WORKSHOP with Philharmonia Britannica: Schubert 9

Day workshop on Schubert’s 9th Symphony “The Great”, finishing with an informal performance of the piece.

Time  5.30pm Saturday 11 January

Place  London Welsh Centre, 157-163 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8UE

Tickets  Free entry, exit donation.

** Spaces still available in some sections – message me if interested **

Fulham Opera: Ring Cycles 

See for dates/times/prices/casts of individual operas and two full cycles (each over 6 days).

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

(NB am only in Siegfried & Götterdämmerung)

Whitehall Orchestra: Beethoven 9

d’Albert  Cello Concerto (with Raphael Wallfisch)
Beethoven  9th Symphony (with Rebecca Goulden, Anna Harvey, Stephen Aviss, Richard Walshe, and The Bach Choir)

Time  7.30pm Saturday 29 March

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HA

Tickets  £15/£12/£10/£8 – buy online and choose your seat!

Image borrowed from

Image borrowed from

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: Tristan & Isolde

Wagner  Tristan und Isolde

Time  10.00am Sunday 29 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Midsummer Opera: Otello

Verdi  Otello

Time  7.00pm Friday 18 October, 4.00pm Sunday 20 October

Place  St John’s Church, Waterloo,  SE1 8TY

Tickets  and further info from

Fulham Opera Ring: Götterdämmerung

Wagner Götterdämmerung (arr. B Woodward)

Time  5.00pm Friday 8, Sunday 10, Friday 15, Sunday 17 November

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from

Kensington Philharmonic Orchestra

Strauss, R  Don Juan Overture
Khachaturian Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.2 “Little Russian”

Time  7.30pm Sunday 24 November

Place  Chelsea Old Town Hall

Tickets  £12

ETCetera Choir

Rutter, J  Requiem

Time  1.00pm Tuesday 26 November

Place  St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster, SW1P 1LE

Tickets  –

Whitehall Orchestra: Composer anniversaries concert

Verdi  Overture to Nabucco
Britten Piano Concerto in D Major (with Samantha Ward)
Wagner Excerpts from Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, plus:
Ride of the Valkyries (from Die Walküre)
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March (from Götterdämmerung)

Time  7.30pm Thursday 28 November

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico SW1V 2AD

Tickets  £10 (concessions £7)

WORKSHOP with Fulham Opera: Götterdämmerung Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Act 3 of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, followed by evening concert.

** Spaces still available in some sections – message me if interested **

Time  Sunday 8 December

Place  St James’s Church, West Hampstead NW6 2AP

Tickets  £10 (participation or audience)

PROM 15: Wagner (Die Walküre)

If there is going to be a particularly hot spell in the London summertime, tradition dictates that it will coincide with the Proms season’s most popular concerts. And thus it was this year, with heatwave peaking for the Proms’ first (and entirely sold-out) full Ring Cycle, under Daniel Barenboim. I know a few hardy types who not only did the whole cycle, but with standing tickets, but I’m afraid I just went to one of the four, and got a seat for it. (I did consider doing the lot, but I’m a bit Siegfrieded-out this year, and  Götterdämmerung clashed with another event.) Now, the Albert Hall’s air conditioning has improved considerably in the time I’ve been going there, and the place was pleasantly cool at the start, but over the next few hours it proved no match for the combined heat of a few thousand Wagner fans.

I didn’t care. The performance was fantastic, rising far above any superficial bodily discomfort, and I was so glad I’d gone to hear it in person. I’ve commented before on the special nature of being in the same physical space as live acoustic music, with nothing but vibrating air between the instruments and your ears, and this was a prime example. In some other people’s reviews I’ve read a few negative comments about Barenboim’s extremes of tempo and dynamics, and apparently some kind of intra-orchestral disagreement going on at one point, but no untoward incidents were visible from Row T of the amphi (the area where I’m usually to be found – back centre), and I can report that the dynamics were so perfectly judged – the pps as soft as they could be without ever slipping into inaudibility – that they must have had somebody in the back row for the soundcheck. As for the tempi, well, with such beautifully-realised orchestral colours and textures, who wouldn’t want to luxuriate a little? I didn’t mind.

I won’t go into great detail about individuals, but can report that (IMO) Bryn Terfel still owns Wotan, Nina Stemme is a totally kickass Brunnhilde, Eric Halfvarson continues to do a good line in Nasty Bass roles, and Ekaterina Gubanova’s lovely tone and expressive, musical phrasing almost won me over to the frequently-dislikeable Fricka. Anja Kampe and Simon O’Neill were solid as the star-crossed twincest couple.

Orchestra prize of the night is for the delicious solos of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s cor anglais player (NB: Anyone know the name, so I can include it? I didn’t have a programme), with bass clarinet and oboe as runners up. Piccolos – very nice, but I wanted to hear MORE of you in the mix. Anyway, big hugs to all.

PSM 2: Britten, Tippett, Holst and Berkeley

I’m not the biggest fan of strings-only music, but if I’m going to listen to the stuff, I think I want it played by the Britten Sinfonia. Let me clarify that. Listening to consort music, where you have a bunch of basically the same instrument in different sizes, whether it’s strings, recorders, saxophones, or whatever, is like watching black and white films. Yes, it can be very beautiful, and there have certainly been some masterworks created in that medium… but colour is important to me, and after a while I find myself yearning for a splash of red, or an instrument from a different family. Does that make sense?

Nevertheless, the BS strings (under Sian Edwards) combined careful attention to detail with such vibrancy, and precision with verve, that I didn’t mind at all that they’d left the other half of the orchestra at home. First up was Britten’s Prelude and Fugue – a new piece to me, but an instant hit. (In fact, weirdly, it sounded almost exactly the kind of music I was unsuccessfully attempting to compose while at university, until the composition tutor told me not to bother.) Holst’s St Paul’s Suite – ach, they really did their best to give the thing life, but it’s just dull music. I do not like a folksy jig (well, unless I’m one of the ones playing it, and it’s being taken insanely fast – at which point they can become quite fun). The last string piece, Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was a bit clever-clever, but did contain some lovely bits, particularly in the duets between leader and principal 2nd (I think – again, no programme, no names).

And the vocal works, where I got my wish of something non-stringed thrown into the mix. Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila really do deserve to be played more often, and what a great piece is Britten’s Phaedra! Sarah Connolly, whom regular readers will know I like quite a lot, really has become Queen of psychologically-troubled classical anti-heroines. Taking a day out in between her Glyndebourne performances as Rameau’s version of the role (Phèdre, in Hippolyte et Aricie) (read her talking about it here), in 15 brief minutes, she nailed the character in all her splendidly violent emotions. It’s not often I leave a concert and can’t wait to hear a piece all over again, but thanks to the magic of BBC iPlayer, on this occasion I can do so. And suggest you do the same, while it’s still up.

PROM 34: Vivaldi (The Four Seasons)

This. Yes.

All of the good things about Nigel Kennedy concerts, and none of the bad. Spirited iconoclastic solo and orchestral playing, a fresh and unique twist on a long-beloved piece (with lots of additional material, but – importantly – no movements left out), proof of the existence of that rare thing: Good Crossover music, no bloody electric violin in earshot, and minimal talking. Loved it.

My full review is here.

* There was a bit of talking, but it was right at the end. And some guy in the audience shouted “bollocks” loudly in the middle. Did you hear that on the radio, or did they do a quick edit? (I don’t know if he objected to the vague political sentiment being expressed, had Tourette’s, or was just worried it was going to turn into a 20-minute monologue and wanted to hear more music.)

Prom 55: Lutosławski, Shostakovich & Panufnik

Surprisingly, this was the Warsaw Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, invited as part of this year’s focus on Polish music. About time too, one might say, and particularly so with it being both Lutosławski’s centenary year (and almost Panufnik’s too, shy by a year), and this the farewell concert of outgoing Artistic Director of twelve years, Antoni Wit. It was also only right that they should debut with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed specially for this orchestra – well, an earlier generation – in the 1950s, and they brought a proprietary authority to the work, from the driving timpani thumps of the opening. Lutosławski here uses melodic material from the Polish folk music tradition, but within the context of a highly-structured compositional form, with more than a nod to Bartók and Stravinsky. This was a high-definition performance which paid great attention to all the fine details of phrasing, dynamics, colour combinations and textural contrast, without ever compromising on overall shape or momentum… [read more here]

Prom 67: Pärt, Britten, Berlioz & Saint-Saëns

Tonight’s Orchestre de Paris Prom was very much a concert of two halves, in the first of which they got to show their sensitive, introspective side, reflecting on the nature of life and lamenting too-early death, then becoming considerably more extrovert in the second for some free-spirited buccaneering, and what the programme notes describe as “vivid, prolonged and grand noise”. It was, in fact, rather like attending two short concerts back-to-back – and both equally good, in their different ways.

The first half consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and a work by Britten himself, the Violin Concerto – a perfect pairing…   [read more here]

Pic by © Clive Barda, reproduced from programme

Pic by © Clive Barda, borrowed from programme

Because the obvious choice for a school trip is an opera musically poised between traditional and contemporary, about the problems a tired, irritable, elderly Elizabeth I has with her over-energetic, irritating young courtiers, juxtaposing subtle in-jokes about 1590s and 1950s society, no? Or is it? Let me share what I inferred about the mostly tween/teenage audience’s thoughts on the performance along with my own…

First, I should make clear I was not in teacher mode* and had no professional responsibility for any of the younglings present. The ROH released some seats under their Student Standby scheme. While the thought of Britten enhanced by additional chorus of hordes of probably chattering, crisp-munching, blackberry-messaging, gum-flicking kids did not appeal, I figured, well, £7.50 for a lower amphi seat, worth a go…

* Ok, I did curtly shush the adult couple chattering behind me.

Long-term readers may remember that appreciating Britten’s music has been something of a late, slow progress for me – although I am very definitely getting there. Gloriana was a completely new one for me; all I knew was that it was about the first Queen Elizabeth, and written to commemorate the coronation of the second Queen Elizabeth. And Tudor history is not my forte (deriving mostly from TV’s The Tudors and Blackadder). Before it began, I glanced briefly at an already-discarded programme, just to remind myself who was actually in the cast.

Wrong move. Contained unannounced SPOILERS. Massive ones. Here:

Gloriana plot spoilers ahoy

Bad ROH. Even a brief glance told me how it all ends for main character Robert of Essex (badly). I prefer not to be told the ends of stories beforehand, I preferred this when I was a schoolkid, and I bet many current schoolkids prefer it too. Obviously audiences are very able to appreciate dramatic tension and a well-turned plot even when they know the story inside out, but on the occasions when one gets a chance, not knowing what is going to happen does, you know, add extra excitement.

Oh, and it doesn’t actually even have the damn cast list in. If I was a schoolkid and heard a singer I liked the sound of (or for that matter, the look of – and yes, I can see Toby Spence appealing to a few) I might just want to know what their name was.

Anyway, the opera. Elizabeth is trying to continue successfully running her country, despite an assortment of courtiers either nagging and fighting for mummy’s attention, giving patronising advice, harbouring poorly-concealed patriarchal resentment at having a female leader, or just eyeing the throne covetously. I thought Susan Bullock made an superb queen – while this particular performance may not have been quite the best I’ve ever heard her sing, she combined all the imperious command and lonely-at-the-top sadness one could wish for. Also, sternly self-controlled frustrated lust for a handsome, hot-headed, shapely-legged young flatterer (Earl of Essex, played, sung and danced energetically by the aforementioned Mr Spence), and the odd bit of spiteful humour (which couldn’t help but make me imagine a Miranda Richardson version: “Ha! Your dress is nasty! And are you trying to look richer and prettier than Queenie? I’m going to nick it and make you go to the party in your underwear! Now, everybody laugh at her or I’ll cut your noses off.”)

Happy to report young audience did not find an innocent woman’s public humiliation very funny.

Attending court were also wife Lady Essex (a luxurious Patricia Bardon), sister Lady Rich (Kate Royal), and several gentlemen of the lower-voice varieties, all of whom I particularly enjoyed: the equally ill-governed Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone), slimy Sir Cecil (Jeremy Carpenter) and a somewhat camp Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Bayley). I believe the moments of somewhat hammy acting were a deliberate part of Richard Jones’s production, which was a play-within-a-play concept of a 1950s amateur/school production. A shrunk stage area was surrounded by institutional painted walls, town/school hall style, with radiators, etc., visible pulleys and modern-dress stagehands for scenery-shifting, and visible ‘offstage’ musicians. There was a second level, with people up in some kind of viewing gallery, but it wasn’t possible to see what was going on up there from amphi row G. This concept was not at all objectionable, but for the most part it didn’t really add anything to my enjoyment of what was happening on the inner stage – I expect there were some clever references and in-jokes intended for those that remember the 1950s/coronation that passed me by.

In fact, it was really a play-within-play-within-play structure, as Act II Sc 1 involved the court going on a trip to Norwich, and being ‘entertained’ by a masque, involving dull songs, dancers in odd tights, some cheerful 1950s  racism (blackface and ‘comic’ cannibals) *, and much displaying of vegetables – although unfortunately not humorous genitalia-shaped ones. (I lived in Norwich for a year, and can attest that this is an accurate portrayal of local culture.) The Earl of Essex was visibly unimpressed, the schoolkids and students in the amphitheatre were audibly unimpressed, and as for me, I would have benefited from an interval between Acts I and II. Still, Britten had a keen ear for Tudor music, and swung wittily between pastiche and parody in both the Masque scene and the palace party in Scene 3. While this is not a musical genre I personally get a lot from, who cares when being entertained by Toby Spence prancing around in yellow tights and puffy pants? (Top Tips for impressing at palace parties: Do not go to a black-and-white-themed event dressed as a lemon sorbet. Do not fail to learn the latest dance routines.)

* Happy to report the gasps of horror and awkward embarrassed giggles from the young audience. They definitely know this kind of depiction of ethnic minority groups is Not Ok.

During the interval, considerable time passes. Both in the story and literally, as herding teenagers is akin to herding cats. Audience behaviour, surprisingly good at the start, had deteriorated once into the second hour of the first half, and was not improved by the break – although their moods were clearly improved by the addition of refreshments. My mood was not improved by a significant increase in rustling of crisps and sweet wrappers and chattering. However, showing remarkably good taste, they all quietened down for Brindley Sherratt’s cameo as the Blind Ballad Singer. That’s authority. As bass roles go, it’s not exactly one of the greats – one intentionally disjointed and somewhat humorous Beckmesser-esque number – but nevertheless always a pleasure to hear his voice.

Anyway, Essex has buggered up the military campaign he was hustling for earlier, some politicking goes on, and he ends up with a death sentence for treason, despite (and partly because of) his friends and family’s various pleading, crawling and complaining. The Queen is left alone to lament the sacrifices of a monarch, with sections of quiet, still, and very beautiful music, which were ruined by the school in the front right part of the amphi (red jumpers), who kept clapping during it, then laughing, because either they (a) couldn’t wait for the music to finish to start applauding. Several times. (b) had all gone deaf from turning their headphones up too loud, and genuinely thought the music had stopped, or (c) were bored now and thought it was amusing to drown out the string section. (ROH, if you’re reading this: I don’t know how you pick which schools come to these things, but suggest you don’t invite that lot back. The rest were pretty reasonable.)

Although I’ve said above that the singing was generally very good indeed, in this work I found – as I often seem to do with Britten – that the instrumental parts held more interest for me than the vocal lines. I wonder if this is one of the reasons some opera fans dislike him? There’s a certain kind of fan who is ONLY interested in singing, and prefers orchestras to stick firmly in subservient accompaniment mode, and either become jealous whenever the composer’s focus is on giving beauty and complexity to the non-vocal instruments, or get bored because they don’t listen to individual instruments. (Just a hypothesis – please disagree in the comments if you wish!) Anyway, I was listening to the orchestra, and upper strings, your pianissimi were spine-tingling; trumpets, you were fiery; flutes and oboes, you know I love you, and yes, I did notice and appreciate the contrabassoon solo. All round, the orchestra (MD’d by Paul Daniel) were excellent, but I thought most effective of all during the final scenes (when not disrupted by brats), and during Mountjoy and Penelope’s tryst scene, beautifully evoking the rippling river, in contrast to the (deliberately) clumsy boat-on-a-rope on stage. Britten really does do wonderful water writing – any scenes involving seas or rivers.

One more thing about the educational aspect. This was also in the programme:

Worksheet, ugh

No, no, no. Read questions before the show starts, and then look out for the answers during the show? I thought the intention was to give young people the opportunity to experience opera, in the hope that they will enjoy it, and maybe become interested in the art form, perhaps even future paying audience members? How can you possibly immerse yourself in a performance and be moved by the music and drama if you’re thinking about finding out and remembering the answers to a load of annoying questions on a worksheet? I sincerely hope all the teachers chose to ignore this, or at least used the questions only as potential discussion points in a subsequent lesson, rather than a competition to find out which of their pupils found playing remember-the-objects-on-the-table, identifying vegetables from a distance, or keeping a close watch on the flowerpots, more engaging than the performance.

Midsummer Opera: Werther

Massanet  Werther

Time  7.00pm Friday 26 April, 3.00pm Sunday 28 April

Place  St John’s Church, Waterloo,  SE1 8TY

Tickets  and further info from

WORKSHOP with Whitehall Orchestra & Choir: Verdi Requiem

One-day workshop on Verdi’s Requiem for orchestra and choir, followed by informal concert. Further info available from

** Spaces still available in some sections – message me if interested **

Time  Saturday 18 May

Place  St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, EC1A 2DQ

Tickets  £15 participation charge

Philharmonia Britannica: George Lloyd 100th Anniversary concert

A concert to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Cornish composer George Lloyd. We shall be playing one of his finest and most powerful symphonies, written not long after he was severely shellshocked in WWII. Alongside this is music from two other great English composers. Elgar’s powerful and lyrical concert overture ‘In the South’ was inspired by the town Alassio on the Italian Riviera. And what can be said about ‘The Lark Ascending’? Except that it is the perfect piece for a Spring evening!

Elgar  In the South
Vaughan Williams  The Lark Ascending
George Lloyd  Symphony No.5

Time  7.30pm Saturday 8 June

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HA

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)

Amici Orchestra

Mozart Impressario Overture
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 (with Mariela Cingo)
Beethoven Symphony No.2

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 June

Place  St.Marks’ Church, Westmoreland Road, Bromley BR2 OTB

Tickets  Free entry, exit donation. All proceeds go to MacMillan Cancer Support.

Whitehall Orchestra

Rossini  Overture to the Barber of Seville
Villa Lobos  The little train of the Caipira; Brasileiras No2
Granados  Three Spanish Dances
Ginastera  Harp Concerto  (with Gabriella Dall’Olio)
Shostakovich  Symphony No 12 “The Year 1917”

Time  7.30pm Thursday 27 June

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico SW1V 2AD

Tickets  £9 (concessions £6)

WORKSHOP with Fulham Opera: Siegfried Act 1

One-day workshop on Act 1 of Wagner’s Siegfried, followed by evening concert.

** Spaces still available in some sections – message me if interested **

Time  Saturday 13 July

Place  St James’s Church, West Hampstead NW6 2AP

Tickets  £10 (participation or audience)

Image borrowed from

Image borrowed from

I’m writing this, unfortunately, a couple of weeks after seeing it, which means (a) everyone who was considering going already either did or didn’t, (b) my memory is more suspect than usual, and (c) I’ve looked at other people’s reviews before writing my own, which I normally avoid.

The reviews I read were mixed, in the sense that I saw one giving it one star, one giving it five, and a few in between. This is not a surprise, for a contemporary opera by one of those composers where you (ok, I) think, hmm, recognise the name – Michel van der Aa – but can’t recall hearing anything by him, and which is described in the blurb as a “multimedia ‘occult mystery’, combining live performance, music, 2D and 3D film”. Here I am free from having to give things star ratings, so can simply say that overall, I had a very enjoyable evening, but there were some aspects of both the work and the production that left me a little cold.

There’s been a lot made of the 3D thing. I find the opera I’ve seen generally tends to be in 3D, in fact more so, because it doesn’t usually involve any characters who never physically set foot on the stage and only appear as moving images projected onto screens. Not exactly a new trick – kind of a modern version of having your Shakespearean ghosts appear and disappear through nifty deployment of smoke, mirrors, and a hidden actor in the wings – but very effectively done, nevertheless. The Sunken Garden of the title turns out to be a holographic simulation of the Eden Project, with slow-mo water droplets that spray attractively out into the stalls, and giant foliage that sticks out as if to poke the front row in the eye. Taken as a stage set, that just happened to be created with modern technology rather than in more traditional ways, I found it very visually attractive and dramatically effective. And with the bonus of being transportable on a hard drive rather than a fleet of lorries! (I know, it’s not that simple…)

So, Simon (pre-recorded video projection of Jonathan McGovern) and Amber (likewise video Kate Miller-Heidke) have gone missing, and film-maker Toby (your actual real life Roderick Williams) is making a documentary about their disappearance, while searching for them in an increasingly obsessive manner, his auteur/detective efforts sponsored by rich patron of the arts Zenna (real Katherine Manley). One name keeps cropping up in his investigations, the sinister-seeming Dr Marinus, who turns out to be Claron McFadden, in the third and final live acting/singing role. The vocal writing utilises generally disjoint melodies, highly chromatic and with many wide leaps up and down between registers (although rather soprano/falsetto-heavy, unfortunately for this bass lover), and reminding me somewhat of Adès. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but I can’t say most of it, particularly in the first half, had much of an effect on me. This is not to be blamed on the singing – Manley, McFadden and McGovern did their best with the material. Roderick Williams is always a pleasure to hear, and seeing him in this straight after his excellent Orontes in Medea confirmed his musical versatility (not to mention his visual switch from dashing, handsome fighter pilot to slouching, scruffy screen-potato*). The Amber sections were some of the most interesting, because her music blended contemporary classical styles with elements of electronic/dance genres, and this kind of material was handled by van der Aa very well indeed. Miller-Heidke’s clever vocal stying gave Amber a vibrato-free air of innocence, without compromising pitch or tone, and the sound was digitally treated in post-production, or sometimes multitracked. The vocal highlights were the ensemble pieces, when live singers were combined with pre-recorded video.

A live orchestra (MD’d by André de Ridder) was also combined with electronically-generated and pre-recorded sounds, and while I couldn’t quite get a handle on the music harmonically and structurally, I very much enjoyed the varied textures, and the way relevant snippets of audio (e.g. one of the characters’ compulsive finger-tapping) were incorporated elsewhere. The brass had some funk-infused rhythmic stuff to do, which they very much strutted, and while in this case I obviously wouldn’t notice any wrong notes, the whole ensemble gave every impression of pinpoint accuracy.

At one point, Toby makes a meta little snipe about the current fashion for filming in 3D, which wasn’t as funny or clever as van der Aa and librettist David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas novelist, not the quippy panel show fixture – although if he did write one, I expect it would be funny and clever) thought it was. However, there were many examples where text and visuals played with audience expectations and theatrical tradition. I’ve forgotten most of them, though I recall remarking them at the time, but one example was the way Dr Marinus was introduced. She’s a psychiatrist (which fiction tells us are probably not to be trusted), who runs a mental hospital where people vanish (so definitely probably an evil scientist, then), and then she turns up with a gender-neutral haircut and a Red Suit (ok, make that demonic). Nope, she turns out to be the (super-)heroic one who battles the evil monster to rescue the lost souls. Note: it’s also comparatively rare to see two supernatural, powerful forces battling it out (not quite something as simple as Good and Evil, or Life and Death, but along those lines), watched by a weak bystander helpless to intervene (Toby), where the two former are female and the latter male.

Life and Death? Evil? Monsters? Yes, a step up to some Big Themes. After a first hour(-ish) set firmly in the real world of missing persons, video cameras and money hassles, Toby stepped through a mysterious door, we, as instructed, put on our 3D goggles, and things went – where did they go? I’m not quite sure – which would be fine, except that I’m not sure if it was supposed to be left ambiguous, or whether it was all in the libretto, but I just missed it. Not for the first time I realised I’ve become rather spoonfed by the prevalence of surtitles and find it rather difficult to cope without them. (The fact that I followed as much of the libretto as I did, and have any clue about what was going on at all, is surely down to the singers’ excellent diction – well, that and the miking). It makes me wonder, though, about the effect on the brains those of us who do a lot of listening to singing, in languages we don’t speak and/or with the lyrics stretched and distorted into incomprehensibility by the demands of melody and counterpoint. It may not be a neurocognitively accurate description, but I feel as though the ‘visual bit’ of my brain gets happily on with processing the text content, while allowing the ‘auditory bit’ to focus purely on musical appreciation. This is an enjoyable experience, but possibly not a helpful habit to form.

Where was I? Yes, Monsters! Dr Marinus isn’t one, but Zenna is, sort of. She is no dippy philanthropist of the arts, but a powerful alien(?) being that kidnaps humans to feed on their souls/memories/emotions/life-essence/etc., while imprisoning their deteriorating consciousnesses in her private alternate-dimension/holodeck/demonic-realm/hypnotic-state/etc. Are they dead or alive? Somewhere in between the two, we are told, and she put them there. But is the VR Eden Project simulation like a Star Trek holodeck that Toby physically visits? Or is it a shared dream where their minds are, while their bodies are lying inertly somewhere else? If so, where are the bodies, and how are they being kept alive all these months? (Or aren’t they being kept alive at all, like in Planet B?) Perhaps their bodies are in comas at the mental hospital, which would explain why Dr Marinus is involved (although not why their families think they’ve vanished). Am I being too literal and analytical about this, when I ought to be satisfied with metaphysical vagueness? That’s the conclusion I came to at the time, and made a conscious decision to stop trying to Work It Out, to accept Marinus and Zenna as manifestations of elemental opposing forces, the garden as symbolic, and just sit back and enjoy the pretty spectacle and bleepy orchestra noises.

I was still hoping Mitchell would provide some kind of reveal/explanation, though, as he does in Ghostwritten, and some things are tied up. It seems Simon and Amber are both suffering severe depression, and ambivalent about life, so have chosen to inhabit Zenna’s mind-numbing alternate reality. However, Toby tries to persuade them to Choose Life, while Marinus breaks the Garden simulation, making it go all swooshy and pixelly. Then Zenna appeared at the end in Toby’s clothes. Rather than just stealing his clothes, I think this means she has the power to jump her consciousness into other people’s bodies and take them over (a good old trope, I think best done by Octavia Butler in the Patternist series). And why not? This is all great subject matter for an opera, and I’d be happy to see more of this kind of thing. And some space operas that are actually operas, while you’re at it.

* The computer equivalent of couch potato. Is there a better term for this?