2014 has been a bit quiet in terms of posts. By which I mean I’ve managed one review. In January. Since then, been to a couple of operas and a handful of Proms, but no time/energy to write about them while still even vaguely fresh in my memory. Also promised two book reviews, which have as yet failed to materialise (although these I can at least reread to refresh). In case one of my very many* readers was concerned, I haven’t been ill (well, no more than usual) or away, just final stages of doctoral thesis taking over my life, followed by job hunting, followed by new job. While playing more operas than I saw, including a Strauss hat trick (go decades having played zero Strauss operas, then three come along in the same year…)

* not very many

Also late posting this term’s concert diary, but hey.

Saffron Opera Group: Meistersinger

Wagner  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (concert performance)

Time  2.00pm Sunday 14 September

Place  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: no longer just Wagnerians…

Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance)

Time  11.00am Sunday 28 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Philharmonia Britannica: Great Film Music

Klaus Badelt  Pirates of the Carribean
AJ Lerner & F Loewe  My Fair Lady
John Williams  Star Wars Suite
John Williams  Harry Potter Suite
John Williams  Schindler’s List
H Arlen & EY Harburg  Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Time  6.00pm Saturday 4 October

Place  St John’s Waterloo, SE1 8UD

Tickets  £5, £1 (U19s)

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Elektra

Two-day orchestral workshop on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, followed by evening play-through. Cast including Zoe South in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

Time  Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15/day (participation) or £10 (audience)

Amici Orchestra

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture
Saint-Saens Symphony No.2
Beethoven Symphony No.4

Time  7.30pm Saturday 1 November

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD

No tickets – retiring collection in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

Fulham Opera: Falstaff

Verdi Falstaff (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7.30pm Friday 7 Nov, 5pm Sunday 9 Nov, 7.30pm Friday 14 Nov, 5pm Sunday 16 November

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

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra with Idil Biret

Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherezade
Brahms Piano concerto No.1

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 November

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HF

Tickets  £8/£10/£12/£15 – book online

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Siegfried Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Wagner’s Siegfried (Act 3), followed by evening play-through. Cast including Jonathan Finney in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

** PLACES AVAILABLE IN STRINGS AND BRASS (RESERVE LIST FOR WOODWIND) – CONTACT ME IF INTERESTED **

Time  Sunday 7 December

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15 (participation) or £10 (audience)

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Despite a strong personal inclination for tragedy over comedy (it’s not a proper opera if nobody dies), my first experience of Rosenkavalier was overall an enjoyable one, and will not be my last. However, the performance was patchy, with an unusually clear delineation between the good and bad bits. (On checking out a few other reviews, I am amused to find that certain critics report an almost exact mirror image of my opinion.)

The good bits, as far as I was concerned, were the scenes involving any combination of the Marschallin (Janice Watson), Octavian (Sarah Connolly) and Sophie (Sarah Tynan). All three sounded gorgeous, were individually convincing in their very different parts, and meshed well as an ensemble. I have seen Watson described as a Strauss specialist, and she certainly seemed very assured in both this particular role and the musical style, being particularly effective – and affecting – in Act 1 where she talks of her realisation she is growing old. I have been keeping an ear out for Tynan since seeing her as the scooter-riding Woodbird in the ENO Siegfried a few years ago. Although in comparison to Watson she sometimes gave the impression of lacking confidence, this was not at all inappropriate for Sophie, and so was not an issue. Her voice, although light, was pure and clear enough to carry over the orchestra without any trouble. Sarah Connolly was excellent as Octavian; I like her voice very much, and she is definitely one of the most convincing male impersonators I’ve seen on the opera stage in the last few years! I thought she was rather dashing in her super-shiny suit of armour for the rose scene. It seemed a rather odd thing to be wearing, but I’m quite prepared to believe it was part of the custom of the time and place. The Mariandel scenes were a bit panto-style (albeit quite funny), but then cross-dressing-centric comedy is generally not intended to be that subtle.

The bad bits, again, as far as I was concerned, generally involved Baron Ochs, hammed up to within an inch of his life by Sir John Tomlinson. Accomplished though he is at playing lecherous drunken old pervs, I couldn’t help feeling that the character of the Baron ought to be maybe a little sympathetic rather than just pathetic and dislikeable. He certainly brought energy to the part, but expended most of it on doing funny little jigs (generally as a precursor to sexual assault) and chasing various females around the stage like an operatic Benny Hill. Vocally, he often produced a fine sound for stretches at a time in the middle register, but with very little sound at the bottom, and wayward tuning or shouting at the top. Another unpleasant sound was the squawky Duenna (Janice Cairns), but I’m assuming that was an intentional part of the characterisation. Of the rest of the cast, I can’t really say that any especially stood out for me, although none were unsatisfactory. I was a little disappointed in Andrew Shore, as I think highly of him, but I suppose Herr von Fanimal doesn’t offer the best opportunity to shine vocally.

Not knowing this particular opera, I only have other Strauss works for comparison when it comes to the orchestra. I was glad that Edward Gardner kept it quite spiky and not too lush or rubato-filled, as it could perhaps have been cloying at times (but wasn’t). There were certain times when different sections of the orchestra didn’t sound as if they were quite playing together, but I couldn’t say whether this was due to slightly ragged timing or was in fact the effect Strauss intended. The navigation of some technically challenging ensemble passages in the woodwind was very good, though. I was intrigued by the timbres of the flute section; it sounded like the principal flute was using a wooden headjoint, and the bloke on piccolo played with a woody, quite diffuse timbre which, although lacking in sparkle, blended unusually well with the rest of the section.

The costumes were generally elegant, with pretty long dresses, velvet coats, tall boots, etc. No idea if they were the ‘correct period’, but they all seemed to more or less match, apart from some suspiciously modern-looking hairstyles. There was lots of gold fabric and candles, so it was all quite pleasant on the eye, if not as interesting as one might expect from a David McVicar design. I was surprised that the same set was used for the three acts (with some different furniture), but I took it to be making the point that although the characters all make a big deal about social classification, they are not so different really.

I expect it is sacrilege to say this, but I’d really be tempted to put some severe cuts in this opera (and this is from me who will quite happily listen to every note of Parsifal or Siegfried). The serious bits are wonderful, but the Carry-On-style comedy bits just go on for far too long. The final trio was heartstoppingly beautiful, so why not just end there? Ok, Octavian and Sophie’s final duet is pretty good (especially the regretful discordant woodwind chords where Octavian wonders if he’s really done the right thing swapping his Marschallin for little Sophie), but what’s with the cleaner and the hanky? Must be a comedy thing…

Image borrowed from www.operajaponica.org

Oh no - I don't remember where I borrowed this image from - sorry!

The fact is, I’ve never particularly liked Strauss. I don’t mean I dislike it, just that I haven’t yet heard any that really grabbed me, and as there is so much great music out there and so little time, I’ve never made a great effort to work through more of it than happened to come my way through orchestral playing. So, why did I decide to go and see Salome? Firstly, my friend Heather is a great Strauss fan, and has been insisting I can learn to love him; she also pointed out that he can sound quite Wagnerian, which appeals to me. Secondly, my friend Faye made me watch part of her Salome DVD (although she is not particularly a Strauss fan, she is however a great Terfel fan), and I did quite enjoy the big John the Baptist scene, although this may have something to do with the excellent Mr Terfel’s performance.

So, the ENO version. I enjoyed it very much and, having not twigged that it was so short, was really quite disappointed with how soon it was all over. Salome was played by Cheryl Barker, who appears to have been spending her spare time hanging round Camden Market, so convincing was her portrayal of a stroppy goth teenager. At the start I wasn’t entirely convinced by her singing, but the performance did not have to continue long before she increased in strength, clarity and expressivity – with the finale totally gripping. I very much enjoyed John Graham-Hall’s performance; he sang superbly and characterised the mixed emotions of Herod to perfection, ably assisted by Sally Burgess as Herodias. The supporting cast was also strong, even in the smallest of roles. In case it hasn’t become clear from my previous comments in reviews, bass/baritone voices have a particular appeal for me, and so I was particularly interested in the role of Jokanaan (John the Baptist). In the past I haven’t been quite able to decide what I thought of Robert Hayward; I have to confess I was somewhat underwhelmed by his Wotan last year, and didn’t feel much better able to comment after seeing him in Berg’s Lulu some months later. However, it was clear from his first notes (delivered from underneath the stage) that this was going to be a performance of a different calibre. When he finally emerged, his voice seemed absolutely huge, not to mention rich in tone and commanding in presence. I have definitely been forced to re-evaluate my opinion of him (not to mention Strauss!)

I am a fan of the ENO orchestra, and there was certainly some very high quality playing going on. However, although they generally played very well together as a unit, I felt there was some misjudgment of dynamics, in particular the balance between different instruments or sections. As I said at the beginning, I don’t know the score well, and perhaps Strauss intended the startlingly loud random bits of glockenspiel, trombone, etc., and for the orchestra to sometimes drown out the singers, but I somehow doubt it was supposed to be like that. (Experts, do correct me if I’m wrong here!)

Lastly, the visual aspect of the production. The set was fairly basic, but looked good and felt appropriate, as did the costumes. But how were they going to stage Salome’s dance? Given that in recent years there seems to have been something of a fixation with nudity, surely this was one of the few times when stripping off would be genuinely justified, indeed, required in the story? I can’t remember the last opera I saw either at Covent Garden or The Coliseum that didn’t have at least partial nudity in it (springing to mind are gold-painted dancing guy in sparkly G-string in Maskarade, naked Rheinmaidens in the ROH Ring, Hagen changing into his nightwear on stage in the ENO Ring, all the way back to the entirely random stark naked woman running around in the trenches in Freischutz in 1999). But does Salome take her clothes off? Oh no – no flesh on display now. Ankle length dress on the whole time, and all poor Herod gets to see is when she decides to climb up a ladder and let him have a quick peek up her skirt. No offence to Ms Barker, but the dance was not remotely sexy. Oh well. Can’t have everything.