 

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Time for a little Ballet

Vey excited at getting my tickets to the Royal Moscow Ballet who visit Ireland for five performances of Swan Lake in March. There are a number of versions of Swan Lake and there is a happy ending version and a sad ending one to confuse things even further. The sad ending where Odette and Siegfried break Von Rothbart’s spell by proving their true love in death was considered to have mystical and religious overtones by the soviet regime so a happy ending was created with the true love and the spell breaking but not the death. The version most performed today is the 1895 version but with the happy ending.

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Swan Lake is probably one of the most beautiful spectacles you will ever see and although I have seen a number of recorded versions I have never been to a live production. Of the versions recorded on DVD I recommend one by The Royal Swedish Ballet recorded at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2002 and released by the BBC & Opus Arte. This is a full, traditional, classical version….sublime.

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Swan Lake has what is considered to be the most difficult role for a ballerina in the repertoire not least because the lead ballerina must play two roles, that of Odette and Odile who are meant to be diametrically opposed characters, the famous White Swan/Black Swan, and as such requite different dancing techniques and dramatisations. Swan lake also has the famous 32 fouettés performed by Odile in Act 3 where the audience and I dare say the whole cast wish the ballerina on to the end successfully.

Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

While accepting that opera is essentially a live art form, a lot of performances nowadays are being recorded to extend the experience beyond the immediate audience and allow those who cannot attend for financial or geographical reasons to have a sense of the live experience.

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Cecelia Bartoli & Gino Quilico in Rossini’s comic classic.

I have a small collection of DVD’s which started a number of years back with a performance of ‘The Barber of Seville’ featuring Cecelia Bartoli as Rosina and Gino Quilico in the title role.

The Barber is such wonderful introduction to Opera, awash with great tunes and bursting with comic scenes. Still to this day probably my favourite opera and of course Cecilia Bertoli in this production is a mesmerising Mezzo who can do justice to Rossini’s requirement for vocal gymnastics.

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Don’t mess with Diana Damrau

But pride of place in my DVD collection has to go to the recording of David McVicars production of Mozarts  ‘Die Zauberflöte’ from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2003. Simon Keenlyside is wonderful as Papageno but this production is remembered for German soprano Diana Damrau’s performance as The Queen of the Night. An absolute jaw dropper that had me glued to the screen and a regular visitor to youtube ever since for regular top ups. I can’t recommend the recording of this production highly enough, it is stunning.

What’s the point of Opera anyway

In a recent article in The Guardian, artistic directors of seven UK opera houses were asked why Opera matters and while most of the answers mentioned the cultural significance, the artistic importance, the creativity, the wonderful singing and musical talent not to mention the sheer enjoyment of the live performance, I found the response from Oliver Mears, artistic director of Opera Northern Ireland, most interesting.

His reply opens with ‘Opera is important because it is totally unfeasible’ and he proceeds to articulate the impracticality of opera. The demands it makes on music, singing, staging, acting etc… the financial cost and the complexity of this most illogical of art forms.

But by doing this he points out the very reasons why Opera should be supported and encouraged and why its presence should be vital to any community with an artistic sensibility. Opera is a tangible expression of the human spirit. In its very ‘lack of deference to economic realities’ to quote Mears, lies its human, emotional and artistic importance. In its very illogicality lies its achievement.

Giselle Allen as Senta and Bruno Caproni as The Dutchman

Giselle Allen as Senta and Bruno Caproni as The Dutchman

My first live introduction to Wagner was Oliver Mears production with Opera Northern Ireland http://www.niopera.com of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ in the Grand Opera House, Belfast in 2013 to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth. Wagner can be a difficult and inaccessible at the best of times but Mears production was a joy to watch and a wonderful introduction to Wagner.