In concert – Soloists, CBSO Chorus & City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Mirga conducts The Cunning Little Vixen

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The Cunning Little Vixen

Opera in Three Acts
Music and Libretto by Leoš Janáček (revised edition by Jiří Zahrádka)
Sung in Czech (English surtitles by Paula Kennedy)

Elena Tsallagova, soprano – Vixen Sharp Ears
Roland Wood, baritone – The Forester
Angela Brower, mezzo – The Fox
Robert Murray, tenor – Schoolmaster / Mosquito / Pásek
Kitty Whately, mezzo – Dog / Forester’s Wife / Woodpecker / Owl
Elizabeth Cragg, soprano – Chief Hen / Jay
William Thomas, bass – Badger / Parson / Harašta
Ella Taylor, soprano – Mrs Pesak / Cock

Thomas Henderson, stage director
Laura Pearse, designer
Jonathan Burton, surtitle operator
Sarah Playfair, casting

Children from Trinity Boys Choir and Old Palace School, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 16 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There could have been no more appropriate an opera for performing at the end of a year like this than Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, given its acutely life-affirming message in the wake of that apathy which threatens to overrun society during a time of continued uncertainty.

Although his Glagolitic Mass was a decisive marker in its early association with Sir Simon Rattle, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has given relatively little Janáček such that this account of his most approachable stage-work was timely in any event. Despite the early start, there was no interval to interrupt the course of its 95-minute trajectory, with those illustrative elements of Thomas Henderson’s stage direction largely restricted to the menagerie gathering around the Forester at his first and last appearances. Here, some deft acting from the children involved and Laura Pearse’s piquant stage-design created an enticingly whimsical basis from which to project those often equivocal and increasingly raw emotions that give this opera its unwavering provocation and, as a consequence, the profundity arising out of its very naivety.

The cast was a strong one and fronted, as it needed to be, by Elena Tsallagova’s rendering of Vixen Sharp Ears – as witty, sensual and as galvanizing a presence as any in recent memory. Not least her interplay with The Fox – to which role Angela Brower brought warmth and not a little empathy, even if her vocal timbre was not ideally contrasted with that of the Vixen. In the role of The Forester, Roland Wood took a secure course from angry cynicism to wisdom born of maturity – exactly the kind of persona Janáček himself would love to have embodied.

The remaining singers all brought a variety of virtues to their multiple roles – not least Kitty Whatley, her put-upon Dog and irascible Forester’s Wife conveyed with precision as well as elegance. Robert Murray was astute casting as the hapless and lovelorn Schoolmaster, while Elizabeth Cragg gave a winning cameo as the feckless Chief Hen – not least in her fractious confrontation with Ella Taylor’s vainglorious Cock. Credit, also, to William Thomas for his poignant world weariness as the Parson or studied incomprehension as the poacher Harašta.

The CBSO Chorus and children’s voices acquitted themselves ably during their limited but pertinent contributions, while the CBSO gave of something approaching its collective best over the course of a score that abounds in the quirks and deceptive non-sequiturs typical of Janáček’s maturity. No other opera of his evinces such characterful or felicitous writing for woodwind, the sheer dexterity of these musicians enhanced by their being on the platform rather than in the pit. Nor were the strings, notably violins, at all fazed by the often cruelly exposed passagework. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a sure sense of where each of the three acts was headed, and if the final scene felt initially a little temperate, the tangible fervour and all-enveloping eloquence generated towards its apotheosis was never in doubt.

Lucky audiences in Dortmund, Hamburg and Paris who will hear this performance when the CBSO takes it on tour during the next week. Hopefully further Janáček operas will feature in MGT’s ongoing association with this orchestra – the omens could hardly be more favourable.

Further information on European performances can be found here. The CBSO’s January to July 2022 season can be found at the orchestra’s website

Live review – April Fredrick, David Stout, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

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April Fredrick (soprano, Judith), David Stout [baritone (Bluebeard) / speaker (Prologue)], English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Bartók arr. van Tuinen / Karcher-Young Bluebeard’s Castle (1911/12)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded June 16-17 2021 for online broadcast, premieres 13 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s season of online concerts drew to its close tonight with a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the only opera by Bartók and seminal work on the cusp between the late-Romanticism and nascent Modernism from the early twentieth century.

While its libretto by Béla Balázs is susceptible to interpretation, that concerning the ultimate impossibility of meaningful human communication is surely the decisive factor for Bartók’s setting of what became his longest work and his most explicitly personal statement. Yet this emotional scope never results in a lack of formal cohesion or expressive focus, ensuring that the duo-drama unfolds both inevitably and inexorably towards a fateful denouement that – by no means coincidentally – brings the piece full circle in terms of its underlying introspection.

A piece, then, of epic sweep but whose climactic moments only rarely dominate music that is (surprisingly?) well suited to reduction of a kind undertaken here by Christopher van Tuinen and revised by Michael Karcher-Young. The 25-strong ESO copes ably with those undulating contrasts in mood and texture that underpin the traversal of the protagonists through the castle and its environs, through to a culmination whose outcome feels no less tragic for having been ordained almost from the outset – a fable of disillusion whose impact comes across unscathed.

Of course, such considerations are relative to the success of the two singers in conveying the range of their respective roles. Whether or not she had previously sung that of Judith, April Fredrick has its full measure as she moves from confidence, via wariness and imploration, to reluctant acceptance of the part she must play in the completion of a journey that other wives have undergone before her. Rendered with vibrancy but no lack of finesse, this is a perceptive assumption, and one which Fredrick will hopefully be able to repeat on stage before too long.

Not that David Stout is necessarily upstaged in his portrayal of Bluebeard – emerging here as no misogynist, still less a murderer, than a conflicted figure whose avowals of love can never outweigh those inherent failings of self that have led to his repeating the same pattern of loss as before. Having previously taken on the spoken Prologue with thoughtful anticipation, Stout projects the role with no mean impetus as well as a keen eloquence that comes to the fore in those fateful later episodes when the sixth and seventh doors have almost to be prized open.

Otherwise, the ESO plays to its customary high standards throughout a score which, if never as radical as works of this period by Schoenberg or Stravinsky, remains a testing assignment with the integration of overtly expressionist tendencies into music of a Straussian opulence. This reduction loses little in either respect, due notably to a piano part as achieves more than textural filling-in then a harmonium part adding substance and atmosphere in equal measure. Kenneth Woods paces these 65 minutes with an acute sense of where the drama is headed.

Indeed, the only real proviso is the end-credits being accompanying by music from earlier in the opera. Surely it would be possible to have silence for the one minute it takes for these to ‘roll’? Otherwise, this is an excellent conclusion to a worthwhile season of online concerts.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For further information on future English Symphony Orchestra concerts, click here. ‘Fiddles, Forests and Fowl Fables’ is now available from the English Symphony Orchestra Website.

Online recommendation – Il trittico from the Royal Opera House

In the words of the Royal Opera House:

Contrast is the essence of Giacomo Puccini’s operatic triptych, Il trittico. The one-act works that form the trilogy – Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi – range from gritty melodrama to life-affirming comedy. While each opera stands alone, the three come together to create a sense of a complete event, rich in textures and musical forms.

Director Richard Jones matches the eclectic range of Puccini’s music in a production of great verve and invention, moving from the grimy banks of the Seine to a children’s hospital and from there to a garish apartment in 1950s Italy.

Il trittico had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in December 1918. The trilogy was performed in full at Covent Garden in 1920 and again in 1965. Richard Jones’s acclaimed 2011 production was the first complete performance of Il trittico at Covent Garden in 46 years.

You can stream the operatic trilogy from the Royal Opera House website here, up until 19 June 2020.

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 59: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique & Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38)

Opera in two acts (four scenes)
Music by Hector Berlioz
Libretto by Léon de Wailly, Auguste Barbier and Alfred de Vigny
Semi-staged performance, sung in French with English surtitles

Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Teresa – Sophia Burgos (soprano)
Fieramosca – Lionel Lhote (baritone)
Ascanio – Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Giacomo Balducci – Maurizio Muraro (bass)
Pope Clement VII – Tareq Nazmi (bass)
Pompeo – Alex Ashworth (bass)
Innkeeper – Peter Davoren (tenor)
Francesco – Vincent Delhoume (tenor)
Bernardino – Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Perseus – Duncan Meadows (actor)

Stage director Noa Naamat
Lighting designer Rick Fisher
Costume designer Sarah Denise Cordery

Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The Proms has witnessed some memorable (and innovative) Berlioz performances – with this evening’s account of Benevento Cellini, itself the culmination of Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Berlioz project leading up to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, an undoubted highpoint.

Not a little of its success was the effectiveness of this ‘staged concert performance’ – directed by Noa Naamat so as to make resourceful use of the Royal Albert Hall platform (who would have thought that singers hiding behind – antiphonally divided – second violins made so deft a theatrical conceit?), with unfussy costumes from Sarah Denise Cordery in keeping with the late-Renaissance setting and lighting from Rick Fisher as vividly expanded on the latter-day Proms procedure of illuminating the stage area. A presentation serving the opera admirably.

At least as significant was Gardiner’s pragmatism over just how much of the opera to include. Even at its Paris premiere in 1838, what was heard of Benvenuto Cellini was already distinct from what Berlioz had written; an issue further complicated by versions presented at Weimar during 1852-6. Taking the Urtext published in the New Berlioz Edition, Gardiner has arrived at a compromise which encompasses all the music one would reasonably hope to hear while vindicating this opera as an overall dramatic concept. Recklessly ambitious in its technical demands as it may have been, Cellini was always practicable as a dramatic undertaking and – akin to Prokofiev’s War and Peace a century later – giving a convincing shape to this excess of material is at least half the battle in ensuring its theatrical as well as its musical success.

Not the least of those technical demands is on the singers, and this cast did not disappoint. As Cellini, Michael Spyres (above) evinced all the necessary panache without buckling under some stentorian vocal requirements. He was ideally complemented by Sophia Burgos as a pert yet never too coquettish Teresa; her naivety thrown into relief by the machinations of her suitor Fieramosca, given with suitably hollow bravado by Lionel Lhote, and cynicism of her father Balducci – tellingly rendered by Maurizio Muraro. Adele Charvet made for an appealing and sympathetic Ascanio, with Alex Ashworth exuding appropriate pomposity as Pompeo. Peter Davoren’s cameo as the unctuous Innkeeper was matched by that of Tareq Nazmi as the self-aggrandizing Pope. The Monteverdi Choir brought off its crucial contributions with aplomb.

Inevitably it is the orchestra which so often steals the limelight in a work by Berlioz, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique accordingly rose to the challenge. Of course, any performance of this music on ‘authentic’ instruments must contend with his assertions that the development of instrument-making and instrumental practice (notably within Germanic territories) was a necessary one. That said, he may have been reconciled to those limitations had his work been rendered with such timbral brilliance and intonational accuracy as here.

In building an ensemble of such consistency Gardiner takes especial credit, the more so as his performance demonstrably channelled its authentic credentials towards the spontaneous and creative reassessment of a masterpiece now receiving its due – even if many decades too late.

On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below: